Murray Blake

London food and coffee writer


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City Social

City Social
Tower 42, 25 Old Broad Street, EC2N 1HQ
Nearest tube: Liverpool Street
020 7877 7703
City Social on Urbanspoon
website; map

“City Social, the latest in a line of London restaurants with the S word in the title, really isn’t very. It is all the very worst of the 1980s revisited. It’s full of clumping tumours of men, jangling change in their pockets and barking at each other about the latest position taken by Millennium Capital.” Jay Rayner, The Guardian

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City Social is owned by luxury caterers Restaurant Associates (who also boast Roux at Parliament Square in their stable), with Paul Walsh acting as head chef under the guidance of Jason Atherton.  Walsh previously worked under Gordon Ramsay for five years, eventually ending up as senior sous chef at Royal Hospital Road.  The restaurant opened in May 2014 amid much PR buzz and quickly won a Michelin star in the September edition of the guide.  It is housed on the top floor of Tower 42 and boasts panoramic views of the London skyline (although you are not quite as high up as those dining in Sushi Samba and Duck & Waffle in the Heron Tower).  The dining room has been decked out in lots of dark wood tones and boasts a large bar with a number of leather booths which all face outwards and have great views.  We went along for lunch – they don’t have a set lunch menu, instead they offer an a la carte menu with starters at £9-15 and mains at £18 to 38.

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I started with a ham hock and pig’s trotter in crispy breadcrumbs, with black pudding, apple and Madeira (£13).   The hock and trotter had been shredded and were wonderfully rich and gelatinous with just the right level of seasoning so they didn’t taste salty.  The black pudding added further depth to the dish – it was smoky and peppery, and the lattice brought crunch without being greasy.  With all of this richness the dish needed some acidity which was introduced by raw apple and a light apple jelly.  This was all rounded off with a perfectly executed Madeira sauce – a safe but well balanced dish.

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For main course I had venison loin with red cabbage, smoked chestnuts and carrots (for a whopping £34).  The venison had been properly rested so the meat was soft and succulent, it combined well with the punchy, smoky chestnuts and slightly sweet carrots.  The portion size was generous and the cooking immaculate, but at £34 this was a very expensive dish.  And I totally agree with Mr Rayner – the service was stiff and unfriendly yet also sloppy.  The sommelier knocked the bottom of a wine bottle off of one of the glasses on our table and he was remiss in his topping up duties, extra bread was offered and didn’t appear…….I expect far better from a Michelin starred restaurant.

Verdict: Paul Walsh’s food is pricey but very good,  unfortunately his front of house staff let him down 6.5/10


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Restaurant Story

201 Tooley Street, SE1 2UE
Nearest tube: London Bridge
020 7183 2117
Restaurant Story on Urbanspoon
website; map

Tom Sellers was expelled from school at 15 and started working in London’s high-end kitchens straight away, learning his trade under Tom Aikens and Adam Byatt.  Stints at Per Se in New York and Noma in Copenhagen really broadened his horizons and in 2013 he returned to the UK to open his own restaurant, Story.  He achieved instant success, winning a star after only 5 months and being listed in Zagat’s the world’s top 10 hottest restaurants.  He is now a darling of the UK culinary world, with successful appearances on the Great British Menu and the opening of a country pub in West Sussex.

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Story sits on the site of a Victorian public toilet and the restaurant was built from scratch by space craft architects in a neo-Scandanavian style with plentiful wood and glass.  Sellers’ menus are light on description, with “veal, rhubarb and roots” being used to describe a dish with at least twenty components.  At lunch you can choose a 3 course “short story” for £35 with an optional cheese course for a bargain extra £4, or it is £85 for the 10 course “full story”, and in the evening you can opt for the full or half story (£65 for 6 courses).  I went along last week for the short story lunch menu. We started off with six different pre-starters – these were all very well executed but I do feel sorry for Sellers’ chefs as all the dishes were pretty labour intensive. The highlight of these was crispy cod skin and smoked cod roe with carrot tops which was a perfect blend of salt, smoke and the sea.

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I also really enjoyed rabbit sandwich with tarragon cream and pickled carrots: the sharp, almost tart carrots cut through the rich, fatty rabbit and the creamy tarragon stood up very well to the meat.  The most theatrical of the pre-starters was scallop dish that was served in the shell and presented at the table with a smothering of dry ice – see below.

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After a sharp, fresh razor clam taster and a lovely beetroot, raspberry and horseradish palette cleanser we moved on to the first official course: sourdough with beef dripping and potted beef.  This is now pretty famous and is possibly Sellers’ signature dish – he has formed beef dripping into a candle which is lit at your table.  You can then soak up the melted beef dripping with the sourdough;  I had heard that there were some problems with this dish when it was first introduced and that the candle didn’t always burn properly, but despite burning a bit slowly it worked pretty well for us and was a nice little gimmick.  The sourdough was reasonable but not outstanding and certainly not a patch on what Mikael Johnsson serves at Hedone.

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My main course was diminutive but perfectly formed – veal loin and sweetbreads with a charred spring onion, rhubarb and turnip.  The loin was extremely succulent and worked really well with the crispy charred onion (which was sweet and soft).  The onion was probably the star of the dish but the sweetbread gave it a close run – it was covered in onion ash which added bitterness and texture to the rich, fatty, melt in the mouth sweetbread.  Rhubarb brought sharpness to the mix and was nice but it wasn’t an essential component of a complex dish with at least ten distinct elements.

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Our dessert was truly a triumph – almond ice cream and parfait with powdered almonds and dill.  It sounds like a strange combination but it worked perfectly for me – the strong, fresh and slightly sweet dill powder cut through the rest of the dish, lifting up the nutty and creamy notes of all the almond elements.  A fantastic end to a remarkable meal.

Verdict: Novel and daring food executed very well 9/10

 

 

 


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The Manor

148 Clapham Manor Street, SW4 6BX
Nearest tube: Clapham Common
020 7720 4662
Manor on Urbanspoon
website; map

The Manor is another venture from genius restauranteurs Sarah and Robin Gill (owners of The Dairy) and is also based in Clapham, which is slowly becoming a little gastronomic haven.  They have converted a former tapas bar in a deserted street off the main road in a stylish pared back new Scandinavian style – there are lots of cement grays and subtle tiling, exposed brickwork and reclaimed Victorian school tables.

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Head chef Dean Parker moved over from The Dairy, having previously worked with Tom Aitkens and at Amass in Copenhagen.  The dessert section is staffed by the excellent Kira Ghidoni (who was previously pastry chef at Fera at Claridge’s) and they have a special dessert bar which (if you are working on the a la carte menu) you can transfer to and watch your desserts being prepared.   You can opt for a seven course tasting menu for a very reasonable £42 or the a la carte which has starters at £5.5-7 and mains for £9-12.5 (there is quite a lot of cross over between the two menus).  And before I move onto the food, a quick note on the toilets which have been discussed at some length elsewhere – yes, they are a bit dingy, the graffiti is strange and they haven’t been redesigned along with the rest of the restaurant, but they seemed fine to me and were clean…..

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We opted for the tasting menu which started with wonderful sourdough and rich, decadent crispy chicken skin butter, followed by a clean but simple crab dish with charred celeriac, hazelnuts and buttermilk.  Next up was chicken skins with kimchi and kale – for me this hit a perfect balance, with the fatty, gelatinous chicken bumping up against the tart, bitter kimchi and fresh, earthy kale.  The kimchi had been anglicised – it was cut thinner and less punchy (both in terms of spice and acidity) than what I have eaten in Korean restaurants but it worked really well with the dish.

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Our next course was monkfish with salsify and mushrooms, this was beautifully presented on a stoneware plate and was one of my favourite dishes of the day.  The monkfish was succulent and meaty; the salsify was served in two ways – roasted and served raw from the mandoline.  The clean, subtle salsify flavours were beefed up with assorted mushrooms including powerful chanterelles and moisture was lent by a tasty brown butter mushroom sauce.

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Our tasting main course was hay smoked pigeon with fermented grains, parsnip and hemp granola.  The pigeon breast had been cooked nicely pink and had only a subtle hint of smokiness, the leg was prepared whole including the foot (which was quite dramatic but not for the faint-hearted) and the liver and heart were served alongside.  The pigeon heart was wonderfully tender and simply melted in the mouth, but unfortunately the liver was a bit overcooked.  However I really enjoyed the pigeon breast which was served with a crunchy malt granola topping which added texture and had been cooked perfectly pink.  This was served with fermented grains which were slightly yeasty and sticky, but complemented the strong flavours of the meat very well.

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Our first of Ghidoni’s creations was simply stunning – lemon sorbet with gin, cucumber, sesame seeds and fermented tea essence.  This sounds complicated, but the flavours were clean and bold – the tartness of the lemon was brought down by the oily sesame seeds, a perfect palette cleanser.  The final dish was apparently a new creation but again hit the right notes for me: rhubarb (probably from The Dairy’s garden) with rich, creamy tonka bean custard and an olive/rhubarb snow created with a blast of liquid nitrogen – both dramatic and tasty.

Verdict: it’s well worth a trip south to The Dairy’s bold and innovative little brother 9/10

 

 


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Galvin La Chapelle

35 Spital Square, E1 6DY
020 72990400
Nearest tube: Liverpool Street
Galvin La Chapelle on Urbanspoon
website; map

Jeff and Chris Galvin are Essex boys made good.  They worked their way up the greasy pole at various London restaurants before opening their own, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in Baker Street seven years ago.  La Chapelle was their third restaurant and opened in 2009, winning a Michelin star the next year.  The setting of La Chapelle is extremely impressive: it is housed in a converted Victorian school chapel – tables are set between resplendent marble pillars, the walls have been pared back to the original stonework and the intricately composed beams of the 30m high vaulted ceiling are stunning.  Head chef Eric Joliboi is French and he cut his teeth in the restaurants of Paris before taking over at the helm of La Chapelle.  Joliboi’s menu is classically French and he has retained the bulk of the Galvin brothers signature dishes, including crab lasagne, duck leg confit and apple tarte tatin.

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I started with the famous crab lasagne which was simply but elegantly presented in a little circular tower on top of a buerre blanc moat.  The pasta was a beautiful rich yellow and was rolled incredibly thin but retained a nice firm texture, the white crab meat was full of flavour and the creamy beurre blanc was perfectly executed.  At £16.50 this is a very expensive starter but it is hard to quibble with such refined cooking.  For main course I had loin and faggots of venison with fondant potato, cabbage and chanterelles (£32.50).  The venison loin, which is sourced from Denham in Suffolk, had been cooked in a waterbath so it was cooked through but was still wonderfully tender.  However, for me the faggot was the stand out component of the dish – it was rich but still balanced, I think it used a mix of heart and belly fat, with a hint of liver and hints of onion.  The fondant potato was buttery and luxurious, the cabbage and chanterelles added earthiness and were doused in wonderfully sticky venison jus.

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I finished with an apple tarte tatin which was a simple but perfectly executed dish – the pastry was light, buttery and flaky, and the apple was soft and sticky.  The caramel wasn’t overly sweet and had deep nutty notes.  It is quite hard to present a tarte tatin in an interesting way and as you can see from the picture below, Joliboi’s tarte looked rather staid.

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Verdict: perfectly executed but rather spendy French classics 7.5/10

 

 


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Hawksmoor Guildhall

10 Basinghall Street, EC2V 5BQ
020 7397 8120
Nearest tube: Bank
website; map
Hawksmoor Guildhall on Urbanspoon

Flawless. The best steak you’ll find anywhere” Giles Coren

Will Beckett and Huw Gott opened the first Hawksmoor in September 2006 in a former kebab shop with a mere 60 covers in Spitalfields market.  The concept was simple – well sourced steak, solid British fayre and contemporary cocktails, and it was an immediate success, receiving critical acclaim and lots of foot traffic. In the early days Hawksmoor’s drinks menu (including a famous reinvention of the marmalade cocktail) was arguably more well know than their food – head barman Nick Strangeway won numerous awards for his creative cocktails, including the Best Restaurant Bar the year Hawksmoor opened.  They drafted in head chef Richard Turner in 2009 (he is also the brainchild of London’s meat and barbecue festival, Meatopia) and from there the Hawksmoor brand went from strength to strenth. Turner’s menu is still very meat and steak heavy, but over the past few years it has branched out into seafood, under the careful guidance of Mitch Tonks.  They use Longhorn beef which is sustainably sourced from Tim Wilson’s Ginger Pig farm in North Yorkshire.  He hangs the meat for 5 to 6 weeks (normal supermarket meat is hung for around 4 weeks) before it is delivered to the restaurant.

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I went along to the Guildhall branch which is five minutes’ walk from Bank tube and has around 200 covers with a separate bar area.  The decor is very traditional with dark wood panelling and furnishings, and green leather booths atop parquet flooring.  Their menu is short and spendy with starters at £7-16, steaks £28-50 (also sold by weight) and a handful of seafood, chicken and veggie options at £13-32.  I started with bone marrow with onions and toasted sourdough (£7) – the portion was very generous with three large (I think) beef shin bones smothered in sweet and crispy onions.  The marrow was rich and soft, with lots of fatty beefy flavour; the accompanying sourdough was yeasty and chewy, providing nice texture.

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I opted for a fillet steak (£34 for 300g) with béarnaise sauce and triple cooked chips (£4).  The steak was prepared perfectly – it was still warm but had been well rested so there was no seeping blood; the charcoal cooking came through nicely in the meat and it had been well charred on the outside which lent texture.  The meat melted in mouth and could have been cut with a spoon – a very impressive steak.  The triple cooked chips were served piping hot and were unhealthily crispy/tasty.  I was disappointed with my Bearnaise sauce which had obviously been prepared earlier in the day and was a bit gloopy.  The clientele were mostly loud City types (this is probably not a place to go for a first date) and service was reserved but attentive.

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Verdict: great quality and well cooked steak, highly recommended for all carnivores 7/10


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Coffee Reviews – No. 5

The Counter
7 Roach Road, E3 2PA
Nearest tube: Hackney Wick
The Counter Cafe on Urbanspoon
website; map

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A hidden gem amidst Hackney Wick’s assorted timber merchants, abandoned industrial estates and faceless yuppie new builds, The Counter is a little cafe/art shop/gallery a short walk from the overground station and overlooking the canal.  They roast their own beans to produce a blend called Warehouse – the espresso is light and fruity, and ideal for milk based coffees.  Unfortunately the milk treatment on my flat white was a bit sloppy and I think the milk had been overheated; the latte art was poor – it seemed like my coffee had been prepared by a barista in training – I would like to go back and see if their execution is better next time.  They offer a range of brunch food, including french toast, bagels and salads, and their Mumbai eggs have received a lot of good reviews.

Verdict: good quality coffee that deserved to be treated better 5.5/10

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The London Particular
399 New Cross Road, SE14 6LA
Nearest tube: New Cross
website; map
London Particular on Urbanspoon

A hipster and art school kids’ enclave just off the main road in rough as old boots New Cross, The London Particular was opened a few years ago by chef Becky Davy.  They focus on fresh, healthy, and generally vegetarian food, but also serve decent coffee which they source from H. R. Higgins, an old school coffee roastery in Mayfair.  My flat white was served nice and hot, with slightly scrappy latte art but decent milk treatment.  The espresso was medium bodied and uncomplicated but worked well with the milk.  My coffee was trumped by my lunch of fantastic celeriac fritters, spinach and a snappy horseradish cream.

Verdict: a decent flat white and probably the best coffee east of Peckham 6.5/10

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Sketch and Lyle’s

Sketch
The Gallery, 9 Conduit Street, W1S 2XG
020 76594500
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus
Sketch Gallery on Urbanspoon
website; map

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I was initially attracted to Sketch on hearing that the Glasgow-based artist David Shrigley had recently redecorated the dining room in a kitsch blancmange style and had produced a new set of drawings for the walls (293 in total) – it is a very impressive sight and needs to be seen to be believed.  Sketch has always had artistic leanings, initially showing work from the Victoria Miro gallery and latterly having artists including Martin Creed redesign the dining space.  Sketch is situated in a grade II listed townhouse in Mayfair and opened in 2003 after the building was completely restored by owner Mourad Mazouz.  He also runs Momo, a North African restaurant few minutes’ walk from Sketch as well as a series of successful bistros in Paris.  Sketch opened amidst much press hype and was at one time the most expensive restaurant in London, attracting celebrity clientele including Bill Clinton and the Beckhams.  The menu has always stayed true to “New French” cuisine, but thankfully the prices have come down since its initial diamond encrusted years.

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The menu is fairly curt, spanning two short pages with starters at £12-27 and mains £18-45, it is quite seafood heavy, including tuna sashimi, sole meunière and the interesting sounding blue lobster with mascarpone (albeit this is the most expensive item on the menu).  I started with a pig’s ear and hock salad sitting on a celeriac remoulade.  The pig’s ear had been boiled, reconstituted and thinly sliced – it was very light and soft with a surprisingly subtle flavour.  The celeriac was earthy and added bitterness to the mayonnaise and shallots in the salad – a simple but pleasing dish.

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For main course I had suckling pig with bok choi which came sitting in a blood sauce thick enough to paint girders with.  The meat was tender and slightly fatty but packed with flavour, however the rest of the dish was disappointing – the sauce was overseasoned and far too dense, the dish was overly heavy and unbalanced – it needed some greenery to lighten things up. Service was mixed – it was extremely friendly and attentive at first but then shaded off quickly through the meal; we almost came to blows with a sniffy French waiter who told us that were not allowed to walk round and look at Shrigley’s artwork during service.

Verdict: well-prepared but unbalanced gout-inducing food with a mixed quality of service 5/10

Lyle’s
Tea Building, 56 Shoreditch High Street, E1 6JJ
Nearest tube: Shoreditch High Street
Lyle's on Urbanspoon
website; map

Lyle’s opened in the spring of 2014 and received lots of critical attention, mainly because head chef James Lowe has good pedigree, having previously worked at St John bread and wine.  He also catered for numerous hipster bars and pop-ups as part of the Young Turks collective.  Lowe started cooking relatively late in life at 23, learning his craft at La Trompette in Chiswick before joining the St John empire and rising quickly through the ranks.  He has brought some familiar St John’s dishes to Lyle’s, including gull’s eggs and black pudding “blood cake”; they also buy their animals whole and butcher them in house.  However, the critical reaction to Lyle’s has been mixed, with many complaining that the evening set menu is restrictive and unfortunately Marina O’Loughlin’s refined palette did not enjoy Lowe’s nettle soup.  Lyle’s did get a good write up from Chris Pople and I was keen to see whether I agreed with him.

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The restaurant is housed in Shoreditch’s tea building opposite the box park and Shoreditch High Street station; the interior is cool, exuding understated elegance from the whitewashed walls to the sleek wooden and metal furnishings.  We went along for lunch where the menu had a choice of 6 starters (£6-7.5), 3 mains (£10.5-16) and 3 desserts (£6-9.5).  We started with smoked eel and mashed potato – the fish was light and fresh, without a hint of muddiness and the slight smokiness added depth of flavour.  The creamy mash had a near perfect constitution and was served piping hot – a wholesome and incredibly satisfying dish.

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Ox heart and brussels tops was equally pleasing, the sprout leaves were a fantastic deep green colour and were cooked so that they retained a slight crunch leading to bitter, earthy flavours.  The ox heart melted in the mouth and was still moist yet firm.  Our final starter was crab and salsify bisque which was frothy and light but retained a deep crab taste; thinly sliced salsify and white crab meat lended texture and interest.

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Our first main course was saddleback with pumpkin and cavolo nero (black cabbage) – the generous chunk of saddleback loin had I think been prepared sous vide so that it was cooked through but still soft, the meat had lots of character but was lacking a bit of texture, maybe it should have been finished in the frying pan for a bit longer.  The pairing of the meat with the crunchy cabbage and sweet, creamy pumpkin was perfect and the dish nicely balanced.

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Our final dish was venison with yoghurt, pickled blackberries and tender stem broccoli.  The meat was again exquisitely cooked and the broccoli lent crunch to the dish; the blackberries were tart and not quite to my taste, but the combination of sauce, yoghurt and meat worked very well.  Another simple but well conceived dish.

Verdict: don’t believe (some of) the critics, the food at Lyle’s is novel and very well executed 8.5/10

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