Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Bone Daddies: the stock falls

None of the Ramen bars beat Tonkotsu.

Last year I went through phase of eating Ramen. More accurately London did, but I followed. I gave up the burgers, steaks and good beer and started trying to drink stock from bowls using chopsticks.

Distressingly it seems I shouldn't have made such a leap. I should have landed halfway, with a ramen burger...

Still, by the time I realised my mistake, I was kind of hooked on downing soup using wooden sticks. I'd also discovered that they usually give you a spoon. A really BIG spoon. A ladle in fact. I was wowed by Tonkotsu several times, semi-wooed by Shoryu and thoroughly mistreated by Koya (although like a cheated-on naive teenager, I'll probably give them another chance). But then ramen got a bit less trendy. The explosion was more of a seepage, and I was distracted by my first-ever good kebab. And my first-ever sober kebab.

So I was surprised as anyone to find myself sat down in Bone Daddies, our Western bastardisation of Ramen – with added rock music, craft beer and eastern European waiters – hoping that this would attract the people who regard a McChicken Sandwich as something a bit different. So I took an instant dislike to the place. I had to sit on a stool, with my legs dangling like a school boy in the headmaster's office. I was so close to my neighbour I got splash back from his stock. And the music was too loud.

Still, I am a food blogger, and I'm currently only doing the latter. Our starters were super – soft-shell crab with chilli and ginger; crunchy chilled tenderstem broccoli with fiery yuzu mayo; and... well... beans. The broccoli in particular, which you can get at their sister restaurant Flesh & Buns, was brilliant. That mayo is just off the scale – spicy, sweet, sour, creamy, spiky. All the things.

And so to the ramen. For direct comparison I went for the tonkotsu, which is essentially a super thick, marrowy pork broth – a dish that 12 months ago I would have been cynical about. Now I love the stuff – salty, meaty and filled with sweet crunchy veg and a gooey Clarence Court egg. Bone Daddies was slammed with stuff in contrast to its rivals. The broth was cloudy like the Shoryu ramen, while Tonkotsu's is clear (if anyone wants to explain that to me...), and comes in second, mostly because while Shoryu and Bone Daddies insist on using dry meat, Tonkotsu use lovely moist roasted pork that's so much more satisfying than the stringier stuff, which belongs on a Sunday roast.

So if you're feeling the January blues and need some hot stock to perk you up, you could do worse than Bone Daddies. But you could do better, and go to Tonkotsu. But maybe stop off for some broccoli on the way home.

Bone Daddies on Urbanspoon

Duke's Brew & Que: brilliant beneath the surface

The details are wrong, but the concept perfect.

If by some mad chance you've read one of my reviews before, you'll know that I'm a sucker for a good beer list. That's why I started my (admittedly much more successful) other foodie project, the Craft Beer Channel.

Now, some restaurants have great beer lists. Byron for one, who work with Camden Town Brewery to find new brews and even make their own lager. The Fish & Chip Shop have a decent list too, and of course MEATliquor, Honest et al champion good beers as well. In fact, after a slightly lacklustre meat fest at Smokehouse, it was their incredible craft beer list that really saved they day (they had Mikkeller on DRAUGHT for god's sake).

But Duke's Brew & Que, where I went on a cold, rainy, kind-of-Christmassy "ladz" night, is off the scale. Firstly it's attached to Beavertown Brewery, one of the finest new London breweries, so it has their entire back catalogue. Their Gamma Ray and Smog Rocket in particular are fantastic, and Neck Oil, a session IPA, is pretty damned flavourful too for 4.2%.

But like every good brewery bar, they also stock a load of other breweries' booze, rightly to champion the entire movement. And boy did they have some fantastic stuff, including heaven of heavens - Dark Star Revelation, one of my favourite beers of all time.

But enough of that. As a place it's strange. The outside is lined with a tent, like it's undergoing Fumigation. Inside it has a diner-esque feel that's nice and buzzy, but with the bar taking up such a large amount of the room if you're sat at a bad table you can feel a little like you're on display. This unease wasnt helped by how rushed we were. I do find it bizarre when restaurants say "we can get you a table, but we need it back within 90 minutes". As if that's up to us. Any delays are going to be cause by the waiters and chefs, not the diners.

Ahem. That said, with a friend running late, we necked two pints and then were forced to order for him. So we got four of their platters, featuring a foot-long beef rib, pork rib, pulled pork, slaw, pickles and Parmesan bread. If that sounds like a lot, that's because it is.

But then he didn't show up.

I didn't realise quite how much I'd eaten until, four days later, I still couldn't say (or indeed write) the words "beef rib" without starting to sweat. But that was partly because, despite the brilliance of the pork rib and the dry but delicious pulled pork, the beef was way, way overdone. The blackened crust was honestly about a centimetre thick, and tough as crackling. And it wasn't just mine, every rib that went by was charred to hell and dry as, well, a bone. That didn't stop us getting all the meat off though, because once you were through the crust the meat was seriously flavoursome. When it came to our extra plate of food though, we were fighting over everything else first, even the chips (I was banned from ordering a salad).

It's a very hip, happening places. The average thickness of people's glasses rims was well over half a centimetre and the bearded brigade were in full force. And that's a good thing by the way. You were surrounded by people who loved good food and beer. Usually there were even a few people dining alone, showing that the place is so loved that it's become sustenance, rather than a great way to meet friends.

Duke's is one of those places that people go all misty-eyed about. But I'd file it in the Tayyabs cabinet - only the uncurious think it's brilliant, because they haven't found somewhere better. Pitt Cue is now the barbecue place to beat, and no where else I have been has come close, even if it's trying to seduce me with copious good beer.

Duke's Brew and Que on Urbanspoon

Monday, 2 December 2013

E. Mono: follow the kebab shop light

Last night a kebab saved my life.

So last night I had the best kebab I have ever had.

A kebab is many things to many people. To some it's the crowning glory of a night out, others the silver lining as you call time on a terrible one. To some it's sobering, to others it's nauseating. Sometimes it ends up being dinner, occasionally the remainder ends up being breakfast too. But it is one thing to all of those people - still just a kebab.

E. Mono has the great honour of being one of Giles Coren's five favourite restaurants. Given that half of them fall within two miles of his home, it's possible that geography figures highly in his decision, but don't let that distract you. E. Mono, with its quaint Victorian signage and smiling chefs, make great kebabs to drunks. They make their own wraps, saving us from the terminally shit pittas that cost-cutting kebab houses stick to. You even get floury fingers. Floury fingers! In a kebab shop!

But it's their meat when the difference is most noticeable. Their lamb may come off an upright spike next to your Gran's electric radiator, but the meat is juicy, tasty and gorgeously caramelised and burnt around the edges. It must be great sourcing, because the methods are the same. The sticky, sweet flavour just cuts right through the watery salad and slightly crispy flatbread. It fills your nose and mouth with flavour and cracks your mouth into that drunken, dribbling smile your friends know so well and you only see in blurred Facebook photos.

I was going to say "Imagine if all kebab houses were like this", But we shouldn't have to. They all should be already. I paid £4.95 for my medium lamb shawarma. No more and n less than any other kebab I've ever ordered. So why can't other places do it?

Screw it. Imagine if they did.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Soho Diner: a chip off the old block

Just another diner. Not different, just better.

Diners are like London buses because they're FRICKIN' everywhere. I went past about five on my way down Old Compton Street to the Soho Diner, including several I've already reviewed (like Ed's Easy Diner). And when you're not tripping over diner-themed restaurants, you're walking headlong into trendy burger bars. It's ridiculous.

And I love it. And I also love the Soho Diner. I was as hungover as one of Michael Barrymore's party guests on Saturday and still I finished that burger. True, I had to duck out to the loo twice just to be safe, but I was determined to get through it.

What the diner has so cleverly done is recreate was the McDonald's burger is in our heads before we actually eat it. The patties are thin but rare, the sauce thick and sticky, the cheese so gloopy it sticks to your throat, and all in a sweet brioche bun that feels cheap but so, so good. Perhaps sensing my hangover shakes (or simply smelling the alcohol) they asked if I'd like bacon and eggs on my burger. Ambitiously I said that sounded excellent. It made it seem more like brunch, which is a good, hearty thing to eat when suffering the drinker's withdrawal. The bacon was something else, about 2cm thick and rammed with sweet honey and gammon flavours. And then the egg was perfect and runny, but perfectly circular, just like the crap McDonald's ones.

If all that sounds a little too sycophantic don't read the rest, because I haven't even started on the milkshake - pistachio and honeycomb. Oh my days. If I'd sicked it up I'd have probably tried again it was that good.

Having ranted about the food, the location seems somewhat moot, but it is rather nice. Very spacious and wooden, with cocktails on tap and a decent enough beer list (could do better Soho House, could do better). There was even a European-like gathering of probably-older-than-you-think guys in leather jackets drinking beer from stemmed glasses outside, despite the freakish weather and an enormous delivery truck (probably needed for the extra thick bacon) blocking their view of the street. This is why I have no picture of the outside.

There are some pretty shoddy reviews of the Soho Diner on the usual customer websites. They're hardly a barometer for good food, but I am baffled. It's not changing the world, but Soho House (who run the place along with Chicken Shop, Dirty Burger, PizzaEast and Dean Street Townhouse) never try too. They just nail it. Whoever is at the top knows what the public want, and from a diner it's trashy food done in style, in a place where they would want to come at any time of day. It's open 'til 3am at the weekend, so I know where I'm going when caught short and drunk in Soho. Hopefully I won't need loo breaks at that point.

Soho Diner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Smokehouse: all smoke, some fire

A great meat palace with a bit of gristle

I used to cycle past The House by Highbury & Islington every day. It had always intrigued me, because despite looking like Wetherspoons, a friend assured me it was "The Ivy of Islington".

I doubted that very much. I went there to prove my point but got so drunk I couldn't remember enough to back up my argument. Still, my suspicions were confirmed when it closed.

To my joy it reopened as The Smokehouse, advertising delicious meat, lots of smoke and, most importantly, a crate load of great beers. When you walk in the first thing you see is a row of 20 taps, all marked with Sharpies to tell the baffled barmen which is which. You then approach the bar and see that right around the inside of it runs beer fridges practically falling open with craft beer. On the wall is a blackboard entitled "Beer and food matching" that lists the best drinks for their dishes. The wine doesn't really get a look in, which is a refreshing change of tack.

Sadly on my first visit I was eating brunch (see my egg and beef hash, left), and decided that just hours after stopping drinking, the last thing I should do with breakfast was have a beer. On this visit I was not so reserved. I dived straight in to order a Mikkeller APA, along with a croquette of breadcrumbed beef with gochuchang mayonnaise. The concept of both is trashy and flawless, the delivery less perfect. Most disappointingly the beef, having been fried and then deep fried, was a little dry. Still, that gochuchang mayonnaise made from fermented chillies and soy beans, was incredible, the acidity slicing through the meat like a knife.

For the main I had only one choice once I'd seen it - ox cheek with cauliflower cheese, which I paired (at their suggestion) with Pressure Drop's brown ale. That cheesy sauce was something else, as was the gravy the meat came in, but again the meat was a little dry. Given the clever cooking on show elsewhere, how did the chef make a fatty cut like ox cheek seem dry?

Still, the mopping businesses at the end with their crispy roast potatoes was a memory to treasure. It was chips, cheese and gravy the way a Michelin-starred place would do it.

By this point my companion was well stuffed (as well as "not really being a pudding person", as if that's a valid statement) but I still had room for their Friday Pie - which turned out to be a seriously rich, seriously dark chocolate tart. It was one of those tarts where the pastry is so thick you think you'll go through the plate before the pastry gives in, but it needs it with a gloopy chocolate. With these flavours the remnants of my brown ale had no chance and tasted like soda water. Perhaps more of  Belgium is needed on the beer list so the puddings can meet their match too.

Given the wealth of brews on offer we decided we had to have one for the road. The Smokehouse likes to put itself across as a pub, and does have the comfortable vibe of a country inn, with exposed wood, fireplaces and soft lighting. And they were happy for us to take our time - which is lucky because if you  rush a 5.9% beer that cycle home can get fraught.

Luckily my wallet was a lot lighter, so at least I was balanced on my bike. £90 for two did seem a little steep, especially when I'm not convinced by the quality of the beef (the cooking was excellent) but when the beer is this good, the place this lovely, and elements of the food super you'll always go back to give it another try.

Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Flesh & Buns: for goodness sake

Great fun, buns have room for improvement

Although it deserves a lot more, my enduring memory of Flesh & Buns is that Sake is disgusting. Mostly it reminded me of those horrid Strawberry Volvic waters, so weakly flavoured that there are more tannins that taste notes.

Still, far be it from me to dismiss a national drink out of hand (oh, OK then I will). I still drank a bottle of it and had a wonderful time while doing so. Flesh & Buns is a terrible name for a restaurant, and according to my limited knowledge of Eastern cuisine a slightly confused concept, but it's a great place to eat anyway.

Tucked underground on one of the thousands of roads that come off Seven Dials in Covent Garden, it has a lovely atmosphere with booths and great long tables that dissect the room, where everyone shares elbow space and conversations. It claims to be an Izakaya - essentially an aperitivo bar with Sake rather than wine - but if you had to wait 90 minutes to go to an aperitivo bar you'd be in the nearest pub eating pies before you could say "I hate the London foodie scene".

No, Flesh & Buns is about the food, as the silly name suggests. But it is pretty casual. You order your buns, order you meat, order your sides and then drink Sake and leisurely chomp your way through it. At least that's how it should have been. Instead, we ordered our buns, ordered our braised pork in mustard miso and ordered our yuzu mayo broccoli. The broccoli arrived first and was frickin' delicious - but a very strange form of starter. Given that we had waited so long to go in, we devoured it in moments. We then received our salmon avocado roll, again excellent, with wasabi that got RIGHT up your nose like you just snorted it. I am told I have never had great sushi, and I'm sure I will be told this wasn't it. But it was damned delicious.

We then waited, and waited, and waited. How long does it take to steam a bun? It would seem about 30 minutes, because I doubt they slow-cooked the pork in that time. The flavours themselves - the sweet pork and zingy miso, was perfect and the sweet sauce that I couldn't even begin to describe (the sake was getting to me) brought it all to life. However, the salad it came with looked like it had been emptied from a Floretti salad bag, and I'd be very, very surprised if that's how Hirata buns come it Taiwan and I feel little that the attention to detail (and margins) got a little squeezed here. The meat was also a little dry towards the edges, which meant more dipping was needed towards the end of the meal.

For pudding we went with a friends recommendation of S'More. Despite sounding like a mix between a Lord of the Rings character and a pound shop, it turned out to be a tabletop campfire with marshmallows for toasting. Joy! On top of that, you got some delicious green (essentially white) chocolate and ginger biscuits to make a sandwich. It really was special - but at £8 for two business-card sized sandwiches not so special you'd want to do it again soon. But by then I was too drunk on Volvic water to care.

For better fillings I'd go to Yum Bun, but Flesh & Bun has it's charms.. It's slick, clever and importantly very tasty.

Flesh and Buns on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Rotary, Old Street: filth, glorious filth

Probably the best chicken burger I've ever had.

So after my experience at Mahiki's Rock Lobsta (sic), where if I hadn't paid half price I might have gone postal at the sight of the bill, I wasn't that keen to go to another Carl Clarke restaurant. Along with the roller disco restaurant (which surely is just asking for a dreadful stitch) I decided in my head he was all style over substance.

But my burger-loving colle
ague came across the Rotary, just south of Old Street roundabout, and was adamant we had to go. He watched my heart sink as I thought about another overpriced attempt to doing something straight laced in a "punk" way. I can assure you, the only punk in the world with enough money to eat at Rock Lobsta is Iggy Pop, or John Lydon since that gut-wrenching butter advert.

I've gone past the Rotary many a time, glancing into its spacious, seemingly soulless interior, then heading straight past it to Yum Bun. It seems I've been making a mistake.

Not every time mark you. If you ate what I ate at Rotary every day, not only would your afternoons in the office become more sleep ridden than an unemployed narcoleptic's, but you'd also be larger than Lisa Riley in about a week. Their food is pure filth. Pure, gorgeous filth.

Burger me

I had the chicken burger, the healthy cop out. But at £12 I was expecting something pretty special, and this one was no compromise. Deep fried in what felt like an inch of batter, coated in spoonfuls of tangy, moreish burger sauce and topped with crunchy shredded veg it was almost more than a man should, or even could, stand. At first bite there was nothing clever, but on second look it was genius. How the bun didn't turn to mush I don't know, how the batter was crispy even in the sauce is a mystery, and how I managed to eat it is a question I'm still asking myself. Sometimes I have Vietnam-style flashbacks as I sweated and strained my way through it, but I never wanted to stop.

The chips were the perfect mix of trash and genius too. Looking and initially tasting like the perfect McDonald's chips – the ones in your head before you get the box of droopy starchy twigs – they were so much more satisfying, with their meaty flavours from the beef dripping. Not a place for vegetarians then. 

And that's the only issue with the Rotary. Just like at Clarke's Rock Lobsta (sic) I have no idea who would eat there. We went on a Thursday lunchtime, when office workers try to convince themselves the weekend is almost upon them, and it was pretty much dead. It was,
in all truthfulness, far, far too much for lunch. I felt like a bag of sand for about 24 hours. So it's an evening thing, but I rather think most people run from Old Street as soon as 5.30 hits. It's not really somewhere you want to stick around in unless you're headed to Fifteen, the Nightjar or the Old Fountain. I admire Clarke's ballsy approach for putting restaurants where they don't belong (Silicon roundabout, a roller disco and a crap nightclub) but whether it makes business sense I don't know.

Still, I'll be back. But I might skip breakfast beforehand.

The Rotary Bar & Diner on Urbanspoon   Square Meal