Monday, 31 October 2011

The Wells Tavern

The Wells Tavern is among my favourite pubs in Hampstead. Certainly for food anyway. It’s not really a boozers’ pub like The Garden Gate, or an atmospheric old place like The Hollybush, but the cooking is great.

It’s pubby enough to do a legendary burger (with cheese and bacon – about £12), but on this occasion – bloggers’ worst nightmare – both of us wanted the same dish. It was a lamb rump, with fondant potato, carrot puree, green beans and in a nice jus, at around £16.

And what a thoroughly satisfying dish. The lamb was well-cooked; nicely tender and pink (cautiously yet also assertively so) and generous in proportion. The jus was delicious – very bold and wine-drenched and thick too. Carrot puree and green beans gave the dish a Sunday lunch worthiness, it all felt very wholesome and a true ‘square meal’ in the most old-fashioned sense.

Suffice to say the rosé was also a hit. The vibe was a little bizarre. As mentioned, this is more of a foodie pub, but the upstairs goes even further, acting as a full service restaurant. It did feel a little polished and weddingy up there, but I’ve been to so many boring weddings with boring food, I’d be mighty pleased with this. Service was good too.

more of the same...
Hampstead is a great place, and whilst upmarket and wavering between twee and chic in varying proportions, it doesn’t seem to have the urbaneness in its hospitality and dining options of comparable places. Who would have thought they would found in a backstreet pub, but it certainly is some of NW3’s best food.

Food – 8/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 9/10 (iced jug brought and topped up)
Staff Hotness – 7/10
The Wells on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 27 October 2011


gladiator dungeons tour

Onwards from beautiful Florence, Rome is another foodie’s paradise. Local dishes range from the simple (cacio e pepe) to the luxurious (garlic suckling pig) , via the most fervent nose to tail culture I’ve ever seen. I’m a huge pasta fan, bordering on obsession, but the Roman favourite of rigatoni with pajata – or baby lamb’s intestines – is a little hardcore for me. Even with a nice tomato base.

The Piglet and I toured many places. Unlike Paris, I would say that even in the tourist traps where you pay double to sit outside and have menus in twelve languages, you will still eat pretty well. Of course any food blogger worth his salt would avoid such places – so here are a few of my highlights:

'Gusto: tonnarelli cacio e pepe

'Gusto is a chic place and a fairly contemporary joint for the area – it’s close to the Spanish Steps and shops of the Via del Corso. It’s also a bit of a sprawling empire, with a high-end kitchen shop, a pizzeria, separate restaurant and wine bar. The atmosphere and branding are top notch and the food isn’t too bad either.

'Gusto's panzanella

If you’re in the real Historic Centre, there are hundreds of options and the choice can be overwhelming. I’d say Campo di Fiori is much less tourist trap than Piazza Navona and more locals hang out around there. 

pizza at 'Gusto

If you head a little bit further towards the Tiber, you’ll come across Piazza Farnese. This is a quiet square, and the former Farnese dynasty palazzo is now the French Embassy. For an outdoor, piazza dine – try Osteria Ar Galetto. The menu wasn’t particularly daring but Roman classics are what I came for. The waiters are exceptionally jovial and charming, in quite a clichéd Italian waiter way. Fun though, and I bet they pull the odd foreign student.

carbonara at Ar Galletto
Our final night, we wandered into a trattoria for a quick snack, having spoiled ourselves at apertivo hour. Too easily done! It was a cosy place, (La Buca di Ripetta) but very busy and quite touristy. Good though, but my cacio e pepe was far too salty. It made my lips chap the next day!

'Gusto has to get my vote for the cacio e pepe hunt and obsession, as it became. There were many more, unphotographed! It was firm tonnarelli, cooked very al dente (rather than spaghetti) and the pecorino and pepper was more of a sauce, but thick rather than too milky. It was perfect, and about €10.

the cacio e pepe at Buca di Ripetta

So that was Rome. I could have spent weeks there, purely going through the places I had listed. It was warm too, so I was naturally drawn to pasta and wine, or pizza and beer. I'd love to return in winter for some carnivorous, warming, Lazio country feasting.

thick, filling carpaccio

Monday, 24 October 2011


Penks is a diminutive local restaurant on the main drag of Queens Park. I’ve eaten here a few times, and it’s not a bad neighbourhood option. The menu plays it safe although the wine list is quite interesting, and they seem to offer quizzes, happy hours and other events to engage with the locale, and break the oligopoly of ‘The Salusbury’ enterprises.

The starters are a strong area here; as well as a few predictable dishes, they offer some more sociable charcuterie and cheese plates, which suit their passion for unusual wines. A mention also has to go to their carefully edited US craft ales.

spanish charcuterie plate

Rib-eye and chips is a bit disappointing. The meat isn’t a particularly great cut and the chips are quite standard. They could be oven chips, or ‘steak cut’ chips – it comes with a salad garnish including iceberg lettuce and grated carrots! This is Queens Park – drag yourselves into the Naughties, at bare minimum, with some rocket/bay spinach/lamb’s lettuce and vine tomatoes! It had a touch of Harvester about it.

The guinea fowl was a bit more interesting, in rich sauce and with seasonal vegetables. Penks also seem to succeed at fish dishes; there are several starters and mains and these seem exhibit more culinary smarts and daring.
guinea fowl
Although I love the idea of neighbourhood restaurants, I have a few problems with Penks.

I want to like it, and I think they’re missing a few tricks especially given such a prime spot. Queens Park is a chi chi little enclave, and the menu is conversely, quite parochial. There are no specials, not enough localism or provenance and the décor is quite bland. This contrasts with the bonkers music and hideous art to combine quite a bizarre atmosphere. Service is erratic too – it’s nice that this is family run, but it could still be professional in feel.

creamy fish concoction

If I was to recommend a few things for this place, they'd be to shamelessly imitate somewhere like The Electric: brunch drinks and more contemporary brunch offering, a NY/faux Parisian style menu with a strong typeface, good music, lower lighting, more specials (including some pastas), modernise the interior, and try to encourage people to come for, and stick around for, the drinks. The atmosphere is a bit dated and subdued, and they’re missing quite a significant slice of the urbane, flashy, hungry and very thirsty types who populate these sides.

A neighbourhood restaurant could do one of a few things: focus on excellent food (La Trompette, at the highest end), or an intimate atmosphere (Ripe Tomato perhaps) or it could be cheap and cheerful, like Small & Beautiful nearby in Kilburn. But Penks doesn’t excel in any of these fields particularly, which seems like a wasted opportunity.
Food – 5/10 
Drink – 8/10
Service - 5/10 (the waitress forgot a few things)
Value – 7/10  (£40 a head with wine, reasonable but at the upper end of it)
Tap water tales – 8/10 (cold glasses brought without asking, mineral not proffered)  
Staff Hotness – 5/10
Penk's on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 22 October 2011


A quick rundown on my recent trip to Italy and some foodie highlights, starting with Florence. Beautiful city, millions of tourists but a good standard of food across the board, with many gems and a real care for local produce and wine.

La Bussola was right across from our (pretty nice) hotel, the NH Porta Rossa in the historic centre of town. We pretty much rolled out of this place. We sat at the bar – it’s had a refurb since the website pics and is less pastiche-y Italiano trattoria.

The antipasti was amazing, the prosecco was poured to about 250ml...

antipasti - pancetta, salami, pecorino, pear jam
more antipasti - boar salami, fig chutney, another local sheep cheese

The pasta dishes were incredible, and the pizza oven was churning out some amazing looking pizzas to other customers.

wild mushroom pappardelle
Italy on a plate? Basil pappardelle alla caprese.

Of course we had to try Florence’s civic dish – bistecca alla fiorentina. Basically a massive T-bone grilled hot and fast with rock salt, pepper and olive oil. Sadly there’s no picture worth posting as it was devoured in a frenzy.

Il Santino is a tiny little slip of a place across the river, a wine bar attached to a restaurant. We popped in for a quick apertivo and wish we hadn’t had dinner reservations. Expertly staffed by two girls, the wine list was amazing but the salumi and cheeses were really something.

quick snack before dinner...?

We sat at the bar but there were some very cosy seats too. If this place was in London, I’d come all the time. Every area could do with one. Effortless quality with no branding, pride or attitude.

Finally, a great choice right in the touristy area of the Duomo (one street behind in fact) is Coquinarius. It's a small, cosy trattoria and the photos didn't come out very well. But go - great pastas and house wine - I had the homemade pear and pecorino ravioli and it was amazing.

And it wasn't too expensive - and skip dessert and get gelato from Grom on the same street. You know it's good gelato when it's kept in those metallic tube thingys, rather than heaped up in the window with lots of sliced fruit and lurid colours like a peacock.

Great foodie city - next, Rome...
Il Santino – Via Santo Spirito, Oltrarno

Friday, 21 October 2011

Pizza East Portobello

So I was quite inclined to dislike Pizza East’s second venture, at the top of Portobello Road. It’s technically a chain (could they not have called it Pizza West, or maybe Electric Pizza to have semantically avoided this?) – and the Soho House group itself is in danger of veering away from low key, luxury clubhouse to Global Brand Of Professionals' Funloving, or in other words, a W Hotel.

It’s also taken over an old pub, The Fat Badger, which I didn’t love (because the drinks were rubbish and the staff too into themselves) but was needed in this area. Where Golborne meets Portobello is a rare independent hot spot in a Notting Hill being steadily eroded of independent spirit – and is probably West London’s best bet at an East London type experience, aside from small murmurings in Kensal Rise.

But to cut a long story short, I did rather like Pizza East, despite myself. The no bookings policy is a pain, but pretty standard these days and there is at least a small bar area to wait. We spent a fortune on cocktails and sharing plates here before our table (a Wednesday PM, absolutely rammed) so the bar area is obviously working well for them.

There are plenty of staff tearing around, and the place doesn’t feel too relaxing, even with the low lighting and comfort food. Being Notting Hill, it’s a sceney, self-important crowd but there you go. The other tables probably thought that about us.

And the pizzas are pretty excellent. They’re punchy; rising from about £8 for a margarita to £12-13 for the meaty ones. I think it’s a steep premium, given £7 would buy you the most premium pizza at Franco Manca.

sausage and broccoli
But they’re incredibly tasty and all is forgiven when they arrive. Italian sausage and broccoli is a great pairing and looks fantastic.

The burrata and fresh tomato pizza is probably the best: the tomatoes are so rich and flavoursome and the creamy burrata gives the pizza a more indulgent twist than merely mozzarella would. The whole thing is so smooth and tastes of summer.

The salami one was also excellent. Bases here are more Neapolitan in taste and shape, but with slightly deeper crusts giving it a more American feel. Fans of thin and crispy Roman pizzas, steer clear.

So, come here. You’ll probably despise it, and everything it stands for. It’s the Electric or E&O, but with pizzas.

You’ll hate the waiting, resent the £40 per head for a pizza night, and absolutely loathe the braying girl next to you talking about herself all night, but when the pizzas arrive you won’t care anymore. They are damn good.

I’d like to think there’s a strategically quiet time to nip in and out, but I doubt it’ll die down just yet – West London doesn’t get the hot openings any more. Bring on bills…

Food – 8/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 7/10
Value – 5/10
Tap water tales – 6/10 ("Still or Sparkling" offered quite aggressively, "tap" got a nice carafe though)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (some hotties running around, but as with the pub before it, too into themselves)
Pizza East Portobello on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Tapas Brindisa (Soho)

So, a little jaunt on a sunny day into the Soho outpost of Tapas Brindisa, the gods of the chorizo supply chain. I’m not sure if they subscribe to the infernal no bookings policy of their sister restaurant, because we were able to walk in on a Saturday afternoon.

A bottle of cava to start proceedings, although we’ve really come in for just a snack – and yet the menu presents so much temptation. The charcuterie is legend, but the hot dishes are also very well prepared and all pretty good value.

An assortment of meats (£12.50) gives us a little of everything. Yes I’m a huge fan of the bellota/pata negra good stuff, but I equally love the ‘cheaper’ piggy treats like chorizo, lomo and salchichon, and this option lets you try more. Not every occasion calls for a dainty, £20 plate of ham! 

Grab a Salchichon de Vic (£5) for an even more gluttonous yet budget-friendly, peppery treat.

Gambas al ajillo (£8.50) come out sizzling and pungent with garlic – and quite big, which I’d hope for the price.

Grilled chorizo on toast (£6.60) is a the real deal. Crusty bread, some rocket and a little piquant from the peppers. A complete Spanish sunny day in one, with chorizo juices running down your chin. Surely that’s not just me?

Salads are great, as are the cheeses. The wine list is incredibly comprehensive if you like Spanish wines too, with plenty by the glass.

Compared to Barrafina, it's less sceney, low-key and subdued. I’m not sure why, as the location is central Soho, but it seems to almost nestle in with its surroundings more. It’d be great in winter too, as it’s quite cosy and warm. 

I’ll definitely return for their new parrilla (grilled meats) speciality, and I’m glad to see they’re bringing in ways to specialise and differentiate themselves from the one in Borough.

Food – 8/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 6/10 (not as upbeat or attentive as Borough, maybe as it's a little quieter)
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 8/10 (glasses brought automatically)  
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (autentico Spanish staff)
Tierra Brindisa on Urbanspoon
Tapas Brindisa on Urbanspoon
(Name change from Tierra Brindisa to Tapas Brindisa)

The Grand Café (Oxford)

If you happen to be visiting Oxford, I'd highly recommend a refreshment stop at The Grand Café.

Not only is it, as promised, rather grand in a sort of Viennese way, but the food is excellent. Sandwiches, teas and a vast range of homemade patisserie abound – but the fully stocked bar with cocktail happy hour gives this place a bit more of a buzz than a funereal Betty’s Tea Room.

lemon tart
Service is attentive, the oversized wicker chairs lend an air of colonial lounging, and the clientele is a mix of bumbling tourists, students and locals in ‘sweet’ harmony… (boom!)

Monday, 10 October 2011

Vinoteca (Farringdon)

Having had a less than perfect experience at Vinoteca in Marylebone, I was a bit reluctant to return to the original in Farringdon. My main Marylebone gripe was service-based, and mainly one person, so not really enough to be outputting. And I'm a forgiving guy...

So dipping my toes back in, I met a friend for their set lunch - it changes daily and is £8.95 for one dish, or £9.95 for the same dish and a glass of matched wine.

Homemade tagliatelle with tomato sauce and meatballs will always get me through the door. And for a simple lunch, it was great.

Nice al dente pasta, which was more like those long zip-shaped pastas than standard tagliatelle so had more ridges and texture to it. The sauce was light but flavoursome, and the meatballs dense and rich. I think they were beef and veal. The wine was a surprisingly light Sicilian red and complemented the pasta perfectly.

As a growing lad, I found the portion size a little on the small side, but I do like a big lunch, (and a catatonic afternoon), and I appreciate it's probably about right for a quick weekday lunch. Great deal and certainly perks up an otherwise ordinary day. Must come back for the prosecco on tap...

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 7/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 8/10 (brought without asking) 
Staff Hotness – too hungry to notice I'm afraid...
Vinoteca on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Foxcroft and Ginger

Foxcroft and Ginger is absolutely one of my favourite Soho cafes. Unlike some of the newer generation of good coffee places in London, it has a serenity to it and a feeling of space. The serenity might be due to the obvious comparisons with Flat White, which is about ten doors up on Berwick Street. The coffee at Flat White is great, but I find it a little bit too sceney and frenetic. 

In contrast, F&G is made for chilling in. The coffee is Monmouth, excellent and served in funky, unique vintage china. The food is exemplary for cafes of the genre and special mention much go to the sandwiches (all £4-6); they’re crammed full of inventive ingredients such as poached chicken, mozzarella, rocket and lime, or the monster Toulouse sausage and onion jam. However the scene stealer is definitely the ham and cheese French toast, which arrives nicely served on a wooden board, drizzled in a mustardy honey concoction. It’s absolutely delicious.

The décor here is industrial meets cosy – downstairs has comfy seats and cool reclaimed gymnastics equipment like a pommel horse. Upstairs is narrow and more stirpped back to tiles and pipes, but the seats at the back are also very comfy. 

Wi-Fi is strong, and the tempting desserts and well-edited booze mean you can happily wile away the hours here. Service is typical upmarket Antipodean; relaxed but food and coffee are serious business. And the staff are hot. For me, it wipes the floor with other contenders in the area.

Food – 8/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 6/10 (some sandwiches although great, can be a bit punchy) 
Tap water tales – 8/10 (minted and non-minted water carafes to self-serve)
Staff Hotness – 9/10
Foxcroft and Ginger on Urbanspoon