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, bĂ©arnaise 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;

Friday, July 13, 2007

Cottons - the soul of Exmouth market

Cottons manages to hold its own among the plethora of lovely eateries which line Exmouth market. Being at the end of the road, the people watching credentials aren't as good as those of some of its competitors.

But there are compensations in the funky Caribbean decor inside, the delicious food and an interesting cocktail list. I chose a mixed fish grill (£12.50). The plate was piled high with red snapper (jerked), jack fish, parrot fish (which had a green and rather parrot-like tail!) and luscious bits of pink octopus. There was also sweet, fried plantain and a bowl of rice and beans with a spicy sauce. I washed the spiciness down with beer, while some of my companions sampled the cocktails (around £6). However, the Caribbean vibe extends right down to the service - great if you want to linger, not so good if you are trying to eat dinner in a a bit over an hour. Sunday nights feature soul music, so I'd like to return for a leisurely end to the weekend sometime.

Cottons, 70 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, EC1R 4QP; Tel. 020 78333332; Tube: Farringdon or Angel;

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A summary - from herring to heart

I seem to be getting slack again in my food chronicles. So to keep you going while I get around to writing up the Fat Duck (mmmm....!), here is a summary of a few places visited over the last few weeks which I have neglected to showcase in greater detail.

Upper Glas -- a new Swedish place above the Islington antiques market. I wanted to like it, being a fan of all things Scandinavian (apart from the queues at Ikea). It was a very light, summery kind of place, but lacking in atmosphere as we were the only diners. The service was friendly, but the waitress tended to disappear when we needed her. The menu is short, and you can pick, tapas-style, which dishes you want to come in big portions and which in small. Overall for me though I didn't enjoy the food that much, though this was probably my fault for over-ordering the pickled fish (I do like herring, but turns out not that much). 359 Upper Street; Tube: Angel

Royal Inn on the Park - a well-located pub just outside Victoria Park. Big garden, decent grub and good selection of beers. Perfect for a lazy afternoon. 111 Lauriston Road, E9 7HJ; Tube: Bethnal Green

Mirch Masala - amazing onion bhajees and generally good Indian grub in an unpretentious cafe-style BYO place in Whitechapel.. 111-113 Commercial Road, E1 1RD; Tube: Whitechapel

Bleeding Heart Great French food and New Zealand wines from their own vineyard, and a murder story to read on the back of the menu if your date's boring. What more could you ask for? If someone else is paying, go for the "restaurant" in the cellars. Otherwise opt for the pub bit or the more elegant eating room on the floor below.. Bleeding Heart Yard, Greville Street, EC1N 8SJ; Tube: Farringdon

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Bowler - bowled over

(It's been suggested that I start adding 'tag lines' to the headlines of my reviews, so you can look forward to lots more bad puns in the future!)

Perhaps it's the Bowler's location (hidden down a side road just off the buzzing Exmouth Market) that has caused it, by our rough estimate, to change owners four times in as many years. One particularly dodgy incarnation featured it painted bright pink on the outside with the atmosphere of a rough council estate pub on the inside. Now though it is a much more pleasant shade of dark green and the interior (and clientele) have changed beyond all recognition. The room is light, with wooden tables and brightly coloured flowery, swirly paintings on the walls -- with cleverly matched lamp shades attached to each one. The menu is short and simple -- about five light bites like chips and nachos, and about 10 mains. Trying to be healthy, I resisted the temptation of baked camembert with mushrooms, bread and gherkins (will have to come back and try it another time!), and opted for the lower-calorie-sounding duck breast in honey sauce with greens (£7.95). The duck was browner than I would have liked, but tasty enough, and the greens were lovely. But sadly it was all drowned in the yucky (a very technical restaurant reviewing term) sweet sauce and I could not finish it. My companion though struck gold with the steak sandwich -- a veritable bargain at £4.95. A baguette came piled with rate slices of beef, lovely sun-dried tomatoes and caramelised onions, accompanied by a large mountain of onions. And I was more than happy to fill up on the chips (billed as Belgian, £2.80), which were thin, clearly home-made and deliciously crispy. A bottle of viognier (£13.25) was a delicious accompaniment to the bargain-priced meal, and we left determined to return.

The pub offers 15% off the total bill to holders of the Wedge Card I've never heard of it before, but a quick look at the website suggests that it's a much better bet than the bit of plastic. The Wedge is the brainchild of the guy who launched Big Issue, it costs £20 with half the cash going to a charity of your choice and it offers discounts at loads of (small, local, non-chain) shops as well as bars, clubs and restaurants.

The Bowler, 28-32 Bowling Green Lane, EC1R 0BJ; Tube. Angel or Farringdon

Monday, July 02, 2007

The Green

Recently we were musing on the fact that there are so many perfectly good restaurants in London these days that many never earn a return visit - despite being perfectly good. So it is refreshing for once to review a place that was perfectly terrible and has fully earned the right not to be returned to. The Green is perched on a corner at the bottom of Clerkenwell Green, in a building which once housed a rather pretentncious outpotst of Jean-Christoph Novelli. Its current incarnation features a cosy, light bar downstairs and a restaurant area upstairs. The beer selection is good, including ales and a German wheat offering on tap. Posters outside promised live music and it seemed like a good place to while away the Sunday evening. We didn't fancy the roasts chalked up on the board (£14ish, but apparently including a free pudding), and opted instead for the "Tasty Tapas" menu on the opposite wall. The thin chips (£3.50) came in a generous heap with an unusual accompaniment of peppercorn mayonnaise (not bad, but not a patch on aioli). They chips could have been crisper but all in all they weren't bad. The green olives (£2.30) were small and unexciting, but edible. But that, it turned out, was as tasty as the tapas got. The chorizo (£3.80) was cooked - probably in a microwave - to within an inch of its life and then some. It also tasted strongly and unpleasantly of pepper (and not of the advertised "red wine and herbs"), securing the "worst chorizo I've ever tasted" rosetter by a very long margin. The bean stew came cold in its terracota pot and was sent back. The second attempt was scalding, straight out of the microwave (which in fact may well have been used for the entire cooking process). For £5.50 the pot featured two types of beans, slices of raw onion, tinned tomatoes and no discernable herbs or spices. There was no bread to be had because, apparently, the organic loaves are delivered daily except Sunday. The "live music" also proved somewhat of a let down - a couple of young men set up their gear under the clock and one of them strummed his guitar for a couple of songs before settling down to a large serving of tapas. They were still eating when we left 45 minutes later.

The Green, 29 Clerkenwell Green, EC1R 0DU; Tel.020 74908010;; Tube/Train: Farringdon