Thursday, 25 March 2010

The Club at the Ivy

9 West Street
London WC2H 9NE

The last time I had lunch at the Ivy restaurant was with the CEO of an ad agency. At 2pm he said "Oh god I better disappear the coach trips will be arriving". I think he wasn't altogether joking. The Ivy in crowd of media biz tycoons and show biz elite were starting to feel threatened by the arrival of 'real people' drawn by the fame of the brand. By then the in crowd had already started to migrate to The Wolseley. Then in September 2008 the Ivy, under Richard Caring's ownership, opened the Club at the Ivy.

Entering the Club is a surreal experience. You rise from the flower shop to the right of the Ivy restaurant to the floors above the restaurant in a tardis like see through lift. The Club is a clever solution to the problem of a very successful restaurant: the in crowd create the demand, the demand drives out the in crowd. The solution: open a club for the in crowd with the same name as the old restaurant and in the same place, and serve up something very similar and charge them membership.

We are having lunch in the Library restaurant. The decor is very similar to the Ivy restaurant and there are the same leaded windows. The only difference is there are books on the walls, some leather arm chairs. The menu too is very similar and, like everything at Le Caprice, J Sheekey and the Ivy, owes everything to Chris Corbin and Jeremy King the revivers of all these establishments and current owners of The Wolseley.
So the menu offers very good simple hearty fare very well executed at pretty high prices (well it is the Ivy). Mains are around £15 to well into the £20s. I have a simple endive salad, my lunch host grilled prawns; and we both follow with the pie of the day which is lamb and Guinness. It is superb. The pastry is flaky and delicious the stock thick and sumptuous. We also have an excellent bottle of oaky white burgundy. The service is also very professional. The club is full. It is more media biz than show biz. I don't see any stars and everyone is deep in conversation. Its all very civilised. Not much signs of recession inside the Club at the Ivy. You would hardly notice the media biz is in turmoil here.

The Club at The Ivy on Urbanspoon


152-4 Curtain Road
London EC2A 3AT

020 7613 0007

"You should eat that its a dried tomato", said our waiter.

"Sun dried?", said my scottish friend.

"No. We have dehydration ovens. Four of them. They cost £1000 each.", said our waiter proudly.

Sun dried tomatoes are so passe, so yesterday. The sweep of history. I thought if those people sheltering close to here from the Blitz in the underground 70 years ago, a nanosecond in geological time, could have heard him. How things change.

Here we are at Saf in the East End of London where they now have special expensive ovens to dry vegetables. We have just finished our first course, the tasting plate £16.50. It is described as "beetroot ravioli, vegetable maki, olives and spiced nuts, tapenade, cashew cheese with raw flax seed crackers, home made pickles and samosa" and..."sun dried tomato". Ha we should have them up before the trades descriptions authority. Sun dried or oven dehydrated this was a very impressive start. The platter looked like something from the most upmarket sushi restaurant. Every piece on it was beautifully crafted and tasted equally delicious or as my pithy Scottish friend said "Its not you arse wipe Vegan bollocks. You can taste this". She is sensitive to how food can be used as a socio political statement.

Main courses were equally impressive both visually and importantly to eat. I had the Phad Thai. There is a sense in which they are struggling with descriptive labels grounding them in the non vegetarian world but adding their own detailed descriptions of what are in fact unique dishes with only a distant relationship with the heading. The Phad Thai included enoki mushrooms, mung shoots and chipotle almond sauce. Anyone who thinks vegetarian food is flavourless really should try this. It is a transporting education! I tried a bit of my scottish friend's lasagne which according to the menu description includes 'sun dried tomatoes' , or were they. Frankly I don't care if they were dehydrated in the basement. The dish was also sublime. There was olive relish and mushrooms and sage pesto in there; nothing like any lasagne I've ever tasted and ,l ike most of the food, and everything I had, cold but nevertheless fantastic.

It was a bit de trop to have puddings after this lot but we couldn't resist. I have chocolate ganache tart £5.50. This is the most conventional eating experience of the evening: its dominated by the taste of high quality dark chocolate but there is no cream; instead there is pernod ice cream, rum and pear compote, cacoa syrup. Scottish friend has Pumkin Pie £6.50 with candied pecans; again very good but closer to what I might expect to find elsewhere.

I am sitting looking into the restaurant. "I could be in Notting Hill" I say, looking at the elegant spiral lights, the wooden flooring, the attractive staff. " You need to be looking my way at the dismal little cafe outside to be reminded you are in the East End," said my Scottish friend. It was a memorable evening. Oh and vegetarian of course doesn't mean there is no drinking. They make good cocktails here (I had a Margarita) and we had a bottle of Spanish wine (see photo): organic/vegan natch and good value at £19.

Saf on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Viet Grill

58 Kingsland Road
London E2 8DP

020 7739 6686

I have to admit to a few prejudices before I start this. I really like Vietnamese food. We usually have a pre Christmas party and last Christmas we made Vietnamese spring rolls as canapes based on the recipe here. When they are fresh there is nothing quite like them: the soft clammy rice paper that you soak in warm water first, the mint and coriander, the vermicelli noodles, the crunchy beansprouts, the rice wine vinegar and in these soy and a prawn; they are wonderful. We wrapped about 150 of the clammy little things and they all went. I also know Malcolm Gluck who chose the wines for this restaurant and advises on the list.

Viet Grill is a new breed of Kingsland Road Vietnamese restaurant: it has decor! Purists are rather worried by this trend, would rather focus on the food in Kingsland originals which make no pretense to decor like Song Que with its stark bright lighting and crome cafe chairs. I must say I rather like the low well lit wooden tables and banana leaf murals here. Its fun and it is more decorative than its more basic competitors. There is a long bar on the right which is unoccupied at 8pm on Monday while the restaurant is filling. I wait there and order a glass of Calbulco Semillon/Cardonnay 2007 Chile £4 which Malcolm's notes tell me is "Dry yet delightfully full of stone-fruit flavours, lemon and a hint of herb. Great with sizzling seafood". One issue I have is there are only three whites and three reds that you can drink by the glass. That's a shame in a restaurant which is taking so much trouble to demonstrate wine can be a great accompaniment to Vietnamese food. The wine is simple and yes a bit sharp lemony.

I'm having dinner with an old friend and he is late. They are very charming about finding me a good table. I get the impression not that many people book on a Monday night, they just walk in so they are taking special trouble. I am even later offered another table but am happy where I am. I order fresh soft summer rolls filled with king prawn, herbs and salad wrapped in rice paper £3.50. They take a long time to come. My friend has arrived and we order when the waiter who I originally ordered the spring rolls asks if I would still like them. We say yes. They are very good with all the fresh crispy against clammy goodness they should have.

As a starter we have ordered the seafood house platter which two have to share at £7 each. It is huge and goes in the middle of the table. It has soft shelled crab which is crispy and mushy and excellent and battered prawns and lots of quite simple basic salad: cherry tomatoes, lettuce, red onion dominate. For mains we have 'slow cooked mekong catfish' £7.50. This is 'poached in caramelised fish sauce, simmered in a clay pot and finished with cracked pepper and fresh chilli'. This for me is the star dish. It comes with heat under it as you can see in the photo. The fish is flaky and sticky sweet but also chilli hot. There are two sizeable pieces: fantastic for £7. Our other choices are for me not a success. We have stewed saigon beef brisket £8, simmered in lemon grass and star anise. There are very large lumps of flaky chewy meat which are rather tasteless despite the sauce. We also order roast duck wokked with seasonal market greens and spicy sate sauce on a sizzling platter £8. The duck is tough and overcooked, flabby on the outside.

So a bit of a mixed bag overall. The food needs careful ordering. I liked the spring rolls and catfish; nothing else struck me as excellent. I nevertheless liked the place. Although it was noisy we had a lot to talk about and felt very comfortable there. Even though the first thing I ordered took a long time to come the service was unfailingly helpful and courteous. We moved to the bar and stayed a long time after finishing eating. There was no pressure to clear off as there can be in grander places. We certainly ordered more than we needed and most of the beef and a lot of the duck got left. My friend doesn't drink. I had two glasses of the Chilean white and another glass of Spanish red after the meal. As with tapas eating lots of smaller courses and drinking wine by the glass mounts up. The bill managed to get to £74 but you could eat there much more cheaply. I would go back and try other things. As I said I felt very comfortable there even though I was disappointed in some of the things we ordered.

Viet Grill The Vietnamese Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 March 2010


39 Hereford Road
London W2 4AB

020 7792 0770

I've been here a few times and enjoyed the tagines; and you really don't need to order a first course here. You get harissa, olives, olive oil and good Moroccan bread before you start all thrown in.

We order lamb mechoui with roasted butternut squash, potatoes, sultanas, french beans with slow baked boneless shoulder of lamb with Moroccan spice (for two) £29.95.

Its around 8pm on a Friday night and the restaurant is very empty; there is only one other group of three. The lamb is full of spicy Moroccan flavour and flaky slow cooked but it just isn't hot enough. It also doesn't seem to me all that authentically Moroccan with the potatoes which bothers me less. What worries me, with so few people in the restaurant, is how they manage to do this, this one off dish which takes a long time to produce when there are so few customers. Is it straight from the freezer? I have my suspicions and that it is not properly heated is worrying, puts me off. I'm saddened by this, feel everything has gone off here a bit. Things are not helped by the fact that Hereford Road is all pulled up with major road works (water?), metal fences obscuring the restaurants and other businesses and making access difficult.

L.O. and I enjoy nevertheless a bottle of heavy Domaine de Larroque Moroccan wine, a merlot/syrah blend, £25.50.

Sahara Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Cadogan Arms

298 King's Road,

020 7 352 6500

Its like a faux Edwardian hunting lodge inside with antlers on the walls and wooden panelling. Only this is a lodge for all sports. There are also fish in cabinets, the stuffed head of a fox. There are red upholstered benches in the style of the House of Lords. There are also other strange touches: an unplastered brick pillar, a panel of hispano moresque tiles on the wall. I like it. The hunting lodge theme only slightly off and hip all at the same time is fun. King Edward VII would have felt very much at home here, only he wouldn't. He would have been confused by the eastern European accent of our waitress for starters and would have been surprised the pillar was unfinished. He would have found the bar billiard sized tables upstairs much smaller than those to which he was accustomed. Its a big space and light with big windows looking out onto Old Church Street on one side and the King's road in front. The restaurant area is at the back and although its a 'gastro pub' its really, like the Harwood Arms, more restaurant than pub. There is no ordering at the bar and paying before the meal here.

We order one course: twice cooked Gloucester Old Spot pork belly, wilted spring greens, Calvados sauce, celeriac remoulade £16.50 and Hare stew, prune dumpling £15.50. The pork belly is marvellous: the pork is crispy and contrasts well with the crunchy texture of the celeriac. The apple in the sauce and the fresh greens make the whole a perfect combination. I try the rich hare stew which is thick gooey and full of flavour, the dumpling again an excellent texture contrast with real taste. We have a glass of Malbec and Shiraz each which go well with this quite heavy meaty meal for all its delicate flavours.

This pub is operated by ETM group which was founded by the Martin Brothers in 2000 and now has 8 pubs in and around London. This is impressive stuff for a group. Let's hope the standard doesn't fall off if they continue to expand!

My only criticism is for lunch the main courses offered, apart from a blue Wensleydale and pear salad, are all quite heavyweight. Maybe that's why it really wasn't as full on a Friday lunchtime as the very high standard might suggest it should be. A few more lighter choices for those who don't want to retire to the well upholstered sofa with a cigar for the rest of the afternoon would be welcome!

The Cadogan Arms on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 11 March 2010


222 Kensington High Street
W8 7RG

020 7361 1717

A previous visit to Byron had been a bit of a disaster: wrong wine, long wait because no gas to cook, no side orders. To the restaurant's great credit though, in a model of good customer relations, they didn't charge me anything when I said that though I acknowledged there were circumstances beyond their control, I wasn't altogether happy. When I wrote the blog post (late on a Saturday evening) they went one further. The MD of the group took the trouble to send me an email first thing Sunday morning explaining all the problems they had had and offering a further gratis meal to L.O. and I whenever we wanted to go back. Well what blogger could resist such exemplary new media relationship handling so L.O. and I, whirring having just taken off the 3D specs post Alice in Wonderland over the road at Odeon High Street Kensington, returned.

Well I said before that I thought the quality of the meat was very good and so it was again. This time, since the Byron sauce wasn't to my taste, I had the classic £6.25: just lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle: much better and you could really taste the beef. Ok this is very picky (and again personal, but hey its an upmarket burger place)... I like English mustard and I like real mustard! There is just no comparison with the preserved stuff in a jar. This and some real whole grain mustard would make a difference to me!

To try (and it really was far too much and we knew it would be!) we had sides of french fries, £2.75, home made skin-on chips £3.00, onion rings £2.75, and courgette fries £3.00. One of these to share would be quite enough! Of these the courgette fries were the best; very crispy but you could still taste the real vegetable underneath. The onion rings similarly crispy. The fries and skins I found the most disappointing: a bit soft, flabby. Maybe we were just a bit unlucky with this particular batch. We followed this with a huge, so just as well we shared, caramel and honeycomb sundae (with vanilla ice cream and crunchie bits) £4.50. It was very sweet, not sophisticated, but I'm sure would be a winner with kids.

Last time there was a procession of tupperware, bin liners etc between the centre stage kitchen and the back. This wasn't the case tonight which was a big improvement. I find the place a bit starkly overlit but families with kids might well like that. Maybe the lighting, though, could be lowered a bit later in the evening? But am getting too prescriptive here. Really the burgers are very good and that's the main point. Its really inappropriate to comment on the service this time since we were on a set up freebie but for the record it was exemplary.

Byron on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 March 2010


89 Sloane Avenue
London SW3 3DX

020 7584 9901

A girl passed our table and a large pendant earring fell to the ground, the gravitational pull too much for it. She apologised to us as she bent down to pick it up. I'm not quite sure why. There is a mixed crowd at Gaucho's in Sloane Avenue on a Saturday night. Its more footballers' wives manque than neighbourhood Chelsea, with a large crowd building up round the bar no doubt waiting for tables. Its dark, very dark (see photos, I don't like to use flash!). A good place for first dates because so bustly, dark and you can see some of these in progress. Choice of table is important though. We are placed, L.O. and I, on a table for four close to the open kitchen. We are enjoying seeing what's going on but had we been on a first date would probably have asked for a table close to the window. They make it uglier by the kitchen than it need be. There are tupperware boxes with ingredients in full view. The key attraction, the grill hotplate where the steaks are being seared, occasionally leaps into flame but its at the back and you can't see it all that clearly. They are busy but don't seem an altogether happy crew in the kitchen but they are under pressure; occasional smiles break out a bit later as the order flow wanes a bit.

Gaucho is now a chain of 12 London branches with two outside London: one in Manchester and the latest in Leeds. The trademark is cowhide seats, low lighting, Argentine steaks and an impressive Argentine wine list: all very macho. Our waitress we discover later is Slovakian and has been in the job two weeks. She shows us a board with all the different raw cuts of steak on it: rump, sirloin, fillet and rib-eye, or, in Argentine Gaucho speak, cuadril, chorizo, lomo and ancho. She then asks us if we would like to try some wine. I didn't have any of this when I came before. Maybe L.O and I just look the types to be up for it. We try the wine, an Argentine Malbec. Its outstanding. Its El Porvenir de Los Andes 'Laborum' 2005 from 1750 metres up in the Salta region. There is no mention of price. I ask how much it is. It is £65.75. Well ok but even if I was a footballer on a first date I wouldn't really want this heavy pressure when the new girlfriend has said "its lovely" to buy (the public embarrassment factor). I know L.O. well enough to feel no embarrassment in turning it down but the hard sell works and we have it. I think this is something that needs to be handled very carefully though and I'm not sure I like it in a restaurant. At the end of the meal we get something of the same thing when the cheeseboard is brought undemanded to our table to show us (strangely its a group of not very exceptional looking English cheeses and we turn it down).

We start by sharing a ceviche of Argentine baby squid, shallots, jalapeno, ginger, mint and guacamole £9.50. The squid is extremely tender but somehow despite all the flavours it manages to be strangely tasteless. They bring it, since we are sharing, with two small plates but oddly for a cold dish they are hot. We put them to one side and eat off the original plate.

We then of course go for steak. Its what you do here. I have been before and had a rare fillet. I remember it being fantastic: thick, seared on the outside and juicy red inside. The meat was beautifully tender as you would expect with fillet but there was something about the industrial restaurant grill that seemed to have been able to char the outside in a way you could never achieve at home. This time we opt for sirloin (L.O.) and rib-eye. Our waitress, because of the marbleised fat in these cuts, said to us that in order for the fat to melt it is optimum to have them medium rare rather than rare. We take her advice. I'm rather disappointed in my rib-eye relative to what I had before. The trade off with steak should be that if you have a 'lesser' and less expensive cut than fillet it is a bit tougher but has more taste, flavour. I didn't enjoy my rib-eye nearly as much as the memory of the fillet. I have a 300g one but it is cut thinner than a piece of fillet. I would have thought it very good in a pub but this is a high end place and I expected more. It was seared on the outside but a bit tougher, less juicy, somehow nothing out of the ordinary and I like my steaks blood red whatever the impact on the melting fat. We had humitas with it. These are mashed up corn in the corn husk (see photo). They with the wine were the most distinctive and interesting thing about the meal but difficult to get out of the husk without a spoon. We asked for one.

Our wine was brought by a sommelier from Gaucho who was training the staff, visiting this branch for 3 months. He told us current theory on the impact of altitude on Argentine Malbecs (they tell you on the wine list how many metres high the particular vineyard is at Gaucho). I discussed with him the issue of wine sampling in a restaurant and say how easily I feel this could misfire.

I love the combination of Argentine Malbec and blood red steak seared on the outside. If I go back I'll skip the ceviche and go for the rare fillet again. The wines are marked up very heavily here. I find the 'Laborum' for £21.96 here and for £28.75 in Gaucho's own retail Cavas de Gaucho. The steaks at 300g range from £16.25 for the cheapest cut to £28.50 for the fillet. Commendably for an upmarket restaurant there is no mandatory service charge. Our bill comes to £125. We leave a £15 tip. Its not surpising our waitress was keen to sell the wine. Even without it though the meal would have been close to £100.

Gaucho Grill on Urbanspoon