Thursday, 12 March 2015

Turista Libre Taco Tour, Tijuana

It was never supposed to be the highlight of the entire California trip; just an afternoon pootling around Tijuana trying a few of their best taco stalls and back across the border in time for dinner. The initial plan was to go over under our own steam, pick up a taxi/driver and then tick off a few of the more notable street food places. Oh and perhaps a margarita or two; when in Rome and all that.

But then a little company called Turista Libre came to our attention, and so we thought rather than go through the stress and cost of organising our own lives, we'd hand over the whole messy business to the professionals. Founded by a US journalist who now lives in Tijuana, Turista Libre run various organised tours based on different themes; there's a baseball tour, a craft beer tour, a mega monuments tour, and, enticingly, a taco tour which seemed to have our names written all over it. For $50 a head we were told we would visit a handful of taco places, drink a few beers and take a few photos. Seemed like fun. We got a small handful of names together on Facebook, paid the deposit and put it in the diary.

By the time the day came, there were fully 25 people booked in for the trip. Wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, friends of friends, babies, dogs (actually no dogs sadly, Keith would have loved it) - of course it's obvious now, with hindsight, that everyone would want to be a part of a taco tour of Tijuana, but the way the group snowballed came as quite a (pleasant) surprise at the time. At one point I had to call up to check how many was too many. "We should be OK," came the answer, "the bus seats 30."

Bus? Ah yes, because what better way to travel in Mexico than genuine decomissioned public transport, which in turn was once itself an American yellow school bus. That's right, exactly like the ones you see on TV. I'm convinced the day wouldn't have been half as much fun without this battered old thing ferrying us around, so much more jolly than some hermetically-sealed limoliner, although admittedly air conditioning would have been nice at some points. Anyway, safely seated (well, seated, at least, and hoping the bus couldn't go fast enough to be a danger), a shot of tequila to the good, we set off for our first stop, Machatlán mariscos chávez.

As recently as 2009 this bustling courtyard and kitchen was a car mechanics. And in fact, take away the mobile grill, drinks cabinets and picnic benches and it could very easily go back to being one - who knows, maybe they're keeping their options open in case the bottom falls out the taco market. Based on their product though, they should have no need to. Bright white, perfectly-cooked chunks of meaty tilapia, each encased in a crunchy, dark-brown batter and bound by a lovely light mayonnaise salsa, these were about as good an example of the form as you could find anywhere in North America. They were churned out to our large and hungry party at such a rate that nobody received any that were anything less than piping hot. A video I took of the chefs looks like it had been speeded up; you'll have to take my word that these guys really are that fast:

Frenetic seafood taco making at Machatlán mariscos chávez

A video posted by Chris Pople (@cpople) on

Next stop, after a short spell back on the bus and some more tequila, was the smoke-filled Las Ahumaderas Tacos El Paisa. We managed to occupy most of the seats inside this atmospheric old place, forcing hungry locals to use the bar that opened onto the street, but I'm sure nobody eating the food here dwelled much on the seating arrangements. The grilled adobada pork tacos here were just astonishing - moist, soft tortillas, freshly-pressed, contained a mixture of richly marinated pig and chunky guacamole (you've not tried guacamole until you've tried it with Californian/Baja-Californian avocadoes, they taste like avocadoes squared). They were served alongside nice fresh radishes and limes, as is usual, but also some lovely grilled spring onion/leek things, sort of like Mexican calçot. I'm sure someone out there can tell me their real name.

On a side note, while not enough to completely sour my memories of Las Ahumaderas, a tricky moment arose when someone gave me a can of Michelada to try. Michelada, in case you weren't aware (I wasn't) is sort of a Bloody Mary, but with beer instead of vodka. It sounds disgusting, because it is disgusting, but while a version made with top ingredients and nice craft beer is discombobulating but almost edible, the unholy version willed into existence by Heineken USA brand Tecate tastes like sweet, beery sick. I honestly don't know if there's a single more revolting canned product in existence, so in the interests of public awareness here's a picture of it so you can avoid it at all costs yourself:

Kids: Just Say No.

Anyway on with the tour. Actually not straight on with the tour. First a few of us raided a local liquor store for beer and aged tequila. Then it was on with the tour. It was about this point, as we lumbered back onto the bus loaded up like pack mules, one by one emptying our substantial haul into the cool box, that I started noticing the first fleeting expressions of concern cross our previously calm host's face. This could be why our next - impromptu - stop was a market, Mercado Hidalgo, a fascinating, sprawling indoor/outdoor place with more than enough going on to distract two dozen gringo from the booze for a few minutes, I'm sure was the plan. Except within about 30 seconds the majority of the party had settled inside a charming little taqueria and ordered a dozen frozen margheritas. Some time later (your guess is as good as mine) I somehow, speaking no Spanish, bought a giant block of queso fresco cheese from a market stall.

The atmosphere on the bus would now best be described as "carnival-like". Details are sketchy but somewhere in Mercado Hidalgo someone had found a stall selling bags of confetti, and was proceeding to turn the inside of the bus into a snow globe. The timing of this latest turn of events was unfortunate, as for reasons best known to Turista Libre our next stop was an unexpectedly smart fine-dining spot called Verde y Crema. Bursting into this clean, zen-like space like a confetti-strewn mobile Oktoberfest, I can still now, even through the fog of alcohol, remember the horrified expressions of the smartly-dressed couples and families who had quietly been enjoying a late lunch. I can tell you, because I have photos, our tacos here involved beetroot, queso fresco and coriander on some kind of dark tortilla and I'm sure they were absolutely as lovely as everything else we ate that day.

Events from here on are probably best left to the tequlia gods. I think there was an ice cream shop, desperately shoehorned in by the organisers in an effort to sober us up and prevent an international incident at the border. Inevitably, some of the group never made it that far, and splintered off to downtown Tijuana to carry on carrying on. I remember getting quite upset a terrified elderly Mexican woman wouldn't join me in the chorus to Let It Be. I remember very carefully putting cheese and tequila through the security x-rays but not picking it up at the other end. I'm pretty sure we brought back more babies than we left with.

I woke up with a hangover of the kind the 21st century has rarely seen, with confetti in places I didn't know I had and a distant unpleasant taste of Michelada in my throat. But despite all this, the one thing I am definitely going to do again the next time I'm in California is a Turista Libre tour of Tijuana. It is pretty much the most fun I've ever had for $50 and has not only reinforced my already all-abiding passion for Mexican cuisine but also opened my eyes to the vast possibilities of Mexico itself, somewhere that hasn't had the greatest press in the last few years but is still friendly, vibrant and easy to love. What a day, what a place.

All those amazing photos by Helen Graves, much obliged


Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Lawns at the Thornton Hall Hotel, Wirral

Though the perks of being a food blogger are many and varied, and I like a free lunch as much as the next man, the very happiest moments I've enjoyed over the 8 or so years this thing has been going are when I've been able to treat someone else. Goodness knows nobody gets into food blogging for the money, and I have to keep a lid on the number of invites-to-review for my own sanity as well as anything else, but it's a genuinely lovely thing to be able to take, say, a friend along to a 16-course tasting menu at Fera, or take a small group to an all-expenses foodie tour of Cornwall. I'm not naive enough to think these PR excursions are done out of the goodness of their heart, but even so, it is very often enormous fun - more than adequate "payment" for a hobby that's never going to be a net benefit to my wallet.

So while a trip to a country hotel and fine dining restaurant on the Wirral wouldn't have been much fun on my lonesome (believe me, I've done it before; it's not), the fact they very generously offered to also accommodate my parents meant it turned into a little family weekend away and an excuse to share a more substantial part of the perks of writing about food than the odd signed cookbook or taster set of flavoured vodkas that I usually bring up north for them.

Lawns, in all honesty, could have gone either way. I admit my heart dropped when I first caught sight of the hotel building that hosts it; what had presumably once been a handsome Victorian-gothic pile was tragically lost behind a modern glass and concrete facade, all wheelchair ramps and fire doors, that ranks alongside the destruction of the Euston Arch in terms of cultural vandalism. Why do people do this? Why? Inside are some oak-panelled rooms of genuine potential aesthetic value but they're surrounded by so much soul-sucking chain-hotel-branded decor that even these original bits (a small anteroom with a fireplace, and the main dining room itself) feel theme park-false. It makes you want to cry.

Anyway ignoring that (for now), the food at Lawns is at least aiming higher than the hotel side of things. We started with house bread, which I'm going to assume they made themselves, and came in the form of some dinky Hovis-shaped loaves and good local butter. Nothing spectacular, but they could have just bought some in like plenty of places do, and deserve credit for not going down that route.

An amuse of raw scallop, next, and foam. Subtle flavours, perhaps, but effective - I enjoyed the citrusy foam and it all displayed some decent technical skill.

Mussels with mushroom dashi gel and Guinness had a similar problem of a general timidity of flavour - odd when you consider that none of these ingredients are known usually for being particularly subtle. A pretty, and remarkably modern presentation, though, which counts for something.

Best of the starters was some tender, pink slices of partridge breast, paired with, er, pear, as well as chestnut and date puree. Good ingredients, cooked well, presented nicely, and a delight to eat. I've just realised that this is an edible "partridge in a pear tree". Very funny.

Brisket, I'm afraid, had to go back. A huge block of completely dry, inedible matter that should never have been served, it was a perfect example of a kitchen sticking rigidly to a recipe that's probably worked many times in the past with a chunk of meat singularly unfit for purpose. These types of dishes live or die based on whether your beef has enough marbling to carry through the slow cooking - if it does, you end up with a lovely juicy chunk of umami-rich cow, which should collapse with the slightest prod with a fork. If you use cheap beef, you end up with a Lego brick.

Fortunately the fat that exists in healthy quantities in even quite poor cuts of beef cheek was enough to save a main from a similar fate. The cheek itself was soft and full of flavour, perhaps still a bit cheap tasting but drenched in enough treacle-y jus to make it worthwhile, and a nice sausage-y faggot also held plenty of rich juices. Oh and there were delicate little potato fondants that were so lovely I wish they'd given me a few more of them. I'm glad I couldn't taste much of the advertised coffee, mind.

Sea bream was, well, a bit weird. Although the fillets were cooked well, and had a nice flavour, there were just too many of them piled up on a plate with not enough colour, or texture, going on elsewhere. This dish desperately needed some greens, or a nice sauce to bind the dry ingredients together, and it also needed to lose a good two or three bits of fish.

The highlight of the entire meal was a cheeseboard that was genuinely world class. A good two dozen or so examples from all over the world, we had the usual collection of English flavourites (Lancashire bomb, Colton Basset stilton) but with some really interesting French goats and some excellent stinkies like Epoisses and Vacherin. They were all - most importantly - perfectly kept, not too sweaty or too fridge-fresh, and tasted wonderful. Well done them, I say.

Desserts were good too - salted caramel fondant had the ideal marriage of soft moist exterior and molten centre, paired with a zingy yoghurt sorbet. Rapeseed oil cake was slightly less successful (a bit stodgy) but pine kernel ice cream was a revelation; they should have just served this on its own.

Petit fours were a damn sight better than you get in most places as well - little caramel chocolate cup things, some fruit jellies and some nice smooth fudge. It's what you might expect to get somewhere of this kind but none the worse for that.

Overall, what you get out of a meal like this rather depends on your expectations of a fine dining restaurant in the corner of a sprawling, dated conference hotel on the Wirral. Objectively, there's a lot to pick fault at - mistakes in cooking, the price (£12 starters, £25 mains, it ain't cheap), the unspeakably awful things they've done to the front of the building - and you will have most likely already made your mind up whether you think it's worth your dollar or not.

But I want to just make one more point before dropping a score and scuttling off back to London, and it's this; when I tweeted I was eating at Lawns, I had a number of messages from young hospitality staff - not just chefs but front of house - who are doing very well for themselves in many fine restaurants up and down the country who made their start on this journey here, at as it was then called, the Oak Room. God knows we need anywhere devoting its time to the development of industry talent, and better - much better - they learn their craft here than some pub chain or branch of Pizza Express and while not perfect, it is at least its own place, a high-end operation representative (if not exactly similar to) the kind of place we could do with more of. So for having its heart in the right place, if not always its feet, I won't be too harsh on Lawns. Hell, one day, I may even be back.


I was invited to Lawns and the Thornton Hall Hotel.

Lawns Restaurant at Thornton Hall Hotel on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 5 March 2015

The World's End Market, Chelsea

The World's End is a building with a long and distinguished history. Well, a long history. It's been on the map since Chelsea was a small farming village a couple of miles from the old City of London, and became such a landmark that it lent its name to that whole end of King's Road. Oh, and eventually a bus stop. You know you've arrived when you've a bus stop named after you.

But the Chelsea of yesteryear was nothing like the playground of oligarchs and Middle Eastern royalty it has become today. The original Five Fields, between Chelsea and Kensington, now the somewhat ironic name of a very fancy restaurant, was a notorious area of crime and deprivation, and even in 1897 when the current building was erected, this was not a smart part of town. In fact, it was pretty rough, and remained fairly working class right up until the 1960s when thrusting young creative types like Mary Quant did for the area in much the same way as the Young British Artists of the 90s did for Shoreditch and Hoxton. So presumably the oligarchs and Saudi princes are something that Shoreditch and Hoxton have to look forward to in the next 50 years. Lucky them.

Anyway, back to Chelsea, and the World's End Market. I admit I only visited the most recent previous incarnation once and found it an unremarkable (and oddly dark) space, making very little of the Victorian gin palace architecture it has been blessed with. Whether you consider the recent revamp as "better" probably depends on what fond memories you have of the old place - I didn't grow up in Chelsea in the 90s and I prefer nice restaurants to Sloany drinking dens, so I quite like the new look. Each to their own.

As for the food, well, someone is at least trying hard. An impressive-looking selection of seafood is laid out on ice next to an open kitchen boasting a Josper grill. A good start. Less impressive were the rather underwhelming cuts of meat displayed in the cabinets in the corridor on the way to the toilets - they looked tiny and swamped by the huge space they were in, although maybe the plan is eventually for these to hold something more substantial. If the effect they were going for is the glorious drying cabinets at Goodman City or Beast, well, they need to contain more than a couple of New York strip steaks.

The next worry is the menu - it's huge, a mistake a lot of new restaurants make in trying to cover every potential corner of their new market to see what sticks, but is just never less than bewildering for us poor customers. Twelve (!) different starters, god knows how many different types of fish and seafood, steaks, sides and sauces, but amusingly just one veggie option - I quite liked that. Oh, and there's a whole 'nother menu just for burgers, lest they miss out on that particular zeitgeist.

Seafood soup was pretty decent, one of those things you suspect isn't particularly technically difficult to make but just involves a lot of time and effort, for which I am most grateful. A beguiling, earthy mix of fish and seafood flavours, possibly involving lobster, and I happily polished it off.

Lemon-cured tuna with ginger, jalapeno chilli & coriander dressing was an interesting and colourful starter. Nicely presented, not too much chilli, and all through it that slightly ceviche-y note of subtly marinated fresh fish.

A 2nd starter ordered as a main was a rather more straightforward tuna tartare, albeit shot through with aubergine and cumin mayonnaise. Many of the starters involved (mainly) raw fish so this is clearly where this kitchen's talents lie...

...because I'm not entirely sure they lie in the preparation of beef, at least not yet. My steak needed a much hotter oven in order to get a nice dark crust on instead of the soft, pallid grey we ended up with. They may have splashed out on a Josper grill but that's only half the battle; next you need to know how to use it, and this was cooked so slowly it may well have just been done on the hob. In fact, maybe it was. This was doubly disappointing as you could tell the beef itself was pretty good, from Surrey apparently with a good grass-fed taste and plenty of fat. But if the beef was disappointing the "peppercorn sauce" it came with was genuinely horrid, thin and pale and with about as much flavour as a jug of dishwater. I can't imagine the set of events that led to this rank liquid being served to customers, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume it won't happen again.

Of the desserts, chocolate fondant was the best but then it's pretty hard to mess up chocolate fondant. The ones you can get in the little boxes from Waitrose are nice if you don't overcook them. Vanilla ice cream was churned well to thick and smooth though, which was good.

Hazelnut and caramel cheesecake sounded like a good idea at first, except I don't think they should have embedded the nuts in the cake itself as they'd gone offputtingly soggy by the time it came to opening the little Kilner jar and eating them. A much better idea would have been to roast the nuts to order and put them in at the last minute, then they would have stood a chance of being nice and crunchy and toasty. But hark at me, giving cooking advice to a professional kitchen. Maybe they were supposed to be the consistency of pickled garlic. Who knows.

There we are anyway and there the World's End Kitchen is, despite the early weeks' flaws still probably better than you can do in much of this part of town. In fact it's still only really Medlar (just a short walk away) that's a reason in itself to visit Chelsea for a meal, and I can't see that changing any time soon. So if you have to be wandering down King's Road with £45 or so (I assume) burning a hole in your pocket and want some nice fresh fish, or a cocktail or two, then you may as well give it a go. After all, it's a long walk to Shoreditch.


I was invited to review the World's End Market

World's End Market on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The Art School, Liverpool

I'll let you into a little secret. Up until a few years ago, I operated a system on this blog I called 'Liverpool scoring'. Unwilling, due to residual Scouse pride, of being quite as brutal about places in my home town as those in the capital, I'd generally bump up the mark out of ten in Liverpool restaurant posts by a point or two - not enough to completely alter the thrust of the review, but just enough to take out a bit of the bite. I stopped doing this in 2012ish when I realised firstly that to be kinder on anywhere than it deserves is as patronising as it is unhelpful, and secondly that not many people cared about the scores anyway. Still don't, in fact.

But even though I no longer make quantatitive concessions for the North-South divide, whenever I eat out in Liverpool I really really want it to be good. Well, I do anywhere - with occasional notable exceptions I don't ever go anywhere expecting a bad time - but in Liverpool I'm far more likely to overlook snags in service or the food because I want to encourage anywhere that isn't a godawful chain in the L1 complex or an all-you-can-eat buffet on Berry St to up their game; I'm convinced Liverpool can do just as well as anywhere else, it just needs a better PR campaign. And it needs a few more 60 Hope Streets, a few more Clove Hitches, a few more decent, unpretentious dinner spots where you can have a bottle of craft beer, a couple of courses of fresh seasonal food and leave with a bill of less than £25 a head.

What it doesn't need is the Art School. And here are just a few of the reasons why.

Browsing the menu online before our evening booking, as he often does, my dad noticed that the more reasonable-sounding £29 3-course prix fixe menu is only available until 6:15 in the evening, and from then on it's the eyebrow-raising £69 Menu Excellence or the where-have-my-eyebrows-gone £89 full tasting. Our initial booking at 6:30 would have meant a bill for three, in a brand new and entirely untested restaurant (at the time at least; reviews have since appeared) of at least £250 with a glass or two of wine. Ouch. And so in somewhat of a panic we called up and moved our table forward.

Now, their restaurant, their rules of course, and they moved the table with no fuss, but why force every punter who sits down post 6:15 of a weekday evening (an odd time, for a start) to pay more than, well, pretty much every restaurant I can think of outside the very high end in Mayfair or the West End? This is not mere ambition, this is arrogance - prices like this should be earned, not part of your launch offering. The Fat Duck didn't open with a £250 tasting menu; it worked its way up from £25 a head, earning loyalty and respect and accolades by understanding its customers and bringing them along for the ride. If a brand new restaurant had opened in Bray in 1995 charging £250 for snail porridge and bacon and egg ice cream they would have been quite rightly laughed out of town.

Anyway, to the food at Art School. An amuse of mushroom soup with goats cheese cracker thing was pleasant, but then it's difficult not to enjoy mushroom soup. It was a bit thick and not particularly refined, but the mushroom flavour was good and powerful and the texture of the crunchy cheese underneath was interesting. It reminded me of a very nice homemade mushroom soup I had in a cafe in Bradford once years ago. What it didn't remind me of was anything expensive.

House bread was good - we liked the herby focaccia which had a good chewy consistency, and the little brown rolls were piping hot.

Twice-baked souffle of wild mushrooms and Barkham Blue cheese was nothing if not a perfectly enjoyable little puck of warm fluffy cheese and mushroom. A solid bit of cooking that performed its job well.

Better was a lovely pink breast of pigeon which had a fantastic flavour - from Northop apparently so livin' must be good for wood pigeons in North Wales. It was presented on an unremarkable watery "risotto" of beetroot and shallots but really this was all about the bird, perfectly cooked pink and full of rich gamey juices.

My own game terrine - an off-menu special - sadly had much less to recommend it. Unseasoned, bland and fridge-cold, it wasn't particularly pleasant to eat, and the weird satellites of spherical veg weren't enough of a distraction.

Mains, then, and again the best was the game - pheasant, again from Northop, with Cavollo[sic] Nero and trompette mushrooms. The breast was, against all expectations I'll admit, moist and seasoned well; apparently it had been briefly brined before cooking. But the confit leg was pretty disgusting, dry and sinewy, and difficult to eat.

Salt baked celeriac with Jerusalem artichokes was a pretty arrangement of seasonal veg, and had all sorts of different textures in play as well as a good spear of char-grilled chicory for smoke and that distinctive bitter flavour. There wasn't a great deal of celeriac involved, but what there was was nice.

My own cod main was not nice. The fish itself did have the beginnings of a nice crisp skin but was spoiled by overcooked fish underneath, tasting sad and soily. It was surrounded by clams in a clumsy thick creamy sauce that drowned the delicate flavour of the seafood entirely, and also by bullet-like barely-cooked Brussels Sprouts, a mistake you'd wince at anywhere never mind somewhere with such ambitious pricing.

Desserts were perhaps the best course of all, which I know isn't saying much but was still welcome. Dainty, light lemon cheesecakes, macarons, a little slice of apple turnover, and a weeny lemon meringue pie - all my favourite desserts in miniature, I very much enjoyed all of these. But it was too little, too late. Art School is not a dessert restaurant, and these bits and pieces were not as cheap as they would have been from even quite a fancy patisserie.

Look, ambition is all well and good. In fact, in most instances it's to be applauded. But Art School's ambitions aren't anyone else's, and I'm pretty sure aren't Liverpool's. They don't seem interested in being a part of a dynamic and expanding local restaurant scene, they seem happy to exist entirely separated from it, a weird international-fine-dining-themed spaceship plonked down from outer space, sponsored by Michelin. The vast numbers of well meaning if nervous staff, the stupid affectation of the doorman in a bowler hat, all these fripperies that Michelin love and drive most normal human beings up the wall.

Ah yes, the M word. And this is really the crux of the problem - Art School have said in the press that they want to win Liverpool's first Michelin star. Not that they want to serve fantastic food with sparkling service. Not even that they want to be Liverpool's first genuinely international standard restaurant that might, somewhere along the way, if they're lucky, win a Michelin star. No, the reason this restaurant exists is to win a Michelin star. And a really depressing possibility is that even if it remains mainly empty night after night (ours was the only table taken for most of the evening), and is ignored or dismissed by most of the city, as long as they at some point win a star then job done. Someone's ticked the box on their CV and can go off and become a consultant to some hotel chain somewhere.

OK, perhaps that's too cynical, even for me. There is a germ of a good restaurant in Art School, hiding amongst the star-frotting pretentions and flappy service - they've found some good suppliers and if they can consistently do justice to them it may occasionally be worth the £29 early evening set menu. But I can't ignore the fact that 15 minutes after we sat down to eat our faintly disappointing mid-priced dinner, Art School is off-limits to anyone not spending £70 a head or more without service or wine. Which is way, way too much for somewhere that appears to struggle with some quite basic concepts, never mind the details. They even managed to spell their own name wrong on the bill. So, spend your money elsewhere. You - and Liverpool - deserve better.


Tickets for my journey to Liverpool this time were very kindly provided by Virgin Trains. The Euston-Lime Street route takes 2h15m on a good day, and tickets are available from £24 if you book far enough in advance. BOOK HERE

.Art School Restaurant on Urbanspoon