Loaves with heart at Hart & Lova


Andrea Hartlova gets out of bed at 3.30 each morning to cycle from her home in Islington to her new bakery Hart & Lova in Kilburn, such is her passion for her craft.

Together with master baker Nicolas Juaneda, she produces bread, pastries and cakes and serves Monmouth coffee from the attractively bright and airy Belsize Road shop and café, which opened earlier this week.

Andrea has an impressive baking CV. Having trained as a pastry chef at patisseries in her native Czech Republic, she moved to the UK 11 years ago, and worked at bakeries such as Euphorium in Islington. For the past couple of years she has baked cakes in rented premises in King’s Cross, and supplied her wares to outlets including Harvey Nichols.


Her ultimate goal, however, was always to open her own bakery; she just needed the perfect location. She believes she has found this in Belsize Road, as she wanted her business to be at the heart of a small community with regular customers – not an anonymous high street shop “where you never see the same customer twice”. Belsize Road already boasts some popular businesses: Ekin, Cocoa Exchange, The Priory Tavern and Little Bay all draw regular customers.

Andrea says she already feels part of a close-knit community. The process of renovating the shop – previously an empty unit that had once been a video shop – took six months of hard work, as the building was in a bad state of repair and needed rewiring and decorating. In that time she got to know many neighbours, who would regularly pop in to check on her progress.

Now the wait is over, and the residents of Kilburn and South Hampstead no longer have to go to West End Lane or Maida Vale for freshly baked bread and pastries. Hart & Lova looks set to be a great addition to the shops on Belsize Road and should do well, whether customers are after a coffee for the morning commute, a loaf of bread at the weekend, or a cake for a special occasion.

Judging by the delicious samples West Hampstead Life tried at the launch event this week, Hart & Lova should be around for some time to come.

Izabela Szypulska, café assistant, serves a croissant

Izabela Szypulska, café assistant, serves a croissant


Don’t Dispense So Close To Me


Once upon a time there were two pharmacies on Mill Lane. They were about 200 metres apart. But not for long.

Aqua Pharmacy, at 102 Mill Lane, is planning to move to 59 Mill Lane, which has been occupied by Escott’s upholsterers for many years. This would bring it just 10 doors away from T. K. Impex pharmacy (81 Mill Lane). T.K. Impex isn’t happy. The move is planned for May/June.

At stake would seem to be the trade from patients walking back from the West Hampstead Medical Centre on Solent Road. Once, those that turned left would probably go to Aqua for their prescriptions and those that turned right would go to T.K. Impex. Aqua’s impending move means it becomes the nearest option for everyone coming up from Solent Road.

Sanjay Patel, the Aqua pharmacist, has owned the chemist for the past three years. He insists that there is nothing sinister behind his desire to relocate. Worried about ever-increasing rents, and with the lease about to expire on his current premises, he took the opportunity to buy the freehold on the Escott’s building in order to have more control over his business. Mill Lane may appear to have many empty ground floor units but the reality is, one local estate agent told us, that few landlords are willing to sell their freeholds at the moment.

Aqua plans to move in to where Escott's has been

Aqua plans to move in to where Escott’s has been

The Escott’s unit is about the same size as Aqua, he says, and he has ambitious plans to modernise it and improve his shop’s offering and customer experience. From his point of view, this is a sensible way of protecting his business. The advantage of being a freehold owner is, he says, “the only driver for the move”, and his intention is not to take business away from anyone else.

Unfair advantage?

Kim Khaki has run T.K. Impex for more than 30 years, and is unhappy with Aqua’s proposed move. He views the relative newcomer as a threat to his business and feels Aqua will have an unfair advantage because it will be the first pharmacy people see when turning onto Mill Lane from Solent Road. Aqua’s new premises is also very near the post office and bus stops, so he is worried that patients may go there for the convenience factor.

He also expressed concern that having two pharmacies in such close proximity is “not adding any value to the West Hampstead community” of which he feels very much a part.

T.K. Impex, somewhat confusingly, is also known by its trading name of H. V. Thomas (the name of the previous owner who ran the pharmacy for 45 years before Kim took over). It is, however, testament to the current owner’s personality and dedication that despite the various names above the door, the shop is known to its regular customers simply as “Kim’s”. He does seem to have an extremely loyal client base of his own, with some customers signing a petition to protest against Aqua’s application to move closer.

Indeed, Kim is proud of the longstanding relationships he has built up with patients, and the personal service he and his staff provide. On our visit to the traditional-looking chemists, a steady stream of customers arrived for prescriptions, advice, or just a chat, including eminent local historian Morris Beckman who, at 94, has been a regular visitor to the shop for many years.

Sanjay certainly believes that regular customers tend to remain loyal to a particular pharmacy, having built up a trusting and personal relationship, sometimes over many years. He expects Aqua’s regular clientele to follow it down the road to its new address and, likewise, for the regular users of T. K. Impex to keep going there. He is keen to emphasize that he “will not be changing the patient base”.

Kim accepts that there is little he can do to block the move, but feels that it goes against an unwritten pharmacists’ code of conduct. Any pharmacy move needs regulatory approval but as Aqua is moving only 140 metres and will continue to provide the same services, it will almost certainly be deemed to be a “relocation which does not result in significant change” to local patient groups.

Kim, however, asserts that as well as damaging his business, Aqua’s relocation will inconvenience patients at the other end of Mill Lane, who will now have to walk farther. He believes it would make more sense for Aqua to relocate in the other direction, as the nearest chemist’s that way is far away on Manstone Road off Cricklewood Broadway.

Sanjay counters this by pointing out that Kim’s chemist is nearer to the Cholmley Gardens GP practice, so patients there will continue to take their prescriptions to their regular chemist. He is confident that there are enough customers in and around Mill Lane to support both businesses, and that as they offer different services and products, they will each keep their regular clientele.

Will this be a case of “let battle commence”, or is it more likely that each pharmacy’s loyal customers will stick with what (and whom) they know?

Burglary at The Wet Fish Café

Burglars broke into The Wet Fish Café on Sunday night. They made off with the safe, which had only a few hundred pounds in it. However, the burglars  also caused around £1,000 worth of damage to the building.

Owner André Millodot arrived at work on Monday morning but didn’t immediately notice the chaos. “I opened up as usual, put the lights on, put the music on… then noticed the smashed bathroom.”


The burglars entered through the toilet window at the back, which is accessed from the small service road behind the row of businesses on West End Lane. They had managed to detach the grille that covers the window, which must have taken considerable force. Pulling down these bars also ripped away the wooden frame and surrounding brickwork.

An upstairs neighbour later confirmed that he’d heard “heavy banging” at around 11pm. “It was raining heavily and we closed early”, said André. The neighbour assumed that the noise was people upstairs moving heavy furniture about, so didn’t investigate further.

It’s the fourth break-in in the restaurant’s 10-year history.

Police and forensics investigated at the scene, and there is a CCTV camera in the service road, which hopefully will give some clues.

By the end of Monday, André confirmed that the toilet had been fixed and bars re-installed on the window. Although the restaurant had been closed over the Christmas period for a thorough sprucing up, the bathroom hadn’t been part of that work.

Despite the New Year setback, André is staying positive.”It could have been worse,” he said, even managing a wry smile at the joke they’d coincidentally chalked on the board outside earlier on the Sunday.


Headmasters comes to West Hampstead

Next Friday, January 10th, another hairdresser arrives on West End Lane.

Ice cream or a haircut?

Ice cream or a haircut?

Headmasters is a chain with 65 unisex salons in the UK and Norway, and its West Hampstead branch will be at 220 West End Lane. Eagle-eyed readers will notice that these are the premises previously occupied by Chez Chantal.

It is tempting in prospective customers with an opening offer for the first two weeks.

It’ll be interesting to see how another salon fits in to an already crowded market. From a first glance at the price list, it looks like the closest local comparison is HOB, with a ladies’ cut and style starting at £42.

Will you be giving Headmasters a visit, or staying loyal to your regular stylist? Let me know below or on Twitter @ZENW6

Smokehouse restaurant coming to West End Lane

160 degrees Fahrenheit is the name of a new smokehouse bar/restaurant opening soon in West Hampstead. David Moore, who owns Michelin-starred Pied à Terre and L’Autre Pied, is taking the Me Love Sushi site.

17th century diagram of a smokehouse. Suspect ours will be very similiar.

17th century diagram of a smokehouse. Suspect ours will be very similiar

The site is owned by Tragus, which operates brands including Strada and Café Rouge. The rent was advertised at £80,000 a year, which many local business owners considered to be too high for the 80 seater restaurant. Moore’s strong track record, however, suggests that he’s spotted an opportunity despite the high rent.

Sean Martin will be responsible for the day-to-day running of the bar/restaurant. He’s already revamped the Northumberland Arms in Fitzrovia and Marylebone’s Barley Mow. He told Big Hospitality that “smokehouses have gained a cult following in the US and I believe we can open a smokehouse and bar in London that will inspire the same devotion.”

The restaurant will serve British meat cooked on American smokers, alongside craft beers and cocktails.

If Moore and Martin can get the pricing right (avoiding the classic mistake of conflating West Hampstead with more affluent Hampstead), then it is likely to do well. Recent history suggests that restuarants with a unique offering in the area can flourish, while copy-cat tactics are generally doomed. The only place locally that offers a smoker is the Priory Tavern, but I doubt either would see the other as competition.

The reaction on Twitter was generally positive.

Here are the particulars for the property

(if you can’t see this, you need a PDF plugin for your browser – or click here to download)

Tom branches out to Spice Tree

In urgent need of a really fiery bite to eat the other evening, I decided to try out Spice Tree on Mill Lane for the first time since their refurb and change of name (from Babur Empire). Whilst the new menu has more variety in regional dishes (and is certainly very appetising), it was one of the old classics I was after; namely a cork-poppingly good king prawn jalfrezi. I’d quite enjoyed this in the past from Babur, and was curious to see if anything had changed.

Quick verdict – enjoyable, not bad, not amazing. The prawns were a little rubbery, which is a fairly regular occurrence with prawn curries in general I find (even my sacred Tiffin Tin were a little off-form with prawns last time out, unusually) but there were enough of them, which is important of course. I don’t understand “quality not quantity” when having a curry – I want both!

The sauce was very similar to how I remembered it; ‘traditional’ – very buttery, and nicely tangy. Onions finely chopped, though personally for a dish like this, or a Rogan Josh or Korai, I like big chunks of tomato, onion and things; it makes it more interesting. There was enough heat from the green chillies, but the green bell peppers were absent altogether; annoying.

A side dish of veg curry was decent, of good flavour and again very buttery, though with a slightly odd limitation in vegetable varieties, with an emphasis on green beans. Make of that what you will! Paratha was fine, a big disc of enjoyment, though had lost some life in its short journey to Tom Towers.

Overall then, I enjoyed my hot and spicy dinner, but with the main dish costing similar to what I’d pay at the marvellous Tiffin Tin, I’d perhaps find it hard not to go with the latter next time, as I usually do. That said, I’d be interested to revisit some other old favourites, and have a meal in the restaurant soon where perhaps I’ll be somewhat more adventurous.

Ahhh…. a soul-warming curry on a cold winter night. What is it with chillies and things? So uplifting. Actually, I’ll happily eat a curry any day of the year, for any meal. Proper food, for all seasons – including this festive one. Happy dining!

Shops and restaurants review of the year

It seems that nothing gets locals quite as excited as what shops and services are opening and closing in West Hampstead.

Some of the biggest stories of 2013 revolved around supermarkets: Waitrose trying to move in, Tesco failing to keep its shelves stocked, and the under-the-radar news that Marks & Spencer is Ballymore’s anchor commercial tenant for West Hampstead Square.

But let me take you back to the spring…

Spring is in the air
Back in March, Kensal Rise’s Minkies finally opened its microshop at the Overground station. After an initial flurry of interest, it’s now rarely mentioned online. Highish prices and proximity to Costa and Starbucks mean it’s always going to have to fight hard to compete.

In May, children’s clothes shop Blue Daisy closed. It argued that the arrival of competitor JoJo Maman Bébé had nothing to do with it, and that footfall wasn’t sufficient. It still operates in South End Green.

LoveFood eventually closed in the spring, which also meant the temporary demise of its basement tenant La Secret Boutique. The whole business was snapped up quickly by a local couple who already run a popular café in Shepherds Bush.

Rather than replicate that and go head-to-head with West Hampstead’s other cafés, they decided to give the people what they wanted and open a Mexican restaurant. In a salutary lesson, Mamacita went big on social media, initially under the name “@secretwhamp”. However, it wasn’t prepared for the blowback when early staffing issues led to some disappointed customers who were only too ready to voice their views.

Secret Boutique disappeared for a while before popping up on Fortune Green Road and then just before Christmas moving into permanent new premises on West End Lane where Shaketastic had been.

Rebuilding a business
Almost all the businesses demolished by West Hampstead Square managed to get new premises. Peppercorns moved further north up West End Lane to a much larger shop, where its niche offering should benefit them when Waitrose moves in. Rock Men’s Salon had already secured a unit on Broadhurst Gardens, and it continues to thrive.

In a fantastic stroke of luck, Games Exchange, the dodgy-looking operation next to Rock on Broadhurst, closed after bailiffs moved in. This paved the way for Wired – the pop-up coffee shop co-owned by Rock’s John Padalino – to re-emerge as a permanent operation right next door. Despite almost no marketing and a fairly small interior, Wired is now busy most of the time with coffee devotees.

Hair today, gone tomorrow?
Talking of hair salons… Chez Chantal, the French-style patisserie with an owner who rubbed some people up the wrong way, closed in April. It’s been a surprise that it stayed empty for so long given its prime location, but we learned recently that salon chain Headmasters is moving in and is due to open in the New Year.

The incongruously named Geezers re-emerged as Esquire Grooming, run by two emigrees from The Men’s Lounge. On Fortune Green Road, The Groom Room appeared. Helena’s Hair Care opened in West End Lane (it had previously been on Fortune Green), offering Funmi hair extensions. It’s a big space and the place rarely looks busy, so will be interesting to see if it can survive.

Me Love Sushi closed and is still empty, although I’ve heard rumours of an American-style smokehouse opening there. A lot of businesses have looked at it and deemed the rent too high. There is a popular view that Pizza Express should move in there after it’s kicked out by Waitrose, but the company has not commented on this.

On Broadhurst Gardens, Vivi Nails became Be Lush, Old Bridge, the eastern European deli closed, and Italian restaurant Spiga followed suit this month. The latter will reopen as some sort of Thai/pan-Asian restaurant. Which is also what Tomai will be.

Tomai is opening where Grilled O Fried was and is run by the owners of Guglee. The Guglee boys are also looking at a Baker Street expansion of their modern Indian restaurant – having cemented themselves in West Hampstead in what’s been a challenging year, lets hope that two new operations to add to the two they already have isn’t going to stretch them too far too quickly.

The supermarket clean sweep
Waitrose submitted its plans to open a “Little Waitrose” on the Pizza Express site on West End Lane. Reaction was generally positive, although many hoped Pizza Express would stay in the area given its popularity with young families.

Waitrose, alert to the issues of delivery vehicles, went to considerable lengths to address this issue, although planning permission has not yet been granted. It does require a change of use permission and I understand that the owner of the building lives in one of the flats above and is not keen, so negotiations with him may take some time.

The majority of locals are welcoming the arrival of the more upmarket Waitrose, though some are decrying yet another supermarket – not that there are many independent food shops left in West Hampstead for Waitrose to obliterate. The three businesses perhaps most at risk are Brooksby Wines, which will have to work out how to differentiate itself (and communicate that to customers), Peppercorns, which should be niche enough not to suffer, and the Tesco Metro in Fortune Green.

For people who walk up to Fortune Green from the train stations, stopping off in Waitrose may be far more appealing that doing battle with the Tesco. Throw in the problems that this Tesco branch has had recently with empty shelves and a messy street environment and one wonders whether Waitrose might actually kill it off.

Finally, in an unusually understated announcement that seems only to have appeared in a “highligts of the year” e-mail sent to its mailing list, Ballymore has revealed that Marks & Spencer will be its anchor tenant in West Hampstead Square when it opens. This is not surprising, and will probably be welcomed by the population south of the train lines who don’t want to go to the O2 for a quick shop. Whether all three of the convenience stores by the tube station can survive is another matter – but this is a story for 2015.

In other news

  • Babur Empire on Mill Lane reopened as Spice Tree.
  • Pita on West End Lane reopened as Schnitzel, Chicken & More (and came top of our roundup of all the schnitzels in the area – just as well given the name)
  • Massage clinic Siam Sanctaury opened where Sew was
  • Health Town opened where Hampstead Electrical was
  • Curled Leaf tea shop opened in Mill Lane
  • Kensington Dry Cleaners opened where Hampstead Food and Wine was
  • Hampstead Food & Wine (corner of Sherriff Rd/West End Lane) became Kensington Dry Cleaners
  • Londis came and went in Fortune Green – it’s now set to open as a shisha bar called Monte Cristo
  • Picasso closed – and is still closed
  • Over in Kilburn, Powers bar closed and is to become “Kilburn Ironworks”, a “prime eating and drinking establishment” (I think that means “bar/restaurant”).
  • Chinese/Thai restaurant Paya closed, then installed an enormous wood-fired oven and reopene as Poco Pizza, but still offered the Paya menu for both eat-in and take-out. How long it can last offering two cuisines is unclear.
  • Bon Express begat Pizzeria Naila begat Adam’s Grill of the flashing sign. Adam’s Grill rather nicely laid on a free taster evening recently, suggesting it’s serious about staying in the area, but it’ll have to work hard to compete with the permanently busy West End Charcoal Grill.
  • Over in the O2 centre, we began the year being promised a host of new tenants, but only Byron, BoConcept and Tiger have yet materialised. It’s not clear what’s happened to Wagamama and Rossopomodoro is now slated to be a Frankie & Benny’s.

Party in the New Year in West Hampstead

By popular demand, here’s a round-up of New Year’s Eve events in West Hampstead (and a couple in Kilburn). Whether your idea of a good night involves karaoke, fancy dress, or a three-course dinner, there’s a party for you.

The Gallery, 190 Broadhurst Gardens
There’s an ‘80s-themed party at The Gallery, with fancy dress encouraged – prizes for the best outfits! Open until 3am. £10 entry, book in advance to avoid disappointment.

The Railway, 100 West End Lane
Fancy a traditional New Year sing-song? The Railway is celebrating with a karaoke night, and is open until 1am. Free entry, just turn up.

La Brocca, 273 West End Lane
Fancy dress is welcome, and the theme is “famous film stars”. They promise to be “open very late”. Free entry.

The Alice House, 283-285 West End Lane
The Alice House is also embracing fancy dress – the theme here is “Après-ski”, so a good opportunity to dust off those Christmas jumpers for another outing. Advance tickets, including a drink, are £10. Tickets on the door £15. VIP packages available – check with the venue.

Mill Lane Bistro, 77 Mill Lane
If your idea of seeing in the new year in style is in candlelit surroundings with dinner and drinks, look no further than Mill Lane Bistro. Details and full menu here: http://www.milllanebistro.com/events. Three courses, £40

The Black Lion, 295-297 West End Lane
The Black Lion is mirrorballing The Gallery: there’ll be a DJ from 9pm playing 80s tunes and 80s dress is encouraged. It’s £5 before 9pm, £8 after. They say tickets are selling fast so it’s a good idea to book in advance. Open till 3am.

The Alliance, 40-42 Mill Lane
A party with a DJ from 9pm. Open till late. Free entry (“probably – it usually is” said the woman who answered the phone).

The Good Ship, 289 Kilburn High Road
The Good Ship is open until 4am and promises “a raucous party”. Check out full details. £10.

Priory Tavern, 250 Belsize Road
DJ (Sid Trotter) 10pm-3am; free entry, “bubbles on offer, a variety of shots and table snacks for all”. Full details.

There you have it. If none of these appeal… then you’re a tough customer. But the Jubilee Line is open late with free travel between 23:45 and 04:30 so London is your oyster (card).

How will you be celebrating the start of 2014?

The Twelve Best Christmas Presents You Never Knew You Could Buy In West Hampstead

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Mulled wine. Chestnuts roasting by an open fire. And of course, the annual ritual of present-shopping. Trying to seek inspiration in the same old chain stores on Oxford Street, or waiting anxiously for Amazon deliveries, can really put a dampener on the festivities, don’t you find?

But wait! What if you could shop for your nearest and dearest without even leaving the ‘hood? Your wish has been answered, for here is a small selection of the most desirable gifts in West Hampstead. I truly am dreaming of a #whamp Christmas…

1. Box of 24 house truffles, £36
Cocoa Bijoux, Broadwell Parade, Broadhurst Gardens

You won’t find any dull selection boxes here – Cocoa Bijoux is a treasure trove of unusual and delicious gifts. There’s something for every budget too, starting at chocolate snowmen for 65p.

2. Bodum travel coffee press, £16
James Nicholas, 166 West End Lane

The coffee-loving commuter will be thrilled to receive this stylish cafetière that doubles as a portable cup.

3. Massage voucher, £40 (usually £50, 20% off)
Yi Dao Clinic, 61 Mill Lane

This great-value voucher for an hour’s deep tissue massage or reflexology is a lovely present for anyone in need of a relaxing treat to kick off the New Year.

4. F. Scott Fitzgerald special editions, £14.99 each
West End Lane Books, 277 West End Lane

Fitzgerald fans will love these special edition hardbacks of seven books, each with a different gorgeous art deco jacket.

5. Vintage silk scarf, £10
Marie Curie Cancer Care, 216 West End Lane

With five charity shops on West End Lane, you’re sure to find some gems. This Pierre Cardin scarf is a bargain at just £10.

6. Potted cyclamen, £4
Mill Lane Garden Centre, The Open Space, 160 Mill Lane

While you’re at the garden centre picking up your Christmas tree (hurry, because they’re selling out fast), pick up a pot plant decorated with festive ribbon. It’ll flower year after year, making it the gift that keeps on giving.

7. Revolution jumper, £59
Social, 184 West End Lane

For the fashionable man in your life (or woman – I was quite tempted to buy this for myself), this cool graphic-design sweater is expertly modelled here by boutique owner Jake.

8. Independently bottled single malt whisky, £85.99
Robert Graham Whisky & Cigars, Broadwell Parade, Broadhurst Gardens

As its name suggests, this is a shop that takes whisky and cigars seriously. There’s even a walk-in humidor filled with a huge selection of Cuba’s finest. This bottle of Highland malt would make a special gift.

9. Mini canvas, £29 each
Monsters of Art, 112 Mill Lane

The Monsters of Art gallery has a fantastic selection of urban and street art, including limited-edition prints by resident tattooist Dan Gold. These mini canvases are quirky and fun.

10. Penguin sewing kit, £10.95
The Village Haberdashery, 47 Mill Lane

Ideal for crafty kids, this cute kit contains everything you need to sew a family of three penguins. The Village Haberdashery also runs sewing classes for adults and children: gift cards are available.

11. White furry hat, £16
La Secret Boutique, 132 West End Lane

Big, furry and glamorous, this snuggly hat is the perfect gift for the snow-bunny in your life. It’s really warm, too.

12. Selection of ales, £9
Oddbins, 229 West End Lane

As well as a great selection of festive wine and champagne, Oddbins also has something for the ale-lover. This gift box from the East London Brewing Company should hit the spot.

That’s my selection – what wonderful locally-sourced gifts will you be leaving under the tree this Christmas?

Tuesday 17th: Kebabs are on Adam

Need a break from all the planning and politics? Want to get back to those heady days of food and meet-up? Have I got a meat treat for you.

Next Tuesday, the 17th, Adam’s Grill – they of the flashing sign by the tube station – are offering #whampers some free tasters. Yes, free. They are offered for “all the followers of your blog”, which would be about 12,000 people, so lets just hope they’re braced.

From 7-8pm, there’ll be trays of tasters for people who wish to mingle and socialise inside, and “goody bags” for those who want to sample grilled delights on the move. They’ve got a photographer coming apparently so no dribbling hot sauce down your best frock.

No need to let anyone know if you’re coming, though do please come along. They’ve volunteered this off their own bat as they felt that that they hadn’t met the standards they expect of themselves when Dan went for a mystery diner review a little while back. It’s very kind of them to offer, so why not check it out. Mine’s a lamb shish wrap no sauce, extra chillies.

Business Assocation finds new momentum

Tomorrow evening, the West Hampstead Business Association holds its reLaunch event. An early disclaimer: West Hampstead Life is involved in the WHBA and has been helping the existing committee think through this revamp.

Why now? ¦ Launch event ¦ Aims ¦ Should I join? ¦ Cost ¦ More info

The WHBA was set up in 2011 with support from Cllr Gillian Risso-Gill, and was involved in bringing the farmers’ market to the neighbourhood and in the initial negotiations to relocate the post office into the Sherriff Centre in St James’ Church. But momentum had waned.

Why reLaunch now?
It won’t have escaped your notice that West Hampstead is going through some major changes in terms of residential developments, with more on the horizon.

The WHBA wants to harness the drive and enthusiasm of local businesses to ensure that the local economy captures these benefits, while ensuring we have a mixed, vibrant business environment. It is not pro-independent shops and anti-chains, nor is it fixated on West End Lane.

These are tough times for all businesses, and the WHBA will also seek to help local businesses by sharing ideas, looking at ways to lower costs, and finding innovative solutions in order to keep them competitive.

There are a wide range of issues that concern businesses – some local: rents, parking, dirty streets; some larger in scale: the threat from online shopping, business rates, getting to grips with new payment technologies and social media… there are many more.

With all these factors in play, the WHBA decided to revamp and relaunch in order to get the drive and enthusiasm back. The committee is:

  • André Millodot from The Wet Fish Café
  • David Matthews from Dutch & Dutch
  • Reuben Miller from Alexanders
  • Jennie Vincent from The Kitchen Table
Launch event – take two
Boris Johnson turning up a couple of weeks ago was a surprise – he had been invited to the launch event, but more in hope than expectation. With just three days’ notice of his sudden visit, it wasn’t possible to bring the whole launch event forward, so a mail went out to the original WHBA mailing list and a good crowd turned out to hear the Mayor talk about what City Hall could do to support West Hampstead businesses.

The proper reLaunch event is Wednesday December 11th. If you’re a local business and you didn’t get an invite, then please mail , or just turn up.

It starts at 6pm downstairs at The Gallery on Broadhurst Gardens (I believe there’s mulled wine available). At around 6.45pm we have a guest speaker. Leo Hollis, author of Cities Are Good For You, will speak for 15 minutes about the link between high streets and communities. Leo’s a local too, so he’ll be able to bring a West Hampstead angle to his talk. The WHBA committee will also explain in a bit more detail what the association hopes to achieve and the benefits of joining up.

What will the WHBA actually do?
At the heart of the revamp is the idea that the WHBA shouldn’t become a talking shop, but should deliver tangible results. Campaigns will therefore be limited but specific, and combine some short-term easy wins, and some longer term issues. The committee is extremely open to (i.e., “wants”) ideas and contributions from members.

First up, there’s a push to raise the profile of West Hampstead as a place to do business – and there are several strands to this, such as making a promotional video, getting a better Wikipedia entry for West Hampstead, and boosting the PR activity. In the longer term, Camden is consulting on parking issues a lot at the moment, and this is a challenge given that residents and businesses have very different needs.

To debate all these issues and to collect the thoughts of the whole business community, the WHBA is going online with a forum and a monthly e-mail newsletter, both for paid members only. The forum is the place to raise concerns, share ideas, solve problems and build consensus. The newsletter will capture each month’s hot topics, bring a round-up of local business news, and share wider trends. I’ll be writing the newsletter, and I can honestly say I think it’s worth the membership fee alone!

Should I join?
If you’re a business based in, or operating in West Hampstead, then yes. The WHBA will welcome freelancers to supermarkets, mechanics to property developers. If improving the business environment matters to you, then you should join in. It will help locals share ideas about how to run their businesses more efficiently and competitively, as well as making more visible changes to the area. So even if you don’t have customer-facing premises, the WHBA can offer significant benefits. Come to the reLaunch event and find out more!

The committee believes that professionalisation of the WHBA is vital, which does incur some admin cost. However, most of the subscription fees will be ploughed into campaigns. There may be specific initiatives where the WHBA needs to raise more money – for example beautifying the street or getting better Christmas trees for next year! It will, of course, extract money from other sources where possible, but we all know how tight public sector funding is.

The cost
The cost to join is based on the size of your business, and if you join before December 31st, then you get a whopping 50% discount.

Membership is valid for 12 months.

  • Freelancer £25 (£50 from Jan 1st)
  • Single shopfront £75 (£150 from Jan 1st)
  • Double shopfront £125 (£250 from Jan 1st)
  • Multiple £200 (£400 from Jan 1st)

As well as your money, what the association really needs is your commitment. Not every issue the WHBA tackles will benefit every business equally, but a collective effort to support the local business community will undoubtedly be for the good of the local economy.

Where can I find out more?
If you can’t make it to the reLaunch event, then do contact the WHBA and someone will get back to you. It’s also on Twitter @WhampBiz, or just go to the website, where you can also sign up.In the meantime, download the flyer that’s been handed out, or read it below. If you’d like to join, then fill it in and hand it in to any of the committee or scan and e-mail back. Someone will then contact you regarding payment.

Naturally, as one of the people behind this revamp, I’m excited by the possibilities it offers. From simple stuff like better Christmas trees on West End Lane, to thornier issues like retaining a good mix of job types, I believe that a healthy local economy and a healthy community go hand-in-hand. Don’t grouch from the sidelines, West Hampstead is changing and the WHBA is changing with it. Be part of it.

Dear Mr Goodwin – tidy your Tesco

There’s a new manager at Fortune Green Tesco Express – a Mr Goodwin.

Mark Stonebanks, chair of the Friends of Fortune Green, bumped into him. In light of last week’s Twitter conversation between Robert Webb and a few other locals about the state of that particular branch, Mark took his e-mail address and then sent him this rather good letter with a set of accompanying photos, of which I’ve only included a handful:

Dear Mr Goodwin,

As promised I’m dropping you a quick email about the terrible impression that leaving cages and packaging outside the store has on the area. I am chair of the Friends of Fortune Green which has significantly improved the Green over the past five years and we seek to continue to improve the area. Before I comment on the cages and rubbish I thought I would share with you a link to a recent twitter discussion on the Fortune Green store (it was referenced in a local newsletter that goes out to over 1,000 local people and on a twitter feed with more than 8,000 followers).

Photo via @arobertwebb

Locals are sick and tired of the poor look of this store. Both inside and out, e.g. the cages and rubbish. When the building was getting planning permission we were told in the original transport assessment for the development (in which the store is situated) written by Colin Buchanan and partners (August 2003) which clearly states in point 4.

At such a size of development, adequate facilities have been provided on-site for refuse collection and servicing of the proposed commercial units.

Do the photos below look like there is adequate on-site refuse collection? Leaving your rubbish outside the store for much of the day is not a solution, creates a terrible impression and blocks your valuable window space. Not only is it ugly it doesn’t even make sense for Tesco.

In a way the twitter discussion (i.e not enough stock) and the photos (too much delivery waste) are opposite problems, if you increase the stock you create more waste. But I’m sure you can find a solution. Can you impress on your managers that this is terrible brand imaging for Tesco (as the twitter discussion shows). The business is being run too ‘hot’ and Tesco externalise costs (leaving your rubbish outside) at the expense of the local area and residents. This is also a problem for the West End Lane store (I have more photos). No other retailer on West End Lane does this and it is unacceptable.

It seems to me that an option is that Tesco needs to increase the size of its storerooms, which might be at the cost of short term profit but will pay off in the long term. The Neighbourhood Development Forum, of which I am part, has been surveying local residents about what they like and dislike about West Hampstead. There are many likes (it is a nice area) but litter and rubbish was top of the dislikes – Tesco is a prime culprit (see below).

Yours sincerely,

Mark Stonebanks
Chair, Friends of Fortune Green
Treasurer, West Hampstead NDF

This is just a random selection of photos taken over the past few month.

Christmas Market day extends to local shops and restaurants

On Saturday November 30th, West End Green once again hosts the local Christmas market from 10am to 4pm. This is the fourth year of the popular craft/gift market and business is expected to be brisk. Stallholders range from local favourites such as Bake-a-boo, Achillea Flowers and La Secret Boutique, to craft stores such as Nudi Design, Made in Achilles, and Artangles.

Also, for the first time, more businesses in West Hampstead are joining in the day with in-store offers and promotions, which should help make this the best Christmas shopping (and eating) day yet. There’s a dedicated Christmas Market website, so I’ll just give you a few highlights (check the website for timings).

As well as the market stalls on the green, there are kid-friendly activities in Emmanuel Church – again, here’s a selection

Why not go to the Christmas market in the morning, take advantage of one of the lunch deals, and then go to the Beckford School Winter Fair in the afternoon?

I’m one of those grouchy people who thinks Christmas markets should be in December, but I shall definitely be there – with my glass of mulled wine and turkey tikka biryani in hand to do some early Christmas shopping. See you all there.

Poco Pizza puzzles punters

Last week, an intrepid group of locals, aka “Team Pizza”, checked out the latest addition to the neighbourhood, Poco Pizza. Eugene tells the story.

Poco Pizza recently opened in West Hampstead on the site of Paya. Confusingly, the management hasn’t changed and the Paya sign still sits above the window, while a wrap-around sheet advertises the pizzas.

Inside, we were given both Paya’s original Chinese/Thai food menu and the pizza menu. A wood fired pizza oven has been installed right in the middle of the restaurant, so customers can see the pizza chef at work. Offering two such different cuisines doesn’t always inspire confidence, so Team Pizza approached with trepidation.

We’d looked at the take-away menu before, which had items I’d never seen on a pizza before such as mussels on the Marinara. Indeed, it had whole pizzas I’d never heard of: a cheeseburger pizza (minced beef, thinly sliced onions, pepper, pickle relish, ketchup, yellow mustard, bacon, lettuce and chopped tomatoes) and a chilli cheese dog pizza (all beef hot dogs, olive oil, finely chopped garlic, chilli with beans, onions, chopped dill pickles, shredded cheddar, ketchup and yellow mustard). Bizarrely, the online version of the take-away menu omits these two and the “Greek Pizza”.

Having seen this menu, and hearing of 41 possible extra toppings, we were a bit surprised to see that the restaurant menu was more limited than the takeaway menu; in fact it was more or less completely different and one-size only. There was still a good choice, but there was no cheeseburger or chilli cheese dog pizza here. In fact, the restaurant menu was very orthodox, and prices were reasonable, ranging from £8.50 to £12.50.

The house white was perfectly serviceable house; the wine list isn’t extensive, but that’s fine for a place like this. Strangely, we noticed there were four different pots of pepper – of varying shapes and size, but no salt shaker at all.

After starters of olives and peppers stuffed with what claimed to be feta cheese, but tasted distinctly like cream cheese, we tucked into our pizzas. The consensus was that the dough was too soft; certainly mine felt just about baked but it wouldn’t have suffered from another minute or two in the oven, or just a higher temperature. The cheese was melted and browned in parts, but still seemed a little runny on the base. It was the same story with the porcini. And on pretty much everyone’s pizza. Nothing was bad, although Tom said his pizza was very underseasoned. It just all felt a bit watery. Nicky’s Fiorentina (unconventionally served with goat’s cheese) had the freshest ingredients, with baby spinach leaves attractively scattered on top.

Certainly Poco does not skimp on the toppings. I had a mushroom-based pizza that was dripping in funghi. Across the table, Dan’s meat feast was loaded with ground beef, sausage, chicken, salami and bacon.

The service was friendly, and we all felt bad that we were a bit full to try the tiramisu, which we were assured had been freshly made in the kitchen that afternoon. Such was the hard sell of the tiramisu in fact, that we began to suspect it was by far the best thing on the menu.

The problem, it seems, with Poco is that it is over-complicating the humble pizza with all these toppings, when it would be better to keep things simple. We are spoilt for choice of pizza in West Hampstead – with Sarracino, La Brocca, Bellaluna, La Smorfia, Lupa, Papa John’s, Domino’s and Basilico on the Finchley Road. Given this competition, Poco will need to up its game. This could be a classic case of “less is more” and with fewer ingredients on the menu it shoud be easier to ensure they are fresh and that the cooking times become more uniform.

Poco Pizza
96 West End Lane
020 7624 2625

Opening eve of Adam’s Grill

Kebab newcomer Adam’s Grill opened yesterday. Dan went along to road test it.

Having finally been for a jog-walk-jog, I deserved a kebab, and with Adam’s ‘flashing sign’ Grill opening tonight, this was a perfect opportunity.

With a friend in tow, we shuffled past the group of nervous owners standing by the door and immediately couldn’t find the kebabs on the menu (they’re down the bottom below the starters). I ordered a chicken schwarma wrap for comparative purposes, even though it looked pretty dry on the kebab machine, and the lamb schwarma looked better.
My partner in crime ordered a minced lamb (kofte, I assume) on pastry, but, having only just opened they didn’t have the right machine yet so he switched his order to a lamb shish wrap.

There’s a nice little area of tables and chairs so we sat and waited (this isn’t one of those silly pseudo-restaurants that charge more to eat your kebab in the warmth indoors) for the shish to be grilled. There was a good selection of salad, including beetroot and slices of pickle (no chillies), and it came wrapped in two very thin tortilla-styles wraps.

After a quick toast and squish in the pannini machine, the disappointingly girl-sized kebabs were at our table, and we got stuck in. My first bite confirmed my suspicion that the chicken was a dry, and certainly hadn’t been marinated. The bread was rather dry too, so I recommend a drink.

The salad, however, was pretty good, with the pickles surprisingly tasty and well flavoured. I went for garlic sauce, having shunned the chilli sauce, but I couldn’t taste it.

My friend, despite unwrapping the whole thing like an amateur so it slid inelegantly out of the other end of the tortilla, was reasonably pleased with it, saying the lamb shish was tasty, but agreed that the bread was dry.
All in all, Adam’s Grill is run by a nice bunch of guys, and they’ve got lots of other dishes to choose from.

This is a very ‘Lebanese’ kebab, but it isn’t a patch on the Ranoush Juice chain. For local comparison, the lamb shish wrap wasn’t as good as Ekin on Priory Road. Similarly, the chicken schwarma wasn’t as good as Amaan’s Grill on West End Lane, which is nicely marinated and comes in freshly baked tandoori bread. And it probably isn’t a good drunken hangover-preventing fatty kebab either.

Final verdict: 5/10

Bellaluna surprises… in a good way

It’s been around since last December, but we’d never actually reviewed Bellaluna. Somehow the brown sign hadn’t lured me in and although I know predecessor J’s had a devout following, my own experiences there had never been spectacular. It was, therefore, with mild trepidation that our group of six ventured into the brightly lit restaurant for the first of the rebooted whampreviews.

And we had a damn nice meal.

Slightly suspicious of the set price menu, which just seemed too cheap, we ploughed our way manfully through a wide range of starters. A glance at the table behind us where a man appeared to be eating a plain pizza base elicited a cry of “garlic bread!” from James, and that was promptly added to our order.

The starters were the highlight of the meal for almost everyone – nicely presented, generously portioned, and suitably varied for us to all enjoy. Main courses were good, but more of a mixed bag. My grilled tuna steak was ok, but definitely a bit overcooked; the pizzas looked nice but not quite up to Sarracino or even La Brocca standard. Kimberly’s chicken and spaghetti dish was the most underwhelming – more something from a disappointing children’s party than a West Hampstead restaurant. Tom’s seafood pasta was the best looking dish.

We worked our way through a few bottles of the Nero d’Avola (£17.90) [top wine tip: if Sicilian wine is on a menu, order it], and some of us even had room to trouble the dessert menu.

Overall though, Bellaluna exceeded expectations. Friendly service, food that was good value and enjoyable, and (bright lighting aside) a nice atmosphere. It’s not a special occasion sort of place, but if you fancy a cheaper meal out on West End Lane, then definitely check it out.

Now, the idea of the new-format whampreview is that my fellow reviewers each get to have their say. Here goes:

James: Starters were probably the most impressive part of the meal; generous helpings of freshly prepared dishes, which were perfect for sharing as a table. I particularly enjoyed the melanzane alla parmigiana (oven-baked aubergines). My pizza dello chef was good value and was effectively their take on Pizza Express’ popular pollo ad astra. My companions seemed to find the inclusion of sweetcorn somewhat laughable, but it was an enjoyable pizza with just the right amount of toppings. For dessert I sampled the panna cotta [Ed: “sampled”? Surely “scoffed”], which seemed genuinely homemade, but would have been better without the strawberry sauce from a squeezy bottle. Overall, this is a good quality local Italian restaurant that is worthy of its place on West End Lane. And there’s nothing wrong with liking sweetcorn on your pizza.

Elena: I was positively surprised by the dinner at Bellaluna. The tiramisu was great and the starters were also very good. The imported buffalo mozzarella was very fresh and the ham and bresaola were very good quality. The spaghetti bolognese was good, although I preferred the starters and the desserts. Overall, a good value experience.

Kimberly: I’d always been a bit dismissive of Bellaluna based on the frequent (too-good-to-be-true?) deals advertised outside and the slightly cold décor. However, the food was much better than appearances might suggest. It’s a thoroughly decent local Italian at reasonable prices. I particularly enjoyed the mix of starters, with some good parma ham and buffalo mozzarella in the insalata Bellaluna, a good melanzane alla parmigiana and tasty calamari fritti. And despite my companions’ scoffing that I’d basically chosen a children’s meal with a pollo alla Milanese: the pasta was good and the chicken was flavoursome; though, spoilt as we are in West Hampstead, you might expect more than breadcrumbed chicken and tomato pasta for the price. The wine was very drinkable, perhaps best displayed by the fact I can’t remember which red it was now. I’d definitely go back – though I might opt for something more adventurous for my main course next time.

Tom: I enjoyed our evening at Bellaluna. Starters were appetising and fresh, with the bresaola deep in flavour as well as colour. Garlic flatbread was great, while hams, shaved Parmesan and a baked aubergine dish were all very pleasing. My main – seafood tagliatelle – was a robust dish; the pasta seemed to have been finished in the nicely-gauged, tomato and white wine based sauce, and there were some very fresh and gently cooked prawns to savour. Salads – not bad – I’d have preferred a sharper, traditional dressing (sod off, balsamic!), some onions (absent from the mixed option), and being a little fussy, tomatoes at room temperature. Service was great and the restaurant clean, neat and appealing. I’ll be pleased to go back.

Nicky: I liked Bellaluna more than I thought I would – the welcome was warm and the room felt cosier than its outward appearance suggests. The selection of starters we shared were all a bit too hearty for me. Rather than delicious little morsels to stimulate the appetite, the big plates that arrived loaded with cheese, salad and cold meats made me feel anxious that I wouldn’t be able to eat much of the main course. But maybe that’s just me. My Fiorentina pizza was good – thin, hot, and correctly served with a soft egg. As predicted though, I couldn’t finish it. It’s not trendy or romantic, but the food is decent and good value. I’d go again for a gossipy catch-up with a group of friends.

218 West End Lane
West Hampstead
t: 020 7435 3703
w: bellalunawesthampstead.co.uk

Bellaluna on Urbanspoon

Will Mario’s new life be sufficiently super?

I get asked regularly about Mario’s. Mario’s is the long-closed Greek restaurant on the corner of Broadhurst Gardens and West Hampstead Mews. It may soon be remembered only from photos.

The outer wall is straight. The building less so!

It’s now an overgrown empty building on the corner of a block that is slowly crumbling. The freeholders use it as a workshop occasionally. I even saw a pool table in there once.

Mario’s has been closed, I guess, for about five years. It used to be a friendly neighbourhood restaurant and if you got take-away, they’d always throw in some chips or a free salad. One of the last times I went, David Soul (Hutch from the original Starsky & Hutch) was at the table next to us.

Despite being a large restaurant in a good location, the premises has been empty ever since Mario went back to Cyprus (where I hear he runs a very successful restaurant). It’s too big for most independents to take on – especially given the structural repair work needed; while the chain restaurants with deep pockets would always prefer somewhere on West End Lane, oblivious to the lively atmosphere on Broadhurst in the evenings, and the proximity to the tube station.

When the freeholder died some years ago, I understand that his sons inherited not just the Mario’s site, but the entire block, right up to (but not including) the ENO building that used to house Decca Studios (of Beatles rejection fame). Unfortunately, despite owning a rather valuable piece of real estate, the sons had no cash with which to repair it.

The whole block would be redeveloped

Full-scale redevelopment was therefore always on the cards, and appears to have taken a significant step closer to fruition. This week I received an e-mail:

We are preparing plans to re-develop the site to improve the quality of the ground floor commercial accommodation and the residential units above. The existing building is in a very poor state, both internally and externally. We believe a new build scheme will improve the area. We are having a public exhibition on the site between 4pm -8pm on 16th October 2013 to display a number of plans.

I have no inside knowledge on what the plans are in any detail, but I’m looking forward to finding out. I hope that the height of any new building would be in keeping with the buildings in the immediate vicinity.

This land falls just outside the West Hampstead growth area, so there is less presumption in favour of development. Nevertheless, much as it will be a shame to see the old red brick building vanish, with its faded advert on the side, and tenants who’ll need to find somewhere else to live, it will be good to see new life come to what was once a stalwart of the West Hampstead dining scene. I wouldn’t say no to another really good Greek restaurant.

The writing is indeed on the wall for this building

Will flashing sign be allowed to remain?

The small unit between Benham & Reeves and the Nisa corner shop has been everything from a kebab shop to a… er… kebab shop over recent years. Apart from a brief stint as a cake shop. Over the past few days it’s been repainted gold, and the word on the street was “Lebanese café”, which I’m afraid I took to mean “kebab shop”, possibly very unfairly.

This evening its name was revealed: Adam’s Grill.

Who Adam is and what he’ll be grilling remain to be seen. What is seen all too clearly is the flashing multicolour sign that’s gone up projecting from the side of the shopfront.

A cursory glance at Camden’s planning database suggests that Adam (or the people behind him – I suspect he’s just a figurehead) may not have applied for the necessary planning permission for this sign. I wouldn’t normally be that bothered about such council pedantry, except this sign is awful. It’s the illumination that puts it in contravention of the rules and that I suspect won’t be tolerated for long. If you want to read all the information about when you do and don’t need planning permission for signs, be my guest (page 19 is the relevant one).

Waitrose’s “long-standing ambition”

Waitrose has finally issued a press release about its probable West Hampstead opening on the Pizza Express site. Assuming it clears the planning hurdles, the John Lewis Partnership, which owns Waitrose, expects to create up to 50 new jobs, with all employees becoming partners.

Waitrose Director of Development, Nigel Keen, said:

When the the unit became available, we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to realise a long-standing ambition to open a shop in West Hampstead and add the Waitrose brand to an already impressive collection of independent shops and established high street chains. We would welcome the chance to open here and play our part in ensuring it remains a vibrant village which continues to attract visitors.

Just that pesky planning permission to get now – and already a few locals are starting to grumble about the noise of deliveries. Hard to see it being enough to stop the deal being done. Waitrose says in its release that it plans to open early next year.

Little Waitrose; big lorries?

Ever since the licence application was spotted in the window of Pizza Express late last month, West Hampstead (at least on Twitter) has been abuzz with the news that Waitrose is planning to move to the neighbourhood. But what impact will another supermarket have in terms of noise and traffic, and will the fabric of the existing building be changed?

Locals’ reactions to the arrival of Waitrose have been mixed. Some have decried the appearance of yet another chain (although it’s not clear which independents are left to be wiped out), others are happy to see what is perceived as a better quality supermarket arrive, and there is a group concerned less with the corporatisation of West End Lane and more with the impact on traffic from deliveries.

This week, Waitrose submitted a slew of planning applications, which address noise, delivery and building alteration issues.

@WHampstead If it is to go ahead, it would indeed be a Little Waitrose. Thanks.
— Waitrose (@waitrose) September 12, 2013

There’s the first – it will be a Little Waitrose – the chain’s relatively new small-format version. This seems likely to be the mysterious fourth 2013 opening referred to in this Waitrose press release.

Secondly, there will be no on-site parking, which had been another concern for some. The full planning application has the relevant section.

The application proposals are for some minor alterations, a roof mounted plant room to house internal plant equipment, and new signage. The shopfront would have a powder coated aluminium fascia panel and new automatic sliding doors.

The existing shopfront will be retained, including the columns which provide an attractive frontage to West End Lane. Minor alterations are proposed in order to reflect the rebranding of the premises as Little Waitrose. Overall, the works are considered to preserve and enhance the appearance and
character of the Conservation Area.

The design approach for the remainder of the site has been to limit the number of external alterations to the building. Waitrose have worked hard to design a plant system which can be accommodated internally within the building and therefore avoid the need to provide air condenser units or other plant equipment externally. The proposed small roof mounted extension to the rear pitched roof and the louvre arrangement to the side of the building will only be visible from the side (West Cottages) elevation and will respect the character and proportions of the building.

Vehicle deliveries
Given the chaos (and ill-feeling) caused by Tesco delivery lorries, which block traffic on West End Lane, it’s not surprising that Waitrose’s delivery schedule will come under very close scrutiny.

Its submissions on the topic are reassuringly detailed, but I shall endeavour to summarise for you here:

Waitrose is suggesting that deliveries could take place using the pay & display bays either side of the fire station forecourt outside of the 8am-6.30pm pay & display hours. Naturally, it would need to ensure access to those bays outside of those hours, so is proposing loading bay restrictions for 6am-8am ad 6.30pm-8.30pm Monday to Sunday. If we look at Waitrose’s own analysis of how those bays are used now at those times, we see that occupancy rates in the mornings are: 66% at the weekends, and 84% Monday-Friday. In the evening period, the bays are occupied 100% of the time. Making them loading bays – even during this short period – will therefore have an impact on local parking.

Normally, the shop would be serviced by one 14.5m long articulated lorry arriving at 6am, It would need up to an hour to unload stock and reload empty cages.At particularly busy times of the year, such as Christmas, a second articulated lorry delivery may be required between 6.30pm and 7.30pm.

All sounds reasonable so far I guess. There is a caveat here though. This Waitrose lorry wouldn’t actually be the only delivery the shop would receive. “Ancillary servicing” would include:

  • Lenhams (crisp boxes) 12m rigid lorry – three to four times per week
  • Bunzl (cardboard) 12m rigid lorry – once a week
  • Newspapers – small van daily
  • Bread supplier – small van daily
  • Waste (food and general) – four to five times per week

Waitrose argues that it dictates when these deliveries occur, and notes that all servicing activities carried out at its Highbury Corner branch are completed by 7am every day. Whether that is viable for West Hampstead will be up for debate.

In an interesting aside, the company points out that “whilst the Council has advised that they would be minded to support the use of the parking bays as a loading bay between 7am and 8pm in principle, it is clear that Waitrose only require the loading bay to be operational for four hours per day (two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening)”

If Camden did give up these two bays it would expect Waitrose to compensate it for loss of income for two years; however, given the extent to which local businesses are clamouring for more visitor parking in West Hampstead, retaining the bays seems like it would bring far more benefit to the local economy at large. It’s surprising that Camden isn’t therefore towing a harder line on this, but reassuring that Waitrose seems minded to save the bays anyway, although it still wants those four hours a day for loading. (of course with no on-site parking, these bays would also be its nearest parking spots)

Impact on traffic
That particular stretch of road is a little tight, especially with the traffic island in the way. Waitrose therefore looked at whether buses can pass each other on West End Lane while there’s a delivery lorry parked in one of the bays. The answer appears to be yes, although it does look a little tight. Still, tight is better than stuck.

The analysis shows that the bus isable to satisfactorily manoeuvre through the Zebra crossing and past a parked Waitrose lorry without affecting the crossing or encroaching the opposing traffic lane. The diagram below is a bit hard to see, but shows a pink lorry parked outside Pizza Express and a blue northbound bus moving past it while a southbound bus travels in the other lane. It’s a tight squeeze as you can see.

There are pages more on the delivery system for those who want to get into the detail (see Appendix A).

One of the reasons Tesco delivers during the day is because local residents objected to the idea of nighttime deliveries. Noise assessments are therefore interesting. The detail here is hard to understand for the layman (me), but the main message seems to be that although the noise from deliveries would exceed accepted levels, the ambient noise at that location already exceeds accepted levels and the additional impact of Waitrose deliveries would in fact be negligible (they argue less than is actually perceptible). In other words, West End Lane is noisy at 6.30am already, and residents won’t notice the difference.

Whether this takes into account the difference between ambient noise and the sudden jolting noise of a metal cage being wheeled off a lorry isn’t clear to me.

Opening hours
Waitrose is asking for permission to open at 7am each morning (an hour
earlier than those premises are currently permitted to open). Clearly it wants to capture the rush hour pedestrians flowing down from Mill Lane and Fortune Green towards the West Hampstead stations.

Proposed floor plan (click for larger version)

One small caveat to all this – I heard from a reliable source that the leaseholder of the building also lives in one of the flats above Pizza Express. The leaseholder has to give consent for a change of use, as I understand it, so this may not all be quite as clear cut as we imagine.

Waitrose coming to West Hampstead

It’s been the most persistent rumour in West Hampstead since I’ve been running this website… Pizza Express is closing and Marks & Spencer is moving in. It had such traction that I wrote to Pizza Express a few years ago to see if it was closing down. I was reassured that this was one of its more profitable branches and no closure was imminent.

How times have changed.

There is a small sign up next to the door that announces in a rather oblique way that Waitrose, not Marks & Spencer, is applying for an alcohol licence. The licence application can’t yet be viewed online.

According to a local resident, James Leslie, the staff at Pizza Express have confirmed that Waitrose will be taking over the premises in the next three to six months. Surveyors have also apparently put a mirophone on the roof to measure the current sound levels. Could this be in advance of planning nighttime deliveries?

The application signs were also on nearby lamp posts and railings yesterday, but were removed last night.

This would give us four metro-format supermarkets, with another one set to open in West Hampstead Square. Ballymore had namedropped Waitrose, as well as Marks & Spencer, and the less well-known “grocer to the royals” Partridges. M&S would now seem to be the prime candidate for that location.

Waitrose is expanding fairly rapidly. According to its website, “This year we have set our sights on opening up to ten new supermarkets and ten new ‘little Waitrose’ convenience shops.”

Reaction on Twitter was fairly predictable:

@WHampstead Great news. My quality of life has just gone up a notch.
— Marc Fink (@martifink) August 24, 2013

@WHampstead there go my savings.
— Joshua Green (@JoshuaCGreen) August 24, 2013

@WHampstead Best. News. All. Week.
— Philip Hewlett (@PhilipHewlett) August 24, 2013

@WHampstead Yay, fingers and toes crossed!

Want a butcher? Why don’t you pay for it?

Picasso’s – West Hampstead’s short-lived and misnamed pizzeria – is rumoured to be becoming another pizzeria. If true, probably a bad idea.

Whenever a retail or restaurant unit becomes available, the clamour begins as everyone says what they’d like to see move in. No-one ever says “West Hampstead really needs another pizza place” but without fail, hordes will ask why we can’t have a butcher. Clearly, walking to Waitrose, which has a very good butcher’s counter, or waiting until Saturday for the (admittedly expensive) farmers’ market stalls, isn’t an option for these people.

I would love a butcher to open here, but I’m also realistic about its chances of survival. It is a pretty hard business to run these days: competition from the supermarkets, the requirement for fresh stock and sizeable and expensive-to-run refrigeration space and the fact that, for all the baying of West Hampstead would-be customers, a lot of people still baulk at the idea of paying indepdendent-retailer prices for their meat.

Hampstead Butcher & Providore, which has premises on Rosslyn Hill, was looking to move to West Hampstead a couple of years ago, but then pulled out quite late in the day. It wouldn’t say why, but one has to assume that the deal didn’t make financial sense. No great surprise.

Where do you buy most of your meat?

I’d happily buy from a local butcher, but would I buy into a local butcher? Would I invest in it as a business? No. I don’t believe there are enough people locally who would shop there regularly enough to make it a viable operation. Sure, it would be popular on Saturdays, and if it was smart enough to operate like a traiteur and stay open until 8pm, then it might do well with the commuters, but sadly I don’t think that would be enough to keep it going long term.

Want to prove me wrong?

I came across this article the other day, which sums this up rather neatly.

The narrative would usually go that big supermarkets are destroying the variety we all apparently love in our local high street, with many independent retailers going to the wall as a result. It always struck me as odd that if so many people supported local retailers, how they could be in such financial strife. There was clearly a disconnect between the numbers supporting them verbally and those supporting them financially.

Exactly. Enter crowdfunding – the capital-raising tool du jour, beloved of everyone from Amanda Palmer to Ubuntu. The idea is simple, a business venture asks the general public for money. If it reaches the target then it can proceed with its idea. If not enough people pledge money, then nothing happens and no-one’s any the worse off.

Community Sourced Capital, based in Seattle, is seeing whether this idea could work to help local retailers; although there’s a twist – these are interest-free loans rather than donations.

[It] asks people to lend money in $50 chunks, up to a maximum of $250 per project, with each project able to borrow up to $50,000. These funds are then made available to borrowers at zero interest, with repayments made according to income levels.

Once members have had their loan repaid, they can either withdraw their funds, or invest them into another project. The founders of CSC want it to be more akin to lending money between friends rather than the more traditional commercial model, and as such each loan is simple and un-complicated.

The notion is that is an interest-free leg up for an existing local business, rather than a considered investment with a return. Does this mean lenders are more willing to take a gamble? Less interested in scrutinising the balance sheet and business plan?

CSC doesn’t say what happens if the business goes bankrupt. With small sums of money at stake for each investor it’s possible that the loan is simply written off.

What do you think? Would you lend someone up to £250 to get a butcher’s off the ground?

Arriba! Unusual margaritas at Mamacita

After several weeks of anticipation (actually only six, though it’s somehow felt like more), Mamacita, the new Mexican restaurant on West End Lane, finally opened yesterday evening. I was fortunate enough to be the first person through the door, greeted by owner Lorraine with a flower in her hair. Frida Kahlo, the monobrowed Mexican artist whose image has been above the shopfront for the past few weeks, would have been proud.

Even more proud no doubt to have the downstairs bar named after her. Last night’s very soft launch was for the bar only, with the café/restaurant upstairs open today for a trial run of the brunch menu. The full opening will be next weekend.

Last night’s bar menu was heavily focused on the margaritas, which at £6.50 each seemed good value and certainly carried a kick. We tried the classic, the pineapple & chipotle, the hibiscus and the passion fruit & violet.

I can recommend the classic and the pineapple & chipotle (odd combo, but works surprisingly well). The passion fruit & violet one wasn’t for me, and although I didn’t try the hibiscus one it got the nod of approval (from a chocolatier no less).

There were bar snacks available too, though we tried only the chilli & lime popcorn (£2) as we had a meal at Hidden Treasure to get to… and that’s another story…

Local restaurant name comes back to bite it

When it opened back in April 2011, we all thought that it was a brave choice of name.

There were a few sniggers.

The intellectuals pointed out that it meant “papaya leaf” but that didn’t stop the comments.

Mercifully, the place has proved incredibly popular, serving tasty food at very reasonable prices.

Still, it’s not the food that’s led US tabloidy list site Buzzfeed to put West Hampstead’s modern Vietnamese restaurant on its catchily titled list of 32 restaurants that might want to reconsider their names.

Not for a second do I think all of these are “unfortunate accidents”, I suspect some are very deliberate publicity stunts or simply restaurant owners with a sense of humour. As for Tequila Mockingbird – well that’s just inspired. Tumblr site Pu Pu Hot has many many more examples of such naming gaffes/achievements.

Frankly, Ladudu (or Ládudu as it should be written), comes off pretty mildly compared to some of the other names on this list with “It’s OK, you can allow your 4-year-old self to laugh”.

How clean are West Hampstead restaurants?

Congratulations to all those West Hampstead restaurants, cafés, bars and takeaways that have scored a maximum 5/5 on their Food Standards Agency inspections. A pleasingly high number of our local establishments have received top marks, with a similarly healthy number falling just one point short.

Five offenders were awarded just one point (Gung Ho, Cafe Plus, Pizza Micco, Bombay Nights, and Cafe Bon), and one – Roni’s – scored a worrying zero.

View West Hampstead food hygiene scores in a larger map
Red: 0-1, Orange: 2-3, Green: 4-5

What do these numbers actually mean?
0 – Urgent improvement necessary
1 – Major improvement necessary
2 – Improvement necessary
3 – Generally satisfactory
4 – Good
5 – Very good

According to the government’s website,

“The food safety officer inspecting a business checks how well the business is meeting the law by looking at:

  • how hygienically the food is handled – how it is prepared, cooked, re-heated, cooled and stored
  • the condition of the structure of the buildings – the cleanliness, layout, lighting, ventilation and other facilities
  • how the business manages and records what it does to make sure food is safe.”

It is always important to see when the inspection was made. Inspections are supposed to be fairly frequent (as often as every six months in some cases), however, Starbucks in West End Lane was last inspected in August 2008!

How concerned should you be by a low-scoring business? Here’s what The Guardian (who published the data on which this map is based) says:

“Anything less than a score of three out of five constitutes a fail. Businesses given ratings of 0 or 1 are those that need to make urgent or major improvements – but they’re not closed down. That only happens if the food is so unsafe for the public to eat that there’s an imminent risk to health.”

Quite a lot of new businesses haven’t been rated at all – you can see those in white on the map.

For the most up-to-date information, check out the FSA’s own searchable list, and there are Android, iPhone and Windows apps too. Scores on the Doors also publishes the same information.

Seeking the best schnitzel in West Hampstead

I’d just come back from Switzerland where I’d had a really good schnitzel. “I wonder who does the best schnitzel in West Hampstead”, I thought to myself. Suppose I better find out. Then I looked at my waistline and decided I should ask Fiona to find out instead.

“I’d agreed to do a West Hampstead ‘schnitzel-off’ back in those grey days, when “summer” was technically accurate rather than a description of the weather. Four meals of hot fried meat in one week? Sure. Then came the hottest week of the year so far, and my thoughts turned to big salads and poached salmon. Still, aided by some willing friends and a fridge piled high with veggie salads for lunch, I stuck to the plan, and prepared to do battle with the schnitzel on four consecutive nights.

First up was Schnitzel Chicken and More. This café, on the corner of West End Lane and Mill Lane, had prompted a debate on Twitter when it opened a few months ago as to what exactly the ‘more’ would be. Turns out it’s aubergine.

I generally like places that only do one or two things, as long as they do them well. At least it makes for a stress-free ordering process, right? Except, I don’t think I have ever been more flummoxed by a menu. I’m smart, I eat out regularly, so it should have been easy. But it wasn’t. There was just too much choice; you have to choose your style (pita, baguette, salad or platter. Wait, what does the platter come with?), then your filling (chicken, grilled or fried, or aubergine), your schnitzel coating (breadcrumbs, matzo meal or house mix), your flavour (garlic, BBQ, Dijon, oriental, spicy), and then your sides (including a choice of chips or home fries). And then, hold on, what are these favourites at the bottom? The last problem I expected to encounter this week was a difficulty in deciding what to have.

After a good five minutes with the (lovely and patient) waitress we ordered pitas, garlic chicken schnitzel fried for Jonathan, spicy for myself, and sides of hummus and chips to share. As we tucked into the complimentary pickles, two plain pitas, a bowl of hummus, and the chips were brought over. We assumed the schnitzel would arrive separately. The pitas were warm and soft, the hummus creamy with a swirl of tahini in the middle, and the chips hot, salty and crisp. So far so good. We were then asked to come inside to choose from the counter what we wanted in our pitas. But I thought our pitas were already on the table? What was happening now? I opted for red slaw, tomatoes, chilli sauce and yet more hummus. My chicken was tucked inside and I took it back to the table deeply confused.

The schnitzel itself was pretty good; thin and juicy, and coated in a layer of crisp breadcrumbs mixed with sesame seeds. It was also low on the grease (a quality I didn’t fully appreciate at the time) and, when combined with the other fillings, the whole dish was a satisfying, tasty, meal. Having now got the hang of the menu, I would happily go back. The pita on its own would make a lovely lunch.

The following night was an altogether different experience. I met my friend Seán at One Blenheim Terrace, which is on a quiet street nestled between St John’s Wood and West Hampstead. We were seated on the outdoor terrace with a pristine white table cloth laid with polished silver and gleaming bulbous glasses. It was all rather civilised. After the previous night’s hassle I was relieved to find only the one schnitzel on the menu – Weiner Schnitzel Holstein (£22.50) – which we both promptly ordered, along with sides of mash potato and spinach to share. When our schnitzel arrived my first thought was how very large it was.

It was clearly made from good quality veal, but it was a bit chewy and the breadcrumb coating, while having some crispy bits, was covered in a slight residue of oil. The wobbly fried egg, salty capers and anchovies, and nutty beurre noisette, however, were all excellent, as was the mash, which was made with an unhealthy amount of butter and cream (as it should be), and the nutmeg sprinkled spinach. When it came to dessert, we took the in-for-a-penny, in-for-a-pound approach to fat, and ordered deep-fried oreos and profiteroles. Both were delicious, but perhaps not the most sensible choices.

By the third evening I was feeling slightly apathetic at the thought of yet more schnitzel. I arrived at The Gallery a few minutes early, and steeled myself for the task ahead with a swift gin and tonic. As I waited for my friend Tom to arrive, the manager came over to discuss this article. This prompted a guy at the next table to lean over and ask if I was ‘Schnitzel Fiona’. Oh god. I’m famous. And not for anything worthwhile; for eating bloody schnitzel. I replied that although it was not my preferred choice of nickname, for the purposes of this week, yes, yes I am indeed Schnitzel Fiona. I fear I may never live this down. The schnitzel was British rose veal served with creamed potatoes and wild mushroom sauce (£10.50).

I was pleasantly surprised. The meat was tender, and the crisp crust had structural integrity, holding itself together away from the meat. The massive mound of mash was perfectly acceptable, if not as flavoursome as the night before, as was the creamy mushroom sauce. It was all well done, but it did feel rather like something you would have served at a 1970s dinner party.

On the last night I practically skipped to meet my flatmate for my final night of schnitzel at the Czechoslovak Restaurant. It’s a very odd restaurant – just a house with a statue of a guy in a chef’s hat standing guard outside. We found a table in the garden at the back, and desperate for a bit of variety, we ordered one Czech Club Schnitzel with potato salad (which the barman, once he’d stopped flirting with a Czech girl, sold me on by saying it was “the best”), and one veal schnitzel with chips.

When our food arrived I’ll be honest and say it was one of the less appetising plates of food I can remember – and that wasn’t just because it was my fourth schnitzel in four days. The club schnitzel was covered in a mound of rubbery cheese, a slice of lemon, raw onions and a squirt of BBQ sauce. The accompanying potato salad looked, well, you can see the picture.

We took a tentative bite. The chicken had a watery texture that I associate with a chicken that has not led a happy life. The veal was very gamey, and the potato salad… lets just say that it wasn’t “the best”, as the barman had promised.

The chips were alright though, and the batter on both schnitzels was nicely seasoned, although it was still covered in a thin layer of oil. Neither of us finished. As we were walking home, my flatmate asked me to slow down as she was too full of schnitzel. Too full of schnitzel?? HOW DO YOU THINK I FEEL??? I’ve eaten it for a whole week! Thank god it’s over, I thought. I can go back to ordering what I actually fancy in restaurants.

Only I couldn’t. I woke on Saturday morning to the news that Moment serves schnitzel, and that I couldn’t omit it. Sigh. So on Sunday lunchtime I walked through the blazing sunshine to sit in the cool dark West End Lane café. Moment’s chicken schnitzel comes with chips and a vegetable salad (£11.50), which after Thursday night’s meal, I was rather relieved about. I was offered a choice of either grilled or fried, and while I would have preferred the former, I felt to be fair to the other schnitzels I should go fried.

The chicken was juicy but the coating was once again rather oily. I understand that schnitzels are fried, but surely you can soak the grease off with a piece of kitchen paper before serving? The chips were ok, as was the salad, although it did suffer from an overdose of cucumber. The whole meal was nice but, ketchup aside, it just didn’t really taste of much.

Oh, you’re not done yet Schnitzel FionaSoon after publishing this article we realised we’d missed one more local schnitzel-server: David’s Deli. Just a few days after breathing a sigh of relief at being able to eat what I wanted, I once again found myself ordering, through slightly gritted teeth, yet another schnitzel.

The saving grace was that it came with the option of an almost weather appropriate rice salad and yogurt (£8), and I was able to sit outside on David’s rather nice decking. On that day they were offering a special homemade lemonade with mint and rose water (£3.50), which arrived at the same time as my main. The drink, despite sounding rather nice, was actually almost undrinkable. It was too acidic with barely any sugar in it, and the rose water left a lingering taste of bath suds. Sorry, but not for me.

The schnitzel was helpfully pre-sliced, but rather soft and floppy, so although the coating, had a nice peppery taste, there was zero crunch. It made me think that it had been reheated rather than freshly fried.

The rice salad turned out to be rice AND salad rather than the expected combination of the two. The salad was a bit tired (perhaps from having been put on a hot plate), but the nutty long grain rice was lovely and the tzatziki, made with cucumber and dried mint, was delicious. There were also a couple of olives and a mild pickled green chili.

My suspicions were confirmed when I went inside to pay and saw a plate of precooked schnitzels sitting under the counter, and a microwave ready and waiting on the side. It was a shame as had the chicken been freshly cooked I think it would have been very good. I enjoyed the meal more at David’s, but Moment’s schnitzel was freshly cooked and very crisp, despite the thin layer of oil.

Lets have the scores
So, drum roll please, what’s the final verdict? Aside from learning that schnitzel can be slotted into lots of different cuisines, not just it’s mother Austria’s, I’m excited to reveal that Schnitzel Chicken and More does actually serve the best schnitzel in West Hampstead. It’s lucky as they’ve named the restaurant after it.

After that I’d put One Blenheim in next place, then The Gallery, Moment and David’s Deli tying for fourth, and – sorry plastic chef – the Czech restaurant brings up the rear.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to eat a very large salad.”

The Gallery and One Blenheim Terrace gave us our schnitzels on the house, which was very nice of them, but didn’t influence the outcome in any way.

Stock the shelves at West End Lane Books

Yesterday afternoon, everyone’s favourite independent bookshop tweeted:

Bet yr *really* well read! Want to show how clever you are? Send list of fave books & if we like ’em we’ll add shelf with your name & books!
— West End Lane Books (@WELBooks) June 13, 2013

What a great idea, I thought. So I asked Danny from West End Lane Books, to give us a bit more info:

“West Hampstead folk are a well-read-bunch. We should know, we spend all day, every day, recommending great reads. And very grateful we are too.

But now we’re turning the tables.

We want to know what your favourite books are. The best submissions will have their selections displayed in the shop on their own dedicated shelves with their names on show to boot.

Send your choices, which can include as few as 6 books to a maximum of 12, to marked ‘bookshelves’. Winners will be announced next week.

[Tip: try not to include any titles which may be out of print or we will find it hard to order and display them]

This is one occasion when you might want to be left on the shelf”

Crowdsourcing your stock from local recommendations. What a fantastic notion. I’ve already submitted my list, an electic mix of children’s literature, highbrow fiction, social theory and rip-roaring tales of adventure. Lets see whether I win!

Photo via @theprettybooks

Friends, Whampers, Countrymen – let’s have some beers

A lot seems to be changing in West Hampstead right now. The demolition of the parade of shops between the tube and the Overground and a sudden rash of shop closures and new openings has highlighted that no urban area stands still.

Do you think things are changing for the better or is this the inevitable decline of the neighbourhood?

What do you love about West Hampstead? The access to transport, the “village feel” (whatever that means), the independent cafés, the red brick architecture?

What don’t you like? The lack of affordable property? The scruffy area around the stations? The lack of modern architecture? The pretence that it’s a village, when it’s really just a London suburb?

What if I told you that not only could you have some say about how these issues play out in the area over the next few years, but you could do so without having to sit in a draughty community centre hall while people twice your age witter on about the good ol’ days and dig up the same pet peeves they’ve been banging on about for years.*

Welcome to #whampforum.

The Roman forum in Verulamium (a few stops up the Thameslink line)

It’s not a digital platform for moans and groans it’s a real physical event. But I promise you that it won’t be long-winded, it won’t be boring and (within reason) your views will be reflected in some of the plans for West Hampstead’s future. And no, you don’t have to wear togas.

It’s next Tuesday evening – the 21st at The Alice House on West End Lane. I’ve booked out The Den downstairs from 7.45pm and the bar down there will be open for 15-20 minutes so you can get a drink easily. The forum itself kicks off at 8pm and I’m going to spend five (ok, maybe seven) minutes setting out how it’s going to work, explaining a little bit about where we are with West Hampstead development, and what it is and is not possible (or at least realistic) to change or influence and how that happens. All that in seven minutes. There might be a map on a screen.

Then I’m going to hand the floor over to you. Ask questions, make statements, give your views on what you love and hate about West Hamsptead. It doesn’t need to be a coherent policy idea, it might just be something you feel passionately about. Be warned, I’m not going to be all nice and Dimbleby about it; if you start waffling on then expect to be cut short. I’m not standing for election to anything so I don’t need to be nice to you 🙂

We’ll try and frame it around a few big topics:

  • buildings and architecture
  • housing
  • local businesses (including shops)
  • amenities and infrastructure (including transport).

This open floor session is going to last 45 minutes. If there’s a consensus to stay a bit longer then we can – but the whole thing won’t go on longer than an hour in total so we’ll definitely be done by 9pm. People who want to stay longer in the pub for a far more informal chat over drinks are, of course, very welcome.

To help me answer your questions and to discuss the topics I’m bringing along James Earl from the West Hampstead Neighbourhood Development Forum, Flick Rea, councillor for Fortune Green ward who knows more about the area than anyone, and Lauren “LollyGee” Geisler, who understands planning regulation better than I do, and has better hair.

There’s no upper (or lower) age limit on attending, though I’m going to be blunt: this is targeted more at the under-40s than the over-40s. If any of the usual suspects apart from Flick and James turn up (you know who you are), then don’t expect to get much airtime unless you’ve got a helpful perspective on someone else’s comment – your views are generally well known and have already been incorporated into the thinking about the area. This is more about listening to the silent majority of young(er) people who may be less materially invested in the area because they may not own property, but whose voices very much need to be heard (not least over the fact that many can’t afford to own property here).

If you are in the over-40s camp but are put off “community meetings” for the same reason lots of other people are, then you too are very welcome to join in. I don’t want to be ageist, but I am definitely trying to reach a particular (large) segment of the local population. Other organisations are better placed to reach other groups.

That’s it. Whampforum. Tuesday May 21st, from 7.45pm at The Alice House (downstairs). If cold village halls aren’t for you but you do actually care a bit about West Hampstead then come along. At the very least, it would be great to meet you and you’ve only got 45 minutes to lose.

*Before I get accused of all sorts of prejudices, there are of course people of all ages who make extremely sensible and pertinent points at these meetings,but sometimes – and I think most attendees would agree – such sessions descend into talking shops with a lot of hot air and very little forward movement.

Rash of closures on West End Lane

[original post May 10th 3.30pm]
[updated May 12th 10.30pm]
[updated May 15th 3.30pm]

If the retail landscape hadn’t changed enough with the knocking down of the strip of shops opposite the post office, this week’s seen four units close on West End Lane. Before we all get too depressed, it’s worth noting that four places have also opened this week in West Hampstead.

Blue Daisy’s retrenchment to the safety of yummy mummyville in Hampstead has been mooted for some time. When it came time to renegotiate the lease on its West End Lane branch, it decided enough was enough. Has the arrival of JoJoMamanBebe up the road had anything to do with it? Seems like this town ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Talking of competition, the sushi explosion that’s occurred in West Hampstead over the past year or two was bound to do some damage somewhere. The venerable Sushi Gen didn’t last long once the sushi wars began, but Me Love Sushi is the latest to fall victim to sushi overload. It tweeted that it had sold up to the owners of Cafe Rouge although from correspondence with the Tragus Group, which is Cafe Rouge’s parent company and also owns previous incumbent Strada, we know that in fact it owned the site anyway and Me Love Sushi was a leaseholder. Tragus is now looking for a new leaseholder so it’s unlikely to be one of Tragus’s own brands. In the meantime, Me Love Sushi fans can still get their fix (or their delivery) from the Swiss Cottage branch.

Another saturated market around here is pizza, so it wasn’t a great surprise to hear that Picasso’s has shut up shop – with the bailiffs called in to the premises. Although reviews of the food had largely been good, it always seemed to be quiet and may have strugged to establish itself over perennial favourites Lupa, Sarracino and even Domino’s.

Finally, and more out-of-the-blue, was the closure of ShakeTastic. The tiny milkshake bar never seem rammed (and was never open early enough for a hangover-curing morning juice), and although the staff were always lovely I was never convinced it fitted in here. The poster that’s gone up in the window suggests it might return, but in the meantime the West Hampstead branch is relocating to Pinner(!).

In more positive retail news, Minkies finally opened its tiny outlet by the Overground station to much acclaim. The well-liked Kensal Rise business had had us waiting for a year – the staff blamed TfL and Camden bureaucracy for much of the delay. Its position sets it on a collision course with Starbucks and Costa but with nowhere much for people to queue, I suspect it will maintain a very steady passing trade without setting the world on fire. It’s also well placed not just for commuters at the interchange but the two large estate agents opposite.

This very afternoon the sweet shop next to West End Lane cars re-opened too. Probably had to wait until ShakeTastic closed so as not to exceed the sugar quota for that stretch of road.

Away from West End Lane, there’s a new tea-shop on Mill lane called Curled Leaf that I’ve yet to get to and Spice Tree (which used to be Babur Empire) also opened on Mill Lane. Meanwhile, Tiger Stores – the Danish Muji if you can countenance such a thing – has opened in the O2.

What does all this mean for the retail landscape? It seems that established businesses are generally faring ok – most of the recent closures have been of more recent arrivals (the business above, Pita, Chez Chantal), though of course there are exceptions (LoveFood, Walnut). It’s hard to get a foothold in the area I guess. Lena’s is one of the few newish businesses that’s really thrived – largely because it’s a unique offering for West Hampstead. A lesson there.

If you’re interested in learning more about the evolution of West Hampstead, then put the 21st May in your diaries. I’m holding an open forum aimed at the younger population for people to share their views on what they love and hate about the area and what they can do about it. There’ll be more details on this v.soon.

[photos via @misshkwilson]

Ruchi: The whampreview verdict

Aside from the minor inconvenience of trying to walk through Kilburn Grange Park just as the gates closed, our evening at local Indian restaurant Ruchi got off to a good start.

Plenty of newbies joined a few of the whampreview old hands to check out this neighbourhood stalwart that sits on the corner of Messina Avenue and Kingsgate Road. I had bigged the place up – perhaps raising expectations a little too high – but I was confident that at the very least people would leave happy.

We had three large tables, and even though the restaurant took other tables over the course of the evening, service was still reasonably prompt.

But what of the food!?

We more or less all went for a selection of starters and they were generally a hit, “tangy with lots of heat”, said Tom. No-one was drooling in awe at them but they generally did the job and people were happy.

As the wine and Cobras flowed and main courses arrived there was rejoicing at a restaurant that brought out hot plates. The main dishes elicited more praise than the starters “Very good”, “Awesome” “Really nice”, “Lovely”, “Quality, “Delicious”, “Amazing, “Very impressed, “Good portions”, “Hearty” “I’d come again”, “Nicely spiced without being stupid”, “Hit the mark”;  just a selection of the accolades.

No one had real gripes though for some people it was passable rather than outstanding. “Lacks va va voom”, said Karen. Overall though, the standard was high, the service efficient and I sincerely doubt that anyone left hungry. Not given the oversupply of naan bread. “I’m a sucker for the naan”, said marathon running Claire who clearly hadn’t had enough carbs the previous week and needed to fill the void!

Overall, a success. I had probably built expectations too high, but although the food didn’t wow everyone, the consensus was that this was a high standard for a traditional curry house and good value. Next time you fancy a curry, why not pop along (you can even sit outside in the summer). 

Tom’s table: 7.7
Mark’s table: 7.3
Jonathan’s table: 7.6

92 Kingsgate Road
T: 020 7328 4800

Ruchi on Urbanspoon

Thanks to Tom and Mark for hosting tables and to Tom for the photos.

Spring jazz at La Brocca

The toe-tappers at La Brocca have put together a spring jazz festival, which kicks off tonight with Ronnie Scott’s regulars Kai’s Cats featuring West Hampstead’s very own Simon “Cyberdonkey” Whiteside on keyboards.

For four consecutive Thursday nights, the downstairs restaurant at La Brocca will become a jazz club. If you’re eating then there’s a £7 cover charge tonight (£5 the other weeks), or just turn up and watch for £10 on the door.

Whampreview April 25th: Ruchi

Ruchi is one of NW6’s hidden gems. At least I think so, but maybe you’ll disagree.

This family-run Indian restaurant was the only place locally I could afford to eat out in when I first moved to Kilburn in the dying days of the 20th century. They were simpler times.

Ruchi’s menu is fairly traditional, but the quality of the cooking has always been well above average; and, despite its tucked-away location on the corner of Messina Avenue and Kingsgate Road, it’s generally busy.

What better way to check out the food and meet a bunch of lovely locals at the same time than at whampreview on April 25th.

What’s the deal?
We’re taking 24 people to Ruchi. I’m still clarifying the exact details with the restaurant, but I’m expecting that we’ll all order from the main menu – we might pre-order starters so we don’t kill the kitchen. Ruchi’s not expensive with main dishes generally under £7.

Whampreview basics
Dinner will be at 8pm (we may stagger the tables) and we’ll meet at The Black Lion on Kilburn High Road for a drink from 7.15pm. During the evening, whoever is hosting your table (there’ll be three tables of eight people) will note down comments about the food/service/value etc., which will go into the write-up, but the evening is more about meeting people than being ultra-critical about restaurants. The bill is split equally between your table unless there’s been a large discrepancy in alcohol consumption. Any questions, just ask.

To put your name forward, simply tweet me @WHampstead or before 5pm April 12th with your mobile number. The event is already oversubscribed, so I will be drawing names out of a hat. I will contact you on April 13th to let you know whether you are in or not.

The headmasterly bit
Please don’t commit on the offchance you might be free. If I contact you to say you’re in, please check your diary and lock it in. Chasing round to fill last minute cancellations is, to be blunt, a pain in the arse that I could do without. I appreciate that sometimes people do need to cancel for a good reason – obviously the more notice you can give me the better.

Read more about whampreview.

KHR: Two councils, one street

One of the challenges that Kilburn has is that is straddles two boroughs: Camden on the east and Brent on the west. Attempts to breathe fresh life into the area, and specifically Kilburn High Road itself are therefore always at risk of falling between the cracks of bureaucracy.

There have been various attempts to have cross-borough groups focus on the High Road, be they police or community-focused. There’s another one kicking off this month with a meeting that combines Camden’s Area Action Group meeting for the ward, and Brent’s “Brent Connects” meeting.

“Brent and Camden Council leaders have committed to reinvigorate the Kilburn Partnership which aims to revitalise the High Rd. Cllr Mo Butt and Cllr Sarah Hayward are supporting plans which will be discussed at the next Brent Connects meeting – a joint forum for local residents from Brent and Camden to be held at the iconic Gaumont Kilburn State, courtesy of Ruach Ministries, on April 17th at 7pm.

Put this date in your diary and come along to discuss the plans and ideas with a panel representing Brent and Camden residents and the Local Government Association (LGA) Economy and Transport.

Plans include improving pedestrian safety and reducing congestion on the High Rd and increasing the footfall by diversifying and introducing new business opportunities through meanwhile or pop-up shops. Ideas for improving access to fair credit and financial support for residents and traders are also topical in Kilburn.” (Kilburn Rose)

If you live in Kilburn, whichever side of the High Road, why not go along and contribute your thoughts and hear what other initiatives are being proposed. The speakers include:

  • Caroline Lynch, Kilburn Resident
  • Cllr James Denselow, Brent Council
  • Cllr Mike Katz, Camden Council
  • Cllr Mary Arnold, Brent Council
  • Mike Haines, Local Government Association (LGA)
Kilburn High Road (date unknown), via Julia Powell

Starters prove popular at Hana

It was a cold night when 24 of us arrived in one fell swoop at Hana. The newish Persian grill restaurant tucked round the corner of West End Lane knew we were coming and the welcome was warm. Several of us had eaten there before so had some idea what to expect, while the others were venturing into the unknown.

Given both the numbers and the nature of the cuisine, I’d taken the dictatorial decision of pre-ordering table-loads of starters for everyone. These were generally agreed to be the highlight of the meal although as more and more arrived, the tables got very congested.

On Tom’s table, the garlickiest of dips was a little too much for Michael and Nathalie, but Tom himself loved the intensity of so much garlic. The lamb meatballs were a big hit with Karen and Emily, while on Mark’s table Tony and Ged were also fans.

The various dips were all well received – Dee heaped particular praise on the warm aubergine dip – though we needed extra bread to mop them all up. This was no hardship – the bread is excellent. The salads made for an interesting texture contrast, though the cucumber and pomegranate salad divided opinion. The combination of spices and flavours when you bit into the pomegranate was memorable.

Overall, the variety and depth of flavour of the starters seemed to impress pretty much everyone. It would have been nice if the waiting staff had told everyone what everything was as they put it on the table, but that’s a minor gripe.

A more substantive gripe – albeit one that was related to the size of our group – was the slow service. My table in particular seemed to suffer and two hours elapsed between arriving and getting our main courses – even though the other tables were more or less finishing up. Naturally, it was a larger group than the restaurant was used to, but by the same token they’d turned down my offer of us staggering the tables to ease the pressure on the kitchen and were brave in accepting a couple of other tables of two during the night given that we ostensibly filled the place.

Main courses, which are predominantly various versions of grilled chicken and lamb, were good though didn’t receive the same sort of acclaim as the starters. Nevertheless, one of the lamb dishes converted Goetz who confessed it wasn’t his usual choice. Half of Mark’s table opted for the Ghafghazi – a skewer of marinated lamb fillet and marinated chicken, served with saffron rice, salad and grilled tomato, and all of them enjoyed it.

Rosie’s Ghafghazi

The lamb shank was also a popular choice but comments were more mixed. Liz and Karen thought it was beautiful and tender, Michelle said it was very tasty, but Tony felt there was too much rice relative to lamb, and I thought it was a rather small portion and although it was tender it lacked a punch of flavour.

Lamb shank and a lot of rice

Portion control did seem to be an issue. Simon looked at his plate with one skewer of meat and then at Rosie’s plate of two skewers, and remarked on the fairly small difference in price.

Jill and Elaine both opted for the sea bass – and this may have been the best dish of the evening. The plate certainly looked attractive and both of them were pleased with it. Suzanne also eschewed the grilled meat for the chicken and pomegranate stew, which she liked.

The same could not be said for Debbie’s vegetarian dish. In fact she was so disappointed with it (and Phil and I both tried it and agreed with her) that we had it taken off the bill. The spinach and kidney bean stew tasted of tinned ingredients, she said, and it was certainly swimming in oil. Tom had the same and although he was not as underwhelmed as Debbie, he thought it was rather one-dimensional in both taste and texture. Tom D had the vegetarian special, which looked and tasted much better.

Few people had desserts, but those that did were generally happy with them. In my book you can’t go wrong with a strong coffee and baklava.

Wines – consumed in quantity as usual at whampreview – were all good with most tables sticking to the house red or white or graduating to the next one up the list.

Overall, the night went well – the atmosphere was cosy on a cold night though with all of us chatting it got pretty loud. But that’s not a bad thing, right? Tom suggested that more of the starter dishes could be extended into main courses to add some variety to the grilled meat offerings. I’d certainly be happy just ordering a selection of hot and cold starters and a bottle of wine.

Tom’s table: 7.9
Mark’s table: 7.6
Jonathan’s table: 7.1

351 West End Lane
T: 020 7794 1200

Hana on Urbanspoon

Thanks to Tom and Mark for hosting tables

Frothy coffee on Fortune Green?

I wasn’t able to make it to last week’s “listening sessions” initiated by Camden to try to increase use of Kilburn Grange Park. However, I gather that one idea that came out of at least one session was that of some form or café. It seems these days we can’t go anywhere unless there’s a double macchiato within 100 yards.

Coincidence then, or part of a concerted strategy, that the council has launched a consultation on “small, attractive mobile catering units to offer quality refreshments from a designated pitch in twelve of Camden’s parks and open spaces.” Interestingly, it specifies that it may approach commerical or social enterprises to run these.

Kilburn Grange, Fortune Green and Maygrove Peace Park are among the 12. Assuming the development of Handrail House goes ahead, Sidings Community Centre, which fronts onto the Peace Park should be getting a revamped café anyway. Two refreshment opportunities in one small park may be overkill.

What do you think? Would you use such a café year-round or only in the summer? Does Fortune Green need a café given there are a couple close by? Would it increase littering?

The consultation is here:

Shops to become Ballymore marketing suite

After several months of radio silence on the 187-199 West End Lane development, there is now an update on progress.

There had been a nice idea that the strip of shops from Café Bon to M.L.Estates might become pop-up shops while they lay empty (they will all close at the end of this month). Ballymore has other ideas and is applying to demolish them as soon as possible it seems and erect a temporary cedar and glass-clad “marketing suite” on the site for up to two years (i.e., until completion of the development).

No, i don’t know why the London Eye features either

There are new architects on the scheme. JTP, who designed the original scheme, has made way for WCEC, urban regeneration specialists. However, rumours that the developer Ballymore was no longer involved seem to be scotched by this latest planning application. Ballymore’s name is clearly on the submission along with WCEC.

The application states that “The Marketing Suite is to be erected at the earliest opportunity and will remain for the duration of the works on the site. The building is to be removed after this time.”

Frankly, this is not the worst option. What I think everyone wanted to avoid was the shops sitting empty for an indefinite period. If they’re going to be replaced with something else, especially something which hides at least some of the construction site, then that seems reasonable.

There is a lack of clarity over timing, however. The shops have been told to vacate by the end of February. The planning application says the site has been vacant since the end of January, while the Design & Access statement talks about existing tenants vacating in April, “at which point demolition will commence.”

“The Marketing Suite is to be constructed from three temporary cabins fixed together to create a space that is 12m x 7m x 3.2m high totalling 84m². The cabins were originally used for the Olympics and are now being effectively recycled for this development.

In order to improve the aesthetics of the building the front elevation, facing West End Lane, will be fully glazed with a curtain walling system with the pressure plates removed to give a seamless façade, there will also be a 300 x 300mm ppc aluminium feature nosing around the glazing in black. The front section of the North Elevation will also be glazed with the black feature nosing. The remainder of three sides facing into the site, behind the hoarding, will be painted white as these will not be visible from outside the site.

To either side of the building there will be 2.4m high hoarding which will be clad in cedar timber with a 300mm black band to the top to match that of the Marketing Suite. The hoarding will have both the name of the development and the Ballymore logo on them.

The area in front of the Marketing Suite and hoarding will be hard landscaped with feature paving and will have various planters dotted around.”

What’s happening to the shops
I have no news on Café Bon, Wired is likely to move out of the area temporarily but the owners are hopeful of returning once they can find premises. This was only ever meant to be a pop-up, but its success has encouraged them to establish something more permanent. Capital Car Hire will close, but has other offices in London. Peppercorns has a sign saying it plans to move further north on West End Lane, though it seems that it won’t be a seamless transition. AIT Computers is moving to a collect/delivery service based out of a house further south on West End Lane. Finally, M.L.Estates is moving to Mill Lane.

Byron opens for business in the O2

The O2 is undergoing something of a transformation, as we’ve discussed. Today was an important landmark in this evolution as Byron opened. Byron is a burger chain that began as an idea in 2007 and now has 27 locations in London and a few further afield.

Its main claim seems to be that it does a good straightforward burger and it does it well, in a nice atmosphere. I thought I’d go along to the latest Byron and check it out, while keeping my Twitter followers up to speed.

There was some surprise that I’d never been to a Byron before, but to be honest I don’t go to burger places that often. I like a good burger for sure, but almost never have one in this country that delivers the whole package. I’m fortunate (if that’s the word ) to have been to some strange off-the-beaten-track towns in the US and even in some out of the way holes, you can still get burgers that put most of the premium offerings here to shame (kudos to the first burger joint here that can put bison burgers squarely on the map).

Anyway, back to Byron. The wide frontage is inviting and the glitzy showbiz sign fits in rather well.

All in all, a decent first day for them. My waitress was particularly friendly and smiley. I did mention that my burger was bizarrely unevenly cooked (although as I said to them, I actually prefer burgers slightly underdone so it didn’t affect my enjoyment of it) and as the manager came over to get my feedback I was willing to share the good and the disappointing.

The cinema crowd will be a big part of their business, and I expect they will do a healthy lunch trade from local businesses and kids during the holidays. It’s not the cheapest burger place around – even with the discount, although throwing in a fairly generous tip, my bill came to £20. But it fills a gap in the market and the formula is clearly working well for the chain to expand at the rate it is.

Just one teeny thing… here’s the card they give you at the end (it’s a three of diamonds on the other side – dunno why).

Yeah, so, it’s like, not Finchley. Swiss Cottage, West Hampstead, Finchley Road, NW3… all acceptable. Finchley is a lot further north. Tsk.

I leave you with the video from Byron’s website. Not because they’re paying me to (they’re not), but because I actually rather like it and I had the same trouble getting ketchup out of the bottle. The little book from which the photo earlier was taken is the stills version of this video.

How much for this letter to the Corinthians?

The possible move of West Hampstead’s post office into St James Church is at an advanced stage of negotiation. It would be one of the first church post offices in a major British city. Yet it seems very few people are aware that it might happen.

Google Street View June 2012

The franchise owner of the existing West End Lane post office – Mr Ajay Kukadia – has apparently decided that it’s time to call it a day after almost 25 years. He has other plans for the premises. However, he has said that he will not close the post office until an alternative location has been secured. Mr Kukadia approached local estate agents Dutch & Dutch to help find a new location and they tweeted this in mid-November. Almost immediately, Father Andrew Cain, vicar of St James and St Mary, replied.

We’ve been instructed to help the@whampstead Post Office relocate to a new shop. Ideas on a postcard..or better-‘tweetme’ #newpostoffice
— West Hampstead Agent (@Dutch_and_Dutch) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch @whampstead – how about thinking a bit wider. Church?
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch @whampstead – does it have to be a shop?
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

@churchnw6 I don’t believe so. I like your thinking!
— West Hampstead Agent (@Dutch_and_Dutch) November 13, 2012

@dutch_and_dutch ok. Lets talk.
— Fr Andrew Cain (@churchnw6) November 13, 2012

Talk they did and the process has now moved on. There are, as you can imagine, lots of legal loopholes to jump through. The church – on the corner of West End Lane and Sherriff Road – has been accepted as a suitable venue, but that’s just the starting point. Now the Post Office and the church both have to prepare detailed plans and a business case. The church also has to approve the necessary alterations. When i first heard about this, I assumed that the plan was to house the counters in the church hall on Sherriff Road. But apparently, the idea is to have it actually in the church itself.

This is not groundbreaking – but it is unusual, especially in London. In 2003, the parish centre in Hemingford Grey in Cambridgeshire took over the local post office. The first post office actually in a church opened in 2004 in the exquisitely named village of Sheepy Magna in Leicestershire – a parish with around 1,000 inhabitants. It was only open six hours a week. Sleepy rural backwaters, where demand is low and the pace of life slow, seem well suited to such co-located services and the local church often plays a more significant role in the community than it does in a busy multicultural setting such as north-west London.

Unsurprisingly, given the often arcane and prosciptive nature of some religious doctrines, there may be  challenges to overcome so that some members of non-Christian faiths can enter the church. For example, here are two counter-arguments from the Jewish Chronicle in 2008 about whether Jews can enter a church or not. According to the 2011 census data, more than 2,000 people in West Hampstead identify as Jewish, although the census does not of course tell us how many would side with the stricter interpretations of the Talmud.

Some Muslims also believe they must not enter a church because of the display of idols, although once again it’s possible to find arguments on both sides given that there would be no religious context to the post office other than its location.

There may be workarounds for the most orthodox of non-Christian believers, and pragmatism often wins out eventually given how much of sacred text is open to interpretation.

Back to the practicalities of our own post office being in the church. Father Andrew points out that there are no guarantees this will come to pass.

“If the business case is not strong, if the alterations cost too much, if the approvals are not given – all could stop this happening. If that were the case then I would be sad – it’s a great opportunity and there is currently no other venue suitable for the Post Office to move to – and that will probably mean no post office in West Hampstead. That would be a real loss to the community and especially for those too old or disabled to get up to Finchley Road or down to Kilburn.”

Father Andrew is also keen to point out that the motivation for this is not financial. “We have a strong financial base of our own, we run a good annual surplus and have a steady if small congregation. We are not going to make money out of this and indeed will have to invest a very large amount of our own money.”

The motivation instead is to preserve a vital community service and to improve other community services. If approval is finally granted, the church will set up a charitable trust to run the Post Office, along with a café and a small retail space. Any profit made after running costs and loan repayments will go to funding community support workers. “We hope to have a Citizens Advice Bureau-supported debt advice worker on site, to employ a family support worker and possibly a youth worker. We hope to run pensioners’ lunches in the café, provide parent and toddler groups and also youth facilities in the evenings when the post office is closed.”

The post office space would also be an obvious location for one of the proposed pop-up police counters that are expected to appear as the police station closes. It may also cause a small but noteworthy shift in West Hampstead’s centre of gravity and could be a boost for those businesses south of the tube station.

If all the necessary approvals from the church, the post office and the public consultation are gained then we might be looking at August or September for the grand opening. This is the 125th anniversary of St James’ church – could it give a new lease of life to the building at a time when only 36% of the local population identify as Christian – substantially lower than the 48% across London as a whole.

As for what happens to the existing post office… did someone say Foxton’s?

Of course, if nothing else comes of this, the whole story proves the importance of Twitter in West Hampstead! Oh, and Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians would cost him £1.66 in postage today or 87 pence if he wrote on both sides of airmail paper.

Mill Lane Bistro: Un petit coin de France

West Hampstead’s Mill Lane Bistro is unashamedly French, and the new menu has, if anything, gone even further down that autoroute. Frogs legs, snails and boeuf bourguignon all appear along with other bistro classics such as steak with dauphinoise potatoes. So is it France profonde, or Riviera rip-off?

Last Thursday, 32 of us took the place over to road test the menu for #whampreview, and – more importantly – have a convivial night of good chat over some wine. A healthy mix of familiar faces and whampvirgins gathered in The Black Lion before we braved the cold and trotted round the corner to be greeted by Cyril Blaret and his team.

We filled the main part of the restaurant and it was loud and warm and cosy in there. Mismatched tables had been put together, adding to the rustic charm, and we got down to the serious business of ordering while staving off our hunger with some sort of cheese choux buns that were universally loved.

Starters: Garlic abounds
The goats cheese salad (£7) was a popular choice. “As well dressed as Paris fashion week,” said Heather. Tom thought it was well balanced and Tony agreed it had the right “tang”. There was one voice of dissent on Nimet’s table: “over-garlicky”, while Sarah thought there was just too much greenery.

The frogs legs (£7) and snails (£7.50) were of course drenched in garlic – probably why they are so popular. Snails can be tricky to eat, can’t they, especially if you’re trying to prize them out of their non-existent shells. Cough. No names mentioned.

The well-seasoned rabbit terrine (£7.50) was a generous portion, although Shona speculated that it needed some sort of chutney alongside the cornichons. Matt was the only person who splashed out for the foie gras (£11), which he described as “very good and not too heavy”.

Two starters divided opinion. Nicky and Claire both thought the salmon tartare (£8) a little rich and creamy, while self-proclaimed “serious foodie” Shelley thought it was “delicious” and Nadia though the chive pesto worked well. Meanwhile, the French onion soup (£7) was deemed “good” by Nathan, who also liked the portion size, but Dexter was far less impressed and someone else said it was average.

The charcuterie board (£9.50) was a hit – hard to go wrong with loads of meat! My own tomato salad (£7) was better than I had expected with no single ingredient dominating.

Main courses: Hearty and rustic
Three of Sam’s table went for the ribeye steak (£18), and all gave it the thumbs up. On my table, Matt polished his off with aplomb while ranting about cheesey chips at Tasty Kebab on the Kilburn High Road. Steak was a popular choice on Nimet’s table too, and the accompanying dauphinoise went down a treat with everyone except Natasha who thought they could have been creamier. Everyone commented on the fact that the same distinctive salad dressing cropped up in both starter and main course salads. That’s forgivable at Little Bay prices, but here i think expectations were higher.

The oddly named “Vegetarian-style shepherd’s pie” (£14) intrigued more than excited. “Does it contain traces of uniquorn?” quipped Anna. She enjoyed it anyway, while Heather was a bit underwhelmed with hers. Nathan said his was “really tasty”. The other vegetarian main was risotto (£13), which came in for the most criticism “too cheesey, very salty and too liquidy,” said Dexter – the only person who had it.

The duck breast (£16) was described as “quacking” by Sam’s table, who were clearly having some sort of pun contest (honestly, I’m sparing you some of them). All three plates of duck on Tom’s table received lavish praise – “well cooked” and “good sauce”. Rosie described hers as “absolutely stunning.”

Rabbit in mustard sauce (£15) is one of my absolute favourite classic French dishes and was a popular choice. The rabbit was well cooked – it is prone to drying out – but the sauce lacked the mustard punch that I’d been hoping for. Sam and Nicky both thought it was too salty, while Claire described the baby spinach leaves hiding the rabbit as like a canopy of trees.

On a cold night, I thought the boeuf bourguignon (£15) might be a bigger hit, but only a couple of people chose this rustic dish. Not rustic enough for Sarah, but one of Nimet’s table described it as “very hearty and warming”. Tom agreed it was “hearty and satisfying”, and was delighted his side of greens were cooked in butter. The poached chicken (£15) received what must be the ultimate compliment: “grandmotherly” (not a compliment if you’d been cooked for by my grandmother, I have to say) and Eugene – still craving meat after his charcuterie board – was pleased with his.

The sea trout with blackberries (£15) sounded the oddest dish on the menu, and the one person who had it said the flavours didn’t go together (although she still ate it all!). The roast cod (£16) was “tender”. Moules marinières (£13) didn’t disappoint and both Shona and Dom admitted it was a “safe choice”.

Desserts: Reaching the climax
The final course was the undoubted success of the evening. The chocolate and berry tart (the tart of the day £6.50) was deemed “incroyable”, Tom was still talking about his a day or two later.

The tarte tatin (£6.50) – or “Tatatain” as Gregg Wallace calls it – was deemed a “tart for everyday” by Jo, “a highlight” by Karen, and “superb” by James. Dom was less excited, saying his was a little bland.

Crème brûlée was another hit. Rosie had a FRO (food-related orgasm) over hers, which was a bit disconcerting for Matt sitting opposite her and me next to her. He and I both had the profiteroles (£6.50) – mine with a birthday candle in, which was rather sweet and unexpected – which were good, “extra points for ice cream inside,” said Matt. “The nuts are not allowed though.” He’s wrong about the nuts.

Ged and Anna said they’d come back purely for the chocolate fondant (£6.50), while Sarah just scooped out the middle of hers. Claire, however, said it was a “NoFRO” for her. Sam’s Café gourmand (£7) proved what every customer knows, but too many restaurants have yet to grasp: you can’t serve ice cream on a slate.

History does not record what Tom’s table had for dessert, which translates as “Tom had had too much wine by then to take notes”.

For reds, everyone had either the Merlot (£16.50) or the Côtes du Rhone (£20) – the latter described by someone as having notes of a 19th century French library. The Sauvignon Blanc house white (£16.50) and the Marsanne (£17.50) both seemed popular for the whites. The wine list is a sensible length with plenty of choice and Cyril is very happy to help you choose.

The bills came to £40 a head or more on each table I believe.

Overall, it was a fantastic evening with some real culinary highlights: the duck and the chocolate tart being the stand-out dishes. The risotto was the only flop, although some dishes underwhelmed. Everyone heaped praise on the service and atmosphere. One table described it as “good value overall”, while others felt it was a little overpriced. This is a new menu, stripped down in terms of style of dish, and the kitchen may still be coming to terms with some of the plates. I got the impression that almost everyone would happily come back to give it another go. Mill Lane Bistro is certainly a major player in the local restaurant market – it sits up there with The Wet Fish Café and The Black Lion in terms of price, but offers very different food and atmosphere to both. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.

Nimet’s table: 7.5
Jonathan’s table: 7.2
Sam’s table “I think we’d have given it 8”
Tom’s table “Apologies I forgot the scores”

Mill Lane Bistro
77 Mill Lane
London NW6 1NB
T: 020 7794 5577
W: www.milllanebistro.com

Mill Lane Bistro on Urbanspoon

Photos courtesy of Rachel (@rach_1511) and me
Thanks to Sam, Tom and Nimet for hosting tables

Bookshop event January 22nd

Whampbooks is back on January 22nd.

If you’re not familiar with this particular event, it’s really very simple. The lovely people at West End Lane Books open their doors for the evening for a night of bargains, booze and books. There’s 20% off all stock, (free) wine for all, and a chance to meet and chat with some lovely locals.

The fun kicks off at 7.30pm, but it’s all very informal. Come along when you can, there’s no ticketing or pre-booking or anything. I think this will be our fourth book event, and they’ve all been great fun. See you there!

Books galore – just needs you!

Is Wagamama highlight of new O2 tenants?

As the O2 centre’s refurbishments draw to a close, there’s been much excitement about who’ll be moving into the space alongside the existing tenants.

This week, thanks to someone pointing me in the direction of this brochure, we got to find out some of the answers.

Noodle purveyors Wagamama, pizza & pasta restaurant Rossopomodoro, Danish furniture retailer BoConcept, and Tiger Stores – which sort of defies classification (see below) – are all moving in.

They will join hamburger joint Byron, which already has signs up, and Paperchase and Oliver Bonas, which have already opened. Of the others, only BoConcept is being trailered on the shopping centre’s website.

According to Nash Bond, which is letting the units on behalf of the centre’s owner Land Securities, there are two units still available. One large unit on the first floor (£190,000 annual rent) and one smaller one on the ground floor (£75,000 annual rent) tucked round the corner by the road to and from the car park.

£75,000 a year for this unit

The existing operations you know and (at least in the case of Camden councillor Tulip Siddiq and Nando’s) clearly love are all staying put although Sparkle Bar & Lounge will be no more – it was always a pop-up.

Yo! Sushi has already moved out of its unit to take up space between the escalators and the lift. Its existing restaurant spot will be occupied by Wagamama. Rossopomodoro will take the place of Sparkle (formerly Zuccato) and Byron is taking the designated burger spot of the Fine Burger Co.

The three anchor tenants are Sainsbury, Virgin Active, and Vue cinemas. It would be interesting to know how Habitat feels about BoConcept’s arrival, although furniture shops do tend to cluster together. One also wonders about Zizzi and Rossopomodoro sitting so close together, and lets not forget there’s a small Pizza Express just down the road too.

Is this a good thing for us? I would argue yes. I don’t think any of these operations are putting any plucky independents at risk. The O2 has always had chain tenants as you’d expect, and they compete with each other more than with anything further afield (and even less with businesses in the heart of West Hampstead). The attempt at an infographic that’s meant to lure retailers in talks about Swiss Cottage but makes no mention of West Hampstead, which is a bit surprising given that the centre clearly pulls people in from the West End Lane area.

Click for full-size

Whether some of the other noodle options on Finchley Road, especially Oriental Star, might find Wagamama too hot to handle remains to be seen. Credit should also go to Land Securities for trying to make innovative use of the empty space as and when it came up, with various pop-up ideas, especially in what used to be Zuccato.

Here’s where everyone’s going to end up

Which brings us back to Tiger.

Reaction to Tiger Stores moving to the O2 Centre

Storified by West Hampstead· Sat, Jan 05 2013 09:41:53

The "Tiger" moving into the old Walkabout at the O2 is in fact NOT a bar but a retailer selling, er, stuff http://www.tigerstores.co.uk/West Hampstead
@WHampstead Tiger is brilliant and you will not say a word against it.Nathan Hamer
@WHampstead the shop Tiger is brilliant. My friend gets fab stuff from the one in Harrow ;)Ruth
@WHampstead It’s actually got some rather handy stuff in. Kind of like Muji.Ruth
@WHampstead @njhamer I’ve heard good things too! Do we know when it opens?Paramount Properties
@WHampstead @njhamer fabulous, because there is a ‘build your own straw’ kit I want to get my hands on… whatever that actually is!Paramount Properties
@WHampstead @njhamer perhaps even some type of #whampchallenge… they have balloon modelling kits too, you see.Paramount Properties
@WHampstead I see. I’ve been to the one in Hammersmith, has some quite good/useful stuff.Jane Ennis
christ – i’ve unleashed some sort of Tiger Stores fan club outrage with that mild description. Thank god I didn’t say "pointless"West Hampstead
@WHampstead they sell some of the most pointless useless crap you could ever want.Lizzie
@WHampstead I guess that space is doomed to mediocrityPatrick Hurley
Further research seems to suggest that it’s a poundshop for the middle classes (Bearnaise Sauce for £1, 24 Danish flag stickers for £1)West Hampstead
@WHampstead Bearnaise Sauce for £1…? Stay well clear of it…!TheCrystalShip
@WHampstead really? Just what we don’t need!!Rach
@WHampstead I like ‘THIS IS A WEBSITE NOT A WEBSHOP’. Alright, alright, I wasn’t going to buy your crap anyway.Fiona Barrows
@WHampstead I want to take stickers saying ‘THIS ITEM IS FOR SALE’. Just in case people get confused and need to know how a shop works.Fiona Barrows
@WHampstead I would order them online but IT IS NOT A WEBSHOP.Fiona Barrows
@WHampstead bored housewives might like the look of this… http://pic.twitter.com/abi5fZKFHeather
@rach_1511 @WHampstead I was laughing at my desk so had to explain to my colleague. Sent her the link. She genuinely likes some of the stuffFiona Barrows
@fbarrows @whampstead but its not a web shop&some of things she likes might not be available!How ridiculous.I really can wait til it opens!Rach
@WHampstead They sell Tiger cornflakes and you can then make the box into a puppet theatre. JUST WHAT I ALWAYS WANTED.Fiona Barrows
@WHampstead But do they sell actual tigers?Davies
@WHampstead I can afford 329 things in there or one thing from Habitat next door. It’s a bizarre (bazaar, if you will) shopping experienceLewis Hill
@WHampstead @daviesinthecity I honestly think that shop looks brilliant and I will be visiting at my earliest convenience.nicky j
@WHampstead They do socks for £1 each. Something odd there.Phil Lunn
@WHampstead I own a harmonica purchased at the Tiger in Hammersmith. It doesn’t sound very good, but I’m 90% sure that’s my fault.Sam Wong
and on a similar theme:
@WHampstead poundland has a sale on, presumably to entice those people who thought a quid was a bit steep…Jen

Whampreview Jan 17: Mill Lane Bistro

On January 17th, whampreview returns. It’s our first of 2013, and our first repeat visit to a restaurant. We visited Mill Lane Bistro in May 2010, but new owners have since taken over so it’s time to go back.

Banish the blues / Allez les bleus
Mill Lane Bistro serves classic French food and is one of the slightly more expensive restaurants in West Hampstead. Starters average £7.50, mains are around £15, and desserts £6.50

There are 24 places available. The event is already oversubscribed*, so names will be drawn out of a hat as is tradition! The draw will be on January 4th. To put your name forward tweet me @WHampstead before January 4th or .

If your name is picked, I will need a mobile number and active e-mail address from you. Please don’t commit on the offchance you might be free. Once you’re in then it’s a restaurant reservation so please check your diary and lock it in.

The low-down
Dinner will be at 8pm and we’ll meet at The Black Lion on West End Lane for a drink from 7pm. During the evening, whoever is hosting your table (there’ll be three tables of eight people) will note down comments about the food/service/value etc., which will go into the write-up, but the evening is more about meeting people than being ultra-critical about restaurants. The bill is split equally between your table unless there’s been a large discrepancy in alcohol consumption. Any questions, just ask.

Read more about whampreview.

*how is it oversubscribed before I’ve written about it? Because people who’ve signed up to the mailing list hear about all events first!

Keep it in the neighbourhood: The benefits of buying local

Many of us generally, if not obsessively, like to shop at local independent places if we can. Often we can’t, or convenience (or price) dictates we go elsewhere. We may simply not care.

However, a study in the US has actually quantified the economic benefits to a neighbourhood of giving your trade to the locals rather than the chains. The principle may not be too surprising, but the data is definitely interesting.

A group called Civic Economics has been crunching the numbers for 10 US towns and cities over a decade. These are generally significantly larger urban areas than West Hampstead mind you. Nevertheless, the findings are always more or less the same: money spent at independent outlets is more likely to stay local than that spent at a chain.

In Louisville, Kentucky, researchers found independent stores recirculate 55.2% of revenues compared to 13.6% for big retailers. In other words they put four times as much back into the local area, relatively speaking. This is not the same as saying they recirculate four times the amount of money, but it does imply that the more consumers choose to shop local, the greater the benefit for the local economy. Studying restaurants revealed similar, though less dramatic, findings. In Louisville, independent restaurants put just over twice as much of their revenue back into the local economy as the chains. I note from Wikipedia that Louisville is the headquarters of both Papa John’s and the world’s largest fast food company by units, Yum! Brands, which owns KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell!

Louisville’s answer to West End Lane Books

(Louisville’s Independent Business Alliance (a co-sponsor of the study) cites a bunch of reasons for spending local. Number one is “To keep it weird”, and the organisation’s website is in fact keeplouisvilleweird.com)

Across the 10 cities studied, spending at local businesses generated on average 3.7 times more local economic benefit than spending at chains. Naturally, money staying in the local economy fuels that economy.

“The extra dollars in the local economy produce more jobs for residents, extra tax revenues for local governments, more investment in commercial and residential districts, and enhanced support for local nonprofits. In short, these businesses create better places.” Louisville study

The study is not without holes – it’s sponsored by the American Booksellers Association, which has an agenda to promote local retailers. It doesn’t look at very many chain operators (Barnes & Noble, Target, Home Depot and Office Max are the only four), and it’s the same ones in each city. Nor does it look at the price differential between chains and independents. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting guide to the value of shopping local.

Perhaps the best stat to come out of the Louisville study is that a market shift of just 10% from chains to independents would, based on these numbers in this city, generate an additional $416 million for the local economy off total retail sales of $10 billion. Whether that’s enough to get Papa John’s and Pizza Hut employees to buy independent pizza anytime soon remains to be seen!

Are West Hampstead entrepreneurs being short-changed?

Is Camden council doing enough to help new businesses in West Hampstead? Local Lib Dem councillor Gillian Risso-Gill thinks not, and had a hefty swipe at the council in a letter to the Ham & High this week to say just that:

“Empty retail and business units have been allowed to stay empty for years, enquiries are rebuffed, premises are not marketed and then put up for auction.”

I have heard stories like this from local businesses – indeed there was one last month that happened on Twitter:

Cllr Risso-Gill also writes: “There is a woeful lack of available business premises in the area and units and sites are still being allowed to change from commercial to residential use.” This is also true, although one prominent example, Handrail House on Maygrove Road, has apparently been empty for some time as the landlord simply can’t find businesses to occupy it. From a residents’ perspective, it is important to remember that the local economy is not just about shops and restaurants, but business services and (light) industry too. What are the conditions they need to operate profitably?

Gillian Risso-Gill at the opening of the first Farmers’ Market

Many of you will be aware that Rock Mens’ Salon has moved from its premises in the death-row strip of shops from 187-199 West End Lane. John, the owner, was able to move fast and take the Broadhurst Gardens site that had been the Millennium Café. Yet he was also able to strike a deal with Network Rail, which still owns those premises, and open the new coffee shop Wired thereby taking advantage of the empty space. Yet, the car hire premises next door remain empty and the leases on all the units there expire in the spring. It is far from clear that building work on that site will start then however, so will the sites remain empty? Cllr Risso-Gill again:

I have asked the council for help to secure temporary tenants in the retail units currently being vacated on the 187-199 West End Lane site, to prevent the area becoming blighted prior to development, but resources are not available.

Of course, Camden’s resources are stretched under the current budgetary regime, yet there is an argument that lack of attention here is depriving the council of revenue from business rates. Lib Dem Risso-Gill finishes her letter with a direct attack on the Labour-led council:

We have a Labour administration that cannot be bothered to manage its assets to generate income and… takes the easy option of mothballing and then selling off every available site [while] the local business community and entrepreneurial spirit that could boost the local economy and create jobs, is being neglected.

Camden’s finance chief Cllr Theo Blackwell responded on Twitter:

What do you think? Should this be a priority at a time when public services are being cut back? Is the money that would come from renting out small premises sufficient to justify the extra cost?

Mill Lane must get creative to attract visitors

There’s a new momentum on Mill Lane. This motley collection of independent shops has tried before to unite behind some self-promotion but these efforts have largely come to nothing. Now, the West Hampstead street that’s often seen as West End Lane’s poor relation has some impetus behind it thanks partly to the arrival of Monsters of Art and the youthful enthusiasm of co-owner Abby Wells.

Several of the businesses on Mill Lane held a preliminary meeting this month to discuss how to boost the street’s profile. Since then, Abby has met with Kate Goodman from Camden Council (Kate ran the place shaping initiative that many of you will remember from earlier in the year), and more of the businesses have piled in with ideas.

What’s the problem?
Mill Lane has a few related challenges to overcome: it suffers from relatively low footfall; the popular businesses are spread out along the street so there’s no focal point; it has one of the highest vacancy rates in the borough (18% in June 2010); and many people, especially those new to the area or passing through, simply don’t know that there are shops down there. Glance down the road from Fortune Green Road and you would be forgiven for thinking it was a predominantly residential street. Yet, as the star prize at whampgather proved, there are enough businesses on the street to create an amazing hamper of goodies. From The Tiffin Tin to The Alliance, Mill Lane has plenty of gems.

Isn’t this the council’s job?
Camden’s West Hampstead placeshaping document, published earlier this year, recognises the pressures facing Mill Lane and sets out ways in which the council could help. It explains that the council cannot fund direct business support, and that its role now is to act “as an enabler to small businesses through signposting them to national and regional growth support organisations.” This also includes pointing retailers to information and providing support to trader groups.

There are some specific actions in the placeshaping plan that refer to Mill Lane.

  • Facilitate engagement with local landowners and landlords to consider how the private sector can help to support a thriving shopping area and reduce the vacancy rate in Mill Lane.
  • Investigate opportunities to carry out further public realm improvement works to the northern part of the town centre and Mill Lane.
  • Lobby TfL to include Mill Lane neighbourhood centre shops on the Legible London signs, to help increase footfall to the area.

This may sound a bit like throwing a life jacket into the ocean, but it’s better than nothing and if it helps the businesses coalesce into one group that can form a consensus on what would most benefit the area then that alone is a big step in the right direction.

The relatively new West Hampstead Business Association could have a role here. However, a separate Mill Lane group that collaborated with the WHBA might be more effective than the WHBA acting as an umbrella group for all local businesses, given the different needs of West End Lane and Mill Lane.

The latest draft of the Neighbourhood Development plan also singles out Mill Lane as in need of its own section. Specifically, it suggests the following six policies should be applied to developments in Mill Lane:

  • A presumption in favour of preserving the look of shop-fronts.
  • A presumption in favour of rejecting proposals to convert retail space into residential use.
  • Encourage a more diverse range of shops and businesses.
  • Improve pavements, signage and traffic calming; remove street clutter.
  • Co-ordinate the developments on the north side of Mill Lane where they back onto properties on
  • Hillfield Road.
  • An urgent need to level the pavements on the north side of Mill Lane.

All this tell us that the problems of Mill Lane are widely recognised. But at a time of limited (read: non-existent) public resources to help tackle them, the onus falls on the existing businesses to overcome these obstacles. Which brings us back to the latest wave of energy washing over the street.

At the November meeting there was broad agreement that public awareness of Mill Lane’s offering was too low, and that the lack of a cohesive feel to the retail units hindered the appeal of the street as a shopping destination. Beyond that, the more ambitious challenge was to do something economically viable with the empty shops

Raising awareness
The immediate solution proposed was to get the council to implement better signage (which would partly fall under the Legible London signage action above), at the West End Lane end of Mill Lane, on West End Green, and outside West Hampstead tube station. Since that meeting, Kate Goodman has said that extra signage to the north of West End Lane will be installed, but played down the idea that there’d be tube station signage too.

The idea of preparing a small brochure to hand out has also been raised, although it’s not clear who would fund this. Camden have broadly supported this idea though, and may be able to help with some of the distribution logistics. Prod from Mill Lane Barbers, whose enthusiasm is also hard to beat, has suggested a caricature poster capturing the essence of the Lane and the businesses on it as well.

One idea that’s likely to prove popular is a late-night Christmas shopping event. It may even be possible to get some footprints laid on the pavement to draw people in from West End Green. Those businesses at the West Hampstead Christmas Market on December 8th could also help promote the street more generally, and there’s talk of having a board at the market showing the press coverage that some of them have received over the past couple of years.

One Lane
The shops also saw that Christmas would be a good opportunity to work on the look and feel of Mill Lane and try and make it a more unified shopping district. Something as simple as having the same Christmas lights in as many of the shops as possible could achieve this – these could be officially switched on at the Christmas shopping event.

An idea that I particularly like is that businesses up and down Mill Lane ‘donate’ parts of their property, (e.g., a back door, shutter, or any outdoor area), to professional artists who will then jointly produce a piece of street art. This concept has worked brilliantly in Middlesex Street E1. It has the potential both to improve the look of Mill Lane and attract visitors.

Breathing life into empty premises
Maximising the use of the empty (or almost empty) shops on the street with pop-up projects (galleries, retail space etc.) was a popular idea. This would help animate Mill Lane, and provide more of a continuous stretch of retail operations along the street. One idea was to collaborate with artists who might rent units for a short period for gallery and/or workshop space. Kate Goodman was in favour of the pop-up shop idea, and apparently there are nine empty shops on Mill Lane that could possibly by used. She is going to find out who owns/manages these properties and forward on their details – a good example of where the council can support these initiatives.

Both the pop-up idea and the street art idea certainly tie in with my own belief that Mill Lane would be well served by becoming an explicit artisan/art quarter. In the immediate term, the local business owners recognised that coordinating so many things popping up is a lot of work and perhaps would be too time consuming for them to tackle (after all they do still have their own businesses to run). A stop-gap measure would be to use the shop fronts as art installations, or hang something in empty shop windows.

Mill Lane needs a bit of love, so why not have a wander along there this weekend and refresh your memory as to what’s available. From carpets to cupcakes, you might be surprised at the shops and services you find.

Ambitious scope for local development plan

We’re inching nearer to a final Neighbourhood Development Plan. There’s a meeting this Thursday to discuss the second draft plan.

At the time of writing the draft, the issue of the southern boundary had not been resolved. Since then, however, the results of the WHGARA (West Hamsptead Gardens Area Residents Association) vote on the matter have been released and 75% of people were in favour of being part of the plan area rather than sitting outside it. This is almost certain to mean that the area covered will exactly match the ward boundaries of West Hampstead and Fortune Green.

156 West End Lane – one of the sites up for development

The draft plan is very much a work in progress, and still has some gaps. Nevertheless, two things are worth looking at even at this early stage. The first is the overall scope of the plan, the second is the introduction of the core policies.

If you read the write-up of the public meeting back at the end of October, you’ll know that Neighbourhood Development Plans can vary enormously in scope from all-encompassing town plans to single-issue plans. The West Hampstead & Fortune Green plan certainly drifts closer to the first idea. Broadly, it seeks to influence building development (location, form, use of Section 106 money), business and economic development (retail mix, high street feel), street environment (roads, parking, cycling, pedestrians), public transport, environment (green space, trees), community, and public services (schools, healthcare). Some of these area are easier to influence than others – some lie firmly within Camden’s remit, other are the purview of larger bodies such as TfL or City Hall. But it would be hard to argue that the plan lacks ambition.

The draft plan outlines 12 core policies. Many of these are not especially controversial and only the hard core members of the “flatten everything to build more houses” brigade are likely to object to limitations on building height, or a presumption that green space is a good thing.

It is worth reiterating the message of policies 1 and 2 – namely that the bulk of dense housing development should be in the designated growth area (that is broadly the area between and around the stations and railway tracks), while the rest of West Hampstead is allowed to retain its current feel. Whether this will lead to two very distinctive town centres developing – one to the south and one to the north end of West End Lane – and whether this is desirable is up for debate. I can well imagine the good burghers of Fortune Green grumbling about how busy it is around the interchange while they enjoy the peace and quiet of the leafy suburbs the rest of the time.

  1. New development should be focused on providing a range of housing and housing types, including social and affordable housing and 3-4 bedroom homes for families. The vast majority of new housing and development should be located in the ‘West Hampstead growth area’.
  2. Outside the growth area, new development should be on a much smaller scale.
  3. New buildings in the growth area should be no higher than xx storeys; outside this area new buildings should be no higher than xx storeys.
  4. New developments should promote high quality design which fit in with their surroundings, especially in terms of height, appearance and design.
  5. Conservation areas should promote high design standards and have policies which are strongly enforced.
  6. Development in the Area should also be focused on providing new jobs and attracting new businesses to the Area. Existing businesses, and the land they occupy, should be protected and encouraged.
  7. There is an urgent need for ongoing improvements to public transport in the Area, particularly the three rail stations.
  8. Future development should protect, preserve and enhance existing green/open space and provide new green/open space in new developments.
  9. Provide as much space as possible for pedestrians and promote ease of movement through the Area.
  10. Protect the existing public services and community facilities in the Area and provide new services/facilities as the population of the Area grows.
  11. Provide an environment that is suitable for a mixed community, including young people, old people, families and those from a range of social backgrounds.
  12. In all developments, there should be a presumption in favour of preserving the look, feel and views of the Area.

The next meeting of the Neighbourhood Development Forum is at 7.30pm at Emmanuel Church on Thursday. It’s open to all, so why not come along and find out more.

Feng Sushi serves up an autumnal treat

As we piled into Feng Sushi in West Hampstead a couple of weeks ago I think it’s fair to say we weren’t entirely sure what to expect. Sure, we’d all had sushi before; some of us had even eaten from Feng’s menu. But I don’t think anyone had sat down to quite such a feast of unusual treats before.

Silla Bjerrum, founder and MD of Feng Sushi, was an excellent host. She talked us through much of the seasonal menu, and showed that running the company doesn’t mean she’s lost the art of wielding a sushi knife as she prepared some extra fresh dishes for us.

The elongated space worked surprisingly well for our group – we’d taken over the restaurant for the night, so there was no need to keep the volume of chatter down for other diners!

The calm before the sashimi storm

The menu kicked off with Crispy Tofu with Yuzu Dip. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of tofu. I had actually been treated to this dish a few weeks earlier so I knew what to expect. This made it even more enjoyable to watch people who were looking sceptically at the cubed tofu fritters transform their expression as soon as they popped one into their mouth. This is one of those dishes that turns your preconceptions on their head. Good start.

Silla then introduced us to some gleaming fresh mackerel. Most people who have an interest in sustainable food have probably had it drilled into us by the Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstalls of this world that we should be eating more mackerel. There are lots of them in British waters and they are delicious. Turns out that in the fast-changing world of fish stocks and classification, there are now some parts of the coastline where mackerel are already being overfished and thus the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has withdrawn its highly desirable certificate. Silla, however, maintains good relationships with fishermen and fish farmers around the country and is confident that she’s found a source of mackerel from further north that meet the sustainable criteria – even if the MSC is playing catch-up.

We got to try the mackerel that had been cut up before our eyes and that had been briefly steeped in some pickling liquor (raw mackerel untreated apparently isn’t that great). This was incredibly fresh (obviously) and that certainly added a depth of flavour that you don’t normally get with fish that’s seen the inside of a freezer, as much of it does, even with sushi.

More courses followed: some delicious autumnal mushroom fritters, sea bass maki, and more mackerel – this time served on a bowl of rice as donburi. Another of my favourites.

Before the katsu curry, Silla brought out a loin of tuna, which she also skilfully prepared for us. This is one expensive piece of fish – the portion she had on her chopping board was worth £80 wholesale. Once it was turned from loin into sashimi we all got to enjoy yet another bonus course!

The plum wine served with dessert was good (“Where’s the bottle?” a certain local restaurant reviewer was heard to cry), though having had 25% off drinks all evening, I’m not sure many of us needed any additional alcohol.

Overall, this was a really excellent night. It was the first time we’d taken over a whole restaurant before, and the first time we’d had demonstrations as part of the evening. It was resounding success. Thanks to everyone who came and a huge thanks to Silla and her team for making us so welcome!

La Secret Boutique – anniversary event

Didi Johnson talks about La Secret Boutique and its one-year anniversary event

Located in the heart of West Hampstead at 202 West End Lane (secretly hidden downstairs in Lovefood café), La Secret Boutique is a new ladies fashion boutique that believes in a different shopping experience. [update: La Boutique Secret (as it’s now called) has relocated to 132 West End Lane, nearer to the tube station]

La Secret Boutique offers its customers a unique opportunity to shop, receive individual styling advice and get updates on new trends, all in a relaxed and laid back atmosphere. The motto is to offer something for every woman while keeping prices affordable for every pocket.

Keren, the owner and buyer, has years of experience in retail and fashion. She handpicks all the items in the boutique and brings fresh items once a week so it’s never boring. Most of the items are from Italy, France and the UK. They are carefully selected by Keren to fit her standards regarding fabric, quality and fitting. She tries to find the right balance between trendy and practical, while keeping her customers’ demands in mind.

La Secret Boutique offers its customers a diverse range of casual wear, dresses, office wear, nightwear, jewellery, bags, scarves and much more. Since all the items are handpicked and come in small quantities, you can be sure that you will rarely see them on someone else and that’s what makes the boutique so special.

This November, the Boutique is celebrating 1 year of activity and invites you all to a fun late night shopping event with your local community!

*RSVP and more details in the event page or on Facebook*

La Secret Boutique on Facebook and Twitter

Sponsored post

Whampsushi – November 7th

There’s been clamouring for a sushi event in West Hampstead for about as long as I can remember. Finally it’s happening.

On November 7th we’re taking over Feng Sushi, West Hampstead’s newest addition to the sushi scene.

We’ll be giving their autumn menu a roadtest, with a set price menu comprising:

All this for £30/head (approx 30% saving)

Drinks will be 25% off on the night too. It’s an excellent deal!

Silla Bjerrum, the woman behind Feng Sushi, will be there to talk to us a bit about the food and philosophy behind Feng as well; so it’s a great chance to ask her any questions about sustainable fishing or sushi, both of which she’s passionate about.

I’m really excited about this one – I think it’ll be a great night. Signing up is simple – get a ticket below (max 2pp), and you’re done. There’s no drawing names out of a hat for this one. Once you’re in, you’re in. You’ll pay on the night for food, drinks and service.


Retail oddity in Fortune Green

Those damn supermarkets crowding out the little guys. Am I right? Well, that’s the received wisdom and it’s held true on West End Lane where the arrival of Tesco and then Sainsbury’s killed off Best One (literally as that was where Sainsbury’s moved into), Atlanta Food & Wine, and one of the newsagents.

So, it’s more than a little strange that Best One is making a comeback. No more than 100 yards from Tesco on Fortune Green Road.

The scooter garage on the corner of Burrard Road, which closed recently, could become a new mini-mart if Camden approves its 6am-midnight alcohol licence.

The original Best One before Sainsbury’s moved in

The Road to West End Lane

Sadly, I couldn’t make the grand unveiling of the plaque to George Orwell last week, but mercifully (and appropriately), Danny from West End Lane Books could – and kindly penned a few words about it.

“I’ve got something in common with George Orwell it seems! I gleaned this priceless piece of dinner-party ammo the day that Kilburn Historic Plaque supremo Ed Fordham triumphantly brought Richard Blair to town to unveil a tribute to his father, the mighty George Orwell, on the Kilburn estate they briefly inhabited before being bombed out in WW2.

Nowadays, the building is called Kington House in Mortimer Crescent and Blair, not the slight, pale figure I imagined, but a broad avuncular man of old-school bank manager appearance, admitted he didn’t really recall it — unsurprisingly since he was an infant the last time he laid eyes on the place.

A good crowd had gathered to meet the man whose father has so enriched us all and confirmed that Orwell did indeed work on Animal Farm while living in our postcode.

After the unveiling of the plaque Blair and Fordham braved rush hour traffic to hotfoot it over to West End Lane Books where another eager crowd had gathered and was treated to a reading from Orwell’s Bookshop Memories essay — and that’s where I learned of mine and George’s shared experiences!

Bookshops, Orwell remarked of his time working in one, were places ‘you can spend a long time without spending money’. Yep, that bit still rings sadly true. And although our customers aren’t of the ‘motheaten’ variety that Orwell depicts and nor do we regard children’s books as ‘horrible things’ (they obviously didn’t have Puffin, Walker, Usborne et al in those days), his description of the ‘brutal cynicism’ of the marketing of Christmas, in particular the order form for advent calendars displaying ‘two dozen Infant Jesuses with rabbits’ brought a blush of shame.

Orwell went on to describe life with George as his (adopted) father, noting that while he was always Eric Blair to at home, he was only ever George Orwell to his friends and professional contacts (‘the name change was to protect us,’ said Blair.) and often the two camps were not aware of the other; some family members remaining ignorant of George’s alter ego even as his books were published and word began to spread of his work.

Blair recalled his father as an affectionate man who often read to his son—classics such as AA Milne (also honoured by a Kilburn plaque) and Beatrix Potter, but also his own little stories and poetry, none of which survives to our loss. While retaining the then-customary stoicism about his struggles with TB (‘he was slightly vague about it’), Blair told us that his father was nonetheless constrained by his illness and felt that physical contact with his son needed to be minimal for his own safety.

Orwell also read aloud chapters of Animal Farm at home to his wife and Blair reminded us that even this literary colossus had initial trouble finding a publisher. Blair himself was not allowed to read 1984 until some time after his father’s death when he was 11 and when asked when he first became aware of Orwell’s status, he remembered it as a form of osmosis around the same age.

Listening to Blair’s recollections of Orwell doing bits of woodwork, rolling fags with newspapers when he ran out of cigarette papers and all of the everyday trivia family life is filled with, I for one had a few frissons: this man lived with Orwell…this man knew Orwell!

What an honour to have Richard Blair in our shop. What an honour for NW6 to have such a connection! Major thanks to Ed Fordham for making this happen.”

Whisky and cheese? Yes please

This Tuesday, The Gallery on Broadhurst Gardens is hosting the next in its occasional whisky tasting sessions. This time around it’s whisky & cheese.

Tickets are £10, for which you get to try seven whiskies and matched cheeses. All the profits (i.e., whatever’s left after paying for the cheese) will go to The Winchester Project. Tickets are selling out, and you need to head to the bar to get one, so I would recommend doing so asap. Plenty of whampers are going to be there.

I went to the whisky & chocolate session a few months ago, and can honestly say it was great fun (and good value). Once again, Colin Dunn, Diageo’s Whisky Brand Ambassador, will run the masterclass and he’s an old hand at this sort of event. Last time around most people were whisky novices, but I think everyone really enjoyed it. I don’t think of myself as a whisky novice – certainly my drinks cabinet* suggests otherwise – and I thought it was great. Oh, and the “tastes” are pretty generous!

*cardboard box on the floor

Where’s Wally in WHampstead?

It’s 25 years since Wally appeared on the pages of children’s book, leading to a generation of kids with strained eyesight and a Pavlovian reaction to anyone wearing a red-and-white striped hat.

In honour of this literary anniversary, West End Lane Books has organised a treat for Wally spotters young and old this weekend.

If you spot Wally in West Hampstead on Saturday afternoon then take a pic of him and tweet it (@WELBooks) or mail it () to the bookshop. The shop has Where’s Wally goodie bags crammed with stuff for kids, which will go to the best pictures (be warned, I may be involved in judging these!).

Bit old for a goodie bag, but still want some Where’s Wally action? West End Lane books is also offering a £25 book voucher for the best adult entry.

Hampstead maternity store goes from strength to strength

Zack Lester of Seraphine talks about the Hampstead store and the company’s growth

Situated in the very heart of Hampstead’s thriving high street, Seraphine’s Hampstead Maternity Boutique opened in 2007. Seraphine encapsulates a simple maternity belief: it is important to feel comfortable during your pregnancy, but equally as important to feel confident in what you are wearing.

The shop has experienced impressive growth alongside Seraphine’s other stores and online service, which has seen considerable success, becoming one of the leading online stores for designer maternity wear.

The popularity of Seraphine’s website has been vigorously supported by its stores, notably the Hampstead store and its flagship store in Kensington. These rigid foundations have created a thriving online presence, contributing to its ongoing expansion.

Seraphine offers designer maternity wear at affordable prices, ensuring that fashion-conscious women no longer have to compromise between style and comfort when it comes to selecting maternity wear. Seraphine’s varied and modern style fuses the need for comfort with the desire to look stylish and sophisticated.

In recognition of its year-on-year growth and online store, fashion business magazine Drapers, awarded Seraphine’s e-commerce site with ‘Best Specialist E-Tailer 2011’. This momentous victory saw Seraphine competing against the likes of John Lewis, ASOS, and Jimmy Choo.

Most recently Seraphine launched its ‘Luxe’ collection at the Ritz; a celebration to mark its new line of dresses for special occasions and the opening of its first UK concessions, in partnership with John Lewis, which can be found in the Peter Jones department store by Sloane Square. Without the success of Seraphine’s Hampstead store, none of this would have been possible. The Hampstead boutique offers the complete range of Seraphine styles – and any style not available can be ordered for collection 48-hours in advance.

Whether you are looking for dresses, jeans, casual tops or even luxurious dresses for special occasions, check out the Seraphine store on Hampstead High Street.

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Books, booze and bargains

Next Thursday, the 16th, is the third of our occasional #whampbooks events with the marvellous West End Lane Books.

The premise is simple: you come to the bookshop from 7.30pm. You can chat to some lovely locals, you can drink some (free) wine, browse the shelves, and if you want to buy anything then you’ll get a 20% discount. Yes, free wine AND 20% off books. Come on.

No tickets, no pre-booking, just turn up. The event usually winds up aroud 9 – 9.30pm.

Look forward to seeing you there.

Sunday lunch at The Black Lion

When we did our initial Sunday lunch crawl through West Hampstead, the Lion – as it was then – was on the brink of shutting up shop for a while in order to be refurbed, rebranded, reimagined and reinvigorated. We therefore decided that it wouldn’t be fair to include it in the roast beef round-up and we’d return once it was up and running in its new incarnation.

Which is exactly what we did on that blisteringly hot Sunday a couple of weeks ago. You know the one. It will be remembered as “That hot Sunday in 2012”.

We were able to sit outside on the terrace of the newly refitted The Black Lion. Our table was hot enough for some benihana style Japanese cooking, and we lathered on the sun cream as we looked at the menu. After 15 Sunday lunches of sharing plates, his time we had the luxury at least of having our own meals all to ourselves.

A selection of the Sunday main course options

For starters we should have had gazpacho (which happens to be the oddest heckle I’ve ever heard at a comedy gig), but instead we all went for either the grilled asparagus, or the cured salmon. Both very good – although this is the second time I’ve had the salmon there and it was thinner and more delicate the first time.

Then came the mains. Obviously at least some of us had to have beef – in this case it’s Dexter beef (although the menu doesn’t specify which cut). Tom had fish & chips and Claire tried out the veggie option of roast butternut squash, wild mushroom and almond pancakes with a red pepper sauce.

Beef (and Dom’s arm)

The beef was good – i think they might have got their mediums and their medium rares mixed up, but no big deal. Portion size was impressive, the Yorkshires teetered precariously on top like some limestone rock formation, and the bed of vegetables were all properly cooked (in fact they were slightly over rather than very under as we had had elsewhere).

Tom seemed pleased with his fish & chips, which looked… well, it looked like fish & chips. Claire claimed her pancakes were a good vegetarian option; a change from risotto or the ubiquitous nut roast.

I thought the roast potatoes were good, but it took a long time to get Dom – the arbiter of all things tuber – to pass judgement, and even when he did he was a bit non-committal.

My only criticisms were that there wasn’t enough gravy (though I’m sure we could have asked for more), and it looked like mine had split. No complaints with the flavour though.

Deep bowl for Tom’s deep appetite

We managed to squeeze in desserts: cheesecake, cheese, and a sticky toffee pudding for Anna – a recent convert to the delights of stickiness and toffeeness. All were good – and the cheeseboard came with an extra menu with lengthy descriptions of the cheeses. A nice touch.

Dom and the girls blitzed their way through rather a lot of prosecco, while Tom and I demolished a really good Palestra from the Douro – excellent value as most Portuguese reds are at the moment.

There is no doubt that The Black Lion is an excellent addition to the eating options in West Hampstead. The prices are reasonable, if not cheap, but the service is good and there’s a sense that they are really trying hard to make it work. There are plans for a full-size barbecue on the terrace, which people might find more appealing than the one at the Alice House, which on that particular day was on the street outside the front door in line with the exhaust fumes of the 139 and 328 buses.

Of course lots of us will be trying out The Black Lion for Sunday lunch very soon at Whampgather IX – lets hope we all get as good a meal then as Team Roast did on our very very final Sunday lunch tasting. I’ve added the scores to the spreadsheet you can find here.

Roast beef: £14.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 7
Sets the bar high for West End Lane.

One Blenheim Terrace delivers style and substance

Expectations were high as 18 of us arrived at One Blenheim Terrace across the border in NW8.

The chef had been tweeting about us coming, the restaurant was giving us a 30% discount on the food, and we were hungry after yet another day of dodging rainshowers.

One Blenheim’s modern and stylish interior with spotless wine glasses and linen tablecloths immediately suggests that its aspirations extend beyond nice neighbourhood restaurant. The menu’s concept is “retro with a twist” as familiar dishes are reimagined in very modern ways.

It took a while for the staff to take our order, and even longer for our starters to arrive. In the meantime an amuse bouche appeared. Although the waiter didn’t actually tell us what we were having (a pet hate), it was very obviously tuna tartare on what I guess was a tuile “scoop”. Aside from the fact that the scoop was too soggy to be effective, so cutlery had to be deployed, this was refreshing, zingy and I think a universal hit. Everyone on Nicky’s table said it was “yummy”, and when gently prompted to up their critical game, they came up with “delectable”, and “light and fresh”. “I could eat a whole bowl of it” said Caroline.

By the time the starters arrived, most of us would happily have eaten a bowl of anything. The “hands off” service was really the main criticism of the evening. The starters very much set the tone of the food – playfully presented with strong flavours, they were a good talking point. Not that we were short of conversation once Dominic had begun regaling us with tales of dubious activities he’d witnessed in Brent car parks.

Two starters stood out for presentation. The hand-dived baked scallop, served with sea vegetables and edible sand came to the table in its shell, sealed with pastry. Not everyone found this the easiest thing to break into, but once opened it looked even more delicious. The edible sand was perhaps less successful, reminding some of a crumbled vegetable stock cube, which probably wasn’t the idea. Nevertheless, I’d order the scallop if I went again.


The other starter that immediately brought a smile to people’s faces was the picnic basket, which came filled with a scotch egg, coronation chicken crisps, and corned beef. This was straight off the pages of an Enid Blyton book. “Excellent presentation”, said Mark, while James said it was “entertaining” with very good piccalilli sauce on the side. Only Emily was unmoved by the mini baskets, “you still have to move everything to your plate”, she said. However, she perked up on trying the coronation chicken-flavoured crisps. “They’re like you get in Spanish supermarkets!”, which apparently was a good thing. The scotch egg stole the show and triggered picnic planning among Nicky’s table.

One of the odder sounding starters got mixed reviews. Smoked salmon with a poppy seed macaroon and potted salmon looked delightful, but Louise and Richard were both unconvinced by the almost chocolatey sweetness of the macaroon against the oily smoked salmon. I tried some of this with my most sceptical face, but I actually loved it. Richard said he wouldn’t order it again, but for me it would be vying with the scallop for first choice. As Susan pointed out “I had petals, that’s all that needs to be said”.

The salmon was certainly better than my own starter of asparagus, olive soil and salad cream. The asparagus was slightly overcooked, the olive soil lacked a punch of flavour and there was far too much salad cream. I’d been intrigued to see how a high-end restaurant would use salad cream, but the answer seemed to be “put it in a bowl.” I’ll stick to melted butter or hollandaise next time.

Phil and Adrian seemed happy with the beef carpaccio, if momentarily confused about the existence of ‘yorkshire pudding croutons’. Nimet tried the Dublin Bay Prawns, with a dressed crab cone, prawn cocktail dressing and tartare sauce. The langoustine (singular) was presented creeping out of a seaside pink & white striped paper bag, but aside from looking quite pretty the dish didn’t have a wow factor.

Happily, portions are a decent size at One Blenheim so our appetites were reasonably sated as we waited for the main courses. These are generally more straightforward than the starters with the entertaining touches kept to a minimum. The “lamb & mint” was a popular dish. The lamb was well cooked, but the pea mousse was the star of the show, it would be a tremendous accompaniment to almost any dish. We had a couple of takers for the enormous sirloin steak, cooked on the bone. This is the most expensive main course at £24.95, and at that price you’d want perfection. Sadly, Richard’s was cooked a little more than he’d wanted – and it’s always harder to send back an overcooked steak especially when you’ve already waited a while.

At this point, James leaned back in his chair to nick a menu from another table. “Was my Tuna Niçoise described as a salad?” he asked. It was not. The dish was a deconstructed / reimagined salade Niçoise – think anchovy beignet, rather than a garnish of tinned anchovies, and a poached, rather than boiled, egg. Phil was happy to find the tuna perfectly cooked and “delicious”, but found the rest of the plate “a bit bizarre” – all in all he didn’t feel it added up to a coherent dish, while James said that although the component parts were good he didn’t actually enjoy it.

The best smelling dish was undoubtedly the Bombay cod with raita ice cream – it was a popular choice and everyone liked it. The cod was perfectly cooked and the spicing well-judged, allowing the flavour of the fish to shine through. It came with spiced lentils, a fried courgette flower and a deep-fried scoop of minty cucumbery ice cream goodness – a perfect contrast to the heat and richness of the rest of the dish. “Amazing”, was one reaction although one dissenter wondered whether the ice cream wasn’t just a bit too cold for the rest of the dish.

Emily went for mussels in beer served with beer bread and a shot of ale on the side. Nice presentation, though she wondered whether it was more ‘gastro pub’ than fine dining. Mark ordered the sole meunière at the mysterious “market price” (£21.95), which was exactly what it purported to be: a very nicely cooked piece of fish. We found the side orders (£7.50 for a set of three – and both tables shared three each) to be a bit superfluous, the main courses are well designed as stand-alone dishes, perhaps only the sole and the steak needed something extra.

Before desserts, a word on the wine list from our very own wine expert, Caroline:

“The wine list was concise and precise, with a large selection of wines available by the glass (12 out of 17 for the whites, and 10 out of 19 for the reds). It contained the familiar Old and New World classics one expects on a wine list these days, as well as plenty more interesting options for those tempted by something slightly different. The least expensive red and white are both under the Peyrasse label from the south of France. At £17.50, both wines were perfectly nice and refreshing, and generally thought to be good for house wines. We particularly liked the red, which was very fresh, fruity, juicy and light. We followed with Picpoul de Pinet at £21 and the Argentinian Malbec at £24. Picpoul de Pinet, also from the south of France, is always a fun choice because it tends to be cheap and very good. This one delivered perfectly, with ripe stone fruit and citrus flavours, a zingy, almost spicy palate and lovely freshness. The Malbec was somewhat of a let down, failing to deliver the rich, juicy ripeness that makes Malbec so popular. I also tasted the Pehhcora Pecorino from Italy (white, £25 a bottle) and the Cerejeiras Colheita from Portugal (red, £28 a bottle). The former was recommended by the head waiter, who was knowledgeable about the list and happy to offer his advice. A quirky and unusual white from Italy, it was absolutely delicious. The Colheita was also very tasty, very much a wine to be drunk with meat.

I felt the list represented a cool mix of known classics and adventurous offerings. The wide range of wines by the glass made it easy to have a full wine experience with your meal, without being bombarded or confused by an enormous list. The pricing was entirely reasonable, with most bottles coming in under £40, but also with a few special Fine Wines for those out to impress. Overall, the wine list fit in well with the atmosphere and food of the restaurant. It was thoughtful and interesting, with plenty of variety and something for everyone.”

Thanks Caroline (my table went with the house white and the Barbera Del Monferrato (red, £19), and we were very happy with both).

Before desserts, we had another little amuse bouche (I don’t think a marshmallow with chocolate fondue can ever be described as a palate cleanser). Nicky’s table were debating just how “fine dining” the restaurant was, but Adrian’ reaction to the chocolate put an end to the discussion: “Not so fine dining that we can’t lick the bowl”.

Onto desserts. Even with the generous portions, plenty of us found room for desserts, which included a bakewell slice (or “slab” as it turned out), profiteroles, cheese and a mini pavlova. These were all decent but nothing to get us over-excited, and they weren’t as interesting or imaginative as the starters had been.

The meal had been a success. There had been plenty of high points and mercifully few lows. And, of course, it was another great chance for locals to meet and chat over some good food and wine. It’s true that service had been slow and a bit too passive, especially early on. Although carefully crafted food naturally takes a bit of time to prepare, and we were two tables of 9 in a restaurant with another 20 or so diners, it wasn’t as if they didn’t know we were coming. It felt as if the front-of-house manager needed to take the service by the scruff of the neck and get it moving.

The food did generally hit the mark with some delightful touches and good strong flavours coming through, even in the more unusual combinations. My table’s bill (3 courses each, 5 bottles of wine) came to £40 a head and would have been £53 without the discount. The feeling was that the service would need to be slicker to justify the full price, and mistakes such as the overcooked steak wouldn’t be acceptable.

Perhaps the challenge One Blenheim faces is trying to straddle the two worlds of upscale dining and neighbourhood restaurant. “It looks, sounds and smells like fine dining,” said Adrian, “but isn’t quite there.” The couple on a date who were sandwiched between our two tables were running out of conversation. Is it a good date destination? Opinion was divided – it has a casual but classy vibe, and the lighting and décor are conducive to a romantic but relaxed evening. But when the restaurant is quiet then it’s perhaps a bit too formal.

Overall this was a good meal and a very enjoyable evening. I would recommend trying One Blenheim midweek, when there are some deals to be had. Chef patron Ed Shaerf has worked at Claridges, the Fat Duck and The Ivy and this strong pedigree comes across both in the creative menu and the careful execution. There’s nothing quite like One Blenheim in the area, and it should be applauded for trying something different and for combining imaginative food with proper neighbourhood restaurant portions. Long may it prosper.

Nicky’s table: 7.5
Jonathan’s table: 7.6

One Blenheim Terrace
London NW8 0EH
T: 020 7372 1722
W: oneblenheimterrace.co.uk

One Blenheim Terrace on Urbanspoon

Photos courtesy of Nimet and me
Thanks to Nicky for hosting a table

Sunday Lunch: The dramatic conclusion

One by one we arrived. Amid the clatter of cutlery and pouring of drinks we were the epitome of concentration. The task ahead was clear.

This was the conclusion. This was the final part of the trilogy. By the end of the day we would have found an answer.

It was a Sunday.

We were eating lunch.


And again.

And again.

Having already dissected and critiqued the Sunday lunch offerings of Kilburn and West Hampstead, we were turning our attention to the borders, the periphery, the crispy outer rim of roast meat offerings. We had five pubs in our sights, 10 meals to go. All the pubs apart from The Queensbury knew we were coming to review them (notably, all were much more engaged with that idea than the others we’d visited before).

And so it began.

Midday: The Clifton
We weren’t in Kansas any more – we were on Clifton Hill in NW8. There may have been tumbleweed. As had become traditional, we kicked off with the Bloody Marys and were asked how spicy we’d like them. I like this customisation. But then to the food.

The beef – 21-day aged sirloin – was apparently served medium rare, although ours was definitely on the rare side of medium rare. It did taste very good though. As at the NLT in Kilburn, it was one large thick slice rather than several thinner slices. The vegetables were fine, although the carrots were very underdone, which would be the theme of the day.

A mighty Yorkshire pudding on some (quite rare) beef

The roast chicken was acceptable, though it didn’t wow us, and although I know bread sauce is traditional, it doesn’t add a lot really when you also have potatoes and a yorkshire pudding. Especially when the Yorkshire pudding was so good.

Roast chicken came with bread sauce AND a Yorkshire

This was a promising start overall though. I ordered a side of crackling. Although roast pork isn’t on the menu, the chef buys pig skins specially – I’d suggest not bothering, crispy skin without any of the fat doesn’t work so well, what we had was more like pork skin crisps than proper roast pork crackling. Not unpleasant, but a bit pointless.

Throw these pig skins and you’d take someone’s eye out

Despite this being our first port of call, Tom was powerless to resist the ginger apple crumble for dessert, which received glowing praise from all.

Roast beef: £13.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 9
Roast potato score: 4
Excellent roast beef and good service
*our crumble was on the house

1.45pm: The Salt House
We’d been told that the restaurant had a big party in, so we’d be seated in the bar. Frankly, I think that the bar area is nicer anyway at this popular Greene King pub on the corner of Abbey Road and Belgrave Gardens.

The food came incredibly (almost too) quickly – one beef and one lamb this time. We had barely made a dent in the bottle of Carignan, which Anna declared a bit too heavy on the cherry just as I said “mmm… cherry” to Claire.

“Mmm… cherry”

The beef came in the Yorkshire pudding as we’d seen at The Alice House earlier. The presentation frankly wasn’t the best, but it was very hard to fault the taste of this dry-aged Angus sirloin. The vegetables were all undercooked, and the carrots were actually almost raw. Everything was well-seasoned although perhaps a little heavy on the salt for some of our tastes, but then it is The Salt House. There was some argument over the eventual score for the Yorkshire pudding – it tasted good, but it was too thin at the bottom to hold the gravy so – in Dom’s view at least – it was ruined by being too soggy towards the end.

Generous beef but did the Yorkshire get too soggy?

The potatoes, despite being cooked in the obligatory duck fat, were a little underwhelming, they weren’t crispy enough although they did taste good.

The lamb was very good – it seems pretty hard to screw up lamb, so if you like it and are wary of a pub’s cooking ability it may be the safe option.

Lovely lamb

We again indulged in desserts: a chocolate tart that Tom declared was so good he’d have it for his main course next time, and a sticky toffee pudding that was soft and smooth. We sank another bottle of Carignan as Anna overcame her aversion to cherry. As we went to pay, the manager came over and very kindly said the whole meal was on the house, which was a very pleasant surprise, so thank you Salt House. Doesn’t affect the scores of course!

Roast beef: £15.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8 (Dom disagrees)
Roast potato score: 6
Good all round, quite expensive, buzzy atmosphere

3pm: The Alice House (Queen’s Park)
A short cab ride later and we were entering Queens Park’s Sunday creche, also known as The Alice House. This offshoot of the West Hampstead Alice House had presented the same challenge of a kitchen that closed for a bit in the afternoon, so we were under strict instruction to be there on time (in fact we were early), and we’d pre-ordered the beef and the pork.

Same menu as the West Hampstead branch, but now with prices!

The beef divided opinion. It had been very good at the West Hampstead branch, with the full yorkshire pudding also proving a hit. This version impressed Tom and Anna, while Dom and I thought it was merely acceptable. Claire was non-committal.

Good selection of greens (eat your greens kids)

The potatoes were good – but again, we were a bit split over how good. We all agreed that the Yorkshires were average, especially compared to the previous two pubs.

Presentation of both dishes was good and the presence of more green vegetables was appreciated, especially the bitterness of the spring greens. The carrots were also actually cooked – still a bit al dente, but cooked.

Some more bizarre crackling on otherwise tasty pork

The pork had good flavour although we derided the attempt at crackling that was artfully placed on top of the meat like a chive on a first round Masterchef plate of pasta

We blitzed through a couple of bottles of Tempranillo but were denied dessert despite being handed menus at about 3.55, no-one bothered to tell us that we’d have to order in five minutes or wait an hour, so we had to forgo this treat.

Minimalist label

The beef here is £1 more than the Salt House, but although Tom and Anna liked it, it was hard to see that it justified the extra price.

Roast beef: £16.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 6
Roast potato score: 7
Good vegetables, beef divided opinion

5pm: The Salusbury
It is a short stumble across the road from The Alice House to the Salusbury. This gastropub has a predominantly Italian menu, but is also happy to offer a traditional roast beef Sunday dinner. Again, timing issues with kitchens meant we’d pre-ordered the beef and also a roast spatchcock chicken, which we were having with all the roast trimmings but is normally served as a non-“Sunday lunch” dish.

blurry – but yes, that is £17.80 for roast beef

The beef (28 day dry-aged rib) was particularly good, with excellent gravy and everything was well seasoned. It was, at £17.80, also the most expensive roast beef in the area. Even the carrots were cooked.

And here’s what that gets you – really delicious beef

The chicken was also very good, and as with the Alice House, we were pleased to see some greens alongside the roast veg and Yorkshire.

NB: you can’t actually order this combo off the menu.

We were at the stage of the afternoon where my notes become harder to read, I know we had a selection of interesting sorbets including a very refreshing scoop of apple sorbet and what I can only assume from the hieroglyphs in my notebook was a chocolate fondant.

The house wine – a Vin du Pays de Gard – was under par, so we quickly worked through it and upgraded to a Chilean Pinot Noir (and then another one), just to keep Tom happy.

Literally our wine.

Overall, this was a good experience, and I know that the owners believe the quality of food justifies the price. Although we all agreed that it was very good beef, the total cost of the meal was probably a little high for this to be a regular Sunday lunch venue for any of us.We returned to the street and waited for our next and last taxi.

Roast beef: £17.80
Yorkshire pudding score: 7
Roast potato score: 7
Excellent beef, but at that price you’d expect nothing less

7pm The Queensbury
As with the previous two expeditions, we were starting to flag. Nevertheless, we loosened our belt buckles and bravely entered The Queensbury, by Willesden Green station for the final roast of the day. This was the one restaurant that didn’t know we were coming to review it (because we hadn’t been sure whether we’d make it – but I must say that they were incredibly friendly and helpful in the correspondence about what the Sunday options were).

(not sure why the lamb is in bold and has no price)

I do realise that this late in the day, it’s hard for restaurants to deliver the same quality of Sunday lunch that they might do around, say, lunchtime. So, we might be willing to forgive the Queensbury a slightly underwhelming selection of vegetables and trimmings with the roast beef. The broccoli was very undercooked though, which it shouldn’t be. The beef itself (sirloin), encouragingly, was actually good with plenty of gravy, and the Yorkshire was one of the better ones of the day.

That is a plate of roast beef. Oh yes.

In a futile attempt to stave off the onset of gout, we veered away from roast meat for our other dish and went for “seared salmon with rocket and anchovy mash”. While we might have forgiven any hiccups with the beef, the salmon really should have been spot on yet was disappointing. Seared wasn’t the first adjective that came to mind, it looked and tasted more just “fried” (or “pan-fried” as chefs like to call it). It was ever so slightly overcooked. The anchovy mash divided opinion. Tom felt it needed more anchovy and more butter, I actually quite liked it. The rocket though was just odd – did they forget to dress it, or is it meant to sit there dryly like a sort of papery peppery afterthought. Throw on a light lemon juice dressing to help both fish and rocket and the dish would have been improved immeasurably.

You can do better than this Queensbury, I believe in you!

It was our last port of call, so we called for the port – having already demolished two bottles of Petit Syrah. History does not record what we thought of it, just that it cost £17.50 a bottle. We had a second, so I guess we liked it.

We also had desserts – a baked vanilla cheesecake with a berry sauce (good), a chocolate tart, (pastry a bit thick), and cheese (with some leftover rocket!).


Roast beef: £14.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 6
Deserves a second chance for the meat.

It had been a long and expensive day. Anna might have run to the Clifton in the morning, but she certainly wasn’t running back home from The Queensbury. Dom staggered back to his house in Willesden, Claire tried to find a bus back to Kilburn, Tom looked a bit baffled by everything and I really really wanted to lie down.

Our quest was complete… on three separate Sundays we had eaten 30 main courses between us and could rightly consider our knowledge of local Sunday lunch options to be unrivalled. And then The Black Lion reopened on West End Lane. Luckily, I have an idea for that…

The conclusion? On average, these “periphery” pubs had delivered consistently better food than their competitors in Kilburn or West Hampstead. They were, however, also more expensive. The Clifton and The Salt House were my two favourites overall, while the beef at The Salusbury was probably the best roast beef overall. Taking all three weekends into account, if you held a gun to my head and asked me where to recommend for Sunday lunch (and this is my opinion, not those of my fellow testers), I’d say in no particular order, The Gallery, The Salt House and The Priory Tavern – all for different reasons.

Gather round The Kitchen Table

Did you know that The Kitchen Table on Mill Lane hosts a supper club? I didn’t, but Eugene did and he went along to April’s to see what it was like. Here’s his report:

“For those of us unfamiliar with Mill Lane, the Kitchen Table is a deli open weekdays and Saturday. Since I moved to the area, I’ve become a real fan of its home cooking. The specials on the menu change daily, the owners Jennie & Tom use high quality ingredients and the cakes are awesome. If I could, I’d eat there daily. That’s what I like about this area – you can talk to the owners of the shops, are made to feel welcome and I believe that small independents like this one are important to the social fabric as well.

Anyway, the owners decided to host a spring supper club. In Britain, we seem to have lost touch with seasonality when it comes to food, especially when supermarkets fly in their vegetables year round. This is not the case here. About 25 of us piled into the small unit, having bought in wines from Vini Vivi next door. The evening was well organised such that there was a wine suggestion for each course, both shops had cooperated to get the best out of the food.

  • Amuse: Stinging nettle bon-bons
  • Starter: Asparagus and braised chicory gratin with brioche and spenwood crust
  • Main: Anchovy & honey mustard braised loin of pork with peas, broad beans, courgette & mint and new potatoes
  • Dessert: Rhubarb and custard pannacotta with rhubarb crisps and honey lemon biscuit

There was some debate over the nettle canapés (like, what are they? Will they sting us?). However, once they were cleaned out and nobody was stung, the debate was over. With spring, asparagus comes into season. However, it was the smell of the spenwood that gave this starter away. Our table was debating what it was (cheese, obviously) – the strong smell wafted off the plate before we tucked in and complemented the softness of the asparagus.

For the main course, the pork joint was boneless, not too small and well matched with perfectly roasted potatoes. We all agreed that the sauce was buttery and smooth; it just rolled onto the tongue. Our table had 7 people on it and all plates were cleared.

Braised loin of pork

Finally pudding – I’m never a big fan of pannacotta; I like my desserts richer on the outside or more chocolatey. That said, these were great, just the right portion sizes and perfectly formed.

Overall, the evening was good fun. Service here was great, as usual, However, what makes this special is that Jennie, Tom and their team seem to like what they are doing, namely delivering a great product. If the Kitchen Table was on West End Lane or in St. Johns Wood, the standard of food would mean much higher prices. We should be feeling lucky to have it, especially with the next supper club coming up in May!”

All change by West End Green

The stretch of West End Lane from Nando’s to Walnut is set to see big changes over the next couple of months.

As many of you will have read on Twitter, or (heaven forbid) seen with your own actual eyes, Walnut has closed. The ethically minded restaurant has been a fixture on the corner for just over 10 years, but came up for rent back in June (at just under £2,300 a month if you’re interested). Feng Sushi – also known for its ethical stance – will be moving in this June. Indeed work has already started on what will be the chain’s eighth outlet.

£18 for the 22-piece selection box

There’s much more detail on the design of the 50-cover restaurant here. Feng Sushi expressed an interest in West Hampstead a long time ago, so may feel a bit miffed that in the meantime, the area has become sushi capital of NW London. Alongside MeLoveSushi on West End Lane, there’s also newly opened Sushi Kou on Fortune Green, competing head-on with the well-established Yuzu. There are two newish sushi places on Finchley Road, and the longer-standing outlets Sushi Gen (with an ominous For Lease sign outside), Atari-ya on Fairfax Road (for my money the best of the local options), and Yo! Sushi in the O2 centre.

If the rumours that Karahi Master has closed are correct, hot on the heels of Bon Express shutting down, then are we finally relinquishing the mighty kebab for the healthier sashimi?

Still, if you’re missing your meat fix, rejoice. Apparently some of you haven’t yet caught up with the news that a butchers is coming to town. Since I started this whole blog/Twitter thing back in 2009, this has probably been the single biggest moan of locals: “Why can’t we have a butchers”. The fact that such places have to make a profit in what is a tough market has largely washed over you. So, I don’t want to hear a single person complain that Hampstead Butcher & Providore is too expensive. The high-end butchers already operates on Rosslyn Hill in Hampstead, and has done so for a couple of years now. The only way that a butcher is likely to survive in a high rent area like West End Lane is going to be to target the higher end of the market, and differentiate itself from the supermarkets.

£54 for this “Meat for a week” selection

Hampstead Butcher & Providore (I assume it’s not changing its name for us) will be at 260 West End Lane, where the Chinese medical centre has been (next to Domino’s).

If you fancy a chop with your chop, then step next door. 258 West End Lane is becoming a new salon. Because that’s what we really need in the area. Marco Aldany is a new name for me, but then I’m not really a salon kinda guy. It appears to be a Spanish chain of hairdressers. I can’t tell you much more about it, but I can show you a picture of what the front will look like if it gets past the planners, and tell you that the glass will be armour-plated. Should you be thinking of driving a car into it or anything.

Throw in the changes to The Lion – which has been learning the hard way about the power of Twitter – and the northern end of West Hampstead will have a very different feel to it by the end of the year.


Whampreview takes Guglee for a spin

Guglee seems to have been pretty much a hit since arriving in all its bright orange glory on West End Lane. The clean design and pared down menu makes a refreshing change from old-school curry houses, but there’s no let up in the flavours. It was time to put it to the Whampreview test, so 24 of us descended on it last Thursday.

We’d already agreed that we’d have a set menu with a choice of main courses, but I think both Tom and I were expecting the “mixed starters” to come as a platter or two between each table of eight. Instead, each person received a veritable bounty of Indian delights on their own plate. There was a piece of Hariyali Chicken Tikka – deliciously fresh and green; a piece of tandoori chicken – lovely and succulent; a pani puri; one of Guglee’s famous chat street food dishes; and an Aloo Tiki potato cake. It really was a great selection. Tom, who hardly ever eats chicken, claims he could have eaten “tonnes” of this, while Tony reckoned these were a “very generous portion size for a starter”. Even the poppadums got the thumbs us, being less greasy than is often the case.

As we neared the end of our starters, and already several glasses into the wine and beer, our waiter came round with an extra treat – the Sev Puri Chat. These are “down in one” crispy pastry ‘shots’ that explode with yoghurt and spices on the first crunch. They were a good table bonding ritual, especially for those first timers. Tony was pleased that the waiter had warned us not to attempt to nibble them delicately, as there would have been some clothing casualties otherwise. Some people found them a little large to cram in all at once. 

We were now quite full.

So naturally it was time for the main courses. Guglee had given us a good selection to choose from; my table shared most of them while seven of Tom’s table went for the fish option and six of Nicky’s table went for the lamb. Clearly I chose the more imaginative diners!

Alongside the main courses we got naan breads, rice, tadka dahl, chana masala, and “Veggie Veggie 5”, which is a mixed vegetable side dish. These were generally very well received, the dahl on Tom’s table coming infor a whole heap of praise.

The Indian Railway Special Lamb Curry (aka a Rogan Josh) is what I think of as Guglee’s house special. I had it when I came before and have ordered it several times from the Finchley Road branch. I have to say this time around it wasn’t as good as it has been. The sauce was thinner than usual and although it still tasted nice, it lacked the depth of flavour I associate with it. “Not special enough,” said Jayanti. It was the most popular choice on Nicky’s table, and everyone liked it although Susan and Matt wondered whether the meat might have been more tender. I would definitely order it again – having had it so many times, I think this was a blip.

The Goan fish curry, which dominated Tom’s table, was to my mind a far gutsier affair. Thick with coconut and with the fish chunks still nicely solid it was the hit of our table. Nicky and Claire, however, found it a bit too rich and not spicy enough – better as part of a selection of dishes than on its own. One person’s “not spicy enough” is Dom’s “a nice kick, but not too much”. 

We also tried the Chicken Tikka Massala, that famously British dish, which was also pretty good. It’s never been my favourite, but I would have happily eaten the lot had I been able to squeeze any more food in. There were two vegetarian options – sag paneer and kadhai vegetables, both also got the thumbs up.

Perhaps the universal refrain was that people would have liked to have tried more things but were too full. Ryan just wished he had more room and Tom said he’d have liked starters and mains to have come at once so he could have tried everything.

We all seemed to leave a lot of food. There was talk of doggy bags and Thom and Debbie both made good use of them. Sadly, I was out the next two nights so decided against, but it seemed a shame to waste so much. A bit like with Spiga, the restaurant’s generosity had been its undoing.

A few hardy souls felt it was their duty to test the desserts, which Guglee was kindly giving us on the house. Nicky’s table went for the Rose & Honey Kulfi: “They looked like posh Mini Milks to me. But I like Mini Milks, and I really liked these ones, despite being disappointed there was no joke printed on the stick.” They were a nice, refreshing end to the meal, fragrant with real rose petals. Unfortunately my table’s waiter somehow forgot to order our desserts in the kitchen and by the time we were wondering where they were, it was really time to leave. Tom’s table tried the rice pudding, which was described as “interesting, with a lovely hit of cardamom.” Debbie said the carrot dessert was “hard to explain”!

All the tables opted for the Indian wines – there’s a Shiraz and a Zinfandel for the reds and a Sauvignon Blanc as well. The Zin is more expensive, the Shiraz is much better – so that’s a no-brainer. Non-Indian wines are also available, and some of us stuck to traditional Cobra. Despite their curiosity being aroused by the cheeringly-named ‘Thums Up’, Nicky’s table decided to avoid it when Susan told them it’s a popular Indian brand of super-caffeinated cola. She warned ominously “you won’t sleep if you drink it”.

We’d agreed a set price for the food of £23/head, and the total bills varied from £35 to £40 a head across the tables depending quite how many bottles of wine got consumed!

Overall, Guglee offers interesting Indian food that you’re not going to find in every London neighbourhood. The restaurant is buzzy and welcoming with friendly staff and modern decor. Also, I should reserve a special mention for Sachin, one of the two brothers who run the restaurants. It was both his birthday and his wedding anniversary on the day, and he cheerfully helped ensure everything went well, when I suspect he’d probably rather have been at home celebrating.

Jonathan’s table: 7.1
Tom’s table: 8.5
Nicky’s table: forgot to score. “It would probably have been a 7.5 or 8”.

279 West End Lane
T: 020 7317 8555
W: guglee.co.uk

Guglee West Hampsted on Urbanspoon
Apologies for the lack of photos, mine were all terrible. Thanks to Tom & Nicky for their notes.

A Tale of Two Lions

The Old Black Lion on West End Lane was established in 1751. It was a beerhouse not a tavern, meaning it could sell only beer.

The Black Lion on Kilburn High Road is older. It dates back to 1666. (The Red Lion on Kilburn High Road dates back to 1444! Thankfully now it’s called The Westbury).

Both pubs were rebuilt around the start of the 20th century. The Black Lion in 1898 and The Old Black Lion in 1912.

Click for full-size, taken from The Streets of West Hampstead, Camden History Society

When I first moved to Kilburn, the Old Black Lion was a Rat and Carrot. Yes, carrot. The Railway was a Rat & Parrot. The Rat & Carrot chain was fairly short-lived if I recall. It reverted to being the Old Black Lion.

Only a few years ago, the Old Black Lion underwent a transformation from fairly straightforward pub showing sport to The Lion – which always reminded me a bit too much of an All Bar One.

The Black Lion meanwhile became very popular, and I believe its ceiling is actually listed – if you can list a ceiling.

A few months ago, rumours were flying around West Hampstead that The Lion was closing and being sold. I contacted Greene King, the owners, who assured me this was not the case. It was being refurbed and would be all new and shiny and exciting. It took a while for that to actually get started but the refurb is taking place at the moment.

Then today I was followed on Twitter by @TheBlackLionNW6. Its bio clearly says it is in West Hampstead. The Black Lion in Kilburn (also in NW6) tweets – albeit rarely – under @BlackLionLondon (which might have pissed off some of the other Black Lions within the M25).

“Black Lion” search in Google Maps. “B” is Kilburn’s. West Hampstead’s isn’t there yet

This afternoon, The Black Lion (West Hampstead), tweeted a couple of photos of its dinner and lunch menus. They look quite expensive – it’s competition for The Alice House, not The Railway. At the bottom of the menus (very sensibly) is a website address: www.theblacklionnw6.co.uk. Don’t confuse this with The Black Lion’s (Kilburn) website: www.blacklionguesthouse.com.

I visited the website (of the Black Lion West Hampstead). It’s obviously not quite fully fledged yet, but it does have a contact page, giving its address (295 West End Lane) and a handy Google map. Which shows the location of The Black Lion in Kilburn.

West End Lane is suddenly the Kilburn High Road

With a degree of irritation, I pointed this out to the good people at the new (Old) Black Lion who said that that was indeed a mistake and they’d correct it asap. Hurrah.

In the meantime, the pub opens on April 26th. I am prepared to spend a lot of time explaining to people that there are two Black Lions (like there used to be) on two different roads but in the same postcode area. Before the internet this clearly wasn’t a problem as both coexisted for about 250 years. Now, everyone needs a unique identifier and perhaps “NW6” wasn’t the best one to pick. For a start why not go back to The Old Black Lion, or even call it “The New Black Lion”.

I shall leave the last word to Shannon, whose common sense could have saved the day.

Next whampreview: Guglee on April 12th

It’s time to check out West End Lane’s newest Indian restaurant, Guglee.

This is the second branch of the restaurant – the original is on Finchley Road, where its brand of vibrant Indian street food has been pulling in steady trade for more than a year.

The new venue, superceding the short-lived Costello’s, is larger and is already busier than the first operation. So, it’s time to find out whether it’s up to the standard we expect in West Hampstead.

There are 24 places available, and the Guglee boys are offering us a set price that covers:
Starters to share: poppadums, mixed street food and grill platter;
Mains: choose from Indian Railway special lamb curry (think Rogan Josh), Great British chicken tikka masala, saag paneer, kadhai vegetables and coastal Goa fish curry;
Sides to share: yellow lentils, chana masala, “Veggie Veggie 5”, pilau rice and mixed breads;
Desserts: phirni-saffron flavor rice pudding or kulfi/

Cost: £23 each, before drinks.

As usual, if the event is oversubscribed then names will be drawn out of a hat next Tuesday (3rd).

Whampreview basics: dinner will be at 8pm and we’ll meet at the Alice House for a drink from 7pm. During the evening whoever is running your table (there’ll three tables of eight people) will note down comments about the food/service/value etc., which will go into the write-up, although the evening is more about meeting people than being ultra-critical about restaurants. The bill is split equally between your table unless there’s been a large discrepancy in alcohol consumption. Any questions, just ask.

To put your name forward, or tweet me @WHampstead before next Tuesday. If your name is picked, I will need a mobile number and active e-mail address from you. Please don’t commit to this on the offchance you might be free. We’re making a reservation for a large group at the restaurant so it’s not fair on them (or me!) if we suddenly have lots of dropouts.

Of course, I understand there are always one or two genuine last-minute dropouts, so even if you’re unlucky, I may come back to you at short notice to see if you’re still interested.

Read more about whampreview.

Little Bay: low prices but high expectations

March’s whampreview at Little Bay was the biggest yet. Thirty one of us descended on the quirky Belsize Road restaurant spread across four tables already cluttered with menus, bread, cutlery and glasses. Over the course of a couple of hours we chatted, ate, drank and generally had a lovely time.

Little Bay’s menu has a few surprises up its eastern Mediterranean sleeves. The price is one – this place is famously cheap, espcially if you go off-peak. Alongside the standard menu there are also specials, which are more typical NW6 restaurant prices. But does cheap mean good value? We were about to find out.

The pigs cheeks proved a popular choice for starters. The three plates on Will’s table all got a thumbs up, “just an all-round solid dish”. It was also my option, and while my neighbours peered suspiciously at the food when it arrived, the empty plate 10 minutes later was testament to the taste (hint: it tastes just like pork, who’d have thought). The dish was also one of the high points of Anna’s table.

Choux de crab (that’s crab profiteroles to you and me) polarised opinion. The menu gives no hint of the fieryness that lies within – so those for whom it was a pleasant surprise liked it and.. well, you get the idea. Someone also commented that it “looked a bit rude”, which is the sort of highbrow conversation you can get at whampreview, although normally later in the meal after a few glasses of wine. This many also have been why Robyn referred to them as “food porn”.

Choux de crab (with red pepper sauce)

Crab wasn’t just available in choux form, there was also dressed crab which went down well, although Kat felt it could have been more ambitious despite the pleasing citrus zing. Garlic mushrooms were a hit – and made up for the longish wait Tom’s table had for their starters although as the conversation and wine flowed, no-one seemed to mind too much.

A plate of asparagus looked good, but the asparagus itself underwhelmed Divya (it is out of season, so perhaps no great surprise) while the accompanying coleslaw “had a bit too much to say for itself,” according to Will. Tom was more positive saying the spears were cooked just right and it was a simple but enjoyable dish.

Pastry also figures heavily on the menu – Blake opting for the mysterious sounding Parsons Pastry, which was a main course sized “definitely smoked” chicken pasty . Daniel C. liked his “big juicy mussels” – a perennial Little Bay favourite, while Laura’s mushrooms were “the best I’ve had”, and Debbie said they were “very lovely”. High praise indeed for the humble fungal.

Mushrooms (with the red pepper sauce)

From the starters, many of which came with a bright orange roasted red pepper sauce (or in Amy’s case roasted red pepper in a terrine) to the mains, some of which also came with a bright orange roasted red pepper sauce. Which, if like Sam you’d had already, was a bit disappointing. Meat dishes got a mixed reception – the steak struggling to elicit any enthusiasm: “the kind of steak-chips-sauce combo you could pick up at any pub chain,” according to Lizzie. And, inexplicably, it came with a yorkshire pudding. The lamb steak was well received – although not everyone had it cooked as specified, while the lamb knuckle “fell off the bone” in a good way!

The Belsize chicken – the house special I suppose – is chicken breast stuffed with minced lamb. “A bit odd,” said Ged. But “Worked really well,” said Sue, “very filling!”. Duck breast is another Little Bay favourite, although in this case Caroline and Goetz said theirs was overcooked. Isabelle opted for duck salad, and although the duck itself wasn’t perfect, the dish itself went down well, especially the “delicious, crunchy” pak choi.

The plaice (a fillet wrapped around crab) was another popular choice, although the “spicy” kick of that crab centre again took some by surprse. “Absolutely delicious,” said Debbie. “The centre of the terrine harboured a core of unexpected, unnecessary, overwhelming pepperiness,” said Will. The salmon was on the money for Ben and Tom: “Really nicely cooked and seasoned.” The sea bass worked for Tony: “good side dishes and sauces.” Divya liked the flavours and combinations but thought there needed to be more variation in textures.

Sea bass (yes, you guessed it)

Those red peppers reappeared – stuffed this time. “Very yummy,” said Rebekah and “Good taste,” according to Daniel L., but “tasteless” according to Federica.

I haven’t mentioned the wine, which is odd because quite a lot of it was consumed. The list is good and prices are broadly in line with the food – ie, reasonable. It’s actually a more interesting list than one might expect too.

Desserts were generally deemed perfectly acceptable, if not thrilling. Somehow Will contrived to get the word “historiographical” into his notes on the profiteroles, which I can only assume was a bet that he’s just won, while also describing the tiramisu as “po-faced”. If he’s not careful he’ll be doing all the write-ups from now on!

Despite some hits and misses in the food, the overall impression of Little Bay was positive, especially given the price, with tables paying between £22 and £28 a head (depending how much wine they got through). That’s £10/head cheaper than our last trip to Ladudu. The service at Little Bay was good, especially given how busy the restaurant was that night, with not just us keeping them on their toes. The slightly quirky decor also added to the evening, and the consensus was that people would happily come again. Little Bay is great value, an entertaining experience and long may it continue to be a local’s favourite.

Will’s table: 6.8
Jonathan’s table: 7.8 (must have been the company)
Tom’s table: 7.2
Anna’s table: too busy discussing American politics to score, so “an enjoyable and stimulating evening all round” will have to do.

Little Bay
228 Belsize Road
T: 0207 372 4699
W: www.littlebay.co.uk

Little Bay on Urbanspoon

Sunday Lunch in West Hampstead and Kilburn: The Ultimate Challenge

One of the most frequently asked questions on Twitter is “where’s good for Sunday lunch” and, frankly, the answer is often “go to Hampstead”. But surely NW6 can rival NW3 for a simple piece of roast meat and a few trimmings. It was time for some scientific research. Five Kilburn pubs one Sunday, five West Hampstead pubs the next. (jump to West Hampstead results). [update: the review of the five “periphery” pubs is also now online]

Two Sundays, twenty plates of food, and an awful lot of red wine

Two Sundays, twenty plates of food, and an awful lot of red wine

Sunday lunch in Kilburn
Today we would tackle Kilburn. We were a merry band of five and five pubs were in our sights: The Westbury, The Priory Tavern, The Betsy Smith, The Black Lion and the North London Tavern. Yes, yes, before you all start ranting, there are other Sunday lunches available, but we couldn’t do all of them in one day and we opted for the pubs that people generally talk about. And frankly we didn’t want to think too hard about what went into the £4.99 offer at The Bell. All the pubs had been told we were coming and all but The Black Lion had replied and reserved us tables.

Is the Westbury's hubris justified?

Is the Westbury’s hubris justified?

Midday: The Westbury
Bloody Marys in hand we took stock. Our methods were simple – one roast beef in every pub and one other meal from the Sunday lunch menu. Between us. Not each. We’re not made of lycra. Here at the Westbury, which rather boldly claimed outside that it did the best roasts, we opted for the veggie dish – mushrooms. This was a transparent and futile attempt to make us feel good about the amount of meat we were going to consume.

Westbury sign

Westbury's Sunday menu

Westbury’s Sunday menu

Not everyone knows the Westbury, I realise. During the daytime it’s a pretty nice spacious pub with lots of comfortable seating. It opens at 12 on Sunday, so we’d been sat outside on benches on the High Road like alcoholics desperate for the pub to open. We did have to wait a little while for our food, but we’d ordered just after a table of four, so we can forgive the kitchen for being a little sluggish so early in the day.

What of the food. So this doesn’t get incredibly dull I’m just going to pick up on the main points! Beef (Lancashire rib eye) was good – one of the better beefs in fact. The Yorkshires were average. The carrots were delicious (best carrots). The potatoes were… well, Tom will get annoyed if I call them inedible, and strictly speaking they were edible but they were the worst of what was frankly a bad bunch of potatoes across all five pubs. So, high marks on beef, low marks on potatoes. Good gravy (and we were offered extra when served).

The Westbury's roast beef

The Westbury’s roast beef

The mushroom dish tasted fine, but looked pretty underwhelming for £9.95 – we’d been imagining three really large mushrooms roasted with herbs and looking like they were any match for some roast beef. What we got was a four or five rather black looking mushroom discs that would have been quite nice as a mushroom side dish, but didn’t cut the mustard (also on the table) for a good veggie Sunday lunch.

Mushrooms underwhelmed

Mushrooms underwhelmed

Roast beef: £12.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 4
Roast potato score: 4
Tom’s favourite roast beef in Kilburn

1.30pm: The Priory Tavern
The welcome was warm as usual and the place was busy, so landlord Merlin warned us there might be a bit of a wait, although in reality it wasn’t noticeable.

Priory's Sunday menu

Priory’s Sunday menu

We ordered beef and lamb here. The Priory is the only place that said on the menu which butchers its meat comes from (Josh Pettit & Hillman’s). While we discussed the challenges of food waste – to doggy bag or not to doggy bag – we opened the house red (the first of the day’s many Tempranillos). Our food arrived – the potatoes were better, but still too soft. However, overall, the Priory offered the best vegetables of anywhere we went in both Kilburn and West Hampstead.

Priory's topside of beef

Priory’s topside of beef

The beef was definitely chewier than at the Westbury though perfectly pleasant. The lamb however was really good (I may be a bit biased here as I love lamb), tender, sweet, and the right amount of rosemary. The pub was “between mint sauces”, but did its best with a sort of makeshift mint sauce. The yorkshire puddings divided opinion.

Delicious lamb at The Priory Tavern

Delicious lamb at The Priory Tavern

We also decided it was time for a pudding and promptly gorged ourselves silly on a perfect (not a word I use lightly) chocolate brownie with ice cream. We have commented before on the Priory’s misguided fondness for chopping boards instead of plates. So I won’t mention it again. Just imagine what happened as the ice cream melted.

Perfect Priory Brownie (via Gail's Bakery)

Perfect Priory Brownie (via Gail’s Bakery)

Roast beef £12.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 4
Roast potato score: 6
The roast lamb was Jonathan and Claire’s favourite overall dish in Kilburn

3pm: The Betsy Smith
The strange Narnia meets Alice in Wonderland design of the Betsy Smith meant that this was the only Sunday lunch we were gong to have sitting in a wardrobe. It was lunch number three and by now we were a well-drilled team. The house red was ordered even before we’d sat down.

Betsy Smith

Betsy Smith

Long descriptions at The Betsy Smith

Long descriptions at The Betsy Smith

Then it was beef and our first roast chicken. Huge bonus points for hot plates – apart from Anna who for reasons only she can explain prefers cold plates. Also the staff were on the ball enough to offer us each a plate rather than having us all attacking the two roasts like starved hyenas.

Roast chicken at The Betsy Smith

Roast chicken at The Betsy Smith

Betsy scored high for presentation

Betsy scored high for presentation

Betsy’s chicken wasn’t a triumph – it was nicely presented, but was a little dry and bland. The potatoes were once again a step in the right direction with a crispy outside, but a little heavy inside. Both plates came with mange tout, which seemed incongruous, and a side dish of cauliflower cheese.

The beef was better than the chicken – nothing to write home about, but here’s the kicker: Betsy Smith’s roast is under a tenner. It’s cheaper than everywhere else, and perfectly decent. The wine (another Tempranillo) was also pretty decent. So much so that we had a second bottle with a top-drawer sticky toffee pudding.

Betsy's desserts all under a fiver

Betsy’s desserts all under a fiver

Delicious sticky toffee pudding

Delicious sticky toffee pudding

Roast beef: £9.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 6
Roast potato score: 5.5
Best value roast beef in Kilburn

4.30pm: The Black Lion
There was no room in the bar at the Black Lion so we had to go through to the fairly recently remodelled restaurant. It’s nice, but not as nice as the bar. Beef and pork was the order of the day here. We were starting to flag slightly at our fourth pub, but another bottle of Tempranillo soon revived us (once it had reached room temperature).

A "no frills" menu from The Black Lion

A “no frills” menu from The Black Lion

Overall, this was a good Sunday lunch, or would have been without the red cabbage (at least for me – it had soaked into the gravy making everything a bit too sweet and acidic).

Roast beef at the Black Lion

Roast beef at the Black Lion

We ordered roast pork, which was nicely cooked but a little bland. It was also pretty much gone before I had the chance to take a photo. The Black Lion was the first place that asked how we’d like the beef – and more or less got it right – in fact the beef itself was quite good. The veg was not great: most of our carrots were burnt. However, the Black Lion had better potatoes than most places and a good yorkshire.

Roast beef £13.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 7
Roast potato score: 7
Dom and Anna’s favourite roast beef in Kilburn.

5.30pm North London Tavern
There was a distinct sense of acheivement as we arrived at the NLT. Like great explorers we had experienced adversity (those Westbury roasties), elation (delicious lamb), and had bonded over more bottles of red wine than was clearly advisable based on current government guidelines. We planted a flag in the table and settled in for the rest of the evening.

NLT Sunday lunch menu

NLT Sunday lunch menu

Expectations among some were high. Others (me) had been underwhelmed by the NLT’s food before. It was the most expensive of Kilburn’s roast dinners – would it be the best? Along with the beef, we had salmon for a change. I confess that by this stage my notes are slightly harder to read and not quite as extensive. The beef split the room – Tom liked it, I felt it had good texture but lacked flavour. It was one large thick slice of beef rather than a few thinner slices.

The priciest roast beef on the High Road

The priciest roast beef on the High Road

Roast salmon at the NLT

Roast salmon at the NLT

Portions were generally notably smaller than elsewhere. The salmon was nice, if perhaps slightly overcooked. The NLT did deliver the best yorkshire pudding of the day though.

We treated ourselves to more (quite a lot more if my hazy memory recalls) red wine (another Tempranillo blend) and puddings that we got to eat all on our own without clashing cutlery with each other.

Very good chocolate tart at the NLT

Very good chocolate tart at the NLT

Roast beef £14.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 6.5
The salmon was Anna’s favourite overall dish.

Kilburn summary: Nothing outstanding, but everywhere had something going for it. The lack of agreement on what was the best roast dinner here shows that it’s hard to recommend anywhere as outstanding. It also suggests that given that the cost of a roast beef lunch varies by £4.50 between the Betsy Smith and The North London Tavern, value for money and general atmosphere probably carries as much weight as quality of food.

We rolled home… but seven days later…

Sunday lunch in West Hampstead
There were just four of us for this installment of our Sunday lunch taste test. This would mean more food each, more wine each and less ranting by absentee Dom about the state of roast potatoes.

Under the microscope today were The Gallery, The Railway, La Brocca, The Alice House and The Alliance. We were back on home turf and we were hoping for a higher average standard. We bypassed The Lion, which was about to close for a major overhaul, but we’ve since been to its new incarnation as The Black Lion – what did we think?

Midday. The Gallery
I’m an unashamed supporter of the food at The Gallery since they revamped the menu some months back.

Sunday menu at The Gallery

Sunday menu at The Gallery

Therefore, I wanted our opening dinner to be good. The Bloody Marys once again got us limbered up for the task ahead. Along with the beef we opted for the poussin.

A damn fine plate of food

A damn fine plate of food

Good yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes at The Gallery

Good yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes at The Gallery

Right off the bat we were happy whampers. The potatoes were very good and the yorkshire was better than anything we’d had in Kilburn. The beef was good but not great, but the poussin was perfect – juicy and tender with a good flavour on the skin. The veg were a little bit bland – they needed the kick of herbs or just more butter. Cauliflower cheese was a nice addition, although Claire was a bit sceptical that the cheese sauce was quite right.

It was, very simply, a good start to the day.

Roast beef £13.95
Yorkshire pudding score: 9
Roast potato score: 8
The poussin was Jonathan’s favourite meal of the day

We crossed the road

1.15pm The Railway
We weren’t expecting great things from The Railway to be honest, but we wanted to see what it could offer at the value-end of the market.

The Railway keeps things simple

The Railway keeps things simple

The Sunday roast options were beef or “chicken breasts”, but we decided to eschew the chicken – partly ‘cos we’d just had poussin and partly because none of us were entirely sure whether we fancied chicken from the cheaper end of the industry. So, we had scampi & chips instead.

Lets get the scampi out of the way first – it was scampi. There. That’s it. It wasn’t bad at all – i’ve had much worse scampi. And there are some pubs in the area that would be better off with the Railway’s chips than the ones they make themselves. But that’s scampi and chips.

Scampi & chips at The Railway

Scampi & chips at The Railway

In case you didn't know what a Sunday roast looked like

In case you didn’t know what a Sunday roast looked like

The menu had a picture of what our roast beef dinner would look like but actually it looked better in real life.

Mash AND roast potatoes. And peas.

Mash AND roast potatoes. And peas.

We were a bit divided on this. Anna in fact just declined to eat it but that was hardly entering into the spirit. It was cold, which wasn’t a good start. Not deliberately cold, but definitely not hot. It was borderline complaining-level cold, but we couldn’t be bothered and the gravy and other bits and pieces were hot enough.

I felt that although it didn’t look hugely appetising, it actually tasted perfectly ok and I would happily have eaten it all. Tom and Claire were less convinced. The accompaniments – well, I’d be lying if I said the Yorkshire pudding was good. The mixed veg would have been absolutely fine if they’d not been overcooked. There’s nothing nutrionally wrong with frozen veg, but they shouldn’t be soggy. However, the potatoes were actually pretty good (and came in both mashed and roast form) and there were peas and who doesn’t love peas?

One thing that I will say about The Railway is that the service is always noticeably good – friendly, helpful and eager to please. They’d even given us an extra Yorkshire pudding as Tom had asked nicely. Had we complained about the cold beef I’m sure they’d have been nice about it and sorted it out. Obviously this was a lot cheaper than anywhere else, but it’s only £4 less than the Betsy Smith, which had delivered a better plate of food.

Roast beef £5.99
Yorkshire pudding score: 3
Roast potato score: 6
It fills a gap in the market in West Hampstead

3pm La Brocca
Tom practically lives at La Brocca but had never had Sunday lunch there, so we were all intrigued to see what the Italian-inspired kitchen could deliver. The Sunday roast options were chicken or beef, so we had both and branched out from the ubiquitous Tempranillo to Tom’s favourite Pinot Noir.

La Brocca's Sunday lunch menu is tucked away in a corner

La Brocca’s Sunday lunch menu is tucked away in a corner



The beef had good flavour, but needed the gravy without which it was a little tough. The chicken – again, just chicken breasts which is no good for those of us who prefer legs – was also nice, but it didn’t excite us.

Roast chicken from La Brocca

Roast chicken from La Brocca

The best roast potatoes

The best roast potatoes

The vegetables were average – perhaps slightly disappointing for a kitchen of this standard – and unsurprisingly the Yorkshire was so-so. But the roast potatoes… oh dear me the potatoes were almost as good as Dom’s mother allegedly cooks.

As we had a bit of time before the Alice House would be ready for us, we indulged in a good sticky toffee pudding and an apple crumble that was a lot more apple than crumble, but tasted good nonetheless.

The vibe is always good at La Brocca too, and although it was a mixed success, I could see myself coming back here for more of the beef (with extra gravy).

Roast beef £13.00
Yorkshire pudding score: 3
Roast potato score: 9
The best roast potatoes in Kilburn or West Hampstead.

4.45pm The Alice House
Now, before we get into the food, I need to sort one thing out. When I’d e-mailed to book the Alice House I’d been told that the kitchen was closed from 4-5pm on Sundays, and they couldn’t guarantee there’d be any roast dinners left when it reopened. The website does in fact say that Sunday lunch is served from 12-4pm, which I hadn’t noticed. Nevertheless, it seems strange in an area rife with late Sunday lunchers, and it’s not hugely conducive to doing a review! Anyway, after a very amicable correspondence, we agreed that I’d pre-order the food so they’d keep two plates back for us, and then when the kitchen reopened at 5pm they could serve us. This meant weweren’t entirely sure what sort of state the food would be in.

We had to use Google Maps to find Aldington

We had to use Google Maps to find Aldington

I’m delighted to say it was in an excellent state. We had the beef and the lamb and for the first time we had a REAL Yorkshire pudding – that is a proper size one with all the beef and gravy and vegetables served inside.

Now THAT is a Yorkshire pudding

Now THAT is a Yorkshire pudding

If we’re being very pedantic (and as someone who’s half Yorkshire that’s not just a right, but a duty), the yorkshire wouldn’t be served like this, it would be a separate dish, but this was a good approximation of the idea and it was good, although not quite as good as The Gallery’s.

The beef was also top-notch, very tender and well cooked. The lamb was good too, though not as good as the Priory’s for my money. There was a very good range of vegetables, but the potatoes divided opinion. Tom liked them, while the rest of us thought they were ok, and more like mini-jacket potatoes with a very thick skin albeit soft inside.

Roast lamb at The Alice House

Roast lamb at The Alice House

So, the end result was that we left the Alice House pretty happy. But had we been lucky? I saw a tweet that evening from someone who – for the second week running – had been told at 2pm that they’d sold out of Sunday lunches and there would be a lengthy wait for the next batch to be made. Surely, the AH must know that it’s going to be a popular place for Sunday lunch and can prepare accordingly? And if the food is always this good then they really are missing out on a goldmine.

Roast beef £14.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 8
Roast potato score: 6 (amid a lot of argument)
Best roast beef in West Hampstead

We needed the walk along Mill Lane to The Alliance by now. Although the conversation had remained sparkly, we were feeling the weight of responsibility – largely in our stomachs – as the mission drew to a conclusion.

6pm The Alliance

By the time we reached The Alliance most people had sensibly stopped eating lunch and were perhaps having a cosy pint in front of the football. Not us. No siree.

The Alliance menu

The Alliance menu

The menu sounded appetising and good value, but we decided to finish as we’d started a week earlier with the beef and the vegetarian option. We’d heard good things about the roast dinners here, and although the beef wasn’t exceptional it was perfectly fine. The veggie roast was more than fine, it was damn good and long-time vegetarian (obviously not any more) Claire said it was much better than many she’d had.

Top-notch veggie roast

Top-notch veggie roast

Ironic then that the potatoes weren’t the best, ranking down with the Westbury’s. The Yorkshire wasn’t bad either but by this stage we were all well and truly roast dinnered out.

Our tenth and last plate of roast beef

Our tenth and last plate of roast beef

Obviously we had room for pudding. Duh. Plum fools, more crumbles (really really good), a cheesecake and generous cheese plate all found their way down.

You can’t argue with the friendly service at The Alliance, and if you’re up that end of town it’s well worth the money – we were also right at the end of their service, so it’s possible that the potatoes might have been better earlier in the day. And although we only tried a couple of non-meat options across both weekends, if there were many veggie dishes better than this then I’d be surprised.

Roast beef £11.50
Yorkshire pudding score: 6
Roast potato score: 3
Good value – would try again a bit nearer traditional lunchtime!

We were done. We were very full. Kids, don’t try this at home. I have literally no idea how Anna ran to work the next day – I could barely move.

West Hampstead summary: Definitely a higher standard overall, although again struggled to say that one place got everything right. The Alice House food was very good, but I wouldn’t want to get there and find the kitchen was shut. La Brocca’s atmosphere was lively and it delivered top roast potatoes. The Alliance was good value, but I’ll be heading back to The Gallery for that poussin.

Across both Sundays, the lamb at the Priory and the poussin at The Gallery were my two personal favourite dishes and the beef at The Alice House was my favourite roast beef.

Before you ask… yes, we know there are more places in Kilburn that do Sunday lunch; no, we’re not going to do Hampstead, you can explore the pubs there for yourselves; but yes, we will do one final Sunday lunch field trip when we tackle “The periphery” [update: This is now online]. In the meantime, thank you to Tom, Anna, Claire, and Dom for their company and firm opinions.

Photos are courtesy of Anna, Claire and me.

New deli on Kilburn High Road

A couple of people had alerted me to the opening of Belvedere Traditional, so roving reporter Kate popped in to see what the fuss was about:

“The gentrification of Kilburn High Road has officially begun with the opening of an artisan delicatessen opposite Sainsbury’s Local [north end of Kilburn]. Belvedere Traditional sells organic and homemade food, including a comprehensive selection of cured meats, dairy products, preserved fruit and vegetables, pickles and jam, and fresh bread. Polish delicacies are the other order of the day along with fresh pasta, a small selection of fruit and veg, and the usual high-end dried goods. The owner is looking to expand the range on offer and suggestions are welcome: a request for humous was met with ‘maybe in the future’.

There is also a small café area on a mezzanine floor where customers can enjoy a quick brew and sandwich or one of the freshly baked pastries on offer. Prices are higher than the average KHR deli but lower than they’d be on West End Lane – and it’s open 7 days a week.”

Opening right opposite Sainsbury’s could be foolish or inspired – I look forward to checking out some Polish pickles next time I’m down that end of Kilburn.

Whampreview coming up: Little Bay

It’s an institution, but is it any good?

On March 8th, whampreview moves to Little Bay. Not familiar with it? Where have you been? The ultimate cheap and cheerful restaurant began life at this Belsize Road location, although has since opened a few branches further afield. The quirky interior and value-for-money menu have made it a perennial favourite, but how well will it withstand the scrutiny of whampreview?

Street View blurs the face of the stone god!

There are 24 places available for the evening, and this will be one of the cheapest whampreviews we’ve done with a three course meal coming in under £15 before drinks.

As usual, if the event is oversubscribed then names will be drawn out of a hat next Monday (27th).

Whampreview basics: dinner will be at 8pm and we’ll meet at the Priory Tavern for a drink from 7pm. During the evening whoever is running your table (the plan is three tables of eight people) will note down comments about the food/service/value etc., which will go into the write-up, although the evening is more about meeting people than being ultra-critical about restaurants. The bill is split equally between your table unless there’s been a large discrepancy in consumption. Any questions, just ask.

To put your name forward, or tweet me @WHampstead before the end of the week. If your name is picked, I will need a mobile number and active e-mail address from you. Please don’t commit to this on the offchance – we’re making a reservation for a large group at the restaurant so it’s not fair on them if we suddenly have lots of dropouts.

Of course, I understand there are always one or two genuine last-minute dropouts, so even if you’re unlucky, I may come back to you at short notice to see if you’re still interested.

Read more about whampreview.

The Lion’s future

There seemed to be some confusion as to what was happening to West End Lane pub The Lion, so I wrote to Greene King, the owners. Here’s the response:

“We are planning to close the Lion in West Hampstead temporarily for an exciting refurbishment. The plans and timings for the refurbishment have not yet been finalised but we will keep the local community updated. We apologise for any inconvenience the short-term closure may cause.”

Not adding huge amounts of info, but it does seem to suggest that the pub hasn’t been sold, but is being revamped – so the gastropub rumours may be correct.

Twenty two do Ladudu

On Thursday, we took over a good chunk of West End Lane’s popular Vietnamese restaurant Ladudu in the latest installment of whampreview.

Unlike previous reviews, we had a set menu and arrived all at once – setting both the kitchen and front of house a sizeable challenge. Complimentary prawn crackers and green and jasmine tea arrived promptly and the conversation across our three tables started to flow as we waited for our appetiser platters. Several people had been to Vietnam and expectations were high.

The first dish to arrive was a green papaya salad (one of my personal favourites and also popular with Eugene) surrounded by summer rolls filled with prawn, vermicelli and mint. These had very clean flavours – although my table felt the mint was a little overpowering giving what Sam described as a “toothpaste” finish. Other diners thought the mint made these rolls fresh, light and fragrant. Stefanie thought this was typical of what she’d eaten on her travels. In contrast to these sharper flavours, a plate of fried calamari, fried prawns, and vietnamese spring rolls had a lovely chilli warmth to them – the squid in particular was “bang on”, according to Thom. Paula thought they were light and tasty, although James thought the spring rolls were nice but not distinctive.

The dipping sauce that Daniel and Sheena said really helped bring these bite-size morsels to life was a bit slow to my table. Alicia wondered whether a sweet peanut dipping sauce might be a good addition although she loved the summer rolls. Overall, most of us agreed with Tom, who loved the style, presentation, tastes and textures of the platters.

Having demolished the starters, and moved from tea onto wine and beer, we were then served a hot and sour prawn soup. This was laden with prawns, white fish, squid and er.. pineapple, which caught a few people by surprise – “I saw it, and left it,” said Claire. It was generally very popular though; “a great mixture of tastes that somehow came together perfectly,” said June. It also briged the gap nicely as we waited for our main courses. Nicky thought it would make a “nourishing winter cold remedy”. Simon liked it but thought it meant the whole meal was quite a lot of food. Tom declared it to be “wonderful”. “The inclusion of big pieces of squid and things really made it a dish I would eat as a main. Perfect balance of flavours too.” Daniel called it the “Goldilocks of soups”.

For a main course, each table got a bowl of beef curry and a bowl of chicken curry (our token vegetarian got her own vegetable curry). Simon liked the curries but preferred the starters, Bill thought they needed a little more kick, and SJ said they were nice but she wasn’t blown away. Alicia, however, thought they were tasty. Tom D summed up Nicky’s table’s view of the curries, saying they felt a bit generic south-east Asian. Eugene had a similar perspective, comparing them with a Wagamama’s curry. It’s probably fair to say that although everyone liked these dishes, no-one was bowled over.

Luckily all the other elements of the main course were much more successful. We also had rice, rice noodles, a chicken stir fry dish, fried noodles, and morning glory (which Wikipedia tells me is designated a Federal Noxious Weed in the US, but was one of the most popular dishes for whampers – Bill declared it the highlight of the main course). On my table at least, there was quite some time between all these elements appearing and probably more rice and fewer vegetables than we needed.

The chicken stir fry (or veg stir fry) was a big hit. Paula commented that the smoky mushrooms brought the dish alive, and Mark agreed it was well done. The fried noodles were also very popular on my table but took a while to arrive on Tom’s table, although once they did they were well received.

The wine continued to appear – house white for my table, a Marlborough Pinot Noir on Tom’s table that he raved about, and white and red for Nicky’s gang. It seemed that first-time whampreviewers were quickly getting the hang of the whole thing (eat, drink and be merry).

Most of us had room for dessert – especially when it came in the form of Ladudu’s truly outstanding ice cream, which is probably the best in West Hampstead. Coconut and pandan, lychee, vietnamese coffee, and  black sesame ice cream all elicited gasps of amazement. James said his was “the best lychee ice cream I’ve ever eaten” (yes, it was the only one – but I think the sentiment is valid). Nicky reckoned the black sesame ice cream was worth going back for all by itself – and the waiter enigmatically promised that they are working on a new improved sesame flavour “which will be as black as my Asian hair”. Alicia was the sole dissenting voice, saying her ice cream could have been sweeter.

The other dessert option was a “celebratory glutinous rice cake with coconut reduction” – this was a bit heavy for Dominic and Isabelle, who failed to finish theirs. On my table, only Sam was in favour while Claire said it wasn’t to her taste. Tom’s table were more enthusiastic, with Paula saying it was “savoury, interesting and chewy”.

Each table had a designated waiter or waitress, and service was friendly and well-informed if a bit slow at times as the kitchen tried to get everything out together. Large groups and set menus are also a relatively new venture for Ladudu, so it’s likely that they’ll iron out some of the kinks – and of course going in a small group or as a couple would be a very different experience.

Overall, the evening went very well. Some dishes disappointed those who’d been expecting more exciting food, and those who had eaten at Ladudu before felt the menu hadn’t necessarily showcased the best of the restaurant’s food. However, other elements of the meal were really successful, and there was a strong sense that people wanted to come back.

The cost: we paid £25 a head for the menu (£20 for the vegetarian option), with drinks and service on top. Tom’s alcoholics ended up with a £38/head bill, Nicky’s table was £36, and mine was £35.

The scores:
Nicky’s table 7.6
Tom’s table 7.2
Jonathan’s table 6.6
Average: 7.1

152 West End Lane
T: 020 7372 3217
W: www.ladudu.com

La du du on Urbanspoon

Locally Sourced

No, not a post about foraging for wild mushrooms down Bill Fury Way, but rather about Locally Sourced Productions. Let me let Paula take up the story:

“It sprouted out of a casual conversation at David’s Deli one summer’s day, and over the past 15 months has gingerly settled into an unpredictable routine of literary and musical events. We started with a poetry reading at the Deli. Since then, around every six weeks, we’ve presented story-telling, travel writing, writers reading from their first novels, composers, jazz musicians, singers, short stories, and most recently a rousing night of sea shanties. The point of the evenings is two-fold: to bring together our community for a bit of free fun and camaraderie and to have an opportunity to enjoy and discover our local artists who so kindly give of their time and talent.

While I have your attention, I just want to publicly thank a few local stars: Elias at David’s Deli who packed the audience in for many months and continues to support this endeavour down at La Brioche, where we moved three events ago; photographer and neighbour Dominic Lee who so generously prints the posters I hope you see in the window at La Brioche advertising the events; Roger Evans, our delightful host at La Brioche, and you, who come out on the occasional Monday night to meet up, support the talent, and make West Hampstead an especially wonderful place to live. If you have any ideas for events or want to participate yourself, let me know.”

Here are the details for this Monday’s event (and the evening of December 2nd, Roger’s own band will be playing in Brioche)

Spiga pulls out all the stops

On Thursday, 24 of us took over Broadhurst Gardens’ newest restaurant Osteria Spiga in the latest (and largest) edition of #whampreview.

With so many of us, we staggered the tables over the evening and Tom and I had selected a slightly shorter menu than Spiga’s full offering although there was still plenty of choice.

We received a generous complimentary glass of prosecco on arrival, and there was bread and olives on the table. Starter portions were sizeable – Anna was sceptical as to whether we were receiving “critics portions”, but from my previous experiences at Spiga I think we were getting the usual dishes. Over the course of the evening, despite a few errors and inconsistencies, it was obvious that there was skill and flair in the kitchen, and the evening was a great success with the vast majority of food receiving glowing praise.

The wild mushroom and poached egg starter (£4.50), especially popular on my table, was certainly a whole lot of mushrooms on a plate. It was “lovely and garlicky” according to Nathan, if “very rich” as Adrian and I both thought. June “thoroughly enjoyed it”, but Alex wasn’t sure whether the poached egg really went with the mushrooms – both parts cooked well, but did they merge together successfully?

Poached egg featured with the asparagus starter too (£5.50), which was the most popular dish on Tom’s table although there seemed to be a few egg issues with Tom’s and Doron’s a little undercooked while Rajiv and Ryan’s was perfect – everyone loved the asparagus though.

Those who opted for the cold meats platter (£5.90) were presented with an enormous wooden board of hams and salamis along with smoked mozzarella (“amazing” said Lauren) and Will cleared his board proclaiming it “excellent”. Eugene thought it was well presented and agreed the portions were generous. In fact, this is really large enough to be a sharing plate.

Claire T loved her smoked salmon salad (£6.30) “a delicious combination of smoky oily fish with creamy mascarpone” and Tom, who tried a bite, reckoned he’d happily have it as a main course with some bread.

The fried goat’s cheese (£5.20) was also a potential main course. Rahki said hers was “very tasty” and Amy said it was “substantial and rich, but it could benefit from more balsamic to balance the flavours”, while Mark looked on enviously.

Matt and Emily (perhaps ambitiously) opted for risotto (£5.50) as a starter. Matt liked the “delicate flavours” and said the “asparagus really shone through”, but admitted it was “too big for a starter”. Emily liked the “creamy texture”, but would have liked a grating of parmesan on top.

After starters came a complimentary pasta course – perhaps a course too many for some of us. It was a pumpkin and amaretti ravioli (two pieces) and an accomapnying ladleful of gnocchi in a tomato sauce. The ravioli divided opinion – it was on the sweet side for most people, but the almond flavour came through. “It tastes like Bakewell tart” said Mark and Anna, while Alex and Stefanie thought it a “bit too marzipanny”. The gnocchi was more of a hit – I’m not a great fan of gnocchi but I could have happily eaten a bowl of this for a main. All in all, a mixed success, although the generosity was definitely appreciated.

Already quite full, the main courses started appearing. The duck in orange sauce (£9.80) was a popular choice although several people thought their’s slightly overcooked – in Claire T’s case, enough to send it back although she raved about her replacement calling it “sweet and fruity” and she said the duck leg croquette was “amazing”. Matt and I found the sauce a little too sweet, but Claire J said it was perfect and Phil enjoyed his, while Ryan liked the “top notch presentation”. The croquette divided opinion – I felt mine lacked depth of flavour and perhaps was underseasoned. June was pleased with her rare duck – cooked as she wanted.

Nathan went for the vegetarian version of the Fagotini (£8.00), which did have to go back to the kitchen after a misunderstanding led to the first attempt having bacon in it. When he got the right one he thought it was “quite nice, but slightly bland”.

Rakhi and Tom went for the gnocchi – Rakhi sensibly opting for the starter size (£5.80). She found it “tasty”. Tom’s main course portion (£7.80) was a “nice wholesome dish with delicate flavours”, atlhough both of them thought it needed more salt.

The sea bass (£12.50) looked excellent – two large fillets on a bed of ratatouille. Rajiv reckoned it was “one of the best sea bass fillets I’ve ever had. Juicy, flaky and simply excellent”. Will gave it “top marks”, while Emily thought it was “very generous, but the ratatouille is too strong”.

The steak (£14.50) was a hit, although Stefanie realised she’d now doubled up on the mushrooms after the funghi starter. It was “excellent and well presented” according to Eugene, who also liked the peas and stock side dish that comes with all mains at Spiga (and is delicious – you don’t need to order sides here!).

Nathalie loved her veal chop (£14.90) although found the size overwhelming. Adrian enjoyed it but found it quite rich and would have preferred the potatoes as a side dish rather than on the plate. Doron’s was overcooked and was sent back – the replacement was still slightly over for him, but he thought it was “very tasty”. Tom’s table, who had all three of the returned dishes, got wine on the house as compensation.

Alex gave his chicken (£9.30) 8/10, and was very happy with it, although he thought his orange juice disappointing.

Dessert menus were generally waved away – everyone was very full by this stage. Will did find room for a crème brûlée (£4.20), which looked lovely and was “really good”. Matt’s table shared a tarte tatin (£4.30) and a chocolate torte (£4.60). The tarte tatin was more popular although Anna thought it too bitter and Claire J suggested the addition of salted caramel! Matt thought the torte “unadventurous”, but as Phil enigmatically pointed out “if you order a chocolate torte you’ll get a chocolate torte”.

A couple of grappas, coffess and a vin santo with cantuccine made their way to my table, and of course complimentary limoncellos all round.

Matt’s table hit the Chianti Classico (£21), which they preferred to the house red. My table was on nothing but the house red (a Merlot/Sangiovese blend from Umbria), which we all thought was excellent value at £12.95, and Tom’s table also enjoyed it, while Claire T upgraded her white wine having been unconvinced by the house white. Claire J simply liked the size and shape of the wine glasses!

So that’s the food – but what about the service. It was, simply, excellent. This was a big ask for the two waitresses helped by Sandra (whose chef husband Sokol was responsible for about 75 plates of food that night), and they rose to the occasion. Tom praised the “outstanding and very warm” service and his table wholeheartedly agreed – remembering that they had the most problems. He particularly mentioned how hard Sandra worked to rectify the problems.

With so much food and plenty of wine, I think most people were surprised at the final bill. Matt’s table (drinking pricier wine) came to £33 each, my table averaged at £30 each with a bit of juggling for Alex who wasn’t knocking back the wine like the rest of us, and Tom’s table was £28.

The all important scores:
Tom’s table: 8.1
Jonathan’s table: 7.6
Matt’s table: 8.0

The bottom line seemed to be that even with very minor quibbles people enjoyed it very much and were very keen to come again. The warmth of hospitality is very genuine and that comes across. I’ll leave the last word to Eugene: “fantastic service, well-run, good value – a strong example of what a neighbourhood restaurant is”.

Osteria Spiga
182 Broadhurst Gardens
T: 020 7372 8188
W: www.osteriaspiga.co.uk

Photos by Lauren / Jonathan

Whampreview at Spiga November 3rd

After the success of our first “jumbo” whampreview earlier this month at The Wet Fish Café, the excitement continues. Our next visit will be to Osteria Spiga – the new Italian restaurant on Broadhurst Gardens.

Regular readers will know that Tom and I went to Spiga on its opening night and were impressed, and I’ve been twice since with the same experience. So, this promises to be a good night.

As with the last event, we will be staggering the tables so that the kitchen doesn’t get slammed and Tom and I are also going to propose a reduced (although definitely not limited) menu for the night – though we promise there’ll still be plenty of choice for everyone.

The average cost of a 3-course meal + wine and service at Spiga is ~£30/head, and we’ll get a free glass of prosecco as an aperitif (each!)

A few basics:

  • We’ll meet for a drink beforehand – a great chance to meet folks before you sit down
  • Each table’s bill will be split equally unless there’s been a dramatic difference in consumption
  • We have 24 places available. If you’d like to come then please or tweet/DM me (@WHampstead) before midday Friday. If the event is oversubscribed then, as is customary, I shall draw the names out of a hat. If you’re one of the lucky ones, I shall be in touch Friday afternoon and I will need a mobile number and active e-mail address from you.
  • Please don’t commit to this ‘on the offchance’. Once I’ve contacted you to say you’re in, then that’s basically a restaurant reservation you’ve made. Of course there are always odd very good reasons for last-minute dropouts, but for the restaurant’s sake (and mine!) please try and commit to the date – that’s much appreciated.
  • For more info on whampreview, or to read about our previous experiences, check out the FAQ.

The Wet Fish Café under the microscope

This was a whole new venture. Not one, but two tables for the first #whampreview of the autumn. Seventeen of us assembled at The Lion beforehand – and it was great to see so many new faces alongside one or two of the usual suspects.

Tom escorted his table of eight across to The Wet Fish Café first, where an entirely separate party of 12 was already seated. There was no doubt this was going to be a challenging night for both the kitchen and the front-of-house staff. But how can you not love a restaurant that has the “#whamp” twitter hashtag secreted on its menu?

By the time my table of nine appeared some 30 minutes later, the place was already buzzing and the chat from Tom’s table suggested they were having a good time – reinforced by the generous free glasses of Prosecco that we all received.

As well as being the first time we’d gone for a larger group and staggered tables (to help the kitchen), it was also the first time that a restaurant knew we were coming to review it. As I explained in the set-up post, I am moving these evenings slightly away from an attempt to anonymously review local eateries, and more towards a sedentary (and gastronomic) way to meet fellow whampers.

Not that this means we won’t be talking about the meal in the write-ups!

New menu
The Wet Fish Café has just launched its autumn menu, and there are some new faces in the kitchen. Owner André is feeling bullish about the coming months after what has been a tricky period for lots of local businesses who have been feeling the economic squeeze. The ethos of the menu is still much the same as it tries to deliver on the restaurant’s tagline of “modern comfort food”, but it’s been pared down slightly and a couple of lighter dishes have been added. It reads well, and has a contemporary feel to it – unpretentious and very appealing.

On my table, the pear and stilton salad was proving a popular choice and everyone seemed to enjoy it: “excellent,” said James, and Carl said it was “beautifully presented”.

Three of us shared a half-dozen Colchester native oysters, which came with the requisite shallot vinegar and lemon. Maybe a bottle of Tabasco could be put on the table too? Tom’s table shared a couple of the main course platters for starters, which they found a little disappointing, especially as the advertised ciabatta and olives were missing completely. The platters aren’t really big enough to share between more than two people, but at least everyone got to try the chorizo, which was the undisputed hit. Eugene praised its “unusual chilli kick”, while Carl suggested all the other West Hampstead restaurants come to see how chorizo should be served. Ant simply said “10/10”.

Zoë and Anna’s crayfish cocktail and calamari starters looked nice enough, but they weren’t blown away by either.

The main attractions
Given how busy the small kitchen was, we weren’t expecting super quick service, so we tucked into the wine. Both the tables liked the house red – a Merlot-Corvina, and I think the house white is one of the better value white wines in West Hampstead. The next red up the list – a Cabernet Malbec, divided opinion. Tom really liked it, while Kat was unconvinced.

Tom’s table were a course ahead of us, so we watched as they enjoyed their mains. The broad consensus was very positive, with a few quibbles. Kat had the sea bass, which initially arrived without the broccoli and mussels, despite correctly having potatoes instead of noodles as requested; Eugene’s sea bass came out perfectly, so presumably this was just a communication mishap caused by the switch. The table also had trouble with a side order of kale, which arrived cold and undercooked. I had kale with my main and it was fine, so seems like a glitch rather than an intrinsic problem with cooking kale.

The salmon, which was popular on both tables, seemed to be the most consistent dish. Tom described his as “beautifully seasoned and cooked, and it worked with the wonderful intense celeriac”, while Claire T also described it as beautifully cooked. Next to me, Sarah’s salmon certainly disappeared quickly and this looked one of the most attractive dishes. Ryan agreed it was fresh and a good size.

The tempura cod, one of the new dishes on the menu, was another popular choice. Debbie was very pleased with hers, as was Claire D, who confessed she likes ketchup with most things, but this didn’t need it! James enjoyed his, but admitted that he wasn’t sure that the fact it was tempura batter made a huge difference. He did, however, say it gave him “a warm feeling on a cold night.” Jen’s was tempting enough that Anthony wished he’d ordered it.

Zoë sadly experienced a foreign body in her food: a small piece of plastic, maybe off a piece of tupperware. It rather put her off her grilled vegetables with quinoa main course, although she also said – with some justification – that it would be better described as quinoa with grilled vegetables given the relative proportions, and it needed more feta.

Ana and Ant both had the fillet steak – a large hunk of meat for both. Ana, who had been on a fish diet for some weeks, seemed to devour hers at pace. Ant, having ordered it medium-well, thought his steak was undercooked. He also thought it was a bit too chewy, which is certainly odd for a fillet steak. I know André is really pleased with this particular cut of meat, so something clearly had gone wrong here. Ant did say that the potaotes were good, and the sauce was delicious, and that he’d have welcomed more of it – perhaps even served on the side.

We tested most of the menu out. Brad had the pasta of the day, which was “tasty” and “filled me up quickly”, Carl had the platter, and I had the braised oxtail, which I enjoyed immensely. The meat fell off the bone perfectly and the proportion of meat to mash to veg was just right.

By the time my table had finished our main courses, it was getting late and only two of us opted for dessert. Tom’s table had been more eager. Tom himself chose the carrot cake with ice cream, declaring the cake “moist and substantial” with a big kick of ginger. Debbie and Ant enjoyed the warm chocolate cake (“Yum! Best thing of the evening,” said Ant). Kat and Claire tried the fig and honey croissant pudding, which had “a very light and spongey texture, not overly sweet and with a subtle crème anglaise”. I had poached pear with ice cream – or at least I tried to, but when I popped back from the toilet, half of it had mysteriously vanished and there were some guilty faces around the table.

One might argue that three big tables within 45 minutes of each other was an ambitious ask for a neighbourhood restaurant but, by and large, the food delivered the comforting feel the menu promises. WIth its subtle lighting and well-judged soundtrack, it’s easy to see why Anna said that she wanted to love the Wet Fish, even if she’d been a bit underwhelmed on this visit. However, she did say she’d give it one more go because it’s such a nice place.

The price per head differed considerably between the tables. Tom’s bunch of alcoholics ended up paying £42/head, while my relatively abstemious group only had to shell out £30 each. Anthony (paying £42) felt the prices were a little high, while there was a sense of a welcome surprise around me that our meal had come in under budget.

In the days of old, we used to score food, service, value and overall enjoyment separately. That would take too long now, so everyone just gave an overall score out of 10.
Tom’s table: 6.9
Jonathan’s table: 6.3

Overall, the evening was definitely a success – plenty of new friends were made, the chat was suitably silly and entertaining, and the Wet Fish atmosphere won the day. I still think that for a “special” meal out in West Hampstead, this is the place to come.

The Wet Fish Café
242 West End Lane
T: 020 7443 9222
W: http://www.thewetfishcafe.co.uk

(photos courtesy of Brad and Anthony)

David Locke of La Brocca reflects on 20 years

All this weekend, La Brocca is celebrating its 20th birthday. Moya “Scoop” Sarner, spoke to the owner:

The impressive figure of David Locke, usually found dominating a bar stool of West Hampstead local La Brocca, is familiar to many of us. He opened the restaurant 20 years ago today, and one of his first customers was his granddaughter Yasmin, then a baby in a moses basket. Today she’s the warm, sparky brunette, working as a waitress in the bar upstairs. It’s very much a family business, as he explains: “My wife Edda does all the hard work in the back office, our daughter Laura is the manager, and I’m in charge of ‘marketing, strategy, and drinking'”. Sounds like a damn fine strategy to me.

The bar is much the same as when it opened – but the area certainly isn’t, he says. “West Hampstead has changed totally in 20 years. There wasn’t much here back then, but it’s grown more and more upmarket. When they opened the Jubilee Line through to Canary Wharf [in 1999], all the pine doors and brass knockers appeared, and property prices doubled”. That’s reflected in more sophisticated tastes – so the bar sells more champagne and prosecco, and the restaurant has branched out from pizza and pasta into meat, fish, and other specials. But, he is quick to point out, “West Hampstead is an amazing place to live. Although it’s gentrified a bit, it’s nowhere near as up itself as Kensington or Chelsea – in my view, it’s still one of the last villages in London.”

The regulars – and they are many – haven’t changed at all. Take the two white-haired gentlemen who rarely leave their window seat. “Pen and his friend Peter started coming in about 10 years ago, for lunch,” David says. “Now they’re addicted and come every day. They have two large sherries, a bottle of red, three large green chartreuses and two courses – I hope I’m doing that when I’m 87!”

And there are celebrity customers too, from the Crediton Hill mafia’s Emma Thompson and Imelda Staunton, to rugby and cricket stars including Ricky Ponting. “And one afternoon”, David continues, “I strolled in to find Peter O’Toole sitting at the bar, with his sparkling blue eyes”. Then there are the well-respected jazz musicians who started off at La Brocca’s Thursday night jam sessions, friends and students of our very own local musician and teacher @cyberdonkey, aka Simon Whiteside. Many are now big names, like jazz pianist Gwilym Simcock, Mercury Award nominee for best album, just pipped to the post by PJ Harvey. “The jazz is a love”, David explains, “but it doesn’t make me money. You want to know how to make a million pounds out of jazz? Start off with two million.”

Jokes aside, David glumly says that La Brocca is not immune to the effects of the economic downturn. “Our turnover’s gone down 15 to 20 per cent over the last couple of years. We’ve had to cut back on staff and wages – we’re okay, but life isn’t as much fun as it used to be.” But David still seems to be having a pretty good time, as do his customers. “Loads of couples have met here in the bar,” he says (at this point I decide to spend even more time in La Brocca). “They get married, and they all come back to see us with their kids. When we first opened, I was maitre d’, and trying to get rid of a couple who were, shall we say, lingering. It looked to me like it was a blind date, and they were deciding whether to go off together or not. So, eventually, I said ‘Ain’t you got no homes to go to? Ain’t you got a bed?’ The best thing was, the guy was called Mr Rutter! Anyway, they came back six months later, married, and they’d brought me a little model of a double bed. ‘There you go’, they said, ‘We’ve got a bed now!'”

Don’t worry folks, despite the tough economy, La Brocca won’t be going anywhere soon. “I want my daughter Laura and the next generation coming up to carry on running the place”, David says. “That portrait of me on the wall is about 15 years old – I hope it stays there for my grandchildren and my great grandchildren – for at least another hundred years.”

No sign of first night nerves at Spiga

Last night Tom and I decided it was Our Duty to check out Broadhurst Garden’s newest restaurant, Spiga. It was opening night so I wasn’t really expecting to review it as there were bound to be first night issues and it’s not really fair to give a definitive verdict on such an occasion.

As it was, our meal was verging on faultless. From a friendly welcome from front-of-house manager Marcello through to the cheery goodbyes a couple of hours later, it was refreshingly hard to find much room for improvement. The menu looks appealing, and there’s a set menu tucked away on the back page that has an early bird price option before 7pm. An interesting selection of bread appeared swiftly and we were assured it was made on the premises. While we struggled to choose from the tempting menu we ordered some stop-gap olives, which were not the usual dull overly-marinated selection beloved of so many restaurants, but a nice handful of vibrant green and black juicy monsters.

Tom will, no doubt, post his own review, so I’ll focus on my meal. I had carpaccio di polipo (octopus) as a starter. This was good, although not as good as I’ve had in Italy. I like the slices even thinner and a slightly spikier dressing, although that’s not to say this wasn’t enjoyable. It was served with a few more olives, and a rocket and potato salad. A good start.

Main course was rack of lamb. This was a very generous portion – a rack and a half of perfectly cooked meat. I’ve had lamb with more flavour before, but rarely as well cooked – certainly not in restaurants at this price level. The lamb had a Grissini crust, and this was the only element of the dish I was less keen on – too thick for me and I could see no benefit in it compared to a traditional herbed breadcrumb crust. It’s not on the menu, but main courses are all served with a pea and onion side – sort of like a stew and perhaps cooked in ham stock (vegetarians would want to check)? Sounds odd, tasted great – and again very generous portions.

We’d merrily drunk our way through a bottle of house red – a Sangiovese/Merlot blend that was better than I expected for £12.95. The wine list isn’t that extensive, but does befit the vibe of the restaurant. Those that remember the Green Room will recall the rather glossy boudoir look it had. Spiga has gone for a slightly retro 70s look, but it feels modern and welcoming. No red & white checked trattoria tablecloths to be found. I do think the lighting could be dimmer if it’s looking to create a more romantic atmosphere.

At this point, Sandra Royer, the French wife of one of the two Albanian brothers who own Spiga and are the chefs, came over to say hello and we felt it was only reasonable to reveal who we were. It turned out she was already an avid reader and fan of Tom’s Diner. That boy will go far! She explained that they’d hoped to open a bit sooner but some admin issues, delivery hold-ups, and a minor flood downstairs had pushed them back. It was good to see that we weren’t the only diners that evening, and although some punters clearly knew the owners there were others like us checking the place out (and we all stared intently at each other’s food).

Sandra told us that most of the food is sourced from Italy, so it is clearly going for the authentic angle. I was surprised to hear this was their first restaurant venture, although her husband has been a chef elsewhere – this was certainly no novice in the kitchen.

Tom grappled manfully with a large slice of chocolate torte and we both indulged in a grappa. We were joined by @moyasarner who saw us as she walked past and was immediately offered a basket of bread and a drink.

I was impressed with the service – friendly and professional throughout, even though the junior waitress was clearly a little nervous and made a couple of minor mistakes, which I heard Marcello pick her up on quietly afterwards.

The mark of a good restaurant is consistency. If Spiga can keep delivering the sort of food and experience that we enjoyed then it will do well. In ambience and menu it has kept itself suitably different from very close neighbour Sarracino and while I always found the Green Room to be style over substance, I think Spiga marries the two rather well.

182 Broadhurst Gardens
020 7372 8188
(website still under development!)

If you go, do leave comments below.

Cocoa Bijoux opens

It’s a hive of activity on Broadhurst Gardens at the moment. New Italian restaurant Spiga opens tonight (I know we’re all waiting for the verdict from Tom’s Diner), and Cocoa Bijoux opened with a soft launch at the end of last week. Senses of course closed a while ago (no great surprise), so there is another vacant unit up for grabs.

Cocoa Bijoux’s owner Stuart Daniel has been in the chocolate business for 20 years, and it’s clear that this is his passion. Having operated as a wholesaler he finally decided it was time to open his own place. Cocoa Bijoux occupies one of the small units in Broadwell Parade and sits between the cigar shop and Luli’s barbers.

Stuart has two chocolatiers who create artisan chocolates – he’s less interested in the endless matching rows of classic Belgian creams that you might find at Fortnum & Mason’s, and more in offering something a little more unusual. Generously he let me sample a few. I had a lovely caramelised walnut coated in dark chocolate and dusted with cocoa powder. He uses very specific French walnuts that are less bitter than many on the market. Then I had a delicious Grand Marnier truffle, but unlike any I’ve had before (mostly because it was twice the size). And finally, I tried a salted caramel ball. Very fashionable right now of course and I have to say this was the best I’ve had. Not too salty, not too sweet and with a perfect liquid centre.

Stuart also sells English chocolates from Prestat, which come in gorgeously designed boxes, and all manner of other treats. He focuses otherwise on French and German chocolates rather than Belgian. Cocoa Bijoux also has a table inside and will have some chairs outside for coffee or hot chocolate (made from couverture chocolate of course).

It’s a slightly odd site, and a very small shop, but I could see this working. There’s not much competition, especially since Wilton & Noble up by Waitrose closed, and being next to another destination shop (the cigar shop, not Luli’s) can only help. There is a new chocolate shop – Coco Exchange – opening on Belsize Road, but that’s apparently going to have a Belgian focus.

Stuart also seems like he knows what he’s doing and is open to trying things out. I wish him the best of luck. He’s also generously donated a nice (large!) box of chocolates for the Whampgather raffle, which I thought was very kind given that he’d only just met me!

Those of you who bang on about supporting independent shops – here’s another one to add to the list. I know it’s not going to please everyone because it’s high-end luxury items rather than day-to-day goods, but we have to face economic facts – these are the sorts of shops that are more likely to survive.

I will add a few photos to this post soon – didn’t have my phone with me this morning.

At the diner on the corner

If you raise your eyes ever so slightly to the menu of pages under the logo, you’ll spot a new one: “Tom’s Diner”. Not, obviously, my personal homage to Suzanne Vega (we all know Luka was a better song anyway), but the gastronomic musings of my new Food & Drink correspondent Tom.

Many of you know Tom, and will be aware that there could be no-one more enthusiastic about eating and drinking. Those that don’t know him should understand that he probably contributes more to the local restaurant economy than the rest of us put together.*

His very personal thoughts on his drinking and dining experiences can be found here. We both hope you enjoy them.

*blatant exaggeration

Priory Tavern, Belsize Road menu tasting

A couple of weeks ago, a small group of us were guests of Merlin and Lucille – owners of the Priory Tavern on Belsize Road. They had asked us to roadtest their menu, and who were we to say no.*

When the couple took over the pub last year they opted for a fairly straightforward pub menu, but a trip to Vancouver and a restaurant called Meat & Bread prompted a change of direction. With a chef hired from No.5 Cavendish Square, and ingredients sourced from ‘proper’ suppliers, including local outfit Gail’s Bakery, the Priory is striving for something a little different. “The only things that are frozen are the peas, the sorbet and the ice cream,” says Merlin.

We kicked off with some chunky dippers – huge jenga-style bricks of bread and a bowl of gravy, which got the seal of approval from Anthony, our professional northerner.

We also tried a baked camembert, which was suitably fondue-gloopy but needed more bread or something to scoop it out with (and seemed oddly overpriced compared to everything else). It was served with a cranberry and rosehip syrup sauce – a nod to the couple’s impressive mixology pedigree and that impressed Mark. The last of our starters was a rather nice salad with a subtle dressing that lived up to the high standards expected by Tom.

The next round of food was the one most influenced by Meat & Bread. We had a gammon and egg sandwich – the meat was delicious, and this would make a great brunch dish (although Kat wondered whether the chips and the bread might not be overkill). There was also a ribeye steak sandwich in a ciabatta, and a vegetarian sandwich full of amazing chutney and that converted a couple of avowed meat eaters to the delights of vegetarian food. In each case the bread was chunky and delicious, but it does make these very filling sandwiches.

These sandwiches came with “squishable” fries (definitely fries not the sort of chunky chips that one might expect) served in little wire baskets. The sandwiches – in fact everything – is served on chopping boards. It’s fashionable, but is it practical? Lauren was unequivocal: she prefers plates. Certainly anything with a gravy or sauce is not best served on a wooden board and, given the generous servings, it does seem to be an issue. Put to a vote, the majority of us were pro-plate.

After the “meat and bread” dishes came the “meat and veg” plates (or boards). We tried a rosé veal dish and a pork dish served with a variety of well-cooked vegetables. These main courses were good and well-seasoned. If you’re choosing your own food then you get to choose your meat, your veg, and your sauce. The menu changes every couple of days depending on what’s come in.

Our meal closed out with a couple of amazing brownies. “Dish of the day” said Anthony. They were large and excellent (although the melting ice cream rather proved our chopping board point as it ran onto the table).

Much discussion about our meal followed over after-dinner drinks concocted by our hosts. The consensus was that the food had all been very good and very enjoyable. The overall menu was perhaps a little too meat and carbs heavy, with very few light dishes. There’s not much fish on offer and, given the high quality ingredients, there was a suggestion that having a couple of top-notch staples such as sausages and mash would be a good addition. Offering so much choice for constructing a main course probably isn’t necessary – simply letting the chef decide what works well together is enough for most people (and you can always accept substitutions).

So the overall verdict was that the Priory Tavern serves good food that’s well cooked, and you can sense that real care and thought has gone into the offer. Perhaps a few tweaks to the menu could broaden its appeal without damaging the concept and ethos.

The Priory Tavern will host Whampgather VII (Four Worlds Collide) on September 8th – yes, I know it’s not right slap in the middle of West Hampstead, but there’s a good reason we’re having it there. Trust me.

*As regular readers know, we generally do our whampreviews anonymously so, while it was very kind of the Priory Tavern to invite us and provide us with free food, we had also agreed that our opinions wouldn’t be swayed by their generosity.

Photos courtesy of Kat, Lauren and me

West Hampstead / Fortune Green Area Action Group

The rain and perhaps Andy Murray on Centre Court meant a slightly below-par turnout for last Monday’s West Hampstead and Fortune Green Area Action Group meeting. On the plus side, when Cllr Keith Moffitt asked whether anyone was attending because they’d read about it on Twitter a few hands actually went up.

The evening kicked off with a presentation from Camden council’s Principal placeshaping officer, Kate Goodman. Kate talked about the Community Investment Programme, which is Camden’s scheme to turn physical assets into cash – i.e., to sell council-owned land and buildings. The focus is obviously on those facilities that are underused or with very high runningh costs. Sixty sites have been identified across the borough, but only two are in the West Hampstead and Fortune Green wards. 156 West End Lane is the large red brick building that includes the District Housing office and Travis Perkins. It has been identified as a possible site for disposal, with housing units the likely end use, although there will be a push to at least retain a ground floor retail presence. The second site is Liddell Road, the light industrial estate between Maygrove Rd and the trainline, which has been mooted as a possible site for the new primary school being discussed for this part of London. An initial report was submitted to the council in December 2010 and the second report will be in July this year.

During the Q&A the audience was reminded – although clearly some weren’t aware at all – that West Hampstead has been identified as an area for intensification in the London plan. The car park between Homebase and Sainsburys has been earmarked as an ideal site for more housing, including affordable housing. A couple of people accepted that even if there was not a lot we as residents could do about some of the development plans, it was important to be better informed about them. Obviously the council can’t track all potential private developments, but there was an agreement to provide a clearer map overview of public plans at least for the next session.

There was also some grumbling that the Thameslink station wasn’t delivering on its promises in terms of an attractive eco-friendly building. It’s true that for “cost reasons”, some of the specifications for the building were changed by Network Rail after the consultation. Cllr Keith Moffitt pointed out that although Network Rail had conducted a very good consultation “A good consultation doesn’t equal a great outcome”. With regard to some of the bigger projects, and the more general intensification, he also pointed out that these projects could take years to amount to anything, especially in today’s constrained funding environment.

West Hampstead is one of Camden’s nine “place shaping” areas, and thus has a Place Plan, which aims to get developers to fit in with the local area. I’m going to a meeting next week about this so will have more details about that then. In the meantime, you can read much more about this initiative here.

The next item on the agenda was the ever-popular topic of retail. Cllr Gillian Risso-Gill has been investing time on this issue, and ran through some of the changes on West End Lane since the last meeting, which blog readers will be familiar with and mostly boil down to more cafés/hairdressers/kebab shops.

She told us that Caffè Nero had to do battle with Costa for the Atlanta site that the blue coffee chain won. She suggested that delis were closing as a direct result of Tesco, although I find this hard to believe in all cases, as the stock is usually very different. More plausible to me is a relative fall in customers’ disposable income through inflation and economic uncertainty, so less willingness to buy high-end/high-price gourmet items, exacerbated perhaps by the convenience of supermarkets.

Gillian explained why cafés such as Nero no longer needed change-of-use permission to turn a shop into a café. Elsewhere in the country, it has been successfully argued in court that cafés where no food is cooked are essentially shops. You can argue the blatant nonsense of this all you want – it’s now been established in case law and is therefore difficult to overturn. In trying to spin a positive story, Gillian said that at least there was never an empty shop on West End Lane, which is more true since Ladudu tool over the long empty Glo site.

The conversation then turned to Mill Lane. While West End Lane homogenises, Mill Lane seems to be deteriorating as shops such as the Kitchen Stores close, and the general state of many other units is far from appealing.

Following the success of the Christmas market, Gillian is now thinking of setting up an Autumn market as well as repeating the Christmas edition, but needs helpers.

After this ‘state of the union’ address, the questions flowed. There were complaints about rents with one man saying it was now £45,000 for a shop on West End Lane – equivalent to Brent Cross (he said). There were also comments about parking (better parking would encourage more shoppers), delivery vehicles (WHAT is apparently looking into this), lobbying central government for a separate coffee shop classification, and restricting rent rises for smaller shops. Cllr Flick Rea pointed out that central governments of all hues tended to see development as inherently a good thing, and that offering objectors the right to appeal decisions might help (although at a much bigger scale you could imagine this causing some projects to never get off the ground). She also pointed out that the restaurant category A3 had in fact been split into two sub-categories, but it hadn’t made any difference.

The main outcome of the wailing and gnashing of teeth seemed to be that if we could find a way to increase footfall in Mill Lane, then that would be a Good Thing. I’ve suggested separately that having some sort of banner on the railings outside Emmanuel School pointing people to the shops further down might help, as might a rebranding of the retail section of the street focusing on its quirky more artisan shops. Finally, if an organization such as Empty Shops could find ways to tackle the empty or underused shops, that might breathe some life into it. There was much excitement as before about the idea of a regular market, but finding space for it is proving tough – traders want a hard tarmac surface for starters.

Then we moved on to the libraries – I think I’ve linked to enough stories about this that most of you should know what’s going on. In a nutshell, West Hampstead library won’t close but will see its hours cut – as will all other libraries. Camden will, however, cease provision of library services at Belsize, Hampstead and Chalk Farm libraries and their future remains uncertain.

Finally, there was a brief presentation of Camden’s newest online venture We Are Camden. This externally funded online service is being billed as a way to carry on the sorts of conversations that residents have at these local meetings. It’s in its infancy and during the first phase the idea is that it’s a way for Camden to talk to residents. Phase 2, which sounds much more valuable, will enable groups such as residents associations to set up their own presence.

Tots and Toast at LoveFood

Alicia, a local mum, is organising a “Tots and Toast” social morning for local parents and carers with tots in tow at LoveFood on Monday mornings. The aim is to provide parents with a relaxed, grown-up but child friendly place to relax and have a proper coffee.

There’ll be an area for parents to sit and chat, and to make toast for themselves and their kids. The café is throwing in the toast and condiments for free and Alicia’s working on a monthly door prize and regular guest speakers.

For more information on the event, suggestions for speakers or topics, or if you want to volunteer as a speaker, then please contact Alicia at .

The mornings will start on Monday 20th June and run from 9:30 to 11am. All parents and carers welcome.

Private Space holds private style party for locals

On Thursday evening, 30 West Hampstead fashionistas descended on The Private Space on Mill Lane for Whampstyle – an evening of fashion, food and free wine!

After the all-important mingling and sampling of some delicious food provided by West End Lane’s newest restaurant Ladudu, we gathered round to hear stylist Zahide Ozkardesler discuss this season’s trends (clashing colours seemed to feature), accessorising (it’s all about belts), and understanding your colours (I confess I got a bit lost here).

Then Christian Croce, owner of The Private Space, gave some top simple hair tips for accentuating your look and a couple of brave volunteers were draped in clothes from the rack and quickly recoiffed before our very eyes.

There was a bit more mingling and we all polished off Bake-a-boo‘s colour-coordinated cupcakes before everyone melted off into the night. It was great to see some familiar faces and plenty of new arrivals both to the area and to whampevents. Big thanks also to The Social Metre

The next major event is the Secret BBQ on June 26th. It’s been filling up steadily so don’t leave it too late to put your name down.

Discount fruit & veg via Red Apple

If you like fresh ingredients, but find it hard to pop to the shops every couple of days, then a new delivery service could be for you. Red Apple will bring a wide variety of seasonal fresh food to your door and has just added NW6 to its distribution area.

Very kindly, it sent me a “test” delivery yesterday – and my kitchen is now groaning under the weight of jumbo asparagus from Suffolk, some delicious large tomatoes, courgettes, beans, satsumas, kiwi fruit, potatoes, lemons, carrots, satsumas, a red pepper, a cucumber and a butternut squash.

Even more kindly, Red Apple is offering whampers a great deal: half price off your first order if you follow them on Twitter and quote “WHAMPWIN” when you place your order. Can’t be bad.

The company delivers to West Hampstead on Saturday, and you need to order by Thursday 9pm.

I’m off to have the rest of my five-a-day.

Burritos Juan or Burritos When

Last night a group of whampers decided to combine a night of comedy at The Good Ship with a test of the new burrito joint that’s opened directly opposite, Burritos Juan.

It’s only been open a couple of weeks and was empty when we arrived. From the front it looks a bit unprepossessing, but inside is perfectly pleasant with a few tables and chairs leading to the counter at the back. There’s camouflage netting on the ceiling and fake brickwork wallpaper, but the overall effect is perfectly decent.

It would be fair to say that they weren’t geared up to the sudden arrival of eight people, but we were warmly welcomed by an Argentinian girl replete with enormous comedy sombrero. She took our orders, which were all pretty simple. The menu is basic: they have tortillas, they have fillings. We ordered. We sat. We waited.

I sent a couple of tweets.

We waited some more.

There were three of them behind the counter working away, perhaps not at the breakneck speed one might expect from a fast food establishment. Then something happened. I don’t know what. But it was clearly very funny as they were suddenly in hysterics. We assumed they’d dropped something, but they didn’t tell us what was quite so funny. It was hard not to laugh along anyway, although our growling stomachs and the impending kick-off of the comedy were tempering our good humour.

The guy working there dashed out the front door, returning a minute later with a large pack of Doritos, which we were given as a peace offering. We’d now been waiting more than 20 minutes.

Then he dashed off again. What had they run out of? Tortillas. Fairly key ingredient.

Finally, our burritos were ready. They had somehow taken almost 45 minutes despite all the ingredients sitting in containers right under the counter. We were all starving and wolfed them down. They weren’t very big, but they did taste ok. I’ve had better but I’ve also definitely had worse, and to be fair, we probably hadn’t seen the place at its best. We went to pay (£3.50 for a burrito, 50p for a soft drink – cheaper than most shops) and they commented that we’d eaten them very quickly. I expect we were supposed to savour every mouthful but hunger and time were against us and 45 minutes of work disappeared in about 4.5 minutes of eating.

I would definitely give Burritos Juan a second chance, but not with a large group of people unless I called ahead. This might be tricky though as the business cards have an address but no phone number. There’s a lot of competition on the High Road for fast food, and these guys will need to be slicker if they want to become a fixture – they have a big advantage in being the only Mexican place around, I really hope they make the most of it.

Ariana II – review of Kilburn’s Afghan restaurant

The welcome from Wali at Ariana II is extremely warm. It’s quite hard not to think of all the clichés of the famed generosity of Afghan hospitality at this relative newcomer to the Kilburn High Road. Ever since Time Out gave it a glowing review, it has piqued the interest of NW6ers so it was time for whampreviewers to give their verdict.

The menu is long, and grilled meats and aubergine feature prominently. We eagerly accepted the suggestion of sharing a variety of starters and very soon the table was full with bread, houmous, a Russian salad that tasted a lot better than it looked, an uneventful Afghan salad, some rather nice Ashak (vegetable-filled steamed dumplings) and – of course – some fried aubergine. A small dish of fiery sauce came too. “Does this go with anything in particular?” asked Hazel? “Everything – it goes with everything” beamed our host. And indeed it did, being hot enough to more or less kill any more subtle flavour.

Main courses arrived and there was much kerfuffle as starter plates and main courses fought for space on an increasingly cramped table. Service throughout was very friendly – our waitress in particular endeared herself to the table – but a slightly slicker system might result in less plate juggling by customers. It feels like a culture clash between the Afghan dastarkhan spread of food and the modern European desire to eat separate courses – as well as the physical constraints of a restaurant in Kilburn (one with very clean toilets as Jennifer pointed out).

The grilled meat main courses mostly came with rice either plain or served as a pilau (brown rice offered as an option) and a salad. My own dish was from the Afghan specials list. Muntu is another steamed dumpling dish, this time filled with a very spicy lamb mixture. It was really delicious – the spiced meat cutting through the mild sauce and yoghurt dressing – another dish where taste far exceeded presentation.

Verdicts on the various plates of grilled meat were generally positive although there was a sense of disappointment that the flavour of these dishes didn’t really stand out from what you might get at a decent kebab place even if the cooking was certainly better and more consistent: one chicken dish described as “surprisingly succulent”.

Matt reckoned that if they “sorted the salad out” his lamb shank dish would have been a really good meal, referring to the rather unexciting tomato lettuce and cucumber on his plate.

We didn’t order vegetable sides, but I think I would if going again – I would have liked something green with my dish certainly. None of us were vegetarians, but actually there is a reasonable selection of vegetarian food even if most are billed as side dishes.

We again took a selection of desserts – including a ras malai made by our waitress’s aunt and that Jayanti declared “exceptional” (having already said it was one of her favourites), some baklava and another yoghurt-based dessert. All were good.

Cardamon coffee was described as “really good” and there was much appreciaton for the tiny persian rug coasters for the mint tea teapots. It was time for the bill. It’s worth pointing out here that Ariana II is a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant. There is a decent wine shop two doors away though, so this is no great hardship but did have a big effect on the bill compared to previous reviews. So, including service but excluding wine we paid £18 each. There was still and sparkling bottled water on the table, which we drank but realised later we hadn’t been charged for – whether deliberately or not, I don’t know.

Overall, it was an enjoyable experience. I’m not sure Whether Ariana II has quite enough to lure West Hampsteadites down to the High Road just for the food. But, if you find yourself hungry in Kilburn,  want something a bit different and like friendly service then this restaurant should definitely be on your shortlist.

Thanks to reviewers Jennifer, Hazel, Susan, Jayanti, Peter, Alex, Jon, and Matt

Food 7.0
Service 8.2
Value 7.4
Overall 7.4
Good for: aubergine
Bad for: clutterphobes
214 Kilburn High Road
T: 020 3490 6709

Sign up now for Whampstyle on May 26th

Early spring sunshine has already got locals busting out their summer fashions. But are you up to date with this season’s trends, and do you know how to tailor your look to best suit your personal style? The right clothes need the right hair – perhaps you’re looking for some top tips of how to style your hair at home so you can change your image quickly for those summer parties.

Well, it’s a good thing that I’ve teamed up with The Private Space on Mill Lane to offer an evening  that’s going to help you with all this. Due to the size constraints, places are limited for this free event, so we’re asking you to sign up for it rather than just drop by.

The evening on Thursday May 26th will kick off at 7.30pm with wine and canapés (free of course). Then Zahide Ozkardesler, London College of Fashion graduate, professional stylist and image consultant, will talk about the hottest summer looks and how to accessorize. Christian Croce, owner of The Private Space, will then offer some top hair tips to match the styles on show. There’ll be plenty more time to mingle with fellow West Hampstead fashionistas, pick up some more tips from the professionals, have another drink, and take advantage of discounts on The Private Space’s products and services.

There are strictly limited places for this event, so please sign up asap (this is a first come-first served event, unlike #whampreview for example where names are drawn from a hat). Please either tweet or e-mail me or mail The Private Space directly at to secure your place – and of course you can bring your friends along, just let us know how many are going to turn up.

Look forward to seeing you all there!

UPDATE: This event is now full. I’m also delighted to say that the food will be provided by Bake-a-Boo and West End Lane’s newest restaurant Ladudu.

Will Ladudu do do it?

Vietnamese café/restaurant Ladudu opened today on West End Lane. I popped in at lunchtime to see what was on offer and was given a very friendly greeting. As some readers might know, it has a problem with gas for cooking – namely there wasn’t any being piped in. Previous occupant Glo clearly wasn’t that fussed about using hobs.

Anyway, it’s going to be mid-late May before chef Teresa is cooking on gas according to her front-of-house partner Tristan. Until then, Ladudu is serving from its appetisers menu – 10 “tasty nibbles” including spring rolls, salads and betel beef rolls. I tried a couple of things, both were good although I think it’s probably fair to give a place a few days to settle in before really judging the food! Mains, once they come online after the gas is installed, are all under £8. Starters all under £5.50.

The decor is attractive with thick wooden tables and some comfy chairs in a lounge area. There are some larger sharing tables too, but overall it has a clean modern yet warm feel.

For the moment, Ladudu is open 7am to 6pm weekdays and 10am to 6pm weekends. It will close at 11pm once it’s fully operational. I understand from Tristan that they fancy their chances against Starbucks and Costa for the commuter coffee business. That may be a tall (skinny) order, given how wedded people can get to their coffee, but why not give it a try and support a local business run by people who actually live here.

No doubt we’ll be hearing more about it over the coming weeks, but for now, Good Luck.

How Gung-Ho were we about long-standing local Chinese?

For the first #whampreview of 2011 we decided to check out West Hampstead’s Gung-Ho. Despite having been in the area as long as most locals can remember, a surprising number of people had never heard of it.

Tucked up the forgotten bit of West End Lane, just before it joins the Finchley Road, Gung-Ho claims to serve Szechuan food although to the untrained eye, it’s a reasonably standard menu. There is also a “fusion” section, which mercifully means other south-east Asian dishes and not some awful attempt to marry completely different cuisines.

We were shown through to a table at the back replete with the obligatory lazy Susan. I rather like Gung-Ho’s decor. It’s nicely lit, clean and although quite a large place, there are enough partitions that you never feel like you’re in a large place.

The challenge of reviewing places with extensive menus is that you can only ever review a small selection of what’s on offer. We ordered a wide range of starters having not done much damage to the two small bowls of pickled cabbage that we got as soon as we arrived. Har gau and beef dumplings were hits, Nicky said the tempura was light, while Chris surprised himself, “I consider myself a carnivore, but that tofu was good”. We also had squid two ways and pretty quickly demolished the lot .

Main courses came promptly – portions are not overwhelming but the manager recommended we only needed four portions of rice between the eight of us. The Malaysian rendang (from the fusion menu) was tasty but Hazel and I agreed it lacked the depth of flavour of the best rendangs. Mark and Debbie said they were “big fans” of the prawn curry, while Nicky heaped praise on the seabass. SJ liked her sea-salt chicken. There was consistent support for the lamb in honey, which never seemed to move far from Simon‘s reach. Perhaps the only disappointing dish was the “uninspiring” mixed vegetables.

Amid some scepticism, we ordered three of the sweet bean paste pancakes, which I really like (but have had before there, so it wasn’t quite such a shot in the dark). Together with three bottles of white wine, the bill came to £25 each including service. Talking of service, I rather like the waiters at Gung-Ho. They are very friendly and not too pushy. We were a bit tucked out of the way, so if we actually wanted something we were reliant on them coming to check, but I think our service mark is on the low side compared to other reviews.

So, overall, Gung-Ho probably won’t blow your mind or your palate, but for reliable friendly Chinese food in a nice setting it’s the best local offering. It also does take-out.

Food 6.9
Service 7.1
Value 8.1
Overall 7.6
Good for: tofu sceptics
Bad for: i’ve got nothing
328-332 West End Lane
West Hampstead
T: 020 7794 1444
W: www.stir-fry.co.uk

Gung-Ho on Urbanspoon

Sainsbury’s Local gets West Hampstead over excited

As everyone knows, because the sign is so brightly lit that aircraft are now using it as a navigation device, a new Sainsbury’s Local opened on West End Lane on Friday where Best One used to be.

It’s fair to say that this caused a fair amount of Twitter traffic. The story unfolds below

Congratulations to Richard, who took the first photo from inside the store

[let me know if you like this format of showing tweets/telling stories]

West Hampstead Christmas shopping

Given that it’s now December and it’s snowing, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do a quick round-up of the best places for Christmas shopping in West Hampstead.

Since Dizar sadly closed, North West 6 on the corner of West End Lane and Blackburn Road is the only full-on gift shop on the street with a suitable collection of small bits and pieces, including jewellery, mugs, and Secret Santa sort of presents.

West End Lane Books should do a roaring trade this month – and don’t be shy of asking the staff for advice too. The bookshop even has a Christmas Shopping Day on December 9th when everything is 15% off from 9am-9pm  and there’s mulled wine and mince pies available in the evening *drool.

The Kitchener is fast becoming something of a local favourite. It is now rammed full of great things – not just basic kitchenware, but festive treats, spices, a good selection of cards and of course everything for the chef in your life. Want Christmas tree-shaped brownies? Get the moulds there.

If your loved ones are more into eating food than making it then you’re in luck. Peppercorns, LoveFood and Gustoso on West End Lane all sell foodie gifts. You can also order your Christmas meat and turkey from The Kitchen Stores on Mill Lane, and pick up chocolate, Christmas puddings and mince pies while you’re there.

For something more alternative and just a smidge further afield, why not go to Ms Marmite Lover’s Underground Farmers’ Market this Sunday afternoon , where there’ll be artisan wrapping paper, home-made liqueurs, cheese, sausages and Christmas puddings. Seriously, what’s not to like? You do have to buy £5 tickets in advance, and that will reveal the location – but it’s not too far away!

Of course the charity shops are a great source of gifts and cards, and heaven knows there are enough of them on West End Lane. Oxfam is probably the best for new (as opposed to second-hand) gifts. There are also Card Aid outlets at the Hampstead community centre and at the Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage when open.

If you like your Christmas just a little bit retro then you have to go along to tea-room extraordinaire bake-a-boo on Sunday from 2pm-6pm for its “Walking in a Vintage Wonderland” event. There’ll be vintage clothing, jewellery, flowers, nostalgic gifts, one off pieces made from vintage fabrics and of course edible gifts.

While you’re on Mill Lane, check out some of the art for sale in Thou Art in Hampstead – it doesn’t just frame pictures, it also sells them.

Thinking about decorating the house? Christmas trees are available from Homebase and the Hampstead Garden Centre on Iverson Road. Any why not pop along to Achillea Flowers on Mill Lane for a winter wreath. Homebase (don’t turn your nose up) does cheap and perfectly decent decorations – that is if you don’t feel the need to go over to Habitat in the O2 centre for this year’s colours.

Don’t do all your Christmas shopping too early though – you’ll miss the main event on Saturday 11th. The West End Lane Christmas market on West End Green promises to be excellent and I can reveal that stallholders include Zana Boutique, The Pink Petshop, Fortune Green Interiors, Achillea Flowers, bake a boo, Kitchen Table, Mill Lane Garden project, Rooms Above and Chocolo. There will also be stalls from independent local craftspeople selling jewellery, bags, tea towels, stained glass, cards, and knitwear. There may still be room for a couple more if anyone’s interested? Contact for more.

Local businesses in West Hampstead are also offering various discounts and promotions on the day, including West End Lane Books, Chez Chantal, David’s Deli, Walnut, Insight Opticians, Mill Lane Barbers, Holistic Hair and Beauty, Robert Brennan Fitness, The Alliance, Mill Lane Vets and Hair by Red.

So, whatever you want to buy this festive season why not buy locally where possible. Check out the local business directory for all the shops in the area, and LoveCamden for special offers.

Buying local might be a pound or so more than ordering online but it’s a lot more fun, you know it will arrive on time and you’ll be supporting local businesses at the end of what has been a very difficult year.

West Hampstead & Fortune Green area action group

On a cold Monday evening, Liberal Democrat councillor Keith Moffitt (West Hampstead) kicked off the first combined area action group meeting. This is the successor to the local area forums. All six of the local councillors were present (all Lib Dems).

The audience – around 80 people, the vast majority being older members of the community – settled down as Keith mentioned that they had publicised the event on Twitter and on the two local blogs. He asked if anyone except me had come because they had seen it promoted online. No-one had.

A man behind me said sotto voce “Twitter is one of the most ridiculous pointless things I’ve ever heard of”. I wondered whether he’d ever even seen it. Keith introduced me, which I wasn’t quite expecting, but I sensed only mild curiosity rather than active interest.

There was a really quick rundown of projects funded by the £10,000 per ward improvement fund (inevitably that isn’t being offered again). These included two new benches (Agememnon Rd/Ulysses Rd and top of Fortune Green Rd); a “give-and take” event at Emmanuel School in March; new dog/litter bins and hanging baskets on Mill Lane.

One project – improvements to the paved area around the library – has yet to happen, but it is still being planned. A plan to use Mill Lane Bridge as a community art project had to be shelved due to health & safety concerns apparently.

Thameslink station
The session kicked off with a team from the Thameslink programme bringing us up to speed on the developments at West Hampstead Thameslink station. They had a powerpoint presentation that no-one could read, which was ill-thought out. The headline news is that the platforms will be ready for the longer 12-carriage trains by December 2011, but the new trains won’t be fully installed until 2015.

The plans for the station on Iverson Road have had to be adapted to bring it within budget. The changes are largely in materials although it’s clear that the initial plans were on the ambitious side. The station is also due for completion in December 2011.

As you all know, the pavement is being substantially widened on the north side of Iverson Road. The existing embankment is being built up and paved, and this should alleviate some of the congestion between the stations.

The design of the wall running from West End Lane to the station has been adjusted – and will now be a flat wall rather than with “profiled bricks”. There’s been an invisible change to some water flow issue and the zinc roof is becoming aluminium, so will look different from above but not from ground level (makes you wonder why they went for zinc in the first place).

Finally, the sedum roof (i.e. the one covered in greenery) is being replaced by a separate larger area of grass at ground level.

All the construction materials will now be delivered trackside and not by road, so there shouldn’t be road congestion. The timetable is also designed to ensure that work takes place on weekdays during working hours.

There were plenty of audience questions, and rather a lot of talking at cross-purposes. Someone pointed out that with all the street clutter outside Starbucks, Costa etc., this was still a pinch point. Keith explained there would be a sizeable project in 2011 to widen West End Lane pavements, and that tackling this issue would be part of the January phase of that (the plan is for work to be done up the west side of WEL and then back down the east side. Expect more traffic disruption for most of next year then).

There was another question about how a car club has procured more spaces than it had apparently bid for, which went unanswered, and one woman appeared disproportionately angry that the pavement had been widened on both side of the street without consultation. Keith said he thought this might just have been a lack of clarity on the diagrams, to which she replied rather ominously, “Lets hope for your sake it is”.

There was a more measured question about lighting. Network Rail explained that there will be strip downlighting all along the wall between West End Lane and the station, and the footbridge will also be lit. This should minimize glare for residents, while ensuring enough light for safety.

The existing station on the north side of the bridge will close, and there will be ticket barriers under a weatherproof shelter there that will be manned (or left open). There will also be ticket machines.

Strangely, despite the longer platforms, there is no provision for extra platform signage. Given the frequent platform changes and running delays on the service, the information boards are of course very useful, but clearly they won’t be visible from further along. Roger Perkins, the communications manager for the Thameslink Programme, said he would look into this and that there may be some other sources of funding available. It seems crazy to extend platforms and not think about extra signage.

Roger then explained the service improvements. As was announced last week (and mentioned on my weekly round-up) the Thameslink programme survived the spending review but the completion date has been pushed back from 2016 to 2018. This drew inevitable groans.

The new trains won’t appear until 2015 (although there will be a few longer trains in service from the end of 2011 using leased carriages) but even then very few if any will stop at West Hampstead. Priority for the extra capacity will go to the fast commuter trains from Bedford that are fast from St Albans. Most of the trains that stop at West Hampstead head down to the Wimbledoon loop, where many of the stations can’t be extended.

It began to dawn on everyone that we’re enduring quite a lot of disruption for not much immediate benefit. Eventually of course, more longer trains will be rolled out and services that do not go down to Wimbledon will use them. The major benefit to locals will be that there will be new routes opening up beyond the Bedford-Brighton/Sutton services, but these routes are yet to be decided.

Roger also said that 5,000 seats had already been added to rush hour trains – but again, not necessarily to services stopping at West Hampstead.

Appropriately, Keith now announced that we were now running 20 minutes late.

Seargeant Dave Timms of the West Hampstead Safer Neighbourhood Team spoke very briefly and wanted some input/feedback on how best the SNTs might be deployed. As he explained, they were suffering from funding restrictions like everyone else so they are very open to hearing how the public would like them to operate and whether the current organisation (where they are strictly ward-based) was appropriate. You can contact the team here.

New West Hampstead councillor Gillian Risso-Gill then discussed the issue of shops on West End Lane and Mill Lane. This is a emotive issue, as we know from the response to the “Changing Streetscape” blog from August.

She argued that West End Lane was faring relatively well in the aftermath of the recession, with very few units remaining empty for long. Glo of course being an exception and Mill Lane showing a more mixed picture. She argued that Tesco can live alongside independent shops and helps increase footfall. This met with a mixed reaction from the crowd.

Apparently, no-one other than Sainsbury’s had expressed any interest in the Best-One site. She also said that Penguin – the vintage boutique opposite the Overground station – is closing due to retirement rather than for financial reasons.

The main thrust of her talk was that we should look at other avenues for smaller retailers, such as markets. There was notable vocal support for a farmers market, although the issue of where it would be is tricky. The Christmas market, which is very clearly a retail opportunity and not a ‘festival’, will be on West End Green, but this is probably not big enough for a full-scale farmers market.

Someone asked what happened to the market that used to be at the O2 car park, which has moved to Eton Avenue (perhaps not realising that the car park solution was in fact temporary and the market was originally in Swiss Cottage).

A woman who works at West End Lane Books argued that the lack of parking was a big problem and stopped people from coming to West End Lane. This wasn’t especially well received by the councillors. Surely, if we’re trying to get local people to local shops then they can walk or use buses? It’s very hard to see much being done to increase parking in the area.

A more sophisticated issue is that of rates and rents and planning use. One local businessman said he knew of two chain restaurants that were actively looking to move into the area, but wouldn’t say which.

He also said he’d heard a rumour that M&S was going to take the Pizza Express site. This is an extension of the rumour a while back that Sainsbury’s was going to take that site, which a Pizza Express spokesperson categorically refuted when I put it to them earlier in the year. I am not convinced that site would work for M&S, but we shall see.

“Multiples” (as chains are called in the business) do of course bring footfall, but they can also afford to pay top whack in terms of rents, which raises the baseline level on the street, squeezing out smaller players. The audience member cited examples where rents had rocketed from £28,000 to £43,000 with change of use and suggested that the planning department could do more to control these changes of use.

Someone suggested whether Camden could turn a unit into a sort of permanent pop-up shop, allowing rotating use of the space. The idea was well received, but Keith pointed out that the council doesn’t own any units on West End Lane. Whether they could enquire/put pressure on landlords of empty units when they are available remains to be seen.

Not surprisingly, the issue of Tesco (and soon Sainsbury’s) delivery lorries came up. Fortune Green councillor Flick Rea explained that the Tesco on her patch had been expected to use a delivery point at the back of the building but it turned out the lorries couldn’t access this service area because it was too low. She is looking at getting a delivery bay built into the street as there is room there.

The West End Lane Tesco remains a problem as the company sees the constant parking fines as simply part of the cost of doing business.

A man from Fawley Road asked what he admitted was a NIMBY question about where Sainsbury’s delivery lorries would park. Flick said that she hoped it would be possible to have a conversation with Sainsbury’s about this, as they were more socially amenable than Tesco.

Budget cuts
The final topic of the evening was the budget cuts in Camden. By the time you read this, these will have been debated in the council chamber, and at this stage the programme of cuts is light on detail. Keith pointed out before the discussion started that legally this couldn’t be a party-political discussion as it is funded by the council*.

Given that much of this was hypothetical I shall keep this section short and wait until the budget plans have been approved for a longer discussion of how cuts will affect West Hampstead.

The nub of the issue is that Camden needs to cut £80 to £100 million of its budget, which is approximately 10%. Councils of course have statutory commitments and discretionary roles. Camden historically has been a council that has prided itself on going the extra mile but inevitably some of these discretionary services would have to be cut or provided by the voluntary or private sectors.

Keith also pointed out that there would be job cuts: 1,000 positions would go although many would happen through early retirement or posts not being filled rather than redundancies. However, plenty of jobs are on the line.

Libraries are one service that always receives a lot of publicity. It seems inevitable that some Camden libraries will close. Keith seemed reasonably confident that West Hampstead would not be one of them. However, whether it can remain in its current state is not clear. It is expensive to run (behind me a voice whispered authoritatively that it costs £290,000 a year to run WH library of which half is staff costs).

There was some confusion as to whether the mobile library service had already been cut or not. A tweet the following day from Camden suggested that it hadn’t been cancelled just yet and Alan Templeton from the Camden Public Libraries User Group (CPLUG) seemed to think that nothing had been definitively decided. However, he also believed that council officers had already decided which libraries were for the chop, suggesting Belsize, Chalk Farm and Highgate as the most likely casualties. He argued that no library was safe however, and locals should definitely adopt a “use it or lose it” attitude.

Other conversations discussed community centres and children’s services/play services. Keith mentioned the rebuilding/expansion of Emmanuel School, which has been discussed at length already. The issue of whether the possible new primary school on Liddell Road is the best location was also mentioned but not discussed.

And that was that. Not everyone had stayed to the end, and most scarpered off into the dark cold night as soon as the meeting was brought to a close. Surprisingly, no-one asked anything about the proposed student accommodation, although Keith mentioned it and there was a handout about it.

*unlike the conversation after the meeting drew to a close.

Would you go to Wood Grill?

Rings Pizza & Kebab shop has finally reopened as Wood Grill House (in what must have been one of the slowest ever refits of a kebab shop to a kebab shop). Local kebab fans Blake and Jess popped in last week to sample its wares. So, what did they think?

“As soon as we set foot into the grotto-like Wood Grill House, it was obvious that it would be a little bit different. There is a copious amount of wood both inside and out. Oddly, the tree bark-clad walls were covered in Halloween decorations, despite the place opening in November, with scary things such as green cobwebs, plastic spiders, Jack-o’-lanterns and, erm, a photograph of Michael Jackson.

Jess tries some pickle

It’s a tight, narrow space with stools along each wall for people to dine in and the counter at the back with everything you’d expect from a kebab place crammed into a tight kitchen area. With the drinks refrigerator in there as well, you’ll find yourself shuffling around to get out of people’s way when it gets busy, which it did a couple of times while we were there. It has only been open a couple of days, but already seems to have picked up business.

There is a Shisha Garden downstairs, which we didn’t explore, it’s hard to imagine that it’s much of a garden though.

I decided to go for a simple order, burger and chips, only then to notice that on the other side of the menu there was a more expensive “homemade burger” served with salad and chips – not entirely sure what the difference would have been.

I normally like onions on a burger but it seemed all the salad vegetables were mixed in together. Although this space-saving idea makes some sense, there still managed to be plenty of room in there for oddities such as some bright pink carrots. On closer inspection these were in fact a pickle.

My food was… well, my burger was fine. Just fine. Nothing more or less than that. It was no better or worse than what you would find in Karahi Master down the road. It did at least hit the spot after a long day at work and the service was very friendly. Jess’s chicken shish kebab, however, was “delicious, succulent and tender” and the marinade “luscious”.

“succulent” chicken shish

We were divided on our final verdict. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it to anyone, but if you are in need of a late-night bite on the way back from an evening out, don’t be afraid of the unusual and slightly scary setting and give it a try. Jess was far more positive, giving it an 8/10 with the only negatives being the lack of space for waiting and the vast quantity of napkins they distributed for two people (not so eco-friendly). The two meals and two drinks came to £10.40.”

Wood Grill House
104 West End Lane
T: 020 7624 8787

Barraco review: A little bit of Brazil in Kilburn

Barraco will never be somewhere that picks up much passing trade. From whichever way you approach it, it takes a leap of faith to believe that there’s going to be any commercial businesses at all, let alone a half-decent restaurant serving up a slice of Brazil on this residential back road.

As this was to be the last #whampreview of 2010, I decided that I would abandon the famous hat from which names are plucked and everyone would be able to come. Thus it was that 12 of us squeezed into the street-level ‘front room’ of Barraco, which sits somewhere between a restaurant and a café. The kitchen is a few steps below, and there’s also a large back room for live music, parties and presumably those occasional very busy nights.

Which this was, for we were sharing a rather small space with a party of including actor Joe McGann. Barraco isn’t your obvious celebrity haunt, nor did it seem quite prepared for two large groups who had both booked. Some judicious rearranging of tables happened and the beers and caipirinhas began to flow.

We opted for a selection of starters to share, including (at Lauren‘s request) frogs legs, fried yam, chicken gizzards, which I enjoyed, prawn rissoles and breaded cheese balls (“a bit Kerry Katona”, said Nicky). Perhaps the best starter was the grilled Brazilian sausages with onions, which really could be a meal in itself, and which Moya declared “divine”.

Barraco is unashamedly Brazilian. I’d certainly like to imagine that the ambience here is going to take Brazilians in London straight back to the land of samba. It’s not chic. We have bright plastic tablecloths, there are Brazilian flags and a large map of the country on the wall. There are cabinets full of brightly coloured packets of food. It’s bright. Very bright. It is the most common criticism of this friendly establishment. It’s not a place for a romantic candlelit dinner for two.

Most mains come with a choice of two sides – this is not a restaurant you’ll leave hungry. The tilapia cooked in coconut milk divided opinion – Jane was underwhelmed, Richard thought his was well cooked although it wasn’t that hot. Ria and Tom‘s white fish was too salty but, in Tom’s words, “respectfully cooked”. In fact, universally the food was deemed too salty.

Large bottles of what looked like brown sugar were placed on the table. It turned out to be farofa – a Brazilian seasoning – that only Mark tried.

The moquecas (a Brazilian fish stew) looked good and were “hearty” according to Moya. The rest of us went for steaks, My ribeye was a little undercooked in the middle, despite the waitress being insistent that I had it medium. It tasted good, but looked like it had suffered from freezer burn. The side of beans was really good – in fact a meal of just the sides would be quite appealing. Sarah E, Sarah W and Dominic also went for steaks, while Mark splashed out on the monster T-bone.

There was barely room for desserts, although that didn’t stop some of us from indulging from the offerings from the chiller cabinet.

I thought the kitchen and our very friendly waitress did a great job of getting all the food out quickly and all together with no mistakes (I think our service score below is a little low). Barraco would be great for a quick filling meal or for a group outing (but book in advance because it’s busy and small!) – it’s certainly a great part of the NW6 restaurant scene.

Food 6.5
Service 7.5
Value 7.7
Overall 7.1
Good for: farofa
Bad for: people on low-sodium diets
10 Kingsgate Place
T: 020 7604 4664
W: www.barracocafe.co.uk
Barraco on Urbanspoon

Photos courtesy of Mark and Jane

Small & Beautiful review

Small & Beautiful is neither particularly small nor particularly beautiful. It is commonly described as ‘cheap and cheerful’, which seems a much more appropriate moniker.

On Thursday night only half the restaurant, which nestles against the Overground railway bridge on Kilburn High Road, was being used, but the place was buzzy when we arrived.

Menus came promptly. It is all ever so slightly confusing with starters, light bites that sound like entire meals (a lamb’s knuckle can surely never be a light bite?), main courses, and then a separate list of specials which overlapped mostly with dishes listed on a blackboard but not entirely.

Bread and olives were swiftly delivered – a generous amount of both – while we ordered a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (in honour of the miners you see) and attempted to order several different bottles of white before finding one they actually had in stock.

And so to the food – the menu is a strange mix of more interesting dishes such as chicken and artichoke salad, and pub grub staples such as potato skins. Matt and I opted for the tiger prawn special, which came with long strips of pepper and a piquant tomato sauce. The sauce and the peppers tasted fine, the prawns were slightly overcooked and tasted of nothing and were also the smallest tiger prawns I’ve seen. But apart from that it was fine.

Jess and Mark had the aforementioned chicken and artichoke salad, which looked nice and they both seemed happy. Mark’s only complaint being that the salad was overdressed. Marcia had the calamari which performed as calamari tend to do, while Ana went for the impressive looking baked chèvre but was thrown by the large slice of beef tomato underneath the slab of cheese. Blake‘s potato skins looked perhaps the least appetising of the starters, and he was perplexed by the plain yoghurt accompaniment, expecting mayonnaise or aioli. Still, for the paltry price of a few quid it was hard to complain.

We had waited quite a long time for starters, but not long enough to contemplate chasing them and all had come out together – a feat very few restaurants have managed. Main courses followed starters fairly swiftly and our skepticism as to the lightness of the bites was soon justified as Jess’s plate of spaghetti all’arrabiata arrived. There was a lot of it. Really a lot.

Matt’s chicken and mushroom risotto was also generously portioned. It wasn’t a risotto, more a chicken and tomato rice bake with some mushrooms involved somewhere along the way. But he enjoyed it.

Blake had steak, which he was very happy with, pronouncing it perfectly juicy and tender while admitting that ordering fries after his potato skins starter might not have been the best call. Marcia and I braved the Lucanica sausage, which had been grilled in a a spiral and was served with sauted potatoes and green beans. It was pretty good, perhaps not as spicy as I might have liked, but I reluctantly admitted defeat towards the end (this was another light bite!).

Ana had bravely gone for the ambiguous fish fillet of the day, which was something unpronounceable. It came liberally covered in a herb sauce, but she was underwhelmed by the whole thing, declaring the fish “rubbery”. Mark – having been denied the final steak by Blake – also had fish, going for one of the restaurant’s most expensive dishes – the sea bass at £10.95. It was quite a small sea bass, and he was struggling to enthuse about it.

For most dishes, vegetables are ordered separately, but this isn’t one of those restaurants where you find yourself paying £16 for a main course only to be forced to spend another £3.50 for a small plate of barely-steamed broccoli. For less than £2 you can get a plate of veg that would do some people for dinner by itself.

Did we want to see the dessert menu? Of course we did. Blake, Matt and I all chose the warm peaches with pistachio ice cream. This was exceptionally good. The peaches were delicious, with a light caramel sauce and if there was a complaint about the ice cream it came from Matt who suggested that it should perhaps be more ice cream and less pistachio – never a terrible complaint.

Jess’s “never-ending” mango sorbet more or less justified the price of her entire meal as scoop upon scoop upon scoop was piled into a dish. Mark’s apple pie was “homely”, bathing in a pool of bright yellow custard. Marcia felt her chocolate cake was the weakest dish of the evening, while Ana was quickly defeated by a “too generous” hunk of tiramisu.

A handful of coffees and an over-sized port for Matt (in honour of @Ghoul_of_London who was missing his first whampreview in months), and the bill came to £23 each, which for three courses each, two bottles of wine and coffees didn’t seem bad at all.

The reviews and anecdotes beforehand suggested that Small & Beautiful could be hit and miss and this was reflected in the individual scores, with Ana having clearly been in the ‘miss’ camp. She was, however, in a minority and the first ever 10/10 was awarded (for value by Jess). The only complaint a couple of us had was that the menu itself wasn’t especially enticing, especially compared to Little Bay, the Belsize Road instituion that offers similarly cheap food.

There is no question however, based on this experience, that Small & Beautiful is an excellent option for a cheap and cheerful meal out on the High Road when you don’t want Nando’s, pizza or yet another kebab. Mind you, it’s no Speedy Noodle…

Food 6.9
Service 7.2
Value 8.3
Overall 7.8
Good for: the impoverished
Bad for: Michel Roux Jr
351 Kilburn High Road
T: 020 7328 2637
Small & Beautiful on Urbanspoon

It’s pizza time

It’s Tuesday, there’s footie on the telly and nothing in the fridge. What are you going to do? One word, five letters, incorrect transliteration of the original Italian spelling. Yes, it’s pizza time.

A select group of locals with refined palates and empty stomachs decided to investigate pizza delivery options in West Hampstead – and lo, pizza-tasting was born.

There are four West Hampstead-based pizza delivery places at the moment, and we threw in one from Finchley Road for good measure. We had menus from Domino’s, Pizza Lupa, Papa John’s, Sarracino and that Finchley Road interloper Basilico on the table – one menu each; ready, steady, go.

We ordered in decreasing order of proximity in a futile attempt to cause a five-scooter pile-up. Basilico was first up and we went for a 13″ Ruspante (£13.75), which had smoked chicken, tomato, mozzarella, dolcellate, brie and red onions. First to order, last to deliver, taking just over the 45 minutes proclaimed on the website. Oddly, the website also suggested we might like to order some fresh carrot juice for £3.00. We declined. Aside from strange recommendations, the website was easy to use.

Domino’s had its Two for Tuesday offer and far be it from us to turn down free pizza. Once again ordering online pizza was simple. We picked a classic 11.5″ New Yorker (pepperoni, ham, bacon, mushrooms) and a 11.5″ Vegi Volcano (onions, green peppers, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, extra mozzarella cheese) for £13.99. It took 32 minutes to arrive.

Pizza Lupa was next up – Pizza Cucina in London Bridge has merged with Lupa’s two north London outlets to deliver a new menu for customers of all three. We opted for the £12.50 13″ Funghi di Bosco (truffle paste, roasted field and porcini mushrooms, taleggio, thyme, truffle oil). It took 16 minutes to arrive. The web interface was identical to Basilico’s strangely.

Papa John’s also had a 2-for-1 deal. We chose a medium Papa John’s Favourite (Italian style six-cheese blend, pepperoni, sausage, Italian style seasoning) and a Chicken BBQ (chargrilled chicken, barbeque sauce, bacon, onions) both thin crust (you can also choose “original”). It took about 20 minutes to arrive and cost £13.99, but the online ordering process was slow compared to all the others.

Finally, a quick phone call to Sarracino (which doesn’t have online ordering) and an £8.95 Cafoncella pizza (mozzarella, sausage, potato, smoked cheese and rosemary) was on its way. By far the quickest (but also the nearest), this took just 10 minutes.

So, what did we think? There wasn’t a great deal of agreement, especially with so many strong flavours involved. The Cafoncella split opinion the most – it was my favourite, with the pungent rosemary just managing not to overpower the other flavours. But one man’s “subtle” is another man’s “bland”, it would seem. The base was crispy and it was clearly freshly made.

Basilico’s cheese feast of a pizza was too rich and the red onions too sweet for me. It looked spectacular, and was the least round of all the pizzas. Brie is an unusual pizza topping, and it slightly overwhelmed. The base wasn’t so much thin as almost non-existent, making this the hardest to eat.

Pizza Lupa’s mushroom extravaganza looked the best, and smelled amazing. It wasn’t the hottest sadly. If you like mushrooms then you are probably going to like this pizza really quite a lot although I’d prefer it with less cheese.

Those are the ’boutique’ pizzerias, but what about the big boys? Papa John’s and Domino’s both delivered the hottest pizzas, the most uniformly round pizzas and had pre-sliced them. Domino’s New Yorker disappointed – a little too greasy, and the base wasn’t especially crisp.

The Vegi Volcano on the other hand was the surprise package of the night – it didn’t look the best, but it tasted good, with the right balance of jalapenos to give it a kick. Of the four pizzas from the two chains, this was my favourite.

Papa John’s Favourite was our least favourite. The six cheese blend was just an unidentifiable mound of melting fat, and the pepperoni slices were far too crispy and fatty. Not for me.

The Chicken BBQ looked strange, with the BBQ sauce drizzled over chef-style, eliciting laughs from us all. However, “if you like BBQ sauce, then you’ll like this pizza,” seemed to be the consensus. Some people went back for seconds, I didn’t finish my slice.

All but Sarracino offer online ordering, but if you’re a first-time customer then the registration process for all the websites is tedious and slow. Phoning up is probably the better option although you’ll then have to pay cash on delivery.

Between five of us, we’d munched our way through the best part of seven pizzas (and may or may not have drunk a reasonable number of bottles of red wine). We were full, it was time for bed, and there was still plenty left over for breakfast…

Collection or delivery
Domino’s, 262 West End Lane
020 7431 0045 (11am to 11pm/11.30 Fri/Sat)
Basilico, 515 Finchley Road
0800 313 2656 (11am ’til late)
Pizza Lupa, 255 West End Lane
020 7431 5222 (12.30 to 10.30pm)
Papa John’s, 177 West End Lane
020 7624 0197 (11am to 11pm/midnight Fri/Sat)

Collection, deliver, or eat-in
Sarracino, 186 Broadhurst Gardens
020 7372 5889 (5.30 to 11pm Mon-Fri, midday to 11pm Sat/Sun)

Collection or eat-in (no delivery)
Pizza Express, 319 West End Lane
020 7431 8229
La Smorfia, 327 West End Lane
020 7431 4101
J’s, 218 West End Lane
020 7435 3703

This blogpost is sponsored by Domino’s Pizza. All opinions expressed are completely independent.