Sunday, 29 October 2017


Just to set the scene for you (pun entirely intended), I was recently treated to an unexpected evening at the theatre - Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, intense and absorbing with the immediacy that only live theatre can bring, with great performances from an arch, determined Sienna Miller as Maggie and a brooding Jack O'Connell as Brick, radiating torment and despair.

You say theatre, I say pre-theatre supper: something bookable, fabulous but speedy, satisfying, yet light enough not to put you in a food coma before the curtain comes up and no more than a five-minute stroll from the action.

Enter, stage left: Kricket, emerging from the chrysalis of a Brixton shipping container pop-up into a Soho bricks-and-mortar butterfly, newly awarded a Michelin Bib Gourmand. It's been a big year for  co-founders and college friends Will Bowlby and Rik Campbell and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see them add another Kricket site sometime next year. After my meal here, let's hope so.

Kricket serves Mumbai-inspired modern Indian small plates in a buzzy, industrial-chic setting along with some innovative cocktails (don't miss these when you visit). There are two floors; if you are in a party of four or more, you can book at the communal tables downstairs (useful for pre-theatre when time is tight) or you can grab a seat at the upstairs counter and watch the chefs at work. Apart from being a stellar first date option this is always my preference, as I find it endlessly fascinating — and here, a rare opportunity for Indian cuisine.

We started with smoked aubergine served with sesame raita and papdi gathia, light, crisp Gujarati snacks made from gram flour. I think charring/smoking brings out the flavour of aubergine really well and this moreish dip was a perfect example. My cocktail, Lucky Neem, was a blend of oriental spiced gin, lime, cucumber and curry leaf, welcomingly sharp and elegantly presented.

The tandoori monkfish with coconut chutney was an absolute standout of a dish; firm, beautifully spiced without being eye-wateringly spicy, with the chutney a soothing counterpoint. It's refreshing to see a superb dish simply plated with no unnecessary extras — no tricksy garnishes or endless cast of flavours, no tarting it up to make it 'Instagram-worthy' — just really, really good food.

Kricket's lasooni scallop with Goan sausage, poha (flattened rice) and seaweed was also outstanding. Yielding, sweet and enhanced rather than overpowered by the contrasting flavours and textures, I could have eaten a plateful. We also ordered the cultured butter naan, freshly made, light and generously buttery, and a side of fluffy tomato pilau to go with — both good calls.

Pumpkin with makhani sauce, fresh paneer, hazelnut crumble and puffed wild rice was warming and mellow, with a good depth of flavour; again, a lovely use of textures and perfect with the tomato pilau.

Another dish I will definitely order on my next visit — proper KFC, Keralan fried chicken, served with pickled mooli and a creamy curry leaf mayo. This dish was unexpectedly large in relation to the others and would comfortably serve two, I think — although you may want to have a plan in place if there is one odd-numbered piece left at the end, as that would be totally legitimate grounds for dumping someone.

Yours, in full agreement with 10cc (oh come on, I waited until now!),
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 22 October 2017


Rambla is a Catalan tapas restaurant in the heart of Soho, named after Barcelona's famous street near which chef-patron Victor Garvey grew up.

Newly opened at the time of writing, Rambla is set over two floors and is a more ambitious project than Garvey's previous solo restaurants, Encant (formerly Duende) and Sibarita. From my visits - one evening and one lunchtime - and from a spot of people-watching the other customers, he's absolutely nailed it.

The menu is mercifully brief but varied, tempting and very reasonably priced. On both visits we ate until we could barely move, shared a very drinkable bottle of light and fruity red (a 2015 Honoro Vera Organic Monastrell) and paid around £30 per person, including tip.

As we were deciding, the waitress arrived with some sourdough toast and a pestle and mortar, proceeding to make alioli (correct spelling in context for those fellow grammar nazis out there, from the Catalan for 'garlic and oil') at our table. There is a buzzy but very relaxed vibe here; tapas is inherently a chilled and sociable way of eating and this is backed up by charming and attentive staff, good use of space and a very cool choice of music.

We officially started with spinach croquetas with roasted pine nut alioli. Considering these are priced at £4, I was expecting two per portion; we actually got four, which is exceptional value. Regular readers will know that I have a slight obsession with croquetas; for tapas restaurants, I believe they are a pretty reliable benchmark of the kitchen. These were very good indeed. Piping hot from the pass, with an impossibly thin, crispy coating yielding to a smooth, creamy, comforting interior, they had exactly the textures and flavours I was after and were as good as any I've had from tapas bars in the chef's native Barcelona.

Next, another of my favourites, pan con tomate - deceptively simple and simply delicious.

'Butifarra Negre' sliders were served wth a refreshing green apple slaw and nevat cheese in toasted brioche buns. Nevat is a delicate, creamy goat's cheese from the Catalan mountains which appears in another dish here, baked, with beautifully presented crudités. Here it is a welcome support act for the real star — butifarra negre, classic Catalan blood sausage, intense, dark and spicy. The slider is an inspired vehicle for this, especially topped with the crisp, sharp apple slaw.

The grilled octopus with pickled garlic and alioli was perfectly tender, with lovely charring and depth of flavour. This is one of the first dishes I order when in Spain (after the croquetas) and, just for a moment, the grey skies and windy streets of London disappeared and I was sitting with the sun on my skin.

We had hoped to try the lamb chops at our lunchtime visit but they were unavailable; chef Victor Garvey explained that he'd had double the expected number of covers the previous evening and was waiting for a delivery (it arrived later, as we were gently slipping into a food coma) so I'm just going to have to go back again to try them. Shame. It's a good job Rambla takes reservations, as I have a feeling this place is going to become a Soho staple.

The wonderfully rich braised oxtail canelones with nevat cheese (there it is again) — shown here with a portion served to show you how generously packed with hearty shredded oxtail they are — could well be my go-to dish this autumn. It is remarkable value at only a fiver, and with a glass of wine to cut through the intensity and a beloved paperback to keep me company, that'll be me perched at the counter, sorted.

Plump mussels and clams steamed in white wine with Serrano ham and spider crab butter came with slices of toasted garlic sourdough for dipping and for mopping the juices from the bowl. This is hands-on food, tapas as it should be.

My absolute favourite, though, was the quail drumsticks, wrapped in crisp pancetta and presented in a nest around a  Pansals wine-based dipping sauce served in an eggshell. This is a visually beautiful dish and absolutely delicious; prepare for your Instagram feed to be featuring this regularly over the coming months.

For dessert, we went for the warm apricot and almond coulant with homemade frozen yoghurt. I've only ever had chocolate versions of this dessert before, which I find too rich after a spoonful or two, so this was a welcome surprise; light almond sponge with a melting apricot fondant centre, balanced beautifully by the frozen yoghurt and crunchy flaked almonds.

Rambla is a very welcome addition to Dean Street and already holding its own against some formidable competition. Equally suited to swift but fabulous pre-theatre dining and long, boozy lunches with friends, affordable and offering the option to book a table, it could well become a regular haunt.

Yours, wishing you 'bon profit',
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Too Many Chefs 2017, Drapers Arms

Hosted by Temper's Neil Rankin and by Nick Gibson at his Islington pub/restaurant The Drapers Arms, Too Many Chefs is back this year with another incredible line-up of top chefs. All of the proceeds from the ticket sales (plus half from the drinks spend on the night) are donated directly to Action Against Hunger, making it a truly unmissable event; I may not be a sponsored 10k run kind of a girl, but I can marathon eat with the best of them.

As an unexpected bonus I also managed to catch up with freelance chef James Wilson who is now starting his own business; provisionally called Angel and the Bear, it will provide private dining events and pop-ups with dishes like his 'Savoury 99' - a cone stuffed with sticky beef cheek, topped with beer ice cream and salted crunchy shallots. I will be keeping my eye on that one for you.

The menu for the evening was extraordinary: ten dishes from ten top culinary talents, with some intriguing offerings. Guests were welcomed with a cocktail made from British aperitif Kamm & Sons  to prepare us for the feast; I'll do my best to talk you through it but prepare for some serious meal envy.

Max Halley: Max's Sandwich Shop
A Little Crisp Bread Sarnie: cold roast English rose veal, tonnato sauce, shoestring fries, anchovies, oregano & boiled egg

I confess I had never eaten vitello tonnato before this; somehow, the marriage of tuna and cold veal seemed a rather unappealing one. I get it now; delicate rose veal, egg, creamy tuna sauce, the tang of anchovies - and here, the contrasting textures of crisp and yielding. There was a lot going on in just a couple of bites and the balance was impressive.

Gina Hopkins: The Drapers Arms
Spiced & pickled cauliflower, caraway yoghurt, coriander & mint

A brief aside: by the time the meal was about two courses in, we were chatting with the two couples at our end of the table like old friends. Food, particularly on sharing platters, will do that - along with the undeniable fact that people who like both good food and helping others are likely to be fabulous company. (As indeed they were - thanks again for the banter, feedback and of course the champagne!). I mention this because I put everyone in 'our group' on the spot and asked them to pick their top two or three dishes at the end of the evening.

After much agonising we all narrowed them down (there wasn't a single dish that wasn't somebody's favourite) and this dish was a top contender. The contrast of the warm cauliflower with gentle curry spices and the little cold, sharp, pickled florets was lovely, with the dressing complementing both. I would happily eat a big plate of this as a vegetarian main - and if it is on the menu when I go to the Drapers Arms in its normal guise, I fully intend to.

Elizabeth Haigh (née Allen): Shibui
Pickled potato, clam, smoked mussels, caviar & Sichuan oil

Shibui is Kaizen House's first restaurant concept, due to open Jan/Feb 2018. I went to a pop-up preview of Shibui at Carousel (see my blog from early this year) and can't wait for the permanent venue. This was a characteristically elegant and thoughtful dish with carefully balanced powerful flavours, accomplished and delicious.

Dan Doherty: Duck & Waffle/Sprout
Foie gras custard doughnut

Another contender for dish of the evening, this had it all; beautifully cooked golden doughnut, the most delicate foie gras centre, sweet glaze and what we originally thought was a sprinkling of blitzed salty popcorn but turned out to be the lightest possible pork crackling bits that just melted in your mouth. This was intriguing, technically brilliant and an absolute winner.
Rob Sachdev: The Quality Chop House
Diver caught scallop, BBQ peach, roast chicken

The roast chicken element of the dish was provided by wafers of crispy chicken skin, giving lovely textural and flavour contrast to the sweetness of the scallops The stand-out aspect, though, was the barbecued peaches, which were absolutely delicious and had everybody talking about how we could steal the idea.

Damian Clisby: Petersham Nursery
Cod, mussel & saffron broth, fennel & ginger

This very beautiful broth arrived in a huge dish (that's a serving spoon & fork, for perspective) with an entire side of cod underneath the mussels and peppery edible nasturtiums. It was temple food at its finest - summery, light, yet full of flavour. We had to force ourselves not to finish it, as we were only just halfway through the meal; I really hope I can track this recipe down, as I would love to serve this for a summer lunch with friends.

Rory Shannon: Winemakers Deptford
Mutton faggot, farro, mutton ham & rosehip jelly

We were given a tiny gap before the meat dishes came out, for which we were all grateful. A whoop from the other table heralded these beauties; hefty mutton faggots, topped with a delicious salty mutton ham, served on a bed of farro and greens, like an Irish stew on crack. Intensely meaty and rich, these were accompanied by a little jar of light rosehip jelly to cut through. We were all flagging a little and couldn't do these justice; next year I'm sneaking in a load of Tupperware for leftovers. Give me an autumnal walk in the park, an open fire and a plate of these and I would be sorted.

Ben Chapman: Kiln
Phetchaburi guinea fowl jungle curry

Traditional Thai jungle curry is made with wild meats and packs a punch spice-wise as it doesn't have the coconut milk element to tone it down. This was a classic version, fresh and fiery - a little too much for some of the guests but we found ourselves going back repeatedly for yet another tiny forkful. I love my spice (and lived abroad for a while, so have trained my tastebuds) so was a real fan of this one. I'm heading to Kiln very soon to try out some more of Ben's dishes.

Chantelle Nicholson: Tredwell's
Pear tarte tatin with miso & muscavado ice cream

A certain member of the group (yes Clemence, I'm looking at you!) had been pacing herself throughout the entire evening for this and it didn't disappoint. The tarte tatin was perfect: crispy, chewy, caramelised pastry and pears with just the right amount of give, served with an umami-sweet ice cream, this was wonderful.

Neil Rankin: Temper
Honey kouign amann & Stichelton

Yes, I admit it, I was kind of expecting Neil Rankin to have done a meat course, so this was a surprise. Unfortunately I have an intolerance to honey and so couldn't try this, which was pretty torturous given the reactions of those who could - basically, borderline When Harry Met Sally. I'm assuming it was pretty damn good. I feel a rematch at Temper is required!
Nick Gibson summed the evening up perfectly on his Instagram with this lovely picture and the comment, 'Ten stellar talents. Many well-fed people. All for Action Against Hunger. We choose love.'

All I can add is my heartfelt thanks to him, Neil Rankin and the other amazing chefs here for organising such a wonderful event; if you're looking for a definition of 'win-win' I think you've found it.

Yours, feasting and feeding others,
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Dan Doherty, Sprout pop-up

Dan Doherty is probably best known as the Chef Director of Duck & Waffle - and of the new fast-casual Duck & Waffle Local in St James's Market. Alternatively, you may have sponsored him on a marathon, trek or cycle ride in aid of Learning for Life, or possibly (like me!) you have a ticket for Too Many Chefs, where he will be one of the ten top chefs donating their time and cooking a dish for Action Against Hunger. No? Perhaps you own one of his cookbooks - Toast Hash Roast Mash, the latest, is one of those genuinely useful, home-cook-friendly chef offerings. Yep, that's all him. Exhausting isn't it?

Today, however, was about yet another string to his bow - a pop-up for his first solo venture, Sprout, due to open later this year. Dan's previous pop-up was on the Fifth Floor Terrace at Harvey Nichols; this one was at the rather lovely Nape in Camberwell, with around 30 guests per sitting for the 4-course tasting menu. I rather wish I lived a little nearer, as I am quite keen to pop in and try their usual offerings of British charcuterie, snacks and wine - most of which is available to take away from the wine shop/deli. It's officially on The List.

We started with Hangover Oysters; gutsy, punchy, juicy Bloody Mary-type oysters that would either kill or cure those in a somewhat delicate state. Simply, unfussily presented on a steadying bed of rock salt, these were served with a chilled glass of 'I Think' Manzanilla which stood its ground and complemented them beautifully, giving them a sunny Spanish tapas bar feel.

Next up was the pea hummus with smoked yoghurt and a selection of baby garden vegetables - radishes, courgettes, cucumber, tomato, carrots. Dan admitted that it happens to be one of the 'healthiest' dishes he has ever served; I would just like to say I am totally on board with the five-a-day thing when I can eat dishes like this. The pea hummus was delicious and the quality of the produce shone through.

I was a little undecided about the smoked yoghurt here; I loved the idea but found it slightly overpowering, perhaps because of the light, clean, fresh tastes of the rest of the dish, which was accompanied by a dry, fruity Sepo Pansa Blanca which balanced the fresh vegetables really well. I shall be stealing the combo for my next drinks and nibbles session.

Nape was a great choice of venue for a pre-launch pop-up; it has a relaxed, intimate feel and a long, narrow bar which puts the chef and his team never more than a few feet from the customers. This was a real chilled-out family affair; Dan's partner, digital editor Rebecca Brett (@HungryBecs on socials for you foodies) was helping out and their guest-magnet spaniel Miso was in attendance, being generally adorable.

The grilled skirt steak, zhoug, spiced aubergine and feta arrived basically in 'if-Carlsberg-did-kebabs' form portion for two - tender steak, fiery spices, served on a flatbread and accompanied by more smoked yoghurt (which worked fabulously here) and a glass of Barbera d'Asti. I couldn't have been happier and would absolutely order this if it made its way on to a permanent menu (cough).

The same goes for the dessert - deconstructed buttermilk cheesecake with fresh peaches and home-made hob nobs, drizzled with an intriguing caramel made from tarragon vinegar, bringing a bright acidity alongside the fresh fruit. This was absolutely perfect - a masterclass on appreciating the natural flavours of your ingredients and knowing when you've done enough to bring them out.

As you may have guessed by the name, greenery is going to figure prominently in both menu and decor at Sprout, with the emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients. It will serve simple, delicious, seasonal food that changes throughout the day in tune with the kind of food people want to eat - brunch, lunch & snacks by day, small plates and cocktails by night - in a relaxing, cosy space. The plants and ceramics will be sourced from the local community and for sale, with proceeds going to the original suppliers.

Dan has hinted that the eventual location of the restaurant will be a surprise; so, not Soho or Shoreditch then - or Islington, which seems to have had a recent restaurant/bar boom. Smart money is apparently on South-East London/Lewisham way (which would certainly match the community vibe) but we shall have to wait and see.There's certainly a rather sparse area on my Mapstr under Greenwich that could well do with a few more options.

Yours, first in the queue,
London Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Darjeeling Express

I must have walked past the entrance to Kingly Court countless times without noticing it; to be perfectly honest with you, I walked past twice without noticing it while I was actually looking for it. Ever the helpful chronicler, you can find it here; sandwiched snugly between Pizza Pilgrims and the Detox Kitchen.

The narrow passageway opens into a foodie Narnia; three levels of bars, restaurants and a shaded little courtyard, a perfect place in which to while away a lazy summer Sunday. I will definitely be back, but this time I was on a mission; I had booked the set menu Sunday lunch at Darjeeling Express; Calcutta Lamb Dum Biryani, a throwback to the restaurant's origins. 

Darjeeling Express started out as a supperclub in the beautiful London home of Asma Khan, a journalist and constitutional lawyer who taught herself to cook by immersing herself in the traditions, techniques and handed-down recipes of her family and her childhood. For Asma, this spans her royal Mughal heritage, Hyderabad and the Calcutta street food she remembers enjoying as a child. 

The restaurant is relaxed and stylishly homely. The lovely Florian Siepert talked us through the wine list (which, if you have ever heard his voice, is an experience in its own right) and recommended the Envinate Albahra Garnacha Tintorera 2015, which stood up to the spices perfectly. 

I admit to being a complete novice at all things wine-related (bar the drinking of it) but he was equally enthusiastic quizzing us about which wines we liked as a starting point as talking terroirs and altitudes with the table next door. He returned not only with the wine but with an equally charming dining companion for us, chef Jonny Rothfield (seen here with Asma, who walks through the dining room regularly, chatting to her guests). 

Our feast began with Papri Chaat, a classic Calcutta street food dish; soft spiced potato and black chickpeas on a bed of crispy papri, dressed with tamarind chutney and topped with sev (fine crispy noodles) and fresh coriander. It was incredibly good; each mouthful a play of salty, sweet, sour, soft, crunchy, fresh, spicy.

Battling with myself to leave room for the dishes to come, next up was the Beetroot and Cashew Samosas; delicate, crisp and light, a world away from the stodgy, oily offerings from your local takeaway. In fact, eating here will ruin a Friday night curry for you forever. This is not commercialised, westernised food; this is authentic Indian cuisine, the kind cooked at home, with love and patience, for friends and family.

The main event was a spectacular lamb biryani; two huge pots, sealed with dough and opened in front of the guests. Asma explained that the art of a perfect biryani is not only in the cooking but in the serving of the dish. There are two layers of rice, the top layer drier and sealing most of the steam beneath it; the trick is to dig deep and mix the layers so that everyone gets a balanced amount of both.

This was served like a home cook after my own heart; unapologetically generous portions piled high on sharing platters to be tucked into at the table. It was outrageously good. By this time we had got chatting to the family next to us and were serving huge, teetering, fragrant spoonfuls across the table to each other. You've got to love the almost magical ability of food to forge a connection between people, be they strangers, friends or family.

Served alongside this were a cooling tomato and cucumber raita, a feisty Bengali tomato, prune and apricot chutney and a wonderful Hyderabadi Mirchi Ka Salaan (the classic chilli and peanut masala accompaniment to biryani) which had us all reaching for our water glasses - repeatedly, as we couldn't stop eating it.

Dessert, after a merciful pause, was a dish usually served on the morning of Eid; Sheer Korma, milk infused with dried dates, served warm with pistachios and vermicelli. This was gentle and comforting; I rather liked it, but you do have to be a fan of warm milk, which not everyone on our table was.

Asma and her all-female team of wonderful home cooks have created something very special; a restaurant as relaxed and welcoming as the house of a close friend - a friend who happens to be a genius in the kitchen.

To share a meal here is a strangely soothing, almost restorative experience, as well as a culinary one. It's quite an achievement and I absolutely can't wait to go back.

Yours, feeling part of a new family,
London Girl About Town xx