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; http://www.littlebay.co.uk

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; www.life-oldst.com (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 www.angelusrestaurant.co.uk

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; www.caferouge.co.uk

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; www.thequeenboadicea.com

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; www.leonrestaurants.co.uk

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; www.nusadua.co.uk

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; www.shanghaiblues.co.uk