Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Dysart, Petersham

Richmond is a very posh part of London. It is for this reason I was worried about accepting an invitation to eat there, because as you may have noticed, posh parts of the country and good restaurants do not often mix. When was the last time you had a decent meal in Hampstead, for example, or Chelsea? Or further afield in Beaconsfield or Weybridge? Henley or Harpenden? With very few exceptions (there is Bray, I suppose, though that's largely the work of one man), high property prices and good dinners out don't go together, whilst conversely the parts of town that show up blue on the house price heat maps boast some smashing value restaurants - Camberwell, Peckham, etc.

The only other time I'd been tempted on the 65 bus out to Richmond was when Petersham Nurseries (still the most famous restaurant in these parts) took on a new head chef and invited a bunch of bloggers/journalists to try it out. It wasn't bad, if you don't mind eating a lot of artfully arranged vegetables in a greenhouse, but I am never going to be in the target market for a £20 bowl of salad, nor the £4,000 chest of drawers they saw fit to attempt to flog in the same room, and so I never felt the desperate need to return under my own steam.

The Dysart though is a different prospect entirely. The menu contains a great big list of all my favourite things to eat, from veal sweetbreads to duck for two to crème brûlée; alongside the usual wine matching menu they have an option to try matching beers instead, which is pretty forward-looking; and there's an astonishingly reasonable set menu for around £20/head. It even has its own bus stop. I was convinced.

Of course I didn't actually ask for the £20 menu, I mean I'm not travelling an hour out of my comfort zone to do things by halves, so obviously we had the tasting menu, but the point is the £20 menu is an option, should you want it.

A tray of neatly lined-up nibbles kicked things off - from memory a little cheese/tomato biscuit, a deep-fried porky nugget topped with chilli, a surprising mint/lemon/polenta cube (refreshing and smooth) and (celestial fanfare) scallop nigiri topped with freshly shaved summer truffle. No prizes for guessing which my favourite was.

Next, bread (yes bread, that's a photo of some bread, just go with it), and this was really something. A soda bread of sorts, we were told, but I've never had soda bread quite like this, with a dark, biscuit-y crust encasing a moist, cakey inside. We did our best to leave some to accompany the next couple of courses but after barely a few seconds our resolve crumbled and we polished it off.

Charred mackerel with braised daikon, ginger and champagne married a lovely technique (I have never not enjoyed a soft piece of mackerel fillet with a smoky, crispy skin) with some clever Asian flavours. It was very pretty, too - just imagine something approaching the opposite of how my photography makes it look.

Local cep mushrooms were the main ingredient in this risotto of sorts, packing some deep, foresty flavours and bound with a silky sauce that I think might have involved chicken. It was very well presented, and miniature sprigs of "golden" oregano added a remarkably intense herby note, but it was all let down slightly by very underdone rice - not just slightly al dente but pretty crunchy. Still, you can see where they were going with it, and the rich flavours were enough to make up for the technical error.

Wild sea bass, crispy skin, bright white flaky flesh, everything as it should be, came in a very interesting "spiced curry leaf sauce", shocking deep green with a dense, earthy texture. Bok choi and kohlrabi kept the Asian fusion theme going, and it all added up to a hugely enjoyable dish, hard to fault at all.

The next course, beef in miso mustard sauce, was nothing if not experimental. Individually, all the elements were very impressive; a pink fillet of fine aged beef; a sticky, shiny puck of slow-roasted cheaper cut; swirls and curls of colourful heritage carrots. But though I loved the miso mustard sauce in of itself, it was way too powerful for the beef, and completely smothered the delicate meat with a blanket of vinegar and umami. But then having said that, I still enjoyed both the beef and the sauce, just not on the same forkful. Perhaps it would have worked better with a stronger, gamier protein like venison - who knows. Still, you have to admire their imagination.

Local damsons with peaches were full of colour and the joys of summer, even if my photo makes it look like something left over from a surgical procedure. Damsons, like gooseberries or elderberries, can't be intensively farmed, so it's always worth choosing them if you see them on a menu.

Desserts made sure the meal ended on a high - or rather, two highs. Valrhona chocolate and praline bar with miso salted caramel ice cream, well, you can imagine how good that was. The raspberries lined up neatly on top had a brilliant flavour, probably grown locally, and the chocolate "bar" was much lighter than it looked, containing a mousse-like, nutty interior. And pineapple and brown butter financier was hot straight out of the oven, golden crunchy brown on the outside and soft and moist inside. Blobs of cardamom jam added that Asian twist, as the miso did with the chocolate dessert.

As you will have probably concluded by this point, the Dysart is a very good restaurant indeed. Fusion food has the potential to be a muddled disaster in the wrong hands, yet on this menu the odd Japanese touch here and there often only accented and enhanced the modern classical cooking, only occasionally proving a distraction. And then again, even when, as in the beef dish, the Asian seasoning was slightly heavy-handed, it only made an interesting mess, not a complete failure. And while it's easy to pick fault with things like undercooked rice, so many other things went right - and not just right, but stunningly well, that in the end it was impossible not to be utterly charmed with the place. On top of all that, £60 for a tasting menu and £18.50/£22.50 for a set menu is a hugely reasonable sum for cooking at this level. All of a sudden, Zone 4 seems a perfectly reasonable distance to travel for dinner.


I was invited to review the Dysart

Dysart Arms on Urbanspoon

Monday, 8 September 2014

The Clove Hitch, Liverpool

Liverpool's restaurant scene continues to improve, taking its own sweet time and in no particular hurry to get anywhere quickly, but even so (and seemingly occasionally only by accident) producing more decent places to eat. Just a couple of doors down from the lovely Side Door (which itself now boasts a more mature, elaborate menu than when I first visited a few years ago) and in a similarly impressive Georgian townhouse on Hope Street, is the brand new(*) Clove Hitch.

Nods to modern dining trends are very much in evidence here, like they are almost everywhere at the moment; there's a bourbon bar downstairs, with a separate menu of burgers and hot dogs, and a long list of European craft beers. It's just something we all have to get used to now - overnight, every bar and restaurant owner in Liverpool decided that they did, after all, want a piece of the London/US dirty food pie and now it's just bloody unavoidable. But despite these affectations, the main part of Clove Hitch is a nice, normal restaurant serving modern British dishes and doing so for a typically Liverpool-modest slice of your wallet.

Scallops with black pudding and cauliflower may sound a bit unambitious but there's a reason these ingredients are so often put together - they taste nice. And yes, OK, they're pretty difficult to mess up, but there's no great shame in that when you're charging prices like this. Smoked chipotle butter added an interesting smoked note and pea shoots took the place of the, er, peas you often see presented with scallops and black pudding. The square plate was a bit weird but only a minor distraction.

Salt & pepper calamari appeared to come not with advertised chimichurri sauce but with the same harissa oil that accompanied the lamb later on, but I have a sneaky feeling harissa would have worked better anyway. They were moist inside and with a gentle crunch, and though again hardly groundbreaking were still perfectly pleasant to eat.

I appear to have not taken a picture of the soup of the day - Stilton and broccoli - but I'm sure you can guess what a bowl of soup looks like and anyway, as it was so dark in there most of my pictures look like something taken at the bottom of the ocean during a thunderstorm. It came with some decent bread which I would have liked to have seen brought to the table a bit earlier, but at least I got to try some.

Aubergine and feta rolls with grilled broccoli and cous cous was a vaguely Eastern Mediterranean thing, nice and summery and some good contrasting textures.

Bloody hell these photos aren't getting any better, are they. This - you'll have to take my word for it - is some grilled, marinated lamb chops with cous cous, mint yoghurt and green beans. Lovely pink lamb, good char on the outside, and the fresh yoghurt matched it perfectly.

And this isn't the Creature from the Black Lagoon but in fact my favourite of the dishes that evening, a wonderful sticky slow-roasted beer-braised beef cheek with buttery wild mushrooms. The sauce it was coated in was one of those treacle-thick reductions that make you want to lick the plate clean. Well it made me want to do that anyway. So I did.

We steered clear of the cheeseboard; although it came from the usually reliable Liverpool Cheese Company the Clove Hitch appear to have gone for a selection of weird flavoured Lancashire and black-pepper-coated creamy goat's that tends to suggest whoever's put together the board isn't really that big a fan of cheese in the first place. So instead we enjoyed a very lovely chocolate & hazelnut tart (with a particularly impressive Frangelico ice cream) and a lemon tart.

The total for three people came to just over £60. The early evening deal included a glass of wine each, and though my fancy London habit of ordering a craft beer bumped up the final total a bit, it was still all an absolute steal considering, well, considering we enjoyed it all. Service was a bit slow but a large office party populating the lower side room probably didn't help on this front, and all said and done we left happy. In a city filling rapidly up with identikit dirty burger joints and lazy Southern Fried Chicken concepts, you can certainly do a lot worse. Even if that's not always stunningly obvious from my godawful photos. Sorry.

(*)I've just been told it's not brand new at all. Sorry.


The Clove Hitch on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Racine Kitchen, Knightsbridge

The way things normally work on this blog, more through neccessity than anthing else, is that I visit a restaurant once, then write it up. I'd love to be able to exhaustively work through a menu before making up my mind, or visit at different times of the week to assess the different service shifts, but as you can hopefully appreciate, I have neither the time nor the money to report on anything other than a single, initial visit. If you want expert analysis, try the New York Times.

Now you may think that's unfair, but I can honestly count on one hand the times, in over 8 years and 500 blog posts, that I've really wanted to drastically revise a score after a second visit. Tayyabs would get more than the 8/10 I settled on after somehow failing to order the tinda masala way back in 2007, and perhaps I was a bit easy on Ping Pong given the much better, and much cheaper, dim sum restaurants I've been lucky enough to eat at since. But generally it's surprising how little a repeat visit changes much.

So you'll just have to take my word that although I've stopped by at Racine semi-regularly over the last few years, and have had ample time to question and revise any snap judgments I may have made on the first visit, my opinion of the place has hardly altered since I first set through the door one cold winter's day back in (I think) 2009. Namely, it's a lovely little restaurant serving very nice food and I like it very much.

And here's why. Firstly, there's a menu of regional French dishes with phrases like "Deep fried snails & bacon" (above), "Calf's brain with capers", and "Pâté de foie de volaille" used with appealing confidence, it's enough to make you want to drape a string of onions round your neck, wear a beret and scoff the lot.

There's also that soft, dark room, white tablecloths and cozy bench seating in the traditional Parisian bistro style, and immaculately-appointed staff that glide about with surprising ease considering how closely packed some of the seating is.

But most of all, there is the grouse. Every year, as soon as the season starts, restaurants in London fall over themselves to be the first, the cheapest or make the most innovative use of this wonderful game bird. Gymkhana tandoori spice it, the Lockhart deep-fry it, the Ledbury hay-smoke it, more than one Modern British restaurant sous-vide and daintily joint it into geometric shapes and drizzle jus around it. And good luck to them all. But there's only one way to enjoy grouse as far as I'm concerned, and that's roasted, sat on toast spread with paté, and accompanied by chips, game and bread sauces. And there's nowhere does that better than Racine.

I feel the same way about people who don't like grouse as I do those who say they don't like pongy cheese or caviar. I'm not contemptuous, I do sympathise; I can completely understand where they're coming from - these are strong flavours, deep, funky, grown-up flavours that sail perilously close to tasting of things that you'd normally cross the street to avoid, never mind eat. But if you can get past that, there's something deeply rewarding about eating something that tastes of where it came from; of wet moorland, heather, summer berries and yes, of dead animal. This is not a sanitised, abstract lump of protein bred in a cage and carefully carved free of personality. Roast grouse forces you confront the realities of your dinner - it lived, it flew, it was shot, it died, and here we are.

Of course, there are always other reasons to eat at Racine, such as the aforementioned deep-fried snails and bacon, accompanied by poached duck egg and leeks. I also tried a bit of someone's light prawn and crab cocktail (very good) and even a fairly humdrum-sounding goat's cheese and tomato salad (above) was made more interesting by some very good tomatoes and sprigs of fresh basil. I have also, in the past, enjoyed some wonderful steaks (the current offering is a côte de boeuf for two with Béarnaise sauce for £52, which I happen to think is pretty good value) and I have a lot of time for their signature garlic and saffron mousse with mussels, something which sounds pretty odd on paper but always impresses.

I'll forgive them the 14.5% service charge which seems a bit cheeky in a city more used to 12.5%, and for their perhaps slightly underwhelming dessert offerings (somewhere this French should be doing tarte tatin, surely?) because they also do a £17.50 lunch special (hangar steak, Béarnaise, chips and a glass of wine - bargain) and said 14.5% service is admittedly excellent. But mainly, I'll keep going back to Racine for the grouse. Some things you just don't mess with.


Racine on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Dalila, Battersea

After Arabica reminded me just how good food from the Levant could be, even if it was at the expense of that month's salary, I was in the mood for a nice big Lebanese lunch where portions weren't measured by the teaspoon and where I might feel I'd got my money's worth.

Most Lebanese (I realise there's a bit of crossover with various different countries' cuisines - Syrian, Israeli, Palestinian, but I'm going to stick with calling it Lebanese because I don't know any better) food I've tried has all been of a solid minimum standard; maybe Middle Eastern chefs are all trained very well, or maybe it's just difficult to mess up hummus and tabouleh. Either way, while the service in a number of flashy Edgware Road Maroush joints has been less than brilliant (I've walked out before eating anything more than once), what's on the plate, when it finally arrives, is generally hard to fault.

So what happens when decent, fresh Lebanese food is served with a smile, and doesn't cost an arm and a leg? Well, you have a bloody good time, that's what happens. And so it is at Dalila, latest occupant of one of those Sites of Death that appear to host a different restaurant every year (even I've reviewed the building twice before; once as the Food Room and once as Tom Ilic) but who deserve to stick around because everything they do is well worth the money they're asking.

"Hummus Beiruty" contained chili and garlic and was impossible not to like, especially scooped up in the fresh house flatbreads. Even the nibbles had a bit of extra something to them, powerfully-flavoured olives spiked with pickles and fresh parsley.

Foul Moudamas is not a name that crosses the language barrier very successfully, but was the very opposite of foul, being piping hot beans served in a salty, citrusy olive oil mixture.

Lamb kebbeh (four for £5.50, now that's value) were also fresh out of the fryer and packed full of dense, almost offaly mince.

Tabouleh works and fails on the strength of the freshness of its ingredients, and again here we were in safe hands - crunchy, bright-green, freshly-shredded parsley studded with onions and cracked wheat.

You'll notice my descriptions of the dishes we had at Dalila are rather sparse; the fact is, much like the best Italian restaurants, the serving of lovely fresh ingredients as simply as possible leaves you with a fantastic meal but very little detail to obsess over. Which can only be a good thing. Here are slices of kellaj cheese, flatbreads stuffed with halloumi, red chilli and thyme.

The marinade on these grilled chicken wings was quite something - complex and herby, held together by a healthy glaze of lemon juice. There was a bright-white garlic dip to accompany them, all of it just threatening to tip over into overseasoning but not quite.

Samke harra was charcoal-grilled white fish in a tomato/pepper sauce, and I'm afraid as I didn't get to try any of it I'm not going to be of much use to you describing what it was like. There was none of it left by the end of the meal though so it was probably as good as everything else.

In all frank, objective honesty Dalila isn't the very best Middle Eastern restaurant I've ever been to; that is still the brilliant Al Waha, whose menu of sweetbreads, raw lamb and batrakh (fish roe) is just that more exciting and exotic. But one man's "safe" is another man's "reliable" and by not reinventing the wheel and serving familiar Lebanese favourites with such easy charm (our waiter didn't exactly have a difficult job serving us, the only customers midday on Sunday, but he was still exceptional) they will, I hope, make a success of this tricky location and become a new local favourite. And I say that with only the most selfish of intentions - it's ten minutes' walk from my house. My, my, my, Dalila.


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