If the word ‘gastropub’ has become cliche, then so too has the critic’s perfunctory dissection of its usage. It seems you can’t read a pub review these days without first wading through a rambling discussion about this demi-neologism. So I shan’t mention it, but shall instead simply tell you that the Bull and Last in Kentish Town is a pub that serves very, very good food. Continue reading
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It was 2008, my first day in a six week stretch at a food magazine and I was going down a storm.
‘Well, erm, sure, what do you-‘ Continue reading
London has the worst food in Europe
A Europe-wide survey has found London to have the worst food. As well as being the most exciting and most expensive, it was concluded its food left much to be desired. Quite where the judges were eating I don’t know. London’s food is something to be proud of, in my opinion. Rome came out on top in the food stakes. Continue reading
The recession has brought with it an avalanche of cookery titles that promise to make your life somehow cheaper. We’ve seen the timely republication of Delia’s Frugal Food, the overnight success of Gill Holcombe’s How to write a book with the world’s longest title and still manage to sell it even though you think the garlic crusher is a worthwhile kitchen device, and Allegra McEvedy and Paul Merrett’s Economy Gastronomy. I’m in no position to judge, because I’ve read none of these books. But something about overtly frugal cooking leaves me a little cold. Yes it’s essential, and yes these books probably have interesting recipes, but that mindset doesn’t make me salivate.
So when the kind folks at Quadrille sent a copy of Jason Atherton’s Gourmet Food for a Fiver, I can’t confess to tearing open the parcel with gay abandon. Atherton’s a fine chef but I expected the economic restraints put on him to be too stifling. How wrong I was. For the book is a triumph. The recipes do a pretty cohesive bit of globe-trotting, from spiced green papaya and roasted peanut salad to paella to country pate with pickles. I made the lamb steaks with avocado, pomegranate and Arabic bread and it was magnificent. Even my sister, a relative non-cook (pun intended), flicked through it with Wimbledonian oohs and aahs. “I could do this,” she said. And that’s what is so great about this book – the food looks stunning and professional but it’s also very doable. There are even little explanations of how to plate up if you want to serve it gourm-style (though concessions are made to home cooking as well).
And each dish for a fiver a head? Hmm, I’m not sure where our Jason does his shopping but I want in. Nevertheless, this is serious food available in your home for a snip.
Gourmet Food For a Fiver, by Jason Atherton
Public House is a deeply confused soul. Everything about it – from its misleading name (it is not, in any way, shape, or form, a pub), to its frightful and incongruous art work, to the food it serves – suggests an entity that is unsure of itself. It’s Wayne Rooney playing rugby, it’s Hendrix playing bass, it’s Wilde writing Christmas cracker jokes – there’s potential, talent, and flashes of wonder, but ultimately it isn’t quite right.
The space itself is a delight, in a boutique-y, chi-chi, Notting Hill kind of a way. Low lighting, mis-matched furniture, mirrors all over the shop – you know the drill. It’s been done very well, but it is let down by art that does not fit in with the aesthetic at all – gaudy, distracting and brash when everything else is mellow and peaceful.
The way the menu is written is just as confused, at times sounding classical and elegant (Red pepper mousse with tomato consomme and thyme crackers), at others like a puerile in-joke (Chef’s fishy paella), and at others wincingly twee (Jerusalem artichoke soup with ickle watercress and pumpkin seed oil).
Emilie started with the cutesy soup (£6.50) – a top notch dish let down in an almost cataclysmic way by not being served with bread. It was a pretty fundamental error, and for a bread junkie like Emilie took the edge off an otherwise faultless and attractive bowl of soup. I ploughed my way through a doorstop sized hunk of duck terrine with roasted beetroot and beetroot leaf pesto (£7.50), which came close to being t’riffic but was let down by sloppy oversights. Something as fatty as duck requires a tart companion, but the roasted beetroot just didn’t have the necessary oomph to offset the rich meat.
Next was the most confused, ill-conceived and downright barmy dish I’ve eaten since I drunkenly tipped sun-dried tomato oil and a two month out of date egg into a bowl of spaghetti – a beautifully cooked piece of brill perched atop an excellent and tender venison stew (£15.95). The two, I think it goes without saying, should never have met. The fish was entirely lost beneath the rich venison, and was little more than a pariah in a handsome dish. Emilie’s rainbow trout with salsify and mustard beurre blanc (£12.95) was another occasion of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, an ever so slightly undercooked piece of trout and some well cooked salsify drowned by a sauce that didn’t seem to have encountered mustard at any point in its life.
Puddings were, I hate to say, a bit of a disaster. The apple and berry pie seemed to have been shipped in from a diner in Nebraska – it was vast and stodgy and the sort of thing that probably tastes like an angel’s nipples on a hangover but that should be avoided in any other context. I had the cheese platter – Somerset brie was creamy but lacked in any discernible flavour other than salt, while the herb crusted cheese looked pretty but was roundly trounced by said herbs.
So it was a frustrating evening. I loved the restaurant, I enjoyed the staff, the wine, and the general bonhomie of the place. And the chef Ivan Cubillo can clearly cook, and cook very well at that – the times things went wrong were those when he was trying to be too clever. In fact, that’s the problem with Public House in general – it lacks courage in its convictions. If you make a cracking venison stew you should serve it as it is instead of trying to posh it up with a redundant piece of fish. Similarly, if you have created a stylish boutique restaurant, why try to make it edgy by putting graffiti on the walls? If it makes it through adolescence, Public House could be a very good restaurant indeed.
Translation can be difficult. Different countries have different ways of expressing what is essentially the same thing, but is yet so nuanced, so finely tuned, that the merest mispronunciation can lead to extraordinary difficulties. A friend spent a year in South America, to hone what was, until then, fairly ropey Castilian Spanish. Having somehow landed a job at an international company, he was, on his very first day, ushered into the biggest board meeting of the year. All the heads of the South American arm of the company had gathered around a large table, with Jim, a six foot six, red-haired Englishman (sore thumb, anyone?) plonked at the end. And like in a bad dream he was asked to introduce himself.
“Hola, soy Jim…..”, God this is awkward, he thought – I should tell them. “Soy muy embarazado”. I’m very embarrassed.
Except that isn’t what he said. “Hello, I’m Jim”, he said, “I’m very pregnant”. The room exploded, Jim’s face fast turning scarlet.
With the first hurdle having been limped over, his boss tried to put him at ease with some gentle, GCSE oral exam-style questions.
“How did you get from the airport Jim?” he enquired.
“Ah, si. Err, yo cogi un autobus. Duro cinco horas”. I got a bus. It took five hours.
Except that isn’t what he said. He actually said this: “Ah, yes. Erm, I fucked a bus. It took five hours”.
Because in Castilian Spanish ‘coger’ means ‘to take’. In South American Spanish it does not.
And in Britain ‘pizza’ means ‘flat bread with tomato and cheese’. In Pizza East it does not. I have been 4 times in a week, and only once has my pizza had tomato on it.
I’ll start at the beginning. Last Friday I met a friend for lunch at aforementioned and much-lauded restaurant, and I fell in love with the place immediately. It’s in the Tea building on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road, and occupies the vast, expansive ground floor. And yet it manages to be utterly cosy, warm and welcoming. The decor is a delight – proper distressed wood (not the furniture equivalent of ‘faded’ jeans – why spend £20 extra on jeans that look just like the ones you’re replacing?), great long tables with swing-out seats, and comfy banquettes to sit back and wallow in. It’s immaculate yet unfussy, the service attentive but unintrusive.
The antipasti menu is as good a translation of Italian grub as I have seen – no half-arsed parma ham and melon here. Proper food, beautifully cooked. Over the course of those four visits I ate a pingingly fresh and elegantly presented mackerel escabeche with lentils, the criminally underrated fish soft and yielding and singing with lemon. Wood roasted bone marrow, all rich and wobbly and flecked with sea salt, was a joy, slathered on toast and crammed in with radish and parsley salad. Mussels were also wood roasted, and were just about the plumpest I have eaten.
But my highlight was the soft polenta with chicken livers. These are stupendous – crispy little nuggets of liver with the gentlest, warmest spicing, sitting atop a golden hillock of creamy polenta, and adorned with a piquant sauce. Potentially my favourite dish of 2009.
Onto the pizzas, and I hope I won’t risk being turned away on my next visit (which, let’s face it, will probably be this evening) for saying that they’re a mixed bag. A great deal of thought has gone into creating these – so much so that when I asked to substitute toppings (on my 3rd visit) I was told that I couldn’t. They have been meticulous in their design, yet rigour and street food don’t necessarily go together. Call me a philistine, but I simply don’t think pizza needs tinkering with. The bases of these pizzas are terrific, with that magical, much sought-after combination of crispness and chew. So why the need to try and make them extra-special with bizarre toppings – sprouting broccoli on a pizza? That’s a mistranslation if ever I saw one.
Some of the attempts at ringing the tomato-cheese-pig changes do work. The veal meatball pizza with prosciutto, sage, lemon, parsley and cream is an absolute triumph, the duck sausage a glorious, rich delight. But the best pizza, like the best Italian food, is the simplest. The salami, tomato and mozzarella pizza is, while perhaps narrow-minded, splendid in its simplicity, the Margherita even more so.
Pizza East – you had me by the jaffers as soon as I walked in. After the starters – handsome, original, stupidly scrumptious – I was thinking about leaving home and squatting on your doorstep with a sleeping bag and a fork. You don’t need to fart around with the pizzas. It’s like the most beautiful woman in the world wearing make-up – perhaps minutely enhancing, but completely unnecessary.