A week of old favourites

Friday, June 19th , 2009

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The Pantechnicon Dining Rooms in Belgravia is sister to Thomas Cubitt and has the same appealing formula of bistro dishes, using better ingredients that usual. For example scallops were hand-dived from Scotland . A starter of scallops with a citrus salad and black pepper vinaigrette worked well, the scallops fat and sweet (from Loch Crinan), the dressing not too acidic but just enough to balance the inherent sweetness of the scallops (4/10). Also very good was a dish of char-grilled Atlantic prawns with courgette and mint salad (5/10). A less accomplished dish was  Dover sole, served whole with a grenobloise sauce (i.e. butter, capers, lemon, vinegar, parsley) that was a little more acidic than ideal, while the fish itself needed seasoning (3/10), and chips on the side were thin but lacked crispness (3/10). Still, there is a very decent place that seems justifiably popular with the locals.
The recession has had no effect at Zuma, where early on a weekday  evening every table and seat was taken, and the bar itself was heaving with pretty young things. The food is surprisingly good for such a place, for me a slightly better version of the food at Nobu. Quail was carefully cooked, the rolls were well-made, salmon teriyaki (pictured) tasty, soft shell crab in no way greasy. It is quite noisy, so not the place for a peaceful conversation, but the buzz of the place is impressive; it must be making money hand over fist.
The Quality Chop House is an institution.   It was set up in 1870s as a “chop house” i.e. a place for hearty British food, and it has survived to this day, with many of the original fittings still in place. It is hard not to like a place that will serve you bacon, egg and chips for dinner, and the place has an unassuming charm. Salmon fishcakes with sorrel is a speciality here, and there are plenty of appealing dishes. A properly made tomato soup was a nice example of the kind of food they serve here.
I took some friends to try old favourite The Brilliant in Southall. In addition to the reliable jeera chicken and aloo tikki starters and methi chicken main course, I was very impressed with the tandoori lamb chops, which I have not tried before. These were marinated before being cooked in the tandoor, and were bursting with spicy flavour. Naturally enough this being Southall, the video screens on the wall were tuned to the England v India 20-20 cricket match, and there was a general sense of stunned shock when England put India out of the competition (cricket in India is more religion than sport; if you switch on the TV there you will find at least four channels showing some form of cricket). 
I noted in a recent blog a distinctly lacklustre meal at Aubergine, which followed a, well, distinctly lacklustre meal there a couple of years previously.  It appears that chef William Drabble is now in fact leaving the restaurant to pursue (as yet unspecified) interests. Based on my last two visits this may not in fact be a bad thing.
I also read a new book this week on the decline in French restaurant dominance, Au Revoir To All That by Michael Steinberger (hat tip to AC for the recommendation). Though there are some areas of the book that seem a bit superficial, the author has interviewed many of the key personalities in the French food industry, and these discussions bring out lots of fun snippets for those interested in the high-end dining scene. The author clearly has a deep love for France, and this makes the book more poignant than if it had been someone gloating over the (relative) decline of France from its previously undisputed perch at the top of the culinary tree. For me, while many of the arguments in the book ring true e.g. the choking over-regulation of French industry that causes a lot of problems for restaurants (and indeed all businesses) I wonder whether it is not so much that French high-end dining has got worse in absolute terms rather than the standard elsewhere has risen over the last few decades. There is certainly plenty of terrific food to be had in top restaurants in France these days, and a cursory visit to the markets in France will show the depth of quality of its core produce to that of many other countries, such as the UK. However, the book has plenty to recommend it, and is well worth a read for those interested in high-end dining in France.