Review: Xu, London

Xu bar

Xu bar

It’s interesting when the major critics disagree over a new restaurant. When they all agree a place is splendid, it’s safe to say that it’s probably splendid. When they all agree a place is dire, it’s probably better to dine elsewhere. But when a couple of them sing high praises and the others damn with faint praise, who do you trust? It’s easy to shrug this off as “just different tastes”, but I’m not so sure. My hunch is that the whole experience of the evening – even for a professional reviewer – is going to have a much bigger influence than their personal preference for sous vide over deep fried. Did they turn up with high expectations or none? Were they having a great day or was it a crappy one? Was the service effortless or were there irritations?

An interesting question (that I am too lazy to research): where the major critics disagree over a restaurant, is the eventual public consensus usually on the side of the ones who loved it or the ones who loathed it? Is there a pattern?

Dramatic cuttlefish toast

Dramatic cuttlefish toast

Xu, a Taiwanese restaurant with evocative 1930’s post-colonial styling, seems to have divided opinions; it’s either a great and unique addition to the London dining scene, or a good idea not executed very well. Luckily I am here to split the difference!

The interior is great, full of atmosphere without straying into pastiche. There are nice touches like a dedicated tea bar downstairs to match the more obvious cocktail bar upstairs, and some mah-jong rooms hidden in the back for private dining. We had a mixture of service, some very friendly and helpful, others a little hesitant; perhaps just a reminder that Xu has only been open for a couple of months, and has a fairly complex menu. Anyway, it’s a million miles from the “what you want? Just tell me number” service you get at more basic Chinese places.

The menu also fits on one page. We kicked off with a mixture of starters. A neat bowl of diced smoked eel and fresh cherry tomato, dressed with a spicy oil and topped with crunchy dried daikon was very delicious, perhaps the best tomatoes I’ve enjoyed all summer. Dramatically black cuttlefish toast with smoked cod roe was a tasty riff on good ol’ prawn toast. My favourite starter was a dish of fried sweetbread with pickled greens in a curried gravy; I didn’t manage to pick out the individual spices, it was simply an excellent sauce to bring together and balance the soft pieces of sweetbread and the slightly mustard-y pickles. Chilled slices of beef tendon terrine was probably my second-favourite, very delicate and very savoury.

Tomato and eel

Tomato and eel

There were some spiffy main courses to follow. My seabass lurked under a daunting looking relish of bright red and bright green chillies, but although packing some heat it wasn’t as eye-watering as it appeared. The fish beneath was neatly cooked, the fish bone sauce giving the whole dish some depth of flavour. Another main of beef slices in black pepper sauce with a fried egg was most epic for the stunning heart-warming splendour of the honey black pepper sauce, though the thin slices of rare beef couldn’t be faulted. And a fried egg. Those Taiwanese, eh! Vanessa’s piece of Char Sui Iberico Pork was a good piece of barbecued meat, but being described as “in char sui” it was a bit disappointing to find it dry. Loved the sturdy sticks of black barbecued cucumber scattered with sesame seed that it was served on. We tried two or three different rices to accompany, the lard rice was good, the congee was a bit disappointing; less rice porridge and more rice soup.

Xu is well worth your time and money, it’s a great slice of an unusual cuisine, generally very well executed with some stand-out flavours. You can put together quite a feast for around £34 each, and we found some interesting and high quality wines on the menu. It certainly goes on my list of “useful places to know when I’m down London way.”

Beef tendon terrine

Beef tendon terrine

Review: Bulrush, Bristol

Bulrush

Bulrush

Oh wow, I love Bulrush. You’ll love it to, I suspect. This is top-notch fine dining at a knockdown price, and if I lived in Bristol I’d be here every month. Like a lot of the best things in Bristol, it’s tucked away down a side street in a one of the little residential districts surrounding the city, in an odd-shaped building at the end of a row of shops that they’ve managed to magically squish a bunch of tables into. Artfully, too, with a nicely relaxed boho style that made me feel instantly chilled out and well-disposed to my lunch. The service was friendly and helpful.

Turnip & peas

Turnip & peas

We began with a tempura’d beignet of tofu, a blog of very miso-laden mayonaise on top. Such a hit of umami, perfect way to get the juices flowing. More nifty starters followed, including a brightly brassic broccoli mousse. There was a snug little pottery bowl containing a dollop of Montgomery cheddar custard with heritage carrot. The custard had a great texture, thick and sturdy like a… like a… y’know, I’m not sure it had any obvious likeness! But it was tangy and delicious.

I was particularly smitten by a palate-cleansing starter of wobbly white dill junket, served with tiny fresh green peas and a turnip granita. Yeah! Turnip sorbet! The snarky turnip flavour was pronounced and paired beautifully with the peas and dill.

Crab & peach

Crab & peach

Two seafood dishes followed, and it’s worth noting here (in case my photos, as ever, don’t quite do justice) that all the plating at Bulrush is absolutely picture-perfect and makes you smile before you ever stick your fork in. They’ve won before you’ve even tasted the food! Anyway, the blowtorched sliver of otherwise raw sole, served with fresh almond mousse, pickled grapes and a bright gazpacho was bliss; light Spanish summer flavours, the whole combo ending up like the best possible salmorejo. And then the picked crab with pickled peach and Japanese mooli was even better, given plenty of oomph by a foam of the brown crab meat, and of course the silly grin factor of combining crab + peach + radish.

The lamb main was basically a classic, with charred baby gem and generous dollops of a deeply funky anchovy sauce.

Lamb

Lamb

Leaving us with pud. The first pud was a beauty, a big boob of pine mousse hiding a lovely sharp/sweet lemon sorbet and then a crunchy almond frangipane in the base. The pine flavour (which I love) took front and centre. The second pud was the only “meh” dish for me from the whole menu. Rosemary meringue was very jolly, apricot stone ice cream was a pretty modest but pleasant flavour. But the BBQ apricots that were meant to star were really just too austere, almost as chewy as dried fruit from their cooking and only having the bitter side of the apricot flavour spectrum to offer. Oddly enough, if this dish included a few cubes of nicely BBQ’d lamb it might have been a thumping good main! Maybe.

Anyway, who cares? This was an absolutely spiffing meal, and at £48 each for this tasting lunch it’s frankly brilliant value. The Bulrush deserves to do extremely well and I’m going to find more excuses to visit Bristol now so that I can go again. You should too.

Seared sole

Seared sole

Review: My Sichuan, Oxford

My Sichuan, Oxford

My Sichuan, Oxford

Oxford seems to have a thing for good, cheap oriental dining. All of the big London critics have snuck out to academia and waxed lyrical about Zheng, SoJo, Oli’s Thai and My Sichuan. So what better to sandwich in between the sketches of Raphael at the Ashmolean and a film at the indie Ultimate Picture House than a bite to eat at My Sichuan?

It’s great venue, an old school house of Oxford stone with little original features like the stained glass windows depicting nursery rhyme scenes. The dining room details – furnishing, crockery, service – are absolutely straight out of every other basic Chinese restaurant you’ve ever been to; basic seating, chipped teapots, and staff who can only get your order right if you point to it on the menu. But that’s all to the good, who rates style over substance anyway?

Duck tongues

Duck tongues

Okay, so then I skipped past all the probably amazing slow-roasted lamb dishes and picked a dish described as “black pudding with vegetables in chillies”. And because of some very fond memories of a Sichuan restaurant in Birmingham, I chose duck tongues in spicy sauce for a second dish. To balance, we also went for aubergine in spice and Chinese spinach with garlic. And rice, of course.

The duck tongues weren’t as good as the ones I enjoyed in Brum. There was an ambiguously fragrant flavour, the yielding little bits of meat were fine, but the overall experience was of oil. And really that was the overall experience of the whole meal. The Chinese spinach with garlic I really rather likes. The aubergine pieces were both sweet and spicy, but became a struggle as my throat kept telling me just how much oil they had soaked into them.

Black pudding?!

Black pudding?!

The black pudding dish was oddest of all. And here I can’t really cry foul; no doubt this is exactly what a Sichuan native would expect, it just rather threw me. The black pudding was indeed black, but it had the texture of fresh tofu and no discernable flavour at all. Disappointing. The dish (a huge bowl, really a tiny swimming pool) also contained a number of pieces of… well… spam. Yeah, pretty certain it was spam. The final meaty components were some long and convoluted pieces of peppery and flavoursome tripe. And these were, I must say, reeeeeeally good. Underneath all the protien lurked a whole bag of beansprouts – the “vegetables” of the description. And the broth this all swam in was generically spicy and, you guessed it, fairly oily.

I mean, you can’t fault My Sichuan for a menu laden with authentic offal-heavy oddities. I’ve never been to China, but I can imagine diving into a cheap Sichuan restaurant in a big city I’d probably find something similar. And if all the reviews from the big London papers are true, it sounds like we really missed out by skipping their more familiar slow-roast meats (and I’d be willing to go back and give it another try). But please don’t go expecting something modern, thoughtful or balanced – My Sichuan is Chinese, old school.

Review: The Chagford Inn, Chagford

Trotter on toast

Trotter on toast

I’m a sucker for anything a bit different. At The Chagford Inn they do nose-to-tail proper country style. They source a Dexter ox from a farmer a mile down the road, and then they take about ten days to work through him from nose-to-tail, changing their menu as they go along. Tonight they had heart on, as well as tail, liver, rump, and fillet. I’m sold.

Chagford is packed with pubs, inns and restaurants offering good-looking menus. Ridiculously so for a tiny Dartmoor town, but then it is next door to Gidleigh Park and also bucolic as heck. The Chagford Inn is a cosy and relaxed place, still looks like a pub though obviously the food is probably the main part of what they do. Service was great and they’ve got a great list of wines by the glass. So… food!

I went for pigs trotters and prunes on toast to start. The mixture of funky, gunky trotter chopped up with sweetly dark prune and diced veg was a really top combo for dedicated adherents to the cult of St John. I loved it. On the other hand, the toast beneath had quickly become soft and squodgy. Fried bread might have stood up better. Who cares, lovely dish.

Have a heart!

Have a heart!

Maureen’s starter of salt cod brandade with arancini and gazpacho was just perfect for the summer, bright flavours and a great clash of textures between the crunch of the tiny arancini and the smooth creamy brandade. Honestly, hardly very Devonian or beefy though!

So she followed it with sliced beef heart, white anchovies and aioli. That was as good as it sounds, the seared beef heart full of flavour and a really toothy bite without being at all chewy. My dish was a strange fellow; ox liver with baked goat cheese and figs. This came with batons and finely chopped courgette and tomato, and they did make rather odd bedfellows for the fresh fig. To be honest, so did the liver. Lovely piece of liver though, well cooked and great to devour. I’ll even buy the goat cheese with it. The fruit n veg were just too wimpy for the powerful offal.

Too stuffed for pud, we wandered out happy with our dinner. Three courses would be around £32 per head, and I’m gonna say that’s about right. It’s a menu with bags of originality, even if not every dish was faultless. And in particular if you like your nose-to-tail eating then this has to be a destination for anyone visiting Devon!

Liver n cheese

Liver n cheese

Review: The Woodspeen, Newbury

My dining buddy

My dining buddy

I never thought I’d actually live the cliche: “waiter, there’s a slug on my lettuce!” And to be fair, it was actually on the leaves of the baby radish that we had to nibble with our bread, so not actually lettuce. And it was a tiny slug, though very much alive. I did call the waiter over, and told him that the little guy would probably be happier back in the garden. He took the radish stalk off to show to one of his colleagues and then my slug friend disappeared and was never mentioned again.

If I’m gonna be honest, I was kinda expecting an apology or some kind of acknowledgment. The Woodspeen boasts a Michelin star, after all, and I can’t picture the Michelin inspector handing out stars if he got an unwanted gastropod on his plate. Seriously, if a guest finds something like that, even if they don’t make a fuss about it some reassurance would be nice. You can bet my parents and Maureen checked every bit of salad and garnish on every dish for the rest of the meal!

So what else can I tell you about The Woodspeen?

Lobster platter

Lobster platter

Well, it’s a big, bright dining room in a lovely country setting, wood decor, comfortably modern furnishing and a fine big open kitchen. Service was friendly and refined, though there were a couple of minor hiccups (e.g. being served our starters before we’d ordered wine). The wine list was good, plenty of variety and a friendly range of prices.

My starter was a black pudding terrine, with a large square of dense belly pork in the centre and chewy pieces of dried apple embedded in the black pud. It came with dressed leaves and some very good little sweet/sour gooseberries. Also with some strips of crackling that didn’t – they were chewy. Overall, unamazing. Maureen’s mackerel starter was much better by comparison, the mackerel really smokey from its grilling, the pickled veg accompaniments and dollops of guacamole making an effective combo.

Veal and sweetbread

Veal and sweetbread

For main I picked veal. Juicy and well-cooked slices, a deeply flavoured jus, and a very neat accompaniment of spicy date puree. There were more good bits to pick at too. A lovely piece of battered sweetbread with a super herby flavour. Skinny little whole roasted carrots. And a slippery little charred onion sitting on top of a wafer-thin disc of pastry (called an “onion tart” on the menu – hopefully not with a straight face). Really solid dish overall. Maureen shared a lobster dish for two with my brother, and really it was a bit of an oddity. The main event was a lobster gratin with a barbecued lobster claw. Served with a salad of heritage tomatoes, crab and burrata. Served with big triple-cooked chips in a chip-shop paper cone. Burrata and chips? Burrata and lobster, for that matter? I just couldn’t see this as anything but three unrelated elements, and reports from over the table agreed.

Homemade cheeses

Homemade cheeses

Puds. Well, I went with cheese because two of the cheeses were homemade. Mmm… really delighted by the beetroot-washed goat cheese, it had an unashamedly pungent goaty flavour and the colour is unique. Their sharp blue had a strong tang, jolly good, and they picked a real quality gruyere to finish the trio. Crispy flatbread, lush pickle, I was happy. Maureen’s strawberry brulee was also good, though it is truly monstrous to deconstruct a brulee and deny your guests the privilege of cracking the crispy top!

So there we go. It was a 50/50 meal – half the dishes really jolly good, the other half not so great. You’ll be looking at £45 for three courses, and at that price I’d have probably wanted everything a notch better. Of course, I have to face the possibility that finding Mr Slug set the tone for the evening, but then if you don’t handle something like that well you’ve got to expect it to dent your guest’s enjoyment.

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