Monday, 27 April 2009

Jamie's Italian, Oxford

I must admit I have never been a fan of Jamie Oliver's cookbooks. He seems like a great guy but I never imagined him as a competent reaterauneur or businessman, thay is until I visited the first of his new (mini)chain in Oxford- Jamie's Italian.

Interior a curious blend of smiths of Smithfield and Zizzi's. Which seems to work well to generate that casual atmosphere. Somewhat obscure grafitti pipes drawn on the walls downstairs, I would probably avoid eating down there, it is dark and everyone walks past on the way to the loo.

We had a bread selection, a nice mix but only really enough for 2 to munch on. I had the mushroom ravioli to start which was flavoured well to be interesting whilst still retaining the delicate taste if the mushrooms. My dining companion had the 'DIY' Bruschetta which looked fun but fairly standard. Great pesto though.

My main was the sirloin with skinny rosemary chips in the side, the meat was nice and cooked decently. The mushrooms served on top provided a nice compliment to the meat. My one disappointment was the chips which a were overcooked and dry. I also got a taste of the pumpkin ravioli which was excellent - good pasta with a pumpkin and ricotta filling and a slightly sweet pumpkin sauce and rosemary apinkled atop. Also on our table was the tuna salad which was superbly presented (I wish I had taken a picture of it) a great mix of colours with the pink of the tuna and the green leaves. I tasted the tuna which was cooked to perfection and very tender.

Service was excellent, very attentive friendly and above what one would expect from somoething in this price bracket. Our waitress was very knowledgable about the dishes and did not rush us despite the queue! The bill came to £25 per head for two courses and a third if a bottle of house red each. Jamie has done well to create a restaurant that is a cut above in terms of quality and service whilst remaining at the upper end of the midmarket. This certainly gives Carliccio's a good run for their money. Bring it on I say. 8/10.

Jamies Italian. 24-26 George street, Oxford OX1 2AE. 01865 83 83 83.

Branches also in Bath, Kingston & Brighton.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Automat goes downhill

I went for brunch to Automat this weekend and I have to say I was hugely disappointed and probably won't be returning, ever again. I rarely use the words ever again as I like to give places the benefit of the doubt but in this case it was fairly unforgivable, and here's why...

I used to be a fan of Automat, it was always a reliable choice with decent food, reasonable prices for that area of London and decent service. This time I noticed that they had increased their prices and massively decreased their service - maybe the credit crunch has hit them? Or maybe not, as we were forced to wander from Cecconi's to The Wolseley (both full 'til 4pm we were told). Clearly, Londoners appetite for a good Brunch has not dininished.

We asked for tap water three times. My eggs benedict were cold when they arrived and then when I cut into them they whites were not cooked all the way through. I have a bit of a problem with raw egg whites so this was particularly unpleasant for me! The muffin of the eggs benedict was not toasted and so was nicely soggy. Our toast was toasted on one side and soft on the other and one of the accompanying jams had already been opened. All round pretty awful, in fact there was really nothing redeeming.

When we complained I was offered another but by that time it was too late. We still didn't have any tap water. So we mentioned this as well and asked politely for the service not to be included. The bill (and two glasses of tap water - on the house) were returned along with a muttered comment from our displeased waitress about how the service was only a pound anyway (you cheap bastards).

All in all, avoid Automat. For better brunch suggestions see my Sunday Brunch post here.

33 Dover Street, Mayfair, W1S 4NF. 020 7499 3033.

Ps. I once saw a chef walking into the kitchen with a Tesco's bag full of mince - all USDA Certified beef? I think not.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Hix Oyster & Chop House

Hix is tucked away down a little side street in Smithfield, one of my favourite areas for restaurants. In my opinion a great location, tucked away so it isn't too noisy or with too many people passing and peering in, but close enough to the action that it isn't a chore to find - a location, now I think about it, reminiscent of Le Caprice. Inside it is very simply and plainly decorated with sturdy furniture and white walls and a couple of pieces of try-hard modern art. On first entering I thought it might prove to be a bit bright, but the lighting was in fact perfect - you could see what you were indulging in without straining your eyes too much.

Hix, like the meat it serves, certainly has provenance. Started by Mark Hix, formerly of Caprice Holdings with head chef Stuart Tattersall, previously from Stanza, Match and Milk & Honey. This 'status' shows, when we arrived it was half full and by 9.30 it was packed to the brim until closing. Still, they managed to squeeze us in without a reservation - always worth a try. I wouldn't recommend getting conned into eating at the bar as they had clearly done to some earlier walk-ins. The menus are presented in shabby plastic folders which wasn't a great first impression, but hey-ho it did the job.

I started with razor clams with the razor clams which were excellent, well presented and very tasty. Just enough to leave you satisfied without filling you up too much - especially given what was about to come... a 1kg 'Dexter' rump steak for two, which we had previewed raw on a chopping board brought to the table so we could 'inspect' the meat. Dexter, apparently, is a special small breed of cow prized for it's delicious meat. Still, when it arrived in its cooked state were were slightly daunted by the size. Brought to the table whole and then carved up right in front of your eyes this was quite a slab of meat. It went down a treat with some chips and (slightly oversalted) broccoli on the side. There was a god variety in how well the pieces of meat was cooked (we ordered medium rare) and it was very satisfying to be able to survey the selection and then stab at your choice. You certainly won't go hungry here.

All of the food is very simply and honestly presented, in a somewhat similar style to Great Queen Street which is nice because they clearly believe that the ingredients can stand up for themselves. The service was very friendly, and attentive without being irritating. My one gripe was that they weren't particularly on the ball with topping up wine and water. Reasonable value at £60 per head for two courses, a bottle of decent (£30) red and coffees. An all round a decent meal. Not one that I will be screaming about from the rooftops but one I would most definitely recommend for meat lovers. 7/10 (restrained by the high prices)

Hix Oyster & Chop House, 36-37 Greenhill Rents, Farringdon, EC1M 6BN. 020 7017 1930

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Two-for-one Offers

I have to say there is one aspect of the Credit Crunch that I am very much enjoying: the proliferation of restaurant vouchers circulating on the internet. Pizza Express, Zizzi's, Cafe Rouge, GBK, Yo! Sushi, you name it, there's probably a voucher. Plus, they seem to be working out well as these places are always packed and the vouchers keep on flowing...

Pizza Express - Voucher here

An old favourite that I went off for a while when the pizzas shrank (they also made the plates smaller hoping people wouldn't notice). I like their Romana pizzas - big and thin. Not so keen on their Chicken Caesar Salad, weird dressing. Still, you can't go too far wrong here.

Zizzi's - Voucher here

Pizza Express' older and more mature brother, quieter, more civilised with fewer kids. I'm a big fan of their pizzas and their toppings seem to be much better quality than in Pizza Express - when you ask for ham you get pancetta.

GBK - Voucher here

When these first opened I remember being very impressed with the burgers - flavoursome and tender meat. That seems to have fallen away a bit recently and the meat tends to be fairly average these days (cost cutting?). Still, excellent value with the voucher and they are still proper, meaty burgers.

Cafe Rouge - Voucher here

I have to admit, I've never been a huge fan of Cafe Rouge - perhaps it is those French waiters? The advantage here is that you can get buy one get one free on a nice steak and there are more upmarket options on the menu than the other places listed in this post. This will also take you away from the standard pizza-pasta fare which does get a little tiresome.

Strada - Voucher here

Strada - Another one I have mixed views on. I like that you can get pizza, pasta, salads or meaty things and I have had a couple of fairly decent meals there. The spinach and avocado salad is also highly recommended. Generally, I feel quite let down buy the blandness of most of the food and the haphazard service. Still if it's half price, why not!?

Still hungry?

This trend even seems to be spreading upmarket too, but in the form of really good value set menus. £39.50 for three courses at Pied a Terre and £18.50 (!) for three courses at Daphne's... Might give one of those a try next week - look out for the review!

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

French Waiters

What is it about French waiters and waitresses in good restaurants? No matter where you go these days all the staff in the top London restaurants seem to have french accents. Surely, we need to be breaking away from this as it subtly implies that the French are better at these things. Now the French are charming, and I have a lot of time for them and their food, but why the bias?

For example, Pied à Terre. Great restaurant, great food. But why are all the staff (Kiwi sommelier aside) French? I struggled to understand one woman offering me bread. Now before you bite my head off, I know this is a 'French' restaurant but then again it is in London and run by two Brits so I'm sure the French would classify it is 'international'.

I'm starting to wonder whether they just put them on as I swear they do in Paul. Next time you go to Paul listen out for the accents - they are all French. Now either they are breaking all sorts of anti-discrimination laws or they are putting it on. I opt for the second as I once caught a Paul employee speaking with an East-end accent. Rumbled!

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Sunday Brunch

I am a big fan of the tradition that is Sunday Brunch. There is nothing better than to wake up late, and then go for a good, lingering meal that pushes the boundaries between breakfast and lunch. The Americans do brunch significantly better than we Brits do. In New York the majority of restaurants are open for brunch on the weekend and this is the way it should be in London. My best brunch memories have to be from Silvermine Tavern in Norwalk, CT. I just looked at the website and was shocked to have discovered that they have closed down! They had the most amazing, over-sized cinnamon rolls, truly a loss to humanity.

Anyway, back to the real world, I thought I would share a few of my favourite brunch spots in London...

18 Wellington Street, Covent Garden.
Tel. 020 7240 4222

I like this place a lot, you enter and go up a grand old staircase. It is elegant in a simple sort of way and the service is always friendly and attentive. As an added bonus, you also get some great views out over the river. They always ask if you have a reservation and then give disapproving looks when you say you haven't, but I've never been turned away. Booking recommended(?)

As mentioned earlier the Yanks know how to brunch and this American joint serves up a great weekend feast. You can get all sorts from real American pancakes with bacon (This sounds odd unless you've tried it) to grilled swordfish. The menu is somewhat confusing given that it is 2 or 3 courses (£17.50 & £21 respectively) but no real differentiation is made between types of courses so you can go for a standard starter & main combo, or go wild (as I do) and get two breakfast things (pancakes AND eggs benedict). In summary, this place is even better if you are hungry!

5 Burlington Gardens, Mayfair.
020 7434 1500

Cecconi's is tucked away in between Regent Street and Bond Street (next door to the Abercrombie store) and has become one of my favourite brunch spots of late. If you arrive before noon then you get the breakfast menu and if you arrive after then you get the brunch menu. The brunch menu has most of the breakfast items on it plus some more 'lunchy' things on it like a great crab ravioli. Good orange juice too.

It is also a great place for people watching, you have the Abercrombie store opposite which provides amusement in terms of the sheer number of people in the queue before it opens. In addition you have the clientele of Cecconi's itself which is a curious mix of European high society and people who just wandered in off Regent Street.

Smiths of Smithfield
67-77 Charterhouse Street, Farringdon.
Tel. 0871 332 7688

If you are looking for a good, sturdy fashioned British breakfast or brunch then this is the place to go. A very relaxed feeling, this former meatpacking warehouse has a number of restaurants in it but I always go for the ground floor as if you are lucky you can bag a leather sofa and read the papers for hours either side of your brunch.

As for the food, Smiths is great if you like meat as they get all the best cuts from Smithfield market. You can get everything from porridge to a fry-up and it is all very reasonably prices (most things are in the £5-7 region) and the coffee isn't too shoddy either.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

32 Great Queen Street

My first post is about the Great Queen Street restaurant. I have been meaning to go here for a while as I have read some decent reviews, including AA Gill's review in The Times. The concept is simple, good food and a relaxed atmosphere (a gastropub without the pub?).

Firstly, location and first impressions. This is an interesting spot for a restaurant. Not quite in the tourist trap that is Covent Garden but equally not in the serious environs of Holborn. Great Queen Street as a road is a curious mix of Freemason related paraphernalia dotted with the odd pub. All said and done it is a fairly quiet road in between two well-trod areas. The restaurant itself it fairly inconspicuous with a black frontage and no name, just a golden crown painted above the door. A nice, subtle touch I though and fitting for the location - you feel as if you are going somewhere that you have to know about.

Of course, our table wasn't ready so we were sent down to the bar where we were served by a friendly barman who recommended the special ale and some lupins (supposedly the future of bar snacks) on the side. You may be wondering what lupins are - some variety of bean that tastes like halloumi cheese. Interesting, but not worth the effort of squeezing them out of their skins. Our table was ready earlier than expected we were ushered back upstairs before having a chance to adequately sup our ales.

Once seated we were presented with the menus and left alone to decide. The decor of this place is dark and one can imagine coming in for a hearty meal on a winters evening and leaving satisfied, it remains to be seen how well the concept works in the summer. The restaurant was full, but not uncomfortably so and this only added to the 'buzzy' atmosphere. Our waiter was a little officious to begin with but I will give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was misunderstood. He did however, have a good knowledge of the dishes and made suitable recommendations. I read an interview with the head chef stating how the menu was deliberately vague to encourage a dialogue between the customer and the waiter - something I have to say I like as a concept.

As for the food, our starters were a little disappointing. I had the smoked salmon which was fairly average (although how exciting can smoked salmon be!?) the pork and game terrine was good and a very hearty portion. The main courses were excellent and amply made up for the earlier disappointment. I shared the rib of beef which was cooked to perfection and had a wonderful freshness to the flavour. The pork was also a hit and the crackling was much praised. The beef was accompanied by a bearnaise sauce which had a good flavour but had been sitting at the pass for a little too long and had split and some 'chips' which were more like skinless wedges and were undercooked and bland. I always think thinner chips work better with steak. We had greens on the side which was cabbage and horseradish which worked very well with the beef. Overall, very satisfying especially accompanied by a bottle of good red. Our puddings were decent but presentation was lacking. I suppose that is to be expected of a restaurant that focuses on simplicity and the strength of it's ingredients to carry the food. A certain confidence is required to pull this off and I think the Great Queen Street achieves this very well. The fact that a couple of the elements of my main were lacking yet I still enjoyed it on the strength of the beef speaks for this mantra.

My one beef (no pun) with the whole place was the toilets. You go through a series of doors from the dark comfort of the restaurant into a harshly lit and porta-cabin-esque room which is apparently the loos. They have a very temporary feeling about them, the complete opposite from the rest of the restaurant which you feel is a piece of local life. How such a mismatch occurred is beyond me - lets hope they are temporary!

The whole affair took over two-and-a-half hours but seemed to fly by which I suppose is a good thing. Appropriately, there was ample time between courses but not enough for us to take too much notice - the way it should be in my opinion. Overall, good honest fair and a casual atmosphere gives this one 8/10.

Great Queen Street, 32 Great Queen St, Covent Garden. 020 7242 0622