Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Bob Bob Ricard

Exterior of Bob Bob Ricard.

London has a vibrant restaurant team, yet this vibrancy seldom seems to extend to the feel of the places where we dine. The default is bleached wood, bleached walls and tastefully bleached abstracts on the walls. When this is not the case there is, even with the most dramatic interiors a restraint, a tendency to take the historic route. I feel this is a result of the parsimony of the chattering classes tempered by the fear that a flamboyant interior will detract from the food, or in the cliche d by food writers, the food will not be 'able to speak for itself'. Personally I feel an important element of dining out is occasion; that you are not eating in any space that apes your home or that of your friends. Which is why I am becoming steadily more irritated by the tendency of restaurants to ape a Notting Hill/Islington genus of domestic aesthetics. Restaurants are public places, and a chef with confidence can cope with the most demented interior. Anything is preferable to bland.

Interior of Bob Bob Ricard.

Bland is especially undesirable when you are dolled up to the nines, what you want is an environment worth the pin-curls and pain. Bob Bob Ricard in Soho where I ate last week is one of those establishments that has the courage of its convictions and is most distinctly not 'griege' in any way. You could certainly take your smartest thirties suit and smartest chap out to it. The interior is glamorous but not conventional. The place has, on one side a pleasingly thirties feel, with deco designs on the windows and surfaces burnished in shades of varnished browns. The kind of place a Shanghai Express Dietrich could slink into with its hints of classy Pullman dining car velvetiness. The seating booths, in dark blue/green leather upholstered leather also has the intimacy that was a trademark of restaurants and supper clubs of that era. It also makes it a decent location for assignations or dates. At the same time the use of gold and the seventies brutalist/cubist style chandeliers give the place more than a hint of high class Moscow Hotel bar and I was unsurprised to detect a Russian influence in the menu. Even more so as the titular Bob Bob is Russian.

Bob Bob Ricard offers ‘all day’ dining which has produced an eclectic menu containing as it has to, food suitable for brunch, lunch, afternoon and late night meals. We were moving on to a private view and knew we would be drinking possible until late so we ate early in the evening and for us, lightly. Amongst the dishes we sampled the stand outs included Torquil's starter of a venison steak tartare. Less oleaginous than the traditional beef steak version it was well seasoned and had a pleasing gamey edge. I also liked the presentation, the raw quail egg to top the tartare sat in it's shell and the interior of a quails egg posesses of the most beautiful colours on God's earth. We opted for Russian dishes as our main courses. A chicken Kiev was efficiently prepared and filling. I had pelmeni, small dumplings that disconcertingly always resemble either contraceptive caps or door handles. But they are meaty tasty little things and I like all things dumpling. Talking of little things I had the little lemon pot dessert which turned out to be an engaging combination of tart lemon dessert, with fresh raspberries and a long pastry straw which was very handy for accessing the lemon goo (encased in one of those funny little kilner jars that restaurateurs love so much. There have been criticisms that the restaurant is too eclectic, but we managed formal traditional three course meals with no problems. Recently people have become obsessed with being led and guided through their food, but if you want several small dishes, I see no reason why a restaurant should be criticised for a tapas like approach.

It is a flexible menu, a table near us seemed like reluctant diners, a young couple with parents who seemed nervous of both price and interior. They ordered burgers and beers all round, I asked what they thought and they replied that the burgers were delicious, in fact really good. Thats the issue with places like this, depending on your choices you can end up eating expensively or really, for the area and ambience, quite inexpensively. It is possible to have a good lunch here, depending on your choices for not much more than a pub lunch. Someone else we know who dined here said she was charged less than expected for a meal. However that said I still feel it is basically an 'event' restaurant more suited to dates and treats.


I suspect that Bob Bob Ricard had a few things to offer that are currently under the radar of London diners, possibly due to its location in one of the less high-profile streets in the Carnaby Street end of Soho.

Ground floor bar.

One is the attractive bar. There are no grand hotel bars in this immediate area to go to for a good cocktail in sophisticated surroundings. Most drinking holes in the area are either full of braying media types in the week or stag/hen nights at the weekend. Prices for cocktails were reasonable and we felt this would be a very good place to kick off your Soho night with a few martinis. I heard the comforting rattle of a shaker several times and the cocktails did look good. The basement bar/restaurant area is currently being renovated but should open in September. Even in disarray it had a more louche speakeasy feel than the ground floor. In addition, and I feel the need to capitalise this, the floor is designed and inlaid to resemble a BACKGAMMON BOARD. It may well be a contender for best floor in a London restaurant land, an honour currently held by the Wolseley (no great shocker as the same designer is behind both establishments and the man’s a genius).

The downstairs area (re-opening in September) please note floor.

The other thing I could not help but notice was CAKE or rather a small group of young women having a late and somewhat boozy afternoon tea. The afternoon tea looked charming, I was really taken with the witty cakes on the upper tier which were miniatures of traditional classics; a tiny square of battenburg, a miniature slice of victoria sponge and what must be a contender for the smallest rhum baba in the world. Everyone is jumping on the cupcake, vintage tea bandwagon but I still like my afternoon tea traditional and elegant, not served in cracked tea cups on silly flowery wotnots. Hotels get booked up quickly by hordes of large tourists in crease resistant slacks so this is a bit of a find.

So what did I think of the place? Well I review primarily from the point of view of the vintage-retro interested Soho diner. And from this point of view sheerly in response to its full-on glamour it gets a thumbs up, I do feel that it is the perfect place to lounge around and chomp our way through caviar, eggs benedict and english cheeses. We plan to go back and carry out the patented 'White Lady' cocktail test at the bar and will report back but the overall impression was of a bartender who knew what he was doing. Whilst saying that it is not a cheap restaurant it does have occasional tastings and special offers and this one caught my eye:

‘Let Them Eat Caviar’ at Bob Bob Ricard
In line with Bob’s commitment to make Bob Bob Ricard the number one choice for caviar in London, he presents The Caviar Lunch at just £19.75 every day throughout the month of August. Lunch consists of 10gr Caviar With Sour Cream And Blinis; Meat Pelmeni or Truffle & Potato Vareniki and a shot of Russian Standard Vodka served at minus 18C and must be ordered before 5pm. For comparison, the 10gr tin of caviar alone would cost £24 to buy retail at Harrods or Fortnum & Mason.

Ultimately I liked the place, the bar, the afternoon tea and the propensity to graze on smaller dishes are things I appreciate. I have my quibbles, one is that they are not getting the glamorous female clientele they could for afternoon teas and cocktails. The music didn’t appeal (but then again it seldom does) the place is crying out for some ragtime, swing and rat pack crooning. The service was good if a bit nervous, the one mistake with the order was rectified immediately. It will be interesting to see how it develops and what effect the re-opening of the basement floor will have. I’ll certainly be popping in with some ladies to try that afternoon tea…and if the music changes I'll happily dance on the table (it has been known to happen before).

Why to go:

Opulent interior and retro feel.
Caviar, vodka and cocktails.
Afternoon tea.
Good bolt hole from living hell of Oxford/Regent Street.

Retrometropolitan would take: vintage ladies post shopping for tea, Russianophiles, bounders who show no reluctance to use the champagne button.

Feedback is always welcome, if you have any comments or questions feel free.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Hix, Nick's and Dicks, cocktail hour in Soho

Generally I dive into a hotel bar when mid afternoon the overwhelming desire for a glass of champagne hits me. But in Soho one Spring afternoon my fashion maven friend Katie Chutzpah and I plumped for Hix. Probably much more suitable for a fashion maven, but vintage ladies are quite happy cradling their glass of cider in the French House. But there were a number of reasons to opt for Hix. A spirit of adventure, because I had never been there, because I am aware it is really far too trendy for me, so I can tell my mum I have seen a chef from the telly and finally that for me the word 'Hix' sounds comfortably like 'Hicc'.

Sign directing you to the bar at Hix. I'd like it better if the fingers were the other way around.

Hix is on the Picaddilly end of the ever insalubrious Brewer Street, to get in you have to push a big wooden door that was worryingly like the one that almost killed me at Trinity College during a misspent youth. The cocktail bar is then downstairs and the sign above directs you to its delights. The bar itself is a curious room, very high ceilinged compared to most Soho basements. Decor wise it had an eclectic mid-century shoreditchy vibe. But there were things to like, bar billiards for one: there is nothing quite like the sight of those little shiny wooden mushrooms to cheer you up even if, as you only play it when drunk the rules have to be explained to you every time you try. It is the groundhog day of bar games. The kitchens could be glimpsed through a door to the side of the bar, but the bar itself was long, full of bottles and looked pleasing. I am always cheered by gleaming colourful bottles, my version of a candy shop. But it also gave the impression of being a ‘working’ bar; by this I mean the bottles of most of the things might actually come off the shelves occasionally and be used, rather than sitting there being dusted. A bartender I met in Japan complained that he hated the keeping of unnecessary bottles in bars, but you can't trust that lot, all that tatami and minimalism. Hix's bar is manned by a well known bartender called Nick Strangeways who has an uncanny resemblance to the Wynd brothers. He was there whilst we supped our champagne. This was served in champagne bowls which was another good thing about the place, I really don't like flutes, they seem frugal. Champagne bowls speak of belle époque excess and decadence. Champagne flutes are more holiday inn wedding reception in Maidenhead. Mr Strangeways seemed a fun and faintly louche cove, he fell up the stairs whilst saying hello to me and at one point was wearing the top of a monster cocktail shaker on his head.

I liked the place, certainly in the afternoon it was relaxing. The one annoying little kid kept away from us..more or less...maybe it was aware that we were the kind of women who'd like to to have seen him impaled on a cocktail stick. Like many cellar bars it had a cosy womb like quality and it took all of our efforts just to lift ourselves reluctantly from our soft chairs and move on.

Nick Strangeways without cocktail shaker cap fascinator.

Having met up with the bearded one we decided to go further along Brewer Street to Dick Bradsell's bar under the Mexican restaurant El Camino's. This was a marked contrast to Hix's. Small, intimate and simply decorated, the point here was the range of Margarita type concoctions and Dick himself. A bit of a legend (some may remember him from the Atlantic/Colony), but one of those straight forward self-deprecating ones who know they are good at what they do and don't feel the need to go on about it. He is also from the Isle of Wight, one of those places that bad things never come from. I had a good, straightforward Margarita of the kind that I used to knock back during various sojourns in Southern California. I have a photograph of myself behind a mountain of empty glasses in San Francisco's spanish bit and this was a glassful of the same stuff in the same kind of glass. The bearded one is currently testing White Ladys, Dick's one was delicious and well balanced (the sherbet/sharp/boozy ratio is tricky). The place got much busier later on. Someone doused me with perfume that must have smelt nice on them, but smelt like loo freshener on me and didn't get on with my tequila at all but I've been covered with worse. Full marks for the music too.

A picture of Dick Bradsell I lifted from t'internet, he is not making a cocktail...

Some people don't know I was once a cocktail bartender myself. It was a long time ago, I am not an expert and don't recall most of the recipes. But I am aware that the extremely busy South London place I worked in produced good drinks, and at speed. The customers would be three deep from the bar on a Saturday and Sarf Londoners are not an easy clientele, for the best of reasons; they are fussy. Everything was spotlessly clean, full measures were always used and there was no time for flim-flam.

What I find now in many mixed drinks is a lack of strength/crispness of flavour and a loss of texture. Too much syrup, not the right cream, powdered nutmeg, too much ice in shakers. I don't think cocktails are complicated, but like anything else seemingly simple they are really easy to muff up. There is a skill to making drinks that taste good, look good (and whilst I love a gaudy tropical cocktail and plastic monkeys simple is often best on that front) and don't take 10 minutes to appear. Some famous hotel bars could do with remembering this (yes, the Ritz, I am talking about your dodgy drinks and even dodgier service). Maybe it seems pretentious to rattle on about it, but cocktails are expensive and most people wouldn’t pay a tenner for an incorrectly prepared plate of food. Seems that the art of the well made cocktail is being appreciated again and that can only be a very good thing as is the fact that people like Dick have never stopped making the things properly.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Terroirs Wine Bar.

It is funny, but for a nation infamous for it’s love of wine there do not seem to be many good wine bars in London at the moment. Of course the ‘wine bar’ had its heyday in the seventies. Especially the wine basement. But these seem to have disappeared as their owners sink into a hopefully grape happy retirement. But the new attitude is to have a kind of hypermarket attitude to wine bars, they are consituents . Walk into any such gastropolis and you will find yer brasserie, yer posh restaurant bit plus odd little organic bits. Usually something cavernous is going on, and perhaps a zinc bar. Just sticking a zinc bar somewhere however doesn’t work. The one that Kettners stupidly put in their main entrance area has I notice been ripped out.

The intimate wine bar of the past, indelibly stamped with the tastes and décor of its owner is what I miss, even if that owner was a bit of a bore. Somewhere for people who really like wine, not just the latest fashionable grape or witty label. Somewhere that serves cheese, and salty bits. Somewhere that wine comes first, not décor. I like mustiness, old barrels as tables, bits of wine crate on the walls. A bit of tattiness does not go amiss. But slowly all the die hards are going.

One new wine bar to open and whose success is encouraging is Terroirs in Covent Garden. Well, not so much Covent Garden as, behind the Strand, diagonal from Trafalgar Square, a spit from the National Portrait Gallery and in front of the cop shop; 5 William IV Street WC2 to be precise. Very handy in fact and rather tucked away. Not that this prevents it from being crowded. The first time I went, on weekday, we were only just squeezed in front of the zinc bar, on a Saturday the bar remained packed but there was the odd table. I was taken by a wine obsessed friend from University days, now a barrister and we proceeded to drink the best part of 3 bottles of wine, leaving us just capable of getting off our bar stools. In my case I did manage to flag a cab, and turned up, very merry at the bearded one's home waving the remainder of a bottle of red (which the staff insisted I take) around like a captured roman standard. My companion was found by his wife, the following morning, fully dressed and fast asleep on the sofa.

The reasons for our enjoyment were, in no particular order: the quality of the wine, the chumminess of the staff and the moreishness of the nibbles. It sells by both the glass and the bottle an interesting range of wines, largely by small growers in France and Alsace. Unsurprising as it is owned by the wine merchants Caves de Pyrenes who supply many famous restaurants. For those avoiding the dreaded sulphides or of an ecological bent many were organic. But the wines are clearly chosen for taste, rather than worthiness. They are served in simple yet not too sparse surroundings in stylish unusual glasses. My champagne came in something that seemed to be a compromise between a flute and a balloon. I’m a martinet when it comes to glass cleanliness and these were clean and polished. Snack wise I recommend the fresh anchovies on toast, the duck rillettes and the duck scratchings (I like eating quackers). There is a fuller menu that looks tasty but so far being the lush I am I have not been able to tear myself away from the zinc bar. This does what it should do, provides a feature for the place and although noisy I like perching there examining the bottles of calvados sitting on the shelves, winking at me like fat tempting little devils.

It is nice to have a choice other than the redoubtable Cork and Bottle in the area if you want some decent wine, something that the pubs in the area rarely supply. It has a friendly relaxed atmosphere, French without the Café Rouge piffle. When you go the staff castigate you for leaving, telling you that wherever you are going the wine won't be as good and they are probably right.

VIEW: Mainly subterranean, French stuff on the walls, zinc bar and flitting staff.
FOOD: rustic tasty charcuterie and unpretentious tasty French stuff.
ENJOYABLE: Duck rillette, friendly staff and lots of quaffing.
WINE: Very good but mainly limited to France and immediate neighbours.
CRITICISM: has set sittings in one part of the place in the evenings.

The Retrometropolitan would take: Wine lovers, nibblers, people who like to drink…lots.

Welcome to the Retrometropolitan.

Welcome to The Retrometropolitan. It is the greedy little sister of another blog and has been set up to feature reviews and thoughts about establishments largely, but not entirely in London. The author was born and bred in London from a family full of butchers cooks and bakers. Retrometropolitan has been a waiter, a chef, a cocktail bartender and was on the wine tasting team of a venerable old university.

The reviews and descriptions here are intended to give a personal view of what a place is ‘like’a vague term that encompasses food, service, atmosphere and looks. A particular bias will be towards individualistic and distinctive places. Retrometropolitan is not concerned with modern fashion, could not give a plastic monkey where her polenta comes from and is unconcerned with celebrity chefs. Her inclinations are retro and vintage but she loves her grub and is often drunker than she should be.

Views are entirely personal, may strike some as being un-pc and may be opinionated. The hope is however to be helpful and contribute to some one else’s good dinner, lunch or even early morning kebab. If anyone disagrees with my views they are welcome to contact me. If you wish to have your establishment honestly described, again contact me. If a review by someone else is featured it will be by someone I personally know and whose judgement I trust. Comments are very welcome.

Butler's Wharf Chop House.

'chop·house (chphous)
A restaurant that specializes in serving steaks and chops of meat.

The appellation 'chop house' has become trendy, a consequence of the recent resurgence in good native produce and British cuisine. Some of us never stopped enjoying our lamb shank, sausages and fried fish but the chattering classes finally hooked onto the fact that good meaty wholesome food is a desirable thing. The old London chop house was a smokey darkened room full of mutton chopped chaps eating chops, steaks and oysters. The modern chop house is not quite the same (sadly) although those using the name 'chop house' are often nodding to a more savoury carnivorous cuisine. For the real thing London's clubland serves the closest to a traditional chop house menu. But we tried one of these nouveau chop houses recently.

A Georgian Chop House.

Four of us rolled up to the Butlers Wharf Chop House. They in fact have a very good value lunch, 3 courses for £26.00 which for the location and the food is a steal. Sadly the sun had gone in by the time we arrived but on a sunny day there a very few restaurants in London that can compete with it for views. Straight out across the Thames and right in front of the enduringly pretty Tower Bridge. It is the perfect place to bring parents visiting from the sticks.

The Chop House's schtick is British food, an ex Conran eatery this is naturally presented through the lens of Sunday Supplement food design. Condiments and sauces are served in those little twee preserve jars and our asparagus was placed on a completely erroneous piece of paper, on a wooden platter. The family matriarch pointed out rather tartly that good old fashioned china would have been more elegant and functional. The food however was pretty good. The asparagus and oysters consumed as a starter were excellent, the meat dishes, as you should expect from a chop house were tasty and the desserts which included Yorkshire Rhubarb and ginger ice cream were tasty. In fact tastiness and decent proportions were the most obvious components of the meal. The bread that arrived with the starter and continued to be offered was excellent and the one bit of unripe rhubarb was promptly replaced. It is worth pointing out a fit for purpose wine list. These can be rarer than hens teeth. This list was well chosen, our white, a Chilean Chardonnay I think, was lovely and slipped down our thirsty throats a little too easily. In short the lunch was extremely good value and the view hard to beat.

Why to go here:

VIEW: one of the best in London.
FOOD: good quality set menu for lunch, good meat and bread.
WINE: large selection across price range.
CRITICISM: too many twiddles.

The Retrometropolitan would take: Older less adventurous people will appreciate the traditional dishes. Parents visiting from the sticks. Foreign friends.

Chop House balcony with view of bridge.

Did I say it had a nice view?