Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Lucky Seven Diner

I live in an area that is viewed as moneyed and fashionable. The fearsome quotient of estate agents in Notting Hill Gate far outnumber the shops and retailers found on a normal high street. Notting Hill is blessed with most things tied with the words Tory and prestige but whoever ‘made’ the area forgot to endow it with culinary destinations. OK The Lebury might be an exception (memorable tasting menu but overpriced and pedestrian set lunch), but what else? Perhaps a rice ball or a carboard sandwich and of course one mustn’t forget this. When it comes to dining out- Notting Hill sucks.

Westbourne Park Road is 20 mins’ walk away from my abode (don’t be too envious now for it’s only the size of an airing cupboard with one and a quarter windows) but easily reachable by buses 7 and 70. It’s also the road where Lucky Seven and its sister restaurant Crazy Homies are based. The two restaurants are part of Tom Conran’s quartet of eateries that were established a decade ago and he did so without the aid of relentless self-promotion on Twitter or Facebook (sour grapes apart, I accept his family name helped more than a bit but we have to respect that members of the Conran clan are hardly layabouts!).

Lucky Seven is all American diner (or in their words an East Coast one). Its location in this part of London is one I find a trifle divisive, a sprawling council estate on the north end and impossibly expensive town houses on the other with Kelly Hoppen’s HQ just around the corner. An American diner is in essence, egalitarian and cheap, but I’m sorry to say that I cannot imagine the folks from the Brunel Estate having their tea-fix here; Lucky Seven is simply too costly and exclusive for them. No matter what foreign cuisine we try to import into London and apply it to the max, it’ll still end up disparagingly more expensive. I’ve given up comparing the likes of a bowl of Laksa in Malaysia for a quid or the lobster roll for 12 bucks. But despite the rip-off tag, monsoon summers, Chelski, bendy buses, knife-wielding yobs, £1.35 a litre petrol prices, 7 quid for twenty Marlboros, punishing business rates, etc…I still love London warts and all.

This is a tiny place with only three pairs of booths, so be prepared for elbow to elbow communal supping. The service staffed by articulated middle-class school leavers is friendly and pretty much faultless (and thankfully no down-on-the-knees antics and wormlike greetings). This is also the sort of the place that Ludo or Xanthe might hold their teeny birthday parties at instead of an unspeakable home-do consisting of sausage roll platters from Morrisons and gigantic Chicken Cottage buckets .

I’ve been coming here on and off for the past three years, usually during the mid-afternoons when the sojourn allows me to dine alone without any jostles or distractions. I only ever come here for the burgers so the write-up about Luck Seven reflects that.

A thoughtful reminder and lecture about their burgers on the napkin is impossible to ignore.

When ordering the burgers the staff don’t egg on about how you want them cook because at a blink of an eye it’s discreetly stated on the menu that all the burgers are cooked medium. Alas most of the times I’ve eaten here the burgers have been consistently cooked medium well or well done, so do remind the person who takes your orders that it’s gotta be medium or nowt.

The bacon cheese burger.
All the burgers come partially deconstructed; salad and gherkin to one side plus a small pot of bloody good emulsion-free tasting coleslaw. The sandwich is inherently on the small side and the perceived value made worse by the salad juxtaposed. The bowl of excellent French Fries were an extra order but too large a portion for a lone diner to demolish in one sitting.

Once assembled it was perfectly sized to eat with one hand and the other flicking the pages of a Dan Simmons paperback.

The patties are made from Aberdeen Angus (byword and all) chuck and wonderfully seasoned. Once again my burger was cooked medium well but utterly forgivable every time because of its rather delicious mouthfuls. My choice of cheese has always been Monterey Jack (neutral enough not to intrude on the beef) as opposed to the others offered here like blue cheese, Swiss, Kraft or Mozarella.

On a scale of one to ten, the hamburgers here and here are eights , a dissentious five for this and a sighing three for this. The burger at Lucky Seven is an admirable six. Lunch for one came to more than fifteen quid so it’s hardly a place for the masses but the burgers served here are good enough for a thumbs-up approval.

127 Westbourne Park Road
W2 5QL
scores on the doors

Monday, 20 June 2011

The Fryer's Delight

Some of you may have gathered by now that I’m a shopkeeper by trade and have been for the past 15 years. Prior to that I was rendering my services to another shop in the West End as a salesman helping customers achieve their dreams of an orchestra or Jimi Hendrix becoming alive in their living rooms by means of two channel stereo systems. Since leaving college I’ve never been conventionally salaried or let alone handle a payslip in my hands; my hard-nosed tenacity wouldn’t allow me to work under someone else except myself. It’s my prerogative to remain so until I tumble into an abyss of doom. Jabberwocky facts aside, my shop sells record players and amplifiers with glowing tubes (we call ‘em valve amps in the industry) and this kind of niche attracts a certain lot of pilgrims from all over the world. Now for some strange reasons the majority of these visitors who descend upon the shop are Scandinavians or to be exact, Norwegians and Swedes. The anoraks (blokes mainly) drag their families along to view the wares I have on show, but they never buy anything and they just want to complete the pilgrimage by snapping photos of the shop and me, as for the latter I always decline for good reasons! In order to break up the usual tedium I unavoidably drum up the usual conversation-

‘Do you like London?’

Gasp (the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians all do this when conversing!)- ‘Oh yes we love your great city’

‘Do you find our city expensive?’

Gasp- ‘Oh no, London is cheap as lingonberries nuts compared to Oslo!’ (But then they would say that, as the Norwegians are the richest Europeans).

‘So where have you been and what have you done in London?’

Gasp- ‘Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Madame Tussauds, your shop and…fish and chips (with a wretched sigh!)’ (The Norwegians verge on warm monotones whereas the Swedes are tonally lah-dee-dah)

‘What’s wrong with our fish n chips?’ (I often bark hereby!)

Gasp- ‘Oh not much really (now because that they’re not buying anything from me they always end up polite) but please tell us where to go for your true British national dish, chicken tikka masala.’ (Followed by a final but almighty gasp…)

As their first taste of fish and chips will also be the last, the tourists’ expectations are inexorably exceeded. The various answers I’ve been so accustomed to hearing have simply reasserted the fact that our national dish sucks! When it comes to cocking up this humble dish on an immense scale then there’s no other place worse than London. Fish and chips is found on the menus at pubs, eating concessions within popular tourist attractions and department stores, greasy spoons, kebab shops, chicken shops, etc- a win-win inclusion to trap the unwitting diners craving for a bite of the great British institution. The dearth of traditional chippies in the capital is partly to blame for this sad misrepresentation. For a major city with an urban population of more than 8 million people it’s also pathetic to know that one can only count London’s decent chippies on one hand or perhaps at a push, an additional finger on the other. I remembered an old pilgrim to my shop a couple of year’s back, Leif of Stavanger, he muttered about his first cod and chips lunch at an Italian run caff in Russell Square- 'we salt our cod because it’s a noble fish so that we can enjoy eating bit by bit but why the injustice of deep-frying it with tasteless batter and serving it with fat sloppy wet fries!' His smiling face hid the most obvious kick in my teeth and validly call forth there's no accounting for taste.

The Fryer's Delight is a well-regarded fish and chip shop in Holborn.

The place does at least resemble an authentic chippy-

deep-fryers by the front counter, Formica tables, false ceilings, white-coated cooks, pungent cooking fumes and sharp intrusive vinegar tones wafting all over the booths. It has been around for ages and it’s now run by some South American folks- spoken English was thus rudimentary but the service courtesy of the lone waitress was consistently abiding and smiling.

This place is also a favourite of the London cabbies, as the photo shows- one eating and another just walked in.

Now unlike Leif of Stavanger I wasn’t going to be put off by my first and failed fish dinner at a place of supposedly good repute so I went back three times to confirm my findings about The Fryer's Delight. As somber as things are allowed to be, the place was plainly inadequate when it came to fish and chips. It lacked the attributes so vital for any real chippy- passion about the fish, a know-how about concocting a great batter mix, how not to make the chips taste like anything except potatoes and of course the fat chosen to fry the food.

The menu

Haddock and Chips
Looks all right and all but I can assure you that it was anything but.

Now let’s briefly rant about how fresh is ‘fresh’. I accept the fact that most and if not all fish when caught are immediately flash frozen on the boats for at least a week before it reaches the market like Billingsgate. But what happens when the fillets have been further refrigerated for another week or two (the thought of a double thawing process shudders me no end!). It then reeks of fishiness; disconcerting and repelling enough to put even the most determined fish-eater off for a considerable amount of time. The haddock I had above was precisely that kind of ‘fresh’ misnomer - yuck! The batter, although not soaking with fat was woefully under-seasoned. The chips tasted entirely synthetic and soggy. And what of the myth surrounding beef dripping used as the de facto fat at The Fryer's Delight?
A load of codswallop is the plain and simple answer I could muster with confidence.

Now there’s very little any fish shop can screw up with the next two items-

Cod’s Roe-
now if I can relish in stuff like this then I’m au fait with this.

Oy Oy Savaloy!
Ok not quite the bright red thing but much the same thing- a battered jumbo sausage. Now what’s there not to like about a log of intensely processed nose to tail bits from farmed animals (dare I say usually made collectively).

The hand-written bill was undoubtedly sweet-natured and a redeeming feature of the place. (Although my accountant would balk at the omission of a date-entry!)

Cod and Chips

Alas the tiny piece of cod was as ‘fresh’ as the haddock above. It was reminiscent of poorly thawed mush.

And thank goodness for lashings of malt vinegar, a perfect ploy to obliterate any imperfections that come with any dishes served here.

The Fryer's Delight will continue to exist and flourish because of the following-

OAPs who live in the estates nearby (the ones who have been patronising the place for years but lacking the mobility to travel further afield for a better fish dinner).

Cabbies who come here in droves (by a word-of-mouth convention it seems and besides cab drivers are probably the least fussy eaters in the capital).

And of course the shop’s close proximity to the cheap hotels in and around Bloomsbury and Holborn is more than an ideal to lure the naive tourists.

The recurrence of the good reputation The Fryer's Delight has been clinging on to is hopelessly out of date; unfortunately the current owners have lost the plot and they’ll probably never understand why they’ve made a diabolical embarrassment out of England’s national dish. One to avoid.

For real fish and chips in the West End you’re better off here or here.

19 Theobald’s Road

Scores on the doors

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Riding House Café

Eyes rolled skywards for yet another bandwagon review beckons.

The phenomenon of ‘small plates’ has taken London by storm and for that matter the rest of the country have progressively followed suit. I do accept that the times have moved on but through upbringing and tradition the English reluctance to sharing (as opposed to apportioning) platters of food on a dinner table remains indelibly ingrained. The ‘small plates’ situation can be a dilemma; with certain circles it can be deemed rude, insensible, unhealthy and lamentably un-English.

When I was a young squid boarding at a Sussex prep school my good chum Jamie decided that we should lunch together with his parents. It was one of those 3 hour Saturday breaks when the boys were on a brief parole to stock up their stash of banned confectioneries (Mars Bars were then the school’s de facto currency) and persistently threatened their parents by declaring; ‘I’m going to run away from school if you don’t pull me out now!’ So to a Chinese restaurant we headed to in Brighton and that was my first experience of how not to share your grub for we’re in England now! We all ordered our choice of dishes (plus individual servings of special fried rice) - Sir John had sweet and sour pork, Jamie likewise (more tinned pineapple chunks than hog bits I recalled), Lady E ate very little of her lemon chicken and me, a plate of greens (possibly kale)! ‘Oh, aren’t we supposed to share the dishes?’ I inquired and Sir John in his usual diplomatic affectation, interjected, ‘not here in England we do my dear boy’. I’d obviously misunderstood the ‘prim and proper’ procedure to ordering food in the Home Counties (twas the late 70s) and began to accept the fact that the lazy Susan in the middle of the table was purely there to glorify the humble pot of jasmine tea. The E family struggled tediously with their lunch using chopsticks whereas I was done and dealt with in no time (30 mins ahead of them using alternative forms of utensils). Lady E muttered, ‘but I thought the Chinese only ate with chopsticks and I replied gainfully, ‘Oh they do but I’m a Malaysian as well, we’re equally compliant with a fork and spoon’. That was my first and last outing with Jamie’s MaMa and PaPa. I learnt my ways, the English are not prone to direct communal sharing, imagine digging into a huge baking dish of Shepherd's Pie as a centrepiece on a table, no it wouldn’t work…instead it would need to be appropriately apportioned in a well-mannered and trusted way!

Earlier last month Farmer LBB (tripled-barrelled named cheddar producer), Jamie (slapheaded by now but reverentially titled as most aristos end up) and I dined at the Pollen Street Social (don’t dismay for I shall refrain from posting a review). We ordered around ten small plates between us and that was when the meal started to spiral down. Like how were we meant to divide up the lone egg in the ‘Full English Breakfast’ or the tiny quail escabeche and not to mention the squid and cauliflower risotto (too insubstantial and impossible to partake in jointly)! I found Jason Atherton’s place over-praised, over-priced and totally average but more to the point, the English are of course blameless when it comes to not being consistently partial to grabbing food from the same plate (how about fondue one may ask, sod that, ‘tis a gimmick). Small plates only work for Dim Sum and real Spanish tapas. The only advantage when that dreaded term is applied to other types of European fayre, it favours only the critics and bloggers- they can order as many dishes as they wish in one sitting and pen about the food en masse thereafter.

George and I came here on the last day of The Riding House Café’s soft opening launch i.e. 50% of all grub. I do accept that it can be disputative when writing up about a new place in its infancy, but a restaurant business (cut-throat and all) is hardly a newborn baby, a bedding-in period would’ve been a lame excuse. If a restaurant can’t deliver the goods first time around and go belly up then the tears are wholly unjustified because Bob the uncle anticipated the failings and decamped.

The Riding House Café is an all-day dining brasserie. Despite having an eponymous name as the street where John Nash’s eye-catching All Souls Church proudly sits at the western end, the collective views from the large dining space are restricted to the loveless forlornness of Great Titchfield Street. That said the dining space looked properly invested and unduly accented. The service when we were there was faultless and genuinely warm.

It was the day before I had to start work at 08.00 hours and the evening after polishing off a bottle and half of MdD Gassac the night before. The Bloody Mary facilitated that much-needed remedy.

Like all spawn of the ilk to emerge in London, small plates were unavoidable at The Riding House Café-

First came the salt cod fritters with red pepper aioli.

The bacalhau was obviously skimped and saved here because I couldn’t taste any of it. Perhaps it was a Sunday evening, a time when standards often lapse.

Posh-sounding Nocellara del Belice olives
They were bulbous and very good.

Moorish lamb with smoked aubergine

Moorish to me means cumin, fennel seeds or paprika but in the case of the above they were either obliterated during the cooking process or omitted. Additionally the lamb was under salted but granted, it was done perfectly medium. Unfortunately it was neither Moorish nor moreish. Perhaps it was a Sunday evening; a time when standards often lapse.

Sea bass ceviche, lime and chilli
The fish was somewhat over-cured in an ‘all too tame’ marinade. It lacked any astringency or chilli kick. Unmemorable and perhaps it was a Sunday evening; a time when standards often lapse.

Artichoke dip and crostini

My beef wasn’t so much about the pasty artichoke quagmire but the so-called ‘little toasts’. The crostini were inedible due to their construction site relevance, they were hard as hard hats. Jean Christophe Novelli summed it fittingly - "The French don't eat toast. We don't need to, we make decent bread. Toasting bread is sacrilege - it's like cutting spaghetti."

Slow roasted pork belly with cumin salt

Token saving grace; good meat and excellent crackling. Perhaps Sunday evenings in spite of their downs may have their ups as well.

Guinea fowl with black pudding and Romesco sauce.
The bird was tender enough but the black pudding went AWOL. It was unadventurous and ho-hum. The Sunday evening syndrome struck yet again!

Heritage tomatoes, basil and capers.
We were momentously ripped off here, the tomatoes were hardly heritage and the basil morphed into rocket leaves. An authentic heritage tomato salad can be found here instead. Poor. The song remains the same on Sunday evenings…

The 25 quid 10oz rib eye on the bone served with béarnaise sauce.
Bear in mind you poor souls, chips are extra!

Imposing, bullish and well charred…

…and textbook medium rare as requested. But through no fault of the kitchen the steak was under- hung and woefully short on flavour. My terse message to the owners of this place, ‘How very dare you!’

Hot fudge sundae
A laudable consolation after the mishaps of the small plates and disjointed mains.

Dinner at The Riding House Café proved average at best, I’ll only come back here if someone else pick up the tab. But it was admittedly more down to earth and less overbearing than Pollen Street Social. However there are two places worth going to on Great Titchfield Street- here and here. Life is too short for small plate of dishes that are so obtrusively mediocre that it would be purposeless to even suggest let’s share.

43-51 Great Titchfield Street
London W1W 7PQ

Saturday, 4 June 2011

The Jolly Butchers