2011 Restaurant reviewsThe Athenaeum - Whisky & Cheese Matching
Atlantico at The Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel
Auberge du Lac
Bavarian Beerhouse - Tower Hill
the bell at skenfrith
Black and Blue
Brasserie Joël - Park Plaza Westminster Bridge
British Pullman, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express
Carluccio's - Richmond
Castle House Hotel
The Commonwealth Kitchen
Degò restaurant and wine bar
De Ville restaurant - Afternoon Tea
Dial Restaurant - Mercer Street Hotel
The Dorchester - breakfast
The Elms Hotel Worcestershire
The Fleece Inn
Fusion Brasserie Worcestershire
The Gay Hussar
The Phoenix - Geronimo Kitchen
The Real Greek
Simpson’s-in-the-Strand - breakfast
Sofra Mayfair - Dinner
Tuttons - Afternoon Tea
108 Marylebone Lane
2011 Asian Restaurant reviewsBanana Tree - Soho
Café Spice Namasté Khaadras Club Night
China Tang at The Dorchester
The Chinese Cricket Club
The Empress of Sichuan
Grand Imperial London
Grand Imperial London - Afternoon Tea
Inamo - St James
Mango Tree - Sunday Lunch
Royal China - Baker Street
Spice Market - Breakfast
Spice Market - Dinner
Thai Square - Richmond
Updated 8th March 2012
The Dorchester dates back to 1931 and is a vision of polished good Deco taste with a hint of Victoriana. There is more evocative décor in the basement. No, it’s not a storage room for discarded furniture – it’s the very classy China Tang, The Dorchester’s iconic Chinese restaurant (yes, the name does give a clue to its ethnicity).
Sir David Tang, KBE, is a successful Hong Kong businessman and socialite best known as the founder of the Shanghai Tang fashion chain, which he sold in 2006, as well as China Clubs in Hong Kong, Peking and Singapore.
Sir David is obviously a “hands-on” owner. He has been at the forefront of the restaurant design as well as taking a passionate interest in the most important area – the kitchen. He has not only selected the best chefs from Hong Kong for his eponymous restaurant, he has also composed a menu to reflect the finest of Cantonese cooking.
I know it’s just a matter of taste, visual and culinary, but I consider China Tang to be one of the most remarkable restaurants in London. One is wafted back to the China of the 20s and 30s, when armies of modern “bright young things” sipped cocktails and listened to daring jazz. Shanghai and other Chinese cities were magnets for the jet set, well, OK, in the days before jets.
Sir David has ensured that every guest has a multi-sensory experience. China Tang is striking and eclectic and gives the air of one of those refined restaurants of a bygone age. One can feast one’s eyes on objets d'art and admire the gold-embroidered table linen and metal chopsticks; everything carefully chosen for impact but also practicality. The low ceilings create a cosy ambiance and the buzz of animated conversation adds to the general excitement.
Every Tuesday, China Tang offers an evening of very live jazz in the main dining room, featuring the celebrated duo Kitty La Roar and Nick of Time performing music that will add still more to the sensation of being transported back in time. “Slow Boat to China” and “A Little Street in Singapore” are just so right for China Tang, and Kitty is stunning in a tight black Chinese Cheongsam which has the male diners riveted before she even warbles a word ...and what a voice! http://www.kittyandnick.co.uk/#
China Tang is said to offer some of the most authentic Cantonese food outside China. I was expecting something special: The Dorchester would not tolerate a naff version of your local high-street “Happy San-Pan”. China Tang doesn’t fiddle with food. No mounds of rice moulded into the two doves of Willow Pattern fame here. No miniature junks ploughing the waves of one’s Hot and Sour soup. Each dish is simply presented and served sans elaborate garnish. The chef doesn’t need to distract you. Fresh ingredients are cooked to perfection.
The menu offers Cantonese classics so you will find many dishes that sound familiar but I can guarantee that they will be the best examples of those dishes you will ever taste. Try some steamers of dim sum. The dough will be thin and delicate and the fillings aromatic and refined. I particularly enjoyed the pork dumplings, the meat bathed in flavourful broth. A must-try starter is Taro Cakes. These are light and crunchy and thoroughly moreish. I have had them before but these at China Tang are addictive. They look like they are made of that finely-shredded pastry often found topping Middle-Eastern patisserie.
Peking Duck is a signature dish. It’s a delicious extravaganza of glossy mahogany skin (the exact hue of the wooden chairs: how did Sir David manage that?) and moist meat. Then there is the theatre of watching your deft waitress carve the bird: slivers of lacquered skin and then slices of succulent meat. The remainder of the duck will be minced with seasonings and a few other ingredients and served with lettuce for wraps. This is just as much an event as a dish.
China Tang is famous, and rightly so, for its Stir-fried Beef in Black Pepper. This dish was a rich triumph of glazed cubes of meat flecked with black. The flavour was agreeably pungent from the pepper and the texture was melting. This needed no garnish other than some rice, and they have bamboo pots of that, of various sorts.
Fukien Rice is a traditional dish but seldom seen on menus of lesser restaurants. It’s a rich seafood stew atop rice, a meal in itself and well worth saving some space for. I would suggest trying dishes that you might not find elsewhere. They will be faithful and authentic examples.
Desserts are usually a bit thin on the ground in Chinese restaurants but China Tang has some delightful, Asian inspired sweets. Their Chocolate Steamed Dumplings are legendary, they shine and tempt; while the Green Tea Mousse was light and perfumed. The Black Tea Ice Cream was refreshing with still a pleasant touch of tannin. Balls of fresh papaya completed this quartet of miniature desserts.
I’ll grant you, China Tang isn’t the cheapest restaurant around but it’s still good value for money. One is paying not only for delectable food but also for an exceptional experience. We will return to have a meal in the bar – it offers the same menu as the main restaurant – and try some signature cocktails. This is on my list of favourite restaurants visited in 2011.
China Tang opening hours
Monday to Friday: 11:00 am to 3:30 pm
Saturday and Sunday: 11:00 am to 4:00 pm
Monday to Sunday: 5:30 pm to 12:00 midnight
Bookings for Lunch and Dinner are strongly recommended; to reserve a table call:
+44 (0) 20 7629 9988
China Tang at The Dorchester,
Park Lane, Mayfair, London W1K 1QA
Phone: 0871 971 3579
Visit China Tang here
The neighbourhood belongs to the Worshipful Company of Mercers. A mercer was a dealer in textiles and The Mercers’ Company is one of the 108 Livery Companies of the City of London, established around 700 years ago. These days the organisation is known for its charities and schools but Mercer Street still bears the name of that ancient profession.
Mercer Street Hotel enjoys a prime site at Seven Dials. Yes, there truly is a monument sporting sundials in the centre of this busy junction. The untutored will be driven to assume that there would indeed be seven dials crowning the column but there are in reality only six. Nothing to do with our shrinking economy or even government cutbacks though; it’s the result of the original pillar being commissioned before an eleventh-hour alteration of the street plans for a junction of six roads. This isn’t a recent cost-saving measure: we are talking about the 1690s.
The first sundial column was removed in the 1700s. The replacement column was erected in 1989, to the original design with still those six dials. It was unveiled by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, to commemorate the tercentenary of the reign of William of Orange and Queen Mary; the area was developed during their reign.
This corner of London hasn’t always been trendy. The area was once described by Charles Dickens in his collection Sketches by Boz: “The stranger who finds himself in the Dials for the first time...at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity awake for no inconsiderable time.” No need for the modern tourist to feel alarmed by unwanted attention – this is no longer the den of iniquity that it once was; there are now plenty of boutiques and stylish eateries. Seven Dials has become a destination in its own right.
Well, if that column is going to be a pivotal point of your visit then you will need a smart place to lay your weary over-shopped and all-museumed-out head. The Mercer Street Hotel has its front door opposite the Dials and that hotel offers character, comfort and ambiance that are usually hard to find in large chain hotels. It gives the impression of being a high-end boutique hotel with all the charm and individuality that the title affords. However, 137 air-conditioned bedrooms in this newly refurbished establishment have everything you would want of a 5-star hotel but it is labelled only 4! iPod-, iPad-, iPhone-docking, DVD-playing facilities, along with a huge flat-screen TV help to entertain those technophiles while the rest of us sink into cushions and luxuriate in steamy-bath ecstasy.
Each room is sumptuous and different from its neighbour. The furnishings are bespoke and tasteful encouraging you to linger for just a while longer in fluffy, and in our case pastel pink and pale caramel, cosiness. The street views are more absorbing than the moving wallpaper of the telly: cafés with tables of fellow people-watchers, cycle couriers risking lives of the unwary, and tourists wandering with fascinated faces as they discover this truly iconic corner of old London.
So you have watched the passers-by while sipping on a cuppa (Union Jack-emblazoned fridge in dressing room with some necessary teabags and a Nespresso coffee-maker), and it’s time for dinner. The ground-floor restaurant is called Dial. Well, if it wasn’t that I guess it would have been called Seven. It’s a contemporary and intimate space which adjoins its popular and buzzy bar. A simple menu of modern European fare with the emphasis on freshness. The original Covent Garden is just a short distance away and for centuries that supplied the whole of Greater London with produce. Dial continues that theme by offering its guests the best of seasonal and local ingredients.
The food here is just “right”. One orders a dish and it is just as one hopes, nothing over-fussy or inexplicably exotic. The chef seems confident and competent and manages to add a few flourishes that are perfectly in keeping with the dish and show his culinary credentials.
My first course was a Parfait of Foie Gras; very simple and traditional. One slice of the light terrine, a slice or two of toasted brioche and a garnish of fresh figs. But the fig chutney alongside was a stunner. A rich and firm aromatic relish that I would have happily eaten with nothing added other than a big spoon. (Mental note to oneself: Ask chef for recipe).
My guest hankered after greens and so settled on the Salad of Roasted Butternut Squash and Yellow Peppers with a strewing of broad beans and toasted pumpkin seeds. This was a considerable plateful of colourful crispness and melting sweetness.
This same companion remained noble with his choice of fish as his main course. Sea Bass Fillets with young spinach and a clam sauce was visually striking and delicious. The seafood rested atop a bed of smooth mash surrounded by the bejewelled sauce, clam shells adding a bit of seashore drama. Fish cooked with crispy skin and creamy flesh.
We in the UK are famed for our lamb and that offered at Dial was always going to be my choice. Pan-fried Rump of Salt-marsh Lamb graced a mound of garlic mash (not at all gluey as is unfortunately sometimes the way), a tower of delicately-charred Mediterranean vegetables and a dressing of rosemary sauce. This needed no additional side and was a showcase for the best of British food. The meat was tender and just past pink, the sauce was a light gravy with plenty of herby impact. A classic.
It’s been a good year for apples so it was no surprise to find them on Dial’s menu. Here they were offered as a tart. Made fresh for each guest, allow 20 minutes for it to arrive hot to your table. The tart in question was a disc of light and puffy pastry with slices of fruit baked into the base. The toffee sauce was rich and sweet and it always goes well with apples ...or bananas ...or ... A comforting pud to round off a delightful day.
Bad planning on my behalf meant an early check-out the next morning. A bit of personal pampering with the complementary toiletries and we were down for breakfast. There was the usual international buffet of fruit, yoghurt, pastries and cereals awaiting the morning crowd but hot dishes came individually plated (when the nice waitress says “Mind – the plates are hot”, believe her). I had the full English and it truly was “full”: bacon (2 rashers), sausage, black pudding, scrambled eggs, mushrooms, potatoes and a ramekin of baked beans. All this stayed piping hot till the last bite. The bacon was particularly good: back bacon and tinged with brown round the edges. A bacon sandwich will be my choice on the next visit, for return there surely will be. This hotel is just such a gem of almost hidden yet accessible luxury.
The Mercer Street Hotel ticked all the boxes for me. The location is unbeatable, the accommodation was as good as I have found in many a 5-star hostelry, the food was sensible and memorable. The staff are a cut above the average. They were knowledgeable (well, that comes with training), but they seemed genuinely enthusiastic and proud ...and you can’t teach that.
Dial Restaurant opening hours:
Monday to Saturday: 7am - 10am
Sunday: 8am - 11am
Lunch: 12noon - 2.30pm
Afternoon Tea: 3pm - 5pm
Dinner: 5.30pm - 10.30pm
Bar: All day until 2am
Mercer Street Hotel - Radisson Edwardian
20 Mercer Street, Covent Garden, London WC2H 9HD
800 333-3333 US - Toll Free
0800 37 4411 UK - Toll Free
Phone: + 44 (0)20 7836 4300
Fax: +44 (0)20 7240 3540
Visit Mercer Street Hotel here
The new restaurant is on Wardour Street and here there is a link with William Chow. The street was named after Sir Archibald Wardour who was an architect and designed some of the buildings along the thoroughfare. William was himself an architect, but he left that career to follow his passion for food. He played a leading part in the interior design of the latest branch and it does indeed have impact. It’s not a temple to teak and there are no nodding luck-giving dogs, no ethnically-clad dusky lovelies to welcome the diner; In fact it’s a very contemporary space with tasteful techie lighting, imposing ceiling pipework and an acre or so of grey cement. The overall impression isn’t of cold minimalism but rather a functional restaurant that takes much of its ambiance from the buzz of diners.
Banana Tree is evidently a casual eatery. Its high communal benches offer convivial spaces for groups in the evenings. There are plenty of tables for 4 but be aware that if you are alone you might find that you are joined by strangers as the restaurant fills. You will have at least one thing in common with the new arrivals – love of good food.
The prices here are very reasonable and the menu offers a wide choice of traditional dishes of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia. William was born in Malaysia which has historically enjoyed the cuisines from the neighbouring countries as well as China. All those cuisines take advantage of the same palate of herbs and spices so it’s easy to mix and match dishes from different countries with no fear of culinary conflict.
We arrived for a late lunch and there was a steady flow of customers. No, I wouldn’t say that Banana Tree was full to capacity but many other restaurants in the area were empty. It seems that there are already a few who have Banana Tree as their restaurant of choice: some tourists, a couple of chunky chaps who might have been boxers and several office workers, all looking for a sustaining and flavourful meal without a wince-inducing price tag.
Double-cooked Crispy Pork Mix was my starter and I can highly recommend this. Morsels of various cuts of meat with a crunchy texture. Moreish with a mint, ginger and chilli dipping sauce that was so delicious that I saved the dregs to pour over my rice with the soon-to-follow main course. A simple little starter but memorable.
The Banana Tree Combo was appealing. It isn’t a single dish but rather a formula for your main meal. It adds sesame glass noodle salad, corn cakes, spicy crackers and jasmine rice. This spread is available with curries and regional specialities, and its addition turns a meal into a feast.
My main dish was the Legendary Rendang. This is a rich and flavourful casserole that has all the perfumed savour of the region. Spicy, yes, but aromatic and distinctive. A classic dish with plenty of sauce to take advantage of the aforementioned rice. There was no need for me to have hung onto that dipping condiment, after all. The salad was fresh and light, and those crackers were addictive. A substantial repast over which to linger.
Banana Tree works. It’s a friendly environment where one can enjoy an evening that won’t break the bank. It’s equally a spot to which to gravitate when you are alone and want some quality food rather than a coffee and a muffin or a pre-wrapped sarnie on a park bench. Lone diners won’t feel conspicuous at Banana Tree.
I am impressed. The standard of food is an obvious draw: a broad menu of well-presented dishes. It has accessible flair in unintimidating packaging. I look forward to visiting others in the chain.
Opening Hours: Mon-Sun 12 Noon-10.30pm
Banana Tree - Soho
103 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UQ
Visit Banana Tree Soho here
I must have passed Zizzi on numerous occasions but, to be honest, I have never noticed it. Having opened its first restaurant in 1999, the chain now has more than 100 across the UK. The Twickenham branch has undergone a makeover and it’s now a much lighter and brighter space. It has the same general theme as others in the extensive chain but as manager Maria explains, each branch has some subtle local references. Zizzi Twickenham has an Astroturf wall and a few words written by Alexander Pope. No, dear ill-educated reader, Mr. Pope is not a rugby player. He was a celebrated poet (1688 – 1744) who lived about half a mile from where the restaurant now stands.
Zizzi offers a traditional Italian menu of pasta, pizza and risotto along with some meat and salads, but we wanted to try their small plates, Cichetti. Think Italian tapas and you will have the idea. There is a good selection of vegetarian specialities and meaty dishes to please every palate. They offer an alternative to a full meal, but a few plates together would be a substantial dinner. Great for a group or for a family of even the fussiest eaters.
We ordered six savoury dishes and later a dessert, and that constituted a very reasonable meal for both me and my companion. Some hot dishes and others cold: I would recommend eating the hot ones as they arrive. Saccottini – two mini calzone: one with spicy n’Duja sausage and rocket, and one with pesto and aubergine filling – should be eaten as soon as they are served.
Bruschetta ai Funghi – Mushrooms in a rich mascarpone, wine and thyme sauce, served on top of mini ciabatta bread – was rich and creamy and would surely be a favourite with the kids.
Gamberi – King prawns cooked in a fish and wine stock with a pinch of chilli, served with freshly baked dough sticks – were succulent and the broth well-flavoured; so delicious that I was sorry we hadn’t ordered extra bread for mopping up the juices. Just a hint of agreeable heat from the spice.
Polpette al Pomodoro – Mini beef meatballs with tomatoes, onions and mushrooms – also offered a sauce that invited bread-dipping. These were a small version of the meatballs you would likely have sampled in restaurants in Italy or even, if you are as lucky as I to have Italian friends, at a family dinner table.
Spiedini di Pollo – Oven-baked chicken skewers with roasted peppers, rosemary and lemon – were tender, with the roasted peppers offering a sweetness that bathed the meat. An attractive presentation and a delight with a chilled glass of Prosecco.
The star of our collection was Polenta Croccante – Crunchy polenta with a sprinkle of grana padano cheese and a garlic mayonnaise dip. This is a simple preparation of batons of light polenta with a crunchy coating. It’s one of those dishes that rely just as much on texture as flavour for its success. Be warned – these could be addictive.
The man sitting opposite me has a sweet tooth so needed Gelato Con Frittelle – a scoop of Kitty's delicious pistachio, cioccolata and fior di latte gelato served on top of freshly made mini doughnuts – which was a fitting end to a fun casual meal. It’s that contrast of hot and cold that’s always appealing. An espresso to continue that Latin theme gave us the caffeine to help us home.
The Zizzi chain is part of Gondola Holdings, a group of restaurants including the Italian-style Pizza Express, Milano and ASK, as well as hamburger restaurant Byron, and Kettner’s champagne bar. Zizzi has a central kitchen as you would expect for a chain of that size but the individual restaurants cook as much as possible from fresh. The Zizzi olive oil has just won a Gold at The Great Taste Awards, and that care in selection of ingredients suggests that Zizzi is making an effort to choose foods that offer best quality.
Zizzi will see me return to try dishes from the main menu, another glass of Prosecco and a few hours spent in a restaurant that I am pleased to have as my local Italian. It’s casual and convenient and you won’t need a mortgage to enjoy an evening here.
36 York Street, Twickenham TW1 3LJ
Phone: 020 8538 9024
Monday – Saturday, 12 noon to 11pm
Sunday, 12 noon to 10.30pm
The Gay Hussar has been around since 1953 and was opened by Victor Sassie who was an iconic restaurateur for 34 years; he was the son of a Swiss emigrant who arrived in Cardiff and married a local girl. They moved to the shipyards of Barrow-in-Furness where Victor was born in 1915. He had a passion for Hungarian cooking and eventually became an honorary Hungarian on account of his food.
Victor has sadly gone but the restaurant has remained very much in its original form and that, along with its superb food, is its strength. The Gay Hussar is at the “other end” of Greek Street but it has garnered loyal followers and continues to attract new ones. It has a certain and very definite charm that’s difficult to emulate. The restaurant has a timeless ambiance that has to have evolved naturally.
The Gay Hussar is set in a Georgian town house – a cosy ground floor with two additional private dining rooms above. Dark wood panels are hung with cartoons of celebrated politicians and statesmen who made this restaurant their own semi-private club. It was famed as a haunt of Labour Party grandees back in the days when there were real characters, and a smattering of outspoken eccentrics, at the helm or gracing the parliamentary back-benches.
I can understand the draw. The food here encourages relaxed and lingering meals punctuated with good conversation (politics not obligatory). The portions are famously substantial and delicious, with dishes that range from the comforting and rustic to the striking and smart. Both styles are representative of Hungarian cuisine, with roots in either the countryside or the sophisticated cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Goulash is the dish that comes to mind when one thinks of Hungarian food. Most people’s lexicon of dishes probably starts and ends with that. If you want to try the real thing then order the hearty Gulyásleves – Beef Goulash Soup – as a starter, but we wanted to taste as broad a range of starters as possible so we chose Hideg Izelito – mixed Hungarian hors d'oeuvres – which was a large plate of most of the cold collation. We shared this platter and I would advise all those other than rugby players to do the same: there will be more delights to come, so save room.
Csirkepaprikás – Chicken in Creamy Paprika Sauce – is a well-loved favourite and it has all the typical characteristics of Hungarian food: it’s rich, flavourful, with plenty of the sweet paprika for which the country is renowned. But I wanted a simple main course so I chose Brassói Ermék – Pan-Fried Pork Fillet with Diced Potatoes, Bacon and Garlic. This was moreish peasant-style fare with crispy nuggets of potatoes flecked with the aforementioned spice.
Füstölt Libamell – Smoked Breast of Goose with Sólet and Red Cabbage – took my guest’s fancy. This was a striking and cheffy presentation but the ingredients were far from nouvelle, showcasing still more of the Hungarian culinary tapestry.
Dobos Torta – Layered Gateau with Caramel Top – is a classic Hungarian dessert but even in Hungary it’s more often bought than made at home, a restaurant and coffee shop favourite. Well worth a try if you have a gap to fill.
Chestnut Puree is equally traditional and is, by contrast, very often made at home. Not a difficult process but still somehow a dessert more enjoyable when made by the fair hands of a chef. It’s difficult to make a pile of chestnut puree look appealing, at least to those who are unfamiliar with the confection. Here it is served in classic fashion as soft puree noodles surrounding sweet cream. A liberal lacing of dark rum is the key to success here: there should be enough for the diner to suspect that there might be a dash or two of alcohol on the ingredient list, but not enough to make standing by a naked flame a fire hazard.
The restaurant manager, John Wrobel, is a warm and genial host. Yes, another well-chosen word: one feels more like a guest in a private home. John ensures that everything runs like clockwork but finds time to exchange a few words with his regulars. The Gay Hussar is warm, friendly and intimate, and the food is rather good as well.
The Gay Hussar
2 Greek Street, London W1D 4NB
Phone: 020 7437 0973
Visit The Gay Hussar here
You don’t have to be a tourist to be impressed by the view from this new and contemporary hotel. It’s a 3D version of the postcard visitors would send home to the family...but it’s got, in true Harry Potter fashion, moving traffic and river boats ...and the Houses of Parliament ...and the tower of Big Ben ...and the London Eye. Park Plaza Westminster Bridge is a destination hotel in every regard.
I personally never tire of that vista – it changes with the weather and the time of day – but a hotel must be comfortable to warrant a visit, and must be something special to deserve a return booking. Park Plaza Westminster Bridge ticks lots of boxes: location, facilities, dining options and thoughtful design.
The reception for this hotel is on the first floor to take advantage of that aforementioned vision of our seat of government and the eponymous bridge. It’s an expansive open space that could take on the cramped characteristics of an airport check-in area were not its visitors encouraged to leave their luggage on the lower level, so without that clutter the first floor remains striking and spacious. The restaurants and bars are on this level but are tucked away in corners to avoid that shopping-mall food-hall ambiance that so often tarnishes the stars of large hotels. Ichi Sushi & Sashimi Bar, 1WB Lounge and Patisserie, Espressamente Illy coffee bar as well as Brasserie Joël are all here, offering everything from light snacks to more substantial meals.
Our room was on the 12th floor and just as contemporary as the public spaces, well-appointed with high-end toiletries, bath and shower. The bathroom acted as a divider between the bedroom and the lounge space. This sported a cream leather sofa that doubled as a bed, turning this stylish unit into a family suite with just a click or two. It’s an ideal office space for those unfortunates who, like us, work on the run. Wardrobe doors with glass murals, mirrors and a brace of suspended flat-screen TVs impress the guest with techy international vibe. Modern, not minimalist, luxury.
I had expected the ubiquitous mini-bar and I wasn’t disappointed, but there were other practical touches to this comprehensive refreshment station: a microwave, kettle and cutlery to allow guests to bring in their own food. The foresighted management know that times are tough and food can be a worry when there’s a hotel bill to pay along with entrance tickets (thank goodness at least museums are free in London). Kids just want familiar meals and here parents can provide those, just like at home.
We were a couple of hungry adults who craved more than microwaved pizza so we wandered down to Brasserie Joël. Chef Joël Antunes has given his name to the restaurant and he has returned to the UK after more than a decade overseas. He will be best remembered for founding Les Saveurs in the early 1990s, which earned a Michelin star. The brasserie menu is broad and accessible. My guest chose Chicken Liver Terrine with Fig Chutney, which was a traditional French starter and served with a couple of tranches of smoky and delicious grilled bread. Nothing elaborate but just right.
The menu changes frequently but there is always something to tempt even the pickiest of palates. I was intrigued by the braised aubergine in balsamic vinegar. This was in fact the best aubergine dish I have had in years. It was melting, sweet and glossy, and topped with a wedge of creamy mozzarella which, although good quality, was hardly necessary – the aubergine shone alone. A stunner, and should be a signature dish.
Aged Beef Tournedos Rossini with foie gras, truffle sauce and a thick slice of melting braised potato was the main course for my partner. He asked for his beef to be rare and it was indeed cooked to that specification. There was a ring of colour from the searing but the centre of the cut was rosy. A well-seasoned dish with an attractive presentation.
Traditional Fish Pie filled with prawns, salmon, haddock and leek gave a simple counterpoint to the meal. This is comfort food at its finest: a smooth potato and cheese topping over a rich fish filling that was flavourful, piping hot and typical of authentic brasserie dishes. They don’t have to be made with costly ingredients, it’s a style of cooking, and it’s becoming more popular. Brasseries give diners what they want: good, well-prepared and presented fare that they feel they would want to replicate in their own homes ...and this reviewer would, if only someone would give her the recipe for that aubergine starter.
Rhubarb Macaroon with Strawberry Sorbet is chic. Who would not have noticed the proliferation of bakeries and confectioners selling those decadent and stylishly French Macaroons? This was a symphony of pastel shades and contrasting textures. Light but with richness from those classic cookies.
A little Semi Freddo Vanilla Ice Cream and Coffee Granita was all I could manage but it arrived, substantial and striking, in a sundae glass overflowing with coffee crystals and ice cream. The addition of a cup of espresso finished a delightful and relaxing dinner. A melange of old favourites and new culinary trends in a restaurant that prefers country-style linen to starched tablecloths, and pots of herbs to sprays of roses.
We awoke early. No, we were not bothered by traffic noise (isn’t triple glazing a marvellous invention). We just wanted to open the curtains and gaze across the river to the Palace of Westminster. Red buses and black taxis and a few early risers avoiding the approaching rush-hour together made the scene a moving tapestry of morning London life. OK, so I am a city girl and this city is amazing in the dawn light when it’s the exclusive domain of those who live and work here. We are indeed spoilt.
Breakfast is held in the brasserie and the place was buzzing with American, Japanese and Australian tourists who were to be whisked away to cathedral towns, rolling hills or the coast, as soon as the last crumb of toast was finished. If you want a less frenetic start to your day then wait till after 8.30am, as any civilised visitor would do anyway.
The breakfast buffet reflects the multi-national makeup of the hotel guests. Plenty of fruit and cereals and yoghurt for those with bodies like temples. Plates of cold meats and cheeses for Scandinavians, all the elements for a monumental Full Monty fry-up, and delicate pastries for the French. A good spread of brekkie dishes to suit every epicurean tradition.
Park Plaza Westminster Bridge London is a hotel with much to recommend it. Yes, its location makes it a favourite with overseas guests but that same position makes it sought after by those with business in the financial hub, or those others who need to haunt the corridors of power. It is a popular event venue, and has a spa and all the trappings that make hotels such as this the lodgings of choice for those with discerning taste.
Park Plaza Westminster Bridge London
200 Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7UT
Telephone: 0844 415 6790
Fax: 0844 415 6791
Visit Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel here
Well, there are lots of casual eateries strewn across the length and breadth of London, so what makes Hummus Bros so noteworthy? It’s the food on offer. No sign of a cool-cabinet stuffed with under-stuffed iffy sarnies. No aroma of greasy burgery bits in buns, and the food here is a world away from dubious cheap ethnic lunches.
So what do Hummus Bros sell? Hummus! We have all bought little tubs of this from our local supermarkets where it’s presented as a delicate spread, an addition to a summer buffet table rather than any sort of main event. We just don’t quite know what to do with it but we buy it because it makes us look cosmopolitan.
This chickpea confection has not, until now, been part of the UK culinary tradition. Only a few of us have fond memories of the hummus our grandmothers used to make. But we would have said the same of Indian food a few years ago.
Hummus Bros presents the eponymous dish as a real meal and although that’s new to us here, it is very much a part of the Middle Eastern fashion of eating. It’s a food that ticks all the practical and epicurean boxes for me. It’s typical comfort food with a creamy texture and mild flavour. It’s natural and healthy and it’s easy to eat – in fact so easy that you don’t even need cutlery, although those nice brothers do provide ecologically sound wooden forks for the overly genteel.
Hummus is converted from a snack into a meal by the addition of flavourful toppings. There are selections of standards that are advertised on the menu and there are weekly specials to keep the regulars engaged. For those who want to perk up the paste there are bottles of garlic and lemon to sprinkle. Mixed vegetable salad, tabouleh (bulgar wheat with finely chopped red peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, coriander, parsley and mint – authentic with lots of herbs), Greek salad, smoky barbecued aubergine, falafel salad are all offered as side dishes.
There are two sizes available: a small bowl of topped hummus constitutes a light lunch, and a regular portion is a dinner for the seriously peckish. The mushroom topping with caramelised onions is a sweet vegetarian option for those who want a hearty and flavourful meal. All bowls of hummus have brown fluffy pitta bread included: delicious, and acting as your edible scoop.
Committed carnivores will note that Hummus Bros is not a preachy, worthy, tie-dye, sandal- toting kinda place. The food isn’t about feeling noble it’s about feeling full, so chunky beef – a seasonal, slow cooked stew of tender meat – is one of the suggested toppings, and it’s truly melting. There is also chicken and that, along with guacamole, is the most popular of garnishes.
I am a collector of cookbooks so a 5,000-year old recipe was bound to grab my attention. Fava beans with slow-cooked free-range egg is a popular breakfast dish in Egypt. I had heard about it but here was my chance to try it. Anything that’s been on the menu for that long has evidently got something going for it. After one bowl I am hooked. It’s a must-try signature dish of smooth hummus and rich, soft beans with slices of tinted eggs, the addition of which turns a sustaining meal into a feast. I agree it might not sound a stunner, but it will likely turn you away from those golden arches.
Talking of fast food outlets... nothing wrong with them, the problem rests with us, the buying public. If we eat those burgers in moderation then we have nothing to fear. They provide a meal on the trot and we have all enjoyed them from time to time when those hunger pangs kick in and a Mcwendyking is all that’s handy. But we want to encourage our kids to adopt good eating habits, healthy foods that they will be keen to eat. Hummus Bros could take the place of burger bars and huts of pizza. Hummus is kid friendly. The texture is appealing to even the fussiest of toddlers. The standard dish of hummus with a helping of chickpeas is fun to eat, with no strong seasonings. Tiny fingers will grab the peas and little hands will dip the pitta. No crusts to chew so that’s yet another hurdle out of the way. This food isn’t dumbed down for children but you will find that they will love to eat just the same dishes as mum and dad; and mum and dad will love that the kids are eating! Good for most folks with allergies, as well.
Hummus Bros is keen to stress its eco-friendly philosophy but you won’t become a regular here for that reason. You’ll return for the food.
88 Wardour Street, Soho, London W1F 0TJ
Phone: 020 7734 1311
Victoria House, 37-63 Southampton Row, London WC1B 4DA
Phone: 020 7404 7079
128 Cheapside, London EC2V 6BT
Phone: 020 7726 8011
Visit Hummus Bros here
Simpson's-in-the-Strand is one of London's most iconic venues. There are two main restaurants, The West Room and the ground floor Divan Restaurant, and it’s to the latter that we headed. It is a striking vision of oak panels, high ceilings, marquetry, and the celebrated high-backed booths along one side, known as divans, from which the restaurant takes its name. These were the chairs of choice for chess players and there are still mementoes throughout Simpsons to remind the visitor of that unique association.
I couldn’t have written this review a few years ago. It was only in 1984 that Simpson's dropped its rule forbidding women from using the panelled street-level dining-room. Before that date, ladies were asked to use the dining room on the floor above. It still has a comfortably masculine ambiance. The dark upholstery on the original divans, the pillars and mouldings create a scene where dark-suited gents puffing cigars would not be out of place.
In 1994 Simpson's broke with tradition and started serving breakfasts for the first time. A light menu was available, but the popular items are traditional English breakfasts. There is The Great British Breakfast as well as the Ten Deadly Sins, which consists of the above copious plateful along with four additions including fried bread, and I am convinced this should be eaten with every British fry-up. Good to find it on the Simpson’s bill of fare.
Simpson’s is famed for its traditional egg-and-bacon-based breakfast but there are other dishes here that are just as traditional. Smoked haddock kedgeree was a regular under the lid of the Victorian sideboard’s chafing dishes. It seems to have fallen from grace with restaurants and, indeed, at home. The Simpson’s version is the best I have had for many a long reviewing year. It takes a degree of skill and foreplanning to present the early-morning guest with such a well-textured example of this fish dish. The grains were tender rather than being puddingy, as is sadly often the case. It had the appropriate flavour of aromatic Madras curry powder which also supplied the golden colour from its turmeric. It’s an unctuous and creamy concoction and just as every kedgeree lover would hope.
My companion was tempted by an eclectic dish of a stack of Scottish pancakes with fried bananas, maple syrup and mascarpone. The pancakes were fluffy and the fruit rich, soft and decadently sweet from the amber syrup. A dish that gave a delicious nod to an era when the pink on the map was predominant, and the sun never set on the Empire.
A reviewer cannot live by omega-3-rich breakfast goods alone, so I also ordered some pastries to help down the cups of breakfast tea. These dainties are made to nibble while perusing the morning newspapers (supplied). This isn’t a venue for just stoking up with calories. Yes, there is plenty here to delight those who crave yoghurt and cereals but I would suggest you bring a hearty appetite and indulge. No need to bolt your breakfast; sit back and absorb all that this unique restaurant has to offer. Simpson’s is, sadly, one of the last of a dying breed. I for one hope that we have the opportunity to return to enjoy real luxury that is maintained only by a periodic dust, long into the future. It shouldn’t have a major refurbishment or refit. It shouldn’t be tinkered with. It’s a gem with its own very timeless character and it’s that as much as the food on offer that will assure its continued success.
Grand Divan Restaurant opening times:
Breakfast: Mon to Fri: 7.15am - 10.30am
Lunch: Monday to Saturday: 12.15pm - 2.45pm
Sun: 12.15pm all day
Dinner: Monday to Saturday: 5.45pm - 10.45pm
100 Strand, London WC2R 0EW
Phone: 020 7836 9112
Visit Simpson’s-in-the-Strand here
Every catering company or supermarket has its range of Christmas fare, and it was at their recent presentation that I was introduced to the non-coffee goods that will be available from Carluccio’s for the festive season. One felt wafted to a very classy dinner party in Tuscany or Naples or Rome. Perhaps, in reality, not exactly a dinner party but rather more a picnic with posh props. One had the chance to admire the exquisite packaging as well as graze on the contents and sample the specialities.
Well, logic runs that if the deli side of the Carluccio’s empire has such high standards then perhaps the restaurants might also reflect some of that epicurean polish, so we were bound to investigate. Carluccio’s Richmond was our target and it couldn’t be a more convenient location, just across from the Station.
Carluccio’s has felt the rage of riots in Ealing, and a slight timidity on behalf of the diners in other London locations. Tales of restaurants being raided by looters has often kept people at home and that is indeed a shame. We should surely be supporting businesses on our high streets. Small independent restaurants in particular, but even chains like Carluccio’s, employ ordinary working folk.
The manager explained that there had been a slight drop in numbers due to the threat of thuggish behaviour, although Richmond escaped almost unscathed. Despite this assertion we found the restaurant almost full of those who seemed to be regulars. This is a town with a good number of convincing eateries, so these locals were evidently in the know.
We arrived around 7 on a warm and sticky evening and there were a few families with youngsters finishing their meals. Several couples were taking advantage of the outside seating area, but we chose a table by the window in order to people-watch and feel thoroughly Italian.
The menu isn’t huge but it offers classic dishes to suit every taste. There are lots of starters and small dishes to get one into a Latin mood: Parmesan chunks served with aged balsamic vinegar to dip; Focaccia; Pasta Fritta – pasta "crisps" with herbs and sea salt; olives; Bruschetta - fresh ripe tomatoes with oregano, basil leaves, roasted peppers and extra virgin olive oil on garlicky Italian bread; Pâté Di Fegatini Di Pollo – smooth chicken liver pâté, toasted Tuscan bread and cornichons. We wanted a little nibble of an overview so ordered Antipasto Massimo to share – Focaccia, Napoli and Milano salami, roast ham, stuffed chicken, green bean salad, caponata, roast vegetables, and olives. This is a visual stunner and it serves as a tasting platter for the deli goods on offer from the shelves by the door. The best kind of advertising, if you ask me.
No surprise that Carluccio’s has a raft of pasta dishes, and Linguine Ai Frutti Di Mare – linguine pasta with squid, mussels, clams and prawns with garlic, herbs and chilli – will be my main dish on my return. But I was craving a simple and unfussy main meal and chose Milanese Di Pollo – flattened chicken breast, breadcrumbed and fried, served with a garnish of green salad. This was far more substantial than the versions I have encountered in other Italian restaurants. A whole chicken breast, which was thick and moist. It had been flattened till it was half the size of a dinner plate, so come with an appetite if you want to stand any chance of managing this acreage of poultry. Nothing mucked about with here, it’s just exactly what it says on the menu. Delicious and natural with well-dressed leaves.
My guest ordered Saltimbocca – pork escalope wrapped in Parma ham, pan-fried with sage and white wine, with sautéed potatoes. This is a traditional dish and straightforwardly full-flavoured, with a light sauce. The included potatoes had not been tinkered with and the courgettes my peckish companion requested were hardly necessary, although they added a buttery note of vibrant green hue. Nothing added to mask fresh flavours.
I can seldom manage a whole dessert, but my many reviewing guests do me proud by bringing their hollow legs and allowing me to enjoy just a corner of their afters. This evening was no exception, with the man across the table savouring the very prospect of a sweet treat. Meringa Con Panna Al Frutto Della Passione – raspberry meringue with a passionfruit cream and fresh raspberries – was his pud. Think Eton Mess and you will have the picture. The ratio of cream to crisp meringue made this a comforting dessert rather than it being teeth-achingly sweet when too much meringue is used.
We finished with espresso and Biscotti - a plate of artisan biscuits from Italy, some of which reminded me of those I had enjoyed at the Christmas presentation. Cantucci from Tuscany, Masserini from Piemonte and Carluccio's hazelnut shortbread. It’s amazing how one can find just that little space than needs to be filled!
Antonio Carluccio is a true ambassador of Italian food. The chain bears his name but your admiration for the man isn’t the reason you will return. It’s solid and sensible food that garners a loyal following.
Monday to Friday: 8am - 11pm
Saturday: 9am - 11pm
Sunday: 9am - 10.30pm
31-35 Kew Road, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 2NQ
Phone: 020 8940 5037
Fax: 020 8332 1307
Visit Carluccio’s here
During the Second World War, the strength of the Dorchester’s concrete construction gave the hotel the reputation of being one the safest buildings in town. Winston Churchill stayed in the hotel, and General Dwight D. Eisenhower took a suite on the first floor, now the Eisenhower Suite.
The hotel closed for a couple of years in the 1980s. Some areas were showing their age and it needed an injection of technology and amenity. The Dorchester has, however, maintained some public areas that offer that opulence of another age, sporting characteristics that we all crave but which are so often lost with unsympathetic refits.
Its location has, no doubt, helped with its prestigious reputation. It’s found on Park Lane in Mayfair, overlooking Hyde Park. Not a bad address, but every hotelier knows that guests will not return if the interior doesn’t match the location, and if service and customer care fall short. There is plenty of competition out there but The Dorchester has maintained its creditable position.
The imposing facade is softened by thoughtful planting, presenting the guest with a veritable cascade of flower and foliage, but the real Dorchester treasures are found the other side of the revolving doors with polished brass trim. It’s the striking Promenade which, for me at least, is the epitome of timeless charm.
The Promenade is a comfy space, a vision of old gold and architectural features that transport one back to a genteel era when potted palms were the norm and one had plenty of staff to polish the silver, and the butler wore a morning suit.
OK, so not many of us have maids and footmen but we can borrow a little of the Dorchester’s luxury every time we visit. It’s a big and sumptuous hotel but it’s not intimidating. Every guest is made to feel at home – like they belong and most importantly, like they are special.
It was an early morning treat for us – breakfast at a cosy side table in the Promenade. Crisp linen, gleaming cutlery as one would expect, and a stand that would soon be garnished with a plate of croissants, pains au chocolat, Danish pastries and muffins. All of these are made at the Dorchester so you’ll know they are fresh. Small dainties with amber shine. Almost too good to eat... almost.
The Dorchester Bacon Buttie was reassuring and intriguing. It would seem an oxymoron: one of the smartest hotels in London offering butties. Well, yes indeed and it was, just as one would hope, a memorable creation with sweet cured bacon, belly pork and a fried egg served on focaccia. In truth this was such a tower of food that the top segment of bread was presented leaning on the side of the sandwich. This wasn’t a light breakfast option but it was somewhat more interesting than the traditional British breakfast which, although a favourite, can be had almost everywhere.
The belly pork was a delicious departure from a regular breakfast sandwich. It was sweet, flavourful and with the correct and comforting ratio of meat to creamy fat. That fat is key to the success of the dish. The condiments were, however, traditional: tomato ketchup and brown sauce. Diners will have a strongly-held preference for one or the other and that’s as it should be, but anyway I think there is a law against smearing both; if there isn’t there should be.
The Dorchester does have a breakfast menu of healthy Bircher muesli, cereals or fruit salad for those who treat their bodies like temples – although I did notice a miniature jar of very adult chocolate spread to help down the healthy five-seeded wholemeal bread. Wholemeal toast and carrot and courgette muffins might well be my choice on a future visit.
Tea is an essential part of any English breakfast and we enjoyed a pot or two of the speciality teas from Harney and Sons, including The Dorchester Blend, a light and refreshing brew that was a delicate foil for the richness of both bacon and pork, and the sticky moreishness of those little pastries.
The Dorchester will not disappoint. It’s been the regular home-from-home for many a celebrity and fatigued businessman, and increasingly for those of us who just periodically like to indulge in the finer things in life. It’s not the cheapest of hotels but it remains the spot that offers predictable quality and a particular ambiance that is hard to replicate – the place for an accessible and memorable treat at any time of the day.
Park Lane, London W1K 1QA
Phone: 020 7629 8888
Reservations: 020 7317 6500
Fax: 020 7629 8080
Visit the Dorchester here
The name comes from the stamp, or more accurately some prints of that philatelic classic. It wasn’t a long-lived symbol of Victorian communication but it was a trail-blazer, and the eponymous restaurant might well become just that for the culinary scene in this area. Tony Ho and his two partners have 3 life-times worth of experience in opening restaurants, so longevity can reasonably be assured.
The facade is in fact quite muted: a vision of charcoal grey and simple frosted windows. Those windows do hide the interior somewhat, but I rather favour the anonymity and those windows could become a trade-mark for future restaurants – well, I can imagine that anything this good is bound to become a small and classy chain.
There were a couple of tables outside and those were already occupied by diners enjoying a glass of British fizz chosen from the quite remarkable wine list, in fact a chunky catalogue offering many noteworthy wines, almost all by the glass. Tony Ho has a passion for wine, and that’s proving to be an asset now that he has his own establishment.
One enters to find that mysterious interior is in fact contemporary and welcoming. A small lounge area has become popular for pre-meal drinks, and for leisurely coffees after what is sure to be a copious and full-on feed. Hospitality is generous here and one is bound to linger. Tony explained that they wanted to create a home-from-home for their guests – the foodie equivalent of the old-fashioned pub for the drinking fraternity. A place to bring the family for Sunday lunch (soon to be reviewed here).
The décor is tasteful and unfussy with aubergine and white walls which sport not only those Penny Blacks but other pop-art prints and a rather rude Salvador Dali. (Sit your granny under that and she will never notice, although she will wonder why everyone is smiling at her.) Crisp white linen reinforces the impression that this is probably going to be a fine dining restaurant – traditional food but a high-end experience.
I would describe the menu as British, comforting, vibrant and inspiring. It’s not retro but it is definitely traditional. The ingredients are fresh and seasonal, and showcase the best from these shores and inland as well. Favourite and simple dishes, and some innovations.
It was a hot evening so a salad was on the cards for this sticky reviewer. Ham, goat’s cheese and peaches garnished with mixed leaves was a substantial plateful. The ham was hand carved, moist and delicious, the cheese tangy and the peaches ripe, sweet and summery. A flavourful introduction to the high standards of both presentation and style.
My guest chose Potted Devon shrimps, watercress, and wholemeal toast. The shrimps had the real taste of the sea. The recipient of this bounty was born and bred on the coast and he proclaimed this seafood dish to be as good as his childhood memories of Sunday teatime. A must-try whenever it’s on the menu.
Toad in the Hole was my main course. This isn’t a dish with which to be cheffy. Real toads and a batter made with crushed Mongolian blue wheat flour isn’t the way to go when preparing such a British standard. The reality at Penny Black was just what you would hope to find: an individual pud with three well-seasoned and meaty bangers, a garnish of lightly cooked carrots and broccoli, and gravy on the side. I would describe this as “right” and that’s just how it should be.
The Beef Wellington here is already a signature dish and it’s easy to see why. This was a manly meal of tender and pink-tinged meat encased in flaky pastry. This is the posh face of standard British cuisine. It is, in my experience, a difficult dish to do well at home and one best left to the experts. Meat isn’t cheap and you don’t want to ruin it so come to Penny Black instead. My guest was glowing with replete satisfaction... but he still had space for dessert.
What could be more comforting than Bread and Butter Pudding? It was a regular highlight for dinner at grandma’s. It’s an economic dessert and a comforting stunner. It should be custardy and unctuous and piping hot; this one ticked all the boxes.
Penny Black will stick longer than the stamp ever did. One can try and analyse the reasons it will, but it’s probably enough to say that it’s quite simply everything a good British restaurant should be. It has already attracted followers who first came out of curiosity, but who return because the food and the service will be predictably good.
Tuesday to Saturday: 12 noon - 3pm Lunch, 6pm - 11pm Dinner
Sunday: 12 noon - 10:30pm Lunch and Dinner
Penny Black Restaurant
212 Fulham Road, Chelsea, London SW10 9PJ
Phone: 0845 838 8998
Visit Penny Black here
The restaurant graces a corner of a plot housing the W Hotel, the latest in Soho. Its entrance is contemporary and anonymous and suggests nothing of the ambiance behind the glass.
Spice Market flows over two floors and is just as contemporary as the exterior, but rich and warm with hints of exotica. The unique design allows for intimate dinners but equally offers convivial space for larger groups. There is a private dining room, The Globe Room, which can accommodate up to 40 guests for dinner or lunch or 60 for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. There are sliding screens to offer privacy but those are more often left open so that the company can take advantage of the general buzz.
The name Spice Market is said to come from the walls of jars and bottles which give the effect of an Asian food store. These walls offer colour and vibrancy in a way that no watercolour could do. The open kitchens add movement and excitement. Perhaps Spice Market will remind travellers of the night markets of South East Asia – all their booths with chans clattering on metal and tantalising perfumes wafting on the evening air.
OK, so perhaps that’s an over-romantic description of the restaurant but it does give the impression of a high-end and energetic dining destination; it will be the food and perhaps the extensive wine list that will assure your return. The 600 or so wok lamps will grab your attention but so will the Ginger Margarita. (Don’t miss this one: the ginger salt is a revelation.)
Black Pepper Shrimp garnished with delicately dehydrated pineapple was punchy and showed off the eponymous spice. The cubes of fruit were a sweet confection of concentrated flavour and a marvellous foil to the powerful seafood.
Spiced Chicken Samosas with a coriander and yoghurt dip were a deviation from the classic Indian samosa typically stuffed with a potato or lamb mixture. The Spice Market interpretations were lighter than the original, with crisp pastry encasing a well-balanced filling.
Salmon Sashimi was a triumph. I found this to have far more character than the traditional cold version found in Japanese restaurants. Warm crunchy rice constituted the base and the chipotle pepper emulsion and suspicion of spring onion completed this preparation. A signature dish if ever there was one.
Crab Dumplings garnished with sugarsnap peas and a sauce of aromatic spices was perhaps my favourite of the entire menu. The dumplings were light and flavourful and extremely moreish. A thoughtful adaptation of a dim sum standard.
Mango Salad with cherry tomatoes and crystallised tamarind was a substantial plateful, the sweet fruit puree being spiked by the acidity of the tomatoes and astringence of the tamarind.
Thai Jewels and Fruits with crushed coconut ice is a traditional South-east Asian dessert. It’s a cooling end to a spicy meal, although the coconut does have its own delicate richness. Very attractive; but Chocolate and Vietnamese Coffee Tart with a scoop of condensed milk ice cream was memorable and should be your pud of choice should you be unfortunate enough only to have the time or interior space left to try just one. The tart was dark, decadent and thoroughly adult but it was almost eclipsed by that ice cream.
Many a self-important “foodie” has scoffed at condensed milk. It perhaps smacks of store cupboards in the 1960s. Every house seemed to own a can of this thick and syrupy delight but I can only ever remember it being used as a regular milk substitute in an emergency or (and here the untutored will cringe) spread on bread as an instant and sugary snack.
It has a distinct flavour that bears no resemblance to either milk or cream. It is used in desserts all over the East and adds richness as well as flavour to all manner of sweets. The ice cream at Spice Market showcases this underrated ingredient to great advantage. A worthy partner for both coffee and dark chocolate.
Spice Market ticks so many boxes. Its location is convenient. The decor is remarkable. The food is confident and different. Don’t expect these dishes to resemble those found at the Painted San Pan on the high street. A meal here is an event and one that I can highly recommend. I look forward to a return visit. I hear they do a very nice breakfast with an Asian slant.
7:00 am – 11:00 am Monday-Friday
8:00 am – 11:30 am Saturday-Sunday
Lunch - Dinner:
12:00 noon – 11:00 pm Sunday-Wednesday
12:00 noon – 11:30 pm Thursday-Saturday
12:00 noon – 12:00 midnight Monday-Sunday
Spice Market London
10 Wardour St, London W1D 6QF
Phone: +44 207 758 1088
Fax: +44 207 758 1080
Visit Spice Market here
So the truth is out. I only make a cooked breakfast at weekends or when we have friends staying over. A traditional English fried breakfast is popular for very good reasons: it’s hearty, comforting and delicious. It has endured as a favourite with both tourists, who are mostly under the misapprehension that we eat this every morning, and us locals who wish that we could.
But there are other cooked breakfasts that are just as delicious and make a flavoursome change. Spice Market offers a striking menu for lunch and dinner, and its breakfast bill of fare is just as imaginative and eclectic. Most of the morning guests are from the adjoining W Hotel and they come from every corner of the globe and enjoy the wide range of items on offer ...after the novelty of the great British fry-up has worn off.
Eggs of your Choice, Potato Rosti, Egg White Omelette with Herbs, Eggs Benedict, Scottish Smoked Salmon, Toasted Brioche, French Toast with Sautéed Apples, Pinhead Porridge with Raisins and Brown Sugar are some of the cooked dishes, but there is also a buffet that caters to those who can only manage a sweet pastry. Northern Europeans can graze on cheese, cold meats, smoked fish, and fruit.
All very nice and I would have been delighted to indulge along with our Continental cousins, but there were other breakfast treats that are unique to Spice Market. Cornish Crab and Egg Scramble, Smoked Paprika and Puffed Rice sounded intriguing and savoury. I couldn’t quite imagine what this was going to be. Perhaps some rubbery concoction served over a bowl of that famous cereal that snaps, crackles and pops? Surely that could not be right.
The reality was a delicate scramble laced with white crab meat. There was a hint of chilli that gave a suspicion of heat and the puffed rice was in the guise of a wafer. Lime added a spike of citrus vibrancy. A well-rounded dish that would be enticing for those looking for a brekkie with an Asian slant. It was a substantial portion, but a rugby player could always add a side of hot buttered toast.
Coconut Pancakes, Maple-Lavender Syrup and Pomelo is a lighter but equally exotic option. The small pancakes were as fluffy as one would hope and the pomelo was refreshing and summery and a foil for the rich sweetness of the maple syrup. This is an indispensible part of any American pancake breakfast but it’s important to choose a dark syrup that offers real taste rather than just sweetness. The Spice Market breakfast balances all elements. Nothing more needed than a cup of tea, although a “cuppa Joe” would be the beverage of choice for those visitors from across the Pond.
7:00 am – 11:00 am Monday-Friday
8:00 am – 11:30 am Saturday-Sunday
Lunch - Dinner:
12:00 noon – 11:00 pm Sunday-Wednesday
12:00 noon – 11:30 pm Thursday-Saturday
12:00 noon – 12:00 midnight Monday-Sunday
Spice Market London
10 Wardour St, London W1D 6QF
Phone: +44 207 758 1088
Fax: +44 207 758 1080
Visit Spice Market here
The latest addition to the Thai Square group has arrived on the Kew Road, next to the imposing Carluccio's and just a few yards from Richmond Station. It’s the former Duke of York pub but any evidence of that incarnation has been replaced by a modern façade and a light and bright interior.
It’s evident that it’s a Thai restaurant, but of the confident and contemporary variety. A few tasteful artefacts give a gentle nod towards graceful exotica, and the skylights at the rear of the restaurant will allow diners to bask in the timid British evening sunlight.
We settled ourselves just under the aforementioned roof window on a warm summer evening. The cocktail list offered us some tempting Asian options and the Lychee Martini - fresh lychee, vodka, syrup, dash of lime juice - seemed appropriate for the occasion. Pale and delicate and very much that evocative flavour of the East.
The menu is considerable, with a raft of set meals as well as a regular a la carte section. For our first starter we ordered Kanom Jeeb - Thai dim sum of minced chicken, prawn, water chestnuts, coriander root, garlic and pepper, all wrapped in wonton dough and steamed. These were mild, soft and just the sort of nibble to enjoy with that cocktail.
Tempura Soft Shell Crab was our second starter dish. These crabs are increasingly popular in restaurants of every culinary persuasion. I first encountered them in the US a couple of decades ago and I was at that time intrigued by the prospect of eating the whole crustacean. Happy to say I can now indulge in this seafood dish without running the gauntlet of US Customs and Immigration. Sweet crab meat, crunchy batter and a tangy dipping sauce make this a Thai Square signature dish.
We selected a couple of glasses of the Languedoc rosé to accompany our main dishes – a light and crisp wine that works well with robust flavours. It’s sold by the glass and it’s under a fiver, so worth considering.
Lamb Mussaman Curry is a traditional mild Muslim dish from the south of Thailand. It’s a standard on many Thai menus because it’s aromatic rather than being searingly hot, and has an appealing richness from coconut milk. The potatoes add substance and peanuts give texture. Spinach with Ginger and Garlic was the side dish, a fresh, vibrant green plateful which was an admirable foil for the curry sauce. Sticky rice is an indispensible part of any Thai meal, here served in a woven basket, a nice ethnic touch and practical: the rice remained moist for the duration of the meal.
Moo Ping - marinated barbecued pork chop served with a traditional Thai spicy sauce - is a must-try dish. The meat was deliciously charred from the grill. Real flavour but simple. The dipping sauce excited the taste buds – so vibrant that I could have enjoyed just a bowl of sticky rice drizzled with this. But to be honest I wouldn’t want to miss that pork: memorable even for those of us who don’t consider meat an indispensible part of every dining experience.
Thai Square was packed on the evening of our visit. Yes, it’s a recent opening so there are bound to be plenty of first-time-thresholders, but it’s a welcome addition to the Richmond restaurant scene. The restaurant needs to pay attention to detail to assure return custom as the competition is keen, but the menu is tempting and the prices are reasonable. I’ll be returning to try some more of the chef’s specials.
Mon-Sat 12.00 - 15.30; 18.00 - 23.00
Sun 12.00 - 15.30; 17.30 - 22.30
Thai Square Richmond
29 Kew Road, Richmond Upon Thames, Surrey TW9 2NQ
Tel: 020 8940 5253
Fax: 020 8940 4258
Visit Richmond Thai Square here
Greek Street is one of my favourite corners of London. It has the feel of a village with heaps of charm preserved from another era.
It was originally called Hogs Lane, but is thought to have been called Greek Street since 1679. It probably takes its name from a Greek church which was built in 1677 in Crown Street, just around the corner. It’s mainly the 19th century buildings that remain and they are evocative of those times. Charles Dickens used a house in Greek Street as a model for the London lodgings of Dr Manette and Lucy in his novel A Tale of Two Cities. Venetian adventurer, ladies man and author Giacomo Casanova also called this street home for a while, and the area has long been associated with risqué pleasures, although these days there are a good number of very decent restaurants to which one could safely invite one’s great aunt Matilda.
Your well-travelled auntie would love Maison Touareg for lunch (it does, however, offer vibrant entertainment on some evenings). She would recognise the restaurant as having facets reminiscent of cafés and eateries in Marrakesh: rich colours, sumptuous soft furnishings, wood and leather. Maison Touareg is exotic but still comfortable and romantic.
The restaurant occupies a corner plot with views onto those aforementioned historic streets. There are cushioned benches outside to tempt those who want to enjoy a relaxing puff of a shisha, but most visitors will head inside to enjoy simple and delicious North African fare.
If you are new to Moroccan cuisine then you might be reassured to know that there is nothing extreme on the menu. Its flavour palette relies mostly on aromatic spices rather than fiery ones. There are some dishes that are well laced with chilli but for the most part your meal will just be packed with taste.
The menu isn’t huge but it offers a true representation of dishes found in Morocco and its neighbours. We sipped on sweet mint tea while we relaxed with the menu. Do have at least one pot of the national beverage during your meal. It will put you in the mood.
We started with, naturally enough, starters. Small plates to excite the taste-buds and to get the gastric juices flowing. Samboussek – meat pastry filled with minced meat, onion, pine kernels and parsley – are miniature pasties. Lamb perfumed with a little cinnamon, light golden pastry rather than the filo that I had expected. Moreish.
Batata Harrah – spicy sautéed potatoes with red pepper, coriander, garlic, cumin and fresh chilli – is one of the spiciest dishes on the menu, cubes of potatoes with gems of glowing peppers. A grazing dish to go along with a beer, perhaps.
Labneh – strained yoghurt mixed with cucumber, garlic and fresh mint – was surprisingly rich and creamy. A cooling foil to those scrumptious spuds previously ordered.
Tagines in Moroccan cuisine are slow-cooked stews. They take their name from the cooking pot which is traditionally of terracotta with a distinctive conical lid. We chose chicken with mixed herbs, saffron and green olives. The meat was tender, although I would have liked the saffron to have been more evident. A comforting must-try dish and substantial when served with a bowl of fluffy cous cous.
Mouhalabiyeh - Damascus fragrant milk pudding, topped with pomegranate couli – is a striking dessert for all fans of Turkish Delight. It has the texture of blancmange but the flavour is truly exotic. A Lebanese classic.
Maison Touareg will be my retreat when I am in the vicinity of Greek Street. It’s a corner in which to relax and a restaurant with unfussy but tempting food. A winner for a solitary sip of sweet mint tea or a convivial meal with friends.
Maison Touareg Moroccan and Lebanese Restaurant
23-24 Greek Street,
London W1D 4DZ
Restaurant: 020 7439 1063
Reservations: 020 7734 7006
Visit Maison Touareg here
Most restaurants seem to be Cantonese. Lots of dubious buffets (I would love to find an exceptional one) and menus sporting lists of the usual suspects. One can guarantee at least a brace of gloopy and luminous sweet-and-sour dishes and probably a spring roll or two filled with what one might suspect are yesterday’s leftovers.
The Empress of Sichuan isn’t in the main drag of Gerrard Street where groups of excited European and mystified Chinese tourists throng. It’s at the west end of Lisle Street, the end farthest from Leicester Square Underground station. It occupies the former site of Taiwanese restaurant Keelung, which wasn’t around too long. It has a tastefully muted exterior and seems almost shy and looking to be anonymous.
At first sight it appears to be a rather small restaurant but it has a capacity of 120, plus another 16 in the private dining room. It has banquettes, screened nooks and secluded wings, as well as a basement with more seating. It’s a contemporary space with an impressive display of fine wines. We sat beneath a print of Cliff and the Shadows which revived memories of Soho in the 60s. Lots of warm wood and muted lights.
Sichuan cuisine is vibrant. Other restaurants might offer a couple of dishes from that repertoire and will think themselves daring. The Empress of Sichuan, however, has an extensive bill of fare and it’s predominantly Sichuanese. Spice is the key. Red chilli and Sichuan pepper are used in great quantities and to good effect. It’s not about heat but flavour. The Sichuan pepper lends a soft but mouth-numbing and instantly recognisable note – almost perfumed and an indispensable ingredient in so many dishes.
Be bold. Take advice from the knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff and try some of the large array of flavourful dishes. We ordered Pigs’ Ears with Chilli Oil. These were bacon-thin slices, rather than large floppy lugs drooping over the edge of the plate. Think comforting and gelatinous texture, and mouth-filling and warming chilli. Moreish.
The must-try starter is Marinated Lamb Skewer. The grilled meat was tender, moist and delicate, and aromatically delicious. This must be a signature small plate and well worth ordering. This cuisine is best enjoyed with friends: choose a selection of dishes to share, taste a little of this and a bite of that to create a striking meal.
My guest was tempted by some Aromatic Duck. Yes, this one is ubiquitous on Chinese menus but it’s popular because it’s a convivial and theatrical dish. Done well, it’s an event in its own right. Your server will present your portion of duck and deftly shred it before your very eyes. There will be the usual garnishes and all to be wrapped in steamed pancakes.
Spicy Aubergine with Minced Pork was the first of our main dishes. The meat is used here almost as a condiment. The vegetable is the star with its dressing of sweet garlic, bathed in plenty of silky sauce, and it was awarded one chilli’s worth of warning on the menu. A must-try dish if ever there was one.
We were persuaded by the Lobster with Red Chilli. This had the two-chilli warning on the menu but it was just gloriously rich and warming, and far from the searing heat that one might have expected ...or dreaded. A spectacular presentation and the only thing lacking was a hunk of French bread. Yes, we had ample rice but that amazing dish somehow needed a dipping accompaniment to soak up all those very red juices. A shame to waste any.
The Empress of Sichuan presented us with outstanding food. The staff were a considerable cut above those in most other Chinese restaurants. The whole experience was charming and I venture to say that this restaurant should have a long and secure future. I trust they will maintain their standards of both food and staff. Perhaps we will drop by from time to time just to check. A responsibility that I will undertake with great pleasure.
Monday - Wednesday 12pm to 10.45pm
Thursday - Sunday 12pm to 11.15pm
Empress of Sichuan
6 Lisle Street, Chinatown, London WC2H 7BG
Telephone: 020 7734 8128
Visit Empress of Sichuan here
The original company was founded in 1982 by James Sherwood, an American with impeccable taste and vision. He had acquired two of the original carriages at auction in 1977, when the celebrated Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits (founded in 1872 in Belgium) withdrew from the Orient Express service. James spent a total of $16 million buying 35 sleeper, restaurant and Pullman carriages, and on 25 May 1982 the first London-Venice service was inaugurated.
The lunch tour through Kent mainly features former Brighton Belle Pullman coaches. Usually operating from a classy corner of Victoria Station in London, specials run throughout the south of England to historic sites, and on this day to Whitstable.
Your initial view of the train heightens the sense of anticipation. In truth you notice your fellow passengers before you get much of a peek at the train itself, dressed in their finest and already entering into the spirit of the affair. Many a snap would be taken with loved ones and train staff dressed in magnificent crisp white uniforms. One might even spot a flirting flapper or a fascinating thirties ‘Falstaff’ quaffing fizz, before one boards the train.
And what a train. These are the British Pullman carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express gleaming in umber and cream livery, with every carriage individually displaying its hand-painted name and crest. One is transported back in time to a gentler age when one could travel, if one wasn’t a victim of the between-wars depression, in luxury. Your steward will show you to your reserved seat in one of eleven carriages, each one a homage to craftsmanship.
Every carriage is different, with its own character, upholstery and fittings (your derriere will grace real furniture), and the changes in seating configuration add to the interest as one wanders the length of the train. Plush upholstery is surrounded by marquetry, reflecting amber light from brass sconces and shaded lamps. I would imagine that the ambiance would be truly romantic at dinner on dark winter evenings, when those muted lights would come into their own. Everything has been painstakingly restored to its original glory.
Passengers are actively encouraged to visit all parts of the train to take full advantage of the experience. One is seated in either ‘coupés’ - small compartments seating up to four people - or in the open car, mostly at intimate tables for two, although there are a limited number of single tables and of tables for three.
The service is calming and unrushed. We departed at 11.45, sipped champagne and nibbled canapés as we joggled sedately out of Victoria. Settled back into our cosy seats we admired the etched glasses and cutlery, a table setting the like of which one seldom finds these days. Heavy silver-ware gave an air of opulence. Not stuffy, self-aware or posing, this was old-fashioned but accessible charm.
I am a woman of ‘a certain age’ and had expected that all passengers would be my vintage or older. There were whole carriages, however, that were filled with those in their late twenties and thirties. These trips seem to appeal to all adults with an appreciation of the finer things in life. A group of young thespians (they were celebrating a birthday next-door-but-one) amused all who passed through their carriage. Lots of couples were marking special events: Andy was enjoying a surprise birthday treat with his wife; a group of ladies were having a Hen party ...which they will actually remember.
Service is unsurprisingly impeccable. Arthur and Agatha anticipated every whim. The company evidently chooses their staff carefully. Jeff Monk, The Train Manager, is a marvellous ambassador. His training in hospitality (OK, so he learnt his trade in the Navy and that’s not exactly the leisure industry) has served him well. He was in fact a professional chef and started his career on trains in mainland Europe when he left the sea. As they would only use French chefs (sad to say that prejudice is still thriving) Jeff took a ‘front-of-house’ role. A man with dedication, pride and a ready smile.
Preparing food on the move is always a challenge. Had this been anything other than the British Pullman carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express I would have expected, and probably been satisfied with, a picnic or a plastic box, but the linen-laid table had raised my expectations. Matthew Smith has been the Executive Head Chef for the British Pullman and Northern Belle since 2002, and in that time has created menus fit for the great and the good.
Matthew has always wanted a career in the kitchen. He was making pancakes at the age of six. He has worked at Claridges Hotel, Ritz Casino and the Institute of Directors, so he is well used to luxury – that is to say he has a background in presenting food in luxury restaurants. His kitchen on the British Pullman is probably a bit snugger than at Claridges. It’s a 4.5m by 1.8m vision of stainless steel. He says his main worry isn’t the space but rather guests who want a particular food. He doesn’t have access to a full larder and can’t just jump off the train to buy that ingredient.
Matthew is ably assisted by Jon Kohout, and a central kitchen where the initial preparation is carried out. They still cook all dishes fresh in the galley but at least the spuds are peeled in advance. Matthew says "I love being part of making someone's special occasion extraordinary…”
We tasted Matthew’s handiwork at lunch. Wild River Trout and Green Peppercorn Terrine was deliciously fresh and light. Fricassee of free-range Chicken stuffed with Mushroom Duxelle was moist and well-seasoned. The potatoes served alongside were outstanding. Matthew explained that they are simmered long and slow to give a buttery texture whilst still holding their shape.
Good to find a British cheeseboard. In fact the menu as a whole reflected the seasonal best that these Isles have to offer – simple and local ingredients treated with respect. The bill of fare, that would have been appreciated just as much in the 1930s as it was last week, was a testament to the philosophy that taste transcends trend.
I mentioned Whitstable. We had a leg-stretching opportunity when we reached that seaside town. A bank of iced and lemon-garnished oysters was waiting for us on the platform, along with another glass of champagne and a trad-jazz band. How apt, how “right”! Many a Charleston was Charlestoned and several Black Bottoms were bounced before we returned to our seats for a dessert of fresh Strawberries and Poppy Seed Stack and a brace of coffees.
Lunch aboard the British Pullman carriages of the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express isn’t cheap but it’s truly value for money. It’s more than sustenance on the move. It’s an iconic venue with moving scenery; it’s a high-end restaurant with remarkable pedigree. It’s the weaver of treasured memories that will be personal and unique, and that, as they say, is priceless.
Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Ltd
20 Upper Ground, LONDON SE1 9PF
Email (UK): firstname.lastname@example.org
Reservations (UK): 0845 217 0799 or 0207 921 4007
Opening hours: 8:30am-6:00pm, Mon-Fri
Visit Orient Express here
It’s been a while since I had a steak. My dining companions will very often choose a hunk of meat, where I’ll go for a rather exotic or cheffy entrée. But I do periodically crave a good steak. It’s almost a comfort food. High-end admittedly but comforting nevertheless.
All steaks and indeed steakhouses are not created equal. There are those fun establishments which boast the biggest this or the thickest that, and those aforementioned chunks of meat garnished with gloopy and processed sauces laced with chilli, vinegar or even coffee. It takes a confident chain to offer a simple meal that showcases the main ingredient rather than themed decor and plates groaning under the weight of half-cows.
Yes, Black and Blue is a small chain of steak restaurants but let’s not be sniffy about that. The proof of the steak is in the eating and you will hear no complaints from this reviewer. Nick Hill and Alan Bacon decided there was a >void in the restaurant market for a chain of quality steak houses, smart but casual. Steaks cooked to order and served with fries, salad and a choice of sauces is the Black and Blue mainstay, although they do have other meats and seafood as well as composed salads on their menu. But it’s the steak that will ensure return visits.
We visited the King’s Road restaurant. It’s just changed its name from Picasso: the locals were a little confused when the tea was replaced by T-bone, but now, even after just a few weeks, the restaurant has garnered a loyal following. The booth across the aisle from us was the cosy nook for the most celebrated BBC war correspondent. Nice to know the world is at peace. Our own booth was bathed in dappled light from the huge and contemporary glass roof. The gentle pounding of heavy rain on that window reminded us that it was indeed summer.
Black and Blue is light and airy with walls displaying picassoesque canvases. Marble tables laid with linen serviettes gave that sense of polished yet comfy European charm. Our fellow diners included graceful and aristocratic older ladies, American tourists who seemed relieved to find to unfussy red meat, a small family with a 2 year old who charmed both us and the staff. A restaurant for a wide spectrum of food lovers.
Crayfish and Guacamole Salad with Crème Fraîche was my light starter. Plenty of seafood and an attractive presentation. Something of an innovation, and more interesting than the retro prawn cocktail that has enjoyed something of a revival of late.
Tortilla Chips with Warm Artichoke & Spinach Dip was my companion’s choice. A substantial drift of chips was impressive but the dip itself was not a thing of beauty, though that’s true of many a delicious dip. I think that perhaps the word ‘cheese’ could be added to the description as it’s evidently a key ingredient.
I ordered a medium rare Sirloin. It’s the smaller of the cuts on offer but substantial. The steak was moist and glossy with a garnish of fries and rocket. A huge bowl of house salad also arrived. Nick and Alan have a favourite restaurant in Courchevel and they have incorporated that establishment’s signature salad of lettuce, walnuts and grated Emmental cheese, but there is a secret dressing.
Ribeye was my guest’s choice. And he was equally as pleased with his order as I was with mine. I think the word to describe both meals is “right”. Simple steak dinners but well presented and care taken with the meat. It’s sourced from 27 farms in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The meat is from cattle that are a cross between Aberdeen Angus, Limousin and Charolais. Black and Blue's steaks are stored in climate-controlled facilities, and kept in the Dry Aging Room for 28-35 days.
New York Cheesecake was our shared dessert along with a glass of chilled Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc, La Playa, Chile. Once again an uncomplicated course but correct and appropriate, and just as you would hope for in this genre of restaurant. I look forward to trying a classic burger at another one of the Black and Blue venues in the near future. I am expecting a high standard.
12:00 - 23:00 Sunday - Thursday
12:00 - 23:30 Friday & Saturday
Black and Blue
127 King's Road,
London, SW3 4PW
Phone: 020 7351 1661
Visit Black and Blue here
It's family time. We gather a group of friends and other loved ones for a convivial few hours of chatter and fine food. I remember that there was always music playing in the background as my mum would prepare the meal. In those days the music consisted of the current “hit parade” hits. Yes, we are talking about the ‘50s and ‘60s. And last Sunday was a re-run of those days in every regard...but the fine food was Thai and the venue was Mango Tree and a lot more impressive than my parent’s kitchen.
Mango Tree in Belgravia is a long way from the original branch back in Bangkok but it’s very close to Buckingham Palace, Victoria Station and Sloan Square Underground. You might to be rubbing shoulders with the folks from the Big House but your fellow diners are likely to be regulars who appreciate this smart restaurant with its memorable dishes.
The restaurant is a vision of warm red-brown teak. The tables are laid with silver chargers giving the air of a sumptuous eatery with ethnic hints. Mango tree is confident in its enviable position as one of the most respected of Thai restaurants in London. It’s a contemporary space yet unmistakably exotic.
I wanted a light starter for my meal and so I chose Meung Cum. This is traditional Thai snack which is rather like vegetarian wraps. Betel nut leaves are smeared with a tamarind sauce. That base is then sprinkled with peanuts, delicate cubes of lime, ginger in tiny matching cubes, and chilli in vibrant red rings, red onion thinly chopped, golden toasted coconut and tiny dried shrimp. All served on a striking stand of components ready for each guest to role their own leafy morsel.
Mango Tree offers various menus and offers throughout the year. They have a Thai Salad Festival running till the end of the month (June 2011) and my guest took advantage of the grilled meat salad with its vibrant kebabs of chicken, beef and pork. A hearty plateful but it was a salad so my companion felt noble and healthy. I enjoyed a prawn tempura salad with a creamy dressing. The generous dish would be ideal for those who are anxious about spice.
Desserts are always a pleasure at Mango Tree. Thai cuisine offers a tantalising selection of fruit jellies and they are well worth trying. This restaurant lists Wun kra-ti mamuang - Fresh mango and coconut jellies set with agar agar. They make a visual impact of orange and white symmetry. The platter was reminiscent of a fruity Toblerone. Small peaks of perfumed sweetness. My guest was tempted by the Cake Ma-now - Lychee and lime flavoured cheese cake with lychee jelly. This was a light and moussey confection which was indeed enhanced by the jelly which was laced with shreds of ginger.
Mango Tree has several menus to suit both time and taste. A must try from the Al a Cart menu is the Massaman Gae - Massaman curry with lamb shank. The vegetarian menu has lots to entice those who are often given a raw and bland bill of fare at other establishments. I would suggest Gaeng Kiew Wan Pak - Thai pea aubergines with mixed vegetables and green curry as a full-on taste experience.
I visit some of the best restaurants the capital has to offer. There are those I enjoy and others that rank on my list of favourites. Mango Tree is the latter. Its staff are attentive and charming. They understand the food they serve and are always ready with informed advice. Thai food is more popular than ever but I, at least, am happy to have some experts on hand to guide me through those still unfamiliar dishes. Sunday lunch at Mango Tree was a delicious melange of comforting tradition and fabulous food. This could become a regular event.
Pre Theatre menu allows early diners to take advantage of great value meals: 2 courses £17 or 3 courses £22 from 6 - 7pm seating
Sunday special menu has lunch 3 courses £17.00 and dinner 3 courses £20.00
With Mango tree Fizz cocktail add £5.00. On Sunday from 12:00pm – 4:00pm and 6:00pm – 9:30pm
Monday - Wednesday: 12.00 noon - 3.00pm and 6.00pm - 11.00pm
Thursday - Saturday: 12.00 noon - 3.00pm and 6.00pm - 11.30pm
London Asian restaurant review: Mango Tree
46 Grosvenor Place, London SW1X 7EQ
Phone: 020 7823 1888
Fax: 020 7838 9275
Visit Mango Tree here
A cold Sunday afternoon found us at the reception of The Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel. It offered a warm welcome, with a striking Artur Bual mural behind the desk and more large canvasses by the same Portuguese artist in the lounge area. This is after all a Portuguese-run hotel and there are subtle nuances scattered throughout its accessible opulence. It’s a new hotel so it was as expected scuffless and pristine, but nevertheless the first impression is of polished comfort.
I never tire of hotel stays but not all hotels are created equal. Even some five-star hotels lack lustre and impact so I am always a bit wary of four-star lodgings. No need to worry about resting your weary head at Pestana. Our room was one that I would love to replicate in our own home. That isn’t my usual sentiment; it’s more often an appreciation of the grandeur of the drapes, gratitude for the complementary fluffy slippers, and admiration for the soon-to-be-stolen bathroom toiletries.
Well, Pestana has very acceptable bath products. OK, so I didn’t find any slippers and I can’t remember the curtains, but the room had contemporary and high-end impact writ large. Lamps and shades to covet, a bed-head of gargantuan proportions and a white chaise-longue that would not look out of place as an extra in a James Bond flick. The window onto the bathroom had a much-appreciated blind and those facilities were well appointed. A full bath as well as a walk-in shower tempted me to linger in steamy contentment.
This hotel ticks all the boxes for comfort but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. I shared the bathroom with a tiara-toting bulldog. Not a real one but she (I guess it was a girl bulldog) was bidding visitors a very British "Hiya". The red Routemaster bus in the bedroom prompted another wry smile from these two reviewers who are also the authors of a book about the aforementioned much-loved mode of London transport.
The ground-floor Atlantico restaurant beckoned for our evening meal. The manager, Stefano, isn’t exactly Portuguese but neither is the menu. It’s International cuisine and that phrase will send shudders through most food lovers. It revives memories of steak and chips, dry roast chicken and dubious egg mayo salad. Yes, Atlantico has an international menu but it’s based on fresh seasonal produce and imagination, and there are indeed a couple of Portuguese specialities.
The resident expert mixologist, Alex, concocted his famous Piri Piri spiced cocktail which I can recommend for those who enjoy robust flavours. It’s not searingly hot but rather aromatic and pleasantly warming. An unwinding tipple while we meandered through the bill of fare.
There is a Tapas table offering platters of cheeses and meats and salads. Roast dinners are also on offer, but we chose from the à la carte dishes. Carpaccio of octopus with Mache salad, breakfast radish and aged parmesan was my light starter. The seafood was delicate and the radish added a delightful peppery note. Cheese isn’t usual with octopus but it acted as a good and slightly tangy counterpoint to the other flavours.
Ham hock, Chorizo terrine, Saffron aioli and toasted walnut bread was my guest’s first dish. The meat was chunky and well-seasoned. The bread was full of the eponymous nuts and gave texture as well as flavour to the terrine.
Confit Bacalhau with crushed ratte potatoes, mussels and spicy salsa took the fancy of my companion and he was impressed. Bacalhau is salt cod and is usually found as thin and unappetising boards in trendy fishmongers. The Atlantico version is chunky and tender, and much more resembles its fresh sibling. It has a distinct flavour rather than being simply salty.
Franguinho Piri Piri is spatchcock Poussin in piri piri sauce served with Parmentier potatoes and wilted baby spinach, and is the menu’s nod to Portugal. The chicken was moist with a spice glaze that was vibrant with piri piri spice mirroring that I had already enjoyed in Alex’s cocktail. A simple dish but well worth ordering. The cubes of potatoes were crunchy around their chiselled edges but were soft and fluffy inside. My dessert was also Portuguese: Arroz Doce - vanilla rice pudding. Almost every culinary tradition seems to offer a rice pudding in some guise or other. The version at Atlantico was rice in its most creamy and comforting form. Old-fashioned and moreish.
We enjoyed a good night’s sleep in our classy room with views across the park. Revived, we were ready for breakfast. I was rather disappointed to find only a selection of pastries on show. Toast arrived and so did the juice and then we realised that the “real” brekkie goodies were in the adjoining wing of the restaurant. There were plates of fruit and bowls of yoghurt for those who treat their bodies as temples. Plenty of cold meats, cheese and a quiche for those like me who crave some savouries, and then there was the full-Monty station for those who have hollow legs that were not filled by the previous night’s substantial spread.
With 216 rooms, spa and Lifestyle centre, six meeting rooms to cater for events from 10 to 500 delegates, restaurant, bar and coffee shop and secure underground parking, Pestana is the hotel that suits every need. We had a marvellous city break but those delegates bringing their families to London will take advantage of its in-hotel facilities as well as its proximity to the centre of town. It might be a hotel that is technically only a four-star, but I would say it’s at the top end of that band.
London hotel review: The Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel
354 Queenstown Road, London SW8 4AE
Sat nav ref: SW8 4PP
Tel.: +44 (0) 20 7062 8000
Fax: +44 (0) 20 7978 2430
Visit Pestana Chelsea Bridge Hotel here
Yes, an ordinary Monday lunchtime and the small restaurant was buzzing. Two large parties as well as various couples and colleagues who were even this short time since the restaurant opening, have evidently become regulars. Tempo looks like a very chic European restaurant but it sounds like an Italian restaurant. Formal décor is tempered by the exuberance of the guests who enjoy not only the taste but the spirit of Italian cuisine. Tempo has a well-heeled clientele as one would expect but they are a bunch who don’t stand on ceremony. They visit to enjoy the best of food and good company.
It’s about sharing the food and the experience. Nothing stuffy about Tempo. It’s a confident establishment that seems to perfectly reflect the conviviality of its owner Henry Togna. A suave man who balances front of house efficiency with great personal charm. A well-liked and cultured entrepreneur who has the blood of the hospitality industry causing through his veins. His grandparents owned hotels as did his father. He is indeed the former owner of the iconic townhouse hotel 22 Jermyn Street which had been in his family since 1915.
Tempo might be bijou but it’s a gem of a sophisticated space. Taupe walls are contrasted by turquoise - upholstered chairs. Glass-topped marble-effect tables are buffed to a reflective shine by ever-vigilant staff. It’s the attention to detail that will always elevate Tempo from the herd. That effort to get things just right extends to the kitchen which is the domain of Chef Yoshi Yamada. No, dear reader, that isn’t a very Italian name but he is indeed an award winning Italian chef. He receives the Italian Culinary Master Chef Award from the prestigious Academia Barilla. This new award has been created to recognise the skilled chefs living abroad who have succeeded in creating exceptional and authentic Italian cuisine.
Chef Yamada spent four years cooking at top restaurants in Sorrento (the two-Michelin-starred Don Alfonso), Sardinia and Florence. He continued with Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in Chelsea and L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Tokyo before being selected to run the kitchens at Tempo. This isn’t a fusion restaurant but the presentation shows a delicacy that might be attributed to Yoshis Japanese ancestry. The menu reflects regard for seasonality, freshness and quality. It changes frequently although there are those dishes that must remain due to popular and vociferous demand.
We crunched crostini perfumed with fennel seeds as we perused the menu. My guest chose one of the already celebrated Carpaccio dishes, Scottish beef shaved into wafer thin slices of bright red hue punctuated with hazelnuts for crunch. Parmesan shavings gave an agreeable salty tang. A dish that relies on both freshness and quality of the ingredients.
Grilled sardines were my choice and they constituted a considerable plateful. 4 perfectly grilled and marked fishes with a drizzle of gremolata sauce were juicy and substantial. A simple dish that is seldom done perfectly... but Tempo presented the best cooked seafood I have had in a while.
My companion was tempted by the Polletto - grilled pausing on mixed salad leaves with a garnish of barley. A finger bowl arrived with the order giving the cue that tucking in and chewing the bones would be encouraged. The chicken as pronounced too good to waste any so that fingerbowl was put to good use.
Tempo is undoubtedly an Italian restaurant so pasta in some guise or other was always on the cards for this diner. Find squid ink Linguine dresses with Cornish crab, chilli, lime proved to be both a visual and gastronomic triumph. Black pasta always has impact but flecks of red chilli add to the drama. This isn’t an overly spicy dish but that chilli does give a warming aromatic edge to the sweetness of the crab.
Save space for dessert. Henry recommended the Lemon tart which has already become a signature dish. The citrus filling was light and tangy. A well balanced slice of sharp and tangy lemon on a still-crisp sweet pastry base and bruleed crust.
Tempo is a restaurant to visit often and in which to linger. Its menu is varied and good value for money. It will garner many loyal followers over the years and I’ll add myself to the list. I’ll return shortly to visit the bar which I am sure will become a cosy destination for a cocktail or glass of proseco.
Monday to Friday - Lunch – noon to 3pm / Dinner – 6pm to 11pm
Saturday - Dinner - 6pm to 11pm
Drinks and all-day light food in the bar from 11am until 11pm
London restaurant review: Tempo Italian restaurant - Mayfair
54 Curzon Street, London W1J 8PG
Phone: 020 7629 2742
Visit Tempo here
The street has a colourful history. Mozart gave a recital here in his youth. The French House was the unofficial headquarters of Charles de Gaulle and the French Resistance during World War II. Karl Marx lived here. Admiral Nelson stayed in Dean Street the day before setting off for the Battle of Trafalgar. The New Romanticism fashion movement began at the nightclub Billy's in the late 1970s, and the celebrated Groucho Club, a private club for media types, calls this neck of the woods home.
OK, so you might not be celebrated enough (yet) to be invited to become a Groucho member, but Zenna Bar has joined the list of worthy venues in buzzy Soho, and there will always be a space for you there. This new bar is in the basement of the Red Fort Indian restaurant. That well-established eatery was closed for a while after extensive damage caused by a fire next door. It’s now regained its popularity, and the restaurant was full on the evening we visited, and it was only a Tuesday.
Downstairs, Zenna is cool, crisp and contemporary. A huge water and flower-filled uruli welcomes the visitor. The bar has, though, avoided the temptation of festooning its walls with garish Indian handicrafts. Yes, the walls are dressed, but with muted and tasteful black-and-white photographs of iconic Sub-continental architecture and the like. The formal seating area boasts silk-upholstered chairs but it will likely be the cellaresque caverns that groups will bag for the evening. Low seating and ceilings introduce an air of intimacy.
The drinks on offer include traditional Indian lassis and Indian-inspired cocktails. They are served to those enjoying a pre-dinner tipple, but increasingly to drinkers who have Zenna as the destination, rather than the waiting-room. It’s only been open a few months but its reputation for quality cocktails is spreading. We arrived early, along with a steady stream of after-workers, a smart bunch in business suits, and the party brigade would drift in a little later. Zenna seems to be all things to all people as the clientele changes with the hour.
Zenna doesn’t take itself too seriously. Manager and mixologist extraordinaire Dan Thompson has concocted what is rumoured to be the hottest ever cocktail. It’s called the Illiana and is aptly named after a mythological golden dragon. It’s a fiery blend of spiced rum, orange Curacao, almond syrup, lime and orange juice, plus just one explosive drop of a secret chilli extract. Those daring sorts who have a burning desire to tangle with Illiana must sign a waiver... and it comes with a fire extinguisher chaser, although I would recommend a cooling lassi to quench those predicted flames.
House Nectar is Zenna’s more considerate offering. This has both an alcoholic and a virgin version, as do many of the cocktails here. Chairman's Reserve rum, lychee juice, fresh lime and coriander contrive to make this an aromatic and refreshing choice on warm nights.
Garden Martini is a cocktail for those who want to feel noble. Bombay Sapphire gin, mint, lime, apple, cucumber, elderflower cordial and apple juice must surely constitute a couple of your five a day. The garnish of cucumber and mint wafts one to a newly-cut lawn and perhaps a swaying hammock. This might be the token Anglo-Indian cocktail.
Bee Sting is my all-time favourite. Honey vodka, honey liqueur, lemon juice, jalapeño peppers, peach liqueur and white peach puree are skilfully shaken to build a sweet yet pleasantly spicy cocktail that will entice this reviewer back for an encore. I am not, to be honest, one much driven in the direction of mixed drinks, but Dan Thompson has probably spoiled me for the less vibrant goods of other baristas.
Zenna has much to recommend it. Good location, chic ambiance, professional and charming staff and memorable cocktails. It is indeed a destination in its own right. The bar food is mouth-watering and takes its cue from the Red Fort, which should be proud of its offspring.
Asian bar review: Zenna Bar
Basement, 77 Dean Street, Soho
London W1D 3SH
Phone: 020 7437 2525
So you have spent a day of leisure by the Thames. You have had a guided tour with a Yeoman. (Not to be missed: each of these gentlemen has had years of service in the army and has rafts of stories to tell.) You now need some food. A proper meal. Something hearty, reasonable price, not too exotic as Martha gets hiccoughs if she eats spice, and Abner likes a slice of meat that he can recognise.
Bavarian Beerhouse at Tower Hill (there is another branch at Old Street) opened in May 2010. It’s just 50 metres from Tower Hill Underground station and built under the railway bridge just to the right of the station exit. The previous tenants were Pitcher and Piano but it seems it was time for a change. It’s rumoured that the Bavarian Beerhouse tripled their predecessor’s revenue within the first month.
The Old Street venue was very much a party place but Tower Hill has loftier horizons... at least on the ground floor. This is a cool, contemporary restaurant space with Bavarian accents. There are some of the traditional benches and rustic touches but the ambiance, at least during the day and early evening, is of casual but calm dining.
The basement level boasts several adjoining rooms and has an atmosphere similar to that of the Old Street branch. This is more for the lads’ night out or for blokey gatherings to watch sports and the like. A stag-night favourite, one would imagine. Those long benches again and low ceilings and its own bar. The basement is ideal for private functions.
We, an elderly and sedate couple, were seeking some food rather than a shot-drinking competition. I loved the food at Old Street and it’s just as good at Tower Hill. It’s a shame that German food is taken as something of a joke. These are real and unfussy dishes, and I am a fan. There are sausages aplenty as one would expect, and pork shanks to satisfy the most robust of rugby players, but I love Jäger Schnitzel - pork escalope topped with a creamy mushroom sauce and served with a mound of thin fries. One needs to come hungry to take advantage of these large portions.
May has a ‘special’: White Asparagus from Germany (Weisser Deutscher Spargel aus Deutschland). It’s an annual festival of this unique vegetable, thicker than the usual green asparagus and with a delicate flavour. There are various dishes showcasing these creamy white and chunky spears: a soup, or simply served with sauce and boiled potatoes, or with Black Forest ham. My companion chose breaded pork escalope topped with white asparagus and Hollandaise sauce, garnished with fried potatoes. A substantial plateful which was pronounced a winner.
Too full for a dessert we did succumb to shots. No, we didn’t down them in one gulp and we only tried one each, as a journey the length of the District Line beckoned. My guest ordered the Oktoberfest Pudding Schnapps which was berry-based, sweet and dark – almost Christmassy. I was taken by the Apple Schnapps (Apfelkorn) because I reasoned it would constitute one of my 5 a day. This was a stunner and I could happily have consumed several more had time allowed. Perhaps I have an excuse for a return visit.
Bavarian Beerhouse - Tower Hill is bound to be popular. It’s evidently already the preferred staging post for local workers and couples heading West for evenings out. It’s a light, bright and friendly spot to enjoy good traditional fare. I wish it continued success.
London Restaurant review: Bavarian Beerhouse - Tower Hill
The Arches, 9 Crutched Friars, London EC3N 2AU
Phone 0844 330 20 05
Visit Bavarian Beerhouse here
Bavarian Beerhouse - Old Street
190 City Road, London EC1V 2QH
Mon - Thur 12pm - 11pm
Friday 12pm - 1am
Saturday 1pm - 1am
Sunday 12pm - 9pm
The tea timeline runs something like this:
2737 BC. The second emperor of China, Shen Nung, made the first cup of tea when leaves accidently blew into his cup of hot water.
400 AD. Tea is now called Kuang Ya in the Chinese dictionary. Instructions on how to make a good cuppa are given. During the T'ang Dynasty tea becomes a popular beverage in China and is prized for both its flavour and its medicinal properties.
1589 Europeans first take an interest in tea when a Venetian author suggests that the long lives of the Chinese are due to tea drinking.
1635 Tea becomes trendy at the Dutch court and in 1650 they introduce tea to New Amsterdam, which later becomes New York.
1706 Thomas Twining serves tea at Tom’s Coffee House in London.
1773 The Boston Tea Party marks the end of the American love affair with tea. Colonists disguised as Native Americans board East India Company ships and throw hundreds of chests of tea into the harbour. Had history been different then New Yorkers might now be ordering a cup of delicate Taiwan Oolong Osmanthus instead of a “cup o’ Joe” (I never have discovered who that “Joe” was.)
1840 Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, introduces Afternoon Tea, which eventually becomes the English ritual we know today.
We see that our love of tea has endured for several centuries, but the Chinese have been enjoying its qualities for thousands of years. Ask Mr. Wong, the restaurant manager of Grand Imperial, for advice on which teas might be the best for you. They have a marvellous selection here so take advantage of expert advice and try a couple.
Oriental Afternoon Tea at Grand Imperial is remarkable. It has the formal elements of a real English afternoon tea but the fare on offer is unmistakably Chinese, with a contemporary and chocolatey twist. There are regular cups and saucers and, yes, the traditional three-tier stand, but those plates are piled with delicious morsels that are much more exciting than a curly sandwich of white sliced and a wedge of Victoria sponge.
Fresh black cod rolls, wrapped in Kataifi pastry formed part of the top layer of delicacies. That pastry is a fine vermicelli-looking, crunchy coating, covering a light and melting white fish interior. They were joined on the scrumptious summit by my absolute favourite of all Chinese snacks, Char Sui Bao. Those who visit Chinatown will recognise these from dim sum steamers. They are snowy-white and fluffy steamed buns which are filled with the traditional aromatic pork. The ones at Grand Imperial are moreish.
Concubine Chicken Wrap and Shredded Duck Wrap were the savouries on the second plate. They were both well flavoured and thoughtfully presented. I had imagined that a wrap would involve bread but the Concubine Chicken (I doubt that the chicken was really a concubine) was served on a crisp lettuce cup, and the shredded duck on a concave disc of large and substantial prawn cracker-like base. Both very light, summery and flavourful.
Chocolate Dim Sum on the lowest plateau was almost too beautiful to eat ...almost. All of these miniatures had, obviously, chocolate as a theme but each was an individual work of culinary art: crescents of almond pastry, crunchy minuscule pumpkins, intricate Canton crackers and the memorable coconut doughnut, which is my personal pick of the platter.
The Oriental Afternoon Tea is a very reasonable £20 per person including tea. If you feel like treating yourself after a long day of retail therapy then consider instead a sparkling wine afternoon tea – with Balfour Brut English Rosé – for just £28 per person.
Grand Imperial is my oasis of classy calm in Victoria. I can think of few places in that neighbourhood where I would prefer to spend an afternoon. The restaurant is striking. One is never hurried or pressured by overzealous waiters. The staff are charming and the food never disappoints. Other guests will include Chinese visitors; they are better judges than I of the authenticity of the food here and they always seem content. Enjoy a leisurely afternoon tea ...and perhaps linger for dinner.
Asian restaurant review: Grand Imperial Chinese restaurant
101 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0SJ
T: 020 7821 8898
Visit Grand Imperial here
So seek out the charm of Marylebone Lane for a glimpse of that part of the capital which remains mostly the preserve of Londoners. And if you are looking for good local food then you will enjoy 108 Marylebone Lane. Yes, it’s the name of the restaurant as well as the location: a practical solution for those, like me, who have a dubious memory for addresses.
One enters via the bar area and this is a striking space large enough to be comfortable for a group, but there are cosy corners for couples. 108 is attached to the Marylebone Hotel so there were a few guests, on the day we visited, who were taking advantage of the proximity of a good restaurant. Plenty of local regulars as well: those who work in the area have found this oasis of calm, which provides all the joy of a well-stocked bar with the prospect of a decent meal just a couple of yards away.
108 Marylebone Lane has a restaurant that should convince overseas guests that British food is thriving. The menu reflects the changing seasons as well as offering the best of British fish and meat. The waiter will tell you that the pork comes from Ginger Pig (that’s the name of the butcher, not the animal), La Fromagerie – one of London’s celebrated cheese shops – provides the excellent cheeseboard, and the sausages come from Biggles.
My guest and I settled ourselves under the imposing Peter Denmark artwork. The menu isn’t huge but is appropriate for a restaurant with this number of covers, and there was something to appeal to most tastes, and definitely to ours. The bill of fare changes frequently.
The Warm Goat’s Cheese Salad was my choice and it was a substantial plate of leaves topped with rounds of good quality cheese. Some goat’s cheese can be over-pungent with rather too much of the flavour of, well, goat. This example was delicate but with distinct flavour. My guest chose the Red Pepper Tart which she proclaimed light, fresh and delicious.
The Executive Chef, Norman Farquharson, has taken trouble to source the best meat so I needed to try the slow-cooked lamb. This was a belly cut with just the right ratio of meat to fat to gelatinous skin. The lamb was meltingly tender and the skin lacquered and enticing. This dish tasted as good as it looked. Well seasoned, veggie-bejewelled green lentils were the supporting cast to this superb plateful. There are those who would sit in a Parisian brasserie eating such a dish whilst bemoaning the lack of similar back home. Here is indeed the proof that food in the UK is often the equal of that you will find across La Manche.
The French might criticise our food but they have embraced Le Crumble with almost missionary zeal. Every chic restaurant has its version of this great British classic. 108 offered me a Spiced Pear and Walnut Crumble that would drive Continental visitors to exclaim (quietly, if they are French) “Zis is ze best”. The fruit was flavoured with those warming and Christmassy spices and the crumble was chunky, and a substantial serving after the previous two generous courses.
108 Marylebone Lane is a smartly casual brasserie which offers inspired dishes making the best of seasonal and fresh produce. A regular visitor will find something different every week but the quality will be predictable. A pleasant ambiance and attentive service make 108 Marylebone Lane ideal for those looking for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of the West End. Its location will also appeal to seekers of a reliable lunch or dinner spot to meet friends or clients. I’ll be returning.
Opening Times for 108 Restaurant
Monday - Friday 6.30am - 10.30am
Saturday 6.30am - 11.00am
Sunday 7.30am - 11.30am
Monday to Saturday 12.00pm - 2.45pm
Monday to Saturday 5.30pm - 10.30pm
Sunday 5.30pm - 10.00pm
Opening Times for 108 Bar: Monday to Sunday 10am - 1.30am
Food Served Monday to Sunday 12.00pm - 11.00pm
London restaurant review: 108 Marylebone Lane Restaurant and Bar
108 Marylebone Lane, London W1U 2QE
Phone: 020 7969 3900
Visit 108 here
In 1630 the fourth Earl of Bedford commissioned the celebrated architect Inigo Jones to build houses in Covent Garden that would be ‘fit for the habitations of gentlemen’. Jones was inspired by the grand buildings and spaces of Italy. He designed Covent Garden’s Piazza – the first open square in England.
Covent Garden became London’s largest market once the Great Fire of London saw off much of the opposition in other neighbourhoods. Many overseas visitors will still expect to see flower-sellers, and to hear them humming snatches from My Fair Lady. Those days are gone but Covent Garden Market has re-opened as Europe’s first speciality shopping centre. Not too many blooming bunches but there are some very attractive spots to take tea, and Tuttons is one of my favourites.
Newly re-opened after a major refurbishment, Tuttons Brasserie and Bar is found close to the Royal Opera House on the east side of the Piazza. Tuttons has been here for over 30 years (although eating houses have been around since the 1700s in Covent Garden).
This restaurant has the air of the Parisian haunt of those looking for good food, but this is England and we do love afternoon tea. For a quintessentially British experience, and to celebrate the 350th year of our love for that civilised habit, Tuttons is offering a delicious Cream Tea.
Afternoon Tea reached the height of its popularity in the Victorian era. Well-stayed and wasp-waisted ladies could not enjoy huge meals but preferred to have a lighter lunch and then have a delicate nibble in the afternoon. They could choose the elaborate stand of cakes and sandwiches or the very traditional but simpler Cream Tea. This consisted of scones (like American biscuits but sweet), some thick and rich clotted cream, and jam.
My companion and I had enjoyed a substantial lunch and had spent a pleasant hour or two wandering the shops and stalls of Covent Garden. Lots of tourist souvenirs but I did spy a rather nice Mandarin-style jacket. We were truly ready for a sit-down, a nice cuppa and just a little taste of something sweet. Tuttons provided the appropriate venue for our pause.
It was a cold and windy day so we were glad of the cosy shelter. Warmer weather will find the French doors open onto an outside seating area – much prized in this magnet for visitors. We settled ourselves and ordered pots of tea. Tuttons offers a wide selection of exotic and perfumed teas but I am a conservative in such things so settled on Traditional English. Real leaf tea in the Twining’s teapots, as well.
We had a brace of scones apiece and they were much lighter than most I have eaten in restaurants, or have cooked at home. Almost a cross between a scone and a sponge. I had a generous pot of clotted cream and my guest chose a pot of equal size of butter. Afternoon Tea isn’t just a hot beverage and a snack, it’s a well-loved institution. It’s a time to sit and reflect, to chat in unhurried fashion and to rummage through the shopping bags. One might doubt the wisdom of some of the day’s purchases but the Tuttons Cream Tea will be your bargain buy: it’s a very reasonable £8.50. It will help to restore the equilibrium of your outing in the most delicious style.
Cream Tea served daily from 3pm till 5pm in the main restaurant.
Saturdays - only available at the bar area.
Mon-Sun 8.00am-11.30pm (12 midnight on Fri & Sat)
London restaurant review: Tuttons Brasserie and Bar
11/12 Russell Street, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5HZ
Phone: 0844 371 2550
Visit Tuttons here
The restaurant is named in honour of the Chinese National Cricket Team, who played their first international match in 2009. The title also commemorates, so says the website for the restaurant, the recent translation of the Laws of Cricket into Mandarin by the Asian Cricket Council. So does that mean the Chinese played their match before they had the rules?
The Chinese Cricket Club is across the lobby of the Crowne Plaza London - The City from Refettorio, the hotel's Italian restaurant run by head chef Alessandro and directed by Giorgio Locatelli. It’s refreshing to find more and more notable restaurants housed in hotels. The days of the assumption of a captive yet transient audience have gone. There were few over-nighting businessmen when we visited the Chinese Cricket Club, but there were a couple of tables occupied by those who were evidently regulars, and some of those were themselves Chinese.
The restaurant is calm and contemporary, 80 covers set in an L-shape. Nothing overtly Chinese apart from some calligraphy scrolls, and nothing too crickety apart from a shirt and a bat. Enough decor fixtures to provide continuity with the intriguing name, but not to make one feel that your waiter should be wearing cricket whites and pads.
Brendan Speed is the Executive Chef at The Chinese Cricket Club. No, evidently he is not Chinese himself. He is Australian and has always had a passion for authentic Chinese food. Australia is a great cricketing nation but also has a thriving Asian cuisine culture. Brendan launched and ran Zuma in Istanbul for two years and that restaurant won a raft of awards. Before that, he was Executive Chef at Movenpick Hotels and Resorts in both Istanbul and Dar Es Salaam – a well-travelled and experienced chef who is ably assisted by Guanghao Wu, a Specialist Oriental Chef with a 20-year career.
I do love the wasabi nuts at the Chinese Cricket Club. OK, so they are not traditionally Chinese but nevertheless moreish and hot, preparing our taste buds for some tingling Sichuan and Hunan spice later; and not much later as we were soon picking at a plate of dry sautéed green beans. This is a practical method of cooking such beans: the colour remains vibrant and the vegetables retain a crunch. These particular beans had agreeable chilli heat.
Soft-Shell Crab with Chilli Mayonnaise was a dish of rich decadence. However did we manage before soft-shell crab? They are popular and it’s no surprise. The version at the Chinese Cricket Club is as much about texture as taste. The mayo added gentle spice.
Singapore Cricket Club Noodles were a high-end variant of others you would probably have had. The difference here is the quality of those non-noodle ingredients. Large prawns made this simple dish into a rather luxurious plateful.
Jumbo Prawns with Ginger was visually the most spectacular of our chosen dishes. The shellfish was tender with a light glaze. These are more like small lobsters than your regular prawns, even those which sport the additional monica of ‘Jumbo.’ A subtle hint of ginger was a foil for the sweetness of the seafood.
Twice-Cooked Pork was memorable and must be a signature dish. I had expected chunks of the regular belly pork but the reality here was much more delicate. The slices of pork were thin-cut and melting, lightly spiced with rich and well-rounded flavour. I’ll not miss this on my return visit – for return there will be.
Hunan Lamb with Scallions is striking and full-bodied. Robust flavours here and just what one would expect from any recipe hailing from Hunan. This dish had a complex flavour palate and the spice was not numbing. A dish to savour with just some steamed rice.
Chilled Coconut Custard with Mango Sauce and a scattering of Lychee was the sweet finale. Creamy with tang from the mango and exotic perfume from the lychee. A suitably tropical end to one of the best Chinese meals I have had in London. The Chinese Cricket Club offers an oasis of quiet, garnished with delicious food and service that is second to none. It deserves its enviable reputation.
Mon - Fri Lunch 12:00 - 14:30
Mon - Sat Dinner 18:00 - 22:00
London Asian restaurant review: The Chinese Cricket Club
Crowne Plaza London - The City
19 New Bridge Street, London EC4V 6DB
Phone: 020 7438 8051
Fax: 020 7438 8080
Visit the Chinese Cricket Club here
This transplantation is not due to continental drift. It’s just the home of Fusion Brasserie and it’s the showcase for celebrated Chef Felice Tocchini, who has had a surprisingly long career. He got his first job in the food and beverage industry at the tender age of six – his parents had a bar in a Tuscan village and it was Felice's job to make the coffee.
The experience at the espresso machine obviously inspired Felice. At fourteen, he embarked on a three-year cookery course at the Ferdinando Martini Catering College in Montecatini Terme. He worked in hotel kitchens and ski resorts during his holidays. In 1988 he was invited to join the Royal Shakespeare Theatre restaurants as a Commis Chef. Later, Felice became head chef at the Seymour House Hotel in Chipping Campden and eventually became Chef Manager, remaining there for over 15 years.
In 2004 Felice and his wife Fiorinda opened their own restaurant. Fusion opened originally in Alcester; eighteen months later they moved to a more suitable site and that was the Bird in Hand, Hawbridge, Stoulton, Worcestershire, where they’ve now settled.
Felice now owns two award-winning restaurants in Worcestershire - Fusion Brasserie and Fusion Too. His wife and son Daniel work with him, Fiorinda as front of house manager and Daniel as a chef. Felice is passionate about local ingredients and works with growers and producers to promote even the least-adored veggies like the humble sprout. The menu changes with the seasons so every visit will offer something new.
We were looking forward to good food in a casual and contemporary restaurant. Contemporary, yes, but Fusion isn’t stark and minimalist. The walls are painted and unfussy, but the muted maroon and cream were thoughtful colours that helped to create a cosy ambiance in an open restaurant space. I was very much taken by the unique salt and pepper mills on each table. These and other food-related products can be yours with no need to resort to theft. Fusion has its own shop displaying the chef’s food products and local crafts.
We had earlier enjoyed a good lunch and arrived less than ravenous, so settled on what we thought would be moderate-sized dishes. But this truly was a little bit of Italy and we soon realised that we would go home stuffed and contented.
We started with breads and dips – Pane casereccio – artisan breads, served with sun-blush tomato and fusion hummus. This was a considerable display of the chef’s baking skills as well as a presentation of simple yet flavourful spreads. Some fruity olive oil and balsamic vinegar wafted us back to another restaurant in southern Italy many years ago. But the best Italian restaurants are not necessarily back in the old country. It has more to do with integrity of ingredients than geography.
My companion was tempted by the prospect of some beef - Filetto al Piatto. Thin slices of Aberdeen Angus placed on an extremely hot plate arrived sizzling and in theatrical fashion, aromatic with garlic and herbs. The chunky chips were indeed just that – chunky, crisp on the outside with fluffy interior. My guest was delighted with his meal and pronounced the meat to be tender and full of flavour. A deceptively simple dish that once again relies on the quality of the key ingredient. This is a restaurant that has confidence in its suppliers.
I felt a pasta was in order. Fusion is, after all, an Italian restaurant. Just a modest bowl of oil- and garlic-dressed pasta with some sweet sprouting greens was what I expected and that’s what I got. Well, not a modest bowl – remember, this is transplanted Italy. The pasta was cooked, as one would expect, to perfection – al dente. Oil, but just enough, chilli sufficient to create a glow, and garlic just for pure rich flavour. A classic dish and enough to defeat a rugby player.
Fiorinda tempted us with a little taste of dessert. Six little culinary masterpieces arrived and proved the rule that states that however full one is there is always a little nook available for something sweet. We nibbled sponge pudding, savoured sorbet, treated ourselves to just another bite of tiramisu... The list seemed endless but we enjoyed those sweets so much that we were glad it was.
We had intended an early night but in true Italian fashion the conversation with our hosts flowed freely. This chef is generous. Yes, the portions are substantial but his generosity extends not only to plates but to people. His passion and pride are evident. His skill is unquestionable and his enthusiasm contagious. A warm evening of marvellous food and friendship.
Opening Times Fusion Brasserie:
Lunch: Tues-Sat 11.30am-3.00pm (last orders 2.30pm)
Dinner: 5.30pm-close (last orders 9.30pm)
Sunday: 12.00 pm - 4.00 pm (last orders 2.30pm)
Restaurant review: Fusion Brasserie, Hawbridge, Stoulton, Worcestershire WR7 4RJ.
Phone: +44 (0)1905 840647.
Visit Fusion Brasserie here
The Fleece Inn has an idyllic rural location on a picture-perfect village square. Lots of honey-coloured stone cottages as it’s just a stone's throw from the Cotswolds. It was originally built as a traditional longhouse in the time of Chaucer. It’s quite staggering to learn that The Fleece has been owned by that same family for virtually the whole time, with just a few alterations made to the building in Tudor and Elizabethan days.
A farmer called Henry Byrd Taplin thought that running a pub was better business than running a farm, and I am sure there are many farmers today who would agree with him. In 1848 the farmhouse became a licensed house. This was a regular home that had a licence to sell alcohol, and the Fleece Inn was just that; it still retains the air of a cottage. Henry sold beer and cider from his home, and beer was still being brewed in the back kitchen of the building well into the 20th century.
The last owner was a direct descendent of the man who first built the inn. Miss Lola Taplin lived in The Fleece until she died in 1977. She thoughtfully bequeathed the inn to The National Trust, making it the first pub in the country to be owned by the charity. It’s said that Miss Taplin still watches over the pub: there is an owl that perches on the barn roof and some say it’s she just keeping an eye on the old place.
The Fleece Inn is everything a good pub should be. It’s places like this that made English pubs so famous around the world. It’s steeped in convivial continuity and charming history. There is what is said to be the county’s second largest collection of pewter (the Queen having the first). It’s been on display here for around 300 years.
The original fireplaces offer welcome cosiness in cool weather and fill the pub with that almost forgotten aroma of burning logs. Those fires nearly heralded the end of the pub when in 2004 some sparks caused a fire that took part of the roof and upper floor. Everything has since been sympathetically restored. There are painted circles in front of the hearth and those are supposed to prevent witches from entering via the chimney. I guess Worcester witches can’t open doors.
If these walls could talk they would tell of hundreds of years of historic events: coronations, plague, civil war, electric light and inside plumbing – the latter two being thankfully taken advantage of at The Fleece. The dark wood tables and chairs are in keeping with the character of the pub, and the print of Shakespeare reminds us that the Bard himself might have passed by this very building.
Real ales and ciders are celebrated at the Fleece but we were here for the food, and the menu reflected the best of pub grub. Nothing too cheffy but good solid fare with plenty of choice. It was early spring so still cold enough to justify some traditional and hearty dishes.
I was looking for lunches that I could talk about on Alan Coxon's internet radio show. He is one of Britain’s most decorated, awarded and certified chefs and recognises a good hostelry when he sees one. Alan lives locally and this pub is a favourite. He has been known to settle himself on the settle, relax and toast his food-historian toes by the historic fire. We did the same and consulted the menu. I was tempted by the Traditional Local Faggots but it’s an international radio show and a so-named dish could have caused misunderstanding...nay, offence!
I ordered Local Sausages served with Chive Mash, Buttered Garden Peas and Red Wine Gravy. This was a substantial plateful that would have set up a peckish farm worker for an afternoon in the fields. The sausages were mildly seasoned, the gravy was rich and the mash didn’t come from a packet. I found but one small lump to verify to its gastronomic credentials.
My guest decided on the Steak and Mushroom Pie, served with Braised Red Cabbage, Curly Kale, New Potatoes and Gravy. This is a classic pie and I think we British do savoury pies better than most. The pastry has to be good and the filling must be flavourful and made with the best-quality ingredients. This one evidently was. I could tell by the reluctance with which my companion offered me a taste.
Worcestershire seems to have lots of high-quality meat products as well as abundant fresh produce. It’s not surprising that the county is something of a Mecca for food lovers. It’s places like The Fleece Inn which remind us that good traditional food in Britain is not dead, it’s just in hiding. It’s been a pleasure to seek it out in this lovely county. I am planning a return visit.
The Fleece Inn
The Cross, Bretforton, Nr Evesham, Worcester WR11 7JE
Tel: 01386 831173
Visit The Fleece here
Monday and Tuesday: 11am - 3pm, 6pm - 11pm
Wednesday to Sunday: 11am - 11pm
Food Service Hours
Monday to Saturday: 12pm - 2.30pm, 6.30pm - 9pm
Sunday: 12pm - 4pm, 6.30pm - 8.30pm
The restaurant here is popular with locals around Worcestershire and with the AA who awarded the restaurant 2 Rosettes in 2008. It’s not only the food that’s a draw – they have a notable wine list. This grand house is described as “A little piece of France in the heart of England” so that country’s wines are well represented.
We visited Brockencote on a bright spring day. Daffs were glowing and new-born lambs were gamboling. The Worcestershire countryside was at its fresh and budding best and the Hall looked impressive in the sunshine. The estate dates back 300 years or so with 70 acres of established trees and pasture. This is the sort of stately home that tourists as well as we British love so much.
The entrance hall had a welcoming log fire burning which was appropriate for the day. Spring, yes, but this is England and the wind was chilly. The contemporary bar and conservatory was where we nestled to peruse the menu. Not a long bill of fare but just as one would wish from a high-end kitchen where quality is always paramount – and using seasonal and local produce where possible.
The main dining room (there are others for private dining) is stunning. High windows looked out onto some of those aforementioned acres. The house exudes an air of cultivated tranquillity and charm, and that includes the dining room which is an exercise in pastel shades – a room that has contrived to retain its original majesty yet has introduced cool modernity.
We started with an amuse bouche, a demi-tasse of one of the most memorable soups I have ever had: a gloriously rich and creamy carrot and orange soup. (Note to reviewer: ask John for the recipe). A balance of sweet from the vegetable and tang from the citrus and then there was a deft application of aromatic seasoning. This should be a signature mini-dish.
Slow Cooked Belly of Jimmy Butlers Pork, Cabbage and Bacon, Spiced Apple, Pommery Mustard Jus was the main course. Well worth trying and one of the best examples of this trendy cut of meat that I have had in a while. The meat was flavourful and melting and the presentation thoughtful. I am not keen on pork belly with crackling. It seldom works and, in my humble opinion, it’s inappropriate for a slow-cooked item when one wants to enjoy the almost gelatinous quality of meat, flavourful fat and rind. Perfect!
The desserts here are visual stunners! OK, so I didn’t just give them admiring glances, I was enticed by a couple and scoffed mine and a good percentage of my companion’s. That’s not perhaps a very genteel word but one only “nibbles” when being polite. I, on the other hand, enjoyed every spoonful with appropriate epicurean passion.
Goats Cheese Mousse, Poached Rhubarb, Gingerbread, Vanilla Ice Cream was my own choice and this was a delicious example of traditional ingredients as a canvas for culinary artistry. Sharp mousse, sweet rhubarb, punctuated with the spiced cake.
My guest’s choice of dessert was equally appreciated ...by both of us. Well, I was the official reviewer and it was my duty to taste, and in this case Parsnip Pannacotta, Caramelised Apple, Shortbread Crumb, Brioche Ice Cream. A slice of fruit like a disc of translucent glass balanced atop this unique parsnip preparation, which rather made one look at that root vegetable in a different light. A tapestry of texture and taste. Perhaps a parsnip is not just for Christmas but can actually be enjoyed! Another seasonal winner.
Chef John Sherry is a man content with his kitchen. He should be: Alison and Joseph rebuilt the old kitchen which had become too small for such a successful restaurant. It’s now twice the original size and is worked by a seven-strong team. They cook 350 or so lunches and dinners a week, as well as catering for weddings and private dinner parties.
It’s no surprise that they have so many regular diners at Brockencote Hall. The restaurant is striking, the staff attentive but not pushy, and the food is as good as you will find either side of La Manche. I look forward to a return visit. I’ll unwind in the lounge, take a stroll around the grounds to build an appetite for what I am sure will be a superb dinner. This is indeed a destination restaurant.
Two Courses £17.00
Three Courses £22.00
Brockencote Hall Country House Hotel & Restaurant
Chaddesley Corbett, Near Kidderminster, Worcestershire DY10 4PY
Phone: 01562 777876
Fax: 01562 777872
The Elms is set in formal gardens and is surrounded by ten acres or so of parkland. This is very rural Worcestershire, and the house offers idyllic views over the Teme Valley and a good number of other counties. This is a perfectly-located base for trips to enjoy local festivals such as the annual celebration of Asparagus, and to soak up a little history in Worcester and its neighbouring towns. Malvern and Evesham are within easy reach.
The hotel has been completely refurbished but many of the public rooms retain the air of the traditional stately home. Dark wood, leather sofas and chairs and open fires exude old-fashioned charm that tourists so love – or would if they could find it. Paintings and busts of people that must have been famous all add to the impression that this might still be someone’s ancestral pile.
But The Elms is indeed a hotel and one that, surprisingly, is catering for families. Yes, families can book into any hotel but youngsters are more often just tolerated rather than welcomed. I had been expecting a Jolly Campers establishment with a uniformed glee club, but a childless adult here would have to seek out the child-friendly elements – there is nothing excessively kiddy-oriented at the Elms.
There is a baby-listening service so parents can leave the room and go for a thoroughly adult dinner with no worries about returning to a red-in-the-face and tearful tot. There is plenty to amuse those little ones during the day with their own Bears Den crèche (Ofsted registered). For older children, there’s an air-hockey machine, tabletop football, board games and an Xbox. Sounds as good as home! You might even coax the kids outside for croquet, outdoor table tennis, football, trampoline and there is an outdoor adventure playground.
The Elms boasts a family spa with a 12-metre swimming pool, thermal retreat with steam room, sauna and ice fountain (I am not sure I like the sound of that), Rasul mud therapy room, state-of-the-art gym equipment, and an indoor/outdoor Hydro Spa – that’s a spot for all the family to enjoy.
Our room was attractive and cosy. Stunning views over those aforementioned counties. The bathroom was well appointed and had a selection of high-end Spa toiletries, as one would hope at a hotel with a pampering annex. Tea and coffee-making facilities in the corner so we unwound, soaked and snoozed till dinner.
Head Chef Daren Bale has built The Elms’ fine dining reputation. He has won many accolades, including 2 AA Rosettes, Best British Cheeseboard, and Worcestershire Life’s 2007/2008 Restaurant of the Year. The dining room is elegant and striking with tables set with brass candlesticks and tall, white candles that gave one the impression of perhaps a classic French restaurant, the style of restaurant that encourages guests to speak quietly and probably about the arts or the latest in the Financial Times.
Pressing of Goose and Foie Gras, Pear, Pickled Wild Mushroom and Haricot Bean Dressing was my starter. The terrine was dense and flavourful. This would have made a very classy lunch item. The presentation was appealing and the garnishes appropriate for the goose.
Velouté of Jerusalem Artichoke, Langoustine, Peas and Lemon was my companion’s choice – a delicious bowl of delicate seafood and soup. This is the sort of dish that you’ll likely not cook at home. Not too difficult to replicate but this style of food is best enjoyed in a stunning, high-ceilinged, tall-windowed, imposing-fireplaced dining room. But perhaps you have one of those, chez vous.
We had seen lots of lambs on our drive to Worcester so it seemed a fitting, if slightly cruel, irony to eat some on our arrival. My guest ordered English Lamb with Stuffed Courgettes and pronounced this to be a well-balanced and thoughtful dish. The courgettes were filled with melting and evidently slow-cooked meat, with peppers adding a sweet note.
Pancetta-wrapped Monkfish, Chicken Confit Ravioli, Butter-glazed Carrots & Ginger took my fancy. Yes, I know it’s a classic choice but it’s popular because it is, done well, a memorable dish. It was indeed done well at The Elms. The previous plates had indicated that it probably would be. The flesh of the seafood was moist and the pancetta added just the right slightly salty counterpoint. I was a little uncertain about the garnish of chicken ravioli bit this too worked well, adding a soft and savoury gastronomic cushion. I can recommend this monkfish as the best I have had in many months.
We wanted to try The Elms’ celebrated cheese board, so had to skip the desserts. I would, however, have liked to have tried the Pear and Cranberry Strudel with Peanut Butter Ice Cream. That ice cream sounds novel.
We have marvellous cheeses here in Britain and it’s refreshing to find a restaurant that promotes them. So many establishments boast that they celebrate local produce but then present French cheese with only a nod to these Isles in the guise of a slab of Cheddar. We wanted to taste some very local cheese and so selected Blue Cheshire - Nantwich, Bosworth Ash - Staffordshire, Old Worcester White and the star of the plate, St Eadburgha made in the Vale of Evesham. This unique cheese is made at Gorsehill Abbey Farm by Michael and Diane Stacey. St Eadburgha is a Brie style of cheese and it’s organic but most importantly it is creamy and delicious. This should be in the cool-box of every homeward-bound tourist from Worcestershire. I am only sorry it was not in ours, but a return trip is in order.
The Elms is an ideal hotel for extended families. It isn’t a cheap option but it introduces younger members of the family to a real hotel. Children will find plenty to do, parents will have space and quiet to themselves, and grandparents can enjoy grandchildren in small doses and then escape to an armchair and a good book, or a terrace and a glass of something reviving. A unique family holiday destination.
Hotel and restaurant review: The Elms
Stockton, Abberley, Worcester, WR6 6AT
Tel: 01299 896666
Visit The Elms here
Entrepreneur Rand Cheung has created a stunning restaurant with a design guided by the principles of feng shui. The opening night had a lion dance for luck, but this isn’t an over-themed restaurant although there are plenty of tasteful hints at Oriental opulence and style.
Grand Imperial is part of a Malaysian restaurant group which opened their first restaurant in Kuala Lumpur in December 2008. This London restaurant is their fifth project, but the first outside Malaysia. The Head Chef at the restaurant is Leung Chi Keung, who has over 20 years of experience in high-end restaurants in China.
This is one of the most impressive restaurants of any ethnic persuasion. The high windows are draped in stark black curtains which offer a stylish contrast against white linen and gold-leafed screens. There is a VIP suite hidden behind those screens and that offers private dining in the most sumptuous style.
The menu is varied and enticing. Yes, it’s true that one eats with one’s eyes, and the chef here displays outstanding presentation skills as well as a sense of adventure. He uses Foie Gras to great advantage in several dishes. Something here for every taste with a great selection of fish and shellfish in all its guises.
My starter platter of dim sum included Jellyfish with Chilli Sauce. This was vibrant with flavour and heat with an agreeable texture. Nothing slimy or sinister here. Served chilled it was refreshing and light. Jellyfish is said to be good for sore throats. The seafood shreds were joined by a grilled Goose Foie Gras Dumpling which was piping hot, rich and flavourful, but the star of the plate was the succulent Roasted Duck with its lacquered skin.
Sautéed cubes of Beef with Black Pepper Sauce served on a bed of onions was an absolute triumph. The meat was as tender as I have ever had, but the sauce was the memorable element. Black pepper is a much-underrated spice. It has graced even the most humble of dinner tables for centuries and we take it for granted. The Grand Imperial has a recipe that shows the qualities of those peppercorns with a dish that has unadulterated flavour and aromatic warmth. Don’t miss this one.
Pan-fried Stuffed Scallop with Minced Shrimp and Foie Gras sounded a strange combination. Yes, it’s easy to envisage all types of seafood combining harmoniously together but I wasn’t sure how the second appearance of foie gras would work. The scallop was tender and the foie gras was served as a fine sauce, which was mild and savoury and a much more subtle accompaniment than the usual bacon or chorizo.
Wok-fried rice “Hokkien” style with Duck and Prawns in a rich gravy is a dish that is similar to those found in Fujian province in south-eastern China. This was probably the most recognisably traditional course from the menu. The rice filled any little empty corners we might have had, and had the appeal of home cooking – nothing spicy and with no particular ingredient taking centre stage. This was Chinese comfort food.
Chilled Cream of Sago with Mango and Pomelo was a cool and soothing dessert. Saffron-yellow with evidence of real fruit. No need for fear: the sago is nothing like the wallpaper paste effort of school days. The dessert was sophisticated and refreshing.
The food at the Grand Imperial is excellent and the décor is well considered, taking advantage of its imposing Victorian architecture as well as paying homage to China. Its location will assure its success, but it deserves to have its food taken seriously as well.
Grand Imperial London is open 7 days a week 12pm - 3pm and 5.30pm - 11pm
London Asian restaurant review: Grand Imperial London
101 Buckingham Palace Road, London SW1W 0SJ
Phone: 020 7821 8898
Visit Grand Imperial here
There is a world of tranquillity just behind the buzz and throng of Oxford Street. That celebrated retail hub is a river of bag-burdened humanity even on a Sunday but there is a haven awaiting the savvy shopper just a few yards away.
Thai restaurant ORA could easily be overlooked and that would be a shame. It has an unassuming front door on a side street off Regent Street. Pass through that portal and one is transported to a contemporary refuge populated by graceful ladies and gentlemen whose sole purpose seems to be to calm the vexed psyche and to smooth the furrowed brow by way of truly delicious food, and now they even the offer the prospect of some live jazz.
ORA is launching its new Jazz Evenings which will be held every Sunday from 20th March to 10th April. Diners on those evenings can choose from a special three-course set menu for £25, which includes a glass of champagne, and will also have the opportunity to win a trip to Thailand. The evenings will run from 6.30 till 10.30.
City Jazz, formed by saxophonist Sam Sharp, has many years’ experience playing worldwide as well as at prestigious venues in London such as the Royal Albert Hall, the South Bank Centre and The Barbican Centre. Sam will invite guests to accompany him each week and will play a melange of jazz in both classic and modern styles.
City Jazz will have ORA as its regular Sunday night home for a while. The restaurant has an ideal ambiance for this kind of event. Its black walls and furnishings give the air of a nightclub when it’s throbbing with diners, but that same dark interior is romantic on other evenings when occupied by those seeking a more intimate environment. ORA’s head chef Tamas Khan's regular à la carte menu of traditional Thai dishes offered us a wealth of temptations. I am no expert on Thai cuisine but the food sounded enticing, and the reality lived up to our hopes.
We chose some cocktails to sip while we pondered the menu, and these were exotic and thirst-quenching. Thai Breeze sounded appropriate, and it was one of those deftly-layered drinks which one immediately un-layers. I often wonder what goes through the bartender’s mind as he sees the recipient of his labours thoughtlessly swirling a straw. Lemongrass- and vanilla-infused vodka, fresh lime juice, cranberry juice and grapefruit juice combined to produce a dangerous tipple. It would be all too easy to succumb to a few too many of these.
Although I am indeed a consumer of alcohol in all its guises I must confess that one of the best cocktails I have ever had was the Gulf of Thailand. This was a vibrant mix of fresh mint, fresh galangal, lemon and ginger cordial, fresh lime juice, apple juice, and ginger beer. It didn’t have that noble and watery sense of a non-alcoholic beverage. I could have been persuaded that there was a hidden shot or two of some kind of spirit. The hit of ginger gave the drink real substance.
My guest chose Kanom Beurg Sai Gai as his starter. This was a savoury pancake stuffed with chicken, bean sprouts and fresh herbs, served with cucumber salsa. The saffron-coloured pancake was filled with truly smoky smoked chicken. The sauce was tangy and light. The crispy calamari and black- pepper sauce Pla Mauek Kratiam Prik Tai was a second starter that we couldn’t resist. The rich pepper sauce was a spicy foil for the sweet and crispy seafood.
We ordered Pad Thai Koong - Thai rice ribbon noodles with prawns in sweet and sour tamarind sauce and peanuts – as our first main dish. It was a good example of this classic, and contained large and evident prawns which elevated this noodle dish above versions that one might find in other restaurants. Another example of the effort that ORA makes to remain noteworthy in a restaurant-saturated market.
Kae Pad Phed – lamb with Thai aubergine, kaffir lime leaves and red chilli paste – was a piquant triumph. The succulent strips of meat had a shiny mahogany hue. Yes, there was a striking chilli punch but this provided mouth-filling flavour rather than overpowering heat. We were coaxed back to the remains of this dish even when we had truly had enough to eat. Just another little nibble seemed to beckon. Moreish and memorable.
Whilst the Kae Pad Phed should be a signature dish, the Massamun Neur – beef cooked in Massamun curry sauce, nuts and potatoes – could be considered its equal. A very different dish but remarkable. I was expecting chunks of potato but ORA presents a cube of precisely sliced, trimmed and stacked vegetable. A small touch, but once again showing the attention to detail. The meat was slow-cooked to melting. The sauce was the star here, though. I would have enjoyed this just spooned over plain rice. It was aromatic, creamy and comforting, and a must-try from this menu.
Sarm Sa-Hai – a selection of traditional Thai desserts – was a tray of three banana leaf-wrapped squares of creamy white confections that were almost too attractive to eat. They illustrated the simple elegance of Thai food in general.
ORA has a convenient location and a fascinating menu. It’s true that I don’t know much about Thai food but I can vouch for the quality of ingredients and the mouth-watering results of the chef’s efforts. We are planning a return visit to try more dishes and to learn more about this increasingly popular cuisine.
London Asian restaurant review: ORA Thai restaurant
6 Little Portland Street, Fitzrovia, London W1W 7JE
Phone: 020 7637 0125
Visit ORA here
This casual restaurant is modelled on those American Gulf Coast crabshacks. That might not mean much to most Londoners but let’s describe it as the cosiest of eateries with a real taste of Americana. It’s like the best of rib joints I have ever visited in the US, and although evidently themed the end result of that themeing is an authentic-feeling barbecue and seafood restaurant.
The walls and ceilings are black. That’s just like the rib restaurants I have visited, and I guess it originally had to do with the smoke from cooking the meat. Be assured it’s only paint here but it adds to the ambiance. The main decorations are the diners. The place is buzzing with mostly regulars, it seems. We met lots of fellow eaters who said it’s their favourite spot for ribs and shrimp.
Over 15 years ago, Paul Corrett opened Big Easy and it’s been popular ever since, and once you step inside, sit down and relax, you will understand why. It’s an institution that’s about chilling as well as chewing. This isn’t fast food. You can get very speedy fried chicken along the road and one is never far from a quick plastic burger. This is food you will want to linger over. Order a beer or a margarita and peruse the menu.
Roasted Crisp Potato Skins were my choice for starter. Baked potato skins topped with sour cream and cheese were in reality stuffed baked potatoes. Surprisingly light but still a substantial start. I can recommend these. They had a garnish of well-dressed salad to enable me to feel at least a little noble.
My guest was taken by the “Voodoo” chicken wings. They were traditional Buffalo wings. Yes, I know that bison don’t fly; this preparation is said to hail from that northern city of Buffalo and consists of spicy wings served with celery and a blue cheese dip. These were piquant and finger-lickin!
Big Easy’s signature dishes include Maine lobster, crab and shrimp, Charolais beef burgers, smoked Bar-B-Q and Fajitas and we were tempted by all of these, but settled on just a couple. The steak fajitas were memorable. The fried peppers and onions formed a bed for the flavourful slices of beef and all served on a cast-iron sizzling platter. There were the usual accompaniments of fresh salsa, guacamole, lettuce, cheese and sour cream. One constructs one’s own meal by wrapping the above in some soft and warm flour tortillas. Yes, the majority of this came home with me on the bus.
I guess I had a hint that food is big here. I saw a few diners leaving with their leftovers, and those doggie bags were not bags at all but foil trays big enough to roast a chicken. Yes, the portions here are authentically American so come with an appetite. A couple with a baby and a 6-year-old were from across the pond, and they seemed to be frequent visitors to Big Easy, so that’s a bit of an accolade from folks who are famed for enjoying considerable platefuls.
Hickory Smoked Bar-B-Q Baby Back Ribs were always on the cards for my companion. He is a man of slight frame but blessed with hollow legs, but even he found the mound of beans, coleslaw and ribs too much. The ribs were glistening with the sauce, sticky and delicious with a good balance of sweet and sour. Savoury and jammy. A few of those ribs were also boxed.
We were, as expected, too full for dessert – we will return for that at a future date. But one needs something refreshing to end, so it was a couple of classic Jose Cuervo Gold Tequila Margaritas. OK, so they are cocktails and more usually consumed at the start of the meal, but a good cocktail is a good cocktail and one needs to keep a little space for that. Chilled and wafting one back to that holiday in Cancun; and none came home on the bus.
I am blessed: I can eat out as often as I want. Michelin Star restaurants are a joy, and I love excellent food of every kind but I had been looking forward to visiting Big Easy. It’s a long time since I had had a real American dinner and I hoped it would be as I remembered. If anything Big Easy outstripped my expectations. Just like General MacArthur I shall return, but with more friends to enjoy other delights from their menu, listen to some live music and unwind.
Sunday to Thursday 12 noon - 11pm
Friday & Saturdays 12 noon - 12.00 midnight
London restaurant review: Big Easy Bar B.Q & Crabshack
332-334 Kings Road, Chelsea, London, SW3 5UR
Telephone 020 7352 4071
Visit Big Easy here
the bell was re-opened in 2001 and already has an enviable reputation. Visit Wales has awarded the bell Five Stars and they are well deserved. There are polished black flagstone floors in the bar and restaurant areas and the open log fire is a draw in the winter months for those returning from an invigorating walk. This is a popular region for ramblers and the bell provides a selection of maps for those who want to take advantage of the spectacular scenery. Plenty of history just a few yards away in the village of Skenfrith which boasts the remains of its very own castle. It’s one of the Marches Castles which were strategic Norman fortifications built in the 13th century.
Those aforementioned walkers can take the opportunity to toast frigid toes by the fire, whilst the sofas beckon loungers who might prefer to pass some time with newspapers or a good book. Outdoor sorts and the rest of us might have stayed the night, in which case we will be refreshed from a good night’s sleep in one of the eleven delightful bedrooms. These rooms are far from the rubber-stamp spaces that one finds in those famous hotel chains – one wakes to the same wallpaper and curtains in Paris as one does in Prague. Here each individually-designed bedroom is furnished with tasteful antiques and pictures. There are thoughtful touches such as a jar of biscuits (cookies) and even a little something for a nightcap. All bathrooms are en-suite and sumptuous. Ours was marvellously appointed and piled with fluffy towels, bath robes and the high-end toiletries that one would hope for in such an agreeable establishment – worthy of stealing. The view over the garden at the rear was beautiful, with a tree, bare of leaf but hanging with mistletoe, taking pride of place on a cold February afternoon.
The organic kitchen garden was established four years ago but it is expanding to provide even more produce for the head chef Rupert Taylor. He studied in Bath and his first position was at Homewood Park as commis chef to Gary Jones (now executive head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons). There Rupert was part of the team that gained three rosettes and a Michelin star. Rupert left to join Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath and then on to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. From there he went to work for Jamie Oliver at his Fifteen Restaurant in Cornwall and then took a “gap year” to travel the world. He loves snowboarding and surfing but returned to join the bell.
Rupert’s Modern British cooking uses mostly locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients, some of which have travelled only a few yards. He liaises with Michele Civil, the bell’s organic kitchen gardener. She is a transplanted Yorkshire lass who bubbles with enthusiasm for her organic fruit and veggies. Her produce has helped to win two AA Rosettes. The kitchen garden has been featured in ITV Wales' 'A Little Piece Of Paradise’.
The food is some of the best in Wales. The menu isn’t long but offers something for every taste. Rupert, Michele and the proprietors William and Janet, know the butcher and the folks who dive for scallops; they work closely with other vegetable growers. Your plate will be full of delicious and seasonal fare and the presentation is guaranteed to be outstanding. Yes, one eats with one’s eyes but these dishes are to be savoured. A meal at the bell should be lingered over.
We settled ourselves on a sofa by the bar and enjoyed an amuse-bouche while we contemplated the food menu and the outstanding wine list. We nibbled pork gougons, herb straws, demi-tasses of soup and savoury bites. Ideal to accompany an aperitif. There is even a local vodka so do try a tot of that.
In 2008, William finally achieved his dream of a walk-in wine cellar to house his considerable stock of wine, champagne and cognac. These are all at very reasonable prices per bottle but there is a good selection of more than a dozen wines and champagnes that one can enjoy by the glass. One could create one’s own wine flight without breaking the bank. William’s passion for wine is not just a passing phase: he asked for a subscription to Decanter magazine on his 12th birthday. He was apparently influenced by his uncle who headed the Fine Wine department of Harvey’s of Bristol.
I ordered the Scallops with Chorizo as my starter. The salt of the salami contrasted with the sweetness of those morsels of seafood. Rupert has an eye for imaginative yet apt presentation. My guest chose Mackerel which, although not exactly local either, was a good representation of the finest of British seafood. We have such abundance around our shores that it’s a shame to export it to mainland Europe. Let’s enjoy it at home.
I had expected something exceptional from Rupert and the main courses did not disappoint. My pork dish was a visual and epicurean stunner. The loin was pink as a baby’s bottom and the confit was as tender and flavourful as I have ever had. Quality meat treated with respect allowing its natural flavour to take centre stage.
My companion was wooed by the Brecon beef. A sirloin cooked just rare – blushing but not oozing red. The mini steak-and-kidney pudding was proclaimed a triumph. Once again Rupert shows confidence, skill and humour, and the proof of the pudding was indeed in the eating. A signature dish if ever there was one.
Dessert had the very un-Welsh pineapple as its key ingredient. Pain Perdu (OK, so it’s eggy bread) with roasted pineapple and a fromage frais ice cream was excellent. The fruit and bread element would be simple to replicate at home and the ice cream is well worth trying if one has access to an ice cream maker. Subtle yet memorable.
They are civilised at the bell. They offer breakfast from 9am, but earlier by arrangement. This isn’t motorway services offering food on the run. One is cosseted, pampered and lulled into a cosy and content stupor here. Wander down to breakfast when you have enjoyed the papers and an early morning cuppa in your room. Try the cooked Welsh breakfast along with some toast and Michele’s homemade blackcurrant jam. Take a jar home to remind you of a couple of days of secluded bliss, some gentle exercise, a glass or two of outstanding wine, a night in a four-poster and the chance to read that best-seller by a real fire. One visit will never be enough.
Directions from London
Take the M4 over the new Severn Bridge as far as junction 24. Then take the A449 to Raglan, where it turns into the A40 to Monmouth, through the tunnel and straight over the lights. at the roundabout, take the first exit left. At the traffic lights, turn right onto the Hereford Road. Travel out of Monmouth for approximately 4 miles and turn left onto the B4521 towards Abergavenny. the bell is 3 miles on the left hand side.
Hotel and restaurant review: the bell at skenfrith
Phone: 01600 750235
Fax: 01600 750525
Visit the bell here
Hereford is a city, as it boasts a cathedral. A cathedral has stood in Hereford since Saxon times. The building we see today is a fine example of the mason’s craft, culminating in the twentieth-century New Library Building which houses the celebrated Chained Library. The oldest and most important book is the eighth-century Hereford Gospels. It’s one of a couple of hundred medieval manuscripts which now occupy two sections of the Chained Library, a truly unique and thought-provoking area which takes one back to an era when books were rare and libraries even rarer. I wonder if we are coming full circle with that issue.
The world-famous Mappa Mundi is on display at the cathedral. The Hereford Mappa Mundi is a map of the world, dating from around 1300 and is the largest medieval map known to still exist. It is drawn on a single sheet of vellum (animal skin). A must-see when you visit Hereford.
The Wye Valley countryside around Hereford is some of the loveliest in Britain. It’s designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The River Wye runs through the valley creating tranquil and picturesque vistas. The landscape typifies Chocolate-box-top England with fields, hedges and grazing sheep. Yes, it does still exist.
Castle House stands in a calm and classy corner of Hereford, but eight or nine hundred years ago the site was a busy crossroads in the old Saxon city, near to the ancient Hereford Castle. Now the traffic is mostly children heading down Castle Street to school. It’s a privately-owned townhouse hotel and rumoured to be most luxurious in Hereford. That’s a lie. No, not the bit about it being the best hotel in Hereford, but it is not one but two townhouses merged together to make a single architectural stunner.
In the early 18th century, a local businessman built a pair of fine Georgian villas in what was then the middle of the road. The two houses looked directly down Castle Street towards the cathedral at the end. The rear of the building was added in the second half of the 19th century when the then-owner Frederick Boulton was granted permission to remove the party wall to make one magnificent house. There is little evidence of the conversion apart from the wide and imposing front door and the striking staircase in the hall.
From the 1920s Castle House was a boarding house then in the1940s it became a hotel for gentlefolk. It’s now been renovated with taste and sympathy. This Grade II listed building is privately-owned by local farmer David Watkins, whose produce features on the hotel menu and whose daughter now works at the hotel. Original features remain, whilst the hotel offers discerning guests high-end comfort in both public rooms and private suites.
The suites here are sumptuous. Ours had high ceilings, tall windows with a view towards the cathedral. The sitting area will likely be larger than your lounge at home. The oval desk sported a decanter of sherry but the guest need not worry that old-fashioned charm was maintained at the expense of 21st century technology. Every room has broadband access, TV and music facilities. One can work and play.
The four-poster bed was a delight and the linen was turned down each evening. The bathroom was well appointed with a selection of pampering toiletries that would have one lingering in steamy bliss. My advice would be to leave such soaking till after dinner or you might just miss a culinary treat.
The Castle Restaurant is one of the finest in Herefordshire. The kitchen might be small but chef Claire Nicholls presents food that has visual impact as well as being delicious. Claire trained at Hereford Technical College and then at the Birmingham College of Food. She lived in Hong Kong for two years and fell in love with Asian gastronomy, and that has had an influence on her choice of ingredients and presentation, which is delicate and thoughtful. She is a local girl but it’s her mum who noticed the vacancy at the hotel and thought that her talented daughter would enjoy returning home. Claire has been with Castle House for more than eight years and has worked as Head Chef for three. The restaurant has twice been awarded 3 AA Rosettes and Claire is one of the very few female head chefs in the UK to have achieved that. She has a quiet manner, but is well able to handle the rigours of a professional kitchen.
She takes pride in sourcing fresh ingredients from local producers and it’s no surprise that one of those suppliers is the owner of the hotel, who also owns Ballingham Farm. It’s only eight miles from Hereford and has been in David’s family for 120 years. They have a 100-strong pedigree Hereford herd, the meat from which is used in Claire's recipes whenever it’s available.
My guest ordered the Warm Salad of Wood Pigeon, Caramelised Apples, Quail Eggs and Black Pudding. These birds are a good introduction to game. This pigeon was mild flavoured, moist and tender.
I had already perused the menu and decided on my main course, so opted for a light starter of Warm Salad of Beetroot, Lentils, Walnuts and Quail Eggs. A tapestry of texture and taste.
Pan-fried Seabass was my companion’s choice for main course. The fish was perched atop a mound of Lime and Vanilla Mash which was a unique and excellent accompaniment to the sweet fish. Pakchoi was the very Asian element here and the consumer of the above was a contented diner.
I was bound to pick the Rib Eye of Herefordshire Beef. Whilst I can’t swear that this cut came from David’s farm I should say that it was succulent and full of bovine flavour. I am not a great meat eater but it’s no surprise even to me that this is one of the most popular dishes here. Several American guests ordered the same and all appreciated the substantial plate. Yes, dear US visitors, we do have excellent food in the UK. Please spread the word to the folks back home.
Save a little space for dessert. We both enjoyed Sticky Banana and Date Pudding, Butterscotch Sauce, Roast Bananas, Vanilla Ice. Don’t rush. Order a pudding wine or some coffee and relax in candlelight and the gentle buzz of convivial conversation.
Our stay was too short. We will be tempted back in summer. Perhaps we will sit by the old moat and watch the ducks, take a stroll around the old town, but we will be sure to be back for lunch. No, this isn’t a cheap hotel option but it is value for money. You get what you pay for, and the memories are priceless.
Breakfast is served from 7am - 10am
Lunch from 12 noon - 2pm
Dinner from 7pm - 10pm
(9pm on Sundays and Bank Holidays)
Hotel and restaurant review: Castle House Hotel
Hereford, HR1 2NW
Phone: +44 (0) 1432 356321
Fax us on: +44 (0) 1432 365909
Visit Castle House here
When it comes to chequered and fascinating histories, Brocket Hall has one of the most colourful of any of our stately homes. Indeed the scent of intrigue wafts down its very corridors and into bedrooms named for some of the most scandalous characters of British society.
The Brocket Hall as we see it today was built by renowned architect James Paine for Sir Mathew Lamb in 1760. However, the Hall stands on the site of two previous houses, the first of which was built in the 13th Century.
Sir Mathew's son became the first Lord Melbourne, largely thanks to his notorious Elizabeth. She was a mistress of the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was, unsurprisingly, a frequent houseguest at Brocket Hall.
William Lamb, 2nd Viscount Melbourne, was a politician who served as Home Secretary and Prime Minister and was a mentor and close friend of the young Queen Victoria, who often stayed at Brocket Hall. His wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, had a liaison with the poet Lord Byron, whom she described as being “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” Brocket Hall is filled with feminine anecdote of loves and lovers. Much more interesting than wars and warriors. On the death of Melbourne in 1848, the Hall passed to his sister, who was to marry Lord Palmerston, the man whose mistress she had been for many years.
In 1923 the 543-acre estate was purchased by Sir Charles Nall-Cain; he was created Baron Brocket in 1933. It was converted for use as a maternity hospital during World War II, and over 8000 babies were born there. These infants, now pensioners, are called the Brocket Babies.
The estate was inherited by his son Charles Ronald Nall-Cain, who developed the estate and turned the Hall into a conference centre for corporate events and governmental meetings. In 1992 he built the first of two golf courses, which was named after the second Lord Melbourne. An ideal setting for women who want to play golf and who expect impeccable sports facilities as well as a good lunch. The golf isn’t mandatory, though: the grounds are ideal for gentle rambles around all those acres.
Brocket Hall is available for private hire and boasts an impressive ballroom where Lady Caroline Lamb first introduced the Waltz – a daring dance which found partners locked in an embrace. It has the second-longest table in Britain (called ‘The Prime Minister’s Table’) which looks stunning when laid with fine china, sparkling glassware and flowers for wedding parties or banquets. Huge chandeliers add still further to the timeless elegance.
The thirty bedrooms (another sixteen at Melbourne Lodge are also available) are decorated in sumptuous style with superb linen, original oil paintings and antique furniture. The unspoilt views from the windows transport one back to another era of opulence and charm.
The fine-dining restaurant Auberge du Lac is set in the grounds of Brocket Hall. It was once a hunting lodge and dates back to 1760. It offers five unique dining rooms all with views across the championship golf-course. The furnishings and attention to detail are everything that you would expect from this Michelin-star restaurant.
Executive Chef Phil Thompson joined Auberge du Lac in 2002 as sous-chef, after working with celebrated chefs in leading London kitchens including the Lanesborough (Phil was only 17 when he worked for renowned chef Paul Gayler) and L'Escargot. He took over as Executive Chef in 2005 and now showcases the best of British ingredients, as well as those from further afield, with flair and dare. It’s no surprise that he has once again retained the coveted Michelin star. He comes from a family of chefs so his culinary success is evidently a combination of genetics and immense skill.
The restaurant is famed not only for its haute cuisine but also for its exceptional wine cellar of 750 bins. Auberge du Lac’s chief sommelier, Laurent Tavernier, who has worked at Michelin-starred restaurants around the world, is responsible for pairing the best of wine with the best of food. He gives advice to the timid taster and presents the connoisseur with intriguing quaffing opportunities.
The main dining room is cosy and cottagey, more elegant than rustic with low lights and candles to add a sense of romance. A three-course dinner can be had at a very affordable £55 but you will want to take advantage of that comprehensive wine list.
We sipped our 1998 Devaux Blanc de Blanc and pondered the menu. Half a dozen starters and the same of main courses. I chose Foie Gras marinated in Port and Armagnac with a garnish of gingerbread crumbs. A rich indulgence spread on a slice of toasted brioche. Laurent Tavernier suggested a pink Moscato called Innocent Bystander, from Australia. A quite exceptional lightly effervescent wine with a hint of melon, which I will be looking out for at the wine merchant’s.
My guest, a seafood lover, was tempted by the Mullet Ceviche but, reminded that American crayfish are now the scourge of British waterways, he was coaxed towards the poached crayfish. We couldn’t tell the nationality of the crustacean, but we hoped it was not native. Riesling Dreissigacker was the wine to accompany this starter – a good hit of citrus and a suspicion of apple.
My main course was a display of all things porcine. The fillet of pork was butter-tender and cooked to blushing medium rare; slow-roast belly was joined by black pudding and a sweet prune or two. It’s a popular liaison in France, but we in these islands have traditionally served apple with pork, so Phil Thompson coats his fillet with this fruit, creating an entente cordiale between the apple and dried plum. A glass of Syrah from New Zealand was fruity with a subtle spiciness.
The Hay-baked Lamb was always going to be the main course for my companion. The meat was first presented in its rustic terracotta pot with the still-glowing straw embers. The vessel was whisked away and the meat dusted off to return as a sophisticated plate of various cuts of lamb, a mound of couscous and a pithivier (flaky pastry pie) stuffed with goat’s cheese, anchovy and sweetbreads. The robust flavour of the little pie was contrasted by the sweetness of the lamb and complemented by a glass of Portuguese Romaneira, which was akin to port with full-on red berry flavour and of warm character. Ideal with any red meat.
The cheese cart at Auberge du Lac is legendary. It can muster around 25 diverse cheeses which are wheeled to one’s table on a sturdy, chunky, wooden trolley. I would recommend that you pace yourself, or regret, as we did, the lack of interior space to pack away a morsel or two of tangy blue or oozing Brie, but we couldn’t resist the desserts on offer.
My fellow diner once again chose an item cooked its own container. Honey-glazed Fig Tatin with Walnut Praline arrived in a miniature cast-iron casserole. Those little fruits still speak of warmer and more exotic climes, even though they are common in supermarkets these days. If one can’t pick figs warm from the tree then perhaps Phil Thompson’s confection comes a close second. Another Riesling was in order with this dessert. Mount Horrocks Cordon Cut from Clare Valley, Australia had the sweetness of honey with ripe citrus notes.
Granny Smith Soufflé, Poached Blackberries and Condensed Milk was the title of my finishing dish. I could tell you how much I love grassy fresh apple desserts; I could mention that blackberries remind me of childhood in warm late summer. Truth is that anything with condensed milk has got to be a winner. All the flavours and textures of this combination married together to give a twist to that traditional favourite of apples-and-blackberries. A glass of amber Jurançon from Chateau Joly was a perfect choice and is even available in some supermarkets.
I am sometimes disappointed by Michelin-starred restaurants. Perhaps one has unrealistic expectations. Chefs are only human and there is only so much innovation and polish that a humble plate of food can stand. Phil Thompson and his team are serving some of the best dishes around, at realistic prices, in a location that will entice you back for those special occasions. I defy anyone who has a passion for food to leave disappointed. Auberge du Lac surpassed all expectations.
Brocket Hall is situated just 22 miles from the West End of London. Seven miles away, Luton International airport offers private jet facilities. Alternatively, helicopters may be landed on the front lawn by prior arrangement.
Hotel and restaurant review: Brocket Hall, Welwyn, Hertfordshire, AL8 7XG
Phone: +44 (0) 1707 335241
Fax: +44 (0) 1707 375166
It’s just a five minute walk from Victoria Station and not far from Buckingham Palace, although nobody has suggested that HM has ever popped in for a schooner of sherry. This is an oasis of homey comfort and good food which beckons office workers for lunch, locals in the evenings and tourists at the weekends. Those good folks will return home with tales of “the cutest pub you ever did see” and “Abner just loves the food those Britishers eat over there”.
The first floor private dining room at The Phoenix is home to the Geronimo Training School. That isn’t a university for renegade Native Americans. The Geronimo in question is a company that over the past decade and a half has earned a reputation for quality pubs. The recent accolade “Food Operator of the Year 2010” from The Great British Pub Food Awards illustrates that they have been recognised by the food and beverage industry for continued high standards.
In January 2011 The Phoenix become the HQ of the Geronimo Inns' first training kitchen. This project is overseen by Executive Chef Peter Wright, who will give guests the opportunity to be the first to try new seasonal dishes before they are introduced to the pubs in the group. The training kitchen will be serving lunches from 12-3pm from Tuesday to Thursday every week and one can choose from a daily changing menu of 3 starters, 3 mains and 3 desserts. Guest comments are encouraged, with diners being requested to fill out a simple questionnaire about both the food and the service.
No need to feel anxious about the “training” aspect of the kitchen. It’s just a way of refining dishes and allowing chefs to learn about the new menu, to enable them to present uniformly high-end food at any of the Geronimo inns. Both the kitchen staff and front-of-house team did a grand job when I visited in January. The room was full, with a large party of office workers. They all seemed to enjoy their meals (I had a peek at their questionnaires), which all arrived in a timely fashion. I have seen “restaurants” fare less well under pressure.
It’s about now in my review that I wax lyrical about the dishes I ate. I might encourage my reader to try those very same dishes on their visit to a particular restaurant. I might recommend the signature dish that is sorely missed by regulars when the chef has the temerity to remove it from the menu. I can only tell you that the dishes you will be offered will likely not be the same as those I ordered. It’s the nature of a training kitchen that those seasonal recipes will change frequently. Suffice it to say that my quiche was ample and unbeatable, and that the slow-cooked pork belly (very trendy these days) was tender of texture with delicate aromatic flavour, and that the marmalade pudding was a real, honest comfort pud – the sort I would remember from my boarding school if I had ever been to one.
The first floor of The Phoenix does not disappoint. It has a rustic yet contemporary decor. The wooden tables are eminently covetable. The food represents pub grub at its gastronomic best and the serving staff are friendly. One could ask for nothing more ...apart from, perhaps, the recipe for that pudding.
Tuesday - Thursday, 12-3pm (bookings taken 7 days in advance or walk-ins)
2 courses for £10.00
3 courses for £13.50
11am - 11.00pm (Mon-Sat)
12pm - 10.30pm (Sunday)
London restaurant review: The Phoenix
14 Palace Street, Victoria, London SW1E 5JA
Phone: 020 7828 8136
They were not universally welcomed in India. Jadi Rana, the king of Gujurat, is said to have pleaded “My country is overflowing already so how would we find room for you as well?” The leader of the Parsi community asked for a bowl of milk filled to the brim and also a spoonful of sugar. He then carefully stirred the sugar into to the bowl without spilling a drop of milk. “We are like sugar. We will only sweeten your land.” explained the Parsi.
Parsis have enjoyed great success in India but we in London also have a celebrated Parsi who has come to sweeten London with his notable and delicious food, and he even offers his guests the chance to try some traditional Parsi fare. Celebrated chef Cyrus Todiwala invites one and all to The Khaadras Club Night!
This ‘Greedy Gourmand’s Club’ was established after Parsi friends begged Cyrus and his wife and partner, Pervin, for some dishes from their own community. It was to be a meeting of friends with a focus on food. It has become such a popular event that Café Spice Namasté has made these feasts available at intervals throughout the year. The event is always eagerly awaited by Parsis but equally by lovers of fine food, and as this is a true Parsi event one can be sure that the helpings will be generous. It is indeed well-named the Greedy Gourmand’s Club.
The food on these evenings is authentic and presented to an audience comprised of many who know exactly what they want, and how it should be cooked and presented. I am no expert on this little-known cuisine but I can attest to the fact that the food was mouth-watering, served with many smiles and much good humour, and there was plenty of it – food and humour, that is. This wasn’t just an evening at any old restaurant. This was a Todiwala celebration and had the air of a family party. Cyrus and Pervin are famed for knowing their regulars by name, and that warmth is magnified on these special evenings when all of us were welcomed as friends.
The company was outstanding, with many a story told and laughs provided by our hosts. But the food was the centre of our convivial evening.
Saria/achaar was a basket of light crackers served with spicy chutneys, while Waffer Nay Bhaji Purr Eedu – finely chopped onion sautéed with minced garlic and cumin, blended with chopped spinach and wafers, gently simmered with whole steamed egg on top, served with crispy naan – was our first course.
Chutney May Luptaeli Machchi - filet of fish folded over with fresh green chutney, rolled in flour, dipped in egg, fried and served on Tamota Ni Gravy Nay Rotli, a rich tomato sauce – was exceptional.
The main course was Vaegna Ni Buriani - Lamb and Aubergine stew – although the name does not honestly do this dish justice - dark and flavorsome meat wrapped in slices of melting aubergine: there must be a better word than stew. There was more meat in the guise of Masala Ma Taraeli Jungli Murghi Ni Boti – dices of chicken marinated in red masala, pan fried, which was remarkable for its crunchy texture. Moreish when served with Papaeta Nay Mohhtta Murcha - cubes of potato cooked with diced mixed peppers, cumin and garlic.
Saev Nay Mitthu Dahi is a traditional Parsi dessert served at celebrations, a confection of vermicelli, fruit and nuts served with thick yoghurt which was a fitting sweet end to a meal that was indeed a celebration of Parsi culinary heritage and culture.
This veritable feast is prepared just once every couple of months, and has a different menu every time: these regulars want to see different dishes to tempt their well-educated palates. At a very reasonable £25 for all of that food, I’ll be returning again and again.
Book by contacting Binay Aryal at email@example.com
London Asian restaurant review: Café Spice Namasté, 16 Prescot Street, London E1 8AZ
Open Monday – Friday
Lunch: 12.00 – 3.00 pm
Dinner: 6.15 – 10.30 pm
Saturday: 6:30 pm – 10:30 pm
Closed on Bank Holidays and Sundays
Visit Café Spice Namasté here
Following the success of the Soho original there is now a second restaurant, on the former St Alban site on Regent Street – a prime location for a Japanese restaurant in a parade that has several shops and restaurants of the same ethnic persuasion. With a total capacity of 300 and spanning a colossal 8,000 ft², the venue could have had all the charm of an aircraft hangar. It has taken thoughtful design to make this restaurant feel intimate.
The Soho branch was unique and fun but St. James is Inamo all growed up. Yes there is still the techy element but it’s upstaged by the decor. It reminds one of walking through a glade of bamboo. OK, so not many of us can boast of having had such an experience, but we can imagine. Chunky stands of straw-coloured bamboo act as dividers, while movable screens offer flexibility – a corner for a romantic dinner, a space for an after-work gathering.
There are a further two private dining rooms which can seat up to 16 each, where one can have a more personally tailored dining experience and even bring along one’s own music. Perhaps those tunes should reflect the ethnic style of the restaurant. Snatches from the Japanese classics rather than J-pop or, heaven forbid, Abba.
The bar at Inamo St James is striking and accommodates not only cocktail preparation but that of sushi and sashimi and the like. Two deft chefs prepare your food to order. It’s an area in which to congregate before moving to your table.
The sophisticated fusion menu has influences from Japan, China, Thailand, and Korea. Small dishes can be ordered like oriental tapas. You can take your time and graze, the interactive menu lets the diner pick and order individual dishes at will. Allow your meal to evolve.
We settled at the sushi bar and watched as our food was prepared. We were taken by the new dishes on offer. Black Bean Tuna – seared tuna coated in black bean and wasabi, served on pickled mouli with cucumber miso dressing – was a flavourful delight. I must admit that I often find cold Japanese fish dishes to be bland, but this one hit all the right textural and taste notes.
Unagi Maki – grilled eel and avocado maki wrapped in chives – is another must-try from the Small Dish section. Eel is a popular oily fish and it’s a shame we don’t find it more often on Western menus. It seems to be a staple in Japanese restaurants so I usually take advantage.
Beef Buri Bop – a traditional Japanese rice dish served in a hot metal casserole with garlic soy, ginger sauce and rib-eye steak – was the star of the evening. There is an element of theatre surrounding this dish. A human arrives with your cast-iron vessel. He removes the lid with a flourish to reveal a mound of rice with an egg yolk returning one’s gaze like a jaundiced Cyclops. There is a garnish of almost raw meat and a small jug of sauce which is poured around the rice. The contents of the pot are then mixed with a few stirs and scrapes to reveal golden rice crust on the bottom. The egg and the meat cook on the hot metal and a delicious aroma rises from this substantial dish.
If you loved the Soho Inamo then you will be equally pleased with the St James sister restaurant. If you didn’t like Inamo Soho then do try St James. It has the same fascinating selection of dishes but the ambiance is a world away. It has a focus on style and it’s achieved that very well.
London Asian restaurant review: Inamo
4-12 Regent Street, London SW1Y 4PE
For reservations phone: 020 7484 0500
For private event bookings phone: 020 7104 2040
Visit Inamo St James here
Triphal should not, however, be too anxious about the proximity of its neighbour. It has only been open a few months but it has already garnered glowing reviews from customers once loyal to Sarkhel’s. Triphal is starting to attract its own following of regulars, and there can be no finer accolade than that.
This is a small establishment that was a Thai restaurant in its previous incarnation. The murals give a nod to floating markets but the ambiance is pleasing, the staff attentive and the food as well executed here as at any high-end central London Indian restaurant. Its menu is confident and appealing with plenty of regional diversity and a hint of individual inspiration.
Onion Pakora (crisp-fried onions in gram flour batter served with tamarind chutney) is a standard in many a high-street curry house but Triphal treats the dish with a bit of respect. The pakoras were light and the ragged edges maintained their crunch till the end of our rather leisurely first course.
Crispy Squid fried in spiced rice flour with lime zest and chilli was another refined starter. The rice flour gave a white and delicate coating to the squid. It’s my favourite seafood but it can so often disappoint when the chef overcooks. There is nothing tempting in a mouthful of elastic bands. The example at Triphal was just right and moreish. Don’t order one portion to share as it’s unseemly to brawl in public.
Rang Biranga Paneer (Homemade cottage cheese cubes marinated in fenugreek leaf and cooked in the tandoor) could stand alone as a main course with just a few accompaniments. A striking skewer of large blocks of paneer interleaved with vegetables. The cheese was gilded and deliciously scorched and had robust texture. This showed the acceptable face of vegetarianism, a dish that is substantial enough for even a meat-eater – a must-try starter.
Dal Makhani – slow-cooked black lentils finished with cream – is a traditional favourite and Triphal adds just a little chilli heat. Order lots of naan bread to scoop this dal as I promise you it’s some of the lightest naan to be had. A simple element of the meal, but good bread is a joy and in my opinion much more interesting than rice.
Chingri Malai Curry – King Prawn simmered in coconut and curry leaf sauce – should surely become a signature dish. This is a mild, saffron-coloured curry that is less heavy than some kormas that I have eaten at other restaurants. Perhaps this is the dish to reserve for that rice. The sauce was flavourful and it grieved me to leave even a smear, but alas I was stuffed with side dishes of aubergines, and peas and mushrooms ...and extra naan.
I wish every restaurant well but there are some that deserve to do very well indeed. Triphal is one such establishment. Its success can only depend on publicity. Its prices are more than competitive and the food will assure your return. The chef here can compete with many who have become household names. Word-of-mouth recommendations are worth more than paragraphs in newspapers or magazines. Yes, my written review encourages you to visit Triphal, but my mouth says “The food is a delight” and “Can I have some more Chingri Malai Curry please?”
London Asian restaurant review: Triphal Indian Restaurant – Southfields
201 Replingham Road, Southfields, SW18 5LY
Tel: 020 8870 0188
Open 7 days a week
Lunch - 12.00pm to 2.30pm
Dinner - 6.00pm to 10.30pm
Catherine Street, under that or other names, has been a thoroughfare since the 1600s. Its proximity to theatres meant that drinking dens thrived along with establishments for all the other colourful pastimes that go with an area famed for giving a good time. But certainly the quality of the Opera Tavern indicates that by the Victorian era, it was a neighbourhood that, if not exactly gentrified, was probably somewhere you could take your auntie without fear, for an evening of thespian entertainment.
Simon and Sanja Mullins began working on the Opera Tavern project in May 2010, when they were offered the site. They felt that there was a gap in the market for their food, a style that has been so well received at their other two establishments, Dehesa and Salt Yard, presenting tapas dining at its finest.
The ground-level bar area features a Robata grill. In Japanese, robata means "by the fireside," and refers to the ancient country-style cooking of northern Japanese fishermen. Charcoal grilling serves very well at Opera Tavern, delivering not only added flavour to the food but theatre to its expectant audience. It’s where fresh Iberico pork is grilled to medium rare, as one would good-quality beef steak, rendering it tender and tasty.
The first-floor dining room offers seating for around 40. Its windows look out onto The Theatre Royal, which fronts Catherine Street (earlier named Bridges or Brydges Street) and backs onto Drury Lane. The building standing today is the most recent of four theatres on the site dating back to 1663, making it the oldest London theatre.
The décor in this dining room has an understated flamboyance quite in keeping with its theatreland location. Chandelier and polished plaster walls reflect light from sconces. The room is small enough to feel intimate and sufficiently casual to mirror the makeup of food and clientele. Classic and contemporary elements here.
We ordered Padrón Pepper and Crispy Ibérico Pigs Ears to nibble while we pondered the menu. The squat little fried peppers are ubiquitous on tapas bills of fare these days but that’s no bad thing. They are popular and authentic and moreish. All mild ones in our dish but there is often that capsicum cuckoo in the nest. The one that packs a searing punch.
The pig’s ears were addictive. Not two whole ears flopping over the edge of a plate, these were delicate slivers of, well, porcine lug which were crunchy and just the thing served alongside a chilled sherry or sparkling prosecco.
Plenty of choice for a group of friends of dithering taste. Wayne is a vegetarian, Felicity will eat fish and vegetables, Attila is a carnivore and Julian is just a picky eater. Something for everyone on the Opera Tavern menu – order a couple of plates per person and allow Julian to try a little of this and that. From the ground-floor grill comes some fine cooked meats. Hams, charcuterie, cheese, fish, and vegetables are listed here in tapas-sized portions.
The Mini Ibérico Pork and Foie Gras Burger has become a signature dish just a couple of weeks after opening. That was our first choice. It’s succulent and full of flavour, very different from your chain patty. A connoisseur burger if ever there was one. It’s small but very rich.
Salt Marsh Lamb Leg and Kidney with Smoked Paprika was my guest’s choice. This skewer was served on its own miniature wooden chopping-board. Glossy and tempting with plenty of caramelised grilled flavour. Not overly strong in the offal department and that can only be a blessing.
Hams feature highly at Opera Tavern. Consider the Jamón de Teruel, Soincar, Aragon, D.O.P with perhaps some Capacollo with fennel, and then some cheese such as the soft and oozing Torta de Barros made with ewes milk in Extremadura. This was served with crisp flatbread and some onion chutney – a cheese with real character. But if you want a selection then try the Three Manchegos with Quince. This is a fruit which looks like a fuzzy apple and is rock-hard in its uncooked state. It’s used extensively in Spain for making Membrillo, or quince jelly.
Braised and Chargrilled Octopus with Smoked Potatoes and Piperade tempted me. And it did not disappoint. All those cephalopods are notoriously difficult to cook. Or should I say that the cooking is easy but one needs to know for how long to cook. The version here was as soft in texture as flaky white fish.
Braised Short Rib of Beef with Polenta, Cavolo Nero and Sage is a must-try for all those who crave beefy beef. This cut of meat needs long slow cooking to produce a tender round that could be eaten with a spoon. The polenta was a good foil for the robust meat.
Salad of Pickled Salsify, Chestnuts and Roosevelt Potatoes with Winter Truffle Dressing was a light dish to pick at, alongside the short rib. The mound of creamy white vegetable had a tangy edge from the dressing that cut through the rich beef flavour.
Courgette Flowers Filled with Goats’ Cheese and Drizzled with Honey is well worth trying. Once again it’s the contrast between sweet vegetable and salty cheese filling that works so well. Yes, it’s a classic preparation but I only eat it when visiting tapas bars. Life is too short to stuff a flower.
Slow Cooked Quince with Biscotti, Mascarpone and Moscatel with a glass of Moscato Rosa was my guest’s dessert, I being too full to contemplate another mouthful. He pronounced this to be a delightful end to the meal. The slices of fruit were poached but retained a good firmness with perfumed apple flavour. The wine had fresh floral notes with hints of cherry and red fruits.
This is indeed high-end tapas. The first-floor dining room presents the more formal face of tapas whilst the ground floor will attract those who would prefer a fast bite. Great location and, no surprise, a thoughtful and charming restaurant from the Simon Mullins stable. It’s not the cheapest tapas in town but you get what you pay for in quality of food and ambiance. I’ll return to graze my way through the menu.
London restaurant review: Opera Tavern
23 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5JS
Phone: 020 7836 3680
Portal is a Portuguese restaurant but it’s far from the sunny climes of Iberia. The nearest Underground station is Farringdon which means ‘fern-covered hill’, and it’s William and Nicholas de Faringdon, whose name is said to have originated from one of those calm and lush summits, who were aldermen in the early 13th Century. Nicholas purchased the area of the Farringdon ward of the City of London in 1279 and became alderman of it a couple of years later. In 1394 the ward was split into Farringdon Within and Farringdon Without – the In and Out refering to the London Wall which slices through the ward.
Clerkenwell is the neighbourhood, and it’s been transformed over these last couple of decades. It was an area famed for poverty as well as breweries (that accounts for the poverty), smelters, printers and also paint manufacturers. Portal now inhabits a former paint shop.
The building is Grade 2 listed and dates back to the Georgian era, and it belonged to the aforementioned paint mixer who sold his wares from the front part of the shop. Portal has been so sympathetically designed that it has retained much of the charm of its ancient incarnation. Matt black paintwork would have been the norm in the 1700s and it’s used here to create a contemporary restaurant with a nod to the past. Original architecture with modern features are combined by its co-owner, the world-renowned architect Ken MacKay, who restored Portal’s original exterior and retained the original windows, shelves and floors.
Between the First and Second World Wars a warehouse was built at the back and that is now the kitchen and the main dining area. The courtyard was converted into a conservatory, making a stunning space showing old brick to great aesthetic advantage. The Adega Room at one side of the dining room is a private glass-doored wine store, furnished with racks of fine wine from every corner of the world and a striking table which seats up to ten people.
Portal’s manager, Antonio Correia, has an extensive knowledge of Port and he is a member of the prestigious Royal Port Society. This appreciation of Port prompted his friendship with Pedro Branco who owns the family-run wine-making company, Quinta do Portal. This was the inspiration for the name of the restaurant.
Celebrated Portuguese chef Victor Felisberto has recently taken the helm and provides a menu which offers the best of Portuguese cuisine. There are contemporary dishes as well as traditional fare. The list isn’t huge but it’s no worse for that. There is something for every taste: carnivores, vegetarians and even Vegans. Victor says that “Coming to the gastronomic capital of the world, and especially to a restaurant as highly regarded as Portal, gives me the perfect platform to display my flair and style of cooking.”
Goat Cheese Tart with Crispy Leeks, Asparagus, Honey and Toasted Almonds was my starter. This was a delightful twist on the ubiquitous tart. No thick pastry here: a substantial round of cheese is perched atop a round of pastry, making the whole a delicate affair. The honey glaze was an innovation that I will personally be stealing.
Braised Bisaro with Pea Mash and Roasted Baby Peppers sounded intriguing. What was Bisaro? Bisaro is a particular type of Iberian pig. It forages for its own food so its meat is rather akin to wild boar. The Bisaro meat is marinated for 12-16 hours in red wine and vegetables, garlic and other seasonings. It’s then slow-cooked overnight to present a truly melting texture. This must surely be a signature dish and a must-try recommendation from this reviewer. I’ll be returning to sample the Stuffed Pig’s Trotter very soon. I know this chef will work wonders with that undervalued appendage.
Portal Pasteis de Nata with a Mocha Shot had my name on them. These are those traditional Portuguese egg custard tarts. I have been a fan of such confections all my life. I would buy an English custard tart on my way home from school. Portal offers the delicate Portuguese version. The pastry was light and flaky and the filling creamy. There are two per portion and I was near to complaining that an odd number of anything always looks better on a plate ...so could I have another three please. The mocha shot was chilled and refreshing but those tarts were the stars.
I didn’t know what to expect of Portal. I spent an evening in one of the most pleasant restaurants I have ever visited. Yes, it’s a matter of taste but Portal suits my taste for decor and cuisine, and I suspect I am not alone. It’s unique and has been added to my list of favourites.
London restaurant review: Portal Restaurant
88 St John Street, London EC1M 4EH
Phone: 020 7253 6950
Visit Portal here
Monday to Friday: Lunch 12.00 to 15.00. Dinner 18.00 to 22.15
Saturday: Dinner 18.00 to 22.15
Bar drinks and Tapas 12.00 to 22.00
Namaasté Kitchen is the new restaurant concept from The Salaam Namaste Group. This latest venture is just a few yards from Camden Town Underground station and on bustling Parkway, a neighbourhood that has long been associated with eclectic shopping and food of varying degrees of quality. Namaasté Kitchen is a welcome addition to the thoroughfare.
The brick façades and market stalls give a hint of Victoriana. You will remember Bob Cratchit, the clerk to Ebenezer Scrooge. He lived in Camden Town so one must suppose that dear Mrs. Cratchit would have shopped in the very street that now houses Namaasté Kitchen. She would have been, and indeed I was, impressed with the smart entrance to this contemporary restaurant.
There are no overt Indian statues, paintings or chachkies to give the clue to its culinary ethnicity. The name over the door does that, but this modern establishment states by its design that it’s a worthy restaurant that just happens to offer sub-continental fare. Confidence is growing in the Asian restaurant world and it’s good to see the more adventurous restaurants taking their place alongside their much-lauded European counterparts. Indian cuisine is one of the world’s classics, so should need none of the trappings of a theme park to entice visitors across the threshold, and Namaasté Kitchen was thankfully devoid of such excesses. A tasteful Ganesh is attractive, but perhaps not a tapestry of the Taj Mahal at midnight – that should go the way of red flock wallpaper.
We settled ourselves at our table. Comfy ivory upholstery covered the ribbed banquettes and chairs. Furnishings that were attractive and stylish without being cold and minimalist. An accent of natural brick here, a wall of cut logs there, and an array of ceiling lamps contrived a cosy space for couples yet provided flexible dining for groups. Our companions for the evening were American, German and Scottish businessmen, a brace or two of European tourists and some young men who, just a couple of months after opening, had evidently become regulars. A good sign.
At the far end of Namaasté Kitchen are several booths to cater for private dining. Opposite there is an open grill/tandoor/tawa station. This presents the prospect of a little culinary theatre at weekends when the place is buzzing. The menu sweeps across the subcontinent from Pakistan (good to see that country mentioned on menus) to Goa. Not as long a menu as its sister restaurant but there is something here for every taste.
I chose Soft-Shell Crab as my starter. The batter was delicate and crunchy and the flavour was fresh. Good presentation on the ever-popular slate. My guest, a man of carnivorous disposition, was attracted by the Anglo-Indian Chicken Liver on Toast. This was robust and hearty and a unique addition to Indian restaurant menus, as far as I am aware. He professed this dish to be delicious, rich, well seasoned, and the thick slice of apple was a good foil for the offal.
Biryani can be such an enticing dish if well executed. In the past we were subjected to rice dishes that owed more to Vesta than Vishnu (although biryani is said to have originated in Persia). It has often been a bland affair with a nondescript vegetable curry served on the side to distract you from the biryani itself. The version here is spectacular. It’s rather reminiscent of the Cow Pie which was the repast of choice of Desperate Dan in comic books. That confection displayed horns and hoofs protruding from piecrust. My biryani arrived with a flourish and was a sizable bowl of spiced rice with the business end of a lamb shank sticking like a flag pole from the centre. The pastry replicated the sealed pot in which the rice would traditionally have been cooked (a little terracotta casserole sealed with dough). The waiter deftly cut away the crust to reveal meat that did truly fall from the bone with only the encouragement of the vibration from the passing traffic. The rice was both spicy and perfumed and one could indeed imagine Maharajas eating this as the peacock-feather fans wafted. This was the best biryani I have tasted in ages and enough in one serving to satisfy at least one hungry rugby player.
My guest ordered Tandoori Rubiyan Duck. This nods to the cuisine of Rajasthan and in particular Rajput dishes which take advantage of game birds. The succulent slices of duck were served with a tiger prawn, making this a luxurious plateful, but very reasonably priced, as are all the items on the menu. Once again a substantial portion.
Dessert consisted of a Coconut Ice-Cream which was a light and refreshing end to the meal and was accompanied by tandoori pineapple – a winning combination. My only complaint, and it is a small one, is that my Mango Crème Brulée, whilst being expertly bruléd, was not set. Delicious, yes certainly, but it was rather too liquid. For me, this little lapse in an otherwise superb meal can happily be overlooked.
London Asian restaurant review: Namaasté Kitchen
64 Parkway, Camden,
London NW1 7AH
Located in the heart of London and just a short distance from Trafalgar Square, Embankment Underground station and the Thames sits The Commonwealth Club. This a contemporary haven of a venue that offers space to check emails, meet friends or clients, and has flexible areas that can morph and move to host either corporate or private events. But we non-members can also enjoy a little of that well-placed conviviality, even if it is only in the restaurant and in the evenings. A visit or two might even encourage you to seek membership.
It started life as the Colonial Society. On Friday June 26, 1868, Viscount Bury declared that the intention was “to provide a meeting place for gentlemen interested in colonial and Indian affairs.” The Society’s first clubhouse was above a shirt shop in The Strand, and it stayed there till 1885. Women were admitted as Fellows from 1922.
The expanded and renovated premises on Northumberland Avenue were opened in 1936 by The Duke and Duchess of York, later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, mother of our present Queen. In May 1958 what had become the Royal Empire Society took its present name of the Royal Commonwealth Society. Within it, The Commonwealth Club was opened, after extensive building work, in 1998.
The Commonwealth Kitchen and its head chef Oliver Tobias serves up an ever-changing menu of modern European classics with the addition of Commonwealth-themed dishes. The regular menu changes every month to reflect seasonal produce, and the international menu showcases a different Commonwealth country every couple of weeks. Oliver was previously at the Royal Opera House’s Balconies Restaurant so has plenty of experience of providing food to the discerning and well-travelled set.
The Commonwealth Kitchen is a light, bright and airy space with striking movable banquettes to accommodate events. The menu might not be long but it offers something for every taste. Even frequent dinners will not easily become bored. None of the “this is Wednesday so it must be mince” mentality. When I visited, the chef was presenting dishes that gave a nod to India. Just now it’s Australia with such items as Sizzling Kangaroo Sausages, char-grilled ‘Newies’ and Mountain Pepper Berry Jus. One might finish that antipodean’s repast with Apricot and Eucalyptus Pavlova.
We chose the seasonal menu and I started with Terrine of Rabbit and Black-leg Chicken, with Sand-grown Carrot Purée. This truly was a terrine rather than a paté – a coarse-chopped meaty preparation with robust flavour and texture.
Poached Sea Bass, Pumpkin, Cranberry and Tarragon Vierge took my guest’s fancy. He is a man known to have a love of fish but a healthy distaste for anything containing a bone. He was more than content with his bass that was delicate and well-complemented by its accompaniments. The cranberry worked as a particularly delicious foil for the sweet fish.
Chard Farm Venison ‘roast and braised’, Confit Celeriac, Red Cabbage and Bitter Chocolate Jus was his main course. He was anxious that his meat be cooked to just past bloody. He was advised that over-cooking might result in a tougher final result but the venison arrived with only a florid lacquer and was still butter-tender.
North Scotland Monkfish, Mussels, Orzo Pasta and Shellfish Nage was one of the most agreeable seafood dishes I have had in ages. The monkfish was hearty and substantial and served atop a risotto of orzo, a much under-valued pasta and more delicate than the more predictable rice.
Spiced Apple Cake and Blackberry Variations along with Peppermint Tea Panna Cotta and Turkish Delight were our sweets. The berry variations were, in fact, ice cream, a tuile biscuit and a sauce to garnish a cinnamon-spiced and very light apple cake. The panna cotta was a rich and creamy triumph offering a canvas to the miniature cubes of pink and girly Turkish Delight. That dessert definitely needs another sampling.
The Commonwealth Kitchen is the public face of the Commonwealth Club. Take advantage of the newly relaxed rules to visit and enjoy an evening of contemporary British dishes, or take a little culinary trip. The map is no longer covered with Imperial red but we can still appreciate our multi-cultural heritage in a most palatable fashion.
London restaurant review: The Commonwealth Club
25 Northumberland Avenue, London WC2N 5AP
Phone: 020 7766 9200
Turkish cuisine in London doesn’t have a reputation for presenting itself as ‘high-end’. The majority of Turkish restaurants are of the ubiquitous fast-food variety, selling kebabs. Nothing wrong with that as long as the food is well cooked and well presented. Let’s not be food snobs – moist, seasoned meat with some salad and a selection of piquant sauces is often just what’s needed to fill that dietary void between 1am and breakfast.
Sofra, however, shows another side of Turkish cooking and it’s a welcome addition to the restaurant scene in Mayfair. It occupies a corner plot a block or so back from Piccadilly and it’s a charming building. The wood-framed windows give a Victorian gothic air and a thoroughly inviting warm light shone from those very windows on a cold Monday night in December.
We gladly accepted that illuminated invitation and found a table in the corner offering a view of the fast-filling restaurant. It isn’t, in fact, as large as it first appears. Artfully-placed mirrors trick the diner into believing that there are plenty more tables behind those pillars. The tables are laid with crisp white linen, with napkins tied with red ribbon. Red tea lights added to the rather festive but subtle theme.
Our fellow guests were a cross-section of international humanity: Irish businessmen, American bankers, French students, three generations of a Turkish family, and some British tourists. Some of these folks seemed to be regulars. Always a good sign, and especially so when Mayfair visitors are spoilt for choice by so many other dining possibilities nearby.
Our waitress was quick to present us with a basket of fresh bread, olives and hummus. That gave us time to scrutinise the surprisingly extensive menu. Yes, there is indeed a good selection of Turkish favourites but this menu also includes those dishes from around the globe that have become familiar to all of us. Satay, Malaysian Prawns and Tempura graced the starter section, with main dishes including Black Cod with Miso. We wanted to try the regular Turkish fare and there was plenty to choose from, but before we had a chance to decide, we were served with a hot lentil soup taster. A nice touch.
We settled on the lamb-topped hummus, which had been recommended by a friend, and this was creamy and light rather than the coarser varieties more often encountered in supermarkets. My guest selected the Spicy Turkish Sausages, which were served in a small frying-pan. These are a must-try; do use some of the aforementioned bread to mop up the flavourful oil. Sofra would be a good venue for a meal with friends: consider ordering a selection from the starter menu – a meal of Turkish Tapas with something for every taste.
I chose the House Speciality as my main course. This was meatballs covering a layer of cubes of bread. The patties were dressed with both a tomato sauce and yogurt. This might sound an unlikely preparation, but it works. A good-quality loaf is essential – a base of Mother’s Pride white sliced would lack any kind of impact. The meat was very lightly seasoned, so a good dish for those anxious about salt intake.
My guest was intrigued by a dish called His Highness’s Favourite. Not quite sure which particular Highness this dish is named for, but he was evidently a man of refined taste. The aubergine was outstanding with real smoky flavour and smooth texture. The lamb stew which covered the purée was delicately seasoned.
Don’t even think of missing dessert. I would recommend the Ottoman Kadayif. The pastry shreds are dry rather than syrup-soaked as with Baklava. This was a cream-filled dream with a little jug of sugar syrup to drizzle. A light dessert but a triumph of crunchy elegance. A cup of medium sweet Turkish coffee was all that was needed to complete the experience.
I enjoyed Sofra for dinner and I look forward to visiting another branch for breakfast very soon.
London restaurant review: Sofra Mayfair
18 Shepherd Street, London W1J 7JG
Phone: +44 (0) 20 7493 3320
Visit Sofra here
So plan your trip. Cut through Chinatown, hang a left at the top of Gerrard Place and a right down Frith Street and your journey ends at no.45, just opposite Little Italy, right next door to Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. This isn’t a culinary take on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And whilst you won’t be transported through hanging fur coats to a snowscape illuminated by a lamp-post, you will find yourself in a rather tasteful corner of North Africa with more than a hint of Southern Spain.
Combining the culinary traditions of two continents is quite common. We enjoy fusion and pan-Asian meals with no thought to the marriage of disparate ingredients. The liaison between Spain and North Africa is, however, one that has endured for centuries. Indeed Spain was part of the great Islamic empire that enjoyed its European dominion for around four centuries. At the end of that religious adventure Spain retained many of the tastes of its cultured conqueror, and the world of Islam mourned the loss of those fertile lands.
El Cantara has only been open a few months but it has already won a host of regulars. Its menu is short but has wide appeal for those who enjoy the casual conviviality of Spanish tapas and for others who relish a traditional Moroccan tagine. It’s the lunch-time haunt of couples who want an express meal to revive themselves for further retail pursuits, but equally for those larger groups who deck their table with communal dishes of Paella. Yes, that’s perhaps the ethos here – sharing.
The menu offered various meal deals for a single diner or a crowd. There were only two of us so we opted for a free-style graze of inter-continental small plates to start. Hoummus was here as expected, but so were Sweet Potato Croquetas, which were a delightfully different version of the classic fried tapas found all over the Iberian Peninsula. Merguez and Feta in Philo Pastry gave a nod to the southern coast of the Mediterranean, but the stars of the spread were the Mushrooms in Garlic Oil. The smokey flavour was remarkable and those fungi exuded juices that cried out to be, and were indeed, mopped by warm flatbread. An occasion when the word ‘yummy’, not often used on this site of exquisite wordsmithery, is quite apt.
The main dishes included Lamb Tagine served in a rustic and conically-hatted eponymous dish. A bowl of plain couscous was all that was needed to make this a complete meal. Tender meat and aromatic spices. Moroccan cooking draws from sweet spices rather than the more fiery palate of South Asia.
My Skewers of Cubed Lamb had absorbed the delicate char of the grill. The meat was succulent and unadorned, being just lightly seasoned and marinated in oil and parsley. Rice and a salsa were its accompaniments, with a ramekin of mild sauce to add a delicate piquancy.
Dessert was a favourite. Crema Catalana is the Spanish (a Catalan would probably be incandescent with rage at the association with his larger neighbour) equivalent of the French Crème Brulée. Crema is, in my opinion, superior to crème brulée. The texture is silky yet more unctuous and decadent. Rather a rich custard than an apologetic jelly.
Lunch at El Cantara was a delicious confection of foods nibbled during animated conversation. A meal of fragrant dishes enjoyed in a charming restaurant of earth tones, classic tiles, intricately wrought metalwork and Marrakesh-inspired style. I‘ll return to linger on the Shisha terrace, bathe in perfumed smoke and probably order some more of those mushrooms ...if the snow leaves off!
London restaurant review: El Cantara
45 Frith Street, Soho, London, W1D 4SD
Telephone: 020 7734 6868
Visit El Cantara here
The name Degò comes from the Italian words “Degustazione” (tasting) and “Osteria” (tavern). These osterias became popular during the 1950s as good places to find traditional food. This contemporary and high-end counterpart has both food and wine as equal and complementary partners.
Degò was opened on 16th October and is enjoying increasing popularity with both Londoners and transplanted Italians (half the guests were Italians on the evening we visited). It isn’t a restaurant of the more common southern ilk with its pizza and ready use of Mediterranean ingredients. This is the food of Veneto.
Where exactly is Veneto? It’s the region of Northern Italy surrounding Venice. That brings to mind plastic gondolas and cheap souvenirs from holidays several decades past. Those little black boats with their static and lifeless oarsmen graced the top of many a black and white TV. One might fear that a restaurant representing that city could feature such outdated tchotchke (a word denoting dust-collecting ornamentation much favoured by grandmothers.) Think Italian chic restaurant, striking use of colour and some stunning red glass ceiling lamps that one is, romantically, driven to believe might have been fabricated in those celebrated Venetian glass workshops of Murano.
The walls of the downstairs restaurant are decorated with vibrant tiles in reds, black and white with accents of gold. The seating is versatile, offering low-backed leather-upholstered banquettes which can be configured to accommodate couples or parties. The black wood tables are artfully designed to house a sunken ice-bucket. Another indication that wine is taken seriously at Degò.
Massimo Mioli comes from a family of restaurateurs. Together with three childhood friends, he came to London to open Degò. Head chef is Dario Schiavo, who has already worked with Alain Ducasse. The ages of the group range from late teens to early thirties. Their youthful enthusiasm is matched by their knowledge and professionalism.
We started our culinary Veneto adventure with a taster of Ravioli di zucca, taleggio e amaretti - homemade ravioli filled with pumpkin served with taleggio cheese and amaretti biscuits. This unlikely melange of ingredients was indeed a marriage made in heaven. The delicate pasta parcels were topped with tangy cheese which was contrasted by the sweet and almondy crumbled cookies.
Uova di quaglia all’occhio di bue con pane nero e carpaccio di salmone - fried quail eggs with black bread and salmon carpaccio - offered a tapestry of colour, texture and taste. Once again the constituent parts of this simple dish contrived to present a hearty and comforting plateful.
Insalata di polipo e patate condita con olive nere e ribes - octopus and potato salad with black olives seasoned with redcurrant sauce - was another intriguing proposition. The octopus will be enjoyed by any aficionado of these cephalopod molluscs in the order Octopoda. The flesh was tender and the diced potato made this a substantial starter. I had my doubts about the fruit sauce but it honesty did add to the experience.
My guest was curious about the Suprema di pollo in crosta di sale vanigliato con tarassaco in padella - chicken supreme in a salted vanilla crust with taraxacum - which offered both flavour and theatre. The chicken is encased in the cement-like crust and de-salted by the waiter by way of deft cracks and cuts. The chicken was moist, tender and well seasoned.
Filetto di maialino da latte e pancetta con misticanza di verdure al cartoccio e ristretto di Barolo - suckling pig fillet with bacon served with steamed mixed vegetables and Barolo sauce - must surely be the Degò signature dish. The meat is delicate and flavourful with a wrap of bacon for added savour. Still more theatrics as the dish is presented en papillote. The clear cellophane is domed with the steaming pork and vegetables, which are served hot from the bag, the plain vegetables making a perfect foil for the richness of the meat. The Barolo sauce was almost a jam of reduced red wine. A well-chosen delicious accompaniment and rather stylish.
I am sure there is a law prohibiting guests from leaving Italian restaurants of any regional persuasion without trying a dessert. Gelato di castagne, tortino al cioccolato e salsa al brulé - chestnut ice-cream, chocolate tart and brulé sauce - was my seasonal choice. The chocolate tart was more of a chocolate fondant cake and a fine example of the genre. The chestnut ice cream was a revelation and has given me an idea for dessert for Christmas dinner at home. The brulé sauce was not the burnt sugar confection that I had expected but turned out to be a mulled wine sauce which was moreish and festive.
Crostatina di datteri, gianduia e salsa al mandarino - date tart with hazelnut chocolate and tangerine sauce - was my guest’s choice of dolce. He proclaimed the fruit paste on a sweet biscuit base to be good enough to encourage a second visit. The tangerine sauce had that citrus flavour that reminds one of childhood yuletides.
Degò is an eatery that is acquiring a good reputation with Italians in London as well as those who want to try a cuisine a little different from the usual high-street Italian restaurant. Nothing wrong with those, but Degò concerns itself with the specifics of Veneto and wines to enhance those unique dishes. Well worth a visit.
London restaurant review: Degò restaurant and wine bar
4 Great Portland street
London W1W 8QJ
Tel: +44 0207 636 2207
Fax: +44 0207 580 3819
The building has had a long and fascinating history which I shall explore further in my following feature in a few weeks. It successfully juggles the comforts and daring panache of a high-end contemporary hotel whilst artfully retaining classic features. The Athenaeum has ‘cosy’ writ large. It has contrived intimate spaces at every turn, not the least of which is the celebrated whisky bar. It’s rumoured to accommodate the largest collection of the eponymous beverage outside bonny Scotland.
Executive Chef David Marshall is passionate about fresh produce and one can add cheese to that list. He has created cheese with the finest of artisan cheese-makers. It’s not just the finished article that holds fascination for this chef but also the alchemy of transforming milk into a variety of memorable savoury temptations – each one with its own distinct characteristics of taste and texture and visual appeal.
We sampled a selection of remarkable cheeses and a couple of noteworthy whiskies. My advice would be to choose your whisky first and then ask the sommelier to construct a cheeseboard to complement your spirit. Take a small chunk of cheese and nibble before you sip. Add a dash of water to your glass to release the full complexity of the celebrated Water of Life. Turn your tasting into a masterclass.
Whisky and cheese together add up to an unsurpassable combination. The range of flavours spanned by first class cheese and whisky is so vast that matching them can be quite a tricky business. Whisky Sommelier Angelo, Executive Chef David and Cheese Expert Alex James feel confident that they have found the ultimate combinations of outstanding whisky and fine cheese. Sometimes it's the most unlikely combinations that produce the most spectacular results.
Blue Monday & Balvenie Doublewood 12yr old
Blue Monday from Tain, near Inverness, is creamy and makes the perfect foil for the gently spicy Speyside Malt Balvenie Doublewood. Connecting the two together gives them an electrifying lift, pulling out hidden harmonics from within their depths. Notes and flavours include: Spicy orange, toffee, honey and liquorice.
Westcombe Cheddar & Chivas Regal 12yr oldOn 15 January 2009, our Executive Chef David Marshall and a few of his kitchen team visited the Lower Westcombe Farm in Shepton Mallet in Somerset. Cheese has been made on this Farm since the 1890’s and they have won the Gold World Cheese Award in 2010. This cheese has been maturing on our premises for nearly 18 months and is now ready to eat. The Blended Scotch Chivas 12yr old is amber in colour and with its harmonious aroma of herbs is the perfect match for our Westcombe Cheddar.
Suffolk Gold & Gentleman JackA semi-hard farmhouse cheese with a delicious flavour and a rich, golden colour. The cheese making is a family business, the milk comes from a herd of pedigree Guernsey cows and the cheese is produced using traditional methods. Gentleman Jack is the first new Whiskey from the Jack Daniel Distillery for 100 years and is blended based on a private recipe from Mr. Jack. Its smooth and satisfying taste brings out hidden flavours in the cheese and the two matched together make for a stunning finish.
Parmigiano Reggiano & Aberfeldy 12yr oldGourmets consider Parmigiano Reggiano a splendid "table cheese" for eating, not merely for grating. Parmigiano Reggiano is made from raw cow's milk. Traditionally, cows have to be fed only on grass or hay, producing grass-fed milk. The outcome is a rich, fruity flavour with a flaky, grainy texture. Aberfeldy 12yr old has a distinct fruity nose with notes of pineapple and cereal and boasts a syrupy palate. With a slightly spicy finish, this Whisky complements the rich flavour of the cheese and balances the best of both worlds.
Golden Cross Goats Cheese & Dewar’s 12yr oldGolden Cross Cheese Company is a family owned business that has been producing award winning goat's cheeses on the farm since 1989. The herd of 300 goats grazes outside during the summer and is fed hay all year round. The cheese is made daily on the farm. Each log is lightly charcoaled and becomes denser, creamier and fuller flavoured as it matures. This cheese is matched with Dewar’s 12yr old, a blended Whisky with a hint of Scottish heather and a fruity nose. The hint of oak complements the flavour of the cheese and the sweetness of the Whisky blends perfectly with the creamy taste of the cheese.
Tornegus & Glenfiddich 12yr oldThis Cheese is made in Somerset and matured in Surrey by washing the rind with Kentish wine and sprinkling the cheese with lemon verbena and peppermint. It has a pungent aroma and a smooth texture. The 12yr old Speyside Single Malt Glenfiddich features elegantly rounded flavours and its notes of fresh pears and subtle oak harmonize perfectly with the silky and sweetish finish of the cheese.
1 pairing £15
4 pairings £50
London restaurant review: The Athenaeum,
116 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 7BJ
Visit The Athenaeum here
The Royal China restaurant is part of a small chain. Do not be put off by that. It’s not the Oriental version of Pizza Shed or MacDougall’s Burgers. Think high-end food with ambiance to match – thoughtful touches of presentation which mark the Royal China Group as something considerably more than most neighbourhood restaurants. The internationally acclaimed London-based company boasts over 20 restaurants throughout the world.
The Royal China has a menu which offers diners the chance to try dishes that you are unlikely to find in too many other restaurants of the same ethnic genre. If you love authentic Chinese food then this will become your eatery of choice for the foreseeable future. The bill of fare is extensive and offers something for everyone, be they carnivore or vegetarian.
The original Bayswater restaurant has been joined by Fulham and Canary Wharf branches, and now there is the latest Harrow on-the-Hill restaurant. We visited the Baker Street branch of Royal China, just a short walk from the eponymous Underground station which is one of the world’s oldest. It was a winter’s evening and a Tuesday, so one would not have expected families to be patiently waiting in line for a free table. The cross-section of humanity included regulars, Europeans, Asians and tourists of every ethnic hue. Word had obviously got around.
The Royal China is celebrated for dim sum and authentic Cantonese dishes. We perused the menu while nibbling on seasoned peanuts and delicious pickled turnip. Then it was on to the appetisers and we were tempted by Deep Fried Baby Squid with Chilli & Spicy Salt. This is a triumph of both texture and taste. And an amazingly large portion, as are all of the dishes here at Royal China.
Spicy Smoked Shredded Chicken was a revelation and a must-try. The meat had an evident taste of smoke. This is moreish – simple and memorable. I would love to know the secret of this preparation.
We were spoiled for choice for main courses. Fish is here in abundance and we chose Deep Fried Fillet of Dover Sole with Sweet & Sour Sauce. This dish is far superior to the nuggets of over-battered and doughy pork or chicken of which I have often been the victim at inferior restaurants. The coating on the fish was light and crisp. The white flesh was moist, creamy and sweet. The sauce, although still the vibrant orange colour as usual, was mild and with a less overpowering tang of vinegar.
Sautéed Chicken with Chilli & Black Bean Sauce is robust and flavourful with a salty savour from the fermented beans. The chilli was warming but far from tongue-numbing. An ideal dressing for some plain rice.
"Shaolin Monks" Vegetables in Clay Pot was the most spectacular of the dishes. The clay pot was not of the usual unglazed sort but a rather sophisticated black bowl with matching burner. The vegetable stew bubbled away merrily. This is a stew that is said to replicate a chicken and veg casserole, but the meat is replaced by glutinous morsels. For those who need meat and spice then Stewed Egg Plant (aubergine) with Minced Pork in Spicy Sauce should be on your list.
Sautéed Pak‐Choy with Garlic was delicious and aromatic. The vegetables were a little difficult to eat with chopsticks but worth the effort. Those black-lacquered chopsticks are decorated with gold to coordinate with the walls which are resplendent with the gleaming metal leaf. The Singaporean Rice Vermicelli was a spicy accompaniment. These thin noodles were yellow with turmeric and studded with prawns. Another substantial plateful.
This is the first Royal China that I have visited but I hope it will not be my last. The lunch menu offers the ever-popular dim sum (small dishes that are traditionally served for breakfast and lunch), of which there are more than 30 varieties, and there are even a few desserts as well.
There is a host of other dishes that I have a mind to try. The menu is extensive and full of intriguing possibilities. The staff were welcoming and efficient and made the Royal China experience a positive one. They are happy to give advice, and that might be welcome with so many unfamiliar options. This company has a branch in China so one can assume that these dishes are well-received by those in the know. One of my top ten Chinese restaurants.
Monday to Thursday: Noon - 11:00pm
Friday and Saturday: Noon - 11:30pm
Sunday: 11:00am - 10:00pm
London Asian restaurant review: Royal China - Baker Street
24-26 Baker Street, London, W1U 7AB
Tel: 020 7487 4688
Visit Royal China here
Bayswater Tel: 020 7221 2535
13 Queensway, W2 4QJ.
Canary Riverside Tel: 020 7719 0888
30 West Ferry Circus, E14 8RR.
Fulham Tel: 020 7731 0081
805 Fulham Road, SW6 5HE.
Harrow Tel: 020 8863 8359
148‐150 Station Road, HA1 2RH.
The Mandeville’s classic facade hides a contemporary gem. A well-appointed hotel, a bar that will soon have the reputation as the place to be seen, and a restaurant that is a striking and versatile space designed by world-celebrated interior designer Stephen Ryan. De Ville Restaurant is both relaxed and sophisticated with an ambiance that changes as the day passes.
The décor of the dining room is of monochrome floral wallpaper of bold design with unique wall lights in the form of Venetian masks. The lounge area where tea is mostly taken offers the visitor sofas in chunky cord upholstery, puffy cushions and some truly original furniture. A comfy spot yet one that does make a fashion statement.
Men's Afternoon Tea at The Mandeville Hotel is the only Afternoon Tea especially for men in London. It’s a suitably masculine event but one which panders to refined taste. This particular tea also offers the guest a range of whiskies as well as the usual champagne. The Tiffany blue china is devoid of those chintzy roses that manly sorts often find intimidating.
Men’s Afternoon Tea has robust sandwiches such as Crab and Shrimp in basil bread, Roasted Sirloin with red onion thyme jam in foccacia bread ( a particular hit with my manly guest), Beef and Chicken Satay with chilli créme fraiche for dipping, Grilled Mediterranean vegetables with tallegio, gratinated, on black olive ciabatta (an open sandwich and full of favour). Morecombe Bay Potted Shrimps were served with Gentlemen’s Relish and toast, which made this savoury selection a worthy meal in its own right.
Man cannot live by savoury snacks alone so this tea offered an assortment of pastries and cakes. Double Chocolate Brownie, Fruit Cake with Buffalo Trace Bourbon, Lemon-Basil Tarts, Chocolate-Blueberry Cheesecake, Fig Chocolate Beignets, could all be garnishing your personal masculine three-tier stand. Scones, in my opinion, should always be included and they were here, freshly baked, with bowls of Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry jam. A splendid show.
Special mention must go to the Fig Chocolate Beignet. Looking like a small doughnut, the soft and spongy jacket protected a layer of chocolate and a whole fruit. This was quite a delicious innovation and one that I will be driven to replicate in my own home. Far from mundane.
Selected teas and herbal infusions are served to help down the mounds of savouries and sweets. The Mandeville Special Blend is a good standard tea, but the delicate Jing vanilla black tea was my guest’s beverage for the afternoon. There are a couple of whiskies here to add even more to the male teatime experience. Choose from Lowland Rosebank 12yr Old, Highland Glen Garioch 15yr Old, or Speyside Balvenie 12yr Old, any of which might appeal to those who arrive frozen after arduous hours accompanying enthusiastic shoppers – they have an excuse for a warming glass.
Afternoon Tea for the ladies includes a selection of traditional sandwiches such as Scottish Smoked Salmon, Free Range Egg Mayonnaise with Cress, Home Cooked Ham with Grain Mustard, Roasted Organic Chicken, and Cucumber. The Freshly Baked Raisin Scones, etc, are also a fixture along with a decadent and substantial assortment of pastries and cakes. The Zandra’s Pink Meringues are show-stoppers and big enough to defeat even the most ardent meringue lover. You might find a cupcake with delicate icing (these are also presented garnished with a candle for those special surprise occasions that one always dreads). Miniature éclairs and rose macaroons could also put in an appearance along with the ever-popular chocolate brownie.
You will obviously want a cup of reviving tea with your indulgent treat. Flowering Osmanthus, Whole Chamomile Flowers, Peppermint Leaf, Whole Rose Buds, Jing Blackcurrant & Hibiscus are all suitably feminine. The rose tea is perfumed and seems somehow appropriate for the china, designed by the aforementioned Zandra – none other than the celebrated Zandra Rhodes. Perhaps a glass of fizz would help the sweets along and the Champagne Afternoon Tea here is rather good value.
De Ville restaurant is contemporary but with the classic attentive service that one always hopes to find in boutique London hotels. It offers an island of tranquillity just a stone’s throw from the throb of city energy from the capital’s retail hub. Fine food with a touch of innovation at a reasonable price. An accessible gem.
Visit here for the Christmas Afternoon Tea.
Men’s Afternoon Tea £23.50
Whisky Afternoon Tea £31.00
Champagne Cocktail Afternoon Tea £33.00
Champagne Afternoon Tea £31.00
Laurent Perrier Rose by the Bottle £93.00
Afternoon tea is available from 3pm to 5.30pm Monday to Saturday
Monday to Friday from 7.00am to 10.00am
Saturday and Sunday from 8.00am to 11.00am
Lunch is served between 12.30pm and 3.00pm
Dinner is served between 7.00pm and 11.00pm
Reservations: +44 (0)20 7935 4040
London restaurant review: De Ville Restaurant
The Mandeville Hotel, Mandeville Place, London W1U 2BE
Telephone: +44 (0)207 935 5599
Facsimile: +44 (0)207 935 9588
Visit The Mandeville Hotel here
This marvellously appointed Victorian luxury hotel was, soon after its opening, to play host to the arrest of playwright Oscar Wilde. On April 6 1895, genteel Victorian society was rocked by the “incident”, in room 118, which was immortalised by John Betjeman’s poem, “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel”:
“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”
The poem recounts the arrest of the Irish writer on various charges of indecency. Wilde was convicted and jailed for two years.
Perrier Jouët Champagne was Oscar Wilde’s drink of choice during his visits to The Cadogan, and I am sure he missed it when incarcerated in Reading Jail. Following his arrest he asked his partner to pay his “PJ” bill, hence ensuring its everlasting link with the hotel.
Actress Lillie Langtry was a friend of Oscar’s. She was a celebrated beauty and was nicknamed the "Jersey Lily". She had a number of prominent lovers, including the future king of England, Edward VII. She lived at 21 Pont Street from 1892 to 1897. That’s a red-brick building conveniently connected to the Cadogan. Even after she had sold the house and it had been incorporated into the hotel, Lillie would stay in her old bedroom, which was where she entertained her royal admirer.
The décor of the dining room is subtle in taupe tones. The walls are resplendent with plaster mouldings, and that artistry continues onto the ceiling where hangs a crystal chandelier, said to have been there when this room was part of Lillie’s home. It’s a small and sophisticated dining room which has a magnificent Carrera marble Louis XIV fireplace as a focal point. This is bijou elegance seldom found these days. It is unique in that it not only seems Victorian but indeed is Victorian, and very much reminds one of those days of opulence and scandal, of boastful architecture and proud tradition.
Langtry's offers a range of classic British dishes executed by Head Chef Oliver Lesnik. Yes, classic but thoughtfully tweaked for contemporary appeal. The dinner menu has a comprehensive bill of fare and lunch has a list that is equally tempting although shorter.
My starter was Italian Ham and Grilled Figs. Simply plated yet having all the charm of a still-life. The figs glistened with caramelised sugar which gave texture and sweetness to the delicately perfumed fruit. A small flute of bread (made in the kitchen on the premises) completed that introduction to the style of Oliver’s food.
Smoked Salmon with Caper Berries was what appealed to my guest. This was an honest, generous and unfussy serving of this traditional appetiser. No intricate roses of fishy flesh. No folds of constructed piscatorial pleats. Just a plate covered with smoked salmon and a little garnish was well received.
Beef Stew with celery and a rich gravy was bound to be my companion’s main course on such a chilly winter’s day. Chunks of tender meat were joined by a side order of the creamiest creamed potatoes to add still more comfort to an already warm and homely dish. An old-fashioned delight.
I am seldom persuaded by a steak but our neighbours had ordered the spatchcock chicken from the Grill section of the menu, and those boarded meals did look enticing. I settled on the sirloin steak and it was cooked to pink-interiored perfection. Marked by the grill and well-flavoured, it was everything that a carnivore could ask for. For those of us who eat beef so seldom, it is indeed a treat and one that I savoured at Langtry’s.
The dessert list offered me Eton Mess with Cherries, amongst others. This is a very traditional pud and is said to be the result of a culinary accident at the eponymous boy’s school. One should perhaps be grateful to the slippery floors and ungainly waiters of that establishment, although I am sure no such creature exists within Langtry’s.
My guest tucked into Banana Bread and a substantial scoop of real clotted cream. Another memory of teatime cakes. That is perhaps the theme of this restaurant: it evokes thoughts of gentler days when life was less hurried. A place to return to again and again.
Langtry’s has a popular offer for weekends:
Saturday and Sunday Lunch.
This offer is valid for a maximum of 6 people per booking.
£45.00 for 3 courses including Champagne Perrier Jouët.
£35.00 for 3 courses including Louis de Custine Champagne.
07.00 am - 10.30 am (Monday to Friday)
08.00 am - 11.00 am (Saturday and Sunday)
12.00 am - 2.30 pm (Monday to Sunday)
6.00 pm - 10.30 pm (Monday to Saturday)
London restaurant review: Langtry’s Restaurant
21 Pont Street, London, SW1X 9SG
Tel. + 44 (0)20 7201 6619
Fax + 44 (0)20 7245 0994
Visit Langtry’s restaurant here
We visited the Covent Garden Real Greek on a cold and wet evening, but the pool of warm light from this former pub was every bit as enticing to two damp Londoners as the gently swaying lanterns of an island taverna. OK, so we weren’t going to sit at outside tables being caressed by warm sea breezes, but a bench in the cosy restaurant was welcoming.
This particular Real Greek is still easily recognisable as a pub in a former incarnation. It’s a small restaurant (seating for 50) with typically Victorian high ceilings. The walls now sport dark wood panels and the seating could be described as either convivial or packed depending on your relationship to your fellow diners.
The narrow benches are high with stools to match. The small dishes are presented on stands so the food is ‘stacked’, rather than having plates searching for non-existent space on the table-top. A practical solution to the slightly cramped conditions. This is a favourite eatery for theatre-goers who grab a quick and affordable bite before paying a fortune for seats in the stalls.
The food is, unsurprisingly, Greek. The menu concentrates on meze rather than hearty moussaka or whole spit-roast lamb. The plates are best enjoyed shared with friends - these dishes have an authentic taste and texture, and will be familiar to those who have visited the Aegean.
We started with some chubby black and green olives while we perused the menu. A good selection of standard dishes of both hot and cold meze. It’s difficult to refrain from over-ordering. Choose a few dishes at a time. This kind of mix-and-match dining works for a couple but is even more interesting for a group, with each person able to try a greater number of savoury delights.
Greek Flatbread is a must and it is truly the Real thing here. Don’t think dry and meagre shop-bought pitta but more a light and spongy disc with a delicate smoky flavour from the grill. Have this with some dips such as the thankfully non-coloured taramasalata or some Hummus with a suspicion of chilli. Gigandes Plaki are large butter beans. That does not sound very appealing but these are a world away from the bland and pale articles with which we were punished at school. These tender beans are simmered in a tomato and herb sauce and you’ll want to order more of the aforementioned bread to mop the juices. Another flavourful meze is the Spetzofai sausage casserole which offers spice from the meat and sweetness from red and yellow peppers. It’s new to the menu but I suspect it will stay.
Souvlaki is the most substantial item here. It’s the Real Greek wrap or kebab. It’s called Gyros in Greece. You have the choice of pork, lamb, chicken or halloumi, with onions and peppers, grilled over charcoal. The cooked goods are then wrapped in flatbread and garnished with tzatziki and tomato relish.
There are a lot of wines here that can be ordered by the glass or carafe as well as bottle. That’s handy for when a glass is too little and a bottle is too much. Mavrodaphne sweet red dessert wine was rather good. It’s like a very young and light port with hints of dried fruit. Have this with Greek Lemon Cake or Travithes (deep-fried pancakes) with Honey.
The Real Greek is a small chain and it’s popular. Those looking for casual dining in central London have a raft of options but these restaurants draw those looking for good food at a reasonable price and in surroundings which are far more enticing than the plastic and luminous alternatives. I’ll return for a Greek salad and a Halloumi wrap, and perhaps another slice of that Lemon Cake.
Mon – Sat: 11:30am – 11:00pm,
Sun: 11:30am – 10:30pm
London restaurant review: The Real Greek - Covent Garden
60 - 62 Long Acre, London WC2E 9JE
Tel: 020 7240 2292
A week or so ago, I enjoyed my second visit to Thali on the Old Brompton Road. This isn’t a huge rambling restaurant but more the style of a bijou treasure, with a blue reflection from a plastered wall, ornate gold-framed mirrors and discreet oriental carvings. I was impressed by the skill of the chef at my first visit but that could just have been a flash in the Kadhai. My second visit assured me that those marvellously executed dishes were far from a figment of my imagination.
Thali is the reworked, revamped, tasteful re-incarnation of Bar Asia. One would think another Indian restaurant in this classy neck of London might be a chancy proposition.
A cold Wednesday evening found my guest and me welcomed into a warm and subtly accented restaurant, and it was already half-full of diners, many of whom were regulars. These included both Europeans and Asians, and contentment was reigning. Owner Vikash Dhawan comes from a family of restaurateurs and is both charming and quietly professional, with a knack of anticipating his customers’ slightest needs, although there was not a single needy customer at those coordinates.
Vikash ably represents front of house but the Baron of the Burner is Head Chef Dila Ram. He is another of the culinary big-hitters trained by the highly respected Taj Group, who have blessed London with some of its finest Indian chefs. He has turned his skill to the preparation of traditional dishes as well as those innovative gems that will doubtless become Thali signature dishes and much imitated elsewhere.
Thali has a well-stocked bar and I can recommend the Mojito, but the food and the ambiance are the draw here. Our starters included Palak Chaat which is memorable. Spinach might be good for us but it’s not always appealing, but Chef Ram presents a confection which is reminiscent of those moreish garnishes of deep-fried seaweed in Chinese restaurants. Murg and Mirch ka Guchi - baby peppers stuffed with ground chicken and chestnuts - is worth crossing several streets to sample. Padron peppers are mostly docile but, in true culinary Russian-roulette fashion, there is the occasional one... Delicious and unique. The Soft Shell Crabs here are outstanding but don’t even think of offering to share. You will begrudge your guest’s every bite so order two portions to avoid unpleasantness.
The tandoor worked its magic on some of the most generously proportioned lamb chops I have ever come across. These chubby delights were marinated in spices, cardamom, cloves and yoghurt. Each mouthful was a succulent vehicle for smoky flavour. An example of how a light hand at the tandoor station can add taste without a hint of either desiccation or incineration. Fish lovers can enjoy a piscatorial equivalent with the Tandoori Salmon. A delicate hint of singeing with a just-cooked interior to each coral-coloured cube.
Dahl Makhani is a standard side order in many Indian restaurants. It’s a favourite dish of mine and I could eat this with just some rice and feel I have had the most comforting of comfort meals. I have recently been confronted by a nasty example which tasted of commercial tomato soup. Thankfully Thali sticks to a traditional recipe, and it’s rich and creamy and everything that I would hope for.
Seafood seekers are well served by the bill of fare. Plenty of choice, but the Prawn Paithya is striking. Royal Bengal prawns are cooked with tomato, onion and tamarind. Carnivores with traditional tastes will likely be tempted by Lamb Rogan Josh and they will not be disappointed by this spicy-aromatic example. Chicken Hara Curry will, however, will be one of the many dishes on this menu that will guarantee my return.
I have a confession. I eat in restaurants several times each week and I am seldom driven to ask for the leftovers to be packed into boxes to be taken away. Thali presented me with a dilemma: I could pretend I was a sophisticated diner and allow the remaining food to be spirited away, or I could throw my dignity to the wind and ask if they had some plastic boxes and a brown paper carrier bag. I now have a larger collection of storage containers and very pleasant memories.
Mon – Sat: 12 Noon - 3pm, 6.30pm - 11.30pm
Sun: 12 Noon - 3pm, 6 - 10pm
London restaurant review: Thali
166 Old Brompton Road, London SW5 0BA
Phone: 020 7373 2626