Reviews: Marina O'Loughlin finds joy is billowing at Brat but Ammar Kalia is overwhelmed by Birch

25 August 2020
Reviews: Marina O'Loughlin finds joy is billowing at Brat but Ammar Kalia is overwhelmed by Birch

Marina O'Loughlin finds joy is billowing at the temporary home of Brat, Hackney, in The Sunday Times

If you're any form of foodist worth your Maldon Smoked (my dangerous addiction), you'll know all about Brat. What's now remarkable is that, as a response to the Current Situation, they've moved the whole shebang to Climpson's Arch. Coffee roastery by day, this space in an atmospheric Hackney backstreet has acted as incubator for any number of intriguing proto-restaurants and residencies.

The approach smells of smoke, of meat and fish browning over coals, so appetising it grabs you and draws you in like a cartoon cat. There are no menus handed out – you're instructed to take photos of blackboards after you've sanitised. Apart from a shack into which deliveries of fresh fish are disappearing (sadly we're too early for either turbot or whole crab: "they're still on the way from Cornwall"), it's entirely outdoors.

The food is so subtly different to the original it would require avid spoddery to spot it. (Hello.) There's the same concentration on fine British ingredients, the lack of interest in blobs and swirls and Instagrammability and pretension. As ever, there's nowhere for any of the ingredients to hide, so they just bellow joyfully.

The grilled flatbread, more pneumatic here than at Shoreditch, comes as an inflated cone of chewy, singed dough studded with grilled girolles and snowdrifted with the piquant ewes' milk cheese and snipped chives. There appears to be some unbilled summer truffle – the insouciance of that. Stealth truffles, a blasé luxury giveaway.

There's aubergine, blasted into an almost-fondant, slicked with honey and sheep's milk, its skin crackly like burnt sugar. Shishito peppers, blistered and salty, east Asian cousins of the padrón with the same hot-or-not lottery. From the available fish, including John Dory and lemon sole, we have the regal Dover sole. It's a beautiful fish, firm, meaty, coming away from its bones in languid fillets, smoky from the grill and almost self-saucing. At £45 for the whole thing, it easily serves two greedy people.

Price: £214.58 for two, including 12.5% service charge and £20 Eat Out to Help Out discount

Jay Rayner finds a ‘heap of good things' at Lahpet in London's Shoreditch in The Observer


The menu at Lahpet, a light and airy space clad in lots of blond wood to soften the Shoreditch concrete and steel, starts with a selection of three fritters for £8. They arrive in jolly paper cones, as if it's a day at the seaside, alongside a bright, sour tamarind dipping sauce. There are gnarly, rugged ones made with kidney beans and the slap of ginger, and others made from a split-pea purée. These flank the revelation: rectangular, golden sticks of deep-fried shan tofu, made from gram flour, with a reassuring outer crunch giving way to a molten centre. Where have these been all my life?

Texture is key. Lahpet thoke is a traditional salad made with pickled tea leaves, but there is so very much more going on here than the humble word "salad" suggests. It's a salad with a lengthy CV and killer references. Alongside the tea leaves and shredded cabbage there's the crunch of peanuts and of those crisp-fried broad beans we are familiar with from Spanish delis. There are dried shrimps and sesame seeds and a little chilli, for while a certain amount of heat is part of the story, it's not there to bash you about the head. There's a sweet-sour dressing with the high waft of garlic oil. It's a heap of good things that needs to be excavated in search of ever deeper textural joy.

The most showy plate of food, at £16.50, is the bream. The fillets have been taken off each side of the fish, crisp-fried and dressed with a mess of shallots, tomato and garlic. A few greens are there for healthy ballast. The remaining skeleton has then been deep fried and now perches, whole and tail up, on the plate. We are invited to break off pieces and eat them, too. We need little encouragement. Eventually, I move on to seeking out the nuggets of pearly white flesh around the head. All this, plus a bowl of that balachaung on the side, for added punch and kick.

Price: small plates, £6-£8; large plates, £12.50-£16.50

Ammar Kalia finds himself overwhelmed at the new Birch hotel in Hertfordshire in The Guardian

The Birch ethos, [founder, Chris] Penn told me, is to "give a shit", to be "accessible," to be "a festival at a hotel" or perhaps not even be a hotel at all. Rather, a space for "escape artists" – those wishing to get away from the relentless pace of London, a 30-minute train ride away to the south.

There is a lot to take in at Birch. To begin with, the design is haphazard and overwhelming. Vast, newly painted ultramarine walls give way to exposed plasterwork before labyrinthine corridors lead to Matisse-style murals, beautiful original mosaic flooring, Ercol-style furniture and more exposed pipework and air ducts than you'd see at a Costco.

In the 140 rooms (doubles, twins and family rooms with additional bunks) there are no desks and no TVs, just inordinately comfortable beds, obscure sculptural hanging racks, bunches of dried flowers and – in my case – a dingy bathroom repainted bubblegum pink. There are well-thought-out moments, such as the individual ceramic keyrings that match the room numbers, or the handcrafted beer and wine taps, but overall it is like the most chaotic Pinterest board made real.

There is one place where Birch makes sense – Robin Gill's Zebra Riding Club restaurant. In the manor's old stables, an open-plan kitchen produces remarkably good food at £48 for its tasting menu.

If Birch put its keen hyperactivity to rest and focused on what it could do well – food and board – then it might reach that hallmark of holistic wellness: considered simplicity.

Price: from £120 for a double room

Fay Maschler discovers Stevie Parle's garden restaurant pop-up Flora in Joy at Portobello, London, in The Evening Standard

The terrace overlooking the Grand Union Canal is furnished with tables and white umbrellas with a blue trim sporting the Nyetimber logo, interspersed with dahlias saved from perdition after Covid-19 cancelled Hampton Court Flower Show. They explain the restaurant name, Flora.

A bowl of clams opened with guanciale and freshly podded peas is a fitting first course and a delight. An open-air grill scents the air and shoulders much of the cooking. Guildford House pork chop served with the cunning combo of greengages and anchovy possesses the perfect char and flavour that permeates beautifully the fat. Timing can be tricky and ricotta-stuffed Loughton farm chicken served on sourdough toast has spent too long over the fire.


Courgettes cooked down long and slow with their indolent mulchy appeal make an irrefutable argument for overcooking vegetables. Fruit-driven desserts make sense – especially ­American cherry pie – and you could emulate one of them by buying fresh cherries and putting them on ice at home.

Pivoting in this pandemic has taken many forms. I hear rumours – and sense they are true – that this pivot may be for the long haul. I do hope so.

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