The Smoking Goat, Kiln

the best comment I read about these starter plates is that they are what Hilary Briss’s contraband ‘special stuff’ in The League of Gentleman must have tasted like

It has been said the food of Southeast Asia does not travel well…

Here is a part of the world whose cooking is celebrated almost everywhere for its dazzling vibrancy and intensely high-definition flavours. Any palate that has ventured this far south and east of the Himalayas and Ganges Delta will know that there is nothing so colourful nor vivid, nor so much like a simultaneous bucket of cold water and hot slap to the face as that which each successive mouthful of Southeast Asian cooking brings.

Admittedly, the catch-all term ‘Southeast Asia’ paints in the very broadest of brush strokes, encompassing as it does an area of almost 620 million people, over 100 languages and incalculable practices and habits. Were it possible to identify any kind of commonality across a region this diverse it would simply be one word: harmony. Every mouthful strives for a balance of salt, savoury, hot, sour, and lots and lots of each. Seriously lots. Every dial is generally yanked firmly towards a realm of Beyond Eleven that even Nigel Tufnel might find troubling. But no one taste ever goes one louder than any other. Harmony is all.

And Thai is by far the most popular and most widespread food coming from Southeast Asia. In the UK it is the most popular Asian food after Chinese. And never mind about balance and harmony and all of that, we love Thai restaurants because everything on the menu sounds so beguiling: so cool and exotic, so mysterious even. Though these days there is pretty stiff competition. Maybe not the coolest anymore as Vietnamese is now where it’s at, though mostly still in London and the bigger cities. Nor the most exotic as that is probably Laotian which is harder still to find and so still has enough of the outlandish about it. And Burmese, should you ever come across it, has the ‘mystery’ element all sown up (hint – Myanmar’s food is like its geography: somewhere between India and China).

…And yet for all that, few cuisines from this dazzlingly diverse, far-flung corner of the globe travel well. Even though Thai sounds like it should be all cool and exotic and mysterious and, what you end up with outside of Thailand is often anything but. Why do Thai restaurants all taste the same – a vague nod towards some coconut, the merest intimation of something to do with lemongrass, a few bits of stir-fried baby sweet corn and bugger all else? This can’t be, like, actual Thai food can it? Where’s the heat? Where’s the funk? Even in London Thai restaurants have remained conservative in their outlook until only recently. In other words wan, insipid green curries and, inexplicably, fish cakes in breadcrumbs.

But even though there has been a recent fancy for Vietnamese, Laotian and what-have-you, Thai cooking has finally reinvented itself through some of London’s most intriguing street food vendors and fun new restaurants. High time, too. It has taken a surprisingly long time to get a 21st-century makeover but it has happened. Kind of like If Only Fools and Horses were to be reimagined on Netflix with Crystal Meth and Saul Goodman instead of Latvian alarm clocks and Mickey Pearce. But really, it has had to in order to keep the pace.

Ben Chapman and Seb Holmes are the names behind The Smoking Goat. It started life as a successful residency at Climpson’s Arch over in Hackney where a lot of tongues wagged over this New Kind Of Thai Cooking that was happening. This, then, is the permanent site situated at Soho’s fringes in Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street) and which managed to see the light of day primarily thanks to crowd funding and determination on the part of the owners.

The Smoking Goat is a small restaurant whose offerings are loosely based around the food of northern Thailand. More specifically the street food and market stalls of the North East. What The Smoking Goat is really in the business of is wood-fired barbecues and meat. Various chunks of animal are subject to flame at high temperatures and accompanied by lusty spice, chilli heat and grungy lo-fi sensibility. Certainly, roasting and grilling resulting in strong, savoury flavours are the hallmarks of both North Eastern Thai and (some) neighbouring Vietnamese street cooking – and heavy on the chilli, too.

It is a small space. A bar and a few tables. The one thing that you and everybody else notices is the bloated puffer fish skeleton hanging up over the bar. The signature dish: smoked goat shoulder for the table to share. Straight from the horse’s (Seb Holmes) mouth The Smoking Goat is all about “wood smoke, fire, chilli, fermented flavours”. What he neglects specifically to mention is fish sauce.

Few things have quite that same distinctive, sharp animal funk as fish sauce, or nam plah. Except maybe a dead Alsation on the turn. Made from anchovy guts packed in salt into open barrels and left to ferment in the sun it is certainly an ingredient that has long repelled the western palate. And from the bottle it smells even worse than it sounds. More mouldering land-fill than fish. But with cooking its flavour rounds and mellows, providing an intensely aromatic savouriness, even complexity, that few other condiments can. Nam plah is the beating heart of Thai kitchens and is the life blood we tend to shy away from in the west. And it is for this reason, I think, that Thai food often just does not taste like Thai food. Fish sauce goes in everything. Indeed it goes well with everything. And you do find it with, well, everything here at The Smoking Goat.

First ordered was the eponymously named nam plah chicken. This soon became something of a signature and was easily the most popular thing on the menu, if not also the most pungent and deeply uncompromising pieces of fried fowl you are likely to come across. Leg and thigh are dipped in a rice flour primer before being deep-fried Tempura-style. They are then copiously slathered in a topcoat of sesame and nam plah. The batter was crisp and brittle, almost toffee-like, the flesh steaming and succulent underneath. The fish sauce didn’t quite ride roughshod over the white meat but you feel that it could do. Almost profane waves of umami bludgeoned with each bite. Utterly addictive. One serving will never be enough.

Barbecued lamb ribs nahm jiim jaew (fermented shrimp and white pepper) continued the assault. You will not tend to find lamb very often in Thai cooking but its naturally robust taste and fattiness is perfect here. Heat, fat and even more pungently dripping sauce is the end result.

A slight change of tempo with scallop nahm yum. These were plump specimens, cooked over open coals in the shell and washed with a classic nahm sauce. Stabbed through with insistent darts of lime, tiny yet blistering birds eye chillies – and more fish sauce – consensus is that this most gently sophisticated of bivalves should not be beset by something so bracing. Here, that contrast was wonderful.

Crispy pork belly with pickled watermelon was pleasingly sweet and sour but probably the least interesting thing on the menu. Barbecued duck legs marinated with galangal and lemongrass then enjoyed a further basting in ketjap manis, a thicker, deeper, sweeter, more complex cousin to soy sauce. Much as before it was straight off the flame and getting stuck into crisp, charred skin and seared flesh. Duck has a tendency to dryness though and so it proved here unfortunately.

Then rendang short rib of aged beef was probably my favourite of the lot: served on the bone it was all marbled fat and tender smoked meat dissolving without resistance into its deeply dark marinade of – well I picked out ginger, coconut and cinnamon.

If you now have the meat sweats just by reading this then the house som tam would be the perfect antidote. And if fish sauce is the heart of Thai cooking then som tam must be its soul. Lovers of the dish are nothing if not dedicated in their Rāgarāja-like ardour for what they would consider to be the world’s best salad. Here, as you would by now expect, it came with the anticipated explosion of flavour. All at once it was thrillingly hot and fizzingly sour as papaya, chillies, lime, tamarind and tiny fermented and dried shrimp (plaa raa) repeatedly somersaulted over each other. Green beans and a handful of peanuts provided the window dressing. Really, the clue is in the name: tam means ‘pounded’ and the correct method is to muddle and smash everything together with pestle and mortar. The pleasing thuds coming from the small kitchen next to the bar were further confirmation that these guys knew what they were doing. You also get glutinous rice served in the time-honoured method of the road-side vendor: rolled into a semi-sticky ball and straight from a polythene bag.

The Smoking Goat’s wine list is put together by Zeren Wilson and reputed to be very decent indeed. I never checked it out, wondering what on earth could possibly stand up to what is on the menu, heading instead for the cocktails and necking back a couple of cardamom gimlets. But of course.

fish sauce goes in everything. Indeed it goes well with everything. And you do find it with, well, everything at The Smoking Goat

A ten minute walk away on Brewer Street is Kiln, the second permanent venue opened by Chapman. There is always the risk that a subsequent opening becomes just a second dining room yet Kiln feels palpably different the moment you walk in.

If The Smoking Goat is all brash barbecue, hands-on and sleeves-rolled-up, Kiln plays it cooler. Where The Smoking Goat has an evening dedicated solely to offal, Kiln is a bit more user friendly. It has broadened its influences plus this time you get to eat with cutlery. Food is still cooked solely over glowing embers only this time in clay pots and woks. The ‘kiln’ refers to the site’s huge wood burning oven. According to Chapman it is “road-side food” inspired by his time travelling around and across the northern borders of Thailand. Yet although the simple menu aspires to be an uncomplicated reflection of these rural border lands, a part of the world Chapman clearly loves, you have a hard time imagining you are in some grill shack at the side of a potholed road next to a steamy Mae Hong Son paddy field. This is by no means a knock. The idea is brilliant. But you walk in and realise Chapman has in fact nailed his other vision for a Thai dining spot: “we wanted to go for a late night Brooklyn bar feel.”

It is all at-counter seating, either at the bar or directly in front of the open kitchen. Everything happens right in front of you – similar to Barrafina or The Palomar – but with the music cranked right up. Yes, they have a record player at the end of the bar. And you are welcome to browse their vinyl collection. You hang about and have drinks until space becomes available. Servings are tapas-sized.

As for that uncomplicated menu, aged lamb skewers punchy with cumin are a buff riff on a similar dish popular in China’s northern provinces. You, like me, would no doubt question the need to dry-age a meat like lamb but it did indeed make for a rounder, higher flavour, more akin to goaty beef (or beefy goat for that matter). Alongside was a plate of smoked sai ua sausage, thick and fatty, humming with bagfuls of earthy turmeric and fiery birds eye chillies. Sausage is not as incongruous a dish as you might think. Grilled sausages such as this are enjoyed widely in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand and beyond into Burma, and they, like here, are a cheap and easy way to eat what is available. The best comment I read about these starter plates is that they are what Hilary Briss’s contraband ‘special stuff’ in The League of Gentleman must have tasted like.

A blazingly hot green monkfish curry was superb, and indeed, greener than a Wordsworthian springtime. Duck heart kaeng som was an altogether more primal thing, a deep house remix of that traditional market stall staple, the sour curry. Usually made with white fish, this version was dark and worryingly savoury, insistent with offal. The last in a trifecta of curries, all of which were very different, was long pepper and pork shoulder. Eschewing all-out heat for a more sonorous, more musky sweetness it was by far the best.

Aged beef short rib with fermented shrimp was in many ways a nod to The Smoking Goat’s barbecue roots. Flashed rare over the coals, sliced thin and melt-in-the mouth, it came with a bold dipping sauce and even that managed to be a thing of intriguing complexity. There was that ever-present, insistently salty, fermented piscine tang but with additional hues of bitterness, tartness, even treacly sweetness. I’m guessing…tamarind, lime, ginger, palm sugar?

Accompanying dishes were unfussy: thai greens in soy and just a simple bowl of brown rice. Wine was once again by Zeren Wilson and the bar staff were more than eager to chat and give recommendations. I was willingly propositioned with a young Roussane blend and a pear-droppy Nahe Riesling. Both were as excellent as previously reputed.

“None of what we do is verbatim Thai food,” says Chapman. Variously, both establishments have been described as “smoky”, “crazily busy” and later in the evening, “deafeningly loud”. They tick the boxes in terms of the dining style that remains on trend throughout London: informality; a thrall to a particular way of cooking, in this instance with wood-fired grilling; no reservations; short, focused menus; minimalist décor; a rather earnest striving for a sense of authenticity and geography and a definite attempt to create ‘buzz’. So clearly both The Smoking Goat and Kiln are aimed at younger, more liberally-minded Londoners who enjoy and appreciate eating out but who now consider New York rather than Paris as the place where all the good restaurants are. New York’s Pok Pok is every bit the inspiration as the market stall.

Not that any of this is supposed to do Chapman or Holmes a disservice. Both clearly understand and love their craft and both have spent their working lives learning how to cook Thai. The Smoking Goat and Kiln just work. Both are as riotously fun as restaurants are allowed to be. I genuinely wonder who would not want to sit at the bar at Kiln eating Thai street food to The Velvet Underground and The Stooges. Of course these are the very things likely to bring on Middle England harumphing: too pretentious, hipster-ish, London-y – that kind of thing. The ‘Standard’s Grace Dent gave a well-observed smirk at the potential for I Swear I Was There syndrome with the line that there were more young guys claiming to have eaten at Kiln when it opened than there were claiming to have watched the Sex Pistols at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in 1976. But even all the gumph and bumph about Cornish smallholdings and rusticity doesn’t really grate as both places deliver in spades.

Kiln is better than The Smoking Goat and probably one of 2016’s best openings. It takes the same ideas and improves upon them without changing what made them good in the first instance. It is the ultimate second record (Fun House being the best example of that here, surely?). Though The Smoking Goat was and is the original.

In any case, it is all about Thai flavours that do indeed travel well and which have both the heat and the funk.

Opinions:

The Smoking Goat 7/10

Kiln 9/10

 

Details:

The Smoking Goat

7 Denmark Street

London

WC2H 8LZ

Web: www.smokinggoatsoho.com

Email: bookings@smokinggoatsoho.com (groups only)

Twitter: @SmokingGoatSoho

 

Kiln

58 Brewer Street

London

W1F 9TL

Web: www.kilnsoho.com

Email: bookings@kilnsoho.com (groups only)

Twitter: @Kilnsoho

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The Thatch

legend has it there’s a fish and chip shop up in Hartlepool where the guacamole is to die for

So the memory of another general election fades away into the night, much like an enfeebled Peter Mandelson divested of his supposed ghoulish powers. You might think that this election was particularly uninteresting. And you might be right.

In terms of dullness, the leaden grey of Spitting Image’s pea-eating John Major initially limps to mind. But after reading Stuart Heritage’s piece in Teh Grauniad that made reference to, and I quote, “his engorged penis (that’s John Major’s penis and not Peter Mandelson’s, I hasten to add) repeatedly penetrating Edwina Currie’s moistened labia”, I’m not so sure that is such a useful analogy. Clearly not as boring as we all thought. And yet… Oh, come on! What the hell is the matter with you all? John Major has sex, why wouldn’t he? Even John Prescott and Lembit Opik have sex (though I’m sure not with each other). We all remember Prescott’s alleged Whitehall cocktail sausage shenanigans in between games of croquet. And wasn’t Montgomeryshire’s finest inexplicably involved with some Romanian twins at one point?

The offending article (not John Major’s penis, or indeed John Prescott’s penis…) was a principled (…or Peter Mandelson’s or Lembit Opik’s) if tongue-in-cheek (by ‘tongue in cheek’ I don’t mean that John Major would give Edwina Curr… well anyway) counter punch to the Daily Mail’s then ongoing and really rather squalid, personal campaign against Ed Milliband. It was the Mail’s usual combination of behind-the-net-curtain tut-tutting and censorious moral outrage at the possibility that a left wing man may have at one time engaged in pre-marital sex. Not just any sex, mind; sex with women. That right there is like some unholy trinity for the Mail – the very three things it detests more than anything. You can picture it, can’t you? Though of course this time the engorged penis would have belong to Ed Milliband and it would surely have been skewering a succession of Swivias and Augustines, over and over and over like some frenzied Duc de Blangis, in one – or both – of his kitchens. All dildos and dogs no doubt.

Right, well, that’s enough of the politics; shall we talk restaurants?

As you can clearly see, what I wanted to do was – let’s call it critically evaluate the existence of the Shy Tory, which I think relevant in light of the general election. And that is why in fact this election was interesting. It told us more about the inner lives and scruples of the British than any opinion poll ever could. There was no high drama. It was not about manifestos or politicians or pledges or promises. Was it even really about politics? Sure, there was the usual spectacle of gaffes and personal failures but we have seen it all before. Milliband’s Tombstone was really just Kinnock’s Sheffield all over again. Balls Out was a bawdier yet equally as gleeful re-enactment of the Portillo Moment. Best of all was Farridge’s [sic] reviled, 70’s seaside comedy club sideshow, closed for business, limping out of Margate with the shutters pulled firmly down. It ultimately came down to you lot quietly, firmly, re-asserting your will: you were all Shy Tories all along. But I can’t see how this is in any way whatsoever newsworthy let alone surprising. But again, enough with the politics. Maybe there’s a better way to take the nation’s pulse?

Restaurants are the next obvious thing. We all know You Are What You Eat is a cliché too far… but is it, though? If you asked the public to visualise their ideal kind of dining out experience, the median response would be something very much akin to the gastropub.

The Gastropub. Everybody seems to know what one is but nobody actually does. They are impossible to describe satisfactorily: ‘a pub with a wine list’ might be as close as you will get, though this forever begs the question. The gastro- prefix is really just a marketing gimmick. A pub? Don’t kid yourself: it’s a restaurant. Or rather, it is the template that more and more restaurants seem to follow these days.

Gastropubs represent the mainstream of eating out. Like a reassuring Radio 2 of restaurants they are for most people and for most tastes: something nice in a rustic-y sort of pub. And let’s be honest, eating food in a pub is an inherently good thing. Who would ever argue with that? Gastropubs are populist, democratic and inclusive. They are relaxed, informal and family-friendly. Many are able to turn out an admirably wide choice of food and do so consistently and at reasonable prices. Most crucially of all, gastro-style has seen eating out in restaurants become one of the nation’s most popular pastimes.

But as a fulcrum of provincial middle class life the majority of gastropubs typically look, feel and taste pretty much the same. Décor and menus alike tend to the steadfastly conventional. There is little room for idiosyncrasy, individualism or character. Never mind not frightening the kids, let’s not frighten the adults. The worst of them are unashamedly middle aged, middle-of-the-road sorts of places. If they were music they would be Adele or Ed Sheeran. If television, Downton Abbey. If a person, most certainly Alan Partridge. There really is something so irresistibly and quintessentially Partridge about the gastropub that even the phrase sounds like something he might conceivably have come up with back in his Travel Tavern days. Besides, (and correct me if I’m wrong here) Alan would never be seen dead in a proper pub.

Politics, though: that’s your business. And this is not what this is about. But is the gastropub really just dinner plate personification of today’s (not at all) Shy Tory? That’s perhaps a bit facetious and not a little sneering. Just take a look at the Duke of Cambridge in Islington or The Sportsman in Seasalter to know this cannot be true. And besides, if you were dying to know where us champagne socialists go out to eat; well, legend has it there’s a fish and chip shop up in Hartlepool where the guacamole is to die for. Just ask our man up there in the opening paragraph. But for now though we’re at The Thatch, a gastropub in Thame, Oxfordshire.

Thame is a small Oxfordshire town known for a good sweet shop (now sadly closed), a great record shop (also sadly closed) and its own folk festival. But it’s not all bad. There is a great independent bookshop and the ever-expanding annual food festival too. Housed in an eye-catching 16th century building on the main road into town, The Thatch looks the part with the requisite Tudor wonkiness, oak beams and eponymously thatched roof.

Its charmingly haphazard rooms once enjoyed a brief flirtation with the world of celebrity when they featured on reality television programme The Restaurant a few years back. Couples competed for the chance to run a restaurant with financial backing from Raymond Blanc. The whole thing was similar to The Apprentice but for the fact that participants were likeable, inept dimwits as opposed to unlikeable, inept ones. One of the series winners was an Oxfordshire couple that eventually set up their own restaurant in the building we are currently in. They lasted a few months…

you only tend to find cap, or ‘picanha’ steak on the more recherché of menus or at South American churrascos. Very nice to see in an Oxfordshire pub

In its current incarnation The Thatch has been nominated in consecutive years in two Observer Food Award categories suggesting there’s a bit more to it than that which meets the eye. Like a Dutch still life, the menu does not necessarily thrill on first viewing. But it is not overly long and neither does it make puffed up promises of things you know the kitchen will be never be up to the task of delivering.

There are sharing boards to start. There was some good, earthy chorizo; pork terrine; fine locally cured ham; some brisk chutnies and a very decent celeriac remoulade. Elsewhere: just-right crispy squid, smoked mackerel, pitta bread and hummus. The mackerel’s deep, smoky hum was definitely the highpoint. Also a selection of salads: a salad of confit guinea fowl I liked. A ‘superfood’ salad was merely an amalgam of Pret-A-Manger-bits-and-pieces that had no reason to be sharing a plate together. The clear winner was a plate of bouncy leaves heaped with brawny nuggets of black pudding and a poached egg.

Main courses ploughed a similar furrow, a sine wave of the forgettable through to unanticipated goodness. Wild mushroom and Gruyere pancakes were as mundane as expected. A chicken and ham pie promised much with thick pastry burnished to a wonderfully glossy, golden-brown sheen but was just too dry and underseasoned inside.

Pea and mint risotto is something you see on menus everywhere yet this particular rendering was slinky, loose and light. Again, could have been heavier on the seasoning. Aged rump cap steak plus trimmings held its end up very nicely. You only tend to find cap, or picanha steak on the more recherché of menus or at South American churrascos. Very nice indeed to see in an Oxfordshire pub. This particular cut had decent char plus those unmistakeably minerally, beefy characteristics of grass diet and dry aging.

And here it gets interesting. A dish of mulled lamb was good. Really, surprisingly good. The meat was dark and sticky and was steeped in deep, treacly flavours. Liberal use of cinnamon, cumin and other spices provided warm spikes of flavor and complexity. A Coq au Vin was every bit as impressive and had some serious ambition above its station. Gamey, fall-apart meat and a full-on, inky sauce managed to convey a real sense of provenance brimming with fusty Burgundian bistros. Canon of venison with dauphinoise potato more than passed muster as a satisfying plate of gastro-grub. To have a dauphiniose made this well – creamy and just soft enough – shows some culinary chops.

The wine list was good for a gastropub: plenty for under twenty quid and plenty more over as well.

For me The Thatch ranks well in ‘best of its type’ and ‘best place locally’. The food is absolutely fine, the atmosphere agreeable. Above all it understands its public. I rather like it. Now if only that could be said of our politicians.

Opinion: 7/10

Details:

The Thatch

29-30 Lower High Street

Thame

Oxfordshire

OX9 2AA

Tel: 01844 214340

Web: www.thethatchthame.co.uk

Twitter: @ThatchThame

The Hand and Flowers

what manner of benighted arcanery takes a perfectly innocent black pudding and liquifies it into sludge?

A favourite restaurant of mine was awarded a Michelin star not so long ago. For me, and I suspect for many, this is an irrelevance. Although not quite. For once an establishment becomes a member of the club, as it were, then both it and its clientele change. Michelin puts you on the gastronomic map – a view reaffirmed by Spanish food critic Julia Pérez Lozano. Within the industry Michelin-awarded chefs becomes Names. They gain renown and prestige and often, regrettably, their own TV show. Their restaurant becomes a destination. These are all things that naturally appeal to the competitive nature of practically any professional chef – how could they not?

With this implied improvement in quality of dining experience usually (but not always) come the attendant upsurges in price, public expectation and pretension. Michelin-starred restaurants begin to look and taste exactly the same, according to Adrian Gill: oleaginous service; verbose menus; ridiculous pomp; food complicated beyond appetite and all at ridiculous expense. And in certain kitchens and for certain chefs Michelin becomes the ultimate godhead: better to cook for the Stars than for dumb punters who know nothing. If this is the case then something, surely, has been lost rather than gained in such restaurants.

It is this nebulous concept of what Michelin is – michelinese – that causes consternation. Nobody is able to pin down with any certainty what ‘Having a Michelin Star’ actually means. What exactly is Michelin-starred food? You probably have a sort of idea: something Masterchef-y maybe, perhaps eaten somewhere a bit “posh” or “stuffy” (“not for the likes of me” in other words). Michelin’s definition does not exactly help: “a very good restaurant in its class”. Great, thanks.

Most of all Michelin stars are not very… well they’re not very ‘British’, are they? Food is eaten in our self-image so Brits would probably all prefer it to be no-nonsense, apologetic and free of any gratuitous pleasure. And in many places up and down the country it most certainly is. You see, it just doesn’t do to luxuriantly indulge in and effuse over the contents of one’s dinner plate. Eating as carnal and sensual pleasure? That’s what the French do isn’t it?

So posh, stuffy and French: and you would almost certainly be right. According to the 2012 guide there were 594 restaurants in France with varying amounts of Michelin stars. Italy had 295. It is plainly bonkers for anyone to suggest that the food of Italy is only half as good as, or even half as worthy of recognition as that of its neighbour. Not only is Michelin accused of consistent and blatant bias in favour of French-style gastronomy it has had to fend off more allegations of corruption than a Metropolitan Police chief constable. To some the organisation is little more than an echo chamber narrowly represented by a coterie of untouchable chefs whose position is sacrosanct and who consistently retain their Two and Three Stars come what may: a veritable Cosa Nostra of antiquated French establishment wax work figures. And here in the UK too, the self-celebrating, ego-driven reality TV boys’ club of ‘slebrity [sic] cheffery is a not too distant memory when it comes to the world of Michelin-level dining.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Michelin Guide comes under fire from the critics. Not just the characteristically intractable Gill (“in both London and New York the guide appears to be wholly out of touch with the way people eat nowadays”) and Lozano but the equally renowned (and French) Gilles Pudlowski who claimed only last year that Michelin had “lost the plot”. But chefs? Frederick Dhooge of ‘t Huis van Lede in Belgium recently handed back his star with the calm self-possession of a man who truly knows his own and his restaurant’s worth, a chef who wanted the freedom to cook simple, authentic Flemish dishes without any need for Michelin’s endorsement. He probably has the sympathy of every chef in Italy.

So wouldn’t it be good if the very best bits of British gastronomy were rewarded in this way? Somewhere unfussy; modern yet nostalgic though without being mawkish or twee; great and British, as opposed to The Great British.

Tom Kerridge’s fabled The Hand and Flowers might be that Eden diners and critics alike have been waiting for. A humble boozer, the only in the UK, to be awarded two Michelin Stars for its food. That is something unique and special right there: un table excellente qui mérite le detour, rubbing shoulders and swapping spit with the rarified likes of Le Gavroche or Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley, though with none of the attendant pomp and flummery.

How can this be? Has Michelin actually lost the plot this time? A pub? Does the cheese trolley have to navigate around the pool table and fag machine? Perhaps they do a meat raffle between courses? The most cursory glance at any of his TV programmes shows Kerridge is in fact the new Nigel Slater rather than just another boring, blokey, bloke’s bloke. He quite simply cooks exactly what you want to eat and appears to love doing so. Just imagine: pub grub with not one but two – two – Michelin stars. It would be Proper Lush – wouldn’t it?

Located in the well-heeled Buckinghamshire town of Marlow The Hand and Flowers does indeed look like any other pub as you draw near. Sadly, the whole thing is an exercise in how Michelin can get things so bafflingly, hubristically wrong. The Hand and Flowers comes with massive hype, massive prices, timed tables – for which it was necessary to book one 15 months in advance, and do not even think about making a reservation if you object to having a £100 deposit snatched from your purse. This was not how it was supposed to be. Plus ça change, mon brave, plus ça change

We arrive 40 minutes ahead of time in order to check in to our room and have drinks in the bar. Within this time they managed to put on a clinic in farce. Everything was of the Fawlty school of absurdity: miscommunication, misdirection and missing drinks. One person asked as if we would like to check-in – this did not happen. Another asked us if we wanted a drink – this did not happen either. We were given the bar menu and promptly forgotten about. There were only about four other people in the room. Both room-checker-in-er and drink-offerer repeatdely said over the course of the next fifteen minutes “someone will be along in a minute”. “In a minute” they kept saying. Why ‘in a minute’? We’re here; you’re here. I don’t understand. The air hung thick with impending Blithe Spirit style tragedy: mine, I suspected. I guess this is what it must feel like to be ignored to death.

After sitting there with our coats on and drink-less for twenty minutes we were eventually whisked off to our room. Bags dumped, back to the bar. “Hello there, will you be dining with us this evening? Can I take your names please?” No…what?…no, no we already… The person who had this instant taken us to our room was standing by during this humorous little exchange. “Oh ok then, would you like a drink? If you would just like to take a seat and someone will be over.” Ten more minutes of sitting. I was eventually able to catch the eye of a barman with flag semaphore and drinks were ordered.

Call time (still no drinks) and we were led into the crepuscular gloom of the dining room. It was pleasant enough, though one that Matthew Norman of the Telegraph described, accurately it must be said, as “generic Home Counties gastropub”. Another fifteen minutes passed and still nothing. Every atom of me so dearly, so profoundly – from gout-tormented toes to receding hairline – wanted to march back into the bar, fuming with as much bunch-backed indignation as I could muster, and scream “A gin and orange, a lemon squash and a scotch and water, PLEASE!!” Oh, if only.

Well dear reader; we got our gin and tonics, even if it did take an hour…

First up, an appetizer to share of floured and fried whitebait in a paper cone and a snappy, sweet-sharp Marie Rose sauce. A great touch. This came with a thick crusted and wonderfully spry homemade sourdough, about as good as you will find. And about as good as you are likely to encounter in this dining room too.

Potted artichoke with truffle and cured pork was full of promise. This was a dish that foretold of the fat, sybaritic pleasures of Gascon farmhouses. It was not to be. There was that pleasingly heady fug of truffle on both nostrils and palate, and the pork, a single slice of cured lardo draped indulgently over the top was high and sweet but none of this was enough. Quite literally. It was ridiculously tiny. The pork, once disturbed with the prod of a fork, shrivelled and rolled instantly to nothing like polythene and the whole thing was less than a mouthful. Potato ‘risotto’ (their quotation marks) with ‘baked potato stock’ (mine) was just odd. Neither of us had the foggiest what it was trying to be. It was a couple of spoonfuls of potato-y granule-y bits with a large wedge of cep mushroom squashed on top – very much like Monty Python’s Foot of Cupid in fact.

Then there was grouse, black pudding purée, cherry ketchup, game pie and frosted almonds. Though intrigued I admit I struggled to see how this Mystery Bag Challenge of ingredients would piece together. The struggle continued once the plate arrived, even with two of the things (game pie, almonds) missing altogether. (I concede, the forgotten game pie was brought out later). What arrived initially was hardly Babette’s Feast: two grouse breasts (which are tiny) and some slicks of brownish sauce for a penury inducing £35. Accompaniments of chips and kale had to be purchased separately. Why could it not have been, say, grouse with (actual) black pudding, kale and chips along with all the embellishments and swirls you might expect? What is wrong with that? And black pudding purée: what manner of benighted arcanery takes a perfectly innocent black pudding and liquefies it into sludge? It was thoroughly unpleasant and did nothing whatsoever to serve the dish. Neither did the game pie which was unidentifiable ground-up stuff and blisteringly over-powered with cumin and allspice of all things. The grouse was also raw. Quivering, purple and as raw as anything you might find on an autopsy table.

“It is grouse and it is a very dark meat,” said the floor manager, jaw set. “I know.” “It is served rare,” said with jaw set even more. “Yes, I know”. Then came the punch line: “It probably isn’t undercooked, it’s just that the lighting is very dim in here…” You’re telling me. “…and you probably can’t see properly”. Her jaw had now taken on a positively granite-like solidity. What another delightful piece of farce. There is neither espirit nor escalier in the world of sufficient magnitude to even begin to think up a retort and I do not think I ever shall. The offending plate was whisked back into the kitchen with the cold brutality of a child abduction. Moments later she brought the same plate back with a challenge-me-if-you-dare glare and instructed me that “chef is happy with it.” We Know Best Here was the not so subtle message. The rudeness on display was like a spiteful and unexpected kick to the shins, though really it was just more of what was played out in the bar earlier. It was pitch perfect passive aggression intermingled with unintentional comedy and so very provincially British. After what seemed like an age: “Well we could flash it quickly in the pan for you.” “If you would, yes.” “It wouldn’t be a problem,” a parting shot hissed as if I requested the building be moved slightly to the left.

this is what it must feel like to be ignored to death

Our other main of beer roasted chicken and maple glazed squash and truffle came with a blow-by-blow explanation of how the bird had been brined and then sponged down in a water bath (sous vide) yet oddly nothing whatsoever about any actual roasting. Now eating roast chicken is one of the most instantly and hotly satisfying things you can do with your mouth so you desperately want it to be done well. Here it tasted of spam, minus the flavour. It was weirdly, off-puttingly mushy, was barely warm and was like eating papier-mâché babies. There was no hot, fibrous meat you wanted to tear off and gnaw, no golden crispy skin. It was moist as a result of the sous vide but only in the same way a wet sponge is. “I can’t finish this, it’s really unpleasant. It doesn’t taste anything like roast chicken at all.” I had to agree. Again, odd.

“Well,” I reasoned, “perhaps the Michelin stars were awarded for the their puddings?” And I was almost right. Chocolate and ale cake with salted caramel and muscovado ice cream was a winsome, seductive thing. Especially the ice cream. It was all I could do not to “ooh” and “aah” through every mouthful the way Robin Askwith might if ogling a negligéed housewife through her bedroom window. That this was a thing of such finesse was so infuriating. Why couldn’t everything else have been this good?

I need not have worried. Just as no good turn goes unpunished, a pistachio cake and melon sorbet was unwaveringly average in its ambition. “Quite nice, I guess. Nothing special. The cake was nice and moist but none of it really goes together.” “Odd?” “Yes, incredibly odd.”

And that was that. No offer of after dinner drinks or coffees. Not even a nice little dish of homemade chocolate truffles or petits fours. I thought all Michelin starred chefs enjoyed flaunting themselves with these little flourishes and edible curlicues. For once I wanted the pomp and the flummery. Even my local Indian gives you a dish of cash’n’carry own brand After Eights. Nothing. Not even a suggestion of an offer of a post-prandial back in the bar, though to be honest this came as something of a relief.

It was just a massive let down in every way possible. Even the (very small) side order of Hand and Flowers Chips were feeble, greasy things. And the best thing about breakfast next morning was the Nespresso machine back in the room. More slow and haphazard service carried out through gritted teeth included a twenty minute wait for a single glass of orange juice and a curt “it will be along in a minute” when asked of its whereabouts. A Tom Kerridge bacon buttie could surely not go wrong. Even this turned out to be the meanest, stingiest bacon sandwich I have come across. Ever. No, really. The thinnest bacon rashers ever looked as though they had been individually counted out, fussily arranged and snipped into shape. This was bean-counter food, an accountant’s breakfast assembled by the Swiss Inland Revenue.

Everything was off. Nothing clicked. This was the only time – ever – that I have had to send food back. Service always felt like it was too much of an effort. It either wandered about lost and forgetful like an old man with Alzheimers or it was replete with tuts and sighs. The food was nothing that would tax a good ‘gastro’pub and even at times a pretty lousy one. There was no love, no largesse. Dishes did not work. There was no intent to provide pleasure or sense of occasion. None of the seduction and drama that high-level Michelin dining invariably tries to impart. Was this just a bad night or are there much bigger problems? The double star may be baffling, but worse than that nobody seemed to care.

The Hand and Flowers is an ass of a restaurant – Buridan’s Ass to be exact. It is neither pub food nor fine dining; neither one nor t’other and seems incapable of deciding which it should be. Thus it ends up doing neither, badly. It presents the Aristotelian dilemma of what something should be. It is Kierkegaard’s Either/Or. Yet here it is possible to be both. In any case we departed feeling utterly deflated. This was not Proper Lush.

Opinion: 2/10

Details:

The Hand and Flowers

126 West Street

Marlow, SL7 2BP

Tel: 01628 482277

Web: www.thehandandflowers.co.uk

Email: contact@thehandandflowers.co.uk

Twitter: @HandFMarlow

Pollen Street Social, Little Social

whipped salt cod brandade was like the well-greased flanks of a sailor. Suitably creamy with plenty of rough-hewn saltiness. And as wonderfully moreish as you might imagine

Can it really have been that long ago? I started writing this in, what, February? March? I can’t even remember now. I do recall however that the seismic #blaggergate/#bloggergate scandal had just burst forth on Twitter like the Gilgamesh floodwaters. I know, right? All seven or eight of you were up in arms at the time. Not quite #bingate, but still.

#blaggergate came about when an online-blogger-restaurant reviewer known as Hungry Londoner contacted renowned Soho eatery Gauthier and requested a free meal in exchange for a ‘positive review’. According to Gauthier’s PR man James Lewis this was indicative of “an ugly development in recent times that I call the food blagger…someone who uses the food blog as a platform to gain free stuff under the disguise of a review…It’s a bribe, basically.”

Hot on the tails of #blaggergate came #bloggergate, arising sylph-like from the former and specifically involving the not-exactly-reticent broadcaster and Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner referring to another online reviewer as an “effin’ blogger” after a rather catty twitter spat (twat?). The issue: whether or not a critic can give an honest and impartial opinion if the meal in question has been comped by the restaurant. Rayner robustly maintains that this can never, ever be the case (he reviewed a place in his Observer column and rubbished it while a blogger was invited to eat there free of charge and subsequently praised it).

So apparently it turns out there is such thing as a Free Lunch after all. All the more so should you happen to be a food writer.

I think we can all give these kind of blogs short shrift, no? It is more obvious than the kimchi in your hotdog when some fanboy or the chef’s brother in law pens a glowing appraisal. But more than just holding up a less than flattering mirror to the integrity, honesty, impartiality – or indeed lack thereof – of reviewing restaurants, these on-line exchanges are in actual fact the marking of territory. All of a sudden the enduring pissing contest between old media and new, professional critic and amateur blogger, just got a little uglier. Generally speaking, the Proper Critics in the broadsheets hate restaurant bloggers.

The reputation of the professional critic does demand more than merely being an enthusiast with a typewriter and an eye for a freebie. They wield influence, their assertions hold weight and they know their stuff. They also get things wrong. But they also know how to remain dispassionate and even-handed when it comes to faddish flights of fancy that periodically flutter by the more outré parts of town.

Adrian Gill of The Sunday Times characteristically treads the line between true iconoclasm and self-parody finer than most would dare. Far more so than any other critic, he hams up the haughty provocation and studied eloquence with Samperish self-regard. You could clearly visualise him composing the line “As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops” with a completely straight pen. But when on form there is no better journalistic writer in the country.

The raison d’être of the critic is selling newspapers. Let us not pretend their work is some nobler calling, as gratifying as the prose may sometimes be. Amateur blogs, well this one at any rate, have come about partly out of admiration for writers such as Gill, partly out of a liking for getting bladdered in restaurants. They are anyone with a Twitter account and an opinion. It is simply because that is what is expected of all of us nowadays: posting our ultracrepidarian bon mots for no other reason than it being our god-given right to do so. “There’s a staggering volume of mediocre art being talked up by fools” art writer Jonathon Jones obligingly points out. “The appetite for discussing art is almost as insatiable as the need to look at it.”

the only things you feel might be missing are wreaths of electric blue Gauloise smoke and a Josephine Baker soundtrack

So here we have two restaurants: both new-ish Jason Atherton establishments. First, the eponymous Pollen Street Social is so-called for it being tucked well away down the poky, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it back alley that is Pollen Street, moments away from the decidedly un-poky Regent Street.

Pollen Street Social was Atherton’s coming-out party proper. The long awaited outcome, no doubt, of some Joycean epiphany experienced one day while at work in his old job at Maze (he was head chef there for five years): “If I don’t jump ship now, I’ll never know.” Then from nowhere came Little Social, his second restaurant across the street – as in, literally, directly opposite.

And then barely months later the looser, more laid-back, Soho-ier third sibling Social Eating House opens. Then all of a sudden the opulent Berners Tavern is open. And then East London’s Typing Room. Then breathlessly back on message with the city-boyish City Social. Rumours of upcoming wine bars and tapas joints abound. Frankly any one of these could be Atherton’s Künstlerroman; each one a portrait of the chef as no longer a young man but now one of the country’s most prolific restauranteurs. Oh, and let’s not forget the eight (and counting) places throughout Singapore, Shanghai and Honk Kong. Remind you of anyone?

Nevertheless Atherton has been dubbed the anti-Ramsay. He’s a Mark Two version comprising a whole raft of updated features and one that it is ok to like. That he cites Ferran Adrià as his greatest influence as a chef is perhaps even more eyebrow raising. All chefs are natural show-offs, sure; however it is still possible (and preferable) to be flamboyant, even wildly so, in an unassuming and understated fashion. The food at Pollen Street Social perhaps best underlines this.

Available menu choices for diners are typique: fixed price, à la carte and tasting. A novel Atherton trademark is the option for guests to create their own extended tasting menu by scaling down several offerings from the à la carte.

An appetiser of pork crackling and seaweed salt served with dabs of apple and mustard compote consisted of chunky, impossibly aerated curls of pig skin not altogether a million miles away from very chewy and deeply bacon-y honeycomb. Wonderful stuff. A whipped salt cod brandade was like the well-greased flanks of a sailor. Suitably creamy with plenty of rough-hewn saltiness. And as wonderfully moreish as you might imagine.

Crab salad with crab velouté, pickled turnip and samphire was all effortful arrangement, vivid colour and melodious counterpoint. One main course dish was herb-crusted pork jowl, polenta and apple, wild garlic, wild cabbage and apple caramel. Aside from pleasing timbres of lavender and cumin there was just too much going on. The meat was unquestionably the star though: caramel-soft with a sultry, deeply fatty flavour. But the puréed polenta with chunks of apple in it was like barf. My initial response was to chuck a bag of sawdust over it.

Other dishes such as the ‘Full English Breakfast’ of truffled slow-cooked egg, bacon and confit tomato and the ox ‘tongue and cheek’ are well-known, and delicious, Atherton trademarks.

And then puds. Cream cheese foam, pear, rum crumbs and walnuts was a brilliantly inspired take on a deconstructed cheesecake. Jagged, ice-like shards of bergamot infused meringue, lemon verbena sorbet, lemon jam and olive oil gel was pure eye candy; a fussy, modernist, melt-in-the-mouth version of the classic lemon meringue. The oil-cum-gel (oh, stop it) was, curiously, rather grainy in texture.

So straight out the door and in to Little Social. Here we have a French-style bistro given an ultra polished, super smart buff-up; a sort of glossied-up Belle Époque. La Vie Boheme, and all that: Art Nouveau – all La Tournée du Chat Noir and Alphonse Mucha. Affected frenchisms aside, few places – heck, few things – in life are as evocative as a Parisian café. Indeed the room is really just a snug bar and some booths with seats.

Whereas ‘Pollen Street’ is all bright and cream, sleek and just so, here it is dark wood and ox-blood, tobacco and leather. The only things you feel might be missing are wreaths of electric blue Gauloise smoke and a Josephine Baker soundtrack.

Here, food is frenchish bistro but with the expected flourishes. There is a salad Niçoise, a steak tartare and confit quail with foie gras. Each of them rendered exactly as you would wish. Generally speaking Little Social serves more robust fare though this notion was dispelled the moment a cauliflower and crayfish risotto arrived. A thing of such delicacy you almost needed tweezers with which to eat it. Cauliflower florets shaved down to ethereal tracing paper wisps came alongside barely-there nubs of crayfish in a gloriously rich risotto.

Halibut BLT (the ‘BLT’ component comprising a smoked bacon chop, grilled lettuce and a racy and sharp bois boudran) was very good indeed. This was a serious tranche of fish cooked to pearly white creaminess. Roasted hake, morteau sausage, peas and girolles was equally as fine. There is of course the customary steak frites: bavette or sirloin of Black Angus with either béarnaise or peppercorn sauce and you can even swap your fries for poutine – that slobbering, street-foody heap of fries, cheese curds and gravy. Only here it is a dainty thing in a little ramekin, all prim and spruce and with added chorizo and jalapeño. Nice idea.

For pud, a chocolate moelleux with salted walnut ice cream was textbook but the indubitable pièce de theatre here was a classic Tarte Tatin for sharing.

Surprisingly the wine list was somewhat light on French wines though there were some elegantly louche sounding cocktails to be had with names that evoke boisterous Cancan lines, seamy Pigalle cabaret houses and the sleeper down to Nice. I recommend the French Negroni, if only because it is essentially just vodka, absinthe and ice. But If you are up for a drink, I personally would recommend heading back over the road and making extravagant use of the 40-seater cocktail bar.

So really, two sides of the same coin. The same but different. Statement of intent vs relaxing into the role; Atherton-as-promised vs Atherton-with-a-twist; restaurant vs bistro. Both totally polished, both very convivial. And both expensive. At Pollen Street Social mains from the a la carte nudge towards £40 and at Little Social there is an (optional, thank god) ‘black truffle supplement’ at £20 per dish dish, should you desire it.

And if you were in any doubt whatsoever, every item was paid for. Now if only I had a team of sub-editors who, you know, could do all the work for me…

Opinions:
Pollen Street Social 7/10
Little Social 8/10

Details:
Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen Street
London
W1S 1NQ
Tel: 020 7290 7600
Web: http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com
Twitter: @PollenStSocial

Little Social
5 Pollen Street
London W1S 1NE
Tel: 020 7870 3730
Web: http://www.littlesocial.co.uk
Twitter: @_LittleSocial

Brasserie Harkema

you will forever feel as if you are eating dinner in a 60’s built university refectory, or a prison canteen – albeit a well lit one

I spent the summer of 2002 travelling around Europe. Spain mostly. My travelling companion at the time was, and remains, a good friend. He goes by the name of… actually, in order to spare any blushes and protect his anonymity, let us call him Rick.

The plan was to saunter down to Paris, put ourselves about a bit there, hack our way down to Spain on the sleeper, circumnavigate the Iberian Peninsula before returning north for a romp through the Netherlands like a pair of dashing, sixteenth century Habsburg Holy Roman Emperors, finally finishing up in Amsterdam.

Naturally, things started off with a booze-fuelled sprint across the Fifth Arrondissement at midnight in order to catch our connection at the Gare d’Austerlitz. I say ‘fuelled’, I meant ‘hindered’. Thanks to an evening long blend of Sorbonne Guinness, wine, Southern Comfort and cheap, student-grade weed, ‘dashing’ was more akin to being a passenger on frantically scissoring stilts over which I had no control. My vision span before me like the altimeter of a nose-diving plane but we made it – just; the train practically pulling out of the station. 

Waking up in the early hours with a hangover that felt like my ganglia had disintegrated into jelly, I did not reckon on discovering the journey had terminated not in Spain but Toulouse. Which was lucky in a way. Had Rick organised we probably would have found ourselves pulling up in Stavanger about now.

Previous forays into Europe had seen Rick variously drive a hire car off a cliff; be pursued from Greece all the way to Italy by a mob of Greek lads who, for reasons still unknown, were baying for his blood; wake up one morning to find himself in a garage lock-up belonging to a gun-owning Rastafarian and have a policeman climb into bed with him, naked, in a hostel in Bruges. Yet it is utterly beyond me how he manages to become ensnared in these often ludicrously comical, occasionally life-threatening situations. And if I happen to be with him then I end up as an accessory. As an example, we have both been banned indefinitely from the bar at Calais ferry terminal. Perhaps one day I shall find out why.

Yet you would meet him and wonder how any of the above could possibly be true. He is not some tiresome, thrill-seeking Party Boy and neither does he suffer from personality-altering psychotic episodes. He wears cords, is softly spoken and looks like a 1970’s sociology teacher. He would never dream of seeking out conflict or confrontation yet he just finds a way of attracting the kind of people and situations where it is all but inevitable. He is also the ultimate free spirit. You would call him up wondering if he wanted to go for a beer only to find out he was in Cambodia somewhere – probably by accident. On that occasion you do go for that beer together you end up on a stage in one of Soho’s most boisterous gay bars, as is what happened recently. Either that or you will wake up somewhere next morning only to find yourself trapped inside a Wicker Man.

So now, here we were; seemingly off on holiday by mistake and finding ourselves adrift somewhere in the south of France. Ok, so not exactly the Darién Gap, you’re probably thinking. But we received no satisfactory answer as to why the train would not be going any further. So instead we got onto a coach. The wrong coach as it turned out – very wrong indeed. It wasn’t even a coach. Or a bus. In fact it was just a bloke with a minibus and we clambered into it. And here we were now heading in completely the wrong direction up into The Pyrenees. So: in a van, with a man, going up into some mountains. You see? These are the sorts of things that happen when you are with Rick.

Somehow we made it to Barcelona. For me, it is exactly the kind of city that you could arrive at again and again. It was everything I wanted it to be at 23 years of age: warm, endlessly sunny, bright, vivid, colourful, bars everywhere. This was the first time too that I had ever sampled Churros con chocolate on the beach front. Or real Jamón Serrano costing a pittance in the Barri Gotic. Naturally enough we didn’t hang around. Tarragona a few miles down the coast was our next stop. It was here, knocking back seemingly endless tiny glasses of rough, local tinto overlooking equally as endless sea views we both wasted no time in concluding that we could do this for, well, eternity. Yet such halcyon interludes cannot last: they never do.

Valencia next, and like an Eastenders Christmas lunch, things unravelled in spectacular fashion. We somehow ended up out of town in the sort of neighbourhood where you would reasonably expect to have tyres thrown over you and set alight at any moment. The abridged version of events is that Rick had a breakdown during the night amid all the gunshots, knifings and gang warfare that was taking place both inside our hostel and out. He then proceeded to contract a baffling and rare tropical virus so thought it prudent to return home sharpish. Although not before he had the opportunity to flood a bathroom, bring an entire breakfast service to a standstill, get lost in somebody’s back garden and be chased by a territorial peacock along a busy dual carriageway.

I myself ambled and rambled contentedly around central and southern Spain narrowly avoiding general strikes, terrorist attacks and bankruptcy before we joined up together weeks later and set about the Netherlands with renewed vigour, yet falling just tantalisingly short of our goal of Amsterdam. We didn’t make it. It was no good, we were both spent: financially and every which way. Our plan of swimming across a lake to the parliament buildings in The Hague and clambering in through a back window sadly never came to fruition. It was time to go home.

But I did manage to get to Amsterdam even if it was a decade later. The place is brilliant quite simply because it is clean, safe and endlessly picturesque, and as an added bonus there are no cars. Clichés of Romford stag weekenders and gormless groups of ganja tourists do the city a great disservice, truth be told. Yes, Amsterdam is great fun but it is hardly the Sybaris of popular reckoning. Although that said, it does have a fantastically graphic museum dedicated to Inquisition-era torture. You really should go, well worth a visit. And if after a hard day poring over Judas Cradles and Breast Rippers you fancy getting pilled off your head in a transsexual fetish bar then you will be spoiled for choice on that front as well. But if that is not your cup of tea either there is a superb art gallery devoted entirely to cats.

What Amsterdam seems not to have is restaurants. Problem is, nobody really has a clue what the Dutch eat – even they themselves do not seem to know which is probably why every other place is Indonesian. Great fun when the menu is in Dutch. Most people would struggle to name something other than chips, waffles and Gouda. In fact most people would struggle, full stop. There is of course the worryingly anatomical-sounding bar snack Bitterballen that bring to mind capsules of emulsified animal slurry and boiled earwax, and there’s Erwtensoep, a thick, gelatinous pea soup also known colloquially as Snert which looks (and sounds) like the by-product of decongested nasal passages and tastes like a cure for Witchcraft.

And with that, we find ourselves in Brasserie Harkema. Brasserie Harkema is in the Nes area of central Amsterdam not far from Dam Square. Located in a converted flour mill the dining room itself is huge – seriously huge – and high-ceilinged. It is the kind of cavernous open space that can only ever really find its true calling in life as a part of some high capacity, high density institution so you will forever feel as if you are re eating dinner in a 60’s built university refectory, or a prison canteen – albeit a well lit one. To be honest, it is an effortlessly stylish and impressive room crying out to be something better and cooler than it is. When we arrived it was empty. The main reason for this was that everyone was squashed into a tiny waiting area off to the side. I had no idea why. I think we were supposed to stand around and have a drink but the sheer weight of seething humanity along with the prevailing atmosphere of mass panic put me on edge somewhat. It felt as if we were evacuating a burning ship rather than going out to dinner.

Brasserie Harkema professes to be Amsterdam’s answer to the “modern brasserie” although the menu is a time-worn mash up of Business Class Bland and Chillax International: all Pinot Grigio glamour and All Bar One lite. It is the tasteless, in both senses of the word, culinary lingua franca of Pan-Asian-Mediterranean – everywhere yet nowhere. You just knew that everything would taste of the background thrum and hiss of generic house music and Ikea showrooms.

An oriental chicken broth was good though: fresh and sharp but not enough ginger or chilli. Shrimp croquettes were flabby and amounted to very little under their Findus-y crisp carapace. Smoked beef carpaccio with Truffle Mayonnaise and Rocket had all the charm of a Dutch Uncle. Mains included rib-eye with béarnaise while the highlight was a tuna steak with yuzu, hoi sin and five spice – that was brilliantly and deftly seasoned. However duck breast in black bean sauce came with water-sodden bok choi and was nothing to shout about. Pudding choices comprised the customary, generic room service selection of Chocolate Brownie and Apple Pie with Ice Cream. Both were probably average, I just don’t recall.

I’m being harsh here but with very good reason. If Brasserie Harkema ever found itself in London it would be in somewhere like Hoxton or Dalston, would have a bang-on-trend menu, serve only micro-brewed beer, and the beard quota of its patrons would be upped considerably. No, I’m serious. In other words, a dynamic restaurant scene and discerning clientele would never allow it to exist in its current guise. Instead it would find itself languishing at Westfield Stratford or Gatwick’s south terminal. Look, everybody knows the Netherlands is no gastronomic nirvana, and the point is it hardly matters. What is infinitely worse than Snertballen, or whatever it is, is this sort of created-by-committee, dishes-by-numbers fare that you find in airport hotels the world over: food for people who don’t care about food and who care even less for travelling.

Opinion: 4/10

Brasserie Harkema
Nes 67
1012 KD Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Tel: +31 (0)20 428 22224
Website: http://www.brasserieharkema.nl
Email: reserveren@brasserieharkema.nl

La Genova

then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond

For some, the 1970’s is revered as something of a golden age for food, a halcyon interlude of eating and dining out. Certain quarters would have you believe we have recently witnessed a revival of all things seventies-related.

Were it to be true, it would be hard to regard this as anything other than a mawkish exercise in harking back to a time when people were growing up; a nostalgia for a collective, half-remembered and idealised past. The food, really, has nothing to do with it. Nostalgia is in the mind, not on the dinner plate. Take music: it is tempting to think that absolutely everybody was immersing themselves in Dark Side of the Moon on a home stereo system costing more than your house and with quadraphonic sound so luminous it was as if Roger Waters himself was having a breakdown right there in your living room. But then you actually go and watch an old episode of TOTP only to discover that this categorically was not the case.

Pundits as diverse as Alex James and Gregg Wallace are on record as declaring the 1970’s to be a particularly glorious period in our epicurean history. But if we associate just one person with the era then it is obviously Delia Smith. From the minute she appeared as presenter of Family Fare in 1973 Delia, as it is popularly claimed, Taught The Nation How To Cook. Her mannered approach was instructional, her programmes educational as opposed to entertaining. Of eating out in particular, Smith, perhaps somewhat typically, believes that the overall experience was simply “better back then” as chefs served “real food” and were “more in touch with what the public wanted.”

Yet all this fanfare for the common man doesn’t really ring true. “Bring back the buffet table!” is about as appealing a rallying cry as “bring back hanging!” Yet we should not be too quick to discredit Delia Smith. Her influence and authority on all things epicurean is, and continues to be real and genuine: sensible, aspirational, generous. And lest we forget, it was Delia who baked the cake for the album cover of Let It Bleed.

Gregg Wallace on the other hand is the English Defence League of British cooking. He misses the point entirely when bellowing about “the great 1970’s food revival”. Really? Where? A “57% increase in the sale of Chicken Kievs” the Ingredients Expert thunders with no small amount of reactionary pride. He obviously thinks the country has gone to the dogs because nobody is eating spam anymore. And that’s as maybe. Although he neglects to consider that we are floundering in the death throes of a recession deeper than Zaltman’s Metaphor. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies families have spent more on processed convenience food during these straitened times. Mums don’t go to Iceland because they suddenly come over all misty eyed for Showaddywaddy. They do so out of necessity because rocketing prices and falling incomes equate to consumption of the cheapest calories available.

But what were people eating in the 1970’s, and where were they eating it? Well for a start anything that is nowadays cooked in a Balti pan, served Chow Mein or eaten with chips. Add to that pub food: from the unreconstructed, un-tucked shirt and high street aggro of Wetherspoons to the A-road lay-by, beery suicide note that is the Toby Carvery. From Prawn Cocktail and Steak and Chips to Black Forest Gateaux, this is what we eat now. None of it has actually ever gone away. So much for nostalgia and revivalism.

But the biggest innovation of all to come from the 1970’s was the Italian restaurant, or at least its anglicised counterpart. People began holidaying abroad more than ever before initiating a desire for and interest in food from sunnier climes.

Our love of Italian food and the trattoria was born and fast became a staple of many a high street with its check-table clothes, pasta suppers and affordable reds. The Shirley Valentine charm of the trattoria signified something that was at once aspirational and exotic. Really, it is not hard to see why. Practically anything Italian at all, from organised crime to Fascism is capable of sounding alluring; glamorous, even. It is all just clinking glasses on the piazza and endless sunshine. Admittedly this was never going to translate to a high street in Stoke, say, but maybe the food – pizza and pasta, olives and olive oil, and coffee as smooth and as rich as a chauvinist astride a Vespa – could. As writer and blogger Tony Naylor says, “an Italian restaurant was, and is still considered to be the height of sophistication and for many, it feels like a big, glamorous night out.” While more practically, Anglo-Italian is “cheap to make, hard to balls up.”

La Genova on North Audley Street is Mayfair’s oldest Italian restaurant. A local stalwart since 1970 it remains largely unaltered, bright green neon sign out front and all. Owned by Rinaldo Pierini for nigh on 45 years, it was named after his city of birth, the capital of the region of Liguria, that small, bow-shaped province in the north of the country running from the French border down to La Spezia. Aside from a few house specialities that include Minestrone Soup and the regional dish of pasta with pesto, green beans and potatoes, Genovese fare is rather disappointingly not foremost on the menu. Although there is something touchingly naïve and old-fashioned about the way in which their oft-featured pesto is proudly described as ‘home made by the owner himself’.

To start, a steaming bowl of Trofie al Pesto was initially as comforting as only a good pasta dish can be. Like all well-made fresh pasta it was bouncy and velvety with plenty of fresh basil and a good glug of Extra Virgin. Then it hit: the garlic. An assault of still-raw garlic that was harsh, bitter and as brutal as the Battle of Monte Cassino. On and on it went, well into the next day and beyond.

Elsewhere on the menu there was Prawn Cocktail, obviously, and plenty of spaghetti dishes. Various things in breadcrumbs such as scampi, chicken and veal and lots of things cooked in brandy and cream. Salmon Ravioli in a cream sauce was perfectly decent in a non-U, napkins-folded-up-in-wine-glasses sort of way. Of the more Italian-sounding main courses there was Veal Fillet in Marsala. It didn’t taste bad simply because it tasted of very little. But then there was also a nicely comforting veal Osso Bucco which was far better. More of the same, sweet, cloying sauce that seems to accompany all dishes here but the softly caramelised meat fell obligingly from the bone. Every dish also came with the obligatory side plate of mixed veg.

A generous dollop of Tiramisu from the dessert trolley proved to be the high point of the meal. It was a splodge of pure retro dinner party heaven that would have done Delia proud. Superlatively creamy and rich, I clearly envisaged a satiated Michael Winner, all squinty, and gurgling “Marvellous!” “Historic!” And it truly was. Other choices were fresh fruits or ice cream.

I have painted a rather so-so and unexciting picture here but everything about La Genova from the decor to the menu is a genuine, un-ironic, concept-free throwback to a bygone era of dining. It has remained open and well-loved for the best part of half a century and there is no reason to suspect it will not remain so for as long again. There are those who might describe it as Mayfair’s ‘best kept secret’ yet Italian is our de facto restaurant of choice. Figuratively speaking, everyone eats here. The 1970’s may have well shaped, honed and melded our taste buds more than anyone would have imagined, but in this instance at least, nostalgia ain’t quite what it used to be.

Opinion: 5/10

La Genova
32 North Audley Street
London
W1K 6ZG

Tel: 020 7629 5916
Website: http://www.lagenovarestaurant.com

Lima

a very Peruvian, very Japanese way of serving and eating raw fish where it was sliced thinly but then inundated by a mouth-puckering, punch-to-the-balls marinade

Consider, if you will, the potato: solanum tuberosum. You might think that there really is not a great deal to deliberate upon. The humble tuber, the lowly spud, that most unassuming and downright ordinary of all our habitual dinner table staples. What, really, is there to say?

The very term ‘meat and potatoes’ tells you all you need to know, surely. Even the expression itself is ponderous and clumsy, lolloping heavily off the tongue like Eric Pickles falling down some stairs. It is the answer, always, to the muttered enquiry of “what’s for dinner?” Because let’s face it, unless you are vegan or breatharian, that probably what is for dinner.

The phrase is any scenario or situation that is dull and tedious, but which is in some way necessary or undertaken under grim sufferance. Like putting the bins out, or going for a colonoscopy. The potato perfectly portrays the slow-witted and the ugly in expressions such as Couch Potato or Potato Faced. Socially and politically, the proverbial Hot Potato is something to be avoided at all costs.

The spud could just as easily be thought of as solid, stolid, reliable. Noble and understated, it is the plucky runner-up and never makes a fuss. It is a reassuring presence on any plate: our culinary comfort blanket. We know where we are with the potato. It is there to provide substance and turn that plate of food into dinner. Quite often turning dinner into something exultant. A furrow of indulgently creamy, crunchy-on-the-top mash on a Shepherd’s Pie, perhaps. Or the perfectly hot and fluffy, goose fat-crisped, roast accompaniment to the Sunday joint. Take that however you wish.

Never mind that meaningless, culturally insincere prefix ’The Great British…’, the true origin of the potato is of course South America: Peru to be exact. It is as Peruvian as ponchos and pisco. Studies link the discovery of the potato, or papa, to the area around Ayacucho and the Valley of Chulca in Peru’s High Andes some 10,000 years ago. The word papa is originally Quechua and simply means tuber. That is somehow apt as it certainly is El Papa: The Daddy of Peruvian cooking.

It has always been an important staple foodstuff for Peru. But far more than that, it is an edible almanac of a country’s way of life. ‘Potato Day’ is a national holiday. The ritual of colourfully and flamboyantly celebrating the potato harvest is piously observed among Andean farming communities. It is said that there are 5,000 (known) varieties grown in the country while according to the Smithsonian Institute “the range of potatoes in a single Andean field exceeds the diversity of nine-tenths of the potato crop of the entire United States.”

Which kinds of puts us to shame, really. In the UK you would only ever unearth that level of devotion to root vegetables among close-knit groups of professional hobbyists: bearded, Hobbit-like men in jumpers hidden away in sheds and village pubs, and who feature on regional news programmes with alarming regularity whenever a member of the Rusty Trombone Irregulars from the village of Little Felching wins some or other competition with some King Edwards whose protrusions look hilariously like scrota.

Spuds notwithstanding, Peru’s cuisine is diverse; certainly not just the llama dung and peasant spittle of popular reckoning. There is a symbiosis at play here. Like all of the world’s most enjoyable cuisines, Peru’s has been suffused, melded and without question enhanced by half a millennia of immigration and inbound trade from Europe, Africa and, remarkably, Japan (as evidenced by the countless raw fish and sashimi-type dishes to be found there).

It has been said that good things are currently going on in Lima (the city). Described these days as a progressive and cosmopolitan hub with an ever-flourishing restaurant scene, it has gained much recent international prestige to the extent that Ferran Adrià has described goings-on there as a “gastronomic revolution”. Others report that the city is a Latin American San Sebastian where a plus ultra band of pioneering chefs, a Charge of The Mamelukes, are turning Peruvian cooking on its head.

And now, all this appears to have transmogrified over to London. And to Lima (the restaurant).

Lima, then, is a Peruvian Restauran situated in Fitzrovia a stone’s throw from Tottenham Court Road and is the inspiration of Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez. The dining room is smaller than you might think. The March & White interior of vividly coloured paintings, cleverly angled mirrors and sleek yet workman like slates and browns prevent it from feeling either too poky or too exclusive. Those appreciative of a bit of extra elbow room may find their fellow diners are sat a little too close, however.

At first glance the menu is peppered liberally with the weird and the wonderful: virtually every dish seemingly accompanied by something foraged from the Dark Heart of the Amazon – Sacha Inchi Oil, White Kiwicha, Algarrobo Tree Syrup. And what the hell is a Crazy Pea? Sadly, I never found out. There’s not really anything on the menu that will ambush the unwary and unadventurous. Lima is not that sort of place. Choices are really quite orthodox. That’s not to say it’s all just smoke and mirrors, all mouth and pantalones, it means business. Food here is as vivid as a Rivera mural and equally as meticulous. Meticulous in its detail plus bagfuls of bright colour and flavour.

Starters include distinctive tiraditos, ceviches and causas. A Scallop Tiradito, Aji Pepper and Cassava was a very Peruvian, very Japanese way of serving and eating raw fish. It was sliced thinly then inundated with a mouth-puckering, punch-to-the-balls marinade, eschewing any subtlety whatsoever. The point further emphasised by it being flamboyantly yellow in colour. Rather superb, actually.

A Sea Bream Ceviche was first-rate. Served with toasted giant cancha corn it was like being slapped around the face with a fish by a man in a pith helmet as the Nell Gwyn Suite plays in the background. The bream, a perfect fish for ceviche, was sweet and spankingly fresh. In any decent ceviche the fish isn’t actually fully raw. The acid in the lime juice denatures the proteins in the flesh, mimicking the act of cooking with heat. The flesh dries, become taut and opaque while retaining its rawness in both taste and brightness of flavour.

A lobster main course was a luminous patchwork of colour, if somewhat busy-looking, with plenty of the white meat and no shortage of zest. An accompanying bowl of leche de tigre ramped up the zest factor even more. Suckling Pig ‘Andean Style’ was the tenderest and juiciest pork sampled in many a while. It was meltingly, piggishly robust and helped on its way by golden wedges of crackling. Accompanying piquillo and rocoto peppers worked wonders in lending a smoky backdrop.

And puddings, Chocolate Mousse with Cinnamon Cream was made from the coveted Peruvian Cacao Porcelana bean. Characteristically mellow and buttery, it was demolished in short order. Even with an unnerving adornment of Blue Potato Crystals – somewhere between plantain and Walkers crisps – this was a luscious treat. Dulce de Leche Ice Cream, Beetroot Emulsion and Maca Root was not as successful. Beetroot was entirely the wrong flavour here. It would have enjoyed a much more natural flirtationship with chocolate as opposed to the caramel it came with.

As for drinks, well obviously you’ll be on the cocktails. Sharp, foamy pisco sours are unquestionably the house speciality and damn fine they were too. Look out for  the Cuenta del Diablo containing resh red chillies.

Inevitably you have to weigh all this up against the sustainability and ethical dilemmas posed by flying expensive ingredients several thousands of miles from a third world country to dinner tables in a fancy-pants London restaurant. But purely as a gastronomic end point – and showcase for modern Latin American cookery – Lima is brilliant. Refined, imaginative and most importantly fun. Although barely a potato in sight.

Opinion: 8/10

Lima
31 Rathbone Place
London
W1T 1JH

Phone: +44 203 002 2640
Website: http://www.limalondon.com
Email: enquiry@limalondon.com
Twitter: @Lima_London