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