Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Milk & Honey, Soho.

I complain as much as the next person about this country and everyone in it but one of the things I do love about British people is our ability to queue. We are standing outside an unmarked door in the cold waiting to get into Milk and Honey on Poland street in Soho. As soon as new folk arrive, they arrange themselves in an orderly manner so as to suggest that they're not going to try and jump the line. The door opens just after 6pm and as I'm the nearest, I let the woman at the front in first. She's being joined by at least a dozen friends for a cocktail making class downstairs which looks like great fun.
We're not members but have booked a table ahead as guests (by phone). I know this puts a few people off, you might suspect that it would be a bit snooty. Not a bit of it, the staff are amongst the friendliest we encounter in London both in person and by phone. We're warmly shown through the heavy curtain.
The feel is of a cool, dark speak-easy. It's a small room with a row of booths on one side (we're shown to one, yes!) and a serious looking bar at one end. Early jazz music is playing softly. Perfect.
None of our party can read the menu and it's dimly but beautifully lit by candles but we've prepared ahead. This is one serious cocktail bar and I hardly recognise the list, the usual suspects are not on it.
I order a Penicillin, (Scotch, peated Scotch, lemon, honey, ginger, £9), Mrs Bacon wants a Florodora (Gin, lime, raspberries, ginger, soda, £9). Naturally the cocktails are fabulous, as you'd expect.
The west end is manic at Christmas especially and the strictly booking door policy allows this to be a wonderfully calm haven. In truth, they could never allow walk-ins here, it's way too small and intimate. Last time we were in London we'd tried a few cocktail bars on spec. There's very little chance that you can get in to the good ones, even early evening. Anyway, I think we've found a new favourite cocktail bar now as we enjoyed Milk and Honey so much.
Photos courtesy of Milk and Honey as it was too dark.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

La Bandera, Manchester.

I never get any interesting emails these days. My inbox is usually full of promises to enhance my flagging libido, Manchester Confidential offers, lottery wins in India, you know the sort of thing. Then last night I got an email from someone I don't know with just a link to a restaurant website asking me if I'd been yet. I'm not in the habit of clicking on email links from strangers. I typed in the address anyway to be safe;
Strange, this looks like a fully formed website of a Spanish restaurant in Manchester that I'd never heard of. There's no menu up yet but the food looks pretty good from the photos. I went onto twitter to ask those in the know. Those in the know didn't know anything about it. This is not how it normally works. We can't have a fully functioning restaurant just open without anyone hearing on the grapevine. We know about Hawksmoor, Wahaca, Ibérica and the rest opening in 2015, months, sometimes years ahead of time. The website mentions 'executive chef Josetxo Arrieta'. I google him. An impressive CV, he was educated at Akelarre a three Michelin star restaurant in San Sebastian. (See my review here). And he's done a course with Ferran Adrià. With over 20 years experience (including a 2 star in France), what's he doing coming to Manchester without anyone knowing about it?
Curiouser and curiouser, surely this was too good to be true. It crossed my mind that this was an elaborate joke. Then someone said they'd heard that it's "owned by two Spanish Manchester footballers..spending a lot of cash, they've imported a great chef." This maybe just rumour though, I never found out for sure. I went along to investigate anyway.
First impressions are good, with a very friendly front of house team and a bright yellow and white interior (maybe not to everyone's taste). I soon start chatting with the owner Yashin about Spain and the Canaries (He's from Tenerife). What is clear from the very start is that unlike other Spanish restaurants currently in the city, they're taking food very seriously. The menu will change daily depending on the season and on what's good at the time at the market. (He tells me that the chef rejects some tiger prawns today as he doesn't think they are good enough).
This is a very good sign. I tell him I'll eat anything and everything he and the chef recommend. I can't abide fussy eaters, to me they're just children who've not grown up yet.
After a few snacks on toast, (they are fine if not mind blowing), I kick off with Pulpo a la gallega (Octopus with paprika on a bed of potatoes, £10.95). Beautifully cooked tender octopus with a spicy paprika kick, it's over seasoned, and I can really take a bit of salt. With less salt it will be a real winner this one.
They send out some Patatas Bravas which are nice enough, I need to save myself though so I ask for a doggy bag to take home for Mrs B. This will earn me a few brownie points.
They will do smaller tapas versions of the large mains dishes, so I get the Carrilleras de Ternera (Slow cooked Ox cheeks, £7.95). These are rich and flavoursome as expected but need to be a tad softer so that the meat is more broken down and gelatinous. I should be able to eat it with a spoon. (After the feedback, the chef agrees and will adjust).
We continue with Papas arrugadas con mojo (Baby potatoes with spicy Canarian sauce, £5.45). I save some for Mrs Bacon once more as she demands these on our trips to the Canaries. Again the chef needs to go lighter on the salt.
There is also a selection of Croquettas (Cod, Jamón and Mushroom £6.85). Pleasingly gooey inside with enough béchamel sauce, I'd have preferred a slightly a thinner breadcrumb crust. I give all my feedback at the time to Yashin at the time which he's very happy to take in.
The Carrilleras de Cerdo (Slow cooked pig cheeks, £7.95) are much better, buttery soft and rich with meaty gravy stock.
I finish on a tapas version of one of their large rice dishes, Arroz Meloso de rape y calamares Creamy rice with monkfish and squid. (They send this out for me to try). The rice should have more creaminess and needs to be more infused with the stock giving it more of a rich flavour.
But I'm being super picky here. We've eaten in some of the best tapas bars all over Spain so I'm judging it by those high standards. Besides, you should never really review places that have just opened. Like any new venture, not everything works perfectly immediately. The chef hasn't got all of his equipment and the card and coffee machines aren't yet working. These are not necessarily criticisms, it's totally understandable, you just have to give them some leeway if you're visiting right now as I did (I'm afraid I couldn't wait but will return anyway).
Having said all that, this is a country mile away from the clichéd, crap chain, pre-packaged tapas hung over from the 90's when British people knew no better.
La Bandera is in fact very promising indeed, even accounting for the teething problems and natural tweaks that always occur. It's still (for the main part) easily the best tapas I've had in Manchester city centre because they're doing things properly from the beginning. Give them a week or so and go. This could very well be one of the most exciting restaurant openings for a while if they fulfil their potential (I'm very hopeful that they will).
With La Bandera, Ibérica and El Gato Negro, 2015 looks to be the year Manchester goes Spanish and that can only be a good thing for eating in our city.
To see the current menu click here.* It will change every day.
The wine list here.
Paid in full *apart from a couple of small sample dishes.
See more photos here
The Best 50 Tapas here.
La Bandera on Urbanspoon

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Clove Club, London.

If you visit our capital just once a year as we do, you'd better make sure that you choose your restaurant wisely. The choice is so baffling, so much good stuff, it takes me a whole year to finalise my decision. Last year I give myself 6 out of 10 for effort. Dabbous we find to be massively over-rated and the disappointment lingers. Berners Tavern is enjoyable but as much about the experience and the beautiful room as the pretty decent but not mind blowing food. We're after maybe less established fabulous Michelin star style creative food but on a budget of sorts.
I narrow my choices down but change my mind at the last minute. As good as Barrafina is, I'm sure, I decide that queuing outside in the cold on one of the busiest Saturdays of the year isn't for us. (They have a no booking policy).
After a few very positive recent reviews from local bloggers, (and Volta co-owner, Luke), I choose The Clove Club in Hoxton which it turns out is a wise choice. Coincidentally, all three of the restaurants on this trip recently gained Michelin stars too. It's a great time to visit in my experience as they're very much on the ascendancy.
You enter the restaurant through the grand town hall pillars, past the cold larder which gives off the most gorgeous aroma of maturing meat. You probably wouldn't guess that this is a Michelin star restaurant, the feel is casual and modern with a busy looking open kitchen on one side of the room. We opt for the £55 shorted taster menu as it's lunch time and we have have a big day of eating ahead.
Appetisers arrive, Wood pigeon sausage, greengage jam.
Then a festive looking pine basket of Buttermilk fried chicken, pine salt.  
I rarely order chicken in a restaurant but I would make an exception for this. The hot meat almost burns to top of my mouth but it's worth the slight pain as the crunchy, salty crust gives way to the most flavoursome soft, warm chicken. Little Beetroot crackers with sheep’s curd, next. Then some superb sourdough, up there with the finest bread we've had all year. I warn the waiter; 'as long as you keep bringing it, I'll keep eating it.' I keep to my word on at least four occasions.
 I've got a good feeling about this place, so when the first course proper arrives, Raw Orkney Scallop, Hazelnut, Clementine & Burgundy Truffle, I just know I made the right choice. It is totally superb although perhaps unusual, however, the clean fresh taste of the tender, raw scallop along with the woodland flavours of hazelnut and truffle work so well together.
Cornish squid, tarragon & bacon fat is another doozy too. I can barely detect the bacon fat, but no matter, the squid is so undulating and soft and the tarragon sauce is so delicious, I ask for more bread to mop up the precious green juices.
Roast Sika Deer, Kabocha squash and Kumquat is kind of like the finest steak you've ever eaten, so much rich intense flavour, and the tender texture of the meat beautifully cooked is simply wonderful. 
A week on, Mrs Bacon still regrets swapping this course for cod which she says is very good but this deer is something else. She thoroughly enjoys a fragrant course of Madeira to make up for it.
Both desserts are extremely good too.
Amalfi Lemonade & Sarawak Pepper is one of my favourites of the year. Simple, yet so fluffy and light, the lemonade fizzes on your mouth like space dust and then you get a little hit of spicy pepper.
I also love the Apple Tarte Tatin & Calvados Crème fraîche, in fact it's absolutely perfect.
All four of us are extremely impressed with The Clove Club. The clarity of the cooking seems to suit us down to a tee. The food is extremely assured, it's faultless. It's modern and creative yet not overly so, everything just works so well. The service is extremely efficient (the food came out in rapid succession as I prefer).
We leave slightly dazed, on a food high, (not too stuffed) and ready for the next instalment but the Clove Club is the best start to a food weekend that I can imagine.

The Clove Club on Urbanspoon  *Bill paid in full and costs us £76.50 each including wine and service charge. To see more photos click here.