Friday, 23 September 2011

Campania Gastronomia

So if there is any spot more coveted in London than a walk-in table at Polpetto, it could quite possibly be an outside table at Campania for Sunday brunch. This Italian café is on a strategic corner of Columbia Road, where the market begins (or ends), with all those little shops selling prints, scented candles, teas, garden implements and other general ‘loveliness’. 

Whether you’re just here for the flowers, or for a full on Sunday potter, it’s hard to beat the people watching from Campania. Yes you’ve got the predictable Shoreditch posers in skinny jeans etc… but it’s a little more diverse here. It’s definitely East London’s pocket of tweeness so you see lots of sweet (yet trendy still) nest builders as well as the obligatory beggars roaming around. Loads of gays, lesbians, cockneys and folk-rockers make the street scene pretty good for nosing and, well, perving frankly.

So where better to have a simple brunch (£9) of scrambled eggs, pancetta rashers, Neapolitan sausage and fresh sourdough?

The slightly inundated waitress tells us the Neapolitan sausage is as it says – a sausage from Naples. All cleared up then…

The pancetta is perfectly salty for my hung over taste buds, and the bread is delicious. The handful of rocket makes me feel virtuous, the fresh OJ is great and the coffee’s fantastic  too.

I guess they offer more here in terms of evenings, the inside looks all rustic chic - and I do like the coffee/sandwich hatch - but I’m in seat 1A here and receiving the green eyed, unsubtle hoverings from all the would-be occupiers of this table. And on that note, I order another long black, sit back and enjoy the view…

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 6/10 (friendly but a bit wobbly)
Value – 6/10
Tap water tales – 8/10 (carafe brought)  
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (cute Italian girls)
Campania Gastronomia on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 21 September 2011


For a fast, great value yet satisfying lunch by Smithfield, it’s hard to beat Piada. The queues can go out of the door sometimes and I’m there relatively frequently. The name refers to some kind of flatbread, piadine, which they do in the style of common-or-garden wraps.

But the two main crowd-pullers are the pastas and the salads. For £6 they have two daily, changing pasta dishes which can vary depending on what they have fresh that day, but are often simple tomato based sauces with perhaps a big dollop of burrata, or rocket and chilli flakes, or maybe arrabbiata.

The salads are impressive too (also about £6) – they do a mean caprese, or a bresaola salad with piles of fresh rocket, parmesan, balsamic glaze and tomatoes, or even a warm creamy slab of goats cheese with spinach and sundried tomatoes, all with some flatbreads on the side to mop it up with.

The staff are real Italians and extremely friendly, it’s quick and really quite tasty considering the slight ‘lunch rush assembly line’ feel. 

Food – 7/10
Drink – 6/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 7/10 (was brought one unprompted once, paper cup though)  
Staff Hotness – 5/10 (usually too famished to notice, very nice though)
Piada on Urbanspoon

Monday, 19 September 2011


Perhaps I should have bought a lottery ticket last Saturday, as after a film at the Curzon, my party of three managed a walk-in to Polpetto just before 9pm which must be a miracle. I felt almost sheepish asking but we scored a tiny table in the corner, which we convinced ourselves was cosy because it was Polpetto but anywhere else would have been laughable, and a boozy Saturday dinner in Soho was born.

Diddy wine glasses charged with the group’s own Prosecco, we got down to business.

bruschetta of the Gods...
The bruschetta with tomato and basil here is something special. The tomatoes are piping hot and creamy, and oozing their own juices onto a bed of the freshest focaccia, tons of basil and olive oil. It was a bit pricey in terms of ingredients maybe (£5-ish) but well worth it. I ended up ordering a second one just for me after we’d shared the first. Delicious!

The zucchini fries (£4.50) were a nice dish. Everyone loves chips, including every honest foodie, so proffering something similar but more virtuous is always going to be a winner. The zucchini with pecorino was a little disappointing – mainly because I was expecting some big chunks of pecorino and got wafer-thin shavings.

zucchini and pecorino
forgotten this, but same juice/gloop features...
Quail on greens (£8.50) was also not the greatest. Bistrot Bruno Loubet’s incarnation of this dish on risotto is one of my favourite recent meals and this paled in comparison. 

The pizzette here are famous, and the cured pork shoulder and pepper pizzetta (£6.50) hit the spot. Meaty and filling, with the right amount of kick from the peppers and grease from the pork – again, I could have ordered two.

pork pizzette
The crab trofie (£7.50) was an unexpectedly popular dish and would make a proud main dish at any Italian, not bad for a deliberately non-pasta concept here. A clam spaghetti dish was scoffed down with equal praise and fervour. 

trofie and crab
On the whole, not every dish quite worked out, and looking now at the photos, several of them seem to have excreted a scarily consistent yellow juice which is a bit questionable. 

clam spaghetti   
But I like it and I am a sucker for the wider Polpo group and their venues but Polpetto’s size and location above The French House make it a little more special. London must have so many dining rooms above generic West End pubs (not that I am saying French House is one) which are underused and could be sublet to smaller restaurant offerings. In Australia I remember some ordinary pubs had swankier cocktail bars upstairs which were basically unrelated. Couldn’t we have more of this in the West End where rents for start-ups must be so outrageous?

It’s sultry, intimate and a little conspiratorial; a terrific place for a small group or a couple to get rather merry with some good sharing food to enjoy. I wish it were open a bit later (in New York, you’d be there until 2am easily) but that’s a wider, oft-peddled gripe of mine about late dining in London.

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 7/10 (about £50 a head with a prosecco, another bottle of wine and lots of food, not bad in total)
Tap water tales – 8/10 (carafe brought straight away)  
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (skinny, black-clad indie kids but competent with it)
Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Kurz & Lang

Silly one really, but I’ve passed it a few times and now that winter is comingoccasionally have a romanticised craving for German Christmas markets; all wrapped up warm with steaming mulled wine, stuffing my face... although the reality can be quite different at the South Bank markets. Tourist tat and sloshing lager is closer the mark.

But it was at one of these that I first tried currywurst, basically a sausage with some curry-flavoured ketchup, and rather liked it. So one lunchtime I took the plunge. It’s open until about 6am on weekends and does have a sterile, kebab house feel to it. More post-Fabric fuel than Christmas in Köln, but there you go.

The currywurst (£5.75) with potatoes and a bread roll (I didn’t fancy sauerkraut) was ok. One singular but large imported German sausage brutally sliced up in that clever little machine they have. I could only think what light work it would make of male appendage.

It was then doused with ketchup and curry powder which wasn't quite what I remembered, and served with some small cubed potatoes which were pretty dusty and dry. It filled a gap – I think if it was 3am and I was hammered, this place might be a godsend for being less artery clogging than kebabs, chips etc… but it’s not that satisfying. If it wasn’t German themed, it could be any old banger stand at a funfair.

They do serve Paulaner and some other German beers, no idea how late though. I’d love to track down some good German food in London though. I suspect it’s all Oktoberfest themed and tacky, which is fun and fine, but I'm sure higher end stuff must exist in Germany. And if I’m honest, I really just fancied adding ‘German’ to my tags…

Food – 5/10
Drink – 7/10 (German beers available)
Service - 7/10 (no pleasantries but quick and efficient)
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – n/a (no ask, no get)  
Staff Hotness – 4/10 (burly man on the sausages and bored, moody woman at the till. Lost opportunity for some dolled up German hotties?)
 Kurz & Lang on Urbanspoon

Friday, 9 September 2011

Hawksmoor (Seven Dials)

Everyone likes the Hawksmoor. It’s been raved about since its low-key beginnings on Commercial Street and become a force to be reckoned with on the London food scene. They’ve been consistently modern – effortless social media, solid provenance and many ‘meet the producers’ evenings for wine tasting and so forth. The guest burgers and email updates show a decent sense of humour too, without being corny.

bone marrow
So I don’t really need to gush too much in this particular review. It’s all been done before and I don’t mean that in snarky way whatsoever; all the gushing is justified. So this is more some vague thoughts on the place itself rather than the usual step by step review. It’s been covered so beautifully across the blogosphere already.

At Seven Dials, the bar area is fantastic and it’s worth deliberately arriving early. It has that prohibition-era thing going on, which isn’t hugely unique anymore (although I still love it) but also has a transatlantic liner vibe to it too. As a former brewery, the whole space feels cavernous and the dining room has an industrial feel.

The drinks menu is only slightly less descriptive and dense than The Silmarillion, but I’m a geek and am happy to read about Hemingway, bridging drinks and so forth. The cocktails are superb, but nothing is left neglected; they’ve collaborated with Maltby Street brewers du jour Kernel to create some of their own beers and needless to say, the wine list is exemplary.


There is some debate regarding Hawksmoor over what they do best. The drinks are as good as any high-end cocktail bar, but it’s the food people visit and revisit for. The starters are pretty amazing – people go crazy for the bone marrow, or the Tamworth Ribs with secret seasoning (over 20 ingredients when I asked). The steaks, of course, are spot on. In the blogging world, many sing from the rooftops about the burger, and sometimes the kimchi burger too.

tamworth belly ribs

But my underdog vote has to go to the sides.

Obviously I truly come here for the meat, but in these days of obsessive sourcing, Josper grills and savvier consumers, bad steaks are getting rarer (mind the pun) and good steaks aren’t too difficult to find. But there is little worse than getting a decent, 7/10 rib-eye and then being served anaemic thin fries, or limp wedges – or gastro pub ‘hand-cut chips’ which are hotter and bigger than many roast potatoes.

beef dripping chips
Here, things are different. An heirloom tomato salad is generous and not £10 for tasteless tiger-striped nothingness. The macaroni cheese is indulgent and gloopy, but without tasting unhealthy or plastic, and with discernibly quality cheese. Mash and gravy nods to the traditional American steakhouses. Buttered greens are available in abundance including spinach three ways. But none of these compare to the choice of Triple Cooked Chips or Beef Dripping Chips. No choice really - both are ordered, and both are phenomenal. And it is these which raise the steak experience from great meat to great meal, and give it a steak joint the edge.

The atmosphere is brilliant too, if you can ignore a few City types loosening their ties and droning on about ‘meat sweats’. Keep it together, boys. You don’t see the other diners, who are very diverse, histrionically huffing and puffing victoriously as if they’ve slain a dragon. It’s only a steak son.

bone-in prime rib
Service is excellent. It’s frantic in there, but the staff are clued up enough to not have to shove a massive platter of raw steak cuts in your face and they’re calm under pressure in what is a buzzy, boozy environment. And they dealt with my ‘lively’ family without bristling.

So yes I like Goodman too, but it’s a little dull. And yes, I know Hawksmoor are opening a third outlet, which slightly unnerves me (but it might attract the meat sweats brigade away from this one) – so I’m sure the party won’t last forever. As it never does. And with Bistro du Vin riding high, and bills coming (three outlets in Sydney), it might be worth thinking deeper about how we view chains. Does a thoughtful, equally careful and considered second offering of a good concept equate to a nationwide high street roll-out?

Are Polpo/Polpetto/da Poplo exempt because of slightly different menus and vibes? And arbitrarily different nomenclature? Spuntino is quite clearly a different beast.

If Hawsmoor had given Seven Dials a different name, might it be ok? How about Pizza East in Portobello being Pizza West or Electric Pizza? I could go on and on. It's a minefield and some are more tolerant than others...

But for now, Hawksmoor still steals the show, and is run with such care, I can't see it doing a GBK and dumbing down.
the perfect plate?
And until that day, it’s probably my most consistent, exciting dining experience in town. And now all I can think about is those triple cooked chips…

Food – 10/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 6/10 (jug brought on request but no attempts to sell bottled, maternal paranoia preceded an attempt!)  
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (sharp, dapper barmen, hot door and coat girls)
Hawksmoor (Seven Dials) on Urbanspoon