Thursday, 17 December 2009

Mind Games

Its worth checking this out from today's Independent Life section of The Independent: Mind games on the menu for a guide to how we all get psychologically duped. Menus often include a high priced item in a prominent place "to elevate in people's minds the price of what it is reasonable to pay across the rest of the menu[...]if you start putting high numbers out, then people raise their estimations of what's reasonable".

Monday, 14 December 2009

Kensington Restaurants

Foodraker launches with coverage of a clutch of restaurants in Kensington where the author is a recent immigrant.


36 Gloucester Road
London SW7 4QT
020 7 584 1118

L’Etranger is probably best known to the English as the french title to Albert Camus’ book now usually translated as The Outsider. Etranger is an adjective as well as a noun meaning strange, unknown, unfamiliar. While the décor was modern hip attractive with well spaced tables, so it otherwise proved to be.

The wine list was like something out of the City before the credit crunch. It begins with a ‘lunch and early bird wine list’ which starts with Champagne and offers you first off a half bottle of Veuve Clicquot 1982 for £45 reduced from £65. It isn’t lunch time and I’m not an early bird but I’ve got the message. This is going to be hideously expensive. It works up to a bottle of Cristal Rose 2000 reduced from £490 to £400. I’d have to be an early bird in very serious need of flight assistance after a very large bonus payment to even consider it! After the early bird list come wines by the glass and then the wine list starts with Sake (that becomes clearer when I look at the menu). The first thing on the Sake list is a 1991 Daiginjo Nama for £115. The wine list proper then starts with Champagne, works through half bottles and starts on page thirteen with the first full bottle of still wine that isn’t early bird, Sake or Champagne! Phew! It now starts to work alphabetically white first, by region. Alsace is first with wines ranging from £45-80.

Call me conventional but this wine list gets things off to a bad start for me. I think it is helpful when you have a wine list which is 49 pages long to start with recommended wines that cost less than £50 so that the non-oenophile or those on a more limited budget are not faced with reading a book in order to make a selection, even if the restaurant clientele is dominated by hedge fund managers with a passion for Cristal .

The menu is no better. The restaurant propostion is itself strange: a mixture of Japanese and French. The confusion of choice is confounded by the number of available menus: a Menu du Jardin, an a la carte Menu, a Maki and Sashimi menu, a degustation menu all of which have starters and main courses. For the confused hedge fund manager who can’t cope with all this choice there is even a “champagne et poissons” menu which at £109 per head (minimum 2 people) throws in a bottle of Dom Perignon 2000. Personally I think the fizzy wine would be wasted on the black cod and miso or rather vice versa. Call me old fashioned I also think it is a bit vulgar.

Jerome Tauvron is a classically trained french chef who has worked with Marco Pierre White, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire and Michel Guerard. He clearly also loves Japanese food. We shared a signature dish of his: caramelised black cod with miso and shared crispy squid with spring onion and chilli as a starter. The cod was wonderful: sweet, tender, flaky. It came with beautiful Japanese sticky rise in an elegant roll. We asked what we should have with it and selected spinach which somehow didn’t work very well. The starter wasn’t perhaps quite as crispy delicious as it might have been and was just good rather than exceptional. To drink we had a bottle of Fie Gris (a grape variety similar to Sauvignon Blanc and believed to be related) from the Loire which went well with cod (it needs something sharp and anything too buttery or grand would be quite inappropriate), and at £40 was one of the cheapest wines on the very long list! The service was admirable and the wine waiter steered us towards an appropriate wine despite my complaints about the layout of the list.
Altogether a case of delivered on the fundamentals, shame about some aspects of the presentation; better than the other way round! The service was also impeccable, helpful and friendly and managed to avoid the off putting hauteur sometimes encountered in somewhere which is performing such a delicate dance between driving for standards and pretension.

L'Etranger on Urbanspoon

L-Restaurant & Bar

2 Abingdon Road
London W8 6AF
020 7795 6969

“It’s a bit cramped up here” I say “You’ll be closer to your loved one” says the waitress referring to my partner. Loved ones unfortunately for me have connotations: Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One and Forest Lawn Cemetery in Los Angeles where the loved one can be presented just as they were before death, reading the Los Angeles Times over breakfast, before cremation. We are sitting in a narrow balcony at L-Restaurant, sky lights above looking down on the more generously spaced restaurant proper. Next time will book down there – we have just walked in but they have found us a table on a Saturday evening. There are mirrors the length of the wall below reflecting the tables underneath us. There is something rather Nordic, Heal’s like about this clean modern environment: certainly nothing Spanish, no hams hanging from the ceiling or Spanish waitresses.
We order a single tapas as a starter: Jamon Serrano y Gambas a la Plancha. This is in fact two prawns wrapped in some ham on a cocktail stick x 2. Unfortunately it arrives just after the main courses. It is salty, lemony fresh and zesty if quite small for the £6.50 – something repeated in terms of scale to price ratio with the main courses.

I have oven roasted stuffed squid with tomato and pepper salsa, chorizo and saffron rice, £14.95. There are three squidlets in a small oven dish and they are delicious: tender, and peppery hot but they are more a generous tapas portion than main course in size. The saffron rice served in a small mound comes separately. I could have eaten more of them. Frankly they are better than anything I have had in more Spanish environments.

The wine we order is also a success: Albarino Torroxal Rias Baixas 2008. The Albarino grape is thought to be Riesling in origin (though this is disputed) brought by San Juan de Compostella pilgrims to Spain: it certainly has a Riesling like minerally quality as well as being scented, floral (the big rose on the label is apt) and the mark up is not too ludicrous. A quick entry on wine searcher finds it for £12.09 compared to the £29 we pay.

L Restaurant & Bar on Urbanspoon

Cote Kensington

47 Kensington Court
London W8 5DA
020 7938 4147

I try to avoid chains but came prejudiced in favour of Cote having had drinks several times in their Wardour Street branch where the tables at the front are unlaid and used as a bar area at less busy times. I had looked at the menu without eating there and the proposition had appeared attractive. There are now locations at Covent Garden, Kensington, Guildford, Richmond, Hays Galleria, Soho, Horsham, Wimbledon with St Albans and Cambridge opening in late November. The simple bistro style and value for money concept is of its time and earned Cote the “Best Value Restaurant in the UK for 2009” award from the Good Food Guide. It is Monday lunch time yet it is busy which is a good sign.

We both order the Breton Fish Stew from one of two choices on the Specials menu. This is described as a “traditional Breton fish stew of sea bass, mussels, clams, tiger prawns and squid with tomato, white wine and chilli” and reasonably priced at £12.95. Small debris plates arrive first and though of course we won’t be eating off them it is not a good sign that they are dirty. The stew stock is watery with no taste of wine nor any flavour of fish. It tastes of watery canned tomato and chilli. The tiger prawns are from frozen, firm rubbery and flavourless, and whilst the mussels are fresh and not over cooked there was no sea bass or if there was it must have been microscopic traces. We drank glasses of sauvignon blanc de la place 2008 vin de pays des cotes de gascogne. It was nothing special at £4.80 a glass, just the distinctive grassy sauvignon grape - would have been good in the stew though!

There were nice touches: hot bread and butter at no additional charge and filtered water in a Cote earthenware bottle for free. The water though suffered from being luke warm despite the outside of the bottle being chilled – we were earlyish for lunch and expect the bottles had only just been refrigerated.

The venue had previously been a Cuban restaurant and there were clumsy touches in the conversion: a plastic wood veneer on the bar which contrasted (badly) with the wooden chairs, tiled floor bistro look.

Overall too little attention to detail: cheap yes by London standards but that’s not the same as good value.

Cote Bistro on Urbanspoon

The Abingdon Restaurant

54 Abingdon Road
London W8
020 7937 3339

It looks like its going to be a gastro pub from the outside but it really is a restaurant with a bar. You enter via the bar area and then almost sectioned off is the restaurant area with a long gallery area to start (where we sat) and railway carriage seating at the back. It’s a bit of an Aladdin’s cave because the gallery area is quite narrow but there’s a lot of the railway bench seating down the back where the room widens again behind the bar area. Expectations were high because this had proven the most difficult restaurant to get into in Kensington at a normal eating time and even on Monday evening early it was filling up rapidly.

The food was really very good; not cheap but excellent. They call it international and classical modern European which covers most of the options and isn’t an unfair description of what is offered. Main courses range in price from £12.95 for the simplest vegetarian pasta to £24. I had baked Sri Lankan marinated chicken breast with puy lentil and red bean dahl, mango chutney and coriander sauce. The chicken was meltingly tender, the chutney and dahl full of flavour and freshness. My partner had the tenderest venison I have ever had and deliciously rare. We drank a bottle of Kim Crawford 2007 Marlborough Pinot Noir which at £28.50 was quite heavily marked up (you can find it for £9.21 on wine searcher ). A very fruity new world wine which for me lacked subtlety. The pudding though, which we shared, was as good as the main courses. We couldn’t resist the sticky toffee pudding which was light and fluffy rather than heavy, gungy as it should be.

So we had no complaints about the food, nor any complaints about the service. The waiting staff couldn’t have been more attentive, charming without being in any way intrusive. My reservations are all to do with ambience and décor. The restaurant was brightly lit with spots. There was garish house/garage music playing when we arrived (we had an earlyish 8pm booking) , though this was later muted; but the smultz music which replaced it was no better, just quieter.

The design/furniture/layout somehow just wasn’t it. The wavy back bench with stripes in the gallery area was so elderly sloane ranger, the heavy banquettes in the railway seating area with their high backs prevented any enticing perspective to the whole restaurant and looked so old fashioned, dull and made poor use of the available space. The inlaid marketry on the varnished blonde wood tables with its striped candy pattern was ugly. It was somehow all so, big sigh, Kensington.

Abingdon on Urbanspoon

Kitchen W8

11-13 Abingdon Road
London W8 6AH
020 7937 0120

Kitchen has been open now for 6 weeks. It comes with some pedigree. The co-owner Philip Howard co-owns The Square (two Michelin stars) and The Ledbury. Rebecca Mascarenhas the other owner started Sonny’s in Barnes and co-owns Sam’s Brasserie in Chiswick and Harrison’s in Balham. It’s not part of a chain but there is an awful lot of ownership going on around here; perhaps that should be a warning signal.

The name Kitchen conjures up something humble, bisto-ish, informal; but it is anything but. It’s starch white table cloths and modern décor. Somehow the décor doesn’t quite do it for me. There is something of the Candy and Candy bland international five star hotel about it. The strange green banquette doesn’t quite go with the black and white and round mirrors. There is a lack of attention to detail: there is a nasty LG air conditioning unit stuck on the wall above our table and the lighting, despite many ceiling spots, is too glaring. The tables are also a bit too close together. We are sitting facing each other and the tables in either corner are for two sitting adjacent on the banquette which means, had they been occupied, they would all have been looking towards us which in such a confined space would have been uncomfortable. The lack of space is hot helped by very low ceilings.

I go for the ox tongue. The ox tongue is a tiny piece of meat and comes with a bit of heated foie gras and squashy baked potato (ok it’s a personal thing but I like them crisper, firmer on the outside) and I’m reminded I don’t like heated foie gras (ok silly me it says it comes with ‘foie gras baked potato’). The squashy foie gras is sitting on top of the squashy baked potato on top of the tiny piece of tongue. Next to it is a daub of rather bland ‘shallot puree’. Ok you are getting the picture: I don’t think this is that great. Its ok, but for £16.50 in a restaurant owned by all these co-owners of well known places I expect something better. It's also a bit pretentious. I mean nobody would build this particular little multi storey unless they were trying to impress someone. Reports of my partner’s duck breast with a ‘tarte fine of caramelised endive’ are similar: ok, a bit bland a bit pretentious and £18.00. Desserts are a chocolate pudding which is not as good as Gu from the supermarket and a passion fruit mess which is also ok: nothing edgy or interesting here and high central London prices.

The best thing about the meal is a bottle of Finca las Paredes 2008 Malbec from Argentina for only £17.95. The wine list is simple and has good choice at the lower end and only marks up the more expensive wines by a standard amount.

One of the waiters ask me if I ‘enjoyed my meal’. I tell him I thought it was ‘ok, nothing edgy a bit bland’ and that The Abingdon down the road has much better food. I get a lot of stuff about 2 Michelin stars in other places and ‘nobody else has complained’ but he is polite. The manager then comes over. I tell him I would not have complained but one of his waiters asked me so I told him what I thought. He is also very polite. It doesn’t stop me form expecting more for £79 for two courses and a bottle of modestly priced wine. Kitchen is nevertheless full (it is a Saturday night in the run up to Christmas). This may say something about the choice in Kensington, the fact that it is new and people are trying it or the season. Time will tell.

Kitchen W8 on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 December 2009


41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB
020 7734 4479

“Polpo is a Venetian bacaro serving Italian small plates and simple northern Italian wines in relaxed and humble surroundings. Carbon filament lightbulbs, exposed brickwork, an imported tin ceiling, Victorian tiled floors and reclaimed furniture bring some old-school charm to Soho. The menu is inspired by the bacari of Venice offering traditional chicheti as well as modern takes on Italian classics.” So this new (opened September 30th) restaurant in London’s Soho proclaims on its website.

I must confess I have been to Venice several times and never discovered its bacari. I will seek them out next time. The principle is just like a Spanish tapas bar. You share many small portions rather than plough through two or three courses which you keep to yourself. I like this style of eating so I came well disposed towards Polpo. In style the bar/restaurant has many similarities to two other Soho places: Barrafina, a Spanish tapas bar and Bocca di Lupo, also Italian. Each of these is a deep rectangle in shape with a bar at the front, seating at the back. Each offers small plates to share. A difference is that in Barrafina and Bocca di Lupo the food is prepared behind the larger bars and hence it is part of the spectacle, while at Polpo it is brought to you from the kitchen.

Humble surroundings are not quite how I would put it: elegant Soho chic is more the feel: zinc bar, exposed brickwork yes, wooden furniture and the tin ceiling looks like panelled wood. The menu on recycled paper which also serves as your place mat is very right on PC but humble, no.

The wine list is uncomplicated, short and unsurprisingly Italian. The most expensive wine on the list is a Montalcino for £39. Most of the humbler wines are offered by ¼ litre, half litre carafe and 75 cl bottle. I like this: you can try more than one thing and are not forced to drink huge glasses. Better still there is no price disadvantage in drinking less: the price for the bottle is exactly three times the quarter litre. We are sitting at the bar. I ask the waiter’s advice and he suggests the Barbera D’Alba. Its simple, fruity blackberry. I like it. I ask him what the grape variety is (its Barbera) but he doesn’t know. A small complaint: its not that hard for the staff in a wine bar with a relatively short list to know a bit about the wines they are serving. There is a bit of additional clumsiness on the waiting front at the end of the meal when I ask our waitress for the bill. “Ask him” she says pointing at the guy behind the bar “His name’s Ajax”.

The menu is simply divided into Chicheti which are very reasonably priced (under £2) little snacks, then bread, fish, meat, vegetables and salads. These are small tapas style platefuls, large enough for two to share. Most are around £6 and the vegetables and salads less than £4. The Chicheti we have are on rather dry and uninteresting bread but the anchovy and chick pea, all mashed up, is interesting if a bit too salty and the mint in the fig prosciutto and mint makes a classic zing with something a little bit special. The larger plates we order, duck and cuttlefish, are marred by the cuttlefish being cold. The duck with green peppercorns, black olives and tomatoes is simple but lifted by the green peppercorn texture and flavouring.

Where we were sitting at the bar there was an open view through the window straight down Upper James Street which gave a feel of openness in crowded Soho. Altogether is was a pleasurable if not overwhelming (on the food side at least ) experience. It was good value too at £28, though a couple more of the full plates (necessary for a complete meal) and a bit more wine would take the bill up to over £40. For me both Barrafina and Bocca di Lupo have more interesting (and hotter!) food but here’s the rub for all three: they are so popular it’s impossible to get into them in the evening! This kind of chic unregimented snack eating is clearly wildy popular so more please! We arrived at 6pm at Polpo which is opening time. By 7.40pm it was jumping: there was no seating place at all. Bocca di Lupo can be booked way in advance which spoils the casualness but both Barrafina and Polpo which can’t be booked in the evening are so full you would have to wait a considerable time for a place any time post 7pm certainly towards the end of the week, or at week ends.

Polpo on Urbanspoon