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.


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.


The Delaunay

Address: 55 Aldwych, London WC2B 4BB
Bookings: booked
Day: Saturday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 20.05.09I dropped into The Delaunay last night, to celebrate my mum’s birthday. I was without my usual partner in culinary crime. I mention her absence upfront only to excuse any inferiority in the photography featured in this blog, less the blame falls on her. I tried my hardest, but was unable to capture the food in all its glory, partly through lack of skill, and partly because I was normally halfway through devouring the dish before I remembered I was supposed to be photographing it for our audience.

She will be back for the next instalment of Life at the End of a Fork, armed with her camera and keen eye for the nuances of a plate of food, a Cartier-Bresson of the Instagram era.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 20.05.56But on to the restaurant in question! The Delaunay is a grand place to look at, large and elegant, with dark wooden tables, green leather chairs, and a large antique clock dominating one side of the room. Paintings from the early 20th century lurk in dimly lit corners. Waiters glide across the room, dispensing small baguettes and counselling you on the wine list.

The Delaunay models itself on the grand cafes that thrived in Vienna and other parts of Middle Europe in the 1930s, and stepping inside does make you feel like you’ve caught a train out of 21st century London and into an older, more cultivated era.

The menu is also stocked with dishes you rarely find in most modern London restaurants: kedgeree, pan fried sardines, a range of schnitzels, and an entire section of the menu dedicated to various sorts of sausages with sauerkraut.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 20.05.32I warmed up with some Carlingford Rock Oysters, which were nice, but didn’t have quite the sea-breeze freshness of the oysters we ate recently at the Wright Brothers. I then moved on to the Chicken Kiev, which I last had aged about 17, oven cooked out of an Iceland package, costing the grand sum of £0.87. The experience had put me off the food for over a decade, but I can happily report that The Delaunay has rehabilitated it. The crisped, salted breadcrumbs, the tender chicken, the right amount of garlic butter oozing out of the core, all worked wonders for me.

At the other side of the table my father worked his way through the Char-Grilled Calf’s Liver, making appreciative grunts as he did so, which I take as his official stamp of approval for any food. My mum ate a plate of sausages, one spiced lamb and the other wild boar, which she reported as excellent.

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I finished with a ‘Kinder’, which was a tall glass of vanilla, raspberry and chocolate ice creams, with marshmallows, meringue and chocolate sauce, an excellent end to a good meal.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 20.06.28I would classify The Delaunay as a restaurant where the ambience outdoes the food, but it is a must visit for any London restaurant explorer nonetheless, and a great warm-up for anyone looking to have dinner ahead of a West-End theatre trip.


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.