The Big Travel Adventure: 5 stages of OMFG!

The Big Travel Adventure: 5 stages of OMFG!

Giving it all up to travel

I’ve done something very uncharacteristic. Something reckless. Something bloody terrifying! I’m nearly 40 and I’ve given up my job, my home and my life here in London to set off on the travel adventure of my life. WTAF am I doing?

Here’s the deal. At the beginning of August I shall vacate my beloved home and get on a plane to Sri Lanka. And that’s about all I know for certain. I don’t know where I’ll travel to after my first few nights. I don’t know how I’m going to spend my time when I arrive. But I do know that my time here in London was – sadly – becoming unsustainable. Work stress, monotony, money worries and a generally unhealthy lifestyle have chipped away at me and I began to realise that drastic action was needed.

So here I am doing something else that’s very uncharacteristic. I’m actually writing a personal article. I mostly write about “stuff” – food and cocktails and travel. But today I’m going to write about me and I’d like to share something with you all: I suffer from crippling depression and anxiety. I’m not going to opine at length here about what it’s like for me to live with this. However, I’m “coming out” for two reasons. Other people feel this way too and I would like to use this platform and this voice to say – repeatedly – “you’re not alone”. Secondly, my mental health is a key part of this story as it frames my decision to leave, as well as how I’m now dealing with it. Change and uncertainty is not something I handle very well. Those two little words, “I’m leaving”, have set in motion a whole whirlwind of OMFG. Here are my five stages of coming to terms with this seismic shift, as I set off on my Big Travel Adventure:

1. Leaving my job
Ok so this one wasn’t too difficult really. Yes, it’s very unsettling to give up my main source of income without having another branch to swing to. But my job was actually extremely detrimental to my mental health. While I did receive a huge amount of support from my immediate colleagues, who were exceptionally kind and patient each time I went through a bad patch, the overall atmosphere at work is one that sucks the joy out of everything. The office is flat, soulless and miserable and, eventually, I started to feel that way too. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life sat at a beige desk in a beige office with beige people. I didn’t want to start every day squished underneath someone’s armpit with someone else’s elbow in my face (i.e. the London tube commute, not my office). And these days things like a mortgage and a pension are pretty much off the table for me, so it begged the question: what was I doing this for?

2. Leaving my house
Now this was hard. I rent, like a lot of people in London, and most of my monthly salary went straight to my landlady. However, in the grand scheme of things, I had got lucky. I had a house, my landlady was adorable and – best of all – I lived by myself. Over the last 8 years that house became my sanctuary. I knew that I could retreat there and hide from the rest of the world when things were bad. It was so much more than just another rental property so giving it up was a real wrench – and made me feel hugely unsettled. Doing this has removed probably my most important layer of security – the knowledge that I can always have my own space. However, renting means that you’re always at the mercy of someone else and, no matter how lovely that someone else is, they could still increase the rent beyond your means or even sell the property. And I don’t really want to rent for the rest of my life.

3. Leaving London
Oh my god. The breath shortening, gut twisting panic attack that this induces. 12 years in and this love affair shows no sign of diminishing. Unlike so many of my friends who upped sticks for more suburban climes, I have yet to fall out of love with London. Sure, it frustrates me immensely at times and it’s certainly not the city it once was. But…and but…there is so much to adore. Its vibrancy, its diversity, its strong pumping heart. And like most love affairs, there is so much that I also took for granted. Being able to go to the theatre any night of the week and see the best actors in the world. A myriad of restaurants offering a wider range of cuisines than you could ever hope to try. World class galleries and museums – many of them free. And the convenience factor. Being able to buy a pint of milk without getting in a car (yes, I’m lazy). The solidity that living in a big Western city gives you. Well I’m whipping that rug right out from under my feet.

4. Finding the cash
Saving money while living in London is challenging, to say the least. Finding enough money to cover all the essentials and yet still have enough to play with was a constant battle. A weird quirk of fate, however, led me into a second job – one that I could fit around my day job. Sure, it would have been nice to spend my free time doing free time-y sort of stuff but I very much liked having the extra cash. And, eventually, that extra cash turned into actual savings. It began to dawn on me that this job could be my key to fulfilling my dreams of travel; it created a financial buffer and I could keep doing it while on the road. And once I realised this, I started selling off a few of my things online. I can’t take any of them with me after all!

5. Finding myself
Yeah I am cringing so hard right now. That hippy klaxon is at full volume. But, in all seriousness, I do actually need to do this. I’ve spent so many years living a life that I thought I was supposed to. Get a degree, get a job, take the money, settle down. The whole Trainspotting “choose life” shebang. Be a “normal person”.  God knows, I’ve tried so hard to be normal and it’s damn near killed me. Because that’s not who I am – and it’s taken me until nearly 40 years of age to own that fact. I’ve accepted that I don’t suit life in a corporate environment; that I’d rather be single than settle down with just anyone; that I want to create something for myself, not someone elseFrom now on I want to live life on my terms and try to do what makes me feel happy, instead of forcing myself into a more “socially acceptable” lifestyle that only makes me miserable. We only get one life. I’d like to live it well.

So this is it. It’s really happening, even though it still doesn’t feel all that real. I can’t even begin to comprehend what lies before me but I have this gut feeling that it’s going to be good.

Who else has had – or is having – a Big Travel Adventure? Who else is planning one? Let me know in the comments.

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

FIREBRAND PIZZA IS…CARB ON CARB ON CARB

I don’t need any excuse to stuff my face with carbs. I do it on a daily basis. The Atkins Diet? Forget it. Cauliflower rice? WTAF?? I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to be Giselle Bundchen and, having seen what she eats, I wouldn’t want to be. Bring me all the bread, pile high the potatoes and pass me the pasta because I am carb-tastic. So when I saw that Firebrand Pizza use roast potatoes as a pizza topping, I knew that I had found my place.

Firebrand is located just a few minutes away from Marylebone Station, in one of those strange parts of central London that has managed to resist the inexorable steamroller of gentrification. Officially their thing is sourdough pizzas made with caputo flour from Naples. Caputo flour is very much on trend as far as London pizzerias go. It’s considered to be the Godfather of pizza flours and lends an air of Neapolitan authenticity to a Marylebone pizzeria. It also gives your pizza base that all-important crunch. However, in reality, Firebrand’s thing is roast potatoes. On pizza.

There are a handful of non-pizza items on the menu at Firebrand, such as lasagne and sea bass, but none of them were particularly interesting or exciting. It’s all about those pizzas. We decided to order a couple of antipasti to start with – béchamel stuffed champignon mushrooms and parmigiana. Ok, so it may have been a little risky to order such rich dishes before tucking into a couple of pizzas but you know, YOLO. I needn’t have worried. The mushrooms were watery and totally devoid of flavour, each containing a serving of béchamel sauce that can be politely described as “miserly”. They were served with a salad that basically tasted of nothing; its only contribution to the dish was to make it extra watery. The parmigiana fared better; arriving at our table shimmering with heat, molten cheese bubbling away between each layer of aubergine, with yummy crunchy crozzled bits around the edge.

Pizza is such an ubiquitous dish that I automatically love anywhere offering a slightly different variation on the theme. It’s easy to be bold and to experiment with pizza toppings, as long as you know what flavour combinations do and don’t work. The Coach and Horses, for example, pulled it off with the likes of their breakfast pizza. Firebrand’s twist on this is roast potatoes. There are no less than TWO roast potato topped pizzas on the menu and there was a third on the specials board when we visited. And who doesn’t love roast potatoes, right? It was inconceivable that I wasn’t going to order one of these, so I chose the pesto, pine nut, rosemary and mozzarella version. In the interests of diversity, my friend begrudgingly ordered a non-potato pizza – goats cheese, caramelised onion and black olives.

Yes, I know carb on carb is not particularly healthy. Yes, I know it’s rather high up on the stodge scale. But who bloody cares because roast potato pizza is the marriage of two of the best food groups ever. Actually, no. Make that three of the best food groups ever because, of course, there is the addition of cheese. It wasn’t elegant, even with the artsy spiral of pesto swirled around it. It was down and dirty, honest to god, don’t give a f*ck comfort food. It was like a rosemary coated, cheesy chip buttie with a squirt of pesto for that token bit of greenery. The goats cheese pizza was also rather lovely thing. The combination of creamy goats cheese and sweet, jam-like roast onion is a classic and rightly so – it’s bloody delicious. I did have to pick the olives off though because they are the devil’s snack.

There is a limited list of desserts, although we were both so stuffed that eating a third course seemed almost impossible. Almost… We shared the salted caramel cheesecake, which arrived in one of those clip top jars that you see everywhere. It was a smart way of presenting a cheesecake, which is a fairly simplistic dessert and can often look like a sad sloppy slice on a plate. As far as flavour goes…well, it’s difficult to go wrong with salted caramel and cream to be honest. We hoovered it up.

Pizzerias in London are a dime a dozen; from the monolithic chains like Pizza Hut and Pizza Express to a plethora of independents across the capital. It can be difficult to differentiate yourself when everyone is doing kind of the same thing. This was the first time I had ever seen roast potatoes as a topping, so kudos to Firebrand for offering something a bit different. It may not be the place to visit if you’re on a diet, but if you’re in training for a marathon or just love a bit of stodge then Firebrand could be your place too.

Firebrand Pizza, 41-43 Lisson Grove, NW1 6UB

Many thanks to Captivate Hospitality and Firebrand Pizza for inviting me to dine there. All views are, as ever, my own.

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

TWORUBA IS…SEASONAL STYLE AND SEASONAL COCKTAILS

When you think of a chain hotel bar you’d be forgiven for imagining something bland. A space that manages to be polished in a way that’s devoid of all character. You might expect to find a businessman propping up the bar or families lazily sprawled in armchairs, waiting to head out for the day. What you don’t expect to find is a big sofa made out of grass. Or brightly striped deckchairs next to huge floral displays. TwoRuba, located in the Tower Bridge Hilton, differentiates itself from the norm with its bold seasonal installations and matching cocktails. As the seasons change, so does TwoRuba’s decor and so does its cocktail menu.

TwoRuba’s everyday cocktail menu is also a bit more imaginative than what you might usually find in a standard chain hotel.  They mix flavours like chilli, strawberry, mint and gin in their Dare Devil or cherry infused whisky and cinnamon sugar for Smoking in 1816. They’re currently offering four, limited edition, spring cocktails: Elderflower Breeze, Raspberry and Thyme Smash, TwoRuba Cooler and a Spring Spritz. Like those on the standard menu, these cocktails are made with a combination of compelling ingredients and a dash of creativity. They not only taste delicious; they’re presented beautifully. My top pick is the Elderflower Breeze, which is perfect for a hot summer day. It’s made with gin, elderflower cordial, lemon, cucumber and basil – the elderflower gives it a slight sweetness but the fresh flavour of the cucumber is what really comes through. It’s refreshing and extremely drinkable. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back for another one a few days later!

Now, I’m a big fan of incorporating savoury herbs with sweet flavours, so I always love seeing them pop up in desserts or cocktails. A quick search on Google told me that the combination of raspberry and thyme is actually not that unusual when it comes to cocktails – although I had never come across it until I tried the Raspberry and Thyme Smash at TwoRuba. This long drink is served with a bit of theatre; the cocktail is contained in a bird-shaped vessel and then poured over a glass of crushed ice. The base of the drink is dark rum and it contains lime and cranberry, as well as the raspberry and thyme.

The TwoRuba Cooler was another mash-up of sweet and savoury flavours. The combination of gin, Cointreau, apple, lemon, rose syrup and rosemary could have been a bit over-sweet, but the herbaceousness of the gin and the rosemary took the edge off. Lastly, the Spring Spritz was basically the love child of a mojito and a margarita. Created with tequila, St Germain, lemon vanilla and mint, it felt like I was getting two cocktails for the price of one.

Of course, it might be a good idea to order a few nibbles to soak up some of the booze and TwoRuba have got you covered. We enjoyed a selection of snacks, such as vegetable tempura, chorizo in a sinfully sticky marinade and some of the best chips I’ve eaten in a long time. However, a quick glance at the TwoRuba website seems to suggest that “regular” visitors, i.e. those not attending an event, can order food from the Jamie’s Italian next door. I’m not an advocate of chain restaurants, but if you want something to graze on while you enjoy a cocktail or three then you could do a lot worse.

I was really impressed with the quality of the service at TwoRuba; the team made us feel right at home. When I returned as a “regular” visitor a few days later, there was just one girl behind the bar who seemed a little over-stretched. I had to wait a while to be served only to be told that she didn’t know how to make the cocktail I had ordered. However, one of the mixologists was just about to start his shift, so I took a seat and eventually my drink arrived. The young lady who served me was incredibly sweet and dealt with my order as best she could. I’m sure that if you visit in the evening when there are probably more staff on duty – and not in the afternoon like me – then the service will be great.

As TwoRuba’s style changes with the seasons, this spring fling will be over shortly. But there’s no need to weep into your martini because they will be replacing it was a full-on beach! TwoRuba is raising the bar (pun intended) for chain hotels everywhere.

TwoRuba, Hilton Tower Bridge, 5 Tooley Street, SE1 2BY

Many thanks to Lioneye Media for inviting me to an event showcasing TwoRuba’s spring cocktails. All views, as ever, are my own.

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7 of the prettiest cafes in London

7 of the prettiest cafes in London

LONDON’S CAFES ARE….PRETTY FANTASTIC

London’s cafes have got so much more going on than the stereotypical greasy spoon (although I do love a good old fashioned caff fry-up). And there’s NO excuse to head for a Starbucks or Cafe Nero. Although the march of the bland chain cafes relentlessly continues its grubby, tax-dodging way across town, there are a vast number of gorgeous and inherently Instagrammable independent cafes waiting for your business. Here are my pick of the prettiest:

Palm Vaults, Hackney
It’s an obvious choice, but it’s obvious for a good reason. IT’S BLOODY LUSH! Palm Vaults has already graced the Instagram accounts of a thousand Londoners, with its exposed brickwork, its baby pink and pale green colour palette and its overflowing hanging baskets. It has a cool Miami Beach vibe. Even the food and drink gets in on the act with vivid beetroot or lavender lattes, smoothies and an array of colourful cakes. It’s a teeny little place so make sure you book a table or get there early. People were queuing out of the door by the time I left.
411 Mare Street, London, E8 1HY

The Ship of Adventures, Dalston
If it sounds like the title of a children’s book then it’s because this cafe is run by the Hackney Pirates; a charity that helps young people develop their reading skills.  It’s a gorgeously cosy little place; higgeldy-piggeldy with bookshelves and assorted nautical accessories – including a boat hanging from the ceiling! Stop off for a coffee and one of their sourdough sandwiches or browse the shelves for kids books, greetings cards and gifts. They also have an events space for hire. Get a warm fuzzy feeling from helping a very worthwhile cause, as well as from the caffeine.
128 Kingsland High Street, London, E8 2NS

Monocle Cafe, Marylebone
The Monocle brand has diversified even further; from a magazine to a radio station and, now, a cafe. Based on elegant Chiltern Street, it hits all the current trends. Avocado? Check. Japanese food? Check. Scandinavian pastries? Check. It’s an achingly cool, weird hipster mash-up but I love the little “living room” at the back of the cafe. This cosy nook has squishy sofas, bookshelves, a transistor radio and even a TV in the corner. It looks like a set piece from the V&A – modernism crossed with IKEA. Get there early, lounge on a sofa with a cardamom bun and a copy of Monocle mag, and soak up all of the stylish vibes.
18 Chiltern Street, London, W1U 7QA

Katsute 100, Islington
Katsute 100 is a gorgeous Japanese tea house located in the equally adorable Camden Passage. I actually stumbled upon this little gem while looking for another cafe, and couldn’t resist the lure of its zen-like interior. You can find a vast range of Japanese teas, including some unusual options like pickled cherry blossom or black bean. Expect beautiful ceramics, dainty cakes and a badass selection of Japanese whiskies. Like Monocle, Katsute also has a stylish little space at the back of the cafe where you can relax over a pot of green tea and escape the madness of the outside world.
Passage Apartments, 100 Islington High Street, London, N1 8EG

Wringer + Mangle, London Fields
Wringer + Mangle is so east London. I walked past it several times when I first visited, as it’s housed in a singularly unappealing former office block. Step inside, however, and you get industrial chic crossed with a rainforest. This cafe/bar/restaurant is a lovely, light-filled spot where you can linger over a large glass of wine or grab a healthy breakfast. They also do an incredibly reasonably priced bottomless brunch and their Collins-heavy cocktail menu is ideal for warm summer nights. I’m looking forward to returning for more lazy drinks and their delicious-looking evening menu.
13-18 Sidworth Street, London, E8 3SD

Fuckoffee, Bermondsey
Ok, so it may it may seem surprising that a place with a name like Fuckoffee is in my list of “pretty” places but stay with me here. This cafe – one of three by the Jonestown group –  isn’t a classic beauty but I love its chaotic, vibrant, graffiti-covered, neon-signed interior. I also love their DGAF attitude. Fuckoffee has already been at the centre of controversy thanks to its name (which they dealt with by a strategically placed asterisk) and some of their “near to the knuckle” signs. But, judging by the queues out of the door, it’s clearly true that there is no such thing as bad publicity.
163-167 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3UW

Lady Dinah’s Cat Emporium, Shoreditch
This is a strange, strange place but one that’s worth checking out at least once. Unless you hate cats, in which case you need to give it a wide berth. I was slightly disappointed when I first arrived, as my table was in the poky and dated upstairs room. It looked like one of those old fashioned small town caffs – but with cats. Downstairs, however, is a different story. Dimly lit and spangled with fairy lights, this room is decked out like a kitty cat forest playground. Tree trunks twist up from the floor and across the ceiling, the walls are ivy-clad and cute kitties lounge lazily or chase after toys. Book in advance for cream tea, high tea or just a cup of tea with a difference.
152-154 Bethnal Green Road, London, E2 6DG

What are your favourite London cafes? Let me know in the comments.

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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

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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!