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.


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.


Dining in Mauritius

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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