Thursday, 17 May 2018

Hide, Piccadilly


At one end of the Restaurant Ambition Scale you have a simple street food stall, where a small team - often just one person - tests the market with a highly specialised menu of variations on a theme; burgers, perhaps, or Korean-French fusion Yorkshire pudding burritos. Success at this level may lead to investment and expansion and - for the lucky ones - a nationwide chain of restaurants, but none of this happens overnight. Word of mouth travels slowly, and success has to be earned the hard way.


At the other end of the scale, there is Hide. Occupying three floors of an imposing tower block in the heart of Mayfair overlooking Green Park, consisting of a basement bar, ground floor bistro and mezzanine fine dining restaurant, there is nothing about the place that isn't lavishly, indecently confident bordering on downright reckless. As most of the London restaurant industry prepares to batten down the hatches and prepare for the long, dark Brexit winter of the soul, Ollie Dabbous and his Russian investors have decided to throw caution (and a few million quid) to the wind and open by what is by some distance the most impressively kitted-out bit of foodie real estate in W1.

Outside, it's fairly discreet - austere, even, with tinted windows only hinting at activity within, and a large unmarked entrance of dark panelled wood. Inside, though, you can see where every last penny of the £millions went; a glorious stylised wooden staircase looking like something from a Guillermo del Toro movie is the obvious centerpiece, but lovely design details lurk in every corner and it's worth factoring in a good ten minutes into your evening schedule just to make time for gawping in slack-jawed wonder at it all before turning your attention to the food.


Mind you, the food served at Hide deserves just as much slack-jawed wonder as the surroundings. The artist's eye and attention to detail that made Dabbous such a roaring success is even more amplified here, and even this cynical, restaurant-weary blogger saw several moments of genuine, game-changing innovation. Even the bread course was pretty much perfect, all of it oven-fresh and beautifully done, particularly a "foccacia" so insanely delicate it practically dissolved in the mouth - pure buttery, flaky joy.


Simmental (there's that name again) beef tartare came wrapped in cute little nasturtium leaves secured with mini clothes pegs, and despite the leaves being slightly wilted and past their best, still made for very satisfying little morsels. I couldn't detect much of the advertised 'tobacco' flavour but perhaps that's for the best.


Cornish mackerel tartare was served with one of those clever Pacojet-made snows, flavoured with eucalyptus. I don't know if you've ever had mackerel and eucalyptus before - I very much doubt it - and I still haven't, as I didn't get to try this one, but I am reliably informed it worked very well. And who can resist a moat of seaweed and dry ice, to lend a creepy B-movie atmosphere to proceedings?


At this point, my camera battery died, so I'm afraid from here on photos will look like they have all the life drained out of them, as the iPhone in low light tends to do. So just imagine how vibrant the colours were in real life on this dish of raw red prawns, and how a cool, clear shellfish consommé brought a refreshing spritz of the ocean.


Chicken liver parfait was actually nowhere near as weird and grey as it looks here; it was in fact a very attractive pink-bronze, smooth and light and perched proudly on the top of a clever bit of custom tableware, as if nestled in the caldera of a sunken volcano.


Under normal circumstances a single "sweetbread" may sound a bit of a stingy portion for a main course, but this thing was huge - not overwhelmingly so, and with a fantastic light texture, but plenty enough to satisfy. It was presented with angular spears of various pickled herbs and vegetables, and over the top was poured one of those dense, meaty sauces that you just want to order a dozen gallons of and bathe in. Actually, maybe that's just me. Sorry for the mental image.


Octopus was right up there with the version served at Holborn Dining Room, which means it was pretty much perfect. Beautifully tender and darkened with charcoal smoke, it was like sitting on a Mediterranean beach next to a wood fire at sunset. Alright, maybe not quite like that, but it was a very good bit of octopus.


Even the more straightforward dishes were never anything less than impressive. Herdwick lamb, presented in three neat sections, was perfectly cooked and boasted a texture firm yet so yielding it could almost be cut with a spoon. It was clearly excellent lamb - the attention to detail, from everything from the very obviously flashy presentations to the more subtle efforts in areas like sourcing - was quite something to behold.


We could hardly leave without seeing what magic Hide could bring to desserts, and "warm acorn cake" turned out to be a kind of rum baba, where smoked caramel was poured over the cake, itself soaked in a generous measure of your choice of rum. Whether by accident or design, our waiter left the rum bottles on the table during dessert, and it's probably only fair to point out we may have snuck a couple of extra measures before the meal was done.


I didn't see the bill - I was lucky enough to be treated to dinner on this occasion, and though this wasn't a PR invite I thought I'd mention it anyway. But it's worth saying that, really, for food of this precision and skill, in such blindingly attractive surroundings, in this part of town and presented by a team so relentlessly lovely and enthusiastic about the food and drinks they serve you feel a bit mean for not inviting them to sit down and enjoy it with you, well, I think the £100/head or thereabouts feels like something even approaching a bargain. Certainly there are far worse, and far more expensive places to eat within easy walking distance (*cough* Novikov *cough*).

So I can wholeheartedly and unreservedly recommend Hide. It hits every single restaurant pleasure point with a bullseye, and if you have the means, and enjoy eating lovely food served by lovely people, then it's hard to see why you'd leave the place any less impressed than I did. And I was very impressed indeed. So thank you Ollie Dabbous and team - it's reassuring that in these difficult times, there are some people willing to aim big, and have their lofty ambitions realised so perfectly.

9/10

Monday, 14 May 2018

Wellbourne, White City


Despite never having been to White City Place before, the vibe of the place felt eerily familiar. Originally a collection of BBC buildings, the writing was on the wall for them remaining so as soon as the price of a two-bed flat in Zone 2 spiked over £750,000 and so today they've transformed into yet another one of those wipe-clean reimaginings of a public space, still technically public domain but heavily stacked with lots of lovely investor-friendly residential blocks. See also: Battersea Power Station, Stratford Olympic Village, and so on.


Of course, though billions are to be made in residential housing, not even an absentee Saudi landlord would want to own property in a windswept concrete jungle with only a branch of Tesco Express and a Pret for entertainment, so more often than not these developments offer a sweet rent deal for half-decent restaurants, so they can pretend to be a normal functioning neighbourhood at least for as long as it takes to flog the apartments above. So Battersea Power station boasts - for now - a (very nice too) branch of Wright Bros, Stratford Olympic Village has Darkhorse (which hosted a popup by Henry Harris while he was between Racine and Coach, Clerkenwell stints) and now BBC Media Village - sorry, White City Place - has Wellbourne.


Wellbourne is, objectively, a nice restaurant. True, at first glance the menu appears to be rather unfocused, with various French, Italian, Spanish and Middle Eastern elements vying for attention, but anywhere serving Ibérico secreto and veal Holstein clearly have a bit of ambition about them, and with a Josper-style charcoal oven in the kitchen they've at least been able to spend some money on equipment to - in theory - make the most of it.

All of which may even have not been enough to tempt me to W12 were they not able to offer a type of cow I'd not seen on a menu before - 50-day-aged "Simmental" beef from HG Walter, a butcher already in my good books for supplying the astonishingly good burgers served by Harris at the aforementioned Coach in Clerkenwell. So with that, I hopped on the Central Line.


Before the steak though, some vol-au-vents. Every restaurant needs a USP, and it seems the team at Wellbourne (including the most affable Michael Kennedy who was in the kitchens the evening of my visit) have pinned their hopes on the humble vol-au-vent making a comback. And why not, because these were perfectly lovely little things, boasting good buttery casings and intelligent, well-seasoned fillings of lamb shoulder and mustard, salt cod, and (my favourite) broad beans, sheep's cheese and mint.


That I enjoyed my steak as much as I did is testament mainly to the quality of the raw ingredient, as I had various issues with the way it was presented. By all means serve steak on the bone - it's my preferred cut - but if you're going to cut it off said bone before serving, do not then re-grill the steakless bone (!?) to remove all trace of nice pink flesh, and do not drape the filleted beef over the bone on the plate, like it had all been dropped from the ceiling. Added to this, there wasn't enough of a crust or colour on the steak itself, which ended up looking a bit sad and flabby.


But! But. It still tasted great. This was clearly very good beef, and despite all the indignity it had suffered in the cooking process still managed to boast a dense, rich funkiness that only the most carefully-aged cow can. Simmental, interestingly, are mixed-use cattle that can be used for dairy or beef, much like the Galician breeds you find in so many trendy Spanish steakhouses these days (Lurra, Sagardi) and I don't know whether it's just a happy coincidence that this happens to chime with exactly what I'm looking for in a steak, or there's something about ex-dairy cattle that makes incredible beef, but I was more than impressed.


Veal Holstein was also a good example of its sort, carefully and prettily presented, tender veal schnitzel seasoned with good strong anchovies. And at the risk of repeating myself, how nice that a new bistro like this is making the effort to do something a bit unusual rather than filling the menu with burgers and Ceasar salads as I'm sure they could easily have done.


Oh yes, chips were very nice - neat and golden brown with a good crunch - though I preferred dipping them in a red wine jus than something called "bois boudrin" which had all the personality of cold Doritos salsa.


Fortified by good meat, as well as a glass of very good Napa red from their Coravin system, we felt comfortable enough to stay for desserts. "Dolce[sic] de leche" ice cream sandwich was excellent, soft inside without a trace of crystallisation, and with a nice salty crunchy biscuit. So too, lemon leaf sorbet which had loads of citrus punch and a smooth texture. The less said about the attempt to pair the ice cream with a dry manzanilla sherry, though, the better - a sweet port, hastily substituted, soon put things right.


Overall, then, there was enough to enjoy, and though clearly I can't be giving top marks to anywhere serving steak like that (if you like, see how different it looks on the restaurant's own website - wait for the 3rd slide), the quality made up for some of the texture and you can still do a lot worse for the same price elsewhere. Whether it will survive in this strange, lonely spot once the rents go up - we were one of two tables taken all evening - remains to be seen, but it's probably no safer than anywhere else in London at the moment, Saudi investors or no Saudi investors. So better just make the most of it all while we can.

7/10

I was invited to Wellbourne and didn't see a bill, though I imagine all of the above would have come to about £50/head or so.

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

The Star Inn at Harome, Yorkshire


Though I'm sure this part of the world has its charms at any time of the year and whatever the weather, I've been fortunate enough to experience perfect summer sun each time I've had cause to travel to Yorkshire. For the Black Swan our meal was preceded by a stroll through the surrounding valleys, spotting a few of the animals that were to appear on our plates that evening. And in Leeds a couple of years later, though most of the day was spent on a train or in that strange dining room on the top floor of a clothes shop, we did have time for a pint outside Whitelock's before the journey home, soaking up the rays as we debated the merits or otherwise of our lunch.


And so too last weekend, where a long-awaited tasting menu at Yorkshire super-gastropub The Star Inn at Harome happened to coincide with the hottest April day for 70 years, a fact not lost on the hungry group of people (myself included) climbing the huge hill to Wombleton on our way to lunch. But there's nothing like a long walk up a hill in 27C to work up an appetite, and once walking boots had been swapped for high heels (not mine) and a bottle of fizzy rosé opened in the Star's back garden, we were ready to get stuck in.


First of the courses was a baked oyster covered in shaved (though strangely not melted - I think the cheese was grated over the already-baked oyster) Parmesan and a kind of wild garlic pesto. I've never not preferred a raw oyster to a cooked one, but this was still very nice, using good lean oysters and just the right amount of cheese and garlic to season them.


Next, one of my favourite things in the whole world - beef consommé - here poured into a bowl containing fresh horseradish, pickled beetroot and charred miniature onions. The vegetables were well chosen and well cooked, but of course we were mainly here for one thing, and that was a big Bovril-y hit of glossy beef soup, which was everything I needed it to be.


Another cracking dish was this of octopus, tender and touched with a slight char from the coals, in a rich, pitch-black Venere risotto, dotted with cavolo nero from the garden, dill, nasturtium, lovage, chorizo and who knows what else. In fact if I was going to pick fault I'd say we could have done with losing a few ingredients (particulary the raw lovage which tends to beat everything it's put up against to oblivion) as there was more than enough to enjoy in the octopus and risotto alone, but I suppose there's no point having a kitchen garden if you don't use it.


Then two foie gras dishes arrived simultaneously, our lovely waiter (more on whom later) happy to swap out a couple of the "signature Star Inn" foie, black pudding and apple for something from the shorter Garden menu which sounded more intriguing. And yes, although the signature "posh full English" (if you like) was immensely enjoyable, not least because the foie dissolved in the mouth like meaty butter and the sugar-coated apple was a perfect foil for it, the simpler yet slightly more experimental pairing of foie with warm spiced pineapple and cool cep ice cream was even more successful, garnering universal praise from our table.


Mains weren't disappointing exactly, just not quite up to the standard of what had come before. Turbot was lacking a bit in flavour (I'm told the older, larger animals taste better so this could have been a young-un), and an "oyster velouté" was subdued to the point of invisibility, although a cute little "wild garlic butter pie" it came with was warm and comforting.


And a slightly mealy venison loin played second fiddle to a braised faggot, plump with tasty offal, which really should have been the star of the show, especially once drenched in a sauce of fermented black garlic. Now I come to think of it, I don't think I've ever had a really good venison dish - it always seems to be a bit of a characterless protein, despite 'game' being my favourite category of food overall - so maybe this was just a personal thing and someone else would have found far more to rave about.


Despite the odd mis-step, though, we were enjoying ourselves, and in an effort to make the lunch stretch as far as possible into the afternoon (and also because we like cheese), availed ourselves of the cheeseboard. Don't ask me to remember everything that arrived (the matching wine measures were extremely generous) but Yorkshire Blue and Stinking Bishop were as good as they usually are, and all served at a perfect temperature.


I'm willing to believe there are people in the world who would not enjoy a Pontefract Cake Soufflé with salted caramel sauce and banana ice cream, but I am certainly not one of those people, and I thought the combination of the sweet banana and faintly bitter liquorice in the soufflé was seriously impressive, an experiment that very much worked. I am told, though I didn't try it myself, that the other dessert, "Whipped Brillat-Saverin with Flavours of Yorkshire Curd Tart" was equally experimental but less successful, although full marks for imagination. (I accidentally took a photo when my camera was on the table, but I quite like the effect so I've left it in)


Moving from our cosy little private dining room (the Star is full of cosy little nooks, as building that have been around for about 700 years generally do) back out to the glorious sun of the garden, the afternoon soon dissolved, as it generally tends to do with this particular bunch of people, into spirit-soaked, alcoholic oblivion. I notice from the itemised bill that one of us was the lucky recipient of a £26 shot of 15yo Glenfarclas while two others had to make do with a £6 Kilchoman Sanaig apiece, and did somewhat less well out of the equally-shared bill. And I have no idea who ordered the Mini Cheddars. Still, the point is, a marvellous time was had by all, thanks in no small part as well to our fantastic Spanish (I think) waiter who was a model of his profession and coped with every one of our increasingly lively requests with charm, knowledge and more than a little patience.


In the grand scheme of things, perhaps The Star Inn isn't quite up there with the very best country restaurants I've been lucky enough to visit over the last few years. You've probably come to the same conclusion yourself by this point. But at £120/head for a full afternoon of fun, seven courses and enough quality booze to knock an elephant out, it's certainly good value and I'd be very surprised indeed if you booked a meal here and didn't have just as much fun as we did, booze or no booze, sun or no sun.

8/10

We stayed at Plumpton Court which was great value, very comfortable and did have a well-stocked bar before we arrived. I'm sure they'll have restocked by the time you get there, though.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Colony Grill Room, Mayfair


My evening at the Colony Grill Room, the restaurant at the swanky Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair, did not begin well. Being a few minutes early (I'm always early) and soaking wet thanks to the weather being very April, I thought I'd pass the time by taking a few shots of the grand entrance hallway, which leads through the American Bar towards the restaurant at the back. Now I admit, thanks to the weather, I was looking even more scruffy and unsuitable than usual but I was still taken aback by the speed and ferocity of hotel concierge's reaction to my clicking.


"Sir! No photos. You can't take photos of the guests."

"I honestly wasn't, I'm just taking some of this hallway here, you can't make out any faces."

"No, you can't take photos. People come here for a reason."

I wasn't sure what he meant by that. I should hope they did come here for a reason, and weren't just lost on the way to Debenhams. "Well, I'm here for a reason - you invited me to review your restaurant."

"No photos in the lobby."


Anyway, their place, their rules, though you'd wonder how a 5-star hotel in London survives at all with a no-photo rule in their lobby in the age of Instagram. If we follow even a handful of the same people, I'm sure your feed will be just as heavily populated with the gleaming black & white Claridge's foyer, or that grand marble staircase at the Rosewood. Isn't showing off on social media what hotel lobbies are for?


Fortunately, once seated in a plush booth in the Colony Grill Room, things were slightly less fraught. Oysters may not be the fiercest test of a restaurants skill set, but they were lean and sprightly things, the Carlingford Lough and the smaller Claires both carefully opened and in good condition. I wasn't entirely sure what to do with a few slices of buttered wholemeal Hovis (or similar) they came with, though. House bread (nice crunchy rolls) had already been served. Perhaps someone can enlighten me?


Lobster bisque next, and a very decent example of its kind it was too. Fresh lobster meat and seafood-friendly herbs and veg (chives amongst others) were prettily arranged in the bottom of the bowl before the thick soup was poured on top. To be brutally honest (and this is after all why you're here) I've had more spectacularly-flavoured bisques elsewhere, but even a fairly humdrum lobster bisque is usually worth the effort, and this was far better than humdrum.


A friend's fried artichokes were enjoyable in pretty much the same way - not spectacular, nothing fancy, timed to just have a bit of crunch on the edges and dressed with a sharp salsa verde, they were familiar and gently rewarding without rewriting any artichoke rulebooks.


Things continued in this vein, pretty much. I don't want to sound like I'm being down on the food at all - it was all objectively perfectly decent stuff, better than your average hotel restaurant and not ludicrously priced considering the location. But I got the same feeling here as I did at most other Corbin & King places, that the food is playing second-fiddle to the swish surroundings and sense of occasion, and that myself and the other diners that evening (mainly older couples and the odd celeb - Marc Almond was on the next table) weren't that interested in having their culinary boundaries pushed. This was calf's liver and bacon, the liver cooked nicely medium-rare and bacon nice and crisp, and was polished off quite happily.


The reason I was here was to try the grilled cheese sandwich - apparently it was National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, and I was told they were particularly proud of their version. I have to say, having tried it, it didn't really do much for me. Perhaps the grated cheddar was deliberately undercooked and chalky - it still looked grated - and perhaps the rather timid colour on the bread was a reaction to the demands of the elderly clientele, but if you're going to go down the American comfort food route you need to commit to it in full, with huge mounds of oozing plastic cheese, crisped up and burned at the edges. Chips were good though, so I'll give them that.


And soon enough desserts were here to lift our spirits. Baked Alaska, flambéed dramatically tableside in kirsch, would have been a bit more enjoyable had the centre not been absolutely rock-solid, although the flavour, once it had been chipped off and sampled, was good.


The Colony had one final trick up its sleeve, though. "Fruit sorbet", ordered mainly because dessert was part of the deal and hardly out of hunger, was quite unexpectedly the most powerfully-flavoured and impressive bit of sorbet work I've had in many years. In fact the last time I can recall sorbet this good it was at Little Barwick House all the way back in 2014, and that I still think about it to this day shows how good that one was. So whoever made the version at the Colony should be very pleased with themselves indeed - give yourself an icy pat on the back.


In the end, I can pick fault with the food as much as I want (and I do want) but as I mentioned before, a slightly less-than-perfect cheese toastie and a less-than-spectacular lobster soup will be of supreme unimportance to the average punter at the Colony Grill. I'm not their target market and that's fine, I can live with that - I wouldn't rush back to the Delaunay or the Wolseley either, other Corbin & King flagships (though of course Zedel is almost perfect, the exception to the rule). But it's clear that what they do very well is own and operate grand, romantic restaurants with an exquisite sense of style and occasion, and they do that very well indeed. Corbin & King are, undoubtedly, fantastic restaurateurs. There's every chance you will love a meal there. Just don't take any photos.

7/10

I was invited to the Colony Grill Room. I know, there's been a bit of a run of invites lately, I'll try and make sure I pay for the next one and do it properly.