Seseri Skewers at Bincho

image

It’s been a bit of a mission getting these seseri skewers.

“You’ll have to be lucky – or have a special arrangement – if you want to catch them”

We first tried to acquire them on Chowdown Showdown Getsaround, but were informed that they’re only sometimes on the menu and that they didn’t have them. Well done, again, Time Out, you’ve put a special on your list of the 100 best dishes in London. That was only the initial indication of the difficulty. In fact, it quickly became apparent, when trying on a few occasions to phone and see if Bincho had them, that they really were only rarely around. Even calling ahead and asking for them to put in an order failed: they said they had done so, but the day before called to let us know they hadn’t been able to get any from their supplier.

By this point, I must have begun to make an impression, because the manageress offered to take my number and call when they had some in. I didn’t hold out much hope, but sure enough, a couple of months after – and two weeks ago – I got a call to say they’d be coming the next day. Hilariously, this was sandwiched between two other evening Chowdowns, but we couldn’t do anything other than take them up and go for three in a row.

So, here we find ourselves, with eight seseri skewers on order between the three of us. That’s chicken neck for those of you not up on your yakitori ingredients.

As I always try to make clear to those who turn their noses up at eating chicken feet: it’s the fatty, gorgeous deposits, just beneath the skin but close enough to the bone to be steeped through with flavour, that make the meat from thin, scrawny bits of animals (such as their necks) so goddamned delicious. And, as it ever was, these sticks of difficult-to-come-by morsels are genuinely as delicious as their rare charm suggests. Fatty, crispy, melty and oozing with flavour. They are also drenched in a superb sweet-tart-fruity sauce, the remnants of which we devour with other dishes.

I’d tell you to rush out and get these skewers, but I was paying attention, and spotted that you’ll have to be lucky – or have a special arrangement – if you want to catch them.

Charcuterie at The Bull and Last

image

Charcuterie platters. They’re like tapas, right, but where you don’t get any choice, and they just serve you meat and, unless you’re very unlucky, a few chutneys and/or pickles? Actually, this is as much the reason why I tend to have a good time when I order these as why I never do so: because you get a whopping pile of tasty, salty, fatty meat, in a whole variety of guises. So I dove into the opportunity to head to Highgate (gastro-) pub The Bull and Last, visiting with Rachael and my parents.

“My theory was that watermelon pickle wouldn’t work”

The wooden board at The Bull and Last held products from a wider range of animals than you’d normally expect from a typically pig-heavy cuisine. Instead of the usual ham and chorizo and more ham offering, we found duck prosciutto – thin, delicately dried strips that genuinely sat somewhere between duck breast and bacon; chicken liver parfait (okay, it’s never going to be my favourite, but it certainly packed a creamy, indulgent punch – in exactly the way that means I find it a bit creepy and unpleasant); ham hock terrine was spreadable, but in a chunky way that didn’t lose all texture; duck rillettes were stringy and fibrous in just the right to-the-teeth fashion; pig’s head was rendered down into almost a croquette; chutneys and mini-pickles cut through the fatty mass of meat, though the perfunctory rocket salad was pretty bland and didn’t add much.

I was sneaky enough to ask if I could have some of the watermelon pickle that was an accompaniment to another dish. My theory was that watermelon pickle wouldn’t work. I contend that I was right, though Rachael and my parents were a little more generous and felt it was ‘interesting’. We all know what that means.

The selection was well-chosen, and a little different, and the thought that went into the creation and presentation of the whole menu shone through. This creativity was especially apparent in the desserts, particularly my pain perdu with hazelnut cream and a (yes, I’m cheeky) substituted-in (but correctly!) Ferrero Rocher ice-cream. Rachael’s Kernal Stout ice-cream, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly to my taste.

Overall, I’m game for trying more of the menu. You won’t even have to twist my arm!

All Balls at Cinnamon Soho

image

It’s pretty unavoidable to point out. As ‘tapas concepts’ go, spherical-foods is a little… odd, even if the food futurologist we saw a couple of years ago at the V&A did predict that the future was balls. C.f. cake pops.

“As ‘tapas concepts’ go, spherical-foods is a little… odd”

The truth is that being round isn’t the only thing that connects these five morsels on offer at Cinnamon Soho. In fact, in common with most Indian-starter treats (at least as represented in British curry houses), they are all deep-fried, and either battered, crumbed, or basically batter themselves.

The least traditional is their take on the scotch egg, with a (quail’s?) egg surrounded by a spiced mincemeat and breadcrumbs. The crabcake is subtle, and if I’m honest, overpowered not just by the other flavours on the plate, but the excellent chutneys individually selected to match each bite. At the other end of the spectrum, the beef example was rather like a beef-flavoured bouncy ball, and whilst it shouted its essential taste, its texture didn’t do much justice.

My favourite was probably the potato fritter, which reminded me of Passover latkes – gentle enough to match their pickle well, and without arguing with the other balls in an attempt to justify its presence on the platter. The final ball, a vegetably-cheesy affair was both the most authentically, challengingly Indian and, I felt, the least successful. Ingredients known for abundance and cheapness don’t naturally scream ‘small dish’ to me, and what might well have made a charming vegetable side ended up an inconsequential and forgettable mouthful that I suspect was just making up numbers.

Overall it feels like full marks for concept and effort, but the end result just isn’t that stellar.

 

Wagyu Beef Sushi with Truffle and Ponzu Jelly at Dinings

image

There are many things that are spectacular about Dinings. And I’m not just talking about the price-tags attached to some of the dishes. This tiny joint offers really inventive contemporary fusion Japanese cuisine, with an emphasis on high-end ingredients: truffle and wagyu beef abound. Every dish is beautifully presented, and every piece of sushi is topped with some delightful, colour-contrasting flavour-addition that propels what would otherwise be ordinary (though spot-on) bites into something truly extraordinary.

“The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth”

The main problem I have, though, is that, what with the urge to pile on the flavours and focus on the rarest of constituent parts, everything slightly ends up tasting the same. When they matched wagyu beef sushi with truffle and ponzu jelly it tasted pretty similar to the seabass carpaccio… with truffle and ponzu jelly. Okay, okay, so it’s probably our fault for ordering a couple of variations on a theme, but in our favour a) this was selected for us (or maybe even pushed on us!) by the waitress and b) it was pretty unavoidable, since everything seemed to be matched with a small number of additions.

Unfortunately, that meant that when our wagyu beef sushi arrived, it had somewhat been pre-empted, and I might have got a stronger ‘wow’ impression if I hadn’t already tried the (yes, definitely) delicious truffle and jelly. The wagyu was so meltingly tender that you could certainly eat it without using your teeth, and gave an ethereally smoky impression on the tongue. It’s as close as a direct vector for taste – bypassing thought or internal calculation – as you might come across.

The sushi was certainly better than Dinings ‘famous innovation’ of tar-tar chips – basically (single bite) potato-chip tacos filled with any of seven flavours. Rachael felt, and I agreed, that these would have been much better made with actual (mini-)taco-shells: the potato totally overpowered the flavour of the delicate ingredients, making for a severely underwhelming experiencing.

Overall, judging it on the wagyu beef sushi alone (yes, that is the Chowdown Showdown Londontown requirement!), I’d be super-impressed. I’ll never be able to know how much more blown away I’d have been if I hadn’t tasted the accompaniments beforehand. Sadly, the pretension – and, yes, the excessive cost – lets this place down. Which is a pity, since that beef was something truly special.

Classic Tortilla at Barrafina

image

There are some meals that break you. Of course, there are those so revolting, or so chaotic, that you end up exasperated and miserable. But others break you because they’re so good, so spectacular from both a culinary and experiential perspective, that you’re pretty sure your eating-life will never be the same again.

“Often the selected dish in the Time Out top 100 hasn’t been quite up to scratch”

This was one of those meals that broke me by being Just. So. Damn. Good.

James happened to me in town, so we made use of the fact that whenever he comes along we have a great Chowdown Showdown, and this was no exception. The highlights of the meal were so many it’s hard to even list them. Impeccable tuna tartare with a fresh avocado salsa. Tender squid on a spicy passata. A cheese fritter which oozed and delighted in equal measure. Indulgent pata negra (which we plotted how to steal). The black pudding was rich and not exactly to my taste, but James and Rachael practically fought over who got to devour the last morsel.

And every dish was presented like a work of art, feeding the eyes first, though definitely not  beautiful in a way that made us consider for a moment not diving right in.

So – the tortilla? Often the selected dish in the Time Out top 100 hasn’t been quite up to scratch when compared to others on offer in the relevant establishment. It’s also true that tortilla is never going to be the most complex dish, or allow chefs to show off and demonstrate the full range of their abilities. But this tortilla is a delight. We tried a classic version, plus one with ham and spinach. Both divulged a flow of rich, yolky flavour on being cut, delivering an instant aroma that the perfect, browned discs hid with their humble exterior.

“There are some meals that break you”

The flavour emphasised eggs (obviously), but in a way that showed just how good these miracles of nature can be when they’re allowed to take centre stage and not cooked till bouncy – in fact this is a dish as much about feel on the tongue as flavour. The ham and spinach match the rich, indulgent fattiness of the eggs, rather than trying to steal the limelight.

You’d be disappointed if you only ate tortilla at a restaurant that offers such a variety of spectacular colours, shapes and tastes. But I’d argue you’d be missing out if you didn’t have at least one small plate of this delicious, if simple, complement to any tapas meal.

Nigiri Sushi at Yashin Sushi

image

I love sushi. I can understand the squeamishness about eating raw fish, but I can’t understand how anybody who tries good sushi can fail to be converted by the taste.

“Yashin’s Nigiri Sushi was firmly in this uber-league”

I’ll happily eat mediocre sushi around London, but I was surprised when in New York a few years back at just how genuinely nasty the cheapest offering you can get there is, when New Yorkers are generally quite exacting when it comes to food. On the other hand, a visit to Nobu-Next-Door during the same trip showed me some of the best Japanese food that the States has to offer. I had hoped that it would be good, but not so good that I’d be left wanting to go back. I’m happy (just about) to spend that much on a meal once, but I try to avoid getting a taste for it. Unfortunately, of course, it really was that good, and left me with an understanding of just how great sushi can be (though without ruining the less exquisite usual standard for me).

Yashin’s Nigiri Sushi was firmly in this uber-league. (You’ll want to order one of the ‘omakase’ – again, Time Out lets us down by failing to tell us exactly what we’re supposed to be ordering!) We got eight pieces of chef-selected fish-of-the-day, neatly laid on cuboids of rice, plus their ‘roll-of-the-day’. Each fish was matched with a different topping, from wasabi foam to ponzu jelly to strawberry and basil. If that sounds vague, I’m afraid it’s because, in spite of the waiter’s careful explanation of every last detail, I was left not-much-the-wiser after a barrage of quick-fire information.

“Yashin’s ‘tag-line’ is the enigmatic ‘Without Soy Sauce'”

I keep finding myself using this word in reviews, and not necessarily because I consider it the highest accolade, but the fish was meltingly soft, with flavours so subtle and lacking in ‘fishiness’ that it almost made sense pairing it with a sliver of strawberry. I say almost because, to be frank, I’m not convinced that the hint of strawberry (if it really was detectable) added a great deal.

That might sound like a major criticism, but the truth is that sushi and sashimi (rightly) should be all-about-the-fish, and this fish was so good I didn’t mind the lack of distraction. In fact, Yashin’s ‘tag-line’ is the enigmatic ‘Without Soy Sauce’. Enigmatic in that they didn’t make any attempt to explain this dictum, which I presume is the same belief that you wouldn’t cover your Michelin-starred French dinner in a snowstorm of salt, so why drown sushi in soy? If that was the reason, it went unsaid.

Breaking one of our golden rules – that portion size counts and therefore Rachael and I should have the full dish each – between the three of us we decided to share this, plus a sashimi platter, ‘miso cappucino’, and some prawn tempura roll. All of these were spectacular. “Why did you do it?”, I hear you cry. Well, at £30 for eight pieces of nigiri and four pieces of maki, it was easily pushing the bounds of good sense.

We ended up ordering another omakase (and a wagyu-beef roll, the one disappointing dish of the night), so we got a fairly good selection each. We had considered ordering the £60 omakase, but, slightly strangely, this would have bought us just fifteen pieces of nigiri, and no roll, a strange ‘buying-in-bulk’ non-discount. And here we get to the heart of the matter, this, and the soy-sauce ban, and the over-detailed explanations that left me bewildered rather than enlightened all reeked of a pretentiousness that food of this quality doesn’t need. Both Rachael and I came away feeling a little underwhelmed by what should have been a spectacular dish, which is a real shame. Defeat plucked from the fish-filled jaws of victory!

56/100 of London’s best dishes

Spicy pork and fennel meatballs at Polpo

image

There’s something deeply comforting and homely about meatballs. But I wasn’t sure whether they could be truly gourmet food. One of the criteria we’re using to judge is the ‘daydream test’. I.e. do we find ourselves dreaming about eating the dish again, in that deeply evocative way that tastes and smells can be. I was, quite simply, wrong. I’ve daydreamed about these several times.

“Whatever it is, I’m in heaven”

These meatballs were a cut above. In fact, they were several cuts above. These are effectively skinless spicy Italian sausages – but you can tell immediately that no horror pig-parts feature here. They managed to be light, and almost fluffy, not leaden lumps of gristle or solid meat. But they achieved this whilst also managing to avoid floury stodginess – these were no pork dumplings.

Presented in their threes simply in a bowl of the freshest, like-your-Italian-momma-used-to-make tomato sauce, this dish is intended to be shared (as the waitress was at pains to point out when we ordered three portions). But the dish, remarkably, stands up well on its own – not just in terms of portion size, which was just right (at least, after a day of remorseless eating), but also in terms of mix of flavours. Not one bite became boring.

“I’ll be back for these again. And again”

Perhaps it’s the chilli-warmth, that’s like sitting in front of a wood-burning stove. Or maybe the hint of aniseedy fennel. The pairing with the crisp, tart sauce. Or maybe it’s the sheer comforting indulgence of eating what feels a little like it belong on the kids menu, or out of a can. Whatever it is, I’m in heaven. I’ll be back for these again. And again.

12/100 best dishes in London

Chocolate Macaroons

image

To me, macaroons means the delicious sunken sand-coloured hemispheres with a slight chew that we got at Pesach (/ Passover) that were pipped to the post for my favourite festival treat by cinnamon balls.

These delicious, ganache-filled sandwiches, which have recently become the new cupcake (though I’m sure something else has in turn become the new them) have always been “macarons”.

In fact, of course, the two are the same – and the latter feature two of the former sandwiched around whatever flavoured filling (of the right consistency) you might like to pair with the shells. In spite of the reputation, I don’t think these are super-hard to get right. Have a go!

5.0 from 1 reviews
Chocolate Macaroons
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
This makes a boatload of macaroons (see the picture) - they bake so quickly that making a huge batch is little more work than making far fewer, so you might as well go all-out. That said, I've never managed to pipe anything without making an amazing mess, and no doubt this mess rises exponentially the more you make. I think this might be the most I could manage without coating the entire kitchen with batter. Some recipes suggest almond flour rather than ground almonds - but I think these should have a nice, slightly gritty texture, so would push for the latter.
Recipe type: Dessert
Serves: 40
Ingredients
  • 6 large egg whites
  • 250 grams ground almonds
  • 250 grams icing sugar
  • 50 grams cocoa
  • 250 grams caster sugar
  • 250 grams super-dark chocolate
  • 300 ml double cream
  • 50 grams butter (salted will add flavour)
Instructions
  1. Whisk (use the electric!) the egg whites, along with half the caster sugar at a medium speed for a couple of minutes, then even faster for a bit. Once the mixture starts to firm, add the rest of the sugar, and keep beating to stiff peaks. The stiffer it is, the more room you have to 'lose air' as you fold this is, so take your time. It should look glossy and brilliant white.
  2. Mix the ground almonds, icing sugar and cocoa powder, and fold into the egg whites with a large spoon, using a figure of eight action, until completely incorporated.
  3. With a piping bag, pipe large-marble-sized blobs onto baking paper, leaving space for these to flatten themselves. You'll probably need several batches, so have a large table or surface to lay out a number of lots ready to bake.
  4. Important: leave the blobs to sit for 25 minutes, until slightly drier.
  5. Bake on a baking tray for 12 minutes at 165 degrees C. Be brave about believing that they are done at this point.
  6. After cooling for ten minutes, the shells should be easy to lift and set aside.
  7. For the ganache, melt the chocolate in a bain marie (a bowl sat atop a pan of boiling water), add the cream and stir quickly to mix in. Add the butter, and stir this in too. Allow to cool until thick enough to spoon, but not set.
  8. Press the tip of your thumb into the flat side of a shell to make extra space for ganache, and generously add ganache, pressing another (intact) shell on top. Twisting may help to spread the filling evenly.
  9. Refridgerate overnight before serving (oh, go on, you can have one!) and store up to a week (genuinely) in the fridge in an airtight container. Bring to room temperature before eating.