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BRGR.CO: Going back to basics

BRGR.CO: Going back to basics

A bacon cheeseburger from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

BRGR.CO IS…REFRESHINGLY ORDINARY

Have we reached peak burger? Is that even possible? I don’t know about you but I’m starting to get a little weary of it all. Once upon a time, when your fast food options were McDonalds or Burger King or a greasy van on a roadside, the likes of Meat Liquor and even Byron seemed daring and exciting. But now those trendy burger joints are as ubiquitous as the fast food chains that they once stuck two fingers up at. So where now for the once humble burger? In the case of BRGR.CO you go back to basics. You make it all about the meat.

BRGR.CO isn’t pretentious. There’s no loud music or graffiti. The decor isn’t “distressed” or “shabby chic”. There are no quirky names or gimmicks attributed to their burgers. It’s the Ronseal of burger bars – it does what it says on the tin. You want a cheeseburger? You get a cheeseburger. You want to wash it down with a milkshake? You can choose from all the classic milkshake flavours. However, at BRGR.CO you also get to choose your burger as if you were in a steakhouse. That’s right – you can choose which cut of meat that you would like. There are three options available: Blade, Hanger and Rump. Blade is their entry level burger; a mixture of bavette (blade) steak and brisket. Hanger is exactly that – 100% hanger steak, and Rump is a blend of juicy rump (obvs) and prime rib.

A bacon cheeseburger from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

The burger toppings are all pretty straightforward, although there are two slightly more unusual options: the chilli burger, made with red chillis and chipotle mayo, and the bacon and guacamole burger. We played it safe and ordered a couple of solid bacon cheeseburgers. The burgers were presented, deconstructed, on a tray with the salad (lettuce, tomato, gherkins, red onion) and top half of the bun off to one side. I wasn’t sure about this at first but actually it’s a pretty good idea, as it allows you to pile on your preferred choice of dressings and add any salad-y bits as you see fit – rather than dig around in a pre-assembled and invariably messy burger to extricate elements you don’t like (such as gherkins…).

The burgers were refreshingly ordinary. The meat was juicy; a couple of rashers of bacon were unceremoniously slung over the top of the burger, like a pair of discarded trousers, but that was fine because…you know…bacon. The menu promised a choice of cheese but no-one asked us what our preference was so I’m guessing we ended up with cheddar. Which is no bad thing, although the greedy little cheese beast in me would have liked a bit more. But what I liked most of all is the fact that they BRGR.CO use a demi-brioche bun. I’m kind of over brioche buns. They once seemed a bit posh but in reality all they add is an increased risk of indigestion. So a demi-brioche bun was a welcome change; being neither too rich nor too plain it was, like the porridge of littlest bear in Goldilocks, just right.

Parmesan truffle fries from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

Burgers aside, there were two other items on the menu that made my heart skip a beat – Oreo milkshakes and parmesan truffle fries. We were told that there was no vanilla milkshake available, for which read “there was no vanilla ice cream” (more on that later) so my Oreo milkshake was made using chocolate ice cream instead. Oh the humanity…(*sarcasm*) As for the fries….I’m just so grateful that I live in a time where parmesan truffle fries are a thing. I mean, I thought cheesy chips were the bomb when I was younger but now they seem hopelessly quaint and old fashioned. Unlike the burgers, the cheese here was gooey and plentiful – almost like a ridiculously decadent cheese sauce.

The dessert menu at BRGR.CO is limited and – like the main menu – is made up of fairly ordinary dishes, like warm chocolate brownie or ice cream sundae. The crumble on offer was apple and banana, which I considered to be a slightly odd combination but perhaps that’s just me. It was supposed to have been served with vanilla ice cream but, as they didn’t have any, it came with chocolate instead – which made the whole mix of flavours even weirder! Nonetheless my friend seemed to like it. The baked vanilla cheesecake that I ordered was less of a success. It was a dry, dense door stop of a cake; unsalvageable even by the strawberry sauce that artfully decorated the plate. The fact that the word “cheesecake” is spelled incorrectly on their website probably says it all. It’s a dish that no-one cares about, including the person who made it.

Baked vanilla cheesecake with strawberries from BRGR.CO in Soho, London

You can’t really go wrong when it comes to burgers. Actually, no, you can potentially go very wrong; however, the burgers from BRGR.CO are a safe pair of hands. The meat is good quality; you can save or splurge, depending on your choice of meat; they’re generously proportioned; and the toppings err on the safe side. In a city that’s overflowing with gimmicks, a no-nonsense burger joint is a breath of fresh air.

BRGR.CO, 187 Wardour Street, W1F 8ZB or 127 King’s Road, SW3 4PW

I was advised that BRGR.CO will soon be making some exciting changes to their menu and venues so watch this space!

Many thanks to Lioneye Media and BRGR.CO for inviting me to dine at their Soho branch. All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

Cottons: Bringing the sunshine to Shoreditch

A seafood platter with rice and peas at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

Cottons is…sun drenched and rum drenched!

There are rare moments, when the British summer is playing ball, that London can feel fairly exotic. When the sun beats down and Londoners pour outside, noise levels rising, the scent of grilled meat in the air, music streaming out from cars and bars, it’s easy to pretend that you’re in an entirely different country. This is helped along with a spot of world cuisine from London’s diverse restaurant scene. I was recently transported to the Caribbean thanks to a balmy summer evening, jerk BBQ and copious amounts of rum at the new Cottons restaurant in Shoreditch.

When I first moved to London I lived around the corner from the very first Cottons restaurant on Exmouth Market. I had never tried Caribbean food before and, at that point in my life, it was both exciting and slightly intimidating. Curried goat? Oxtail? These were all things that I had never even thought about eating before – which meant that we were straight into Cottons for dinner at the earliest opportunity. Sadly, their Exmouth Market branch has now closed, but Cottons continues to thrive and have now opened their third restaurant in Shoreditch.

Sticky jerk pork ribs with fried plantain crisps at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

In true Caribbean style, we started our evening with a rum tasting session by Angostura. You may have heard of Angostura bitters already; that indispensable little bottle behind the every bar in the land. However, like me, you may not have realised that they also have a range of rum. To me, just the name “Angostura” conjures up images of sun drenched islands, lazy days and music-filled nights, so of course they make rum too! We sampled 6 different varieties – from the wonderful Amaro di Angostura with its Christmas-rich flavours of cloves and oranges, to their citrusy Reserva Blanca, their sweet and buttery 7 year old and and their caramel-soft 1824. I’ve never been much of a rum drinker and, if I do partake, it’s usually mixed in with something else. However, I would happily sip on a few of these rums neat and get very drunk in the process. Check out the Cottons website for their schedule of FREE rum masterclasses!

Saltfish fritters at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The menu at Cottons is vast and diverse – and a great intro to Caribbean cuisine. I would easily walk barefoot over the scorching sand of a Caribbean beach just to get at their crayfish and lobster mac n cheese. Assorted patties and fritters are great to nibble on and the jerk pork ribs were sticky, spicy and easy to pick clean. You are totally spoiled for choice when it comes to mains; being able to choose from “Timeless Classics” like oxtail and bean stew, signature platters or a range of meat from their jerk pit. Oh yeah, and they do burgers too! The seafood platter was a particular delight. I loved being able to graze on a generous range of seafood, including huge juicy king prawns. The addition of a mini pot of octopus and squid stew was a lovely touch too. It’s easy to pretend that you’re on holiday with food like this.

As I’m very much a carnivorous sort of girl, I was surprised that I enjoyed the Ital vegetable curry as much as I did. “Ital” is a variation of the word “vital” and is a strict vegetarian diet followed by certain members of the Rastafarian movement – and something I had not heard of before. This is why I love doing what I do and – in fact – it’s the whole philosophy behind this blog! I’m determined to learn more about the world in which we live, and trying food from other countries and cultures is a great way to do this.  The curry itself was rich with peppery heat, as well as big chunks of veggies. I felt a thousand times more wholesome by eating it. Whether it cancelled out all that rum I had drunk, however, is another matter….

Vegetable stew at Cottons Caribbean restaurant in Shoreditch, London

The British summertime is notoriously unreliable – you don’t need me to tell you that. Although we do have days when the sun streams down upon us, more often than not we get stuck with grey skies. Luckily we have restaurants like Cottons to provide us with an escape route to more tropical climes.

Cottons, 130-132 Curtain Road, EC2A 3AR

Many thanks to Cottons for inviting me along to sample rum and food at their Shoreditch branch. All views are, as ever, my own.

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Roast potato, pesto and pine nut pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

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.

Bechamel stuffed mushrooms from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

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.

Aubergine parmigiana from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

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.

Goats cheese, roasted onion and black olive pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

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.

Salted caramel cheesecake from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

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.

7 of the prettiest cafes in London

7 of the prettiest cafes in London

London's prettiest cafes : A rose latte from the Palm Vaults, Hackney, 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

London's prettiest cafes : The Palm Vaults, Hackney, London

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

London's prettiest cafes : The Ship of Adventures, Dalston, London

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

London's prettiest cafes : Monocle Cafe, Marylebone, London

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

London's prettiest cafes : Katsute 100, Islington, London

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

London's prettiest cafes : Wringer + Mangle, London Fields, London

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

London's prettiest cafes : F*ckoffee, Bermondsey, London

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

London's prettiest cafes : Lady Dinah's Cat Emporium, Shoreditch, London

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

Lamb rolls at Bar Douro, London Bridge, 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…

Salt cod and scrambled egg with matchstick fries at Bar Douro, London Bridge, London

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.

Roast suckling pig with crisps at Bar Douro, London Bridge, London

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.

Pastel de nata (custard tart) with cinnamon ice cream at Bar Douro, London Bridge, London

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

Coach and Horses: Where everybody knows your name

Coach and Horses: Where everybody knows your name

Pizza with Portobello mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts and truffle oil at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

“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 and 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 and Horses, you can also expect to find the following excellent reasons to visit: pizza, cocktails, doughnuts.

Pizza with 'nduja, cherry tomatoes and rocket at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

If, for some strange reason, you don’t actually like pizza then make sure you eat before visiting the Coach and 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.

Pizza with bacon, egg, spinach and chilli at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

As if a bacon and egg pizza isn’t unusual enough, the Coach and 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 and 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 and 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.

Nutella doughnuts at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

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 and 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 and 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 and 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

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.

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

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