Thursday, May 10, 2012

Time to move on!

Since I've revamped my website I've decided to rationalise my blogs and this one,  I'm afraid,  has become redundant.

Well, not quite. I might still put up the odd post on the food scene in Bristol or have the occasional rant but for my restaurant and book reviews you should check out the website and sign up, if you like, for the monthly newsletter which will have other news and tips about new products I've spotted (and on which I hope I can occasionally get you some kind of a discount. For UK readers, at least)

We'll also be having regular competitions on the site. There's a cracking one to kick off with* to celebrate the relaunch which gives you the chance to win a case of Louis Roederer champagne so make sure to check that one out!

(*Until June 5th 2012).

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Manna and Bravas

Manna & Bravas may sound a bit like an upmarket deli (or a '70s pop duo) but these are in fact the names of two separate wine bars that have opened in Bristol in the last two weeks. And what a great addition they are to the Bristol restaurant scene.

Bravas is the welcome consequence of the Bravas supperclub, which I never managed to get to, and is basically a tapas bar - a pretty authentic one at that. There are small circular tables at the front you have to perch at on stools, a glass-covered counter and some tightly packed tables at the back with - I vaguely remember - some fairy lights festooned around the place. I came straight there after a heavy couple of days in London so my recollection is a bit hazy.

There are typically tapas-y things to eat like lustrous fat green olives, a slightly over-gooey tortilla, chorizo in cider and excellent patatas bravas served, imaginatively, as deep-fried potato slices to be dunked in an accompanying punchy bravas sauce. One to try at home, definitely.

Other good dishes were some impeccably fresh, simply fried hake, a perfectly cooked lamb chop and some very tasty Iberico pork. But it’s the wine as much as anything I’d go back for - a brilliant short list of artisanal Spanish wines and, of course, sherries. I was off-duty with friends so didn’t take notes - or photographs - the light was too murky.

I was going to go back before writing about it but last night happened to be the opening night of Manna, a similar set-up in the Westbury Park neighbourhood so it makes sense to group them together. It’s run by the team who operate the immensely successful Prego opposite but is in fact more like a restaurant with small plates - similar to Flinty Red, if you’re a Bristolian and familiar with that.

This kitchen obviously likes meat too. There was a first class slab of brawn, nicely seasoned with tarragon, a lovely sticky pice of veal cheek with what tasted like home-made morcilla (certainly I’ve never tasted morcilla with as much cumin in it) and some outrageously rare onglet lavishly scattered with grated horseradish - but served without chips to which I think they’ll have to succumb in the long run.

Other dishes sent out (unbidden, but thanks) included some beautifully tender chargrilled squid with a punchy salsa, ‘butifarra’ (Spanish-style meatballs) with beans and aioli and fresh peas in their pods with mature parmesan (pecorino would have been better, I think). Oh, and we also ordered a pissaladière which was correctly oniony rather than tomatoey. The winelist is pretty short but decent and there’s a good selection of beers including two from one of my favourite West Country brewers, Moor’s of Pitney in Somerset.

The interesting thing about the tapas/small plates format is that it’s not cheap, or not cheap if you’re as greedy as we are. At Manna we spent about £30 a head (excluding the complimentary dishes), at Bravas about £38, the same as a conventional meal. But you don’t have to spend that much - you could drop in for a glass and a couple of dishes. And this style of eating means a faster throughput than a conventional restaurant, hence more profit for the restaurant and a greater likelihood these places will be around for some time. All good news.

Which should you go to? It depends what part of Bristol you live in or whether you're just visiting. Bravas is more central with more of an urban vibe. Manna, on the basis of last night’s experience, attracts the sort of crowd you might find in a local village pub and is more of a neighbourhood joint. But I suspect it will pull in people from wider afield as the word gets out.

We’ll certainly be back to both.

Bravas is at 5 Cotham Hill. Open Tuesday-Saturday 5-11pm Manna is at 28 North View, Westbury Park, BS6 7QB Check the opening hours 0117 970 6276

Friday, April 6, 2012

A tale of two restaurants: why good food is not enough

I’ve had two meals recently, one in Bristol, one in Bath that have underlined why ability in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily make for an enjoyable restaurant experience. Of course you need good food but there are so many other factors - design, location, service and above all, good old-fashioned hospitality that determine whether you leave looking forward to going back again.

Telling your customers that their credit card will be docked £68 per person if they cancel within 48 hours (if they can’t resell the table) isn’t a good start. Which is what happens when you book at Casamia in Bristol. The two chefs Peter and Jonray Sanchez-Iglesias shot to fame a year or so ago when they won Gordon Ramsay’s Best Restaurant competition on Channel 4 and the pair are undoubtedly talented but that kind of attitude doesn’t make for a cossetting experience.

Nor does their inflexibility. Given the fact they had a no-choice menu we’d been asked to express dietary preferences (no dairy, in my husband’s case) so with the exception of the last course where they provided a rhubarb sorbet they simply left out the offending ingredients. My broad bean tart was a delicious creamy mouthful. His was a tart shell with a few skinned broad beans. My John Dory with lemon jelly (lovely and the best course on the menu) arrived with a creamy cider sauce, his was totally undressed. It was as if the kitchen were saying ‘oh FFS’.

You got that sensation a bit too with the main course of roast lamb with mint jelly which came with a spookily Bisto-ish gravy (not that I'm suggesting for a moment it was). The boys, I remember from my one previous visit, used to go in for foams and other elements of Heston-esque molecular gastronomy. Obviously that didn’t go down too well with the locals so they seem to be saying ‘you want a roast dinner? We’ll bloody give you one’. The lamb was cooked at a fashionably slow temperature, granted, but to be honest my late mum cooked a better roast dinner than that. And she served potatoes which were notably absent, replaced by an ‘onion and garlic family’ of crunchy, undercooked spring onions and leeks.

Obviously the Sanchez-Iglesias brothers don’t approve of carbs. Or fat. Which is praiseworthy and I’m sure they’re the fitter for it but if your customer asks for some bread as we tentatively did, “no I’m sorry we don’t have any” is not a good response. Nor is a powdery, fat-free (I would guess), granola-style topping with undercooked rhubarb going to satisfy someone who spots rhubarb crumble on the menu.

The minimum you can spend on food in Casamia is £45. On a Friday or Saturday night the menu is £68 or £88 - or 88 sterling pounds as they irritatingly put it - with an extra £40 or £55 respectively for an accompanying wine flight. With service, water and coffee that could easily top £250 for two - a lot to pay for a restaurant without views in a suburban shopping parade.

There are similar problems at Menu Gordon Jones, the bizarrely named new restaurant in what looks like a converted estate agent's on the corner of the busy A367 on the outskirts of Bath. Like the Sanchez-Iglesias brothers the eponymous chef has an impressive pedigree (Martin Wishart, Martin Blunos and The Royal Crescent) but only offers a ‘surprise’ no choice 5 course menu. At least it included some delicious and imaginative red cabbage and caraway bread though that appeared to be one of the courses. And the asparagus soup was as good as any I've had. But serving ox cheek and then reverting to fish is a disorienting experience and plays havoc with with your wine choice. And with just one other table (the place only has 14 covers) it lacked any real warmth or atmosphere. Although they only charge £25 for lunch, which is a bargain for the quality of food they offer, I wouldn't go back.

Obviously the economic situation is tough for new start-ups but in their desire to express themselves it’s as if these chefs have lost sight of what a restaurant experience should be. OK, they spring a surprise menu on you at Noma but Noma is Noma with one of the most talented chefs and brigades in the world and the food is not only cutting-edge but delicious.

The main problem is that none of these chefs has grasped the importance of a stylish (though not necessarily expensively fitted-out) interior and a warm and welcoming reception which is what separates successful restaurants from merely good ones. Compare this with the recently opened Dabbous whose eponymous restaurant works like clockwork. Or Ollie Couillaud’s Lawn Bistro in Wimbledon which is casual, friendly but with no lack of culinary fireworks. It's a shame.

What do you think of no choice or surprise menus? And is it fair for restaurants to charge for no-shows - a growing problem for the industry?

Friday, March 16, 2012

5 reasons why the River Cafe is still one of London's best restaurants

I had lunch at The River Café this week. I wouldn't normally say that because I find it hard to justify spending that amount of money on a meal but this month (and during late January and February for future reference) they have a winter set lunch offer where you can get 2 courses for £25 and £35 for four. Normally a main course alone will set you back £32-£36

Admittedly it was helped by the fact that it was the most stunning spring day but in every other respect the meal was faultless in ways that explain just why this iconic restaurant still pulls in the crowds.

* First it's a beautiful, beautiful space with a whole wall of glass that pours in the light. The wood-fired oven is clearly visible at one end, the gleaming stainless steel counter, topped with ingredients runs the whole length of the room on the other side. It's a big restaurant that feels like a small one. And one that looks as cutting edge in 2012 as it did when it opened in 1987.

* The service is great. Friendly, attentive, informed. The waiters have to do stints in the kitchen prepping ingredients so they really understand the food

* The ingredients are top notch. You won't get better anywhere in London. And always reflect the seasons

* The cooking makes no attempt to disguise them. No cheffy egos here. No teetering towers of ingredients, no drizzles, no foams.

* The all-Italian wine list is amazing with treats at every price level. Not super-cheap, obviously but you can buy a bottle for £24-26

So what did we eat and drink? Well, apart from the superb piece of grilled bread and olive oil that arrived just after we sat down my daugher and I had:

Mozzarella di bufala with smashed chickpeas, wood-roasted artichokes and erbette (lightly cooked greens) (daughter)

Spaghetti with red mullet, tomato, olives, capers, parsley and lemon zest - a light summery dish that suited the unseasonally warm weather perfectly (me)

Capesante e vongole - a heavenly dish of clams and scallops with soft polenta, chilli lemon and parsley (me, thank goodness. I'd have been thoroughly fed up if it had been hers)

Controfilleto di manzo - chargrilled beef sirloin with borlotti beens and fresh horseradish (which my daughter found a little fiery) Not a great pic of this so I'll skip it.

A prettily presented plate of San Andrea cheese and flatbreads (me)

A decadently rich 'pressed' chocolate cake and ice cream (for the chocoholic daughter who was even defeated by it)

My daughter doesn't drink but I had a glass of Frascati out of curiosity - a deliciously fruity Castel de Paolis 2010 (£7.50) and a glass of bright, vibrant Luigi Maffini Refosco from Friuli (£8.50). 175ml glasses, not a fortune.

So what can you do if you have a River Cafe habit without a budget to match? Have an antipasto and a pasta or risotto. Granted, that will set you back around £35 and that's still not cheap but it's affordable. And you know, when I think about it, the top Michelin-starred restaurants think nothing of charging a hundred quid for a meal. Why shouldn't the River Café when their food is as good and probably more expensively sourced? Go.

Oh, and just in case you wondered after such an unrestrained eulogy, we paid our own bill. Which came to £92.56

Monday, February 27, 2012

London restaurant miscellany

I keep on stumbling across odd developments on the London restaurant scene I mean to blog about and never get round to so I'm going to jam them all into one post.

All-day brunch at Angelus
A brilliant move from a long-standing favourite in Lancaster Gate, run by ex-sommelier Thierry Thomasin. You can eat breakfast all day on a Sunday. I discovered this recently when I was staying nearby because of an early Monday morning meeting. We went to eat at 8.30pm and found we could have a full English. There's also an omelette menu and the best steak tartare (above) I think I've eaten, hand-chopped, beautifully seasoned and, dare I say, even better than Racine's. Served with a generous portion of excellent chips so you don't really need to order extra ones with the omelette. Amazing winelist too. An overlooked gem.

Ribs at Pitt Cue Co
The entire blogosphere has raved about this southern-style barbecue joint so there's not a great deal to add except to say that the ribs live up to the hype. I think I like the St Louis pork ribs marginally better than the beef ones - there are also superb chicken wings, home-made pickles and a side of mash with burnt ends - which is basically mash with gravy and leftover bits of roast meat. Mmmmm. For a more measured, coherent but equally enthusiastic assessment read Jay Rayner's review here.

Meaty mash seems to be a bit of a trend because you also find mash with roasting juices and truffles (above) at Dabbous, which I've already described as London's hottest opening this year. Admittedly we're only 9 weeks or so in but it's apparently already booked up till May. You can, I imagine, walk into the bar though which is worth doing as the cocktails are really good too. And - who knows - if you're lucky you may pick up a table from a no-show. This is Ollie, the chef, a star in the making if I ever saw one.

And finally it's the annual winter set lunch promotion at the River Café which enables you to eat for £25 for two courses and £31 for three instead of the £15-18 and £33-37 you have to pay for a starter and main course respectively at dinner. I did it the year before last and it's a terrific deal. On till the end of March.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

New harvest olive oil from Fattoria la Vialla

There's almost nothing as luscious as freshly pressed olive oil as I was reminded last night when we dunked our bread into a saucerful of bright green grassy Tuscan oil. It's a world away from the cheap - and not so cheap - commercial oils which are blended from all over Europe. Think of the difference between a cup of coffee made from freshly roasted beans and one made from instant coffee granules and you get the picture.

I was sent a sample of the new year's harvest by Fattoria La Vialla who I visited a couple of years ago to research a feature for the wine magazine Decanter. It's a large estate in the south of Tuscany that produces its own organic oil, wine, cheese and various artisanal food products but what makes it especially interesting is that they sell not to wholesalers or shops but direct to the public*.

You can buy their products online (you need to register first) or by ordering from their charming handwritten catalogue. And because they cut out the middleman their prices are very reasonable - £12 a 750ml bottle for the new estate bottled olive oil, £1.80-£1.95 a 500g pack for pasta and £3.20-£5.50 for sauces, including delivery.

The product I'm most interested in - and plan to order next - is a non-alcoholic freshly squeezed grape juice or spremuta di uva which is made from Sangiovese grapes ("a healthy drink ... which is liked by both big and small" as the brochure nicely puts it) and which they claim has similar health benefits to red wine. That's £4.10 for a 750ml bottle or £1.55 for a 200ml kid-sized one.

They're also selling their bright, fruity Vino Novo - Tuscany's answer to Beaujolais Nouveau which pairs really well with the oil and the estate's own pecorino cheese - at £5.50 a bottle. I'm not quite so grabbed by their more mature reds though the vin santo at £7.50-9 a bottle is terrific value.

Most of the products come in bulk - the spremuta di uva, for instance in packs of six so you might want to band together with friends to put in an order.

*In the UK, Germany and a number of other European countries.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Chairman's Reserve 'The Forgotten Casks' rum

If you've never been to Gerry's of Old Compton Street, remedy that straightaway. It's the best offie in London - not that I spend a lot of time hanging round offies - with every drink you can possibly imagine.

They also have a thing about rum, hence a monthly rum promotion which this month - as it was last month and apparently next month* - is the Chairman's Reserve 'The Forgotten Casks' from St Lucia distillers - a sumptuous rum that tastes of dark, fudgy muscovado sugar. At £26.50 (around £29 elsewhere) it's a bargain.

The story goes that the rum was produced after the company discovered a number of casks which they'd thought were lost after a fire destroyed part of the distillery in 2007. I haven't tasted the regular Chairman's Reserve so can't vouch how special they were but it did pick up a gold medal and best in class trophy at last year's International Wine and Spirit Competition. The perfect drink for the last dark days of January, anyway.

* So possibly only a new rum every three months but hey, who minds that?