Radish, Celeriac and Pomegranate Salad at Bocco di Lupo

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“Earthy”, “Deep”, “Woody”, “Complex” – words that you might naturally associate with truffle. The impact of these fungal morsels is usually to deliver a rich, comforting elegance matching a creamy sauce – the height of indulgence. So “crisp” and “fresh” wouldn’t normally be the first thing you’d expect from a salad dressed with truffle oil. Yet this is what Jacob Kenedy has achieved with Bocca di Lupo’s simple yet superb salad.

“[Y]ou’re not going to make a lunch of a plate of these roots”

Whisper-thin slices of radish and celeriac make up the bulk of the platter, with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds adding sweetness and titbits of pecorino hidden away to deliver a salty, nutty zing. A light, citrusy, truffly dressing plays off these simple, crunchy vegetables and makes what would risk dreariness something special.

Okay, so you’re not going to make a lunch of a plate of these roots, but the ethic of this up-market trattoria is to encourage the sharing of a number of plates from across Italian regions and cooking styles, and you should make sure you do so. Interestingly, prices are no real indication of sizes of dishes, and you can easily eat well here very cheaply, or quite expensively, as your budget, mood, and company takes you.

Just make sure you don’t forget to pop across the road to their sister ice-cream parlour, Gelupo, for surely London’s best cone!

Kedgeree at The Wolseley

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If you haven’t eaten at The Wolseley – do so! Based in what was once a car showroom (think Rolls Royce not Vauxhall), and if nothing else the setting is utterly splendid. Perfect for a romantic evening, so long as you like a buzzy, busy atmosphere. And the food won’t totally break the bank. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t expensive – it is – but there are a variety of more affordable options on the menu. Kedgeree, at £12.00 is one of these more affordable options.

“It’s about as far from the vibrant, coronation chicken yellow that it can sometimes be”

Eschewing the obvious breakfast appointment for the dish, Rachael and I headed to The Wolseley in the evening (having taken our permission from the Time Out instructions that the dish makes as nice an end as it does a start to the day). I take things one step further with a starter of Eggs Benedict. This turns out to be a bit of a error, though not because of the dish itself. A perfectly toasted muffin holds an exquisite poached egg, and the most sumptuous, giggle-makingly delicious hollandaise I’ve even tasted. The reason it was a bit of a mistake is that said exquisite egg rather pre-empted the exquisite egg perched on top of the kedgeree! My mistake.

The kedgeree itself is more lightly curried that I would generally expect. It’s about as far from the vibrant, coronation chicken yellow that it can sometimes be. Rachael compliments the way that every grain of basmati remains separate, and it’s true: it hasn’t taken on any risotto or congee consistency, but remains a dish of many individual grains. I think this may be because the stock is a little watery, at least to my taste. Flakes of smoked fish are small, but make themselves known, and this certainly helps to bring the whole dish together: rather than delivering a bowl of weakly-flavoured rice with chunks of protein.

That said, the egg, once cut and allowed to ooze gloopily across the pile, takes things to another level, and what looks like a small plate does manage to satisfy. I insist to Rachael that the egg must be cooked sous vide (don’t all big top restaurants employ the technique for eggs?) – but this may be more down to my obsession that the truth. Without it, I think this dish would have been a pleasant, but rather ordinary one – lucky it was there!

Fish Pickle at Rasa

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Generally we think of pickling as a way of preserving fresh foods, and creating flavourful accompaniments to potentially otherwise dull mainstays. Usually this would be something cheap and plentiful, so its interesting to see a pickle making use of an expensive protein as is main ingredient. I’d assume this is down to Rasa’s previous incarnation as Rasa Sumadra, a specialist outlet of this high-class Indian franchise with fish taking centre stage. We had to order the pickle specially, since it doesn’t feature on the standard Rasa menu.

“We had to order the pickle specially”

So how is it? At first, you’d be forgiven for not realising that it’s actually fish. The flavour is there, but well masked by the strong vinegary, spicy, sugary additions. In fact, it’s in the texture, with the soft, chewy bite that makes you realise the centimetre cubes are chunks of preserved ex-swimmers. And this is where the fish shines, since it is a great addition to the texture of pickle, creating something substantial, meaty and dense without creating something unrecognisable. It’s definitely not fish curry (and it would be a horribly sour and sweet one if it were). Distinctly pickle, but also rightly something with a bit more right to strut its stuff on the chutney plate.

No, I wouldn’t make a trip out just for this. And given you’d have to phone ahead to get it, it would take planning to come by. Maybe I’ll try to make my own. It has certainly made me rethink the humble pickle.

Pa Jeon at Cah Chi

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I’ll admit that I’d never heard of pa jeon, a kind of Korean pancake with spring onions in a puffy batter, and in this case strips of seafood. Bibimbap – I know well. Korean barbecue, I’m totally up on. Kimchee: I can smell a mile off. But I’d never come across this tasty street food before.

“an interesting addition to my understanding of… an underappreciated national cuisine”

I find it distinctly reminiscent of something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps the delicious potato latkes we’d make from a mix out of a packet at passover. There is definitely something potatoey about them, though Google suggests they are usually made from wheat and rice flours.

With a crisp and golden exterior, round but chopped in a rough grid pattern, it is soft and sticky, still slightly battery on the inside. They have generous additions so that you can be sure of multiple flavours in every bite. The portion is also pretty large, so you could happily share this amongst a variety of starters with friends.

Okay, so these aren’t super-special, and I can well imagine there’s huge variety of these snacks in a Korean market, but they’re new to me, and an interesting addition to my understanding of what I continue to think is an underappreciated national cuisine.

Laksa at Providores

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Rachael is very clear, almost to the point of obsession, about the notion that laksa must include in its ingredients laksa leaves. I can see her point. Or at least, if her contention is correct that if the soup is named after the leaves, then it seems pretty likely that she’s correct: canonical laksa must surely have the leaves.

The Providores laksa doesn’t contain laksa leaves.

Laksa must include in its ingredients laksa leaves”

What the bowl does pack is a warming, comforting punch. With the creamy texture of its coconut milk base, a gentle heat from sliced red chilli and an accurate mix of South-East Asian spices, the dish does offer some complexity. A single, solitary fish ball is tasty enough, if mean in its lonesomeness, sitting atop nutty soba noodles.

The trouble is, this noodle soup is yours in return for the better part of ten pounds, and whilst that’s a ‘cheap eat’ by London standards, steaming oriental bowlfuls are plentiful in any list of cheap eats, and there are better to be had. You might expect more from the proprietor of Kopapa, especially at this price. This doesn’t challenge or sparkle with its blend of flavours. It doesn’t make you savour every last drop.

For one thing, I’m sure there are cheap-eat laksas that feature, you know, laksa leaves!

Deep fried pickles at Meat Liquor

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Okay, let’s get this out of the way straight away. Yes, the whole idea of battering and deep frying pickles is disgusting. And yes, encouraging you to dip said pickles into blue cheese sauce is even more so. And, granted, this side, like everything at Meat Liquor, is never going to be health food. But it works. It really works, and, boy, is it indulgently delicious.

“This is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly”

This dish is almost making a pun of the crunch of the cool gherkins, by wrapping them in the genuinely crisp batter, revealing that while pickles have ‘bite’ the crispness is an illusion from a combination of crunch and fresh flavour. Rather than being a clashing mix of crisp around crisp, this is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly.

The burst of vinegary juice (virgin pickleback?) cuts through the potentially cloying blue cheese sauce, so you don’t feel like you’re bathing your mouth in grease. The similarity of its various constituent parts almost makes this a mini-burger, at least for someone who loves gherkins in their bun.

I love them, and I don’t know if I could make a trip to Meat Liquor without ordering a portion!

Poached rhubarb with coconut bread at Caravan

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Can there be anything more disappointing than going to a restaurant that you’ve long wanted to visit, or where you’ve had a great meal before, drooling over the menu, only to find what you’ve ordered turns out to be, or at least looks, far less exciting than what everyone else is eating? Clearly the answer to this question is ‘yes’, but you get the gist.

“Decidedly flat and, frankly, a bit bland.”

I’d long been looking forward to brunch at Caravan. Rachael had been before, and had a delicious cornbread dish, so was eager to explore the menu further. But Time Out’s recommended dish – in fact in the top ten subset of their hundred best dishes – of poached rhubarb and lemon curd on coconut bread was decidedly flat and, frankly, a bit bland.

Rather than glorious sardines on toast or perfect poached eggs nestled on glistening shakshuka, we had a thick slices of dry coconut bread (think the consistency of corner-shop cherry cake), with barely citrussy lemon curd and a slightly meagre quantity of admittedly pleasant rhubarb. Flavours that should have complemented each other were instead barely present. Certainly nothing to write home about.

Will I be back? The other menu offerings probably will tempt me. But I won’t be rushing back as quickly as I’d expected to before I’d been there, which isn’t exactly a great testament to a really disappointing dish.

Tarte Tatin at Galvin Bistrot de Luxe

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Having made the rookie error of opting for Mother’s Day to eat a Chowdown Showdown dish, and without even booking months in advance, we ended up in Galvin Bistrot de Luxe. It turned out to be not such an error, since they were serving a three course set menu for much less than ordering three courses would normally cost a la carte, including in the evening (it appears people take their mothers out for lunch, not dinner).

“As French as apple pie”

Okay, so going to a French bistro and ordering roast beef with Yorkshire pudding and roast root vegetables was a mistake. Especially when the restaurant in question takes its attempt to mimic the typically English dish so seriously that it refuses Rachael’s request for her beef to be served pretty much bleu, and instead insists we have it medium rare (and proceeds to serve it to us medium).

The Jerusalem artichoke soup with a truffle cream (and artichoke crisps!) to start was genuinely delicious, and they poured great wine as you might expect.

All of this was, of course, an irrelevance, since we’re here to judge a single dish alone – namely the tarte tatin.

“Enough to make even the harshest Great British Bake Off judge happy”

Happily, the (mischosen, but still disappointing) main was unreflective of the dessert, which was genuinely formidable. The pie was caramelised to the point of almost being burnt, which isn’t a criticism since it had developed earthy as well as sweet notes. The pastry was flaky (and not soggy) enough to make even the harshest Great British Bake Off judge happy, offering a crisp riposte to the tender apples that had bite but little resistance to a spoon.

Overall, an indulgent, comforting sweet as French as apple pie!

Ajo blanco at Copita

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I’d seen people complaining online about the size of the portions at Copita (arguably simply missing the point about tapas, but obviously there is an extreme case where even tapas is too small), with some commentators complaining about the “thimbleful” of ajo blanco. In this particular case, I don’t think they could possibly be justified. Ajo blanco is an almond and garlic soup, served cold. If that sounds really rich, that’s because it is.

“The bartender simply said ‘You’ve been here before'”

Copita cuts through the richness with beetroot, a sprinkling of green herbs, and a drizzle of olive oil – yes, even the olive oil serves to make it less rich – so I’d struggle to get through any more than the small bowl you see above. And anyone who complains about this being a thimbleful must have very fat fingers, which, granted, you’d achieve by eating soup-bowls of this!

To be honest, when I say “struggle to get through more” I still would – because this soup is absolutely delicious. Rich, yes. Creamy, yes. But also woody, almost mushroomy. The beetroot adds freshness and texture, and it teeters on the fence between being savoury or sweet – you could almost imagine this as a liquid filling in an Artisan du Chocolat chocolate!

I love it. In fact, when we ordered a carafe of wine and two portions of ajo blanco, rather than getting weird looks and an explanation of how to order tapas, the bartender simply said “You’ve been here before”. When I come back, I’ll definitely be ordering another mini-bowl of this, and I’m sure I’ll come away satisfied by it!

 

Squid and mackerel burger at Arbutus

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Let’s get the first thing out of the way immediately: this burger is a ‘burger’. It doesn’t have a bun. It doesn’t have salad garnish. And there isn’t any ketchup in sight!

“Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours”

What was surprisingly on-message, though, was quite how meaty the burger was. This could easily have ended up a squashed fish-ball, or a sloppy, fishy mush, or, worst of all (given the main constituent parts) a rock-hard bullet of seafood. Instead, it was genuine burger-consistency, and had a flavour that would satisfy a carnivore.

The main affair (though, it should be noted, this dish is actually a starter) is accompanied by razor clam, chopped and sautéed with shallots, plus fabric-thin strips of squid. Every mouthful was a cascade of flavours, and complexity was added by the unusual pairing of coriander in the ‘burger-meat’ and a generous sprinkling of dill across the dish. These herbs shouldn’t match, and yet they do, and even brought the whole dish together.

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Okay, so we’re under strict orders to judge just the dish, and not the whole meal, but it would be mean to fail to mention that the rest of the dinner was also spectacular. Cod fillet, crisp chicken wings (boneless), pink grapefruit, ginger and honey preserve was as delicious as it sounds, with every element perfectly matched. The silky, subtle cod bouncing off the sparkling ‘marmalade’ and complemented by the crispness of the chicken. Rachael had Grilled piece of beef, heritage carrots, cavolo nero, gratin dauphinois, which sounds like a fairly straightforward offer, but every part was oozing flavour, distinct, and stood up as part of a whole.

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“For sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty”

I was a bit jealous of her Vanilla and rosewater scented cheesecake, roast Provençal figs, which was a riot of different (and individually perfect) tastes, whereas my Chocolate ‘aero’ bar, pear, salted caramel suffered from having the only let-down of the meal: I felt the dark, aerated chocolate was on the side of being bland and bitter without that punch you get from a solid block of 80% cocoa chocolate. I even ventured that an actual Aero, sliced in half, might have been a bit more joyous. But the pear, wrapped round a fluffy salted caramel foam was spectacular.

I couldn’t eat this well every day. There was so much going on, so much sophistication that, when compared with the pared-down, use-the-best-ingredients-and-cook-one-thing-perfectly culinary culture rightly in vogue in London, it made me realise that sometimes twenty ingredients really does add up to something better than five. But there was so much competition for my taste buds that I couldn’t do it all the time. It wasn’t relaxing, and I felt like the next day I’d want a hearty soup where every spoonful was deliciously, comfortingly the same.

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Forget the last three paragraphs: we’re rating the ‘burger’, and, for sheer burgerness, for braveness, for spot-on flavours, it’s making it into the top twenty.

19/100 best dishes in London.