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