Counter, Vauxhall

In a first for my little blog, ex-blogger and friend, Hugh Wright (creator of Twelve Point Five Percent) comes out of retirement to write me a guest review.

The Counter business card

One way or another, I have spent a substantial proportion of the past fifteen years in Vauxhall’s railway arches. Moving to the area in 2000 just as the gay scene was migrating out of central London to the then–ungentrified wilds of SW8, I discovered along with my old-uni-friends flatmates the delights of 24-hour partying.

You could, as for four or five sybaritic years we did, go out on a Friday night and not come home until Monday lunchtime, with somewhere to suit all tastes and peccadilloes from the dank, damp, deep-house all-nighters at Viaduct – now the superclub Fire – where you couldn’t officially buy booze but if you rapped on a hatch in a back wall and handed over a twenty a disembodied hand would pass you out four mystery drinks of a strength that could tranquilise a horse as surely as the ketamine that you could, conversely, buy openly at the otherwise purely-decorative bar, to the leather-, uniform- or un-clad extremes of fetish club The Hoist.

Later came soi-disant ‘Roman spa’ Chariots, a labyrinthine gay sauna in which to enjoy a Jacuzzi, a steam, an orgy and a nap in one of the cabins; Barcode – a satellite branch of a now-defunct Soho dance bar; and in more recent years the superb Above The Stag theatre, home to some of the best gay fringe in the capital. Once, when yet another club opened in a reclaimed railway arch, my friend Serious Chris quipped that “they should just knock Vauxhall through and make it into one big dancefloor.” In 2015, this feels prescient.

What the arches have never been used for, surprisingly given the apparent draw of the pink pound for canny operators, is a decent restaurant. Sure, there are a couple of passable Portuguese places but the welcome to those not native to Little Lisbon, as Vauxhall is sometimes known because of its extensive Portuguese community, can be less-than-warm to say the least, and I do not count – although I am not averse to – Nando’s. I certainly don’t count Dirty Burger; if you think that this is good food, never mind good burgers, then you are wrong.

No, to date Vauxhall’s only good restaurant has been what is in fact one of London’s best restaurants, Jackson Boxer’s exquisite, considered, flamboyant Brunswick House; now it is joined felicitously by Counter, a thoroughly jolly all-day brasserie which bores its way like a fistula from South Lambeth Place to South Lambeth Road, where its sassier sibling Back Counter, a cocktail bar, sits cheek-to-cheek with The Hoist.

A sizeable cheque has clearly been thrown at fitting the place out; seating, the majority in booths, is mushroom leather, tables marble, the cruets chrome and wood, and there’s a show-stopping curvilinear light fitting above the centrepiece island bar. Menus and cocktail lists have been designed by someone with an eye for a sexy font and the stock they’re printed on has heft. The Gays of Vauxhall like heft. Even the loos, to my chagrin so often an afterthought, are well-appointed, with Æsop hand-soap, Dyson Airblade Vs and Tom Of Finland-ish pen-and-ink drawings of chaps in chaps.

Inside

The food is modish without being fussy or fashionable, which I call A Good Thing. Of the starters, we try iridescent-skinned fillets of gin and lime-cured mackerel, their plump oiliness balanced by the crunch of almonds and cucumber, sweet pear and bitter chard, and butch pork rillettes with sourdough and pickles. Both lack a little finesse – the mackerel in seasoning, the rillettes in presentation – but they’re a sound start to the meal.

Gin and lime-cured mackerel

Pork rillettes with sourdough and pickles.

There’s no faulting our main courses. My date Lewis’s Counter burger is served medium as requested, good-quality beef in a glossy brioche bun, complemented rather than drowned out by caramelised onions, Swiss cheese and bacon jam. It comes with hot, salty skinny fries and a little bottle of house chipotle ketchup.

Burger

Said ketchup is so good I ask for some to accompany my order of hot-smoked salmon Caesar salad with a tempura soft-shell crab. This latter component retains its living shape so perfectly that I suspect a determined marine biologist could get it scuttling sideways again; I devour it, along with the delicious and adeptly-dressed salad, before we have a chance to find out.

Salad

Rather replete, we share a dessert, chocolate brownie with banana ice-cream and peanut brittle. It’s bloody lovely, as any dish combining that Holy Trinity of flavours is bound to be, and notable for the quality of the brownie which is pleasingly moist where its kind are so often claggy.

Brownie

Unable to agree on white or red, we’re pleased to be able to order wine from a good selection by the glass, like the food ungreedily-priced. With a pre-dinner cocktail for me and 12.5% service 100% deserved by our polite and preternaturally pretty Lithuanian waiter Gin (“Jim?” I mishear; “No, Gin, but without tonic!” the young beauty retorts) the bill is only just north of £40 a head which feels like very fair value.

Counter will do well, of this I have no doubt; not just because ‘if you build it they will come’ – Vauxhall has been crying out for this kind of place for years and now its cries have been answered – but because it’s actually very good. As rumours gain purchase that Lambeth Council, like neighbouring Westminster, is seeking to clean up or close down some of the grimier corners of the gay scene, it’s timely that somewhere like Counter – if not exclusively aimed at The Gays then very much ready and willing to receive them – should open now.

I may not spend as much time in Vauxhall’s arches now as I once did, but you can count on it that Counter is one I’ll be found in again, and often.

Square Meal

Rick Stein’s, Winchester

Rick Stein's business card

Apart from my Dad’s bathroom shop, Winchester hasn’t got an awful lot going for it and it certainly isn’t known for its food (bar Michelin starred The Black Rat which is pretty decent). To hear that both Hugh Fearnley-Twittingstall and Rick Stein were both opening restaurants there, it sounded like only a positive thing.

Outside

We thought we’d start by trying Rick Stein’s, which as you can imagine was a wholly seafood offering. White table cloths attempted to create a formal atmosphere but the fact we were seated next to a closed cupboard covered in scuffs; it didn’t quite do it for me.

Inside

Again, with an attempt at fine-dining, we were offered an amuse bouche of fish cakes which were pleasant little balls with the flavour and texture you might expect from a pub.

Fish cakes

To start, my parents opted for the Cantabrian prawn and crab cocktail (£8.95) which was served in a whisky glass. The quality of both the crab and prawn was exquisite.

Prawn and crab cocktail

Slightly less successful was my salt and pepper squid (£8.95) which was a touch on the chewy side. It also had very little of the promised salt and pepper flavour. Frenchman’s Creek oysters (£2.50 each) were plump and creamy.

Salt and pepper squid

Oysters

For main, my Mutti’s cod and chips (£16.95) was fine but not particularly noteworthy. The mushy peas looked like they’d seen better days. But the thick cut chips were quite moreish.

Cod and chips

Far from moreish however were the thin chips (£3.50) that came with my lobster (£29.95), as they were soggy, undercooked and under-seasoned. And then there’s the lobster, served with a huge bowl of mayo that had formed a skin. I opted to have it steamed and the amount of water that poured out as I scooped and scraped the flesh out the shell was really off-putting. The lobster meat was also soft and flabby which wasn’t very nice in the slightest.

Lobster and chips

My Vati opted for the Dover sole a la meunière (£32.95) which certainly wasn’t cheap but it was faultless both in terms of quality and cooking.

Sole a la meunière

For dessert I went for the passion fruit pavlova (£6.95) which was a touch expensive for what is essentially a very good meringue and cream topped with half a passion fruit. To be fair, it was incredible. I had a similar desert when I visited Stein’s Seafood Restaurant in Padstow and it was equally as wonderful.

Pavlova

Service had a touch of the manic, rushed Café Rouge at Terminal 4 about it – our waiter would walk off before you finished your sentence which was annoying. That, along with some expensive but altogether disappointing food, left us doubtful we’d return.

4/10

Square Meal

Dishoom, King’s Cross 

Dishoom business card

I’m a bit late to the Dishoom party, their casual Indian food at high street prices has seen them grow to three sites in a short space of time. We thought we’d pop our Dishoom cherry in the newest one, based in Granary Square in King’s Cross (home to Grain Store and Caravan).

Outside

There was a lovely aroma of Indian food/incense in the air as we arrived, then to hear of an hour wait for a table. It was Sunday at 8pm – where do all these people come from?! Set over four floors, the word humungous would be an understatement; it was of Bubba Gump proportions – and then some – but it really was beautiful.

Inside

We started with some lamb samosas (£4.20) which weren’t rubbish but weren’t particularly wonderful either; they lacked flavour. The same could also be said for the chilli cheese toast (£3.20) which was a bit of a damp squib if you were looking for some punchy spicing.

Samosas

Chilli cheese toast

The Dishoom calamari (£5.50) was better as they were covered in a moreishly sweet honey glaze, which although making the coating a bit soggy, was seriously tasty.

Calamari

The mains came out at the same time and it was a really tasty selection of grub. The spicy lamb chops (£11.90) were slightly over cooked for me but the meat was so incredibly tender it almost didn’t matter. They had a thick black coal-like coating which was great but they weren’t spicy in the slightest. The chicken curry (£8.20) was rich and buttery with huge chunks of moist chicken bobbing around.

Lamb chops

Curry

The paneer tikka (£7.20) which is a type of Indian cheese was bouncy and squeaky – just how I like it. A bowl of kachi lamb biryani (£9.50) was a generous portion for the dollar as it featured great big chunks of lamb (that were a little bit dry) which had a terrific flavour. Best of all was the garlic naan (£2.20) which were a perfect tool for mopping up the chicken curry.

Paneer

Lamb

Naan

I really enjoyed Dishoom – it’s a smart and smooth operation they’ve got going there. If I ever fancy a curry in future I’d definitely choose that over my local. And if it’s packed at 8pm on a Sunday in the middle of a deserted square in King’s Cross, they must be doing something right

8/10

Dishoom King's Cross on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Ting, The Shard

Ting business card

Ting is the restaurant inside the Shangri-La hotel on the 35th floor of The Shard. There’s two options when booking; the more casual lounge or the fine dining restaurant and as we were after more of a special occasion feel for my parents, we opted for the latter.

The Shard

We were seated at a large table in the middle of the long dining room. It felt a bit like a cruise ship and with very little view, we could have been anywhere really. The chairs were huge and impossible to move, meaning there was a Grand Canyon-esque gap between me and the table. It was the sort of chair you’d put your Granny in to have a nap – it was far from suitable for dinner.

Ting dining room

Prices, as you might expect, were astronomical. That’s fine if the food and service justifies the price tag; it well and truly didn’t though. A starter of three rubbery, chewy scallops was £17. The waitress brought them to the table and proudly asked “who’s having the scallops?”. At 17 quid I was kinda hoping she’d have worked that out herself.

Scallops

London smoked salmon royal (£19) featured three thick slices of average salmon with very little flavour. Where was the promised lapsang souchong tea? Slightly better was the Dorset crab with cucumber, mango, tomato and passion fruit (£18) which sounds like a boak-worthy combination of flavours but they actually worked together well.

Salmon

Crab

For main, my sister and I shared the 700g Boston rib (£65), and we were warned it takes an hour to cook. Why? I’ve no idea to be honest. It actually turned into an hour and twenty minutes. The wait was so long they even brought out two extra dishes to keep us going but with no explanation as to why it was taking so long. The meat itself ranged from lovely to average; some of the beef was perfectly medium-rare, some well-done and some of the fat was uncooked and chewy. And don’t get me started on the chips (£4).

Steak

Chips

The Cotswold free range chicken (£22) was forgettable as it lacked the promised five spice flavour – lack of flavour being a recurring theme of our meal. The mashed potato (£4) was a bit gloopy and could have done with some aggressive seasoning.

Chicken

Mash

Our dinner took two and a half hours (getting someone’s attention to pay our bill was nigh-on impossible) – we had neither the time nor energy to stay for dessert. There was very little I liked about Ting. We left wishing we’d taken another one of the 44 lifts and gone to Hutong or Aqua Shard.

2/10

Ting by Shangri-La at The Shard on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Rex & Mariano, Soho

Rex & Mariano business card

Based in what was once a Vodka Revoloution on St Anne’s Court in Soho, Rex & Mariano is the latest restaurant from the team behind Burger and Lobster, Goodman and Beast.

Outside

It’s a solely seafood offering but what makes this place quite unique is that you order using iPads – which might sound like a gimmick but it’s actually rather clever. The only thing that let it down was being presented with a paper menu too – which seemed a little pointless. The dining room was vast, I’m talking seriously big, with an open kitchen on one side adding a touch of drama.

Inside

The fish of the day, a whole Cornish sole served with chips for £12, seemed pretty bargainous. The fish was humungous and cooked to absolute perfection; soft, flakey flesh with a buttery outer crust. The chips were well seasoned and tasted homemade; like the type your Mum might make for you – which is very much a good thing. The only missing accompaniment was a good buttery sauce to dunk it all in.

Cornish sole

Chips

I also ordered a portion of the Sicilian prawns (£14) which I can quite honestly say were the best prawns I’ve ever eaten. Again, the cooking was spot on and you could taste the sheer excellence in quality. It’s amazing how such a simple plate of food could be so very perfect.

Prawns

I only popped in for a quick solo lunch but I fell in love with Rex & Mariano. It reminded me of the sort of restaurant you stumble across whilst on holiday where you find the most exquisite seafood. To get that feeling in an alley in Soho is really rather impressive. And the whole iPad thing is clever; the food comes really quick and service (which is super friendly) is only charged at 5%. I left wanting to return the next day for more of those prawns.

9/10

Rex & Mariano on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Blacklock, Soho

Blacklock business card

Based on Great Windmill Street in Soho (just a few doors down from Soho Radio), Blacklock is a new restaurant specialising in ‘skinny chops’. It’s the creation of a rather handsome chap called Gordon Ker who used to work at Hawksmoor so he knows a bit about meat.

Outside

We visited during the soft launch and things weren’t altogether finished (the front door still hadn’t arrived) but it still looked like a pretty little spot. The basement dining room, which is housed in a former knocking shop, felt lively and raucous; the sort you’d gladly spend the whole evening in.

Inside

The menu was short and simple. We went for the ‘all in’ at £20 per person, which got us a monumental amount of food. To start, some little crispy nibble things were more of a bar snack to get you ready for the main event, but they were tasty never the less. Cheese and pickle, ‘filthy ham’ and egg and anchovy were strong flavour combinations.

Crisps

Then it arrived. A giant plate full of chops. It was a thing of pure, meat beauty – I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The beef, pork and lamb chops (I honestly couldn’t tell you my favourite) had been cooked on a bespoke charcoal grill giving them a real smokiness. To ensure the fat was super crispy yet the meat still pink, they use vintage irons to get a real crust going. You really have to try them.

Chops

If that wasn’t enough, they were all sitting atop some charcoal grilled flatbread which had become soaked in all the meat juices. What’s better than meaty bread I ask you?

Sides stood up to the incredibleness of the chops. Sweet potato that had been left to sizzle on the grill overnight had a charred smokiness that made it positively delicious. Barbecued baby gems offered some light relief as did the kale and parmesan salad. A heritage carrot and meat radish salad, which was a crunchy little number, was most unusual but well worth trying.

Sweet potato

Blacklock side dishes

Dessert was served Chicken Shop style – a giant dish of white chocolate cheesecake was brought to the table and we could choose how big a dollop we wanted. And what a dollop it was. It was light as anything yet totally satisfying in that ‘I’m going to explode’ kind of way. A side dish of blueberries and strawberries (I think they were tinned?) was a comforting accompaniment.

Cheesecake at Blacklock

Fruit salad

My dinner at Blacklock was easily the best I’ve had this year – and I think I might be hard pushed to find one better. It’s got everything I like about a restaurant; lovely and friendly staff serving simple but perfectly executed food in fun surroundings. They even serve wine on tap. I can’t wait to get my chops around more of those chops.

10/10

I dined as a guest of the restaurant

Blacklock on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Boopshi’s, Fitzrovia

Boopshi's business card

Boopshi’s (I’m still not sure how you pronounce it) is a charming little restaurant just off Tottenham Court Road that specialises in schnitzels and spritz. The wiener schnitzel at The Delaunay is the best I’ve ever had, so I was excited to see how good these ones were.

Outside

It’s a bright and airy space with long shared tables and old-fashioned school chairs to perch on. Service certainly wasn’t rude, far from it, but it lacked a certain warmth and chattiness that a place like this seemed crying out for.

Inside

The wiener schnitzel (£14.50), which is veal, and the rare breed pork schnitzel (£11.50) were both superb. Giant blankets of breadcrumbed meat that looked similar to that of a Cumbrian hillside were so big they overhung the plate. They had the crispest of coatings with the most succulent meat imaginable; they were the closest to schnitzel heaven I’ve ever been.

Wiener

Pork

My gentleman companion and I thought it only appropriate to share a sausage. The Bratwurst (£6) was a big ol’ bastard and although the accompanying honey and mustard dip tasted a little ‘motorway service station’, it was a brilliant companion. A side of spätzle n cheese (£4) was a gooey/cheesy delight.

Sausage

Spatzle

I really liked the food at Boopshi’s, it was the sort I’d gladly go back for. It ain’t fussy or stuffy; it keeps things simple but with perfect execution. I just wish the service was a bit more personable.

7/10

Boopshi's on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

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