July round up: A hot pot of foodie raves and one vitriolic rant

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Hello folks and welcome back to my summer of food expeditions and adventures. July has been a busy old month with a few interesting jaunts and one rather dull affair.

Along with plates piled full of food, the summer so far has been an adventure and a time of retrospection for me, as I pass the second anniversary of my career break. Two years have flown by pretty quickly. The little one is no longer a baby but a fully fledged toddler, whose getting a good dose of London before we upsticks and leave. This last month alone she’s curiously explored several art galleries, got stuck into messy painting sessions, run around museums and even had her first modelling photo shoot. There’s never an dull moment. And best of all she’s got her mummy’s appetite (at a girl!).

It still surprises me to this day that I’ve happily fallen into the role of stay at home/home organiser (or other undermining title) and though there are increasingly tough days when I’m covered in food and snot desperately considering my return to PR, one cheeky little smile and soppy kiss from the little mite pops that bubble of thought and turns me to mush (you may reach for the bucket now!). This is not something all of you will get though and I know this, because I myself was once a snobby little madam tutting away whenever I saw a remotely audible child in a plane. But if anything can change a human being, it’s age and circumstance.

It’s also a positive time as I edge ever closer to 30 (just a fortnight to go!). For one thing, I’m pretty chirpy about this blog and the outlet it has become for me and my passion, vis a vis all things gastronomical. I set out with limited expectations and a vision to simply record my comings and goings but it seems that somewhere along the line you lot like what you read…THANK YOU for your support and hubby darling for his generous funding! Without further ado, enjoy my July foodie antics!

Country life: The wedding bells ring at Highclere Castle (Aka Downton Abbey)

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A quickie entry here. Hubby and I recently attended a wedding at Highclere castle AKA Downton Abbey, not your usual run of the mill wedding. And certainly a highlight on our calendar – a close second after my forthcoming birthday ;)

Mr and Mrs Sloane Ranger – who you may remember from our charity rosé tasting expedition at the Saatchi Gallery last year – had a beautiful day and the location really was stunning. What was equally admirable was the breakfast we were thankfully nourished with the morning after, at our pub with rooms – the Yew Tree (Highclere).

I had been saved by my savvy pacing and preemptive migraleve popping before bed but hubby was suffering big time. So a full English – veggie style was just the thing for him. Meanwhile I happily savoured my ample rich and buttery scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on muffins. Pot of earl grey was pretty well brewed. The room was surprisingly boutique too. Definitely gets a thumbs up from me and one to consider if you are in that part of the woods for either Highclere castle or for Newbury races.

Restaurant rave: Pescetarian heaven at the Angler restaurant at the South Place Hotel

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South place hotel is by no means new and it’s been on my radar for some time. Having recently received a Michelin star, one of only two (I believe) in the D&D stable of restaurants, and upon hearing a positive experience from a friend, I decided it was time to give this place a go for a grown up meal with friends. And boy was it a good call.

Though it’s surrounded by building works and scaffolding, there’s a zen-like serenity in the air, once you reach the 7th floor of the hotel in the whizzy lift. The light and airy interiors may have something to do with this but there’s also a tone of maturity and that’s where the menu comes in.

There are some seriously enticing and complex dishes on the menu, which also includes the usual D&D signature of fresh Crustacea. But being me I went straight in with my favourites – a mackerel ceviche starter and the much lauded lobster pie.

The mackerel ceviche was beautifully presented with cubes of pink grapefruit and cucumber all tangy and zesty, and offset by a good sprinkle of coriander. And the lobster pie was just the bees knees with a generous serving of lobster in its own rich bisque and meaty button mushrooms. Fellow diners were equally satisfied with their dishes, including a rather generous langoustine and lobster cocktail (starter) and a main of lamb with stuffed courgette flower. The only criticism being a lack of sauce, which was easily rectified.

One pattern that emerged from our meal is the generous portions provided, and though Angler charges city prices not too far of from City Social say, there is no arguing it still retains value for money.

Somehow, two of us managed to persuade ourselves to peruse the desert menu and at an average price of £7, knew full well there was no way we were going to pass this opportunity. So on we trooped with a refreshingly summery elderflower panna cotta (prosecco jelly and blueberry granita) and a hazelnut cake for one of my friends (salted caramel, lime and vanilla sorbet). Both were fabulously executed in their own right. I can safely say this, as we swapped halfway to make this thorough assessment. They had even sussed it was my birthday (though as you know from my twitter account, this is not exactly hard to do) and communicated it across my dessert plate with chocolate writing and a candle. Nice.

Not quite done for the night, despite the gigantic portions and the vast number of dishes we’d polished off, we enquired after the terrace bar and our waiter sought us a table immediately. It’s one of those nicely hidden away terraces that you don’t readily see featured on the umpteen number of Timeout / Londonist / Evening Standard summer dining features etc. And with table service to boot (slow though it can be at times), it made for the perfect hassle-free night cap spot (but would equally serve someone seeking a quieter al-fresco after work drinks).

Square Meal

Restaurant rave: A summery feast at the new Granger and Co, Clerkenwell

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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of being invited along with a bunch of fabulous food bloggers to the new Granger and Co in Clerkenwell. The charming Sarah Canet, founder of SPoonHQ, was keen to show us the shiny new premises and let us loose on a table laden with promised goodies from the kitchen.

I was sceptical, especially given the location (having lived in South London for half a decade) but nevertheless when food beckons. You don’t question. So I ventured forth to the north, armed with Google maps and was doing pretty well, till I hit a Snag AKA the godforsaken circle line. Thankfully Sarah and her team had a bottle of chilled crisp Rosé at the ready, once I emerged out of Farringdon, which made the sticky underground detour a distant nightmare within minutes.

Pretty soon after that, the table began to fill with an array of delights with plentiful hues of green. Garnishing is big in this place. And why not, “we all need our greens, especially when they are as tasty as the garden mint salad with feta and radishes. A beautifully refreshing and summery dish, which went well with the shrimp tempura. The tempura itself could have done with a few more mins in the fryer but the star on the plate was always going to be the mayonnaise. Often overlooked or taken for granted but not here, where they give it a healthy kick of sriracha chilli sauce and wait for it…espresso!

Korean chicken went down a treat amongst the crowd. A step up from KFC, with spice flecked batter being reinforced by a sweet but fiery chilli sauce. Next came the mains, which included shrimp pizza, bonito (tuna) flakes and tofu pizza and tea smoked salmon with samphire. A world selection of dishes given an Asian twist – no doubt inspired by Mr Granger’s travels. Of these my definite favourite was the Shrimp pizza; crisp base enhanced with a good balance of tomato and those juicy shrimps taking Centre stage.

It’s a wonder we had room for dessert but a quick taste of these; including a delicious elderflower jelly with fresh berry fruits, indicates that this is an efficient all-rounder of a restaurant. It’s a shame then that given the quality of the food and the notoriety of the Notting Hill branch, the Clerkenwell site is relatively quiet. And though I imagine its a lunchtime favourite of the media types that surround the area, am sure it’ll get the attention it deserves soon enough. You for one, should certainly take a look and see…

Restaurant rant: “It’s my first day here”. Five words I hate at Arabica Bar and Kitchen

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Warning: I’ve redrafted this review a fair few times, so please bear with the sheer vitriol contained within it.

Why oh why in the world do wait staff think that by telling a customer that they are new, when faced with a question or query, somehow magically puffs said question into thin air. It’s one of the most inconsequential statements that ever existed on this planet.

Before I have tomatoes hurled at me by a brigade of irate wait staff, this is not a sweeping generalisation. I have many a fond memory of standout service from budget to Michelin starred venues but these are sadly marred and of late outnumbered by ones that are contrary. Memories that feature initiative-devoid, even moronic wait staff.

As you’ve guessed, this was a feature of our night out at Arabica Bar and Kitchen. Pleasant though she was, our waitress failed to answer a simple question about the contents of a dish (then failed to find out), couldn’t verify if there was wifi or not (and again failed to ask someone who does know) and failed to upsell wine at the neighbouring table (when the customer specifically asked for a recommendation), replying “they are all very good”.
Yes it’s all good but that wasn’t the question.

This last failure was teeth-grindingly annoying. It’s a rookie error that new restaurants just can’t afford to make. Up selling isn’t a luxury it is a necessity – especially when the customer is handing you the opportunity on a plate. It’s particularly disheartening because I know of the work and passion that goes into putting together a stellar wine list. Wine consultant Zeren Wilson, who put together the list at Arabica, personally recommended a few of his favourites on twitter days before my visit.

And boy do I wish I had listened to him. Instead in a moment of temporary insanity, probably trying to relieve my 20s, I was seduced by exotic sounding cocktails. This included the Rania spritz, which at the hefty price tag of £9 (for a mid range restaurant) gets you a tumbler half-filled, mainly with ice, and a few other elements to give you what basically tastes like something out of an ocean spray packet with a bit of chilli added. I was so surprised by what was presented I asked the waiter where the rest of it was!

Unfortunately it gets worse. The food wasn’t much better either. Small portions including the didiest (I may have made this word up) average tasting falafels and two large but vacuous spinach fatayer. I wondered whether the chef nodded off whilst filling them, they were that empty. A dish of batata harra was more akin to roast potatoes with a little tomato garnish, nothing authentic about that. The only saving graces were the halloumi, which lets face it needs little work, and the main of chargrilled prawns. These took some effort before I could get to the juicy and succulent flesh but were worth it. The only real highlight on an otherwise dull table. That said, a finger bowl wouldn’t have gone amiss.

Now, quite why or how we bothered with desserts is a wonder, but my friend and I both share a sweet tooth so even with the order of events we couldn’t fathom leaving without a sugary syrupy hit of baklava. More woes unfolded. We had to ask for our table be cleared. We waited. And waited. Then we gave up waiting and flagged a waitress – by this point it was clear there were no dedicated sections covered by any one wait staff. We then ordered dessert. Looking back on it we should have just asked for the bill. There must have been some alcohol in that Rania spritz after all.

Desserts arrived but were underwhelming to say the least. We learnt upon ordering, that baklava are £3 a piece! So we only got two with a view to getting more if they were amazing. They were not, so we didn’t. The Mouhalabieh (milk pudding with mastica – a tree sap syrup, poached rhubarb and toasted hazelnuts), was a sticky white blob that soon turned to a puddle (probably sitting on the pass too long). To the naked eye, if there was any rhubarb it was barely visible.

If it weren’t for the fabulous company of my good friend and the fact that we were so busy discussing the goings on in our lives, the night would have been a stressfully disastrous one. The bill only served to highlight that. I later calculated that the equivilant meal at Comptoir Libanais where I have had much better quality meals, would have been £20 cheaper (including like for like drinks). To reiterate this point, last week I visited a simplistic but decidedly authentic Lebanese restaurant in Holborn, which served a plate of 12 baklava (same size) for the price of two at Arabica. They were delicious and I would have happily eaten the whole lot. To top it off they serve them alongside their yummy mint tea.

At this point I must make an apology to my dear husband, who once again called it right (just like he did with Sake no Hana). Having had their takeaway food before, he warned me it was overpriced and underwhelming. And yet I persisted, getting carried away with the hype – something I usually pride myself on not getting caught up in.

So far, hubby, friend and I are the only ones I can see that aren’t in love with the place. So I wonder if I have the worst luck or have just had the good fortune to experience better elsewhere. It may also be that having not ordered any of the meat dishes, our experience was bound to be different to that I’ve read. But that’s no excuse, a good restaurant should be able to offer diners the same all-round experience no matter what their dietary choice.

If you were to ask me where I’d go instead, I’d suggest you try the likes of Comptoir Libanais, Maroush and Hiba Express for a more authentic and easier on the wallet option. If you do prefer your tables to be linen-clothed, Levant and Haz are more likely to be your cup of (mint) tea.

Mummy lunching: The Saatchi Gallery Mess – THAT Pumpkin tortellini and toddler chaos

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There’s little to add to the photo of perfectly cooked saffron coloured tortellini, sweet pumpkin filling and herby cheese sauce that my friend – the blonde – and I ordered and devoured within minutes. It was without doubt one of the best unexpected dishes I’ve had in recent times and boy was it needed.

We’d spent a morning chasing after our rowdy toddlers around the seemingly endless rooms in the Saatchi gallery, as they sped along within knocking distance of the pricey art work. And the marathon didn’t stop just there. Even at the table we were saving glasses from being knocked over (all but one glass of water, thankfully not wine!). We even got the poor waiter in on it with a bowlful of dropped pomegranate seeds.

It was one of those situations where the toddlers were wilfully relentless and you either laughed through it or gave up and cried. Hardy as we are, the blonde and I chose the former option, ploughing through. But if it weren’t for that tortellini and much needed glasses of rosé, who knows!

Love this: grazing at Feast 2014 at Tobacco Dock, Wapping

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My first foodie festival other than the usual taste festivals around London. Feast 2014 was a refreshing take on the traditional food festivals with some innovative master classes and taster events. I popped along for a little wonder with the toddler on the Friday morning session. They’d had a power cut that morning but within a short space of time all the stalls were up and running.

My faves were surprisingly Union St Cafe where chef Roberto made lip-smacking crispy saffron calamari and courgette flowers with a rather unusual but very zingy lemon curd jam. A nice twist on a dish that has been done time and time over. It also nicely set up my expectations for dish no.2 thyme panna cotta and aperol infused apricots. Sublime. Beautiful balance of booze and the apricots were delicious. Even with my dislike of Ramsay, I’ll have to pop by the southwark site and give some of the other dishes a working over!

Overall, there’s plenty of choice to choose from and although Tobacco dock is out the way, it’s certainly worth a wonder down with friends and children in tow to try a variety of cuisines (disabled lift between floors for buggies). For evening visitors there’s even live music to make a full night of it. Keep an eye out for Feast 2015 http://www.wefeast.co.uk

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