L’Osteria 57

Address:  57 Grays Inn Rd, Holborn, London WC1X 8PP
Bookings: No booking required
Day: Thursday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 18.27.38I have eaten at L’Osteria 57 more than any other restaurant in London. Because it was delicious, and because it sits barely a ravioli’s throw from my front door. But then everything changed.

Back in the day, it was owned by a Neapolitan gentleman who ran a tight ship, selling magnificent bowls of pasta, a chicken fricassee that was frighteningly tasty, and bowls of mussels swimming in garlic and cream sauce. The restaurant was busy almost every night, catering to a noisy crowd of local lawyers, and occasionally Jon Snow, who would lope across from the nearby ITN building and devour pizzas in front of an adoring audience of youthful media types.

But one day, our Neapolitan host, deep into his 60s, decided to hang up his apron and head back to enjoy a well-earned retirement in Italy. He sold the establishment to a Russian man, who promptly proceeded to run it into the ground, within six months it had all the cheer and warmth of a winter’s day in Chernobyl. We stopped eating there. Everyone stopped eating there. I think I once saw some tumbleweed peeping out from the side entrance, but I may be wrong. I almost forgot about the place.

So, it was with some excitement that earlier this week I noticed a new group of people staffing the place. Gone was the Russian man, replaced by a moustachioed, tanned chap who looked like he could have been an Italian. We decided to give it another chance. Gathering up my partner in culinary crime (PICC), as well as my sister, I headed in.

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 18.28.03I am quietly hopeful. We were the only diners there, and clearly the restaurant is still in the process of opening, but the food was pleasant enough. Full of nostalgia, I ordered the cozze alla marinara, mussels cooked in white wine, cream and garlic. It had shades of its former glory. The mussels were juicy and ripe. The sauce was bursting with flavour, and after I had a pile of empty shells stacked on my plate, my PICC and I mopped up what was left of it with delicious, fresh bread.

My sister reported a mediocre meatball and tagliatelle dish in a tomato sauce, whilst my PICC spoke highly of a ham, onion and mushroom pizza, which came with a thick, soft crust. My main course was a basic but well-done spaghetti with olive oil, chilli and garlic, the spaghetti pleasantly al dente, the chilli pleasingly hot.

We were provided with constant amusement and occasional concern by the young, Italian waitress who served us. To say she was drunk would have been an understatement. She would have been turned away at the door of most self-respecting London clubs. Even in Italy, she wouldn’t have been allowed behind the wheel of a car. She was rollingly, gigglingly, babblingly drunk.

Screen Shot 2017-12-02 at 18.28.25She brought us multiple plates of olives, each time informing us that they were Italian, free, and delicious, and that we could have more if we liked them. They piled up on our table. She dropped at least one piece of cutlery on every trip to and fro the table. When she took my plate of mussels away, balancing it wobblingly on her forearm directly over my partner in culinary crime’s head, my heart missed a beat as I imagined a rain of shells descending on her.

When she wasn’t serving us, she danced around the kitchen and irritated the chef. She popped downstairs every 5 minutes, presumably to top up on whatever sort of liquid had elevated her to that happy place. At one point, the owner accused her in a not so quiet voice of drinking the restaurant’s gin, a charge she hotly denied.

As we were paying the bill, we heard a shrieking sound from outside. The young waitress was on the phone, sucking on a cigarette and ranting in Italian at the top of her thankfully very small lungs. The girl taking our payment looked ruefully at us, before saying: “Boyfriend troubles, we’ve all been there.”

If you like Italian food, and plenty of drama, book a table.


Kimchee

Address: 71 High Holborn, London WC1V 6EA
Bookings: Walked in
Day: Saturday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 5/10

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 17.24.07I have on many an occasion seen long lines of Koreans shivering in the cold outside Kimchee, on High Holborn. I have just as often been told that the best barometer for the quality of an Asian restaurant is its popularity with the relevant local Asian community. Putting these two elements together, I decided this weekend to pay the place a visit, accompanied, of course, by my partner in culinary crime (PICC).

Normally, a restaurant review focuses mainly on the food eaten, interspersed with a comment or two on the physical appearance of the premises, with perhaps a nod to the service received. But in Kimchee, the staff warrant more than simply an off-hand comment. They were most fascinating thing about the place.

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First, let me dispense with the food. It was mediocre. Not offensive. Not memorable. I ate my way through some mildly pleasant beef bulgogi, marinated in a ginger and soy sauce, whilst my PICC ate a chopped-up rib-eye steak. Speaking slowly and clearly, she asked that the steak be medium-rare, but fifteen minutes later it arrived looking like it had been barbecued by Steve Irwin. Whatever morsel of flavour had ever resided in the poor beast had been thoroughly cooked out of it, leaving something chewy and flavourless.

Our vegetable dumplings were tasty, piping hot and retained some structure, unlike the gelatinous, watery dumplings I’ve had the misfortune to encounter at other Korean restaurants. All in all, the food was okay, perhaps worth crossing the road for if your stomach is already rumbling, but certainly not worth queuing for on a bleak winter’s evening, no matter how many Korean diners appear to think otherwise.

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 17.21.52Unless, of course, you go there to marvel at the bizarre behaviour of waiters and waitresses. We were seated a yard or two away from a large bin at the mouth of the kitchen, and on at least three occasions staff members lobbed food and other waste cleared from the tables at the bin, as if they were playing a game of basketball, and on each occasion, they missed the target with at least some of what was thrown, and then walked away as if nothing had happened.

Over the course of the meal, a small mound of detritus accumulated at the foot of the bin. A pair of used chopsticks which missed their target so severely that they then bounced back onto the floor of the dining area itself, were kicked around by waiters as they loafed around taking orders. The poor little sticks must have been booted a dozen times. I was almost moved to pick the things up and bin them myself, but was worried the staff would accuse me of interrupting their game of football.

Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 17.21.30It wasn’t that the staff were rude when taking our orders. They smiled. They grinned. It was more that they simply had no notion of restaurant – or indeed human-  etiquette. From where had these bizarre specimens been recruited? Perhaps in an attempt to push down staff costs the owners had raided a mental asylum. At least they looked to be enjoying themselves. More than we were, in any case.


Otto’s

Address: 182 Grays Inn Rd, Camden Town, London WC1X 8EW
Bookings: booked
Day: Tuesday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 8/10

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I first became aware of Otto’s during the balmy summer of 2015. The introduction was a lucky one. Reclining peacefully in an armchair in my flat, I noticed an annoying sound floating through the open window.

After ten minutes during which the racket refused to go away, I donned a pair of shoes and went in search of it. Out on Theobald’s Road, I was confronted by a strange sight: a scruffy little mob of malcontents was gathered outside a non-descript restaurant, sandwiched between a dry-cleaners and a Japanese takeaway. Facing them down was a suited figure, the top-button of his jacket done-up, a claret tie suffocating his throat, almost military in his stiff formality, part gentleman’s butler, part Mr Burns from the Simpsons. This was Otto Albert Tepassé, the German owner of the eponymous French restaurant over which he now stood guard.

The protestors were part of the London Vegan Activism Society, their anger stoked by Otto’s serving of foie gras, the delicate and delicious dish created by force feeding a duck or goose until its liver takes on a rich, buttery and absolutely delicious flavour. Over the next several months, the protestors turned up every night of the week, rain or shine, between the hours of 6 and 9pm. They sang, they chanted, they harangued, screaming variants of “shame on Otto’s!”, or “meat is murder”, all amplified by the use of a number of megaphones.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 21.38.30Through it all, Otto faced them stoically and inscrutably, at most despatching an underling to film proceedings when the weather was particularly bad. The foie gras remained on the menu, and as the months passed and the weather turned colder, the protestors began to trickle away. One day, they were no more, leaving in search of a less stout-hearted foe. The battle of bulging liver had been won, the siege lifted.

That’s ancient history, and I’m now a regular diner at Otto’s, one of the best French restaurants in London, and in fact one of the Capital’s best kept secrets (although the cat is increasingly out of the bag).

It is a weird looking place. It is hard to describe the décor. Crimson banquettes line the walls; paintings of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe adorn the cushions. A little statue of David perches high on the wall, whilst on the tables stand wizened, emaciated figures wrapped in cloth that look like little voodoo dolls. It looks as if someone raided a car boot sale, or the gift shop at the British Museum.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 21.38.45Then the food, arrives, and you forget everything else. On our last trip, my partner in culinary crime ordered the steak tartare, which is created at the table with excellent commentary from a waiter clearly in love with his job. Patting the rich, raw beef, he then made mayonnaise from egg, olive oil and mustard, mixed in onions, capers, some pepper, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of tabasco, and a delightful dab of ketchup.

As this captivating culinary performance unfolded, someone in the kitchens was labouring over my steak. It came with a slab of pan-seared foie gras lain across the top of it, which was absurdly nice, impossibly rich, as succulent and fatty as an item of food can be. The steak was excellent too, smothered in a rich truffle and madeira sauce, but even as I ate it I could feel my eyes drawn irresistibly to the thick, red disk of meat that sat on my companion’s plate.

Fearing rejection, in one swift and fluid motion I blurted “can I try some of that?”, whilst plunging my fork into the finely chopped cubes of beef. The theft was worth any potential punishment: the sharp undertones of onion and Dijon, a frisson of fire from the tabasco, sweetened by ketchup, cooled and moistened by the beef itself, the flavours toying perfectly with each other. On the side, a kind of potato pancake, fried in oil and butter, provided respite from pure carnivorism.

Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 21.39.55By the time we were finished, dessert was out of the question. We practically crawled home.

For a while, Otto’s was our semi-secret, a place we could walk into on a Friday with no reservation and receive world-class food. Alas, those days appear to be no more. Having recently been listed as one of the Evening Standard’s 50 top restaurants in London and featuring prominently in the upcoming London Food Month, Otto’s is emerging from the shadows. I wandered in a few weeks ago with the proprietary air of a country squire and almost had my jacket over the back of one of the chairs before I was politely informed that the restaurant was: “fully booked.” An empty stomach knows no crueller words.

Jilted, I stepped back out into the night, a little resentful, but also grateful; grateful to Otto and his obstinacy, grateful for geese and their liver, but also grateful to the London Vegan Activism Society, for inadvertently alerting me to a culinary gem on my doorstep, back in that balmy summer of 2015.