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.


Brasserie Zedel

Address: 20 Sherwood Street, London W1
Bookings: no booking
Day:  Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.05.17I find it impossible to dislike Brasserie Zedel. It is huge, it is theatrical, it is opulent. It is a pastiche piece of Art Deco Paris buried in the bowels of a particularly unattractive part of Central London. To get there, we walked past the Rainforest Café, and then a Jamie’s Italian encased in one of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen in my life. Running this gauntlet of miserable architecture only enhanced the playful grandeur of Brasserie Zedel, its top-hatted doorman ushering us into a cavernous space of marble columns, oak walls, dimly-lit jazz bars and velvet banquettes.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.04.33It is also cheap (although not as absurdly cheap as when I went there several years ago). Starters are arranged on the menu by price, ranging from £2.95 for pumpkin soup to £9.75 for a plate of snails. A French onion soup sits handsomely in the middle at £5.75. There can be few better value restaurants in London.

We turned up without a reservation, banking on the fact that it was a Tuesday, and that the restaurant has the capacity of a small football stadium. It was near run thing. A waiter, who looked about 12-years’ old, chaperoned us to one of the few vacant tables in the building, next to the long, elegant bar.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.03.09I threw myself into a chicken liver parfait, which was smooth, dense with flavour, and, when spread all over thick white bread, intensely filling. My partner in culinary crime polished off a plate of succulent smoked salmon.

My main course styled itself a Steak Hache, but to all intents and purposes was just a really nice hamburger – minus the buns – sat in a pepper sauce. The beef was full-bodied and earthy, bubbling with the rich vigour of the countryside. It was everything that a McDonalds patty is not, and despite the latter swearing blind that every granule is 100% pure beef, it is difficult to convince your taste buds that the two products ever sprung from the same creature.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.04.18Meanwhile, my partner in culinary crime chewed her way through a tough-ish ribeye steak. The meat had the tired quality of an animal that has lived a hard, challenging life. Two cups of French fries were chilly and bland.

But the odd mediocre dish does not spoil a place like Brasserie Zedel. You don’t go there for the best cooking in London. You go there for the vast spaces, the sense of eating somewhere fun and light-hearted, the aura of another time and place. I felt that at any moment Hercule Poirot, complete with stick-on moustache and cartoon French accent, might glide out of the Bar American. That two people can experience all this for £70, including drinks, makes Brasserie Zedel a place worth cherishing.

Screen Shot 2018-01-24 at 21.02.54We left with our 2018 dietary plans yet again blown to smithereens, but our bank balances blessedly intact.


Frenchie

Address: 16 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8QH
Bookings: Booked through Open table
Day: Friday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.49Friday night saw my partner in culinary crime and I on our last pre-Christmas restaurant excursion. For this valedictory event, we picked Frenchie, the 2016 offering from French chef Gregory Marchand.

Marchand has something of an interesting backstory. Placed in an orphanage at the age of 12, after his mother died, he cooked his first dish (escalope normande… a type of chicken) when the home’s chef was having a weekend off. Cooking became a form of self-defence, his talent for whipping up concoctions in the kitchen earning him the protection of bigger – but very hungry – kids in the orphanage.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.16At the age of 16, he left and joined a culinary school, before moving to London in his 20s to begin a cooking odyssey across a number of the capital’s prominent restaurants, including the Savoy Grill and Electric. He also worked as the head chef at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen.

It was Jamie Oliver who, summoning all his immense wit and creativity, dubbed Marchand ‘Frenchie’, a name which became Marchand’s personal brand when he set his up own restaurant in Paris in 2009. After many accolades and much adulation, and a stint cooking in New York, he came back to London last year, bringing his Frenchie brand with him.

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And we’re glad that he did. Frenchie is a good restaurant, and a fun one as well. It is not tethered to strict French culinary traditions, either in terms of the food it serves, or the ambience it cultivates.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.37The menu was small, but interesting. I launched into a dish of burrata, with slices of avocado, pickled onion and olives. It came with great shards of crisped bread which were useful tools for scooping up the burrata, which was perfectly creamed on the inside, soft and delicate.

My partner in culinary crime honed in on the sea bream tartare, with yuzu, quinoa and chestnuts. As someone who has eaten more raw fish than a leopard seal, her verdict on such dishes carries weight, and she pronounced it excellent, light and fresh, carrying that sharp undertone that characterises the best fish tartare.

For my main course, I had the pan seared gnocchi, which came with shimeji mushrooms, potato confit and tarragon. It was an excellent twist on gnocchi, well sauced, powerful and full bodied, the texture excellent.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.26As I was wolfing this down, my partner in culinary crime was grumbling that her roast duck was too tough. Looking up, I saw that she was sawing at it with the wrong side of the knife… once this was pointed out, and the knife was flipped, the duck cut beautifully. She declared it succulent, the exterior well-crisped, the interior bursting with flavour.

We finished off with a selection of 3 cheeses: Spenwood, an unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheese, a lovely Innes Log, which is a goat’s cheese, and a Deauville, from France. Only the Deauville missed the mark, with a 4-second aftertaste so smoky it felt as if you’d swallowed a small ash tray.

So, dinner was a success, not tainted even by the occupants of our adjacent table who talked loudly, at length, and in detail, about a range of operations recently undergone on various body parts, which isn’t ideal background music for the eating of gnocchi or cheese.

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Never mind. My partner in culinary crime and I are fleeing London for Christmas, but we shall pop up again before New Year, to regale you with further culinary adventures. Have a lovely Christmas.


Iberica

Address: 89 Turnmill St, London EC1M 5QU
Bookings: Walk in
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.29.52Farringdon is one of London’s neglected food neighbourhoods, somewhat overshadowed by adjacent Clerkenwell, and entirely drowned out by the clamour around Soho’s ever evolving warren of innovative, exciting places to eat. But Farringdon is littered with a good batch of restaurants that can hold their own: St JOHN, Comptoir Gascon, Polpo, Sosharu and Foxlow spring to mind. And I can now add Iberica to the list.

Iberica fails the very first test of the arch food snob, its success having seen it evolve into a chain restaurant, and not even a chain with the decency to restrict itself to London! Led by chef Nacho Manzano, it has ventured outside the capital and now has outlets in Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. But if the food is nice, then why hold an owner’s ambition against him?

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.29.36And the food is pretty good here. We started off with a charcuterie and cheese board, a trio of hams opulent in their redness and rich in their flavour, paired nicely with some goat’s and cow’s cheeses. Croquetas with Serrano ham were warm little golden nuggets of flavour, moist and light as a cloud. The fact that they were served in an uneven number almost drove an irreparable rift between my partner in culinary crime and I, but in an act of chivalry (and also afraid of losing a finger), I allowed her the extra croqueta.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.28.59A pair of miniature pork burgers with Pippara peppers were a delight to eat, sharp and flavoursome.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.28.39The low point of the meal was some asparagus on toast with cheese, which even a heavily touched up photograph can’t make look particularly appetising. The toast was bland and soggy, the cheese flavourless, and the runty little stalks of asparagus were pitiful even to look at. I ate them just to put them out of their misery.

Screen Shot 2017-10-10 at 19.30.16A dessert of churros was wickedly nice, buttery, crisped on the outside, soft on the inside, caked in sugar. The only drawback was that the rich dark chocolate was literally scolding hot, as I discovered when I dripped some on my forearm as I manoeuvred a churro towards my mouth. I spent the rest of the dinner periodically dabbing at my arm with an ice cube.

Anyway, put your food snobbery aside and visit Iberica. Perhaps even the Glasgow branch.


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.


Comptoir Gascon

Address: 63 Charterhouse St, Clerkenwell, London, EC1M 6Hj
Bookings: no booking needed
Day: Tuesday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

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There aren’t many things in life more miserable than a wet Tuesday weeknight. But then again, there aren’t many remedies for misery better than a trip to an excellent French restaurant that serves large glasses of inexpensive wine and enormous, tender duck breasts as if they were going out of fashion.

Well aware of this, we braved the rain (actually we huddled in an Uber) and shot off to Comptoir Gascon, the little brother of neighbouring Michelin-starred restaurant Club Gascon. Overlooking London’s oldest market, Smithfield, where meat has been bought and sold for over 800 years (and, for our Scottish readership, also the place where William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered), Comptoir Gascon serves up cuisine from the Southwest of France.

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 20.15.25I lost no time in ordering the aptly named ‘piggy treats.’ Served on a wooden platter, it is a lesson in the utility of pigs, serving one up in almost every way imaginable: a fried pig’s ear, black pudding, pork pate, a dried sausage, Bayonne ham, a confit sausage. Never have I felt more gratitude to a four-legged creature.

My partner in culinary crime ordered a sea bream ceviche, which was delightfully fresh and sharp to the taste, and followed this up with a succulent steak, a little cluster of garlic perched on top of it.

I ordered the duck burger, which was as decadent as it sounds, arriving with a rich slab of foie gras draped across the bird’s back like a tribute.Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 20.23.31

The restaurant itself is small and dimly lit, rustic in feel, drowsy French music interrupted only by the occasional shriek of merriment from the kitchen staff downstairs, which was unorthodox, but not off-putting.

The only drawback to the meal was a side-dish of sautéed greens, which had a nauseating after-taste and smelt like it had been doused in a particularly pungent bubble bath.

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Well-cleansed vegetables aside, I recommend this restaurant whole-heartedly. It is actually better than its Michelin-starred sibling, both in food and atmosphere, and is cheaper to boot. So, next time the rain is falling and weekend is oh so far away, hop in a taxi and make your way down to Smithfield Market, and discover all the wonderful things that can be done with a pig.