Thursday, 27 August 2015
In Crosby Village, just north of Liverpool, after a particularly quiet Saturday, restaurant Albina tweeted morosely that they had served just four people that evening and if things didn't improve, they'd have to permanently shut down. It's a story presumably repeated up and down the country - places open and close without much fanfare and with often depressing speed - but the heartwarming way industry people on Twitter rallied round to try and get Albina's booking sheet a bit busier demonstrates just how much sympathy there is for the problems faced by new restaurants, not least of which in this particular case is PR - I'd never heard of the place, despite keeping what I consider to be a less than healthy eye on such things. So given I was passing that way anyway and thanks to a cryptic but positive interjection by Marina O'Loughlin of the Guardian (she has since reviewed it here), we headed off.
Well, Marina wasn't joking. "Eccentric" is generally used to describe a restaurant that has a few stuffed animals on the walls or uses popping candy in the desserts. Albina is so many different kinds of bizarre it's hard to know where to start. On the website they describe themselves as a "journey through British food", which in practice means that all the items on the vast menu have a supposed date of invention; Cumberland sausage roll from 1647 for example, or fish & chips from 1860. But almost as soon as this conceit is introduced it falls apart, because some of the attached dates make absolutely no sense - cornflakes (a quick Wikipedia search tells me) were invented in 1895, so presumably it's only the Scotch Egg part of the Cornflake-crusted Scotch Egg that dates to the advertised 1737. And how on earth is bangers and mash dated to 1915? Have we not had sausages and potato for a few hundred years at least? And did we really only learn how to smoke trout in 1841?
Anyway so there's that. But even without the history lessons, this is still a menu that begs many questions. Potted Southport shrimps and Hereford ribeye steaks are all well and good, but if Chicken Kiev is supposed to be an ironic nod to 70s dinner party food then I'd argue you were sailing dangerously close to parody; the last time someone tried to ironically recreate the food of their childhood the patron was Gregg "lavverly" Wallace and the resulting joy sponge of a restaurant was Gregg's Table. And, again, I'll let Marina remind you how that ended.
What I'm getting at is the whole place is set up to be an epic car crash of a disaster of a place, think The Regret Rien from Mike Leigh's Life is Sweet but with IKEA furniture. Big menus are rarely a good sign, and here there are two of them, split into subsections that make no sense ("Colonial", "Nostalgia", "Signature"), as well as a separate specials board. The historical menu concept doesn't work and they don't stick to it anyway, and the first dish we tried, "Pork dustings, gentleman's relish" was some tooth-shatteringly tough strips of bland pork rind presented with four neat rows of powder vaguely resembling something you might find in a city nightclub toilets.
And yet, inexplicably, from here on the food was really good. Beetroot spelt with Waterloo cheese and horseradish crumble sounds ambitious to a fault, and yet the textures worked well, think baked Brie on toasted oats.
"Chip shop scallops" were two discs of potato, battered and served with cubes of black pudding and a dollop of lemon mayonnaise. The batter was the best thing about this - based on that I bet Albina's fish & chips (1860) is very good - and I liked the addition of pea shoots as a knowing reference to mushy peas. Yes the lemon salt was a bit of a pointless cheffy thing, and no, it's not the prettiest dish in the word but it was still a lot of fun.
Whitebait had just the right amount of batter as well, and the homemade tartare sauce was fresh and had plenty of interesting bits and pieces in it. Perhaps its difficult to really mess up whitebait (I've never had a bad example; maybe I've been lucky) but even so, this was well worth a fiver (or whatever we paid for it, the pricing on the snacks menu is as confusing as everything else).
Veal Wellington was a perfect pink slab of dainty young cow wrapped in glossy puff pastry and presented with attractive colourful veg. In any restaurant this would have been an impressive bit of work, but considering the menu it had been ordered from it was jarringly unexpected. It was also about this time that the Chicken Song started playing on the restaurant's music system, something that would usually have me racing for the door but here just seemed completely appropriate.
"Cardoons" (more than one cardoon? Don't ask me) was a top bit of pastry work, an artichoke tart sat on a bed of buttered greens (kale, spinach, a few other bits and pieces) and studded with house-dried broad beans which once you got past the bullet-like texture were full of flavour. It was lovely. Bizarrely, hysterically lovely.
Complaining about the unskinned broad beans with the chicken faggot seems like a minor quibble in the grand scheme of things but it did only slightly spoil what could have been a perfect dish. Crunchy bacon bits and a smooth pea puree surrounded a large, juicy lump of chicken meat and offal, all coated with a thick layer of glossy chicken jus. I think Bohemian Rhapsody was playing by now, the lavish dynamics of the operatic section eerily reflecting our states of mind.
Desserts consisted first of this, a deconstructed Pimms No.1 Cup with dried and fresh strawberry with strawberry sorbet, cucumber slices and squares of Pimms jelly, summery and colourful and executed very well apart from the jelly itself being a bit too solid...
...and this, an utterly perfect treacle tart, warm and gooey and topped with cold sour cream.
The bill for three people and 4 drinks came to £91.15, incredibly reasonable for the amount and quality of food and yet clearly before the flurry of interest on Twitter and the review in the national press, word was just not getting out, even to restaurant spods like me. Albina definitely won't be the only ambitious (and/or barking mad) local restaurant struggling to make ends meet despite serving decent food, and though admittedly mistakes were being made in some - ok, many - areas (the menu needs to be 1/3 of the size and split into starters mains and dessert) there are few criticisms you could level at the dishes served, which were fresh, interesting and keenly priced.
So maybe it all comes down to PR. Albina is a perfect example of somewhere just needing to be noticed; hopefully from now on will be plain sailing and I wish them all the best, but I wonder if, in the first few months of opening, with the use of a PR agency's services (or, at least, a better one) they needn't have sailed so close to closure in the first place. Yes, as a restaurant blogger who's had more than his fair share of PR-organised freebies over the years perhaps this would be my advice, but if good PR is the difference between success and failure, it seems silly to skimp on it.
Anyway, the word is out now, so all you need to worry about is enjoying it. I've moaned a lot about the stupid menus and the music but if they want to be like that what harm does it really do? The madness is all part of the charm. Towards the end of the meal, staff began to light candles secured somewhat unadvisedly with paper tissues. As they burned down, the tissue inevitably caught fire, and from time to time a shriek would ring out across the dining room as another terrifying column of flame rose up next to a couple trying to have a nice quiet dinner. And yet this was one of the least weird features of a night at Albina, a restaurant, in Crosby Village of all places, like no other.
The app doesn't work in Liverpool - yet. But it has plenty of good suggestions for London
Wednesday, 12 August 2015
Henry Ashby has been a forager for over 50 years, first in his native Yorkshire, later the Scilly Isles and more recently in Monmouthshire. In his own words, he's not a "survivalist" or a "bush crafter" or any such ridiculous macho caricature, he looks only for the very finest wild plants, herbs and funghi and sells them on to only the very finest local restaurants. More specifically, recently he has begun supplying exclusively to the Whitebrook, a Michelin-starred restaurant with rooms in the Wye Valley, whose menus are a hymn to the local estuaries and ancient woodland and changing seasons.
Wild plants, like restaurants, broadly break down into three categories. Firstly there are the booby traps - deadly species like Ragwort or the Yellow Stain mushroom, outwardly innocuous, perhaps bearing a resemblance to a benign weed or edible funghi, but capable of inflicting severe gastrointestinal upset and even, in extreme cases, death. These are the Hard Rock Cafés or Aberdeen Angus' of the foraging world, to be avoided at all costs, duping unsuspecting foragers in the same way a Leicester Square restaurant will lure in naive tourists, serve them frozen onion rings and broiler ranch chicken and charge them a stomach-churning bill.
Then there are the species that are edible, just not particularly pleasant. Bear Grylls may collect them if he was stuck out in the wilds of the Wye Valley with only a penknife and water purification tablets, in the same way as you'd go to the KFC at Heston Services if you were desperately hungry and it was too late to find anything better, but you wouldn't go back for more without very good reason.
Finally, at the top of the chain, there are the very finest specimens, plants that only grow wild but are at least the equal of any cultivated species in terms of vibrancy of flavour; woodruff, our British vanilla, floral meadowsweet, citrusy wood sorrel. These are your Michelin-starred plants, and are all that Henry is interested in for his clients. And it is these exciting and unusual plants that elevate the tasting menu by chef Chris Harrod at the Whitebrook into something very special indeed.
Chickpea may not sound like the most obvious way to start a British foraged tasting menu but actually these are grown by a local veg supplier and are the first fresh chickpeas I've seen in this country. They came with chicken skin crackers topped with a carrot purée, full of colour and texture. Next to them, cute little cheese crackers topped with nettle purée and wild flowers.
I forgot to write down exactly what this first amuse was, but I think was cubes of bright purple potato on a soft roe of some kind, like a white tarama. Very nice it was, anyway.
The first proper course was local beets with powerful local blackberries and an artistic selection of foraged herbs and flowers. The beetroot & blackberry jus poured on top had the most amazing flavour, not to mention a dark, thick colour like fake blood.
A generous mound of fresh Cornish crab meat, sweet and luxurious, on a layer of bright green mallow "cream" and delicate pickled kohlrabi. Talking point of this dish though were "cucamelons", strange grape-sized vegetables that taste like a cross between cucumber and melon, also grown by the Whitebrook's vegetable people.
Of all the dishes, these dumplings with salt-baked turnip was perhaps the only one that veered somewhat close to disappointing. The Golden Cenarth cheese used was a bit too old and strong and battered the other flavours to a stinky pulp, and though I get the idea of using croutons for texture, they held a bit too much grease and were a bit difficult to enjoy. A noble failure, though - it was at least a dish with ambition.
Fortunately we didn't wobble for long. This beautiful slab of bright-white Cornish turbot is a textbook example of how to cook fish, moist and meaty and sat on top of a silky buttermilk sauce. An array of vivid green, salty estuary plants decorated it, and heritage carrots had so much flavour I think they may have been salt-baked. Or perhaps they were just really good carrots, seasoned perfectly.
Suckling pig came in three styles, a little cube of belly, a tender pink chop on the bone and a neat cylinder of - I think - slow-cooked jowl. It was coated in one of those lovely glossy reduced sauces that the very top restaurants can do so well, as well as - naturally - a smattering of edible plants.
A pre-dessert of blackcurrant and "pineapple weed" (growing rampant in the woods around the restaurant) was a pretty little coil of blackcurrant jelly and cream, sat on a bed of some kind of granita. Also studded into the granita were blackcurrants, each with a powerful concentrated flavour a million miles from the usual supermarket type.
Violet parfait came dressed with some dainty little meringue "twigs" and a blob of lemon thyme sorbet. More texture came in the form of teeny rose jellies and I also - again - admired the Whitebrook's confidence in dressing their dishes with fresh berries, stunningly raw and unadulterated.
Finally here's a cherry and hazelnut cake, with cherry stone ice cream and meadowsweet meringue. Like most of what came before, it was first and foremost an accomplished high-end restaurant dish that satisfied on every level, but the use of unusual foraged ingredients both enhanced the effect of the clever techniques and grounded the flavours in local geography and precise seasonality.
The Whitebrook is a perfect - perhaps unique - collaboration between a master forager with an expert's eye and palate, and a chef whose classical training is put to ideal use with this abundance of dazzling ingredients. Only once previously in the last few years - at the Black Swan in Oldstead - has that crucial final mile between ground and plate seemed so short; here in the Wye Valley you get that same sense of immediacy and vibrancy, that indefinable correctness of eating food (barring a fish or two from Cornwall) exactly in the place it was meant to be eaten.
And even without all that, even if Chris Harrod was flying his vegetables in daily from China and using moon rocks as seasoning, he would still, I'm sure, be able to produce an impressive selection of dishes. With the abundance of riches on his doorstep though, and the skills of Henry Ashby at his disposal, it makes about as good a case for getting on a train out of London for the weekend as anywhere else you'd care to think of. The Whitebrook could exist nowhere else, and eating here is an experience like no other in modern British food.
Photos by Helen. We were invited to the Whitebrook, but the lunch menu is an incredibly reasonable £47, and £35 with some excellent wines paired by GM Andrew, photos of which are here.
Wednesday, 5 August 2015
That said, all rules are there to be broken, and of course I have very occasionally written about popups if it looked like there was a chance of their legacy lasting. I don't regret lavishing praise on Ben Greeno all those years ago; it wasn't my fault he decided to move to Sydney as soon as word of his talent got out. And I knew a brief stint at a pie & mash shop in Hackney wouldn't be the last we saw of the brilliant Sabel - they're currently doing their thing in a beautiful loft space in Clapton and you haven't lived until you've tried their custard tart. Get tickets while you can.
And someone else who is definitely going places is Asma Khan. First there was her supper club in Kensington, still spoken about in hushed tones by those lucky enough to have been. And now she's to be found in residence at the Sun & 13 Cantons in Soho, Mondays to Wednesdays, serving food so good it threatens to spoil every other Indian meal you've ever eaten. Ever.
Right from the very first bite it's clear that this is food that has been considered, carefully crafted and loved. Newari Salad had a beguiling mix of earthy sesame and red chilli heat, cooled by chunks of cucumber; I could have eaten nothing but buckets of this and come away happy. So often salads in Indian food are just a pile of chopped onion and tomato to go on your poppadums - this was a genuinely unique (as far as I know, for London at least) little dish, enough to make me want to know a lot more about Newari cuisine. To the left of it is a lamb samosa to end all lamb samosas - packed full of spicy meat in a delicate thin pastry and provided with a tangy tamarind dip. All of these were provided free of charge because my friend was running late, and I'm fairly confident Asma didn't know me from Adam at this point - the service (also provided mainly by Asma herself) being every bit as good as the food.
So when my friend finally arrived we ordered more of the punchy lamb samosas, and a round of "puchkas", dainty little things you may have seen elsewhere as pani puri but almost definitely never as good as this, each packed to the brim with so much fresh diced vegetables that there was hardly any room for the tamarind water you have to pour inside.
Tamarind dal (left) was a thick and spicy version of this Indian home-cooked favourite.
"This is how we always had it at home" said Asma as we enthusiastically worked our way through it.
"Does everyone eat this well at home in India?" I wondered, already deliberating the cost of a one-way flight and a nice air-conditioned apartment somewhere with a view of the Bay of Bengal.
"Not everyone, no - we were very lucky."
Turns out Asma is of Indian royal stock - her family own a fortress somewhere in the north of the country, and her own experience of the Newari and Mughlai dishes she creates so confidently today was solely being on the receiving end until a trip back to her ancestral kitchens to learn the recipes she'd been eating all her young life. So the dishes you see here are, technically, home-style, but home-style as served to the very upper echelons of Indian society. At least, until now.
The khosa mangsho, Bengali goat curry, was probably my favourite dish of all, and as you might have gathered by now, that's really saying something. Chunks of melting-tender goat in a sauce so powerful and complex it makes a mockery of anything else purporting to call itself a curry. With fragrant rice to soak it up, it's a dish that could turn the most stubborn and timid souls into an Indian food enthusiast.
Even the desserts were memorable, and not just compared to the sweet fritters and one-note kulfis that are usually offered by your local High St curry house. Nankhatai are biscuits flavoured with rose water and pistachio, warm from the oven, and this little carrot cake topped with pistachios was just lovely, a gentle bouncy texture and expertly balanced flavours.
Clearly if you have even the most passing interest in Indian food you should do everything you can to get a table at the Sun & 13 Cantons (Monday to Wednesday only, remember) while Asma is in residence, as food as good as this, and service as warm and friendly as this, demands an audience. But the fact remains that Darjeeling Express is still a popup, and once the takeover comes to an end, what next? A clue may be in the form of head chef of Gymkhana, Karam Sethi, who just happened to be enthusiastically working his way through the entire menu the very same night I was. This is a man who knows his Indian food (in fact I'd say one of the few people in London whose skills in balancing complex spices could match Asma's) but also - crucially - knows his restaurants. With the phenomenally successful Lyle's, Bao and Kitchen Table already in his portfolio, surely he'd spot the potential of another bundle of raw talent to set up with a nice central location? You heard it here first.
More information on Asma and Darjeeling Express can be found on her website.
Thursday, 30 July 2015
For years, I thought I didn't like Thai food. Greasy spring rolls, rubbery chicken satays in a sickly orange sauce, soggy Pad Thai bulked out with a murky mix of frozen vegetables; at best it was boring, at worst that special kind of sweet, mushy blandness that speaks of a long time left in the freezer. And then I went to Thailand on holiday, and realised that I didn't dislike Thai food, I just disliked Thai food in the UK, which at the time (and until fairly recently) was about as close to the real thing as a Harvester is to the Hind's Head.
Why the discrepancy? The same old issues that held back food in this country for so long - lack of ambition, low expectations from the public in general, and the fact that so many considered eating out a wild extravagance held only for the most special occasions, forcing restaurants to eke through empty weekdays occasionally chipping stuff out of the freezer when needed, and hoping to shift enough Blue Nun on Friday night to make the whole enterprise worthwhile. In much of the country, this is still sadly the case - the demand just isn't there, and with very few notable exceptions, small town restaurants are pretty dire. Hell, even Liverpool struggles, and there's over two million people live there.
What any cuisine needs to be at its best, then, is an open-minded customer base, access to good fresh ingredients, and a restaurant that can make the numbers work. The problem that most Asian food, and Thai food specifically has, is that when you've had the best Pad Thai of your life from a back street in Chang Mai and it costs 40p, persuading the same people back in London that their equally tasty version is worth £10 is a bit of an ask. But if anyone can persuade London that good Thai food is worth shelling out a bit extra for, it's Som Saa.
That's not to say Som Saa is expensive; quite the opposite. It's actually incredibly good value compared to the dross trotted out in the name of Thai food in most of the capital (hang your head in shame, Thai Square) - perhaps too good value, and I'll come back to that later. There are some snacks for £3-4, various bits of grilled meats with dipping sauces for £6-7, and a couple of sharing plates that go up to £14. By anyone's standards, this is a keenly priced restaurant. What makes it an extraordinary restaurant is that the dishes produced are innovative and unusual at any price point; this is Thai food like you've never seen before, full of colour and vibrancy, authentic where it counts but making exciting use of premium British ingredients alongside Thai staples. It is, in short, the best Thai restaurant I've ever been to outside Thailand.
This is jan naem, a fermented pork snack that they apparently make by secreting bits of it away in the hottest corners of the railway arch the restaurant currently calls its home. It's sharp and fresh, quite unlike any other pork dish I've ever tasted, the acidity turning the generous slabs of pig into something approaching pickled but actually way more complex and rewarding than that.
Beef in betel leaf is something you may have seen before at one of the (many decent) Vietnamese places on Kingsland Road, and they were every bit as good here, with that familiar soft beef filling and topped with crunchy peanuts. The chilli/vinegar dip was not only familiar in flavour to the kind of thing you get in SE Asia but the pink bowl it came in was a lovely little nod to streetfood tableware as well.
This is one of the "snacks", pla bon dtaeng mor, strips of watermelon with an interesting smoked fish powder and crunchy fried shallots. Like the jan naem, I've never had anything like it before although it did remind me slightly of the very clever chilli watermelon salad at Chick'n'Sours - that same addictive mix of fresh fruit and Scoville heat that simultaneously burns and soothes.
Som tam was arguably one of the more familiar Thai dishes on the menu at Som Saa, but was done with such style that it still managed to feel completely new. Fresh and vibrant, and another great use of that "roadside pastel" tableware. I'm convinced there is no cuisine that does salads better than Thai food - the care and attention given to the play of textures and chilli in the vegetarian dishes is never less than equal that of the protein.
Excuse my attempt at an arty Instagram-style shot - that on the right is gai yang grilled chicken leg with dipping sauce. I find the different styles of butchery in world cuisine fascinating. Usually in Western cuisine a chicken will be neatly jointed into drumstick, thigh and wing, and you work your portion control around that. In Carribbean (jerk) and SE Asian food though, a sharp cleaver cuts the chicken up into equal sizes regardless of the part of the animal - it's quicker and easier to prepare, and produces bits easier for dipping.
The star dish was always likely to be this seabass nam dtok pla thort, because I can't think of a single meal that wouldn't be improved by an entire deep-fried fish to share. Isn't it magnificent? And it tasted just as good as it looked, the rich, herby dressing hitting all of those amazing Thai food pleasure points - sweet, hot, sour, crunch.
There was a pork belly curry, thick and velvety, that I forgot to take a picture of, and a very interesting smoked fish relish with dipping vegetables that I did. But by this point I imagine you'll need no further evidence that Som Saa is a restaurant at the very top of its tree. It's Thai food that successfully demonstrates everything that makes this cuisine so special at some incredibly generous prices.
So where do we go from here? Because as they'll tell you themselves, Som Saa is only in this space temporarily and needs to move to a situation, and setting that will go the distance. Shared tables and a streetfood vibe are fine when you're finding your feet and building an audience, but Andy Oliver's astonishing food deserves more - a room and an atmosphere that reflect the days of backbreaking prep that goes into each dish (days of pickling, crushing, chopping and fermenting, if rumours are to be believed; they work all week but are only open to the public Thursday-Sunday). So bizarrely for a restaurant blogger and happy customer, I think Som Saa v2 should charge more. Not tablecloths and silver service but we need to demonstrate that people are willing to pay that bit extra when the results more than justify it. With a bit of extra spend per head, this stunningly talented bunch of people can really go places. The future is bright.
We were spotted and had a couple of extra dishes brought out for free, but I think the bill per head would have been about £25-£30 otherwise including a bottle of lovely Picpoul