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