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

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Mar i Terra

What makes a good neighbourhood restaurant? Good food; a reliable, inexpensive wine list; prices that don’t scare the horses when you don’t feel like cooking. All of these are vital to anywhere with aspirations of becoming a local favourite, beloved in the hearts of young mothers and twenty-somethings alike, and all are relatively easy to achieve with a modicum of common sense and a slice of luck when installing a chef who’ll command more local attention than the deficiencies of the rubbish collection. The crucial ingredient, though – the X-factor, if such a phrase didn’t immediately conjure images of spangled wastrels screeching ‘80s ballads at a high-waisted fop – is the proprietor. As influential as the chef patron or maitre-d’ might be in a Michelin-starred establishment, in a local restaurant the owner makes or breaks his restaurant’s success. In the best local restaurants – those places locals treat as their own living rooms – the owner is a godfather to the young, a son of the old, a confessor to the troubled and a sage to the terminally insecure. His is the role of the rural landlord: focus of the community, fountain of gossip and provider of sustenance every night of the week.

Mar i Terra is begging to be just such a place: tucked away at the end of an unprepossessing street in the bowels of the Blackfriars Road, it offers the best Spanish food I’ve had in Britain, an excellent wine list – complete with deeply idiosyncratic tasting notes – and a delightful walled garden, albeit directly under the railway bridge, for lazy summer evenings when it’s too hot to cook. All this sets up Mar i Terra for a triumphant entry to the pantheon of neighbourhood gems, but for one potentially explosive factor: the landlord.

I use the term advisedly: this is a highly personal restaurant, on the model of the old country pub, where the proprietor is king and his customers merely supplicants at the table of his generosity. Never mind that customers are paying, the restaurant is his domain, watched imperiously from the safety of the bar, beyond which he will deign to come only when his territory is threatened. On our first visit, a warm Friday evening when tapas in the garden seemed ideal, our host seemed jovially, almost amusingly, grumpy. “Sit there and wait,” he said before I’d drawn breath, “I’ll be there in a moment”. “If you order Sangria, I’ll throw you out,” he added. Not wanting to jeopardise our dinner, we looked at the wine list, remarking immediately at several vintages of Viña Tondonia: “overrated, I wouldn’t have that” was his only response. His comment inspired many a riposte, but hunger – and the Blonde’s hand poised to cuff me round the head if I ventured a retort – overrode my tongue and we ordered instead a bottle of Manzanilla and settled at a table in the garden.

My concerns at the individuality of our host faded away as the food began to arrive: a salad of fricassée and manchego, chicken livers, braised lentils and chorizo and a delicate roasted quail all impressed mightily, and we ate for almost two hours, ordering more plates as we finished each dish and creating a substantial pile of drained Manzanilla bottles by our side. Pacified – and indeed exhilarated – by this display of technical skill from the kitchen, on our way out I shook our landlord’s hand, thanking for a tremendous meal: my intention, of course, to ensure my welcome on the next occasion by our apparently irascible host. We were invited to stay for a digestif, which we accepted with pleasure, wondering if, despite early appearances, we’d found the grail of local restaurants. Half an hour and a couple of brandies later, we stepped into the night – and the twenty-nine steps to my front door – with words of high praise for our newest discovery.

Our original suspicions, though, were confirmed on our next visit, with the smallest of incidents removing any pleasure we’d found in yet another tremendous meal. We’d again ventured in late on a Friday evening, three of us this time, as we were joined by the Recanted Vegetarian, and once again enjoyed a meal better than any this side of Barcelona. It had reached 11 o’clock as we paid our bill, and we were finishing our Rioja with some ethereally good jamón Serrano. The waiters milled around us collecting the last of others’ plates and glasses as we contentedly sipped at the last of our wine, reflecting on our genius in finding such a gem of a local restaurant.

It was then that we were joined by our host: “You need to finish up. You need to finish your drinks and be on your way…now”. This last word was aimed with such vitriolic ferocity that all three of us leapt from our seats, abandoning our wine and scuttling back through the restaurant to the street outside. Less than a minute previously, we had been sitting contentedly in the garden at the end of an excellent meal; now, we were on the street without so much as a thank you and good night. It might have been a small incident, frustration overflowing at the end of a long day, but for us it coloured all too strongly our memories of the evening.

It is on such small niceties that our memories of restaurants turn: the legacy of an excellent meal can too easily be spoilt by a misplaced comment, or by the proprietorial arrogance of an owner who forgets that his reputation, and his livelihood, depends on those customers to whom he is so extraordinarily rude. Richie Benaud famously said that cricket captaincy was 90% skill and 10% luck, but only a fool would try it without that 10%; the key to a successful restaurant may be only 10% humanity, but without it I’d rather eat at home.

Mar i Terra
14 Gambia Street, Waterloo, SE1 0XH
020 7928 7628

Food: 8
Drink: 7
Service: 7 (staff); 3 (landlord)
Atmosphere: 6
Total: 26

The Bleeding Heart Tavern

There’s something enticing about a restaurant name which so succinctly captures the visceral pleasure of food. Let us be frank: vegetarians are all very well – even if I don’t allow them through my front door – but the real pleasure of eating is in tucking into a red, rare steak until drops of blood are dripping down your chin. As you descend into a subterranean cavern from the bar above, the Bleeding Heart seems to offer this pure, animal pleasure: a pity, then, that it is quite so dull.

The Bleeding Heart – in name and in approach – taps into the Fergus Henderson school of British food, but where Henderson takes risks, offering up parts of animals that most diners expect to see on the butchers’ floor, The Bleeding Heart retreats into a Delia-inspired blandness that could not possibly offend the most timorous of London diners.

This is not to suggest that The Bleeding Heart is not a fine restaurant: an excellent venue, good service and good, solid cooking all amounts to a pleasant evening, but if you thought the forces of conservatism had gone the way of the Major government, here they are in force. A starter of lightly battered artichokes were crisp, light and delicate, but the mayonnaise with which they arrived offered little more than a comforting blanket with which to douse any element of dash from the dish. Other starters were similar: chicken liver parfait, asparagus and hen’s egg all represented a kitchen playing safe.

The Bleeding Heart’s sister operation, Trinity Hill vineyards in New Zealand, has long been one of my favourite producers in one of my favourite areas, Hawkes Bay. John Hancock’s wines are fine representations of the varietal characters that are expressed so cleanly on New Zealand’s north island: his Riesling and Chardonnay are two of the most reliable Kiwi whites I know, and his various bottlings of Pinot Noir are wines you’d never be embarrassed to serve whatever the company. The concern that lingers, though, over both Trinity Hill and The Bleeding Heart, is their very reliability: as wineries and restaurants alike become increasingly skilled, doing the basics well and rarely offering anything below competence, simply ticking the boxes is no longer enough.

I should not overstate my case: I would, quite happily, eat at The Bleeding Heart with a bottle of Trinity Hill for company. I would quite happily go once a week, and I would very happily stock my kitchen with John Hancock’s wines. The yardstick of success, though, is not contentment; for a restaurant or a winery to be a true success, it should provoke anticipation, excitement, and an overwhelming desire to spread the good news: a truly great restaurant should get the blood pumping even as it is dripping down your chin.

The Bleeding Heart
Bleeding Heart Yard, off Greville Street, London EC1N 8SJ
020 7242 2056

Food: 6
Drink: 7
Service: 7
Atmosphere: 6
Total: 26

Wednesday, 25 June 2008

Tom Aikens

Two of the greatest cricket writers ever to grace the page, Neville Cardus and John Arlott, could never agree who had the better job: Cardus, who ascribed his good fortune in becoming both the cricket and the music correspondent of the Manchester Guardian to 'no less than an act of providence', or Arlott, whose writings on wine are held in inestimable esteem by perhaps the best known of contemporary wine writers, Jancis Robinson. Cardus, perhaps apocryphally, settled the argument by telling Arlott of his dalliances with attractive violinistes, before asking if Arlott had experienced any similar success with winemakers.

The combination of music and cricket, and cricket and wine, seems a natural fit. All three are pursuits in which dedication - to the point of obsessiveness - is crucial, and where an attention to the finest detail lies at the heart of the difference between success and mediocrity. The same is true of restaurants: in cooking, as in music, cricket and wine, the gulf between mere competency and genuine excellence is unbridgeable by all but the most talented. A amateur performance of Elgar's Cello Concerto, a county cricketer's cover drive, or a Cru Classé Bordeaux may all be described in glowing terms and may satisfy our hopes and expectations, but each is blown out of the water by du Pré, Vaughan or Mitjavile.

Just as my cricketing hopes are dashed every time I watch Michael Vaughan crack another boundary between two despairing fielders, so my culinary ambitions take a knock every time I visit Tom Aikens. His eponymous Chelsea restaurant, now the flagship to a burgeoning empire that encompasses the full range of styles from Michelin-starred 'Modern European', through no frills British cooking at Tom's Kitchen, to good old fish 'n chips at Tom's Place, is quite the finest demonstration of the gap - in ambition, talent and skill - between good home cooking and the kind of whizz-bang perfection that seduces the Michelin inspectors.

I've now eaten there three times: the first eighteen months ago, on a winter's day just before Christmas, with a friend destined to become the kind of Yummy Mummy - with four children and as many labradors - at whom Tom's Kitchen is perfectly targeted; again last Valentine's Day with the Blonde; and again last week with the Teuton, who despite his ice-cool exterior becomes passionately animated on his twin favourite subjects of fine food and finer wine.

Our lunch - always lunch - began with an amuse-bouche of tomato jelly, tomato foam, basil oil and lobster. As an opening gambit, it was the Michelin equivalent of a sharp bouncer in the first over, delivered not so much to close the deal as to show exactly what its progenitor is capable of. The remarkable aspect of the dish - aside from its improbability - was the intensity of the flavours: the tomato foam began with the sweetness of vine-ripened cherry tomatoes before giving way to the greener stalkiness of the vine itself; the basil oil gave a pure, breathy hit of basil that lingered throughout, and the lobster appeared at the bottom of the glass like a forgotten pearl. As culinary theatre, the amuse bouche is unsurpassed: it doesn't have to fit any concepts of what constitutes a dish, it doesn't have to be 'substantial' or 'filling', and it certainly doesn't have to make sense. What it does is to exhibit the skill of the kitchen in microcosm: like Tiger on a pitch-and-putt. or Pinter on a postcard, talent is squeezed into the smallest of formats as if to boast that supreme skill can flourish on any canvas, and is perhaps at its best, like a Fabergé egg, in miniature. Such was the pyrotechnical perfection of the very first dish, the bar was set mightily high, and I feared - as William Boyd would have it - that my sky-high expectations might ruin my (because one cannot, before lunch, lunch) lunch.

I needn't have feared: each course of the Aikens lunch menu (of which we tasted all six dishes) matched the standard that had been set so high. Our starters played perfectly to the gallery: a terrine of foie gras, with celeriac rémoulade, parsley, chopped truffle and honey truffle emulsion, once again demonstrated the technical skill of the kitchen, although - if I were to be picky - the terrine (somewhat like a foie gras Carambar) somewhat diminished the sheer richness that is rather the point. It was matched superbly well by our sommelier with a Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling, Reichsgraf Von Kesselstatt, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer 2002, which provided the clean acidity to cut through the foie gras whilst giving a delicious hint of sweetness.

The Teuton's starter was Crab meat with lemon purée, avocado dice, pasta sheet and lemongrass foam. At the risk of being too prescriptive, I issued instructions across the table to take the tiniest fleck of foam, awaiting the wide-eyed appreciation at such an expanse of flavour being contained in so little: the appreciation duly came, beginning with a twitch of the corners of the mouth and ended in a full-throated exclamation of approval, and from then on we knew we would not be disappointed. After lengthy perusal of the extensive wine list, we had settled on a glass of Rully 'Maizières', Domaine Vincent Dureuil-Janthial 2005 to accompany the crab. The selection of white Burgundy explored the alternative food matching strategy to that of the foie gras/Riesling combination (in which the flavours, through conflicting, boost one another) by providing a clean yet richly textured base on which the delicacy of the crab could shine.

Our main courses sustained the standard, with a dish simply dubbed 'Turbot', which had been poached in pea soup, and arrived accompanied by truffle mash, crushed peas and pea purée, and one called 'Pigeon', a roasted pigeon breast with confit leg, onion Lyonnaise, onion purée and spring onion. We further indulged our Burgundy fixation with a half bottle of Morey-Saint-Denis Domaine Arlaud 2004. The Blonde and I had tasted the 2002 vintage on Valentine's Day last year, sparking a year-long Morey hunt, and whilst I found the 2004 - somewhat typically of the vintage - to be slightly reticent and acidic, the producer's class was evident in a difficult year and it proved an excellent accompaniment.

The lunch menu's dessert du jour was a roasted apricot with caramelised almond, pistachio mousse, apricot sorbet and vanilla honey glaze, which was at once a piece of showmanship and a delightfully intricate dessert. I ignored desserts in favour of one of the most magnificent cheese trolleys I have ever seen: I remember few details about the cheeses themselves, except to say that the waiter who served them was comprehensive in his knowledge and spot-on in his advice. After his patient yet schoolmasterly insistence that 'Vacherin is out of season', he delivered a superb selection which began with two goat's cheeses, moved on through a smoked cheddar and a soft, Brie-like creamy cheese and finished with a teaspoon (presumably it would have taken a blow-torch to remove it) of a cheese so strong that Customs would close the ports.

We considered opening the Port to accompany our cheese, but it being lunchtime and there being a Twenty20 match at the Oval not to fall asleep in front of, we asked the sommelier for advice on a lighter alternative that would complement our cheese and finish our lunch on the right note. His suggestion of a Apostoles Palo Cortado Muy Viejo was perfect: until he suggested it, I hadn't realised that it was exactly what I wanted; when he did, I knew. Its dry, raisined nuttiness was the ideal conclusion to an excellent lunch.

Next time I decide to pull out all the stops, I can only dream that I would sound a note so sweet as Aikens: his is a kitchen on top form. If Aiken's brigade were a cricket team, they'd be the Australians of Steve Waugh's sixteen victories, modern and inventive yet ruthlessly, efficiently supreme: if Cardus and Arlott were to venture down Elystan Street for one last celestial lunch before finally ascending to the Long Room in the sky, perhaps they'd discover the inspiration to add yet another string to their bow.

Tom Aikens
43 Elystan Street, London, SW3 3NT
020 7584 2003

Food: 10
Drink: 9
Service: 9 (one point docked for topping up our water glasses every 3 minutes)
Atmosphere: 8
Total: 36

Wednesday, 18 June 2008


A north-easterner of my acquaintance (think the lovechild of Malcolm Glazer and Shane Warne, fostered by Alan Shearer and David Starkey) recounted to me yesterday his 'welcome to the south of England' moment, when a friend referred to 'your bog-standard tapas bar'.

We Brits are uniquely good at adopting other people's ideas and rendering them unspeakably mediocre, and so it is with tapas: formerly the leitmotif of an entire nation, expressing at one stroke traditions of relaxed dining, nighttime grazing and long evenings with the sand between your toes, to a generation of Brits 'tapas' now represents small scraps of toenail scrapings consumed by the kind of people who take their own lunch to work, when they wish to show off their going-out shirt and impress with their worldliness their latest attempt to foist their genes upon the world.

And Ortega does not help.

Ortega is quite simply the worst 'restaurant' I have had the misfortune to visit since I made the egregious error of visiting Morocco during Ramadan. We should have read the signs (admittedly not actually a sign in the window with the instruction 'Abandon hope, all ye who enter here', although by law one should be installed in foot-high neon lettering), when on a Friday evening in central London, after abortive attempts to eat in real restaurants, Ortega was empty and practically begging for our custom. The evening started in standard fashion, with little to warn of the horrors to come: a bottle of Cava, consumed in the bar, dulled our senses somewhat before our descent into Hell, but if Ortega wish to follow this line they should invest in Rohypnol. And chain people to their tables.

So, after downing a bottle of Cava and bagging an excellent corner table - it's a great room, wasted on such incompetent idiots - we were feeling primed for the full-on, sand-between-the-toes experience. It was certainly an experience.

Our first warning sign came when the desired bottle of Albarino (a tapas staple, if ever there was one) was unavailable - a fact only discovered after ten minutes' rootling around behind a bar well stocked with tetra-pak Sangria - and requests to replace it with the house white were dismissed with nary an explanation. We settled, somewhat against better judgement - or, indeed, any sort of judgement - on a Macabeo.

There's often a moment, whether it's during a meal, a cricket match, an interview or a date, when you know things are not going to turn out well. Steve Harmison's Ashes assault on second slip springs to mind: if Ortega were Steve Harmison, at this point they'd have delivered the ball directly to the back of midwicket's head.

Our waiter, bringing our distinctly warm Macabeo, decided that to leave any in the bottle would be to waste the capacity of the glasses in which they'd invested: he proceeded, despite the presence of four full glasses of Cava already on the table, to empty our entire bottle of wine in our glasses, making a great show of extinguishing the last drop and suggesting to me, holding the bottle aloft like the spoils of battle, that I might like another. I didn't. And I won't.

I object, in the first place, to the constant topping-up of wine glasses: I wish not only to pace my own drinking (fast, usually, but not as fast as accountants, and apparently waiters, would like), but also to allow my wine to develop in the glass without the constant interference of another slug from the bottle. I object to being pressured to buy another bottle, and I certainly object to wine - already warm - being poured before we'd finished our drinks. This wasn't so much wine breathing as dying: not waving, but drowning.

I was in such a foul mood by this point - before any food had arrived - that Tom Aikens could have turned up with a portable stove and cooked his entire tasting menu for me to share with Michael Vaughan and I would still have gone home disappointed. Tom Aikens was apparently busy, however - perhaps rescuing London's reputation from the abyss into which Ortega seems intent on dragging it - so, unfortunately, Ortega's own 'chefs' send forth their best efforts.

It's difficult to write anything about the food itself. It wasn't bad. It certainly wasn't good. Its only saving grace was that the portions were so small.

55 Charterhouse Street, London, EC3V 6HA

Food: 5
Drink: 2 (decent Cava salvages 2 points)
Service: 0
Atmosphere: 3
Total: 10

Tuesday, 17 June 2008


"Btw, Vinoteca is my favouritist place in the whole world". As a morning-after assessment from the Recanted Vegetarian, one of my most fastidious foodie friends, it's an invitingly simple recommendation that should be stencilled on the window in five-foot high letters. Such a succinct verdict captures the charm of Vinoteca so perfectly that the City firms who specialise in charging vast sums of money for telling people what they already know should be clamouring for his services.

Vinoteca inspires such a child-like, wide-eyed admiration that the sheer simplicity of the concept almost goes unnoticed. Simplicity is the name of the game here: a small room, simply furnished, with brasserie-style oak furniture and a short, classic but ever-inventive menu. As I'm often moved to complain after yet another disappointing gastropub meal, if you're going to do simple, you've got to do perfect, and Vinoteca does. The room is always immaculate (faint praise, perhaps, but I'm constantly astonished by the number of restaurants and bars littered with cardboard boxes and yesterday's coffee cups), the staff are bright, relaxed and impeccably-informed, and the food is creative, hearty and perfectly judged.

The central pillar of Vinoteca's success, though, is the lengthy, lovingly-compiled, awe-inducing wine list. If, like me, you ignore the menu in favour of the wine list for at least the first twenty minutes of any meal, you'll find yourself being swept up at midnight having not even glanced at the food on offer: even the most perfunctory scan down the list will draw nods of recognition, exclamations of surprise and gasps of I-thought-I-was-the-only-one-who-knew.

Two recent visits demonstrate the versatility of Vinoteca's concept: one on a dull Monday in the office, when a walk to Smithfield and a lengthy lunch seemed the only respite from the long minutes of corporate slump, and the other late on a Friday evening with the Recanted Vegetarian, seeking solace after an extraordinarily incompetent meal at Ortega (about which more Whining later).

Our evening visit, after a meal of such appalling hopelessness that anger subsided in favour of pitying disbelief, was the perfect tonic to the rough end of London's abscess of restaurant mediocrity. The Recanted Vegetarian and I almost exhausted our thirsty friends' patience in our increasingly excitable perusals of the wine racks, before settling on a mind-bogglingly good bottle of 'Hilltops' Shiraz from Clonakilla. The bar staff, including one with the most encyclopaedic knowledge of the Canberra District I've ever encountered, coped admirably with my requests for an ice bucket, a decanter, and, later, an ice bucket for the decanter, and struck the balance between satisfying our anorak pretensions and allowing our friends to believe that we might one day remove our noses from the glass and speak to them. Our faith in humankind restored by one of the deepest, most fragrant bottles of Australian Shiraz I've ever tasted, we finished with a chilled half-bottle of Quinta do Infantado Tawny Port and wandered (read: ran headlong for the last Tube) into the night.

At lunchtime the following Monday, Vinoteca was the perfect hideaway, with owner Brett Woonton (he of the Refreshers-tube shirts and Media glasses, formerly of Enotria and the superb Liberty Wines) manning the bar and a restaurant full of work-shy twenty-somethings. My companion - a Diesel-wearing, Aviator-sporting, Vespa-riding management consultant, achingly cool despite living with his parents in Richmond - had a chargrilled Bavette steak (medium-rare, as instructed on the menu: that's a gratifyingly ballsy chef) with the menu-paired glass of Dolcetto, whilst I came over all vegetarian and had an excellent asparagus tart, always a tricky one to match, with an honest, crisp, citrussy Vin de Pays du Gers. We finished with espressos (i?) and homemade chocolate truffles, before rolling back to the office in a considerably finer mood.

Simplicity is an admirable aim. When food is well-sourced and a menu well constructed, when a wine list is carefully selected, when the room is simply furnished, and when the staff are pleasant and knowledgeable, the perfect restaurant needs little more. Too often, the search for simplicity ends up falling short of even the most conservative expectations, but Vinoteca leaves even the harshest critic reaching for his dusty adjectives of acclamation: it is, quite simply, the finest wine bar in London, and, indeed, a strong contender to be my favouritist place in the whole world.

Vinoteca, 7 St John St, Smithfield, London, EC1M 4AA
020 7253 8786

Food: 7
Drink: 10
Service: 7
Atmosphere: 9
Total: 33