Raising the bar

There was once a time when you wouldn’t be seen dead eating at a bar. My, how the tables have literally turned . Sitting at a bar is now the hottest seat in town thanks to the likes of Spuntino and the stalwart of no tables and no reservations, Barrafina.

An impromptu dinner at the bar at POLPO on Monday night with a friend led to a plan for a Friday night of restaurant hopping around Soho and Covent Garden. Our own version of a bacaro crawl.

Wright Bros

Our first stop for the evening was to the new raWBar at Wright Bros on Kingly Street. The bar at this oyster house has been subtly changed to house a raw bar displaying fine crustaceans to feast on. A glass of prosecco and a few Maldon oysters were enjoyed amongst a mixed crowd of after work couples having an early dinner and some out of towners. Wright Bros is an ideal spot for a more casual evening of seafood fun.

£18.00 for Two glasses of prosecco and three oysters

Bar rating: 6 / 10

Fornata

Next on the list was the newly opened Fornata, a few doors up from Wright Bros. Italian small plates is the concept (yawn) from the owners of Babbo on Albemarle Street. Perched at the bar with an Aperol spritz, no thought had been put into the foot rail, raised only about an inch from the ground. We may as well have been in high chairs, legs dangling freely like discarded puppets. The lighting was severe, so NHS.

Our thoughts turned to food. The menu resembled a half completed Scrabble board being played in English and Italian, with a mix and match of words supposedly describing what was on offer. The dishes seemed to have no obvious ordering or rhyme and reason on the menu. We recruited the help of someone who knew what they were talking about, fresh from his menu tastings for Mishkin’s. Being a chef, he kindly pointed out that our raw salmon was being cut on a meat board. The perils of an open kitchen for all to see.

The oven baked salmon carpaccio was more like something you would expect to see on the assembly line at a Whiska’s cat food factory than at a Soho eatery. Sloppily presented slices of salmon plonked on a plate with tapenade from a jar smeared across it. The polenta with parmesan crust resembled the sponge face painters use at a kids party, both in texture and looks. I struggled to taste any parmesan. The only saving grace were the arancini with beef ragu.

There is always a defining mark when a trend becomes mainstream and ruins it. In the case of Italian small plates, it is the opening of Fornata.

£33 for Two Aperol spritz, gin and tonic and three small plates

Bar rating:  2 / 10

Copita

I’d heard nothing about this Spanish tapas joint that has recently opened on D’Arblay Street. Architecturally simple inside and easy on the eye, the room resembles a scullery with cream tiles and bare wooden counter tops. Industrial light fittings that resembled meat hooks give it that Soho edge. We breathed a sigh of relief that the lighting in here meant we didn’t need our Ray Bans.

The menu was limited to about 15 dishes, the polar opposite to our previous spot, and was the sort of menu where you could easily have ordered everything from it. Pea, fresh cheese and truffle oil croquettas were an epiphany to the taste buds. The razor clam, potato puree and chevril roots was in the same league as J Sheekey’s razor clam dish. Our last plate was squab pigeon with pears and chocolate. A little wanky for a tapas place but it worked. The pigeon was perfectly cooked and the pears and chocolate combo momentarily reminded me of my favourite pudding at school.

Copita is a little gem of a place. Think Jose on Bermondsey Street but less cramped, better food and better prices.

£42 for Three large gin and tonics (£7.50 each) and three plates.

Bar rating: 7/10

Opera Tavern

Our final pit stop for the evening was Opera Tavern. A glass of prosecco and crispy pigs ears prepared us for the onslaught of the chorizo with sweet peppers, stuffed courgette flowers and the Iberico and foie gras burger. I’d been a little critical of Opera Tavern when it first opened but having not been back for a while, the food and service has most definitely gone up a level. However, I still remain adamant that the ground floor bar is better than the upstairs restaurant.

£40 for Two glasses of prosecco and four plates

Bar rating: 8/10

Restaurants with no reservation policies are given a hard time in the press. It may well be more convenient for the restaurateur but it is also a blessing in disguise for customers. Eating out should have an element of spontaneity. In fact, I can’t remember the time I last made a reservation.

My bar hopping companions for the night were Carmen McIlveen, Assistant Manager at da Polpo (@carmenpie) and Tom Oldroyd, Group head chef of Polpo Ltd (@tomolpo)

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Manson: A worthy detour down the Fulham Road

Manson

667 Fulham Road

London SW6 5SA

Tel: 020 7384 9559

The Fulham Road is not somewhere I often venture . It’s all a bit too Made In Chelsea with organic smoothie shops full of SW’s finest spending their trust funds during the week, while we are all at work. The only time I ever venture down this way is if I’m escaping London and the A4 is jammed.  The thing that has always struck me about this part of town when I’m on my detour is that it has such a lack of good places to eat. Yes, there is the Harwood Arms and if you are in the mood for Thai the Blue Elephant is a good bet but for the amount of money swashing around this neighbourhood I would expect a few more decent gaffs. Maybe dinner parties are still much the way forward in Fulham?

Making my way up the Fulham Road the other night, much to my surprise I discovered a Royal China nestled amongst a small parade of shops. My earlier question has been answered, the inhabitants of Fulham don’t need any restaurants because they don’t go out for dinner, they are far cleverer than that. They slip into their Jack Wills sweatpants, crack open a bottle of Burgundy and get a takeaway from Royal China.

Manson is located at 667 Fulham Road, a few doors up from Royal China. From the outside, Manson looks like any other south-west London watering hole. The awful word ‘gastropub’ would spring to mind.  The decor inside is neutral, a homage to OKA, but it works. The bar area is small, ideal to grab a quiet drink but this is a hint that all the fun happens in the rest of the room, at the dinner table.

Alan Stewart is in charge in the kitchen accompanied by an impressive CV having worked at  Gleneagles, Chez Bruce and most recently Launceston Place. A starter of tartar of venison with celeriac puree, pickled Scottish girolles and Kentish cobnuts should be his CV. Autumn on a plate with the dark magenta of the venison meat, which was lean and had a kick to it but it was the addition of beetroot which cut through the venison’s intensity that completed the dish.

The red leg partridge with quince, honey and oats was light and fruity, a last taste of summer despite being an autumn dish. It acted as a sort of game sorbet, between the punchy Venison and the grouse that followed.

The Yorkshire grouse that followed, ashamedly my first of the season, came with the breast served pink and the leg well done. The leg defined true game flavour and was not for the faint hearted. The bird was served with damsons and savoy cabbage and thinly cut slice of treacle loaf which was spread with a pate of grouse offal.

Not being a dessert man, preferring to ask for the extra spoon and have a mouthful of someone else’s, the apple tart was exemplary. I’ve never had an apple tart with such large chunks of apple; Braeburn’s from Kent.

The wine list alone is enough to get the locals to forgo dinner with chopsticks and head here. A 2008 Limousin Reserva, Marques de Riscal from Spain has Burgundian white characteristics that makes it a bargain at £32 and there are also some good value Bordeaux’s on the list.

The thing I admire about Chef Stewart is that he is trying to source as much of his produce locally. A number of the vegetables and herbs are from an allotment down the road and the honey that was used in the partridge dish is from Canada Water.

Manson has finally given me a reason to head to the Fulham Road. Oh, that and avoiding traffic jams…

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Cigalon: When you wish upon a star

La Colombe D’or is a restaurant you should eat at, at least once in your lifetime. Nestled in the hills above Nice in the medieval town of Saint Paul de Vence, the hotel and restaurant is a place where the jet set come to have rosé wine fuelled lunches while topping up their tan in the courtyard. As you may have guessed, it is more about the ambience than the food.

A last minute invite on Friday found me making my way down Chancery Lane, the legal heart land of London, in the late summer sunshine to have lunch at Cigalon. Walking through the reception, which reminded me of Estée Lauder’s house in New York, I spotted the unmistakable trimmed beard and cycling style specs of general manager, Yann Osouf. Remembering each other from the Wolseley, he led me to one of the four circular banquets arranged down the centre of the rectangular dining room.

The restaurant is Provencal with a Corsican influence. The upholstery and waiters knitted ties in shades of lavender represent Provence while bleached drift wood that of rustic Corsica. The light fittings look like something you may see on Ladies Day at Royal Ascot and the decor is what I imagine Nicole Farhi’s beach house to look like. Most restaurants look better at night, but this room is stunning in daylight.

Unlike La Colombe D’or, Cigalon is both about food and ambience. I find it a relief when I open a menu and see a handful of dishes. We already have too many choices in our lives so I like it when a restaurant takes a bit of control.

A starter of Bagna Cauda crudites with a hot anchovy dip consisted of raw orange cauliflower heads, chicory, artichoke and radishes that came carefully balanced on a plate with a ramekin of salty, oily anchovy dip to immerse in. A fisherman’s Angel Delight. I never order a Nicoise salad as most places butcher them by adding gloopy out of the bottle dressing. At Cigalon, their Nicoise is a thing of beauty with their albacore tuna preserved on the premises, homemade canned tuna if you will, and a perfectly boiled egg that is just on the runny side. And best of all, not a bloody black olive in sight.

Fried fillet of hake with carmague black rice and shellfish bisque brought a glow to our booth with the intense colour from the bisque against a backdrop of the dark rice. Service was good although the starters were a little slow from the kitchen. The clever addition of the booths alternating in direction, like a stationary teacup amusement park ride, gave that feeling of added privacy. The weekday set course lunch is £19.50 for two courses and £23.50 for three and the wine list is accessible with house wine starting at £12.00 for a carafe and £18.00 for a bottle.

La Colombe D’Or translates in to English as the golden dove, Ciglaon means cricket. When Jiminy Cricket sung ‘When you wish upon a star’, I wonder if he had Cigalon in mind?

Cigalon

115 Chancery Lane   

London  WC2A 1PP

Tel: 020 7242 8373      

Please note, we were guests of Cigalon. My dining companion was Zeren Wilson of @bittenwritten.                                                      

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Bowled over at The Goring

The Dining Room

The Goring

Beeston Place

London

SW1W 0JW 

Tel:020 7396 9000

Mon – Sat 7am-10pm

Sun – 7.30am – 10pm

You either like cricket or you don’t. A Marmite sport. It is easy to while away a balmy British summers day listening to Aggers and co on Test Match Special. They are a sort of male version of  ‘Loose Women’ on the radio for middle class men who live in Godalming and wear Austin Reed.

Returning from the Test match at the Oval the other week, The Dining Room at The Goring was our venue for dinner. The Goring is a five-star oasis amongst the All Bar Ones and Spaghetti Houses in Victoria that greet weary American backpackers at the start of their European tour as they get off the Gatwick Express. If you were not familiar with this London hotel before Friday 29 April this year, then you definitely would have been acquainted with it on that day as this was when we first got a glimpse of Pippa Middleton’s arse. Originally opened in 1910, it was the first hotel in the world to have en suite bathrooms in all of its bedrooms. Today it is the only privately run five-star hotel in London, still being run by the Goring family.

A drink at the bar to start your evening should be compulsory. Dark wood interiors and a very masculine feel to the place give it that air of a James Bond hangout in the 70’s except the service was very 21st century with a distinct lack of understanding of the English language. Let’s just say if you were looking for an Easter European plumber, one of the guys behind the bar could no doubt sort you out.

The dinner menu is a set one, charged at £48.50 for 3 courses with around six choices for each course. There were a number of specials also available at a supplement cost but charging an extra £28.50 for Yorkshire grouse reminded me that despite being in Victoria, this is an establishment where clearly for many customers, money is no object. The dining room, which is aptly named The Dining Room, is designed by David Linley with neutral tones, Linley style cherry wood columns and some slightly alien looking Swarovski chandeliers. Tables were perfectly placed apart from neighbouring diners and the lighting was textbook. Many a restaurateur should pay a visit and see what a properly lit restaurant looks like.

To start, we had the Queen Mothers favourite dish supposedly, Eggs Drumkilbo. It is a sort of ‘poshed up’ prawn cocktail with lobster. A sort of dish that wouldn’t make it through to the next round on The Great British Menu; perfectly edible but a little on the dull side. The Glazed lobster omelette was in a different league. A nice concept by taking something so simple as an omelette, something you can throw together at home when peckish, but add some lobster and a shed load of butter and it transforms it into something sexy and a little risqué. If the Eggs Drumkilbo was the Queen Mothers favourite dish, well I could have seen this omelette being Princess Margaret’s favourite dish.

We’d been told to order the Beef Wellington, so we did. Beef Wellington should be simple but yet technically it is a challenge. Whoever was in the kitchen passed this test as a beautiful medium rare slab of beef encased in pastry was served and accompanied by some potato dauphinoise. The chicken with mushrooms and truffle sauce was moist and the truffle sauce edged on the right side of not being too overpowering.

Although we could have easily called it a night after two courses, it was a 3 course set meal so for dessert we had a deconstructed Bakewell tart, similar to that at the Gilbert Scott, and a plate of cheese served as it should be from a trolley. Service was exemplary and hard to fault.

At this price range, it is more suited to those with an expense account but there is no denying the food is good, in fact it is better than good and coupled with delightful service and surroundings it is one of those places that you wouldn’t always initially think of going to but glad you ended up doing so.

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Fashion on a plate: The best dressed London restaurateurs

Sam and Eddie Hart
Sam (36) and Eddie (34) Hart,the brothers behind Barrafina and Quo Vadis in Soho, can  always be seen around Dean Street and Frifth Street dressed in dark tailor-made suits with crisp open collared white shirts as their uniform. Tassled brogues, most likely from a well known cobbler on Jermyn Street, and brightly coloured pocket handkerchiefs to shake off the City boy image complete the look. Apart from Ben Elliot, they are the only other two suited and booted gents in Soho.

Richard Caring
Ask someone their opinion of Mr Caring and the restaurant empire he has purchased and they are normally either in the BC (before Caring) or AC (after Caring) camp. Whatever you think of the rag trade multi millionaire turned global restaurateur there is no doubting he is a sophisticated business man. Black Armani suits are his choice paired with white custom-made shirts from Rubinacci on South Audley Street. A year round tan and a perfect mane of hair which is kept in condition by Michael Charambolous at his Mount Street salon. Likely to be seen being driven in his black SL63 Mercedes going from his office on the Euston Road to dine at Le Caprice or Harry’s Bar.

Russell Norman
Mr Polpo, as he has affectionately become known on Twitter, can normally be seen fleeting around Soho between Polpo, Polpetto, Spuntino and now further afield to da POLPO in Covent Garden. In his former days at Caprice Holdings, an impeccably tailored suit was standard but Russell now looks more comfortable in his jeans, All Saints tops and distressed leather boots. The catering version of ‘coming out’ was how Fay Maschler described this transformation. Leaning on a zinc top surface with tea towel draped over shoulder talking to one of many his many regulars is when Russell looks most at home. Latest addition to his image is the Moscot glasses fresh from New York.

Jeremy King
Mad Men eat your heart out. Jeremy King is the gentle giant of the restaurant world. Tall, elegant and of the most charming people in the industry. Mr King is never seen without his trademark three-piece suit finished off with a silk tie and a starched white pocket handkerchief neatly slotted in his top pocket while gently meandering around The Wolseley talking to the rich and famous. Dont forget his treasured vintage Bristol automobile as the ultimate accessory.

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Mrs Henderson presents:The real taste of London

The streets and restaurants in and around Soho were unusually quiet for a warm Saturday in June. One could be forgiven for thinking that there was some big sports game on or they had announced that there was another chance to not get hold of Olympic tickets. In fact, everyone had congregated to one small part of Soho and it was bustling with familiar faces from the restaurants in the area. The courtyard at St Anne’s Church on Wardour Street had been turned in to the Soho Food Feast for one day.

Forget trekking into the deepest darkest parts of Regents Park in your Hunter wellies to pay for overpriced tasting portions with things called crowns, Fergus and Margot Henderson organised a culinary mecca for all the great Soho establishments (and a few from further afield) to raise money for the Soho Parish School on Great Windmill Street. Not only did this offer us the chance to have the likes of Anthony Demetre of Arbutus personally cook some food for you or the pleasure of having Shuko from Koya offering you second dibs of fresh udon noodles, we were doing this all for the kids of Soho Parish school.

In one corner, Dean Street Townhouse were dishing out their boiled mince and potatoes flanked on either side by Wright Bros and Trullo. In the other corner Sam Hart was manning the Barrafina stand alone as his brother Eddie was at Glastonbury along with Mark Hix and Russell Norman. A few stalls up, the life and soul of the party Mr Jeremy Lee was serving a summer pork dish that had been pillaged by the ravenous punters (his words, not mine) which meant he could kick back early with a bottle of fizz for the afternoon.

Meatwagon, St John and Bocca di Lupo kept the carnivores pleased with burgers and sausage sliders while Polpo were going strong to the end offering chopped chicken liver crostini and polpetto with a cheeky thimble of house Merlot.

Despite having the best restaurants and chefs in Soho prepare dishes for you, the atmosphere was that of a quintessential English school fete with bunting and white tablecloths hand painted with the names of the restaurants. Innocent bystanders or oblivious tourists may have easily walked in thinking this school has some parents who are pretty handy in the kitchen.

Congratulations to Margot and Fergus for organising such a top afternoon. The Soho Food Feast felt like a community event for a school that is very much at the heart of a community.  Despite being the extraordinary confusion that it is, most of us forget that Soho is still a home and a community for many.

I am already looking forward to Soho Food Feast 2012.

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5 Restaurants for Father’s Day

Next Sunday 19 June is Father’s day. If you are struggling for inspiration as to what to do for your old man and where to go for Sunday lunch, here are some ideas.

The Gluttonous Dad – The Cookbook Cafe, The InterContinental Hotel

From sushi to Sunday roast, The Cookbook Cafe in The InterContinental on Old Park Lane is a great Sunday lunch destination. A hotel Sunday lunch always reminds me of being in the Far East where this is a weekly ritual for ex pats.  Lunch is served from 12.30pm – 3.30pm and includes unlimited champagne, bellini’s, water and soft drinks. £49 a head for adults, £24 a head for kids under 17, £15 a head for kids under 12 and under 6’s eat for free. This a great dining room if there is a big crowd of you and there is a nice informal family vibe.

The Antiques Roadshow Dad – The Horse Guards Inn, Tillington 

A trip out to the countryside is always a pleasant way to spend a Sunday. The 350 year old Horse Guards Inn is located in rural village by Petworth Park in West Sussex. A walk around the antique shops in Petworth and around the grounds of Petworth House before lunch is a great way to build up your appetite. If the weather is warm, opt for a table in the garden at The Horse Guards where you will sit amongst the vegetable gardens tended by owners Sam and Misa and the chickens they keep are always a big hit with the kids. The Sunday roasts here are superb as are the sweets. Fantastic local ales on tap are available as well as a superb value wine list.

The Sporting Dad – The Grove, Hertfordshire

If your Dad is one of those Dads who has to get his round of golf in over the weekend, why not treat him to 18 holes at The Grove in Hertfordshire. This championship course is part of the 5 star resort and spa located in Chandler’s Cross and is also a perfect setting for lunch after your round. There is a choice of lunching at Colette’s, the more formal of the dining options which is overseen by head chef Russell Bateman. The more informal Glasshouse restaurant serves a superb Sunday buffet but if a burger and chips is all you are after, then head to The Stables brasserie.

The Cultured Dad – Dean Street Townhouse, 69-71 Dean Street, W1

The annual Summer exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts should be a crowd pleaser, if your Dad likes a bit of culture. The largest open contemporary art exhibition in the world is always an interesting spectacle and a great opportunity to view art from emerging and unknown artists as well as the more established ones too. A short jaunt up to Dean Street Townhouse for lunch and if your old man didn’t get enough art to look at in the RA, well the walls here are strewn with a few Damien Hirsts and some rather interesting nude sketches. If that ain’t enough, closely check out the wallpaper in the private dining area! A stonking good value Sunday set lunch at £25 for two courses or £30 for three courses.

The Trendy Dad – da POLPO, 6 Maiden Lane WC2

This one is aimed more at the mothers who have younger kids and have to organise a treat for their husband on behalf of the kids. Well ladies, if your other half is the sort who likes to mooch around the shops in Covent Garden and Seven Dials, why not treat him to that jumper he has wanted for a while from Lyle and Scott and then take him to da POLPO in Maiden Lane for some lunch. The more ‘family friendly’ version of the infamous Polpo in Beak Street unleashes meatballs to die for, especially in the form of the Piadina meatball smash, while the spaghettini and meatballs is perfect to keep the little ones happy.

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