Thursday, 30 December 2010

Beer and food pairing at The White Horse

Should beer be taken as seriously as wine? Can it match well with food? And do women even like it? I arrived at The White Horse in Parson's Green (or the Sloaney Pony as it's affectionately known) a Doubting Thomas.

I'd been invited along to a 'girlie beer evening' by the grandiosely-titled Rupert Ponsonby, founder of The Beer Academy and the man single handedly responsible for getting beer lists into a number of London's top restaurants. Under his duress, Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Quilon serves every beer on its list in a different glass.

What Ponsonby doesn't know about hops and barely isn't worth knowing, and tonight was a brazen attempt to convert our cherry picked group into lifelong beer sippers – an educational device to begin filling a colossal gap in the market: 80% of UK women currently steer clear of beer. 'Beer is a disparate creature, which is wild, whacky and to be loved', Ponsonby begins.

While the mini burger canapés do the rounds, Ponsonby cleverly moves on to dispelling some popular beer myths, such as the idea that beer makes you fat. In fact, beer is made up of 95% water and contains 0% fat, 0% cholesterol and far fewer calories than the average glass of wine due to its low alcohol content, so a large glass of Zinfandel will do your waistline considerably more damage than a cheeky half pint of lager.

We sit down to eat and our first beer flight is ceremoniously poured in elaborate glassware. Ponsonby is big on serving beer in appropriate vessels. And there are many, from flutes and tulips to the amusingly monikered snifter. Only in Britain is the pint glass rife – in Belgium, where beer is treated with near beatific reverence, there are as many different beer glasses as there are Riedels for wine. I rather like the idea of the Belgian beer waiter scuttling around his cellar desperately searching for a specific receptacle to do justice to an obscure brew.

Paired with a gargantuan squash and quails egg tartlet, we imbibe a trio of beers: Innis & Gunn Blonde, Schneider Weiss and Goose Island 312. I'm charmed by the Innis & Gunn, which has changed my opinion of beer for life. Soft, creamy and mellow with a strong vanilla backbone from the American oak ageing, it slips down like silk. The Goose Island is intensely aromatic, with strong floral and honey aromas recalling Gewurztraminer and Torrontes, while the Schneider Weiss is rounded and sweet with a tropical banana edge.

While neither of the three are a divine pairing for the tartlet, they in no way jar with the flavour profile of the dish. Before beginning the second flight and main course, Ponsonby moves on to stress the importance of serving beer at the correct temperature - a rule all wine lovers will appreciate. Like white wine, most beer is best served chilled, as the delicate brews loose some of their aromas when exposed to heat. Darker beers can get away with being served Beaujolais style – lightly chilled.

On to the main event: a mammoth skate wing with hand cut chips, served alongside Belgian beer Duvel and Goose Island IPA. Smooth and creamy, the Duvel works incredibly well with the skate, while the Indian Pale Ale glints like a new penny in the glass, and has a distinctly hoppy finish. Desert is an exciting affair – chocolate truffle torte with lashings of double cream served with a duo of sweet beers: Liefmans Cuvée Brut and Innis & Gunn Rum Cask Finish.

The former looks and sounds more like a Champagne than a beer. Wrapped in red paper and sealed with a cork, the beer is only brewed once a year and fermented antique open vessels enriched with morello cherries. Aged for up to three years, different vintages are blended into what becomes the unique 'master blend'. The result is a curiously confected, slightly effervescent, intoxicatingly fruity, tooth-tinglingly sweet beer that tastes like cherry cola. The latter confirmed my love for all things Innis & Gunn. Like the Blonde before it, the Rum Cask hit the target with its voluptuous full body, rich, creamy mouthfeel and delicious, rum-like vanilla spice. Both, admittedly, were incredibly good matches for the torte.

With 60 different styles to choose from, it's easy to find a beer to suit your palate - you just need to be open minded enough to experiment. Women's palates differ very little from men, and the idea that bitterness is not suited to female palates is a fallacy. But even if you're not big on bitter, there are plenty of easy going fruit beers, golden ales and wheat beers to explore. Whilst wine will always remain my first love, I've very much enjoyed my flirtation with beer. Dirt cheep and deliciously refreshing, it more than merits a second sip.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Nightjar

One night before Christmas, I was lead through an understated wooden door on City Road in Old Street and down a steep staircase into London's best kept secret bar - the Nightjar.

Named after a long-winged nocturnal bird identified by its distinctive warble, whose eyes twinkle like torches at night, the Nightjar is a charming '30s-style speakeasy serving up some of the best-mixed and most beautifully presented rare and revived cocktails in the capital.

Entering the dimly-lit subterranean space, the clock is wound back to an era of gin and jazz. The clandestine drinking den exudes early 20th century glamour, prettified with Art Deco mirrors, a pressed tin ceiling and a glinting copper gin still. Lining the far end are arched booths fashioned from coal cellars, packed with nattily dressed lounge lovers.

Soon after I arrive a hush falls upon the bar, and a man with a mop of mad curls takes a seat at a grand piano and begins tinkering. A whippet-thin lady in a sequined headdress takes to the stage and begins belting out melancholic Berlin jazz. Husky, haunting, hypnotic; she has crowd transfixed. Live music is the Nightjar's lifeblood. The informal salon models itself on an early European cabaret venue, and the live line up on Thursday and Saturday nights ranges from Rhythm and Blues and New Orleans jazz, to boogaloo, ragtime and swing, while vintage vinyl is on rotation late Friday and Saturday nights – the Last Days of Decadence meets the House of Elliot.

Belle Epoque and Prohibition era cocktails using the latest liqueurs, bitters and botanicals abound on the 36-strong menu, displayed in both a gold-bound book and a deck of cards, interspersed with Nightjar heroes: Buster Keaton, Duke Ellington, Josephine Baker and Kiki de Montparnasse. Head mixologist Marian Beke, of The Langham fame, is at the top of his game. Each of the well considered cocktails on the list – including Hemingway's recipe for Islands in the Stream (Santa Teresa Claro rum, lime, green coconut water, angostura bitters and sugar since you ask), are mini masterpieces painstakingly laboured over and exquisitely presented in crystal glassware.

An ideal debauchery den for discerning drinkers, cocktails are taken incredibly seriously at the Nightjar, and thus, take a while to appear at your table. But I assure you they're worth the wait. On my visit I begin with a Ladybird, recommended by Beke. A mix of Santa Terersa Gran Reserva rum, lime, prune, Belgian truffle liqueur, Caribbean spices and orange bitters, the outside of the glass is dotted with chocolate (representing the ladybird's spots), which I dutifully lick off.

Shuffling the deck of cards and pulling one out at random, I move on to a BBC, a dark, decadent and deadly mix of Busnel Calvados VSOP, Becherovka cordial and Absinthe smoke served swimming in a huge ice ball. I've imbibed many a cocktail in my time, and the BBC is utterly unique. Smoky, sexy and seriously hard to drink any more than a sip of at a time, it's like drinking a bonfire sweetened by the blood of nymphs. While I recline languorously in my chair, feeling the effects of the green fairy, my drinking companion enjoys a playfully-titled Wibble, made with Plymouth gin, pink grapefruit, lemon and sugar.

The Nightjar is my secret find of late 2010. The Shoreditch speakeasy oozes laid back charm – its beauty lies in not trying too hard. A word of warning: don't come to the Nightjar if you're hungry. Aside from the customary almonds and olives, the simple bar snack menu includes courgette fritters, saucissons with cornichons, and cow's curd with Sherry vinegar and beetroot relish, but nothing substantial enough to fill up anyone with an appetite bigger than a sparrow.

The Nightjar, 129-131 City Road, London EC1V 1JB, +44 (0)20 7253 4101. Cocktails from £8.50.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010


Many a kind word has been bestowed upon Dishoom since it opened in July, and rightly so. The pastel walled, trompe l'oeil tiled space pays homage to the vibrant Bombay all-day cafés of the '60s, which drew an eclectic clientele, from breakfasting students and lunching lawyers, to artists and writers in search of inspiration.

Set up early last century by Persian immigrants, nearly 400 cafés thrived during their peak in the '60s. Today fewer than 30 cafés remain. Drawing on their rich and colourful heritage, Dishoom, onomatopoeically named after the old Bollywood sound effect produced when a hero lands a good punch, serves up an all-day menu of Bombay bites in a buzzy, two tiered space bedecked with sepia family portraits running the gamut from beautiful to strange.

The canteen-like space, filled with low hanging filament bulbs and slow turning ceiling fans, looks like a colonial Leon by way of the Silk Road. The open kitchen displays a hive of frenzied activity. From where I'm sitting, I can see fish being tossed in piping hot pans and dinner plate-sized discs of freshly-made dough being thrown high into the air, then blasted in an oven and 'dishoomed' to the recipients table.

Dishoom give good bread. Their cheesy naan is unmissable. Served piping hot and hemorrhaging cheddar, it's so good I order a second helping before finishing my first. Rather than respecting any kind of divine order, dishes arrive as and when they are ready, which seems eminently sensible. Many of the Bombay Breakfast Club dishes appeal, from the bacon naan roll with chilli jam, to the spiced Bombay omelette, but my late dining hour render them off limits.

Before you begin, three complimentary dips are brought to your table: tamarind and date, yoghurt and mint, and chilli chutney. The pared down menu is designed for sharing, so my dining companion and I opt for a series of small plates, including a bowl of succulent Bombay sausages tumbled in tomatoey masala and playful, perfect-for-dipping, desi fish fingers.

The substantially sized lamb sheekh kebab with cumin and lime is disappointingly dry and lacking in subtlety, making me wish I'd opted for the spicy lamb chops rubbed with crushed black pepper and chillies instead. My anger is appeased by dollops of soothing Raita – cool yoghurt with fresh cucumber and mint, washed down with tumblers of lightly smoked, sour cherry fueled Toscana le Chiantigiane Sangiovese.

The incredibly enjoyable dining experience is rounded off with a perfectly gooey chocolate fondant and a pot of house chai. Before leaving, I descend the poster-filled staircase to explore Dishoom's lower deck. The loos are a fascinating find, each containing a Damien Hirst-like cabinet of curiosities filled with bathtime paraphernalia from the subcontinent. I find myself momentarily transfixed by quaint soap pots and charming glass lotion bottles.

My enduring memory of Dishoom with be of the life-sized black and white poster in the ladies loos of a bare-chested man in a scandalously small pair of shorts puffing his chest out like a peacock to proudly show off a sash that reads: 'Best-built Parsi 1941'. Curiously, Parsi's were potty about bodybuilding in the '40s and '50s, just as the Bombay cafés were coming into their own. Dishoom more than merits a detour, and it will be exciting to see whether this eccentric Covent Garden site expands to other, equally deserved corners of the capital.

Dishoom, 12 Upper St Martin’s Lane WC2H 9FB. Tel: +44 (0)20 7420 9320. A meal for two with water and service costs about £35.

Monday, 27 December 2010

Inamo St James

Apologies, dear reader(s), for the three week hiatus. December always seems to whiz by in a flurry of festive obligations. At the start of the month I was offered the job of Staff Writer at The Drinks Business, which I will begin in the new year, so the month has been spent tying up loose ends at Decanter, which I bade a fond farewell to last week.

Aside from moving jobs, December has also been characteristically busy on the event front. Earlier this month, when the first bout of snow hit London, I ventured out into the white night layered up like a mille-feuille to attend the launch of Inamo St James. Arriving fashionably late, the 300-cover Regent Street restaurant was heaving. Standing in line, I noted familiar foodie faces interspersed with the odd celeb - model David Gandy acted as an alluring window display, while son of Salman, Zafar Rushdie, was busy entertaining a Sloaney blonde.

I found my dining companion, David Joseph Constable, sinking a saké Mojito at the bamboo bar. We were swiftly ushered through the sprawling space to our electronic table by a statuesque waitress in leopard print. Billed on its website as an 'Oriental fusion restaurant with influences from Japan, China, Thailand, Korea and beyond' (wherever that might be), Inamo's USP is its interactive ordering system. Diners are in control of their culinary destinies and are at liberty to order as much or as little as they desire from the electronic menu over the course of an evening.

The E-Table technology also allows you to choose your virtual tablecloth colour and design, spy on the chefs at work through the Chef Cam, and even book a taxi home. In a spectacular display of generosity (it being the press night), we were given free reign on the menu, simply split into 'small dishes', 'large dishes' and 'deserts'. The first five minutes of my Inamo experience were happily spent in silence, exploring all the E-Table's functions. My opening move was to turn our tablecloth a tasteful shade of violet, then, at the push of a button, I ordered two raspberry lemon cooler cocktails, which dutifully appeared at our table mere minutes later.

Inamo is ideal for the techno-savvy Twitter generation. There's enough on the table to entertain you to render polite conversation with your dining partner obsolete. And if you did desire to communicate, you could always send them a text, or even better, a Tweet, from across the table. Aware of my anti-social behaviour, I engage David in conversation, proposing that we order some starters. 'I've already ordered three, I think', David replies. And that's the thing. It's impossible not to fall prey to kid in a candy shop over exuberance at Inamo, making it a dangerous place for diners lacking in self restraint.

So the starters arrived in their droves. We tried bite-sized baby crispy prawns served, chippy style, in a paper cone, transparent slithers of kelp marinated sea bass (pictured) served with shiso and soy, which were slightly smoked and utterly moorish, seared tuna coated in black bean and wasabi with creamy cucumber miso, seared scallops with a lifted, lemony Yuzu dressing, Dragon rolls filled with tiger prawns and crab salad, pencil shaving thin slices of marbled beef with truffle vinaigrette and (finally) yellow tail sashimi in a sweet soy, truffle sauce.

Considering the restaurant was operating at full capacity, serving hoards of hungry, sharp-fanged journalists, the standard of the starters was impressively high. Some dishes, like the scallops, failed to reach the standard I have come to expect in London, but others, like the sea bass, yellow tail sashimi and marbled beef, were unique, exciting and extremely well executed. I often find myself more allured by starters than mains in restaurants, preferring to experience a little of a lot, than a lot of a little. Nevertheless, we felt it only right to sample a decent selection of mains, if only for a rounded overview of the cuisine on offer.

David fired up the 'larger dishes' menu on our E-Table, and started placing orders. I did the same. This is ill-advised, as we ended up with three mammoth salmon dishes glaring at us for the remainder of the evening. The main event included exquisitely cooked silky black cod in spicy miso that fell off the fork, soft, creamy, saké salmon cooked in cedar wood and served in a deliciously rich Hollandaise sauce, zesty, juicy, orange-fueled Tamarind duck breast and pan fried salmon glazed with Javanese sugar, which decency forced me to abstain from.

Quite how we found room for pudding is astounding, but it was worth fitting in. My vanilla-flecked strawberry crème Brûlée topped with mint was the highlight of the evening. Our overenthusiastic ordering resulted in an eye-watering £180 bill, but an equally fulfilling meal can be had at Inamo for a fraction of the price, and the progress of your bill can be checked at any stage by pushing the 'calculate bill' button.

Inamo St James will be a success. It's modern, stylish and faddy, like London itself. On our visit, the house music was booming and bar buzzing with trendy types sipping chic cocktails and milling about next to the tables. A number of the diners seemed irked by this, and rightly so. The drinking and dining spaces at Inamo need to be more clearly defined. Like Kyashii in Covent Garden and Aqua in Oxford Circus, there's something of the 'clubaurant' about it. It's an ideal place to take a date with whom you fear conversation may dry up. And if it does, you can book a taxi and make a quick exit without saying a word.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Roux at Parliament Square

Parliament Square has been hitting the headlines this week, for all the wrong reasons. The day after my visit to Roux at Parliament Square, hoards of disgruntled students descended upon the square to protest against Government plans to raise tuition fees. The result? A hostile protest ending in 150 arrests.

My excursion to Westminster was mercifully drama free, save for a touch of slipping and sliding along icy paths to get there. I arrived wind-slapped and with grit-filled boots, but was soon swept from the icy outdoors into the warm, beige bosom of the restaurant, which is housed in the premises of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

The evening began with a glass of the exceptional Nyetimber 2005 in the restaurant bar – a strange, grape-hued space stuffed with law books either side of a shrine to proprietor Michel Roux Jr, whose face beams out of multiple covers of his latest cookbook. Son of Albert and nephew of Michel Roux Snr, Michel Jr can usually be found heading up Le Gavroche or grilling contestants in MasterChef: the Professionals, and is widely regarded as London's pre-eminent classical chef.

Alas, Roux is decidedly absent from Parliament Square. And so is his protégé Daniel Cox – who left just 10 weeks after the restaurant opened in May. Toby Stuart from Galvin at Windows has since taken the helm. The spacious main dining room is somewhat lacking in character. A paean to purple and greige, the lighting is too bright, and the conversation too hushed. The private dining room however (pictured), has far more charm, from its stained-glass windows, sculpted chairs and art deco mirror, to the curious old menus furnishing the walls.

The main room may be dull, but the food is certainly not. Perhaps the bland decor is a deliberate device to allow the food to take centre stage. My dining partner - eminent London food critic Douglas Blyde, and I opted for the seven course tasting menu, priced at £65 per head, with an additional £40 charge for the matching wines – incredibly good value compared to the £55 three course á la carte.

There were so many highlights worthy of mention, and overall I found the food – served predominantly on circular black slates – well considered, well executed and extremely elegant. We began with a creamy, comforting parsnip soup amuse bouche, followed by a warm salad of Cheltenham beetroot (who would have thought), goat's curd, orange and pine nut. Delicate, fresh and exquisitely put together, the edible forest married well with the accompanying Alsation Pinot Blanc, which brought out the orange in the dish.

The following lasagne of Cornish crab and leek with Avruga caviar in a Champagne velouté was my standout dish of the evening. Soft, creamy and rich, the meaty crab, spliced with layers of crunchy leek, was lifted and fresh – a navigable island within a Champagne bubble bath, and worked well with the crisp, limey Rheingau Riesling. Next we were presented with a crunchy, textured, foie gras, pomegranate and radish salad with hazelnut crumble, which was bursting with flavour, but slightly overpowered by the honey heavy Château du Levant Sauternes.

We were then treated to a bite-sized chunk of silky soft, slow-cooked North Atlantic Halibut served with a mussel mousse and doll sized, mushroom strewn pancakes, which was matched with a closed and astringent white Rhône. The succeeding rump of beef with a croustillant salt brisket in a bone marrow sauce shone. The coin-sized circles of beef were tender, juicy and moreish, as was the salty, crunchy brisket, which harmonized well with the juicy, rum and raisin fuelled Thesaurum Corvina Cabernet Sauvignon 2006.

A duo of puddings rounded off the night, one of which succeed and one failed. The tiny cube of lemon tart was zingy and refreshing, while the chocolate mousse and peanut parfait with caramelised banana was sickly sweet and cloying, but redeemed by the peanuts. The final wine pairing was an opulent, heady, black fruited Dom. Lafage Maury from the Languedoc – an exciting discovery. Despite the disappointing final course, I found it hard to find fault with the food. Beautiful, precise, and packed with harmonious flavours, this is classic cooking at its best. I only wish the decor tried harder to stir the soul.