Tag Archives: restaurants

Britain’s best-value lunch?

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There’s lots of wonderful wine that I can buy, either as a regular indulgence or an occasional treat, but the very best, the most renowned, the greatest names, is now and will always be beyond me. There is a lot of wine, entire categories of wine, that is the reserve of the extremely, supremely, astonishingly or obnoxiously wealthy. Food, though, is far more democratic. The cheapest bottle of supermarket wine costs about £4, a bottle of 2009 Chateau Petrus 875 times as much, about £3,500. The cheapest supermarket sandwich costs about £1; a Big Mac meal costs £4.29; lunch at Britain’s second-best restaurant costs £35.

I’ve never been to the Fat Duck, widely considered Britain’s No1. It’s wildly expensive – £195 a head, to be precise, with no choices and no quibbling, so still quite cheap in wine terms – and booked up months in advance. But I go to l’Enclume quite often, most recently last weekend. L’Enclume’s great problem, hidden as it is on the edges of the Lake District, is that it’s nowhere near London, denying it the custom of quite a decent percentage of the nation’s wealthy gourmands. The advantage of this is that if you happen to be nearby, it’s pretty easy to get a table: mine, for lunch on a Saturday in the middle of the Easter holidays, was secured with a little over 12 hours’ notice.

It is incredibly good. Service is very friendly, even if there is a little too much of it and they are rather too fond of adjectives – tell me what’s on my plate by all means, but let me judge if the salt-baked beetroot is wonderful, or the caper jam is amazing. But the food is, at its worst, excellent, and very frequently several notches better than that.

And the price! For thirty five English pounds I received a glass of English fizz, six plates of culinary virtuosity, a selection of freshly-baked and very tasty bread rolls (which, when we’d finished them all, they offered to refresh) a coffee and a clever little petit four (I thought the coffee was going to cost extra, but it wasn’t on the bill and wasn’t added when I offered to pay). There was also a 17-course tasting menu for £96, which is the only option at dinner, plus an optional additional course of British and Irish cheeses.

If I’m forced to have a quibble, it’s that of our six courses one had been there when I last came, perhaps six months ago, and another had been only slightly tweaked. But it would be churlish to complain, not when a couple of the dishes, including the raw venison, mustard, coal oil and fennel above, which contained two pearlescent fennel bonbons that all but prompted a standing ovation, and a rhubarb, apple, yoghurt and sorrel pudding, were genuine triumphs. I love their use of herbs to lift dishes, and their total avoidance of overly-sweet desserts. And if you go, don’t miss the village cheese shop (try to get some of the best local cheese – and when I say local I mean about a mile away – St James) and the priory.

20130407-162228.jpgI also went to the sister restaurant, Rogan & Co, a couple of minutes’ walk away. It’s good, though markedly less so than its big brother, and also less reliant on local ingredients. But while I wasn’t drinking at L’Enclume, what with having to drive to London a few hours later, at Rogan I enjoyed a bottle of one of my favourite wine-list wines, Pieropan’s Soave. Bright and light and beguiling, it’s one of those whites that is delicious with pretty much anything a dry white wine can be delicious with, including nothing at all. It cost £26 at the restaurant, about £13 from a shop (Laithwaites has it; at winedirect.co.uk it’s a bit cheaper, but it’s widely available from independents both here and in America). There’s only one other wine I’ve so far discovered that is equally good value, equally common in restaurants and equally good at it’s job – and as I’ve just bought a bottle, perhaps I’ll write about it soon.

 

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Camino: Puerto del Canario – Getting merry with sherry

Last year, the sherry producer González Byass lamented the inexorable decline of sherry consumption in the UK. “We can’t turn the market,” their UK marketing director sniffed, adding forlornly: “we’re not giving up.” A spokesman for Fedejerez, the sherry trade association, said: “We need to make sherry trendy like running cocktail competitions. That is the way forward.”

A year earlier, Harvey’s – whose Bristol Cream is the very quintessence of untrendy sherry drinking but nevertheless snarfs 29% of the market by volume – announced a redesign and a first step down the long road to fashionability. “As the UK’s No1 sherry, it is our responsibility to drive the category into the 21st century,” said their brand manager, suggesting that people should mix their Harveys and lemonade. “Sherry is a versatile drink which can be enjoyed on many occasions.”

They have since targeted “independent 25- to 34-year-old women who are confident in their choices and are happy to stand out from the crowd”. They sponsored this year’s London Fashion Week, where they “specifically demonstrated to younger consumers how the brand can fit into modern lifestyles” and pledged to “reinvigorate and contemporise sherry and bring in younger consumers, something which is crucial to the category’s future success”.

Lots of people are trying to make sherry cool, yet still it sits, neglected, on the supermarket shelves, from whence it rarely moves despite near-insulting prices – Manzanilla La Gitana, a genuinely delicious companion to a summer sunset and a few olives and regularly lauded by critics, costs less than £8.

Then there’s Richard Bigg, the man behind Kings Cross Spanish-themed hang-out Camino: Cruz del Rey and its entirely sherry-focused little brother Pepito, and now the all-new Camino: Puerto del Canario in Canary’s Wharf. “Sherry is druggingly delicious and I think the public are ready for it,” he told Decanter earlier this year, and certainly the critics are – the original Camino was named bar of the year in the Observer and Pepito is Time Out’s best new bar of 2010. Now the experience is being rolled out to high-flying City types, Jubilee Line extremists and Thames Clipper boat-trippers (it’s a mere olive pit-spit from Canary Wharf Pier).

I was not immediately bowled over. It’s the second outlet, but it looks like the 50th. From the branded t-shirt-clad staff to the Belgo-style industrial-chic aesthetic, it reeks of chain. There’s not much they could have done to add character to what is a very shiny new development, but I certainly prefer the exposed brickwork of the Kings Cross original to the meshed metal and bare pipes in Canary Wharf. The place must be transformed in summer with the front opened up and the Thames flowing past – to see the best of it, from the food to the river view, you’ve got to look past the interior design.

There’s nothing offputting about what they give you to eat, though. A lot what I tried was simple but excellent – greaseless calamari, slice-with-a-fork-soft octopus, delicious thin-sliced pork shoulder, excellent rib-eye steak “served basque style” (cooked, on a plate – those Basques have a fairly simple style), and simple-but-dreamy vanilla ice cream bobbing in syrupy pedro ximénez. The menu is identical to that in Kings Cross, with the kitchen again overseen by Nacho del Campo, the most unassuming of head chefs who came to Camino from Spain via a dreadful-sounding place in Exeter. Most things cost around £5, with only the bigger steaks and sharing platters exceeding £10. If you’re hungry you’ll probably spend about £25 a head on food, and you’ll taste lots of nice stuff and feel full and happy.

The all-Spanish wine list has plenty of interest at all price levels – seven reds and six whites at or below £20, up to a Vega Sicilia Unico 1999 for £290 (from a “Big Guns” menu that you won’t find in Kings Cross). It’s also particularly easy to decipher, with all the grapes listed to help you on your way. My wine of the night was the Torre Silo, Cillar de Silos, a seriously food- and mouth-friendly tempranillo that at £54 is sadly a little less friendly to your wallet.

And the sherry? Well, there are seven on the menu (not bad, though there are 15 at Pepito), no sherry cocktails and not even the suggestion that you give it a go with lemonade. A fino would be near enough unbeatable on a warm afternoon, stretched out on the terrace with the river rolling past, some tapas on the table and the sun in the sky, but as the nights draw in perhaps it’s just as well to concentrate on the food.

CF goes out: an incredible London day-trip that everyone must do

I’ve lived in London a very long time, long enough to have assembled quite a long list of outings that I can pleasurably repeat, but it’s still difficult to recommend them to other people, particularly people I don’t know very well. I’m a man with my own tastes, and I wouldn’t presume that anyone who isn’t me would necessarily share them. This one, though, is different. Some things are just impossible not to love. It is unimaginable to me that any decent, right-minded person would not like, say, a perfectly ripe fig, a beautiful sunset, Dusty in Memphis, a moment of genuine slapstick comedy. This is pretty much up there with them. If you enjoy life and food, this is for you. If you do it and have a bad time, then either you have been catastrophically unlucky with the weather or you and I will never be friends. Have I made myself quite clear?

Highlights of the day included sunshine, lying in long grass with a newspaper, gorging on plump, sweet blackberries straight from the bush, a delicious lunch in a top restaurant, quirky historical factoids, rivers, lakes, streams and herds of magnificently antlered deer. There’s a lot here to like.

I take absolutely no credit for discovering the walk. It’s part of the Capital Ring, one of the good things about London that most people who live there don’t know about (not a short list) – a 78-mile circuit of London, split into 15 bite-sized chunks, which runs very roughly around the outer edge of London Transport’s Zone 2, connecting lots of parks with short sections of road walking. This bit starts at Wimbledon Park station, takes you through Wimbledon Park, Wimbledon Common and Richmond  Park before ending with a trundle down the Thames to Richmond itself. This is section six. You can find idiot-proof directions here.

I live in north London, a long way from here. If I get this far down the district line it’s either to go to the football or the tennis, so rather shamefully it was all new to me. Wimbledon Park isn’t fantastic, though their infants get an enviable paddling pool and there’s an excellent boating lake, but the walks improves rapidly from there. The common and Richmond Park are magnificent; in addition to the deer, the latter has a glorious home that once belonged to the official molecatcher – the official molecatcher, mind you – and a small hill with a fancy name (King Henry’s Mound, since you ask) with a view down a corridor of trees to St Paul’s Cathedral which can never be obstructed, not ever, by law.

Soon after you leave Richmond Park, and only about 100 yards off-route, is Petersham Nurseries, a garden centre that houses Skye Gyngell’s excellent restaurant and its accompanying tea rooms. The restaurant is expensive – they recently scrapped their cut-price weekday lunch, leaving you with little option but to fork out near enough £30 for a main course. That little option is to grab a soup or sandwich at the really quite good-looking tea-room next door, decorated – as all tea-rooms should be – with a pile of extremely sexy brownies. I splashed out on guinea foul, juicy inside but with amazingly crispy skin, which came with a very generous helping of girolles and spinach, followed by a pannacotta with a blackberry compote. There’s nothing fussy about the cooking, or the room it’s served in. It’s probably the best restaurant in London which would let you in with muddy boots. And from there it’s a 20-minute stroll down the river to Richmond, and thence back home, sated in more ways than one. One of the best days I’ve ever had in London. I urge you to have a go.

Viajante

Nuno Mendes’s new restaurant has got the blogosphere humming. I’m not sure what gives the Portuguese chef this star quality, because he certainly doesn’t have it in person, where he come across as unassuming to the point of shyness. He once worked at El Bulli, but then as I understand it so have, literally, hundreds of others. Perhaps his reputation in the capital was created by The Loft, his supperclub project which invited Londoners to hand over £100, really quite a lot for one of these things, to eat at his home. But how many people really ate there, or even heard of it?

Anyway, he now has a proper restaurant all of his own. And it’s in Bethnal Green. It’s no surprise in this city to see a small army of chefs constructing cutting-edge dishes with tweezers and chemistry sets, but you probably wouldn’t expect to find them within spitting distance of  York Hall. But, lured by the thrill of the new, by eating somewhere even before I’d seen it reviewed, I trotted off for lunch at the end of last week.

At 12.30 it was not busy. So not busy, in fact, that we were the only people there. By the time we left a couple of other tables were full. We had absolutely no idea what to expect, the website not giving much of a clue about the menu. As it turned out, the menu didn’t give much of a clue about the menu. It was tiny. It said: six courses; nine courses; 12 courses. It didn’t tell you what the courses were. There was also, we were told, a three-course lunch menu, which the menu itself was too minimalist to mention. If it was all right with us, we should just choose the number of courses we wanted and the chef would make us whatever he wanted.

I was, to be honest, happy to play his game. At l’Enclume, for example, you get menus that are almost totally useless. “Grown-up Yolk from the Golden Egg,” they’ll trumpet, as if that would give you the slightest clue as to what you might get. Best just do away with them altogether. Anyway, three courses, £25; matching drinks, £15.

With a small glass of champagne, the food started to come. A crunchy toasty stick with olivey stuff and peppery stuff. Nice enough. A “thai explosion” – crunchy biscuity stuff, this time, with spiced chicken and – we were told to just chuck it in our mouths rather than take any dainty bites, so I can’t be sure – what felt rather a lot like half a poached quail’s egg, something I’m pretty sure can’t exist. Nice. Then an aubergine and soya milk layered jelly thing, almost certainly the most offensive jelly thing that’s ever wobbled in my direction, an over-chilled festival of unpleasant flavours and texture, served with a fine aubergine baclawa. Bread, served with whipped beurre noisette sprinkled with tiny flecks of crisped chicken skin and pancetta and a black potato powder, was the first big hit. Moist, flavoursome bread presented with something that’s got to be a thousand times better than bog-standard butter, which is just so much churned milk.

We hadn’t yet had our first course: beetroot textures, apple puree, sour cream and crab. I like beetroot a lot, but there wasn’t much to excite here. A tiny sprinkling of chopped toasted hazelnuts added some welcome crunch, but this was a lot of effort for minimal impact. It was served with a dark, sensual beer (name unknown, I’m afraid), which was significantly more popular than the food. Then two cuts of slow-cooked pork with savoy cabbage, grated egg and fried capers. Lovely, soft meat with the capers providing salty explosions of saltiness. Very good. Then as a pre-desert, a lemon and thai basil sorbet with lemon sherbet, which was absolutely sensational, an overdose of zing. Finally, a mini chocolate fondant with blackcurrant sauce, chocolate praline, hazelnut ice cream and praline snow. A lot of fuss, to be sure, but delicious, intelligent, top-notch cooking. Filter coffee (all they had, as they were still waiting for the coffee machine) was exceptional and came with a petit four of dark chocolate filled with cep-infused white chocolate ganache. As weird as it sounds, but when your mouth got used to the bizarreness of it all, it told you it was very happy.

Service was extremely friendly, with Mendes himself bringing us several dishes and seemingly interested in our opinions. The food was, if truth be told, hit and miss, but its hits were emphatic and the misses relatively minor. But a 70% success rate is fine in a £25 lunch deal; if I’m handing over £100 for 12 courses I might feel less charitable.

The Ledbury

Yesterday I went for the first time to the Ledbury, a restaurant in the Notting Hill area and thus miles away from anywhere I ever am or might be. It does, however, have two Michelin stars, an extremely stellar reputation and a quite astonishing arrangement for hosting lunches organised by members of the wine-pages forum, of which this was one.

The theme was South America. I took the most valuable bottle in my little collection, a 2006 Viu Manent Viu 1, from Chile – bought from the Les Caves de Pyrene sale for £17 but worth somewhere around £45. I arrived to see two tables heaving with wine glasses, 10 per man, 90 per table. I handed over the bottle, and sat myself down.

For £50, all in, plus the cost of my wine, I got four courses plus bits and bobs at beginning and end, and a taste of everybody’s wines. The food had to strain against the weight of expectation, but did not fail. An amuse bouche of feather-light beetroot meringues stuck together with a foie gras cream was astonishingly wonderful. There followed roasted scallops with romanesque, garlic and brown shrimps, served with three chardonnays; poached pigeon with black pudding, smoked chocolate and pear – probably the finest pigeon dish I’ve ever had – with a couple of malbecs and my wine, a malbec/cabernet sauvignon blend; sika deer, lightly smoked, with beetroot, bone barrow, malt and oxtail – brilliant – served with three more malbecs, one blended with merlot, cab sauv and cab franc; and a creme brulee with dried apricots and cardamom, served with a noble semillon, also from Viu Manent.

The wines were all quite impressive, though I don’t think the malbecs went terribly well with the food, the wines being streetfighters and the food being artisans. I think my Viu 1 was the best red on our table, in fact, the cabernet sauvignon rounding out the harsh edges. The food, though, was brilliant. The company varied and, like the internet forum that spawned it, extremely generous and welcoming.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon, a bargain, and I’ll certainly be back for more. And I probably stank worryingly of booze when I picked the kids up from nursery on my way home.

Tosa, East Finchley

East Finchley is not the kind of place one expects to find a decent restaurant, yet word on the street was that, as of about six months ago, they had a damn fine Japanese joint. Time Out reviewed it, and said it was good. Poking around on the internet, a couple of bloggers (here and here) had been, and were enthusiastic. So when we needed somewhere to go for dinner with friends who also live on the 263 bus route (and another couple who live in Palmers Green, so have to drive everywhere anyway), it seemed an obvious choice. In the end we all drove, so we could just as easily have gone somewhere else. But hell, I’d wanted to go, and here I was.

We’ll make this brief. The room is unwelcoming, the chairs not very comfortable, the service sullen and unreliable (well, our waitress was; another couldn’t stop giggling, and didn’t spend enough time with us for me to work out whether she was reliable or not), and the food – the best part of the experience, then – average. The grill is the thing, here, and the menu features probably 30-odd skewer-based options. There’s sushi, too, and soups and stuff. Bits of our order were forgotten and then arrived, after two reminders, without so much as an apology. Several items were unavailable. Nothing was particularly tasty, and my salmon (£8 for a single fillet) overcooked. If you want grilled meat, you can do a lot better. If you want sushi, you can do a lot better. If one of you wants grilled meat, and the other wants sushi, it’s probably a decent compromise, so long as your standards aren’t very high. At £30 a head, including probably a beer and a half each, on average, it’s not even very good value.

I won’t be back in a hurry. And East Finchley could still do with a decent restaurant.

Garufa

A boys’ night out on Saturday brought us to Garufa, and Argentinian grill in Highbury. It was an excellent evening – the food hit the spot, even if the only empanada I really liked was the one our waitress warned us against ordering (the beef, since you ask), and was reasonably priced too. With a bountiful platter of assorted steaks for two to share costing £22, even after the addition of a few sides a main course doesn’t cost any more than a gastropub’s equivalent. The atmosphere was good, the staff helpful (dodgy empanada recommendations notwithstanding), and even the location, inconvenient to many, was but a breeze for those who live near the No4 bus route.

But what of the wine list? An obsessive focus on Argentina was to be expected, but at these prices you expect them to be hand-delivered on horseback by a smiling Patagonian gaucho. I’m no restaurateur, and I know nothing of the finances of restaurant ownership, but as a customer any mark-up significantly higher than 200%, or double the retail price, starts to make me uncomfortable. And these were much higher than that.

But what really got my goat, as a proud resident of north London, was the fact that the wines at Garufa more expensive than identical, or near-identical wines at its sister restaurant, Buen Ayre in Broadway Market. And not just by a few pence – at Buen Ayre, the Altosur cabernet sauvignon 2006 is £10.80. At Garufa the 2007 is £18. That’s £7.20 extra, just for living in north London. The 2006 La Linda malbec is £17.40 in Hackney and £21 in Highbury. A Textual caladoc, £10.28 per bottle online, jumps from £26.60 (for the 2005) to £30 (for the 2006). At the top end, a Caro cabernet/malbec (The 2004 vintage, as sold at Garufa, costs £25 at Laithwaites) is £90 at Garufa when it (albeit from a younger vintage) costs £95 at Maze, a michelin-starred Gordon Ramsay-operated central-london hotspot that is not situated on a dingy north london road near nothing very much.

So we drank the house red, a Norton malbec at £14.50 which was perfectly suitable for the occasion. We had a good time. The meal exceeded expectations. But you didn’t have to be a cow to find the menu a little depressing.