Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Shoryu: the Katie Price of tonkotsu...

...buns are all it has going for it.

Ramen in Soho!? Again!? I've given up burgers for %$£@&!? ramen. It's still just stock with stuff sloshed in it. Even if you add black garlic, a marinated fried egg, spring onions and fresh chillies... actually that sounds really nice. Oh, and this is authentic is it? You bang a drum when people walk in - is that what they do in Japan? Because it's kind of annoying. Oh right. Well, ferment me some vegetables I'll be back for breakfast.

Yes, I've found myself at yet another ramen joint. A cuisine currently so trendy the food critics are tripping over themselves to join the queue, and east London has been left looking at each other going: "What, the shit Wagamama's do? We've got to like that again?"

Shoryu has to be the trendiest, even boasting a Regent's Street address (Yah, but it's south of Piccadilly Circus darling). The queue was about 20 minutes at 7.30 on a Friday, which was perfectly tolerable if you've let the whole "I hate queuing" thing go (I haven't). The three of us agreed to be sat at a two person table, on the premise we would be moved as soon as a table left. That moment came and we were told to stay put, I presume because the chef with the drum had already banged it for a group of four.

So we sat scrunched together like noodles in a ramen and tucked into one of the most delicious starters I've tasted in a while - steamed buns with the texture of a stress reliever and filled with crispy salmon. Soft, then crunchy then smooth and mayonnaisey. Incredible. I'll be hunting them down at the next opportunity. Sadly the okra wrapped in salmon might have well have been grass wrapped in Tesco's luncheon meat, and the gyoza were a little tough. But still, as they would say in Carry On: "Oh, the buns! The Barbara Windsor's!"

Then came the tonkotsu (just ramen with fattier stock as far as I can tell). Mine was called the Dracula Tonkotsu (£12.50). Really it should be the anti-Drac Ramen, because it is laced with black garlic almost to a fault. Almost. It's actually perfectly balanced, especially with the little bit of heat. Sadly the stock is a little over seasoned, presumably because it's under-flavoured. The pork is a little dry for pork belly too. It's really not a patch on Tonkotsu on Dean Street, and a few quid pricier per dish too. It didn't leave you licking at the bowl, which given the amount of umami black garlic they piled in is almost a scientific impossibility. But they managed it.

And with that we were out in the fresh air again. To their credit we were admirably stuffed, and slightly gassy from the Kirin Ichiban on tap (good move). But as we walked up to Soho in search of a decent pub we went past Tonkotsu, with no queue, cheaper food, better stock and a better table policy (only one person per seat). They may be two of the few ramen places in town, but there really is no comparison. Like Katie Price, buns aside there isn't much to Shoryu.

Shoryu on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 18 February 2013

Dawaat: lacking spice...

...and less atmosphere than in space.

There are two kinds of hotel restaurant. First there's the Berkley, the Dorchester or Claridge's – what lazy PRs would call "destination restaurants". To extract meaning from that nasty phrase, it's somewhere with a reputation for exceptional food regardless of its location and context. People want to go there.

Then there's the kind of hotel restaurant no one wants to go to. The kind that feels like an airport lounge, full of practised solo diners or tired tourist families staring into space, waiting for nothing but the passage of time. Like the Jumeirah hotel restaurant in Kensington, where I had a torrid time while working for a West London mag.

At first glance, Dawaat at the Strand Palace Hotel belongs to the latter, with all the atmosphere of public library and beige hollow walls straight off the set of Shortland Street. You even have to walk past a boutique that sells cuddly bulldogs in Union Jack waistcoats. I shudder to recall it, especially because it jarred with the fact that we were on our way to an Indian restaurant. I'm a little uncomfortable with the idea that someone's first taste of British cuisine might be Ryan Air plane food and then a curry.

Still, at times the curry was damned fine and the portions absolutely insane, bizarre given that the head chef use to work in headline cost-skimming airline food. The papdi chat was moreish – sweet, crispy, spicy – and the onion bhajis crispy as sin. The poppadoms too were special, full of bitter seeds and spices, although we had to ask for mango chutney to suit our western tastes. With the snacks out of the way I ordered the Aapam and stew – essentially a rich coconut and beef curry in a crispy rice pancake bowl. It was decent, with nice soft meat and a little kick that reminded you this was Indian stew, not a beef and ale cobbler. But so enormous it could, with rice, comfortably be a main – and I still had their signature biryani to come.

Perhaps my appetite had already failed me, but it was a disappointment. Slow-cooked the "dum pukht" (tee hee!) way – in a pot sealed with dough – it should have been chokingly aromatic, with the meat falling apart after cooking for ours in its own juices. Instead the hunks of lamb were bland and stringy, while the rice was pretty much spiceless. It came with a riata but needed the yellow dal tadka give it depth. The dal brought the price of my main course to £17 – eye watering for what was on offer and a lot of food for a man who ate an entire curry for a starter.

Luckily the selection of puddings is excellent; an unusual and happy departure from most Indian restaurants. Our coconut ice cream was exquisite, whether it was made in house I have no idea, but that's less important if things are working. Sadly, the most important course coming from the kitchen isn't. Even though the food is more exciting than your standard Taj Mahal/Rose Tandoori/cliché named Indian, at least when you're paying £7.50 for a chicken tikka masala, invented in Scotland and cooked by a family with stronger roots to the UK than you, you expect something a bit trashy. Here I was expecting something special, but for all its honesty and integrity, did that reach the flavours? No. So, given the higher prices, soap opera décor and the suited man next to you weeping over a picture of his ex-wife, would you skip the curry house and go to into a Hotel. I couldn't condone it.

That's not to say it's a bad restaurant, and to the patrons of the hotel I say it's a good last ditch resort. Having dropped your bags in your room and half-heartedly considered hanging up your Moss Bros suit, you've wondered downstairs, seen the rain and thought: "Screw it, I'll eat at the hotel". At this one you'll be pleasantly surprised by the food. But as a general rule, buy an umbrella. Get outside: you're in London for god's sake.

Daawat at Johnstons on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

MEATmission: Holy Hell

Same burger, but you've gone to a better place.

If there's one thing sure to give you a 4pm energy crash at the office it's drinking a pint of 5% Sierra Nevada and demolishing a chilli-topped burger with chips at 1pm on a Friday while sitting in a darkened church. And with God as my witness I swear I would do it again.

MEATmission, the sister of MEATliquor, opened in a former mission near Hoxton Square at the start of the year. Quite how the poor souls who founded the place, and who's names adorn plaques on the walls, would feel about this transformation is now irrelevant. In this modern age it will have more evangelists through its doors as a burger bar.

And quite right too. It's a brilliant setting. Not only does it have a much less daunting atmosphere than MEATliquor, it somehow feels like it's trying less hard too, even though it must have taken a lot of effort to turn the the plaqued, pillared and stained glassed hall into a dining room. This is despite the fact it offers a much wider menu, including (God forbid) non-burger related products. I didn't give them a second look. I'm here for one reason, and it's just as likely to be religious enlightenment as it is chicken wings. So I chose the chilli burger and waited patiently. Unfortunately, despite there being tables a plenty, we had already been forced to stand and wait to be seated, simply because no waiter would acknowledge our presence. It felt suspiciously as if we were queuing. Now WHERE HAVE I DONE THAT BEFORE?

So my patience was already pretty thin, and my table of colleagues had gone silent, occasionally voicing how hungry they were, as if doing so could change a thing. The food took a good 30 minutes to arrive. Now, at a burger joint that's just not right. I want to eat and be out the door in that time, not have to have an awkward chat about whether we should even tip as the hour mark ticks by.

Still, once the burgers did come they were really excellent. Perhaps ever so slightly overcooked, they were in my case made special by the ladleful of sloppy chilli con carne on top, which wasn't just a damned good chilli in its own right, it did an admirable job of staying in the bun while I mauled it. The chips, meanwhile, played the role of Garfunkel (rather than Paul Simon) and didn't really add much, and I'm still disappointed by the branded condiments. My friend's chilli fries, however, looked fantastic. They were almost onomatopoeic in the way that they looked exactly how I would draw a heart attack. It would be a great way to go though.

Being in a mission, it would also be a great place to die. Perhaps God would think you were there for more ecumenical reasons. And I have to say, if there was to be one true religion, the people behind MEATliquor make a strong case for being our elected saviours.

MEATmission on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 11 February 2013

Salt Yard: brilliance on tap(as)

The best tapas in London.

Tapas is like Gangnam style. All around the world people are doing it, but no one's doing it well. It's usually the tricky leg movements that lead most people to end up doing a sort of bastardised Cossack dance. My simile kind of falls apart at this point, but I don't have to labour it because Salt Yard would nail a metaphorical Psy tribute. It is a rare restaurant: a perfect concept, pulled off completely, and would by no means embarrass itself at the office Christmas party.

Having been slightly underwhelmed by Fino (despite some fantastic cocktails) I was still yet to be sold on the idea of fine dining tapas. I prefer the Meson Don Felipe approach of terracotta dishes, unvarnished tables and a drunken Spanish man playing guitar on a plinth, even if the food feels a little rushed. But Salt Yard, which marries Spanish tapas and Italian sharing boards, manages to suggest the rustic charm of tapas while giving you wine glass so large you could fit your face in it - which is of course the sign of any serious restaurant. It's a lovely little restaurant with hardly any signage outside. You walk in and are nudged by the gentlest of dins, made by happy couples sharing food over candles and excellent wine. Upstairs it has a tapas bar vibe, but we were headed down to the restaurant where we were seated near the bustling open kitchen, and even nearer to our neighbours. I was, in fact, closer to the stranger to my left than the person I was dining with, which led to an awkward moment when I was caught sniffing her chorizo.

In keeping with the Italian influence, the service was some of the best I've ever experienced. Without even a hint of condescension we were taken through the wine list and menu; our waiter politely explaining anything we didn't understand, complimenting my wine choice and sticking his neck out to recommend the Iberico presa, selling it as "almost like a pork fillet steak".

God lord was he right. It was stunning. Cooked medium rare and served on a board with roasted squash, sultanas and sage. It melted in the mouth as fast as the squash did. On the subject of pork, we had also ordered the pork belly with cannellini bean stew - something other blogs have raved about. While the stew was a little bland, the pork fat was as gooey as Turkish delight. It stuck to your teeth, to the roof of your mouth, and probably to your stomach. Wine was the only thing that shifted it, which is my favourite solution to anything.

Every dish just had that little idiosyncracy that made it memorable, on top of very capable cooking. The truffled macaroni cheese, the deep fried squid with squid ink aoli. They were all brilliant little twists. That said, there was a fifth dish and I can't for the life of me remember what it was. Make of that what you will.

What I will always remember though, is the desserts. I still have nightmares about the puddings I used to serve working as a waiter in a restaurant in my home town. Treacle tarts in plastic tubs from mass caterers, ice cream from the nearby Co-op, chocolate sauce from tacky squeezy tubes. Why some restaurants risk fudging the last thing a customer will eat is beyond me. At Salt Yard there was no such issue. Their churros were deep fried just a little longer than you'd think was wise, making them almost like grissini sticks on the outside, before reaching the soft dough inside – just perfect. But what really made the meal, what made me type like a hack on crack for the last paragraph, was the flourless chocolate cake. Essentially spongeless, it was moist, chocolatey and gooey to the point of fondantness, and with salted caramel ice cream the side (possibly the greatest thing on earth) it was unforgettable. My next job is clearing my store cupboard of flour.

All this perfection doesn't come cheap, but to get a feel for just how good Salt Yard is it's worth spending the money. Perhaps the pudding wines were a step too far, but if they're going to match them with the desserts, idiots like me will always splash out. And I regret nothing.

Go. Go Gangnam style.

Salt Yard on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Ed's diner: the 50s reheated

Great Scott those waffles are heavy!

So having been politely shunted out of Bi Bim Bap (see previous) still hungry, my partner in foodie crime saw only one option: dessert. Being dry/dull January, we decided on Froyo, and quickly trotted off towards Brewer Street, passing Ed's Diner.

But we never made it past. Looking at the outside I suddenly had visions of wearing a red "life preserve" and meeting my dad eating cereal at the bar.

As a 50s diner, Ed's is a little bit tacky, but charming in its own way. It sells Coronas and the staff are camp as Christmas, in contrast to the gruff man in a chef's hat from the movies, and the jukebox is fake. You can't expect any kind of authenticity from a Soho diner, that's not the point of Soho. You live the cliché, even if the buttons don't work.

In my state of over excitement I ordered both waffles and a strawberry milkshake. Both portions were supersized. Two giant waffles with maple syrup and ice cream, and then mixing cup of milkshake filled to the brim. The shake was thick and creamy but lacking a little flavour. More frustratingly, having taken a sip I realised they served Oreo flavour, the King of Milkshakes. The waffles meanwhile were reheated packaged affairs - given the open kitchen in the middle of the diner it wasn't so much that I felt tricked (it's not like the chef sneaked it out of the packaging and into the microwave) but I did expect a little more. Surely batter and a waffle iron would be cheaper in the long run?

I don't know, and to be honest I didn't care. At £7 for waffles, a milkshake, and half an hour of pretending to be Marty McFly I was a pretty happy customer, and so full I had to leave bent over double. The staff are friendly, leaning on the bar and chatting to us. One even sported a Grease-style hair do. It's a great place to wile away an unhealthy hour, but if I were in it for a serious meal I'd go to The Diner just off nearby Carnaby Street.

Ed's Easy Diner on Urbanspoon

Friday, 8 February 2013

Bibimbap: DIY dinner

Big on flavour, but order big.

In several ways it's pretty tough to critique Bibimbap. For a start, I have never had a bi bim bap with which to compare my meal. I was also only actually in the restaurant for about 20 minutes. But the real problem is that, as far as I can tell, I did the cooking.

You see, the idea behind the Korean dish of bi bim bap is that you chuck a load of rice, veg and marinated meat into a granite bowl that's hotter than the sun, crack an egg over it and then take it to the table, where it cooks before your eyes. You add your sauce, you stir it in, you let it cook. Aside from marinating the meat, what are the chefs in the kitchen doing?! And given that a large proportion of the menu is veggie, SERIOUSLY what are they doing?

Actually, they're are making the wonderful crisp kimchi pancake we started with, along with some slightly sweet veggie dumplings (sadly overcooked - I guess the chefs got excited by actually cooking something). They were also frying the egg before it got to me, which I have to say ruined the effect of cooking in the bowl. It should be cracked in raw, and I assume they have changed this to suit British tastes. It seems we're still not over Edwina Currie's 1980s salmonella scandal. Disappointment overcome, I thoroughly enjoyed my first bi bim bap and indeed the process of it cooking more and more as I ate – even if it meant my first mouthful was cold and my last burnt my gums to cinders. The meat was flavoursome, even more so once I'd drowned it in a tamarind sauce, the veg fresh and crunchy and the whole effect moreish. In fact, it was so delicious I could have eaten two. It was devoured with a complete lack of grace and timing, much like the abrupt if still-smiley service. We were seated, fed and hustled out all within about 25 minutes - barely time to finish my strange, slightly sweet, slightly flat Hite beer. If I had a Sharpy, I'd have added an S to the start of its name.

Don't expect character, or any kind of real dining experience, but if you're hungry and in a hurry, Bi Bim Bap isn't as silly a choice as it is a name for a restaurant. Just make sure you order more than you think you should, and don't touch the bowl, because my finger is still blistered.

Bibimbap on Urbanspoon