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 d├ęcor 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.