Sunday, 3 March 2013

London 2013

With a birthday so soon after Christmas it's easy for it to be a bit shit. Previous birthdays have been ruined by exams (I had one the day after my 21st and therefore it was a very sober celebration) and appalling weather (a joint 30th party was poorly attended thanks to some of the worst snow I've seen in my lifetime)... and do not get me started on people claiming that they're having a dry month...!

This year we decided to celebrate with a trip to London... and once again I turned to Twitter for some tips on where to eat (and drink). As ever my lovely followers had lots of excellent suggestions and before long I had a full itinerary for the whole weekend.

Normally I would blog each and every single restaurant, but given that it took me 6 months to finish all my Rome blogs, I'm gonna keep it nice and simple this time. After all, let's face it, you just want to know what I had, whether I liked it and whether the service was any good, yeah?

Quo Vadis

I hadn't even heard of Quo Vadis until it was recommended to me, but on spotting a few gutsy dishes on the menu, I knew it was one for me. There's steak, smoked eel, offal and pies and best of all there's oysters! The best of the land, and the sea - all one one menu.

Given the feel of the menu and the medieval look to the website I was surprised by the smartness of the restaurant. Also with white linen, mirrored walls and some stunning bouquets of flowers (which pumped out some amazing smells throughout the restaurant) it might be surprising to some that this place offers an affordable set menu of three courses for £20.

Sadly we didn't fancy the set menu and we started with oysters (and fizz - it was my birthday!). Deliciously fresh, served with Tabasco, lemon and an onion relish they were a beautiful start to the meal.

Onto mains and I had to have the lamb sweetbreads. I've had bad experiences of sweetbreads in the past (where they've been breaded and deep fried giving them the appearance and texture of a McNugget), but the menu told me that these were accompanied by with black butter and capers so I felt safe ordering them here. And I'm glad that I did. The meat was soft and creamy thanks to the gentle frying in butter and the capers lifted the dish without overpowering it (yes, really, despite the number of capers on the plate).

Gav went for duck and pheasant pie which initially disappointed (it was a casserole with a lid). However he soon came round on tasting it. The filling was tasty, rich and packed with plenty of meat and the pastry was incredibly good; so buttery that we agreed that a full pie of this stuff would have actually been too much, even for us! A side of creamy mash and some shared sprout tops and cabbage completed the meal.

Although quite stuffed I had heard about the St Emilion au chocolat and I managed to persuade Gav that we should share a slice. This was beautiful; rich, creamy with deep chocolatey flavours... I've hunted down the recipe and suggest you give it a go if you can't make the trip to Quo Vadis.

Service was efficient and friendly and we had an enjoyable time here. I'd recommend to anyone who likes gutsy food but wants a smart atmosphere.

St John

I've been here before and we had such a good time that I wanted to return... this time we took friends which means that my recollection of some of the dishes is somewhat lacking (all that gassing you see - it doesn't help this blogging lark).

I started with an octopus salad and we also shared a portion of the bone marrow and parsley salad. These were good, but my main was an absolutely amazing saddle of rabbit with proper, fat as you like, crisp on the outside, soft and tasty on the inside, chips. The rabbit, which was quite pink, had been cooked in garlic and it was served with a strong aioli; it was beautiful and I actually sucked the last of the meat off the bone (in fact I wanted to take the bone home with me...).

For pudding (it is pudding in St John, not dessert, yeah?) I had the Eccles cake and cheese. It was good, but sadly the bottom was burnt... disappointing, but not a deal breaker and I could flake the burnt layer off. We also shared a plate of Madeleines which were light and perfectly formed.

Once again, the simple combinations of flavours and use of good solid ingredients impressed. Sadly the service hadn't been quite as good as it had on our first visit and I think it will  be a while before we return; I have too many other places to try!

Outlaw's Seafood and Grill at The Capital

Nathan Outlaw seems like a nice chap, doesn't he? Since first seeing him on Great British Menu and the like, I've wanted to eat at his restaurant. Sadly Cornwall is a bit too far for me to go for dinner, so I was pleased to hear that he was opening up a London outpost. I'll admit that it still didn't make 'the list' until I read one of Nathan's tweets promoting a reasonably priced lunch menu (£25 for 3 courses); after spending a small fortune on food in Edinburgh I've just gone off the idea of paying up to £30 on a main (this isn't a dig at the a la carte by the way, just an explanation of where I am at the moment).

We started the meal very comfortably with drinks at the bar where we were free to make our menu choices and go through to the dining room when we were ready. The dining room is pretty formal. Its decor is simple with sandy coloured furnishings and a couple of canvases with seahorses hanging on the walls; the only nod to the source of the ingredients used here.

Given we were on the set lunch menu we were surprised to start with an amuse bouche. Simple, but tasty the fish cakes were an appreciated start to the meal.

Onto starters and as I've been impressed with a few soups I've had recently (it's good to see what a chef will do with such a simple dish), I couldn't resist the cauliflower soup with salt cod and curry oil. The cod had been prepared and seared in such a way that it replicated a scallop (at least that was my take on the dish), the soup was tasty and the curry oil added flavour without overpowering the delicate cauliflower.

Gav had the crispy egg which came with leeks, watercress and blue cheese. He assures me that it tasted as good as it looked.

Mackerel is my all time favourite fish so I was glad to see it had crept (swam?) onto the lunch menu (it wasn't on the website version) and I had to have it. Two fillets of very well cooked fish were served with mushrooms and some parsley dumplings. It looked fantastic and it didn't disappoint my taste buds either.

Gav had another stunning main with sea bream served with a Jerusalem artichoke puree. Again, the cooking was spot on and he enjoyed the dish.

I very rarely see cheese as a dessert option on a set menu (certainly not without a surcharge being applied) and I was impressed to see one here. I was even more impressed by the size of the serving. The cheeses were good; there was stickiness, stinkiness and real strength of flavour on the plate. It was my kind of cheese board.

Gav has more of a sweet tooth than I and he went for carrot cake with dark chocolate mousse. A strange combination, but he was happy enough!.

The meal was rounded off with another freebie; this time some handmade chocolates which more than satisfied any craving I had for sweetness after my savoury dessert.

We left feeling rather pleased with ourselves. The food had been pretty special, the wine (an Australian Riesling) was all I wanted in a Riesling and the service had been spot on. Two ladies looked after us and they were both chatty and friendly whilst maintaining a professional approach and ensuring that our glasses did not run dry. I highly recommend this (more specifically the lunch menu) for anyone after something special without breaking the bank.

Polpo, Smithfield

I had wanted to eat at Polpo since reading about it on Essex Eating. It's Venetian style eating with cicchetti and the like. Think Spanish tapas, but with Italian food. Sadly our visit was ever so slightly hampered by the fact that we were both absolutely hammered and I don't remember much...

We sat at the bar, we had squid and meatballs (amongst who knows what else), we had a litre of white wine (on the basis that we could) and we paid the bill twice. Yep. We asked for the bill, and paid the bill, twice. Thankfully our mistake was spotted by one of the servers and it was quickly rectified with a refund to the card, but oh my, that could have been one expensive dinner!

Needless to say we decided to go home at that point....

Duck Soup

After getting incredibly drunk the night before, it's hardly surprising that we skipped breakfast the next day. And, as we made our way to Duck Soup I was a little nervous about the idea of working my way through a meal...

Duck Soup is a tiny place with a long bar (with seating for those after a quick bite) and a few wooden tables with a mix of chairs and stools. Decor is simple with white walls, painted, but bare light-bulbs, shelves of old wine bottles and classroom style furniture (check out this article for some pictures - Sheffield readers may note a similarity in the decor to Tamper). There's a record player in the corner and we were encouraged to pick our own music. We declined, on the basis that we were happy with the current choice and we felt that our alcohol ridden bodies would cause us to slip whilst changing the record resulting in both ruined vinyl and stylus.

Our server was friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. He explained that dishes would come flying out of the kitchen as and when as they don't do the whole three courses thing and the menu is split into Bar (or nibbles), Kitchen £7 (or starters) and Kitchen £14 (or mains) and we ordered a smattering covering each section.

First to hit the table was Finocchiona. A decent serving of chunky slices of salami packed with porky fat. Lovely.

Next was a dish that I probably will never forget; red onion, blood orange and marjoram salad. Yes it was simple and yes it had been done before, but I'd never had it. It was refreshing and tasty and something I have  already replicated at home (although I use peeled segments of the orange, finely sliced red onion and fresh thyme).

Deep fried salsify with rosemary and salt was soft and comforting with the lightest of batters.

Duck hearts with gremolata on toast was quite a large portion, and the hearts themselves were a lot larger than I expected. Perfectly cooked and pink in the centre the hearts were good whilst the gremolata lifted the rich flavours a little.

Cabrito Goat Meat supply Duck Soup and I've chatted with owner James Whetlor on Twitter a fair bit, so I was pleased to see their kid ragu pappardelle on the menu. And in case anyone is questioning the ethics of eating kid, the reasons for eating it are the same as those for eating British veal. Male kids are the by-product of the goat dairy industry and are either killed at birth or bred for meat... and I prefer the latter of the two options. For more on this read this Guardian article.

Anyway... onto the dish. Parppardelle looked like it was made in house and the fat strands of fresh pasta had texture and a little bite. The sauce was light, letting the kid meat do the talking. And how can I describe the meat? Well it was like veal  in terms of its texture and colour and it was a little like rabbit in taste; I really enjoyed it.

Crispy ox tongue with oysters and horseradish initially arrived sans fiery vegetable, but on realising the omission the chef came running out and grated some onto the dish. Ok, ideally the chef wouldn't have forgotten the horseradish at all, but it was good to see that he cared enough to admit the mistake and rectify it.

The tongue wasn't prepared as we imagined (I was thinking deep fried chunks of the meat), but it was nice to see it in its (almost) full glory... and it's convinced me that I could actually serve tongue as part of a roast dinner.

We skipped dessert and, due to the hangovers, we had also skipped on the wine which was a shame as Duck Soup have an interesting selection on offer... maybe next time?!

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