Monday, 27 June 2011

Rioja Tapas Fantasticas: what it says on the tin!

Here’s an investment in the future. Next June will be the third Rioja Tapas Fantasticas, a festival that celebrates all that is great and good about Spanish cuisine.

It is held in the shadow of Tower Bridge, in marked contrast to the ultra-modern More London development, which houses more glorified accountants than the London Business School. 

Sectioned off from the rest of the capital and squinting in the rare sunshine we felt as if we were in Spain. Everywhere we looked people supped on 50p samples of reserve, chewed on spicy chorizo or air guitared along to the Spanish guitarist on a stage in the centre.

We had a wonderful chorizo sandwich from the City’s Barcelona Tapas Bar y Restaurante (clever name, si?) and some demonically spicy patatas bravas from More Than Tapas. The highlight however, was the Faustinos gran reserve – which was heavy, complicated but surprisingly free of tannins, making it more drinkable than it had any right to be on a summer day. What is more, my claims that I had drunk it before we found to be correct: you'll find it on the top shelf of Costcutter's wine racks.

From that discovery onwards it all gets a little blurry, so you’ll have to experience the rest of it for yourself. Put it in your diary and Google it next spring. I raise my Rioja: here’s to SEO success and a spate of visitors around about June time next year.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Laughing Gravy: secret's out.

I hate it when a restaurant calls itself "London's best kept secret". It isn't really is it? Because the only way of keeping a very prominent restaurant on Blackfriars Road a secret is to take out an injunction against everyone who walks past it. Ask Ryan Giggs if superinjunctions work.

It is in fact an excuse to not hire a PR company, hence why I had to pay for this particular meal. Fortunately the Laughing Gravy is excellent value, even if a glance at the menu makes it seem expensive. The starters are all around £8, but could be stretched to a main course, and my chicken liver pate with a delicious sultana jelly also had my salt content for the day and probably the weekend too.

You can order a burger and chips for £10, or a salad for roughly the same price, or you can have their more complicated meals for around £15. I chose the special: scallops with bacon and crispy fried vegetables. The classic dish was given a lift by the lemongrass, which cut through when you least expected it. The portion was huge, but I still managed to eat two helpings of garlic Parmentier potatoes, with emphasis on the garlic.

The red mullet with prawns and samphire looked fantastic too, and the steak...

Oh the steak. Shallots, mushrooms, roasted cherry tomatoes, Madeira sauce and garlic butter. I am kept awake by the fact that I didn't choose it.

For pudding I had an excellent chocolate fondant, baked to a crisp on the outside and so nearly gooey on the inside, but not quite. The salted toffee ice cream on top was brilliant though. It stopped the dish from being overwhelmingly sweet, and made me salivate to the point of embarrassment.

All the dishes had one touch that made it a cut above most British cuisine, certainly south of the river. The unimposing and light decor, huge portions and friendly but awkward staff made for an even more British experience.

Despite their veil of secrecy, the restaurant was busy for an early Friday lunch sitting. At every table suited city workers loosened their ties as the sun beat down through the glass ceiling. Get to the courts Laughing Gravy men, the secret is out.
154 Blackfriars Road, London SE1 8EN
020 7998 1707

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Saturday, 11 June 2011

The Gay Hussar: are you Hungary?

Tired of burnt pans and the endless washing up, I decided this year to eat out on Pancake Day. Hungarian Soho Square Staple The Gay Hussar was offering a special Shrove menu, and mentioned something about deep fried pancakes. I was sold.

Shrove Tuesday is traditionally the day that Christians use up all their food stuffs before the 40-day lent fast. Given the amount of ingredients it used, the Gay Hussar must have a very full pantry indeed.

This may be partly because the restaurant was empty when we arrived. The ambience was more like a library. My companion and I whispered conspiratorially while exchanging guilty glances, worried that a waiter may come and “shh” us. Towards the end of the evening it began to fill, but by then we were too distracted by the glorious food to notice.

The downstairs room is a cosy mix between a living room and train dining carriage. The waiters were friendly and delighted to talk about the food, wine and history of the restaurant. Being just south of Soho Square, it has seen its fair share of the highlife. The walls are adorned with caricatures famous politicians and journalists that have eaten there, a social circle it fully justifies.

Their pancakes are world away from the lemon and sugar creations soon to be stuck to kitchen ceilings throughout the UK. My deep-fried goulash-stuffed pancake was as hearty as any British stew and had a depth of flavour that belied its simple roots, although the veal itself was slightly overpowered by the sauce.

Our bottle of Tokaji Muscat Blanc powered through, however. Its floral nose, sweet start and dry finish cut through the heavy sauces. Hungarian wine is not exactly a staple of restaurant lists, or indeed supermarket shelves, but their white wines are often worth a risk.

For pudding I had the walnut pancakes, made famous by Budapest celebrated restaurant Gundel, after which the pudding is named. The dark chocolate sauce and walnut and rum filling were savoury enough to stop the dish being overwhelming, and the raisins gave short, sharp bursts of sweetness. After such a heavy main however, the second pancake could have easily been replaced by some light cream, to balance the plate. Chocoholics would doubtless disagree.

The menu was traditional, varied and reassuringly expensive. The only flaw I could find was that there was too much on the plate: too much thought, too much food and, sometimes, too many flavours. But in hearty cuisine this is not necessarily a bad thing and I left contented, feeling like I had prepared for a 40-day fast. (50% off you bill here)
0207 4370 973

2 Greek St, Soho, London. W1D 4NB

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Monday, 6 June 2011

Bistro Rosa: a great night out ... catering included

I have never experienced bad service until now. We waited 20 minutes to give our drinks order, another 30 to give our food order and 30 minutes for our starters to be cleared away. All this meant that, an hour and twenty minutes into our booking we were asked if we would like coffees. I was so bemused by this point I wasn't sure whether the waiter was joking or genuinely thought we had had all three courses.

Gun to my head though, (and being in St Helier that could happen) I'd do it all again. Bistro Rosa may lack some of the rough-but-ready English service, but it makes up for it in fresh, glorious produce with a modern twist you wouldn't expect in the Channel Islands. Sat in the heart of the fish market you feel like you have discovered some hidden treasure, but from the fact we had to book well in advance, it seems the whole island thinks so too.

My moules were outrageously salty and creamy (and large enough in quantity to be a main), my monkfish with coconut and lime dressing and sweet and sour as I had hoped, and my chocolate cake decadent enough to redefine the term. The ambience in interesting, in essence you set up camp in the middle of a shop floor. The muzak pumped through the tinny speakers didn't help this awkward sensation, but added to the restaurants eccentric personality.

Our night was all rounded off with a superb drunken fellow diner, who was convinced my companion was "Off the American telly" and was insistant she admit it. He ended his night by vomiting in the one restaurant loo and stealing the waitress's coat. She left as cold as her service was.

A thoroughly recommended night out, and the catering was good too.

  • Beresford StreetSt Helier JE2 4WX
  • 01534 729559

Dego: Go for the food,stay for the wine

Hearty Italian cuisine is so ubiquitous in London that I’m not sure we really know what it is anymore. And at some points during my meal I think Dego has become confused too.
The modren Italian defies all expectations. Not one aspect of the night failed to surprise me in some way or other. It is laid out more like a chic American diner than a traditional Italian. Customers are seated in rectangular booths with red and black leather, below lamps that pick you out like a soloist in concert.
It is determinedly modern, proven by the square toilet bowls and lack of zeros at the end of the wine prices. After a refreshing gin aperitif we ordered glasses of Verdiccio Castelli, which costs precisely £22.5 per bottle. Its complicated texture saved my overly salty beef roulade starter, which needed more dressing to balance it.
For my main I ordered what turned out to be a duck bolognese. I had expected something a little more subtle, and the menu needs to be more precise. But fortunately I was delighted by the hearty flavours that complemented the meat, which was lighter than duck has any right to be. However, the wine chosen by our helpful sommelier – a gew├╝rztraminer from the Alto-Adige region of Italy – stole the show. Alto-Adige is a German-speaking region of northern Italy, which may explain the heavy, hop-like aroma and finish of the wine that matched beautifully with the duck mince.
I had to wait for the pudding for the food to amaze me. Again, the misleading menu undersold my chocolate, ginger and meringue desert. It was actually a pyramid of set chocolate filled with gooey meringue and caramel bathing in a shockingly spiced ginger sauce that was unique and delicious.
This could not save me from being slightly underwhelmed with the food, even if the prices were reasonable for the portion sizes and quality of ingredients. But the menu has enough on it to make every visit different, and there are sure to be more treasures in there. You should go for the food, but you’ll probably go back for the wine.
0207 636 2207

Portland House
4 Great Portland street
London W1W 8QJ

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Imli: what? Indian tapas AGAIN!?

If Sharwood’s is to be believed, whipping up a tasty curry takes 20 minutes and one pan. At Imli they have the same philosophy, but a very different method of going about it.
For a start, most of the menu is in the form of tapas. It is full of small, varied dishes that work as much as a map of India as a three course meal. It takes influences from all over the country, rather than the south-India dominated cuisine served in most curry houses.
Our platters cost around £8, which is brilliant value. It included several sides, a main curry, a field's worth of rice and, of course, a main curry dish. Being the sister restaurant of Tamarind, a certain quality of ingredients and cooking is to be expected, but I was blown away.
Every dish was unlike any other curry dish on any menu in any other curry house. The Papdi Chaat, a sweet yoghurt and wheat crisp salad, was worth the price alone. The lamb fell apart on the fork and the potato and coriander cakes were refreshingly light compared to the heavier dishes.
Combining the philosophy of tapas and Indian food may seem unlikely but, as the head chef Samir Sadekar explained: Indian cuisine is meant to be diverse, and always shared. Although sharing is the last thing on my mind as I tucked in to our lunch platter, the point about having variety on your plate was well made. 

0207 287 4243
London W1F 8WR
167-169 Wardour Street

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Mar I Terra: a welcome change

Tucked in a side street not far from the bustling South Bank, Mar I Terra is worth a visit simply for the peace and quiet. A sense of serenity pervades the whole restaurant – which isn't hard given it is the size of my front room.
We were greeted on entry by some very authentic looking nuns, and things just got quainter. You could reach out and touch just about every other table in the place, the waiter was moustached and paunchy, the food was delivered via a dumb waiter that must have been operated by hand, and the dishes were as rustic as any I have eaten in London.
And they were glorious too. It is hard to amaze a diner with the basic Patatas Bravas, but the garish orange of the sauce and crispness of the potatoes drew me in, and gave me a benchmark against which all potato/tomato based dishes will now be judged. Portions were more than ample, but as is always the case with tapas, you keep eating until the plates are torn from your lifeless, exhausted hands.
The octopus was another highlight, and the rest of the food passed in mist of war as my companions fought over the last of it. The blurriness perhaps helped by the excellent wine selection, which kept us entertained thoughout the meal.
Eating at Mar I Terra is a jarringly intimate experience, but isn't that a refreshing change for London? I heartilty recommend it. 7928 7628
14 Gambia Street

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