28 December 2012

Oslo Court

If British food in the 1980s was so bad, why is Oslo Court still going and remains so popular? 

If you haven't been there don't fool yourself into thinking that this place isn't a representation of what is considered a dark age for food in London.  This is the apotheosis of 80s dining. It's got the menu with over a dozen starters and mains, plus the 'specials' that miraculously are the same every day.  There's the salmon wallpaper, the entrance through a cloakroom and the obsequious staff.  Oh and it's located in a block of flats occupied entirely by alter kakers, on a street that if we're honest, is lucky to be able to call itself St Johns Wood.  Nothing about this place screams success.  There are no burgers, it's not east London, nor is it part of the Soho House group, tight jeans and dodgy moustaches are not de rigeur and neither is ennui.  

And yet, it is a roaring success.  Or at least, it's always busy and everyone comes away raving. I think I've cracked their rather complex formula, so for those not mathematically minded please bear with me:

a + b = c

where a = good ingredients well cooked; b = hospitable service (focused on the customer) and c = a good meal.

So yes you do have to walk into a block of flats and yes it does remind me of grandma's and papa's in Golders Green.  It's a bit like that block of flats in Poirot.  Then there is the entrance via the cloakroom into the Hyacinth Bucket inspired salmon wallpapered dining room.  But, there are also the staff who seem genuinely pleased to see you, the melba toast on your table that is crisp and the balls of butter that are well salted. Also on the table is a large plate of crudités and a punchy aioli.  Soon enough the menus arrive, so does some warm bread.  It's all so slick, pleasant and enjoyable.

The cynic might think that they're filling us up to sate our appetite before the measly/insipid food arrives. The cynic would be wrong.  I started with a fish soup, that was good, although not the best I've had and did leave me with diner's regret for not ordering the salmon and trout terrine.  Main course was a large, perfectly cooked sole meunière.  The sole was firm, but came away from the bone in large slugs with a small tug of the fish knife (I know).

The one duff note was the famed side dishes.  The restaurant is renowned for serving an obscene choice of sides and if you so much as raise an eyebrow in interest, they serve it to you.  I found all the sides we tried a disappointment, largely through oversalting.  The roast potatoes had been sitting around too long.  The deep fried courgettes were soggy and salty.  The cauliflower cheese lacked flavour and was also soggy, as was the spinach. Despite my high expectations being dashed on the rock of reality, it wasn't enough for me to write off the meal.  It was a disappointment but given it was just the sides, I will let them off.  Perhaps I'm getting soft.

Desserts are another highlight if only because they are served by Neil, who is surely the campest man alive. Camp or not, he loves his dessert and has a certainty rarely seen that whatever he is selling is the greatest dessert known to man.  I can vouch for the very good, but rather too-large strudel.  Flaky pastry and well flavoured apple filling.  A fitting end to the meal.

It was mostly well cooked food, served with care and at times passion.  At just over £40 per head, it is reasonable for what it is. Perhaps the 80s were a high point for British food, we just forgot for too long how to do the good bits. 

Google Maps

Oslo Court, Charlbert Street, London NW8 7EN, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7722 8795

What others think

Matthew Norman - ...so far as serving precisely what the punters want with warmth and patience, the Spanish family who run it are in the premier league.

Howard Jacobson -  I don't say that eating at Oslo Court proves his ordinariness, because there is nothing ordinary about the place, but it shows an unconventionality and daring, not to say exuberance, we don't normally associate with him.

07 September 2012

Rosh Hashanah 2012

This is all feeling rather rushed.  

A week to go until Rosh Hashanah and I haven't really given what I'm going to make much thought.  I don't know which meals I'm making - lunch tends to be the biggie in our family - and there are two days of the Jewish New Year.  At the moment I may be doing just one, or both. Even if I only do one lunch, I still need to provide dinner for the family.  Light and simple will be the watchwords for dinner.

Chopped liver is certain to make an appearance - although I have to confess that last year it got binned just as people were loading it on to their forks.  It seemed I got a bit too eager, made it a day or so early and it had started to turn.  Not my kitchen memory.

The slow roast shoulder of lamb with honey and cider was popular last year.  I might reprise, but I was wondering if I can do something with pomegranates.  Figs crossed my mind as well, but perhaps they'd be just too sticky and sweet.

Rosh Hashanah this year runs from dusk on Sunday 17 September to dusk on Tuesday 19 September. That I have all day to prepare on Sunday makes me think I could use the opportunity and smoke a brisket. If I end up doing two days I could have smoked brisket on the first and use the left overs (assuming they exist) on the second for a West One Deli inspired chili.

Then again, bollito misto is easy and generous, salt beef is fun to make and I nailed the recipe last year. Oh, such decisions.  Ah, I've just remembered about Orbs of Joy.  They're a keeper.  Last year I talked about making baked beans.  I didn't.  Maybe this year.

I like to think I can be organised enough to make my apple, honey and crushed pepper sorbet again.  At the very least, I've sourced Indig's babka, the babka to end all babka's according to babka maven Dan 'Young & Foodish' Young.  

But I suppose I should bake my own.

On the baking theme, I've just started a sourdough starter and I was wondering about sourdough challa. We shall see.

I really should start planning and ordering and cooking.

Before I do, a happy and healthy new year to you all.

03 September 2012

The diplomacy of dinner

I've just read two very different but good books. Accepting the inherent risk of judging them by their covers, the WWII history and Dutch novel couldn't be more different. As it turns out, they share a central theme: the power of the table as a diplomacy tool.

The Dinner by Herman Koch is the narrator's perspective of one meal, eaten with his wife, brother and sister-in-law. The meal takes place in what is clearly a fayn dayning restaurant in Amsterdam. The narrator, Paul Lohman, is keen to be anywhere but the restaurant he is in, he longs for the ribs and fries at the cafe nearby, rather than the plates of white space he is served, but this is a meal he cannot afford to miss. The reason is that the turn of conversation at dinner will determine the future of people very close to both couples. There's an awful lot riding on the niceties of the meal, the way the wine is poured and whether anyone has dessert. 

The book is a devastating read, as a parent and brother, I found it quite disturbing. Koch beautifully unfolds the story and carefully lays out how both families ended up where they are. Whilst the situation is ultimately extreme, it drives home the fine line between madness and parenting.

I didn't find Cita Stelzer's Dinner with Churchill particularly beautiful to read, the editing was rather cack handed, but the argument is well made. Churchill was convinced of the importance of a good meal in diplomacy.  

Winston was a bit of a gourmand. He wanted the best of everything and largely got it. He was it turns out a stickler for the seating plan and was a dab hand at interior design if dining room at Chartwell is anything to go by. He clearly viewed matters of stomach as synonymous with matters of state. 

Both books make a persuasive argument that sitting down over a meal is one way try to win an argument. The formalities determine a rhythm and it takes hard work for there to be no conviviality when decent food and wine is involved. However, what The Dinner and Dinner With Churchill make clear is that however good the victuals and libations, what ultimately matters is who you are dining with. Your enemy is your enemy however many courses there are.

14 August 2012


I was hoping not to like Trullo.  I'd railed against the inhospitable booking policy and managed to get into an argument with one of London's better chefs about it.  

Hospitality discussion

Storified by Anthony Silverbrow · Thu, Aug 09 2012 16:19:16

"We look forward to seeing you tomorrow at 8, please remember we need your table back by 10" ≠ hospitality. Restaurants should = hospitalityAnthony Silverbrow
@Silverbrow Sorry, you can't have a table all night in every restaurant out there. and sometimes we have to make that clear on the phone....isaac mchale
@itsisaac why not just work it in to the speed of service & menu construction and make sure diners are out in the necessary timeframeAnthony Silverbrow
@Silverbrow .....i don't like doing it but we have to. judge us on r hospitality when you get here, not that we have to use a table twiceisaac mchale
@itsisaac but that's not how it works, I start looking forward to my meal from before I arrive, including booking...Anthony Silverbrow
@itsisaac ...and the restaurant goes out of its way to tell me they really want me to leave at a certain time...Anthony Silverbrow
@itsisaac ...Surely restaurants can achieve the same ends without the need to be so passive aggressive to guests?Anthony Silverbrow
@Silverbrow Don't take it as aggression, just the need to reuse yr table that night at a preordained time. people get indignant at 'out by'isaac mchale
@Silverbrow ....times but you have to do something. or else charge more, or have a 'no bookings' policy.isaac mchale
@HRWright @Silverbrow s'times it does,s'times doesn't but you have to plan yr business n while i dont like, i understand necessity of themisaac mchale

I still think that if you tell a customer that you are looking forward to seeing them, but you want to make clear what time you want them out, is not a particularly welcoming thing to do.

Anyway, despite that I really can't hate Trullo.  I loved it.  Yes, I was apprehensive going in, but once it, it was an almost (see the dessert) flawless meal.

There is something cossetting about the blue tongue-and-groove room.  The service was faultless.  Just the right side of familiar, but totally focused on ensuring we had a great meal.  They were at pains to ensure that our slightly offbeat prosecco was to our liking and once the food was delivered, pretty much left us to enjoy ourselves.

We started by sharing a delicious, sloppy burrata with sticky, honeyed figs.  I then had a ricotta and butter ravioli that was silky, slippery and with a decent bite.  Silverbrowess had an almond soup.  I tried making one of these many years ago.  Mine turned out to be a gritty, garlicky mush.  Trullo's was a smooth, sexy mouthful.

For main course I had a perfectly grilled mackerel (they could teach Brasserie Zedel a thing or two about grilling fish).  The skin was charred, adding a smoky note to the moist meat within.  Silverbrowess had a crespelle.  It is basically a veggie crepe covered in cheese.  She loved it, which is what counts.  I thought it tasted fine, but was more than happy with my mackerel.

The one off note was dessert.  We ordered the white-peach and almond tart and asked for a taster of the burned caramel ice-cream.  They kindly gave us a full scoop of the ice-cream, swapping it for what I think was supposed to be creme-fraiche that accompanied the tart.  I don't think the tart did justice to what I imagine was probably some delicious fruit.  It felt a bit of a waste.  The ice-cream was far too burned and I found it bordering on the unpleasant. 

One last word on that silly reservation policy of telling us we needed to be out after two hours.  We were comfortably out of our seats by 10. Not because we rushed, or felt rushed, but because the restaurant paced the meal and made sure that we were out in time.  Which is exactly why surely, they don't need to forewarn you.  They are good at turning tables, just do it, don't bother telling the customer you are doing it.

However, despite the dessert and the booking policy, I love the place and will be back there in a shot.  Most of the food was very good, great ingredients and spot-on cooking.  I'll ignore their entreaties to bugger off when I book and I'll simply order another antipasti and just ignore the desserts. 

Google Maps

Trullo, 300-302 Saint Paul's Road, London, N1 2LH, UK
+44 (0)20 7226 2733

What others think

Jay Rayner - Great food, expertly cooked and served by friendly waiting staff… There's no secret to Trullo's success.

09 August 2012

Brasserie Zedel

Chris Corbin & Jeremy King are for good reason held in high regard in the London restaurant world. They are credited with bringing us Sheekey's, The Ivy, The Caprice.  Their group, Rex Restaurant Associates, currently owns The Wolseley, The Delaunay and new kid: Brasserie Zedel.  They have two further projects on the go, Colbert, a brasserie and The Beaumont, a hotel.

Anything strike you about that list?  It's long.  Five establishments and two men.  Two men famed for being hands on, always around, keeping an eye on things making their guests feel special.  Don't underestimate how much their guests want to feel special.  They want the reassurance of people realising that they have managed to get one of the most-wanted tables in town.  Even better if one of proprietors of these evergreen deluxe joints comes over to say hello.

So, how to maintain that level of intimacy and quality over five venus? Ah, well that assumes the plan is to maintain that intimacy and quality.  Based on my lunch at Brasserie Zedel, it's not.

My impression is that Zedel is the restaurant in the Corbin and King stable that allows the masses to say "I've eaten there".  It is I fear, a place for tourists and the bridge and tunnel brigade.  I know I should be shot for using such a horribly snobby term, but it's true.

I've seen some reviews that have reported in some wonder at just how cheap it is.  Barely £4 for some starters or main courses.  The cynic in me says it's a reflection of a need for people to justify return visits and possibly, just possibly, lower quality ingredients.

Despite the aforementioned skill of Corbin and King in creating restaurants people want to eat in, I'm a bit ambivalent about their restaurants.  I do not like The Wolseley.  Over the past couple of years I have not had a decent meal there.  The service is ok, but the food is poor.  They seemed unable to poach an egg that was not either raw or had the consistency of a rubber ball.

However, I love The Delaunay.  It consistently hits the right spot of good food, great service and a nice space.

One of the things that really struck me in Danny Meyer's book Setting the Table, was his obsession with hospitality.  Meyer, founder of the Union Square Hospitality Group which owns New York stalwarts such as Gramercy Tavern and The Shake Shack, knows a thing or two about restaurants. And until Zedel, I would have said that Corbin and King were utterly focused on hospitality as well.

First off it's remarkable how impersonal the whole place is.  As you walk in, there's this weird tiny cafe, with no one in it. Then to get to the main restaurant and bars you walk down and round and down and round without anyone or anything to confirm you're heading in the right direction.

You find your way to the dining room because of the din. It's enormous, with massively high ceilings and a vast cavernous space.  And it's very very bright, weirdly so given how deep you are and also they're good at the lighting, as both The Delaunay and Wolseley testify.

The room is pretty gross.  Not just in the German sense.  There is a lot of marble (fake?), wood pannelling (from Ikea?) and gilding.  

On to the meal.  The menu is ok, but strikes me as odd that it is all in French, with some explanations in English. Stick to one language or another and given we're in the UK, let's make it English.  What with almost cartoon-like vastness of the room, it feels like Disneyland.

After sitting down, it took about 25 minutes and a bit of handwaving to get attention to be served.  I started with a herring salad and went on to have a grilled seabass.  My spicy virgin mary was ordered but never arrived.

The herring was a good piece of fish, but it had been molested by a very oily potato salad.  Herring is oily enough, it doesn't really need much in the way of oily accompaniments.  I know that filets de hareng, pommes à l’huile is a classic, but this did not seem to be an effective execution.  The potatoes added some starch, but not much flavour.  Frankly a traditional potato salad, with a dash of mayo and lemon juice would have been a much better contrast to the already oily fish.

I'd been warned when ordering my seabass that it was a whole fish.  Fine, happy with that I've no problem filleting it.  What turns up is, as warned, a whole fish.  As I go to work demonstrating my fine dexterity it's clear that it's already been filleted.  I found it (perhaps unduly) disconcerting that this entire fish turns up, including head and a lopped off tail, but there's no skeleton.  What was inside was some overcooked fennel. The fish itself was flaccid and lacked any taste. It may have been grilled, but the skin was soggy.

It was served with what they described as pilau rice.  It seemed to me to be just ordinary white basmati rice.  Fine but dull.

I ordered a side of tomato and shallot salad.  The tomatoes looked pretty enough, lots of different hues and sizes, but lacked taste.  It had none of the sweetness of tomatoes or slight kick of oil and vinegar that you get at say Sheekey's with their version.  It was this dish more than any other that made me question the quality of the ingredients.  I was reminded of those multi-coloured boxes of tomatoes you can get in any supermarket.  They look good, but lack flavour.

In a state of some despondency I needed something to revivify me and so ordered an espresso.  It was grim.  It didn't look like an espresso, there was no crema and it had that horrible, over-extracted taste that I'd hoped had been banished from London restaurants.

I wonder whether Corbin and King are genuinely proud of Brasserie Zedel.  I'm sure it will be a financial success, but that alone has never appeared to be their driving motivation.  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for restaurants making money, they are businesses and need to make a profit.  I'm well aware of the problems of profitablity at the top end.  But this just felt so cynical and so much like the Corbin and King diffusion range.

Google Maps

Brasserie Zedel, 20 Sherwood Street, London, W1F 7ED, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 4888

What others think

Zoe Williams - It's vulgar to harp on about the money, but at these prices it's churlish to complain. The quality is solidly good, and the atmosphere swanky. Nevertheless, I feel that they're not giving themselves enough freedom. Even the slightest kink or experimentation would liven things up a bit.
Matthew Fort -  Zedel is a dream of Parisian brasseries as they never were, bigger, grander, more theatrical, dare I say better.

30 July 2012

Smoked salmon gratin dauphinoise

I don’t think I’m being immodest by saying that generally I’m an upstanding kind of guy.  But every so often I like to go off the rails, I like to do something bad, wrong and downright dirty.  Usually that involves food.

Gratin dauphoinise is one of those dishes I love to eat but can never justify ordering, let alone making it because of the stodge.  That is until someone leads me astray and tells me I can make it. Well if I’m told I can do something then that’s fine isn’t it?  According to Supper Club, Kerstin Rodgers' (aka Ms Marmitelover) book and host of The Underground Restaurant, her salmon dauphoinise is a perfect summer dish.  Well that’s perfect because it’s summer - if served with a salad - it’s healthy - and a glass of crisp white wine - for essential lubrication, obviously.  So I am easily led astray. 

I served this as a main course on just such a wet, summer’s evening, with a salad of baby spinach leaves and a walnut oil dressing (walnut oil, white wine vinegar, diced garlic, salt and pepper).  I fear though that following it with Eton Mess might have been a bit too much cream for one night.

I should say, I’ve tweaked the recipe a bit.  She recommends it being no more than three layers deep, I did about five in my favourite dish.  I also used a bit more smoked salmon than she recommends.  In her recipe she says 250g, I ended up using 300g.

Serves 4 as a main-course (you could however serve it as a side)

  • 4 large baking potatoes (e.g. Maris Pipers or King Edwards)
  • 1 clove of garlic
  • Butter
  • 300g smoked salmon
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 600ml double cream

Preheat the oven to 180C.  I’d recommend sitting the dish you are using for this recipe in a roasting tray or similar.  If it spills in the oven, it can get messy.

Peel the potatoes, then slice them very thinly - I use a mandoline.  Alternatively, if you’ve got a food processor there’s a good chance it comes with a slicing blade.

Slice the garlic and rub your baking dish with it.  Throw away the clove.

Grease the dish with the butter.

Arrange a layer of potatoes on the bottom.  Kerstin recommends a fish scale pattern - basically, overlap them around the dish.

Salt and pepper the layer.  Not too much salt as you’re about to add smoked salmon.

Add a layer of smoked salmon.  My layers of smoked salmon did not cover the potato entirely, rather about 75% of it.

Then add another layer of potato, salt and pepper, smoked-salmon and so on.  Topping out with potato.

Don’t fill it right to the top with potato as you need space for the cream.

Salt and pepper the top layer of potato and lay the bay leaves on top.

Pour over the cream - you will end up with a generous amount of cream covering your dish.  

Cover with silverfoil and place in the oven for 30 minutes.  Remove the foil.  I found it needed a further 25 minutes but note that Kerstin recommends only 15 minutes.

Skewer the potatoes to check there is some give, assuming there is serve.  If there's not, put it back in the oven for a bit.

27 July 2012

London 2012

Just over seven years ago I started to get excited that London had been awarded the games.  Two days later, some arseholes decided to bring their insanity to our streets.

Well, seven years on here we are.  We are still stalked by fear, but let's focus on the joy of the games.

This should be a wonderful couple of weeks - kicked off by Bradley Wiggins' stunning victory of Le Tour - let's all enjoy it.

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