Tuesday, 11 December 2012

John Salt

I'm fairly sure most of you reading this will have heard a little about this place and the head chef Ben Spalding, ex of Simon Rogan's Roganic. Having worked in a multitude of Michelin starred kitchens finally he gets the chance to show off his extensive skills in this six month joint pop up venture. Prior to this he did a short stint called Stripped Back in a schoolyard serving food to up to eight guests in an open air environment. Now he is in charge of an extremely busy thirty cover mezzanine restaurant and an equally busy bar menu too, which includes a popular non bookable chefs table.

Now then. I have patiently tried with the booking staff since November to get a seat upstairs in the main restaurant, all to no avail. Truth be told they were inundated with booking requests and I had other commitments on the days that they could fit me in. Ah well, hey ho, no problem.
 Keeping up with events on twitter I find out that they have a chefs table downstairs where you can sit and eat the bar menu and interact with the chefs. So that's what we did.

The long bar dominates the room and at the other end of the picture close to the window is the chefs table. Rough hewn planks of wood form the table. Simple stools are there to rest your butt on, and more simplicity from the kitchen aspect reigns as it is standing room only for the chefs. Two or three single induction hobs provide the cooking heat plus a blow torch for a bit of scorching. A vast array of plastic tubs of all shapes and sizes contain the mise en place . Small blackboards on the wall highlight information to the customer.

As the chefs table is non bookable we were hopeful that a couple of empty spaces were still available. It looked full, but with a bit of rearrangement two spaces were created right next to the wall directly in front of the two chefs. For us this was the perfect spot. Seeing the dishes being cooked and plated before our eyes and to be able to interact with the chefs added another dimension to the meal. Our young lady server went out of her way to accommodate us and the chefs were more than happy to add us to the merry throng at the table.

There were ten items on the menu and we were determined to try as many as we could. Prices seemed very reasonable, ranging from £6 to the most expensive £9. An excellent value six course tasting menu of the dishes was available for £34.
As this was the bar we skipped the value wine option and went for beer, as there were some appealing options on tap.

So you probably have already heard of Ben Spalding's famous chicken on a brick, but this was not on today's menu, but Greasy Chicken Skin Sandwich (£6) certainly was. This was served on a porcelain plate, not on a house brick.

In fairness it was not that greasy, most of the fat had been rendered out during the cooking process leaving a crisp delicious vehicle to carry the other ingredients which were...... A slick of paprika mayonnaise, red onion jam, compressed cucumber and baby gem lettuce. Our chef today was Ben Spalding's sous chef Nathan Holmes who suggested, as its a sandwich we should eat it with our hands. So that's what we did. Yum, yum.

Second course was Fried Maccaivelli Egg (£8)

This was a pan fried egg cooked right in front of us on one of the induction hobs. Underneath the egg is a pomme puree, smoked watermelon cubes and in front of the egg is a wall of panko bread crumbs. Thinking back I should have questioned the "Maccaivelli " element. Does it just mean "cunning" ?  Or is it the name of the egg. Not too sure.

The bread (a  marmalade ciabatta) and butter was for me amazing. The loaf itself is quite flat but careful cutting on the angle reveals far more of its inner beauty. Spongy soft and salty crunchy crust. What's not to like?

Buffalo Mozzarella (£7)  with a drizzle of warm maple dressing was next. Some persimmon and crunchy brazil nut crumbs were evident. A bit of colour from the bitter turnip tops added to the picture.

Interacting with the chefs really made this a fairly unique meal, and Nathan and Toby were a delight and great fun to be around. Nathan especially took the time to explain the dishes which helped me to get a better idea of some of the elements in them, elements that I would normally have missed.

For a simple sounding dish, the Pink Fir Potatoes (£6) was a far more complex offering than we first imagined. So, sauteed potatoes, lemongrass creme fraiche, sea purslane,  bacon lardons, crispy onions and last but not least a dusting of shaved Original Chocolate. Mmmm.

I had read somewhere that Ben Spalding makes a red wine bread and asked Nathan about it. It is a secret recipe but he had a couple of buns for us to try and he treated us to more marvellous butter by "The Butter Viking"
Patrick Johansson. who also supplies Noma.  Of course this epitomises Spalding's desire to offer the very best that he can. Sourcing is paramount and only the best of the best is good enough, nothing less will do.
The bread, is actually made with red wine flour imported from Canada. Its very expensive at £20 for 400 grams. So if you do get to try it, savour every last crumb.

Scallop Broth (£9) is an amazing affair. Big, big flavour. No faffing about with delicate teasing here. Its actually a bye product of the hand dived scallops from the Isle of Skye. Its thickened out with cream and butter and is totally delicious. The addition of kaffir lime adds a scented note and there was some textural addition with toasted almonds.

On the face of it another alarmingly simple dish, but the Spiced Venison Wraps (£9) were a big whack of flavour. They were blow torched to finish them off, but the real thrill lay within because there was a marvellous mix of ingredients that made up the intense ragu. So think minced Venison with juniper, fenugreek, cinnamon, orange zest, fish sauce, ketchup's, etc etc. There was also some blow torched lettuce and minted sour cream.

 Nathan was slightly concerned that he did not look too enthusiastic in this unposed, off the cuff shot, but believe me nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout the meal him and Toby were the perfect hosts and their infectious love of working in the industry really shone through. In fact they stated that it was so rewarding being able to communicate directly with their customers, as they rarely receive feedback in the kitchen proper.

Desserts next and  the first one of two was Chanteclere Apple and Lemongrass Crumble (£8)
On top of the pudding was poured some ice cold basil milk.

Last but not least was Warm Original Bean Chocolate, served with a Jersey milk sorbet.
Buried within was some cubes of salt baked pineapple and the dish was finished off with a sprinkling of chopped hazelnuts. A really luxurious mousse that again, in a way, was simple but very satisfying.

I say last but not least, but we were presented with and asked for our opinion on a little treat of Kaffir Lime Macaroons with rotten Mango.
No. Don't ask, because I did not. (rotten mango?)
Needless to say that they were all that they should be. Crunchy outer, chewy inner. Tart from the lime but richly sugared too.

Well that's it really, and considering that this is the bar side of the operation it was very good indeed. Overall the food was of a very high standard . Service was spot on, accommodating and friendly and the two chefs were great company throughout, which added an extra zing to the meal. Of course those of a nervous disposition have other seating arrangements available to them but for us this was the ideal spot to while away two or three (it may even have been four, I lost track of time) hours

So there you have it. Its a big recommend from us. Go seek it out before it gets too busy.

Yes and as a footnote. Just to prove what a great pair of guys they were, Nathan and Toby did a Usain Bolt pose, which summed up just the level of fun that it is to work,and eat here.

John Salt on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Royal China

I am thankful to get a recommend from a respected fellow foodie about any restaurant, but especially so for a Cantonese one, as my knowledge in this area, especially for London is scant indeed. However having said that never in a million years would I venture into this area never mind into this restaurant without a recommend.
This Queensway branch of Royal China is twenty years old and the first one of six in the group to open in London. It had a complete refurb in January this year, however this is wasted on me as I have nothing to compare it too. Seating 130 its certainly cavernous, and looks even bigger given the fact most of the walls are mirrored.
We ate here on a Sunday lunch and joined the back of the waiting queue having first got a ticket from the front desk. We were told to expect a fifteen minute wait but this turned out to be thirty in the end. I was concerned at losing thirty minutes of my two hour car parking and was determined to get my food order in very quickly.
The two menus that we were offered were both dim sum this is the restaurants speciality. One was a speciality dim sum with a small choice at higher pricing than the other normal dim sum menu. We asked for the carte, or as it was described to us as the evening menu. We chose two dim sum dishes and three main courses and two portions of plain boiled rice between the two of us.

First up were four rather tasty Minced Pork Dumplings. Mostly dim sum seems to arrive in threes so four between the two of us made us happy. It saved us splitting one with our chopsticks. The chilli and fish dipping sauces were there to add an extra dimension taste wise

The other dim sum selection was Fried Squid Paste. A trio of rubbery but acceptably chewable delicious balls, for want of a better description.

There was no order for the dishes arriving at the table, they arrived when they were cooked and they were cooked very quickly indeed, making this a very slick operation. In fact the speed of the service reminded me very much of Yauatcha, another highly successful and well organised restaurant.

I liked the look of the Smoked shredded Chicken on the main menu. Not too sure on the smoke element I could not detect any.

This ate rather well, crispy yet moist in the middle, the chicken was not at all dry. The mild red chilli did not sting the mouth either.

I was craving some Prawn with Ginger and Spring onion but could not see it on the menu, but I was informed it could be cooked for me.

There was a decent portion of prawns, ten in total, so five each. The ginger was in quite large slices not batons. Surprisingly enough it tasted rather mild  I would have preferred more punch from it. Not bad but I have had better.

The final dish which we ordered is classic Cantonese, Beef with Oyster sauce. There was an aubergine dish on the menu with minced prawns. I liked the look of  that, and  on reflection I should have ordered it instead. Still...

Overall this dish was fine, a little one dimensional perhaps and I would not order it again in a hurry.We have eaten this dish many times down the years and this one was no better than most of them. Unsurprisingly the quality of the beef varied throughout the dish. Most of it was tender. Some of it was not. Three or four pieces would have benefited from more careful trimming.

In summing up. Nothing really exited me about eating here. It is busy and buzzing though.The most exciting part was the anticipation of getting a table. Its fair to say that the dim sum was more enjoyable than the Prawn and Beef dishes. If we did return, which realistically I can't see happening soon, dim sum would be our preferred choice.
Just goes to show that you can't please all of the people all of the time.

Royal China on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Green Man and French Horn

The Green Man is the fourth opening from chef  Ed Wilson and partners.The others, Terriors, Brawn, and Soif are the other elements of this ever expanding and successful mini empire. Since opening it has received at least two national newspaper reviews and has been the subject of other positive reviews. This former pub occupies a slim site on the perimeter of a very busy Covent Garden. The interior is bare brick, tile and parquet floors with exposed ventilation pipes. Seating is cramped especially at the rear. It is not possible to hold a private conversation even if you or your near neighbours whisper. Every word is audible. Not good, not good at all.  The best tables for two are in the middle of the long slim room, or if you wish you could eat at the bar.

I am led to believe that the hand written menu changes daily. It was certainly different from the one that was on their website that morning. It was all simple fare, nothing mucked about with, just the sort of stuff any competent home cook could put on the table at home. The theme of the restaurant is The Loire, but on today's menu nothing jumps out as being specific to that area.

Bread was just OK. Having said that someone has mentioned it is from St John bakery, but if it is I'm afraid it did not shine for me. Thankfully though it was replenished throughout the meal as we needed it to mop up the juices from the two main courses that we ate.

Soup is not something my wife would normally choose but she needed some autumn comfort and Pheasant and Lentil (£7) fitted the bill nicely. We both tucked into this. It was hearty with nutty lentils. The broth had good depth of flavour but for me lacked a bit of seasoning. Strangely enough there was no salt or pepper on the table. Mind you having said that there was barely enough room for plates, wine and water glasses, never mind anything else. Slightly off putting were the numerous sharp pheasant bones in the broth. Fortunately none of them spiked us.

We can't resist a nice Rillette. We have had rillette before at Terroirs and Brawn and I assume that this is a standard recipe made with pork. So Rillette & Cornichons (£6.50)

Not bad really. Portion size was generous. This was not as tasty as I remember and it was a bit too fatty and certainly needed the sharp cournichons to cut through it.

Of  the four dishes under the Meat and Game listing only the Partridge dish appealed but we both really fancied something fishy and there was slightly more choice under the Fish and Seafood list. There were seven fish dishes on offer including the now ever so fashionable Slip Sole,  some Brill, an unfashionable Gurnard and a Scallop dish. I chose the promising sounding Surf Clams, fennel and Dill (£12)

For some reason the buttery broth at the bottom of the bowl had a lot more intense flavour of clam than the clams themselves, which were slightly bland. Perfect marriage of flavours though with the diced fennel and dill.

Bags of flavour in the Mouclade of Mussels (£10) and again a generous helping.

OK. So fat juicy steamed mussels in a creamy lightly curried sauce. Plenty of butter in the sauce and plenty of sauce to be mopped up with the bread. Currently this is my favourite way of eating mussels. I cooked some at home a couple of weeks ago and the only difference between my dish and this one was the curry used in the sauce, and of course there can be quite a variation. As has been mentioned above seasoning varied. This dish was over seasoned, but that was not so very important for me. We both still enjoyed it.

We skipped desserts, we were full.

If you like natural wines you will be at home here. We are not wine oriented preferring to focus on food. Wine is available by the glass, pichet or bottle. We had a pichet which was sufficient to last through the meal.

As you can see by the pricing, you can eat here for very little money. Pricing is fair and the cooking is simple, very simple. Its not a place I would dash back to. Its fine for a pit stop but there is no way that I would tolerate sitting at the rear of the restaurant again as it is far to intimate. Besides which, I like to choose my dining companions.

Green Man & French Horn on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Michael Nadra Primrose Hill

I worry a bit when chefs have more than one restaurant. I have been in business too many years to know that you can't be in two places at the same time. Also its impossible to clone oneself  (yet). So whoever is running your business in your absence needs to be hand picked for the job. Indeed your whole team need to be. Witness Gordon Ramsay's crumbling empire.

The original Michael Nadra restaurant in Chiswick is the fully operational  other half of this enterprise and indeed that has been on my to visit list for some while, as I had heard some good reports about the cooking. Still I never got around to it. Then lo and behold Nadra goes and opens a much larger 130 seat restaurant in monied Primrose Hill. To cap it all they get not one but two national newspaper reviews within weeks. That was it. We just had to give it a whirl.

Primrose Hill is a very des res. Lots of famous and I guess a number of infamous people have and still do live here. I won't name names just google it. We hardly know the area at all having only been here the once. That was a restaurant visit to TV chef Bryn Williams place.
Michael Nadra's restaurant is well out of the central commercial shopping area in a very quiet residential part of town. It sits canal side, but forget any dreamy countryside views, this is water and concrete and of course the odd narrow boat or two. However having said that we were about to find out it was well worth searching for.

Once you find your way through the door you are greeted by enthusiastic staff and a shiny bright Martini bar. Then to the right of that is a light filled conservatory. Two further interconnecting rooms complete the space. One of them being a rather atmospheric Grade two listed vaulted horse tunnel in stunning original condition.

Various menus are on offer. Prix Fixe, carte, brunch, and two tasting menus, a four course game , and a six course standard. Nothing on the prix fixe appealed so we chose the game menu and dishes from the carte.

Bread was more than decent and replenished throughout the meal.  A good choice too, from black olive, rosemary, white and brown. Our favourite was the rosemary, with its brittle, salty, explode in the mouth crust.

We were offered a little amuse of deep fried whitebait whilst the chef cooked our meal for us. The chef in question by the way was Michael Nadra himself. Which quite surprised me. Don't ask me why but it just did.

From the game tasting menu first, was my starter course of Partridge, foie gras and Cep terrine. Fairly standard starter really. Chunky flavoursome meaty bits served with a pickled carrot and pea shoot salad and whole grain mustard dressing.

The other starter, this time from the carte were Black tiger prawn, scallop and chive dumplings. (£9) The vivid green pond was a spinach and broccoli veloute

This was pleasant enough. The dumplings were light in texture allowing the scallop and prawn mixture to shine through

We shared the Roasted Grouse with wild mushrooms from the four course game menu. Only my second grouse from the too short season. This ate rather well indeed. Perfectly cooked and not too gamey. Served classically with bread sauce, fondant potato and a tasty jus. The leg was served separately on a bed of baby watercress and it was surprisingly tender.

From the carte we chose Grilled Iberico Presa and roasted suckling pork belly (£20) We thought that this sounded devine on the menu, a real porky treat.
We have eaten presa before on a couple of occasions and both times they have been served rare which is ( I am informed) how they serve it in Spain. This version was perhaps to most peoples taste as it was more medium rare than rare. Plenty of quality meat on offer. Good texture from the green beans, and the roasted Jerusalem artichokes were gorgeous.

The other main course, this time from the game menu was Windsor sika venison saddle, shank and sausage roll.

Again perfectly cooked meat, and plenty of it. This was perched on top of some tangy, bitter cavolo nero and to the side was the crumbly sausage roll and a slice of crunchy richly flavoured, buttery, root vegetable rosti.

I have to say that all of the dishes were a decent size. No skimpy portions here. We love that from a kitchen, chefs who don't short change you  on the plate.

Two desserts were a step too far, but the staff were not up selling, perhaps identifying the fact that portions were generous and also that on the game menu the dessert section was listed as Selection of Desserts. Indeed it was.

So we have, Treacle tart with clotted cream. Baked black fig with thyme honey. Chocolate fondant. A mini Pavlova and a scoop of Gooseberry sorbet. All classics of course and a fitting end to the meal.

There is nothing effeminate about this cooking. Its big bold and butch. There is a swagger about it that demands attention. Its clear from his menus that Nadra prefers now to cook meat and game as opposed to fish. His original restaurant, Fish Hook specialised in guess what?
There is nothing wrong with man sized portions either. This may well be North London but the portions are most certainly North Yorkshire. Its all very classical cooking, no fancy dan flourishes for the sake of it.

Michael Nadra can certainly cook and has a very impressive cv dating back years. Think Ramsay. Wareing, Demetre, Bruce Poole at Chez Bruce and he was head chef at Oliver Peyton's hip Atlantic Bar and Grill back in 2003 so he's been around a bit.

Pricing is keen and designed to keep the locals returning as a neighbourhood restaurant rather than a special occasion place. Importantly service was friendly and enthusiastic but not too intrusive. Our bill for the four course tasting menu (£40) one main course, and one starter plus an exceptionally good bottle of bargain priced Malbec and 12.5% service charge just nudged over £100. This,  I was more than happy to pay.

Go seek it out

 Michael Nadra Primrose Hill on Urbanspoon Square Meal