Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Beef and Brew - A Review

Bountiful brisket from Beef and Brew!

By common consensus, running a restaurant is stressful, difficult and bloody hard work. And given the number of crappy restaurants I’ve visited in my time, it must be. For every Green Man and French Horn, there’s a dozen Garfunkel’s, Frankie and Benny’s and Angus Steak Houses.

In a terrible piece of synchronicity, the Green Man and French Horn, which was my favourite London restaurant, has recently closed and been replaced by a bloody Real Greek. In the words of a man I once met while waiting for a delayed train at Leeds station – “never goes for yer, does it”.

Occasionally though, you do find somewhere that persuades you that maybe you could make a decent stab at being a restaurateur. Somewhere that serves tasty, well-made food without a lot of fuss, with a good drinks list, and bit of buzz. Can’t be that tricky, can it?

Well, the subject of today’s review, Beef and Brew, is one of those places. A newly opened beef and beer (?!) themed joint in Kentish Town, on our visit they made running a good restaurant look, if not easy, then manageable at least.

The food, from a limited, beef-themed menu, was tasty and cooked with a precision that belies its modest price point. The drinks list has been well chosen, with a load of interesting beers, each with a food pairing, as well as a short selection of wines that come by the glass and carafe. And the atmosphere, despite a slightly utilitarian, butcher’s shop feel, was Friday night fun times.

What of the beef then? From a of two steaks, a beef salad, a braise, a trio of beef buns, something with chicken and a sop to the vegetarians in the form of a beetroot salad, we went for the flat iron steak (£12.5) and the brisket braised with leeks and mustard (£12.5). These were washed down with the aid of some cauliflower cheese croquettes, grilled broccoli (both £4) and salt baked chips (£3).

All the meat comes from a specialist butcher down in the West Country and you can tell it has been treated properly. The flat iron was dense with beefiness and a hint of char from the grill. It also came perfectly medium rare, and without the assistance from a sous-vide machine either.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the table was a monstrous portion of braised brisket (pictured above). This was the kind of hearty dish you’d want to come home to after an afternoon of energetic activity in the pale autumnal sunshine. The girlfriend (all 5ft 2” of her) is a trencherman of the old school and put this lot away without even raising an eyebrow.

Clearly, if you’re going to advertise yourself by virtue of the beef and the beer,there are no excuses if you can’t get either right, but the quality of the accompanying salt-baked chips was a real clincher. Huge, mountainous shards of potato, tooth-shatteringly crisp on the outside and as fluffy as a walnut whip on the inside, were like your Sunday lunch roast spuds on steroids.  Oh, and the croquettes and broccoli weren’t bad either.

So far, so good. So good in fact that we decided to brave the dessert menu – sometimes an after thought in word as well as deed in a place like this. Of the two on offer, our friendly waiter persuaded us to try the brewer’s mess brownie sundae, paired with a bottle of the Siren Broken Dream stout: a dreamy combination that was a better match with chocolate than any wine I’ve ever had.

The head chef at Beef and Brew is Jessica Simmons, who has previously worked for Angela Hartnett at Michelin starred Murano, so it is not surprising that the quality of the cooking is so high. Admittedly, they are not pushing the envelope, but I couldn’t give a monkey’s about that. Taste is everything and they nailed it.

I don’t visit London’s smarter steak houses because the skill-in-the-kitchen to money-spent ratio is not on the diner’s side, but that isn’t the case at Beef and Brew. And if I was roaming the streets of North London, hungry, thirsty and in search of sustenance, I wouldn’t hesitate to go back.

Beef and Brew, 323 Kentish Town Road, London, NW5 2TJ


Open Monday dinner and Tuesday to Sunday for lunch and dinner

p.s. this piece was originally published on Foodepedia

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Champagne for the brain...?

Hi folks, while Gastrolad has taken something of a hiatus in terms of new content, don't fear, because I am still putting virtual pen to paper now and again. This time around I wrote a short piece on a stag-do I organised to the French seaside town of La Baule that the good folks at The Spectator chose to publish. Yes, that's right, The Spectator, the longest running continuously published English language magazine

Apparently originality of thought and elegance of expression are the Speccie's sole editorial constraints, so for about 10 seconds I felt pretty pleased with myself when they said they were keen to publish. I am sure you can make your own mind up with regards my elegance of expression, so here is the link to the article.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Sardinian Travels

Aperitivi on the terrace

Once upon a time, many years ago, I recall catching a programme on one of the food channels about ‘blue zones’. Apparently, these are parts of the world where people live ‘measurably longer’ lives: Okinawa in Japan, the Greek island of Icaria and Sardinia. Or, more specifically, the mountains of central Sardinia, where men reach 100 not out with an astonishing regularity.

I can’t pretend to hold out much hope of reaching my century, but with a bit of help, who knows? Therefore when I was offered the chance to go to Sardinia on a gastronomic tour, my mind immediately returned to that programme. Would this give me the opportunity to discover the secret of Sardinian man’s extraordinary longevity? I could learn the lessons and bring them back to Blighty where I could start planning my 100th birthday party!

A guest of the Delphina group, I would be staying at the five star Valle dell’Erica, one of their eight holiday resorts clustered round the northern tip of the island. Set among a rocky and wooded hillside, the resort’s many buildings cascade down towards the sea, and my light and airy room was only a five minute stroll to the beach – perfect for pre-breakfast swim!

The sea view!

Contrary to what you might think, traditional Sardinian food has very little to do with the sea. Sardinia’s history is one of conquest and successive invasions meant the islanders preferred to live in the mountainous interior, where the chances of meeting some brutish soldiers were lower. With not much fish on offer, the food culture developed to rely on what the land had to offer. I guess the risks of being carried off into slavery have diminished, so the cautious Sardinians have felt safe in moving to the seaside from their mountain strongholds.

Consequently, they have started to cook seafood! As we were staying on a beautiful stretch of coastline my mind naturally turned to the potential of fishy feasts of all types. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. Our dinner on the first night in the resort, miraculously, took place right on the beach, where the hotel had set up a full restaurant, complete with sparkling glassware and tablecloths.

Given the location it had to be seafood on the menu and the chef didn’t disappoint. A plate of genuinely exquisite raw langoustine, raw swordfish (alas not very sustainable), and tuna was followed by oysters, Prosecco and oyster risotto, and tuna with smoked aubergine. Not very traditional, but definitely none the worse for it. Indeed, this wasn’t the only fish to pass my lips.

Sardinian seafood at lunch

A couple of days later, post boat trip, we were treated to an 11 course Sunday lunch at the neighbouring Capo D’Orso resort featuring yet more local catch. Prince among the 11 courses was a large prawn with sweet melon and mellow almond milk. The king, though, was some Sardinian fregola (a kind of large grained cous cous) with red mullet, mussels and clams – I can still taste it now!

The fregola

So far, so good, but had I really discovered the secret to the Sardinians’ longevity? Everyone knows fish is good for you, but it doesn’t play a part in the traditional diet. Annalisa, Delphina’s marketing director, told me she had eight relatives with a combined age of 800, so I resolved to watch her carefully at mealtimes.

Was she doing anything different to me? Chewing her food 30 times? Drinking a dram of olive oil between courses? No. Perhaps a trip to the traditional village of Aggius and its museum would help? Well, I discovered the origin of some of Sardinia’s most traditional foods – the delicious sheep’s milk cheeses, pecorino sardo and pecorino dolce, and pane carasau, an unleavened flat bread – are a legacy of its agricultural history.

Following local practice, I breakfasted from the hotel’s buffet on local cheese with pistachios and honey, and every lunch I whet my appetite with a few crisp shards of pane carasau. But, sheep’s cheese and flat bread? Surely there must be more to it than that?

My final chance was the traditional Sardinian cooking lesson back at Valle dell’Erica’s beautiful hillside restaurant, which is above the main resort and comes with idyllic views across the water to the mountains of Corsica. The guardians of traditional Sardinian food are the ladies of the house, so we had the glamorous Franscesca guide us through the intricacies of zuppa di Gallurese, a layered dish made with thin slices of stale bread, Sardinian cheese and beef stock, and the construction of a type of local pasta called li ciusoni.

The glamorous Francesca

Being the only man present, I had to sing for my supper and was put to work laying out the bread and cheese for the zuppa, before being taught how to use a wicker basket to shape the li ciusoni, which look slightly like conchiglie. As a final test, Annalisa attempted to teach me how to make culurgiones, which are an intricate, pleated type of stuffed pasta, usually filled with potato and pecorino.

Unfortunately, my ham-fisted efforts to emulate her 30 years of practice at Nonna’s knee were not. This unfolding scene proved too much for the rest of the group and they dissolved into hysterics. After the 11 course lunch, appetites weren’t as keen as they could have been for the evening’s Sardinian feast, but one sight of the food changed that.

For antipasti there was a legion of lightly pickled vegetables, grilled pork liver and skirt steak. This was followed by the zuppa di Gallurese and li ciusoni with wild boar ragu for the pasta course; wood roasted suckling pig and Sardinian sausage for secondi; traditional Sardinian pastries for dessert, and finally, a much needed digestivi made with wild myrtle berries. No wonder they live so long if they have meals like that to look forward to every Sunday!

Roast porker

Did I discover the secret to a long life in Sardinia then? The official explanation is the combination of a healthy and relatively frugal diet, plenty of outdoor exercise, and a wide support network of friends and family is the secret formula. Lessons for us all, I would suggest. In any event, Sardinia is beautiful and welcoming and if you choose to holiday with the long-lived at one of Delphina’s resorts, you won’t be disappointed.

This article was originally published on Foodepedia and I travelled as a guest of the Delphina Hotel and Resort Group 

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Jar Kitchen

I have a bit of an obsession with functional design, so I love objects that work perfectly for the job with which they are intended: the teapot that doesn’t drip; the non-stick saucepan that doesn’t stick; the rubber spatula that scrapes every last morsel of scrambled egg from your non-stick saucepan. You get the picture.

Conversely, I have a disdainful disregard for objects that prize form over function, as per my mother’s fifty quid Emma Bridgewater teapot. I am sure Ms Bridgewater is a lovely lady, but she should have hot tea dripped over her until she can design a teapot that doesn’t spread its contents everywhere except the mug.

So the trend for drinking cocktails, wine and everything else the budding restaurateur can find out of specially purchased jam jars was met in this house by nothing but disdain. How fortunate therefore that the Evening Standard published a piece a couple of months ago declaring the death of the hipster: surely we’d reached peak jar.

However, my recent trip to newly opened restaurant Jar Kitchen at the top of London’s Drury Lane put paid to that notion. So much for being on a downward slope, they’re even naming restaurants after the bloody things now! Fortunately, when it came down to the crunch, the name was about the only thing I didn’t like about Lucy Brown and Jenny Quintero’s modern British eatery.

I headed down there on a Tuesday evening for a specially put on food writer / bloggers’ dinner, so can’t legitimately comment on what a meal there is like for the average punter. My fellow food nerds and I were hunkered away downstairs where the hosts could keep a good eye on us as we (actually they in the case of the photography) snapped away with phone cameras and dSLRs and grabbed every last morsel of grub in sight.

What I can comment on is the food, however, which, by and large, was excellent. Chef Dominik Moldenhauer has earned his stripes through stints at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal and also at The Greenhouse in Perth, Western Australia. The killer combo of a rigorous Blumenthalian attention to detail and an Aussie lightness of touch was evident in many of the dishes we tried.

Of the small plates on offer, the earl grey salmon with oat crisps and horseradish ricotta was the prettiest plate of food that has crossed my nose for a while, and tasted equally good. Meanwhile, the courgette flower with goats’ cheese, honey and walnuts was just as good as the classic version of this dish served by Ben Tish at Salt Yard.

Following on, from the many mains we tried, the seared monkfish with baby artichoke and spelt, mixed grain salad and pigeon breast all stood out. That might be because I managed to grab a couple of forkfuls of each before they were passed on down the table. Don’t take that as any form of criticism though because everything we tried was on the right side of tasty.

There was dessert as well, although I can’t recall in detail what we had – probably because of the amount of food I’d already consumed. Something with doughnuts wasn’t much cop (I’m a doughnut snob having tasted those produced by Justin Gellatly from Bread Ahead), but the cheesecake and chocolately thing were both enjoyable enough for me keep picking away at them after my appetite had subsided and anything else was just gluttony.

Drinks wise, I chinned a negroni on arrival before moving on to trying an interesting selection of wines from the short list, including an excellent English sparkling wine, of which there are far too few on restaurant menus. Most importantly, none of these were served in a jam jar, which has greatly influenced my positive review. Some fellow writers weren’t so lucky though, with the arrival of a couple of jarred-up Aperol spritzs before dinner.

Apparently Lucy and Jenny have sunk a fair amount of their own savings into the restaurant and did much of the fitting out themselves. No small commitment when most new restaurants fail within their first year. But, as Lemar said, if there’s any justice in the world Jar Kitchen will be a success. They have definitely struck gold with their chef, Dominik, and with a bit of luck, I reckon it will be.

Jar Kitchen, 176 Drury Lane, Covent Garden, London, WC2B 5QF

0207 405 4255

Reservations taken for lunch, pre-theatre and evening bookings of six or more

p.s. this piece was originally published on Foodepedia

Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Tom went skiing and got published too!

Photo courtesy of Ryan Davison Crisp

You might recall from a pancake related post last year that I spent a couple of days cat-skiing in the Canadian backcountry. Well after a bit of graft I managed to get a write-up of that trip in the UK's number one ski magazine - Fall Line.

As you might be able to tell from the photo above, I had a great time, so would recommend you click on the link here to read all about it.

p.s. I just got back from a very enjoyable week in New York. Inevitably, this involved a lot of eating and drinking, which I will try to write up on the blog at some point. As a taster, here's a shot of some potatoes at fashionable East Village eatery, Contra.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

Restaurant review: Galvin Bistrot de Luxe

Salmon tartare with potato gazpacho

New Year, new job, and it looks like I have finally joined the international jet set. I write this sitting in hotel room in Frankfurt, having flown in yesterday to do a 20 minute presentation, before I fly out again in a couple of hours. Mind you, I haven’t actually left the hotel yet, so can’t tell you anything about Germany’s financial powerhouse, beyond the number of tall and slightly ugly buildings.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that I've spent quite a lot of time on a plane so far this year.  Today’s flight will be my 13th (yikes) since January, and with a trip to Prague this weekend and another to New York on Monday, I will be on 16 before the week is out.

With all this time in airports and planes to kill, I have become a serial downloader from the BBC Iplayer. Why do anything useful with your free time when you can stare blankly at a screen? Imagine my delight, therefore, when I was browsing the other day and found all seven episodes of Floyd on France waiting for me.

Jesus Christ, just watching the effervescent Floyd puts pretty much every other gimpy, celebrity chef who appears on the box these days in the shade. That famous scene where the bow-tied Floyd gets a verbal shellacking from a stern Basquaise madame for his substandard piperade (“les poivrons sont cru! Il n y a pas de sel, pas de poivre…”) is worth the licence fee alone!

Great television it might be, but Floyd’s food now looks terribly old-fashioned next to our modern tastes. All escalope de veau a la sauce moutarde and lapin aux pruneaux, it doesn't sit well with the current foodie zeitgeist of Southern BBQ meets Taiwanese street food (yes I have been to Bao by the way) via a portion of kimchi and a kale and sweet potato falafel.

Hang that though, because actually I don’t give a toss, and love classic French food. Given me a carrĂ© d’agneau avec pommes dauphinoise any day over a steamed pork bun. (Well, maybe not every day, or it’s farewell to my 32in waistline, but definitely any day).

There are plenty of places in London to find great examples of this type of food (alas my fave the Green and French Horn just closed) and Galvin Bistrot de Luxe is surely one of them. Run by the talented Galvin brothers, it is a platonic ideal of a classic French bistro on a particularly boring stretch of Baker Street (FYI, I’m now writing on the plane).

VD and I have history here, as it was one of the first places I brought her on a fancy date when we started going out. As a student at the time, she couldn’t quite believe her luck at meeting a suave, sophisticated, wealthy man about town who bought her dinner in such places (could it explain why I got lucky that evening?).

Of course, times have changed: once you start living with your other half and, like I do, get morning bollockings for eating porridge too loudly and having Radio 4 on in three different rooms, you feel less inclined to splash out on fancy dinners. Nevertheless, an early evening offer of three courses plus aperitif for £23.50 forced me to dust off my credit card and see if my prejudices regarding set deals on restaurant booking websites held true.

Having been to Galvin before, I didn’t recall there being many bad tables in the house  - perhaps around the corner next to the bogs isn’t ideal - and despite our lowly prix fixe status, ours wasn't there. So that was the first prejudice dealt with straight off.

Number two on the list is a short, boring menu with little to choose from; just the crap the kitchen can’t get rid of otherwise. Short it was, with three options per course to choose from, but boring it wasn't: salmon tartare with potato gazpacho, gilthead bream a la plancha, shoulder of veal with prunes and pearl barley, and pear clafoutis all sound tempting enough, don’t they?

Thirdly, and lastly, we come to the service. Aside from a certain briskness and an instruction to order our dessert at the same time as the starter and main, it couldn't really be faulted. The apertifs, a kir royal made with a Saumur brut, took a while to turn up, while the starters arrived remarkably quickly, but you can’t have it both ways.

So, with none of my usual gripes to ruin a good evening, I was left to enjoy the food. I had little doubt it was going to be excellent and wasn't disappointed. VD’s starter of salmon and potato gazpacho trumped my well-made chicken and ham hock terrine, and was genuinely top class. The salmon came hidden under a frothing, foamy pillow of the gazpacho that managed to be both rich and refreshing, without a hint of starchiness.

I got my own back, however, with the terrifically tender veal shoulder and pearl barley. This was a cut above VD’s alliterative bream with beetroot and broccoli, which was worthy but a trifle dull. Mind you, I am sucker for anything that comes with a prune; you could serve me bath sponge aux pruneaux and I’d probably wolf it down without complaint.

For dessert, the pear clafoutis – though less clafoutis and more pear frangipane tart without the pastry – was a triumph. The addition of almond to the batter was inspired, giving it a new and tastier dimension. My strawberry trifle with praline was good, although it didn't leave a huge impression on me, judging by the fact I can’t really remember what it looked like a few days later.

What else to say then? Not much, aside from the fact that the set menu plus aperitif is a genuine bargain. Especially as it is available in the evening until 7pm, which is just about an acceptable time to sit down to dinner.

Finally, I should point out that I was offered said meal by the guys at bookatable.com, and yes, they have paid for it, but don’t be fooled into thinking this is a fluffy PR-driven, hagiography. I've already told various chums to book in a trip on the strength of this visit, and in any case, it takes more than one free feed to buy my good opinion!

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe
66 Baker Street
London W1U 7DJ 

+44 (0) 20 7935 4007 

Click on the links to find the deal I was on from bookatable at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe

Sunday, 8 March 2015

A ski weekend in Interlaken

Back at the start of February I spent a very enjoyable weekend skiing in the Swiss Alps, managing to bag a stay at a rather swanky hotel while I was there. As usual I put virtual pen to paper and you can read all about it on The Arbuturian.

On a similar note I have a 700 word piece going in to the next edition of Fall Line magazine about some cat-skiing I did last March in Canada. You can grab a copy of Fall Line at most decent newsagents, which I would encourage you to do when it comes out on March 16th!

Oh, and I had a very nice lunch at a restaurant called Andrew Edmunds in Soho on Friday. Recommended.

I was excited to be there...

Monday, 8 December 2014

Wintering in Sicily

Not a bad shot with a phone camera eh! That's the temple of Concordia in the background fyi...

I have just started a new job and before that first day in the office I managed to squeeze a week of winter sun, winter storms and fantastic food in Sicily.

You can read all about my trip in the The Arbuturian, but when I get the time I plan to write something for here focused on the amazing food I had there. Of which there was plenty! Pasta con le sarde, penne a la Norma, cannoli, granita and brioche for breakfast etc etc. A glutton's dream, especially if you have a fishy and/or a sweet tooth!

If I don't manage another post before Christmas, I wish you a very merry one. And remember if you need any festive inspiration there's always my Christmas guide to keep you calm when the heat is on.

p.s. its goosey, goosey gander at mine this year - already thinking of all those lovely spuds roasted in the fat...

The view from the terrace from the Hotel Villa Carlotta in Taormina

Thursday, 30 October 2014

3 star dining at Harrods

Harrods are running a five month long promotion called Stelle di Stelle at the moment. What does this mean I hear you say. Well the clue is in the name, because for the uneducated amongst you, stelle means star in Italian. As such, they have invited a bevy of multi-Michelin-starred Italian restaurants to each take a month long residency in their lower-ground floor restaurant.

Harrods isn't really my cup of tea, but I was invited to go along and try the food from the three star restaurant Da Vittorio, which is located in an idyllic hilltop villa in Brusaporto, just outside Milan. And not being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, off I trotted to see the lay of the land.

You can read my thoughts on the meal here on Foodepedia. But as an added bonus, I also got the opportunity to ask Enrico Cerea from Da Vittorio a few questions, which he answered in the video posted below.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Golf, whisky, the Highlands and a thumping hangover

There are certain perks to this writing lark and one of them is being invited on press trips. I have done a couple, but the one I went on a couple of weeks ago on behalf of the guys at The Arbuturian really was the money-shot.

Invited by the guys from Johnnie Walker Blue Label, I enjoyed a flying visit to the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles, which was preceded by an evening at a modernist lodge in the remote Scottish highlands owned by a Swedish billionaire. Oh, and all transport in Scotland was by private helicopter ("roads, where we're going, we don't need roads")

Because Johnnie Walker were sponsoring the trip, the evening at the lodge was whisky themed, with a tasting session, cocktails and themed dinner to keep the assembled hacks and slebs (Anna Friel and Rupert Penry-Jones were along for the ride) entertained.

Anyway, I have said enough and you can read all about the trip and my whisky induced hangover on The Arbuturian.