Dining in Barcelona

Despite the U.K. deciding to adopt a Mediterranean climate for the duration of the summer, a few weeks ago we decided it was time to head south for our second trip to the continent this year. For four days, we took our gourmet game to Barcelona, the city of wide, imperious avenues, upscale brands, crooked little backstreets, surreal architecture, football and beaches. A trip to Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia presented a building the like of which neither of us had ever seen before: vast, irregular, part gothic, part Walt Disney, clusters of bizarre towers sprouting towards the sky. It’s hard to know what to think of it. The cathedral attracts more than 3mn visitors a year, but was described by George Orwell as “one of the most hideous buildings in the world.”

But you can’t eat La Sagrada Familia, and so it is not a fitting subject for this blog. So on to the restaurants!

Can Ramonet 

Address:  Calle Maquinista, 17, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
Bookings:  booked
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Lunch
Price: ££
Rating: 6 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 10.32.49A decent seafood restaurant situated down in the Barceloneta district. With the Mediterranean ocean gently lapping at the beach only 200 yards from their kitchen, Can Ramonet serves some very fresh fish, prawns and clams. We ordered a seafood paella, which only came in 2-person portions, which was irritating, because my partner in culinary crime, despite loving both seafood and rice when served separately, refuses to eat even a single morsel when the two are blended in a frying pan. I was therefore left with a vast mound of dark, ocean flavoured rice, full of mussels, clams and squid, and four long prawns perched on top, their black beady eyes glaring malevolently at me. This paella was tasty, but needless to say there was far too much for me to handle.

Screen Shot 2018-08-19 at 10.33.00We also had a plate of ham, some plump, light-as-a-feather croquettes, and some pan con tomate that was so soggy it felt like it too had spent the morning bobbing around in the Mediterranean, before being fished out and given five minutes under a hair dryer. Stop at this restaurant if you’re walking past it, but don’t travel across the city to eat there.

 

Txapela

Address:  Passeig de Gràcia, 58, 08007 Barcelona, Spain
Bookings:  walk in
Day:  Monday
Meal:  Brunch
Price: ££
Rating: 2 /10

Screen Shot 2017-11-08 at 20.45.40A monstrous restaurant on the broad Passeig de Gràcia, a street famous for its high-end fashion shops, and indeed it would have been more pleasant to eat a crocodile skin handbag or a sharp stiletto than anything served up in this dismal spot. The food consisted of ready-made tapas that sat on a glass counter in front of the diners, and we were treated to the unappetising spectacle of flies buzzing around what we were about to eat, the only saving grace being that most of the flies did a few laps of the dishes and then flew off uninterested, probably heading towards the toilets in search of something less disgusting. Despite the food being already prepared, it took twenty minutes to cross the two yards that separated it from our table. There are glaciers that move much faster than that. Meanwhile, a waiter behind the bar managed to break the orange juice presser, and then flounce off in a strop, and so we didn’t even get our drinks (although they were included in the first edition of the bill). When the food did arrive, it was tasteless and stale. We paid the bill and then went straight around the corner into a McDonalds, which tasted like the Fat Duck in comparison.

Restaurant 7 Portes 

Address:  Passeig d’Isabel II, 14, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
Bookings:  booked
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 16.35.02Our favourite restaurant in Barcelona, where I ate a phenomenal bowl of squid ink paella, which was as black as a lump of coal, and thumping with flavour. I blended it on my plate with a delightfully garlicky aioli sauce, and each mouthful was full bodied, salty, dark and tangy, a mysterious quality to the flavour. I washed it down with five glasses of red wine, so by the time I finished my meal my lips and tongue looked like I’d swallowed a gallon of oil.

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 16.35.09My partner in culinary crime, one of the world’s great experts in raw fish, enjoyed her tuna tartare, which came with avocado, freshly chopped tomatoes, and a hint of lemon. We also ate some glistening ham, and some crusty, slightly harsh pan con tomate. This is one of Barcelona’s oldest restaurants and has a slightly faded, decaying charm. Definitely worth a visit.

 

Bar jai-ca

Address:  Carrer de Ginebra, 13, 08003 Barcelona, Spain
Bookings:  walk in
Day:  Sunday
Meal:  Lunch
Price: ££
Rating: 7 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 16.34.28Cracking little tapas bar just off Port Vell, near the beach. The portions were gargantuan, the prices modest. My only complaint is that our waiter didn’t talk us down from ordering six different tapas dishes. My idea of tapas is a small little plate of food that you can polish off in five bites, but that isn’t the scale worked to at Bar jai-ca, or many of the restaurants we went to in Barcelona.

We gorged ourselves to the point of ruin on fresh, eating zesty little fried tiny squid, a big plate of ruby red Spanish ham, a bowl of padron peppers, salted and fried. A wonderfully simple Greek salad, the tart little bits of feta cheese, healthy, well-juiced tomatoes and simple vinaigrette, was perfect for a summer’s day. I barely touched the tomato bread, taking one bite and immediately seeing that it was, as so many times during our trip, the weakest thing on the menu. There is certainly scope for a quality bakery to be established in Barcelona. By the time our plate of manchego cheese arrived, the waiters had to drag a wooden stool over to accommodate it. If you visit the beach, drop in here for lunch.

Hisop Restaurant

Address:  Passatge de Marimon, 9, 08021 Barcelona, Spain
Bookings:  booked
Day:  Saturday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 7 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 16.35.35This was our foray into the Michelin-starred world of Spanish restaurants, with Hisop the owner of a star since 2010. We both ordered the 7-course tasting menu. Some of the dishes were very nice, but in general it felt like Hisop was going through the motions of modern Michelin-starredness, with the unusual flavour combinations, the intriguing presentation, the allusions to classic dishes, but with each dish falling slightly short of that mark. There was a verve and a magic missing from the kitchen. Their smoked eggplant with comte cheese and squid sat wet and stodgy on our plates, almost a bit embarrassed of itself.

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 16.35.47The final dish, a piquillo red pepper stuffed with white chocolate and vanilla, was inedible, and even good manners couldn’t get me through more than one bite of it. My takeaway from the dish was not: “oh what a fascinating combination, why haven’t I seen that before?”, but rather, “piquillo peppers must never, ever, ever be allowed in the same room at the same time with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. On pain of death.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-08-18 at 16.35.15On the flip-side, a bowl of cold green tomato soup, like a gazpacho, was sharp and delicious, with a triplet of rich, succulent chunks of veal bobbing happily in the middle of it. Some steak with artichokes was nice, whilst a selection of cheeses were laid out from strongest to weakest, a little edible dairy tour of Europe. A decent restaurant (and not too expensive by Michelin standards), but not a highlight to build a trip around.

 

 

Headed to Tuscany in the not too distant future, so watch out for that!


African Volcano

Address:  6 Southwark Bridge Rd, London SE1 0EF
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.45I have explained the concept of Great Guns Social on this blog before. Different pop-up restaurants are allowed to take up residence in their kitchen for a brief period of time, normally a few months, before saddling up again and hitting the road, to be replaced by another chef with a stack of recipes and a dream.

Previously, we ate the tasting menu provided by Fodder, a pop-up specialising in foraged food. It was brilliant, surprising and delicious. They’ve vanished now, but the memory of their cooking remains vivid with us. Wherever you are Fodder, you have two fans here at Life at the end of a Fork!

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.10.39In their place is African Volcano, a pop-up specialising in the cuisine of Mozambique. It’s the creation of Grant Hawthorne and his wife, a pair of South Africans, who sell peri-peri sauces and marinades from their website, as well as at a stall in Maltby Market. They have a fairly large pair of foraged boots to fill, but at first taste, they’re having a good go of it.

Their peri-peri prawns with tomato and pilaf were a hit, rich and buttery, full-bodied and smoky. It was the kind of dish that you miss the very second you stop eating it. Spooning up the last morsel was like saying goodbye to a friend at the airport. I would happily have had a bowl five times its size and just sat around all evening with that plus a bucket full of chilled beers.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.37But all precious things come to an end, and before long the bowl was vanishing towards the kitchen, replaced with a plate of great, thick cuts of smoked salmon. My partner in culinary crime normally corners any fish dish (even if it’s nominally intended to be shared), and deflects any would-be scavengers with the tenacity of an African lion swatting hyena on Serengeti. This is fine in principal, but it does mean I have to take her word for it when reviewing marine dishes. This time was no different, so you’ll have to have it on her authority that the salmon was well smoked and full-bodied.

A plate of cured hams were marbled and glistening, almost purple. They were thin and lean, but full of flavour.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.54A southern fried chicken burger with spiced mayonnaise and red onions disappointed me. It was tall and narrow, difficult to eat, and strangely absent of the punch and vigour of the other dishes. It was certainly not volcanic. We found ourselves deconstructing it, eating the decent piece of fried chicken, and leaving the pretty pedestrian salad and bread on the plate. The ingredients of a burger should want to bind together. These had no affinity for each other.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.30The best dish turned up last at the party. Their Cape Malva pudding was an instant classic, one of the nicest desserts we’ve had this year. It came hot and spongy, studded with dark chocolate, a scoop of cool vanilla ice cream melting on the side, a cluster of fresh raspberries and strawberries gathered round it. Everything on the plate played perfectly, the sharp tang of the fruit and the deep flavour of the chocolate, the warmth of the cake and the chill of the ice-cream.

The dish took me by surprise. We’d dithered about whether even to have a dessert. But it was an ambush worthy of the African savannah, and it put an exclamation point on the meal.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.10.30

Congratulations to African Volcano. And congratulations to Great Guns Social for picking pop-ups so well, especially ones so sprawling different in their offering. Here’s to further culinary eruptions on the Southwark Bridge Road.


Andina

Address:  1 Redchurch St, London, E2 7DJ
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.27If there’s one group of people in the world who like raw fish and lime juice more than my partner in crime, then it’s probably the Peruvians. And that’s saying something, because as mentioned previously, my partner in culinary crime eats more raw fish than a hungry basking shark, and gobbles more limes than a sailor warding off scurvy. But the Peruvians love it more than that. They even have a national holiday for ceviche, the 28th June, where they doss off work and eat the stuff.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.09Certainly, it’s a dish worth celebrating. I was reminded of that last week at Andina, in Shoreditch, part of a small chain of informal little Peruvian restaurants scattered around London. We kicked off the night with a plate of sea bass ceviche, a princely fish marinated in lime juice, served with avocado, sweet potato, goldenberry, red onion, chilli and tiger’s milk. The dish was searingly, bitingly, wincingly tasty, sharp enough to cut diamond, the lime sending lightning bolts of flavour down the tongue. The sea bass itself was plump and fresh, soft as a pillow.

A side dish of some pitch black yawar croquettes had no flavour of their own, but it was almost a relief to have some palate cleansers after the culinary blitz of the ceviche.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.17Next to slide across our table was a Peruvian corn soufflé, topped with a loin of smoked bacon, an egg and some hollandaise sauce. Peruvian corn bread is wonderfully starchy, absorbent, somehow managing to be both hearty and light at the same time.

As we ate, I was fascinated by the couple next to us, who sat in complete silence for minutes at a time, looking at each other vacantly, before occasionally making small snippets of conversation which were so awesomely boring that they could have auditioned for Love Island, and probably won the entire programme if they hadn’t been overweight. The silent dinner remains one of life’s great mysteries to me, and yet all over the world they occur.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.11.54The centre piece of the meal was a braised duck leg, in a butter bean and pumpkin puree. This I found a little disappointing, the meat a little dry, somewhat worn down. It brought to mind a stringy, lanky duck, with a weary set of legs that waddled it many miles. It didn’t have the strength of flavour of the best duck. Perhaps it was a dyed chicken leg.

We finished with a chocolate mousse, topped with a dollop of elder berry and a smothering of pink rice krispies. Berries and chocolate are probably the ultimate dessert combination, and I wolfed this down, spoonful by spoonful, good to the very last.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.01I had the meal with half a dozen pisco sours, and so probably drank the equivalent of 3 eggs with my meal. Each glass was a sharp, acidic complement to the food, and left me walking unsteadily in the gorgeous summer night.

Andina is fine, fresh and casual, part of a little storm of Peruvian restaurants capturing the hearts of London diners. Give it a try. In fact, why not embrace a little bit of the Peruvian spirit, take this Thursday off (the 28th, National Ceviche Day), grab a sea bass, throw it in some lime juice, and then try not to wince whilst watching England slaughter Belgium in the World Cup that evening.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.11.37


Temper

Address: 5 Mercer Walk Mercers Yard, London WC2H 9FA
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Sunday
Meal:  lunch
Price: ££
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 20.59.36Temper has been high on my hit list of restaurants to visit ever since I read a review celebrating its hellacious fire pit, which takes whole animals and smokes and grills them, pushing out vast shoulders of lamb, legs of beef and bellies of pork, leaving your hair, clothes and soul ingrained with smoke for days afterwards.

Unbeknownst to me, however, there are three Tempers, and I have now visited all of them except the one I wanted. Late last year, we went to Temper City, near Bank, where we ate some lukewarm Indian food and lost badly in a 1980s-themed quiz. Sat directly adjacent to us was the founder and head chef at Temper, Neil Rankin, along with a gaggle of his friends. Far be it from me to even hint at foul play, but it was in fact Rankin and his gang who won the quiz…

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 21.00.20Last week, keen to finish what I started, I wandered into Temper off Covent Garden, forgetting entirely that the mothership restaurant with its pulsing fire pit is actually in Soho. The food served in the Covent Garden branch was not as expected. It tried hard. There was thought behind it. But it didn’t quite hit the mark.

It wasn’t even serving the great cleaved slabs of meat that the review promised. The menu consisted of tapas dishes and pizzas. Not being a big fan of pizza (unless using it to soak up the remains of a big night out and tame a raging hangover), we restricted ourselves to the tapas.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 20.59.59First up was the lardo carbonara I don’t say this often, but it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted in my life. Smothered in a mountain of grated parmesan, it was cold, it was flavoursome, it melted, it was mercurial. It had the texture of an eel.

I was curious as to how pasta could feel like this. A nervous looking waitress told us that the strings of ‘spaghetti’ were actually made purely out of pork fat. My partner in culinary crime looked queasy. I stand by the dish though. For cardiac reasons, it’s probably not something to eat in large quantities on a regular basis, but it was the best thing they served us, and a true culinary original.

Our fried tortellini with hot honey were stodgy, comfort food, something you might get on the side with a domino’s pizza. A platter of charcuterie was decent, but when you live 200 metres from Brindisa, and can gorge on plates of fat, soft, acorn-fed iberico ham at the drop of a hat, you have been well and truly spoilt, and anything else seems like a slippage in standards.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 20.59.51A beef cannelloni, with provolone and mozzarella cheese, cooked with anchovy butter, had a bubbling warmth, the tang of capers coming through, and melted on the spoon. A big wedge of garlic bread, sprinkled with rosemary and cooked with nduja butter, was greasy, ridiculously filling, and essentially flavourless. It was the low moment of the meal, a piece of culinary flotsam spat out of the kitchen.

Some entertainment was provided by the Korean American family on the table next to us. The father of the family announced to the waitress that he made a living from running a food rating app., and proceeded to pose his food and snap photos of it with an ancient looking camera.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 21.00.26

Before sitting down, he had been wearing a sort of straw boating hat, which he placed upside down on the free seat at the table. As he photographed a bizarre looking pizza covered in clams, his wife accidentally jolted the table, sending a dozen of the juicy crustaceans tumbling into his jaunty hat.

He shrieked at his wife and daughter to keep back, as if the clams were nuclear waste, and proceeded to scoop them back onto his plate, before giving his fishy hat a good shake. He acted too hastily: clams in a hat would have made for an excellent photo on his app, and perhaps started a new culinary trend.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 21.00.10In any case, there is only one branch left go. By process of elimination, we shall get there. Neil Rankin has one last chance to awe us with that fire pit, before we finally lose our Temper.


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.


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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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.


Goodbye 2017, hello 2018

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 19.02.562017 witnessed the birth of Life at the End of a Fork, and as we roll into a new year we wanted to quickly glance back at some of the highs of the previous 12 months.

Whilst we have enjoyed eating at a multitude of restaurants, a few are deserving of special mention for providing the highest level of culinary comfort.

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 18.57.43Otto’s continues to be one of London’s best kept dining (semi) secrets, serving the best steak tartare in London, some of the best foie gras, and a pressed duck for two which is my number one must try dish in 2018, all done with great theatricality and skill. They also won my undying admiration by refusing to bow to a horde of militant vegans who laid siege to them for months in 2015, in an attempt to bully the restaurant into changing its menu. They didn’t change a single comma. Full marks for food, full marks for standing their ground.

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Berners Tavern in Fitzrovia is one of the most spectacular dining rooms in the country, walls decked head to toe in paintings, the bar a towering mass of shimmering spirits and glinting glass, the ceiling magisterial. It is a special place to eat in. Their slow-cooked lamb shoulder for two might have been the best thing I ate in 2017 – after 99% of the food I’ve eaten over the last 12 months has faded to grey, this lamb is still vivid in my memory.

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Finally, St John Bread and Wine must be called out, for acting as an ever-reliable food pit stop on the walks from the City where we work to Aldgate where I lived for much of 2017. Their menu was in constant flux, and almost everything that appeared on it was interesting, surprising, and delicious. And affordable. A stop at this excellent restaurant made the journey back to a small, stuffy flat bearable.

If these three restaurants warrant special mention, which particular dishes in 2017 rose above the rest? Below are the ten best things we ate in 2017:

  • Meat fruit at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal (Mandarin, chicken liver parfait & grilled bread)
  • Duck liver and foie gras on toast at St John Bread and Wine
  • Stone bass ceviche at Wright Brothers, Spitalfields
  • Stuffed courgette flower at Barafina
  • Slow cooked Herdwick Lamb Shoulder at Berners Tavern
  • Tartare de Boeuf Simmental at Otto’s
  • Tipsy cake at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
  • Deconstructed kebab at Palomar
  • Classic duck burger at Comptoir Gascon
  • Risotto of wild mushrooms at Belmond Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons

Here’s to another year in pursuit of an edible El Dorado! Bon Voyage!