Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Posts Tagged ‘hawksmoor

Salt Yard

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On Friday afternoon I was idly casting about for a place to have lunch in Chatham. Options were limited. This quick, unsuccessful Google led to me wondering if I could squeeze in lunch at Hawksmoor Seven Dials once I’d caught the train back to London. This in turn led me to contemplate Sunday lunch there with a glass of Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew. No, I thought, N will never go for it. By this point I had completely lost sight of my original objective and was just exploring more and more options for dining. Suddenly I was very, very hungry. Knowing that the fridge contained a red cabbage, some decidedly floppy carrots and little else, I wondered if I could persuade N to go out for tapas. She was once step ahead of me and was already on her way down to my office.

Having had the unsated desire for pretty much bang on a year, we decided we would try Salt Yard on Goodge Street. There was no chance of getting a table but it 5pm so we thought our chances of sitting at the bar were relatively high. In fact, the night was so young that we thought we would stop by The Piccadilly for a drink. Unfortunately, however, they have now been completely taken over by the dodgy looking Ristorante Biagio and the once proud list of draught and bottled beers was evaporated. We left as quickly as we arrived.

After that, and by the time we had wended our way North through town, it was getting on for half six; early for Spain, right in the thick of it for Central London. As expected, the next table wasn’t until the end of the evening but we had also missed the the places at the bar. Determined not to be refused we allowed ourselves to be relegated to the small strip of tables outside on the street. In terms of comfort, this wasn’t a problem since October remains unseasonably mild but dining is rarely improved by being repeatedly heckled by a raddled, gurning Chelsea fan with no teeth. Such are the perils of al fresco London dining. I was also reminded of how wonderful the smoking ban is and, as the couples on either side of us sparked up, I wondered how I’d manage to spend so long in pubs pre-ban. We started with bar snacks of peppers padron and boquerones. This was a mistake. A literal one since I had mistaken boquerones for rojones, the latter apparently being a term made up by the Norfolk Arms. Well, I did get a D in GSCE Spanish. Anyway, my loss was N’s gain since she is not averse to the dirty, dirty anchovy. We followed this with courgette flowers stuffed with goats’ cheese, their signature dish and a much more welcome sight. It is hard to go wrong with this combination melted cheese, semi-tempura vegetable and drizzled honey and it was lovely but I did think the courgette itself could have been cooked a touch longer.

The rest of our dishes then came in quick sucession and it was possible to find fault with all of them. The best was a salad of baby squid, chorizo, broad beans and friggitelli peppers but even here the squid could have been better quality since it fell foul of its Achilles’s tentacle: rubberiness. Sticking with seafood, crab and chilli croquettes were lacking in any chilli and herb mayonaise was not the ideal accompaniment. This would have worked better as an Asian rather than European dish. Similarly, I couldn’t help but compare the desperately underpowered seared tuna with marinated beetroot and tarragon to the wonderful tuna I had at the Hare & Tortoise the other week. The tarragon was entirely abscent, whatever the beetroot had been marinated in wasn’t very potent and the tuna was completely flavourless, leaving the crispy quail’s egg the sole mouthful of joy on the plate. Finally, there was chargrilled polenta with girolles, baby artichokes, pinenuts and a parmesan mousse. The mousse was lovely but the polenta was just stodge and you would need a magnifying glass to find the tiny shards of girolles. These were all dishes that sounded great on the menu and where obvious care had been taken with the composition and presentation but this wasn’t backed up by the kitchen. (To make a further unflattering comparison, I took N to Bocca De Lupa for our wedding anniversary and both their octopus and polenta highlighted how simplicity in the service of intensity can triumph over empty faff.)

Now a positive note before returning to a bit more negativity. Well, a little bit more negativity first since, as the evening, went on I made progressively better drinks choices. I started with a glass of Breganze Prosecco Rosato described as off-dry and it was indeed neither dry nor fruity but instead stranded and depthless. Careful to avoid repeating this experience, I next went for Don Nuno Oloroso Seco, the beefiest sherry they had, and it was as dark and nutty as advertised. N meanwhile had a glass of Fagus de Coto de Hayas 2008 which was irresistably described as having “almost cult status wine”. This is simulataneously profoundly wanky and extremely tempting and it was a cracker, smoky to the point of gunpowder under the surface. With cheese, I slipped into a gorgeous floral dessert wine which they describe as “Cortesia di Morassi” but which seems to be a typos.

So, the cheese and typography. According to their website, Salt Yard do have a dessert menu but we weren’t offered this and instead were only allowed to order cheese. We duly did this but it would have been easier if they hadn’t catastrophically designed the cheese section of the menu. Looking at it online, I think I can see what happened. There are half a dozen cheeses available at £4.50 as well as a couple of more expensive one: a selection of three manchegos with quince membrillo and a truffle percorino. This is clear from the website but the combination of milk type and provenence with unfortunate font and punctuation choices means that the two pricer ones look a lot like cheese selections. This is approximately true of the three manchegos which we received but the table next to us who thought they were also getting manchego weren’t particularly happy when the pecorino arrived. This is an instance where the restaurant could definitely do a bit more to help their punters make an informed decision.

£55 a head including service from a really lovely French waiter. That is pretty steep, particularly given our booze intake was restricted to two glasses of sherry and two of wine. It is also, coincidently, means that the total bill was exactly the same as the bill for five people when we ate at the Canton Arms the next night. Now, admittedly my mother-in-law only had a cheese toasty and we ordered some of our drinks at the bar but it is still telling. I remember someone telling me that if a couple wanted to eat a mediocre meal and get no change from a hundred quid then London was the best city in the world. Restaurants like Salt Yard are the reason for that cynicism.

Written by Martin

24 October 2011 at 16:58

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Meat Vs Veg

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I have been planning to visit Hawksmoor for most of the last year but lacked a suitable dining partner. So when my dad said he was in town for a combination of geneology and Woody Gutherie I co-opted him to my plans. To be honest, it didn’t take much arm twisting. We went to the newish Covent Garden branch, tucked away in a side street opposite Pineapple Dance Studios. It is a wonderful subterranean space, a former brewery (and apparently a store and stables for the old fruit market) that has been transformed into something between a gentlemen’s club and a speakeasy. It is manly but thankfully doesn’t smell of the City.

They recommend about 400g of meat per person and there website warms that their preferred cuts are big. They aren’t kidding. I’d planned on bone-in prime rib but those cuts proved too big and we settled for 800g of porterhouse to share instead. This came as half a dozen cuts of sirloin, a couple of fillet and the bone. With steak you need two things: chips and red wine. We both had things to do later so ignored the enticing selection of bottles and plumped for a cheap, decent carafe of Syrah. I then asked for both beef dripping and triple cooked chips but our waiter advised that one would be enough. The portion was small but it was indeed adequate so entirely meat focussed was the evening.

That didn’t stop us throwing a few other sides into the mix: bone marrow for me, two fried eggs for my dad and some steamed spinach as a token concession to our health (and wives). We bravely resisted sauce. I’ve been wanting to try bone marrow for a while but it quickly became apparent that whilst it clearly has its time and place – with some crusty bread and a handful of watercress, perhaps – it is entirely superfluous on a plate of meat. Spinach, on the other hand, proved vital.

£44 a head including excellent service from a waiter who could easily have been a bit too much of a wide boy but managed to judge the mateiness just right. It was indeed the best steak I’ve had. My only regret is that I didn’t have the nerve to ask to take the bone home for the stock pot. I do feel I need to return soon though, Hawksmoor strikes me a restaurant that benefits from familiarity. I’m also intrigued by their Hungarian dessert wines.

Saf is pretty much the opposite of Hawksmoor: “Saf uses no animal products, no dairy, and no refined or processed ingredients to create a fine dining experience unlike any other in the capital.” It is a light, calm oasis in the rush of Old Street (or it was at seven thirty when we sat down, as we were leaving it was as busy as the rest of Shoreditch). We started with cocktails from their enticing but possibly slightly over elaborate botanicals list. I chose wisely with a girl’s drink, Guilty Husband #2, that was essentially a punchy kir royale. N was less lucky with her man’s drink, an Old Smokey that clobbered you first with bourbon and then gin with little in the way of finesse. Not really a first drink.

To start, I had gnocchi putanesca. Perhaps this was a slightly conservative choice since it is one of the few dishes cooked at temperatures above 48 degrees Centigrade but it was also a wise choice. The fat lozenges of gnocchi were perfectly cooked – light, firm and the ideal delivery vector for the rich sauce – and whole dish was brought to life by a lemon gremolata. N went for agedashi tofu to my total lack of surprise since she is a noted tofu fiend. Agedashi is traditionally deep fried but in keeping with the ethos of the restaurant it was baked here, a submerged slab of it in a dark broth surrounded by floating greens. At first the broth was too strongly soy which buried the saki but the tofu had absorbed a huge amount of flavour, always tricky for such a stubbornly bland medium. The broth also improved with time and the asparagus and soya beans balanced some of its darkness.

Vegetarian food makes the selection of wine a bit confusing. We went with white but it wasn’t really robust enough for most of the dishes, particularly the mains. This could have had something to do with the Pinot Bianco we selected; on its own terms, it had a nice initial presence in the mouth but petered out to watery nothingness. It certainly couldn’t compete with N’s tower of lasagna. Or rather “lasagna” since it contains neither pasta or cheese sauce but rather is a series of layers of tomato, spinach, aubergine and mushrooms. It was beautifully presented, particularly the lattice of dried tomato perched on top, but this belied its heft. Without the pasta or sauce to modify the “bolognese” it was very full on, the intensity almost becoming bitter by the end. N actually said it was too much for her, not something you often hear. I had mushroom croquette which was, well, mushroomy. Okay, there was a dash of truffle cream but otherwise the dish was a single deep, earthy note of mushroom. Rather disappointing.

£45 a head including a couple of very chocolatey desserts but excluding service which necessitated a frantic rooting through pockets to cobble together a tip. It was a very nice meal but lacking a certain something. Well, let’s not be coy, the something it was missing was dairy; excepting my gnocchi, these dishes were sorely in need of some sauce. So on this occasion the win goes to meat.

Written by Martin

27 February 2011 at 11:27

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Meat, Beer And Science Fiction

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Since hearing about Hawksmoor a couple of weeks ago I have been obsessing about steak. I had a meeting in town yesterday and since it went well and I was then going on to the BSFA yesterday, I thought I would treat myself. Unfortunately, Hawksmoor is in Whitechapel but helpfully Gaucho has branches across London. You may well have walked passed one, they look a bit like a serial killer’s batchelor pad: black glass and cow hide. More like Gauche-o, amirite? The meat is the thing though.

It was an interesing experience as it is not at all the sort of place I would usually go; it has the air of a private members’ club, complete with paramiltary staff, and the clientele stank of business lunches with a fair smattering of tourists since this was the Picadilly branch. I managed to navigate this unnatural environment pretty well, although I was slightly phased when my waitress queried whether I wanted to see the meat tray. Er no, I don’t need to eye up the meat or have it pimped to me, just bring me 300g of ribeye, bloody as hell. And this I duly received. Marvellous.

To accompany my plate of meat, my waitress steered me towards potato puree but, despite liking this, I am always put off by the name this always sounds so much less appetising than mash. Instead I went for a potato cake (okay, the fact it had chorizo in it may have also helped tip the balance). I should have taken her hint though as it was completely indifferent, apart from the couple of mouthfuls when it was much too peppery, and accompanied by some similarly pointless salsa verde. Equally disappointing was the bearnaise sauce. Now this is the king of sauces and was nicely done but for a £2.50 supplement I expect a jug or a boat rather than one of those tiny ramekins pubs serve ketchup in these days. (I won’t give Adam Roberts the vapours by saying how much the steak was.)

Over at the Antelope – which I can’t help but think is a ridiculously incongruous venue for the BSFA meetings – I was pleased to see that they had Bengal Lancer on tap. Fuller’s have only just introduced this IPA but it is by far their best beer. Alas, it is only seasonal. Anyway, the actual event was a discussion of the BSFA shortlist between Damien G Walter and Graham Sleight, two very engaging panelists (Martin McGrath unfortunately had to pull out). The City & The City emerged as the clear winner of the novel category and it was noticeable that it was the only novel that the audience picked up for discussion. Despite some scepticism in the room, I really think this has to be not only the favourite for this award but a highly likely candidate for the Clarke and the Hugos. But please, let’s not get bogged down in whether it is SF or not.

Walter also raised an interesting point when he said that several of his favourite books of the year – for example, The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi – weren’t eligible for the award because they haven’t been published in this country. I get the general impression that over the last decade we have seen an increasing divergence between what is being published in the US and what is being published in the UK. At the same time, as Walter pointed out, the internet has increased both the availability and discussion of US published books in this country. I can’t really articulate this but I do think there is an increasing tension here.

Written by Martin

25 March 2010 at 14:00