“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.” – Sophia Loren
Polpo is one of the first restaurants to popularise the concept of Italian tapas. Instead of being assualted with bottomless volumes of carbs and deep fried meat, Polpo instead takes inspiration from the bacaro of Venice. These relaxed bars serve rounds of tapas with glasses of liquor, a concept which is wholly agreeable. The authenticity of Polpo is buoyed by its insistence to use the correct terminology, and so these tapas are elevated with the frilly titles of ‘cicchetti’, ‘crostini’ and ‘crocchette’.
Having never been to Venice I could not speak to the legitimacy of the food, but provenance aside, there is much to be delighted by. Here you will find thick-skinned pops of hot-cheesed arancini, or stout potato and parmesan croquettes the size of a fat man’s index. There is chewy crostini smeared with chopped liver, and a feasting plate of all things buffalo – from the milky cheese to the cured meats.
All-Italian nibbles and lubrication
In Britain, we are more likely to gorge to distension and drink to cirrhosis than embrace the idea of moderation. The notion of spending an evening with a few bar snacks and a few drinks is fairly uncommon. Our venue tonight, however, is designed exactly for this kind of lighter intake. Augustus Harris is fashioned around the Venetian philosophy of grazing at the local bàcaro which serve wine with tapas-like cicchetti.
Augustus Harris gives new life to the idea of bar food; try crostini of crusty baguette with roasted wild mushrooms or mackerel with red onions. Although there are cicchetti of lesser merit (a desperately syrupy creation of gorgonzola, grape and honey), kudos must go to the attentive barman who deducts these from the bill. On other plates, slices of air dried and cured bresoala topped with rocket. It’s not genius, but it fits perfectly amongst the smoked copper surfaces, shelves of Italian produce and bottles of deeply rubied Rosso.
Please the mosque, pocket the change
Say what you want about Muslims, but there is a helluva lot of money to be made from them. The halal eating market, although better than before, is still largely ignored by the majority of restaurants in London. I can’t describe to you how arduous it is to find somewhere to eat for a family event, which isn’t a tired falafel affair, or worse still, more peri-peri chicken. Sensing the gap in the market, The Meat Co has astutely tapped into the most generous parts of Muslim consumerism. That of halal food, of course.
The Meat Co (formerly called The Meat and Wine Co) is a South African steakhouse which first opened in 2000. It branched out to Australia, and in doing so caught the fancies of a certain Emirati sheikh, who chopped off the offending part of the name (as they are so wont to do) and popularized it across The Middle East. Grisly stereotypes aside, The Meat Co is a chain in the know. Take our London branch in Westfield, for example, which is relentlessly busy. A curious thing indeed, considering how imperfect the food is.
Sixty One problems but a dish ain’t one
Sixty One is a new venture from the people behind Searcy’s private dining restaurant in The Gherkin. It is located in an intimate, boutique hotel (read: small and unheard of) just past Marble Arch. The dullness of this restaurants name and hotel setting means that booking a table is unnervingly easy. As the meal commences, however, it is clear that the emptiness of the place is no indication of its talent.
To start, a basket of teasingly hot carbs and whipped butter – homemade baguette, intense marmite bread and soft rolls. My personal trainer will be writhing in his lycras, but bread like that speaks, nay, begs to be devoured. With food must come drink, and a cocktail is in order. The delightfully named ‘Tequila Mockingbird’ winks at me from the dessert section, but to wait until then would be certain misery. The cocktail is split into two; a tumbler of hibiscus flower and sorbet, and a mini milk bottle of hibiscus-infused tequila, mint and lime. The combination of the two is blissful and luxurious – a prophecy of things to come.
Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum. Or 100
Once you realize that the food at The Rum Kitchen (Carnaby) is not the main reason to visit, you end up having a much better time. This shift in focus is lubricated nicely into position with the help of an extensive rum cabinet. There are allegedly 100 different types of rum here, all split up into a melee of rum-based cocktails. To start, a Rumbustion is a dream of a drink, all tall and smooth and happy with Jamaican coconut rum, apricot liquor and orange bitters.
A Rubin Carter cocktail swirls 3yr and 7yr Havana rums together in a medium of passionfruit and lime, and is an excellent way to forget the shortcomings of fried squid, which is more crumb than fish. A soft shell crab burger offers more of the same disappointment, featuring a crustacean so limp that a shot of Viagra could not rouse it. The cocktail menu proves adequate therapy once more, where a Rum Rum Sling is pink with cherries and hot with El Dorado rum.
A pub, Jim, but not as we know it
As boozers go, this is a diamond of a find. It’s no surprise that the food at Smokehouse is leagues ahead of your usual pub grub, considering the breadth of experience of its head chef Neil Rankin. Making London tummies happy is a talent that Rankin has honed across the kitchens of Pitt Cue Co, John Salt, and Rhodes 24 to name a few.
Now his expertise finds its home in a snug corner of Islington, where out of his kitchen come such delights as just-cooked egg yolk on apple pie with a generous serving of seared foie gras. Duck egg makes a second appearance under a seasonal heaping of parmesan, artichoke and purposefully burnt leeks which chomp together with good harmony of flavours. Following this, a salty-chewy slab of sourdough, textured with a landscape of lobster bisque and crab.
Engage the inner caveman
Hawksmoor is a British steakhouse serving well-sourced beef and we-mean-business cocktails. Although a simple proposition, the difficulty in securing a booking is enough to see how popular the theme is. It is in this wisdom that there are now four branches across London, the Hawksmoor Seven Dials restaurant located in Covent Garden.
The dearest items on the menu are the sharing steaks, priced at £7.50-£13 per 100g depending on the cut. The size of the cuts varies from a manageable 600g portion, to a freakish 1000g. A quick mental arithmetic is all it takes to see that prices can escalate and quickly.
Fun, accomplished, affordable
It’s not that we’re being snotty or anything, but heading south of the river always feels unwarranted. Naturally, then, the only reason we would deign to go there would be for something quite special. It is alarming to note that I have been there not once but thrice this month – Borough Market (food), Brixton Market (more food), and now to The Dairy (can you see a theme developing here?).
The Dairy is located in Clapham Common, an area which seems like it would be dulled by pollution and scum. It is in fact leafy and most agreeable, the presence of a Waitrose adding weight to its obvious gentrification. Elevated to the realms of the better-heeled, it is no surprise that a chef who has trained in Raymond Blanc’s two Michelin starred restaurant ‘Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons’ should open up a restaurant here.
I can’t believe its not bacon
Social Eating House is another offering from Executive Chef Jason Atherton, whose other restaurants include Pollen Street Social, Little Social and Berners Tavern. Having already become acquainted with his style of cooking elsewhere, there is nothing especially striking about mains of seared cod, loin of venison, balsamic reductions and smoked cheeses. Offerings like this can only extend the feeling of tediousness after a dreary working day.
Happily, the starters pack enough of a buzz to break the asphyxiating coma of this Londoners week. Wobbly soft-yolk eggs are fried in crumb and topped with just the right amount of pepper. Bacon (the Kryptonite to my inner superman) is elegantly ousted with smoked lengths of duck, folded and lined with slivers of pearly fat. Theatrics make an appearance in the form of a plastic bag, the sort that some may use to tape around an adversary’s head, which is instead used to cook wild mushrooms. The sealed and airless nature of this cooking medium which is so prized for its other uses also does wonderful things to the fungi. Imagine a mushroom steaming in air saturated with butter, thyme and wine – move over frying pan, the bag is the new multipurpose utensil.
This French restaurant is the work of an Englishman, whose original Balthazar is located in New York. As unlikely a proposition as this may be the original Balthazar basks in good opinion. The London Balthazar finds its home in what was previously a theatre, overlooking the market in Covent Garden. The newly pimped out space has a price tag of £14m for the refurb, and would not be out of place in a Francophiles wet dream. Think moody red banquettes and mirrors so large and so tilted as to raise suspicion. In this backdrop of expense and suggestion then, the categorical rejection of London’s Balthazar is all the blunter.
The majority of critic opinion thus far would ward off even the most obtuse reader, except of course a food blogger committed to the cause. It is puzzling then, that both starters are less offensive that originally thought. A risotto is coloured pale orange by strands of saffron, and laden with fat scallops and grilled courgette, all of which are pleasing. A second starter features a slick of prawns infused with chilli-seed, roasted garlic and olive oil. Busty baps of warm fougasse are dredged and soaked in this until the pan is clean.