Monday, 23 June 2014

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe

I have a very long list of places in London that I'm itching to visit and Galvin BdL was not on it. I have never had any particular aversion to it, its just not somewhere that had enough reasons to be alluring - no crazy innovation, no 'new place' buzz, slightly fiddly location from home/work, the list goes on. There must be hundreds of places in London in a similar boat; they had their moment in the press and were once an 'it' place and now they carry on with a local committed clientele punctuated by the odd TopTable deal. But that was before I tried their tarte tatin …  

I was there on an early dining package menu with a group of girlfriends (three courses and a glass of kir royale for £26) and my first pleasant surprise was that this isn't one of those places where those on a "deal" are treated as subordinate to the a la carte customers (I'm glaring at you L'Autre Pied). All the dishes are on their a la carte menu as well so these aren't "specials" using cheaper/ left over ingredients, you are getting the real McCoy. 

As soon as you enter there is no question whatsoever as to the nationality of the food on offer. Dark wooden floors and wall panelling punctuated by mirrors along with startched white table cloths and wooden bamboo back chairs are unmistakably Gallic. Service is of the old school French variety minus the sterotypical rudeness, in fact all the waiters are rather lovely. 

The food on offer cannot be described as unusual or imaginative. What it is, however, is traditional food cooked and presented well. Very well in fact. Most of our group kicked off with a plate of the thinnest most delicate slices of cured smoked salmon, edged with a dill-dominated herb pesto and topped with blinis and a  quenelle of fromage blanc.

I opted for ham hock terrine. One of those deceptively simple French dishes where one can look no different to the next but the flavour varies greatly. This one was well seasoned with a welcome crunch of texture from pistachio nuts.  Pickled baby onions and cornichons helped cut through any greasiness from the meat. No complaints here. 

The smoothest pomme puree you can find (replete with copious butter and cream no doubt!) was a rich foil to a caramelised crusted calve's liver with onions and Alsace bacon which I'm told was a complete winner although a very large portion for something so rich (but better too much than too little in my opinion).

I've never quite managed to get to grips with liver so went for the vegetarian option; Norfolk asparagus with a poached Burford egg on a bed of polenta.  The polenta was unfortunately seemingly completely unseasoned and needed a good dose of pepper as well as some salt, despite the parmesan shavings. The asparagus was a thing of perfection though, the woody, chewy bits peeled away and asparagus cooked to soft but not floppy topped with a soft orange yolked egg popped open to ooze over the asparagus.

The wine list was decent with plenty of options at all price points and we plumped for a perfectly quaffable Picpoul de Pinet at £26. 

GBdL are justly very proud of their tarte tatin, the apples a dark, rich brown with caramel topped off with a sweet, crispy, pastry base (no soggy bottoms here). It was definitely one to rival the best that I have eaten.

It wasn't all perfect (see polenta above) but in general it was a well executed bistro menu. Main courses are in the mid twenties a la carte and desserts £6.50- £8.50 so its the upper end of mid range for a bistro. I suspect that there is an element of resting on their laurels though. Many of the accolades on their website and the certificates lining the corridors leading to the toilet are several years old.  There are also a good deal more french bistro/brasserie type venues that have sprung up since many of the original reviews of GBdL (Zedel, Chavot, Little Social to name but a few). That said, if you want good, traditional French brasserie food done well in the Baker Street area then you can do much worse

7/10 (but I'm basing that on my early dining priced package)

Bistro Galvin de Luxe
66 Baker St, London W1U 7DJ
020 7935 4007

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


I am pretty sure that unless you have been hiding under a gastronomic stone for the last couple of years you will have heard of Dabbous. Opened in early 2012 to immediate critical acclaim, chef Ollie Dabbous' first restaurant became virtually instantaneously unbookable.  I sent an email back in May 2013 enquiring as to when I could book a table and received a prompt, polite but firm response notifying me that every table for 2013 was booked but I could lodge an enquiry from September for 2014. Yes, you did read that right; because they don't operate a 30 or 60 day policy like many places they were booked up for the entirety of 2013. Madness. This sort of hype can be dangerous and catching. After all, surely if its still this full two years after opening it must be amazing, no?

The critical acclaim was added to in 2013 when Dabbous was awarded its first Michelin star. That said, its like no other Michelin location I know of in London. Walls have the now ubiquitous crumbling concrete and plaster, the dining room ressembles the stark, metal gridded set of the recent Donmar staging of Coriolanus, I half expected a naked Tom Hiddlestone to be winched down on a chain between courses (it didn't happen unfortunately). Tables in the restaurant are packed close together risking bruising from sharp furniture leaving me wondering whether I would summarise Dabbous as painfully hip or painful hips...

Oskar's Bar downstairs has an extensive cocktail menu and offers a limited menu. When we arrived it was pretty empty so would be a good way to get a taste of Dabbous without the almost interminable wait for a table. Speaking of tables, after finishing two very well made cocktails we went upstairs with increasingly grumbly tummies, so far so good. 

We had been hoping to have a matching wine flight with the menu but couldn't find one in the list and the sommelier didn't mention or suggest one despite our prevarication trying to find one wine to match all the dishes, it was only at dessert time that we found it nestled away on the inside back cover which was a bit of a shame.

We settled on an ever reliable JJ Prum Riesling on the basis that its medium dry so works with a wider range of dishes (it was particularly fab with the coddled egg). The wine list is reasonably extensive without being too crazy off the wall. 

The first course arrived swiftly. Fat, dark green English asparagus spears served with virgin rapeseed oil mayonnaise and crumbled hazelnuts. It was very tasty undoubtedly. It did, however, seem to me that whilst its great to have wonderful ingredients showcased through simple plating and service, there is an argument that it is just asparagus and mayonnaise. Its not exactly highly technical. 

A bowl of avocado, basil and almonds in a chilled osmanthus broth followed. Certainly imaginative and clever in the marriage of flavours and very pretty tasting due to the osmanthus, I can't help but think that I might have liked it to be warm. 

Vulturous, circling serving staff tried to swoop repeatedly on our broth bowls (three in less than two minutes) leading us to sit with our spoons aloft in mid air purely to create a hiatus in an otherwise brisk gallop of a meal. The table next to us asked to slow down, the thumping beat of the music creating a slightly frenetic pace for both service and consumption that was not terribly relaxing.

Just as I wondered if I was staring down the barrel of a tasting menu to rival the "emperor's new clothes" of Restaurant Story along came the coddled egg with smoked butter.  A thing of such beauty & perfection comes along so rarely; silky smooth and like a warm blanket for my tongue I felt like I could have eaten an ostrich egg sized one but in reality probably couldn't it was so rich. I can't begin to properly describe quite how utterly wonderful this course was. 

Things carried on in the same inventive and delicious vein with the arrival of barbecued octopus with muscadel grapes.  An explosion of sweet juice from each grape contrasted the char on the outside of the octopus tentacles. Octopus can be a tricky beast but this one was soft and tender without a hint of rubber which must be a bit of an undertaking to barbecue. I could merrily have ploughed on eating portion after portion until I'd munched all eight tentacles but the next course beckoned.

Pulled veal with white asaparagus and summer truffle was tasty and I'd quite happily eat it again but not particularly memorable in comparison with the egg or octopus dishes.

I'm sorry to report that things then derailed slightly. Lovage ice was revolting, not a word I use lightly but completely applicable here. There are some things that are creative and interesting but should never actually be eaten and this is one of them. A blast of very intense, savoury, celery-like flavour but cold and frozen. Let's move swiftly on. 

The final course of the tasting menu was listed as "barley flour sponge soaked in red tea with Tahitian vanilla cream". It was perhaps not as pretty as many of the previous courses but more substantial and a nice eat. Essentially a baba like heavy sponge with sweet Chantilly cream, I'd challenge anyone to object to it but equally it was hard to get too excited about. 

I would summarise it as a very tasty baba that would have been even tastier with the addition of rum. Then again I find that most things become tastier with the addition of rum but maybe that's just me?

Where Dabbous is sadly let down is on the service front which I would categorise as lackadaisical with an insouciant air of cool. Male serving staff are all of the bearded and braced variety missing only a Quaker hat but perfectly genial. The girls are all size eight or below and some had that slightly dead-in-the-eyes look that comes from extreme hunger and boredom and exude an air of processing tables swiftly so the annoying people will leave.

Whilst they have a basic knowledge of the dishes being served that doesn't extend to detail about the ingredients used. My favourite interaction related to some really very delicious tiny waka mono green baby peaches from Japan served at the end of our meal. Or more specifically from Fukishima, a detail volunteered by our waitress. "Are you sure?" was our measured reply bearing in mind irradiated power stations and all that. The response came "well that's where my boss told me they were from but he might have been joking". I'm still none the wiser.  Other similar questions around ingredients or dishes were met with rather quizzical looks. Not your average Michelin star service. 

Between the volume of the dance beat based background soundtrack and the proximity of tables  to one another, you will hear everything from your neighbour's table and they you.  To our left two very amiable chaps were planning a baritone ukelele tribute to Leonard Cohen trio (fabulous idea and initiated a very fun conversation) and to our right a very Eurotrash couple were discussing the ins and outs of their friends' multiple divorces and transnational custody battles (less fun). The point being that we were so conscious of being able to hear everything they said that our own conversation was very stilted and limited to talk about our meal rather than catching up on our own gossip. 

Price wise it is pitched at the right level for the food and the experience at £59 for the tasting menu. A set lunch (£28) and dinner menu (£48) are also on offer for 4 courses. 

Dabbous is worth a visit just for those flashes of brilliance found in the coddled egg and the barbecue octopus but other dishes were not so great and its not a relaxing experience or somewhere that I would like to take someone for a special occasion. The egg is on the bar menu along with a rather delicious sounding beef shortrib sandwich so my temptation would be just to pop in for a cocktail and snack combination rather than fighting/ waiting for another booking.


39 Whitfield St, London WIT 2SF
020 7323 1544

Dabbous on Urbanspoon  Square Meal

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Gin Mare - Happy World Gin Day!

The front doorbell rang last night and I opened it to a bag of gin being proffered forth. If only all visitors were quite so obliging. My excitement was dampened slightly when told said gin was purchased on holiday in Spain. 'Spain' and 'gin' are not two words commonly partnered so I anticipated that a final few excess Euros had been disposed of in Malaga Duty Free and braced myself for the worst. 

So often the local tipple tastes great when you're sat next to a pool with a sunburnt nose and a belly full of paella but the reality on arriving home can be quite different. So many poor, deluded souls (myself amongst them) have returned to Blighty claiming they've found "the most delicious thing that you really must try" before foisting it off on unsuspecting  relatives who sip away with fixed smiles knowing the ensuing hangover will be dire. Either that or sadistic friends knowingly bring something completely god-awful to taunt you with. This is surely the only possible explanation for the presence of any Metaxa ever on British shores?

Back to the gin. My innate suspicion deepened when I looked at the label and it was called 'Gin Mare'. "What as in 'nightmare'?"  I asked? Well more fool me, as it turns out that intended meaning of the "Mare" in question is more "Mar" i.e. sea in Spanish, than any kind of nightmare. The bottle is classy, made from heavy, blue-tinted glass and  a base shaped like a wave. But its not all about the packaging of course.

Sorry for the empty bottle in the photo. We drank it all.

On the nose the first thing that you get is a clear hit of black olive with a deep savoury character. On the palate, once the olive subsides a little, more subtle hints of rosemary come through accompanied by some basil. Of course the compulsory botanicals are in there; the juniper, the coriander seeds etc but they are very much background notes. This is an overwhelmingly savoury gin and is truly unlike any other that I've tasted. I'm a total heathen and can't stand tonic (that sweet tooth strikes again) so I mixed it with lemonade instead - I can almost hear the chorus of disappointed sighs- but that lifted the very savoury element for me. 

With the bottle empty we had to seek solace elsewhere. Carrying on the blue glass theme I dug out a bottle of Bombay Sapphire. I usually quite like Bombay Sapphire. Sure, its not the best gin on the market but its still quite a leap forward from a measure of Beefeater's. It really does then show quite how good Gin Mare is that the Bombay tasted bland and rather flat.

So am I being mean and again taunting you with unobtainable delicacies? Not this time, although granted a premium drink like this doesn't come cheap. There are places in the UK that stock it, one being Whisky Exchange online where it is £35 (and they have great customer service in my experience too). Slightly more accessible but a touch pricier is Waitrose at £38.25. If you're in the market for some gin this summer (and lets face it, who isn't?) do try it, I promise that its worth it!

Their website in English is here. Watch out if you've got your speakers turned up, its one of those sites that plays music at you. They can also be found on Twitter via @GinMare

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Tom Aikens

I have to start out with an apology. I'm rather conscious that here I am merrily writing about somewhere that has closed down (albeit with a potential replacement in the pipeline). Jolly annoying I know as there is the risk that it might all sound rather yummy and then you can't go and have it yourself. So there we are; SORRY. But it was such a perfect dining experience that I'm downgrading that apology to a lower case and tiny print 'sorry'.  

I had initially decided against posting this article as the meal itself was a couple of months back now but I've been for quite a few meals recently at places that have been the subject of lots of critical acclaim and chatter and in various cases I just wasn't that wowed and in some I was downright disappointed. It has been months since I had a meal that I thought was mindblowing on every level from quality, quantity and innovation of dishes to perfection of service and the overall experience (other than the eternally perfect Medlar). In fact one of the last occasions that happened was chez Tom Aikens. I was very definitely wowed by the experience there so decided to post it any way as I'm very much hoping that we will see Tom back cooking at the highest level in London again soon. 

My wine tasting buddy S has dined at Tom Aikens on a seemingly weekly basis ever since I have known him and cannot say enough good things about the food,  wine and service. I think we may have to put him into therapy now that it has closed its doors. Either that or attach him to an intravenous drip of good German Riesling to ease the pain.  As soon as the news of the closure broke I was in touch like a shot begging to be included on his last pilgrimage. 

I even got there early which is pretty much unheard of. So early that most tables around me were deserted, see above. They soon all filled up though. I really liked the decor of the restaurant. Not too starchy but still quite slick. Quite dark but with a spotlight above each table making each table feel like its own little bubble. A single flower was placed on each table in a vase with a round bottom that made it rock to and fro like a metronome and convinced me that I was about to spill something. Staff were all lovely but sartorially speaking I did think that the sleeveless jackets and denim shirts were a step too far though (didn't get a photo of those, they were moving too fast). 

Tom Aikens himself is something of a Marmite character. Love him or hate him. If you were to form your opinion solely from the Twitterati then he would probably be pilloried.  Rumours abound of assault in the kitchen, accusing customers of theft and leaving suppliers up the creek without payment. None of it is good.  People who know him personally tell a different story. Who knows. Whilst those things are indeed important, right now as a diner my main concern on the night is how well he and his team can cook and what's about to go into my tummy.

Canapes included the thinnest slices of translucent gold potato crisp stuck together with frozen foie gras and cepe. Shortbreads with blackberry (bit too desserty for me as a canape),  and horseradish cheesecake rolled in fresh herbs. The bread was exceptional, especially  bacon and onion brioche. Who doesn't need bacon and onion brioche in their lives? Other breads included polenta bread, rustic buttermilk and cepe bread. You also get pretty spoilt on the butter front. Three options; cepe butter, bacon butter or sea salt butter. Um, all three please.

The wine list arrived in the form of an old edition of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson's World Atlas of Wine with the restaurant's offerings pasted into the first fifty or so pages of the book. Yes, that many pages, it's a pretty extensive wine selection. It is the first time that I have seen a restaurant deliberately apply a lower profit margin to wines that are made from unusual grapes or are from lesser known regions which I think is a brilliant idea- anything that persuades people to take a chance on something other than their usual "go to" is fabulous. All the big hitters are there too but I'm not spending too much time poring over the contents tonight as we're asking sommelier Raphael to go freestyle on us.

Although there was the very tempting option of a tasting menu, I was wisely advised to go a la carte to get a proper big dose of each course. Whilst I do adore a good tasting menu there is something annoying about loving something so much that you're kicking yourself that you only have a couple of bites of it. I kicked off with venison tartare with smoked beetroot, hazelnut mayonnaise and horseradish snow. If you have read my experience at Restaurant Story you may already know that I'm not a big fan of "snow". There are only rare occasions when flavoured ice shards can add anything to a savoury dish in my experience. This was also the case with the venison dish, I hardly got the horseradish flavour at all- not that it mattered though, you could just have given me a tub of the hazelnut mayonnaise and I think I could have happily eaten it with a spoon.  I'm desperate to try and recreate it at home, as thick and unctuous as a mayonnaise could possibly be with a tooth cloying richness from the hazelnut oil.  The remaining ingredients were stratospherically good. Silky venison cubed alongside beetroot, the slight tartness acting as the perfect foil to the rich meat and mayonnaise with the leaves bringing a bitter edge.

The marinated scallop with chorizo red pepper puree and Iberico ham was a classic combination of flavours- nothing exciting or ground breaking perhaps but perfectly delicious nonetheless.   Deep and smoky with a little acidic bite from the red pepper.

We  entered the wine fray with a Galician  Ribeira Sacra which means "sacred shore" and I can see why based on the wine that it produces. Dry red but with sweet bursting ripe red cherries. I really do believe its true when people say that you can taste the sun and this wine was that philosophy in a bottle.

Next up came piglet belly with smoked apple and baked aubergine. As if roast piglet cooked two ways couldn't get any better it came topped with pork scratchings. It truly was amongst the best pork dishes that I have ever been served. The aubergine had a depth of flavour and smokiness that no baba ganoush has ever managed to reach in my experience.

I've just been given (thanks H!) a Super-Aladin hand smoker (post on that soon) so will be trying out smoking apple puree as soon as possible as it was truly a revelation, Sunday roasts will never be the same again. 

Beef short rib with red cabbage gazpacho, pickled shallot and oyster was extremely tempting but I just can't bring myself to love oysters. I've tried them every which way; raw, deep fried, steamed you name it, they just aren't for me. That said S said it was lovely and it did look great even though the red cabbage gazpacho was an alarming shade of virulent pink.

A carmenere was a bit of a curve ball and, like Mr Aikens himself is probably a marmite option. To me it tasted like the smell of a medicine cabinet that has both your Dad's vintage bottle of Brut or Old Spice in it as well as various sticking plasters and antiseptic wipes. I swapped it out for something a little less risque.

Barely does a restaurant meal go by when I don't add a cheese course especially if I've seen the trolley drifting around the restaurant during my meal. The trolley here didn't disappoint either, the Epoisses being a particularly gungey, smelly example (this is a good thing I promise).

I loved the wafer thin toasts, especially the gingerbread one, unusual perhaps with cheese but worked very well as did a glass of Maury. I'm a big fan of Maury as it has never let me down so far (although I can't guarantee there aren't bad ones out there). Sweet and full bodied enough to stand up to both cheese and chocolate but without the viscous stick-to-your-teeth characteristics of chocolate favourite Pedro Ximenez. S went for a glass of Savagnin which was ok I suppose and great for the palate of an aged Riesling connoisseur but by that point of my meal I'm well and truly onto the sweet stuff. 

Apple jelly, caramel parfait and apple air comes served on a giant stone egg shaped platter. Its basically apple in every permutation you can think of served with a giant claw like sweet beignet which when combined with the apple air (read 'foam') reminds me of the sea shore. For some reason whilst under the influence of a lot of wine I described the overall dish as looking like an alien egg and afterbirth but I promise you, it was utterly heavenly.

Who can say no to Tokaji? So Oremus 5 Puttonyos isn't the most original or unusual of wines with dessert but you just can't go wrong with it.  Honey, apricot, yep you've heard it all before but its all good. 

Petit fours may be the most Willy Wonkaesque plates of extravagance that I have seen anywhere. An exquisite caramel-filled mini doughnut left me trying not to lick my lips and failing miserably. A vintage metal box revealed shards of nougat and mini bars of chocolate. A separate dish offered up a sticky chocolate tuile and chocolate truffle. 

The bill came tucked inside a beautiful leather-bound, antique recipe book, nestled in a page bearing a recipe for Rumpledethumps. I'm not sure how good it would taste, nor did I 100% understand what it is short of being a kind of bubble & squeak but it has the best name ever and that alone makes me want it (minus the references to beetles though).

As always with Mr Aikens, the rumour mill continues to grind as to what the future holds. Twitter had its claws on display with noise about potential financial troubles, the internet talked of a possible move stateside to join his brother in New York. Put us out of our misery soon please and tell us we can eat this level of  food closer to home than the other side of the Atlantic!!

It was one of the very best meals that I've had in ages and I'm sad that I discovered it only on the cusp of closing. If you haven't been then I'm truly sorry but fight me to the front of the line if and when his new restaurant opens in the centre of town. 

Tom Aikens 
43 Elystan Street, London SW3 3NT

Tom Aikens on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Goodman, Mayfair

The length of time it has taken me to visit Goodman is a crime. I'm not sure what my punishment should be but surely just having deprived myself of such glorious comfort food for so long is punishment enough? On a rainy Friday evening I emerged ravenous from a cathartic karaoke session at nearby Karaoke Box (Nobody Does it Better by Carly Simon in case you're wondering) and was hunting for a late night supper and chanced on a free table at Goodman. 

I can't remember what it looked like inside partly because it fulfilled my two main criterion of a) not being rainy and b) serving hot food. That's usually a good thing though. If I notice the decor too much its invariably because I see something I dislike (carpet at Alyn WiIliams I'm thinking of you and distressed plaster and brick walls at- well- every burger place ever). So it was at worst inoffensive and at best comfortable enough to allow you to be focused on the food. I do remember wood, brown leather and low hanging metal lights though. Lots of brown. Importantly for a girl, there was nothing "rustic" to snag your tights on (they are bloody expensive you know, even from M&S).

So, speaking of food- onto the menu. An unstoppable urge for steak meant that none of the starters were going to get a look in unfortunately. Had I paused for a moment to see beyond the beef-based mist clouding my vision, I would have gone for the lobster bisque, because- well, who wouldn't? A tray of raw meat is paraded before you by one of the very knowledgeable serving staff and, if you are as much of a meat geek as me, it becomes a personal challenge to identify each cut of beef. All the usual suspects were present and very, very correct; porterhouse, fillet, sirloin....

Despite being tempted by the tray I went for the Goodman rib-eye with 400g for £34. Cooked just enough to let the fat melt but still bloody enough for my gory tendancies, it was pink and oozing juiciness with the perfect crisp char on the outer. 

Honorable mention has to go to the whole roast garlic that you can add to your steak for a couple of quid. Never has there been a better steak topping than a mushed up roast garlic bulb in my opinion. 

Truffle fries were exactly that, emanating the distinctive heady, earthy burst of black truffle and not over salted. Pretty damned perfect actually. £5.50 is a bit on the steep side for chips but you did get plenty. Parmesan and truffle macaroni cheese was tasty but more with the sharp tang of parmesan than any truffle.  If you're forced to choose between the two (poor you!) go for the fries is my recommendation. 

A bottle of 2001 Chateau Musar was a great foil for the rib eye. Whilst the majority of Burgundy and Bordeaux on the list was the usual London 3x retail, Musar at £68 was just over x2 making it a comparative bargain. You would also be hard pushed to beat a Bekaa Valley blend with a steak and chips in my eyes. Rich and ripe with fruit and some smoky, meaty notes developing with age. This one is 13 years in now and truly at its prime. Glorious stuff. 

I expect the steak to be the main event at somewhere like Goodman and therefore dessert can become something of an afterthought but that wasn't the case here.

Apple and pear crumble with stem ginger ice cream was gorgeous, in fact so delicious that I've promptly tried to copy the ice cream recipe at home with some success (although I never will learn and always initially add too much ooze so it won't set). 

Doughnuts with cappuccino mousse were so light and fluffy with a crispy outer shell, I genuinely did try to play the not-licking-my-lips game but failed miserably. The memory of the doughnuts will stay with me for some time.

A bottle of sweet red Quady Elysium ensured a good nights sleep, if I'm being honest I may have dropped off in the cab on the way home but don't worry, I woke up after dreams of beef and chips. 

It wasn't all plain sailing but none of that was due to the kitchen or the staff, more the clientele. This is not somewhere you want to go on a Friday night if you want a quiet diner a deux. Its also not somewhere I'd take my family as it was a) very noisy and b) awash with clouds of testosterone. The majority of other customers were groups of guys all competing over who could order the largest hunk of beef. The waitresses did a fabulous job of keeping certain individuals under control and took a fair amount of abuse for it.

So am I now a Goodman convertee over Hawksmoor? From the various branches of both that I have been too, I think the pecking order now stands at 1) Hawksmoor Air Street 2) Goodman Maddox Street 3) Hawksmoor Covent Garden 4) Hawksmoor Guildhall. Goodmans City and Canary Wharf are still to come...


Maddox Street, London 

Goodman on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Roxies, Earlsfield

Earlsfield seems to be taking on a bit of a new dynamic. I'm not suggesting that its the next Dalston or Peckham or anything but the food and drink horizon is definitely evolving. A few years ago your options were pretty much Amaranth thai and the now defunct Willie Gunns plus a smattering of chains and pubs. Since then, The Leather Bottle has upped its food game, Ben's Canteen is moving into the old Willie Gunn site and there are plenty of other small independents thriving. One of those is Roxie's.

Let's get the obvious out of the way first shall we? Its got a bloody awful name.  If someone asked me if I fancy a trip to Roxie's I'd suspect I was on my way to a strip club or at the very least a neon-lit bar where bright blue WKD is on offer for a pound and "laydeez" drink free on a Thursday. It sounds tacky. I know that I've probably just offended the owner's Mum after whom he named it or something but in all honesty it is off putting. It doesn't make me want to go running to eat there. Which is a shame as the food is really rather good. 

The menu has a South African lilt to it with Biltong on the snacks list and Boerewors on the mixed grill but it is a light enough touch to avoid the "theme restaurant" sentiment you get from the likes of Shaka Zulu. Its also not packed to the rafters with homesick Saffas in the way that Chakalaka in Putney used to be. Nonetheless, the South African owners clearly know their target audience as Roxie's now has three outlets located in Earlsfield, Putney and Fulham thereby neatly triangulating around the main South African population of London (Wimbledon branch to complete the quadrant any time soon guys?) 

So, the food. You're probably not going to love it if you're a vegetarian. There's a goats cheese and tomato caprese as a starter and a beetroot risotto main (with goats cheese) but other than that you're stuffed. That said, as a committed carnivore I have been heard to suggest on more than one occasion that "stuffed" might be the best possible outcome for vegetarians....

Ribs were smoky and tender and from the gradient of dark colouring on the outside permeating into the inner flesh they had been slow cooked for a long time. The photo doesn't begin to do them justice but the light was awful. Pickled red onions that accompanied them were really delicious, soft, tangy and juicy with a residual sweetness from the onion- none of that added sticky sweet syrup. The coleslaw was fine but nothing to write home about.

The main event at Roxie's, however, is all about the steak. In South Africa excellent quality steak is on offer at incredible prices - if you pay more than a tenner for fillet steak and sides you have been robbed. I can therefore understand why your average South African ex-pat in London balks at the idea of £30 upwards for a steak and chips which is pretty much the standard for a decent anywhere these days. The aim of the owners was therefore to source quality meat from a good butcher at a good price. They settled on a butchers in Smithfields market and quite right too as the cuts and quality are beyond reproach.  My fillet was thick and well hung and cooked exactly as I'd ordered it. At £15 for a surf and turf you can't complain. Yes you did read that right; it would have been £12 for just the steak. The prawns that came with it making up a "surf and turf" were a good size with plenty of them but coated in a rather odd, tangy, green marinade of unidentifiable origin so I might suggest just sticking to the meat. 

Speaking of meat, the Boerwors sausage on the mixed grill was excellent. Flavoured with hints of nutmeg and clove it belied its African roots without being overpowering and held its own on the plate alongside the steak. If you're looking for meat overload the strips sounds good, a mixture of sirloin, fillet and rib eye.

The wine list is extensive enough to please most palates and (sadly for me) not over reliant on South African wines. We opted for a Hartenberg Cabernet Shiraz, not the 2010 as advertised but a slightly young 2011.  It needs a couple more years in bottle to really show its best but it was a great drink with steak and barbecue flavours and not over priced at £30.

In summary, there are very few places that you can get a decent steak in London at the kind of price that Roxie are offering it so this is likely to become a neighbourhood staple for me. Its even worth travelling for. Because it isn't hipster trendy or with banging music its also a crowd pleaser. Its a great place for a date or a birthday party and equally I know my (quite fussy) Dad would love it. Will I be back? Yes definitely. 

Roxie Steak
585 Garratt Lane, Earlsfield. SW18 4ST
020 8944 9602

Roxie Steak on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Steirereck, Vienna

In order to keep my greedy and rather fussy tummy happy I have to have a day job. A day job which involves a reasonable amount of travel. Business travel is a funny old thing; I'm not silly enough to try, as many do, to claim that its all a big drag and terribly tiresome as it can be lots of fun but there are times when it is genuinely a bit of a pain. Travelling from airport to hotel in the dark then straight to an office to cram in as much work as possible before eating whatever late night food room service can offer (usually a dubious quality margherita pizza). That isn't fun by anyone's standards. Occasionally though there are a few golden hours that can be snatched and I've learnt that you need to make the most of them.

A small window of opportunity arose during a business trip to Vienna. If its all you're going to see of a city then why not aim for the best you can? A quick Google search found Steirereck  serendipitously located a five minute walk from my conference hotel alongside the river in the middle of the city's Stadtpark and currently listed in 9th place on the San Pellegrino list of the top restaurants in the world. Despite its 2 Michelin star ranking, naysayers on the internet have mentioned that they do not believe service to be of standard but that absolutely wasn't my experience. 

Each large round table has its own console table where cutlery for forthcoming courses is stored along with nifty little cards giving immense detail in English of the components of each course. Extra bonus points for the presence of my favourite totally frivolous addition; a handbag table (stupid I know but I love them)

My fellow diners on a midweek lunchtime were made up from an even split of locals, business lunches and tourists and the atmosphere was light and airy and not overly stiff. The ceiling is covered in beautiful ceramic flowers and leaves making it quite feminine but very very classy. It is a family owned restaurant, chef Heinz Reitbauer stays behind the hobs whilst wife Brigit runs front of house and circulates chatting to everyone.

Most restaurants make do with a bread tray but the in house bakery offering from Steirereck is so extensive that it requires a trolley. Over 12 different options were presented, in many cases still in whole loaves for fresh carving at the table. I tried three types in total including a honey and lavender loaf, a fennel and coriander Urleib and a bacon bread the latter fit to rival that of Pied a Terre which remains fixed in my mind some 5 years on. In essence; the bread is immense. 

Butter was presented in stripes on a slate as though it had been scraped on using one of those plastic tools that tilers use to apply grout behind bathroom tiles. Lemon salt ridges added another dimension to the home made butter.  A translucent sliver of cured Austrian ham was served as a canape pegged onto an odd but innovative food "washing line" (look out for that line again later at petit four time...).

A Prager Gruner Veltiner was typically crisp and light with sharp green apples and faint tropicals on the palate. I had intended sticking to just two glasses of wine it being lunch on a work day with a meeting to head off to later in the afternoon but the sommelier had other ideas. Once we go chatting it was clear I needed a much broader introduction to Austrian wine whilst on their home turf and I suspect by the time I left the other diners viewed me as some level of functioning alcoholic from the number of glasses on my table. 

The Cuvee Impresario from Weingut Paul Kerschbaum felt like quite a Bordeaux style of red from the velvety, vibrant, cassis and almost cocoa and tobacco nose so I was very surprised to find out there was only 20% Merlot, the rest being made up of Zweigelt and Blaufrankisch.  Another mystery wine turned out to be a 100%  Blaufrankisch; full of pink peppercorns was light on intensity but high on cranberry fruit.

A plate of cured wild boar's head was spiced with cloves, cinnamon and pepper but completely avoided being too "Christmas spice" as it was balanced off against a sweet pineapple mustard with a kick blobbed amongst a raddichio salad dressed with galangal balsamic vinegar. Cubes of jellied grape juice added bursts of sweetness. It might all sound like a hotch potch of flavours and textures but it really worked. Not only did it taste divine but it looked like a miniature work of art.

Crayfish with parsnip strudel & lime was the stand out dish of the meal. The strudel was actually a milk based gel wrapped around the parsnip puree. Spikes of parsnip crisp dotted along the top of the strudel added texture. The crayfish were beyond succulent and, whereas I plan on how I can recreate dishes I love at home, I know that I don't have a chance of anything coming close to this. Candied lime segments and noilly prat helped cut through the creaminess and contrasted beautifully with the crayfish.

The Wiener Schnitzel is surely a must when in this part of the world. It seemed a little incongruous with the two star dishes and service (kind of like having Shepherd's pie at the Ledbury or something) but I wanted to experience it. Served very plain with just parsley buttered potatoes and a lemon wedge, the schnitzel was tender and moist. What surprised me most, however, was the outer crisp. I've always thought of schnitzel as being breaded and quite heavy but this was more like a fancy tempura version the outside of which would have remained a shell even without its meaty filling. One of the things that appealed to me most about the restaurant was the fact that it prides itself on providing classic Austrian cuisine to an exceptional standard so I felt like I was experiencing something truly local. Spoilt princess comment coming up, but sometimes restaurants that fit the "Michelin mould" can start to feel a bit same-same. You could be in London, Paris or New York and not really be able to identify which city you are in from the decor, the staff or the dishes. Steirereck is an exception to this; waitresses wear a semi- traditional "dirndl skirt" kind of outfit without being Sound of Music-esque and breads, wines and ingredients are all so very obviously Austrian. 

Dessert arrived in the form of a carre of rectangles of heavy chocolate ganache on a shortcrust base along side a pineapple tartare. Pineapple and pericorn sorbet was served aloft coconut macarons. All in all it was rather a pina colada style confection and very tasty but not quite up amongst the lofty heights of the crayfish dish or the boar's head.

Feiler Artinger's Ruster Ausbruch was an incredible wine. Made from noble rot grapes it is deliciously sweet with creamy lemon and honey notes with some dried apricot. In my opinion it can rival the finest noble rot wines I have ever tasted. To my dismay the sommelier confirmed that nowhere in Vienna stocks it to buy as it is sourced from the cellar door. The good news for Londoners however is that those clever people at Fortnum & Mason seem to have adopted it as one of their house dessert wines (here) where it comes in at about £27 for a half bottle.

The "washing line" returned as a display line for various little sweets, the most interesting being a pink jelly envelope filled ravioli style with fruit puree. 

If you like this style of dining and you are going to Vienna please, please visit Steirereck, I promise that you won't regret it.

Meirerei Steirereck

Downstairs on the ground floor is the more casual Meirerei (or “dairy”) which is still rather on the swish side with white gloss tables and neon light art. Serving traditional Austrian and Viennese dishes but specialising in local cheese and milk based drinks. For less than £10 each you can get a large glass of decent local wine and a platter of cheese, each labelled and accompanied by a recommended order of eating. Most were delicious but unfortunately I'd have to counsel against the primeval ooze known as 'Vorarlberger Sauerkase' for all but those with the strongest of constitutions. I can merrily eat Stinking Bishop but this stuff made it look like Dairylea strength wise. I tried drinking wine, gulping water, eating crackers but nothing was going to remove the feeling that I had eaten a fetid rat corpse. 

Other much more positive cheese highlights included Bachensteiner (a soft cows cheese in the Alsacien style washed in brine and sometimes in wine- often available from La Fromagerie), and Osterkrohn (a strong blue but creamy hard cheese). A really good selection of Austrian wine is served by the glass or in little flights so its a good place to get an introduction to real local specialties.

So if you're looking for a glass of wine or a snack during a walk through the Stadtpark then I would definitely recommend Meirerei, it also has an outside platform which is gorgeous when the sun is dappling through the trees.


Am Heumarkt 2A / im Stadtpark
A-1030 Wien
Tel.  +43 (1) 713 31 68