Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Il Bacio

Coming soon...

178 Blackstock Road

Wednesday, 21 October 2009


A risky one, this one. The doors to Rules of Covent Garden have remained open for over two centuries, inside of which, during this time, some of the best advertisements for British cuisine have been served. ‘London’s oldest restaurant’ hardly needs further endorsement. That said, dissidence has emerged that hubristic staff and complacent cooking are detracting from this venerable institution’s reputation.

Dining here in early mid-October is significant, the pheasant season has begun, and the menu duly indicates that its availability is seasonal. To my dismay we were still too early, I reminded the waiter that the season had opened, but he rebuffed me keenly with the argument that at this stage the birds were not fleshy enough for consumption. An excuse to go again, at least.

The interior requires no introduction to those even vaguely familiar with the establishment. As much due to its lack of alteration as the impressive array of busts, art and ornaments that adorn every inch of wall space. The only thing that could possibly distract you is the menu, a glorious thing it is. Few menus, fewer still British ones, would come as close to eliciting a tear from its duct.
Following much deliberation the rabbit came my way and the crab to Sue. Eating bunny-meat reminded me of the importance of treating our taste buds regularly, moreover what impressed me was that the taste improved the more I ate. This is rare, normally each mouthful of a fillet of beef or indeed crab is akin to hits of a drug. The first hit is the most powerful, with satisfaction diminishing as satiation increases, not the case here.

Rules is extolled for its British cuisine, yet it is not above borrowing from abroad. Venison Osso Bucco was one such dish, hardly a controversial dish but new to me at least. Not enough flavour from the meat permeated the sauce and presentation was a little too close to Sunday pub lunch, but let’s not get too finicky. The lamb on the other side of the table received hearty approval, I duly sampled, its texture was delicate which lamb seldom is and ought to be, otherwise excellent.

Also excellent was the service, perhaps perfect even. Rules management has found (or maybe invented / cobbled together in the style of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster) a waiter that was knowledgeable, charming and who served optimally – any more service and it would have become servile. His recommendation of wine was accurate, the wine list itself is the liquid literature equivalent of pornography, London offers much more exhaustive and varied wine lists, but this one was apt for the menu.

Reports of supercilious waiters and suspect fish options circulate, amongst other grievances – the British cannot let a good thing last – although none of these issues were evident to me. Sunday lunch never tasted so good, or cost so much.

4 parsnips out of 5

35 Maiden Lane, WC2

Thursday, 27 August 2009

The Olive Shed

The Olive Shed is contained within a curious hovel in Bristol's Harbourside, it wisely avoids vying for attention with the array of egregious bars that clutter much of the area. To use an expression for which I have an irrationally strong dislike, the Olive Shed is 'tucked away' on the far side of the Harbourside allowing it to benefit from the views yet affording sufficient independence to create its own ambiance. This is in itself a task which would make most establishments baulk, in spite of the truism that in good restaurants you only notice atmosphere when it is not there. At least if you bother to comment on it your conversation has run dry and you won't be making it to the second date.

The place has accrued a strong reputation which has imbued a palpable sense of confidence. Perhaps too much so, but it works. Intentionally or not, this contrives to create (imitate) the Mediterranean atmosphere that it craves and comes as close to achieving this as will ever occur in the West Country.

When I say craving I do not seek to be facetious, the decor, tables and the rest are all trying hard to support the theme. The menu is Spanish-led Mediterranean fare that should take more risks and not charge £3.25 for a slice of tortilla.

Cutting the preamble, my starter was disappointing. I could bemoan the lack of salmon - despite it being theoretically the primary ingredient, equally I might lament the desperately bland prawns. But if I did then there would be the opportunity cost of underlining the lack of seasoning and absence of sauce or dressing. Let me say this: some cheeky bugger went to Sainsbury's, not Asda, having seen a picture of a similar dish in a Jamie Oliver publication and unceremoniously attempted to recreate it.

On the other side of the table a stuffed aubergine disappeared without a word of complaint, nor an utterance of praise mind. I had indulged in ordering some albondigas alongside the starters, my personal barometer of a Spanish restaurant. Hunger forced me to devour the lot, which belied their inanity - oh and the sauce was warmed-up tomato passata.

Preconceptions blight any one's first time at any restaurant, formed perhaps as they approach on the street or by a review read five years previously. Mine derived from the former and truth be told I was encouraged, a positive vibe tickled my exposed ankles as I breezed in. The last of this positive vibe had all but been dissipated by my starter and my good will was looking for something more malicious to morph into.

And lo, redemption arrived. I had elected to have the steak special (accompanied by hand-made chips) for my main, the plate contained no more or less than it had promised. The meat in the centre was coated in a discomforting brown sauce which emitted a hint of mushroom.

Brilliant. Simply it was. As a proudly carnivorous type who rarely (or should that be medium-rarely?) passes up the chance to eat steak I have thrown a considerable amount of it down me and frankly I have become too accustomed to mediocre steaks. In this instance the cut, the cooking and the splendrous sauce...so scarcely has a steak dish excited me so.

The minimalist approach to garnish was also a feature of the trout which arrived opposite me. Presentation is lacking here, but I suspect that in order to achieve the rustic look so yearned for, the underwhelming aesthetics are not un-intentional.

That said there was nothing rustic about the prices, which were distinctly urban. Service scored well on effort; the sole waitress was intermittently joined by a confused hippie who turned out to be a paranoid waiter, whom I intend to include in a script when I get around to writing sitcoms.

Stylish, relaxed although some the ingredients and staff need to be better sourced. The Olive Shed has much high praise lavished on it, so it will survive if I reserve mine.

2.5 meatballs out of 5

The Olive Shed, Princes Wharf, Bristol, BS1 4Rn


Allow me to make a confession; perhaps I am in the majority on this one. The past eighteen months have induced a lot of misery and hardship for many, yet the economic clouds have a silver lining of sorts.

I doubt I am alone in heralding the shelter of moderated dining. Let’s be clear, haute cuisine is to be revered and respected and its status maintained, but if this is to happen then save such meals for dinner or ‘all-day’ lunches.
At lunchtime restraint is tough on the part of the restaurateur, the truth is many people – in particular those who need to be productive in the afternoon – do not want an involuntary lesson in advanced French gastronomic vocabulary or Japanese-Iranian fusion cooking.

In happier times lunchtime at Fino’s would require a reservation, not so now. Prime location for the property industry will ensure that half of its tables are occupied, but that still means that the other half aren’t. The staff do not laze about twiddling their thumbs, they fill up two-third full water glasses to appear busy. The ringmaster is the old man himself, credit to him, his style is undeniable, our being deeply immersed in conversation he swaggers up to the table (in thick Southern Italian accent) “I know you’re busy talking but...” apparently he cares.

Starters arrived promptly, which does tend to make me wonder. The prawns were tasty, I think, they had been drowned (not easy to do to a prawn) in a sauce that smacked of eighties prawn cocktail sauce. Yes the accompanying salad was aesthetically pleasing, and yes the texture of the prawns was excellent, but hang on, I have been duped into eating the world most cringingly clichéd starter. Bastards.

As I steamed with indignation I scrubbed my palate and alleviated the trauma with a glass of red that was rather pleasant which belied its modest price. I was left alone for a minute and considered the menu; pedestrian if the truth be told, solid staples were there, but nothing new, perhaps an indictment on the patrons from the nearby offices.

Mains stuck to the straight and narrow, I succumbed to an ‘old favourite’ of mine which is childishly memory evoking. You go through life scorning those older than you for being sentimental and then you catch yourself acting in the same fashion, devastating really. Milanese con Spaghetti did for me, it satisfied me in the way that it should. Not enough veal, greasy crumbs served with over cooked pasta in a bland sauce, just the way I remembered it and I dare to say it should be. Across the table arrived a Rib-eye steak - my favourite cut which I impressed myself by resisting - in my attempts to glean an appraisal I was offered a few non-committal adjectives. To the eye it appeared dry, but no such comment was passed, both mains induced the interplay of quality and quantity to flicker in my mind but nothing pithy materialized.

The ringmaster interpreted two clean plates as being indicative of two contented punters, he was close enough.
He had orchestrated the whole thing. The smells maraud, serving to aggravate appetites; the barmen are unusually old for this country, the rustic décor combine to entice and sooth simultaneously.
Moderate in almost every respect, just what I would want for lunch.

3.5 prawns out of 5

Fino's, Mount Street, SW1