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Touring the US with Mediaeval Baebes

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Touring the US with Mediaeval Baebes

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I’ve just returned to UK reality after touring the east coast of America with my band, Mediaeval Baebes.

In fact, it was definitely more of a crash landing, and I’m feeling overwhelmed by a concoction of delight and disorientation. 

I’ve had two weeks of hilarity and salacious tales: from White Russian parties in Maryland to rooftop partying with firemen in NYC, from hazy, mead-imbued late-night encounters with ex-jailbirds to flouncing around in cemeteries for photoshoots. I’ve met more people and fans of the Baebes’ music (and it has been an honour) in the last week than in the last year, from women with heaving bosoms in skull-coated corsets to a South Dakotan ranger who discovered a dinosaur on his territory, from cage fighters Instagram influencers to wiccans. 

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Those who are involved in the music industry will know that the intense peaks of performing are accompanied by elongated troughs of waiting around before and after sound checks, not to mention the driving from venue to venue, one state to the next.

But even the stretches of time were filled: from learning how to do the electric slide (an achievement for someone who can perform a semblance of a dance only to hip hop music), playing airplane with other band members (the childhood favourite of lifting someone into the air with your feet), to hours of ‘I Spy With My Third Eye’. 

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We were gifted things from the delicious to the ludicrous (though none of the following necessarily fit into the aforementioned categories):

hand sown leather wallets, chocolates, cases of homemade mead, hand-crafted wooden lanterns inlaid with silver, pumpkin bog wine (yes, that’s its official name) and goblets straight out of Game of Thrones. I’ve also signed an interesting range of specimens including various body parts, guitars and recorders, Gandalf-style staffs and animal-bone drinking horns. 

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I’ve witnessed the way in which music makes people dance and cry, and I’ve heard accounts of how some have walked down the aisle, given birth, and woken from comas to our music.

I’ve had ecstatic highs of my own (performing to over a thousand people in the middle of forest glades, and exhausted hysterical laughter set off by the merest glimmer of a joke) and extreme lows, where the adrenalin temporarily stopped, energy levels buckled and desolation took hold.

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Being on the road for two weeks has also meant that I have been lurching between feast and famine.

The restaurant selection in NYC is almost infinite. The highlights this time round included the following:

The Pool, one of NYC’s finest fish restaurants. While I am not a huge seafood eater and am largely vegetarian, the branzino was the best I have ever eaten – delicate and tender without need for any fancy sauces or dressings. The room is elegant and slightly imposing and the service impeccable (apart from the moment when I collided with a waiter en route to the bathroom and he succeeded in pouring champagne directly down my chest). 

Barrio Chino: my favourite Lower East Side Mexican haunt. It used to be a hidden secret, without website and only noticeable in passing if you were in the know. It has now become a bit more open about its existence, but the quality has not diminished. Go for the extensive range of margaritas (from chili to berry to tamarind – the list goes on). The tacos are also delicious, but the show stoppers are the enchiladas – suffused with flavour and fresh herbs and oozing with molten queso – this is the only place I will eat them. The ambience is also electric. I went on a Tuesday evening and it was packed and totally abuzz.

The Butcher’s Daughter– I got caught in the tail end of Hurricane Florence and had to battle through headache-inducing heavy rain to get here. It was worth it. This vegetarian NYC and LA hotshot has a sublime selection of fresh and wholesome, zingy, protein-rich salads. I had the self-professed” Best Kale Salad” and added some veggie chicken into the kale, red cabbage, green apple, jalapeno, red onion, mint, turmeric and cashew mix.

Dean & Deluca– In some ways I am sad that their plans to open a branch in London fell through and that they have settled for selling a minor selection of products at Selfridges. In other ways I am not, because if they had opened here I would probably have moved in and would now be rolling around due to gorging upon their selection of salads and endless array of artisanal snacks. Every time I walked past the crisp white exterior in NYC, I felt its magnetism drawing me in. Mostly I managed to restrict myself to buying a selection of salads. All are excellent, but the highlights were the General Tso cauliflower – battered, deep-fried and coated in a moreish, sticky sweet, umami sauce - and the sriracha-soaked tofu. The soups there are as good as many you would enjoy in a high-end restaurant. 

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Conversely, I’ve experienced pit stop, intra-state, highway grub, with the choice between early-onset obesity via deep fried foods, diabetes through the sugar-laden, inevitably chocolate-peanut butter coated candies, or heart attack via the sodium-laden snacks (I opted for the latter). 

The most radical of trends that emerged was the “substance on a stick” that prevailed as a dining option in the Maryland Renaissance Festival. The good folk of the festival clearly thought they were on to a good thing with this particular serving contrivance and didn’t feel the need for variation. Options included the following (see pictures for evidence):  white chocolate-coated key lime pie on a stick, dark chocolate-immersed cheesecake on a stick, sausage on a stick, chocolate-covered peanut butter pie on a stick, and macaroni cheese on a stick. The lattermost culinary innovation was my favourite - a praiseworthy feat of science, concocted to adhere strictly to the theme. Even the choice meat option, turkey leg, was by its very nature “on a stick” – the Neanderthal look of gnawing the dull red flesh from the bone worked well with those who were dressed in animal horns and fur (of which there were many).

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And so I am back in reality – or what I can piece together:

it may only have been two weeks away but it feels weird to have to pronounce the “t” in water again (rather than a “d”) to make my request understood, to ask directions for the “loo”, not restroom, to not be in a tour bus laughing hysterically with eight other wickedly funny band (coven) members, to not feeling the daily adrenaline rush of performing and experiencing post-gig tequila-fueled highs, to not dancing to old school hip hop tunes in hotel rooms until 3am, and to reverting to cutlery after becoming accustomed to sticks. 

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Maryland Renaissance Festival

NYC

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Eating New York

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Eating New York

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I write this sitting on the flight to New York in stasis mode, having metamorphosed into a sedentary lump.  The invisible but insidious radiation, and the already- breathed air must be to blame for my lack of concentration:  I’ve started five films, and finished one – a saccharine, brainless comedy. And in this reduced state, my thoughts revolve around my stomach (more than usual). The looming flight attendant and her trolley are causing spikes in adrenaline –so attuned to the possibility of food delivery am I that I’m reacting pavlovianally to the click of the locker doors as the meals are unloaded. By flying west, I’ve gained time.  More time equals more meals. I had breakfast and lunch at home, but the grey boredom of airports requires food for stimulation. The pre-flight, Prêt snack ritual has been observed.  But that has not deterred me from munching through the 5pm dinner (chicken, and sticky-toffee pudding - and not bad actually. Better, in fact, than the recent attempt at a repast at The Palomar – see my review). 

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In-flight entertainment is clearly not being served by the screen in front of me, but instead by the rotating supply of snacks from the “Wonder Wall”. These fill the flight with purpose: I must try every one of these matte- packaged, faux-healthy snacks.  Initially, I feel pride as I conquer them: a nut-free, oat bar so small that I need to have two just to make sure I document the flavour correctly; a tiny packet of popcorn that is apparently “cheese toasty and caramel flavour” (too weird not to try); some vegan sour sweets (only four in a pack - what a tease, two please); olives; hand cut crisps that promise to be artisanal (I’m sold); two-bite bars of Himalayan salted chocolate that barely register due to their shrunken format.

At 11pm UK time, I’m served afternoon tea (a selection of cakes, a scone, and some mayonnaise-suffused sandwiches). I persevere with these.  There’s no stopping me now.

It’s half an hour until landing, and reality is beginning to set in. I’m surrounded by a shameful nest of wrappers: unequivocal evidence of my greed and boredom.

Pride has turned to nausea.  

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After a day of recovery, I launched myself on to the NYC dining scene. I’m mainly vegetarian, so most restaurants set out below are either fully plant-based, or vegetarian/vegan-friendly. This is by no means an exhaustive list but an account of the places that I enjoyed (with one rather off-putting experience).

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The Fat Radish

Vibe: Vegetable-focused Modern European cuisine in an earthy chic paradise.

Highlights:  Though not vegetarian, the vegan and vegetarian options are numerous and innovative (refreshingly not pasta or risotto). Order several of the sweet pea pot pies which are so good I’ve had to replicate them twice since returning to London. The Macro plate and banoffee pies are also must-eats. Booking is essential.

Lowlights: None. 

Good for: vegans/vegetarians/restricted diets

Where: Lower East Side

http://www.thefatradishnyc.com

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Jajaja Plantas Mexicana

Vibe: Vegan innovative Mexican style cuisine in a vibrant, bustling urban cafe

Highlights: No one at my table could get enough of the nachos with vegan chorizo, fermented black beans, turmeric vegan queso fundito, spicy vegetable relish, and vegan sour cream. The crispy chayote ‘fish’ tacos with chipotle almond butter and pickled red onion are also deliciously different.

Lowlights: no booking, and the tightly packed restaurant mean that you should avoid peak meal hours. Service also slows drastically during these times.

Good for: vegans/restricted diets/casual dining/adventurous eaters

Where: Lower East Side (near China Town)

https://www.jajajamexicana.com/

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Root & Bone

Vibe: rustic-modern take on Southern-American comfort food.

Highlights: The buttermilk biscuits are freshly baked, and so light they melt on your tongue. The side of honey butter just helps them slide down even more sweetly. Crispy topped and golden, with unending tangles of molten cheese, the mac and cheese is amongst the best.

Lowlights: The fried chicken. I may have gone with warped expectations – I had primed myself for strips of chicken breast coasted in thick crispy-crunchy breadcrumbs (especially good at London’s Mother Clucker). However, what arrived was a basketful of dismembered chicken body parts. The rebellious wing bone protruding uncomfortably from the thin batter was enough to put me off. However, this may just be a personal dislike.

Good for: comfort food/family gatherings

Where: East Village

http://www.rootnbone.com/

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Talde

Vibe: Casual Asian-American cross-over cuisine in a dark wooden pub from Top Chef contestant, Dale Talde

Highlights: I’m not a big meat eater, and I never eat chicken wings. However, I make a very rare exception for the Kung Pao wings which are ridiculously sticky and succulent – order many. The Pad Thai puts most to shame with its zingy freshness too.

Lowlights: The bibinkga divided opinion with its eggy coconut texture. I came around to it after the third mouthful.

Good for: inventive cooking/vegetarians/brunch/casual dining

Where: Park Slope, Brooklyn

https://www.taldebrooklyn.com

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By Chloe

Vibe: Airy, female-flocking, vegan café (also in London)

Highlights: The salad portions are generous – my favourite is Spicy Thai which, with its kale base, crispy wontons, apricot-glazed tempeh and spicy peanut dressing, is a mouth workout in a bowl - but every mouthful is worth savouring. The tempeh-lentil chia classic burger and kale-artichoke dip are also major hits.

Lowlights: The London branch is not restful as you have to wait for your name to be shouted out to pick up your food. The NYC branch I visited was great.

Good For: vegans/vegetarians/healthy eating/casual meals

Where: West Village

https://eatbychloe.com

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Van Leeuwen

Vibe: artisanal vegan and dairy ice-cream served from wholesome butter-coloured trucks and stores around NYC

Highlights: the vegan honeycomb is a sludgy grey but don’t let that put you off. Made with cashew coconut and cocoa butter it is ambrosial. The non-vegan peanut butter and marshmallow crunch and Sicilian pistachio are also sublime. 

Lowlights: It’s addictive – I began to think they were stalking me as I managed to go past at least one Van Leeuwen truck or shop every day… and failed to resist each time.

Good for: vegans/vegetarians/innovatively flavoured ice creams

Where: multiple locations

http://www.vanleeuwenicecream.com/

 

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Black Seed Bagels

Vibe: pared down, fresh out of oven, open bakery

Highlights: multi-everything bagel – get there early in the day to get it piping hot from the oven

Lowlights: Addictiveness – I once ate 4 black seed bagels in a row.

Good for: breakfast on the go, vegans, high-carb gluten-full diets

Where: Nolita, Battery Park City, East Village

http://blackseedbagels.com

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Levain Bakery

Vibe: stripped back, no-frills bakery for some straight-to-the-point indulgence

Highlights: Dark Chocolate Peanut Butter chip cookie – thick, crunchy on the outside, fudgy inside loaded with an abundance of peanut butter chips – there is a reason it has been named best cookie in NYC. 

Lowlights: Lines for the bakery can get rather long, so go at a strategic, off-peak time

Good for: over indulgence and sweet-tooth satisfaction

Where: West 74th St, Harlem

https://www.levainbakery.com

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El Luchador (Tacos vs Burritos)

Vibe: Hole-in-the wall, cheap, simple and brilliant Mexican food haunt. London could do with mowing down its innumerable greasy kebab joints and replacing them with this.

Highlights: the pollo asado burrito. Spicy, fresh, busting with flavour and filling 

Lowlights: None

Good for: late night cravings, fresh Mexican food, done well (a rarity in London), vegetarian, vegan

Where: Lower East side

http://elluchador.nyc

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Spelt Scones & Damson Jam

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Spelt Scones & Damson Jam

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Adorned with dew drops of glaucous fruits, the damson tree was innocent in its fairy tale perfection. Plump and firm, tart and succulent they were ideal contenders for picking. There seemed at first glance to be very few, but as the minutes rolled by, our bags heavier and the ladder creaking, the tree continued to proffer its bounty. The result: 6kg of damsons and a swollen stomach from ones that never quite made it into the bag.

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Our supply of sugar rather pitiful in the wake of the unsurpassed abundance, I heaved an Olympian quantity back from the supermarket. The one bag that decided to split has left a coating of sticky grit on any coins that I dig out of the corners of my bag.  

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Then on to the stove went the damsons, the heated sugar and a touch of water. They blistered, bubbled and broke out of their skins. The stones rose to the surface like witches on trial and had to be picked out one by one. Meanwhile the mixture boiled and thickened, giving off a foamy pink effervescence that I carved off as it supposedly tastes slightly bitter (although I rather enjoyed spooning it directly into my mouth). Then as it reached its rich amethyst depths and a satisfying viscose texture, I took it off and poured it into the sterilised jars: therapeutic and deeply satisfying…the first-time round.

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But as I tried to leave the kitchen I was bludgeoned with another 3kg worth of damsons. I was pelted, too, with threats of waste and rotting fruit if I didn’t make jam immediately. The kitchen became heated with the upset from my father who had cultivated and nurtured the tree for years.

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So, I gave in and became a slave to the damson tree once more, boiling, straining, stirring pouring. And now we have half a fridge thronging with jar upon jar of jam. And what does one do when he or she has a year’s supply of jam? Well, I find eating it straight from the jar perfectly acceptable, but others need a medium as an excuse. So I made scones. These are not the dry, stale and overly sweet ones that leave you desperately seeking a currant to relieve you from the accumulating doughy mass at the top of your palate. These are soft, light, moist and crumbly. Rustic in shape, they are best eaten immediately or on the same day (though it is unlikely they will survive longer). 

 

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Spelt Scone Recipe – makes 12

500g white spelt flour (can be substituted with plain)

4 ½ tsp cream of tartar

2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

(optional: 2 tbsp sugar if would like them sweet)

1/2 tsp salt

125g cold unsalted butter, diced

300ml milk

1 egg, beaten, for egg wash

 

6cm round cookie cutter

Large baking sheet, lined with baking parchment

 

Method

1)    Preheat the oven to 220°C.

2)    Into a large bowl sift all the dry ingredients. Add in the butter and with fingertips rub it into the dry ingredients until like damp sand. Pour in the milk and very gently fold in until just combined (there may still be pockets of flour).

3)    Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead it lightly for about 10 seconds. Roll out to a 3cm thickness and then cut out as many scones as possible. Lightly re-knead the scraps of dough and roll out once more to cut out the last remaining scones.  Space them out on the tray and blush with the beat egg. Place in oven to bake for 8-10 minutes until they are shiny and golden.

Damson Jam Recipe (makes about 3kg, 9 jars)

NB. This recipe can be adapted for any number of damsons by maintaining the ratio

2kg damsons (slightly under-ripe and not too soft)

2kg sugar

200ml water

9 jam jars, sterilised

Method

1)    Pour sugar into an over proof dish and place in oven heated to a low temperature (around 120°C) while the damsons are prepared. Place a couple of small plates into a fridge to cool – these will be used to check the jam’s consistency later.

2)    Grease a large stainless-steel pot with butter to prevent the fruit from sticking. Then pour in the damsons and water and stew over a medium-low heat, stirring gently until the damsons’ skins break. Pour in the warmed sugar and stir over medium-low heat until the sugar has dissolved.

3)    Increase the heat to medium-high and allow to boil (controllably), stirring occasionally to prevent the fruit from sticking. After a few minutes, as the fruits break down, a pink foam will rise to the surface. Using a slotted spoon, siphon this off into a bowl. If some remains it won’t ruin the jam, it just doesn’t taste as pure as the rest. Then, as the stones begin to rise up, siphon off those too.

4)    After about 15 minutes of boiling, when all the stones have been removed, pour a teaspoon of the liquid onto a cold plate. Let it sit for about a minute then tilt the plate, if the liquid is no longer watery, with a viscosity between a sauce and a jam, and wrinkles when pushed with the finger, it is set. For the more scientifically-minded, it should be 105°C on a sugar thermometer. Pour the jam into the sterilised jars and allow to come to room temperature before sealing them with lids.

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Firedog

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Firedog

FireDog

A Rolls Royce pulls up neatly against the curb, a proud, gleaming red. The G-Wiz rattles up next to it, and executes a perfect piece of perpendicular parking.  Enter the Range Rover: mud-spattered but in control, it slides in next to the Rolls. Then the Mini arrives, honking to assert itself. The Volvo lines itself alongside the Mini, together with a school bus crammed with screaming children, and a battered black cab. Then a newly licensed Uber decides to swing his Prius into the fray. He nudges the tiny G-Wiz which crumples against the Rolls Royce.

FireDog
FireDog

The Roller hoots with disgust. This in turn alarms the bus driver who lets go of the hand brake and slides diagonally into the Volvo, crushing itself up against the Mini which then overturns. The police car rushes in to clear a path, bouncing off the heap of crushed metal. It surges forward and, much to the surprise of all the drivers, ends up on top of the Prius. 

FireDog

With much shattered glass, screaming, and whining, thick black engine fluids drip from one car to the next, like the tahini molasses mulch pooling into the thyme-infused ricotta. A slug of red-spiced scrambled eggs slips out of the copper pot into the macerated cherry-topped ricotta.

FireDog
FireDog

Vanilla butter smears itself against the dollop of oily harissa which mixes into the citrus- and basil-infused tomatoes.  A lemony chunk of poppy seed-coated cucumber slides into the pot of strawberry jam. 

FireDog
FireDog

“What would you like to try next?” I ask my dining companion, as I work out how to play this game.

“Just give me two minutes to think,” he mumbles, frowning, as he tries to climb out of the pothole of mezze-induced confusion. “Ok, the halloumi please”. 

FireDog

I shuffle through the tiles, terracotta bowls, mini jars and copper pots to dig out the halloumi, which, surprisingly, turns out to be deliciously golden and molten. He lifts up the clay pot of lamb kofta to do a mid-air switch over, but in doing so the feta is upturned into the lemon curd, and the basket of bread - pitta, sesame-coated milk bread, and some other flatbread - plummets to the floor, its contents scattering under the table opposite.

FireDog
FireDog

At this point, the cheery and oblivious waitress arrives at our culinary game of Rush Hour with our bulgar and honey roast butternut squash and pomegranate salad. Conversation turns into a balloon debate: which dishes to sacrifice, which to keep. We end up handing them all over to make space for the salad. My plate is a quagmire of sweet, sticky, ricotta, honey, meaty harissa mulch, echoing the chaos of my brain and palate. 

FireDog
FireDog

We look up to recover from the tumult, and find ourselves staring into the cartoon eyes of a loin- clothed Neanderthal and a pink-cloaked witch proffering pomegranates. Not encouraged by the decor but urged on by greed, I try a couple of mouthfuls of the salad. It is fresh, sweet and nutty - far more balanced than any of the preceding dishes. Full, but with mouth, mind and stomach in turmoil, we leave the dark wood and neon enclosure that is Firedog - a supposedly Aegean restaurant, but one for which I doubt Odysseus would interrupt his travels.

FireDog
FireDog

Food: 4/10

Price: ££(££)

Ambience: 4/10

Loos: 7/10

Suitable for: nightmares, a place to go where everywhere else is booked

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Dickie Fitz

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Dickie Fitz

Dickie Fitz

If they had stayed for a little longer, they might have realised that the story I was telling was one of salaciousness, survival of 6.3 Richter scale earthquakes, 800 years of in-breeding in hidden Tuscan villages, and scandal. Alas, they missed out. All three couples came, perched for 10 minutes or so, before murmuring into the waiter’s ear something which meant that they then proceeded to shuffle across the crisp white and mustard-toned restaurant to somewhere where they could engage in their own (much more dull) tales. Admittedly, at the age of ten my teacher did declare that I was a foghorn, but in this situation it was not the decibels that were the issue, but rather the proximity of the tables.

Dickie Fitz

I don’t know whether it’s part of the Australian vibe, or whether the blinding whiteness of the restaurant has some sort of narcotic effect. Whichever it is, the waiters just seemed very lax. At the back of both upstairs and downstairs dining areas there are, at an initial glance, what appear to be bars. But as the meal progressed, and I winked, waved and stared until my eyes my eyes began to water at waiters in the hope of catching their attention, I realised their hidden purpose: they are the restaurant version of the bird watcher’s hide - a camouflaged refuge where under the guise of polishing glasses the staff can spectate and judge the gorging and imbibing. Eventually, I managed to snare a waitress before she shuffled behind the hide.

Dickie Fitz

As an obsessive fan of MasterChef Australia (I refuse to watch the British version), I was rather excited by the promise of an Australian-Pan-Pacific menu, and plumped for the Thai chicken salad: fresh, crisp and crunchy to the point where I could feel my jaw muscles ache the next day. It was definitely palatable, albeit lacking that sweet sticky, spice-kicked tang that the word “Thai” promises. My dining companion enjoyed what was apparently smashed avocado, charred tomato, feta and grilled sourdough, but which was hard to make out under the crisp kale shroud.

Dickie Fitz

Our meal ended at the two dishes. We felt rather abandoned by the waiters, who did not even try to maximise spend-per-cover by offering us dessert or drinks menus. Their tactic must have worked to some bizarre extent as I returned to the restaurant some weeks later, mainly out of curiosity: spiced halloumi with falafel, preserved lemon, and pickle salad for me. Crunchy and tender in all the right places, bitter, zesty, sharp and sweet, it was a success. For dessert, a delicate twist on the pavlova - a soft set lemony curd, berries and basil infused cream - in no way satisfying, but refreshing all the same.

Dickie Fitz

So, in summary, my experience of Dickie Fitz was crowd-shy waiters, not outstandingly innovative yet refreshing, clean, tasty food, and (squashed together) tables that are actually bookable for brunch, an increasing rarity these days.

Food: 7/10

Service 4/10

Vibe: 8/10

Loos: 6/10

Suitable for: brunch, celebrations, actually being able to book a table, vegetarians

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Pollen Street Social Review

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Pollen Street Social Review

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& a glimpse inside the kitchen...Pollen Street Social Review

Last week I went to a blind wine-tasting in a stuffy carpeted room on the top floor of a Mayfair pub. On the table, columns of bottles were massed, awaiting palatal analysis and identification.  One of the sweaty, post-work crowd sidled up to me and refused to leave my side the entire evening.  Not for any flattering reason: he had arrived drunk at the alcohol imbibition.  The sole potential benefit of his presence was his vaunted knowledge of wines, gained from downing over fifty years’ worth of ethanol. Wine after wine he sipped, swirled, glugged, holding each up to the window despite the fading light. Glass after glass he swigged and squirted from one side of his mouth to the other, patting his lips, flipping his tongue up to his palette  in order “to catch the aftertaste”, sucking and squelching.  “Taste the vanilla in that”, “feel the syrupy smoothness of this”, he said, nodding sagely.  1/9 of his answers were correct…

Pollen Street Social Review

 

To me, this is all a manifestation of the emperor’s new clothes syndrome which may sometimes be applied to Michelin-starred restaurants. Do I really want to dine on fussy little squiggles of substance that I have to chase with another globule of something or other so that the perfect scientific reaction can effervesce at the back end of my tongue?  However, Jason Atherton’s soon to be double Michelin-starred flagship is not in this category.  An idyll amongst the raucous, tourist-ridden bustle of Regent Street, Pollen Street Social sits opposite its sister restaurant, Little Social (see review here). Its style is unfussy, open, and clean, with attention to detail: even our bags were given individual stools.

Pollen Street Social Review

 

Before we had even turned the page of the menu, a selection of amuse bouches materialised: dainty sweet corn muffins topped with delicate swirls of dill and cucumber cream, beetroot and blackberry filled tuiles that burst with sweet vinegary freshness, and my favourite, a Jerusalem artichoke crème.  These were followed by cups of mushroom consommé topped with delicate parmesan foam, salty and meaty while being vegetarian.

Pollen Street Social Review

To start, I chose the neeps and tatties in a mushroom ragout- a wonderful coil of tender turnip ribbons generously grated with umami Berkswell cheese.  I could have easily devoured my dining companions’ portions as well.

Pollen Street Social Review Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewOut of the whirr and buzz there then appeared the sprightly figure of Tiziano, the junior manager, who filled the room with his energy and excitable charm. He whisked me off to view the upstairs kitchen and the pass – a dark, orange- lit forge, tantalisingly situated behind glass.

Pollen Street Social Review

 

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewIt was sprung with energy but, unlike the amped up drama so often portrayed on TV, it was at the same time controlled and calm. Whilst fixing plates, advising chefs on the pass, and approving the dishes that flowed past us on wooden board, Dale (Head Chef) talked me through the dishes.

Pollen Street Social Review

Our main courses were served as soon as I returned to my seat: the juiciest of chicken breast with a skin so crisp that even I (spurner of skin) couldn’t resist – its earthy savouriness was contrasted with the little pops of peas and broad beans, underpinned once more by the seasonal buttery, almost molten, girolles. The wild garlic flowers added to the dish with their fresh savouriness. My dining companions’ lamb and gnocchi dishes were also successes, although if there were any criticism it would be the mushroom theme that was developing throughout the vegetarian dishes – a non fungi fan would have had difficulty.  In addition, my companion found some of the mushrooms somewhat too heavily salted.

Pollen Street Social Review

 

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewWe decamped to the dessert bar to watch the pastry chefs practising their craft. First, a palate cleanser which was one of the highlights of the meal, straddling the line between savoury and sweet, and without risking losing stomach room for dessert: light yogurt foam with fairy-thin shards of meringue and a verdant and astringent basil sorbet.

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewWe watched as cylinders of tempered chocolate were filled with an aerated milk mousse and crumbled sticky and crunchy caramelised puffed rice.  A chocolate disc was delicately placed on top like a lid, and adorned with a gold leaf foil, and then accompanied by a rocher of honey ice cream.  My dining companions' poached berries with lime and cream cheese sorbet with honey sugar tuile were also a hit. These were chased by a velvety chocolate mousse, and an almond and cherry financier, and a passion fruit and blood orange pâté de fruit, as well as a hazelnut crème entremets for the road…just in case.

Pollen Street Social Review

Pollen Street Social ReviewPollen Street Social ReviewDelicious, unfussy, comfortable and exciting – this is one of the finest dining experiences I have had in the last few years.  And I can say that without any fear of an emperor’s new clothes diagnosis.

Food: 9.5/10

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 10/10

Price: ££££

Loos: 9/10

Pollen Street Social Review

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Honey & Co Review

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Honey & Co Review

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There is a particular trend that is permeating the London dining scene like a contagion.

In the flurry of new openings, and novel and exotic twists on traditional gastronomies, a number of restaurateurs have become smitten with Spanish tapas, and have decided to exploit this style of cuisine for all its worth. Tapas are traditionally displayed on a menu in a long list, and served all at once, so diners can delight in dipping in and out of them with a few drinks as they please.  Instead of serving a carefully structured plate of well-balanced complementary elements, the restaurants at fault are breaking the plates down into individual elements.

They call them “small plates”, and I detest them.

 

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You’ll know that you’ve found yourself in this “small plate” trap when the waiter suggests that each person orders three, despite the fact that one is the cost of a normal large plate.  Not only do they expand their profits substantially by doing this, but the effort required by the kitchen is significantly reduced. Chefs don’t need to bother about planning dishes when they can just make whatever the hell they like, call it another small plate and let the diner err when structuring their picky little meal.   Oh, and these small plates seem to have a life of their own: you see, they can arrive according to their own whim and in any combination.  At my most recent visit to a restaurant of this type, all vegetables were deemed unsuitable to be served with fish.

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My rage against small plates had been boiling for several weeks when I decided to return to Honey & Co, where I knew my craving for a large plate could be fulfilled.  Call me demanding, or even greedy, if you like. I’d been before and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, but sadly forgot to bring my camera.  This time, however, I was armed.  Itamar Srulovich and his wife Sarit Packer rule the roost at this tiny 30 cover Canaan.  He’s ex- Ottolenghi - an almost guarantee of success - and the Ottolenghi influence is strongly evident in the cuisine.  Décor is kept to a minimum, with stark white walls and patterned blue tiled floor forcing your eye greedily towards the focal countertop display of spiced and perfumed cakes.  Despite the minimalism, there is no lack of atmosphere.  Most people are so pleased to have acquired their 1.5 hour table slot that they exude an aura of excitement.

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The menu is divided into starters and mains (hallelujah) – I plumped for spring salad of peas, courgettes, and warm manouri cheese with a lemon and saffron sauce.  Crisp, and light with the nuttiness of the manouri and electric tang of citrus, the dish was very pleasant.

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One dining companion went down the more obvious but inevitably delicious route of falafel served with a tabbouleh and tahini sauce – one of the most popular on the menu (the chefs undoubtedly roll falafel in their sleep).

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The other opted for the braised artichoke with parsley za’atar and yoghurt dipping sauce.

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This was rather a tame option as there only so much you can do to a whole artichoke in terms of flavour(read: very little), and so no matter how delicious the sauce the eating becomes tiresome.  It resides alongside eating fish and quail on the bone in my list of things that I just don’t have time for.  I can’t be bothered to fuss around with scraping a half centimetre of blandish artichoke flesh against the back of my teeth.

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My main course was very good: a plate abounding with plump parcels (aka Menti) of burnt courgette and herb with olive oil braised broad beans and whipped feta, the latter  adding a kick of saltiness to draw out the sweetness from the  dumplings and green vegetables.

Despite the petit nature of the restaurant (even the waitresses are petite, needing to squeeze between the close-set tables), the kitchen at Honey & Co must go through roughly an entire field of mint every day.  It resides proudly on almost every plate, and nor is its presence irrelevant – it lifts the earthier flavours into more summery tones, like for example, the shawarma of slow cooked lamb shoulder burnt pitta and goat’s yoghurt with amba mint and pomegranate.  I’m not the greatest fan of lamb, but this dish convinced me that my prejudice was poorly founded.

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The lamb was succulent, tender and sweet, and lifted to higher planes with the addition of juicy gems of pomegranate and the ubiquitous mint.

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The only disappointment was my dining companion’s chicken makloobah with saffron rice and a lemon yoghurt sauce. Visually, the dish lacked the vibrant flair that every other possessed and was a little bland.

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One dining companion went on to order the pink grapefruit and raspberry granita with yoghurt mousse and honeyed oat crisp.  The flavours bounced nicely off each other but I found the granita a little too perfumed.

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I’m also more inclined to a substantial dessert: I don’t particularly care for palate cleansers.  If I’m going to sin, then I’ll sin properly. And there’s one vital way to do that at Honey & Co: the cheesecake with kadaif pastry and honey.  Perhaps not the most beautiful of desserts, but more than made up for in flavour – the cheesecake is well balanced, creamy and contrasts perfectly with the crunchy, sticky tangled nest of kadaif.

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Bold, well-balanced, vibrant, and generous, the food at Honey & Co is the perfect antidote to the small plate disease.

 

Food: 8.75/10

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 9/10

Price: ££££

Loos: N/A

Suitable for: buisness lunches, casual dates, family, friends, vegetarians

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Momo - Restaurant Review

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Momo - Restaurant Review

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Momo - Restaurant Review Multi-coloured light shines through the stained-glass windows of the ceiling in triangles, and everywhere there are glass lamps, carved wooden symbols, and ornate mirrors.  In the middle of all this opulence there is a feast of tiered pastries and sweets crowned with luscious fruits, layered gold henna-d tea glasses, as well as Persian rugs, bronze statues and intricate silver vessels…even the answering machine has a Moroccan accent.

Momo - Restaurant Review

It’s like stepping into a restaurant off the Jemma el-Fnaa - almost.  But then there are a few things that sending you hurtling back to the western world:  the giant green chair outside belongs more to a car boot sale than this North African sanctuary, the bathrooms (including hand dryer) have been sprayed with rust-coloured sparkles, and the music projected into this emporium is more of a late night Kiss-FM mash up than Berber folk.

Momo - Restaurant Review

We were seated around a marble table next to the gold focal display dripping with glucose-laden delights, convenient for us to salivate over (figuratively only, of course) throughout the meal.

Momo - Restaurant Review

But as one of my dining companions noted, we had ended up being seated at the only wobbly table in the room -dangerous, if you’re as clumsy as I am.

Momo - Restaurant Review

The restaurant was empty for the first half hour, meaning that service was good – efficient but not intrusive, and with waiters at our exclusive beck and call.  This was not a sign of any absence of quality, but rather people’s lack of awareness that Momo does brunch.  The popularity of brunch in London has soared over the last few years but there is only a handful of places that stray from the omelette/bacon/pancake norm.

Momo - Restaurant Review

On previous trips to Morocco I’ve eaten so much at breakfast that I’ve managed to continue the whole day, camel-like, without any other meals.  It’s good to be able to continue this tradition in London, especially considering the dearth of decent Moroccan restaurants here.

Momo - Restaurant Review

We ordered tea to start – Moroccan mint for me.  The metre- high, admirable yet worrying, yellow stream brought back memories of Marrakech and the numerous carpet salesmen, antique vendors and herbalists who had poured out the perfumed nectar, laced with tooth-rotting sweetness, into patterned tea glasses on gold trays, in the hope of seducing us into buying their goods.  The menu is extensive, with innumerable pastries, sweets and traditional Moroccan tagines.  The absence from the menu of traditionally cooked eggs was refreshing (of particular interest to me after I wasted £13.80 on a limp and bland two-egg omelette at Christopher’s in Covent Garden – I shan’t be darkening their doorstep again).

Momo - Restaurant Review

I ordered the Full Moroccan Breakfast (sans poached egg) which consisted of batata hara, merguez, turkey bacon, coco beans in charmoula sauce, garlic-cooked mushroom-filled roast tomato. The potatoes were soft, and had soaked up the piquant sauce, while the merguez were salty, spicy and juicy, the turkey bacon crisp, the mushrooms delightfully garlicky, and the beans flavourful and comforting.  I’d order Moroccan breakfast over British, any day.  Over all, the dish worked well, but it could have done with a touch more salt to draw more flavour out of the starches.

Momo - Restaurant Review Momo - Restaurant Review

My dining companions were content with their orders, too: scrambled eggs on toast with cured beef, cumin and fine herbs,

Momo - Restaurant Review

and tchaktchouka: merguez, spiced peppers, tomatoes with a fried free range egg, the latter bubbling furiously for five minutes or so after arriving.

Momo - Restaurant Review

After all this, we rolled off our chairs to examine more closely the array of decadent offerings.

Momo - Restaurant ReviewMomo - Restaurant Review

Much to my disappointment there were no baklava (or “balaclava” – rather embarrassingly, the malapropism slipped from my mouth).  We plumped for the praline mousseline horn, admittedly more for its inelegance of name than for its advertised flavours.

Momo - Restaurant Review

 

This tactic, however, worked in our favour: the pastry was crisp, flaky and filled with a light, and not-overly sweet, praline cream.

Momo - Restaurant Review

The maghrebine pastries were also exotic in appearance, looking somewhat as though they were made of play dough, as my dining companion observed.

Momo - Restaurant Review

This is how we ranked them: in first place, the shiny brown- coffee- bean- on-steroids shaped delicacy; in second place, the almond paste ball nestled in a yellow flower-shaped pastry cup, and stabbed with a nut; in third, the lurid frilly sea-monster (whose green resembled rather disconcertingly that of the giant green chair outside the restaurant).

Momo - Restaurant Review Momo - Restaurant Review

A few mint teas later we tore ourselves away from the Moroccan den.  All in all, the experience had all the necessary qualities of a good brunch: interesting, good quality and decently-priced food, an ambience of decadence and luxury, and good service.   Or maybe I was just seduced by the endless streams of sweet mint tea…

Suitable for: Smart dates, friends, family, vegetarians, brunch, lunch, dinner, cocktails, business lunches, afternoon tea, something different

Food: 8/10

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 9/10

Loos: 6/10 - I walked into the men's.  For future reference this sign = women's:

Momo - Restaurant Review

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Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

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Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

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Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2) After donning chef’s whites for the second time, proudly hooking my tea towel into the tie in what I thought was a professional way, I spent Day Two in the cold section i.e. meat and fish.  Valentina took me under her wing, overseeing my making of duck beignet – duck sausage sliced and dipped in flour, then egg yolk, and then in panko crumbs.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

 

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

This was done again for the golden nuggets of molten goat’s cheese for the beetroot salad.  It was at this point that I realised one of the reasons why everything in Le Caprice kitchens run so smoothly: Tupperware. Tubs upon tubs upon tubs, gallons, half gallons and smaller take out ones all stacked ceiling high. Everything goes into Tupperware, and not in any haphazard order, but only after it has been perfectly portioned.  The beignets were laid out flat, no overlapping, tortellini were five to a container, and duck for the crispy duck salad (my favourite) was carefully weighed out to the last gram.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

After wrapping halved lemons in gauze, I went off to 11 o’clock lunch: fluorescent Thai green curry. I chatted more to some of the chefs and waiters, finding out how long they’d been there, whether they’d always loved food, enjoyed cooking etc.  Some dreamed of opening their own restaurant, their own bakeries.  One chef said he prefers the food at KFC…

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

I met Valentina upstairs preparing for service in the cold section (to my relief, no fires of Hell that day). Mike came over, took a bowl, filled it with a handful of Mooli (white radish), julienned carrot, beansprouts, and finely chopped spring onion, and drizzled it with a sweet chilli dressing and swirled it all around.  Then he took a punnet of perfectly portioned boiled duck breast, sprinkled it with some sort of starch, and dropped it with nonchalant cool into a pool of sizzling oil.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

A couple of minutes later, he dropped the duck portions into a stainless steel bowl to drain.  Crisped to perfection, they rattled around as he drenched them with the stick soy-honey –hoisin sauce.  This was poured onto the salad, scattered with torn pomelo and chilli cashews and topped with the watercress.   “You’ll be making this today, try it first,” he said.  I began to gorge myself: sticky, sweet, crunchy, acidic, salty, spicy.  So good.  Three quarters of the way through, I noticed that he had handed me two sets of cutlery.  Pretending that I hadn’t seen them, I continued feasting.

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Service began. The crispy duck salad was the most popular dish.  Pressure was on.  Receipts rolled in, along with pressure and excitement.  Every now and then Mike would ask: “How many minutes Sophia?”  I whipped up the dish, pestering Valentina with questions to make sure it was perfect, and then I’d transport it over the pass to be inspected by Mike.  “Good work,” he said.  Though it was probably the simplest dish on the menu, I cannot describe the thrill of the satisfaction.

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Service continued until receipts began to peter out, and Valentina and I chatted the whole time.  She’s from Romania.  None of the meat here tastes like home, she told me, where her family keeps, raises and kills their own animals.  We discussed art, her love of drawing, and how she never had the time when she was working in the kitchen.  She adores baking (chocolate and pistachio are her weaknesses), and yet lamented her lack of time for experimenting.   We discussed our favourite blogs and recipes and desserts, and she described a recipe for a delicious lemon pudding that she promised she would let me have (if you’re reading this, Valentina, please send it to me - I’m desperate to try it!). Although she enjoyed working in the kitchen, it seemed that some of her creativity was held back.   The hours are long – five shifts a week, including one double shift.  Hours are from seven until four, and then some evenings, when the shift ends, later than one a.m., depending on last orders.  The adrenaline from service sometimes prevents her from sleeping for at least two hours – something I can completely understand as I was buzzing from only a couple of days in the kitchens.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

I spent the next three days in what can only be described as the Elysian field of the Underworld kitchen: pastry.  Nicky is head pastry chef, and she couldn’t have been lovelier. She told me that I could make anything that I liked from the menu.  This is the kind of thing I fantasize about.  So, I made plum tarte tatin,

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

apple and blackberry tartlets,

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

 

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

rhubarb crumble pies,

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

lime parfait, white chocolate ice cream, mint chocolate chip ice-cream, focaccia, brioche, carta di musica, orange and cinnamon palmiers,

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

pistachio macarons,

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

and the truffles that I lust over in the time between visits to the Caprice.  For the latter, she handed me the recipes and set me free.  I boiled the sugars and cream together for the ganache, and whisked in the passion fruit puree, before pouring it over the chocolate to melt it – luscious and glossy, it would have been a sin not to steal a spoonful, and another.  I piped this into chocolate shells where it set.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

The same was done for the caramel truffles, but these required hand rolling in dark chocolate – a lengthy process, but well worth it.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

The effort of rolling the several hundred truffles was reduced slightly by a simple reduction in the number of caramel truffles i.e. I, together with my partner- in- crime, Blair (see below), gorged myself sick.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

I was then asked to place the Caprice brioche burger buns in plastic bags to freeze them.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

Peta (senior pastry chef at The Ivy) took me over to the seal wrap machine.  “Put the edge of the bag here and press the lid down for a couple of seconds.  Don’t let it suck the air out,” she instructed me.  It seemed simple enough.  She left, entrusting the hundreds of fluffy, burnished, seeded buns to me.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

It worked perfectly the first time, and the second.  I became arrogant, and was distracted by the bustling of chefs behind me.  I turned back to the buns - but they were no longer buns.  Six wrinkled and deflated solid misshapen things stared back at me.  Panic stricken, I hid them behind the back of the machine.  Thinking better of this, I pulled them out, but if I threw them away someone would notice.  I considered telling Peta, but shame prevented me.  So I prised the layers of shrink-wrapped plastic apart in an attempt at bun CPR.  I almost convinced myself that they appeared slightly rejuvenated.  Wracked by embarrassment, I even considered rushing to the office, squeezing past Mike and hiding them in my bag.  In the end, I placed them down the side of the freezer hoping to give the impression that they’d been crushed by something else.  Those buns continue to haunt me.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

I accompanied Nicky upstairs for service.  Pastry service is much calmer than savoury.  The dessert menu at Le Caprice is also decadently extensive, so it was rather like watching a piece of art work being created as Nicky worked her way through the receipts.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

This beauty, a yuzu and cherry mousse with pistachio macarons, was invented by Nicky herself only a couple of weeks before.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

Part of the thrill of being a pastry chef, she said, was the injection of creativity.  Every two weeks, she has to present a new dish to the board of tasters who are apparently very blunt when voicing their opinions.  The dish cannot be similar to anything else on the menu, nor any of the other menus of The Caprice Holdings Group.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

It happened that Judi Dench was in the house that day, and one of her party ordered sugar brioche doughnuts with chocolate sauce and strawberry jam.   I had made the dough, stamped into little rounds and portioned it into Tupperware earlier.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

I poured these out into the oil, and under Nicky’s direction, flipped them continuously.  They puffed up gloriously into golden brown globes.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

I drained them and rolled them in white sugar until they glistened.  Nicky arranged them on a plate and I shouted ‘Service!’

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

Each of the waiters was friendly, each with a strong personality, one more so than the others.  He waltzed into the kitchen, chest puffed, flicking his slicked and coiffed hair, and as he whisked away my dish to transport it to the realm of the diners, he burst into rather monotonous and very loud song “All of me loves all of you, la la laaa la laa la la laaaaaaa”.

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Le Caprice has no dearth of famous diners, but what I found more interesting were the eccentric ones.  “No shortage of those,” Nicky said.  One man apparently had come the week before for the pre-theatre menu.  He pored over the menu studiously and ordered three courses.  He didn’t touch one of the dishes, and made himself a sandwich from the bread basket instead.  There is also a regular whose reasons for coming to the restaurant are somewhat particular: he comes in once a week, sits down at the table, reaches into his bag, and pulls out his own packed lunch.

Friday came almost too quickly.  I spent the morning slicing brownies (and eating the off cuts, obviously),

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

learning how to segment oranges, painting carta di musica,

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

and trying absolutely everything from chocolate delice to caramel popcorn ice cream.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

Nicky had whipped up a batch of popping candy mint ice cream and was handing it out to all the chefs.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

It was also the last day for three of the chefs: Mike was moving on to become head chef of his own restaurant, Lauren, after four years in Le Caprice was moving to its sister restaurant, Daphne’s, and Valentina was taking a break to explore.  Champagne was cracked open, toasts were made.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

The vibe was convivial.  “We’re all like brothers and sisters,” Nicky had said to me, and I saw this for myself.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

Mike kindly invited me to join them for drinks afterwards.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

At 5 o’clock, I untied the bow of the striped blue apron, unpoppered the floppy white shirt, and changed out of the elasticated black trousers.  I ascended the stairs for definitely, hopefully, not the last time – like Persephone, I had had more than my fair share of the pomegranate, and the Underworld had me in its warm, savoury, sweet clutches, or rather tongs.

Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 2)

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Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

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Other side of the door: inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

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On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1) Only a blue tinted portal  - the one way door into the depths of the Underworld - suggests the behind-the-scenes drama of the kitchen, and, if you’re looking at the right time, slivers of stainless steel and the flurry of chefs’ whites.  Once seated, silver bowls of bread materialise quickly.  The waiter is charming, with perhaps a glint in his eye. Food arrives, plates tucked into invisible crevices in his arm.  You’ve ordered the salad to start  - the radicchio is cold and crisp, beetroots bathe in just the right amount of truffle honey dressing, and nestled in the middle is a golden nugget – crunchy on the outside but releasing molten goats’ cheese as soon as it is pierced.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

 

You might acknowledge this or you might not.  The meal continues.  Mains come and go.  You order dessert.  One of your dining companions goes to the loo.  Dessert arrives immediately after his return.   Fresh mint tea, or an espresso, and the meal’s over, and you leave the buzzing Art Deco-style emporium.  Did you stop to think how many people it took to make that one salad?  How many spats arose over that chorizo?  That the waiter had been closely observing your departure to the lavatory and had announced it to the entire kitchen: “Hold dessert - he’s in the loo!” I didn’t, until a couple of weeks ago.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

I swanned in at 9am on Monday, through the revolving door.  The chic black and white décor was the same, but that is where the familiarity ended.  No excited chatter, no heads turning from tables to scrutinise who has entered (anyone famous?), and no one to slip my coat off my shoulders and guide me to the seats with which I possess a lifetime of acquaintance.  Instead: tables denuded of their usual crisp white tablecloths, stacked on top of each other, naked legs in the air, and chairs piled up across the room.  I wove my way through the maze of disarray, and with some trepidation approached the blue portal.

The door swung shut behind me.  One way only.  Then I descended into the Underworld.  Mike, the senior sous greeted me with a pile of freshly folded chef’s whites.  No room for glamour here; only baggy elasticated-waist black trousers, a floppy, short-sleeved, double-poppered shirt and a stripy blue apron.  I scraped my hair back and tied it up: number 1 fear was having a customer send food back after semi-choking on a long brunette hair.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

Mike then gave me a tour of the various stainless steel divisions that comprise the underground empire.  First: “veg”, which featured cauldrons/baby bathing tubs bubbling furiously,

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

as well as vats of overnight-maturing stock.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

Next: “meat”,

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

which included bricks of pork belly cut at perfect right angles,

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

blocks of already cut frozen meat defrosting, their crimson juices dripping into the sink,

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

 

octopuses splayed casually,

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

and blue-gloved hands peeling back pimpled chicken carcases for delicate dissection.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

Last: “pastry”, on the ground floor, tucked away to the side and from which billows of homely sweet pastry  and freshly baked bread filled the room.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

I, however, spent my first day on “sauce”, upstairs, where Lauren was juggling béarnaise sauce for the fish, and caramelised apple for the pork.  Prepping hedgehog mushrooms for the risotto was my job, scraping the mottled brown fuzz from under the mushrooms’ umbrellas. I was standing in front of the stoves from which service takes place: flames flashed through the grill suspended from the ceiling, oil hissed from four vats in the corner, and hot plates were churning the air above into a haze – as close to the fires of Hades as any mortal can get.  After a couple of hours of herb picking and carrot peeling, Lauren mentioned lunch.   “Get there quick,” she said. “The waiters are greedy”.  She never goes, and nor do many other of the chefs.  So chefs are never hungry and waiters are – or so it seemed in the case of Le Caprice.  She spoke the truth: after stumbling down dead ends, I found the staff room where waiters were hunched over plates heaped with minced meat sauce, rice and salad.  Presentation wasn’t quite the same standard as that on the other side of the door.  I had arrived on the scene too late – only a puddle of minced meat was left, and a waiter was scraping the remains of the rice onto his already piled high plate.  He looked down on me pityingly and redistributed a few grains from his plate on to mine.  I wasn’t actually interested in eating rice, but the gesture was there.

After I’d clambered upstairs again, I found Lauren setting up for service. Surfaces were clear and sterilised (almost obsessively), drawers of condiments and herbs were fully stocked and arranged neatly, a bowl of sterilising hand wash was on standby, together with separate boards for fish and meat, sauces in bottles, and plates stacked high under the oven to keep warm.  A sliding fridge contained all the ingredients, perfectly portioned and ready to be cooked.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

At 12.30 service began.  Mike assumed his position in front of the counter.  There was an energy in the air – no stress, just adrenaline.  Unsurprisingly, January is a quiet month.  Most of the regulars are on holiday, Lauren explained – a quiet lunchtime service equals roughly 60 covers, no small feat in my book.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

There was no Hell’s Kitchen vibe, none of the head chef shouting which had entertained me in countless episodes of Masterchef. Receipts began to roll in.  James was also on the pass – he’d only been there a few months as part of his course at chef school.  Duck eggs were fried, pork fillets were fried and roasted, cod was cooked on the hot plate, and chicken escalope, prawns, and shoals of Thai baked sea bass were juggled and whisked onto the pass.  The dishes were placed underneath a heater to keep them warm until service was shouted, and the dishes were collected in a particular order so that the last picked up is the first to be delivered to the women at the table.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

I’d done a mild version of service previously when I did work experience in Villandry’s pastry kitchen – even then, I found slicing cakes for service stressful, so I was rather pleased that my only job was to peel back the palm leaf on the Thai baked sea bass and drizzle it with sweet chilli sauce.  Halfway through service, a third chef was called up to the pass.  Dishes were flying off the counter, and rather disappointingly  (for me) from a drama perspective, everything was in sync: receipt read out, food fired/baked/grilled/roasted, service shouted, garnish scattered, dish scrutinised by Mike, and then whisked off by the waiters into the diners’ realm.  If there were any drips, not enough dressing, or lack of crispness he notified the chefs, but this was a rare occurrence, and the spirit was a jovial one rather than strictly hierarchical.  Every ten minutes or so, as if by clockwork, a man would appear to conquer the ever-mounting pile of dishes.  I had squeezed myself into a corner to take in the action but even then it was difficult not to be in someone’s way.  Every now and then Mike would pass me something to try: sea parsley, a slice of Perigord truffle, an onion bhaji, parsnip and apple soup, hot smoked salmon, celeriac rémoulade, Bouillabaisse sauce… I could almost hear my metabolism weeping. The highlight occurred at around 1.30, mid-frenzy.  James slid a bowl toward me overflowing with the most golden and crisp pommes allumettes.  I stared at him briefly in disbelief and attempted to pace myself while failing utterly to disguise my greediness.

On the other side of the door : inside the kitchens of Le Caprice (Part 1)

Service peaked at around 1.30, and the frenzy began to simmer down.  The third chef on service dropped out, and around 2.30 Lauren began to tidy away.  Enervated and relieved, we descended to the basement kitchen.  I spent the rest of the afternoon crying as the pile of halved onions in front of me grew.  To be continued...

 

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Grain Store - Restaurant Review

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Grain Store - Restaurant Review

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The Grain Store - Restaurant Review The child behind me was whining like a kid goat being dragged to slaughter.  The woman on my right was snoring so loudly that she was trapped in an ineluctable cycle of waking herself up before falling asleep again.  The man on my left had either forgotten that handkerchiefs exist, or rather enjoyed the sound/sensation of snorting every last drop of unconquerable mucus into the innermost depths of his Eustachian tube, only for it to creep back up again at ten second intervals.  My choir master couldn’t have conducted this orchestral animal pen better.  Before I’d even sat down, I’d already lost one armrest and some precious space to the woman overlapping my seat on the right.  Not prepared to cede the other armrest, I draped my left arm determinedly over it, only for the mucus snorter to pile his arm on top of mine.  I was forced to retreat after half an hour, having been worn down, too, by his second tier of offence: the occasional lifting of his arm to allow puffs of BO to corrupt my nostrils.  The last straw was when the trolley, preceded by the unmistakeable signature stale aeroplane scent, reached my row, only to deliver some form of unidentifiable swill. My only escape was to conjure up a memory of last week’s brunch at Grain Store, King’s Cross….

The Grain Store - Restaurant Review

An oasis in the desert that is the North London restaurant scene, Grain Store opened a year and half ago with others such as Caravan and Dishoom following suit.  Locating it in King’s Cross has afforded the restaurant an atmosphere unlike most central London restaurants: a sprawling high ceilinged airy haven, urban rustic in feel, with an open kitchen.  The cuisine is vegetarian-focused (very on trend for 2015) and excitingly innovative.

The Grain Store - Restaurant Review

To start we tried the beetroot, apple, celery and pomegranate molasses juice and the hibiscus and raspberry cocktail.  The beetroot was pleasant but, tastewise, the health benefits were a little too evident.  The latter, however, was very good.

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

Focaccia with olive oil followed – freshly baked, with the crunchy dukkah addition an innovative twist on the standard.

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

The Grain Store - Restaurant Review

I ordered the yoghurt and chickpea pancake with avocado, tomato and jalapeno salsa and merguez.  The pancake, laced with slices of merguez, was velvety and wonderfully savoury.  The salsa was well flavoured, but could have verged more dangerously on the side of spicy.

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

I’m a rather fierce food predator and so managed to steal a forkful of my dining companion’s Moroccan carrot salad, with spiced labneh and linseed flatbread.  Well-spiced, fresh, and visually and texturally vibrant, I was struck with all too familiar food envy (not in place of my dish but as well as).

 

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

The empanada was also a success. I didn’t manage to try it but heard satisfied mumbles coming from my other dining companion.

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

I did manage to try the Korean slaw, Kaffir lime chicken burger with a fried egg on a muffin.

Grain Store - Restaurant Review

Succulent, savoury, spicy, slightly sweet and citrusy, the Korean slaw is a reason in itself to visit Grain Store.  I shall dedicate some time attempting to replicate it.  The burger was also delicious, although there was not enough of it.

The Grain Store - Restaurant Review

Dessert was unavoidable.  The baked apple, rosemary crumble, and crème fraiche with caramel sauce possessed all the right textures as well as flavours: sweet, salty and slightly perfumed by the rosemary.  However, I am a crumble fiend and firmly believe there should be more crumble than fruit – much more – and this did not vaguely meet my crumble quantity requirements, nor those of my dining companion.

The Grain Store - Restaurant Review

The Grain Store - Restaurant Review

The special of the day was blueberry tart.  It was as you would expect a good blueberry tart to be – the pastry crisp, and the blueberries jammy, but I would have liked a touch of citrus to offset the sweetness.

Grain Store - Restaurant Review Grain Store - Restaurant Review

The Grain Store - Restaurant Review

Overall, it was a great experience - so much so that it managed, in recollection, to transport me away from the animal pen sights and sounds during my recent flight.  The atmosphere is informal yet chic, the service is fine, and the food strays into far more exciting and modern territory than many London restaurants dare to do, especially for brunch.

Food: 8/10

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 6.5/10

Loos: 7/10

Price: ££££

Suitable for: casual dates, friends, family, brunch, all-day dining, vegetarians, vegans

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The Ivy Market Grill - Review

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The Ivy Market Grill - Review

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The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review Twelve hours of starvation, a 5.30 wake up and, waiting for me, a pair of over-sized nappy-esque translucent paper knickers.   Having first been warned of the potential risk of losing sensation in my mouth possibly forever, I was then choked by a mask pumping sickly sweet anaesthetic into my lungs, and my jaw was ripped into. Drilled brutally into five pieces and followed by a thorough excavation, there was not even a remote chance of the tooth fairy visiting to collect my wisdom tooth. The drugs they gave me were stomach-writhingly potent – strong enough to crush even my most resilient characteristic: hunger. Still, the thought of lunch the next day at Richard Caring’s freshly opened Ivy Market Grill, sister of London establishment, The Ivy, was enough to keep me going. IMG_8721 The timing couldn’t have been worse: by Sunday morning my face had swollen to such an extent that I had to perfect a combo of Quagmire of Family Guy, and Debbie from The Wild Thornberrys, the Debbie hair curtain deployed to conceal the Quagmire jawline. The menu which I had pored over numerous times in admiration was restricted dramatically – only food that could fit through the 0.5cm letterbox that my mouth had become was a possibility. I was also doubled over in pain from the stomach-eroding drugs the doctor had supplied.IMG_8759 Battling valiantly through all these obstacles, I made my way to Covent Garden.   Following the success of Caring’s all-day restaurant chain, Côte, another all-day brasserie must have appeared to be a logical step. With its grand Parisian brasserie feel, elegant yet comfortable, the verbal and physical resonances of its well-established Soho sister are evident. IMG_8748 To start: pumpkin with black truffle soup (I only just resisted asking for a straw). It was presented with the flourish and drama one would expect at a top end location – a neatly balanced pumpkin ravioli surmounting pumpkin puree scattered with crunchy toasted pumpkin seeds was flooded with a sweet and truffle-rich pumpkin soup. IMG_8733 I have yet to visit a restaurant with any pumpkin dish rivalling those of Caecilius, a host featured in the epigrams of Latin poet, Martial, who pushes the gourd creatively to its very limits (see below) . The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review I long to try the thousand variations-on-a-pumpkin degustation that Caecilius prepares, but have so far been let down by London restaurants in this respect. Clearly, I shall have to honour the Roman myself. In the case of the Ivy Market Grill, pumpkin four ways went some of the way both in texture and flavour. The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review I tried some of my dining companion’s winter salad (shaved apple, hazelnuts, golden raisins and celery with a stilton dressing) albeit a pathetically small mouthful with obvious constraints applying. It, too, was highly refined, refreshing both to look at and in its sweet salty flavour. The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review At this point I realise the review should be dedicated to the dentally challenged with whom I now sympathise. Alongside its impressive vegetarian selection, I also deem the restaurant false–tooth friendly. The risotto was perfectly al dente (or more appropriately alla mancanza di dente), the flavours well balanced – umami with comforting autumnal warmth. The portion was on the generous side too. The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The roasted heritage carrots with parsley were delicious: perfectly honeyed and tender. The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review One of my companions ordered the zucchini fritti, which I managed to taste. Thin and crisp and ridiculously light, one day I’ll return for more. The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The chargrilled Banham half chicken, with maître d’hôtel butter and thick cut chips was also a hit according to my dining companions, as was the baked open ravioli with spinach, peas, broad beans, creamed ricotta and basil. The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review Unfortunately, the quinoa, avocado and mixed leaves making up the salad element of the grilled chicken salad were overly salted, but our waitress, Alexandra, was quick to make up for the error.   With the quality of food otherwise good, I can only imagine that this was a first week opening blip. Dessert ensued.   And, naturally, I ordered the melting chocolate bombe. Soft and soupy, it complied with the surgeon’s orders exactly. The thick, hot and rich salted caramel melted the chocolate exterior, drenching the plate with milk foam, vanilla ice cream and honeycomb. The surprise element, popping candy, kept me entertained for a while. The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant reviewThe Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant reviewThe Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant reviewThe Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant reviewThe Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant reviewThe Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review I never usually seek out sorbet at a restaurant but I couldn’t refuse when my dining companion offered me some of his - doctor’s orders of course. The blood orange was sublime, the flavour both acutely sharp and sweet.The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review The Ivy Market Grill - Culina Sophia restaurant review Refined flavours, unfussy food, delightful served, and a warm, comfortable atmosphere, the Ivy Market Grill does not, in my opinion, dilute the brand; rather it strengthens it. It’s an all-day restaurant, and yes, I would happily spend all day dining there.


Martial, Epigrams XI.XXXI. On Caecilius. Caecilius, a very Atreus of gourds, tears and cuts them into a thousand pieces, just as if they were the children of Thyestes. Some of these pieces will be placed before you to begin with as a relish; they will appear again as a second course; then again as a third course. From some he will contrive a dessert; from others the baker will make mawkish patties, cakes of every form, and dates such as are sold at the theatres. By the art of the cook they are metamorphosed into all sorts of mincemeat, so that you would fancy you saw lentils and beans on the table; they are also made to imitate mushrooms and sausages, tails of tunnies and anchovies. This dextrous cook exhausts the powers of art to disguise them in every way, sometimes by means of Capellian rue. Thus he fills his dishes, and side dishes, and polished plates, and tureens, and congratulates himself upon his skill in furnishing so many dishes at the cost of a penny.


Food: 8.5/10 Price: ££££ Ambience: 7/10 Service: 9/10 Loos: 7/10 Suitable for: smart dates, celebrations, brunch, afternoon tea, all-day dining, family, friends, pre-theatre dining, Square Meal Ivy Market Grill on Urbanspoon

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Top 5 Cakes in London - Princi (5)

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Top 5 Cakes in London - Princi (5)

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Princi - Top 5 Cakes in London Princi is a Milanese boutique artisan bakery and pizzeria on Wardour Street, not far from the buzz and bustle of Leicester Square and Covent Garden.  Open late every day, it is a beacon for those looking for a savoury snack or indeed a cup of coffee and a delicious cake.

Princi - Top 5 Cakes in London

With its carefully lit interior and long black marble counter, its airy minimalist styling is stylish and elegant.

Princi - Top 5 Cakes in London

Made in house, the cakes are modern European and Italian in style: there are brownies,

Princi - Top 5 Cakes in London

cannoli, raspberry chocolate ganache cake,

Princi - Top 5 Cakes in London

and there is tiramisu, and  lime cheesecake layered with fig

 

Princi - Top 5 Cakes in London

and there is panettone (made in-house)…

Princi - Top 5 Cakes in London

The sumptuous display seems to stretch on forever.  Thankfully, the glass counter protects the cakes from the customers’ drool.

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Style of cakes: Modern Italian

Price: ££££

Location: Soho

Suitable for: casual dates, late night dining, afternoon tea, lunch, breakfast, friends, family

 

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Top 5 Cakes in London - Gail's Artisan Bakery (3)

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Top 5 Cakes in London - Gail's Artisan Bakery (3)

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Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London There are a number of Gail’s bakeries now in London, but this should most definitely not put you off.  The interiors are clean in feel with a robust modern rustic ambience. Unfussy, good quality British baking with a wholesome feel, my spirits lift when I see there is a branch nearby.

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

There are maple brioche buns, cinnamon swirls and muffins,

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

sour cherry and chocolate drop scones and lemon drizzle cake, miniature pistachio chocolate cakes,

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

pecan pies,

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

white chocolate cheesecake,

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

brownies,

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

cookies,

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

and, of course, there is carrot cake.

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

The latter is sublime – I can’t describe the disappointment I feel when the last crumb has been chased into oblivion - and the delight that the apple crumble cake instils has already been documented...

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

Gail's Artisan Bakery - Top 5 Cakes in London

Style of cakes: Modern British

Price: ££££

Location: Barnes, Battersea, Belsize Park, Bloomsbury, Chiswick, Crouch End, Dulwich Village, Exmouth Market, Fulham Road, Hampstead, King's Road, Notting Hill, Queen's Park, Seymour Place, Soho, South Kensington, St John's Wood

Suitable for: casual dates, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dessert, takeaway, snacks

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Snowflake

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Snowflake

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Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review From paneer to pad thai to hummus to tapas to cannoli to burgers  to burritos to sushi  to pizza to goujons to hot dogs to steak frites, to apple pie… If streets had BMIs, Wardour St would be severely in the red zone, but in a good way.  What more could possibly be thrown into Wardour Street’s near boiling-over pot of restaurants?  Something to cool it down, as it happens:  and that is Snowflake Gelato, the ice cream boutique at number 102.

Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review

I had cast an admiring glance over the chic, clean-lined interior of Snowflake last Saturday night.  I’m not one to follow the crowd mindlessly, but a queue was pouring out of the shop despite the fact that it was freezing outside, and I etched it on to my never-ending mental list of places to try.  So when Asad, the owner of Snowflake, kindly invited me to sample the extensive selection (52 flavours) of gelati that he, and his Neapolitan chef, had dreamt up, I leapt at the chance.

Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review

Obviously,  deploying the ‘moderation in moderation’ mantra, the sampling turned into a full-on degustation.  My favourite restaurant in Italy makes its own delicious gelato daily using only local ingredients, so when it comes to ice cream, standards have been set.  Luckily, Snowflake did not disappoint.

Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review

Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review

Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review

With its Italian chef, waiters , and ingredients, it has succeeded in importing some of the essential aspects of Italy to Wardour Street, apart from the sun.

Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review

Of the many flavours that I sampled, the raspberry sorbet,  the coconut ice cream, the honeycomb ice cream, and the hazelnut were the stand outs – all so smooth that I plan to camp out there in a couple of weeks post- wisdom tooth removal…

Snowflake Luxury Gelato, London - Review

 

Food: 9/10

Price: ££££

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 10/10

Loos: N/A

Suitable for: casual dates, friends, night out, late night dining

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Nopi

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Nopi

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Nopi - Ottolenghi restaurant review Last December, I visited Vietnam, some of whose most renowned dishes – like pho – include seafood and pork.  As I was with a vegetarian this was clearly not ideal, so our guide thoughtfully took us to a “vegetarian” restaurant. Its conception of vegetarianism, however, was a little warped; the fact that vegetarians eschew meat as they don’t want to eat it was lost on them.  This restaurant had dedicated a lot of time and thought into hubristically imitating the textures, flavours and shapes of meat and seafood. Rubbery pieces of unnameable mottled gunge floated limply on a meaty tasting broth, and fleshy pink sponge had been moulded into the semblance of shrimps lined up proudly on the serving plate. It turned out to be one of the most grotesque meals of my life, and would not have been out of place at Trimalchio’s dinner table (along with the fish made out of a sow's belly, a woodpigeon out of bacon, a turtledove out of a ham, and a chicken out of a knuckle of pork…).

Dinner at Ottolenghi... #ottolenghi #luscious #red #raspberry #cake #tart #decadence

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Although not perhaps to the same extent as that Vietnamese restaurant, vegetarian cuisine is all too often perceived as a restricted carnivorous diet: poor, disadvantaged vegetarians cannot enjoy the pinnacle of the carnivore’s diet - a steak/burger - so instead they often have to make do with a lesser equivalent: a sole Portobello mushroom - the vegetable perceived to be closest in taste to meat. The small-mindedness continues with meat being considered the focal point of the carnivore’s diet, so the apparently logical option for vegetarians is to substitute another food group, namely dairy.  An example of this is at the famed Relais de Venise in Marylebone where vegetarians have to make do with a plate of fat-laden casein.  Thank goodness for Yotam Ottolenghi.  Since the first branch of the Ottolenghi  delicatessen in Belgravia was created 12 years ago, he has been making waves on the food scene, and they are becoming tidal. His food is not solely vegetarian but he has revolutionised both carnivores’ and vegetarians’ appreciation of the potential of vegetables.  His recipes create such strikingly brilliant flavour combinations that the vegetarian ones are enough to turn the heads of even the most carnivorous.

As a proud owner of all of his cookbooks, a huge fan of all three of Ottolenghi branches, as well as the restaurants that his protégé chefs have opened, it seemed only reasonable to try Nopi, Yotam’s restaurant in Soho.  I had been told by numerous friends that Nopi was a disappointing experience but I thought I would risk disillusionment and try it out for myself.

The décor is similar to the Ottolenghi branches, with white-washed brick walls, and elegant copper lamps suspended from the ceiling creating a clean, chic environment.  My dining companion and I were led to our table which was noticeably small, especially when the restaurant concept is based around small sharing plates.  We hadn’t seen each other for months and it took a while to get round to deciding our order – a common occurrence, and one that I wouldn’t normally acknowledge in a review, except that our conversation was punctuated by our charmless waiter every two minutes  brusquely demanding our order.

When we did order and our food arrived, the table, as I had predicted, inevitably became rather crowded.  The first dish I tried was burrata, miyagawa, coriander seeds, and white balsamic:

Nopi - Ottolenghi restaurant review

The plating was modern and refined, and the burrata itself was as it should be: deliciously creamy with an almost molten centre.  However, though the coriander may have worked flavour wise, it hindered the pleasure of eating the dish as the whole seeds became gritty and rather tiresome after a minute of chewing with the flavour long gone.  The citrus addition worked well as an astringent, but more was needed particularly as the white balsamic proved elusive.

Nopi - Ottolenghi restaurant review

I moved on to the roasted aubergine, saffron yoghurt, mixed seeds, and pickled chilli. It was ok, but lacking some of the punch that the same dish in Ottolenghi has.

Nopi - Ottolenghi restaurant review

I had also chosen the Tenderstem broccoli, spiced buttermilk, and black fungus.  This was another disappointment as the broccoli was slightly undercooked and the black fungus which had drawn me to the dish in the first place was lacking in flavour altogether.

Nopi - Ottolenghi restaurant review

Next were the courgette & feta fritters.  Crisp and hot, with a delicious filling, these were the best dish by far but, regrettably, that’s not saying much…

Nopi - Ottolenghi restaurant review

To top off the mediocre food, our brusque waiter kicked us out of the restaurant two hours after we had arrived.  At 9 o’clock there was no one queueing, nor was there a lack of available tables.  This is understandable at a busy restaurant at a busy time, but the utter lack of charm tainted my opinion further.  Take my advice: don’t bother going here, go to Ottolenghi instead.

The loos were rather exciting though…

Nopi - Ottolenghi restaurant review

(I walked into about 3 people)

Food: 5/10

Price: ££££

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 3/10

Loos: 9/10

Suitable for: casual dates, celebrations, business lunches, family, friends

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Top 10 London Brunch Spots

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Top 10 London Brunch Spots

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Top 10 London Brunch Spots I love brunch – it’s the best part of every meal combined in one…  I’ve compiled a list of my current top 10 London brunch spots (with a few extras as I found it so hard to choose).  It's in alphabetical order rather than in order of preference, ranging between good value and expensive, relaxed and formal, and may well change over time as I continue my culinary conquest of London.

 

 Top 10 London Brunch Spots

Avenue

Description:  Modern American cuisine in a spacious and glamorous setting.

Good for: family, friends, celebrations, glamour, diet friendly cuisine, vegetarians, large groups

Dish to try: The Avenue Brunch Burger

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: Modern American

Formality: smart/casual

Location: Green Park

Website: http://www.avenue-restaurant.co.uk

Top 10 London Brunch Spots

 

Berners Tavern

Description: a recent Jason Atherton venture, Modern European style cuisine in a grand setting

Good for: family, friends, celebrations, glamour, vegetarians, large groups

Dish to try: hazelnut waffles, berries & cream

Price range: £££

Cuisine style: Modern European

Formality: smart/casual

Location: Tottenham Court Road

Website: http://www.bernerstavern.com

Top 10 London Brunch Spots

Bill’s

Description:  robust comfort food in a rustic-chic setting

Good for: family, friends, vegetarians, good value, large groups, relaxed atmosphere

Dish to try: Bill’s vegetarian breakfast - poached free range eggs, tomatoes, hummus, mushrooms & guacamole, sweet chilli sauce, basil & toast

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: British

Formality: casual

Location: Covent Garden,  Soho, Wellington Street,  Holborn, Borough Market,  Islington, Shoreditch, Kensington High Street, Battersea, Westfield, Hammersmith,  Putney, Chiswick,  Wimbledon, Ealing, Richmond

Website: http://www.bills-website.co.uk

 Top 10 London Brunch Spots

Christopher’s

Description: refined Modern American cuisine in an elegant setting with a dramatic spiral staircase

Good for: family, friends, celebrations, glamour, diet friendly cuisine, vegetarians, large groups

Dish to try: warm brioche French toast, roast peach, vanilla mascarpone & maple syrup

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: Modern American

Formality: smart/casual

Location: Covent Garden

Website: http://www.christophersgrill.com

Top 10 London Brunch Spots

Gail’s Artisan Bakery

Description:  chic English bakery chain with artisanal breads, and sumptuous cakes

Good for: family, friends, vegetarians, relaxed atmosphere

Dish to try: apple crumble cake

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: British

Formality: casual

Location: Barnes, Battersea, Belsize park, Bloomsbury, Chiswick, Crouch End, Dulwich Village, Exmouth Market, Fulham Road, Hampstead, King's Road, Notting hill, Queen's Park, Seymour Place, Soho, South Kensington, St John's Wood

Website: http://www.gailsbread.co.uk

 Top 10 London Brunch Spots

Grain Store

Description:  eclectic Modern European vegetarian-focused cuisine in an airy, urban chic environment

Good for: family, friends, diet friendly food, vegetarians, vegans, innovative cuisine, buzz, large groups, relaxed atmosphere

Dish to try: sweet potato doughnuts filled with citrus curd, dill and vodka ice cream

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: eclectic Modern European

Formality: casual

Location: King’s Cross

Website: http://www.grainstore.com

 Top 10 London Brunch Spots

J+A Café

Description:  healthy and wholesome home-cooked Irish food in a hidden courtyard in the city.

Good for: family, friends, vegetarians, buzz, relaxed atmosphere

Dish to try: Irish cheese plate -Cashel Blue, Gubbeen, Cooleney Camembert with Soda Bread + Ballymaloe Tomato Relish

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: Irish

Formality: casual

Location: Clerkenwell

Website: http://www.jandacafe.com

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Le Caprice (see my review here)

Description:  Modern European cuisine in a classically elegant setting

Good for: family, friends, celebrations, glamour, vegetarians, buzz

Dish to try: heritage beets, crispy goat's cheese, truffle honey dressing

Price range: £££

Cuisine style: Modern European

Formality: smart/casual

Location: Green Park

Website: http://www.le-caprice.co.uk

 Iced berries, Le Caprice - an off-the-menu secret dessert

Momo

Description:  Moroccan and French cuisine in a glamorous Arabian lounge

Good for: family, friends, celebrations, glamour, vegetarians, innovative cuisine, large groups

Dish to try: everything, especially the full Moroccan breakfast: poached free range egg with batata hara, merguez, turkey bacon, coco beans in charmoula sauce, garlic mushroom stuffed tomato

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: French Viennoiserie meets Moroccan

Formality: smart/casual

Location: Oxford Circus

Website: http://www.momoresto.com

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Riding House Café

Description:  brasserie style comfort food as well as healthy alternatives in a quirky urban chic setting

Good for: family, friends, celebrations, diet friendly cuisine, vegetarians, vegans, buzz, large groups, relaxed atmosphere

Dish to try: macaroni cheese fritter, leeks, tomato & caper dressing

Price range: £££

Cuisine style: Modern brasserie

Formality: casual chic

Location: Oxford Circus

Website: http://www.ridinghousecafe.co.uk

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The Breakfast Club

Description: generous American style cuisine in a nostalgic rustic environment

Good for: family, friends, vegetarians, good value, buzz, relaxed atmosphere

Dish to try: the all American - pancakes, eggs, sausage, home-style fried potatoes, streaky bacon and maple syrup

Price range: ££

Cuisine style: American diner

Formality: casual

Location: Soho, Angel, Hoxton, Spitalfields, London Bridge, Battersea Rise

Website: http://www.thebreakfastclubcafes.com

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The Wolseley

Description:  classical brasserie cuisine in one of the most glamorous settings in London

Good for: family, friends, celebrations, glamour, vegetarians, buzz, large groups

Dish to try: Wolseley fishcake with poached egg

Price range: £££

Cuisine style: classic brasserie

Formality: smart/casual

Location: Green Park

Website: http:// www.thewolseley.com

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Le Caprice

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Le Caprice

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iced fleur de sel chocolate crunch bar Tucked away behind the Ritz, the more discreet sister restaurant of the Ivy lurks.  I’ve been going to Le Caprice for so long that it’s a home from home.

At the age of 18 months, the waiters would stack up plump cushions for me to sit on, and I would eat contentedly, no crying or screaming.  Twenty years later and the service is still wonderful - once, when the soufflé I had ordered collapsed before it left the kitchen, an array of petit fours were given to me and my dining companions to tide us over for the extra 5 minutes' waiting time.

Once the subtle, blue, lit ” Le Caprice” sign comes into focus, you are greeted by the top- hatted doorman who swings the revolving door.

Le Caprice restaurant

You enter another world – the décor is classically chic with a black and white colour scheme creating a crisp, bright, understated, formal  atmosphere.  If you’re lucky, Jesus Adorno, the face of the restaurant who has been there since the doors opened in 1981, will greet you at reception and within moments sweep you off to your table.  On Sunday I went for brunch, but I’d also recommend also going for dinner, when a jazz pianist heightens the sense of occasion further.   My favourite place to eat is in the alcove lined with the Paolozzi installation.

Sir Eduardo Paolozzi's installation, Le Caprice

Sunday brunch began with a cocktail, naturally.  Bloody Mary, extra spicy. The breadbaskets were full of freshly baked bread, and banana crumble muffins which were fresh, delicious and not overly sweet.

Banana crumble muffin, Le Caprice

Quickly gone - Banana crumble muffin, Le Caprice

To start, I ordered the heritage beets, crispy goat’s cheese with a truffle honey dressing.  Nestled amongst the peppery rocket leaves and sweet vinegary Murex coloured (rich Roman dye) beetroot slices was the savoury smooth molten goat’s cheese.  With the truffle dressing to tie the dish together it worked very well.

heritage beets, crispy goat’s cheese with a truffle honey dressing, Le Caprice

heritage beets, crispy goat’s cheese with a truffle honey dressing, Le Caprice

I opted, then, for the Caprice burger.

The Caprice burger, Le Caprice

The Caprice burger, Le Caprice

A burger is usually a good way of testing the standard of a restaurant, and the Caprice burger does not let the restaurant’s reputation down.  It’s juicy, buttery, and flavoursome.  The bun is delicate and fluffy, and combined with the delicious club sauce - a well- balanced tomato salsa, the burger is not far from perfection.  And then there are the pommes allumettes…  Some of London’s best.  They are so good that I’ve known friendships to end over them.

Pommes allumettes, Le Caprice - friendships have ended over these

Once I had got through mine I had to steal a few from my unsuspecting companions.

stealing pommes allumettes, Le Caprice

After a few more Bloody Marys, dessert was looking like an impossibility but Bertrand, our wonderful waiter, convinced me otherwise.  The Caprice iced berries dessert have become so famous that they’ve been frequently imitated – for example, the restaurant chain Côte has now incorporated them into their menu.  They’re good but nothing like the original.  The iced berries are no longer on the menu, but if you’re a seasoned patron you’ll know that it exists off the menu (along with several other secret dishes).

Iced berries, Le Caprice - an off-the-menu secret dessert

Iced berries, Le Caprice - an off-the-menu secret dessert

Iced berries, Le Caprice - an off-the-menu secret dessert

Iced berries, Le Caprice - an off-the-menu secret dessert

This beautiful creation also appeared at the table:

iced fleur de sel chocolate crunch bar

iced fleur de sel chocolate

The iced fleur de sel chocolate crunch bar is most definitely not style over substance.  It is a sumptuous feast of salted tempered chocolate layered over light chocolate mousse with white chocolate ice cream and chocolate coated popping candy.

iced fleur de sel chocolate

We rounded the meal off with fresh mint tea and truffles.

Fresh mint tea, Le Caprice

Definitely order the latter.    The tempered fine chocolate shell gives way to the velvety salted caramel and passion fruit ganache interiors and they are seriously addictive.

salted caramel and passion fruit ganache truffles, Le Caprice

Le Caprice truly does deserve its place as a London institution.  It ticks all the boxes.  The ambience and service are unbeatable, and the food is reliably delicious, unfussy & generously portioned.   I can never return soon enough.

Price – ££££

Ambience – 10/10

Food – 9/10

Service – 10/10

Loos – 8/10

Suitable  for: dates, celebrations, family gatherings, pre-theatre

Square Meal

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