Sunday, 15 January 2017

The Distillery - including the Ginstitute, Resting Room and GinTonica

You may remember the Distillery from its previous incarnation in somewhat smaller quarters further down Portobello Road. Thanks to London's  recent 'ginaissance' (and the passion of the Portobello Road Gin crew) demand has seriously outstripped supply. Now, founder Ged Feltham has answered many a gin-lover's prayer and created what can only be described as a four-floor gin paradise on the corner of Portobello Road and Talbot Road. 

The basement houses the main still itself, upgraded from the original 30 litre capacity to a reassuring 400 litres (which will mean that production of Portobello Road Gin can again be done completely on site) and the Ginstitute. I didn't get to do this on my visit, but am definitely planning to - so watch this space, details to follow!

The ground floor is home to the Resting Room, a laid-back cocktail bar serving hand-blended and barrel-aged spirits - the latter served directly from huge barrels suspended above the bar. There is also a small but perfectly formed food menu; I dabbled, but it deserves my full attention at a later date.

On the first floor is the tapas restaurant, GinTonica, serving Basque tapas and G&Ts in the 'copa de balon' glasses that any self-respecting gin aficionado uses now (*cough, buys new gin glasses immediately*).  This shape, with the large 'balloon' bowl and stem, not only focuses the aroma of the botanicals as you drink to give you a better flavour experience, but also slows the melting of the ice, so keeping your drink colder for longer AND less diluted. Winner. 

The top floor boasts a private meeting/dining room (pictured) and boutique lodgings: three double rooms with huge windows overlooking one of the world's most iconic streets, a fully-stocked minibar with freshly-made cocktails (gin, obvs) and a selection of vinyls from nearby Rough Trade West. The only way these rooms could be any cooler is if they were sitting smack on top of a gin salon and a restaurant. Oh, wait . . .

I approached my lunch booking in GinTonica with high hopes, given that it offers a combination of two of my favourite things in the world: gin and tapas. I have indulged in both frequently, internationally and (on occasion) excessively, just never - until now - concurrently.  I've always gone for ice-cold fino sherry, a dry Spanish white or rosé, or una caña with my tapas but hey, I'm always open to suggestions.

The first plate to arrive was the Pan Catalan. This is one of those joyous dishes that is simple, quick and - even when using top-quality ingredients, which you absolutely must - cheap to make, but is utterly delicious. Easily pleased, me, but then this was a good one.

The Pollo a la Parilla was a juicy grilled chicken breast, sliced and served with a roast chicken croquette and a very tasty, chunky romesco sauce. Another big tapas win in my book is the option of croquetas, usually a reliable benchmark for the rest of the meal.

Tragically they were out of the Croquetas con Queso (it was their soft launch, so I can't moan) but the chicken croquette was very promising: light, crispy coating, melting interior, good flavour. To me, these are the comfort food champs of tapas (the equivalent of Chinese bao or dumplings) and the experience was exactly right. Perhaps a jamon version in your next menu please chef?

To go with, we did glance through the drinks menu but decided to let our friendly barman advise us. We started with a couple of simple classic G&Ts - a Portobello Road Gin 17, the house blend, served with Fever Tree tonic water, juniper berries and a twist of pink grapefruit, and a Botanist, with Fever Tree elderflower tonic, juniper berries, apple and mint.

These are 50ml serves (doubles, basically) and arrive beautifully presented in the aforementioned copa de balon glasses. They were also outstandingly good. There's a whole menu of these? Book me a room.

The next tranche of tapas included another fave of mine, boquerones. Anyone who hates anchovies because they had them on a pizza once - please believe me when I say that these white anchovies (marinated in olive oil, garlic and parsley) are light, mild, flavourful and worlds away from their punchy, salt-preserved cousins. (Not that I don't always have a tin of the macho ones in my kitchen cupboard, as they are singularly brilliant at bringing out flavour in a whole range of dishes, but I digress.) Perhaps there could have been a tad less oil, but that was more a not-dropping-it-down-my-top issue than a problem with the flavour.

The patatas bravas with chilli sauce and aioli was pretty much what you would want and was a good companion dish to the orzo risotto with smoked Spanish cheese and truffle oil. This dish prompted a foodie debate at the table: is there such a thing as an orzo risotto? I don't want to go all #paellagate on this - particularly as I am known for endlessly tweaking recipes to see what happens, cooking is a living language - but my Pavlovian response kicks in and I expect a particular texture that you can only get with rice. Anyway, I digress again. Either way, this was good; creamy, incredibly rich, looser in texture than a rice-based risotto and definitely best paired with a contrasting dish like the bravas.

Time for another round of gins. This time we went for a Gin Mare with 1724 tonic, black pepper, basil and a slice of fresh mango, and a Portobello Road Gin 171 Director's Cut Number Two served with Fever Tree, smoked cardamom pods and blue cornflower. The first two were a really hard act to follow and these were also good, although very different - leading me to think more about the whole process of balancing botanicals and the variations that are possible.

No time for dessert - we had a table booked downstairs in the Resting Room to see what they had to offer.  I was very tempted to try a spirit from one of the barrels above the bar, partly because they are so cool and partly because the spirit is ageing as it is stored - meaning that it will taste very slightly different on my next visit. The drinks menu is wonderfully authoritative, explaining each spirit in terms of nose, taste and finish as well as recommending a way of trying it.

We stuck with the gin theme, though. I went for a classic martini, which was as lip-puckeringly dry as it gets and presented with skilled and elegant simplicity. How beautiful is this? (That's another set of glasses I need to buy now. If only there were an antiques market nearby. Oh, wait . . . )

Still full from our tapas, we just dipped into the small plates menu and ordered the scallops with chestnut puree, apple julienne and watercress and a side of truffle fries with parmesan and garlic. The apple was a good contrast to the soft silkiness of the scallops; the fries had a great flavour but lacked any crunch, which was a minor disappointment. Not enough to stop us finishing them, though.

So, that was my visit to the Distillery. I am intrigued by the Institute now, so have put that on my to-do list for this year, and will try the larger sharing plates from the Resting Room's Josper oven while I'm at it.

Yours, with two floors down and two to go,

London Girl About Town xx

Thursday, 22 December 2016


Fans of London’s street food scene – and let’s face it, who isn’t? – will already be familiar with Smokestak from Street Feast Dalston Yard (now at Dinerama) and the legendary beef brisket buns with pickled red chillies.

Well, David Carter has come in out of the cold and opened a bricks-and-mortar version off Brick Lane on Sclater Street E1. I would say that you can't miss it, but we watched many a perplexed punter wander past the forbidding Game of Thrones-esque door and only return once they had failed to find anything more welcoming. If you get lost, just follow your nose.

The doors set the scene for the brooding industrial interior  - smoky concrete walls, exposed pipes and towering windows, this is about as masculine as a restaurant can get. Everything about it is big, solid and no-nonsense, either wood, steel, or matt black, and the focus of it all is the huge four and a half tonne smoker brought over from Houston.

That said, the general vibe is really warm and relaxed - unusual in such a new restaurant (it had only been open ten days when we went). The staff were charming, friendly and just attentive enough, never rushing us but always busy. Carter himself was the still centre of the storm, stationed calmly at the bar with his laptop, advising chefs and front of house staff as and when needed.

We were waiting for stragglers at our table (yep, you know who you are . . . ) so we early birds ordered a couple of cocktails and a cheeky little starter to keep us going. We opted for the smoked girolles on beef dripping toast which turned out to be a phenomenally good call; robust, punchy, with real depth of flavour, this set the scene for the rest of the meal. Do NOT miss this. You can thank me later.

The cocktails were pretty good too; I had the Smoke (rude not to, really, given the theme) with tequila, smoke, lime and ginger, and my companion had the Burnt Peach Old Fashioned, a great take on the classic with bourbon, burnt peach, warm spices and bitters. 

The boys arrived and we went for a bottle of the recommended red wine and the 40ft pale ale. To go with, we ordered scratchings; this turned out to be huge light-as-air swirls of crispy skin, a great appetiser for what was to come.

I lived in Texas for a couple of years (yeah, it's a long story) and this was a return to the larger than life barbecue fare I remember - and then some. Texans love their beef, and take their barbecues very seriously. Politics? Sport? Religion? Tackle a Texan about what kind of wood chips to use, what spices to include in the rub or how long is long enough and you could find yourself at the wrong end of the second amendment.

For mains, we had the beef brisket, which I was happy to see arrive with a sprinkling of the pickled red chillies on the side, and the pork ribs with pickled cucumber. The beef was exceptional; meltingly tender and perfectly seasoned even without the barbecue sauce, and great with the zing of the chillies.

The thick-cut pork ribs were also really good; chunky, succulent and delicious.

Opinion was more divided on the sides: the roasted carrots got a universal thumbs up, same for the wonderfully fresh and crisp celery, almond and preserved lemon slaw, which was so much more than a sum of its parts.
The grilled baby gem lettuce with bacon and walnut gremolata was okay, but I felt its flavours were fighting with the meat mains, which was a contest it was never going to win. The jacket potato with sour cream and chive was the troublemaker; three of us, myself included, loved it but one of us wasn't a fan of the texture - a smooth, almost pureed potato and sour cream mix in a crispy skin.

I'm sad I didn't get to try the salt-baked beetroot . . . next time!

So gluttonously on to puddings. We tried the sticky toffee pudding, which was judged to be everything one would want from the dish, and I was hoping to try the toasted oak ice cream with salted hazelnut praline but unfortunately they were out of the ice cream so I had to have the burnt butter ice cream instead. This was good, but now I have yet another reason to go back . . .

Yours, addicted to smoking,

Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Dumpling Shack pop-up

So I managed to grab a couple of places at John Li's Dumpling Shack pop-up event in Leicester Square last weekend - no mean feat, considering that his last pop-up venture with Shotgun sold out within hours.

Dumpling Shack has been resident in the School Yard at Broadway market since 2014 and John Li has built a steadily increasing reputation and fan base for his fresh, handmade dumplings amongst some very stiff competition. This pop-up brought his street eats inside and central, at Leicester House in Soho.

The table was set with some roasted peanuts and a sizeable bowl of zingy smacked cucumbers (surprisingly easy to make at home btw if you are serving a spicy Sichuan main) for a fresh, palate-cleansing start.

First to arrive was a salad with lily bulb, celery and jellyfish. I can't recall having had lily bulb as a key ingredient before but it was interesting, with a texture and flavour not unlike a mild version of roasted chestnuts.
This and the toasted sesame dressing went well with the crisp celery and the classic delicacy of very finely-sliced jellyfish, looking almost like glass noodles.

Then came the star of the show, the dumplings. Note that these are sheng jian bao, pan-fried soup dumplings, which have a completely different texture to the xiao long bao Shanghai soup dumplings popular in dim sum restaurants. These are more robust in texture, the exterior almost like a thinner version of the fluffy char siu bao bbq pork bun; and they needed to be, as the fillings were substantial - and amazing.

The signature pork and water chestnut filling was tender, juicy and deftly seasoned; the shiitake, woodear and leek provided a veggie option that had great depth of flavour, but for me the crab and truffle option was one of the highlights of the evening and had me chasing tiny shreds of filling around the plate with my chopsticks out of pure greed. They were as good as I had heard - a beautifully crisp, browned base, not too doughy and piping hot. One word of warning though - when I say hot, I really do mean hot - please don't be tempted to pop a whole one in your mouth as soon as they are served, as the result will not be pretty.

These were followed by the long bean fritters with smoked tofu mayonnaise. These were not so much actual fritters as long bean tempura, with the lightest of batter coatings and a fabulous gently spicy chilli kick, balanced by the creamy smokiness of the mayo.

Next up were the barbecued duck heart skewers; beautifully and simply presented, tender nuggets of meat with robust bbq flavours.

Potatoes in spicy red bean sauce arrived next; again the spice factor is mild, more warming than eye-watering, with the starchy sweetness of the red beans providing a comforting backdrop to the dish.

We were seriously starting to flag when the next dish arrived at our table, the signature spicy cumin lamb chops with pickled radish. However, these were everything you might hope they would be: juicy, crisp, perfectly seasoned melt-in-the-mouth heaven. Definitely one of the stand-out dishes of the evening.

Scallops in XO sauce came next. I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years and XO sauce was a staple seasoning, a seafood-based umami high. These were good but not outstanding . . . although in fairness we were both ridiculously full and still going on about the lamb chops.

The final dish arrived, a vegetable dish of kai lan served with crushed peanuts. I had a mouthful or two and confirmed that yes, I absolutely would order it again as a side if I hadn't already eaten my own body weight in dumplings and associated fabulousness.

Rumour has it that this pop-up is in preparation for a bricks-and-mortar version of Dumpling Shack planned for 2017. For what it's worth, my vote is a resounding YES PLEASE.

Yours, still daydreaming about dumplings,

Girl About Town xx

Monday, 28 November 2016

Gatecrasher review: La Mar, Buenos Aires

Ok, here's an experiment; normally this blog does what it says on the tin and gives you the heads up/low down on what's happening in and around London. However, at this precise moment I am sitting on a terrace overlooking the pool in a gorgeous zen hideaway just outside of Buenos Aires in Argentina after a wonderful dinner last night and I have decided to go off-piste and blog a non-London restaurant. So, here is the very first 'gatecrasher' review - La Mar, a Peruvian cebichería in the Palermo district of the city of Buenos Aires.

La Mar was probably the hottest new restaurant opening last year and it is still buzzing. There were doubts that a restaurant focusing on fish and seafood would last once the novelty had worn off but it is clearly still the place to be and be seen; we were guests of some very chic and well-connected Argentinian ladies so were shown straight to one of the coveted outdoor tables, right next to the bar.

We started off with a bottle of red while we looked through the menu, which arrived with a bowl of sweet potato crisps accompanied by two dipping sauces, one mild and one gently spicy. There isn't an English menu but the wait staff are very helpful. One of our companions ordered for us, which worked very well; it was a real treat to sit back and have dish after wonderful dish arrive magically at the table. The first was Causas Barranco - prawns with avocado on a shaped and seasoned mashed potato base, a traditional Peruvian starter. (Potatoes are the major crop of the Andes, region, with over 3,000 different varieties growing in Peru and the surrounding areas.)

Next to arrive was - I think - a Ceviche Mixto and a Clásico, fish and seafood of the day in the fabulously-named leche de tigre, literally 'tiger's milk'. This is the marinade that the ceviche has been steeped in, a mixture of lime juice, garlic, fresh coriander, chillies and red onion, often served in a shot glass alongside. 

The wontons that arrived next were particularly good - light and crisp, packed with a juicy seafood filling and served with a tamarind dip.

The Quinoa Caprese salad was not the most obvious accompaniment somehow, but was really good; excellent creamy burrata which contrasted well with the freshness and chilli-citrussy sharpness of the ceviche.

To finish we had a traditional Peruvian dessert, a Suspiro Limeño (literally, 'sigh of Lima'); this is a caramel-type base not dissimilar to Argentina's famous dulce de leche (but slightly less dense) topped with meringue made with port. It is still very sweet - we shared one between four so we could all have a taste and were happy with that!

The bar in the courtyard is very cool; we stuck to the red wine and so didn't get round to trying the pisco cocktails, but if you go, try the chilcano and tell me what it's like. 

Yours, loving the outdoor dining in November,

Girl About Town xx