Barcelona, 9.30pm. The sun just set, abandoning its heat to the baked metal and stone which make up the city; the breeze gentle, welcome as it wraps itself around limbs kissed from a day spent in the sun; the light soft and slowly fading, inviting diners to head inside for food and drinks, to browse menus and discuss their days.
The Riding House Café is achingly cool. From the shabby-chic New York-inspired dining room with its sweeping bar, shared tables and bare brickwork down to the distressed metal covers on Dyson airblades in the toilets (seriously…), it’s a lesson in laid-back luxe for a twenty-first century crowd. In amongst the glamorous set of Soho after-work media types typical of a Tuesday evening, you might encounter some more unusual dining companions; a stuffed squirrel, a blue plastic Smurf or a pigeon frozen mid-flight, a light bulb clutched in its beak like an olive branch. A little pretentious perhaps, but somehow the overall effect is on-trend and very enticing; you definitely want to eat in this restaurant.
So what about the food? Does it stand up to the quirky, contemporary design or is this restaurant a matter of style over substance? Continue reading
Do you have an all-time favourite restaurant? One that consistently delivers incredible food and unbeatable atmosphere, where the staff are charming and the service next to none? How long have you been going there . . . five, ten, maybe even twenty years? Has it evolved with the times and are you still delighted and surprised by each mouthful?
I’m not normally one for definitive favourites, for top tens and number ones, but this review carries a lot of weight for me. It’s been a long time in the making. In fact, it was twenty years ago this summer that my seven year old self first trundled along the Italian seafront towards this restaurant, a much littler loaf than I am now, grumbling at my parents that I was tired and hungry, that I wanted to stop for pizza, and why did we have to walk so far when we didn’t really know where we were heading? Continue reading
It may not actually be in the city itself, and it may have closed for the next two years, but the influence of world-leading restaurant El Bulli is still very much at the forefront of Barcelona’s burgeoning gastro scene. This is a city for foodies, with thousands of restaurants and numerous Michelin stars, the majority of which have been awarded to chefs who have trained with, or under, Ferran Adrià at some point in their career.
A couple of weeks ago Carniverous Boyfriend and I spent two wonderful weeks in Barcelona, soaking up the sights of the city, the sounds of Sonar Festival and lots of sunshine. We also ate extremely well – I’d done a fair bit of research through guidebooks and the blogosphere, resulting in some fabulous meals at Tapas 24, Can Majó and Tickets, amongst others. However, one of our most interesting and exciting – if slightly bizarre – meals took place in a tiny orange dining room tucked away in the quiet back streets of Dreta de Eixample. Continue reading
Like it or not, we live in a consumer culture. Whether it’s Prada or Primark, foie gras or filet-o-fish, we’re a society that knows the meaning of money and (with some exceptions) we like to spend it. Some more than others. What exactly is it that makes people fork out for a designer dress, an eye-wateringly expensive hair cut, a £100+ bottle of wine? Is it an assurance of quality that we often seem to accept as going hand-in-hand with a high price tag, the status and sense of self-importance that comes with flashing one’s flexible friend, or are these products actually better, more rare, made from finer products and with more love, care and attention?
Any review of The River Café is going to mention price, so I’m not going to pussy-foot around it. Renowned for its incredible approach to food and fabulous ingredients, this Michelin starred restaurant is also much maligned for its extremely expensive menu. Jay Rayner has described it as ‘peasant food at plutocrat prices‘, and there seems to be a great divide in the foodie world as to whether it falls into the category of the sublime or the ridiculous. Or as A.A. Gill puts it in his full marks review for The Times, ‘Depending on the delicacy of your own social digestion, the River Caff either fills you with syrupy feelings of excitement, warmth and nameless intellectual superiority, or it makes you want to join a nihilist terror cell’. . . Continue reading
A couple of months ago Carniverous Boyfriend’s Dad took us skiing in Baqueira Beret, a Spanish resort in the Aran Valley. Out for drinks in a local bar one night, we bumped into a group of snowboarders from Barcelona (about five hours south of the resort) and decided to pick their brains before our upcoming visit in June. When I asked where to go for great seafood and paella, their answer was unanimous; Can Majó.
Once back in the UK, I got stuck into Google, downloaded a couple of Barcelona apps, and started researching what and where to eat. Remembering the Spaniards’ advice, I looked up Can Majó and discovered that it’s something of a Barcelona institution. Continue reading
Barcelona is a foodie haven. Sandwiched between the mountains and the Mediterranean, its menus combine the very best of land and sea; from tiny mouthfuls of tapas to huge plates of paella, there’s enough to keep even the greediest of gastronomes happy. Variety is the order of the day, and spontaneity a must – there’s nothing more fun than diving into a random bar for a plate of pinxtos and cheap copa of cava.
For the last week or so the blogosphere has been alight with talk of Da Polpo, the new venture in Russell Norman’s ever-expanding restaurant empire. The fourth to open in half as many years, it builds on the menus of Polpo and Polpetto, adding an expanded list of pizzette alongside incredible sounding variations on an italian classic, the meatball. Not surprisingly for the brainchild of one if the first restaurateurs to truly harness the power of social media, Da Polpo has been a highly trending topic on Twitter as bloggers race to get their bums on the seats and reviews on their sites.
Having read a number of reviews over the last couple of days, I was left feeling three things. Number one? Hungry. Not surprising given the mouth-watering menu, great photos and gorgeous descriptions provided by some of my fellow bloggers (for some stomach-grumble inducing snaps take a look at reviews from Eatlikeagirl, Crumpeats, Londoneater or The Skinny Bib). Two? Jealous. I’m off to Barcelona next weekend and trying to save pennies for some serious tapas-fuelled budget-blowing, so trying new restaurants isn’t really on the agenda for the next few days. Three? Itching to get in the kitchen.
Last night Carniverous Boyfriend and I were feeling really lazy. After a hardcore day’s shopping in Central London, we wanted the pick me up of a guaranteed good feed and bustling atmosphere without having to venture too far from home. After a few minutes debate we picked up the phone and booked a table at Côte.
When I was little, a margarita followed by a chocolate bombe at Pizza Express was the ultimate childhood treat. Then when Strada appeared on the scene, my tastes migrated over to their bigger, more authentic Italian pizzas and wider choice of main courses. However nowadays I find chains like these pretty hit and miss; some locations serve up fairly tasty food in nice surroundings while others really feel like they’re just going through the motions, serving out tired classics to disinterested punters.
Côte is the perfect antidote to these kind of chains (for the moment anyway. I guess with expansion and time it could go the way of others, but I really hope not). With its buzzy, informal dining rooms, simple take on French food and fairly modest prices, it offers the perfect neighbourhood brasserie experience. The food is never going to win any awards, but it’s good, dependable and enjoyable, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
After a pitstop at the Fulham Wine Rooms (separate review to follow. If you haven’t been, its a great place to try over 50 different wines by the glass, with the added novelty of dispensing your own tasters, although this way costs do add up), we headed down to Côte opposite Parsons Green tube. At 8pm the dining room was pretty full already, testament to its popularity amongst a local crowd.
We didn’t go for steak on this occasion, having had it t home the night before, but from previous experience you can’t go wrong with the various different cuts on offer; from the simple steak frites at £9.95 to the fillet at almost double that, the meat is tender, cooked as you ask and full of good flavour. Instead we went down a more fishy route opting for light, crispy cod goujons with chips and salmon fishcakes with spinach for our mains. The goujons were beautifully light – a miniature French take on fish and chips – and, although the fishcakes were a little on the dry side, the flaky salmon worked well with a creamy dill and wholegrain mustard sauce.
My starter of seared scallops with pea & mint puree, pea shoots and crispy lardons was the highlight for me. This combination of salty crunch and creamy flesh is something you see on a lot of menus, but only because it works so well, and Côte definitely got it right. Carniverous boyfriend’s rillettes of duck and pork with toasted sourdough and cornichons were another simple take on a classic French dish, delivering big, satisfying flavours.
We finished with a huge tarte fine aux pommes and a rich chocolate fondant. If I really wanted to complain, the fondant could have been cooked a minute or so less to allow for an even more melting middle, but by the time I noticed I’d practically wolfed the whole thing anyway so sending it back was hardly an option.
Service throughout the meal was efficient and friendly. Wines by the glass arrived in time for the dishes we’d matched them to, something even higher end restaurants often get wrong by bringing too early, or forgetting to bring them until you’re half way through your dish. The dining room was cosy, buzzy and full of contented diners enjoying the simple, sound modern bistro cooking that Côte does so well. Next time you’re looking for an affordable local feed, I’d definitely recommend trying this neighbourhood gem.
Gone are the heady days when publishers’ lives were filled with star-studded outings and long boozy lunches. In fact, they’re so long gone that in the short time I’ve been working in the industry, I’ve become more accustomed to a packed lunch at my desk than the kind of liquid lunches publishing history is made of.
Having said that, occasionally we do get to wine and dine our authors, and this week I was taken to Joe Allen. The last time I went was with my family as a teenager after seeing a West End show. I remember the bustling atmosphere, even as we sat down to eat after 10pm, the sultry lighting, friendly staff and generous servings, variously accompanied by giant stacks of fries or slabs of ice cream. Maybe the short supply of media types willing to splash their cash on a daily basis has had an effect on Joe Allen, because this time round, it seemed to have lost a little of its magic.
Tucked away in a darkened basement on Exeter Street, this restaurant has been a theatre-land stalwart since before I was born. The walls are lined with vintage posters, famous faces and wooden panels, and these, combined with the soft lighting and pianist tinkling away in the corner, make for a fun, if a little tired, dining room.
We were party of nine, arriving for dinner on a quiet Monday night. Ushering us through to a cosy corner, the waiting staff were friendly and helpful, and quickly brought water, wine and bread to the table. The bread basket was nothing to write home about (by strict little loaf standards. . .), but crusty and doughy enough in equal measures to keep me happy until our starters arrived.
The menu at Joe Allen is pretty comprehensive. Divided into Starters, Salads & Eggs for those in more of the mood for brunch, Main Courses, Sides and Desserts, there’s something for everyone. Gilt head bream and tiger prawns sit alongside chilli con carne, mutton cobbler and macaroni & cheese and, as you might expect from such variety, some dishes do better than others.
A starter of (very little) asparagus, red onion and blood orange was little more than a glorified side salad. The ingredients, while all nicely flavoured and fresh, lacked an extra something to bring the whole dish together. A chorizo starter was better, although the tiny nuggets of sausage again made this feel more like a side dish than the star of the show. Caesar salad and a plate of gravadlax did what they said on the tin; not hugely exciting, but nothing to complain about either.
Mains fared much better, although my overall feeling was that the food was good, not great, for these kind of prices. Grilled gilt head bream fillet was delicate, and the accompanying caper and parsley salsa was a nice contrast to the crispy skin. Four oversized chips served in a line seemed a bit pretentious for a restaurant that serves steaming bowls of chilli in simple white bowls, but they tasted pretty good. The chilli con carne with plain boiled rice was warm, comforting home-style food, and, in the restaurant’s favour, the lower price point of £9.50 showed that they recognised this. The Barnsley chop was huge, while a plate of scallops were tiny, which made me glad I hadn’t opted for this main (I adore scallops but the raisin couscous had put me off – raisins and savoury, I just can’t do it).
After a large meal and a very small pause, we barely had time to undo our top buttons before the waiter was ready to take our order for dessert. It being Monday, and the start of the working week, we quickly made our decisions, although a slight breather before pudding would probably have been a better idea.
Puddings were giant, and mostly enjoyable in the sickly sweet way that giant puddings are. We demolished sticky pecan pie, a chocolate brownie and an enormous dish of rich chocolate and vanilla ice cream, but were left bemused by a slightly bizarre cheesecake. Snowy white, and with hardly a hint of crumb or crust, it tasted of very little apart from a strange salty tang. It felt like the kind of dish that might once have been a signature, but now fell slightly short of the mark in a restaurant that is just a bit long in the tooth.
Joe Allen’s New York brasserie style comfort cooking was never going to win it any major awards. And situated in the heart of theatre-land, its pretty much guaranteed that it will continue to pull in a reliable stream of fairly uncritical punters. This is a restaurant that’s more about the atmosphere, history and location than incredible food, but I don’t think that should mean they become complacent. My meal was ok. The company was good. But at knocking on £40 a head without wine, I think it could be better.