Review: St Clair, Clapham

Ceviche

Ceviche

St Clair is an interesting new opening in Clapham. From the outside it’s looking like a refined French fish restaurant, with dark blue walls, marble tables, comfortable chairs and a wet fish counter at the front. But the sign on the window says it’s a cevicheria, the dishes on the menu stir in some Brazilian names, and a lot of the ingredients are straight from Japan. This is Nikkei cuisine and these are all things that I like though, so let’s see…

Okay, service is a little shambolic. Maureen’s main arrives (with apologies) when the rest of us have almost finished ours, and they also manage one wrong dessert (but they leave this for us to enjoy as a freebie and replace it in a few minutes). They’ve not even been open two months, and as I’ve said before: I’m much more interested in how a place reacts to cock-ups and complaints. They react generously and helpfully.

Tataki

Tataki

Starters are all colourful and exciting to look at. Crab salad looks stunning, and the causa-like beetroot coloured potato is a great base. Flavours of watermelon jelly and tiny green tobiko give the dish some pep, as does the wafer-thin and ozone-y seaweed cracker. There’s a lovely tuna tataki as well, generous slices of very good fish and a really splendid addition of fermented physalis. My only quibble: these are meant to be sharing plates, so what use is one physalis?

The St Clair ceviche is a thing of joy. Really great, sharp, fierce and yet creamy tiger’s milk, beautiful pieces of fish and good accompaniments of big corn and sweet potato. The only disappointing starter is the mackerelmole, which I’d be perfectly happy with for lunch at the office, but if it’s any more complicated than guacamole and smoked mackerel mashed together then it doesn’t reveal it.

Mains are good. My bavette is cooked sous vide and then seared, which in this case produces a perfectly toothsome piece of flavourful beef for a charming £14. That’s using the right technique to good effect in my book. Mash, gravy, pan gratata and vivid little piquillo peppers are all spot on. On the other hand, I can’t stop myself stealing spoonfuls of moqueca from the dish next door. The sauce is packed with all the flavours of salty seafood and earthy palm kernel oil I remember from Brazil, but it’s also satin smooth with sheen of sheer luxury. Maureen’s duck is excellent too, though jolly big.

Crab and potato cake

Crab and potato cake

Mochi ice creams are an easy pud for some of us, and I’m in love with the yuzu flavour. The mistaken pud was a roasted plantain with dulce de leche ice cream. The caramelised plantain had an interesting almost leathery flavour, but the ice cream was oddly unindulgent for dulce de leche. The final pud was a mont blanc, in name at least. It was actually a lovely concoction of broken-up soft dark chocolate cake, clementine, delicate sake cream and exceedingly moreish salt chocolate brittle. I just couldn’t connect it to the name.

Coming in around £45 each before drinks for three courses (plus, really, more side dishes than we needed) I’d say the price is on the high side but not excessively. There’s top-notch inventive Nikkei cooking here. There were a couple of less successful dishes and a couple of service hiccups, but I’m hoping that will polish out when they’ve been open for a bit longer. Great to have this just down the road.

Octopus

Octopus

Review: Darjeeling Express, Soho

Darjeeling Express

Darjeeling Express

We’ve been eating a lot of good South Asian food recently. From Dastaan to Trishna via Paradise and the Chilli Pickle, and now we’re on the Darjeeling Express. Which was my favourite? That’s very tough. Each had at least one dish that was an absolutely knock-out spectacular feast of spice and flavour, and each had at least one dish that was just jolly good. Quite brilliantly, none of these five meals had a single duff dish. South Asian food in the UK is absolutely epic right now.

Darjeeling Express is upstairs at Kingly Court. It’s a casual space with tables for two nuzzled together cheek-by-jowl. We got in at 6pm and it was lovely, but by the time 7:30pm rolled around YOU VERY MUCH. HAD TO SHOUT. AT EACH OTHER. TO BE HEARD. So it’s all very delicious and friendly, but not the venue for a leisurely romantic dinner.

Mutton kebabs

Mutton kebabs

The putchkas we started with (pani puri elsewhere, unless an expert can explain to me the subtle difference?) were excellent. The tamarind water was clean, deep flavoured and nicely fierce. The shells crisp, the filling earthy. The two mutton kebabs that followed were absolute bliss. Soft but extremely full-flavoured mutton mince, given a massive hit of smoky pungency with the generous use of black cardamoms. The yogurt and mint filling cut this nicely, as did the sweet chutney.

Oh… big shout-out to the Darjeeling Express puri! Huge puffy balloons that collapse into the most delicate and delicious flaky bread. It’s just the perfect spoon for shovelling delicious curries into your mouth.

Puff puri

Puff puri

Even bigger shout-out to the maddest dish! Mirchi ka Salaan is, quite literally, curried chilli peppers. Adding chillies to a curry, sure, we’re all familiar with that. But this is a dish of chillies, curried! Bonkers! And delicious. It kinda defies description, except to say that it was surprisingly easy to eat… and yet after a few forkfuls… it felt as though someone deep inside me was just slowly dialling up my body’s thermometer from “comfy” to “hothotHOT!”

There was also a goat curry, with some very sturdy pieces of excellent goat meat in a dry sauce. A sweet aubergine curry with a lot of peanut in the sauce; splendid, with a much more south-east Asian feel to it. And a dal… blissful… with a great grunt of earthen flavour, quite possibly the most flavoursome dal I’ve ever had.

So we loved our dinner at Darjeeling Express, in spite of the noise level. Food will be around £30 each. Their cocktails are good, their masala chai has a really big kick of spice, and their lassis aren’t bad. If it wasn’t necessary to book 3 months in advance for a table, I’d definitely be back!

Crazy chilli curry

Crazy chilli curry

Review: Trishna, Marylebone

Broccoli glory

Broccoli glory

You know, it’s possible I’m running out of things to say. The last few reviews have been hard to write. It’s very easy to dive straight into what a nice dining room it was, what we had for starter, main, dessert, and then a summary. But that’s not satisfying (to write or to read!). Anything worth reading has to have a story, even a review. There needs to be a hook, a theme, a narrative, whatever. Anything really, just not a straight description of what the place looked like and what you ate. Unless you can make it bloody hilarious. I’m not that funny.

Maybe I should just talk about anything that bugged me recently? Like, getting a bite to eat on the South Bank before a show. Crazy. 6:15 in the evening. Honest Burger: 30 minute wait. Ping Pong: 20 minute wait. Brasserie bloody Blanc: 25 minute wait. Pizza f*cking Express for f*cks sake! Queuing for tables! It’s sad enough that there’s nowhere remotely inspiring to eat in what is blatantly a major entertainment district, it’s just hilarious that even the relentless chain restos there are all full to bursting at 6:15 of a Thursday evening.

We had some sad square slices of ham and mushroom pizza in the Royal Festival Hall cafe. They were pants.

Corn and coconut tikki

Corn and coconut tikki

Not Trishna, though. Trishna is still bloody brilliant. The dining room is a lovely den of a place in a Marylebone side street, with cosy booths and tables. They look after you very well and there’s a fun selection of classy tea-based cocktails to start you off. My Manhattan was fragranced with muscatel tea and quince syrup. Mmmm.

We start with veggies – a broccoli for me and sweetcorn for Maureen. No, but wait, these were awesome. My broccoli was impregnated with fully spicy/yogurty gunk and then roasted to a char-edged perfection of brassica-y goodness. The bright red hot/sour chutney paired with it beautifully, so did the golden flaked almonds. Maureen’s sweetcorn and coconut tikki was a delicious patty, crisp on the outside. We agreed that it probably could have benefitted from some kinda sauce or dip to balance the dry texture, but the taste was bright and spot-on.

Maureen plumped for a mutton biryani, which came full of superb biryani flavour but did rather need the pink peppercorn raita to balance the dryness again. I will confess we’ve had a couple of better biryanis recently. My lamb curry has a classic rich gravy, full of earthy spices without ever getting fierce. The accompaniments were great: mustardy potatoes and a warming lake of golden daal.

Ultimately this was “just” a very nice curry. But everything was cooked with finesse and love. No shortcuts here. My gulab lassi was absolutely made with genuine rose petals, as much as Maureen’s mango lassi was blended with real honey mangoes. And both of them tasted as fragrant as anything without being overly sweet. That’s where the Michelin star comes in. At lunch our two courses were £25 each before drinks, and we waddled out stuffed and happy. So that’s got to be good.

Maybe they could open another restaurant over in Waterloo?

Curry spread

Curry spread

Review: Brasserie Zedel, Soho

Zee garlic snails

Zee garlic snails

Everyone knows Brasserie Zedel, right? Everyone in London, anyway. This review is probably more useful to you rustic provincials. You know who you are. Folks for whom the centre of London is somewhere around Picadilly Circus or Leicester Square, because that’s where you invariably pop up out of the tube on those odd occasions when some special event draws you down to the city. Welcome! Welcome! I was a rustic provincial myself until last year. Now, let me tell you about the most reliable place for a great bite to eat.

Because Brasserie Zedel is quite literally spitting distance from Picadilly Circus. Easily missed as it’s not much more than a door at street level. From where you descend down a flight of stairs and emerge in some kind of subterranean timewarp fantasy where you have been whisked back to the Parisienne golden age of the early 20th century, with an American Bar for cocktails and then, through a pair of swinging doors, into the vast cathedral of the grand brasserie.

Zee vrai andouillette

Zee vrai andouillette

There is enough glass and gilt here to make Marie Antoinette blink. And it rattles to the buzz of a thousand or so people happily conversing and masticating at tables and on red velvet banquettes. And of course the food is pure unadulterated French and pinpoint accurate.

Have a plate of garlic snails to start with. Plenty of crusty bread to soak up all that garlic and parsley butter. Then if you are brave, move onto a fine big beige lumpen andouillette sausage. Sitting there on the plate, bathed in mustard sauce, leaking foul juices and reeking of offal. Er… am I tempting you? Trust me, it’s good. Just don’t expect to be kissing anyone for a day or two. If that’s too alarming, how about the rognons de veau? Veal kidneys to you. Cooked to iron-y perfection. And obviously if you don’t love offal then there’s beef bourguignon and steak and all the rest. After all that, it has to be Iles Flotante for pud.

You might pay £30 for three courses, so it’s no bargain basement bistro. But the surroundings are wonderful, the food is (whisper it) better than much you’ll find in France, and it couldn’t be more convenient for a night out at the theatre.

Zee Brasserie Zedel

Zee Brasserie Zedel

Review: Paradise, Soho

Paradise, Soho

Paradise, Soho

We are so ridiculously lucky in London. The entire world is presented to us on a plate. And the quality is often superb. Witness: Paradise, a new Sri Lankan place in Soho. By sheer coincidence we have just come back from two weeks in Sri Lanka. And although we didn’t relentlessly research and seek out the most authentic backwater foodie experiences in the country, we certainly made a solid attempt to eat local, listen for recommendations and avoid tourist traps. Nevertheless, Paradise served up better Sri Lankan food than anything we ate in Sri Lanka.

I said “better” rather than “more authentic”. Clearly the food you eat in a country is the authentic food of that country. The food at Paradise was just better. Cleaner, punchier flavours, better quality ingredients, more attention to detail. Obviously also five times more expensive than the same meal in Sri Lanka.

Splendid curry

Splendid curry

Anyway, I waffle. Paradise is a stylishly modern place with counter eating around the bar for couples and tables for quartets. It’s in the middle of Soho, so naturally the emphasis is on sitting you down, feeding you, watering you and getting you on your way. All with a smile and lots of passion for what they’re doing though.

Food! First up, mutton rolls. These were big, crispy rolls filled with softly spicy minced mutton. The brick red sauce of fermented chillies was just a fireworks party in the mouth. Then we move on to a charred pineapple salad, aubergine moju and pork cheek curry. Served with all the absolute Sri Lankan staples: hoppers, pol sambol, seeni sambol and pol roti.

Pol roti

Pol roti

The pork cheek curry was just beautiful silken lumps of meat in the most fire-cracker perfect curry gravy. Big, warm, earthy flavours overlaid with loads of bright lemongrass and good chilli heat. My favourite curry in a long while. The moju was great, all the sticky sweet/sour flavours I remember from Sri Lanka. The pineapple salad was a welcome juicy/fresh side plate, though I think they should have gone more nuts with the flame-grilling. Hoppers were quality, with crispy edges and a squidgy middle. Toasty pol roti with the softest texture.

Yep, I’m delighted with Paradise. The top-notch cardamom espresso martini might have helped. But this place is a blaze of Sri Lankan colour and destined to be one of my go-to spots in Soho. Dinner will probably be a tad under £30 before drinks.

Feast

Feast

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