Sunday, 22 January 2017

Shibui - Elizabeth Allen pop-up at Carousel

This was my first visit to Carousel; how have I never been here before? It's a wonderful idea for a venue, and pretty much everything I love under one roof. Food-wise, lunch is prepared by their own team and dinner comes courtesy of a series of stellar chef residencies; there is an exhibition space for new talent and also a programme of events ranging from life drawing and yoga to acoustic sets and spoon carving. Spoon carving!! I didn't know this was a thing, but now I do and I need it in my life.

So - on to this week's guest chef. Elizabeth Allen was formerly head chef at Neil Rankin's Smokehouse before moving on to Pidgin and her first Michelin star; I'm pretty sure it won't be her last. Allen has a self-confessed love of fire and flames as 'sophisticated barbecue' and specialises in the delicate balance of bold flavours, all of which will be showcased in her new restaurant project, Shibui.

Shibui is an ancient Japanese word with no direct translation into English but which expresses the elegance, grace and beauty of simplicity - a perfect name for a restaurant that promises dishes combining both everyday and exotic ingredients and a relaxed fine dining experience. I think this is an exciting trend; I am a greedy, obsessive and endlessly curious foodie but for me food is both literally and metaphorically nourishing - it should be an experience that is relaxing, heartening, soothing, exciting, nurturing and sociable. (I heartily detest the concept of 'good' and 'bad' foods - and don't even get me started on so-called 'clean eating'.) So, the concept of jaw-dropping food without the intimidating starchiness and obligatory reverent hush of classic fine dining is very good news.

Carousel was a good choice of venue for this, with its scrubbed wooden refectory tables, communal seating and subdued lighting; it is also very intimate, with the prep and kitchen area a few feet from the bar, so you can have a pre-dinner sharpener whilst watching the chef at work. Consequently, I was at a toddler-on-Christmas-morning level of excitement by the time we actually sat down for the meal. The first dish was bite-sized tempura nori with apple puree, oyster and sambal and did not disappoint. This was so clever; a mouth-pleasing mix of textures and the nori, oyster and sambal all balanced out by the apple and making different contributions to produce something that, quite simply and in the best possible way, tasted of the sea.

Next up was the buttermilk chicken with miso and caviar, which I hear will be a signature dish when Shibui finds a permanent home later this year and which embodies Allen's philosophy of combining the humble and the sophisticated. Crispy coating, tender chicken, a salty hit of caviar and a savoury mayo, this was delicious. We had also opted for the wine flight which paired this with Konishi Gold, a light, clean sake with a hint of apple - a perfect match.

We then had a fresh, palate-cleansing dish of fermented cucumber, sorrel and apple with rhubarb, all wonderfully zingy, sour flavours to wake up the tastebuds. This came with a De Loach California Chardonnay; I'm normally ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) when it comes to wine but this was light and fresh with a refreshing fruity acidity.

At this point there was the option of an additional course at a surcharge. I overheard some scattered and gentle grumbling at this culinary ambush, as of course the only real possible answer was yes; everyone I could see paid up and ate up. Having said that, it was the best possible call. Maltagliati (literally, 'badly-cut') pasta with tender, creamy lamb sweetbreads, brown butter, cabbage - all basic, almost rustic ingredients - oh, and did I mention, Perigord truffle? Allen had me at the fried chicken and caviar, but this was silky, seductive and outstandingly good. The wine pairing was explained to us by a friendly, knowledgeable and enthusiastic member of the team; a balanced and 'minerally' Chilean Caquenina from a vineyard a mere six kilometres from the Andes.

On to the next course, which was three succulent slices of Koji beef with coffee and Jerusalem artichoke puree, served with blistered sprout tops, beef fat and XO. I've never had sprout tops but they were surprisingly tasty, especially with the nuggets of beef fat nestling in amongst them. This was accompanied by a punchy Langhe Nebbiolo which held its own against the beef.

Finally, dessert; apple, kinako custard with miso butterscotch. Delicate and balanced, this showcases another facet of Allen's work, which is a blend of European and Asian influences. If Carlsberg made hot apple pies, they would taste like this. Alongside was an intriguing digestive with suze gentian, lime juice and a home-made smoked hay syrup.

In summary, this was an exceptional meal and a thoroughly enjoyable evening: incredible food, imaginative wine pairings, relaxed vibe, fascinating chats (and some great restaurant recommendations) with fellow foodies sat alongside us, and I have discovered some new ingredients that I am off to try. When Shibui eventually finds a permanent place to call home, I will be queuing at the door.

Yours, STILL thinking about that lamb dish,

London Girl About Town xx

Square Meal

Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Distillery - including the Ginstitute, Resting Room and GinTonica

You may remember the Distillery from its previous incarnation in somewhat smaller quarters further down Portobello Road. Thanks to London's  recent 'ginaissance' (and the passion of the Portobello Road Gin crew) demand has seriously outstripped supply. Now, founder Ged Feltham has answered many a gin-lover's prayer and created what can only be described as a four-floor gin paradise on the corner of Portobello Road and Talbot Road. 

The basement houses the main still itself, upgraded from the original 30 litre capacity to a reassuring 400 litres (which will mean that production of Portobello Road Gin can again be done completely on site) and the Ginstitute. I didn't get to do this on my visit, but am definitely planning to - so watch this space, details to follow!

The ground floor is home to the Resting Room, a laid-back cocktail bar serving hand-blended and barrel-aged spirits - the latter served directly from huge barrels suspended above the bar. There is also a small but perfectly formed food menu; I dabbled, but it deserves my full attention at a later date.

On the first floor is the tapas restaurant, GinTonica, serving Basque tapas and G&Ts in the 'copa de balon' glasses that any self-respecting gin aficionado uses now (*cough, buys new gin glasses immediately*).  This shape, with the large 'balloon' bowl and stem, not only focuses the aroma of the botanicals as you drink to give you a better flavour experience, but also slows the melting of the ice, so keeping your drink colder for longer AND less diluted. Winner. 

The top floor boasts a private meeting/dining room (pictured) and boutique lodgings: three double rooms with huge windows overlooking one of the world's most iconic streets, a fully-stocked minibar with freshly-made cocktails (gin, obvs) and a selection of vinyls from nearby Rough Trade West. The only way these rooms could be any cooler is if they were sitting smack on top of a gin salon and a restaurant. Oh, wait . . .

I approached my lunch booking in GinTonica with high hopes, given that it offers a combination of two of my favourite things in the world: gin and tapas. I have indulged in both frequently, internationally and (on occasion) excessively, just never - until now - concurrently.  I've always gone for ice-cold fino sherry, a dry Spanish white or rosé, or una caña with my tapas but hey, I'm always open to suggestions.

The first plate to arrive was the Pan Catalan. This is one of those joyous dishes that is simple, quick and - even when using top-quality ingredients, which you absolutely must - cheap to make, but is utterly delicious. Easily pleased, me, but then this was a good one.

The Pollo a la Parilla was a juicy grilled chicken breast, sliced and served with a roast chicken croquette and a very tasty, chunky romesco sauce. Another big tapas win in my book is the option of croquetas, usually a reliable benchmark for the rest of the meal.

Tragically they were out of the Croquetas con Queso (it was their soft launch, so I can't moan) but the chicken croquette was very promising: light, crispy coating, melting interior, good flavour. To me, these are the comfort food champs of tapas (the equivalent of Chinese bao or dumplings) and the experience was exactly right. Perhaps a jamon version in your next menu please chef?

To go with, we did glance through the drinks menu but decided to let our friendly barman advise us. We started with a couple of simple classic G&Ts - a Portobello Road Gin 17, the house blend, served with Fever Tree tonic water, juniper berries and a twist of pink grapefruit, and a Botanist, with Fever Tree elderflower tonic, juniper berries, apple and mint.

These are 50ml serves (doubles, basically) and arrive beautifully presented in the aforementioned copa de balon glasses. They were also outstandingly good. There's a whole menu of these? Book me a room.

The next tranche of tapas included another fave of mine, boquerones. Anyone who hates anchovies because they had them on a pizza once - please believe me when I say that these white anchovies (marinated in olive oil, garlic and parsley) are light, mild, flavourful and worlds away from their punchy, salt-preserved cousins. (Not that I don't always have a tin of the macho ones in my kitchen cupboard, as they are singularly brilliant at bringing out flavour in a whole range of dishes, but I digress.) Perhaps there could have been a tad less oil, but that was more a not-dropping-it-down-my-top issue than a problem with the flavour.

The patatas bravas with chilli sauce and aioli was pretty much what you would want and was a good companion dish to the orzo risotto with smoked Spanish cheese and truffle oil. This dish prompted a foodie debate at the table: is there such a thing as an orzo risotto? I don't want to go all #paellagate on this - particularly as I am known for endlessly tweaking recipes to see what happens, cooking is a living language - but my Pavlovian response kicks in and I expect a particular texture that you can only get with rice. Anyway, I digress again. Either way, this was good; creamy, incredibly rich, looser in texture than a rice-based risotto and definitely best paired with a contrasting dish like the bravas.

Time for another round of gins. This time we went for a Gin Mare with 1724 tonic, black pepper, basil and a slice of fresh mango, and a Portobello Road Gin 171 Director's Cut Number Two served with Fever Tree, smoked cardamom pods and blue cornflower. The first two were a really hard act to follow and these were also good, although very different - leading me to think more about the whole process of balancing botanicals and the variations that are possible.

No time for dessert - we had a table booked downstairs in the Resting Room to see what they had to offer.  I was very tempted to try a spirit from one of the barrels above the bar, partly because they are so cool and partly because the spirit is ageing as it is stored - meaning that it will taste very slightly different on my next visit. The drinks menu is wonderfully authoritative, explaining each spirit in terms of nose, taste and finish as well as recommending a way of trying it.

We stuck with the gin theme, though. I went for a classic martini, which was as lip-puckeringly dry as it gets and presented with skilled and elegant simplicity. How beautiful is this? (That's another set of glasses I need to buy now. If only there were an antiques market nearby. Oh, wait . . . )

Still full from our tapas, we just dipped into the small plates menu and ordered the scallops with chestnut puree, apple julienne and watercress and a side of truffle fries with parmesan and garlic. The apple was a good contrast to the soft silkiness of the scallops; the fries had a great flavour but lacked any crunch, which was a minor disappointment. Not enough to stop us finishing them, though.

So, that was my visit to the Distillery. I am intrigued by the Institute now, so have put that on my to-do list for this year, and will try the larger sharing plates from the Resting Room's Josper oven while I'm at it.

Yours, with two floors down and two to go,

London Girl About Town xx

Thursday, 22 December 2016


Fans of London’s street food scene – and let’s face it, who isn’t? – will already be familiar with Smokestak from Street Feast Dalston Yard (now at Dinerama) and the legendary beef brisket buns with pickled red chillies.

Well, David Carter has come in out of the cold and opened a bricks-and-mortar version off Brick Lane on Sclater Street E1. I would say that you can't miss it, but we watched many a perplexed punter wander past the forbidding Game of Thrones-esque door and only return once they had failed to find anything more welcoming. If you get lost, just follow your nose.

The doors set the scene for the brooding industrial interior  - smoky concrete walls, exposed pipes and towering windows, this is about as masculine as a restaurant can get. Everything about it is big, solid and no-nonsense, either wood, steel, or matt black, and the focus of it all is the huge four and a half tonne smoker brought over from Houston.

That said, the general vibe is really warm and relaxed - unusual in such a new restaurant (it had only been open ten days when we went). The staff were charming, friendly and just attentive enough, never rushing us but always busy. Carter himself was the still centre of the storm, stationed calmly at the bar with his laptop, advising chefs and front of house staff as and when needed.

We were waiting for stragglers at our table (yep, you know who you are . . . ) so we early birds ordered a couple of cocktails and a cheeky little starter to keep us going. We opted for the smoked girolles on beef dripping toast which turned out to be a phenomenally good call; robust, punchy, with real depth of flavour, this set the scene for the rest of the meal. Do NOT miss this. You can thank me later.

The cocktails were pretty good too; I had the Smoke (rude not to, really, given the theme) with tequila, smoke, lime and ginger, and my companion had the Burnt Peach Old Fashioned, a great take on the classic with bourbon, burnt peach, warm spices and bitters. 

The boys arrived and we went for a bottle of the recommended red wine and the 40ft pale ale. To go with, we ordered scratchings; this turned out to be huge light-as-air swirls of crispy skin, a great appetiser for what was to come.

I lived in Texas for a couple of years (yeah, it's a long story) and this was a return to the larger than life barbecue fare I remember - and then some. Texans love their beef, and take their barbecues very seriously. Politics? Sport? Religion? Tackle a Texan about what kind of wood chips to use, what spices to include in the rub or how long is long enough and you could find yourself at the wrong end of the second amendment.

For mains, we had the beef brisket, which I was happy to see arrive with a sprinkling of the pickled red chillies on the side, and the pork ribs with pickled cucumber. The beef was exceptional; meltingly tender and perfectly seasoned even without the barbecue sauce, and great with the zing of the chillies.

The thick-cut pork ribs were also really good; chunky, succulent and delicious.

Opinion was more divided on the sides: the roasted carrots got a universal thumbs up, same for the wonderfully fresh and crisp celery, almond and preserved lemon slaw, which was so much more than a sum of its parts.
The grilled baby gem lettuce with bacon and walnut gremolata was okay, but I felt its flavours were fighting with the meat mains, which was a contest it was never going to win. The jacket potato with sour cream and chive was the troublemaker; three of us, myself included, loved it but one of us wasn't a fan of the texture - a smooth, almost pureed potato and sour cream mix in a crispy skin.

I'm sad I didn't get to try the salt-baked beetroot . . . next time!

So gluttonously on to puddings. We tried the sticky toffee pudding, which was judged to be everything one would want from the dish, and I was hoping to try the toasted oak ice cream with salted hazelnut praline but unfortunately they were out of the ice cream so I had to have the burnt butter ice cream instead. This was good, but now I have yet another reason to go back . . .

Yours, addicted to smoking,

Girl About Town xx

Square Meal

Smokestak Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Dumpling Shack pop-up

So I managed to grab a couple of places at John Li's Dumpling Shack pop-up event in Leicester Square last weekend - no mean feat, considering that his last pop-up venture with Shotgun sold out within hours.

Dumpling Shack has been resident in the School Yard at Broadway market since 2014 and John Li has built a steadily increasing reputation and fan base for his fresh, handmade dumplings amongst some very stiff competition. This pop-up brought his street eats inside and central, at Leicester House in Soho.

The table was set with some roasted peanuts and a sizeable bowl of zingy smacked cucumbers (surprisingly easy to make at home btw if you are serving a spicy Sichuan main) for a fresh, palate-cleansing start.

First to arrive was a salad with lily bulb, celery and jellyfish. I can't recall having had lily bulb as a key ingredient before but it was interesting, with a texture and flavour not unlike a mild version of roasted chestnuts.
This and the toasted sesame dressing went well with the crisp celery and the classic delicacy of very finely-sliced jellyfish, looking almost like glass noodles.

Then came the star of the show, the dumplings. Note that these are sheng jian bao, pan-fried soup dumplings, which have a completely different texture to the xiao long bao Shanghai soup dumplings popular in dim sum restaurants. These are more robust in texture, the exterior almost like a thinner version of the fluffy char siu bao bbq pork bun; and they needed to be, as the fillings were substantial - and amazing.

The signature pork and water chestnut filling was tender, juicy and deftly seasoned; the shiitake, woodear and leek provided a veggie option that had great depth of flavour, but for me the crab and truffle option was one of the highlights of the evening and had me chasing tiny shreds of filling around the plate with my chopsticks out of pure greed. They were as good as I had heard - a beautifully crisp, browned base, not too doughy and piping hot. One word of warning though - when I say hot, I really do mean hot - please don't be tempted to pop a whole one in your mouth as soon as they are served, as the result will not be pretty.

These were followed by the long bean fritters with smoked tofu mayonnaise. These were not so much actual fritters as long bean tempura, with the lightest of batter coatings and a fabulous gently spicy chilli kick, balanced by the creamy smokiness of the mayo.

Next up were the barbecued duck heart skewers; beautifully and simply presented, tender nuggets of meat with robust bbq flavours.

Potatoes in spicy red bean sauce arrived next; again the spice factor is mild, more warming than eye-watering, with the starchy sweetness of the red beans providing a comforting backdrop to the dish.

We were seriously starting to flag when the next dish arrived at our table, the signature spicy cumin lamb chops with pickled radish. However, these were everything you might hope they would be: juicy, crisp, perfectly seasoned melt-in-the-mouth heaven. Definitely one of the stand-out dishes of the evening.

Scallops in XO sauce came next. I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years and XO sauce was a staple seasoning, a seafood-based umami high. These were good but not outstanding . . . although in fairness we were both ridiculously full and still going on about the lamb chops.

The final dish arrived, a vegetable dish of kai lan served with crushed peanuts. I had a mouthful or two and confirmed that yes, I absolutely would order it again as a side if I hadn't already eaten my own body weight in dumplings and associated fabulousness.

Rumour has it that this pop-up is in preparation for a bricks-and-mortar version of Dumpling Shack planned for 2017. For what it's worth, my vote is a resounding YES PLEASE.

Yours, still daydreaming about dumplings,

Girl About Town xx