Friday, December 28, 2007

Gourmet Burger Kitchen - pricey patties

The eating options in Canary Wharf are (surprisingly) pretty limited, so I was perhaps unduly excited by the opening of the Gourmet Burger Kitchen. (Though judging by the length of the lunchtime queues in the week before Christmas, I wasn't the only one.) It occupies a cave-like, window-less space under Wagamama's in Jubilee Place, the posher of the two shopping malls. The dark-wood tables and black-cad waiters help keep out any notion of daylight, while giving the venue a brisk, canteen-style aura. You order at the bar, which I guess is handy for bill-splitting. The A3-sized laminated menu focuses heavily on burgers of every possible incarnation (though whether a portabello mushroom or a piece of chorizo really counts as a burger is debatable), but there are also some salads if you are feeling healthy. I went for the bog-standard cheese burger (£6.75). The Aberdeen angus patty was juicy and flavoursome and the default "medium" cooking left it with a pleasant pink hue in the middle. The bun also featured ketchup, lettuce, tomato and raw onions. I am not sure what kind of cheese it was, but it was nice and definitely not of the luminous orange American variety. Chips, however, were a whopping £2.55 extra, plus another £1.45 for a small pot of sauce such as garlic mayo or sour cream. They were thick-cut, and not sufficiently crispy for my liking. The GBK chain was founded by a couple of kiwis, so New Zealand beers feature on the menu (I had a bottle of the rather pleasant Macs Gold ale for £3.05) and the more wacky section of the burgers menu includes a "kiwi". This concoction combines the humble beef patty with a fried egg, pineapple and..... wait for it.... beetroot. To my utter amazement, my colleague wolfed down the whole lot, shovelling away with a knife and fork as the "kiwi" was too tall to bite into. He did admit though that the beetroot may have been unnecessary... The service was very quick (especially given that most tables were occupied) and pretty cheerful. And despite the beetroot, they also do pretty decent offerings catering to those of who stick to the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy on burgers. They also do takeaway, though at these prices I'd say it's far too steep for a regular lunchtime jaunt. If I had the choice, I'd prefer a nice pub which does good burgers but also a wider repertoire of other dishes, and feels less canteen-like. But as I happen to work in the area and have yet to find such a venue, I dare say I'll be back.

Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Unit 24 Jubilee Place, Canary Wharf, E14 5NY; Tel. 0207 719 6408; Tube: Canary Wharf;

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Smiths of Smithfield - SOS brunch

During the week, I have to get up far too early to enjoy a leisurely breakfast and try to stay very healthy on an early-morning ration of fruit and yoghurt. So come the weekend, I am always a big fan of something more complicated and brunch-like. For this, Smiths of Smithfields is perfect. The ground floor sweeps away its thumping, trendy bar persona of the previous evening and transforms into a buzzing cafe-style haven for those nursing morning-after hangovers. It's always packed and they don't take bookings, so brunch usually starts with a drink and a browse through the weekend papers on the squashy brown leather sofas in the corner, until a table is ready. The drinks include fresh orange juice (£2.20), teas and coffees (£1.50+), a selection of "morning after" tipples including shandy (?) and a damn good bloody Mary (£5.50), as well as grown up (ie alcoholic) milkshakes (£6.50 for an “apple crumble”). Served in giant metal beakers, these are a meal (or more accurately a desert) in themselves.
I like the brunch food menu for its variety - you can have anything from a fry up (in various permutations) to a BLT to a proper main course like sausage and mash. (Sensibly though, unlike the near-by 24-hour caff Tinseltown, they don't offer Thai green curry - hang offer food that ain't, as my husband once discovered the hard way.) On the last two visits I've had the eggs benedict with smoked salmon (£8.50), served on a halved muffin and smeared in creamy hollandaise. Their macaroni cheese with haddock (£6.50) isn't bad, but not cheesy enough. The club sandwich is huge, and the BLTs (£6.50) are also pretty good. Just don't try to economise with something like egg on toast (£2.50) - you will feel very jealous when everyone else gets their food.
Other than always being very busy, the other (no doubt related) drawback is the service, which can be a bit slow and a bit inattentive, especially if you order extra drinks). But for me the food and the buzzing atmosphere tip the balance firmly in SOS's favour. Plus Santa(s) and his(their) reindeer brunch there. (Oh, ok, it was probably just real people we saw lining their stomachs ahead of Santacon, but it was still cool.)

Smiths of Smithfield, 67-77 Charterhouse Street, EC1M 6HJ; Tel. 0207 251 7950; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon;

Monday, December 24, 2007

St John, N19 - best ailoi in Archway

We are very lucky to live within about a 15minute walk of literally dozens of great restaurants. The downside though is that it's all too easy not to discover what delights (or otherwise!) lie further afield. So the invitation to deepest, darkest Archway for some live music sounded like the beginning of adventure. We stumbled upon a corner of Ireland in the middle of North London. In the Lion pub, a man was belting out melancholy songs and strumming his guitar while old, weather-worn men and women nodded along, sipped their pints of Guinness and got lost in reveries of days gone by. The slightly younger customers were more cheerful, stomping out an energetic jig in the corner. Equally character-full Irish folk looked on from slightly caricaturised, faded paintings on the dark walls. The penalty you pay for living in central London is that you'll never get a gem like this as your local. (And while it may not offer any interesting beers, the other advantage of not being in central London is that it's cheap - I paid £11 for three pints and a large wine.)
As the food on offer at the Lion didn't seem to stretch beyond mini cheddars and bacon flavoured fries, we were reluctantly forced to leave in search of sustenance. With unusual foresight, I had looked the area up in my Harden's guide and had discovered that there was a well-reputed gastro joint just round the corner called St. John. Here too the drinks de jour were whiskey and Guinness, although there were also a couple of real ales on tap and the crowd was much younger. From the chalkboard menu, the leg of lamb came with all the trimmings you would expect in a generous roast, as well as a highly-rated onion sauce. The roast half of chicken with a peppercorn jus was also amply sized and beautifully juicy. I opted for the mussels with chorizo and onions, the salty sausage contrasting well with the tender crustaceans. The highlight of the meal though was the aioli. It was proffered when I asked for some mayo to go with the delightfully crispy home-made chips. It packed a serious punch of garlic and tasted freshly made. We got through two pots. It was heaven, and worth the trek to Archway in its own right.

St John, 91 Junction Rd, N19 5QU; Tel. 020 7272 1587. The Lion public house (also known as Sweeneys), 1 Junction Road N19 5QT. Tube (for both): Archway

Thursday, December 20, 2007

St Moritz - gloriously cheesy

As someone who once managed to put on half a stone on a four-day "skiing" break in the French Alps, I have to admit to impartiality - I love fondue. And as St Moritz is the only place I know of in central London that serve fondue, I am also rather fond of St Moritz. It's located in the heart of Soho, in a small, old half-timbered house done up to look like a Swiss chalet. There's one of those long horn things on the wall, and framed postcards advertising Swiss cheese. The waitresses are dressed in Swiss national costume and the plates have pictures of cute little cows chewing on oversized daisies. Sure, it's kitsch, and it's not going to win any contemporary style awards. But to my mind, cosy and comfortable often beats stylish.
The menu includes raclette as a starter, and other Swiss specialities such as rosti. For me though, it had to be fondue. The selection includes a meat one, and a Chinese one (I guess a version of the fiery Sizchuanese hotpot), but we went for the "forestiere" - a heaven-made combination of mushrooms and cheese. I was very pleasantly surprised by the mushrooms - there lots of them, and of the proper wild, non-dried variety. The dish smelled of autumn. It came with a basket of bread, and we order a side of new potatoes for dipping as well (£3.50). If you want to pretend that you are being healthy you can also dip in seasonal vegetables. The fondue was huge and we struggled to finish it (we did of course, what kind of a cheese fiend would I be otherwise!). The wine menu is interesting. They have a large selection of whites, reds, roses and bubbles -- but they are all Swiss, as is the only beer on offer. We opted for Merlot rose from the Ticino canton (£20.95), which proves refreshingly crisp and dry for a rose, and nicely cuts through the richness of the cheese. Licking the last bits of cheese off my fork, I wished I could eat fondue every day. But luckily for Britain's obesity statistics I don't -- yet.
St Moritz, 161 Wardour Street, Soho, W1V 3TA; Tel: 020 7734 3324; Tube: Tottenham Court Road;

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Most Cafe Bar - most for beer, least for food?

We had come to the Christmas fair by Tower Bridge in search of festive cheer, German sausages and mulled wine. But – faced with an ice-cold Tuesday evening – the stalls had closed earlier than advertised and of our three quests we were only able to complete the one for mulled wine (which did come in very cute, boot-shaped cups).
Forced to look for sustenance elsewhere and too cold to wonder around aimlessly gazing in restaurant windows, we tumbled into the nearest eaterie. This turned out to be the Most Cafe Bar underneath the bridge. It was a tiny place, occupied by a large beer bar and a few tables poked around the sides. I say beer bar as that's clearly the speciality – the menu offers around 30 different varieties, spanning from an English stout to a chili beer from Arizona. Understandably, we had to try the latter. It was a normal enough looking bottle of lager, with an assuming little green chili floating inside. Taste-wise, the chili had clearly won the battle over the lager hands down – the drink tasted like some kind of accompaniment to nachos or fajitas. It wasn't overly spicy, but it definitely tasted like it should be “green”. (Does anyone else ever think foods taste of a particular colour?). Incidentally, it also didn't taste very nice and we left most of the bottle. We also sampled a cherry beer from the ever-wonderful Sam Smiths brewery, which reminded me of boiled cherry-flavoured sweets (in a good way). In comparison, my glass of house red seemed pretty dull in comparison – a fact I was secretly glad of.
The menu features some snacks (eg mezze platter, nachos), as well as robust-sounding mains from mussles to steaks. Tempted by the blue-cheese mash, I asked for a rare rib eye (11.95). The mash was indeed pretty good, as were the glazed carrots. But the steak was well done and fatty. My friend went for the scallops with the cauliflower pure (12.95) from the short specials list. She said it was nice but rather stingy portion-wise. The biggest let-down though were the olives we'd ordered to munch on before the food arrived. Despite two reminders they were served after the main courses. A small square bowl of green and black olives (nice, but looking and tasting like they'd come from a jar), an identical bowl of indifferent olive oil with a squirt of balsamic vinegar, and a third with some slices of a baguette. Nothing short of extortion at 4.50. I was tempted to send it back, but my friend needed the bread to supplement her main course.
It was a nice evening, and I might be tempted to come back and try more beers, but next time I'll eat elsewhere.
Most Cafe Bar; Horrace Jones Vault, 206-208 Tower Bridge Road, SE1 2UP; Tel. 020 74036030; Tube: Tower Hill or London Bridge;

PS After some googling, I discover that in fact the cafe is owned by a Russian lady, with the cafe's name intended as a pun since "most" is also the Russian word for "bridge". If that's the case, then it's a great shame that the only Russian beer on offer is the now readily available Baltika lager.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Bedales - rest for the wicked

When you are fearlessly braving the pre-Christmas weekend shopping crush to buy gifts for your nearest and dearest, you deserve a treat. For me, such a treat came in the very welcome shape of a cosy wine bar in the new bit of Spitalfields market. The walls are lined with bottles and you can choose to crack any one of them open there and then, at the narrow table in the middle of the shop for a modest corkage of £8. (In the fully-booked St John's Bread and Wine round the corner, blackboards seemed to suggest mark ups in the £20-30 range.) We decided to take it easy though (too many Christmas parties), and opted for wines by the glass (from about £5). The food menu is short and simple, ranging from meat and cheese platters, to pates and warming bowls of soup of the day.
We ordered at the bar-cum-shop-counter, opting for a large "mixed plank" of cheese and charcuterie. It arrived on a wooden board, featuring about 4 choices from each food group and accompanied by a large basket of fresh-tasting bread from the aforementioned St John. The hard, French-style salami was the most popular, while the proscuitto went very well with the goat's cheese. About the only miss to my mind was the chorizo of the large, thin slices variety -- I far prefer it served in small, thick, warmed up chunks in a red wine sauce. There were also olives and a pot of rich -- almost too rich -- tapenade. With tip, we were stuffed for under £30 for two, and left feeling rejuvenated enough to resume the shopping. We might well return in the evening (they are open until 9-9.30 pm in the week), with some wine-knowledgeable friends, to while away a couple of hours and a couple of bottles in a convivial atmosphere.

Bedales, 12 Market Street (off of Brushfield Street), Spitalfields, E1 6DT; Tel: 020 7375 1926; Tube: Liverpool Street;

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Porterhouse - come for the porter not the food

The Porterhouse is a huge multi-leveled labyrinth of a pub, linked together with exposed copper piping. Despite its size it is frequently packed to the rafters, and so must be doing something right. The beer for starters. The place has its own micro-brewery producing three stouts, three ales and three lagers. Plus they have a huge beer menu, including beers from as far afield as Palestine and Tahiti. In the line of duty we sampled, among others, a banana bread beer from Jamaica (very banana-y, quite nice, but not sure I could manage more than a glass), a Crocodile beer from Sweden (winner of best beer award....17 years ago!) and a "sexy" beer featuring a bikini-clad lady on the bottle (scratch and the bikini disappears, so the taste of the larger is rather beside the point!). The food menu features the kind of thing you need to soak up the beer - pizzas, pies, burgers, snacky platters - with most mains around the £7-9 mark. My favourite by far was the "frying pan". It literally came served in a cute iron frying pan (atop a plate), crammed full of potatoes, eggs, onions, chorizo and other stuff and it was very yummy. The steak sandwich on the other hand was a bit of a disappointment -- the granary bread and the mayo overpowered the miserly portion of well-done steak and I couldn't trace the parmesan advertised on the menu. The accompanying chips were thick cut and nice enough, though they lose points for serving the mayo in those little Heinz sachets. The burgers were also OK, but with no great "wow" factor. So overall I'd say this is a place to come for the beer and the atmosphere (and the music - they have Irish folk sessions on Sunday afternoons), but the food is good enough to mean you don't have to leave if you get a bit peckish.
The Porterhouse, 21-22 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, WC2 E7NA; Tel. 0207 379 7917; Tube: Covent Garden or Charing Cross;

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Angelic - pre-shopping lunch haven

Somehow pushing your way around an overcrowded Sainsbury is so much more bearable if it is preceded by a nice pub lunch. (I've learned to go easy on the pre-shopping beer though, as then the contents of the supermarket trolley have a danger of veering off in to the impractical/expensive territory.) For such weekend lunches, The Angelic comes into its own. Big windows keep the white-walled room bright even in a drizzly December. There are rustic-looking wooden tables and brown leather sofas, as well as a randomly stocked book case if all the weekend papers have been nabbed by the time you arrive. On our last visit they were putting up a Christmas tree, a huge one thanks to the tall ceilings. There's a good selection of beers -- from Russian Baltika to well-kept real ales -- as well as a menu of freshly made juices and smoothies for anyone on a detox. The prices aren't cheap, but this is upmarket Islington after all. They do weekly specials for Sunday lunch (two roasts, and something veggie), but unlike a lot of places they also offer the normal menu. Before the mains, we are served a wooden board with soft white bread and dinky bowls of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, coarse sea salt and pepper. It takes the edge of the hunger nicely and mains aren't far behind. The roast pumpkin, leek and Stilton strudel is very nice, and helps convince that pumpkin is an under-rated vegetable. (I re-discovered it when in a bid not to be wasteful I fried up the Halloween pumpkin covered in flour, with apples, cream and cheese.) I was a bit apprehensive about the accompanying bubble and squeak rosti, remembering a pile of non-descript tasteless lumpy mash-type stuff that used to be served with fry-ups in Bristol's York Cafe. This version though was crisp, nicely and seasoned and delicious enough to inspire me to try my own version at home. The duck, orange and apricot sausage (£10.50) tasted strongly of the ingredients, which so many posh flavoured sausages don't seem to manage. It was served with puy lentils -- one of my favourite accompaniments -- and sautéed leeks and red currant gravy. We could have lingered there all afternoon (they have board games too), but sadly Sainsbury's was calling...
The Angelic, 57 Liverpool Road , Islington, N1 0RJ; Tel: 020 7278 8433; Tube: Angel;
PS I now have a shiny new mobile phone with apparently a decent camera, so will endeavour to sneakily capture my food in the future in a bid to make this blog a bit more colourful.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Fat Duck

It's not really the kind of place that needs a jokey headline, or much of an introduction. But it does make a rather worthy subject for my 100th post (yay!).

We planned the trip for months in advance, the booking line on speed dial for The Day Three Months before THE Day (they take bookings up to three months in advance), credit cards at the ready.

A rather unglamorous train trip from Paddington to Maidenhead, followed by a £5 taxi ride and we were standing on a narrow pavement outside an unassuming white washed, centuries old house. Inside, it was all white walls and tablecloths, sparkling glasses and dark wooden beams. The clientele was a mix of those for whom this was clearly a special occasion and those who looked they could afford to become regulars. There was a slight awe in the air, but it wasn't a stuffy, must-wear-jacket-and-tie kind of place.

We decided to go the whole hog -- aperitifs of champagne (we didn't like to ask how much, but the bill shows up about £17 a glass), the tasting menu (£115) and the accompanying wine selection (£90). I wanted to ask for tap water, but was over-ruled, so we had the £3.50 bottled stuff instead. All in all, it added up to about £250 a head. But was it worth it?...

At the end of the meal you each get an envelope of posh, strokeable paper with a Fat Duck seal, a copy of the menu concealed inside. So even though I've put off writing the review for months -- overwhelmed by the task -- I can tell you exactly what we had.

It started with nitro-green tea and lime mousse . The waitress produced a little blob, not dissimilar in appearance to hair mousse, out of an old-fashioned looking metal dispenser. She then zapped it with liquid nitrogen and told us to put the whole thing in the mouth in one go. On the tongue, it had a crunchy, frozen shell and then melted into lemony, liquidy refreshness.

A single oyster was served in its shell with passion fruit jelly and lavender , the textures matching nicely to create a slightly sweet, slithery, but not unpleasant sensation.

The pommery grain mustard ice cream was served a small, creamy coloured blob in a large white bowl, with the red cabbage gazpazcho added a little later in keeping with the theatricality of the place.

The parade of appetisers also featured jelly of quail, langoustine cream and parfait of foie gras before culminating in a three-way experience of the forest. A wooden tray of oak moss was placed on the table and "watered" with dry ice to produce clouds of foresty, mossy mist. We inhaled this while treating our taste buds to a tiny, earthy square of truffle toast and a sliver of moss jelly served in a little plastic box and eaten by letting it dissolve on your tongue. All that was accompanied by a German white, 2005 Iphofer Kronsberg Silvaner Spatlese Trocken (though I don't remember it tasting of celeriac!)

But even though the portions are tiny, this is certainly not a place you leave huyngry. Firstly, the dishes are numerous (including the appetisers, we counted 18!) and secondly throughout the meal, you can choose from a tasty bread basket selection.

Next came one of the Fat Duck's signature dishes, snail porridge. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but of all the dishes, this was the one that disappointed me most. It actually consisted of some normal-tasting porridge (though, to be fair it an unnatural shade of green), topped with normal, de-shelled snails and decorated with Joselito ham and shaved fennel and washed down with a glass of red, the 2004 Vin de Pays des Cote Catalanes, Le Soula, G. Gauby, Roussilon.

Then, to show that even molecular gastronomes aren't averse to using top-end ingredients, came the luxuriously creamy roast foie gras, served on plate decorated with streaks of cherry and chamomile sauces and tiny cubes of almond fluid gel. I was unconvinced by the jelly, though the Husband (generally a bigger fan of nursery food!) complemented it for the strong flavour. The 2003 Vinoptima Gewurtzraminder Reserve from Gisborne in New Zealand was a surprisingly nice accompaniment, considering that I don't like sweet wines.

Next another much-written-about dish. The "Sound of the sea" came accompanied by a tiny little ipod, hidden in a conch shell and programmed with swooshy sea sounds. The dish itself looked like a pebbly beach, topped with some foam and some things that may have been sea weed or sea creatures, and matched with a pungent, maritime smell. While I was not convinced by the flavours, you certainly couldn't fault it as a recreation of the sea for all the senses. It was served with Rashiku Junmai sake, which apparently has similar flavour characteristics to a Sauvignon blanc.

Salmon poached with liquorice featured a delicately flavoured (cooked sous vide?) piece of salmon, encased in sticky, sickly brown coating of (admittedly relatively mild flavoured) liquorice. It was served with two rather gorgeous spears of asparagus on streaks of vanilla mayonnaise and Manni olive oil , the latter fittingly created as part of a science project! Whether you enjoyed the dish or not I think boiled down to which side of the fence you are with regards to liquorish. The glass was topped up with 2001 Quinta da Falorca Reserva from Dao in Portugal.

Next was the Ballotine of Anjou pigeon with a very bloody black pudding, Chinese pigeon cracker, picking brine and spiced juices and a glass of gutsy 1999 Barolo from Piedmont.

The hot and iced tea was a truly amazing feat of science. The left half the cup of lemony, black, slightly sweet, slightly solidified liquid was hot. And the right half was ice-cold. You could feel the divide on your lips as it slipped down. Another one to file under "how the heck did he do that?!".

Then it was time for some rosy-coloured British nostalgia, a concept which in my mind is always illustrated by idyllic images of the British seaside and those mildly smutty seaside postcards circa 1950s. Mrs Marshall's Margeret cornet was a dinky little ice cream cone accompanied by a little leaflet. From there, we learnt that the rather pretty looking Agnes Bertha Marshall may have invented the edible ice cream cone back in 1886 and who suggested making ice cream using liquid gas more than a century ago.

The Pine-sherbet fountain was just a cute hark back to childhood, not dissimilar to those sugar fixes from the local corner shop of old.

The Mango and Douglas fir puree, Bavarois of lyche and mango, blackcurrant sorbet looked very pretty was ultimately a bit forgettable, but luckily its accompanying beverage was not. The 2003 Icewine from Pelee Island Winery, Ontario was for me the most bizarre thing on the drinks list -- they make wine in Canada?? Icewine, I discover is actually made from grapes that have been frozen while still on the vine, so perhaps it's ideally suited for cold climes. It was sweet, but clean and refreshing tasting, though that could have just been a psychological reaction to the word "ice" in the name.

The Carrot and orange tuile came as an odd-looking crispy lollypop, contrasted with a cube of beetroot jelly.

The Parsnip cereal came in a cute little pale green cereal box with the Fat Duck logo, and looked a bit like cornflakes. It came with parsnip milk.

The Nitro scrambled egg and bacon ice cream, pain perdu and tea jelly was truly amazing. The waitress came up with one of those shaped cardboard egg boxes, full of whole-looking egg shells into which they had cunningly put the egg and bacon ice cream mix. She then cracked the eggs into a shiny copper saucepan and zapped them with the nitrogen into ice cream. It tasted nice too - a luxurious take on breakfast in the middle of a very extravagant lunch. The accompaniment was a sweet, fruity glass of 2004 Jurancon, Uroulat, C. Hours, France.

We just about had room for the Whisky wine gums, violet tartlet before stumbling out into the daylight, about four hours after we first went in! And the verdict? Well worth the money (though probably as a once-in-a-lifetime treat).

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ye Olde Mitre - hark back to the good olde days

There are so many gastropubs around these days that it's a refreshing change to go somewhere that is resolutely stuck in a pub time warp, selling pickled eggs and brimming tankards of ale to a largely male clientele. And when such a visit involves a trip to Cambridgeshire without leaving central London, so much the better. Ye Olde Mitre is hidden away in an implausibly narrow passageway off Ely Place -- one-time home to the Bishop of Ely and thus ( apparently) part of Cambridgeshire. There are two entrances to the pub, one leading to the tiny front room and the other to the slightly roomier back one, with the bar in the middle. The dark wood panelling on the walls is decorated with pictures of English kings (including Henry VIII looking nothing like Jonathan Rhys Meyers from the latest BBC adaptation) and a notice proclaiming that Santa will be visiting on December 4 (yay!). Our pints of Deuchars (£2.85) are very well kept. It's the kind of place where you get chatting to the landlord and a few of the tables look like regulars. The food on offer is wonderfully simple. We try a cheese and onion toastie for £1.50 -- cut into little triangles and pungent with raw onion. I think the cheese is red Leicester (it's orange coloured), which isn't as good as mature cheddar, but it hits the spot and soaks up the beer and I have to be talked out of ordering another one. There's also sausage rolls, sausages and even giant gherkins (60 pence!) on offer. I am smitten, and have resolved to go back next week for more Deuchars, a gherkin and a mince pie.

Ye Old Mitre, Ely Court, off Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ; Tube: Chancery Lane

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Queens Arms - not so bad in the West

The pub is very well hidden, down a cobbled alleyway (sorry a mews) off a residential road lined with those prime, white, Edwardian terraced houses. (Before I really knew London, I always wanted to live in one of those, though I have since realised that they prevail in the West, where as I very much prefer the East side.) It’s also just that bit too far from shopping delights of the Kings Road or high-brown delights of South Kensington museums to avoid being over-run with crowds. There are wooden tables (high and low), wooden chairs. To be honest, I don't really remember the decor -- it didn't really stand out much from the standard modern pub mode. The pints of prawns though were luscious, even if they had run out of gloriously lumpy home-made aioli and had to resort to bog-standard mayonnaise for dips. And they were only £5 a go -- about half the price of those at The Well and firmly knocking on the head the myth of the West being more expensive than the East. The roast chicken and sausages and mash ordered by other people in the group smelled gorgeous and the portions were huge. With the hindsight of the next day's hangover we probably should have followed their example and had more than the prawns too. Which brings me to the great selection of drinks, with several real ales, my beloved Aventinus and the bright-pink strawberry-flavoured Fruli which seems to have cornered the market in beer drinkers who don't actually like the taste of beer. I also really liked the atmosphere -- there were people enjoying a weekend lunch and the papers on their own, girlfriends catching up over a bottle of wine -- it was a proper, leisurely weekend vibe. If I ever do end up in one of those Edwardian houses, having this as a local would go a bit of the way to soothing the departure from East London.

Queens Arms, 30 Queens Gate Mews, SW7 5QL; Tel. 020 7581 7741; Tube: Gloucester Road

Monday, November 19, 2007


Hotel restaurants often have a reputation of being soul-less places, flogging uninspired food to visitors who don't know where the better places are or are simply too tired to care. As with all stereotypes and all rules though, there are exceptions. The Malmaison hotel oozes elegance as befits its location in a large townhouse on the leafy, fenced off Charterhouse Square. There is a champagne bar where you can tuck into a platter of oysters, and a full-scale restaurant. It is a dark place, all deep reds and blacks, but this works well at creating an intimate feeling and, on quieter nights, at concealing the empty tables. There are also a few quirks to entertain the eye, such as an avangarde wine rack in a wire cage. There is good olive oil on the tables, and a complimentary wooden platter of bread, butter and flavoursome black olive tapenade appears swiftly. On weeknights there's a good value set menu for about £16 for two courses. This being a Friday night though we were presented with the rather more pricy a la carte. Uncharacteristically, I ordered the braised pork cheeks with honey and cloves (£14.95) because a) I was pretty sure I'd never tried them before, and b) they came with gratin dauphinoise, my favourite side order of all time. Judging by the size of the portion, this particular little hog had had pretty chubby face. With hindsight, I learn from the "Daily Pork" website ("exclusive pork coverage) that since cheek muscles do a lot of chewing this cut of meet is rich in fat and tastes best slow-cooked. The dish is certainly very rich, both in the braised meaty flavour and in the fat. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of fatty meat, but fortunately the husband thinks it is a delicious and agrees to a swap. I am a little sorry to wave good bye to the potatoes, which came in near little golden square islands in the sea of dark brown porkiness. But I am pleased with the exchange - delicious slices of rare lamb with sweet roasted vegetables (beetroot and squash). This was all the more exciting because it was actually mutton rather than lamb - a meat that has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence of late (thanks to Prince Charles apparently!) but which I naively thought was more suited to casseroles and stews than a light grilling. Incidentally they also do a good line of steaks.

A new touch (may be because it was a Friday night) was the wine waiter. He brought us the menu and then re-appeared a few minutes later, having swatted up on our food order and ready with suggestions. We'd already chosen though, intrigued by the idea of a red wine made with port grapes in Portugal's Douro region. It was a good discovery, rich and heavy.

Malmaison, 18-21 Charterhouse St, EC1M 6AH, ; Tel. 0207 012 3700; Tube: Barbican

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hawksmoor -Steaks'n'more

This place does steak. Man-style. No mamby-pamby fillet here (though they do say they can get you any cut you like with 48 hours' notice). And you get the impression they might not approve if you want it well done. The menu tells you that the portions are on the large side and - since the prices are as well - we decided to share a 600g slab of bone-in sirloin (26.50). It was huge - my half alone covered almost the entire plate. It was also bloody, with a strong, meaty flavour. The triple-cooked chips (3.50) in contrast came in a delicate paper cone, propped up in a cute little metal bucket thingy. More bizarre side dish options included macaroni cheese, certainly not something I've ever eaten as accompaniment to steak (never say never). The creamed greens (3.50) ticked the obligatory one-a-day veg box. And if you are that way inclined, it ticks all the organic boxes too, getting its meat from Yorkshire's Ginger Pig (don't look at their website if you get upset about eating cute animals!). There are no sauce options on the menu, but our meat fest arrived with a little jar of pepper sauce and a pot of rather good bearnaise. For the cheese fiend in me though, the absence of a blue cheese based overcoat scored some negative marks.
The house red, from California, was very nice. But then for 22, you'd bloody expect it to be. In general, the wine list seems to be pitched at the city boys who (judging by our neighbours) are tempted enough by the meat and the booze to wonder a little further away from the square mile. The place also had a great reputation for cocktails ("all lovingly made", according to the website) though we didn't try any. It was busy on a Tuesday night, the just managed to squeeze us in. The decor is functional and rather beside the point - white walls, minimalist dark tables, no table cloths, the kind of stuff you could find in many bars or casual eateries. Like I said, the point is the meat and the meat is good. But may be next time I shall see if I can do this on the expense account.

Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial Street, E1 6BJ; ; Tel. 02072477392; Tube: Liverpool Street/Old Street (or Shoreditch when that reopens)

Monday, November 12, 2007

LMNT II - Part 2

It was a dark, cold Sunday evening and, domestic-goddess-like, I was slowly stewing onions for French onion soup. Alas, I am no Nigella and (perhaps because I wasn't making suitably orgasmic noises during the cooking process) the soup burnt in a spectacular fashion. On the plus side, this meant we had to go out for dinner.

Faced with finding somewhere that was near and open on a Sunday, we decided to give LMNT II a second try. And seeing as in my first post about this place I couldn't actually remember what we ate, it probably also deserves a second review.

We sat in what, in Shakespeare pizzeria days, used to be the bar. Now, a stuffed pheasant eyes you up from the opposite side of the room, a bird cage perches on the window sill and a trumpet is stretched out along one of the dark wood pannelled walls. Of the £4.45 starters, the husband chose stuffed chicken wings with gnocchi - a sole plump wing, surrounded in a deep bowl with the little ricotta balls and topped off at the table with a delicate broth. My tomato tarte tatin featured large slabs of roasted tomatoes and nicely caramelised onions, atop a diet-friendly thin base of puff pastry. I might even try recreating this at home once I've recovered from the onion soup debacle. The mains are £10.95, of which we sampled the braised lamb neck and the coley fillet with clam sauce. The gtatin potato (£2.45) was enlivened by an orange layer of sweet potatoes in the centre and was none the worse for lacking the usual creaminess of a dauphinoise. Nice 1930s style jazz played quietly in the back ground, and sipping the rich Loxarel rose (£15.95), we almost didn't notice that we were the only diners in the place. Sure, Sunday nights are quiet round here, but I sincerely hope they get some more trade soon. Because it's a nice place, with good value food.

LMNT II, 46 Percival Street, London, EC1V OHS; Tube: Barbican;

Sunday, November 11, 2007

19 Numara Bos Cirrik - pide paradise

Of the Turkish places I have sampled along the stretch of multi-cultural Dalston, this is my favourite -- even it it's not frequented by Gilbert and George . The decor frills-free and plastic-tabled, with the attention focused on the large oven by the back wall. In there they make the house speciality, pideler, or Turkish pizzas. Mine was piled high with onions, other veg, cheese and spicy sausage. It was a little greasy but utterly more-ish. The various kebabs, served with lashings of yoghurt, were also very good. We couldn't finish them though, having feasted on houmous with warm bread and tiny black, chilly-covered olives, as well as the freebie onion salads. A bit of googling suggests one of them might have been izgara soğan (grilled onion with pomegranate and turnip sauce). We were stuffed for around £10 ahead, having washed the grub down with some beers from the off-licence next door (I think it was run by Poles, they were very excited when I bought Okocim). The restaurant is licensed though, and offers Effes beer as well as a small selection of wines. The service is quick, making this an ideal place for a pre-gig meal if you're heading to the near-by Vortex. Which, incidentally, has had a re-fit -- it now features Pizza Express style marble-topped tables, and no longer allows you to order in takeaways, but it has retained the charm, the good music, and the interesting selection of bottled beers.

19 Numara Bos Cirrik; 34 Stoke Newington Road; Dalston; N16 7XJ; Tel: 02072490400; Train: Dalston Kingsland, or buses including the 243.

Lemsip-flavoured raisins, anyone?

The other day, a friend offered me some raisins. They looked like normal, shrivelled up, dark brown raisins. But they were flavoured. In an 100% natural kind of way. With lemon. They tasted like they had been rolled around in a bag of lemsip for a few hours. And for anyone who doesn't like lemon flavoured lemsip, they also come in cherry flavour. In handy snack-sized bags.


Pham - wham, bam, sushi slam

By a rough estimate I must have walked past Pham around 1000 times over the past 5 years. But the location (until recently Whitecross street has looked more like the kind of place where you are likely to find mothers and babies in a pub at noon than a gastronomic experience) has always put me off. More recently though, I've heard a lot of high praise for this humble-looking sushi joint, both from newly discovered food blogs and from real people. The first few attempts to go there failed -- a pregnant friend couldn't face watching us gorge on raw fish which she wasn't allowed, a macho male friend was unimpressed by the idea of going anywhere that didn't serve giant slabs of beef and then last Friday when we finally made it there, they were fully booked.
So we cheated and ordered takeaway. (For the record, the decor was standard casual Japanese - close together tables, small room, a couple of Japanese prints on the wall.)

I had the sushi and sashimi combination set (15). There are 4 bits of juicy, thickly-cut sashimi of tuna and salmon. There are also six slices of the chef's special maki roll, which features avocado, tuna, crab stick and fish roe. I am not normally a fan of maki, but these are giant and gorgeous. Finally, there are four bits of nigiri, thin slices of fish atop mini-bricks of rice: tuna and salmon again, as well as sea bass. It's good. I'd even say very good. And after polishing off the lot I am well and truly stuffed, which with sushi for 15 quid is a bargain. But I guess I'm a little disappointed that the types of fish aren't more exciting.

Still, this time I definitely beat the husband who went for the house special bento box (12). The miso's good, as are the pickles and the sashimi appetiser. But the main course of sesame-seed covered pork loin is overly sweet and over cooked. (Though it's still nice enough to ensure there are no leftovers.)

Ultimately I guess that's always the danger with recommendations - it's easy to build up your expectations way too high. But we've got a copy of the menu now, and next time I will go for some more exciting things (like the "dragon" roll with eel, tobiko, asparagus and avocado.)

Pham, 159 Whitecross Street, EC1Y 8JL; Tube: Barbican or Old Street; Tel. 020 7251 6336;

Metrogusto - a new discovery

We had been to see Ratatouille at the cinema and, craving some hearty French or mediterranean fair, set off up Upper Street towards Sacre Coeur or Le Mercury. Just before reaching the former though, our attention was caught by a place that looked a bit like an art shop but actually seemed to be full of people eating food at candle-lit tables. And so, only about 5 years after it opened, we discovered Metrogusto.

Inside, the walls are decorated with dozens of large, colourful canvasses. My favourite was the giant squirrel with a manic look in his eye. The atmosphere is warm, romantic even. We ordered a bottle of prosecco (£24.50) and tucked into some delicious warm bread rolls with sun-dried tomatoes. The yeasty dough pleasantly reminded of Russian pasties, pirozhki .

(photo from another visit)

On Sundays and pre-theatre they have a good value two-course menu with two courses for £14.50. From this, the husband's grilled aubergine with pesto sauce & toasted walnut bread was luscious and earthy - comparable perhaps, we thought, to Rémy's ratatouille. My eyes (and belly) had been tempted by the a la carte, so I started with the "flat asparagus pancake with parmesan sauce" (£7.50). Perhaps foolishly I had actually envisaged a green pancake made from asparagus (I've made some lovely aubergine pancakes at home), sprinked with parmesan shavings. Instead, I got some normal asparagus tips wrapped in a pancake and smothered in a creamy balsamic sauce. It was nice, but not as nice as the grilled aubergine (plus I couldn't taste the parmesan - never a plus for a cheese fiend).

And, darn him, the husband won with the main course as well - baked chicken breast with gruyere & oregano sauce. Now here the cheese was very clearly present in all its melting gooey gorgeousness. But best of all was the chicken itself - beautifully juicy, and cooked not for a second longer than was needed to stop it from being pink.
That said, my veal ravioli with butter and sage sauce (£12.50) was also very good. Aong with chicken (so easy to overcook), I think ravioli make a good test for truly great cooking, as all to often they just taste of stuffed pasta and you can't quite tell what the stuffing actually is. Here though, I could both see and taste juicy shreds of gamey veal inside the large discounts of home-made tasting pasta.

The people at the table next to us were raving about the basil ice cream which came with their chocolate cake. But sadly we were too full to even contemplate trying this (I knew we shouldn't have had the popcorn). On the plus side though, that gives us a very good excuse to come back - and soon.

Metrogusto, 13 Theberton Street, N1 0QY; Tel. 020 7226 9400; Tube: Angel;

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

King Eddie - gastro pub Stratford style

Fate -- in the form of a very bizarre theatrical performance -- abandoned us in Stratford around dinner time. Time Out's website lists three places within a mile of the tube station. There's Nandos, Pizza Express and, amazingly, something billed as a gastro pub called King Eddies. Intrigued, we pick the pub. It is as a pub should be, with a great selection of beers, lots of aged dark wood, low beams, old-fashioned leather chairs and even a very cute courtyard space out the back. Other tables were occupied by professional-looking young couples, as well as by some single people reading books or the broadsheets. The menu, printed on a sheet of A5, sounds very promising. The blackboard specials promised an endive salad and brawn on toast. I am sorry, I know it was my reviewer's duty to have tried it. But I wanted the sirloin steak with triple-cooked thick-cut chips and béarnaise sauce (£11.50). The generous pool of sauce had a pleasant tangy flavour, and the crispy chips were perfect for mopping it up. There was also some pretty nice cabbage on the side. But the steak was tough and overcooked. I'd say it was probably bordering on "well done" when I'd asked for "rare". The husband had the tuna steak with balsamic salad and hollandaise sauce (£10.50). It finally arrived as the rest of us were finishing the steaks. The salad was very nice but the tuna again suffered from getting far too closely aquainted with the grill. It was tough and horrible - a pointless waste of good quality, expensive fish. But really, it was probably our own fault. We were fooled by the accomplished sounding menu and forgot that we were in Stratford. We should have played it safe and had the sausages and mash (£7.75). And the pub is still a lovely place to linger over some delicious beers, including a cherry-flavoured offering from Sam Smiths (£3.20), an ale-style wheat beer called Gold Blade (£3.20), Old Peculier (£2.85) and Doombar (£2.60). Here, being in Stratford is actually an advantage as you get change from £10 when buying a round for three.

King Edward VII (King Eddie), 47 Broadway, Stratford, E15 4BQ; Tel. 0208 534 2313;

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Dell - come for the views

It was a glorious, sunny Sunday, just the kind for lazing outdoors with the papers by the lake in autumn-golden Hyde Park. The Dell cafe is obviously aimed at the captive tourist market, but if you choose carefully, it ain't half bad. There are some swirly flours on one of the walls, but overall it feels like a canteen, complete with plastic chairs and brown food trays. The attraction however is clearly not the decor but the park -- visible through floor to ceiling windows as well as from the large terrace outside. Some of the food seems like a rip off: a small plastic cup of pumpkin soup and hunk of baguette for £4.50, uninspired-looking sandwiches for £4.15, a small tub of Greek salad (which most people seemed to be buying as a side dish) for £4... But the hot counter offers better value. For £7 you could get a tasty-looking salmon fillet served with piled of rice and ratatouille. Not cheap sure, but not too bad for a fully-fledged restaurant main course. I chose the goat's cheese tart (£4.50) -- a large square of puff pastry, topped with roast peppers and courgettes and crowned with a white circle of creamy cheesiness. With hindsight, I should have tried to stop the dinner lady from pouring two ladles of oil over the salad leaves, but it was still a very nice lunch. There's a good selection of beverages as well, from various modern soft drink concoctions for £2-ish (green tea and pomegranate anyone?), to wines and even bottles of London Pride (£3.50). And not a penguin bar in sight. To me, it's these tourist hot spot eateries which illustrate just how far England's culinary scene has come in the last 10, or even 5 years. Sure, it's not a destination venue. But, given the stunning destination, the venue has all the ingredients you need to while away a pleasant afternoon.

PS Hyde Park is clearly a place which attracts foodies -- they display a board of sponsors' names (who knew you could sponsor a park?), which includes a champagne house and a very posh organic supermarket.

The Dell, Hyde Park, Eastern side of Serpentine lake, W2 2UH;; Tube: Hyde Park Corner

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Eagle - worth pawning for

Another favourite which has hitherto evaded a review is The Eagle. Firstly, any pub that stars in a nursery rhyme -- and in a depraved one at that -- deserves serious kudos.
Up and down the city road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel

It all sounds innocent enough, but actually the last line is said to refer to local workers pawning their tools at the end of a working week (a weasel is apparently some kind of yarn measuring device) to fund a few rounds down the pub. Very educational.

I'm not sure many people pawn stuff to drink here these days, though it's not the cheapest place in the world. But it has plenty to recommend itself. There's a great selection of drinks, including regularly changing cask ales. Inside, lights twinkle around the dark wood bar. There's pretty wall paper and chandeliers. And best of all there is a huge (by central London standards) beer garden, with ramshackle furniture and leafy trees. During the last world cup, they found lots of old portable tellies somewhere (some black and white!) plonked one on each table in the garden. Seeing as this is a food-reviewing blog, I suppose I'd better mention that too. The menu features burgers, snacks, roasts etc -- all simple, but good stuff that you'd expect in any gastro pub these days. Last week, we sampled the salads (£8ish). Mine featured warm new potatoes, chorizo, cheese, sundried tomatoes and green leaves. It was gorgeous. The husband's Caesar salad had iceberg lettuce, generous shavings of parmesan and chunks of char-grilled chicken. Normally though I skip the salad and go for potato wedges -- either with cheddar and chorizo or with stilton. For about £3.50 you get a large plate which perfectly soaks up the beer without denting your night out budget too much.

Incidentally the other Eagle , the so-called original gastro pub on Farringdon Road, is somewhere I haven't taken to. We visited twice over the years and it always felt a bit chaotic and rushed. The menu above the open plan kitchen seemed limited (last time I had something which turned out to be not dissimilar to philadelphia on toast, which for about £6 was a bit much). But may be I am just uncouth - I'd rather pawn my wares for good old potato wedges.

The Eagle, Shepherdess Walk, City Road, N1 7LB; Tube: Old Street

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Little Bay - big food, big decor

I've been writing this blog - admittedly with varying regularity - for nearly 2 years now. So I am surprised to discover how many of my local, everyday favourites have as yet escaped being featured.
One such place is Little Bay, part of a mini chain of wackily decorated, ridiculously cheap, vaguely French restaurants. The walls are dark red, decorated with white silhouettes of mythical themes. There is a giant gold head protruding from the wall, floor to ceiling. Mesh and baubles hang off metallic chandeliers. It fells romantic, decadent and unapologetically kitsch. And if you get there before 7pm you can get a huge bowl of mussels in creamy white wine loveliness (or any other starter) for £2.25, followed by juicy duck breast with red cabbage and a hexagonal leek-filled pastry for £6.45. After 7, the starters go up to a still-very-reasonable £3.25 and the mains to £8.45.
There's a decent wine list, Budvar on tap, friendly service from young foreign-sounding waiters and utterly more-ish chips cooked in goose fat (£2.25). Last week, they provided plentiful tap water and happily refilled our free bread basket (you have to mop up every bit of those mussel juices).
As you can probably tell by now, I love the place. According to google, it's owned by a Serb called Peter Ilic, who also runs the LMNT restaurants while his wife Grace runs my other romance-on-a-budget favourite, Le Mercury on Upper Street. In checking out the Little Bay website for this review I have discovered two more cool things: they have a branch in Belgrade and the one in Battersea has live opera six nights a week.

Little Bay, 171 Farringdon Rd, EC1R 3AL; Tel. 0207 3724699; Tube: Farringdon;

Monday, October 29, 2007

The culinary ups and downs from Bristol to Devon

Apologies for the lack of posts, I've been on holiday. It was an odd kind of holiday, involving lots of cycling and *lots* of hills. But there were some recompenses too, in terms of beautiful autumnal scenery and of course in terms of food and real ale, both of which taste extra special after hours of slightly pointless physical exertions in the fresh air. So in case any of you are ever tempted to travel from Bristol to Totnes by bike (or by a more sensible means of transport), I shall give a brief summary of our discoveries.

Obviously, starting in Bristol, we had the cheesy chips and Bath ales at the Hope and Anchor . Other highlights included the very pretty village of Priddy where, having huffed and puffed up the mendips, we were very glad of a lunch stop at the Queen Victoria pub. Luckily though the rest of the way into Wells was mostly downhill. It's a small, pertty town, but seemingly without any of the rough edges which such places often get due to the local youth getting a bit bored in the evenings. We had a fabulous dinner at the The Old Spott . Another great meal was had in Exeter, looking out over the cathedral from No. 21 and exploring its very reasonably priced wine list. The low lights included Taunton (very relieved to find a branch of a national pizza chain), Bridgewater (where pub lunch choices were limited to a Wetherspoons and a Smith & Jones pub) and Cullompton (where the ale tasted of ash).

But perhaps the best thing was that I discovered cheesy chips weren't just a Hope and Anchor speciality -- they seemed to be available in pretty much every pub we stopped in. So obviously I had to sample them all... which might explain how I managed to put on weight despite doing 30-40 odd miles a day on the bike.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Life -- a funny one, with stuffed tigers

Reviews of Life haven't exactly been flattering. But when a restaurant opens within spitting distance of where I live (ok, not literally, but then I couldn't spit further than the window sill), I feel it is my duty to try it at least once. They've clearly been trying to drum up business, with people handing out fliers on the corner. To be honest though I think this might be a more successful tactic if the fliers feature some kind offfer, like 10% off or a free beer... But they seem to be doing something right as when we turned up we had to wait half an hour for a table.

On the plus side, this gave us the chance to have a nose through the small downstairs shop flogging Japanese kitsch (£80 for a t-shirt anyone?) and check out the bar. We found a tiny cubby hole of a room off to one side, piled high with large stuffed tigers and pillows and decorated, nursery-style, with some coloured boards nailed at child height to the walls. It was an odd feeling, sipping a pint of kirin while sitting a-top a stuffed tiger, but I think I quite liked it! They made us pay up for the drinks before we could go upstairs, although they did let us take back up what we hadn't yet drunk. But it seems that the two operations are oddly separate -- the draft kirin for example is only available in the bar, while diners have to make do with the bottled stuff.

We decided to go for the set menus, all of which started with a disappointingly lacklustre and tasteless salad of scalops. We hadn't been given any sauces at this stage, so couldn't spice it up with wasabi or some such. (What a waste of a luxury ingredient, we thought.) Next, the tempura and teriyaki set menus (£25 each, named after their main courses) featured some thinly cut but pretty good bits of sashimi: two of salmon, two of tuna. I went for the sushi menu (£30) as I wanted more raw fish, and my next course was a small bowl of tempura. There was an overcooked prawn, some undercooked carrots and a couple of actually rather lovely mushrooms. For mains, the terriyaki -- of both salmon and chicken -- were decent enough, and the tempura was more of the same. I was disappointed with my sushi though. I had asked the waited whether it would be maki and he assured me it would not. But it turned out that half of it was indeed made up of chunky rice rolls. They were pretty tasty, but I wanted raw fish, not avocado. And the raw fish that did come was in thin slivers atop big piles of rice -- even the cheapo all-you-can-eat Gili Guli is more generous with its slicing!
The desert, also part of the set menues, was described to us separately as pana cotta and as cheese cake. In the end it wasn't really much like either, but a pleasant enough, slightly cheesy not very sweet cake thingy.

I shall finish with the bad stuff first. Our first request for a jug of tap water yielded one shot-size glass (in the bar), and only the third request in the restaurant yielded a glass each. The staff are authentically Japanese, which is great. But they also don't speak English, which isn't quite so good. And finally the place is really very overpriced.

But there were good points. The miso soup (also part of the menu) was rather gorgeous. And the decor is funky -- a converted warehouse look, with a back wall made of what looks like parquet flooring and widely spaced out tables which made me feel a bit like we were part of some kind of art instalation or theatrical experiment. Plus the tigers in the bar give the place a wadge of bonus points. But not quite enough to tip the review into positive territory.

Life; 2-4 Old Street; Tube: Barbican or Old Street; (At the moment though isn't much use - it's alarmingly bright red and just tells you that the place is about to open. Which it did. About a month ago.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Angelus - heavenly foie

For the previous hour, the escapade to west London in search of foie gras crème brule had seemed like a very terrible idea. They shut the central line just as we got to the tube entrance, and what should have been a simple hop on the tube turned into a nightmare journey featuring three buses, a sprint along High Holborn past stationary traffic and a very uncomfortable, overcrowded one-stop on the tube. But, ensconced on a comfy dark red leather banquette and taking my first sip of quickly proffered champagne (£7.50), I knew we'd made the right decision. Angelus was just gorgeous. The tap water came in those cute little pastis bottles and was re-filled unbidden. The service was very helpful and elegant without being overly stuffy. The white walls were decorated with the most glorious mirror in an art-nouveau curvy wooden frame, and matchingly encased prints of elegant French ladies. It reminded me of a more modern, less OTT version of Julien, one of my favourite Parisian brasseries. The menu (as the lady, I was almost expecting to receive the version without prices - it was that kind of place) is actually surprisingly reasonable. Starters in the £5-10 range, and nearly all mains under the £20 mark. The long wine list, focussing on France, also featured a surprising number of bottles under £30 and some for as little as £13. We decided to experiment with a macon for £21, which was nice but not stunning. Obviously, I had the crème brule (£9). It came in a wide byt shallow plate, a circle of creamy, speckled brownness ensconced in a halo of snow-white china. There was a pleasing crack as I broke through the sweet caramel top to reveal silky smooth liver pate underneath. It was gorgeous, and almost too delicate for the accompanying brown toast. (Though it was still *just* foie gras, and if I am really honest, I was a teensy bit disappointed as I was expecting some fairy magic.) The husband's egg cocotte (£7) came in a tall martini glass crammed with wild mushrooms and luscious, orange egg gooiness. There was plenty of bread on offer from the bread basket to mop up every last bit of the juices. Next, came a pie of rabbit with foie gras and port (£18) with a decent house read (£4 a glass). Again, it looked stunning, served with a slice cut out and set slightly aside. It was also the nicest rabbit I've ever had (not quite as grand a claim as it sounds, as I've probably only had rabbit half a dozen times in my life). The dover sole (£21) was also very good, and the whole lot came with some buttery mash on the side. This review is starting to sound too sycophantic, so I shall mention that the lettuce (both with the starter and the main) was too bitter for my taste, and largely left uneaten. The cheese plate (£9) was also perhaps a little underwhelming, but by then the flavours were a little dulled by the alcohol :-)
Now all I need is another excuse for a celebration to justify a return visit to my bank balance. And it looks like we might have to make another trip out west soon to check out the new St John wannabe.

Angelus, 4 Bathurst Street, W2 2SD ; Tel. 020 7402 0083; Tube: Lancaster Gate

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Freemason - worth the wait?

It was a gloriously warm and sunny Sunday. The kind when you want to linger over a pint or two and a leisurely lunch and perhaps the Sunday papers, enjoying the sunshine outside a pub. The day was all the more precious for being in October, and therefore entirely unexpected. But while for us the weather was a pleasant surprise, left The Freemason running very short staffed -- I doubt they had banked on filling all the outside tables at this time of year, as well as all the inside ones. After eventually getting served some well-kept pints of Tiger ale (£3) by the only guy serving customers behind the bar, we got all indecisive over the short menu on a clipboard. But we needn't have hurried with our decisions -- upon going up to the bar to order we were informed that the chef was about to go into meltdown and could we please wait for 15 minutes or so before ordering. We asked for some olives and bread (£1.50) as an interim measure, which arrived as we were finishing the first round of drinks. The olives were green and juicy. But the bread was a bit bland and there was no oil for dipping, leaving us to scramble for any juices left in the tiny olives pot. Some remonstrating with the waitress eventually led to our eating order being taken and, to be fair, the food arrived not too long after that (though about an hour after we first sat down). The burger (£9.75)was a bit too well-done for my taste, though I had been warned it only came medium. The home-made aioli served with the accompanying wages was heavenly in its creamy garlic-ness. The others all went for the roast pork belly (£11.50), resplendently crackling and served with all the usual roast dinner trimmings. It was good, filling grub, and -- mellowed by the sunshine and a second round of beer -- we were prepared to forgive the slow service. But then we waited half an hour for the bill, and only succeed in receiving and paying it when we marched into the bar. The barman asked us if he was correct in assuming we did not want to have a 10 percent service charge added on. No, oddly enough we did not. But it was still a pleasant afternoon, and I hope that the service issue was indeed due to the unseasonable weather (still, surely they could've called in some reinforcements - would have been worth it for all the tips they wouldn't have lost!) rather than just to general incompetence.

The Freemason,2 Northside, Wandsworth Common; Tel. 0203268580; Rail: Clapham Common

Friday, October 12, 2007

The labelling game

I have recently made an exciting discovery. I have learnt how to label my posts. Now I can neatly categorise each eaterie by its location, style, edibility, nationality, colour scheme, window size -- anything I like really. And that's just the problem. I am torn by indecision as to which labels I should choose and how many. Are areas (eg Islington) better than postcodes (N1) or should I have both? Should I have mood indicators? But then "casual" these days that applies to pretty much everywhere. And, as someone who once had a Valentine's Day meal in a Whetherspoons, I am probably not the best person to decide on which places are "romantic". Cuisine seems straight forward enough, but then there are so many places which are just "modern European", a label I dislike. And how do I label a post about labels?? Help!

Cafe Rouge - croque-ing place

Cafe Rouge manages a passable imitation of an authentic French brasserie, from the gilded mirrors to the rubbishy service. But, as long as you don't get too adventurous, it is a reliable stand-by. The croque monsieur with smoked salmon (£6.95) is delicious and makes for a very filling lunch, though the accompanying chips usually look like they could have done with longer in the fryer. Other safe bets are the merguez baguette (£8.25) and the fougasse (a yummy French bread with caramelised onions, garlic and gruyere, £4.95). Be careful though as dishes from the plats chaud section (eg steak frites for £12.50) tend to be unimpressive and quite overpriced. The olives are good, and the drinks list is more varied than you'd expect in a place like this, ranging from citron vert presse (£2) to Leffe Blonde (£3.25). So overall, it's not a bad choice especially in areas like Canary Wharf where there isn't generally much choice and anything that's edible, reliable, affordable and actually has free tables at lunchtime is a real boon.

Cafe Rouge, branches all over including 29-35 Mackenzie Walk, Canary Wharf, E14 4PH;

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Queen Boadicea - gorgeous, at least in looks

Queen Boadicea is gorgeous. Well, perhaps not the original ruler of the Celts (according to a contemporary account, "she was very tall, the glance of her eye most fierce; her voice harsh. A great mass of the reddest hair fell down to her hips. Her appearance was terrifying"), but certainly the name-sake pub in Clerkenwell. Both inside and outside, walls are lined with those old-fashioned shiny brown tiles. There are chandeliers, antique looking tables and chairs, comfy chocolate brown leather sofas. menus chalked up inside gilded frames and striking wall paper of silvery tree stems stretching upwards out of blackness. And yet for all the grandeur it manages to retain a cosy (albeit reasonably elegant) pub feel. In line with the elegance, the short cocktail menu (2 for 1 on Tuesdays) sounds tempting. The wine menu (starting with a Chardonnay around the £13 mark) is less inspiring though, and they lose a wad of brownie points for offering only bog-standard lagers and Kronenbourg Blanc in the beer department. The food selection is also pretty limited -- nibbly things, burgers, a couple of pies, sausages and mash -- but quite well suited for a casual pub. The lamb burger (£6.50) was big, juicy and utterly delicious. Unfortunately, it was also somebody else's. My steak sandwich (£6.50) was encased in an attractive focaccia bun but the rib eye was sadly decidedly on the well done side (I'd asked for rare). It wasn't bad, but I've had much better. One of my companions extolled how the chicken and leek pie (£7.50) delicately balanced the flavours, but I thought it was pretty bland. The chips were gloriously crispy, and came with unbidden mayonnaise. But the mayonnaise was bizarrely served in the same pot as ketchup and my portion of carbs was heavily salted (unlike that of the doubly lucky lamb burger orderer). So I guess this Queen isn't going to win any battles in gastronomy. But then I think I am getting fussy in my old age. It is a beautiful pub and a a lovely place to linger. They have pub quizzes and are starting to do live music on Sunday afternoons. Still, in an area so well endowed with lovely pubs, the lack of decent beer may yet be the deciding factor in the great to return or not to return dilemma.

Queen Boadicea, 292 St. John St, EC1V 4PA; Tel. 020 72789990; Tube: Angel;

Friday, October 05, 2007

Somers Town Coffeehouse - a posh pub in disguise

Chalton Street has had a slightly up-and-coming aura for years, and so far the up has been rather slow -- although momentum could speed up with the reinvention of Kings Cross as a hub for chic French tourists rather than brash ladies (and other creatures) of the night. So far though, the upness has brought with it Somers Town Coffeehouse -- not in fact a coffee house at all but a rather posh pub. We judged that it was too cold to linger on the outside table under the trees. Inside, the space is split into a pub and a restaurant, with the bar straddled between the two. The specials are chalked up on the boards, and you can have two courses from there for about £12, or choose from the more extensive (and expensive) menu. From the set menu I chose a very generous goat's cheese tart to start, followed by wholesome calves' liver with mash (which gave yet more proof that liver gets unfairly bad press in England). All was washed down with glug-able house white and mopped up with slices of baguette. The damage came to about £20 a head, and I left very happy to have found a nice place to go to in this convenient (for meeting people who are coming into or leaving from Euston and King's Cross) but largely unlovely part of London. In that category, I would also like to mention The Doric Arch , an old-fashioned pub just outside Euston station, serving well-kept Fullers ales (1 Eversholt Street).

Somers Town Coffeehouse, 60 Chalton St, London, NW1 1HS; Tel: 020 7691 9136; Tube: Euston

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Leon - cheerful grazing

Leon is a cheerful Mediterranean influenced chain which is fast conquering London. Sadly the menus in the Spitalfields branch no longer seem to be glued into a random selection of comic books and almanacs. But the rest of the charm is still intact, with empty paint buckets turned into stools, an eccentric collection of books in the corner, warming red banquettes and twinkling tea lights. In the summer, you can sit "outside" in the indoor Spitalfields market (and bemoan how commercialised the place has become, how much better it was in the good old days and how sad it is that Spitz had to close). But on a chilly, drizzly autumn days, inside offers the perfect cosy haven for lingering over drinks (1-litre bottles of larger are £6-ish)and mezze. The portion of chargrilled chorizo (£ 4.30) came on a bed of juicy green olives, but we could have easily devoured more than the four slivces offered. Garlic flat bread (£2.50) went well with the silky houmous (£2.20)and was generously covered with fresh parsley - though for my tastes it could have done with a much bigger garlic kick. Sesame chicken wings (£3.70) and Moroccan meatballs in a tomato sauce (£3.50) were pretty good, and I particularly liked the crispy patatas bravas (£3.20). There is also plenty in the pudding menu to tempt even those, like me, without much of a sweet tooth - from the lemon and ginger crunch to the bitter chocolate tart. Yet more proof that chains can do food, drink and atmosphere very well - it's just a shame that so few bother.

Leon, Spitalfields Market, 3 Crispin Place, E1 6DW; Tel: 020 7247 4369; Tube: Liverpool Street;

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Nusa Dua

I am getting forgetful with my old age. The other day, I started a book and got about two chapters in, thinking the style was reminiscent of other works by the author before realising it was reminiscent of this particular work by the author, which I had already read. Similarly, I jumped at the chance of dining in Nusa Dua, excited by sampling Indonesian cuisine for the first time, only to remember half way though the meal that this was in fact my second acquaintance with Indonesia's food, the first having taken place in Amsterdam (where there's a large Indonesian minority). Nusa Dua is perched on a corner of Dean Street and gives off a welcoming vibe with candles flickering through the window and cheap prices winking at you from the menu. We weren't the only ones charmed as the small ground floor space was full of diners. The basement looked gloomy by comparison (what is it with restaurants in Dean Street having forlorn basements for their dining overspill?), so we chose to brave the slight chill and sit outside. As anywhere in Soho, the people watching was great. I was particularly amused to notice that the old tradition of street sellers pestering dining couples with single red roses have passed -- instead they are now armed with flashing, fluffy, pink bunny ears. (I couldn't help feeling rather sorry for any first daters out there, wondering whether the bigger faux pas would be to buy or not to buy.) We washed down our musings -- and the complimentary prawn crackers -- with quite pleasant Indonesian larger called Bintang (£2.75 a bottle). The food menu offered many Thai and Indian dishes, but we concentrated on those highlighted as Indonesian specialities. The Gai (green curry in coconut milk with Thai aubergines, green chillies and bamboo shoots) featured some tender chunks of chicken in a spicy, coconuty sauce (£5.95). The Rendang Daging (slow cooked beef in chillies and coconut milk) also had a good kick of heat, but was less successful as dish, with the beef on the tough side. Overall the service was friendly (as were the prices), and the place generally very amiable, and I would like the chance to come back and explore the menu some more.

Nusa Dua, 11-12 Dean Street, W1D 3RP; Tel. 020 7437 3559; Tube: Tottenham Court Rd;

Monday, October 01, 2007

Shanghai Blues - Notes of Class

In our search for live music eateries, we'd never previously considered Shanghai Blues. It looks a bit scary and unwelcoming, hidden inside a door-manned building on a busy road near Holborn. Plus, I'd never seen it in Time Out and the like, and thus hadn't really twigged that the "blues" bit was a reference to live music. But now, luckily, our ignorance of the place has been remedied by a Saturday night visit. This is the kind of place where you wouldn't feel at all out of place in your swirliest cocktail dress, and where the doorman will shoo you away in a pair of shorts. We had got our act together too late for a table in the restaurant, and so lounged instead on sofa-type seats in the bar. The really rather good jazz band played from a balcony above us (though you can sit on that level too, possibly with a cover charge). The cocktail list looked stunning, but £8 a pop. So we opted instead for a delicious bottle of New Zealand sauvingon blanc (at £25 this was the cheapest thing on the shortened bar wine list - though they may well be cheaper options in the extended version - but this was no vin de pays, so I didn't mind paying). It came with free nibbles of spicy nuts and prawn crackers. In a way, it was a bonus that they put the bottle in an ice bucket out of our reach, or it would have gone much more quickly! The £12 selection of dim sum dumplings from the short bar menu certainly didn't hang around. The dumplings were tender and delicious, though far too few in number to make much of a dent in my hunger. Next time we will book in advance, bring the credit card and settle in for a night of sophistication. Alternatively, this would be a great place to come for a cocktail to kick start a night out - £8 isn't so much if you only have the one, especially if you factor in the free nibbles, the free music and the glamorous setting.

Shanghai Blues, 193-197 High Holborn, WC1V 7BD; Tel: 20-7404-1668; Tube: Holborn;

Friday, September 28, 2007

Boisdale of Bishopsgate - Scotland vs The City

The gents was located neatly between the bar and the restaurant. For the ladies, you had to go through the bar, down a corridor, round a corner.... Inside the cubicle, there was tartan carpet and a framed share of some long-gone mining company on the wall. Never have I been to a place that was so perfectly summer up by its toilets! Boisdale is in City land, full of suits, and looks like it's been around for far longer than women have been wearing pinstripes. It is also a Scottish restaurant, serving a ming-boggling array of whiskies and plates of haggis to line the stomach. We sat in the downstairs bar on a Monday night, watching it gradually fill with after-work drinkers and networkers, and listening to a rather good piano player and accompanying singer performing Sinatra-style oldies. The draught Bombadier was beautifully kept, though at £3.30 it probably qualifies as my most expensive pint of ale ever. From the bar menu, I opted for a hearty Scotch Rarebit with bacon (£5.65). The gravadlax (£5.65) was pretty generously portioned, but sadly overwhelmed by a cloying mustardy sauce. No bread rolls materialised, and our bread plates were whipped away unused before the main course. The haggis, with the obligatory neeps and tatties, (£12.15) was OK, though I found the utter membrane too thick and not very edible. The venison burger (£10.50) with a beetroot garnish and chips was again perfectly edible. At the high end, the menu offered steaks from £20-plus. All in all, unless you have a city pay packet, you'd probably be much happier with the taste yield on your investment if you wondered down the road to Spitalfields for food. But the service is charming, the setting is surprisingly intimate despite the suits, and there is no cover charge for the nightly live music (from about 6.30 pm). So I may well be sipping more £3.30 Bombardier in the future.

Boisdale of Bishopsgate, Swedeland Court, 202 Bishopsgate, EC2M 2NR; Tel. 0207 283 1763; Tube: Liverpool Street

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pierre Victoire - Faded charm in Soho

Back when we were new to London, we spent many a happy evening dawdling in Soho's labyrinth. But job locations moved and the penchant for late nights was all but extinguished by the reality of early mornings at the coal face. Our visits to Soho grew much less frequent, though for that perhaps all the more cherished. Most recently, bewildered by all the new places springing up on every corner, we decided to revisit an old favourite. Pierre Victoire captures the gallic romance with dark wooden tables, dripping candles and a slightly shaby yet cosy atmosphere. The place is at it's best when there is someone tinkering on the battered old piano by the door and you get their early enough to grab a seat in the ground floor room (avoid the dull, windowless cellar) and to catch the bargainous pre-theatre menu (about £9 for 2 courses). We got there late, which meant there were seats, but no music and no cheap menu. The house red (£10.90) was pretty ropey, but was infinitely improved by the accompaniment of smooth, home-made houmous (£2.90) and a basket of warm baguette slices. My duck breast (£12.90) with green peppercorn sauce and dauphinoise potatoes was pretty good, much as you would expect from your average French brasserie. But the husband's ribe-eye steak proved a disappointment - the accompanying sauce was hopelessly bland with little trace of the promised pepper and blue cheese, while the meat itself was a bit stringy. All in all, the charm seems to have faded somewhat (though may be we have just become more fussy), but I'd say this place is still well worth a visit if you get there early enough for the pre-theatre bargains.

Pierre Victoire, 5 Dean Street, W1D 3RQ; Tel. 02072874582; Tube. Tottenham Court Rd

Monday, September 17, 2007

Inc Brasserie: O2-O-K

I missed the spider's previous incarnations as a gigantic night club and then as an interactive science space. Its latest metamorphosis reminds me of a newer, shinier, trendier, more upmarket version of those out of town centres where acres and acres of car parking spaces were bordered by a cinema, a pizza place, a bowling alley and may be some improbably large electrical goods shops. This version features most examples of chain eateries and drinkeries of the slightly-nicer-than-you-might-expect-from-a-chain variety. They have a captive audience in the form of people visiting the multi-screen cinema and the two concert stages, one of them of Wembley-esque proportions. Consequently, this is the only place where I have seen a long queue snaking out of the Pizza Express door at 6pm on a Sunday night.

We resisted the temptation to join in and instead opted for a queue-less dinner at the near-by Inc Brasserie. The menu - printed as a paper place mat - was surprisingly pared back. All the savoury food was listed in column under "nos plats", though this also included the only 3 options for starters - bread and olives (£3), pate (£5) or a meat plate (£11). Main course selection (most just shy of the £10 mark) was bog standard - fishcakes, Caesar salad... The only authentically French thing about the place was the waiter, who paced disconcertingly up and down the narrow passageway next to our table. Still, my steak sandwich (£9) featured some nicely pink meat and well caramelised onions, as well as cheese --alas an ingredient that's all too often omitted from this dish. The burger (£10) came topped with an authentic French cornichon, though it then let down the side by having less pleasant slices of gherkin inside. The accompanying salad leaves were nicely dressed and the chips were ok. The house red (£12), however, was pretty undrinkable. And with no cheese course on offer (you call yourself a French brasserie??!), we felt little temptation to linger over people-watching at our salad-green metal patio table. Still, the prices weren't bad and neither was the food, making this potentially one of the better options in the O2.

Inc Brasserie, The O2, Peninsula Square, SE10 0DX; Tube: North Grenwich

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Fish! has a rather enviable location, nestling under the arches of Borough market, in the shadow of Southwark cathedral. We took advantage of the fading summer and the outdoor heaters, opting for an al fresco dinner. The menu consists of half a dozen or so starters (£5-12) and mains (£9-18), as well as a list of market-fresh fish which you can have with your choice of sauce and side dish. There is also a sweet little note about the doubling of potato prices in the past few months, which has forced them to hike up the prices of the humble chip (£2.95 for a pretty generous bowl). The (breadless) smoked haddock rarebit melted in the mouth, with the rich cheesiness enveloping the fish and the slices of meaty tomato cutting through the richness. They charge for bread (£1.95), but you need it to mop up all that cheesy goodness! The salad of baby octopus with borlotti beans was abuzz with fresh, light flavours (even if the sea creatures were a rather alarming pink colour). A bottle of prosecco went down rather nicely with the starters, and the house white (£14) was perfectly OK with the mains. Of these, the swordfish club sandwich (£11.95, with chips) would present a challenge even to the most wide-mouthed gourmets. Jaw awake aside though, it was delicious - I am not sure I can ever stoop to the traditional ham-and-chicken variety again. The large fishcake (£10.95) sat on pile of spinach, perfectly balanced with a pool of hollandaise (great for dipping those chips). The tuna burger (£10.95 with chips) was also wolfed down with aplomb. You do pay for the location, but I think the food lives up to the prices. So all in all, I think we can forgive the silly exclamation mark in the name and plot a return visit.

Fish!, Cathedral Street, Borough Market, SE1 9AL; Tel. Tel: 020 7407 3803; Tube: London Bridge;

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Larder - Good enough too last?

What with Wagamama vouchers in Time Out, the tastelondon card in my wallet and toptable high in my list of internet favourites, opportunities for discounted noshing are plentiful. The downside is that when I do end up going somewhere full price, the experience is always slightly tarnished by that slightly ripped off feeling. This was certainly true of the Loft - a new bar/bakery/eaterie on St John Street whose list of main courses starts with the crisp pork belly for a hefty £17.50. The place is all wooden tables and tea lights, with freshly made bread at a counter in the back (judging by the olive offering I picked from the bread basket, the doughy stuff is nice, but nothing overly special). The service was very friendly, voluntarily topping up the tap water (from a rather beautiful glass jug), bringing an after-thought order of crispy thick cut chips in a couple of minutes, apologising profusely for having run out of mayonnaise. In the interest of frugality we stuck to main courses. The aforementioned pork-belly was indeed very crisp, and melt in the mouth tender. It was gleefully lapped up by its orderer, though I thought the Chinese-y sauce was overpowering. The salmon was also nicely done and apparently the ravioli with which it came was delicious (and wolfed down before I got the chance to sample any - humph). My wild mushroom pancake with three different types of cheese was pretty much the cheapest thing on the menu at £9.50. It was plumply stuffed with a great selection of forest fungi, but their delicate flavours were sadly drowned in a cheese sauce that tasted strongly of unadvertised mustard. The sauce went very well with the chips though. Add a beer each from a list which pleasingly features a couple of bottled ales (£4.50) and London Pride on tap (£3.50), and the bill for the three of us weighed in at £65. A bit much, I thought, for one course and a drink in a casual place. Perhaps this fact, combined with the abundance of other eateries in the area (some of them truly outstanding) explained why only about four other tables were occupied. It was a Tuesday night, but we couldn't help wondering whether the Larder would survive on Clerkenwell's fickle restaurant scene. So we resolved to return - as long as there is a special offer or someone else offers to foot the bill, of course.

The Larder, 91-93 St. John St, EC1M 4NU; Tel. 020 76081558; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

The Clerkenwell Kitchen - irritatingly nice

The most annoying thing about Clerkenwell Kitchen is that it is only open during the day, and then only on weekdays. Which means a return visit any time soon is pretty unlikely - a shame. It is a light airy space round the corner from Clerkenwell green, somewhere that local artisans should feel at home. There's even a garden at the back. The short daily-changing menu is chalked up on the board, while the printed drinks list features lots of yumminess from Grenwich Meantime wheat beer to fresh apple and rhubarb juice. We sampled chicken breast with salad and new potatoes and spicy Spanish sausages on char-grilled bread. It's what you might call "rustic" food - simple, flavoursome. A little expensive perhaps (around the £10 mark, with portions on the moderate side), but good. It's just a shame it is hopelessly too far from my work, so I can't pop in for a sandwich when I need a lunchtime treat. If only it were open at weekends it would also be the kind of place you want to linger over the Sunday papers with a coffee or a bloody Mary.

The Clerkenwell Kitchen, 31 Clerkenwell Close,EC1R 0AT; Tel. 0207 101 9959 (they are popular and you might do well to book); Tube: Farringdon;

Friday, July 27, 2007

Frederick's - Diet-breaking amid Islington antiques

With an old-fashioned sign and an unassuming window revealing a darkened bar, Frederick’s is well camouflaged among the antique shops on a tiny Islington side street. So much so in fact, that we'd almost forgotten it existed and returned for the second time only this week - years after our first visit. Past the dark bar, you find yourself in an airy, conservatory-like dining room, with glass ceiling and white walls decorated with giant, brightly-coloured abstract canvases. The staff are numerous and friendly, but subjected to that irritating hierarchy where you ask one for something only for them to scuttle off in search of a colleague qualified to fulfil your request (eg take the order). The menu offers about a dozen choices of starters, in the slightly luxurious vein of modern European dining. My warm slab of foie gras was silky smooth gluttony on a plate. The mushroom tart with poached egg and hollandaise featured a good pile of flavoursome wild mushrooms, though to my taste they could have been a bit more generous with the sauce. The plate of scallops featured three juicy examples of the species, sat in their shells on a bed of potatoes - each with its own morsels of accompaniments: mushrooms, leeks and spinach. The carpaccio of beef was also good, and the dressing on the accompanying salad got particular praise from its eater. For mains, we succumbed to the day's special - a melt-in-the-mouth two-person portion of chateaubriand, with skinny crispy chips, home-made mayonnaise, béarnaise sauce and spinach. The diet will have to wait for another day, but it was well worth it! The other special, an open whole lobster, tasted as good as it looked. Personally I am not a big fan of fennel, so wasn't that keen on the wild halibut which included it, but the others liked it well enough. The beer selection was pretty good for a restaurant, including Leffe and various European lagers. From the wine list, both the sancerre and the house red got big thumbs up. Next time we will linger a bit longer, may be squeezing in a desert (I was sorely tempted to re-live childhood treats with a banana split!) and sampling some of the ports....

Frederick’s, 106 Camden Passage, Islington, N1 8EG; Tube: Angell; Tel: 020 7359 2888

Japan Centre - Happy Eel Day!

Day before yesterday was Eel Day in Japan -- the hottest day of the year when you are supposed to eat lots of yummy eel to cool down. We were in London, where it certainly wasn't the hottest day (even for this poor excuse of a summer), but having missed celebrating Ocean Day a few weeks earlier Eel Day seemed like the perfect excuse for a celebration. And also the perfect excuse to sample the restaurant in the Japan Centre on Piccadilly, which comes highly recommended by London's Japanese restaurants. It's a simple place, with a small sushi counter and then area with normal tables. Sparse decor included a row of decorative sake bottles and a cute blackboard sign telling us that the restaurant though of the customers as of its own children. The menu offers a wide range of Japanese dishes, but with the day in mind, we went for eel "don" (£15ish )- a bowl of rice and spring onions, topped with the most tender, slightly sweet and cameralised looking piece of eel and served with miso soup. Add a couple of cans of Japanese beer (£3 ish) and it made for a delicious, if fairly low key dinner. I now want to come back and sample more of their offerings. Not to mention check out the Japanese house wares shop upstairs.

Japan Centre, 212 Piccadilly, W1J 9HX; Tube: Picadilly

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Le Quecumbar - 1930s France comes to Battersea

It is a testament to Quecumbar's wonderfulness that I am eagerly planning a return trip despite its no-tap-water policy, a decidedly surly owner and a miles-away location. It's an hour long journey, culminating in a longish trek from Clapham Junction (my companion declined to break the walk with an aperitif under the wonky Foster's umbrellas of the Battersea Labour Club). So we are very relived to see a cheery green musical frog swinging from the board above the door. A bright red Quecumbar-branded minibus is parked outside, decorated with musicians' signatures. Inside, we are transported to the glamour of 1930s jazz era. Lights twinkle on green plants which line the stage. The walls are decorated with small pictures and an old clock sets the tone for another era. We start with prosecco (£13, on the drinks specials board) in the lovely back garden (featuring, among other things, a bird house shaped like a hat). Dulcet tones of a guitar lure us back in after a while and we pick food from the sole menu, chalked up on a large blackboard and propped up next to whichever table is ordering. There about eight choices each of mains and starters and I am struck by how used we have become to lengthy descriptions and adjectives. Much as I prickle at Jamie Oliver's "pukka" this and "fantastic" that, I am somewhat a loss when faced with such simple choices as "beef burgers" or "chicken in a creamy sauce". But it fits the menu nicely - it's about good wholesome food, with a French slant and no frills.
My companion's frog's legs are some of the juiciest and least greasy I've ever tasted. My deep fried camembert comes in generous chunks of glorious gooey-ness, nicely balanced by cranberry jam and a crisp salad. For the mains we order a bottle of chilled Burgundy (£16) - this is a place to linger. All the while, a guitarist and a masterful violinist play jazzy tunes. It's beautiful, and the room is quite enough to hear each note. But it's also relaxed, with guests free to indulge in quiet chatter. The boeuf bourgignon (£10)came in a deceptively small pot which ended being too generous for me to finish. The meat was tender (though a bit gristly), and I enjoyed dunking bread into the herby red wine sauce.

My companion opted for the crocodile burgers (£11) - these were juicy patties of white meat (not unlike chicken, to resort to an old cliche, but more flavoursome), served sans bun, but with salad and a few crispy potato wedges. Thoughts of the long trip home and of work the next day dragged us reluctantly homeward about 11pm. Next time we're resolved to try the Tuesday jam session. All in all, it's a lovely place for a romantic night or with a small group of jazz-lovers. Just beware of the £5 cover charge after 8pm and of the £4.50 bottled water (but they are part of the tastelondon scheme, so you can offset the water damage if you are a member). As for the owner, she may have just been having a bad day - some of the other reviews rave about how nice the staff are.

Le Quecumbar, 42-44 Battersea High Street, SW11 3HX; Tel. 020 7787 2227 after 6pm; Rail: Clapham Junction;