17 July 2012

Shrimpy's

The British national trait of self-deprecation is way over the top.  The weather isn't always terrible (despite current appearances), not all trains are delayed and the food is pretty good.  We like to think we're particularly bad at big infrastructure projects, 'oh the tubes, where's the air conditioning?', 'ach the M25 is a nightmare'.  

Au contraire, recently as a nation we've pulled our finger out and delivered some pretty special things. Exhibit A is the redevelopment of Kings Cross.  I'm not commenting on the social impact of the redevelopment (for more on this it is worth watching BBC1's brilliant The Secret History of our Streets episode on the Caledonian Road) rather, the impressive use of land.  First there was the new St Pancras terminal and the redevelopment of Gilbert Scott's stunning St Pancras Chambers, with the soaring train shed behind it.  Now the redeveloped Kings Cross station has been opened, with its stunning lattice roof and cavernous ticket hall.  Behind it is the redevelopment of land going almost the entire length of York Way and straddling the Regents Canal.  As part of that renovation they've ensured a healthy injection of cool with the relocation of Central St Martin’s School of Design from its original home on Charing Cross Road.  Also there, on an otherwise unremarkable path is Eat.St - a collective of food trucks.

Back to the Regents Canal and York Way. Let’s not beat around the bush, for most of the time London has been a major city, it has been a bit of a shit hole.  I always got a thrill driving down York Way wondering if I was about to be ambushed by some modern day highwayman.  It never happened, but the soulless, vast wasteland made it a distinct possibility.

The canal is nice in places, but is also rather stinky and fetid in others.  As I learned while attending a couple of conferences recently at Kings Place.  It is opposite Kings Place, in what was a BP petrol station, and is now called the Filling Station, that Shrimpy’s currently exists.  I say currently because it is one of these longish-term pop-ups like Roganics, just popping up for a couple of years.

Perhaps it is because of this impermanence that they try to make the whole experience last longer by making accessing the place so difficult.  Constructed from what looks like corrugated plastic, the entrance is cunningly located around the back, overlooking the canal, not by the road.  Unhelpfully there are no signs, smoke signals or even smells (beyond the canal) to guide you along.

The restaurant itself is tiny.  I would guess that at the tables they cannot sit many more than 35 people in any given sitting, with about another 8 or so at the bar.  Not having booked I perched at the bar.

Being owned and run by the team behind Bistrotheque - who let's not forget also ran one of the first pop-ups in this current wave, The Reindeer - it is very cool.  It's all creams, soft lighting and colourful doodles on the wall.  It feels like you're walking into your idealised New York restaurant for brunch. Staff are dressed in chef's jackets that makes them look like a throw-back to Oslo Court.

Their natty attire does not seem to equate to attentive service.  I was one of only three people at the bar and it was about ten minutes before anyone spotted I was there. And I’m not of the size where it is easy to miss me. Waiting did give me the opportunity to watch what was going on and it was clear that this was a very trendy crowd, or at least a crowd who remembered being trendy at some point in the late 90s.  Service seemed friendly (especially if your hair was sufficiently distressed and your lip-stick a livid hue) but was also rather hectic and disorganised.  

There was an air of fun to the room however and I hoped I was about to be let in on it.  Unfortunately the lurching start set the tone and lunch consistently felt like it was slipping a gear.  

When I eventually got a menu, water was poured into my glass (good), the water was tepid (not good). The Virgin Mary I ordered however was spicy as requested and well chilled. So they can't add ice to water, but can add horseradish to tomato juice.

A cheese and pimento toasty, from the snack menu is a delicious gooey, lightly spiced delight.  Perfect ballast.  If I have any complaint it's that it's not big enough - or perhaps I just wolfed it down far too quickly.  And then it came stuttering to a halt again with the smoked trout salad.  It was so utterly bland not much more can be said about it than it comprised of pale fish and green salad.  The trout lacked flavour and it was hard to see what the point of the dish is.  

There was a tuna tostada.  I felt a twinge of guilt ordering this, given the problems with tuna and felt even more guilt when I ate it as the fish, like the trout, died in vain.  There was none of the freshness and lightness that can make good Mexican food such a pleasure. This was just some chopped up protein on a crunchy corn crisp.

I finished with the salt cod croquettes.  They were delicious - nice and crispy, not greasy, with a good flavour of the preserved fish.  The croquettes were ably assisted by a delicious, but suspiciously white aioli.  At the least, it ensured the meal ended on a high - relative to the lows.  

There is a lot of buzz around Shrimpy's and as far as can tell, that is because the reviewers forgive the crap food for the buzz.  None of the problems I had are catastrophic and perhaps once the restaurant settles down things will improve.  But this restaurant is not setup by newbies.  There must have been extensive menu testing before opening.  I can only surmise this is more about the cool than the food. I’m all for a dose of cool, but in the end for me, it's always about the food.

Google Maps

Shrimpy’s, King's Cross Filling Station, Good's Way, London, N1C 4UR  N1C 4UR

Tel: +44 (0)20 8880 6111 

What others think

Marina O'Loughlin - "Yes, yes, I know I haven’t got to the food yet. That’s because, despite loving the restaurant, it’s the least successful element.”
AA Gill - "A hot salsa was hot and the tuna tostada was as forgettable as the Christmas sales. The octopus was like chewing condoms out of the canal."

 

08 June 2012

My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways to Have a Lousy Night Out

It may be the height of vanity, but I have always wanted to appear in a book. It was a simple wish I thought would never be fulfilled.  I never really gave much consideration to whether it would be fiction or not, I'd be the hero or villian.  

It never dawned on me I might be named in a compilation of a restaurant reviewer's worst meals.  That wouldn't be great. And yet my dream has come true in My Dining Hell: Twenty Ways To Have a Lousy Night Out, Jay Rayner's latest offering.

I think it must have been vanity that drove me to such inky dreams because even with this ignomy heaped upon me, I am still thrilled to be there.  It was with a tingling sense of doom that I came to the Blooms review.  I had been guffawing at the awfulness of his meals at some terribly misconceived restaurants, and then it dawned on me that I had been with him on that fateful night in Golders Green.

In the introduction to the book Jay notes the perverse delight of bad reviews.  He is right, they make for good reading.  Perhaps that is because we're not the ones doing the eating, or the paying, we can vicariously enjoy someone else's disaster.

So much comedy is reliant on cruelty, but for it to be funny rather than gratuitous takes careful scripting and delivery.  A bit like a review.  In this little compilation of his Observer reviews, Rayner delivers.

No doubt, if you're a restaurant on the receiving end, you're unlikely to get the humour and will forever be haunted by this appalling critique of your love and joy.  Although that assumes the owners of the disasters care. 

Every one of the twenty reviews has a common feature, bad food.  Service, decor, location all vary in quality and Jay's appetite for them, but if you serve him bad food, prepare to be ripped apart.  And so it should be.  It takes a very particular masochist to willingly hand over money for an awful meal.

A word on the format.  I think that some will complain about only being able to buy this as an ebook.  Others will wryly note that they can get all Jay's reviews for free from the Observer, so why fork over £1.99.  To address the former, no doubt it is because you can get them for free that they are chosing to limit the cost of publishing this compendium.  And to the latter misers, I'd point out that journalism costs and this is Jay's career so fair enough he should be paid for it.  I assume that the Guardian Media Group get some sort of cut as they must own the copyright to the reviews, but I also assume that the sums of money involved are not huge.  A feature of journalism today.

So don't moan.  Download the book and enjoy the fact that you didn't have to eat those meals, but someone with a decent way with words did.  If you are a restaurant owner then read and learn the simple lesson that if you serve your customers good food, you will avoid being mentioned in volume two.

07 June 2012

Not just a chicken bagel recipe

I was asked to write a piece for The Forward's Jew & The Carrot blog on my favourite Shabbat meal.  As I say in my piece, they tend to be fairly uninventive.  I wanted to write about chopped liver, but turns out they already had that covered.  So instead, I turned to an old standby that is a pre-dinner snack, rather than dinner itself, heaven forfend.  Perhaps it is somewhat denigrating to refer to it as a snack.  

--------------------

This was originally posted on The Jew & The Carrot.

Being from solid Ashkenazi stock, Friday night dinners invariably meant several ways with chicken: chopped, boiled and roasted. Although it was the least glamorous — the boiled chicken — that most excited me.

Chicken soup is a much loved dish and I’m always partial to a bowl or two, especially with my mother’s kneidlach. But it was the by-product that got my taste buds going.

I shouldn’t call it the by-product because the chicken is the main event, everyone just forgets about it and goes straight to the diluted version — what is soup if not a watery take on a solid? Chicken soup is genius in so many ways, but particularly because you can remove the primary ingredient and the soup is in no way diminished and the chicken tastes delicious.

I realized this curious fact early on in life and it led to a pleasurable pre-Shabbat ritual. Returning home from school I would sneak into the kitchen and sidle over to the large glass rectangular dish that contained the chicken. It would sit there looking somewhat wan. The skin had probably fallen off in the pot and other than boiling water and some aromatics, there was nothing to give it a hint of color. But I could readily overlook the aesthetic shortcomings. I was focused on a sandwich and no good sandwich will ever get mistaken for an oil painting.

Ideally the chicken would be warm but not hot and sitting in some broth that is mostly liquid, but at points is quivering into jelly. I would take aim at the breast, barely having to exert any pressure as the meat gladly parted company with the carcass.

Once enough chicken had been liberated I’d root around the bread bin to find a fresh sesame-seed bagel. Still with the merest hint of warmth from the bakers oven, they were nutty from the sesame, had a hint of sweet and salt and the all important features of a bagel, a chewy crust, but a forgiving center.

Split in two I would now be at a crossroads. The only one in this process. Either I would go down the purist route or I’d pimp my sandwich a bit. The purist route would be to pile the chicken onto the bagel, add a little squeeze of ketchup and generous dousing of chicken soup to ensure continued moistness, taking full advantage of a bagel’s rigidity.

The more outre version was to add half of a thinly sliced avocado, a dab of mayo and a couple of spritzes of Tabasco to the purist.

I like to think of this wonder as the kosher lobster roll. (I say that never having eaten a lobster roll.)

At this stage I was ready to retire to a quiet corner of the kitchen to contemplate the Shabbat meal that was just around the corner and ponder a question that had been vexing me for years: why was I never as hungry as everyone else when the chicken soup, chopped liver, roast chicken, roast potatoes and crumble made their post-Kiddush procession onto the table? I’m still wondering.

Makes 1 sandwich

  • 1 breast chicken, taken from a bird recently used to make chicken soup
  • 1 sesame bagel
  • Tomato ketchup
  • 1 tablespoon of broth from the chicken soup

If you’re going for the pimped version

  • Half an avocado sliced
  • Tabasco to taste
  • Mayonnaise

Take a fresh bagel slice it. Ideally it is still a bit warm from the baker. If you don’t have anything that fresh, then put it in the oven to warm it. Don’t toast it. This is not a sandwich that requires crunch or crumbs.

Peel the breast away from the carcass. You can use knife and fork if you insist, but I prefer pulling it away with my fingers as it comes away in nice clumps. Remove any skin that is lingering on he chicken.

Take one bagel half and compose as you see fit. I tend to put ketchup first, then chicken, then avocado, mayo and Tabasco.

Pour the broth over the other half of the bagel so that the bread soaks up the liquid and close the sandwich.

Eat in quiet contemplation awaiting the arrival of Shabbat and your dinner.

30 May 2012

Debating the future of kosher food in London

This was originally posted on The Jew & The Carrot.

Fressing and kibbitzing. Eating and talking. It’s what we Jews do so well, which is why on an unseasonably cold Sunday, the beautiful Ivy House, HQ of the London Jewish Cultural Centre, was heaving with over 500 people for this year’s Gefiltefest.

Setup in 2010, Gefiltefest — a British celebration of all things food and Jewish related — is now in its third year. Organized by the perennially cheerful Michael Leventhal, it is the ultimate Jewish food conference across the pond. Warmed by fragrant samosas topped with chili and yogurt made by a collective of North African women who call themselves Spice Caravan, people gathered for a mix of talks, panel debates and stalls more or less all focusing on the wonder that is food. Topics ranged from the silly — making edible portraits for kids — to the more serious like the panel debate I hosted on the future of kosher food.

The other panelists were all kosher restaurateurs, of one shade or another. Kenny Arfin runs Bevis Marks The Restaurant, one of London’s smarter kosher restaurants; Elliot Hornblass is one of the backers of The Deli West One, a New York deli style restaurant and Amy Beilin is the force of nature behind Kosher Roast, London’s first kosher pop-up (as far as I’m aware).

The first question I posed was whether it matters if there is a future for kosher food. With the Jewish population in the UK at under 300,000 realistically how many people are religious enough to care? And even if they do care, are there sufficient numbers to make it commercially viable.

The conclusion was that there is a future because even if the market is small, there are enough people who care passionately to keep it going. Where the panel had differing views was on the cause and cure of the current stasis in the market.

There was consensus that suppliers and religious kosher authorities don’t help the situation. One example given was chickens. There's only one major supplier in the UK for kosher chickens, meaning limited price competition. Similarly, there are only a handful of kosher certifying authorities and they err towards a conservative approach.

These are not uncommon complaints from kosher restaurateurs, but one area of difference among the panel was the role of the customer. Kenny felt that the customer invariably is conservative and expects traditional Ashkenazi fare when they eat out, reflecting views of what “Jewish” food is. At an event he recently catered, he tried to serve pareve cheese on top of hamburgers, but these were widely rejected.

Amy took a different line, she felt that her experience showed the kosher customer wants more innovation, that there is an expectation of good food, clever marketing and a decent drinks menu. Surly waiters and meat with the consistency of shoe leather — two features of sorely missed Blooms restaurant — are a thing of the past. If she’s right the kosher consumer is catching up with their secular cousins. At long bleeding last.

If questions from the floor are anything to go by, Amy’s view, supported by Elliot are a fair reflection the London Jewish community. Kosher keeping Jews are clamoring for their food to catch up with their values. It’s no longer good enough for food to be kosher — provenance, appearance and flavor have entered the kosher lexicon.

It will be interesting to see whether the market changes over the next year and by Gefiltefest 2013 we are talking about how the public has at long last got what it wants.

28 December 2011

Mishkins

Over the past year or so, if I want to give myself a little pat on the back I usually do so with lunch at Spuntino.  It'll be quick, it might involve a sneaky cocktail or glass of wine and a few plates of great food.  My particular favourites are the deep-fried olives and pickles.  There is always a good buzz to the place, the staff are well informed and friendly and all in, it's a good meal.

Its part of a small group fronted by Russell Norman and located around Covent Garden and Soho.  The latest opening in the group is Mishkins which bills itself as "a kind of Jewish deli with drink."  I've mentioned it previously noting that it was part of a triumverate of new Jewish openings in London.

Now that I've been there, I realise I was wrong to lump it together with Kosher Roast and The Deli.  I take comfort from not being the only one to make this mistake, however.

I should have realised it was wrong from the silly moniker "a kind of Jewish deli...".  It's meaningless.  There is no such thing as a Jewish deli.  I think they mean New York deli.  To be a Jewish deli, even a kind-of Jewish deli, they'd need to have a broader menu, not one that solely draws from the Ashkenazi tradition.  I'd want to see some deep fried artichokes by way of Rome, some fish curry from Kerala, an orange and almond cake from Spain and some decent grilling courtesy of Bukhara.

Mishkins ignores all of that and takes its Jewish inspiration firmly from the middle-European tradition. Think salt-beef, bagels, latkes and chopped liver.  But these foods really aren't particularly Jewish, they're just eastern/mittel European.  They're as familiar to your Polish Catholic or Russian Orthodox as they are to your Jew.  Even more so perhaps if your Jew comes from Spain, Africa, India and wherever else on the four corners that Jews are still left.

Which means Mishkins is as much a Jewish deli as The Wolesely is.  Afterall, they too have chopped liver, chicken soup, smoked salmon bagels and salt beef sandwiches on their menu, but no-one suggests they're a Jewish restaurant.

Enough on taxonomy, it's the food that matters and overall, the food was dull.  Not that I was bored, just pretty much everything lacked flavour.

The cod cheek popcorn have got a lot of positive press, I'm flummoxed as to why other than possibly someone forgot add an ingredient to what we were served.  I note that lots of places refer to chilies on their popcorn, there wasn't any on ours. We were given bland pieces of vaguely fishy fried batter, like the stuff that works itself loose from fried fish.  

The herring on beetroot tartar at least looked very pretty.  The fish itself was nice and firm, with a decent vinegary brine.  But the beetroot was rather insipid. It would have benefited if they'd used beetroot and horseradish (chrane) rather than just beetroot.  The heat from horseradish would have kicked the dish up the back-side, made it stand up and be counted.

The bagel was really a bad example of its kind.  It was tough, hard and lacking any flavour.  The lox looked no different than smoked salmon and 'the house shmear' tasted pretty similar to bog standard cream cheese.  If they really do make it in-house, why not add a bit of pizzazz to it?  They should reintroduce liptauer, a delicious cream cheese laced with paprika, onions and various spices.

The cauliflower and caraway slaw and the knish were largely forgettable.  Bananas foster was nice, but that's not saying much for caramelised bananas and ice-cream.

The other restaurants I've been to in Norman's group have great food as well as a fun atmosphere. Mishkins really did not live up to that.  Whereas the others have some character, this feels the most formulaic.  Until now, the formula has lived up to scrutiny: alight on a genre of food that goes well with alcohol and can be served in small portions, get some props to make it look 'genuine', hire heavily tattooed staff, open.  Then again, that is the point of a formula.  There's one way of doing things and it always results in the same answer.

Google Maps

Mishkins25 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5JS, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7240 2078

What others think

Tracey Macleod - "What kind of meshuggener would apply the small plates concept to Jewish comfort food, which is all about abundance and appetite?...Turns out that this Jewish deli-meets-rackety bar is just the place London has been crying out for." 

A rather unusual Chinaman - "I guess it's no surprise that I enjoyed Mishkin's."

27 December 2011

The Cookery School hosts Valhrona classes

This is a short, intra-holiday note to ensure your larding is fully topped-up.

I always have a nightmare cooking with chocolate, so was intrigued to hear that the choc-snobs favourite Valhrona are holding classes with the Cookery School at Little Portland Street based around their reputedly very good book Cooking with Chocolate.  The class is being taught by Valhrona's UK executive chef Andrew Gravette.

The one class currently open to bookings is on 15 March. Places are limited to 14 people, but at the time of writing there is still availability.

I guess I should have written about this before Chanukah/Christmas, but I didn't.  Surely you haven't had enough of giving gifts or eating very rich food and so the prospect of freebasing chocolate is still appealing. 

I've no idea about Mr Gravette's credentials, but I went to a sourdough course with Dan Lepard at Little Portland Street a couple of years ago that was excellent.  I'm confident this will be as well.

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