Friday, 30 August 2013

Thai on the River, Battersea

Location, location, location.  Its a catchphrase that has spoken only the truth since way before Kirsty and Phil got their hands on it and one that applies in spades to Thai on the River. Despite London being split in two by the long winding Thames there are comparatively few good places to eat overlooking the river compared to the length of water. Sure The Ship is lovely at Wandsworth Bridge as is The Gun over at the Eastern end and there are plenty of other gastro type pubs but they get understandably rammed the moment that we have a glimpse of sun by drinkers. So where to go that might not be so well known?

Located overlooking the Thames, Thai on the River has a fabulous view of the river with access from both the river path and also the main road to the rear. There are few things in London that can make a person quite as happy as a beer on a warm evening by the side of the river.  I think this is, unfortunately,  possibly the only reason that TOTR limps on as a going concern though (that and their takeaway service).  I tend to end up visiting once every couple of years and have never seen it any more than a quarter full despite pretty decent food and the river view. 

On the downside, the restaurant is located very close to Battersea heliport so any chance at conversation is intermittently drowned out by the landing of a nearby aircraft.  If you aren't approaching from the riverside then it is also a bit of a toad to get to which can't help dining numbers. The 170 bus from Clapham Junction will take you there but other than that its a good 15 minute walk from nearest overland station and 10 minutes to the nearest main road for other buses. 

The wine list is really very limited and unimaginative whilst also not necessarily selected to match Thai food (for example there are no Riesling or Gewurztraminer wines on show). There is, however, the only Thai wine ever to have gained wider repute (or notoriety depending on your thoughts on it) in the form of Monsoon Valley. That said, a glass of house champagne is £7 and a Singha beer £3.50 so its not like you're stuck for reasonably priced options. 

The menu offers little beyond standard thai fare so I wouldn't come here thinking you're going to find anything remotely innovative or groundbreaking. P opted for corncakes to start with sweet chilli dip. To say that they weren't fabulous is a little bit of an understatement, the batter mix outweighed the corn content and wasn't cooked through so there was quite a gungy, doughy texture that clogged up your teeth. The non-veggie fish cake version was far superior with a spicy chilli blast, that sort of spongy springy fish filling that only Thai fish cakes have and a good deep golden colour.

The chicken massaman was a total triumph. I have eaten a few too many watery, over spiced slops claiming to be a massaman recently so was overjoyed when this one had the thick creamy consistency it ought to with a fantastic depth of flavour.  The coconut was prevalent but didn't drown out the more subtle cardamom and cinnamon notes. It also had a gentle growing warmth rather than an eye watering blast of spice.  Ultimately, I think that I prefer a beef or lamb massaman where the super slow cooking has broken down the meat to "fall apart on your fork" consistency of the type that you find at the Blue Elephant however the chicken was succulent and plentiful. Jobs a good'un.  

P liked her veggie red curry and had nothing but praise for it although I thought it a little insipid and not quite as spicy as I would have expected. 

No complaints from the coconut rice however the sticky rice took the word "sticky" to new heights. Glued in a giant dollop into the little basket it arrived it, it took effort worthy of a Crystal Maze game to prise it out and split a chunk off to eat. 

Sadly, as with many Thai restaurants, desserts are nothing to write home about so we gave it a miss.

Mains are between £8-12 so we aren't talking crazy prices and there is a 10% discount if you book in advance online. There is a very varied £20 set menu for two people plus and there is also an unlimited Sunday buffet for £16 a head which sounds as though it could be excellent value. 

I feel a little sorry for Thai on the River. It has been in situ for decades as a good local Thai with a solid local customer base. Suddenly along comes Blue Elephant moving into a location only a few hundred yards down the road and TOTR becomes the shabbier little brother. I hope that it can cling on. 

Would I go back? Yes but only to sit on the terrace on a balmy, summer's evening and nibble away. If its just for Thai food and its not a sunny warm day then are probably better places to visit. 

Thai on the River
2 Lombard Rd  Battersea, SW11 3RQ
020 7924 6090

Square Meal Thai on the River on Urbanspoon


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Ivy

The uncharacteristic heatwave of the last few weeks has made us forget the wash out weeks of June when we all thought a sunny day would remain ever elusive.  On a June Friday night pre-theatre visit to the Ivy, as I shook off my umbrella having been splashed by a passing taxi, comfort food was close to my mind. Comfort food is something that the Ivy undoubtedly does extremely well. Once past various paparazzi images of celebs falling out of or into cabs, a Google search of "The Ivy" would be guaranteed to bring up more references to cosy options like sausages and mash, shepherds pies and berries with white chocolate sauce more frequently than any other dishes. 
I think that certain myths abound about the present day Ivy, none of which have ever been my experience:

1) Its really hard to get a table
2) Service is snooty
3) Its really expensive

True enough, I'm not suggesting that you can just walk in without a booking but if you know when you want to eat and ring up a couple of weeks in advance for prime time then I've never struggled. On more than one occasion I have called for same day pre-theatre tables and succeeded. Equally, it is isn't cheap but, whereas it was very expensive in the uber-fashionable heydays of the late nineties and early noughties, prices haven't gone up much in the last few years. Many mains are between £15-£27 which is the going rate in many a half decent West End location these days. As for the service, I've always found it to be smiley, efficient and effective. 

Now that the bulk of the celebrity throng has drifted on to pastures new many of the regulars at the Ivy are, (how to put it politely?) getting on a little in the tooth- perhaps explaining the preponderance of comfort food. That said, there is always a buzzy atmosphere, even at 5.30pm when the pre theatre crowd are in full swing. The menu also offers a wide variety of options and regularly changes with only a few stalwarts keeping their place on the list. If you want to go with grilled fish and salad, hold the dressing then that's absolutely possible (you'd be an idiot to but if you're that type then you're probably not reading this blog to begin with...)

Summer was in evidence only in that beautiful English asparagus can be found featuring on London menus. There can be few things more lovely than the simple delight of the first crop of English asparagus dipped into fresh hollandaise sauce. The Ivy offers a starter portion for £12 which seemed a little steep for a vegetable starter but it was pretty huge,  we shared it between 3 as an ample light starter and used the spears to mop up every last drop of smooth hollandaise. Properly delicious. 

Despite several people having recommended the shepherd's pie to me, I've not yet selected it as my own option (i'm not the world's biggest lamb mince fan)  but definitely will on my next visit. The gravy is exceptionally rich with a surprising depth of flavour (dare I mention that overused term 'umami'? No thought not...) Topped with fluffy, buttery potato peaks just crisped off to a golden brown. Its also enormous, I'd challenge anyone to order it and leave hungry.  One thing that does up the cost a bit at the Ivy is the fact you do really need to order sides of vegetables, as you can see from the Shepherd's pie, without a side order its just meat.

The wine list has some pretty heavy hitters with suitably stratospheric price tags to match as you would expect with some of The Ivy's clientele; £450 for an '88 Ch Palmer or £195 for a '94 Leoville Barton. That said, there are options under £30 and I went for a Montellori chianti at £35. Light enough not to smash through the subtlety of the veal but strong enough to stand up to the shepherd's pie. Job done. 

A caveman sized veal chop sourced from Southern Ireland was a beautiful rose colour and as tender as can be. A rich sticky jus was accompanied by broad beans and watercress. I'm a recent convert to veal. I'm ashamed to say that historically I had few cares about where my food came from with the sole exception of veal. The idea of the palest white meat on an Austrian schnitzel plate meaning that the little calf may not have seen the light of day was pretty horrid so for years veal was verboten. I'm even more ashamed to say that it was Janet Street Porter that converted me. Seeing her explain on tv that actually lots of British bull calves were being slaughtered because noone wanted their meat seemed like even more of a waste so I started eating it again and boy am I glad I did. A good British or Irish rose veal is a delicious thing. 

Crackling pork belly with parsley mash and honey carrots was another success eliciting oohs and ahhs from every slippery, glistening mouthful.  I can also vouch from previous visits that the sausages and mash with onion gravy would take some beating. None of this stuff is in any way healthy, the mash is more butter than it is potato but by god, its good. 

Hot chocolate souffle with mint ice cream was essentially like a chocolate fondant served in a ramekin rather than what you would traditionally think of as a souffle but no complaints coming from me.  It was, completely, utterly, irrefutably divine. I even cast aside my weird aversion to combining hot and cold things as the mint ice cream was plunged down into the oozy fondant centre. 

A lot of people think that my Dad is fussy (some say that I might have inherited it.....) but I know he's not really. All he wants is simple food made from good quality ingredients, prepared well. He's not alone in that I suspect but its amazing how often places manage to get it wrong. If any restaurant gives him an excellent but simple steak and chips followed by apple pie he will be loyal forever. Apple pie is a rarely seen item on many menus these days though. I tend to involuntarily hold my breath when my Dad gets to the dessert menu as its so often all about deconstructed lemon meringue pies with crumbs of meringue on the side or jellied blobs of weird savoury stuff mixed in with a dash of fruit puree. But a simple apple pie is a wondrous thing so it was with a sigh of relief that I saw it on the Ivy dessert list. It didn't disappoint either. 

I'm not suggesting that The Ivy is cheap by any stretch of the imagination, however it isn't as crazy outlandish as many imagine and I have to disagree with its detractors, from my multiple visits it has never been anything other than an absolute pleasure and I have no doubt that I will be returning time and time again (especially as my parents now seem to view it as their new London haunt...).

The Ivy
1-5 West St  London WC2H 9NQ
020 7836 4751

The Ivy on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Bumpkin, South Kensington

Bumpkin has crept onto the London restaurant market over the last couple of years and spread its tentacles throughout the more traditionally well heeled areas of London. Now appearing in Notting Hill, South Kensington and Chelsea (or "Glamorous Chelsea" as it is described on their website) it is most definitely designed to attract a certain crowd. I'm thinking hangover food for the cast of Made in Chelsea or buggy friendly brunch for perplexed couples looking lost on a Sunday morning when the nanny's got a day off.  The focus here, as we are repeatedly reminded at every opportunity,  is on keeping it British. 

Even the name of the chain tells us a lot. A bit oldy worldy and countrified. Its designed to appeal to those who would ideally take little Tarquin and Lily to the Cotswolds country cottage at weekends to appreciate everything "rural" but have found themselves into negative equity on the townhouse so this will have to do for now. The decor is rustic chic (sometimes too rustic, I snagged my dress on the underside of a table). Leather banquettes rest alongside aged tables and wilting flowers nestle on the side in recycled glass vessels whilst posh wall paper and chandeliers do just enough to make sure we don't forget it's more than a country pub. Ultimately, its a middle class eaterie churning out all the right phrases that make well to do Londoners feel good about themselves; organic, locally sourced, sustainable blah blah. Yes, its all important stuff but its not a business model.  

Sitting in the bar with the intention of a pre-prandial glass of white, I struggled to get the attention of anyone working there. Despite three people stood chatting at a till less than two metres away I was left with my arms flailing wildly like a loon to manage to place an order. Having eventually succeeded in hailing a passing waitress my first choice was "off" and the second arrived just before we were taken to our table. The wine list is limited at best and lacking in quality. Replete with the popular favourites by the glass (all the usual suspects are present, Australian chardonnay, pinot grigio etc) there is nothing there that is going to rock your world or widen your wine knowledge. A £30 bottle of picpoul de pinet was a little too acidic and rather overpriced (£6-7 a bottle retail). 

Despite the menu being pretty wide ranging with nine separate themed sections (such as "Best of British Pies", "Sides from the Garden" and "From British Shores")  I was stumbling to find something that really rocked my boat and made me think "eat me now"..

After rattling mechanically and slightly incomprehensibly through the day's specials, we managed to establish from the waitress that there were two fish specials which we both ended up ordering. In my case this took the form of the monkfish wrapped in bacon with roast asparagus.  Hailing as I do from asparagus land on the borders between Warwickshire and Worcestershire, I am conscious that I am used to very high quality seasonal asparagus. Perhaps this has set lofty standards for my taste in the stuff or perhaps not. This was not so great. Rather too woody in the stem and slightly undercooked, it was a little underwhelming. The monkfish, though, was beautifully cooked. Firm and springy to the touch whilst maintaining a moist succulence. The outstanding highlight of the dish, though, was a bacon tomato jam. Deeply savoury with the salty smoke of the bacon prominent, it was an absolute joy. If I could only have nipped in, bought a jar of the stuff and scooted out again perhaps I would have a rather better opinion of Bumpkin. 

Lacking in carbs somewhat I ordered a side order of chips which arrived in the now ubiquitous mini frying basket and were good and crispy on the outside but a little floury inside. Their main flaw however was that they had a faint but pervading flavour of fish making me wonder whether the fish from the fish and chips (listed on the menu as "sustainably sourced and very British!" - quel surprise...) had been cooked in the same oil.

C went for the other fishy special in the form of a whole seabass. Granted he's not particularly photogenic and would have me running for the hills with all those bones, skin and that milky eye but apparently he was quite well cooked if rather overpriced. 

So pros and cons. The food we had was decent quality and generally presented and prepared competently. Service was mediocre at best. So here's the rub. At over £40 a head for one course and a bottle of very standard wine it didn't feel like great value for money. Would I go back again? If someone told me they were going I wouldn't tell them not to but equally I won't be rushing to recommend it. 

A decade ago Bumpkin would probably have been rather innovative in its offerings both in terms of presentation, sourcing of ingredients and outlook but in a post jubilee come down and a much more crowded market for posh pub grub its image and menu are all rather hackneyed. 

Call me snobby but I'm also yet to find anywhere truly worth revisiting that has also featured in an episode of Made in Chelsea. There is a definite correlation developing. First came an average meal at Le Cercle and their subsequent PR release about featuring in the illustrious Bafta winning show and then up popped Bumpkin on screen in more than one episode. I'm sensing a trend and may have to keep watching only in the interests of knowing where not to go you understand.....

102 Old Brompton Road
London SW7 3RD
Tel: 020 7341 0802

Bumpkin on Urbanspoon Square Meal
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