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.


Rules

Address: 34-35 Maiden Ln, London WC2E 7LB
Bookings:  Booked
Day:  Friday night
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.46I think it’s one of the marks of a civilised society that people find things more interesting the older they are. But as a student of history, I’m probably biased. For me, a room is a more interesting if interesting things have happened there, if fascinating people have walked through it and talked in it. Places are enriched by their stories.

It was this magnetism of the past that drew us to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule. Over the next several centuries it has hosted some of the world’s greatest actors (Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin were regulars), Charles Dickens scribbled ideas for his novels at its cramped tables, Edward VII held secret meetings with his lover, Lillie Langtry, in its private dining room, and a bomb fell on it during the Blitz. There has been much water under this bridge since it first started hawking oysters 220 years ago.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.56Does that make its food taste any nicer? Not really. If I was judging Rules purely on the basis of culinary quality, I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops. It serves heavy, solid food in the classic British style, the menu rich with hare, deer, pheasant, pigeon and quail, anything that can be shot in a field essentially. Indeed, Rules sources much of its game meat from the Lartington Estate, which is owned by John Mayhew, also the proprietor of the restaurant.

I ordered a middlewhite pork terrine to the start, which came with piccalilli and toast. It was a big wedge of meat, thick and tasty. But it wasn’t bursting with the earthy, farm-rich flavours of the very best terrine. There was something subtle missing from it.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.53.19My partner in culinary crime had smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, which in most places would have been considered a hearty brunch, but at Rules is just a tantalising warm-up for the main event.

For my main-course, I had a grilled leg of lamb, spiced up with some curried spinach, big boulders of potato, and minted yoghurt. Think British country pub meets India. The lamb was good quality, but slightly burnt, and then served freezing cold, which was an unusual combination: as you bit into the chilly flesh the charcoaled flavour gave a taunting reminder that once upon a time this meat must have been hot.

My partner in culinary crime ate a Gressingham duck breast, bathed in a beetroot puree. She reported it as delicious, on a par with the legendary duck we were once served at Comptoir Gascon, opposite Smithfield Market, so many moons ago. For once, size was what let Rules down. My partner in culinary crime was left searching the plate in vain for a final morsel of duck.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.33Finally, we shared a bread and butter pudding, with prunes and custard. It was simple, warm, familiar and comforting, nothing extraneous or extravagant, made just as bread and butter pudding should be.

And all this is served in a unique set of surroundings, creaky old stair cases, faded, frayed carpets, thousands of paintings of long-dead grandees wearing monocles or hunting foxes, stuffed pheasants glaring from the walls, and a rather alarming, more than life-sized, mural of Margaret Thatcher as Britannia triumphantly standing over the Falkland Islands. This is a proudly British restaurant, with a legendary past, a vibrant present, and occasionally suspect food. A little bit like the country then.

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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.


Wok to Walk

Address: 39 Great Windmill St, Soho, London W1D 7LX
Bookings: walk in only
Day:  Saturday
Meal: after 2am
Price: £
Rating: 6/10
Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 21.56.53Life at the End of a Fork probably gives the impression that we two culinary explorers spend our time sailing endlessly from one illustrious eatery to another, swinging a lobster in one hand, a prime cut of filet mignon in the other, all whilst balancing a bowl of well-cooked mussels on our noses.

We do all of those things of course, but for every occasion where we find ourselves pulling a chair up at a Michelin-starred restaurant, there are half a dozen where we are trying to work out how to use the self-service screens at a McDonalds at 2am, panicking because we have forgotten to add cheese crust to our Domino’s Pizza, or asking ourselves whether it is a health hazard to eat a congealed kebab that was already horrific when purchased 12 hours before (the answer is yes… but if you’re hungry..).

With that in mind, in this review I’d like to pay homage to Wok to Walk, the Chinese doyen of the late-night takeaway. It follows a simple formula: you pick a type of noodle or rice, you choose an accompanying meat or vegetable, and then select a sauce to fry it in. And you pay approximately a fiver. London is studded with these little orange eateries, whose logo of a man running with a burning saucepan in his hand looks like a public service announcement warning of fire hazards.

My favourite branch is that on Cranbourn Street, a road that sits in-between my flat and some of the most appalling clubs that London (and perhaps the world) has to offer, namely those that dot the perimeter of Leicester Square. Into these dank, dark and ferociously noisy places, tourists, first year university students, the staff of Pizza Express, Bella Italia and the Angus Steak House, as well as an assortment of drug dealers, leches and paralytic hen-parties, descend on a Friday and Saturday night, to dance, drink and eventually pass out. And occasionally I join them.

When I do, no journey home is complete without a stop at the aforementioned Wok to Walk, where I invariably order the egg noodles and chicken, smothered in a black bean and soy sauce. Served in a tall orange paper cup, this is without a doubt the supreme combination on the menu, and few things have ever tasted better in the dark hours of the early morning. It is so moreish, so salted and so pan-fried, so brimming with the cheapest and tastiest of flavours.

Despite living in Asia for many years, I am hopeless at using chopsticks. However, a dozen gin and tonics and several tequila shots improves my technique tremendously, and I have no difficulty gobbling down a carton full of these noodles whilst staggering past Covent Garden and up Kingsway, with at least ¾ quarters of what leaves the cup on the end of my chopsticks making it the full distance to my mouth.

Not only is the food tasty, but it is a supreme sponge for alcohol. Many a night that was heading towards a savage hangover has had the edge taken off it by a bellyful of these absorbent noodles. In the interests of full disclosure, I have never eaten Wok to Walk during the daylight, and don’t intend to. It is nocturnal food. But what’s wrong with that?

Screen Shot 2018-02-07 at 22.06.40So, the next time you are out, your hunger aroused by hours of hard boozing, eschew McDonalds, or Dominos, and look for the bright orange hole in the wall that is the calling card of the excellent Wok to Walk.


Tapas Brindisa London Bridge

Address: Borough Market, 18-20 Southwark St, London SE1 1TJ
Bookings: no booking allowed
Day:  Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 8/10

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.27.44January started with us being slightly underwhelmed by a Spanish tapas restaurant (Rambla), and ended with us being very much overwhelmed by a less-hyped one: Tapas Brindisa, Borough Market.

As Londoners, we owe a debt of culinary gratitude to Brindisa. When it first opened as a shop in Borough Market in the early 1990s, Spanish food was a strange and alien concept to most British people, whose encounters with Spain were mostly limited to getting sunburnt on a beach in Malaga or pick-pocketed by a friendly local in Barcelona.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.27.55Brindisa introduced us to a world of chorizo, padron peppers, Iberico meats and perfectly aged Spanish cheeses. It then expanded beyond mere shop status into a fully-fledged restaurant, flinging its doors open on Southwark Street in 2004, and is now dangerously close to becoming a chain, five outlets doing brisk business across the capital.

But age has not dimmed Brindisa. Yes, they commit the cardinal sin of not taking reservations. Yes, they massively compound that sin by not even allowing you to explore the pubs and bars of Borough Market whilst you wait an hour for your table to materialise. Instead, they herd you towards a miniscule bar where you have to wrestle with dozens of other hungry, red-wine fuelled customers to get any sort of service from the frenetically busy staff.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.28.11But still… with food this nice, almost anything can be forgiven. Of the five dishes we ordered, all were excellent. The padron peppers, which my partner in culinary crime won’t touch, were wizened, bitter little things, sharp, salted and full of flavour. They are rapidly becoming my favourite ‘snacking dish’ at a restaurant (although the very best pork scratchings can give them a run for their money).

Croquetas studded with iberico ham were smooth and smothering, enveloping the tongue with creamy layers of flavour. There was something so warm and comforting about them, the edible equivalent of a favourite blanket.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.28.32A chargrilled iberico fillet on top of blood red piquillo peppers was so soft and tender it was difficult to believe it was actually meat. With not a sinew in sight, the weight of the knife was enough to slice it in half. If I have one criticism, it is that the meat carried slightly too much charcoal with it, the lick of the flames too heavy in its flavour.

A Catalan flat bread with garlic and tomato was juicy and succulent, whilst a huevos rotos was a wild medley of whipped eggs, potatoes, onions, paprika and cured sausage meat. It was a mess, and all of it was delicious.

Screen Shot 2018-02-03 at 12.28.53After this performance, Tapas Brindisa has claimed a spot as our second favourite tapas restaurant in London, elbowing Ember Yard into 3rd place, and nipping at the heels of Barafina.  The taste buds are fickle things, and it is inevitable that as time passes, other, newer, fresher tapas restaurants will spring up to dazzle London’s hungry population. But we should never forget the pioneers, especially when they are as good now as the day were born.


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.


Lima Floral

Address: 14 Garrick St, London WC2E 9BJ
Bookings: Booked
Day: Friday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 20.46.03Lima Floral is the laid-back sibling of Michelin-starred Lima, which was the first London offering of star Peruvian chef Virgilio Martínez Véliz, and, incidentally, the first Peruvian restaurant to obtain a Michelin star in Europe.

With tickets for Book of Mormon that evening (which is hilarious, but perhaps not something to take either a Mormon or a Ugandan to), we were in the hunt for something delicious, quick and in the Covent Garden vicinity, and Lima Floral ticks all three boxes with panache.

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Peruvian cuisine was fusion food before fusion was a trend, blending European (think Spanish, Italian), Indigenous, Asian (Japanese) and African culinary traditions by virtue of the multiple waves of migration that have washed up on its shores over the past 500 years. They do miraculous things with fish, pork, corn, cassava, potatoes, and of course lemon and lime.

Bearing those key ingredients in mind, we attacked the menu with gusto, informing our helpful waiter that we would have to be fed, watered and sent on our way all within the span of an hour. First to grace the table were cassava chips with a dipping bowl of creamed potatoes, cheese, oil and peppers, which had enough of a kick to it to send my partner in culinary crime’s hand scuttling back to her side of table, moodily waiting for the next course.

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 20.46.40I have mentioned in these pages my PICC’s adoration of raw fish, and her mood was almost instantly lifted by the arrival of a seabream ceviche, which was bathed in a marinade of lime, onion, chilies and salt, a wild, sharp, fresh combination that sent tingles down the spine. It came accompanied by avocado, shards of corn and three hoops of crisped onion. With plates as tasty as this arriving, it isn’t hard to finish your food in under an hour.

If there’s pork on a tapas menu, chances are I’ll order it. This occasion was no different, as we tucked into a slow-cooked suckling pig, served with a garlic sauce and celeriac puree. It was soft, it was rich, and it pulsed with flavour, reminding me why pigs are the king of the barnyard.

Screen Shot 2018-01-18 at 20.46.24Not all was sunshine and light. A trio of salmon, tuna and cobia fish, doused in the ubiquitous citrus juice, looked a lot better than it tasted. As part of an enormously half-hearted attempt to be healthy, we ordered a quinoa solerito salad. This was a mistake. Firstly, you can’t reverse the effect of eating an enormous wedge of suckling pig by layering something healthy on top of it. Secondly, quinoa is a ghastly food that I would be reluctant to even feed to livestock. It deserves to return to its historical place as a fringe food for health nuts.

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But all in all, Lima Floral did what was asked of it. We left it doors with all the cheer, joy and goodwill of a pair of young Mormon missionaries embarking for their two years across the seas.


St. John

Address: 26 St John St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 4AY
Bookings: no booking but advised
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 8/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 22.41.34
As I have said before in these pages, St John Bread and Wine used to act as a food oasis during the long, arduous journeys (approximately 15 minutes, if walking slowly) between where we work in the City and the minuscule, grubby flat I used to occupy in Aldgate. Like nomads seeking refreshment after days in the desert, we would slump down in its chairs, swig on a diet coke, and scan its fresh, ever evolving menu, sure of nourishment and refreshment.

Given the importance of this restaurant to us, it was inevitable that we would seek out the original, St John, named after the street it sits on in Smithfield. For a restaurant that does magisterial things with meat, and particularly with pigs, it is perfectly located, just a leap away from Smithfield Market, where meat has been sold continuously for almost a thousand years. I have walked to work past this market with the dawn breaking, and had to step over little rivulets of blood as animal after animal is hauled out of the back of trucks to be sold to restaurants across London.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 22.41.00We have tried to get into St John on a number of occasions, only to be turned away due to lack of space, so it was with some excitement that we took our seats last week. St John is much like its offshoot. It serves many of the same things. It has an adoration of the pig. It has the same look and feel, the simple, hard white walls, the spartan furnishing, the mildly uncomfortable chairs, the serious, well-informed serving staff. It is much larger.

The core ethos is the same though. There is a no nonsense feel to the place, as if there is no time to fuss over anything except the quality of the food.  And that’s fine by me.

First to the table was a brown crab on toast with half a lemon ready to squeeze. It was a delight, the crab soft and fresh, perfectly moist, kicked into gear by the lemon, the toast fresh and crunchy, made at the in-house bakery. We followed this with a Welsh rarebit, a thick layer of cheese infused with mustard, served on a massive wedge of bread an inch thick, Lea and Perrins sauce sprinkled on top. This was solid, fortifying food, a simple dish done very, very well.

Screen Shot 2018-01-13 at 22.42.00It would be wrong to go to St John and order nothing made from a pig, a bit like driving through Arizona without stopping at the Grand Canyon, or holidaying in France without donning a beret and eating a baguette. So, we ordered the pork and pistachio terrine, which was earthy, coarse and powerful, full of chunks that I couldn’t quite identify, but that I knew were delicious.

 The only dish that disappointed us was a roast mallard with braised red cabbage. It was somewhat dry, and it must have been a lean, lanky duck, because we found ourselves with considerably more bone than meat. This may have been an unintentional blessing, since both of us have sworn to lose weight this year, but any benefits will have been cancelled out by finishing with a bread and butter pudding, a great ball of vanilla ice-cream melting rapidly on top.

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I explained to my partner in culinary crime that even the most disciplined dieters have one “cheat day” a week, where rules are discarded for the day, and you gorge on whatever you like. We are just having our entire years’ worth of cheat days in January…

There is also some change in our top 10 restaurant list: St John is in, Ember Yard is out. To deny this mecca of food a spot in the top 10 would be a culinary crime.


Rambla

Address: 64 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 4QG
Bookings: Booked through Opentable
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.17.07Our first review of 2018 finds us in Rambla, a Catalonian restaurant named after Barcelona’s most famous boulevard. Rambla is buried in heart of Soho, and our seat in front of an enormous window makes us spectators onto a slightly less illustrious thoroughfare, Dean Street.

The pane of glass is so large, and the table so close to it, that as night falls and crowds gather, you almost feel immersed in nocturnal Soho, with all its noise, colour and oddness, which is a mixed blessing, but great for veteran people watchers, or those struggling for conversation at the table.

Inside, the restaurant is equally lively, waiters, waitresses and chefs calling out to one another across the open kitchen, and new diners stumbling in with hungry anticipation written across their faces.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.54Is this anticipation deserved? The food is certainly nice here. A plate of ham is perfect, marbled with just the right amount of fat, its texture oiled and rich, each strip curled temptingly on a wooden board. A bowl of blistered padron peppers – which my partner in culinary crime won’t lay a finger on – are wizened, salted and wonderfully bitter. A pair of pan con tomate, the bread gently toasted, the tomato almost made into a paste, suffused with a subtle olive oil, shards of salt scattered carelessly across the top, is good.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.41But I was left with a feeling of slight disappointment. Some of the reviews I had read of this restaurant over the previous month or two spoke of it with the reverence and awe normally reserved for places of worship or Unesco-approved world heritage sites. Critics described the dishes served at Rambla as stunning, as things of beauty, food worth clogging an artery for. I did not feel quite like that.

Four small wheels of cured salmon were so salty that even my partner in culinary crime, no stranger to smothering a dish in condiments, had to take several water breaks to get through them. Some lamb chops with rosemary aioli were a little washed out, the meat lacking that vibrancy of flavour. Some seabass with Jerusalem artichoke was good, but it didn’t have me scraping the plate to ensure I removed every last morsel.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.26Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps Rambla had been projected too far into the stratosphere by frenzied restaurant critics for me to leave without a tinge of disappointment. If I juxtapose Rambla with Barafina, it falls short. I would probably place it half a rung below Ember Yard as well.

The restaurant also did not help itself by having a number of waitresses whose English language skills were so minimal that they struggled to function on the floor of a restaurant. No one is asking that restaurants staff themselves exclusively with English literature graduates from Cambridge, but if a waiter can’t understand the phrases “please can I have a gin and tonic?”, “one more of these please,” or “bring me the bill!” then we have a slight problem.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.13I will go back to Rambla. A place so well-regarded deserves a shot at redemption. It is also great value for money. But for now, I am not ready to sing its praises, even drunkenly on a street in Soho.


Sugar Hut Restaurant

Address: 93-95 High St, Brentwood CM14 4RR
Bookings: Walk in
Day: Sunday
Meal: Lunch
Price: ££
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.46.39On a cold, wintery Sunday afternoon we found ourselves in Sugar Hut, on Brentwood High Street, Essex.

Now, Sugar Hut doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of haute cuisine. For those not familiar with the venue, Sugar Hut is a small nightclub that acts as the local watering hole for cast members of the reality TV show The Only Way is Essex. It is a spot where more cheap champagne has been spilt than probably any other place on earth. Where luminaries like Joey Essex and Gemma Collins congregate of an evening to discuss the latest trends in nail varnish or back waxing. A place where the words “that tan is too orange”, “those heels are too high”, or “that suit is too shiny” have never, ever been uttered.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.47.17Given all these things, my expectations for lunch were not particularly high. I ended up being pleasantly surprised. With the place almost empty, a cheery waitress took down our order, enquired about our holiday plans, and brought a round of drinks before we’d even unfolded our napkins.

I decided to kick proceedings off with some calamari. Despite my fears that they would be as rubbery as a garden hosepipe, they were actually quite succulent, just firm enough without being chewy, spattered with sea salt, their batter a pleasant golden colour. They came with a decent bowl of garlic mayonnaise.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.46.57Meanwhile, my partner in culinary crime was tucking heartily into some lamb kofte, which despite looking like two burnt sausages, were apparently quite nice. Certainly, if the speed with which a dish is devoured is the most basic test of its quality, then this starter passed with flying colours.

I was served a beef stew for my main course, which came with thick, boulder-like potatoes. It was solid, hearty stuff, that chased away the memory of the nipping wind on the high-street, and left me full until at least 8pm that evening. The beef was tender, cooked just long enough, the sauce thoroughly absorbed.

My partner in culinary crime ordered a steak, which came nicely browned on the exterior, and pink and delicate on the inside. It did what a steak is supposed to do: be powerful, be tender, be juicy. That’s all you can ask.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.46.23So, the ‘Hut surprised us, and reinforced that age-old adage: you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, no matter how orange and prosecco-soaked that book happens to be.