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.

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Gypsy cuisine at a Buenos Aires supper club

(c) Helen Musselwhite

The supper club craze that has taken London and various other cities by storm also has a huge presence in BA, where they are known as puertas cerradas – closed door restaurants. A little info for the uninitiated: it’s a restaurant in somebody’s house. They sit you at their table and cook you food from their kitchen. Really great food. Inspired by interesting things or a clever theme. There are usually lots of courses and sometimes wine to match, for a (normally bargainous) set price. You share table and talk with strangers; interesting folks from all kinds of backgrounds. These dinners tend to be advertised by blog, or via social networking and word of mouth. They aren´t signposted — the only way to discover the address is to book yourself a place. But despite seeming low key, these supper clubs are no secret — in fact the BA puertas cerradas have their own boxed text in my Lonely Planet. And when I logged on, weeks in advance, to make a reservation for Casa Saltshaker, perhaps the best-known puerta cerrada in BA, there was just a single seat remaining for my chosen date.

On the night, having navigated the BA subway alone, I arrived in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Recoleta, armed with a dog-eared printout of my booking confirmation and mild apprehensions. But the initial awkwardness of sitting down to eat with complete strangers was quickly diffused by the novelty of the food, which was at once fascinating, beautiful and delicious. The five matching wines helped too!

It was the international day of the Romany, so our menu was themed around traditional gypsy dishes and hearty peasant food. Continue reading

Sarnies in Spain

I suspect any Spaniards reading this are laughing. Why, they ask, would someone bother to write a review of Cervecería 100 Montaditos? It’s the type of laugh I’d give on discovering a foreign blogger had wasted 700 words describing Subway or GBK. But let them laugh; for its novelty value if nothing else, this place gets a write-up.

Now, who doesn’t like a good sandwich? The benefits of this simple snack are endless. It’s versatile enough to suit every appetite, from a dieter nibbling on a wholemeal tuna-and-low-fat mayo to a ravenous lad feasting on a triple club. The sandwich can cater for any occasion, posing one minute as a sophisticated cucumber-filled triangle, the next as a rough-and-ready doorstop with hunks of Cheddar cheese. It can sum up an entire meal in a single bready package – the egg-and-bacon breakfast sarnie for example, or the annual Christmas special, crammed with turkey and all the trimmings. There’s no better snack for munching on the hoof but it is just as often ordered sit-down with a side of chips.

And it is constantly reinvented, morphing into all manner of shapes and forms: rolls, wraps, baguettes, toasted sandwiches, open sandwiches, and even – for those who can’t (or won’t) eat wheat, breadless sandwiches, courtesy of Pret. Famous enough to be known by acronym alone (I refer of course to the BLT), the humble sandwich could perhaps be credited with bringing back M&S from the brink of insolvency. Finally, what higher culinary praise than this: the French – food snobs that they are – have adopted the noun le sandwich as a certified member of their very own language. Earl Sandwich would be proud. Continue reading

The best croquettas in Madrid?

Dinnertime was fast approaching in Madrid. Never mind that we were still sat in 100 Montaditos after a novelty-but-actually-pretty-edible afternoon snack, it was already time to consider restaurant options for the evening ahead. Running my finger down the entries in Lonely Planet, I found a wealth of cuisine types at our disposal, with no shortage of local food: Tapas…Tapas…More Tapas…Thai (“No, we’re in Spain”)…Tapas…Tapas…Italian (“Ditto”)…Modern Spanish…Croquettas…Tapas…Tap—WOAH THERE!!!
A whole restaurant devoted to croquettas? This I had to visit.

So now, to satisfy my croquetta obsession, we were venturing into new territory, heading along Gran Via towards Malasaňa, a barrio (neighbourhood) that the book describes as “the stuff of Madrid legend … pushing hedonism to new limits.” Perhaps we were asking a bit much from a Tuesday night at the tail-end of December, but after reading such praise we had expected Calle Madera to be more than the dark and isolated alley on which we found ourselves. After some fruitless wandering, I was all for giving up. No way could there be good croquettas here. Muggings, more like. Or dead cats. Perhaps we would become croquettas? But The Warren had faith. “Let’s go a little further” turned out to be the wisest remark of the night (closely followed by “Dos mas, por favour”, a phrase that would be repeated a good few times). Suddenly, out of the darkness there was light, glowing softly through narrow, red, partially graffitied double-doors. Casa Julio. You could easily miss it or dismiss it, destined never to join the throng of happy Spaniards just visible behind the steamed-up glass.

Casa Julio's far-from-glamorous entrance

Casa Julio is a sweet and simple little bar, a family business, passed down the generations since 1921. We squeezed into the warm, crowded room, quite noticeably the only English in a sea of jabbering locals: a little bit daunting, but an obvious sign that the food must be good. Also very promising were the framed press-clippings on the wall and the photos of celebs who had deigned to rub shoulders with commoners in pursuit of the perfect croquetta. (Presumably these ‘celebs’ were all Spanish, as the only ones we recognised were U2; I guess Bono and I share a passion.)

Getting a spot at the bar was like an Olympic sport. The Warren proved very skilful at it (as one of five siblings, his mealtime reflexes have had a lot of practice) and after just one cerveza we gained an advantageous corner position. We were ready to do serious damage to the menu. And damage we did. Croqetta frenzy. Queso and jamón as standard. Then a couple of wildcards: atun con huevo (tuna with egg) and espinacas, pasas y gorgonzola (spinach with raisins and gorgonzola). The spinach ones took surprise gold. We also polished off a portion of albóndigas: chubby meatballs and hefts of potato in a delicious sauce, a basket of pane, and patatas bravas muy, MUY picante. I lifted that first chunk of potato in trepidation. Hmmm – one can only assume the Spanish are cowardly when it comes to spice, as I barely batted an eyelid, let alone broke a sweat. All of the above was washed down with the local cerveza – Mahou – and then, for just €9, a bottle of Spanish Cava (The Warren loves his Cava).

Croquettas a-go-go

We are definitely Casa Julio fans. The staff were friendly, the clientele was an interesting cross-section of ages and types, the place was cosy and welcoming. And the croquettas didn’t let me down. In true Walder-Warren fashion, we stayed on until closing time.

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.

Continue reading

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.

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