Category Archives: London

Lima – a little bit of Peruvian service in London

It wouldn’t be the obvious choice for an evening out. But Lima is a little gem of a place, tucked away in Rathbone Place just at the lower end of its more famous sister, Charlotte Street. It didn’t seem to have been open that long when we went there and the restaurant and staff had that fresh feel that many places lose once the operation becomes better known and more established.

Lima - Rathbone Place
Lima – Rathbone Place

The food is unusual in composition, probably because not many of us are accustomed to Peruvian cuisine, but very original and beautifully presented. Not a guinea pig in sight. Try the pisco sours as a cocktail to go with your starter, the Clasico is excellent and very original. The Sea Bream Ceviche was fresh and vibrant with the spicy flavours bursting through. So often ceviche disappoints because the fish is not fresh and the flavours don’t work in counterpoint to the fish. This was just right.

The Beef Pachamanca ended up being Lamb but that didn’t really matter. A very small but perfectly cooked piece of meat. It is at this point that you realize that in fact there’s nothing especially unusual about Peruvian cooking, it’s all in the presentation and the slightly unusual combinations.

There’s a front and rear section to the restaurant, separated by an open kitchen where you can observe everything that’s going on. This is a common approach in modern restaurants and I have to say that I like it. The front restaurant is a nice place to sit by the window and watch the world go by. The wine list has sensible prices for London and a reasonable choice. You can also order many of the wines in 500ml quantity or by the glass.

So, what’s the problem with the Peruvian service? Well, I’ll tell you what the problem is. Having booked a table for six thirty, just as we were settling down to finish our wine at five to nine, the waitress casually strolled over to our table and with no prior warning told us that she wanted the table back for a booking at nine. And that was after spending two hundred pounds for the two of us. On principle I never accept a restaurant reservation where there is a time limit as I think it’s disgraceful behaviour on the part of the owners. You pay, so you should be able to stay as long as you want. We paid and we left. So, sorry Lima, but we won’t be coming back again.

www.limalondon.com

La Buvette – a noisy gem in Richmond

This was the second helping for me at this intimate French restaurant tucked away beside the church in the centre of Richmond. A group of us ended up here in the summer after an intense session at the Richmond Gate Hotel where we’d been learning how to recognise stress in different personality types. Yes, even tortoises get stressed. It was quite by chance as this normally quiet suburb of London wouldn’t be the venue of choice for a working event. At the time Olympic Madness had descended on London and you couldn’t get a hotel location for love nor money in central London. Needing somewhere to unwind in the evening, a quick look at the Hardens Guide threw up this place. If you haven’t found Hardens yet then you need to (www.hardens.com). It is a great site to find a well-reviewed place to eat just about anywhere. The Tortuga lives by it.

The evening we all went out together we sat outside in the courtyard under the awning. It was the height of summer and beautifully cool and a great atmosphere on what was otherwise an uncomfortably humid day. We all liked the place very much and wondered what it would be like to eat inside. So when the Tortuga announced that we were going to the theatre in Richmond on Saturday and going to La Buvette for pre-theatre dinner I thought that at least the dinner would be good. As it turns out I was right … at least the dinner was good. I have a low boredom threshold for organised entertainment. The Richmond Theatre is a wonderful old place where we have seen some great plays. Regrettably this evening just wasn’t one of them.

La Buvette is traditionally French. In fact the website describes itself as ‘the perfect French Bistro’. The staff are excellent and the man in charge clearly knows his regulars. Which is a good sign. Unfortunately Richmond does rather tend to attract the self-satisfied crowd who just have to let everyone else know how clever and successful they are. Unfortunately there was one such foursome, two couples in later middle age, sitting next to us. They were noisy and I felt rather thoughtless in a loud self-congratulatory way. Also the tables are rather close to each other. So a thoughtless party of diners in close proximity can rather ruin things. As in this case.

To compensate, the food was excellent. Unfussy and well prepared. Crab beignet with soy and ginger to start, followed by scallops and onglet. All accompanied by a 2008 Pessac-Léognan from a balanced wine list that did not contain any silly prices. Round about £100 for the two of us I thought was good value for the standard of the food. The only notable item was the onglet which featured the note ‘served rare’ on the menu. Being a French place I was expecting it very rare, but of course it wasn’t, but then this is Richmond!

www.labuvette.co.uk

Maze – rams it to its customers in Mayfair

Perhaps my expectations were just set too high, but this was a real disappointment. Gordon Ramsay is the only person I know of who swears more than I do. Well, he needs to get back into his kitchen at Maze and start swearing at his restaurant managers.

First of all, it’s a fact that the front of house staff are fantastic. They were friendly, attentive, presentable and couldn’t do enough. It’s the food that lets it all down. We went for the Chef’s Menu with the drink pairings. I have to say that at £70 per head and £125 with the wine it’s nothing short of a rip-off. I know it’s an expensive Grosvenor Square location, I know it’s rip-off London, but that’s no excuse for mediocre flavours and to be honest, wines that didn’t do the food any favours at all, but were rather more an interesting wander around some unusual choices.

For me, especially at these sorts of prices, the wines have to be absolutely perfectly matched, so that they change on the palate when coupled with the food. This just doesn’t happen here. My guests were from the Lebanon and one of them knows a thing or two about wines. He was politely interested in the selection, but you could see he wasn’t impressed. Rice wine and pear cider? These are interesting on their own, but are never going to enhance any dish other than mussels.

The portions were very mean, even by degustation standards. Watercress soup, yellow fin tuna, terrine. You can check out the menu for yourself. The lobster dumplings were very good, the lamb also, but it was unfortunately fatty and there was a lot of it. Fat, that is. We waited in pregnant embarrassment for maybe five minutes for one of the plates of dumplings to arrive. How hard can it be to manage to serve seven diners at the same time on the same menu? Then for pudding there was the inevitable assault of black forest gateau. With the odd assortment of wines, sake and cider, I have to say that my insides were feeling bombarded and well fermented by the time it all ended. It required a long walk home to settle matters.

The website talks of David Rockwell’s stunning restaurant design. Well, all I can say is that it is very noisy, lacking in any ambience and the people who sat behind us were treated to a nice view of the backs of our heads on one side of our table. I’d have been very pissed off if I had been sitting there.

This was my one and only venture into a Gordon Ramsay restaurant. I thought it was formulaic and lacking in any real differentiation from say, a Chez Gerard. Personally, I would give this place a miss and stay at home.

www.gordonramsay.com/maze/

Fernandez and Wells – Somerset House

If you haven’t visited Somerset House then you should do so one day. There’s always something to see alongside the permanent exhibitions such as the Courtauld Gallery’s famous Impressionist collection. But most importantly there’s a great bar/cafe called Fernandez and Wells in the north east corner. After work drinks or as we did today, a visit after an exhibition in the West End. It’s a great place for a glass of wine and a plate of Iberico ham and cheese. Large bright and airy rooms with modern design and views over the fountains in the courtyard. The place has a great atmosphere and the staff are very friendly. Highly recommended for a visit. They are open all day until ten and I understand do breakfast too. It’s the sort of place you might want to linger for a while. I think I’ve seen a couple of branches in Soho.

www.fernandezandwells.com

Kitchen W8 – family Sunday lunch and intimate dinner

Tucked away on Abingdon Road off High Street Kensington is this wonderful restaurant. We first found it when looking for a place to have a family Sunday lunch to celebrate the Old Tortoise notching up another year of life. A quite hard act to cater for: a septuagenarian mother who despite a stroke a couple of years ago still doesn’t suffer bad restaurants, children ranging from twenty to six and the Tortuga who can live with any amount of chaos around her as long as the food is excellent and the wine doesn’t disappoint.

It was interesting to note the number of other large family groups, notably Italian, present. Because of this the staff do like you to turn up on time. Unfortunately, good luck if you are driving. Kensington and Chelsea seems to only cater for resident parking around here and by the time you’ve dropped-off and circled the block several times, coupled with the naturally late-running nature of certain members of the family, you inevitably arrive sometime later than planned. But they dealt with it all with good grace and impeccable politeness.

It was roast beef and Yorkshire pudding all round – what else for Sunday lunch – and not a disappointed face to be seen. The Tortuga found a Saint-Joseph on the wine list which she was delighted with. All was well.

So we decided to do it all again for our wedding anniversary one evening a couple of months ago. Evenings are much more intimate, but the quality and style is no less evident. They were offering a Taste of Spring menu of five courses starting with duck egg and asparagus with truffle soldiers. I love English asparagus and would eat it all year round if it were available, which it isn’t, which of course is why it’s so good. A couple of glasses of the house champagne – Taittinger if I recall – with lobster tail and pea mousse. It was the perfect start to a warm spring evening and the English lamb to follow was superb. It does have a Michelin Guide star after all.

Horror of horrors, that Saint-Joseph was no longer on the wine list but the wine waiter was extremely clever with some bottle of Burgundy he suggested instead. After raspberries and sorbet followed by strawberry and elderflower soup with buckwheat and crème fraiche we staggered up the road for a taxi and home, determined that although High Street Ken is a bit out of our way, we will definitely frequent this place more often.

www.kitchenw8.com

Medlar – a delightful evening, although toned down by some Australians

Now please don’t misunderstand me, I am not anti-Antipodean. In fact I was once in love with a very nice Kiwi and still number both Kiwis and Aussies amongst the most long-standing of my friends. But unfortunately there are some who have traded the brash restaurants of Sydney – as I suspect in this case – for the more fashionable watering holes of SW3 and do not know how to behave.

Medlar is located just about where the King’s Road twists dramatically between World’s End and the turn off to Battersea and the South. It’s an enigmatic section of this famous road, one-time route of Tudor kings between Whitehall and Hampton Court, where residential houses sit beside exclusive boutique shops and cafes, opposite a grim post-War housing estate. It doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, on the border of the no man’s land where the King’s Road shopping experience has ended but the pretentious antique shops marking the eastern borders of Fulham have not yet begun and where it is not unknown for the dimmer clients of the estate agent business to use terms like ‘Chelsea borders’. It is also sadly the domain of that variety of Londoner whose vocal characteristic can only be described as ‘braying’. In relation to the noise a donkey makes, that is.

This is a restaurant where you can hold a normal conversation without raising your voice. There is plenty of personal space around your seat and so don’t feel inhibited conversation-wise. This I feel is very important; a visit to a restaurant should be as comfortable as meeting friends in your own home, but clearly a different gastronomic experience. I think there is a perfect match somewhere that combines the relaxation of home with the kind of food that you cannot get at home, but with your own wine. Apart from the obvious expense if you wander around a restaurant wine list, you might feel in the mood for something unusual like a shot of home-distilled damson vodka with the cheese. And I cannot understand why English restaurants insist on making pudding and cheese mutually exclusive on the menu. In France the cheese comes after the main course and before pudding. This seems eminently sensible to me and has a natural order about it. But not, it seems, in England. At Medlar they also have white tablecloths, pepper and salt cellars that work properly and no unnecessary table clutter, all of which meet my personal environmental essentials criteria without a hitch.

On the night in question we stuck with a bottle of the house champagne, which at £10 a glass and with three of us drinking meant that it made as much sense to buy the bottle, and a Bordeaux which I thought was a good find on a wine list that was too extensive at the high end. It definitely had something on it for every taste, though. In our case we were on a fixed-price-per-three-course daily menu for the food, which we all felt was good value for London. Unfortunately writing three months after the event I have lost my notes on exactly what it was that we drank and had to eat, but there was nothing to fault in either presentation or content.

Back to the Australians for a moment. They were in a group at a neighbouring table. Three men and three brassy looking women who clearly didn’t have an off switch or a volume control knob between them. I suppose it’s a sign of the times when people feel they can behave in any manner they want just because they are paying. Luckily they were an early sitting so left quite quickly. Our host for the evening – an Irish friend, so without any of the diffidence of the English – made it clear what she thought, after which they did shut up a bit. One problem with wood floors is that it makes the place resound to loud conversation. This is the case here.

The starters were fresh seasonal items and I remember the early English asparagus was especially good. For the main course the beef was something to remember as well. This is definitely not a place that will disappoint on the epicurean front. A little under three hundred for the three of us was the final result if I recall. The alcohol ran to some sticky wine and we had coffees, which weren’t part of the fixed price deal. The great thing was that we could all stagger home afterwards and unanimously decided that we would be going again.

www.medlarrestaurant.co.uk

Spanish night out in London – Ibérica

Last Friday the Tortuga decided that we needed some time on our own, due to the rigours of Christmas preparations and the usual year-end challenges on the work front. So we refused an invitation to a friend’s party and took ourselves off to Ibérica in Marylebone by way of the Soviet Art and Architecture exhibition at the Royal Academy. By the way, the exhibition is excellent, especially if you have spent any time in Russia. Don’t be put off by the 1920s Constructivist art form which is the backdrop to it, because the photographs are an extraordinary insight into Soviet building design and communal society living. The bad state of the buildings as a result of poor construction techniques and years of neglect are an appropriate allegory for all the bad that has occurred over many decades in Russia.

Borrowed from the website

If you like sherry then this is the place to be and they have an excellent selection all by the glass. They also offer a strangely large selection of mineral waters, if that’s what you want. I counted six of them in all. We started with a couple of glasses of Fino sherry and the selection of cured meats. Ibérica specialises in Iberico ham from black pigs that roam wild and eat acorns. Sounds very close to nature, but all I can say is the meat is to die for. With the dry sherry it’s a great way to start a meal and drive out the cold and wet from the long walk up Great Portland Street. After this languorous start, we stuck with the tapas and a beautifully rounded rosé Rioja, Beronia Rosado, which at just over £20 for the bottle was extremely good value. Whether from the land or the sea, as they describe it on the menu, the tapas was beautifully cooked and presented. Squid, scallops, chorizo and so on, you just couldn’t fault it. For me the dishes were the ideal size as I prefer to graze slowly through a meal with lots of variety, although I suspect for heartier appetites they might seem a bit on the small side. The highlight has to be the Morcilla de Burgos, otherwise known as black pudding.

We ended up with the Spanish cheese selection from the beginning of the menu and rice pudding to finish. The cheeses were an interesting journey although I do personally favour stronger flavours, Spanish cheeses seem a bit mild and buttery to me. Of the selection presented the Valdeon was my favourite, of course the familiar Manchego was there too. As I wasn’t paying attention at this point I missed the wine that was suggested for the rice pudding, which would probably have been a good choice, so ended up back to the sherry with a fine Oloroso instead.

All in all a very enjoyable evening out. And the best part of all? The bill only came to a bit over £130 for the two of us. I think that’s excellent value all round and I will be making the long walk again before too long (www.ibericalondon.co.uk).

Viajanta – a foodie evening out in East London

The Tortuga and I went to try out Viajanta in Bethnal Green a couple of weeks ago (Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF – 020 7871 04610 – www.viajanta.co.uk). It’s quite easy to miss, at least we both arrived separately and missed it. But as long as you are on the same side of the road as the Museum of Childhood, walking away from Bethnal Green tube, then you’ll find it. It’s in the old town hall, which has been renovated to accommodate a hotel as well. There is a bar on the right where you can have a drink beforehand. I would advise against this, the alcohol bit at any rate, because if you are going for the wine pairing with the food courses you’ll struggle. People who know me know that I have quite a capacity for alcohol and I struggled after a pre-meal glass of champagne as well. It was the Tortuga’s birthday after all.

I should say that I’m not a fanatical foodie and don’t go in much for pretentious locations. But I do enjoy a good meal in the right company and I hate wasting money on rubbish. So I don’t have much to say about the ambience of the place, but I liked very much the way you can see the kitchen. The chairs are comfortable if a bit reclined for my liking, the place is scrupulously clean and you can have a decent conversation without straining to be heard. The Tortuga doesn’t have a volume control and only does quiet, claiming that I’m going deaf, so this is an important factor in ensuring an agreeable evening when we’re out.

The first thing you notice is the staff. From the person on the desk to the waiters and the chefs, they are just the right mix of unobtrusiveness and availability. There is nothing worse than being left to your own devices when you want something in a restaurant and that will never happen here. The approach is friendly, but not overdone, and they don’t intimidate. You don’t need to be a foodie to come here, because everything is explained and they take time to talk, if that’s what you want to do. A quiet confidence and enthusiasm exudes. This is important because you won’t recognize half of what you’re eating and having the short introduction to each course is essential. Sharing your experience with the staff is actually quite interesting too.

The menu is fixed, although I gather it changes every few months. My vote is to go for the wine pairing. There are six courses in all, minus the bits and pieces at the beginning, so it seems a bit silly to buy a bottle or two of something that almost definitely will not be fit for purpose. You are in this place for the food, and the wine needs to be a part of the experience. Each wine is a standard small glass, but it’s enough. The courses look small to start with, but as they arrive over a period of time, you get to experience everything slowly and I certainly couldn’t have managed anything more. Our waiter told us that he once tried the twelve course blow-out and that with the wine pairing was a serious challenge.

We started with mackerel with lettuce and black berries, paired with a Riesling (Orea “Saaris” Riesling Spätlese Feinherb 2009, Mosel). I had forgotten how much I like Spätlese and went straight out and bought a case of slightly ageing 2006. The way to do this is to take a modest glug of the wine, eat a forkful of food, taking in a bit of everything and then try the wine again. The contrast is fascinating and the same thing happens with each course. There’s obviously some clever thinking gone on behind all this. Here the gentle but slightly fruity Spätlese is transformed into a languorous, silky robe of melon and apple and marzipan that takes time over itself, somewhere in the back of your nose. It was quite extraordinary. Next came my personal favourite of the evening, butternut squash, milk skin and lardo with an I Clivi Brazan 2008 from Collio in Lombardy. A wine I had never heard of, of course, but which transformed with the food from a very pleasant if slightly minerally white to something gentle, ever so slightly musty and a little nutty, grassy and something else which I couldn’t quite place, brushed on the back of the throat. I wish now I had made some notes at the time.

Anyway, I think the point is made, as we continued through bread porridge with sweet corn, langoustine and girolles paired with a Bodegas Acustic, Acustic Blanc 2010, Montsant. Then cod loin with a stew of tripe, parsley and potatoes and a Duval Leroy 1999, Champagne. The cod was perfect. Until we arrived at my personal low point, and to be honest I was getting a bit full by now, Maldonado pork with cereals and garlic with a Chateau Musar 2001 from the Bekaa Valley. The wine was fine and unusual with that flinty Mediterranean edge to it, which I must admit I quite like, having once before been presented with a couple of bottles from a work colleague in the Lebanon. But I’m not a fan of cereals with meat and slow cooked and rare pork is where I get off the bus. The garlic was a little overpowering for me too, but a definite counterpoint to the previous course. Mine also had a slightly stringy and tough bit in it somewhere. But look, here I am indulging in the gastronomic equivalent of being a prat.

I am afraid I struggled with the beetroot and dark chocolate at the end as I’m not a great pudding fan. The Les Vignerons de Maury, Maury 1928 Solera Vin Doux Naturel, was just too much caramel and too heavy at this point. I much prefer something light and perhaps sparkling at the end of a meal. But we were there for the experience so this is just personal taste.

So after all that, what would I recommend? Without question this is one of the most interesting and not to be missed eating experiences I have had. The whole evening held together perfectly and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. So if you are looking for something rather special then this is it. Pricey? But of course and don’t expect to get much change out of three hundred for the two of you if you’re going for the wine pairing. But hell, you don’t have a birthday meal with your life’s soul mate every day of the year, do you? I recommend asking them to call for a taxi home though. Cambridge Heath Road is the pits.

Contact Anna (anna@viajante.co.uk) for a reservation and expect to book quite a long time in advance.

Antique glass

Antique Glass
David Glick - Antique Glass

Quite unrelated to travel, but just a word about a great place I discovered recently. I went looking for a present for two priests who got married. It was quite a difficult present to choose and I had in my mind something along the lines of an old decanter. Something that would be useful in the dining room of their Victorian vicarage today and perhaps in years to come could be used to dispense a restorative sherry for alarmed members of the congregation. Anyway, it took me a couple of months on and off in various likely areas in London. Finally I found this place run by a fascinating man called David Glick (Antique Glass – 300 Westbourne Grove, London W11 – 07850 615867). In an old dairy just off Portobello Road, David has the most amazing collection of old glass. Decanters, jugs, rummers and other glasses – you name it and he’s got it. There’s no website, you just have to turn up on a Saturday morning between eight and twelve, as he doesn’t have a license to trade during the week and mainly supplies the trade. Give him an idea of what you want and he’ll work out the rest.  He’s also a mine of information about other antique dealers and where to get unusual and interesting items.

It’s just such a pity that so many wonderful shops are disappearing from London. Many are going on to the Internet or moving a long way out of town. The Cotsworlds seems a favoured destination. A lot are driven out by the increasing rates burden. Another place for interesting old glass, Jeanette Hayhurst of Kensington Church Street, has moved out of town after 25 years for this reason. All the old Kings Road antiques dealers have gone. We must all take some of the blame for this because many of us have just stopped taking the time to give them our business. It’s also the changing demographic of Londoners, where the city centre is becoming more the preserve of younger, transient residents. Nor should we underestimate the impact of draconian local authority parking regulations which have just about destroyed the passing trade for many small retailers.

This has made me think of another category for this blog. I’ve started a new section on interesting places where you also get great service. David’s business is the first entry.