Pollen Street Social

Address:  8-10 Pollen St, Mayfair, London W1S 1NQ
Bookings:  Booked
Day:  Saturday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.46I’m in the middle of reading the late Anthony Bourdain’s career-launching book Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain has some interesting comments on tell-tale signs that a restaurant’s kitchen may not be entirely sanitary, or its cooking particularly artful. For example, he says that if a restaurant’s bathroom is not cleaned thoroughly, then it’s unlikely its kitchen will be. If its front-of-house staff are dishevelled, smell like sour milk, and slump about the dining area like students nursing a hangover, then this slovenliness will also pervade the kitchen, where cooks will leave fridge doors open, not wash their hands, and hang on to fish just a little longer than they should.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.03.02His point is that a restaurant has an ethos, and if it cannot be bothered even to make the visible parts of the restaurant presentable, then the invisible kitchen will likely be the stuff of nightmares.

Now, when I eat out, I pay attention to these things (and I don’t eat fish on a Monday, but you’ll have to read Bourdain to find out why). Pollen Street Social, where we dined out on Saturday evening, passed with flying colours. Its staff were better dressed than most of the clientele. Certainly, better than I was. The bathrooms had the clinical shine of an operating theatre. Staff glided across the well-polished floors.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.38The occasion was my Mum’s birthday, and so the whole clan, plus my partner in culinary crime, were gathered in Jason Atherton’s flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social, inconspicuously tucked away in a little side road off Regent Street.

The food here is nice. Some of it is very nice. My partner in culinary crime had a portion of lamb from the Lake District, pink and delicate, accompanied by a small mound of peas, broad beans and mint oil, that she adjudged better than the slow-cooked lamb shoulder we ate at Berners Tavern last year. This is praise higher than the Burj Khalifa. As she sat on the sofa this evening, she suddenly furrowed her brow, shook her head and murmured simply, “that lamb though”, as if marking the 24-hour anniversary of first encountering it.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.03Across the table my father was nodding approvingly at a plate of jellied eel, whilst my crab salad was sharp and fresh, a slither of crispy toast a perfect scoop for it. My mum made her way through a rich saddle of Lincolnshire rabbit wrapped in Parma ham.

If I have a gripe with Pollen Street Social, it revolves around portion size and cost. The portions were Lilliputian. I could, if challenged, have eaten my entire crab salad in one bite. My main course, a couple of pork chops, might have required two gulps and a glass of water.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.03.09True, the food we ordered were supplemented by a continual stream of miniature dishes that arrived unannounced at the table. A small tea cup of mushroom soup that kicked things off was exquisite. But still, Atherton is certainly coming down very firmly on one side of the ancient quantity vs. quality debate.

The restaurant is also expensive. The wine by the bottle would make a Russian oligarch blanche with terror, and not only for fear that Putin might have slipped a vial of novichok into it.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.55No main course on the menu even thought about creeping below £30. That ignominy was reserved for the starters, which sat at around £20 a dish.

Nevertheless, this is a quality restaurant, serving very good food in elegant surroundings. And it passes the Bourdain test so effortlessly that I might even dare to order fish there on a Monday

Happy birthday Mum!


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.


Rambla

Address: 64 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 4QG
Bookings: Booked through Opentable
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.17.07Our first review of 2018 finds us in Rambla, a Catalonian restaurant named after Barcelona’s most famous boulevard. Rambla is buried in heart of Soho, and our seat in front of an enormous window makes us spectators onto a slightly less illustrious thoroughfare, Dean Street.

The pane of glass is so large, and the table so close to it, that as night falls and crowds gather, you almost feel immersed in nocturnal Soho, with all its noise, colour and oddness, which is a mixed blessing, but great for veteran people watchers, or those struggling for conversation at the table.

Inside, the restaurant is equally lively, waiters, waitresses and chefs calling out to one another across the open kitchen, and new diners stumbling in with hungry anticipation written across their faces.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.54Is this anticipation deserved? The food is certainly nice here. A plate of ham is perfect, marbled with just the right amount of fat, its texture oiled and rich, each strip curled temptingly on a wooden board. A bowl of blistered padron peppers – which my partner in culinary crime won’t lay a finger on – are wizened, salted and wonderfully bitter. A pair of pan con tomate, the bread gently toasted, the tomato almost made into a paste, suffused with a subtle olive oil, shards of salt scattered carelessly across the top, is good.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.41But I was left with a feeling of slight disappointment. Some of the reviews I had read of this restaurant over the previous month or two spoke of it with the reverence and awe normally reserved for places of worship or Unesco-approved world heritage sites. Critics described the dishes served at Rambla as stunning, as things of beauty, food worth clogging an artery for. I did not feel quite like that.

Four small wheels of cured salmon were so salty that even my partner in culinary crime, no stranger to smothering a dish in condiments, had to take several water breaks to get through them. Some lamb chops with rosemary aioli were a little washed out, the meat lacking that vibrancy of flavour. Some seabass with Jerusalem artichoke was good, but it didn’t have me scraping the plate to ensure I removed every last morsel.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.26Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps Rambla had been projected too far into the stratosphere by frenzied restaurant critics for me to leave without a tinge of disappointment. If I juxtapose Rambla with Barafina, it falls short. I would probably place it half a rung below Ember Yard as well.

The restaurant also did not help itself by having a number of waitresses whose English language skills were so minimal that they struggled to function on the floor of a restaurant. No one is asking that restaurants staff themselves exclusively with English literature graduates from Cambridge, but if a waiter can’t understand the phrases “please can I have a gin and tonic?”, “one more of these please,” or “bring me the bill!” then we have a slight problem.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.13I will go back to Rambla. A place so well-regarded deserves a shot at redemption. It is also great value for money. But for now, I am not ready to sing its praises, even drunkenly on a street in Soho.


Château Mon Desir

Address:  B41, Balaclava, Mauritius (Maritim Resort & Spa Mauritius)
Bookings: Booking required
Day: Friday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 17.21.33Our final night in Mauritius, and we decided to jettison any attempt at tramping through backstreets to uncover rough at the edges, flying under the radar type local cuisine, and instead booked ourselves a table at Chateau Mon Desir, an upscale restaurant within the leafy, spacious confines of the Maritim hotel.

 The restaurant immediately distinguishes itself from the Mauritian sartorial norm by forbidding t-shirts or shorts, and the general tone of the place is in the classic European tradition, immaculately suited waiters pouring bottles of fine wine and dusting crumbs of bread from crisp, white tablecloths.

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 17.21.21The building is a colonial-era mansion, overlooking a picturesque, ruined old French fort in Balaclava Bay, with the swell of the sea faintly audible from the balcony. Retired race horses, now in their dotage and confined to providing rides for guests at the hotel, cantered around a paddock on the other side of the restaurant, snorting in the warm night air, giving the whole place an oddly surreal tinge.

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 17.21.12The menu was strong on seafood. To start, my partner in culinary crime ordered a tuna tartare, wrapped in a film of cucumber, with salmon lain in crème fraiche, a medley of vibrant vegetables on the side. The effect was fresh and enlivening. I ordered a beef carpaccio, liberally sprinkled with a surprisingly good parmesan cheese. The beef was paired with and a soft, rich wedge of pan fried foie gras, which was nicely cooked, a nod to Mauritius’ French heritage.

Both of us gravitated towards a Scottish salmon confit for our main courses, which must have been flown an awfully long way from the chilly waters of Scotland, just to make a return journey in our stomachs less than 24 hours later.

Screen Shot 2017-11-26 at 17.21.54The salmon was served with the mushroom risotto on a separate side plate. The salmon was well cooked, two succulent scallops sitting on either side of it, and an excellent bed of spinach lying beneath. The risotto was pleasant, if a little unexciting, my main complaint being the paucity of it. I was forced to mete out miniscule forkfuls of it to accompany each piece of the hulking salmon.

And so, our Mauritian odyssey ended, rounded out with an excellent dinner, although by far the most expensive one we ate in the country. I would recommend it for those on a special occasion, perhaps one of the many honeymooners who come to Mauritius.

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Heading back into the night, stars flung out against the sky, horses stamping their hooves in the pale moonlight, a warm breeze playing in the palm leaves, our minds were already turning to our next culinary adventure, and wherever it is, we will faithfully chronicle it on Life at the end of a fork.


Terroirs Wine Bar

Address: 5 William IV St, London WC2N 4DN
Bookings: No booking
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 20.13.19Terroirs is a restaurant and wine bar on William IV Street, a stone’s throw from the National Gallery. We were there on Tuesday night, as part of a week-long extravaganza of joyous treats in honour of my partner in culinary crime’s birthday (exactly which birthday shall go unspecified).

It was a clement evening, warm for the season and without a raindrop in sight. It felt as if most of London was out and about, beginning to warm up for Christmas. Terroirs itself was packed to the rafters. Coming in through the doors I scanned the restaurant nervously – my week of joyous treats had not extended to actually making a reservation anywhere, and for an awful moment I suspected that we were about to be turned back into the night by a pitiless French waitress.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 20.12.36But then I spied it: one, lonely, unoccupied table, beckoning us on. And thank goodness. Because Terroirs is not a place you want to be turned away from. Crouched over our small wooden table, bathed in the contented babble that is the auditory hallmark of satisfied diners, we ate very well.

First to land at the table was a pork and pistachio terrine. As soon as I saw it I knew it would be delicious. It had that crumbling, thick appearance, that compactness, that reddish brown complexion, that marks out all great terrines. It tasted inexpressibly earthy; I could almost see the pig, snuffling on a farm somewhere in rural France, fattening himself for our table on a cold, crisp morning. I can only thank him… he did not snuffle in vain.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 20.12.04We had a decent beef tartare with lemon and rosemary, although ever since we ate steak tartare at Otto’s it has been the fate of all other tartare to exist in its shade. I have never before or since tasted one so sharp, so rich, so sweet, and that of Terroir’s, try as it might, fell short of this elevated benchmark.

A fresh, nicely seasoned bowl tomatoes with oregano tided us over until the final stage of the meal: a quartet of cheeses, and a Scottish onglet with braised peppers and salsa verde. The cheeses were a delight; a smooth, soft Gouda and a blue veined French cheese were particular favourites.

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The steak was a good one, rich, blood red and tender. But by then I was nearly spent, my appetite dulled by the excellent small plates we had already eaten.

We wandered home along the Strand, our bellies full, the city buzzing around us, the lights of Theatreland twinkling, another happy birthday in the books.


Barrafina

Address: 43 Drury Ln, London WC2B 5AJ
Bookings: no bookings allowed
Day: Wednesday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££ (including alcohol)
Rating: 8.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.53Barrafina probably serves the best tapas in London. If somewhere north of Spain does it better, then please inform us in the comments section below and we will be eternally indebted to you.

There is a life, an energy and an exuberance to the dishes at Barrafina that you rarely find in a restaurant, and very rarely across such a breadth of the menu, and so consistently, visit after visit.

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Going there for a mid-week dinner, we ordered portobello croquettes, which were piping hot and erupted with flavour at the prod of a fork, the creamy mushroom interior rich and powerful.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.34Eruptions were a theme of the night: we ordered a stuffed courgette flower – probably the highlight of the whole dinner – which overflowed with goat’s cheese laced with honey at the slice of my knife. The dish was so delicious we ordered two, to prevent warfare breaking out over how to split a courgette flower exactly in half.

The tapas comes thick and fast at Barrafina, and everybody sits perched up on a bar, facing the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, a whir of waiters and cooks, chopping, frying, pouring and serving, all the with energy that characterises a kitchen staff who know they are part of something special.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.20No sooner had we mopped up the last atom of goat’s cheese with a crust of bread, then the next dish was sliding across the bar top towards us. We’d ordered a selection of miniature mushrooms, onions and carrots, soaked in chicken stock, an egg with a stunningly orange yolk heaped across them. This dish was a work of art to behold, but was the only mildly disappointing one we ordered, a slight blandness pervading it.

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We then tucked into the most filling of our plates, two chunks of iberico pork, sliced from Spanish pigs grown fat on acorns, and placed some swede puree and carrots.

Finally, I broke the habit of a lifetime and ordered a savoury dessert, a selection of Spanish cheeses, insisted on by my partner in culinary crime. She wasn’t wrong.

No review would be complete without an element of complaining, and Barrafina cannot get off the hook entirely. It doesn’t take bookings (which is irritating, but forgivable), but then commits the cardinal sin of not letting you leave the restaurant whilst you wait for your table.

In the age of mobile phones, there is nothing easier in the world than taking a number and releasing a diner to enjoy the distractions of Covent Garden whilst they wait for their table.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.48But Barrafina does not do this. It insists you stuff yourself against a wall and wait in a line for a table to become available, something we did for over an hour on Wednesday night, becoming more and more filled with a visceral fury at a family of four who finished their meal and then proceeded to sit for a further thirty minutes without a morsel of food or drink passing their lips. Instead, they just chatted, and occasionally glanced at their phones, oblivious to the suffering and hunger of forty people who stared at them with simmering rage.

It was only the amazing food we subsequently had that calmed us down. But if anyone from Barrafina reads this, PLEASE reconsider your waiting policy, and you may just find yourselves on the receiving-end of a complaint-free review.