Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I'm always hesitant when people suggest dinner in a tapas joint, because in my experience the food's usually very mediocre and the atmosphere a pale shadow of the bustling bars we sampled on holiday in Barcelona. So I decided to check out Barrafina, and mark off another place from Time Out's Top 50 list (total so far: 15/50).

We arrived quite early on a weeknight, but the L-shaped counter around the open-plan cooking space was already full, so we perched against the back wall for a (mercifully quite short) wait, admiring the displays of seafood and the diminishing head of suckling pig.
Once perched on a high stool, we started with some wine and some pan con tomate (£2.80), which was tasty though I think it's more fun when the restaurant gives you the ingredients to make your own: a toasted piece of bread, a garlic clove and a tomato to rub on it, and some good oil to drizzle on top.

The cold meat platter (£10.50) featured lomo (cured pork loin), chorizo (stained red by dried smoked peppers)and salchichon (a dark, spice-studied pork salami). We had to order bread to go with it (£2), but the extra expense was redeemed by some very nice olive oil.

From the day's specials, we had some very nice clams, zesty with lemon.

Next, I was seduced by the look of a duck egg topped dish prepared in front of us. This turned out to be pisto (£6.80), a Spanish take on ratatouille.
The grilled quail with alioli (£5.80) was beautifully cooked and had me gnawing at the delicate bones in a most unlady like manner.
The description -- "Lightly spiced with black cherries and plums" -- sold us a very nice bottle of Urbezo (£16.50)to wash down the feast.
For me, the place captured the tapas experience perfectly. Our only regret was that we were too full to try the suckling pig.

Barrafina, 54 Frith Street, W1D 4SL; Tel. 0207 813 8016; closed Sundays;

Monday, April 28, 2008


The location: Exmouth Market.

The spec: A shaby chic trendy bar with a modern European menu. The miss-matched chairs and tables outside offer a view of the street life on Exmouth market, and there's also a garden out back. The name (and probably the sign) date back to the butcher shop which used to occupy the spot nearly a century ago.

The good:

The refreshing cold pea soup with a creamy dollop of sour cream.

The marinated baby squid with chorizo and frisee salad (£6)

The disappointing:

The Welsh rarebit (£4.50) -- bit burnt, and lacking in flavour (it could do with a stronger cheddar).

The fatty lamb rump (17.75).

The verdict: Nice spot for a drink and a snack, but a bit too hit and miss on the food.

Medcalf, 40 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE; Tel. 020 7833 3533; Tube: Angel;

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Czech and Slovak House

The house, on a residential stretch of road in West Hampstead, is advertised by a plastic chef outside and a wooden post from which a sign must have once hung. Inside, it feels like a slightly ramshackle hostel, and indeed I think they do let out some rooms to their compatriots. There's a bar and a casual room for eating or drinking, but we were ushered into the restaurant - reminiscent of a living room circa 1970s, with faded wall paper, a portrait of a grim looking officer and another of Havel, and white table cloths.

I wasn't very hungry, so settled on some fried bread with garlic & cheese (a mere 1.50). It might have been nicer with melted cheese, but it packed a strong garlicky punch and went well with the beer.

The fried goose liver with onion & bread (by far the most expensive starter at 7.00) was, to my disappointment, closer to the traditional English dish of liver and onions than to the French foie gras. But its order pronounced it very good.

The others went for roasted wild boar in cream sauce (11), one with saute potatoes and one with sauerkraut. The portions were huge, and the boar's sauce was surprisingly though pleasantly cheesy. The meat though was perhaps a touch tough.
I liked the fact that with each main one side dish of your choice was included - too often I've dithered over the dilemma of the more appealing main versus the one with the more appealing side dish.
On a Sunday afternoon, the place was reasonably busy with people (both Eastern European and English) finishing lunch, starting dinner, or simply having a few beers. The dark Bernard was delicious and cheap by London standards at only 3 quid per half-litre bottle.
The service was friendly, and they were more than happy for us to linger over beers and a game of cards even as the main dinner crowds starter to arrive.

Czech and Slovak House, 74 West End Lane, NW6 2LX; Tel. 0207 372 1193; Tube: West Hampstead;

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


We went to Wembley to watch a Wimbledon womble.
Well, actually we went to watch AFC Wimbledon thrash Corinthian Casuals (the descendants of the team that ruled the leagues more than a century ago) by 8 goals to 1.
Personally, I think Wimbledon won because they were cheered on by a womble, and Corinthians lost because of the very ugly colour scheme on their tops (half pink, half brown, split vertically).

In any case, we needed sustenance to prepare us for the spectacle ahead. Alas, it was Sunday and the local Iraqi restaurant was shut, leaving us with a modern dim sum joint named after a Taiwanese mountain.
The chef was apparently poached from Yauatacha, and there was a reassuring number of Chinese people inside. Plaques at the entrance proclaimed that it's golden dim sum won a runner up prize from The Restaurant Magazine and that the joint was nominated (small letters) for the Harrow (tiny letters) Times (big letters, same font as the national paper) 2007 restaurant award (even bigger letters).
The room was large but soul-less in a modern, corporate hotel-like way. It was also large and quite full, leading to some confusion as to which waiter was serving us and to a longish wait for the food.

First to arrive was a dish of char-grilled asparagus, crunchy lotus root with Swiss cheese holes, mushrooms, Macedonia nuts (we suspect the menu lies and they were Macadamia, but are not sufficient nut experts to know for sure) and other veg (£7.50). The sauce was a bit gloopy, but that seems to be the Chinese way, and otherwise it was a good mix of flavours and textures.
The lauded golden dumplings (£2.80) turned out to be balls of gold-coloured dough filled with juicy prawns. They were nice, but I wouldn't give them any kind of award. The long cheung fung rolls came stuffed with roast duck rather than the prawns we'd asked for, but were pretty good.


For me the highlight were the prawn and chive dumplings (£2.60), pretty in pale green dough and packed with lots of fresh chives. The char sui sticky pork bun (£2.30) was merely alright, not as good as the ones at d.SUM2. The final plate of dumplings was bland, but probably contained prawns.
But I am being too harsh - the food's decent overall, the prices are also decent and you shouldn't underestimate either of those in a location that's both a)far out and b)next to a big tourist-trap-type venue.

Alisan; The Junction, Engineers Way, Wembley, Middlesex, HA9 0EG; Tel. 020 8903 3888; Tube: Wembley Park;

Monday, April 14, 2008


We venture in from the drizzle and enquire about a table for two. "Half an hour," barks the waitress before turning her back on us and scuttling off towards the kitchen.
At Daquise, everything is authentic, old-school Eastern European, right down to the service. We kill time in a pub filled with American tourists ("Do you serve half pints?," one lady enquires at the bar), watching as the weather yo-yos from rain to hail to sunshine and back again in the time it takes us to get through one round of beers. It's the kind of day that calls for plates of hearty, warming food and luckily by now Daquise is slightly emptier. It was shut for a refit a couple of years ago, but to my naked eye nothing has changed. It still has the same red and white checked wipe-clean table cloths, and the same shabby, comfortable aura. There are still a few old souls -- who came here long before Asda was full of delicacies from their homeland, and indeed probably long before there was Asda -- slowly slurping their barszcz (borscht) alongside young families of trendy South Kensingtonians in search of retro chic. The menu offers few starters and one token salad (chief ingredients: tuna, eggs, potatoes), but given the size of the mains I doubt many could manage more than one course anyway.

I have the pierogi, large dumplings filled with surprisingly tender meat, curd cheese or a mix of mushrooms and cabbage, and served with crispy bacon bits and a lonely tomato segment for anyone on a health kick. I smother them in sour cream and tuck in with relish, trying not to think about the bathroom scaled on Monday morning.

My friend is lured by the potato pancake (advertised as a house speciality) and opts for one served with Hungarian goulash. The pancake is huge, the goulash is proper comfort food like grandmothers/babushkas used to make. The only disappointment is the beer selection, featuring nothing more interesting than the Polish lagers now available in every corner shop -- why is that the more interesting beers from Eastern Europe never make it over here?
We are too stuffed to even contemplate the desert menu (which includes more dumplings). With a couple of the lagers, the bill for the two of us comes to a very old-fashioned £24 with service and we reluctantly waddle back out into the English "spring".

Conclusion: Not a destination restaurant as such, but a perfect place to refuel if you are visiting the museums and after some hearty comfort. Another good bet in the area is the Creperie, though it tends to be packed on the weekends.

PS Does anyone actually know what Daquise means? Seems an odd French-sounding name for a Polish restaurant.

Daquise, 20 Thurloe Street, SW7 2LT; Tel. 020 7589 6117; Tube: South Kensington

Thursday, April 10, 2008

CLOSED - The Ambassador

** UPDATE OCTOBER 2011 - The restaurant has closed, and a Japanese place looks set to open in its place.

Last weekend the husband was away having fun (getting bruised by paint bullets, then dulling the pain with copious alcohol), while I was home working. So I reckoned I deserved to treat myself. A lunch in the sunshine on Exmouth Market was just the ticket.
I was craving the bright green nettle soup that I'd tried in Ambassadors a year or so ago, but it wasn't on the menu. So trying to stay vaguely healthy yet colourful,

I opted for a small beetroot risotto (£6.50) instead.
The healthiness was slightly thwarted by the generous splash of olive oil and the white pool of gloriously creamy, melted goats chese topping the vibrant red rice. It was a blissful plate to nibble on while looking through their selection of weekend papers over a glass of white Abruzzo (£3.50) from the extensive wine list.
Conclusion, a fabulous couple of hours' treat for only £10 (plus service).

The Ambassador, 55 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QL; Tel. 0207 837009; Tube: Angel;; closed Sunday evening

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Number Twelve

I was intrigued by Number Twelve -- it's not often that you get good reviews for hotel restaurants (unless they are really super-posh hotels).
This restaurant also happens to be based in the hotel where we stayed for a couple of nights many moons ago, while flat-hunting for our move to London. Now we are plotting our departure (for a few years) so a visit to the restaurant had a nice full circle feel to it.
The hotel has had a complete refit in the intervening years -- my memories are all of chintz and flowery bed spreads, but the photos on the website are all minimalist chic. The restaurant is modern too, but still feels like a hotel eaterie, its decor unmemorable except for the pretty flower stems etched into the flower-to-ceiling windows.
The place was empty, which didn't add to the atmosphere, but then it was 2.30pm on a Sunday. Luckily they sat us at a window overlooking the narrow Woburn Walk, with its pretty balconies, so we could people watch and utterly forget about the empty restaurant behind us. Plus we got two friendly waiting staff to ourselves, ensuring speedy service.

The home-made bread selection was amazing and, at £2, utterly bargainous. I could come here and just eat that with a glass of wine and consider it a pretty perfect repast. This included bread topped with manchengo-like cheese, a croissant-shaped roll speckled with walnuts, a focaccia-tyle cube studded with a cherry tomato .... and plenty of fragrant olive oil to dip it all in.

The 'small' chicory salad (£5.95) featured half a chicory head, its bitterness off-set by slices of pear and walnut, in a surprisingly light dressing Coston Basset stilton (they are big on provenance here), all topped with crispy fried parsley.

The juicy Donald Russell rib eye (£12) came with a gratin dauphinoise which managed to be utterly moreish despite being light on the cream and the cheese, beautifully cooked French green beans and a cute shot glass of the potent meat juices.

From the more than two dozen (!) wines available by the glass or a 375 ml carafe, I chose a glass of the cheapest -- a rich, pungent Temparanillo for a very reasonable £3.50. Generally I'd say the place was pretty good value (especially if you fill up on the bread!) -- their pre-theatre menu includes half a bottle of wine per person, and comes at a very reasonable £22.95 for two courses or £25.95 for three.
And they even give some very nice freebie cakes with the bill!

My biggest regret was that, as it was lunchtime, we were too full to try the huge cheese selection from La Fromagerie (£8.95). Guess we'll just have to come back!

PS While you are in the area, I can highly recommend a visit to the Wellcome Collection, where, among other things, you can see every possible design of forceps, a shrunken head and Napoleon's toothbrush. They do great 30 minute tours perfectly tailored to our (my) modern short attention spans.

Number Twelve, 12 Upper Woburn Place, WC1H 0HX; Tel. 0207 693 5425; Tube: Euston or Russell Square;; closed Saturday lunchtime and Sunday evening.
There's a 25% off food deal on toptable at the moment, and on our bill there was also a voucher for 25% off food if you come back within a month.

Friday, April 04, 2008


This was my first visit to a Malaysian-European restaurant. The decor straddles the two cultures: there are Asian religious prints and pink flowers which I associate with Chinese restaurants on the tables, yet the place maintains a certain modern European minimalism. The overall effect is warm and pleasant.
The menu alternates familiar-sounding European dishes like fillet of sea bass (£12.50) with Malaysian ones like ayam masak lemak (£10.50) -- only it doesn't actually give any indication of what that might actually involve. Well, we are always game for a challenge and so ordered blindly as it were.

The cucur badak (£5) turned out to be rather tasty little sweet potato patties, stuffed with prawns, vegetables, rice and all manner of spices and served with slices of pineapple a yoghurt dip to take an edge off the spiciness.

The roti canai (£4.00), traditional Malaysian flat bread to me tasted like a sweetened sheet of puff pastry. It turned up with three little sides -- some pink pickled onions, a dark fruity pickle and some yellow dhal-like substance that tasted of split peas. I think the yoghurt from the other starter would have worked better.

For mains, ayam masak kicap (£10.50) featured moist, generous-sized and well-cooked chicken which was rather spoilt by a thick, dark, sweet sauce in which the husband detected traces of liquorish (I didn't). It would have gone OK with duck, but completely overpowered the chicken.

The ikan Asam pedas (£12.50) was much better, a creamy, coconuty fish curry, with a sauce not dissimilar to those found in Thai cooking. Both dishes came with a little mountain of rice, some pickles and a little pine-apple heavy side garnish.

The drinks list is unexciting (Malaysian beers or wines - if they exist? - are not represented), but pleasing enough. The waitress knowledgeable suggests a Vionier as an alternative to the out-of-stock Vino Verde, but we go for the New Zealand Sauvingon Blanc instead (£17.50). There's also a large selection of booze by the glass.

Conclusion: two good dishes, two not so good. Normally, that wouldn't warrant a return visit in an area amply supplied with great restaurants. But I liked the feel of the place, and was intrigued by the concept, so may well be back. Perhaps next time I'll try some of the European dishes.

54, 54 Farringdon Road, EC1 3BL; Tel. 0207 336 0603; Tube: Farringdon;; They are on toptable, currently offering various deals, including 50 percent off food on Mondays and Tuesdays.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008


Unlike most in Indian restaurants, Chowki specialises in distinctive regional dishes, with each month featuring three regions, each offering three starters, three mains and a pudding.

I started with a quail(£4.25)from Rajastan, the historically war-like, desert state. The bird -- cooked in onion and tomato masala, with roasted cumin, coriander of lemon juice -- was very juicy and had be gnawing at every last scrap in a most unladylike manner.
The semolina prawns (£4.50) hailed from Mangalore, the cashew and coffee capital on India's Western coast. The four prawns were good-sized but a little bit on the dry side for my liking.

The vegetarian curry from Mangalore (£8.95) was luxurious mix of mushrooms and spinach, with an almost cheesy flavour, despite being advertised as coming in a tomato gravy. I thought it would have been a perfect filling for a French crepe, perhaps with a fried egg on top!

The lamb stew (£11.95) -- billed as an ancient Rajasthani delicacy -- featured tasty, juicy meat in a spicy sauce. (The husband's main memory of it though turns out to be the fact that he only got rice, dhal and rotti-type bread to go with it, while those who'd opted for the three-course "feast" menu (£14.95) got four side orders.)
I wasn't a fan of the milk-based deserts (around £3), but I was quite full anyway and the others ate them happily enough, plus there are also ice creams on offer.
The decor was a bit plain and canteen-like, and the service verged on the inattentive, but this was all more than over-ruled by the delicious food. Price-wise it's certainly not the cheapest curry house in town, but I'd say it ranks pretty highly on the value-for-money stakes. It is all the more of a find for being in tourist-central, just a few steps down a side street from the hustle and bustle of Piccadilly Circus.

Chowki, 2-3 Denman Street, W1D 7HA; Tel: 020 7439 1330; Tube: Piccadilly; Chowki offers 2-4-1 to tastelondon card-holders.