Category Archives: Restaurants

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.

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 ( 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!

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.

Café Pushkin – somewhere to be underwhelmed

Everyone raves about Café Pushkin in Moscow. I had the opportunity to have breakfast there a couple of times this week. It sits in a rather unprepossessing location on Tverskoy Boulevard in a turn of the century house. That’s the 19th/20th century by the way, not the last turn of the century. The buildings are not really so old, but somehow exude this feeling of being unloved and badly maintained. There is that peculiarly specific Moscow render on the outside, slightly rough and unkempt, covered up with many layers of paint. An old woman wearing too much make-up to paper over the cracks.

Inside, the first thing that you notice is that it’s really quite dark and dingy. And people smoke in most parts of the restaurant. Which means that if in a delicate state on the morning after the night before, as in my case, you really need to make a beeline for the non-smoking paneled saloon at the front looking out onto the street. Apart from anything else it is light out there. There is a long carved wooden bar off which the various dining rooms branch with dark wooden paneling, helping to underscore the oppressiveness. But the really interesting thing is that with the exception of the aforementioned non-smoking room, it is really dark. So dark and dingy that you feel somehow it is more a place for illicit assignations, a twilight world illuminated by 40 watt light bulbs, which I guess are the 21st century’s answer to the guttering candle flame. Somewhere to meet your mistress for an anonymous breakfast after a clandestine assignation in a nearby hotel the night before.

I really cannot see the point. It’s a low budget Eastern European restaurant with the feel of Moscow in the late 1980s and early ‘90s about it. The food isn’t much better either, greasy and bland for breakfast. The ham and eggs are reminiscent of the old, really old, Warsaw airport café. It was the last stop while waiting for your flight just before exiting through the aluminium framed doorway and across the tarmac to your ‘plane. The airport that you shouldn’t even try to think you remember unless you were there before 1992.

Maybe Café Pushkin has a certain faded charm about it, with its elaborately panelled walls and wooden floors, but it’s all a bit contrived. For those of us that had to live the reality of ghastly food and awful surroundings, then this is a bit of a throw-back and really the restaurants in the Grand Marriott or the Intercon across the street are a much better bet for breakfast. Also it’s got absolutely nothing to do with Puskin, other than it’s near his statue on Pushkin Square.

I would say don’t bother, it’s really not worth it unless you are after some kind of old Moscow Disney-like experience … or you want to people-watch. Now that’s something that this part of Moscow lives up to.

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.

Relais de St Aubin – idiosyncratic restaurant in Brittany

Stunning gardens

Finding a really first class place to eat in Brittany, I mean the type of place with a mention in the Michelin guide, was proving a bit challenging around where we were staying. No shortage of places to eat moules and St Jacques, but we were after something a bit different. The Tortuga found this place, well off the beaten track near to Erquy. I think she must have a secret guide somewhere because she never fails to come up with good places to eat when we are away together. Le Relais de St Aubin is set in beautiful gardens in an old seventeenth century priory. The first thing you notice is the riot of colours walking from the car park through the stone entrance archway. Hanging baskets, pots and borders are all overflowing with colourful plants and flowers and into the restaurant it gets no less interesting. In fact idiosyncratic is probably how it is best summed up. The entrance hall reminds you of one of those out of the way country museums with lots of ‘things’ dotted around and display cases containing interesting items – a set of bagpipes for instance. Apparently they have them in Brittany too.

The restaurant itself is like walking into an Edwardian parlour, cluttered is the best description, with the walls covered in antique-looking bric-a-brac and paintings. Blue table cloths and busy place settings that give the impression of too much chaos and not enough space to eat. In fact the whole dining room is a bit as your grandmother’s house might have been. Over on one side there is a massive fireplace. This is a bit off-putting on a warm day, but is an essential part of the place. Much of the food is prepared à la cheminée, which means cooked in the kitchen but finished off on the fire. It really does make a difference.

But that is where the homey-ness ends. The food is excellent, as you would expect from the wall full of eating guide recommendations on the way in. We had a fairly extensive trawl around the menu, starters, meat, fish and the children’s menu. It was all excellent quality and well presented. You also get to see your food finished on the fire. All very entertaining. The service was not exactly effusive, but then it often isn’t when you are eating as a guest in someone’s restaurant! They certainly know their market as the place was full of locals and not a tourist in sight. Another great benefit.

Anyone for coffee?

The restaurant has its own tame peacock who will join you for coffee on the terrace afterwards if you are lucky.


Moules – with everything in Brittany

You could live your whole life just eating moules frites they taste so good out here. Of course as ever it’s the simplest cafe by the beach where you get the best tasting seafood. Uncomplicated, (relatively) cheap, fresh and served without any bullshit. This place Le Petit Saint Michel was where we kept coming back to. Also of course has all the other local specialities, crepes, galettes and so on. The beach is good nearby too, smooth white sand and shallow water until you have walked out a bit, which is good for children. The best time to come is at the end of the day when the sun has lost its fierceness and the French are starting to go home. Then you have the place almost to yourself. There is a ruined chapel which you can walk out to at low tide. It’s a sort of miniature Mont Saint Michel, hence the name.

The cider in Brittany comes in small china cups. You do need to drink several if your appetite is for something more than just a drink!

Of course, not forgetting the oysters!

Berlin and peace and quiet in the old Russian sector

We found ourselves with a couple of days to spare and undecided where to spend it. Berlin, we thought. I’ve been there many times for work both before and since 1989, but never for fun, so it seemed like a good idea to in take a couple of days just wandering around. When you travel for work you often just taxi-in from the airport to hotel and back again. But some years ago during the early part of the 1990s while working in western Poland we based ourselves at the Intercon by the zoo and would drive across the old Russian sector and what was East Germany to the Polish border. The wall had been down for a couple of years and the transition from West to East was still as marked it had been in the old pre-unification days of Checkpoint Charlie and all that.

Getting to the border then was something else. There is one massive road that crosses Europe, starting in Moscow it trails westwards to Minsk then Warsaw, Posnan and on to Berlin and beyond. This is it, picking up various European ‘E’ road designations and local variants along the way. Heavy lorries taking goods between east and west, interspersed with Ladas, Trabants and Wartburgs with roof racks piled high with personal belongings and garden produce for sale. Water melons, tomatoes and pumpkins, sometimes loaded to twice the height of the car itself and in danger of toppling the whole lot over over. Military trucks in convoy with their canopies lashed tightly closed. And in the more dangerous two lane sections there would be the inevitable horse and cart moving between village and farm, slowing the traffic to a trotting speed and acting as a reminder of just how far the economic gulf was between the agricultural villages and the cities. Between all this the flash new Fords and Audis would be weaving in and out driven by ‘business men’ at breakneck speeds and bursts of engine-wrenching acceleration and sudden forced deceleration. Polish roads were particularly dangerous and we worked out that a slightly longer, but safer, drive from Berlin to Zielona Gora was better for our life expectancy than playing chicken with the lunatics who drove west out of Warsaw.

The East German autobahn was mostly two lanes in each direction, but you had to travel in the fast lane because the tracks made by the heavy lorries in the slow lane were in some place inches deep and just plain dangerous to try and drive on. The fast lane was like a badly maintained road back home, but at least it wouldn’t send you off the road towards the verge or the other lane every few yards. The border crossing was at a place named Frankfurt, of the ‘an der Oder’ variety, not ‘am Main’. For several kilometers each side of the actual crossing the road would be choked by heavy lorries waiting to pass through customs. This could take up to seven days and clearly was not a delay that a busy consultant on a mission could tolerate. The trick was to find a gap in the central reservation and to cross to the fast lane of the opposite carriageway with headlights and indicators going until the actual border crossing was reached and it was possible to switch back to the empty road approaching the border guards and their seemingly casual but in fact intense scrutiny of passport and car boot. I was first shown this trick by a Dutchman in a big old Mercedes who stopped behind me at the end of a line of trucks several kilometres long blocking the road. He ushered me through the gap ahead of him shouting as he ran back to his car “remember … the flashers … you must put them ALL on!”.

A colleague got it badly wrong one day trailing in the car behind me. We were in a rush to get to Tegel and he inadvertently called the Polish border guard a donkey. There must be something international about this word as it took him two hours to catch up with us having had his car literally taken apart. In fact we never made the flight that night because the colleague I was traveling with, an Irishman from Limerick, was doing the navigating. I knew something was badly wrong when we were less than 50 kilometres from Leipzig. “You’re not a navigator, are you?” I commented as I caught him using the map like a steering wheel beside me in the passenger seat. ‘No” he admitted “I was a rally driver”. I later found out that the reason he stopped drinking was he once killed a cow after leaving a pub in County Limerick one night following a session on the Guinness.

The transformation twenty years on is complete. Although you can see examples of old Eastern Bloc architecture around the place, Berlin is now just another busy city in central Europe but with a lot of special atmosphere. We based ourselves in the previous Russian sector slightly to the north east of the centre (or ‘mitte’ as they call it) in a quiet residential area packed with cafes and small family restaurants. The hotel was part of a run of three or four buildings in a terrace owned by the same person. Stylishly designed rooms with plenty of living space and a decent sized bathroom looking out onto a designer landscaped courtyard. In our case it was a water garden, a quiet sanctuary with a pleasant conservatory which felt like being in a well-tended greenhouse with haphazard potted plants and comfortable chairs to sit out in, complete with a self-service honesty bar. From here as a base you can easily explore the city with a reasonable walk to the centre. We spent most of our time shopping-wise wandering around Hackische Hoefe, a network of courtyards with an assortment of unusual shops. Nearby we found a fabulous place specialising in all those delightful wooden toys that only the Germans can do. Just the place you always wanted to find yourself in as a child.

For cultural input we decided not to spend time at the many galleries they have in Berlin, but instead spent several hours wandering through the Berliner Dom cathedral. This place has to be seen to appreciate the sheer size and magnificence of the interior. Taking a direct hit through the dome in the Second World War, decades of restoration have transformed it to its former glory and it has everything from the majesty of the main cathedral itself to a sole-of-the-foot tingling climb outside the dome and a spine-tingling visit to the crypt where four hundred years of the Hohenzollern ruling house are lying in their tombs. If it wasn’t for the crowds it would be the stuff of Gothic horror movies.

A casual stroll down Unter den Linden, which I am sure has lost much of its original grandeur along with the rebuilding of this part of the city, takes you to the Brandenburg Gate. This used to mark the border between West Berlin and East Berlin, but now the whole area plays host to modern embassies, the French, British and Americans, built over what used to be the no-man’s land between east and west. On through the gates, the last of the former city gates, leads to the wooded splendor of the Tiergarten where you can take a wonderfully pleasant and cool walk through an extensive inner city woodland where paths wind around monuments and ornamental lakes and you get the chance to see the iconic Berlin Victory Column up close.

We found an excellent small restaurant close to the hotel, called Pasternak, specializing in central European Jewish cuisine set in an intimate 19th century atmosphere of starched tablecloths and white-aproned waiters. Kreplach and strogonov with latke, salmon and shashlik karsky (aka rack of lamb) washed down with Proseco and something very good from the Languedoc, cleverly recommended by the waiter when we couldn’t find a Mosel on the list. Great comfort food and just what was needed after a day of hard walking around town. A really enjoyable end to the day, once again within staggering distance from the hotel. Can’t recall much of the rest of the evening so it must have been worth the visit.

Hotel Ackselhaus, Belforter Strasse 21, we thought was reasonably priced at €160 for a double. It’s just 20-30 minutes by taxi from Tegel or by the U-Bahn station nearby at Senefelder-platz.

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.

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.