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, www.theoldfireenginehouse.co.uk/

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. http://www.strada.co.uk/


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; www.lanesrestaurant.co.uk

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. www.browns-restaurants.com


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; www.canteen.co.uk

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; www.downthewell.co.uk


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