Wednesday, February 27, 2008


A friend was DJ-ing at a rather nice pub called The Albany near Great Portland Street a few weeks ago, so we took the opportunity to seek out dinner away from our usual haunts. There were lots of Turkish places but I was fresh from my month-long cheese fast and some grilled slices of halloumi were unlikely to satisfy. There was also The Villandry, where we once had a perfectly nice if overpriced brunch (though to be fair this was many years ago, before I'd really got used to London restaurant prices). Still, it looked empty, and I'd read some mixed reviews of it, so we settled on Demartino – a reassuringly full-looking Italian.
Inside their were black and white shots of film stars like DeNiro (was he the Rob referred to in the menu, where the Rigatoni with Tuscan sausages and meatballs is described as “Rob's favourite”?), and a large, neglected-looking accordion in one corner (whose long-since-played demeanour made the music-loving husband very sad).

Even though they are not in season yet, I chose the fresh asparagus topped with parma ham, buffalo mozzarella with balsamic dressing (8.00). It was a huge, fresh-tasting plate, though I was a bit surprised at it being served cold. The husband opted for a competent insalate tricolore of buffalo mozzarella, avocado & plum tomatoes (8.00).

For my main, the spinach gnocchi with four cheese sauce (7.00) was ample, and perfectly fulfilled my craving for formaggi. The husband had delicate yet meaty wild boar ragout on a mount of pappardelle pasta (9.50). (Incidentally, I once remember seeing an entire book devoted to which sort of pasta goes best with which kind of recipe – though it's not something I've ever tried to implement at home. To me, it seems, that a bit of cooked dough is a bit of cooked dough, whatever way it's shaped.)
Throughout, the place had a lovely, family-run, regulars-filled kind of vibe of a good neighbourhood joint, as well as a reassuring smattering of Italian visitors. With a bottle of OK wine, we got off at under 50.00. Sure, it wasn't stellar enough to warrant a separate trip but we might well return if there's another gig at the Albany.

Demartino, 196/198 Great Portland Street, W1N 5TB; Tel: 020 7436 2547; Tube: Great Portland Street;

Monday, February 25, 2008

Broadway Market

This weekend was a rather superlative one, and I spent most of Saturday full of admirational adjectives. The first recipient was Broadway Market -- a little gem hidden by London Fields in Hackney. It's a much more manageable size than Borough market, but also filled with all manner of edible delicacies. The road itself is also full of character -- trendy looking (non-chain!) coffee shops intermingle with an old-fashioned pie, mash and jellied eels joint, a pub with a lengthy Belgian beer menu, a hardware shop, etc.
Last year, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Raymond Blanc's The Restaurant, and developed a particular spot for the Ghanaian couple running Spinach and Agushi (the latter being a kind of West African soup, apparently). Well, it turns out they are still in business with a stall at this very market.

We sampled a "small" portion (£5.50) of their mixed selection. It was huge and tasty, though I think this kind of food does work better in a street stall setting than a fancy restaurant with drizzles of this and foams of that. There was chicken in a more-ish peanut sauce, spicy kidney beans, contrasting sweetness of plantain, rice, a meat stew, and a sprinkling of peppery rocket leaves on top.

Ever a sucker for pancakes, I also couldn't resist a ham-egg-and-cheese combo from the neighbouring stall (£4.50). They asked if I'd prefer emental or cheddar, and I chose the former for authenticity's sake, but was taken aback once the pancake was ready to be charged an extra 30 pence for the privilege (though admittedly this was mentioned in the small print of the menu). It was a good crepe though, made with traditional sarasin flour, and the ham was good quality thickly cut stuff.
Alas, that left us far too full to contemplate any of the other delicacies on offer, such as wild mushrooms on toast (though we did by some mushrooms to use at home), or the rows of scrumptious looking quiches and cakes. But, hey that just gives us the excuse for a return visit, and soon.
We did have some well-kept ale at The Dove pub on the market though. It's a nice, wood-covered pub with a slight warren-like quality, a menu of Belgian beers as well as several real ales on tap and some rather appetising looking food.

Broadway Market, Saturdays 9am-5pm, London Fields, E8; Tube: Bethnal Green, or London Fields rail;

Thursday, February 21, 2008

My Top 10 London Restaurants

Ever since reading Krista's take on the top 10 London restaurants, I've been thinking about compiling my own. And thinking, and thinking.
The trouble is that the places where I eat out the most tend to be near to where I live or work - yes, they are favourites, but some of them probably wouldn't be if I had to trek half way across town to get to them. As for further away places, many have only been visited one or twice, which I think is probably not enough to judge them fully. Then there are places which I like for reasons other than their food - like the Quecumbar, where the atmosphere, the gypsy jazz and the garden are all great but the food is very mediocre. Should I include them? Should I go for a varied list (a posh place, a lunch place, a music place, etc)?
In the end, I've decided to come up with two lists, in alphabetical order (so the numbering is arbitrary).
One is just the top 10 restaurants that I love in London and is inevitably heavily influenced by my location:

1. 19 Numara Bos Cirrik. For the glorious pide (Turkish pizzas), the chance to bring-your-own, the huge onion-heavy freebie salads. Unfussy, tasty and cheap dining and very handy for the Vortex or the Arcola.

2. Daquise. A little corner of old-school Eastern Europe in elegant South Ken. For the checked table cloths, immigrant clientele and huge portions of stodgy comfort food like pierogi. (You can take the girl out of Eastern Europe but...) Na Zdrowie (aka Bar Polski) near Holborn also does great pierogi.

3. The Eagle. For the huge piles of potato wedges smothered in cheese and chorizo and washed down with pints of interesting beer in their gloriously ramshackle garden. And the fact that it features in a nursery rhyme.

4. Le Gavroche. OK, this is kind of cheating as I've only been there once, but I loved it. It's the ultimate experience of old-fashioned elegant dining, and the lunchtime menu is a (relative!) bargain.

5. Le Mercury. For cheap, tasty food and dripping candles in a slightly ramshackle house.
(Little Bay comes a close second in this genre.)

6 .Portal. For posh Portuguese in a stylish, modern setting.

7. St John. Forget the restaurant and sit in the warehouse-chic bar, order some Greenwich Meantime beer and pig out on all manner of things on toast, especially the bone marrow. The branch in Spitalfields is also very good.

8. Venezia. My neighbourhood old fashioned Italian, where the bruschettas, the fillet steak with dolcelatte and the sauté potatoes are always perfect. Comfort food at its best (and hence one for the locals, as I think travelling rather defeats the point of comfort food).

9. Vinoteca. For the wine, the ever-changing food menu, the friendly staff - pretty much for every reason really. This is my favourite favourite.

10. Mela. For gorgeous, unusual Indian food - a real change from Brick Lane staples, and all the more surprising for the tourist-central location.

The second is a list of five places I tried once in the past year and really liked, but feel I need to go back to before I decide if they are worthy of promotion to the first list.

1. Angelus. For the foie gras.
2. J Sheekey. Don't think I ever actually got round to writing a review (so the link is to Time Out), but I was bowled by the fish, the pint of prawns served in a pewter tankard and the attentive service.
3. Metrogusto. For unusual Italian food.
4. Rules. For an eating experience from another era.
5. Shanghai Blues. For elegance, cocktails and jazz.

And what are your top 10, or even top 5?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Royal China

Enter into Royal China and you are immediately transported far, far from the stylish bars and glass towers world of Canary Wharf and into a typical Chinese restaurant in England any year between now and, ooh, 1980. There are large, round tables with the lazy-susans, a yellow colour scheme, leather-bound menus, waitresses in "traditional" dress. (Just make sure you avoid the windows, or the stunnning riverside views of modern skyscrapers will ruin the illusion.)
But it's the food, not the decor that packs this place every lunchtime with local workers, and secures it a good reputation amongst those who've spent years in Asia.
There's a good value, two course business lunch on offer for GBP 11, but for my money (and not very much of it, espesially considering this is the Wharf) you really can't beat the dim sum.
There are daily specials such abalone, or prawns in parma ham, but this time we opted for the main menu.

The steamed curry squid (2.40) brought a plate of tiny little molluscs, yellowed by the spicy sauce, the ubiquitous bamboo box locking in the aromas.

The prawn and chive dumplings (2.85 for three) were arguably the star of the show - piles of green, fresh chives contrasting in colour in flavour with big, juicy prawns inside little parcels the mastery of which never ceases to amaze me.

The equi-priced scallop dumplings were a lot less interesting but still nice.
Then came the Royal China's signature cheung fun (3.20 for three) -- long, mini-pancake rolls of the dumpling dough filled with prawns, pork and spices. The final dish of dry shrimp cheung fun (2.85) was left largely uneaten, basically because we were stuffed (even though the waitress had suggested we might want to order more) and partly because dried shrimp ain't a patch on big juicy prawns.
Throw in a couple of tsing taos (3.50 each) and you can have a very filling and tasty meal for two with service (added at 13 percent) for under 30 quid. Be careful though - we ordered a side of pak choy, which was delicately flavoured with ginger and garlic. But its deliciousness was somewhat reduced when the bill revealed the 8.20 price tag, which on closer examination turned out to be in line with other side dishes.
But hey, when the prawns are cheap who cares about the veg? This is almost certainly my favourite venue in the area so far.

Royal China Riverside, 20 West Ferry Circus, E14 8RR; Tel. 0207 719 0888; Tube: Canary Wharf;

Monday, February 18, 2008

Europe's longest most disappointing champagne bar.

Although in real life I am more likely to be found on the megabus than on the Orient Express, I do love the idea of elegant travel and was thus rather excited by the opening of the Europe's longest champagne bar in St. Pancras. It seemed like the perfect place to start a trip to Paris. St Pancras itself has scrubbed up beautifully, and is stunning - especially the glass ceiling criss-crossed by delicate-blue metal supports. We swished past the shops (all Pain Quotidien this and Foyles that and not a greasy pasty in sight), and followed the signs up the escalator to the bar. And did a double-take.

People were huddled around three sides of a rectangular shaped bar that was, at most, ooh, 15 metres long. Closer examination revealed that there were two long (non-connected) off shoots to either side, where people could sit in booth formation, or stand/perch around high tables. Supposedly these offshoots create the longest serving area for the fizzy stuff, thus justifying the lofty claim.

Despite its famed length, the "bar" offers limited seating spaces and on our visit was pretty full with travellers -- some going the whole hog with a bottle for two, others sipping demurely on cups of tea (why would you go to a champagne bar, on your own, and order tea?!), and one couple for whom the champagne clearly hadn't sparked any romance -- they were barricaded against any conversation by each other's lap top screens.
We sampled the two cheapest options (£8.50 by the glass) which were distinctly different in flavour -- one almost sherry like in its dryness, the other more-traditional tasting and more pleasant – and treated ourselves to five parmesan cheese straws for £3.50.

The menu includes various snacky foods and even a special selection of Valentine's canapés. For £80 you get a nice bottle of champers and a platter for two including oysters, quail's eggs and other delicacies. In fairness, it's much better value than many seasonal offerings, but then you may well lose brownie points when your sweet nothings are interrupted by "This is a security announcement..." bellowing from the station's tannoy…

Champagne Bar, St Pancras Station, NW1 2QP; Tube: Kings Cross;

Thursday, February 14, 2008

My Funny Valentine

Reading about blood diamonds, chocolate made by child labour and pesticide-poisoned roses put me in a suitably cheery mood for Valentine's Day, so I thought I would mark it with a brief summary of restaurants that are no more.

Thus Ember on Turmill Street has shut its doors before I ever got round to visiting. It was a trendy-looking bar (all low leather stools and dark lighting), with a trendy-looking menu (cocktails and platters), but somehow just never seemed that tempting compared to, say, the buzz of The Castle pub next door or the relatively new St Germain brasserie a little further up the road. And now, I've missed the opportunity. Ah well.

Another recently spotted demise is the Epicurean Lounge -- a self-styled gourmet pizza joint on Clerkenwell Green. Technically it's still going, according to its website, but it's now only open for private functions. This one I did manage to visit, and was bemused by the fillet steak topped pizza. It was good steak, and good pizza. But I was not convinced that either benefited from the combination, or by the price tag pushing £20. They also used to do lobster pizza...

The third depature is of the all-you-can-eat Covent Garden sushi joint, Gili Gulu. Sure, the rice-to-fish ratio on their maki left a lot to be desired. But it was still raw fish and you could eat as much as you liked (cue plate-stacking competitons from the lads). Still, I've discovered a new and nicer venue that offers a similar deal, Hi Sushi. I liked the one in Soho, but their Camden branch also attracts decent reviews.

PS Perhaps because I eat quite a lot anyway, I've never really felt the need/desire to fork out the you-must-feel-romantic-this-evening-or-else, look-we've-even-thrown-in-some-oysters-and-a-"free"-glass-of-cheap-fizz-in-the-process-of-doubling-our-usual-prices kind of Valentine's meals. Where do other regular eat-outers stand on this??

Wednesday, February 13, 2008


On our trip to China this summer, one of the most memorable good meals was a Sichuna hot pot, so I was keen to check out a place serving them with the husband spotted on the edges of China town. Arriving at the designated spot, I thought it must have shut as all I could see was a shabby place serving one of those gloopy-looking all you can eat buffets. However a peek through the window revealed that all the diners looked Chinese and many seemed to be eating stuff unspotted on the hot trays. We braved it -- and were very glad we did. Tellingly, the only English bit of their website is the street addresses (turns out they also have branches in Manchester and Birmingham, but I wasn't the only one off to be thrown by appearances. The waitress confirmed that they did indeed serve hotpot for £20 per person and brought a large electric hot-plate type device.

Then the hot pot itself arrived with red-chili-flecked stock around the outside basin and non-spicy stuff in the middle. They are not licensed, but the frequently replenished Chinese tea probably did a better job in quenching the fire of the chilli than beer or wine.
We filled our little bowls with garlic, chillies, oil and herbs from the condiments selection on a table round the back (but decided to skip on the MSG), ready for dipping the cooked food into.

And then the platter arrived. It was huge. Ginormous. And they said they'd bring more of anything if we finished. There were huge prawns, fish balls, red slivers of beef (very easy to overcook), mushrooms, greens, noodles, potatoes, sausages, etc, etc. We took turns to drop things in the pot and fish out moments later. Despite the grotty setting it felt like a feast for kings -- and I reckon was big enough to satisfy even Henry VIII's appetite! And all for the price of four poached eggs (sorry, I still can't get over at pricing).
Red'n'Hot; 59 Charing Cross Road, WC2H 0NE; Tel. 0207734 8796; Tube: Leicester Square;

Monday, February 11, 2008

Rivington Grill

In restaurants, as everywhere else in life, things will go wrong. The crux is how such incidents are handled. Some places are staunchly unapologetic, pretending nothing is wrong – in my experience these have included Flaneur and the now-defunct Abbaye where they didn't seem in the least bit bothered that we barely touched the two large bowls of mussels.
Others though realise that they can yet save the day – and your future custom.
On a recent visit to Rivington Grill, one of the party had another appointment to rush off to, so we asked whether an hour would be enough time for two courses, and received an affirmative answer. In the event, the main courses were nowhere to be seen by the time he had to leave, but the staff were apologetic and happily canceled his order. Don't feel to sorry for him though because I think he won with the starter – a large mount of tiny, meaty potted shrimps on toast for (an admitedly rather hefty) £8.75.

My wild mushrooms (£8.75) were nice, but had been dumped on the toast just before serving, meaning that, unlike in the Fox & Anchor, the bread hadn't had the opportunity to soak up all the lovely cooking juices.

The eel salad (£7.75) came with beetroot (seemingly a very trendy ingredient these days, but not everyone's cup of borscht) and a lovely sour-creamy, horseradishy sauce.

On the main courses, I think won with the scallops – three large beasts in their shells, teamed with some delicate mash and crispy bacon (£15.50). The suckling pig – served with some deliciously buttery green beans -- also got the thumbs up from its eater (£15.75).
But the grilled sea bream (£15.50) was hopelessly overcooked and left largely uneaten. The friendly waitress picked up on this immediately, agreed that it looked overdone and took it off the bill – although I suppose in an ideal world someone should have noticed before it left the kitchen.
That (together with a delicious dark chocolate mousse for desert, £5.75) ensured that we were left with a pleasant taste after the dinner.
There is a lot to like about the Rivington Grill. It is a stylish white room, with a few quirky touches, like some lights that spell out f*cking beautiful (my starts for fear of your internet propriety settings) backwards and a mirror on the next wall for easy decoding. The menu is the kind of modern British food that's becoming a bit of a cliché but still tastes damn good (however many times I see it, I can't help smiling at places which have an 'on toast' section). The staff are friendly. There's a big long bar where you can drink and snack to your heart's content. There's lots of beer on offer, from St Peter's to Grenwich Meantime breweries among others, and English wines.
I suppose my main quibble would be the fact that along with following all the other modern British restaurant trends, it's signed upto the aggressive pricing one too. Even with the deductions the bill came to £153.23 for what eventually was 4 starters, 2 mains, 1 desert, 2 bottles of wine and 3 beers, including service. Sure, it's miles (or pounds) away from the five quid egg, but it seems like quite a lot.
Then again may be I've just got them pre-pay-day blues!
Rivington Grill, 28-30 Rivington Street, EC2A 3DZ; Tel.020 7729 7053; Tube: Old Street

PS Have just realised that they are owned by the same people as The Ivy and J. Sheeky – so perhaps I should be less surprised at the prices!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Kolossi Grill

Exmouth market is full of great places to eat*, so it's perhaps unsurprising that for years we'd entirely overlooked a little corner Greek place just off the main drag.
Passing by one day though I was attracted by a rather good review from Hardens in the window (think it was from a previous year, though the current one's not bad either). It was a Friday night, but they managed to squeeze us in.
The place ain't gonna win any modern design awards, but I loved all the vines strewn across the ceiling, the friendly Cypriotic waiters (who seemed to hark back to the days or the countries where being a waiter is a sought-after career full of men well past their middle age mark) and the buzz created by the close together tables and the small groups of regulars dining around us.
I loved the exclusively Cypriotic wine list too (though I was slightly less enamoured with our bottle of white Aphrodite).
Now all they had to do is provide some half way edible food and they'd have another couple of regulars.
Alas, it was not too be. We had the souvla meze, a wealth of dishes most of which -- starting with the houmous -- fell firmly in the blah category.
Some, like the taramasalata, the greasy calamari or, more importantly the main course of souvla (prime cuts of lamb cooked over an open fire) were unpleasant. Sure, I enjoyed the freshness of the Greek salad, the grilled halloumi cheese and the flavour-full, buttery marinated mushrooms. And I was more than full without having more than a mouthful of the dishes I actively disliked -- too full to be tempted by the fruit platter which also comes as part of the set meal.
But however much I liked the place and the atmosphere, and however much I irrationally feel guilty for giving it the thumbs down, I just can't overlook the fact that the food in neighbouring Sofra tastes nicer -- and that's saying something.
Kolossi Grill, 56-60 Rosebury Avenue, EC1R 4RR; Tel. 0207 2785758 Tube: Angel;

* Oops, putting in the links for that bit has made me realised that I've never really reviewed my favourite places on the stretch, namely The Ambassador (where I learned to love nettle soup) and Moro. Perfect - an excuse for return visits to both, and soon!

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The mind boggles...

Mostly, as you know, this blog is about restaurants. But sometimes I am so struck by some non-restaurant food or concept, that I just have to share it with you (OK, more realistically, to share it with myself in an internet context).

To cut a long story short, today I discovered that you can buy a cheeseburger burger. In a tin. Which you boil.
In the picture, this tinned, boiled burger actually looks surprisingly appetising -- with lettuce, onions, tomatoes... And at 257 calories and 3.95 euros it's not only healthy but cheap. Gastro pubs eat your heart out. Or not...

Given my experience of eating in Berlin (a boiled fillet steak comes to mind) I am not surprised that this delicacy is available from a German website.

PS If you want to expand your food-blog-reading repertoire, check out the links from the Foodie Blogroll which has now appeared in the right hand margin.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Marks & Spencer's Cafe Revive

I don't normally review sandwich places, but I was very impressed with my lunch today so I thought I'd mention it. As well as the usual array of posh ready meals (and basics like miniature tins of dog food for the strange people who do their entire weekly shop there!) some of the bigger food sections of M&S have a cafe section offering hot food. Setting wise, of course, eating inside a supermarket is a bit of bizarre experience. At lunchtime near Moorgate, I'd say the hustle and bustle was probably to manic for chilled people watching, and there was a longish queue for the food (you pay, get given a number receipt and wait). But, in a world of cold sandwiches and the odd jacket potato or toasted ciabatta, they offer a refreshingly diverse selection of hot meals. There's various burgers, pizza and specials which today included a red thai curry and a chili con carne. For me though, it had to be the cheese burger. For under £4, you get a nice, chunky roll with a good crust (none of your namby-pamby burger baps), filled with fresh tomato relish, salad, cheese and, of course, a burger. For an extra quid, the meal deal also adds in some luscious, crispy-coated, hand-made-looking and -tasting chips and a drink. That's not far off what you might pay for a McDonald's or Burger King, but taste-wise it's miles and miles away. My only quibble was that the burger could have been a bit less well done, but overall it was much nicer than most specimens I've sampled in gastropubs for twice the price or more.
Marks & Spencer's Cafe Revive, 70 Finsbury Pavement; London; EC2A 1SA; Tube: Moorgate or Liverpool Street (and other branches, including Canary Wharf)

Friday, February 01, 2008

Gaucho Grill - moo!

Sure, the Gaucho is a gimmicky chain. But I liked it -- starting with the chairs covered in black and white splodges of fake cow fur. It's a business lunch kind of place in a business lunch kind of location. (Apparently it's open on Sundays too, with live music, but for me it's an implausible image.)
Before we've had a chance to look at the menu, a waitress comes up with a wooden board featuring several slabs of red, raw meat. She explains what the different cuts are and what level of cooking (rare, medium, etc) is best for each. A nice touch (my companion jokes that this would be the ideal place to take a vegetarian), but it's too much detail to digest in one go and her strong accent doesn't really help so they might be better off just having a more informative menu.
Bizarrely the two suits in the next table are both having fish. We play the game though. I discover that 300 grams of rump (£13.50) is actually a huge portion, but it's nicely rare and flavoursome and I manage to finish the lot. My companion has a more modest 200 grams of less modest fillet (£16). (The standard sizes go up to 400 grams, but the menu helpfully says that "all steaks can be served in larger sizes". Whole cow anyone?). The chips come in both thick and thin varieties (£2.25) and there are also three other sorts of potatoes on offer. At these prices though, you might expect that sort of thing to be included, rather than to have to pay £5.75 extra for some grilled veggies. The sauces, of course, are also extra, and I am a bit disappointed with the blue cheese one (£2.00) which tastes a bit artificial and is not a patch on the dolcelatte one in Venezia.
Another disappointment is the cheese course -- £6.75 gets you a wooden board with three slivers of Argentinian cheese and some quince jelly. The one a bit like manchengo is quite nice but the other two are pretty unpleasant and for perhaps the first time ever I don't finish. (Don't worry, I didn't break my January cheese fast, I've just been very slow about writing up meals eaten as far back as December).
For two steaks, a cheese, a desert and a couple of glasses of wine each (at almost £6a glass for the cheapest on offer!) the bill tips well over the £100 mark. I have to agree that it's rip off territory. But then I wasn't paying. The service was fine and the company was good. I liked the steak and the cow seats and the cheese bread they served before the meal. So I'd go back -- as long as it's another business lunch.
Gaucho Grill, 29 Westferry Circus, Canary Riverside E14 8RR; Tel. 020 7987 9494; Tube: Canary Wharf;