Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The Diner

I had brunch with the girls on Sunday before heading into work for the afternoon, joy. Chosen venue was The Diner, my choice, for this I apologise.

Sampled dishes were, for me, eggs Benedict with hash browns on the side, and Nibs and Noy both went for blueberry pancakes with bacon and maple syrup. It must be said that I fared the best of the three of us but the whole thing was an unmitigated disaster.

The tea and coffee were virtually undrinkable, service was lacklustre, the place seems to be run by kids who don't care or are heavily hungover, or both. There were many waitresses yet it was hard to get their attention, I believe they are pushing their luck adding a 12.5% service charge to the bill.

My food was luke warm, the hollandaise tasted far too sour and one of the poached eggs was undercooked, and the other completely hard.

I can't complain though, the girls had to send back their stacks of pancakes which were mildly warm at most with stone cold bacon and not a hint of maple syrup. They were clearly pre made pancakes, probably fresh from a packet, curiously blobbed with icing sugar, an ill judged attempt to make them look nice? Didn't work. Noy's bacon was purple, we told ourselves it had been dyed by the scant sprinkling of blueberries.

The worst thing about the experience was rounding the corner to visit @eatlikeagirl at her Wish You Were Here market stall where Niamh was setting up shop for the day selling the most amazing looking salt beef and mustard bagels. We should have had those.

Needless to say, I shall not be returning to The Diner for brunch. I think it's safest to stick to burgers, burritos and milkshakes which Nibs informs me are better.

The Diner
18 Ganton Street

Diner on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 18 October 2009


For our next dinner out whilst the kitchen undergoes renovation, last Tuesday I tried my luck at very late notice and managed to bag a table at Polpo for the very same evening. There had been a cancellation and I was booked in for 2 at 7:30, perfect.

Upon arrival however, I discovered the chap on the phone (who had been very polite) had booked me in for 7:30 on Friday. We were asked to wait at the bar, rammed with diners waiting to be seated (including Mark Hix and Stephen Terry), I was almost ready to admit defeat when owner Rusell Norman led us to a table. He left Caprice Holdings not long back and this is his bash at a solo venture. Phew.

I was pretty excited about trying this place so expectations were high. I liked the vibe immediately, relaxed, dark, romantic, buzzy and cool, the waiting staff have just the right amount of nonchalance, I loved it and couldn't wait to sample the dishes.

To begin with we sampled 3 starters, the idea is to order a series of small plates so the starters are all very reasonably priced, less than £3 and are very small, more like appetizers or nibbles really. We had fig and proscuitto, salt cod on polenta and an anchovy and chickpea crostini. We halved each and it was a good start indeed, it took us all of 2 minutes to devour the lot, worth noting that the polenta was perhaps a little on the dry side but the cod was excellent and the anchovy and chickpea was an interesting mix.

We had a selection of mains which were all served promptly as we finished with the starters beginning with the pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts.

This was deliciously fatty, the meat succulent and incredibly flavoursome but I found it to be far too salty. The pairing of radicchio and hazelnut is rather masterful, the bitterness of the leaves and the crunch of the nuts working brilliantly to complement but not overpower the pork.

Apologies for the darkness of the pictures, in order to recreate that oh so Venetian atmos us bloggers must forgo a decent snap. Next up was the grilled sliced flank steak and mushrooms. Again I thought the meat was rather salty, not as much as the pork but still, seasoning seemed a bit heavy handed. The steak was nicely cooked with the mushrooms providing a nice contrast in texture on a bed of peppery rocket.

We also had a fine tomato and tapenade pizzetta, again high in salt but tapenade by it's nature is pretty salty. There were a scant few slices of tomato, I was underwhelmed by this to be honest, I thought the base would be crispier but it was in fact rather doughy. Not hugely memorable. The fish dish, mackerel tartare with horseradish and cucumber was great but perhaps a little under seasoned. I do not recall getting much horseradish in the dish but I thought in all it's a well conceived and fresh tasting plate of food. It looked pretty too, served alongside a flatbread.

We also had some beets, which were very good, and some parmesan and potato croquettas. These were nicely cheesy and crisp on the exterior with a fluffy piping hot centre. I'm yet to try a croqueta that beats those at Barrafina and these sadly did not, though they are valiant contenders.

We were tempted by desserts trying both the honey and walnut semifreddo, served cutely in a cone, and ciambella, a sponge cake covered in cream and a chocolate sauce. The 'sponge' (described as such by the waiter) was pretty dense and drier than your average sponge. The sauce was the great thing about this dish, delightfully rich and naughty.

I've read some other mixed reviews of Polpo but our experience was good overall. The closeness of the neighbouring tables did mean for uncomfortable maneuvering at times, particularly when toilet breaks were needed but, like the lighting, arguably it adds to the experience.

I will eat here again, but I'll leave it a couple of months in the hope that some of the teething problems are ironed out. With the booking mix up and the incredibly over salted meat, the evening was a tad disappointing however, some dishes were great, and it was excellent value for money, at under £30 each for all the food and a carafe of red.

41 Beak St, Soho

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Hix Soho

I dined at the new Hix restaurant in Soho earlier this week. We've had our kitchen ripped out and will be forced to eat out or order in over the next couple of weeks, loving it!

So, Hix was an enjoyable experience. I've not eaten at Mark Hix's other restaurants but was expecting good quality traditional English food. This was what I got.

After a mild bout of hysteria upon arriving and seeing Bill Granger sat at a neighbouring table, I regained my composure, selected a bottle of white and perused the menu. We were given some bread, a small white round loaf which was warm. I liked the bread a lot, the butter was a tad too cold, it's always an idea to allow it to come too room temperature in my opinion, it's better spreadable.

We began proceedings with the Blythburgh pork crackling with apple sauce which I thought was very good, incredibly crunchy, we munched away very loudly. It was not too oily at all but perhaps lacked a little flavour, there wasn't much of a meaty taste. The apple sauce was perfectly tart yet sweet and was more of a puree really, there was no chunks of apple.

For starter I chose the Cod tongue, I asked the waitress what she would recommend, this was her choice second only to the Heaven and Earth, a black pudding dish. She chose well for me. The cod was meaty and delicate, served with some fantastically flavoursome girolles, it was an ideal start to the meal.

Thomas' starter of crab with a breadcrumb topping was beautifully presented in the shell on a bed of seaweed, I preferred this to the cod but Thomas (not usually so easily perturbed) said the strong smell put him off somewhat. I thought it was pretty near perfect, served warm with a high brown to white meat ratio which is unusual.

My main course was a triumph, it was the thing that immediately jumped out at me when I checked out the menu online, I had the salt marsh mutton, kidney and oyster pie. It was perfectly sized, served in an individual pie dish topped with an oyster in the shell. There was a higher density of mutton, which suited me, and it was meltingly tender, the kidney was fairly mild in flavour and was not the slightest but rubbery as it can be if not cooked properly. The pastry was flaky, wonderfully buttery and prettily golden. I had some sprout tops on the side which were vibrantly green and delightfully strong and irony in flavour. I would highly recommend this dish, it was the star of the evening for me.

Thomas' main was the hanger steak with baked bone marrow. He liked this less the more he ate, it was very rich but the mouthful that I sampled was divine. Perfectly cooked medium rare and it looked nice with the marrow presented in a halved bone. Thomas chose sides of fries and some creamed spinach both of which were excellently executed.

We shared a dessert of bramley apple pie with custard which was okay, it didn't wow me like my pie had but it was a mightily generous portion, it would have been way too much for me. I liked that the custard came in a jug on the side for pouring as you wish, it annoys me when it comes poured liberally for you.

Some of our neighbouring diners fared less well, the gentleman to my right left almost all of his sausage, and told the waiter that he didn't in the least enjoy it. His companion raved about her cheese course.

The couple to my left chose the spectacularly elaborate looking trio of birds which put her off so much that they promptly left upon it's arrival (she was pregnant, and it was served very pink).

In all, I enjoyed the experience but I was left feeling rather underwhelmed by the whole thing. I feel at almost £60 a head there is better value available elsewhere but the room is lovely with low lighting, lots of mirrors and the bar downstairs is really rather fancy, a big open plan room encouraging lounging with plenty of low level seating and cushions. I would come back here and I think Hix will make a success of this new location.

66-70 Brewer Street, Soho

Hix on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Boo in Germany - Gasthof Neuwirt

Thomas hails from Garching, a picture perfect small town on the outskirts of Munich. This is home for the duration of our Oktoberfest visit and one of the local eateries is Gasthof Neuwirt, a recently improved (so I'm told) small traditional guest house with a restaurant on the ground floor.

Fearing for our lives somewhat as conkers the size of tennis balls fell from the surrounding trees onto our table and all around us, we each ordered lunch from the biergarten menu, sat outside in the October sun, those of us with strong constitutions ordered a beer, I stuck to the water.

I have been keen for some time now to try Käsespätzle, a German speciality of micro dumplings shaped from a dough by being dropped into a pan forming small irregular lumps, cooked with fried onions and strong cheese. Each serving came in a cast iron pan. It was wickedly rich and filling and just what my aching, hungover body needed to recover from the previous day at Oktoberfest.

Each meal comes with a salad, diners help themselves at the salad bar. Some were less keen on this than I was due to the fact that all the veggies are pickled, it included carrot, beetroot, cauliflower, a bean salad. It reminded me of a Pizza Hut salad cart but that comparison is perhaps too harsh. This was fresher and actually tasted of something.

Other dishes sampled included the classis pork schnitzel and fries, a salmon pasta, leberknoedelsuppe, and some sausages, hurruh! I managed to not have any wurst for the entirety of the stay which is a shame, I love the stalls at the food market in the centre of Munich but this time I opted for Leberkase instead.

Gasthof Neuwirt is a nice quaint little eatery serving traditional Bavarian specialities , in the coming years I hope to sample all of them. German food is a fairly hefty cuisine, with an emphasis on meat and potatoes, very comforting and full of flavour. Not dissimilar to our national dishes in essence.

Gasthof Neuwirt
Münchener Str.10
85748 Garching

Monday, 12 October 2009

Boo at Oktoberfest

Having a (kind of) Bavarian other half means that I am fortunate enough to experience Oktoberfest as the natives do, living for a number of days a year in the heart of it all. I indulge in the festival wholeheartedly including sporting a dirndl, it really heightens the experience dressing as they do, in traditional outfits. The whole area is grandly presided over by the The Bavaria Statue, here she is in all her glory.

It's not for the feint of heart, last year it took me a full week to recover. The Brits and the Aussies tend to congregate in the Hofbräuhaus, we wisely steer clear of it unless in desperate need of a laugh at the drunken antics. What I perhaps enjoy most about Wiesn is the sense of pride relating to all things Bavarian (some German ladies we befriended complained about the whole thing being not Bavarian enough!) and the glorification of really enjoying oneself. In today's climate eating and drinking to excess is oft frowned up (rightly so in many cases as if one were to live like this permanently, it would not be for very long) yet for these 3 weeks of celebration, it is positively encouraged.

There are 14 large tents to choose from, each housing between 5000 and 10,000 people, and copious smaller venues. We begun things at the Ochsenbraterei tent. This tent celebrates all things Ox serving the beasts in various forms to be enjoyed surrounded by the colours of Bavaria, blue and white. Some of our group sampled the roast ox served with a potato salad, the meat was succulent and delicious.

Perhaps the most hotly anticipated dish prior to our arrival was the schweinshaxe, or pork knuckle. This is cured, boiled then grilled to produce the most amazingly crispy skin served with a tasty gravy and the most incredible potato dumplings that I find myself craving all year round. Next year will be the 200th Oktoberfest celebration and I already cannot wait. We arrived on day 1 at around 10am to find none of the tents were serving food yet, it seems absurd now that we were waiting for a litre of beer and a hunk of meat for breakfast but it would seem wrong to have anything other than these local specialities.

I had the leberknoedelsuppe, soup with a large liver dumpling in a tasty broth. I needed some warmth and whilst it did the job heatwise, it was a little artificial tasting. The bretzen I had resembles in shape the snacks that we call pretzels, this is topped liberally with salt in order to keep you drinking that beer.

They take their beer very seriously , obviously, and it is rolled in by horse drawn carriage at regular intervals throughout the day. There are strict rules by which the breweries must adhere in order to supply at Oktoberfest resulting in pure and pretty strong beer, nothing but the best for the annual celebration. The kegs arrival is celebrated with vast fanfare, the animals adorned with bells and flowers, much to the delight of the festival goers.

Other tents of interest for foodies are the Fisher Vroni for fish lovers, serving whole barbequed fish and the Stiftl Tent for a celebration of poultry. One of the most popular dishes available in all of the tents is the half roast chicken or hendl.

These are deliciously buttery with crisp juicy skin and again they are just what you need when getting a little tipsy or in need of some sustanence after a litre or 3 of beer. There are some crazy statistics relating to how many birds are devoured throughout the festival.

We sampled many other Bavarian delights over the weekend but these were the firm favourites, ordered again and again. The final evening is an amazing spectacle, 6000 revellers in the Schützen-Festzelt tent (or any but that was our chosen one), belting out traditional German songs (who needs to know the words?) with Germany's answer to Richard Madeley leading proceedings. Everyone weilding sparklers at the end. I would advise everyone to experience this at least once in their lives, perhaps not one for the veggies though. And not a sausage in sight!