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30/03/2009

The Chelsea Brasserie, London

★☆☆☆☆


This steak is tough. Tough, tough, tough. Tough, like the tyres on a Caterpillar. Tough like a phone book, like oakum rope, like thick latex, like a childhood spent sweeping chimneys, like astrophysics. Tough like Captain Scott, like the waistband on a menopausal WeightWatcher, like Abramovich’s bodyguards, like a Saudi court, tough like that cruel, indefatigable old bitch, life itself. So tough, there’s a rumble in my belly, a biley rough-and-tumble, from this horrible meat. It's rough stuff, a duff dish, off the cuff and not good enough.

But that’s not all. It’s overcooked, too. Overcooked like… well, like an overcooked steak. I mean, I know bavette's a cheap cut. Gloriously so, in fact: a juicy, hard-working slab of flank, popular in basic French bistros, predictably uncommon here. It needs a good bashing to tenderise it, and benefits from a day or two in the fridge, bathing in olive oil. This one has seen neither meat mallet nor rolling pin. Instead, it lay across the grill like a podgy sunbather for about five hours, before turning up here with a repellently oily Béarnaise and some cold, mealy chips.

Nothing is quite as dispiriting as returning to something you once enjoyed and discovering it's actually rubbish. Worse than the inevitable disappointment is the associated dilemma: has this got worse since I last encountered it, or did I just have no taste then? Has the Chelsea Brasserie, like the Simpsons, merely gone downhill? Or - the fear that stalks every critic - did I not know what I was talking about?

You see, a couple of years ago, when I was a mendicant student, and the closest I got to restaurants was pressing my face against their windows like a shoeless Dickensian urchin, I somehow scraped together the coppers and came here for dinner. We had one of those wonderful evenings given meaning and thrill from tight money – a cute and gutsy tian of crab with avocado; a pink-roasted Gressingham breast with mash and verdant spinach; and a fruitily pastried pudding I was a bit too pissed to appreciate. I remember giddily saying that this was egg-zackly the sort of place every neighbourhood deserved, and how brilliant it was to find it so comparatively well priced, in a prime spot on Sloane Square.

And when R and I turn up late on a Wednesday night, and sit down at our linened table with the menu, we feel reasonably optimistic. The restaurant is attached to a biggish hotel, and David Karlsson Möller (formerly of Racine on the Brompton Road - still wonderful) is in the kitchen. The room has an oddly post-industrial feel, all exposed bricks and sickly green lighting: L-shaped, with an attractive copper-sided bar. It’s almost ten o’clock, and we’re just in time to catch the second wind of the cheapish theatre menu. While its dishes have an obvious frugal bent, they read well enough: smoked salmon or salad tiède with duck confit, then a bavette steak with Béarnaise or a wild mushroom risotto, followed by crème caramel or rhubarb tart. Total cost: £24.

Oh. My. God. The duck salad is my worst dish so far this year: chewy, greasy clumps of fowl flung over baby chard, tossed with brittle, bricky croutons, and spattered in a fatty Hellman’s zig-zag. Smoked salmon is almost comically revolting – lanky, farmed, luminescently oily, its rank fishiness buttressed by a nauseating blob of roe. Then that steak – did I mention it was tough? – before the rhubarb tart: a dry, oversweet slab; and a crème caramel tasting of syrup and baby sick. We flee out into the night, vowing never to return.


But by a strange coincidence, I end up back here three days later. A friend of the family is staying in the hotel, and I meet her for breakfast on the way to work. Eggs Benedict is, of course, one of the world’s great dishes. The version here is not. Its poached eggs are ferociously undercooked, and when pierced, spurt across the plate in a watery yellow squelch. The salmon makes a terrifying return, the brioche is cloyingly sweet, and the hollandaise tastes stoutly of lemony fat and pus. Service, like the other evening, is slow and distractedly haughty. Still, I say thanks and goodbye, and cycle to work. There, within minutes, I feel a grip of nausea, deep, perturbed groans of the belly, slow waves of gathering sick. I rush to the loo and throw my breakfast up hotly onto the porcelain with clenched, noisy violence. Perhaps those eggs weren't fresh, or perhaps my body was telling me never to return - if so, message received. It's a shame the Chelsea Brasserie exists at all. It's a shame that customers have to suffer its food, and a shame that the same food can make them ill. Shame, in fact, is a good word to associate with the place. Then again, I suppose, that's tough.


The Chelsea Brasserie, Chelsea, London SW1W
Tel. +44 (0)7881 5999

See on the TFYS Map

Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £48

Chelsea Brasserie on Urbanspoon

29/03/2009

Roast Duck with Petits Pois à la Française and Bacon

This verdant dish is based on a composite of two recipes: one from Elizabeth David's classic French Provincial Cooking, and a similar one from Rick Stein's first Food Heroes book. David pot roasts the bird, makes a stock from the giblets as the base of her gravy, and bulks the peas with bacon. Stein adds cooked gem lettuce to the peas (the 'à la française' part) and roasts the duck in the English manner. I thought I'd combine the best bits of each: I liked the bacon idea, and dry roasting the duck yields equally tender, somewhat less fatty meat. The result was a roaring success, although once again my photography skills were so useless, I couldn't bear to put the picture up...

Serves 2 - 4, depending on the size of your duck

Ingredients

1 duck, with giblets (mine was a little under 5 lbs)
Salt
Pepper

1 carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
1 onion, halved and peeled
2 sticks celery, roughly chopped
1 bay leaf
Few strands thyme
Small bunch parsley

2 Little Gem lettuces, outer leaves removed, cut across the root into six pieces
200g unsmoked lardons or diced pancetta
400g frozen petits pois
Small bunch spring onions, green bits removed, white bits halved
2 tsps redcurrant jelly


Several hours in advance if possible, or even overnight, cover the duck generously with sea salt, including inside the cavity. Leave to rest in a cool place. This will help the skin crisp and the fat run out during cooking.

To make the gravy, place all the duck giblets except the liver into a medium saucepan with the onion, carrot, celery, parsley, thyme, bay leaf, a couple of twists from the pepper mill, and 1/2 pint water. Bring to the boil and allow to simmer gently, covered, for what David calls 'a good hour' (which I took to be about an hour and 15 minutes). Strain, discarding the giblets, and reserve the broth.

Preheat oven to 230 C. Wipe off the excess salt from the duck with a dry cloth (a wet one would undermine the whole point of the salting), season with pepper, and score the skin four or five times across each breast, just skimming the meat. Place in a roasting tin and roast for 20 minutes, then drain off the fat, and return to the oven with the heat turned down to 180 C. Leave to roast for an hour - or an hour and 15 minutes if you have a very big bird - pouring off the fat every 15 minutes or so. Duck fat is just as good as goose fat for roast potatoes, and keeps very well in the fridge, so you may want to hold on to it.

About ten minutes before the duck needs to come out the oven, start making the petits pois. Sweat the lardons in a saucepan, with a little olive oil if you think they need it, until they've taken on some some colour. Add the spring onions and leave to soften for a couple of minutes. Throw in the lettuce and let it wilt slightly, then pour in the frozen peas and a few tablespoons of water. Put the lid on the pan and allow the peas to cook over a lowish heat for about ten minutes, or until ready. Taste and correct seasoning - with the bacon, you may not need any salt.

Once the duck is removed from the oven and roasting tin, put the tin back on the hob and, over a medium heat, add the giblet stock, redcurrant jelly, and a few more sprigs of thyme. Scrape away the lovely caramelised bits on the bottom of the tin and incorporate them into the gravy. Simmer gently for five or six minutes, correct the seasoning, then pour into a jug or gravy boat. By now, the duck should have been resting for ten to 15 minutes. Carve, and serve in thin slices over the peas. Pour over the gravy, and serve on very hot plates with some mashed potato.

28/03/2009

Rhubarb and Ginger Sorbet


March can be a tricky time in the kitchen. The weather has moved into spring, and the days seem warmer and brighter. But the shelves are still filled with ancient roots: dry old parsnips and last year's swedes. Rhubarb is one of the few things that really comes into its own at this time of year. Although I love it in crumbles, tarts and pies (and it makes the best fool), this sorbet is a fantastic way of serving it. It captures the proud tartness of the stalk, with the ginger bringing a gentle touch of spice. It's quite difficult to photograph - not helped by the fact I don't have an ice-cream scoop - but trust me, this was pink and lovely.

Serves 6

Ingredients

400g forced English rhubarb, chopped into inch-thick slices
200g unrefined caster sugar
Half a vanilla pod, split
Smallish piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped (about the size of a melon ball)
Lump of stem ginger in syrup, the same size, finely chopped
1 lemon, zest removed

Put a medium saucepan on a low heat, and add the vanilla pod and 250ml water. Add the sugar, and heat gently until it's dissolved. Then turn up the heat, and boil rapidly, uncovered, for four and a half minutes. You need to be quite precise with the timing: too much boiling and the sorbet won't set, not enough and it will be unpleasantly icy. Add the rhubarb, lemon zest and ginger and gently poach, covered, until the rhubarb is completely tender, a matter of 15 minutes or so. Allow to cool slightly, then remove the vanilla pod and add the juice from half the lemon. Taste, bearing in mind that you want it to be slightly oversweet at this point - and add more lemon juice if you think it needs it. Thoroughly liquidise in a blender. Strain through a sieve, pushing all the fruit through, and chill for an hour in the fridge. Pour into an ice-cream maker and churn until it's ready.

23/03/2009

The Cinnamon Club, Zeen, Tayyabs


The Cinnamon Club

★★★★☆
Zeen
★☆☆☆☆
Tayyabs
★★★★★


Surely some of the happiest legacies of Britain’s dodgy colonial past are the new tastes we now enjoy: of coffee, chocolate and tomatoes: of sugar, spice, and all those nice things. India, which eventually symbolised the Empire, doubtless gave more ingredients than anywhere else. Through tallow and slaughter, caprice and suzerainty, democracy, Lutyens, trains and tea, flowed hundreds of foodstuffs to this rainy island, absorbed like red wine on a tablecloth. From the Puritan revolution to the nineteenth century, woefully underused – except by a few discerning rich – were cardamom, cumin, turmeric, or the Scoville thwack of the chilli. The Hindostanee Coffee House, opened off Oxford Street in 1809, was a watershed, a crucial dent in a wretchedly insipid diet of mushy vegetables, smelly cheese, grey meat and small beer. Dear Izzy Beeton, despite still having an enormous amount to teach us, recommended that Savoy cabbage be boiled for up to three-quarters of an hour. The disparity between her days and ours is clear today in the East End and Southall, in Birmingham and Bradford, and in grey, dour Glasgow; of all the many lands the British plundered and spoiled, when it comes to food, we owe the subcontinent the greatest debt. Its people changed our palate forever. Before the Raj, the tastiest thing an Englishman ever ate was an oyster. And it probably poisoned him.


I’ve recently been to three Indian restaurants (a ham-fisted adjective, I know, but even the restaurant owners seem to lump Indian food with Bengali and Pakistani). Each place was very different, and a joint review makes sense because it highlights the wealth of this food currently in the capital. The Cinnamon Club is the sort of place paunched backbenchers dine their mistresses and burn their second home allowance. Vivek Singh is the head chef, with The Capital’s Eric Chavot – he of wittily globalised haute cuisine – in a consultant role. Under the shadow of Big Ben, David and I enjoy a benchmark offer – probably one of the best in the city – of three courses and a signature cocktail for just 22 pounds. There’s an amuse, too: a dainty tapioca fishcake, which we have with the 'Cinnamon bellini'. It's a splash of fizz, a strange cinnamon liqueur and a dancing splinter of bark: exotically refreshing and boozily seductive.

Two pheasant sheekh kebabs are gamey and pink, ripe with the English countryside, cooled by a quirky paprika raita. Beneath a spiced yellow jacket, a fillet of grilled red snapper is clean and pearly – delicately flavoured with saffron and cardamom, a zigzag of vibrant chutney marrying it to the celeriac salad. And there are juicy, sunburnt chicken thighs – my favourite part of the bird – cooked in the tandoor and bathed in a perfumed sauce of tomato and fenugreek. A Punjabi-style aubergine steak with aubergine chutney is convincing, stout and meaty. Despite excellent presentation - suggesting a proper pâtissier - puddings are rather disappointing: orange and ginger parfait with salted nut shortbread lacks punch, while a chocolate cake with pistachio and macaroon collapses without even trying. They even offer petit fours - a macaroon, a miniature strawberry madeleine, white and dark chocolate truffles, and a blackcurrant jelly. I say again: this meal cost 22 pounds a head. The Cinnamon Club is the best luxury Indian I’ve been to, more thoughtful, delicate and reasonable than both Tamarind (stripped of its Michelin star in the last bout) and Amaya.

Zeen, which recently opened behind Euston Station, is financed by Sir Gulam Noon, multimillionaire doyen of the microwave dinner. Sir Gulam, who named the restaurant after his daughter, Zeenat Harnal, makes packaged curry (Thai, Indian, Mexican, you name it) for Budgens, the Bombay Brasserie and everyone in between. I’m not going to get too food snob about ready meals, because I know that, for example, a lasagne takes hours to do properly, and I was recently served an M & S one which, on an effort-reward basis, wasn't that bad. Frankly, though, a Morrison's chicken korma would put lunch at Zeen to shame.

I went with Richard Harden, editor of the excellent restaurant guides. We were served food of such sunken joylessness, such pitiless absence of life or colour, it was like eating the contents of an urn. The basement on Drummond Street – the Brick Lane of the Sixties, I understand – is a hastily constructed paean to blandness; the décor throughout is that brownish orange popular in kitchen colour schemes of the Seventies. A soft-shell crab in a garlic butter sauce is a grease-sodden disaster: fatty goo in spindly batter. ‘Melange of fritters’ – mixed pakora vegetables – are beige to eye and tongue. A spatchcocked poussin is marinated – get this – on its bony side, ignoring its young, faint flesh. Whatever taste we might have hoped for from the mint, coconut and coriander – a limp-wristed mixture if ever I saw one – it's smeared firmly on to the corrugated ribcage, the meat itself carrying all the savour of cellophane. The ‘Zeen platter’ of butter chicken, aloo gobi, daal and naan is the final timid squeak from a kitchen that seems to think it's producing food for a crèche. Richard described the meal as a ‘symphony in brown,’ and he’s right – lunch here was like the monotonous fart of a bassoon.

And then there’s Tayyabs, the secret everyone knows about, on a scuzzy backroad in the distant parts of Whitechapel. I went as one of a dozen or so food bloggers – links to all their sites below – and had one of the best south Asian meals I’ve ever had. (Click here for Chris's superb photos of the evening.) Together, we eat virtually every dish for which the restaurant is justly famous: blistered, succulent lamb chops foggy with smoke, tender okra in a sauce deep with tomato and coriander, darkly pungent dry meat curry - more appetising than it sounds – pillowy, ghee-smeared naan and soft, flappy paratha. Then (thanks to Chris from Cheese and Biscuits and Helen from Food Stories) appear tender, slow-cooked legs of lamb, slathered in a sauce shimmering with cumin, chilli and butter, and served with dainty peas, clean shredded lettuce and nutty pilau. The meat sags from the bone in lazy, patient wodges, tender as they could possibly be, lifted and muddled by the tan sauce. I finish with a creamy pistachio kulfi, surprisingly made almost entirely from natural ingredients, balmy after the vivid fire of the table. Authentically Pakistani as it is, Tayyabs is BYO (no corkage, though - or corkscrew), and Dan from Bibendum supplies sweet Riesling and gentle Zinfandel, which I sip after some Goose Island Pale Ale, generously offered by Joel from Tipped. This was, quite simply, a faultless dinner, lively, filling and almost embarrassingly cheap, and I teetered home on my bicycle plump with the merry feeling only new friends and outstanding food can bring.


The Cinnamon Club, The Old Westminster Library, 30-32 Great Smith St, London SW1P
See on the TFYS Map
Tel. +44 (0)7222 2555
Three-course set lunch for two, with drink, costs £44 excluding service.

Zeen, 130 Drummond Street, London NW1
See on the Map
Tel. +44 (0)7387 0606
Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs about £30.

Tayyabs, 83-89 Fieldgate Street, London E1
See on the Map
Tel. +44 (0)7247 6400
Greedy dinner for one, excluding service, is unlikely to cost £15. If you spend £20 on food, you have my eternal respect.

www.cinnamonclub.com
www.zeenrestaurant.co.uk
www.tayyabs.co.uk

Tayyabs Bloggers and Sites:

http://aroundbritainwithapaunch.blogspot.com/
http://bibendum-wine.co.uk/blog
http://cheesenbiscuits.blogspot.com/
http://cooksister.typepad.com/
http://dinnerdiary.org/
http://eatlikeagirl.com/
http://helengraves.co.uk/
http://lizzieeatslondon.blogspot.com/
http://londonist.com/
http://www.silverbrowonfood.com/
http://tamarindandthyme.wordpress.com/
http://tikichris.com/
http://tipped.co.uk/
http://worldfoodieguide.com/

Cinnamon Club on Urbanspoon

Zeen on Urbanspoon

New Tayyab on Urbanspoon

21/03/2009

Prawn Laksa


A vibrant soup to nurse you back to health. Don't be put off by the long list of ingredients: everything should be in a decent supermarket. The bok choi is inauthentic - true Malaysian laksa has no vegetables except bean sprouts - but I think it brings a nice cabbagey crunch to proceedings. Feel free to fiddle with quantities and ingredients. You might consider adding some finely sliced cucumber just before serving.

Serves 2

Ingredients

For the curry paste:

3 fat cloves garlic, peeled
5 shallots, peeled
2 sticks lemongrass, stripped of their tough outer layers and finely chopped
2-6 bird's eye chillies, depending on taste (I used four, including seeds)
A lump of galangal or ginger, the size of your thumb, chopped
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp turmeric
3 limes
Big bunch of coriander, with root, roughly chopped
About 10 leaves of holy basil
1 tbsp fresh green peppercorns
1 tsp palm or caster sugar
Nam pla
Salt
Pepper

500ml good chicken stock (I used the chilled Waitrose stuff this time)
250ml coconut cream
200g rice noodles or vermicelli
2 big handfuls of large raw prawn tails
4 tbsp shelled, unsalted peanuts
Small bunch holy basil
2 tbsp fresh green peppercorns
4 pak choi
Groundnut or sunflower oil


First, make the curry paste. In a pestle and mortar or food processor, thoroughly blend the garlic, shallots, lemongrass, chillies, galangal or ginger, spices, the zest and juice of one lime, the roughly chopped coriander root and stalks, holy basil, peppercorns, 3 tbsps of nam pla, sugar, a decent pinch of salt and several grinds of the pepper mill. It's almost impossible to overblend curry paste - the more you mash it all together, the better it will be. Doing it by hand might give a slightly better result, but it's a damn sight more work. I used the Magimix.

Put a biggish saucepan on a medium heat. Add 2-3 tbsps of oil, and gently fry the paste for a minute or so. It should smell fantastic. Add the chicken stock, coconut cream, green peppercorns and several shakes of the nam pla bottle, and simmer with the lid on for about 15 minutes.

Roast the peanuts in a dry frying pan until they've taken on lovely burnt spots. Set them aside.

Add the dried noodles to the soup and let them soften. Separate the leaves and stems of the pak choi. Halve the stems so that they cook more quickly, and add them to the soup with the prawns. When they're all pink, add the bok choi leaves and the roasted peanuts. Season to taste. Garnish with more holy basil and coriander, and serve with cut limes.

16/03/2009

Zum See, Zermatt, Switzerland

★★★★☆

In the mountains, there you feel free. We swung between Triftji’s moguls, scrunching the muffled slope, testing tentative routes down the steep, mottled face. A metre had fallen in two days, eerie and gentle, talc so puffily insubstantial we couldn’t even make snowballs from it. The powder brushed our waists; we turned, waded and fell. You’d never know the Matterhorn was rearing just above: a savage Toblerone cliché, now vaporised, cloaked in cloud.

We reached the restaurant ruddy and breathless – hat-haired, snow-flecked, sweaty-footed and stiff. The creaking barn is a reminder of the village’s origins, of a hard, hoary life, when grizzled men led Whymper and Roosevelt up scree and cliff, before there were chairlifts that began in Switzerland and ended in Italy, and when a glass of wine didn’t cost the same as an easyJet plane ticket. The past echoes also in Zum See’s food, in protean proteins: cheese and preserved flesh, and whatever else might last the winter. And since Italy is so close – 20 minutes, when you ski as fast as T does – there’s pasta too: buttered curlicues of tagliatelle and fat ravioli; and grill-dappled gratins and burnished röstis. This is Zermatt, though, so the menu also lists oysters and Perrier Jouët, and sea bass in ginger; and there are lissom, mink-wrapped women here who’ve never skied a day in their lives, combing their hair in mirrors drawn from preposterous handbags.

‘Your table is outside,’ says the genial Max Mennig, who runs the place with his wife, Greti. Icicles hang, undripping, from the awnings; and in the wet, bleaching light, the gloves are on. Breath misting, we wrap ourselves in blue blankets and drink the Fendant that arrives in a bucket of snow. It’s warming, despite its chill, with dryish, delicate notes of elderflower and peach. Before long, a plank of cheese and meat emerges, both sliced to transparence, rippling like waves. The Comté is as brittle as the ice on a puddle, salty and soured; the air-dried beef has a thick, masculine minerality, sliced by the acid crunch of cornichons and pickled silverskins. We cloak the cheese, a degree above freezing, in the meat, and press it to the black bread of the mountains, so ancient, fragile and ugly, so right, that the basket’s finished in minutes.

The plates arrive too hot to touch. A dozen sweetbreads are stunningly good, swirled in cream and morels, bulked and softened by a proper serving of noodles. It’s a superlative dish, soulful and generous: sweet, milky, squidgy thymuses. Equally delicious are kidneys in a mustard sauce, with more tagliatelle. The dense offal is heady with the sour, umami whiff of urine, in a deep, buttery sauce studded by the fragrant, almost citrus savour of popping mustard seeds. We drink Dôle with it all – more than one bottle, actually – glugging the ruby wine while the plates steam before us, contended, squiffy and at ease.

Puddings seem an afterthought for this kitchen: an apple strudel is stodgy and squat, overcinnamoned, in a crème anglaise of thick, bland egginess; and a hard, sterile meringue crumbles like chalk. The pavlova is smeared with vapid cream squirted from an aerosol, a spume devoid of anything approaching flavour, and with an unpleasant airy texture. The couple next door, who’ve walked across the glacier to get here, are sharing the signature Napoléon pudding. ‘Ve come here for zis every year,’ they tell us, and you have to wonder why zey bozzer. It looks like any old mille-feuille to me, with crisp layers of puff pastry and an almond paste, and it too is sprayed in shaving foam moonlighting as cream. Not, in truth, that we really care. Another bottle of Dôle, please, Max.

Towards the end, they find space for us in the muggy dining room, amid cramped, laughing tables, black wood, sepia photographs of rock and herd, twitching candles, and the honest reek of melted Gruyère. Our boots clunk like gavels on the slippery tiles. With excellent coffee, we all have poire Williams: crystalline rocket fuel, fruity and gasping. In a very after-lunch mood, I make a note in my little restaurant book: ‘William: best postprandial ever’. Then out and down we toddle, boisterous and unsteady, mending our rocking way to the Hennu Stall for the après-ski rumspringa. Above us, the lifts judder and stall, as the chamois pad to shelter, the mercury starts to tumble, the grey light wanes, and the nebulous cloud sinks and glooms into the valley.

Zum See, Max and Greti Mennig, 3920 Zermatt
Tel. +41 (0)27 967 20 45


See on the TFYS Map

Lunch for four, including drinks and service, costs CHF 400 (approx. £260 at current, punishing rates).

09/03/2009

The London Carriage Works, Liverpool (Competition!)

★★☆☆☆


A bit of fun for this review. I'll send a bottle of champagne (or non-alcoholic equivalent, if you prefer), anywhere in the world, to someone who correctly identifies every song below recorded by the Fab Four. Submissions, please, to thringforyoursupper@gmail.com. Of those who get it right, one name will be drawn randomly from a hat after 12 April.
If you need it, ask for a little help from your friends. Good luck!


Five boys and a girl, we've come together in Liverpool for the weekend. Flying, of course, would have bypassed the long and winding road. But I didn't take a plane or drive my car: I had a ticket to ride on the train. Heading north, I met another day-tripper. 'Do you want to know a secret?' he asked. I made no reply. He continued: 'I've been searchin' this town for the best place to eat, from Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields, forever, it seemed. And now, I want to tell you where you should go: The London Carriage Works. I simply dig it; the place leaves me glad all over.'

'I've got a feeling he might be right,' said G, who lives in this town. 'Yes, it is good,' offered R. 'Well, if I needed someone to recommend a restaurant, I'd go to Michelin,' huffed S. Me, I simply thought, 'Carriage Works, don't let me down.'

Oh darling, what a fuss they've made on the place! If you travelled right across the universe, you wouldn't find a more pretentious restaurant. Every little thing it does seems calculated to irritate: there are weird glass shapes hanging from the ceiling (but no glass onion, thankfully), and a bare hardwood floor on which the heels of the waitress - Sexy Sadie, someone christened her - clop loudly. The former carriage-maker's has undergone a revolution, when they should have let it be. The menu's a helter skelter across France, Italy and Britain, although I like the way it suggests a different wine for each dish. Three cool cats next door are having a birthday party, and their night is a long way from the end.

A questionnaire at my place informs me that this is a 'modern contemporary restaurant'. True enough, there are plenty of seasonal ingredients, and no Savoy truffle. But no matter how much the taxman's taking, £27.50 seems a lot for a small piece of sirloin. For some, a beginning to the meal is venison carpaccio: slices of nondescript meat, enjoyable for no one. Pan-fried halloumi is better, but I can scarcely find words of love for some salty cheese and what the menu calls 'wilted' tomatoes. Spinach soup is a purée of grass cuttings and rain: underblended, flecked with chlorophyll strings. Using the tip of my tongue, I taste a little linguine with tomato and chicken. It's awful. The sauce is a claggy, limp paste, reminiscent of a world without love. You know what to do with this? Put it in the bin.


After a wait, two of us are served matchbox-sized pieces of overcooked halibut. (Don't ask me why it comes on that ridiculous slate tile.) Deep-fried haddock is battered weirdly with cayenne, and looks like an old brown shoe. An excellent duck breast, though, has a taste of honey, and comes with a hot, fragrant sauce of pink peppercorns. I could eat this dish any time at all. But just when I think things are getting better, help! A little child could dream up a better vegetarian dish than grilled mushrooms with butternut squash. It too comes with spinach - 'Not a second time!' says R, who had it in her starter. 'Run for your life!' says G, but we'll have something else before we go.

There's a selection of 16 cheeses, and though I just don't understand why there isn't a trolley, they turn out to be in excellent condition. We order them all, including Kidderton Ash - a fine, grassy goat's. Piggies that we are, we finish the lot. 'I'll be on my way,' I say to the waitress, and I speak for everyone. It's time to get back into town. Good night.

Although I've got a feeling the London Carriage Works will outlive the recession, much of this long, long, long meal was sheer misery. It wasn't all bad, but a lot of it, I'm afraid, was junk. You won't see me coming back, anyway, not a second time. I think, perhaps, the best way to treat the place might be to say, 'Hello, goodbye.'


The London Carriage Works, 40 Hope Street, Liverpool L1
Tel.: +44 (0)151 705 2222

See on the TFYS Map

Dinner for six, including drinks and service, costs £288

London Carriageworks on Urbanspoon

08/03/2009

The Light, Shoreditch, London

My post on this woeful establishment has generously been published by Kang on his magnificent website, London Eater.

If you enjoy the review, do please vote for me in the guest blogger competition that he's running there. Polls open next week, and I'll provide a link from this site.

In the meantime, click here to read about The Light.

Light House on Urbanspoon