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!


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.


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.

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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.


Pollen Street Social

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy birthday Mum!


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.

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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.


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.


Caravan City

Address: 22 Bloomberg Arcade, London EC4N 8AR
Bookings: booked
Day:  Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 5.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.04I would like to say that we ended up in Caravan on Valentine’s Day as part of some elaborately romantic plan – hatched well in advance – possibly involving the scattering of rose petals across the table, a small band of violinists emerging from the kitchen to serenade us, an exquisite piece of jewellery buried in a favourite cake for dessert. But the reality is, Caravan was the only restaurant within 300 metres of our offices not named Nando’s that had a free table on an hour’s notice on this most over-booked of days.

The fact that this table happened to be about two yards from the large double doors, meant that we were subjected to an arctic blast of wind every 30 seconds, and did not enhance the romance of the evening.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.25But what of the food? Did it claw back victory from the jaws of defeat? Not really. Caravan, like almost everywhere these days, has a tapasy, share your plates, things come out when they’re ready type of vibe. Embracing this, we ordered up a plate of stilton and peanut wontons, on the basis that we both share a deep love of cheese, and when better to indulge in what you love than Valentine’s Day?

The dish they brought us was capable of killing off even the most rocksteady of human-food relationships. The fried wonton pouches were cloying, sickly and artificial, reminding me of McDonald’s cheese bites, or even the dreaded Mozzarella dippers. The bowl of soy sauce, brought for dipping purposes, made a bad dish even worse. This strange collection of ingredients should be kept well apart and never be allowed to interact with each other again, under any circumstances.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.44The jalapeno cornbread was okay when lavishly covered with chipotle butter, but the cornbread itself was savagely dry, and eating it unbuttered felt like swallowing a desert nomad’s flip-flop without a glass of water to wash it down. A bowl of burrata with slithers of artichoke, mixed with parsley, lemon and garlic, was better, but partly this was down to our desperate gratitude after being water-boarded by two kitchen atrocities right off the bat.

A bowl of pork belly, served with chopped cucumber and celery, flavoured with caramel and coriander, was a quality dish, and could have held its head high in most restaurants. The pork was tender, juicy and flavoursome, the only issue the fact that there were only three small chunks of it, which threatened to cause a riot as I tried to fend off my partner in culinary crime’s fork as she desperately tried to spear the third and final piece.

Screen Shot 2018-02-17 at 18.26.59A plate of carrots in paprika and mint yoghurt went almost untouched. This was perhaps more our fault than the restaurants, since we both loathe carrots, and only ordered the dish because my partner in culinary crime’s parents had told that we constantly order and review exactly the same foods each time. We can now say with honesty that we have ordered something never before mentioned on Life at the End of a Fork, even if we never got around to eating it.

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I enjoyed a delicious chocolate tart for dessert – the chocolate was dark, rich and powerful, and was the highlight of the meal. My partner in culinary crime ordered a cheese board, but only nibbled at it, at which point I began to feel positively alarmed, and decided I needed to order the bill and let her get some rest, perhaps visiting A&E in the morning if she was still turning down cheese.

Perhaps we should have tried the Nando’s…


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!

 


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.