Saturday, 22 March 2014

A cure for the blues: The Blue Bridge, Writtle, Essex (21.03.14)

I haven’t given much thought to what I will do for my 78th birthday. My grandpa chose to spend his at a restaurant called The Blue Bridge in a town called Writtle near Chelmsford. We went in the evening, but the glassy exterior and large aquarium would make it a pleasant lunch spot. We had a large round table which made it easy for the eight of us to talk to each other.

I’d like to give special mention to the “bread while you wait”; warm thick slices of a white bloomer and a rye-type bread which provided a comforting and hearty warm up act. We chose a Rioja from the shortened wine list-but were offered a longer list if required. To start I had the smoked mackerel paté, which was deliciously creamy and lightly peppery on a warm slice of toast. I could’ve done with a bit more toast, but luckily we still had the aforementioned bread.

I was so intrigued by the chicken breast with tomato fondue that I had no choice but to order it for my main. I was expecting some sort of cauldron of hot tomatoes featuring either ham or marshmallows (the classic accompaniments to cheese and chocolate fondue respectively.) As it turns out, fondue was a bit of a misnomer, as it was actually a very good tomato sauce. This was served beneath three slices of succulent chicken with crispy skin. Garlic gnocchi completed the dish. It’s hard to keep these potatoey morsels from becoming rubbery, but these were well cooked with a lightly crispy and garlicky exterior. It may even have been the best gnocchi I have had.

My main was a fairly modest size which left me with plenty of room for dessert. Others, such as the beautifully pink Beef Wellington and the beer battered cod and chips were much bigger. I found the staff very attentive. The waitresses apologised every time they had to lean across me slightly to serve the person next to me. It was a bit like having to thank someone every time they hold open the next in a series of doors you both have to go through. I would thank them the first and last time and I think the same principle applies here, otherwise it feels just a little bit overboard. Still, better too much than too little.

My dessert was the chocolate fondant with salted caramel and pistachio ice cream. I was expecting two scoops of ice cream but the flavours were combined into one and they made a great match. I was a little worried when I took a spoonful of the fondant and nothing happened, but relaxed when a second spoonful unleashed a hot puddle of chocolate onto the plate. There were no complaints about the (rather deep) vanilla crème brûlée, although there were murmurings that the brownie could have done with a bit more goo.

I know there are many good restaurants in the area but I don’t think I have eaten like this in Essex before. I was impressed not only by the variety of food, but also by how hard it was to choose, as there were so many appealing options. If I end up spending my 78th birthday somewhere like this, I will consider myself lucky.


Tuesday, 4 March 2014

The Laughing Gravy (14.02.14)

Valentine’s Day was a complete disaster this year—as far as public transport was concerned, that is. I had been looking forward to an early dinner at Southwark’s gastro-pubby restaurant The Laughing Gravy for weeks. I was therefore crushed when my Valentine and I were separated by flooding and some poor soul under a train respectively.

I was impressed by how accommodating the staff were, especially considering what day it was. We had to re-arrange our reservation a number of times and the restaurant was far from empty.

When we finally did arrive, after swiftly ordering a much-needed bottle of Pinot Noir, I went for the Lincolnshire rib eye steak with Madeira sauce. The meat was properly pink and the rich sauce was the perfect foil to my side of truffle chips (these are essential if you are planning a visit.) The whole place smells of truffles, giving it a heady atmosphere.

We were both torn between the steak and the guinea fowl; when I see game on a menu, my opinion of a place immediately goes up. Luckily for me, my other half went for the game option, so I got a taste of the buttery, crispy-skinned bird.

The desserts stole the show however, as I went for the chocolate fudge brownie, which was so much more than the name suggests. It had chocolate sauce, blackberries, coulis, vanilla ice cream, blackberry jelly and a circular marshmallow-like thing. I don’t know what it was but I could have eaten ten of them. Not to mention the gooey, soft brownie itself, which is by far the prettiest of its kind I have encountered.

CHOCOHOLIC'S DREAM: decadent brownie with all the trimmings
My date had the blueberry cheesecake, accompanied by shortbread, mini-lime donuts and a pansy. While there really are some people who get angry about flowers in food, I think it made the plate just that touch more attractive. The cake was creamy and refreshing with a great blueberry hit in the middle. The donuts were well-made, but my partner would’ve preferred the lime coulis inside them, rather than underneath.

BLUEBERRY BONANZA: cheesecake, lime donuts and shortbread
The restaurant is fairly expensive, with a two-course meal with wine coming to about £50 per head, but I didn't find the prices unreasonable. It’s the best Modern British food I’ve tasted in London (where you can easily pay a lot more for something not as good.) Chef Michael Facey is onto a winning formula with his choice of home-grown ingredients and the gastro-pub feel keeps the restaurant from feeling too formal. The jazzy music is fun, if a little loud for my tastes.

The Laughing Gravy was a more than welcome retreat from the hectic world of the British public transport system. Finally, order was restored and Valentine’s Day felt romantic again. Then there was the journey home…


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Jamie's Italian, Oxford (May 2013)

I have been to a few branches of Jamie's Italian now and have been surprised how much the standard varies. The Kingston branch is the best I have visited, but I recently visited the Oxford restaurant. My date and I decided to go for the 'Big Italian Feast' as tasting options are the food equivalent of a montage and who doesn't love a montage? We felt that the menu was rather sneaky, as while it displayed the price next to the dish, we only just caught sight of the 'price is per person' caption in the small print.

We were given the option of having the feast all at once or broken down into starter and main so we went for the latter option. The starter was a board with olives, peppers, hams, salamis, a Parmesan and chilli jam cracker, focaccia, a ball of mozzarella and a shredded carrot and beetroot salad. For me, the spicy salami stood out. I was also pleased to be brought a jug of water without having to ask. Mozzarella is a beautiful ingredient which can hold its own so I found the herbs and oil it was served with to be superfluous.

The board was served on top of tin cans, which is a pleasingly rustic look, but rather precarious and impractical when it comes to eating.

Our main was made up of a spring greens risotto, spaghetti alla norma, chicken drumsticks and polenta parmesan chips. My favourites were the aubergine and tomato pasta and the very more-ish chips. I was concerned that we would be given 'amuse-bouche' sized portions, but the portions were fairly well-judged. The risotto was fragrant but my date would have liked it to have packed a bit more power. The roast chicken drumsticks were served with pesto and blackened vegetables-the pesto was a fine accompaniment but I could have done with more.

Unfortunately, the restaurant suffers from a lack of spacial awareness. This is one of my major gripes when eating out and which is by no means confined to Jamie’s-the tables are simply too close together. There are three issues with this 1. You can't get to your seat and even the most svelte creature can end up feeling like a beached whale and 2. Atmosphere is one thing but I don't want to hear fellow diners' entire conversations and I don't want them to hear mine. 3. In this instance, the 'Big Feast' really was big-if we had decided to have it all at once there would not have been room on our table for all of the food.

It is a bothersome trend, where restaurateurs pack in as many customers as possible to create maximum profit, but forget that customers value intimacy and being treated as honoured guests for a few hours. I think there should be a new law whereby restaurants must ensure that there is standing room for at least one person between each table (otherwise you're left with the Fight Club aeroplane scene in which Brad Pitt has to chose 'ass or crotch' before climbing over his neighbour from the window seat).

Dessert was the confidently named 'Epic Brownie' and I can confirm that this name is deserved. The brownie came with hot chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream and (the thing that sold it to us) amaretti popcorn.

Service was efficient and personable and overall I enjoyed the food. If I visit again I will order a pasta dish and the Epic Brownie again and maybe put in a request for a more anti-social table.


Friday, 24 May 2013

Steak of the Art (Hawksmoor Seven Dials 26.02.13)

Hawksmoor is a small high-end chain of steakhouses in London. Given the UK's internationally recognized reputation for not being able to cook meat, I was looking forward to an evening which would set the record straight. A little early, upon arrival we were offered the choice of waiting at the bar or at our table. We chose the bar, which was a mistake, as it was rather crowded and the high stools were a bit of a challenge for my disabled mother.

I plumped for a non-alcoholic cocktail called 'A Lot Like Lilt'-I took one sip before declaring 'this is nothing like lilt'. The waitress had mixed up my order with my mother's Hawksmoor Collins, a potent grapefruit and gin concoction. The real 'A Lot Like Lilt' was indeed similar to the beverage in question.

The food menu is like this: steak. While meat is very much the main event, there are several seafood options including lobster dishes. However, I do not recommend bringing a vegetarian friend here, unless you want to send them a not-so-subtle message that you are no longer friends-in which case it may be just the place. The website boasts that if the cut of steak you desire does not appear on the menu, then you can request it up to 48 hours in advance. It's touches like this that will win a place fans, which judging by the crowd filling the large dining room on a Wednesday night, are in no short supply. It was only by dint of a cancellation that my brother and I were tacked onto our parents' reservation.

I was tempted by the smoked salmon soda bread starter, but adopting a 'When in Rome' attitude, I decided to dive headfirst into mains and meat. I ordered the D-Rump steak medium rare. On the first bite, I felt that the plate could have been hotter. On the second, I felt that I was in the presence of a serious steak. The meat was chargrilled, salty and crispy on the outside and perfectly pink on the inside. I also admired the dish's unapologetic presentation; a slab of steak in the centre of a white plate is bold, modern and lets the food do the talking. I also ordered the beef dripping fries which I have hardly stopped thinking about since. Da Vinci may have had the Mona Lisa, but I have no doubt that she and any number of muses would have been thrown over for these fries. 

My parents went for the Porterhouse steak, one of the generous sharing options and after some knowledgeable advice from our waiter on which cuts suited rare or medium rare better, my brother had the fillet steak.

I was impressed by the Hawksmoor's dessert menu. A restaurant famous for steak could probably get away with the careless 'three desserts and a coffee' menu that pudding fans dread. So I was pleasantly surprised by the inventiveness on display. I opted for the chocolate and salted caramel tart with popcorn ice cream. The tart was a very rich, very grown-up dessert, which really came alive when eaten with the sensational ice cream. The single scoop was unusual but delicious, and included small pieces of popcorn which added an unexpected texture dimension.

My brother ordered the intriguing cornflake sundae, which was disappointingly unavailable. He went instead for the sticking toffee pudding sundae-I was sceptical about my favourite dessert in sundae form, but upon tasting I found it to be a joyous thing. Overall I was thoroughly impressed with the bold cooking, flavours and presentation at Hawksmoor. 8.5/10.

Saturday, 16 March 2013


If you're in an "only a burger can fix this" mood, but hate finishing your Big Mac and thinking, "I could eat another ten of those," The Diner on Ganton Street is the place for you.

Despite the fact it was 3pm on Wednesday afternoon, the restaurant was buzzing. We had a brief wait at the bar before our rock-chick waitress showed us to our table.

Uncharacteristically, I overestimated my eating prowess by ordering a cheeseburger, cheesy fries and a chocolate and vanilla milkshake. This should give you an idea of the classic American fare on offer. 

We both had a cheese OD as my friend went for macaroni cheese with a side of cheesy fries.The menu offers a selection of cheeses to accompany the dishes. I went for Monterey Jack, but would've liked cheddar as an option, as for me, it is the cheese par excellence for  a gourmet burger (and I belong to a family in which "cheesing" is a verb i.e. "are you cheesing?")

The food is served in pleasingly trashy plastic baskets. We decided that for future visits, one basket of cheesy fries would suffice as a side for two healthy appetites. 

Alcoholic and non-alcoholic milkshakes are available. I went for the virgin option. It is best to think of the milkshake as less of a drink and more of a dessert, as we both needed to order a more hydrating beverage. 

The burger was a tempting combination of flavoursome beef, cheese, tomato, onion and lettuce. Just don't expect to be asked how you'd like it cooked.

The cheesy chips were delicious and just what I needed after traipsing around the British Museum's fantastic Ice Age Exhibition. 

The Diner gets +1 point for service for our friendly and accommodating Anglo-American waitress. 

We met up with my friend's sister after our meal and she expressed envy at our trip. She said: "if you don't feel at least a little bit sick after going to that place you haven't done it right." I think it's fair to say that by that token, we most certainly did it right.


Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Chiquito, Basildon

My friends and I went for a Christmas meal at Chiquitos, a Mexican Restaurant at Basildon’s Festival Leisure Park. There is a good cocktail list-I recommend the sweet, Disaranno based MexiPop. Some of us had pre-ordered our meals and some hadn’t, but the staff were obliging about our mix-and-match approach.

The table was decked out in Christmas crackers, party poppers and balloons. I appreciated the festive spirit put into our table, although my cracker gift was the weirdest thing I have ever seen-a small pair of plastic orange lips. Still, you never know when you will be invited to a goldfish fancy-dress party.

My starter was a tub of barbecue chicken wings; there were a lot of them, so it’s a good thing they tasted great. My main was a chicken and chorizo skewer. This was served on a sizzling hot plate, meaning that sides like sweetcorn continued to cook after it arrived. I liked the fun presentation of the dish. It also came with sweet-potato chips, but given the size of the main plate, the chips were surplus to requirement. For dessert, I had a honeycomb cheesecake served with a small pot of melted chocolate. The chocolate was unnecessary but tasty, and the cake, topped with chocolate-coated honeycomb, was the highlight of my meal.
Other highlights included: fajitas, with the wraps served separately to an array of fillings, so that the diner can create whatever kind of wrap they want; Churros, the Mexican donut strips; and ice-cream Sundaes. There was also a monster Strawberry Daquiri served in a glass which could have contained an entire Dita von Teese Burlesque act.

While I love a three-course meal, given the size of the portions at Chiquitos, I would advise visitors to stick to two-courses. My friend had a burger which included two giant patties, which would challenge even Hunger, the erstwhile Shreddies mascot. The service, while friendly, was also a little slow, and our booking deposit was not deducted from the first copy of our bill, although our cheerful waitress was quick to correct the error. It was also good value at three courses for £19.95 from the Christmas menu.

A Visual Representation of My Main Course
Overall: 7/10

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Theo Randall

For my other half Rachel’s birthday, I took her to Theo Randall at The InterContinental Hotel. This was my second visit, so I had high expectations of quality Italian-inspired food. The last time I came, it was early evening, and the restaurant was rather quiet, so while I enjoyed the experience, the atmosphere was slightly intimidating. At 8.30, there was a far more relaxed ambiance, which was a necessary comedown from our crazed dash across the road from Hyde Park Corner Tube Station-note to other diners: use the Park Lane subway, your instinct is wrong (o.k, note to self). I found the staff welcoming, friendly and attentive, asking several times if we had any questions about the menu or if there was anything else we wanted.

As a starter, I had a charcuterie board, the highlights of which were the parma ham and salami. I was not keen on the pickled vegetables served with it, but Rachel liked them. She had the Carpaccio served with beetroot, parmesan and red cabbage. She found the dish to have perfectly balanced flavours and said that after eating the starter she felt like she’d never eaten beef before.

My main was Anjou pigeon on a bed of lentils with Bruschetta. It was extremely tasty, although I felt there was slight overkill with the amount of lentils. I resisted the caveman urge to pick up and gnaw the leg when I couldn’t get any more meat off-could have done with a sharper knife. Rachel had veal capelletti-all of the pasta dishes are available as a starter or main course, and I can recommend these delicious fresh pasta parcels with rich game and mushrooms.

For dessert we shared a tasting plate, which deserves a drum roll ellipsis … panna cotta with a quince-like jam, ice cream in espresso, Amalfi lemon tart and flourless chocolate cake. Up until this meal, I would never have ordered a lemon tart by itself, but it is Theo Randall’s signature dessert for a reason. The flourless chocolate cake was almost overwhelmingly intense but delicious nonetheless. It was a cake worthy of Gregg Wallace-esque excitement (something along the lines of 'I want to dress like a hippo and wallow in it'). The only part I didn’t go nuts for was the ice cream in the cup of espresso, as I’m just not sold on cold coffee, but the vanilla ice cream and flavour combination worked well. 

Theo Randall has an extensive wine list of varying prices, with bottles starting from about £34. We went for an excellent Valpolicella.

Overall: 8.5/10

Not forgetting, of course, my visual representation of our dessert: