Soho

Kiln, London

Kiln is not for the faint hearted.  It is a restaurant with fire at it’s core.  Heat blazes from the clay kiln pots that are used to cook with here, and pop up from the dishes studded with chilli.  From the raised seating around the food counter it whacks you direct to face like the first steps off the plane on a summer holiday abroad.  It is the remover of clothing, the bead of sweat inducing exhilarating reason that we love obsess over fire.  A meal here is not only an insight into the food of North Thailand, it is a celebration of heat and the results it brings with control and skill.

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To see it in action is part of the theatre.  With electricity reserved only for lighting and refrigeration, all the graft is done by the small team over smouldering bits of clay.  We are handed a menu from which we choose something from every section.  We like the smaller dishes most, the pick being a coarsely ground sausage that packed the biggest of chilli hits.  Chunks of aged lamb are skewered and fused only by the melted ribbons of fat.  These are delicious, as are the chicken thigh glazed in soy in cooked gently through.  It is the most solid of starts.

From the fish section comes langoustines, cured in lime and hardly cooked so that the flesh is still semi-translucent.  It never loses the essence of the shellfish despite the big flavours of holy basil and chilli with every mouthful.  It’s delicate yet punchy, and one of the very best langoustine dishes I have ever eaten.

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We are told that the baked noodle dishes are something of a signature here, so we order them off the back of that.  They prove to be the lunches weak point, the crab lost amongst the sour dressing that you work into the dish yourself, the pig unctuous but equally unremarkable.  It’s nice enough, but for me not up to the same standard as everything else we eat.  We finish up with a beef cheek curry, the texture of the cut of meat similar to how I’ve eaten it in the far east, which is a much quicker cook and firmer texture than the long braising treatment we often give it on these shores.  It divides us; I really like the depth of flavour, complex with anise, galangal, and clove, my dining companion less so.  I finish the bowl off happily, teasing the last of the sauce out with wild rice that still has a little bit to it.

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The bill for all of this with a cocktail and glass of wine comes in at a shade over seventy quid, good value, we both agree.  Kiln is simply a one-off; a sneaky peek into the cuisine for a part of a country not associated with voyeurism like it’s southern half.  It’s a thrilling experience, equally for the punchy style of cooking and theatre.  It’s vibrant and in your face, and worthy of anyone building a sweat up for.

8/10

Kiln Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Temper, London

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I became interested in the concept of Temper long before it opened its doors in December, back when Neil Rankin announced his plans and an entire community of non-meat eaters decided the concept of cooking bits of animal in the middle of a restaurant was a bit too much for their heads to handle. Whilst they were in endanger of spontaneously combusting, I was busy working up a sweat of my own. You see, burning bits of animal is my thing; I understand if it’s not yours, but given the choice I’m always to take a slow cooked bit of cow over a carrot. And if I can watch the magic happen whilst eating said bits of meat then I’m all yours. Take me. Do as you will.

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The first thing that hits you when you descend down the stairs is the smell.  It is one of victory of the food chain in the correct order.  Of smoke and of animal. It wears you more than you wear it.  I take one of the stools around the central counter and watch the team at work.  Various bits of cow, pig, sheep, and goat, each sold in mixed cuts of 100g portions.  There are taco’s, larbs and kofta.  Sides, sauces, and sprinkles.  Aged cheeseburgers are the first to arrive; mini patties of aged beef, rare in the centre and charred on the outer, sat on freshly pressed taco’s the right side of sandy in texture.  It is the perfect two bite snack; meaty, complex and undeniably masculine.

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And then the meat.  Oh Lordy, the meat.  One plate of pork, another of lamb, piled on to flat breads so that the rendered fat has a final resting place.  Each has various cuts, distinguishable only by the amount of fat between meat and skin.  I remark to the chef working by me that the clarity of flavour each cut of meat is extraordinary – “just salt, pepper, and a little fire” is his response.  If only cooking was that simple.  The process works; leaner cuts come pinker than working muscles.  Fat opaque.  Skin crisp.  Some bits require your own teeth, others don’t.  All of it is incredible.  Asking me which one is my favourite would be like asking my Dad to choose between his two sons.  I reckon a decision could be made at a push, but it’s not for my ears.  With this I order a burnt pepper salsa that adds a nice piquancy to both meats and a crumb of pork scratchings, hot pepper and pickled onion that seasons the pork to a new level, as well as providing an additional texture to a bowl of burrata, jalapeno and lime. The latter is an inspired choice of side and one that I reach for in-between mouthfuls of meat to cool and sharpen the palate.

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They do desserts; a soft baked cookie and a caramel drenched pastry.  Both sound like they could genuinely change my world, though by now I am sweating unattractively and unable to finish the slices of goat kindly offered by the same chef who shared his insight.  I sit for a while and take it all in; the place is heaving at lunchtime just weeks after opening and rightly so – these people are here for meat and theatre and both are delivered in abundance.  The smell of fire and animal would stain my jacket for the rest of the day.  I wear it like a badge of honour.

9/10

 

 

Little Bao, Hong Kong

Little Bao is so cool it could be a refrigerator. So on trend it could be a catwalk. So achingly hip it could be arthritic. And I am not alone in this opinion. This I know because eleven minutes after its 6pm opening time, a queue has formed outside the door where a lady with a clipboard organises swarms of people on benches, whilst we look on from our bar stools overlooking the chefs at work. A perk of English punctuality. People queue for a reason; these are not tourists like us, but those who know what they are getting. And they know what we now know – what you get at Little Bao is worth the wait. It is so so good.

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For those uninitiated, a Bao is a steamed milk bun of Taiwanese origin, filled and then, if you are anything like me, quickly devoured.  You don’t need to go to Hong Kong for one – that would be an unnecessary expense – given that London has a restaurant group that specialises in them, and they can be found at numerous street food companies across the country.  But we are in Hong Kong and we have hunted this down like it is the last Thylacine and found the small galley restaurant in the heart of Soho.  Hip-hop plays, the chefs wearing sleeves of tattoos underneath the t-shirts bearing the logo.  Its loud and visceral, pounding with youthful energy.

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I will move on to the main event in good time, though first the sharing plates, each priced around the mid-teen mark when converted back to sterling.  Dumplings, opaque on the underside and pan-fried to a blackened crisp on top, are filled with a beef short rib mixture that has been braised to a tangle of soft meat.  The star of the dish is hidden underneath; a coleslaw of celeriac, not too distant in make-up from a remoulade, which adds a earthiness and crunch to the soft dumplings.  Its a compelling piece of cooking, familiar, yet still a statement of intent.  We fight over the last one.

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Pork cheek is one of my favourite cuts of any animal, cheap, usually slow cooked, and packed full of taste.  Here the meat had been roasted and then sliced to robust cuts of pig, each glistening with ribbons of rendered fat.  The texture was denser, the meat still tender.  A caramelised apple puree, smokey and with a hint of, I think, clove, was smeared around the edge.  Ribbons of fennel spiced with cumin are a revelation.  Who would have known that the anise funk of fennel could be tempered by the pepperiness of the cumin?  Little Bao does, obviously.

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And the bao’s?  Cushioned pillows of milk, flour and yeast which are the ideal bland vehicle for the complex flavours inside.  The pick of the three is the white fish in an ethereal tempura batter, with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce and lightly pickled fennel.  Another has softly braised pork belly, dressed in hoi sin and balanced out with a red onion and shiso salad that is almost as good as the one with deep fried chicken, sharp with black vinegar and hot with Szechuan.  Its like I imagine the best KFC Zinger burger tastes, only without the genetically modified chicken.

We finish on another bao, smaller in stature and fried to a golden crisp.  Inside is a salted milk ice cream drizzled with a caramel sauce.  Whoever thought of this has a mind of pure filth and should become my new drinking buddy with immediate effect.  Remember what I said about not having to go to Hong Kong for Bao?  I take it back.  Forget the Christmas presents for the aunt you don’t like and book yourself a flight.img_8001

This being Hong Kong its maybe a little more than we would expect to pay at home.  The Bao’s are just under a tenner each, cocktails around the same price.  I leave with a bill of just under a hundred pound, which may seem expensive given the casual nature of the restaurant, but seemed very fair to me.  Its a place I could have happily stayed in and indulged in all night, though it was only right that we stepped outside and gave the next in the queue their turn.  It may be little by name but the flavours here are massive.

9/10

Gauthier Soho, London

The menu at Gauthier Soho reads like porn to a tragic food fan like me. It’s an ode to seasonality from the seasoned hands of a French wizard. It talks of truffles and lobsters and foie gras and cuts of beef from places in France that sound fun to visit. It has veloutes, fondants, and torchons. The only way it could be any more Gaelic is if the bread basket was mounted to the front of a bicycle. It’s the kind of menu that requires attention.

The building also requires attention. A town house in murky Soho, with a bell on the door to gain access. It has three floors on which to eat and basement from which they cook. The décor is understated, the tables generous in space and with a single candle to provide light, which did wonders for my fading looks but little for the photo’s. I know it’s asking a lot, but you’ll have to trust me with a lot of the dishes as the pictures are too poor to do justice to what was served.

What was served was three hours of exhilarating food, starting with a perfectly cooked lobe of foie, roasted peach and elderflower crisp. The fruit and forage providing the acidity and sweetness to stand up to the fatty liver. A veloute of pea had goats cheese and confit lime, each giving a little interest with every mouthful. Its very clever cooking, showcasing technique and a knowledge of ingredients. This was approach was evident in a jaw dropping risotto of black truffle. The flavour deep and controlled, the grains loose and evenly cooked. There was perfume from the truffles and a meatiness from the veal stock which leant against the edge of the bowls. Never have I eaten a better risotto.

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A singular piece of stunning crispy pork belly was served with two pieces of loin stuffed with olives, some apricots, and beetroot that was a little too al dente for my liking. This was the only time in the meal that it felt out of proportion, with too much of the loin and not enough of the unctuous belly to balance out the tart apricot. There was more of the beetroot on a veggie main with tempura leaves and a ricotta and basil gnocchi that could have been a lot lighter. The kitchen was quickly back on form with a crimson red beef fillet, fondant potato and marrow stuffed with bone marrow. This was proper, grown up cooking, the fondant in particular oozing with butter.

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Charlois Beef

To finish off proceedings we had a cheese plate and two desserts. The first was a strawberry mousse, with wild strawberries, lemon sherbet sorbet and a tuile that was allegedly made from balsamic. It was a stunning dish that made the showcased the end of season strawberries at their very best. The final dish was a chocolate croustillant that Gauthier learnt plying his trade at Alain Ducasses’ three star restaurant in Monaco. It is the fourth time I have had this dish and this one is every bit as good as those I have previously had in establishments bearing Ducasses’ name. The chocolate and praline layers creating something textually reminiscent of a kit-kat, but a flavour so indulgent you feel the button of your trousers tighten just by looking at it.

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Louis XV

So there you are, five hundred or so words of me blathering on about a house in Soho that cooks up brilliant dishes from it’s basement. The food here doesn’t follow trends – it follows seasons and it does so with the up-most of appreciation.  Everything here is treated with respect and the technique which has sat at the forefront of French cuisine for hundreds of years. Escoffier would be proud. Ooh La La.

9/10

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