Envy – Amsterdam

Address: Prinsengracht 381I, 1016 HL Amsterdam, Netherlands
Bookings: booking
Day: Saturday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.59.31Life at the End of a Fork has once again stretched its wings, this time finding itself in Amsterdam. Amsterdam is ridiculously easy to get to from London: we had barely taken our seats on our EasyJet flight at Southend-on-Sea – surrounded by utterly inebriated stag-parties dribbling on themselves and irritating the air hostesses – before we were being told to fasten our seatbelts for the descent. From the reception of my office in London to the door of my hotel room in Amsterdam, barely 4-hours elapsed.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.52.54Now, Amsterdam is not considered a centre of gastronomic excellence, but being food hounds we made it our business to try and sniff out whatever gems did exist. On Saturday night, we found ourselves in Envy, a long, dimly-lit restaurant that fronts out onto one of Amsterdam’s many canals. A small, eclectic menu consisted of tapas, our waitress advising 4 dishes per head. This seemed daunting, but we never need much encouragement to over-order, and so started demanding most of the things on the menu and she scribbled furiously to keep-up.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.53.07First to land on the table was a petite little steak tartare, with bell pepper and zucchini artfully arranged across the top of it. It was sharp and fresh, but it was impossible to eat this little purple disc of raw beef without having flashbacks to the full-bodied, ragingly flavoursome steak tartare we have had so many times at Otto’s, in Holborn. Otto’s has effectively ruined steak tartare by making lesser variants pale in comparison, a point my partner in culinary crime made as she mournfully ate her way through this lesser substitute.

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Next, we had a tomato, peach and pesto concoction, with shards of lime meringue on the side. It was inventive and delicious, the meringue a perfect scoop for the cool, succulent tomatoes and sweet slices of peach. This dish was partnered with a sort of egg soup. The egg, our waitress proudly informed us, had been cooked at exactly 62 degrees, before having artichoke and garlic added to it. The result was fantastic, as lovely to look at as it was to gulp by the spoonful.

Throughout the dinner there was an inventiveness and a panache to the cooking that I had to admire. The flavour pairings were unusual; the food looked bold; the kitchen throbbed with youth and energy. Sometimes they fell short: if I never again have a slimy nugget of foie gras wrapped inside a ball of white chocolate then I certainly won’t complain. Their lobster with mushroom, asparagus and citrus sauce was small, insubstantial and rubbery.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 18.58.35But I was never bored during the meal, and not only because of the sparkling conversation of my partner in culinary crime! I knew that whatever came out of the kitchen would be different, well-thought through. We finished with a plate of soft cheeses, 3 Dutch and 1 Belgian, 1 from a goat, 1 from a sheep and 2 from a cow. They lay in ascending order of flavour. Each was delicious, a credit to their respective countries and animals.

So, next time a long weekend beckons and you feel like stretching your wings, consider Amsterdam, and drop into this bold little hub of cooking.


Polpo

Address: 3 Cowcross St, Clerkenwell, London EC1M 6DR
Bookings: no booking
Day: Wednesday
Meal: dinner
Price: £
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.57.17Polpo is a regular pit stop for Life at the end of a fork when hunger beckons. Its Farringdon branch sits in between work in the City and the flat in Central London, and many of our walks home have been interrupted by a half-dozen dishes of its Italian tapas.

Given the mournful English weather, London isn’t renowned for alfresco dining, but Polpo does have a very thin strip of rickety tables slung out on Cowcross Street, next to a Subway sandwich outlet. The view isn’t the sort of stuff that dreams are made of, although a very good replica of Ruben’s ‘Samson and Delilah’ painting, hung, bizarrely, round the back of Fabric nightclub, can just be viewed down the end of an alleyway opposite.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.47.30Taking advantage of one of the (likely) few remaining warm days of the British summer, we stopped off the other evening for dinner. The summer sunlight was lingering, throwing fingers of gold across the tables, bathing the diners in a soothing warmth. Sitting down at one of the tables, we savoured the remnants of the summer, mindful of Jon Snow’s endless lament: “winter is coming…”.

We ordered some stuffed fried olives. I am not normally a fan of olives, finding them sour and unrewarding, but frying them in batter and stuffing them did enough to mask the actual flavour of the olives, and made for a tasty snack. Next on our table were some potato and parmesan croquettes, which were warm and nicely textured.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.47.14A crab and chickpea crostini was bland, and my partner in culinary crime turned her nose up at it after one small mouthful, leaving me to battle through as much of it as I could bear. The crab tasted as if it had spent more time sitting in the fridge drying out than it ever had exploring the freshness of the ocean, while the chickpea was entirely flavourless.

Finally, we ate a prosciutto & gorgonzola pizza. Everything on top of the pizza was pleasant enough, although to my palette the actual dough of the pizza was hardly cooked. It reminded me of one of those frozen pizzas you desperately try to heat in the oven at university so that the base is cooked enough to be edible, but without the ham, onions and mushrooms that top the thing being utterly incinerated. It is a difficult thing to achieve…

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 20.46.46In sum, Polpo is a decent restaurant… if you’re hungry and you’re walking right past it. But take Life at the end of a fork’s advice, and don’t travel far and wide to seek it out. And if you do, make sure they leave the crab in the fridge.

 


St John Bread and Wine

Address: 94-96 Commercial St, London E1 6LZ
Bookings: no booking
Day: Friday
Meal: dinner
Price: £££ (including alcohol)
Rating: 8/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.10Probably the best restaurant in the City, St John Bread and Wine is based on Commercial Street, a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street Station, in the shadow of Christ Church, Spitalfields. It is an offshoot of St. John restaurant in Smithfield, Farringdon, which was opened by Fergus Henderson in 1994, the eccentric looking chef with no formal training but a positive genius for taking neglected cuts of meat that people would normally run from in horror (think offal, or worse), and turning them into mouth-wateringly delectable dishes. Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.21St. John became a smash hit, nose to tail eating a culinary phenomenon, and Fergus Henderson a celebrity chef. In 2003, he opened his second restaurant, St. John Bread and Wine, which is where we found ourselves on Friday night.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.15.14St John Bread and Wine is a safe place to discover food. Its menu, changing and shuffling on a daily basis, is a treasure trove of surprises, rarities and oddities, along with the odd established classic. And because everything is always so fantastically cooked and flawlessly thought-out, closing your eyes and ordering bone marrow, or a serving of pig’s trotters, doesn’t really feel like such a risk. There is a sense of trust between diner and chef: if anyone can do it well, then St John Bread and Wine will do it well.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.31Having said all of the above, we weren’t remotely adventurous in our selection of dishes on Friday. We started off with a Welsh Rarebit, which I thought I’d never eaten before, only because I’d forgotten it was simply cheese on toast. However, true to form, St John Bread and Wine contrived to make the most childish of all dishes an excellent warm-up act: the cheese was loosened with milk and was a bubbling, golden colour, laid out on top of soft, absorbent bread an inch thick. A dash of Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce gave the cheese a little sharpness.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.49Next up was perhaps the nicest pork terrine I have ever had in my life. It had an earthy, deep flavour to it, layered and subtle, and on at least a dozen separate occasions in the 24-hours since sitting eating the last forkful I have found myself day-dreaming of it, which is becoming a little worrying. A fresh tomato salad complemented it well.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.14.00A plate of cheeses ran the gamut of the farm, with goats, sheep and cow cheese, accompanied by quince and a stack of little oat cakes. Finally, we ordered venison, which came on a bed of white cabbage studded with little pieces of fried bacon. The venison was soft and succulent, the heart of each chunk almost as red as a strawberry.

Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.15.23My partner in culinary crime then ordered a bread and butter pudding with butter scotch sauce for dessert. The dish was so delicious that it rendered her speechless, which is an almost impossible thing to do, but always very welcome when it happens. She gobbled it down in record speed, scarcely pausing to breathe, before describing it as: “moist, warm… unbelievable.”Screen Shot 2017-08-20 at 00.15.01

Anyone serious about restaurants must visit this place.


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.


Restaurante Paixa

Address: Ac. Particular 47, 8135 Almancil, Portugal
Bookings: booked
Day: Thursday
Meal: dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 6.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.48.54With the golden sunshine beginning to lose its fierce afternoon intensity, we wound our way in a taxi through the leafy, tree-lined roads of Vale do Lobo, in search of Paixa, a Portuguese tapas restaurant that enjoys a considerable reputation in the Algarve.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.50.46Given the Portuguese habit for eating dinner in the middle of the night, we were the only people in the restaurant when we arrived at 8pm, and were ushered to our seats in the garden at the back. It was a lovely setting for dinner, perfectly manicured trees ringing the restaurant, a warm breeze dancing across the tables, and, as darkness fell, flickering torch light illuminating the scene.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.51.01The menu was a smorgasbord of delights, every line of it containing some tantalising dish that makes you wish for an ever replenishable reservoir of hunger: pheasant terrine, duck foie gras, fresh goats cheese with tomato and basil, salmon mousse, roast beef. Given our normal habit of ordering freakish amounts off the menu, eating ourselves into a food coma, and then cancelling all evening plans and crawling back to our hotel room, it took all of our self-discipline to order only 8 tapas dishes, which was still twice the recommended amount.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.49.41We kicked things off with a cup of sheep’s cheese, uncured and with the texture almost of butter, which we spread over bread studded with small pieces of chorizo. As an aficionado of pork scratchings, I ordered a side dish of fried pork fat, much to the horror of partner in culinary crime. They were delicious, the second-best pork scratchings I’ve ever eaten, ceding top spot only to A. Gold, an inconspicuous sandwich shop in Spitalfields Market that serves the best scratchings in London.

Meanwhile, my partner was tucking into some blue fish, which were sharp and vinegary, but ultimately a little disappointing, lacking that spark of the best tapas, and the meat a little thin and watery.

Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 17.49.09The mushrooms, stuffed with iberico ham and onion, were a highlight, the mushrooms buttery, softly cupping their contents.  A tuna loin with a crisped exterior, a melting heart, on a bed of tomatoes, was awesomely fresh, although we were starting to flag a little. An uninspiring side salad sat unloved on the corner of the table, a few green leaves and uncooked mushrooms not offering much that you couldn’t get from grabbing a handful of grass from the garden.

By this time, the restaurant was humming with people, both local and expatriate. The crowd was young, elegant and attractive, and we blended in with ease…

Screen Shot 2017-08-04 at 16.52.03All in all, Paixa is a good restaurant with a relaxing, convivial feel to it. It is certainly worth a visit if you’re in the Algarve. But the dishes lacked that killer twist that the very best tapas has. Everything was fresh, everything was done well, but nothing left us astonished, and writing this blog a few days later, no one single dish has seared itself onto my culinary memory.


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.