This week I try the Headley and the Gate

Saturday, December 13th , 2008

cambio-de-tercio 3846 outside-crop-v3.JPG
I took one of my rare ventures off the tube network this week into darkest Essex, to the The Headley near Brentwood. This is the sister to 2 starred Midsummer House, and I found the food very successful. Eating in Essex is a perilous experience, with just seven entries for the whole county in the 2009 Good Food Guide and a slew of truly dire places I have had the misfortune to try over the years. Hence it was a very pleasant surprise to find this appealing British cooking, a true pearl amongst swine given where it is. Proper fish soup, good venison and pleasant tarte tatin show that good food can be had in Essex, rare as it may be. 
The Gate is also a rarity, a purely vegetarian restaurant, which has been plying its trade in a side-street in Hammersmith since 1989. The menu is quite ambitious, avoids clichés and is written in an evocative style. The room definitely says “restaurant” rather than “café”, and the service is attentive, even if they cannot remember who ordered what. The best dish was an Eccles cake made with wild mushrooms, but unfortunately not everything worked as well, such as a bland wasabi potato cake and a mince pie with very hard pastry. The fact that the restaurant has lasted as long as it has confirms that there is a market for reasonably ambitious vegetarian food in London, though to me prices also seem a little ambitious given the low overheads they must have.
Cambio de Tercio is, to me, clearly the best Spanish restaurant in London. The food is inventive without descending into molecular gastronomy madness, ingredients are of good quality and the kitchen shows a high level of technical skill. This was shown in the meal this week by a superb dish of octopus with paprika oil, and a very well judged dish of suckling pig. Not every dish was quite to the same high standard, but overall this is very fine cooking.  
The Royal China in Queensway is a regular old favourite, with its unchanging 1970s disco style décor and brisk service. The vast menu has hidden gems such as ultra-tasty steamed gai lan with garlic, and the execution of Cantonese dishes such as prawns with cashew nuts is very consistent. Not everything works, as shown this week by a deep fried eel with spicy salt that suffered from a clumsy batter than left little of the distinctive eel taste left to come through. However day in and day out this is, with the exception of the far pricier Hakkasan and Yauatcha, the best Chinese restaurant in London.
A new food guide arrived in my post this week (pictured). It covers top Asian dining spots, and is sponsored by Miele, who make (amongst other things) high end kitchen equipment. Well, I suppose there is no less logic here than a tyre company producing a food guide. The methodology the guide uses is unusual. Just over half the marks are provided by a web site voting system, rather like Zagat or Harden’s. The other (nearly) half of the marks are the votes of 84 assorted local food critics, who also pick the list of the places for the public to vote on, which is a little like the San Pellegrino Top 50 system. Seemingly there was a round of actual inspections for the top ranked places. The scope is ambitious, with restaurants from 16 countries covered, from Brunei to Vietnam. 
For the record, the top 20 places according to Miele are:
1 Iggy's, Singapore
2 L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Hong Kong
3 Les Amis, Singapore
4 Gunther's, Singapore
5 Mozaic, Bali
6 Robuchon a Galera, Macau
7 Garibaldi, Singapore
8 Yung Kee, Hong Kong
9 Hutong, Hong Kong
10 Antonio's Fine Dining, Tagaytay, Philippines
11 Caprice, Hong Kong
12 Zuma, Hong Kong
13 L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Tokyo
14 Bukhara, New Delhi
15 Grissini, Hong Kong
16 Nobu, Hong Kong
17 M on the Bund, Shanghai
18 Fook Lam Moon, Hong Kong
19 Zanotti II Ristorante Italiano, Bangkok
20 Kyubey, Tokyo
Any such list is inevitably subject to criticism, though it is interesting to compare this list with the two places where Michelin have guides, namely Japan and Hong Kong/Macao. I will certainly be surprised and saddened if Atelier Rubochon in Kong is really the second best food that Asia has to be offer, but this does get two Michelin stars.  The 6th rated here, Robuchon Galera, has three stars n Michelin.   The next highest rated, Yung Kee (#8), has a solitary star, as does Hutong (#9), while Caprice (#11) has two stars. Yet Zuma (#12) and Grissini (#15) have no Michelin stars, nor does Nobu (#16) or Fook Lam Moon (#18). More to the point, the 3 star Michelin Lung King Heen is nowhere on the Miele top 20, while six of the eight two star places in Hong Kong are nowhere to be seen on the Miele list. Even odder is the gap regarding Tokyo, where at #20 is the one Michelin star (but highly regarded locally) Kyubey, with no other entries for Tokyo at all. This does seem pretty weird to me, since while I by no means agree with all the 3 star accolades Michelin granted in Tokyo, there is no denying the depth of food and restaurant culture in Japan, and to have just a solitary entry at #20 seems almost incomprehensible. The Philippines fares better than Japan in this list, which based on my solitary visit to Manila is, to put it mildly, surreal. 
The press release of the Miele guide does not reveal precisely how they divided up the scores or decided on country level representation, but on the face of it there are some oddities here with respect to appropriate level of country representation (this also happened in the earlier versions particularly of the “World top 50” list before they improved their methodology). It would have been interesting to compare the voting preferences of the public v the critic panel, for example.  The India section looks incomplete to me, as for example one ordinary place in Goa is listed yet not the superb Jamavar, while the choices in Chennai also look peculiar based on my admittedly limited time there.
There are 119 pages of restaurant material in the guide, with short reviews and the details of 322 restaurants (by my count) across the region. Of course there is no “right” way of doing such lists, and if the guide goes some way to promoting restaurant culture in Asia then it is no bad thing, however debatable the actual list turns out to be.