In the unlikely event they provide some inspiration or guidance, here’s a taste of my eating out experiences through December. In alphabetical order:
BAO’s buns aren’t the surprising flavour explosion they once were. But I think that’s mostly because after multiple bites of them over the years at KERB/Netil House/SOHO/Fitzrovia, they’re not, well, a surprise to me anymore.
I remain a fan; in part because the overall package is so considered. At BAO Fitzrovia the graphic tick box menu, similarly neat pencils, ever-changing inventive Taiwanese menu, complete with clever/bonkers drinks and desserts ensure it is a restaurant that should be revisited. On a barely deserved break from gift shopping just before Christmas (reader, I bought two things. TWO!), I stumbled into the calming bare wood and brushed plaster room and found they’re currently running a three courses for £15 deal: 1 bun, 1 rice bowl, 1 ‘Xiao Chi’ (small eats). For me that meant a confit pork bao (the best I reckon), sweet-glazed pork loin rice bowl, and a fried chicken chop with chilli and egg yolk dipping sauce. It was banging. As was the deep-fried, mincemeat bao with cool creme anglaise I followed the savoury dishes with.
I noted on leaving that you can now book in advance for a ‘Ping Paan Platter’ of grilled meats and bao buns. £25 per person. And you know BAO are opening another site on the edge of Borough Market soon? Expect more of the same — well, something different, but of the same quality.
baolondon.com — 31 Windmill Street, W1T 2JN — Monday-Saturday (times vary – see website), bookings possible
Berenjak is a relatively new Soho restaurant serving (perhaps confusingly) both ‘home-style Iranian food’, and in the ‘style of a rustic hole-in-the-wall kabab house from Tehran’. I suppose ‘Persian-ish food I like and think you’ll like too’ wasn’t deemed concepty enough.
I did like it, though. The set-up reminds me a little of Palomar, with an open-counter kitchen at the front of the restaurant, and a small room of tables to the rear. The decor and food’s better here, IMO. Small bites or meze (precise rather than homely) included kashk e bademjoon, a dense and sticky bowl of long-cooked aubergine, whey, walnuts, dried mint and onions, and a sharp, tangy chunk of British feta with fresh herbs (panir sabzi). We ate succulent and flavoursome saffron marinated chicken and minced goat shoulder kebabs, and an enjoyably heavy, multi-spiced aubergine, split pea and beef short stew (khoresht ghaimeh bademjoon) with fresh breads and a number of different pickles on the side (cauliflower, chillies and cucumbers). I’ve no idea whether the food’s ‘authentic’, but I’m not sure that matters — it tasted good, was filling and vibrant, and there was a JKS Restaurants (Gymkhana, Brigadiers, Hoppers etc) quality to everything. Decent value for central London too: you can eat a similar selection to what we had for £28.50 per person.
Unusually for this restaurant group, reception seems to have been a little muted; perhaps because it’s on one of those Soho streets without a natural footfall. As such, I wonder if the space can sometimes feel a little flat. Open kitchens often bring life to a room, but this doesn’t have a natural flair; perhaps because watching men watching kebabs cook slowly is a bit of a drying paint event. Muted reception, though, means Berenjak are now taking bookings for lunch and early evening (up to 7:30), which is a good thing in Soho.
berenjaklondon.com — 27 Romilly Street, W1D 5AL — Monday-Saturday (times vary – see website), bookings lunch and dinner to 7:30pm
Muted is not a word appropriate to a Blacklock experience. The third site (this time, Rivington Street in Shoreditch) continues the winning combination of cheesey music and hulking great plates of hulking great meats. There is no better value meal in London than a £20 All-In at Blacklock — you get a couple of quality lamb chops, pork belly or loin and a rump steak, laid on juice-soaked bread, plus an excellent side dish. They do higher ££ bone-in steaks too — the prime cuts hewn from the same beasts that provide the chops —but it’s hard not to go for the meal deal. Good wines on tap and in bottle, succinct cocktail list. It’s uncomplicated, fun and always delivers.
Now there’s three of them, one could suggest that Blacklock is a mini-chain. If it is, then I’d say it’s right up there with Dishoom and Hawksmoor for quality and consistency; if anything, the offer is improving, rather than diluting with growth. Disco balls and Top Gun high fives all-round.
theblacklock.com — 28-30 Rivington Street, EC2A 3DZ — Monday-Sunday(roasts), bookings possible
If Blacklock’s cheer and hospitality could be bottled and sold, I would recommend Cornerstone place an order. Here, round the corner from Fish Island in Hackney Wick, seafood-focused food is prepared and sent from the central kitchen that dominates the a clattery hard-edged room. I can clearly recall pickled, chilled oysters, which were sharp but still saline, and a mackerel pâté dish as tasty as it was clever in construction — smooth pâté topped with a thin jelly and additional cured slices of mackerel, and served with an excellent, warm, malty, muffin-shaped soda bread. For the rest of the meal, though, I needed to look back through my photos to find there was also monkfish tail with a chicken skin butter sauce that no normal person could not swipe their finger through, the much-instagramed but mostly ok potted shrimps on a crumpet, hake on parsnip mash, and a mini Eccles cake with blue cheese and a quince purée that dominated rather than gilded. All decent, competent, good, really. But also forgettable. Indeed, my strongest and abiding memory is of a general gloom emanating from the kitchen, and a sour, uptight service that’s at odds not just with the likes of Blacklock, but also places like Brat, Bright, Lyle’s and Levan; all places I would have thought Cornerstone would liken itself to. It’s never just about the food, is it? (Also, the meal is flawed by a lack of carbs and sides).
cornerstonehackney.com — 3 Prince Edward Road, E9 5LX — Tuesday to Saturday book online only
Din Tai Fung
I went for xiao long bao on the first weekend of the new Din Tai Fung on Henrietta Street in Covent Garden. The queue was as long and slow as expected (I’m not really sure what came over us). But the dumplings were also as finely pleated and exquisite as I remember from DTF experiences elsewhere. The consistency on the XLB front is remarkable, both across a lunch service in this one site, during which hundreds and hundreds of people’s cravings and curiosities were catered for, but also across the various sites around the world. Just go for multiple baskets of the pork XLB though; the more expensive pork and crab etc are not materially better. Other dishes were pretty good, and you’ll find more forensic reviews of those elsewhere. For me it’s all about those soup dumplings.
dintaifung-uk.com —5-6 Henrietta Street, WC2E 8PS — Monday-Sunday 11am-10:30pm, no bookings, just queues