Thursday, 28 July 2011

Bistro du Vin (Soho)

Despite a spate of Clerkenwell reviews, my keenness to try this most esteemed of chains led me to the new Soho branch on Dean Street. In fact ended up visiting twice in barely twelve hours. Sadly, unlike many more professional food critics, I don't have expenses and so this repeat visit was definitely out of choice rather than for decadent and haughty "I must dine everywhere twice" research purposes.

One visit was for drinks and a snack with a friend, sat at the bar. And the other, a big family lunch, inspired from my previous night's success.

free nibbles with drinks
Before I caveat any praise by besmirching all chains in the hope that this doesn't become the new McDonald's (doubtful), I'll do the review stuff first.

The location is brilliant, bur daring - right across the street from the Dean Street Townhouse, surely a direct competitor and still a hot spot. I like it there but more for drinks, it's slick but the food is overpriced and forgettable. And the floor service is flaky.

This isn't as 'cool' I guess, but it's still very stylish inside. The long zinc bar and louche banquettes are fairly expected, but some other features are not; a separate wine room with a dining table, a huge colour-coded library overlooking a semi-private area and certainly not least of all, an air-conditioned cheese and charcuterie room. Amazing.

On to the food - on my bar visit, I try the burger. It's served on a chopping board with an indented ring for a cone of fries, and a dinky copper pan for sauce. The steaks here are a big USP so this is really meant for the béarnaise etc... but it works perfectly here, with a tangy red pepper burger relish. 

And the burger (£14.50) is a beast. It's big, juicy, charred yet pink to perfection and I'd struggle to find fault with it. The amount of juices running out might annoy some, but for me they were like blood to a great white shark. The bun is brioche (and not too small for the burger, grrr!), the bacon and the fries are brilliant, the latter possibly double-cooked? 

9/10 easily - one small point for their staffing is that the barman wasn't aware the burgers could be cooked to order and went to check with the chef - who presumably cussed him out and proceeded to cook a perfect burger. I wasn't nervous about that one in a place with a Josper...

At the lunch, every dish was a hit too. Our party was comped a cheese and charcuterie board which is great as we weren't having starters. The veal parmigiana (£18.50) was quite delicate for such a usually bolshy dish - the tomato sauce was worthy of any pasta, the rose veal (nice touch) wasn't overcooked and the cheese didn't taste too claggy. Lovely prosciutto too. This seems like apologetically saying 'it wasn't awful, it wasn't terrible' but it was actually very good!

The lamb rump with pesto (£19.50) was pink and generous, and nicely presented too, but as with the parmigiana could have had more on the side. Places these days make a killing on sides but I would argue that the increased revenue might not actually cover the perception of affordability and not being fleeced which leads to repeat visits. Still, it's nice to get stuck in to someone else's chips.

veal parmigiana

The sea bass salad (£14.50) with fennel and chilli was another success. Fragrant and punchy without being overpowering, these two ingredients complemented a pretty generous slab of fish well.

lamb rump with vine toms and homemade pesto

We didn't have dessert, but headed straight for the cheese room. A fantastic member of staff talked us through the cheeses with expertise and prepared boards based on our preferences and a few recommendations of his. They were excellent - it's worth the visit alone, especially at £12.50 for unlimited cheese! I'd love to see the unlimited element put to the challenge...

sea bass resting on (enveloping?) fennel salad

On to the service. It's impeccable, extremely attentive and helpful. The sommelier was proactively offering tastes of various wines and the cheese guy was great too. I hope this excellent service continues after the honeymoon period as their staff could be a huge asset to the place. Wines are superb, as you'd expect in a place named thus. They also have a plat du jour for £10-14 which is a good nod to the French lunchtime égalité which enables any old French peasant to be able to eat out daily. Not bad!

The steaks here look fantastic and are probably worthy of their own post. I think I'll see Greedy Diva's côte de boeuf from Clerkenwell in my dreams...

So yes, this is a chain, but as long as the quality and service are maintained, I think it's a sleek, mature addition to the Soho scene. It will endure a lot of competition and comparison with the trendier Dean Street Townhouse across the way, but I think the superior food and service will see it right.

And in terms of chains, both Dean St Townhouse (can we call the Soho House establishments chains yet?) and the Bistro du Vin have actually replaced a Pitcher & Piano, and an All Bar One respectively. In the evolution of chains, that is inarguably progress...
the cheese room..
Food – 9/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 9/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 7/10 (iced carafe provided automatically on bar visit, still or sparkling proffered at lunch) 
Staff Hotness – 9/10 (very smart, professional and nicely uniformed. Couple of hotties behind the bar)

Bistro du Vin on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Giant Robot

Clerkenwell Road is becoming quite the foodie strip, and now that I’m working round here, I’m spoiled for choice. I walk past Giant Robot every day and have grown to like it - it has a New York vibe to it, with classic NY grub like sliders and meatballs, huge open windows onto the street and their blackboard has daily witticisms to enjoy.

I’ve been a few times now and sometimes just for drinks, so to summarise:

The burger: it’s good, with a nicely sweating brioche bun, and a crumbly, charred homemade taste. It’s happily cooked rare too. I think the portion is a little small for £10. Reminds me of the Lucky 7 burger, although the patty is less juicy. It does come with fries which are thin but a bit too anaemic on our visit, shame.

The spaghetti meatballs: again well made and tasty. It’s definitely a New York generic ‘red sauce’ offering rather than a nice Italian salsa pomodoro, but it works fine. The pasta has a slightly wormy school spaghetti vibe about it, can't really pinpoint why. And again, for £9.65 I think the 5 ball portion is a bit measly.

The sliders: are never bad. I think maybe they’re rare enough in London to still be a bit of a treat. Not including M&S mini burgers at the Christmas party of course. £7.50 for three.

Note: they’re the above meatballs in a small bun rather than miniature burger patties. I realise there is some debate on this, and some argue sliders can be any sandwich and filling in that sized bun, but it seems a touch lazy!

the bar and brunch board
The drinks: are really good, and they do my all-time favourite the New York Sour, although the red wine is mixed in rather than floating, so it looks like another American delicacy, pepto-bismol. Time for a quick shout out here to Schiller’s Liquor Bar and their NY Sour; a thing of louche perfection.

I’ll probably end up coming here a fair bit, it’s sociable, fun and easy. The food is too, but isn't not destination food in isolation. What it is, is excellent grub to accompany a good cocktail session, and it’s much nicer than the mush they churn out at The Diner. Service is decent, there are a couple of staff hotties among the hipster children and it’s open late. Doesn’t quite take me back to Stanton or Ludlow, but close enough. Craving another NY trip now though…

Food – 7/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 6/10
Tap water tales – 9/10 (iced carafe provided automatically) 
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (one or two hot rockabilly guys)

Giant Robot on Urbanspoon

Friday, 15 July 2011

Dock Kitchen (at Portobello Dock)

I was never that enthused by the whole pop-up thing, I don’t really know why – maybe a preconceived notion that places would be ramshackle, gimmicky or perhaps even gone by the time I turned up…but I never had much interest.

But on hearing about Dock Kitchen’s elevation to a permanent eatery, my interest piqued. The site of Virgin Records for as long as I can remember, and a partnership with designer Tom Dixon who is supposedly moving into the water tower and has a small store here, this is anything but ramshackle.
You enter either from the bridge down a little alleyway, or through the courtyard where a huge suntrap terrace and burgeoning tomato and herb plants await you. There are piles of fruit and veg, and it definitely feels like a market kitchen.

At night there is an a la carte menu or a themed option. Previous themes of Catalan, Provence or Old Fashioned Italian have me quite excited. Unfortunately, our evening features an English foraging menu with an assortment of fungi, wild flowers and little known leaves, and sea vegetables such as samphire and some other pilfered nonsense. This is enthusiastically sold by a presumably ex-cubs waiter but it is a bit of a turd-polishing exercise frankly.

So our party of four press on with the a la carte, which features a prosciutto, black fig and buffalo mozzarella salad starter. Three of us have this, and it is absolutely spot on.

The ham is silky, delicious and plentiful, the figs are fresh and the mozzarella is beyond creamy and full of flavour (sometimes I think it tastes of nothing). This is the perfect summer dish, and the River Café comparisons start thick and fast. I could just have another portion of this with a bit of bread and some rosé, and die happy...
indian clam broth

The fourth, now rather envious diner, chose an Indian broth with various clams and mussels – nicely spiced, well-proportioned and interesting.

lamb chops

On to mains – the North Indian lamb chops are very well cooked, with a dollop of yoghurt and some saag aloo. This is a well put together dish and nicely pink, but it was lacking star quality and didn’t really show off the freshness, sourcing and simplicity of the Dock Kitchen.

The hake was excellent, our most popular main whereas the beef shin with broad bean salads was, as with the lamb chops, well-cooked but not exciting. Sometimes when a dish is just decent, each mouthful becomes the same and soon enough it’s an arduous task to finish. This probably had too many broad beans to remain on the right side of the generous/repetitive divide.

beef and broad beans

Desserts are great – a fantastically seasonal and adventurous selection of sorbets and ice creams, and a fig tart which is amazing. Crème fraiche though?! Surely there exists no dessert not enhanced by a cheeky scoop of vanilla? 

The service is good, the décor is a Tom Dixon shrine which is no criticism, with nice views of the both the kitchen and the expectedly loud and boozy clientele. It’s airy albeit narrow, but huge windows and the large open courtyard over water canal ensure a feeling of space and light. I’d love to come back for a sunny Saturday al-fresco lunch.

I think this particular evening, we were a tad let down by our mains. I think the Dock Kitchen’s best angle would be one akin to The River Café, and recent newcomers such as Zucca - simple, fresh, summery food. This is July, the broths and Indian lamb chops should be saved for winter.

Bust out some fillet tagliata or ossobuco, and maybe some Spanish tomatoey fish dishes! Seasonal is important, but so is teleporting diners away to a happier place. In summer, that means sunny food and the Med is the easiest to keep seasons with. The Dock Kitchen is simultaneously upmarket and effortlessly relaxed, in a very Notting Hill way. It’s passionate if a bit too earnest, but priced seriously and professionally run.

The eclectic approach and effete themes may get the initial column inches, but gimmicks and culinary schizophrenia won’t keep ‘em coming back. There’s huge potential for a great eatery in this part of town, sandwiched between Queens Park and Notting Hill, so here’s hoping they consolidate and focus on what they demonstrably do so well. Fresh, seasonal, evocative pan-Mediterranean cooking, which is a broad enough church surely to keep their restless globetrotting chefs happy ...

Exact prices I can’t recall – starters were £8-12 and mains £14-20. Fairly reasonable. We paid  about £60 per head which included three courses, two bottles of prosecco and service. 

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 8/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 6/10 (pretending to offer tap when we suggest it)
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (intensely serious foodie staff, quite hot and rugged with it) 

Dock Kitchen
320 Ladbroke Grove, W10
Dock Kitchen, Portobello Dock on Urbanspoon

Monday, 11 July 2011


Having had a very successful (pre-blog) brunch at Caravan before, I was excited about my lunch there. On a sunny Friday afternoon, Exmouth Market has a great buzz to it and Caravan definitely has the best site.

It’s Antipodean in initial approach, but not dominantly so with the food. The lunch menu is rather ‘global’ (horrible word, but better than ‘fusion’ surely?) and some of the ingredients used are really quite exotic, especially in their pairings. It’s quirky and eclectic without being too ‘world music’ and the decor is modern yet understated.

The peanut and blue cheese wontons (£4) are so unusual I have to try them. And they’re fantastic – the blue cheese isn’t too overpowering, the wontons are deep fried to absolute perfection and the nutty paste is creamy and moreish. I could eat another plate without blinking. But we press on…

Caravan has lots of small plates which are a bit smaller than a regular starter, but designed for sharing. I think the aim isn’t too ‘concept’ or ideological, but rather flexible and you can do it tapas, or starters/mains or however else you want. Take note Spice Market!

My dining partner par excellence (my Mum) goes for the asparagus with fried duck egg and prosciutto crumbs. She found the egg slightly overpowered and enveloped the asparagus (which is more than a few weeks out of season surely?) which when fresh can sing for itself. That said, the crumbs are a bold move (‘meatifying’ an almost very veggie-friendly dish) but taste like the real deal.

I have the tomatillo, feta and lambs lettuce salad (£4) which is delicious. It has some ridiculously loud crunchy nuts in it which I think might be African and the whole concoction tastes tangy, fresh and unusual. It’s not repetitive unlike many salads I find and my palate feels very refreshed and rather zingy.

The old girl has a small plate of Sichuan prawns (£6-ish) which are smoky, spicy and extremely aromatic, with five-spice wafting out and around the room. The portion is generous for a small plate, and they’re a big hit.

I have the pork schnitzel (recently downgraded from veal, £16) which I’m glad to report is quite hefty and not hammered to a wisp. The pork is good quality, and this is served with some salad and the intriguing gypsy potatoes. The schnitzel’s coating could have had more seasoning to it – dried lemon can work amazingly, or parmesan although it burns easily. Incidentally, the best schnitzel I ever had was in Australia unsurprisingly, at Bird Cow Fish in Sydney… life changing stuff…

schnitzel - small but thick!
The gypsy potatoes are strips of regular and sweet potato, fried with onions, torn pieces of ham and tossed in a creamy, cheesy sauce. Decadent, indulgent and a perfect nod to a schnitzel’s roots in Eastern Europe, these are seriously good and I could polish off several more portions!

gypsy potatoes
No time for dessert, but Caravan roast their own coffee which is superb and available to buy for home too. Service is solid – casual but well informed and the staff are very enthusiastic.

As my rather lacklustre visit to Lantana was very recent and the two places at first seem to be comparable, the comparison is not a difficult one. Caravan is a great, airy space (perhaps tiny, humid Lantana on a hot day will never yield friendly service?) and definitely a cut above the former in terms of food, imagination, service and vibe.

Caravan is daring, innovative and has great variety without trying to do too much or being spread too thin. The wine list is serious, they have Camden lager on draught and I can’t wait to return with some friends one evening, and try more of their zanier dishes; using espresso mole, cassava and of course the tempting fried chicken with watermelon, amongst many others. Bravo!

Food – 9/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 6/10 (some iced top ups, one requested) 
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (sultry, tattoed and edgy, but clued up indie chicks mainly)

Exmouth Market - EC1
Caravan on Urbanspoon

Friday, 8 July 2011


To welcome back some friends following an abandoned Canadian relocation, Lantana seemed the perfect spot to show off some of the Empire’s better attributes, Antipodean coffee and café/brunch culture being one of my favourites.

I’ve been to Lantana several times before, but not with my blog hat on so I was very much looking forward to it…and starving of course, being a touch hung-over as I am wont to be on Sundays. Coffee here is one of the drawcards (Square Mile) and although I don’t have one on this occasion, my friend’s espresso looks excellent. The fresh orange juice (£3.50 for a large) is good value too.

corn fritters
Food-wise, I try the ‘Croque Lantana’ -  a ham, gruyere and chilli jam creation (£7.50) which arrives with the cheese inside. That is a toastie, not a bloody croque! Argh! Big pet peeve of mine as dedicated readers will know – they should maybe look towards Out Of Town for a lesson.

the croque of shame
My usual choice - the homemade baked beans & sausages with feta and spinach (their full English I guess - £9) doesn’t dazzle my friend but it’s a solid choice here and the beans work well with the crumbled feta. It’s a great dish - I’ve had a fantastic version of for brunch in Sydney before (somewhere on Darlinghurst Road), and Bill Granger has a similar recipe I’ve tried unsuccessfully once.

The corn fritters (£9.80) with bacon, tomatoes and rocket go down very eagerly, and the grilled halloumi with poached egg (£8)  served with tomatoes and the ubiquitous rocket and sourdough is well received also, but not too memorable.

sausage, beans, feta, spinach, poached egg
I’m not sure quite what it is about the food on this occasion, but I’m left quite unenthused. The service is a little duff (more in a sec) but our friends who are Lantana virgins agree that it’s good but not amazing. I think standards, expectations and experiences have shot up in London ‘shabby-chic’ dining and Lantana just hasn’t kept up. The new ‘croque’ was a greasy disaster, and there aren’t many other signs of innovation. Prices are sneaking upwards though.

Service is usually the laidback but attentive ANZ style, but on this occasion the team were overwhelmed. Our server was confused, spilled some of the OJ onto the floor, forgot a side dish and was generally a tad rubbish, I have to say. Service has always been great on my previous visits so possibly some element of the recruiting or management itself isn’t quite as tight as before.

Or maybe it was just a bad day, but I’ve seen it far busier.  Drinks and condiments were slammed down aggressively, and there were no pleasantries – although 12.5% service was added on automatically which I think is a little bit incongruous with the casual vibe (there is also a tip jar!?) and certainly with Antipodean tipping culture in general.

I’m off to (the vastly superior in my eyes) Caravan later for lunch, so I will keep an eye out for the service charge. As many London food bloggers and readers are Antipodeans or fans of their cafe scene, I’d be interested to hear thoughts and experiences on the tipping subject…

A shabby sign at the till pleads for investors for a second site – shouldn’t it be the other way round? Possibly a bad day as I said, but it seems my once-beloved, now slightly tired Lantana could do with some tinkering and TLC before dreams of the big roll-out. 

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 5/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 5/10 (provided, nice and warm by the coffee machine, serve yourself)
Staff Hotness – 5/10 (bumbling and defeated by the service is never hot)

13-14 Charlotte Place, W1

Lantana on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Tapas Brindisa (Borough Market)

I love me some tapas, as previous posts will indeed show, and there are few better joints than Brindisa at Borough Market. Yes, they don’t take reservations, but they will let you wait at the pub across the road and will take names and seat people before all guests have arrived. So it’s not quite as unaccommodating.

And once you have a decent table (let alone an outside one) you're the envy of the foodies and gawping tourists heading into the market. We have a crisp cava (£5.95) as we wait for our A-List Twittering friend and before long it’s down to business.

As my legions of keen followers will attest, pan con tomate is one of my favourite dishes ever – the freshness and simplicity (combined with a slight suspicion of Southern European breakfasts) means this is a staple. At £2.80, it’s generous and slathered with tomato and oil. Nearly everything else we order comes with bread though (which is quite fresh but hard and needs the oil) so it’s a bit overkill.

The ham selection is maybe a touch modest for £19.50 but a good way to sample some delicate bellota with some heftier iberico slices. This barely lasts a minute, so we also have a salchichon de vic (£5.00) which is plentiful and very peppery.

A selection of cheese (£13.75) and a portion of lovely croquettes (£6.90) provide more for the arteries; the zamorano is sharp, the mahon is like a smoky Edam and the croquettes are positively oozing with rich béchamel and pieces of jamon.

We have some padron peppers (£3.50) which are forgotten first time round, and they’re salty, tangy and great for boozy snacking. At this point, we’re on a Miralmonte (£21.95) from Toro, which is rich and smooth like a Rioja. Supposedly an emerging wine region, I’ll definitely keep an eye out.

Our patatas bravas (£4.00) are a bit stingy on the sauce (they’re playing it safe by serving both paprika-aioli sauce and a spicy tomato sauce) but unremarkable, however  the black rice with squid (£6.50) is decadent and quite a hit.

This is by no means my first nor will be my last trip to Brindisa. The service is pretty good, excepting our peppers and that one server spoke no English at all. Bizarrely, (considering our situ in ye olde Southwark) this made me feel a bit oikish and wondering if I should dust off the español. Probably a good sign!

On a slight tangent, I do wonder if today's the ideal tapas restaurant be contemporary and modern like Fino, or spirit you away on holiday like the rather cheap and very cheerful Galicia? I think this straddles both, and I’d love to visit Madrid to check out some of the more modern offerings. Until then, Brindisa es bastante. Gracias.

Food – 8/10
Drink – 9/10
Value – 7/10
Service - 7/10 (AWOL peppers but correct on bill and otherwise good and attentive)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (young, smart and Spanish)

Tapas Brindisa
Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon