EpiQR – Brompton Bar & Grill, London SW3 and Boqueria, London SW2

with EM MARSHALL-LUCK

Brompton Bar & Grill

243 Brompton Road, London SW3

The Brompton Bar & Grill is conveniently placed for the attractions of the museums, Royal Albert Hall, Royal Geographical Society and parks of Kensington, almost directly opposite Brompton Oratory, and suitable either for a swift but filling meal, or a more relaxed evening. The establishment has a traditional ‘grill’ style set-out and atmosphere, with light oak-stained hardwood floors; a shop-window frontage and quirky antique prints and cartoons. The angled down-lighters and colour-scheme of browns and greys impart a slightly industrial air, which contrasted with the white linen and candles on the small tables and bench seating. The toilets were disappointingly basic and we at once found the music intrusive, with a heavy bass and overall volume too high. The reasonably enjoyable 1930s big band soon switched to bad covers of 1960s “crooning” numbers, indeterminate world music and a rather strange track that was trying very hard to be a mixture of 1970s experimental synthesisers and Quintette du Hot Club de France. The occasional traditional French song was more welcome as were the Grappelli numbers – alas the music then reverted to more heavy beats. The overall effect was one of indeterminacy; an inability on the restaurant’s part to ascertain the type of music that corresponded with their perceived image and desired clientele, and thus a hedging-the-bets approach of trying a little bit of everything in the hope that something at least might appeal to the present patrons.

We were seated at a table by the window – an agreeably private table (although draughty when anyone entered by the adjacent door, albeit be-curtained), and the menus and wine list appeared expeditiously. Bread was also soon placed on the table – an excellent sourdough-type baguette which promised a fine meal to come. The menu was good, with a set menu, or a range  of salads, pasta dishes, substantial fish and meat plates and vegetable and salad side orders; and the wine (and cocktail) list was impressive, too, with a good range of wines and prices, from £16 through to the very finest wines at several hundred pounds. I was pleased to see that a fair number of wines were available by the carafe, as well by bottle and glass.

We decided to try the house red, a 2011 vin de France: Le Bosq, and found it reasonable for its price, with a pleasingly spicy nose and a mouth full of red berry fruits (predominantly red currants) – although it was too acidic and light for my personal taste, preferring my beverages rich, dark and full-bodied.

The service at BB&G is professional, friendly and attentive, although food arrived a little too quickly course on course, not allowing enough time for conversation and digestion. Plates were also cleared away a little too rapidly – we would, for instance, have preferred the main course dishes not to have been leapt upon and borne off the second the cutlery hit the plates for the last time, and I was still nibbling happily at my bread when it was whisked off. That aside, however, the waiters were watchful, with eyes easily caught, very polite, and gratifyingly decently turned-out.

I started with smoked salmon – beautifully tender and well-flavoured; served with toast and lemon, while my husband went for the ham hock terrine. Accompanied by gherkins, mustard and toast, this was enjoyably meaty with good large chunks of ham. It was, perhaps, just slightly on the oily side, but certainly not gelatinous.

The main courses were not as good as the starters (as seems so often to be the case!) – although my husband’s rib-eye steak was wonderfully very flavoursome and with a well-seasoned taste, its texture was oddly dry. My roast Barbary duck breast was surprisingly chewy and tough, the fact of its being thickly cut and rather pink in the middle yet very well done on the outside enhancing the rather leathery tendency. The French fries (accompanying the steak) were fine, and the creamed potatoes were delicious and very more-ish; yet the green beans disappointed. They were rather over-done and slightly wilted as a result and, furthermore, had been flavoured with lemon juice (which a decent green bean just doesn’t need – it’s such a superb, flavoursome vegetable when fresh that showing it some boiling water and lathering on butter is all that should be required).

For desserts I attempted the rich and thick dark chocolate mousse with homemade honeycomb – a little too sweet for my liking; whilst my husband tried the vanilla crème brulee, with which he was reasonably well pleased, and which brought the meal to a satisfactory close. On the whole, a good dining experience, with the excellent starters and the professionalism of the staff being the high-points of the evening.

Boqueria

192 Acre Lane, Brixton, London SW2

Brixton’s Boqueria has already established itself as a fashionable place to eat, especially amongst young professionals, by the look of the crowd we encountered when visiting. At first, the exterior immediately presents itself as rather industrial-looking. One enters along the corridor of a bar having, again, an industrial air, with metal, bare wooden floorboards, and greyish walls. The restaurant area is slightly minimalist in feel and, once more, the industrial aspects also makes its presence felt, with bare floorboards, wooden chairs (not desperately comfortable), long mushroom-grey (Waitrose essential mushroom, if we’re pushed) padded benches, rustic wooden tables, black paper napkins and no tablecloths. Above the bench seating hangs a series of colourful photos of food markets. A long table dominates, in the middle of the room, and there are a number of separate tables along the back wall by the radiator – a good place to be on a March evening with temperatures of near zero outside – it felt like the first time I had been warm for weeks!

The music suits the young, trendy clientele – reasonably loud pop music which we, regrettably, found intrusive and aggravating, but which no doubt is usually appreciated by patrons. Continuing the “functional” theme, placemats double as menus. These have a contemporary look; sans serif fonts are used throughout, and the black ink occasionally lapses into red and yellow – one is uncertain whether this is a reference to the Spanish flag or whether the ink cartridge is running low! The menu, though clearly laid out, offers no advice, such as to the size of the dishes or how many it is recommended that one should order.  The wine list is likewise printed on paper rather than card and, disappointingly, bears no descriptions of the wines. There is, nevertheless, a good selection of cavas and sherries, and about a dozen bottles of red and white wine, of which 3 each are available by the glass, as well as two roses. All wines on offer are Spanish, and there is also a good selection of beers and sangria. We chose the Castillo Perelada Brut Rose. Very pink in colour, this had delicate bubbles, a light nose of strawberries, and a dry taste with a lingering strawberry finish. Quite crisp and acidic, it worked well, cutting through the richness and creaminess of the following dishes.

Tapas come in a particular order, with a new plate reaching the table as soon as one is half way through the previous, so that there is always a fresh dish to tuck into as soon as the current one has been demolished. Bread and marinated olives were brought first – quite tangy, the latter had a very nice balance of flavours; their not being pitted was actually beneficial from the point of view of flavour, whilst the fact that the flesh didn’t overly cling to the stone also meant that the non-pitted-ness was not a problem. The bread was freshly baked and was so light that my husband did not feel the lack of butter or olive oil (I did!). Furthermore, he proclaimed it nicely textured with a firm but not tough crust, and a pleasantly springy crumb.

Eager to obtain a representative view of the food on offer, we chose rather a large number of dishes (well, that was our excuse, anyway!). The meal started very impressively indeed, although the impression we gained during the course to it was that the cold dishes that might normally be considered starters were actually the best dishes on offer, and that the more meaty plates disappointed in comparison.

The pork loin with which our meal commenced was absolutely superb. Very chewy in texture, it was nevertheless packed full of flavour – slightly smoked but not intrusively so, and very “piggy” if one will excuse the expression (let us just say that there could be no doubt as to what unfortunate member of livestock the dish was derived). The fact that it was quite lean indicated that the flavour came straight from the meat, rather than relying on the fat to impart this. A sheep’s cheese was served at the same time, along with jellied quince and sultanas. The cheese had a characteristically nutty flavour; rich and creamy, tangy and salty, it worked spectacularly well when eaten with the pork loin.

The goats cheese was also superb and for me – a goats cheese connoisseur as I immodestly deem myself – probably the highlight of the meal. Rich and tangy, it was baked so that the middle remained crumbly whilst the outside had melted into a glorious goo. It was served with crunchy raisin toast, red berry fruit jam and with caramelised onions that tasted more like solidified honey. Absolutely exquisite, this onion accompaniment complimented the deep flavour of the cheese impeccably, and such was the perfection of the whole effect of this dish that it was almost a “die happy” moment.

After this small slice of heaven, the croquettes rather brought us back down to earth with a bump. Comparatively tasteless, with a chewy exterior that did not seem to bear much resemblance to any breadcrumbs that I have known, the filling was neither particularly flavoursome nor particularly generous, with the result that they were rather flaccid and one found not enough filling for the “skin”. The tortilla, likewise, underperformed in our critical eyes. It was a little on the undercooked side for me, falling apart too easily and with the egg a little too raw and sloppy. The omelette was very thick so presumably had been oven baked rather than fried and then grilled on top. However, it came with a rich and creamy tomato and red pepper sauce that can be commended.

We struck gold again with the chorizo in cider – quite a salty and spicy dish, but that worked well in contrast to the previous dishes, and full of flavour and good textures.

We moved on then to dishes that might be considered “mains” – firstly lamb chops with potatoes cooked with garlic and white wine. The meat was a little dry and chewy and slightly colourless and bland; whilst the potatoes tasted almost slightly burnt and were rather al dente (to my discomfort!). There was, indeed, a little hint of garlic but the white wine didn’t really make itself known. We noted, also, that there were only two rather meagre chops – and at £7.90 that’s pretty steep for not much meat.

The Iberian pork with boletus mushroom sauce presented rather greasy meat, served on bread, with an intensely rich and sweet sauce that was more reminiscent  of the thickest, richest balsamic vinegar rather than mushroom (but was no worse for that!); whilst the pantixo of Iberian beef with Pedro Ximanez was similar in concept – if more successful. Tender beef, liberally condimented with flakes of sea salt is served on a sourdough bun – the resultant combination of flavours and textures, along with the unctuous Pedro Ximanez, is quite intriguing. The albondigas – usually my favourite tapas – were the nadir of the meal – they were so finely minced and had too strong a flavour.

We finished the meal (already groaning) with a selection of desserts (tempted as I was to order the goats cheese dish again!) – an excellent, very intensely flavoured, light, dry, crumbly almond cake with crunchy nuts; a very rich and smooth (if slightly gelatinous) cheesecake with a good buttery biscuit base and sweet and fruity raspberry marmalade; a firm but not unyielding crème caramel with a sponge base studded with pistachio nuts (which could have been rather more melting); and a triple chocolate tart. This, again, had a pleasantly buttery biscuit base whilst the chocolate itself (in three stripes) was immensely smooth and not too sweet (it could so easily have been overly cloying).  A surprisingly sophisticated (in the non-Shakespearian sense) dessert and a splendid conclusion to the meal.

With our desserts we tried some of the superb sherries on offer. My husband was rather taken with the tawny orange Manzanilla, with its nose of burnt toffee and caramel and very dry taste. I tried – as I have long wished to do – the Pedro Ximenez, which defied my expectations. It was dark, almost black in colour with a nose that spoke of the essence of raisin. In the mouth the sherry was immensely thick and syrupy (gloopy, almost), whilst the actual flavour itself wasn’t as intense as the smell would indicate. The predominate flavour is of malt (rather like drinking a malt loaf), and although it is very dark, the foretaste is sharper than expected. The lingering aftertaste is strongly cloying.

The sherry which most appealed to me was the Alfonso – another burnt toffee nose for a drink of a rich maroon hue (inasmuch as we could make out in the subdued lighting), a raisiny taste with hints of tar and ash and coffee, and a surprisingly dry finish. Really rather delicious.

The waiters and waitresses at La Boqueria constantly perambulate the circuit of tables so one is assured of catching someone if desired. They are quick to take away empty plates and top up wines regularly but get the hint on being requested not to do so (my husband was driving), whereupon they hold back. The service is, as well as being prompt, friendly – the chaps especially.

Boqueria is clearly an extremely popular establishment – even on a rainy and freezing cold Tuesday evening it was soon completely packed; by 8p.m. there was not a single spare table. The downside of this of course is that it gets quite noisy, with everyone needing to bellow at the tops of their voices in order to be heard by their dining companions. It is, furthermore, not particularly inexpensive, despite receiving the accolade (in Time Out) of being one of the “best new cheap eats”. Given that the right number of dishes is around six, and that most average £6 but rise up to a whopping £17.50 for the most expensive tapas, a dining bill with drinks would not be a negligible expense.

I would love to return (for that goats cheese and pork loin in particular!), but would be a little more wary of the meat dishes; on the whole, however, some fascinating and flavoursome dishes and drinks, in an exciting and vibrant atmosphere.

EM MARSHALL-LUCK is the QR‘s restaurant critic

 

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