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

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