Category Archives: Best for date night in London

For the love of food – Al Boccon Di Vino, Richmond


So, as you know, I now have a small person occupying my time so I haven’t blogged for a while, but this place is just so damn good I wanted to tell you all about it.

It’s called Al Boccon Di Vino and it’s a tiny little restaurant in Richmond owned by this impossibly cool man who managed to make me giggle like a schoolgirl simply by winking at me:


And run by this fabulous lady who The Chef actually fell in love with, and who walked round all night filling up our wine glasses and offering out limoncello, with words of love and laughter.


Now, I didn’t think London could possibly produce a better fun Italian restaurant than Giuseppes in Borough – I mean, when it comes to atmosphere, Giuseppes always has me up dancing by the end of the night – arms round a group of people I only just met, warbling out old love songs on the microphone and listening to Frank Sinatra while sipping limoncello.

But Al Boccon Di Vino has atmosphere in spades and is the most incredible authentic Italian feast.

First, it has to be said it’s great for Richmond, which I’ve always found disappointing food-wise. Richmond is sooo beautiful – overlooked by the deer of Richmond Park as the sun sets over the Thames that runs through it. It should be filled with fabulous eateries and river-side pubs. And yet it seems more to be filled with Zizzis and Stradas and such like, and a mixture of hooray henrys and wobbling young tykes bound for Be At One.

But this place is an institution. It doesn’t care about money, and as such there is no menu, but you squash in next to your neighbor (who you are likely to get very well acquainted with) and are served a veritable banquet of food, like an Italian wedding feast.

We were there for almost 5 hours!!! And were solidly eating for most of it, although there is a well-timed pause before the mains and after the antipasti. We spent quite a lot of time chatting with our neighbours about this incredible feast which gave the place a real community feel. This is what we ate (or what we remember we ate at least):

Antipasti of lightly tempura’d vegetables

Aubergine with the most delicious mozzarella and parmesan mousse

Fried Mozzarella

A plate of prosciutto

2 Types of Scallops


Beef Carpaccio

Pasta with wild boar

Mozzarella and tomato ravioli (which The Chef declared to be the best pasta he’d ever tasted, before declaring his undying love for Simona, and ordering a second bottle of wine)

A whole roast suckling pig that was shown to the diners to a great mass of applause, served simply with roast potatoes

Strawberries and pannaccotta

Some other desserts perhaps (neither of us can remember)

Complementary coffee, grappa and limoncello


The meal was fabulous. Fabulous! A real event, a showpiece meal served with a feeling of joy and community. The cooking was fantastic in the most part brilliant. All I would say is that the scallops were perhaps a bit overdone, but the rest of the meal was incredible, and generous in it’s cooking and presentation.

The cost for all this? £40 a head, which is quite ridiculous when you think of the amount of food and the quality of the ingredients. But as they say, they don’t do it for the money.

We went for the house wine (2 bottles given how long we were there and, well, because we don’t get out much) and this was fantastic, particularly the white, and it comes in at £25 per bottle.

I can’t recommend this place enough, although suggest you don’t go as a surprise as you’ll need to set aside tons of time and don’t eat for say a fortnight or so beforehand. Prepare to be full, happy and a little sozzled by the end. It would be a GREAT place for a group for a birthday or similar.

Al Boccon di'vino on Urbanspoon

A Tale Of Two Cities

I’d wanted to go to the Experimental Cocktail Club in Soho for ages but it was one of those places I’d never got round to trying. But The Chef and I planned a long overdue “Date Night” last Friday, and I suggested we might start there.

Oh how very wrong was I. We didn’t book a table – well, we were only 2 people and meeting pretty early at 6.30pm. Again, wrong. I rocked up on a cold January day on my own, and was “welcomed” by a humourless French bouncer who looked me up and down like I was something squidgy and brown he had just stepped on. AND I WAS DRESSED UP AND EVERYTHING!!! Now in my mid 30s with a decent job, good clothes, an expensive haircut and a credit card, I can safely say I have not felt intimated or belittled by door staff for a good decade or so, but this man made me feel about an inch tall. After asking if we had booked a table (no) he then proceeded to tell me that they were so very busy that I might be allowed in, but he could not promise that my companion would also be allowed in.

OK so let me get this straight. I am dressed up, obviously not a tramp, wearing nice shoes, obviously willing to spend money on your ridiculously overpriced and undoubtedly pretentious cocktails, and you are telling me that my choices are (i) wait in the January cold on my own until my date gets here; or (ii) go alone into the cocktail bar and presume you are going to treat my companion with the same patronising disdain and shoo him away, leaving me alone for the evening.

I went with the former option and this lovely bouncer kept me outside, in the cold, on my own, for a good 10 minutes, letting others inside who came after me, which made me want the ground to swallow me up, never speaking to me nor once suggesting I go inside to warm up. I should also mention in this time he let 2 couples in who had not booked. It seems I was on his blacklist for daring to turn up solo or to question their booking policy. Finally, The Chef arrived and Monsieur Le Cockface (I believe I dropped the C-bomb on him on twitter later that night, perhaps a little uncalled for, but I was a fairly merry by that time) kept us waiting for another 10 minutes before finally telling us that they were far too busy and we would have to wait another 30 minutes but even then we could not be assured a seat.

By this time, I’m ashamed to say I was freezing, annoyed, upset, humiliated and angry, a feeling I recall from trying to get into cool Soho clubs when I was in my 20s but which I had long forgotten. Well, you know what Experimental Cocktail Club? FUCK YOU! Yeah, FUCK YOU and your stupid pretentious look-you-up-and-down patronising derogatory bullshit. You genuinely made me feel like a teenager again, standing outside Oddfellows in Edinburgh in the cold, while you let my friends in and made me wait outside all night, contemplating another lap round the block and changing jackets with my best mate in case you didn’t recognise me the second time. You made me feel that small and pathetic and uncool. And yes, I admit it, I CRIED when I left, walking up Dean Street, freezing and shivering, and away from your patronising stare. I’m ashamed to admit that I cried and I felt like crap and you almost, almost ruined my night. And I will never ever go to your crappy establishment again and I hate you and everything you stand for and the way you make people feel, and the way you think that WE, the paying public, the people who pay YOUR salary, should feel we OWE YOU anything – that WE should feel HONOURED to sit our stinky pleb bottoms on your gold-covered sofas. You got it wrong ECC, you owe US you see, and little did you know, The Chef and I like a cocktail more than most and would have shelled out a ton of cash if you’d treated us right.

Anyway as The Chef said, don’t let them get to you and I won’t. But never ever go to the ECC, unless you enjoy being treated like a dirty little cockroach.

We had booked a table that night at Quo Vadis – the re-done Soho institution on Dean Street. So we decided we might just go there early for a cocktail. And how bloody right we were.

The difference between Quo Vadis and the ECC was astounding. When we came in several staff members smiled. They took our coats, said hello, showed us to the bar. The barman smiled, gave us a menu, asked us what what we liked, explained a few things, let us try their homemade pomegranate juice. And – hello – the cocktails ranged from around £6.50 upwards. How wonderfully refreshing. And the barman was lovely and the cocktails gorgeous. My vodka martini was perfect with delicious little olives, The Chef’s whisky sour fantastic. Add to this a lovely little English fizz and some Campari cocktails and we were happy little bunnies once more. And this is the annoying thing about the ECC – people like us might not look the part to you, but we like nice things and good service and are willing to pay for it.

Quo Vadis has been taken over by Head Chef Jeremy Lee, a charismatic Scotsman who welcomed us to our table and chatted amongst the guests all night. He was formerly head chef at the Blueprint Café which I also loved – a little jewel on the Thames which seemed overlooked, much to my surprise, as the food and service were amazing and the views incredible. As a Scot I just loved the Scottish touches – a weather forecast on the menu: “bonny”, heather on the tables, haggis.

The service was genuinely perfect – Michelin standard. Waiting staff were friendly and knowledgeable and totally unintrusive. Wines were ace. Starters of salsify, mallard and eel sandwich were just delicious. The Chef by now was going off into his trance-like misty-eyed silent mode, eyes rolling back into his head, which meant he loved the food (and didn’t care for conversation) – last time I saw a similar reaction was at the Ledbury, and Leong’s Legends.

And onwards. The Chef had mutton chops which were incredible, a real depth of taste, you could actually picture a wise old sheep gambling up the hillside. I had a delicious hake with parsley mash which reminded me of San Sebastian. This is The Chef’s type of food – simple, rich, and all about the ingredients. Pudding was an amazing almond tart, and cheese, with a glass of Sauternes.

I cannot rave enough about the new Quo Vadis – lovely, friendly service that makes you feel a million dollars (SO important to me, still fuming ECC!), delicious fairly-priced food (starters from around £6, small bites around £3.50, mains around £8 – £15) so for me Quo Vadis has to be the pick of restaurants in Soho.

The cost? Well it was £100 a head, but once we sat down and started smiling because they got it JUST right, we knew we were going to blow the doors off. For £100 each we got: 3 cocktails each before dinner (norty), a £48 bottle of lovely wine (after ECC I suggested we splash out), 3 starters to share between 2, 1 main course each, pudding and dessert wine. It was so worth it, we went home with a smile on our face and a skip in our step. Highly recommended (and did I say already, avoid the ECC).

UPDATE 8 FEBRUARY 2012: After I wrote this blog post, I was inundated with tweets and emails and comments from others saying they had had the exact same experience so it seems it was not just me. However, on the evening I wrote the post, I got the following email from Xavier Padovani, one of the owners of the ECC:

Good Evening,
Firstly I would like to introduce myself, I am one of the owner of the ECC Chinatown.
I have just read your blog and I am horrified, I can not find the word to express how sorry I am, how sorry I am to discover the way you have been treated, this is not how we are or how we want to be, in a few words I am speechless!!
Firstly I would like to sincerely apologise for the way you were treated  at the door, I am sorry, and I understand if you want to tell me to “bugger off” or even so if you wish yo use other words to express your feeling, I totally get it, this is unacceptable!
Again I would like to apologise.
I am tonight on my way to the bar and I can only promise you that I am going to firstly investigate exactly what happened at he door Friday night and once I understand exactly what happened, I will act in consequence.
Yet clearly you must hate us and be upset with us, so the only thing I can do at that stage is to assure you that this is not who we are and who we want to be but rather the opposite, this is not an acceptable attitude for our people to take at the door.
So firstly I wanted to apologise and secondly, and only if this is ok by you, and after investigating on my side what happened, I would like to get back in touch with you to be clear on what exactly what happened and learning from our mistake share with you what we are going to change to make sure this never happen again at he bar!
I can only promise you that we will learn from that horrible experience and I will do what I have to in order to make sure this never happens again!
I will get back to you after speaking to the management and the team.
Best wishes

After investigating, he sent the following email:

Good Evening/Morning,
I have now personally investigated the matter further as I told you I would since it is what we do when we get a complain.
I understand you came to the bar and you were told that you could come in but when you mentioned someone was going to join you later the door staff told you that they could not guaranty entrance for your guest.
This is because by the time your guest would have arrived we may have reached the authorised legal capacity number.
I understand that you decided to wait. By the time your guest arrived, the bar had reached capacity as a result you two could not enter the bar.
After reading your blog comments it sounds like the staff did not communicate properly with you and may have had quite an attitude while dealing with the issue ; believe it or not I am genuinely embarrassed if that is the way they made you feel and tonight I have had a word with the staff.
Again I can only appologize if you feel the door staff did not act properly.
Clearly you did not appreciate the experience so there is nothing we can do to change that. I can only assure you that we have read your words and this will help us improve in the future.
This is a genuine “I am sorry email and we have taken note”. I am genuinely sad this has happened, I really hope you understand that blog or no blog I am totally sincere.
We will continue to get bad reviews and good reviews since everyone can write whatever they want on the net, this is the beauty of it and this is the game we all play.
However I am completely honest and truly thought what happened was a shame, voila, hope you understand.

To this I wrote the following response:

Hi Xavier and thank you for your response.
For the sake of fairness and with your permission, I will publish this on the blog – let me know if you object.
What I may say is that I have genuinely not been treated so badly by door staff for over a decade in London, and from the twitter responses to my blog post, a huge number of people in London have been treated the same by your door staff and will not go back.
If you geuinely don’t want your establishment to be seen as somewhere you have to put up with abusive door staff then I suggest you entirely re-train them, or get new people who are able to be friendly!
In any event, I am grateful for the time and effort you have taken in responding and for the concern you have shown.
All the best

Since then, I am still hearing stories on twitter about poor treatment at the ECC, including tweets from last night by @bittenwritten saying they had the following exchange with the doorman: ECC – “Can we come in?” Answer: “No.” Why? “Maybe wait 45 mins.” Us: Go fuck yourselves.

They are making a mistake here – I’ve heard from people including previous Masterchef winners and influential food bloggers that they have been turned away in similarly rude style. Who passes through the door of doom then? Only those who have booked, or those who look a certain way? Is this Parisian service for you? And why didn’t Xavier offer us to come back and try it if he was so sorry? I suspect we just wouldn’t get in.

Quo Vadis on Urbanspoon

A roundup of recent posh dinners – Dean Street Townhouse, Les Deux Salons & Andrew Edmunds

1. Dean Street Townhouse, Soho

This is the perfect place to take your mum for pre-theatre dinner, or to sit outside drinking cocktails. Its lovely inside – all can-I-take-your-coat and chandeliers and chrome and candles and uniformed staff – and the service was brilliant. Fab toilets. My only complaint was getting told off for taking photos inside – apparently the artists who’d painted the wall art don’t approve, hmm. I ordered a main of monkfish and scallops and it was beautifully and delicately done, as was my mum’s pork. We were surrounded by American tourists and bankers, so it wasn’t quite the romantic atmosphere that screams date night, but it was perfect for me and El Madre.  It feels quaint and old-fashioned and elegant – I’d definitely like to go back with a wad of cash and try a bit more of the menu, or treat a friend on their birthday. The early evening menu is pretty good value – and they do special offers for pre and post theatre supper, and for lunch – check out the website.

Dean Street Townhouse on Urbanspoon

2. Les Deux Salons, Covent Garden

So I cycle past this little slice of France every day on the way to work and I had le soft spot for it – I love French bistros with their candles and white tablecloths and wood, the nice wine and the simple tasty dishes. It reminds me of naughty lunches with girlfriends, weekends in Paris and Brussels, and old-fashioned dates.

I tried it in a *slightly* different way – I went on a hen night of 21 girls in their awesome sound-proofed (thank God) private dining room, beautifully decorated with pink stuff, personalised menus, balloons and table names. What followed will stay amongst us 21 although I should say thank you (and sorry) to our lovely waiter Roman. The food was lovely too – fairly simple but great quality and really tasty – a lovely set menu of warm salt cod brandade, chicken with lemon and garlic with gratin dauphinois, followed by cheese – although the main restaurant was really quiet by the time we left. I’d put it down as a fantastic posh lunch place and I do recommend the brilliant private room – you can even play your own iPod – who’d have thunk behind those solid brass doors we were grinding to Rihanna? (Actually I think the hostesses thunked it – we got fantastically dirty looks on entry and exit – might have been the wigs and cork hat that did it).

Les Deux Salons on Urbanspoon

3. Andrew Edmunds, Soho

I have literally wanted to go to Andrew Edmunds for YEARS, ever since Lady B recommended it after a romantic evening with her now husband, and Time Out said it was a great place to take a long distant lover (Lady B had obviously done her research).  I’d heard people say it was overhyped, that the tables were too close together and the food was pretty average, but its a Soho institution, filled with media types, and as I’ve said before I love romantic bistros – candles in empty wine bottles and chalked menus on blackboards here, it didn’t disappoint – and booked a table for late supper with The Chef who used to take people there in his wine merchant days.

I was *so* excited about going there that my camera stayed resolutely in my bag – partly so I could savour the meal and enjoy the romance of it all, and partly because I was worried about the tables being so close. Sadly my work had other ideas and I was pestered pretty much non-stop throughout by a demanding client and a beeping blackberry – such is life.

Distractions aside, I really liked it – we got a booth and I did think it was a romantic, pretty restaurant, as did the other diners who were pretty much exclusively made up of couples. It is certainly one for date night rather than the girls. Service was friendly but pretty quick and although I don’t think The Chef was too impressed by the food (but then again if it isn’t Sechuanese at the moment, he’s likely to complain), I really liked it – a simple but tasty bowl of mussels to start, potted shrimp, stuffed rabbit with mash. It reminded me of the food at Vinoteca – homely and traditional and simple and really tasty, with a really good wine list. Our 2 course meal plus wine came to £35 each so it  was decent valud too.

Andrew Edmunds on Urbanspoon

The Riding House Cafe, 43-51 Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia, W1W 7PQ

 The Riding House Cafe has just opened opposite Kaffeine on Great Titchfield Street and its a beautiful sight to behold. From the same peeps who brought us Village East and The Garrison, it has lovely warm orange leather lounge seats (reminds me of a beloved jacket I bought from Armstrongs in Edinburgh circa 1993 and the wallpaper I had growing up – 70s burnt orange, mmmm good one parentals), beautiful lights and antique wooden tables, wooden sideboards and tiles, lots of tiles (very Spuntino darling). Little cosy booths for gossip and wine and dates – this would be a great date place – and long tables for big groups and a nice long bar with people on their own reading papers and looking happy. Its a lovely set up, and I just loved the squirrel lamps (although I hope that all squirrels died of natural causes and / or of old age).

Pippalippa and I were lucky enough to go there on their opening day and tried their sharing plates – the food was incredibly yummy, delicately cooked and looked beautiful and well priced at £2-5 for each. Here’s what we had:

Sea bass ceviche – incredibly light, refreshing and tasty and perfect for ladies on diets with hangovers (hypothetically speaking) 

Squid and chorizo – yummy

Anchovy pepper-y crostini thing – very tasty

Moorish lamb – incredibly tender, beautifully cooked

AMAZING pork belly – deliciously crispy skin and melt in the mouth middle – absolutely wonderful (note we did manage some broccoli for some green stuff, veh nice too)

Food is 50% off at The Riding House Cafe until 3 May so go along for lunch, coffee or dinner. We shared 6 small plates, had a pudding each and coffee (nicer than Kaffeine’s imho eek) and it came to £12 each – bargain. Sadly no wine as we are very responsible and busy people (Pip can we go back to have lots of food and wine there please?!). Even at full price, I reckon you’d pay £30 each for food (the sharing plates are between £3 and £5 each and sides are a couple of quid) and wine, and it would be such a charming post-work dinner spot. A lovely addition to an already stunning assortment of places to eat in Soho, Fitzrovia and Covent Garden (I cycled past Kopapa tonight which was buzzing) – we’re spoiled for choice London! 

The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon

Spuntino, 61 Rupert Street, Soho, W1D 7PW

The Chef and I are decided – lunch is the best meal of the day. Even better is an impromptu lunch. Better than that a boozy long impromptu lunch. And the best of the best is a boozy long impromptu lunch where you don’t have to go to work afterwards and can do a pub crawl round Soho for the rest of the afternoon.

Well, we managed most of the above yesterday anyway. Spuntino is the new New-York-speakeasy influenced baby from the people that brought us Polpo and Polpetto and its really a delight that they are cornerning the market in Soho with cool, friendly, great value restaurants. Spuntino says it has no telephone number, no reservations, and The Chef and I thought there is no WAY we’d be able to walk in on Friday lunchtime and get a table easily. But we did – easy peasy – 5 minute wait, and the short wait continued for the rest of lunchtime, so don’t be put off by no reservations.

Spuntino looks fab – having just been to Wilton’s Music Hall the night before to see Iolanthe, I’m a big fan of shabby chic and Spuntino has been pared back to its original features and looks great for it – beautiful tiles like it was formerly a Roman spa or a swimming pool, lovely lights. Although you all sit round a bar, you get enough privacy and its sexy enough to be a fantastic first date place and there’s a great mix of friends, couples and solo eaters. We also noted that all these places seem to have the same type of staff – trendy without being pretentious, cool and friendly and enthusiastic and laid back. It makes for a great atmosphere. Thanks to the lovely Nigel for our lunch and for the pepper and thyme popcorn that make us cough.

Anyway the food was brilliant:

 Lardo crostini and thingy-berries, delicious

Amazing truffle egg on toast – delicious strong cheese (almost Swiss, raclettey), gooey egg and truffle – you have to taste it, is amaaaazing

I think this was a bone marrow “slider” – ridiculously deep taste almost like an Italian ragu or spag bol, really lovely. Want to go back and try the other sliders

Mac and cheese – only disappointment. A little underseasoned and the cheese could have been stronger – I prefer the Villandry Kitchen version

Peanut butter and jam sandwich – this was also amazing and still makes my mouth water thinking about it. Peanut ice cream with rich berries and crumbled peanuts, absolutely delicious and so CLEVER

Spuntino made us both smile loads – we had an incredible lunch and all this food, plus an old fashioned cocktail (guess who’s been watching too much Mad Men), 250cl white wine and kwoffees (served Americano filter style) came to only £30 each which was fantastic. It was a treat and a pleasure and the setting for our plotting the aforementioned Soho lunch and pub crawl. In fact the whole thing was incredibly Mad Men cool now I come to think about it. I will definitely be back – to try the other sliders and the soft shell crab and the stringy curly fries. You can so easily pay £30 for an average meal in Soho so I’m so happy these guys are revolutionising the place – they can really do no wrong right now!

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

A night on The Cut – Baltic and the Young Vic

The Cut is one of London’s amazing gastro streets – like Dean Street or Upper Street or Kingsland Road – veritable gourmet gold. And it sounds cool too. It has Meson Don Felipe with its amazing Spanish tapas and live music; the Anchor & Hope , sister resto to Great Queen Street and full of huge sharing plates of rabbit and beef and lamb and tumblers of wine; and Baltic just round the corner on Blackfriars Road with its gorgeous interior and cocktails and Polish food. Its the perfect cultured night out – pre-theatre meal followed by a night at the Old Vic or the Young Vic just along the road. So last week I went along with The Chef, Pipalippa and assorted friends to grab a bite to eat and watch Vernon God Little at the Young Vic, which I’d been meaning to go to for ages (it’s on until 12 March so you may still be able to catch it).

Baltic sticks in my mind for several reasons – its absolutely gorgeous inside, really romantic and light and an amazing room, has wonderful cocktails, really lovely service with an adorable waiter and beautifully light and interesting food. Although I’m a little biased as I lived in Praha for 6 months and a love of all things Central European has remained with me ever since.

The cocktails were amazing – the 1937 Clubland came with a glass of white port and a jug of vodka served on ice. The Polish Martini with bison grass vodka and honey and apple juice was absoutely delicious and served in a beautifully heavy cut-crystal glass that reminded me of the shops of Prague. The Chef loved the pork rillettes and I enjoyed my beetroot & smoked mackerel salad which felt light and healthy although they were incredibly stingy with the mackerel – more please! For mains I tried the grilled herring with celeriac mash & lingenberries – really light and tasty and when do you ever see herring on the menu? Pipallippa loved her ox tongue too.

If you can get a table before 7pm you can do the pre-theatre menu which is great value £15 for 2 courses. If you add a cocktail (about £10 each) and wine you’re talking £30 a head which is still decent. I really liked the food – it wasn’t perfect but for the cheapie theatre menu it was great. And I’d love to go back to make a proper night of it.

After stuffing ourselves with food and cocktails we headed to the Young Vic which was my first time there. It also has a great bar (above) and although it’s a lot bigger than my favourites Soho Theatre and the Barbican, it has a great intimate atmosphere and even our cheap seats (£15 each) had a brilliant view. Vernon God Little was excellent – after a slowish start, it swelled to a giant concerto of sofa-moving, soul-singing excellence about how easily we condemn others and trial by media. Some really brilliant acting, we’re so lucky in London. If you don’t manage to catch Vernon God Little then I’ve also heard good things about And The Rain Falls Down which sounds intriguing, and soaking wet, or there’s lots more coming up. I’m yet to try the Old Vic either which seems infinitely posher and more grown up, but I’d love to see Rattigan’s Cause Celebre with the wondeful Anne-Marie Duff. And War Horse – when oh when will I ever get to see War Horse!

Baltic on Urbanspoon

Some more nice places to eat – Polpo (Soho) & Santa Maria Del Sur (Battersea)

1. Polpo, 41 Beak Street, Soho, W1F 9SB

Going to Polpo for Saturday lunch was one of the best ideas I’ve had lately. First, you can actually book a table – you can’t for supper hence several disappointments  – and secondly, it felt like a real treat from the Saturday day norm. I don’t know about you, but in the last few years, Saturday has turned into my slightly dull “admin” day. I get up early, do yoga, then bum around all day doing chores and generally waiting until Saturday night happens. I used to meet my friend Esmerelda for coffee or lunch but she was selfish enough to move to Australia so it’s been rather lacking of late. Sunday is my long-boozy-lunch followed by a film day, but until the weather is hot enough for cycle trips, Saturday has become a bit meh.

But Saturday daytime is a lovely time to see friends. I often meet my girlfriends for post-work dinners during the week but this isn’t ideal as we’re normally wired from our working week, a little stressed, and need to get home at a decent hour. Sundays are always under the shadow of Monday mornings and the Sunday blues. But on Saturday, you can have a 4-hour lunch and still fit in yoga before and parties afterwards, AND have a whole day to recover with the papers on Sunday.

So last Saturday, Tallulah and I went along to Polpo – the perfect place for a long leisurely catch-up lunch. And we didn’t just talk about boys. Erm.. Service is good but unintrusive, you can sit for hours. The wine is lovely and by the carafe – we had the light Poeta (£6 for 250ml and £12 for 500ml, we tried both for research purposes). The food is Italian tapas-style sharing plates which is always brilliant for sociability and ease of ordering. But Brits will always refuse to eat the last portion on each plate. They were delicious:

Arancini – these were new to me but little parcels of risotto – delicious

Calimari – tasty but a little dull?

Flank steak – the best plate for me – perfectly cooked juicy beef in peppery rocket and a lovely creamy truffle sauce

Cauliflower – delicious take on cauliflower cheese, my FAVOURITE SCHOOL DINNER EVER 

Polpette – delicious and tomatoey

All this grub, plus the wine (only downside – Saturday night got a bit blurry due to lunchtime vino drinking – beware)  and a coffee came to £28 each including tip which is brilliant – highly recommended for lazy weekend lunches or after-work dinners if you can get a table (or try Polpetto which serves similar food but where we got a table easily).

Polpo on Urbanspoon

2. Santa Maria Del Sur, 129 Queenstown Road, Battersea, SW8 3RH

Oh how I miss Argentina. The horses, the weather, the steaks, the Malbec – just not the same in London. After a crappy meal at the Pampa Grill on Battersea Rise, I was excited about going back to Santa Maria Del Sur. I’ve been before and raved about it (one of the best steaks in London I said! I have not been to Hawksmoor still!) but this time was following its win on Gordon Ramsey’s F Word for the UK’s best Americas restaurant (and you knew it – now impossible to get a table without booking well in advance) and after big-biceped manager Jose moved to the Moo Grill.  

The Chef and I were hungry and I was excited to see a really authentic menu – Fernet and Coke! Quilmes! – and our starter empanadas were just aaaamaaaazing. We then ordered the mixed grill which has 2 steaks – bife de chorizo (sirloin) and bife de lomo (fillet) as well as 2 sausages and some provolone cheese . Oh and some black pudding just in case you hadn’t got the meat sweats yet.

The steaks were excellent – really juicy and perfectly cooked. I’d go for the fillet steak which was perfect. The sausages and black pudding were good, but I could take or leave them, and the cheese although lovely was random. No necessito in my humble opinion. Decent Malbec (I ordered the Zuccardi because my friend Aileen fancies the owner’s son) but not amazing and I’d have loved to see some better names on the menu. Main disappointment? The sides were terrible. In Buenos Aires, the best meal I had was at La Cabrera where you got amazing steaks with delicious sides of mustardy things and salads and veggies. But at Santa Maria the sides were rubbish – a salad was some lettuce and tomatoes with not much else and the peppers were tastless, although the chips were good (I avoided – damn no carb diet). We finished up with a delicious flan with dulche de leche

All this food, with G&Ts to start and a bottle of Zuccardi Serie A (£27) came to £65 each which I think is a bit much for a local restaurant. The steaks were good and the but I’d have a fillet steak with chips next time and hope they’d improved their sides, with a cheaper bottle of wine. Still a lovely atmosphere for a date though, which explains why it was fairly heaving with couples.

Santa Maria Del Sur on Urbanspoon

The tasting menu @ The Ledbury, 127 Ledbury Road, Notting Hill, W11 2AQ

So why would you go for a tasting menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant? I’ve asked myself this a couple of times, usually around they time they bring the mindnumbingly-expensive bill (about the same as you’d pay for a new bike, or a full head of highlights and a cut TWICE, or an iPhone 4). Or when I feel so full of food and wine I feel uncomfortable, can’t sleep.

The amuse bouches – foie gras on a ginger biscuit and an exceptionally posh Scotch egg type thing that made me giggle…

So why do I keep doing it? Because it’s bloody brilliant, that’s why. It’s silly and disgustingly overindulgent. You aren’t a regular customer of the restaurant who is on a normal night out that they can easily afford, eating their way through the a la carte menu one meal at a time. You aren’t rich or nonchalant or used to eating like this. You are a mysterious giggly stranger, a normal person wanting to experience something you’ll remember for years to come, dipping your toe in and tasting it’s delights. You probably can’t afford to eat there often so you want to try everything they have on a plate. With the best and most interesting wine they have too. It’s a special occasion – maybe the only occasion that you’ll eat there. It’s a treat.

The starters – raw scallop with horseradish, perfect for huge menu as so light and delicate, grilled mackerel with shisho and cucumber. Cucumber was amazing. Cucumber! And a giant slab of foie gras with apple and Christmas pudding sauce…

And for the restaurant too it’s a treat. They know that you are about to have a spectacular gastronomic experience that will last several hours (over 4 hours at The Ledbury) and they can ham it up as much as they like – the sommelier can tell you about how the grapes match the horseradish, knowing you don’t particularly care and are probably too pissed by the middle of the meal onwards to remember. The waitress will make you feel like kings, hiding the fact she knows you are unlikely to be back regularly. And the chef gets a chance to completely show off – he is a peacock showing you his feathers, a bit of frivolity here, an in-joke there, but most of all you see the full spectrum of what he or she can cook, the measure and essence and all.

The mains: absolutely incredible skate with truffle that you could smell when they brought the plates over, with cauliflower and parmesan gnocchi (my favourite) and shoulder of pyranean milk-fed lamb with artichoke witchedy grub (my words not theirs). Looking at this I can’t believe I ate all this. But there was more…

And so last Wednesday night I took the lovely Chef (who wrote a very nice review of the meal here) to The Ledbury for his birthday dinner. I booked it back in December, a bit of a Homer Simpson present because I’d wanted to go for ages too, and we got a little bit over-excited about the whole thing. Such is the pull of the Michelin tasting menu, especially at a place that many food bloggers have named the best restaurant in London, confirmed by the Restaurant Magazine awards.

The pre-dessert dessert (of course) and pudding of poached pear – the only disappointment of the meal, just a bit heavy-handed. But I don’t have a sweet tooth and meant I could have more CHEESE

Throughout this post are photos of the meal. Now remember, these are the photos of what ONE PERSON ATE, not both of us together. And seeing it again I can’t believe I managed to stuff it all in. But I did, plates wiped clean. Which is why I didn’t feel so good on the way home, which is a little gross. So you have to have STAMINA to eat like this, and time. Photos never represent how great it was – the smells, the tastes, but it’s a start. And it doesn’t show the wine which was fantastic and interesting and well thought out. And loads of it.

The cheese – I pretty much ate this entire plate to myself as The Chef’s lemsip had worn off by this time and he had started sweating profusely and coughing. It was amazing. And I ordered another glass of red to accompany it as the 5 or 6 other glasses hadn’t been enough apparently. The Chef was dying to leave. I felt over-stuffed like a foie gras goose…

So was it a treat? Hell yeah. We were one of the first to arrive and almost the last to leave. We ate the full menu – starters, fish, meat, puddings, cheese. We were Mr Creosote being asked what we want from the menu and responding “the lot“. They even printed off our menus for us to keep with the wine we’d had with each course typed alongside each course. A bit silly yes but special. Will I be back? Well I can’t afford it until 2015 but I’d like to take my mum for a lovely lunch one day. Or go back if I had something big to celebrate. If you’ve got £300 to spend (for this is how much a tasting menu with wine for 2 will set you back) then it’s probably the best resto in London right now. As I said at the start, you could buy a bike or a phone or a TV or a trip to the opera for this price, but for me I am paying for something that will last forever. A memory – of the smell of truffle, the cheese plate, the giggling, the extravagance, the taste of foie gras and skate and lamb all perfectly cooked. For me it’s worth it, but you have to decide for yourselves whether it’s the same for you.

A waahfer theen meent…

Note: for better photos of the food and the proper description of the tasting menu, please look at the HPL facebook page

UPDATE 21 January 2011: The Ledbury has just won best restaurant in London in the Square Meal awards 2010. Told you…

The Ledbury on Urbanspoon

A lament about eating out too much and a celebration of thai salads (thank you Rosa’s, Soho)

I have enough self-awareness to realise that I’m unlikely to make many friends by complaining about how much I eat out – I know a lot of people (especially my friends with kids) whose hearts will NOT be bleeding right now. But I thought some of you might be in the same boat (for work or if you have several different groups of friends to catch up with, for example) so I thought it was worth offering a few thoughts. As you know, this January I was meant to eat out less. And do exercise and stuff. Well, it started fairly well. Went to the gym, did ADVANCED circuits (ow), met up with Giovanna for a yoga class (first time we’d met sober in years), booked a dance class.

But then the eating out creeped up on me. Post-theatre meal with Emmissima. The Chef’s birthday supper. Today The Ledbury (hurrah), meals out in Vienna, Burns night, tea and cake at the School of Life, lunch with school and Uni friends, the list is fairly endless. I think I eat out at least 3 times a week for dinner and at least once for lunch which has got to be bad. I decided that I was only to eat out once a week from now on (which is already loads). But then I looked at my diary for February and I’m eating out at least 4 times in the second week already. At least it’s not as bad as living in Brussels, where I ate Italian for lunch and steak frites almost every night and put on 3 stone. But still it’s not great.

However, when I meet up with friends I want to talk and talk and talk. Talking is good for you, at least an hour a week, uninterrupted. And that’s hard in a yoga class or a dance class or the cinema. The ideal is to go for a nice long walk and ideally I’d arrange that more often, or to talk to your partner if you live with them, but it’s rubbish weather at the moment and I live alone. And I like catching up with friends as often as possible, and trying new places regularly. This blog is my downfall perhaps (but a fun downfall). Any suggestions of good ways to catch up with friends and being able to talk that don’t involve being outside, food or wine, then please let me know. But bet we can still find a way of fitting wine in…

Anyway the other night with Emmissima, we were peckish, it was 10pm and we’d had some wine. We wanted a quick and fairly healthy bite to eat and I thought of Rosa’s – that lovely Thai place in Shoreditch and on Dean Street, and a friend of the HPL. And for the first time I ordered a thai salad – we shared the beef sirloin steak salad topped with spiced mint and chilli sauce and the mixed seafood salad topped with spiced mint, lemon grass and chilli sauce with Tom Yum soup. Oh and a carafe of wine. And all for about £15 each.

I don’t know why the hell I have never ordered Thai salads before but they were absolutely delicious – the sirloin tender and spicy and delicate and the seafood was yum too. A little kick and freshness and (I think) they were vaguely healthy. Bonus. And the service, especially at that late time, was wonderful. On reflection, I think the key is that if you have to eat out a lot – for work or pleasure – then you need to vary salads and soups and healthy things with 7 course tasting menus and burgers and steaks and similar, you need to get in a ton of exercise, eat healthy breakfasts and when you’re in, eat something small or not much at all. If you’re haven’t deleted this email in disgust already then I am genuinely grateful for your thoughts!

Rosa's Soho on Urbanspoon

Dim sum @ Hakkasan, 8 Hanway Place, Fitzrovia, W1T 1HD

Another day, another Michelin star, sigh. Actually this time it was a completely impromptu, completely brilliant idea by a friend for pre-Christmas lunch. Called Hakkasan last minute and my friend estimated it would be about £15 a head plus drinks each. I thought this was wishful thinking but turns out this was completely right – bargain.

Whatever it is like for dinner, Hakkasan is brilliant for a dim sum lunch. It’s pretty swish inside, service is great, food was awesome. And yet it has one major major problem – the price of the wine. Let’s face it, you have to have wine if you decide to go for a posh lunch, a working one or otherwise. It is against my religion not to. And yet glasses of wine were priced at a quite ridiculous average of £9 for a small (?!?!?!) and £13 for a large (?!?!?!). Made me quite angry – I don’t care how nice the wine is, the mark up must be huge, and any decent restaurant should have a good value house wine or similar that is affordable. I was annoyed. But not annoyed enough not to have wine. So I got a small (tiny really) glass which was marked at £9 but somehow ended up as £7 on the bill – which worked out at about £1 a sip. So silly when the rest of the meal was such great value. I hope they sort this out as I’d love to pop in and try some more dim sum.

So to the food – 3 each is perfect to be reasonably full and it’s best to share, although I think for feng shui reasons you get 3 pieces of dim sum per plate so it can be hard with 2 Brits and our horrible politeness for not taking the last one. But it was really really excellent. Below are some photos of what we ordered and some comments on it (I’ve lost the dim sum menu so descriptions are not as good as they could be):

Beef dumpling “thingies” – really really tasty 

Pork and prawn xiao long bao – recommended by our lovely waitress these were amaaaazing, probably my favourite, filled with a really rich soup – lovely

Chive prawn dumpling thingies – really fresh and interesting

Duck roll thingies – yummy

Sea bass – really delicate and delicious

Sweet black sesame rolls (as dessert) – wierd gloopy consistency and a bit like Nutella inside, but in a good way

 So all this yummy food, a good 1 1/2 hours of chat and a delightful waitress set us back only £15 each for the food (and 3 dim sum makes you deliciously full). My only concerns being the ridiculously expensive wine and snooty woman at the door. It ended up costing me £25 with wine and service which is still good though for a special lunch. So much more on the menu to try (although I’d avoid the wierd mango thing which was inexplicably served on a bed of squeezy mayonnaise – more photos of other dim sum that my friends had are on the HPL facebook page).

Hakkasan on Urbanspoon