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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.

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

TwoRuba: A hotel bar with flair

The TwoRuba cooler cocktail from TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London

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.

The spring display at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

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!

The Elderflower Breeze cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

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 Raspberry and Thyme Smash cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

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.

The Spring Spritz cocktail at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

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.

The spring display at TwoRuba at the Tower Bridge Hilton, London Bridge, London

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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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

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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

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

Miusan

Miusan

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackdaw and Star/We Serve Humans

Jackdaw and Star/We Serve Humans

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

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

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

Image supplied by the Jackdaw and Star

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

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

Image supplied by the Jackdaw and Star

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

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

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

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