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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: ku.oc1558605300.atic1558605300amam@1558605300aloh1558605300

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: /ku.o1558605300c.3wj1558605300tatse1558605300z@ofn1558605300i1558605300

Bellaluna surprises… in a good way

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

And we had a damn nice meal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bellaluna
218 West End Lane
West Hampstead
LONDON
NW6 1UU
t: 020 7435 3703
w: bellalunawesthampstead.co.uk
e: moc.l1558605300iamg@1558605300daetp1558605300smaht1558605300sewan1558605300ulall1558605300eb1558605300

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 next Tuesday (May 1st).

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

To put your name forward, or Tweet to @WHampstead
before Tuesday May 1st.

If your name is picked, I will need a mobile number and active e-mail address from you. Please don’t commit to this on the offchance you might be free. Dropouts have been creeping up again recently – it’s a headache when that happens. If I contact you to say you’re in, please check your diary and lock it in. It’s not always easy to find last minute replacements, especially for somewhere a bit more expensive like this.

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

Read more about whampreview and see where we’ve already been.

Whampreview takes Guglee for a spin

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

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

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

We were now quite full.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guglee
279 West End Lane
NW6 1QS
T: 020 7317 8555
W: guglee.co.uk

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

Next whampreview: Guglee on April 12th

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

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

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

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

Cost: £23 each, before drinks.

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

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

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

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

Read more about whampreview.

Little Bay: low prices but high expectations

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

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

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

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

Choux de crab (with red pepper sauce)

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

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

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

Mushrooms (with the red pepper sauce)

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

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

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

Sea bass (yes, you guessed it)

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

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

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

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

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

Little Bay
228 Belsize Road
NW6 4BT
T: 0207 372 4699
W: www.littlebay.co.uk

Little Bay on Urbanspoon

Sunday Lunch in West Hampstead and Kilburn: The Ultimate Challenge

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

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

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

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

Is the Westbury's hubris justified?

Is the Westbury’s hubris justified?

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

Westbury sign

Westbury's Sunday menu

Westbury’s Sunday menu

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

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

The Westbury's roast beef

The Westbury’s roast beef

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

Mushrooms underwhelmed

Mushrooms underwhelmed

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

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

Priory's Sunday menu

Priory’s Sunday menu

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

Priory's topside of beef

Priory’s topside of beef

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

Delicious lamb at The Priory Tavern

Delicious lamb at The Priory Tavern

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

Perfect Priory Brownie (via Gail's Bakery)

Perfect Priory Brownie (via Gail’s Bakery)

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

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

Betsy Smith

Betsy Smith

Long descriptions at The Betsy Smith

Long descriptions at The Betsy Smith

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

Roast chicken at The Betsy Smith

Roast chicken at The Betsy Smith

Betsy scored high for presentation

Betsy scored high for presentation

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

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

Betsy's desserts all under a fiver

Betsy’s desserts all under a fiver

Delicious sticky toffee pudding

Delicious sticky toffee pudding

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

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

A "no frills" menu from The Black Lion

A “no frills” menu from The Black Lion

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

Roast beef at the Black Lion

Roast beef at the Black Lion

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

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

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

NLT Sunday lunch menu

NLT Sunday lunch menu

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

The priciest roast beef on the High Road

The priciest roast beef on the High Road

Roast salmon at the NLT

Roast salmon at the NLT

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

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

Very good chocolate tart at the NLT

Very good chocolate tart at the NLT

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

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

We rolled home… but seven days later…

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

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

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

Sunday menu at The Gallery

Sunday menu at The Gallery

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

A damn fine plate of food

A damn fine plate of food

Good yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes at The Gallery

Good yorkshire pudding and roast potatoes at The Gallery

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

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

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

We crossed the road

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

The Railway keeps things simple

The Railway keeps things simple

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

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

Scampi & chips at The Railway

Scampi & chips at The Railway

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

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

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

Mash AND roast potatoes. And peas.

Mash AND roast potatoes. And peas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Empty

Empty

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

Roast chicken from La Brocca

Roast chicken from La Brocca

The best roast potatoes

The best roast potatoes

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

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

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

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

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

We had to use Google Maps to find Aldington

We had to use Google Maps to find Aldington

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

Now THAT is a Yorkshire pudding

Now THAT is a Yorkshire pudding

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

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

Roast lamb at The Alice House

Roast lamb at The Alice House

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

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

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

6pm The Alliance

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

The Alliance menu

The Alliance menu

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

Top-notch veggie roast

Top-notch veggie roast

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

Our tenth and last plate of roast beef

Our tenth and last plate of roast beef

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos are courtesy of Anna, Claire and me.

Whampreview coming up: Little Bay

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

On March 8th, whampreview moves to Little Bay. Not familiar with it? Where have you been? The ultimate cheap and cheerful restaurant began life at this Belsize Road location, although has since opened a few branches further afield. The quirky interior and value-for-money menu have made it a perennial favourite, but how well will it withstand the scrutiny of whampreview?

Street View blurs the face of the stone god!

There are 24 places available for the evening, and this will be one of the cheapest whampreviews we’ve done with a three course meal coming in under £15 before drinks.

As usual, if the event is oversubscribed then names will be drawn out of a hat next Monday (27th).

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

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

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

Read more about whampreview.

Twenty two do Ladudu

On Thursday, we took over a good chunk of West End Lane’s popular Vietnamese restaurant Ladudu in the latest installment of whampreview.

Unlike previous reviews, we had a set menu and arrived all at once – setting both the kitchen and front of house a sizeable challenge. Complimentary prawn crackers and green and jasmine tea arrived promptly and the conversation across our three tables started to flow as we waited for our appetiser platters. Several people had been to Vietnam and expectations were high.

The first dish to arrive was a green papaya salad (one of my personal favourites and also popular with Eugene) surrounded by summer rolls filled with prawn, vermicelli and mint. These had very clean flavours – although my table felt the mint was a little overpowering giving what Sam described as a “toothpaste” finish. Other diners thought the mint made these rolls fresh, light and fragrant. Stefanie thought this was typical of what she’d eaten on her travels. In contrast to these sharper flavours, a plate of fried calamari, fried prawns, and vietnamese spring rolls had a lovely chilli warmth to them – the squid in particular was “bang on”, according to Thom. Paula thought they were light and tasty, although James thought the spring rolls were nice but not distinctive.

The dipping sauce that Daniel and Sheena said really helped bring these bite-size morsels to life was a bit slow to my table. Alicia wondered whether a sweet peanut dipping sauce might be a good addition although she loved the summer rolls. Overall, most of us agreed with Tom, who loved the style, presentation, tastes and textures of the platters.

Having demolished the starters, and moved from tea onto wine and beer, we were then served a hot and sour prawn soup. This was laden with prawns, white fish, squid and er.. pineapple, which caught a few people by surprise – “I saw it, and left it,” said Claire. It was generally very popular though; “a great mixture of tastes that somehow came together perfectly,” said June. It also briged the gap nicely as we waited for our main courses. Nicky thought it would make a “nourishing winter cold remedy”. Simon liked it but thought it meant the whole meal was quite a lot of food. Tom declared it to be “wonderful”. “The inclusion of big pieces of squid and things really made it a dish I would eat as a main. Perfect balance of flavours too.” Daniel called it the “Goldilocks of soups”.

For a main course, each table got a bowl of beef curry and a bowl of chicken curry (our token vegetarian got her own vegetable curry). Simon liked the curries but preferred the starters, Bill thought they needed a little more kick, and SJ said they were nice but she wasn’t blown away. Alicia, however, thought they were tasty. Tom D summed up Nicky’s table’s view of the curries, saying they felt a bit generic south-east Asian. Eugene had a similar perspective, comparing them with a Wagamama’s curry. It’s probably fair to say that although everyone liked these dishes, no-one was bowled over.

Luckily all the other elements of the main course were much more successful. We also had rice, rice noodles, a chicken stir fry dish, fried noodles, and morning glory (which Wikipedia tells me is designated a Federal Noxious Weed in the US, but was one of the most popular dishes for whampers – Bill declared it the highlight of the main course). On my table at least, there was quite some time between all these elements appearing and probably more rice and fewer vegetables than we needed.

The chicken stir fry (or veg stir fry) was a big hit. Paula commented that the smoky mushrooms brought the dish alive, and Mark agreed it was well done. The fried noodles were also very popular on my table but took a while to arrive on Tom’s table, although once they did they were well received.

The wine continued to appear – house white for my table, a Marlborough Pinot Noir on Tom’s table that he raved about, and white and red for Nicky’s gang. It seemed that first-time whampreviewers were quickly getting the hang of the whole thing (eat, drink and be merry).

Most of us had room for dessert – especially when it came in the form of Ladudu’s truly outstanding ice cream, which is probably the best in West Hampstead. Coconut and pandan, lychee, vietnamese coffee, and  black sesame ice cream all elicited gasps of amazement. James said his was “the best lychee ice cream I’ve ever eaten” (yes, it was the only one – but I think the sentiment is valid). Nicky reckoned the black sesame ice cream was worth going back for all by itself – and the waiter enigmatically promised that they are working on a new improved sesame flavour “which will be as black as my Asian hair”. Alicia was the sole dissenting voice, saying her ice cream could have been sweeter.

The other dessert option was a “celebratory glutinous rice cake with coconut reduction” – this was a bit heavy for Dominic and Isabelle, who failed to finish theirs. On my table, only Sam was in favour while Claire said it wasn’t to her taste. Tom’s table were more enthusiastic, with Paula saying it was “savoury, interesting and chewy”.

Each table had a designated waiter or waitress, and service was friendly and well-informed if a bit slow at times as the kitchen tried to get everything out together. Large groups and set menus are also a relatively new venture for Ladudu, so it’s likely that they’ll iron out some of the kinks – and of course going in a small group or as a couple would be a very different experience.

Overall, the evening went very well. Some dishes disappointed those who’d been expecting more exciting food, and those who had eaten at Ladudu before felt the menu hadn’t necessarily showcased the best of the restaurant’s food. However, other elements of the meal were really successful, and there was a strong sense that people wanted to come back.

The cost: we paid £25 a head for the menu (£20 for the vegetarian option), with drinks and service on top. Tom’s alcoholics ended up with a £38/head bill, Nicky’s table was £36, and mine was £35.

The scores:
Nicky’s table 7.6
Tom’s table 7.2
Jonathan’s table 6.6
Average: 7.1

Ladudu
152 West End Lane
NW6 1SD
T: 020 7372 3217
E: moc.u1558605300dudal1558605300@doof1558605300
W: www.ladudu.com

La du du on Urbanspoon

Whampreview – December 8th, Ladudu

On December 8th, the next whampreview takes place at Ladudu – the popular Vietnamese restaurant on West End Lane opposite the Iverson Rd junction. We’re looking to take around 20 people for an 8pm seating. We’ll be trying out the restaurant’s Christmas menu. This hasn’t been finalised yet, but there’ll be a platter of appetisers, two savoury courses and a dessert course for £25 (£20 if you’d like the vegetarian option). Ladudu will throw in some prawn crackers and tea as well, other drinks will be extra.

As usual, if the event is oversubscribed then names will be drawn out of a hat this Thursday morning.

Whampreview basics: we’ll meet beforehand for a drink and, during the evening, Tom and I  will note down comments about the food/service/value etc., which will go into the write-up. The evening is really more about meeting people though rather than being ultra-critical about restaurants. The bill is split equally unless there’s been a large discrepancy in consumption. Any questions, just ask, or check the FAQs.

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

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

Spiga pulls out all the stops

On Thursday, 24 of us took over Broadhurst Gardens’ newest restaurant Osteria Spiga in the latest (and largest) edition of #whampreview.

With so many of us, we staggered the tables over the evening and Tom and I had selected a slightly shorter menu than Spiga’s full offering although there was still plenty of choice.

We received a generous complimentary glass of prosecco on arrival, and there was bread and olives on the table. Starter portions were sizeable – Anna was sceptical as to whether we were receiving “critics portions”, but from my previous experiences at Spiga I think we were getting the usual dishes. Over the course of the evening, despite a few errors and inconsistencies, it was obvious that there was skill and flair in the kitchen, and the evening was a great success with the vast majority of food receiving glowing praise.

The wild mushroom and poached egg starter (£4.50), especially popular on my table, was certainly a whole lot of mushrooms on a plate. It was “lovely and garlicky” according to Nathan, if “very rich” as Adrian and I both thought. June “thoroughly enjoyed it”, but Alex wasn’t sure whether the poached egg really went with the mushrooms – both parts cooked well, but did they merge together successfully?

Poached egg featured with the asparagus starter too (£5.50), which was the most popular dish on Tom’s table although there seemed to be a few egg issues with Tom’s and Doron’s a little undercooked while Rajiv and Ryan’s was perfect – everyone loved the asparagus though.

Those who opted for the cold meats platter (£5.90) were presented with an enormous wooden board of hams and salamis along with smoked mozzarella (“amazing” said Lauren) and Will cleared his board proclaiming it “excellent”. Eugene thought it was well presented and agreed the portions were generous. In fact, this is really large enough to be a sharing plate.

Claire T loved her smoked salmon salad (£6.30) “a delicious combination of smoky oily fish with creamy mascarpone” and Tom, who tried a bite, reckoned he’d happily have it as a main course with some bread.

The fried goat’s cheese (£5.20) was also a potential main course. Rahki said hers was “very tasty” and Amy said it was “substantial and rich, but it could benefit from more balsamic to balance the flavours”, while Mark looked on enviously.

Matt and Emily (perhaps ambitiously) opted for risotto (£5.50) as a starter. Matt liked the “delicate flavours” and said the “asparagus really shone through”, but admitted it was “too big for a starter”. Emily liked the “creamy texture”, but would have liked a grating of parmesan on top.

After starters came a complimentary pasta course – perhaps a course too many for some of us. It was a pumpkin and amaretti ravioli (two pieces) and an accomapnying ladleful of gnocchi in a tomato sauce. The ravioli divided opinion – it was on the sweet side for most people, but the almond flavour came through. “It tastes like Bakewell tart” said Mark and Anna, while Alex and Stefanie thought it a “bit too marzipanny”. The gnocchi was more of a hit – I’m not a great fan of gnocchi but I could have happily eaten a bowl of this for a main. All in all, a mixed success, although the generosity was definitely appreciated.

Already quite full, the main courses started appearing. The duck in orange sauce (£9.80) was a popular choice although several people thought their’s slightly overcooked – in Claire T’s case, enough to send it back although she raved about her replacement calling it “sweet and fruity” and she said the duck leg croquette was “amazing”. Matt and I found the sauce a little too sweet, but Claire J said it was perfect and Phil enjoyed his, while Ryan liked the “top notch presentation”. The croquette divided opinion – I felt mine lacked depth of flavour and perhaps was underseasoned. June was pleased with her rare duck – cooked as she wanted.

Nathan went for the vegetarian version of the Fagotini (£8.00), which did have to go back to the kitchen after a misunderstanding led to the first attempt having bacon in it. When he got the right one he thought it was “quite nice, but slightly bland”.

Rakhi and Tom went for the gnocchi – Rakhi sensibly opting for the starter size (£5.80). She found it “tasty”. Tom’s main course portion (£7.80) was a “nice wholesome dish with delicate flavours”, atlhough both of them thought it needed more salt.

The sea bass (£12.50) looked excellent – two large fillets on a bed of ratatouille. Rajiv reckoned it was “one of the best sea bass fillets I’ve ever had. Juicy, flaky and simply excellent”. Will gave it “top marks”, while Emily thought it was “very generous, but the ratatouille is too strong”.

The steak (£14.50) was a hit, although Stefanie realised she’d now doubled up on the mushrooms after the funghi starter. It was “excellent and well presented” according to Eugene, who also liked the peas and stock side dish that comes with all mains at Spiga (and is delicious – you don’t need to order sides here!).

Nathalie loved her veal chop (£14.90) although found the size overwhelming. Adrian enjoyed it but found it quite rich and would have preferred the potatoes as a side dish rather than on the plate. Doron’s was overcooked and was sent back – the replacement was still slightly over for him, but he thought it was “very tasty”. Tom’s table, who had all three of the returned dishes, got wine on the house as compensation.

Alex gave his chicken (£9.30) 8/10, and was very happy with it, although he thought his orange juice disappointing.

Dessert menus were generally waved away – everyone was very full by this stage. Will did find room for a crème brûlée (£4.20), which looked lovely and was “really good”. Matt’s table shared a tarte tatin (£4.30) and a chocolate torte (£4.60). The tarte tatin was more popular although Anna thought it too bitter and Claire J suggested the addition of salted caramel! Matt thought the torte “unadventurous”, but as Phil enigmatically pointed out “if you order a chocolate torte you’ll get a chocolate torte”.

A couple of grappas, coffess and a vin santo with cantuccine made their way to my table, and of course complimentary limoncellos all round.

Matt’s table hit the Chianti Classico (£21), which they preferred to the house red. My table was on nothing but the house red (a Merlot/Sangiovese blend from Umbria), which we all thought was excellent value at £12.95, and Tom’s table also enjoyed it, while Claire T upgraded her white wine having been unconvinced by the house white. Claire J simply liked the size and shape of the wine glasses!

So that’s the food – but what about the service. It was, simply, excellent. This was a big ask for the two waitresses helped by Sandra (whose chef husband Sokol was responsible for about 75 plates of food that night), and they rose to the occasion. Tom praised the “outstanding and very warm” service and his table wholeheartedly agreed – remembering that they had the most problems. He particularly mentioned how hard Sandra worked to rectify the problems.

With so much food and plenty of wine, I think most people were surprised at the final bill. Matt’s table (drinking pricier wine) came to £33 each, my table averaged at £30 each with a bit of juggling for Alex who wasn’t knocking back the wine like the rest of us, and Tom’s table was £28.

The all important scores:
Tom’s table: 8.1
Jonathan’s table: 7.6
Matt’s table: 8.0

The bottom line seemed to be that even with very minor quibbles people enjoyed it very much and were very keen to come again. The warmth of hospitality is very genuine and that comes across. I’ll leave the last word to Eugene: “fantastic service, well-run, good value – a strong example of what a neighbourhood restaurant is”.

Osteria Spiga
182 Broadhurst Gardens
LONDON
NW6 3AY
T: 020 7372 8188
W: www.osteriaspiga.co.uk

Photos by Lauren / Jonathan

Whampreview at Spiga November 3rd

After the success of our first “jumbo” whampreview earlier this month at The Wet Fish Café, the excitement continues. Our next visit will be to Osteria Spiga – the new Italian restaurant on Broadhurst Gardens.

Regular readers will know that Tom and I went to Spiga on its opening night and were impressed, and I’ve been twice since with the same experience. So, this promises to be a good night.

As with the last event, we will be staggering the tables so that the kitchen doesn’t get slammed and Tom and I are also going to propose a reduced (although definitely not limited) menu for the night – though we promise there’ll still be plenty of choice for everyone.

The average cost of a 3-course meal + wine and service at Spiga is ~£30/head, and we’ll get a free glass of prosecco as an aperitif (each!)

A few basics:

  • We’ll meet for a drink beforehand – a great chance to meet folks before you sit down
  • Each table’s bill will be split equally unless there’s been a dramatic difference in consumption
  • We have 24 places available. If you’d like to come then please or tweet/DM me (@WHampstead) before midday Friday. If the event is oversubscribed then, as is customary, I shall draw the names out of a hat. If you’re one of the lucky ones, I shall be in touch Friday afternoon and I will need a mobile number and active e-mail address from you.
  • Please don’t commit to this ‘on the offchance’. Once I’ve contacted you to say you’re in, then that’s basically a restaurant reservation you’ve made. Of course there are always odd very good reasons for last-minute dropouts, but for the restaurant’s sake (and mine!) please try and commit to the date – that’s much appreciated.
  • For more info on whampreview, or to read about our previous experiences, check out the FAQ.

The Wet Fish Café under the microscope

This was a whole new venture. Not one, but two tables for the first #whampreview of the autumn. Seventeen of us assembled at The Lion beforehand – and it was great to see so many new faces alongside one or two of the usual suspects.

Tom escorted his table of eight across to The Wet Fish Café first, where an entirely separate party of 12 was already seated. There was no doubt this was going to be a challenging night for both the kitchen and the front-of-house staff. But how can you not love a restaurant that has the “#whamp” twitter hashtag secreted on its menu?

By the time my table of nine appeared some 30 minutes later, the place was already buzzing and the chat from Tom’s table suggested they were having a good time – reinforced by the generous free glasses of Prosecco that we all received.

As well as being the first time we’d gone for a larger group and staggered tables (to help the kitchen), it was also the first time that a restaurant knew we were coming to review it. As I explained in the set-up post, I am moving these evenings slightly away from an attempt to anonymously review local eateries, and more towards a sedentary (and gastronomic) way to meet fellow whampers.

Not that this means we won’t be talking about the meal in the write-ups!

New menu
The Wet Fish Café has just launched its autumn menu, and there are some new faces in the kitchen. Owner André is feeling bullish about the coming months after what has been a tricky period for lots of local businesses who have been feeling the economic squeeze. The ethos of the menu is still much the same as it tries to deliver on the restaurant’s tagline of “modern comfort food”, but it’s been pared down slightly and a couple of lighter dishes have been added. It reads well, and has a contemporary feel to it – unpretentious and very appealing.

On my table, the pear and stilton salad was proving a popular choice and everyone seemed to enjoy it: “excellent,” said James, and Carl said it was “beautifully presented”.

Three of us shared a half-dozen Colchester native oysters, which came with the requisite shallot vinegar and lemon. Maybe a bottle of Tabasco could be put on the table too? Tom’s table shared a couple of the main course platters for starters, which they found a little disappointing, especially as the advertised ciabatta and olives were missing completely. The platters aren’t really big enough to share between more than two people, but at least everyone got to try the chorizo, which was the undisputed hit. Eugene praised its “unusual chilli kick”, while Carl suggested all the other West Hampstead restaurants come to see how chorizo should be served. Ant simply said “10/10”.

Zoë and Anna’s crayfish cocktail and calamari starters looked nice enough, but they weren’t blown away by either.

The main attractions
Given how busy the small kitchen was, we weren’t expecting super quick service, so we tucked into the wine. Both the tables liked the house red – a Merlot-Corvina, and I think the house white is one of the better value white wines in West Hampstead. The next red up the list – a Cabernet Malbec, divided opinion. Tom really liked it, while Kat was unconvinced.

Tom’s table were a course ahead of us, so we watched as they enjoyed their mains. The broad consensus was very positive, with a few quibbles. Kat had the sea bass, which initially arrived without the broccoli and mussels, despite correctly having potatoes instead of noodles as requested; Eugene’s sea bass came out perfectly, so presumably this was just a communication mishap caused by the switch. The table also had trouble with a side order of kale, which arrived cold and undercooked. I had kale with my main and it was fine, so seems like a glitch rather than an intrinsic problem with cooking kale.

The salmon, which was popular on both tables, seemed to be the most consistent dish. Tom described his as “beautifully seasoned and cooked, and it worked with the wonderful intense celeriac”, while Claire T also described it as beautifully cooked. Next to me, Sarah’s salmon certainly disappeared quickly and this looked one of the most attractive dishes. Ryan agreed it was fresh and a good size.

The tempura cod, one of the new dishes on the menu, was another popular choice. Debbie was very pleased with hers, as was Claire D, who confessed she likes ketchup with most things, but this didn’t need it! James enjoyed his, but admitted that he wasn’t sure that the fact it was tempura batter made a huge difference. He did, however, say it gave him “a warm feeling on a cold night.” Jen’s was tempting enough that Anthony wished he’d ordered it.

Zoë sadly experienced a foreign body in her food: a small piece of plastic, maybe off a piece of tupperware. It rather put her off her grilled vegetables with quinoa main course, although she also said – with some justification – that it would be better described as quinoa with grilled vegetables given the relative proportions, and it needed more feta.

Ana and Ant both had the fillet steak – a large hunk of meat for both. Ana, who had been on a fish diet for some weeks, seemed to devour hers at pace. Ant, having ordered it medium-well, thought his steak was undercooked. He also thought it was a bit too chewy, which is certainly odd for a fillet steak. I know André is really pleased with this particular cut of meat, so something clearly had gone wrong here. Ant did say that the potaotes were good, and the sauce was delicious, and that he’d have welcomed more of it – perhaps even served on the side.

We tested most of the menu out. Brad had the pasta of the day, which was “tasty” and “filled me up quickly”, Carl had the platter, and I had the braised oxtail, which I enjoyed immensely. The meat fell off the bone perfectly and the proportion of meat to mash to veg was just right.

By the time my table had finished our main courses, it was getting late and only two of us opted for dessert. Tom’s table had been more eager. Tom himself chose the carrot cake with ice cream, declaring the cake “moist and substantial” with a big kick of ginger. Debbie and Ant enjoyed the warm chocolate cake (“Yum! Best thing of the evening,” said Ant). Kat and Claire tried the fig and honey croissant pudding, which had “a very light and spongey texture, not overly sweet and with a subtle crème anglaise”. I had poached pear with ice cream – or at least I tried to, but when I popped back from the toilet, half of it had mysteriously vanished and there were some guilty faces around the table.

Verdict
One might argue that three big tables within 45 minutes of each other was an ambitious ask for a neighbourhood restaurant but, by and large, the food delivered the comforting feel the menu promises. WIth its subtle lighting and well-judged soundtrack, it’s easy to see why Anna said that she wanted to love the Wet Fish, even if she’d been a bit underwhelmed on this visit. However, she did say she’d give it one more go because it’s such a nice place.

The price per head differed considerably between the tables. Tom’s bunch of alcoholics ended up paying £42/head, while my relatively abstemious group only had to shell out £30 each. Anthony (paying £42) felt the prices were a little high, while there was a sense of a welcome surprise around me that our meal had come in under budget.

In the days of old, we used to score food, service, value and overall enjoyment separately. That would take too long now, so everyone just gave an overall score out of 10.
Tom’s table: 6.9
Jonathan’s table: 6.3

Overall, the evening was definitely a success – plenty of new friends were made, the chat was suitably silly and entertaining, and the Wet Fish atmosphere won the day. I still think that for a “special” meal out in West Hampstead, this is the place to come.

The Wet Fish Café
242 West End Lane
LONDON
NW6 1LG
T: 020 7443 9222
W: http://www.thewetfishcafe.co.uk

(photos courtesy of Brad and Anthony)

Whampreview is back – October 6th

After the summer break, #whampreview is back – and it’s bigger than ever.

If you’re new to all things blog/Twitter around here, then some background: over the past couple of years, we’ve tried out 11 different local restaurants and rated them on food/service/value and overall experience. Each time just eight of us have gone – with the exception of Barraco when I was full of the Christmas spirit of generosity. It’s a different eight each time and for many people this is a calmer and quieter way to meet some locals than the party atmosphere of whampgather. Plenty of friendships have been forged at whampreviews and I think each one has been a great night out.

What now?
As the whamp community has grown so has demand for places at whampreview. It got to the stage where I was turning away more people than I was taking. Time for a rethink. We’re going to start increasing the number of people now, the precise number will depend a bit on the restaurant. Where possible, we will still order off the à la carte menu. No longer will we be anonymously reviewing the restaurant – that’s simply not feasible or fair with large numbers, the event is more about trying out somewhere new or different or that has a new menu, and getting to meet each other over a plate of food and glass of wine.

So, where are we going next?
Next up is perennial favourite The Wet Fish Café on October 6th. Despite its popularity, we’ve not reviewed the WFC before, largely because it wouldn’t have been possible to do it anonymously but that is no longer a concern. However, the restaurant has just this week launched a new evening menu so it seems like an ideal time to go and check it out. Owner André is also throwing in a free glass of prosecco for us all as an aperitif.

I want in! How does this work?
I’m lovin’ your enthusiasm. We have 16 places available. If you’d like to come then please or tweet me (@WHampstead) before midday Friday. If the event is oversubscribed then, as is customary, I shall draw the names out of a hat. (NB: this is not first-come-first-served as whampgather was). If you’re one of the lucky ones, I shall be in touch Friday afternoon and I will need a mobile number and active e-mail address from you.

Please don’t commit to this ‘on the offchance’. Once I’ve contacted you to say you’re in, then that’s basically a restaurant reservation you’ve made. Of course there are always odd very good reasons for last-minute dropouts, but for the restaurant’s sake (and mine!) please try and commit to the date – that’s much appreciated.

What’s the bill going to be like?
We always split the bill evenly, although we do try and take into account any large discrepancy in alcohol consumption. The Wet Fish is not the cheapest restaurant in West Hampstead and a three-course meal + wine + service is likely to run at ~£40/head. We may decide to share starters to bring this down a bit, and we’ll stick to house wine, but don’t come with a crumpled £20 note and expect that to be enough this time around!

Anything else?
If you go here, you can see links to all the previous reviews. Note that from now on we won’t be scoring every element of the evening. I’ll jot down some comments during the evening to incorporate into the write-up, but this is a bit more about socialising together and a bit less about hardcore restaurant reviewing than it used to be.

Woohoo!
Quite.

No sign of first night nerves at Spiga

Last night Tom and I decided it was Our Duty to check out Broadhurst Garden’s newest restaurant, Spiga. It was opening night so I wasn’t really expecting to review it as there were bound to be first night issues and it’s not really fair to give a definitive verdict on such an occasion.

As it was, our meal was verging on faultless. From a friendly welcome from front-of-house manager Marcello through to the cheery goodbyes a couple of hours later, it was refreshingly hard to find much room for improvement. The menu looks appealing, and there’s a set menu tucked away on the back page that has an early bird price option before 7pm. An interesting selection of bread appeared swiftly and we were assured it was made on the premises. While we struggled to choose from the tempting menu we ordered some stop-gap olives, which were not the usual dull overly-marinated selection beloved of so many restaurants, but a nice handful of vibrant green and black juicy monsters.

Tom will, no doubt, post his own review, so I’ll focus on my meal. I had carpaccio di polipo (octopus) as a starter. This was good, although not as good as I’ve had in Italy. I like the slices even thinner and a slightly spikier dressing, although that’s not to say this wasn’t enjoyable. It was served with a few more olives, and a rocket and potato salad. A good start.

Main course was rack of lamb. This was a very generous portion – a rack and a half of perfectly cooked meat. I’ve had lamb with more flavour before, but rarely as well cooked – certainly not in restaurants at this price level. The lamb had a Grissini crust, and this was the only element of the dish I was less keen on – too thick for me and I could see no benefit in it compared to a traditional herbed breadcrumb crust. It’s not on the menu, but main courses are all served with a pea and onion side – sort of like a stew and perhaps cooked in ham stock (vegetarians would want to check)? Sounds odd, tasted great – and again very generous portions.

We’d merrily drunk our way through a bottle of house red – a Sangiovese/Merlot blend that was better than I expected for £12.95. The wine list isn’t that extensive, but does befit the vibe of the restaurant. Those that remember the Green Room will recall the rather glossy boudoir look it had. Spiga has gone for a slightly retro 70s look, but it feels modern and welcoming. No red & white checked trattoria tablecloths to be found. I do think the lighting could be dimmer if it’s looking to create a more romantic atmosphere.

At this point, Sandra Royer, the French wife of one of the two Albanian brothers who own Spiga and are the chefs, came over to say hello and we felt it was only reasonable to reveal who we were. It turned out she was already an avid reader and fan of Tom’s Diner. That boy will go far! She explained that they’d hoped to open a bit sooner but some admin issues, delivery hold-ups, and a minor flood downstairs had pushed them back. It was good to see that we weren’t the only diners that evening, and although some punters clearly knew the owners there were others like us checking the place out (and we all stared intently at each other’s food).

Sandra told us that most of the food is sourced from Italy, so it is clearly going for the authentic angle. I was surprised to hear this was their first restaurant venture, although her husband has been a chef elsewhere – this was certainly no novice in the kitchen.

Tom grappled manfully with a large slice of chocolate torte and we both indulged in a grappa. We were joined by @moyasarner who saw us as she walked past and was immediately offered a basket of bread and a drink.

I was impressed with the service – friendly and professional throughout, even though the junior waitress was clearly a little nervous and made a couple of minor mistakes, which I heard Marcello pick her up on quietly afterwards.

The mark of a good restaurant is consistency. If Spiga can keep delivering the sort of food and experience that we enjoyed then it will do well. In ambience and menu it has kept itself suitably different from very close neighbour Sarracino and while I always found the Green Room to be style over substance, I think Spiga marries the two rather well.

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

If you go, do leave comments below.

Priory Tavern, Belsize Road menu tasting

A couple of weeks ago, a small group of us were guests of Merlin and Lucille – owners of the Priory Tavern on Belsize Road. They had asked us to roadtest their menu, and who were we to say no.*

When the couple took over the pub last year they opted for a fairly straightforward pub menu, but a trip to Vancouver and a restaurant called Meat & Bread prompted a change of direction. With a chef hired from No.5 Cavendish Square, and ingredients sourced from ‘proper’ suppliers, including local outfit Gail’s Bakery, the Priory is striving for something a little different. “The only things that are frozen are the peas, the sorbet and the ice cream,” says Merlin.

We kicked off with some chunky dippers – huge jenga-style bricks of bread and a bowl of gravy, which got the seal of approval from Anthony, our professional northerner.

We also tried a baked camembert, which was suitably fondue-gloopy but needed more bread or something to scoop it out with (and seemed oddly overpriced compared to everything else). It was served with a cranberry and rosehip syrup sauce – a nod to the couple’s impressive mixology pedigree and that impressed Mark. The last of our starters was a rather nice salad with a subtle dressing that lived up to the high standards expected by Tom.

The next round of food was the one most influenced by Meat & Bread. We had a gammon and egg sandwich – the meat was delicious, and this would make a great brunch dish (although Kat wondered whether the chips and the bread might not be overkill). There was also a ribeye steak sandwich in a ciabatta, and a vegetarian sandwich full of amazing chutney and that converted a couple of avowed meat eaters to the delights of vegetarian food. In each case the bread was chunky and delicious, but it does make these very filling sandwiches.

These sandwiches came with “squishable” fries (definitely fries not the sort of chunky chips that one might expect) served in little wire baskets. The sandwiches – in fact everything – is served on chopping boards. It’s fashionable, but is it practical? Lauren was unequivocal: she prefers plates. Certainly anything with a gravy or sauce is not best served on a wooden board and, given the generous servings, it does seem to be an issue. Put to a vote, the majority of us were pro-plate.

After the “meat and bread” dishes came the “meat and veg” plates (or boards). We tried a rosé veal dish and a pork dish served with a variety of well-cooked vegetables. These main courses were good and well-seasoned. If you’re choosing your own food then you get to choose your meat, your veg, and your sauce. The menu changes every couple of days depending on what’s come in.

Our meal closed out with a couple of amazing brownies. “Dish of the day” said Anthony. They were large and excellent (although the melting ice cream rather proved our chopping board point as it ran onto the table).

Much discussion about our meal followed over after-dinner drinks concocted by our hosts. The consensus was that the food had all been very good and very enjoyable. The overall menu was perhaps a little too meat and carbs heavy, with very few light dishes. There’s not much fish on offer and, given the high quality ingredients, there was a suggestion that having a couple of top-notch staples such as sausages and mash would be a good addition. Offering so much choice for constructing a main course probably isn’t necessary – simply letting the chef decide what works well together is enough for most people (and you can always accept substitutions).

So the overall verdict was that the Priory Tavern serves good food that’s well cooked, and you can sense that real care and thought has gone into the offer. Perhaps a few tweaks to the menu could broaden its appeal without damaging the concept and ethos.

The Priory Tavern will host Whampgather VII (Four Worlds Collide) on September 8th – yes, I know it’s not right slap in the middle of West Hampstead, but there’s a good reason we’re having it there. Trust me.

*As regular readers know, we generally do our whampreviews anonymously so, while it was very kind of the Priory Tavern to invite us and provide us with free food, we had also agreed that our opinions wouldn’t be swayed by their generosity.

Photos courtesy of Kat, Lauren and me

Burritos Juan or Burritos When

Last night a group of whampers decided to combine a night of comedy at The Good Ship with a test of the new burrito joint that’s opened directly opposite, Burritos Juan.

It’s only been open a couple of weeks and was empty when we arrived. From the front it looks a bit unprepossessing, but inside is perfectly pleasant with a few tables and chairs leading to the counter at the back. There’s camouflage netting on the ceiling and fake brickwork wallpaper, but the overall effect is perfectly decent.

It would be fair to say that they weren’t geared up to the sudden arrival of eight people, but we were warmly welcomed by an Argentinian girl replete with enormous comedy sombrero. She took our orders, which were all pretty simple. The menu is basic: they have tortillas, they have fillings. We ordered. We sat. We waited.

I sent a couple of tweets.

We waited some more.

There were three of them behind the counter working away, perhaps not at the breakneck speed one might expect from a fast food establishment. Then something happened. I don’t know what. But it was clearly very funny as they were suddenly in hysterics. We assumed they’d dropped something, but they didn’t tell us what was quite so funny. It was hard not to laugh along anyway, although our growling stomachs and the impending kick-off of the comedy were tempering our good humour.

The guy working there dashed out the front door, returning a minute later with a large pack of Doritos, which we were given as a peace offering. We’d now been waiting more than 20 minutes.

Then he dashed off again. What had they run out of? Tortillas. Fairly key ingredient.

Finally, our burritos were ready. They had somehow taken almost 45 minutes despite all the ingredients sitting in containers right under the counter. We were all starving and wolfed them down. They weren’t very big, but they did taste ok. I’ve had better but I’ve also definitely had worse, and to be fair, we probably hadn’t seen the place at its best. We went to pay (£3.50 for a burrito, 50p for a soft drink – cheaper than most shops) and they commented that we’d eaten them very quickly. I expect we were supposed to savour every mouthful but hunger and time were against us and 45 minutes of work disappeared in about 4.5 minutes of eating.

I would definitely give Burritos Juan a second chance, but not with a large group of people unless I called ahead. This might be tricky though as the business cards have an address but no phone number. There’s a lot of competition on the High Road for fast food, and these guys will need to be slicker if they want to become a fixture – they have a big advantage in being the only Mexican place around, I really hope they make the most of it.

Ariana II – review of Kilburn’s Afghan restaurant

The welcome from Wali at Ariana II is extremely warm. It’s quite hard not to think of all the clichés of the famed generosity of Afghan hospitality at this relative newcomer to the Kilburn High Road. Ever since Time Out gave it a glowing review, it has piqued the interest of NW6ers so it was time for whampreviewers to give their verdict.

The menu is long, and grilled meats and aubergine feature prominently. We eagerly accepted the suggestion of sharing a variety of starters and very soon the table was full with bread, houmous, a Russian salad that tasted a lot better than it looked, an uneventful Afghan salad, some rather nice Ashak (vegetable-filled steamed dumplings) and – of course – some fried aubergine. A small dish of fiery sauce came too. “Does this go with anything in particular?” asked Hazel? “Everything – it goes with everything” beamed our host. And indeed it did, being hot enough to more or less kill any more subtle flavour.

Main courses arrived and there was much kerfuffle as starter plates and main courses fought for space on an increasingly cramped table. Service throughout was very friendly – our waitress in particular endeared herself to the table – but a slightly slicker system might result in less plate juggling by customers. It feels like a culture clash between the Afghan dastarkhan spread of food and the modern European desire to eat separate courses – as well as the physical constraints of a restaurant in Kilburn (one with very clean toilets as Jennifer pointed out).

The grilled meat main courses mostly came with rice either plain or served as a pilau (brown rice offered as an option) and a salad. My own dish was from the Afghan specials list. Muntu is another steamed dumpling dish, this time filled with a very spicy lamb mixture. It was really delicious – the spiced meat cutting through the mild sauce and yoghurt dressing – another dish where taste far exceeded presentation.

Verdicts on the various plates of grilled meat were generally positive although there was a sense of disappointment that the flavour of these dishes didn’t really stand out from what you might get at a decent kebab place even if the cooking was certainly better and more consistent: one chicken dish described as “surprisingly succulent”.

Matt reckoned that if they “sorted the salad out” his lamb shank dish would have been a really good meal, referring to the rather unexciting tomato lettuce and cucumber on his plate.

We didn’t order vegetable sides, but I think I would if going again – I would have liked something green with my dish certainly. None of us were vegetarians, but actually there is a reasonable selection of vegetarian food even if most are billed as side dishes.

We again took a selection of desserts – including a ras malai made by our waitress’s aunt and that Jayanti declared “exceptional” (having already said it was one of her favourites), some baklava and another yoghurt-based dessert. All were good.

Cardamon coffee was described as “really good” and there was much appreciaton for the tiny persian rug coasters for the mint tea teapots. It was time for the bill. It’s worth pointing out here that Ariana II is a bring-your-own-bottle restaurant. There is a decent wine shop two doors away though, so this is no great hardship but did have a big effect on the bill compared to previous reviews. So, including service but excluding wine we paid £18 each. There was still and sparkling bottled water on the table, which we drank but realised later we hadn’t been charged for – whether deliberately or not, I don’t know.

Overall, it was an enjoyable experience. I’m not sure Whether Ariana II has quite enough to lure West Hampsteadites down to the High Road just for the food. But, if you find yourself hungry in Kilburn,  want something a bit different and like friendly service then this restaurant should definitely be on your shortlist.

Thanks to reviewers Jennifer, Hazel, Susan, Jayanti, Peter, Alex, Jon, and Matt

Ratings
Food 7.0
Service 8.2
Value 7.4
Overall 7.4
Good for: aubergine
Bad for: clutterphobes
214 Kilburn High Road
Kilburn
NW6 7JN
T: 020 3490 6709

How Gung-Ho were we about long-standing local Chinese?

For the first #whampreview of 2011 we decided to check out West Hampstead’s Gung-Ho. Despite having been in the area as long as most locals can remember, a surprising number of people had never heard of it.

Tucked up the forgotten bit of West End Lane, just before it joins the Finchley Road, Gung-Ho claims to serve Szechuan food although to the untrained eye, it’s a reasonably standard menu. There is also a “fusion” section, which mercifully means other south-east Asian dishes and not some awful attempt to marry completely different cuisines.

We were shown through to a table at the back replete with the obligatory lazy Susan. I rather like Gung-Ho’s decor. It’s nicely lit, clean and although quite a large place, there are enough partitions that you never feel like you’re in a large place.

The challenge of reviewing places with extensive menus is that you can only ever review a small selection of what’s on offer. We ordered a wide range of starters having not done much damage to the two small bowls of pickled cabbage that we got as soon as we arrived. Har gau and beef dumplings were hits, Nicky said the tempura was light, while Chris surprised himself, “I consider myself a carnivore, but that tofu was good”. We also had squid two ways and pretty quickly demolished the lot .

Main courses came promptly – portions are not overwhelming but the manager recommended we only needed four portions of rice between the eight of us. The Malaysian rendang (from the fusion menu) was tasty but Hazel and I agreed it lacked the depth of flavour of the best rendangs. Mark and Debbie said they were “big fans” of the prawn curry, while Nicky heaped praise on the seabass. SJ liked her sea-salt chicken. There was consistent support for the lamb in honey, which never seemed to move far from Simon‘s reach. Perhaps the only disappointing dish was the “uninspiring” mixed vegetables.

Amid some scepticism, we ordered three of the sweet bean paste pancakes, which I really like (but have had before there, so it wasn’t quite such a shot in the dark). Together with three bottles of white wine, the bill came to £25 each including service. Talking of service, I rather like the waiters at Gung-Ho. They are very friendly and not too pushy. We were a bit tucked out of the way, so if we actually wanted something we were reliant on them coming to check, but I think our service mark is on the low side compared to other reviews.

So, overall, Gung-Ho probably won’t blow your mind or your palate, but for reliable friendly Chinese food in a nice setting it’s the best local offering. It also does take-out.

Ratings
Food 6.9
Service 7.1
Value 8.1
Overall 7.6
Good for: tofu sceptics
Bad for: i’ve got nothing
328-332 West End Lane
West Hampstead
NW6 1LN
T: 020 7794 1444
W: www.stir-fry.co.uk

Gung-Ho on Urbanspoon

Would you go to Wood Grill?

Rings Pizza & Kebab shop has finally reopened as Wood Grill House (in what must have been one of the slowest ever refits of a kebab shop to a kebab shop). Local kebab fans Blake and Jess popped in last week to sample its wares. So, what did they think?

“As soon as we set foot into the grotto-like Wood Grill House, it was obvious that it would be a little bit different. There is a copious amount of wood both inside and out. Oddly, the tree bark-clad walls were covered in Halloween decorations, despite the place opening in November, with scary things such as green cobwebs, plastic spiders, Jack-o’-lanterns and, erm, a photograph of Michael Jackson.

Jess tries some pickle

It’s a tight, narrow space with stools along each wall for people to dine in and the counter at the back with everything you’d expect from a kebab place crammed into a tight kitchen area. With the drinks refrigerator in there as well, you’ll find yourself shuffling around to get out of people’s way when it gets busy, which it did a couple of times while we were there. It has only been open a couple of days, but already seems to have picked up business.

There is a Shisha Garden downstairs, which we didn’t explore, it’s hard to imagine that it’s much of a garden though.

I decided to go for a simple order, burger and chips, only then to notice that on the other side of the menu there was a more expensive “homemade burger” served with salad and chips – not entirely sure what the difference would have been.

I normally like onions on a burger but it seemed all the salad vegetables were mixed in together. Although this space-saving idea makes some sense, there still managed to be plenty of room in there for oddities such as some bright pink carrots. On closer inspection these were in fact a pickle.

My food was… well, my burger was fine. Just fine. Nothing more or less than that. It was no better or worse than what you would find in Karahi Master down the road. It did at least hit the spot after a long day at work and the service was very friendly. Jess’s chicken shish kebab, however, was “delicious, succulent and tender” and the marinade “luscious”.

“succulent” chicken shish

We were divided on our final verdict. I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it to anyone, but if you are in need of a late-night bite on the way back from an evening out, don’t be afraid of the unusual and slightly scary setting and give it a try. Jess was far more positive, giving it an 8/10 with the only negatives being the lack of space for waiting and the vast quantity of napkins they distributed for two people (not so eco-friendly). The two meals and two drinks came to £10.40.”

Wood Grill House
104 West End Lane
T: 020 7624 8787

Barraco review: A little bit of Brazil in Kilburn

Barraco will never be somewhere that picks up much passing trade. From whichever way you approach it, it takes a leap of faith to believe that there’s going to be any commercial businesses at all, let alone a half-decent restaurant serving up a slice of Brazil on this residential back road.

As this was to be the last #whampreview of 2010, I decided that I would abandon the famous hat from which names are plucked and everyone would be able to come. Thus it was that 12 of us squeezed into the street-level ‘front room’ of Barraco, which sits somewhere between a restaurant and a café. The kitchen is a few steps below, and there’s also a large back room for live music, parties and presumably those occasional very busy nights.

Which this was, for we were sharing a rather small space with a party of including actor Joe McGann. Barraco isn’t your obvious celebrity haunt, nor did it seem quite prepared for two large groups who had both booked. Some judicious rearranging of tables happened and the beers and caipirinhas began to flow.

We opted for a selection of starters to share, including (at Lauren‘s request) frogs legs, fried yam, chicken gizzards, which I enjoyed, prawn rissoles and breaded cheese balls (“a bit Kerry Katona”, said Nicky). Perhaps the best starter was the grilled Brazilian sausages with onions, which really could be a meal in itself, and which Moya declared “divine”.

Barraco is unashamedly Brazilian. I’d certainly like to imagine that the ambience here is going to take Brazilians in London straight back to the land of samba. It’s not chic. We have bright plastic tablecloths, there are Brazilian flags and a large map of the country on the wall. There are cabinets full of brightly coloured packets of food. It’s bright. Very bright. It is the most common criticism of this friendly establishment. It’s not a place for a romantic candlelit dinner for two.

Most mains come with a choice of two sides – this is not a restaurant you’ll leave hungry. The tilapia cooked in coconut milk divided opinion – Jane was underwhelmed, Richard thought his was well cooked although it wasn’t that hot. Ria and Tom‘s white fish was too salty but, in Tom’s words, “respectfully cooked”. In fact, universally the food was deemed too salty.

Large bottles of what looked like brown sugar were placed on the table. It turned out to be farofa – a Brazilian seasoning – that only Mark tried.

The moquecas (a Brazilian fish stew) looked good and were “hearty” according to Moya. The rest of us went for steaks, My ribeye was a little undercooked in the middle, despite the waitress being insistent that I had it medium. It tasted good, but looked like it had suffered from freezer burn. The side of beans was really good – in fact a meal of just the sides would be quite appealing. Sarah E, Sarah W and Dominic also went for steaks, while Mark splashed out on the monster T-bone.

There was barely room for desserts, although that didn’t stop some of us from indulging from the offerings from the chiller cabinet.

I thought the kitchen and our very friendly waitress did a great job of getting all the food out quickly and all together with no mistakes (I think our service score below is a little low). Barraco would be great for a quick filling meal or for a group outing (but book in advance because it’s busy and small!) – it’s certainly a great part of the NW6 restaurant scene.

Ratings
Food 6.5
Service 7.5
Value 7.7
Overall 7.1
Good for: farofa
Bad for: people on low-sodium diets
10 Kingsgate Place
Kilburn
NW6 4TA
T: 020 7604 4664
W: www.barracocafe.co.uk
Barraco on Urbanspoon

Photos courtesy of Mark and Jane

Small & Beautiful review

Small & Beautiful is neither particularly small nor particularly beautiful. It is commonly described as ‘cheap and cheerful’, which seems a much more appropriate moniker.

On Thursday night only half the restaurant, which nestles against the Overground railway bridge on Kilburn High Road, was being used, but the place was buzzy when we arrived.

Menus came promptly. It is all ever so slightly confusing with starters, light bites that sound like entire meals (a lamb’s knuckle can surely never be a light bite?), main courses, and then a separate list of specials which overlapped mostly with dishes listed on a blackboard but not entirely.

Bread and olives were swiftly delivered – a generous amount of both – while we ordered a bottle of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (in honour of the miners you see) and attempted to order several different bottles of white before finding one they actually had in stock.

And so to the food – the menu is a strange mix of more interesting dishes such as chicken and artichoke salad, and pub grub staples such as potato skins. Matt and I opted for the tiger prawn special, which came with long strips of pepper and a piquant tomato sauce. The sauce and the peppers tasted fine, the prawns were slightly overcooked and tasted of nothing and were also the smallest tiger prawns I’ve seen. But apart from that it was fine.

Jess and Mark had the aforementioned chicken and artichoke salad, which looked nice and they both seemed happy. Mark’s only complaint being that the salad was overdressed. Marcia had the calamari which performed as calamari tend to do, while Ana went for the impressive looking baked chèvre but was thrown by the large slice of beef tomato underneath the slab of cheese. Blake‘s potato skins looked perhaps the least appetising of the starters, and he was perplexed by the plain yoghurt accompaniment, expecting mayonnaise or aioli. Still, for the paltry price of a few quid it was hard to complain.

We had waited quite a long time for starters, but not long enough to contemplate chasing them and all had come out together – a feat very few restaurants have managed. Main courses followed starters fairly swiftly and our skepticism as to the lightness of the bites was soon justified as Jess’s plate of spaghetti all’arrabiata arrived. There was a lot of it. Really a lot.

Matt’s chicken and mushroom risotto was also generously portioned. It wasn’t a risotto, more a chicken and tomato rice bake with some mushrooms involved somewhere along the way. But he enjoyed it.

Blake had steak, which he was very happy with, pronouncing it perfectly juicy and tender while admitting that ordering fries after his potato skins starter might not have been the best call. Marcia and I braved the Lucanica sausage, which had been grilled in a a spiral and was served with sauted potatoes and green beans. It was pretty good, perhaps not as spicy as I might have liked, but I reluctantly admitted defeat towards the end (this was another light bite!).

Ana had bravely gone for the ambiguous fish fillet of the day, which was something unpronounceable. It came liberally covered in a herb sauce, but she was underwhelmed by the whole thing, declaring the fish “rubbery”. Mark – having been denied the final steak by Blake – also had fish, going for one of the restaurant’s most expensive dishes – the sea bass at £10.95. It was quite a small sea bass, and he was struggling to enthuse about it.

For most dishes, vegetables are ordered separately, but this isn’t one of those restaurants where you find yourself paying £16 for a main course only to be forced to spend another £3.50 for a small plate of barely-steamed broccoli. For less than £2 you can get a plate of veg that would do some people for dinner by itself.

Did we want to see the dessert menu? Of course we did. Blake, Matt and I all chose the warm peaches with pistachio ice cream. This was exceptionally good. The peaches were delicious, with a light caramel sauce and if there was a complaint about the ice cream it came from Matt who suggested that it should perhaps be more ice cream and less pistachio – never a terrible complaint.

Jess’s “never-ending” mango sorbet more or less justified the price of her entire meal as scoop upon scoop upon scoop was piled into a dish. Mark’s apple pie was “homely”, bathing in a pool of bright yellow custard. Marcia felt her chocolate cake was the weakest dish of the evening, while Ana was quickly defeated by a “too generous” hunk of tiramisu.

A handful of coffees and an over-sized port for Matt (in honour of @Ghoul_of_London who was missing his first whampreview in months), and the bill came to £23 each, which for three courses each, two bottles of wine and coffees didn’t seem bad at all.

The reviews and anecdotes beforehand suggested that Small & Beautiful could be hit and miss and this was reflected in the individual scores, with Ana having clearly been in the ‘miss’ camp. She was, however, in a minority and the first ever 10/10 was awarded (for value by Jess). The only complaint a couple of us had was that the menu itself wasn’t especially enticing, especially compared to Little Bay, the Belsize Road instituion that offers similarly cheap food.

There is no question however, based on this experience, that Small & Beautiful is an excellent option for a cheap and cheerful meal out on the High Road when you don’t want Nando’s, pizza or yet another kebab. Mind you, it’s no Speedy Noodle…

Ratings
Food 6.9
Service 7.2
Value 8.3
Overall 7.8
Good for: the impoverished
Bad for: Michel Roux Jr
351 Kilburn High Road
NW6 7QB
T: 020 7328 2637
Small & Beautiful on Urbanspoon

It’s pizza time

It’s Tuesday, there’s footie on the telly and nothing in the fridge. What are you going to do? One word, five letters, incorrect transliteration of the original Italian spelling. Yes, it’s pizza time.

A select group of locals with refined palates and empty stomachs decided to investigate pizza delivery options in West Hampstead – and lo, pizza-tasting was born.

There are four West Hampstead-based pizza delivery places at the moment, and we threw in one from Finchley Road for good measure. We had menus from Domino’s, Pizza Lupa, Papa John’s, Sarracino and that Finchley Road interloper Basilico on the table – one menu each; ready, steady, go.

We ordered in decreasing order of proximity in a futile attempt to cause a five-scooter pile-up. Basilico was first up and we went for a 13″ Ruspante (£13.75), which had smoked chicken, tomato, mozzarella, dolcellate, brie and red onions. First to order, last to deliver, taking just over the 45 minutes proclaimed on the website. Oddly, the website also suggested we might like to order some fresh carrot juice for £3.00. We declined. Aside from strange recommendations, the website was easy to use.

Domino’s had its Two for Tuesday offer and far be it from us to turn down free pizza. Once again ordering online pizza was simple. We picked a classic 11.5″ New Yorker (pepperoni, ham, bacon, mushrooms) and a 11.5″ Vegi Volcano (onions, green peppers, tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, extra mozzarella cheese) for £13.99. It took 32 minutes to arrive.

Pizza Lupa was next up – Pizza Cucina in London Bridge has merged with Lupa’s two north London outlets to deliver a new menu for customers of all three. We opted for the £12.50 13″ Funghi di Bosco (truffle paste, roasted field and porcini mushrooms, taleggio, thyme, truffle oil). It took 16 minutes to arrive. The web interface was identical to Basilico’s strangely.

Papa John’s also had a 2-for-1 deal. We chose a medium Papa John’s Favourite (Italian style six-cheese blend, pepperoni, sausage, Italian style seasoning) and a Chicken BBQ (chargrilled chicken, barbeque sauce, bacon, onions) both thin crust (you can also choose “original”). It took about 20 minutes to arrive and cost £13.99, but the online ordering process was slow compared to all the others.

Finally, a quick phone call to Sarracino (which doesn’t have online ordering) and an £8.95 Cafoncella pizza (mozzarella, sausage, potato, smoked cheese and rosemary) was on its way. By far the quickest (but also the nearest), this took just 10 minutes.

So, what did we think? There wasn’t a great deal of agreement, especially with so many strong flavours involved. The Cafoncella split opinion the most – it was my favourite, with the pungent rosemary just managing not to overpower the other flavours. But one man’s “subtle” is another man’s “bland”, it would seem. The base was crispy and it was clearly freshly made.

Basilico’s cheese feast of a pizza was too rich and the red onions too sweet for me. It looked spectacular, and was the least round of all the pizzas. Brie is an unusual pizza topping, and it slightly overwhelmed. The base wasn’t so much thin as almost non-existent, making this the hardest to eat.

Pizza Lupa’s mushroom extravaganza looked the best, and smelled amazing. It wasn’t the hottest sadly. If you like mushrooms then you are probably going to like this pizza really quite a lot although I’d prefer it with less cheese.

Those are the ’boutique’ pizzerias, but what about the big boys? Papa John’s and Domino’s both delivered the hottest pizzas, the most uniformly round pizzas and had pre-sliced them. Domino’s New Yorker disappointed – a little too greasy, and the base wasn’t especially crisp.

The Vegi Volcano on the other hand was the surprise package of the night – it didn’t look the best, but it tasted good, with the right balance of jalapenos to give it a kick. Of the four pizzas from the two chains, this was my favourite.

Papa John’s Favourite was our least favourite. The six cheese blend was just an unidentifiable mound of melting fat, and the pepperoni slices were far too crispy and fatty. Not for me.

The Chicken BBQ looked strange, with the BBQ sauce drizzled over chef-style, eliciting laughs from us all. However, “if you like BBQ sauce, then you’ll like this pizza,” seemed to be the consensus. Some people went back for seconds, I didn’t finish my slice.

All but Sarracino offer online ordering, but if you’re a first-time customer then the registration process for all the websites is tedious and slow. Phoning up is probably the better option although you’ll then have to pay cash on delivery.

Between five of us, we’d munched our way through the best part of seven pizzas (and may or may not have drunk a reasonable number of bottles of red wine). We were full, it was time for bed, and there was still plenty left over for breakfast…

Collection or delivery
Domino’s, 262 West End Lane
020 7431 0045 (11am to 11pm/11.30 Fri/Sat)
Basilico, 515 Finchley Road
0800 313 2656 (11am ’til late)
Pizza Lupa, 255 West End Lane
020 7431 5222 (12.30 to 10.30pm)
Papa John’s, 177 West End Lane
020 7624 0197 (11am to 11pm/midnight Fri/Sat)

Collection, deliver, or eat-in
Sarracino, 186 Broadhurst Gardens
020 7372 5889 (5.30 to 11pm Mon-Fri, midday to 11pm Sat/Sun)

Collection or eat-in (no delivery)
Pizza Express, 319 West End Lane
020 7431 8229
La Smorfia, 327 West End Lane
020 7431 4101
J’s, 218 West End Lane
020 7435 3703

This blogpost is sponsored by Domino’s Pizza. All opinions expressed are completely independent.

The Arches – restaurant review

The quirky interior of The Arches is certianly different to anything else in the area. A multitude of lampshades dangle from the ceiling, interspersed with what look like dolls of witches. There are even (fake – please say they are fake) cobwebs on the shelves above our table. “It would be a perfect place for a Halloween party,” commented someone.

This wine bar-cum-restaurant has been a fixture of the South Hampstead scene for many years. It’s  a healthy 10 minute walk from West Hampstead tube station (Swiss Cottage is much closer) and has a loyal local following who enjoy sitting outside on Fairhazel Gardens with a glass of something good. We were there to road-test the food, however.

There is a bar menu, a restaurant menu, and a specials board. There’s no particular theme to the food, with some Asian, Mediterranean and resolutely British offerings. Never a great sign – I would rather have a chef who can focus on one cuisine.

Sarah and Laura plumped for the pumpkin soup of the day, which was deemeed to be woefully lacking in seasoning. “It tastes of cream and hot and pepper”, said Laura having added the pepper herself.

Not a good start. Tom and Holly went for the fried halloumi – a change from the squeaky grilled treatment it usually gets. Both seemed very happy, with Tom praising the salad dressing and the presence of sundried tomatoes, “always a winner”. This certainly looked the most attractive starter. The rest of us went for the smoked duck caesar salad, which worked well and was a generous starter portion, but was otherwise unremarkable.

Several of us went for main courses from the specials board. I had the pork chop with mash and apple sauce (a large quantity of both). Sadly the pork was overcooked and dry and any flavour eradicated. It wasn’t unpleasant, and the crackling was decent enough, but I was glad that there was an overdose of the very nice mash.

The roast cod special looked the best dish of the night. Tom, Lisa and Sarah all said it was very well cooked, although Sarah thought the portion was on the small side and was lusting after someone else’s side order of diced sautéed potatoes to replace her own boiled new potatoes.

Gary and Justin both went for steak – which was presented rather unattractively alone on a plate with quite a lot of similarly brown sauce (or was it “jus”?). Vegetables are included but, like the potatoes, they come separately to share. Mercifully the veg (beans and broccoli) were perfectly cooked. Justin declared his steak to be “fucking amazing” (he’s Australian so forgive the language!) and Gary also seemed happy (if not quite so demonstrably ecstatic) with his. Holly’s chicken wrapped in pancetta was on the dry side, but tasted good. Once again, Laura was unfortunate – her prawns from the bar menu were uninspiring and she reckoned she’d had much better for less money.

Full as usual after dessert we shared one each of the three specials: an almond and mango crumble (good taste, but too dry), a creme brulee (very good) and a cheesecake (dull).

As a wine bar – and allegedly with one of the best wine lists in north London – the choice of wines verges on the overwhelming. You can drop £1500 for a magnum of 1990 Chateau Latour if you want, but obviously most wines are more affordable. However, disappointingly, most of the cheaper wines beyond the most basic house wines have “Sold” pencilled in next to them. Even our first choice red (a Sicilian Nero d’Avola) turned out be sold out as well.

It’s a shame they haven’t updated the wine list to reflect the gaps in the cellar – or replenished the missing bottles. We ended up with a South Africa Pinotage and a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc both of which were good value.

Sadly, the woman who runs The Arches wasn’t working that night. She is a very welcoming character and without her the service was a little lacklustre, although in my previous visits that’s never been an issue.

Everyone liked the vibe, with its quirky neighbourhood atmosphere. There was a consensus that the food didn’t quite deliver on expectations, but as a local wine bar it’s hard to beat – and if you do need something to soak up the alcohol then the menu offers plenty of choice but you may want to choose wisely.

Ratings
Food 7.2
Service 6.4
Value 5.9
Overall 7.8
Good for: wine lovers
Bad for: clutterphobes
The Arches
7 Fairhazel Gardens
Swiss Cottage
NW6 3QE
T: 020 7624 1867
Arches on Urbanspoon

Hidden Treasure – so is it?

Had we been rumbled? An enormous cake appeared that looked at first glance to be made almost entirely of cream. We hadn’t ordered this. It wasn’t anyone’s birthday. Yet here was a cake and our lively Italian waiter who seemed to be managing the whole place by himself told us it was on the house.

That saved us ordering dessert I guess. Not that any of us were especially hungry. Hidden Treasure‘s seemingly infinite combinations of seafood and carbohydrate (mostly in pasta form) had satisfied our appetites. There are other things on the menu, although it’s hard to be sure that you’ve actually seen everything on offer – it was only when I was having coffee that someone mentioned the specials that were written on a tiny chalkboard above and behind me.

Navigating the main menu and its various inserts had taken us all long enough and with so much to choose from, the decision to share various antipasti along with a vitello tonnato was met with relief.

The Grande Antipasto of meats, olives, cheeses was certainly made for sharing, the bruschette looked good but for some reason never made it to my end of the table. The grilled mixed vegetables seemed like they’d been grilled some time ago and then marinated almost to the point of pickling. This is not to say that they didn’t taste good, but I don’t think it was what we were expecting. The vitello tonnato was disappointing, the sauce lacked flavour and was an odd consistency. I certainly didn’t want more than one mouthful of this dish that is sublime at its best.

Maybe we should have expected that for a place built around seafood the standout starter would be the clams. They were excellent – a very generous portion of sizeable juicy clams and the garlic and parsley sauce was perfect. Frankly a bowl of those and a glass of wine would have left me very happy. They were so good that Jess boldly tried her first ever clam and emerged unscathed.

We were drip-fed main courses which came out more or less one at a time, although feeding a party of 8 from what must be a small kitchen in a small restaurant is not easy. Indeed although the service was not the quickest, it was probably the most engaging and friendly we’ve had at any of the restaurant reviews.

Seafood was the theme of the day for most people. Simon bucked the trend with his chicken saltimbocca, while Matt pushed the boat out with the half-lobster special – a cunning dish that looked spectacular but wasn’t actually as big as it seemed at first glance.

All the dishes were served on oversized fish and crustacea shaped plates, which adds to the slightly kitsch décor (there was talk of deducting points for the (fake) zebra skin that hangs on one wall). The plates were a talking point, but would have been more impressive if they’d been hot – mine at least was stone cold.

The wine (a white Pinot Grigio and a red Cabernet Franc) flowed, spaghetti, tagliatelle and linguine was twirled, gnocchi was.. er… forked and the shells of various molluscs were discarded. The visual impact of the dishes was great, and overall everyone was agreed that the taste was good too. There were of course minor quibbles: Andrea‘s risotto wasn’t quite unctuous enough, Sarah‘s seafood/spaghetti combo was on the oily side, and Matt’s garlic sauce “lacked zip”. But Tom‘s gnocchi dish had an unexpected depth of flavour and my own bowl of tagliatelle and seafood was only an extra squeeze of lemon, scattering of parsley, and perhaps sprinkle of chopped chilli away from perfection.

Jess’s variation on penne all’arrabbiata was “superb” but it was Sue who was by far the happiest. She confessed to having grown too accustomed to proper Italian home cooking while living there to always enjoy Italian restaurants here, but then proceeded to rave about her classic linguine alla vongole, praising its authenticity and simplicity, “and I loved the atmosphere and the owners” she added.

Hidden Treasure has had some mixed reviews, and some locals have vowed never to go there again. Maybe we got lucky, but none of the eight of us were disappointed and I think we would all add it to the list of places to frequent. It’s not the cheapest restaurant around, and the final bill was high partly thanks to the wine consumption (think we might need to be a bit more frugal at future reviews!). However, sitting out front on what the restaurant calls a garden (but the rest of us would call a terrace) with a £10 bowl of pasta and seafood would seem to be a very agreeable way to spend a warm summer evening on West End Lane.

Ratings
Food 7.5
Service 8.1
Value 6.7
Overall 7.9
Good for: seafood lovers
Bad for: interior designers
Hidden Treasure
311 West End Lane
West Hampstead
London NW6 1RD
T: 020 7435 5040
W: http://www.hiddentreasure.it/

Hidden Treasure on Urbanspoon

Mill Lane Bistro – restaurant review: A new legacy?

Bar 77 was a West Hampstead institution. I was one of many sad people when the owners called it a day. What came in its place was Cini. No-one knew how to pronounce it and it seemed no-one wanted to eat there. I was among many who didn’t care at all when it finally closed its doors.

What now for this landmark address? The left-hand side of Bar 77 – once the venue for my 30th birthday party – is now a mini-market. But the right-hand side has become the accurately named “Mill Lane Bistro”. It’s rather nice.
Deliberately or not, the dark wooden tables hark back to those ’77’ days as does the friendly welcome. The menu now is a sort of hybrid British/French selection. It is short. Very short. I think this is good. New restaurants that try and maintain a high standard when the menu stretches across several pages are usually asking for trouble. There are three starters and three main courses along with a couple of specials. There is also a rustic bar menu too – making it very clear that you’re as welcome for a drink and a bite to eat as for a full meal. Despite the brevity of choice none of the eight of us seem to struggle with what to have. It’s short and it reads well. It also means we don’t take long to decide.
While the starters were being prepared we turned our attention to the wine, upgrading from glasses to bottles of a good white Entre deux Mers (£16) and a Pinot Noir (£24) that had @Ghoul_of_London in raptures. The wine list didn’t seem extensive, but what we had was good.

The starters duly arrived and everyone tucked in. Tom and @MarkLedder‘s asparagus looked great with large (hopefully English new season) spears topped with a poached egg (“slightly overdone”) and “not enough” hollandaise. @chinmj‘s decision to go for a bar snack starter of hard thin salami sausage with bread left him sawing away at the sausages but with no complaints about flavour. The beef carpaccio, although not thin enough to merit the name, was delicious and unusually the dressing was very lightly applied, which I appreciated. Scallops varied in size from normal to enormous, leading to some quite amusing looking plates but the chef had at least tried to balance them out agaist perhaps too much of the de rigeur pea purée.

Mains of ribeye steak, sea bream (the special), rack of lamb, and a vegetarian option of rösti for @uponair all came in generous portions but far less overwhelming than the plates at LoveFood a couple of weeks earlier. The bream was particularly well presented with a “spring festival” of baby vegetables underneath an ample fillet of fish topped with a light creamy sauce and mussels although @StyleOnTheCouch seemed less impressed than I was. Some would have preferred their lamb a little pinker and we were surprised not to have been asked how we wanted it cooked, however it tasted great. @DJStoney may have even used the word “sublime”. Steaks did come out as requested with @Kayskill‘s medium rare looking on the money.

Of course we had room for desserts: a classic lemon tart and a chocolate gourmand plate were both well received. @MarkLedder had spent the day caffeined up to his eyeballs in Paris dashing back on an earlier train so as not to miss #whampreview excitement. Immune to any further impact he joined me and @uponair in an espresso only to find that it wasn’t an espresso at all but just a small strong coffee. It’s a small thing but, for a French style bistro, worth getting right.

It sounds like I’ve picked out all the minor mistakes, but overall everyone had a great evening. Notably the overall score was quite a bit higher than the separate scores because the atmosphere is good, it’s comfortable and relaxed. Service was accommodating and as the place has been open only a few weeks, it is not surprising that it hasn’t quite reached perfection. I shall definitely be back and am delighted that the Bar 77 legacy has been revived. Indeed, there’s no reason why the Mill Lane Bistro can’t become an institution in its own right.

Ratings
Food 7.4
Service 7.8
Value 6.3
Overall 8.4
Good for: convivial people
Bad for: perfectionists
Mill Lane Bistro
77 Mill Lane
West Hampstead
London, NW6 1NB
T: 0207 794 5577

Lovely food at LoveFood? Restaurant review

[Ed:LoveFood is now an upstairs café and the restaurant has closed]

If you love food in the sense that you enjoy it in large quantities, then LoveFood’s restaurant will not disappoint. If you love food in the sense of enjoying quality ingredients cooked exquisitely, then modify your expectations slightly, but don’t throw them out of the window.

Seven of us descended into the basement below the delicatessen/crêperie/café on West End Lane in West Hampstead a little unsure what to expect. Would we be the only diners? No. Would it be one of those soulless basement restaurants with the ambience of a doctors’ waiting room? No. Would there be a dish involving prawns and chilli? Yes.

For those who remember when downstairs was an extension of the shop, the attempt to imbue it with atmosphere is impressive. Dark wood tables, and some Farrow & Ballesque paintwork make it an appealing venue, although one wouldn’t want to be the only couple there I suspect.

The menu is oddly imbalanced, with just six starters and five desserts but 13 main courses, which are largely chargrilled meat dishes (which meats? All.). Almost all come with the same vegetables – in our case sautéed new potatoes and a selection of (very nice as it turned out) seasonal veg. There are vegetarian options, such as the ultimate ironic dish of “spelt spagueti”.

To kick off, four of us dived into the borscht, which met with universal approval. It was not the beetroot purée that some were used to, but a thinner soup laden with pieces of beetroot at the bottom. Everyone was impressed. My own wild boar paté was good, with the right proportion of pate to toast.

Brad‘s houmous/pita/olives combo was similarly well balanced – a rare occurrence in my experience. Sue opted for the sweet chilli prawns, avocado and garlic bread. Having just returned from Australia she probably expected something light – Asian fusion perhaps. Prawns and salad and some garlic bread drizzled with some chilli sauce didn’t quite cut it. Spot the mistake? Yes, she did too. We asked our gangly slighty awkward waiter about the avocado and he disappeared. “Perhaps he’ll just bring you a whole one,” I said. Perhaps he heard me, as a few minutes later when the plate was nearly clean, a small dish with six slices of avocado appeared. Classy.

For main course, meat was the order of the day. James had sirloin steak (very thick and cooked correctly to order), Sue had lamb (from the world’s largest lamb clearly), Brad had chicken stuffed with Brie (for an extra £2 you can specify organic chicken), Jane and I both had the duck, which was nice, but mine at least cooked a little longer than I’d asked for. Sarah had calves liver, or possibly several calves’ livers, on a bed of mashed potato, and Tom had baked haddock (and the cleanest plate at the end of the day).

The food was generally well flavoured and, with almost all dishes under £10, definitely good value. In fact, there was really too much for almost all of us and perhaps separate shared dishes of the potatoes in particular would have made for less overwhelming plates of food.

There was a long pause and some waving at the security cameras before we got offered dessert – we chose to share three between us – a cheesecake, a honey & carrot cake, and a chocolate cake. All were excellent. Dessert wine seemed to come in larger measures than is customary (no-one complained) and by the end of the meal everyone could safely say that midnight snacking would not be required.

The bill was just £30 a head, including service and three bottles of wine – a very serviceable house red and two bottles of an acceptable if not outstanding Rioja. Service definitely let the place down – our waiter was well meaning but along with the avocado incident, we had to ask for things a couple of times and it wasn’t up to the standard of the food. But quibbles aside, for some decent food served in generous portions, this is well worth having in your back pocket next time your friends venture up to West Hampstead.

Ratings
Food 7.0
Service 5.1
Value 8.7
Overall 8.0
Good for: hungry people
Bad for: people in a hurry
LoveFood
202 West End Lane
West Hampstead
London, NW6 1SG
T: 0207 433 3733
http://www.wealllovefood.com/

The Rotisserie, restaurant review

[Ed: This restaurant closed in early 2012]

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

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

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

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

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

Rotisserie on Urbanspoon

Le Petit Coin, restaurant review

(NB: Le Petit Coin has now closed)

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

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

Then came the bread and butter.

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

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

Food 5.0

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

Supper Club at The Wet Fish Café

Thanks to Jane (@mayfield22) for this review of Monday’s first supper club at The Wet Fish Café.

I’m already quite a fan of The Wet Fish Café so when I saw a Twitter invitation to buy tickets to a special ‘supper club’ I was intrigued. The Wet Fish brings a welcome dose of sophistication to West End Lane and has the best cappuccino I have tasted north of Marylebone. But what is a supper club?
Thirty five guests arrived on a blustery Monday evening to sit at two long candlelit tables for the ultimate dinner party. Andre the owner explained how he wanted to bring together local residents who enjoy food and wine in a more sociable atmosphere than usual. It worked; six of us at my end of the table quickly introduced ourselves and got on with setting West Hampstead and the world to rights.

Each course was paired with a wine starting with a delicate fish stew paired with a white wine from Monterrei in Spain. The main course was introduced by a wine specialist who challenged us to taste and guess the red wine selected to pair with the upcoming duck confit. My companions guessed the Bordeaux style but were pleasantly surprised to hear it was from Israel. Dessert was delicious; a modern, light interpretation of trifle. Some of my table thought the rosé wine jelly too bitter, I disagreed but found the accompanying Australian pink Moscato too sweet.
As always the serving team were super friendly and along with the kitchen coped remarkably well with delivering great food to 35 of us at the same time. I think the music could have been quieter so that people could hear one another better across the tables but I think it’s a great idea and hope another will be planned in the not too distant future.

The Wet Fish Cafe on Urbanspoon

The Czech & Slovak National House restaurant

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

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

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

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

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

(all photos courtesy of Jerry Barnett)

Czech and Slovak House on Urbanspoon

Whampevents

A quick recap of the various #whampevents and ideas coming up.

Thursday Nov 5: an informal trip to Roundwood Park in Willesden to see the fireworks. By which I mean, I’m going and if anyone wants to come along – or meet in Willesden – then let me know. Fireworks start at 8pm.

Wednesday Nov 11: #whampreview. FULLY BOOKED. The first #whampreview dinner at the Czech & Slovak National House. Keep an eye on twitter for details of the next one, but it probably won’t be until the New Year now as places switch to their Christmas menus.

Thursday Dec 10: #whampgather. The second edition of NW London’s premier tweet-up. Once again The Alice House is hosting, and there should be some free food and wine (details tbc). Starts at 7.30pm and we have the sofa space at the back reserved. There’ll be the chance to win dinner for two at The Wet Fish Café. Everyone welcome (it’s a mixed crowd, so no-one should feel out of place). By all means just turn up but, to give us a good idea of numbers for our conversations with the venue, it would be really helpful if you could let me know whether you’re planning to come (quite a lot of you already have, which is great).

Tuesday Dec 15: #whampcarol. Still being finalised, but a small band will be playing Christmas music on West End Lane that evening. We’ll be collecting money for charity, and mince pies (and maybe mulled wine!) should be available. Watch this space for more information as we sort out the details.

November/December: #whamplunch. Dates to be decided, but expect 2-3 of these mini-whampreviews to be happening before the end of the year for people who are around West Hampstead during the day. Very open to suggestions as to where to go.

Whampreview: Going Live

I’ve bleated on about whampreview for a week or so without saying what it is. So here we go.

Whampreview combines the social side of whampgather with the frequent requests for “Where’s the best…”

Once a month I’ll announce a date and venue, which will initially be local restaurants in the West Hampstead/Kilburn area. If you would like to come along and have a meal then let me know and after 48 hours, I’ll randomly pick 5 of the interested people (or all of you if fewer than 6 people reply!) and off we’ll go for dinner.

During dinner – amid the chat – I’ll take some notes on what everyone thinks about the food, service, atmosphere. All the usual stuff really. Then I’ll write a review based on what we all think and including your comments. Probably with some sort of score and er… that’ll be that. It’s a chance to meet some local people and have a nice evening out – especially suited to those of you that can’t make #whampgather dates, or prefer smaller gatherings, but don’t want to miss out on the community thing that seems to be building.

This is how we’ll start it. If it gains traction, then I have a few ideas for expanding it so that eventually we can have a good directory of local places with ratings/reviews.

Hopefully by now you’re already chomping at the bit to get involved.So, the first venue is the Czech & Slovak National House (thanks to a suggestion by @lifes_good, who hopefully can make it!) on Wednesday November 11th. This West Hampstead institution was once in Time Out’s top 10 cheap eats in London list. Although I used to be a regular in the bar, I’ve never eaten there and I suspect most of you haven’t either!

Let me know by the end of Saturday if you’d like to go in the hat. I will post this several times over the next 48 hours so everyone has a chance to read it/put their name down.

A quick word on money: to keep things easy, I’m proposing that bills are split 6-ways unless there’s a large discrepancy in e.g., alcohol consumption. I also suggest that a table of 6 can share 3-4 starters/desserts so we all get to try lots of different food without it breaking the bank. Some places obviously offer discounts as well, so if anyone happens to know about those then please shout, but that won’t drive the initial decision as to where we go.

That’s it. Sign up and let’s see how this works!