The barman, sporting a large, twirly moustache, has just mixed a cocktail. Richly-coloured, it looks delicious, with solid strength, a sharp edge, and a long tapering finish. The drink isn’t bad either, and R and I enthusiastically sip our preprandials – as if in homage to the facial hair, mine is called a Dalí – while taking a good look at the place.
What an interesting spot. Following two years’ absence from the restaurant scene, Sir Terence Conran has returned in triumph with this vast project in Shoreditch. (I resist applying the compulsory prefix ‘trendy’ to the area.) The site, which we visit on opening night, contains a restaurant, a café and deli, a dozen or so bedrooms and a rooftop bar. We found the restaurant via the food shop, Albion, selling bits and pieces like cantucci, pasta and some tinned stuff. The chap at the till pointed to a door marked Lavatories and Hotel - note the order - beyond which a frozen lift porter whooshed us down into the bowels of the building.
As befits a Conran pedigree, the space looks terrific. High-ceilinged, low-lit but ungloomy, with lights twinkling overhead in zodiac patterning and chairs handsomely upholstered in reds and black. ‘The best location for a date I’ve ever seen,’ says R from our secluded, padded alcove, and I can see exactly what he means. An entire wall is taken up by the open-plan kitchen, shielded by glass, giving the room an air of silent industry. The head waiter, a Croatian with the fabulous name of Zee Banobic, hands us jarringly cheap plasticky menus. These offer a decent if not exactly ground-breaking mixture of French and British classics – fruits de mer, some soups, some salads, and the pleasantly old-fashioned idea of alternating daily roasts of veal, beef, pork and so on. Today is a Tuesday, so it’s saddle of lamb. I want to check with zee waiter, sorry, with the waiter, whether there’s anything he’d particularly recommend.
‘No. Not really. It’s all good.’
I’m glad to hear it, though it might have been nice to know what the kitchen was proud of.
These are the best frogs’ legs I’ve had in some time: eight amphibious thighs swimming – perhaps the wrong verb – in a beurre noisette puddle, with shredded flat leaf parsley and a lovely nose of garlic. Sweet, succulent and toothsome. They’re so similar to chicken, really, that it’s a wonder biologists ever doubted the theory – memorably evinced in Jurassic Park – that birds and dinosaurs share an ancestor. R has half a dozen oysters, two each of English, rock and French. At £1.20, the rocks are cheaper than the ones you get in Borough Market. They come with a standard sauce mignonette, tiny shallot dice afloat in champagne vinegar - personally, I’ve always preferred oysters with just a squeeze of lemon, which is also on offer.
The sommelier is a young Australian called Luke – ‘suppliers always assume it’s Luc’ – Robertson. Ex-Chez Bruce and Petrus (to which he diplomatically refers by its post-Ramsay moniker), he’s one of the best sommeliers I’ve seen in a very, very long while, combining a charming and underbearing demeanour with an understanding of his subject that’s both broad and deep. R and I are having a glass of white each with the starters and sharing a bottle of red with the mains: he suggests a thick Manzanilla sherry with R’s oysters, and a powerful 14%, £11 glass of South African chenin blanc with my frogs. Fine pairings both.
‘What sort of budget would you prefer for the bottle?’ he asks. ‘We have everything from fifteen pounds to nine hundred.’
Oh, cripes. Fifty quid as an absolute maximum.
For forty, he produces a lovely pinot noir from the Jura – a rustic, gamey wine, earthy as a clod. After a bit of airing, it brings Beach Boys harmonies to a roast chop of venison in juniper sauce, and is a grand match with the saddle of lamb. The baby sheep is marginally more tender than the deer, and comes in a good gravy, with sweet mint sauce and redcurrant jelly on the side. Quince poached in spiced red wine accompany the venison – an excellent foil, though the meat is marginally overcooked and slightly chewy. Side orders of a green salad, pommes dauphinoise and steamed spinach are all let-downs: cold spinach; flabby, undercrisp potatoes and a salad dressing so peppery it was borderline sending-back stuff. Zee didn’t remark on the barely touched leaves when he cleared them away; arguably he shouldn’t, although he might have noticed that we’d guzzled everything else.
I finish with a parfait of prune and Armagnac which only approximates its French name. The Armagnac has a presence so faint it’s as if we’re eating it through nosepeg, blindfold and earmuffs, but the prunes are rich and syrupy, and the texture of the pudding is a bullseye realisation of solid and smooth. R has a rather lacklustre crème brûlée, overfirm and cooked too long in the bain-marie, with a top that sags rather than cracks. By this stage, in a less-than-half-full dining room, Zee is wandering around apparently with nothing to do, shuffling past us at intermittent, distracting intervals, one hand behind his back in the manner of Prince Philip inspecting the household cavalry. This aside, it’s very nice to be offered some simple, pretty and unexpected petits fours of slow-cooked orange zest dipped in bitter chocolate, which go well with an espresso and some chilled (strangely, to my mind) port.
A couple of minor bum notes aside, then, this was a very good dinner. The total bill, for three decent courses, several extras, two cocktails, two glasses of wine, a bottle of red, some port and a coffee, was only just north of eighty quid a head, which seems more than reasonable given the quality (and quantity) of goods on offer and the comparatively fancy setting. It seems almost obligatory nowadays for restaurant critics to remark on what they usually refer to as the ‘madness’ of opening a restaurant under the pervading economic conditions. But Boundary, with its deli, bar and the rest, can afford partially to subsidise the downstairs restaurant - bringing cheaper prices and thus more customers. I sincerely hope they come.
Boundary, 2-4 Boundary Street, Shoreditch, London E2
Tel +44 (0)20 7729 1051
See on the TFYS Map
Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £66.90; £167.79 all-in with all the extra gubbins and twelve-and-a-half.
It’s deserted except for two porcelain-toothed Californians, one of each sex, sipping mineral water and peering at the menus. There’s a moody sort of mood, and an almost adolescent fixation with black décor: black wood, black bar, black uniforms. Look at that photo above. Doesn’t it look dark in there? Not Brazilian - or Japanese, for that matter. Pitch.
Sushinho opened a couple of weeks ago on what Lady Bracknell would call the unfashionable end of the King’s Road. Its USP of Japanese-Brazilian fusion is rather more U than most. (And rather U than me, you’re probably thinking.) But, while it may have sounded a bit odd, it wasn’t without promise. It actually turns out the pairing isn’t so weird: one moderately surprising fact for you is that Brazil contains the largest proportion of Japanese people outside their home country. What’s more, there’s a near-precedent for it in the phenomenally successful Peruvian-Japanese giant Nobu. Anyway, J is a hardy, adventurous sort – so in we troop one Saturday lunchtime.
Frankly, it’s more chichi bar than sushi bar. Friends of mine who enjoy the former – I prefer pubs, truthfully – have never told me they like the lights up, grimly illuminating the late-night revels. As it turns out, Sushinho would do a lot better to stick to its cocktails, abandoning this food nonsense altogether.
For nonsense it is. This is a wildly confusing menu, with no obvious starters or mains. The waitress is doing her level best to explain it, but she’s only been in the job a few days. It doesn’t seem like they’ve been swamped by customers, either, so her patter – and knowledge – need practice. Hey-ho. J wants an orange juice. Is it freshly squeezed?
‘Oh yes. Absolutely fresh.’
What he gets is an apparent glass of Sunny Delight, the pasteurised acid gloop most civilised people abandoned the moment they tasted Tropicana. Why the manky cartoned OJ? Because drinks come from behind the bar, and this is the ‘orange’ of a vodka and orange. (I’ve never tasted vodka and freshly squeezed. It’s probably a revelation, though not something to have habitually with the morning cornflakes.) We drink a couple of cocktails, but no wine.
Anything to take the edge off the food. That’s kabotcha pumpkin gyoza with truffle, there - although the ‘truffle’ is artificial truffle flavouring and is barely perceptible. The gyoza are limp, and wet with fat; they languish on that slick of orange looking like squashed flying saucer sweets. The pumpkin purée underneath is oversugared, like the pastey, carb-fest pumpkin pie of Thanksgiving dinner. Nine quid it costs, too, which is impressively greedy these days.
Here’s one of the specials, pork belly with feijoada bean purée. The pork is about as tender as a mosh pit; and there’s mango chutney on top, for some reason. The bean paste underneath is rich, thick, cloying, black: everything, in fact, you wouldn’t want to have with stolid, fatty meat from a pig’s tummy. This is a fundamentally misconceived dish. But it is as nothing to what follows.
Bottom right on this plate is ‘tuna foie gras’. (Precisely where Japan and Brazil are supposed to meet here is unclear.) It’s horrible. Tuna nigiri is everything foie gras is not: cold, clean, firm, fishy and raw, and its partnership with the liver is as successful as an arranged marriage between Germaine Greer and Abu Hamza. We also have – in the sense of on our plates, rather than in our stomachs – some salmon topped with salmon roe: the vilest, fattiest, farmedest salmon you could imagine, squelching with grease, under tasteless little hills of roe and cold clumps of rice.
This is as depressing as food gets. Wrong, wrong, and wrong again. Yo! Sushi produces better rice and fish, while the Brazilian ingredients are curiously underpowered. More, the black mood here is as far from the life and colour of Brazil as it’s possible to be: not that it’s especially Japanese, either. It’s obvious we aren’t really enjoying ourselves, and the manager, Paul McKenna, comes over for a chat. He’s a charming, engaging Irishman: passionate about the Sushinho project, a man who’s been in catering his whole life and, still in his 20s, is already running a restaurant. It’s just a shame that this should be that place. ‘I have a vision of it being just like South America here,’ he says. ‘Friendly and alive, with people moving between tables, a real buzzy feel.’
A fine ambition, but I just can’t see it. My advice to him: keep the drinks, ditch the food. Or better yet - and this applies to you as well - go elsewhere.
Sushinho, 312 King’s Road, Chelsea, London SW3
Tel: +44 (0)20 7349 7496
See on the TFYS Map
Lunch for two, including drinks and service, costs £61.16.