Andy Hayler's Restaurant Guide - Food and Restaurant Critic
Welcome to food critic Andy Hayler’s restaurant reviews. My weekly blog covers my recent dining and restaurant news. Here you will find Independent reviews of restaurants and hotels from a professional food writer.
The standard of pizza in London has risen dramatically ever since Franco Manca in Brixton Market and Santa Maria in Ealing began to educate people regarding the joys of authentic Neapolitan pizza. Now there are many such places, and a good one is Farina in Notting Hill, which has as its chef the former pizzaiolo at Santa Maria. With a proper oven going up to 500C and carefully rested dough, the authentic chewy, elastic base of a Naples style pizza is carefully delivered.
Bistro Mirey is a restaurant in Fulham delivering French food with a Japanese twist (the chef is French, the co-owner Japanese). Sadly, although the menu was intriguing and the waiters were friendly, the actual food was inconsistent and poor in places. I am all for local independent restaurants, but they do actually need to deliver, not just write an interesting menu.
The Harwood Arms has been a favourite of mine ever since it opened, a superior gastropub with a particular emphasis on game, some of it shot in person in Berkshire by the co-owner. It has a new head chef but the transition has been smooth, and we had another excellent meal, including lovely sika deer and some of the gorgeous lemon curd doughnuts that they make particularly well here.
I have written many times about The Ritz, and over the last few years the cooking has just got better and better. The vast kitchen means that there are plenty of chefs to make time-consuming sauces, and its buying power means that it can get top ingredients, such as live langoustines. This last meal was exceptionally good, with star dishes including salt baked celeriac with veal jus and black truffles, and a particularly gorgeous pear dessert. It took an unconscionable amount of time for Michelin to give the Ritz its first star, and I hope that it will be quicker to receive the second star that it clearly deserves.
After my travels I have been catching up a little on the London dining scene. A hugely anticipated opening is Sabor, a tapas venture from chef Nieves Barragan Mohacho, who was formerly head chef of Barrafina. I went very soon after it opened, and perhaps there were some teething issues, but basically the meal was a real let down. There were some decent croquettas, and a pleasant red mullet with rice, but there were issues with several dishes, such as wildly over-seasoned pig trotters and some overcooked langoustines. It would be one thing is this was cheap and cheerful, but I paid £123 a head here with wine, and the prices here are distinctly ambitious, which brings into focus any mistakes.
Edera is a long-established Holland Park Italian, which served me a nice wild boar ragu with papardelle, a decent risotto and a rather good lemon tart. The only real negative was the remarkably gloomy waiting staff; perhaps they were having a bad day, but the only time I saw anyone smile was when a customer left the restaurant. The meal was fine but quite expensive, and I will be sticking to L’Amorosa if I want to eat an Italian meal in west London.
Zia Lucia is a pizzeria in north London that has recently opened a new branch in Brook Green. They offer four choices of base, the style of pizza not being either Neapolitan on Roman, but something in between. It was pleasant and had generous toppings though for me the pizza wasn’t up there with the real high end pizzerias of London. To their credit, they did make a very nice tiramisu.
Another simple local place is Tarantella in Acton, sister to my local Italian Tarantella in Chiswick. This branch is larger than the original and has a proper pizza oven. It seems best to stick to pizza based on the other dishes that we had, which were pretty ordinary, but the pizzas themselves were fine. This is not a destination restaurant, but it is cheap and a pleasant local place.
The final leg of our world tour was stopping off in Singapore for a few days before flying back to London. Singapore is a bustling, modern city that is unusually well organised in all sorts of ways, and is a very easy place to visit. If you do go there then there are a couple of unusual places to visit. One is the Gardens by The Bay complex, a very large area near Marina Bay Sands with several themed gardens and two huge biodomes, including the world’s largest greenhouse. These house a huge array of plants and trees from around the world, from ferns to baobab trees. There are also several artificial “supertrees” (pictured) that capture rainwater and have solar panels that help run the park sustainably. Another unusual activity in Singapore is the Night Zoo, where you can walk around the zoo in the evening, when most animals are more active than during the day.
On the dining front, I tried Joel Robuchon, the sole three star restaurant in the city. Tucked away in the basement of a casino resort hotel, the meal was expensive but actually very good, utilising high quality luxury ingredients and showing considerable skill. As well as more classical dishes, I was impressed by an artichoke amuse bouche, and wild mushroom cannelloni with the beef course.
The surprise package was Les Amis, a long established restaurant whose chef Sebastien Lepinoy has been heading up the kitchen for five years. A long time associate of Joel Robuchon dating back to the early days of Jamin in Paris, he is a classical chef by training and is unashamedly following this path here. There were several impressive dishes, and then the meal went into overdrive with three of the best desserts I have eaten for years. Although Michelin rate this as just two star level, this was a most impressive meal.
While in the city I also tried the flagship restaurant of Violet Oon, a cookbook writer and local celebrity chef, serving Nyonya cuisine, a fusion of Malay and Chinese cuisine with colonial culinary influences. Song of India is one of the very few Michelin starred Indian restaurants outside India, and shouldn't have that star: not by a long, long way. Shisen Hanten is a Chinese restaurant run by a Japanese chef, notionally serving Sichuan food, though the menu seemed mostly Cantonese to me. This was very pleasant, though Michelin's two star assessment of it is puzzling.
On the way back from New Zealand we stayed in Sydney for a few days. The culinary highlight was a meal at Sepia, one of the two restaurants in town with three hats in the Good Food Guide, the main local guide. This is a tasting menu only kind of place, with quite a bit of Japanese influence in the cooking. It was a quite a long evening but the service was excellent and the food was very good, excellent in patches. It was better than Quay, which I tried on my last visit here and is the other three hat restaurant in the city.
The other formal restaurant that we tried was Cirrus, a seafood restaurant that is one of the large clutch of 28 two hat restaurants in the city. This meal, by contrast was a major disappointment. The best dishes were merely pleasant, and we had to send a main course back; service was quite flaky too, and yet this was an expensive outing. Much better was Mr Wong, which served us some very enjoyable dim sum. We also enjoyed Golden Century, a less sophisticated Chinese seafood restaurant that is popular amongst chefs, and has a surprisngly good wine list.
Sydney is a fun city to visit, and we happened to be there on Australia Day, where they laid on a serious firework display in the harbour. Our next stop on the way back to London was Singapore, of which more next week.
New Zealand is slightly larger than the UK in terms of land area, yet its population of 4.7 million is smaller than Scotland. The largest city by a wide margin is Auckland, with a population of 1.4 million. This is in the North Island, which also has the capital Wellington, at the southern end of the North Island. The most spectacular scenery, made famous by the “Lord of the Rings” films and TV series like “Top of the Lake”, is mostly in the South Island, which you access by a three and a half hour ferry ride from Wellington to a little place called Picton. Near the southern tip of the south island is the city of Queenstown, from which you can reach the spectacular scenery of the little town of Glenorchy and, with a lengthier drive, the fjord area of Milford Sound, with beautiful waterfalls, peaks and wildlife including dolphins. The north island has the geothermal area of Rotorua and Taupo, as well as the Art Deco architecture of Napier, amongst other attractions. The countryside in the north island is reminiscent of England, with rolling farmland. The South Island feels more like Scotland or Norway, with its mountains and fjords, but with a milder climate and more exotic flora and fauna - you don't see too many palm trees or flightless birds in Scotland.
The South island is bisected by the Southern Alps, with the western coast boasting a series of nature reserves featuring sights such as the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers, and assorted beautiful beaches and seal colonies, such as that at Tauranga Bay. The west coast highway can be quite slow going and petrol statins are at a premium, but it has some spectacular scenery, with gorgeous forests, hills, lakes and beaches along the way.
This trip was primarily sightseeing rather than culinary in nature. If planning a trip then bear in mind that January seems to be a bit like August in Paris, with most high end restaurants shutting down for weeks at a time. The first five restaurants I tried to book in Auckland (French Café, The Grove, Sidart, Kazuya, Meredith’s) were all closed, as was the supposedly best Indian restaurant (Cassia) and the first two Malaysian restaurants I looked into. After that I gave up on finding anywhere cooking anything ambitious. I did find an excellent pizza place called Dante’s Pizzeria, whose Neapolitan style pizzas were genuinely good and would be up there with the very best in London.
Lake Taupo had a surprisingly good Indian (strictly speaking, Nepalese) restaurant called Malabar Beyond India. Dishes were nicely presented and had lively spicing, and the restaurant would prosper in a much more competitive spot than here. Napier is a beautiful city on the east coast of the north island. It was flattened by a huge earthquake in 1931 and was rebuilt from scratch in the following couple of years. This meant that the entire city at the time was built in Art Deco style, and fortunately many of the original buildings have been carefully preserved. It is a much more complete expression of Art Deco than Miami Beach, for example, which has just a limited set of buildings on the beach front. The Napier beachfront is lovely, with well-maintained gardens. We tried a pretty ropey Indian restaurant called Indigo, which curiously had a remarkably good wine list, but only a passing acquaintance with how to cook Indian food. There was also a prettily located and very good winery restaurant in the Elephant Hill wine estate, located on the cliffs of the exotically named Kidnappers Cove. Napier has a lovely climate, with low rainfall and plenty of sunshine, and the gorgeous architecture make it a very appealing place to visit.
Wellington is the capital of the country, in the south of the North island. There we had a good meal at Whitebait, and also a pleasant evening at its casual sister Charley Noble. The ferry ride from Wellington to Picton in the South Island needs to be booked well in advance. Incidentally, although the ferry can transfer vehicles, car hire companies will not let you take cars from the north to the South Island, so you have to give back your car at the Wellington ferry and pick up a different car when you land.
Once in the South Island, you can either head down the east coast to Christchurch, which is still recovering from the traumatic 2011 earthquake, or drive down the west coast to Queenstown. From either location you can then fly off to your next destination. We followed the west coast, starting from Picton, where the ferry lands, and moved on to Nelson, which has numerous wineries nearby, and a pleasant seafood restaurant called the Cod and Lobster. We drove south to Westport, which is nothing much to look at in itself but has some gorgeous views over the sea near Tauranga Bay, and a prettily located restaurant called The Bay House, which boasts stunning views. We continued south to Franz Josef, which has a couple of glaciers nearby that you can visit by helicopter if you are lucky with the weather. Bear in mind that around half of the scheduled helicopter trips are cancelled due to the weather, so if this is something you are keen on doing then allow enough time in Franz Josef to give yourself decent odds of overcoming the vagaries of the weather. From there we drove south to Queenstown.
Not far from the city (a 45 minute drive) is the beautiful setting of Glenorchy (pictured), a little town featured in the TV series “Top of the Lake” and with scenery that appears in several scenes in the “Lord of the Rings” films. From Queenstown you can reach the rather remote but very beautiful fjord area called Milford Sound. This is not that far as the crow flies (less than sixty miles), but by road involves a quite lengthy and scenic but somewhat challenging drive of about four hours. There is just a single hotel lodge with an adjoining camp site; it is quite isolated, with internet only accessible via satellite at an entertaining price, and in addition the area is notorious for its clouds of biting sand flies. You can alternatively stay a couple of hours away at a little place called Te Anau, when there are a few more accommodation options. If you don't fancy driving then you can access Milford Sound by air if you are lucky with the weather, as there are flights by plane and helicopter to Milford Sound from Queenstown airport that connect to cruises of the lake there. The major issue is that the weather at Milford Sound is notoriously unpredictable and exceptionally rainy and misty. It rains here 182 days a year on average, with annual rainfall of 6,412mm per year, compared with 1,152mm for Cardiff, the UK’s rainiest city. Even if it is a perfectly clear day in Queenstown the flights may not be able to take off or land due to bad weather at the landing strip at Milford Sound, and indeed a lot of these flights never make it off the ground. The official line is that “at least a third” of scheduled flights are cancelled according to the tour company I spoke to, but the reality seems far worse than this. At the hotel where we stayed I was told that one set of unlucky guests recently stayed for eight days in Queenstown, tried to fly to Milford Sound every day and never got there. Just as at Franz Josef, you need to either be lucky or allow enough days in Queenstown to give yourself decent odds of getting a day clear enough to fly in. Otherwise you need to make the journey by road if you want to see the place. I actually suspect that Milford Sound may be a mythical place made up by the Queenstown tourist board to encourage tourists to stay there in the forlorn hope of flying to it: “Ah yes, it is so beautiful. Maybe stay a few more days in Queenstown and the weather may clear up” followed by an evil cackle as they rack up yet more nights of hotel fees.
Queenstown itself is a quite small city (population 28,000) in a very pretty location, on a lake overlooking some impressive mountains. In the city you can take a cable car to the heights above the city to see the spectacular view below. The city itself has limited attractions other than being a centre for adventure hikes and being near a twee gold prospecting era village called Arrowtown, but it is the ideal base to explore Glenorchy and the elusive Milford Sound. Dining wise we tried supposedly one of the best restaurants there called Botswana Butchery, which was pretty disappointing. After that I gave up on the posh places but did find a very pleasant curry place called The Bombay Palace, and another called Taj Indian Kitchen, which was a touch inconsistent but did a good biryani. I also had some decent izakaya style food at Daruma, which managed a surprisingly good prawn tempura. Another pleasant enough place was an izakaya called Tanoshi, which serves okonomiyaki, the savoury pancake that is served in Hiroshima and Osaka.
From Queenstown we flew on to Sydney, where the dining scene is rather richer. I will cover that next week.
In other news, the France 2018 Michelin Guide was announced. Three stars to Marc Veyrat at Maison des Bois near Mont Blanc, and to Christophe Bacquie of the Castellet Hotel near Marseilles. Bras was duly delisted at their own request, meaning France has 28 three stars. It now also has 85 two star restaurants and 508 one stars.
In January I had a break from blogging in London, but not from travelling. The first leg of a month-long trip was a brief stopover in Los Angeles, actually briefer than intended thanks to British Airways, who cancelled our flight and so caused us to lose a day. We managed to hit some unseasonably wet and cool weather in the city of angels, but did squeeze in three meals.
The first was at Trois Mec, a highly popular place that ticks all the hipster boxes: tasting menu only, unmarked location in an old pizzeria, chef who turns up on TV, tiny tables and gloomy lighting. The meal that we had was very erratic, and the chef was trying way too hard in my view. Although there were some decent dishes, things like beeswax flan and charred sweet potato are ideas best left on the drawing board after some late night brainstorming session. This is not a cheap place by any means, though the menu itself is not particularly costly in absolutl tems, but the value for money factor was poor and its popularity was puzzling based on this meal.
I much preferred a simple lunch in Koreatown at Sun Nong Dan, featuring a vast shared dish of galbu jjim, a cauldron of short ribs, chillies and vegetables, its topping of cheese flambéed at the table. This was more fun than Trois Mec at a fraction the price.
My third meal was at Capo, an old school Italian restaurant in Santa Monica that looked like something that could easily feature in the movie Goodfellas. The menu was as vast as the wine list and there were some nice enough dishes, such a decent rigatoni and a pleasant crab torta. However at the end of the day the bill was way too high for the level of food that was appearing.
The Square changed hands some time ago, but there has recently been a chef change, and a refurb (pictured). Now Clement Leroy from Paris is in the saddle, the pastry section headed up by his wife Aya Tamura-Leroy. The highlights for me were the desserts such as chocolate gran cru with pistachio and red shiso. The savoury dishes were less satisfying. For me the kitchen is trying too hard to show off exotic flavour combinations, such as marinated langoustines with hibiscus foam and cauliflower semolina, where the lovely langoustines were overpowered by the hibiscus flavour. A red mullet was nice in itself, but the dish spoiled by an accompaniment of graffiti aubergine that should have a creamy quality but was just hard and chewy. Sweetbread with marinated squid and pomelo was the best savoury dish, and showed that the kitchen could actually cook a pleasing dish when it wanted to. Overall, though objectively a good meal, this was not really what I was hoping for given the lineage of the chef, and at this steep price point any flaw is magnified.
Hedone is a great favourite of mine, its lawyer turned chef Mikael Jonsson cooking some of the most interesting food in London, and most certainly using a quality of ingredients rarely seen in the capital. This was my 71st meal at the restaurant. A highlight of this latest lunch was a crab dish that has been on the menu for some time but has recently been an improved even further. Crab is cooked from live and served in a consommé of crustaceans; it is this last element has been tweaked, now using langoustine as well as lobster shells and velvet crabs to give additional depth of flavour, finished with hazelnut mayonnaise, apple and aromatic oil of parsley and horseradish – this dish is bordering on perfect. The lengthy tasting menu started with a cornet of vitello tonnato, beetroot and foie gras nibble, then poached rock oyster with Granny Smith apple foam, cucumber sorbet and oyster leaf. Seafood royale with impressive texture followed, including smoked eel jelly and sea plankton. Then came duck foie gras terrine with black truffle and toast, then the glorious crab dish. A bitter leaf salad with black truffles, walnuts and pumpkin puree was next, along with pickled Jerusalem artichoke. Simple but gorgeous lightly cooked scallops with ponzu jelly followed, then superb red mullet with kombu jelly, spices and a saffron flavoured fish sauce. The first meat dish was a fabulous sweetbread with pennywort sauce, apricot puree, dehydrated carrots and beef demi-glace. Scottish teal came with purple kale and cherry, and the last savoury course was hare royale. This came with chestnuts, foie gras from Chalosse, quince, mushroom and a rich sauce made from the blood of the hare. Pre dessert was white chocolate mousse with coconut biscuit, lime mousse and mango jelly. The main dessert was fabulous millefeuille with a drizzle of Balsamic vinegar, caramel and redlove apple sorbet. I should of course mention the glorious sourdough bread, made on the premises. Hopefully this gives you an insight into what a tasting menu here involves. No one is serving better food than this in London.
We usually cook at home at Christmas but for a change this year went to Darbaar, one of the best Indian restaurants in London. They produced a very enjoyable meal, with starters of assorted tikka and kebab dishes, or vegetarian alternatives, as well as spiced goose with a side of butter chicken for the main course. Breads are always a strong point here, and the vegetarian options throughout the meal were uniformly good. If you don’t know Darbaar then it is well worth your time, tucked away in a slightly tricky location near Liverpool Street station, between Snowden Street and Worship Street.
Indian Accent is the best restaurant that I have eaten at in India, taking a modern approach to Indian cooking. It serves dishes with dishes like blue cheese naan and Kashmiri morels with walnuts, and sits at position 78 on the “Top 50” (which is really a top 100) restaurant list, the only restaurant in India to feature. They have a branch in New York but I was particularly interested as to what the London version would be like, given how much more embedded in the culture Indian cooking is here than in New York. I am pleased to say that the Albermarle Street version is excellent, bringing with it many of the signature dishes from India but also adapting to local ingredients in places. The room is smart and the service slick, and although this is not cheap it is very much there with the absolute best in London even in the first days of operation.
The Dysart in Petersham (near Richmond) is an old favourite, its chef having won the Roux Scholarship in 2010. The Dysart has a cosy dining room with a big fire, well spaced large tables and friendly staff. At this visit we opted fro a tasting menu, though you can also go a la carte. Highlights included charred mackerel with kombu-braised daikon, ginger and champagne sauce, which is a signature dish of the restaurant. I also liked stone bass with spinach and champagne sauce. The restaurant has an unusually well thought out and kindly priced wine list, so is well worth your time if you are in west London.
Parlour is one of my favourite places to eat in London. Chef Jesse Dunford Wood takes an inventive approach to retro British dishes and reinvents them for the modern era. Things that haven’t seen the light of day for decades, such as chicken Kiev and arctic rolls, are regulars on the menu here. They also smoke their own salmon here, and very good it is too – I prefer it to pretty much any of the well known London smoked salmon merchants. Parlour may not win any awards for décor, down an alley in Kensal Rise, but the food is classy.
I also had another excellent value meal at my local haunt l'Amorosa. At my latest meal a saffron risotto had silky texture, and a wild boar ragu had real depth of flavour. This is a classy Italian cooking at a modest price point, from a chef who held a Michelin star for many years.
Xu is a Taiwanese restaurant in Soho that is from the same JKS restaurant stable as Bao, as well as several other very successful London venues. It has opened to assorted rave reviews but although the dishes that I tried were pleasant enough I struggled to see what the fuss was about at Xu. A noodle dish was fine, sea bass with chillies was pleasant but the gai lan that I tried was rather ropey. Pleasant overall, but this hype about the place seems to me to exceed the reality.
Bistro Vadouvan is a curiosity in Putney Wharf. It has an Indian born chef preparing French food with a mostly middle eastern twist. The savoury dishes we tried were pleasant enough, and one dish of brill was very good indeed, but the desserts let the side down. This is a tricky restaurant location, and the inconsistency in the cooking, not helped by a strange wine list, make it hard to unreservedly recommend.
The Ritz is a regular haunt of mine, with the grandest dining room in London and serving superb, meticulously prepared classic French food. The meal this week was lovely, with an exceptionally good langoustine dish, and an unusual and very enjoyable whole roast celeriac with black truffle sauce. The dessert section is one of the best in London, and the meal this week featured a lovely Mont Blanc.
The Michelin guide to The Netherlands 2018 came out. Inter Scaldes (in Kruiningen in the province of Zeeland) was promoted to three star level. The Netherlands now has a trio of three star restaurants, plus 16 two stars and 89 one star places.
Most of the Michelin 2018 guides are now out. The remaining ones are France, whichis due on February 5th, Scandinavia (probably February) and the Main Cities of Europe, which picks up assorted smaller cities not covered in the country guides, such as Budapest, Warsaw, Prague and Athens. Thus far the new 3 star places have been: Coi (San Francisco), Ultraviolet (Shanghai), Iida (Kyoto), Hajime (regained its third star in Osaka), Atelier (Munich), St Hubertus (Dolomites), ABAC (Barcelona) and Aponiente (Cadiz), as well as Araki in London and the latest, Inter Scaldes.
Bombay Bustle is the casual sister of Jamavar, and has just opened on the old Hibiscus site in Maddox Street. It is a larger premises than Jamavar, spread over two floors. The décor theme is the tiffin boxes and railways of Bombay/Mumbai that transport them every day. The menu goes beyond such snacks and is pan-Indian, with a lively chaat snack and an excellent tandoori lamb chop highlights at my first meal here. Over both my inspection meals there was some inconsistency, but this is perhaps to be expected given this was only the second week after opening. If the early kinks can be ironed out then Bombay Bustle will doubtless prosper.
Gauthier (pictured) is in the Soho townhouse that used to house Lindsay House. Alexis Gauthier had a Michelin star for years at Roussillon and indeed held one at Gauthier for a couple of years. The cooking here is rooted in classical French but has some interesting touches. For a start there is a complete vegetarian and vegan menu available, which is not something you are likely to encounter in France very often. Bread is made from scratch and the truffle risotto dish here is special. The standard of the food here is high, and for me it is strong one star level, whatever Michelin think.
The Duke of Sussex is a Chiswick pub where you can get fish and chips, but where the menu is mainly Spanish. At our latest meal here padron peppers were pleasant, and as usual the seafood paella was excellent. The rice was carefully cooked and the mixed shellfish were a good foil for it, all served in an iron wok. As a nice touch they actually make the bread here from scratch in the kitchen, and very good it is too. This isn’t somewhere aiming to set the culinary world alight, but the cooking is capable and the pricing modest.
The Michelin Guide to Bangkok came out for the first time. No three stars, with two stars for Gaggan (which is notionally closing, though it has been teasing this out for a long time now), La Normandie and Mezzaluna. Bangkok has no three stars, 3 two stars and 14 one star restaurants.
The Hong Kong Michelin guide also appeared. There was no change at the three star level. Hong Kong has now 6 three star restaurants, 11 two star places and 45 one stars. I was pleased to see Arcane deservedly getting a star. Duddels lost its second star, which is slightly unfortunate timing as it has just opened a branch in London.
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