Soho

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

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 

Kiln, London

Kiln is not for the faint hearted.  It is a restaurant with fire at it’s core.  Heat blazes from the clay kiln pots that are used to cook with here, and pop up from the dishes studded with chilli.  From the raised seating around the food counter it whacks you direct to face like the first steps off the plane on a summer holiday abroad.  It is the remover of clothing, the bead of sweat inducing exhilarating reason that we love obsess over fire.  A meal here is not only an insight into the food of North Thailand, it is a celebration of heat and the results it brings with control and skill.

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To see it in action is part of the theatre.  With electricity reserved only for lighting and refrigeration, all the graft is done by the small team over smouldering bits of clay.  We are handed a menu from which we choose something from every section.  We like the smaller dishes most, the pick being a coarsely ground sausage that packed the biggest of chilli hits.  Chunks of aged lamb are skewered and fused only by the melted ribbons of fat.  These are delicious, as are the chicken thigh glazed in soy in cooked gently through.  It is the most solid of starts.

From the fish section comes langoustines, cured in lime and hardly cooked so that the flesh is still semi-translucent.  It never loses the essence of the shellfish despite the big flavours of holy basil and chilli with every mouthful.  It’s delicate yet punchy, and one of the very best langoustine dishes I have ever eaten.

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We are told that the baked noodle dishes are something of a signature here, so we order them off the back of that.  They prove to be the lunches weak point, the crab lost amongst the sour dressing that you work into the dish yourself, the pig unctuous but equally unremarkable.  It’s nice enough, but for me not up to the same standard as everything else we eat.  We finish up with a beef cheek curry, the texture of the cut of meat similar to how I’ve eaten it in the far east, which is a much quicker cook and firmer texture than the long braising treatment we often give it on these shores.  It divides us; I really like the depth of flavour, complex with anise, galangal, and clove, my dining companion less so.  I finish the bowl off happily, teasing the last of the sauce out with wild rice that still has a little bit to it.

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The bill for all of this with a cocktail and glass of wine comes in at a shade over seventy quid, good value, we both agree.  Kiln is simply a one-off; a sneaky peek into the cuisine for a part of a country not associated with voyeurism like it’s southern half.  It’s a thrilling experience, equally for the punchy style of cooking and theatre.  It’s vibrant and in your face, and worthy of anyone building a sweat up for.

8/10

Kiln Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Temper, London

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I became interested in the concept of Temper long before it opened its doors in December, back when Neil Rankin announced his plans and an entire community of non-meat eaters decided the concept of cooking bits of animal in the middle of a restaurant was a bit too much for their heads to handle. Whilst they were in endanger of spontaneously combusting, I was busy working up a sweat of my own. You see, burning bits of animal is my thing; I understand if it’s not yours, but given the choice I’m always to take a slow cooked bit of cow over a carrot. And if I can watch the magic happen whilst eating said bits of meat then I’m all yours. Take me. Do as you will.

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The first thing that hits you when you descend down the stairs is the smell.  It is one of victory of the food chain in the correct order.  Of smoke and of animal. It wears you more than you wear it.  I take one of the stools around the central counter and watch the team at work.  Various bits of cow, pig, sheep, and goat, each sold in mixed cuts of 100g portions.  There are taco’s, larbs and kofta.  Sides, sauces, and sprinkles.  Aged cheeseburgers are the first to arrive; mini patties of aged beef, rare in the centre and charred on the outer, sat on freshly pressed taco’s the right side of sandy in texture.  It is the perfect two bite snack; meaty, complex and undeniably masculine.

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And then the meat.  Oh Lordy, the meat.  One plate of pork, another of lamb, piled on to flat breads so that the rendered fat has a final resting place.  Each has various cuts, distinguishable only by the amount of fat between meat and skin.  I remark to the chef working by me that the clarity of flavour each cut of meat is extraordinary – “just salt, pepper, and a little fire” is his response.  If only cooking was that simple.  The process works; leaner cuts come pinker than working muscles.  Fat opaque.  Skin crisp.  Some bits require your own teeth, others don’t.  All of it is incredible.  Asking me which one is my favourite would be like asking my Dad to choose between his two sons.  I reckon a decision could be made at a push, but it’s not for my ears.  With this I order a burnt pepper salsa that adds a nice piquancy to both meats and a crumb of pork scratchings, hot pepper and pickled onion that seasons the pork to a new level, as well as providing an additional texture to a bowl of burrata, jalapeno and lime. The latter is an inspired choice of side and one that I reach for in-between mouthfuls of meat to cool and sharpen the palate.

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They do desserts; a soft baked cookie and a caramel drenched pastry.  Both sound like they could genuinely change my world, though by now I am sweating unattractively and unable to finish the slices of goat kindly offered by the same chef who shared his insight.  I sit for a while and take it all in; the place is heaving at lunchtime just weeks after opening and rightly so – these people are here for meat and theatre and both are delivered in abundance.  The smell of fire and animal would stain my jacket for the rest of the day.  I wear it like a badge of honour.

9/10

 

 

Little Bao, Hong Kong

Little Bao is so cool it could be a refrigerator. So on trend it could be a catwalk. So achingly hip it could be arthritic. And I am not alone in this opinion. This I know because eleven minutes after its 6pm opening time, a queue has formed outside the door where a lady with a clipboard organises swarms of people on benches, whilst we look on from our bar stools overlooking the chefs at work. A perk of English punctuality. People queue for a reason; these are not tourists like us, but those who know what they are getting. And they know what we now know – what you get at Little Bao is worth the wait. It is so so good.

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For those uninitiated, a Bao is a steamed milk bun of Taiwanese origin, filled and then, if you are anything like me, quickly devoured.  You don’t need to go to Hong Kong for one – that would be an unnecessary expense – given that London has a restaurant group that specialises in them, and they can be found at numerous street food companies across the country.  But we are in Hong Kong and we have hunted this down like it is the last Thylacine and found the small galley restaurant in the heart of Soho.  Hip-hop plays, the chefs wearing sleeves of tattoos underneath the t-shirts bearing the logo.  Its loud and visceral, pounding with youthful energy.

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I will move on to the main event in good time, though first the sharing plates, each priced around the mid-teen mark when converted back to sterling.  Dumplings, opaque on the underside and pan-fried to a blackened crisp on top, are filled with a beef short rib mixture that has been braised to a tangle of soft meat.  The star of the dish is hidden underneath; a coleslaw of celeriac, not too distant in make-up from a remoulade, which adds a earthiness and crunch to the soft dumplings.  Its a compelling piece of cooking, familiar, yet still a statement of intent.  We fight over the last one.

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Pork cheek is one of my favourite cuts of any animal, cheap, usually slow cooked, and packed full of taste.  Here the meat had been roasted and then sliced to robust cuts of pig, each glistening with ribbons of rendered fat.  The texture was denser, the meat still tender.  A caramelised apple puree, smokey and with a hint of, I think, clove, was smeared around the edge.  Ribbons of fennel spiced with cumin are a revelation.  Who would have known that the anise funk of fennel could be tempered by the pepperiness of the cumin?  Little Bao does, obviously.

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And the bao’s?  Cushioned pillows of milk, flour and yeast which are the ideal bland vehicle for the complex flavours inside.  The pick of the three is the white fish in an ethereal tempura batter, with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce and lightly pickled fennel.  Another has softly braised pork belly, dressed in hoi sin and balanced out with a red onion and shiso salad that is almost as good as the one with deep fried chicken, sharp with black vinegar and hot with Szechuan.  Its like I imagine the best KFC Zinger burger tastes, only without the genetically modified chicken.

We finish on another bao, smaller in stature and fried to a golden crisp.  Inside is a salted milk ice cream drizzled with a caramel sauce.  Whoever thought of this has a mind of pure filth and should become my new drinking buddy with immediate effect.  Remember what I said about not having to go to Hong Kong for Bao?  I take it back.  Forget the Christmas presents for the aunt you don’t like and book yourself a flight.img_8001

This being Hong Kong its maybe a little more than we would expect to pay at home.  The Bao’s are just under a tenner each, cocktails around the same price.  I leave with a bill of just under a hundred pound, which may seem expensive given the casual nature of the restaurant, but seemed very fair to me.  Its a place I could have happily stayed in and indulged in all night, though it was only right that we stepped outside and gave the next in the queue their turn.  It may be little by name but the flavours here are massive.

9/10

Gauthier Soho, London

The menu at Gauthier Soho reads like porn to a tragic food fan like me. It’s an ode to seasonality from the seasoned hands of a French wizard. It talks of truffles and lobsters and foie gras and cuts of beef from places in France that sound fun to visit. It has veloutes, fondants, and torchons. The only way it could be any more Gaelic is if the bread basket was mounted to the front of a bicycle. It’s the kind of menu that requires attention.

The building also requires attention. A town house in murky Soho, with a bell on the door to gain access. It has three floors on which to eat and basement from which they cook. The décor is understated, the tables generous in space and with a single candle to provide light, which did wonders for my fading looks but little for the photo’s. I know it’s asking a lot, but you’ll have to trust me with a lot of the dishes as the pictures are too poor to do justice to what was served.

What was served was three hours of exhilarating food, starting with a perfectly cooked lobe of foie, roasted peach and elderflower crisp. The fruit and forage providing the acidity and sweetness to stand up to the fatty liver. A veloute of pea had goats cheese and confit lime, each giving a little interest with every mouthful. Its very clever cooking, showcasing technique and a knowledge of ingredients. This was approach was evident in a jaw dropping risotto of black truffle. The flavour deep and controlled, the grains loose and evenly cooked. There was perfume from the truffles and a meatiness from the veal stock which leant against the edge of the bowls. Never have I eaten a better risotto.

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A singular piece of stunning crispy pork belly was served with two pieces of loin stuffed with olives, some apricots, and beetroot that was a little too al dente for my liking. This was the only time in the meal that it felt out of proportion, with too much of the loin and not enough of the unctuous belly to balance out the tart apricot. There was more of the beetroot on a veggie main with tempura leaves and a ricotta and basil gnocchi that could have been a lot lighter. The kitchen was quickly back on form with a crimson red beef fillet, fondant potato and marrow stuffed with bone marrow. This was proper, grown up cooking, the fondant in particular oozing with butter.

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Charlois Beef

To finish off proceedings we had a cheese plate and two desserts. The first was a strawberry mousse, with wild strawberries, lemon sherbet sorbet and a tuile that was allegedly made from balsamic. It was a stunning dish that made the showcased the end of season strawberries at their very best. The final dish was a chocolate croustillant that Gauthier learnt plying his trade at Alain Ducasses’ three star restaurant in Monaco. It is the fourth time I have had this dish and this one is every bit as good as those I have previously had in establishments bearing Ducasses’ name. The chocolate and praline layers creating something textually reminiscent of a kit-kat, but a flavour so indulgent you feel the button of your trousers tighten just by looking at it.

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Louis XV

So there you are, five hundred or so words of me blathering on about a house in Soho that cooks up brilliant dishes from it’s basement. The food here doesn’t follow trends – it follows seasons and it does so with the up-most of appreciation.  Everything here is treated with respect and the technique which has sat at the forefront of French cuisine for hundreds of years. Escoffier would be proud. Ooh La La.

9/10

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