Friday, 30 May 2014

Lyle's - London

Contained within a note on my phone is an ever expanding list of restaurants I want to eat at. The majority of them in London. So every time I’m back in the capital, even if I’m just passing through, I always hit somewhere new for lunch or dinner or sometimes both, often with some grazing in-between. Don’t be shocked. I think it’s been well established over the years what a spectacularly greedy bastard I am.

As I was back in London last week, for the first time in frigging ages. I decided to have lunch at Lyle’s in Shoreditch. Running the kitchen is Chef James Lowe. Formerly of the Young Turks; a trio of chefs, who, after impressing London collaboratively a few years back, have all gone on to rather awesome things. Upstairs at the Ten Bells and The Clove Club to name but two. Seeing as I absolutely bloody love both of these, my expectations were pretty high.

But first, the simple task of actually finding the restaurant. I’m a pretty punctual guy, I arrived in Shoreditch with plenty of time to spare. I was looking hip and feeling rather louche, as befits the general vibe of the area. The map application on my phone was telling me that Lyle’s was just there, but could I bloody see it? Pizza East, yes. Hipster central, Shoreditch House, yeah, restaurant I have a lunch reservation at? No. I walked up and down the street, increasingly confused and flustered, whilst my own wafer thin veneer of hip was seemingly melting away like a badly applied coat of cheap spray tan.

In the end, I walked into a warehouse office space and asked the receptionist if she knew where Lyle’s was. Barely containing the urge to pull an imbecilic ‘Duh’ expression at me, she simply pointed behind me and to the left. I’d walked straight past it.

On time, just and presenting myself at the front desk of Lyle’s, I was again thrown out of kilter by the aloof manner of the girl manning the reservation laptop. I know it’s cool Shoreditch, dahling and it’s the latest shit-hot restaurant and all that, but would it have killed her to crack a smile and try and appear friendly? Surely it’s a prerequisite of meeting and greeting to flash those pearly whites and actually make the customer feel, I don’t know….welcome?

Ignoring the bad start and determined to enjoy my lunch, I was shown to my table and immediately things improved. My waiter was friendly, cheerful, professional and knowledgeable as he talked me through the menu. Aaaaand relax.

The restaurant space itself feels very large, light and airy as you’d expect from a former tea warehouse, it actually reminds me of the industrial type space you initially walk into at St John in Clerkenwell, which strangely brings me onto the food.

James Lowe has previously worked at St John and it shows.  Something of the Fergus Henderson’s influence is seemingly ingrained in every chef who has worked in one of his kitchens. The menu, the ingredients, the plating style, the look of the restaurant, you can just see it and it’s a very good thing. I say this because I ate at new Bristol restaurant, Birch a few days previous to this, and the chef, Sam Leach is formerly of the St John Hotel, his menu, his food, the ingredients that he’s using and even the Spartan look of his restaurant are in some ways similar to Lyle’s, which in turn is somehow reminiscent of St John.   
Given that connection, as you’d expect, the menu at Lyles is very British and extremely seasonal. I wanted to order the whole frigging lot from the selection of small plates, but restrained myself to just two.
Asparagus and walnut mayonnaise, very simple but beautifully done. I absolutely love asparagus and can’t get enough when it’s in season, but I really ordered this because I was intrigued by the pairing with a walnut mayonnaise, something which is entirely new to me. It was delicious and worked really well.
The highlight of my lunch and another early contender for the best thing I’ve put in my mouth all year (snigger), Lamb’s sweetbreads, ramson and lettuce. Beautiful to look at, incredible to eat. This was by far the best plate of sweetbreads I ever eaten, anywhere. They were massive, cooked just right and tasted superb with the wild garlic and lettuce. Truly lovely.
Resisting the urge to order another plate of sweetbreads, I continued stuffing myself with meat, moving onto a full sized plate of food. Saddleback, land cress and anchovy. Very simple and St John’esque in appearance. A beautifully cooked piece of pork, paired unusually with an intense anchovy sauce. It was delicious.
At this point, I should mention the excellent bread and butter seeing as I wolfed down two plates of it and while I’m at it, I should also mention the wine, recommended to me by one of the Lyle’s sommelier’s via Twitter (she wasn’t working the lunch shift), Cotes du Jura ‘La Pierre’, 2011, Les Granges de Quatre Sous. It was totally banging. Superb at £7 a glass.
Finally, dessert. Having eaten a rather nice treacle tart at ‘Birch’ a couple of days before, I decided to forgo that option on the menu (those similarities again) Instead I went for Rhubarb and Custard. Consisting of a cold, whipped custard heaped on top of beautiful rhubarb, lightly poached and a quenelle of rhubarb sorbet. It was cracking.

So, I loved Lyle’s. Ignoring the initial rather brusque greeting, I thought the service fantastic and the food beautiful in it’s simplicity. Similar to the grub at St John, but pimped. The lamb sweetbread dish was one of the best things I've ever eaten and I harbour some disappointment that I didn’t manage to eat my way through the entire menu. All in all, I had a stonking lunch. I’ll definitely be going back for more.

Tea Building
56 Shoreditch High Street
E1 6JJ

Telephone: 0203 011 5911

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Birch - Bristol

I first met Sam and Becky not long after I moved to Bristol. I’d gone along to their supper club and was so taken with what they were doing, it actually inspired me and my ex-partner, Elly to start our own supper club, The Basement, which we ran for two years. 

Apart from Sam and Becky’s food, which was excellent, what impressed me most whenever I talked to them was their almost single-minded dedication to someday owning and running their own restaurant. They obviously really wanted it.  

Determined to learn as much as they could, and make it happen, Sam did some training as a butcher and then as a baker, before undertaking a career as a chef whilst Becky worked as a waitress in a couple of cracking Bristol restaurants, Culinaria and Flinty Red.  A couple of years ago, they both moved to London and worked in some seriously good places, Sam at the St John Hotel and 40 Maltby Street, Becky at Hawksmoor and the Quality Chop House, before recently moving back to Bristol, having learnt loads and still determined to open their own place.

I ran into Sam a few months back and he told me he’d found a site, South of the river, over near the Tobacco Factory and that he and Becky were doing the majority of the building work and fitting out themselves.

That was then, this is now and wouldn't you know, all that work and determination has finally paid off.  Sam and Becky opened their own restaurant, Birch last week and I'm seriously frigging delighted to say that it’s superb.

I wouldn't normally write a review based on a soft opening, it’s not really fair on the restaurant to judge them while they’re ironing out a myriad of unforeseen opening weekend problems, but the crew at Birch absolutely nailed it, hit the ground running and didn't put a foot wrong, so here it is.

Located on the corner of Rayleigh and Birch Roads (hence the name) and just down the street from The Tobacco Factory, it’s a little off the beaten track. It’s a real neighbourhood restaurant location, but is so bloody good it should be drawing people in from all over the city and beyond.

The interior is very plain, very white, with a small bar at the back and 50’s style Formica topped tables. Massive windows on both sides of the dining room, flood the space with light. It all feels a bit Scandinavia via Hackney, which is no bad thing.

The menu however is rooted very much in Britain with excellent local, seasonal produce featuring heavily. Except that Sam and Becky have taken it a step further and have secured an allotment space where they’re growing their own fruit and vegetables for the restaurant.

The food itself is, unsurprisingly given Sam’s background, very much recognisable in the style of St John. Fergus Henderson’s very British, unfussy manner rubs off heavily on anyone who has served time in one of his kitchens (I ate at Lyle’s in Shoreditch a couple of days later and the influence is obvious there too). However, Sam’s food is much less Spartan with more of a flourish and I like that. The food at St John is undoubtedly excellent but can be pretty uncompromising to look at.        
With a trio of nibbles, three starters, three mains, a small selection of ices, puddings and a local cheese, the menu is perfectly formed, short and concise.
Kicking the meal off with a bone dry Manzanilla sherry I picked at an assortment of snacks, excellent anchovy biscuits which were deliciously salty with just a subtle fishy hit on the finish. Fresh radishes with a herb mayonnaise, a particular favourite of mine and devilled almonds, perfectly complimenting the sherry although I reckoned these needed a bit more of a pokey chilli whack. 
I have to mention the bread and the butter, both made by Sam at the restaurant and both bloody lovely. 
A starter of duck and pork pie, chicory, hazelnut and mustard salad however was absolutely faultless. Perfect pastry, encasing quivering redcurrant jelly surrounding an offal tinged slab of duck and pork. Holy Moly, it was seriously good.

My mate, Jemma meanwhile was scoffing a plate of asparagus, hot butter and crumbs, which by all accounts was every bit as good as it sounds. I didn't get a picture, you’ll just have to imagine what that looked like.
At the end of the year, when I'm mulling over meals past, I strongly suspect that my next course of roast hogget leg, mash, chard and anchovy sauce will easily rank up there as one of the best things I ate all year. The lamb was so beautifully cooked, solid slabs of dusky pink meat surrounded by a dark burnished crust, I was certain it must have been cooked sous-vide (I was wrong, it was roasted in a low oven). Combined with the umami punch of the anchovy sauce, perfect mash (I'm a mash fiend, believe me when I say it was perfect) and colourful buttery chard, the whole thing was pretty near as dammit perfect as its possible to be and absolutely beautiful to look at.
Across the table, Jemma was feeling similarly emosh about her plate of hake, brown crab, Cornish new potatoes and spring onions. I cadged a sneaky forkful and yep, it was as lovely as it looked.

On a roll and taking no prisoners, I demolished a scoop of marmalade and whisky ice cream, which had a suitably satisfying whack of both ingredients. Lovely.
I then moved onto a rather nice treacle tart with clotted cream before finishing off with a plate of Bath Soft cheese and crackers whilst my friend Jemma looked on aghast at the gout taunting gluttonous display of excess, playing out opposite.

When people ask where they should eat in Bristol, there’s just three places I always recommend. My personal favourites, Bell’s Diner, Wallfish and Flinty Red. After this meal, I'm going to add a fourth, Birch. 

It’s that good. 

Sam is a superb chef, he obviously adores what he’s doing, his food is frigging excellent, both he and Becky have worked really hard to achieve their dream and that passion, that drive and that love for what they’re doing shines through.

Go and enjoy it.

47 Raleigh Road, 

Telephone: 01179 028 326