Friday, 28 September 2012


Much like the idols of the luvvies inside, the magic of Kettner’s is the ability to continually itself reinvent itself and stay current, while maintaining an aloof, ever-present air of Soho grandeur. The current style is as an upmarket bistro or perhaps as a toned down Ivy. Service is smart and relatively formal, with a little extra sense of occasion quite unique for the price bracket.

There is a buzzy bar and three open dining areas, the first of which also has a pianist tinkling away. When I visited, the piano room was empty and diners were being seated in the other spaces, which seemed a bit of a waste. The décor is clean and uncluttered – archetypal wedding place setting meets The White Company. A less verdant Quo Vadis if you will.

Food is fine. Essentially they serve simple ‘bar & grill’ staples with some French bistro touches, such as the beef bourguignon in a dinky copper pan. 

My caprese salad was quite tragic, I have to admit. A couple of cherry tomatoes, excessively cold mozzarella (cow not buffalo I would wager) and some basil pesto rather than leaves. Unless the appearance of rocket is supposed to be the green...? The dish was gone in about five seconds, and with it, my hopes for Kettner’s. Uh-oh. Could this truly be the Emperor’s new clothes; sub-gastropub food or worse, a trussed up Garfunkel’s?

Smoked salmon with blini (which profligate group of diners might they be targeting?) was much better received and my fears abated slightly. 

Our mains (only one pic of three) were all a success as well. The rib-eye steak was a nice piece of meat and well rested. The aforementioned bourguignon had very high praise indeed, and my duck breast was juicy, with crispy skin and perfectly cooked. One snag was that the sauce was a bit watery and didn’t do the job of cutting through nearly as good as a cherry or redcurrant jus might have, and left everything a tad soggy.

We skipped desserts for a pint with Ian Hislop across the road. I liked Kettner’s on balance. The food wasn’t perfect or particularly original, but it was a fairly enjoyable experience given the attentive service and fantastic people watching. If Kettner’s was a stock character, she’d be a reformed prostitute or perhaps a drag queen, with a heart of gold and lipsticked teeth, doling out world-weary advice and strong gin & tonics.

I’d probably return for a big dinner with friends where food is secondary, or a post-theatre sozzle. Much like her clientele, the dignified comebacks, relevance and survival of this boozy old queen will only ever be a boon in an ever-changing Soho. 

Food – 6/10
Drink – 8/10
Service - 9/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 7/10
Staff Hotness – 8/10
 Kettners on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Friday, 21 September 2012

Two Nights Only

How best to describe Two Nights Only? It’s a supper club or so I imagine. I’ve never actually been to one but I always pictured them being earnest yet accident-prone affairs in grubby Stokey flats, with mismatched chairs, odd crockery and impoverished souls getting a bit political after too much CostCutter wine. This was a thoroughly different affair.

Born out of a curiosity or obsession, or just the raw male challenge of betterment, the premise is delivering the best burger possible. Next perhaps it'll be the same, but upside down. Or base jumping? Or perhaps in South London.

Most venues would say they aspire to the same, but this is different. It’s more of a crazed ‘what if?’ experiment that went too far, and became a reality, rather than a deliberately commercial venture. The specifics (dare I say pedantry) involved in the ingredients and their selection process are quite something - these burgers are responsible for a lot of tier points. And possibly an acre of deforested Amazon.

The result? IPA soaked pickle-tasting in Brooklyn, deconstructing Minetta Tavern’s Black Label burger, and meat know-how in Kentucky. Thoroughly worthwhile research I’d say.

Our motley crew of burger nutters assembled and began sailing through bottles upon bottles of Kraken rum dark 'n' stormies and Camden Pale Ale before being seated. Seafood canapes followed as the drinks continued, assiduously offered by the fantastic waitresses.

Then, some anticipation as coleslaw, fries and onion rings began making their way out. I even felt a little nervous, because I’ve heard the back story and know the effort which has gone into this project.  It was a positive nervousness, like just before seeing a bride enter.

The burgers did not disappoint. They were huge. The buns were shiny but not over egged. The Comte cheese actually worked, I was sceptical because it’s not the best melter but I think the nuttiness provided a different element. The pickles did indeed have a unique hoppy taste.

The patty itself was juicy, pink and thick, but cohesive which actually made this burger less of a challenge to eat than first impressions might indicate. Plenty of mere mortals had cut it in half though, which I’m always a little sneery about, for no real reason. Taste-wise it was incredibly meaty but not overpowering. The illicit aging gave it a depth and a slight blue cheese twinge.

 One oddity was a doughnut presented in a Krispy Kreme bag. It was iced and yet filled with shredded oxtail. It was a fun idea but the doughnut was so dense that it created that ‘double carbs’ effect, and I had to leave it until done for fear of spoiling the main event. The meat inside was flavoursome enough, but I’m not sure what was ostensibly a sweet slider necessarily complemented a massive burger.

 There was a dessert – a very well accomplished brownie with peanut crumble, but so few of us could manage. We spent a little while discussing that special ring-fenced area of stomach which seems to inexplicably accommodate dessert, but it let me down. Still had a little room for some more rum cocktails.

The essentials are that the evening costs £40 which includes the three courses and the booze. You can drink an awful lot, and in no way are they shy about offering fresh drinks. The very opposite I no doubt slurred, as my two new pals and I stumbled out into the night.

Confession time means I should declare that I didn’t pay for my place, but I would gladly do so in future as it is great value for £40. If it was rubbish, I’d say so. I had thought it could be anti-climactic or the Emperor’s new clothes, but it came off very well. It did help that the crowd genuinely wanted it to be a success; if I could bottle the hope in the air as the burgers first came out of the kitchen, the lottery would be out of business. A thoroughly charming evening, which as ever like that Homer Simpson thought-bubble was probably a smidgen less erudite than I remember…

Friday, 14 September 2012

Sacro Cuore

Kensal Rise is finally on the up. It’s a fact. West London (and certainly North West London), doesn’t get its fair share of openings or foodie developments. Hampstead, one of London’s most beautiful, affluent and cosmopolitan areas has a high street which is 50% empty, and 50% mobile phone shops. And only in the past two years had it had drinkable coffee at Ginger & White, for instance. So if Hampstead isn’t burgeoning, what hope would its less salubrious neighbours to the west have?

But Kensal Rise has a few tricks up its sleeve. It's firmly Notting Hill overspill territory, as shriek the many property pieces written by local ES and Metro hacks shuttling down to Northcliffe House. Money goes further than Queens Park, which itself is expensive with a saturated main drag lacking many opportunities for new businesses. Kensal Rise feels more plugged in with West London due to transport routes, more youthful, and also the BBC has long been a big employer in these parts.

And so for the first time since our own Hurricane BawBag, the London tornado of 2006, rampaged through these streets, Kensal is on the map for something special. Sacro Cuore is the second opening by the folk behind Santa Maria Pizzeria in Ealing. I’ve not eaten there personally, but I’ve had Franco Manca so many times, I have a vague idea about Neapolitan pizza discipline and etiquette.

From what I gather, Sacro Cuore isn’t a step change from the Ealing outlet. I hesitate to use the term branch, as shrewdly (and reassuringly for chain-snob foodies like me) they have different names. The interior is modern, with groovy, varied lighting and yet woody, as I think pizzerias should be. The huge monochrome graphic of the Bay of Naples is a fantastically dramatic centrepiece to an otherwise undecorated space.

The starters are summery distractions before the main event, like garlic focaccias and bruschetta. We had a burrata to share, which was silky smooth with a slight sour tang, accompanied by some focaccia strips and rocket and tomato salad. Good value at £5.95 – especially compared to the €22 Ibiza burrata of my new avatar.

Now on to the pizzas, which is why we’re all here. And they’re very good. A couple of snags I’ll come to later but generally I was very pleased. The tomatoes were flavoursome San Marzanos and the mozzarella had a slight sweetness.

I had the Diavola which as promised came with heaps of green and red chilli peppers and a prolific heap of salami shreds. We also had a Boscaiola and a San Daniele on our group and they went down extremely well. But not that quickly, as the pizzas here are really quite enormous. They come in at £7 (margherita) to £12 (San Daniele).

On to my small gripes, which may have been unlucky execution on the day: my pizza was a bit soggy in the middle, which I would attribute to a heavy touch on the tomato sauce, good as it was. And secondly I do prefer the crusts more charred and imperfect than they arrived, but I’m not sure how authentic that is, so I’ll put that one down to my subjectivity. 

Service was prompt, but lacking the exuberance from the waiting staff and bravado from the chefs I love so much at expect from a Neapolitan pizza joint..

Overall it’s a great business to have opened in the area, and I’m sure it’ll be hugely popular. I’m now keen to keep plugging through the London’s best pizza lists and posts floating around; I’m not sure this is my number one (Franco Manca’s two chorizo number takes some beating) but it’s certainly a privilege to have such illustrious company in Kensal Rise. I love a good Bufalina, so that's definitely next. 

Food – 8/10 
Drink – N/A - we only had water (see below) 
Service - 7/10 
Value – 8/10 
Tap water tales – 0/10 (swerved with the "filtered" £1.50 nonsense, only value if sparkling) 
Staff Hotness – 6/10
Sacro Cuore on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

A Guide to Eating in Ibiza

Ibiza is many things to many people. A glance around the airport, probably only where the twain shall meet, certainly gives an indication of the breadth of people, pursuits and pleasures on this island. The perils of rubbish tourist food loom everywhere, so here are a few places located in towns, country or by the beach where you can do a little better, based on a recent visit.

Ibiza’s diversity in the summer is reflected in the eating options available. Ibicencan food is quite different to mainland Spanish food, which of course vastly differs in itself. Even as a quasi-Catalan culture and so close to Palma, tapas is not intrinsically popular as a standalone style of eating. Ibiza’s tipic cuisine is rough, hardy stuff, reflecting its terrain. There is no fresh water on the island, and so local salads are generally tomato and onion, without high quality leaves. Being an island, fish is hugely popular, usually simply grilled with local herbs and olive oil, and other local products such as mountainous goat cheeses and heavy red wines help everything glide down.

But primarily, it’s a carnivore’s dream, with goat, rabbit, lamb and pork especially found on huge outdoor grills everywhere. Veal, beef and chicken too. Anything which once had a heart beat can be drizzled with oil, thyme and pepper, and be fired. Some variations on mainland classics exist though: heavier bottifara and sobrasada sausages are more common than the morcilla and chorizo sausages of the mainland for example.

However, tapas does exist both as a precursor to grilled meats and fish, or in a newer wave of modern eateries. There is also a sort of Mediterranean fusion (I know…) of ‘beach club cuisine’ which features Spanish, French, and Italian dishes (you can’t move for beef carpaccio), with some room service favourites like Caesar salads, club sandwiches and burgers.

cava sangria - a specialty
El Chiringuito is a beach club at Es Cavallet beach, which is mainly known for its nudist and gay sections further down. El Chiringuito is however more vanilla, with the mandatory white palette scheme with marine touches. But this is no Blue Marlin - it’s actually very friendly, easy to get a table and even free to reserve a three-person day bed for the day, provided you have your lunch there.

Food is as mentioned; a mixture of crowd-pleasers reflecting the range of visitors here (Spanish, British, Italian and French in that order) – and a plus point is that they do brunch for when pan con tomate and endless ham and cheese for breakfast become repetitive. I particularly loved the cava sangria, the beautiful burrata, Med country chicken and the jamon iberico guy and DJ sharing a booth:

A place I visit every time is Bar La Bodega, in Ibiza Town (just below the ramp up to the Old Town). The inside is perfectly enjoyable, but an outdoor table is definitely worth the reservation. People watching is unrivalled anywhere. Streams of tourists, Eurotrash millionaires, glammed up gays and random nutters pass on their way to various dens of iniquity. The setting under the ramparts of the Old Town is beautifully up-lit and the whole ambience has a fantastic buzz. Food is fairly simple, great value tapas accompanied by lots of booze:

Santa Gertudis is a village in the centre of the island, popular with tourists but also a base for locals. It’s known for its square, with picturesque church and Bar Costa’s jamon bocadillos, but I would recommend visiting Dimi’s which is just around the corner. It’s tapas still, but with a modern twist and a lovely terrace setting. Special mention to the chorizo won-tons and bacon-wrapped dates, both amazing.

For a flash, ridiculous experience, Pacha’s restaurant (located at the club in Ibiza Town) serves surprisingly decent food and spending €100 per head allows free entry into the club. This seems a lot, but when David Guetta for instance is €80 on the door, it’s no longer so outrageous. Drink prices in the restaurant are a comparative bargain to the club too, so you can tank up and head next door...

Restaurant Road is a renowned stretch of eating options, many of which have been there for a generations. It’s the main road up to San Juan in the north, and every 500m or so (addresses are given by km markers) is a large restaurant, usually in a garden adorned with fairy lights, beautiful flowers and candles, creating some cosy rural spaces to while away the evening.

Es Caliu (km10.8) is a rustic, meaty paradise. The menu is simple and unforgiving, most of the barnyard is available on the grill. Our steaks were the biggest I’ve come across and very reasonable. We really didn’t need the potatoes.

Cicale (about km12) is really something special, and along with Bar La Bodega would be my top tip for Ibiza. It’s a family-run Italian (the Italian owners met here 25 years ago and never left) – and the produce is largely bio-dynamic or organic, and home-grown. The food was absolutely brilliant, and service more attentive than the Ibicencan norm. I recommend both the seafood calamarata (calamari-shaped pasta) and the gnocchi with fresh rocket and walnut pesto, which was fresh, nutty and welcome relief from the meat-fest of the trip.

Cami de Balafia is further up at about km15, and is quite unique. I would almost describe it as a quirkily Ibicencan ‘Relais de Venice/L’Entrecote’ type experience. There is no menu, starters are mixed salad or tomato salad, and you are rapidly regaled en español with a list of meats to feature on the outdoor grill, which you can guess from, and then an unqualified but very generous quantity will appear. Oh yes, and the chips!


A cross between crisps and chip shop chips, these are the real labour of love here. Piles upon piles of them are delivered around the room, and none are left. This restaurant is full of Spaniards, and better yet, locals, cheap as chips if you’ll excuse the pun, and in a great setting. Totally individual and good fun, it’s definitely one to visit – note that for all of the Restaurant Road venues, you really do need a car.

We ate many more times, such as at flashy/trashy pre-club km5 – replete with expensive-looking Russian ladies and their benefactors, and other beach restaurants such as Amante, which again serves dainty, digestible, aesthetic classics. I’ll write separately on our brilliant hotel, Can Arabi, and our side trip to the paradisiacal beaches of Formentera also.

Prices-wise, there is some great value especially the more old school you keep it. The meaty grill evenings come it at around €60-80 for two, with a glass of cava each and a bottle of red.

ceviche and steak from km5