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Steak tartare with ginger, garlic, chilli & tamarind_1

Fay Maschler of the Evening Standard reviews Flavour Bastard where she is decidedly underwhelmed.

Hi, guys. Welcome to Flavour B******. When you get the bill you will see that we cross out the printed words “Authenticity, Ceremony, Rules” and substitute the printed words “Flavours, Idea, Fun”. Whaddaya think guys? You will probably want to order five or six tiny, small or slightly larger plates each and they will be sent out from the kitchen at any old time it suits them.

How you doin’ guys? This is your waitress who has never heard of a Negroni even though it is on the cocktail list.

Wahay! Can I get you guys anything? Maybe the story behind Flavour B******? Chef Pratap Chahal, who worked in the kitchens of Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s, Chez Bruce and Cinnamon Club and ran his own outside catering company, The Hungry Chef, is backed by Vic Singh.

How are you findin’ the food guys? Well, we expected cloud of curds with gram confetti, mint relish and guindilla chilli — annotated in printed handwriting “from the house of Holkar” (a Hindu dynasty, incidentally) — to be light, bright, ethereal even, so its dun-coloured appearance is a bit of a surprise. The cheesy, oniony flavour is OK. We are relieved to hear that the provenance of duck egg is “from near Glasgow” as the wan rheumy low and slow-cooked look is unnerving. We stir it into the triple cauliflower — apparently signifying three sprigs — and pickled watermelon and Edward says it is delicious and furthermore he feels a sense of achievement at eating it without gagging.


The Observer’s Jay Rayner says the food and the music hits the right notes at the Straight and Narrow in London E1.

Main courses, priced in the teens, offer the kind of European-inspired, bistro cooking utilising British ingredients that is the food we really want to eat most of the time. It is roast chicken with risotto and fillet steak with chips. The nearest thing to ostentation is soy-glazed pork belly with Asian slaw and salted peanuts. I only don’t order it because people have been gossiping about me and pork belly. They’re saying we’re a thing. I don’t like to encourage gossip.

Instead I have slices of a substantial piece of lamb rump, roasted to crisp fat outside, cherry pink inside, piled on roasted courgettes. At the base, soaking up the jus, is a disc of puff pastry laid with roasted tomatoes. A dribble of basil oil finishes it off. A slab of hake with crisped skin and pearly flesh lies on a meadow of summer peas and baby leeks dressed with a garlic butter sauce, with enough acidity to push it towards a beurre blanc. Dill gnocchi give ballast.

Desserts are exceptionally good, the sort that make you wonder if there has been some grand hotel training involved (although apparently there hasn’t). A salted caramel tart has dark pastry with an echoing crunch and a deep golden filling that stays the right side of cloying. A marmalade ice cream lives up to its billing without dominating the proceedings. A peach melba bavarois, alternate layers of mousse and sponge, with a raspberry sorbet on the side, demands a round of applause before you demolish the lot. Oh, but it’s pretty.


Sugar Boat

Michael Deacon of the Telegraph reviews Sugar Boat, Helensburgh: ‘the pudding would be worth getting fat for’.

About 10 years ago, a group of people from Helensburgh, on the west coast of Scotland, decided it was time to put their town on the map. They did so by making an unusual claim. Helensburgh, they announced to the media, was Britain’s most talented town.

Sugar Boat was opened this summer by an Englishman called Will Smith. After co-founding a number of successful restaurants in London, including Arbutus and Wild Honey – both of which earned Michelin stars – he decided he’d had enough of city life. So he and his Scottish wife moved to Helensburgh – where, two decades earlier, they’d first met when Smith was manager of a local restaurant.

I started with the chilled tomato gazpacho: a mound of white crab meat, and then the soup poured over the top from a jug. My wife had the burrata (like 
mozzarella but creamier and softer) with red cabbage and beetroot chutney. Both dishes were bright, light and zippily refreshing.

My main was an excellent bouillabaisse, with velvet-smooth cod and hulking, bulky spuds, defiantly still wearing their skins, like moody teenage lads keeping their coats on indoors. Even better, though, were the vegetables. Seriously. Amazing vegetables.

What a lovely place Sugar Boat is. And, the night we went, completely packed, too. It looks so small and unassuming, but it really does serve very good food, at a very reasonable price. Afterwards, the rain finally over, we strolled down to the darkening waters, and just stood, drinking the air, our hair whipped by the pitiless wind.


John Walsh reviews Westerns Laundry in London N5 for the Sunday Times and experiences one of the finest pudding and wine combinations in his life.

The highlight of the meal was a quail roasted to a tenderness you seldom find with game birds. Ah, the pathos of those tiny legs, to be devoured like umami lollipops. This was served with spiced sweetcorn. Much care had been devoted to preparing this humble vegetable, the husks made into a stock, the kernels cooked separately then sautéed with onions and butter. The combination was groan-makingly gorgeous and rendered our last course — squid baked in its black ink with fideo pasta — a little anticlimactic. Yes, the dish went with the decor and was rich and garlicky, but nothing could eclipse that quail.

Until we shared a rum baba, that is. How I love these little cakes, originally from eastern Europe (where “baba” means “granny”) and reinvented in 1830s Paris. The Laundry version is huge, drenched in rum, slathered with crème Chantilly and dotted with fat, alcoholic raisins. It’s probably the best baba I’ve ever had (and I’ve eaten Alain Ducasse’s). Our waitress urged us to try a slug of Macvin du Jura, a unique liquid made by boiling savagnin grape juice, then adding brandy and leaving it in oak casks for six years. There’s something honeyed and holy about it, a dark, pruny, altar-wine intensity that leaves you breathless.

This restaurant is definitely something to shout about — and I’ll enjoy telling my grandchildren that I consumed one of the finest pudding-and-wine combinations in my whole life in an old laundry, just around the corner from Arsenal football ground.


Shikumen

Giles Coren of the Times is cock-a-hoop that good Chinese food is back on the west back of Finchley Road in London, in the shape of Shikumen in London NW3.

Just a quick word on Shikumen, then, because a few years ago I reviewed a restaurant of the same name in Shepherds Bush and liked it and this is a new north London offshoot. They do dim sum all day, which is a bit of a slap in the face for us purists, but then they didn’t do it any time at all when I last ate Chinese on Finchley Road, so.

Har gau and shui mai were both firm and trim and the xiaolong bao oozed its sweet soup most delicately. I have to assume they were frozen or deep-chilled. It was high August and nobody was there but us (plus a middle-aged Jewish tennis quartet). They simply didn’t have a crew of choppers and wrappers and steamers getting down and dirty in the kitchen, I’m certain.

Phoenix sesame prawn toast, steep at £9.90 for three pieces, were big king prawns fat and tight on a crouton under crusty seeds, deep fried and juicy as hell, and the pan-fried turnip cakes had that richness and tang I crave. Very neat, firm and rectangular, not sloppy, golden on top, lined up attractively on their black crockery like everything else.

Roasted spare ribs in Shanghai style were perfect in texture, soft as marshmallow but with plenty of fat still on the bone.

It may not sound a big deal written up, but friendly, accessible top-notch Cantonese is back on the west bank of Finchley Road for the first time in a generation and I’m cock-a-hoop.


Oktopus in Liverpool is enormous fun and the bill comes as a caress rather than a headbutt, says the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin.

Liverpool’s Oktopus ain’t without faults, but I love it anyway. Sadly, criticising is part of this gig, so here goes. There’s the pacing, every dish arriving in one great ejaculation until we beg them to stop. Then there’s the inconsistency of portion sizes: “beet-cured trout, hung yoghurt, pickled cucumber” would hardly feed a #cleaneating guru, let alone the likes of me; while a fine, slaw-style salad fragrant with chervil, salty with capers and dotted with tiny brown shrimps features enough shredded cabbage to bliss out a battalion of tortoises.

But, but… there’s so much heart here. And it’s enormous fun: the vintage dresser, painted primrose yellow and upcycled to dispense an interesting range of beers, including a couple from the local Black Lodge Brewery, the base for Oktopus’s initial pop-up. The irresistible snacks that kick off the menu: crisp, crumbed nuggets, not chicken but sweet, fresh “popcorn” mussels that come topped with a cumin-clove-cinnamon-fragrant “raz ketchup” based on ras el hanout; fine sourdough from the Wild Loaf bakery next door, with whipped beer butter; really good, peppercorn-laced saucisson from London’s Cobble Lane Cured served with cornichons. This is all the dandiest beer food known to man.

More ambitious dishes work well, too: fat Barnsley double lamb chop, draped with smoky, grilled courgettes and peas in a light, creamy dressing is a splendid alliance between modernity and tradition. Devilled mackerel with dill-spiked yoghurt is a beauty, all the oily majesty of the fish blasted until crisp-skinned and sweet-fleshed.

And even after drinking quantities of decent Sicilian and gluggable Portuguese white wines, and beers from that dresser, and eating virtually every dish from the menu, the bill still comes as caress rather than headbutt.


the-wigmore-pub-london-pie

Grace Dent of the Evening Standard says that the Wigmore in the West End is “making some people happy, but I never, ever want to go there again”.

Wonderful central London pubs are a precarious, nigh-mythical thing. I weep for tourists peddled the myth of a warm ye olde British welcome, fine ales, a cosy fire in winter, perhaps an amiable pub dog. Ugh, those loveless hovels in the West End that smell of the daily disinfectant swill-out, deep fat fryer and staff’s depression.

Still, when news arrived of a new ‘modern British tavern’, The Wigmore, stuffed into the hind portions of The Langham hotel, I was interested. It’s a pub where the olives are stuffed with veal and the chips festooned with a Bloody Mary salt, which tastes like the gritty stuff from a bag of Nobby’s Nuts. Much of The Wigmore menu is typical pub food, but with a wilfully ‘hip’ flourish. There’s gammon and eggs but with Sriracha mayo.

Regardless of the menu’s strident modernism, the kitchen is being forced to serve a fearful amount of covers, and this showed. Nothing was seasoned properly or produced with anything resembling love because, well, how could it be? The trendily runny Scotch egg looked pretty but arrived in an inoffensive dahl lacking any clout. The fried veal-stuffed olives were a lovely idea but tasted of very little. The grilled cheese was enormous, but offered no real impetus to splurge carb-intake on it.

The more food arrived, the less hungry I became, despite eating very little.


HOTELS

Pointer

Rachel Dixon of the Guardian visits the Pointer in Brill following the launch of new rooms housed in a cottage opposite the pub.

The Pointer takes “local” to the next level. The food comes from its own farm. The beer is brewed in the same village. And now punters have only to stumble over the road to bed. The pub’s owners recently bought the cottage opposite and have turned it into rooms.

The 18th-century two-up two-down now comprises four tasteful bedrooms. Ours was on the ground floor, and we were a little taken aback by the large windows giving directly on to the pavement – it’s not exactly private. Accidental exhibitionism aside, it is a lovely room: painted in shades of grey, with a sturdy sisal carpet and soft sheepskin rugs.

The bathroom has a huge rain shower, slipper bath and dual sinks, and a view over the courtyard garden. The toiletries deserve special mention: fragrant Somerset brand Bramley, containing lavender, geranium and rosemary essential oils.

The restaurant is in a converted barn past the open kitchen, with a vaulted ceiling, garlanded beams and exposed stone. The menu is short – three snacks, four starters, four mains – but almost impossible to choose from: everything sounds utterly delicious. The special threw us into further turmoil; could we turn down a 700g Longhorn rump steak for two?