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Reviews: 'Walloping flavours' at Norma and seduction at Siren

30 September 2019 by
Reviews: 'Walloping flavours' at Norma and seduction at Siren

‘Walloping flavours’ at Norma in London’s Fitzrovia keep the Evening Standard’s Fay Maschler coming back

From the section entitled snacks, homemade focaccia standing tall and proud is a must, particularly when accompanied by (discernibly) beech-smoked fat anchovies innocent of any vinegar plus the lemony, buttery, oily Sicilian ointment called salmoriglio. Equally impressive are chickpea panelle, a sock-it-to-you feathery version of socca with salsa verde. Anyone who has ever fried up leftover spaghetti the next morning will order spaghettini fritters, as crisp and effective as Supreme Court President Lady Hale’s spider brooch.

From antipasti I heartily recommend pan-fried violet artichokes with pine nut purée which are the real things, lovingly prepared, not those abominations from a jar. But I have to say that rose veal – a chewy thing but our own – smothered in smoked eel mayonnaise is no improvement on vitello tonnato. In fact, it’s a rather big step backwards. The garnish of spindly pickled carrots is good, though.

Now to the pasta alla Norma, which is predicated on large-diameter rigatoni – it doubtless has a special regional name – and is suitably late summer, early autumn in mood. Almost more beguiling is fresh strozzapreti with pork, anchovy and orange ragù enlivened with fresh mint. Sicilian enthusiasm for sardines, raisins and pine nuts is there in the sauce for fresh tagliolini but frankly I don’t share that enthusiasm.

Next up is large plates, from which we try a walloping, flavourful aubergine Parmigiana and on another occasion – I keep going back. Well, it’s just down the road – roasted whole Cornish mackerel with spices, almond dressing and rainbow chard. Lifting this last is a side order of fried cubed potatoes with grated pecorino and spring truffle.

Rating: 4/5

Kama by Vineet
Kama by Vineet

Kama by Vineet at Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge makes The Times’ Marina O’Loughlin feel “bargain basement”

The two samosas are good: crisp pastry, a freshly spiced filling, heaped with the chickpeas, yogurt, chillies and a sweetish mint chutney. They’re considerably better than the next dish – a few spears of oversalted broccoli doused in more yogurt and tamarind, plus pomegranate seeds, like rejects from the Ottolenghi test kitchen.

Bhatia is from a Punjabi family background, born in Mumbai. But this short menu could be from any Indian restaurant, anywhere. I’m struggling to find another main course that will give his chefs a bit of a workout. But I end up ordering that under-a-blanket-in-front-of-the-TV special, butter chicken (murgh makhani). “The chicken seems odd,” says Wolvo, “like something from Iceland.” I’m not so critical here: it tastes as though the meat has been long marinated in yoghurt before a blasting in the tandoor, hence the texture; its sauce truly vibrant despite the tomato soupy demeanour, with a pleasing throat-tickle of fenugreek and ginger. The wine list is also yawn-inducing: I’m compelled to order basic Pinot Grigio because it’s the cheapest at £35 (ouch; the next cheapest white is £58). Puddings are just a bit grim, particularly a gritty, tongue-coating malai kulfi (milk ice flavoured with cardamom and nuts) topped with a nest of falooda, syrupy noodles soapy with saffron. I’m desperate for a thorough tongue-scouring for hours afterwards.

Price: For three, including 10% service charge: £214.50

Siren Red Mullet 090
Siren Red Mullet 090

The Guardian’s Grace Dent is seduced by Siren at the Goring hotel in London’s Belgravia

Siren’s menu eschews jargon or trend, but still retains a sparkle. You will be fed by the end of your meal. Feasibly thoroughly skint, too, but fed nonetheless. Expect crisp oysters and thick slabs of cuttlefish black pudding. Dover sole is served with a clotted cream sauce. Hake comes battered. There’s dry-aged steak with tarragon butter.

We ate a delicate lobster tart that was something of a work of art, sturdy enough to contain a lot of meat and a tower of fresh pea shoots, yet deft and flyaway, too. A starter of cured monkfish was a subtle affair, ornately arranged with fresh ginger, fennel and yogurt. The crisp oysters were a punchier option, layered with cabbage and served with an oyster-infused “salad cream”.

Turbot on the bone was perfectly judged, with a vibrant, sunrise-coloured seaweed hollandaise and a slice of al dente, chargrilled fennel. A 910g sea bass arrived partially skinned, yet still very much owning a skeleton, and its face stared plaintively up at Charles as he deboned and demolished it.

Puddings are exquisite, too; in fact, for me, they were the stars of the show, even though they begin at 12 quid for ice-cream. A heroically gorgeous strawberry tart with a Jenga-pile of fresh fruit and a scoop of yogurt sorbet was bliss. The raspberry choux bun is a decadent heffalump of a dessert, teeming with plump berries and equipped with a jug of dark chocolate sauce. A glass of sweet Uroulat jurançon took the edge off the alarming bill. Siren lured me in and seduced me.

Price: From about £65 a head, plus drinks and service. Rating: food 8/10; atmosphere: 9/10; service: 10/10

WILD TURBOT AND CLAMS AT CHARLIE'S - BROWN'S HOTEL - PHOTO CREDITS TO CHARLIE MCKAY
WILD TURBOT AND CLAMS AT CHARLIE'S - BROWN'S HOTEL - PHOTO CREDITS TO CHARLIE MCKAY

Charlie’s at Brown’s hotel in London's Mayfair is “the upstanding British restaurant it was meant to be”, writes Hilary Armstrong in The Telegraph

The gentlemen all around us seem fixated on the Dover sole – Charlie’s does a nice line in old-school dishes like oysters, smoked salmon and Hereford beef – but it’s game season, so I can’t resist my first grouse of the year (a snip at £34: my butcher has them at £15.50).

This one’s from Yorkshire – its liver spread on toasts, with blackberries, glorious bread sauce and pommes soufflées, puffed up like the pillows in the hotel’s £5,000 a night Kipling Suite.

Wild turbot with Palourde clams is beautifully cooked on the bone, though the kitchen might have amped up the promised chilli. Here, modern classics take their place alongside classic classics.

Sicilian-inspired cauliflower, caper and raisin salad may not be quite as special as a taut, pressed terrine of chicken, ceps and duck liver, flecked with sea salt, but the presence of such lighter dishes elevates Charlie’s above a dull old grill. More compelling, charged-up service would elevate it further.

The Flint House
The Flint House

The Flint House in Brighton has potential, but offers an otherwise average lunch, writes Tom Parker Bowles in The Mail on Sunday

It’s in the maw of the Lanes, and you sit at the bar, Barrafina-style, either facing the chefs or the Brass Monkey Ice Cream parlour, where they say the saffron and rosewater gelato is definitely worth a go. The menu reads well, too. Broadly European, but with the occasional foray into the Middle East and beyond: Ortiz anchovies on toast, and Peter Hannan beef, and whole roast fish of the day. Service is warm and wreathed in smiles, and we eat braised squid with 'Nduja and olives, in a rich, Romesco-ish tomato sauce. There’s heat and chew and pure Mediterranean allure. A serious starter.

Then a couple of decent prawns, pert and fresh and properly cooked. And a cracking tomato salad, the essence of later summer sweetness, with wisps of goat curd and a fistful of capers. Plus green beans, with bite and a hint of squeak, each coated in a creamy, horseradish-and-anchovy-spiked dressing. The vegetarian dishes are really very good. But the rest is, well… just a touch dull. A pair of ham croquettes that lack the oozing charms of the truly great. A sea bass crudo that, while immaculately fresh, is drab and under-seasoned, the only real flavour being an excess of dill. Beware the bully boy dill.

Sugar pit ox cheek has an intense beefiness (I’m pretty sure it’s from Peter Hannan) and a decent crust. But it needs cooking longer, at a low temperature. You should be able to cut it with a spoon, rather than chew the stuff like jerky.

Whole plaice is bland and pappy, lacking that essential fleeting sweetness, both overcooked and underwhelming.

Puddings are better: a chocolate parfait sandwich that doesn’t overwhelm with sweetness; and more chocolate, a delice with cooked fig and a shard of honeycomb.

Price: About £25 per head. Rating: 3/5

Bilson Eleven is one of Glasgow’s best restaurants, according to Ron Mackenna of The Herald

We oggled and goggled a little when the scallop arrived. Pretty, yes. Nasturtium leaf, speckled, freckled pool around it, tiny capers with them but the scallop itself? Unfashionable pale. Not seared. Hoots mon. This looks a bit scary. In fact it’s deliciously tender, full of flavour and with a sharp, sweet, light and refreshing combination round it: excellent.

Perthshire wood pigeon then. Once again the plate looks beautiful. Once again a little bit left field. A seared, sliced to pink, perfectly presented piece of breast but with bright purple fermented bramble (whatever that is) and pop grains (whatever they are).

It’s certainly Scottish this meal. Spectacularly so. And yes venison is next. Looking like it's straight from the pages of a culinary magazine: rolled, caramelised on the edges, gently changing to a very pink in the middle. Superbly seasoned again, very tender. But here’s the good bit: served with a curried potato salad that’s zingy and spicy and smacking of cumin. We like. A lot.

I do have one significant complaint though. And it’s about the amuse bouche that’s served when we come in. It’s called St Mungo, it contains foie gras. Frankly, it doesn’t sound very appetising. In fact we’re all a bit scared to try this waxy-looking Ferrero Rocher.

Is there liver inside? It just tastes sweet and sticky and jammy. And not nearly as bad as it sounds but as a warmer-upper for the meal? No.

Price: £50 for the set menu. Rating: menu: 5/5; atmosphere: 4/5; price: 4/5; service: 5/5; food: 8/10

burrata, salted tomatoes, fennel blossom
burrata, salted tomatoes, fennel blossom

Flor in London’s Borough Market serves “eclectic and beautifully mastered dishes”, writes William Sitwell in The Telegraph

There was toast topped with anchovy in lard and a flutter of marjoram. The dish is a glorious engine room of the food world, an ancient combination of some of the most basic things you can extract from the sea, land and soil. The crunch of toast, the salivating texture and saltiness of anchovy enveloped with soft, rich fat. You eat it and immediately reach for that wine, or sherry. Delicious.

We also had prawns, the bodies raw and exotic, topped with yuzu, the heads grilled and made for sucking.

A cod brandade was presented as a slim dish with its grilled top and was, we reckoned, the best, the most delicious, the naughtiest and most wonderful sort of fish pie ever conceived. The top was crisp, the filling delicate and creamy and there were swirls of soft red and yellow peppers to add the tiniest hint of spice.

Price: Dinner for two £75 excluding drinks and service. Rating: 4.5/5

The Humble Bee Café in London’s Stepney is “a very happy place”, says The Observer’s Jay Rayner

Most of the rest of the menu looks like a bunch of open sandwiches, each at a little over a fiver. Then they turn up and it becomes clear that the thick slice of sourdough underneath – from Rockstar Bakers in Herne Hill – while part of the offering, is essentially a platform, upon which the kitchen assembles its ideas. You can measure the depth of these “sandwiches” with a long ruler. One comes spread thickly with their own punchy hummus. On top are slabs of roasted butternut squash, like crescent suns, their bright orange set against the crimson of pickled beetroot. There are torn basil leaves and, for a salty kick, cairns of crumbled feta.

On another, feta is whipped to smooth and invited to play tag with dollops of spiced baba ganoush. Texture comes from roasted tomatoes and the peppery intent of watercress. Their take on egg mayonnaise is simply outrageous. The chickens must have worked overtime to stack this one serving. Rather than a blitzed mush, the eggs, cooked until soft rather than rubber-bullet hard, have been broken up and heaped one atop the other. There are a few thin discs of crisped chorizo.

On the counter there is a sausage roll as thick as a toddler’s arm, the rugged filling studded with the sweet burst of chopped apricots, the flaky pastry sprinkled with fennel seeds. Alongside there’s the cake of the day, a crumbly chocolate orange number with lots of zest and a chocolate buttercream frosting like your mum or dad would make.

Price: £3.25 to £6.50 per dish

Chang’s Noodle in London’s Holborn has a committed return guest in The Times’ Giles Coren

The main thing to have, if it’s your first time, is the ‘Shan Xi Yo Po’, hand-pulled noodles from northern China, wide and long like pappardelle, but longer, folded back and pulled and folded and pulled until they twang and yabber and grab, sitting under steamed bok choy and beef brisket, and you must dig in with your sticks and toss it and toss it to get the rich, sticky, salty sauce up from underneath and all over your food. It is imperious, it is £7.90 and you won’t need to eat again for 24 hours. Although personally I think it goes really well with a side of the cool, crunchy, citrussy shredded pigs’ ear with chilli oil. Or the dry-fried French beans if you’re not a cartilage person.

If you are a cartilage person (and I so am) go back next time for the fragrant chilli pigs’ trotters (£10.80), maybe five or six feet, cooked for about a decade and falling apart, obviously, in mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper and handfuls of dried red chilli. This summer just gone I’ve been mostly slurping the fat skin off the toes with a cold Tsingtao and watching the cricket on my phone…

Other times (and you’ll be going back, mark me), you might want to try the hot noodles with sesame paste, nutty and nourishing, and you must have the thing on the menu that looks like a McMuffin but has no transliteration for its Chinese name (they call it “marinated meat in baked bun” on the menu front) and is basically a muffin full of braised pork with whole cloves of soft garlic for about three quid a pop (one would be a light lunch on its own)

Rating: cooking: 7/10; service: 9/10; value: 8/10; score: 8/10

Forza Wine
Forza Wine

Forza Wine in London’s Peckham is “one of the most confident, directly pleasurable openings of the year”, says the Evening Standard’s Jimi Famurewa

First from the fairly lengthy snacks menu came a medley of salami (offering gradations of buttery fat and delicate spice), thick slabs of good sourdough, and flatbread with sausage and onion ragù: a sort of Italian nacho plate comprising grill-striped triangles of shattering dough, and a dense, deliciously brown stew, thick with crisped pork scrags and the beguiling, peppery musk of good haggis. Just maddeningly addictive.

Thick-furrowed fontina toasties – with a ripe, melted filling that was the elastic stuff of three-foot cheese-pulls – particularly delighted the six-year-old. Cauliflower fritti brought florets and slivered roots, dredged in judiciously seasoned batter, fried to a golden, greaseless crisp and served with a blob of mellow aïoli. And chicken Milanese too featured dextrous frying, a composed accompanying sauce (anchovy-laced Caesar dip this time) and luscious meat. Like the other dishes, it also had an abiding sense of food that possessed a snafflable, easy-going air but, also, the palpable whirring swan-legs of serious technique.

The mild disappointments I chalked were the pretty-but-fussy beetroot and lentil salad, plus a succulent, kebab-like lamb and rosemary spiedini that was a touch over-salted. Of course, as we all plunged spoons into the glory of soft serve, crushed biscotti and salted olive oil caramel sundaes, it was hard to care too much about these microscopic niggles. Forza Wine honestly feels like a giddy, wholly welcome burst of delayed summer sunshine. You may have to walk up. But I’m betting you’ll practically float back down.

Price: £85 for four. Rating: ambience: 5/5; food: 4/5

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