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Restaurants

Posh fast food

“We’ve spent £70, I’m hungry and, worst of all, I’m sober” I complained. My wife was similarly disgruntled.  We were at the Model Market in Lewisham. This was a derelict covered market that has been taken over by Street Feast and sells fast food during the summer months. We left vowing never to go back but decided to return last month with friends and children to see if we had judged too harshly. It was a beautiful August evening, a DJ was spinning soul music records and the trendy things of south east London seemed to be lapping it up despite the prices: £9 for fried chicken and chips, £7 for a small plate of fried squid, not as good as Royal China according to my daughter, and most galling of all, £6, £6!, for a 355ml can of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Another bar on site was selling a pint of the same beer for £5 but I definitely felt trendier holding a can.

The appearance of posh fast food is one of the stranger trends to have swept Britain in the last few years. The food of poor America tarted up and priced up to be eaten by middle class British people. There’s a chain called Bubble Dogs that will charge you £15 for a hot dog and a glass of fizz. Hot dogs should cost $2.50 and be eaten on the street.

We’ve even taken to that weird distinctly American hybrid of savoury fried chicken and sweet waffles with maple syrup. Duck & Waffle in London offer the ultimate posh take on this swapping the fried chicken for a confit duck leg. What’s interesting about these gourmet versions is how we get it so wrong. The food is beautifully presented but there’s just not enough of it. With American food you’re not meant to be able to walk afterwards.  

That said some fast foods do benefit from a little poncification. I like George Osborne’s favourite, Byron Burger. I am willing to pay for good quality steak, chopped up and served rare especially if I’m eating it in a booth. In fact I’ll pay almost anything if I’m seated in a booth. But I am baffled by places such as Shake Shack or 5 Guys which offer burgers no better than McDonald’s and chips that are significantly worse (McDonald’s french fries are superb). At Shake Shack a burger, fries and shake will cost about £17. The equivalent at Maccy D’s will cost you about £6. The middle classes look down their noses at McDonald’s and yet are happy to eat essentially the same food as long as it is expensive enough.

So why do these places charge so much? Well first of all because they can. There are plenty of people for whom spending £10 on a hamburger isn’t a lot of money. But also in the case of Street Feast you are not just paying for the food and the overheads. All vendors are smartly branded. We bought our chicken from the amusingly-named Mother Clucker. The dream is to do a Meatliquor which started as a food truck and now has branches throughout London. Your average chicken shack in Louisiana doesn’t have a PR firm or a marketing strategy.

Street Feast are owned by a company called London Union. They don’t just sell overpriced burgers but are also, according to their slogan, “Transforming Lives And Communities Through The Awesome Power Of Street Food”. It’s the brainchild of restaurateurs Jonathan Downey and Henry Dimbleby. Street Feast run similar markets around the country and put on events with celebrity chefs such as Thomasina Miers.

One thing you will notice about the names above is that they’re not exactly salt-of-the-earth types. Alexei Sayle in his recent stand-up routine joked about how the poshing up of jobs such as journalism (I admit I am part of this trend) and comedy has spread to fast food: “burger vans! burger vans! all the burger vans down my local market are run by the class of Charterhouse of 2005.” Sayle also mocks the sort of gap year cookery where rich English kids discover the authentic street food of somewhere poor and decide to bring it back home at a price, “there’s a Vietnamese Phô stall in Peckham run by the Queen and Prince Philip.”

At Oak Fisheries in Headingley which I used to visit when I was a student, you were served by a woman with enormous arms who looked like she was born to work in a fish and chip shop whilst an unsmiling man with a comb over fried the fish in dripping. It’s still the best fish and chips I’ve ever had. There was no branding, no mission statement, and no plans to roll it out into a chain.

The day after Model Market, I went to a barbeque put on by some of the parents on our street. They all agreed that Street Feast was a rip off, and yet at the same time they would go back. One mother told me that what she loved about it was that it’s like not being in Lewisham, you could pretend that you live in a nice bit of London for the evening.

It occurred to me that Street Feast is the opposite of street food. You are not in the street.  You are in a carefully curated middle class fantasy land, like being at a music festival but without bands. If the high prices don’t deter the wrong sort of people from wandering in, the entry fee after 7pm will. Whilst the stalls are run by the middle class, the people collecting rubbish were immigrants. It was London in a microcosm.

Meanwhile at Lewisham’s actual street market you can buy a proper bratwurst hot dog for £3, jerk chicken made by real Jamaicans for £4 and a pint at the nearby Wetherspoons for £1.80. They even sell Sierra Nevada Pale Ale though you do have to mix with some ghastly people.

A much shorter version of this article appeared in the Oldie magazine

 

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Restaurants Spirits

I wish I lived nearer O Gourmet Libanais

Gourmet Lebanese Food in Wandsworth

I’ve been meaning to write about a restaurant that I was going to refer to as a neighbourhood gem but thought that sounded a bit tripadvisor.  Now I’ve just learned that Winemakers in Deptford is to close. If only I’d written about then it might have been saved by loyal World of Booze readers hotfooting it down to SE8 to sample the food.

I’m not going to make that mistake with my latest “neighbourhood gem”. I discovered it after attending a friend’s book launch in a part of London I don’t know very well, Wandsworth. Slightly drunk we left her party at 9pm on a Monday night and almost literally stumbled on a Lebanese restaurant, O Gourmet Libanais, in the glass and steel complex where she lived. As you’d expect at that time on Monday on a (upmarket) Wandsworth housing estate, it was empty, but the manager rather than shooing us away, seemed pleased to see us. He was even more pleased when I expressed a love for arak, the traditional Lebanese spirit which is the perfect accompaniment to mezze.

We just asked him to bring us some dishes and what followed was some of the best mezze I’d had outside Lebanon. Certainly far far superior to anything on the Edgware Road. We had Fattoush, salad with toasted bread, oil and sumac, hummus, moutabal, excellent flatbreads and some sublime chicken livers cooked in pomegranate. Everything tasted so fresh. They also had a decent Lebanese house red from Chateau Heritage but I was far more interested in the arak from Al Kaissar (Caesar, yeah!) What I loved about the Lebanese product is that it tastes like like biting into aniseed rather than having the rather sweet muddy flavour of raki or ouzo. For comparison this week, I tried some arak Brun from Domaine de Tourelles opposite some raki from Turkey and ended pouring the Turkish one down the sink. Did I mention I love arak?

Lebanese Arak Kaissar

If I lived in Wandsworth I would go to O Gourmet Libanais at least once a month. Make use of your neighbourhood gems or they might go the way of Winemakers in Deptford.

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Restaurants Wine articles

An evening at Pied à Terre

Regular readers will know that blind wine tasting is not one of my fortes. You can read about my misadventures at the Oxford vs Cambridge annual wine competition here. But I think when the pressures off, I might actually be getting better at it.

My wife and I were invited down to Pied à Terre – a Michelin starred restaurant in Fitzrovia – for a meal. I’ve noticed that other wine bloggers such as The Wine Loon have also been down so it seems that Pied à Terre are doing some of PR push with London’s influential wine blogging community.

We sat in the front of the restaurant in a cosy little room. In fact cosy would be a good way to describe the whole experience, there was none of the starchy formality you usually get in Michelin-starred places; nobody interrupted our conversation to explain the food. Just to give you some idea of how non intimidating this place is, one of the sommeliers looked just like cuddly comedian Michael McIntyre.

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I won’t go too much into the food but it was also nicely unfussy: a huge octopus tentacle with romesco sauce and squid ink tasting much like it might in a good restaurant in Barcelona despite the Jackson Pollock presentation, and the partridge breast cooked rare and served with a confit leg and red cabbage was almost like something you might get at Rules.

Rather than Mcintyre man, we had an avuncular Frenchman, Emanuel Hardonniere, as our sommelier and in a non-competitive he way brought out wines and asked me to guess what they were. I started badly thinking a white Tokay was Burgundy, I got better with a Cape wine guessing, sorry deducing, correctly that it was a Muscat.

And then I literally caught fire correctly identifying a Greek grape variety, a Xinomavro; next he gave me a wine to try which I thought was a St Emilion but turned out to be a Lalande de Pomerol, very close, though I did guess the vintage correctly, a 2010; my last near triumph was with a sweet wines served with the pudding which I thought was a Jurançon but it turned out to be a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, again very close, both are from South West France and made from Gros and/or Petit Manseng.

The only off note in evening was a natural Gamay from Serbia with a serious dose of hamster or goût de souris as the French call it – some sort of yeast or bacterial infection that you only notice as you swallow. It’s something not uncommon in ‘natural’ wines – come on lads, just use a bit of sulpur!

We finished with one of my favourites, a Rivesaltes served with pear cooked in port and thankfully by this stage of the night M. Hardonniere was no longer playing games with me.

Below are the bottles we tried. All were good in their own way except the Serbian Gamay (top row centre right) though I have heard good things about it when it’s not infected with the stench of rotting rodent.

 

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Restaurants

Getting trolleyed in London – the return of old school dining

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Order a dish or a drink at some of London’s most fashionable restaurants and rather than a waiter put it down in front of you, don’t be surprised if you see your order making a stately progress from the kitchen on wheels. Yes the trolley is back, and how! At Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge they have a bon bon trolley, at the Oxo Tower they have a martini trolley complete with a James Bond paperback to read whilst your drink is prepared, and at the Berners Tavern they even have a pork pie trolley, £17 for a giant pie cut at the table with a choice of condiments.

With trolleys comes the return of the sort of cooking that you thought died out in the 1980s. Coin Laundry on Exmouth Market offers chicken kievs and Ottolenghi in Spitalfields has avocado vol-au-vents on the menu.  Forget sous vide, foams, and liquid nitrogen, we want our chefs in whites, red check trousers and the puffiest of puffy hats not in lab coats and goggles.

45 Jermyn Street opened in 2015 in Fortnum and Mason but walk into the dining room and you might think it’s 1975. Your dover sole will be cooked on the bone and then expertly filleted at the table; there’s a trolley on which the waiter will whip up scrambled eggs to go with your caviar; best of all they offer a dish that combines two retro standards, a black forest gateau baked alaska – flambeed in front of you, naturally. This is cooking with shoulder pads.

Going even further back in time is Otto’s in Gray’s Inn Road. It only opened in 2012 but looks like it’s been around since before the war. . . . the First World War. They have starched white tablecloths, antique Persian carpets and a (nearly) all French wine list. Otto’s offers the sort of food one can imagine Edwardian aristocrats tucking into. The house speciality involves a whole duck, the breast cooked pink and thin-sliced at the table, the legs served crisp, then the carcass is crushed in an antique silver press and the juices transferred to a sauce prepared by the waiter in front of you. They do something similar with a poulet de Bresse or, if you’re feeling really fancy, with lobster. It’s a sumptuous treat for all the senses. As Lee Stretton from 45 Jermyn Street put it:  “the classic dishes lend themselves to theatre.”

He went on to say: “there is a movement to appreciate the art of service within the room. It is a reaction to all the stripped back restaurants which have good but simple and utilitarian service.” It makes a welcome change from the minimalist aesthetic that was so big in the 2000s where restaurants such as St. John’s In Farringdon had informal, casually-dressed waiters and no tablecloths.

The decor of 45 Jermyn Street with its bright red leather seating, immaculate white linen and table lamps compliments the theatricality of the service perfectly.  It was designed by Martin Brudnizki Design Studio who also created the interiors for some of London’s most chic restaurants including the Ivy, Scott’s and the Caprice. It’s all about glamour. Diana Henry author of Simple: Effortless Food, Big Flavours, told me: “I loved the look of the life that went with this food: hessian walls, bottles of Burgundy, women with chignons and men in lounge suits, red candles on the dining table, this is the life to which I aspired.” Richard Corrigan’s new restaurant in Mayfair even has a piano player to go with the comfy chairs and heavy curtains.

All this plushness absorbs sound making restaurants like 45 Jermyn Street the perfect place for a long seductive lunch or perhaps somewhere to take your hard-of-hearing aunt. Compare this with St John’s, a cavernous former smokehouse, where I  would  leave with my ears ringing and voice hoarse from shouting over the hubbub.

One can chart the beginning of the retro revival to the opening of the Wolseley way back in 2003. Offering classic standards like omelette Arnold Bennett and Wiener Schnitzel in glittering surroundings, it quickly felt as if it had always been there. Then Brasserie Zedel opened in 2012 with its “chariots de fromage” and subterranean art deco dining room, like eating on an ocean liner.

The retro food trend isn’t just confined to London. No less an authority than Anthony Bourdain has tipped old-fashioned French cuisine of the sort championed by Elizabeth David and Julia Child as the next big thing, think Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourguignon. There’s something wonderfully nostalgic about these dishes. Rather than the shock of molecular gastronomy, it is about comforting flavours cooked to perfection. Diana Henry told me: “I grew up with ‘retro’ food, which is why I don’t quite see it as ‘retro’. I was making steak Diane aged 11 and I thought it was impossibly delicious. I still also think prawn cocktail is fabulous.”

Simon Hopkinson agrees: “the prawn cocktail is wonderful.” He’s the author of a book about retro food called appropriately enough, The Prawn Cocktail Years. He went on to say “these dishes have never really gone away. They are what are what cooking is all about.” He told me that the chicken kiev and beef stroganoff were originally restaurant dishes. They are hard dishes to get right in the home so it’s great to see them back on the menu and done properly. Some restaurants, however, never lost faith with the classics. Oslo Court in St John’s Wood has been offering duck a l’orange, veal holstein and napery you could use to soundproof a recording studio since 1982. It’s food that people love to eat and will be eating for years to come. When the sous vide machine is gathering dust in the basement, the trusty trolley will still be doing the rounds.

This is an early version of something I wrote for a luxury good magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Restaurants

London’s best caffs

I wrote this for an American magazine Food & Wine hence explanation for what a greasy spoon is. They have made a lovely slideshow out of it.

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Photo of E. Pellicci from Classic Cafes

A greasy spoon is a British institution roughly analogous to an American diner—but without the free refills. They serve basic food consisting of fried breakfasts, meat pies and sandwiches. You also see dishes that you probably thought had died out in the 1950s, such as boiled bacon or liver and onions. You will not get salad at a greasy spoon, nor are these the kinds of places at which to ask if the sausages are organic. You may, however, get Greek or Italian food, as many are run by the families of immigrants who came to the UK after World War II.

Greasy spoons are predominantly working class institutions, but the best attract a wide cross-section of the community. Most customers just call them caffs—i.e. cafe without pronouncing the e. In some, the interiors are works of industrial art with deco touches and lashing of 50s formica. More often, though, the decor is merely functional, with plastic furniture that’s screwed to the floor. Though usually very friendly kinds of places, they are also highly efficient operations, able to provide huge quantities of food with the minimum of fuss. In a properly run caff, the food will arrive quickly, your eggs will always be perfectly cooked, and everything will be mouth-scaldingly hot.

Sadly, many of these places have closed in recent years, victims of rising rents and changing eating habits. Londoners of a certain age will get all misty-eyed if you mention places such as the New Piccadilly, Rossi’s in Spitalfields and my own favorite, the Euston Sandwich bar. Nonetheless, the ones outlined below seem to be thriving.

Finally, some tips for getting the most out of your caff: Request crusty bread and you’ll get the good stuff from the bakers rather than the industrial bread that comes out of a packet; ask for your bacon crisp, as many British people like a soggy rasher; and finally, drink tea. The coffee is usually terrible! —Henry Jeffreys

E. Pellicci, 332 Bethnal Green Rd, London E2 0AG 

Perhaps London’s most famous caff. There are two things that make this place unique: one is the interior, an art deco masterpiece in inlaid wood. The other is the incredible Italian Cockney accents of the staff. This accent, once common in East London, is not one you hear very much any more. The way the Italian vowels swoop into London glottal stops is worth the journey alone. Oh, and the food is good too—especially the lasagna.

Kennington Lane Cafe 383 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY 

It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it packs a proper punch where it matters, in the kitchen. Run by perhaps London’s friendliest cafe owner, Halil, it won a Time Out Love London Award from the London listing magazine. The menu is a bit more extensive than most places of its ilk and includes fish and chips, kebabs and roast lunches. Also burgers and excellent steak and kidney pies.

Polo Bar, 176 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4NQ, 

An all night service has just been launched on the Underground, but London is still very far from being a 24-hour city. Just try getting a drink after 1am. Thank heavens for the Polo Bar opposite Liverpool Street Station, which has saved my bacon on countless occasions when I just didn’t want to go home. It’s open 24 hours and is always full of taxi drivers, shift workers and night owls. I always order a sausage sandwich and a mug of tea, but I’ve also heard good things about the burgers.

The Shepherdess 221 City Rd, London EC1V 1JN 

This is just up the road from the bustling Shoreditch neighborhood, on a slightly desolate stretch of City Road. It’s a lovely room with some proper screwed-to-the-floor furniture. We don’t want those tables moving around! Their enormous breakfast is rightly famous and indeed award-winning: “The best builders breakfast in Britain,” according to the website Builders.com. You can’t get a higher recommendation than that.

Maggie’s, 320-322 Lewisham Rd, London SE13 7PA, 

The best greasy spoons are run by formidable personalities, such as Maggie. I’ve never seen her looking less than chic, her hair always immaculate, lots of jewelry and a cigarette in her hand. The current building boom in Lewisham seems mainly to be benefiting Maggie. If you can find a table among all the builders, try this caff’s epic breakfasts. It’s quieter in the evening, when you can have chops and steak. They even have an alcohol license.

Regency Cafe 17-19 Regency St, London SW1P 4BY 

If not quite as lavish as E. Pellicci, but this is another Art Deco wonder, an understated study in tile and formica. No surprise then that it’s often used as a film location. The lady who runs it is famous for having one of the loudest voices in London. Do not even think of taking a seat until you’ve ordered at the counter or you will feel her wrath. Worth braving her, though, for one of the finest fried breakfasts around.

Terry’s , 158 Great Suffolk St, London SE1 1PE 

A model for how to bring a caff into the modern age without sacrificing its soul. They buy their coffee from Monmouth in Covent Garden and their sausages from Borough market. And yet it’s still cheap as chips and proudly working class. I normally order that London Jewish specialty, the salt beef sandwich (on crusty white bread of course). A cup of tea costs only 20 pence if you’re having food.

Arthur’s Cafe, 495 Kingsland Rd, London E8 4AU

In contrast to most greasy spoons, Arthur’s, which has be serving Londoners since 1935, only has a very short menu. It usually consists of two stews or a meat pie and then sausages, ham or steak with eggs and chips. The owner Arthur must be pushing 90 but he still runs the place with a smile and a joke for everyone. All men are ‘young men’ and women ‘young ladies’ to him. On my last visit Arthur told me “I’ve given you an extra dumpling with your stew. You look like you need feeding up.”

River Cafe, 1A Station Approach, London SW6 3UH

This British cafe run by an Italian family is not to be mixed up with the other River café, a very expensive Italian restaurant run by two British women that is located nearby. This Fulham institution just by Putney Bridge has been going since the 1950s and looks like little has changed since then. On the walls are fantastic murals of Italy, and every surface that might get tea spilled on it is safely covered in formica. One for caff connoisseurs.

Mario’s Cafe, 6 Kelly St, London NW1 8PH

Located in Camden, this might be London’s most celebrated caff. There was even a song released about it in 1993 by indie band St. Etienne: “Barry’s looking through the racing post / orders coffee, another round of toast.” It’s London’s answer to Tom’s Diner by Suzanne Vega. Mario’s is run by the eponymous Mario Saggese and his family, originally from Puglia. Great breakfasts and, as you’d expect, some pretty good Italian specials too.

 

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Restaurants

After Brexit will we go back to cooking with tinned mushroom soup?

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This is something I wrote for Food & Wine, an American magazine, just after the EU Referendum result. It’s entirely speculative but then most Brexit commentary is.

Much of the increasingly bitter arguments over the recent referendum boiled down not to matters of economics or democracy but to food. A friend of mine organised a campaign where Parisians came over to London bearing croissants as if to show us what we’d be missing if we left the European Union. The Sunday Times restaurant critic, A. A. Gill, wrote of how British bread used to be “brittle and gum-lacerating on the outside, hollow sawdust inside.” Now we have “wholemeal, wheat germ, rye, sourdough, poppy seed, caraway, brioche, sandwiches dunked, dipped, spread lasciviously, shared generously, communion.” In short, we’re now better fed, kinder and sexier thanks to the EU. Is this true?

There’s no doubt that food in Britain has improved immeasurably since we joined the European Economic Community (EEC), as it was then called, in 1973. My mother told me how olive oil used to come in tiny bottles at the chemist as a remedy against excessive earwax. Canned mushroom soup was a common ingredient in recipes (I hear this still persists in some parts of the States today.) I can remember a time when in most towns outside London the only decent food you could get after dark was Indian.

So what can we thank for Britain’s improved culinary standards? Immigration has played a big part. The British fell in love in particular with food brought by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent but our slumbering tastebuds were also awoken by cuisine from the West Indies, China, Lebanon, Vietnam, Turkey, Italy, Spain and Portugal. Later in the 00s, millions of Europeans especially east Europeans came to Britain lured by a booming economy. London is now a world city. Down the road from me there’s a row of shops containing two Turkish supermarkets, a pizzeria, a Polish and an Italian delicatessen.

The British began to travel more in the 60s and 70s thanks to cheaper air fares. This exploded in recent years because of airline deregulation. Suddenly a weekend in Barcelona wasn’t so expensive. There we discovered that tapas didn’t have to come out of a microwave. Improvements, however, also came from home-grown chefs such as Marco Pierre-White, Gordon Ramsay and Fergus Henderson who demonstrated that British food could be world class. Delia Smith, Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson showed the home cook how to make good simple food from scratch without a can of mushroom soup in sight. Britain became a much more affluent country in the 80s and 90s and people aspired to an Italian lifestyle.

We have the EU to thank for airline deregulation. Being a member also made it easier for people and goods from the continent to come to Britain though there was a sizeable European immigration before joining. It’s interesting to note though that it was Australian wine in the 80s and 90s that finally turned Britain into a wine drinking nation. Australia, a country about whose food even the British were sniffy about, has become a culinary destination without joining a bureaucratic superstate. The improvement in British coffee over the last 10 years is mainly down to baristas from the Antipodes. Food in America also improved drastically in the same period though you wouldn’t know from eating out in Harlan, Iowa.

So what’s going to happen when Britain leaves? There’s a lot of panicky articles being published at the moment but nobody really knows. Noone even knows when Britain will leave let alone what will happen afterwards. We hope that the politicians both British and EU can come to a sensible arrangement.  After all Britain is a massive market for European goods.

A big worry is the current uncertain status of EU nationals in Britain. Poles and Romanians in particular are vital for the functioning of the country’s food supply. They’re fruit and vegetable  pickers, drivers, butchers, waiters and bar staff. The country would grind to a halt without them. Worrying too is how the pound has fallen since the 23rd June making imported goods more expensive. Add that to the possibility of  tariffs on European food and I think though it’s safe to predict that the price of food and wine from the EU will go up.

The EU for all the benefits it has brought to members, is a protectionist trading bloc. Leaving should mean access to cheaper food from the rest of the world. Good for consumers but also good for Third World farmers. Also on an optimistic note, leaving the EU might end the current curry crisis in Britain. Due to targets imposed on non-EU immigration, there is a shortage of chefs from  the Indian subcontinent. Apparently east Europeans  just can’t be taught to make a good curry and British Asians (ie from the Indian sub-continents) don’t want to work long hours for low pay.  The other group looking forward to leaving are fisherman. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy meant that every country in Europe had access to British waters, disastrous for fish stocks.

Don’t forget that home-grown food has improved hugely since 1973. Our daily bread, cheese, and sausages are so much better than they used to be. It’s a time of great worry and uncertainty, but whatever happens, I predict that we will still be able to buy good buttery croissants and there’s no chance in hell that we’re going back to cooking with canned mushroom soup.

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Restaurants Wine articles

London’s Best Wine Bars

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Today, wine bars are fashionable. There’s even been talk that wine itself might be… *whisper it* cool. Things were very different when I was growing up. Wines bars were considered terribly old-fashioned. Most weren’t even aimed at wine lovers. Instead, they were places to drink that were open later than pubs. You might have gotten some cheese and crackers or shop-bought pate to eat, if you were lucky. There was a chain in the north of England called Yates’s Wine Lodge; from the name, you’d imagine it was a good place to discuss the difference between left bank and right bank Bordeaux. If you tried, you’d be in for a rude shock. On a Friday and Saturday night, Yates’s would be crammed with people getting uproariously drunk on anything but wine.

Even during the dark days, however, there were places serving good quality wine and food, and some of them are still around. What the newer places offer is sharper cookery and more adventurous wines, many of which are available by the glass thanks to the wonders of Enomatic machines or the Coravin (a sort of handheld Enomatic that dispenses a tasting measure and then seals the bottle with an inert gas). So I thought it would be interesting to examine the now-thriving wine bar sector in London. I’ve tried to group them roughly in order of opening, so you go from very old school to bang up to date.

 

El Vino, 47 Fleet St, London EC4Y 1BJ

A legend since 1879. Fleet Street used to be the home of London’s newspapers and this is where the journalists would drink and gossip. Women weren’t allowed at the bar until the 1980s! It’s less raucous now as the customers are mainly lawyers. The food is basic, the meat pies are the thing to go for. The wine list extremely old-fashioned, lots of claret, generic white burgundy by the glass, and none the worse for it. It’s recently been taken over by Davy’s, a wine bar chain, so it’s not clear what the future is.

 

Gordon’s 47 Villiers St, London WC2N 6NE

Entering Gordon’s is like being in one of those Roger Corman adaptations of Edgar Allen Poe. The ceiling is incredibly low, there’s cobwebs and candles everywhere. I keep expecting Vincent Price to be on the next table. It’s also a total tourist trap and can get unpleasantly busy, but is worth visiting for the amazing atmosphere. The by the bottle wine list is a bit dull so I’d recommend you order sherry or madeira which come directly from the barrel.  

 

Le Beaujolais, 25 Litchfield St, London WC2H 9NJ

It feels like nothing at all has changed in here since it opened in 1972. The wine list consists of mainly negociant Beaujolais. It’s not the kind of place to share your obsession with low sulphur Morgon producers.  You’re here to have fun. Sobriety is positively frowned upon and don’t be surprised if you ended up leaving with someone else’s wife or husband. The food is good especially the Boeuf Bourguignon.

 

Cork & Bottle 44-46 Cranbourn Alley, London WC2H 7AN

Another 70s stalwart. This place used to be very popular with the wine trade. They’ve probably moved on to somewhere trendy in East London which is a shame because this place is rather good. The room, a spacious and nicely lit cellar, is inviting. The, not particularly cheap, wine list is full of tempting stuff especially from Southern Rhone and Australia.  It’s recently changed hands and the food has improved.

 

Albertine, 1 Wood Lane, London W12 7DP

Out in Shepherd’s Bush in West London, in the old days when BBC TV centre was around the corner, you might trip over  Jeremy Irons or Maggie Smith sipping a glass of Muscadet. Since the studios closed in 2013, the clientele is now mainly newish locals who have been priced out of Notting Hill. The wine list very solid, with producers such as De Martino from Chile, just the sort of stuff that I like to drink at home. The food is good home-cooked stuff, beef stroganoff, chicken curry, that sort of thing. It has a proper family feel.

 

Andrew Edmunds , 46 Lexington St, London W1F 0LP

A Soho stalwart, this is more of a restaurant but notable for it’s extensive and often good value wine list. I often run into the eponymous proprietor at tastings around London and he really knows his stuff. Cooking is simple bistro stuff, usually delicious. It’s very romantic too.

 

Mr Lawrence, 391 Brockley Rd, London SE4 2PH

I’m count myself very lucky to have this place on my doorstep in south east London. They import their own wine from south west France as well as champagne and armagnac . You can order food from the pub next door and eat it in the wood-panelled splendour of the dining room. A neighbourhood gem but worth going to visit as well.

 

Planet of the Grapes, 9/10 Bulls Head Passage, Leadenhall Market, London EC3V 1LU

This business started out as a shop in Holborn, they’ve since expanded to three wine bars in the City and one further west in the neo-baroque Sicilian Avenue. You can buy wines to take away or for a corkage fee, drink them on site with food. The wines are excellent, very much the kind of thing that you can imagine prosperous stock brokers drinking, claret, burgundy, Brunello, and Californian cabernets.  Just don’t ask for natural wine.

 

Terroirs, 5 William IV St, London WC2N 4DW

This was the only natural wine bar in London when it opened in 2009. Some of the wines are a too natural for me but the knowledgeable  staff are always happy to steer me towards something more conventional. Whilst the wines can a be a little wacky, the food is decidedly classic, very French, cassoulet etc with particularly good shellfish. They have a sister restaurant in East London called Brawn.

 

10 Cases,16 Endell St, London WC2H 9BD

The name comes from their policy of buying ten cases each of special wines and selling them until they’re gone. They also do a regular house selection. On my last visit I had a very good mosel riesling by the glass and a Xinomavro from Greece with some great tapas. They’re currently trialling a one hour wine delivery service in central London so you don’t even need to leave your home to get the 10 Cases experience.

 

Sager & Wilde, 193 Hackney Road, London E2 8JL

Where Sager & Wilde sits used to be the roughest pub in East London, the British Lion. My Uncle used to go there to talk about horses with the locals. It was opened in 2013 by Charlotte and Michael Sager-Wilde and has since become wildly popular not least with the wine trade. The list is very modish with orange wines, Santa Barbara pinot noirs and Jura whites. Their cheddar cheese toastie has achieved mythical status. They have another venue which is more of a restaurant under the arches in nearby Bethnal Green

 

Wine Pantry, 1 Stoney St, London SE1 9AA –

A few years ago a bar that only sold English wine would be a punchline to a joke. Not now. English sparkling wines in particular are winning plaudits all over the world. The still whites, even some reds are catching up fast.  Julia Stafford, the owner of this place in Borough Market, bursts with enthusiasm. If you come sceptical, like I did, you’ll leave converted especially after half dozen oysters and a glass of Henners Brut Reserve.

 

Quality Chop House, 88-94 Farringdon Rd, London EC1R 3EA

This London institution was closed for a few years but reopened in 2014 under new management. It lives up to its name by offering the finest pork chop I think I’ve ever had (sorry mum) especially with their signature confit potato. It has a great wine list, of course, with a very nice Bergerac as the house red. Particularly exciting are the early 20th century Rivesaltes and Maurys (sweet French wines not dissimilar to port) which they offer by the glass.

 

Wine makers club, 41a Farringdon St, London EC4A 4AN

This was once a branch of Oddbins, the chain of wine merchants where I worked in the late 90s. It’s an incredible space under the Holborn Viaduct but beware, it’s basically a cellar, so wrap up warm. The cold smell of damp mingled with wine when you walk into the bar took me back to my days in the wine trade. They offer a very interesting selection of wines, particularly good on Tuscany with Brunello from Sesti and Chianti from Riecine. There’s simple food available to eat alongside.

 

Noble Rot, 51 Lamb’s Conduit St, London WC1N 3NB

The owners, Marks Andrew a former wine merchant, and Dan Keeling, former A&R man who discovered Coldplay, are geniuses are self-promotion. I’ve never known a new wine bar opening to get so much attention. Fortunately the place lives up to the hype, they’ve taken on a top chef, Paul Weaver, formerly of St. John’s, and the wine list made me want to empty my savings account.  On my last visit, I had some mouthwateringly juicy hogget (somewhere between lamb and mutton in age) which went down nicely with a well-priced bottle of Vina Tondonia Rioja. The owners edit a wine magazine also called Noble Rot which you can read whilst you wait for your food.

 

67 Pall Mall, London SW1Y 5ES

I shouldn’t include this place because it’s a private members club but the by the class list is so extensive that I thought it worth mentioning. I had an a delicious Cote Rotie from Jasmine for £9 a glass. It would be double anywhere else. With it I had some, very good, bar snacks but there is a proper restaurant too. My advice is to befriend a member next time you’re in London.

This originally appeared in Food & Wine magazine. 

 

 

Categories
Restaurants

11 places to go out in Peckham

Il Giardino

This is an article I wrote for Food & Wine. If you’d told me 10 years ago that an American magazine would run an article on Peckham’s food scene, I’d have thought you were barking mad. It’s thrilling and a little terrifying how quickly London is changing. 

For a long time, Peckham was notorious among Londoners for its gang violence, bad schools and decaying housing estates. Until recently, this unloved part of South East London didn’t even have the urban glamour of other rough neighborhoods like Brixton or Hackney; there was just no reason to go there. Then, about ten years ago, artists who had been pushed out of East London by rising rents began colonizing the neighborhood’s old industrial buildings, and soon people with money began moving in. The usual story really, but in Peckham it happened so fast. Seemingly overnight, SE15 went from being a postcode I wouldn’t even consider moving to, to one I couldn’t afford.

Peckham has certain advantages over other gentrifying suburbs. It was developed in the 19th century for the newly affluent middle classes and it still has lots of good quality (albeit increasingly expensive) Victorian houses. There’s large park in the form of Peckham Rye. And it’s well-connected: from the beautiful if dilapidated Italianate station at Peckham Rye, you can catch trains to all over London. The schools are improving with independently run state schools getting outstanding results.

The best thing about Peckham, though, is the food. I live in nearby Lewisham, which is still stubbornly resisting gentrification and some of its trappings, like good restaurants. So whenever we want to eat or drink well, we go to Peckham. Despite all the great restaurants, even on a Friday night, it’s not that busy. The bridge and tunnel crowd haven’t discovered the neighborhood yet—unless you count my wife and me. Here are a few places to try:

Il Giardino7 Blenheim Grove, London SE15 4QS

This Sardinian restaurant must have seemed like an emissary from another world when it opened in 1987. Now run by a Peruvian family*, it’s the sort of old-fashioned trattoria that you dream of but so rarely find. The food is basic but lovingly prepared, with particularly good pizzas, and the atmosphere is never less than joyful. (photo above courtesy of Il Giardino.)

*I heard an unsubstantiated story that the original owners did a runner for tax reasons and the only member of staff left was the Peruvian kitchen porter who arrived at work to find the place deserted. So with his family he took the place over.

Miss Tapas46 Choumert Rd., London SE15

When you leave the train station en route to Miss Tapas, you might be forgiven for wondering when exactly the gentrification is going to arrive. The streets around it are a riot of places offering hair weaves, halal meat, and exotic fruit and veg. Nestled amongst all this, though, is this tiny place. It offers excellent tapas and a good, all-Spanish wine list that includes some unusual sherries. The owners run a business importing Spanish produce, so you can be assured that everything—drinks and food—is of the highest quality.

The NinesUnit 9A Copeland Park, 133 Copeland Road, London SE15 3SN

The Nines is a fun cocktail bar in the Bussey Building. This building is the epicenter of the new Peckham, an in fact it serves as a pretty good metaphor for the whole area. The former warehouse now houses a peculiar mixture of bars, studio spaces, and African evangelical churches. You access the Nines via an alley—it’s in a car park behind the building. The decor is basic in the extreme, but the drinks are good, strong and relatively inexpensive.

Brick Brewery, Blenheim Grove, London SE15 4QL

Just down the road from the station is this craft brewery. The taproom is open at night, so you can sample the beer alongside salty snacks, like the cured meats they offer—ingeniously designed to get you to drink more. What could be more Peckham than having cured meats at a micro brewery?

 

Peckham Bazaar,119 Consort Rd, London SE15 3RU

You’ll walk down Consort Road thinking, surely nothing could be down here, and then, just when you’re about to give up, there is Peckham Bazaar. The food is broadly Turkish and Georgian but anything at the intersection of Europe and Asia goes. Char-grilled meats are the thing, but what really lifts it above standard Levantine fare is the bold seasoning and the imaginative use of seasonal vegetables. The wine list, mainly Greek and Croat, is brilliantly chosen. Booking in advance is essential for what is in my opinion not just one of the best restaurants in Peckham but in all of London.

Peckham Refreshment Rooms,12-16 Blenheim Grove, London SE15 4QL

Located opposite a couple of Afro-Caribbean hairdressers, the street outside gets lively in the summer with Peckham, old and new, mingling together. Inside it can be very noisy, but it’s worth it for good simple food, steaks, terrines, and charcuterie, with a short, quality wine list and craft beers (everywhere in Peckham sells craft beers). Also handy for breakfasts and coffee, this is the perfect neighborhood stalwart.

The Begging Bowl,168 Bellenden Rd., London, Peckham SE15 4BW

Oddly for a city as diverse as London, it’s really hard to find good Thai food here. The Begging Bowl offers bold, fresh flavors, with unusual things such as a duck offal salad (much nicer than it sounds). Peckham these days can be a bit us and them, so it’s nice to see that the Begging Bowl is popular with a broad cross-section of the community. It’s been open since 2012 and already feels like an institution.

The Pedler8 Peckham Rye, Peckham, London SE15 4JR

Restaurant critics are now regularly making the journey down to SE15 to try the latest places. Pedler, which is right near Peckham Rye, is just the kind of place that I wish someone would open in Lewisham. The food is what used to be called eclectic—think British with Italian, Spanish, and French influences, and Eastern flourishes. Like lemon sole served with ginger and Sriracha butter. They also take their gin-based cocktails very seriously.

 

Ganapati, 38 Holly Grove, London SE15 5DF

Most Indian restaurants in Britain are run by Bangladeshis. Ganapati is a little different. It serves authentic Southern Indian food in a relaxed cafe atmosphere. Again unlike most British Indian restaurants, the owners change the menu regularly to reflect what is in season. Their dosas and parathas are particularly fine. It has a nice terrace for outside dining in the summer.

Artusi, 161 Bellenden Rd., London SE15 4DH

Bellenden Road is a hotbed of gentrification, bustling with with upmarket delicatessens, restaurants and an organic butcher, so it’s no surprise to find a voguish Italian place such as Artusi. They offer charcuterie, offal, cheeses and excellent homemade pasta. The menu changes daily but everything on it is always mouth-watering. The wine list can veer towards the funky end of ‘natural’ wines, so if you’re a wine conservative like me, ask before you order.

Rosie’s Deli28 Peckham Rye, London SE15 4JR

Rosie’s Deli in nearby Brixton has been offering excellent food to South Londoners since 2003. The owner, food writer Rosie Lovell, has just opened this much bigger branch near the Rye. It’s a great place to have breakfast, and it has very good coffee. While you’re there, you must try her signature dish of scrambled eggs with chilli jam.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Restaurants

London’s most old-fashioned restaurants

This originally appeared in Food & Wine magazine. They’ve made a fancy slideshow out of it.

I read a review recently of Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, a restaurant that opened in 1850, in which the writer described the restaurant as “old-fashioned.” It went on to say: “Simpson’s does not look like a place that changes.” That could have been written yesterday—but is actually from 1899. The reviewer, Lieutenant-Colonel Newnham-Davis (how many restaurants reviewers nowadays have a military rank?), went on to say: “carvers. . . leisurely push carving dishes, with plated covers, running on wheels, from customer to customer.” Simpson’s is a bit faded round the edges now but in the wood paneled-dining room, white-coated waiters still push huge joints of roast beef around on trolleys.  

In a city such as London, with its vibrant culinary scene, it’s easy to get swept up in the new, in pop-ups and food trucks, in Instagram-friendly dishes and on-trend vegetables, and forget about the familiar faces. So I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the city’s longest-established restaurants. The places I’ve chosen aren’t just old, they are like stepping back in time.

First stop is the 1970s. The menu at Maggie Jones behind Kensington High Street in West London has not changed in 40 years. There’s prawn cocktail, duck pate and chicken in tarragon sauce. The prices have barely budged either, with starters at £6 ($9), mains at £9 ($13) and £4 ($6) for a glass of wine. Best of all, they bring the wine bottle to your table and charge you by how much you drink. It’s a rabbit warren inside with tables in little nooks and crannies. All the couples look like they’re having affairs.

Also inhabiting the 1970s but rather more upmarket is Oslo Court in St John’s Wood, North West London. Again, the menu is a time warp that includes veal holstein, duck a l’orange and beef wellington. The interior is a riot of pastel. It’s a great place to take deaf relatives as there’s so much sound absorbing fabric. The napkins alone could be used to soundproof a small recording studio.

These places are mere babies compared with the daddy of London restaurants, Rules in Covent Garden, which was founded in 1798. The interior is gentleman’s club heaven with thick carpets, old paintings and dark wood. The wood-paneled private dining rooms are particularly convivial and you get your own personal waiter for the evening. Unlike Simpsons, which is considered a bit of a tourist trap, Rules has never really gone out of fashion. It’s still popular with actors from the nearby theaters, politicians, and anyone with a bit of money to splash around. The thing to order here is game such as pheasant, rabbit and grouse.

A short walk away is J. Sheekey’s fish restaurant, founded in 1893. Try to eat in the wood-paneled (are you detecting a theme here?) dining room rather than at the bar for the full old-fashioned experience. Along with Scott’s and Wilton’s both in Mayfair, Sheekey’s makes up the holy trinity of West End fish restaurants. Both Sheekey’s and Scott’s are part of the Caprice group and their menus have been updated somewhat, but Wilton’s is still resolutely traditional. It began as a shellfish store in 1742, and though it’s moved around a lot since then and has only been at its current address on Jermyn Street since 1984, it has the air of an unchanging institution. The lobster and crab omelet is legendary.

Also famous for its seafood is Sweetings in the City, which has been going since 1830.  Only open at lunchtime, the regular clientele are largely bankers, lawyers and stock brokers, and the prices reflect this (none of these places I’ve mentioned so far except Maggie Jones are anything but very expensive.) Dover sole and oysters are the specialties – washed down with pints of Black Velvet, a mixture of Guinness and champagne served in pewter tankards – but it’s also famous for traditional heavy puddings.

The first Indian restaurant in London, the Hindoostane Coffee House, opened in 1810. It didn’t survive, unfortunately, but Veeraswamy, which opened in 1926, has prospered. Sadly the premises just off Regent Street, largely unchanged until the 1990s, have had a number of makeovers since then—as has the menu. The current look is best described as colonial bling. The food can be very good, but I feel that it’s lost some of its history. Instead, for the ultimate old Anglo-Indian experience, go to the India Club in the Strand Continental Hotel. It was founded in 1946 and not much has changed since then.  The threadbare white ocean liner style jackets worn by the waiters look like they were made when the place first opened. The food is delicious: good lamb bhuna, great dosas and chapatis. Added bonus: it’s very cheap and you can bring your own drink, as they don’t sell alcohol.  

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, used to meet Edwina Mountbatton, wife of the last Viceroy of India, for very friendly meals at the India Club. They are rumoured to have been lovers. It sits almost next door to Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. The two restaurants may be a world away in price, but they share a similar grandeur. As long as they sit in the Strand, London will still be in touch with its culinary roots. Last January, however, management at the Savoy Hotel, which owns the Simpson’s building, announced that it was looking for a new tenant to open a more modern restaurant. It seems that over 150 years of history will soon be coming to an end.  At the moment Simpson’s is still there, but the staff don’t know for how long. Go before it’s too late.  I heartily recommend the steak and kidney pudding.

 

Categories
Restaurants Wine articles

What happened to all the quiet restaurants (and pubs)?

This article originally appeared in the Oldie magazine:

The other day I went for lunch with an old friend at a fashionable Peruvian place in Soho. The food was nice, the noise was appalling. It was more like being in a nightclub than a restaurant. Afterwards my ears were ringing and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Admittedly my hearing isn’t the best. Deafness runs in our family. In her later years my grandmother would answer all questions with the word whisky. My friend though has perfect hearing and she had the same complaint. We swore afterwards to go somewhere quieter next time , but where?

Restaurants used to have tablecloths, cushions and curtains which all absorbed sound. Things began to change with the opening of Kensington Place by Rowley Leigh in 1987. This restaurant not far from Notting Hill Tube quickly became fashionable; Princess Diana was a regular. I went once and left feeling like I’d spent an hour in a cement mixer. It was a vast room full of steel, tiles and glass, reflecting the noise of a hundred Absolutely Fabulous types relentlessly pitching at each other. Nobody was doing anything as old-fashioned as listening nor indeed was it possible to.

Where Kensington Place led others followed. From then on restaurants had to feel buzzy, a synonym for noisy. Terence Conran’s 1990s empire, Quaglino’s, the Blueprint cafe, Le Pont de La Tour, shared this feel. This minimalist look began to take over the humble boozer around the time that Tony Blair was on the rise. Blair won the 1997 election with a manifesto entitled New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country. There was no place in the New Britain for class distinctions; out went the public bar, the snug and the saloon. Partitions were torn down. We were all now in one big room so let’s remove the curtains and let in the light of the new dawn.

From then on it was bare boards all the way. A couple of years ago I went back to a much loved pub in Cornwall that I’d last visited in 1995 and found that it had been gutted and replaced with bleached wood. The smoking ban of 2007 was the final nail in the coffin of the pub carpet. Once there was no smoke, landlords realised that their carpets stank and tore them up.  This cleansing took place in the home too. Laminate flooring  came in so that now you can hear every noise from the neighbours above. IKEA’s 1996 ‘chuck out your chintz’ advert campaign caught the spirit of the times.

The popularity of the minimalist trend might be because such places are cheaper to fit out and they save on laundry bills. The trend in restaurants is for tiny spaces where diners are expected to share plates. They promise value but once you’ve had some tapas, a few drinks, some nuts and olives, end up being almost as expensive as Le Gavroche. They all look very similar inside: bare brick, cramped tables, mismatched wooden furniture and tiles for maximum noise reflection. They’re restaurants for the under 30s. It also helps to be a little drunk to put up with the  din.

Many pubs are now more like bars with music played at deafening volume for the amusement of the staff who do not respond well to requests to turn it down. No one else seems to mind. They’re full of excitable young people shouting at each other. Quite a few of them will be on cocaine. Blair’s premiership coincided with rocketing cocaine use in Britain. In 1996 less than 2% of people admitted to using it in the past year. By 2006 it was over 8%.  In the late 90s early 00s I began to notice drug use in the most unlikely places such at the pub in the village where I grew up in Buckinghamshire. People on cocaine aren’t listening. They are just thinking of the next thing to say.

Not that all these new style places are full of coked-up media types. Some are rather good. It’s great that you can eat proper Barcelona style Tapas in London rather than microwaved gloop in brown earthenware dishes. In the new pubs the food is better, there’s more choice in beer, and they welcome children. But the noise! Our local in Blackheath South London on a Sunday is brutally loud. Imagine a nursery school run by drunken teachers.

What we need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishing. It would be like CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) for those who savour a bit of quiet with their beer or a meal with an old friend. Rather than the Cask Mark, the symbol would be a wingback armchair. Inspectors will pay special attention to things such as curtains, carpets, large dogs, and tweed. Anything that absorbs sound. In short, if my father and I can have a conversation without shouting ‘what?’ at each other then it passes and they can put up a plaque.

It will be a while before the campaign takes off. Fortunately, I’ve found the ideal pub not far from my house. It’s an old 30’s boozer complete with a carpet, banquettes, nick-nacks and partitions. There’s four real ales, no music and the TV is only switched on for big matches. No, I’m not going to tell you where it is.

The campaign that ruined a thousand homes.