Review: Ikoyi, St James

Plantain and scotch bonnet

Plantain and scotch bonnet

Our first dish was a bit of a statement of intent. A crescent of plantain dusted with deep pink powder and a blob of vivid orange smoked scotch bonnet mayo. It looks like abstract art and tastes explosive and unexpected on a fine dining menu. Which this is, nine courses and a proper price tag. Ikoyi.

Next up is cassava, fried to a nice crispiness a bit like a very good chip, with a scrape of brain on top that doesn’t really register. But you have to love all the exotic ideas and ingredients on this menu, and the scrunchy cassava chip is excellent. There’s a pile of Exmoor caviar on top of a smoky tigernut and tomato mousse. Also a soft piece of hake and wilted greens covered in a deliciously spicy and creamy veloute.

There’s an outstanding lobster course done in three parts. Beautifully cooked tail makes one. Then a bowl of deeply dark gunk made with the brown meat. And two little blinis of dressed

Lobster three ways

Lobster three ways

lobster draped with a sliver of delicately pickled beetroot. Charred turnip with a spicy banga sauce is okay.

The main course of soft and chewy grilled iberico pork with clam sauce is delicious but knocked off the plate by the bowl of jollof rice with crab custard stirred into it and tangled greens on top. This is quite simply the best dish of rice I’ve ever had and I would eat it every day if I could.

Pudding is an afterthought of wild rice ice cream. Apparently desserts aren’t their thing.

I don’t care too much. Ikoyi is exciting and exotic, full of ingredients and combinations I’ve never enjoyed like this and am unlikely to find again. Also full of smoke and spice, two of my favourite things. It’s a great bonus that it is all deeply delicious and beautifully cooked. At £100 a head before drinks I guarantee you will remember the tasting menu here. Ikoyi is well worth your time and dosh.

Jollof deliciousness

Jollof deliciousness

Review: Cora Pearl, Covent Garden

Tartare starter

Tartare starter

Cora Pearl is a pre-theatre restaurant in a Covent Garden side street. Over dinner we were trying to decide what kind of restaurant it is an absolutely typical example of. Eventually we concluded: it’s an absolutely typical London pre-theatre restaurant. Tiny tables closely packed, dark wood, carafes of wine, a couple of diners you’d swear are minor celebs, an avuncular old ham meeting people at the door.

The food is classic but very well done. Maureen starts with a sea bream tartare, with plenty of crisp cucumber chopped with it for flavour and texture. There’s a few discs of lightly pickled cucumber with a distinctive taste of elderflower and nicely torched bread on the side. I choose a burrata, serves with oily slivers of sweet and slowly cooked capsicum. The combination works well, although I’ve had better burrata recently.

Courgette main

Courgette main

For mains Maureen picks the vegetarian option, gnocchi with courgette and some lovely blobs of black garlic puree. It’s a very tasty combination, a light dish but surprisingly flavourful. Mine is duck and peach. Duck goes very well with scorched peach and beetroot, the sweet and earthy fragrances enhancing the pink meat with its salty brown skin.

Special mention has to be made of the chips. They are big and crunchy and awesome. It probably isn’t worth eating at Cora Pearl unless you order the chips. Seriously.

Neither of us have room for pudding. The wines by the glass (we tried three) were drinkable but not brilliant. The bill was about £38 for 2 courses, and I’m gonna have to say that’s not great value. Why? Hm. I guess for me Cora Pearl is sitting in a bit of an odd position. There are loads – absolutely loads – of places to get casually delicious food for far less dough, if you want a bite to eat before a show. Or if you’re looking for fine dining, there are many splendid options out there where you won’t be elbowing your neighbours and you’ll get more innovative cooking and all the fripperies like bread and amuse bouches. So… much though I enjoyed it… I’m not quite sure what Cora Pearl is for? The chips?

The Chips

The Chips

Review: Bao, Soho

Bao at BAO

Bao at BAO

I’ve had more than a couple of messy bao bun experiences in the past, struggling to keep the filling wodged in while taking bites… oops, there goes the fennel slaw. So it was a bit of a joy to devour the bao at BAO Soho. Their buns are so soft, sweet and fluffy that they wrap themselves perfectly around the generous filling and cuddle it very nicely while you gobble your way through. Bliss.

So, yeah, totally recommend the bao at BAO. For my money their original had the punchiest combination of flavours along with meltingly soft meat. Second place maybe tied between the lamb and the pork belly. The chicken bun was really delicious with the pickly little crunch of kimchi in with it, but someone has to come last.

Trotter croquettes

Trotter croquettes

We also ordered the blood pudding, which came as a sturdy brick topped with an amber egg yolk. The texture and taste very reminiscent of good English black pud, but with some pleasant warm spices. The yolk made it really lush, though a bit tricky with chopsticks.

Thinly sliced mushroom with century egg was very good. Pork trotter croquettes with a burnt green chilli dipping sauce were absolutely splendid; I could have stuffed down a few plates of these with sake and been happy all night. The aubergine with wanton crackers was a decent though forgettable veg dish with a strong miso-y flavour.

BAO is knock-out good food at a very good price; £20 would make a fine supper for one, before drinks. No wonder it is queued out of the door most nights.

Chicken bao

Chicken bao

Review: Dum Biryani

Dum Biryani House

Dum Biryani House

When I saw the location of Dum Biryani House on the map I thought “uh-oh… we are never going to get a walk-in table here.” It’s about forty yards off Oxford Street, down one of the side roads. It’s Saturday lunchtime. It’ll be mobbed.

Except no. Because it’s just a single door with a rather roughshod sign and a worn out doormat. There’s nothing stylish, chic, urban, alluring or hip about it. Tourists and out-of-towners would avoid it like the plague. Which is ace, because it means there’s a place we can always stop for a delicious meal just off Oxford Street without booking.

Downstairs in the basement it’s stripped-back Indian shabby chic, fun and well done – I can’t tell whether by accident or design. Fun art decks the walls. The menu is pretty stripped-back as well, with three of the eponymous biryanis and maybe a dozen other things in different categories (looks like this is just the Sunday brunch menu though, there’s more on evenings). We pick a street snack of battered giant banana chilli stuffed with delicious things with a splodge of tangy brown sauce on the side, which is very moreish, and then wait for our biryani to arrive.

Big yellow chilli

Big yellow chilli

And there it is, the nut brown pastry case covered in toasted cumin seeds and ready to be expertly carved off in one piece. Or hacked into chunks by your truly with flakes of crispy pastry flying all over the table. It still tastes great. And the steam pours out, heady with spicy fragrances. Magic.

And there’s a whole lamb shank tucked away in there among the rice, cooked to absolute collapse and a deep pink colour. The spices build up to a warm glow like coals have been lit at the back of your mouth. You can soothe that with the sweet and radioactively purple beetroot yogurt sauce that comes with it. We absolutely loved it. One biryani definitely does two normal appetites, especially if you have a starter!

We just drank lassi with it. The mango one was epic, with a good hit of saffron to go with the fragrant fruit and the whole thing not oversweetened. The sweet lassi was just a tad too thick for my liking; with the salty taste and curdled texture it was a bit like eating… hmm. No, actually, not gonna go there. The chai is good.

Basically brilliant for under £20 a head. Just don’t tell too many people about it.

Biryani time!

Biryani time!

Review: Stark, Broadstairs

Stark, tiny but perfect

Stark, tiny but perfect

Very strange experience. When we got home from a lovely weekend around Broadstairs and Ramsgate (including a brilliant meal at Stark in Broadstairs – more on that in a mo) we decided to just flop out on the sofa and watch a film. So we picked “Juliet, Naked”, a gently funny Nick Hornby adaptation from last year.

And we realised very quickly that the whole film was filmed in Broadstairs and Ramsgate.

Whaaaaaaaaaat?!?

Twilight Zone aside, the far end of Kent has a lot of charm and plenty of stuff to see. It also has the incredibly tiny 10 cover restaurant, Stark. It’s run by Ben and Sophie Crittenden,

Mackerel, carrot and yolk

Mackerel, carrot and yolk

though I guess Sophie had to be elsewhere today as front of house was a young lady who didn’t know much about food and wine and wasn’t really engaging. Perfectly good service, though. It’s just a good example of the kind of allowance you have to make when the operation is that small.

Luckily Ben’s cooking is absolutely brilliant. Won’t surprise you to know that it’s a tasting menu with no options on it, nor that it changes regularly. They are very no-nonsense on the website too: “PLEASE NOTE THAT WE ARE UNABLE TO CATER FOR ANY DIETARY REQUIREMENTS, DISLIKES OR ALLERGIES AND WE ARE UNABLE TO OFFER ANY SUBSTITUTIONS.” Perfectly fair, in the circs.

We start with a tartare of cured mackerel with a big amber egg yolk and vivid orange pickled carrot. It’s a delicate sweet pickle with flavours of dill and goes like a dream with the chewy mackerel and gooey yolk.

Poussin korma

Poussin korma

Poussin with thinly sliced grapes and a warmly spiced korma gravy just gets better and better. There’s a good hum of cardamom coming from the gravy, the poussin breast is juicy, the grapes look pretty and add sweetness.

The fish course is even better. There’s a snow-white piece of cod rolled in nori, served with brown shrimps and (probably?) a brown shrimp bisque. Or at least, it’s served with a decadently creamy/boozy/seafood-y sauce that I loved. Glad I had a bit of bread leftover to polish the plate with!

The main, if possible, is even better still. It’s a near perfect piece of fillet with a pool of sticky and silky gravy as dark as night. Then on the other side is a fine dice of some slow-cooked and perhaps previously smoked or cured beef (had given up expecting details from our waitress and didn’t think to ask) draped with a white sliver of lardo and topped with shaved

Beef and wild asparagus

Beef and wild asparagus

truffle. On the side, vivid green stalks of wild asparagus that tasted like fine asparagus with the occasional tang of ransoms.

Puds were not a let down either. Goat curd ice cream with pistachio cake and tiny fresh strawberry slices was a magic combo of textures and flavours and colours. Bright red, green and white in a little slate bowl. Coconut, cherry and chocolate included a cherry parfait, sliced cherries, coconut whipped cream, coconut goo and chocolate mousse. Absolute treat. Nobody could fail to love this pud.

The tasting menu is £60 and the cooking is bright, fresh, flavour-packed and absolutely faultless. Broadstairs is very lucky. You should make a bee-line to Stark.

Strawberry and pistachio with goat curd

Strawberry and pistachio with goat curd