Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Encore Un Fois - Perhaps Not

I feel my role is as much to recommend good places to go as it is to offer a full review of as many restaurants in London that I eat at. But clearly, in the normal course of my daily appetite, which naturally must be served three times a day, and regrettably too often away from home, I will eat at places that I wouldn’t want my readers to hurry to.

Today’s entry is a place that would fulfil this criterion. It wasn’t terrible. I just wouldn’t want to recommend it when London boasts so many great places to eat. Fortunately the occasion was always going to outshine the food so the disappointment in this regard was easily recompensed by the rip roaring good time that was had by all.

Café Des Amis, in the heart of London’s trendy West End (that phrase is in desperate need of updating – perhaps “in the pelvis of London’s sex district”, or “in the think tank of London’s media district”) is a long term relic of a time when anything with a French name on a menu in London was seen as exotic and sophisticated. Fortunately we have moved on from this time, and though the general feel of the place implies that Café des Amis haven’t, their cooking does suggest that their 25 year tenure is deserved, albeit rather unspectacularly.

A bunch of 8 of us took over their private room for lunch, as we suspected that our rowdiness might distract other diners from their quiet food. We had much to discuss, and by pretending it was in secret, it lent the whole event some much needed gravitas. The rooms itself didn’t really work and I really wouldn’t suggest any of you were to hire it except for ironic purposes, although I did enjoy the sense of having our own room with nice first floor windows onto a busy Covent Garden street.

The menu had all the typical features of a dated French bistro – onion soup, moules, oysters – as well as a few things I had no idea about. What on earth is an eblysotto? Why put it on your menu. As irritating as I find non French restaurants writing a menu in French, I find it more so when you encounter a term so remote (even for the French apparently) that the waitress gets to use her knowledge of the term to slap you around your peeg eegnorant English face with.

I opted for moules marinière (concerningly misspelled on the menu) to start with and then steak tartare to follow. The moules were vile. I should have known not to order something a) that is misspelled, and b) that is never as good as in the South of France, where they are positively orgasmic. I am at pains to say whether there was not enough sauce or too much, because though there was just a dribble in the bottom of the bowl, it was enough to repellently kiss all the shriveled up little molluscs to make their death a tragic shame. Good moules marinière should have a strong wine flavour to the sauce, and big juicy moules, and plenty of sauce to mop up with nice baguette afterwards. This could not be said of their effort. Things did look up with the steak tartare which was nicely flavoured, spicy, and heavy in what I believe is known as umami, but is normally just pronounced “mmmm”. I had “triple cooked chips” which I think must have been a joke. Either that or the chef didn’t know how to count. The others were relatively well satisfied with theirs. No one was sick, no one vowed this to be the best meal they had ever eaten. But given the prices, we could have reasonably expected to be a little more impressed than we were. One of our group, a virgin meat eater having recently (last week) converted from being a lifelong vegetarian, had the duck. Even he said “I’ve had better”.

Puddings were pudding. Sweet and sugary and stuffed in when I thought nothing more would go in. I don’t really remember these too much. Maybe it was because it was too long ago. Maybe because I was drunk. Either way, I won’t be hurrying back. I don’t even know if I’ll be welcome.

Café Des Amis

11-14 Hanover Place (off Long Acre) 
0207 379 3444

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?

I am not sure how to define moreishness, or what makes food moreish. Is moreish food good or just moreish? Should you draw dividing lines between food that is pleasurable whilst eating, but unpleasant immediately afterwards, like MSG-loaded Chinese (which I have now turned my back on), or a Big Mac, and food that is perhaps less immediately rewarding but which you don’t have to endure a seizure to enjoy.

And so with this in mind, we went last night for our three-monthly fix of that sweet, sweet horse. Or sauce. Le Relais de Venise, or L'Entrecôte as it is colloquially known, is a group of 5 or 6 French bistros with a true USP: a secret sauce, the recipe for which is the most guarded French item of the 20th Century. There is no menu. Everyone eats the same thing in a kind of upmarket overpriced post-ironic school canteen kind of way. We went to the (London) original, on Marylebone Lane, but they have recently decided to branch out, and have opened in the City also (I hear this one has had a few teething problems so if you are thinking about trying, stick to Marylebone). Also worth noting is the fact that you can’t book, which means there is normally a bit of a wait, however much like Tayyabs a couple of weeks ago, they don’t hang about in here, so the wait is not normally more than 30 minutes.

We ate early last night due to her new hours. By early, I mean most Northerners still hadn’t cranked up the microwave for their tea by the time we sat down. I think there was a group of Spaniards just finishing lunch as we ordered. But fortunately for us, there was no queue.

The only specification you give to the quaintly-dressed French waitresses is how you would like your steak cooked. So once this had been done (a scribbled R next to me and M next to her – Alan Yau nicked the idea), our starters arrived. To start with, they serve a limp green salad with walnuts and mustard vinaigrette, and some defrosted baguette. They must sprinkle a bit of the crack that they put in the steak sauce in the dressing also, as despite the unimaginative leaves, you find yourself licking the plate dry and scraping the average bread around it. This initial feeding frenzy over, they then hurriedly bring you your first helping of steak frites. The steak is thinly sliced, cooked exactly to our order, and is drenched with the secret sauce. The sauce is very good, which it clearly needs to be. It is buttery and herby, with tarragon, shallots and butter the standout flavours. The meat is fine. Nothing more. As it is so thinly sliced, you lose the satisfying juicy cuts that make steak just a staple food, but it done to ensure that every sliver is coated with their million dollar sauce. The chips also are just ok. Fairly greasy and a little bit McDonalds-esque, they satisfy the main credentials of the rest of the meal, that of greedy scoffable moreishness.

They smartly serve you half your steak and chips with your first helping (keeping the canteen feel going) and then as soon as there is enough room on your plate, they come and pile on the remaining half. The chips stay nice and crispy as a result and the portion is so generous that even I struggle to finish it.

So all in all, the meal is a pleasurable and familiar experience. There are a number of frustrations with the place. They definitely take the simplicity thing a little far – there’s no butter for the bread (a constant irritation for me), a few vegetables might add something to the main course and of course, the bill always manages to add to the already ill feeling you have once you’ve finished. Dinner for two normally comes to about 50 or 60 quid, once you have had a glass of wine from their short but classically French wine list, and some nice vanilla ice cream to satisfy any last morsels of remaining greed. But even knowing all this, I will return. They have cracked the formula it seems. Their costs are low, to match their variety, but the dining room is full from 6.30 to 10.30, and with 140-odd covers changing over at least 3 or 4 times over the evening, you don’t have to be a Euro banker (of which there are a fair few present) to work out that these sauce peddlers know a thing or two about making money. 

Le Relais de Venise

120 Marylebone Lane

020 7486 0878 

Monday, 9 November 2009

Eating on the Dock of the Bay

I didn't really fancy going anywhere special this weekend. Partly down to an occasional reflex pullback on spending after a period of higher consumption, and partly down to the anticipation of a costly Christmas season.I have eaten out at new places an unusual amount in recent weeks and a period of quiet contemplation seemed to be in order this weekend. However, I woke up with a hangover on Saturday after too many drinks at my erstwhile local (formerly the Marylebone Tup, now irritatingly just called "The Marylebone"), and was in the need of some soul food.

We dismissed the usual places as I was in a difficult mood, and instead decided to visit the all new Dock Kitchen, down at the end of Ladbroke Grove. Situated in "Portobello Docks", a very open urban space for designers and other people to showcase their stuff, the café is annexed off from the end of the furniture showroom. And it is very deconstructed. The guys behind the place are former River Café-ers, Stevie and Joe (I think Joe may still be at the River Café), and they have brought with them all of the skill, but none of the prices. The whole place actually feels like a pared down River Café. The kitchen is open, and possibly the calmest kitchen you have ever seen. The place is not so much bright, as an actual greenhouse (on this sunny November day, with fragile head, I felt like a was being slow cooked) and there is water of sorts to add further calming influence. The place feels less like a café or restaurant and more like you have wandered into the house of somebody much cooler than you. There were a few families who all seemed to know each other, one or two celebrity foodies with their kids – foodie kids are always instantly recognisable by their casual nonchalance at complex ingredients which might frighten or baffle a less educated diner: “mum, pass that okra down when you’re done with it, and you must have some of this brill, if you’ll forgive me the obvious pun” and so on.

We got there with breakfast or brunch in mind, and with no set menu, the waiter generously said that the chef could knock us up a bacon sandwich, or some muesli with pomegranate (how they roll round here), or some toast. Loving their laid back approach, and seizing the initiative whilst she was on the phone, I ordered everything. Then I realised that they were doing a lunch menu in half an hour so unordered everything apart from the toast (the hangover hadn't gone anywhere).

The lunch menu was simple and great. Three starters, three mains, five puddings. And a leafy clementine for 40p thrown on the end (I had two - they were amazing - they came from Italy, so I was quite pleased with the pricing). And from chatting to the waiter (quite matey by now), we worked out that they cook what they feel like cooking. Seasonal, bit of French, bit of Italian, bit of Indian. When I asked what sort of food they were going to do, the answers made me feel like I'd been strait-jacketed into society. I rued giving myself away as mainstream so early.

We shared starters of chickpeas and lentils in a broth with chorizo, morcilla and chilli, and deep fried okra, cauliflower and curry leaves. They were simple, flavourful and great. I stuck my flag in the broth, her the deep fried stuff, and we happily enjoyed "sharing". The broth was nicely flavoured and spiced, with generous chunks of chorizo in it. It was the sort of dish you wouldn’t really order as it doesn’t jump off the menu, but the lack of choice was my gain, as it was warming and hearty. The deep fried okra and cauliflower was light and mustardy (I think there were actually mustard seeds in the batter), and lacked any of the grease you might normally associate with food like this.

For main course, we shared pheasant and rabbit biryani, with spiced rice, pomegranate and yoghurt and this too was excellent. “Deconstructed”, like everything else here, but working perfectly together. The rice was delicate, the sauce well balanced and the bird and bunny worked well together. This was the soul food that I sought. It seemed expensive at £14 but the quality of the ingredients was high, and the starters were cheap (a fiver) so I thought fair enough.

All of the puddings sounded great (Italian Clementine granite, lemon poppy seed cake, medjoul dates) but we went for the quince tart with damson and vanilla ice cream (two puddings which we intelligently combined into one). The tart was a little too pared down for my liking – essentially cooked fruit dusted with short crust pastry but the ice cream diverted my attention with predictable ease.

This was a good meal in a great space at decent prices (about fifteen quid each). The chef knows his stuff (and his suppliers) and I suspect this might grow into something a little bigger and a little more formulaic. Get there soon before anything changes too much.

The Dock Kitchen 

Portobello Docks

344/342 Ladbroke Grove

0208 962 1610.

Monday, 2 November 2009

East Meets West

East London is a long way away. To a tribal Londoner like me, East London and South London are similarly foreign. However the difference between East and South is that there used to be no reason to go to either, but now, East has become cool. And popular. And rife with the type of laid-back well-sourced reasonably-priced food that I love. So I have to go there from time to time.

I have been meaning to go to Tayyabs for some time now. It has been open for 37 years, 26 of which I have been alive and 25 of those 26 have been spent eating “solids”. So it really is long overdue. To those of you who either don’t read any London restaurant propaganda, don’t work in the city, or aren’t Punjab families living by Whitechapel Road, you may not be familiar with Tayyabs. It is one of those places that people like to brag about being “in the know” about, despite there being a massive queue outside every evening. It is said to serve “the best curry in London” for less than the price of the cab it takes to get there.

Our first error was getting a cab there from Edgware Road. Some oddball asked if he could share our cab. That doesn’t happen when you are going to Hampstead. Oddballs don’t go to Hampstead. Anyway, we got there an hour later to be greeted by a scene that looked like Cuckoo on a Friday night, only more BYO. Fortunately, one of my more intrepid and shameless friends had been holding our table for 15 minutes against the tsunami of diners, both in and outside the restaurant. So we wedged ourselves into our seats, wriggled for a bit of elbow room, and studied the reassuringly brief menu. Everything sounded great, so that is what we ordered. As I was getting to the end of my ordering, food started to arrive. Five minutes later, it had all arrived. Most of it was very good. Some things were spectacular. The sesame naan, the peshwari naan, the barbecued tandoori lamb chops (which I hear are well known), in fact all the dry spiced meat and the dhal were memorable. The flavours were sharp and different, and none of the food left you with that typical post-curry heavy feeling that makes functioning afterwards so difficult. We cooled our palates with Tayyabs answer to a mini milk and before you could say “it took longer to get here than I did to eat”, we had been turfed out onto pavement, stinking like an Indian kitchen, so they could squeeze in another 12 seatings before the hour was out.

The food is great and the prices embarrassingly low (fifteen quid each), but I won’t be hurrying back. A restaurant for me is about more than just the food. The experience has to be taken into account. And while fun, this was all a bit too frantic and hurried to really savour the food.

In the famous words of the Pet Shop Boys, and with a tune now adopted by my sometimes shy fellow Arsenal fans, it is now time to “Go West” (or Three Nil on Saturday afternoon). Or, for some inexplicable reason, Go Westfield.

A Sunday trip to Westfield seemed like a good idea at the time. Never again. It is the least relaxing way to spend a Sunday. I feel cheated out of half a day of weekend. I was thinking about taking the morning off this morning to compensate. But such is my duty to my small but loyal readership (and apparently global – my recently installed Google Analytics tells me of my 3 readers in California, my one in South Africa and two in Australia (whom I know well!) – anyway, this makes me sound small fry), I must inform and educate on places I visit to aid in the acquisition of The Knowledge!

So where does one eat at Westfield. The options are many. And I suspect all would have been better than the one we chose. “The South Terrace” boasts the same collection of restaurants that you find on any typically soulless new promenade in a newly gentrified area. A conveyor Japanese, a flat pack Italian, a faux French bistro. A private equity owned alley of mediocrity. You wouldn’t think choosing badly is possible but it is. And its name is Balans.

Balans is a small chain of restaurant-cum-bars, and as they are situated in generally quite decent areas (Soho, High St. Ken) and I had received recommendation on this particular one, I thought this might be the least worst option. It may well prove to be that, although I don’t ever intend to find out.

We were first showed to a table at the far end of their al-fresco terrace, the only table with no cushions and untouched by the kindly hand of the porch heater. It looked like the naughty table. We declined and were instead offered a seat at their bar, offering a glimpse into their open plan kitchen (they are proud of this). Someone needs to tell the owners of this chain that they do not want their kitchen to be open plan. This is not like the robata grill at Roka, where you get to watch the expert chefs delicately balancing flavours. This is not the tapas bar at Barrafina, where your mouth waters as simple ingredients are perfectly combined. This is Balans. The food is pre-packed, processed and warmed up. I don’t want to know where it has come from. I try not to think about it as I eat it. I hope that by combining enough different flavours in my mouth at one time, that by thinking of the sustenance that this amount of calories will give me, that I will forget about the provenance of my meal.

The menu performs the heinous crime of offering a complete cluster”$%* of national cuisines (mezze plate, burgers, calamari, gyozas, stir fries). However, we were hungry, it was late and we had accepted our fate. I ordered the “famous Balans burger”. She had scrambled eggs with toast and a contingency plan of granola with yoghurt. We tried not to watch as they removed it from its bag, or however else they prepare it. Instead we tried to make ourselves comfortable on bar stools that ludicrously both lean forward and are too wide for the space they occupy. 25 minutes later the food arrived. By this time, and for the second time in a weekend, we stank of kitchen. Where I have economised on food this weekend, I have lost out on dry-cleaning costs. The food was predictably gross. Lazily prepared, the scrambled eggs plate was dirty, the toast was cold, and the eggs looked like they had been thrown up by an unwell chicken. My burger was soggy, under-seasoned, enveloped in nasty cheese and presented on a squidgy bed of tired chips. We shared the granola and yoghurt. A true least worst. It cost 25 pounds. I suppose that is about right, sadly. In a fair world, it would have cost ten.

The moral of the story: Stay central.


89 Fieldgate St, London

020 7247 6400


Westfield London

Ariel Way

Shepherd's Bush

020 8600 3320

Monday, 26 October 2009

Big Band Week

Like an X-factor hopeful, entering week 3 and finding themselves in front of a full 32-piece band (probably lots more, 32 sounds about right), so I find myself, standing beneath the soles of giants, in attempting both a meal and a review of a mighty culinary force – you could say that this week, I am taking a huge risk. For those of my readers for whom, in 2002, the year that La Tante Claire served its final meal, viewed eating out as a strictly dough balls followed by American Hot based experience, I should share the findings of my googling.

In 1970, a young chef called Pierre Koffmann arrived in London. Via Le Gavroche and the Roux brothers, and the Waterside Inn in Bray, Koffmann earned his stars (three of them) at his restaurant La Tante Claire, on Royal Hospital Road (where Ramsey’s place has kept the tradition going). Along the way, he taught great chefs including Tom Aikens, Marco Pierre-White and a load of others we should all know but don’t. To conclude this short story, LTC was open for 25 years, Koffmann was a legend, then he swore he would never touch another saucepan again and disappeared, only to be found 5 years later, cooking in a cave for Lord Lucan, Richie from the Manic Street Preachers and Glenn Miller. Or he quit to be a restaurant consultant. One of the two definitely. Fast forward to 2009. It is London restaurant week (apparently). And Koffmann agrees to lend his name and cooking skills to a specially erected cathedral on the roof of Selfridges. Such is its popularity that having initially been scheduled to stand for just one week, the £200,000 structure has been given an extra fortnight. And I was a fortunate beneficiary of this on Friday last.

Entering Selfridges after hours was almost too much for her as I thought she might make a break between entrance and lift, but navigating the shopping gauntlet with surprising ease, we ascended to the roof. I had been hoping for something more Willy Wonka-esque but we emerged into a nicely decorated corridor, beckoning you through to the main event. The sense of occasion was palpable for the second time in a week (thanks Nick Griffin). The menus arrived. Despite some slight eye watering at the £75 pricing, the excitement was definitely intact as we deliberated over our choices. Aided by extensive questioning of the knowledgeable waiter, we decided and waited for our food to arrive. And obviously had a nose around the room. The room was decorated very tastefully in two tone: off white and black, with the black coming from lights fashioned out of Magritte-like suspended bowler hats. The crowd was very mixed, young and old, fat and thin, local and B&T but before we could start staring at people too hard, our first (and only) free bit of food arrived. An amuse of duck rillettes on celeriac remoulade did exactly what it was meant to do, that is leave me whimpering for more food. I occupied some of this time in some serious mental exercise – that of navigating a discussion with a sommelier without spending more than I intended. I failed miserably, but my consolation prize was a very nice bottle of 2005 Chambolle-Musigny (for those of you that are interested). It was good and it adds a new grape variety to my limited arsenal.

My favourite course arrived promptly after. I had lobster and avocado cocktail; she had langoustines with pressed leeks. I believe the latter was once of the chef’s signature dishes (I think he had a few) and it was absolutely superb. The langoustines, thankfully peeled, were juicy and cooked to perfection, with a nice simple smokiness while the soft pressed leeks balanced the dish perfectly. My lobster and avocado cocktail, served in a martini glass (my second martini glass of the evening – I am normally so averse to them but the setting seemed to justify it) was good without being mind-blowing. There were small chunks of apple hanging out with the generous chunks of lobster which definitely added to it. To follow, I had “Royale de Lievre”, a hearty dish of hare cooked three ways, with a braised leg, slices of fillet and a slice of loin that’s been stuffed with foie gras. Although all delicious, the sticky and tender braised leg was the nicest meat I have eaten this year. The dish was rounded off to perfection with some soft buttery tagliatelle, a rich deep sauce that will never be bettered and a few carrots that looked a little lonely. Her Challans duck with herbs and spices was excellent also. The portion was too big which is a rare but honest complaint. I was selfishly a little preoccupied with Miffy though to be too interested.

Pudding was all about one thing. The pistachio soufflé, topped with pistachio ice-cream. As they served you this perfectly risen soufflé, they depth charge the ice-cream into the middle. This was food in action. Who needs El Bulli. Who needs Nazis on Question Time. They should try to launch it from distance next time. All of this needless piffle detracts from the adulation that this pudding deserves. The soufflé and the ice-cream were orgasmic, which was fortunate given how stuffed I was when I got home.

The execution of this meal was perfect. It was the best meal I have eaten this year. I recognise that I praised the Bull & Last somewhat vigorously last week so I am concerned that you might think my standards are just plain low. I assure you this isn’t the case. I have just had a combination of luck, good selection and silence on my bad meals.

[As a caveat, however, I am off to Tayyabs next week though, which is said to be good enough to permanently quell Pakistani/Indian tensions. If only Kashmir was closer to Whitechapel…]

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Best of London

I haven’t had anything to write about for a little bit. I would call it writer’s block but I find that a bit too self-congratulatory. I thought about writing a piece on the good food but disappointing room at The Bath Arms at Longleat. But aside from a lovely weekend, which not even a risibly cheap Bath parking ticket and the temporary closure of the monkey enclosure could ruin, there is not a lot that I can share with you from this. So I returned to my day job (this blog can’t quite support me yet) and with it, to the monotony of the EC1 food offering, where, like a good song, the best dishes are overplayed to the point of tastelessness. And so in order to unpeel myself from my gastronomic malaise, the girlfriend and I decided to do what shall now be referred to as “The Best of London”. We concluded half way through our evening that this is really the very best that London has to offer. Like previous commentators, I am tempted not to share the findings of last night with you, but unlike previous commentators, my small but dutiful following (made smaller by the recent break) probably knows where I went anyway, so I may as well spill the beans.

Last night I had dinner at what may well be the best gastropub in the world. If you work on the premise that London is the only place where good gastropubs are (a tall order to some, not me), and that this is without question the best one in London (despite Time Out spitting in their face with a Runners-Up award), then you arrive at my logical destination. The Bull and Last, of best chips in London fame, is the restopub in question, and it is situated on the other edge of Hampstead Heath. I have realised on previous posts that I haven’t tended to discuss the food in that much detail. I think this is because there is nothing that really jumps out at me. I cannot say this about the B&L. The food is amazing. In our/my normal fashion, we ordered a collection of starters to come whenever. I prefer this to having a main course. Friends have often laughed about this, calling it cultural (I call them anti-Semitic. Not very productive). I am so predictable in my ordering. Even within our ordering a collection of starters, I managed to squeeze in a starter which was itself a collection of charcuterie.

Last night, however, this method was vindicated (if it indeed had ever been in question). Starting with the charcuterie plate. Ahh. Such a charcuterie plate has never graced a table of mine before. A triumph. And this from a man who has sampled every permutation of charcuterie plate going. I even remember the exact contents, which nobody ever does. Contained on this sensational board was the following: a big dollop of chicken liver parfait, two slices of duck prosciutto, a pot of goose rillettes (maybe duck, my only ambiguity), a ham hock terrine with a tangy orange chutney, a little deep friend cube of pig’s head with “gribiche” (better than Helman’s), some amazing grape pickle, capers, caperberries, breakfast radish, cornichons and some nicely dressed watercress leaves. The board arrived, beautifully stacked (I really must take up photography) with a pile of hot brown toast. And it tasted comically good. The liver parfait was rich and smooth, the pig’s head full of flavour, the duck prosciutto as good as I have ever had (cured on site). And all of this for a tenner. Or twelve quid (I don’t remember). Either way, it makes nearly every other restaurant in London look absurb. I could eat this every night and not only not be bored but be positively elated with every mouthful. While I was buried in charcuterie gargling with pleasure, her roast pumpkin soup was producing similar results. Aside the soup was a small bowl full of the perfect amount of caramlised and roasted chestnuts, which made an already deep and flavourful soup even closer to perfection. Also battling for our affections were the chips. I don’t really know what I can say about these chips. They are thrice-cooked, or thrice-fried or something else involving performing three separate actions, but whatever it is, it makes the chips 300 times as nice as any chips you have ever eaten. Just go there. I can’t explain. I don’t even want to explain as it makes me too hungry. I think there was a salad which had something to do with chicory and pecorino and walnuts present also, but much like watching The Invincibles in the 2003-04 season where I was too busy marvelling at Henry and Pires and Vieira to notice that Freddie did a pretty good job too, it got somewhat lost in the brilliance of everything else on the table. To round off the meal, we rushed through a light and perfect fig tarte tatin with gingerbread ice-cream. The name of this dish speaks for itself. And it was better than I thought it would be. The bill was about forty quid including the perfect Bloody Mary that I guzzled down in the first five minutes. Amazing. As we drove off, we discussed where else in London comes up to the Bull & Last. Neither of us could think of anywhere. I will still be thinking about that meal the next time I go there. Which may well be this weekend.

I probably should tell you some more about the feel of the place, the clientele, the room, the provenance of the guys that run it (I used to play football with one of them at University. I wouldn’t exactly call us mates. He thinks my name is Stan, as in responding to the question what is your name, my weak diction announcing “It’s Dan” caused the obvious result) and I will, but not now. For now though, I implore you to go there and eradicate the memory of every crap meal you have ever had at a gastropub. And try to remember why you ever bothered going anyone else apart from there.

(I have realised that I have forgotten to tell you what else is included in “The Best of London”. This wasn’t on purpose. Take the short hop over to the Everyman in Belsize Park and have your post meal coffee or tea flopping into the practically horizontal sofa, watching a great film. And go home smug in the knowledge that your evening could not have been any better).

Sunday, 4 October 2009

One Things Leads To Another

A full weekend, punctuated by two contrasting brunches, prompts me to take stock and think about how this key weekend meal sets up the day ahead of it. On Saturday, I went to The Providores and Tapa Room on Marylebone High Street (my local). I followed this up with spending too much money in Selfridges (I have a fetching leather jacket to show for this – part of my early mid-life crisis collection, it sits well with my new car) before enjoying the very free V&A museum in South Kensington. On Sunday, I went to Raoul’s Maida Vale, then watched Arsenal train against Blackburn before wringing an hour of football out of my once-talented legs.

The Providores and Tapa Room, or Prov for those who like to abbreviate and are content at the loss of esotericism, is a fusion restaurant, which has been on Marylebone High Street since the beginning of its renaissance in the early 90’s. I am both intrigued and put off the place by the perennial large queue outside, the inhabitants of which I always think I would rather not share the same breakfast space as. However, as the girlfriend’s sister and husband (sister’s, not girlfriend’s) had done the queuing for us, I couldn’t possibly refuse. The writing of this blog has made me start thinking a lot more critically when I am eating out. This might prove to be a bad thing that precludes my enjoyment of a meal, or it might actually teach me something, so I intend to persevere. And now the food. The menu is a fantastically eclectic journey around the world. I visited Spain and North Africa with my chorizo, rosemary spuds with a soft boiled egg (actually poached) and a sumac (I had always thought this was poisonous) and saffron aioli. The girls went to Turkey for poached eggs, drowned in cream and chilli butter and to I-don't-know-where for their rice, maple syrup and miso porridge, with a very nice tamarillo (or tree tomato to you) compote on top. The most sensible man in the group, who I sense would have ordered the full English had they offered one, went for poached eggs with mushrooms. His choice of sourdough toast was extravagant enough. The individual dishes were all pretty good. Or mine was good. The potatoes and the chorizo worked surprisingly well with the eggs, and reminded me of the only decent thing I have ever eaten in a Mexican restaurant (the ante-cuisine). You couldn't fault the poached eggs and mushrooms. But if you are like me, and you like to try a little bit of everyones just in case someone else's is nicer, then you would have left with a confusion of unknown spices and tree fruits and Turkish butter. Maybe it's my fault. Maybe fusion food is not for sharing. Or maybe we ordered too exotically. Or maybe the whole place is a bit too much. The queue, the flavours. And the fact that I couldn't spread my newspaper out. The Virgin Mary was good though. I think. 

On Sunday, we went for a more intimate affair at Raoul's. They of the bright orange eggs and unexpectedly good dinner. There is never that much to say about Raoul's which I think other people might find that interesting. It is a good local canteen. It is not too pricey, it is very laid back. You can always fault one or two things with your meal, like the odd worm in your omelette (they did give it to us for free), or some cold hollandaise sauce (likely to count against them in the great Eggs Benedict Off of 2009/10), or the truly horrendous coffee (reminds me of revising for finals in the Edinburgh library). But they manage to salvage it somewhere. Despite the chilling effect of the hollandaise, the benedict was yum. Her pumpkin soup and side salad was excellent, particularly the parsnip crisps on the side salad which I inconsiderately inhaled. When you combine this with the fact that you can lay your paper out, that the service is snappy and that nobody questions the slightly odd guy next to you brunching alone with his iPod (why does this look weird but reading a paper alone doesn't), you have a place that delivers a dependable and desirable brunch. I think I have come to appreciate this more and more. I like to know what I am getting, even if it is only quite good.

So Fusion and Prov cued a day of shopping and musems, while solid old Raoul's led to solid old Arsenal and a bit of 7-a-side. I am not sure why but the symmetry of this really makes sense. 

Friday, 2 October 2009

London Review of Breakfasts (In One Post)

There is a fantastic blog called The London Review of Breakfasts.  It does what you would expect it do. Since August 2005, the authors have eloquently and exhaustively reviewed nearly every spot in London where breakfast in served. I cannot hope to match their strength in depth, but, much like the Arsenal 2008-2009 squad, I hope this selection of young promise and a few more experienced pros will be enough to guide your demanding morning tastebuds. (Additionally, if you are looking for a website that just makes you hungry, then the genius behind Simply Breakfast has done precisely that – this is pure breakfast porn).

The London Knowledge Breakfast List 


I went to Australia last Christmas and had a massive revelation (two actually, but one won’t be that interesting to you) – the Aussies do the best breakfast in the world. Hearty, clean, wholesome and healthy. And some bright spark had the idea to show London that this is the case. Saturday morning, mews behind Charlotte St., Monmouth coffee, sweetcorn fritters with smoked salmon and a poached egg. Mmmmmm. (Word of warning: closed on a Sunday) 


So you can’t get a full English in here. You can, however, get the equipment to make one. This café is situated at the back of the kitchen shop, and there is a cookery school downstairs, so they have no excuses in any department. This is more a place for an excellent pastry and a coffee, and although everyone I ever go with complain about how often I discuss it, I can’t escape from how great the “vibe” is in here (contra to my comments about the buzz in The Wolseley! – hypocrisy will form a key part of this blog) 

Smiths of Smithfield

In the days when I used to work weekends, Smiths was what got me out of bed. Founded by the half of the Masterchef presenting team that you would let cook for you, this solid multi-purpose venue does a mean Full English. There is something I love about eating somewhere where half the customers are starting their day (before heading South to the City) and half are finishing (falling out of Fabric).

Tom’s Kitchen

They teetered on the edge of bankruptcy, they nearly closed down because the smell made the neighbours too hungry (or something) and the proprietor has a Michelin star. If that is not enough to make you venture into Chelsea for breakfast, I don’t know what will. Pricey but excellent hearty fayre, and the best you’ll find in the area without a doubt. 

The Ambassador Cafe

Interior simple. Menu simple. Breakfast excellent. Exmouth Market has turned into a foodie hub and this café is part of the reason behind this. If post-breakfast meandering and eclectic window shopping forms a crucial part of your breakfast, then this is the place for you. 

Raoul's Cafe Maida Vale

An old favourite on a great little high street. The eggs they use must be, without exception, the most pampered, well nourished and well loved in the world if yolk colour is anything to go on. This place has everything you want in a breakfast place, and nabbing a table outside means you could stay for lunch and (to some’s surprise) an excellent dinner. 

La Fromagerie

Another one on my list who’s expertise is not in the preparation of breakfast but do a superb line in it nonetheless. While others have tried to imitate La Fromagerie’s “artisan chic” look, few can back it up with produce that is practically hand-picked and walked over from Italy and France. If you arrive and see a big queue, please persevere – you will not be disappointed.  

The Electric Brasserie

Although the location in the heart of Notting Hill might put you off, the food is unquestionably brilliant here. I have looked for ways to knock it every time I have been, but I can’t. Breakfast solo, breakfast date, team hungover breakfast. All work perfectly. Something I will consider over the coming months is who does the best Eggs Benedict in London. Some smart early money is on this place. 

Baker & Spice

Another Maida Vale stalwart and another place I could sit in all day. Three of their “pellet eggs” – like normal eggs but smaller, tastier (and a bit more expensive, naturally) – make for a superb breakfast. Pastries made on site, coffee is great and the bread is amazing. All you need to do now is hover aggressively for a table…

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Break Fast at The Wolseley

On Monday, I extended my nightly fast to 8pm in the evening. I am not sure why. Something to do with superstition and not wanting to break a sequence. If this blog lasts long enough, then you might hear some more on this.

I am told that the only place to break the fast in London is The Wolseley so with the opportunity to get the year off to a perfect start, I accepted the challenge and booked for two. With a slight delay and a great parking spot (my girlfriend is a trend-setter - she argues that people only park where other people park for fear of getting tickets - I call them petrolherds), we took our seats at this great London dining institution. I should probably confess that I have some pre-existing bias. I love it there. Which of course makes any positive comment I have irrelevant, and any criticism deep, powerful and lasting. Or perhaps I overstate my influence. Anyway, back to the restaurant. And how much I love it there. The room is a winner. You can be sitting next to the toilets, as we were, and still be sitting at a great table. The buzz in the dining room is…a buzz. I am never sure what people refer to when they speak of atmosphere you can cut with a knife, or roll with a rolling pin, or shape into small balls then blow through a straw. You get the feeling you are in the place where the locals in the know eat. There are sous waiters, and waiters, and junior managers, and managers, and senior managers, all designated and ordered by various forms of cloth and neckwear and accoutrements. I even think that I spotted the owner walking around with a yellow tie made of a richer silk mix than that of his senior managers. But back once again to the restaurant. I am determined to not let my unflinching love for this place flinch.

For starter, we ordered chicken soup and dumplings (for me) and a chopped salad (for her) – here we received special dispensation. They kindly agreed to chop the salad especially as only the non-chopped salad was available on the menu. The soup, served direct from its’ bronze saucepan, was too concentrated for a consommé but I do acknowledge that serving a Jew chicken soup and asking him to not find fault is akin to asking him how he is and receiving the answer you seek. The chef punished us for moving off menu by putting too much mustard in the dressing on the salad. By this point, our shrunken and atoned stomachs were already nearly satisfied but before we had time to consider this too much, my wiener schnitzel and her burger arrived. I was delighted. It was as good as you would find in Vienna. Probably better. That is what the Wolseley do. They take specialities from all over the world and make them better than they do in their homeland. And serve them on beautiful plates, with lovely silver cutlery. And deliver them to you using sharp-suited, well-humoured waiters. And you are too intoxicated by the splendour of it all to notice that the burger wasn’t cooked medium as asked for, or the chips are a little dry (and nowhere near as good as in The Bull & Last – by decree of my girlfriend, the best chips in London), or it takes a while to get the bill because your waiter is charming the table next to you.

But I forget all of this, because I can’t get away from the fact that I love it there.