Friday, 30 April 2010

Young Vic, Waterloo

When the Young Vic reopened after extensive renovation in 2007, it drew a lot of media attention. The new space was nominated for the RIBA Stirling Prize and the theatre bar (officially called The Cut) soon became popular with more than just the pre-theatre crowd. In its early days I had a couple of decent meals here prior to seeing plays. It was bar food, yes, but it showed a degree of imagination (I remember a very happy sandwich involving smoked mozzarella) and an attempt was made tie in some dishes with whatever was being staged in the theatre at time.

Having recently booked tickets with an actress friend to see Women Beware Women at the National Theatre, I decided to have dinner here beforehand but I must admit I was rather disappointed on this occasion.

The large bar area is split over two levels and has a balcony overlooking the street which is always busy when the sun’s out and often when it’s not. It’s lively and somewhat noisy place, especially in the hour or so before a performance starts. On the ground floor half of the space is given over to tables for those eating. The menu consists mainly of burgers and salads with a few slightly more ambitious dishes.

I think I might need to work on my enunciation. My initial request for two kir royales resulted in the arrival at our table of two pints of Kirin. This was soon rectified though we had to explain to the waitress what a kir royale was, which seemed odd considering this is first and foremost a bar and one with a lengthy cocktail list.

We started with the deep fried goats’ cheese with honey (£5.75), which we shared between us. Now look at that – doesn’t that look a bit pallid? This was pastier than an English girl's legs after a long winter (and I know whereof I speak). It was also rather lacking in the oozy, gooey quality that you want from a puck of fried cheese. The pomegranate and chive garnish at least added texture, a bit of crunch but, really, this was not great. That is some sad cheese, right there.

To follow I ordered the Portobello mushroom sandwich with Jura cheese (£6.50). This was filled with a generous amount of meaty mushroom but as a whole it was somewhat overwhelmed by a huge, cotton-woolly bap. The sandwich also contained what I initially read as red onion marmalade but what turned out to be red onions and marmalade - an unexpected addition but the note of sweetness worked. Even so the blanket of bread swamped everything and I had to de-lid half of it.

The actress went for the house burger (£7), which she found reasonably moist but a bit overcooked for her tastes and rather overblessed with greenery. We had side orders of chips each. At £2.75 each they were large bowls and one between the two of us would probably have been sufficient. The actress is one of the only other people I know who prefers mustard to ketchup on her chips, so we both took the chance to indulge our particular perversion together.

We only had a narrow window of time before the performance (which ruled out trying for a table at the nearby Anchor and Hope) so we didn’t go in for dessert. We tottered off to the theatre with full bellies - but this place used to offer a little bit more than that. I’m bound to come back for drinks, as I like the Young Vic and visit often, but I will eat elsewhere next time.

The Cut, 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ 020 7928 4400

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Barrica, Fitzrovia

As a vegetarian, tapas can be a bit problematic; what with all those small plates the price can soon add up and in the past I’ve ended up paying well over the odds considering I’ve only tasted maybe a quarter of dishes ordered. But food is a social thing as much as anything, the act of sharing a meal is a pleasurable one, and atmosphere, wine, company and conversation count for (almost) as much as what’s on your plate, so I’ve never minded that much. That said, when my housemate suggested Spanish food on a sunny Monday evening, I did try and steer her towards a place that seemed to offer a good selection of non-meaty dishes.

Barrica is one of several Spanish restaurants in the Fitzrovia/Soho area, only a couple of doors down from Salt Yard. The space itself is warm and attractive with buttercup yellow walls, chequerboard floors, the obligatory dangling hams and an expanse of dark wooden cabinets housing wine bottles. I was a little late and my housemate had already kicked things off with a glass of sweet-ish, amber coloured manzanilla, which she, after some coaxing, allowed me to try as we squinted at the specials board.

We chose a selection of dishes. The Catalan staple, escalavida, was very nice indeed, a triptych of smoky char-grilled aubergine, pepper and red onion. A plate of dark, garlicky grilled mushrooms came dotted with nuggets of queso fresco; of the available cheeses we opted for the villarejo, a nutty, hard cheese with rosemary in the rind, served with a miniature blob of membrillo.

My housemate, no vegetarian she, also went for the charcoal grilled chorizo, which hit her happy spot - she sopped up every last dot of orange, chorizo-infused oil with bread.

She also chose two dishes from the specials board: white beans and tuna and some anchovy toasts. The latter was a clear favourite, the bread rubbed with garlic and tomato and topped with pieces of queso fresco and a single silver sliver of anchovy. The white bean dish was fine, herby, (I stole some of the beans) but not overly memorable.

A dish of warm beetroot ribboned with spinach was far more interesting. A vibrant amethyst colour and dotted with flaked almonds, it was robust and creamy if perhaps a little underseasoned.

Oh and there were patatas bravas too, because there’s always room for fried potatoes. These were, again, OK, not too exciting; the sauce was a tad gloopy and we left the blob of aioli alone. It was the only thing that didn’t get eaten.

For dessert we ordered the chocolate sorbet with turron. What we received did not bear much resemblance to a sorbet. In fact it looked more like the chocolate pot that was also listed on the dessert menu. We decided to keep it, rather than cause a fuss, and were glad we did as it was nice and fudgey, if lacking that intense chocolate hit that the words ‘chocolate pot’ usually promise. That little worm of cinnamon dusted donut was rather over-sugared and unnecessary.

The wine list is divided into sections with subheadings like ‘well structured, refined, yet complex’ or ‘young, clean and fruit forward’. I suspect some people will find this irritating but it’s helpful to those who don’t mid a bit of hand-holding when it comes to wine. We went for one from the latter section, a bottle of Nudo Monastrell, as we (or at least I) were going to be eating some of the lighter dishes. It was bright, bouncy, did indeed taste young, and went well with our meal.

Apart from a rather chilly reception on entering, service was friendly and reasonably efficient with the exception of the dessert mix up. Our waiter also had to deal with a table of four rather obnoxious suited types who seemed determined to outdo each other, ordering dish after dish after dish and letting no sentence pass without an expletive.

Our bill came to £33 each, which included service and a tiny but slightly cheeky charge for second helpings of not very exciting bread. All things considered we really enjoyed our meal and I certainly appreciated the variety of vegetable dishes available.

Barrica on Urbanspoon

Barrica, 62 Goodge Street, London W1T 4NE 020 7436 9448

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Harrison's, Balham

Harrison’s in Balham, a sibling of Sam’s Brasserie in Chiswick, aims to be an all day, all things to everyone kind of place: as good for Sunday brunch with the kids as a place to stop off for after-work cocktails. Though obviously, when I say everyone, I mean Balhamites who are happy to pay £12.50 for a plate of fish and chips.

Housed in what used to be the Balham Kitchen and Bar, Harrison’s serves an array of the usual suspects: burgers, steaks, pork belly, pints of prawns. They also serve breakfast on weekends. Though rather unassuming from the outside, the restaurant is surprisingly large inside with a central open kitchen breaking up the space.

I was having dinner once again with my mother. It had been a rather tough day for various reasons and we watched in pleasure as two long stemmed glasses wound their way towards our table. Prosecco. There are very few things that can’t make better. This was soon followed by bread, still warm.

We were eating early so took advantage of their early bird deal: two courses for £15, three for £18. To begin with I went – with a certain amount of trepidation – for the onion soup with gruyere croutons. I’ve eaten a lot of mediocre onion soups, even in Paris, pots of scalding hot soup scowling from under a soggy, stodgy bread lid, but this was a pretty decent take on it. I liked the fact that the croutons were served on the side, though being a glutton, would have liked more than two. The soup itself was full of flavour, a slight sweetness from the onions coupled with an earthy, herby quality. I was forced to ask for more bread so I could mop it all up.

Un-vegetarian mother went, somewhat predictably, for the chicken liver parfait with pear chutney. This made her very happy indeed; she said the parfait was wonderfully rich and smooth and paired well with the, er, pear. She did say that the bread, supposedly toasted brioche, was very distinctly un-brioche like, but she liked it anyway. It was, however, a sizeable portion and she couldn’t quite manage it all.

Next up. Guess what? Risotto. It’s not that I don’t like them, I do, when done well; it’s just so often risotto is the default vegetarian option. To be fair the full menu also includes pumpkin tortellini and an asparagus and Jersey Royal salad, so I could have had something else. The risotto was described as containing fennel and courgette – at least it wasn’t mushroom – and admittedly it was well cooked with a nice consistency. I couldn’t really detect much fennel in there though and was rather grateful for that slightly uninspired rocket and balsamic garnish because it helped counter the starchy richness of the dish.

As there were no glistening chunks of cow meat on the set menu, my mum went for the seafood linguine, which was generously scattered with plump mussels and prawns. She enjoyed this but found it a little too salty for her tastes.

For dessert things picked up considerably with a cardamom crème brulee. This was very nice indeed, with a gorgeous crackable, snappable top and a zesty orange tulle biscuit for scooping up the innards. But the cardamom flavour was barely noticeable. Do you see a theme here? There seems to be a degree of timidity when it comes to flavours; several dishes, while pleasant enough, didn’t quite deliver the goods.

We liked that the wine list includes a number of options available by carafe and we followed our prosecco with a carafe of Malbec. We thought, all things considered, the set menu was a reasonably good deal, though the main menu is priced rather steeply. The service, however, was friendly throughout and despite the slightly variable quality of the food, we left feeling elevated, the rough edges of our day having been smoothed and soothed away.

Harrison's on Urbanspoon

Harrison's, 15-19 Bedford Hill, SW12 9EX 020 8675 6900

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Indian Zest, Sunbury-on-Thames

It's safe to say that Sunbury-on-Thames is not exactly bursting with exciting restaurants. It’s not even close to bursting; in fact for a reasonably affluent and, in parts almost Stepfordian, stretch of suburbia, it is surprisingly lacking in places to eat. There are a couple of Chinese restaurants, true, and one or two anonymous curry houses, but that’s pretty much it: end of story. Or at least it was until Indian Zest came along. As the sister venue to the well-liked Indian Zing in Hammersmith, this one sounded pretty exciting.

I know Sunbury well, I grew up in the area, my mother still lives out there, and we’ve been waiting and hoping for a decent local place to open up for a very, very long time. Manoj Vasaikar's Indian Zest is housed in an attractive building in the prettiest part of town, down near the river. Up until recently it was (yet another) nondescript Chinese restaurant and before that it was an unlamented branch of Café Rouge, a place in which I can (very) dimly recall celebrating a friend’s eighteenth birthday – a night that quite possibly involved copious quantities of cheap white wine and even larger quantities of French fries.

I’ve wanted to visit this new place for a while and I finally organised myself sufficiently to book a table with my (very much un-vegetarian) mother on Easter Monday. Though we arrived bang on time, our presence seemed to baffle the waiting staff and, despite our booking, we were – after some whispered debate – sent upstairs to a silent and slightly chilly overspill room that had the same elegant colonial décor as below but completely lacked the atmosphere. I suspect the space is not used too often as some of the cutlery was distinctly grubby, there were no napkins on the tables and we were left with only a wine list but no food menu for ages - and were then asked for our orders by a very harried-looking waiter literally less than a minute after being given our menu.

Anyway, anyway: what of the food? The menu contained a couple of interesting vegetarian mains, including my choice of Tandoori Paneer and Artichoke (£8.50). Elegantly arranged in a strip across the plate, the sizeable pieces of Indian cheese were alternated with equally hefty artichoke hearts and occasional pieces of roast pepper and onion. It was an intriguing combination, rather Mediterranean in some ways, but nicely spiced with the sharpness of the artichokes contrasting with the slightly rubbery cheese; the accompanying cashew nut sauce was creamy, but unassertive to the point of being bland and, though it’s possibly my own fault for ordering a dish whose principal ingredient is cheese, there was far more paneer than I could handle - I failed to clear my plate.

A side order of smoked aubergine with onion and corn (on the left, £4.75) was something of a let down. Aubergine is usually such a spice sponge, but the resulting dish of aubergine pulp spotted with corn kernels was lacking in fireworks and was, on an aesthetic level at least, pretty unappealing (I blame the corn).

The simplest dish was in many ways the strongest and my mother and I made short work of the Chana Masala (£4.25); the chick peas were well-spiced and toothsome. My mother’s rather hearty Nilgiri Lamb disappeared with a degree of speed and, between the two of us, we also managed to munch our way through two satisfyingly hot and thin naan breads. I suspect, if I go back, I’ll order a range of vegetable sides rather than one of the mains. To be fair, after the initial confusion, the service did improve considerably and Indian Zest is still a gleaming beacon in the gastro-wasteland that is this corner of suburbia; maybe we caught them on an off day, but the excited word-of-mouth generated by this place had led me to expect a lot more.

Indian Zest on Urbanspoon

Indian Zest, 21 Thames Street, Sunbury-On-Thames, Middlesex TW16 5QF 01932 765000

Monday, 19 April 2010

Prix Fixe at Trinity, Clapham

Somewhat hidden away in Clapham's Old Town, Trinity, Adam Byatt’s restaurant has been floating around in my bowl of places-I-want-to-visit for quite a while. I’d filed it away as a special occasion place until A Rather Unusual Chinaman mentioned their prix fixe menu on his blog. Available from Monday-Thursday, it offers three courses for £20 and seemed excellent value and so I decided to take my mother there as a treat because, well, no specific reason really. Sometimes it's nice to treat your mum to dinner.

The restaurant itself is smart, if slightly anonymous, with its pale grey walls and generic abstract art. Adam Byatt’s book How to Eat In is out soon and there were little cards advertising the fact on every table. A bottle of filtered water was brought to the table at the start of the meal and replaced whenever it became empty.

We were initially presented with a warm, crisp flatbread accompanied by a small pot of cods' roe spread. This got the maternal thumbs up, or would have if her thumbs weren’t occupied in cracking off pieces of bread to scoop up more of the pink creamy spread. Unfortunately we were only half way through this when it was whisked away by a rather over-efficient waiter and replaced with two sour dough foccacia rolls and some superb butter. These were good but my mother made a wistful face and said she wished they would have left the cods' roe spread on the table a little longer.

The menu consisted of three choices for every course, though they allowed me to pick the vegetarian main from the a la carte menu. I started with the wild garlic soup, which was an intense, glorious green and tasted like spring in a dish. It was fresh and bright and smooth. The a la carte version is served with a soft-boiled pheasant egg, but mine was simply swirled with crème fraiche. I was very glad that more bread was offered for dipping and mopping purposes.

My mother, who is in no way a vegetarian and remains slightly baffled by my inclinations in this area, went for the venison Scotch egg which she adored. I think she may have attempted to say something constructive about texture when she cut into it, but then she took a bite and proceeded to make wordless happy noises as she demolished the rest of the dish, so I never did find out what she meant.

The vegetarian main was a morel risotto. Now I always feel a little disappointed when a risotto is the sole vegetarian option - it just seems a touch unimaginative. I never object to lack of choice in a restaurant of this kind. I don’t expect the kitchen to produce numerous vegetarian dishes and I fully acknowledge and understand that we are a minority; I just like it when what is on offer shows evidence of care and creativity. This dish was at least both prettily presented, dotted with morels and little clouds of ricotta, and complex in its flavours: smoky and unctuous, flecked with more of that wild garlic. There were some nice lemony notes in there too, which gave a necessary balance to a dish that was richer than Bill Gates. I didn’t quite manage to finish it (though I made a valiant attempt).

My mother was pleased with her veal belly with broad beans but said she found the accompanying semolina gnocci rather heavy. She liked all the non-gnocci elements of the dish and polished it off with ease.

For dessert, since both of us were rather too full for cheese, we decided to share the two remaining choices on the prix fixe. The winner was a light rhubarb and ginger yoghurt. Though it was hard to detect much ginger, it was a light, refreshing dessert, and a nice way to follow such a rich main. The rum and raisin ice cream was pleasant enough, with its plump, boozy raisins, but wasn’t hugely exciting.

The service was friendly and efficient (occasionally overly so) but slid somewhat as the evening went on. Our first waitress was kind and bright and helpful, but she disappeared at some point in the evening and we struggled to attract someone’s eye when we wanted to order some dessert wine. When we received the bill (along with a dinky bag of meringues to take home) we also noticed we’d been charged for two bottles of wine instead of one. It was quickly rectified but was a small sour note after what had been a thoroughly enjoyable evening, an affordable way to sample cooking of a high standard.

Trinity on Urbanspoon

Trinity, 4 The Polygon, Clapham, London SW4 0JG 020 7622 1199

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Mooli's, Soho

Take note, a mooli is “not a f**king burrito.” This is written in large letters on the wall of this bright, friendly fast-ish food spot in Soho. I wonder if they’re having some issues getting the message out about exactly what they’re offering.

So a mooli isn’t a burrito, nor is it a variety of Asian radish, rather a kind of Indian wrap: a wholewheat roti generously filled with good things. Street food gussied up. There are two vegetarian choices on offer (as well as pork, beef, chicken and a much lauded goat mooli): an asparagus mooli and a paneer mooli. I went for the former which was good value I thought at £3.50 for the larger size. They also do mini moolis, but by defining the larger size as the standard I felt inclined to go for the full on, grown up mooli – I was also getting lunch at 3.45pm, so there was no way I was going for anything mini.

There was more potato than asparagus in evidence but the potato was pleasantly spiced with cumin and the asparagus gave it a nice crunch, though it didn’t add that much in terms of flavour. The tangy tamarind and yoghurt dressing held everything together and the roti was pleasantly moist without ever getting soggy, despite the fact I kept putting it down for long stretches to read my book.

The woman who served me was friendly and chatty and managed to mention their £5 lunch deal (roti plus a small pack of poppadoms plus a drink) without it feeling like blatant up-selling. It was good enough for me to return the following week and try their paneer mooli (£3.75, pictured above). This consisted of spiced, scrambled Indian cheese with the crunch element provided by lettuce and carrot. The winner in terms of flavour, it was really tasty, but it was also somewhat soggier and threatened to collapse before I was finished. I could have done with a greater crunch to squish ratio.

I also tried the mango lassi (£2) which was creamy yet light and refreshing, not too sweet. The Serbs have a thing about drinking yoghurt which, despite my parentage, I've never really shared. This however I could get on board with. The moolis were filling without being heavy and made an interesting alternative lunch option. I'm glad I chose to eat in though, I’m not sure I’d have been happy eating the paneer mooli at my desk – too much spillage potential.

Mooli's on Urbanspoon

Mooli's, 50 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 4SQ 0207 494 9057

Monday, 12 April 2010

Wahaca, Covent Garden

My housemate does not like birthdays. Not one bit. They tend to pitch her into a big black pit of not-happy and, with another one imminent, it was clear that some kind of tequila-based rope ladder was required.

We had both been keen to visit Thomasina Miers’ Wahaca for a while so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to give it a try. We arrived at the original Covent Garden branch around 7pm on a Wednesday to find the place fizzing. Reservations aren’t taken but a large buzzer was handed to us and we were told there would be a twenty minute wait for a table. Though there’s a bar area near the entrance, it was a real scrum and far too full to really relax with a drink, luckily at the 20 minute mark my buzzy thing duly buzzed and we were led into the innards of the restaurant, away from the din.

“Have you eaten here before?” our waiter asked ominously as we sat down, but fortunately this did not herald a long discourse on the concept and ethos of the place and we were quickly able to order cocktails.

Miers’ thing is Mexican ‘market food’ and Wahaca’s website says all the right things about locally and ethically sourced produce; she seems likeable and genuinely passionate about the cooking of this part of the world, but some of the reviews I’ve read have been a bit muted. The menu features a large array street food – tacos, tostadas and quesadillas, many available in vegetarian versions – but also includes more substantial dishes including a vegetable pipian. My housemate had her heart set on a pork burrito and I went for the intriguing fuerza salad (£7.10) with an order of the huitlacoche quesadillas (£3.95) on the side.

We began with a bowl of tortilla chips which came with a fresh tomato salsa with a nice zing of lime. A salsa verde and a chipotle dipping sauce were already on the table along with a neon orange bottle of hot sauce, which had a nice lingering heat rather than an aggressive burn. The chips weren’t overly exciting but they made a good accompaniment to our drinks: my housemate, true to form, went for the classic margarita, served in a salt-rimmed tumbler, while I went for the Wahaca Mule, which sadly lacked the kick of good ginger beer.

Now main course salads can often lead to disappointment, I speak from experience, but the combination of ingredients – including pickled hibiscus flower – piqued my interest. I usually prefer salads that feature a couple of clear flavours rather than the whole-heap-of-everything that I was presented with, but this was a nicely put together dish and I found that as I dug deeper different textures and flavours presented themselves to me. Beneath the top layer of salad leaves and crumbled feta, there were waiting chunks of roasted butternut squash, avocado and plump grains of spelt.

The quesadillas were also enjoyable, though the huitlacoche, a kind of corn fungus I believe, was quite subtle in flavour. We also shared a small pot of frijoles (£2.30), baked black beans topped with cheese; these were wonderfully earthy and dark. A second round of cocktails was soon required and this time I opted for the tamarind margarita which, with its subtle sour notes, was my favourite of all the cocktails we tried.

For dessert there was only one possible choice (well, there wasn't, but there was, if you know what I mean - it wasn't a sorbet kind of evening): it had to be the churros and chocolate (£3.50). We momentarily contemplated sharing a portion between the two of us but decided this path would only lead to squabbling and potential donut rage. Each plate came with three twists of fried dough and a cup of thick chocolate sauce in which to dunk them and while I suspect the churros could have been slightly lighter, they were hot and glistening and – gone. They were all gone. I’m glad we didn’t share. The sauce wasn’t overly sweet and it took real restraint not to dip my finger into the little that was left.

The atmosphere was bright and buzzy but not so loud we couldn’t conduct a conversation; once we escaped the chaotic knot of bodies by the door we had a really enjoyable night. My housemate, who’s eaten plenty of Mexican food in the US and had high expectations, was very happy indeed with her burrito and I’d certainly be keen to come back and explore the street food section of the menu in greater depth. Our bill came to £55 not including service which seemed reasonable considering we both hit the cocktails.

Wahaca, 66 Chandos Place, London, U.K. - 020 7240 1883