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Haven't had a carrot this good since Noma.

Did the Kilburn sun shine on Summers dining?

There been a ‘pop-up’ take-over of our usual food reviewer’s spot, Tom’s Diner, as WHL pulled rank to review Summer’s dining.

As we reported a couple of weeks ago, three young guys have taken over the Sir Colin Campbell on Kilburn High Road and are collaborating with Ruairidh Summers, an ex-St. John’s chef on his first solo venture. Perhaps we were too enthusiastic in promoting it because when we tried to book a table in the restaurant there was only room downstairs in the bar, but by time we arrived a table had become available upstairs.

WHL had some friends over from Neukolln in Berlin (it’s where people from Hackney move now that Hackney has been come too gentrified and expensive). How did they find Summers?

They certainly felt at home with the decor which had East End/Berlin/Williamsburg distressed paintwork furnished with simple chairs and tables plus an extensive gin menu and choice of beer and cider. No Hoxton cider though, as it was out of stock.

Kilburn via Hackney/Williamsburg/Berlin

Kilburn via Hackney/Williamsburg/Berlin

When it came to ordering food, the suggestion is that dishes are ordered ‘for sharing’. Ruairidh is Irish, so appropriately – for a pub in Kilburn – there is an Irish flavour to the menu, with crubeens (deep fried pigs trotters) as one of the starters. We also ordered asparagus (nice and seasonal) with whipped cod’s roe, which had a slight flavour of bacon, and rabbit terrine with pickles. Oh and the spouting broccoli too. Plus home baked sourdough bread. Monika wasn’t a great fan of the cod’s roe but I loved it. And we polished off the lot.

For mains it was pork belly with carrots, brill with samphire and clams, plus a side of colcannon. I meant to order the pearl barley, wild garlic and goats curd as well but though we were told we had ordered it, it turned out we hadn’t.

Mains are always the most difficult part of the menu to get right, you don’t want to be kept waiting too long after the starters have been cleared away, but not rushed either and they are the most complex dishes to cook. Summers was still in the soft opening period and could harden this aspect up a little for the next visit. Also on the menu was a beef shin and Guinness pie, which looked really good – and I don’t eat beef – and as it comes for two is truly a dish for sharing.

Haven't had a carrot this good since Noma.

Haven’t had a carrot this good since Noma.

Service was from two young waitresses who were a little nervous and still getting to grips with menu and space. However, they needn’t have worried quite so much, they were charming and did a fine job. When a restaurant has certain buzz it adds to the enjoyment the meal, and Summers had it. The room was full of 20-30somethings enjoying their meals, with a gentle backdrop of 80s Indie music, shared with the pub downstairs.

Mmmm. Desserts went down rather well.

Mmmm. Desserts went down rather well.

After mains it was into the home stretch of desserts – we shared an apple crumble and rice pudding with rhubarb. Not being a huge fan of rice pudding I took a cautious bite, and then another one and another one – I might not have been a huge fan before, but I am now.

There are subtle changes to the menu each night, so you might not get the same starters or desserts we had, but I’m pretty sure they will be just as good. And how did our Berlin friends like it? Sehr, sehr gut.

Mamacita West End Lane

Adios to businesses on one block of West End Lane

The rapid rise of the West Hampstead Square towers is the most visible sign of change in the neighbourhood, but the retail landscape is changing fast too. Foxtons in, Mamacita and Social out, Holistic… no-one seems quite sure.

Most of the changes are happening on the strip of West End Lane bookended by Tesco and Sainsbury. Clothes shop Social closed its doors for the last time on Monday after 10 years.

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Next door to Social, hair salon Holistic has been told it may also have to close and find new premises. Hakki, the manager at Holistic, said that the landlord, who also owns Social’s premises, has a potential tenant interested in taking both units and turning them into one large double shop (the unconfirmed rumour is that this might be a chain bakery). However, Hakki hopes to hear in the next few weeks that the salon will be able to renew its lease and continue operating where it has been for 19 years, but this is yet to be confirmed.

Finally, Mamacita announced on Twitter that it was closing, after less than two years in West Hampstead. The owners have told West Hampstead Life that although they can’t reveal the identity of the new tenant, it should be another independent business.

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What would you like to see opening on West End Lane? Over to you in the comments below or on the forum.

King prawn vindaloo

Tom wishes he’d chosen vindaloo at Bengal Spice

Thinking of a good excuse to eat curry, I thought, “gosh it’s cold today!” (perhaps different words used) – and with that, headed for Bengal Spice to see what had changed since my last visit some time ago. Recently refurbed, it’s pleasant (and warm) inside, though I do miss the traditional curry house interiors I was brought up on, with those evocative carpets, rugs, traditional music and things.

Accompanied by local “scary food critic” @whampchef, we opted to share a paneer starter which had a sweet and sour element – not something I’m always fond of. What we received was smile-inducing though; delightfully presented, and with nicely-gauged flavours – the sweet and sour element subtle and uplifting. I can’t recall the name of the dish, as both (?) websites and the latest delivery menu don’t seem to list it.

Red wine by the glass was limited to one option only; a simple but drinkable French something-or-other, which gave me a scare by arriving in one of those silly 125ml glasses (pointless things) – fortunately though, it was topped up to (presumably) the 175ml specified.

My wonderfully-named chadni chowki king prawn dish arrived, with a remarkably-coloured sauce; a deep, dark red difficult to describe. For me, a little too sweet, and I felt this camouflaged the array of apparent ingredients (tamarind, curry leaf, mustard seed, garlic and herbs). I happily demolished the dish, but was more impressed with @whampchef’s king prawn vindaloo, which was rich and delicious, with that expanding, growing heat in each mouthful – though not a bead of sweat in sight on hardcore @whampchef’s brow, I might add!

King prawn chadni chowki

King prawn chadni chowki

King prawn vindaloo

King prawn vindaloo

Side dishes of ladies’ fingers, mixed veg, and aloo gobi were fine (and nicely garnished), and the Peshwari naan pretty much perfect – such lovely things to eat straight out of the kitchen (they can deteriorate a little when delivered, can’t they?)

Okra

Okra

Spinach_potatoes

Sag Aloo

 

Overall, good food. With Spice 212 closing a while back, it’s cool to have some traditional curry options to balance with the (excellent) Guglee.

Right – I’m hungry. Perhaps ought to have something different tonight… actually, what am I talking about – where’s my Tiffin Tin menu?!

Deliveroo_search

Deliveroo brings local restaurants to your door

Deliveroo is a new food delivery service that allows you to enter your location and order dishes from a list of your local restaurants. Sound familiar? Deliveroo claims to be different from the other food delivery platforms you already know, love and feel faintly guilty about using quite so often. Its approach is to curate a selection of good local restaurants rather than overwhelm you with lists of takeaways you’ve never heard of, or that in some cases may not even exist.

The Deliveroo people kindly offered us a complimentary trial run of the service, as it’s recently expanded its delivery zone to include West Hampstead. So one chilly Wednesday evening, when quite frankly I had no inclination to shop or cook, three of us got together at West Hampstead Life HQ to put it to the test.

Deliveroo_search

Deliveroo_list

First impressions were very positive. The website has a clean, user-friendly interface. After entering the postcode, the list of restaurants that appeared was not overwhelmingly long and contained only names we recognised. Favourite West End Lane haunts such as La Brocca, LaDuDu and Banana Tree were there, as well as a couple of O2 Centre places, such as Falafel City, and a surprise appearance from Bake-a-boo for those weekend cupcake cravings.

After a bit of deliberation we decided to order from Locanda 311 (formerly known as Hidden Treasure) on West End Lane, as it’s a restaurant that doesn’t offer its own delivery service. As Deliveroo uses a fleet of its own drivers, even restaurants not usually geared up for home delivery can take part, which is a great service if you fancy eating something a little different from the usual takeaway options.

Indeed, there are some ambitious-sounding dishes offered for home delivery on Locanda 311’s online menu. We resisted the temptation to go for the “Superbia di Crostacei” to see how an elaborate seafood platter – with a centrepiece of a whole lobster – would be packaged up for home delivery. (Is this now a contender for poshest takeaway in West Hampstead?) By contrast, La Brocca has opted for a shorter, more transit-friendly menu, offering mainly pizza and baked pasta dishes. Probably a wise move.

As we started to add dishes to our virtual shopping basket, a delivery fee of £2 and a card fee of 50p appeared, along with the option to tip our delivery driver. This is where Deliveroo starts to feel a little pricey – £2 is a fairly low delivery charge, but many restaurants offer free delivery for a minimum spend. For example, Bengal Spice (a Deliveroo restaurant) will deliver an order of £10 or over for free if you order directly.

All our details entered, we settled in to wait, wondering if the promised 30-minute delivery time was a bit ambitious.

fishermans_basketHowever, just 28 minutes later, dinner arrived. A slight technical hitch (my fault) had meant that we had to enter our order twice, and the (very friendly) driver’s tip wasn’t automatically re-added even though our food was, so we gave him a cash tip in person. Our main dishes of pasta, gnocchi and aubergine parmigiana were good, but the tempura seafood starter was a bit less successful outside a restaurant setting. It turns out that fried calamari and accompanying chips go a bit soggy in sealed plastic containers. Errors like this aren’t Deliveroo’s fault, but the company encourages feedback and promises to “help rectify the situation”.

Overall, we found the Deliveroo experience smooth, and were impressed with the list of good-quality restaurants and takeaways. The delivery charge is reasonable when ordering from restaurants that wouldn’t normally deliver, or placing an order that comes in under the restaurant’s minimum spend. I can see time-pressed local professionals using the service after a long day at work, when something more reliable and decadent than the average takeaway is called for.

One final thing to mention is that Deliveroo doesn’t seem to deliver alcoholic drinks, so you might still need to pop out to the corner shop for a bottle of wine to go with that lobster.

Full rack of pork ribs (sauce yet to be added!)

Review: One Sixty does its own thing – and does it well

One Sixty is no longer the new kid on the West Hampstead restaurant scene since the arrival of Toomai. But has the novelty of the smokehouse concept worn off for locals yet, or is the quality of One Sixty’s food good enough to sustain it.

We decided that a few anecdotal meals wasn’t enough to judge – it was time to give it the full whampreview treatment, which meant unearthing at least a couple of local die-hard fans of this genre of food.

Lets clear one thing up right away. One Sixty does not really cater to vegetarians. There are vegetarian options (mac & cheese, for example), and they’ve expanded these since opening, but at One Sixty, the carnivore is king. You may feel this is an awful misjudgement, or you may feel that as long as people know in advance, then it’s up to them. We deliberately didn’t take any vegetarians along because why would you want to take them somewhere where there wasn’t much for them to eat. That’s just cruel.

The menu isn’t a straightforward starters/mains menu, though in reality the side orders function just fine as starters. The menu also changes a bit every time, though a few stalwarts are always there and the specials have been the same the past few times I’ve been. I’m a sucker for the chicken wings, which started off in the restaurant’s early days as juicy but fairly mild, but are now definitively hot. And good. A bowl of these and a pint of the new Meantime Brewery Fresh beer (the one that’s pumped through the amazing silver tanks installed at the entrance) would make a good lunch for anyone. We tackled the wings (£6.50) and crubeens (£6, a snack made from pig’s trotters – a little fatty for or some, but good flavour).

The Meantime tanks by the front door

The Meantime tanks by the front door

Beer can be piped "Brewery Fresh" to your glass

Beer can be piped “Brewery Fresh” to your glass

Crubeens

Crubeens

Mains are served in white enamel trays, which maybe looks a tad gimmicky but suits the low-brow smokehouse decor quite well, and is infinitely better than putting everything on chopping boards, especially given the sauces!

I had the full rack of pork ribs (£14), this time ordered with the sauce on the side to test how tender they were when served dry and what the rub was like on its own (the answer is “pretty tender”, and “maybe not as interesting as you’d hope”). With the sauce on, however, these become a sticky delicious treat.

Full rack of pork ribs (sauce yet to be added!)

Full rack of pork ribs (sauce yet to be added!)

Dishes come with a side – the chips are pretty good, the pickles are outstanding – in fact between One Sixty and Chicken Schnitzel & More, West Hampstead may just be the pickles capital of London. With all the meat available, you’re unlikely to go hungry unless you have a voracious appetite (or perhaps the burger, which as you’ll see below couldn’t satisfy Tom).

The tarte tatin is apparently for two. I conclusively and single-handedly proved that this must be a mistake on the menu.

It’s worth mentioning the drinks – the bar at One Sixty (where you can also eat the full menu if you wish, though there is a separate smaller bar menu), has an impressively extensive range of craft beer. So extensive in fact, that you wonder whether they have the turnover of some of the more obscure beers to keep them reasonably fresh. There’s also plenty on tap – more from London brewers Meantime, Fullers and Camden Brewery as well as one or two more exotic options such as Sierra Nevada.

The wine list isn’t particularly long and pricewise could probably benefit from one or two more wines at the lower end. It’s a shame there’s not slightly more wine, because actually the rich, complex, smoky flavours of this slow-cooked meat (One Sixty refers to the Fahrenheit temperature all the meat is cooked at) match with many robust red wines very well. We went for a Malbec (£22) that worked well, but a few south-west France wines would also hold their own and might be better value.

Wiping our hands from the enormous roll of kitchen paper plonked on every table, the consensus was that One Sixty delivers memorable, if not always perfect, food. I think it’s an excellent addition to the neighbourhood and it deserves to do well.

In whampreview tradition, I’ll hand you over to the others to give you their verdicts

Will
Barbecue is always local for its partisans, many of whom pride themselves on being “downmarket” – all about the familiar, as in family, tribe and region. That, and taking your time. Smoking and slow cooking can’t be hurried, so its’ provincial culinary traditions steep and thicken. The chefs stare into the pit, ruminate on burnt tips, smoke and fire. It’s elemental; don’t overthink it.

So, when I read that the owners of Pied a Terre had decided to open a ‘smokehouse’ in West Hampstead, I sniffed, “What will this pricey Bloomsbury haute cuisine landmark dish up on West End Lane? Will it be Barbecoa without the view?“ But the basics at One Sixty bode well. There’s no hush puppies, cornbread or baked beans, but their red cabbage slaw is top notch, and the hot chicken wings are better every time I try them.

The darkened interior keeps your attention on the fare, and these are not expensive morsels plated on oversized porcelain and set against crisp white tablecloths. Pound for pound, the price points please, with ample portions served on the wooden tables, dining in the rear, and some tables on the street in these blissful long summer evenings. One Sixty has doubled up on its smokers as well, as demand has risen. If they stay the course and double down on their high volume/medium price strategy, everybody wins. Chef Andrei Lesment’s menu triangulates between the Carolinas (a succulent pulled pork sandwich), Texas (beef ribs) and some comfort food from here, the isle of the Angus and the Durham Ox. The ox cheeks at One Sixty are their specialty, served up like a brisket, flaking on the fork, a generous portion of tender meaty fibre.

Ox cheek on mash with gravy and pickles

Ox cheek on mash with gravy and pickles

Many of the dishes come served with solid no-nonsense mash, that British Sunday staple, and Paris, Texas doesn’t do puddings like One Sixty’s spongey, elegant profiteroles. One Sixty gets high marks for being itself, and knowing its customers.

Tom
First thing to say, delightful Malbec – would definitely have that one again. The cheaper of the two on the wine list, and available by the glass, this was soft and supple, with sweet notes of chocolate (my dullard taste buds) or caramel (Nicky’s more subtle ones)

I opted for the burger, and although the bun had gone soggy underneath, the patty itself tasted good. Perhaps a little small though, to be honest. A nice touch was the refreshing, simple slaw with fennel seeds, and a light vinaigrette. Definitely a sensible match for all the richness of the main meals.

Chips were of an enticing, golden colour, and although not especially crispy, were nicely done, though for me personally I didn’t take to whatever they’d been cooked in. This is probably just me; the most adventurous I get with such things is goose-fat roasters at Christmas. I’m a bit traditional with potatoes, me; fry them in olive oil or butter, and I’m happy.

Desserts thoroughly smile-inducing. A rather fun, wonderfully-flavoured banoffee cup thing, and a pleasing tart tatin.

Service was excellent and there’s a really great atmosphere there. Good fun!

Claire
Feeling woefully inadequate sitting next to the Barbeque-ipedia that is Will, I chose Pulled Pork for my main, so I didn’t have to comment in the ribs/rubs debate! I swapped the chips for the great slaw – no mayo and with the zingy addition of fennel seeds. The pork was moist and I liked the fresh red cabbage topping. I’d have been happy with a few more crunchy bits of pork and a well toasted brioche bun, as it was a little soggy, but it was a well executed dish and I didn’t suffer from food envy! For dessert, just order the drunken banoffee, you will find room for it!

Pulled pork in a bun

Pulled pork in a bun

Nicky
I have to admit that a hearty, industrial-style smokehouse restaurant isn’t my natural habitat. Although no longer vegetarian, I’m usually happier tucking into a tofu steak than a ribeye; and a colourful lentil salad is more likely to get my pulse (ha!) racing than a plate of sticky pork ribs.

However, I really enjoyed our evening at One Sixty. Yes, the menu is unashamedly focused on flesh, and you’d need to be in a carnivorous mood to fully enjoy a visit here, but unlike in the macho “dirty rib” joints beloved of certain sections of the food blogosphere, these dishes feel high-quality and well thought out.

Beef shortrib - small but mighty

Beef shortrib – small but mighty

As you’d expect, a delicious smoky aroma pervades the meat which forms the centrepiece of each dish, but the accompaniments were a welcome surprise – really crisp, fresh-tasting pickles and slaw cut through the richness of the barbeque flavours of my beef shortrib.

The atmosphere is smokin’ too. The huge craft beer selection draws in a lively crowd to the bar at the front, and there’s a chatty and convivial vibe in the dining room too. I’ll definitely be back to this great new West Hampstead hangout.

One Sixty
291 West End Lane
London
NW6 1RD
T: 0207 7949 786
E: ku.oc1496142492.ytxi1496142492s-eno1496142492@ofni1496142492
@onesixtylondon

OneSixty_brunch

Restaurant round-up: Toomai, Rossopomodoro, One Sixty and the market

West Hampstead Life has had a gruelling couple of weeks. In a tireless quest to keep you informed about gastronomic developments in the area, we’ve been out investigating the newest restaurants and menus, sampling a few (ok, many) dishes along the way. Here are some tasty tidbits to whet your appetite while we go off to type “juice diet” into Google…

First up, we went to try One Sixty’s new brunch menu. The menu itself is still a work in progress, but we tried a selection of the kinds of dishes that will be on offer. As you’d expect from a smokehouse restaurant, smoky flavours wrapped themselves around some delicious mackerel and salmon, and there was house-smoked bacon available in a roll.

One Sixty has been criticised in the past for its lack of any provision for vegetarians, but on this visit we sampled a rather good avocado, asparagus and egg dish – hopefully they’ll continue to offer at least one veggie option. Add in the Sunday papers and a chilled vibe, and we can see this being serious competition in the weekend brunch market.

OneSixty_brunch

Secondly, you may have heard whispers about another pan-Asian restaurant opening on West End Lane. Called Toomai, this is another venture from the owners of Guglee just up the road. They invited West Hampstead Life to tour the new premises (where the short-lived ‘Grilled O Fried’ used to be) and more importantly to a tasting session of their menu.

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The Toomai team are still refining the menu, but it will focus on street food – predominantly influenced by South East Asia – as well as more substantial curry and noodle dishes. We tried a range of dishes, from Chinese-style dumplings, to chili paneer, to some quite outstanding chicken satay skewers. It will be interesting to see how Toomai fares against nearby competitors Banana Tree and Mamako. It opens tonight (Thursday), though expect Friday to be more up to speed.

Staying on a street-food theme, the Sunday Food & Flea Market on the Thameslink forecourt has been open for four weeks now, with a variety of food stalls. Bad weather on a couple of Sundays has meant the market has been less than bustling at times, but we’d recommend going there to grab some very reasonably-priced lunch while browsing the vintage clothes stalls. So far we’ve tried the Iranian lamb chops (delicious, but somewhat hard to eat with your hands) and the Sri Lankan ‘kothu’, an appetising dish of chopped roti with vegetables and (optional) meat.

LambChops

The final course on this epicurean roundup takes place in Finchley Road, where Italian chain Rossopomodoro has just opened its eighth UK branch in the O2 Centre. Unlike other high street Italians, Rossopomodoro can proudly claim to have originated in Naples and promises “the same fresh ingredients from the same suppliers in Italy” it serves back home. Can it live up to the hype?

Photo via Rossopomodoro

Photo via Rossopomodoro

On our visit (a completely packed VIP launch night – there are clearly a lot of Very Important pizza fans in the area) we did find the dishes tasted fresh and the flavours were zingy; a cut above the average chain, and with its buzzy atmosphere a great new pre-cinema destination. We can imagine taking a seat on the outdoor terrace with a selection of antipasti and an Aperol Spritz, and feeling ourselves transported straight to Campania. Let’s ignore the small issue of the Finchley Road traffic.

TasteKilburn_graphic

Get a Taste of Kilburn

Kilburn is teeming with eating options, but how many have you actually tried? Now’s your chance to sample something new during the first ever Taste of Kilburn food festival, which launches on Saturday.

At 11 am in Kilburn Square (the southern end of the high road near WH Smiths), the Deputy Mayor of Brent opens proceedings with a ceremonial cake cutting (rumours that the cake is a Belgian bun from Gregg’s are unconfirmed). You’ll be able to taste some of the participating restaurants’ dishes in the Taste of Kilburn gazebo. There will also be plenty of vouchers handed out by volunteers who, we’re told, will be fetchingly dressed as Easter bunnies.

It’s not just small restaurants taking part. Alongside old favourites such as the ever-popular Vijay, on Willesden Lane, and pubs such as The Earl Derby, some of the world’s biggest chains are also supporting the event, with vouchers and offers of their own: McDonald’s and KFC are joining in, and Nando’s have promised to dispatch some of their staff dressed in chicken suits (to compete with the bunnies perhaps?).

In total, 27 businesses are taking part and offering special deals to customers which will be valid for the run up to Easter. It should be a great day out and opportunity to try new Kilburn restaurants or rediscover old favourites. If you miss out on the launch event, look out for the Easter Bunny handing out vouchers on Kilburn High Road, or visit the Taste of Kilburn information table at the Tricycle Theatre.

taste-of-kilburn-ft

Taste of Kilburn is an initiative set up by a group of local business owners, with the support of Brent Council, to celebrate and promote Kilburn as an eating destination. Find out more, and see a list of participating restaurants, here.

Affia Bioh at Chop Pot

O2 Centre looks to start-ups to boost food offer

People don’t tend to salivate at the prospect of shopping centre dining. Indeed, in some places it seems we’ve barely moved on since the days when a jacket potato with chilli was considered cutting-edge cuisine.

Yet, on the eve of another restaurant opening there – Frankie & Benny’s starts trading Monday – the O2 Centre on Finchley Road is showing signs of becoming a dining destination, especially as two more intriguing eating places have popped up in and among the more familiar chains. Not that it’s easy for these start-ups to mix it with the big boys. It take determination and a keen understanding of what the centre looks for from restaurants.

Falafel City, on the upper floor, was founded by Mitan Sachdev and his wife Kajal in 2011. It took them two years to refine their recipes and bring their product to market – and, crucially, to find the right location to open their first restaurant.

Mitan and Kajal Sachdev

Kajal and Mitan Sachdev

Mitan gave up his career at accountancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to follow his dream of becoming a restaurateur. Kajal developed all the recipes. “She’s an amazing cook”, he says. The couple has created what they believe to be a unique concept: freshly-cooked falafels with an international twist, served in a bright and buzzy fast-food environment.

One of the main hurdles for the fledgling business was finding suitable premises to rent. From the outset, the Sachdevs knew that they wanted their business to be surrounded by premium brands, but with no track record of running a restaurant, many retail landlords were reluctant to take them on.

The O2 Centre unit was ideal, says Mitan, who’s far removed from the clichéd streetfood vendor parking a van in a south London carpark. “We’re grateful to the O2 Centre management for taking a bit of a punt” he says. Perhaps reflecting his corporate background he adds, “I always wanted to be near a Vue, and near a Virgin Active.” How convenient!

It’s clear that branding has played a big part in Falafel City’s success. “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to look the part,” explains Mitan. Indeed, Falafel City, with its distinctive rotating sign, fits in comfortably alongside its nearest neighbours Byron and Yo! Sushi.

Affia Bioh has a similar story. Affia gave up her job in banking to start selling Ghanaian food. After successfully testing the market with a chilled range, which Selfridges took on and still sell in its food hall, she wanted to branch out to a “Chop Bar”. The result: Chop Pot, which sits opposite Waterstone’s on the ground floor on the way to Sainsbury’s and sells hot takeaway food.

Affia Bioh at Chop Pot

Affia Bioh at Chop Pot

The O2 Centre was a logical location for Affia, who was born and raised in the area – she attended South Hampstead School for Girls and St Augustine’s in Kilburn. She likes the diversity of the local population. “Local people are very inquisitive about different cuisines and want to try them”, she says. She’s happy to talk customers through the different dishes, which are Ghanaian street food classics such as Jollof Rice, a spicy one-pot rice dish, and a deliciously rich chicken and peanut stew.

Like the Sachdevs, Affia is pleased with the support she has received from the O2 Centre and recognises that it’s taking a chance on a small start-up business, and proud to be offering something different. “I’m carrying the torch for West African food in the O2 Centre,” she says proudly.

Jason King, who manages the O2 Centre on behalf of owner Land Securities, says he welcomes the arrival of both Falafel City and Chop Pot. “There’s a lot of pressure on the shopping centre industry from online businesses, so the whole experiential side, such as food and leisure, is increasingly important.”

For Jason, it seems that creating an environment where well-known chains rub shoulders with smaller players is an important means of differentiation. “It prevents that feeling of ‘every shopping centre looks the same’ which can creep in if you’re not careful.”

He sees it as mutually beneficial: start-ups gain exposure and visibility, while the centre gets credibility by being able to boast a wide range of dining options. “In terms of the variety, we have a good mix. Byron is a great brand for us to have. Nando’s is still one of the big movers and shakers, and Yo! Sushi is a worldwide brand. It’s great to have them alongside small startups like Falafel City and Chop Pot, which is a lovely story of someone setting themselves up in business with a great product and lots of enthusiasm, but who have also got their branding to a level where it can fit in amongst the bigger players.”

Once again, the importance of branding comes to the fore. “It’s got to feel right,” says Jason. “We’ve got a design guide in terms of what we want to see from shop fits. We’re not looking for conformity, but looking to set the bar at a certain level.”

Anna Adamczyk, restaurant manager at Zizzi, one of the centre’s long standing tenants, agrees. “The new developments here are exciting for everyone – the local community and existing businesses. Hopefully by having more options for customers, the O2 Centre will become a destination for those looking for somewhere to have a bite to eat.”

Centre manager Jason’s enthusiasm come to the fore as he talks about the changes underway; three new restaurants (Wagamama, Rossopomodoro and Frankie & Benny’s) are opening on the top level next to Falafel City. The work is scheduled to be completed by June or July, and the centre is planning a big launch event to promote itself as a dining destination. Zizzi also confirmed that its restaurant will be getting a refurb in July. It’s taken a while though, Wagamama and Rossopomodoro were first mooted at the start of 2013.

Jason King has been at the O2 Centre since Land Securities bought it in 2010. The place has changed quite considerably in that time, both in terms of the brands it’s brought in and the physical changes to the building. The company is intent on creating the kind of place that people in the Swiss Cottage/West Hampstead area – and beyond – will want to spend time in. Goodbye Jurassic Park-style fake rock interior and Hello outdoor terrace, which will be shared between the three new restaurants, bringing al-fresco dining to the centre – even if al fresco does mean “view of Finchley Road traffic”.

What do you think? Has the O2 Centre transformed into a dining destination, or is it still more of a pre-cinema pitstop? As ever, feel free to leave your comments below.

OneSixty Menu

Soft launch of One Sixty hits the right buttons

It’s been the most eagerly awaited opening I can remember in West Hampstead. The Smokehouse, now called One Sixty, has had tongues wagging and salivating ever since the news broke that the combination of Michelin-starred restaurateur David Moore, craft beer loving publican Sean Martin, and acclaimed chef Andrei Lesment were coming to West End Lane.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview tasting a couple of weeks ago and then booked a table this Saturday night for the soft launch. We’ll write a full review over the next few weeks but, as interest is so high, I figured it was worth giving my immediate reaction.

This is a place for meat-lovers. Many on Twitter have been asking what the vegetarian options are. Right now the only option would be the larger mac & cheese. There’s a lobster roll if you don’t fancy meat, but otherwise it’s mac & cheese, or pickles. It will be interesting to see whether One Sixty decides to extend the offer for vegetarians.

The menu isn’t extensive either, though it’s not clear whether it will change regularly depending what’s smoking – the printed menu last night didn’t tally exactly with the online menu, so there’s clearly room for manouevre. Personally, I prefer these shorter menus, which tends to imply fresher ingredients and dishes that have been perfected – there’s nowhere to hide after all.

OneSixty Menu

The front half of the venue is the bar – a large space with a few tables and what looks like a brushed steel bar adorned with interesting taps. The back half is the dark restaurant.

On our visit on Saturday, we shared all the starters – chicken wings, mac & cheese, and a half-rack of 8-hour smoked ribs. The wings and ribs were particularly good, sticky and tender without being impossible to eat. For mains, two of us had the 12-hour smoked ox cheek, and two the chuck steak burger. We tried all the sides. The ox cheek was excellent – although slightly drier than the version I had at the preview a couple of weeks ago. Hopefully they can get that moistness back. The burgers were a hit – “generously meaty”, if a little hard to eat. The “Iceberg & burnt onion” side was also very popular. Nothing disappointed in fact.

While one person worked his way through more of the beer menu, the rest of us tried a Tuscan red from the very limited wine list. It did the job admirably and felt fairly priced.

There was just one dessert on the menu and as we were far too full to contemplate it, we were generously given one to take home. I’ve just eaten it – it’s a banana & rum tarte tatin – and even a day on it was very good (and lighter than it looked, but I’m glad I reheated it).

One Sixty opens officially on Tuesday at 5pm at which point they’ll take you in off the street. I suspect it will be popular over the first few weeks, and both kitchen and front of house will find themselves tested from the start. I wish them well – it’s refreshing to see something genuinely different and independent moving into the area. I’m looking forward to giving it the full #whampreview treatment very soon.

dine2donate

Support food poverty by dining out

Whether you’re in a hurry for a curry, savouring a sushi platter, or tucking into some tapas, now’s your chance to eat so that others can eat. Dine2DonateNW aims to bring the community together to support food poverty.

From February 9th to 13th, participating restaurants in West Hampstead and Finchley Road will donate up to 30% of your food bill to local foodbanks in Chalk Farm and Kilburn, run by The Trussell Trust. The goal is to raise £10,000.

Interested? To support this event, simply present an event flyer when you dine at one of the participating restaurants, or book ahead directly quoting “Dine2Donate”. Some restaurants are even offering discounts of up to 15% on food spend. Look out for flyers being distributed on the streets at the start of next week, or simply print your own. The flyer and list of participating restaurants can be found on the event’s Facebook page or here (or at the bottom of the page).

If you’d like to make a donation, you can at Dine2DonateNW’s JustGiving page.

Dine2DonateNW was founded by 32-year-old software engineer and local resident Anthony Schiller, who has lived in West Hampstead for three years. Struck by the rising number of people living below the poverty line, and with a keen interest in health, he came up with the initiative to get local restaurants and the community involved, and has been pleased with the enthusiastic response so far.

Anthony has high hopes that the community will embrace the event and that it will continue to grow:

“Success would create a real opportunity to expand the event and tackle food poverty on a greater scale. The interest from local businesses is definitely there. Some restaurants have even asked if the event can be repeated more often and expanded to other areas of London. From there, who knows how far this initiative could reach.”

“Funds are needed to open and develop foodbank projects. They help prevent crime, housing loss, family breakdown and mental health issues. The Trussel Trust supports more than 300,000 people every year across the UK through its network of foodbanks. Let’s support these projects!”

The participating restaurants are: Bombay Nights, Caffe Zaza, La Voss, Lahore Tikka House, Little Sichuan, Seoul Korean Restaurant, Sirous, Spice Tree, Subway (141 Finchley Rd) and Sushi Kou.

Whether your favourite local restaurant is on the list, or you’d like to discover somewhere new – now’s your chance to do so while also supporting a great cause.

2013-10-24 12.01.58

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_Seafood tagliatelle

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.

Bellaluna
218 West End Lane
West Hampstead
LONDON
NW6 1UU
t: 020 7435 3703
w: bellalunawesthampstead.co.uk
e: moc.l1496142492iamg@1496142492daetp1496142492smaht1496142492sewan1496142492ulall1496142492eb1496142492

Bellaluna on Urbanspoon

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).

2013-08-09 19.18.07

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.

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.

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.

Scores:
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

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.

Scores:
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”.

Guglee
279 West End Lane
NW6 1QS
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.

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.

Scores
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
NW6 4BT
T: 0207 372 4699
W: www.littlebay.co.uk

Little Bay on Urbanspoon

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

Ladudu
152 West End Lane
NW6 1SD
T: 020 7372 3217
E: moc.u1496142492dudal1496142492@doof1496142492
W: www.ladudu.com

La du du on Urbanspoon

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
LONDON
NW6 3AY
T: 020 7372 8188
W: www.osteriaspiga.co.uk

Photos by Lauren / Jonathan

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.

Verdict
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
LONDON
NW6 1LG
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.

Spiga
182 Broadhurst Gardens
020 7372 8188
(website still under development!)

If you go, do leave comments below.

The Rotisserie, restaurant review

[Ed: This restaurant closed in early 2012]

Arriving in a a busy restaurant raises expectations. Attractive lighting glints off the metallic menus and bounces off the exposed brick pillars. First impressions are good and enhanced by the meaty aromas wafting through the restaurant. This is, after all, a steak restaurant. The menu however has ample choice, and even vegetarians are well catered for. The variety of other diners certainly suggests that most people are going to find something they can eat.

We all chose from the £16.95 for two courses menu, which still offered plenty of choice including two different (vegetarian) soups of the day. Tom had the asparagus soup (“a real richness to the croutons” and “souper” (he punned)), while Louise tried the mixed vegetable soup, which was also a hit. Brad and Jerry opted for the gravlax, which both deemed good but perhaps overly generous for a starter portion. Not the worst criticism. Jo and Jane stuck to the tried and tested avocado, mozzarella, tomato salad. Opinion was divided on the quality of the mozzarella, but unanimous on the unripe tomato. Arguably not a dish to serve if you can’t get all three ingredients right. Lulu and I opted for sausages – chicken peri peri for her, lamb merguez for me. Verdict: exactly what I would expect.
It is hard to stay away from steak at a steak restaurant and indeed several of us went down the rib-eye route. Everyone seemed happy with how their steaks were cooked although the bearnaise sauce on Jo’s plate was more a sort of grey butter and was sensibly left alone.
Louise was confronted with an enormous lamb shank, which she enjoyed. Brad and I had the peri-peri chicken. Another enormous portion of well-flavoured chicken although the breast was slightly dry. All main courses come with pommes frites, and most of us had a green side as well in salad or asparagus form.
It is refreshing to go somewhere as a party of 8 and for there to be no mistakes in the order – from my own predilections on salad dressings, to the various combinations of steak sauces and doneness of steak, everything was right first time.

As plates were cleared and thoughts turned to dessert it seemed only Tom had the spare capacity. Puddings tend to the heavy and with two already off the menu that night it was hard to get inspired. Not that this stopped Tom who merrily dived in to the cheesecake with gusto. “It takes a big pudding to get the better of me,” he said, grinning. “That’s both quality AND quantity.” This was after an astonishingly deft manouevre by Louise to pinch his(laughably unripe) strawberry garnish.

With service, and three bottles of perfectly decent red, the bill came to £31 each. After two disappointing local meals, it was great to go somewhere with both decent food and a good atmosphere. The Rotisserie may suffer ever so slightly from style over substance but is definitely worth having on the list or reliable local restaurants.

Ratings
Food 7.8
Service 8.8
Value 7.6
Overall 8.5
Good for: steak
Bad for: weightwatchers
The Rotisserie Restaurant
82 Fortune Green Rd
West Hampstead
London, NW6 1DS
T: 0207 435 9923
W: http://www.therotisserie.co.uk/west_hampstead/

Rotisserie on Urbanspoon

Le Petit Coin, restaurant review

(NB: Le Petit Coin has now closed)

Game theory is a strange way to start any meal. Perhaps if you were at the Fat Duck you might expect a soupçon of deconstrutivist philosophy to accompany a deconstructed soup, but at a small neighbourhood French restaurant I generally expect bread and butter to be the opening gambit.

Le Petit Coin had two special offers – there was a food offer (£15 for two courses, £18 for three) and a wine offer (half-price on a selected white and a selected red – £22/£23 respectively). But you could only choose one offer. Ahhhhh… No doubt people much cleverer than ourselves could have devised a cunning plan to get the best value from this, but as no-one appeared to have an app for that, we all went for the food option.

Then came the bread and butter.

Our table of seven was the only one troubling the kitchen that night, and service was thus reasonably decent, although one suspects they’re not that used to catering for parties larger than four. Between us we managed to try most of the starters – the menu is not extensive, and is all the better for it. Portion size varied hilariously: Alison’s square bowl of French onion soup would have kept a clichéd Frenchman happy for days, while Jamillah’s whitebait (unusually arranged all ‘swimming’ in the same direction), was half what you’d get at Greenwich’s whitebait specialist The Trafalgar Tavern. Two Caesar salads were heavy on the dressing and light on the parmesan; baked oysters with mushroom ragout were neither baked nor accompanied by what most people would call a ragout, but were perfectly reasonable; deep-fried brie did exactly what it said on the tin; while the lobster and crab ravioli was “good”.

The mains emerged staccato style as the wine (a Rioja Crianza that was a little too chilled) flowed and conversation ebbed – or was it the other way round? Jane and Jamillah’s rabbit stew hit the mark, while Brad’s vegetable couscous was presented unusually in two chef’s ring-shaped roundels. In fact, chef’s rings featured prominently in every dish except Tom’s “slightly claggy” seafood risotto. My pork was cooked perfectly, and didn’t need the rather odd, thin, tarragon-laden sauce that was mercifully on the side, nor frankly the diced sautéed potatoes plated up inevitably in a chef’s ring and with unadvertised melted goats cheese completely unnecessarily drizzled in and among them. Tania and Alison had opted for the Wild Plaice [sic]. Can one even get farmed plaice? Sadly this simple dish was a disappointment – overcooked fish (this was the first dish to come out of the kitchen, and should have been the last), a beurre blanc that had gone badly wrong and a chef’s ring of ratatouille that, while opinion varied as to its standalone quality, certainly didn’t match the rest of the dish.
Desserts were a similarly mixed bag, and ordering wasn’t helped when we realised that between us we had two slightly different menus. Was the crème brûlée lavender or was it star anise. It was the latter, and was very good. The profiteroles were generous, but the apple crumble was tiny and noticeably non-crumbly.
The attempt to do fairly traditional French bistro food in what is a determinedly modern restaurant setting is always going to rely on getting the food right. Perhaps on a busier night the atmosphere might have led us to be more lenient, but sadly it was hard to get behind a place that was so inconsistent – even when the food is served by a very smiley girl who was doing her best.
Does West Hampstead need somewhere that’s such a gamble, even before you have to decide which special offer is right for you?
Ratings

Food 5.0

Service 8.7
Atmosphere 6.3
Overall impression 5.7
Good for: food served in round shapes
Bad for: the mathematically challenged
Le Petit Coin
351 West End Lane,
LONDON NW6 1LT
T: 020 7794 1200

The Czech & Slovak National House restaurant

Former Czech president Václav Havel smiled down at us from the wall. How could we fail to fall in love with the food and flock wallpaper?

We were guided through to the high-ceilinged dining room because we were interrupting the Czech sitcom on TV in the bar, or at risk of waking the guy slumped on the sofa. “It’s a bit like being in an old-fashioned hotel by the sea,” said Helen to nods of agreement. Sarah nodded too, but it was harder to see because she was standing up. Having lost the original reservation, the restaurant still managed to lay the table for only 7 rather than 8. Chairs were found, order was restored, beer was drunk.

The fin-de-siècle atmosphere of the parlour was heightened by the glamorous guests at the private party in the room next door whose beautiful dresses, elegant gloves and sharp tuxedos occasionally tumbled into the lobby. Bilingual conversations floated in to the restaurant, which was far more segregated between our raucous English chatter and the quiet Czech discussions at tables around us.A selection of starters appeared; insipid against the dark velvet of the walls, except for the Utopenec – a crimson mutant sausage designed to warn adolescent boys of the dangers of getting too close to the reactor. The Šopsky salad went down well, as did the potato pancake, which tasted much better than it looked. The avocado salad sadly looked more appetizing than it tasted – an avocado that requires a steak knife is never a treat.

Try as we might we just couldn’t polish off the last piece of fried bread topped with crumbled cheddar and the waiter punished us by leaving it on the table forlornly for the rest of the meal. Main courses arrived, ticking all the boxes in the I-Spy Book of Mitteleurope cuisine. There was goulash, there were schnitzels, there was wild boar, there was goose, there was sauerkraut, there were dumplings and there was Quorn. Yes. Quorn. In schnitzel form. More than that it was a Quorn “Club” Schnitzel, which meant it was liberally covered with – wait for it – crumbled cheddar. For real. Is this really traditional or did they just massively overorder the cheese this week?
Mark claimed his goose was “ethnically authentic” although his credentials for judging remained murky. If my goose was ethnically authentic, then I feel sorry for the Czechs. It was inedible. The meat was not so much dry as arid, while the sauerkraut had been lost in translation as it was horribly sweet. Dom manfully fought his way through a chicken club schnitzel – cheddar and all. Lisa said her Wiener schnitzel wasn’t as good as ones she’d had in Vienna (perhaps unsurprisingly). Matt barely touched his goulash, which “tasted like a school beef curry but, y’know, not spicy”. Helen declared the Quorn club schnitzel “excellent”, albeit with a deadpan expression that begged the question. Sarah’s chicken club schnitzel was “guilty pleasure comfort food”. Jerry’s wild boar and cream sauce had looked the best dish on the table and, based on his big smile and clean plate, it was clear what everyone would order should there ever be a return visit.

The bill (cash only) came to £153 for 8, service not included. Despite some disappointing food, the overall atmosphere was appealing in a mildly kitsch and unintentionally ironic sort of way. Quite what Václav would make of it I’m not sure – if he really liked crumbled cheddar then he’d probably love it, maybe write a play about it and thus cement its place in history. Which would be fitting, as the place feels far more rooted in the past than as a part of London’s contemporary multicultural cuisine.
Ratings
Food 5.5
Service 6.1
Atmosphere 7.1
Overall impression 6.1
Good for: wild boar and nostalgia
Bad for: vegans
Czech Club Restaurant
74 West End Lane
London NW6 2LX
T: 0207 372 1193

(all photos courtesy of Jerry Barnett)

Czech and Slovak House on Urbanspoon