Tuesday, 17 April 2018

The Colony Grill Room, Mayfair


My evening at the Colony Grill Room, the restaurant at the swanky Beaumont Hotel in Mayfair, did not begin well. Being a few minutes early (I'm always early) and soaking wet thanks to the weather being very April, I thought I'd pass the time by taking a few shots of the grand entrance hallway, which leads through the American Bar towards the restaurant at the back. Now I admit, thanks to the weather, I was looking even more scruffy and unsuitable than usual but I was still taken aback by the speed and ferocity of hotel concierge's reaction to my clicking.


"Sir! No photos. You can't take photos of the guests."

"I honestly wasn't, I'm just taking some of this hallway here, you can't make out any faces."

"No, you can't take photos. People come here for a reason."

I wasn't sure what he meant by that. I should hope they did come here for a reason, and weren't just lost on the way to Debenhams. "Well, I'm here for a reason - you invited me to review your restaurant."

"No photos in the lobby."


Anyway, their place, their rules, though you'd wonder how a 5-star hotel in London survives at all with a no-photo rule in their lobby in the age of Instagram. If we follow even a handful of the same people, I'm sure your feed will be just as heavily populated with the gleaming black & white Claridge's foyer, or that grand marble staircase at the Rosewood. Isn't showing off on social media what hotel lobbies are for?


Fortunately, once seated in a plush booth in the Colony Grill Room, things were slightly less fraught. Oysters may not be the fiercest test of a restaurants skill set, but they were lean and sprightly things, the Carlingford Lough and the smaller Claires both carefully opened and in good condition. I wasn't entirely sure what to do with a few slices of buttered wholemeal Hovis (or similar) they came with, though. House bread (nice crunchy rolls) had already been served. Perhaps someone can enlighten me?


Lobster bisque next, and a very decent example of its kind it was too. Fresh lobster meat and seafood-friendly herbs and veg (chives amongst others) were prettily arranged in the bottom of the bowl before the thick soup was poured on top. To be brutally honest (and this is after all why you're here) I've had more spectacularly-flavoured bisques elsewhere, but even a fairly humdrum lobster bisque is usually worth the effort, and this was far better than humdrum.


A friend's fried artichokes were enjoyable in pretty much the same way - not spectacular, nothing fancy, timed to just have a bit of crunch on the edges and dressed with a sharp salsa verde, they were familiar and gently rewarding without rewriting any artichoke rulebooks.


Things continued in this vein, pretty much. I don't want to sound like I'm being down on the food at all - it was all objectively perfectly decent stuff, better than your average hotel restaurant and not ludicrously priced considering the location. But I got the same feeling here as I did at most other Corbin & King places, that the food is playing second-fiddle to the swish surroundings and sense of occasion, and that myself and the other diners that evening (mainly older couples and the odd celeb - Marc Almond was on the next table) weren't that interested in having their culinary boundaries pushed. This was calf's liver and bacon, the liver cooked nicely medium-rare and bacon nice and crisp, and was polished off quite happily.


The reason I was here was to try the grilled cheese sandwich - apparently it was National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day, and I was told they were particularly proud of their version. I have to say, having tried it, it didn't really do much for me. Perhaps the grated cheddar was deliberately undercooked and chalky - it still looked grated - and perhaps the rather timid colour on the bread was a reaction to the demands of the elderly clientele, but if you're going to go down the American comfort food route you need to commit to it in full, with huge mounds of oozing plastic cheese, crisped up and burned at the edges. Chips were good though, so I'll give them that.


And soon enough desserts were here to lift our spirits. Baked Alaska, flambéed dramatically tableside in kirsch, would have been a bit more enjoyable had the centre not been absolutely rock-solid, although the flavour, once it had been chipped off and sampled, was good.


The Colony had one final trick up its sleeve, though. "Fruit sorbet", ordered mainly because dessert was part of the deal and hardly out of hunger, was quite unexpectedly the most powerfully-flavoured and impressive bit of sorbet work I've had in many years. In fact the last time I can recall sorbet this good it was at Little Barwick House all the way back in 2014, and that I still think about it to this day shows how good that one was. So whoever made the version at the Colony should be very pleased with themselves indeed - give yourself an icy pat on the back.


In the end, I can pick fault with the food as much as I want (and I do want) but as I mentioned before, a slightly less-than-perfect cheese toastie and a less-than-spectacular lobster soup will be of supreme unimportance to the average punter at the Colony Grill. I'm not their target market and that's fine, I can live with that - I wouldn't rush back to the Delaunay or the Wolseley either, other Corbin & King flagships (though of course Zedel is almost perfect, the exception to the rule). But it's clear that what they do very well is own and operate grand, romantic restaurants with an exquisite sense of style and occasion, and they do that very well indeed. Corbin & King are, undoubtedly, fantastic restaurateurs. There's every chance you will love a meal there. Just don't take any photos.

7/10

I was invited to the Colony Grill Room. I know, there's been a bit of a run of invites lately, I'll try and make sure I pay for the next one and do it properly.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Freak Scene, Soho


In a city as large and diverse as London, with a population eager and willing to spend their money on whatever latest food obsession flares up, whether it's pasta or burgers or steamed Taiwanese buns, it's perhaps surprising that genuine blue-sky experimentation, no-holds-barred eccentricity, sheer boggle-eyed madness, is still a relatively rare thing. Yes, in these uncertain times you can understand why familiar comfort food would be an easier sell to investors than anything too, well, weird, but as Londoners avant-garde experimentation and counter-culturalism forms part of our very identity. So why not restaurants? How many places can you point to that are genuinely unleashed, and where nothing has come between the practicalities of running a profit and the sheer unrestrained bedlam of an unconventional chef's raw ideas?


To find the shortest journey between the blueprint and the result, and where the product available to buy is as close as possible to whatever crazy concept the creators first came up with, it's a good idea to turn to street food and popups. Only in the anything-goes environment of the popup, where the stakes are low and failure very much is an option, would anyone discover there was a market for blobs of water thickened with agar, or a pitch-black grilled cheese sandwich made with charcoal bread and Ilchester black cheddar (coloured with carob, apparently). These things are just as likely to leave you with permanent psychological damage than going back for more, but how nice that we live in a city where they're allowed to exist?


One look at the Freak Scene menu and you can see why this place started life as a popup. I can't think of many investors that would be happy to rent a prime central Soho location (where Barrafina used to be, no less) and turn it over to a group of people serving "Caramalised[sic] Foie Gras Lettuce Cups" and "Salmon sashimi 'Pizza' with truffle-ponzu", but it's thanks to the popularity and success of a stint in Farringdon that they now find themselves here at their first proper permanent site, with a mandate to be every bit as unhinged now as they were then.


The first thing that arrived - "Miso Grilled Black Cod Tacos with Sushi Rice and Scorched Red Chilli Salsa" - was an early indication that the needle would be set firmly on "WTF" for at least some of the evening. Individual elements of the dish were fantastic - bubbly-crisp taco casings, top quality miso-glazed black cod (as you might imagine from the man who spent years as the head chef at Nobu), fluffy room-temperature sushi rice you'd be delighted to be served elsewhere under a slice of raw fish. Together, the textures fought rather than complimented each other - particularly the soft fish next to the rice which made them both feel disconcertingly under-cooked - but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find enough to enjoy. Even just for the novelty factor.


Chilli Crab and Avocado Wonton 'Bombs' were relatively more normal insofar as crab and avocado is a tried-and-tested combo that you'd have to really go out of your way to mess up, and the little crisp parcels actually made a perfect delivery system; you just ate them with your fingers like you would cheese on a cracker. Spritzed with fresh lime juice and spiked with red chilli, there was plenty of crab and plenty of flavour, a bit of Asian-fusion fun.


The house chips were intriguingly subtitled "A Thousand Leaves", and turned out to be a kind of Quality Chop layered confit style, and incredibly moreish. I would have preferred a thicker jalapeno mayo - it was a bit difficult to get any kind of coating on the potato which was frustrating - but even so, a lot of work had gone into these and it's basically impossible not to enjoy sticks of flaky potato cake.


Hangar steak tataki salad was the least crazy of the dishes, and probably the most enjoyable. With soft strips of rare-seared beef, coriander, lettuce pomegranate seeds and crisp garlic flakes all soaked in a wonderfully sharp dressing ("onion ponzu" on the menu but I imagine that's not the half of it), it had all the fire and flavour of something from the kitchens at Kiln or Smoking Goat, and as anyone who's been to those places will tell you, that's quite the compliment.


But soon enough we were back in Bonkersville. I think the best way of describing my reaction to it is this: While I do like the fact I live in a city so experimental and diverse a restaurant feels able to sell a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves, and I'm glad that someone somewhere feels that a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves is something that should be served, I'm afraid I am not the target audience for a dish of hot pork belly and cold mussels wrapped in lettuce leaves. I just think hot pig and cold seafood should be kept a certain distance from each other. They shouldn't touch.


Finally, and somewhat in contrast to the rather bijou portion sizes up until this point, "Chicken-fried chicken" was a huge leg and thigh portion sat on top of a pile of nuts in a soy-based sauce, and we struggled to finish it. Not because it was inedible, though parts were a bit cotton-woolly (they'd used some kind of double-cooking method, first confit-ing then frying, which I think reduced the moisture content somewhat) but just because there was so much of it. As with much of what had come before, it danced a fine line between exciting and baffling, between experimental and just plain odd, and we found ourselves veering between enjoyment and uncertainty with each mouthful.


But isn't that the point of operations like this? Wouldn't the world be a boring place if there weren't chefs like Scott Hallsworth willing to throw every trick up his sleeve at once into one of the most wilfully esoteric and barmy menus in town, and to hell with what people think? And because of this approach, and even despite it, you'd still have to have a heart of stone not to get something out of Freak Scene - for every challenge like hot pork and cold mussels there's crab wontons or beef tataki salad to retreat back into and calm the nerves. It's all part of the fun.

So although I definitely had issues with Freak Scene, and you're more than likely to have the same, like the raindrop cake or the black cheese toastie surely we can at least be glad this odd little operation exists. A singular vision from an eccentric and fun-loving team, its arrival on Frith Street makes London a more bizarre, and more exciting place, qualities in these uncertain times that are, sadly, increasingly hard to come by. It's not perfect, but it is unique. And more than enough to be proud of.

7/10

I was invited to Freak Scene and didn't see a bill, but a bit of maths tells me it would have been about £40/head with a bottle of wine.

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Masala Zone, Soho


Thanks to its conspicuous street-level floor-to-ceiling windows, and central-Soho location, the Marshall Street Masala Zone has been a part of most Londoners' conciousness since it opened in 2001. You won't have missed it if you've ever trotted into town to dinner from Oxford Circus, seemingly always busy no matter what time of day or night, and no doubt you've also seen their posters on the tube escalators advertising curry and rice with a beer or wine for a set price.


So, flashy tourist-trap locations? Posters on the tube? It's no wonder this scenester blogger stayed well clear of Masala Zone. As any self-respecting foodie knows very well, no restaurant within walking distance of Argyll Street that advertises on public transport will be worth anywhere near the prices they charge. No, best leave it for the gullible passing trade and undemanding tourists. All the more space in the queue at Bao for us.


Needless to say, I was completely wrong about Masala Zone. And the fact it took something as credibility-denting as an invite from a PR company to change my mind is just that much more garam masala in the wound. True, the prices are area-appropriate, and there are probably more atmospheric places to eat than a golfish tank squeezed under a hideous faceless concrete estate (the Barbican this ain't), but there's no denying the food here is thoughtfully designed and confidently delivered modern Indian cooking that you'd have to be a real curmugeon - or contrary foodster - not to appreciate.


Of course, if you are one of the aformentioned insufferables, you will no doubt be able to gleefully point out all the places that do all the things that Masala Zone do but slightly better. Yes, scattering the tomato and onion salad over poppadums doesn't achieve much more than soggy poppadums, and probably is a bad idea. Yes, the coriander chutney at Gymkhana is much more powerfully-flavoured. True, the pao bread buns at Bombay Bustle are fluffier and glossier. But all of these things were still polished off with ease - they were still way better than "good enough".


Plus, plenty of the menu at Masala Zone genuinely was amongst the best of its kind I've come across in town. Gol guppa could definitely give the Gymkhana versions a run for their money, the delicate pastry casings holding their shape no matter how much fragrant tamarind water our greedy selves decided to load into them.


And this sprouted lentil salad (vegan, would you believe) contained an intelligent balance of soft and crisp, and plenty of sharp dressing to compliment the pulses. Presented in a precarious tower, it collapsed entertainingly with the prod of a fork, revealing further ingredients such as chopped tomato and coriander.


From the smaller dishes, only Chicken 65 really suffered in comparison to versions elsewhere. Here it was a bit sad, tough and underseasoned, lacking the vibrancy and fire of the dish served at (say) Apollo Banana Leaf in Tooting. Still, it wasn't inedible, and itself disappeared soon enough.


Far more consistent - and impressive - were the larger dishes. "Idiappam Seafood Biryani" was a kind of Indian fideuà, plump prawns and squid nestling in a bed of thin rice noodles, lightly doused in an irresistably rich coconut curry sauce, which bound it all together without going sloppy. It was very impressive stuff, and unusual enough that I can't remember seeing anything like it before on an Indian restaurant menu. So full marks for that, too.


The mixed grill (usually chicken tikka, lamb seekh kebabs and lamb chops, as here) is a good control variable for any kitchen with a tandoor, and I'm please to report Masala Zone batted way above the national average with confident spicing, aggressive grilling (meaning the morsels of chicken were just touched with carbon enough to provide a slight crunch) and deliriously bouncy seekh kebabs packing serious chilli heat.


And I should also pay tribute to the Alleppey prawn curry, apparently a Masala Zone classic which matched more fresh prawns with a deeply rewarding coconut/turmeric sauce. This again wouldn't be out of place in any high-end Indian restaurant in town, with luxurious spicing and pinpoint seasoning.


So, consider me schooled. While it's true that thanks to their West End pricing, laminated menus and Aberdeen Angus décor the Masala Zone may scream "tourist trap" to anyone who didn't know better, there's genuine creativity and talent behind the cooking here, and anyone who dismissed it out of hand (that would be me, then) for so long missed out on some very decent Indian meals in a part of town where such things are in desperately short supply. And if some of the sting in the tail has been removed by my not having to pay, then I can only say I'd more than likely go back, and recommend it to others if they were in the area and in the market for some puri and a mixed grill. Clearly they've been doing something right all these years, and deserve to do so for many years more. Long live Masala Zone.

7/10

I was invited to Masala Zone, and didn't pay. The above was for 4 people and probably would have come to about £45 ish a head had we seen a bill.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Osteria, Barbican


On Wednesday evening I broke one of the cardinal sins of eating out - I chose a restaurant based on setting and location, rather than the appeal of the menu or skills of the kitchen. This is usually a recipe for disaster, as it's well known the Curse of Tall Restaurants (a catch-all term that includes restaurants in impressive settings of any kind that don't have to try very hard to attract custom, no matter how far off the ground they are) is always ready to strike at any unfortunate punter that thinks the view from the 30th floor of an anonymous city tower block will make up for any lack of interest on the plate. Well maybe it can, for some people, just not the restaurant spods I tend to hang around with.


But while I am immune to the charms of most Tall Buildings you could mention, can take or leave river views and regard soaring marble atriums and plush furnishing with extreme indifference (this isn't the least bit true, but I'm trying to make a point so bear with me), there's one building - or more accurately, series of buildings - in London in which I would happily spend weeks on end, dinner or no dinner.

The Barbican is a breathtaking work of brutalist genius, a vast complex of soaring, bush-hammered concrete towers, monolothic apartment blocks dripping with hanging plants, and a series of landscaped grounds - including an astonishing sunken water garden - that adds up to as impressive a work of visual and sculptural art that you can find from any century, in any art gallery or museum in the world. I love its romantic spotlit stairways, the walkways threading their way through it all several stories in the air, the confidence and intelligence in every tiny detail of the place. I just love it there.


So yes, dinner at Osteria, on the third floor of the Barbican Centre (the arts complex in the middle of it all) was mainly an excuse to spend a couple of blissful hours taking in the beauty of the surroundings, out of the rain without resorting to standing in the theatre lobby downstairs and gawping like I usually do. The food didn't have to be brilliant, or even very good, to be worth our time.


Happily though, it was - most of it - more than worth the price of admission, and rather than being something to do with our hands while enjoying the view over the lakes and fountains, the food impressed in its own right. House foccacia was only slightly on the insubstantial side but tasted soft and fresh, and soaked up the olive oil nicely.


Ham broth was exactly what was expected and what was required, and so we had no complaints. A good, clear consommé, strongly seasoned and containing huge chunks of pig, the poached egg adding an extra layer of silky complexity, it was an eminently enjoyable starter.


So, too, a dish of grilled sardines coated in anchovy breadcrumbs and samphire. The effort that had clearly gone into removing most of the bones in the fish was appreciated, but it still wasn't quite bone-free enough to eat as a fillet, and the extensive further surgery required rather made the initial labour rather superfluous. They were fine little things though, soft flesh and crisp skin, and seasoned well.


Pan-roasted spring chicken had a strongly citrussy and nicely crisped skin strongly resembling the product from Chicken Shop, and as anyone who's ever been to Chicken Shop will tell you, this is a Good Thing. Perhaps the purple potatoes could have been a little warmer but that's a minor criticism of a dish that was otherwise effortlessly, straightforwardly enjoyable.


Similarly wild boar ragu, perhaps not the most blindingly wonderful bit of pasta I've ever been presented with in my life but cooked nicely al-dente, coated in plenty of parmesan and with a good mound of minced boar to make up for a slightly insipid tomato sauce. But the important thing is, both plates were licked clean. Not literally, that have been a bit embarrassing, but we certainly didn't leave anything edible behind.


We were even enjoying ourselves enough, thanks as much to the attentive service as the stunning views over St Giles Cripplegate and the City of London School for Girls, to order dessert. Sadly here our enthusiasm took a bit of a knock - sorbets were fine, a mango flavour probably being the best of the three flavours presented, the others lacking a bit in personality. But tiramisu was a pretty dubious affair, squirty cream and chopped-up brownie soaked in what felt like half a pint of booze, which felt us feeling rather queasy.


Still, all said and done, we were sat in the Barbican, playing a real part in the life of this extraordinary place, soaking in the atmosphere and making use of the cool 70s concrete toilets. For that alone it would have been worth the £42.75 a head with a carafe of Gavi di Gavi, and for the food to be not just passable but actually pretty enjoyable was a quite significant bonus. Apologies if this has turned into more of an architecture than food blog, but I hope you'll not mind indulging me just this once - rules are meant to be broken, and there's no building in London breaks the rules so comprehensively, and so successfully, as this brutalist beauty. Oh, and Osteria? That's rather good, too.

7/10

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

Perilla, Newington Green


If this endless Game of Thrones winter is getting you down and you pine for the long, hazy days of summer then spare a thought for the food bloggers amongst us, and this one in particular, who last took an evening photo of something even vaguely recognisable as food some time back in about September 2017. You can blame my rubbish camera skills if you like (plenty do), but surely some responsibility lies with restaurants whose lighting schemes range from "romantic" to "Dans le Noir" and in which not only is photography impossible but even figuring out what you're eating is a bit of a challenge.


But as April rolls on, the evenings get lighter and the chances of my photos not looking like evidence from a crime scene, and diners being able to fully appreciate the effort that goes into the presentation of their food, increases exponentially. We had a good hour or two at Perilla, light streaming through the huge floor-to-ceiling windows into that beautiful dining room, when my photos did something approaching justice to the extraordinary quality of food served there. Then some time about 7pm the sun went down and it all went to pot again. But hopefully you'll have got the gist by that point.


The bank holiday weekend started, as I always try to ensure they do, with a martini. Icy cold, served in freeze-frosted glass and costing an eminently reasonable £9, it was the perfect introduction to the way they do things at Perilla - tasteful, elegant, and with an absolute confidence that this is the best way of doing things. Which, of course, it is. Anyone serving martinis in glasses quick-chilled with crushed ice are missing a vital stage in the process.


As for the food, well, it's mostly brilliant, or rather apart from one minor misstep it was all brilliant, but more on that later. First we have "Yesterday's bread soaked in fish soup", which as well as being something I was determined to order as soon as I spotted it on the menu, presumably helps Perilla's green waste-free credentials into the bargain. Neat fingers of sourdough dotted with orange and pine nuts came soaked in the most unbelievably intense liquid - in fact closer in style and substance to a seafood bisque, the kind of thing restaurants charging many times the prices at Perilla would be very proud of.


These are rump of beef on laverbread, half Sunday roast half seafood nigiri, a clever combination of flavours and textures quite unlike anything I'd tried before. Part of the joy of eating somewhere like Perilla is to have your expectations exceeded, but to start with two "snacks" that so completely took me by surprise is something else entirely.


To prove that the triumphal first course was no fluke, another soup was every bit as spectacular. Served in a large hollowed-out white onion, the outside charred from close contact with the coals and with a heady smoked aroma, it contained a silky-smooth, light broth of creamed onion studded with delicately toasted hazelnuts, and is absolutely everything I want a soup to be. This dish alone is worth a meal at Perilla.


"Squid Bolognese" has apparently become somewhat of a signature dish on Newington Green, and you can see why - it's a very clever thing, colourful shoreside succulents (shoots of monksbeard taking the place of spaghetti) and winter herbs are topped with minced cuttlefish, producing a wonderful light seafood salad.


Sometime between the Squid Bolognese and the next dish of calves' liver, the sun dropped down over the horizon, and so I'm afraid from this point on you'll have to use your imagination, and take my word for it, that only the lighting levels decreased, not the care and attention taken in presentation. This neatly folded parcel of cabbage leaf opened to reveal discs of potato chips, fried onions and yes, generous slices of liver cooked to a delightful medium-rare.


Given the technical skill, invention and risk-taking on display up to this point of the meal, Perilla could probably have served something genuinely inedible and I'd still be happy to recommend the place. "Baron Bigod stuffed with braised pine nuts" wasn't a complete disaster, it was just a nice enough cheese pointlessly stuffed with nuts, which neither enhanced the cheese or made you particularly excited about the idea of eating nuts. Still, you never know if you don't try.


Dessert was a herb and honey creme caramel, again showing a willingness to play with accepted notions of savoury and sweet but backing it all up with a proper technical ability where it counts. There's something faintly "healthy-foody" about honey and herbs on their own, but topping a nice rich, creamy custard with it made all the sense in the world.


So yes, as you may have gathered, I had an absolute riot of a time at Perilla. To serve an enjoyable, competently cooked meal seems to be the very least restaurants are able to get away with in these troubled times, though of course if that was your level of expectation you'd certainly come away giddy. On every inch of the menu, though, the kitchen seems to go out of their way to surprise and impress, often thorough spectacular presentations to inventive flavour combinations, such as the fish soup or beef and laverbread, but also just through presenting familar flavours and concepts incredibly well (liver and onions).

Everyone, at least everyone I know, will enjoy a meal at Perilla, but perhaps that's not news - they've been around two and a half years now and judging by the crowds on a weekday evening (as I'm reliably informed by a friend who lives just over the road) word has most certainly got out. But whatever they originally set out to achieve in this pretty corner of North London, Perilla is far more than just a good local restaurant - in serving one of London's most exciting sub-£50 tasting menus they should be nothing less than a destination, and deserve to be spoken about in amongst the very best the city has to offer. Didn't see that coming? No, me neither. And I can't blame the low lighting for that.

9/10

I was invited to Perilla and didn't see a bill, though I imagine it would have been about £70/head once booze and service is factored in.