Banh Mi Bay

Address:  4-6 Theobalds Rd, Holborn, London WC1X 8PN
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.49I may have eaten at Banh Mi Bay in Holborn a hundred times, and in the words of a certain famous French cabaret singer: non je ne regrette rien.

Yes, convenience played a part. I could have punted a Vietnamese spring roll over the restaurant from my front door. But then again, you don’t make weekly missions to every restaurant over which you can kick or toss small items of food. No, Banh Mi Bay’s magnetism derives from the fact that it serves up consistently excellent food, to take away or to eat in, for less than £10. Each time, every time. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.35When taking out, I normally order the chargrilled chicken and boiled rice, which comes with a bundle of fresh vegetables, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, and two pots of sauce, one fire-hot red chilli, the other a kind of Vietnamese soy sauce. The chicken is always grilled to perfection, trim and succulent, the rice sticky and light. The whole dish has a fresh and clean feel, healthy and simple.

Last week, I dropped in with my partner in culinary crime, a debutante at the restaurant. The place itself is simple: a huge glass panel window that faces the street; an open kitchen with a grill; twenty or so wooden tables with rickety little chairs.

I ordered the five spice lamb, marinated overnight and fried in a wok with peppers and succulent onions, served in a drop-dead soy and honey sauce. Outrageously nice. The whole ensemble came sizzling and spitting on a platter, the soft lamb and juicy onions browning before my eyes, the heat bubbling through the food as I speared at it with a fork. The rich fragrance came smoking off the platter, and for a moment it felt like I was in some ramshackle food market outside of Hanoi. I had a bowl of fried rice on the side, the grains crisp and aromatic.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.43My partner in culinary crime wolfed down a bowl of stir-fried flat rice noodles with fat little prawns, crispy shards of onion scattered over the top. Unable to set about them with the desired pace using chopsticks, she raided their cutlery draw for a fork and went hell for leather at the delicious mound of noodles.

The only disappointing dish was the Vietnamese spring rolls, which were pork and prawns wrapped in Vietnamese rice paper. These were cold, stumpy and somewhat gelatinous, and there was nothing welcoming about their taste. The main courses were very generous anyway, and so we left these dumpy little creatures on their platter with few regrets.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.29All of this came to around £30, and as mentioned, we could easily have done without the spring rolls, meaning two people can dine well in this restaurant for £25. You can’t say that about many places in central London. Banh Mi Bay’s quality to price ratio is one of the highest in the capital.

Banh Mi Bay has now expanded to three locations, with venues in Fitzrovia and St. Paul’s joining the Holborn original. This success is well deserved. Try one of them. Like Edith Piaf, you’ll have no regrets.


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.


Dining in Mauritius

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 01.35.20Life at the End of a Fork is broadcasting from the sunny beaches of Mauritius this week. After visiting the island in 1896, Mark Twain said: “Mauritius was made first and then heaven; and heaven was copied after Mauritius.” This may be a bit of an exaggeration. Heaven hopefully has a much smaller population of flies, better drivers, and pizzas that don’t come topped with processed turkey ham. But Mauritius is certainly very beautiful, full of gently sloping green mountains and turquoise waters lapping onto quiet, sandy beaches.

Rather than review restaurants individually and in great detail, we decided to summarise four good restaurants that are worth visiting on the island during a visit, providing micro-reviews in the body of the blog below.

Palais de Barbizon
Address: St Anne Road, Chamarel village, Southwest Mauritius
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Saturday
Meal: Lunch
Price: £
Rating: 7.5/10

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We dropped into this little orange-washed restaurant on the way back from the Seven Coloured Earths, on the Chamarel plain. Having been let down by the Seven Coloured Earths (in the name of honesty they should be renamed A Couple of Shades of Brown Dirt), we were then uplifted by Palais de Barbizon. It is presided over by the garrulous, chuckling Rico I’Intelligent, who also happens to be the village mayor, whilst his wife, who looks like she has spent a lifetime both cooking and eating delicious food, works magic in the kitchen.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.09.58The menu is simple and fixed: five bowls of various vegetables, rice, and a choice of either fish or chicken. We ordered up both, and everything brought to the table was wholesome, satisfying and bursting with flavour. For dessert we had banana flambé. It was all washed down with a homemade concoction of beer, rum and lemonade. The four of us left with a combined bill comfortably under £50. Suffice to say that I’ve paid ten times the amount for worse food in Michelin-starred restaurants in London.

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Chez Tante Athalie
Address: Mon Repos, Route Royale, Pamplemousses, North Mauritius
Bookings: no booking required last order 14:30
Day: Friday
Meal: Lunch
Price: £
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.01.50An open-air restaurant presided over by a Franco-Mauritian couple. It is less than a ten minute drive from the Botanical Garden in the Pamplemousses District, North Mauritius, and we twinned a trip to the gardens with lunch here. The food was French with a slight island twist.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.11.35I ate a bowl of exquisitely fried calamari with a garlic, mayonnaise sauce , and a main of chicken in cream sauce, garlic sautéed potatoes perched alongside. My partner in culinary crime was in raptures over some elegant looking tuna carpaccio, a melting globe of lemon sorbet sitting incongruously in the middle of the fish. Unorthodox perhaps, but it worked, the whole plate a tart mixture of lemons, limes and the freshest of fish.

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For a main course she was appreciative of a steak, served rare, on a skewer. We ate to the accompaniment of a chorus of gorgeous birds, whilst swatting almost manically at the equally abundant flies. Vintage cars dotted the restaurant’s garden, and a beaten up old Cessna aeroplane sat in the shade of a tree, never to fly again.

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Domain
Address: Narainen St Grand Baie, Mauritius
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: £
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.11.42A divisive one at Life at the End of a Fork. The chilli lamb, served in a frying pan, was the single best thing I ate on the island of Mauritius.

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It was perfectly spiced – putting the tongue constantly on the edge of a nervous breakdown, but never quite pushing it over the edge – and came with a liberal dose of onions and peppers. I ate it at a frantic pace, accompanied by a delicious medley of fried rice, egg and spring onion. My partner in culinary crime was distinctly unimpressed by her fare, declaring a plate of fried chicken and seafood to be “upmarket KFC” (which sounds like a compliment to me), and her curried prawns to be dull and bland. The food was cheap, with 3 courses each and drinks coming in under £20 a head.

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Luigi’s
Address: Royal Road, Grand Baie, B13, Grand Baie
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: £
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.13.55A decent Italian restaurant near Grand Baie, given a touch of Mediterranean authenticity by the fact that the Italian lady who owned the place left the kitchen at one point to loudly berate and gesticulate at one of the customers, who sat sheepishly, holding the hand of his much younger Mauritian girlfriend.

Screen Shot 2017-11-24 at 16.10.19I had some mussels in a white wine and garlic sauce, which was a little meagre, but the mussels themselves were fresh and well-cooked. My partner in culinary crime had some gauze-thin tuna carpaccio, which was a delight, salted and seasoned, and tasted as if it had been swimming blithely through the ocean only moments before.

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The list of pizzas was extensive. I ordered up pepperoni and mushroom, which was solid and filling, if a little over-greased. My partner in culinary crime wolfed down a chicken and mushroom pizza. The chocolate brownie we finished with was the nicest dessert we found in Mauritius.

 

 

 

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Morito

Address: 32 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4QE
Bookings: no booking required
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 18.45.57Exmouth Market is a little oasis of restaurants in Clerkenwell, stretching from Paesan in the west to Bourne & Hollingsworth in the east, with the jewels in the middle being Moro, and its younger sibling, Morito.

These are run by the same husband and wife team, Samantha Clark (nee Clarke) and Sam Clark, who were apparently introduced by friends many moons ago because of the similarity of their names. It turns out they were both excellent cooks as well.

We stood outside Moro and Morito for a few moments, deliberating between the two. Moro, large, a little formal, a little empty at 6pm on a Tuesday night, or Morito, tiny, seats crammed against the pane of glass facing the street, pulsing with people and energy, a whir of small plates meeting wooden tables.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 18.46.40We chose the latter, and moments later found ourselves perched high at the window table nearest the door, which meant we were exposed to an arctic blast every few minutes as some cheery food pilgrim came in to enquire about availability.

Morito serves tapas, which loyal readers will know is a favourite eating form for Life at the End of a Fork. It is perfect for the indecisive eater, allowing you to order a series of meals in miniature, each one an experience unto itself.

Once ordered, the food came thick and fast, and a slight moderation of pace from the kitchen would have been appreciated as we found ourselves shifting the plates on the table into ever more intricate patterns just to make space for the next arrival.

Two small jamon and chicken croquetas dropped first.  They were good, but lacked the truly eruptive flavour of the very best croquetas we’ve had at Barafina.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 18.46.57Next appeared a mound of well-crisped aubergine, cooled with a whipped feta and date molasses concoction. Seldom have opinions been so divided at Life at the End of a Fork. My partner in culinary crime found the dish positively offensive, wrinkling her nose and reaching for her diet coke to act as a makeshift mouthwash. I found it to be perhaps the best dish of the evening: tangy, creamy, sweet, and deeply moreish. This the is the perfect sort of disagreement to have over tapas: I decided I would drag the dish in my direction and eat the whole thing, and she was happy to oblige.

A plate of bruschetta was fresh enough, with a frisson of garlic, but a little non-descript. It could have done with a little more vinegar, and the tomatoes with slightly more texture. A pair of prawns in a green pesto sauce blinked at us unappealingly, but a hard-fought war with their shells revealed the small slither of meat within to be firm, but juicy, a shot of the ocean.

Screen Shot 2017-11-13 at 18.46.24We finished with some spiced lamb, mixed with pomegranate and pine nuts, sat on a bet of pureed aubergine, which was unequivocally delicious. The lamb had body and a thick salted flavour, the pine nuts crunched, and the pomegranate offered a sweet little kick to the whole thing.

It was a satisfying ending to a satisfying evening. Drop into Moro if you fancy something serious, something substantial. But go to Morito if you fancy a flurry of fun, a twist of Spanish soul on a little strip of London.

 


Margot

Address: 45 Great Queen St, London WC2B 5AA
Bookings: No booking
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

My partner in culinary crime and I have two lifestyle objectives at the moment. 1) To spend less money; 2) To consume fewer calories. Neither of these two objectives are conducive to the writing of a food blog. Both become almost impossible if you are overwhelmingly greedy and surrounded by some of the best restaurants in the world.

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 17.31.01And so it was, that earlier this week, only hours after piously agreeing to dine frugally on a few leaves of lettuce and diced tomatoes in my flat – possibly to be followed by a brisk run through a leafy park – we found ourselves slumped in one of the more decadent, expensive and calorific restaurants in Central London: Margot.

Margot is an Italian restaurant on Great Queen Street, just around the corner from Covent Garden. Everything inside is low-slung, symmetrical, squeaky clean, glamorously lit, soft, deep-green, inviting banquettes lining the walls, glasses and wine bottles hanging behind the bar, refracting the lights. Everything exudes a calmness and a confidence, a world within a world, detached from the babble of the streets outside. The waiters, masters in their realm, glide from table to table, dispensing bread with a polite serenity, if even if they do look faintly ludicrous in full dinner jackets, complete with bowties.

And the food was good too. We started off with a large plate of hams and cheeses, including a well-aged Parma ham, a solid, earthy salami, a firm goat’s cheese, and another softer, creamier cheese (I forgot to ask the waiter which particular barnyard animal we were indebted to for the last of these).

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 17.30.42For my main course, I had a bowl of tonnarelli pasta with clams, parsley and chilli. The tonnarelli, thick and squarish, was perfectly cooked, firm and al dente, the ideal companion for some fresh little clams. I would have wished it a little hotter from the chilli, but it seems rude to complain about pasta this nice.

My partner in culinary crime had a tuna carpaccio, which the restaurant happily agreed to upsize from a starter to a main course. When the fish arrived it brought the freshness of the ocean with it, sharp and tart, a zip of lemon infusing it.

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We finished with a milk chocolate and hazelnut fondant, with meringue and a deep cherry sauce, which was ceremoniously set on fire in front of us. Since we had no warning, and were dazzled by the act of pyromania occurring under our noses, my partner in culinary crime was a little slow on the draw with her camera, so we only caught the dessert in the smouldering aftermath of its glory. It was rich and mysterious, even if the meringue could have done with a little more crunch.

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 17.22.48A good, confident restaurant that you will never be embarrassed to recommend to anyone. It just slightly lacks that element of creativity or twist of culinary genius required to elevate it right to the top of the London restaurant scene, but is knocking on the door of Life at the End of a Fork’s top ten list.


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.


Polpo

Address: 3 Cowcross St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 6DR
Bookings: no booking
Day: Wednesday
Meal: dinner
Price: £
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.57.17Polpo is a regular pit stop for Life at the end of a fork when hunger beckons. Its Farringdon branch sits in between work in the City and the flat in Central London, and many of our walks home have been interrupted by a half-dozen dishes of its Italian tapas.

Given the mournful English weather, London isn’t renowned for alfresco dining, but Polpo does have a very thin strip of rickety tables slung out on Cowcross Street, next to a Subway sandwich outlet. The view isn’t the sort of stuff that dreams are made of, although a very good replica of Ruben’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ painting, hung, bizarrely, round the back of Fabric nightclub, can just be viewed down the end of an alleyway opposite.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.47.30Taking advantage of one of the (likely) few remaining warm days of the British summer, we stopped off the other evening for dinner. The summer sunlight was lingering, throwing fingers of gold across the tables, bathing the diners in a soothing warmth. Sitting down at one of the tables, we savoured the remnants of the summer, mindful of Jon Snow’s endless lament: “winter is coming…”.

We ordered some stuffed fried olives. I am not normally a fan of olives, finding them sour and unrewarding, but frying them in batter and stuffing them did enough to mask the actual flavour of the olives, and made for a tasty snack. Next on our table were some potato and parmesan croquettes, which were warm and nicely textured.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.47.14A crab and chickpea crostini was bland, and my partner in culinary crime turned her nose up at it after one small mouthful, leaving me to battle through as much of it as I could bear. The crab tasted as if it had spent more time sitting in the fridge drying out than it ever had exploring the freshness of the ocean, while the chickpea was entirely flavourless.

Finally, we ate a prosciutto & gorgonzola pizza. Everything on top of the pizza was pleasant enough, although to my palette the actual dough of the pizza was hardly cooked. It reminded me of one of those frozen pizzas you desperately try to heat in the oven at university so that the base is cooked enough to be edible, but without the ham, onions and mushrooms that top the thing being utterly incinerated. It is a difficult thing to achieve…

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.46.46In sum, Polpo is a decent restaurant… if you’re hungry and you’re walking right past it. But take Life at the end of a fork’s advice, and don’t travel far and wide to seek it out. And if you do, make sure they leave the crab in the fridge.

 


Ember Yard

Address: 60 Berwick St, Soho, London W1F 8SU
Booking: no booking
Day: Friday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

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Strips off a leg of Iberico ham

We found ourselves perched high on bar stools in the dark, oaky bowels of a restaurant on Berwick Street, Soho: lively music and the cheerful babble of voices created the perfect pitch to wrap you in a warm, convivial cocoon; rich, throbbing oil paintings lingered on the shadowed walls; a bearded waiter carved fine strips off a leg of Iberico ham… welcome to Ember Yard.

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Grilled honey flatbread

The food is a blend of Spanish and Italian, cooked on a grill over charcoal and wood. The fire infused everything we ate, from the grilled flatbread dunked in the sweetest of honey, to the small chargrilled Iberico pork steaks that sat in little pools of whipped, salted butter.

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Padron peppers

We ordered a bowl of padron peppers, which came blistered black and brown, infused with oil, and littered with great shards of salt. My gin mare was big and refreshing, and lasted the duration of the dinner.

It is hard to find a criticism to level at the restaurant. The meats were succulent and smoky; the dishes were nice to look at; the room itself was a pleasure to sit in, well-décored without a single exposed brick or industrial piece of piping that characterises much of Soho’s faux-warehouse restaurant aesthetic.

thumb_IMG_1698_1024Even our fellow diners couldn’t spoil the experience! Next to us were a middle-aged Arab man and a much younger woman of east Asian appearance, who snuggled and kissed each other throughout dinner to the edge of indecency.

I almost fell off my chair, when, without the slightest justification, the man produced a pair of keys to a BMW and handed them to a member of the bar-staff for his “safe-keeping,” (the recesses of his pocket presumably not being safe enough), to which the tip-hungry bar-hand replied, with great seriousness: “I tell you honestly… never in my life have I held the keys to such a car.”

But even these primitive mating games provided amusement rather than irritation: when they walked out, the Arab gentleman retrieving custody of his car keys and leaving a hefty tip to his ego-boosting assistant, I felt a surge of affection for them as they drifted off into the Soho night.

Ember Yard has won itself a coveted place on the top-ten list of Life at the End of a Fork’s favourite restaurants. There are few greater honours. Visit this restaurant.