Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Princess

The area around Hoxton Square is full of yummy places to eat. But the Princess gastro pub just off Great Eastern Street doesn't seem to suffer from the plethora of alternatives -- both the bar and the upstairs dining room were full on our Thursday night visit. The small pub is cosy and informal, with well-worn wooden tables and Tim Taylor as well as London Pride on tap. The daily specials chalked up on the board included BLT, seafood pasta, risotto and merguez sausages with cous cous -- all good, tasty-sounding and filling stuff at around £8 a plate. But one of my dining partners was feeling fussy, refusing to be tempted by such pedestrian food and ushring us up the metal spiral stair case into the restaurant. This is a much more formal affair, with crisp white table cloths and beautiful patterned wall paper on the back wall (whose leitmotiv reappears on the menu). We bypassed the pricey long and pricey wine list -- the front page is all above £20, though I did find something towards the back around the £16 mark -- in favour of well-kept pints of the ale. My cinnamon chicken breast was juicy, further moistened by a filling of feta and a grilled lemon and accompanied by beautiful shavings of courgette and pine nuts. The vegetarian dish (slow cooked wild mushrooms with parmesan on a pool of polenta) was surprisingly nice, somehow transferring polenta into something actually quite edible. The confit of duck was also good, though a bit dry for my taste. The portions were decent enough to satisfy our appetites without the need of more than one side order (garlic green beans, £3.95) -- just as well considering each plateful came in at around the £14 mark. All in all, a lovely pub, but the more pricey and elegant restaurant is probably best saved for a special occasion when you are willing to dent your credit card a bit more.

The Princess; 76 Paul Street, EC2A 4NE; Tel: 020 7729 9270; Tube: Old Street

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Brian Turner Mayfair,

The walk through Mayfair, past boutiques sparsely sprinkled with eye-wateringly expensive wares, and then along the leafy, embassy filled Grosvenor Square sets the mood for the posh dining experience that's offered at Brian Turner's eponymous restaurant in the Millennium Hotel. The staff though were much more genial than one usually expects in such places, joking with us and helping to make the meal (a hen night) a more memorable occasion. (That didn't stop them constantly topping up the drinks though in a bid to get us to buy more of the £3.95 bottled water!) We chose from the £28.50-for-3-courses-and-a-glass-of-fizz menu, thanks to a special offer on toptable . There were three options for each course, as well as an amuse bouche of crab and sweet corn fritter, which got a universal thumbs up (though IMHO it would have been much better sans sweet corn -- who needs vegetables?!). My foie gras starter was creamy and rich, and went beautifully with the roll of buttery brioche. The gilt headed bream main course was a generous, well-cooked portion atop a pile of filling risotto with squid rings. It was tough finding the room for pudding, and to my mind the plate of three British cheeses was by far the least inspiring part of the meal. With coffee and champagne (well, it was a special occasion), my share of the bill came to £60 -- not too bad for a special treat, which this definitely felt like. But I dread to think how much it would have come to at a la carte prices!

Brian Turner Mayfair, Millennium Hotel London Mayfair, Grosvenor Square, W1K 2HP; Tel: 020 7596 3444 ; ; Tube: Bond Street

Monday, June 25, 2007


Clerkenwell is full of Italian eateries (not surprising for an area that was once dubbed "Little Italy"), the vast majority of which seem to showcase depressing mediocrity (which is surprising). Like the rest of them, Venezia is unlikely to win any Michelin stars, and I've never seen it mentioned in guidebooks or newspaper reviews. But that doesn't stop it from being a rate gem, a five-star local Italian. It's the kind of place where the owner recognises and welcomes you, and many of the diners are regulars. The pasta dishes are tasty and comforting, and for those on a budget the £8.95 two course set menu (including coffee) is a good bet. But for our money (about £16 of it), nothing beats the tender, beautifully rare fillet steak, smothered in dolcelatte cheese sauce -- perfectly accompanied by crispy saute potatoes and, for a token dose of health, spinach (side orders are around £2.50 each).

If you are hungry, start with the best bruschetta we've tasted - two generous slices of bread, piled high with fresh, olive-oil infused tomatoes (£2.95, the picture above is of half the portion, the husband being too hungry to wait for his share to be captured for posterity). Order the house wine (at £10ish, it is unspectacular, but goes well with food) and your steak feast could come in under £60 for two. It's perfect for those (Friday) nights when you are too tired to go out properly, but also too tired to cook and in need of a treat. It's also the kind of place where you'd be made very welcome on your own.

Venezia, 3-5 Goswell Road, London, EC1M 7AH; Tel. 020 7490 1715; Tube: Barbican

Friday, June 22, 2007

Taste London

Why visit one restaurant at a time, when you can skip around 40 of them in one evening?
Such is the proposition of this year's Taste London festival which has taken over a sizeable chunk of Regent's Park until Sunday. The £35 tickets include £20 worth of "crowns" which you can exchange for glasses of bubbly or paper plates of delicacies served to you by top chefs like Gary Rhodes or Angela Hartnet.

There was a decent haul of freebies to keep us amused as we wondered round the dozens of white tents (I suppose the restaurant equivalent is amuse bouche): pink flip flops, a green plastic piggy bank, three loaves of different types of bread made with honey, three innocent smoothies (won at their village fete by pinning the tail to the monkey - and to the drinks cabinet), glasses of a rather nice Scottish drink that is trying to muscle in on the Pimms market, lots of bite-sized chunks of cheeses and cakes and thimble-sized tasters of beers, wines and ports.

Add to that booty what we managed to purchase for out crowns and we left the festival at kicking out time - tipsy and quite full.

The food though was a bit of a disappointment.
Of the 40 or so restaurants showcasing their signature dishes, I concentrated on the ones which we had not visited and which also had a famous chef and/or rave reviews. It was perhaps not a fair trial, as cooking for thousands of festival goers in make shift kitchens and serving on paper plates with plastic cutlery is not what these guys are trying to do. So it was the simple dishes that worked best.

The highlight for my companion were "oysters with Peter Gott's spiced wild boar sausage" from city institution Scotts. The juicy oysters went surprsingly well with the small, punchy sausages.

Eton Mess from what was the Conran empire was another simple but well executed dish designed to appeal to city tastes and peppered with very good strawberries.

The "grilled organic salmon with summer herbs and lemon" from The National Dining Rooms was beautifully cooked and delicately flavoured, though we left the (bulgur wheat?) salad.

But the more adventurous marinated tuna from The Greenhouse, although beautifully rare, was utterly overpowered by a vinegary salad dressing, capers and anchovies.

Rhodes 24's "white tomato soup" did what it said on the (proverbial) tin, and was nicely creamy and warming in the early evening chill. But as my companion pointed out, it was not radically different (apart from the whiteness) from the stuff that comes out of real tins.

The "balotine of foie gras, chicken and celeriac with truffle mayonnaise" from Galvin at Windows was rather bland, with a stingy chicken to foie gras ratio -- but may be it tastes better when enjoying the view from the Park Lane Hilton restaurant.

Refettorio's "duck ravioli with orange and duck jus" sounded interesting, but the sweet jus and orange peel shavings overpowered the duck, which was probably already struggling to make itself heard from within the large pasta circles.

So there were duds. But with a glass of champagne, it's not a bad way to enjoy a balmy evening, and not bad value either.

Taste London Festival 2007;; Tube: Regents Park (now reopened) or Great Portland Street -- the two stations nearest to the actual festival entrance

Friday, June 15, 2007


Another week, another not entirely perfect live music/dining venue. Octave is hidden on the back streets around Covent Garden. Inside, it's quite dark. Some of the wooden tables are laid for food, with stiff white napkins and solitary red flowers glass vases. But many are unadorned, for those who just want a cocktail or several. The menu is not cheap. Our bottle of Australian pinot gris was nice but unremarkable at £21.50. The dinner options come on one list, with starters around the £8 mark and mains £14-20. Add on a £5 per person cover charge for the music, and it's clear this won't be a cheap night. But the food's pretty good. The fried chorizo came on a bed of sweet potato which my companion pronounced to be the best he's ever tried. The chunky chips with goats' cheese (£4.95, from the bar snacks menu) were lovely and clearly home made and a nice take on the old chips-n-cheese combo. The rib eye was tender and nicely rare, and I didn't even miss the absence of peppercorn sauce (which wasn't on offer). It came with crispy herbed potatoes, and we were glad of the waitress's recommendation to order something green - the rocket and parmesan salad contrasted nicely. The service is swift, friendly and competent. So far, the place wins hands down over Volupte (reviewed earlier). But the music was a bit of a let down. The three-piece jazz band was ok, but nothing special. Which was just as well as no one seemed to stop talking when they started to play. I am not a fan of the hush-hush atmosphere of places like Ronnie Scotts, but when several large group tables are talking over the music at full volume, you wonder why they'd bothered to come to a music venue and pay the cover charge in the first place. Still, it was a nice night, which ended sweetly as there was no mention of the advertised cover charge on our bill. We might well come back on a Monday or Tuesday when they do a £15 set menu.

Octave, 27-29 Endell Street, WC2H 9BA; T. 020 7836 4616; Tube: Covent Garden;

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Coq d'Argent

Coq d'Argent is a surreal place, accessed through a moderately grubby shopping centre/tube station combo. But the lift is flanked by two pretty ladies with clip-boards - a sign that you are about to step into a different world. A world of an orderly roof garden, full of suits drinking overpriced mineral water (£3.75 a bottle) amid the city roof tops. Alas, there was no room outside, so we settled next to a window opened out onto the roof garden. The set menu offers two courses for £24, three for £28 - not bad considering you are in the city. Otherwise starters are around £10 and mains a bit under £20. My starter of cold Vichissoise soup with truffles was a lovely bowl of creaminess. Luckily it was not the kind of soup that needs bread, for the one measly bread roll was very unremarkable and no refill was forthcoming. The disadvantage of work lunches is that you can't pinch everyone else's food, so I have to rely on sight. The fois gras on (savoury) ginger bread looked lovely, although its eater said it was bit too rich. The smoked salmon looked unimpressive, topped with a solitary roughly shaped blini - at these prices I was glad I had opted for something more unusual. The main of sea bass on a bad of beans and capers was nice, though modestly sized. The chicken supreme from the a la carte looked more generous, wrapped in pieces of ham and surrounded by mushrooms in a creamy sauce. Unusually for a city venue, the service was slow - it took us about two hours to get through the two courses and coffee (£3, alas with not even a sliver of an after eight). Overall, it was quite nice, and worth a visit for the views. But other than that, there was little to mark it out from its numerous suit-filled rivals in the gilded square mile.

Coq d'Argent, No. 1 Poultry, EC2R 8EJ; Tel. EC2R 8EJ; Tube: Bank;

Monday, June 11, 2007

The Duke of Cambridge

Hidden in Islington side streets, The Duke of Cambridge was one of the original gastro pubs, and probably the first to devote itself entirely to all things organic. The first time we visited, some 5 or even 6 years ago, the concept was still quite novel (at least to us). The food was nice enough as was decor with plain wooden tables that are now firmly associated with such establishments. But we very found it pricey and had not felt any great urge to go back. The other night we stumbled across it again, by accident, and I was keen to give it another go. Perhaps we were more anesthetised to London prices and the way of pretentious gastro pubs? Yes and no. The prices did not make us balk, but (for example) £14 for a moderately sized portion of lasagne with some salad leaves on the side still seems over the top. Some of the food is on the hippy side, so you may well not find much on the menu that appeals. We shared tapas sized plates of chorizo and tortilla slices (around £3 each) and a not hugely inspiring platter of three cheeses - cheddar, an under-ripe brie and a Shropshire blue (£8). The organic bitters (from a selection!) washed it down nicely, the place was cosy enough and the food was nice enough. But I stand by my initial assessment and it will probably be quite a few years before stumble across this pub again.

The Duke of Cambridge, 30 St Peter's Street, N1 8 JT; Tel. 020 8986 5384; Tube: Angel;

Friday, June 08, 2007


*** UPDATE, OCTOBER 2011 - This restaurant has closed. The original LMNT in Hackney, self-billed as "London's most eccentric dining room", is still going.

The trouble with piling up lots of places to review later is my fickle memory. In this case it has erased the names of the dishes we consumed at LMNT II about a month ago. But I would still like to give a nod to this new place which has sprung up in the former home of Shakespeare's pizzeria, round the corner from our flat. Owned by the same people as Stingray cafes in north London, Shakespeare's used to offer huge pizzas and incredible value set menus. But whether it was the pricey drinks, or the side-street location amid council houses and out of sight of Clerkenwell's hot spots, the place tended to be rather empty. So we weren't surprised, after 3 years or so, to find a new sign hanging above the door. I was pleased to see that the new venture is an off-shoot of LMNT, an eccentric, well-reviewed restaurant in the depths of East London, which I had never got around to visiting. Now I was saved the trek. So far the new venture lacks the eccentric decor found in the original, although they have lightened up the place. I do not remember the food, I remember that it was a nice meal, after which we discussed going back for more. The main reason I have mentioned the place is that it was nice, but has opened so quietly that there's no mention of it yet on the mother ship website, nor anywhere else that google could find. And I think it deserves to be better known.

Edited to add that this place featured in the Metro today and I was bemused to discover that it is apparently "Marooned on a large corner site near the Brunswick Estate in deepest, darkest Islington, North London".

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

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


The small bar specialises in cocktails, features swirly wallpaper which on closer examination is patterned with naked women and is easily filled to bursting with office workers. Downstairs offers a restaurant with some form of live entertainment - from cabaret to poetry - every night. I was keen to check out Volupte as I love the idea of a nicer dinner to the accompaniment of live music, but few places in London seem to do this well (with the notable exception of Quecumbar in the depths of hard-to-reach Battersea). On our visit Volupte did music very well, with a very slick five piece band belting out jazz-bluesy numbers. However the nice dinner part of the equation failed to materialise. The leather bound, short menu is both pricey and uninspiring. My gazpacho was lukewarm and flavoursome - only rendered edible by the addition of some ice cubes from the water jug and copious sprinklings of salt and pepper (which we had to ask for). At £7 this was a shocking rip off. The chicken terrine (£7.50) was also flavourless, bordering on the unpleasant. For mains the sawed fish (sic) and sea bass were both OK, but certainly not good enough to justify the £15-ish price tags for the small portions with few accompaniments. The wine list is equally profitably priced, starting at £16. Out bottle of the cheapest rose (£18) compared unfavourably with many £3 supermarket bottles. Add on the service charge and may be some coffees and you would have very little change out of £100 for a very mediocre meal for two - and that's without the entertainment cover charge that applies on many nights (though not when we went). Which is a shame, because I wanted to like this place, and I still want to see some of their shows. But I probably won't unless I can figure a way of doing it while not feeling utterly ripped off.

Volupte Lounge, 7-9 Norwich Street, EC4A 1EJ; Tel. 020 7831 1622; Tube: Chancery Lane;

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Le Gavroche

I've been to busy to post recently - but not too busy to eat, so will be trying to catch up on the writing up.

First, Le Gavroche - a wonderfully old fashioned institution in Mayfair. It comes in at number 28 in the list of world's top restaurants, and the listing also informs us that it's been around for 40 years and one loyal customer has been coming in for lunch every weekday for the past 18. And I can see why he (in this setting, it's bound to be he) would. The gentlemen wear jackets. There is a cosy bar with tartan sofas and an eclectic art collection (ranging from various pictures of the eponymous tearaway to Chagall) in which to enjoy an aperitif while perusing the menu and the list of merchandise (from the colourful plates with a likeness of Mr Roux to cutlery with handles shaped like Gavroche, it's all for sale!). This is Mayfair and the place has two Michelin stars, so the prices are hefty. But weekday lunchtimes offer the bargain of 3 courses, coffee, half a bottle of wine and half a bottle of water for £48 -- less than some of the a la carte main courses.
Our pink champagne was offered with amuse-bouches of tempura prawns and chicken liver pate on toast. Downstairs the green walls are adorned with more art and each table features an amazing animal sculpture made out of cutlery. Ours was a turkey, with fork handles for a tail and spoons for belly feathers. The numerous staff were very discrete, topping up our glasses of Pinot Blanc de Blancs and water when required as opposed to sloshing it all in in a bid to sell another bottle. Another amuse bouche of tender fish fillet in green sauce went down very well. My starter - half a lobster - made the menu seem like a complete bargain. My companion's salmon gravadlax was lovely, but he kept sneaking jealous glances at the lobster. There were warm fresh rolls with two types of butter to mop up the juices. My main of mackerel with wild mushrooms was also good, while my companion had some of the nicest veal I've ever tasted. For desert, we chose four cheeses each from a bulging, oozing wooden board. The fourme d'ambert was gorgeous, the camembert with Calvados a bit too adventurous for my taste. Then there was coffee, with a bowl of juicy cherries (a lovely alternative to after dinner mints), and offers of refills. We waddled stuffed and a little tipsy into the afternoon drizzle. This was the life.

Le Gavroche, 43 Upper Brook Street, W1K 7QR; Tel. 020 7408 0881; Tube: Marble Arch;