This week includes an outing to Winchester

Saturday, October 20th , 2012

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The Black Rat in Winchester (pictured) produced some pleasant British food in its rather peculiarly decorated rooms – not everyone wants to see anatomical pictures of human body parts when they go to the toilet. The cooking was competent if a little uneven, particularly at the dessert stage, but the service was simply poor. The manager described it as “relaxed”, but this was relaxed to the point of being horizontal. The disconnect between the professionalism evident in the kitchen and the utter lack of it shown to us by the front of house staff was striking.

Nathan Outlaw’s Seafood & Grill outlet at The Capital was one of the most anticipated openings in London this year. It labours under probably unrealistic expectations, since the Capital has had such distinguished chefs at the helm of its kitchen over the years, and Nathan’s Cornwall location means that many Londoners have not tried his food. However the Seafood and Grill is much simpler than the mothership Nathan Outlaw restaurant in Rock, and I suspect that many were hoping for a more ambitious venture for Nathan’s first capital restaurant. The food we had this week was generally quite good, though there were a couple of small problems, which is perhaps to be expected so early on (though there was no soft opening discount to lesson the impact of these). Grilled Dover sole was an example of the sort of thing to expect, which is fine, but at the prices charged there is no room for any slight imperfections.

The Goring is over a century old, and its dining room and menu reflect the tradition that this history brings. The dishes are very traditional, such as beef Wellington, and the seemingly mostly elderly clientele (at least on my visit) need not fear any hissop or sea buckthorn appearing in their desserts at The Goring. The food, with one small slip, was good and the service really top drawer. The wine list was also mark-up at quite fair levels by London standards. The Twiteratti seem to ignore places like The Goring and The Ritz, but there is a lot of pleasure to be had from eating well-made classical food.

At the other end of the smartness scale is Hot Stuff, an Indian takeaway and restaurant in Vauxhall. This is the sort of area where the Dobermans walk around in pairs, but the food at Hot Stuff was nicely cooked and well spiced, and very good value indeed. My 30th visit to Hedone was the first one since they were awarded their first Michelin star, and the dishes that I tried were very good, in particular sika deer with figs and some superb red mullet. Their three course £25 lunch on Fridays and Saturdays is one of the best bargains in London. There are some new photos in the picture gallery associated with the review.

One common theme in the new places that I visited this week was the remarkable low levels of lighting in the evening that the restaurants chose to adopt. Ignoring the effect on food photos (which these days should be at least a consideration for restaurants given how important social media can be), I do not understand why restaurant managers reduce lighting levels to such an extent that all but the most eagle-eyed are peering into the gloom at their menus. Perhaps I am just getting middle aged, but at one other table this week I noticed a diner resorting to a small torch to read his menu, and surely the chefs would like their customers to actually see the food that they have carefully prepared?

The 2013 Michelin guide to western Japan came out, and it saw an interesting reversal in the largesse of stars that until now has characterised the Michelin Japan Guides. Between them, Kyotoa, Osaka, Kobe and Nara boasted 15 three star Michelin restaurants in 2012, and 59 two star restaurants. In the 2013 guide these totals have reduced to 12 three stars and 52 two stars. At the one star there was also consolidation, with 213 compared to 223 in 2012. Tsuruyu and Hajime were demoted to two stars, and Mizai is currently delisted as it is in the process of moving premises to the other side of Maruyama Park in Kyoto. I think that the pruning is welcome; in my experience many of the three star places in western Japan are good, but it is highly debatable whether some of them were really worthy of three stars.; certainly Tsuruya was the weakest of the 3 star kaiseki places in Kyoto that I tried. I think further soul searching and pruning would be useful, as it is important that Michelin retain its credibility, especially at the three star level, and not be felt to be in some sense bowing to commercial pressures by doling out stars in Japan (where their print guide sales are of great significance to Michelin).