My Food Diary


In response to suggestions from several readers of this site, I now write a weekly food blog, rather than just updating my notes every couple of weeks.   All feedback is welcome.



20th January  2007

This was my first visit to Bonds, the appropriately named restaurant just yards from the Bank of England in, you guessed, an old bank premises.  A detailed review is on the site, but overall this was 5/10 level, including a good beef bourguignon made with Charolais beef.  Desserts were the best feature, with a classy soufflé and a silky warm chocolate ganache.  The meal was only marred by a debate about the dessert wine glass, which despite being called a "glass" on the menu appeared as something seemingly measured out with a thimble.  This tendency to stiff customers on dessert wine is an increasingly common issue in restaurants in London.  If they tried this in France there would be riots.

El Vino in Twickenham is a new tapas bar opened by the people behind McClements bistro.  Though not at the level of Salt Yard this was nonetheless well above average, with good kitchen technique on display, an appealing menu and fair prices.

Haandi in Knightsbridge yet again produced a fine meal. Their treatment of vegetable curries (aloo gobi and a channa tonight) is the best in London, while their tandoori cooking is hard to fault. 

There will now be a short intermission in the blog as I am off to India for a couple of weeks. Normal service will be resumed in mid February.


13th January  2007


The trend in London in 2006 was for bistro food (Galvins, Arbutus, etc), and I went to two of the better examples this week.  Tom’s Kitchen is Tom Aiken’s off-shoot, and with the reliable Ollie Couillard at the helm this is turning out to be perhaps the best of all the London bistros.  Goujons of sole were excellent, and I had a very fine fillet of pork.  Vegetables are handled well here e.g. perfect spinach, and very good Savoy cabbage, shredded and served with little pieces of bacon.  Apple tart completed the meal.  Along with the excellent home-made bread it is hard to see what more one could hope for from a bistro. 


High Road Brasserie in Chiswick is not quite as good as Tom’s Kitchen but is nonetheless another success story.  Best was excellent duck, cooked pink and served with tasty rosti and very good spinach along with the cooking juices of the duck.  An apple crumble was a nice example of comfort food to finish off. 


Chiswick has certainly moved up in culinary terms in the last few years, but of course there are the usual disappointments as well.  Vino Rosso is an ambitious Italian restaurant that has opened a few doors along from the wildly successful La Trompette, but based on this visit it looks like a dud.  Curiously they have gone quite up-market for a local place, with smart décor and fairly complicated dishes e.g. sea bass rather than being served as  a fillet was carved up into three pieces, each wrapped around prawn, with a mound of courgettes cut into strips and served as “spaghetti”.  Unfortunately the sea bass was overcooked, and throughout the meal poor technique was on display e.g. poor quality scallops, also overcooked, and an insipid soup.  Their pasta dishes were the best part of the meal, with good egg pasta let down by undercooked ragout of wild boar, and gnocci that was OK if a little heavy and didn’t need to be stuffed with artichokes and served with a sauce of white wine and ginger.  Italian food’s strength is simplicity using great ingredients, but this was sadly not the case here.  Mixed quality ingredients and erratic cooking technique make this a poor choice for 3 courses at £29, which is only fractionally cheaper than Trompette, where they can actually cook.  A quick visit to my regular Zafferano this week demonstrated just how ordinary the cooking at Vino Rosso really is.   I await the inevitable rave review in my local paper, who have never met a restaurant that they didn’t like (provided they get a free meal).


6th January  2007


Happy New Year to you all.  Restaurants finally started to reopen after the seemingly ever-lengthening Christmas break, and of course: you can actually get a reservation!  I started 2007 with Maze, where Jason Atherton cooks tapas-style French food in Gordon Ramsay’s Grosvenor Square venture.  There is some very capable cooking on display here e.g. a frothy and intense Jerusalem artichoke soup poured on some rich duck ragout.  Orkney scallops were perfectly cooked, as was quail roasted with honey and soy.  Best dish was a pork fillet cooked in sous vide style (i.e. slowly at low temperature), a technique which doesn’t work well for everything but here managed to retain the moisture in the pork.  An aberration was chewy lobster but apart from that the meal was just about 6/10 level.  There are some self imposed service problems here e.g. they have a badly designed and entirely superfluous metal rest device for your cutlery, which your fork tines etc are supposed to slot into.  Unless you have the balance of a trapeze artist it is hard to get the things into this device (or at least to stay in it), so the waitress then felt obliged to run around every few minutes trying to fit the fork back in, or occasionally replace it with a fresh one for a new course.  There is also an insane device for hanging three wine glasses a few inches off the table.  This appears if you order a “flight” of glasses from the list, yet obviously what you want is your wine:


(a)  to arrive when the dishes arrive, and at the correct temperature (rather than both red and white wine glasses dangling precariously on a rack throughout the meal)

(b)  at ground (or at least table) level rather than swinging around dementedly in mid air.


Getting the bill was as farcical as the wine flight device.  First the bill appeared with the uneaten chewy lobster on it, then it came back moins lobster but plus a £52 bottle of wine we didn’t order, but third time lucky.  I hope they do better with the Michelin inspector if they want to retain their new star.


Regular readers of this blog will know that Zafferano is a sort of second home to me, so I won’t dwell too long on yet another excellent meal here.  The quality of pasta here is very high, whether it be tagliatelle of wild mushrooms or perfect gnocchi.  This is a restaurant that never seems to have an off night, and where service problems such as the above issue at Maze would be unthinkable. 



30th  December  2006


I hope you all had a great Christmas.  Eating out between Christmas and New Year in London is rather hit and miss: a lot of places close down this week and re-open after New Year.  You also need to treat fish with suspicion, since hardy any fishermen go out at this time and hence any fish dishes you are served in a restaurant are most likely frozen rather than fresh.  The excellent fishmonger Fishworks simply closes for this period.  However I did manage a couple of nice meals.  Eight Over Eight is a clone of the excellent E&O in Notting Hill, but located in the even trendier Kings Road.  The menu and décor are virtually identical and the cooking is almost as good as at the original.  The pan Asian cooking works surprisingly well e.g. tasty soft shell crab rolls and terrific snow peas with garlic crisps and a hint of chilli. 


I also had another fine meal at Yauatcha, which is under the same ownership as Hakkasan but does just dim sum, not just at lunch time but in the evening.  Having been a long term fan of the Royal China for dim sum, I have to say that Hakkasan’s and Yauatcha’s dim sum has the edge.  The dim sum at the two sister restaurants are the same, and indeed Yauatcha gained a Michelin star in 2006 to match that of Hakkasan.  Dish after dish here is extremely good e.g. very tender almond prawns, tasty salt and pepper quail, and perfect har gau (steamed prawn dumplings).  The bill at Yauatcha usually ends up quite a bit lower than Hakkasan and indeed some of the dim sum dishes are at little at £3.50 or £4.50 (though the individual dishes vary significantly; don’t expect lobster for this price).  However about £40 per head including drinks will buy you more dishes than you can reasonably eat. 


23rd  December  2006


On Mark Jankels’ (chef at the Notting Hill Brasserie) recommendation I ventured to Holborn to try Pearl, which for some reason I had yet to try.  The restaurant is extremely smart, and chef Jun Tanaka has cooked in several top London kitchens such as the Square and the Capital.  We had an excellent meal, with dishes such as seasoned venison with red cabbage and other root vegetables, and Brillat Savarin cheesecake with terrine of citrus fruits   There were several complimentary nibbles, and also a pre-dessert (chilled plum soup).  Although there were a couple of minor slips the cooking was generally to a high standard, ingredients were good and service capable.  Three courses are only £28.50, which is a steal given the stylish setting and array of nibbles.  Overall it was 5/10. pushing towards 6/10 cooking.


I also attended the Cobra Good Curry Awards, an event at the Hilton which happens every couple of years and is organised by Pat Chapman, who set up the Curry Club.  The cooking was done by Madhu’s, who deservedly won “best outside caterer” but I have to say that the awards were generally quite hard to figure out (it was not clear what the criteria were).  For example the London short-list featured the Babur Brasserie and Mint Leaf, which is fair enough, but also the unknown Nayaab in Fulham and Kasturi in Aldgate.  Where are places like Deya, Haandi, Sabras and the Brilliant?  Mint Leaf won, and it was certainly the best of the ones short-listed and indeed does have some of the bets food in the capital, but the omissions from the shortlist were baffling.  Best in UK went to Itihaas in Birmingham, whose chef used to be head chef of Madhu’s, so although I haven’t been I can at least be assured that he can cook.


Other than that I had another fine meal at regular Zafferano, with a particularly superb simple but perfect bruschetta, and an excellent tagliatelle with seasonal wild muhrooms.   I also had another very pleasant meal at local Keralan restaurant Oottupura. 


I’d like to wish you all a very happy Christmas!   



16th December  2006


For those who prefer to eat out on Christmas day it has never been an easy choice, even in London.  Most restaurants close and those that do stay open have restricted menus, odd seating times and inflated prices.  Restaurants certainly have extra staff costs (double time, maybe having to pay for taxis home as there is no public transport) but even so the seasonal gouging is excessive.  For some years we have been going to the Capital Hotel which at two Michelin stars is the best restaurant open, and as an added bonus sensibly go the French way and serve tasty capon instead of dull, dry turkey.  There was always a premium but this year they have really succumbed to greed, with the menu offered now weighing in at £139 a head (before service or drinks).  To add insult to injury they also want payment in advance; not a credit card in case you don’t turn up, but payment in full.  Hell, why not just get the customers to do the washing up while they are at it?  Perhaps they could set up a reality game show where customers have to go through some humiliating tasks in order to qualify to eat there: the winners get a table.  This latest price increase was enough for me and I will be cooking this year.  Not that the Capital is even the worst offender:


-          Capital £139, pre-payment now required

-          Gordon Ramsay at Claridge’s - £175 per person –pre payment required

-          Foliage at Mandarin Oriental, £195 per person – pre payment required.

-          The Dorchester Grill, £165 - £250 per person – pre payment required

-          The Ritz, £250 per person– pre payment required


It is all just a bit too cynical for me.  These are the same places that want customers to return in January and February on quiet weekdays.


On the food front I had a really good meal at the ever-improving Notting Hill Brasserie, where Mark Jankels has been cooking understated but excellent food for some time now.   The dining room is particularly cosy, split up into little alcoves, with a bar at the front with tasteful live jazz playing (piano and double bass).  We had a special tasting menu.  This began for me with rare beef salad with girolles and tiny French beans; the beef had excellent texture and the girolles in particular were delicious (6/10).  Canneloni of lobster and prawn had tender pasta, the seafood contents carefully cooked and the pasta resting served in a pool of intensely flavoured shellfish veloute (7/10).  Next was a single scallop with superb caramelised onion, with carefully cooked chanterelles and excellent Parmesan gnocci (6/10).  A little fillet of sea bass was cooked with a scattering of tiny pasta balls that were so small that the dish resembled risotto at first glance; the sea bass was fresh and well timed, the pasta an interesting idea that worked well (6/10). Halibut had excellent flavour, cooked with a breadcrumb crust and served with a sauce with mussels and tomato and a single oyster beignet (6/10).  Stella at this point had monkfish cooked with red cabbage and sweet potato puree (6/10).  I had tender venison with red cabbage and sweet potato puree (6/10).  A pre dessert was vanilla yoghurt topped with rhubarb (5/10).  The only slight flaw of the evening for me was cheesecake on a biscuit base with honey and truffle, with a hot pear poached in red wine and spices.  The cheesecake was correctly made (maybe 5/10) but I didn’t like the idea of the truffle flavour, which seems to me showy and unnecessary, and not a flavour that goes well with the cheesecake. Coffee was served with small biscotti.  Service throughout was capable.  Bread is a choice of white rolls, black olive rolls or walnut and raisin rolls (6/10).   All in all a really fine meal at a fair price.  An under-rated restaurant.


Other than that I was mostly cooking, but did squeeze in a curry at my regular the Brilliant in Southall.  With a couple of new chefs recruited from Delhi the cooking was on good form tonight e.g. fish pakora with a tasty filling and a very light, crispy batter.  Regular dishes such as jeera chicken and aloo tikki were excellent as ever.  This is another paragon of reliability; we come here every couple of weeks and I struggle to recall an off-night in all the years we have been coming.  This of course is one reason why they are thriving after thirty years, when more than half of UK restaurants fold after less than three years.


9th December  2006


The Royal China has opened up a more upmarket venue in Baker Street, just a few yards from the long-established Baker Street branch.  It is clearly aiming at a higher end market, perhaps noticing how full Hakkasan is.  However although the setting is smart and tastefully decorated (no 1970s disco era wallpaper here) it is essentially serving the same food in a nicer setting, but at much higher prices.  The menu is slimmed down somewhat from the usual Royal China one, but concentrating at the top end.  Soft shell crab was good as ever, and lobster was tender and served with beautifully cooked broad beans.  The gai lan was similarly excellent, but it is not at a higher level than at the usual branches.  We spent nearly £70 ahead here, double what we usually pay, and I can’t see the point. 


December is my least favourite month to eat out.  Restaurants are packed with people who eat out rarely, staff are pressurised and cranky and reservations are a nightmare to get.  Generally I try for culinary hibernation at home, cooking and going to a few local places until January, when I can get my own back on snooty maitre d’s suddenly desperate for customers: “Yes, I’ll have that table at 8:30 thank you – no more eating at 5:45 or 10:15 for me”.   An attempt to try a new local Italian place Vino Rossi ended unexpectedly when the fire brigade turned up and closed the restaurant due to some vehicle leaking fuel just outside the restaurant kitchen at the back.  We almost jokingly went a few doors down to La Trompette, which has for ages done two sittings and is booked a couple of weeks ahead even on quiet weekdays.  The front of house person was new and wrinkled her nose up at the very suggestion of a walk-in, but fortunately the very charming manager spotted us and somehow squeezed us in: one advantage of being a regular. The meal was as reliable as ever, with a fine salad of duck followed by tender venison (with a few Brussels sprouts as a seasonal concession).  The passion fruit souffle at the end was superb, technically faultless.  Consistent cooking and one of the best wine lists in London have turned this into a gold mine for the owners, and deservedly so. 


Other local experiences included another good meal at the Brackenbury, one of the most reliable restaurants in London.   Its odd location at the end of a residential street between Shepherds Bush and Ravenscourt Park mean that it is rarely full, which makes it ideal for December dining: office parties do not come here, but it manages to be cosy and welcoming.  We also had an adequate meal at the new Roebuck in Chiswick, a newly revamped gastropub which has been open just a few weeks.  The food is serviceable (apart from some chewy pork) but the place seems yet to have caught on with the locals, who are too busy queuing up to eat at the nearby High Road Brasserie. 


1st December  2006


One big disappointment and one promising discovery this week.  I went to old favourite the Berkeley Square Restaurant, which for a few years has been serving great food at fair prices under the hand of chef Stephen Black and his charming Swedish wife, who runs the front of house.  It seems that Stephen has been head-hunted (or whatever happens to chefs – toque hunted?) and has decamped to Australia to open a place.  Unfortunately, previous sous chef Adam Kane seems not to be able to consistently produce the magic on his own.  A starter of crab had tasteless crab meat and dried out grapefruit to accompany it while Stella’s pasta parcels were chewy.  Other dishes were fine but you don’t expect multiple slips in the same meal, which has sunk from a good 6/10 to perhaps 4/10 now.  At £100 a head this is no longer acceptable value of money.


On the positive side, I found Xich Lo in St John Street.  This has the potential for disaster written all over it, with vaguely fusion French/Vietnamese food cooked by a Norwegian.  In an episode of Frasier Niles enthuses over a review of the latest fusion place to hit Seattle: “Scandinavian/Polynesian – the coconut herring gets three and a half whisks” and so I have to say I was nervous.  Moreover London never seems to produce decent Vietnamese food, except for some simple cafes in Hackney.  However this meal was consistently excellent, with high quality ingredients e.g. a sea bass baked with pickled vegetables and a restrained chilli sauce, and fine duck with a spicy sauce of the cooking juices.  I will certainly return. 


24th November  2006


Tom Aiken would seem an unlikely character to open a brasserie.  Known for his ultra-elaborate concoctions when cooking at Pied a Terre, and now in his own restaurant in South Kensington, he might seem the last chef in London likely to produce simple, down-to-earth food.  Yet this is exactly what he has done at Tom’s Kitchen in Cale Street, near his main restaurant.  He has done very well with chef selection, getting Ollie Couillard as head chef.  Ollie was head chef at La Trompette when it was at its best, and here he seems even more at home.  His goujons of sole were a masterpiece, fresh fish with a light crispy batter accompanied by a tangy tartare sauce.  See the London section of this site for a full review of the restaurant, but in summary I felt that it was extremely successful.  For the last year I have been disappointed by “bistro cooking” at places with fawning press reviews (Galvin’s, Arbutus) that I felt were pleasant but lacked any real excitement in the culinary department.  Tom’s Kitchen easily surpasses these, paying attention to detail where it matters.  For example bread is baked here rather than bought-in, and the sourdough is superb.  A place that deserves to thrive, as it seems to already be doing.  There have not been many new openings in London this year to get excited about, but this is one to celebrate.


My regular favourite Zafferano also delivered, with the return to the menu of the pasta parcels (ravioli) of pheasant flavoured with rosemary.  Zafferano does superb pasta, and here the rosemary lends a wonderful fragrance to the rich taste of the pheasant, wrapped inside a delicate wrapping of tender pasta, resting in the cooking juices of the pheasant.  This is another restaurant which goes the extra mile on ingredient sourcing, exemplified by the stunning Parmesan cheese offered alongside some salami as an appetiser.  For those who have only experienced ordinary Parmesan (or, worse, the horror of pre-grated packet Parmesan) it is hard to imagine just how good it can really be.  I bought some superb Parmesan earlier this year at St Remo market in Italy, and the one tonight was just as good as that.  I find it mildly amusing that the best Italian food in London  is here, yet the chef is English. 



18th November  2006


Just by Bank station is 1 Lombard Street, an ambitious French restaurant run by Helmut Berger, and with a Michelin star.  It has a large and lively bar (this evening, two of the city types on a date at the bar were sufficiently into each other that their activities would probably have resulted in a lynching in most mid-West states).   We went through to the much more sedate dining room, where the sensual pleasures were to be found on the plate.  We tried the lengthy tasting menu, which at nine courses for £45 is remarkably fair value.  See the London section of this site for a fuller write-up, but a highlight was a fine feuillete of smoked haddock, served with a quails egg and a little mustard sauce, adding just the right amount of bite to balance the haddock and the egg.   Service has been pretty frosty on both my visits here, and tonight they excelled themselves by refusing to allow one person at our table to have the tasting menu since my wife does not eat meat and so would mean having to substitute a couple of dishes.  This was really outrageous in my opinion, and indeed I can never recall encountering anything so inflexible in all my years of dining.  The food was good at a 6/10 level on average, but they have a serious attitude problem here.  Last time we turned up exactly on time for a late (21:45) booking and the staff were clearly livid that we had arrived at all and kept them from an early night as we were the last people to arrive; the restaurant officially closes to new diners at 22:00 but if looks could have killed then you would not be reading this blog.  I really hope they try something similar with the Michelin inspector next time. 


I had two good Indian experiences this week, firstly with a trip the ever-reliable Brilliant in Southall, which I have written about before.  The other was going back to Rasa Samudra in Charlotte Street.  This is the best of the Rasa group of restaurants, and again they showed their class with tasty Mysore bonda and excellent uttapham (Indian pizza made form rice flour).  Indeed the uttapham was as good as any I could recall, while paratha bread is also superb here.  Even the popadoms and pickles are a class apart from most places.


I also went back to the Fish Ship on St John Street, which I have discovered over a few visits does great fish and chips, but nothing else that is as good.  Again here the haddock was delicious, with a crispy batter, good chips and home-made tartare sauce.  The bought-in crusty bread is also excellent here.  This is an excellent choice for a dinner after the ballet at Sadlers Wells, but whenever I stray from fish and chips here to more ambitious things the standard is not the same, so stick to the simple life and you will be rewarded.  


Stay tuned for a review of Tom Aiken’s new venture next week.


11th November  2006


Some real ups and downs this week.   I had another solid meal at the underrated Oottupura in Hammersmith, including tasty Mysore bonda and good dosa.  The food is very cheap indeed here, and it is hard to understand why it is not busier; there are a whole series of Indian places along King Street, and none of them are really any good except for Agni and Ooottupura. 


I also went back to old favourite Royal China in Queensway, which is nothing if not successful.  Whenever you go it is packed to the rafters with both Chinese and western diners, with a long queue at weekends for dim sum, when you cannot book.  Old classics like hot and sour soup are a world apart from the gloopy mess that often passes for this dish, while steamed sea bass here is always carefully cooked.  The gai lan (Chinese broccoli) is lightly steamed with garlic and is one of the best vegetarian dishes you are ever likely to encounter in any cuisine.  While is not quite as classy as Hakkasan, and with décor that looks like a 1980s school disco, Royal China still serves some of the best Chinese food in London. 


I also tried a new and a more established place in Chiswick.  Cavosso’s at 210 has just opened in an attractive refurbished town house on the High Road, with a wine bar and dining room.  Sadly the food ranged from supermarket level pasta to simply inedible venison, cooked for far too long and served with stringy cabbage and lukewarm potatoes.  The wines are fairly priced so this may serve OK as a place to meet for a drink, but don’t be tempted to eat here.  I look forward to the inevitable rave review in the local paper, which have never met a restaurant they didn’t like (provided they give them a free meal).  


I was rather disappointed by Vacherin, which has a 4/10 in the Good Food Guide and which my knowledgeable friend Ari Sofianos likes.  I had been here soon after it opened and was underwhelmed, deciding to go back after it had settled down.  Certainly the menu is appealing bistro fare with a few eccentric additions, and the wine list, though oddly all French in this day and age, is at least not too bad for mark-ups.  I had a nice (if small) piece of fillet of beef, but a crab salad involved hardly any crab at all, while a gratin Dauphinoise was poorly made, using too much cheese and cream so that the potato layer essentially disappeared.  Service was also dodgy, with our starters rushed out before any attempt was made at taking a wine order.  A waiter knocked over my full glass of Etienne Sauzet Puligny Montrachet into my lap and could only manage a “er, was that water?” by way of “apology”.  I was even less impressed when they brought along a cheap white wine as a substitute for the wine they had spilt.  Sorry, but if chains like TGI Fridays can teach waiters what to do when they make mistakes, then places at this price level certainly have no excuse for not doing so.  Overall I found this a 2/10 level place, with prices that were not excessive but hardly cheap. 


4th November  2006


There is a new chef at Sonny’s, the long established Barnes restaurant.  For a while they managed to keep the ex head chef at Tante Claire who worked under Pierre Koffmann, but once she left things declined and I stopped going regularly.  Now Ed Wilson, who has worked at the Wolseley and Galvins, is at the stoves and better food has returned based on my visit.   Sonny’s strives for a simple feel, so there are no fripperies like amuse guile or petit fours.  Tonight I started with saffron risotto with ricotta and gremolata (a mix of capers, olives, lemon zest and parsley).  The rice had soft texture and had absorbed the stock, which in itself was rather bland but was saved by the strong flavours of the saffron and the gremolata (5/10).  Salad of endive, Roquefort and walnut was an interesting blend of components though the leaves needed a dressing (4/10).  Pork belly was served as two slabs, nicely crispy on top, served with a cassoulet of Tarbais beans but the stock strangely lacked any real depth of flavour (5/10).  Better was poached halibut, nicely cooked with a creamy celeriac puree, trompette mushrooms and a red wine sauce thickened with butter (6/10).  A side order of chips were extremely good, thin, crisp and pretty much exactly what you would hope for from a bowl of chips, which is something that rarely happens.   Chocolate marquise was simple but had honest chocolate taste, served with a passion fruit sorbet that I requested instead of the crème fraiche sorbet advertised (5/10). Pain perdu (“forgotten bread” but essentially French toast) had good texture, served with a well made vanilla ice cream with a rich dark chocolate sauce (4/10).   Overall a return to form for Sonnys.  The waitress we had was fairly grumpy, but dishes were served correctly and at quite a pace, though there was no table turning.  The wine list is on two pages and does better on reds than whites, with Bonny Doon Big House red and Guigal Cotes du Rhone as pleasing mid-range choices.  I will start frequenting the place again.


Other than that it was a fairly quiet restaurant week as I was cooking quite a bit, but we did have another excellent meal at Haandi, which as regular readers know is about my favourite north Indian restaurant in London.  Onion bhaji here is given an interesting twist by the use of bhindi (okra) as well as onion, and this combination worked well together.   Vegetable dishes are always very fine here, aloo gobi retaining the texture of the potatoes and cauliflowers as well as tasting of the spice blend used, while chickpeas are very tender in the channa.  Malai chiken tikka is a variant on the usual, with a marinade which uses cheese and results in a very tender chicken.  Word is spreading about Haandi, as even with their new extra dining room they were packed even on a Sunday night.


I will own up to a quick meal this week at a Gourmet Burger Kitchen, which I actually think is pretty good for a chain.  The burgers are of reasonable quality, cooked consistently, and the chips are not bad (though they should try Sonny’s to see how chips should be made).  Well, you can’t eat in Michelin starred places all the time.


28th October  2006


I visited Boston this week, and managed one very good meal at l’Espalier.  This is set in a town house right in the middle of town, and offers fairly formal, high quality cooking based on French technique but using local ingredients (and sometimes an ingredient too many).  Even the cheese board features cheeses from Vermont as well as the usual French offerings.  In my numerous trips to Boston l’Espalier has been the best restaurant I have tried, and this visit confirmed that opinion.  It would be around one Michelin star level, a strong 6/10 in the Good Food Guide marking scheme.    The meal is described in detail on the US section of this site. 


Whenever I go to the US I come home craving something spicy, so we headed off to the ever-reliable E&O.  Originally set up by Ian Pengelly (now chef at Gilgamesh). E&O somehow managed to produce a pan Asian menu that works, despite not specializing in any one cuisine.  Rock shrimp tempura has a light batter and good tasting sauces, sashimi tuna uses high quality fish, while char sui pork slices are tender and served on a bed of lightly cooked gai lan and a rich soy-based sauce.  The cooking is consistently 4/10 level  with prices that are fair, and the main problem here is getting in, since the residents of Notting Hill have long since discovered just how good it is.  There is now a sister place Eight over Eight in Chelsea, which is identically decorated, has the same menu and seems pretty much as successful. 


21st October  2006


On the restaurant front this week I went back to the Ledbury, which is the Nigel Platts-Martin venture that is sister to the Square, Chez Bruce, La Trompette and the Glasshouse.  I went several times soon after it opened last year and was impressed with the standard of cooking (which gained it a Michelin star and 7/10 in the Good Food Guide).  Its Westbourne Grove location has a cosy, neighbourhood feel to it, though on this occasion service was rather erratic (an inexperienced waitress topped water into my half full wine glass, which hasn’t happened to me for years).   The strength here, unusually for a London restaurant, is dessert.  I had a superb chocolate parfait with praline ice cream, while my wife’s chicory crème brulee was hard to fault and had a coffee ice cream with really intense coffee flavour.  The earlier courses are generally reliable and pleasant rather than dazzling e.g. saddle of hare was correctly cooked with a red wine sauce, but the carrots with it were distinctly overcooked.  Similarly a flame-grilled mackerel was not very hot, though it was nicely cooked.  The breads are excellent e.g. a fine bacon and onion roll.  The dining experience includes not one but two amuse bouche and a pre-dessert, though the latter had an unwelcome surprise attached: mascarpone was topped with a smear of olive juice.  Maybe I’m old fashioned, but since when did a salt taste go with a sweet?  All very El Bulli inspired no doubt, but it is a terrible idea.  The wine list is excellent here, and the prices not too steep e.g. there is a full page of German wines such as the excellent Egon Muller Kabinett Riesling 1998 at £35.  I wonder whether the chef is trying just a bit too hard now to do “Michelin” food, with his penchant for exotic taste combinations when the thing that made them successful in the first place was appealing, simple cooking.  Still, it is easy to forgive minor flaws with desserts like these.  For me this was a 6/10 meal though, and I felt Roussillon had the edge,


The Sabras in Willesden is the best vegetarian Indian restaurant in London: no ifs, no buts.  The Gujerati food here is cooked with real care and passion by owner Hermant Desai.  The deluxe sev pooris here are remarkable: little crisp containers containing a delightful mix of ingredients flavoured with tamarind; if you pop this into your mouth in one go then there is a wonderful explosion of tastes on your tongue.   I think this is one of the best Indian dishes I have ever eaten.  Dosas are top class, with superb coconut chutney and sambar, while this is that rare thing: a restaurant that can cook bhindi without making it slimy.  Desserts are also classy, with creamy shrikand my personal favourite.  This place is wasted in Willesden, and struggles along in this desolate area.  Please, please move premises to a nicer area Hermant!


A fascinating bit of news reached my ears this week.  A campaign by the Good Food Guide to force councils to publish hygiene inspections of restaurants seems to have made progress, with a landmark ruling against Hammersmith and Fulham Council.  It seems that from April 2007 all councils will have to publish their health inspections, though at this stage it is not clear whether this may be only “on request, with two weeks notice”.  However, Hammersmith and Fulham have capitulated and placed theirs on the internet.  I have already linked the restaurants on this site within their area e.g. Agni, and you can click from the entry on my  site directly to the health inspector’s score and report.  As more become available I will do link them up.   This is a real victory for the consumer, and should encourage restaurants to raise there game:  many of the reports are worryingly poor. 


14rd October  2006


I was in Barcelona this week speaking at a conference, but managed to sneak in a trip to Fabes, which for me is the best restaurant in Spain.  Yu can read the details on the “Spain” section of this site, but the nice thing about Fabes is that it cooks unashamedly Spanish food; it is not trying to be French but instead sticks to local recipes and ingredients e.g. pairing local mushrooms with a perfect langoustine.  Ingredients are top class and technique cannot be faulted e.g. a chocolate soufflé is as good as anything you will encounter.  Wine prices are about twice UK retail, which is a lot worse than when I first visited but is a pleasant change after London.  An 1851 sherry was a fine accompaniment to dessert. 


Michelin continued to head west this week with its new guide to California.  The French Laundry was the deserved solitary 3 star place, but the local web sites were abuzz with outrage that Gary Danko only got one star.  On my visit there it was straight 6/10 i.e. exactly one star Michelin, so all credit to Michelin this time for seeing through the hype.  Its two stars for the merely pleasant Aqua is a lot harder to grasp though, rather spoiling the veneer of competence that it was trying to put across.  At least they did not sell out as they did in New York, where Michelin elevated some truly improbable restaurants to the highest level. 


I try and support local restaurants, and in this spirit visited Green Chilli in King Street, which opened to positive reviews in the local press (who I am sure took no hospitality whatever from the restaurant and were entirely anonymous when they inspected).  A stringy jeera chicken starter and a watery, tasteless dhal suggested that local papers are not to be trusted.  To be fair the breads were quite capable, but other dishes ranged from ordinary to downright bad.  At some point I will stop being disappointed in new restaurants where I live, but this was not to be that day.  The gap between this and the meal I ate at Haandi a few days later was of chasm-like proportions.  Haandi does not seem to do PR, so does not appear in “best curry” award lists, yet in my view is probably the best Indian restaurant in London at present.  In particular its tandoori cooking and its vegetable dishes are superb.  The fair prices would not suggest that you were actually dining near Harrods. 


7rd October  2006


This week saw the publication of the 2007 Good Food Guide, which is comfortably the best of the UK food publications.  At the top end of cuisine it has to be said that there has been little change. The top places (scoring 9/10) are still Gordon Ramsay, the Fat Duck, Winteringham Fields and Le Manoir au QuatSaisons.   Similarly there is just one change at the 8/10 level (l’Enclune in Cumbria is promoted to 8/10), reflecting the fact that most new places this year have been at the mid-range e.g. bistros like Windows and Arbutus, or Asian themed food destinations like Gilgamesh and Nobu Berkeley.   London increases its domination of the UK food scene with 262 entries, with the next best for entries being Manchester at 26 entries.  London managed 27 new entries, more than Manchester’s entire rosta.   The highest new entry in London was Galvin at Windows with a slightly generous 6/10. 


I had an excellent meal this week at Roussillon, which I feel is an underrated place (5/10 in the Good Food Guide).  Tucked away in a residential street in Pimlico, Roussillon serves ambitious French cooking and has received a Michelin star.  You get the works here, with amuse bouche and even pre-dessert.  They actually make the bread on the premises (a rare thing these days) and produce a fine selection of mini-loaves, from classics like olive bread and baguette to chorizo bread and bacon and onion bread.  I was impressed with the quality of a saffron risotto, which had silky texture and was topped by two tender langoustine tails.  My mallard was just a fraction overcooked but the red cabbage with it was an example of how to cook this underrated vegetable.  There is a delightful dessert menu with half a dozen things that are very appealing.  I had a chocolate croustillant “Louis XV” (the chef once worked for Alain Ducasse) and I was surprised at just how good a reproduction of this classic dessert was:  a crunchy base with rich, melting chocolate decorated with a little gold leaf.  To be able to reproduce a dish from a 3 star Michelin restaurant and get it almost as good as the original shows genuine talent in the kitchen.  I think this place is cooking comfortably at 6/10, pushing 7/10 level, and so is a bit of an undiscovered gem. 


Chiswick continues to add to its eateries with a refurbishment of the old gay pub the Birdcage into a gastrobub called the Roebuck.  I generally find gastropubs a source of continual disappointment, often serving lazy food at surprisingly high prices, using the “pub” setting as a way of luring people to part with their money for dishes made with ultra-cheap ingredients.  However, this was not the case here, with a good salad of artichoke hearts, a decent risotto of wild mushrooms and the only flaw being a poorly made lemon tart (hard pastry, sugar not properly caramelised).  Still, despite this error, overall this was verging on 1/10 in the Good Food Guide, and better than the vast majority of gastropubs. 


This week also saw the first of the Cox Orange Pippin apples, which are one of the great compensations of an English autumn. 


30rd September  2006


I finally got into Atelier Robuchon in West Street, essentially next door to the Ivy.  It is modelled on the style of Atelier Robuchon in Paris, and has the same tapas format.  However as well as bar stools there are some tables, also with bar stools rather than conventional chairs.  Décor may seem 1980s but the black lacquer and red velvet lend the place a quite romantic feel as far as I was concerned.  I see from an interview with Joel Robuchon that they aim for an “intimate” feel, though tightly packed might be a less charitable view of the table spacing.  The upstairs bar has décor in keeping with the dining rooms and they make a good cocktail.  The menu offers either a conventional a la carte or a long selection of tasting dishes, roughly half size.  The cooking varied from good to excellent, the latter end being illustrated by a single fried, very delicate langoustine with a smear of pesto sauce.  Mackerel tart was another winner, as was a playful miniature beefburger using steak and foie gras.  However other dishes, such as a simple dish of tuna with tomato, were nice but the ingredients were nothing remarkable and so came across as merely pleasant.  The standard overall was 6/10, with dishes varying from 5/10 to 7/10 i.e. a little below 1 Michelin star overall.  Given that chef Frederique Simonin gained two stars for his Table de Joel Robuchon in Paris this is a slight disappointment, the more so when you consider that the bill came to 120 pounds a head, and this is not with flashy wines.  Moreover the service was really inept albeit friendly, with the wrong dishes being put in front of us in every course we had.  Not a huge problem in itself, but this is simple stuff, and not what you expect at these prices.  Certainly the food experience was some way below the Paris Atelier, and although I imagine that they will sort the service problems out in time, the value for money question will remain.  Maze, for example, offers similar cooking in both style and standard at a lower price, and without bumbling waiters. 


I was prompted to revisit Mehek, which to my surprise was one of two London award winners at the British Curry Awards last week.  Near Moorgate tube, Mehek is a fairly smart place but offering a generally very familiar menu e,g, chicken dhansak and the like.  Apparently more exotic dishes do not go down well with the city clientele.  On the positive side service was extremely friendly, and the manager very attentive and generous.  The dishes themselves varied from quite decent e.g. pleasant if salty fish tikka and a very good bhindi, through to plain poor e.g. a tasteless, watery dhal.  Overall it was between 1/10 and a round-up in Good Food Guide terms, a little less good than I recall on my own prior visit in 2004.   Why on earth this essentially decent, slightly above average curry house should be singled out as one of the best in London, though, remains a mystery that only the judges of the British Curry Awards can explain.


23rd September  2006


I went to the British Curry Awards at the Grosvenor House hotel this week.  A very smart, black tie affair for 1,100 people, the dinner was catered for by Madhu’s, the Southall restaurant that has built up the largest Indian outside catering business in the UK.  If you are used to cooking for dinner parties then just imagine the logistics of cooking a sit-down meal for 1,100 people – quite a daunting prospect, yet the food all arrived hot, even the freshly made naan bread.  The affair itself, as with most awards ceremonies, was a little long-winded, and even minor celebrity spotting (Ulrika Jonsson with Dragon’s Den Peter Jones on the next table) could not entirely relieve the tedium of watching a seemingly endless string of restaurant owners wandering up to the stage and doing Halle Berry-like tributes to their staff, customers, long lost relatives etc.  The awards themselves made little sense to me.  In London the short-list of ten was a strange mix of deserving and desperate, with good restaurants like Mint Leaf and the Brilliant in Southall up there with well marketed  excuses for restaurants like the Painted Heron.  For what it was worth (which I think is not a lot) the London winners were Tamarind and Mehek, which is a City place that ex Tamarind chef Ashok Kumar once briefly consulted to.   Entirely overlooked were restaurants like Sabras, Haandi and Deya, any of which are better than Tamarind, in my opinion. 


Talking of Deya, we had another good meal there this week.  This is a place which seems to have been overlooked by many critics, and yet has a great deal going for it: a very smart dining room off Portman Square, slick service and one of the original head chefs at Zaika, which was the pioneer in moving Indian cooking in London to a more ambitious level.  Deya’s menu is far from a traditional curry house, with dishes such as scallops cooked with coconut milk, or pan fried with cardamom seeds.  However more familiar dishes like tandoori prawns are of high quality and cooked carefully in the tandoor so that they are tender and yet have a hint of smokiness.   The best dish was tilapia masala, the fish marinated in fresh ginger, garlic, yoghurt and carom seeds, glazed in the tandoor, and served with dill and black mustard seed sauce.  Details are good here e.g. the chutneys   are home made and excellent, as is the kulfi.  Despite the smart setting the price is much less than somewhere like Mint Leaf, three courses with drinks coming to £53 a head.  


Best dish of the week was a salad of langoustines and superb porcini mushrooms (imported from Piedmont) at Zafferano.  You can get good porcini/ceps from Scotland, but these were really stunning. 


Next week I will review London’s new Atelier Robuchon.


16th September  2006


I ate at three successive Michelin starred restaurants in London this week, but each is very different from the other.  Pied a Terre is one of London’s top five restaurants by any standards, with two Michelin stars.  This is the sort of food that you could never duplicate at home, if for no other reason than the sheer amount of manpower involved.  There are half a dozen different amuse bouches, for a start, each an exquisite morsel which sets the scene for the dishes to come.  Scallops and langoustines were of high quality, the scallops plump and lightly seared, the langoustines tender as could be, served on a tarte fine of wild mushrooms.  I followed with sea bass cooked in a vacuum bag at a low temperature (the French call this “sous vide”) which gives the fish a surprising, silky texture while still retaining the distinctive taste of the bass.  This technique was invented by chef George Pralus at Troisgros in the 1970s, so is hardly new, but has become very fashionable recently e.g. with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck making much use of it, while trendy US chefs have also recently become enamoured of it.  It certainly works well with sea bass, retaining flavour and yet giving this unusual, melt-in-the-mouth texture.  For a main course I had excellent duck with a superb demi glace, which as I have explained previously is made here with chicken stock rather than the classic way with veal bones.  Bittersweet chocolate tart was a rich way to finish the meal, the tart accompanied by stout ice cream (no pun intended).  Petit fours are, as ever here, a display of technique, with several near perfect jellies, an array of chocolates and a little toast rack of tuiles.  The small dining room here encourages an intimate atmosphere, and the service is about as good as you will encounter in London. 


Yauatcha perhaps did well to get a Michelin star, but then again its dim sum cooking is every bit as good as Hakkassan, so why not? )here at least. Michelin is consistent).   Despite the very limited seating times the service is sufficiently slick as for you never to feel rushed (there are no desserts, which helps speed things along).  Highlights here include a baked venison puff with excellent pastry, cheung fun without a hint of sliminess, salt and pepper quail with vivid seasoning, light and fluffy char sui buns, delicate steamed dumplings such as har gau, and so the list goes on.  Some dishes may excite less than others, but this is more an issue of personal taste than any inconsistency of standards.   


Zafferano is, as regular readers will have detected, my favourite Italian restaurant in London, even if the chef is an Englishman.  A salad of cuttlefish featured the truly excellent ingredient components that Zafferano bases its success on (if you are doing food this simple, then you had better get hold of high quality ingredients).  John Dory fillets were a new menu item, cooked simply with a few girolles, while apple tart is an Italian take on the classic, here with delicate pastry flavoured with apple rather than cooked in the French style with slices of apple neatly arranged.  This is another place with service that is hard to fault, the staff under experienced maitre d’ Enzo now fully settled into their larger premises.


On the food critic scene there was a major event.  A fond farewell to Andy Turvil, who stepped down as editor of the Good Food Guide after four years as editor and no less than 16 years with the Guide.  The new Guide is due out on the 3rd October, and as ever is eagerly anticipated as the UK’s most authoritative restaurant guide.  Best of luck to Andy in his future career.


9th September  2006


One of the most anticipated openings this year in London just occurred, with Atelier Robuchon opening its doors in Covent Garden.  Joel Robuchon was probably the best chef who has ever lived, and certainly his cooking was the best I have ever eaten.  He retired from cooking several years ago and now lends his name to a franchise which has branches from Macau to Las Vegas, as well as Paris.  The tapas format means you try five or so small dishes, seated at a bar rather than a table, and you can see the chefs cooking in front of you.  Obviously the quality is dependent of the quality of the particular chefs working in a given branch, and there is some promise here given that the London chef did actually work with Robuchon directly in Paris.  I couldn’t get a reservation for a while, so I will update you in a couple of weeks when I finally get to the place.  For a review of the Paris branch see the France section of this web site.


This week I went back to some local favourites.  The Brackenbury is the kind of restaurant that you would love to have at the end of your road.  It has a changing menu of English and French dishes, generally simple cooking but with the odd innovation, and the standard is high (4/10 in my marking scheme).  Shepherds Bush is a fairly ropey area but the Brackenbury is tucked away down a civilised residential street, so unlike some parts of the area you don’t feel like you are in an episode of Miami Vice when you visit.  A meal this week was a good illustration of the kitchen’s repertoire.  A risotto of smoked haddock was well executed, the rice properly absorbing the stock, but the twist was that they had folded into the rice a little curry oil.  This sounds like a dubious idea but it worked due to the curry flavour being kept heavily in check, so it just added a pleasing extra taste dimension, while the smoked haddock has a strong enough taste to be able to take care of itself.  Tuna was served on a bed of pesto with green beans and shallots, and was simple but enjoyable, while cherry clafoutis made an excellent classic desert to finish with.  The Brackenbury has a short wine list with plenty of choices under £25, and how often can you say that these days?  A three course meal with wine usually comes out well under £50 a head, which is a rare thing in London for French/British cooking of any quality.


The Thai Bistro in the Chiswick High Road is an under-rated and very reliable family-run restaurant with all-female staff.  It has simple bench seating and the waitresses are extremely welcoming.  The menu is set out in a rather eccentric way, with multiple takes at starters and main courses in different sections.   This is rather bewildering but also means that there are plenty of things for regulars to discover in hidden nooks of the menu.  The staple dishes are capably executed, with tom yum goong soup having a full set of ingredients and well balanced spices. Spicy salads like som tam have vivid flavours, while a fish with tamarind and chilli was a good example of how to balance very distinct flavours in a complementary way.  For some reason Thai food seems to have settled into a rut in London.  Back in the 1980s you could count the restaurants on the fingers of one hand (at least if you were from Norfolk) and then a sudden explosion of new Thai restaurants opened in the 1990s.  Now there are lots of tolerable establishments but few that stand out.  The wonderful Thailand in New Cross changed hands years ago,  and the Bahn Thai owner moved to Thailand with his dog.  If you don’t count the Blue Elephant, which is more a dating place for twenty somethings than a restaurant, where would you go for a good Thai meal now?  Patara in Greek Street is perhaps the only place which has much ambition.  Given all the smart Indian places now open I wonder whether it is time for someone to try their luck with an up-market Thai restaurant?  If you eat at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok you will see that it is certainly possible to pull off such a thing.  We shall see.


2nd September 2006


I finally made it to Sumosan this week.  Just off Piccadilly, this is yet another up-market, somewhat Japanese restaurant in the style of Zuma and NobuLondon seems to have an inexhaustible appetite for places of this style at present, and the fairly large premises were busy even on a Tuesday night in August.  It is very smart, aiming at the well heeled crowd that hang out around St James these days.  All the hedge funds and venture capitalists in London seem to be slowly migrating west, occupying Piccadilly, St James and Mayfair rather than the City.  Even the behemoth venture capital firm 3i moved to Victoria recently, so the area has had a significant injection of high-earners over the last few years.  The food itself at Sumosan was generally capable, though with some ups and downs.  A simple dish of assorted wild mushrooms cooked with soy sauce was excellent, as was rice with eel, yet there were also slips.  What was claimed to be blue fin tuna turned up as sashimi so utterly cold from over-refrigeration that it was hard to tell what it was.  We actually left this starter aside to the end of the meal to warm up, and even when we finished every other dish it was still too cold to eat properly.  This is an inexcusable slip for a place that presumably should pride itself on its sashimi and sushi.  Soft shell crab was nicely made here, avoiding any greasiness, and overall the food was around 3/10 level (just).  The problem is that at £75 a head with a cheap bottle of wine between three and no desserts you just have to ask the question: why not just go to Zuma, which is only just down the road? 


I feel obliged to try new restaurants in my local area, yet as we all know most restaurants are just bad or greedy or both, so this act of community work on my part usually ends in frustration or outright fury on my part.  It was therefore with a heavy heart that I steeled myself to visit Ootapura, a newish Keralan restaurant on King Street, near Ravenscourt Park.  There is a whole string of Indian restaurants in King Street, and they are almost all dismal, so my hopes were not high.  But what was this?  Mysore bonda with fluffy texture, light batter and nicely spiced filling.  This was followed by a good dosa and an even rare thing, a capable uttapam, the Indian pizza made from rice flour, here topped with tomatoes and chillies.  Even the paratha had good texture and not a hint of the oiliness that so often afflicts the breed.  Even better, the prices were extremely fair: starters were around £2.50, and even with several beers we didn’t spend £30 between two.  This place seems to have been overlooked by the London reviewers, who have been plugging instead the disappointing Indian Zing and the deeply mediocre Sagar opposite as the stars of King Street.  Yet to me Ootapura was a clear 2/10 overall, higher in patches, and much better than anything else nearby (I would say that Agni at 1/10 as the best in King Street up until this discovery).  Ootapura should try a bit of PR, since far less deserving places are getting more attention.  As a bonus, for me it is always nice to find somewhere good within walking distance.


28th August 2006


I can never make my mind up about The Square, the 2 Michelin star Mayfair restaurant at which Philip Howard has made a great success.  In the past I have had some erratic service, but the food is technically excellent.  This week a starter of scallops and a main course of John Dory with wild mushrooms showed, as ever, high quality ingredients and strong technique, as did a passion fruit soufflé with a lime sorbet.  Yet despite the many pluses of The Square I never feel really excited by the cooking.  It is like a big Mercedes:  reliable, expensive, assured.  Yet exciting it is not, with some dishes on the appealing menu unchanged for many years.  Personally I prefer Shane Osborne’s cooking at Pied a Terre right now – it has more going on and more chance of a thrilling dish, even if there are minor imperfections.  However London is crying out for a new high end restaurant; the last was Tom Aikens several years ago.  Restaurateurs are playing it safe these days with easily reproduced bistro food at high prices and high margins e.g. Arbutus.  It would nice not to have to go to France whenever you want to get a really thrilling top end meal.


I also tried a relative Wembley newcomer: Jeevan, a Punjabi restaurant.  Despite this being recommended by an Indian chef I know, the cooking, though better than a high street tandoori, was barely 1/10 in my marking scheme.  Chicken malai tikka was the best dish, the chicken tender from the marinade and cooked correctly in the tandoor, while breads were also good e.g. garlic naan.  However a prawn curry had overcooked prawns and a methi chicken main course had the bizarre taste of mint about it, while vegetables were pleasant enough but all had a very one dimensional spicing.  If in Wembley then it would seem best to stick to old faithful Sakonis, the large South Indian vegetarian restaurant. 


20th August 2006


This week I visited Eight over Eight, which is under the same ownership as E&O and indeed is almost a carbon copy, but set in the Kings Road.  They seem to have replicated everything, from the exact bar and dining room layout to the clientele, who are similarly trendy types in their 20s and 30s who all look like they work in film and TV and are just back from an audition.  The food is the same pleasing pan Asian food as at E&O: good dim sum, silky black cod, spicy kim chi rolls and, best of all, excellent soft shell crab tempura without a hint of greasiness.  I will certainly come back 


I also committed the rookie error of going to a fish restaurant (Bentleys) on a Monday.  I know, I know, how could I be so daft?  It is a long story (friends over from America only that night who wanted British food) but anyway I took the chance, and I have to say that conventional wisdom was spot on.  After having had an excellent meal at Bentleys a couple of months ago that was between 5/10 and 6/10 in my marking scheme, tonight the fish was noticeably less impressive, and the meal was only 3/10 in standard.  The Monday factor does not explain why the pasta I had was a bit soggy, and perhaps they were just having an off day, but at these prices off days are not on. 


12th August 2006


I took a trip into Austin Powers territory last night with a trip to Cocoon, which serves pan Asian food in the 1st floor Regent Street site that used to be Bruno Loubet years ago.  I’m not sure why the owners have gone for psychedelic padded walls and swivel bucket seats, but the atmosphere certainly feels like a 1960s vision of the future (think orange walls and portholes).  It was full of middle eastern businessmen with suspiciously pretty, bored looking escorts along with a wide array of trendy types who probably work in fashion or advertising.  The chef is ex E&O, and the menu here is essentially a reproduction of that, so we are talking “pan Asian”, by which we mean approachable dishes from Japan, Korea or Thailand but nothing that would scare someone up from Kent or Essex on a night out.  Apart from a dull smoked salmon salad the food was very good, with decent bluefin tuna sashimi, good rock shrimp tempura and excellent beef bulgogi with a spicy Indian raita, which worked better than it sounds.  Prices were a touch high, but we are in Regent Street after all.  All waiting staff in London now are from Poland (there is some sort of rule about this) but there were a couple of Japanese chefs preparing the sushi and sashimi. 


Other than that I had another excellent meal at Zafferano, and another fine curry at old faithful Haandi in Knightsbridge.  I dabbled with some cooking this week, with a langoustine salad and then a lovely line caught sea bass with a mustard sauce.  I mention this only because the sea bass tasted so much nicer than the versions that you often see in London restaurants these days.  I’m sure farmed sea bass can be OK, but tasting this wild one was revealing; I really hope that sea bass does not go the way of salmon, which these days tastes of nothing at all.


6th August 2006


I was excited to go back to Pied a Terre, where Shane Osborne is cooking as well as anyone in London right now.  The tuna starter on their menu right now is magnificent, simple blue fin tuna lightly seared and served on a bed of crushed potato.  A poulet noir had excellent flavour but I was most impressed by the sauce with the chicken, which I assumed was a demi glace as it was so intense.  Yet Shane explained that it was in fact made from chicken stock, reduced for four hours and then combined with red wine – it has the depth of a demi glace but the chicken base gives it a lighter flavour; interestingly, Nico Ladenis (now retired) used to take the same approach, and that is recommendation enough.  Shane’s desserts seem rather over-complex to me, but the starters and main courses are superb,  David Moore remains perhaps the most astute maitre d’ in London; it is great to see the place thriving after its fire.


We had another excellent meal at Zuma, which is still impossibly popular but at least in this case it is clear why: the menu is very appealing, the fish fresh and cooking technique excellent, as is the slick service.  All this and very low in calories too – and how many things can you say that of?  I also went back, with my American friend Stephen Pace, to Patara in Greek Street.  There is a min-chain of Patara Thai restaurants, and having tried each of them I believe the Greek Street one is the best, and indeed is the best Thai restaurant in London right now.  The cooking is a notch up from the many simple, pleasant Thai places that exist all around London.  Green chicken curry was subtle, a spicy salad had excellent ingredients, and pad Thai noodles had excellent texture and flavour.


I also sampled the pleasant bistro cooking of High Road House, the latest venture of the people that own Soho House in London and New York.  Part private members club with hotel rooms, part brasserie and part open to the public, after just a few days of being open it is already wildly successful, with 150 covers for lunch last Saturday and 250 for dinner.  We went on Thursday and it was packed out; the menu is simple and appealing, the cooking competent.  It is another sign that Chiswick is finally becoming trendy. 


29th  July 2006


An adventurous week, with two places I had not visited before.  I tried Galvins, the bistro in Baker Street that has had adulatory reviews in the press for a year.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed, with very pleasant bistro cooking e.g. fish soup, chicken with peas, that was hardly out of the ordinary, and at £60 a head with a modest wine scarcely a bargain.  Perhaps it is suffering from one of the Galvin brothers putting his attention into Windows on the World. 


I also went to Noisette, the new Gordon Ramsay opening in Sloane Street, featuring the chef from the Greenhouse who gained a Michelin star.  We had a delightful evening with some charming American friends, and tried the “inspirational” tasting menu paired with wines, but I could really only give this 5/10 objectively; there were no real errors, and ingredients were good, but somehow nothing really lifted the cooking out of the ordinary.  At prices only a smidgen less than Gordon Ramsay’s main restaurant, I am sceptical as to how well this place will do in this somewhat cursed location, the site of Pengelleys (where I reckon I may have been about the only person ever to eat there before it closed; it certainly felt like it the evening we went).  Chef Bjorn van der Horst did at least provide entertainment by screaming obscenities at his kitchen staff for part of the evening; someone should point out to him that this is quite audible from the dining room.  Perhaps his new association with Gordon Ramsay Holdings has encouraged him to adopt Gordon’s famously vivid vocabulary.  


As well as the new places I had another fine meal at Zafferano, which for a decade has been the best Italian restaurant in London.  The salad and pasta dishes here are truly superb.  We also had another pleasant meal at Rasa Maricham, the branch of Rasa in the surreal location of the Holiday Inn Kings Cross, and also at the ever reliable Brilliant in Southall.


22nd July 2006


My eating this week ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous.  I had another excellent meal at the Notting Hill Brasserie, where Mark Jankel’s cooking seems to me to be underrated in some of the guides.  He has turned this into a real commercial success through consistently high quality cooking and appealing menus, and I imagine that his next step will be to open his own place.  My local La Trompette turned out another nice meal, while my first visit to the generally well-rated Bellamy’s in Mayfair was a let down, with a tendency to overcook the fish the recurring theme of my meal, not a good trait for a fish restaurant.  I also had reliable meals at the underrated Thai Bistro in Chiswick and at Rasa Maricham, which is the ideal place to go to after some culture at Sadler’s Wells. 


Those who know me are aware that I rarely voluntarily travel far outside the Circle Line to eat, but I was dragged off by my wife to a birthday party at La Talbooth in Essex.  Just “Essex” doesn’t not do it justice, as it is beyond Colchester, and a few more miles and we would have ended up in the North Sea.  The odd thing is that the setting was exquisite: a riverside terrace, a 16th century house, a weeping willow, all barely less attractive than the Waterside Inn or Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace.  But what food did we have in this genuinely beautiful setting?  A barbecue.  All the clichés were there, with horribly overcooked meat, supermarket salads and people from Essex in Hawaiian shirts (I confess that I did not see any white stilettos, but some of the girls there looked like they were just itching to put some on).  Just to complete the picture, in the glorious traditional English setting there was a steel band.  The thinking that loud calypso music was an appropriate accompaniment to an old English riverside setting with a barbecue almost beggars belief, but there you have it.  It is good for me to venture off the tube network occasionally to remind myself of the true horror that can be English restaurant food once you leave the capital.  It is as if the food revolution of the last twenty years in London simply never happened.  In the movie “American Werewolf in London  two young American travellers are advised to “stick to the main road, keep off the moor”, and this sort of culinary nightmare reminds me of the equivalent advice “stick to the tube network, keep off the regions”.  Of course there are honourable exceptions to this like Winteringham Fields and Gidleigh Park, but it is disturbing just how bad English food can still be.



15th July 2006


Old favourites were the theme this week.  I went to the old and the new of Indian restaurants, with the 30 year old Southall restaurant the Brilliant as reliable as ever, showing the world cup final on the Sunday night we were there on its large plasma screens instead of the usual Bollywood movies.  I also visited Deya (see the London section) which perhaps due to its slightly offbeat location is not as talked about as it deserves.  This is the best of the “modern Indian” places in London, and very fairly priced considering its smart setting and top ingredients.  We also went back to the timeless Zafferano, which for over a decade has been serving the best Italian food in London.  Its refurbishment has increased the size of the place, but the cooking is still as consistent as ever, with perfect salads and pasta in particular.  It is ironic that the waiting staff are mostly Italian but the chef is in fact English (he trained under Giorgio Locatelli, the original chef here for years, so fear not).


9th July 2006


This week I clambered up to the lofty heights of Windows on the World (28th floor of the Hilton Park Lane) to see whether Hayler’s law that “food gets worse as you get higher” still holds.  See the London section review to find out.  Other than that I had another excellent meal at Yauatcha, which serves superb dim sum all day.  You don’t get to linger, but this is good value and as high quality dim sum as you will get in London: try the gorgeous salt and pepper quail or the baked venison puff.  I also stumbled into my local La Trompette, and had a better than usual meal here on an outside table on a lovely summer’s evening; the wine list here is so good, and fairly priced, that I always end up over-indulging here and struggle with my notes at the end of evening.  Trompette is still easily the best restaurant in Chiswick, and indeed for some distance around.


30th June 2006


This week I ventured into Gilgamesh, the ambitious new opening from Ian Pengelly, who originally set up the excellent E&O.  Despite the historically challenged notion of Egyptian décor for a restaurant named after a Sumerian king (which today would be Iraq) serving pan-Asian cooking, the place itself works well, and looks like being a great commercial success.  See my review in the London section.


I am indebted to food expert Michael Jonsson for pointing out that Tom Aikens uses his lifestyle coach to select his meat suppliers.  Call me old fashioned but Tom may wish to ponder the possible connection between this and why his restaurant still shows no sign of getting a second Michelin star:  


25th June 2006


Arbutus is the new bistro from Anthony Demetre, ex Putney Bridge.  See the London section for a review.  The ambitious Gilgamesh has opened in the unlikely setting of Chalk Farm and I will review shortly.  I had another good meal this week at Rasa Marichan, the best food you will ever eat in a Holiday Inn, or in Kings Cross, let alone at a Holiday Inn in Kings Cross.  I also had the misfortune to try the new Carluccio’s in Chiswick. I actually won the meal here in a competition, and even though it was free I still felt done: it was very mediocre e.g. rock hard pasta; just treat this as a deli and gloss over the kitchen. 


18th June 2006


All change at 1880 as Andrew Turner leaves 1880 for the countryside.  The restaurant seems rather in transition, with a very pleasant new front of house manager from Turkey and one of Andrew’s sous-chefs, Sharon, holding the fort until a new head chef is appointed. 


11th June 2006


I tried authentic Polish cooking in Krakow, a very beautiful city.  Despite the vast number of Polish people in London, there had been little in the way of Polish restaurants that have inspired me (Wodka) in Kensington was pleasant, but I disliked Baltic).  In Krakow some of the better known restaurants Haewelka and Wierzynek were disappointing places for tourists and visiting businessmen on expenses, but Under the Angels was good, including excellent dumplings and meat roasted on beech wood, imparting a lovely scent to the meat.


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