Friday, 5 February 2016

Zelman Meats

A cold, rainy night in central London. Wandering through Soho, we wanted good quality, comforting food without the need to queue in the street or be turned away from venue after venue. Or in other words; meat. In all honesty we were using St Ann's Court as a cut through to get from Dean Street to Whitcomb when we remembered Zelman Meats. Its hard to ignore as you walk past actually, mainly due to the neon sign glowing like a homing beacon to steak lovers.

As you may know I was a big fan of Rex & Mariano – the previous inhabitant of what is, at best, a dubiously located and huge site down a dodgy alley with little passing trade.   I truly hope that a new incarnation of R&M will open elsewhere as it was a breath of fresh air offering beautiful seafood, in a light, airy (and somewhat cavernous) room with a large visible kitchen, bar at the back and a seafood bar. The new design for Zelman (named after Goodman owner Misha Zelman) is the complete opposite. Dark and moody with music selected by local record shops being pumped out, a large wall now divides the room leaving the bar separate. Industrial, metal grilling splits the space up further and red leather banquettes bring to mind the colour of a well-hung steak.  The previously enormous kitchen has been halved in size but still allows diners the smells and sizzle of their dinner cooking before them (but not the extent that it makes your blow dry smell bad, ladies...) Speaking of ladies, this is somewhere I would come with a group of girls. None of the machismo that you sometimes find in some branches of Hawksmoor and Goodman- much as I love their food-  and none of the patronising nonsense from other steak purveyors (I'm looking at you STK London with your ridiculous "not your Daddy's steakhouse" nonsense...) Not a hipster in sight on the staff either. Just a group of very smiley people all keen to act as disciples of good steak. 

The menu is really quite simple. Mainly oysters on the starter list with one homage to previous incumbent R&M in the form of red prawn ceviche. Plus a salad for the sort of people who probably shouldn't be eating at Zelman at all.  In the main course department the options are sliced picanha (£6/100g),  sliced chateaubriand (£9/100g) or shortribs (£12 each). There is a minimum order of 200g of any one cut of beef but who wants less than 200g anyway? It was interesting to hear that, being part of the Goodman group, all the meat is sourced from the same suppliers as Beast and Goodman meaning that, despite the much lower price tag you are getting the same quality- after all how many qualities of chateaubriand from one top-end supplier can there be? 

Rex & Mariano has not been entirely obliterated from the venue. Monogrammed plates and water jugs are still making an outing which I quite like. An unapologetic statement that- yes, we tried something else and it didn't quite work here- now eat some cow. Sauces to accompany the steaks include chimmichurrri, bearnaise or BBQ at a pound each. Having had a decidedly mediocre picanha and chimmichurri at a highly recommended restaurant in Buenos Aires only a couple of weeks before, I had to put Zelman to the test. Could they beat the Argentinians at their own game?

The answer was an unequivocal 'yes'. The meat was exceptional. Cooked rare with a good crust to it, the inside was as juicy as can be from thin veins of fat molten into the flesh. The chimichurri possessed a little bit of an odd consistency in all honesty, as though someone had received a new blender for Christmas and got a little bit carried away until it reached puree status. I'm used to my chimichurri being chunkier. That said, the flavours were great; vibrant herbs with a vinegar tang.

The wine list naturally focuses more heavily on red than white and Argentina pops up regularly. A glass of Malbec was a good choice at around £8, well-rounded, not too tannic and a good foil for the meat. The wine list is not as cost effective as the food but is nonetheless not cynically priced compared to other Soho neighbours. 

£8 does seem incredibly steep (especially compared to the steak prices) for a bowl of chips. But as the old M&S advert might say; these aren’t just any ordinary chips. These are a massive bowl of truffle and parmesan chips. Crisp outer shells basked with salty parmesan are then sprinkled with a truffled tapenade sort of a thing before more truffle is shaved on the top. All in all, truffletastic.  If you’re not sold on the truffle idea, then its £4.50 for the normal sort of fries.  I didn’t try these, why would I when there’s a truffled version on offer? Also sounding delicious was mash with garlic and onion.

Roast mushrooms are surely just an afterthought of a side order? One of our group boldly declared these to be the best mushrooms ever tasted and even proclaimed them to be her favourite part of the whole meal. Quite some statement when there is prime beef on the table. Roasted with herbs and healthy dose of oil to meaty without being too soggy (nothing worse than a soggy mushroom...) 

Should a vegetarian ever venture into Zelman Meats which- let’s face it- is somewhat unlikely, then the sides are inviting enough including roast cauliflower, hummus & pomegranate and another beetroot/ricotta/pinenut combination that even I would eat.

Puddings are apparently on rotation with one on offer at any time. On the day of our visit it was “Will’s Mum’s Apple Pie”. Delicious as it sounded, not a spot of belly space could be found. Next time…..

My only complaint about the whole experience? Trying getting into and out of one of the – admittedly beautiful- elevated leather banquettes in a skirt!

Next time I plan on going with a bigger group and ordering virtually the whole menu- I'm particularly desperate to try the shortrib. You can keep the oysters though; weird slimy things- I've tried every permutation and will never like them. 

In summary: Their website sums it up nicely: "We just cook beef, it's all we do". And do it very well indeed if my experience was anything to go by.

Zelman Meats
2 St Annes Court
London, W1F 0AZ

Square Meal Zelman Meats Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Sunday, 31 January 2016

Martinis at Dukes

Another year, another January. I began, of course, full of good intentions for the year ahead starting with writing more often and making sure I do things on my bucket list (commencing with creating a bucket list). So here we are on the 31st with my first article. What my resolutions most certainly do not include, however, is drinking less.

I understand the rationale behind the current fad for “dry January” but thank goodness we are nearly at its end as temperance fundamentally makes absolutely no-one happy.  Not the person abstaining and certainly not the people around them because the ascetic is generally as miserable as sin. Social plans are ruined because one of the group isn’t drinking and doesn’t want to go to a cocktail bar. Bring into the equation the myriad of diets being touted around and eating out is off the agenda too which is a crying shame when, for once, you can actually get table reservations in most London restaurants.

January can be depressing enough without depriving yourself of all that is good in life. Thankfully I have had a couple of friends who were totally on board with this and my January 2016 has been a riot of food and drink.

A quest for the ultimate antithesis to all this financial, spiritual and physical abnegation led us to Mayfair.  Not only to Mayfair, but to the home of the martini; Dukes. Dukes has been on my hitlist for a very long time.

We managed to get lost somewhere around St James and the delightful Ritz doorman gave us a stream of “left, then right, then second right, then left” type instructions that caused a level of confusion that could only be fixed by a stiff drink. It was therefore with some relief that a few minutes later we turned yet another corner into the twinkling, safe haven of a cul-de-sac that is Dukes. Hidden away but eminently accessible, it is like entering another world where nothing is too much trouble.

The bar area is small but very inviting. Dimly lit of course; lighting comes mainly from table lamps and, with the exception of the bar stools, seats are all of the low and squishy armchair variety. Oil paintings of someone's ancestors look away discreetly from the antics below, gazing somewhere into the middle distance, This is all utterly conducive to the cinq-a-sept couples whispering in corners and business deals being struck over "hard liquor". In fact, it's all very Bondesque which is rather convenient for a bar that claims to be where Fleming invented his hero's iconic line "shaken, not stirred". How tired head barman Alessandro Palazzi must become of wannabe Bonds demanding it resolutely across the bar.

That said Dukes does play heavily on its James Bond connections. At the entry to the bar is a signed Sean Connery photo and many of the cocktails listed are named for Fleming or for his characters and why not? It all adds to the fun.

The majority of martinis are around the £18.50 mark. Pricey by anyone’s estimation until you work out how much booze has gone into each one. Of course you are also paying for the beautiful surroundings and service but you do get a lot of bang for your buck.

The white jacketed, Italian staff are all masters of their craft and always willing to spin a tale whilst your drink is prepared in front of you. For the martini novice they will guide you gently through the list with ease.

Glasses are misted with a layer of ice and bottles are straight from the freezer onto the original Duke's 1908 trolley. First up a classic Vesper, albeit slightly amended from Bond's recipe in Casino Royale. Gordon's gin has been superseded by No 3 from nearby Berry Bros and the slice of lemon peel is replaced by a dash of orange oil which sits on the surface exuding a sweet aroma that belies the sharp punch of alcohol below. The dash of Lillet remains the same, however, and the result is a smooth pick me up with the benefit of a hint of sweetness. 

There is nothing sweet about our second choice, the white truffle martini. Due to the weeks needed to infuse the truffle into the vodka, it is limited in quantity and therefore not on the menu but known by reputation. Truffles are sourced from Alba and steeped in vodka. The resulting liquor is then mixed into a glass at your table with Chase British vodka and a dash of dry Sacred Distillery Vermouth before a truffled cheese stuffed olive is added as the final flourish. It is eminently savoury with a surprisingly delicate truffle flavour until you reach the olive which it is recommended you leave until the end. Understandable as it is a flavour bomb that would overpower everything else.

When you consider the supplement that most restaurants whack on for anything truffle based, an extra £6.50 is, frankly, not horrific.

The clientele is mixed and makes for a lot of people watching fun if that is your bag. Unusual dynamics of tall, beautiful women and short (rich?) men. The bar sets a limit of two martinis per person unless they know your alcohol capacities well and it’s clear to see why. One female guest in a black Alaia-style off the shoulder bodycon dress was rather the worse for wear. In her quest to reach the lavatories, her platform stilettos were causing challenges reminiscent of Bambi on ice whilst the elastic bandages of her dress were just about holding it all together. All before 8pm.

The majority of the other imbibers were much more sedate. With the exception of one of two intrusive ringtones, the general atmosphere was one of hushed whisperings. One thing many of the evening’s drinkers have in common is that they speak Italian and are known to the staff who greet them like long lost friends. Despite the lofty price tag, this is a place people return to again and again. 

The challenge however is getting through it. We’ve become so used these days to “martinis” in bars consisting of vodka topped up with juice or other lower alcohol spirits that a true martini shakes your teeth and slaps you round the face. How on earth fifties films stars and Man Men style businessmen had them for lunch and carried on through the day is completely beyond me. My capacity for drink is not insignificant but I would be out for the count all afternoon after one as a preprandial. A bowl of nuts and plate of giant olives keep you going nicely but after only one cocktail its necessary to stagger out from the warm cocoon of the bar into the chilly bite of the night  to find sustenance. 

Happy 2016 ahead, cheers!

35 St James's Place 

Square Meal  Dukes Bar - Dukes Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Friday, 2 October 2015

#JWGC: Pedro Ximenez

It would be wrong of me not to dedicated my grape post for this week to Pedro Ximenez considering I've been exploring the wilds of its home, Andalucia. PX is most commonly known as by far the darkest and most syrupy of dessert wines; often cited as a rare match for chocolate dishes or good mainly for pouring on ice cream (although the latter might be a British thing). This is doubtless delicious but feels like what can be a bit of a waste of a better PX. It is true that many of the cheaper versions of PX served up in the UK are of the throat-itchingly cloying variety- lacking in acidity and essentially like attempting to drink liquidised raisins but a good PX can be a thing of beauty- balanced and mellow. If you are interested in how the sweet versions are made Bodegas Robles have a very good pictorial overview here

What does 'Wine Grapes' say?
"Andalucia's variety used mainly for some of the darkest, stickiest wines made anywhere". A white berry with lots of synonyms (mainly riffs on the spelling of Ximenez/Ximenes/Jimenez) that has been cultivated in the area since at least the 17th century. The name is reputed to come from either a famous local vintner (Ximenez is a common surname) or from Jimenez near Sanlucar de Barrameda. This is not the story that we were told at Ximenez-Spinola however- more on that in later post.

Large bunches of thick-skinned white grapes with lots of sizes of berry within the bunch are vigorous and mid-ripening. This variety sounds a little frail despite its thick skin being susceptible to botrytis, bunch rot, downy mildew, esca, eutypa dieback and termites - phew, that's a lot of enemies! 

In 2008 Spain declared 9,583 hectares of Pedro Ximenez - the bulk of it being around the Montilla- Moriles DO near Cordoba and east of Jerez. It is used in both fortified and unfortified wines considered high in alcohol and low in acidity.

Some PX is grown in Chile - used mainly for Pisco, Portugal (in the Alentejo) and a little in other areas of Spain. Australia also grows a diminishing amount. 

What did I drink?

Jerez based winemaker Bodega Ximenex-Spinola is one of the few in the Sherry region that focuses solely on PX (rather than the ubiquitous Palomino which makes up the bulk of sherries).  Their sweet Pedro Ximenez was one of the best that I tried - and that came home with me in my precious suitcase cargo.  I have to confess before visiting I had, quite wrongly, thought that PX is always super sweet. That said they also make a still wine that is off dry to medium sweet and low in alcohol at around 12.5%. Its not sweet enough in my book to constitute a dessert wine (it would be overpowered by anything other than raw fruit) but would make a great aperitif.  It reminds me of a Muscat de Frontignan on the nose - quite floral. More people should be trying this type of wine with PX in my book - I would gladly buy it as an alternative to Gewurtz or Riesling to go with spiced foods.

I tried one bone dry Pedro Ximenez white wine, a Marques de la Sierra from Alvear which in all honesty was far from great. Musty on the nose and palate and surprisingly lacking in body with rather green fruit on the palate. If I was being generous I would say that I got a duff bottle. If I wasn't feeling so generous I might say it was a waste of grapes that could have been laid out in the burning August sun on "passeros" mats before being squished through traditional "capazo" layers to make something sweet. 

Some of my favourite versions that I found in Andalucia were much lighter and almost the colour of an Amontillado. One of my favourites was the Montilla based Toro Albala's Don PX 12 year old. The lower viscosity and less powerful sweetness allowed more subtle fruit flavours to come through and an almost blossom-like taste. 

Needless to say I also drank a feast of the very sweet versions of PX from all the big names; Lustau, Alvear, Gonzalez Byass. If you happen to be in Cordoba and in desperate need for a wide selection of Pedro Ximenez, then La Casa del Pedro Ximenez is your place (clue is in the name....) They stock a lot of options but are a bit more expensive than the bodegas. They also usually have a few bottles on ice for tasting. Cordoba is the place you are most likely to find a wide variety of PX as it is the nearest big town to Montilla, by the time you get down to Jerez and Seville its more about the Finos and friends and the Palomino grape.

Where can you buy some?

A couple of the Pedro Ximenez brands that were recommended as being the best by restaurants and sommeliers in the region were ones that transpired to be readily available and, in some cases, cheaper in the UK which is something of a turn up for the books. 

Noe is made by Gonzalez Byass and can be found in Waitrose amongst others for around £19/ half bottle.

Pretty much the entire Lustau range including their PX VOS and standard PX can be found from importer AG wines and also many from Berry Brothers. Lustau's PX is £10.45 for a half bottle. 

It is possible to buy much more expensive versions; for example Albala are very proud of their 1946 Seleccion Convento having been awarded 100 Parker points. Hedonism are currently offering it at £270 a bottle (although cheaper options are available abroad or by the case).

Even an expensive bottle is arguably a good investment compared to many wines. Due to the high sugar content, once opened it will keep for ages. Good job though; I'd challenge anyone to get through a 75cl bottle in one sitting!

So here ends grape 2, 1384 to go....

The story behind the wine grape challenge can be found here

Inspiration for these blog posts and the JWGC is taken from the book "Wine Grapes" by Jancis Robinson,  Julia Harding and Dr JosĂ© Vouillamoz.
You can buy a copy here.

Monday, 3 August 2015

#JWGC 1: Nosiola

Entry number 1 of what I hope will be 1386.. The beginning of the Jancis 'Wine Grapes' Challenge. If you missed how it began the take a look here.

I promised that I wouldn't start this challenge with something run of the mill and pedestrian. I therefore hope you agree that a dry Nosiola from Trentino fits the bill nicely. Never heard of Nosiola? Nor me......

Found only in Northern Italy and more specifically and especially in the Valle dei Laghi near Trento,  it is a very localised indigenous grape with increasingly limited production. 

Local DOC law dictates that any DOC Nosiola must be limited to a harvest yield of 14 tonnes/ha maximum and a minimum alcohol level of 10.5%.

What does Jancis Say?
Nosiola is also know as Groppello Bianco or Spargelen (in Alto Adige) . The name "Nosiola" is reputed to originate from "Nocciola" meaning hazelnut.

It is a mid to late ripening grape that is susceptible to spring frost and powdery mildew. 

Much of the Nosiola harvest is deliberately affected by noble rot and then dried on racks to make a very rare Vino Santo (only around 10 hectares remain and only around 30,000 half bottles produced). So rare, unfortunately, that I couldn't find any.

The dry version is often considered to be fragrant and zesty with a slight hazelnut aroma.

Original Italy map template from

What did I drink?
Gino Pedrotti is one of the main Nosiola producers in the area and, in addition to the Nosiola offers up a Chardonnay and a white blend as well as three reds (Merlot, Rebo, Schiava Nero and a blend). That's of course in addition to the hallowed Vino Santo. The current vintage on offer is the 2013. 

Their website is unusually detailed for such a small scale wine so I can tell you that this particular wine was harvested by hand between 9-11 October 2013, and was subject to 20 days skin contact before completing fermentation in a stainless tank. It was matured for 15 months (12 in steel, 3 in bottle) resulting in 12.2% alcohol. All extremely precise!

At first the wine was rather closed on the nose bar a mineral note, so we decanted it and waited a while. I'd like to say that decanting lead to an explosion of fruit or flowers but sadly it remained quite a muted offering. 

The palate is hard to define with no discernable specific fruit, its an easy drinker and a flexible food match mainly because it is so inoffensive but equally sadly, unexciting. 

After a rounded mid-palate, a couple of seconds later a bitter almost rather burnt aftertaste develops with a faint nuttiness. This reflects, I suppose, the reputed hazelnut flavour typical of the grape.

Where can you get some?

The Pedrotti version that I tried came from Cellar SW4  £38 is the bar list price but at the moment you take any bottle away for £12 less than list so £26.

BuonVino have a 100% Nosiola from Giuseppe Fanti at £18 here

Liberty Wines have a (trade only) dry Nosiola from Cesconi in Trentino Alto Adige.   You can read about it here. From their description it sounds as though it shares characteristics to a degree with the one that I tasted from the lightly fruity palate to the slightly nutty aftertaste.

Slurp have a skin-contact, orange wine version of Nosiola that is also matured in amphora buried underground. You can find it here. At £30, its a pricey drop for something that is a bit of a gamble but highly likely to be interesting bearing in mind the amount its been fiddled with to get to bottle!

What all these wines have in common is the small nature of their production and the unusual techniques that the wine makers are deploying on what almost seems like an experimental basis. Whilst its great to see such experimentation, it does result in expensive price tags meaning that they are rarely going to be commercially viable as the mainstay of a vigneron's stable of wines. It does also strike me that all these different techniques are arguably attempts to make a rather neutral grape more interesting. I am glad that Trentino's winemakers are making the effort to preserve Nosiola though bearing in mind its status as reputedly the only original indigenous white grape to the area (and that based on everyone's ambivalent reaction to it- its not likely to be exported to new climes).  Although I might not hunt out a dry version again in too much of a hurry, I would be keen to try the Vino Santo- pass the cantuccini....

So, one down and 1385 grapes to go. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015


Another weekend and another Paris trip. Its too temptingly easy isn't it when you can hop on a train early in the morning, have a snooze then wake up in Paris. Only problem with such an early start is the rumbly tummy you have by the time you arrive but then Paris is full of solutions to that particular problem. 

I had been intrigued by Benoit for a while so slipped a late lunch into the itinerary. Every Parisian lunch should begin with Champagne, there ought to be some kind of law in my opinion. This particular Champagne was Alain Ducasse's house champagne.

I have to admit that until the Champagne list I hadn't realised the Ducasse connection with Benoit. He seems to have swooped in and rescued various ailing old French brasseries and stamped his mark on them, Benoit being one of them. Aux Lyonnais being another good example of his extending Parisian empire.  Benoit was apparently opened in 1912 by the Petit family and stayed in their hands until 2005 which is a pretty impressive feat. It was apparently originally frequented by the traders and artists of Les Halles before the market moved locations. I suspect it was rather more basic in those days though. 

I never fail to be utterly baffled by how Michelin awards its stars. Arguably, a massive pointer here is the fact that Benoit is owned by Alain Ducasse but surely Michelin wouldn't be so fickle as to award a star just because of a link to a non-present chef? Well, the first chunk of my meal really left me wondering just that....

Judging by Parisian standards a three course lunch menu for 39 Euros seems like rather good value, especially when you get a choice of three options per course. When a plate of giant gougeres appears on the table it really seems like very little can be wrong with the world. 

The starter of oeuf cocotte with asparagus seems like proper comfort food. Sounds delicious, after all who in their right mind doesn't like the idea of dipping perfectly cooked new season asparagus into a thick, dippy egg yolk and seeing if you can make it to your mouth before it dribbles down your chin?

Problem is that in this dish the asparagus is laid in the bottom of the gratin dish before the eggs and cream are poured on top. This results in stringy, hard to cut asparagus that has let out a pool of vegetable water causing the eggs to curdle into a weird hybrid of boiled and scrambled. Perhaps the first ever example of where a 'deconstructed' dish would have been an infinite improvement on the sum total.

Onwards and upwards to a bavette of steak with shallots and a chard gratin. A bavette can always expect to be on the chewy side but flavoursome and this was perhaps a classic rendition of one. That's all Im going to say.

Either soggy gratins are a speciality of the chef or he hasn't ever tasted his finished dishes as a dish of swiss chard was also swimming with vegetable liquid beneath a thin crust. Some chips or other potato based carb wouldn't have gone amiss either.

Just as I was beginning to despair at having wasted one of my precious Parisian meal outings, along came dessert: Savarin a l'Armagnac. Basically a slice of a giant version of a rhum baba but with brandy instead. Vanilla Chantilly cream was served in giant spoonfuls from a massive silver dairy pitcher. It was the stuff that dreams are made of but highly inappropriate fodder for lunch. 

A bottle of 1987 Delord Armagnac was popped on the table and left there. Its up to you how much Armagnac you add but need less to say I might* (*did) add quite a lot. 

I like to think that persuading the male half of a table of six octogenarians from Chicago into ordering it was perhaps my main achievement of the day. The twinkle in one chap's eye as he leant in for the bottle for a second then third slosh of Armagnac made his wife's thin-lipped, disapproving glare all worthwhile (she ordered sorbet - of course she did. No one in their right mind orders sorbet at dessert time in Paris, or anywhere else for that matter.) I fully expect that within an hour of leaving Benoit at least one of the party was taking a well deserved nap. Which is probably what I should have done rather than spend the afternoon trawling the kitchenware shops of Les Halles spending a small fortune on random gadgets I can probably live without but that's another story.....

The lunch menu at Benoit is reasonable value (especially with the Euro exchange rate at the moment) but I think for a la carte there is much better food at a much better price in central Paris. Whilst most of it was all perfectly decent brasserie fare, only the savarin was particularly good and I wouldn't have given a Michelin star to any of it. That said it is one of the few places open on a Sunday night which is something of a minor miracle in Paris so don't rule it out altogether. 

20, Rue Saint Martin, 75004 Paris

Monday, 27 July 2015

Starting the Jancis "Wine Grape" Challenge

1386 different grape varieties. In a possibly ill-advised moment of insouciance I agreed to a challenge as something of a now very belated New year's resolution. To find and drink wines made from each and every one of the grapes featured in Jancis Robinson's bible of oenology; "Wine Grapes". A fit of bravado committed me to the project when the lady herself confirmed via Twitter that she didn't think anyone else had done it before. 

I've since given quite a lot of thought to how to broach the endeavour (some might call it procrastination).  Someone suggested that I start with the easy ones but who wants to read about a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Grigio?  The obvious route would be alphabetically.  First in the book is ABBUOTO. Never heard of it. Typed it into Google, narrowed to the UK and came up with...... nothing. Hmmm this may be harder than I thought. Also, I don't want the whole project to stall whilst I'm searching for a particularly random grape.

Then I thought about doing it geographically; the book is indexed by country as well as alphabetically, if needs be this could be the impetus for lots of fabulous travel. Still, thats not happening any time soon so we've got to stick with whatever London can offer (which is- lets face it- a huge amount)

It became apparent that some rules need to be applied...

1. Due to the above, drink 'em in any old order
2) The wine should ideally be single varietal but if we get desperate then at least 70% dominant.  As you would expect a lot of these grapes are also predominantly used in blends as perhaps only a max 5% of the total mix. How am I going to objectively taste the product of the grape from 5%? (NB this may need to be revisited if things get desperate down the line)
3) The grape must be in the book as a standalone varietal. My first entry was going to be Melon a Queue Rouge from the Jura only to discover its not listed as a variety (apparently its really Chardonnay but there are plenty of arguments over that too). Yes, there are regional debates lasting generations over whether something is truly a different variety or just a mutation of an existing classic but we're taking Jancis's word for this as gospel so no arguments. 
4) One a week (or I'll still be looking for that Abbuoto on my deathbed)

Watch this space......

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Rex & Mariano

I remember when this place was a Vodka Revolution bar stuck down a grotty side street in Soho whose raison d'ĂȘtre was little more than for the drunken amorous encounters of late night revellers or an apparent double purpose as an emergency loo. Nothing good has ever happened in a Revolution bar. I recall it to be a dark, gloomy cavern offering dubiously flavoured vodkas by the stick. You would frankly have had to have paid me an awful lot of money to be found there. Scratch that, I just wouldn't. So, one rainy Saturday night I find my phone directing me down a dark alley with a little trepidation.

Times change and so does Soho thankfully. It was therefore an absolute joy to walk into light airy Rex and Mariano and gorge myself on a veritable feast of seafood. Yes, the obligatory industrial elements are there- shiny silver ducts and winding metres of cables snake the ceiling- but I love the unusual stone water fountain in the middle of the floor for washing fishy fingers. I also like the different stations around the outside of the walls providing different focal points. A bar with high stools and wine by the glass, a fresh seafood station shucking oysters and arranging raw prawns plus the open kitchen and preparation areas and grill meaning its a hive of activity even if the tables aren't packed. 

First things first- you need to love seafood. If you don't you're down to a choice of chorizo, chips and salad essentially. You also didn't really do your research before going so more fool you.  To be honest it comes as no surprise that the decor and menu are all polished- Rex & Mariano is the latest offering from the Goodman group. They have got meat so right at Goodman, a hybrid of meat and seafood at Beast and Burger & Lobster so why not seafood alone at R&M?

I broached the iPad ordering system with a narrowing of the eyes and some suspicion but was proven wrong (yes I said it, mark this moment- "I was wrong"). It is very easy to use and completely intuitive. It meant we could order one plate at a time and have a gradual stream of food coming to the table instead of in fixed bursts of starters and mains. You still get plenty of interaction with the staff too as they bring and clear plates and top up wine so its not as robotic and soulless as could be expected. Super efficient and I'd be very happy to see it deployed elsewhere. Loved it. 

Apparently so far one customer has left in horror but for the most part there have been no incidents where someone has accidentally ordered 20 plates of prawns. The most common problem is that people get eyes bigger than bellies and order too much food all in one go according to our waitress. If you do order too much the iPad warns you to hold fire for a bit.  We pitched in and got button pressing. 

First to the table was a salad of burrata and smoked tomatoes. I've never been a tomato aficionado and steer clear if I can but smoked tomato drew me in and knocked my socks off. A revelation that I can hoover up a plate of raw tomato with a smile on my face. The slight char to the burrata added depth to the creamy soft cheese. A great start and no seafood yet in sight.

On my second visit this had changed on the menu into a Caprese salad of beef tomatoes, burrata and basil. Although the latter was good it hadn't got the dimensions in flavour and texture of the smoked tomato/ grilled burrata combination. 

Mixed carpaccio of sea bream, salmon and tuna was generous but a little under seasoned for my taste. A pinch of salt and a bigger squeegee of lemon brought it roaring to life. Again on my second visit the menu had been tweaked and the salmon removed.

Lobster ceviche with yuzu, coriander and orange was one of the highlights of the meal. It remains as a stalwart of the menu although now without orange (to be honest the yuzu alone was enough) 

Scallops with cauliflower puree and watercress were perhaps the only let down of the meal. This is doing the meal as a whole a disservice though as there was nothing wrong with the plate- it was just overshadowed by everything else.  The cauliflower puree was essentially noticeable only for its absence. There was a smear of something a little bit white under the scallops but it had no discernable flavour. Whilst the scallops themselves were a good size and the roe flavoursome they would have been better with a little sea salt, some garlic and lemon slung on them. 

So often when you order crab cakes or fish cakes in a restaurant (or more especially in a pub) what you tend to receive is a potato cake through which you find thin strands of something that once ressembled seafood. not so here. These little babies are so full of crab that I wonder how they managed to bind them together but bind they do. Spring onion and seasoning bring the crab crawling back to life on the plate. Have them with the triple cooked chips which are exceptionally good and fluffy-centred. So good that my mouth still has the burns to prove it - I might have got a bit over enthusiastic. 

One of the dishes that R&M has become best known for is their Gambero Rosso whisked straight to London from the sun-drenched seas of Italy. These bright red chaps can either come raw or grilled with some lemon. Or both. The cooked ones were firm and zingy with citrus and transported me away from the rains beating down in Soho to the Amalfi coast. Then onto their raw brethren. Despite hearing rave reviews of the raw ones they didn't rock my world unfortunately. "They taste slimy" was the verdict from the other side of the table. Couldn't agree more and the slick of olive oil liberally coating them exacerbated this. Yes, they were sweet and juicy but the texture was too much of a deal breaker for us. They didn't come with lemon but should have done- they needed it.

Desserts are kept simple, lemon sorbet, pannacotta or semifreddo. 

A bottle of the ever reliable Dr Loosens Riesling at £32 was decent value and ideal with so many different types of seafood. Wines are sourced from Bibendum and apparently in some cases directly from vineyards leading to decent price points. This is rather contrary to the spirits though. Ask for a vodka tonic and you're immediately in for £11. At the more eye watering end of the spectrum for a casual restaurant I reckon. 

Highlight The lobster ceviche and the crab cakes. Both utterly delicious.

Summary Excellent value seafood in a fantastic Soho location. 

Would I go again? Without any doubt at all, definitely. A great option for eating truly good and healthy food that still feels like a real treat. 

Rex & Mariano
2, St Anne's Court. London. W1F 0AG

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