London

Gauthier, London, 2019

The set-up for the BST festival is a shambles. Weaving our way past the pissed groups of girls here to sing away their heartbreak to Florence and her Machine, over the blanket-marked territories of young families far too in-field for nappy changes, we find ourselves at Hyde Park border control some 100m away from the stage. From here we can see the barren gap of high-vis jackets keeping us, the fans, from the front pit containing, err, not many people at all. That pit, we would find out, is made-up of those who were first through the doors, those who paid a chunk more for the privilege, and those whose careers amount to posting pictures on Instagram as ‘collabs’. I don’t like those who are in it for the ‘gram: the free-loading, waste of perfectly good oxygen, self-entitled jizz stains who think that posting an over structured picture twice a day surmounts to a career. It doesn’t. We reach these barriers as the last of Lykke Li’s ‘I Follow Rivers’ chimes out, as a swarm of flailing arms knock the life out of my six quid pint of beer. If only security hadn’t been so quick to spot the Hubble telescope I tried to sneak in I may have been able to get a view of her. We’re here for The National, a band we follow around far too often. They are as glorious as ever; deft and slow burning, with melodies that creep up on the subconscious over hundreds of listens. We find that we are stood in a community of like-minded people who sway and gently sing the lyrics to each song. It’s a moment that not even BST’s pathetic segregation can ruin; The National are as astonishingly good as ever.

We combined this with a restaurant whose tables I have sat at the same amount of times I have seen The National. I have been coming to Gauthier for many years, the first almost ten years ago to the day when my mate Barry and I were in the capital to watch Kings of Leon at a pre-barrier BST. That day our train was late and we never had time to change, meaning that I was in torn jeans and Barry was wearing a vest with a cardigan and dusty pink tapered trousers that sat around the rim of his buttocks and showed his boxers off. The dining room was a staid affair; there were many business meetings going on that all bore witness to Barry Joseph’s stout arse grazing over their shoulders as he walked to and from the loo. If I remember correctly, the two of us got stuck into a lot of burgundy and I barely remember leaving the restaurant, nevermind the gig. My further visits have all been under the guise of happy relationships. They worked, temporarily at least like a bookies pen, helped out by the most romantic of dining rooms, headed up by a front of house team who could polish the most tired of couples into something gleaming for a couple of hours. When we received a voucher for lunch after purchasing a case of rosé from their inhouse wine business, it became clear that it would be the ideal place to eat before the gig. And what a good decision it was: Gauthier was as astonishingly good as ever.

Somethings have changed since the last visit. My view across the table is now different, though more importantly chef patron, Alexis Gauthier, has gone vegan. It’s a move that can be felt even when not eating from the vegan menu given that the nibbles, amuses, pre-desserts, and canapes are all animal and dairy free. We start with a jar of ‘faux gras’ to share between two with a piece of bread each to spread upon. The pâté is a dense mix of mushrooms, walnuts, beetroot, garlic and onions; rich, earthy, and dare I say it, meaty. We have the recipe to make at home.  This is followed by capanota with bread crumbs. The stewed vegetables, consisting mostly of aubergine and peppers, are quite high on vinegar which is pleasing and stops the mouthfuls from being too rich this early on. The breadcrumbs are inspired. It is a very good start. I over order on bread, taking a raisin roll, tomato roll, and cube of basil foccacia. Whilst I don’t care for the tomato bread, or the butter it is served with, I would go back for more of the other two.

Claire has bavette for her starter, the core of the beef the colour of the Merlot paired with it. The meat is on a slab of brioche, with tapenade and pesto; a kind of open steak sandwich that draws purrs from across the table. I go for the summer truffle risotto because I’ve had it before and there was never any chance that I was ordering anything else. Truffles in Europe generally don’t taste of much this time of year (Australian is an entirely different beast), though these are of good quality; perfumed and not too woody in texture. The risotto is superb, light from more mascarpone than parmesan, the grains loose and with even texture. The meat jus around the peripherals adds another layer of flavour. It’s pretty special.

Both mains contain real ‘wow’ moments. A lamb dish has loin cooked to the ideal medium, slow braised shoulder, carrots, and broccoli. We get a little giddy over the heavily reduced sauce which is meaty without overpowering, and tear up over the black garlic gnocchi. This is the reason black garlic is made; to sit within fluffy pillows of flour and potato and load up the umami in tiny steps, not one big crash. Opposite me is cod poached in olive oil and thyme, lightly cooked until the flakes start to part ways on their own accord. There are morels and something called ‘salty fingers’ which is what I used to give to dates in the cinema during my teenage years. The star this time is the fish veloute; lightly licked with acidity and bursting with the taste of the ocean, it holds everything in place, linking the protein, the earthy notes and the salty verdant.

A pre dessert of lemon granita with peaches is contained within a meringue-like structure made from chickpea water, which I decided I would hate before I ate it and then really enjoyed. It made me think that I could come back here and try the vegan tasting menu, until I considered that would mean no truffle risotto or no Louis XV dessert. The latter of those was the choice for both of us to finish lunch, given that I insisted on it. The Louis XV is one of the great desserts, born in Ducasse’s 3* Monaco dining room. It is a posh kit kat with layers of mousse, feuillantine, and dacquoise, which are culinary terms and not Arsenal’s front three next season. It eats like a dream, indulgent and complex. The table next to use are celebrating: “the problem with that dessert is that there is never enough” they tell us between ordering more champagne. They are not wrong.

What I don’t like are the vegan petit fours, because a cake without dairy is just a stodgy clump of sadness. None of this matters though; this was a very impressive lunch in a restaurant I continue to hold in high regard. The bill for the above with two glasses of champagne, four glasses of wine, two ports, and a couple of dish supplements is just over £150 – a steal given the quality. Gauthier is one of London’s top kitchens. I hope to still be coming back in a further ten years time.

Chick’n’Sours, London

I want Chick’n’Sours to open up in Birmingham. There, I’ve said it. I know I should be using this opening paragraph to set tone and meter, but fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ll do how I please. I want them to open up in Birmingham really badly. I want the people who think that we have good fried chicken to eat their fried chicken and go ‘woah, hold on there, sister’, and shake their wrists until the fingers on their flaccid hands crack off one another, and dab, and floss, and raise eyebrows like they’ve just witnessed a man taking a shit in a public park. All of these are valid reactions to good fried chicken.

I know they do good fried chicken because I have really good taste buds, and my girlfriend who usually does, but is ill on this particular day, says things like “I can’t taste a thing and they still are really good. I can’t imagine how good they taste to you”, to which I dab and floss and raise my eyebrows in the same way that I did when I witnessed a man taking a shit in a public park on the way to work one day. True story. He didn’t even wipe. We wipe frequently with the baby wipes and the kitchen roll provided, though any of the sauces committed to anything other than the mouth would be a waste. Our lunch starts with pickled watermelon rinds, sweet and perfumed, with only a little vinegar astringency, moving on to nachos with bacon and I think seasoned with chicken skin, that are really quite frantic. It’s difficult to decscribe how the palate reacts to this and a loose cheese sauce, kimchi, with the occasional searingly hot chilli hidden for shits and giggles. Literally both shits and giggles with this amount of chilli and dairy. At times it’s all very fugitive, but also crack levels of addictive. I’ll take this combination over something more cohesive and dull any day of the week.

Chicken tenders are obscene strips of breast meat coated in what looks like poultry armour, a kind of riff on KFC only without the mutant chickens who live in sheds that nobody is allowed in, and those chickens are 20ft high and they don’t know why they are so big, and they look down at all the little chickens and think they are in an aeroplane because they are so small. Do KFC deny this? I think the silence speaks volumes. Anyway, back to this little underground gem in Covent Garden where these tenders are pretty much perfect when dredged through a perky blue cheese dip loaded with umami. Two side dishes appear; the first cucumbers in a sauce I cant really get to terms with, the second pickled watermelons dressed in a complex sauce that has vinegar, sugar, and fish sauce in amongst the mix. These are the second best things you can do with a watermelon; the first being sweet pickling the rinds, of which we are now on our second batch.

And then there are the wings that have me reaching for the tissues once again. Yes, chicken wings do turn me on this much, and no, I really don’t care that we are in public. Two flavours; hot and kung po, both with sauces as thick and reduced as the Tory leadership contest, which dress the fat wings and sit in every crevice like a lycra top a size too small. It’s not just great fried chicken; this is great cooking which plays on the five taste sensations throughout. Seriously skillful and a stupid amount of fun at the same time. It’s the real deal.

The above menu for two clocks in at £16 a head. Yes, you have read that correctly. It has to be one of London’s true bargains. Now I’m bound to secrecy on this, but I have it on good authority that Mr Chick’n’Sours himself is in Brum at the end of July for one night at one of our best (maybe the best) restaurants. I’m guessing it will be a lot more than £16 a head, but I’ll be there, and so should you. And if the main man himself is reading this right now, please do come say hello. I’ll be happy to show you around and maybe point out a site or two where I am positive they’ll be queuing out the doors to eat your food. One night is not going to be enough.

9/10

Can’t wait for them to come to Birmingham ? Let’s all split an A2B and go to London

Breddos Tacos, London

When thinking about food it is difficult to understand that not everyone has the same excellent taste as us. Reader, I already know that you have excellent taste because you could be reading any of the average food blogs out there, yet you’re here, settled in with a mug of tea and ten minutes to kill with the best. And little old me, well my lunch breaks are filled with research so that we can all be together in this marriage of meals. But not everyone can be so fortunate. I saw the other side of the coin whilst in London recently. Whilst postioned in the central area, I saw crowds amass in Benugos and Prets. I saw workers enter the dirtiest of cafes for £3.50 portions of Lasagne, and others queue for tables at Pizza Express. In one of the greatest cities in the world to eat, the largest groups were settling for that old lover, familiarity. If the last two years have taught me anything it’s that we’re a nation not very good with change, and even when we do want it, we’re awful at delivering it. Old Blighty is still stuck on Friday night fish and chips, Sunday lunches, and warm pints of Carling. We don’t want the danger of the unknown when Pizza Express are still churning out their version of Only Fools and Horses and we know every single word. The reason why just over half of this country made a bad decision about our future is because half the country are still rooted in the past, with their casual racism and view that the new is dangerous. We can have the brightest, most adventurous of humanity at the front, though as long as the old guard are holding on to the rope at the rear any progress will be minimal.

I can’t see tacos passing muster with the old guard. It’s something about the size; that down-the-hatch-in-one mouthful which doesn’t fit with the burly portions of Britain whereupon anything not touching the edges of the plate is considered a starter. To the rest of us they feel like a natural progression, from the awful pulled pork years, through to the burrito and now it’s daintier and far prettier sister. The taco is malleable; a scoop of the good bits untainted by the filler of rice. I head to Breddos for mine, because I have taste and also because it is conveniently located a four minute walk away from the evening party I have to attend. I sit in the window and order a frozen margarita, some tortilla cheese dip thingy and three tacos. That dippy thing is a mixture of three cheeses that appears to be a pretty even mix of mature hard cheese and more stringy mozzerella types, topped with a salsa that has a healthy kick in amongst the onion. The corn chips are nice, but the whole thing is ultimately just tortillas and cheese sauce.

Next time I’ll load up on nothing but tacos. The three I have is probably enough, but I’ll go for much more. The masa fried chicken is a dead cert, given that the corn flour has a pleasing crunch from the same base as the tacos themselves, with pickled cabbage, a little salsa, and mayo that zips with heat. Likewise I’ll be ordering the black bean with pickled onions again. This was the surprise for me, the beans had bite and a little meatiness to them, with a hot sauce that burns just enough. It is one thing to make a taco great with some fried chicken, but to do it with not much more than beans and onions is seriously impressive.

I have another frozen margarita and pay up the bill for £24, before leaving to act like a consummate professional for a couple of hours. I’d heard many a good thing about Breddos from friends in the know, and I’d pretty much agree with their opinion. These are some of the best tacos I’ve tried; constructed with the precision of an architect and loaded with layers of flavour. As I finish writing this it is confirmed that Breddos will be heading to Moseley for a one-off Sunday session at Carters. Let’s hope they enjoy the area enough to stick around on a more permanent basis.

8/10

Top Ten Dishes of 2018

I’ll be sad to see the back of this year. Unlike the personal life chaos of 2017, this year has been one of balance and progression. I’ve had a promotion at work, been on several lovely holidays, and changed the tact of this blog. We’ve eaten a few shocking meals, and many, many, many good ones. With the rest of this year’s posts eaten and all but written, I thought now would be a good time to reflect on the very best dishes of the year. It’s been a tough one to collate, and honourable mentions must go to Daniel et Denise, Purnell’s, and Maribel who have just missed out on this list.

10) Pain de Epice Soufflé, Bergamot ice cream at Cheal’s, Henley-in-Arden

The only dessert on this list and for good reason. A gingerbread soufflé that harks back to my first visits to Simpsons; textbook in flavour and texture, and bought up-to-date with a bergamot ice cream that works harmoniously with the spice.

Read the full review here.

9) Stone Bass with courgette and crispy caviar at The Wild Rabbit, Kingham

I have no issue in saying that on paper this was the course I was least looking forward to during a lengthy lunch at The Wild Rabbit. It proved to be a beauty, with fish that flaked at the nudge of a fork, and the genius addition of crispy caviar – a blend of potato, onion and caviar – which elegantly seasoned it. Head Chef Nathan Eades is playing to their strengths here, utilising the vast Daylesford organic farm a couple of miles away. And it shows, with the courgettes on this plate treated with as much respect as the more luxurious items.

Read the full review here.

8) Tortilla at Bar Nestor, San Sebastián

The fabled tortilla of Nestor for which crowds form an hour before he opens for one of the sixteen slices. It is so worth it. Where the key ingredient is love (and maybe caramelised onions). There is much to love at this little spot in the old town, like the Galacian beef for two, but this stands out by itself. The best tortilla in the world, where it is impossible to believe something so good can come from just eggs, potato, onion, salt and pepper. Once seduced, we had it every day of the holiday.

Read the full review here.

7) Turnip, parmesan, autumn truffle at Folium, Jewellery Quarter

Lots of people I respect told us to go to Folium, so we knew it was going to be good, though neither of us really expected it to be that good. This dish was the star; a loose take on a carbonara, with ribbons of the root veg standing in for pasta. The additions of mushroom, parmesan emulsion, lardo, and truffle add huge amounts of umami. Utterly brilliant stuff.

Read the full review here.

6) Lobster with sauce American at Azurmendi, Bilbao.

A true three star experience at one of the finest restaurants in the world. Technically perfect with innovation running throughout, the highlight was this poached lobster which ate every bit as well as it looked. The balance between the acidity of the sauce and richness of the coffee butter was impeccable. Seriously classy stuff.

Read the full review here.

5) Taglioni with butter and white truffle at Laghi’s Deli, Edgbaston.

The discovery of Laghi’s has been a personal favourite of mine this year. They shine most when the quality of the ingredients are allowed to sit at the forefront, with no dish showcasing that better than this off menu dish. Taglioni made by the fair hands of mother Laghi, dressed in melted butter and plenty of white truffle from Alba. The pasta at Laghi’s is a joy, matched only by the sense of hospitality from this family restaurant.

Read a review of Laghi’s here.

4) Lasagne of wagyu beef and celeriac at Harborne Kitchen, Harborne.

Want proof that a restaurant can be a fun place to work? Go Harborne Kitchen, where everyone looks like they’re enjoying being there. The results of this freedom are best demonstrated by this dish that takes the homeliness of lasagne, swaps the pasta for celeriac, adds a rich wagyu beef ragu, and finishes with an indulgent cheese sauce. It’s comfort food of the highest order from a kitchen that continues to progress and innovate. I’m going back for it next week before they take it off the menu.

Read a review of Harborne Kitchen here.

3) Langoustine and sweetbread at Core by Clare Smyth, London

Core feels like the end product of a chef who has travelled the world, working and eating their way around the very best kitchens. The two stars they recently received appears to be just the start, with Clare Smyth striking me as someone who won’t stop until her restaurant is talked about in the same breath as the very finest in the world. The lunch we had was nigh on perfect, with this starter the pick of the bunch. Two proteins and two sauces equate to one cohesive dish full of nuance and control.

Read the full review here.

2) Soft shell crab at Opheem, Jewellery Quarter

I very nearly chose the pork with vindaloo sauce, but I’m sticking this in because it demonstrates how Aktar Islam has progressed as a chef. I’ve eaten this dish of his in various guises about half a dozen times. Each time I marvel at how it has improved, and consider that version to be the ultimate. Now the dish feels perfect; a marriage of modern technique and classic flavours. More importantly, it is a tribute to the crab, to the delicate bits of white meat and the more pungent brown meat. Aktar is redefining Indian cuisine in a way we have never seen before in the UK.

Read a review of Opheem here, here, and here.

1) Pork Char Sui and Crab Katsu at Ynyshir, Wales

I know I’m cheating, but this is my blog, and frankly I don’t care what you think. I can’t choose between these dishes so they get joint top spot, and they absolutely deserve it. Ynyshir has stepped it up another level this year, delivering full-on unadultered flavour that smashes you in the face continually over four or so hours. These two dishes were new to me and both blew me away for the clarity of flavour. That pork char sui melts away in the mouth leaving a finish that dances between sweet and savoury, whilst the crab katsu manages to still put the delicate crab at the forefront whilst the katsu ketchup lingers in the background. Gareth Ward continues to churn out future classics at what I believe to be the UK’s best restaurant.

Read this years posts on Ynyshir here and here.

And the top one taxi firm of 2018 goes to A2B for continuely ferrying my fat arse around.

Core by Claire Smyth, London

I don’t think you ever fully get over losing a parent. Almost four years on, with the pain all but diminished and just the good times lingering on in the heart, I am still reminded of Mom in the smallest of gestures. A few weeks back it was in the bathroom of a flat she has never visited, me bent over the sink, taking that beard of mine down from unkempt to preened. I cleaned out the sink to the best of my manly capabilities; a few hairs remained dotted around the peripherals. I laughed internally. These dozen or so specks of my face will probably go unnoticed by Claire, but to my Mom they would have been the catalyst for war. In her world you left the bathroom as you found it or you risked her wrath. And we never risked her wrath; we were too wise to that. More recently we were sat in Core by Clare Smyth when it happened again; a carrot cooked in lamb fat and topped with straggly bits of the meat, sat in a puddle of heavily reduced cooking liquor. Once again I was a child; six, maybe seven years old, dunking thick slices of Warburtons bread into Mom’s lamb stew whilst watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on telly. A happy place. My mother was generally an awful cook: everything was left on the heat for far too long, which is what made her stews so special. The cheap cuts would be braised down over endless hours so that the fat became wobbly nuggets of flavour and the sinew broke down to nothing. Vegetables would be cut too chunkily so that the edges crumbled and the insides a soggy mess, whilst the sauce had globules of meat fat dotted around the surface and was thick enough to paint a wall with. Everything tasted of lamb. I adored it and this starter in a two star restaurant in West London served as a reminder of why I did. It conjured up memories of the smell wafting through the house whilst Mom and I played cards on the living floor. Of how regardless of how swanky the location the most important ingredients are love and the desire to feed. I could have cried, had I not been very conscious that every member of the floor team had an eye on every movement of every table at all times. Nobody likes a crying diner. They ruin the appetite.

We’d been looking forward to this lunch for some time. I’d eaten the food of Clare Smyth before, a few years back when she was chef patron of Ramsay’s three star gaff on Royal Hospital Road. At that point in my life it was the highlight of my culinary experiences, the first time that food and service of the highest quality alligned. I met her briefly afterwards and thanked her. It is another great memory. Fast forward to a freezing cold November afternoon and we had fought through the tourists of Portobello Road to the smart white-fronted building that bears her name. The inside is deliberatly unfussy. No tableclothes, books elevating lights, neutral coloured walls and tasteful art. The touch of a women is obvious. Nothing is harsh; it is soft and appealing. Claire is obsessed by the dried flowers that are tucked neatly in to the menu and spends ten minutes taking pictures whilst I peruse the menus. £65 for three courses is a bargain, less so the wine list. We take a Beaujolais at £90 that you can pick up for about £30.

Tables are quickly rearranged for the opening play, a spread of small bites on an array of custom made surfaces. A tartlet of eel with dashi jelly, nori, and vinegar is exceptionally well balanced, as are cheese and onion gougeres made with the lightest of choux. Crispy duck wings arrive under a cloche of orange smoke and are quickly devoured. Best is the foie gras tartlet with madeira jelly that is silky smooth and massive in flavour. A wholegrain sourdough follows with butter from Normandy. I’ve become a little obsessed with sourdough of late: this is up there with the very best.

I had that carrot and lamb dish as a starter, the memories flooding back as the rich ovine flavour surrounded everything, with only a dollop of sheep milk yogurt and carrot top pesto for respite. On the side was a little bun made with lamb fat that had more confit meat in the centre. It was designed to mop up the sauce, which we do with great pleasure. Claire had a dish she had long been eyeing up on social media: A pan fried sweetbread with a gently cooked langoustine, pickled carrot and the hint of anise from fennel seeds. To this was poured two sauces that met concisely in the centre; a vin juane and the lightest of lobster bisques. Proper three star cooking that balances the rich and the acidic with ballerina-like poise. It was the sum of equals, where nothing outdoes its counterparts. Harmonious perfection.

There has been much talk of Core’s emphasis on vegetables, though to me the most obvious skill was the continuation of flavour. Just like the lamb carrot dish, my main may have listed Roscoff Onion as the main ingredient but the dominant flavour is that of beef. The onion is beautifully decorated with flowers and stuffed with oxtail that melts in the mouth, with a rectangle of short rib braised for two days. A cylinder of confit potato topped with bone marrow tastes like it has been basted in animal fat, though that could just be the sauce that joins the dots and speaks of multiple days labour. If anything the duck main served opposite is even better, with a breast that has crisp rendered skin and meat the colour of Provençal rosè. To the side is a tart of braised duck leg and grapes. Magnificent. Clever additions of Timut pepper and a gel of honey and thyme add light floral notes. But that sauce! Oh my, that sauce. The greatest I can remember, made with duck juices, Madeira, and probably much more. I lean over to swipe some with my bread; a pot arrives of my own to save me the bother and Claire her lunch. Three star service.

Pre-dessert is an apple in appearance and unadulterated flavour. A caramelised apple mousse contains a centre of diced apples in brandy, which combined riffs on the flavours of toffee apple. It’s about as simple as the meal gets. Of the two desserts I am less fussed with the carrot cake that mimics the appearance of the starter, and more taken with their take on the malteaser. It’s a crash of malt, chocolate, and hazelnut on a plate of elaborate feathers. For the first time I finish a course faster than my other half. It is that good.

Petit fours of molten chocolate tart and jellies of sweet wine traditionally conclude the meal before a tiny birthday cake arrives. It’s the little touches that count. Lunch clocks in just shy of £300 and for once I don’t bat an eyelid. It feels value given the level of food and service received. It’s one of the best meals we’ve had, where the flavours are massive, the presentation beautiful, the service slick. It evokes memory of the past whilst pushing boundaries. In the year since Core opened they’ve attained a perfect ten in the Good Food Guide and two Michelin stars, whilst Clare herself has been awarded the world’s best female chef. It seems only a matter of time before Core emulates the previous home of its chef and is awarded the ultimate recognition. Make no doubt about it, this is a true three star restaurant in every sense.

10/10

Pictures by Claire

Elystan Street, Chelsea

I think the first time I was really proud of this blog was when Elystan Street put my first write-up on their website. I struggle with this, I’m horribly competitive and I rarely enjoy my own work, but I am a food fan boy at heart and Phil Howard is right up there with my heroes. Outside of Brum I don’t think there is a chef I’ve eaten more of, from the luxurious splendour of The Square, to Elystan Street, his somewhat more laidback offering. He is one of those chefs that makes an a la carte decision impossible; you want to eat every dish listed and probably would if that didn’t require a remortgage.

We come on a Sunday lunch when the dining room is filled with Chelsea types. It makes for interesting eavesdropping; the table next to us has a son explaining his property plans to his mother. A small pied-a-terre in the city and a larger home on the coast will suffice for him. It’s another world here and this place caters purely for those; there is not much value anywhere on the wine list and very little for under £40 a bottle. Bread is the only introduction to the food and very good it is too, though it’s overshadowed by some truly outstanding butter.

Howard always seems to have a pasta dish present; I recall a hand-rolled macaroni at the previous establishment, whereas today is strozzapretti. Anything shaped like my first initial is fine with me. It’s the carrier for a loose ragu of finely chopped white park beef and a dusting of parmesan. It’s success is in its clarity; the beef is the star and here it is allowed to shine. The rest form the background setting; the pasta a vehicle, the parmesan the umami injection to the engine.

A fat fillet of cod is all butter basted flesh and pearlescent core, with parmesan gnocchi and buttered chanterelles. It’s fat heavy, yet fresh and light with clever acidity. Whoever said cheese and fish don’t go together has clearly never eaten here. Roast pork is just that; thin slices of pig just blushing pink, with cabbage and wedges of apple long massaged with heat. It’s not the prettiest plate of food I’ve eaten, though the flavour is there, in particular the cabbage spiked with lardons. On the side are roast potatoes, crumbly edged though maybe not as soft on the inside as I’d ideally like.

Desserts are no going to threaten the pastry section at Ducasse anytime soon, but then I expect that is entirely their intention. More homely, less fuss. We have a faultless sticky toffee pudding with earl grey ice cream and rice pudding with rhubarb. They are the Ronseal of puddings, which is fine by my girlfriend, who happens to love both of these more than she could ever love me. The ice creams in particular are textbook examples.

The above food, a couple of pre-drinks and a bottle of wine hits just shy of a ton apiece, an amount that sees our three courses arrive in around 40 minutes. Now maybe the clocks move faster in Chelsea, but for almost £200 I happen to see that as rushed. It left a bitter taste in the mouth, a sensation that was further exasperated by relentless perfect Negronis afterwards in the perfect Bar Termini. Maybe they cater for a different type of customer here, but for me the ideal Sunday lunch is a lazy affair slowly reeled out. I don’t want my dessert to arrive six minutes after they’ve cleared away the main plates. Phil Howard remains one of my culinary heroes, though I’ll gladly play those memories out in my head at my own pace, rather than the speedy service at Elystan Street.

Gymkhana, London

The last day of our London blowout saw the bluster of snow quickly gather around our ankles as The Beast rolled onto our shores from the east. We find solace in Mayfair, firstly with the perfect martini in The Connaught, thereafter in the plush leather booths of Gymkhana. The dark panelled upstairs of the restaurant feels like a plush gentleman’s club, with low lighting that that doesn’t bode well for cameras and therefore ideal for one of the most famous men on the planet to enjoy lunch. No, its not me. Mid-lunch I send a picture to my best friend with said superstar accidentally in the background, stating the inevitable of who it is. “Are you eating curry at 2.30pm?” is his response. Yes Nathan, I am. I am in Mayfair, there are no rules here.

Not just any curry though. Curry bestowed with a star by a tyre company and uniformly loved by the denizens of the capital. The service here is slick and discreet, polished more frequently than the table we sit at. Greeting us are three types of popadom; lentil, potato, and tapioca, with three types of chutney. A sweet mango one, another of mint and coriander with a verdant kick, and a feisty dried shrimp one that starts spicy and finishes with the crash of the ocean.

A large plate of potato and chickpea chaat marks the first course. It’s generous as a dish for two to share, though we make a good go at working through the beguiling mix of textures; the snap of wafer, the crunch of sev and little fried bits of potato that have soaked up the tamarind chutney that have kissed everything. Another sharer plate follows of tandoori cauliflower, the florets wearing a cap of thick yogurt. Two very good plates of food that showcase how Indians manage to extract more flavour from vegetables than any other cuisine.

The curry course is less main and more banquet. We don’t even get close to finishing it. There is decadent butter chicken masala that adds weight just by looking at it, and a more a dry spinach and paneer curry that pops with flavour with every mouthful. There is a smoky dal maharani that we mop up with the lightest of naans, and we take a supple roti to spicy potatoes coated in a thick gravy that has us instantly googling the recipe. It is called Dum Aloo Banarasi if you’re interested. And rice. Cant forget the rice. It’s mammoth in portion and obscenely good. Some of the best curry I can recall eating anywhere, and I have eaten a lot of curry as my ghee filled arteries will testify.

Desserts are a bit lost on me in comparison on account of teeth generally not being required to eat them with. Rasmalai is a very good rendition of gloppy cheese balls in milky custard, shown a little bit of wit with the addition of popping candy. Also being eaten by my other half was kheer, a rice pudding, with slices of Seville orange that bring a bright acidity. She loves them both, but then that’s understandable given that she was chowing down on baby food just a few years ago. I can appreciate them, which is an upgrade on my usual stance.

All of this is more remarkable given that eating here can be affordable. The above is all from a £35 four course set menu, to which we add a very good value pinot noir, and some superb cocktails that are worthy of the splurge. It seems remarkably fair given the Mayfair address. I’m late to this particular club as Gymkhana has been sweeping up the awards for several years now, but do I care? Do I heck. I am an instant fan, one that looks forward to future visits. They can give me Indian food this good anytime they like. Yes Nathan, even at 2.30pm on a Tuesday afternoon.

8/10

Honest Burgers, Hammersmith

Having rushed out of London to Birmingham and back at 5am for a 14 hour round trip to see the woman who struck me down with a car four years ago, we were somewhat short of last minute dinner options near our hotel. As lovely as Hammersmith is, it is woefully short of somewhere to eat on a Monday; L’Amorosa is closed, as is the Indian our hotel tried to send us to. We settle for Honest Burger, a small chain of bits of beef between buns beloved of belligerent Londoners. And before those Londoners get shouty for calling them belligerent, yes you bloody are. I’ve travelled on the tube at peak times, I have the footprints on my back to prove it.

They have a nice queuing system that allows us to wait in the pub around the corner until a table becomes available. When one does we are sat upstairs underneath the shadow of the blackboard that is the menu for those with the vision of a mole. We order cocktails in tin cups and bottles of local beer. We get two beef burgers and some bits to ensure we leave full. The beef is served pink they say to which we say fine. Its a solid start for somewhere that charges a little over £40 for burgers and drinks for two.

And then, well, meh. The burgers are boring to the point that they serve to remind me why I quit eating them for a while. The patty is pink but it is also bland, the bun hardly holding its shape. If this was In and Out the emphasis would be on the final word. It’s Five Why’s. Shake Whack. The jalapeño relish and hot sauce one is only distinguishable from the garlic mayo one by levels of attitude. Both have bacon; one crisp, the other not. I get a ribbon of raw fat wedged between my teeth.

The rest is a mixed bag. We get the Paris Hilton of onion rings; they look alright until we get into the doughy interior. The chips, often the bane of the burger shop, are properly good and dusted with rosemary salt. The best bit is the curry sauce that tastes better than my local Indian takeaway. It’s just when the best bit makes up one fortieth of the bill you know there is an intrinsic problem.

Service was ponderous, the bill painful. I could think of half a dozen burger places I would rather eat at for less. And tragically this isn’t the first time this has happened to me in the capital; Bleecker aside I’ve tried little to get me excited. I’ll never have a burger again here. Honest.

5/10

Honest Burger Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

MEATmarket, London

I read a lot of other blogs and a lot of lists. I’m fun like that. Almost always food, always a mixture of the good and the bad; there are those I look up to and those I read to make myself feel better. It’s important to keep your eyes on both the sky and the dirt. One of the things I read a lot about is burgers. Outside of Brum I know about as much about them as I do monogamy and modesty, but my girlfriend loves them so it’s in my interest to keep her happy. I’d have never had found out about Bleecker without reading other blog posts, and those same posts always list MEATliquor (and it’s offshoots for which Covent Gardens MEATmarket is one) as one of the true originals to the burger scene in this country.

So I’m not quite sure what has happened. Maybe the very businesses that they have inspired have surpassed them in quality and delivery. Maybe there offering isn’t as good as it used to be. Maybe it was actually never that good. I don’t know, I can only base it what we had, and what we had was okay. The burger that I see on most lists is the Dead Hippie, a double patty of just pink beef in slender proportions with their famous Dead Hippie sauce that is seemingly a mustard mayo given a kick up the arse with chopped pickles and Worcestershire sauce. It’s messy and difficult to hold (these are plus points, honestly), with a bun that gets too soggy too quickly. The beef is good, but not up there with the best; it’s a little chewy in parts and we chow down on bits that possibly shouldn’t have made the cut. The sauce adds a nice acidity and the diced onions are welcome. It’s a good burger, I’ve just had much better.

The double bacon cheeseburger baffles me for crimes against bacon. We’re back on that double patty and bun though this time with additional thin layers of something dark brown that tastes vaguely of pig. It’s bacon, minced and reformed again, because, y’know, sometimes a rasher just isn’t good enough. They’ve destroyed the essence of what it should be, the fat content and the crisp shard of pure pork flavour, turning it into a just another layer of something brown and grainy that detracts away from a pretty good burger. We switch our attention to battered fillets of chicken breast that give the impression the oil was not hot enough. The batter is flaccid in good places, soggy in others from a coating of buffalo sauce. It makes a bit more sense when dipped into the blue cheese dip.

There is a revelation in the form of a Hot Mess, cylinders of crisp potato that ooze a pungent blue cheese and jalapeno sauce, and less of one with green chilli fries that blast heat with every mouthful. It’s a credit to MEATliquor that the sides are genuinely interesting and I’ve seen very similar options pop up elsewhere, including Birmingham, in a blatant bit of plagiarism.

The bill for all of the above and a couple of soft drinks came in at a few pence under forty quid, which would have been value had we enjoyed lunch. The truth is we both walked away full but underwhelmed, struggling to see what all the fuss is about. I can think of three burgers I’d rather eat in Birmingham and at least another three in London. The burgers at MEATmarket may be of legend, but the competition has not only caught up, but surpassed them.

6/10

Pastaio, London

Not so long ago I was asked for the best Italian restaurant in Birmingham. “There isn’t one”, I said. “Pick another cuisine or go to London”. Whilst harsh, I stand by what I said. Our best Italian restaurants are universally average and I would argue that the food coming out of my kitchen is a damm sight better than the majority of theirs. Give me notice and I’ll braise down some ox cheeks and use the liquor to transform them into a ragu of rich meat. Expect this with homemade tagliatelle and a dusting of aged parmasen. Good Italian cooking isn’t difficult – I can do it, for Christs sake – we’ve just anglicised it to the point of pure laziness.

I have places that I go to for fresh pasta, places that I’m not going to publicise because the queues are large enough already. And then I see a tweet from Nigella Lawson of a potato ravioli with gravy, an oozing egg yolk and white truffle. Take me there and invite Lawson to bring the party whilst you’re at it. As soon we get off the train it’s straight over to Pastaio where a fifteen minute wait has us seated in the week old restaurant.


We try four dishes which is enough to make me want to come back, but possibly not in a mad rush anytime soon. The biggest dissapointment is first; a toastie of sorts with mozzarella, honey, and n’duja. I note the n’duja last because this is barely present – the tiniest of blobs that sits off centre. I’d imagine in it’s full glory this is a dish to savour, just not today.


Pasta is why we are here and that is obviously where their heart lies. With no ravioli and gravy party we plump for wild mushroom tagliatelle. The pasta is silky smooth, the mushrooms delicately cooked with garlic. It’s a joy. Diminutive shells of malloredus pocket a ragu of sausage meat. It’s a grower of a dish, one that I end up clearing despite not enjoying the chewy croutons that work the jaw.


The day belongs to cacio and pepe and bucatini – a 2017 pasta dish if there ever were one. The thick pasta coated in a sauce of parmesan, butter and toasted peppercorns. It’s decadent and brilliantly judged, the ultimate in comfort food.


With dinner booked for two hours later, we opt against dessert, despite developing envy from the neighbouring tables tiramisu. Cheese toastie aside, we had an enjoyable lunch at Pastaio, even if it’s not the earth shattering moment of pasta perfection we longed for. It’s destined to be a success, with long queues in Soho a certainty once word gets around. Me, I’ll be patiently waiting for the potato ravioli and gravy before I consider joining the back of it.

7/10