Friday, December 29, 2006


London has lots of Russian restaurants, but it's hard to find a place that is authentic (and not in an incompetent, sullen, inedible Soviet canteen kind of way) and reasonably priced. Of the ones I've tried so far, Rasputin - all the way out West in the Polish heartland of Acton - is probably the best of a mixed bunch. It's a small, cosy, unpretentious sort of place on the main road which was totally empty on our visit early one weekday evening. The charming, gregarious owner, from Montenegro, though made it easy to overlook the empty room. We sampled Russian meat dumplings (pelmeni), thei larger Polish cousins with curd cheese (pierogi), pancakes (bliny) with smoked salmon -- all served with lashings of propper smetana (a bit like sour cream). Mains included a chicken kebab and a tomatoey take on beef stroganoff which, some of our party thought was an improvement on the original. All came with piles of veg and potatoes and were washed down with a selection of Eastern European largers and accompanied by cheery Russian pop music on the stereo. We were far too full to contemplate deserts, much to our hostess's disappointment. It came to a fairly reasonable £65 for three, including a free platter of crunchy pickled vegetables as an appetiser. Definitely worth a visit if you are in the area - and if you do, be sure to get in to a chat with the owner.

Rasputin, 265 High Street, W3 9BY. Tube: Acton Town (about 10 mins' walk)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Sacre Coeur

I am back!!! That's not to say I haven't been pigging out all over London for the last few months, I've just been too busy pigging out to write aout it! Last night we braved a little French restaurant off Upper Street. I say braved because it came with a very damning condemnation from a fellow pigger, which kept us away for some time. But feeling adventurous (and cold) we caved in. The place was cosy, with twinkling lights and chairs glued to walls covered in music posters. We were offered tap water (bonus points from the off), and ordered a nice bottle of Crozes Hermitage to go with it (£20) from a shortish but quite interesting and reasonably priced wine list. The food arrived quickly - buttery, garlicy snails for me and a creamy celeriac and mushroom soup from the specials board for my companion (about £4-5 each). I liberally dipped in to both with my bread! (Be careful how muc you dip though: we were charged £1.60 for two bread rolls.) The mains of duck with mash and guinea fowl with saute potatoes (about £11 each) were both tender and delicious, though the latter inexplicably came with a handfull of glace cherries. The atmosphere in the place was very convivial, and complete with authentic French waiters. The main menu also features cheaper options such as crepes (£7ish) and interesting sounding sausages with things like duck and wild board (£8-9). Conclusion: we are going back, pleased at having discovered a cosy corner of France just off Upper Street.

Sacre Coeur, 18 Theberton Street, N1. Tube: Angel

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Han of Nazz


This is a fantastic new kebab/Turkish place in Shoreditch. Inside, much more attention has been paid to the decor than in the Dalston kebaberies that lie further out along Kingsland Road. They've gone for a Turkish boudoir type look, with lots of colours, drapes, cushions and curtains. We were a large group, and the place is great for groups although the rules are that everyone must have the huge-sounding £17.50 set menu. We managed to persuade them to let us and our bellies off and instead started with a few mixed hot and cold mezze (£8). The cold ones were the usual selection of things like humours and tzatziki, served with plenty of dunkable bread. The hot were nicer, including grilled haloumi cheese and freshly, lightly battered squid rings. For mains, I went for the h0use speciality, the Iskender. It was a selection of juicy, good-quality meat, including lamb and chicken, piled high on fingers of pitta bread and coated in delicious yoghurty sauce. The mixed grill looked pretty good too. And for the more adventurous (or those less keen on kebabs) there is also a wide selection of other dishes including duck and sea food, with most mains around the £10 mark. For most appetites, a main would be very filling, possibly leaving just enough room for one starter/mezze dish. We washed it all down with Effes beer. The waiters were in a good, cheerful mood, which helped make it a great night. Personally, I'd pick this place over the Dalston ones any day.

Iskander, 4 Calvert Avenue, E2 7JP; Tel 020 7033 3936; Tube Old Street;

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


An Italian chain, brought to you by the Sante team of Chez Gerard and Livebait fame. This is a city branch, handy for lunches, but generally a bit dead at night. You can sometimes takes advantage of good deals they offer to attract dinner-time visitors, or of the vouchers available via the Sante mailing list (sign up on The antipasto platter (£14.50) is huge, offering a varied selection of meats, cheeses and roasted vegetables. It's a plentiful starter for four or a light-ish lunch for two. The rest of the menu centres around meats, fish and pasta, with mains in the £10-15 price range. The food is competently executed but nothing special and on our last visit the service was a bit scatty.

Bertorelli, 1 Plough Place, Fetter Lane, London, EC4A; Tel. 0207 842 0515; Tube: Chancery Lane;; and other branches


A surprisingly good find on an Islington side street. Mem&Laz stands out thanks to a bright orange sign and promises a dauntingly long menu of mostly Mediterranean style dishes. But unlike a lot of other places, the food it delivers manages to be delicious as well as cheap. Inside it's cosy and charming, with candles and oldish furniture. It also stays open late, even on Sundays, which is handy. The menu includes tender fish dishes, olives to start, a wide selection of tempting vegetarian options, and meat too. Mains come in comfortably under the £10 mark and the house wine is perfectly drinkable. Well worth popping in to soak up the booze on a night out on Upper Street. Especially if you're propping up the lovely bar at the Bull across the road but want to avoid its abysmal food.

Mem & Laz Brasserie, 8 Theberton Street, London, N1 0XX


Rules claims to be the oldest restaurant in London and it is indeed a venerable insitution, somewhat reminiscent of the grand old Parisian brasseries. Despite being quite a large place, it does get booked, so book before you go. Inside, the walls are covered with pictures - from a somewhat disturbing caricature of Margaret Thatcher in knightley armour (the Iron Lady, geddit?) to certificates for cattle at Smithfield market from a century or more ago. The waiters are unfailing polite and dressed in those long white aprons they wear in France. The clientele is mixed - from tourists to businessmen to couples - and the atmosphere is posh but not snooty. They were happy to bring us tap water and refilled it unbidden, for example. Meat is the big thing on the menu, sourced from the restaurant's own Scottish estate. We started with duck salad (£9) and unbelievably tender, thin slivers of smoked venison (£10). For mains, I sampled my most expensive ever, 30-day hung sirloin steak for £18. It was worth it, and came with a mount of thin, crispy chips - just the way I like them. The roast partidge was also a success. Washed down with some perfecly quaffable house claret (£16 a bottle), and throwing in the service charge and a couple of aperetifs, the bill came to around £100. You could do it cheaper, but I recommend putting your self in treat mode, getting out the credit card and savouring every mouthful. You could always use some visiting foreigners as an excuse to come here and prove that there is such a thing as a traditional Endlish restuarant, and a good one at that. (They also have a late night two courses for £18 deal, which is well worth trying if you are hungry post-theatre).
Rules Restaurant, 35 Maiden Lane, London, WC2E 7LB,, Tel. 0207 836 5314; Open noon-midnight, Mon-Sun; Tube: Covent Garden or Charing Cross

My Old Dutch Pancake House

May be my tastes have got more sophisticated with the years, or may be the pancakes have got worse, but my last trip to this one-time favourite didn't leave me with any great desire to return. The Holborn branch feels a bit like a canteen crossed with a wine bar, with its unfussy decor and wooden tables. The speciality is huge Dutch pancakes, covered in toppings, pizza-style, and served on huge Dutch plates with the traditional blue and white motifs (around£6-8). There are plenty of fillings to choose from as well as a pick your own section and the pancakes are very filling. But it's worth leaving a bit of pancake and trying the deep fried cheese balls for a starter. Wash it down with some Dutch (or Belgian) beers from a decent selection (£3-5). It's quite quick and friendly enough, and certainly eminently edible - and drinkable. But amid the hunderds and thousands of eateries in London it seems to lack that extra something that would draw you back. If you're hungry for pancakes, a more atmospheric bet would be the tiny and busy creperie near South Ken tube.

My Old Dutch Pancake House, 132 High Holborn, London, WC1V 6PS; Tube: Holborn. They have a branch on Kings Road too.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


This small, unpreposessing Vietnamese noodle cafe always seems busy, so we thought it worth a try. The menu focuses on traditional 'pho' - noodles in broth (around £6-7); stir-fried noodles served cold (this didn't sound too apetising on a winter's day) and Vietnamese pancakes. The latter were described as starter/side orders, but the £5 dish actually makes a filling main course. I thought it was the highlight of the meal - crispy deep fried pancake, full to birsting with tender bean sprouts, large prawns and pieces of chicken, served with chilli sauce. My traditional pho came with slices of fillet steak, which was well-stewed and hence in my opinion totally ruined, if probably very authentically Vietnamese. The pieces were quite well-hidden in a gigantic bowl of noodles in flavoursome beef broth and served with a side dish of herbs, chilli slices and lime wedges for you to add your own flavouring. It was nice enough, but the portion was far too big and I only managed about half. A prawn pho in chicken broth was deemed nicer by its orderer, though I though the broth tasted like chicken stock cubes. The daily special of curry was nicely spicy. They have a range of Vietnamese beers and some more unusual soft drinks too (though we were not convinced by the local take on home-made lemonade). There is also coffee which has been specially regurgitated by Vietnamese weasels - a bargain for a mere £5. We were not feeling very adventurous, so you'll have to go yourselves if you are curious.
The service was very friendly and the decor is simple, clean cafe style. It was an interesting meal, all told, but not really special enough to warrant a come-back. Especially given the limited selection of types of dishes on offer.

Pho, 86 St John Street, London, EC1M 4EH; Tel: 020 7253 7624; Tube: Farringdon

Tuesday, February 28, 2006


This gastropub in north Islington has tried, with some success, to recreate a Bohemian Parisian feel. There are stained wooden tables, some graffiti on the chalk menu boards (apparently on our visit they were offering free male genetalia) and big white church candles you can play with if the conversation dries up. The kitchen is open plan, behind the bar counter, but somehow fails to entice. That considered, the food is surprisingly good. I had the steak rossini, which was a good, rate slab of beef fillet topped with melting foie gras (served somewhat necessarily on top of toast) and accompanied gloriously cheesey potato gratin. The roast lamb was traditional but perfectly nice and the honey glazed duck was not overly sweet. All came accompanied with a generous serving of (free) salad. There is a selection of beers on offer, though the wine list is not very exciting - especially given the French connection. Service is OK, but a little inexperienced. But this is the sort of place where you could lounge away an afternoon or an evening, starting with some good food and then working on your drinks bill.

Bastille, 100 St Pauls Rd, London, N1 2QP; Telephone: 020 7704 2345; Tube: Highbury & Islington

Old Fire Engine House

I know this is not in Lonodn, but it was the best meal I’ve had in a long time, so it deserves a write up. Like many places these days, they try to use local produce, but do so with much more imagination than most. Our lunch included pike, smoked eel pate, a whole pigeon and some truly fantastic home-made pear and ginger ice cream. The Scottish proprietress was very charming and accommodative, and the place had a cosy feel, as if you were eating in someone’s home. A clean, elegant home with interesting art work for sale on the walls, a small gallery upstairs and a box of books and toys to entertain the children. It’s not cheap, but definitely worth the money and the location makes it an ideal treat on a day out in Ely – it’s just across the road from the Oliver Cromwell museum and round the corner from the Cathedral. And if you need further temptation, at the front there is a small cosy bar with a roaring log fire, a photo of the original old fire engine and kegs of real ale.

The Old Fire Engine House, St Marys Street, Ely; CB7 4ER, Tel: 01353 662582,

Wednesday, February 22, 2006


I sampled this London-wide Italian chain for the first time only last week, and wish I'd done it sooner - it's infinitely preferable to the Pizza Expresses and Asks of this world. The first nice touch were two resealable bottles of ice cold tap water which arrived on our table as we sat down and we replaced throughout the meal. I chose a Manzo pizza with gorgonzola, rocket and thin slices of beef fillet (£8.95). It was delicious and huge. The butternut squash risotto was nice, but a bit too vegetably for me. The seafood risotto on the next table looked delicious though, sprinkled with plump prawns and unshelled mussles. A more adventurous order of Seared Yellow Fin tuna (£10.50) proved surprisingly tasty - usually in chains I tend to stick with fool proof pastas and pizzas, but the tuna was tender and accompanied by an interesting, zesty salad. The house wine was perfectly drinkable and the service was swift. All making Strada very useful stand by to know about.
Strada, 88-90 Commercial Street, E1 6LY; Tube: Liverpool Street. And locations throughout London.


This is one of the nicer options in the suit-filled overpriced City of London, just round the corner from Liverpool Street station. The restuarant is in the basement, with a small bar area by the entrance. The lighting is low, creating a cosy warm glow. There are some interesting paintings on the wall. The ceilings are quite low and the place is quite small, so it doesn't feel to empty when quiet. Unlike many city places it could even pass for romantic. The service was very friendly - they brought tap water at the first request and we were offered numerous helpings from a selection of fresh breads (including very yummy sour dough bread). There is a good value supper menu at £15 for two courses. But even on that deal, the place isn't cheap - bottles of wine start at £15 (at which price the South African Chenin Blanc is very drinkable) - so you'd be hard pushed to eat here and spend less than £50. But it is good food. We went for the a la carte, where mains are in the £15-20 bracket, and starters about half that. I started with a trio of foie gras and it was very interesting to compare the different types, all perched on thin slices of toast (way more pate than toast), and acompanied with some slightly over dressed salad leaves (to my taste, but then I am not much of a salad dressing fan). The terrine was wonderfully creamy, the gallette (?) was too sweet for my taste, and the traditional stuff was the best. My companion's scallops came in a very generous portion of about 8 and were deliciously rich. My main course was the only disappointment - I had ordered the salmon because I was curious to try the accompanying squid ink lasagne. Unfortunately they ran out (and told me too late) so I had to make do with buttery french beans and saute potatoes. It was good, but to simple for this sort of place and these sorts of prices. The other main was meaty swordfish served with a calamari ring stuffed with chorizzo, which worked beautifully. All in all, we'll definitely go back - ideally when someone else is paying.

Lanes, 109 - 117 Middlesex Street, E1 7JF; Tube: Liverpool Street;

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


This is a buzzing Italian in an unpromising location on a busy road, round the corner from Golders Green tube station. Inside the place opens up to reveal a large venue, served by authentically Italian waiters. It attracts large groups and the party atmosphere can be a bit loud, but there are quieter corners too. The menu is quite large and varied (there are even non-cheese pizzas for the freaks who don't like cheese). I had a house speciality - half pizza, half calzone. Half the pizza is folded over to give a calzone with a large smile kind of shape. It was huge and delicious - there was enough left over for next day's lunch, which for about £7 was not bad at all. My companion's mushroom pasta looked rather less appetising, though she said it was good. The house red (about £10) was perfectly drinkable. All in all, a good place for a cheap tasty pizza - perhaps best with a large group.
L' Artista, 917 Finchley Rd, Golders Green, London, NW11 7PE; Tel: 020 8731 7501., Tube: Golders Green


As old, England-wide chains go, Browns works surprisingly well. It has branches in some impressive old buildings, where the large windows and high ceilings add to the old-school colonial feel created by the brown leather seats and marble topped bars. The food is better than you might expect and Browns is not a bad place to take foreign visitors in search of something English. There is a decent selection of cocktails, fruit juices, and bottled beers, as well as wines. Dishes on offer include fish cakes and salmon pasta with vodka, and there are usually a couple of daily specials. Mains are around the £10-15 mark. Service charge not included.
Browns Restaurant and Bar, 9 Islington Green, N1 8DU; Tel 0207 226 2555; Tube: Angel. And other branches across England, including Bristol and Cambridge.


Carluccio's branches do vary - with their plastic tables and occasionally too harsh lighting they can be a bit reminiscent of greasy spoon cafs. But unlike greasy spoon cafs they sell yummy Italian delicatessen type foods in the shop at the front and also offer pretty delicious meals. Best of all, the menu offers you the chance to buy your very own vespa. I have been to Carluccio's a number of times and have come to the conclusion that by far their best dish - and one they do better than any other Italian I've tried - is pasta funghi. For £5.95 you get a large plate of wide strips of fresh pasta, with a good selection of buttery wild mushrooms and a sprinkling of parmesan. The rest of the food is OK too, but every time I try to be more adventurous I always miss the pasta. Wash it down with a bottle of prosecco (Italian take on cava, less fizzy and more delicious, £19.95). They also do OK panini for take away lunch, though at about £4 these are far less of a bargain. Service not included in the bill.
Carluccio's, 5-6 The Green, W5 5DA; Tel. 0208 566 4458; Tube: Ealing Broadway. And many other branches throughout London. www.carluccios.con


The Canteen opened a couple of months ago in the redeveloped modern bit of Spitalfields market. I hate the redevelopment, but guess Canteen kind of makes up for it. It has recently been reviewed in a couple of weekend papers, and on the evening we went they were run off their feet - you may be well advised to book. But the maitre'd was very nice and agreed to squeeze us on to one of their large wooden tables (think Wagamama but nicer, and there are some small booths too for couples or foursomes). The menu is quite long, with a helpful section for things you can order if you are in a hurry. The food is traditional British - and yes, that does exist and in Canteen it tastes fantastic. I had macaroni cheese, which was a world away from school dinner slop (£7). The watercress and onion salad provided a refreshing alternative to the traditional rocket and parmesan combo (£3). And my companion's pork belly with apple sauce was very tender (£9). There is a reasonable wine list (from about £12), as well as a selection of interesting bottled beers, including ales. They also offer an all day breakfast menu, featuring such classics as Welsh Rarebit and black pudding with a fried egg. The atmosphere is convivial rather than trendy or romantic. And we are definitely coming back to try more of the food - next time will try and save room for the cheese platter.
The bill includes at 12.5 percent service charge. Officially they are open until 11pm daily.
Canteen, 2 Crispin Place, E1 6DW; Tel. 0845 686 1133; Tube: Liverpool Street;

The Well

This is a fantastic Clerkenwell gastro-pub. Downstairs it's a bit funky and lounge-bar like, with occasional DJs. Upstairs it's stripped wood, a bar in the corner (topped with a beautiful and ostentatious flower arrangement) and some welcome tables outside - complete with heaters. It is small enough to be cosy, but still feels fairly spacious. The large selection of beers makes it a good place for a (pricey) drink, especially if you are in to foreign brews. But there is also an ever-changing menu printed on headed paper. A menu staple is a pint of prawns (£7). They Other menu highlights can include home made gnocchi and sausages and mash (most mains around the £10-15 mark). Meals start with complimentary rustic bread with oil and balsamic vinegar and the selection of bar snacks includes yummy olives. A good place for a relaxed evening/afternoon with friends. The same people also own The Swan on New Fetter Lane and The Gun in Canary Wharf. A 12.5 percent service charge is added to the bill. They have a late licence.
The Well Restaurant & Bar, 180 St John Street, EC1V 4JY; Tel. 0207 251 9363;


This bar on the edge of Exmouth market has been around for about a year and sells itself on cocktails and burgers. The latter rather put me off - any two-bit gastro pub these days serves up 'gourmet burgers' - and I delayed my visit. But on Sunday night it is one of the few places open in the area, so we braved it. And were very glad we did. Our table gave us full view of the small open kitchen and the three large lobsters staring out from an ice-filled glass cabinet which separated us from the cooks. Having overdosed on cocktails the previous night, we left sampling Dollar's selection for another time - though it looked good. We sampled fish stew (£9.95)with good strong flavours, a little reminiscent of a Bouillabese, and generous servings of different sea food including muscles, clams and prawns. The 30-day hung Argentinian Fillet Mignon (£16.75) was a good cut of meat but the accompanying sauce (including blue cheese butter, apparently) was odd and not entirely pleasant. The highlight was monkfish (£12.50), served with a creamy, lemony prawn-studded sauce and fluffy mashed potatoes. Next time may be we'll go for lobster. The burgers looked pretty impressive too - and huge. The place has quite a romantic feel to it, but would also suit a larger night out with a touch of glamour. The food is pretty good too, though perhaps some dishes are clearly better than others. But after a few cocktails you may not notice anyway. Service charge included in the bill.
$, 2 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4PX; Tel. 0207 278 0077; Tube: Angel or Faringdon

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Peasant- the bar

We has such a nice meal in the restaurant recently that we couldn't resist coming back for a weekend lunch at the bar. The bar staff were very helpful, the gas fire was blazing, there were papers to read and the whole place just felt wonderfully relaxed.
We has a pint of prawns (£3.80), grilled chorizo (delicious but a slightly miserly portion of just four slices for £4.70, especially given that the prawns were such good value), some thin crisp French fries and rocket salad with generous slabs of parmesan (£2.50 each). It was perfect fresh, unchallenging, grazing kind of food for a lazy Saturday. We washed it down with a couple of Belgian beers (£3.80) and were well and truly sated. Highly recommended and much cheaper than the upstairs restaurant - though the food is more casual too.
On Sundays they have a special brunch menu too, from 12. Optional service charge is included in the bill.
The Peasant, 240 St John Street, London, EC1V 4PH; Tel. 0207 336 7726; Tube: Barbican, Faringdon or Angel;


This is a chain of cheap Turkish restaurants, which are currently even cheaper thanks to the Times' Eat out for £5 offer. We visited the Exmouth market branch. It's nicer in the summer when you can sit outside and pretend you are in continental Europe. Inside it has a Turkish/Moroccan style decor, but is not over the top. They always serve free olives and nice creamy hummus, which wins bonus points from the off. We chose from the limited cheap menu (about 4 choices of starters and main), but there is also a wide selection of set menus for all budgets as well as a la carte. Stuffed aubergine slices were quite nice. The side order of taramasalata was also good. The mains - another aubergine dish with 'tasty pasta' was OK and the pasta was indeed nicely flavoursome. The kofta kebabs were less successful – a bit greasy without any clear meat flavour. So yes it was unspectacular but it was also very cheap. And it's a useful place to know about.
There's a couple of largers on draft and a wine list. From past experience you are better off sticking to the starters/mezze and skipping the mains.
Sofra, 21 Exmouth Market, London, EC1, Tel. 020 7833 1111; Tube: Angel;


We really like this pub a little way up Upper Street - it's cosy, always quite busy, and has friendly staff and a fantastic selection of beers, with about 4 different wheat brews on tap! Previous attempts to eat here were foiled by lack of tables, but the other day, after crowding menacingly round a couple who'd finished their drinks, we got lucky. And were soon very disappointed. You order food at the bar from paper menus help in wooden clip boards and featuring about 6 starters and mains. We commenced with a shared mezze platter (£7.50), which between four of us offered little more than a few bites of good calamari (unusually the batter was nice), spicy kofta, chunky (but otherwise unremarkable) potato wedges and rather bland mini pizzas. These were accompanied with a yoghurty dip for the kofta and a chilli one - described rather ambitiously on the menu as a 'selection of dips'.
Of the mains (all about £8), the gnocchi in tomato sauce with spinach and wild mushroom was a disaster - the sauce tasted of Heinz ketchup and there were only about 2 mushrooms in the entire dish. I gave up after a couple of mouthfuls. There is probably a reason why gnocchi are usually served with cheesy sauces, but that still doesn't justify the horribleness of this dish. (They should go try the divine home made gnocchi at the Well on St John Street to see how things should be done!)
The lamb, mint and passion fruit sausages were actually quite tasty, with all three flavours standing out in a surprisingly harmonious way. But they swam in a sea of watery horrible mash.
The quesadilla (off the starters menu, £4.75) was nice enough given the foolproof ingredients of cheese spinach and cherry tomatoes. But it was a bit on the dry side and generally uninspiring.
The pesto chicken wrapped in Parma ham and served with vegetable ragout was probably the nicest dish but the chicken was dry and overcooked.
Overall, we had really wanted to like the food here but couldn't. Don't be tempted by the menu or you too will be disappointed.
We'll still come back for the beers though!
Bull, The, 100 Upper Street, London, N1 0NP; Tube: Angel

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Real Greek Souvlaki and Bar

My Harden's guide says the food in this place has got worse recently. I wouldn't entirely agree. This place attracts mostly workers from near-by offices. The decor is dark wood and metal. In the centre there is a big bar/kitchen, and around it are tables - both normal ones and high ones with stools. It's rarely full in the evenings, but seems to be popular enough and in the summer months a few tables outside on St John's Street are a major draw.
They have changed the menu since our last visit - which was admittedly some months ago. There are now various set meal options for groups of varying size, with perhaps the most budget option coming in the form of a £9 deal on a starter (eg hummus) followed by a souvlaki (Greek kebab) and washed down with half a pint.
Instead, we picked a selection of mezze a la carte (about £4 each), and then went for a grill selection for four at about £40. The taramasalata was creamy and fresh, and the accompanying warm grilled flat bread (pitta's not Greek, apparently) was gorgeous. Olives were nice, if unspectacular - I preferred the dish of salted nuts that came as a free appetizer. Stuffed vine leaves were more flavoursome and less vinegary than usual, and the fried octopus was also delicious.
The main course, I though was a lot more disappointing. The selection of grilled meats - chicken, sausage, lamb, etc - was nice enough, but not hugely inspiring and there seemed to be more of some meats than others. The accompanying thin crispy fries win my vote though.
Washed down with a couple of jugs of beer (£12) this feast came to over £90 for the four of us. Sure, we were stuffed. The food had been nice and there had even been entertainment in the shape of the lady at the next table setting her napkin on fire. But it wasn't £90 nice.
My advice would be to stick to mezze and go in the summer, during happy hour (before 7) to indulge in the interesting selection of Greek wines (including sparkling ones!).
The Real Greek Souvlaki and Bar, 140-142 St John Street, London EC1V 4UA, Tel: 020 7253 7234 ; Tube: Barbican, Bus: 153.


This is a newish place, serving fancy food with a Portuguese slant. There is a bar at the front, and in the back a rather lovely glass conservatory with plant-shielded windows. The decor is similar to many other places of this genre - white table cloths, dark wood, exotic flower buds in little shot glasses on the tables.
It's a good place for a special treat, and for that the prices are quite reasonable. Before the meal we were treated to a selection of bread served with butter and olive oil/vinegar combo, shot glasses of warm green soup, little ramekins of some flavoursome vegetables, miniature vegetarian tarts and generous half-moons of ravioli stuffed with duck and wild mushrooms with a chilli sauce. Of the starters, the star was probably duo of tuna and salmon attain - deliciously fresh and tender raw fish. Mille feuille of goats cheese with asparagus, poached egg and hollandaise sauce was also gorgeous, if a little too rich. Anchovies served with roast tomatoes were, quite frankly, rather dull, but as the dish met its description word for mouthful and there were plenty of alternatives (a choice of 10 or so starters), one can't really complain. Tuna with foie gras came with two very generous slabs of the fatty goose liver pate, but might have been tastier had the tuna been cooked for less time. The main winner was braised bisaro (apparently some kind of Portuguese pig crossed with a wild boar), which very tender and flavoursome and hearty in a wintry casserole kind of way. The fillet of sea bass benefited from the rich flavours of an accompanying crab and sun dried tomato risotto. This is a place with an ambitious menu, and most of it works very well. There are the odd slip ups - a lump of something that looked and tasted like suet pudding that came with the tataki for example, or a bizarre little pot of green stuff which came with the Dover sole and tasted distantly of mustardy creamed spinach. But overall, the meal was a success.
The place seems to attract a mixed crowd, from groups of friends to business meetings to loved-up couples. The wine list has some interesting bottles from Portugal at reasonable prices, and a couple of bottle largers from that part of the world. The staff are friendly, though the service was perhaps a little too slow on this visit.
With booze and the 12 percent service charge, expect to pay about £90 for a two-course dinner for two. The bar, I believe, also offers an alternative menu of small tapas-style dishes, which we have yet to sample. It is advisable to book the restaurant unless you are going mid-week.
Portal, 88 St John's Street, London, EC1M 4EH, Tel. 0207 253 6950; Tube: Barbican;

Sunday, January 15, 2006


This is a relatively new addition to the bars and eateries around Smithfield. It is a small, cosy, darkish wine bar which also serves food and has a mini-shop in the corner in case you want to buy some of the booze you've just sample and take it home.
The food menu comes on freshly printed sheets of A4, suggesting daily changes. There are about 10 to 12 savoury dishes to choose from, with no clear starters/main split and an unusually tempting selection of four or so deserts. The wine list is an impressive multiple page affair, with bottles listed by country with short descriptions. The staff are helpful and knowledgeable - they happily suggested a nice bottle of red for under £15 for us. Though the list goes up to three times that and more, there is plenty to choose from under £20, and the cheapest bottle is very reasonable and only £10.50. When we chose a different wine for our second bottle, we were all brought fresh glasses.
To start with we were brought bread (with coriander) - which we'd devoured by the time good dipping oil arrived a couple of minutes later, so unbidden they brought a second basket.
Between us, our group sampled duck breast, served with creamy horse-radish sauce on top of a potato rosti (mmmmm...), pork chop with Parma ham and creamy potatoes and lamb stew. All were delicious. Despite the generous portions we were tempted by desert. The home made chocolate truffles (two for £2) were huge and looked absolutely gorgeous - I will try some next time. My cheese plate (£6) came with generous chunks of mature cheddar, parmesan, thom de savoie and a red stilton type cheese. These were served with delightfully crumbly home-made oat biscuits. There was also a stewed rhubarb and almond tart and a rich sticky toffee pudding with a cute little jug of cream. The service was lovely throughout.
For plenty of food and plenty of drink, as long as you stick to the cheapest bottles, expect to pay about £20 per person.
This is a really nice place, and I hope it thrives.
Vinoteca, 7 St John Street, EC1M 4AA, London, Tel. 0207 253 8786;; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon

Yo! Sushi, Farringdon

These conveyor belt chains were among the first to capitalise on the appetite for sushi in London. These days, they are less popular and the sushi doesn't always taste as fresh as one might like (though the menu promises dishes are not kept on the belt for more than two hours). But this month, they are running a half-price sushi deal (get a voucher from, which I figured made it worth a visit.
The Farringdon branch is large, with a long belt snaking round the kitchen area and then out in to the rest of the room. It was busy on a night early in the week, probably because of the half price promotion. We were sat towards the end of the belt, so I think a lot of the good stuff disappeared before it got to us. Still, their tuna and salmon sashimi were good-sized, good-value and good-tasting. The nigiri sushi had just a small sliver of fish atop a large lump of rice. We also ordered some hot things off the menu - a delicious soft shelled crab fried in tempura (an amazing creature that you can eat shell and all), some rare beef with Japanese pickles and some huge calamari rings. With a couple of beers (£4.50 for 500ml of Asahi or Kirin; £6 for a giant 650ml can of Sapporo), the bill came to a little over 30 quid. We'd only managed 14 plates between us and were full to bursting. However, on a full-price day the bill would have been more like £60 and that seems a bit steep for what is essentially a canteen.
Yo! Sushi, 95 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3BT; Tube: Farringdon;

Chez Gerard, Victoria

I think this chain sometimes gets unjustly bad press. As chains go, it's reliable and reasonable value (especially if you have some of their money off vouchers - just sign up for a newsletter on The Victoria branch is conveniently just outside the tube/train station in a grand old building which is also used by the Thistle hotels chain.
Inside, you can easily pretend that you are in a grand French brasserie, with high ceilings, a long dark-wooden bar and people sipping cappuccinos or champagne. There are two options - the restaurant menu noticeable for its selection of steaks (I recommend the onglet, it's one of the cheapest at about £10, but is nonetheless a really nice cut of meat) and the lighter cafe menu with salads and croques. I had the goat's cheese salad (£8.75), which was authentic tasting and about the right size for lunch. My companion had the chicken salad, a bit more substantial for £9.95. There's of course a reasonable wine list, though you have to look at the prices - I think for £6 my glass of champagne (what's wrong with decadence once in a while?!) was much better value than my companion's similarly priced large chardonnay. They also do good-value set menus, with two courses for £13.50.
The service is friendly enough, and a lot of the staff are French. Another branch that's worth remembering is behind the National Theatre and is one of the best pre-performance options in that area (by virtue of being preferable to pizza express!).
Chez Gerard; Thistle Hotel; 101 Buckingham Palace Road,Victoria, London SW1W 0SJ Tel: 020 7868 6249. Tube: Victoria;

Le Mercury

This is a fantastic find on the trendy and now chain-filled Upper Street - a great-value cosy French restaurant. The decor is simple and cosy, with those dripping candles in wine bottles. The menu has about 5 starters (at £3.45) and 10 main courses (at £5.95) and there are (slightly pricier) daily specials too. Even with a side order (£1.95), you could manage a meal with a bottle of wine for £30. And a good meal in a romantic setting at that - this place is ideal for dates on a budget. The rooms upstairs have a bit less atmosphere but are good for larger groups.
On a recent visit, I had a warm goat's cheese salad, followed by fish cakes, with salad and chips. My companion went for the specials - a prawn and avocado salad and fish. It's all good honest food - nothing spectacular, but fantastic value. There is a nice shortish wine list too, going up to about £30.
Le Mercury, 140a Upper Street, London, N1; Tel. 0207 354 4088; Tube: Angel or Highbury & Islington

Comptoir Gascon

Comptoir Gascon is the offspring of the City foie gras heaven that is Club Gascon. It started life as a deli on the other side of Smithfield market, full of tempting but pricey gastronomic tit bits. Earlier this year they squeezed up their food laden shelves and fitted in a few dark-wood tables. The size of the place, its newness and good reviews in the press mean it's actually relatively hard to book a table, although there is an option of eating at the bar. The menu is French and fairly simple, supplemented by a few specials on the blackboard. There is no clear split between starters and mains, although our portions were of a good size. I had salade Landaise from the blackboard - tender green beans, with specs of foie gras, and slices of cured duck meat. My companion had hearty Cassoulet Toulousain. Most dishes fall in the £10-£15 price bracket. There is a good selection of wines - by the bottle, by the glass (from £3.50) and by the 45cl carafe called a fillette (£7.50). To finish off I was greedy and had foie gras, which - at £10 - came in two very generous slabs with some nice toasted bread with bits in. They add on a 12.5 percent service charge to the final bill.
There are tealights on the tables and the deli-laden shelves add to the cosy yet trendy atmosphere. The service was quite friendly, if a little absent-minded. Overall, even with the foie gras, it was a well-priced and tasty meal and I would happily go back for seconds.
Comptoir Gascon, 61-63 Charterhouse Street, London, EC1M 6HJ; Tel. 0207 608 80851; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon

The Peasant

Gastro pubs seems to be on a mission to take over the world. Or at least London. I read somewhere that there are frozen food companies which specialise in selling them ready meals, which explains why there is always a flat mushroom and goat's cheese burger even on every aspiring gastro pub's menu.
But there are places which clearly go to the trouble of doing all the work themselves, and The Peasant is one of them. Downstairs there is a welcoming bar with a good selection of draft pints(from real ales to German wheat beer), where you can also fill up on snacky pub food from bowls of delicious olives to steak sandwiches. Upstairs is a proper restaurant with white table cloths, candles and a fire. To start, there is free bread from a selection, served with dipping oil and vinegar (we were only offered one slice each though). The menu is relatively short - about six choices each for starter and main. I opted for a casserole of pheasant with wild mushrooms. The red meat easily came off the bone, and there was a nice selection of interesting fungi. It was good, hearty wintery food. My companion has beautifully rare lamb chops with pickled red onions. I am not normally a fan of lamb (too often it's fatty and overcooked), but this was arguably the nicest lamb I've ever tasted. To accompany, we had green salad with a rich, balsamic vinegar dressing and crispy roast potatoes.
Price wise, the place isn't cheap - mains are mostly around the 15 pounds mark, side orders at 2.70 and house wine at about 12 pounds. They add on a service charge, but get bonus points for crossing off the extra tip space on the credit card slip.
I think the quality of the food, and the fact that it's an interesting, often changing menu and a nice setting easily justifies the price though. It's a smallish room, ideal for a romantic meal or a small intimate gathering.
The Peasant, 240 St John Street, Clerkenwell, London, EC1V 4PH; Tel. 0207 3367726
Tube: Angel; Bus: 153.


Signs outside this caff near Leicester Square proclaimed that it was home to the best falafel in London. Inside, they adhere to the slightly tarted up greasy spoon look, with plastic tables and minimal decor consisting of several framed copies of a photo of the owner posing with Matt Damon and an incongruous looking black board proclaiming that the wine of the week is a Sauvignon Blanc. The laminated menu comes, bizarrely, in two versions - one with prices and names of food and one with just pictures. Personally, I just found this confusing, but I guess it can appeal to some (especially given all those news stories about poor literacy levels in this country). I had falafel - a few bright yellow crumbly balls served in a valley of indifferent hummus with one piece of warm pitta. For five quid. My companion had a fatty, gristly lamb kebab served on top of some salad (which was consequently warm) and accompanied with a huge mountain of chips. For over eight quid. This place may look cheap, but it's lying. The portions were a good size, but even in central London you can find nicer and cheaper food (try heading across Leicester Square to Stockpot). The service was attentive enough, but our dinners were brought out one by one, with considerable time period elapsing in between plates. The place was quite full on a weekday night and seemed to be quite a popular place to bring young children. I guess being in the centre of theatre land it's a useful pit stop, but for me there was nothing special enough about it (atmosphere/food/price/decor) to warrant a return visit.

Gaby's; 30 Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0DB, Tel. 020 7836 4233; Tube: Leicester Square