Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Asmara - 356 Coldharbour lane

I have never tasted Eritrean food, so cannot claim to be able to judge the quality of Asmara relative to other Ethiopian offerings. I would, however, recommend it highly. The idea was sold to me by a knowing friend on the basis that one doesn’t use cutlery in Ethiopia. I’ve always found knives and forks an annoying impediment anyway, really only serving to limit the extent of my indigestion.

The place itself is simple, with a facade barely distinguishable from the other low cost eateries in the area.

The food is served on a large circular plate, which is covered in Injera; a spongy, sourdough, flat bread which is used to mop up the various stews, meats and vegetables which are arranged in appetising ladlefuls over the top. We ordered a minced lamb stew, spinach and fermented cheese, a broad bean and tomato salad and some spiced green lentils. I couldn’t fault any of it, particularly the lightly spiced lamb stew.

The real thing though is eating with your hands. Perhaps it is that it seems to hark back to a simpler time in one’s life, a time when all one did was sleep, eat and wait for an obliging parent to sort out the resulting mess or maybe it is that it helps to make you feel more connected with the food. I’m not sure, however I didn’t feel like this last time I savaged a whopper meal. With the meal for three of us, including drinks, coming in at under £25, its considerably better value too.

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

Lunch at Scott's in Mayfair

Barely a day seems to go by when some form of celebrity is not pictured leaving Scott’s of Mayfair. The gimlet eyed Peter Stringfellow is regularly found inside, slurping Moules Provencale or suchlike whilst sizing up his latest victim. It won Bazaar’s coolest place to Eat Out in 2008 and even Tom Cruise thought it was delicious (Valkyrie is the worst film I’ve ever seen).

Square meal gushes that the interior manages to recreate “Bond-esque glamour in the 1960’s” and in truth, Scott’s probably does pull this off. The sleek dining room is designed by Martin Brudnizki and is festooned with emins and Hirsts. The onyx bar, finished in stingray skin is ridiculously and, I think, deliberately ostentatious. As a result of all this, the clientele, my group obviously excluded, were intimidatingly glamorous. Therein lies the problem. From the moment we walked in and were marked down as Morlocks by the immaculate staff, we were treated very much as the pale, apelike, underground thugs of H.G Wells’s classic.

Admittedly none of our behaviour forced them to reappraise their initial impression. There was an early and somewhat unseemly tug of war over a bottle of St Veran, Domaine des Deux 2007, between a thirsty associate and the sommelier. My friend lost poorly, maintaining a mutinous look for the rest of the meal and ordering deliberately badly. Another made the mistake of ordering an Irish coffee; a request which was met with a look that would have frozen hell and all its inmates.

However, the kitchen didn’t see any of this and so had no excuse for sending out such low quality fare. I ordered very conservatively; Six Mercia Oysters, Dover Sole meuniere with steamed spinach and a pear tarte tatin to finish. The oysters were fine, though the shallot vinaigrette didn’t have enough shallot, and the pear tatin was solid if unspectacular. However the Dover sole had been inexcusably murdered. It’s not especially hard to cook anyway, so overcooking it, particularly when charging £38.50 is unacceptable. One of my friends ordered the Fillet of Cod with padron peppers and chorizo, which he described as a “debacle”. Rubbery old cod for which we were asked to pay £19.50. Matters were redeemed a little by the puddings, of which the apple pie ordered by one friend was certainly the highlight; soft, flaky pastry with sweet chunks of textured apple.

It’s hard not to feel one’s expectations soaring as one walks into Scott’s, particularly given its well heeled setting and impressive reputation. The meal that I ordered was not one requiring particular technical expertise, just good ingredients and a little care. I suppose the most likely explanation is an off day in the kitchens, which certainly happens. Only, when the bill resembles an international phone number, you can imagine that this is much harder to swallow.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Tom Ilic - Queenstown Road/London

You can get 3 delicious courses for £16.95...... In these straitened times, I could really leave it at that. However, Tom Ilic is located in a rather unlovely part of the unlovely Queenstown road on a site where two restaurants (that I know of) have failed in quick succession. The serbian chef, formerly of Addendum, works hard with offal and cheaper cuts to make it an affordable meal, however there is plenty there for the more squeamish to enjoy too. I have now been there several times and other than some messy puddings, have revelled in every dish. On my last visit, I was accompanied by two friends. In the interests of anonymity, I will call them Poodlefeatures and Piles. The place itself is relatively spartan. There is no table linen and the chairs are, for want of a better word, character building. However, the tables are far enough apart so that other diners don’t have to hear your every word, yet close enough so that you don’t feel lonely.

On to the food and the star of the show for me was almost certainly the Braised Pig’s Cheeks and Chorizo, set in a beautiful garlicky mash and garnished with a crisp strip of pork crackling (£6.95). This was wisely selected by poodlefeatures who chose/inhaled a bottle of 2007 Farina, Tinta de Toro to accompany. For main courses, Piles and Poodlefeatures both ate (and were reluctant to share) the Fillet of Kettle beef which came with horseradish souffle (as good as it sounds) and a sticky roasted bone marrow. The presentation was unfussy. The beef, though not necessarily the most tender piece of fillet on sale in London, was reasonably tasty and perfectly cooked. But it is the rest of the plate that make this dish. The mouthfuls of spring vegetables, horseradish souffle, bone marrow, beef and beef jus work beautifully….Suffering a little at the time from trapped wind/near fatal indigestion, I feared the consequences of more red meat for myself, so plumped instead for the Baked Fillet of Cod, Chorizo, Salt Cold & Crayfish Fishcake, which was not the beef, but was well cooked and nicely seasoned nonetheless. I have eaten the Trio of Lamb before and would recommend it.For pudding, I should have followed Poodlefeatures and Piles with a Tarte Tatin, however I eat way, way too much of it and, in the spirit of adventure, thought I would try a Peach something or other, which happens to have now fallen off the menu. I can’t remember exactly how they dressed up said peach, but it looked like it had been slapped into a Centrifuge and it wasn’t very good. However, the tarte tatin and vanilla ice cream were just the job; managegable little roundels of puff pastry with chunks of caramelly apple rather than the thin slices that is meant to characterise the tarte fine aux pommes. All in all, a lovely uncluttered place, that works hard at keeping the costs down that is worth visiting, particularly for those happy to eat some of the more unfashionable cuts and pay the price.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

La Gazette - Battersea

So, La Gazette, a reasonably authentic, middle of the road, french restaurant in Battersea London, right down to the "give a **** if you order the wrong thing in my restaurant" attitude. There are two things which are good, and they are really good; the beautifully cooked, pan fried foie gras (laid on a bed of apples, lime and chestnuts) and the entrecote. Everything else I have tried has either been ordinary or worse. The steak tartare is particularly disgusting, coated in some mystery red gloop, a sort of spicey mary rose sauce is the closest I can bring myself to describing it. Diners not wishing to have to make an undignified stop on Battersea Park cricket pitch, as an unnamed friend was forced to do, may also wish to avoid the scallops.

the service is quite charming, albeit defiantly French. As a bloke, you can spend half an hour frantically semiforing and excusemeing to get a waiters attention, with depressingly little result. Any female company only has to cock an index finger and service will appear in nano seconds, breathily asking if there is anything, anything at all that could be done for madam.

In spite of this, and maybe because of all this, La Gazette achieves its aims in a way. It’s a fun night out and a good place to go and sit outside on a warm evening. The menu is not unreasonably priced, particularly the pan fried foie gras at £8.00, which makes the various eccentricities much easier to bear. An extensive, and again appropriately priced, wine list seemed to have a similar effect.