Monday, 14 September 2009


It’s tough being a legend. Let’s call it the Pietersen problem: whatever you do, however brilliant, no one’s ever that impressed. “You may have scored 90,” they say, “but why wasn’t it 100?” This, as regular readers might imagine, is not a problem with which I’m regularly faced (I’ve never made 90, and it may take an attack consisting entirely of six-year-olds for me ever to get there), but for a restaurant of the status of Moro it must be a constant peril. For over a decade, Moro has been one of the brightest lights of the London restaurant scene: always the choice of the in-crowd, it picks up Readers’ Awards like sweets and is garlanded with the plaudits of every chef from here to Clerkenwell.

But here’s why the restaurant game’s tough: no-one ever remembers the good bits. Readers will always forgive Donna Tartt The Little Friend, woeful as it was, because The Secret History still stands on the shelf as a testament to her brilliance; Rothko lovers will overlook the Seagram murals in favour of a body of work that leaves no doubt as to his talent. When a restaurant, though, is praised to the skies, when diners talk of it in hushed tones lest the word creep out, it has to carry on being brilliant day after day. Culinary history is littered, like the kitchen floor after Saturday service, with tales of once remarkable restaurants that have slipped into mediocrity, fading to only a glimmer of the early excitement that once made them great.

It’s not just tall poppy syndrome, although that – especially in Britain, I suspect – plays a part. Harden’s recent laceration of Gordon Ramsay’s Royal Hospital Road shows that the desire to bring down the mighty – and gather column inches on the way – continues unabated, but for the regular punter there’s something much simpler at work. Unlike a writer’s first, great, novel, which we can read in the bath for time immemorial while the later failures lie dusting on the shelf, a restaurant’s early success is only a memory for those lucky enough to get an early tip, and sheer frustration for those of us who visit once the passion has dimmed.

It takes something special to achieve the combination of excitement and consistency that marks out the truly great. I’ve written before on these pages of the impact of expectations on our experience: the finest and most memorable meals are most likely to occur when you are least expecting them, when you’ve stumbled down a back street in small town Spain rather than saved up all year for the starched tablecloths and starchier service of London’s finest.

Sometimes, though – and all too rarely – comes a restaurant which renders my theories defunct, and matches in sheer, unflashy talent the scale of its reputation. Perhaps I had suppressed my expectations, but Moro both excited and impressed me in equal measure; I could write paeans of praise to either element – an exciting new restaurant with bold, exciting, new flavours, or a neighbourhood staple, confidently producing old-time favourites – but to combine both leaves me gasping for adjectives of acclaim.

The room itself captures something of Moro’s essential spirit: simple whitewashed walls, with an open kitchen and functional, Bistro-style furniture put me firmly in mind of St John, one of my favourite lunchtime hideaways (anyone that can make me think of St John before feeding me is on to a winner, evangelicals bearing cupcakes notwithstanding). The room is filled to bursting, and ablaze with the conversation of a room enjoying its food, and – more importantly – each other; this is a place you could come merely to bask in the knowledge that eating good food, together, laughing, with plenty of sherry, survives even in the most difficult of times. The atmosphere is heightened by brisk, efficient yet charming service by a wonderful waitress – think Kylie’s mum with a steely hint of Ricky Ponting – who explained and glossed the menu with the lightest of touches. The bread – the famous bread! – was predictably delicious (here’s one for the consistency camp), and a half bottle of impeccably chilled sherry was the perfect way to whet the appetite.

At this point, of course, I was already charting out the course of my review: big name, great atmosphere, good food and decent wine; a Thursday night favourite for the ages, with nothing to scare the horses and a guaranteed evening out. How wrong I was; and rarely have I more enjoyed being wrong.

I started with harira, a traditional Moroccan soup of lamb, lentils, chickpeas and vermicelli. So far so good: good, warming, rustic soup. But so much more: Moro’s harira is the kind of soup that you’d cross town for; that you’d eat curled up in front of the fire of a Sunday evening; that you’d order for your last meal. If each dish has certain spots, certain notes, it has to hit, this hit every single one: I could eat this every day in a never-ending vat and I’d never get bored. Just as Moro itself effortlessly combines consistency and excitement, so the harira was at once comforting yet thrilling, lulling with its richness before surprising with its spice. I was so wrapped up in my own private delight that I barely noticed the other starters, but a grilled red pepper salad with cumin, preserved lemon and anchovies looked a picture – and apparently didn’t disappoint on tasting – and mojama (thin slices of salt-dried tuna) with a purslane salad was ‘very pleasant yet unremarkable’.

The main courses, though, were where the real action started. My wood-roasted pork with wrinkled potatoes and mojo rojo was, by some distance, the finest pork I’ve eaten in a very long time: thin slices topped with the lightest, crispest crackling I’ve ever seen came accompanied by a fiery mojo rojo sauce of chilli and garlic, which was delicious with the potatoes and enlivened the pork. Sardines with fava bean purée and white cabbage and radish salad were superb, with a Manzanilla-like salty sea aroma and a powerful hit of chilli and fresh herbs that lifted the dish from the classical to the ethereal. Other dishes were too far down the table for me to reach without risking both dignity and wine glasses, so in the interests of decorum I must rely on the exclamations of pleasure that drifted from those with the whole baked bream and the grilled lamb.

Restaurants can succeed in so many ways: from the lunchtime staple to the whizz-bang excess of the latest Michelin-starred wunderkind, there are any numbers of routes to the top. Most crucially, though, is the ability to inspire emotion beyond simple satisfaction, appreciation beyond cool acclaim, and – in the very best – an excitement beyond logic. The passion in the kitchen, and the sheer white-hot belief in the principles of the place, injects this very excitement into everything in the room: the food is technically spot-on yet takes risks; the wine list is comprehensive yet unusual; the staff professional yet relaxed. Moro’s status in the pantheon of London restaurants is already secure, and no-one could blame them for beginning to relax, to settle into the steady routine of the old stager enjoying a well-earned pay day.

But who was there at the door to wave us into the night, in his whites with a mile-wide smile and an easy charm at midnight on a Friday? Sam Clark. It’s that kind of dedication, that kind of passion for a calling that is, every day, a true labour of love, that brings the exceptional to life. Applaud it and treasure it: this is a kitchen on jaw-dropping, heart-stopping form.

34-36 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QE
020 7833 8336

Food: 9

Drink: 7
Service: 7
Atmosphere: 8
Total: 31

Monday, 13 July 2009

Le Relais de Venise

Years ago, in my days on the other side of the kitchen door, I worked with the most remarkable man. Scott had been running top-flight restaurants since the age of seventeen, and – at any given moment – he could tell you everything about every diner in a hundred-seater restaurant. Scott would know, to the millilitre, how much soup Grandma on table 13 had left in her bowl: when calculated over her average speed of eating (estimated to the nearest decimal point from fifty yards), this would give an estimated time of completion so precise that he could warn the chef, glide out to the table as Grandma set down her spoon, top up her wine and glide back to collect the main courses as they hit the pass.

The chefs loved Scott: no longer would they have incompetents like us calling for main courses only to leave them sitting, cooling, while the mothers’ meeting on table 12 picked at their Caesar salads. Grandma – and the mothers’ meeting – loved him too: whenever they needed something he would magically appear at their elbow. Almost single-handedly he transformed our restaurant from a provincial hotel dining room to a whizz-bang operation: I have never before or since felt the adrenalin buzz of a busy restaurant on a Saturday night running with surgical precision.

The quality of the service is crucial to a successful restaurant: from the simple delivery of plates and cutlery at the appropriate time to the obsequious attentions of the finest Michelin maitre d’, the skill and charm of the staff is what sets apart the joy of restaurant dining from even the finest of home cooking. Or so I thought.

The Relais de Venise, off Old Broad Street in the heart of the City, is the London incarnation of a Parisian institution. The original Relais de Venise, near Porte Maillot in the 17th arrondissement, was established in the late fifties as a traditional bistro offering a no-choice menu of salad and steak frites; the London Relais follows an identical model, offering only entrecote in their own ‘secret sauce’. So far, so good: a simple formula built on the foundations of steak and chips.

I have written before on these pages of the perils of simplicity: at its best, the guiding principles of simple craft can produce the finest possible results, but if badly handled the lack of ostentation can expose weaknesses that might otherwise be obscured. The Relais largely avoids the potential pitfalls of its formula: the steak is superb, fries decent – although our late lunchtime may have rendered the oil older than might have been desirable – and the house wine excellent. What could possibly upset such a blueprint for success? Two words (predictable, now): the staff.

The staff at the Relais looked as if they had been drafted en masse from central casting. Our table was served by at least ten different waitresses over the course of our meal, although as they all looked exactly the same it may have been many more: I suspect there is a revolving door on the way to the kitchen that simply spits out the next on the production line when there is a plate to be cleared. Each order – whether for wine or simply more bread – had to be communicated through at least two waitresses and confirmed by a third, and ordering our desserts (the only point at which the understandably complicating factor of a menu was introduced) was a communications minefield rendered impassable by a certain lack of Polish on our side.

Strangely, though, it didn’t matter: there’s something about a fine steak that will render a man, for a moment, uncritical. So, for perhaps the first time in my life – and probably, if reason reasserts itself, the last – my criticisms were shelved in favour of an amused appreciation of the triumph of a dead cow over every inadequacy that we can throw at it: vegetarians would hate the place.

Le Relais de Venise
5 Throgmorton St, London, EC2N 2AD
020 7638 6325

Food: 8
Drink: 7
Service: 3
Atmosphere: 6
Total: 24

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Everyone wants to be a critic...

...even the President-Elect.  Here, via Marbury - by some distance the best of the US election blogs that dominated the coverage of last year's momentous contest - is a 2001 appearance by a certain state senator from Illinois.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Whining & Dining: In Brief

A few restaurants, bars and the odd sandwich shop that haven’t yet graduated to full reviews but are still worthy of mention:

Dragon Castle
Walworth Road, SE17

I didn’t move to Elephant & Castle for its culinary promise, but in Dragon Castle we surely have one of London’s gems.  Housed in a vast palace on the Walworth Road, Dragon Castle is quite simply the best Chinese food I’ve eaten in London.  The service is brisk and efficient – if not as amusingly rude as most of Chinatown’s finest – and the food ranges from the delicious to the exquisite.

On our last visit, a damp Tuesday evening, we had a pile of magnificently sticky spare ribs, perfectly crispy calamari, the obligatory Peking duck – one of the best I’ve had – followed by a selection of main courses of which the highlight was a searingly hot pork belly stew.

It’s long been a maxim of travellers everywhere that the best food is often found in the most unlikely of places: next time you’re looking for top-notch Chinese, avoid the tourist deathtrap of Gerrard Street and venture instead down the Walworth Road: as long as you don’t mind techno versions of Happy Birthday at top volume, you’re in for a treat.


The Trinity
Borough High Street, SE1

One of my favourite pubs: traditionalists will complain that it is emblematic of the current vogue for modern décor, characterless beer and formulaic food, but this super pub just by Borough Tube belies its gastro-lite interior in offering an excellent range of beers and good food: they serve Addlestone's, which keeps the Blonde happy, and chilli crackers, which saves me having dinner.  High stools in the bay window and winged armchairs in the shadows at the back, The Trinity is one of those rare pubs that is as good on a Tuesday lunchtime as it is on a Friday night.

The Royal Oak
Tabard Street, SE1

One to satisfy the traditionalists: the only Harvey’s pub in London.  I feel right at home sipping a pint of Mild with the Guardian: can there be any higher praise?


Vinopolis Wine Wharf
Stoney Street, SE1

Vinopolis itself is an affront to wine, turning the finest and most ethereal of drinks into the subject of a sub-Alton Towers theme park, but its wine bar is a cut above.  A wide choice of wines by the glass, and a page-long selection of English wines.  Knowledgeable staff, good glassware (am I alone in caring about this?) and plenty of sofas make this an excellent hang-out after spending too much in Borough Market.

Blues Café
West Smithfield, EC1A

The best sandwich shop in London, bar none.  From hot pork loin and apple sauce to bacon & avocado, Blues Café offers a fantastic range of sandwiches, soups and – on a Friday – burgers.  Just south of Smithfield Market, Blues Café is slightly off the trail and all the better for it.  Friendly service, superb bread and generous servings all set this lunch spot far above the ever-predictable chains.

Monday, 1 December 2008


The perfect cover drive, when dissected, consists of simple elements executed precisely.  The joy of watching Mark Waugh dispatch another ball to the boundary lies in the very grace of its simplicity: the cover drive is not a flashy shot, it doesn’t scream ‘look at me’, but – as Michael Vaughan would attest – it is good for many thousand of runs and the cover of Wisden.  The problem with such apparent simplicity, though, is its dependence on every element of the shot clicking perfectly into place: unlike KP's flamingo, where brute force and willpower can carry the ball over the rope, the cover drive can quickly degenerate in the flailings of an amateur.

Arbutus was the Mark Waugh of the restaurant world not so long ago: simple, stylish, and the coaching manual for everyone else.  Their masterstroke was to serve every wine on their list in 250ml carafes, an idea that makes such perfect sense that every smart restaurateur in London immediately followed suit.  Such a concept, supported by simple, traditional, well-cooked food, filled a gap in the market for fine dining with interesting wines at sensible prices.  Summarised like that, it’s a wonder that such a gap existed, but Arbutus perfectly identified a need and quickly became the darling of the London restaurant scene.

If Arbutus’ debut season was Vaughan’s Australian tour of 2002-3, their recent fortunes seem to be declining in parallel.  Just as Vaughan, unable to trust his troublesome knee, has fallen short of his former greatness, so Arbutus is falling short of the standards it has set for itself and others.  A cricketer that relies on timing and touch, or a restaurant that relies upon the simple done well, cannot impress with showy power in a slump; like the pretty girl with no make-up after a heavy night, they are outshone by the obvious, the gilded and the brash.

It is this fragility, this balancing act, that makes Arbutus so potentially great, but ultimately so frustrating.  Their carafe concept is simple genius; their food impeccably constructed; the room an archetype of the modern London restaurant.  Something is missing, though: the streak of excitement that bubbles up when you know that all these elements have come together to produce a restaurant to truly remember.

Last night’s dinner with the Major, the Blonde and the Recanted Vegetarian displayed a restaurant trying to recapture its glory days.  The lively hubbub of the opening months had given way to a deafening din, and our waitress was schooled in the fine art of phrase-book service: “are the main courses to your satisfaction?” was the low point, especially as it sounded as if she was translating from the Australian.

Din and phrase books notwithstanding, our starters fulfilled the Arbutus formula of simple ingredients cooked well.  Pappadelle pasta with pork shoulder ragout, braised pig’s head with caramelised onions, hare with polenta and parmesan, and soup of curly kale and potato, were all examples of dishes whose simplicity demands perfect accuracy of execution to make them truly sing.  None of the dishes – and I tried them all – had sufficient intensity of flavour to mark them out from an ambitious dinner party, and at Michelin-starred prices that should be the least of expectations.

Main courses were more varied in quality: saddle of rabbit with shoulder cottage pie was superb, but a bavette of Scottish beef was cooked significantly beyond medium-rare and was unyieldingly tough.  The beef also had the unfortunate distinction of being the only item on the menu that was under-seasoned: every other dish belied a heavy hand in the kitchen, but when it came to the beef less was apparently more.

Lest my criticisms sound too fierce, Arbutus is undeniably a restaurant producing high-quality food with excellent ingredients, supported by a superb wine list in highly commendable carafes, but my suspicion is that a certain complacency has crept into the kitchen.  Just like a batsman who hits an easy hundred on a Saturday, skips nets on a Wednesday and can’t buy another run for a month, so the garlanded Arbutus appears to have taken its eye off the ball.  Arbutus could certainly teach other restaurants in London many valuable lessons, but for now they need to get back in the nets, hit a few balls, and get back on track in that elusive pursuit of perfection.

63-64 Frith St, London W1D 3JW
020 7734 4545

Food: 7
Drink: 9
Service: 6
Atmosphere: 6
Total: 28

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

The Don

It occurred to me today, halfway through a 24-hour restaurant double-header, that the secret to a successful restaurant is to know, exactly, what you're aiming for.  Yesterday's dinner, and lunch today (on which more later), form the perfect example of one restaurant which pinpoints its target and hits it effortlessly, and another which gets the game shockingly, mystifyingly wrong.

After my whine on these pages some weeks ago about The Bleeding Heart, it may begin to look as though I have a vendetta against the proprietors.  I don't, at least not yet, but if I have to endure another soulless, uninspired assault to the spirit of fine dining I might well develop one.  The Bleeding Heart, as I wrote, is a competent restaurant hamstrung by blandness; The Don is a farce of a restaurant scuppered by idiocy.

The word pretentious is overused to the point of meaninglessness, but here it seems particularly apt.  The Don is irritatingly, overbearingly pretentious, so full of its own overreaching efforts at grandeur that it forgets the central point of any restaurant.  As the lovechild of Bill Clinton and A.A.Gill might say, it's the food, stupid.  The set-up is all very well, if a trifle textbook: a high-ceilinged, whitewashed room with comfortable banquettes and modern daubs on the walls; staff oleaginously obsequious; menu on crisp cream card.  All it needs is food, and here you realise that The Don were so wrapped up in creating the illusion of quality that they forgot to hire someone who could cook.  Chef Matt Burns, who recently hosted Pierre Koffmann in his kitchen, is clearly asleep at the pass.  Perhaps his Aunty Claire is standing in?

Starters set the tone: a terrine of Scottish salmon and scallops with (allegedly) a lemongrass and vermouth sauce could possibly have been sourced from a conveyor belt in the Ukraine, such was its giant Yo! Sushi appearance.  The fish was fresh, and despite my reservations probably not from a Chernobyl-affected river, but the sauce was barely recognisable.  A subtle sauce should draw out and intensify the flavours of the fish - I wasn't expecting the sushi theme to be followed through with wasabi - but the lemongrass and vermouth were so subtle as to be imperceptible.

Other starters included scallops en coquille with a pastry top, and a foie gras crème brulée.  80s, anyone?

I can cope with bland nostalgia, but the mains slipped into sheer incompetence.  Roast Suckling Pig on a tomato, white bean and chorizo cassoulet seemed a good, hearty dish to dispel any doubts about the kitchen and banish uncharitable thoughts of giant sushi, but its arrival struck the note of doom.  Apparently, in the mind of The Don, a cassoulet involves washing a tin of baked beans, cutting five slices of anaemic sausage and dicing a tomato before dumping the concoction in a soup bowl and hoping for the best.  Atop this inauspicious beginning sat two limp slices of pork: no crackling, no seasoning and certainly no talent.

The cheeseboard rounded things off in exactly the style to which we'd become accustomed over the course of the meal: pomp, circumstance, and a lack of execution which human rights activists would doubtless find commendable.  Our waitress tugged the trolley across the floor of the restaurant, sighing when she discovered that someone had dared sit in her path (at our table, incidentally), and rammed his chair until he was finally forced to stand throughout the entire procedure.  Fortunately, for his sake, it didn't take too long: the Michelin-aspirant (if not Michelin-equipped, to judge by our waitress' travails) trolley was stacked to the gunwales with a magnificent seven cheeses.  Count them.  Goodness knows how I ever made a decision.

The gap between ambition and reality at The Don is truly terrifying for anyone with hope for the future of London restaurants.  One imagines - especially with the meal ticket of Pierre Koffmann recently in the kitchen - that the proprietors are proud of themselves for having created a City restaurant which hits the heights.  They shouldn't be: this is definitely an offer I can refuse.

The Don Restaurant and Bistro
The Courtyard, 20 St Swithuns Lane, City of London, EC4N 8AD
020 7626 2606

Food: 4
Drink: 5
Service: 3
Atmosphere: 4
Total: 16

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Whining and Dining Abroad: Piedmont

A man who is tired of London is tired of mediocre, overpriced restaurants, and it was in such a spirit that the Blonde and I escaped London for a week to the restaurants of northern Italy. Piedmont is the food lover’s Mecca: from the truffle-scented alleys of Alba to the vine-covered ridges of Barolo, it is one of the world’s finest destinations for those whose holidays consist entirely of eating, drinking, and eating to mop up the drink. We stayed at the magnificent Castello di Sinio, a converted sixteenth-century castle atop one of Piedmont’s traditional hill towns, and its impeccably restored rooms, walled garden and swimming pool above the town’s piazza proved the perfect escape.

On our first night, we visited La Libera, a beacon of modernity amongst Alba’s sleepy streets. Having flown from our beloved Stansted at 6am, we were ready for dinner at a time more appropriate to Yorkshire than northern Italy, but held off our hunger until we finally relented to the demands of our stomach and arrived at the restaurant just before 8. The staff could not have looked any more surprised if we’d walked in with Pope Benedict demanding that dancing girls in cages should accompany our meal, but eventually understood that we were English, and slightly demented, and wanted dinner before it was dark. We sat at the end of a long, communal table, in front of three capacious wine fridges – with wines at prices that meant they’d likely stay in the fridge – next to a shelf crammed with cookbooks, including Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating. A good sign.

As we struggled with our badly-spoken and worse-understood Italian – an easy language to speak badly – we eventually ordered as the restaurant began to fill: most diners were evidently regulars, greeted with kisses on both cheeks and directed towards their usual tables. Some were blessed with personal attention from the chef – pristine in sparkling whites – but in the absence of a visit from on high we took a gamble and ordered almost at random.

Our risk was rewarded with a magnificent beginning to our culinary tour. My starter of antipasti tipici arrived as a selection of four small dishes including the ubiquitous vitello al tonnato and the finest, freshest steak tartare I’ve ever tasted, and the Blonde’s rabbit merely confirmed the efficacy of our random ordering policy. Our main courses upheld the standard, and were accompanied by an ethereally good bottle of Aldo Conterno ‘Conca Tre Pile’ Barbera: Conterno is renowned throughout Piedmont for producing some of the finest expressions of this underrated grape, and its combination of refreshing acidity, violets and brambles was the perfect first step on our wanderings across this magnificent region.

Our next meal took us swiftly across the holiday spectrum, from gastronomic pyrotechnics to simple local fare at the local pizzeria. I’ve often insisted that Italy is the finest place in the world to eat simply, and my belief was reinforced by some of the best pasta and pizza I’ve ever enjoyed: a Quattro Formaggi pizza came drenched in truffle oil – none of this drizzling so beloved of chefs with greater pretensions – and was washed down by a sizeable jug of local white. I still have no idea what it was: I didn’t ask and I didn’t care. It did the job that beer so often does, providing a cold, refreshing gulp rather than the whole-body sensory experience that is sometimes demanded of a fine wine. If only we could have local restaurants this informal, this cheap and this good.

The pilgrimage of our trip was lunch at Locanda Dell ‘Arco in Cissone. On a blisteringly hot day we enjoyed the luxury of a driver to take us to lunch and collect us afterwards: fortunate planning, for the lunch was such that we could not have walked or even cycled anywhere. Dell ‘Arco is one of those rare and marvellous restaurants where you feel like you have wandered into someone’s home for lunch, and taken pot luck on what happens to be cooking: sometimes you don’t want the hassle of a menu or the torture of deciding between a list full of potentially delicious dishes, but want instead to be told, quickly and in Italian, what it is that you are about to enjoy. Plate after plate of food arrived – six courses in all – as wines were brought and left open on the table for us to enjoy as much or as little as we liked. We were brought aubergine with ricotta, gnocchi with blue cheese, veal, rabbit with raspberry, sorbet, and cheese, and dispatched half a bottle of Langhe Chardonnay before arriving at the purpose of our visit, Silvano Bolmida’s 2006 Barbera. I remember little else, except remarking at one point that our lunch had broken the three-hour mark, and returning to our hotel to fall asleep by the pool.

For me, holidays are about doing more of what I do in my lazier moments at home, principally eating, drinking and falling asleep. Piedmont, with such a top-class hotel and so many superb restaurants, fit the bill superbly.

Hotel Castello di Sinio, 1 Vicolo del Castello, 12050 Sinio (CN), Italy

La Libera, Via E. Pertinace, 24/a, Alba

Il Commercio, Via Cavour 28, Sinio

Locanda dell'Arco, Piazza dell'Olmo , 1, 12050 Cissone