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29/07/2009

Eastside Inn, Clerkenwell, London [Review]

Eastside Inn


★★★★☆



The chef at Eastside Inn is called Bjorn van der Horst. What a brilliantly Teutonic name. It positively glints with steel-eyed Prussian ruthlessness, with Wagnerian grandeur and Danubes of authority. Byawwn - a name that speaks of sun bursting over hilltops, or of the slightly gayer one in Abba. And van der - I’ve never understood quite what that punchy little insertion does to someone's name, but it sounds emphatically blue-blooded. And then, of all possibilities, he follows it with Horst – a gruff snort of a surname, an army, a horsed, haughty host. Bjorn van der Horst. Couldn't be better. Even if it does also sound like a Dutch milliner.


Nothing in restaurant reviewing is more dull than lengthy chefs' biographies. No phrase is simultaneously as irritating and patronising as ‘He comes with quite a pedigree.’ So I won’t say it: van der Horst isn’t an Alsatian, after all. (He's actually Dutch-Spanish.) But he first came to prominence at a very reputable restaurant called The Greenhouse, which is still going strong, and then at La Noisette, which had cracks. Funny story, actually: in a mercifully short-lived stint as a restaurant reviewer in The Times, Gordon Ramsay ate van der Horst’s food at The Greenhouse. Big Sweary's broadly favourable piece ended with the chilling line: ‘What [van der Horst] needs now is to find someone to show him restraint’. Within a year, van der Horst was one of Gordon Ramsay’s holdings.


But now he’s set up on his own, in the lush gastronomic savannah of Clerkenwell. St. John and Vinoteca are a couple of doors down, and Portal, a restaurant I still haven’t been to but which I’ll plug here because a mate’s dad owns it, is a little way towards Angel.


Eastside Inn is almost visibly shooting for gongs, stars and plaudits, laden with expectation and steeped in sweat, frippery, fiddling and fuss. The atmosphere sags with the perfume a tart might use to attract Michelin inspectors; caked-on frogginess; linen and Riedel; the oleaginous, elitist ooze that the tired tyre company so reveres. Horrible artwork gawps invasively from the walls. Eastside Inn is a schizophrenic split between bistro and restaurant: an approach that makes perfect sense, actually, though only a chef with van der Horst's talent could pull it off.


And talent he has in spades. Let me say now: the food here is bloody good. So good, in fact, I did something I’ve never done before: I went for lunch, and returned the same day for dinner. Lunch was a set menu – three courses for £35, and an extra tenner for two matched glasses of wine. That prices the food towards the middle of the capital’s gastrotemples, although it must be said that seven quid extra at Le Gavroche works a bit harder. Pleasingly, however, most of the dishes on the set lunch are straight off the tasting menu, which is £70 for seven courses (plus a trio of superb amuses and petits fours and all the rest of it) and is very fairly priced. One of the best-value degustations I’ve ever had.


A basil sorbet, just a smidgen too sweet, rippled the herb onto my tongue - soft as thick yoghurt, perfumed like the ground floor of a department store, and completely transfixing. And the tiniest morsel of veal belly, its meat tender as a hospice nurse, came with a coriander pesto, which sounds silly, but wasn’t. Skate - at dinner, turbot - with a confit of snails was brilliantly original, a delight. Sublime, too, was an almond gazpacho with prawn, paprika and a little tomato sorbet: one of the best dishes I've had all year.


But for all van der Horst's brilliance, he strikes me as a curious sort. He names a salad of tapenade, feta and watermelon (a clever idea, done well) after Matthew Norman, the critic of The Guardian. A homage to the writer who loved it? No - Norman hated the dish. Or try this: the instant they saw I had a camera, the pantheons of staff (in a restaurant with maybe 35 covers) hovered and swooped and serried round the table, like ants on jam. I booked under my own name, and they actually emailed me at the address on this blog to ask if I was going to review them.


Something was stranger even than these. Downstairs, by the loos, there's a door that leads to the staff changing rooms. It's made partly of glass so that the below-stairs scurriers don't thwack it in customers' faces. I passed it on the way out, and noticed, through the glass, a poster with a lot of faces on it, with names written underneath. A staff photo. How sweet, I thought.


But then I looked closer. It was a shrine, or perhaps a rogues' gallery, of almost every major restaurant critic in the country. Rayner, Gill, Winner, Coren, Maschler, Dimond, Sitwell, Macleod, Norman, Spicer, Young, Durack and Moir - the men and women whose writing I devour every day, Blu-Tacked in a panoply of paranoia.


Now, I realise a lot of restaurants do this, particularly ones that take themselves as seriously as Eastside Inn. But to position such a picture in full view of every customer who nips down for a pee is either staggeringly careless or - I can't but wonder - a superb, Mephistophelean flourish of flattery, like naming a salad for the critic who loathed it.


Not everything triumphed. A plate of savoury scrambled eggs was toddler’s diarrhoea, and a giant Kinder Egg was apparently flambéed in White Lightning. The cheese board, too, was appalling. We went on a hot midsummer night, and a blue cheese - I forget what it was - had gone grainy and was practically rotten. And I’m not convinced by that sniggering slice of La Vache Qui Rit, either.


But these are niggles. This is brilliant, overwrought, inventive, impassioned and at times stratospherically good food, presented by a kitchen with justifiably serious intentions and offered by a hospitable and genial front of house. Particular mention should go to Felix Joseph, who looked after Cargy and me as personably and politely as anyone ever has in a restaurant. I will definitely return. And if they want to stick my photo up downstairs, they're welcome to.


The Eastside Inn, 40 St. John Street, London EC1

Tel. +44 (0)20 7490 9230


See on the Map


Set lunch for two costs £70, excluding drinks and service. Seven-course tasting menu for two costs £140 excluding drinks and service.


www.esilondon.com

Eastside Inn on Urbanspoon

25/07/2009

Sicilian Sweet and Sour Rabbit [Recipe]


This is taken from My Cousin Rosa, by the Australian-Sicilian writer Rosa Mitchell. Her publisher, Murdoch, sent me the book. It has some really lovely recipes: preserved artichokes, borlotti bean soup, how to make salami; as well as probably Sicily's most famous meat dish, falsomagro - stuffed, rolled beef. (Mitchell spells it 'farsomagro', and I can't believe she does so accidentally. Are they two different things?)

Coniglio agro dolce hopped out at me straight away. 'Sweet and sour' generally conjures up terrifying images of MSG gloop from The Peking Palace, but that's most unfair. The flavours here work in synchrony, nor harsh nor grating, and rabbit stands up well to them.

Mitchell recommends cooking the flopsies in a covered roasting tin, but I used a casserole. I also had the oven at 180, because I'm impatient. We had some crusty bread on the side - I might have cooked a savoury polenta cake if I'd had more time - and baby English courgettes which I cut into long, thin slices, seasoned, then griddled with olive oil, some chopped red chilli, a squeeze of lemon and a little Microplaned pecorino.

Ingredients

Serves 6-8

2 young rabbits, cut into 6-8 pieces, ribcages discarded
150g plain flour
125ml olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 celery stalk, finely chopped
1 small carrot, finely chopped
2 tbsps small salted capers, rinsed
3 tbsps sultanas, plumped in water for about 5 minutes
200g large green pitted olives, roughly chopped (I left mine whole)
4 tbsps honey
125ml red wine vinegar
750ml chicken stock

'Preheat the oven to 160C. Lightly coat the rabbit with the flour, seasoned with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan, add the rabbit in batches and brown all over. Remove all the rabbit from the pan.

Add the onion, celery and carrot to the pan and cook for about 10 minutes over medium heat. Add the capers, sultanas and olives and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes.

Put the rabbit pieces in a large roasting tin and tip the onion mixture over the rabbit. Mix together the honey and vinegar and, when the honey has dissolved, pour over the rabbit. Add the stock and season with salt and pepper.

Cover tightly with foil and bake for 1-2 hours, checking the rabbit every 30 minutes. When the meat starts to fall off the bone, the dish is ready.'

23/07/2009

The Anchor & Hope, Southwark, London [Review]

The Anchor & Hope

★★☆☆☆


People who fancy themselves restaurant experts tend to bang on about The Anchor & Hope. ‘Have you been to The Anchor & Hope?’ they meaningfully demand of anyone who claims to enjoy eating out. Nope. ‘Oh, but you must. You really, really must.’ They make it sound like a recommendation, a friendly piece of advice. But make no mistake: The Anchor & Hope is one of the yardsticks by which the food Nazis assess you. You don’t measure up if you haven’t been - so I got myself down there quicker than quick.

It’s a gastropub. And almost without exception, gastropubs are awful. Flailing, calculated defences against squeezing margins and bogofing supermarkets. Nothing to do with hospitality. Pubs were built to serve nothing more complex than a communal ashtray of Bombay Mix. So all that skimped, flimsy catering equipment set up in hastily-revamped, rat-filled basements, in dirty old loos, upstairs broomcupboards and beer-garden sheds, those menus jotted down on beermats: it’s a slapdash skin-graft pubs are far better without. No wonder the food is always terrible. Sticking gastro- onto a nice old -pub is like putting a plastic strap on a Rolex.

When I began learning to drink – and it’s something I’ve learned rather well – ‘salmon steak on a bed of rice’, hormone-and-gristle burgers, and ‘Medditterranean vegetable tart’ were just appearing on pub menus, as welcome and appropriate as a stag-night hooker at the wedding. In spawning the gastropub, we jettisoned one of the core, not-just-for-tourists things that defined us as a nation – for rubbery mussels and tapeworm spaghetti. Saddest of all, at the precise moment the inklings of a British culinary revival seemed to be taking place, publicans shunned the very food that would have best suited their premises and their customers. When was the last time you saw steak and kidney pudding on a pub menu? And what about ‘Thai green curry’?

Admittedly, the menu at The Anchor & Hope is better. The restaurant is in the same lonely slump of Southwark as The Wine Theatre (closing soon, we hope, to boos and chucked tomatoes). Its space is markedly depressing – dark and dour as bracken; so we sat outside. This is another of St. John’s progeny, but without the austere charm and self-assured invention of the parent.

‘Gazpacho’ looks like an enthusiastic toddler picked up handfuls of stuff lying around the kitchen and dumped them over the soup. How the hell are you supposed to eat it? Croutons, egg, onions, parsley and worst of all… two bloody great ice cubes melting in the middle. The soup itself, which has too much chilli, is utterly overpowered by bitter onion and grassy parsley. It's barely an acceptable example of this great dish, and certainly no better than the one I had at Gallery Mess a couple of weeks ago.

‘Middlewhite tonnato’ is a porky reworking of the pan-Italian dish of veal with a sauce of what Elizabeth David always called tunny fish. It’s good, with acid little capers and a peppery afro of rocket. Ox heart is like chewing the face off a platypus. The meat has the texture and flavour of a well-used fly-swat. Nor is there any sign of the promised pickled walnuts.

Most grim is the priciest dish on the menu: roast pigeon with foie gras. It’s a tough and monstrous old bird, like Ann Widdecombe, and the runner beans are stringy as a harp. But these are simply ambrosia compared to the foie gras. It looks like something a woolly mammoth might cough up, or a jellyfish might menstruate. It leaches in unspeakable, sinewy globules over the pigeon, smothering all trace of flavour and texture. It’s probably the worst presentation of foie gras I’ve ever had, and it renders the dish emphatically inedible.

Puddings – thank God – are better, and hold the one delight of the meal. An elderflower jelly is perfect, one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. I’ve always loved the dew-wet, Shropshire scent of the flowers, sealed and settled by jelly. A little whipped cream and some gently poached gooseberries bring lingering, languorous flavours of summer. There’s also a tayberry ripple ice cream, which is a nice idea, although I’ve always found the tayberry the least impressive of Scotland’s soft fruits. Finally, a buttermilk pudding, which resembles a mammary implant and which tastes of gelatine-set bulimia.

The original chef of the Anchor & Hope has apparently jumped ship, and I imagine the current rudderless feel to the place will have something to do with that. This is a restaurant steered by faltering experience, propelled by the winds of reputation towards the jagged rocks of fiscal reality, with the monsters of competition thrashing beneath. It would do better to raise its anchor and set its hope on returning to its home shipyard – it would be better, in fact, as a pub.


The Anchor & Hope, 36 The Cut, London SE1
Tel. +44 (0)871 0757279

See on the Map

Lunch for two, excluding drinks and service, costs about £50

I can’t find a website for the Anchor & Hope. If you know of one, please let me know in the comments. Thanks.

All pictures mine except the exterior shot, which I found here.

Anchor & Hope on Urbanspoon


Edit: I changed the link to the exterior photo based on the comment below from Ewan of Pubology.

20/07/2009

Food in Space [Article]

John Glenn eating a tube of space food aboard Friendship 7 in 1962.

To coincide with the 40th anniversary of the Moon landings, I've written a piece on the history of eating in space.

The Guardian published it here, in their food blog, Word of Mouth.


Edit: For a more detailed description of the food eaten aboard Apollo 11, please see this post on the brilliant Eat Me Daily.

10/07/2009

The Fish Club, Clapham, London

The Fish Club

★★★☆☆

My mate Patrick is off to Rwanda. Off as in off. With a rucksack full of chloroquine and naked intent, he’s gone to seek his fortune where the streets are paved with mud. A bit like Cecil Rhodes, but with fewer scruples. Most of my peers plopped from university into the professions like upended jellies. Patrick will be the hero of his own life, and I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing him well.

Six of us took him to The Fish Club, to upload him with dew-eyed memories of fish, chips and chums in Ubwongereza, which means ‘England’ in Kinyarwanda and which is not a word you’re likely to see again.

As you don’t need me to point out, The Fish Club’s problem is fish. Or rather, the lack of them. My dad, who lives abroad, orders cod and chips whenever he sees them. It reminds him of his childhood, I think, when it was cheaply, blamelessly ubiquitous. In one of the saddest about-faces of modern times, it’s now tainted, fraught with ecological dilemma. In his lifetime, 95 percent of the cod has been hoovered out the north Atlantic, and 70 percent of edible fish from the world’s oceans. Unchecked, my generation will finish off the rest. So a baby born in 2050 might never taste a seared slab of bluefin, or skate tendrils fanning in black butter, or wild, silvered bass steamed softly with lime leaves.

No doubt there’ll be many consequences of this rape and furrow in the seas, but among the saddest will be the death of the British chippy. People carp at Nobu from their well-meaning perch, but their argument flounders. Nobu will only ever form a tiny morsel of this country’s eating, while there's a chip shop in every town. Fish and chips has been a touchingly democratic dish, loved and tweaked throughout the Kingdom (cod in the south, haddock in the north, vinegar on yours, salt and sauce on mine). We took to it more recently than roast beef, but it’s an inescapable part of who we are. And yet the chippy batters its way to oblivion.

The Fish Club claims to bring fish and chips ‘into the 21st century’. That means it uses coley. Anyone with eyes or a tongue can tell the difference between cod and coley: cod is as white as Hollywood dentistry and tastes of fleshy pearl: coley’s a deathly grey, like eating mulch and hair-shirted virtue.

The restaurant is on St. John’s Hill, that cold strip of Clapham hinterland where almost everyone I know has their starter-flat. There’s an institutionally medicinal feel to the place, the pallid blue of boarding-school sanatorium. The Fish Club isn’t sure whether it’s a take-away or a restaurant, so seats are uncomfortable and tables are shared, and a heavy funk of old oil lingers through the shop, like grandad’s Christmas fart.

The keystone, the fish and chips, is good. That coley is fresh, but the oil was slightly too cold, and the batter clings to the fish like an entrant in a wet T-shirt competition. Half the chips are idiotically spiced with cayenne, but the rest are hot and crisp. We also share a dozen or so rock oysters. They’re damp and milky at this time of the year, lacking the thwack of osmazome. A serried puck of prawns is excellent, green and Nordic with dill, and lovely on hot toast. Some shell-ons are juicy, several of them hens with roe-speckled bellies.

Perfectly-cooked bream is slathered in an oversweet chilli sauce. There’s also some lacklustre salads which we barely touch, some abysmal, grease-sodden roast veg, and a horrendous steak pie, with an interior as congealed and tepid as fresh snot. (We ordered it because one of our number had claimed he didn’t like fish. Don’t judge a man by his friends.) For puddings, a benchmark crème brûlée, a dessicated slab of Bakewell, and some decent bought-in ice cream.

I like the Fish Club. I’d be a demi-regular, I think, if I lived locally. You could eat decently for a tenner here (although we paid a lot more, over-ordering as ever). The staff are knowledgeable, chatty and warm. They’ve priced the plonk well, and it’s a sound match for the food. It was an ideal spot, really, for us to wave our white hankies at our dear departing friend. And now he’s off to eat tilapia, and – though it sounds corny – maize.


The Fish Club, 189 St John’s Hill, London SW11
Tel.: +44 (0)20 7978 7115

See on the Map

Fish, chips, mushy peas and tartare sauce for two costs £18.40.

www.thefishclub.com

Fish Club on Urbanspoon


09/07/2009

The Happy Boiled Egg

This piece also appeared in The Guardian's Word of Mouth food blog.


When civilisation has disintegrated entirely, and the fruitful fields of England, the African savannah, the great plains of the United States and the undulating steppes of Eurasia are all laid waste by flame and war – the remnant of humanity will stand up, dust itself down and ask the question: Where did it all go wrong?

And I could answer. Pinpoint the moment we'd gone too far. The beginning of the end, the first unwavering step towards annihilation.

It was the Happy Boiled Egg.

Yes. Some company has hard-boiled an egg, flayed its shell and stuck it in plastic. Does anything else so epitomise the indolent sloth, the splattered-shirted, fat-arsed torpor of modern living? The manufacturer claims this abomination is designed for people who 'don't have the time or knack to prepare a boiled egg'.

Who are these hard-pressed halfwits? There's no 'knack' to boiling an egg: you only need a watch. And it takes less time (and is usually easier) than having a shower, getting dressed or copulation, and you wouldn't believe someone who told you they didn't have the 'time or knack' to do those.

Eggs are the ur-ingredient. Cooking isn't cooking without them. To a chef, nothing is more vital (a word, like eggs themselves, that embraces life). A puffed and bubbled soufflé, sunset strips of fresh fettucine, the crisp fudge of a meringue - eggs hold the magic molecules of gastronomy. If we shut the kitchen door on the humble boiled egg, we lose one of cookery's most critical rites of passage.

Some years ago, Delia Smith posed for the cover of the Complete Cookery Course clutching a single egg and gazing - with a hint of naughtiness, if we're honest - down the Vaselined lens. Her point is as clear today as it was then: you can't make a cook without breaking eggs. If we're to do anything about obesity in this country, and save our streets from seas of wobbling, nyloned buttocks, we must coax people into the kitchen. Cooking can be a fulfilling joy, but the Happy Boiled Egg would mire us in culinary poverty. It would keep us down. It is a Bourbon of a product.

In the spirit of doughty adventure, I readied myself to try one of these things. But they're not in the shops yet, and neither the company responsible nor their PR agents (and what a gig they got) could or would send any out to me, despite a couple of days of waiting – which hardly suggests a surfeit of confidence. Still, even if – by some miracle – the Happy Boiled Egg had turned out to be in any way edible, it remains a weepingly ridiculous, hysterically contemptible idea.

Today, I hatch the Boil Your Own movement. Join me. Stand up for patience, decency, craft and civilisation. Fight for the yolk of yore, the albumen of Albion. Boil an egg, put it in your child's lunchbox, or in a salad, or go to work on it. Because if you don't act now, my friends, the consequences will be serious. Sure as eggs is eggs.