I head Eastside

Saturday, May 30th , 2009

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It is a pleasant change to be able to report on a new London opening with some culinary ambition, as these days restaurateurs seem to be nervously rooted in bistro and gastropub territory.  Bjorn van der Horst has covered his bases with both a bistro and a more formal dining room in the same premises at Eastside.  Although it was very early days (day 4 in fact), the restaurant was operating smoothly.  I was particularly impressed with the effort that has gone into sourcing ingredients, a recurring source of disappointment to me in London. Examples were seasonal wild Scottish salmon, properly aged rib eye beef, and genuinely excellent baguette from a boutique bakery that set up shop a year ago (in Uxbridge of all places) but whose baker trained in Paris.  There are plenty of nibbles on offer in the course of the menu, and the dishes generally seemed well constructed, with not many modern eccentricities until the dessert course (where the desire that chefs have these days to incorporate elements of shrubbery into desserts was in evidence).  The cooking showed the strong technical skill which one would hope of someone with Bjorn’s culinary training.

Pizza is one of those dishes that almost everyone enjoys, and has become an institution in the UK, rather like fish and chips or chicken tikka masala.  The vast supply of pizza joints in not unconnected to the fact that the ingredients for a pizza cost less than 50p, yet it can be charged at £8 or more, making it one of the more profitable things outside the business of selling addictive drugs.  Sadly, most of what we can choose from are sorry affairs, with pre-built pizza bases made up in some catering factory in an industrial joint and then warmed through in the kitchen by some semi-skilled chef, who plonks a few bits on top and just has to remember to take it out of the oven.  I actually had two pizza experiences this week.  One was at Fire and Stone, an example of the nastier form of chain pizzeria, the base of the pizza hard and having barely risen, the restaurant having a series of absurd ingredient combinations in order to distract you from what is basically a shoddy product.  This unpleasantness on a plate cost £8.95. 

At the other end of the spectrum, I also went to Franco Manca in Brixton market, a place where the pizza oven is a Forno Napoletano (pictured) shipped in from Naples.  Extreme heat is necessary for a perfect pizza (as those who watched the Heston Blumenthal series “In Search of Perfection” may recall) and this over delivers:  500C is enough to cook the pizza in two minutes, fast enough to avoid drying out the crust.  The pizzas (one is illustrated) were very good indeed, the toppings carefully sourced, and the pricing so low (£4 for the most basic pizza) that there is a long queue in evidence waiting for a shared bench, even on a weekday.  So, you could pay £4 for a magnificent pizza here, or £8.95 for a pre-prepared piece of nastiness in a restaurant chain.  As the advert says, we have all made harder decisions than this.

There is something quite comforting about Royal China in Queensway.  It is always full, the vast menu seems cast in stone and the vaguely last days of disco décor dates from the 1970s. Fortunately the cooking is also consistent, and old favourites like delicate steamed gai lan with garlic are produced as well as any restaurant in London: a generation of children would be converted to broccoli if they tasted the gai lan here.  Steamed sea bass with black bean sauce, served whole and garnished with coriander, is another winning dish.  The service often feels frayed though is usually efficient, but was fine this week.

I had another trip to Launceston Place this week .  It was interesting to try two dishes from the Great British menu, the starter and the dessert which Tristan cooked on the TV program.  Ironically the least good dish of the entire meal was the starter: English asparagus “egg and cress sandwich”.   This is a sophisticated dish, with slow cooked eggs cooked in a water bath (leaving soft yolks), and blobs of mayonnaise piped on to sourdough toast, with asparagus spears on a bed of asparagus puree and cubes of watercress jelly, with a little smoked ham as garnish.  This looks really pretty, and when I saw this dish being made on the TV I thought it looked very interesting.  However, its major flaw was that, while the asparagus was fine, the eggs and mayonnaise just blurred into a dull, bland taste on the toast; it did look nice originally but it added little to the asparagus; maybe some actual watercress rather than the jelly would have lifted the flavour of the dish, but it did not work that well as a coherent whole when it came to taste rather than presentation (barely 4/10).  This was a really good example of the limitations of watching cooking on TV – you can get a limited impression from seeing a dish, but to really form an opinion you need to taste it.  The ice cream dessert was rather better, but to me merely nice rather than anything dazzling, yet this came second in the judging.  I would have hoped that the selection of top UK chefs participating could have come up with something a bit more exciting than this. 

I was sorry to see the demise of Kiasu, a very good (and very good value) Malaysian restaurant in Queensway.  I’m not sure of the circumstances of its closing, but it will be missed.