A Hunch for Lunch: Zeus and Deeson’s, Canterbury

A newspaper cutout in the window of a Chinese restaurant declared how ethnically diverse Canterbury’s cuisine is now becoming. Cantonese cuisine is hardly cutting-edge cooking, in fact it is one of the oldest ‘exotic’ cuisines to hit our fair pie and mash shores. The article nonetheless does have a point, even if the medium that I found it did not best illustrate it, and the citizens of Canterbury are abound with a choice that rivals London (that is to say, Crouch End, maybe).

Nobody in Canterbury walks anywhere or knows where anything is in the city. If something is off the High Street or Westgate, I find myself buggered when trying to explain the location of something. Zeus is between the library and Siesta, and the person that suggested we try it lives off Palace Street and has only just discovered this “hidden gem”.

I noticed that it had been open for at least as long as I have moved back to Canterbury. The space it occupies used to be a terrible bar, another terrible bar, and, I think, an office supplies store where my friend worked when she was fifteen. At least seven months on, Zeus is still open and seems to be doing a-okay, if TripAdvisor is to be believed. Back in January I had tried to go with my mother but it was closed for a refurb and we went to the ever-reliable Deeson’s (round the back of Debenham’s, near Siesta) instead. Here is an apples and oranges review of both.

“It is no bad thing that Zeus is closed because they use a lot of hashtags.”

Never judge a restaurant by their branding is not a saying to live by. Tacos Locos, for example, tastes exactly how it looks. If you are the marketing director of Zeus, come talk to me as I would like to know why various hashtags (#Souvlaki, #EatGreek) painted on the window of an otherwise perfectly good storefront is enticing. You’re better than this, Zeus, or I’m too judgmental of hashtags.

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Accursed hashtags. From Best of England

Deeson’s is classy British, respectability on the outside and in, though the interiors of the two restaurants are more similar than I would have expected from their branding strategy. A lot of wood. Canterbury likes wood. It shows that our restaurants are rustic and use local produce and remind us of home and what not. Far better than neo-industrial which teaches us to be cool. I don’t want to be cool when I eat, I want to be fed.

I sit by the window in both restaurants. It is not quite al fresco weather yet. There are only two other tables occupied in Zeus, and in Deeson’s our side of the restaurant is empty, though around the corner it is nearly full. Zeus is peaceful, as is Deeson’s until they spend ten minutes repairing the coffee machine.

“Most people go for the lunch menu. The Souvlaki is very popular.”

“But it’s just Souvlaki.”

Will, my dining companion, spends half the year in Crete. He wondered out loud whether this is more of a restaurant or a taverna. The giveaway is the full name of the restaurant: ‘Zeus – Ouzeria and Taverna’. He then wondered if it was Greek or Cypriot, concluding Cypriot, it’s always Cypriot. Good, next: the food. My experience with Greek food is limited to being perturbed at being charged €1 for a single bread roll then later getting several free courses at Italian and burger restaurants in resort towns (Stalis and Malia, because everyone needs a tacky girls holiday at least once in their lives). Will and the waitress talked me through the menu as I was evidently too lazy to read the menu which is one of the most descriptive menus that I have come across; there is even a key.

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A better al fresco day, from Best of England

The Deeson’s menu is simple for English people to decipher and among the best representations of British (when is food British and when is it English?) cuisine that I have come across in restaurants or otherwise. The more I travel the more I realise that I have no real connection with British food, no nostalgia stories where I come close to tears praising the relative merits of a beef stew and Sunday lunches that never were. British food is widely derided. This is incorrect, but it isn’t much of a stretch to see why other cultures may write it off as “stodgy” or “boring”.

Grandma might not have made it, but the parsnip soup was damn fine and here I am actively recommending a parsnip soup, a recommendation that sounds so bland that were it given to me I would be inclined to turn on the jukebox in my mind. And I will and have recommended the steak, the best steak in Canterbury and the third-best steak I’ve had after Gaucho and Hawksmoor. Good job, Deeson’s, good job indeed. I am told they use fresh, seasonal ingredients, many of which are grown/reared in their smallholding somewhere on the outskirts of Canterbury.

With its view of the Cathedral, Deeson’s may also have the best toilet in Canterbury.

Back to Zeus, where we have a carafe of wine while taking an inordinate amount of time to decide. The waitress knows the menu well, or is good at pretending that she knows the menu well. She recommends the pork tigania, which I tell her is a good choice.

The lunch menu is quite good but we go for meze because why the hell not, we’re already daydrinking on a Thursday. A problem with daydrinking on a Thursday when there is an election is that you go to vote and the polling people know you. Villages are small.

From the menu:  talagani saganaki, courgette and aubergine crisps (no zuchhini fritte; apparently not greasy enough to be authentically Greek), dolmades, tzatziki (not garlicky enough to be authentically Greek), and possibly something else. The meal was heavy, too heavy for dessert, but not so heavy that mastika with Greek coffee chasers was too much. Afternoon indulgence in an empty restaurant.

If you like Greek food, why not give Zeus a whirl. I prefer Italian. Or Chinese. Or a whole host of other dining options, including, would you believe it, British. It’s a nice restaurant space, but I’ve been concluding that a lot recently so maybe I’m just pleased to get out the house.

No myths to be made or broken, and please, no more hashtags. A Greek salad is a Greek salad is a Greek salad.

Zeus, 2-3 Orange Street, Canterbury, CT1 2JA. +44 (0)1227 788 072.

Deeson’s,  25-26 Sun Street, Canterbury CT1 2HX, +44 (0)1227 767 854.

Hotel Bars: The Heights and Scarfes

Or, a love letter to the high life.

I have no idea what people spend money on. Or maybe another way to put this is that I spend money on different things to other people.

Among the most common gripes that people have about their lives, money is usually at the top of their list. People that are relatively well off seem to complain more about money than actively poor people in my experience. Maybe this is because actively poor people are in a survival mode whereas (for ease’s sake, I will call them) the upper middle classes have more time to consider that they could have a better blender, and time to visit their friends who have better stuff than them. How fortunate we are to be in a position where we don’t have to worry about whether we will be able to pay bills or feed ourselves every month yet we still stare desolately at our bank accounts worried that it could all go away.

I am probably more guilty of this than most. But my year of not earning and travelling has taught me, if nothing else (and really I have learned a great many things) that people just piss their money away on shite. We are no longer a need society – not in the socioeconomic that I and my peers fall into anyway – and all the hypotheses of my dissertations have come true: as a society we are now fully conflated in the complex web of wants and needs.

If, dear reader, you were wondering what I was doing right now, you’re in luck and I shall tell you: I am au pairing for an upper middle class family near Barcelona. Mother is a doctor and father’s in business. All three children dress almost exclusively in Ralph Lauren. Or Guess Kids. Or any other designer children’s label you can throw a credit card at. Yesterday the mother bought them €100 worth of books. And they all have hobbies and toys and technology and what not. Children are expensive. If you didn’t know that, walk around a Toys R Us or the children’s clothing section of anywhere and take a deep breath. Sure, the family are pretty well off, but they are hardly plush plush. If people can afford to have children, people in general can afford to live a moderately comfortable existence.

Which brings me to bars. Aside from the cost of rent, the biggest shock when moving to London was the cost of drinks. In Manchester there are a handful of bars where you pay over £10 for a cocktail, and usually you’re getting a view or something on fire as an added recompense.

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Cloud 23 in the Hilton, Deansgate

In London, it is not uncommon to pay £15 for a cocktail.

“£15 for a cocktail?!” I would spit, were I not drinking a £15 cocktail.

But hotel bars are among my favourite places in the world. Hotel restaurants are also somewhere in this camp, though there is a formality to them which means that you feel that you have to complete your purpose of being there (eating) and then leave.

I am yet to spend the night in a truly nice hotel, otherwise I would conclude that maybe I just really like nice hotels. Like a lot of the great writers. Am I Hemingway? I don’t have a shotgun and my liver is in better condition. Maybe I should put a pause on my love of hotel bars to keep it that way.

The first hotel bar that I went to was The Heights Bar on the 15th Floor of the Saint George’s Hotel. You’re paying for the view. This isn’t the best example to start with. If you’re in the area and want to see the view, go the 15th Floor, look at the view, go downstairs, cross the road and go to the Langham. That being said, the view is rather nice and the champagne cocktails good.

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The Heights, Saint George’s Hotel

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Artesian at the Langham

A sommelier that I momentarily went on a series of dates with recommend Dandelyan at the Mondrian, which I have not gone to for lack of time and inclination. I am told that their bartenders have won several awards. And it’s on the South Bank. How convenient.

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Dandelyan

Slumming in a 4* hotel, the 1606 Bar and Lounge at the Rembrandt is my favourite hotel place to go for a coffee when I am soaking wet. I have only ever been in the rain. Both times were before the general election, so politics talk ensued. This isn’t my usual bar chatter, but with coffee you need to up the business. They also have free apples.

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1606 at the Rembrandt. Note the TV and difference in 4* and 5*

And now to what was to be the original focus of this post: a love letter to Scarfes Bar. Ah, Scarfes at the Rosewood on Holborn. Frequently cited as one of the best hotels in London, and the Standard’s Best Bar in London for 2017. Usually I write lists off, and in fact I write off most of their list, but this is one they have got right. Maybe it’s because it’s the hotel bar which made me fall in love with hotel bars. Maybe it’s the free water and bar snacks. Maybe it’s the atmosphere, the cocktail list which never disappoints, the bar staff who make me an off-the-cuff cocktail when the list doesn’t exactly match the mood that I’m in, the jazz, the chairs, the decor (a writer loves bookcases), the napkins (which, like pictures on the walls, feature drawings by artist and caricaturist Gerald Scarfe – no prize for making the link between man and name), or all of the above. Here, too, is possibly where I fell in love with London. Few other cities could match this. Few other cities are A++ 5* cities. And the view, were you to bother to stand and look out the window, is of Holborn. A good hotel bar makes you feel comfortable in being separate from the outside world. Here you can be your very own El Comandante (my cocktail of choice. Secondary choices are the Bubble and Shrubs, Bunga-Bunga and Diplomatic Immunity. These names, along with the “potions” book that describes them might otherwise irritate me, but I have a soft spot for dandy indulgence).

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The sweet splendour of hotel bars. No matter how busy they are, there is an air of seclusion, of privacy, yet of being somewhere, of living. I have no idea what people spend their money on. I don’t really have any idea of what I spend my money on (answer: I mostly save it), but denying myself the great joy of spending evenings in hotel bars is not something that I am blanket prepared to do at this stage in my life. If somewhere enriches and inspires your soul, shutting the door on it is shutting the door on life’s great beauty. My imaginary children will surely understand that they have to settle for Cotton Traders.

 

Everybody Got They Benches Out

Summer is here. I’m in Spain.

London gets much better weather than Manchester. This I learned very quickly on moving to our fair capital. My flatmate warned me that London rained a lot and oh how I laughed, assuring her that I was sure that I would be able to cope. She is from New Zealand, and even after 15 years in England she is still yet to acclimatise.

Better weather means better opportunities for outdoor dining, or al fresco dining if we are to use a European term. On a sunny day in Manchester you would struggle to find a seat outdoors anywhere, whether at a restaurant or otherwise, as every man and his wife/child/uncle/lovechild/friend/loose acquaintance and so on is outside. Castlefield is particularly bad, and Albert’s Shed and Duke’s must make enough money to cover the overheads for most of the year during the three good weather days Manchester gets per annum.

That isn’t to say that London is not busy during sunny days. Of course it is. Like moths to a flame, the British are pulled outside in as few clothes as is socially acceptable to wear in public whenever we get a glimpse of sun. But as London gets more sunny days, there seem to be far more opportunities for outdoor dining than Manchester. That is, good outdoor dining locations rather than the few outdoor chairs and folding tables that most restaurants keep in reserve for smokers and the hope of sunny days. Plus, of course, the more prevalent food market culture in London has trained weekday workers to enjoy sitting outside. Of course, London is bigger to, so a greater quantity of outdoor dining options logically stems from a greater number of dining options in general.

A walk through Clerkenwell, as I often did on my lunch breaks, shows just how ingrained al fresco dining has becoming during the three solid months of summer in 2017. I’m writing this from southern Europe, where al fresco is a way of living. Eating and drinking outside makes you more at one with your surroundings, gives you more of a sense of your place, bathes you in gratitude that you are not trapped indoors – we are animals after all.

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Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell. Courtesy of exmouth.london

Google ‘al fresco dining London’ and you will get a full list of places to eat. I haven’t visited enough to give you a well-rounded recommendation.

For food markets, Southbank was closest to home. Southbank in general is one of my favourite places in London. Full of tourists, yet still very London, with its city vistas; full of people but never crowded. On top of the National Theatre is a rooftop garden with a limited bar. Then Brick Lane Market on a Sunday, where you sit kerbside and feel the pulsing throng of East London.

The most unexpected location for afternoon tea looks to be the Barbican conservatory, which is only open 12-5 on Sundays. Wikipedia tells me that it’s the second biggest conservatory in England, and I am telling you that it is one of the nicer places to read a book “outside” in winter.

barbican

Barbican Conservatory, courtesy of the Barbican. Apparently they do weddings too. Ceremony in St Bart’s, wedding in the Barb.

For proper dining options, I now turn your attention to the hidden city squares of London. Bleeding Heart Bistro in Bleeding Heart Yard, off Farringdon/Hatton Garden, is an evening sun trap and in summer quickly becomes full after its 5.30pm re-opening time. The pavement is cobbled, the square quiet, the food French, and I find myself surprised when I turn the corner on exiting and find myself either on Holborn or in Farringdon.

bleeding

Bleeding Heart Yard. For a business lunch or an evening hunch (??)

And topping most of the al fresco dining recommendations on Google is Boulestin. Here is another Google summary:

“At Boulestin you’ll find classic French cuisine served impeccably in convivial and relaxed surroundings. The French Restaurant in London.”

boulest

Boulestin. 

The French Restaurant in London. Convivial indeed. The food is French and fine (fine like “fine wine”, not a teenager’s response to how their day was), and the outdoor seating area is housed in what is apparently London’s smallest public square. It feels like a private restaurant porch (that is, unremarkable), but then a well-dressed couple saunter through from a Piccadilly jaunt and sure, maybe that is evidence of the public square. How public is a public square if it is so hard to find? The public/private space debate of London wages on. For the midsummer evening that I visited, it was surprisingly quiet, but remained wholly pleasant. Inside was completely empty, but why dine in when “the best outdoor dining space” in London has free seats.

In summary: eat outside, eat French, and the best outdoor dining spaces are the ones where you are outdoors but don’t have to deal with the riffraff of the general public. That’s what park benches are for.

Search for the Perfect Pizza: Chapter

You can also head this “New Openings: Chapter” if you’re into alternative titles.

Something along the lines of “Do you want to be a food taster / come to our launch party / have a job?” but more compelling and attractive was on a banner on the restaurant-formerly-known-as Elsie Mo’s one day in late May. The building had been empty for a year and within seemingly a week of building works was up and running again with a new sourdough pizza restaurant.

Sourdough pizza is very in at the moment. You can see Franco Manca’s ever growing success for more information on that.

“I like pizza and being a food taster sound grand,” is in the neighbourhood of what I wrote in an email, “it’s good that sourdough pizza has made it to Canterbury.”

Sourdough pizza, I immediately found out, had already made it to Canterbury. Ask, the worst of the Italian chain restaurants, has sourdough on its menu and Zintino also specialised in sourdough pizzas. Walking past Zintino the following day, however, showed instead an American diner, surely making it one of the quickest turnovers in one of Canterbury’s difficult retail unit spaces. Or possibly the owner of Chapter, Elsie Mo’s, Zintino and new American restaurant that isn’t yet easily googleable or on TripAdvisor is the same person and has done a straight swap, albeit with different names, of their American and pizza branches. I expect this would be easy to find out, but I’m not a journalist.

As with new American restaurant, Chapter is neither easily Googleable nor is it on TripAdvisor. The name doesn’t stick in the brain, and, aside from my being able to cross “be the first ever customer of a restaurant” off the bucket list, neither does the dining experience. Plus it was free for the tasting.

The waitress recommended the lasagne and garlic bread. She was a picky eater. It is a pizza restaurant.

The menu is limited and I like that. Stick with what you know. Savoury ingredients are all very good, fresh, what you need for Italian food. If you buy bad olives, there’s no hiding when your starter is olives; ditto prosciutto. The garlic bread was indeed good, though garlic bread followed by pizza is very much my Pizza Hut-enthused eleven-year-old self rearing her sloppy self again.

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I am still yet to fully understand the hype about sourdough pizza. They prove it on premises. Good, you have to do that. It is better for your digestion than regular pizza. Great, but still no carbs before Marbs (I am writing this from Barcelona where bread is very much a way of life). I prefer the crust here to Franco Manca but made the mistake of going for a vegetarian pizza. The vegetables were cubed. It was unremarkable and a little overpriced, particularly when comparing to Franco Manca, which I constantly am. The San Daniele is fine and the star of the three tried is the Salsiccia e Friarielli, both of which are made by the good ingredients, with a big shout out to the fennel sausage. I wish I had ordered the Napoletana, though I will go ahead and assume that my worry that it would be too salty (it was at Franco Manca) and enjoy the views towards the Spanish countryside. My how hot it is today, like the pizza when I added the chili  oil (loose, lazy writing).

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I was full prior to dessert and should have skipped dessert, not least because it was a terrible dessert. Had it not been free, I would have sent it back. Even though it was free, I could only eat a quarter of it. There are few things in this world I dislike more than food waste, but the thick, hard pastry was practically inedible and the scorched figs brought little delight. The tiramisu was not a tiramisu. If the tiramisu is how you judge your Italian restaurants (I am semi-inclined to do this), then poor Chapter fails quite spectacularly.  Pierre was recommended the Cantucci e vin santo, then told that it wasn’t available. The chocolate pot that he got instead was the standout dessert. It’s not hard to do a chocolate pot.

All the critiques I give Chapter are said with love and reserve. This was an opening night, so mistakes are to be expected. The staff were friendly, if not a little overwhelmed, and it is one of Canterbury’s better restaurant spaces. Wood, large, a lot of light, casual with rustic charm as the estate agents might say. Time will tell if a restaurant can finally make this space work.

A nice place, I expect, to drink and snack in the afternoon. For pizza, as ever, A Casa Mia.

Forza!

Chapter, 11-12 Burgate, Canterbury. 

 

 

Fancy Eating with Madre: The Ambrette

“You can’t sell me on fusion food. It’s just what people do when they aren’t good at either.”

So went my old opinion. I expect I regurgitated this from something that I read or heard from another food writer because it is exactly the blanket vague strong opinion that snobs would make and I would repeat to mask my naivety or inexperience of the wider restaurant world. In defense of this point, there are a lot of shoddy restaurants that go for a buffet-style extensive menu which shows a lack of focus and thus a likely lack of skill. How can a place do good spaghetti and good sushi, for instance? In Germany and Austria I was appalled by the number of Thai-Vietnamese-Japanese restaurants, most of which served a lot of rice with overseasoned protein. Fusion seemed to be a marketing ploy to cater to the indecisive by restauranteurs who cared for money rather than quality.

Saying this, I did go to and like Nanban in Brixton, though again I was drawn to it being owned by a Masterchef winner and sometimes you have to wonder to what extent you like something because you like it or because you are told that you should like it and therefore like it as a result. Of course, this is how you can grow to love a great many things. For instance, since turning 24 I have taught myself to actively enjoy coffee, lamb, asparagus, and rare steak. Unfortunately, I am yet to find a way to dislike sugary and fatty trash, but there are many more years of my life left.

ambrette

From TripAdvisor, where it sits as #9 in the Canterbury area.

Indian cuisine is one of the cuisines that I am most actively ambivalent (if there can be such a thing) towards. The doctor told me to avoid spicy food, but to hell with the doctor.

On one of my many menu-browse procrastinations, I came across the Ambrette, which proudly has a sign outside announcing its 2015 Kent Food Award wins.

“Let it go, Ambrette, it’s 2017 now,” was Hans’ response to this.

On Hans’ birthday, without Hans, I went on an impromptu development tasting. Nothing beats an impromptu development tasting, except perhaps an impromptu development tasting which doesn’t take four hours to complete. The price was £24.95 for 10 courses, but sitting for so long and finishing so late was a complaint for diners who have jobs during the day. It did bring a “blitz spirit” for the diners who all enjoyed complaining together, while also complimenting the food. Very British, very good.

If you do not equate time with money, the capital saving is worth it; the usual tasting menu weighs in at £69.95, and for £24.95 you can get a three course set lunch.

The restaurant is housed in the old Beer Cart Arms building and retains, or gives the impression that it retains, several of the original features. Wood panelling, wood tables, a piano in the centre of the room, spacious, good toilets. Beer Cart Arms used to be a rock bar that apparently used to do a good Halloween party, and where some friends picked up napkins to soak up the blood of my cut foot when I fell in the river. How times change.

As with my other “foodie” fusion (my how I dislike both of those words) experience, the flavour palate was quite unlike anything else that I had tasted before, in a good way. There was one course which I didn’t like – a weak popping candy grenita – several courses which were good, and standouts from a dosa, a seafood salad, and a wood pigeon wellington (I think, I have since thrown the menu away).

Indian food often falls into the unrefined culinary camp, but this is fine Indian fusion, dammit. Complex, well-thought spicing, Classical techniques, and plates that are a thing of beauty – for the most part; after several courses some of the plates looked a little worse for wear and the staff were clearly overwhelmed.

Have I become convinced of fusion cuisine you may ask? I would reply that this is a lazy and inaccurate question, for fusion encompasses a great many things and I stand by my general reluctance to fusion. In the case of The Ambrette, however, the guides are right (or I think that the guides should be right and am convincing myself that I like it) and it is worth a stop off if you’re in the mood for something finer in Canterbury. The other options are the Abode and other more ‘traditional’ Indians such as Kashmir or the Ancient Raj, but these comparisons are apples and oranges.

The Ambrette, 14-15 Beer Cart Lane, Canterbury CT1 2NY, +44 (0)1227 200 777.

Fancy Eating with Padre: Sale e Pepe

There is nowhere in Knightsbridge/Kensington or Soho that sells cannoli at 4pm on a Thursday. It- may not be a question asked by many, but it was a lesson that I learned the long way.

The cannoli hunt was a failure, but it led to finding Sale e Pepe, a treat for my birthday. From the outside it looked dead and small, with roadworks in front of it adding to some attraction, but stickers on the door,  hunger, rain, and the assumption that a restaurant near the back of Harrod’s can’t be all bad was sufficient reason to enter.

Perhaps you will find this Google summary more enticing:

“Enduring contemporary trattoria with a classic menu, a lively atmosphere and singing waiters.”

Or the opening of the restaurant’s own website.

“With over forty years of service, Sale e Pepe continues to attract loyal clientele from all over the world.”

Indeed, dear padre and I have been here twice, making it our regular “fancy Italian” and maybe soon we, too, can call ourselves “loyal clientele”. (Our other regular restaurant, in case you were wondering, is Bleeding Heart Bistro, where we were greeted on our last visit with a “long time” from the waiter).

A good Italian is hard to find. Yet Italian food is the world, or maybe just Europe, over consistently among the most popular of cuisines both for eating in and eating out. If you would like a mediocre Italian, we are simply spoiled for choice. For such a simple cuisine (that is, the spicing is not complex) it really should be much easier to find a good place, I used to complain, before learning that ingredients, chef’s skill, and love (that’s amore) are all required to make a good Italian restaurant. Unfortunately, the first of this recipe means that the good Italians that I have found have been on the pricier side. If you have  a recommendation for a non-Knightsbridge Italian, please do let me know. My goodness,  the ‘Best Italian Restaurants’ list on TripAdvisor is harrowing.

My other recommendations/good experiences in Italian restaurants in the capital are the now-closed Fabrizio, and Signor Sassi, so good that their menus don’t have prices, for the Spaghetti Lobster.  Here I am looking for affordable, good Italian restaurants and recommending lobster.

At Sale e Pepe, other affordable dishes that I will recommend are the Grigliata di Pesce Misto, or a rather generous mixed grilled fish, scallops and prawns to you and I, and the daily pasta special of bay scallops pappardelle (“thicker, flatter tagliatelli”), a useless recommendation unless you visit on certain days but a recommendation nonetheless. My dad recommends the veal escalopes, either way, which he orders by pointing at the menu.

For wine we share a half bottle of the orvieto, which gives me the confidence to bombastically speak Italian when ordering and speaking to the waiters.

The waiters sometimes sing. For our early dinners we have only been privy to this once, much to our surprise, but as Google says, this is one of the draws and one of the benefits of this particular accidental finds. Dinner and a show, dinner and a show, listen to them sing, and away we go.

Dessert is good, though I am by this point at my mildly-drunk, overly-caffeinated, ready-to-have-a-deep-conversation stage of dining; I am in my element, I comment on the number of mirrors in the restaurant during the dessert course on both visits.

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Hall of Mirrors; somewhere to talk business and life

At restaurants, padre always makes a point of calling me his “daughter” to waiting staff. It must be tough being a white man with a half Chinese daughter.

All desserts are £7.50. They recommend the tiramisu the first time. The tiramisu at Signor Sassi is better (though I was even more drunk, caffeinated and having a deep conversation on that occasion), but both (sorry Pierre, bonjour Pierre) are better than Pierre’s homemade tiramisu, which is an endorsement as Pierre does a very good tiramisu; tiramisu is my litmus test of both home cooks and Italian restaurants. Padre had the lemon tart which he couldn’t finish and I vaguely remember as being good although the Gran Marnier has fogged that memory. The Semifreddo al Cioccolato is the best restaurant dessert I have had in 2017, strike that, best dessert of 2017, even if I didn’t understand what a semifreddo was and look forlornly at the lack of chocolate ice cream on the plate; chocolate ice cream is within, not brazenly scooped on the plate.

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Semifreddo, courtesy of TripAdvisor

Third time will be the charm for visiting when it’s not pissing it down. Umbrellas in the closet, a damp slog through RBKC, a fine coffee at the Rembrandt Hotel.

Salute!

Sale e Pepe, 9-15 Pavilion Road, London, SW1X 0HD, +44 (0)207 235 0098

Holes in the Wall: Habesha

Another Lent, another visit to Manchester, another attempt to visit one of those [cheap] ‘hidden gems’ that I had been too preoccupied to visit during my years of living there. Seemingly the only other place that falls into this category is This & That, as otherwise on my return visits I think I have either gone for coffee, to Wetherspoons, or to Slice (my go-to place for Rome-style pizza, or somewhere to sit that is quieter than a bar and doesn’t require a full sit-down meal when I’m meeting someone at 6.30pm. Also does pretty good gelato, for Manchester. Why I have not yet written about this in my ‘search for the perfect pizza’ series should be attributed to my laziness, and that this parenthesis is pretty much the whole of it).

Carl was my dinner mate.

The entrance is next to a bin and a takeaway and opposite a sauna in the Village. It is on the first floor and not immediately apparent. Minor cardio on entry is in the form of walking up a wrought iron spiral staircase, where you enter into a larger-than-expected, moderately decorated empty (if you are going at 1.30pm on a Saturday) restaurant.

This was my first foray into Ethiopian food. A former colleague of mine who on the whole has given solid restaurant recommendations (see: The Three Mariners, which has since become my family’s go to ‘celebration’ restaurant) to me once mentioned that Ethiopian food is worth trying, although he had unfortunately told this to someone who took his advice when they were meeting their girlfriend’s parents for the first time. You eat the plate in Ethiopian dining; it is not the place for grace and good impressions.

Two (I presume) Ethiopian women eat lunch with their hands while watching football on the TV. Carl incredulously laughs that I have done it again. We take a seat. Five minutes later a menu is given to us. Fifteen minutes later, after some gesturing and eye contact, our order is taken.

The menu is so short that I will copy and paste it here for you:

BEEF
Kitfo  £6.50
Lean minced beef seasoned with chili powder (mitmita), herbal butter and cardamom. (Raw, Medium or Welldone)   (Hot and Spicy)
Special Kitfo   £7.50
Lean minced beef seasoned with chili powder (mitmita), herbal butter and cardamom, served with cottage cheese. (Raw, Medium or Welldone)   (Hot and Spicy)
CHICKEN
Doro Wot  £6.50
Tender chicken leg or thigh slow cooked with onion, ginger, garlic, hot pepper (berbere) and herbal butter. Also served with hard-boiled egg.  (Medium hot and Spicy)
LAMB
Lega Tibs   £6.50
Tender lamb cubes well cooked with onion, tomato and green pepper.  (Mild)
Awaze Tibs  £6.50
Tender lamb cubes well cooked with onion, tomato and hot pepper sauce.  (Hot and Spicy)
Yebeg Wot  £6.50
Tender lamb cubes slow cooked with onion, ginger, garlic, hot pepper (berbere) and herbal butter.   (Medium Hot and Spicy)
VEGETARIAN
Yetsom Beyaynetu   £6.50
Spicy red lentils, yellow split peas, cabbage and carrots, spinach and house salad.
Shiro    £6.00
Powdered chick peas cooked with onion, garlic and pepper.   (Medium Spicy)
*All food is served with a traditional sour flatbread called Injera.

As part of my half-hearted attempt to cut down on red meat – and also because I heard from nowhere in particular that this was the archetypal Ethiopian dish – I went for the Doro Wat. On a comedown from Veganuary but still with this in mind, Carl went for the Yetsom Beyaynetu, or “that one” as he so Englishly put it.

Another twenty or so minutes before the food showed up. I don’t really know. I was hungry, but we were talking. Carl banging on about how he flew in Alan Sugar’s private jet, me jabbering away about my worldwide travels over the past six months. How insufferable we both are. White people.

A moment in life that I will forever treasure is having food brought to a table and having genuinely no idea how to tackle it. Having spent a couple of weeks in Malaysia (I am very well travelled) I thought that I would be well prepared to eat with my hands. The Doro Wat came served in a bowl. I am not used to eating something so liquid with my hands, even with the Injera, which came rolled on a plate looking like a large pile of hand towels. Carl’s Yetsom Beyaynetu looked more impressive, and healthy, than mine, served on a large, whole Injera with the food being lined down the middle. No description on the menu could have quite prepared us for how the food actually looked. Google thankfully can.

Source: TripAdvisor. Doro Wat in top left; main plate Yetsom Beyaynetu with whatever’s in the bottom left added on for good measure

The service isn’t fast, but they know a bemused look when they see one.

“Have you eaten here before?”

Take note Nando’s and other restaurants that have a slightly askew dining style, there are but a few cuisines that actually may need explaining, all the others we can figure out. Choose a spice and order at the till? This is quite a simple concept. Not once during my time working at Nando’s did anyone seem confused about how to eat there, and I was just left feeling patronising at telling adults how to do something so perfectly simple. At Habesha, Carl was incredibly grateful that the waitress explained (and even demonstrated, handing me back a torn up Injera once the display was done) how to eat. It was like being a child again, complete with poorly using your hands as cutlery. The waitress brought napkins.

The Doro Wat was spicy and rich, with a flavour palate somewhat similar to Malaysian, but (and I say this having only had limited food from here) with a very distinctively African flavour. There was an egg in there too. Someone please show me how to eat Doro Wat successfully as my eating was really a shit show. Carl’s dish was our preferred of the two. Less heavy, easier to eat, and with a salad on the edge it even felt slightly healthy. I quickly learned that my spice tolerance isn’t what it used to be. It was large. We didn’t finish the bread.

We stayed for three hours. Despite being full they were in no rush to make us leave. I like that in a restaurant. It plays right into the mantra of DGAF 2017. And also – quite relevant in the context of our conversation about identity and other cultures – white, English Carl for once got the opportunity to feel what it was like to be a minority in a restaurant.

Another success for unconventional eateries.

Habesha, First Floor, 29-31 Sackville St, Manchester M1 3LZ

Holes in the Wall: This & That Cafe

Ever since I moved to London I have tried to make my return visits to Manchester ones which are memorable and explorative for my friends and I. In spite of having lived in Manchester for some six years, it has been on the sporadic return visits that I seem to have better explored some of the city’s best ‘hidden’ restaurants (I say ‘hidden’ more in terms of geographic location and also not being a chain), although This and That has featured on a large number of ‘Best Cheap Eats in Manchester’-type listicles that I used to wile away my work days reading, and it also proudly proclaims itself to be ‘Manchester’s Favourite Curry House’ (I thought that was Mughli, which I have also never visited) on its website.

It was March 2016. My friend Carl and I went to the Chinese Centre for Contemporary Art and learned that Chinese Contemporary Art wasn’t really our thing and that our years lived in Manchester having avoided the gallery weren’t wasted ones. That isn’t to say that the gallery is bad – indeed, it is quite good – just that we have not yet reached a stage in our lives that it is something that we can understand and fully appreciate. As such, we talked about relationships and Lenten sacrifices.

We met a third friend just before midday and ambled through the Manchester rain for, at 12pm, the earliest curry of all of our lives. How did three twentysomethings manage to reach this age without having a breakfast curry? Why, a commitment to a healthy diet, of course, says the girl who used to eat nearly expired Nando’s chocolate cake at 7am.

My mother often says that she doesn’t think that I would like something because it would be ‘beneath’ me. To be fair to her, several of the restaurants that I have been to since I moved to London have been of the Ivy Café (one of my favourites) and SushiSamba (a disappointment) variety, and these are the restaurants I tend to tell her about so she can live vicariously through me. However, when listing my preferred restaurants, often they are those which lazy writers such as myself would call ‘authentic’, that is to say ‘a type of cuisine cooked by the person from the country that it originated’. Rent prices mean that this type of restaurant is usually situated in a less-than-glamorous side of town, and that if you are going out to eat with me you should either expect to have to wear a tie or follow me down an alley.

Alley it is. A wet, stinking Manchester alley. The entrance is a metal door.

Source: This & That. Picture the door closed and the alley wet.

After briefly wondering if I was leading them to a premature death, my friends were pleasantly surprised that there was indeed a restaurant inside and that the promise of three curries for £5.50 (£3.90 if you’re going all vegetarian) was true.

Tables and service are cafeteria-style, though the staff are friendlier than my school lunchladies even if on asking for a recommendation they just piled the food on (lamb, chicken, daal, all fine choices). The menu is a ‘day by day’ menu rather than a regular menu, so really it’s a place to go when you fancy ‘curry’ rather than if you have your heart set on a rogan josh or whatever your curry of choice is. There are sauces and onions which can be added free of charge next to the cutlery station and jugs of water.

The three of us were impressed with the food. Maybe I was just impressed with the portions and that it is quite different from your regular Indian fare. I have since learned that I have stomach issues with curry and so the saltiness that I have tasted may have had more to do with that than the fineries of the food itself.

It wasn’t enough to put me off though, and on another occasion I took an ex-work colleague who, impressed by the portion size and ‘authenticity’, vowed to take her boyfriend here. Seven months on, she still hasn’t. On a completely different occasion when I still lived in Manchester, my friend tried to take me to a rice and three café, but all of them (Marhaba, Yadgar) were closed, as was a Korean place, and we had to settle on Thai food in a supermarket, which was two thumbs up on the ‘authenticity’ scale.

This is a Manchester institution for a reason, and worth a visit if you actually like and can handle Indian food. What accolades I am giving here!

Carl has since become my ‘friend that I take to weird places’, including the gallery next door to the gallery that I had actually intended on going to in which we spent an uncomfortable minute alone in a mirrored box with an equally confused Chinese tourist, to a near-empty thuggish pool hall, and for Ethiopian food (more on that later). In turn, I am his ‘friend who takes him to weird places that he can later take other friends to). A friendship to be treasured indeed. Such a shame that he is moving to North Carolina.

This & That Café, 3 Soap Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1EW

Got Me In Chains: Patara, Black & Blue

I am loathe to eat in chain restaurants. But what makes a chain a chain? How many restaurants constitutes a chain? When should I just be pleased that a restaurant is being successful?

Zizzi, Prezzo, Miller & Carter, Frankie & Benny’s, Nando’s, Giraffe, etc etc are undoubtedly chain-chains. Identical restaurants found the country over. Reassuring as you know what you’re getting, unremarkable and dull as you know exactly what you’re getting. When you’re paying to eat out you’re paying for an experience. Bland is not an experience, or it is as much of an experience as a yawn.

Then there are the Wahacas, Pizza Pilgrims, Honest Burgers and Franco Mancas, ‘grass-roots’ efforts, most of which seem to start somewhere like Soho or Brixton, which through hard work and hype make it so that new restaurant openings are made to meet demand. Once they’re out of London, they’ve really made it. Plus higher-end restaurants such as Gaucho and Hawksmoor

Then there are group-owned restaurants. Soho House owns Dirty Burger, Individual owns Piccolino and Gino D’Campo, Living Ventures seems to own every “place to be seen” in Manchester and Cheshire. And so on and so forth.

The number of hyperlinks in this point shows that my initial statement is quite false. I eat in a fair few ‘chain’ restaurants, whatever it is we mean by ‘chain’. It is unavoidable, like trying to avoid products from the Nestlé corporation. Successful brands that wish to grow often succumb to the lure of selling out, and I am just a hungry person on an impossible journey to support the little man, the rare man (or woman) who is happy to keep their restaurant as is, keeping their one (or two) restaurant(s) full ad infinitum without having a desire to expand.

I wanted to find a good Thai place and to settle the great steak debate (Gaucho wins). My dining companion on this particular quest was Henrik, a long-time Londoner and restaurant enthusiast.

He can’t get everything right.

Black and Blue lacks far behind the aforementioned Gaucho and Hawksmoor. We went to the Marylebone restaurant as there had live jazz there, though not on the night that we visited.

“A shame, but at least we have steak.”

Gristle is my predominant memory of this. And very tough for rare-medium. The portion sizes are good, but good portioning doesn’t make up for bad eating.

This branch has since closed, with other restaurants remaining in South Bank, Waterloo (why two so close together? Technically my former closest steakhouses), Notting Hill Gate, and Borough. Unless you really care about saving those extra few pounds, take the leap and go to a better steak place.

Before going to Patara, I had only been to three other Thai places in my life: Thai Spice, Chorlton; Chaophrya, Manchester; and Hikari, Lambeth (which is technically more of a cheap, all Asian place which I loved nonetheless). I order pad thai and try to understand why people like Thai food so much. My conclusion is that they drink a lot of wine with their Thai food, even if the wine is a red served in a cooler.

As their Google SEO would have it: “Patara, authentically different fine Thai dining restaurant in London since 1990.”

I have no idea what “authentically different” means. That there is nice decor? That the dessert that the recommended was lacklustre, even for an Asian dessert – apparently the sweet rice dessert is their specialty; I wish I had gone for a trusty old chocolate pudding.

Having since visited Thailand and visited both hawkers and the Mandarin Oriental, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t particularly like Thai food and that, fine, Patara is a relatively authentic representative of Thai cooking. As are all the other restaurants I’ve visited. So ambivalent am I to Thai food that I probably couldn’t tell the difference were you to serve me bad, bad Thai food (it would be over-salted. That would be the giveaway).

A not unpopular place for Thai brides and trendy city slickers alike, in the Oxford Circus branch at least. As for Bangkok, Beijing, Singapore, Geneva, Vienna, Berners Street, Hampstead, Knightsbridge, Soho and South Kensington, I couldn’t tell you. They must be doing something right though.

Plush Thai for a flush guy.

 

Eatalian: Polpo, Smithfield

A vegetarian, a pescatarian, a picky eater and a glutton walk into a restaurant…

Of all the dining experiences on the annual social calendar, the work leaving do is one of those which is low down on the expectations list. There is an outside chance that this will be a time where you will all realise what good friends you could have become – or are – and to wallow in the sadness that is someone leaving, or it can further highlight how different all of you in a perilously small company are and to enjoy this formality as best you can.

Polpo is Venetian tapas, which I didn’t realise was such a thing until I moved to London. Oh the things I’ve learned as a Londoner. It has a Michelin Bib Gourmand, regularly features on the London blogosphere’s ‘Best Restaurant lists’, and the vegetarian and pescatarian both cited it among their favourite restaurants in the capital.

The picky eater allowed us to order as this “wasn’t really her type of restaurant. The places you take me are always a bit…hip.”

Decorated in the post-industrial near hipster decor that is prevalent across cities on both sides of the Atlantic, I suppose she may have had a point. Menus were printed on paper attached to clipboards, waiters had beer, and wine was served in cups. Usually there were queues, but our 6.25pm arrival, while too late for the 4pm – 6pm Happy Hour, was still too early for the post-work drinks diners. Plus, of course the curse of tapas that is sharing.

I enjoy sharing, and I enjoy hearing the recommendations of others, so the vegetarian and pescatarian took the reigns:

  • Stuffed fried olives (£3)
  • Marinated baby octopuses (£3) – this in favour of the Octopus Carpaccio (£8), as I had eaten something similar earlier in the week
  • Spinach, Parmesan & soft egg Pizzette (£8)
  • Classic beef and pork meatballs (£6)
  • Chickpea, spinach & ricotta “meatballs” (£7)
  • Fritto misto (£9)
  • Fried gnocchi, rainbow chard pesto & young pecorino (£6)

I was the only person that could sample all of the dishes, which were fresh and offered some complexity of flavours and textures. I can see what the fuss is about, but I am still yet to be converted. There was no real satisfaction to the eating; instead I was left admiring the sourcing of produce and cooking techniques – an academic rather than an emotional response to the food – while trying to elegantly split a meatball.

A meatball is a meatball is a meatball. The vegetarian, who is part Italian, said that she doesn’t usually like Italian restaurants but the sauces in Polpo are outstanding. Her meat-eating boyfriend said that the meatballs were the best he ever had. She conceded that this meal was less good than her previous one. It certainly wasn’t my best meatball experience, though I can’t remember what was. They were pleasant enough, but will forever fade away into my memory as the meatball that failed to live up to expectations.

Eating out is about socialising, and tapas more than most other foods ups this social ante. It had been apparent throughout the year that we weren’t a particularly social office, but this was even more so when spending an extended period of time together in relatively close quarters. In fact, each of my three dining companions said unprompted at different stages of the meal that they were “awkward”, “not a people person” and “not very social”. Nonetheless, we spoke about work, travel, life, and they gave me a thoughtful leaving present.

“Thanks, I’m touched. But also I’m not very good with real feelings, so fuck you all!”

It was the most that I have ever liked them.

We split the bill, a concept that usually I am not in favour of, but the person that eats most wins in the game of going Dutch. I am sure the picky eater, who ate 1/2 a meatball, a slice of pizzette, some gnocchi and a fauxball was perturbed at her bill share. Social and culinary enjoyment is the heart of tapas, so when this is lacking from your dining companions there is only so much that your enjoyment can reach.

Having now left London, I do not regret quitting at all. I am, however, still disappointed in never having found an Italian of choice.