Monday, 29 July 2013

Honest Burger (Camden): Truly super

One of the best British-style burgers – honest

Just when you think the dude-food-burger craze can't get more crazed, something reminds you that people's appetite for it is insatiable. Last month it was the opening of the universally panned Five Guys and Shake Shack. Then it was the burger top trump cards and cufflinks (!). Now, apparently, people are doing burger crawls all the way from Five guys, through Byron, MEATliquor, Patty & Bun, Hache and on to the latest fashionable burger bar to make a bid for global domination – Honest.

Tucked away in the stables of Camden, the third Honest Burger is small, open and slightly weird. Separated from the street by a wooden fence you feel like you're eating in a pig sty. I find it suitable, although quite how you could pig out an Honest Burger after five other cardiac arrests in a bun is beyond me, especially since Honest's portions are by far the most generous of all of them. They were also, with the exception of Dirty Burger, by far the cheapest. £8 will get you the feast you see before you.

There are a couple of other things that set Honest aside from its many, many competitors. The burger itself is decent and flavourful, the bun passable, but it's everything else that matters. They use British cheeses to top the burgers, something I am all for. You have to be in the right mood for American cheese, which is more a pungency in the noise and a oil slick on the roof of your mouth than a flavour. At Honest you can get a mature Cheddar, Red Leicester or, joy oh joy, a Stilton. All of which would have worked a treat with their lovely red onion relish.

The chips were excellent too – the opposite of Bukowski's perfectly formed crunchy monsters, Honest's  rosemary salted chips are gnarly, deformed and utterly ridonkulous. They look like hand-chopped actually meant they had Jackie Chan in the kitchen, screaming as he karate chopped his way through tons of spuds for minimum wage. And goddamn it they were delicious. Again, I was let down by the presence of Heinz and Hellman's – both great sauces, but I always want more invention in these places. Once you nail a burger, you need to keep improving things.

I can't complain about the beer list though – Redchurch dominates and the Bethnal Pale a great choice, but we also really enjoyed the Big Wave – a Hawaiian golden ale we ordered out of sheer curiosity. The friendly waiter didn't even blink as we ordered 5 drinks for four people. He evidently knows his list is good. I liked him a lot until he persuaded us to play a game of credit card roulette, where you all put your card in the bill fold and the person whose card is drawn pays…

... but I maintain the food was worth the £60 I had to cough up. Honest Burger do great burgers, better toppings and even better chips, with a good beer list. Where else would you go when caught out drunk and hungry in Camden? I can;t think of a better idea. Honest.

Just make sure you're really hungry, and if you're burger-bar crawling have 999 already dialled out on your phone – Camden Lock might be a bridge too far.

Square Meal

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Il Tempo: almost the dolce vita

This Aperitivo bar could be so much better

What if I told you there is a wine bar in Covent Garden that no one knows about? Where you can waltz in at 7pm on a Friday, grab a table, order a house red for £19 and enjoy free snacks all evening.

You'd call me a liar wouldn't you? You'd click off this blog raving about lunatics, leaving me to rue such a bold blog entry and calculate "bounce" statistics on Google Analytics. But more fool you, because such a place does exist. It's called Il Tempo, and just happens to be next to one of the best (and therefore busiest) pubs in Covent Garden – the Harp. So while the weekend-lovers jostled for position at the bar and bought two pints each so they didn't have to queue again, my friend and I sat in our air conditioned wine cave, cut off from the bustle of outside by a sense of wellbeing and a MASSIVE coffee machine.

As we sat and supped our Salento Primativo we took in our surroundings, marvelling at the find. There are lots of reasons why no one seems to know about this place. First and foremost because it looks like a shop. And if it doesn't look like a shop to you, it probably looks like a café - and neither of those places are likely to serve wine and free food. But we weren't complaining. We were in the know. We could now use that timeless, self-inflating phrase "I know this little place not far from here" when we're out with friends and stuck for a venue. So long as you don't say something crass like "a hidden gem", you're suddenly like Samuel Pepys or a walking TimeOut.

The thing is though, word of mouth is a damned powerful thing in London, so Il Tempo really should be better known. And as I write this it becomes clear why it might not be. For a start the décor needs work – it feels less like an authentic aperitivo bar and more like a dying greasy spoon. It's a beautiful space that they've done nothing with. It's all Ikea furniture and 90s art prints. Of course, outdated decor and great food is pretty much the European way, so we shouldn't judge it on looks

Sadly, and it kills me to say it, the other problem is that the food, while delicious, needs work. Look at the picture - it looks like the kind of thing Kerry Katona might eat in an Iceland advert, and the pastry-based bites tasted like they had been made a few days ago. That's probably harsh, especially given the risk they take by embracing the way of aperitivo bars in a city famous for wanting everything for free, but this place is so damned close to being the best damned place I've set foot in in Covent Garden that I have to be blunt in the hope it may come to fulfil all my dreams.

They serve daily specials as mains, which we didn't try, but I'd trust the food enough to – our waiter claimed the chef had worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant. I don't know about that, but I can tell you, if he ups his game, makes the food more inventive and beautiful to look at, and the owners have a little refurb, I might consider using that terrible, terrible term "hidden gem". Maybe.

Il Tempo on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Crate: a piss up in a brewery!

Great beer, great pizzas, Crate place

Well if ZAGAT says it's the trendiest new bar this side of the sun then I had to go. Because their business model isn't built on the opinions of idiots and the ramblings of trolls. Oh wait.

Describe Crate with even a hint of cynicism and it sounds like your average person's hell: "Ya, it's a microbrewery bar on the canal,

in a gentrified industrial estate in Hackney". There were more fixie bikes chained to the railings than there were railings to chain fixie bikes to, along with baggy sleeveless t-shirts (why? Why, why, why?) and rimmed glasses so thick Clarke Kent would have felt out of place.

But I do Crate a disservice – not something they deserve. It's a beautiful spot along the canal, where the sun catches the water, there are boats moored (that people sit and drink on!) and the inside is decked out industriously and beautifully. Kind of like an art gallery, but a little more soulful. More importantly, with the exception of the moronic trendies drinking white wine at a brewery bar, the locals and staff were friendly, fun and evidently beer lovers. The place was packed for a Wednesday, and not only because Crate's beer is damned fine (especially the kegged IPA) but because their beer fridge is a joy – three kinds of Brooklyn, Racer 5, Flying Dog and Kernel all made appearances and show that the customers know and respect beer almost as much as the owners.

But I knew all that. I was here for the pizza, which I have on a lot of authority (rather than good authority), are amazing. As you can tell from my reviews of Pizza East (in the east) and Pizza East (in the north), I like mine simple, crispy and quick. So at first glance Crate's menu is the stuff of nightmares. They're loaded with toppings – one's that would make a napoli man cross his heart and jump into the nearest wood-fired oven. But the more I read, the more I started salivating. Whoever wrote this menu knows how to combine flavours. I will never, EVER be sold on the laksa chicken ones, but the spiced lamb, pine nuts and spinach was essentially a turkish pizza, and the sweet potato, Stilton and walnut looked ridiculous but tasted incredible.

But we plumped for the caramelised onion, feta, courgette and mozzarella pizza (how good does that sound?!). Crispy almost to a fault, it left us with charcoal coated hands, like we'd been feeling up Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins. It was sweet, then salty, then oh so cheesy. And it went dynamite with our IPAs, where a plainer margherita might have been overpowered. The dough, it has to be said, completely lacked texture other than crispy – and definitely needs a bit more handworking by the chefs . It's needs to be elastic and not so dry, so you get the doughiness and the crispiness – but the toppings were flawless. Pizza is a meal made for sharing, and perfect for eating outside, and eating it al fresco by the canal was exceptionally pleasant, well worth going right to the end of the overground line.

Beer should be drunk fresh – ideally straight from the machinery – and this is as close as you'll get. And Crate have done themselves proud with their pizzas too. They may not be the best pizzas in London, but this might the best place to eat one.

Crate Brewery on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Mien Tay: a big fish

The best Vietnamese on Kingsland Road?

grilled quail mien tay vietnamese kingsland roadFive minutes in to my meal at Mien Tay I thought I was going to be writing a polemic on the virtues of eating with someone allergic to fish. The starting point being you get to eat all the free prawn crackers, the climax being they don't want to try your sea bass.

Sadly, as any long-suffering allergy sufferer's friend will tell you, life just isn't that simple. Especially when your waiter's poor grasp of English means he can't work out whether you're saying you WANT fish in your vegetarian meal, or it will kill you. As a result, despite him eventually checking with the kitchen, my friend ate her meal holding the chopsticks in one hand and her epi pen in the other.

Surviving a meal is one of the main signs that a meal was a success. Kudos Mien Tay. But there were lots of other signs. My incredible quail, for example, bought on the advice of a Metro review that said that "If you only eat one dish this year, make it the starter of grilled quail at Mien Tay". Now, I don't much fancy only eating one meal for a whole year, especially a meal with as little meat on it as quail, but goodness me it was tasty. Hotter than the fires of hell, I barely blinked as my fingers blistered - all I wanted to do was get my teeth into every tiny fold of skin for the gorgeous marinade of chilli, honey, garlic and spices, which I'd coated in the lime and salt that the quail came with. Almost like a quail slammer. it was the tidiest, most delicious plate I've had in a while.

At £6 I could have drained my Saigon beer and left happy then. Perhaps I should have, because comparatively my duck in ginger and spring onions was a disappointment. It had about as much gingery tang as glass of milk, amd the egg fried rice had a more addictive flavour. But my friend's deep-fried tofu with chilli and lemongrass was delicious - crispy, slightly sweet, slightly salty and probably distressingly good for you. And all this came to a measly £33, with no deaths.

Pick the right things, and you might survive. Also, you may find this is the best Vietnamese restaurant you've ever been to.

Mien Tay on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Rock Lobsta Mahiki: a clamity

Geddit? CLAMity. Funny and true

I don't know who they are, but they say do one thing every day that scares you. So yesterday I went to Mahiki. But this was no ordinary Prince Harry-style night out. This was the soft launch of Rock Lobsta (sic), which on their website claims to be where an "east London punk-style lobster bar" (like that's a thing) meets a "world-famous 'Polynesian paradise' Mayfair late night bar" (like that's a full sentence).

Now, if that sounds like SEO cramming, that's because it is. If it sounds like pathetic PR speak too, that's because it is. If it also sounds like one of the most unsuitable restaurant ventures in recent history, that's because it is. The idea of a punk setting foot in Rock Lobsta (sic), let alone Mahiki, is laughable. It's about as punk as Mervyn King.

Rock Lobsta (sic) is on the top floor of Mahiki, which is still two floors below Mayfair. Their small attempts to make the faux-Polynesian vibe edgy fall well short. It's mostly posters in frames and their terrible logo that riffs on the now over-riffed "Never mind the bollocks" logo. The rest of the "punk-style lobster bar" is made up of wicker chairs, bamboo tables, mood lighting and, inexplicably, waitresses in playsuits.

Arriving five minutes early for our booking, we were asked to come back in 15 minutes, which we duly did. We were then sat at the wrong table by our waiter and offered shots by way of apology. Because I doubted he had an aperitif or palate cleanser in mind we politely declined, instead ordering a beer (my friend) and a negroni (made with rum, we're in Polynesia remember!) for myself.

We were both sceptical about the concept and the food, but had agreed that the drinks at least should be pretty good. We reasoned that HRH Prince Harry probably doesn't drink any old shit. Turns out he does. My negroni was so bitter it was like drinking soap, and my friend's bottle-conditioned Beavertown 8-Ball had been turned upside down in the glass, emptying all the yeast right into the beer. Some people like it that way. But very few.

So, having fallen at the first (and lowest) hurdle, we were pleasantly surprised by the starters. Our deep-fried soft shell crab was a little limp, but loaded with lime and chilli flavours and tasted pretty fresh. The deep-fried beer cheese was also moreish, especially with the Ribman's Holy Fuck sauce (sorry mum, it's the brand name). The corndogs, however, were a real delight and the highlight of the whole meal. Crispy fried in a thin batter, soft and sweet inside, and served with a lovely Thousand Island dressing. I would sit in a quiet corner and eat my bodyweight in them if they didn't cost £3.75 each.

For the mains we missed the more interesting sounding raw sea bass, put to one side on the menu like the chef didn't really want anyone to buy it, and got half a lobster and a lobster roll – along with chips and "greens". My friend enjoyed his lobster, but given that it was smaller than his forearm you'd need a whole one (at the cost of £32). The same went for my lobster roll – nice dressing, lovely sweet lobster, nice crunchy pickles, but I demolished it in barely 5 bites, and the terrible, lifeless roll it came in would make a french baker foam at the mouth. Having downed the roll I looked to the sides for sustenance, but the chips would have failed a taste test against McDonald's and the greens were delicious only because they were swimming oil and salt, as if dressed in the deep-fat fryer the crabs came from.

So with a forgettable meal, all I was left to contemplate was the bill, and I couldn't shake the feeling that paying £18.50 for a SANDWICH is actually criminal. To be brutal, the lobster could have been easily replaced with crab at the cost of a little texture, but also the cost of about £6 – not most of a £20 note. 

If I had paid full price (about £120 for three courses and two drinks) I would have been absolutely livid. I'd have been squirting Holy Fuck sauce in people's eyes and breaking Polynesian coconuts on managers' heads. Or I'd have written a strongly worded letter and then never sent it. Probably that actually. Luckily, we paid half price last night, and walked away a little disappointed (and still a bit hungry). 

At the prices you're forced to pay for lobster in this country, it has to be an event. If it can't be on the beach, it should come with Champagne, white table cloths and a snotty waiter, so you can celebrate your "stocks going up" or something. Sadly at Mahiki, you're in a sweat dungeon, and a meal is more likely to be the result of drunken munchies or forceful marketing. 

But the marketing is going to be tough. It's street food opposite the Ritz. It's Dude food in a bankers' bar. I don't know anyone who is going to eat here. I know OF people who will eat there, because there were plenty of suited, square-jawed men there last night, and nothing I say will change their minds – except their first meal there. If you think Mahiki is cool, you'll probably think getting to eat lobster there is cool too, so you'll risk it. To you I say order big on the starters, choose your cocktails wisely, and tip well, because the waiting staff deserve it.

Eating lobster in Mahiki sounds like the kind of thing royalty might do. But for me, eating in a club is never an event – see my review of Aquum in Clapham for proof – and nothing about Rock Lobsta (sic) stirs any excitement in me at all. Except the prices.

Prince Harry, you're welcome to it. And this:

Rock Lobsta on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 8 July 2013

Clockjack Oven: not ready to fly yet

Beautiful rotisserie chicken, with flaws on the side

In Giles Coren's brilliant "How to Eat Out" (yes I giggle every time I say it too) he talks about the things he hates when reviewing restaurants. Given he has the greatest job on earth you have to talk it all with a pinch of salt, but I agree with him on one thing. You should never get too friendly with the manager or owner, because as soon as you do writing a bad review gets much, much harder. Clockjack's manager is without doubt the most approachable, friendly man I have ever met in the restaurant industry, and it hurts to imagine his face dropping as he reads this. So I want to start by making something very, very clear.

Clockjack Oven's rotisserie chicken is exceptional. Truly exceptional. But there are flaws.

Comparisons to Chicken Shop are inevitable, but aren't quite as useful as you'd think. For a start, Clockjack is built for a rollout. It's clean-cut and smooth, and decked out cheaply but tastefully. It has a Wagamama feel to it.

More significantly for the diner, this is properly English-style chicken: salt, pepper, butter - you can even have it with gravy - while Chicken Shop marinate their chicken in paprika and oregano, which would make the addition of gravy a terrifying prospect. There's also a lot more choice at Clockjack – with wings, fried chicken, sandwiches, salads and sides. 

Sadly there was little choice on the beer front and If I could suggest one change to the menu it's update this terrible list. Why Estrella is on there is a mystery, and in the midst of a microbrewery explosion it's mad to ignore it all in favour of mass brewers. Instead we went for wine (a Malbec) and were brought a wine I know for a fact can be bought in Sainsbury's for £7.99. It's a tasty one, but knowing the mark up you're paying (300%) can make it taste a little bitter.

Getting abreast of things
Drink issues aside though, everything chickeny was a delight. Perfect rotisserie, seasoned to within an inch of its life and coated in a lovely golden skin. It wasn't as fall-off-the-bone tender as the Chicken Shop's marinated ones, but the flavour was incredible and the choice of dips (chilli, barbecue, ranch and gravy) was much better. After repeated visits I've come to think that Chicken Shop's sauces were far too runny and a little too strong, while Clockjack's are sticky and satisfying in texture but slightly weaker in the flavour stakes.

The chicken bites had all the crunch of KFC minus the guilt about higher-welfare animals and the hands so oily you could lather up the green room of a bodybuilding contest. I'd imagine my heart still skipped a beat with every swallow though. Still, you don't eat out to lose weight.

The wings were marinaded in a lovely, fruity sauce but were slightly overdone, and then served a little cold. They were still a joy though, and the glaze stuck stubbornly to my fingers even after three lemon wipes – always a good sign.

The only foodie blackspot was the veggie bites. Essentially just crunchy coated sage and onion stuffing balls, they were tasty enough but (roast chicken aside) they could not have been more offensive with the ranch dressing, barbecue sauce and chicken wings. Far better would be a spicy bean or sweet potato-based bite that matches the Deep South leanings of the other sideshow dishes. As it is, they look the part, but taste more like something you'd find on your grandma's 40s dining table, with the Constable-print place mats and the boiled sprouts.

For pudding we plumped for the Baileys truffles with vanilla ice cream – a beautifully simple concept. The manager was delighted by our choice and came over to claim the recipe as his own and offer us a masterclass in making them, which we may well take up. They were excellent. I'm usually dead against alcohol in puddings (trifle being my food nightmare) but I couldn't argue with the lovely flavours and that little kick of alcohol that gets up your nose. And I love arguing.

Clockjack Oven on Urbanspoon   Square Meal