My friend C and I have made a pact to try every restaurant Jay Rayner reviews (positively, or semi-positively, which is often the most you get from Jay Rayner). It started when I tried to get her to go to Duck and Rice, and she quoted his lukewarm review back at me (although she didn’t know who he was, she just thought he looked like a weirdly sexy pirate who wrote about food). In particular, she quoted the bit about being able to buy a better Cantonese duck – the house special – down the road, and for half the price.
So we decided, alright, we’ll try the place down the road. It’s called Four Seasons and is famed for serving the best Cantonese Duck in the world – according to The Financial Times, who I’m not sure are known for their restaurant critiques. But I’ve never read it TBF, so I might be wrong.
On the day though, I bottled it. Because I am a snob. Because I’ve wanted to try Duck and Rice for ages and everyone else I know has already been and wasn’t that fussed about going again, thanks to the price (another Jay Rayner sticking point). Because, although I’m sure the Cantonese duck IS better at Four Seasons, I didn’t think it’d be such an occasion, and I don’t see C very often. SO THERE. So I U-turned, and we went to Duck and Rice.
Let’s face it. In most restaurants, meat is king. The vegetarian option is rarely the star of the show. Which is why, as someone that tried to be vegan, failed, and is now a ‘part-time’ vegetarian, eating out always means eating meat. UNLESS you go somewhere like Gujarati Rasoi on Bradbury Street N16, where vegetables rule the (meatless) roost.
I’ve only recently re-discovered Bradbury Street. I used to go to the old Jazz Club there, which, by the time of night (or morning) I arrived, had nothing to do with jazz, and everything to do with crap DJs and drunken dancing. Now, it’s all posh. At least, it’s grown a tuft of pretty good looking restaurants, which may or not have been there before – I was too drunk to notice. Did I mention it was a long time ago?
What drew me to Gujarati is it’s minimalist approach to furniture (think chipboard doors, school room chairs and tables, all very close together) and the fact it was always completely rammed when I walked past, whatever day of the week. I booked a table (what a simple pleasure, nowadays) for Friday night and took along the boy.
I’ve walked past Fanny Nelsons – a traditional old East End boozer, just off Columbia Road – on many a wintery night and thought ‘that looks Christmassy and merry, I want to go in there’. So, in the first week of January I lured two unsuspecting ex-colleagues to venture out. On the coldest night I can remember, with everyone off the booze, on a diet and staying away from merry looking East London pubs.
Subsequently, the place was empty. And, it was freezing cold. The open fire was off (the chimney was blocked). and I’m not sure there’s any other form of heating. So I kept my coat and my scarf on the whole evening, which wasn’t very merry. But we had already ordered a bottle of red so I was there for the long-haul.
After a toilet trip (the toilets are lovely by the way, genuinely one of the nicest bathrooms I’ve ever been in – or any room, for that matter) I spotted a cosier looking spot on the other side, next to the (cold) open fire. We moved over there, out of the draught. We ordered food. We were happy.
I don’t have many New Year’s Resolutions, but one of them is not letting this blog slip. I have a huge backlog of posts from over the Christmas period (I got impatient and have already put up most of it up on Instagram). Rather than letting that happen again, I’ll be cheating ever so slightly and writing a quick and dirty post about my experience last night (nothing like that, you reprobates).
Firstly – my friend is moving to South Africa. Secondly, she only went and blagged herself her a huge promotion and is now Head of Sales at a new company (if you knew her, you’d know she was a wreckhead, and this makes it doubly impressive). I’m missing her leaving do so mini-celebrations were in order. She wanted red wine, I wanted pizza (after sacking off yoga). Central was the chosen location. There was only one thing for it – Homeslice in Covent Garden.
Homeslice has been one of my favourite pizza joints on and off for years, jostling for place with Yardsale and Franco Manca’s (FM, you my number one, boo). I LOVE the dough at Homeslice – it’s salty, with a squidgy crust and firm centre. I also love that they used to serve you a litre of wine (house only, no choice) and measure how much you’ve drunk with a yardstick. Which means you end up drinking a shit load and get horribly drunk, but hey. It’s FUN. Although that’s all changed – the waiter very mysteriously wouldn’t tell us why, but you can only buy by the litre or a carafe, now. Something about them ‘never really being allowed’ to do the whole yardstick approach. Shame.
The first time we went to the Marksman pub, we were shouted at. They were under different management then, and our hostess was ired because we had turned up at the end of Sunday dinner and asked for mussels. NOBODY who knows ANYTHING about food asked for mussels late on a Sunday, she told us. Sheepishly, we had them anyway, and they were very good. So good, I took my family back for my birthday lunch months later, which was also very good. But it’s always a mistake taking my family anywhere I’d like to go again – she berated them for different things on different dishes, and they gave as good as they got. Probably worse. After that, I didn’t go again, bar for a quiet drink, in the corner, out of sight.
Then, we moved away from Hackney Road (all the way to Dalston!) just as the pub changed management and got a brand spanking shiny new menu. Sigh! Then, it won the Michelin pub of the year. We decided it was worth the trek. We would go for a Sunday roast.
We booked a 12.15 slot – it was either that or 6pm onwards, so you know there were going to be busy. It also meant we were the first to arrive, and sat awkwardly in an empty room with more wait staff than customers, which always makes me PARTICULARLY squirmish. However, the room started to fill up within the first half hour, and by the time we left there was barely space to move.
I have a confession to make, dear reader. I went for a very expensive meal last week, with the good intentions of writing a review for it. It was Rök Smokehouse in Islington, and the bill came to around £100 for two people. *Just* about justifiable if it had produced a blog post. Only problem is, I drank far too much red wine prior, and maybe an espresso martini, and I actually can’t remember it all that well.
But, foodie foot soldier that I am – I’ve cobbled together some blurry photos, badgered my (equally tipsy, but less forgetful) friend S, and I will do my best. Just know – if I can’t remember it, or S can’t remember it, I haven’t written it. None of this is made up – merely, told through the hazy blur of alcohol – which makes everything better anyway, right?
We started with a scallop each. Repeat: SCALLOP. Singular. For £8. It came in the shell, dressed with ‘nduga and and seaweed. It was great. Slightly charred on the outside, snowflake soft on the inside (a bit like all of us, eh?). There was scallop roe too, which freaked me out. I haven’t had that before, although it was lovely. I’m used to roe bursting in your mouth – saucy – like those little plastic pearls they’re trying to ban in face wash (I don’t put those in my mouth. That’s what I imagine they’d taste like, though).
The Bonneville Tavern is not what it seems. Set behind a heavy black door and a thick dark curtain, it sits incongruously on the corner where Mare Street meets Lower Clapton Road, more thorough-fare than destination. Only the black chalkboard outside betrays the smoky interior (literally, there’s a smoke machine by the toilets). If there were ever a time to step into the unknown, this would be it.
Once inside, you’re hit with the unmistakable smell of must, of old spaces crammed with new people. It’s not unpleasant – it just sets the scene. Walls are flayed plaster (aforementioned must culprit) and adorned with dead animal heads. The floors are dark wood, and so is the bar, with back-lit glass bottles lining the shelves. Seating is wood and leather, with a stained-glass skylight barely punctured by sunlight (I’ve been here during the day, in the height of summer).
Because it’s not just the Ripper-esque atmosphere that brings you back here, it’s the food. This Sunday visit was my third, and not to be my last. Disappointed by a missed opportunity for a roast earlier that day, the boy and I set out in search of some savoury European fare to fill that Yorkshire-pudding-shaped hole. Off to the Bonneville we set. Another brilliant bonus – this place is never packed. I’ve been here twice on a Sunday and once on a Thursday night – no need for booking, no need for queuing. There is always a buzz – a gentle, sonorous hum that fills the room but not the space between you and your dinner mate. Low lighting and candles encourage proximity – the perfect date spot.