Monday, 10 October 2011

The Folly, The City

"Tuesday is the new Thursday," said the hunky Australian waiter as he took us to our table. And judging by the number of people out celebrating in the Folly on this particular Tuesday, I think he was right.

The Folly is part of the Drake and Morgan group that has brought us The Refinery, Parlour, Anthologist, and The Drift. And of the group (barring the Parlour in Canary Wharf, which I have yet to visit), The Folly is by far the prettiest.

It's located across the road from Monument Station, right next to the House of Fraser. An unlikely location, you might think, but we’ve learned from their other venues to never underestimate this bar group. Situated in what was most likely a retail shop, the Folly is spread over two levels. At street level is the bar and restaurant, which has gone for Victorian garden chic, with its garden lounge and flower shop, hanging chairs and birdcage enclosed cocktail bar.

The Folly also has a more intimate subterranean level built around its cork-fronted bar, with raised vault seats making it feel very Shoreditch-like. It even has a ‘pop-up’ shop offering all manner of seasonal delights.

I met the Devon lass there, and we decided to take advantage of the autumn menu. So after a couple of delicious cocktails mixed by yet another resident hunk – a gin an elderflower mix each followed by a whisky sour (bourbon) and amaretto sour each – we went to our table.

To start we had the crispy squid with ginger-pink peppercorns and citrus mayo – which was the perfect combination of spice and sweetness, crispy and moist – and duck confit and Dijon mustard toast - which was chunky, rich yet not too heavy. For mains, the Devon lass went for the skinny beef burger, which practically meant it came without the bread or the fries. So in my mind not a burger at all, but it was mighty tasty nevertheless. I tried the Thai green fish curry with coconut milk, ginger and lemon grass. It was a hearty portion that included two fillets of fish – one was salmon and I think the other sea bass, it was hard to tell. But that’s not to take anything away from the dish, which was delicious. For desserts we went for the lemon peel crème brulee, which was subtle, light and citrusy, and the chocolate fondue with marshmallow lollipops and shortbread biscuits, which was the complete opposite. More like something you would expect at a children’s birthday party. It was very well executed, but a little too sweet for my tastes.

We washed it down with a bottle of NZ Pinot Noir Pencarrow Estate Martinborough, 2009 which worked wonderfully with our courses.

The waiting staff were charm personified, and as my companion noted, rather easy on the eye. The numerous punters were a mix of City types on a Tuesday night bender, and pretty young things out on the pull. Which makes you think that perhaps our waiter was right. Tuesday is the new Thursday.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

The Hospital Club, Covent Garden

Covent Garden is a funny place. If you venture into the tourist trap that is the market square, you will find many of the worst pubs, bars and restaurants in London. Yet a few streets back are some of city’s best shops, and tucked in between the theatre land eateries is arguably its hippest members’ club.

The Hospital Club on Endell Street was developed with London’s creative set in mind. The club was founded by the very cool Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics, and very wealthy Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft. Unlikely bedfellows in most peoples minds, but its hard to argue with the result.

Built on the site of an 18th century hospital, the club wears its creative credentials on its sleeve, and houses a television studio, music studio, screening room, restaurant and art gallery. But what makes it more than an overpriced media suite is its styling: From the art gallery-like reception area, up to the restaurant and relaxation space, the Hospital Club combines mid-century furniture with noughties art pieces to great effect. You feel like you are in London’s creative hub, which after all, is the point.

I was dining there as a guest of the Producer, who owns a video and event company, and fortunately for me is a member. After a cheeky aperitif in the bar, we headed to our table for lunch. We shared a bottle of Pinot Grigio, which is not normally a grape for me, but worked a treat on a warm September afternoon. The Producer opted for the scallops to start, which he reported as tender and flavoursome. I went for the eel salad special – a controversial fish to many of my friends, but one that I find delicious. This was no exception, although I could have done with a bit more eel and a little less salad. For mains the Producer selected the poached pollock in a chorizo broth, while I went for the king prawns and chips. The former was hearty, with the paprika-flavoured sausages combining well with the meaty white fish. My prawns were tasty albeit a little messy. But that’s no cause for complaint. For desserts, the Producer went for the homemade rum and raisin ice cream – a flavour I don’t like, and this version, although well made, gave me little cause to change my opinion. I opted for my new favourite fruit, the flat peach, which was baked and served with vanilla ice cream. Much better.

The waiting staff had that combination of charm and good looks that makes you wistful for your youth. They can be a little casual, particularly in the bar area, but they are always friendly.

The crowd were mostly, but certainly not exclusively, men. However, these punters were head-to-toe media cool. It was no coincidence that there was a London Fashion Week bash in the bar the night before. This place certainly has style.

As a restaurant, there are much better places in London to visit, however as an overall experience, the Hospital Club takes some beating. It’s relaxed, but with the right amount of cool quotient to make you feel the sense of occasion. And it's certainly a far cry from the tourist trap of Covent Garden market

Thursday, 25 August 2011

HIX, Soho

I love Soho. While other areas come in and out of fashion (Islington and Notting Hill being noticeably out, and Shoreditch on its way), Soho always has, and probably always will have, that thing that makes it special.

The mix of people - fashionistas, designers, musicians, film makers, market traders, retailers and tourists – and venues - bars, restaurants, and high street and sex shops - is what makes this area London’s true melting pot. You even have a large residential population to complain about the noise and disorder.

So it’s no coincidence that probably the best restaurant I have been to recently, HIX, is located right in the heart of Soho in Brewer Street. HIX has been brought to us by Mark Hix of the Hix Oyster and Chop House in Smithfield, Hix Oyster and Fish House on the coast of Lyme Regis, and HIX Restaurant and Champagne Bar in Selfridges, London. HIX in Soho is his unofficial flagship restaurant, and given his sterling reputation and some great reviews, we decided to use the Northerner’s birthday as an opportunity to check it out.

First, as with all of his other restaurants, it’s a good-looking place. The basement cocktail bar, Mark's Bar, feels very New York (or, as the Northerner suggested, the sadly departed East Rooms) with its tin ceiling tiles and state of the art cocktails. Never one to turn down a drink, we started with the John, John & Tom Collins, and cutely named Mark's Blunder.

The J&T Collins is a mix of Bols Genever, Beefeater London Dry Gin and Jensen Old Tom Gin built over crushed with freshly squeezed lemon juice, caster sugar stretched with soda. The gorgeous Italian barman thought it wasn’t a good aperitif. The Northerner disagreed, as it packed the satisfying kick of a traditional G&T, with the drinkability of homemade lemonade. It was delicious. Mark’s Blunder combines Somerset Kingston Black apple aperitif stirred up with Aperol and is lengthened with sparkling wine. Apparently this is a good aperitif, but it was a little sweet for my taste. However, I still drank it easily enough.

For lunch, I went for the pigeon on toast, which was sweet-meaty flavoursome, and had mixtures of soft and crisp in texture. The Northerner’s duck salad was nearly as good – it was cooked to rare/pink perfection and was a hearty serving. For mains I chose the rib steak from the five slabs of meat presented to me. It’s big in size, and bigger in well-seasoned flavours. However, the Northerner’s whole Dover sole pan fried in butter trumped it. It was perfectly cooked and melt-in-your-mouth flavoursome. For desserts, the Northerner’s fennel tart was much better then expected. Who would have thought that such an aromatic herb would work so well in a dessert? My blackberry jelly was gorgeous to look at, and rich-berry sharp in flavour.

We washed it down with a bottle and a carafe of La Flor Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina 2010 which was reasonably priced at £30, and complemented all of our courses just fine.

The punters were surprisingly mostly male, suited and booted, but very much of the media rather than the banking persuasion. The staff were charming on the verge of being outright flirty, but very efficient and easy on the eye as well, which helped.

HIX isn’t cheap. We ended up spending north of £200, but some places justify a big budget and this is one of them. Much like Soho, I can’t see this place going out of fashion.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Poppies Fish & Chips, Spitalfields

I put it down to the Mad Men effect. The advertising-based story set in Manhattan seems to have inspired a new wave of retro in recent years that has made that era cool.

Everything from the clothes your parents wore to the furniture they bought has become de rigueur styling for the modern urbanite. This influence has extended to Britannia, as anyone who is watching the wonderful BBC news drama, The Hour, can attest. And this fond remembrance for the '50s and early '60s has spilled over into our eating and drinking, with the tea room renaissance in full flow, and that staple British diet of fish and chips getting the retro experience in the form of Poppies Fish & Chips.

Based in Spitalfields (where else?), this place has form. The family that own it have been serving fish and chips in the East End since 1945. In what otherwise might have been seen as a cynical marketing ploy, they have stuck to their traditional cooking roots, but embellished the experience with '50s styling. So the walls have pictures of British entertainers, a restored jukebox thumps out old rock 'n roll hits, and the furniture, interiors and uniforms of the waiting staff are all in keeping with the era. There are even cockney rhyming slangs on the walls which veer it dangerously close to being cheesy tourist rather then cool, but the East End punters save it from that fate.

But what about the food? Given I was dining with my usual partner-in-dining (a.k.a. the Northerner), I knew that Poppies was about to come under severe scrutiny. The best fish and chips we’ve had have been either up north or in our local chippie that is Olley's in Herne Hill – tough competition on the foodie front. We both opted for the haddock and chips (my serving being large) with a side of mushy peas and curry sauce. The first thing to disappoint us was that the fish and chips weren’t freshly cooked but served straight out of the warming cabinet. This is fine in your average street chippie, but not so when you’re paying from £9.90 to £11.40 for a serving. And while the fish particularly was nice enough, the chips were a little greasy and not salted. Mushy peas is a speciality of the Northerner’s mum, and unfortunately Poppies seemed like they were straight out of the tin rather then homemade. The curry sauce was also a little runny compared to what we’re used to up north. The texture was more gravy then curry.

We tried the house Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc, which were good value at £2.90 each, and the service was sharp and friendly in the way the way that British Italians are. And the place is definitely popular, as the punters on the night we went were mostly Shoreditch hipsters. So it definitely has the cool factor. But I think it is a little let down by the cooking itself. Perhaps there are some things that are better left in the past.

Monday, 15 August 2011

The White Swan, Fetter Lane

I am pleased to report that salt is making a comeback. For years it seemed this staple seasoning (for most of us of a certain age) was on the way to being banned from cooking altogether.

We all heard the arguments as salt was blamed for everything from obesity to diabetes, with a healthy (or not) does of high cholesterol thrown in. The knock-on effect was that people stopped cooking with it. Not only did you get meat without seasoning, but things like chips were served sans salt. Surely a sign that the world was going mad. To be fair, you could argue that in many cases salt was being used to hide cooking sins - particularly in the pub industry - rather then enhance dishes. However, it is no coincidence that the revival of seasoning happened at the same time as the rise of the British gastropub.

And arguably the best components of this now-established form of dining are the Martin brothers, Tom and Ed. These guys are the dream team behind such gems as The Botanist in Sloane Square, the Gun in the Docklands and the recently opened (and reviewed) Chiswell Street Dining rooms.

However, my first experience of the sibling's magic touch was the White Swan near Fleet Street. And it was with pleasure that the Northerner and I took a stroll down memory (or in this case Fetter) lane to revisit the Swan. Housed in what used to be the Mucky Duck pub, which was as good as it sounds, the Martins transformed the White Swan into a stylish drinking and eating establishment. Dark brown woods and snug booths give the downstairs pub an almost rural feel. You half expect a group of ramblers rather then local barristers to drop by. In the upstairs restaurant, lighter shades of white, crisp linen-topped tables, and iron-framed windows make it feel like a public school dining room, albeit without the stuffiness.

But it was the food that first brought us here all those years ago, and again it didn’t disappoint.

The Northerner started with the fine tart of mackerel, baby onions, black olive tapenade and balsamic, which was sharp and wonderfully, well, tart. I went for the Crubeens - an Irish food made of boiled pigs' feet deep fried and crumbed (in case you’re wondering), which came with sauce gribiche, endive and fried quails eggs. These were perfect in texture and gorgeously moreish - the quails eggs working wonderfully with the rich pork meat.

For mains I opted for the slow-cooked lamb, smoked anchovy, cos lettuce and pheasants eggs. To my surprise this came served in the style of a Caesar salad, but certainly didn’t lose anything as a result. To the contrary the lamb, lettuce, egg and anchovy combination was delicious and it benefited from the lightness of its salad style. The Northerner had the lightly poached sea trout, peas, bacon, baby onions, lettuce and pea shoots. The trout fillet was steak-like in size, and cooked to pink perfection. The accompanying sauce was by her palette a little salty (did I mention seasoning had made a comeback?) but flavoursome nevertheless. We shared an Eton Mess for dessert (in keeping with the public school theme) which was fruity and not too sweet - a common flaw with this particular concoction. We drank a bottle of Salice Salentino 2006 which was light and spicy, and the perfect complement to our meal.

The staff were charm personified, and so considerate that they even asked if we wanted them to ask some of the other diners to keep quiet. It makes a change from us, opined the Northerner. The ambience is formal and slightly stilted, and while we had a lovely time, you’d be hard pressed to claim it is romantic. I think a little bit more in the way of background or mood music wouldn’t go astray. Perhaps the White Swan is missing what its food so obviously has: a little bit of seasoning.

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Drift, Bishopsgate

Isn’t London just so New York nowadays? And I’m not just talking about the increase in diners, coffee shops and Jewish-styled delis, but the skyline, which amongst other things, has made the opening shots of The Apprentice such compulsive viewing.

The latest addition to the cityscape is the Heron Tower on Bishopsgate, which is a stones throw from Liverpool Street Station. At 46 floors and striking to look at, the Heron wouldn’t look out of place in the Big Apple. (OK, so it’s a little small by US standards). And, of course, with a new building comes a new venue - in this case, The Drift Bar.

The Drift has been brought to us by Drake and Morgan, the team behind the roaring successes that are the Folly, Parlour, Refinery and Anthologist bars. Spread over two floors, the Drift follows their template of industrial style décor and fittings - with heavy lashings of stainless steel softened by the dark brown furniture. Floor to (high) ceiling windows complete the urban affect, but it still manages to be warm and welcoming. The music is loud, but not in a disruptive way, and the mood is festive and buzzing. The punters are all suited and booted, enjoying London’s next big thing, and to our surprise, there was a celebrity in the house that night in the form of Pixie Lott. And no, I didn’t recognise her, but fortunately my friends are much cooler then me.

The staff, in common with the other bars, are all gorgeous in a fresh-off-the-catwalk way, and charming to go with it. They subtly up-sell their cocktail range, and are knowledgeable about the food and drinks on offer. They are a tad slow in service, and the downstairs bar in particular seemed to have more people collecting or cleaning than actually serving. But I’m sure that’s something that a logistical tweak will sort out.

We checked out the upstairs restaurant and started with an antipasto board to share, a selection of cured meats, sun-ripened tomatoes, and balsamic baby onions and marinated Puglia olives with traditional handmade breads. This was both delicious and plentiful. (Dare I say, it was a American-sized portion.) For mains, my colleague tried out the crab and crayfish linguini tossed with white wine, chilli & lemon. This was nicely cooked with generous helps of crab and crayfish. I opted for the beef burger on a toasted brioche bun with a side of slaw and fries which was good pub grub, cooked to medium-rare perfection. We were in a white wine mood and the South African Long Beach Sauvignon Blanc did the trick. But it’s a comprehensive wine list and we really should have tried some of the others. Next time, I guess.

Because there will be a next time, as the Drift’s mix of sophistication, vibrancy and industrial styling is a welcome relief in a part of town that is relatively bereft of decent drinking spots. In fact, you could say that the Drift is the sort of bar that you might find in Manhattan. And that can only be a good thing.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

One New Change Champagne Bar, St Pauls

It shows the regard in which we hold Champagne in that we so often use it to describe an aspirational lifestyle. By which, we normally mean hobnobbing with celebs at openings or private members club, dining at the finest restaurants, and travelling first class.

It's amazing that what is essentially a bottle of alcohol has so many positive connotations attached to it. I mean, when did you ever hear anyone talk about a Pinot Noir lifestyle, or Sauvignon Blanc? The only other good appropriation of alcohol to describe someone that I can think of is lager lout. And that is hardly complimentary.

But Champagne has pulled off the unique trick of becoming more accessible, yet remaining exclusive. And a key factor in this has been the emergence of Champagne bars as a venue in their own right. A relative newcomer to this game is The Champagne Bar in One New Change – the posh new shopping mall next to St Paul’s.

The Champagne bar is brought to us by Searcys; the group that has the sister bar in Paddington Station and are also behind 40/30 in the Gherkin. Occupying a corner inside the first floor of the mall, The Champagne Bar is elegant and vibrant. The bar itself sits at the centre, adorned with champagne glasses (what else?) and encircled by cream leather high stools. Dark brown wooden floor tiles are offset by light brown furnishings, which are broken up by exposed dark brickwork. Soft mood lighting completes the affect, which is almost romantic, although the Northerner thought it felt more like a hotel bar.

The staff are incredibly charming and knowledgeable, which is just as well given the extensive drinks menu. Eschewing the cocktail variations of the fizzy stuff, we took their advice and sampled a few champagnes by the glass. Given that we prefer the dry stuff, our charming host recommended the Brut – Lanson Black Label to be exact, which was a delicious drop – dry and biscuit-like. We then went on to the Vintage stuff. The Lanson Gold Label Vintage 1999 is 49% Chardonnay and 51% Pinot Noir, and was quite stunning. While I wouldn’t go as far as to call our palates sophisticated, even we were able to detect the honeyed finish. Delicious.

The Northerner then tried another Vintage Lanson Gold Label Brut 1999, while I gave the Bruno Paillard Brut Premiere Cuvee NV a whirl. Both of which were very good, but paled in comparison to the stunning Gold Label Vintage we’d tried earlier.

To eat we had a few of the nibbles – chorizo, caprese, almonds, French sausages - which were lovely, if not a little small in plate size. We also shared the roast duck with mash, which was melt-in-your-mouth perfect, and compensated for the sizing issues of the platters.

As expected, the Champagne Bar isn’t cheap, but with drinks by the glass ranging from £8.50 to £13.50, it’s hardly extortionate. But perhaps I’ve worked in the City for too long.

The place where the Champagne Bar doesn’t quite work is in its location. A lovely little bar is made to feel not quite so special when you are sitting across from the likes of the North Face, Eat and Banana Republic. This is by no means denigrating those aforementioned shops, but it reminds you that you are in a shopping mall, which is not an experience that works for everyone. It might have been better if it were on the ground floor next to Jamie Oliver's new place, and I’m sure I’m not the first person to think that.

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong, and that the Champagne Bar is playing its part in making Champagne accessible for everyone. But maybe that’s where that other descriptor - of champagne socialist - came from.