Gin is ruddy marvellous, isn’t it? Unless you’re one of those people where it transforms you into a sobbing wreck, I guess. It’s my favourite spirit – a nice cool gin on a sunny afternoon is unsurpassable.
Here are some gin facts for you (I like gin, suck it up):
– Gin is made with juniper berries
– London gin doesn’t have to be made in London – it’s a way to make gin
– Gin joints in 18th-century England allowed women to drink alongside men for the first time. It’s thought this led many of them to child neglect and prostitution. So gin became known as ‘Mother’s ruin”
– Gin and tonics were invented in colonial India when they found the quinine in tonic water was effective in preventing malaria. Soldiers added gin to tonic water to make it more palatable
So 2014 has got off to a great start (ignoring the fact our roof has a leak and my train has been late every day this week). I’m not drinking in January, and people are actually sponsoring me to do this. And there’s lots to look forward to in 2014, including lots of lovely, new restaurants opening in London for me, you and the rest of London to try out.
I thought I’d compile a list of the five places I am most looking forward to visiting (in no particular order of preference) in early 2014…
Q Grill will be offering a London slant on the now-ubiquitous-in-the-London-scene American barbecue restaurant. From the team behind Islington’s Fish and Chip Shop, Q Grill will see chef Phil Eagle from Hix fame serving up a range of “raw, charred and smoked favourites” including moonshine-battered shrimp, queen scallop ceviche and pecan wood-roasted chicken. There will also be a strong line in cocktails, with American spirits playing front and centre roles. With a 150-cover capacity, Q Grill is going to be a big player in 2014. Opens January 25th,33 Chalk Farm Road, NW1 8AJ
The Big Easy “Bar.B.Q and Crabshack” already has an outpost on the King’s Road, but February 2014 will see them opening a second branch in the heart of Covent Garden. Similarly to the aforementioned Q Grill, The Big Easy will be serving up a range of American-style barbecue dishes. Their signature dishes in Chelsea include canadian lobster; fresh crab and shrimp; a classic chophouse burger; and surf and turf. With a huge following out west, The Big Easy is sure to be a huge hit in central London too. If you sign up on their website (link above) then you can receive more info and get an invite to their 50 per cent off soft launch. Opens February 2014, 12 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, WC2E 7NA
Slightly more than “just” a restaurant, Brooklyn Bowl, the acclaimed NYC nightlife destination hailed by Rolling Stone as “one of the most incredible places on earth,” is opening its first branch this side of the pond. The venue will be in The O2 (stay with me on this, guys!) and will be a medium-sized concert venue with 12 lanes of bowling (some of which you can hire in a private area, if you hunger for more clandestine bowling…). Food will come from the Bromberg Bros. team and will include oyster po’ bos, cajun catfish, egg shooters and fried chicken. Beerheads will be kept happy with beers from the local Meantime Brewing Company. Opens January 16th, O2 Arena, Peninsula Square, SE10 0DX.
Enough American-style cuisine! All things Nordic are set to be a big blimmin’ deal for 2014, so this opening in the old Hackney Central train station is coming just at the right time. Oslo will be an all-day eatery that turns into a live music venue in the evening, with a late license ’til 3am. Alright then! Food-wise, head chef Dave Ahern will be fronting a menu that takes on strong Nordic influences. Expect pickling, smoking, curing… and I hope some kind of mushroom sauces, lingonberry… meatballs? Come on Dave, be a pal. As a massive fan of Scandinavian culture, I am very excited about this opening. Oslo opens on January 17th, 1a Amhurst Road, Hackney, E8 1LL.
Fresh off the back of various successful 2013 openings, including Ape & Bird, the Polpo team are opening – or should that be re-opening – Polpetto on Berwick Street, Soho. Having been hugely over-subscribed for when it was first open, the new venue will seat many more people craving it’s Italian food. The same head chef, Florence Knight, from its previous incarnation, is on board at new Polpetto so expect much more of the same: delicious Italian sharing-y food, but with the added bonus of actually being able to score a reservation. Opens January 2014, 11 Berwick Street, W1F 0PL.
Last night I headed off to the soft launch, or even pre-soft launch, at Jackson & Rye, a new bar/restaurant in the middle of Soho. With the influence of the owner of Grillshack, Jackson & Rye is a New York-style venue with a 1920s flavour.
It was very much still in its training stages last night. However, if last night was anything to go by (and I hope it was) and they manage to maintain the excellent standards on display when they open fully, Jackson & Rye will be a contender for my favourite Soho haunt.
The menu is very reasonable for the quality of the food, and is obviously focused around modern American cuisine. Think fried chicken, whipped potatoes, steak, chowder. All that good stuff. They also have an extensive selection of rye to drink, with bourbon cocktails being their forte. One of my dining companions claimed they mixed the best Old Fashioned they’d ever had (and between me and you, they’ve had their fair share).
I went for a prime fillet steak, which was served with fries and a béarnaise sauce. I asked for the steak medium rare, which was cooked perfectly for me – pink juices a go-go. The steak was however a little chewy, which I found a bit of a shame. The sauce on the other hand was perfect – rich with a sharp tang, perfectly wobbly. And praise where praise is due: the fries were as good as any I have tasted.
Also on our table was a fillet of seabass, which was soft and perfectly cooked, with a gentle fishy flavour and was served with a caper sauce. A much lighter choice!
The HUGE rosemary and lemon chicken was sublime, and was juicy and incredibly flavoursome. However, it came with shoestring fries that were ever-so slightly undercooked and chewy.
Lastly, the buttermilk fried chicken had our table in raptures. The batter was light, fluffy and crispy and the chicken wonderfully juicy. The portion was generous too, with two large pieces of breast served up.
Although feeling stuffed, we moved on to dessert. I chose a melting chocolate sundae. I think it was probably the best pudding I’ve had in my life. Served solid, when warm caramel is poured over a decadent dark chocolate dome, the chocolate melts revealing fluffy, rich ice cream underneath. The caramel then half-sets, creating kind of delicious dime bar-style nuggets in the ice cream. Oh my God, I want to eat it all over again.
We also ordered a frozen souffle, which was fruity and light but didn’t really going anywhere and wasn’t varied in texture or flavour. If it had some fruit or sauce with it, it would have made the dish much more well-rounded.
The blueberry and apple cobbler was great – the apples had been perfectly cooked so they held together and gave a lovely munchable texture, while the blueberry flavour came through strongly. I normally find blueberries a bit insipid, so I was pleasantly surprised. However, the pudding was brought down slightly by the custard that was the consistency of whole milk, meaning it all sort of disappeared as soon as it was poured over.
Rounding off the puddings was a pecan pie – which was just as it should be. I don’t know if it was anything spectacular, but it was fine.
As I said, Jackson & Rye was in the training stage, so it will hopefully work on these very minor issues and bring everything up to match the spectacular level of the buttermilk chicken, Old Fashioneds and chocolate sundae. I will definitely be back again. The atmosphere was delightful and buzzy, the staff friendly and eager to help and the food varied and fun.
Ape & Bird opened last week to much fan fare. In a huge old Victorian pub in Covent Garden, the team behind Polpo, Mishkins and Spuntino have brought something to the area that was desperately needed: a decent, large pub. Soho and Covent Garden aren’t exactly famous for their decent pubs with great customer service. It’s more of a “drink on the pavement, try not to get run over and fight your way to the bar” type vibe in the rest of the area. Ape & Bird is an oasis of calm in comparison.
Last night I went along with two of my favourite people to see whether the place lived up to the hype. On entering the pub, it was totally empty. “Err, hello?” I said to the three front of house staff who were eagerly waiting to greet people. The place was dead, but it was 5.45pm on a Monday evening. I was swiftly taken through the main pub/more formal dining room to a back “public bar”.
The lighting was soft, the decor was tasteful and the wine was expensive. They only had three red and three whites on in the bar out of a longer list, which was a slight shame. Later in the night the beers also dwindled as we were told our choice beer was “off” now. Teething problems, I am sure, as the pub is only just out of its soft launch phase.
We decided to have food, so were ushered into the main pub bit, which was adorned by fairy lights, candle lights and gentle music. We decided it was a perfect date venue, and, being terribly boring, the music wasn’t too loud so we were able to hear each other. There’s nothing worse than having to nod along to someone’s story but not really getting a word of it.
The menu is modern British cuisine: chestnut and mushroom shepherd’s pie, steak and chips, trout with shrimp and tarragon butter. I went for a cheeseburger with a side of cheese and truffle fries. Andrew also got a burger but with rosemary and salt potato skins, and Amy got the veggie shepherd’s pie.
The portions were modest, but on reflection I think this is because I have become used to places overloading the plates. I admit these photos aren’t great but this is 65% because of the “date lighting” there and only 35% because I am terrible at taking photos.
The burger was really decent – plenty of sauce, nice and meaty and a good ratio of sharp pickles. The fries were really rich, but provided an excellent salt and fat hit. Andrew’s potato skins were crunchy and deliciously herby, but I think the fries were best.
The service at Ape & Bird was a bit hit and miss, and slightly on the cold side from some staff members, but for this you have to be forgiving in the opening days of the place. Despite this, Ape & Bird is a warm and relaxed venue, and with many other bars within the venue (including an amazing-looking subterranean cocktail bar), I am already planning my next visit.
The bill came to about £60 for three, with service and drinks.
Ape & Bird Public House, 142 Shaftesbury Avenue, London, WC2H 8HJ
Sometimes life calls for a little date. Not a big date, which would demand for heels, a blowdry and ~booking~ something (P.S. I’ve never got a blowdry for a date. Soz, Andrew). I’m talking a spontaneous, “Hey, shall we go out tonight? Just you and me?” date. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be with someone you feel a bit woozy with love or lust about, it could just as easily be a pal.
These evenings, in my experience, are normally best when they’re local, often in a little place that you discover – a gem that’s budget-friendly. In these places, the staff leave you alone to chat, the wine is decent and the food delicious. You leave the place arm in arm and step out into a cold, dark evening thinking how life is a little bit better for your date being in your life.
I’ve compiled a list of my top five date venues, where I’ve had evenings like this and think you might be able to enjoy them too.
1. Le Mercury, Upper Street, Islington
I’ve had more than one lovely evening here, with a range of different people from friends to family to my boyfriend. Each evening has been great. At Le Mercury they serve simple French food, and offer little tables close to one another and soft candlelight. There’s a huge capacity, and due to their massive popularity in North London they’ve actually expanded from their original restaurant to a second venue just down the road. The great thing about Le Mercury is that for those on a budget or splitting the meal, each offering on the menu is the same price per course. So starters are all £4.45, mains £9.95. And you know what? The food is really bloody good for that price. It holds a little special place in my heart, and is definitely one of Andrew and mine’s favourites.
I’ve written a more extensive review of Petek before, which you can read by clicking on the link above, so I won’t go on too much. But this is one of my fave date venues. It helps we currently live very close to Petek, but it is like a beacon of joy on the somewhat grey Stroud Green Road. Inside the lighting is glowy and soft and the service is friendly without being all up in your grill. It’s pretty darn perfect. And it kind of feels like you’re on a Mediterranean holiday in there. All that is missing is the stray dogs.
3. Kettners, Soho
OK, so Kettners might not fall into the “little-known place” bracket, as it is a London institution, but I like it as a date place so it’s going in, alright? Good.
I’m not talking about the restaurant here, cos that’s all sparkly and new and, well, just a fairly standard Soho restaurant. I’m talking about the champagne and cocktail bar. That might sound a little intimidating, but don’t be put off! Really it’s a cosy and relaxed bar, and is great for people watching. Dangerously, you can buy champagne in glasses, half bottles or bottles. And they stock a lot of champagne. So what might start out as a cheeky flute of bubbles can gloriously descend into an evening of being drunk on champagne and feeling all cosy and great. They do great cocktails too.
4. Albertine, Wood Lane, Shepherd’s Bush
If you ever had the misfortune to be in Shepherd’s Bush, as I did for a good while when I worked at the BBC, then Albertine is like a beautiful oasis in the drab wasteland of Shepherd’s Bush. I’m not suggesting you go there for a meal, because I’ve only had one proper meal there and it was slightly odd and slapdash. No, I mean you go there for drinks and snacks. Albertine’s is a wine bar, and owned by a guy who is obviously passionate about wine. Consequently, the wine list is bloody massive and has wines from all over the world. They also do a good line in bar snacks, with my faves being mini chorizo sausages. It’s all a bit rustic at Albertine’s. You can sit in the window, hunker down for the night and have really great chats.
5. The Prop Store, Southbank
One of my closest and most charming friends introduced me to The Prop Store, for it is attached to the National Theatre, where she works. Had it not been for her, I don’t think I would have found it as it’s quite easy to miss a lot of stuff on Southbank, especially in the Summer when the Prop Store operates.
Yes, indeed, this is a seasonal bar. As I said, it’s run by the National and exhibits inside an interesting array of props from the theatre company. The bar itself is kind of tiny and it does take a while to get served, but the drinks are reasonable for Southbank, and you can spill out onto the river bank on a hot, sticky summer evening and have one of those nights when you’re like, “Yeah, London is so pretty and awesome and I get to live here!” And although I generally find Southbank a bit too frantic in the summer months, it’s nice to rest up at the Prop Store and watch the world go by.
So that’s my list. Do you have any cute little places you like to go on for dates? Think I’ve missed somewhere? Rant at me in the comments.
Burger & Lobster is the Ronseal of restaurants: it does exactly what it says on the tin. They serve burgers or they serve lobster. Those are your two choices. In theory, anyway. Both items are priced the same, £20 (again, in theory). It does raise the question of who would order a £20 burger when you can get a £20 lobster, but let’s proceed with this review, shall we?
We – and by “we” I mean Andrew and I – went with two awesome pals we met at a fitness bootcamp in Highbury Fields. Having falling off the bootcamp wagon and into our bootcamp instructor’s bad graces, we decided to go the whole hog and eat loads of food together. In for a penny, in for a pound. We went one rainy Saturday night, and put our names down – there was an hour wait I seem to remember, so we went for a swift drink in the Crown and Two Chairmen up the road (a Soho fave of mine, I know not why), but were called much more quickly than an hour to say our table was ready.
We sat down and ordered cocktails and beer, and got down to the serious business of choosing a crustacean to eat. The menu goes that you can get a lobster roll with chips and salad for £20, a burger with chips and salad for £20 or a lobster with chips and salad for £20. I know I already covered this, but there are further options. You can get a larger lobster to share for more money, which comes with unlimited fries (greedy!) and salad (meh, who cares?!). We went for a massive lobster to share between the four of us, with unlimited fries. On the advice of our waiter, we got it grilled instead of boiled and we all opted for the lemon and garlic butter sauce.
Our monster lobster arrived. Yikes! We donned our complimentary and very flattering plastic bibs and went to work. It was DELICIOUS. The lobster was sweet and soft, tasting ever so slightly of the sea. The butter sauce made the dish stand up to attention, and the fries were, well, they’re fries but they were good.
The tasty cocktails kept coming, and the atmosphere was lovely – relaxed yet buzzing. The waiters were pretty busy, as the place was packed to the rafters, and it is a large restaurant, but they were attentive.
The meal was slightly on the pricey side – I think about £140 for four with drinks maybe. Could be wrong, it was a while ago. BUT we did all eat A LOT of lobster, and it was such a fun night out. It was a really sociable, laid-back evening, and those are some of my favourite evenings.
Burger & Lobster, 36 Dean Street, London, W1D 4PS
Burger & Lobster also have branches in Mayfair, Faringdon and the City (near Bank)
Nearest tube: Leicester Square (7 min walk), Tottenham Court Road (9 min walk)