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North London Tavern misfires with new menu

North London Tavern; a tavern, in North London (Kilburn to be precise) offering “traditional British meals.” It has recently been refurbished but I am glad that the ambience has not changed. It is still busy, friendly and noisy with intellectual conversation.

The brand new menu is certainly very British, with a whole section dedicated to chops, and mains consisting mainly of meat and poultry, two fish dishes and one vegetarian. It also features an interesting ‘Morsels’ section (meaning mouthfuls) including British favourites such as pig’s head croquettes, and old spot scratchings.

NLT_chop_300I ordered smoked mackerel pate to start. It was as I expected, tasty, most certainly plentiful and presented in a no frills manner. There were however suggestions that it was too smooth (perhaps mixed by machine rather than by hand) and that chunks of mackerel were not decipherable.

For main I had a Barnsley lamb chop, with mash and purple sprouting broccoli with almonds. Things got a little fine dining at this stage when the broccoli arrived in its own mini casserole dish. I really liked the pairing of broccoli and almonds. When it came to the meat, it was hearty and flavoursome but slightly over done and the amount of mash was overwhelming.

I was too full for dessert (see above re too much mash) but I did sample a fellow diner’s cheese, specifically Blue Murder with truffled honey and oatcakes. Cheese and honey – a surprising combination! But one that works, even if you don’t like truffles (like me) as the truffle is so subtle that you can’t even taste it.
I will give them the benefit of the doubt and hope that the extremely slow service is purely down to new menu teething problems.

If you are looking for inventive fine dining, this is not it, but for local, hearty, meat orientated British food at a reasonable price (we paid around £35 each including ample wine) NLT is a good option.

[Jo blogs at http://dinnerwithjo.com/]

Jonathan
Service was a bit of a shambles – friendly, but far from sharp and we had to ask for pretty much everything at least twice, and Tom… well… Tom can tell you about Tom. My food was ok, but too easy to find fault – the butter on my potted rabbit should surely have been set not completely melted (no doubt left on the pass under the lights), the Barnsley Chop was ok, but for a place that specialises in chops, I’d expect it cooked as requested (it was medium-well not medium-rare), and the proportion of mash to chop was wrong. Neither of the desserts I fancied were available and it’s not that big a dessert menu so in the end, even with them comping a main course and a bottle of wine, I was left feeling like I’d overpaid. Will be a while before I return for anything more than a pint.
NLT_potted_rabbit

Tom
NLT_salad_300I love the North London Tavern, but they had an off-night on this occasion. Water and wine (twice) failed to appear, and the spinach in my starter salad hadn’t been adequately washed. The goats cheese and pear worked well, though the dish was a little insubstantial even for a first course.

My main failed to appear, and the staff were very honest and apologetic in explaining it had indeed been missed; an error in the kitchen. They also informed me they’d be knocking it off the bill, which was much appreciated. When it arrived, I was a little nonplussed to find the plaice on the bone, having checked it was to be a fillet; however it was excellently and delicately cooked. The spinach this time was great; a large portion and not overdone. The potatoes, lentils and shrimps added further dimensions and made for a pleasingly hearty dinner, but there was a lack of seasoning, and I’m still not sure whether the ‘broth’ in the bowl was intentional or just cooking liquor. Not a bad plate, but lacking refinement.

My dessert of blue cheese with good quality oat biscuits and truffled honey was an enjoyable, decent portion, though I didn’t detect much truffle and, being British, I’d like a bit of butter on the side, ideally.

I’ve enjoyed the food in NLT very much in the past, so I will be back.

Nicky
The NLT has changed a bit since my last visit. It used to be a cosy, slightly chaotic Kilburn pub, good for meeting friends on a Friday night, with a straightforward gastropub menu in its restaurant. It seems to have morphed into a slightly spruced-up Kilburn pub and embraced its ‘Tavern’ roots with an ‘English chop house’-style restaurant concept. (Seriously, reading down the list of chops, stout, oysters and Eccles cakes I felt transported to Dickensian times, or perhaps present-day Shoreditch.)

All fine, if it could deliver hearty food and a warm ambience – but there were too many errors to overlook, mainly to do with the slow, disjointed service, that all added up to a less-than-relaxing experience. On the night of our visit, it felt like the restaurant had big ambitions that it couldn’t quite match. The food was fine, for the most part – my fish and chips were perfectly pleasant – but I’m not sure why I’d choose to dine at the NLT over many of the other excellent pubs in the area.

NLT_fish_chips

Philip
I’ve been to the North London Tavern a few times before and I’m aware of its reputation as a decent quality gastropub, so I was expecting a hearty good quality meal from an affordable traditional British menu; this is exactly what I got.

I started with the Chicken Liver Parfait – excellent rich flavour and gorgeous creamy texture, served with a nice amount of fresh leaves and onion jam, and very tasty artisan toast. A perfect portion size for a starter – enough to feel slightly sated, but still hungry.

NLT_pate

For the main, I went for the predictable old favourite – the ribeye steak and chips. It’s advertised as coming with either “stilton hollandaise or peppercorn”. I wasn’t sure if there was meant to be comma between the Stilton and hollandaise, or if the chef had found a way to combine these two (potentially conflicting) flavours into something edible. I guessed that the staff wouldn’t know either (they generally seemed very unsure of everything) so I ordered the steak rare and just said ‘Stilton’ for the accompaniment, expecting a creamy Stilton flavoured sauce, potentially with undertones of hollandaise. There was some amusement within the group when the steak arrived with a HUGE slab of Stilton atop. This slab melted into the hot steak, and the overall effect was extremely pleasing – though the flavour of the Stilton overwhelmed the steak to the degree that I could barely taste the meat (which was most certainly NOT rare) – yes, I could have removed some of the Stilton to prevent this, but I’m not that clever. The chips and green leaves combined with the steak to make a lovely meal, firmly within the ‘what I expected from this kind of place’ bracket.

For dessert, I had a chocolate brownie sundae – think Eton Mess but with chocolate brownie instead of berries. This was well executed, and perfect after two heavy and strong flavoured courses, with the merging of chocolate, cream and vanilla ice cream perfectly complimenting each other, and nicely light on the stomach. Overall, I was very satisfied with the food and wine for the price. The North London Tavern did exactly what is very clearly says on the tin; good quality hearty food and wine, traditional British menu, reasonable price.

Pan-Asian food definitely Toomai liking

Toomai was a long time coming, with delays over both planning permission and building works (an entire wall had to be reclad). When it opened it was overwhelmed with customers and the service groaned under the weight of expectation. Now, several months in, and having finally formalised its menu, has it found its feet? It’s definitely popular; it’s busy every night with a youngish crowd taking advantage of the relatively low prices and the obligatory jam jar cocktails. But is it good?

The industrial pared back design works well in what is a surprisingly large space. As with sister restaurant Guglee, the kitchen is visible at the back, which is always a nice touch. The Moroccan tiles on the floor are very Instagrammable and a mix of individual tables and shared seating helps create a buzzy informal atmosphere.

Chicken satay

Chicken satay

Any attempts at reviewing incognito didn’t last long as Toomai kindly gave us a welcome drink on the house. I can confirm that they make a good vodka martini. We ended up trying pretty much all the starters between us, with the chicken satay and the paneer chilli being the stand-outs, though I have a soft spot for the pepper chilli lamb too. Service was prompt and friendly, even if some customers can be hard to reach depending how packed the restaurant is.

The main course options are reasonably limited, allowing for the fact that many come with the usual beef, chicken or prawn options. I went for chicken thai chilli kaprow, which had a kick but nothing overwhelming.

Toomai menu

Toomai likes to big up its streetfood credentials, which always implies fresh, hot and cheap. It is, whatever it claims, a restaurant not a food shack on the Khao San Road. Nevertheless, the food definitely has fresh flavours, the place is bustling and open enough to make it lively rather than staid, and with not a single dish over £7 it’s not going to break the bank. It’s a great addition to West Hampstead, and I’m glad to see that it doesn’t seem to have hurt Banana Tree either.

Nicky
Toomai combines all the essential ingredients for a good night out with a group of friends. There’s a list of good strong cocktails (and fresh fruit smoothies for the abstainers), a great selection of appetising and very shareable dishes, and a relaxed-but-buzzy ambience. Why take a group? That way, you get to sample as many of the tasty little morsels as possible. My highlights were the fresh papaya salad – crisp slivers of fruit anointed with a spicy dressing; fiery paneer chilli; and green curry with tofu and vegetables. Grab five of your best friends and go.

Green and red vegetable curries

Green and red vegetable curries

Debbie
This was only my second visit to Toomai and my first since they’ve expanded their menu so I was keen to find out if the quality of the food that made my first visit so enjoyable had suffered at all now that they have more dishes on offer.

Just to prove the point about the size of the new menu our first course was very much a shared dining experience as we managed to end up with every available starter on the table in front of us. A personal favourite was the Honey Chilli Veg, bite size vegetable patties with a wonderfully sweet and sticky coating – these were balanced out well by some suitably light and crispy vegetable spring rolls.

For a main I opted for the red curry with vegetables and, for the second time in as many visits, was suitably impressed. As a non-meat eater you often have to contend with vegetable curries that mostly rely on carrots and whatever tinned veg happen to be to hand. Happily this is not the case at Toomai – my curry was reasonably mild and jam-packed with both flavour and copious chunks of fresh veg. I counted at least six different types of veg in there – happy days indeed! If you want a bit more of a kick then a taste of Nicky’s green curry proved that to be the spicier of the two.

Our hosts were determined not to let us leave without sampling dessert which was just as well, the delicately battered apple and accompanying coconut sorbet was a very light and refreshing end to what had been another hugely enjoyable and flavoursome meal.

Emma
toomai_green_smoothie300Eschewing the selection of beer, wine and martinis I started my evening with a fresh green smoothie (I’m taking my reviewing seriously here!). It was served with the flourish and care usually reserved for a signature cocktail and the concoction is well balanced and delicious, a theme which continues throughout the evening. Since its opening weeks, Toomai now seems to have got into its stride and found a welcome niche in West Hampstead. My calamari starter is a beautiful bowl of crisp and succulent bites which I am enjoying until I discover the paneer chilli and realise that this is a real winner. I went for the Penang chicken curry for my main. A good sized portion with a lovely thick fragrant sauce, the crunch of the green beans makes a pleasing contrast and stops it feeling too heavy. The menu describes this dish as ‘hot’; mine was more on the mild side and could have been spicier, but it was still enjoyable. I will happily be making this a regular destination. Toomai offers a good selection of dishes with great flavours and an enjoyable atmosphere with professional and attentive service at a reasonable price.

Mark
You visit for the tiles but you stay for the food. Toomai has already established itself as a Whamp landmark due to the imported Moroccan tiles that decorate the floor. These colourful tiles contrast well against the stripped back walls and industrial (yet stylish) lighting.

Photo via Barry McGee

Photo via Barry McGee

A particular highlight for me was the paneer chilli starter. I’m a fan of paneer but had never tried it combined with chilli which is an interesting blend that works really well. I was also impressed that the calamari and chicken satay were both tender and each cooked “a su punto” as we say back home meaning, tender and cooked to their optimum point. Honourable mention goes to a rather moreish chilli lamb starter. I had a red curry main with equally tender chicken and vegetables. Portions were generous and the staff friendly and attentive. The fact its location is very convenient is not the only reason I’ll be going back.

Tom
First thing to comment on is the design inside Toomai; it is absolutely superb. The subtle lighting in the ‘bar’ area, the filament bulbs all over a maze of piping on the wall (brilliant!), the modernity offset by colourful floor tiles (which Mark learned were from Morocco)… all genuinely impressive.

Equally so, the starters; lots of variation, vibrant colours, satisfyingly unctuous textures, and a feeling that everything had been cooked with enthusiasm and panache (even though that’s “pan ache” if split into two words). My favourites: the paneer dish and the veggie fritter type things. Delicious.

Pad Thai was nice, with fresh, soft prawns. Flavours were subtle, and I’ll perhaps try something spicier next time. Enjoyed the house white, too; a South African Chenin Blanc which worked with everything. A clever dessert of lightly-battered apple and a soothing sorbet rounded things off very nicely.

Should Mamako focus on Malaysian food?

Many of you will know that our first visit to Mamako was a bit of a disaster. We did say, however, that the food was good and we’d give them some time to settle in before reviewing it properly.

That time had come. Last Wednesday, five of us went to give the place the once over.

Mamako retained much of the decor it inherited from Spiga but the cuisine has shifted from the Mediterranean to Asia. Perhaps too much of Asia, as Thai, Japanese, Malay, Koraean and Vietnamese dishes all seem to compete for attention. Malaysian cuisine is something of a hybrid of Chinese and Indian food with rich curries such as beef rendang as well as classic noodle and rice dishes such as Mee Goreng and Nasi Lemak.

Menus are flipside of the place settings and it’s hard to choose from so many options.

Mamako menu

Perhaps aware of the service issues that dogged our opening night meal, we were asked to order starters first and mains later. We shared deep-fried squid tentacles, chicken gyozas, vegetable Malay curry puffs, Vietnamese rice rolls and Toor dal fritters. The squid was the let down of these, the batter wasn’t crispy enough and the squid was perilously close to being undercooked. However, the other dishes more than made up for it, especially the toor dal fritters, which had a comforting warmth of spice to them, and the Vietnamese spring rolls, which come more generously stuffed than those at Ladudu. Gyozas were fine, though it’s getting to hard to stand out with this ubiquitous starter. The Malay curry puffs, which are a bit like samosas, were also good.

Toor dal fritters

Toor dal fritters

Chicken gyozas

Chicken gyozas

I eschewed all the other cuisines for my main course and went for what Mamako does best: Malaysian food. I’ve loved beef rendang ever since I first had it in a Singapore shopping mall severely jetlagged and with no clear idea what it was I ordering. The short-lived Ammis Curry in Kilburn did a kicking-hot version that oozed flavour. Banana Tree does a decent rendang though twice I’ve had it there and it’s been too dry (the sauce should be dry, but the meat should be tender). How did Mamako’s stand up? Very well. The consistency and texture was about right – I would have liked it a little hotter and that deep meaty aftertaste wasn’t quite there, but I’d very happily order it again.

Beef rendang

Beef rendang

I’d love to see Mamako have the courage of its convictions and become just a Malaysian restaurant without trying to offer food from around the whole continent. Malay food is definitely its strength and a more limited menu might help the kitchen overcome some of the timing issues that are still reported on Twitter, even though there were no holdups at all with our meal. But enough of what I think… let me hand over to my fellow reviewers:

Jane
It does seem odd that the menu is quite so pan-Asian – SE Asia would be enough for me – but I did enjoy all the regional foods we tried. The lentil cakes were delicious with their chutney as a starter. I chose the Mee Goreng for my main (not Nasi Goreng as I described it, gently corrected by Nicky who explained that Nasi means rice and Mee means noodles). Everyone was wide-eyed at how large my dish was but I ended it up eating it all because it was so delicious. I really like Mamako, especially for its fresh ingredients, careful preparation and lack of excessive sugary-salty-fatty sauces that some pan-Asian places rely on to satisfy our cravings!

Tom
Service was warm, and with more confidence than in their anxious, early days, and the whole place had a sense of things settling into a rhythm. Starters were enticing. The little parcels and morsels were flavoursome, with fresh, pungent spicing, and fantastic textures on the outside. Squid had wonderful, light batter, though were a little lightweight given the tentacles were best discarded.

Phad Kraphow with prawns

Phad Kraphow with prawns

My phad kraphow with prawns, chilli, garlic and sweet Thai basil, fried with vegetables, was also impressive, though more variety in the veg would have perhaps added an extra dimension. Everything we ate was well-seasoned, with deep flavours coming from various different angles. Sides of bok choy and egg-fried garlic rice were very good, while my noodles were a slight let-down as were overcooked for my tastes; too soft and mushy. Worth noting the Tempranillo, which at £3.75 for a (175ml) glass was a surprise; really, really lovely. Ending with a sake was pleasurable, too!

Nicky
Being a fan of Malaysian food (and half Malaysian myself) I was keen to try the unofficial national dish, nasi lemak. It’s coconut rice, traditionally accompanied by cucumber slices, egg, peanuts and spicy sambal sauce. Mamako’s version may not have had the ‘wow’ factor that won this year’s Masterchef title, but it was a good interpretation of the dish. Often eaten for breakfast in Malaysia, here it was made more substantial with some fried chicken and a small bowl of creamy – but fiery – curry sauce. The sambal tasted authentic with its inclusion of anchovy paste and chili kick, and there was also a welcome crunch and freshness from the pickles on the side.

Overall it was an enjoyable evening. The ambience is slightly sterile – be prepared to bring your own atmosphere – but the food is fresh, feels authentic and is reasonably priced. I’ll be back to Mamako to sample the rest of the menu, Malaysian and beyond.

Nasi Lemak Mamako style

Nasi Lemak Mamako style

Laura
We were made to feel very welcome at Mamako, attentive service without being crowded and the atmosphere was nice, with background music playing at the right level and good lighting (are those amazing lampshades a remnant of Spiga?!). The quality of the food was good and I would consider it very good value for money. Geographically the menu is pan-Asian, though I think we all plumped for Malaysian main dishes, which seem to be the speciality. The chicken curry was really well cooked, fragrant with a bit of a kick but not face-meltingly hot and a good size portion. The selection of starters we tried were all tasty, but for me the stand out dish was the dhal fritters, which were delicious and I could have eaten a whole plateful! We were all too full for desert, so I look forward to a return visit to sample more of the menu. A great addition to the local restaurant scene.

Nyonya chicken curry

Nyonya chicken curry

Mamako
182 Broadhurst Gardens
West Hampstead
London
NW6 3AY
T: 020 7372 8188
@MamakoLDN

Were we excited by Mamacita?

Mamacita was given a rough ride on Twitter when it opened last summer. Expectations were high so, when it got off to a shaky start, many people vented their frustration in 140 characters. West Hampstead’s only Mexican restaurant has weathered that storm, changed its menu, improved its service and come back fighting. We decided it was time to subject it to the whampreview test.

The downstairs bar has been a strong point from the get go, so we had to start the evening there sipping unusual but successful variations on classic cocktails.

The dark and moody bar is a sharp counterpoint to the multicoloured restaurant, decked out as if for a fiesta, and suitably buzzy for a Wednesday night. The Mamacita menu is reasonably concise, and is split into sharing startery-type things and substantial mains.

Click for larger version

Click for larger version

The startery-type things – tacos, tostados, quesadillas and the obligatory totopos (corn chips) and salsas – were among the more interesting things we tried though the corn chips & dips feel expensive at £10, especially as there’s always more salsa than chips but more chips is another £1 (and two of the dips have a £1 surcharge too).

Pork and apple tacos

Pork and apple tacos

My favourite starter by far was the Pork Carnitas and Apple Tacos (these are soft tacos, not the hard shells you might buy in supermarkets). Generously filled, though mercifully still easy to eat, the sharp apple nicely offset the rich pork – it’s a combo we all know works! The ceviche starter is more of a coctel de mariscos – a chilled soup of seafood – rather than the slices of cured fish on a plate. Perfectly nice, but not easy to share.

Burritos (here called burros) are served with the rice on the side rather than crammed into the tortilla. This leaves more room for the filling, which is a good thing in some ways, but also means that each bite is pretty similar. My “surf & turf” burrito was defintely laden down, but was pretty much all turf (beef) and not a whole lot of surf (garlic prawns). There’s the option to “go wet” with the burritos, which means a smothering of a delicious enchilada sauce and melted cheese. The sauce really adds something to the experience, but also adds £3 to the bill.

Surf & turf burrito "wet" (no cheese)

Surf & turf burrito “wet” (no cheese)

The churros (Mexican donuts) and chilli chocolate sauce are a must-have, and although we didn’t trouble the tequila menu on this visit, there’s always the option to wash them down with a sipping tequila (no shots here, thank you very much).

It’s fair to say that we had bill shock at the end – though we did get through three bottles of wine and two beers between six of us and our cocktails from downstairs were also on the bill. If you were watching the pesos then you’d need to keep an eye out for the extra charges such as the enchilada sauce or the £1 surcharge for guacamole. Better still, go for the early bird offer or just hang out in the bar drinking £5 cocktails at #whampsocial on March 12th!

Now over to the rest of this month’s whampreviewers:

Jon
I started with the Hemingway Daiquiri. Like the old man himself, it was sharp and unfussy – thankfully it didn’t come out with anything sexist or homophobic. The food had improved on my previous visits to Mamacita. The sauce in my enchilada was richer than the capo of a Tijuana narco-cartel. Combined with a particularly pungent chorizo it was perhaps all a bit much, but that was my fault for not going for the pork, chicken or sweet potato version instead. Best of all was the excellent Flying Dog IPA with which I knocked it all back. I’ll definitely return, chiefly for the drinks and the relaxed, lively atmosphere.

Enchilada

Enchilada

Anna
We kicked the evening off with cocktails, I had a nicely balanced Elderflower and Cranberry Sangria – complete with decorative rosemary twig. It was lovely, and I’ll definitely be returning to sample more of the cocktail menu.

As the token vegetarian, I had a slightly different experience to the others with regards to food. The menu is fairly limited for us vegetarians (but in all fairness this isn’t unusual) and the options are… interesting. To start I had Hibiscus and Cucumber Tostadas. I’d never tried hibiscus (heathen that I am) so didn’t know what to expect; it was fairly sweet without being overwhelmingly so. I found it a slightly odd combination but I would order it again. I was then rather unadventurous and had a veggie burrito, which there isn’t a great deal to say about. It was tasty and very filling, but not the most exciting food I’ve ever eaten. In terms of the other options available I was particularly intrigued by the notion of ‘Sweet Potato Fries Enchiladas’ – the mind just boggles at what this could be. I’ll probably be returning in the near future just to find out!

Annamarie
Being a native San Diego transplant here in London, I tried to remain as unbiased as possible though for authenticity, the place gets pretty fair marks. The ambience is cozy and creative downstairs in the bar, but the tables upstairs are a bit too spread out for my tastes and the space could afford more oomph. Yes that’s a word.

The friendly but softspoken drinks bar serves up a range of uniquely blended, petite-sized margaritas though the beer selection could use a makeover; there are only two on there, one of which is a Mexican import. I ordered the frozen hibiscus margarita which was lovely and pretty, but not in a girly way. It was very tasty, so I greedily ordered another one.

Upstairs there was enough positive energy to indicate that people were genuinely enjoying themselves. And this is a reflection of the staff who are friendly and attentive. As much as Mamacita claims to be a Mexican Bodega, you must delve further into their website and you will see that they somewhere slipped in that they also blend Latin and Peruvian flavours into their dishes. Sorry guys, we don’t need fusion or contemporary. We want authentic. We want Mexican.

The menu is interesting enough; however too lacking not in variety but choice, especially for vegetarians. I was surprised to see Cotija cheese, a delicious, tangy soft farmer’s cheese, only used in a couple of the dishes. I was also a little disappointed to see the odd “aioli,” “fennel” and “ponzu” thrown my way. By the way, if you’re going to use chorizo, use the Mexican one, not the Spanish. They are TOTALLY different.

Totopos & dips

Totopos & dips

The starters were nice enough, especially the totopos and guacamole combination. The portions were a little small but the quality and freshness made up for it. I ordered the mariscos burro as my main. It contained prawns and was served lukewarm. A mortal sin in my book. However, being too polite to send it back, I tucked in and decided that the prawns were borderline raw, dully seasoned and didn’t work well at all with the contents of the burro. The red rice on the side was nothing to write home about. I am not sure what the puddle of creamy goo on the side was for either.

Dessert was fabulous and just what the doctor ordered. I enjoyed the best piping hot sugary churros I’ve sunk my teeth into in a long time. And the accompanying chocolate sauce with globules of chili oil: it works!

Mamacita is a colourful and pretty well-suited addition to the West Hampstead hood. I’d like to see some small changes to the menu and more tried-and-true authenticity though.

James
My blood orange margarita in Frida’s bar was gorgeous. Moving upstairs to the restaurant, we enjoyed a tasty selection of starters that reminded me of the wonderful sharing dishes at Wahaca. It would be a pleasant option to enjoy these for the entire meal. Sadly my main, the Mexican Baja fish and chips, was far better to look at than to eat. A fun display of four pieces of fried fish was surrounded by a generous serving of sweet potato fries, wrapped in a cone of branded paper for that authentic fish and chip wrap experience (with slaw and sauce on the side). But it was just too salty for me and the all-fried style of the dish was ultimately overwhelming. The fish pieces themselves were tasty, but I wish there had been more fish and less fries. Churros for dessert did not disappoint, along with the surprisingly spicy chocolate sauce. Next time I’m eating starters all night.

Mexican Baja fish & chips

Mexican Baja fish & chips

Nicky
Pre-dinner margaritas in Frida’s Bar downstairs went down very well. As usual, I opted for the classic margarita – delicious, but I did feel a pang of envy seeing my companions’ Blood Orange margaritas, which looked very pretty with flowers floating on the top.

The starters we shared were the highlight of the meal for me, particularly the unusual Hibiscus and Cucumber Tostadas hitting the perfect balance of sweet and sharp flavours. My main course, the vegetarian burrito, was very stodgy and filling (great if you arrive hungry!) and definitely benefited from the addition of a well-spiced enchilada sauce and melted cheese on top (this comes at a slightly pricy £3 supplement).

Overall I enjoyed the food and loved the ambience. I’ll be back, but perhaps more often for cocktails and light snacks rather than a full dinner.

Mamacita
202 West End Lane
LONDON NW6 1SG
t: 0203 602 0862
w: www.mamacita.co.uk
e:

The Zest test

Zest_featured

Zest at JW3 has garnered positive reviews from all quarters, but had yet to be put to the stringent test of #whampreview. Last Thursday, six of us squeezed into the packed restaurant in the lower ground floor of Finchley Road’s enormous new Jewish cultural centre to deliver the only verdict that really matters.

Booking is essential (note that Zest is closed Friday evenings and all day Saturday) and a glance at the appetising menu shows why. Mezze dishes are the obvious way to open, and we merrily tucked into pimped up hummus (£5), heritage carrots (£4.50), some cheese-stuffed peppers (£5), a really delicious pickled aubergine dish (£5) that I tried and failed to keep down my end of the table, a top-notch tomato salad (£4) and labneh – a strained yoghurt dish (£4.50).

Zest_menu

Main courses are not cheap – the whole restaurant isn’t cheap – but the quality of the entirely kosher food is outstanding. My boned-out sea bass with currants, lemon yoghurt, cherry tomatoes and almonds was stuffed with mejadra (a mildly-spiced lentil and rice mix) (£19). It was superb, perfectly cooked and a wonderful combination of flavours that I’d never had before.

Zest_seabass

The Israeli Pinotage that four of us were drinking was good value by the bottle (£18). The wine list is very limited, and the per-glass price and the bottle price don’t match up for reds or whites, so plan ahead – you may find glasses are better value.

Unfortunately (and we weren’t the only ones to politely complain that night), the service was incredibly slow. Although our friendly waiter Luis took our order promptly, it was a long a time before any food appeared – even the bread and olives, let alone our drinks. In fact, the kitchen seemed to be so backed up that we were given dessert menus while we were still eating our mains.

This is uncivilised at the best of times, but when you’re paying fairly high-end prices it’s really not what you expect. It’s perhaps indicative of Zest’s biggest problem in attracting customers who are there purely for the quality of food and not because it’s a kosher restaurant. The bill came to £43 a head, but the vibe is more cafeteria than restaurant – the newspaper-style menus, the cluttered tables and the almost uncomfortable chairs all contribute to this.

But then came the desserts and all was forgiven.

There are four desserts, we tried all of them and they were all wonderful. I had the malabi (£6.50) – a sort of pannacotta topped with rhubarb that has probably gone straight to the top of the West Hampstead pudding league.

Zest_malabi

Malabi

Zest is an excellent addition to West Hampstead dining. Whether the atmosphere is conducive to the kinds of special occasion meals that the prices suggest will be a matter of personal taste. I think I’d go back for mezze and dessert and a glass of wine. And there’s always the less formal café, which has similarly enticing food.

Now over to the rest of this month’s whampreviewers:

Emily: The mezze selection was interesting, with the purple heritage carrots throwing in elements of Heston as the dish appeared to be beetroot. The addition of anchovies and egg to the hummus gave a standard dish an interesting twist. The fish burger (£15.50) was very tasty and I particularly liked the pickles – red cabbage on a fish burger works incredibly well.

Fishburger

My highlight was the wine and the rugelach dessert. Not being a bread and butter pudding fan I was nervous about ordering, but it was possibly my favourite part of the meal. A lovely flavour, but not so heavy to bring on a pudding coma. All in all, pleasant service, allbeit a bit slow at the start and too rapid at the end, tasty food and a lovely ambience. Clean loos (always important) and the prices were what I expected for that location.

Rugelach

Rugelach

Adrian: I can’t recall ever being given a dessert menu between mouthfuls of my main course, nor having to pay before I’ve finished my meal. But our Portuguese waiter was charming and largely covered gaping chasms in the service/production process that should have been ironed out by now. Still, the double-heighted, concrete-laden construction of Zest’s JW3 home offset the specially-commissioned, colourful crockery wonderfully. If you’re going to sit around for a while waiting for your food, it’s nice to have good side plates to fidget with.

When our starters did arrive, they were worth the wait – tasty mezze straight from an Ottolenghi photo shoot – fresh, zingy and accompanied by excellent freshly-baked bread. My main course of sardines wrapped in vine leaves (£16.50) was okay, if a little pricey, lacking a touch of refinement in process that wasn’t made up for in taste. The soggy slab of once-toasted bread underneath did nothing for its cause. On reflection, I should have had the fish burger – the mouthful I stole was incredible.

Sardines

Thankfully, dessert – a bread-and-butter pudding made from rugelach, a rolled pastry filled with cinnamon and poppy seeds and resplendent with poached pears and pistachio crumbs – was unctuous and comforting with bursts of tart cranberries setting it off a treat (£8).

I’d probably go back – not just for the surprisingly good wine – but would likely choose the café rather than the restaurant, which seemed to offer the same mezze and decadent desserts without the expensive (slow) service.

Debbie: How to choose? There was so much on this menu that looked enticing – luckily being a party of six we could order pretty much all of the mezze plates without appearing too greedy. Highlights for me were the Mixed Heritage Carrots, beautifully glazed purple carrots mixed with feta, and a wonderfully creamy hummus. The mains were equally intriguing, the sardines wrapped in vine leaves proved to be an excellent combination and were served on two slices on French toast which was perfect for soaking up a delicious green chilli salsa that delivered quite the kick. It may not have been the most obvious combination of ingredients but it worked brilliantly.

Dessert was the final culinary revelation of the evening, a very more-ish sticky date pudding with a fig compote (£7.50) that was just the right amount of sticky without being heavy and packed with flavour. My only complaint would be the overly long wait we had for our food at the beginning of the evening but with very affable staff and such excellent food (and company of course) this did nothing to spoil a highly enjoyable evening.

Sticky date pudding

Tom: With its “posh canteen” feel and lively atmosphere, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Zest’s food and wine. We had to wait a while for drinks, but the Rioja was good and the Israeli Pinotage excellent; a wine of real depth and character.

Mezze dishes were light, with fresh ingredients and subtle flavours. A decent start. My main dish was fascinating. Black tahini glazed cod, Swiss chard and harissa lentils, with brik noodles, all resting in a mushroom and truffle broth. At £21.50 I was keen to see if it delivered, and it most certainly did. I’m not even sure I totally understood the dish; a little awkward to eat, juggling a soup spoon with knife and fork, which were fiddly to use in the deep (but very attractive) bowl. But the ingredients, cooking, tastes and textures were sublime! Delicate yet bold, with gently-done chard, perfectly cooked cod, and spoonfuls of a magnificent broth with the noodles and lentils…so much to appreciate, yet it all married together so well.

Cod

Citrus and white chocolate cheesecake, with marinated sharon fruit and almonds (£7) was initially impressive for its generous size, then more so for being quite delicious. I’d have liked a slightly firmer, colder topping, but that’s a minor quibble about a lovely dessert.

Cheesecake

Nicky: The food at Zest all looks very attractively thrown together, on colourful glazed bowls and plates, but don’t be fooled by its casual appearance. When you eat these dishes it becomes clear that a very skilled team has put them together, and every component is there for a reason.

Even deceptively simple-sounding dishes like the fish burger are an exciting mixture of flavours and textures: the crisp and juicy fried fish, the piquant red cabbage relish and soft glazed brioche bun were the perfect combination. I’m only slightly ashamed to say that I carried on eating it even when I felt pleasantly full – it was that addictive.

Prices are on the high side, so dinner at Zest would be an occasional treat for me – but I’ll definitely be back soon to sample brunch and the cakes in the café.

Zest at JW3
341-351 Finchley Road
London NW3 6ET
t: 020 7433 8955
w: http://www.zestatjw3.co.uk/
e: 

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:

Bellaluna on Urbanspoon

Whampreview becomes whampdinner

Whampreview is changing. I’ve decided to split our dinner evenings into two. Whampreviews will now be smaller affairs and will focus solely on new restaurants or places with new menus. They will be sporadic and attendance will be by invitation only.

What you know today as whampreview – dinners with typically 24 people – will be renamed #whampdinner. If you have no idea what #whampreview is, then head to the FAQs.

What’s the difference? 
From your perspective, very little. Whampdinners will still be groups of 16, 24 or 32. There’ll still be someone ostensibly running the table, but we won’t be actively soliciting your views on the food and the event won’t be written up afterwards. All my usual headmasterly rules will apply regarding signing up, turning up, paying etc.

The other change is that Whampdinners will be advertised only via the West Hampstead Life mailing list. Sign up here if you’re not already registered. They’ll be pushed on Twitter only if we don’t get enough people signing up from the mailing list (hint: all recent whampreviews could have been filled solely from mailing list subscribers). Subscribers also of course receive the weekly newsletter and advance warning of other events, including #whampgather. You will not receive more than six e-mails a month.

There’ll still be the chance of last minute places coming available on Twitter of course, but if you’ve enjoyed a whampreview before, or if you like the sound of an enjoyable evening of meeting some locals over a good dinner, then do sign up if you have not already.

Ruchi: The whampreview verdict

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

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

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

But what of the food!?

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

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

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

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

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

Ruchi
92 Kingsgate Road
LONDON NW6 4LA
T: 020 7328 4800
www.ruchi.youdomain.co.uk

Ruchi on Urbanspoon

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

Whampreview April 25th: Ruchi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more about whampreview.

Starters prove popular at Hana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rosie’s Ghafghazi

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

Lamb shank and a lot of rice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hana
351 West End Lane
LONDON NW6 1LT
T: 020 7794 1200
www.hanarestaurant.co.uk

Hana on Urbanspoon

Thanks to Tom and Mark for hosting tables

Whampreview: Hana February 21st

Ever since Montefiore closed some three years ago, 351 West End Lane has struggled to deliver a good restaurant. Now, there are new owners and new impetus. Hana has been open a few months serving Persian food. The owners had a successful restaurant in Temple Fortune but wanted to try cracking the West Hampstead market.

But is it any good? Only one way to find out – and meet a bunch of lovely locals at the same time. Come along to whampreview on February 21st.

What’s the deal?
We’re taking 24 people to Hana. Each table will get a selection of starters for £6/head, and then everyone can order their own main course. It is a meat-heavy main course menu, there’s one seafood main course and one vegetarian main – however, they are going to put an additional vegetarian main on for us so even if you’re not a meat eater there’ll be some choice, and most of the starters are vegetarian. Main courses vary from £8-13.

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

To put your name in the hat, simply before 5pm February 6th with your mobile number. Whampreviews are always oversubscribed, so I draw the names out of a hat and will contact everyone with a “yes” or “no” on the 7th.

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

Mill Lane Bistro: Un petit coin de France

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mill Lane Bistro on Urbanspoon

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

Whampreview Jan 17: Mill Lane Bistro

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

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

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

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

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

Read more about whampreview.

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

Feng Sushi serves up an autumnal treat

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

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

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

The calm before the sashimi storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whampsushi – November 7th

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sunday lunch at The Black Lion

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

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

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

A selection of the Sunday main course options

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

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

Beef (and Dom’s arm)

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

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

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

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

Deep bowl for Tom’s deep appetite

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

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

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

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

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

One Blenheim Terrace delivers style and substance

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday Lunch: The dramatic conclusion

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

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

It was a Sunday.

We were eating lunch.

Again.

And again.

And again.

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

And so it began.

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

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

A mighty Yorkshire pudding on some (quite rare) beef

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

Roast chicken came with bread sauce AND a Yorkshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm… cherry”

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

Generous beef but did the Yorkshire get too soggy?

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

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

Lovely lamb

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

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

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

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

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

Good selection of greens (eat your greens kids)

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

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

Some more bizarre crackling on otherwise tasty pork

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

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

Minimalist label

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literally our wine.

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

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

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

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

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

That is a plate of roast beef. Oh yes.

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

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

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

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

Delicious

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

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

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

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

Gather round The Kitchen Table

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

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

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

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

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

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

Braised loin of pork

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

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

Whampreview goes posh

On Thursday May 10th, whampreview takes place on the West Hampstead / St John’s Wood borders at the relatively new One Blenheim Terrace.

One Blenheim is owned by chef patron Ed Shaerf  (previously at The Ivy). According to its website: “our menus bring classic dishes to centre stage again but with an imaginative new performance.We take classic dishes on British menus, strip them bare, re-imagine them and then re-present using only the best ingredients. We aim to achieve style with a bit of cheek and chic.”

Very kindly, the restaurant is offering us a 30% discount on the night, so those upmarket prices are slightly more within reach, but we’re still looking at ~£30 a head for three courses before wine (and we’ll go easy on the wine).

There are just 16 places available for this one. As usual, if the event is oversubscribed then names will be drawn out of a hat nex