Friday, 27 July 2012

The Lansdowne

The Lansdowne is that pub in Primrose Hill. Every uppity area has one – the pub where the entitled and oblivious drink.  Where you either drink yourself or despise the people that do. A Westbourne Tavern, Salusbury, Freemasons or Sloaney Pony, if you will.

As I don’t live in Primrose Hill, I can occasionally justify circumnavigating my way through horsey gums, gurning gums and 4wd buggies if I’m nearby and in need of a sunny pint of Aspall’s. It’s an incredibly sceney place, but I think that’s probably its best attribute for a non-local; the people watching is brilliant.

Food-wise, in recent times it’s been known for its pizzas, irritatingly served on terracotta plates smaller than the pie, and unsliced, with the dullest knives known to man. The kitchen’s had a revamp with more non-pizza choice and there is a more formal resto upstairs, but pizza won the day.

The Turkish lamb pizza was a bit of a tragi-comic affair. I’m quite the purist with pizza toppings, with a huge exception for Hawaiian, and I wasn’t sure how lamb, cumin and onion (as described) would go down. Perhaps thin slow cooked chunks of spiced lamb? Or lamb pieces cooked in the tomato sauce?
Surely it could not be as tawdry as a pile of lamb mince, indiscriminately splattered in the style of a diarrhoea-prone cat, and with a lemon wedge on top? Which tasted somewhere between 2am doner and 3am resurrection of said doner.

I’m pleased to report that the San Daniele pizza was much better. Wafers of prosciutto adorned by a clump of rocket and parmesan. Simple, tasty and what I remember about the pizza kitchen of this pub from years ago, before they tried to get clever. Or themed, God forbid, like the abominable Fire & Stone and their repellent fare.

The base was incredibly thin though, which I do like sometimes, but it needs more tomato sauce to add some density, because otherwise it dries out to become a crispbread. Both pizzas were about £10-12.

It’s definitely an establishment to experience; you may get celebs or at least wannabes, and you’ll absolutely get babies. Furthermore, you may still get decent pizza, but steer clear of the Turkish.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

The Woolpack

One of Bermondsey Street’s two opposing pubs, The Woolpack is firmly the boozers’ choice.

The Garrison is ok if a little 'quirky vintage shoppe with old birdcages and tatty mirrors', but when half the tables are set for dining and you’re asked if you’re ok as soon as you sit down, it’s quite a different vibe. They have rubbish beers too – but really, both of these pubs should be swimming in Kernel and Meantime. I think instead, both have Stella on draught.

But as well as a more laidback atmosphere, a big garden and original, stark tiling, The Woolpack do a decent line in pub grub. My mate and I had the burger and the steak respectively as we watched the parade of A-gays, City boys in civvies and in-the-know estate agents playing with their little mutts and lounging in the sun. 

The bacon cheeseburger (£11-ish) I didn’t try so can’t comment on too much, and this particular friend’s feedback is only ever a grunt somewhere between indifferent and mildly enthused, but it looked pretty good and wasn’t overcooked at all.

My steak (at about £15) was a great pub steak. A decent wedge of medium rare rib-eye resting on a massive pile of skin-on chips, which were excellent. And a massive pile of rocket to assuage the guilt, and then bring it back with generous parmesan shavings. I do prefer this modern, if predictable, evolution of the pub steak’s cursory salad and cremated tomato and mushrooms. It’d be £4-5 extra in many of the high-end, sides-happy venues too.

The steak was crowned with a slab of bone marrow butter, which while tasty (is there bad butter?), wasn’t hugely strong in the bone marrow flavour but perhaps that is being deliberately restrained for people’s tastes. It’s crazy in this Hawksmoor age, but I still think it freaks some people out.

In this area of fantastic eating options, I could see a lot of people foregoing The Woolpack for one of the establishments further down the street. But if croquetas and veal chops just won’t suffice and it’s a decent burger, steak or roast you’re after, with a bit of sun, a decent pint and some Gok Wan stalking, The Woolpack is the one.

Food – 7/10
Drink – 6/10
Service - 5/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 5/10 - pub so request your own, no expectation though
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (hip staff, flat out but still bit chatty amongst themselves if that winds you up)

The Woolpack on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 19 July 2012


One great thing about Japan (of many), which I touched upon in my numerous Japan posts here, here and here – is that notion of specialism and the contentment to be achieved by doing one thing to perfection. 

This quest for perfection isn’t just in terms of food (the amazing woodblock prints, handicrafts and ceramics attest to this dedication too) but food is certainly an area where it applies. Check out Japan's burger and coffee 'scenes' for more obsessive niches - both touched on in my second and third posts above, respectively.

Soho has always been quite the focal point for Japanese food. The western end of Brewer Street has always had a cluster of restaurants and stores, but they are more generalist. But now radiating off Old Compton Street are three examples of that determination to do just one thing well. First came Bincho Yakitori, and then Koya and its foot-stretched udon, and now Tonkotsu.

Tonkotsu is a type of ramen. It’s not even a ramen-only joint as the relatively limited menu illustrates. A ramen joint might as well be John Lewis Oxford Street in the modern Japanese food world. 

It's in fact a very specific broth made from boiling pork bones and bits for 18 hours  (in this case) and building the noodle soup from there.

At £11, I didn’t find it brilliant value but it was pretty good. The broth is indeed very heavy on meat flavours, but it also carries a fair bit of fat too. The slices of pork were few and far between, and again rather fatty, contributing to the oily stock. The ramen itself retained bite which was good. But on the whole, it was a tad anticlimactic. 

By the way, the Tokyo Spicy is also a different pork noodle soup. So it's those two, or a veggie one (which I bet was extremely reluctantly added). And that's your choice.

Fear not though, for at Tonkotsu, they have a solid range of sides and bits to broaden the scope.

Kara age must be one of the best snacks invented (£6). It’s faithful here – with fat left on and made of thigh – and heavily seasoned. I’m glad they haven’t Anglicised it somewhat by using breast, but it may not be to everyone’s tastes.

Pork gyoza (£5) were fine too. They’re very plain in terms of spicing which again is correct and traditional, but some may be more accustomed to Wagamama’s gyozas with as many ingredients as spring rolls. You get five too, which was plenty.


Drinks here are fantastic. Draft Asahi in the proper glasses, and a very extensive list of craft beers by the bottle and some more Japanese treats.

So on balance, I did like Tonkotsu but ironically their headline dish was actually their weakest link for me. It wasn’t bad in any way, it was fine – but was quite forgettable compared to the accompaniments and the fun atmosphere. And sorry but I have to go there: it just didn’t give me the wholesome, healthy, comforted feel of a massive bowl of udon from Koya. Not a patch.

But it’s a great new opening to have nonetheless, and anything which is authentic, and both diversifies and educates us in terms of Japanese food is always a plus in my book.

Food – 6.5/10 (bizarrely our party all thought of 6.5, even though I don't usually do halves)
Drink – 9/10
Service - 8/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 3/10 (none offered, none requested - 3 is for not hawking bottled)
Staff Hotness – 8/10

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Quo Vadis

Of London’s cult and craze dishes, only a select few actually break out of the Twitterverse and small pond of bloggers and foodie obsessives and into mainstream consciousness, such as The Dead Hippy burger or Zucca’s veal chop. But some of them are pretty niche and obscure and destined to remain so: in this case, Quo Vadis’ smoked eel sandwich, which was extremely du jour after this Soho landmark reopened under the steer of Jeremy Lee (incidentally one of the most ethereally enjoyable people on Twitter).

However this pig doesn’t go too much for smoked eel – the merest contemplation of the smell gives me a tiny shiver – but luckily Lee’s assiduously changing seasonal menu had plenty to get stuck into. The menu itself is a witty, monochrome British rendition of the typical Parisian bistro menu. There are various compartments, boxes and fonts dotted around with weekly specials, bar snacks and other daily specials, and not least the Pie of the Day (£17), as well as a Middlewhite dish and an Onglet.

I’ve always found Quo Vadis a little intimidating. I guess it’s one of those things where the longer something has been part of an establishment (in this case, old Soho) and you’ve not been, the more exclusive and elusive it can seem to you. It always seemed very grown up and elitist. Although I suppose the opposite can be true: certainly Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses have evaded me too and I’m under no illusions about those.

But on entering, QV felt instantly accessible. The staff were friendly and the foyer was softened by the presence of baskets of lemons and vast pots of plants and flowers on a big old wooden table. 

Even though I’d been politely informed about a 2 hour table limit, we were offered a drink at the bar (as we’d arrived bang on time for our reservation, I would consider such an offer an extension or postponement of table time) which was in fact a decent sized, comfortable room rather than the usual holding pen. Our two house cocktails (one a gin and Dubonnet Queen mother style, and one a Campari and orange concoction) were well-made, strong and below £10.

Once we were at table (m’lord), it was such an effortlessly pleasant experience. Service was fantastic throughout, we were offered tap water, the wine list contained a couple of reds which they suggested served chilled (the Piglet is stubbornly avowing a rosé free summer so this was serious brownie point material) and the warm, fresh sourdough was amazing. 

I had a salad of Cornish Yarg with broad beans, pea and mint, for about £7. This was a great dish, summery and fresh.

Piglet’s rabbit livers defiled my plate of green freshness and the botanic surroundings (the dining room is also full of beautiful plants) by resembling, I’m sad to say, three deformed chicks on a skewer. Supposedly tasted decent though, but I can’t comment.

That evening’s pie was rabbit and duck – a combination I don’t think I’ve seen away from the pet food aisle, but tempting nonetheless. And it was fantastic – endless chunks of tender cuts of rabbit and duck in a gamey broth, and great pastry. I could barely finish it. The accompanying mash was creamy and perfectly seasoned too.

The Middlewhite (£19.50) consisted of three generous slabs of pork with some salad leaves. The meat was excellent quality and expertly cooked. Sides were a good spinach. No chips on this occasion as Ibiza looms…


The dessert menu was one of the most appealing I’ve seen in a long time, usually I have no problems sifting down to my 'something with berries and a dollop of vanilla'. And yes, in the end I did go for  the shortcake stack with vanilla cream and raspberries, which was absolutely delicious. 

The pear sorbet went down extremely quickly across the table too. I was pleased with the lack of choice here – sometimes ice cream and sorbet selections can be Biblical and no better for it.

After dinner, and a very reasonable bill all considered, we moved back into the bar and had some more cocktails. My favourite, the New York Sour, was exquisitely made (with Woodford Reserve, about £11) and Piglet’s sweet monstrosity; the amaretto sour, was supposedly also a great rendition.
Overall I had a brilliant meal at Quo Vadis, and as I can’t find anything to fault it, I won’t try too hard. I was taken by the efforts to soften the environment and any possible preconceptions people might have; banter with the bartenders, the greenery, flexibility of service – where I imagine a more formal dining experience once occurred. 

It didn’t feel like a place where moneyed foreign people frequent on their limited itineraries around Central London, or where people take their northern parents on a celeb-hunting treat. It actually reminded me a little of the sadly missed Brackenbury out in Hammersmith, but grander. And wittier. 

This place is tightly managed and the daily changing details are impressive. The graphics on the menus and bar tablecloths are most entertaining, especially for fans of B-movies. The al fresco seating, clubby bar area and solid bar food menu mean I’ll be back on a regular basis. I love Dean Street Townhouse but not for a meal and the bar area is only good for pairs.

And in case anybody was curious, despite having taken our table late and having a slow dinner, we still we weren’t asked to vacate at any point. And once I enquired about whether we could move through for drinks, a reservation card was whacked down instantly.

Food – 8/10
Drink – 9/10
Service - 9/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 9/10 (volunteered and consistently topped up)
Staff Hotness – 8/10

Wednesday, 11 July 2012


The idea is simple and commendable, and yet seems rather obvious; a café selling dishes using only fresh ingredients from the market opposite. When said market is Borough Market, the possibilities are vast. But Borough does bring complications such as weekend obligations on service speed and ‘crowd management’ – especially of the dozy tourist breed,  and the expectations of quality are much higher.

Elliot’s on the whole does a very good job. The space is bright, modern and appealing. Of course they don’t take reservations but I think on balance that suits the market thing, in terms of being able to browse and amble around without being on a schedule. My recent visit was a very quick brunch but I’ll definitely be back to try something more hearty.

I had the mini pancakes with strawberries and lemon curd ice cream – around £7. This was a clean, fresh dish – the Elliot’s full English at about £12.50 sounded fantastic but I fancied something a bit lighter. The ‘ice cream’ was closer to ‘refrigerated cream’ and could have been stronger on the lemon front. Strawberries were great as in season, and the pancakes were light.

Three small things to flag – firstly my coffee (which was very good) took about 10-15 mins to arrive, and did so shortly before my food. Annoying, but it was Saturday morning so their busiest time, even though this is not a surprise but a weekly occurrence. You could almost queue up with the Monmouth mugs next door in that time.

Secondly, they don’t sell sparkling water (only filtered tap) which seems to be missing a trick. Some people genuinely want sparkling, not to mention the hordes of tourists who probably think London tap is undrinkable, even if filtered. The margins are good too, what other restaurant doesn’t stock this?

And finally, why not offer some of the lovely meaty components from the full English as sides? All good brunch places do this – I could have happily had a little side of sausage or black pudding alongside my pancakes, only to hear “we can’t do that”. Right then. Do you work for the council?

So the sparkling water and brunch side represented maybe £5-7 which would have gladly gone from my coffers to theirs. Small change with one punter perhaps, but over time that rigidity will add up...

Food – 8/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 6/10 (slightly snappy waitress and slow coffee)
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 9/10 (filtered tap offered and without that stupid £1 fee you see these days)
Staff Hotness – 5/10
Elliot's Cafe on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal