Monday, 17 December 2012

Bodean's: made a pig's ear of it

Not my favourite mistake

I didn't mean to go to Bodean's. It's not the kind of thing you plan to do, especially when you know damn well that Pitt Cue is barely 3 minutes walk away. But it's where my friend had told me to meet him, and I understood why.

In case you hadn't noticed, London is a pretty big place. You can't even pretend to comprehend it, let alone know it. The friend I was meeting was from Exeter, where I lived for four happy years. We lived in a little village just outside the city, the kind of place where people only honk their horns because they just saw Jim from the Lamb and Flag popping to Costcutter for some Cutter's Choice.

My friend always asks me how I can stand to live in such a big place now, with no sense of community or where the night bus you just drunkenly got on might actually take you. The answer is that we visit the same pockets of London with the same people - the same pubs, cafes, nightclubs, restaurants. We all make our own little villages within London, and my friend, who visits about once a month, has already done the same. When we can't comprehend something, we change it into something we can understand. We go where we've already been. And that's why we always bloody end up at Bodean's.

In one way Bodean's is well ahead of its time. It's been around since 2002 - a full decade before Americana really hit London in the form of dirty burgers and pulled pork. It's also the only place in England (and I suspect the world) that manages to show ice hockey 24/7 on its screens. And I love that about Bodean's, as well as the awesome Americana/heavy rock playlist they have.

Sadly, like so many innovators, lots of people have taken their ideas and done it so much better that Bodean's is left looking rather stupid. Barbecue restaurants are everywhere now, and almost all of them will do better pulled pork and ribs, both of which were hugely overcooked, bone dry, chewy and almost marinade-less. The coleslaw was fresh and crunchy, but served warm (!?) and tragically under-seasoned, and the chips were cold before they were even brought out. The beer list (Samuel Adams and Moosehead lager) would have been exciting 10 years ago, but it now seems dated and faux-trendy. There are much, much better American beers out there, and there are far cleverer beers to serve with heavy duty pork than light lagers. After one mouthful of food, it tasted like I was drinking soda water.

It's fitting that the only part of Bodean's that did work was a supposed mistake - their burnt ends. If you don't know what they are, they are grizzly bits cut off the meat during cooking. They can vary from crispy and chewy to soft and gooey, and once coated in a decent barbecue sauce they're a joy. Bodean's, whether by design or accident, were brilliant, and much more moist than their signature meat cuts. However, they didn't save the generous £25 sharing platter that we had. There was just too many things wrong.

Bodean's has fallen into the trap of actually becoming fast food. The service was super and the food arrived in just a few minutes but, given how great the atmosphere of the place is, that was a bit of a shame. What was a brilliant idea in 2002 has been stretched across four sites now, and the food has obviously suffered to the point where even the human dustbin from Man vs. Food would wrinkle his nose up at it.

It's by no means a bad restaurant.  But just as my Moosehead tasted of soda water after a bite of burnt ends, so Bodean's tasted like luncheon meat after eating at Pitt Cue.

Bodean's on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 9 December 2012

2012: when things got gloriously sloppy

"Don’t be fooled into thinking this fast food revolution is frivolous and doomed."

Sorry Made in Camden. It wasn't your year...
I read an interesting article today by my beloved Jay Rayner, who talks about 2012 as the year when "deepening recession sent skilled cooks heading towards the gutter, the better to look up at the stars."

And he's quite right. 2012 was the year of posh fast food, a cuisine I seem to have covered in great depth (see Chicken ShopDirty BurgerMEATliquorBig Apple Hot Dogs and so on). Essentially, if you didn't force people to queue and expected diners to use a knife and fork, you weren't going to get blogged about.

I have a hunch that 2013 will be similar - gourmet fish and chips are probably due another airing. As is always the case, it takes a little while for everyone to catch up with the curve. Like how after Oasis we had to cough up saltwater from the waves of Hard-Fi and Kasabian. Hopefully the best is yet to come, but bearing my example in mind I fear not.

But what really caught my interest was a comment below the article. Among all the very Observer-style trolling (“HOW DARE YOU WRITE ABOUT FOOD WHEN SUDAN IS STARVING?!”) was JahConvict, who believes that the artisanal fast food revival was “finished before it started, which was last year”. Mr Convict is dead wrong. For a start there was no start, unless you count it as lots of unconnected food vans that sprung up on gentrified markets, then started pop-ups and food festivals before finally making the move into restaurants permanent (pretty much all this year and still thriving) when a bank finally believed in them.

But Mr Convict does go on to make an interesting point: “The real food news is that more people are more aware of what really matters with food; understanding and taking ownership of where it comes from, how it is prepared and how it is best eaten.”

In my head, that boils down to the same thing as the fast foodie argument – the idea that great, fresh ingredients have flavour enough. Diners don't want towers of soup and French words. They want to know their chicken had child tax credits and that their broccoli was grown on a farm that's name begins with an S. They want traceability, which inevitably means simplicity.

Knowledge of great flavours and where to find them is what matters now. So, my favourite meal of the year? It’s actually a toss-up between Made in Camden, an adventurous and exciting meal with some truly astounding dishes, and the Chicken Shop – the most basic meal I’ve eaten all year. Chicken; chips; buttermilk salad; beer; home. Or, put another way – 24-hour marinated and spit roasted; deep fried; well seasoned; locally brewed; just around the corner from my house.

That’s why so-called “fast food” is on the rise: it’s cheaper, heartier, simpler and more accessible, surely what people are looking for at this point in the economic cycle. Pies, burgers, roasts, sausages, pork baps, Scotch eggs – all these classic British meals are back, and any imbecile could knock out a decent version at home with the good ingredients. But that’s what’s brilliant about the whole thing. That very fact means best new restaurants in the capital are keeping prices low, menus small, ingredients traceable, and flavours big. They're telling people to do things simply, and do them well.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this fast food revolution is frivolous and doomed. It’s just the beginning.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Counter Cafe: a taste of east London

Bizarre but kind of brilliant

Such was the sudden acceleration of the Olympic Park that the rest of east London hasn't even left the starting blocks. I loved the Olympics, but it's a little disturbing that elite sport gets a bigger development budget than some of the most deprived areas of the UK.

Politicians will argue that the Park filled a black hole in central(ish) London. But anyone who has been to the Park will tell you that, since the multinational crowd have left, it's had less atmosphere than a boarded-up boozer in Hull.

Meanwhile, the circle of east London around the Park has developed a bizarre new charm - like a desperate show of the old ways in the shadow of the spaceship-like Olympic Stadium. And the Counter Cafe is quite literally in its shadow.

From one side it's in what would be a trendy converted warehouse if it were in Hoxton. On this side of the A12 it feels like somewhere between that and the Hovis advert. The cafe is in the back of an interesting looking art gallery. It's got a huge glass façade  running cross the cafe's two floors that looks like it was built in expectation of the new Olympic view. Sadly there's a good deal of wasteland, and canal/refuse channel and an unsightly fence between it and stadium, which all but spoils the view.

To get a bit closer to the action we braved the cold and sat on the floating astro-covered platform on the canal behind the cafe. We sat gently bobbing every time we moved, ignoring the slight seasickness, and soaked up the bizarre atmosphere. It was very pleasant, but sadly things had already gone slightly wrong food wise. My planned order of hot chocolate and eggs Benedict was impossible because they had neither. Nor did they have peppermint tea. In fact, all they had in the decaf department was green, the tetanus jab of teas.

Now, how you run out of tea in a cafe is one question, how you run out of Benedict is quite another, especially when you definitely have eggs (I could see them in the kitchen). It means you lack two basic staples of even a home kitchen, and given that there was supermarket not one minute's walk away, their refusal to serve it seemed almost personal. However, I took it as graciously as a hungover, hungry man could on a Sunday morning and ordered the poached eggs, salmon and potato cakes.

Just the sound of it eased the pain in my head, and the sight of it next to my translucent tetanus tea calmed the shakes. The salmon was bright and fresh, the yolk almost as orange as the salmon, and in deep contrast the gloriously charred potato cakes. The textures were all perfect: soft potato with crunchy burnt edges, runny yolks, and plump salmon. The lime they came with was a surprising but zesty twist, although sadly the dish was badly under seasoned. I'd love to tell you how the hot chocolate was - as a man intolerant to caffeine it's a problem close to my heart that so few hot chocolates are either hot or made with real chocolate - but the only adjective I can use is "absent".

Still, for the sheer experience and view it's worth a visit to the Counter Cafe. The fact you walk past art installations to get to it; the classroom feel it has with rows of wooden tables; its complete lack of tea despite being a cafe; that bizarre almost apocalyptic view - it all makes the cafe unique. The fact they run out of stuff, despite being out in no-man's land, is a testament to much this place is loved. I can totally understand it - understated in east London, defiant in the face of modernity, and happy in its skin. I really, really hope east London changes. But I also really hope the Counter Cafe never does.

The Counter Cafe on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 26 November 2012

Franco Manca: doughn't knock it

Best pizzas? No. Worst wine? Hell yes.

Isn't hype a wonderful thing? Well, it depends what side of the line you're on. Franco Manca is on the right side, so much so the line is a dot. It serves the "best pizza in Britain" according to an over-enthusiastic Sunday paper, and the original branch manages to attract 50-people long queues on a blustery Thursday, despite being located in Brixton Market - which has all the ambience of an Ikea warehouse.

Franco Manca though, manages to feel like an Italian pizzeria on a cobble street in Naples and, despite the market having roof, even attempts an outside cafe-style row of seating. It's cramped and lively, and actually pleasantly rustic to sit so close to other diners – except for when one needs the loo and a whole row of people have to go toe to toe in the aisles so they can escape.

Luckily that only happened once, because no one was drinking. The house organic white was hands-down, or on my heart, or to my throat, the worst wine I have ever tasted. I have seen no evidence that organic wine is any better than the normal stuff, and on this evidence it's considerably worse. It tasted like drinking apple juice straight after brushing your teeth. The only thing that stopped me spitting it back out was my proximity to the impressionable child to my left.

Another flaw in making people sit so close together is that the pizzas are massive, and you sit there knocking elbows, felling oil bottles and spilling glasses (not an issue if you're drinking the white). Cruelly they don't slice the pizzas, so you spend the first minute, elbows out, doing chicken impressions opposite each other.

The first thing you notice once you start cutting, other than that your neighbour has very bony elbows, is that this is a very unusual pizza. It's soft and doughy like a naan bread. In fact it looks like one too. The sourdough has bubbled and blackened but not crispened, so you get the slight burnt bitterness of an Indian bread. Now, most people would say a non-crispy base on a pizza is a sign it's undercooked. But traditional pizza (from Naples) is meant to be soft and chewy. Believe me it works wonderfully - you can roll slices up into glorious wholesome bites, or tear bits off for others to try, or forcibly stuff the whole thing into your mouth and chew it with a disgustingly proud grin on your face. It's utterly brilliant, but I have to say you miss the variation in texture you get on a crispy Roman style base.

Sadly, the gluttony of the dough doesn't quite stretch to the toppings, and while they are all specially sourced and truly beautiful, there's just not enough of them. With such a thick dough there needs to be topping to match, piles of tomatoes and cheese. The ricotta on my old spot ham pizza was spread so thin it looked like a watery excess from the mozzarella. My friend's came without tomatoes at all (on purpose) but as a result was pretty hard going over about 12 inches. Still, she managed it somehow, as I did mine, in about 5 minutes.

And so, with the pizzas demolished, we were left with the wine. Due to its bitterness we'd eaten our pizzas before we'd even finished the first glass, and had to spend 10 torturous minutes downing the rest of the bottle while intermittently grimacing then smiling sheepishly at the queue of 50 hungry would-be diners. Luckily, hype and incredible prices mean they'll wait. My advice would be take into account the hype, and get there before 6.30.

So is Franco Manca worth the plaudits slapped on it? Not really. Is it worth the £7 you'll pay for a pizza. Hell yes.

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Big Apple Hot Dogs: best in show

Fantastical and phallic

I hate hotdogs. I hate those tinned rubber tubes Princes make; I hate the slimey onion-covered meat-smash travesties you get at fairs; I hate currywurst (it's just a sausage with curry powder!); and I even hate the charred Lincolnshires people think are vital to a rainy British barbecue.

And the bread's always awful. It either falls apart the moment moisture hits it, or it's so doughy a builder could use it to stick bricks together.

But then I was sat at my desk yesterday when a colleague dropped Scout London on my desk. On the front was a sausage/bap combo straight from the fires of hell. It was like the Barbie of hot dogs - all plastic, shiny and brightly coloured (and no genitals either). With complete disinterest I started flicking the pages, until I came across the top ten dogs in London feature.

They all looked disgusting, especially the one apparently balanced on a latex glove. They looked like the kind of food photography you get outside the worst restaurants in China Town - all faded and warped by the sun. Even the Hawksmoor chilli cheese dog, made by one of the finest steak restaurants in London, looked like a still from Embarrassing Bodies.

So it was to my great surprise that I found myself wondering past Old Street roundabout towards Big Apple Hot Dog's stand, number four in the list. The photo was as plain as could be – a dull red sausage in a white bap. Sat next to Hawkmoor's gooey rash it looked practically puritan. It turned out to be everything but.

Big Apple has a big and shiny stand with branded fencing and a big umbrella. Unfortunately the effect is rather ruined by the dirty Ford Mondeo parked up behind it, where the ingredients are kept. We were greeted by a typically cheeky East London chap who was almost dizzy with excitement at the opportunity to serve such good sausages, particularly ones called "Massive Poles". And who can blame him.

As our server so happily implied, the Massive Pole is indeed phallic, but more to the point it's a Polish sausage that's around 94% pork, and I can assure you that it's a very different kind of sausage to anything you might get served at you mate's barbecue in his concrete backgarden. Despite its boring presentation in Scout London, I opted for the sweaty onions and as much mustard and ketchup as I could fit on without putting my clothes at risk. And it suddenly looked like something I wanted to eat.

The meat was so dense it was like biting into an apple – and the sound was almost the same, with a physical snap as I broke through the skin. The sausage was so big and crescent shaped that when I bit into one end, the other end flicked up and hit me in the face, leaving me with ketchup as far north as the bridge of my nose. They don't give you serviettes either, so the clothes I had sworn to protect were coated in bright yellow and red by the end, and every time I breathed I could smell the mustard on my nose.

Still worth it, still brilliant, and still better than any other dog I've seen or eaten. But then as far as I'm concerned, I've only tried one real one. But that's going to change.

Track down the stand just beyond the Fire Station near exit 2 of Old Street Tube.

Big Apple Hot Dogs on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Chicken Shop: breast chicken in london

No jokes, just brilliant.

So there’s a newish trend among good restaurants of offering only three or four main courses. They’ve all decided we don’t need choice, we need to be spoonfed (not literally unless it’s soup). Instead of choice they’re overselling what they do offer, through more provenance, endless buzz terms and the odd French word. Diners also aren’t worthy of cardboard menus anymore either, just paper ones. All we’d do is spill our jus all over it.

The founders of the Chicken Shop, the second restaurant attached to Pizza East in Kentish Town, evidently think the choice of four main courses is a bit much for the average consumer. Instead they offer one; one main dish, helpfully labelled “chicken”. They sidestep the fact that they are marinated in paprika and oregano overnight and spit-roasted whole at the back of the restaurant. Because that might confuse us.

And we have enough choices to make. We have to choose the size –quarter, half or whole; we have to choose what sauce to put on it – hot or smoky; and then we have the sides, and there a like... four of those.
I chose chips – the gorgeous crunchy numbers they serve upstairs at Dirty Burger – while my friend went for the awesome house salad – cos and avocado in a buttermilk dressing. Apparently buttermilk has almost no fat. Who knew.

The chicken and sides came in white enamel dishes, thrown onto the table by our busy waiters (we had three within the hour we had the table) with something bordering on care. Having dipped my finger in both the sauce bottles (sorry) I plumped for the smoky sauce. While the hot one was delicious zingy and lemony, the idea of eating half a chicken coated in the stuff made me sweat. The smoky still had a kick, but both sauces could have done with being a little stickier. Not only would it have helped the texture, it would have saved my friend’s dress a trip to the dry cleaner. No real complaints about the meat though – moist without being watery, smoked without being burnt and stacked with flavours so good I actually considered gnawing the bones. Luckily the waiter prematurely took away the bowl with them in, so I was spared the indignity.
Sometimes you feel a bit hurried – you only have table for an hour, and the queue is inside, so people watch and hover over you like vultures, knowing that every second you linger is a second longer for them to wait. But they can have drinks while they wait and it’s such a pleasant place to be – all old wood, smoky spit-roasts and people chatting animatedly despite having chicken in their teeth – that it doesn't matter.

The Chicken Shop seems to be one of those eureka moments – a concept so perfect it’s amazing no one has tried it before. That’s probably because it wouldn’t have been possible ten years ago, when the idea of fine dining was the Ivy. Now it’s these little secret places where you’re encouraged to eat with your hands; where you can take your food away to the nearest pub and eat there; where if you order the apple pie, the waiter brings the whole damn thing and lets you cut as big a slice as you want; and where people are happy to queue for 20 minutes for a bit of chicken.

It would be easy to overstate how good the Chicken Shop is. It’s very clever but in a simple way, and its food is very tasty but in an unambitious way. But you can’t deny that it’s probably the most satisfying and delicious places to eat in London – the fact it costs less than £20 for two courses, drinks and service is, frankly, ludicrous.

53-79 Highgate Road, Kentish Town, London

Chicken Shop on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 8 October 2012

Dirty Burger: worth its salt

Trashy as hell. Tasty as heaven.

I haven't taken a picture of the outside of Dirty Burger. It has to be seen to be believed, and it's very important that you don't quite believe in Dirty Burger. The reality is less satisfying. It's an ideal; a dream; a craving. 

It's also a shack, attached to the back of Pizza East in Kentish Town. It forms one corner of the kind of car park you don't expect to see outside of a Swindon industrial park. It's artfully designed to look like a cabin in the woods, and does so very well until you walk in and everyone's got thick-rimmed glasses and their polo shirt buttons done up so tight they are struggling to swallow their burgers.

But they have to swallow, because Dirty Burger burgers are so salty - so lip-wrinklingly salty - that you're addicted after one mouthful.

Given that they appear to have been assembled and then dunked in the Dead Sea, they are still damned fine burgers. The patties aren't a patch on meatLIQUOR, and nor is the sauce, but they don't insist on using American cheese which is a relief. Instead you get sticky, stringy, non-luminous cheese that sticks gleefully to the paper the burgers come wrapped in. You also get a slightly damp bap, which should be a let down, but it actually it helps the defiantly dirty textures as it all combines into one filthy, glorious cocktail in your mouth.

By contrast, the chips were crispy. So crispy. It was brilliant - almost like eating crisps - except for the bizarre lack of salt. It was as if the chef had lined the burger and chips up, seasoned the pattie, wondered off, come back and forgotten which one he'd seasoned. Still, those crinkle-cut fries were excellent, as were the unforgettable onion fries - essentially onion rings fried to within an inch of their lives in oil so thick even Michael Phelps would drown.

So I wasn't completely sold on the food, and my vanilla milkshake was a little sweet too - I say this knowing it's as banal as going a Mika gig and saying it was a bit camp. Somehow I still loved it all, like someone clinging on to a relationship despite all the bad parts: I LOVED that the food took 10 minutes to arrive despite being a fast food chain; I ADORED the fact that there were no seats and we had to sit on the fire escape stairs outside; I MISS the way it fell apart in my hands. The dream was nothing like I thought it would be, but it was still a dream.

Like the best rock stars, Dirty Burger is brilliant and flawed, cheap and nasty, and a slight disappointment when you meet it in person.

Dirty Burger on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

You can also read my review of Pizza East, which Dirty Burger is attached to the back of, here

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Red Dog Saloon: wouldn't be flying without wings

Disappointing but worth it for the wings.

Red Dog Saloon has terrible reviews. Even easier-to-please-than-a-retriever Time Out only offered it two stars. But they must be doing something right, because it's constantly spilling out onto the streets, despite the Byron that opened opposite late last year, and I was determined to find out what.

Jay Rayner had a nightmare there - involving raw chicken wings and reheated ribs - but the thing that really angered him was that the owners have never even been to America. It's shocking of course, but I'm not sure that matters in the end. None of its customers have either. Being on Hoxton Square, on a Wednesday night it's packed with suits from Old Street who fancied an "adventure" and who ignore the American beer list and instead down Amstel and worry about their ties.

Nothing about the place feels authentic, even the cliche bulls' skulls on the wall, and sat outside at their Homebase garden tables, you could be in any Hoxton bar. In fact, the fact that the owners have never been to America keeps the message of the restaurant clear and concise. This is what Britain thinks BBQ food is.

So far, so bad. But things improved. There website looks spot on, the menu extensive and appetising. In true Man-versus-Food fashion they even have a spicy wings and an all-you-can-eat burger challenge. I always worry about these places, because its often a sign that they are burying poor ingredients by loading as many as they can into each mouthful. Remember that later.

We ordered a basket of their award-winning buffalo wings, which were genuinely excellent. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside, so spicy that breathing near them caused fits of coughing, and served with a beautifully rich blue cheese sauce. It was mess at its best, and even two lemon wet wipes couldn't quite clean me up afterwards.

I wish I'd ordered more than eight, because that was peak. For the main I plumped for the burger, simply because I wanted to see how they would compare to their neighbours Byron. The answer is not very well at all. My Bar-B-Q burger, aside from confusing the two recognised spellings of barbecue, was just a slur of mistakes in a slightly soggy bun. The pattie was dry, the onion rings raw and moist, the cheese virtually tasteless and the sauce slightly caked - like the spillages around the lid of a jar. As a whole it was satisfyingly trashy, but more in a 2am McDonald's way than a camp confession that the burger's next stop would be my thighs and I didn't two hoots.

In a neighbouring basket the chips were delightfully crispy, but so oily that by the time we were scrabbling around the bottom of the basket, the paper they came in (bizarrely branded "letsdough") was completely see-through. My arteries constricted as I looked through the paper and saw my friend's face in complete detail.

If I were to be brutal I'd say you could get a burger just as good at your local Wetherspoon. That would be stretching things a little and to be fair I should go back and try the smoker part of the menu. But, the wings aside, it has offered me no reason to do so. Here's my advice - if you're hungry in Hoxton, get some wings at Red Dog, then walk the 20 metres to Byron. You'll thank me.

Red Dog Saloon on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 23 September 2012

PizzaEast: given a pizza my mind

Good pizzas, bad ideas.

When it comes to food I'm down with experimentation. For example, I like chips with mayo and ketchup, and there are few things that can't be improved by the addition of Worcestershire sauce.

But perfection is just that, and I don't care if you're Chris Bianco or Mr Domino - you keep your pizzas simple, just as the Italians intended. What I don't expect is someone to put a porchetta on it, sliced up and laid across the pizza like some kind of upper-class kebab meat.

 But that's what I ate at the new PizzaEast restaurant in Kentish Town. Maybe it was on purpose - maybe it was meant to be a bastardisation of the Turkish pizza, but surely - surely - someone during the taste testing would have turned to the chef and said: "I mean, it's ok. But don't you think it's a bit much? Aren't there better things we can do with a crap load of pork and supposedly the best pizza in London?"

The answer would have been that yes, yes there are. A thousand better things. This pizza smacks of being one person's brilliant idea and someone else's nightmare. Wrapping up a pizza in meat isn't always a bad idea - with salty, delicate proscuitto it's glorious. And that's on the menu and I'm sure it's very good.

The main problem was that the porchetta (see the pic) was everywhere, but was super dry, borderline tasteless and completely devoid of the mandatory stuffing - unless you count the rosemary, which smacks you around the face about halfway through each bite. It's not that they used too much, it was that it had no other flavours to compete with.

To be fair the pizzas themselves are very good. I had to eat some of the sauce on its own so the rosemary didn't bowl me over, and it's a well-made sauce, and the slow-proved sourdough is excellent - so crispy you get microcuts on the roof of your mouth that last for days. In a good way.

And their beer list, as with all trendy London chains, is pretty good. It stocks Camden Town Brewery beers, although not the Wheat beer, which should be a no-brainer to go with the pizza. However, the Pale Ale does a great job of cutting through the big, bold flavours - although it couldn't quite cut through the rosemary onslaught.

One look at the menu tells you PizzaEast's management know a lot about good sourcing and Italian ingredients - and our starters of creamy burrata and beautiful lamb meatballs in an arrabiata sauce proved that. It's just a shame that they have taken the ingredients and none of its values. If you're headed there you'll have to be the philosopher - when choosing a dish, less is more.

79 Highgate Road
Kentish Town

Pizza East on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Okan: good hash man

Cheap, delicious Japanese street food

Occasionally I get cocky and call myself a food critic, and it's always greeted with the same derision - that food critics never write about the food.

It's true that the great food critics of our day - AA Gill, Giles Coren, Jay Rayner Marina O'Loughlin etc - tend to spend more time on the set up than the pay off. But often, the food is the least important bit - if every restaurant served the same food, some would still be better than others. The most memorable meal I have ever had, which you can read about here, involved some very average food indeed. Great food does not necessarily make a great restaurant, and Marina writes exactly that sentiment here. The joy of eating out is the experience and, as any writer will tell you, explaining the uniqueness that is a moment in time is almost impossible. Most of the time it takes most of the time; it takes words, it takes space, it takes thought. It takes a paragraph that seems completely at odds with the purpose of the review (ahem), but it always has a point in the end.

But then you go to somewhere like Okan in Brixton village, where the food is so central to the experience that you want to tear up all those first paragraphs and punch some sense into AA Gill, with particular reference to the one in which he shoots a baboon.

But it's easier to focus on the food when your restaurant is four foot square, mostly kitchen and serving pancakes. Walking in from the harshly lit concrete streets of Brixton village, you suddenly feel like you've crashed a home kitchen, where a very accommodating Japanese family are trying to buy into Shrove Tuesday. If this was the case, from now on I'm doing it their way.

Okan is one of the few places in London that you can eat Okonomiyaki. Most websites will tell you this is a kind of Japanese pancake. Bollocks I say - if you tried tossing one of these you'd be finding cabbage around your kitchen for weeks. It has a lot more in common with a hash. It's hotchpotch of vegetables and noodles, seasoned, spiced and fried together, bound by one lonely egg. So far, so simple. But it's the toppings (or boppings, seeing as they are on the bottom). I ordered the Okan Special, which is bopped with prawns, squid and delicious kimchi, a tangy mess of fermented vegetables that really sang out next to the fried veg. But what really makes these hashes even more special is the sauces. They're drizzled with a thin satay sauce and special Okonomiyaki sauce, a slightly sweet and much thicker version of our own venerable Worcestershire sauce.

It's a wonderful plate of textures and tastes, varying from salty to sweet and crunchy to slimy. It's delicious, trashy and cheap. If I didn't live so far north, it would be my new hangover stop. In Japan it's very much considered fast food - if only we could have one of these on every high street, then we'd all be talking about the food.

Unit 39, Brixton Village, Brixton

Okan on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Tayyabs: currying no favour

Don't believe the hype.

Tayyabs has an almost mythical status in London. "Should have gone to Tayyabs" is a well-known refrain to people who make the frequent mistake of having a curry on Brick Lane. I always do it when slightly worse for wear out east on a weekend. I stumble from "London's best curry house 2008" to "London's best curry house 2009", entering full of promise and cumin-inspired excitement and leaving wondering if Craig Charles awarded the restaurants their dubious titles.

Tayyabs is different to most Indian restaurants. For a start, it's got an android app when most curry houses opt for about 3 phone numbers instead. More importantly, it's Pakistani, specifically Punjabi. Pakistan is much like Britain in the way it has developed its cuisine, borrowing from other nations to create their own fusions and ideas. Although the menu may not look that different from your local takeaway, the differences are mostly tucked away in the kitchen and subtly into the food.

Having said that, you're unlikely to order lamb chops to start at most curry houses, as we did at Tayyabs. Apparently it's their signature dish, and it certainly sizzles cockily on the hotplate. But they were the Victoria Beckhams of lamb chops - nicely spiced but possibly anaemic. Two per person was definitely not enough; four might have just been an appetiser; and perhaps ten would make a main. It left my companion and me fighting over the poppadoms like dogs as we waited slightly too long for our mains.

Which is the best time to best time to air my greatest gripe with Tayyabs - it's size. I like my curry houses small, intimate and usually on the verge of closure. I want the waiters to be delighted to see me, I want to dine almost alone and have them hover awkwardly just to the side because there is no one else to wait on. That's how I dine in north London. But Tayyabs is massive and heaving with customers. It feels a bit like a slightly shitty City bar, with tacky decor, harsh lighting and a lot of men in suits with gelled hair. In a similar vein, it also felt like a meat factory. The high turnover means the queue constantly moves, giving the impression of the diners being on a conveyor belt. You sit down, get fed and go out with the steady stream of other former-diners. The impersonal feel of this is exacerbated by the fact that it's so loud you can hardly hear yourself think, and this means the waiters have given up trying to talk. Instead, they mutely point at tables, mouth instructions at you and, more often than not, ignore your wildly waving arms and very British attempts at catching their eye. After all, we are only wallets on conveyor belts.

Luckily for them, the chefs in the open kitchens do seem to know what they are doing, even if the food suffers from being cooked in such high volume. My korahi chicken - a Pakistani dish cooked in great big saucepans from which it gets the dish takes name - was excellent. It differs from a north Indian curry because the meat is cooked in spices, and the sauce is added right at the end. This gives the meat much more texture and the slightly burnt spices really shine through. The addition of crispy onions to the top was a simple but clever addition for a nice dish.

Sadly the Wednesday special, a Mughlai Korma, was overcooked. The description, rather blandly, said the "rich sauce generously covers succulent pieces of meat". I have two problems with this statement. First, if the best thing you can say about a dish is that there is enough sauce, the dish is on its way to disaster. Second, it came with virtually no sauce at all. It had been cooked dry so the main texture was oil and, although it was flavourful, some of the lamb was very tough indeed. I only really ordered this dish out of morbid curiosity at the terrible descriptor, and in a desperate attempt to make my dining experience in any way unique from the hundreds of other diners.

After this error, we decided not to cave in to curiosity again with the puddings, deliciously misspelt as "deserts". We paid our extraordinarily low bill (karma where it's due), which also kept the tip mercifully low, and squeezed our way past the salivating queues of people.

I have to say I was left wondering what all the fuss was about. There can't be many curry houses serving such unique curries, or indeed such a wide range, but the lamb chops weren't actually that good, nor was the restaurant itself, and the staff certainly weren't. If you're stuck in Whitechapel and need a meal, you could do considerably worse (you could go to Brick Lane for starters), but as I waved goodbye to one of my dearest friends, who was disappearing abroad for a month, I couldn't help but think: "Shouldn't have gone to Tayyabs".

83-89 Fieldgate St

Tower HamletsUK E1 1JU

Tayyabs on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 19 August 2012

O'Connors: a bream come true

If you're in South Ireland, make theirs the dish of the (holi)day.

We knew it was going to be the last good meal we'd eat for a while. We were moored in Bantry, West Cork, and a storm was coming. Once we had got the tender back to the yacht it was going to be 24 hours of board games at 45 degree angles in storm force winds.

At 8.30pm it was still hot and humid, and though there was no one on the streets, the restaurants were packed as we searched for our last meal. Being so isolated and coastal, every restaurant was offering fresh fish - some undoubtedly more accurately than others. We chose the one with the most specials and, most importantly, the one with the most specials crossed out, so we knew the menu changed daily and was almost by definition no more than a day old.

So O'Connors won the battle - sadly with most people in the town, and we had to wait in the bar of the nearby hotel while some unfortunate diners were hounded and harried during their coffees. This didn't take long, and we were seated by a waitress that couldn't have been older than five, but turned out to be brilliant. She helped us choose the wine, she laughed at my father for ordering fish and chips in a posh restaurant, and explained that the only reason she carried the starter platters one at a time was that the slates cost £40 a pop and that was her night's wages if she dropped them. These economics aside, I had already decided to tip well.

The whole family decided to go for the seafood platters. Designed for two they came with a teacup of delicious salty seafood broth, delicious garlic and breadcrumb topped mussels and the crispiest, and deep-fried calamari so oily is was like the squid was still alive and trying to entwine your fingers. Unfortunately it also came with a salmon mousse that had more in common with lemon-zest Mr Sheen than any starter should. Perhaps they'd run out of lemons in the kitchen.

The main course, however, was faultless. A crispy skinned, moist sea bream, surrounded by a circle of balsamic and topped with samphire and roast tomatoes. People often say less is more, and more often than not are talking bollocks, but here is was the key to the dish. The soft, acidic sweetness from the tomatoes and balsamic was obviously going to bring the fish to life, but it was the samphire that really made it. It literally smelt and tasted like a sea breeze - filling my nostrils and the back of my mouth with fresh, salty air before the earthy, grassy flavour of the fibres cut across. It was just perfect.

I couldn't even open up my pudding stomach by the end. I was sated. Never before has a restaurant's special been so emphatically... special, and as I played endless games of Scrabble back on board the next day, as the wind howled and sent the mast reaching for the sea, even as my stomach churned and my sea legs gave out, that sea bream was still all I could think of.
O'Connors Seafood Restaurant,
Wolfe Tone Square Bantry,
Co. Cork.
Tel: +353 (0)27 55664

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Koya: chewing the duck fat

To be honest, I'd go to Wagamama.

Frith Street glistened with new fallen rain, and I stood hunched and hooded. There was no shelter as the sky spat at us again, and again, and again. It had no right to rain. It was August. Any showers should at least be followed by that baking hot sun that breaks through, like when you open the oven door without knowing it was on. The people around me huddled under foldable umbrellas too small for one, let alone two.

She was late, but it didn't matter. We would have to wait anyway, because it had happened again. I was queuing for my dinner.

I shouldn't moan. We queue in McDonald's and no one moans, so why moan when a better meal is in the offing? When it comes to Koya, that comparison isn't that unfair. It's a noodle restaurant. In Japan it's fast food. It's everywhere. Whether it's as good as Koya I don't know, but I hope it is because I wasn't that impressed. If every Japanese street had a Koya on it, I think the questions I left the restaurant asking myself might be answered quite quickly. And that could only spell trouble.

The most pressing question I had, and this would be a pressing question in any restaurant, was what the hell did I just eat? I definitely ordered the duck udon, and definitely got charged for the duck udon, but the meat that came wasn't definitely anything. It tasted like duck, felt like more noodles and looked like pork. So goodness knows what they gave me. In some ways I hope it was a miscommunication in the kitchen, because that's a better excuse than the rather bizarre idea that they may have poached the duck. Poaching duck is fine, particularly in the delicious stock that made the broth. However, poaching duck fat is disgusting. What is usually the wonderful crispy skin, which drips and droops with flavour, became sodden, waterlogged and bland – like a breaded turkey escalope left to soak in water overnight. It felt like overcooked noodle in my mouth, accentuated by the pleasantly al dente udon noodles and crunchy spring onions the dish came with.

Another question I left asking was, despite being a beer lover and aspiring alcoholic, had I been tricked into drinking Carling? I gave my Kirin Ichiban an artisanal sniff only to recoil as all my teenage memories of warm Carling rushed through my brain. That week malty smell, that metallic tang, trying to convince a down-and-out balding man in his late twenties that you really are 18.

To be fair, the beer actually tasted quite good. It was light and refreshing, so died horribly next to a duck soup, but up to that point was a decent lager, save the smell that almost ruined it.

Chain comparisons are probably the mark of an inexperience reviewer, but I have to say that had I gone to Wagamama's I'd have had just as good a bowl of soup for a good few quid less. In fact, if I had gone to Wagamama's I wouldn't have had soup, I'd have had the Katsu curry – but there's always someone who branches out and regrets it. So they would have had just as good a soup.

It's a shame because Koya has a trendy, understated feel about it. Sure I'd gone on a strong recommendation by a friend, but I was all ready to declare that I had found an undiscovered gem. Sadly I can't say that. Before the meal, as I waited in the rain for my late friend, an American lady wearing more Olympic branding than the Velodrome approached to ask why I was queuing and what was so great about Koya. I replied that I didn't know yet.

I still don't.

Koya on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Sam's Brasserie and Bar: given a roasting

There are better roasts out there.

I must be an alcoholic. Recently, I seem to walk out of every restaurant thinking about the wine rather than the food.

I'd love to live in a world where, instead of three square meals a day, we all had three half-hour drinking sessions. Having a big breakfast really would define whether you get through the day; the Weetabix Driving Instructor advert would become instantly more interesting, hopefully fatal; and this article would have even more entertaining typos.

Sadly, this world is awash with health implications and funding shortages as it is, so my idea will never catch on - save in Scotland. Instead, I will have to satisfy myself by saying that the bottle of Portuguese Quinta da Falorca 2007 I quaffed at Sam's was utterly brilliant - light, fruity, moorish and well priced (£24) - and then move on to the food.

I don't know exactly why I didn't like Sam's Brasserie and Bar (what a start to a review). It's a lovely place to be on a showery Sunday afternoon. When the sun shines it bathes the whole restaurant  in white light, and when it rains the windows can the rain, like a force field keeping you safe. And the service is excellent - homely, bright-eyed and smiling - something even AA Gill noted on his visit. He also wrote about the food, which is usually a good sign.

But it just wasn't that good. My starter was no more than a sum of its parts - mozzarella, mint, rocket, broad beans and chilli, drizzle with just a little too much olive oil but desperately under-seasoned, so much so that even the mozzarella seemed to lack flavour, despite the lumps being the size of a child's fist.

Being Sunday I had selected the roast, something I rarely do in restaurants for reasons that will become clear. To be fair, the roast pork was considerably more refined and thought out than the starter. Usually the word tower is not one I like to associate with food, despite Michelin chasers' obsessions with defying gravity. If they could invent soup towers they would. But here it worked. The gravy was evidently poured over the meat and veg before topping it with crackling, which meant the meat and cabbage was drowned gloriously in gravy, but with the crispy skin was still dry and crunchy. The creamed cabbage in particular was delicious, with a sweet tang that stopped the meal becoming a bland mess of stock and meat.

Unfortunately the potatoes was sub carvery-pub standard, and the meat a little too fatty. No doubt the pig led a good life, but I would guess that he rather took advantage of it. I see him supping cognac and debating politics like the end of Animal Farm, rather than rolling in mud and sleeping in a metal half-barrel.

London seems obsessed by the perfect roast. Time Out wastes a whole issue on it each year, and the main problem is that roasts need to be cooked with care, attention and, most importantly, lots of time - something commercial kitchens can rarely afford. Great roast potatoes are not hard to achieve when cooking for four, but cooking for 100 and they become nigh-on impossible. So a busy brasserie on a slightly chilly Sunday is not the time to go, and not when you are charged £15.50 for the privilege.

Something British restaurants really can do is a stick toffee pudding, and I can't help but order it whenever I see it. Partly because it's such a comforting bit of cooking, but also because it's like pizza. Even when it's awful, it's still pizza. It's still awesome. This one needed that comparison. It was hardly heated, and the ice cream on top, which should have been cream within moments, was still perky on top as I neared the end. But it was sticky, it was sweet, and it was delicious. It was everything you'd ask of a pudding. Except hot.

Ending a review when you are so undecided is impossible. It's one of those places where you could go and, if you ordered a different dish, have an entirely different experience. Maybe worse, probably better. All I can really say is, get the Portuguese wine. And get me some help.

Sam's Brasserie on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Chequers: Back to the past

A beautiful village pub. Perfect for a night's stay.

Do you remember the days when pubs were called "inns" and you could leave your horse in the stables? Do you remember how every "inn" used to have a spitting can at the bar and a drunk local with his head in a trough? Of course you don't, that's mix Lord of the Rings and Back to the Future III.

And even though that sounds like heaven, there aren't many cliched inns in this world any more. In fact, until two weeks ago I wasn't even sure there were any. Then, I tried to cycle to Brighton.

We left it a bit late. In fact, by 3.30pm we were still within the M25, stood at an ESSO garage eating flapjacks and nursing cramp. But we couldn't turn back. Not before we'd left the city we started in. So we saddled up and rode off into the already slightly setting sun. By 7.30pm the cramp was almost unbearable. We were still 17 miles from Brighton, the temperature had dropped and the rain had begun to fall.

Then, out of the gloom appeared this warm orange glow. Rising like Hotel California out of the Surrey countryside came the Chequers. From the open door poured gentle acoustic jazz and the sound of warm, friendly folk chatting, and the clink jugs on worn wooden tables. You could practically see the stable, hear the horses' hooves and the drunk man gurgling from the trough.

From the moment we stepped into the Chequers the cold, rain and tiredness seem to drip of us. There was a warm fire, a grand piano, sofas and books and old clocks. There were locals and couples, parties and quiet drinks. I walked up to the bar and uttered a line I had always wanted to say:

"Good evening barkeep, I was wondering whether you had a room spare for the night? It's awful cold outside and the horses need feeding"

Or rather:

"Alright mate, have you got any rooms spare. Also, where can we lock our bikes?"

His reply was affirmative, although the sheen was slightly tarnished by the fact that my housemate and I would have to share a double bed. Suddenly it all got a bit more Brokeback Mountain than Back the to Future but given how stiff I was (leave it) we had little choice.
After a quick shower we headed back downstairs and chose a table by the fire. Our matronly waitress brought us a hearty ale each, disappointingly in standard pint glasses. But that was where the disappointments ended. The Chequers, by all accounts, is a brilliant place and a beacon of hope for foodies. The starters were nothing to write home about - a decent Stilton and broccoli soup and scallops, but my friend had an excellent rib-eye steak with hand-cut (by which they mean knife-cut, unless Bruce Lee faked his death and now works in a Surrey pub) chips. But it was my main, billed as "posh ham and eggs" that was truly amazing. Expecting some nice cured ham in a honey and mustard glaze, what I actually got was a glorious, enormous slow-roasted leg of pork with a perfectly sweet sauce and a poached egg on the side. I would have the preferred the yolk more runny, but I was so engrossed by prodding the pork and watching the moist meat almost drip off the bone, that I hardly gave it a second's thought.

I was truly, utterly and brilliantly stuffed and, after the exertions of the day, very drunk on the rioja we'd bought. But, just as I was considering bed, I spotted the homemade sticky toffee pudding. Now, I have a real hate of anything claiming to be homemade. For a start, it's rarely homemade. It's made in the restaurant isn't it? Sure, it;s shorthand for "not pre-packaged", but often it says something about a restaurant that it has to make that distinction clear. But I am never a man to turn down a sticky toffee pudding in a pub. And I was right to risk a stomach rupture. It did all the things a good sticky toffee pudding should - burn your mouth, stick to your teeth and touch your soul. And with that I headed upstairs.

Sated I fell into bed with Alien playing on our room's flatscreen TV. Strange dreams plagued me that night: of legs of pork bursting out of my stomach while John Hurt cycled round and round drinking rioja from a jug. I have lost count of the number of times that I have googled "country pub London". They never come close to my idyll. The Spaniard's Inn comes close, so does the White Horse. But they are nothing to the Chequers, to the real thing, which joyfully hit every cliche at each time of asking (except the horses). This pub is worth the quick train, especially on the way to Brighton. 

Middle England was fun. I hope to join it one day.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Made in Camden: Made in Heaven

Brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant.

Playing at the Roundhouse at the moment is the brilliant "Oh Fuck Moment".

I had my own moment downstairs in the venue's café, Made in Camden. It may sound like a desperate channel 5 ploy to cash in on the pretense and stupidity of Made in Chelsea, but there are no cameras and certainly no egos. The food, presented as a global take on tapas, is often experimental, but never in a smoke-and-mirrors Heston way.

You can tell the chefs were once students of Yotam Ottelenghi. The list of ingredients is dizzying, the fusion of cuisines baffling and the range on offer intimidating. But it's all layered expertly. The complex-sounding and delicate-looking dishes are so punchy, so satisfying, so perfect, that they left me speechless. I was a baby eating solids for the first time; I was kid eating chocolate money; I was reliving the first Double Decker I ever ate. Some dishes were so moorish that I might as well have been eating Walkers Thai Sweet Chilli Sensations.  If you ever have ambitions to be obese, this is surely the way to do it. Made in Camden's food is simply addictive.

My friends and I couldn't communicate. Like cavemen and women we moaned and grunted at each other, reached out to grab fistfuls of food, unable to articulate thanks or graces. I floundered and stuttered, pointlessly trying to explain to my all-to-aware guests just how good the food was. And so the random swearing started. I think it was the endive and sweet potato crumble with slow-roasted tomato salsa that did it. It started with satisfying crunch, then a wash of creamy sweet potato, then a slap of salty endive and was finished by the mouthwatering zing of the salsa. 

Or maybe it was the calamari, deep fried in what looked like diamonds, dunked in chilli aioli then smothered with pumpkin jam. It was alternately sweet, then spicy, then salty; soft, then springy, then crunchy. I mopped up the aioli with the squid like it was just bread and soup. 

Of course, it could also have been the crispy, oily hake tempura, served with a sweet and sour Kaffir lime sauce and grilled broccoli. I know it's tapas and the portions are meant to be small, but goddamnit I wanted more Hake.

That's not to say the portions are stingy - the only dishes on the menu not meant to be shared (apart from the soup surely, because that's just silly) are the desserts. And those portions are by no means mean. My chocolate mousse was like a decadent sweet brick on the plate, and came with a coffee and mascarpone tart. I felt somewhat cheated by the term tart, as really it was a scoop of coffee flavoured cheese in slightly stale pastry, but oh my days the mousse was effing fantastic.

In fact, my dinner at Made in Camden was a litany of expletives. I was like an excitable (slightly bearded) child with tourettes. Sadly it wasn't all for the right reasons. Given how empty the restaurant was, the service was pathetic. Unless they were hiding a rowdy and demanding party in the back room, three cocktails should not take 20 minutes to make – and if they are missing an ingredient for one, they should tell the diner immediately, not after delivering the first two. Given how few orders must have been put through the till, they shouldn't have added a glass of wine and half a wheat beer to our tab. More importantly, when we questioned this, they should have been a little more trusting of a party that has just spent £120 on dinner.

But nothing could spoil the work of the chefs. To turn three educated people into dribbling wrecks, without plying them with alcohol, is no mean feat, and I for one was speechless at how wonderful the food was. When you have tasted good food, you realise it is more addictive than the additives that are meant to hook us. It's proof that psychological addiction is stronger than chemical.

Made in Camden on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Pitt Cue Co: Queue won't believe your eyes

The best barbecue restaurant in London. If you can wait.

"That was mighty meaty. How're the passages? Mine were hectic this morning."

So went a text from my dining companion at Pitt Cue the following day. Note how, despite enduring a difficult morning, there is not a hint of criticism in his tone. No implication of regret. It was all worth it.

And worth it is probably the best way to describe Pitt Cue. There are barriers a-plenty to you getting a meal there, and we came up against all of them when we bit the bullet and decided, once again, to queue for our dinner, like communists in war time.

We arrived at 6.11 on a sunny Thursday evening, expecting that not many people would want to chow down on pork in a meat dungeon on such a beautiful day. So we joined the HOUR LONG QUEUE and set about getting to know our neighbours, which was a good plan, as they came in handy a little later.

I will never understand the need to make people queue for food. Booking doesn't deprive anyone. It just means the organised people get the best dinners, which is a form of natural selection. Letting anyone turn up and wait for a table is ruining the theory of evolution. If this trend for queues continues, we might all end up with tiny upper bodies, massive legs, and an unhealthy patience for queues. Society would fall apart, even if the Post Office has a resurgence.

We'd been working up a sweat in the queue for about 15 minutes when we clocked that our fellow prospective diners were drinking beers from the pub opposite, a system that we thought was probably championed by both establishments. Sadly we were mistaken. Not only did the depressed bouncer, who looked a lot like Neil Warnock, take exception to us taking glasses off the premises, but he decided to accuse me of starting the trend. The whole queue moaned and stared as they were ushered into the pub by Neil. For what it's worth, I apologise to you all.

Luckily, the couple in front of us who we had got chatting to had paper cups, so we transferred our drinks and looked sheepish as the rest of our future co-diners scowled at us.

45 minutes in and the novelty of the beer, and the beer itself, had run out. We had been second in the queue for most of that time and made no progress, however chirpy and friendly our tireless future waiter was being (and she was VERY chirpy). Finally though, just as the sun threatened to dip below the buildings of Carnaby Street, we entered the restaurant.

Or at least the bar part, where you have to wait for another forty-five minutes. Luckily at this point you can start drinking their fun-looking cocktails and small but perfectly formed beer list (which includes London's own, glorious Kernel pale ale). You also get a tab in the form of a toy cow. I thought ours was called Steven. Sadly the system is less imaginative (see right).

One hour fifteen into queuing we were offered a seat in the upstairs bar. Our waitress assured us that, while it meant sitting in high chairs, with our feet dangling like bemused toddlers, we would jump the queue and avoid having to enter the sweat dungeon formed below by the sweltering heat. We took that option, and revelled in our position, overlooking those we had been queuing with just hours ago.

Sadly we were also in direct sun, protected only by some flimsy net curtains. It was only a matter of time before one of us passed out. To be fair, once we had ordered, the food came incredibly quickly. I guess because they can only seat 34 people at a time. I ordered the dish they are known for - pork ribs - while my friend went for the more adventurous deep-fried pig's head terrine burger, otherwise known as diabetes in bread. We were told the chefs were extremely excited about the latter dish. When there are only five dishes on offer I'd expect the chefs to be excited about every one. They need to justify their place on the menu.

The ribs did. I've tasted more succulent meat (and not had to queue for it) but the marinade was fantastic - smoky, tangy and dynamite with my BBQ beans. The terrine burger however, in a sweet Chinese-like sauce, had a limp texture and distinct Bird's Eye Sweet & Sour chicken sauce feel to it - all sugary and processed. The kind of late night ready-meal you buy from a suicidal moonlighter in an Esso Garage. My companion's chipotle slaw, however, was something else. Creamy but light, spicy but subtle and satisfyingly crunchy.

The flaws in the meal only made Pitt Cue feel more like a local secret - a fact these almost-pop-up restaurants all over London must feed off. That's no bad thing, the small, homegrown feel of these places makes me fall for all of them. You really get the sense of a business brought together by friends, family and couples. You feel that rewarding sense of small-time ambition; of one person's dream to open a restaurant coming true when they find one dish they can do better than anywhere else. The passion and excitement about the food is somehow clear in the ingredients, flavours, presentation, atmosphere and, most obviously, in the people themselves.

Pitt Cue isn't so much a meat lover's paradise. The portions aren't huge, even if they are presented on beautiful Shawshank Redemption-style iron trays, and the food isn't as decadent or indulgent as expected. It's more of a meat-geek convention. You could get great ribs for less money without queueing in several places in London. But you wouldn't get the beer list, the stunning sides, the invention, the crude texts the next day, or the wonderful sense that this queueing malarky is so. often. worth. it.
1 Newburgh Street

Pitt Cue Co on Urbanspoon   Square Meal