Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bye Bye London (and Blog)

As I write this, it's already over a week since I left London for Moscow. Sorry, there were a couple of places I wanted to post about before drawing the line under this blog - at least for now.

I've really enjoyed chronicalling my restaurant habit over the last couple of years, and want to thank you all for reading and commenting.

As I am now discovering, Moscow also has lots of exciting restaurants to offer (as well as lots of very over-priced ones). If anyone has any suggestions of where I should try here, please let me know!

For now I leave you with a snap of my last London meal - a surprisingly decent eggs benedict and a glass of prosecco at The Tin Goose in Heathrow's Terminal 1.

Good bye and bon apetit.

Monday, August 04, 2008


The table cloths are stained, decorations include a dusty Eiffel-tower-shaped brandy bottle and the place is empty around 7.30 pm on a Friday night.
Plus, in my mind 'Ethiopia' was always more linked with television images of famine than with cuisine.

But stereotypes and appearances can be deceptive.

We order their taster selection. The first to arrive is a large tray covered in traditional injera bread - a pancake like thing with a slightly vinegary taste. Upon it, the waitress ladles out half a dozen or so different dishes. I particularly enjoy some beans and a mix of barely cooked mince with (I think) spinach. All is eaten with your hands, scooped up with more injera bread, and washed down by surprisingly good Ethiopian larger.
The only dish that we fail to finish is the Ethiopian take on steak tartrare - large chunks of raw beef in a thick, spicy sauce. It's not bad, but the consensus is that the chunks are a bit too big to chew/digest raw.

Still, we leave a couple of hours and many beers later, absolutely stuffed and amazed to have paid only about 15 quid for this feast. Sure, you might not want to eat here once a week, or even once a month, but it's definitely worth trying at least once.

Menelik, 277 Caledonian Road, London, N1 3EF; Tel. 0207 700 7774; Tube: Caledonian Road

Friday, July 25, 2008

Cork and Bottle

A hidden gem just off Leicester Square. Yes, really. Such secrets don't come along often, and I'm only letting you in as I won't be in London for much longer to savour its delights myself.

Hidden under red awning between the endless kebab shops and ticket touts, the small door deposits you atop a spiral metal staircase. Below, there's a buzzy, cosy vibe of a not quite authentic French or Italian wine bar.

The wine list is amazing in scope, decent in value and wittily, informatively written. The food menu focuses on classic comfort food with a nod to the owner's Antipodean origins.

The husband's burger is large and decent-tasting, but I am smitten with the cheese and ham pie, the house speciality. Beneath a pastry lid is a savoury heaven, a layered tower of cheese and ham... Mmm, writing about it, I want one now.
We were far too stuffed for the cheese course, so finished off with a couple of glasses of a young Beaujolais Village.

This lovely precursor to the theatre set us back just over £50 for two huge mains, some olives, a bottle of a zesty Spanish white and the glasses of the Beaujolais. Like I said, a gem.

Cork and Bottle, 44-46 Cranbourn Street, Leicester Square, WC2H 7AN; Tel. 0207734 7807; Tube: Leicester Square

Monday, July 21, 2008

Moshi Moshi

The location: Potentially convenient, but otherwise not ideal - inside Liverpool Street train station. The windows actually look into the station and you can watch the Essex trains leave and arrive down below.

The spec: A Japanese restaurant with a conveyor belt and also cool wooden booth-like seats. Part of a mini chain which prides itself on sustainable fish.

The good: The starters.

There's an interesting selection on the set menu platter, from fresh sushi to Cornish crab.

The tempura is also good.

The not so good: The mains. The beef is overcooked and overly sickly. The chef's special selection is far from special - octopus (which I think is too rubbery to be eaten raw), tuna, salmon, seabass. Nor is there much of it - hardly the "sumptious feast" advertised. The 'seasonal' sardine and ginger miso soup is fairly grim.

The service is slow, inattentive and sometimes just downright bizarre. The wine arrives and we taste it, nodding approval. The bottle is then whisked away and replaced by a new, unopened one, from which we are also given a taster before finally being allowed to keep it.

The verdict: A mixed experience, and certainly not worth it for the money for dinner (ours came to around 80 pounds), but would be OK for lunch or if you have a special offer and happen to be in the area.

Moshi Moshi, Unit 24, Liverpool Street Station, EC2M 7QH (above platform 1, behind M&S); Tel 020 7247 3227; Tube: Liverpool Street; www.moshimoshi.co.uk

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


The location: A hop, a skip and a jump away from Trafalgar and Leicester Squares, above a modern but pleasant bar called The International. Looks posher than it is from the outside.

The spec: A Thai restaurant, owned by the same people who own various places in and around Covent Garden, including Tuttons.

The good: The happy hour in the bar, including bellinis for £3.95. The light vegetable tempura starter from the good value £13.50 set menu which came with a free glass of Pimms. The teriyaki salmon from the main course, especially when moistened with some of the sauce from the Thai chicken curry.

The disappointing: The bland chickpea patties in the second starter (admittedly helped by a yoghurt dip), and the overcooked chicken in the curry.

The bad: The service, though my dining companion, who'd been before, said it wasn't usually like that. In a largely empty restaurant, the waitress insisted we had to order deserts at the same time as everything else because "the kitchen will be busy later". (Luckily, when it did arrive, the ice cream didn't look like it had been pre-plated at the start of the meal.) The drinks, for each round, took ages coming, and we were drinkless through most of the main course. Although others had brought happy hour drinks up from the sister bar downstairs, a very abrupt manager told us this was not allowed and we had to pay full price. The kitchen with its dirty plates was far too exposed from where we were sat. These are all minor quibles but they added up, especially as the tone of the stuff was generally far from friendly and occasionally border line rude.

The verdict: I will definitely add the bar to my list of good venues in the area (where it joins The Chandos and The Porterhouse), but am not sure I'll be back to the restaurant.

Katana, The International, 116 St Martins Lane, WC2N 4BF; Tel. 020 7257 8625; Tube: Charing Cross or Leicester Square

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


What better antidote to a rainy summer and tightening money belts than a posh lunch with unlimited champagne? Step forward the Langtry and its £35 meal deal.

I like the elegant room, with old-fashionedly ornate walls, bow-legged padded chairs and slate place mats. Plus they have phallic flowers on the tables :)

The waiters are very reverential to everyone, from a special occasion birthday party quartet to a youngish girl with Harrods bags and a large hole in her black tights.

The bread basket is freely and frequently offered, and -- rewarding our efforts to make the most of the free bubbles -- the champagne glasses are never allowed to go empty. (Bizarrely though they only refill the tap water tumblers when asked.)

We both start with the tuna loin. Rare and tender, it is offset by a delicate pale green mousse. I am sure I detect hints of avocado, but a re-examination of the menu reveals that actually it starred coriander and Cromer crab. Hmm, so much for my palate, best not give up the day job.

The main course of olive crusted lamb fillet is very tasty though the lamb is a bit on the gristly side.

The sea trout actually makes fennel and anise in the accompanying cream taste quite nice to my hostile-minded taste buds.

We finish with a Madagascan vanilla créme brûlée served in a nifty spoon/plate and a palate-cleansing champagne sorbet with summer fruits. The bill comes with another round of champagne and, with service, is still under £80 for 2.

For the delicious food and well over a bottle of champers (each), I think that's a veritable bargain, especially as here you are made to feel as special as if you'd spent more than double that.

Langtry, 21 Pont Street, SW1X 9SG; Tel. 0207 201 6619; Tube: Sloane Square or Knightsbridge; www.langtrysrestaurant.com

Friday, July 11, 2008


The "modern French" food is masterminded by TV-regular Jun Tanaka, and the name harks back to Pearl Assurance who once occupied the grand building in the heart of London's law district. Real pearls, though, are everywhere, hanging off the ceiling in jawdropping chandeliers.

Considering a single main course will normally set you back a whopping £31.50, the toptable three-courses-for-£30 seemed like a vertiable steal. But be careful, supplements and drinks will quickly inflate the bill.

I am surprised by my strarter of osso buco -- a Milanese dish of braised veal shanks -- which essentially came deep-fried. Still, the meat was tender and as a cheese-loved I quite enjoyed the addition of mozarella. The accompanying artichokes had an unpleasant pickled flavour though and the cold roasted peppers, though nice, tasted like they could have come from a posh jar.

My main course is also not really a winner, the tortellini are tiny, with little sign of the advertised parmesan, and the Swiss Chard turns out to be just an accompaniment rather than a filling. It's a bit bland and confirms my theory that you should steer clear of vegetarian food in expensive restaurants.

Others fare betters, sampling the sea Bream with clams, grapefruit vinaigrette wild leeks and samphire,

and a beautifully pink rump of salt marsh lamb with wild garlic and beans.

In the only desert we sample the dark chocolate contrasts beautifully with the slight tartness of raspberries. And, as all the food, it looks stunning on the plate.

The artisan cheeses come with a £6.50 supplement - a bit much when you only get six slivers from what is, admitedly, a very impressively burdened cheese trolley. We ask the sommelier to recommend a red wine for the cheese. His choice is quite dry and we are not that impressed - something fruitier, more full bodied might have gone better. We are even less impressed when the glasses appear on the bill at around 13 quid each, costing more than the champagne. They are not very gracious when we complain, but do remove one of the glasses from the (already quite hefty) bill.

It leaves a bit of a sour impression. Overall I would say the setting is stunning but taste-wise the food is merely good -- which at these prices isn't enough.

Pearl Restaurant & Bar, 252 High Holborn, WC1V 7EN; Tel. 020 7829 7000; Tube: Holborn; ww.pearl-restaurant.com

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Mucho Mas

Months after everyone else, I finally get around to trying Mucho Mas, a modern-looking (no longer very) new cafe in the centre of Upper Street's hustle and bustle.

On a sunny weekend lunchtime the outside tables provide a top people-watching spot -especially as they serve Negra Modello, one of my favourite dark beers.
It's a casual kind of place, so you have to order at the bar and they only take cash (cue mad dash to the cash point).

The menu is short, featuring burritos (the small portion is called 'Mexican', the large is 'American', which makes me smile), tacos and a few salads. They make the stuff up in a production line in front of you which reminds me of Subway, though the contents of the metal pots look more appetising here. Unless you want a salad, the choice is essentially very limited: whether you want one big piece of tortilla wrap or several small ones, and whether you prefer your chosen meat (or veg) accompanied by rice and beans or cheese and salsa. Either way, you have to pay extra for guacamole.

We tried a chicken burrito (for the record a 'Mexican' is plenty big enough) and some beef tacos. The flavours were fresh, and the medium sauce gave them plenty of spice.

They get bonus points for the jug of tap water and cups on the counter, but minus marks for making diners use plastic cutlery and eat out of cardboard boxes. For the two dishes and the two beers we got about a quid change out of a twenty, which I reckon is a bit steep for eating out of cardboard, but then I seem to spend most of my time these days gasping in horror at restaurant and bar bills.

(It must be a sign of the times that the spit-and-sawdust dump on Old Street that was called Bar £1.50 when we first moved to London has, after progressing to Bar £1.70 and then being renamed as something non-numeric, now shut altogether. These days, unless I am in a Sam Smith's or Wetherspoons, I am lucky to get a pint for under £3.)

So, Mucho Mas is a great spot for a shopping break/casual lunch on a sunny day, but I am not sure I would go as far as backing the unrelentingly rave write ups it seems to be getting on public review sites.

Mucho Mas, 27 Upper Street, N1 9LQ; Tel. 020 7704 2123; Tube: Angel; www.mucho-mas.co.uk (site under construction)

Monday, June 30, 2008


I was always puzzled why this pan-Asian restaurant cum cocktail bar was named after a creature best known for its devastating swarms on Africa's corn fields. But a bit of googling revealed that it was in fact I had my insects muddled up and it was named after a harmless, edible one. Apparently they go well with Worcestershire sauce, but there weren't any cicadas on the menu to enable me to confirm or deny this.

Instead there was a good Sunday brunch deal offering three dim sum plates and a drink for £15. Between three of us, we sampled all the eight dim sum on the menu, as well as three of their alcohol-free cocktails. The cocktails look fabulous and I almost don't miss the vodka in my virgin Mary.

The pork belly was topped with gloriously crisp crackling, but was scorching hot (cue one tongue casualty and much ice-crunching). This was also our first encounter with health food favourite edamame, and I really enjoyed sucking the baby green soybeans on the salty, soy sauce covered pods. The soy sauce also did wonders for the black cod, which came in dainty little dumplings.

All the food was beautifully presented: the salt'n'pepper squid looked stunning in little newspaper cones. It was a bit dry and over-fried -- not as nice as what we'd tried a couple of doors down at The Well earlier this month -- but good enough for us to polish off the lot with the spicy chilli dip. (Sorry about the photo - it seems to look upside down whichever way I rotate it!)

Chilli tofu, nasu dengaku (Japanese aubergine cooked in miso) & shiso leaf (a mint-like herb) looked almost too pretty, and too vegetal, to eat but represented a refreshing contrast to the richness of the sticky spare ribs dish.

The prawn dumplings reaffirmed their status as my all-time favourite dim sum dish, while

the pumpkin gyoza (Japanese fried dumplings) were probably my least favourite of the meal, partly because I don't really like pumpkin but mostly because it was sickly-sweet. Again though they looked very pretty.

So overall we enjoyed the dim sum. But if I want some kind of dim sum benchmark to compare all future efforts against, where would you recommend? Yuatcha? Hakkasan? Or somewhere else entirely?

Cicada, 132-6 St John Street, EC1V 4JT; Tel. 020 7608 1550; Tube: Barbican, Farringdon http://www.rickerrestaurants.com
As well as the Sunday brunch we sampled, they have 2 for 1 cocktails Mon-Sat 5-7pm, 50% off food on Monday with a (free) card, and are now part of Taste London.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Taste London

Another year, another Taste London.
Luckily this time we had free tickets thanks to an Eros Card competition, so only had to pay for the crowns - the festival's currency with which you buy food and drink.

On a glorious, sunny Sunday, the highlights were:

* lobster bisque from Le Gavroche
* free gin and tonics at the toptable hospitality tent

* parmesan custard with anchovy toast from Le Cafe Anglais
* foodie magazine freebies galore (delicious., Sainsbury's Magazine, Fortnum & Mason's Magazine...)
* grilled squid rolls from Le Crecle
* large and plentiful Cobra beer samples - very refreshing on a hot day
* yoghurt and strawberries samples from Onken

The disappointments were:
* Sainsbury's Taste Kitchen - a half hour of relentness upselling in exchange for samples of uninspiring cheese and flavourless beef (though the sample of Primitivo wine was nice)

* Surf'n'turf from Zilli - overdone lamb and not very nice tasting prawns, with nothing to bind the flavours of the two.
* lack of cheese stalls (there were lots last year, butthis time I found only one, offering mediocre flavoured cheddar for those too lazy to add pickle to their sarnies)
* less fun than last year, with no village fete games from Innocent smoothies, or wheel of fortune from Waitrose, or other such entertainments
* Rhodes 24 pedalling the same white tomato soup as last year

The purchases were:
* wild mushrooms from Fundamentally Fungus
* presticide free strawberies from Good Natured Fruit
* ginger and lemongrass presse from Bottle Green

My verdict: a good afternoon for £30 for two (what we spent), a rip off if you've also forked out £21 each for the entrance fee.

And, since I am a bit late writing this up, here's a small round up of what other food bloggers thought:
* Chris over at Cheese and Biscuits liked the Caipirinhas and the white tomato soup
* Niamh of Eat Like a Girl enjoyed keenly priced English wine and beetroot gazpacho
* Chris Osburn from The Londonist was impressed by the Madeleines but unimpressed by the cost of the tickets.
* Around Britain With A Paunch like the parmesan custard enough to dedicated an entire post to it alone.

(My review of last year's event is here.)

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Discounted Dinners

Another restaurant discount scheme has just come to my attention so I thought I'd do a round up of offers/discounts that I know of. (I haven't used all of these myself.)

Please let me know of any others!

* www.discountbritain.net: A website from which you can print off vouchers for 20% off your meal at a small selection of restaurants. They also have discounts for some London tourist attractions.
* london-eating.co.uk: primarily a diners' reviews website, but also includes some special offers if you book through them. I remember reading somewhere that they've been bought out by toptable?
* opentable.com: An American website that's making inroads into London now. Online booking, including some places which are not available on toptable. No special offers as such, but you get points for each booking (and sometimes they have offers of extra points), redeemable for restaurant gift vouchers. (I haven't accumulated enough points yet, but it says they are accepted by any restaurant on the site.)
* toptable.co.uk: IMHO this is the best of the lot. It's free, lets you book most London restaurants online, gives you loyalty points for each booking which are redeemable against free meals (though be careful, these expire after a year) and has lots of offers from set meals to 50% off food. The site's pretty good too, with reviews and example menus. They also cover some places in other parts of the UK and in some foreign capital cities, like Paris.
* visitlondon.com: A good website on what's going on in London, including bookable restaurant offers.

Paid restaurant discount cards:
* Taste London: a whopping £69.95 per year for a card giving 50% off food or 2-for-1 deals at over 500 London restaurants. The caveats are that may offers a valid for first visit only (each restaurant has its own number on the back of your card and they cross it out once the offer is used), many places don't accept the card on Fridays and Saturdays and usually only 2 people can use the 2-for-1 deal per card (not so good for a larger group). If you are interested though, they quite often offer discounted membership (about £20 off) through adds in the free Metro newspaper or here.
* Tio Pepe Midweek Dining Club: £9.99 per year for a card that gives various offers at over 1,000 restaurants across the UK. Some of the offers are same as those on toptable, but there are also some places included which I haven't seen taking part in other schemes.
* Wedge Card: £10.49 a year for a card giving discounts at mostly independent shops, restaurants and services. Most participating businesses are based in London though.

* If there is a restaurant you want to go to, my top tip would be to check out their website for any special offers, and to sign up to any email newsletter for special offers and events. This can work both with chains and with small independent places.
* Holders of Senior, Family or Young Persons railcards can get a
discount at several nationwide chains, and there also offers to be had with a normal train ticket.
* Oyster card users benefit from a couple of restaurant deals as well as other London discounts.
* American Express has a monthly-changing list of offers for its card-holders, including restaurant ones.
* The moneysavingexpert.com website also has a regularly-updated page of various discounts, which currently includes 2-for-1 at Wagamama.
* And there's a great list of lunchtime deals at top marks places from Zagat.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The art of complaining

When do you - or when should you - complain in a restaurant?

Some people never complain.
I do when the situation is very clear-cut -- the service is very slow, the wrong order is brought, the wine is off, that kind of thing -- and it can be well worth doing.
But what about occasions when there is nothing badly wrong but it's just not that great?

At The Larder, my starter of lentils, anchovies and poached egg (£4.90) would have been far, far nicer if it was hot (who serves cold poached eggs?),

the orange sauce with the duck terrine (£5.90) was sickly sweet

and to my taste the main course meat was overcooked to toughness, both my roast guinea fowl (£14.50)

and my friend's pork fillet (£13.50).

The very friendly waitress duly came up and asked if we were enjoying the meal, and we duly nodded and smiled.
Was that wrong?

I wasn't not enjoying the meal -- the home-made olive bread was good, the guinea fowl came in a nice wild mushroom sauce, the roasted new potatoes (£3.50) were beautifully crisp (though the mayonnaise I asked for inexplicably tasted of mustard), the parmesan croquettes which came with the pork were a heaven-made match of cheese and carbs, and the house white (£14) was nicely zingy.
Plus we were highly entertained by the next table whose gentleman was very indignant about being served lime cordial instead of wine (apparently they'd filled up the empty bottles with cordial to decorate the wine racks, but one of them accidentally got served to a customer).

And yet somehow those nods and smiles to the charming waitress felt false. Should I have said something??

The Larder, 91-93 St. John St, EC1M 4NU; Tel. 020 76081558; Tube: Barbican or Farringdon; www.thelarderrestaurant.com
Toptable is currently doing 50% off food, which with house wine is slightly better value than its other offer of 2 courses plush half a bottle of vino for £19.95.

PS: I've reviewed The Larder before, when it first opened last year.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ciao Bella

Ciao Bella is enormously popular - on a wet, miserable Tuesday evening even the barely-sheltered outside tables are abuzz, and the two stories indoors also fill up. There is an old school, traditional Italian hospitality vibe - it's the kind of place where you feel you should know the owner.

I arrive first, and they willingly bring out my tap water, as well as plates of olives and chunks of gutsy parmesan (but be careful - though unbidden, these will appear on the menu at £2.50 a pop). We dither over the lengthy menu and luckily decide to skip on the starters.

The main course platefuls of pasta are ginormous - each enough to feed two or even three pretty hungry people. The meatballs in spaghetti con polpette (£7.20) are as big as potatoes, while spaghetti all'aragosta (by the far the most expensive thing on the menu at £15.50) comes with what looks like an entire lobster. Of the four of us, only one comes anywhere near finishing, though not through dislike of the food. Even the signature tagliatelle "Ciao Bella" (£6.80) is surprisingly tasty despite mixing salmon with dolcelatte. The valpolicella (£14.50) is very quaffable lubricant for a pleasant, low key evening.

Everyone should have a good local Italian, and Ciao Bella fits the bill very well. It would work as well for a large group as a loved up couple. Plus, being Italian, they happily welcome children too. My loyalty, though, lies firmly with Venezia and its dolcelatte steaks.

Ciao Bella, 86-90 Lamb's Conduit St, WC1N 3LZ; Tel. 0207 2424119 www.ciaobellarestaurant.co.uk

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


After Exmouth Market, Hoxton Square is perhaps my favourite place for eating - the odd beggar aside, it's great people watching on a summer's day.
As usual, we wonder round the square, looking at the menus and dithering.

And then the specials board outside Yelo tempts us in with promises of duck or seabass for under £7. The vibe is cheap (metal tables) and cheerful (bright yellow laminated menus). Our New Zealand Sauvingon blanc (£16.95) is served in glass tumblers of the kind you get in school canteens. I kinda like that, and for the sheer incongruence, wish we'd ordered champagne.

The Thai dim sum (£3.95) features two plump dumplings of chicken and two of pork. They are dense, with none of the delicate flavour fireworks I've had in serious dim sum joints, but they aren't too bad. And I enjoy sprinkling them with crumbled peanuts and chilli flakes from the table's condiments selection (I skip on the pickled chopped carrots though).

But I am jealous of the husband's tom kar galangai soup (£3.95, which is packed with creamy, herby, coconuty flavours, absorbed into sliced mushrooms and a couple of juicy prawns, with a strong kick of spice.

There are lots of big prawns in the salad -- especially considering the modest £5.45 price tag -- piled upon zestily-dressed leaves, onions and tomatoes. My only complaint is that the plate is too small - at least one prawn ends up as a casualty on the floor.

The special features well-cooked seabass (complete with tail!) in a green curry sauce (£6.50), though note that rice is extra (£1.80 for coconut rice).

All in all, it's not a romantic or lingering kind of a place, but seems like a good bet for a delicious and keenly-priced meal. They also do takeaways (so you can save on the booze mark up and sit on the grass) and deliveries.

Yelo, 8-9 Hoxton Square, N1 6NU; Tel. 0207 729 4626; www.yelothai.com

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Elk in the Woods

The location: Amid expensive boutiques and junk antique stalls in Islington's Camden Passage. We were actually planning to try The Breakfast Club after it was recommended in Time Out, but there was a queue snaking out of the door and patience is not one of my virtues.

The spec: A friendly elk head looks at us from a wooden slatted wall. There is a distant aura of a trendy ski chalet. It's not quite a bar, not quite a restaurant and there's a good mix of people from an old lady daintily sipping tea to young couples brunching on cocktails. The staff are friendly, joking.

The good: The chips - a huge bowl of thin, crispy, hand-made, skin-still-on deliciousness for £4. The bloody Marys (off menu) come with a good kick of spice, and a good range of alcohol-free concoctions (£3.50). Plus, I like the decor and the service.

The bad: The rest of the food - it's pretty blah. The husband plays adventurous with South African kudu – a rather majestic-looking antelope -- and zebra skewers (£4.75). It's a tiny portion - but then it did come from the "smalls" section of the menu - and fails to score any sparks in the taste department.
If memory serves, that’s our second disappointing experience with zebra, the first being in a French restaurant on Upper Street. On the other hand, I’ve had perfectly nice horse before, for example in T’Kelderke in Brussels.

My wild mushroom, potato and artichoke pie is very bland. It's basically a pastry case filled with boiled new potatoes. It needs something to liven it up - cheese perhaps, or sausage, or both. The menu promised parmesan but I can't spot it. And for £12 this is hideously over-priced. About the only thing I like about it is that it comes with sour cream.

The verdict: Great place for cocktails (£7) and chips, but go elsewhere for a proper meal. Hardens, again, is pretty much spot on.

The Elk in the Woods, 31 Camden Passage, N1 8EA; Tel. 0207 2263535 Tube: Angel, www.the-elk-in-the-woods.co.uk

Fifty Six

There's a pleasantly old-fashioned vibe at Stoke Newington's Fifty Six, with deep fried cheese and roasts on the menu, and the friendly waitress joking with the local regulars. We arrive at about 5pm, for a late lunch/early dinner (dinch? lunner?), and find a good people-watching spot in the window. Judging by the other visitors, this funny mealtime suits families with young kids, whom the main waitress (owner?) makes feel very welcome.
Bread (of a rather dull, thinly sliced white variety) and a bowl of nice, herby olives arrive with the menus.

I start, retro-fashion, with deep fried cheese fritters -- a triangle of oozing brie, and a rectangle of stringy (in a good, melted cheese way) mozzarella, served with a crisp salad and some cranberry jelly on the side (£4).

The husband has moules mariniere (£5.50), and I like the sauce a lot, helping myself
to a slice of dunked bread's worth.

For 'mains', we choose two more starters. The duck salad from the specials board (£6) features tender, pink, smoky slices of duck. The only blot is the slightly pointless smattering of grated white cheese, too cold to taste of much, on top of the meat.

The cheddar, leek and potato cakes (£4) work well with the accompanying yoghurt, perhaps a nod to the Turkish culture of the area.
A half bottle of chablis (£12, or we could have had the house wine for a similar price) completes the meal at under £35, including service. It's not destination dining, of course, but well worth a try if you happen to be local.
It's the first time I've been up here, and I really like the area. It has a pleasant, neighbourly vibe, and there are plenty of other nice-looking eateries. Shame about the transport links though, which are pretty much limited to lengthy bus journeys.

Fifty Six, 56 Newington Green, N16 9PX; Tel. 0207 359 6377; Transport: buses or overground to Canonbury Rail; www.fifty-six.co.uk

Monday, June 02, 2008

The Terrace in the Fields

The Terrace is hidden away in a porta-cabin-like hut overlooking the tennis courts in the green haven of Lincoln's Inn Fields in the heart of lawyers' London.
I had been on my list since I saw a good review in Time Out some while back, and a sunny lunchtime (a rarity so far this summer) seemed like the ideal opportunity to visit.

We sat outside, on funky yet reasonably comfy plastic chairs, shielded from the bouncing balls by a tall fence. As lunching settings go it was pretty idyllic, and there's a two course set menu for just £14.50, and yet the terrace (both with and without the capital T) was at best half full during our leisurely lunch.

(Increasingly, it seems, people are tightening their belts -- how else would you explain that on a recent night out in Canary Wharf all the swish bars along West India Quay were empty, yet the Wetherspoon's hidden round the corner was heaving, with besuited city types fumbling for money off coupons to further reduce their bar tab?)

The set menu focuses on traditional European dishes, while the a la carte draws more on Caribbean influences. As it was too hot and sunny for jerk chicken (for my tastes, anyway), we opted for the former.

The starter of smoked salmon and crayfish salad was prettily served in a glass, though in practice this made it rather hard to eat as the salmon was not in bite sized pieces. It was pleasant, but no more than that.

For the mains, the husband's chicken breast was moist enough, but pretty bland. Plonked on a large pile of mash and sploshed with gravy (sorry, jus), it didn't look hugely appetising. Also, it really needed some veg/salad -- something the waiter didn't point out when we ordered.

Luckily I had plenty of roasted Mediterranean-style veg sprinkled around my giant fritter of goats' cheese and aubergine, and was willing to share. The fritter wasn't bad.
We washed the lunch down with a light, summery prosecco (£24) and tap water (which arrived after a couple of promptings).

I looked the place up in Harden's when I got home and think they are pretty much spot on -- the setting aside, it was a nice enough experience but definitely nothing special.

The Terrace in the Fields, Lincoln's Inn Fields, WC2A 3LJ; Tel. 020 7430 1234; www.theterrace.info

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Eating out in the centre: The Hampshire and Tuttons

This weekend, I ended up having two un-pre-planned meals in London's tourist hot spots -- on Leicester Square and in Covent Garden.

First, was dinner at The Hampshire Bar & Restaurant, part of the plush Radisson Edwardian chain. We were en-route to the theatre, it was sunny and there were tables outside.

The biggest 'pro' was the people watching (where else would you see a couple of dozen of superheroes trying and failing to push a bemused London taxi?).
The biggest 'con' was the slow service (you are on Leicester Square, you will be busy, hire more staff). After half an hour we enquired how much longer it would be for the starters, and were told it would be 15 more minutes - time we simply didn't have to spare with the theatre waiting. We never got the condiments seen on other tables, plus had to repeat requests for water (for which we had to share glasses as apparently they didn't have enough) and for the bill.

The food - from a classic European style menu - was decent enough though, and not too unreasonably priced considering the location. We sampled the fillet of beef (£20) with a nice dauphinoise gratin (though, of course, not enough cheese for my liking) and a peppery jus, and the rib eye (£16) with bearnaise and beautiful jenga-like chips, crisped to perfection thanks to more than one session in the fryer.
The portions were a good size.
Both cuts of meat were very nice, but comparing them together I found to my surprise that I prefer the stronger flavour of the rib to the more silky and pricier fillet.

We washed it down with a cherry-scented Rioja (£22) and Pimms. The latter seemed staggeringly pricy to me at £8, until it was pointed out that the tag probably reflected standard cocktail priced rather than (weak) spirit and mixed ones.

The following day, struck by hunger and shopping fatigue in Covent Garden, we ended up in Tuttons, which I later discovered is part of a mini empire of eateries around the old flower market.
The white table cloths and modern art on the walls strove for a moderately classy atmosphere.

We started with a bowl of pretty decent olives (£1.95), which was just as well as the bread baskets delivered to other tables never graced ours.
Despite the place being largely empty, the wait for the main course felt pretty long. The fillet of sea-bass (£14.95) was well cooked, with a crispy skin. The accompanying "tomato and black olive gnocchi" was a disappointment though, featuring bog standard gnocchi (from a packet?) alongside chopped up black olives and tomatoes. We also tried the fish of the day with a moreish beurre blanc sauce and green beans.

The waiter-recommended glasses of white Rioja (£5.75) and a new-world-style Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (£4.13) were very nice, but the experience was soured by service at the end.

No one seemed to want to take our card - not even if after we got up and put on coats. And then, when he was finally cornered, the waiter asked if we wanted to leave him a tip on top of the included service charge. We suggested that perhaps we did not, at which point he went on a major rant about how the service charge was shared between all the staff rather than kept by the individual waiters. Surely that's fairer anyway - the guys in the kitchen contribute as much, and often much more, to my enjoyment of a meal than the front of house.

The verdict: The quality of food on the tourist trail - at least in London - has improved immeasurably over the years, and you can now get a pretty decent meal.
Be prepared for (very) slow service though.
Of course, with a bit of research, there are also some real gems only a stone’s throw away even from the ultra-touristy areas.

The Hampshire Bar and Restaurant, Radisson Edwardian Hampshire Hotel, Leicester Square , WC2H 7LH; Tel. 0207 666 0902; Tube: Leicester Square

Tuttons Brasserie & Bar, 11/12 Russell Street, Covent Garden, WC2B 5HZ; Tel. 0207 257 8625; Tube: Covent Garden

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Market Coffee House

I am not sure I really like Spitalfields any more. Sure thre are still some gems in the area, but in all the regeneration, they seem to have swapped is shabby charm for what looks like one of those computer-generated vistas of a shiny modern development.

But hey, I was in the area, I was short of time, and I was hungry.
Alas, my visions of yummy delicacies from the overpriced posh food stalls were punctured by the stalls being shut - on a Saturday. I didn't have time for a proper meal so settled for a cafe on the still slightly shaby opposite side of the street.

The board outside laid claim to "the best toasted sandwiches" - so I put it to the test with a cheese and onion number (3.20).
It failed. The bread had been toasted for too long for my liking, but the main problem was the filling to dough ratio, with many mouthfuls detecting little or not cheese.
Kruger do a far superior version which costs 70 pence less, yet features no fewer than three cheeses, as well as wild mushrooms and tomatoes on top of the onions offered here.

I also tried their special ice Darjeeling tea (2.00). It looked beautiful in the (rather small) glass, served with a wedge of orange and a sprig of mint. The first few sips were horribly sweet, masking any other flavours, though the drink improved with the melting of the ice cubes.

All in all it was a pretty disappointing experience and I doubt I'll be back for the food. But the coffees are reasonably priced and it's not a bad place for alcohol free people watching on a sunny day (though be prepared to be accosted by the odd passing beggar).

Market Coffee House, 52 Brushfield Street, Spitalfields, E1 6AG; Tube: Liverpool Street

Monday, May 19, 2008


The location: Exmouth Market – especially lovely on a warm, sunny day.

The spec: Spanish/North African cuisine served up by a Sam & Sam Clarke. (Would you ever marry, or even go out with someone who had the same name as you?) The place is perennially popular -- even on Monday night they are fully booked, but manage to squeeze us in at the bar.

The disappointing: The menu. I don't know why, but somehow every time I come here, nothing at the menu really grabs me.

The good: The very friendly service. The food.
We start with a plate of chorizo from the bar tapas menu. The two thick slices, curled and charged from the grilling, don't seem little a lot for £4, but every moist, spicy bite says it's worth it.
I follow with the succulent wood roasted chicken, served with a warm, yoghurty, walnutty pasta salad (£18.00). It's delicious and the pickled radishes which initially put me off ordering the dish don't taste picked at all.
The husband goes for wood roasted Middle White pork -- and the waiter very kindly offers and extra helping of crisp crackling (£18.50). The meat comes with Moorish flavours of spinach, red onions, pine nuts and raisins.

We ask the waiter about the house white -- he offers us a taste (as he said, it’s “very drinkable”, but no more), and suggests a much nicer bottle from the Spanish list -- a Verdejo/Sauvignon mix (£18.50) which has the zesty zing I usually associate with New Zealand.

The verdict: Friendly and delicious. Though alas too busy and a bit too expensive to be a regular haunt.

Moro, 34 - 36 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE; Tel. 020 7833 8336; Tube: Angel; www.moro.co.uk

Friday, May 16, 2008


The location: Smack bang in the middle of the city.

The spec: Modern European business lunches in a fairly formal setting.

The good: That someone else was paying. The delectable petit fours -- of those I sampled, one was intense with lemon, another gooey with chocolate... But then they did charge us an astonishing £4.95 each for coffees - does that make it the most expensive single espresso in Lonond?!

The disappointing: The food - largely because it had been recommended by colleagues, but also because my enjoyment of it was quite disproportionate to the hefty a la carte price tag.
The starter of "ravioli of native blue lobster and Aramgnac bisque" was merely OK -- one solitary pasta parcel, with a mouthful of non-blue-coloured lobster, sat a top a pool of seafoody tasting foam. For £14.95, I want more taste wow, and more food.
The slow cooked belly of pork (£17.95), to my huge disappointment, did not have a crispy skin. I struggled to finish it. The accompanying pearl barley was in a beigey sauce was OK, if a little odd, and I couldn't detect the advertised chorizo.

The verdict: Don't think I'll be back - there are better places near by.

Bonds, 5 Threadneedle Street, EC2R 8AY; Tel. 020 7657 8090; Tube: Bank

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


The location: Very handy - just a few paces away from King's Cross station (and a few more from St. Pancras). And very clever, hidden away in a court yard, which means you can enjoy the sun on the outdoor tables without inhaling (too much) of the traffic fumes.

The spec: A tapas joint with a funky, warehouse-like look. Voted Britain's Best Bar in this year's Observed Food Monthly awards.

The good: The outside terrace. The price - two huge tapas plates and two rounds of soft drinks come in at just over 30 quid. The beer selection, which includes lots of unusual bottles (I'm being good this time though, so don't try any.)

The bad: The decidedly average: The food. I can't taste the olive oil or the garlic in the limp pan con tomate, and the sprinkling of dried chives doesn't win any bonus points. The cheese and spinach croquettes are pretty tasteless (though the meat ones aren't half bad), and the calamari are overpowered by the batter. I didn't much like their olives either. The tortilla, the chorizo, the sliced meat selection and the slice of manchengo are pretty nice though, if nothing special.

The verdict: I'll come back to try the beer next time I'm in the area. But for tapas in London, so far Barrafina has no challengers (that I've visited).

The post script: I've been a bit busy with work and things recently, so the restaurants in need of posting have been piling up. This new, shorter format is a bit of an experiment to get me through the backlog.

Camino, The Regent Quarter, King's Cross N1 9AF; Tel: 020 7841 7331; Tube: King's Cross; www.camino.uk.com

Monday, May 12, 2008

Hoxton Grille

The location: Bang in the middle of Hoxton/Shoreditch trendiness, in the Hoxton hotel, the brain child of the man who founded Pret. You can buy breakfast and booze from reception and if you are lucky they even do special offers on rooms for a quid.

The spec: A trendy yet cosy space ran by the Grille chain. You can also have cocktails and snacks (eg mini burgers) in the comfy chairs in the lobby, overhung by stunning paper eagles.

The good: I like the paper birds, the vibe and the super friendly service.
The rump steak (15) is a very good cut, beautifully served on a wooden board with a mini-bucket of crispy chips (Yes, I know this kind of presentation is over-used these days, but I still find it cute.)
The Marquis red house wine (3.85) and the amazing alcohol-free fruit cocktail (2.50) they offered to knock up for the husband suffering from the excesses of the night before.

The bad: The veggie lasagna (10) - it's just very bland.
And the fact that if we'd been less dithery and got there 10 minutes earlier we could have had the steak for an astounding seven quid as part of their early bird deal.

The verdict: Will be back for more steak next time we are in the area before 7pm. And may be for cocktails if someone else is paying :-)

Hoxton Grille, 81 Great Eastern Street, EC2A 3HU; Tel. 0207 739 9111; Tube: Old Street

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Few things beat a random, middle of the week day off spent doing very little other than having a long, leisurely lunch somewhere posh.
Hibiscus -- Michelin-starred and recently transported from button-cute Ludlow to snooty Mayfair -- fits the bill perfectly with its unbelievable £25 three course lunchtime set menu.
Inside, it is surprisingly small and very brown - right down to the browny golden hat-shaped glass plates on the place settings. Quite a few of the customers seem to be regulars, warmly greeted by the friendly and numerous waiting staff.

First comes a freebie of soup, served in an egg shell, with the runny yolk nestling underneath the delicate vegetable (I think it was asparagus) liquid. It looks stunning inside the huge white circle of the plate and taste brilliant save for the tiny bit of runny egg white left on the yolk.
There is also bread with very creamy butter.

The carpaccio is as good as any I've had, and I also enjoy the richness of the mango ice cream -- though perhaps not in the same mouthful as the meat.

A giant ravioli (raviolo?) is plump with delicate cod brandade with (luckily!) not very detectable liquorish root.

Next is Cornish silver mullet with crispy skin and

suffolk guniea fowl stuffed with mushroom with creamy mash.
I don't spot the advertised douglas fir, though it's probably just as well as I am not sure a 20 to 100 metre tree would fit in the restaurant, let alone on the plate.

For desert, we have an Italian shortbread with strawberries, strawberry gel, curd cheese ice cream... and an utterly amazing chocolate creation.

With a couple of aperetifs and a bottle of wine (a very nice Torrontes for just £16.75), the bill comes to £5 less than I paid earlier that week for an utterly average two course lunch for two in Chez Gerard.

Hibiscus, 29 Maddox Street, W1S 2PA; Tel. 0207 629 2999www.hibiscusrestaurant.co.uk