Thursday, 31 January 2013

Tonkotsu: my new stock answer

Best ramen in London.

I remember the first time I ever had a ramen. I'll whisper it: it was at Wagamama. I remember too many noodles, too many veggies that looked like noodles and a weird pink and white thing that looked straight out of a Woolworth's pic'n'mix. Apparently is was a crab stick. Anyway, it was all drowned in "stock".

Stock? I mused. As in, what OXO turns into cubes? But that's just a poor man's soup! So I carried on thinking that and, bar a terrible meal at the much-lauded Koya, barely sniffed at a ramen. Until I arranged to have dinner with a fellow food blogger. Both sick of burgers and lost in the middle of Soho, we started throwing Japaneses around (not the people that is, restaurants). And so it was that I headed for a rare ramen, and not entirely looking forward to it.

It all started going right before I'd even walked through the door. Rather than forcing you to look the diners, Tonkotsu have put their kitchens in the front window. Through it you see the Japanese chefs toiling away over massive, shiny pots of stock, chopping veg, frying gyoza and talking excitedly. It's so inviting and theatrical, like the very best street food.

It quickly becomes clear why they've done this. The dining room is so thin there's hardly room to swing a cat, which I believe neither the Japanese nor the Chinese would want to do anyway. So you walk past the kitchens into a dingy, atmospheric corridor, where your table just happens to be. The effect is that you immediately feel a million miles from Soho. It's not authentic by any stretch, and I hate that word anyway, but it has an edge that makes you think you're in some kitch cafe in Shoreditch, not least because you can see the wiring.

Service was swift (there are only about 30 seats so it should be) and within about 10 minutes we were supping on yuzu lemonade and digging into a crispy-bottomed moon-shaped prawn gyoza (dumplings to most people). The were the delicious, fresh as spring and sweet with the light, not overly spicy (though slightly watery) chilli sauce. Before we had even finished five (and believe me it didn't take long) our ramen had arrived. And it looked like no ramen I had ever seen.

Unlike Koya's cloudy, separated mix of oil and chicken water, this was dark, thick and slightly viscuous, like Soda Stream coke syrup. And it was stuffed with flavour; absolutely loaded with it, from pork bones that must have been cooked for weeks to get all this beautiful flavour out. The soy sauce added a cheeky sweet-saltiness that made it as moreish as crack. It left oil on your lips and hope in your heart and once paired with the falling-apart pork, marinated in mirin and soy until it fell apart, it was all I could do not to throw my face straight in it. And then the egg! Imbued with the flavours of the stock it was a revelation; the semi-runny yolk like a flavoursome jewel - the most precious thing ever held between chopsticks. Once I work out how they cooked it, got the flavours so deep, I will never eat another kind of egg again.

I've heard it said that £9 for a ramen is a bit much, I'd say that the gyoza were the only overpriced item here, at a pound each. But genuinely, this is the best fast food and so-called "cheap eat" I've had in central London and, when it comes to ramen, it's the only place you can go. Tonkotsu is as close as stock could ever get to art. No longer a poor man's soup, it's my favourite soup.

Tonkotsu on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Lahore Kebab House: skewered

God help me, go to Tayyabs.

There are now more Indian takeaways in London than there are in Delhi. 

Hundreds more in fact. I doubt they have more fish and chip shops than us, but that's their loss and our gain. Or is it. If we're talking proper photos-on-menus, 70s-style-dining-room, hilarious-menu-typo takeaways, I'm not sure we are gaining much. I'm yet to find a really good one in central London.

There are some great fusion places, such as Dishoom, and some clever and exciting modern ones (try Imli), but they are far from  what you associate with Saturday night curry house. Brick Lane used to be a biryani beacon, but despite all claiming to employ variations on "Curry chef of the year 2002, 2003 ,2004, 2005 and 2006", they all serve the same slurry curries so bland you can't tell the difference between the chicken dhansak and the mango chutney. 

And so the good reviews moved east, to Tayyabs, Needoo, and my destination for a Saturday night dirty curry, Lahore Kebab Shop. I was told their lamb chops were even better than Tayyabs', but they were barely worth mentioning, neither tender, meaty nor intoxicatingly spiced. So I'll skip to the mains, which were also as anonymous as a pixelated face. The Daal Tarka tasted like carrot and coriander soup, while the tikka masala was perversely oily and frighteningly bland. With bigger chunks of onion than lamb or tomato, it swam in a glistening thick sauce that hid the fact there was actually next to no content there. The fact that the most flavourful item on our table was the paneer is a damning indictment on the quality of the food. The idea that a chef could have tasted the sauce and still sent it out is nonsense.

If I were being fair, I'd say that this lack of attention to detail was because Lahore Kebab House is enormous, seating at least 200. On the Saturday night we visited they had two huge, rowdy birthday parties, and at least 150 other diners in the bizarre village-hall style dining room. Even if we had managed to have fun, it would have been eclipsed by how much damned fun everyone else seemed to be SHOUTING ABOUT.

Lahore is so vast and unruly, so full of screaming and shouting that I felt like I was re-enacting the scene around the capsized Titanic. In fact, to get any attention from the yawning, slow-moving waiters you had to wave like Kate Winslet on that floating door, hoarsely screaming for help. Sadly the "closing the menu" trick doesn't work because they spring back open, and the waiters would need a searchlight to see it anyway.

If it weren't for the fact that I'd have to pay, I'd like to go back on a less busy night and see what it's like – and to try more off the grill than the wet stuff. I can't fathom how it could have such a good reputation when the night I visited the only thing it got right was the bill. I expected it to be wrong, because we'd ordered poppadoms that, true to form, never arrived. In the greyest of silver linings though, it didn't make it onto the bill, so our order never even reached the kitchens.

That's the only positive I can find.

Lahore Kebab House on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Dean Street Townhouse: a good PG tip

Bring back the Afternoon Tea!

There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea - Henry James (The Portrait of a Lady)

Twee is not a word I associate with, or associate with my associates. So I was just as surprised as anyone when I suggested we all go for Afternoon Tea. The sheer novelty of it meant we'd agreed and  booked it before we had really thought it through. Do we need to wear a shirt? Do only rich people do it? Is tea a verb? Is it weird for people under the age of 60 to tea? The answer to all those questions is no, at the beautiful Dean Street Townhouse at least.

Afternoon Tea as a concept is very special indeed. It fills that festering void between the afternoon and evening, when lunch is a distant memory and dinner still just a glimmer on the horizon; when we all sit in plump chairs and ponder the point of cushions; when your Gran falls asleep, not because she's old, but because she's run out of things to eat.

But somewhere along the line, the concept of the Afternoon Tea has been degraded to a moment where someone is bored to the point actually doing someone a favour, and half-heartedly mumbles the word: "Tea?"

A mug of tea has nothing to do with Afternoon Tea. Tea what you have at work in a Sports Direct mug. It's what you dunk McVities in or spill on your keyboard. If my thoroughly pleasant two hours at Dean Street Townhouse taught me anything, its that we need to reinstate Afternoon Tea as a meal, next to Breakfast, Elevenses, Brunch, Lunch, Dippy Doppy Doos and Dinner.

Afternoon Tea (I'm capping it up, because it's a thing) at Dean Street is brilliant. Everyone should try it. Think of a wintery afternoon spent near a log fire, with cakes, sandwiches, scones, jam and clotted cream. Think of the blue porcelain china, the gentle clink of cups on saucers, the steaming tea poured by the politest, most attentive waiters I think I've ever met.

The service at Dean Street Townhouse was so polite and eager to please that there was even a sign on the toilet door that read "no need to watch the step". Unfortunately this didn't extend to taking our coats, which we were forced to dump unceremoniously next to our chairs. Still, I was distracted by the gorgeous dining room, already candlelit and atmospheric by 3pm on a Saturday. There were chequered tiles, patterned wallpapers and a log fire blazing away, and happy couples whispering conspiratorially.

To be honest, the food was nothing to shout about, but that wasn't a problem. The finger sandwiches were just that, dainty and perfectly delicious. They also made you feel like a giant, holding a tiny sandwich in a comparatively enormous hand. But their contents were evidently high quality. The "assorted cakes" too were a little Coalition (does what it says on the tin apparently) - selected with no apparent cohesion in mind. The scones, however, were fantastic. Perhaps helped by the fact that even a bad scone is still a good scone, I could have sat there and eaten them until my stomach sent a warning shot north.

This would, of course, be frowned upon in such a lovely venue, as vomiting is in most social circles. But there is no pretence about Dean Street. Among the cosy, well-dressed couples were ladies who lunch, downing Prosecco and squarking about boys, friends in hoodies and surrounded by Primark bags, and a bunch of lads laughing at the idea of tasting the wine before pouring all the glasses. We were all sunk into our cosy armchairs with the smell of the log fire and tea sending us into our own little worlds, albeit it with one eye on the last scone.

The recession has done two things to the restaurant-dining public. It's happily made us ditch pretence, and go for cheap eats, hearty recipes and comfort foods; and it's reinforced the idea that if we don't have as much money, we might as well spend it on good food. Rather than in HMV.

It was this need to spend £16.75 on some cucumber sandwiches that brought me to the Dean Street Townhouse. I don't really have a sweet tooth, nor do I really like cucumber. But something about an Afternoon Tea caught my imagination on a day when London looked like it was dusted with icing sugar. It was a chance to pretend for once that I was rich and so overwhelmingly contented with my life that I could find nothing better to do than sip tea from porcelain and marvel at superfluousness of cake stands. It turns out I wasn't pretending.

Dean Street Townhouse on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Friday, 11 January 2013

Mishkins: new deli?

Good food, better place

The tagline for Mishkins is "A kind of Jewish deli". To me, this was confusing. As I looked at the pictures I wondered: where are the glass counters? Where are the glass jars with red gingham lids? WHERE IS THE OVERPRICED CHEESE?!

After a bit of research I came to the conclusion that a deli can pretty much be what it wants to be, whether it's selling sandwiches, artisan cheese or bhan mi. Wikipedia even tried to claim delis could sell deep fried chicken. For it's part, Mishkin's wants to be a restaurant, but does everything in its power to prove it isn't one – like Nick Clegg claiming he's not a toff.

But you haven't fooled me E Mishkin. I've been to restaurants before, and they mostly look a lot like this. Not all as good as this, but a whole lot like it. Mishkins is beautiful on the inside, with stainless steel bar straight out of a Brent Lynch painting,shiny black and white lino floor and tiny tables lit by T-lights. It even has a wooden tardis-like confession box at the back with a private table, as if the rest of the restaurant wasn't cosy and unique enough.

I say private, but that's a slight exaggeration because, even in the closet at the back, the tables are so close together you sometimes find yourself listening to other people's conversations rather than your own. That's fine though; most strangers I meet are more interesting than me. The waiters were also an interesting bunch: truly lovely people who genuinely seemed to care if you were having a good night and, despite there being a queue for tables, allowed us an extra beer after we had finished eating.

And so to the food. Being about as decisive as the wind, I read the menu at lunchtime so I was prepared for dinner. The prices were astonishing. For such a talked about, trendy place in central London, £11 for a main is a revelation. Probably even cheaper than the very average Cote nearby. Never has the sight of a number made me hungry before. I'd been hankering for my half Reuben with coleslaw and "East End" chips for about six hours by the time I got to eat it. Thankfully (and rightly, because it's a sandwich) it had only taken 10 minutes to arrive. Reubens are a brilliant mix of salt beef, Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and seemingly whatever dressing takes the chef's fancy, but traditionally thousand island. This one must have been good, because to my horror I'd polished it off before I even thought to take a picture (hence this picture, which won't exactly have David Loftus quivering in his boots). Despite the fact that the beef was a little too chewy (a real sin in salt beef) and the sauerkraut no more sauer than the coleslaw, it was a damned fine sandwich. However, it dawned on me as I chewed that I had just paid £8 for half a sandwich. To be fair it was toasted, but it wasn't like it was slow-toasted overnight. Almost a tenner for a slice of bread? This is no deli.

My friend's mac&cheese with salt beef felt a little more like a restaurant dish, but sadly the sauce was rather thin and the pasta overcooked, which meant it bore too much resemblance in texture to the milkshake he'd had at the bar while waiting for me (why am I always late?!). Still, we polished it all of, plus chips, in about 10 minutes.

It occurs to me that you're not really paying for the food at Mishkins, but the concept; the exciting thought that you went out for dinner and ended up, not in a restaurant, but a deli. So people who know little about food can go "Darrrling, forget Pizza Express, I know this charming little place opposite the theatre where they're showing Shrek". How unusual, how experiential! I can't tell whether I'm being sarcastic, because I really enjoyed my meal at Mishkins, and the Maple Old Fashioned I drank was really, really excellent.

In the end, I think it was partly the fact that it was so obviously a London restaurant that endeared it to me. Built off buzz on the blogosphere, founded in an unusual place, funded by one entrepreneur and, even with the words "Jewish deli" in the tagline, still serving burgers and pulled pork sandwiches.

It's no deli, or even new deli, but I love it all the same. I'll be back darrrling.

Mishkin's on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 7 January 2013

Breakfast Club Hoxton: no fasting here

Clear thinking for cloudy heads

Breakfast on a hangover is like water in the desert. It doesn't really matter what it tastes like, just that it's there. So to my mind, opening a restaurant that serves breakfast all day is a no-brainer. And it works for The Breakfast Club. I've heard rumours of queues outside its Islington branch from opening time to closing, which to me seems bonkers. We queue for the clubs, get drunk, go to bed and then queue again.

Luckily, most people don't go out on Sundays (only the Aussies in West London) so the Hoxton Breakfast Club was pretty quiet when we went there for a pick me up. It wasn't a traditional hangover, more of a Christ-we're-back-at-work-after-Christmas-and-my-head-hurts hangover. But they can be even worse.

So we settled into some tall chairs and quickly established a non-work related chat rule, largely ruing that Meat Mission wasn't open today. However, our eyes lit up after one glimpse of the menu. Like a kid with a new sticker book my eyes flitted across the pages, torn between going everywhere and not wanting to stick to anything and risk getting it wrong. I changed from the burrito, to the pulled pork sandwich, to the all-American Pancakes, to the chorizo hash browns. It was there that I stuck my sticker.

And I don't regret it... despite there not being a hash brown in sight. It was actually two chorizo sausages THAT WERE INCREDIBLE cooked to within an inch of their life, served with two fried eggs, shrooms and a big smattering of fried potatoes with peppers and onions. So more of a straight hash, except all served separately. The tats weren't as crispy as they should have been, nor were the onions. But it didn't matter, because of those sausages. GOD those sausages. I need to find their supplier. I will buy some. In fact, I will buy the supplier.

I was probably the happiest of my colleagues though. While to my left one demolished his burrito without saying one word (always a good sign), another complained his burger bun was dry and too big (both true) and his coleslaw bland (even more true) despite the token herbs, seemingly just there to break the monotony of the white unseasoned cream. My final colleague wasn't so much unhappy as angry. He had been defeated. A bearded man with a big appetite, he had laughed in the face of the American-sized portion of his all-American pancakes. Until he saw it: so much bacon it was like spaghetti on the plate, four (slightly dry) pancakes, two poached eggs, two sausages and fried potatoes. Not a vegetable in sight, just wall to wall protein and carb. And he buckled, broken like a man kicked in the balls. He couldn't look the waiter in the eye as he took his plate away, with four pancakes, half the potatoes and a good few rashers of bacon left untouched.

I imagine a lot of people are sick in the Breakfast Club. But cocky, tired and potentially still drunk revellers tend to have eyes bigger than stomachs, and only beer-fuelled nausea in their immediate future. Which is a shame, because the food is pretty good for the price, and the toilets well hidden.

Square Meal   Breakfast Club on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Dishoom: brilliant burger joint. Wait. What?

Brilliantly tasty, cunningly deceitful

My first impression of Bombay cafe Dishoom was not a good one. Nor was my first impression of the man huddled in the doorway with a can of "premium" strength lager, silhouetted like a cardboard cut out by the restaurant lights.I thought of approaching him and asking if this was the entrance, but the possibility of him being the doorman vanished when I realised he was talking animatedly to himself.

It turns out that was the back door, which confusingly is on the main street. You actually have to go around the back to find the front.

But once I had done so things just got more confusing. My friend was early and had sat herself in the bar, with the waiter's assurances I would be taken to her on arrival. When I arrived, the first waiter didn't have foggiest idea of what I meant by "A friend is waiting for me in the bar", and the second one, who ambled over looking politely bemused, started leading me towards someone called "Jasmine" - before I explained my friend was called nothing of the sort. Once we had been united a third waiter took us straight to our table, despite the fact we had drinks coming from the bar, which a fourth waiter then had to go collect. A fifth waiter took our food order, and a sixth brought it to us. On the way out, we were shown the door by a seventh.

So at no point could I accuse Dishoom of having poor service. It may be confused, but it was actually very effective. I like the service you get when the waiters outnumber the diners by quite a considerable margin. Given that Dishoom has a no-bookings policy in the evening, I was expecting (as were they, no doubt) it to be rammed, probably with a queue all the way down the Bishopsgate to Liverpool Street. And for the first 45 minutes, I thought it deserved that.

Our small plates, or starters to most people, were truly brilliant. The veggie samosas crispy and only little bit oily, and the great big hit of cinnamon they had was addictive. The Bhel (essentially a papri chaat without the yoghurt) made inspirational with the addition of pomegranate seeds, fresh and juicy next to the crunchy rice and Bombay mix. But it was the skate cheeks I really fell in love with, fried in spices and served with a thick, sticky date and tamarind chutney. I didn't even know skates have cheeks, but it turns out they're meaty and curly, like tiny, delicious scampi.

For the main I confess I made a terrible mistake. Like all London food bloggers, I eat too many burgers. And it seems that, even when I go to an Indian restaurant, I manage to order one. Even when I didn't want to. So don't be fooled by the clever wording, the Lamb Raan Bun is, to all intents and purposes a burger, or at least a pulled meat bap. The sourdough bap looked a lot like the ones at Dirty Burger, and it was presented on a board like a gastropub. It's even served with "sali crisp chips", essentially anorexic French fries cooked until crispy the whole way through then powdered to be sweet and spicy and served in - horror of horrors - greaseproof paper. It also came with an American 'slaw, albeit again with the addition of pomegranates. It was all absolutely, undeniably delicious, but it actually showed up Dishoom's obvious flaws.

For all its menu's posturing about dishes being "a Bombay standard" or "found in any good Indian roadside restaurant", at no point did I believe I was in an Indian restaurant. The d├ęcor is a little to close to a faux boutique hotel lobby, there's not an Indian face on the waiting staff (I can't comment on the kitchen) and the food, whether originally authentic or not, has been bastardised to suit Western tastes. They cunningly disguised a burger, convincing me I was ordering something different while playing to my subconscious love of meat wrapped in carb.

A bigger sin though, is that my friend's biryani, the closest thing to a high street curry as Dishoom gets, was heavily aromatic but dry as a bone, with huge hunks of chicken hidden in the depths that had to be cut up into manageable chunks. It claimed to be an Irani classic, loaded with cranberries for a sweet, sour tang. But their were so few cranberries the effect was essentially like eating basmati rice with a bit of garam masala in. Luckily my friend was given a lake of raita on the side to drown her rice in flavour.

It's an enormous menu they have at Dishoom, and I'd love go back and have another go. To find the diamonds in the rough, like the starters we enjoyed that made me so hopeful. The thing is, I'll probably just end up with a burger again. Or fish and chips. Or a roast dinner.

Square MealDishoom Shoreditch  on Urbanspoon