Honestly the best in Brixton Village

Definitely my favourite hole-in-the-wall at Brixton Village, Honest burgers are bloody good. The premise is thoroughly uncomplicated: take a burger, and make every element of it amazing in its own right…

Meat: aged beef from the Ginger Pig. Juicy and fat, served on the pink side of medium.

Bread: light, airy, brioche buns with crisp, glazed tops. Gluten-free an option.

Fillings: the perfect number of options to choose from (no ridiculous long list as per GBK). Some are classic, others adventurous, and all delightful and sourced as you’d expect. The ‘special’ changes regularly. This weekend, options included: chorizo from Brindisa (where else?), dry-cured smoked bacon (from Ginger Pig), Manchego cheese, caramelised red onion relish, fresh rocket, punchy chimichurri, braised chillies.

Chips: TRIPLE-fried (!!!) with rosemary. Skinny but not too skinny. Utterly moreish.

Drink: this weekend I was treated to hot cider. What better on a snowy Saturday night? They also sell a great Sam Smith’s bottled lager.

Price: a million, zillion times cheaper than Byron and GBK (and much, much nicer!).

(c) Aidan Brown 2011

As you may have gathered, I’m a big fan. And I’m certainly not alone — Honest has had some pretty high-profile press coverage of late, including from Jay Rayner (fellow Brixton-dweller), who has sung their praises in the Observer on more than one occasion. It’s not surprising therefore that it gets quite busy, so it’s worth getting down there early, or at least in enough time to pop your name on the list — we arrived at 8pm and waited 45 minutes. But it’s easy to kill time in the village. Grab a can from the offy on Coldharbour Lane and wander round checking out the other joints and gazing into the windows of the vintage stores and gift shops. Or nip across to the Dogstar for a pint.

Afternoon tea at the Landmark

A tiny bit of me wonders why afternoon tea is considered so cool. Despite the fact that London is caught up in patisserie frenzy – artisan bakeries all over the place, cupcakes the new Prozac, macaroons sacrosanct as diamonds – there’s something depressingly old-fashioned about the image that afternoon tea conjures up: tablecloths and chintz, china teapots, piddly little sandwiches, pastel-coloured sponge and sickly marzipan. Some of London’s tea-rooms are a hundred years old or more, salons where Victorian ladies whiled away afternoons with cross-stitch and idle tittle-tattle. Their fad for ‘low tea’ was a fresh and exciting culinary experience back then. But compared with today’s exhilarating foodie scene – liquid nitrogen, Mexican market food, hefty slabs of meat with a view of St Paul’s, red-velvet whoopie pies the size of your head – the classic afternoon tea should seem faded, demure and terribly clichéd. Yet, here we are in 2010 and most of London’s iconic tea-rooms have three-month waiting lists. Afternoon tea still oozes cool. (And yes, I’m shaking my head in wonder, but also I’m jumping up and down with glee.)

So why, in a recession, are so many of us queuing up to blow £40 on tea and cake, when we could get a steaming mug of Tetley and a Mr Kipling for a matter of pence? Equipped with two girlfriends, I went to find out.

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The Larder, Clerkenwell

It’s rare I eat East, so it was a novelty when a friend’s birthday took me to that neck of the woods, past grand Smithfield market and the famed St John’s dining rooms for the very first time. First impressions of St John’s Lane were as an odd and eerie place. Connecting Farringdon to buzzing Angel, the road is lined with smart-looking eateries and spick office space, but during my visit the pavements (and Waitrose) were pretty much deserted. Where were the people?

(c) Fluid London

The Larder doesn’t yell. I walked the length of the road twice before finally locating it at the Farringdon end, its frontage obscured by scaffolding and its name in discreet lettering above the door. From outside it looks pricey (even the scaffolding suggests investment) but not uninviting. Despite the fact we booked through Top Table and would be enjoying a decent little discount, the girl on the door welcomed us warmly. No credit-crunch resentment here. We were led to a table in the window (as Simon observed, ‘probably to make the place look busy’, since it transpired that the deserted pavements weren’t down to Larder having poached all the pedestrians) and then given plenty of time and space to wait for the final member of our party to arrive.

Talking of space, there’s probably nowhere in Soho with the luxury of such space. If this ample dining room was a Pizza Express, it would contain eight times as many seats. Instead, Larder puts enough distance between you and the next table of strangers that you can remark quite openly on them without fear of being overheard (and remark we did – not just because they were a rather fruity-looking couple, but also because the plates arriving on their table were definitely worth comment). But though the privacy is nice – and indeed quite a novelty in London – it also makes the place feel a little uninhabited and thwarts that ‘buzz’ that makes a good restaurant really great. And, as mentioned, on the Wednesday night in question, the place also suffered from not being full. The only interruptions to our seclusion were the gawping waiters: the wide gangways prevent them from sidling past to sneak a look at your plate, so, discreet as they try to be, they have no choice but to march right up to the table to assess your progress. Meanwhile, reaching the toilets is like crossing the savannah, leading you past a surprisingly exposed chef’s table (I thought they were normally tucked away in expensive back-rooms) and an open kitchen that is less a spectacle and more a chance for the chefs to size up their diners.

(c) Fluid London

Despite the sparse atmosphere, however, Larder really isn’t bad. The staff are pleasant (gawping aside; it’s not their fault), and the food is of a nice standard. The Top Table menu barely differs from the regular à la carte, and affords you a 50% discount if you order starter and main. So we did. Bread, refreshingly, was free, evidently homemade, and came with a shot-glass of olive-oily hummus. My chicken liver parfait was smooth, dense, rich, its chutney tangy. Its butter coating was a little odd, though: not exactly clarified, but also not quite regular, as if somebody had got halfway through clarifying it and then given up. Simon’s Salt and Sichuan Pepper Squid was generous and cleverly presented. The Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli looked fresh and hand-made, topped with attractive micro-salad, while the Duck Spring Rolls were, pleasantly, closer to fresh spring rolls than to the artery-busting deep-fried variety, and chock-a-block with meat.

There is everything to choose from when it comes to The Larder’s main courses: the whole spectrum of meats, a variety of fish types, inventive salads and interesting veggie options. Every dish sounds hearty in some way, whether due to the cooking process (braising/roasting), the homely connotations of the dish (steak pudding/classic fish and chips) or because it is ‘heartied’ up with accompaniments like bubble and squeak or Parmesan croquettes. Somehow, even the salads project heartiness, by promising a whole wealth of ingredients, particularly earthy ones like squash and root veg. My roast salmon came with a satisfyingly salty side of puy lentils, pancetta and Charlotte potatoes. A pie boasted a stodgy but delicious suet-pastry crust. Delicate grilled plaice fillets were roughened up with some breaded scampi. The confit of duck was given the opposite treatment, its audacious richness offset with delicate scallops and bok choy. All hearty but not heavy. Plates were duly emptied.

Verdict? Satisfying and attractive food trying to hold its own against a slightly meagre atmosphere. I rarely wish for a rabble, but to get the best experience of Larder, I recommend going at a typically busy time – a Thursday or Friday evening, when the place is full enough that people’s voices might drown out the awkward clink of your knife and fork.

Polpetto

The press have been going mad for a tiny restaurant with just 28 seats. Today’s fourth most-viewed restaurant on Time Out London, and arguably this year’s most talked-about new eating place, Polpetto opened in August to an impatient crowd of media bods, foodies and tweeters, all eager to squeeze inside and feast on Venetian tapas.

This is the follow-up to Polpo, which has established itself as a Venetian-style bacaro in Soho, and whose website displays an incredible roll-call of praise, including huge compliments from Jay Rayner and A.A Gill. So far Polpetto looks set to replicate every ounce of its big sister’s success.

Having not yet tried Polpo, perhaps that’s where I should have started, but who could resist the description of Polpetto as ‘a tiny, jewel-box version’? Also lured in by a promising review in Stylist magazine and the clamour coming from Twitter, I wanted to get straight to the treasure.

Situated above The French House on Dean Street, Polpetto is reached by a narrow staircase that leads up into a small space cluttered with wooden furniture. A dark red banquette along the back is shared by four adjacent tables beneath a wall of exposed brickwork and three mock windows, shaped like openings onto the outside world but tiled with mirrors that reflect the inside of the room. With its wood floor, panelled ceiling, worn paintwork and naked pendant bulbs dangling from their wires, the simple, timeless decor might trick you into believing Polpetto has resided here for two centuries, rather than just two months.

The tableware is quirky and classic – miniature wine and water glasses in various shapes and styles; wine that arrives in darling half-carafes, patterned vintage dishes, and wide-format parchment menus printed with an old-fashioned serif type. The menu consists of ‘cicheti, small plates and classic Venetian osteria dishes.’ This basically means small snacks, which you can mix and match as you choose. We matched Duck & porcini meatballs with Chopped chicken liver crostino, Smoked swordfish, lemon and dill ricotta, Stracchino, fennel, salami & fig bruschetta, Cured pork shoulder & pickled pepper pizzetta and Zucchini fries (which were phenomenal; I’d go back just for those). The general approach seems to be just to keep on ordering until you’re full. The young, friendly staff didn’t mind at all when we flagged them down for the sixth time. Plates are small, prices are small, the place itself is small, but taste is big. Desserts (Pannacotta with blackberries and salted hazelnut praline; Tiramisu pot) were just a mouthful, but a delicious one.

This tiny place fills up fast. We were smart enough to stop by at 6.30pm on a weekday; by 8pm there was a snaking queue. Once inside, nobody wants to leave. Believe all the hype and definitely pay Polpetto a visit, but pick your time wisely: on a Friday or Saturday night not even those zucchini fries would convince me to bother.

Gilgamesh: East meets West in North-London

To describe the restaurant Gilgamesh with any hope of accuracy, you must accept that it is neither one thing or another. It is a place of stark contrasts.
Take pairs of adjectives opposite in meaning and in every case you’ll need both: Ancient yet modern. Vast yet intimate. Ostentatious but somehow casual and effortless. These extremes are everywhere: in the decor, cuisine, atmosphere, flavours. The food is bold and brave, but never intimidating; dishes are spicy yet still somehow soothing. A place with so many attributes could easily struggle over its identity. But Gilgamesh knows itself, and its many sides meld nicely together: a place where East and West unite in a North-London market.

 

Gilgamesh Bar

 

 

Sited in the heart of Camden stables, amidst traders’ lean-tos and lurid Chinese food stalls, to reach Gilgamesh you’re forced to leave the grunge-cool high street and step fleetingly onto cobbles. It’s all part of the experience: that hint of ramshackle market simply highlights how distinct the restaurant is from its surroundings. The cobbles quickly become plush black carpet as you approach the suited security men and clipboard-wielding hostess who guard the door. If your name’s on the list – essential on a weekend; they can rarely fit in impromptu visits – you may pass inside, where an escalator transports you upstairs between carved mahogany walls. More staff and imposing glass doors still block the way: you just aren’t getting in if you didn’t book ahead.

When at last you take your seat – a throne-like brocade-upholstered monstrosity – in the cavernous dining room with its soaring glass ceiling, all your senses are bombarded. Feast your eyes on intricately sculpted wood, jewel-coloured fabrics shot with gold and silver, rich velvet flocking and rippling vats of water dotted liberally with floating flowers. Attractive bartenders shake exotic-looking cocktails; glorious smells and glimpses of food tease you from nearby tables. From the off, you can’t but be absorbed, so that it’s unnerving when you look up from your plate for a moment and suddenly recall where you are and how many, many people surround you.

Despite a special offer, the set menu didn’t tempt us. The à la carte is designed to snare. Food arrived fast, and thick; there’s no skimping, though it is still dim sum so don’t expect roast-dinner-sized portions. We chose Scallop and Prawn Dumplings, which sounded delicious but were disappointing, the beautiful scallops masked by a soggy, starchy coating. The Duck Spring Rolls were a better choice, but the real star of the starter show, without doubt, was the Sweet Potato and Avocado Tempura. Generous colourful wedges frosted with delicate pale batter, and three sensations – the potato sweet and textured, the avocado smooth and buttery, the batter light and crisp. All offset with a bowl of zingy Ponzu juice in which to dunk.

Last time I ate here, I came away singing about red duck curry with lychees, but sadly no sign of it on the menu a year later. With that curry in mind, we went straight for the Thai Green and a mound of Jasmine Rice.  I’ll say this for Ian Pengelly: he’s not afraid to whack a load of spices in his broth. Weaker women would have lain down their spoon and hollered for water.

As for dessert, a crème brûlée purist might turn up their nose at a flavoured version. Not I. The best approach to the Chocolate & Lemongrass Crème Brûlée is to treat it as an entirely separate dessert that just happens to replicate the texture of that oh-so-beloved French favourite. Like an incredibly silky milk-chocolate mousse, it slipped down nicely, with a sharp passion-fruit sorbet adding an edge, and the only negative being our difficulty in identifying the lemongrass: frustrating but not crucial.

You can’t do Asian food without the concluding tea ritual, and our Jasmine Pearls came in squat cast-iron teapots, the bulbous metal in heavy contrast to delicate china cups. Finally, a chance to digest: the food, the throng, the bill. Yes, all this glitz must be paid for, but luckily the prices aren’t quite steep enough to pale a colourful evening. (Though I imagine it’s a different story if you’re lured in by the cocktails.)

Verdict? Gilgamesh is a bright, buzzing, vibrant grotto, a glorious feast for the senses. It’s totally Camden – don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll experience the true Orient – but it’s also welcoming enough to make anyone feel cool and current.

 

Double espresso or flat white? My journey in search of good coffee

At university the teapot reigned. Many a nice cup of Yorkshire tea saw me through the tranquil hours of essay composition and private study. Especially during Neighbours. But when those halcyon years were suddenly over, I discovered a time called 7am. And something stronger was called for.

Coffee is my new best friend. While I can always turn to my old buddy Mr Tea Bag for a leisurely afternoon chat, coffee shakes me from my bed on my darkest days, props open my eyes and wrenches the foggy brain into focus; it moves my limbs in the required directions even when I’m in a daze. Watch the army of commuters staggering from house to office and you’ll see the same recurring movements everywhere, a set of well-practised actions which have become second nature by necessity as much as by repetition. Person A (let’s call her Coco [haha]) lurches from the tube station and takes her daily detour via Starbucks/Costa/Nero/Pret. Barely raising her heavy-lidded eyes, she slurs a multi-syllabic string of cocoa-related words at the apathetic barista. ‘Grande-skinny-cappuccino-widanextrashot-and-hot-milk-plus-extra-foam-and-chocolate-sprinkles.’ Coco stands trancelike until the receptacle touches the counter, at which, sudden, wild action is triggered. The cup is lunged for, seized, propelled to mouth, scalding bitter liquid is desperately inhaled. And there! There it is: a reverberating sigh of relief, and her entire being visibly trembles as the dregs of fatigue are sent packing.

She is not alone. This rite of morning passage takes place every day across cities all around the world. Millions of people haul gigantic cardboard cups from desk to mouth, from desk to mouth, from desk to mouth. Tongues are burnt, countless pennies are spent, all for a taste of that precious, gleaming, magical brown liquid with the power to shake us into instant action.

I’m an Americano with milk girl. No sugar. The cheapest option, but also the most unadulterated, gearing me up for stacks of invoices, difficult authors, endless meetings. Eleven o’clock and it’s time for another. Shameful as it is to admit, I depend upon this little luxury. I like my tea, but I need my coffee.

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A bit of a tragedy: Henry VIII at the Globe

The Globe, 24th May 2010

 

What better place to take in Shakespeare than his Globe? You’d struggle to suggest somewhere, wouldn’t you? And indeed, the first half-hour of Monday night’s visit lived up to its romantic notion. It began with a jaunty little stroll across Millennium Bridge, bursting with ‘I-live-in-this-city’ smugness. We sashayed into the swish theatre foyer, collected our ‘press passes’ (media, dahling), sidled through to the courtyard, oooohed at the Elizabethan exterior – all whitewash and timber ­– aaaahed at the interior with its three tiers of beamed seating and decadent canopied stage decorated with gilt, sculpted lions and strips of plush red carpet. Our seats were good; we were lucky enough to be at the rear, where we had the privilege of a wall to lean against, unlike others who perched on backless benches or the ‘paupers’ milling about in the ‘yard’. A fanfare of trumpets heralded the entrance of the players, and Henry VIII began.  

And that, my friends, is where the good stuff ended.  To return to a phrase I used earlier – ‘take in’ – can it really be termed taking something in, when you’re watching and listening, but not understanding one goddamn word? When you’re seeing the actors’ mouths move, but thinking only about how your behind is really rather sore after three hours on a stiff, unyielding wooden plank. When you’re tapping your feet not in time to the harps and pipes, but rather to drown out the loudly protesting stomach of the OAP sat next to you, the rustling crisp packets from the gaggle of Japanese tourists and the sound of the whole audience repositioning their posteriors or shifting their weight to the opposite foot. Heed this advice: if you want to properly ‘take in’ the bard from the authenticity of this historic theatre, it’s an awfully good idea to read the play before you go (or, better, a diluted summary – remember Spark Notes?) and it’s an even better idea to bring a cushion.     

Having said all of the above, there are some things at the Globe that you can ‘take in’ quite easily. I certainly ‘took in’ the interval snacks. I also ‘took in’ the prices of said snacks: that is, in mild disbelief and not-so-mild horror. I wasn’t myself ‘taken in’ by the tat that is the gift shop merchandise, though  I’m sure some clowns – tourists and groups of impressionable schoolchildren – are quite magnificently taken in by the Manga editions of Hamlet and Macbeth, the Capulet boxer shorts and the pencils fashioned to look like quills.  

They say that Henry VIII is a play of spectacle. And spectacle there was, with a divorce, a wedding, a coronation, a Christening, a birth, a death, a song and a dance, and some codpieces of pretty spectacular proportion. Catherine of Aragon made a right old spectacle of herself, screaming histrionically in a tiresome and unconvincing Spanish accent. Even more spectacular was the mess made of Anne Boleyn’s lady-in-waiting, whose nationality lapsed from Russian to Eastern European to Czech, until she mentioned Carmarthenshire and I realised, OH MY GOD, she’s supposed to be Welsh.    

How symbolic that this was the play during which the original Globe burnt down, when it was staged in 1613. I’m sure there were audience members on Monday who might happily have taken a match to the place again if it meant escaping Acts Four and Five. Worth noting, too, is that Henry VIII was one of Shakespeare’s very last plays, and one whose authorship is disputed, with suspicions that it was co-authored or heavily revised by John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor as playwright for the King’s Men. It is also one of the most seldom-performed of his plays. I am not surprised. These facts all taken together make me feel much less guilty about criticising one of our county’s most-admired historical figures and one of London’s most-revered landmarks. This time, alas, it was not for me.    

Henry VIII runs until 21 August 2010Buy Tickets
 
Other, slightly better, reviews:

The Times
The Telegraph
The Independent
The Guardian
Evening Standard