Sunday, 4 December 2011

Champor Champor: how to get malayed

Hit and miss but worth the trip.

Champor Champor is not for purists. Apparently.

Who are these purists? What makes them search for purity in a world where there is no such thing? Not in cuisine anyway. No culture is unchanged by the comings and goings of foreign influence, and food is a manifestation of that. Would purists be happy with the fact that a vital part of Thai cuisine is the French baton?

You can’t buy a sandwich at Champor Champor, but we did start with banana bread. Once the novelty of it was over I was left wondering  what the point of it was. It dirtied the palate, went badly with the other “antipasti” – a sweet and sour spoonful of relish and spicy guacamole on cucumber – and made no sense in the context of the rest of the menu. And I’m no purist.

My companion and I spent so much time contemplating the meaning of the banana bread that it took us almost 20 minutes to decide on our food. Normally this wouldn’t be such an issue, especially as the restaurant was almost empty. However, in a fit of romanticism I had booked the mezzanine table, which sits by the window and on a level much higher than the restaurant floor. It is a beautiful table, enshrined in an ornately carved wooden box that gives the impression you are dining in a four-poster bed. Popular as it is with the diners, it must infuriate staff, who are unable to check on the diners without popping their head around the corner like a mother keeping an eye on her teenage son with a girl in his room.

This strangely voyeuristic act repeated itself three time during the first course, which somewhat put me off my sliced duck with tamarind sauce and a sweet potato mascarpone. The duck was also a little chewy, but the sweet potato was smooth and delicious.

The main course was chosen for me by the waiter, who had tired of hovering around corners and quite rightly started to chivvy us along. He selected his favourite item on the menu, beef sirloin with fresh green peppercorns, krachai (wild ginger) and lemongrass, which was excellent. However, sadly the French influence did not reach the steak, and it was overcooked. My companion’s duck soup (technically clay-pot salted duck leg with shitake mushroom and spring onion; Jasmine rice and water chestnut in lotus leaf) was tasty enough, but a little too salty and lacking any flair.

Flair was not lacking from the chocolate, chilli and jaggery cheesecake, however.  Another thing not missing was the chilli, which caught me on the back of the throat, causing me to sound like Rod Stewart for the remainder of the meal.

It was hard to leave such a charming place, even if the food was at times mediocre. Ownership recently changed hands and the decor has been scaled back. The ornaments and features that used to adorn the walls have been stripped. Many would prefer the more airy atmosphere, but I think it has lost a little of its charm. It’s still a wonderful place to take a date, especially if you can book the mezzanine, but for me the fireworks were with my guest, not the food.

62-64 Weston Street
London SE1 3QJ

Champor-Champor on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Eat: souper?

No snobbery, just good soups.

I don't understand people who bring in sandwiches to work. If you are desperately close to losing your house, or owe a lot of money to some very bad people, sure. But there is no justification for putting yourself through cheese and dry bread hell when you can pop out to a decent cafe and get something better.

That didn't always used to be possible. Some of the more secondary business parks still rely on Frank's burger van. But even his livelihood is under threat now, because of the rise of "gastro-coffee shop" (my term).

Starbucks, Costa, Cafe Nero... they all offer proper lunch now: wrapped-up sandwiches the likes of which only used to be seen in a Hampstead delhi; pastries that have left Patisserie Valerie wanting to change her name; cookies the size of plates. Oh, and bad coffee.

But these are expensive. Very expensive. So the  "coffee-house bistro" reared its head. Eat, Pret and Pod all offer sandwiches to rival Borough market; cakes that make Konditor & Cook squabble between themselves; even hot meals that are, if nothing else, hot. Oh, and shit coffee.

I used to think Eat was expensive too. Their salads are around £4.50, which is a lot for some over-cooked prawns, limp lettuce leaves and sweet chilli sauce. But then I tried the soups.

Some of them are extraordinary. They top their chicken and mushroom cream soup with flaky pastry; their sweet potato and chilli soup is like a hug in a mug; their chicken laksa spicy, sweet and fresh. They even manage to bat the classic cream of chicken out of the park. They must have a repertoire of 20 or so soups, which rotate weekly.

You don't expect to walk into their cold, clinical units and receive food of this quality. At my local Eat they leave the door open constantly, letting the winter wind whip right through to the back door. It's irritating, but it has a certain effect. People huddle over the their soups for warmth, which is kind of the way that's how soup should be enjoyed. Cradling the tub with fingerless gloves, enjoying the rising steam and inhaling the scent like you're in Bisto advert.

There are flaws of course. The Chicken Pot Pie pastry is impossible to eat with a spoon, it is usually served just a little too cold and the descriptions are infuriating - they serve an "Eat classic" every day.

But it's all so reasonably priced. The large, which is about a pint, is only £4.35 but the smallest is barely over £3, and for a few pence you can get a doorstop of bread to make sure that, if the small spoons didn't manage it, you'll dribble soup all down your chin.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Baltic: I've been expecting you ...

Shouldn't be such a secret service.

The first thing that strikes you about Baltic is its size. From the subsiding townhouse exterior you would never expect the voluminous dining hall it opens up into. Tables stretch off into the distance and the ceiling is so high you half expect to look up and see clouds.

As is always the case when I go to review a restaurant, it was completely empty. It felt like a church with its peaked roof, puritan decor and whispered ambience. However, there was nothing holy about our eastern European waiter. Clean shaven and well presented from a distance, a closer look showed bags under his eyes and a haunted look, as if the days of Soviet rule still haunted him, and he expected the KGB to jump out and lynch him for reaching the West.

Given that there was hardly a lunchtime rush, I was confused as to how a Bond villain of a waiter could look so tired, but his passion and knowledge of the extensive vodka menu gave me some clue.
He was, in fact, the perfect host. His dry wit had us in stitches and he knew the menu inside out. To his disappointment however, we all went for the set menu. He went off muttering, to his secret hide out, no doubt to press the launch button on his nuclear rocket. The problem is, you would be a fool not to take the set menu, since it costs a very reasonable £17.50 and the main courses on their own are £13-17 each.
He was also sad he could not convince us to sample the enormous vodka menu – it was a working lunch – and so with half a carafe of the fruity house red, I ordered the cheese and wild mushroom dumplings. They resembled gnocci, but the texture was much more rubbery and the fried edges gave it a smokier taste and crispier skin.

It was a healthy portion that made me apprehensive about the size of my main, especially given I had asked for a side of chive mash. My skin-on chicken with bacon, chard and chilli in a creamy sauce was cooked well enough – the skin was crispy and the spicy zip complemented the salty lardons. However, I was left wondering how authentic the dish was, given that none of the ingredients (save the chicken) were native to any of the Baltic states. If it weren’t for the chilli, it could have been a creamy chicken dish from any cuisine in the world.

The same could not be said for the pudding, once you get over the fact that it was crème brulee. At the bottom of the dish were eight vodka-soaked cherries. Thankfully the alcoholic bite had been slightly cooked off, and it was instead a hint of savoury kick in the sweet cream. It was a shame that they had also burnt the sugar a little over-zealously, and the odd mouthful combined vodka, cherries and burnt caramel, which was by no means pleasant.

It is a sad fact that the meal peaked with the starter, but the service was warm and the ambience relaxing enough to make it a welcome break from a stuffy office. With a complete lack of pretence and a very cheap set menu offering, it is well worth a lunch visit. Just don’t wear a tuxedo or order a martini. It may be the last thing you ever do.

74 Blackfriars Road, SE1 8AH
020 7928 1111
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Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Bistro du Vin: take a tip from me

Sorry. I tripped about the tip.

So waiters don't get paid much. I know this because I've been one. But the thing is, most of them don't deserve any more. I didn't. I dropped a steak knife on a child's leg once and still got 10%.

It's totally bonkers. The nation is up in arms about bankers being given bonuses when they lose the equivalent of Luxembourg's GDP in one day, and yet I can serve a numblingly average meal and scar a child's thigh, and get a bonus without anyone batting an eye lid. Maybe the two scales aren't quite comparable, but the principles are.

And so, after a perfectly decent meal at the perfectly overpriced Bistro du Vin in Soho, I was furious to find that, with no warning whatsoever, a 12.5% tip had been added to our bill. Given that there were seven of us, and we spent £200, that was quite the tip.

To be fair the service was excellent. We never had an empty glass, there was always someone waiting to help if we had a question, and the food came pretty quickly. And when it did it was very good. I had gnocci in a goat's cheese sauce (the ingredients of which seemed to be just goat's cheese and heat) with wild mushrooms (rather than battery...?), which was nice enough, even if the gnocci stuck to the roof of my mouth more effectively than Fixodent. My friend's butternut squash ravioli, however, was sweet, subtle and cooked to perfection - al dente like the Italians do it so the pasta doesn't have the texture of an oyster. In fact, I forced my friend to trade dishes with me half way through. But then, at £14.50, I expected something in a different league to Tesco's £1.99 ravioli. And gun to my head I'd have to say I didn't really.

I should stop taking cheap shots. I didn't mind the prices, even the house wine at £18.50, and I probably wouldn't have found the tip quite so irksome if it hadn't taken the waiter 20 minutes to collect the money after handing us the bill - and if they hadn't come back to tell us we were 85p short.

Unlike the food, that seemed a little cheap.

36 Dean Street
0207 4324 800

Bistro du Vin on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Lowndes Bar and Kitchen: torte a lesson

Only worth it if they bring it up to your room.

You know you’re in a Knightsbridge restaurant when you pop outside to take a phone call and find yourself stood next to a Lamborghini Diablo with Monaco number plates. Of course, the fact that you got off the Tube at Knightsbridge and then went to a restaurant just five minutes down the road will also give the game away.

Being a north-London boy I wouldn’t generally make the trip past central London and back out the other side. Knightsbridge and Kensington restaurants tend to be overpriced, aimed as they are at the rich residents and even richer tourists.

And it is these happy-to-pay-£230-a-night tourists that I dined with on Thursday night at the newly opened Lowndes Bar & Kitchen, which is attached to the five-star Jurmeirah Hotel.

It certainly had five-star furnishings, although the fact they were so new gave the room a slightly clinical feel. They had also made the huge mistake of lining the walls with American diner-style settees, which meant that when I leant back I was no less than a metre and a half from my companion and could hardly hear what she was saying over the muzak.

Not that I needed to talk to her. The restaurant itself was entertaining enough. The English of one waiter wasn’t quite good enough to explain to a hotel guest that he couldn’t be served food in the bar seating, our waitress couldn’t open our bottle of Rioja (I really need to branch out) and we had to make an late night call to their PR to prove we were on a review and didn’t have to pay the £110 food bill.

Which brings me to the meal, which was only remarkable for the price. A burger would set you back a staggering £15 and was the cheapest meal on the menu. Looking back I wish I’d tried it so I knew what a £15 burger tastes like, but I think I’d have been disappointed.  

But first I had the world’s smallest scallops – none of which were more than 2cm wide – in a saffron mayonnaise, accompanied by a solitary piece of salad garnish. Had there been a few more, or the scallops less anorexic, it would have been a nice dish.

Ignoring the temptation of a burger I had the duck (£18.50) with a redcurrant jus and sweet potato mash. The latter tasted like it had been boiled in tea, which while not unpleasant didn’t suit the sweet jus at all. The duck was a nice bit of meat but, despite being warned it was served medium rare, it was more the other side of medium and therefore a tad stringy.

My chocolate torte (the waitress’s recommendation) was no better than something out of a tin, although the ice cream was excellent. I hope this was homemade, or else  Cart D’or is nicer than I remember.
So thoroughly unremarkable, completely overpriced and lacking in atmosphere. If you can afford the rooms, you can afford the food, but only as a last resort because in central London, you will always be within 10 minutes walk of a much better meal and a fuller wallet.

Lowndes Bar & Kitchen on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Hail the Lord Nelson: the recession is over!

The best pub is Southwark. bar none.

Everyone rejoice. The recession is over. Lehman is but a ghost. The bankers are forgiven and the politicians aquitted. Europe can stop wringing its hands and Greece should stop crying and go back to investing in hummus.

The most important gauge of fiscal health, the Lord Nelson pub in Southwark, has withdrawn its recession menu. Gone are my happy lunchtimes with a pint of Holstens and fish-finger sandwich for £6.

The Lord Nelson has to be the quirkiest pub in London. It juts out of a horrid 1960s social housing block almost onto the road, as if daring you to enter. Its ceiling is adorned with upside down trolls, the bar is guarded by stuffed dead squirrels called David and Nick, and its menu has more dishes than Debenhams.

To be honest, its just standard pub grub, but it is homemade in the truest sense. The chips are cut unevenly, the fish-fingers definitely Birds Eye, and the plates too small to fit the portions. But so much food is about style, about atmosphere and care, and the Lord Nelson has all these things in spades.

And not a numbered wooden spoon in sight. Even in this, the second "boom" of the 21st century, you can effectively buy all you can eat for less than a tenner. The effect is not just tasty and filling, but comforting. You can even pop your head into the kitchens to see the fat chef toiling away to Radio One, wondering whether it’s all worth it and what happened to Mark and Lard in the afternoon.

No one can afford the boom time. Not even the banks. Essentially, when economists talks about the “cyclical nature of the market”, all they mean is that the banks all borrowed from each other (boom), and then remember they had to pay it back (bust). And I’m left counting out that extra two pounds for my fish-finger sandwich, cursing Keynes but paying without a second’s hesitation.

No one can afford the boom time, but we’ll always pay up in the end.

243 Union St

Website: who needs a website?!

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Vine: Big Friendly Gastropub (BFG)

Six months ago there were demolition signs tacked onto wire fencing around the Vine. Stood at the grotty end of Kentish Town, far away from the teeming millions of Camden, it seemed inevitable that a clean-cut gastropub would struggle.

How wrong I was. Behind the wire fence and safety helmet signs it was being reborn with leather corner settees, fake crystal chandeliers and as much wood and bare brick as is structurally sound. It also boasts a comfy seated outside area, complete with European-style cafe umbrellas. As we sat and supped our rioja and watched the sun set, even the road that passes just ten feet away seemed silent and distant.

The backroom dining area is a huge, high-ceiling cylinder. It reminded me of the scene where the BFG dines with the Queen, shovelling whole plates of bacon and eggs into his mouth. The effect is an airy atmosphere, emphasised by the fact that the restaurant was nigh-on empty, that falls just the right side of modern gastropub design. In an attempt at tradition, the wine list was written on a blackboard. It was not exactly extensive, but hopefully being in chalk means it is changed regularly. Our Rioja Muscat got rather heavy after two bottles, but it is a compliment that we got that far.

The starter of grilled mussels with garlic, Parmesan and more garlic was delicious, and ensured that my companion and I were left alone for the rest of the meal. In fact, even while sharing the pudding I got the odd wave of garlic, which did little to improve the sticky toffee pudding.

The flavours of the main course were strong enough to hold back the starter though – my perfectly cooked salmon had a gorgeous crispy skin, although the tomatoes in the rocket salad were slightly under-ripe and, horror of horrors, a little too cold compared with the hot salmon.

These flaws are more than forgiveable at pub prices. Sadly, The Vine does not seem to believe in pub prices. Your classic steak will cost you £18.50, a salad at least a tenner, and anything in between ... well ... in between. At these prices you expect a level of perfection above what we experienced, even if the concept of the dishes were spot on.

Say what you will of gastropubs. They lack a little soul, try to be flashy and get caught between a good boozer and an average restaurant, both in price and outlook. But anywhere can be saved with a decent chef, something the Vine absolutely has. Close enough to a restaurant to be worth booking, and not too classy to ignore pub favourites like fish and chips, just accept your Goldfish card will take a battering and enjoy it.

86 Highgate Road, London NW5 1PB
0207 2090038

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Friday, 5 August 2011

Hache: I got no beef

At its heart, the burger is a trashy concept. When a group of friends decide to pop out for a cheap meal, they may rack their brains for an interesting idea, but somewhere in the depths is a voice that constantly whispers: ‘A burger. Go for a burger’.

So we swallowed our pride and hunks of reconstituted meat at McDonald's or, if we felt particularly daring, a Burger King.

But suddenly we didn’t have to, because some bright spark dressed up the burger in a floury artisan bun, put a real tomato in it and put the word gourmet in the title. A few years later, London’s best burger restaurant was born.

Hache is a small, dimly lit cove on Inverness Street, just within hearing distance of the teeming millions at Camden Market. Stepping inside at lunchtime is like putting ear plugs in, but the effect is quite to opposite in the evening. The small, lino-floored restaurant has a buzz that makes you forget the sometimes slapdash service.

The best thing on the menu has to be the Indian burger, which cleverly combines two comfort foods by adding spices to the beef, mango chutney instead of relish and a crispy (not to mention oily) onion bhaji on top. Impossible to eat with my hands and too delicious to waste time with a knife and fork, I ended up eating it in just six mouthfuls (surely a restaurant record) before sampling my companion's duck burger. Such a dish sounds ridiculous, not to mention strangely cruel (as if the cows deserved their sticky end), but ducks and bread go together right to the end. They also go well with the spring onions and hoi sin sauce Hache put on.

I have been three times now and am still to make a dent in the menu, which consists of no fewer than 15 beef burgers. If you are not a fan of beef I don’t know why you would go to a burger restaurant. However, Hache does not judge is patrons, and has graciously supplied variants from chicken and lamb burgers of several varieties, to avocado salads and falafel burgers.

In fact, the only place where choice is limited is the drinks menu, particularly in the beer section, which sticks to standards such as Becks and Corona. It may be a little over-fashionable at the moment, but the addition of some US craft beers or real pilsners would complement the heavy cuisine and myriad flavours much better, and be in keeping with the ’gourmet’ styling of the food. It would also be interesting to see more precise beer and food matching, such as having a Kingfisher to go with the Indian burger.

Despite this missed opportunity you’d be hard pressed to leave the restaurant not promising to yourself to go again, even if it can be a little pricey (the duck burger is around £12 without chips). But next time you hear that persistent whisper in your head, remember everyone is thinking the same thing – and go to Hache.

24 Inverness Street, London NW1 7HJ
020 7485 9100 

Hache Burgers on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Joe's cafe: not for builders

Joe’s Cafe rather under sells itself. It sounds like a builders’ cafe where the dress code is high vis jackets and paint stained trackies.

I can assure you that you would not make it through the door dressed like that – despite it being 12 foot wide. Joe’s is actually a subtle and beautiful restaurant. A book case runs through the centre, punctuated with the occasional 50-year-old bottle of wine or Vogue collection from the 80s.

The tables are spread out and the service relaxed. Money here is made slowly, in stark contrast to its Kensington clientele. We ummed and erred over the wine list, starters and mains. Even deciding between sparkling and still water took five minutes, during which our tireless waiter looked busy at the table behind us.

I started with fois gras on a mushroom wafer topped with sour cherries. This was rather hard to eat, being unstab-able and too wide to balance on the fork. So by the time it reached my mouth it was more like sour cherries, topped with fois gras and mushroom pastry shards. Still, the dish was appreciated for its sweet and sourness, even if the texture was all together too watery.

For the main I had water trout (what other kind is there?) with a French tartare sauce and a cold salmon, almost sushi-esque roll with an horseradish base. To be honest it was felt foreign on the plate, distracting me from the wonderful trout and if I hadn’t been famished would have been left well alone. However, the course was served with the first truly tolerable form of fried cauliflower I have ever tasted, and all it took was the addition of lemongrass.

As is the case in all good restaurants, my memory of the pudding is a little hazy. We had finished a bottle of wine before even choosing our food. Nonetheless my pudding choice was inspired. My raspberry baseless cheese cake was sweet and decadent, and looked a lot like a maoam, a hallucination helped by the fact that it was surrounded by cubes of raspberry jelly. The rubber texture juxtaposed the maoam nicely, and bizarrely added a drier flavour to the very sweet dish.

And so we enjoyed a final bottle of wine after the meal, staring through the missing wall that Joe’s calls a door, at the torrential rain we had to head into. The food is nothing special here, but there is an honesty to it; a kind of aspiring decadence that it never quite lives up to. But in the quiet and welcoming room and with a hearty wine from the Alsace inside you, you’ll never want to leave.

126 Draycott AvenueSouth Kensington, London, SW3 3AH
020 7225 2217

Joe's on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 27 June 2011

Rioja Tapas Fantasticas: what it says on the tin!

Here’s an investment in the future. Next June will be the third Rioja Tapas Fantasticas, a festival that celebrates all that is great and good about Spanish cuisine.

It is held in the shadow of Tower Bridge, in marked contrast to the ultra-modern More London development, which houses more glorified accountants than the London Business School. 

Sectioned off from the rest of the capital and squinting in the rare sunshine we felt as if we were in Spain. Everywhere we looked people supped on 50p samples of reserve, chewed on spicy chorizo or air guitared along to the Spanish guitarist on a stage in the centre.

We had a wonderful chorizo sandwich from the City’s Barcelona Tapas Bar y Restaurante (clever name, si?) and some demonically spicy patatas bravas from More Than Tapas. The highlight however, was the Faustinos gran reserve – which was heavy, complicated but surprisingly free of tannins, making it more drinkable than it had any right to be on a summer day. What is more, my claims that I had drunk it before we found to be correct: you'll find it on the top shelf of Costcutter's wine racks.

From that discovery onwards it all gets a little blurry, so you’ll have to experience the rest of it for yourself. Put it in your diary and Google it next spring. I raise my Rioja: here’s to SEO success and a spate of visitors around about June time next year.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Laughing Gravy: secret's out.

I hate it when a restaurant calls itself "London's best kept secret". It isn't really is it? Because the only way of keeping a very prominent restaurant on Blackfriars Road a secret is to take out an injunction against everyone who walks past it. Ask Ryan Giggs if superinjunctions work.

It is in fact an excuse to not hire a PR company, hence why I had to pay for this particular meal. Fortunately the Laughing Gravy is excellent value, even if a glance at the menu makes it seem expensive. The starters are all around £8, but could be stretched to a main course, and my chicken liver pate with a delicious sultana jelly also had my salt content for the day and probably the weekend too.

You can order a burger and chips for £10, or a salad for roughly the same price, or you can have their more complicated meals for around £15. I chose the special: scallops with bacon and crispy fried vegetables. The classic dish was given a lift by the lemongrass, which cut through when you least expected it. The portion was huge, but I still managed to eat two helpings of garlic Parmentier potatoes, with emphasis on the garlic.

The red mullet with prawns and samphire looked fantastic too, and the steak...

Oh the steak. Shallots, mushrooms, roasted cherry tomatoes, Madeira sauce and garlic butter. I am kept awake by the fact that I didn't choose it.

For pudding I had an excellent chocolate fondant, baked to a crisp on the outside and so nearly gooey on the inside, but not quite. The salted toffee ice cream on top was brilliant though. It stopped the dish from being overwhelmingly sweet, and made me salivate to the point of embarrassment.

All the dishes had one touch that made it a cut above most British cuisine, certainly south of the river. The unimposing and light decor, huge portions and friendly but awkward staff made for an even more British experience.

Despite their veil of secrecy, the restaurant was busy for an early Friday lunch sitting. At every table suited city workers loosened their ties as the sun beat down through the glass ceiling. Get to the courts Laughing Gravy men, the secret is out.
154 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8EN
020 7998 1707

Laughing Gravy on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Gay Hussar: are you Hungary?

Tired of burnt pans and the endless washing up, I decided this year to eat out on Pancake Day. Hungarian Soho Square Staple The Gay Hussar was offering a special Shrove menu, and mentioned something about deep fried pancakes. I was sold.

Shrove Tuesday is traditionally the day that Christians use up all their food stuffs before the 40-day lent fast. Given the amount of ingredients it used, the Gay Hussar must have a very full pantry indeed.

This may be partly because the restaurant was empty when we arrived. The ambience was more like a library. My companion and I whispered conspiratorially while exchanging guilty glances, worried that a waiter may come and “shh” us. Towards the end of the evening it began to fill, but by then we were too distracted by the glorious food to notice.

The downstairs room is a cosy mix between a living room and train dining carriage. The waiters were friendly and delighted to talk about the food, wine and history of the restaurant. Being just south of Soho Square, it has seen its fair share of the highlife. The walls are adorned with caricatures famous politicians and journalists that have eaten there, a social circle it fully justifies.

Their pancakes are world away from the lemon and sugar creations soon to be stuck to kitchen ceilings throughout the UK. My deep-fried goulash-stuffed pancake was as hearty as any British stew and had a depth of flavour that belied its simple roots, although the veal itself was slightly overpowered by the sauce.

Our bottle of Tokaji Muscat Blanc powered through, however. Its floral nose, sweet start and dry finish cut through the heavy sauces. Hungarian wine is not exactly a staple of restaurant lists, or indeed supermarket shelves, but their white wines are often worth a risk.

For pudding I had the walnut pancakes, made famous by Budapest celebrated restaurant Gundel, after which the pudding is named. The dark chocolate sauce and walnut and rum filling were savoury enough to stop the dish being overwhelming, and the raisins gave short, sharp bursts of sweetness. After such a heavy main however, the second pancake could have easily been replaced by some light cream, to balance the plate. Chocoholics would doubtless disagree.

The menu was traditional, varied and reassuringly expensive. The only flaw I could find was that there was too much on the plate: too much thought, too much food and, sometimes, too many flavours. But in hearty cuisine this is not necessarily a bad thing and I left contented, feeling like I had prepared for a 40-day fast. (50% off you bill here)
0207 4370 973

2 Greek St, Soho, London. W1D 4NB

Gay Hussar on Urbanspoon   Square Meal

Monday, 6 June 2011

Bistro Rosa: a great night out ... catering included

I have never experienced bad service until now. We waited 20 minutes to give our drinks order, another 30 to give our food order and 30 minutes for our starters to be cleared away. All this meant that, an hour and twenty minutes into our booking we were asked if we would like coffees. I was so bemused by this point I wasn't sure whether the waiter was joking or genuinely thought we had had all three courses.

Gun to my head though, (and being in St Helier that could happen) I'd do it all again. Bistro Rosa may lack some of the rough-but-ready English service, but it makes up for it in fresh, glorious produce with a modern twist you wouldn't expect in the Channel Islands. Sat in the heart of the fish market you feel like you have discovered some hidden treasure, but from the fact we had to book well in advance, it seems the whole island thinks so too.

My moules were outrageously salty and creamy (and large enough in quantity to be a main), my monkfish with coconut and lime dressing and sweet and sour as I had hoped, and my chocolate cake decadent enough to redefine the term. The ambience in interesting, in essence you set up camp in the middle of a shop floor. The muzak pumped through the tinny speakers didn't help this awkward sensation, but added to the restaurants eccentric personality.

Our night was all rounded off with a superb drunken fellow diner, who was convinced my companion was "Off the American telly" and was insistant she admit it. He ended his night by vomiting in the one restaurant loo and stealing the waitress's coat. She left as cold as her service was.

A thoroughly recommended night out, and the catering was good too.

  • Beresford StreetSt Helier JE2 4WX
  • 01534 729559

Dego: Go for the food,stay for the wine

Hearty Italian cuisine is so ubiquitous in London that I’m not sure we really know what it is anymore. And at some points during my meal I think Dego has become confused too.
The modren Italian defies all expectations. Not one aspect of the night failed to surprise me in some way or other. It is laid out more like a chic American diner than a traditional Italian. Customers are seated in rectangular booths with red and black leather, below lamps that pick you out like a soloist in concert.
It is determinedly modern, proven by the square toilet bowls and lack of zeros at the end of the wine prices. After a refreshing gin aperitif we ordered glasses of Verdiccio Castelli, which costs precisely £22.5 per bottle. Its complicated texture saved my overly salty beef roulade starter, which needed more dressing to balance it.
For my main I ordered what turned out to be a duck bolognese. I had expected something a little more subtle, and the menu needs to be more precise. But fortunately I was delighted by the hearty flavours that complemented the meat, which was lighter than duck has any right to be. However, the wine chosen by our helpful sommelier – a gewürztraminer from the Alto-Adige region of Italy – stole the show. Alto-Adige is a German-speaking region of northern Italy, which may explain the heavy, hop-like aroma and finish of the wine that matched beautifully with the duck mince.
I had to wait for the pudding for the food to amaze me. Again, the misleading menu undersold my chocolate, ginger and meringue desert. It was actually a pyramid of set chocolate filled with gooey meringue and caramel bathing in a shockingly spiced ginger sauce that was unique and delicious.
This could not save me from being slightly underwhelmed with the food, even if the prices were reasonable for the portion sizes and quality of ingredients. But the menu has enough on it to make every visit different, and there are sure to be more treasures in there. You should go for the food, but you’ll probably go back for the wine.
0207 636 2207

Portland House
4 Great Portland street
London W1W 8QJ

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Imli: what? Indian tapas AGAIN!?

If Sharwood’s is to be believed, whipping up a tasty curry takes 20 minutes and one pan. At Imli they have the same philosophy, but a very different method of going about it.
For a start, most of the menu is in the form of tapas. It is full of small, varied dishes that work as much as a map of India as a three course meal. It takes influences from all over the country, rather than the south-India dominated cuisine served in most curry houses.
Our platters cost around £8, which is brilliant value. It included several sides, a main curry, a field's worth of rice and, of course, a main curry dish. Being the sister restaurant of Tamarind, a certain quality of ingredients and cooking is to be expected, but I was blown away.
Every dish was unlike any other curry dish on any menu in any other curry house. The Papdi Chaat, a sweet yoghurt and wheat crisp salad, was worth the price alone. The lamb fell apart on the fork and the potato and coriander cakes were refreshingly light compared to the heavier dishes.
Combining the philosophy of tapas and Indian food may seem unlikely but, as the head chef Samir Sadekar explained: Indian cuisine is meant to be diverse, and always shared. Although sharing is the last thing on my mind as I tucked in to our lunch platter, the point about having variety on your plate was well made. 

0207 287 4243
London W1F 8WR
167-169 Wardour Street

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Mar I Terra: a welcome change

Tucked in a side street not far from the bustling South Bank, Mar I Terra is worth a visit simply for the peace and quiet. A sense of serenity pervades the whole restaurant – which isn't hard given it is the size of my front room.
We were greeted on entry by some very authentic looking nuns, and things just got quainter. You could reach out and touch just about every other table in the place, the waiter was moustached and paunchy, the food was delivered via a dumb waiter that must have been operated by hand, and the dishes were as rustic as any I have eaten in London.
And they were glorious too. It is hard to amaze a diner with the basic Patatas Bravas, but the garish orange of the sauce and crispness of the potatoes drew me in, and gave me a benchmark against which all potato/tomato based dishes will now be judged. Portions were more than ample, but as is always the case with tapas, you keep eating until the plates are torn from your lifeless, exhausted hands.
The octopus was another highlight, and the rest of the food passed in mist of war as my companions fought over the last of it. The blurriness perhaps helped by the excellent wine selection, which kept us entertained thoughout the meal.
Eating at Mar I Terra is a jarringly intimate experience, but isn't that a refreshing change for London? I heartilty recommend it. 7928 7628
14 Gambia Street

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Wednesday, 2 February 2011

Pizza East: topping the velvet

The recession must have been hard on Domino's. Not only did they get looted during London’s re-enactment of 28 Days Later, but gone are the days when students would spend £15 on a layering of bread, tomato and cheese. As a failing food critic, however, this is exactly what I found myself doing at Pizza East in Shoreditch.

Many may scoff at the idea of a gourmet pizza, but that is what Pizza East claims to provide . As a converted warehouse, its rustic decor echoes the strong and simple flavours that dominate the menu. At least I think it did, but the lighting was so poor we were partially guessing how the menu read.

I chose the wood roasted garlic and fennel mussels to start. They were delicious: the fennel adding a more interesting tang than the traditional white wine. My friend seemed less impressed with her fried artichokes; the batter was light and fluffy but it was poorly seasoned.

Shortly after refilling our wine tumblers (yes, tumblers) the waitress delivered our pizzas. My topping of salami, chilli and red onion was well thought through. Pepperoni often overpowers pizza, so separating the meat from the spicy flavours was inspired.

But it was the tomato sauce that set the pizzas apart. It was distinctive, rich and perfectly seasoned. The base was crisp and slightly sweet, complementing the heavier sauce. It was a pizza from a different world to chains like Pizza Express or Ask.

For pudding I ordered the intriguing salted chocolate caramel tart. While the salt surprised the palette and brought out the caramel it was too powerful, and always the last taste to leave my mouth. On top of this, the base was so tough I had to put my full weight behind my fork, prompting bemused looks from our neighbours. My companion’s delicious fruit crustata, despite looking like an apple-filled Yorkshire pudding, made me envious.

So having been delighted by the savoury sections of the meal the question is, can £75 be justifiable for a meal in a pizza restaurant? With Easyjet you could probably fly to Naples and have an authentic one for a similar price. It seems not many people are doing this, however, and Pizza East has just opened its second branch on Portobello Road.
Our meal was by no means flawless, but by giving the impression of offering something entirely new to the pizza chain cliche, Pizza East has a claim to making the best pizza in London.

  • 56 Shoreditch High Street
    E1 6JJ
  • 020 7729 1888

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