Brilliant Corners, Dalston

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I love Tokyo’s ultra-specialised restaurants, from places that only serve sea urchin or fugu fish, to tiny audiophile bars under railroad arches with thousands of dollars worth of kit and records. For whatever reason, London and to a large extent New York, never really picked up into this obsessive groove – probably partially due to real estate prices (not that Tokyo acreage is cheap) and partially, likely lack of custom.

So it’s cheering to see a recent opening in Dalston – Brilliant Corners, (presumably) named after Thelonius Monk album. It’s a venue with 4 massive Klipsch speakers and a rack of old valve amplifiers; customised sound-absorbing wall panels; an awesome selection of natural wines; and very good, albeit simple and reasonably-priced, Japanese food. An odd combination, but the wonderful owners and staff make it work – they’re pumped about what they’re doing and it shows.

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The Dalston & Hackney trendy food scene is pretty grim fare – burgers, somewhat gross American junk-food elevated into haute cuisine (£21 friend chicken), served in supposedly stylish, and utterly undifferentiated, shabby-chic venues, with the obligatory tattooed, characteristically Antipodean, and extravagantly bearded cooks/waitstaff/DJ/owner. Even the acheingly hip Cafe Oto’s food is very much second fiddle to the music, booze, coffee, and cakes. The owners of Brilliant Corners are, I think, ex-City, so a far cry from the slightly ghastly food-world insiders, often backed by cashflow-hungry investors, rolling out series of dismal restaurants that cater to the latest fad (whether it be “tapas”, “no bookings”, “Venetian ciccheti”, “Peru”, “street food”, “artisanal pizza”, “hog roasts”, etc.)

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So it’s great to see Brilliant Corners’ unpretentious menu, cut rolls and hand rolls, chicken kara-age, or donburi on brown rice. No fancy fish, only salmon, which keeps cost down and keeps the “save the sea” brigade happy. The clean flavours work really well with the excellent natural wines; as it happens, a topical tipple – this weekend is RAW’s natural wine fair at the Truman Brewery, with old favourites like Frank Cornelissen, Stan Radikon, and (hopefully) a contingent of mad Georgians.

Standouts from the wine list are Salvo Foti’s gutsy white/gold wine from the shoulders of Etna, and La Stoppa’s orange from Emilia-Romagna, both at £38 by the bottle. A wine I haven’t tried, but described as having “cult status” in Japan, the ultimate accolade in my book, is a Crozes-Hermitage Syrah by Dard & Ribo, at £38. Wines by the glass are a very reasonable £5-6. As with any natural wine, it pays to enquire what the flavour profile will be (“funky”, “barnyard”, “oxidised” are terms often used, rather unflatteringly if enthusiastically, to describe them), and if possible, ask for a taste. At their best, they should have intense flavours in the whites, a tannic grip and enhanced mouthfeel in the oranges, and a fresh grapiness in the reds (at least those based on Gamay). They should be as far as possible from the ghastly mass-market high-alchohol wines endemic to the UK market.

Wine list
Wine list

These aren’t wines for drinking all the time, but they are absolutely worth a try. And….no hangover, owing to the reduced use of sulphites. Anyone living East for a few years will remember the happy 18-month tenure of 259 Hackney Road, that used to sell similar wines, albeit from the Jura or Loire; unfortunately Florian & Milena left, and the wine shop has been replaced by a bubble tea vendor (see “latest fad” above).

Brilliant Corners: 470 Kingsland Road E8 4AE.  Info on Facebook (they don’t seem to have a website)

Posh Saturday Menu January 2013

Mini-negroni in iitala glass

Mini-negroni in iitala glass
Mini-negroni in iitala glass
Antipasti with Radikon's orange wine
Antipasti with Radikon’s orange wine

Antipasto platter: marinated artichokes, marinated mushrooms, bresaola, prosciutto cotto, all from Camisa. Artisanal semolina bread studded with raisins and caraway seeds, Broadway Market.

First course: riso alla pilota with bacon and free-range pork loin from farmers stall in Broadway Market

Second course: tuna steak (Fin & Flounder in Broadway Market), marinated in ginger, garlic, soy, mirin, and white-wine vinegar, seared and served rare

Vegetable: fennel braised with garlic, anchovies, capers, and a few left-over bits of puntarella (added a not-entirely-welcome bitterness however, would leave it out next time!)

Dessert: mostarda di Cremona with pecorino romano, both from Camisa, but the mustard has lost most of it’s spiciness…nothing like Padova or Mantova I’m afraid.

Mantovan miller's rice
Mantovan miller’s rice

Wines:

Stanislao Radikon’s ribolla gialla 2006 from Oslavia in Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. An orange (ie white that has had skin contact) wine, my current obsession: pretty extraordinary – smelt and tasted awful on opening, but after 1.5 hours in the decanter, it calmed down. A deep cloudy red-orange, more so than the Dario Princic, with a musty mildewy rotten smell, but nothing of that in the taste. It wasn’t very fruity at all, but quite tannic, with a residual sweetness at the finish. Very much of a “conceptual” wine, an exercise in the outer limits of what wine can be (particularly a white wine), not obvious it combines that well with food, rather something to drink and think about. Very good, but I probably prefer the Princic??

Cascina ‘Tavijn’s ruche di castagnoler monferatto 2011 from Asti in Piemonte. A red made from the ruche grape, extraordinary smell – like perfume, very definitely not fruit, perhaps a little like makeup, with some mustiness. Very smooth, with modest mouthfeel. Long but slightly bitter finish, and seemed to lose some flavour with the food we have. Again, lovely to drink on its own, or with a little pecorino; great as an example of a lesser-known grape from a well-known zone.

Food in (East) London

Again, as in much else on eatthehipster, these are personal preferences, and we make no claim to being exhaustive, fair, or thorough. Mostly, we cover East London and the West End, and have a bias away from “trendy” places, or especially pricey venues (not having had access to an expense account for some time now!). Very roughly in order of how much we go at the moment (January 2013).

Ombra (E Ldn): probably the favourite affordable Italian at the moment. Venetian menu, 5-10 items long, often they run out, sometimes they’re not open on time, generally hung over on Sunday lunches, etc. But some of the nicest fresh pasta, salumi, and mains (I particularly like the meatloaf), and very affordable wine. Also great to have a spritz on the Regent’s Canal…okay so it ain’t the Fondamenta della Misericordia….

Campania (E Ldn): delicious fare from Campania/Naples, very cheap for weekday lunch.

Andrew Edmunds (Soho): probably our favourite restaurant in London, in part for the food (which varies between above average and very good), but more for the excellent-value wine list and bin ends, as well as the clubby ancient somewhat-worn atmosphere. Some of the longest-serving staff around, making it very comfortable. Better for lunch than dinner, when it gets rather romantic and very dark.

E5 (E Ldn): see coffee post, great bakery, nice food.

Little Georgia (E Ldn): cheap and long-term fixture of Broadway market. Very simple menu, best thing are the starter platters (salads varieties of beetroot, aubergine, Russian, carrot) accompanied by khatchapuri or a similar bean-stuffed bread. The chicken coriander stew is oustanding, and the old Georgian ladies that cook super sweet. BYOB, and there is a bodega down the street selling Georgian wines (not sure about quality).

Gourmet San, My Old Place, Local Friends (E Ldn): somewhat improbably, there are 3 pretty special (and specialised) Sichuan/Hunan places here. Local Friends is the most friendly and sanitary, and has the most entertainingly mistranslated menu. Anything “dride [sic] wok” is delicious; cumin scented lamb skewers; fried green beans with pork; fish in a big vat of chili oil; potato slivers dressed in a vinegary sauce with Sichuan peppercorns.

Bar Shu, Ba Shan, Baozhi Inn (Soho): 3 more specialists in Sichuan/Hunan, the last is best value, and the second is very good but more complex dishes. Much more sophisticated, clean, and generally pleasant than the E Ldn places above, but you pay for it. Next to Baozhi are skewers of fish/meat/veg dipped in a wicked-spicy chili-oil, as well as delicious stuffed buns (baozhi).

Chaconia (Deptford): just one owner/employee, serving wild-spicy, almost zero-fat Trinidadian food. I eat here 3-4 times a week when I’m at the studio, but the prawn roti on Fridays is the thing to go for. Ring ahead to make sure a) they’re open, and b) what they have. Don’t give her no gip either….she’s got a sharp tongue.

Yoisho (Fitzrovia): very authentic izakaya. Most of the menu is pretty good, but the specials are great, as is the grill. Must sit upstairs, preferably at the counter.

Bocca di Lupo (Soho): most fun posh Italian in town. Food is broken down regionally, and available in starter & main sizes. Staff are wonderful, and Negronis perfect. Great gelato across the street at Gelupo. Fried sausage-stuffed olives, and the orechiette with ‘nduja are must-haves.

Vasco & Piero (Soho): my favourite Italian, mainly for the old-school atmosphere (think discreet sophisticated 1980s in muted yellows, not at all check-tablecloth red-sauce Brooklyn pastiche). Delicious starters and pastas, with some innovative touches (eg ginger). Slight hint towards specialties of Umbria. Crowd is fairly grown up, and is a bit of a hiding celebrity spot. My favourites: pasta with seafood or swordfish, chicken-liver crostini, burrata, grilled tuna with ginger dressing.

Koya (Soho): udon place, very exciting menu, and carefully-made food. Great fun to watch the kitchen. Unfortunately I don’t care for udon, so generally opt for the ten-don or gyu-don. Little bit of hyper-specialised Japan, in Soho. Nearby is Tonkotsu, for ramen, but I haven’t been.

Barrafina (Soho): best tapas bar in town. Quite uncomfortable (high bar stools), but great fun for an outstanding quick meal, a real testament to top-quality seafood (and meat), cooked simply. No bookings so go early or prepare to wait.

Cigala (Bloomsbury): traditional Spanish served in a nice undecorated room, at very competitive prices if you get the lunch special menu. Good strong drinks. I think the staff are ex-Moro. Bread is delicious, almost as good as Moro. Moro incidentally is excellent, if you can get over the fact that it’s often full, and the slightly self-conscious Islington feel of the place.

Eyre Brothers (Clerkenwell): wonderful food that is sort of a fusion between Portuguese and African (via Mozambique) with other bits thrown in. Great drinks, good wine list, and pretty decent value. Is much better if you do strange times, as it can get crowded with City folk. They, along with the Eagle, were pioneers of the gastropub and food revolutions in London.

Brixton Village (S Ldn): as of time of writing, some of the most pulse-quickening things going on in cheap, small fooding are under the tracks in Brixton. 20-odd shacks selling everything from hard-core Thai to scones with clotted cream, by way of gourmet burgers and African food. Really wonderful – not sure how long the economics will work, but worth a visit. Stop by Photofusion gallery on Electric Avenue.

40 Maltby Street (S Ldn): more a wine warehouse with food than restaurant. That said, they have strange, often natural, wines, at decent prices, and a tiny menu of well-made food. Maltby Street’s is actually a perfect place for a foodie boozy Saturday afternoon as there are 4-5 places right next to each other. Occasional wine tastings where producers come to London are fun. Mostly not open so check the site.

Vietnamese places on Kingsland Road: somewhat skanky eating on any given night (boozed up hipsters slobbering over soup and BYOB), but early or lunch is fine – Mien Tay is current favourite. Unfortunately IMHO none of these have reached the standards of Paris Vietnamese, pretty unrefined, rather dirty, and relatively little wine. But some really great pho, and bahn cuon.

Rosemary Lane (City): spooky old pub turned into a bit of a gastro-destination. Excellent food prepared by a committed Roumanian-Californian chef, short but fairly-priced wine list. Eerily atmospheric (not least with the elevated train line outside reminding me of old American crime flicks) but well worth it; have an aperitif at Wiltons right around the corner.

Kikuchi (Soho): vies with Sakana-tei for the best sushi in W End. Excellent, and expensive. Not hugely warm service, but civil; the crowd is a bit as one would expect (dates and City folk), but the food is absolutely worth it. Kansai-style sushi is something I haven’t seen elsewhere, and IMHO the best spicy tuna roll in London. Tempura of turbot wrapped in a shiso leaf (I think) and ume.

Hunan (Pimlico): very good nouveau-Hunan food. It’s not done to ask for the menu, simply let them bring a succession of 7-10 things, mostly delicious and spicy. Generally good, if expensive, wine list. Not cheap, but worth the experience.

Town Hall Hotel (E Ldn): food is great, Michelin star I believe, by Nuno Mendez. But we prefer the bar, excellent cocktails. There is also a smaller bar menu served upstairs, that we’re told is both very good and relatively good value.

St John (various): Fergus Henderson is one of the daddies of London’s food renaissance and deserves kudos for it (genuflect repeatedly from the waist) ! Lovely British food, particularly: crab on toast, Welsh rarebit, Eccles cake with Lancashire cheese, awesome fish, and (strangely for such a carnivorous place) great salads/vegetables. I prefer to eat at Commercial St location or else at the bar of St John St. The cook-books are very useful.

Rochelle Canteen (E Ldn): a small restaurant housed in a complex of art studios. Very good food, and BYOB. Need to ring a bell to get through the outer wall (appropriately, given it’s in Arnold Circus, like a fortress).

Pellici (E Ldn): old school Italian caff, food is somewhat better than okay, but you go for the theatre….East End toothless wonders next to hipsters next to art world doyens, all treated with equal love.

Brick Lane (E Ldn): basically avoid like the plague, mostly Bangladeshi, laden with grease and salt. If the food doesn’t scare you away, the staff & the punters should (drunken City boys). If “Indian” is in order, try Kolapata or Tayyabs (Bangladeshi & Pakistani, respectively) nearby. At a higher price point, Amaya is very good, as are the Rasa restaurants. Ambala on Brick Lane has decent samosas.

Jose & Pizarro (S Ldn): Jose Pizarro (of Brindisa fame) just got these off the ground last year. I particularly like Jose, the tapas bar. Very nice food, nowhere as cheap as Madrid, no surprise, but nice atmosphere.

River Cafe (somewhere in the suburbs of Hammersmith): simply the best Italian food in London, with real passion and energy behind the cooking. Unfortunately can go only rarely, what with the location (though it’s lovely in the summer), the high prices (somehow feels wrong to pay 3x what it would cost in situ), and the vaguely nobbish crowd. But worth a go in the summer, and buy the cook-book by all means, it’s my most useful one.

101 Kitchen (ditto, Hammersmith): probably the only good Thai food in London, though Thai Vista in E Ldn is okay. 101 are specialists in Esarn food, so some very different flavours, and nice Thai clientele. Needless to say, can’t often spare half a day and £8 in Tube fares, to have a £40 meal…

Buen Ayre (E Ldn): another stalwart of Broadway Market. Very good Argentine-style steak and parilla.

The Hackney Pearl (E Ldn): a quirky place next to the old Olympic venue. Good food, great Negronis, but best in the summer when one can sit outside. But nice as an outing from London (just across the A12 from Victoria Park).

Pubs: don’t much care for them, but the French House (Soho) is outstanding, more for the history (Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud et al ) than anything; the Nelson (E Ldn) is quirky and friendly; Marksman (E Ldn) is often quiet, nice people, and decent food. Royal Oak, Cat & Mutton, and Dove are popular with E Ldn hipsters. Albion, and Perseverence (E Ldn) are of a more toothless variety, with the occasional BNP groupie thrown in to keep order. The Golden Heart (E Ldn) is fantastic, mostly owing to the formidable Sandra; old YBA hangout.

Wine stores: E Ldn has a disproportionate number of excellent wine stores. 259 Hackney Road specialise in the Jura and other natural wines; Borough Wines in Wilton Way sells wine in refillable bottles; Noble Fine Liquor on Broadway Market is pricey, but one of the few to stock Friuli wines (including the delicious Dario Princic and Radikon lines); City Beverage Company, very knowledgeable and much larger than the others, and with a broader range at all price points.

Coffee in London

A post about coffee places I like, mostly in London, and coffee generally.

Declaration of bias: Firstly, I prefer Italian coffee, whether a lukewarm cappucino that is a perfect amalgalm of froth, milk and espresso, in a small traditional cup; or an espresso,  both consumed standing up, with lots of perfectly dressed old men & women in furs milling about, elegantly  eating cornetti. A barman bashing out coffees, two at a time, with will ignore your request for frappucinos, skinny anything, decaf, low-cal sugar, no GMO, beast-friendly, ethically-sourced, or any other modern idiocies.  So slightly different from the Antipodean style of coffee in London (characterised  by rhythmic banging of the milk can, fairly slow service, IMHO a more bitter espresso, and lovingly-made “coffee art”); however I admit we owe it to the Kiwi & Oz crowd for bringing carefully-made coffee to London.  Secondly, most of my experience is in the West End and East London, so no knowledge or interest in the northern/western suburbs – therefore, this isn’t intended to be exhaustive, rather it’s where I actually go.

Moving swiftly on…

Flat White & Milk Bar (Soho): basically started the “new coffee”, and Eric from the original team still runs it.  Great coffee, friendly service, and awesome location next to the last bits of Berwick Street market surviving.  Have an espresso, stand outside and get good-humoured abuse from Norm, Jim, Matt at the vegetable stand.  Antipodean + media  crowd.

Bar Italia (Soho): don’t understand what the fuss is all about, pretty average coffee, doesn’t feel very Italian.  I suppose if one is an avid guide-book reader or in thrall to 70s London or Ronnie Scotts, it makes sense, but I shouldn’t go for the coffee.  Disclosure: it was great in 2001, when there were few other options in W1 !
Kaffeine (Fitzrovia): good coffee, nice owner, good/modern decor.  Check out all the nearby galleries: Alison Jacques, Stuart Shave/Modern Art, Carroll Fletcher, Mummery & Schnelle, Piper, The Photographers Gallery, Art First, Paradise Row, Pilar Corrias, Whisper, Vela, Rosenfeld Porcini, Regina, Josh Lilley

Store Street (Bloomsbury): lovely space that uses the original architecture (old Victorian? skylights).  Has a student feel, if only because it’s close to UCL.  Really like it.

Cafe Italia Uno (Bloomsbury): one of the most authentically Italian cafes around, and the cheapest (good) espresso in the West End (£1.60).  The bondola panino (mortadella, mozzarella, and marinated artichokes) is superb. Have as many as 10 Italian/European football matches on at a time during the season.

Nude Espresso (Soh0): great location on Soho square, they have another location near the City

Fernandez & Wells (Soho): 3 locations in Soho, good food and wine, and very nice spaces. I find them expensive (espresso at £2.20 I think), and of the three, the two wine bars are the more interesting, particularly the one on Lexington Street on a nice summer evening.

Nordic Bakery (Soho): not sure about espresso, but they have good filter coffee and great open-faced Scandi sandwiches (eggs, herring, cooked ham, etc.). Lovely decor inside and good location on Golden Square, pop next door to Frith Street Gallery or Riflemaker Gallery nearby.

Taylor Street Baristas (various locations): coffee is Antipodean style and the food is good, but the real draw is the lovely attitude of the staff, particularly at the City locations.  It’s impressive how they manage to charm, without ever becoming brash/bolshy….in the face of a steady stream of increasingly grumpy/despondent/irritable/demanding RBS and Deutsche Bank employees !

Climpsons (E Ldn): coffee joint/parlour room/conference centre/creche for the Broadway Market hipster crowd. British baristas.  Good coffee, great birchermuesli.  Beware on Saturday – market day, you won’t get a china cup there for love nor money.  So unless you like your coffee with a cardboard taste, better go elsewhere.  Perfect at all other times (go early to avoid prams).

E5 (E Ldn): simply the  best bread in E London, freshly baked under the rail arches.  Coffee is pretty good, but it’s more the gesamtkunstwerk of a neighbourhood place, artisanal bakery, dodgy floorboards, dodgy door, psychopathic homeless people outside, smell of baking, and excellent hot lunches.  Again, full of prams…but hey…someone has to finance gentrification !

Wilton Way (E Ldn): radio station & cafe, British baristas.  Great vibe, love the avocado on toast.  Super little BoBo street north of London fields.

Campania (E Ldn): great value weekday lunch, some of the most authentic Italian cooking from area around Naples I’ve had, really simple, really good. Coffee is pretty good.  Is pretty rammed on Sunday flower-market day.
Layla’s (E Ldn): bit of an institution on Arnold Circus, somewhat worthy & self-conscious, but the eggs with sage are excellent, and the shop next door has some of the freshest and hardest to find produce from Italy I’ve seen (cima di rapa, puntarella, radicchio di castelfranco, lemons from Amalfi, anchovies preserved in salt, etc.), and, somewhat perversely, a large collection of Polish sausages.  Decent value Duralex plates, cups, etc.

Allpress (E Ldn): big, well-done, roaster and cafe, British. Good coffee, but the real draw here are the panini and baked goods. They also seem to have the FT for people to read, which immediately covers the cost of the coffee !  Nice vibe – sort of a media/architect/art world overlay on the standard hipster fare.

Towpath (E Ldn): canalside location in the summer is the draw, to be honest, never had the coffee here, opting instead for wine

The Waiting Room (Deptford): really good coffee from British baristas, good vegan food (hot dogs, falafels, etc.), and nice staff. Bit weird decor, but sweet.

The London Particular (Deptford): excellent hot food (mackerel with vegetables, warm salads, good wine, etc), very good coffee, British baristas.  Is quite small, but great location, lots of students from nearby Goldsmiths College, friendly staff, and a respite from the relative hell-on-earth that is Deptford (which however is very much the on-trend art scene at the moment).

Monmouth (various locations): very good coffee, but not really sure one needs the crowds or the intensely touristy feel. If you nevertheless insist, try the Maltby Street roastery (only open Saturdays I think) rather than the rammed other locations.