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