Thursday, 28 April 2011

Criterion Restaurant, Piccadilly

Criterion Restaurant is rather like Narnia. Not only in that you step through unremarkable doors into a realm of almost unbelievable splendour, but also in that however much you might ask around you'll struggle to find anyone who's ever actually been.

For several years a high-profile outpost of Marco Pierre White's in-name-only restaurant stable, after the turban-wearing one's departure Criterion struggled for some time to find an identity for itself and slipped from the culinary radar, sustained I would imagine by special offers and passing trade - of which, on Piccadilly Circus, there must be plenty.

Now however Criterion is seeking to assert its status as a serious food destination and based on the evidence of my recent visit, they certainly mean business. Membership of the Sustainable Restaurant Association asserts their eco-credentials and all the favourite foodie buzzwords - local, seasonal, organic - are present and correct on a menu which majors in best of British with some high-falutin' fine dining touches. Served in what is indisputably one of London's most spectacular dining rooms, a neo-Byzantine orgy of soaring mosaic ceilings embellished with more gilt than Midas' loo, it's an attractive proposition - but does it deliver?

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Bistro du Vin, Clerkenwell

May 2012 - This restaurant and its sister site in Soho have now closed - they are to become mega-branches of the estimable Burger & Lobster

Asked in a recent interview what makes the perfect restaurant, an eminent and well-loved food writer observed that while good food obviously matters, it's not everything, and that the room, service and atmosphere are just as important. "Very, very few places get the mix exactly right", he sagely added. Although not getting it quite exactly right - yet - Bistro du Vin, the first standalone restaurant from the popular Hotel du Vin chain, is certainly an example of a restaurant that's heading the right way.

On the site of what was once Bjorn van der Horst's hubristic Eastside Inn, Bistro du Vin is the latest big-bucks opening in an area which already boasts, within a few minutes' stroll of each other, culinary genre-definers Bistrot Bruno Loubet, The Modern Pantry, Hix Oyster & Chop House and the daddy of them all, St John. Rather than trying to introduce something modern and fashionable to this already modern and fashionable mix, Bistro du Vin instead offers staunchly traditional bistro grub in stylishly classic surroundings, lubricated by an exciting selection of wines, many by the glass. It does, reassuringly and well, exactly what it says on the tin.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Brunswick House Café, Vauxhall

Brace yourselves dear readers for something of a surprise. You might even want to make sure you have a stiff drink to hand. Ready? OK: I have started going regularly to the gym. Or more specifically, to The Gym, a back-to-basics, no-frills, great value place in my south London neighbourhood where I go once a week in a determined effort to burn off at least one dessert's-worth of the calories which I selflessly consume in the pursuance of producing the present blog.

Even more rewarding however than this expenditure of energy and burning of fat, is that The Gym is a mere lunge from Brunswick House Café, a just-about-faultless little enterprise which is quietly punching above its weight as I try to regulate mine. Brunswick House is a vast Georgian mansion, erstwhile London home of the eponymous Dukes and relic of a bygone age when the hunting grounds for which Vauxhall was famous were deer parks rather than the open-all-hours dance clubs and gay saunas of today. Derelict for many years, Brunswick House is now the London flagship of salvage experts Lassco; once-opulent ballrooms and salons are crammed full of signs, statues, knobs, knockers and bric-à-brac spanning the last two centuries at I Saw You Coming prices.

The café occupies a couple of rooms on the ground floor, including the beautiful ballroom, an Aladdin's cave of columns, chandeliers and concert hall props. As well as a point-and-choose selection of pastries and pies, the daily-changing menu extends to about a dozen simple, modern dishes combining best-of-British ingredients with more Euro-leaning salads and sides. Thus for brunch last Saturday, lucky punters - myself, Alyn and PV The Artist included - were able to choose from dishes as simple and splendid as our order of soft boiled eggs, sea salt and sourdough toast; Blythburgh breakfast slider, duck egg & Emmental biscuit; and confit Old Spot bacon, beaten eggs and apple chutney.

As at another of my favourite places, The Drapers Arms, the minimal menu descriptions are not an affectation but actually tell you everything that will appear on your plate, other than for a little garnish here and there. Simple preparation of obviously top-notch ingredients in imaginative combinations is a formula guaranteed to win me over every time, and my slider was as satisfying and clever a brunch dish as I can remember having. Alyn's boiled eggs were as brilliant as they were basic, their bright daffodil-yellow yolks proclaiming their freshness as they oozed onto the toast. PV's bacon and eggs inspired the most plate envy though; the 'bacon' was more like thick sliced gammon, the 'beaten eggs' a golden galette somewhere between scrambled eggs and omelette.

To accompany the fantastic food there's a lengthy list of heritage cocktails (it was too early for a Sazerac, even for me, but I'll be back of an evening) and all-French wines, none of which is marked up by more than £10. This is a welcome trend which started at Trullo and has evidently spread south of the river, but while this might make for good value on some wines relative to other, grabbier venues, the presence of bottles priced at up to £37, modestly marked-up or not, seems incongruous alongside a food menu on which nothing costs more than £7.20. We just settled for the house white, a Le Lusc Ugni Blanc Colombard 2009 at £15, which was fine for a bottle that we knew had cost only a fiver. The frozen tumblers provided with it were a very nice touch on a day warm enough to allow eating outside on the cute, scruffy terrace.

A brunch dish each for three people, wine and entirely discretionary service came to under £12 each. You'd struggle to pay more for a main and a drink, and could get out for even less; factor in an extra tenner and you could have a cocktail and a pud. Casual and friendly service is provided by a young and enthusiastic staff and the clientele is as eclectic and attractive as the surroundings. Brunswick House Café is, like The Gym and my going to it, fairly new; I have a feeling we'll all work out.

Brunswick House Café, Brunswick House, 30 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 2LG Tel: 020 7720 2926  

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