Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Ye Olde Mitre - hark back to the good olde days

There are so many gastropubs around these days that it's a refreshing change to go somewhere that is resolutely stuck in a pub time warp, selling pickled eggs and brimming tankards of ale to a largely male clientele. And when such a visit involves a trip to Cambridgeshire without leaving central London, so much the better. Ye Olde Mitre is hidden away in an implausibly narrow passageway off Ely Place -- one-time home to the Bishop of Ely and thus ( apparently) part of Cambridgeshire. There are two entrances to the pub, one leading to the tiny front room and the other to the slightly roomier back one, with the bar in the middle. The dark wood panelling on the walls is decorated with pictures of English kings (including Henry VIII looking nothing like Jonathan Rhys Meyers from the latest BBC adaptation) and a notice proclaiming that Santa will be visiting on December 4 (yay!). Our pints of Deuchars (£2.85) are very well kept. It's the kind of place where you get chatting to the landlord and a few of the tables look like regulars. The food on offer is wonderfully simple. We try a cheese and onion toastie for £1.50 -- cut into little triangles and pungent with raw onion. I think the cheese is red Leicester (it's orange coloured), which isn't as good as mature cheddar, but it hits the spot and soaks up the beer and I have to be talked out of ordering another one. There's also sausage rolls, sausages and even giant gherkins (60 pence!) on offer. I am smitten, and have resolved to go back next week for more Deuchars, a gherkin and a mince pie.

Ye Old Mitre, Ely Court, off Ely Place, EC1N 6SJ; Tube: Chancery Lane

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Queens Arms - not so bad in the West

The pub is very well hidden, down a cobbled alleyway (sorry a mews) off a residential road lined with those prime, white, Edwardian terraced houses. (Before I really knew London, I always wanted to live in one of those, though I have since realised that they prevail in the West, where as I very much prefer the East side.) It’s also just that bit too far from shopping delights of the Kings Road or high-brown delights of South Kensington museums to avoid being over-run with crowds. There are wooden tables (high and low), wooden chairs. To be honest, I don't really remember the decor -- it didn't really stand out much from the standard modern pub mode. The pints of prawns though were luscious, even if they had run out of gloriously lumpy home-made aioli and had to resort to bog-standard mayonnaise for dips. And they were only £5 a go -- about half the price of those at The Well and firmly knocking on the head the myth of the West being more expensive than the East. The roast chicken and sausages and mash ordered by other people in the group smelled gorgeous and the portions were huge. With the hindsight of the next day's hangover we probably should have followed their example and had more than the prawns too. Which brings me to the great selection of drinks, with several real ales, my beloved Aventinus and the bright-pink strawberry-flavoured Fruli which seems to have cornered the market in beer drinkers who don't actually like the taste of beer. I also really liked the atmosphere -- there were people enjoying a weekend lunch and the papers on their own, girlfriends catching up over a bottle of wine -- it was a proper, leisurely weekend vibe. If I ever do end up in one of those Edwardian houses, having this as a local would go a bit of the way to soothing the departure from East London.

Queens Arms, 30 Queens Gate Mews, SW7 5QL; Tel. 020 7581 7741; Tube: Gloucester Road

Monday, November 19, 2007


Hotel restaurants often have a reputation of being soul-less places, flogging uninspired food to visitors who don't know where the better places are or are simply too tired to care. As with all stereotypes and all rules though, there are exceptions. The Malmaison hotel oozes elegance as befits its location in a large townhouse on the leafy, fenced off Charterhouse Square. There is a champagne bar where you can tuck into a platter of oysters, and a full-scale restaurant. It is a dark place, all deep reds and blacks, but this works well at creating an intimate feeling and, on quieter nights, at concealing the empty tables. There are also a few quirks to entertain the eye, such as an avangarde wine rack in a wire cage. There is good olive oil on the tables, and a complimentary wooden platter of bread, butter and flavoursome black olive tapenade appears swiftly. On weeknights there's a good value set menu for about £16 for two courses. This being a Friday night though we were presented with the rather more pricy a la carte. Uncharacteristically, I ordered the braised pork cheeks with honey and cloves (£14.95) because a) I was pretty sure I'd never tried them before, and b) they came with gratin dauphinoise, my favourite side order of all time. Judging by the size of the portion, this particular little hog had had pretty chubby face. With hindsight, I learn from the "Daily Pork" website ("exclusive pork coverage) that since cheek muscles do a lot of chewing this cut of meet is rich in fat and tastes best slow-cooked. The dish is certainly very rich, both in the braised meaty flavour and in the fat. Unfortunately, I am not a fan of fatty meat, but fortunately the husband thinks it is a delicious and agrees to a swap. I am a little sorry to wave good bye to the potatoes, which came in near little golden square islands in the sea of dark brown porkiness. But I am pleased with the exchange - delicious slices of rare lamb with sweet roasted vegetables (beetroot and squash). This was all the more exciting because it was actually mutton rather than lamb - a meat that has enjoyed a bit of a resurgence of late (thanks to Prince Charles apparently!) but which I naively thought was more suited to casseroles and stews than a light grilling. Incidentally they also do a good line of steaks.

A new touch (may be because it was a Friday night) was the wine waiter. He brought us the menu and then re-appeared a few minutes later, having swatted up on our food order and ready with suggestions. We'd already chosen though, intrigued by the idea of a red wine made with port grapes in Portugal's Douro region. It was a good discovery, rich and heavy.

Malmaison, 18-21 Charterhouse St, EC1M 6AH, ; Tel. 0207 012 3700; Tube: Barbican

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Hawksmoor -Steaks'n'more

This place does steak. Man-style. No mamby-pamby fillet here (though they do say they can get you any cut you like with 48 hours' notice). And you get the impression they might not approve if you want it well done. The menu tells you that the portions are on the large side and - since the prices are as well - we decided to share a 600g slab of bone-in sirloin (26.50). It was huge - my half alone covered almost the entire plate. It was also bloody, with a strong, meaty flavour. The triple-cooked chips (3.50) in contrast came in a delicate paper cone, propped up in a cute little metal bucket thingy. More bizarre side dish options included macaroni cheese, certainly not something I've ever eaten as accompaniment to steak (never say never). The creamed greens (3.50) ticked the obligatory one-a-day veg box. And if you are that way inclined, it ticks all the organic boxes too, getting its meat from Yorkshire's Ginger Pig (don't look at their website if you get upset about eating cute animals!). There are no sauce options on the menu, but our meat fest arrived with a little jar of pepper sauce and a pot of rather good bearnaise. For the cheese fiend in me though, the absence of a blue cheese based overcoat scored some negative marks.
The house red, from California, was very nice. But then for 22, you'd bloody expect it to be. In general, the wine list seems to be pitched at the city boys who (judging by our neighbours) are tempted enough by the meat and the booze to wonder a little further away from the square mile. The place also had a great reputation for cocktails ("all lovingly made", according to the website) though we didn't try any. It was busy on a Tuesday night, the just managed to squeeze us in. The decor is functional and rather beside the point - white walls, minimalist dark tables, no table cloths, the kind of stuff you could find in many bars or casual eateries. Like I said, the point is the meat and the meat is good. But may be next time I shall see if I can do this on the expense account.

Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial Street, E1 6BJ; ; Tel. 02072477392; Tube: Liverpool Street/Old Street (or Shoreditch when that reopens)

Monday, November 12, 2007

LMNT II - Part 2

It was a dark, cold Sunday evening and, domestic-goddess-like, I was slowly stewing onions for French onion soup. Alas, I am no Nigella and (perhaps because I wasn't making suitably orgasmic noises during the cooking process) the soup burnt in a spectacular fashion. On the plus side, this meant we had to go out for dinner.

Faced with finding somewhere that was near and open on a Sunday, we decided to give LMNT II a second try. And seeing as in my first post about this place I couldn't actually remember what we ate, it probably also deserves a second review.

We sat in what, in Shakespeare pizzeria days, used to be the bar. Now, a stuffed pheasant eyes you up from the opposite side of the room, a bird cage perches on the window sill and a trumpet is stretched out along one of the dark wood pannelled walls. Of the £4.45 starters, the husband chose stuffed chicken wings with gnocchi - a sole plump wing, surrounded in a deep bowl with the little ricotta balls and topped off at the table with a delicate broth. My tomato tarte tatin featured large slabs of roasted tomatoes and nicely caramelised onions, atop a diet-friendly thin base of puff pastry. I might even try recreating this at home once I've recovered from the onion soup debacle. The mains are £10.95, of which we sampled the braised lamb neck and the coley fillet with clam sauce. The gtatin potato (£2.45) was enlivened by an orange layer of sweet potatoes in the centre and was none the worse for lacking the usual creaminess of a dauphinoise. Nice 1930s style jazz played quietly in the back ground, and sipping the rich Loxarel rose (£15.95), we almost didn't notice that we were the only diners in the place. Sure, Sunday nights are quiet round here, but I sincerely hope they get some more trade soon. Because it's a nice place, with good value food.

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

Sunday, November 11, 2007

19 Numara Bos Cirrik - pide paradise

Of the Turkish places I have sampled along the stretch of multi-cultural Dalston, this is my favourite -- even it it's not frequented by Gilbert and George . The decor frills-free and plastic-tabled, with the attention focused on the large oven by the back wall. In there they make the house speciality, pideler, or Turkish pizzas. Mine was piled high with onions, other veg, cheese and spicy sausage. It was a little greasy but utterly more-ish. The various kebabs, served with lashings of yoghurt, were also very good. We couldn't finish them though, having feasted on houmous with warm bread and tiny black, chilly-covered olives, as well as the freebie onion salads. A bit of googling suggests one of them might have been izgara soğan (grilled onion with pomegranate and turnip sauce). We were stuffed for around £10 ahead, having washed the grub down with some beers from the off-licence next door (I think it was run by Poles, they were very excited when I bought Okocim). The restaurant is licensed though, and offers Effes beer as well as a small selection of wines. The service is quick, making this an ideal place for a pre-gig meal if you're heading to the near-by Vortex. Which, incidentally, has had a re-fit -- it now features Pizza Express style marble-topped tables, and no longer allows you to order in takeaways, but it has retained the charm, the good music, and the interesting selection of bottled beers.

19 Numara Bos Cirrik; 34 Stoke Newington Road; Dalston; N16 7XJ; Tel: 02072490400; Train: Dalston Kingsland, or buses including the 243.

Lemsip-flavoured raisins, anyone?

The other day, a friend offered me some raisins. They looked like normal, shrivelled up, dark brown raisins. But they were flavoured. In an 100% natural kind of way. With lemon. They tasted like they had been rolled around in a bag of lemsip for a few hours. And for anyone who doesn't like lemon flavoured lemsip, they also come in cherry flavour. In handy snack-sized bags.


Pham - wham, bam, sushi slam

By a rough estimate I must have walked past Pham around 1000 times over the past 5 years. But the location (until recently Whitecross street has looked more like the kind of place where you are likely to find mothers and babies in a pub at noon than a gastronomic experience) has always put me off. More recently though, I've heard a lot of high praise for this humble-looking sushi joint, both from newly discovered food blogs and from real people. The first few attempts to go there failed -- a pregnant friend couldn't face watching us gorge on raw fish which she wasn't allowed, a macho male friend was unimpressed by the idea of going anywhere that didn't serve giant slabs of beef and then last Friday when we finally made it there, they were fully booked.
So we cheated and ordered takeaway. (For the record, the decor was standard casual Japanese - close together tables, small room, a couple of Japanese prints on the wall.)

I had the sushi and sashimi combination set (15). There are 4 bits of juicy, thickly-cut sashimi of tuna and salmon. There are also six slices of the chef's special maki roll, which features avocado, tuna, crab stick and fish roe. I am not normally a fan of maki, but these are giant and gorgeous. Finally, there are four bits of nigiri, thin slices of fish atop mini-bricks of rice: tuna and salmon again, as well as sea bass. It's good. I'd even say very good. And after polishing off the lot I am well and truly stuffed, which with sushi for 15 quid is a bargain. But I guess I'm a little disappointed that the types of fish aren't more exciting.

Still, this time I definitely beat the husband who went for the house special bento box (12). The miso's good, as are the pickles and the sashimi appetiser. But the main course of sesame-seed covered pork loin is overly sweet and over cooked. (Though it's still nice enough to ensure there are no leftovers.)

Ultimately I guess that's always the danger with recommendations - it's easy to build up your expectations way too high. But we've got a copy of the menu now, and next time I will go for some more exciting things (like the "dragon" roll with eel, tobiko, asparagus and avocado.)

Pham, 159 Whitecross Street, EC1Y 8JL; Tube: Barbican or Old Street; Tel. 020 7251 6336;

Metrogusto - a new discovery

We had been to see Ratatouille at the cinema and, craving some hearty French or mediterranean fair, set off up Upper Street towards Sacre Coeur or Le Mercury. Just before reaching the former though, our attention was caught by a place that looked a bit like an art shop but actually seemed to be full of people eating food at candle-lit tables. And so, only about 5 years after it opened, we discovered Metrogusto.

Inside, the walls are decorated with dozens of large, colourful canvasses. My favourite was the giant squirrel with a manic look in his eye. The atmosphere is warm, romantic even. We ordered a bottle of prosecco (£24.50) and tucked into some delicious warm bread rolls with sun-dried tomatoes. The yeasty dough pleasantly reminded of Russian pasties, pirozhki .

(photo from another visit)

On Sundays and pre-theatre they have a good value two-course menu with two courses for £14.50. From this, the husband's grilled aubergine with pesto sauce & toasted walnut bread was luscious and earthy - comparable perhaps, we thought, to Rémy's ratatouille. My eyes (and belly) had been tempted by the a la carte, so I started with the "flat asparagus pancake with parmesan sauce" (£7.50). Perhaps foolishly I had actually envisaged a green pancake made from asparagus (I've made some lovely aubergine pancakes at home), sprinked with parmesan shavings. Instead, I got some normal asparagus tips wrapped in a pancake and smothered in a creamy balsamic sauce. It was nice, but not as nice as the grilled aubergine (plus I couldn't taste the parmesan - never a plus for a cheese fiend).

And, darn him, the husband won with the main course as well - baked chicken breast with gruyere & oregano sauce. Now here the cheese was very clearly present in all its melting gooey gorgeousness. But best of all was the chicken itself - beautifully juicy, and cooked not for a second longer than was needed to stop it from being pink.
That said, my veal ravioli with butter and sage sauce (£12.50) was also very good. Aong with chicken (so easy to overcook), I think ravioli make a good test for truly great cooking, as all to often they just taste of stuffed pasta and you can't quite tell what the stuffing actually is. Here though, I could both see and taste juicy shreds of gamey veal inside the large discounts of home-made tasting pasta.

The people at the table next to us were raving about the basil ice cream which came with their chocolate cake. But sadly we were too full to even contemplate trying this (I knew we shouldn't have had the popcorn). On the plus side though, that gives us a very good excuse to come back - and soon.

Metrogusto, 13 Theberton Street, N1 0QY; Tel. 020 7226 9400; Tube: Angel;

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

King Eddie - gastro pub Stratford style

Fate -- in the form of a very bizarre theatrical performance -- abandoned us in Stratford around dinner time. Time Out's website lists three places within a mile of the tube station. There's Nandos, Pizza Express and, amazingly, something billed as a gastro pub called King Eddies. Intrigued, we pick the pub. It is as a pub should be, with a great selection of beers, lots of aged dark wood, low beams, old-fashioned leather chairs and even a very cute courtyard space out the back. Other tables were occupied by professional-looking young couples, as well as by some single people reading books or the broadsheets. The menu, printed on a sheet of A5, sounds very promising. The blackboard specials promised an endive salad and brawn on toast. I am sorry, I know it was my reviewer's duty to have tried it. But I wanted the sirloin steak with triple-cooked thick-cut chips and béarnaise sauce (£11.50). The generous pool of sauce had a pleasant tangy flavour, and the crispy chips were perfect for mopping it up. There was also some pretty nice cabbage on the side. But the steak was tough and overcooked. I'd say it was probably bordering on "well done" when I'd asked for "rare". The husband had the tuna steak with balsamic salad and hollandaise sauce (£10.50). It finally arrived as the rest of us were finishing the steaks. The salad was very nice but the tuna again suffered from getting far too closely aquainted with the grill. It was tough and horrible - a pointless waste of good quality, expensive fish. But really, it was probably our own fault. We were fooled by the accomplished sounding menu and forgot that we were in Stratford. We should have played it safe and had the sausages and mash (£7.75). And the pub is still a lovely place to linger over some delicious beers, including a cherry-flavoured offering from Sam Smiths (£3.20), an ale-style wheat beer called Gold Blade (£3.20), Old Peculier (£2.85) and Doombar (£2.60). Here, being in Stratford is actually an advantage as you get change from £10 when buying a round for three.

King Edward VII (King Eddie), 47 Broadway, Stratford, E15 4BQ; Tel. 0208 534 2313;

Monday, November 05, 2007

The Dell - come for the views

It was a glorious, sunny Sunday, just the kind for lazing outdoors with the papers by the lake in autumn-golden Hyde Park. The Dell cafe is obviously aimed at the captive tourist market, but if you choose carefully, it ain't half bad. There are some swirly flours on one of the walls, but overall it feels like a canteen, complete with plastic chairs and brown food trays. The attraction however is clearly not the decor but the park -- visible through floor to ceiling windows as well as from the large terrace outside. Some of the food seems like a rip off: a small plastic cup of pumpkin soup and hunk of baguette for £4.50, uninspired-looking sandwiches for £4.15, a small tub of Greek salad (which most people seemed to be buying as a side dish) for £4... But the hot counter offers better value. For £7 you could get a tasty-looking salmon fillet served with piled of rice and ratatouille. Not cheap sure, but not too bad for a fully-fledged restaurant main course. I chose the goat's cheese tart (£4.50) -- a large square of puff pastry, topped with roast peppers and courgettes and crowned with a white circle of creamy cheesiness. With hindsight, I should have tried to stop the dinner lady from pouring two ladles of oil over the salad leaves, but it was still a very nice lunch. There's a good selection of beverages as well, from various modern soft drink concoctions for £2-ish (green tea and pomegranate anyone?), to wines and even bottles of London Pride (£3.50). And not a penguin bar in sight. To me, it's these tourist hot spot eateries which illustrate just how far England's culinary scene has come in the last 10, or even 5 years. Sure, it's not a destination venue. But, given the stunning destination, the venue has all the ingredients you need to while away a pleasant afternoon.

PS Hyde Park is clearly a place which attracts foodies -- they display a board of sponsors' names (who knew you could sponsor a park?), which includes a champagne house and a very posh organic supermarket.

The Dell, Hyde Park, Eastern side of Serpentine lake, W2 2UH;; Tube: Hyde Park Corner

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Eagle - worth pawning for

Another favourite which has hitherto evaded a review is The Eagle. Firstly, any pub that stars in a nursery rhyme -- and in a depraved one at that -- deserves serious kudos.
Up and down the city road,
In and out the Eagle,
That’s the way the money goes,
Pop! goes the weasel

It all sounds innocent enough, but actually the last line is said to refer to local workers pawning their tools at the end of a working week (a weasel is apparently some kind of yarn measuring device) to fund a few rounds down the pub. Very educational.

I'm not sure many people pawn stuff to drink here these days, though it's not the cheapest place in the world. But it has plenty to recommend itself. There's a great selection of drinks, including regularly changing cask ales. Inside, lights twinkle around the dark wood bar. There's pretty wall paper and chandeliers. And best of all there is a huge (by central London standards) beer garden, with ramshackle furniture and leafy trees. During the last world cup, they found lots of old portable tellies somewhere (some black and white!) plonked one on each table in the garden. Seeing as this is a food-reviewing blog, I suppose I'd better mention that too. The menu features burgers, snacks, roasts etc -- all simple, but good stuff that you'd expect in any gastro pub these days. Last week, we sampled the salads (£8ish). Mine featured warm new potatoes, chorizo, cheese, sundried tomatoes and green leaves. It was gorgeous. The husband's Caesar salad had iceberg lettuce, generous shavings of parmesan and chunks of char-grilled chicken. Normally though I skip the salad and go for potato wedges -- either with cheddar and chorizo or with stilton. For about £3.50 you get a large plate which perfectly soaks up the beer without denting your night out budget too much.

Incidentally the other Eagle , the so-called original gastro pub on Farringdon Road, is somewhere I haven't taken to. We visited twice over the years and it always felt a bit chaotic and rushed. The menu above the open plan kitchen seemed limited (last time I had something which turned out to be not dissimilar to philadelphia on toast, which for about £6 was a bit much). But may be I am just uncouth - I'd rather pawn my wares for good old potato wedges.

The Eagle, Shepherdess Walk, City Road, N1 7LB; Tube: Old Street