Monday, 26 November 2012

John Salt

I managed to secure an early reservation for the restaurant at John Salt, which I've heard is already booking up for the duration of it's 6 month residency.  Heading up the kitchen is Ben Spalding, previously of Roganic, which was my favourite restaurant meal of 2011 and many, it seems, are as keen as I was to see what he's up to now.

Having recently moved to Angel, I am also very happy to see an interesting new opening on the otherwise dire Upper Street (save for Pho Express, maybe Byron).  We went for the 8 course tasting menu for £56, they also offer 4 courses for a very reasonable £28, plus there are added extra pre and post meal nibbles.  On Friday night there's a 12 course menu and a roast on Sundays.  Menus are designed in the style of a tube line, blue or red depending on the number of courses you opt for.

I arrived early so sat at the surprisingly empty bar area for a drink, there's a separate bar menu on offer downstairs which is available for walk ins.  Cocktails were good and reasonably priced, albion highball (£7.50) for me and the John Salt martini (£4.50) for Art.

The tasting menu unfolded as follows:-

Nibbles - miso soup was the star, shortrib shin beignets with aioli were also great and in the 
middle, potato crisps with orange marmalade

The bread was magnificent.  Fruit loaf, rosemary bread, a little beer muffin and a cheese thin 
came with 3 different butters served on Himalayan pink salt.  Decadent.

The first of the 8 courses, 35 ingredient salad.  Beautiful, simple and fresh, served on top 
of some sour cream, apparently left out to 'mature' at 25 degrees for 3 days.  
Ingredients are listed on an accompanying bit of paper.

Next up, hen of the woods.  I expected egg but it's a mushroom, of course.  Poached, then roasted, served on ketchup with douglas fir (xmas tree) crumbs, persimmon juice and lettuce.

Then a scallop sandwich with kiwi and culatello (parma ham).  To be eaten with 
your hands, winter truffle shaved at the table, lovely cider butter.  I really liked this,
couldn't taste the truffle though.

Next up, the now famed chicken on a brick.  Liver parfait with lingonberries,
sweetcorn, chicken skin and caramel.  To be licked off the brick.  We got involved.

Then came the maple syrup poached wild salmon with rotten mango juice, kaffir lime
creme fraiche, toasted almonds and dill.  The texture of the salmon provided the
wow factor of this dish, it literally disintegrated when forked.

The vacherin risotto was delicious.  I was most looking forward to this as I read the menu
at the start of the meal, canaroli rice with vacherin cream, grilled cucumber vinegarette
with duck skin and chive oil.  It was hearty and rich, loved the crispy skin.

Next up was my favourite dish.  The heel of beef cooked in wine, served with
kimchi, carrot puree, bok choi and a jug of cooking juice which was powerfully intense.
Loved this, again the texture of the meat was mind blowing, so so good.

Onto dessert and for both of us, this was a little disappointing.  We wanted sweetness, and
sugar but instead we got fennel!  Marinated in absinthe, with chewy rapeseed cake,
blackberries, lemon thyme and tonka bean ice cream.  Nice, but not enough sugar for us.
And, I know it's a thing, savoury ingredients are used in desserts, but I'm not happy about it.

What was brilliant was the little jar of spiced apple and pomegranate fizz, served as a
palate cleanser, then with gin which was a lovely end to the meal and I'd thoroughly
recommend you treat yourself to that as a digestiv.

Salted chocolate with milk sorbet and hazelnuts.  This was more like it, sweet and
sticky, a dessert proper.  And there's the gin in the background.

We drank a bottle of La Casada for a very reasonable £20 and a couple more glasses when we ran out.  The whole meal came to £90 a head, and with so many extras thrown in, and a fair bit of booze, it felt like pretty good value.

I'd read that the acoustics in the building make for very noisy dining, but this wasn't a problem on this occasion, the bar did fill up later in the evening and the upstairs dining area was full (there are only 8 tables).  I did find it a little odd that there was nobody greeting new arrivals at the front, it's definitely a relaxed and casual affair downstairs, find a seat and sit at it but I suppose this is good, it's really unstuffy and service was brilliant once we moved upstairs at 8.  We were the last people to leave and never felt at all rushed.

I enjoyed John Salt and would certainly return, the bar area with a chef's table at the front where a really interesting sounding selection of bar food is assembled entices me.  The greasy chicken skin sandwich particularly appeals.  Upstairs the chefs bring out and explain some of the dishes to you, which I think is a lovely thing.   They even use my favourite skincare brand, Aesop, in the loos.  Get down there, 5 and half months to go.

John Salt
131 Upper Street
N1 1QP

John Salt on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Dabbous is possibly the most hyped restaurant ever to have opened in London.  At the time of writing, they are fully booked for dinner until September 2013 and you won't even be able to get a table for lunch before next April.

With this in mind, and considering that I made my reservation back in May of this year, I was pretty excited about finally getting to sample the food at Dabbous on Saturday.

We opted for the tasting menu, and started things off with a couple of cocktails, 'dillusion' cucumber martini and a bloody mary, both £8.50, and the first edible offering, some brilliant green olives and 4 slices of sourdough bread served in a bag stamped with the date.  Nice smokey churned butter.  I didn't rate the bread, thought it was a bit dry.  The tasting menu then consisted of the following:-
 Hispi cabbage with mayonnaise and sunflower seeds and petals.  This was a tad sickly and quite difficult to eat.  No cutlery.

 Celeriac with muscat grapes, hazelnuts & lovage.  Nice flavours, very delicate, loved the nuts.

 Coddled free range hen egg with woodland mushrooms and smoked butter.

Braised halibut with coastal herbs and pickled garlic.  My favourite dish, but quite difficult to eat with a fork and a spoon. Loved the garlic and the fish was beautifully cooked.

Barbequed Iberico pork, savory acorn praline, turnip tops, apple vinegar.  Pork was a little chewy and difficult to cut, really nice sweet and sour flavour contrasts with the accompaniments.

Artisanal British cheeses with toasted sourdough and baked apple.  Cheese!  A supplement of £9 is charged.  We shared this.

Milk curd with orange, chesnut and azuki beans.  This was really fresh and interesting.  I'm not usually down with orange desserts but the chesnuts won me over.

Chocolate soaked brioche, barley malt ice cream and candied pecans.  This was brilliant.  The brioche was lurking under the chocolate crumbly stuff.

After the cocktails, we had a carafe of Pegasus Bay Riesling from New Zealand, £18.  Nice to see a good selection of wines available in glass and carafe measures.

The highlights for me were the halibut and the chocolate brioche.  But, there's no way to avoid saying that I was disappointed with the meal at Dabbous.  Even the lauded signature dishes of coddled egg and Iberico pork, just didn't knock my socks off, and I so wanted them to.

I found the service almost rudely aloof, nobody attempted to engage us in any remote attempt at conversation.  The dining room is strangely sterile, very dark with exposed brick and wood, and little else of note.

At £54 for the tasting menu, there is certainly better value food to be had in London, and I couldn't help but compare the experience to my recent meal at The Kitchen Table, which couldn't be more different.  There the atmosphere is intimate and involving.  Things ended on a high though, with the arrival of two teeny cannelles topped with cherries, when the bill was delivered.  Prettiest plate of the day. We weren't offered coffees, didn't want it, but nice to be asked.

The cocktails and the desserts were the highlight which leads me to conclude that I would not return to eat upstairs at Dabbous, I would, however, visit Oskar's Bar downstairs for some more of those excellent cocktails. 

39 Whitfield St

Dabbous on Urbanspoon

Friday, 16 November 2012


More tapas.  Whilst endlessly singing the praises of Barrafina, I had, until recently, never tried any of Sam and Eddie Hart's other restaurants.  Over the last few weeks, I have rectified this with a couple of visits to Fino

I'll start by saying, and it'll likely come as no surprise to hear, that I absolutely loved it.  There are many dishes that were familiar to me from the menu at Barrafina, but they offer a significantly extended menu here, owing to the fact that they have a much larger space and therefore kitchen. 

Here's some of what I've tried:-

Croquetas - piquillo (£3) and jamon (£3.50).  I LOVE these so much, always order loads.

Chorizo tortilla with aliolo (£7.40).  Amazing, oozing centre and garlicky mayo topping.

Pan con tomate (£1.90 each) - needed more salt to match the Barrafina greatness

Scallop with parsnip puree, almonds and chilli oil (£8) - this was brilliant, perfectly cooked, lovely flavour and texture combination.

Arroz negro (£8.90) - nicely presented, love a mini copper pot, with great inky squid flavour.

Pig cheek with parsnip puree and crispy parsnip (£9.80) - this was Art's but I had a taste and it was as tender as you'd expect with that same smooth parsnip puree, also served with the scallop.

Pork belly (£12.80) - I had this on both visits, it's incredible.  Must pre order the suckling pig for next visit.  Pictured with patatas brava (£4.50)

Crab empanadilla from the daily specials (£12.40) - this was hot!  Tomatoey crab filled the flaky pastry, it didn't blow me away.  Highlight was the lemon dressed celery salad that came with it.

Also from the specials Acorn fed duck breast with celeriac puree (£11.40).  This was nice but could have done with more puree.

I've also tried the Santiago tart, which, to my disappointment, was very orangey (I'm not a fan of orange flavoured puds) and the donuts with vanilla ice cream.  I'm also not a doughnut fan, though I confess I haven't tried the St John versions yet!

We did a decent job with the red wine and sherry and despite not being able to remember which I tried, I can say with certainty that they were excellent.

There's little else to say really, I've arrived early evening, and also rather late and had no trouble getting a table, or a place at the bar.  On one occasion, they happily accommodated 5 of us, without reservation.  The service is lovely, the food, quite brilliant and I shall definitely return regularly and you don't even have to queue.

It's really not cheap, I've spent around £50 a head on each meal I've had here, but both times, ordered liberally and drank a lot.  My one negative point would be that the room is a little soulless.  It's below ground and therefore pretty dark, oen of my companions likened it acoustically to a canteen, ouch.  Still, this won't put me off, the standard of the cooking makes it more than tolerable. 

33 Charlotte Street

Fino on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 November 2012

Pham Sushi

More from my new neck of the woods, EC1.  Though I don't suppose I'm technically new anymore, having worked here since July.  Pham Sushi have 2 premises on Whitecross Street, making it quite the place to be come lunchtime what with the bustling daily food market, also soon to open is a 2nd location for Kennedy's fish & chips and there's a Waitrose at the end of the street, for those who prefer that sort of thing.

I do like a proper meal at lunch and I've eaten at both Pham restaurants. Somewhat predictably, I have to say the main thing that stuck with me, was the dish they're famed for, the crunchy tuna rolls. Having read here and here that they are special, I have to agree.  These are pretty decent value too at £7.50 for 8 rolls.  I'll definitely be back for more.

On my first visit, I also had the prawn and vegetable tempura soba soup.  This had a nice garnish of spring onion, generous amounts of mushrooms and seaweed along with a decent broth.  Again, reasonable for £9.50.  The tempura consisted of 2 large prawns, some sweet potato and courgette, standard but good.

I had the house special salmon bento last week, which I think is overpriced at £13.50.  The box is reasonably large but, aside from the salmon and tuna sashimi, the accompaniments were dull, I'll be sticking to the sushi in future.

Both places were quiet for the duration of my lunchtime visits and service was swift and efficient.  With the glut of decent sushi options available to those based in Soho for work, I had feared I'd be missing out but Pham Sushi more than matches the likes of Kulu Kulu and Ten Ten Tei.  I'm also still keen to try Sushi Tetsu which is just up the road from work, though it seems to be more of a dinner destination. 

Pham Sushi
159 and 165 Whitecross Street

Pham Sushi on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Tramontana Brindisa

So Saf on Curtain Road has closed down.  I went once, pre blog days, with a vegetarian friend who was visiting London and was happy with the cocktails and the fact that we got a table on a busy Saturday night.  The food, not so much.   They still exist but the Shoreditch restaurant has made way for a new offering from Brindisa.  I'd not eaten at a Brindisa restaurant before, but have tried much of the produce available at the Borough Market shop.  I was excited to try.

One night last week, after a few cocktails at Burger & Lobster, Farringdon, I took the opportunity to try Tramontana and hopped in a cab.  I was happy to find the place pretty much full and lively, but we secured 2 stools at the lengthy bar with ease and I got started on some cava.

I know I've said it before, but for me, when it comes to tapas in London, it's impossible to top the experience of an evening at Barrafina.  However, I always dine with an open mind, and obviously hope to be wowed by what I'm eating.  Unfortunately, I cannot avoid making direct comparisons to how well dishes are done at Barrafina and, for me, Tramontana, doesn't come close.

We ordered 2 lots of croquettas throughout the evening, 4 are served per portion and the filling changes daily.  The croquettas on the day in question were 3 meats and bechamel and they were very good.  The serving of padron peppers was a bit on the stingy side for my liking, £3.75 for about 10 of them.  I did get a super hot one though, always a treat.

The pan con tomate (£3.50) was a bit strange, on a tray with it's component parts presented for self assembly.  I was actually quite excited by it to begin with but soon changed my mind when I overdid the garlic.  Couldn't they just do it for you?

One of the most successful dishes of the night was the fiduea.  I'd not had this before, it's short pieces of noodle cooked and served like a paella, with prawns and squid pieces.  Really delicious.

Now on to the bad.  The ribeye dish was served in the style of a pintxo.  By this they meant served on some soggy bread.  The meat itself was good quality but was undercooked, there was not enough cheese sauce, which was the best part of the dish, and the matchsticks of apple added nothing, it just didn't work for me.

From the daily specials I ordered the mushroom and eggs which came to the table in the pan it was cooked in, as a result of this the eggs were totally overdone.  We sat next to the area where the dishes were presented for the servers to deliver to the tables, and many of them sat there for a while before being picked up.  I was tempted to grab the egg dish and dive in before the eggs overcooked, but couldn't be sure it was destined for us.

I ordered the cheeseboard to finish which was nice, all the cheeses are available to buy, but rather than that being a good thing, it felt more like they were being hawked when the waiter suggested I might want to buy my preferred.  At £12, it's not cheap and it consisted of cave aged cabrales, manchego, tupi and mahon, both hard cows cheeses.  I would have like a bit more variety but the accompanying jellies and chutneys were good, as was the bread.

I was very full by the end of the meal and the bill came it just shy of £100 with 2 glasses of cava and 2 carafes of house white.  Not bad value but there were more misses than hits so I am unlikely to revisit. 

Tramontana Brindisa
152 Curtain Road

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