Welcome to food critic Andy Hayler’s restaurant reviews. My weekly blog covers my recent dining and restaurant news. Follow to keep up with Independent reviews of restaurants and hotels from a professional food writer.
Washington D.C. offers rich sightseeing pickings, from grand political buildings such as The Capitol Building, Supreme Court and White House through to the extensive range of Smithsonian Museums, which all have free entry. The most impressive architecture is arguably that of the Library of Congress (pictured), and then there is The Lincoln Memorial, the quaint streets of Georgetown and even the newly relocated Spy Museum, which traces the history of espionage.
I tried a range of restaurants at all levels. 2 Amys is a pizzeria that seems to be living off some past glories, as it has a perplexingly long queue for a very ordinary product. Slightly better was Il Canale in Georgetown, though Kinship was rather disappointing given the price point. I was pleasantly surprised by sister Indian restaurants Bombay Club and Kinship, which were much better than I was expecting given my dismal history of trying Indian food in the USA.
At the posher end of things, Pineapple and Pearls was better than I expected given its no-choice modern cooking, and for me deserved its two Michelin stars. Similarly minibar exceeded my expectations, serving Spanish molecular food, which is not usually in my sweet spot. The meal started off spectacularly well, and only a string of dud dishes towards the end of the savoury sequence dragged down the score a notch.
The Inn at Little Washington is 70 miles away in a tiny village in Virginia, and is a charming place to stay. It serves enjoyable classical cooking with particularly good service, and offers a range of rooms in exquisitely restored buildings dotted around the village. The staff here were exceptionally good, and although the food was not really 3 star level I still thoroughly enjoyed my two-night stay here.
San Francisco is my favourite US city, full of interesting neighbourhoods and striking vistas. You can have cocktails at sunset in The Cliff House, take a spectacular walk from the Golden Gate bridge along the coast to Crissy Field, or relax amongst the sequoia trees in nearby Muir Woods, so there is plenty to do here. It also has a vibrant restaurant scene.
Californios is unusual, a two star Michelin restaurant serving a take on Mexican food. Some of the dishes sounded pretty odd, but their flavour was good, and the meal was better than I was actually expecting. The tacos here are all made rather than bought, using assorted different types of corn, and things generally worked well. The only downside is the cost.
Don Pistos is a more traditional Mexican restaurant, and at a very different price point. It had quite nice pork tacos and very good prawns diablo, and at this price there is not much to dislike. It is also suitable if you are in a hurry, as the service was breathtakingly rapid.
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana sounds like it should feature in an episode of The Sopranos, but actually serves up pizza in a whole range of styles from a variety of ovens, with the cooking technique adjusted depending on whether you want your pizza to be of Naples style, Roman style, or even Detroit style. The pizza margherita that I tried was hard to fault.
Monsieur Benjamin is the casual sister of Benu, and delivers French bistro food. The dishes that I tried were quite well executed, such as a good quail dish, though the bill was pretty high for what actually arrived on the plate. The locals seem unbothered though, as the place was packed.
Seventy miles north of San Francisco, deep in the wine country, is Single Thread. This restaurant was awarded two stars soon after it opened and this year was elevated to the ultimate three star level. Its food is heavily influenced by Japan, the chef having trained as a sushi chef and also having worked for years at Michel Bras in Toya. I am generally pretty cynical about the US Michelin inspector’s competence, as they seem to scatter stars around as if they are going out of fashion, but in this case they aren’t far off the mark. The food at Single Thread was beautifully presented and used top notch ingredients, the dishes carefully put together. As a bonus, the staff were lovely and the wine list extensive. There is also a lovely rooftop garden (pictured).
This week I had a particularly good meal at my regular haunt l’Amorosa in Ravenscourt Park. Bruschetta with morels was gorgeous, and a saffron risotto with the same new season morels was lovely. Chef Andy Needham makes some of the best risotto in the capital at any time, but the mushrooms really worked well with the excellent rice. The pasta ragu is also excellent here, with deep flavour and pasta with very good texture. Andy makes various ragus and this week I had lamb, though my favourite is the wild boar ragu.
I also returned to another old favourite, The Brilliant in Southall. I have been coming here regularly since I moved to west London in 1991. The place has expanded numerous times since then but the standard of the cooking remains consistently high. The methi chicken here is a dark, rich, brooding dish full of spicy flavour. The aloo tikki is a Southall speciality, a tasty starter with tamarind to enliven the potato. The Brilliant is one of the few London restaurants to serve romali roti, the paper-thin bread that is tossed in the air and briefly cooked over a steel hemisphere, then folded and folded again. The place is always packed out with Asian families, and as a bonus the prices are a bargain – that method chicken main course in under a tenner, and for about £30 a head including drinks you will have enough food for a complete extra meal to take away as well as the one that you have just eaten. This is proper Punjabi food.
I wanted to learn more about caviar, and was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with Laura King, founder of Kings Caviar, which is the largest UK supplier. They supply restaurants including The Fat Duck and The Ritz and stores such as Harrods and Fortnum & Masons. We did a comparative tasting of quite a few different types from both Belgium and China. These days wild caviar is outlawed in order to preserve stocks, so any caviar you can legally buy is farmed. The largest suppliers are the Chinese, but there are also farms in several other countries. There is even notionally one in the UK, though apparently that appears to be more of a holding pen for Polish caviar than a true farm. There are 26 different species of sturgeon, and almost all of these have at some point been used for caviar, as well as hybrids. However beluga (the largest freshwater fish I the world), oscietra and sevruga are the most prestigious, while baerii, which matures much quicker than beluga, is used for entry-level caviar. The hybrid kaluga is similar to beluga and can be nearly as expensive. Of the caviars that I tried I particularly liked the Belgian beluga. Incidentally, if you like the comedy show “Frasier” then try to get watch the episode “Roe to Perdition” (series 10, episode 18), an episode devoted to Frasier and Niles’s brief excursion into the world of caviar smuggling – it is a hoot. It has one of my favourite lines about one minute in, where Frasier asks the delicatessen manager whether the beluga caviar is really as expensive as it is labelled. “Isn’t that rather a lot to pay?”. The frosty French store manager replies: “For you yes, for the fish who gave up her life so that you could spread her unborn children on a cracker it is not so much”.
The next blog will appear a little later than usual.
This was a rather fishy week as I try two seafood restaurants, old and new. Angler at the South Place Hotel in east London has had a Michelin star for some time, and has retained it through a chef transition. The dining room has a good view out over the rooftops of the capital, and the cooking of Gary Foulkes is consistently good. Ingredient quality is high, such as turbot from a large 7 kg fish being paired with a fine langoustine tail. Throughout a long tasting menu the standard of cooking was generally high until the dessert section of the meal. Service is classy and only the stiff wine mark-ups leave a sour taste in the mouth.
Cornerstone in Hackney (pictured) has a more hipster vibe, with no shortage of tattoos and nose-rings amongst the staff. The seafood cookery here was quite good, though interestingly the prices here are scarcely lower than the much smarter Angler, and wine mark-ups were just as high though from a small and eccentric list. This was a pleasant enough experience but felt quite expensive to me. All those small plates add up quickly on the bill.
Abd el Wahab in Belgravia is the first European outlet of an 18-strong Lebanese restaurant group. I can’t comment on the merits of the original restaurant in Beirut, but the Belgravia offshoot leaves a great deal to be desired. The two salads that we tried were ordinary, grilled chicken was dry and the bought-in baklava, itself not great, was the best thing that we tried. The service was leaden and the wine list sloppily put together. I have no idea how restaurants like this survive in central London, where costs are high. To be sure, there are worse places than this, but absolutely nothing made me want to return.
Pizzicotto in Kensington is the casual sister of the long established and more formal Il Portico nearby. As well as pizzas, Pizzicotto serves a more general Italian menu. Tagliatelle with pork belly ragu had good texture, and a risotto primavera was also very pleasant. Focaccia here is made from scratch and cooked in the wood-fired pizza oven. The wine list is inexpensive and has some real bargains at the high end of the list and the owner, who always seems to be present, runs a friendly service operation.
Royal China in Queensway is a huge barn of a place that always seems to be packed, whether at lunch or dinner. The restaurant opened in 1994 and single handedly lifted the standard of Chinese food in London. It caters mostly to Asians and service can be curt, though it is at least usually quite efficient. The large Cantonese menu is well prepared, with dishes such as steamed sea bass with black bean sauce filleted at the table are always carefully cooked. I am particularly fond of the gai lan here, the Chinese broccoli lightly cooked with garlic and having excellent flavour. The restaurant even featured in the movie “Sexy Beast”, with some of the former staff acting as themselves as waiting staff. It is never a particularly cuddly experience here, but few Chinese restaurants in London produce better food.
The Ritz has become my “go to” destination in London when I want a serious meal. The large dining room is very ornate and service is formal but in no way stuffy. The buying power of the place allows high quality ingredients, such as live Scottish langoustines and top-notch French asparagus, and the considerable size of the kitchen means that no dish is too elaborate to make, with labour intensive sauces being expertly made. At my latest meal a star dish was tender native lobster with precisely cooked beans and a light pea and verbena puree. The dessert section is very strong here, and delivered two fine dishes at this meal (an almond dessert is pictured). The sous chef, Spencer Metzger, has worked here for most of his career and has just won The Roux Scholarship. This is very much a dining place for grown-ups, with comfortable chairs and classical cooking. It has just one Michelin star, which is an absurdity when you compare it to the two star places in London, none of which outperform the kitchen here.
Patri is an Indian restaurant in Northfields (there is a separate branch in Hammersmith). The menu covers the dishes of Rajasthan, so there are some familiar things like black dhal as well as a few more exotic dishes. The starters were attractively presented and indeed pretty much everything worked well with the exception of a potato curry. The black dhal was excellent, and kulfis were very good too. The service was friendly and the wine list moderately priced.
The Bingham (pictured) at one time held a Michelin star, but the kitchen regime has changed since then. It has a lovely setting overlooking the Thames, with a recently refurbished dining room and an appealing menu. Our meal was rather erratic, however, with some good dishes but also some issues with others, and one particularly grim plate of chips. This was a pity, as the Bingham has the potential to be a lovely spot, but I have the impression that the kitchen is really stretched with its current levels of staffing, and this shows.
The Michelin 2019 guide to Taipei came out. No changes at the three star level, so the absurdly mediocre Le Palais bafflingly retains a third star. There were promotions to two star for Raw, Tairroir and Sushi Amamoto. Taipei now has one three star, five two star and eighteen one star restaurants.
Alyn Williams at The Westbury is in Mayfair and is located in a windowless but smartly decorated dining room, and has held a Michelin star for a few years. This meal included some good dishes, including excellent chicken liver parfait in brik pastry cylinders, a nice gurnard and mussel dish in a mild curry sauce, and a good gariguette strawberry dessert. The pricing here is perplexing, as the food itself is quite fairly priced, but the wine list is outrageous. Several wines, even those from dusty corners of the list, are over ten times their retail price, which is simply egregious. The smart move here is to order the fairly priced food and drink tap water.
Barullo (pictured) is a new Spanish restaurant from the chef/owner of Rambla. Just near The Gherkin, the place was already packed out at lunch just five days after opening, and they haven’t even put the sign above the door yet. As with Rambla, the restaurant serves good quality tapas with unusually good ingredients, such as croquettas with wild mushrooms and real black truffle. You can share a big pan of paella, and I enjoyed a very good crème Catalana with raspberry sorbet to finish
Pentolina is a neighbourhood Italian restaurant in Brook Green, which is a posh enclave between Hammersmith and Shepherds Bush. Although the service was very good and the bread was made in the kitchen, the dishes that we tried generally lacked in flavour, the meal finishing with a poor tiramisu. There is no need to come here when the vastly superior l’Amorosa is not far away, and charges much the same prices.
Kanishka is a new restaurant from Atul Kochar, on the side of a former 28-50 on Maddox Street in Mayfair. It is an ambitious venture, spread over two floors and serving over 120 diners at one time. It explores the cuisine of north-east India, as well as offering some more familiar north Indian dishes. There were some genuinely lovely things here, such as a chicken tikka pie and some of the best naan bread I have tried for a long time. Not everything was to this standard, and there was a tendency to overcomplicate things, but the kitchen can definitely deliver. It is not a cheap outing, with a particularly pricy wine list, but this is certainly a interesting new opening.
I couldn’t resist another outing to The Crown at Burchetts Green, where chef/owner Simon Bonwick works entirely on his own in the kitchen. This is tough enough, but to make labour-intensive classical French dishes in this environment is quite remarkable. At my latest visit here, a rich fish soup had superb flavour, and a generous slab of turbot from a huge fish was precisely cooked. The meal ended with gloriously rich steamed sponge pudding. The price of the entire tasting menu here will barely buy you a main course in Mayfair these days, and the food here gets steadily better with each visit. This is Michelin-starred dining at its most enjoyable.
The "Main Cities of Europe" Michekin 2019 guide came out. This guide picks up the places in Europe where Michelin does not have a country guide, such as capital cities like Athens, Prague and others. There was one major change in that Amador in Vienna was promoted from two stars to three. Juan Amador used to have three stars in his former restaurant in Germany.
Barcelona is famous for its architecture, including the old cathedral (pictured) as well as the unfinished Gaudi one. On a brief trip I was curious to try some local, old school places, rather than one of the many modern Spanish restaurants for which the city is well-known these days. You can see reviews on my website of many of these places.
It doesn’t get much more historical than 7 Portes, which has been trading since 1836. Specialising in seafood, there are a few other traditional dishes on offer too. I enjoyed nice seafood paella there as well as good cannelloni. As a bonus, the wine list had very fair prices indeed.
I preferred another long-established restaurant called Botafumeiro, a cavernous place with seemingly endless dining rooms. Here the tuna tartare was very good, and the seafood paella was excellent. The staff here may lack the tattoos beloved of the more fashionable restaurants in the city, but they can still deliver an enjoyable evening.
I also enjoyed a very good cup of coffee at Nomad, a pioneer in the city of modern speciality coffee, tucked away down a pedestrianised alley. The staff were knowledgeable and the espresso that I tried, from a tiny single estate producer in Colombia, was excellent.