Who needs stuffy old museums? The dining room of the Gallery at Sketch is one of the most playful – and most pink – places to be enveloped by art. The walls have around 200 original prints and drawings by Turner Prize-winning David Shrigley, their cartoonish quality adding to the sense of fun. He’s even designed some of the crockery: ‘ghosts’, say the teapots, ‘forget about it’, quips the inside of your cup. You can come here for dinner, but afternoon tea is what The Gallery has become famous for, so much so that you can get it before noon (it starts, specifically, at 11.30am). Service is outstanding. Once your charming host has talked you through how it works, you’re looked after by a dedicated ‘tea master’: glam gals in slinky cocktail dresses and baseballs shoes. Who happen to really know their brews. After you’ve decided on drinks and a menu (standard, children’s or – if notice is given – a special dietary needs option), the fun begins. First, there’s the caviar man, in a panama hat and pale blazer. You get a spoonful of caviar (Russian Sturgeon, cultivated in France) alongside Egg and Soldiers: two slim, cheesy toast strips and a fake egg in a very real egg cup (the white is an exceptionally good Comté cheese mornay, the yolk is from a quail and cooked to an ultra-soft 63 degrees). There’s a similar level of creativity throughout the sandwiches and cakes. Star of the sarnies was a black bread Croque d’York, or the salmon and soured cream on rye, while a perfect pear t
It’s not easy to open a spate of brand-new restaurants and maintain high standards, but chef-patron Jason Atherton has clearly moved on from being the sorcerer’s apprentice (under Gordon Ramsay) to being the sorcerer himself. His Little Social deluxe bistro only opened in March 2013, right opposite his fine dining Pollen Street Social in Mayfair. He followed this up, weeks later, with an even more ambitious restaurant in Soho, by delegating the chef role to his buddy and long-time head chef at Pollen Street Social, Paul Hood. The ground-floor dining room has a mirrored ceiling to create the sensation of space in a low room; upstairs is a smart cocktail bar, called the Blind Pig, which also has a separate entrance. Most of the action is in the dining room, though, with a kitchen brigade who are clearly at the top of their game. Smoked duck ‘ham’, egg and chips is a dish that’s typical of Pollen Street Social’s playfulness. ‘Ham’ is cured and smoked from duck breast on the premises, served with a breadcrumbed duck egg that’s molten in the middle, but with an aroma of truffle oil. Umami – savouriness, the taste that enhances other flavours – was also plentiful in a roast cod main course that uses powdered Japanese kombu seaweed in a glaze, served with a creamy sauce of roasted cockles and just-in-season St George’s mushrooms. Presentation is a strong point of Hood’s dishes, just as they are for his mentor Atherton. A starter of ‘CLT’ – crab meat, a fan of blonde castelfranco
So you thought you loved the Palomar. You thought you’d be faithful and true. But that was before you met little sis the Barbary. It’ll make you want to quit your job, pack your bags, and run away into the sunset together. The Barbary, you see, takes everything that’s good about the Palomar but ditches the bits that don’t quite work (like the fact that the ‘fun seats’ up at the counter are also the most cramped; or the fact that the raw bar is the weakest link on the otherwise stellar modern Israeli menu). At The Barbary, all the stools are arranged at 24-seat horseshoe shaped counter bar. Down one wall, there’s a standing counter, where they’ll feed you moreish bar snacks (like deep-fried pastry ‘cigars’ filled with cod, lemon & Moroccan spices) while you wait for a seat. And if the queue spills outside, you’ll find yourself in pedestrian-only, full-of-character Neal’s Yard. As places to loiter go, it’s not too shabby. Oh but the food, the food. Where the Palomar is intentionally progressive, looking to push the boundaries of ‘Israeli’ food, the Barbary looks to the past. The team, led by Tel Aviv-born chef Eyal Jagermann (ex-Palomar), have scoured the wider region, travelling down the eponymous Barbary coast (the stretch of north Africa from modern-day Morocco to modern-day Egypt) to revive the dishes that have informed their own culinary heritage. The signature ‘naan e beber’, for instance, is made to an ancient recipe for leavened bread, with just four ingredients (flo
Most Londoners will have heard of Hawksmoor. Since the first opened, back in 2006, it’s been the darling of the steak scene. That original branch is near Christ Church Spitalfields, built by architect Nicholas Hawksmoor – hence the name – and is a full-of-character but smaller space. But this Covent Garden offshoot, launched in 2010, just as the area was becoming fashionable again, is the group's well-deserved flagship. Set in a big, buzzy basement, with low, flattering lighting, it’s great for a long lunch, a birthday dinner, a hot date and everything in between. A converted brewery, it's hugely atmospheric, with plenty of original features including the gently arched brick ceilings and cast-iron columns. As for the food, it’s still great. You can’t really put a foot wrong here, and though the beef is of course excellent, it does a mean line in seafood, too. On a recent visit, a slice of toast buried under an avalanche of delicate white crab meat was a hit; as was a skin-off, on-the-bone monkfish swimming in garlicky, herb-flecked butter. Don’t overlook the huge selection of sides: they’re stars in their own right (especially the moreish cauliflower cheese). One tip: you'll find standard steaks on the menu at any time, but to get your pick of the larger blackboard cuts before they’re crossed off, you’ll need to arrive early. All the better to sink a few killer cocktails and settle in for the night.
Down in Brighton, this seafood and steak specialist is a big fish. Here, hidden within the One Tower Bridge development, it’s a smaller specimen, but one that’s built a strong rep among locals. On my Sunday lunchtime visit, the place was packed. Everyone else was having the sharing roast: a bone-in sirloin where ‘all the trimmings’ includes cauliflower cheese. For research, I ordered a selection of dinnery things instead, but wasn’t disappointed. Everything was great. In fact, there were so many memorable small plates, I’ll have to rattle them off like a shopping list: dense, meaty short-rib croquettes with a punchy gochujang mayo; perfect juicy scampi over a tangy tartare-spiked hollandaise; slivers of raw ceviche-esque grey mullet with a citrus zing. There was even a plate of mackerel so artfully composed – fruity blobs and cubes, glistening ash-topped spheres of cucumber, waxy smoked potatoes – it could have been served at a fancy-pants fine diner for double the price. Larger dishes, like pink-middled medallions of lamb with a micro-caponata and burnt baby gem; or the juicy, well-cooked ribeye, were also good, though the £2 béarnaise was thick and dull, like a bad custard. But service was brilliant. Every single person I encountered had bags of warmth and personality, much like the room itself. Despite the corporate greyness of the buildings outside, once you’re in, it’s a different story: a handsome place of smoky mirrors, antique metals, dark woods, warm lighting and
Venue says Celebrate in our private dining room with a delicious feasting menu!
‘Visitor bag search’, the sign read. Next to it was a walk-through metal detector and a burly security guard. He had a glint in his eye, the kind that says, ‘I’ve got a box of latex gloves here, and if I find so much as a nail file in your purse, I won’t be afraid to use them.’ So we approached the receptionist instead. ‘Is this the way to City Social?’ ‘No,’ she sighed, ‘this is the main entrance, you’ll need the side door, opposite Wagamama.’ Happily, there’s only a single gatekeeper at the alternative entrypoint, so once you negotiate a long, oppressive tunnel and an express lift so fast it’ll make your ears pop – boom – you’re in. Floor 24 of Tower 42, in what is now the third-tallest building in the City. Atop a hive of financial firms, this is one heck of a dining room with a view. You’re so close to the Gherkin you can practically see its office workers photocopying their bottoms. It’s a gorgeous space: nocturnal, sexy and full of art-deco flashes. Against the windows are the best seats – deep, curved booths, rather like waterless hot tubs. Even the vistas from the glass-walled loos provoke a sharp intake of breath (and afford fellas the giddy sensation of weeing above the heads of overpaid bankers). Relative to all this excitement, Jason Atherton’s menu verges on the tame. He’s built a reputation for creating playful, groundbreaking dishes, but this is a venue managed by contract caterers Restaurant Associates in the heart of the Square Mile. The City’s unspoken comma
You know what’s better than new? Old. Not ‘old old’, like when your housemate leaves a packet of chicken at the back of the fridge and goes on holiday, but the good kind, that evokes the best of a bygone era. Vintage. That’s the vibe at Xu. (Which, btw, is pronounced ‘Shu’. Not ‘Joo’. Not ‘Sue’.) The first ‘smart’ restaurant from the crew behind cult hit Bao, it’s a love letter to 1930s Taipei. It’s got class, but no hanger-up-its-bum. Our waiter was in black tie, yet effortlessly switched from ‘chummy and attentive’ toward those of us obvious Bao groupies, to ‘polite and obliging’ for the ostentatiously wealthy family that arrived, took umbrage with their table and demanded to be instantly rehomed. True, it’s not a perfect site. It’s one of those narrow, awkward Soho spaces, but the Xu crew have been fairly clever about it, carving up the two small floors into a bundle of mini-spots, each with its own air of intimacy. There’s dark wood panelling, crisp air con and ceiling fans idling overhead. The upstairs room has a teeny bar at its centre, offering a few more seats and a railway clock. It’s the louder of the two floors, with lively chatter and Dean Martin singing ‘Papa Loves Mambo’ (anachronistic but fun). At street level, there’s another central bar – more of a hatch, really – with someone polishing not glasses, but porcelain tea cups. Tea is big at Xu. But you didn’t come for the tea (though it’s very good). You came for the food. And oh my. It’s magnificent. There’s a
Venue says XU's new brunch menu comes with free-flowing Perrier-Jouët Champagne, for just £25 extra per person! Available Saturdays and Sundays!
You can always judge a restaurant by its loo – which is why I was pleased to see the tapestry of frolicking nudes at Blanchette East. This toilet said: naughty but nice, fun with a certain je ne sais quoi. There’s another naked babe above the bar; clearly, this Shoreditch spin-off of popular Soho hangout Blanchette doesn’t take itself too seriously. Foodwise, think decent bistro fare with a few twists – North African-inflected, with Provençal and Basque overtones – rejigged into small plates you’ll want to share. I could’ve left happy after the snack alone, a merguez sausage roll with harissa mayo for dunking – spicy, flaky and ever-so-slightly sweetened by the onion confit. Ooh la la. A divisive-sounding escargot surf n’ turf of seared hanger steak topped with (shell-less) snails, parsley, garlic and a velvety onion purée was a highlight. Lamb tagine was no less gorgeous, speckled with almonds, its richness cut by whipped labheh. Green bean and comté salad and pomegranate couscous were also exquisite. My rose-tinted specs did have to come off when dessert arrived; a chilled peach and saffron ‘soup’ was redolent of shop-bought smoothie and a coconut macaroon was inedibly brittle. Zingy basil sorbet fared better, but I’d stick to post-prandial cocktails instead. Because hey, not everything can be perfect. Blanchette East is a solid-gold date night option; or, if you want to romp in a group, request the lovely back table, secluded by frosted glass and velvet drapes. Like I
‘Come back to my place’, shouted my Uber driver. ‘We’ll look after you!’ This exchange, back in May, was more innocent than it sounds. Having found out that I was half Sri Lankan (upon which he immediately high-fived me, causing the car to lurch thrillingly to one side), my Colombo-born taxi driver was now trying to solve my personal problems, namely how long it had been since I’d last had a decent hopper. These bowl-shaped savoury crepes, you see, are technically a breakfast item. So attempting to order them in a traditional Sri Lankan restaurant at the ‘wrong time’ is typically met by a baffled expression. Hence his offer to drive us to his place in Hendon, where his wife would cook. If I weren’t already running late, I might just have said yes. (And by the way: inviting a total stranger to your house for food is completely normal behaviour in Sri Lanka). But now I wouldn’t have to. The Sethis, who are basically Midases of the restaurant world (Gymkhana, Bubbledogs and Bao are just three of their restaurants), have only gone and opened a Sri Lankan restaurant, specialising in…well, you know. And it is an absolute joy. As you might expect from a no-bookings joint in Soho, it’s small but stylish, effortlessly mixing old and new. Exposed brick meets wood panelling; pretty patterned tiles meet carved-wood devil masks. The menu, likewise, gives traditional Sri Lankan street food a fashionable lift. Slender breaded and deep-fried mutton rolls came with a ginger, garlic and c
Any restaurant where you can say the words ‘Thai’ and ‘barbecue’ in the same breath gets my vote. Kiln is the latest gaff from self-taught chef Ben Chapman – of Smoking Goat fame – and aims to take its by-the-roadside cooking style to the next level. And yup, his Thai barbecue game is pretty strong. Smoking Goat has more of a dive bar vibe, with a handful of dishes and the kitchen out of sight. At Kiln, the ground floor is all about two things: cooking or eating. A stainless-steel counter runs its full length. Behind it runs the equally long open kitchen. There’s action and cheffery and drama at every swivel of your stool. Sit at the back for the pyromaniac seats: a view into the kiln itself. Inside this small, insulated furnace, chestnut and oak logs are sent to their fiery end, the glowing embers occasionally removed to ‘feed the grill’ (as in, the chargrill) or ‘feed the tao’. A tao, in case you’re wondering, is a round ceramic container: you keep adding embers until there’s enough heat to cook on, using either a wok or a clay pot. Want to turn the heat down? Simple: take out an ember. It’s brilliantly low-tech. The food is similarly stripped back. Dishes may be inspired by rural Thailand, but, where possible, they’re made with world-class British produce, mostly from indie Cornish suppliers. The lemongrass and Szechuan pepper, for instance, comes from a coastal polytunnel (a project Chapman helped fund). The pork loin – cut from rare breed, fully free-range pigs – s
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