Sunday, 20 November 2011

Eat: souper?

No snobbery, just good soups.

I don't understand people who bring in sandwiches to work. If you are desperately close to losing your house, or owe a lot of money to some very bad people, sure. But there is no justification for putting yourself through cheese and dry bread hell when you can pop out to a decent cafe and get something better.

That didn't always used to be possible. Some of the more secondary business parks still rely on Frank's burger van. But even his livelihood is under threat now, because of the rise of "gastro-coffee shop" (my term).

Starbucks, Costa, Cafe Nero... they all offer proper lunch now: wrapped-up sandwiches the likes of which only used to be seen in a Hampstead delhi; pastries that have left Patisserie Valerie wanting to change her name; cookies the size of plates. Oh, and bad coffee.

But these are expensive. Very expensive. So the  "coffee-house bistro" reared its head. Eat, Pret and Pod all offer sandwiches to rival Borough market; cakes that make Konditor & Cook squabble between themselves; even hot meals that are, if nothing else, hot. Oh, and shit coffee.

I used to think Eat was expensive too. Their salads are around £4.50, which is a lot for some over-cooked prawns, limp lettuce leaves and sweet chilli sauce. But then I tried the soups.

Some of them are extraordinary. They top their chicken and mushroom cream soup with flaky pastry; their sweet potato and chilli soup is like a hug in a mug; their chicken laksa spicy, sweet and fresh. They even manage to bat the classic cream of chicken out of the park. They must have a repertoire of 20 or so soups, which rotate weekly.

You don't expect to walk into their cold, clinical units and receive food of this quality. At my local Eat they leave the door open constantly, letting the winter wind whip right through to the back door. It's irritating, but it has a certain effect. People huddle over the their soups for warmth, which is kind of the way that's how soup should be enjoyed. Cradling the tub with fingerless gloves, enjoying the rising steam and inhaling the scent like you're in Bisto advert.

There are flaws of course. The Chicken Pot Pie pastry is impossible to eat with a spoon, it is usually served just a little too cold and the descriptions are infuriating - they serve an "Eat classic" every day.

But it's all so reasonably priced. The large, which is about a pint, is only £4.35 but the smallest is barely over £3, and for a few pence you can get a doorstop of bread to make sure that, if the small spoons didn't manage it, you'll dribble soup all down your chin.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Baltic: I've been expecting you ...

Shouldn't be such a secret service.

The first thing that strikes you about Baltic is its size. From the subsiding townhouse exterior you would never expect the voluminous dining hall it opens up into. Tables stretch off into the distance and the ceiling is so high you half expect to look up and see clouds.

As is always the case when I go to review a restaurant, it was completely empty. It felt like a church with its peaked roof, puritan decor and whispered ambience. However, there was nothing holy about our eastern European waiter. Clean shaven and well presented from a distance, a closer look showed bags under his eyes and a haunted look, as if the days of Soviet rule still haunted him, and he expected the KGB to jump out and lynch him for reaching the West.

Given that there was hardly a lunchtime rush, I was confused as to how a Bond villain of a waiter could look so tired, but his passion and knowledge of the extensive vodka menu gave me some clue.
He was, in fact, the perfect host. His dry wit had us in stitches and he knew the menu inside out. To his disappointment however, we all went for the set menu. He went off muttering, to his secret hide out, no doubt to press the launch button on his nuclear rocket. The problem is, you would be a fool not to take the set menu, since it costs a very reasonable £17.50 and the main courses on their own are £13-17 each.
He was also sad he could not convince us to sample the enormous vodka menu – it was a working lunch – and so with half a carafe of the fruity house red, I ordered the cheese and wild mushroom dumplings. They resembled gnocci, but the texture was much more rubbery and the fried edges gave it a smokier taste and crispier skin.

It was a healthy portion that made me apprehensive about the size of my main, especially given I had asked for a side of chive mash. My skin-on chicken with bacon, chard and chilli in a creamy sauce was cooked well enough – the skin was crispy and the spicy zip complemented the salty lardons. However, I was left wondering how authentic the dish was, given that none of the ingredients (save the chicken) were native to any of the Baltic states. If it weren’t for the chilli, it could have been a creamy chicken dish from any cuisine in the world.

The same could not be said for the pudding, once you get over the fact that it was crème brulee. At the bottom of the dish were eight vodka-soaked cherries. Thankfully the alcoholic bite had been slightly cooked off, and it was instead a hint of savoury kick in the sweet cream. It was a shame that they had also burnt the sugar a little over-zealously, and the odd mouthful combined vodka, cherries and burnt caramel, which was by no means pleasant.

It is a sad fact that the meal peaked with the starter, but the service was warm and the ambience relaxing enough to make it a welcome break from a stuffy office. With a complete lack of pretence and a very cheap set menu offering, it is well worth a lunch visit. Just don’t wear a tuxedo or order a martini. It may be the last thing you ever do.

74 Blackfriars Road, SE1 8AH
020 7928 1111
Baltic on Urbanspoon   Square Meal