Thursday 28 February 2013

5th View Bar & Food

It was an hour and a half before I could collect my tickets for Singing in the Rain, and with the Royal Academy of Art closed I had to find other ways to spend the early evening. I was drawn into Waterstones and wound up browsing the cooking and eating section on the ground floor. If it was a deliberate marketing technique, then colour me impressed, because I spotted a conveniently placed sign advertising their restaurant and bar on the 5th floor soon after the munchies hit.

Note first that whatever they tell you about spectacular views over the city are all lies, unless you count multiple cranes up close as a sight not to be missed. The place itself was packed with tourists, couples and the odd lone book reader, and being spread over two sections, it took them about 5 minutes to comb through the entire premises to find me a spot at the main dining area. The tables are packed ridiculously close to each other, and I found myself gingerly moving along the narrow aisles for fear of bumping into strangers.

Almost as if to make up for my wait, service afterwards was extremely prompt and friendly. I'd only wanted a light snack since there was food waiting for me at home, but it was apparently half-price off cocktails day. After assuring me that it was great value, my waiter recommended the Raspberry Bella, a mix of pureed raspberries with gin and topped with prosecco. It came looking like a big glass of raspberry lemonade, but packed a decent amount of gin. As drinks went it was unassuming and girly but quite pleasant. 

In contrast, the pancakes I had were rather listless things, tasting overly savoury and slightly singed. The lemon wedge accompanying the two paper thin slices was rather wilted and didn't give much juice. Sugar was sprinkled with a rather miserly hand as well, I was sorry to see. But it did fill me up somewhat, which was all I was expecting anyway. 

Thankfully, after the pancakes were done I still had most of a pretty decent cocktail to nurse while reading my paper and basking in the gentle hubbub. Not a complete waste then. 

5th View, Waterstones, 203-205 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9LE 

Thursday 21 February 2013


In all the time I lived near Brunswick, Alara was known to me simply as 'that organic store'. P suggested going there for lunch, so I arrived rather curious as to what they had to offer. There's a vegetarian buffet where your plate or take-out box is priced by weight, and students with valid ID are given a discount on all purchases including the fresh food. The store itself turned out to be great for a wander, and I ended up stuck at the soap section while waiting for P to arrive. 

The lunch-time crowd is quite substantial and in-store tables are snapped up almost immediately, so we ended up braving the winds at the semi-sheltered seating outside after we got our grub. Lunch offerings include a hot and cold section, and the plates provided are quite wide so I ended up piling on quite a fair bit of things. My plate looks like a hot mess, but trust me, most of it tasted great. 

The vegetable lasagna was the weakest link - although I took first cut out of a freshly prepared pan, it got cold and hard very quickly once I took it outside, and the lasagna sheets were a tad squelchy. Everything else though, was excellent. The ratatouille included huge chunks of sweet aubergine, and went surprisingly well with the hummus, which was creamy and smooth. I had no idea what was stuffed into the grape leaves, but those were good too. The tzatziki was really refreshing, as was my massive pile of cucumber salad. But what I enjoyed the most was the very moreish orange and fennel salad, which had great crunch. 

I felt completely stuffed but ridiculously healthy after lunch, and was rather pleased. Will go back soon to get a bar of soap and maybe another meal. 

Alara, 58-60 Marchmont Street London, WC1N 1AB 

Wednesday 20 February 2013

One Blenheim Terrace

A quick zip on the overground brought us to South Hampstead in good time, and after a stroll through the leafy streets we were bang on time for our 6 pm reservation. We were the second table of the evening, but soon after we arrived it seemed as though the rest of the tables flooded in after us. This felt much more neighbourhood restaurant than Michelin recommended fine dining, which was pleasant in its own way, but also made me thankful for the voucher.

We were seated a table away from the glass doors leading out onto the terrace, which seemed like a wonderful location to dine in the summer. The restaurant seemed rather understaffed considering the crowd, and it took ages before we were given a menu, and another age for our orders to be taken. But the staff were friendly enough, and when they finally found a comfortable pace the rest of the evening progressed more smoothly. 

One thing to note about the acoustics of the restaurant, is that after a while it starts to feel like you're in a particularly crowded pub. All the tables are pushed quite close to one another, and when the place gets packed it's hard to hear yourself over the din. We were less than half a meter away from the next couple, without much illusions of privacy. On the evening I was there, a rather unhappy baby was also present, and the family of four next to us looked particularly peeved at having their dinner constantly interrupted by ear splitting wails.

Soon after the glasses of prosecco that came with our set arrived, our pre-starter arrived. It was "Roast Chicken" - A shot glass of roast chicken jelly book-ended by mushroom and thyme creams, and topped with an onion tart with dollops of onion cream on each end. 

It was an excellent start. The creams were light and brought out the taste of the jelly, which tasted like the drippings left over from well-roasted barbeque chicken. The tart had a great onion flavour and was quite spectacularly aromatic, and I just wonder what it would have tasted like warm, in contrast to the chilled 'roast chicken'. At room temperature, the tart had hardened slightly to a rather chewy consistency. 

For his starter, B had the Salmon Terrine, a combination of citrus cured salmon, potted salmon and smoked salmon, with two slivers of pickled cucumber and caviar. It was supposed to come with grapefruit fluid gel, but it seemed to have been replaced by a couple wedges of actual grapefruit instead. There was a small cluster of salmon roe and a piece of salmon skin, and to finish the plate was drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. The terrine itself was pleasant enough, although there was no discernible different between the citrus cured salmon and the smoked version. Shame about the salmon skin as well, which was hard as rock. After a concerted nibble I still wasn't getting anywhere apart from maybe breaking my teeth, and there didn't seem to be much by way of taste in it either. 

I ordered the Butternut Squash Risotto, and when the enormous portion came I felt quite overwhelmed. The roasted butternut squash was complemented by sage, pecorino cheese and a sweet biscuit crumble on the top. The risotto itself was decent, with a creamy texture that wasn't too heavy. The pieces of squash in the dish were amazingly sweet as well. But halfway through, I began struggling with the portion, with another three courses to go. 

My Roast Cod came with a hazelnut crust, winter vegetable hash, mushroom puree, pickled onions and crispy kale. Unfortunately for the dish, the kale was the most memorable part of it. Fried to a crisp, they tasted a bit like dried seaweed. The hash was good or bad depending on which vegetable you got in each forkful. The brussel sprouts were an unfortunate starchy mess. fish itself was also a disappointment. The hazelnut crust, while fragrant, wasn't so much like a crust as a soggy layer atop the cod, which was tasteless on its own. Sure, the fish was juicy, but I felt like I was eating rather flaky water. 

B's Duck, Curry Sauce and Chips fared a little better at least, with rather nice individual elements. You can't go all that wrong with tater tots, which here was called 'bombay potato chips'. The spice roasted duck breast was also quite good on its own, but completely lost when taken with the leg confit and lentil curry, which was a rich thing that would have gone splendidly with naan. Unfortunately the various parts just didn't go all that well together. 


The meal picked up again when we were served our pre-dessert of Liquid Popcorn with caramel foam, which the maitre d' took pains to point out was "Real popcorn! Honest!". B thought it was ambrosia. The caramel foam had hints of bitter to it that made it seem less like a shot of pure sugar, and the liquid tasted a like a cross between butter popcorn and creamed sweetcorn.

Dessert for me was Valrhona Chocolate Mousse with white chocolate shavings and chocolate popping candy. The mousse looked like a massive turd, but ignoring the presentation, it was quite a delightful, diaphanous thing while tasting deeply chocolate-y  The popping candy had the weakest fizzle of any popping  candy I've ever encountered, but the chocolate coating may have had something to do with it.

B opted for the Lemon Meringue pie, which came with a lemon Eton mess and a lemon macaroon. He quite liked his dessert. 

By the end of the meal we were just glad to escape the din. My main was a bit of a disaster given how promising the pre-starter was, but with the Groupon the whole thing didn't feel like such a waste. 

One Blenheim Terrace, 1 Blenheim Terrace, NW8 0EH

Tuesday 19 February 2013

The Bree Louise

It always surprises me how little I've been to the Bree Louise, since it's just around the corner from our pokey old place, they've got a huge selection of London real ales and they give student discounts. Went in with B before he had to catch his train back to Edinburgh, to lunch on some of their award-winning pies. 

Like many other pubs, the Bree Louise is redolent with the smell of hops and old beer. The walls are covered with the tabs of draft beers past and other assorted knick knacks, and the carpet looks like it could do with a bit of a wash, giving the place a rather charmingly grubby 80s vibe. 

The both of us went for the pie of the day, which was pork with apple, and opted for mash instead of chips. There was a bit of a wait for the pies, so we nursed our pints while waiting. My Sambrook's Pale Ale was a lovely deep straw colour, and quite citrusy. 

When the pies arrived, they came on a pretty massive plate. The seasonal vegetables were pretty much an afterthought, with the dish wholly dominated by the pie and the mash. The puff pastry sat on the top of the dish, and hasn't been pressed into the edges, so I removed it entirely to get to the gravy below. There wasn't that much by way of filling, with three lumps of pork and two slivers of apple. The apple had basically given up all its flavour to the sauce, and was a featureless mush, but the pork was  passably tender and the gravy, though watery, packed quite a punch. 

The star of the whole thing was the pastry, a delicately flaky creation, which when broken open revealed diaphanous layers within that almost melted on my tongue. 

After the pastry was gone, I ended up drizzling the rest of the pie atop the mashed potatoes, which were drying out from want of gravy. Since the pork and apple sauce was rather salty, it all worked out quite well. Was completely stuffed afterwards, and spent the rest of the sunny afternoon in a happy, hazy food coma. 

69 Coburg Street, Euston, London, NW1 2HH,

Sunday 17 February 2013

Lola's Cupcakes

Among my set, for some reason almost every birthday celebrated in London calls for a surprise of some sort. This usually involves planning distractions, travelling to houses at godforsaken hours and milling around in the dark while keeping very quiet. (It's very hard to mime a conversation at 11.45pm with no lights on) But what makes all of this worthwhile, is the fact that there is always cake. 

The people delegated with buying the cakes are often those with good taste in the first place, and once saddled with this task, they also tend to be very generous about the type of cakes they get. Therefore, most surprise parties end up being celebrated with rich chocolate cakes from reputable bakeries. Depending on how many people show up, the cake-buyers may also decide that one cake will be insufficient, and complement it with other baked goods.

For J's birthday, M asked W to be in charge of the cake, which she thought was to be for seven. Upon checking the event page and realizing there would actually be fourteen or more guests braving the London winter to come over, she supplemented it with mini cupcakes. From Lola's Kitchen. 

I've been semi-obsessed with Lola's Cupcakes since reading gushing reviews in just about every magazine I've picked up in London, and seeing them for myself in Selfridges and Topshop. They just look so perfect, and with rows upon rows sitting so prettily, I just end up gawking for a few moments every time I walk by. Given the queues though, I've never  actually bought one to try. 

So when W walked through the door, triple chocolate cake in hand, I ignored it and zoomed straight to the box screaming "HAND CRAFTED CUPCAKES". It was a box of Lola's tiny cupcakes. Each one looked expertly iced, and the sprinkles on top - from chocolate shavings to hearts and butterflies to glittery hundreds and thousands in varying shades of pink, just made them even more tempting. 

I had the earliest guests convene in the kitchen, during which time they collectively expressed their lack of interest in all cupcakes. Having been more exposed to people who don't actually like desserts since coming to London, I managed not to telegraph a look of pure horror and dismay (Who doesn't like desserts?!). Instead, I made the most of the fact that I was among non-competitors in my race to eat all the cupcakes I wanted, and asked for tips on an action plan. 

They look even better up close and personal 
"While everyone else is distracted by the birthday boy, do you think I could scoff a red velvet or two?"

"Sure, just go 'Happy Birthda-NOM!'. I bet J wouldn't notice anyway."

"Have the box in one hand and the cupcake you want in the other, then pass along the box, turn around and eat. Then no one else will steal it."

Red Velvet 1, sneaked out beforehand
In the chaos of J's return home and the cutting of the main cake, no one else remembered the cupcakes sitting on the kitchen counter. So I took out the red velvet I was eyeing, set it back on the table, then took the rest downstairs. I passed it down the throng of people spilling out of the room and into the corridor, before quickly bounding upstairs. 

My mini cupcake awaited my return, and I gingerly peeled off the casing for the first bite. 

It was... not as good as I'd been expecting. The cake base was dry and over crumbly, and the icing, while pretty, was a tad overwhelming. Smooshing it around my mouth, the icing did help to compensate for the dryness somewhat, but that just left the cupcake being somewhat tasty. Which really, just isn't good enough. Feeling rather disappointed that the cupcake hadn't been the little morsel of joy and happiness I was led to expect, I pulled a face at the rest of it before I ate that too. 

S came in to find me chewing rather discontentedly, and when I told her what was wrong with it, she laughed and told me to cut it some slack, since the cake had probably been sitting around all day. The dryness was probably inevitable. 


There are still cupcakes left in the fridge because most of our guests went into sugar shock after a slice of the chocolate cake. No one else in the house wants them, so it's up to me to finish the rest. I ate another two this morning in hopes that they would revise my opinion. Chocolate with pink hearts was even worse, but coconut was surprisingly moist and the butter cream not so cloying. Five cupcakes to go. 

Lola's Cupcakes, Selfridges Foodhall, 400 Oxford Street, W1C 2BU,

Saturday 16 February 2013

Siam Central

Siam Central seems to be a perennial go-to place for a lot of people I know. It's got a convenient location, and while the food isn't mind-blowing it's usually pretty reliable. The Thai tapas section is always tempting, but with most of us sticking to a budget of under a tenner, we tend to head straight for the mains. The noodle dishes won't cost you an arm and a leg and the portions are big enough that two small eaters can usually be satisfied just sharing one plate. 

The decor is unobtrusive, just hinting at exoticism. The glass walls let quite a lot of sun in, which is always nice. Being seated next to the door can be quite a pain though, especially when it's cold out and you get a gust of wind in your face every time someone opens the door. When we were there an alarm kept sounding as well and someone had to scramble to the big box of wires by our heads to switch it off. 

I had the thick rice noodles with tofu, which was oily and quite heavy, but tasty enough. They do give chilli if you ask, which helped keep the dish sufficiently fresh for me to plough through most of it. 

With four of us around, we decided to be a bit more adventurous and order another dish to share. The pork with aubergine and chilli, stir fried with sweet basil and soy beans was a bit of a disappointment though. While the vegetables acquitted themselves quite nicely, the pork was tough and quite stringy.

Siam Central, 14 Charlotte Street London, W1T 2LX

Thursday 14 February 2013

Books for Cooks

The lunch service began at noon sharp, and by 12.50pm the head chef was striking lines in chalk through the day's menu and disappointing lunch hopefuls with "Sorry, we've run out of food already." Apparently this usually only happens around 1.15pm, and today was a little bit crazier than usual. The lady at the cashier wasn't having the best of days, and when she realized there was no more cake left for her, she was visibly crestfallen. Having actually tried all four of the cakes of the day, I totally empathized. 

B's dissertation is on food and travel writing, so we went round to Books for Cooks in the name of good old-fashioned research. It made more sense to browse first to start working up an appetite, so I made us embark on our journey a little earlier, and we reached the store at 11.30pm. It was a good thing we did so, because the place got packed really soon after by a whole bunch of regulars who took up the rest of the tables. The regulars were enviably familiar with each other and the chefs, discussing the latest places they'd been to for a meal out and exchanging recommendations. If it weren't so far away I'd try to be a regular here too. 

Decor in the test kitchen

Books for Cooks has been claimed by some customers to be the best-smelling bookstore in the world, and while I tend to be partial to the smell paper and knowledge in Kinokuniya, it's hard to deny them this title given the lovely scent of soup and bread and cake that wafted over the minute we stepped through the door. Like many other independent bookstores, Books for Cooks is tiny, and during lunch it's impossible to browse certain sections since there are tables in the way. But there's no denying the fact that they have a massive collection of titles on hand, filling up their floor to ceiling shelves. A big table in the middle houses multiple copies of more popular recent titles, but the real gems are the many lone copies sitting on each packed ledge, like Cuisine, Colonialism and Cold War: Food in 20th Century Korea, or the magnificently bound Tasting India.

Lunch is served every day the store is open, using recipes gleaned from the many cookbooks on sale, and the food is available until everything runs out. The featured cookbooks are placed in a prominent position for more browsing and to tempt you to pick them up. The test kitchen in the back of the store whips up a different three-course meal each time, but there are no options available and you get whatever they decide on experimenting with.  

Today's board
The day's offerings were adapted from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Hugh's Three Good Things and Georgina Fuggle's Take One Pot. The cakes were inspired by multiple sources, neatly printed on their individual tags. 

Soup for Starters
First up was the Squash, Apple and Chili soup, served with a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and a hunk of aniseed focaccia. The soup was wonderfully warming and the chili cleared up my sinuses straightaway, which certainly helped my enjoyment of it, but it was the bread that was a wonder. Soft but sufficiently chewy, it went well with the soup, but was so good that I ate most of it on its own. 

Stew as a main
The main was Braised Lamb and Artichoke Stew, served over a creamy polenta. The stew itself was more watery than I prefer and it didn't look like much, but the lamb, sourced from Sheepdrove Organic Family Butchers, was tender and went very well with the polenta. My favourite bit of it though was the whole clove of garlic, that had been cooked with the skin on. The clove burst out easily in my mouth, and I couldn't help but think that it was where all the flavour had gone. 

Cake Selection Part 1
The portions didn't look overwhelming at first, but by the time dessert came around I realized I was full. We cheekily asked for small slices of everything instead of just sticking to a cake each, and they kindly obliged. The cakes were served with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a generous spoonful of organic yogurt at the side. From the top: Chocolate Brownie Meringue Cake (Surprisingly full of peanuts and raspberry sauce), Pear Pecan Cake (Light and the first to disappear), Rhubarb Cheesecake (Was more citrusy than I personally like, but a lady at the next table raved about the taste of oranges in it) and the Almond Cake (Much moister and less crumbly than I expected)

Cake Selection Part 2
The wine served was a very delicious deep garnet 2008 Domaine des Savarines Cahors, farmed biodynamically in the South of France. They came in the same small glasses used for water, and was a good companion to the braised lamb. 

At £10 for three very filling courses plus wine, it's no wonder the place is packed to the gills every mid-day. After the rest of the lunch patrons filtered out, we were the only customers left in the store for a brief but glorious five minutes where we had full run of the place. Then more people streamed in, browsing or pulling out in-built reading tables to set books down on, till it got a little cramped. That's when we finally left, but already hatching plans to return again soon, with more friends in tow. 

Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, Notting Hill, London, W11 1NN,

Wednesday 13 February 2013

Gelato at Gelateria 3Bis

I was last here in Autumn 2012, and I'd been meaning to go back but never got around to it. Then one day in early January I decided to skim through the day's Groupons instead of binning them directly. Lo! An offer for the large takeaway tub (£16.50 usually). The sign I was waiting for.

As the weather got worse, I kept the voucher safe since venturing out into the wilds of Borough markets in the snow seemed a silly think to do. Then over the weekend as I was suffering through a massive cold, my cravings for good pistachio gelato grew almost too great to bear. The pilgrimage to the south of the river had to be made, and soon. 

Armed with my voucher, I popped round to the store at 2.30pm. Maybe it was the time, or the fact that this isn't ideal ice cream eating weather,  but apart from one couple spoon feeding each other gelato there weren't any other customers around. 

The flavours of the day
As far as I can tell, 3Bis is staffed entirely by a team of gelato-mad Italian ladies who want to make you love gelato as much as they do. When I first visited last summer, the store was packed all to wall, but the staff gave each customer full attention, making recommendations and scooping out generous dollops of gelato (All freshly made on premises, using British milk) into each cup or cone, which tended to have chocolate sauce (Freely provided if you'd like some) waiting in it. 

That day, I managed to snag a seat because I was the tail end of a mad rush and by the time I got my cone, all the waffle-eaters had evacuated. One of the staffers on a break delicately plonked herself down beside me, massive cone of pistachio gelato in hand, and told me very seriously that she worked there because it meant she could have a free cone of gelato each day. 

Today, with no one else around, the lady on duty was determined to help me make the most of my takeaway tub. I wanted pistachio yes, and a new batch was being freshly churned by their machine to the side, but while waiting for it to be ready, why not try all the other options they had to offer? After all, the tub can hold two flavours comfortably.

We went through eight spoons in the quest for the 'other' that would tempt me away from getting a box of pure pistachio, going from the classics to the slightly more avant garde. They were all good, but not good enough for my purposes. Then she handed me a spoon of panna cotta, rivulets of burnt caramel threatening to spill over the cooked cream, with the words "This one I like best.". 

I ate it, and I was sold. 

Doesn't get any fresher than this
After ascertaining that I would be home in half an hour to freeze the tub (The tub holds the cold in for around 50 minutes to an hour in this weather), and that the pistachio gelato was nearly ready, the gelato lady packed half the tub with panna cotta, then went over to the freshly churned pot of pistachio goodness to fill the other half in, densely as she could. 
The sides of the tub were swiftly cleaned, catching the one drop that hadn't made it neatly inside, before the whole thing was wrapped in spotty paper. I was regaled with a story of how her flatmate froze a tub with the paper still on, and how they struggled to get it off afterwards, dampened by the moisture and frozen solid. "Don't freeze the paper. It just helps keep the cold in for a little longer."

After instructions on how to ensure the consistency doesn't go downhill (Portion out only what you want then keep the rest in the the freezer as quickly as you can) and wishes of "Enjoy.", I was sent on my merry way. 

Maybe gelato for dinner is in order. 

Gelateria 3Bis, 4 Park St, London Borough of Southwark, London SE1 9AB,

Duck and Waffle at Heron Tower

It's another overcast day in London, which normally wouldn't have bothered me in the slightest, but I just had lunch at Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor of Heron Tower (Currently the tallest building in the City of London) and I wonder how much further I could have seen if not for the thick hang of fog obscuring everything beyond a mile and a bit. 

Duck and Waffle was first brought to my attention by Eve one lunch in the middle of January, and after hearing the magic words "Duck confit with deep fried waffles on the 40th floor of a building for £15" I knew I had to go. 

Three years into London, the furthest from the ground I've ever gone in this city has been six floors up in a school building, so the ascent up the great glass elevators at the side of Heron Tower was breathtaking not just for the speed it shot up at. (I wobbled a bit when it first took off, I am rather ashamed to say.) On exiting the lift, I went past a set of thick wooden doors together with a group of other restaurant goers, only too be greeted by a dimly lit corridor housing what seemed to be a near-endless series of washrooms. I briefly harboured the dull fear that we were lost, but eventually all of us emerged into the cocktail bar. 

The neatest and most colour-coordinated graffiti imaginable had been lovingly painted across a broad swathe of wall, and the floor was awash with blue mosaic tiles, but what caught my eye was the kitchen island stacked high with liquors, cocktail accessories, fruits and other garnishes. My liver twinged a little at the sight of it. Managed to tear myself away, and was very promptly seated next to a table right by the floor to ceiling window. Immediately began marveling over the view.
The main restaurant with an open kitchen
The view from our window
The charming sommelier told us the restaurant didn't have a drinks menu, but he was happy to make recommendations based on what we liked. I had a lovely Villa Russiz ‘Colio’ Pinot Grigio from Italy, which would have been far more enjoyable had the price of it not given me a heart attack when getting the bill. I may well have been better off trying one of their many artisanal cocktails. Ah well. Just tap the next time. 

Apart from that one glitch, service was attentive, friendly and knowledgeable. We were treated to a brief but helpful run-through of the menu and how the dishes were designed for sharing, which helped our choices along. Instead of getting two portions of the namesake dish and extras, we figured we'd just get one and spend the rest of the amount we were planning to on other dishes. This left us with a good mix of what the kitchen had to offer. 

The first dish that was served was the yellow-fin tuna with a balsamic reduction, basil, and a spicy chunk of watermelon, on top of a block of Himalayan salt. The undersides of each of the five moist slabs of tuna was flavoured by the salt block, which made the whole thing wonderfully moreish. 

Next up came the BBQ-spiced crispy pig ears. The thinly-cut deep fried ears came in a brown paper bag, all the better for semi-discreet munching. A small nibble was enough to crumble the thinnest, crispiest portions, but other parts were decidedly more chewy. Going through half the bag left a twinge in my jaw in the end. The BBQ seasoning was reminiscent of your average bag of crisps. I.E. It was as though a team of people with degrees in food chemistry had carefully calibrated the stuff in a laboratory and declared it the tastiest set of granules they could possibly make. The type of seasoning that makes you think it's probably doing irreparable harm to your body, but heck, let's lick these fingers clean anyway.  

The Smoky Mutton Sloppy Joe (£8) came with curls of deep fried mutton and a dash of parsley atop a thick and meaty sauce, held together by a fluffy soft bun. It was deemed good, then wolfed down without a second thought. After cleaning up the last bits of meat sauce that had fallen out (Eating is messy business), I felt quite bereft. Perhaps I should have taken more time with it. 

In between bites, I looked out onto the street below, and it hit me once again how practically everyone in London wears black much of the time. If people were toting around white bags, or bucking the trend and donning a red coat instead, it was immediately obvious from my vantage point.

The serving of the dishes was well-timed, and after the last of the Sloppy Joe disappeared, the plate was whisked away and the Duck and Waffle with Fried Duck Egg and Mustard Maple Syrup was brought to the table. The edges of the egg were fried to a deep golden crisp and wafer thin. The meat of the duck leg was juicy and tender, the fat melt in your mouth and the skin deliciously oily. I ended up gnawing at the bones by the end of it. I saved half my waffle for last and was surprisingly pleased to note it retained its just-taken-out-of-the-fryer texture all the way. The maple syrup was as shockingly sweet as we were warned it would be, which made filling the grid all the more delightful. 

Our dessert order was taken by a rather jolly man who proclaimed all the desserts wonderful, which made choosing even more difficult. Seeing how torn I was, he gave a short spiel for each - the Warm Chocolate Brownie was a crowd-pleaser, the Toffee Apples good stuff, and the Crispy Fried Mars Bars very interesting. I like very interesting, so my mind was made up. You really can't go wrong with Crispy Fried Mars Bars anyway. Unlike the incarnation I'm used to, this version was dipped whole in proper tempura batter then put in the fryer, and served atop malted ice cream and biscuit crumbles. Just look at the caramelly goodness oozing all over the place. Suffice to say, I savoured each bite, but it disappeared in record time anyway.

The restaurant is supposed to be open 24/7, which makes for very interesting possibilities. Will watch the weather next time, and later in the year I may come in hopes of a sunset/sunrise. Should be spectacular, and without the wine (which cost a small fortune) quite affordable considering the location and food quality. 

Duck and Waffle, 110 Bishopsgate, London EC2N 4AY

Tuesday 12 February 2013

Patty & Bun

Burger joints in London seem to be popping up like nobody's business this year, and for what looks to be a fad food most places are providing good stuff, so maybe designer burgers are going to be sticking around for a while. But while it remains fresh on the scene, it looks as though massive queues will continue to come along with the dining experience. 

S had been dying to go to Patty and Bun for a couple of weeks, so I finally met up with him, M & B for dinner. I got there early at 7.50 pm for our designated 8 o'clock meeting time, but the rest had reached even earlier to stake our place in line. S had given his name to the lady wielding the clip board, and we were given an estimated seating time of around 8.15 pm, so we decided to pop around the corner for a quick pint and catch up first. 

When 8.15 rolled around we made our way back, only to be told that the table they had for us was still being occupied. They'd finished eating a while back, but sat there and continued chatting, completely oblivious to the rest of us standing out in the cold. We were let in to the standing bar area for drinks first, but it still seemed fairly awkward with the four of us standing there staring at the table silently willing them to go. By the time they did it was 8.40 pm. The staff were quite terrific and kept coming over to apologize for not being able to kick them out, and they let us place our orders at the bar, so the food arrived quickly enough after we were seated.

Like most of the new gourmet burger places, the look here is minimalist industrial. The menu itself is also very simple, with just 6 burgers, a couple of add-ons and four kinds of sides (There are a couple of desserts too). We got some sides to share: the chips with rosemary salt (Which were more wedge-like than anything else) and the 'Winger Winger Chicken Dinner' - smoked confit wings with BBQ sauce and spring onions. The chips were a bit limp, but the wings were quite delightful, the meat falling-off-the-bones soft. Everyone licked their fingers clean after. 

A word of caution: the burgers are small. I'd been pre-warned by JL, who seems to have been to every burger joint in town, so I'd already eaten my first dinner in preparation.  I ordered the Ari Gold, a patty, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickled onion, ketchup and smoky P&B mayo combo lodged between their light brioche. I had mine topped up with a serving of bacon. As you can see, Patty & Bun keep true to their word on sourcing fresh and tasty ingredients. No sign of limp vegetables here. The pickled onions were luridly pink and added a nice hint of acidity to offset rather sweet mayo. 

Given that the place is called Patty & Bun, let me now turn my attention on to the foundations of a good burger. The patty itself is cooked medium rare and taste-wise wasn't overpowered by the bacon and cheese slathered on top. The texture was also good, the outer layer of meat giving way to a silky, chewy middle. And with everything held together by an ultra-soft brioche, well. It was a pretty good burger. 

54 James St London W1U 1HE

Friday 8 February 2013

Hereford Road

The booking was made for noon and we scurried up to the door almost ten past, but we needn't have rushed. The place was empty save for a lone staffer still mopping around the entrance, who seemed terribly surprised to see us. 

"I have a reservation for noon?"

"But we only just opened!"

Pleasantries out of the way, he rather reluctantly set aside his mop and seated us in the main dining area a short flight of stairs down, which was awash with natural light courtesy of a massive circular rooflight, and the lovely day outdoors. We were informed that the day's menu was still being printed downstairs, but bread and water was provided as we waited.

They hadn't bothered to go over the top with the decor, but the paintings on the wall and the very lush ceiling of the entrance area ensured that the place didn't look completely spartan. 

Plush red booths and deep brown tables, almost like a diner.

I wonder if the people living there peer into the restaurant from time to time to see what's being served
After the menus arrived, we waited an age before our orders were taken. A few groups had shown up in the interim, mostly made up of retirees or middle-aged business people, and there was a rush to settle everyone in. After some frantic waving, we were finally noticed. The both of us were famished having forgone breakfast (I had to rush for class, B hadn't woken up till it was too late), and the bread (Two very generous slices, served with a pat of salted butter. Fresh and moist enough to be soft, but I don't think it was ever meant to be fluffy.) had disappeared soon after we received it, so we were glad when our waiter finally came around. There were three options per course for the set lunch, and we quickly rattled off our choices, but when I mentioned dessert, our waiter stopped me. 

"I'll ah, come back later for that order. If you still want it." 

And with those cryptic words, he left to key in our orders. On hindsight, we should have realized what he meant. 

For starters, I ordered the Grilled Sardines with Parsley and Lemon, and it was exactly as it said on the tin. Only there were three sardines, each as long as a fork. The fish was fresh and I spent some time admiring the silvery blue sheen on each. The flesh was easily stripped away from the bone, and the meat inside was tender without flaking all over the place. 

B ordered Crispy Pork, Dandelion and Mustard, and was sorely disappointed when he realized it was a salad. But the greens were well put together, and after I swapped my fish heads for his sliced gherkins and baby radishes, we cleaned out our plates.

At that point, we came to the stunning realization that after a single course we were almost full. And then the main courses came by. 

My hand, next to the Massive Mackerel. 
Fish being dear on a day to day basis, I hadn't eaten any in a month. Deciding to consume as much Omega 3 as possible in a single sitting,  I chose the Mackerel with Kohlrabi (Which was kind of like a cabbage-turnip), Cucumber and Chervil (French parsley, in common parlance). When it arrived though, the size of it left me absolutely gobsmacked. Head to tail, it covered the full length of my hand and forearm.

Even after a whole fish course already, it wasn't difficult to enjoy this as well. The mackerel was fresh and very well done. The skin was crisp and easily gave way to juicy bits of meat, and on first cut I could see fish oils pooling inside. The salad had a nice, sharp vinegary tang to it, which nicely contrasted the richness of the mackerel, and helped to keep it from being overwhelming. 

B had the Venison Shepherd's Pie, which looked deceptively small but turned out to be exceedingly generous as well. The venison didn't taste too gamey, but was just different enough not to be pleasantly out of the ordinary. 

Full of oily goodness, offset by the crisp salad
I finished a third of the fish before admitting defeat, and the rest of it was very neatly wrapped up in foil for me to take home. I'm contemplating bringing a lunch box wherever I go from now on, just in case there are any more leftovers. The rest of the fish was eventually consumed that evening. My housemates assisted, and we crowded around our tiny kitchen, forks in hand, attacking it until there was just bones left. Even after half a day sitting in the fridge and undergoing a blitzing in the microwave, the fish was still juicy. It was also tasty enough that J ended up licking the plate. 

We had dessert in the end, because I just had to try their sticky date pudding, even if it killed me. It came with a jug of cream, which I completely upended over the top of my pudding. It was dense going, with sizable bites of dates studded throughout. Nearly went into food coma afterward, but it was worth it. 

Pudding, with cream clouds
Service improved markedly as the meal went on, we were pleased to note. After they found their groove the dining service was run efficiently and with care. A shout-out as well to our waiter, who eventually came running down the street after us, my sunglasses in hand, when he realized I had left it behind.  

There were no fancy flourishes at work here, just fresh ingredients cooked with care and skill, at a very reasonable price. Which is all you need really.