Monday, March 31, 2008

Tay Do Cafe

What's the best Vietnamese on Kingsland Road?
Some say Viet Grill, other favour Viet Hoa, so contrarily we tried Tay Do, located bang between the other two.

It's a casual place, with long, shared tables down the middle, and little in the way of decoration if you don't count the gold coloured cats holding up their paws on the back-wall counter. Turns out these are called "money cats", and a raised right paw is attracts money, while a raised left paw brings in customers. I didn't know this at the time, so didn't pay attention, but judging by how full the place was and how cheap the prices were, I suspect theirs was a left-handed pussy.
The menu is bewilderingly long, so we skipped straight to the noodles and soup section (although with hindsight I am rather sorry to have missed out on the soft-shelled crabs concealed in the starters section).

The chicken pho (£5) -- a traditional white noodle soup -- was very flavoursome, and served with a bowl of bean sprouts and fresh herbs to chuck in. To my disappointment, the friend who'd ordered it declined the addition of the cracked in egg on being told it was semi raw.

We also tried the stir-fried u-don noodles (fat white worms) with mixed meat (£6), and crispy fried noodles with seafood (£5.50). Both came with lots of vegetables, though the crispiness of the latter noodles was sadly erroded by a gloupy, unpleasant sauce.
Still, it was all filling, tasty, cheap food.
There's a quid a head corckage charge, or a choice of two decidely unremarkable Vietnamese bears for £2.20 each. The place clearly fails the tap water test by stating in the menu that they charge 30 pence per glass of London's finest. But then with all that yummy broth, you don't really need water.
The only real complaint was the service -- it was very hard to get anyone's attention (to sit down, to order, to ask for the bill, etc) and the food arrived one-at-a-time, with significant intervals.
Conclusion: not bad for the price, but probably not the best on the road? (Though it's been a while since I last visited any of the others.)

Tay Do Cafe, 65 Kingsland Road, E2 8AG; Tel. 0207 729 7223; Tube: Old Street

Saturday, March 29, 2008


If I had to use one word to describe my visit to Divo, it would have to be disappointment. I'd been deeply intrigued by all the terrible reviews and had gone expecting... I am not sure what exactly, but certainly not what we got which was damn good meal. And not just damn good for Eastern European comfort food, but damn good full stop.
Sure, the place is ostentatious, with flat-screen TVs in fake gilded frames (luckily turned off), elaborately carved wooden pillars around the bar and the most amazingly ornamental, flower-patterned enamel in the bathroom. But the owners have clearly had a bit of rethink since the dire reviews.
Gone - to my huge disappointment - are the waitress' Ukrainian folk outfits with mini skirts. Gone is the £320 caviar pancakes (though may be these are now in a separate menu that doesn't get given the plebs like us) and the Ukrainian wine. Instead we sipped on a very nice French house red for a very reasonable £14.50 a bottle. We also tried some kvas (£3) - a drink made with fermented rye bread, which in my Russian childhood days used to be sold from a tap on the back of special mini-oil-tanker-style lorries. Alas, it turns out, the kvas of more childhood days was akin to the bottles of old fashioned lemonade in the supermarket. The version here was authentic, home-made and heavy on the bread flavours. Uncouth that I am, I didn't like it nearly as much as the fizzier, sugarier mass-produced stuff. They also passed the tap water test with flying colours, bringing a jug when asked and frequently replenishing both our glasses and the jug. In fact throughout, service was very attentive (the waitresses now wear red blouses and black trousers).

The starter of salo (£7) entirely transformed this fatty, common-as-muck but delicious to my Russian taste buds lump of lard into a dainty dish worthy of any upmarket modern eaterie. The slices were wafer thin, daintily arranged on a slice of toasted rye bread and complemented with greenery and capers.

The khachapuri (£7), alas, were again of the cheesy pitta bread style I'd tried in Baltic, if a lot nicer. (This did make me wonder whether there is a Georgian style and another non-Georgian style?) The accompanying pot of lobio was a moreish mix of chopped up kidney beans, garlic, walnuts and lemon juice.

Of the mains, deruni (£8) featured two potato pancakes, filled with nicely browned, buttery button mushrooms and herbs and served with a pot of sour cream.

The neck of lamb was delectably pink and tender -- though that probably rendered it not very authentically Eastern European. At £18 it was the joint second most expensive thing on the menu, which rather suggest the prices have come down somewhat since the place first opened. It was served in a very artistic arrangement with sides of rice, grilled aubergine and a tomato-y sauce.

We weren't exactly hungry after all that, but the desert menu was too tempting to resist. I had vareniki (£6), a surprisingly light version of these ravioli-styled dumplings filled with pleasantly sour cherries and served with more sour cream. (Vareniki are basically the same thing as pelmeni, only with vegetarian fillings rather than meat, which usually means either curd cheese or fruit.) I was very sad to discover I was too full to finish the rather generous serving.

The cherry cheese-cake (£6) was nice if not particularly unusual, while the poppy-seed cake (£7) came daintily encased in chocolate and accompanied by rum and raisin ice cream.

With two bottles of wine and service, the bill came just under £120 for three -- pretty decent value. I just hope they are making enough because on our Friday night visit the place was barely half full, with most tables speaking in Russian.

Conclusion: by a long way the best Eastern European restaurant I've been to in London.

Divo, 12 Waterloo Place, SW1Y 4AU; Tel. 0207 4841355; Tube: Picadilly;

Friday, March 28, 2008


The plan had been to go for Sunday brunch somewhere with crisp white table cloths and live jazz. Alas, the only place I could locate via google that fitted the bill charged £70 a head. (Does anyone have any better suggestions??)
So our friends suggested dim sum near St Paul's, intriguing me as I hadn't noticed any dumpling joints around there, let alone ones open on weekends.
d.SUM2 was a new-ish looking-joint in the warren of shops and cafes around Paternoster Square, which was bravely toying with Sunday opening. We were the first to arrive just after its midday opening, although a handful of other tables filled up later with couples, tourists, and families. The room was trendy, minimalist and not very memorable, though the windowed front allowed for some people watching.
I automatically docked points for stupid name with oddball punctuation, but was soon won over by natty glass teapots and tiny shot-glass like cups. Plus, they let you tick what dishes you want on a little piece of paper which is quite fun. We each chose three, doubling up on some of the options as most of the dishes come in a trio --fair enough as four is an unlucky number in China and much of Asia, but a bit annoying if you happen to be superstition-shunning Europeans dining in a foursome.
Of the dishes that stand out in my memory, the lobster dumplings were decadent, delicate and delicious in equal measures (£4.60). The barbeque pork puff (£3.80) was a pleasant surprise thanks to an unusually high ratio of sticky, sweet pork in the bready white cloud of the bun -- though I still have to say I don't like the puffs as much as the dumplings, especially ones containing prawns and chives (£3.80). I tried the lotus-wrapped sticky rice for the first time, which was every bit as sticky as advertised, and surprisingly a bit sweet despite being sprinkled with meat and seafood (£4.20).

The crispy won ton (£3.50) and the squid in satay sauce (£3.80) were also good. I must learn how to make the sauce as there's vast quantities of squid languishing in the freezer from a trip to Billingsgate market, when we got far too excited by all the different fishes and the low prices and bought stuff with no cooking plans in mind (which explains the three fish heads, also still in the freezer).
There's a decent wine and cocktail list, as well as Chinese teas (from £2.80) in the pretty pots, various exotic juices and a comparatively dull selection of bottled lagers (£3.60).
The service was friendly, and very apologetic for having forgotten to bring a second round of drinks.

Conclusion: it was a nice, low-key brunch, though overall I probably prefer my dim sum joints a bit more old-fashioned and bustling rather than sleek and modern.

d.SUM2, 14 Paternoster Row, EC4M 7EJ; Tel. 0207 248 2288; Tube: St Paul's;

Monday, March 24, 2008

La Porchetta Pizzeria

We were in Camden for a gig, and I'd hoped to preceed this with dinner at Marine Ices which sounds like a hugely fun, old-fashioned parlour-type place dishing up pizzas and sundaes. Alas, in old-fashioned manner it is also shut on Mondays.
By this time I'd worked up a serious appetite for pizza, so we ended up in Porchetta a couple of blocs down the road. It's part of a mini chain, and looks-wise is pretty unmemorable apart from some pictures of piggies in primary colours. But we did (accidentally) manage to snag the best table in the house. It's not a concept I normally carry much truck with, but we were sat upstairs, directly overlooking the open-plan kitchen and the mastery with which the two chefs tossed their creations.

We started with olives, which I thought were decent enough, though the husband was unimpressed as they'd clearly been stored in brine. My four cheese pizza was huge very nice, and surprisingly light for that particular topping. I'd say it was the closest to real Italian-style pizza I'd had in a long while. The husband, foolishly I thought, overlooked the pizzas in favour of a risotto. The advertised 'wild' mushrooms were in fact the bog-standard closed cap variety, while tomatoes -- which were not mentioned in the menu's description -- provided the over-riding flavour. Overall it was edible, and tasted better than it looked, but that's not much of a compliment. We had Italian larger from an unexciting drinks list. Bizarrely the place doesn't seem to have a website, and the waitress took back the hand-written receipt, but if memory serves me right it came to about 30 quid.
Conclusion: I'd come back for the pizzas and the theatre if we are in the area again on a Monday -- but I hope it will be another night of the week so I can try Marine Ices instead.
La Porchetta Pizzeria, 74-77 Chalk Farm Rd, NW1 8AN; Tel. 020 7267 6822; Tube: Chalk Farm

Thursday, March 20, 2008

El Rincon Quiteno

As we entered, I was a bit doubtful. By day the place is clearly a very ordinary sandwich place, with a counter stuffed with croissants, bog-standard sandwich fillings and the like. According to the large board above the counter, you can have an egg mayonnaise sarnie or a cheese and tomato toastie for under £2, or splash out on a jacket potato for a little over £3. There were the usual plastic tables and a slightly shabby feel, with the only stand-out being the modest South American themed wall hangings.
It was mostly empty, barring a couple of tables of locals and a large screen showing the football (turns out the owners are Chelsea fans). Not a place for a romantic evening, but then we were quite happy to half watch the game over dinner.
There's a cute story about the owner, Luis Torres, here, and a google search has revealed that it used to be a popular meeting place for theSocialist Worker Party. My Spanish isn't up to much, but with the help of google and babel fish, I reckon the name means a corner for the people of Quitos, Ecuador's capital.
They produced some menus from a hiding spot and all my doubts evaporated when the old, regular-looking guy sipping tea and munching on buttered pre-sliced bread at the table in front of us was asked how he wanted his steak cooked.

Starters (around £3-4) were a little English sounding, so we focused on a juicy grilled plantain topped with cheese and the tortilla -- a thick wedge, served with potent chilli sauce. Mains also included non-South American offerings, including a pasta section -- which might explain why some websites list the place as Italian. Instead we had the mixed grill for two, a huge pile of steak, pork, chorizo and plantain for just under £20, as well as the solo version (£11) which had no chicken but instead had a fried egg. Both were served with side plates of rice and a plain (iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions) but very plesantly and lightly dressed salad.

Obviously there is no website and I keep forgetting to take photos of menus, so the name of the other dish (£9-ish) is lost. But it featured a pool of refried beans, slices of sweet plantain, a strongly-flavoured chorizo sausage (a bit different to the Spanish ones), some beautifully crackling-ed fatty pork, a palette-cleansing avocado, rice and two cracker-type things, one of rice and one of plantain. (Rumour has it they can also serve guinea pig, a South American speciality, but it wasn't on the menu.)
We washed the food down with litre bottles of Ecuadorian beer (£6) and coffee (£1.70).
All in all it was very, very good and I am surprised that this place hasn't got a much wider following.

El Rincon Quiteno, 235 Holloway Road, N7 8HG; Tel. 020 7700 3670; Tube: Holloway Road

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


Much like with Pham Sushi, I've walked past Carnevale for years but until last week had never been inside. I'd heard that it was good, but my problem was that it was vegetarian. Don't get me wrong - I am happy to eat veggie meals and often do so at home. But in a restaurant I can't help feeling that meat or fish offer far better value for money, and also often seem to feature in more interesting/challenging dishes.
The place -- which doubles up as a deli and offers extensive takeaway options at lunchtimes -- is tiny, but tardis-like leads onto a glorious little conservatory, filled with plants and topped off with a glass roof. Watching the waiter and some other diners through the window into the main room, I pretend that I am in some warm Mediterranean court yard rather than in a still decidedly wintery, stormy London.
The menu, which I am told changes about once a month, features about half a dozen starters and as many mains, with surprisingly few of the dishes including cheese and not a nut-roast in sight (the more modern veggie staple, the risotto, does make an appearance though, as do vegetarian sausages and mash).
We weren't overly hungry and, eyeing our fellow diners' huge plates, decided to share three starters (£5.25 each) and skip on the mains altogether. This raises no eyebrows, and the service is generally pretty good, the only quibble being the non-arrival of the tap water (though to be fair we only asked for it once).

The ravioli stuffed with ricotta and pumpkin was scattered prettily and wholesomely with puy lentils, parmesan and herbs. I've never had puy lentils with pasta before, but it worked well. The baked courgette was our favourite, stuffed with salty halloumi, refreshing lemon and herbs and served with a huge salad of oranges, non-overpowering fennel and crunchy almonds (must try those in a salad at home instead of pumpkin seeds).

The third starter was the husband's choice and one I predictably didn't like so much. Quinoa is a South American seed and to my taste buds a close cousin of the cous cous, which I usually don't like. Here, it's supposed to come in a cake-form with wild mushrooms, spinach and chilli, but the overall effect is more pile than pattie and the accompanying rocket is a bit oily for more liking. The apricot and ginger chutney is a nice touch of colour/flavour on the top though.
The drinks list offers short but interesting selections in most categories, from home-made lemonade to unusual beers, elderflower-based cocktails and organic wines. We opted for a half litre carafe of the perfectly drinkable house red (£7.50), which enabled us to keep the entire dinner, including service (which is not included) to just over 25 quid -- not a bad bargain, even if there was no meat involved. Plus it all tasted very healthy and worthy, and I loved the little conservatory. But had we been hungrier and gone with the £11.50 main courses, I fear I would left thinking of how much raw fish I could have scoffed at Pham for the price of veggie sausage'n'mash.
So will we return? Perhaps, but probably only if we have some vegetarians in tow.

Carnevale, 135 Whitecross Street, EC1Y 8JL; Tel: 020 7250 3452; Tube: Barbican;

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


I am always on the look out for good for from Eastern Europe, and Baltic caught my attention after seeing its colourful chef Silvena Rowe on Saturday Kitchen.
On a blistery mid-week night we were surprised to find the large but somehow cavern-like restaurant fully booked, but were happy to sample the snacks on offer in the less formal bar with stylish dark tables and chairs.
The beer selection was uninspiring and larger-based (3.00 for a bottle of Estonian Viru) but the food started off well, with some black rye bread. The 'large' selection of blinis (8.50) was portioned more to Western tapas standards, featuring just three plump mini-pancakes. But they tasted good, as did the accompanying smoked salmon and salty herrings. The third topping, the aubergine and mushroom mousse was a bit bland. We assumed it to be jazzing up what the Russians call 'aubergine caviar' (a bit like baba ganoush) but some classics are best untampered. The smoked haddock fishcakes with dill mayonnaise (5.50) were delicate in size and texture but more at home in an English gastropub than in Eastern Europe. The service was OK, The biggest disappointment though was the khachapuri (or kczapuri as they spell it) -- at its prime a glorious Georgian cheese bread. Here it was more like slightly cheesy slices of something pitta-like (4.90). When it comes to cheese, I find it hard to forgive failings.
I guess it all comes down to the fact that food from the region is in its essence hearty, stodgy, large-portioned kind of fare, and none the worse for it. But it does not lend itself easily to modernisation or the world of trendy bars.
Still, the place had a nice atmosphere and it would be worth coming back to Baltic for the occasional live jazz. As for khachapuri, you can get a great one at Mimino in Kensington.

Baltic, 78 Blackfriars Road, SE1 8HA; Tel. 0207 928 1111; Tube: Southwark;

Monday, March 17, 2008

Coach and Horses

It was a Friday night and the Coach and Horses was jam-packed with people toasting in the weekend. We'd just been turned away from a new-ish Malaysian/European joint on Farringdon Road and were getting rather worried about our chances of a good un-prebooked dinner. Luckily, a door in the back wall of the pub revealed a separate dining room.... which was entirely empty.
It was an interesting little extension of a room, with swathes of fabric on the ceiling creating a vaguely nautical feel.
We picked a bottle of rich pinot noir (£18.30) and hungrily perused the menu. Despite the busy bar and our isolated location (we remained lone diners throughout), the service was very efficient and friendly.

In the salad, the sweet pear contrasted well with the creamy Cashel Blue cheese, while the rocket leaves helpfully diluted the richness of flavours (£5.60).

The Jerusalem artichoke soup (£6.00) was lusciously creamy, with crispy vegetable crisps on the top and some luscious, half-melted foie gras floating inside -- although I have since discovered that it's very easy to recreate (most of) the experience at home.

To follow, I enjoyed the gamey, generous pile of venison ragu (£13.50), a superior version of the tradition spag bol.

The husband had a heart-warming Morcilla stew (£13.20), with chunks of the Spanish blood sausage and beans, crowned with a poached egg.

Back in 2004, the place won the Time Out Best Gastro Pub award, though Harden's suggests it could have become a touch complacent since then. We certainly didn't see any evidence of that -- it was a very good meal for perfectly reasonable prices and with good service. But with, inexplicably, so few dining customers, I wouldn't be surprised if the kitchen gets discouraged before too long.

The Coach and Horses, 26-28 Ray Street, EC1R 3DJ; Tel. 0207 278 8990'; Tube: Farringdon

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Ma Cuisine

It seems almost inconceivable with recent storms, but only a couple of weeks ago the weather was lovely and we celebrated with a stroll along the Thames. To the West, the riverside is much more rural, and as we wonder past the London Wetlands Centre (we decided against paying the 8.95 entrance fee) we felt like we were in the countryside. By lunchtime, we'd reached the pretty "village" of Barnes. I'd consulted my Harden's earlier, and all the places listed seem to come with some fairly sizeable but's, so we decided to wonder and take our chances. There was a cut little farmers' market by the lake, though I was whole heartedly disappointed by the cheese shop which someone had recommended -- all half-empty shelves sparsely filled with cling-film wrapped offering of cheese you could easily find in your local Waitrose...
We wondered down to the river, and marked The Bull's Head as one to try for live jazz and Thai food at a future date. Ye White Hart (another Young's pub)looked gorgeous - a garden (too cold), river views, and a roaring fire inside. But we'd accidentally timed our visit to coincide with the women's "head of the river" boat race and many of the entrants seemed to have chosen this spot for their post-race drinks. So we waited about 10 minutes at the bar for beers and gave up.

Just round the corner I was cheered up by the site of the cute-looking French bistrot, Ma Cuisine. Inside there were red checked table cloths, a fair few tables seemed to be regulars. The website bills it as "finest regional French cuisine". But my stuffed aubergine was bitter and undercooked - only the stuffing of Mediterranean veg was edible, if overpowered by the lashings of balsamic vinegar (12 with a glass of house red from the lunchtime menu deal).

The cassoulet that the husband ordered actually appeared as a coq au vin (12.50), but by that time we were starving so pointed out the error and let it go. They apologised, but this was in no way reflected in the bill or its 10 percent service charge. The coq was unspectacular. The accompanying mash and green beans were downright bland.
An old man next to us was tucking into his steak sandwich with great relish, and clearly seemed to be a weekly - if not daily - visitor. May be we should have followed his lead. Or may be we are just fussy from living in central London. It was certainly a good reality check to any wistful relocation thoughts we may have harboured after walking along the pretty, green riverside.

Ma Cuisine, 7 White Hart Lane, Barnes, SW13 0PX; Tel. 0208 878 4092;; Rail: Barnes (nearest tube station is probably Hammersmith, but it's a bit of a trek)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Morgan M

Morgan M has had a long wait on my to-visit list, thanks to its relatively hefty prices and far into Islington location (ie en route you go past lots of other nice places so have to bee very determined and not too hungry to keep going). An impromptu celebration finally gave the excuse for the trip earlier this week. Sadly we'd both forgotten our phones at home and the battery in the camera died that very day, so you will have to rely on their website for photos of the artfully arranged food and on my fickle memory for what we actually ate. (The hand-written bill is no help either, simply saying we had the set menu and detailing the drinks, though perhaps it is a better strategy than trustring all to a machine!)
The room itself is quite small and feels a bit like the living room of someone quite rich but not very proficient in interior decorating. Their are splashes of the modern in geometric colour-block paintings, and then swirls of the old-fashioned and kitch in the ornamental plates displayed on one of the walls.
We were quickly won over by the friendly and efficient service though, with the tap water appearing immediately from an elegant jug stored on the service station, and the aperitifs following soon after. It was all in such stark contrast to the experience at Beach Blanket Babylon a few days previously, and the comparison also made the prices seem more reasonable. The a la carte comes in at £36 for three courses, though a few of the options carry hefty supplements (as much as £7.50 for cheese instead of desert, though admittedly from a rather excellent looking trolley selection), and there is also a longer tasting menu.
Four well-cooked scallops (£5.50 supplement) are accompanied by a white chicory tarte tatin, nice but a little too acidic for my taste, a creamy sauce (onion soubise) and some tiny pickled onions. The ravioli come as three large-ish parcels, stuffed with an earthy mix of vegetables, a snail hiding in each one. It's a revelation that snails can taste of anything other than garlic butter, though a more generous sprinkling of the creatures would have been nice.
To follow, the filet of venison is beautifully pink and tender, meat at its best, and comes with a gamey dose of hare ravioli. The lamb (supplement £6.50) appears in three guises -- the shoulder is confit-ed, the rack is roasted, and I've forgotten the third (damn those forgotten phones).
The sommelier recommends a gorgeous bottle of French pinot noir for 25, not blinking at my request for something on the cheap side and educating me that it's not just new world countries that can do wonders with that notoriously temperamental grape.
Normally I don't even bother ordering desert, but here it's included and arguably turns out to be my highlight of the meal. The chocolate moelleux is dark, dense, bitter and rich all at once. The accompanying shot glass of mandarin juice is bizarre but provides a refreshing contrast. The passion fruit soufflé was also pretty good.
At the end of the meal, Morgan M himself appeared, smiley in pristine chef's whites, and asked us whether we'd enjoyed the meal, and what we'd liked the best.

So to sum up, I certainly would not go back for the decor - but I will be back at the next opportunity for more of the impeccable food and the equally impeccable service.

Morgan M Restaurant, 489 Liverpool Road, Islington, N7 8NS; Tel. 020 7609 3560; Tube: Highbury and Islington;

Friday, March 07, 2008

Beach Blanket Babylon

The reviews weren't exactly complimentary.
But the place looked stunning through the fancily decorated windows, and we had an hour and a half to kill until the live music kicked off at Loungelover around the corner, so we decided to give Beach Blanket Babylon a go.
If nothing else, we thought, we could spend the time sipping on cocktails while admiring the OTT decor and pondering as to the reasons for the bizarre name (on the latter, I am none the wiser after a visit to their website - anyone any ideas?).
While Loungelover and Les Trois Garcons (Did I really forget to review that place? Well, in a word, it was stunning.) are of the old-school grandeur, filled with things you might find in your granny's attic, the OTT-ness in BBB is all shiny, new and fake.

Still, it's quite something to look at and we had a good view from a rounded banquette table facing the room. We had time to spare, so decided to take it slowly with some cocktail aperitifs. The place wasn't exactly full but it took the waiter about 10 minutes to bring our tumblers of tap water. He re-appeared after about 5minutes later to take our food order, and brought some slices of dry, butterless bread after a further 5 minutes. We were still decidedly cocktail-less though, and starting to feel a bit miffed.
On his next visit, the waiter surprised us by bringing our main courses. But we'd ordered aperitifs, I protested. We wanted to have those first, then order some wine to go with the food. The waiter seemed to entirely miss the point, plonking the food on the table and saying that the cocktails won't be long.
It took several attempts on our part to persuade him that, no, we really did not want to be served the food just yet. Throughout there was no hint of an apology. Eventually he took it away, and brought the cocktails – a Purple Blanket and a Redcurrant and Thyme Martini (both at a not-too-unreasobale 7.90).

They were very pretty and tasted quite nice, I especially liked the red currants in my one even if I couldn't really taste the thyme. As soon as we'd taken the last sip the waiter re-appeared with the food which had clearly been sat under the hot lamp all this time. We asked for a couple of glasses of wine (from 5.50), and he disappeared again. We were in danger of finishing the mains before the wine made an appearance, but luckily managed to flag down another, more obliging waiter who brought it immediately.

As for the food, despite being a bit cold, my foie gras burger was luscious. There was a generous topping of the pate, which melted into the rare burger. I've never tried this combination before, but it seems to be flavour du jour in London at the moment and I have to admit it beats the hell out of monterry cheese. The chips were nicely crispy too. For 16.50, it was not exactly cheap (though a pound cheaper than in their Notting Hill branch according to the website!), but with the inclusion of the foie gras did not feel too much like a rip off - unlike the husband's 15.50 sea bream. It was a small slice, overly crispy and underwhelming. The accompanying pile of fennel salad was quite unusual and refreshing though.
At the end, we asked Fabio the waiter to deduct the service charge, which he duly did, but were then surprised to be offered a second opportunity to tip by the credit card machine. (We declined.)
So would I recommend it? Well, it's an opulent setting for cocktails if you like that sort of thing. And the burger was damn good, but not good enough to over-ride the service.

Beach Blanket Babylon Shoreditch, 19-23 Bethnal Green Road, E1 6LA; Tel. 020 7749 3540;; Tube: Old Street

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Fish Central

The plastic tables and the unprepossessing location in an untrendy corner of no-longer-quite-Clerkenwell-but-not-really-yet-Islington suggest that Fish Central is just another local chippie, dishing up huge plate fulls of golden fish and equally golden chips. But for every table of locals from a near-by council house, there's a couple sipping wine and picking on king prawns or scallops. Personally, I think this makes for a great, casual and slightly unusual vibe.
Normally the fish options – served deep fried, grilled,or cooked in matzo meal – start from £6.75 for plaice, but at the moment the place is part of the three courses for a tenner offer from The Times. (Incidentally is it me, or are these offers getting worse? Of this year's crop, this is probably the only vaguely central London which seems worth visiting to me and the value of which is notably improved by the offer.)
We started with a nice bottle of Prosecco (£14.95), wallowing in the surrealism of drinking Venetian fizz in a chippie. House wine starts from £9.45, there's also draft bitter and larger and – for the purists – mugs of strong tea for a bargain 55 pence.
From the set menu, my fish soup (normally £3.45) was alright, but did not benefit from the fresh memory of the one we had in Terminus Nord in Paris a couple weeks ago. The roasted Mediterranean vegetable bruschetta topped with mozzarella (£3.75) was decidedly underwhelming, while the large plate of crispy-coated squid rings was judged as OK, but not outstanding(£4.45).

Of the main courses, the mussels were also pretty average. But the chefs redeemed themselves with plates of flaky gurnard (sustainability brownie points, check) and mountains of crispy chips. Ultimately, this is still very much a chippie, and fish and chips is what it does best, while giving you option the wash them down with some very decent plonk. I would also heartily recommend the fisherman's platter (£19.95) - a huge plate of cod, plaice, haddock, skate and scampi which serves at least three very hungry people.

Fish Central, 149-155 Central Street, King Square, EC1V 8AP; Tel. 0207 2534 970; Tube: Old Street; (now how many chippies do you know with their own website??).

PS If you are in the area, there's a new (well, OK, it might have been there for years, but I've only just noticed) German Deli across the square, which stocks a promising selection of salamis and the like.

Monday, March 03, 2008


Sorting out through the photos on my computer, I found some from our trip to Searcy's, the posh eating option at the Barbican centre. Alas, our visit their took place back in December – as a prelude to watching their ingenious alternative to the Christmas panto. Since then the receipt has long been lost, the menu on their website has changed and the memory has blurred around the edges, so I shall largely let the photos do the talking.
The room itself plunges you straight into the 70s-80s era – the original rather than the revival -- with lots of brown and orange, and lots of angles. Luckily, any ugliness in the décor is made up for by great views across the pond and onto St Giles of Cripplegate.
Double luckily though they had finished celebrating the Barbican's 25th birthday, and had replaced the retro food menu (think prawn cocktail and black forest gateaux) with more modern and more appetising sounding fare.

Among other things, we sampled the fish soup, gloriously topped with a gigantic langoustine.

Then there was beautifully rare fillet steak with a creamy bernaise sauce and chips that were both crispy and thick, suiting most tastes.

And a crisp-skinned breast of guinea fowl atop a pile of tiny home-made, bacon-studded spatzle.
I also recall a rather good selection of British cheeses, a decent assortment of ales, and a wine list including the Chapel Down Bacchus -- though admittedly for a slightly extortionate 32.85, around double the cost of the cheapest bottle.
Food's also not cheap, but it's not bad value, with two courses for 24.50 or three for 28.50. If you have a Barbican card, you get 15 percent of the total bill (including drinks), so you could recoup your 20 quid annual membership in one or two visits if you come as a foursome and don't shun the wine list.

Searcy's, Barbican Centre, Silk St, EC2Y 8DS; Tel. 020 7588 3008; Tube: Barbican

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Comptoir Gascon

Club Gascon is a grand venue where city boys can indulge in top-ticket wine and matchingly luxurious foie gras. Luckily for the rest of us, it has a cheaper off-shoot in the shape of Comptoir Gascon. A deli by day, by night they offer a short but tempting menu of French classics, as well as a few daily specials in a low key, convivial setting.

I had the salade landaise (£7.50) – a divine combination of French green beans, foie gras and duck from the South West of France, the Gascons' speciality region. They assured me the portion was too small for a main course, so I took than as an excuse to also check out the Gascony pie (£6.50) -- not a traditional, pastry pie at all but luxuriously creamy mouse of duck, wild mushrooms, and herbs. The husband, a big cassoulet fan, thouroughly enjoyed their version from Toulouse (£12.50). We washed it all down with a nice bottle of red and promised not to leave it too long before our next visit.

Le Comptoir Gascon, 61-63 Charterhouse Street, EC1M 6HJ; Tube: Farringdon or Barbican;

PS D'oh. Just realised I have already blogged about this place when it first opened a couple of years ago, in my third ever post (we had the same salad and cassoulet that time!). Must keep better track of myself, and will pledge to go through past reviews and add any updates.

PPS Have now added updates on $, Loungelover, Sacre Coeur and Quecumbar. Have done this in the form of new comments, but not sure if that's the best strategy for the future. Should I rewrite the reviews,or add new ones of the same places (assuming, of course, there is something new to add)?

The Waterhouse

After pigging out at Broadway market, we decided to walk home along the canal, and stumbled upon the newly-opened Waterhouse restaurant. Brother to the ultra-eco-friendly Acorn House. The house water is filtered from the canal outside, there are solar panels and even a wormery to recycle the kitchen waste!
There was fresh produce lined up against a wall, and the chef came along to pick out some authentically muddy carrots out of a basket. (Though I was less sure that the pineapple displayed on the shelf above came from a near-by allotment.) Otherwise, the room looked a bit like a modern cafe – wooden tables with metal legs, neatly adorned with Heinz ketchup and HP sauce and bordered by air-dynamic plastic chairs, and a long bar on one side. Though admittedly this was brunch time, and it a few candles could easily give it a more sophisticated air in the evening. The brunch menu offers various healthy options along the lines of granola (I guess most eco warriors are also health freaks). The less healthy selection is limited to variations on fry ups, omitting my own personal favourites like eggs benedict or cheese on toast. Either way, we were too full for any more food, but stopped for a drink.

We chose the two English options from the short list of wines by the glass – the Chapel Down Bacchus, one of our favourites (6.25), and the Primrose Hill rose (4.50), which apparently actually comes from Kent rather from Kate Moss's corner of London. The service was friendly, and it's a pleasant location for watching the world amble/cycle past along the canal through floor-to-ceiling windows (decorated with cute little pictures of water droplets). Plus there is a terrace, so in the summer they might let you sit outside. We'll have to come back for dinner once the nights get longer/lighter and find out (in the dark, the canal is a less friendly, unlit kind of place where it's not unknown for local kids to push cyclists into the murky water).
The Waterhouse, 10 Orsman Road, N1 5QJ; Tel. 0207 033 0123;;; Tube: Old Street (then about 15-20 min walk).