Thursday, April 26, 2007


The West End is full of very mediocre, tourist-trap eateries -- but scattered among them is a surprising number of real gems. Mela is a breath of fresh air after the curry houses on Brick Lane: there is not a whiff of chicken tikka masala or vindaloo. Instead, from an extensive and unusual menu we chose a dish of soft-shell crab from Hyderabad (£14.95) and a whole sea bream steamed in a banana leaf with a delicate paste of spices (£11.95). The crab was very tender, and I lapped up all of the only very moderately spicy sauce, revelling in the flavours of coconut, coriander, garlic and tamarind. The sea bream was a pain to bone (I'm not a fan of working hard for my food!), but the delicate taste of the fish -- and the accompanying green paste of mint and coconut -- made the hassle worthwhile. The cumin rice was a bit strong on the cumin for an accompaniment (serves us right for ordering it!), but the 'pudina paratha', a crispy wheat bread flavoured with a generous sprinkling of fresh mint (£2.50) was a much nicer alternative to a greasy naan. The 'arhar dal kairi ki' (£4.95) was a delicious bowl of buttery lentils, although I could not taste the raw mango promised on the menu. The drinks menu has a decent selection of wines and cocktails, but we stuck to Indian beers. The service was friendly and attentive. The decor was quite simple, but with nice touches -- the plates feature a motif of a big fair ground wheel, and there is a meccano model of one balanced above the staircase. We're definitely coming back, to try more of their interesting dishes.

Mela, 152-156 Shaftesbury Avenue,WC2H 8HL; Tel. 020 7836 8635 ; Tube: Leicester Sq;

Friday, April 13, 2007

Le Garrick

Le Garrick is a lovely pre-theatre spot, offering traditional French style meals in a romantic (if slightly squashed) setting which is pleasing enough for a longer linger if there isn't a curtain to rush off for. The £11.95 two-course pre-theatre menu (pate or soup followed by steak- or moules-frites) offers good value, and the a-la carte is also reasonable, with most mains around the £10 mark. We started with a fondue of vacherin with white wine and herbs - a gloriously gooey pool of cheese served in one of those vaguely wooden round boxes in which they sometimes sell camembert (£12.50 for two to share). The waitress was surprised at how quickly we slurped it all up with slices of French bread. For mains, we polished off a confit de canard (£12.95) and an onglet steak (£9.95). The steak was OK, though it could have been a bit more pink (in a French restaurant, when I ask for rare I expect it to be *rare*) and the serving of pepper sauce could have been a bit more generous. But the thin chips were crispy, the mayonnaise fresh and overall it was all pretty good. The biggest downer of the meal was discovering that the gorgeous but rarely seen in England French Pelforth brun beer advertised on the menu was no longer on offer. The £12.75 bottle of house red (specially bottled in France for Le Garrick, the label informed us) was reluctantly ordered instead -- it was drinkable (and drunk) but unremarkable. With Pelforth, it would have been damn near perfect, but even without I will come back for more vacherin....

Le Garrick, 10 Garrick Street, WC2 9BH, Tel. 0207 2407 649; Tube: Leicester Square

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Narrow

Gordon Ramsay has picked a great location for his first venture into the world of gastro pubs. The Narrow is bordered by water on two sides, with plenty of outdoor tables from which to watch boats zipping along the Thames or queuing up to moor in the Limehouse Basin. Inside, it is very much a modern pub, buzzing with well dressed office workers from near-by Canary Wharf. The beer selection is impressive, including a good selection from the Meantime brewery just down the river at Greenwich. The wine list is reasonable, with plenty of options under £20. You can pad your stomach with some bar snacks (we overheard a man explaining to his dainty looking non-English date what pork scratching are...). Or you can opt for a full meal in a side dining room -- assuming you've booked first. The menu is split into starters, "on toast", and mains, mostly in the classical vein of British cookery that is enjoying a popularity revival. My potted crab was lovely, generously portioned and not too heavy on the butter. My partner's "on toast" features three plump sardines. For his main, he went with the exciting pig's cheeks (the ones from the face) with mashed turnips. I had the "Welsh rabbit" (apparently that's the traditional spelling). It was quite small, but the waiter had warned me about that when I said I'd have it instead of a main course. It was also quite nice. But not nearly as nice as the one I'd had in St John a few weeks ago. The Narrow invites the comparison with a similar style of food, but unfortunately it doesn't quite come up to the extremely high mark set by St John. The prices are very reasonable, even without taking into account the Ramsay name on the menu. The food is nice, and promises to change frequently. And I probably will be back -- if only to enjoy the view over a few drinks. But I couldn't help leaving The Narrow a bit disappointed.

The Narrow, 44 Narrow Street, London E14 8DP; Tel 0207 592 7950;; DLR: Limehouse

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Cafe Creperie

This tiny room en-route from the South Ken tube station to the museums along Exhibition Road is always bustling, with hungry queues often stretching outside even in the colder months. We were lucky, getting there just before the lunchtime rush and grabbing the last free table. The menu features every kind of crepe feeling you could imagine -- sweet or savoury. There is even a cheese-free, vegetable filled version for dieters, although for me that would rather defeat the point of a crepe-fest. We sampled mushroom, garlic, cheese and extra egg (£6.35), cheese, garlic and spinach (£5.95) and tartiflette (£7.50) -- all gorgeous. The Kerisac Breton cider (£7.50 for 75cl bottle), served in small pottery cups, completed the French experience. The pancakes are made in an open kitchen, somehow squeezed into the corner of the tiny room. French ad posters add some casual decoration, and one wall is covered in beautiful tiles unearthed when the place was first opened. The place is perfect for lunch pre or post a dose of culture.

Cafe Creperie, 2 Exhibition Road, SW7 2HF;, Tube: South Kensington

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The window, draped in metallic strands of a fringe-style curtain, stands out on an unlovely road within spitting distance of Paddington station. Inside, cushions and shisha pipes transport you into middle East. There are good value set menu options at lunchtime and an a la carte after 5pm. We plumped for a selection of mezze: hummus (£4.50), tabbuleh (£4.25), lamb and pine nut pastries (£4.25) and lamby, lemony Lebanese sausages called maqaneq (£4.75), all mopped up with a selection of breads from the £1.25 a head cover charge. It was nice enough grazing, but did not really stand out from other similar meals in other (and often cheaper) venues across London. The experience was not improved by a waitress who for some reason refused to answer the constantly ringing telephone. So definitely not a destination restaurant, but a decent enough pit stop if you happen to be in the area.

Levantine, 26 London St, W2 1HH; Tel 0207 262 1111; Tube: Paddington;

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Norfolk Arms

Who would've thought that a lick of cream-coloured paint could make such a big difference? The Brunswick centre has morphed, almost overnight, from a dump, to a shiny, trendy, desirable hotspot. The area around the centre also seems to be basking in new energy, with lots of lovely looking pubs. The Norfolk Arms has tables on the street for the sun-lovers who are brave enough to withstand the spring chills. Inside there is a cosy, European feel. The tables, chairs, floor and wall are all roughly coloured in creams and whites. The wine comes in glass tumblers and there are yummy-looking sausages hung behind the bar. We started with 1/2 pints of juicy prawns served with delightfully yellow home-made mayonnaise for dunking. The main course (chosen from the £10 set menu as part of a token-collect offer in the Times) was lentil and squid stew - a hearty bowl of puy lentils, blackened further with squid ink and sprinkled with bits of squid. My one complaint was that it would have tasted even better with the addition of some juicy chorizo. Tapas plates carried past us to other tables looked pretty good too and we needed a big dose of will power to resist ordering more wine (a very quaffable rose for £14) and a plate of charcuterie "for dessert". This is the sort of place you could easily linger in on lost afternoons.

Norfolk Arms, 28 Leigh Street, WC1H 9EP;; Tube: Russell Square