Bar Douro: Bringing Portugal to London

Bar Douro: Bringing Portugal to London

 

BAR DOURO IS…. TAKING A TRIP TO PORTUGAL WITHOUT LEAVING TOWN

My relationship with London is a complex one. There are few cities that I love like I have loved this one. I fully accept that I am one of those crazy, bug-eyed London disciples, who can’t imagine why anyone would ever hate it here. Lately, however, I feel very much like that person watching their loved one stumble down a path that’s inherently bad for them. The city is becoming increasingly dull and sanitised; space is being snapped up at grotesque prices and flipped around into “luxury apartments” or yet another big chain. For every “cool” neighbourhood, there are at least 10 big brands waiting to move in and destroy it. Nightclubs and venues are rapidly closing down, through fair means or – usually – foul. So when a corner of London manages to escape the clutches of Big Business and flowers into something unique and lovely, I get all warm and fuzzy inside. Bar Douro and Flat Iron Square, near London Bridge, is one such place.

Flat Iron Square is a tiny patch of London that, despite being in the shadow of the shrine to corporate greed that is the Shard, retains all the wide-eyed curiosity and independence of spirit that makes London so bloody great. Here, the railway arches that spool out from London Bridge station have been turned into tiny restaurants, each one shimmering out of their industrial surroundings. They all look so inviting that it’s hard to decide between them, but I chose Bar Douro. This was for two reasons: Portuguese food is wonderful and wine from the Douro valley is also wonderful. So my expectations were a little on the high side…

The restaurant is so gorgeous that you completely forget you’re underneath a railway line. It’s all azulejo tilework, wooden flooring and marble surfaces. You perch on high stools, either at the bar or along the huge front window. The food comes as small, sharing plates that you absolutely should wash down with copious amounts of wine. Their enormous and excellent wine list makes this an extremely easy thing to do. I fell ridiculously, head over heels, in love with the very first thing I put in my mouth – soft, melting croquetes of smoky Portuguese sausage served with a sharp, tangy mayonnaise. I felt sorry for every other dish on the menu because those croquetes are a very tough act to follow.

More food did, of course, follow and it was both delicious and surprising. “Milk fed lamb rolls” sounded like the sort of thing I might make with Sunday Roast leftovers, but turned out to be roulades of soft, buttery pastry with a rich lamb filling, daintily arranged on velvety, dark green spinach puree. Salt cod with scrambled eggs and chips conjured up images of an alternative builder’s breakfast and, in a way, it kind of was. Large chunks of cod were mixed through scrambled egg, and the whole thing was topped with matchstick fries. It wasn’t the prettiest of dishes, it didn’t sound too edifying but it tasted great.

The only let-down was the roast suckling pig with homemade crisps. The words “roast suckling pig” are probably three of the loveliest in the English language. In this instance, though, the meat was a little greasy and lacking in flavour. And, after all the understated descriptions and unexpected elements, I was kind of expecting “homemade crisps” to be something a bit less…Walkers crisp-like. It’s a weird accompaniment to a slab of roasted meat and, while they were very tasty crisps, they really didn’t add anything when served alongside the pork. The surprise here turned out to be the sauce. It was punchy and full of peppercorns, which provided lots of bite, and was a perfectly sharp, lipsmacking contrast to the rich meat.

Although there were a few dessert options, all of which sounded absolutely delicious, there’s really only one thing I’m going to order in a Portuguese restaurant and that’s pastel de nata. I don’t think I’ve ever met a custard tart that I didn’t like. Of course, the pastel de nata at Bar Douro was excellent. The pastry flaked like that friend who always cancels on you and the custard was a creamy dream, although I was hoping that it would have been a bit more oozy. The tart was served with a scoop of cinnamon ice cream, which was a little odd. The ice cream was delightful but a great pastel de nata doesn’t need any accompaniment, made very clear by the fact that the ice cream didn’t complement the tart at all. It felt like an attempt to sex up the dish in order to make it “restaurant quality”, which was totally unnecessary. Just own that tart in all its luscious glory.

But do you know what? I don’t care about any of those minor niggles. Because Bar Douro is a fantastic place. First of all, it’s incredible value for money. But more than that, I was transported, wholesale, to a buzzy bar in Portugal, where people spend hours grazing on delicious food and getting gently merry on glasses of crisp white wine. I forgot that I was in a railway arch in dirty old London Bridge. And that’s what great restaurants are all about. They take you on a journey and distract you from the everyday and the ordinary. With London getting ever more prosaic, we need places like this to remind us that it can, still, be a great city.

Bar Douro, Arch 35b, Flat Iron Square, Union Street, SE1 1TD
Approximately £70 for two people including wine

The Coach & Horses: Where everybody knows your name

The Coach & Horses: Where everybody knows your name

“La la la….where everybody knows your name”. The theme song for Cheers set out the show’s premise of that friendly local boozer where you’re surrounded by friends. But of course that isn’t the real world, is it? Maybe in a small village where there’s only one place to go drinking and you have no choice but to get to know the bar staff, but in London?? That most unfriendly of places?? You’re kidding. So when I visited the Coach & Horses in Clapham for the second time, handed my card over the bar to start a tab and the barmaid couldn’t spot my name, it was a pleasant surprise to hear her colleague say “It’s Pinkstone, she’s been here before”. It was rather lovely to be able to have a laugh with the staff over the fact that I was ordering an espresso martini at lunchtime. And not much compares to being asked to help pick out a kitten for one of the barmaids (except perhaps getting a kitten yourself).

I read an article the other week that said London has lost 25% of its pubs since 2001. That probably comes as no great surprise to anyone who lives here; the twin evils of rent increases and property development make pubs a risky business to be involved in. But people still love a good pub, right?  I certainly do and, what’s more, I love what pubs are doing to get to grips with the change in the weather. From getting in guest chefs to hosting tasting sessions or cocktail classes, the modern London pub will usually keep you on your toes. Soggy beer mats, sticky carpets and pork scratchings are a thing of the past. So, as well as a warm and friendly welcome at the Coach & Horses, you can also expect to find the following excellent reasons to visit: pizza, cocktails, doughnuts.

If, for some strange reason, you don’t actually like pizza then make sure you eat before visiting the Coach & Horses because that’s pretty much all you’ll find on the menu. However, these aren’t just your bog standard pizzas. Sure, you can find a margherita and a pepperoni, but there’s also a beautifully piquant n’duja pizza with sticky, jam-like smashed cherry tomatoes and roasted fennel. A “breakfast” pizza of crispy bacon, free range baked eggs and spinach also came with a great big fiery kick in the palate, thanks to the sprinkling of dried chilli across the eggs.   I would have liked the eggs to have been a little softer; the idea of a runny yolk oozing into the bacon and cheese really appeals to me. However, I get that eggs on pizza are in the same realm as pineapple and anchovies, so it’s probably best to play it slightly safe. Either way, this unusual take on pizza was delicious and should be on breakfast menus everywhere.

As if a bacon and egg pizza isn’t unusual enough, the Coach & Horses also do a “white based” pizza. This forgoes the traditional tomato base in favour of one made with ricotta, cream, nutmeg and black pepper. It comes topped with roasted Portobello mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts, thyme and truffle oil. Decadence thy name is pizza! The funky aroma of truffle combined with garlic immediately set us drooling. I really expected this to be overly rich but the creamy base had been applied with a light touch, so the whole thing was dangerously easy to eat. In fact, the beauty of all these pizzas – in my eyes – is that the dough base is incredibly thin, so you can scoff down an entire pizza without stopping to take a breath. Or perhaps that’s just me… And if you’re gluten intolerant then you don’t have to miss out! The Coach & Horses also do gluten-free pizzas.

The dessert menu only has one item on it, but that’s ok because it involves Nutella. Doughnuts covered in melted Nutella to be exact. Word of warning: these doughnuts are HUGE. And you get three of them! So unless you’re absolutely starving, you might want to share a portion. We tried and failed to even make a dent in them when attempting to get through a plate each. But all was not lost however, because the Coach & Horses will box up your leftover doughnuts and/or pizza for you to take home and have for breakfast the next day. Or, again, perhaps that’s just me… Second word of warning: it may sound weird but it really is best to ask for cutlery. Unless you enjoy covering yourself in Nutella in public.

Drinks-wise, the aforementioned espresso martini is a good bet, as is the raspberry margarita. The cocktail menu is a work in progress, but the Coach & Horses also do a decent selection of wines. Lovers of craft beer will be in hoppy heaven as they can choose from a wide range of  small London-based breweries on tap, as well as bottles and cans from the likes of Beavertown, La Chouffe and Piston Head.

I’d really like to believe that there’s life in the London pub scene yet. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I do think that they are still in demand – and not just as “luxury apartments”. There’s not much wrong with the world when you’ve got a slice of pizza in one hand, a beer in the other and a friendly face behind the bar. The Coach & Horses is a real little belter of a pub. Long may it last.

The Coach & Horses, 173-175 Clapham Park Road, SW4 7EX.

Many thanks to the team at the Coach & Horses for inviting me to have pizza and cocktails with them. All views are, as ever, my own.

Bob Bob Ricard: Where dining dreams go to die

Bob Bob Ricard: Where dining dreams go to die

Recent events in the world of politics seem to suggest that people can’t be trusted with crucial decisions. So, learning absolutely nothing from this, I thought it would be fun to let other people choose my next restaurant. I’m terrible at making decisions for myself, so why not leave it in the hands of the internet…? What could possibly go wrong? I even drew up the shortlist myself, so there was no chance of being sent off to a Harvester in Croydon or an Angus Steakhouse in Piccadilly. The options were Bob Bob Ricard, Fifteen or Rules, all of which sounded perfectly civilised on paper. I watched, excitedly, as the votes poured in and Bob Bob Ricard romped home. This restaurant had been on my radar forever. It sounded glamorous and decadent – I mean, it has a “press for champagne” button for heaven’s sake. Well, as it turned out, that’s about all it’s got going for it.

Bob Bob Ricard is not cheap. The menu is a hodge podge of European and Russian cuisine, with mains starting from £19. If you’re feeling particularly oligarch-esque, you can knock back some vodka shots and caviar by way of a sharpener. The interior was designed by David Collins and is eye-wateringly blingy, an extravagance to match the prices. There’s a dress code (“elegant”). Small children aren’t permitted. You get the impression that this restaurant is very much aimed at a certain section of London émigré society. Having said that, Bob Bob Ricard was full of Americans when we visited, although perhaps that’s not so unexpected given current international relations…

Now, I don’t have an oligarch’s budget so this was never going to be a big blow-out dinner. My companion and I decided to have a main course and then share a dessert between us. I made the “strategic” choice of lobster mac and cheese – it would be filling and I wouldn’t need to order one of the extortionately priced sides. My friend ordered the panko-crusted sole. This wasn’t a strategic choice; it was a foolish one. She was presented with a giant plate, in the middle of which was a small bright green puddle of pea puree, reminiscent of the algae-bloomed waterways of central London but not quite as deep. Perched in its midst, like a couple of shopping trollies, were two of the tiniest fillets of sole I have ever seen, the artful arrangement of which was almost destroyed by the giant quenelle of tartare sauce that had been dumped on top. There was absolutely nothing offensive about the flavour, but there wasn’t anything gobsmackingly brilliant about it either. The most striking thing about this dish was that it cost £25.50 and disappeared in six bites.

My lobster mac and cheese was slightly more substantial, despite tricking me into thinking that it came with a great slab of lobster meat as a garnish. In fact, it was just an empty shell, serving no purpose other than to fox unsuspecting diners. Like the sole, it tasted fine. Inoffensive. Ok. And that’s the problem that I have with Bob Bob Ricard. At these prices (my mac and cheese also cost £25.50), I want the food to blow me away. It may “only” be mac and cheese but I want it to be the best mac and cheese I’ve ever eaten in my life, dammit! I want to be rhapsodising about that mac and cheese for the next 10 years ! When I pay £7 for a side dish of spring greens (yes, we ended up going there after all), I expect a bit more than a teacup of steamed cabbage.  When you charge premium prices, you need to have a premium product to back them up. Otherwise you’re just ripping people off.

We did share a dessert, because clearly we were still hungry, and this actually was quite sweet (no pun intended). It was the Eton Mess En Perle, which was all the fruity gubbins of an Eton Mess neatly encased inside a meringue sphere. The waitress then poured a creamy pink concoction over the top, like a sadder version of all the melty chocolate spheres that haunt Instagram these days. Because, obviously, cold cream doesn’t actually melt meringue, it just sits there. We did, however, have the immense satisfaction of bashing the meringue open with our spoons. It was one of the better versions of an Eton Mess that I’ve eaten, but then it is probably one of the more basic desserts out there. Fair play to Bob Bob Ricard for trying to inject a bit of wow factor.

“Stop whining on about the crappy food”, I hear you all crying. “Tell us about the ‘press for champagne’ button!!!” Reader, I pressed it. And it felt good. It’s the restaurant equivalent of the call button on an aeroplane. You push the button and a light associated with your table goes on somewhere. A member of staff swiftly appears, takes your champagne order and you then push the button again to indicate that you’ve been seen to. It’s all jolly good fun and was one of the very first restaurant gimmicks in a city that’s now overwhelmed with them. But does it make up for the average food? No chance.

When I told one of my colleagues how disappointed I was with Bob Bob Ricard, she was genuinely shocked. “But I was reading about it the other day”, she squealed, “Kate Moss and Kylie Minogue say it’s one of their favourite restaurants!” And I’m not surprised. With the size of those portions, they can dine out safe in the knowledge that they won’t put on any weight whatsoever. As for me, I had to stop off at McDonald’s for a double cheeseburger on my way home. The will of the people? I remain unconvinced it’s a good thing.

Bob Bob Ricard, 1 Upper James Street, W1F 9DF
£194 for two people, including drinks and service

In Pictures: The prettiest streets in west London

In Pictures: The prettiest streets in west London

The beauty of living in such a big, old city is that there is always something new to discover. London is full of hidden corners, delightful cobbled mews, and secret squares. I love west London and its candy coloured houses, especially at this time of year when the blossom is out. It really does feel like being on the set of a Richard Curtis film. Here are a few of of my favourite streets. Now, where’s that lottery win so can I move into one of them?

Godfrey Street, Chelsea
Godfrey Street, Chelsea, London

Lennox Garden Mews, Knightsbridge
Lennox Garden Mews, Knightsbridge, London

Hillgate Place, Notting Hill
Hillgate Place, Notting Hill, London

Bywater Street, Chelsea
Bywater Street, Chelsea, London

Kynance Mews, Kensington
Kynance Mews, Kensington, London

St Luke’s Mews, Notting Hill
St Luke's Mews, Notting Hill, London

Pond Place, Chelsea
Pond Place, Chelsea, London

Ennismore Gardens Mews, South Kensington
Ennismore Gardens Mews, South Kensington, London

Elm Place, Chelsea
Elm Place, Chelsea, London

Kensington Place, Notting Hill
Kensington Place, Notting Hill, London

Cresswell Place, Chelsea
Cresswell Place, Chelsea, London

And, not forgetting…..

Portobello Road, Notting Hill
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London
What are your favourite London streets? Let me know in the comments or send me a photo and I’ll retweet it!

Bordelaise: French vibes in Tooting

Bordelaise: French vibes in Tooting

Before I say anything else, you need to know this. The chef at Bordelaise is a very bad man.  Despite being dangerously full after having demolished two large rounds of food, he insisted that my friend and I each have a pudding, rather than going down the more civilised route of sharing one. What’s more, we were “coerced” into the richest, most decadent dessert on the menu. But more of that later…

Bordelaise is the latest offering by the power team behind The Little Bar and The Little Taperia in Tooting. These guys can’t seem to put a foot wrong, so I was pretty confident that Bordelaise would be a winner too. I have previously written about The Little Taperia and waxed lyrical about how it’s basically a direct portal to sunny Spain. I don’t know what their secret is but these guys have achieved something similar with Bordelaise. Despite the fact that it’s a tiny unit in Broadway Market, surrounded by braying butchers, fruit and veg hawkers and a wonderfully chaotic array of world food stalls, Bordelaise somehow manages to transport you to a quintessentially Parisien bistro. It becomes easy to block out the potential assault on the senses from the rest of the market and focus on the food and, of course, the wine.

We started our foray into France (via Tooting) with a cheese and charcuterie platter. Our lovely French waiter brought over what he called “a 3D version of the menu”, i.e. their cheese board. There was every kind of cheese on there, from hard to squidgy to running all over the place. Not wanting to spoil the rest of our meal, we showed enormous restraint and selected only three cheeses – Comté,  Tomme de Savoir and a wonderfully ripe Epoisses. Served with crusty fresh bread and a selection of cured meat, washed down with a glass of fizz…I was kicking back and feeling all sorts of joie de vivre.

I could have happily sat there all day grazing on cheese and wine, but Bordelaise actually specialises in steak. They do offer other things if steak’s not your bag, such as truffled mac and cheese, braised ox cheeks or a daily special. The menu is fairly limited, with just two cuts of meat available – a flat iron and a rib eye. We chose one of each together with sides of creamed spinach, beef dripping chips and a special of tempura baby artichokes. There are also only two sauces to choose from – a Béarnaise and their signature Bordelaise sauce. The Bordelaise is made with red wine and bone marrow, and takes a mega two days to reduce before they serve it. It oozed out of the little sauce pan, slow and luxuriant, generously coating the steak.

The steaks were cooked very well, although it was announced that they would be served medium rare. I get that this is easier for the kitchen, but it’s a little bit lazy. However, I asked if my steak could be served rare and this wasn’t a problem. The sides were scrumptious and rather naughty, especially the creamed spinach, where the cream to spinach ratio was most definitely in favour of the cream.  Beef dripping chips are all the rage right now and these were crispy, golden and moreish.  I have been very spoiled by the We Serve Humans version over at the Jackdaw and Star, however. There’s not much that can compare to those beauties, I’m afraid.

Anyway, on to that pudding. We were, of course, painfully full by this stage but I’m a big believer in the “pudding belly” (like Santa Claus and the tooth fairy, only it’s real – honest!) so we had to take a gander at the dessert menu. Again, it’s very limited with two regular dishes (chocolate fondant and a Coupe Colonel, which is lemon sorbet with a vodka shot) and a daily special. We decided it was wiser to share the special of a lemon tart – something light and palate cleansing.  The chef, however, had other ideas. I nipped out to the cash point while we were waiting for dessert to be served and, during the five minutes I was gone, the chef had persuaded my friend to order the chocolate fondant. And I thought I was weak-willed!

As it happens, this chocolate fondant is a bit of a chef’s special at Bordelaise so they were keen for us to try it. It’s not just any old chocolate fondant. It comes with salted caramel and salted vanilla ice cream. Yes, that’s right. A scoop of good old fashioned vanilla ice cream with a pinch of rock salt sprinkled on top. Why has no-one ever thought about doing this before?? It’s bloody amazing! In fact, the whole pud was amazing. A lava flow of chocolate sauce gushed into the salted caramel which, combined with the rapidly melting ice cream, created a perfect storm of foodporn. My friend and I approached it with all the grace and finesse of a pair of starving savages, smashing into the thing and shovelling it into our faces as quickly as possible. The poor old lemon tart almost got overlooked during our feeding frenzy, but I’m happy to report that it was a zingy thing of beauty.

I think part of the secret to the success of the Little Bar, the Little Taperia and – now – Bordelaise is the attention to detail. It’s the little, subtle touches that transport you to another place altogether. Of course, having a bloody good chef helps too! I know I’ve mentioned the “limited menu” a few times, but I don’t mean that to be a negative. It was completely reminiscent of what you’d find in an old-fashioned bistro in France. You get what’s fresh, what’s seasonal and what they want to cook.  The food is straightforward, made with good quality ingredients and executed perfectly. What more do you want? Don’t let the madness of a (brilliant) working market fool you; Bordelaise is your passport to Paris.

Bordelaise, Units 9-10, Broadway Market, Tooting High Street, SW17 0RJ

Many thanks to the team at Bordelaise for inviting me over for lunch. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

5 top places to drink a Negroni in London

5 top places to drink a Negroni in London

I discovered the pleasures of a well-mixed Negroni a couple of years ago and have been addicted to them ever since. A Negroni is a cocktail made with one part gin, Campari and vermouth, served over ice, usually with a slice of orange. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Dry and packing a pretty punch, with no mixer this is all thriller, no filler. The last few years have seen Negronis become increasingly fashionable, and you’ll likely find one on most cocktail menus throughout town. Here are 5 of my top picks:

Bar Termini
Bar Termini is THE place to go for a Negroni.  It’s the where I popped my Negroni cherry and it’s where I return to time and time again. I’ve written more extensively about Bar Termini elsewhere but, suffice to say, it’s a sexy little Italian number that serves coffee by day and cocktails by night. The drinks in this tiny little enclave of Continental Europe are strong, served by slick white-jacketed waiters. Work your way through their sublime range of pre-mixed Negronis and pretend that you’re living la dolce vita in Italy.
7 Old Compton Street, W1D 5JE

The Little Bar
I was so excited when this place opened in my ‘hood of Tooting. Like Bar Termini, it takes its inspiration from the bars of the Continent as well as being a little on the small side. You can find a staggering 8 versions of the Negroni on their menu and I strongly recommend holing up here and working your way through them all. The staff are lovely, the vibe is relaxed and the pound shops of Tooting could not feel further away (actually they probably could).
145 Mitcham Road, SW17 9PE

Franks Cafe
Franks is one massive hipster cliche. Yes, it’s in Peckham. Yes, it’s on the roof of a multi-story carpark. Yes, it’s Instagram heaven (especially the pink stairwells). But it really is a cracking spot to drink a Negroni. These guys know their shit when it comes to “grown up cocktails” (as I like to call them). You know, the cocktails that actually taste alcoholic and don’t come decorated with a paper parasol. Expect to find Campari, Aperol, vermouth and port on the menu here. It’s only open during the summer and you can’t book, so get there early to grab one of the tables or just prop up one of the shelves around the perimeter and take in the amazing view.
Peckham Multi-story Car Park, 95a Rye Lane, SE15 4ST

The Portobello Star
I rarely venture “out west” but the Portobello Star is worth the Tube trek. As it’s home to Portobello Road Gin, you would expect them to be able to mix a mean Negroni. And they do. Perfectly dry and refreshing, their Negronis are smooth sippin’. Escape the tourist-thronged mayhem of Portobello Road and dive into this discrete and dimly lit drinking den for ace cocktails or one of the best G&Ts in town.
171 Portobello Road, W11 2DY

68 and Boston
The bar with the split personality. On the ground floor you’ll find a wine bar; upstairs is a cocktail lounge. Unsurprisingly, it’s the cocktails that draw me in. A warren of luxuriously furnished rooms awaits you, as does a stellar cocktail menu. Their Negroni is one of the best in town by far. You’d be forgiven for thinking that making a drink using only three ingredients is a doddle; however, I’ve had my fair share of nasty Negronis. There are no extra flourishes involved, no mixers to mask the taste. 68 and Boston get it bang on.
5 Greek Street, W1D 4DD

But you should also visit….
Campania
Viktor Wynd’s Cabinet of Curiosities
Little Bird 

Where’s your favourite spot for a Negroni? Let me know in the comments!

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

5 London travel hacks all tourists should know

5 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