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.