48 posts categorized "Restaurants"

06 December 2011

Kosher Roast

There are times when not knowing what you're doing is a very effective way of doing something well. Ignorance and naivety can be surprisingly powerful when combined with willfullness.  Proof of this was there to see on Sunday, with the launch of Kosher Roast.

I admire immensely what Amy Beilin, driving force behind Kosher Roast has achieved.  I have no doubt that setting up a pop-up is hellish: there is the sourcing; staffing; rent; cooking; health & safety; serving; washing up etc etc.  

The problems must be compounded if as in Amy's case you've never worked in a restaurant before.  But as problems go they are barely a flesh wound on the rampaging bull, on heat, in a farmyard of frigid cows, that are the requirements of being a kosher restaurant (even if it's not from one of the main kashrut authorities) and making the food taste great.

I should say at this stage that I was sitting down as more than just an intrigued but otherwise disinterested punter.  Over the last few months I've been giving Amy some thoughts.  I have no idea whether they were helpful or not, but in return for my bon mots, Amy said she wanted to buy me lunch. I decided it was a fair deal. (NB This is the first time I've ever accepted a complimentary meal whilst writing the blog. La Tasca, if you're reading, please don't let this give you false hope.)

As a reader with even the worst reading habits will know, I have a broad range of complaints on the rather niche subject of kosher food in London.  The quality is poor, the variety is limited, the costs are high, the staff are rude and passion is non-existent.

And then there is Kosher Roast.  

Starters were a tiny chicken and leek pie, accompanied by a scotch egg (turkey, not pork, natch) with a mustard mayo.  The farmyard conceit was carried through to the basket of hay that everything nestled in.  I've always wanted to make a scotch egg because deep fried sausage around a boiled egg sounds so very tasty.  I'm sure it's not the same as one made with a piggy sausage, but let's just accept the fact: this was a very tasty dish.  The coating had crunch, I'm pretty sure it was made from panko breadcrumbs, around a very moist and slightly spicy sausage mix.  Ideally, I'd have liked the egg to be a bit runny, like the ones I've spotted at The Bull & Last.  The chicken and leek pie was similarly good, although at little more than a mouthful, didn't leave much of a lasting impression.

The main course was roast beef, goose fat (imported from France because it's not sold here for some reason) roasted potatoes, mini-beets, kale and horseradish.  Again, it was very good.  The beef was nicely rare, wih great flavour, although I wouldn't have said no to a few crunchy bits.  I fear the gravy might have been thickened with corn-starch or something, but let's swiftly move on.  

The roast potatoes were almost as good as Silverbrowess's who is widely, and rightly, famed for her roasties.  The beets added a touch of sweetness, helped along by the impressively garlic-laden kale.  The yorkshire pudding was ok - it's always a bit tough making them without milk and I've never been the greatest fan anyway.  Overall, it was a lovely plate of food.

Dessert is rarely anything of note in kosher restaurants, because as with the yorkshire pud, there's the problem of dairy with meat. Amy came up with three little dark chocolate petit fours that were wrapped in cellophane and tied with a ribbon.  They were surprisingly tasty, in particular the gooey cookie and the cornflake crisp.

My gripes are minor and overall, we were served very good food.  I think it was up to the standards of many solid, local restaurants and reminded me of typical decent, pub/restaurant fare.  I have yet to have a meal that was of this high quality in any kosher restaurant in London.  

What I find almost more intriguing than the food, was the way she succeeded in getting the whole package right.  The venue was a little bit funky and edgy (interesting artwork in the men's loos for example).  There was a thoughtful drinks list, with good wines at reasonable prices and four house cocktails - unheard of in any other kosher restaurant.  

I'm well aware that catering a set menu for two days is very different to running a restaurant. The waitresses I'm sure were all friends.  Some suppliers would be difficult, but others would cut you some slack because they know this is a short-lived venture, more for fun than profit.  Despite those caveats Amy has set a new bar for kosher dining - which in some regards isn't all that difficult.  What Amy has achieved is doing something different with kosher food and has made a roaring success of it. For so long we've been limited to a cynical choice of poor quality, uninspiring food and iniquitous prices.

Kosher Roast has ably demonstrated that passion goes a long way.  I would hope that other restaurateurs who serve the kosher market will experience Kosher Roast.  They will notice the slightly alternative crowd, the brilliant branding and most importantly, the passion for what is on the plate and served to paying customers.  As that great arbiter of kashrut, Roy Castle liked to say, dedication's what you need.

Google Maps

Kosher Roast
The Shop,
75 Chamberlayne Road, 
Kensal Rise, 
London, NW10 3ND

15 November 2011

The Deli West One

As AA Gill recently lamented (£) it is remarkably difficult to get a decent salt beef sandwich in London. As I regularly lament, it's remarkably difficult to get any decent kosher food in London, let alone a salt beef sandwich.  But a host of new openings suggest the worm might be about to turn.  Kosher Roast is a pop-up focused on great roast beef and Mishkins WC2 is the latest from the Polpo hothouse.

Whilst Kosher Roast brands itself as selling great food that is kosher, Mishkins is all about the Jewish/New York Deli experience.  The difference between kosher and Jewish is important. Kosher food basically means it’s got a religious stamp of authority, which for some is very important.  Jewish food is that which is culturally influenced by the fine canon of Jewish cuisine, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi. It is complicated and if you want to really understand it and own one of the greatest cookbooks out there, then I strongly recommend Claudia Roden.

The others are yet to open but The Deli West One has now been open for a couple of weeks and it’s all about great kosher deli food.  Based on my visit, I think they’re getting into their stride.

Being a martyr to kosher food I tried a few things: the chopped liver; a salt beef sandwich and a pastrami sandwich. I also had some pickles. As I said after lunch, the meat was great, other elements less so.

Unlike some, I'm no maven of pastrami - it is a resolutely US dish - but I like to think that I know my salt beef. I also know what I like and both the pastrami and salt beef at West One were good.  The pastrami was moist, a bit spicy and a little bit sweet.  The salt beef was also moist - I think more so than the pastrami - but didn’t hide its salty light under a bushel.  They instinctively started to carve from a depressingly lean brisket, but a request for something with more flavour (read fat) resulted in a very good sandwich.

I was impressed with the chopped liver. Whilst I generally err towards slightly sweeter chopped liver - copious amounts of onions fried in schmaltz are the answer - theirs was much better than most commercial chopped liver.  That having been said, they garnish their liver with a red onion jam and crispy fried shallots which add texture and sweetness, so eaten together were very good.

The pickled cucumbers - half sours - were fine.  I think they’ll appeal to US diners but I’m less certain how the Brits will respond.  With our new greens and pickled dills, we’re used to vinegar based brines, rather than the salty ones our American cousins prefer.  It’ll be interesting to see how they go down over time.

Those were the good things.  On to the less so good.  Two items stuck out: the bread and the service. The bread was supplied by Grodzinski, a kosher baker that has been around for ever and frankly the bread tasted as if it was from their inaugural batch.  They call it rye, but actually it's caraway seed, rather than proper black rye bread.  It was horribly stale.  This is a fairly heinous crime given that much ink has been spilled as to whether what makes the sandwiches at places like Katz in New York so good is the quality of the meat or the quality of the bread.  I appreciate that at this stage it might be a tall order for West One to bake their own bread, but there are enough kosher bakers in London that they should be able to track down something much better than what they currently have - or get it made bespoke for them.

The service was also not the best.  I don't think this was an attempt to recreate the miserable sods who famously served at the now defunct Bloom's or the exceptionally rude staff at near-neighbour Reubens.  Rather, I got the impression they were very stressed.  Understandable as it's still early days and they seemed to be having problems with their till.  I got chatting to one of the owners who seemed a thoroughly nice chap, but it was the staff, the guys and girls on the floor who seemed a bit flummoxed.

They’re about to face stiff competition from Mishkins for attention of those who aren’t worried about whether they keep kosher or not but want deli.  Whilst I generally love their restaurants, the Polpo guys appear to be colonising London a bit (I'd love to know how they've managed to roll out so many successful restaurants so quickly) and I’m supporting the under dog in this fight.

I don't necessarily come to this review unbiased.  I want them to do well.  I want all restaurants to do well, more good food and more people employed are worthy goals. But I really want there to be a great kosher restaurant in London and at the moment West One is our best hope.

Google Maps

The Deli West One
51 Blandford Street,
London, W1U 7HJ,
UK

What others think

Youngandfoodish - the salt beef sandwich...though nicely rimmed with fat, was a tad tough and dry and the rye was limp, with no oomph in the middle and little chew-and-tear in the crust.  The hot dog was plump and meaty, with the right quotient of garlic and what tasted like paprika.

31 August 2011

Bea's Vegan Chocolate Cake

I don't really bother with desserts.  It's not that I don't have a sweet tooth - I do, as much as the next fat man.  Rather, I have a technical problem with them. Specifically, the prohibition under the laws of kashrut to mix milk and meat.  

Whilst we're banned from combining milk and meat in recipes - nyet to chicken kiev for example - we also have to wait an extended period of time between eating meat and eating dairy products.  The gap I observe is 3 hours.  Which is why I don't really bother with dessert.  Dessert is all about milk, cream or butter, so really what is the point.

Some people get around this by going to town on the multitude of substitutions available but I consider them to be abominations.  I also think that generally after a relatively heavy meal, some fresh fruit or sorbet is not the end of the world.

But I have hankered for some time after a decent dessert that I can pull out of the bag when necessary. Something beyond lokshen pudding (bread and butter pudding, without the bread or butter) or almond cake in orange syrup (a Sefardi/Spanish favourite).  And I just may have found one in Tea with Bea: Recipes from Bea's of Bloomsbury.

As the name suggests, this is the first book from Bea Vo, owner of the eponymous Bea's of Bloomsbury. Over the years of blogging, tweeting and eating I've got to know Bea fairly well.  I can tell you this about her: her cakes are outstanding, she's a voracious collector of cookbooks, she's a great source for sourcing hard to find produce and she knows her way around the restaurant industry.  I implore you to try her cakes, if that fails buy her book so you can try them yourself, or if that fails, just follow her on Twitter.  Unlike others, she doesn't spend her time self-promoting and is happy to engage in fairly broad ranging debate, when she's not baking.

So, I bought the book because I'm a fan and an acquaintance.  I also was hoping to learn a bit more about baking from it because I haven't had much experience and I'm not very good at it.  

Flicking through the book from back to front, as I always do with new cookbooks, my eye was caught by the Vegan Chocolate Cake.  At first, I was a bit horrified.  Bea is not a lady who panders to whims and I feared she had sold out to the whiny-brigade.  It then dawned on me that I have a claim to be a member of that particular army and Bea might just be a saviour and perhaps I could overlook my substitution snobbishness and accept soy milk in a recipe.

The cake was a revelation.  The sponge tasted of Oreos - a good thing - and the icing was simply very rich chocolate.  It was delicious.  

I should admit that whilst it tasted lovely, mine looked like a disaster, a reflection of a few issues I had baking it.  For example, after making the chocolate mousse filling/topping, it looked like someone had staged a dirty protest in our kitchen.  Further, being an impatient baker and egged on by a young child, I decided to layer on the chocolate icing before the cake had fully cooled.  Therefore I cut the sponge before it was cool and put chocolate on top of warm sponge.  Not very accomplished.

As per Bea's note at the start of the recipe, you don't need to bother telling people it's vegan when you give it to them, it might put them off.  Then again, this does have its advantages, such as there's more for you to eat and in my experience the sponge benefits from a being a day or so old.

The recipe I give below is for my version of the chocolate cake.  The main difference with the one that Bea has in the book is that I'm lazy.  I didn't include the raspberries, strawberries or crystallised violets she suggests incorporating into the mousse.  They do sound good though.

Serves 8-12

For the cake

  • 23cm round cake pan, greased and baselined with parchment paper
  • 275g plain flour
  • 100g natural cocoa powder
  • 2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • a pinch of salt
  • 450ml unsweetened soy milk
  • 2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 320g caster sugar
  • 320ml sunflower oil
  • 2 tbsp vanilla extract

For the mousse

  • 800g good quality dark chocolate, chopped (or in my case smashed) into pea-sized pieces
  • 600ml hot water
  • lots of ice - I used about 400g

Preheat the oven to 160C, gas mark 4.

Put the flour, cocoa powder, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder and salt into a large mixing bowl and sift twice through a sieve.

In a separate bowl, whisk the soya milk, vinegar, sugar, oil and vanilla extract.  Pour into the flour mixture and stir until well combined.  I took that to mean a consistent colour throughout the mixture.

Spoon the lot into the prepared cake pan and bake in the preheated oven for 40-55 minutes.  Bea suggests that you can test when it's done by inserting a wooden skewer into the centre of the cake.  If cooked, the skewer should be crumb-free when you pull it out.  She also says that when the cake is ready, if you press the middle of the cake it should spring back, rather than sink.  If it does sink, or your skewer is crumb-laden, return the cake to the oven for a further 5-10 minutes and check again.

Remove from the oven and let cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then remove from pan, probably with the aid of a knife and cool on a rack for 1 hour.

While it's cooling you can make the mousse.

Put the chocolate in a large, wide heatproo bowl over a saucepan of simmering water.  Don't let the base of the bowl touch the water.  Leave the chocolate until it is melted, then stir with a wooden spoon until smooth and glossy.

Remove from the heat.

Pour the hot water into the bowl of chocolate and mix until nice and smooth.

Sit the bowl in a dish filled with ice cubes.  Using an electric whisk, quickly whisk the chocolate and water mixture thoroughly and quickly until a stiff mousse forms.

Don't forget my warning about the dirty protest.  The kitchen re-decoration wasn't helped by my mousse not thickening.  So, as per Bea's suggestion, I melted more chocolate and whisked that in quickly and suddenly it became a mousse.

She suggests that if it gets too thick, you can add a touch more warm water, or espresso, or whisky to thin it out.

Then cut the cake horizontally.  She suggests 3 layers, but I didn't risk it and opted for two.  Then again, mine was in a near state of collapse given my haste and refusal to let it fully cool.

You then spread the mousse between the layers and on top of the cake.  If you're using the various berries and sweets, now's the time to add them.

Eat and enjoy.

27 October 2010

Koffmanns (& a plea to other bloggers)

I don't think there's a whole lot I can add to the flood of reviews on Koffmann's, most of which I fully agree with.  But I do want to make a quick comparison with my meal last year at Pierre Koffmann's pop-up at Selfridges.

The one thing that stood out about the Selfridges meal was how much fun the meal was.  As I said in my post I'm not sure what made it such fun, but it definitely was. Perhaps it came down to everyone's excitement at getting to eat Koffmann's food again.

There wasn't such a sense of fun in the room at The Berkeley.  There were lots of tourists, or business lunches (in my case) and too many bloody flashes going off, although there were a fair few of those at Selfridges as well.  However, what the room lost in buzz, the food itself more than made-up for.  It felt like the restaurant is properly in its stride compared to the meal at Selfridges.

What with the whole kosher thing, I gently turned away the offer of the pigs trotter amuse and this was swiftly replaced with a delicious plate of pickled, slightly curried cauliflower, with what I think was a balsamic reduction.  It sounds odd, and looked rather lurid, mustard yellow cauliflower, deep red sauce, but tasted delicious, the cauliflower was sharp, with gentle heat from the curry, set off by the sweetness of the reduction.  My main course of seabass was similarly delicious.  It was very unfussy, a great piece of fish well cooked.  Special mention must be made of the chips, they're outstanding.

In other words, Koffmann definitely has his mojo back.  I'd like to go back at night and see how the room compares, if the buzz is back. 

I want to finish with a request of my fellow diners: please can all bloggers stop using cameras in high-end restaurants.  I'm not saying this as a blogger who can't take photos for toffy and am jealous at other's skills.  I'm saying this as someone who goes out to enjoy my meal.  I leave others alone during their dinners and I'd really appreciate the same courtesy extended to me.  Restaurants should accept that bloggers are here to stay and want to photograph.  I therefore suggest that they provide a library of high quality photos, of a selection of dishes for people to use.  I know this isn't ideal.  I know that if a car-crash of a dish turns up someone will sneak out their iphone and tweet about it.  But seriously, flash is not cool in a restaurant.

Google Maps

Koffmann's, The Berkeley, Wilton Place, London, SW1X 7RL, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7235 1010

What others think

Matthew Norman - We...departed this wearyingly neutral joint unable to share the staff’s discernible conviction that it had been our privilege to eat under the Koffmann banner
Matthew Fort - Whether you go big, or go light, by the time you finish, you will know that you have eaten, and eaten splendidly.

 

01 September 2010

Restaurants & social media

Since starting the blog way back when, I've been fascinated by the way restaurants promote themselves.

The immediacy of Twitter has brought this into sharp relief.  Press releases, restaurant reviews and character assasinations are reduced to 140 letters and spaces.  Restaurants, PRs, bloggers and critics are all mixing it up in one big stockpot. In this environment where everyone has a voice, some restaurants thrive on being at the heart of the action.  Others hang in there despite sustained flak.  Others still, it should be remembered, thrive despite having no truck with this new technology.

From my experience those restaurants that have achieved sustainable success have done so because they run good businesses: good food that lives up to or exceeds expectations, they're in a decent location and have a sensible handle on costs versus revenue.  Good PR is also essential because the restaurant needs profile and the public needs to know why they should eat there and social media is an important element of that - it's a brilliant multiplier.

I get the feeling though, that some restaurants and their PRs feel that they have to get involved in social media as an end in itself. Rather than because it helps the company gets bums on seats and that afterall is the purpose of PR.

If I owned a restaurant and a PR agency was trying to convince me that a really important element of my communications programme was to engage with bloggers and social media and they are the only agency that really gets it, I'd ask them the following questions:

  • Why do you think bloggers are so important?
  • Can you send me your social media distribution list and explain your rationale for each individual on it?
  • I know I can't control who eats in my restaurant, but what is the value to my reputation and my bottom line of having a twitter stream and who should write it?
  • Can you justify why my restaurant needs bloggers?
  • Bloggers are always looking for the new thing, so won't they come anyway, whatever I do?
  • Who is going to get the most out of your proposed blogger outreach programme?
  • Why do so many restaurants thrive without entering the social media maelstrom?
  • Can you show me your personal twitter stream?
  • Can you explain to me what you understand by the phrase don't mix business with pleasure?
  • I thought social media was all about the conversation.  Why do I need a PR firm? Can't I do it myself?

It's not all one sided.  If I was in the food PR business, I'd ask some of my clients:

  • Who on earth are you trying to appeal to?
  • Do you not think that there's a reason that nobody has opened up that 'concept' before?
  • Are you sure you want to get bloggers here?  More coverage doesn't necessarily mean better coverage and the outcome isn't always pretty.

10 August 2010

The River Café

Am I a tosser?  I know that's a leading question, especially on a blog where anyone can leave a comment, but I'm interested to know your thoughts.  I ask the question because I think that I went to lunch at the River Café hoping I'd have a bad meal.

That's right, I, someone who enjoys their food, reads obsessively, cooks a lot and eats out on a regular basis, was hoping that my lunch at what is regarded as one of the country's finest restaurants, a restaurant that is still recovering from the loss of one of its linchpins, that was recently burned to the ground, was going to be a bad lunch.  That must make me a tosser.  It must.  I aspired to be a gastronome with impeccable taste who can spot the emperor's new clothes (and who mixes his metaphors).  And thus a smug tosser.

The main reason I thought I'd have a bad meal, was because I did last time I was there in October 2009, when it was pretty awful.  I was with my family and we were sitting in the River Café equivalent of Siberia, the large table by the bar.  The food we got was dull, the portions small.  Particularly worthwhile of mention was a dispiriting and ungenerous plate of bagna cauda, a dish that should be about sharing snappingly fresh vegetables, dipped in buttery fishy goodness. The vegetables were flaccid, the sauce was flat.

This time, both of the people I was eating with love it.  One is a regular who does her best to eat as many meals a day there as possible.  She was devastated to learn of my bad experience.  The other is a super trendy designer who's as partial to a good meal as I am. I wanted to lift the scales from their eyes and prove it just ain't all that.

I wondered if I might have a better meal than expected when I spotted that Angela Hartnett was having lunch two tables away - you can take it neither she nor we, were sitting in Siberia.  This time we were in the middle of the room, close to the oven.

Take-off was confirmed with my starter of antipasti di verdure, comprising roast plum tomatoes, zucchini 'alle scarpece', stuffed pepperoncino peppers and wood-roasted Violetta aubergines. The delicious fruity, juiciness of the veg, was testament to great vegetables and a deft hand at the wood-fired stove.

Fish and grapes work well in sole veronique (a plate of this at Scotts about 20 years ago remains a defining dish for me), but when dealing with a fish as base as sardines and the grapes are now raisins and there's pasta chucked in for good measure, we're not talking about a delicate dish.  But as linguine con le sarde - with sardine fillets, saffron, pine nuts, raisins, parsley and lemon, it was a symphony.  I'm a big fan of sardo in saor, the Venetian dish of pickled (sort of) sardines.  The flavours here were not dissimilar with the sweetness of the raisins and the tartness of the lemon juice.  The fish, saffron and pine nuts ensured there was a depth of flavour.

I chose fish for main course as well, the branzino ai ferri - chargrilled then roasted wild sea bass with fennel branches, lemon & Pinot Bianco with peas sott'olio and spinach.  Again another delicious dish.  At room temperature it was a perfect summer light summer dish, welcome after the surprising heft of the primi.

By dessert, things were getting a bit hazy, but I do know that the Lemon Tart was an exemplar of its type.  I also know that I fail to understand the wonder some people attach to the Chocolate Nemesis.  On a more positive note, the caramel ice cream was perfect and shows this king of desserts is given its due.

So the emperor was wearing his finest robes.  I am duly humbled.  I could if I wanted argue that the waitresses failure to acknowledge that she had sploshed a fair bit of wine across the table as she clumisly poured for us, is a sign of arrogance.  But I won't.  The service was rather cold, but I'll let it pass because I was won over by the food.

I stand by the fact that my previous meal really wasn't good.  I also accept that this meal really was.  I think I need to go back for a best of three.

Google Maps

The River Café, Rainville Road, London, W6 9HA, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7386 4200

29 July 2010

Paradise

This is supposed to be a review of Paradise, an Indian restaurant in South Hampstead. 

With a name like that you're setting high expectations.  Whereas calling a food business that specialises in gluten, wheat and dairy free products OK Foods is an excellent example of expectation management.  

Back to Paradise.  I'd heard so many rave reviews from friends and family, I had to try it.  Might there be a Tayyabs lurking in a bucolic corner of North London?  No, unfortunately not. 

But it is a perfectly decent Indian.  The food was very nice, but pretty standard curry house fair.  The room is airy, the wallpaper is modern flock, the staff are lovely and attentive and the food is tasty.  My vegetable biryani was a very close approximation to one I had at Dishoom last week - and that's no bad thing.  This was a good or at least solid meal.  

That's all I have to say on the meal.  The restaurant is fine, but it's a long way from a must visit.  So why bother with a write-up?  Because I want to parlay into an amusing vignette. 

It's one of those stories that the subject thinks is brilliant, and the rest of the world yawns.  It's my blog, so prepare to stifle.

Father of Silverbrow and I were standing next to our table, waiting for the staff to finish clearing the previous diners' detritus before we sat down.  My eyes wandered across the room to the door, where a tall blond man seemed to catch my eye, smiled and mouthed "four" whilst holding up four fingers to his chest in a Tic Tac moment.

I realised it's none other than spinner almighty, Alastair Campbell, with family in tow and looked behind me to see who he's talking to.  There's no-one there.  I looked back at him and this time, assuming he's speaking to a dullard he says quite loudly "I'd like a table for four please".

The penny drops.  Quick as a flash I point out I'm not actually a waiter, but am also waiting for my table. 

Hilarity and laughter follow.  I gave good tweet, invoking both a current advertising campaign and a bit of self deprecating humour.  I remain desperate for him to reply apologising for the incident (he may have said sorry in the restaurant but we'll overlook that, I want it in writing) so I can claim to be the only man in London to get Campbell to apologise for anything.

I told you it was a brilliant story.  Wakey wakey.

Google Maps

Paradise, 49 South End Road, Hampstead, London, NW3 2QB, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7794 6314