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2 for 1 - Starters, mains and desserts - Giraffe
When I first reviewed Brawn, I gave it five stars. Enough said. If anywhere could redeem the urban blight of the developments in Vauxhall Cross, it is the Georgian house now fittingly occupied by architectural salvage company Lassco. It is where young blade Jackson Boxer runs his candelabra-lit, ground-floor restaurant and bar with access to some of the atmospheric rooms for private parties. Their menus are fertile, nourishing, plugged into the markets and fashionable without being faddy. The old ways of a major ingredient bolstered by minor accompaniments has been abandoned to a new musicality where every element carries more or less equal weight.
The romance of craftsmanship, apparent everywhere in the building, carries over into the cooking. In compiling this list some choices needed a revisit to check that everything was as I thought. When I slipped in here on a weekday lunchtime I locked eyes — you will grasp the significance when you meet him — with Abel Lusa, owner since the restaurant opened in Over 20 years on, you might expect the boss to miss a quiet service, but Lusa was also meeting Spanish wine makers, the cellar being his pride and joy.
Jamon Iberica — here five-star Sanchez Romero Carvajal — is the way to begin any meal. Head chef Alberto Criado embraces the technique of low and slow whether that be for roasted tomatoes, heritage carrots, rabbit, oxtail or baked custard. When there was a flurry of media surprise in the mid-Eighties at university graduates becoming restaurant chefs, Bruce Poole Exeter — history was among that number. After a couple of years working front-of-house, he began cooking with Simon Hopkinson at Bibendum.
For many — me included — Chez Bruce is a restaurant ideal and often wins awards pointing to that fact. Classic technique from head chef Matt Christmas is let loose on a roll call of enticing ingredients exhibiting deep-seated understanding of the role and impact of each. Was it named when a world-weary Italian waiter approached a pretty girl with an oversized pepper mill in his hands? This familiar scenario that for many underpins the London restaurant experience is to my mind enshrined most satisfactorily at Ciao Bella.
Those traditional Italian specialities salume affumicato and avocado e gamberetti share the menu with insalata tricolore, myriad pizzas, over two dozen pastas, vitello, fegato, pollo, scampi, cassata, torta della nonna, all reassuringly served in comforting quantity.
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A pianist plays, customers imbibe and often sing. She is ascetic, our Sal and it has stood her in good stead. She was ahead of her time in other ways such as strict seasonality, devotion to the best produce, local if possible, an open kitchen, bread made in-house, simplicity, clarity, clean fingernail inspection and Californian wines. There is a serenity in the dining rooms that attracts a band of devoted followers.
Lucian Freud was one, as art on the walls attests. As a mealtime I tend to like lunch best anyway, especially long lunch. The open kitchen and pared back scholastic dining room look most appealing when light floods through long windows. Genial interaction between staff, including chefs, and customers can be another lovable quality here.
Some chefs stay preternaturally young looking. Pascal Aussignac, son of Gascony, also possesses elfin charm. I dare say his Fitbit is constantly vibrating.
Restaurant-going in south-west France will not have readied you for his daring wit and ingenuity with ingredients. The menu salutes vegetable gardens, rivers and oceans, forests and pastures.
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Although taken to its heights in the main restaurant, I prefer eating in the more casual surroundings of Le Bar. When it opened in , The Dairy burst onto the restaurant scene like overnight spring blossom. And in Clapham! This laid-back light-hearted outfit offering an amazingly good value tasting menu was not the result of a whim on the part of Dublin-born Robin Gill. Sound husbandry, fermentation, bee keeping, bread and butter making, good drinking, staff nurturing all play a part.
Something else is in the pipeline. What I remember best from those days are lampshades made from scorched white silk hankies weighed down by snail shells and the list of Alsace wines. There is the occasional trendy incursion that can be easily sidestepped. I like to sit in the ground floor front bar. It was one of the best parties I have ever been to. After working for 25 years at The Square — holding two Michelin stars for 17 of them — at the age of 50 when most chefs slip out of their whites into something more managerial, Phil Howard — in a striped pinny — goes on cooking.
These ingredients and skills come at a cost to us but set-price lunch is a relative bargain and Phil Howard sprung free is a treat worth saving for. Consider warm salad of guinea fowl with cauliflower, shaved mushrooms, liver crumble and hazelnuts. Unless particularly gifted hands in the patisserie section signify French to you, the menu, its execution and the surroundings are simply modern global chic — that last word a reference to dainty portions, which grate on some.
Provenance of ingredients, the majority British, is name-checked. Their treatment is sharp-witted, often erudite in a revealing way about what flatters what. Fixed-price lunch is good value and a candid approach to what you want to spend on wine works well with the vivacious sommelier in charge of a list mined with natural wines. When legendary New York food writer Mimi Sheraton last came to London she arranged that we have lunch at The Goring and, exigent critic that she is, pronounced herself very content.
Eggs Drumkilbo jellied lobster cocktail on the dining room menu was a first course much favoured by the late Queen Mother. Another restaurant lure is Fillet of Beef Wellington for two to share — and of course roast sirloin on the trolley on Sundays — but chef Shay Cooper has a fertile mind resulting in assemblies like cured sea bream, pickled lemon, hazelnut oil, iced celery; and roast squab, Tokyo turnip, crispy squab leg parcel, fresh apple, cider vinegar sauce. For a drink or tea in the comfortable bar overlooking the pretty garden it is always wise to book. Of course we might sometimes branch out and maybe choose crab, fennel and tomato salad in place of duck livers, green beans and tarragon or Blythburgh pork chop with chard and mustard rather than guinea fowl with pearl barley and chestnuts and finish with treacle tart not chilled rice pudding with marmalade all taken from the menu on day of writing but as you see there is no real need.
In summer, tables outside and the skylight at the back come into their own. In winter sitting opposite the open kitchen is snug and rather romantic. Yotam Ottolenghi — for whom they have both worked in London — you could say laid the trail here, in terms of restaurants and magazine features, for their magic carpet ride Middle Eastern food. A set price menu for all the innovative mezze followed by a grill, side and dessert works for four or more.
On your own or with a pal, roam among the first dishes not omitting burnt celeriac, Urfa chilli butter, soured cream and chives and then share a main, something based on lamb or pigeon with sweet onions as done in the Philadelphia restaurant, East Jerusalem. The brisk, sometimes brusque service just reinforces my determination to visit Israel. The JSK group is named after Jyotin, Karam and Sunaina Sethi, Indian siblings who seem preternaturally sure-footed when it comes to devising their own culinary businesses or backing others.
Hoppers celebrates Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka not just in the eponymous crumpety rice and coconut bowl-shaped pancakes but the vivid singular spicing, relishes such as seeni sambol, crisp dosa pancakes, inclusion of pork, enthusiasm for butter, snacks rolled in breads, love for the soothing quality of coconut and of course the particular hit of arrack fermented and matured in vats made from teak or Hamilla trees.
It keeps the prices staying as sweet as they are. There is a clue in the name about what makes this restaurant the favourite of so many. Dear old Michael Winner, whose judgment was by no means always batty, was a fan. Zing go the strings of my heart for dishes like king prawn lonche, referring to the pickle that points up the aubergine and onion sauce, and chicken shatkora flavoured with the tang — subtly different from zing — of a knobbly green citrus fruit from north-east India.
Vegetables assume almost the same importance that they do in the homeland, so vegetarians can make merry here. It was only relatively recently that a prohibition on frying was lifted. The Atlantic Bar with its own terrace is ideal for post-theatre eating in terms of location, hours kept and the composition of the menu, which can deliver delicacy and lightness if that is what is required, or fish pie. It is a clever, useful and somehow quite louche concept. It would be equally handy pre-theatre but I have never been that organised.
With experience as a designer, self-taught cook Chapman, well-travelled in Northern Thailand on the borders of Burma and Laos, brings endearing serene obsession to the charcoal-fired cooking — clay-pot, barbecue and wok — behind a long steel counter. Fish arrives daily. Whole animals are butchered in-house. Asian herbs and vegetables are grown specially. The result is some of the most exciting cooking in London — at wholly amenable prices. Start with aged lamb and cumin skewer, then set off into the jungle.
Naming a Shepherd Market restaurant after a famous 18th-century courtesan shows wit. Wood-fired cooking in premises that were once a 19th-century bakery with the ovens still on show brings a touch of gastronomic dignity to the peculiarly self-conscious area. In the main course Iberico pork and Galician beef respond delectably to the cooking medium.
Good manners of the owners inform the thoughtful service. There is news of a rollout — inevitable but slightly sad-making. The name is taken from a Charles Bukowski poem. Open evenings only from Wednesday then all day Sunday, lights staying on late until 2am attract flapping moths released from catering and other adrenaline-fuelled activities or anyone looking to keep the fun going. Burly, bearded, bucolic Charlie Mellor has taken on a restaurant, wine bar and off-licence devoted in part to natural and biodynamic wines.
Let him be your guide.
Late at night, soak up your troubles with special fried rice or char sui buns. Junya Yamasaki whose BackBench at Koya the original was a gastronomic revelation has also gone back. Fat udon noodles, the wheat dough kneaded by foot, wriggle at the centre of the operation. Whatever the weather they can be hot with hot broth, cold with hot broth or cold with dipping and pouring sauces plus garnishes. When alone or your date is on the phone, watching the chefs noodling behind the long counter can be agreeably meditative. Small plates of pickles, salads, and tempura and seasonal daily specials provide constant variety and diversion.
Breakfast is great. Try kedgeree or rice porridge. Experience in his homeland of Australia followed by several years working for Philip Howard at The Square brings a lightness of touch, a fleetness of foot, a visceral understanding of textures and flavours made for each other that is unsurpassed. In this he is fortunate in amiable general manager, Dublin-born Darren McHugh. Here are a first and main course that give a taste of the wizardry: And most probably no one will interrupt to ask if you are enjoying them.
Spendy, yes, but money well spent. The Prince Regent is moored at Paddington Basin. Harry, who has also worked as a sommelier at Pollen Street Social , is a nifty guide to the wine list, which he seems to know inside out. Seeing London from a whole new vantage point as well as peering into moored houseboats is kind of magical — with much better dining than you might have anticipated.
A perfect date night. Along with star ratings restaurant reviews might usefully indicate whether the place in question is better for lunch or dinner. Dinner is four courses at a set price with no choice. But at lunch, there are 15 choices to dice with and divvy up and because James Lowe is a gifted, responsive, companionable chef tightly plugged into seasonality and a believer in the St. Daytime also suits the high-ceilinged strictly functional dining room better. Take note of The Guest Series whereby compelling chefs from other countries are invited to cook, admittedly in the evenings.
Everyone benefits. As a frequent visitor to India — and having been born there — I can vouch for authenticity in the food, which naturally includes grills, tandoor and curries but also uplifting, diverting street food like pao bhaji, golgappa and dahi puri and thalis big or small, meat or vegetarian, the well-balanced healthy, almost ayurvedic way to approach a meal. At the Covent Garden branch beside the Opera House Rajasthani puppets bobbing across the ceiling are suitably theatrical — and merry company.
Noble rot is the name given to the beneficial form of grey fungus on grapes known as botrytis cinerea. Mark Andrew and Dan Keeling, editors and owners, share a deep affection for wine and their publication and its catering arm demonstrate that joy can triumph over nerdiness in both. There is a bar menu for the front half of the deep, dark green premises and an incredibly good value set lunch. I go to Noble Rot more often than I should. For me it offers all the human frame requires including graceful service and invaluable wine knowledge. How could you not love a chap who opens a restaurant called Wodka?
With Wodka now closed sob I suspect his heart is in Ognisko in the Polish Hearth Club, where he has stripped back what was a fusty room with musty food to reveal elegance in the lineaments of the space and a canopied terrace overlooking the lawn at the back. The menu exhibits the history, intricacy and dumpling comfort of a cuisine often written off as sausages.
Vodka obvs, but also careful study of the wine bin ends. A silver-plated duck press made by Christofle in the early s is in place and Otto embarks on the elaborate rich and redolent procedure that results in boozy brown velvet sauce for the breast meat followed by crisped legs served with salad. There are. It is old school; it is heaven — where kitsch meets a deeply serious kitchen.
That chef John Gionleka came to London from his native Albania to enter a Greek Orthodox seminary — but obviously got distracted — is a detail that seems significant when you observe his burning devotion to the charcoal grill.
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The restaurant presents the cooking style as eastern Mediterranean or, more stirringly, the area that once comprised the Ottoman Empire, but I think of it as the direction Greek food could go if only it tried a lot harder. A menu based on the markets changes every day. Here are some dishes to give the flavour, vigour and depth of understanding: There are interesting wines to match. And steaks on Tuesday nights and game in season. Great wine list. When I am asked for suggestions for a very special meal, I suggest The Ritz. The most beautiful dining room in London lends itself wholeheartedly and with gilded garlands to a sense of occasion, but more importantly executive chef John Williams commands an impeccable kitchen.
There are many reasons to disparage the Michelin Guide but its withholding of stars from Williams at The Ritz is a strong one.