Thursday, 30 July 2009

Chains Round-Up

While chain restaurants aren't necessarily as interesting to read, or indeed write about as other more high-falutin' places, I still believe that if somewhere does something well it's worthy of recognition. So, here's just a brief round-up of a few good chains I've enjoyed eating at recently.

First was Prezzo in Norwich, which Alyn and I popped into for a quick pit-stop supper to line our tummies before a night of heavy revelling to celebrate Norwich's first ever Gay Pride last Saturday. Like the festival itself, the meal surpassed expectations; we shared some excellent calamari fritti, a fresh, crisp mixed salad and a tasty Vesuvio pizza, as spicy as the name suggests (the heat provided by pepperoni and red chillis) without completely blowing the mind like Pizza Express's crazily-hot, similarly volcanically-named Etna. Service was kind and charming, the decor chic and modern, and the bill pleasingly tiny considering the excellent quality.

In much the same vein, and in much the same name, Zizzi in Surbiton delivered a very pleasant casual dinner experience when Andrew and I dropped by this week for a can't-be-arsed-to-cook meal early one evening. Already busy when we arrived, by 8.30 the large, long room was packed to the rafters with suburbanites enjoying, as we were, the generous helpings of imaginative pizzas and pastas. The dough sticks with aioli which we ordered to nibble while waiting for our mains were excellent, salty and pleasingly chewy and especially moreish when dipped in the sweet, punchy aioli. Mains were both good, Andrew's rigatoni pollo e funghi offering up plentiful amounts of both chicken and mushrooms in a good tomato sauce, and my spicy meat calzone - looking for all the world like a giant Cornish pasty - was a delicious, rich parcel of meatballs, bolognese sauce, pepperoni and crunchy green chillis. Although some of the menu descriptions bordered on twee, the wine list impressed me with its concise, helpful descriptions of the mostly Italian wines; our 2006 Rioja Crianza was, as stated, 'filled with fruit and vanilla' and a great robust accompaniment to our hearty, heavy meals.

Finally, and bringing things bang up to date, I enjoyed a very good dim sum lunch with Paulie today at the branch of Ping Pong handily located just seconds from both our offices. My first, and until today only, experience of Ping Pong at another branch had been marred by atrociously slow service, but today's meal had no such problems. After an oddly laborious negotiation process as to where we were going to sit - it took two staff to agree on where the 'nicest' place to sit was - we ordered half a dozen dishes and some green tea, all brought to us quickly by smiling, efficient staff. Our selection of steamed dim sum included prawn and chicken shu mai and pork and chicken and cashew dumplings, all very good, some wonderful seafood sticky rice and a little indulgence of fried duck pancakes which disappeared in seconds. The green tea, made with fresh leaves in a pouch suspended atop tall glasses filled with hot water from a copper kettle, was theatrical in its presentation, delicious and cleansing in taste, but slightly labour intensive to actually drink. The bill for two of us including service was comfortably under £30, although Paulie had to pay this (thanks babe!) because annoyingly - and for a chain, surprisingly - Ping Pong have ceased to accept American Express which was the only card I was carrying.

None of the above were necessarily the most exciting meal I've had recently, but they were all good enough in their own way to earn a recommendation. I'd happily return to any of these restaurants or one of their branches next time I want good, quick, cheap food and can confidently recommend that you consider doing the same.

Prezzo, 2-6 Thorpe Road, Norwich, Norfolk NR1 1RY and branches. tel: 01603 660404

Zizzi, 38 Victoria Road, Surbiton KT6 4JL and branches. tel: 020 8399 4160

Ping Pong, 3 Appold Street, London EC2A 2AF and branches. tel: 020 7422 0780

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Signor Zilli

From the breathless write-up of Signor Zilli on Toptable, on the basis of which I booked for dinner with Andrew last night, I was expecting celeb-chef Aldo Zilli’s Soho flagship to be something akin to Cipriani – super-chic decor, a bustling atmosphere and wall-to-wall beautiful people, with the food taking only a bit part in the whole drama of the affair. Not so, in fact the exact inverse: the food at Signor Zilli is excellent but just about everything else leaves a lot to be desired.

Let’s start with the room; well, Signor Zilli opened in 1988, when every posh Italian (or those with aspirations to be) had to have frescoed walls, plump padded chairs and mirrors galore; Signor Zilli had them then, and still has them now, seemingly unchanged from opening day. This gives the ground floor dining space (there’s a twin in the basement) the air of a low-rent Rome hotel’s breakfast room. The welcome, from the very Italian maitre d’-cum-head-waiter (a Giacomo of all trades?) was effusive and charming, which he continued to be throughout the evening, but his treatment of the waiting staff even in front of customers was brusque and overbearing and no-one wants Jekyll and Hyde supervising their supper.

There are some nice, if basic service touches, for example good fresh onion focaccia is provided free and regularly replenished, even if of the oil and vinegar provided for dunking only the former gets topped up. Wine and water is poured only when one is absolutely ready for it, and tap water is offered proactively which always gets a gold star from me. Toilets, accessed via a very low-ceilinged staircase (not good when you’re as tall as I am) are probably spotless but look grubby and tatty; all-in-all, the whole place feels unloved, adding weight to the popular belief that if a chef is spending as much time writing books, flogging breakfast cereals and appearing on TV as - say – Aldo Zilli, he can’t really be spending that much time looking after the restaurants which bear his name.

Saying that, whoever actually is in the kitchen is turning out some extremely good food. Everything we ate was great, from the crayfish, orange and avocado salad we both chose as our starter, via my delicious main course of tiger prawn, squash and pea risotto, to our shared pud of chocolate torino (chocolate fondant, basically, but a really good one) with pistachio ice cream. But that’s only when, or indeed if, you actually get your food; the dessert was (scant) compensation from the maitre d’ for the kitchen having got my main course order wrong not once, but twice, meaning that by the time my risotto finally arrived Andrew had all but finished his pancetta-wrapped salmon fillet with tomato and red onion salad, again very good but rendered less enjoyable by the discomfort of having to eat it while I sat there foodless. While sitting waiting, no one offered any explanations or provided any updates, but looking on the bright side it at least meant extra gossiping time with Andrew which is never a bad thing.

Another positive was the wine, a 2006 Grecanico which for a house white was more than usually palatable and reasonable enough at £16 (it says £15.90 on the wine list but I’d not the inclination to argue this point), but I must fault the wine list itself for leaping up in increments of £4-£5 rather than the usual £2-£3; not very credit-crunch friendly Aldo, even if the food is perfectly reasonable price-wise.

And that, come to think of it, is probably Signor Zilli’s only real selling point: for the quality, in this part of town, the food’s quite good value, even if as we did you eschew the Toptable special offer menu (with its dull, chosen-for-cheapness options) and go for the much more appealing menu del giorno at only four quid a head more. Maybe we just visited on an off-night; maybe any other night of the week Signor Zilli really is filled with glitterati rather than an office party and a couple of couples as on our visit. Perhaps the beau monde of Soho see past the tatty frescoes, stained chairs and inept (though sweetly enthusiastic) service and see something I don’t? Perhaps...but I doubt it. I feel like I’m giving Signor Zilli, both restaurant and restaurateur, a kicking here, and I don’t want to; it’s not a particularly bad place, and some aspects are very good, but overall it’s just...fine. And these days that just doesn’t cut it, when everyone’s being more cautious about where they spend their eating out money and everyone’s a critic (!)

Feeling a bit flat after the Signor Zilli experience, we took ourselves over the river to the fabulous Skylon for coffee and cocktails and had at least three times as much fun as we’d had at dinner in less than a third of the time. We enthused about how successfully Skylon brings together ambience, appearance, service and quality whatever the time of day or night to provide a really enjoyable experience – perhaps Signor Zilli should get his notebook out and come take lessons on how it’s done...

Signor Zilli, 41 Dean Street, London W1D 4PY Tel: 020 7734 3924 www.zillialdo.comSignor Zilli on Urbanspoon

Skylon, Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London SE1 8XX Tel: 020 7654 7800 www.skylonrestaurant.comSkylon on Urbanspoon

Monday, 20 July 2009


Automat is probably about as near to a neighbourhood caff as you'll get in Mayfair. Located at the top end of fashionably grand Dover Street, it's a lovely space, with four distinct dining areas each with a distinct mood, from the informal checkerboard-tiled brasserie at the entrance, via the tram-car shaped dining room with its intimate booths, to the large, high-ceilinged, light white garden room which looks out onto a leafy courtyard. It was in this latter that I enjoyed a super lunch with Scotty, aka The Canadian, who has adopted Automat as his lunchtime diner of choice now that he has taken, like a duck to water, to the glamour of a W1-based lifestyle.

Billing itself as 'fusing London's pleasure-seeking social appetite with New York's inimitable style', Automat certainly succeeds in bringing NYC-style casual dining to the capital. The menu covers all the bases, from Stateside staples such as burgers, mac 'n' cheese and crab 'Po Boy' sandwiches to more European brasserie staples like steak tartare and rack of lamb. There's a small - and pricy - selection of steaks which the menu proudly boasts are all USDA-certified, hormone-free and corn-fed, rather like Scotty in fact. True to our respective continents of birth, Scotty went with an American option - mac 'n' cheese at £12, adding bacon for an extra £1 - and I went for steak tartare at £14.

Both were extremely good, and extremely large. Presentation scored highly; I particularly liked the way that my tartare was served 'deconstructed', with the large helping of superbly fresh beef being served naked, side-by-side with a dish of very finely chopped parsley, capers, onion and gherkin with Worcestershire and Tabasco sauces on the side to add according to taste. Given that my taste in steak tartare, and indeed all food, extends to parsley never being allowed anywhere near it, I was glad to have the option to leave it out entirely. The rest however I joyfully piled into the mix, and proceeded to shovel the lot down with the help of the crisp, salty carta di musica bread which accompanied the tasty green side salad.

For afters, Scotty recommended that we share the Mississippi Mud Pie with Pistachio ice-cream (£6) and both his choice and his suggestion that we split it proved wise. It was a hulking great slice of light, almost souffle-like gooey deliciousness, perfectly complemented by the salty-sweetness of the ice cream, and given interesting texture by a scattering of chocolate biscuit crumbs; I struggled to limit myself to eating only my allocated half. Service had, overall, been excellent but when our waitress prematurely tried to clear the plate while it still had a mouthful left on it, I nearly took her arm off.

Being lunchtime - OK, that's not normally an excuse I know, but Scotty was due back at work later this afternoon - we drank modestly, but I thoroughly enjoyed my one glass of Norton Malbec with my main (very reasonable at £6) and glass of Muscat de Rivesaltes with my (half!) pudding. Together with a G&T for Scotty, a bottle of sparkling water - I know, we should be rejecting bottled water to save the planet but until Thames Water work out how to make tap water sparkle there'll always be a place in my life for San Pellegrino - and 12.5% service, the bill was a high-ish £62 but that felt reasonable for the quality and class of what had been an entirely flawless meal.

I liked Automat, as is probably clear, a hell of a lot. It's easy to see why, even on a Monday lunchtime in the midst of a recession , the place was packed with an easy-on-the-eye crowd of Mayfair matrons, hedge fund runners, business lunchers and fathers-and-sons, plus of course (on table 45, a desirable corner banquette) a pair of strapping 6'3"+ gay boys yabbering away about life, love, politics and threeways over mac 'n' cheese and steak tartare. I'd love - and intend - to go back soon for dinner, to see if Automat is as appealing by night as it is by day; getting everything as right as it does, I can't imagine it being otherwise. For those of us who unlike Scotty aren't quite lucky enough to have Automat as our local pit-stop diner, it's certainly worth making the trip to Dover Street to share in the experience.

Automat, 33 Dover Street, Mayfair, London W1S 4NF Tel: 020 7499 3033 www.automat-london.comAutomat on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Rivington Grill

My first visit to Rivington Grill, about five years ago, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was not long after the place had opened - to rave reviews - and a fashion-savvy, early-adopter girlfriend had booked a large table for Saturday lunch to celebrate her birthday.

It should have been an exciting opportunity to try out the coolest new place in town - Shoreditch was still very underground in those days - but alas I had tried out rather too many of the uncool places in town the night before, drunk myself rotten, made it to the restaurant only by the grace of God and four Nurofen, and was feeling absolutely fetid.

A 'medicinal' Bloody Mary did me no good at all and it is with shame and regret that I remember to this day my starter of braised calf's cheeks and beetroot shoots coming back up looking pretty much unchanged from when it had gone down. Given that at the time the head honcho in the kitchen was none other than cooking deity Mark Hix, this less-than-favourable emetic reaction to the food was akin to blaspheming in church. Rivington and I did not get off to the best of starts.

Fast forward to summer 2009 and Rivington and I have reacquainted ourselves; I now work in no-longer-as-cool-as-it-was Shoreditch and my bestie Kate lives in so-hip-it-hurts Dalston, so it's handy for both of us and we've paid two visits recently, the second because the first was so damn good. Mark Hix may have moved on (to set up on his own just round the corner, so there's no danger of him taking revenge for the calf's cheeks debacle) but his signature style of simple cooking of seasonal, local ingredients is indelibly stamped on the Rivington's menu.

On visit one, I was delighted to see gull's eggs with celery salt and mayonnaise on the starters as I'm a complete egg addict and had been dying to try this variety, new to me but very much a late-Spring delicacy. I wasn't disappointed; the large-ish egg had a distinctive, rich flavour and unctuous creamy consistency that amply demonstrated what the fuss (and price - £5.50 per egg) was all about.

On our next visit I opted for the delicious-sounding chilled beetroot soup with horseradish cream; velvety-smooth and slightly-sweet - my guess would be that chicken stock is used - it was a light, refreshing earthy delight. Kate liked her first course of Evesham Beetroot and St. Tola goat's cheese salad so much the first time that she had it again on the second, on both occasions pronouncing herself very pleased with it, particularly the tangy freshness of the cheese.

Main courses offer a wide variety of meat and fish dishes (nothing for vegetarians I note, but that's not for here) and of the four we tried over our two dinners, three were excellent. I loved the breaded rose veal with mushrooms and wilted nettles, the huge, finger-thick escalope eating wonderfully with the tiny ceps and herby leaves; Kate was similarly enthusiastic about her dived Lyme Bay scallops with wild garlic and bacon, both dishes politely allowing the main ingredient to shine with the imaginative accompaniments simply adding polish.

Grilled lemon sole with sea purslane and brown shrimp butter was equally good, the excellent - and substantial - fish swimming along most agreeably with the salty, fleshy herbs. The only slight disappointment was the Barnsley lamb chop with kidneys and bubble and squeak; the generously proportioned and undoubtedly well-sourced chop was sadly not well-sauced, crying out as it was for say some redcurrant or mint jelly, neither of which the kitchen was able to provide. This isn't to say that the dish was at all bad; it just wasn't quite as good as the other three triumphs.

Despite the sheer size of the main courses (and my having successfully kept everything down), we nonetheless managed to sample the cheeses and desserts. Whereas some restaurants which generally do well on locality and seasonality can rather give up when it comes to puds, Rivington does not, and everything we tried made the very best use of the season's best fruits: gooseberry pie with Jersey cream, Eton Mess, and raspberry burnt cream (I love the fact that Rivington's Britishness extends even to eschewing the use of 'creme brule'). For me though, as a fromageophile (yep - totally made that one up) the real highlight was the cheese plate which as well as a lovely Gorwydd Caerphilly featured one of my personal favourites Harbourne Blue - a rare, pasteurised goat's milk blue which has all the punch but less of the saltiness of many cow's milk blues.

There's an excellent wine list starting at a very reasonable £15.00 and not going too dizzyingly high after that; it's French-biased but also offers a variety of New World choices to suit every palate and wallet. On our first visit we opted for a terrfic 2007 Picpoul de Pinet, a lovely off-dry fruity white and an undeservedly under-rated grape which I've been enjoying of late, and on our second we embraced the summer and picked the Berry's House Rose Vin de Pays de L'Aude, a complete bargain at fifteen quid and as good as you'd expect from anything Berry Bros would put their name to.

This very fair approach to pricing extends to the food too; prices are all absolutely reasonable to the extent that neither of our bills, both for three courses, wine and service, exceeded £100, unusual these days at this level of quality. Combine this with excellent service - just the right side of informal, unfussy and friendly - and truly stylish decor (there's a Tracey Emin neon on one wall for Chrissakes!) and you can see why this is still a hard-to-beat hit in a neighbourhood which, unlike when Rivington opened, now has a wealth of high-end fashionable restaurants for diners to choose from. I might once have been sick in Rivington Grill, but I'll certainly never be sick of it.

Rivington Grill & Bar, 28-30 Rivington Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 3DZ Tel: 020 7729 7053

Rivington Grill on Urbanspoon


I haven't been this blown away by a restaurant since..well, since Trinity chef-patron Adam Byatt's sadly defunct Origin at The Hospital. I'd been meaning to try out Trinity in Clapham Old Town for ages but not got round to it, then on the spur of the moment dropped in for lunch one sunny Monday and had I been wearing socks, they would have been knocked clean off.

Apart from a slightly dodgy ramp up from the front door - I wasn't the only one to trip up it on entering - the decor is beautiful; the space of the late and to be honest, unlamented Polygon has been sensitively transformed into a clean, organic, and comfortable room in warm shades of biscuit and brown with a scattering of modish modern art adorning the walls and for busier times, there's a small bar at the back for diners waiting for tables. Service, from both front-of-house and waiting staff, gets an A++ for being attentive, friendly, knowledgeable and unobtrusive.

As for the food - oh my good Lord, the food is superb and the lunchtime prix fixe at £20 for 3 courses is an absolute steal, with five choices for each course. For starters I went for the meat assiette and Alyn, my partner in life and in lunch, for terrine of confit chicken, smoked ham hock and foie gras. Both were superb, the highlight of mine being the light-as-air, melting veal head carpaccio and Alyn's, the generous nuggets of foie gras which punctuated his terrine. Our main courses were equally impressive; my slow cooked pork belly with creamed potatoes and honey glazed parsnips showed real kitchen expertise by being at once substantial and light, while Alyn's Huntsman's Pie, a generous dish of casseroled rabbit, chicken and bacon topped with a pastry lid the size and fluffiness of a cloud, was also adeptly prepared and disappeared with a speed the poor rabbit within would have envied.

The baked Alaska for two was the stand-out pudding from a mouth watering selection and came served in its own cast-iron dish, its wispy peaks perfectly singed from its recent spell in the oven. It wasn't flambed at the table as they do so impressively at The Ivy, but Trinity is much more about provenance and technique than table-side theatre. There's a fairly concise but very interesting, accessible wine list with prices starting at a recession-friendly £16.50; our 2006 Verdicchio at £25 felt like very good value. A very fair £1.50 cover charge entitles one to delicious home baked bread and Petit Lucques olives as well as - and here's my only, tiny, gripe about Trinity - filtered water, which surely should be completely gratis rather than coming under the cover charge.

I really could not find anything to fault about Trinity, and unusually nor could the very fussy Alyn, who filled in the comment card with glowing praise and with great pleasure. It might have taken me an age to actually get round to trying out Trinity, but having now done so it's guaranteed that I'll be back for more very soon indeed.

Trinity, 4 The Polygon, Clapham, London SW4 0JG Tel: 020 7622 1199 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The Lobster Pot

The Lobster Pot in Kennington is lauded as a local institution and even before finally making my first visit last Saturday, I had heard and read a great deal about the quirky boat-themed interior, amusing sounds-of-the-sea soundtrack (long before Heston came up with the notion, it was being done here) and the supposedly very high quality of the seafood on offer served with pride by chef-patron Herve Regent. All were present and correct, it really is a charmingly eccentric set-up (ambience snobs would hate it; those of us with a sense of humour will embrace it as part of the experience) and attentive if occasionally remote staff add to the feeling of being in a place into a which a lot of thought has gone.

What detracts from the experience, however, is the shockingly high prices for what is, to be kind, no more than a local, casual dining room. I know, having grown up by the sea and been brought up on seafood fresh from the morning's boats, that fish and shellfish of the quality served here doesn't come cheap, but come ON, Monsieur Regent: why no starters under £8.50 or mains – grilled chicken in this case – under £16.50? Sure these prices don't shock in the West End, or in local fine-diners such as Chez Bruce or Trinity, but this is Kennington, not Kensington, and for the bill to come to just over £100 for two courses for two and one bottle of wine is outrageous.

What did we eat to rack up such a whopping bill? We started with the large seafood platter for two at £25.50, adding half a lobster for an additional £12.50, and it certainly was large, groaning with half a crab, five oysters, clams, winkles, whelks, a huge langoustine and rather too many shrimps both pink and brown. The half a lobster was more like 3/8 of a lobster, lacking its claw which I thought cheeky, and was fine but unremarkable though in fairness I've always thought lobster over-rated. All of it was very good and undoubtedly super-fresh, and certainly justified the price tag, but I felt that it was the only starter on the menu which did.

Mains were OK, but my bouillabaisse at £18.50, served in a shallow fish-shaped dish rather than the deep vat I've come to expect, bore the scars of having stood under a heat-lamp for rather too long, probably while we were finishing the seafood platter. For one of the house's supposed specialities, it wasn't particularly...special. My partner Alyn's grilled tiger prawns – a whacking £19.50! – similarly looked (and tasted) as if they had been grilled for about five minutes too long. A couple of the ten or so prawns tasted ‘not quite right’ (his words) but he couldn't put his finger on it enough to make a complaint worthwhile.

The promised accompaniment of ‘a selection of vegetables’ constituted one new potato, one floret of broccoli (a broccolo?) and a quenelle of something orange; carrot and swede mash perhaps. This smacked of a chef attempting to finesse presentation in a restaurant where presentation is secondary – in a good way – to the experience, and therefore jarred. Bizarrely there are no side-orders on the menu, so one has to take this measly selection or lump it. It was all so uniformly average-to-good that we just didn't have the enthusiasm to bother with desserts.

The wine list is, like Nicolas Sarkozy, short and entirely French, with all the usual suspects from Muscadet to Beaujolais via Rose d'Anjou. Our Muscadet, not too dear at £18.50, was nice enough but not one of the best, lacking the floral oomph that typifies better examples of this safe seafood pairing.

To give The Lobster Pot its due, the prices and no-more-than-quite-good standard of the food don't seem to have deterred anyone; the place was absolutely packed from 8.30 onwards and in addition to several other couples and a downcast family party, a large table of regulars (we deduced this from the effusive welcome they received and the entire staff's dedication to their table before ours) were enthusiastically and noisily shovelling down a mountain of seafood and bottle after bottle of Veuve Clicquot at £72.50 a pop – what credit crunch?.

The place appears to do perfectly well from a devoted local clientele without needing to go the extra mile to attract and retain casual visitors. I won't be going back; if I want superior food at prices to make my eyes water, I'll stick with my all-time favourite J.Sheekey where the final bill is at least mitigated by the five-star quality of the whole experience.

The Lobster Pot, 3 Kennington Lane, London SE11 4RG Tel: 020 7583 5556

Lobster Pot on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 July 2009

Harrod's Sandwich Counter

Think of Harrod's Food Hall and the first thing that springs to mind is probably caviar, foie gras and quails' eggs, our imagined staple-foodstuffs of the moneyed classes, being sold at sky-high prices to Belgravia dowagers and cooks from the nearby embassies. Not so; the Food Halls (to give them their correct title) offer everything from the most basic such as tins of Heinz Baked Beans, to the most luxe - caviar is indeed present at £270/100g of Beluga - via everything conceivable in between, at prices not always much dearer than at less grand corner shops than this. One real surprise however is that for all that Knightsbridge is awash with the usual line-up of Prets, Eats and Starbucks, the Food Halls are also the best place around for a filling, and believe it or not cheap, lunchtime sandwich.

Hidden away in the grocery section at the periphery of the labyrynthine Food Halls, just before they end and become perfumery, there's a sandwich counter offering a vast array of fresh treats with a good couple of dozen combinations of fillings and breads from a classic ham and cheese croissant to the fancy-pants crayfish club. The display is mouth-watering, with fillings rising in abundant mounds from the the rolls, baguettes and ciabattas which struggle to contain them; there's invariably a queue but this being Harrod's, it is managed with impeccable panache by the boatered staff.

Best of all though are the prices; with the exception of some of the most elaborate seafood options, nothing's north of four quid. My baguette of prawns in Marie Rose creme fraiche came in at just £3.50 and was bursting with huge, juicy prawns in just the right amount of light, dill-scented sauce. Another we tried, the club torpedo at £3.95, was abundant with chicken and bacon and oozing with an indulgent but not excessive amount of good fresh mayonnaise. Both were far superior to anything I'd ever eaten at the same price from, say, Upper Crust, while also being considerably more upper class.

So, next time you're in or around SW1 and fancy a substantial snack at an easy-to-swallow price, bypass the chains and head for Harrod's sandwich counter - a little bit of luxury you can afford!

Harrod's, 87-135 Brompton Road, London SW1X 7XL Tel: 020 7730 1234

Sunday, 12 July 2009

The Cinnamon Club

After coming into a little money some time ago, I wanted to take my best pal Andrew for a blow-the-budget feast and invited him to take his pick of any of the capital's finest diners. Having heard good things about it in the Westminster corridors of power through which he daily struts, Andrew chose haute-Indian The Cinnamon Club, in the old Westminster Library on Great Smith Street.

We were impressed from the off as we were ushered into one of the most beautiful dining rooms either of us had seen in London. The library's wood panelling and high-rise shelving has been largely preserved, and a mezzanine overlooks the main room and its enclosed, private dining offshoots. Even at just after 7.30 the restaurant was very nearly full and within a short time every table was occupied (one close to ours by a gaggle of screeching Americans, sadly) and the atmosphere buzzing. Whilst perusing the menu we enjoyed a cocktail from the cleverly put-together list; the cocktails, somewhat like the food, are familiar European favourites given an Indian twist and my Spice Martini, with its hint of cardamom, was fantastic.

Food was difficult to choose given that everything sounded absolutely mouth-watering. Despite being relatively compact - nine starters, eleven mains and a couple of specials and tasting plates - the menu covers all bases in that it offers meat, poultry, fish and vegetarian choices all of which tempted us enormously. (NB: for those unable to decide, or feeling particularly adventurous, or both, there's an eight-course tasting menu.) On top of this, you're also able to choose from a small selection of 'showcase' dishes from another high-flying restaurant, in this case superstar chef Eric Chavot's two Michelin-starred The Capital. I loved this idea, one I'd never come across before, and so I opted for Chavot's crab risotto with truffle cappuccino to start while Andrew went for seared scallops with stir fried mushrooms and coconut and mussel broth. Both were superb, proof of the extremely high quality of the seafood used in each dish being in the eating. My risotto was perhaps a little heavy on cheese, but the pan fried king prawns it came topped with more than compensated for this.

Staying with a seafood theme for his main, Andrew chose grilled wild African prawn with tomato lemon sauce and coconut rice, while I went onto dry land and (blocking out all memories of Bambi) went for roasted saddle of Oisin deer with pickling spices. Both were gold-star, merit badge, top of the class standard; Andrew's 'prawn' turned out in fact to be three huge prawns each the size of a small lobster and gorgeously smoky from the tandoor, while my deer, cooked perfectly pink, tasted deliciously spice-hot and tart. Confident that desserts would be as good, we both ordered the coconut plate and loved the 'three ways'-style treat with which we were subsequently served; a scoop of creamy coconut ice-cream, a miniature brule and a warm, fried donut-y beignet.

It wasn't only the food that delighted us; service from the moment we sat down, throughout every course, and as we left was a joy; warm, courteous and very respectful, but without a trace of the stuffiness one might expect from a restaurant known by some at lunchtime as 'The Commons' Canteen'. The bill...well yes of course at the end of all this, what with cocktails, three courses, moderate wine (honest!), coffee and service, was none too pretty at £180-ish, but the night had always been planned as a special celebratory treat and it fitted that purpose exactly. Eating at The Cinnamon Club will never be a cheap night out anyway, with starters ranging from £7.50 to £15 and mains going as high as £32, but if it's bargain Baltis you're after then there are tens of thousands of local Indian restaurants who will very happily oblige. If, like we did on the other hand, you want a very special meal and to experience something new culinarily, then the Club should certainly feature highly on your list.

The Cinnamon Club, The Old Westminster Library, 30-32 Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BU Tel: 020 7222 2555

Cinnamon Club on Urbanspoon
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