Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Happiness Forgets

I admit to still being the tiniest bit petulant about the White Cube closing its Hoxton Square gallery space (yes I know it's been two years, what's your point??) and I experienced a renewed pang of loss on my most recent visit to the Square. A leisurely mooch round would have been the perfect cultural sharpener to a fabulous birthday outing with a girlfriend; dinner crafted by one of my very favourite chefs, Cameron Emirali, at his new restaurant 8 Hoxton Square (separate post coming soon!) and then cocktails literally next door at Happiness Forgets.
Happiness Forgets is what all the gimmicky, trendy, trying-too-hard pseudo-speakeasy bars in London want to be when they grow up. It's not really hidden, it just doesn't shout about itself too much. Leaving 8 Hoxton Square you simply turn left and immediately head down the steps to the tiny, intimate and welcoming basement bar. Wafting incense and the chalkboard-type sign painted on the wall opposite guide you into a cosy and dimly-lit subterranean hideaway. 

Sofas and low tables provide spaces for long conversations or you can grab a stool at the bar if you're feeling sociable. There is a no-standing policy which means that once the seating is taken, that's it; on the down side, you do need to book in advance or arrive early to guarantee a spot, but on the very welcome up side you can sit at the bar without an ever-increasing crowd pressing into your back and drinks being perpetually passed in front of your face as you are trying to chat. This, together with the lived-in decor, scattered candlelight and muted music, give the bar a relaxed, embracing feel. 
Staff are both knowledgeable and genuinely friendly, and were happy to advise on the ever-changing and quirkily-titled drinks menu. There is a small but carefully chosen selection of wines should you prefer, but the cocktails are what really makes Happiness Forgets stand out from the crowd. Owner Ali Burgess has serious barkeep pedigree, most notably under the illustrious Audrey Saunders at NYC's Pegu, and his expertise and guidance shine through. These are proper cocktails, balanced and crafted, and so very easy to drink. Oh, and the cocktail list arrives with a glass of cucumber-infused water (which is topped up throughout the evening) - unexpected but perfect for palate-cleansing rehydration. 
The menu is short but varied, featuring several classics with a twist. Usually my heart sinks a little at this phrase; a classic is a classic for a reason, and it is notoriously difficult to do anything positive by fiddling about with something that clearly ain't broke. The exception to this rule, in pretty much any area of artistry, is when someone is knowledgeable and experienced enough in their field to understand exactly how and why the rules work, and so how they can successfully bend them. This is evident at Happiness Forgets.
As I mentioned, the menu changes regularly depending on season, a drink's popularity, and the general whim of the talented guys behind the bar. They are happy to mix your favourite if you prefer but I would recommend sticking to the list, at least long enough to try these: 

Kydonia Daiquiri - fruity, lively blend including cider brandy, light rum and quince liqueur. 

Dante - ridiculously moreish mix of tequila, chartreuse, Kümmel and lime, with a fresh herbal note of basil and celery bitters.

Perfect Storm - a fresh and zingy version of the classic Dark and Stormy, this is a perennial favourite and the closest they get to a house cocktail. Made with Skipper's dark rum but using fresh lemon and ginger juice, balanced with honey and a dash of plum brandy. Perfect indeed.

Baptiste - Remy VSOP cognac blended with lemon and maple syrup, topped up with Breton cider. Warm and wonderful. 

Industry insiders voted Happiness Forgets an impressive sixth place in the Top 50 Bars in the world last year - not too shabby for a place that is understated, unpretentious and which was only opened in 2011. The drinks are fabulous it's true, but for me a big part of their success is that the whole experience is somehow genuine; by which I mean that nothing feels fake, or forced, or guided by the whims of fashion. Happiness Forgets feels like it has been there forever, and by the end of your first drink you feel like a welcome regular. 
And where did they get the intriguing name? Rumour has it that it's from a Dionne Warwick lyric:
'Loneliness remembers what happiness forgets

And when you fall in love too fast
The sunshine doesn't last forever after . . .'

So - go to this wonderful tiny bar, drink, relax and be happy. Oh, and don't forget to look at the back of the menu for random, cocktail-related quotations. My favourite? 'Sometimes I drink a glass of water, just to surprise my liver.'







Yours forgetfully,

Girl About Town xx



Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Barnyard

So it's a warm, drizzly Saturday afternoon in Fitzrovia and I'm just off to Michelin's hottest star Ollie Dabbous's restaurant. No, not that one - I mean Barnyard, his newest venture round the corner, where I'm reliably informed the wait is mere hours rather than months thanks to a 'no reservations' policy.


The first surprise; we appear to have fortuitously turned up between busy periods and are shown to a table immediately - nice. The second surprise; that the famously precise Ollie Dabbous, whose endive salad contains endive to orange to mint in an exact 3:3:4 ratio and who reputedly once roundly berated staff for leaving a ragged edge on the toilet paper instead of a clean line, has chosen to open a restaurant that looks like - well, like the inside of a ramshackle old barn. 

To be fair to Dabbous though, nobody gets that good without a fierce eye for detail and a relentless drive for perfection. (Actually, in Dabbous's case, hardly anybody gets THAT good at all.) Barnyard, then, feels almost like an alter-ego: reclaimed fixtures, sunflowers, mottled corrugated iron walls, manly staff in checked shirts who look like they've just finished pitchforking hay, white enamel plates and cocktails in half-pint dimpled beer mugs. It's very Of Mice and Men, but in a good way. It's fun. I'm already looking forward to good things.

Dabbous himself is still somewhat busy running his aforementioned eponymous joint so the food at Barnyard comes courtesy of Joseph Woodland (The Square, Launceston Place) and has been described by Dabbous's business partner Oskar Kinberg as 'home cooking, done well and without the washing-up'. At first glance, the menu - divided, with suitably agricultural unsentimentality, into sections headed 'cow', 'pig' and so on - contains the usual suspects for a retro Americana vibe, along with some British classics: beef, eggs, fries, chicken wings, sausage rolls, milkshakes. More of which later.


In keeping with the informal feel (you are very likely to end up squished elbow-to-elbow with other diners, it's really not the place for a private chat) the dishes are designed for sharing. I love this, as in my experience meal envy can test the strength of any relationship, but it can be tricky to gauge portions on a first visit; also the tables are quite small, so expect mild juggling and balancing to be involved. We went with our waiter's advice of 5-6 dishes plus sides and plumped for the chicken in a bun, duck egg with asparagus, fries, roast beef with watercress salad, crispy chicken wings, and broken eggs with mushrooms, garlic and parsley.


Restaurants mixing high-end dining with low-end classics can face the Bubbledogs conundrum; how much can you polish up a classic dish before it loses what makes it a classic in the first place? Barnyard has balanced this well. The chicken in a bun was moist and flavoursome, in a light brioche-style bun and served with delicately-seasoned mayonnaise. The duck egg and asparagus was delicious and beautifully presented, although given that it is a sharing plate, getting both halves of the egg would have been nice. The fries were, well, classic fries; crispy and just right.


Opinion was divided on the broken eggs - basically barely-cooked egg swirled with earthy mushrooms, spiked with garlic and balanced out with parsley. The texture was a little strange, but it was somehow comforting and I couldn't help thinking that, accompanied with some sourdough toast perhaps, it would make a perfect hangover breakfast. The wings, much hyped, were actually not my favourite; there was a quite strong herby note (fennel?) that whilst not unpleasant, I just hadn't expected from the description.


The beef, on the other hand, was outstanding. Supple slices of intensely-flavoured rare roast beef, the lightest crisp of toast, fresh peppery watercress and a warm buttermilk dressing that blends nursery comfort with the bite of horseradish. I loved this. Do not, on any account, visit Barnyard without having this dish; visually, texturally, the blend of flavours - it is fabulous in every way.


My other personal must-have - although this could be just me - is the acorn flour waffle with chocolate and malt. Totally undersold on the menu, this is delicious; a perfect dense waffle (completely unlike the plasticky fast food versions), a rich, nutty chocolate sauce and a divine malted cream that tasted exactly like the inside of Maltesers. What's not to like? 


Which brings me, neatly but not really, on to the drinks. Trust me and beware, these are the archetypal wolves in sheep's clothing. Shandies? I think not. They may well contain beer or cider plus lemonade, but these are basically cocktails in a swigging glass. Extras include gin, bourbon, whisky and tequila, with not a warning umbrella, sparkler or decorative pineapple quarter in sight - and in a half pint glass. They are intriguing, delicious, and incognito. I am absolutely serving a version of these at every BBQ I host this summer. Form an orderly queue, please. (Oh, and don't think you can escape with a milkshake - even they come with an optional tot of something stronger.)

My one regret is the absence from the menu of the popcorn ice cream with smoked fudge sauce; I had heard good things and was keen to try it. During a quick chat with the utterly charming, laid-back manager he explained that their ice cream maker had broken the day before but that the dish would be back on the menu very soon. Hey ho - I guess at least I got to experience the waffle with malted cream. Ollie, Oskar and Joseph Woodland, I salute you.






Yours, in virtual gingham and petticoats,

Girl About Town xx


Square Meal
Barnyard on Urbanspoon

Monday, 5 May 2014

Hawksmoor Air Street


 As regulars amongst my lovely readers will know, I am a firm fan of Hawksmoor: their truly excellent steaks, laid-back atmosphere, quirky cocktail list and, of course, their cornflake ice cream. But much as I do love a meltingly rare steak with the now ubiquitous triple-cooked chips and some fierce English mustard, I also have a passion for seafood. So, I headed off to Hawksmoor's Air Street restaurant to see if this really could be the best of both worlds.

You may think me unwise to choose a celebrated steak restaurant for a seafood feeding frenzy and normally you would be right; however, at Air Street the seafood is not just an add-on afterthought but is fully half of the menu. Hawksmoor's steak-by-weight options are still on the chalkboard, but carnivore favourites like the burgers have made way for turbot, monkfish and Dover sole. And in case you're wondering what experts in sourcing and cooking beef would know about fish, cue a man who does - award-winning chef, restaurateur and fishmonger Mitch Tonks, who not only offers an advisory hand but also sources their seafood straight from Brixham market in Devon.

The entrance is tucked Harry Potter-like into the chunky stone facade of the Piccadilly/Regent Street stretch of Air Street. Once inside, a curving staircase leads to a welcoming bar area (strewn with Sunday papers on our early evening visit) and an unexpectedly large Art Deco dining room, capable of seating over two hundred diners either in booths or at tables made from reclaimed school desks. (Remember those inky compass-point etchings in desktops? Well now they're cool, not cause for detention.) 






The room is undeniably stylish, with a gorgeous light above the staircase and wonderfully atmospheric stained glass windows between you and the heart of London, but has quite a low ceiling which makes for tricky acoustics and some background noise (don't worry though, it adds to the buzz and very young visitors are usually seated at one end of the room).


We decided to start with half a Dartmouth lobster - cooked in a specialist high-pressure steamer, we are told - and roast scallops with white port and garlic. Once the disturbingly surgical implements for lobster-mining had been carefully laid before us we turned to the wine list, which is varied and not exorbitantly priced; £40 will get you a choice of over thirty bottles of wine, including a Prosecco and three Hawksmoor recommended wines. We were pacing ourselves for the evening so decided to go for wine by the glass; a 2003 Muscadet with good depth and a bracingly crisp Picpoul de Pinet, one of my unsung summer favourites and an excellent choice by the glass or bottle as it goes with pretty much any fish or seafood.

Both starters were delicious; the lobster was sweet and moist with plenty of meat and the scallops were equally firm and flavoursome. A standard portion has three scallops but, as we were sharing both starters, our waitress offered to bump this up to four - presumably to prevent tears and a general falling-out. Our waitress, by the way, was excellent: knowledgeable, experienced, attentive but not intrusive, warm and friendly. 


One gentle word of warning; she was also one of the best up-sellers I have met, so if you are on a budget, do be careful - the relaxed atmosphere can lead you to accept those expert and friendly suggestions on sides, drinks and main course choices that together can really add to your bill (the possibly obvious but unmentioned fiver for the extra scallop, for example). In a restaurant of this quality even the cheapest wines will still be good, and you really don't have to go overboard with the sides; the mains are protein-heavy and very filling and hey, you can always order more if you need to.

So, back to the feast. For the main we plumped for the monkfish which was creamy, firm and delicious, grilled over charcoal in signature Hawksmoor fashion. In honour of spring finally having sprung, we teamed it with some Jersey Royal potatoes and a generous dish of spinach with lemon and garlic; perfection. I have no idea how my partner-in-crime managed to find room for sticky toffee pudding to follow, but all I could squeeze in was a single scoop of ice cream. I was prepared to settle for salted caramel or clotted cream (it's a burden I bear for you, dear reader) until, having casually mentioned to our waitress that I was disappointed not to see their signature cornflake ice cream on the menu, she managed to sneak me a scoop from the bar, where they use it to make the cornflake milkshakes (yes, really). 



The pudding was everything you would hope; comfortingly rich yet light and fluffy, served with ice cream. The cornflake ice cream was what it says on the tin; again I wondered, why didn't anybody think of this before? It's a genius combination.










If you had any doubts that the Hawksmoor guys would be able to reach the bar they set very high with their previous restaurants, then let me put your minds at ease. The only problem now is how I explain why I'm sending people to a steakhouse for some of the best fish in London. 











Yours, with another 'Hats off!' to Hawksmoor,

Girl About Town xx



Hawksmoor Air Street on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Pick Me Up at Somerset House

Not sure what to do with yet another long weekend in London? You could do worse than a leisurely, sunny stroll to Somerset House where Pick Me Up, the UK's original graphic arts festival, is under way once more. A selection of exciting new talent from the world of graphic arts has been chosen to showcase their work alongside more established artists, but hurry - the show closes on 5th May.






Intentionally not your average art fair, the downstairs section is nevertheless slightly more familiar territory with sections on individual artists. Hate though I do to leave anyone out, there was way too much intriguing, original and downright cool work on display to mention even half of it - you'll just have to go and see for yourself. Meanwhile, some tantalising tasters . . .








French illustrator Thibaud Herem's incredibly precise and beautifully detailed drawings of London architecture; I particularly covet Liberty's.


Lynnie Zulu's bold and vibrant illustrations, injecting a tropical dash of colour:

           
Edward Cheverton's quirky and playful 3-D figures:













Isabel Greenberg's wonderfully evocative illustrations based on folklore, myth and storytelling:


Billy's Keith Haring-esque fun and sunny wooden sculptures:











Upstairs is a riot of collectives with interactive stalls and pop-up shops, t-shirts and furniture, prints and posters, cards and jewellery. Get involved!

I desperately wanted to visit the alternative photo booth, where instead of a boring old passport pic you could get a line drawing of yourself done by a mystery artist, but sadly the wait was too long. Never one to be deterred or downcast, I nabbed us a couple of seats at the cat mask collage table instead and got creative.



Oh, and did I mention that the works are for sale? The well-known artists can get pricy but I picked up one of the Isabel Greenberg prints for a measly £35. If you really can't make it, you can buy from the website, but do try to visit. It's fun, it's family-friendly and you can satisfy your shopping, arty and home decor cravings all in one hit.







Yours, with another fabulous London pick-me-up,

Girl About Town xx




Monday, 12 August 2013

10 Greek Street

10 Greek Street is a blink-and-you'll-miss-it white tile and matt black-fronted restaurant in the road parallel to Frith Street down from Soho Square, an area already blessed with some of the best eateries in town. Opened around 18 months ago and run by Luke Wilson (ex manager of Exmouth Market's The Ambassador and Liberty Wines rep) at front of house and Cameron Emirali (former Head Chef of the Wapping Project) in the kitchen, there is a no-reservations policy for dinner, although you can book lunch or the private dining room.

The no-frills approach continues inside with a stripped down but stylish, relaxing interior: dark-grouted white rectangular wall tiles (which always remind me of those grand Victorian bathrooms, but in a good way), garden flowers in milk bottles, bare walls and blackboards displaying the daily changing menu. The cutlery is in a container at your table, which gave me a sudden post-traumatic stress flashback to eating in Texas until a glance at the menu brought me back to the here and now.

The menu segues between tasting plates, starters and main courses; we had a sharing head on, and our unflappable waitress was happy to oblige. You can have tapas-y nibbles, starters, starter portions of main courses and/or main courses shared between two, and that's before you get to the desserts. Oh, and even though the menu changes daily, they still have specials: while we were perusing the menu, we plumped for the starter special, a Parmesan-crusted duck egg with truffle mayonnaise.

Truffles are like expensive perfume - a little goes an awfully long way, and they can very easily become overpowering and unpleasant. I need not have feared, as this was a spectacular introduction to our evening; the egg was perfectly soft-centred, the coating beautifully golden and crisp and the truffle mayonnaise flavoured with a deft but sparing hand.

We decided to share a combination of starter options and then see how we felt about ordering a main. The first to arrive was the octopus, potatoes and paprika; for me, this was a perfect summer dish that looked beautiful and reminded me of long mellow evenings at a beach-side taverna or trattoria. Generous pieces of unexpectedly tender octopus, peppery olive oil and the spike of paprika balanced perfectly with soft chunks of potatoes to soak up all the flavours - wonderful.

10 Greek Street also has an excellent and very reasonably-priced wine list that gives you the choice of a small 125ml glass, a 375ml carafe, or a bottle for most of the wines available, meaning you can easily and affordably marry up wines and dishes should you choose to. We went for a carafe of the crisp and citrussy Vermentino, which was really good and went well with everything we ordered.

Next to arrive was the spaghettini, girolles, leeks and summer truffle: again this was a really carefully put together dish, the flavours complementing each other beautifully. It was quite a sizeable portion for a starter, especially considering that it is very buttery and quite filling. We then had the clams, chorizo and peas which was again a good size, served with toasted home-made bread. I was beginning to appreciate that the decor (and indeed the website) reflect the whole ethos of the food at 10 Greek Street: nothing fussy, nothing pretentious, nothing unnecessary, concentrating on quality and balanced (although sometimes unexpected) combinations that really work. This was delicious; excellent chorizo, again not allowed to overpower the dish but complementing the clams and the fresh peas beautifully.

It was at this point, just as we had decided that we couldn't fit in a main course and would head straight for desserts, that the table next to us got their dish of rare spring lamb, white beans, preserved lemon, watercress and chilli. I knew I wasn't hungry enough but I couldn't help feeling a pang of envy, it looked so good. I suspect that every diner in the place was mentally planning their next meal there - although of course you can't as the menu changes daily, depending on seasonal influences and Emirali's gifted imagination.

Chatting to owner Luke Wilson, I asked how he would characterise a menu that offered dishes as diverse as monkfish wrapped in vine leaves, spaghettini with girolles and plaice with brown shrimp. Acknowledging a strong Mediterranean influence together with a classic British feel but given a fresh and inspired twist, and given that 'Cam's cuisine' is not yet a recognised term in food writing (though give it time - Cameron Emirali has both vision and talent, and lots of it), 'Modern European' is about the closest fit.

We chose two very different desserts to share - a gooseberry and elderflower crumble with crème anglaise (basically a very light pouring custard) and raspberry sorbet with vodka. Neither disappointed; the crumble was light and beautifully textured, the fruit retaining just enough sharpness, and the sorbet was smooth, fresh and zingy, with the vodka adding a little kick of interest at the end.

If you haven't tried 10 Greek Street yet, or if the pared-down look has put you off, go. Go now. Trust me, you won't be disappointed - this place is a gem. I'm already planning my next trip.








Yours, a new card-carrying Cam Cuisine groupie,

Girl About Town xx


Square Meal
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