Medlar: Disappointing dining in Chelsea

Medlar: Disappointing dining in Chelsea

I’m often asked why I started a food blog. There are actually several reasons ranging beyond simply “I like to eat”, and one of these was motivation. Motivation to get off my sofa and experience London’s wonderful food scene. So one of the main “objectives” behind this blog was to work my way through the Time Out Top 100 restaurants list. Clearly I had ambitions way beyond my budget because, before I realised it, a brand new Top 100 had been published and I’d ticked perhaps one restaurant off the list… I’m still trying to hit them all but these days I use the list more as a guide than a goal.  And that is how I found myself at Medlar.

Medlar is one of those restaurants that the critics love. And I get that. It’s a smart, clean affair at the (marginally) less salubrious end of Kings Road. There is nothing remotely offensive about it – pastel decor, a lengthy menu, no crazy music, queues or gimmicks. It’s the kind of place you would take your mum for Mother’s Day. The clientele seem to be standard old school Chelsea. Predominantly upper middle age/elderly, elegant, tweedy, proper. It’s not the type of place I tend to frequent, not least because of the fact that Chelsea is painfully dull, but I’m easily lured by the promise of great food and a Time Out Top 100 spot (of course).

Considering its location, Medlar is very reasonably priced. They only have a set menu which offers three courses for £35, two for £30 and one for £25. You’d be a bit daft to order just one course, but then it is Chelsea…  Obviously we went for the full three. I’d scoped out the menu before arriving and had my eye on the starter of duck egg tart with red wine sauce. This was for two reasons . Firstly, duck egg. Say no more. Secondly, it came with the promise of sauteéd duck heart and I’m not ashamed to admit that I am a slavering carnivore. The reality, however, turned out to be unexpectedly odd. The “tart” turned out to be a fried duck egg layered over a slice of flaky pastry, that was then perched on an entire field’s worth of wilted spinach. The poor little duck heart was tough and its flavour was obliterated by a cloying turnip puree. Oh and not forgetting the red wine sauce and lardons. Way too many big flavours jostling for position in one little dish.

I really struggled selecting a main course which, as there were eight options to choose from, did not bode well. I settled on the breast and leg of coquelet with crepes parmentier, celeriac puree, red onion jam and zhoug. I did have to Google at least two things on that list before ordering…  As per the starter, the dish suffered from an over-abundance of, well, everything. It was the gastronomic equivalent of Supermarket Sweep, with the chef grabbing everything on the shelves and chucking it in his trolley. The leg meat of the chicken had been taken off the bone, rolled and stuffed with an eggy, over-set chicken mousse. This failed nod towards fine dining just seemed pointlessly fussy. Likewise, the crepes parmentier added nothing. Just give me some nice potatoes.  You can even tart them up a bit, that’s fine, but there’s no need to over-complicate them. None of the flavours gelled, especially the spicy zhoug, which didn’t belong on the plate at all.

I’d heard that the puds at Medlar were particularly good but – surprise – I was disappointed once again. I ordered the spiced parkin with poached quince and honey and stem ginger ice cream. Parkin is a gingerbread cake from northern England, made with oatmeal and black treacle. It’s the stuff of comfort food dreams. I hadn’t eaten parkin since my uni days, when my housemate used to bring us her mum’s homemade version, so I was particularly excited to see this on the menu. It was ok, although a little dry which is pretty unforgivable for a cake made with treacle. And, yet again, nothing went together!  It was just a plate of cake, fruit and ice cream like some sad children’s birthday party.

Nothing about Medlar excited or inspired me. My visit here only served to remind me why I don’t eat out in Chelsea. The food was as bloated and bland as the neighbourhood. I guess it just goes to show that, sometimes, that wonderful food scene lets you down.

Medlar, 438 King’s Road, SW10 0LJ
£35 for three courses, not including drinks

Five London travel hacks all tourists should know

Five London travel hacks all tourists should know

After living in London for 12 years I’m now able to navigate this vast city with relative ease.  But I still remember how it felt arriving here as a total newbie.  London can feel like a pretty intimidating place at times.  Working out where to begin, navigating public transport and the sheer volume of people swirling around you at 100mph can be enough to make your head spin.  So here are my top 5 travel hacks to help you get the best out of your time here in the Big Smoke.

1.  Rush past rush hour 
I cannot stress this enough.  It’s called “rush hour” for a reason and trust me when I say it’s not something you want to find yourself caught up in.  For the uninitiated, this is when London’s huge workforce travel to and from their various jobs across the capital.  And, despite the name, it’s not just for an hour.  Generally it’s between 7:30 – 9:00 am and 5:00 – 7:00 pm, Monday to Friday.  The tube gets absolutely rammed and people are usually ever so slightly humourless at this time of the day – to put it mildly!  Do everything you can to avoid travelling at this time and you’ll have a much more pleasant journey.

2. Walk (but don’t dawdle)
Following on from the first point, it’s actually pretty good to avoid using the tube in general and stick around above ground.  Walk as much as you can.  London is great for exploring.  There are loads of little side streets with independent shops and eateries, enchantingly pretty cobbled mews, some of the loveliest houses you’ll ever see, secret gardens… I could go on forever.  Plus the people watching is spectacular.  I once spotted a witch selling herbs off a canal boat and a man with a giant blue parrot – both during the same walk.  Everything and anything goes in London so who knows what you might see?  One word of warning though – Londoners walk very fast and don’t take kindly to people getting in their way!

3. There’s more to life than Primark
Ok, so perhaps only a certain demographic frequent the barn-like Primark stores that bookend Oxford Street.  However, Oxford Street is not the shopping mecca people believe it to be.  It’s a busy, traffic-choked drag, containing nothing but chain stores and tacky souvenir shops.  If shopping’s your thing then check out the Carnaby Street area of Soho or Covent Garden or one of the many markets, like Spitalfields.  You’ll still find the usual high street shops – it’s hard to avoid them these days – but they’re mixed in with independent retailers and the setting is much easier on the eye – as well as being pedestrian friendly.

4. Get out more
A lot of the big ticket sights are in Zone 1 but, if you have the time, expand your horizons.  Head north to the pretty “villages” of Hampstead and Highgate, separated by the vast, green expanse of Hampstead Heath.  Venture south-west to Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park where you can wander among herds of deer.  Eastwards, you will find the Olympic Village, the Lea Valley and a burgeoning hipster scene.  Don’t limit yourself to the West End.  Explore.  Get lost.  Discover London.

5. Queue for food, but not for Pizza Hut
I work around the corner from a big, West End branch of Pizza Hut and it frequently makes me want to cry.  Every day I see people queuing to get in.  The same for Frankie & Benny’s, Angus Steakhouses, TGI Fridays and all the other bland, over-priced chains that litter the West End.  And every day I ask myself why?  The mass produced steaks at Angus Steakhouse start from £18.50 but if you walk just a little way in the other direction, you can get a blinding steak dinner at Flat Iron for a fraction of the price.  It’s tempting to gravitate towards the familiar, but there’s a reason none of the locals eat at these places – and that’s because they’re crap.  London is one of the foodie capitals of the world.  Be adventurous and eschew the chains in favour of one of the fab independent restaurants that this city is famed for.

London is brilliant, exciting, messy, chaotic, diverse, pulsing but never boring.  It’s a city you can visit repeatedly and always find something different.  It still turns me on, despite having lived here for over a decade.  I hope you love it as much as I do.

What are your top London travel hacks?  Share them in the comments below.

Aquavit

Aquavit

Not long before we moved to London, my then boyfriend and I visited for a week’s holiday.  We stayed in one of those old fashioned hotels in Paddington, delighted by how cheap it was, not realising that the area was a notorious red light district.  I was so in love with London then.  It was unlike anywhere I’d ever been before; a place fat with possibility.  We visited a pub not far from Hyde Park and I was thrilled by how buzzy it was, how it felt like an integral part of a neighbourhood that I wanted to be a part of too.  That pub has long since closed, like so many others, a victim of spiralling rents and the relentless development that now blights London.  Too many of the new developments around town are so devoid of character that today’s London feels a million miles away from the London I was once so excited by.  One such place is St James’s Market, between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street; a rather soulless space, slowly filling with chic but pricey eateries.  It’s the sort of place I generally walk straight past with a sad shake of my head.  However, a combination of pay day, curiousity and a love of Scandi cuisine tempted me within its sterile climes to visit Aquavit.

Aquavit is a sleek Scandinavian restaurant with branches in New York and Tokyo.  The New York restaurant has 2 Michelin stars so that piece of knowledge, combined with the top end prices, meant I was expecting something special.  I’ll get the bad stuff out of the way first.  The service was not great.  It certainly wasn’t Michelin star service.  After I was shown to my table, I was left alone.  No-one offered me a drinks menu, no-one offered me water, no-one even acknowledged my presence in the restaurant.  I eventually had to grab a passing waiter to request a drinks menu.  Now, here’s the funny part.  I always make notes when I review somewhere and I had jotted down some observations on the service.  These were then spotted by a senior waiter and suddenly…..I was a rock star!  Did I want to move to a better table?  Could they bring me anything else?  Etc, etc.  So while the service did improve, I’m not sure it came from a genuine place.

The food at Aquavit, however, was another story altogether.  The menu contained lots of really intriguing possibilities and reminded me why I love Scandinavian cuisine.  It’s food that celebrates nature, food that feels earthy and primal.  I started with venison tartare, which came with blueberries, lingonberries and juniper.  The juniper element was actually in the form of little blobs of mayonnaise dotted across the dish.  Not only was this a nice creative touch, it tasted superb.  The venison itself melted in the mouth and, surprisingly, didn’t taste too gamey.  The sharp, sweet berries that were scattered throughout popped in the mouth, while the addition of crispy sourdough scraps provided some welcome crunch.  The dish reminded me of the vast, dark forests of Scandinavia.  It was natural and quintessentially Nordic.

I took a trip to the chilly northern coast for my main course, choosing the cod, shrimps, cucumber and dill.  The generous slab of cod was absolutely perfectly cooked and fell apart into vast white flakes at the mere brush of my fork.  The cod was accompanied by a cucumber, shrimp and dill “salad” and a large green dollop of, what I think was, wasabi mayonnaise.  All the flavours used here are known to work together, so it’s pretty much a given that this dish would taste good if executed well.  Which it did and it was.  The cod was velvety soft, and I loved the zing and freshness provided by the other ingredients.  The shrimps did get a little bit lost among everything else, which was a shame.  However, the far greater sin in my opinion was the presence of a foam (*shudder*).  I really thought that sort of thing had gone out of fashion.  As one of my colleagues pointed out, it just looks like someone has spat on your dinner.  Of course, it didn’t really add anything and only made the whole dish much wetter than it needed to be, leaving a fairly unpleasant texture.

There are some sexy side dishes to be found at Aquavit and I was very excited to spot Jansson’s temptation on the menu.  This is the Scandinavian take on a potato dauphinoise, made with potatoes, onions, cream and pickled sprats, topped with breadcrumbs.  I first encountered this at the home of my Finnish friends and have been in love with it ever since.  It’s not the healthiest dish in the world but it’s definitely one of the tastiest.

I decided to try something completely new for dessert – rosehip soup.  The concept of soup for dessert is a little strange but, nonetheless, it worked.  I was presented with a bowl containing a scoop of almond ice cream, daintily perched on a slim disc of almond cake.  The waiter then poured the soup into the bowl, around the ice cream.   The flavours of both the soup and the ice cream were very unusual, but not unpleasant.  The soup was served lukewarm, and had a hint of fruitiness without being too sweet.  The whole dish was comforting and surprisingly moreish, even after the ridiculous amount of food I had already eaten.

I still walk past St James’s Market with a sad shake of my head and I still have a heavy heart about the rising tide of development.  However, I’m grateful for the fact that at least the space hasn’t been filled with the usual smattering of chains.  Despite the shaky service, Aquavit impressed me.  If you’re looking for food that’s a bit different, that feels authentic and that’s made with ingredients of the highest quality, then Aquavit is the place to be.   If anything can save London from becoming just one more identikit British town, it’s our vibrant food scene.  Aquavit is a great addition to this.

Aquavit, St James’s Market, 1 Carlton Street, SW1Y 4QQ
£62 per person including wine

Miusan

Miusan

Contentious as it may have been, the Night Tube is a thing of great excitement for this Londoner.  No longer do I have to limit myself to nights out in south west London.  No longer do I have to make that mad dash for the last tube, bringing brilliant evenings to an abrupt end.  The city has opened up to me and it’s great.  Weirdly, I quite like grubby, touristy old Camden for the occasional night out but I’ve so often had to cut those nights out short.  Taxi from Camden to Tooting?  No chance.  But, thanks to the Night Tube, I can now relax and enjoy what Camden has to offer – like new bar and restaurant, Miusan.

Miusan is the brand new offering from Chris Singam of Cottons restaurants, although the theme this time is pan-Asian instead of Caribbean.  The aim is to recreate the “opulence of the 1940’s opium dens of New York and Paris”, which seems to be the inspiration for practically every Oriental-themed bar in London these days.  Stepping off a damp Inverness Street into a discrete and dimly lit Miusan, however, did feel like crossing the threshold into an altogether more enticing world.  Velvet couches, tea lights and incense combine to create a zen-like atmosphere – helped along by the extensive cocktail list!

I’ve previously written about how I find the concept of “pan-Asian” a tricky one; how it risks being a bit “jack of all trades, master of none”.  However, the menu at Miusan does have some interesting, well-conceived dishes alongside the standard fare of laksa and sweet and sour chicken.  Soft shell crab with curry leaves was a particular highlight, particularly as soft shell crab is something that I’ve never really enjoyed eating.  The crab was beautifully crispy with plenty of chilli to give it a punch.  Fat king prawns coated in toasted sesame seeds and a sticky garlic sauce burst in the mouth.  The beef rendang curry was one of the best I’ve eaten in the UK – all the richness of slow cooked beef and creaminess of coconut mingled with the enticingly complex spicing in the curry paste.  Even the veggie side dishes were good.  If my mum wanted me to eat more green beans when I was a kid then she should have fried them with garlic and chilli, like these guys do.

We now turn to the sticky issue of desserts in Asian restaurants.  They so frequently fall short of the mark, unless you really love mochi or a tropical fruit platter.  However, Miusan have really raised the bar.  Not only is their dessert menu actually interesting, the dishes are incredibly tasty.  You haven’t eaten chocolate cake until you’ve eaten their sweet potato and chocolate cake.  Sounds a bit suspect but it’s sooooo moist and gooey – helped along by the thick warm chocolate sauce.  Entering the realm of the slightly more exotic, toddy steamed cake was a new experience for me.  These are made with white rice flour, coconut cream and toddy palm sugar, then steamed in a banana leaf and served with coconut.  Another soft, fluffy comforting pud.  A particular highlight were the steamed glutinous rice balls filled with red bean paste.  Chewy, nutty and very moreish.

It’s fortunate that the food at Miusan is so tasty because their cocktails are dangerously good, and it would be very easy to get very drunk.  My favourite is the hibiscus bellini – hibiscus syrup, prosecco and hibiscus flower.  Beijing Iced Tea looked like something I would drink when I was a student, thanks to the crazy blue curacao, but packed a punch.  I’m looking forward to trying some of the other cocktails on the list.  Although when you’re faced with drinks like Dragon Lady – absinthe, gin, lemon juice, egg white and creole bitters – it’s probably just as well there’s now a Night Tube. Because I can’t see myself walking out of Miusan any time before midnight!

Miusan, 16 Inverness Street, NW1 7HJ
Many thanks to Miusan and Chilli Communications for inviting me along.  All views are, as ever, my own

Jackdaw and Star/We Serve Humans

Jackdaw and Star/We Serve Humans

I have a theory regarding burgers which goes a little something like this.  If you need to eat it with a knife and fork then it’s a good burger.  Of course, that theory does fall down from time to time.  I’m sure there are plenty of burgers that are stacked high and stuffed full and still taste rank.  But in general, a good burger is one that you most definitely can’t pick up in your hands.  Case in point: McDonalds and their teeny, shrivelled “burgers”.  I can easily eat a Big Mac one-handed and my hands are positively Donald Trump-esque in their dimensions.  So I don’t care if I look silly or genteel or “posh” with my knife and fork; I want to eat a burger that I can’t pick up.  I want a burger that is so full of meat and cheese and…stuff that it’s in danger of collapsing.  If that’s the sort of burger that you want too, then I recommend checking out the We Serve Humans residency at the Jackdaw and Star.

The Jackdaw and Star in Homerton is one of those hipster pubs that look unedifying from the outside, but turn into something achingly cool as you step through the doors.  It clearly used to be a scruffy old boozer but has been pimped up with a few licks of paint, crazy patterned wallpaper and squishy antique armchairs.  I particularly liked the fact that they’ve kept the beautiful Victorian tiles in situ, as well as the large central bar, retaining some of that lovely old fashioned pub vibe.

Staying very much on trend, the Jackdaw and Star doesn’t have its own in-house chef.  Instead, they invite various street food vendors and pop-up chefs to take up residency for a few months.  I’m a big fan of this approach.  I think it keeps things fresh and gives people a reason to keep coming back, as well as providing a platform for up-and-coming chefs.  Currently, the Jackdaw and Star is playing host to We Serve Humans; burger-flipping purveyors of happiness.  And their food really does make you happy.  Just one look at the menu brought a smile to my face – an “angry” burger named after everyone’s least favourite orange American…  They also do hot dogs, sliders, wings and the dirtiest chips in town.  So yeah, food that will definitely make you feel happy, although probably not healthy.

Image supplied by the Jackdaw and Star

We ordered “The Frank” and the Donald Trump burger, the latter now renamed as “The End of Democracy”.  It’s still “angry” though, heaving with jalapeños and a generous dollop of beef chilli.  The Frank was an altogether classier affair.  This burger came with the addition of blue cheese and truffled aioli for those people who like their rich food to be served extra rich.  Both burgers were made with We Serve Human’s signature brisket and short rib patty.  The meat was just the right side of medium rare and had that gorgeous griddled flavour that denotes a good burger.  “But could you pick it up?”, I hear you yell.  Not a chance in hell.  These were like The Shard in burger form.  Even my friend, with his big man hands, had to use a knife and fork.  There was no skimping on ingredients here.

Because we’re greedy and incapable of making a decision, we ordered two different portions of chips: the “standard” chips fried in beef dripping and chips with beer cheese sauce.  You see what I mean when I talked about them being the dirtiest chips in town?  Sure, you find beef dripping chips on lots of menus but the difference here is that you can actually taste the dripping.  The chips with beer cheese sauce were just as epic.  It tasted like Welsh rarebit, only with chips instead of toast.  And if that’s not enough for you, you can also choose from chips with truffle and chips with slow cooked chilli and cheese sauce.  I swear my arteries are furring up just typing this.

Image supplied by the Jackdaw and Star

The Jackdaw and Star do a pretty sophisticated cocktail list, where you can choose from the likes of a fog cutter or a mezcal margarita.  My negroni was one of the best I’ve had in London – and I’ve drunk a LOT of them so it’s safe to say I know my shit here.  The team were also able to recommend some decent soft drinks, such as Square Root sodas, to my tee-total friend, which made a pleasant change from the usual pint of Coke.

We Serve Humans clearly know that naughty food is the way to put a smile on anyone’s face.  What’s even better is that their version of naughty food is a step up from the bog standard burger and chips.  They’ve actually given their menu some thought, come up with fun ideas and then lifted everything by going hell for leather with their ingredients.  There’s no worrying about calories or pandering to the “eat clean” brigade here.  Even their vegetarian options are mega (crispy truffled mac and cheese in a bun, anyone?).  This is the sort of food you eat for a treat, food that cheers you up, food that’s minxy and indulgent.  So roll your sleeves up and get your knife and fork ready.  You’re definitely going to need them for these burgers.

Jackdaw and Star, 224 Homerton High Street, E9 6AS

Many thanks to the team at both the Jackdaw and Star and We Serve Humans for inviting me along to sample their menu.  All views are, as ever, my own.
Due to a technical issue with my phone, I lost all but one of the images from this night.   The last two images are professional photos provided by the Jackdaw and Star and are not necessarily representative of our meal. 

Chi Kitchen

Chi Kitchen

If I were to tell you that Debenhams on Oxford Street is the place to go for a really great meal, you would probably laugh in my face.  To be fair, I wouldn’t blame you.  Department store eateries are generally a little bit sad.  Old ladies and bored husbands huddled around weak coffee and dry cake, surrounded by beige formica.  No thank you.  And Debenhams?  A middle-of-the-road shop with about as much character as a clothes peg; the one that’s not as classy as John Lewis.  But…department stores are realising that shopping habits are changing and that it’s going to take something extra to get customers through the door these days.  And that something is great food.  Selfridges, unsurprisingly, led the way with the likes of Hemsley + Hemsley and Aubaine.  John Lewis has outposts of Benugo and Comptoir Libanais.  Debenhams has welcomed Chi Kitchen.

Chi Kitchen is a pan-Asian restaurant, part-owned by Eddie Lim of the renowned Mango Tree in Belgravia.  The executive chef is 2014 Masterchef winner, Ping Coombes.  I remember watching Ping’s Masterchef journey and thinking that her food looked amazing right from the outset.  So Ping Coombes plus Eddie Lim plus Debenhams added up to a very intriguing proposition.  “Pan-Asian”, however, is a concept that always feels a bit wishy-washy to me.  Just because a group of dishes come from the same – vast – geography doesn’t necessarily mean that they will all gel together harmoniously.  I guess this is where Ping’s skill as executive chef comes in because, despite the humongous menu, nothing that we ate felt jarring or out of place.

So, about that humongous menu.  I defy anyone to visit Chi Kitchen and not find something that they would like to eat.  There are a whopping 13 sections to choose from, including dessert and sides.  Two sections are dedicated to sushi alone.  This is before you even reach the small plates (i.e. starters).  Then you’ve got noodles, robata, signature dishes….  We had to enlist the help of the restaurant manager to guide us through this epic tome because, basically, I wanted to eat it all.

We started with a selection of smaller dishes to share – Alaskan crab and XO dumplings, salt and pepper baby squid, and the Chi Kitchen maki rolls.  The squid was perfectly moreish; the crispy exterior giving way to tender pieces of squid, with a chilli dipping sauce on the side.  I could have grazed on this all day long.  The dumplings looked pretty and were generously stuffed with crab.  Most importantly, the XO sauce didn’t overpower the delicate flavour of the crab meat.  A huge slab of maki rolls was presented with a jug of dry ice on the side; a slightly pointless piece of theatre when the dish looked impressive enough anyway.  They, too, were loaded with seafood and avocado, with slices of extra fish laid over the top of each roll for good measure.  Again, very easy eating – well, except for the fact that I’m rubbish with chopsticks!

We ordered two of the signature main courses to share between us.  The Thai green chicken curry and the nasi lemak.  Thai green curry is pretty much a classic dish now, one that I have had many times.  Nasi lemak, however, was completely new to me.  It’s from Malaysia and was described on the menu as “chicken curry, dried anchovies, sambal, peanuts, egg and fragrant coconut rice”.  I totally expected it to be a big bowlful of curry but, in fact, it was daintily presented as separate elements on one plate.  We were advised to dive in and mix everything up together.  While it tasted good, the chicken curry bit was actually one thigh and one breast covered with a few spoonfuls of sauce, so I found the whole dish a little dry.  A little more sauce – and maybe a little more chicken – would have been ideal.

The Thai green curry, however, was on another level entirely.  As I mentioned, I’ve eaten quite a few versions of this dish over the years but this one is probably the best I’ve ever had.  The sauce was silky and soft with coconut cream; a big bowlful of warmth, spice and love.  Chunks of aubergine amplified the lusciousness, while a surprisingly fiery kick of chili kept everything from getting too rich.  If you only order one thing from the mega-menu, make sure it’s this.

Sides included the usual rice, but I recommend getting the roti with Malaysian curry sauce on the side.  The bread was thin, flaky and finger-lickingly buttery.  And when I say “curry sauce”, I don’t mean the sort of thing you get with your chips on a Friday night.  This sauce was vibrant and velvety, with a little heat but not overwhelmingly so.  Just like the salt and pepper squid, if someone presented me with a plate of just this bread and sauce then I would be more than happy to sit there and demolish the lot.

Desserts in Asian restaurants can be tricky – unless you’re a big fan of tropical fruit – and Chi Kitchen was no exception.  They have a couple of interesting dishes, particularly the baked green tea Alaska, but they didn’t live up to the standards of the savoury courses.  This isn’t to say that they weren’t very good, but that Thai green curry was a lot to live up to!  My partner ordered the green tea Alaska, which looked super-cute, but the ice cream was rock hard.  Green tea is very much the in-thing at the moment, so if you’re a dedicated matcha lover then it’s worth giving this dish a whirl.

As for me, well it had to be the chocolate sphere with hot caramel sauce.  This dessert is getting to be a bit of Instagram staple, and rightly so.  Who doesn’t want to see a chocolate ball slowly melt and ooze into a naughty, saucy puddle?  The waitress poured the hot caramel over the chocolate; a piece of theatre that was justified in this case.  The chocolate slid away to reveal a centre of vanilla ice cream and berries, now surrounded by a pure chocolate and caramel sauce.  The berries were a welcome surprise as the dish was more than a little sickly, so their fresh sharpness was exactly what was required.

The addition of Chi Kitchen is a savvy move on the part of Debenhams.  I’m not a fan of spending time on Oxford Street or in large chain stores.  But I’d definitely go back to Chi Kitchen, which means that I may well end up in Debenhams more often than I usually would.  And that also means that I may spend more money there.  Is department store dining the way forward?  Who knows…  Two things are certain, however.  I need to start working my way through more of the Chi Kitchen mega-menu and I definitely need more of that Thai green curry.

Chi Kitchen, Ground Floor, Debenhams, 334-348 Oxford Street, W1C 1JG
A meal for two people, excluding drinks, averages £40 per person

Many thanks to Chi Kitchen and Neil Reading PR for inviting me to visit.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

The best Valentine’s Day I ever had didn’t involve hearts, flowers and chocolates.  It didn’t even include a card.  The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was spent with one of my closest friends, getting drunk in a rooftop bar in Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and is located in the south-east corner of the island.  While Havana is swiftly becoming sanitised, Santiago has all the faded elegance of the capital but feels grittier, grubbier, seedier.  It’s sweaty and tropical, closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than it is to Havana – both in terms of geography and atmosphere. Reggae mixes with salsa, the heat makes everything feel languid, yet the spirit of the revolución remains close to the surface.  It was the home of Frank País, a revolutionary who campaigned for the overthrow of Batista and who collaborated with Fidel Castro.  It was where Castro’s rebellion began, and where he eventually proclaimed victory in 1959.  It’s also where I found myself one Valentine’s Day…

Turns out that Valentine’s Day is a massive deal in Santiago.  It felt like the whole population was out in town that evening, dressed in their finest, parading arm in arm.  Heart shaped balloons were everywhere – outside restaurants, being carried by grinning girls, even in the form of giant balloon arches in the plazas.  “Careless Whisper” belted out of a huge sound system while couples enjoyed dinner out.  So popular is Valentine’s Day that it was completely impossible to get into any restaurant in town.  Everywhere was booked out.  After drifting aimlessly around town, we eventually wandered into the Hotel Libertad in the hope of at least grabbing a seat and a drink while we came up with a plan.  Little did we know that we wouldn’t be leaving until we stumbled out in the early hours of the morning.

The Hotel Libertad looked like most of the other old colonial hotels you find around Cuba.  A sky blue exterior gave way to an elegant interior, lots of marble, wrought iron etc.  Not a bad spot to kill some time.  However, my eagle-eyed friend spotted a sign saying “rooftop bar”. Several flights of narrow stairs later and we were in another sort of hotel altogether.  A makeshift sound system had been set up, pumping music videos onto a projector screen.  A simple bar contained one, slightly stressed, barman, a fridge full of beer and Coke, and lots of rum.  And best of all, we had a spectacular night time view over the sticky, pulsing city.  We were the only foreigners in the place, which did feel a little intimidating at first.  But we quickly realised that no-one cared who we were.  We were there for a good time and that was all that mattered.

As pretty much everyone knows, when you’re in Cuba, you drink rum.  It kind of goes without saying.  And Santiago de Cuba is actually where the Barcardi brand originated.  You won’t find Barcadi in Cuba though; the Castro government confiscated all of the company’s assets in 1960 and they moved overseas.  In its place is Santiago de Cuba rum, which is produced and bottled in the oldest distillery in Cuba.  I’m no rum conoisseur – unless I’m drinking the really good, really aged stuff it all just tastes like fire to me.  That’s why I prefer to drink it in cocktails.  My trip to Cuba so far had involved liberal consumption of Cuba Libres – rum, Coke and lime.  The lime didn’t always make an appearance and the rum usually filled up half a highball glass.  If you could see through the Coke, you knew it was going to be a good drink!  Valentine’s Day was no exception.  The barman spoke no English and the music was loud, but at least my basic Spanish included “two more Cuba Libres please”.  I always make a point of learning the important phrases…  The cocktails were strong and cheap.  Two turned into four, four into eight…well you get the picture.  Afterwards, we gatecrashed a party back at our own hotel, having mistaken it for a disco.  We still laugh about that night to this day.

I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day but I had felt a little sad earlier, having seen photos of my ex on Facebook celebrating with his new girlfriend.  But rum, music, dancing and laughing under the warm night sky of a Caribbean town?  Who needs romance when you have these things instead?

Where to eat on Seymour Place

Where to eat on Seymour Place

Once upon a time, I had a truly terrible job working for a company on Seymour Place.  I think I lasted all of four months, and they felt like the longest four months of my life.  There wasn’t even anything exciting in the area to make up for the work woes.  I spent my free time eating claggy pasta salad from the local caff or drinking cheap wine in one of the old man pubs nearby.  So, funnily enough, it’s not a part of town that I tend to frequent much these days.  But, London being what it is, Seymour Place has evolved and developed over the years into somewhere really rather interesting.  The lower part of the street, closest to Marble Arch, is now a hub of independent shops and restaurants, with everything from Italian to Basque to the good old fashioned British pub.

Bernardi’s
Located right at the bottom of Seymour Place, Bernardi’s is a slick Italian restaurant with the relaxed atmosphere of a neighbourhood bistro.  The team behind it – the Bernardi brothers and chef Sabrina Gidda – have injected both the venue and the food with a youthful energy, while still retaining classic Italian flavours.  A large globe of burrata was wonderfully squidgy, its richness offset by the sweet roasted peppers from the accompanying peperonata.  Cornish squid with garlic, parsley and peperoncino (a type of chilli) looked simple, but the perfectly tender squid and smack-in-the-mouth flavours demonstrated real culinary skill.  Italian staples like arancini and pizza are given a modern twist with the inclusion of more unusual ingredients such as n’duja, taleggio and celery leaf.

Donostia and Lurra
If you’re a lover of Basque food then you need to get down to Seymour Place asap, as you will find not one, but two, great Basque restaurants.  Both are owned by Melody Adams and Nemanja Borjanovic; a couple who decided to jump head first into the hospitality industry with no prior experience.  Their gamble has paid off because both Lurra and Donostia are now firmly on the culinary map.  If you’re feeling flush, go for the dry aged Galician Blond beef.  It’s everything a great steak should be.  The meat was presented on a sizzling hot plate and was already sliced, making it easy to share.  Not only was it melt-in-the-mouth tender, it embraced all the naughty stuff like beautifully rendered fat and a generous sprinkling of rock salt.  Their cheesy croquettas, bursting with bechamel sauce, are also worth checking out.

Vinoteca
I’m a big fan of the Vinoteca brand and have visited some of their other branches several times over the years.  They’re always reliable; you know that you’ll get good, safe food, together with a stellar wine list.  Their Seymour Place offering is consistent with the rest of the group.  It has a relaxed, bistro feel, with a broadly European menu that changes every day.  What’s more, they have over 300 different wines available – so even the most discerning oenophile will find something they like.  If Oxford Street drives you completely around the bend, then you can escape just around the corner to Vinoteca and numb the pain with a few glasses of wine.  It may only be a few minutes walk, but it feels a world away from the West End nightmare of nasty shops and slow moving tourists.

Sandy’s
Sandy’s is an old fashioned pizzeria – with a twist.  Their speciality is Corsican cuisine.  If you love beer and pizza but you’re bored of the usual fare, then I recommend paying Sandy’s a visit.  Their pizzas feature lots of gruyere; a departure from the usual mozzarella and indicative of that French/Italian fusion that’s so typically Corsican.  The pizza bases are light and thin, letting the toppings take priority.  They even have a pizza named after Napoleon Bonaparte, in a cheeky nod to Corsica’s history.  Another first for me was Corsican beer.  I’m not much of a beer drinker but I really enjoyed the glass of light, crisp Pietra that came with our pizzas.  Oh, and they also do takeaway.

The Gate
The Seymour Place location is the third and latest branch of vegetarian powerhouse, The Gate.  Even a dedicated carnivore like me can find something interesting on their menu (which has so many allergies flagged that it reads like a periodic table).  I tried their butternut rotolo – sage infused potato lined with a mushroom duxelle and stuffed with butternut squash.  It was served with smoked butter beans and courgettes, a maple parsnip puree and a few other miscellaneous veggies.  I’m pretty certain I got all of my five a day in one meal but, perhaps unsurprisingly, I found it all a bit too sickly and rich.  Their jalapeno margarita, on the other hand, was immense.  I consider myself to be a bit of a margarita connoisseur – or a bit of an alcoholic – and this fiery version of a classic ticked all the boxes.

The Portman
The Portman is a two in one experience.  Downstairs, it’s a traditional pub; upstairs, it’s a smart restaurant.  If “classic British” is what you’re after, then this is the place to be.  Their menu plays it fairly safe with dishes like fish and chips or pie of the day.  However, everything is given a little more finesse than you would perhaps expect from a West End boozer.  My shepherd’s pie was made with generous chunks of slow cooked lamb in a rich, meaty gravy, with fluffy mashed potato prettily piped over the top.  It was a hug in a pie dish.  In true “classic British” form, The Portman also specialises in game so you can expect to find things like venison, hare or teal on their daily changing menu.

Many thanks to The Portman Estate and Coverdale Barclay for giving me the opportunity to visit the restaurants on Seymour Place.  All views are, as ever, my own.

Ognisko

Ognisko

I generally try to avoid South Kensington as much as I can.  Despite the plethora of world-class museums in the area, it still manages to feel like bit of a soulless wasteland.  When I’m not being helplessly swept along by the tourist hoard, I’m aimlessly wandering around looking for a decent place to eat.  Somewhere that’s not a chain or life-ruiningly expensive.  So when my friend suggested we go to an exhibition at the V&A, I immediately went into panic mode.  A day out is just not complete without a bloody good lunch and there was no way we were going to end up in Carluccios.  Fortunately, I think I’ve managed to find the holy grail – an interesting, independent restaurant that isn’t going to break the bank.  Welcome to Ognisko.

Regular readers will know how much I like Polish food.  If there’s a menu that’s full of game, pork, some kind of fruity sauce, anything stodgy like dumplings, then I’m all over it.  Polish cuisine is a great big hug on a plate.  But it’s not really know for having much finesse, is it?  Well, Ognisko challenges this right from the outset.  It’s based in a beautiful townhouse at the north end of Exhibition Road.  Even the entrance alone whispers elegance and class.  In fact, it’s a club that was established in 1939 for the Polish community in Britain during World War II, which goes some way to explaining the rarefied feel, the warm yet deferential service.

Deciding what to eat was so hard!!  There were so many delicious looking dishes on the menu, plus whole sections just for dumplings, blinis and potato pancakes!  Eventually I settled on a starter of roast quail with spiced pearl barley and plum chutney.  The quail was served whole and had been spatchcocked, so I could get plenty of meat off it.  The plum chutney wasn’t a “chutney” as I know it, i.e. something fairly rustic and chunky.  It was a smooth plum sauce, but I wasn’t complaining because it was delicious and really united the whole dish.  Even the pearl barley, which I generally find about as exciting as dust, was tasty and added a different texture to the plate.  My partner in crime chose the smoked eel with Russian salad and a horseradish and mustard dressing.  The presentation was incredibly dainty, and the salad was the perfect foil for the smokiness of the eel.

For my main course, I went for the game option again.  I’m just so predictable…  But how could I resist roast haunch of venison with swiss chard and cherry sauce?  While it may not have looked quite as pretty as the starters did, the fact that the venison was cooked to absolute perfection more than made up for aesthetics.  The meat had clearly just kissed the pan and so was dreamily tender.  And, in my opinion, there are few things more delicious than that sharp pop of berries in the same mouthful of rich meat.  The one negative element was the duck breast that my friend ordered.  It had been over-cooked to the point of ruination – grey, chewy and unappetising.  Duck that’s not pink is pretty unforgivable in my book.

I feel that now is the right time to mention the dumplings.  Because, of course, we ordered dumplings on the side just like regular people would do.  Right?  We chose the fried kopytka dumplings with chestnuts and forest mushrooms.  I was expecting something like a few large crispy balls filled with mushrooms, but what we got actually resembled more of a pasta dish.  The dumplings were little strips of dough mixed into a creamy mushroom and chestnut sauce.  The sauce was absolutely stuffed with garlic and parsley; the smell of it alone was enough to make us drool.  Unsurprisingly, the dish was super-rich but we couldn’t stop eating it.  It was the gastronomic equivalent of crack cocaine.

The dessert selection looked pretty interesting; you could choose from the likes of caramelised spiced plums and Sliwowica flamed poached pear tart.  We were so full after all the dumplings and meat and stuff, that we decided to share a pudding.  Dietary requirements meant that we had to “make do” with a chocolate fondant.  Chocolate fondants are notoriously tricky to get right, as many a Masterchef contestant has demonstrated, but this one was bang on.  A torrent of chocolate sauce poured out from the middle, swirling into the vanilla ice cream and sour cherry compote that accompanied the fondant.  Delicious.

Ognisko was a real treat.  Not only because it’s always brilliant to discover a great “new” restaurant, especially in a part of town that so frequently disappoints, but also because it felt like the kind of place you visit for a bit of a splurge.  Everything from the elegant interior, the slick service and the sexy plating spoke of fine dining.  However, here’s the best bit, the prices didn’t.  Ognisko is pretty reasonably priced, with main courses in the region of £17-£19.  It’s also really close to all the museums, making it perfect for a day out.  Maybe there is hope for South Ken after all….?

Ognisko, 55 Princes Gate, Exhibition Road, SW7 2PG
I was lucky enough to have lunch bought for me as it was my birthday, so I don’t know exactly how much the bill was.  However, it was in the region of £80 for two people, including drinks.

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

With cheap flights to Europe seemingly a dime a dozen, it’s easy to overlook the delights of our very own green and pleasant land.  For a start, travel in Britain is expensive!  So, of course, it’s tempting to forgo a trip to the English countryside in favour of something a little more…well…foreign.  That’s a real shame though, because there are some darling destinations right on London’s doorstep.  The historic town of Rye, on the border of East Sussex  and Kent, rises up out of the endless flats of Romney Marsh as if it wants to flaunt its medieval beauty to the world.  And rightly so, because Rye is movie-set stunning.  What’s more, it is a haven of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  You won’t find a Starbucks or KFC.  Instead you get to discover the likes of Edith’s House and the Rye Deli.  Rye puts you in a situation where you have to take a punt on an unknown quantity.  And isn’t that what makes travel exciting?

I’d made a few day trips to Rye several years ago, but this time I was staying for a whole weekend.  I had booked myself into The Quarter House – a cosy medieval retreat in the heart of the town.  I was looking forward to a break after a particularly difficult few months, and the thought of escaping into the misty silence of a wintery Romney Marsh was really appealing.  As usual, though, I was looking forward to exploring new places to eat.  Even before I arrived, I had decided to treat myself to dinner at the Mermaid Inn, which is one of the oldest buildings in town (making it positively ancient).  Taking up prime position on the impossibly beautiful Mermaid Street, this hotel was rebuilt in 1420 but has cellars dating as far back as the 12th century.  Never mind the food; just spending time in a building like this is an experience.

The hotel restaurant has been awarded 2 AA rosettes and the menu celebrates local produce; something that always get a big tick from me.  However, something about the place was reminiscent of the hotel restaurants I’d experienced as a child in the 1980’s.  Obviously it was going to be dated – see above.  However, the dried hops and “Old Masters” decorating the walls, plus the rather formal service, all combined to create a weirdly “bad retro” vibe.   Furthermore, the staff were all dressed in a strange mix of historic costumes, although I’m not sure whether they do that all the time or if it was just because it was almost Christmas.  Their awkwardness was palpable.

Anyway, onto the food.  The Mermaid offers a set menu with two courses for £29.50 or three for £38.50.  I opted for a main and dessert, in a half-assed attempt to save money.  Thingskicked off with an amuse-bouche of butternut squash soup.  They may have thought that this would have been welcome on a cold, December night – and they wouldn’t have been too far off the mark.  The soup was tasty and comforting, as butternut squash should be, but also fairly average.  I’m also unconvinced by the effectiveness of aheavy soup as an amuse-bouche.

I was particularly excited about my main course: trio of Romney Marsh lamb.  Locally sourced lamb is usually fantastic and this was no exception.  Thelamb arrived in the form of a cutlet, a cricket ball of pulled lamb that was deep fried in breadcrumbs and some kind of fillet (the waitress wasn’t sure what).  It was accompanied by a potato mille-feuille, Jerusalem artichoke puree, poached apricots, green beans and a curry jus.  It was like one of those dishes you see cooked up by some hapless Masterchef contestant, desperate to show off all their skills in one go.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, the puree was earthy and the apricots added some welcome sweetness.  However, the potato mille-feuille could have done with being cooked for a bit longer in a lot more butter, and I couldn’t detect any curry flavour in the jus.  Although I wasn’t too sad about that last point.  The addition of curry probably wasn’t necessary.

Choosing dessert was particularly tricky, as there were so many tasty options on the menu.  After much hemming and hawing I eventually asked the waitress for her recommendation.  She suggested the blackberry souffle, with honey and vanilla infused blackberries and shortbread.  Now, I have a MASSIVE sweet tooth, but eating this was like licking a pot of  blackberry jam.  Don’t get me wrong, it did taste really good (albeit slightly under-cooked).  But I suspect it’s probably given me diabetes.

I was a little underwhelmed by the Mermaid Inn.  The food was ok, but the main draw is the beauty and the history of the building.  For really good food, head to another inn: The Ship Inn.  As with most places in Rye, the Ship is housed in a historic gem; the building dates from 1592, when it was a warehouse used for storing contraband seized from smugglers.  These days it’s a super-cosy restaurant with rooms, owned by the former proprietors of The Engineer in Primrose Hill.  That tells you everything.  Imagine a fabulous London gastropub transplanted into a medieval warehouse.  Squishy sofas and fairy lights mixed with wooden beams and flagstone flooring.  The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and I could tell straightaway that this was the kind of place you could easily lose a few hours in.

This was helped by the food.  The menu consists largely of straightforward comfort food, like steak or cottage pie.  The sort of thing you can you demolish without too much effort.  I actually decided to order a couple of things that I’d never tried before, starting with potted smoked cod.  This arrived in a jar with some wholewheat toast soldiers on the side.  The cod was blended to a pate-like consistency, making it easy to spread onto the toast, and had a surprisingly delicate flavour.  They could probably have got away with a bit more smoke, but overall it was an interesting and tasty dish.

The main course was where things got really good.  I ordered ricotta dumplings with butternut squash and sage.  Again, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I was delighted to be presented with a dish containing ricotta-stuffed dumplings the size of my fist, smothered in a cheesy sage and butternut squash sauce.  I use the word “sauce” rather loosely as it was actually more just like melted cheese.  It was the stuff dreams are made of.  I could feel myself melting into my chair with every creamy mouthful.  Admittedly, that might also have been because this dish was incredibly rich and therefore made me feel incredibly fat.  It was pure decadence.   It also meant that dessert was totally out of the question!

Rye is really easy to reach by train from London and there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a weekend.  It’s easy to forget just how much of a tonic it is to escape from the Big Smoke, even if that’s only taking a train to somewhere an hour away.  Rye may not be as exotic as Reykjavik or Rome, but it’s hard to beat when it comes to quintessential English beauty.  Sometimes a staycation can be just as rewarding as a trip across the Channel after all.

What are your thoughts on staycation vs vacation? Let me know in the comments.