Arabica

Address: Borough Market, 3 Rochester Walk, London SE1 9AF
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Saturday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6/10

After a short, work-induced leave of absence, Life at the End of a Fork is back. Apologies to any review starved readers. Posts will be coming thick and fast.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.27.44Firstly, a long overdue announcement that Lima Floral is being flung out of our Hall of Fame top 10 restaurants list, cast into the ranks of the merely good but not great. Replacing it is the undeniable Brindisa, in Borough Market. We first went there back in February this year, when we were scouting the area for places to live, and it was love at first bite.

Since that day, we’ve eaten there more than anywhere else, and it is always surprising, but never disappointing. The padron peppers are mandatory ordering, their salted, vaguely bitter taste, and their wizened, gentle texture, announce that another phenomenal meal is in the offing.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.28.11The Catalan flat bread with tomato and garlic is refreshing, sweet and soft. The last time we were there we laid Manchego cheese across the top of it; it would be presumptuous to say that this improved the dish, but it certainly didn’t hurt it.

The fact that most days of the week you can just walk in there without a reservation is bizarre and baffling, proof that when it comes to restaurant queues, fad trumps flavour. And in this instance, I’m very glad it does.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 11.08.36Just around the corner, also in Borough Market, is Arabica, a Middle Eastern restaurant sat under a railway arch. We ordered up great plates of halloumi, lamb chops with artichokes, and a feta salad that came with fresh cucumber, parsley, mint, tomato and olives. I also ordered a milky looking glass of Arak, diluted with water. Arak is a Levantine spirit derived from aniseed that is so strong and hideously flavoured that it could make an oak tree wilt. No matter how much water I doused it with, I couldn’t put the flavour out, so I ended up just gritting my teeth and getting through it, mouthful by bitter mouthful, much to the amusement of my partner in culinary crime, who sat sipping a diet coke.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 11.08.47The restaurant itself is decent, probably a 6 on our rating system. It was later somewhat ruined by the fact that I ordered it on Deliveroo – if you want to kill off a favourite restaurant, then eat its food after it has been sat in a paper bag for half an hour and bounced around on the back of a motorbike. Arabica is nowhere near a favourite restaurant to start off with, but delivery certainly did it no favours.

Screen Shot 2018-05-19 at 11.08.56It does have its place as a summer destination though. On a warm day, you can sit outside and bask in the sunshine whilst enjoying a front row view of the rivers of people who flow through Borough Market, clutching fresh fish, jumbo prawns, enormous raclette sandwiches, hog roast baps and freshly blended smoothies.

With summer upon us now, we will keep an eye out for more al fresco dining spots over the next weeks and months.

In any case, Life at the End of a Fork is back. Let the culinary explorations continue!


Ladurée

Address: 1 The Market, WC2E 8RA 
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 4/10

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.34.13People living in London are almost tragically grateful for the merest hint of warm weather. Particularly at this time of year, when we have been hibernating under hats, coats, scarves and gloves for the preceding seven months. Like starving people unleashed on an all you can eat buffet, the population of London floods into parks and beer gardens, strolls along the bank of the Thames and fights for space on wind-blasted rooftop terraces.

We at Life at the End of a Fork are no better. When, a few weeks ago, London was warmly embraced by a one week micro-summer, we surged out of our respective offices in search of somewhere to dine al-fresco. Exchange Square was dangerously crowded, every single blade of grass either sat or stood on, and hundreds of people snaking around the block for the right to buy a pint of cider for £6. Rather than risk being stampeded by sun-crazed city workers, we travelled down to Covent Garden.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.15London is bereft of many good outdoor dining choices, which is understandable, given the miserable weather. The few slices of pavement that you can eat on normally sit in the shade of some vast building, which obliterates any wan ray of sunshine which may have penetrated the clouds.

One exception to this is Covent Garden, where a number of restaurants do allow for sun basking. We found ourselves in one of these: Laduree. It is a strange place. The staff are so incompetent that at times you wonder whether they are actually playing an elaborate prank on you, that this is not a restaurant at all, but part of some slapstick social experiment designed to see how far a diner can be pushed before he or she finally suffers an apoplectic fit.

One example from the start of our meal will give you a flavour. The couple next to us had been served coffees, and asked staff if they could have some sugar. A grinning waiter returned five minutes laterwith an enormous pot of mayonnaise, dumped it on the table and departed before they could register protest.  We offered them the sugar that sat on our table, at which point the clownish waiter returned, grin still fixed ear to ear, and transferred the mayonnaise to our table. Coffee and mayonnaise…? Perhaps that’s all the rage in the Parisian bistros that Laduree apes.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.47The food was tolerable. My partner in culinary crime continued her life-time ambition to eat smoked salmon in every restaurant she sits down in, and declared Laduree’s offering to be “pleasant enough”, although you’d probably want praise more extravagant than that to justify an £18 price tag.  I had a cheese board and a tiny little roll of bread that would have been too insultingly small to throw to one of the many pigeons that were marauding around the square.

We both ordered the lobster roll in brioche buns for a main course. These were decent enough, slightly inferior to the sort of thing you’d get for half the price in a Burger and Lobster.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.28.53The dining area is directly next to the space in Covent Garden that is given over to magicians and various other ‘comic’ performers. During the hour and a half in which we sat there we saw a man performing some basic tricks on a yo-yo (whilst heckling the audience for not applauding enthusiastically enough), and then some break-dancers in tracksuits, who rolled around on the floor and jumped over each other a few times. I thought of suggesting that the waiters and waitresses of Laduree offer themselves up as entertainment. Their serving skills were certainly more comical than the gentleman and his yo-yo.

Any humour however, was removed from proceedings when the bill arrived. It was comfortably north of £100. I started to feel as if I was suffering from sunstroke.

Stay away from Laduree, whatever the weather.


Palomar

Address: 34 Rupert St, Soho, London W1D 6DN
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Saturday
Meal:  lunch
Price: ££
Rating: 8.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 17.54.22There are a number of restaurants in our top ten Hall of Fame that are serially up for eviction. At least one will be flung out into the cold this week, to be replaced by a favourite tapas restaurant of ours. Palomar – an Israeli-fusion restaurant – is not amongst these names. It is one of a select few that sit snug and contented somewhere in the top five, an accumulation of goodwill buffering it from relegation.

Nevertheless, like a boxer who is only as good as his last performance, each of our restaurants must defend its reputation on every visit. With that in mind, we dropped in on Palomar last week, weaving through the heaving, surging mass of humanity that clog China Town’s streets, until we found ourselves on Rupert Street, on the fringes of Soho. As usual, Palomar defended its status with aplomb.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 17.49.58We started with the mandatory pot-baked bread that comes steaming out of a tin, soft, fluffy, as light as air, with a small bowl of tomato and tahini to dip it into. I could eat this bread all day long, but I have made it a new dining resolution to not feast myself into a coma on bread before any other dish arrives, and so I satisfied myself with half a loaf, my partner in culinary crime devouring the rest.

Next to touch the table is a small bowl of falafel, little nuggets of chickpeas suffused with chilli and herbs, sat in a shallow pool of cooling yoghurt. I’m normally not a fan of falafel, finding it as dry as the desert climates from which it originates, but these were a powerful exception, rich and succulent.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 17.50.33With the preliminaries complete, we tucked into a pleasant, ocean-fresh sea bream, which came on a bed of green beans in some herbed-oil. The fish was mild and delicate, the flesh pulling off the bones easily. We then helped ourselves to the poetically named Tree of Life, a terrifyingly huge head of broccoli, which was indeed the size of a small tree, and came with feta and tomatoes. It was the sort of thing I imagine a vegetarian might dream about, thick and healthy, delicious from top to bottom, without one sentient creature harmed in its creation…

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 17.50.11A ‘Persian Pappardelle’ was a pleasant surprise. We live on the edge of Borough Market now, and take the steaming offerings of Padella as the gold standard of pasta in London, but I can’t deny that Palomar’s Persian Pappardelle was every bit the equal of anything I’ve been served in Padella, which the exception of its other-worldly Carbonara. The pappardelle was firm and thick, the lemon sauce subtle and sharp, parmesan grated over the top, and some mange tout crisp and fresh, not a string of starch in them. This was probably the highlight of the meal.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 17.54.11As all this is being served, the restaurant is a whirling dervish of energy. The open kitchen runs like the most chaotic of armies, the chef bellowing orders, with his motley crew of underlings (one with an enormous butcher’s meat cleaver tattooed on her thick forearms) replying in unison, “Yes chef!”. The clatter of pots, the crackle of flames and the hiss of red-hot pans plunging in cold sinks forms the music to your conversation, as waiters and waitresses tap their feet, bob their heads and chat to the diners. This is certainly not a place to have a long overdue catch-up with an elderly relative who is hard of hearing.

Screen Shot 2018-04-15 at 17.50.22By this stage I was starting to flag a little, but since the final dish was a Shakshukit, a sort of deconstructed kebab, consisting of beef, lamb, pistachios and pine nuts, I made a special effort to locate some unoccupied chamber of my stomach. It was a struggle, but I did it.

Twenty minutes later, we limped out into the sunlight, the echoes of “Yes Chef!!” ringing in our ears, full-blown food comas induced, Palomar victorious, its place in the top ten retained.


Fodder

Great Guns Social
Address: 96 Southwark Bridge Rd, London SE1 0EF
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Friday Night
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 10.46.19Great Guns Social may look like a squat little pub, but it is actually a very good restaurant. Or perhaps I should say that it’s a very good restaurant right now. Why this emphasis on the present? Great Guns Social has adopted a series of cooking residencies, offering talented chefs the opportunity to occupy its kitchens for a period of time, win some admirers and gain some experience, before rotating on and vacating the place for the next batch of eager cooks.

This is so obviously an excellent idea that I’m amazed more pubs haven’t tried it: good cooks get badly needed exposure, and pubs get the opportunity to serve something that isn’t a greasy battered cod or a rubbery hamburger. And, most importantly, we all get the chance to eat in the places.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 10.45.54At the moment, the kitchen is occupied by Fodder, a 4-strong culinary crew including two former Fera at Claridge’s chefs, Michael Thompson and Ollie Downey. They say that they “celebrate local, wild and seasonal ingredients by foraging for their produce”. ‘Foraging’ is a culinary concept I’m only vaguely aware of, and in the context of London it conjures up an image of an urban fox rummaging through a split bin-bag in the moonlight. But perhaps that’s just me.

Either way, what we were served certainly didn’t taste like it had been discovered in a bin. Every little dish we ordered was clever, inventive and exciting. Pig and Squeak were two solid little cakes of pork and cabbage, sat in a sweet apple sauce, their rough exteriors giving way to steaming, succulent contents. The green, whipped beef fat butter that accompanied our sourdough bread was rich with salt and flavour.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 10.46.07We ordered a poached cod in a bath of buttermilk. If a fish is going to be killed, it seems only reasonable that this sacrifice should be made worthwhile by the excellent cooking of the creature, and what we ate was a lesson in the posthumous treatment of a cod. It was delicate, soft and delicious, and the buttermilk was so tasty that it now seems wrong that a cod would ever swim in anything else. I’m not sure how one goes about foraging for a cod – did the chefs spend the night before wading around the surf on Chalkwell Beach, Southend on Sea? – but frankly I don’t care.

We ordered a chicken thigh, which came accompanied with broccoli. It had only been added to the menu that day, but I hope it enjoys a long and fruitful existence within those pages. It was lovely, the skin crisped and golden, the sauce light and encouraging.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 10.46.31Jersey Royal potatoes with baby dumplings and tiny morel mushrooms was also a fascinating little dish in miniature, although it did occasionally feel like being slapped on the tongue with a clove of garlic. Not a dish for a first date, unless you carry a bottle of strong Listerine around with you. One could probably be foraged in the Co-op around the corner.

We finished with a scoop of dark chocolate mousse and ice-cream made out of nettles. One of the fodder team informed us that nettles are one of the few things that are forageable all year round, and thus the unseasonably cold weather holding back Spring hasn’t put a dent in them. My partner in culinary crime was a little wary of gobbling up spoonful’s of something derived from a notoriously unpleasant little plant, so I had it all to myself. My mouth tingled for ten minutes afterwards.

Screen Shot 2018-04-07 at 10.45.35Great Guns Social is pushing a great idea, and fodder is doing it proud. Visit this restaurant if you find yourself in Borough. And next time I see a fox foraging in the moonlight, rather than shoo it away, I’ll wander over, and see if I can net something for the table.


Angler

Address: South Place Hotel, 3 South Pl, London EC2M 2AF
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Monday Night
Meal: Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.32.20Here’s a fact of no interest to anyone but the writers of this blog: Angler is the nearest Michelin-starred restaurant to our offices, sitting within a hundred yards of my desk, at the top of the South Place Hotel, Broadgate.

Because of some ingrained suspicion of City restaurants, we’d never visited it. But last week, in the noble spirit of overturning prejudices and recklessly splurging money the day after payday, we found ourselves in the lifts of the South Place Hotel, heading skywards.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.32.38The first thing to say about Angler is that it looks good. The dining room is long, sleek and elegant, business-like but fun. Its sloping windows make it feel strangely small and intimate. We arrived before the restaurant even opened, and were shown out onto a terrace. This space has a retractable roof which is opened for parties in the summer, but so greenhouse like were its enormous, sun-capturing windows that even on a chilly early-spring evening we felt warmed.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.32.50The sofas on the terrace were so comfortable, and the room so sunlit, I almost fell asleep in between sips of my merlot, and if it wasn’t for the sparklingly lively conversational skills of my partner in culinary crime (or was it her kicking me under the table?) the waiter would probably have had to wake me when the table was ready. You also get a decent view of London from both the restaurant and the terrace, although this view is getting trimmed on an almost monthly basis, as office after office sprouts on the City skyline, swallowing up relative minnows like the South Place Hotel.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.32.29We ordered the 6-course tasting menu, which was supplemented by an assortment of tiny snacks. Snacks probably conjures up images of a piece of cheddar on a ritz cracker, or a small plate of prawn cocktail crisps. Our snack was an exquisite little wild boar arancini, with a squid ink cracker covered in taramasalata, and another with a whip of garlic, butter and wild mushrooms on it. Not pub food exactly.

From there the courses came thick and fast: a tartare of yellowfin tuna with little mounds of muted, cooled wasabi to give it the slightest of kicks; roasted octopus with Suffolk potatoes, which managed to escape the rubbery destiny of most of octopus; roasted mullet with yet more octopus.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.33.01Each dish was small, light and well measured. I did find myself pausing occasionally and wishing I would find something on my plate that had not been dredged out of the ocean, some four-legged creature raised on a farm or shot in the sky. Even my partner in culinary crime, whose ideal diet would be similar to that of a basking shark, looked as if she was beginning to want some break from the sea.

But on we pushed. And the last savoury dish turned out to be the best one: a white Talbot on a gleaming white plate, with Japanese mushrooms and squid, and a Japanese sauce poured across it. It was warm, aromatic, crisped, subtly flavoured.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.33.11The desserts of Yorkshire rhubarb and chocolate pave were okay, but the Yorkshire rhubarb was flavoured with ginger, which I absolutely loathe, and by this time we were dangerously full anyway.

Screen Shot 2018-04-01 at 10.33.18Angler is jostling for entry at the foot of our top ten restaurants list. Lima Floral and Sosharu are probably the restaurants currently in the top ten that are closest to being forced to walk the plank. One of them will likely be evicted this coming week, and the other will likely receive a stay of execution. Neither one will receive a last meal. The tension mounts.

Regardless, Angler is an excellent restaurant, tucked in the heart of the City, and deserves more attention.

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Rules

Address: 34-35 Maiden Ln, London WC2E 7LB
Bookings:  Booked
Day:  Friday night
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.46I think it’s one of the marks of a civilised society that people find things more interesting the older they are. But as a student of history, I’m probably biased. For me, a room is a more interesting if interesting things have happened there, if fascinating people have walked through it and talked in it. Places are enriched by their stories.

It was this magnetism of the past that drew us to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule. Over the next several centuries it has hosted some of the world’s greatest actors (Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin were regulars), Charles Dickens scribbled ideas for his novels at its cramped tables, Edward VII held secret meetings with his lover, Lillie Langtry, in its private dining room, and a bomb fell on it during the Blitz. There has been much water under this bridge since it first started hawking oysters 220 years ago.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.56Does that make its food taste any nicer? Not really. If I was judging Rules purely on the basis of culinary quality, I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops. It serves heavy, solid food in the classic British style, the menu rich with hare, deer, pheasant, pigeon and quail, anything that can be shot in a field essentially. Indeed, Rules sources much of its game meat from the Lartington Estate, which is owned by John Mayhew, also the proprietor of the restaurant.

I ordered a middlewhite pork terrine to the start, which came with piccalilli and toast. It was a big wedge of meat, thick and tasty. But it wasn’t bursting with the earthy, farm-rich flavours of the very best terrine. There was something subtle missing from it.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.53.19My partner in culinary crime had smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, which in most places would have been considered a hearty brunch, but at Rules is just a tantalising warm-up for the main event.

For my main-course, I had a grilled leg of lamb, spiced up with some curried spinach, big boulders of potato, and minted yoghurt. Think British country pub meets India. The lamb was good quality, but slightly burnt, and then served freezing cold, which was an unusual combination: as you bit into the chilly flesh the charcoaled flavour gave a taunting reminder that once upon a time this meat must have been hot.

My partner in culinary crime ate a Gressingham duck breast, bathed in a beetroot puree. She reported it as delicious, on a par with the legendary duck we were once served at Comptoir Gascon, opposite Smithfield Market, so many moons ago. For once, size was what let Rules down. My partner in culinary crime was left searching the plate in vain for a final morsel of duck.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.33Finally, we shared a bread and butter pudding, with prunes and custard. It was simple, warm, familiar and comforting, nothing extraneous or extravagant, made just as bread and butter pudding should be.

And all this is served in a unique set of surroundings, creaky old stair cases, faded, frayed carpets, thousands of paintings of long-dead grandees wearing monocles or hunting foxes, stuffed pheasants glaring from the walls, and a rather alarming, more than life-sized, mural of Margaret Thatcher as Britannia triumphantly standing over the Falkland Islands. This is a proudly British restaurant, with a legendary past, a vibrant present, and occasionally suspect food. A little bit like the country then.

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Padella

Address: 6 Southwark St, London SE1 1TQ
Bookings: no booking
Day:  Saturday night
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.01.30We have walked to Southwark Street pasta specialists Padella a number of times, before blanching at the size of the queue (which normally snakes round the front of the restaurant and deep into the bowels of Borough Market) and rushing instead to its excellent, under-queued neighbour Brindisa.

This weekend, we figured we would beat the queue. We set off at 16:30, half an hour before the restaurant even opens, and hours before most civilised people consider dinner. We picked the coldest day of the year, a chill Siberian wind stalking the London streets, and flecks of snow falling rapidly from an overcast sky. Surely, at such a time and on such a day there weren’t enough fanatics in London willing to queue to gobble up a bowl of pasta? Wrong.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.01.44Arriving at the door 10 minutes before opening, we gaped in horror at the freezing, huddled line of people wrapped in hats, scarfs and gloves, winding out of sight into the market beyond. Our instincts told us to turn tail and run, head for the warm embrace of Brindisa. But if we didn’t eat there today, we probably never would, so we joined the back of the queue, shivered, and waited.

Mercifully, the restaurant fits 60 people, and we were numbers 55-56, so we were seated in the first trembling batch of diners. The menu is simple and to the point: you select a main course from ten pastas, with a handful of starters and desserts on either side. Each pasta weighs in at 100 grams, with 1-2 dishes recommended per diner, depending on the size and greed of who’s eating.

 Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.02.53We ordered up a fettucine carbonara, a spinach ravioli with ricotta and sage butter, and a tagliarini with baby clams. I am no stranger to pasta, primarily because it is the only thing I am able to cook, and so I have served it to myself five times a week for the past ten years. Given this, I am able to say with confidence that the fettucine carbonara served to us at Padella was the nicest carbonara I have ever eaten.

It was rich without being heavy, solid, salted nuggets of pancetta studding the dish, and the pasta itself warm, soft and inviting, pillows of the culinary world. My partner in culinary crime had been the one astute enough to order this Italian classic, and she guarded the plate diligently, fending off my fork on a number of occasions. I was limited to two mouthfuls.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.01.13The spinach ravioli, which we split 50-50, was nice as well, the spinach fresh and lively, the pasta a vivid green, parmesan sprinkled generously over the top. The least satisfying was probably the plate I had to myself, the tagliarini with baby clams, which came with garlic, chilli, parsley and a butter and olive sauce, but had a flavour which never really took flight. There was something weak and unloved about it, in stark contrast to the booming flavour of my partner in culinary crime’s carbonara.

A carpaccio of beef that we had for a starter was drowning in so much olive oil I almost threw it a life jacket, whilst a bitter, dark chocolate tart for dessert was nice.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.02.03Padella makes excellent, unpretentious pasta, all rolled on the premises, and then sells it very cheaply. If it was your local, undiscovered Italian, then it’s the kind of place you would rave about to everyone you know. Instead, it is very much discovered, and everybody you know is already queuing to get in. This dims my enthusiasm slightly, but still, a good restaurant for those patient enough to wait.


Dining in Japan

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.51.01For loyal readers of Life at the End of a Fork who have noticed a slight lull in content on the blog recently, there is no cause for alarm. We are not fasting, nor have we lost our jobs and been forced to abandon the wallet draining hobby of shuttling around London’s exorbitantly priced restaurants.

Instead, I am in Japan for a few weeks. And I am here without my partner in culinary crime. This is a problem for two reasons. Firstly, I am an appalling photographer, wielding an iPhone camera with all the sophistication of a chimp trying to use chopsticks. And secondly, I am here on my own, and find it somewhat embarrassing to dine out solo in nice restaurants, in case the staff laugh at me.

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.51.44This is a shame, because Tokyo is one of the greatest cities on earth to dine out in. It doesn’t just have more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else in the world; it has far more. Paris, a city where food is sacred, has a total 141 Michelin stars scattered across an assortment of restaurants. Tokyo has a mind-blowing 302 stars, including 12 restaurants will the full allotment of 3 stars. London sits in tied 6th place, with 87 stars, a little over ¼ as many as Tokyo.

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.52.21Incredibly, out of the top 5 food cities in the world by this Michelin metric, 3 are in Japan (the others being Kyoto and Osaka, both of which I am visiting next week). It would almost be an act of disloyalty for me to launch into this culinary paradise without the company of my partner in culinary crime. So I won’t. Or maybe I will, but not too much…

Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.52.54Either way, I must eat something, so I have spent my first few days here wandering into dingy little ramen noodle joints, or shabby looking yakitori bars. Every single thing I’ve eaten in them has been excellent, the ramen thick and hot, the yakitori perfectly grilled, meat tender and succulent. I’ve ordered platefuls of chicken karaage, which is what McDonald’s chicken nuggets would taste like if the world was a perfect place.

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Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 21.52.39I often think the sign of a great culinary nation is not the quality of its best restaurants, but the quality of the food served in its average eateries. Thailand passed this test. We ate bowls of perfect fried rice from a half-collapsed shack on the banks of the Andaman Sea whilst we waited for a boat to take us to Ko Yao Noi. Japan is like that too. You don’t need to hunt down the great food. You just bump into it.

Sayonara for now!


Balthazar

Address: 4-6 Russell St, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5HZ
Bookings: no booking
Day:  Sunday
Meal: Brunch
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.06.47We stopped off for Sunday brunch at Balthazar, the showpiece, Covent Garden restaurant that is the handiwork of Keith McNally and Richard Caring. McNally opened the first Balthazar in New York in 1997, before bringing the brand to London in 2013. It falls into the category of restaurants that looks better than it cooks. Not that the food is bad, it’s just fairly good, whereas the room itself is a bit of a show-stopper, in a self-conscious kind of way.

It is also crammed with people. Being without a reservation, we were seated cheek by jowl at the bar. The menu nearly caused a crisis right off the bat, placing my partner in culinary crime’s two favourite starters directly above one another: salmon tartare and seabass ceviche. Like a malfunctioning robot, she moved her finger from one to the other and back again, mumbling repeatedly: “the seabass… no the salmon tartare… but what about the seabass?”

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.07.48Just as I thought her indecision was so great she might open up a wormhole to another dimension – swallowing up the entire restaurant in the process – she bravely settled on the salmon tartare. Full of resolution, I picked the French onion soup.

The salmon did not disappoint, cool and refreshing, a small pot of garlicked crème fraiche adding some body, while some thinly sliced cucumber was well flavoured with mustard and honey.  My French onion soup was a molten volcano of thick cheese, soft onion and disintegrating bread, an indulgent, nourishing antidote to the frigid, nipping wind outside.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.07.58Embracing the brunch theme, my partner in culinary crime had avocado on sourdough toast, with poached eggs, for her main course. The eggs were well-cooked, their interiors bright orange, ready to flow at the prick of a fork, the avocado fresh, a tomato salsa adding a snap to the ensemble. It was solid brunch-time fare, without doing anything to move the needle.

I ordered a bowl of mussels with French fries. The mussels were stacked high, threatening to the topple at any moment across the bar. They were unmemorable, a little small and a little shrivelled, the sauce a bit weak and thin, too little garlic, too little cream.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.07.28The waiter behind the bar was a talkative chap, but without being irritating or intrusive. He kept all but the most standoffish customers entertained and well-served. And he gave us some excellent tips on where to buy mattress topers and easy chairs in central London. That’s priceless advice, and so for the first time in my life I left a double-tip, which is an act of epic generosity given that I was about to drain my wallet on some sickeningly over-priced furniture.

It’s hard to attack Balthazar. It fulfils a role: decent brasserie classics, in an impressive room, with excellent service. I would prefer The Delaunay for food in a similar style, but not everything can be number one.


Caravan City

Address: 22 Bloomberg Arcade, London EC4N 8AR
Bookings: booked
Day:  Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 5.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.04I would like to say that we ended up in Caravan on Valentine’s Day as part of some elaborately romantic plan – hatched well in advance – possibly involving the scattering of rose petals across the table, a small band of violinists emerging from the kitchen to serenade us, an exquisite piece of jewellery buried in a favourite cake for dessert. But the reality is, Caravan was the only restaurant within 300 metres of our offices not named Nando’s that had a free table on an hour’s notice on this most over-booked of days.

The fact that this table happened to be about two yards from the large double doors, meant that we were subjected to an arctic blast of wind every 30 seconds, and did not enhance the romance of the evening.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.25But what of the food? Did it claw back victory from the jaws of defeat? Not really. Caravan, like almost everywhere these days, has a tapasy, share your plates, things come out when they’re ready type of vibe. Embracing this, we ordered up a plate of stilton and peanut wontons, on the basis that we both share a deep love of cheese, and when better to indulge in what you love than Valentine’s Day?

The dish they brought us was capable of killing off even the most rocksteady of human-food relationships. The fried wonton pouches were cloying, sickly and artificial, reminding me of McDonald’s cheese bites, or even the dreaded Mozzarella dippers. The bowl of soy sauce, brought for dipping purposes, made a bad dish even worse. This strange collection of ingredients should be kept well apart and never be allowed to interact with each other again, under any circumstances.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.44The jalapeno cornbread was okay when lavishly covered with chipotle butter, but the cornbread itself was savagely dry, and eating it unbuttered felt like swallowing a desert nomad’s flip-flop without a glass of water to wash it down. A bowl of burrata with slithers of artichoke, mixed with parsley, lemon and garlic, was better, but partly this was down to our desperate gratitude after being water-boarded by two kitchen atrocities right off the bat.

A bowl of pork belly, served with chopped cucumber and celery, flavoured with caramel and coriander, was a quality dish, and could have held its head high in most restaurants. The pork was tender, juicy and flavoursome, the only issue the fact that there were only three small chunks of it, which threatened to cause a riot as I tried to fend off my partner in culinary crime’s fork as she desperately tried to spear the third and final piece.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.59A plate of carrots in paprika and mint yoghurt went almost untouched. This was perhaps more our fault than the restaurants, since we both loathe carrots, and only ordered the dish because my partner in culinary crime’s parents had told that we constantly order and review exactly the same foods each time. We can now say with honesty that we have ordered something never before mentioned on Life at the End of a Fork, even if we never got around to eating it.

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I enjoyed a delicious chocolate tart for dessert – the chocolate was dark, rich and powerful, and was the highlight of the meal. My partner in culinary crime ordered a cheese board, but only nibbled at it, at which point I began to feel positively alarmed, and decided I needed to order the bill and let her get some rest, perhaps visiting A&E in the morning if she was still turning down cheese.

Perhaps we should have tried the Nando’s…