Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Ducksoup Soho - London

Newly opened Soho restaurant Ducksoup is the kind of place you only find in big international cities like London, Paris, Rome, Barcelona or New York, in fact, to my mind, it’s kind of an amalgamation of the vibe of eating in all of these cities. The evening I visited it was dark, achingly hip and ramshackle by design, bustling, loud, and seemingly verging on chaotic but the service was actually very controlled. Packed out with all tables and all seats at the bar filled. It has a kind of frenetic buzz about the place, which is exactly the atmosphere many restaurants aspire to but few can necessarily conjure. Perched at the bar with ‘E’, lined up with four more food-loving pals, (Niamh, Sig, Ailbhe & Maunika) I took it all in, and instantly knew that I was going to enjoy this.

A handwritten menu appeared and there seemed to be only one copy of it being passed around the restaurant, from person to person, and table to table. Short and to the point, divided into daily specials, some smaller plates at £3.50 ‘From the bar’ and larger main dishes, priced at either £7 or £14 ‘From the Kitchen’ with the pudding and cheese options admirably concise (two of each) the menu hung together quite well. Which is amazing when you consider that it’s changing every single day, pays no allegiance to any particular countries cooking or style. It’s all over the shop, a mish-mash of classic French, Spanish, British, Middle Eastern, all of it gutsy, full flavoured, and punchy stuff. No pretension, no unnecessary faff, just good honest food.

If all of this wasn’t interesting enough, natural wines feature heavily on the wine list (scrawled onto the tiles behind the bar), which certainly makes for something different on the booze front.

Ordering a brace of smaller dishes to limber us up, and an accompanying bottle of an absolutely superb Spanish red natural wine ‘Flos de Pinoso’ which had an incredible fruity, almost effervescent raspberry like taste, we got started.

Small plates of decent bread and butter kept coming throughout with the rest of the food being placed in front of us as soon as it was ready.

Grilled aubergines with mint & chilli were good, charred and smoky with a decent kick.

A small bowl of salad leaves, pancetta and sourdough croutons were again, good, well made but nothing special.

Smoked Sprats, red onions and crème fraiche, I thought these were OK and I’m not a massive fan of eating small fish, head and all.

A simple artichoke and vinaigrette is always a treat, and this was nicely done.

Braised celery heart. I liked this a lot, it’s not something I’ve ever really tried before, it actually sounds a bit dull and unexciting, but this was a real surprise. Braised in chicken stock with white wine and scattered with crushed hazelnuts. Superb.

So a decent run through the bar menu, a lot of it actually prepared by a chef stationed behind the bar, apart from the braised celery heart, nothing particularly standout, but absolutely no bollocks dropped either, just good solid cooking and a great buzzing atmosphere drinking and catching up with friends.

I’d ordered a couple of the larger £7 plates, Casarecce, duck ragu and Parmesan (I had no idea what Casarecce was and asked, turns out it’s a narrow, twisted and rolled tube pasta shape, perfect for serving with a meat sauce). The duck ragu was beautiful, powerful and intense, packed full of flavour. Exactly what you’d demand from a slow cooked meat sauce. Perfect, I could have eaten another bowl of it actually but then my next dish arrived.

Leaping from Italy, to something with a more Middle Eastern vibe, chargrilled quail with pomegranate molasses and yoghurt was beautifully done, burnt, sticky and sweet. The accompanying chargrilled lemon slice was something of a revelation, still hot and when squeezed over the meat, the almost smoky citrus tang was amazing. Spot on. I picked and pulled at the tiny carcass until just a small mound of gleaming white bones remained as a memorial to its tastiness.

‘E’ meanwhile was frustrated by what proved to be a terrible choice. A whole crab with lemon and mayonnaise, whilst no doubt delicious is not the thing to order when perched on stall at a bar whilst being hemmed in on both side by other diners and jostled by passers by. Frustrated in her attempts to actually eat the thing due lack of manoeuvring room, her countenance all at once displayed sadness, irritableness and extreme hunger.

Taking a moment to consider this tragedy playing out before me, whilst idly patting my own rather full belly happily. I decided that a pudding would be just the ticket.

My crème caramel was actually very good. Simple, well made. Not the best I’ve ever had, but not that far off it. A nice end to the meal.

The only other taker for a pudding was Ailbhe, and her chocolate mousse was apparently good, but I thought £6 was pushing it a bit.

I liked Ducksoup a lot, it’s crowded, manic and a bit chaotic, but as a result, it’s also a lot of fun. The daily changing menu in terms of seasonality and interest is spot on. I love the idea of cooking whatever is available, fresh and great that day and in whatever style seems appropriate. It’s very honest, very ballsy and ultimately makes for very tasty grub. Although some of the dishes were a bit less impressive than others, all of it was of a good quality and some of it was absolutely fantastic. I guess, at the end of the day if you didn’t like what you had one day, go back the next day and it’ll all be different. Ducksoup is certainly offering an interesting alternative to the more formal dining options in the area and I salute them for it.

41 Dean Street

Telephone: 020 72874599


Saturday, 26 November 2011

Breakfast at Hawksmoor Guildhall - London

Breakfast is probably my favourite meal of the day, but it has to be a proper full on breakfast. When I say that, I’m certainly not talking about some worthy, sawdust dry muesli moistened with a dash of skimmed milk or some flaky continental pastry croissant frippery or even that very Teutonic breakfast of sliced salami and cheese on rye bread affair. No. I’m talking about a real cooked breakfast; full of assorted dead pig with a side order of eggs and other accompanying bits and bobs. I really don’t think anyone does it better than us British.

Which brings me to those fine purveyors of all things meaty and British, Hawksmoor, who have recently opened a third London outpost in the City, specifically Guildhall. Located smack bang in the centre of the financial district and unlike either of their other two previous restaurants it’s open at 7am for breakfast.

Hawksmoor have the old school, chop house, dark wood panelled look down to a fine art now and the Guildhall site is no different. The dining room is gorgeous with its curved leather booths; brass fittings and rich wood finishes. It looks like it’s been there for bloody years and it’s almost impossible to imagine the place performing any other function. So it’s something of a testament to the slick restaurant fit-out to hear that the previous incumbents ran a somewhat different operation, indeed ‘City Titties’ certainly weren’t in the pork sausage game, well, at least not in the conventional sense.

But enough about such tawdry matters. Back to breakfasting like kings. I’d asked my fellow Essex chum and food blogger
Food Urchin (Danny) to join me. We placed ourselves in one of the rather swanky curved leather booths and relaxed, surveying the dining room. It’s a fantastic space, grand in scale. It’s easy to imagine the movers and shakers of the City doing multi billion pound deals over breakfast. Inspired, I regaled Danny with some of my own impressive deals errr selling cheese (I’m sometimes an artisan cheesemonger in my day job) He looked impressed, or bored, I’m not sure.

After such heady financial chat, we decided on a restorative coffee followed by an even more restorative and rather superb Bloody Mary. Feeling adventurous we both opted for the ‘Number 7’ consisting of horseradish-infused gin, tomato juice, Hawksmoor spice mix and a splash of Meantime London Stout. Holy Moly – that’ll put hairs on your chest, especially at 9am.

As Danny is a greedy bastardo, I barely raised an eyebrow as he ordered rib-eye steak, fried eggs and hash browns. Not to be outdone, and hopefully emphasising the fact that I’m even more of a greedy bastardo, I ordered devilled veal kidneys on toast with a side order of hash browns and with a final killer flourish, a sausage and egg HkMuffin. (Hawksmoor’s tribute to a classic McDonald’s breakfast item, made with top-notch ingredients).

As you’d expect from Hawksmoor, which has a well-deserved reputation for serving some of the best steaks it’s possible to eat in London, Danny’s rib-eye steak was a thing of beauty. Perfectly charred on the outside and cooked medium-rare. I actually felt slightly jealous of his breakfast choice, until I took a bite of my devilled veal kidneys on toast.

Veal kidneys are not something I’d normally consider ordering for breakfast, but a trusted friend had told me this was a superb dish, and she wasn’t wrong. Absolutely fantastic, the kidney’s smothered in devilled sauce were incredibly rich and piquant, soaking into the sourdough toast, amazingly good. I could have easily eaten a bigger portion, that is, if I still didn’t have an HkMuffin and a side order of hash browns to contend with.

Suddenly feeling a little full and also uncharacteristically generous, I offered half of the muffin to Danny, which I’m pleased to say he accepted. It was really bloody good, and the sausage patty consisting of a rare-breed minced menagerie of Tamworth pork shoulder, Blackface Mutton and Longhorn Beef was especially so. When topped with a fried egg and melted Ogleshield cheese, sublime. But, and I’m going to go out on a limb here, priced at £8.50, if I’m truly honest I have to question if it’s worth it. Which probably says more about me than it does about the food. I’m loathe to admit it, but I still have a real soft spot for the dirt-cheap and disgusting Maccy D original. Even though I rarely partake nowadays, just every now and again treating myself, but then feeling somehow deeply ashamed and smelling strongly of egg afterwards. For the most part, the attraction is the price and although I know they can’t possibly be compared in terms of quality of ingredients or the sheer effort that goes into making them, I can’t help but think that I could get four of the originals to one of the luxurious versions. Forgive me. I am from Essex after all.

The Hawksmoor hash browns are fantastic. Standing completely apart from the normal greasy, triangle of cooked potato that passes for a hash brown, pretty much everywhere. In fact, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever eaten a proper handmade example anywhere. These were circular, crisp and moist and soft on the inside. Perfect.

If all this wasn’t enough, lets talk about doughnuts. That’s right, Hawksmoor Guildhall do a selection of pastries. The jewel in the crown among these, I had been informed by friends, is the marmalade & custard doughnut. Ordering a plum and a marmalade example each, just for comparison. I’m almost lost for words on how to describe them. The marmalade doughnut crisp and sugared on the outside, full of custard, specked through with vanilla seeds and oozing the intense orange condiment from its innards is pure genius. Truly wonderful. I don’t think the plum example works quite as well, it just doesn’t have that tang to it, but it’s still good.

So, a shirt popping, belly busting, canter through the Hawksmoor Guildhall breakfast menu and it was absolutely superb. If you really want a proper breakfast, a real treat I’d be hard put to think of anywhere that could provide it with such inventiveness, sense of fun and sheer panache, all wrapped up with a nod British culinary history. It really is genuinely superb. Hawksmoor’s previous two restaurants have been London favourites of mine for a long time, and their newest Guildhall restaurant lives up to their considerable reputation admirably. I’ll be amazed if it doesn’t become a city breakfast institution, although even if you don’t work in the city, it’s worth making the trip there just to have breakfast.

*After helping with some recipe testing for their new cookbook, I was invited for breakfast as a guest of Hawksmoor to say thank you.

Hawksmoor Guildhall
10 Basinghall Street

Telephone: 0207 3978120


Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Red Lion Inn - Cricklade

A good example of the most British of institutions, a truly decent pub, seems to be an incredibly rare beast to track down nowadays. I’m talking about the almost mythical genuine article, my fantasy pub in fact. An ancient timber framed inn, full of mutton chopped, ruddy faced jovial locals drinking interesting artisan ales with a roaring log fire in the grate. A complete absence of fruit machines, in-your-face alcopop advertising and 50 inch widescreen TVs blaring out Sky Sports 24/7. It could be located anywhere, but the pub of my dreams is in a fairly rural picturesque location, oh and this is incredibly important, it must serve great food produced from fantastic local ingredients. Nothing too fancy, just really decent, hearty, seasonal grub. Definitely not the nuked in the microwave or boiled in the bag ‘Olde English Fayre’ that seems to pass for food in more than a few pubs nowadays.

Quite a lot to ask you may think. But, incredibly I’ve found this pub…it exists.

The Red Lion at Cricklade is pretty much my ideal. Historic ancient inn, log fires, interesting artisan ales, rural location, no fruit machine or widescreen TV in sight and bloody good food produced from local, seasonal ingredients. Points are lost for complete lack of ruddy-faced mutton chopped locals, but you can’t have everything I guess.

I’d had a tip that it was definitely worth a visit, and with my parents over last weekend from the Essex heartland; it sounded like just the place for a spot of lunch.

We arrived and edged our way into in an extremely convivial spot, just off the bar, near to the glowing embers of log fire. Just to underline the fact that we were in the countryside now, the odd dog could be spied here and there, sprawled luxuriously on the carpet close to the feet of their owners.

Settling down, we worked our way through the menus. Being able to order from both the printed restaurant menu and a separate chalkboard bar menu meant a lot of choice. Not that this bothered me, to use a crude yet extremely apt phrase, faced with dual menu action, I was like a dog with two dicks. If all of that wasn’t enough to take in, the pub has also helpfully matched beers with every single dish on the menu. It’s not something I’ve seen before except at The Draft House in London. It’s a really nice touch and something I’d like to see more often. It helps of course that The Red Lion is a freehouse and therefore not tied to any brewery, which means it’s able to provide really interesting beers, ales and ciders not normally available in your average pub. Wild Mallard paired with Stone Oaked Arrogant Bastard (USA) 7.2% 330ml anyone?

I started with a piece of garlic butter toast covered with gold and grey oyster mushrooms and locally foraged wild Pied Bleu. To be honest, every time I’ve ordered anything with wild mushrooms on it, I’ve had to wonder if it’s worth the premium price, the same was true in this case. Don’t get me wrong, it was nice, but at £6.95, it didn’t feel like great value for money. I realise that decent mushrooms are an expensive ingredient and obviously this pushes the price up for the kitchen, but the subtlety of flavour is lost on me. A cheaper portion of something a bit easier to lay your hands on would have been preferable. Writing this, and re-reading the menu, I kicked myself to see that The Red Lion is way ahead of me and do indeed serve fried Portobello mushrooms and garlic on toast at a more reasonable £5, for shroom philistines such as me no doubt.

Around the table, my Dad’s local, organic butternut squash soup was pretty decent, as was the accompanying homemade crusty bread.

My Mum had ordered cold pressed free-range chicken terrine, celeriac coleslaw, wild watercress and truffle oil. This was an altogether more interesting proposition, and I eyed it enviously from across the table with silent pleading until, unnerved she had no choice but to offer me some, it was a really nice starter, tasty, interesting and well put together.

‘E’ meanwhile had ordered from the bar menu a half a pint of prawns, homemade mayo and bread. A really decent portion arrived, they were lovely and fresh, which is all you can ask for really when it comes to seafood. Between mouthfuls, ‘E’ stated that she likes the fiddly nature of shelling prawns as it “slows her down” with regard to wolfing her food.

A main dish of slow roast wild mallard, truffle mashed potato, braised red cabbage and juniper sauce was belting. Everything was cooked just right. Each element was punchy, clearly defined and full of flavour combining to make an absolutely cracking plate of autumnal food. I couldn’t have been happier with it really.

My Dad went for the very British pub staple of sausage and mash, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that at all. Local free-range Gloucester pork sausages, and caramelised onion gravy over a heaped mound of mash. Totally rib sticking, he was more than pleased and stuffed the lot.

Mum had ordered the local free range chicken, ham and leek pie served with buttered hispi cabbage and watercress. Earlier whilst discussing the menu, we speculated beforehand on how it would come. It’s much easier to make pies with just a pastry lid; you just don’t often see a handmade stand-alone fully crust encased pie anymore. Well, what do you know? A fully formed, full-on proper pie arrived and drew gasps of admiration from all assembled. Impressive indeed. It was bloody lovely.

Remember my tasty but expensive mushroom starter? Well ‘E’ had ordered the main version of the same dish. It seems that all the mushrooms I didn’t get, she’d got piled on her plate instead – topped with a poached duck egg. More expensive, but a hell of a lot more worthwhile. ‘E’s only complaint was that the dish could have done with being a bit warmer.

The standout dessert was a chocolate tart served with a strikingly coloured and really unusual beetroot and black pepper ice cream. Beetroot goes really well with chocolate, and the ice cream had a beautiful texture with a pronounced pepper aftertaste.

The other desserts were a bit more traditional, but equally decent; both my Dad and I chose the blackcurrant and apple crumble with custard. Not much to say about this other than it was a good-sized portion and well made.

My Mum’s Baileys Cambridge cream with shortbread was something I’d normally consider a bit naff 80’s purely for the inclusion of the cream liquer. So if you’re going to have something like this on the menu, it has to be good. Happily it was and my Mother was more than pleased with it…. but to be fair, she does love a Baileys.

In conclusion, we had an absolutely belting lunch at The Red Lion, in fact, one of the nicest lunches I’ve had for ages. The county pub atmosphere is so disarming and relaxing and the food and booze so decent, I could have happily spent another few hours there. Actually it was just getting dark as we left. (In fact we could have pushed the boat out and stayed there, they have double rooms on a B&B basis, £75 per night).

The plus points for the Red Lion Inn are many. It’s a lovely old pub, full of character. The food is great and exactly the sort of well cooked, British, rustic pub grub I like to eat. On the back of the menu it states that the pub’s own chefs make the butter and bread. Pretty much all the produce is locally produced (suppliers and mileages are given, with the furthest anything coming from being 20 miles, apart from Cornwall for fish). Free meals are offered in exchange for produce, a bartering system that is incredibly practical and charming. Being a freehouse the booze selection is fantastic and varied and the beer matching is a lovely idea. Not everything was perfect, but the whole experience was definitely greater than the sum of its parts, so perfect enough for me. Overall The Red Lion Inn was so incredibly enchanting and worthwhile that I can’t help but recommend it. Go.

The Red Lion Inn

74 High Street


Telephone: 01793 750776


Monday, 7 November 2011

Talisker Whisky at Hix Oyster & Fish House

A cosy, wood panelled room lit only by the glowing embers of a log fire, lazily cracking and popping in the grate offering a comforting counterpoint to the howling storm outside. There is heavy, solid, antique furniture and prints on the wall, dramatic manly pictures of sailing ships in tumultuous seas and Napoleonic cavalry at the charge. From behind a high wing backed leather Chesterfield, an Aran sweater clad arm slowly appears, in its hand, a crystal glass filled with the rich deep amber liquid of a good single malt.

In an ideal world, that’s how you should be drinking whisky, and I want that chunky knit clad arm to be mine. I want the wood panelled, crackling fire, leather chaired dream. I want to love whisky, I really do, but up till now I don’t love it. The merest sip forces my face to contort into a hideous grimace, lips curled, and teeth bared. It’s hideous. Whisky and I are not friends and I don’t own any Aran jumpers.

But wait. What’s this in my inbox? An invite to a Talisker whisky tasting dinner at Mark Hix’s restaurant in Lyme Regis, with a spot of beach foraging led by Monsieur Hix himself? Hell yes! Sign me up. Perhaps whisky and me can somehow work it out, and if we can’t, we can still have mucho fun trying. With barely a pause, I hurriedly began to pack a selection of suitably rugged knitwear.

And so, here I was, freezing my cods off on an ice cold beach in Lyme Regis, dramatic grey sky and equally grey waves pounding in, providing quite possibly the perfect backdrop to a whisky led event. Briefly introduced to a smiling, windswept, craggy faced Mark Hix the group set off, beach foraging. I have to confess, I didn’t hear or comprehend much, the wind was howling in, it was pissing down with rain, we became strung out along the pebbles with the stalking figure of Hix leading from the front and occasionally stabbing a finger at a noteworthy mystery shrub. Rock Samphire tastes a bit like petrol until it’s cooked was about all I picked up. To be honest as far as foraging lessons, go, it wasn’t pretty, but as a pre-cursor to a slap up dinner matched with whisky? Couldn’t have been better.

Cocktail expert, Nick Strangeway was waiting for us back at the Hix Oyster and Fish restaurant and had knocked up a hot toddy of whisky and sea-buckthorn, which when you’re frozen and soaked to the skin, is ridiculously pleasant to drink. We were also given a couple of nibbles to take the edge off. Deep fried rock samphire, (definitely not tasting of petrol) and a ‘Cobb Egg’ basically a fishy Scotch Egg. Both of which were very bloody nice indeed.

After a brief opportunity to dry off, warm up and change into those all-important chunky knits – we were welcomed back to the restaurant later that evening.

The Lyme Regis outpost of the Hix empire (and the only one outside London) is a fantastic looking restaurant; perched on the hills above the Dorset town’s harbour (or Cobb as us salty sea dogs like to say). The views from the floor to ceiling windows out to sea are superb. Despite the rain and howling wind outside, it has a surprisingly cosy, quite intimate feel.

To start, a glass of 10 year old Talisker. After overcoming my customary involuntary spasm, it kind of grew on me, although saying that the initial burn of the whisky is the hard bit to overcome, whatever flavours are supposed to be present, salt, peat, smoke, to me are hard to pick out because the rasping alcoholic hit is so powerful. Ramsey, the suitably kilted Talisker representative tells us it’s ok to add a splash of water to the whisky, to ‘take the nettle out of it’. After following the advice, I find it’s a hell of a lot more pleasant to drink, softer and mellower. Ramsey regales us with tales of the rather solitary sounding experience of living and working on Skye where the Talisker distillery is located. Apparently it’s impossible to buy underpants on the island.

This pant-less revelation was interrupted by the arrival of waiters carrying The Fruits Of The Sea. I’ve often seen fellow diners in restaurants order huge towers of seafood, massive platters with everything piled up on ice. I’ve never actually ordered it myself. It always seems bloody expensive. But here was a waiter depositing a beautifully tiered heap of Dorset seafood right in front of me. Bloody hell. Gorgeous lobster, razor clams, oysters, big prawns (quality of life) and mussels. What a treat. Everyone waded in and it wasn’t long before the whole beautiful thing was a graveyard heap of empty shells and carapace.

Cern Valley red leg partridge on toast with elderberries and wood sorrel followed. The toast smeared with a pate presumably made from the partridge, piled with partridge meat, scattered with elderberries and wood sorrel. It was bloody fantastic. Very rich, very meaty. The elderberries added a lovely sweetness. The wood sorrel was something of a revelation for me; initially quite vegetal it suddenly bursts on the palate with an amazing citrus tang. It’s actually mildly poisonous, but you’d have to eat a load of it to feel any ill effects.

Fillet of Torbay silver mullet with Barra cockles and seashore vegetables, with a side dish of potatoes pretty much polished me off. Absolutely cracking seafood but incredibly filling. Some of the stuff we’d seen growing on the beach whilst foraging made an appearance here. Another lovely plate of food.

A glass of Talisker 18 year old now, again – pretty fiery initially, but after the addition a drop of water, pretty damn good. This is probably the nicest of the Talisker whiskies I tried all evening. I only half cringe, and shudder momentarily this time, whilst taking an initial sip.

Whisky and walnut tart with Dorset clotted cream works brilliantly. Rich and moist, displaying a, this time, quiet pleasant, whisky burn tempered by the cool rich velvet of the clotted cream.

Despite being stuffed silly, I still managed to eat my fair share of some local cheeses, Wookey Hole cheddar, Dorset Blue Vinney and Vulscombe (a very fresh tasting young goats cheese).

Finally, some truffles and a glass of 25 year old Talisker. Which is apparently bloody expensive. I’m afraid the save the best till last approach was lost on me, I’d had enough, food and booze. Hot toddies, all the whisky and with the gaps filled generously with some fantastic wines. I just couldn’t drink anymore. (What have you done with Dan? Ed)

So, in the cold light of day, what conclusions can I take from such a fantastic PR led whisky jaunt?

Lyme Regis is beautiful. I’ve never been there before, and I will certainly be back to explore.

Mark Hix’s Oyster and Fish restaurant is bloody fantastic. No doubt about it. It’s exactly the type of food I like to eat. British, seasonal, unfussy using loads of foraged ingredients, beautifully cooked. It was a real treat to eat there, and I’d seriously recommend it to anyone.

Talisker Whisky. As far as whiskies go, it’s undoubtedly good and I have to admire the passion and the dedication that goes into making the product. But whisky and I still don’t fully love each other. I approached this event with the objective of graduating from hating the taste of whisky to full Aran clad jumper appreciation. I didn’t quite make it that far, but the good news is, I no longer detest whisky. I’ve learnt that there’s no snobbery concerning the addition of water to make it a bit more palatable, and the rather fantastic tart proves that it can be a cracking ingredient to cook with. I’m not quite ready for the wood panelled, log fire, leather chair ideal, but after this, it’s certainly one step closer.

Hix Oyster and Fish House
Cobb Road
Lyme Regis

Telephone: 01297 446910


Talisker Whisky