The Bankes Arms – 2/5
This is a magical corner of Albion. It’s the sort of place so perfectly green, you expect the animals to start talking. Hares gambol in the grass and the cattle are lowing, with the sway of the sea never far. All the long midsummer day, we pottered about in R’s boat, gathering samphire from the chalk cliffs around Old Harry Rocks (a good name for a band, someone said). Now we arrive at one of the finest pubs in England for a spot of supper.
A vast garden, almost too big, spreads out on unbroken views of the bay. The inside should be sepia. Through the ivy-hugged gable, it cosies with curled-up rooms, dark oak tables and open fireplaces. Halters, blinkers, hunting horns gather dust on the old stone walls. They display the menu on a blackboard by the door, which I like. They serve pub classics, including plenty of seafood, which I like even more. They price it reasonably, which I like most of all. And yet...
Farmed Spanish seabass. Supernaturally coloured salmon. Wet slabs of tuna from God knows where. Just one concession to local seafood – Poole Bay crab – and presumably that was cooked up the coast, possibly days ago. Anyway, it’s off the menu. So here we are, with the spray of the sea virtually lashing our faces, the gulls calling overhead, and the only fish available has travelled for soggy, stinking miles.
Meat it is then. Chilli con carne (out of a tub, I think) tastes of little except mince in a sweetish slop; though the rice, which contains some nutty brown husks, is well cooked. G has spag bol, and his Parmesan is freshly grated rather than the putrid dust that often pongs its way to the table. Yet the two dishes could share passports. Their sole distinguishing feature is a dose of obligatory kidney beans in the chilli. H pronounces her ham, egg and chips ‘very yummy’, but the chips are pallid and inadequately seasoned and the egg yolk, though a nice, deep orange, inches by the second towards congealment. Prime pig country is only a few hillocks away, but the pale specimens of S’s bangers and mash look bland and fingery, and his onion gravy is at best out of a bottle. Never has food been shown up so dismally by its setting.
It truly saddens me to see such potential go to waste. The Bankes Arms has everything going for it: a picture-book setting, seclusion, comfortable rooms, almost a captive market. Yet the Polish and Russian staff bark out customers’ orders across the endless expanse of garden, stomp over, slam down the plates and march off again. There’s barely a moment’s thought behind a single dish. Next to a miserably generic curry sauce, lamb chunks collapsing within it, is a ‘salad’ containing shredded iceberg, quartered tomatoes from a Dutch greenhouse (in the heart of the Dorset summer!), furry slices of dry cucumber and raw red onion curls. What chef could acquiesce to this? What criminal mind conceive it?
It’s all washed down, and rescued, by some glorious beers – two brewed inside the very pub we’re in. Riddled with barley, heady with froth, the Isle of Purbeck pints demand deep, hearty draughts and taste gloriously of pink noses and laughter. They serve at least half a dozen ales here, almost all of them local, brimming with Englishness. The landlord is a member of something called the British Institue of Inn Keeping. I haven’t the first idea what it might be, but by gum, I like the sound of it. It’s a shame we’re missing the August real ale festival, when 150 brewers will descend on the little pub. But as that old alky, Goldilocks, would no doubt say (and she wouldn’t look at all out of place, skipping round this garden), that beer is just right.
So. What the kitchen of The Bankes Arms needs is a good, hard shaking of its shoulders. Beyond its weathered doorstep rolls some of the most fertile soil in the land, and its bay is teeming with fish. It should grapple this plenty to its soul, instead of slumping lazily against refrigerated vans and cash-and-carry bulk buys. If it only gave equal attention to its food and ales, it could become a true foodie destination, rooted to its heritage but with a discerning nod to the revamped tastes of today. After all, the much-trumpeted, ‘new’ British cooking amounts often to a rediscovering of neglected, seasonal classics. It wouldn’t take a huge amount of time or effort to achieve any of this. The question is, will anyone be bothered to do it?
The Bankes Arms, Manor Road, Studland, Dorset. Tel. +44 (0)1929 450 225.
Dinner for five, excluding drinks and service, costs £70.
Akelare – 5/5
My, what a great place for a restaurant. Set above the trees, right at the top of a lush, sun soaked hill, twenty kilometres from the French border, with the Cantabrian sea dazzling beneath. Tall, Swedishy, wood panelled ceilings. Clever changes in height throughout the dining room, so that every table can admire the views.
There are whispers of cloud between the green fingers of the headlands, and the sea is choppy for July, but the room is still flooded in summer light. It makes a change from the autopista servicios effect of Arzak, whose unsteadying aftershocks J and I are still very much feeling from yesterday as we toddle in, not exactly miserably, for another three Michelin-starred lunch.
Akelare is the brainchild of Pedro Subijana, a magnificently moustachioed Basque, who grows a number of herbs, esoteric veg and weird leafy things right outside the restaurant, ensuring they’re picked only for a matter of minutes before being eaten. The place specialises, it turns out, in ‘food that looks like other food’. Uh-oh, I hear you say. But, dear reader, I’ve no more desire than you do to slurp for a few bewildered, then horrified seconds a lemon sorbet that turns out to be a half-frozen jellyfish. At Akelare, this little trick has an effect that I can only describe as miraculous.
The tone is set right at the start, when two closed chocolate boxes appear, like souvenirs at the end of a meal. They’re opened simultaneously (service is miles better here than at Arzak, and the staff look like they’re enjoying themselves, too), and are seen to contain, ooh, a tiny cinnamon swirl, a little home-made Ferrero Rocher and a mini Battenberg cake. Yet what’s this? The cinnamon swirl is a rich, chewy roll of black pudding, the Battenberg is a crumbly, savoury biscuit, and every Ambassador’s favourite chocolate is really a yielding, creamy fishcake. More than anything else, Subijana is interested in the interplay between sight and taste. When you first see these morsels, they’re such convincing recreations of real-life foodstuffs, you’re completely fooled: pop them into your mouth and you do a strange double-take, the thrill of which only enhances their deliciousness.
Double-takes – trebles even – all round! Pearls of foie gras ice cream (below), generously portioned, liquefy on the tongue and are cut through by a welcome sour salad and long, crispy croutons. After this comes an extraordinary dish, brimming with wit: a circle of individual, beautifully seasoned risottos, one after the other: carrots, pearl barley, broad beans, rice and peas, with a beetroot yolk in the centre. The appearance, shockingly, is that of tinned vegetables with a squirt of ketchup (left). For some, this might be going too far, but I love the humour, the personality inherent in this dish: the thrilling apposition of the presentation (even the broad beans are the flat, murky colour of their tinned cousins), against the fresh taste. This is what great cooking does: it refines your comfort zone, extends your appreciation: it enhances the very senses you use to experience food. Next is a medley of firm wild mushrooms with ‘noodles’ made only of eggs (yolk for yellow ones, albumen for white) and ‘mushrooms’ made out of pasta, complete with little pasta hats. Coriander leaves and seeds provide harmonious backnotes in a nearby soy mayonnaise. It looks and tastes sublime, and the technique is maestro.
By this stage, J has the contended, expectant grin of the cityboy invited into the backroom at Stringfellow’s. The fish, however, sends both of us careering into hitherto unexplored caverns of pleasure. Subijana’s red mullet integral, with skin, scales and bones roasted on its very flesh to provide crunch – the wild fish lightly fried – is the finest I remember eating. It’s sitting back in the chair, eye-closing stuff. Waiters now glide to the table, politely but incomprehensibly introduce new dishes, set down more plates of edible joy; we taste, ponder, chew, ponder: nothing is as it seems, yet everything is exquisite. For the fish, and for the meat courses that follow it (roast suckling pig with tomato bolao; lamb loin with black tempura vegetables), the world-class Basque ingredients are displayed at their very best. Their execution is inventive, as expected, but there are no fussy accoutrements, nothing that tries to shout above, rather than sing in tune with, the peerless natural flavours. These two courses, the fish and the meat, do exactly what they say on the proverbial tin – a damn fine tin, come to that – and it’s right that they should.
The cheese course (below) is christened (without a smudge of irony, I’m sure): Milk and grape, cheese and wine in parallel evolution. Perhaps it sounded better in Spanish. No matter: the cheeses are all Basque: some have been cooked, some made into ice creams, all served with wine transmogrified into biscuits, or grapes into jellies, or caramelised. The labour required to produce this gallimaufry is of course staggering, and it would be a pitiful waste if the results were not so superb. Yet every step at Akelare is as considered and poised as a ballerina’s. Pudding is an apricot and white cherry sorbet, melded and hued like a hyperreal apricot; with a violet cherry and an almond and cherry pastry. It’s as perfect as everything else.
I’m glad there are no petits fours. Piddly macaroons and twee little tartlets, though often fun elsewhere, would jar here, somewhere so attuned to the freshness literally outside its door. Instead, the waiter sets down a plancha of dry, well aged fuet sausage, country bread, some crisps and a carafe of red wine (below). The ‘sausage’ is a wrinkled branch of dark chocolate, dusted in icing sugar, containing bashed up hazelnuts that uncannily resemble little beads of salami fat. The bread is a sweet brioche (a little dry, and seemingly bought-in, it’s perhaps the only weak note in the entire meal), the crisps home-made and with an aniseed tang, the wine a blend of fresh, ruby juices: red grape, black cherry, plum. After all the fireworks, it’s a fittingly down-to-earth end, as well as a delightfully ironic comment on the rustic roots of Basque cuisine. It’s also final proof that what could have been the worst form of empty gimmickry, a chef’s shallow and meaningless self-indulgence, is in fact a witty, sophisticated excursion, true to its roots. Unsurprisingly, and like everything else about Akelare, I simply love it.
Paseo del Padre Orkolaga, 56 (Igueldo), 20008 San Sebastián. Tel: +39 943 311 209
Lunch for two, excluding drinks, tax and service, costs €270.
Wines: Recaredo Brut de Bruts Gran Reserva (€42), La Granja Remelluri Gran Reserva 1999 (€52), two glasses of Naiades 2005 (€12), Gramona III Lustros (€42)
Arzak – 4/5
The Arzak family first opened a restaurant here in 1897. At first, this was a simple taverna, half-way up a dusty hill on the outskirts of town. No doubt the dust was once raised only by the clopping of hooves, but now the traffic’s thrum is shielded by double glazing and blinds. The dining room holds about thirty covers; the bar seats ten at a pinch. Yet this is the current 8th best place to eat in the world, according to the often baffling but much-seized-upon annual list in Restaurant magazine. Juan Mari Arzak began serious culinary experimentation here in the late 60s, gaining his third Michelin star in 1989. Kitchen duties are now shared with his daughter Elena. They've certainly made good use of the small space, kitting it out in a cooling, silver aesthetic.
The bar, especially, has a fairly cramped feel, as we discover when we escape from the broiling Spanish sun into its hyper-air-conditioned interior. J and I begin with the house cocktail: very cold white wine with Madeira and different preparations of lemon. It’s simultaneously sweet, sharp and boozy: an interesting pick-me-up that leaves the palate acidly clear, although it’s on the heavy side for an aperitif. Service is surprisingly slow for a restaurant of this calibre: we’re kept waiting in the bar for a good ten minutes before we get our drinks, and there is subsequently a Bad Moment in the dining room, of which more later.
After some mini wonton amuses, enticingly served on glass plates lit from beneath, and a pretty, fishy mousse served with savoury tuiles, we settle down to the tasting menu. Its opening does not disappoint. Long slices of figs (above) emerge roasted with foie gras and dotted with squeaky-sweet pomegranate seeds and, breathtakingly, segmented blackberry seeds swollen with purple juice. The surface of the foie gras has started to caramelise under the heat, while the oven has begun to soften it. Its texture is thus almost impossibly smooth, exquisite and melting. The ripe fig is a perfect foil, exotically perfumed and with a sweet crunch to its seeds: in all, this is a truly sublime dish, bursting with summer. It’s succeeded, almost bettered, by wild prawn tails with seaweed, sweetcorn and lichen (below): the prawns are firm but yielding, though their delicate sweetness is in danger of being overpowered by the salt, slippery seaweed. The little kernels of sweetcorn and the sweetcorn and lichen jus are an inspired note of vegetable freshness, as is a tiny accompanying salad whose dressing contains a surprising but welcome whiff of very young garlic.
These outstanding dishes are followed by a perfect poached hen’s egg, laid that morning, with subtle shards of crispy local ham and a marvellous, vanishing hat made of egg white. Less successful is a lobster in onion and Madeira sauce and, after that, sole with tapioca. In both of these, the ingredient at the heart of the dish is lost in puddles of cheffy sauce: the onion and Madeira number contains rounds of raw spring onion which sting out the sweetness of the lobster claw and tail. The sole is very well cooked, and the dish looks gorgeous on its black plate, but the poor fish is similarly smothered in a magnolia-coloured tapioca sauce that adds nothing to it. J is more pleased than I am: never a fan of the onion, he is very happy to enjoy it in the lobster sauce, which he describes as a ‘symphony of flavours’. If it is a symphony then, to my ears, this movement needs a little work.
Happily, main courses of lamb fillet with white olive oil and roast pigeon with goji berry and potato purées (left) are both triumphant returns to form. The lamb is perfectly pink, accompanied with an excellent sauce made from its stock and sitting proudly in an outstanding olive oil which lifts the succulence of the meat to new levels. A surprisingly simple salad of very fresh baby shoots, the delightful germinatos, contains some pieces of lamb fat which it could probably lose. But this is still a stunning piece of meat, shown off in all its well-hung, local prime. The pigeon is better still, remarkably tender and rarer than many British chefs would dare. The goji berry and potato purées alongside it have been shaped, somewhat oddly, into the letter E: despite its appearance, the dark sourness of the amber fruit is an effective complement for the rich game.
A phalanx of puddings descends: first is a clever swirl of stewed pineapple (below) served with a double shot-glass of coconut milk. The waiter pours liquid nitrogen into the glass, causing the coconut milk to erupt wildly over the pineapple and giving off a fragrant mist, plump with the scent of the fruit. It is undeniably spectacular, and the pineapple is a triumph too: cooking has sealed in its tropical perfume, which is harmoniously offset by the silken richness of the coconut milk. Another pudding arrives, not on the menu but recommended to us by the waitress: half a dozen chocolate balls, exactly like unsplit egg yolks, bobbing in a wild strawberry soup with a very refreshing wild strawberry ice cream. Technically, this dish is dazzling; I wonder if a greater variety of textures might be introduced beyond the liquid and the almost-liquid; but it’s nonetheless a show-stopping pudding, achingly fresh and original. There is also a very good sweet ravioli made with cava and served with a nutmeg ice cream. Petits fours include caramelised pineapple made gritty from being coated in granulated sugar, a frankly peculiar shot glass of mint and green tea jelly with coffee foam, a chewily sweet beetroot dumpling and an interesting ganache made with soured milk. It’s maybe a little cluttered but, as ever, it displays buckets of originality and flair and is a fittingly varied end to the meal. I like the touch of us both being given a personalised menu to take home, complete with wines.
A quick note about service: half-way through the puddings, J and I discussed whether to order some pudding wine. We called the waitress over, and then thought of an alternative. When she realised she was going to have to wait for five or ten seconds while we made a decision, she flounced off with an audible snort. In a place charging €155 for a tasting menu, this probably isn’t on, even if the rest of the staff were very attentive. (In particular, the chirpy, leather-aproned sommelier rustled up some spiffing wines.) Sr. Arzak indulged in two victory laps of the dining room during our time there, and la hija Elena did a meet-and-greet as well, suggesting that whoever’s doing the cooking back there, it can’t be them. On rare occasions, the chef’s urge to display his virtuoso abilities can threaten to overshadow, rather than enhance, the superb ingredients at his disposal. That said, a couple of off-key notes aside, J was right: this was indeed a delectable symphony.
Alto de Miracruz 21, 20015 San Sebastián. Tel. +39 943 278 465.
Lunch for two, excluding drinks, service and tax, costs €310
Wines: Kripta (€64), half bottle of Augustus Chardonnay (€23), El Nogal 2003 (€58)
Like a huge dado rail, this restaurant juts out half-way up the wall round three sides of a sizeable bar. They’ve fixed a glass ceiling above these eponymous balconies – platforms really – over what was once a flower market. With the escalators, the suits milling beneath and (a shame perhaps, given the history) the virtual absence of flowers, it feels like the restaurant cousin of Gatwick; but the ROH’s website stuffily pronounces this place ‘a grand, formal restaurant’. We’ll see.
I’d been rung up at 11am that morning and told to place my and T’s full order. And while I understand that a theatre’s restaurant can’t sit about for hours as customers um and ah and fret about the provenance of the blueberries, at that time of day I haven’t the faintest idea whether I’ll want cheese or chocolate. Had we booked a week earlier, we’d have been asked to order everything then, which seems positively neurotic of them. As it turns out, the starters are all served cold anyway, and it’s a mystery to me why the chef should need a minimum seven hours’ notice to lay some oily shreds of farmed smoked salmon next to a whisper of dill and a stingy dab of ‘horseradish’ cream devoid of any horseradish. Ker-ching! That’ll be £16.00. The accompanying submarine rolls, not a million miles from those served by BA – or is it just the feel of the place? – are bought in, cold and stale, and the butter too is hard enough to shatter. My starter is billed (the operative word) as a ‘seared red mullet ceviche’, whatever that might mean, since the whole point of a ceviche is that it doesn’t touch heat. Oddly damp, like a dishcloth, it conceals two slices of raw carrot shaped vaguely, conceivably in a factory and for no discernible reason, into stars. These are crunched rather morosely, with an emphatically un-grand, un-formal house Champagne at £9.50 a glass (or £52 a bottle: estimated mark-up: 400%).
The main courses arrive: a grey-brown lump of lamb, squatting in some flaccid cabbage; and strips of fridge-cold duck, purple and raw, splayed in an inelegant fan and apparently superglued to a soy reduction thicker than bitumen. Both dishes are sent back – the duck returns microwaved, rubbery as a tractor tyre; the pak choi that came with it now the matt, pondy colour, and not far from the consistency, of baby food. The lamb is also the same – or at any rate, it’s as grim and flabby as the last. A resentful waitress marches over to demand whether we’ll want coffee after pudding, almost two hours later. Couldn’t we decide that while we’re eating pudding? “No, you need to order it now.” But it doesn’t take that long to boil a kettle, does it? “No, you have to order it now.” OK then, forget pudding, I think we’d rather not.
And it all becomes clear: Balconies is a giant, cynical trick, where the normal restaurant model, with staff operating to the convenience of the customer, is horribly inverted. At Tate Modern, the top-floor restaurant is a worthy destination in itself, serving well executed, intelligent food in a cheery, modern setting. Balconies is living testament to the fact that a restaurant, absent the spurs of competition, and catering to a captive market, will sink into an arrogant slouch. The website smugly remarks that the place is ‘ideally suited to business entertaining’. Of course it is. Tank up the corporate tickets on overpriced booze, foist on them some third-rate food and kick them out into the auditorium before they can complain. Think only of the margins. What a missed opportunity this place is.
Tel. 020 7212 9254. Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £94.
May - August 2010
January - April 2010
Pétrus [Review], 2/5
September - December 2009What is it about French waiters? [Article]
Bom Jardim, Lisbon [Review], 4/5
The nature of buffets [Article]
Seven Park Place, St James's [Review], 2/5
El Bulli, Spain [Review] 5/5
Sureny, Barcelona [Review] (0/5)
Gresca, Barcelona [Review] (3/5)
May - August 2009
The Restaurant at St. Paul's, London (3 Stars)
The Eastside Inn, Clerkenwell (4 Stars)
Sicilian Sweet and Sour Rabbit [Recipe]
The Anchor & Hope, Southwark (2 Stars)
The Fish Club, Clapham (3 Stars)
Gallery Mess, Chelsea (3 Stars)
Le Vacherin, Chiswick (5 Stars)
Abel & Cole Organic Box [Review]
The Salisbury, Fulham (2 Stars)
The Wine Theatre, Southwark (1 Star)
L'Ambroisie, Paris (No Stars)
Au Pied de Cochon, Paris (3 Stars)
L'Astrance, Paris (5 Stars)
Byron, Chelsea (4 Stars)
January - April 2009Terroirs, Charing Cross (5 Stars)
Hereford Road, Notting Hill (3 Stars)
Sambrook's Brewery and The Westbridge, Battersea
Franco Manca, Brixton (4 Stars)
Trojka, Primrose Hill (3 Stars)
The Chelsea Brasserie, Chelsea (1 Star)
The Cinnamon Club, Westminster (4 Stars)
Zeen, Euston (1 Star)
Tayyabs, Whitechapel (5 Stars)
Zum See, Zermatt, Switzerland (4 Stars)
The Light, Shoreditch (hosted by London Eater) (1 Star)
Breakfast on Pancake Day
Le Relais de Venise, City of London (2 Stars)
Bocca di Lupo, Soho (3 Stars)
The Harwood Arms, Fulham (5 Stars)
Boundary, Shoreditch (4 Stars)
Sushinho, Chelsea (1 Star)
September - December 2008
Chez Bruce, Wandsworth (5 Stars)
LSQ2, Reading, Berkshire (1 Star)
Northbank, City of London (2 Stars)
Sweetings, City of London (2 Stars)
Sukho, Fulham (3 Stars)
Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, Marylebone (4 Stars)
Mediterraneo, Notting Hill (1 Star)
Le Restaurant du Port, El Jadida, Morocco (4 Stars)
Stylia, Marrakesh, Morocco (3 Stars)
Dal Pescatore, Lombardy (5 Stars)
Jade Garden, Soho (2 Stars - dinner; 4 Stars - lunch)
The Capital, Knightsbridge (4 Stars)
Browns, Edinburgh (2 Stars)
St. John, Clerkenwell (5 Stars)
July - August 2008
Colosseo, Victoria (1 Star)
Gordon Ramsay Plane Food, Terminal 5, Heathrow (2 Stars)
Terranostra, City of London (4 Stars)
Ognisko, Kensington (3 Stars)
La Famiglia, Chelsea (4 Stars)
The Bankes Arms, Studland, Dorset (2 Stars)
Akelare, San Sebastián, Spain (5 Stars)
Arzak, San Sebastián, Spain (4 Stars)
Balconies at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1 Star)