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.


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…


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.


Terroirs Wine Bar

Address: 5 William IV St, London WC2N 4DN
Bookings: No booking
Day: Tuesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 20.13.19Terroirs is a restaurant and wine bar on William IV Street, a stone’s throw from the National Gallery. We were there on Tuesday night, as part of a week-long extravaganza of joyous treats in honour of my partner in culinary crime’s birthday (exactly which birthday shall go unspecified).

It was a clement evening, warm for the season and without a raindrop in sight. It felt as if most of London was out and about, beginning to warm up for Christmas. Terroirs itself was packed to the rafters. Coming in through the doors I scanned the restaurant nervously – my week of joyous treats had not extended to actually making a reservation anywhere, and for an awful moment I suspected that we were about to be turned back into the night by a pitiless French waitress.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 20.12.36But then I spied it: one, lonely, unoccupied table, beckoning us on. And thank goodness. Because Terroirs is not a place you want to be turned away from. Crouched over our small wooden table, bathed in the contented babble that is the auditory hallmark of satisfied diners, we ate very well.

First to land at the table was a pork and pistachio terrine. As soon as I saw it I knew it would be delicious. It had that crumbling, thick appearance, that compactness, that reddish brown complexion, that marks out all great terrines. It tasted inexpressibly earthy; I could almost see the pig, snuffling on a farm somewhere in rural France, fattening himself for our table on a cold, crisp morning. I can only thank him… he did not snuffle in vain.

Screen Shot 2017-10-19 at 20.12.04We had a decent beef tartare with lemon and rosemary, although ever since we ate steak tartare at Otto’s it has been the fate of all other tartare to exist in its shade. I have never before or since tasted one so sharp, so rich, so sweet, and that of Terroir’s, try as it might, fell short of this elevated benchmark.

A fresh, nicely seasoned bowl tomatoes with oregano tided us over until the final stage of the meal: a quartet of cheeses, and a Scottish onglet with braised peppers and salsa verde. The cheeses were a delight; a smooth, soft Gouda and a blue veined French cheese were particular favourites.

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The steak was a good one, rich, blood red and tender. But by then I was nearly spent, my appetite dulled by the excellent small plates we had already eaten.

We wandered home along the Strand, our bellies full, the city buzzing around us, the lights of Theatreland twinkling, another happy birthday in the books.


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.


Barrafina

Address: 43 Drury Ln, London WC2B 5AJ
Bookings: no bookings allowed
Day: Wednesday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££ (including alcohol)
Rating: 8.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.53Barrafina probably serves the best tapas in London. If somewhere north of Spain does it better, then please inform us in the comments section below and we will be eternally indebted to you.

There is a life, an energy and an exuberance to the dishes at Barrafina that you rarely find in a restaurant, and very rarely across such a breadth of the menu, and so consistently, visit after visit.

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Going there for a mid-week dinner, we ordered portobello croquettes, which were piping hot and erupted with flavour at the prod of a fork, the creamy mushroom interior rich and powerful.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.34Eruptions were a theme of the night: we ordered a stuffed courgette flower – probably the highlight of the whole dinner – which overflowed with goat’s cheese laced with honey at the slice of my knife. The dish was so delicious we ordered two, to prevent warfare breaking out over how to split a courgette flower exactly in half.

The tapas comes thick and fast at Barrafina, and everybody sits perched up on a bar, facing the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, a whir of waiters and cooks, chopping, frying, pouring and serving, all the with energy that characterises a kitchen staff who know they are part of something special.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.20No sooner had we mopped up the last atom of goat’s cheese with a crust of bread, then the next dish was sliding across the bar top towards us. We’d ordered a selection of miniature mushrooms, onions and carrots, soaked in chicken stock, an egg with a stunningly orange yolk heaped across them. This dish was a work of art to behold, but was the only mildly disappointing one we ordered, a slight blandness pervading it.

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We then tucked into the most filling of our plates, two chunks of iberico pork, sliced from Spanish pigs grown fat on acorns, and placed some swede puree and carrots.

Finally, I broke the habit of a lifetime and ordered a savoury dessert, a selection of Spanish cheeses, insisted on by my partner in culinary crime. She wasn’t wrong.

No review would be complete without an element of complaining, and Barrafina cannot get off the hook entirely. It doesn’t take bookings (which is irritating, but forgivable), but then commits the cardinal sin of not letting you leave the restaurant whilst you wait for your table.

In the age of mobile phones, there is nothing easier in the world than taking a number and releasing a diner to enjoy the distractions of Covent Garden whilst they wait for their table.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.48But Barrafina does not do this. It insists you stuff yourself against a wall and wait in a line for a table to become available, something we did for over an hour on Wednesday night, becoming more and more filled with a visceral fury at a family of four who finished their meal and then proceeded to sit for a further thirty minutes without a morsel of food or drink passing their lips. Instead, they just chatted, and occasionally glanced at their phones, oblivious to the suffering and hunger of forty people who stared at them with simmering rage.

It was only the amazing food we subsequently had that calmed us down. But if anyone from Barrafina reads this, PLEASE reconsider your waiting policy, and you may just find yourselves on the receiving-end of a complaint-free review.


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.