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