Saturday, 1 August 2009

Bull and Last

On a beautiful spring evening four of us were keen to try out what sounded like another good local gastropub, delightfully situated on Hampstead Heath. The pub changed hands last year and was taken over by Etive Pubs who also own the Prince of Wales in Putney. What’s encouraging from the start is that there is a blackboard above the bar listing some interesting food suppliers that include Mary Holbrook (cheese, British Lop pigs and kid), Rushbury House Farm in Gloucestershire for beef and Colchester Oyster fishery in East Mersea. It also raises expectations.

As it was a weekday, we were seated at a table in the main part of the bar (busy and noisy). Apparently they don’t use the upstairs dining room until the weekends – something I’ll bear in mind for next time as I take a while to adapt to noisy environments. The service was friendly and attentive. For starters the others ordered potted mackerel, crab toast, celeriac and wild garlic soup and I had the homemade charcuterie board. It was difficult to fault any of this. The servings are generous – admittedly mine was the priciest at £10, but it was shared around the table and would be ideal for two. The potted mackerel was keenly balanced between the oily richness of the fish and refreshing lemon, pickled beetroot provide further lift. The modestly named crab toast was, in fact, a slice of sourdough toast topped with a luxurious pile of dressed crab. Very decadent. The deliciously seasonal soup was served with mace butter and hazelnuts and my charcuterie included delicacies such as duck proscuitto and a very tasty cube of deep-fried lamb breast, enlivened by side portion of tangy pickles. To accompany this lot, we selected a bottle of Godello from Galicia in Spain – sufficiently clean, fresh and aromatic, yet with some creamy richness and weight. It worked very well.

Our main courses were skate with purple sprouting broccoli, almonds, shrimps, brown butter and capers; beer battered haddock with pea puree, chips (fabulous big wedges, triple fried) and tartare sauce; hare cannelloni with oakleaf, capers, raddichio and hazelnut salad and English rose veal, beef ragu, creamed spinach and crispy potatoes. And we had moved on to a versatile bottle of ripe, juicy Vin de Pays du Gard Syrah-Grenache. We were all very impressed and felt that, compared with other local hostelries, they were going the extra mile, serving food that was clearly a step up from, for example, The Junction – and this is no criticism of them. The prices are all a couple of pounds or so higher at The Bull and Last and justifiably so. For the sake of research, although we didn’t need it, to finish the meal, we shared a couple of portions of home-made Ferrero Rocher ice-cream which, despite sounding a bit pikey, was gorgeous!

The wine list is clearly laid out and includes some smart looking ciders as well as keenly selected varied wines, most of which under £30 a bottle. Furthermore, several wines are available by the glass or 375ml carafe. There are also several sweet wines and ports by the glass and, being a very decent pub, a great range of beers. My only gripe was that, given the tasty range of bar snacks and olives on offer, no sherries are served.

Our bill came to about £40 per head without service, but you could be much more restrained than we were! The informal nature of the place also means that you could just come in for a drink and some nibbles (eg the amazing chips) – lots of options. We had a super evening and will definitely return. Apparently, they will also be offering picnic hampers for the Heath.
(Visited April 2009)

168 Highgate Road, London NW5 1QS; tel 020 7267 3641

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500 Cinquecento

I’d heard some good things about this local Italian restaurant, just down from Archway. The owners, chef Mario Magli and manager Giorgio Pili, met while working Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant and went on to work at Passione in Charlotte Street. Magli also had a spell at Jamie Oliver’s 15.

At 8pm on a Tuesday the restaurant was almost full and buzzy. It is a simply decorated room that does get fairly noisy (bare tables, no curtains etc to absorb the clatter and chat). The service is efficient and helpful and an assortment of superb home-made bread quickly arrived at the table. The menu spoils you for choice as there is a tempting selection of anti-pasti/appetisers, followed by pasta dishes in starter and main course sizes, delicious looking main courses and some ‘specials’. We selected the Tagliere 500 from the specials, a mixed platter of cured meats, cheese, pâté, assorted vegetables, a tiny dish of leek and potato soup and something lovely with crab. We also couldn’t resist the sound of the deep fried ravioli filled with provola cheese and mint (Raviolo ripieno di provola e menta) so we ordered what we expected to be one each and ended up with four per portion!

We were already feeling quite full when the main courses arrived. My friend’s ravioli filled with duck served with a butter and cinnamon sauce (Ravioli ripieni di anatra con salsa di burro e canella) was a beautiful dish: silky pasta encasing tender duck seasoned with a touch of orange and the sauce was rich yet balanced. My gnocchi with braised leeks (Gnocchi di patate con porri) had a featherlight texture and the leeks had complex caramelized overtones. Very very good! Some of the portions are very generous – I couldn’t finish my gnocchi and they kindly let me have a doggy bag!

Somehow we found space for puddings and concluded our meal with Panna cotta with pistachios served with a strawberry sauce and Semifreddo al torrone (nougat ice cream) which was topped with crushed hazelnut and served with a chocolate sauce. The dessert menu also suggests a sweet wine to accompany each dish – also difficult to resist as the recommendations read so well.

A couple of points about the wines: there is an excellent selection by the glass starting at just over £2 and the main wine list offers a broad range of Italian wines with a quite a few bottles under £20.

We were thoroughly impressed. The cooking is of a very high standard and 500 offers great value for money. Including wine and tip (service is not included), our meal came to just over £70 and could have been considerably less. A quick supper of some pasta and a spot of wine needn’t come to any more than £15, but do try to spoil yourselves a bit more if it’s your first visit – local restaurants don’t come much better than this. Booking is essential.
(Visited January 2009)

782 Holloway Road, London N19 3JH; tel 020 7272 3406
(Apparently, the name is inspired by the iconic tiny car by Fiat.)

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York and Albany

At the top of Parkway, opposite Regents park, this imposing but previously neglected Nash building has been renovated and transformed into an up-market bar, restaurant and deli.
I was delighted to hear about the renaissance of this landmark and couldn’t wait to try it out. However, I have to admit that I’m not the greatest fan of Gordon Ramsay: although his smarter restaurants are slickly run, they lack the touch of magic or alchemy that really excites me and I find his approach leans towards the safe and commercial. That said, Ramsay has some great people working for him and his standards are high. Jason Atherton at Maze and Angela Hartnett are exceptional chefs who cook with real flair and it is the latter who oversees the kitchen at the York & Albany.
Anyway, on the wintry evening of our visit, we were struck by how elegant, warm and relaxed the place was and ordered cocktails at the bar from a varied and fairly priced list. (There is a particularly tempting ‘after dinner’ section including the delectable sounding ‘lemon meringue martini’.) As we were running a little late, we moved through to the restaurant and placed our order. The service was friendly, informative and efficient, and almost instantly a generous wooden platter of Italian meats and sausage appeared as an appetizer. To begin, my husband ordered game ‘mosaic’ (terrine) with toasted sourdough and I went for the fried duck’s egg with field mushrooms, Jerusalem artichoke and Parmesan. For the main course we settled on a shared roasted corn-fed chicken with bread sauce and seasonal root vegetables. The starters were excellent, particularly my duck’s egg, which was an inspired medley of autumn flavours with a generous drizzle of truffle oil. Our roast chicken was comforting and satisfying – simply prepared, allowing good, intense flavours to shine through. The menu as a whole was very tempting and offered lots of seasonal British ingredients, many prepared with a stylish Italian twist. The wine list has a reasonable selection of bottles under £30 and includes several wines available by the glass and 50cl carafes. Our carafe of ripe, yet supple Vin de Pays d’Oc Rouge was a versatile choice.
We thoroughly enjoyed our evening, finishing off our wine back in the bar in deep, comfy chairs. What’s more, we were pleasantly surprised when our bill for the two courses (including wine and cocktails) came in at under £100.
I have since been back twice for drinks and been equally impressed (and reassured seeing Hartnett herself at the helm in the kitchen). The place is ‘grown-up’ and combines a sense of occasion with sleek, relaxed professionalism – more Manhattan than London. Highly recommended.
(Visited November 2008)
127–129 Parkway, London NW1 7PS; tel 020 7388 3344

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Le Ribouldingue (Paris)

This restaurant really caught my eye as it specialises in offal and other off-cuts. We ate ravioli of pig's trotter and ear with a light, foaming foie gras sauce and lamb's tongue salad. Our main courses were veal kidney poêlé and a suberb ox cheek dish – like the best casseroled beef you've ever had! We kept things simple (as our blowout at Senderens was to follow the next evening – see separate review) and stuck to a bottle of nicely maturing, farmyardy Côtes de Provence red which went excellently with the earthy flavours and strange textures of the food. I can't remember Nathan's pudding because I was so blown away by the 'special' – pain perdu with caramel and fleur de sel ice cream. Exquisite!

(Visited November 2007)

10, Rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre; 75005 Paris

Senderens (Paris)

Our meal at Senderens began with an amuse-bouche of pumpkin purée which had a sprinkling of crunchy grains of rice fluffed up like 'rice crispies'. The first glass of wine included in the 'menu dégustation' hadn’t arrived at this point, but the elegant soup was satisfying enough on its own.

The first course (scallops with ravioli of swiss chard, foam of Jerusalem artichoke, served with a finger of toast with caper butter and thin slices of raw chestnuts) was accompanied by Côtes de Provence, Domaine Pinchinat 2006 (Rolle and Clairette). The wine’s 'mineralité saline', as described in the menu notes, was a pleasing match for the scallop and had enough breadth of fruit, floral notes and fresh acidity to handle the range of flavours and textures of the dish (even the slightly tangy, crunchy raw chestnuts). This versatile wine might also have worked nicely with the amuse-bouche.

The second course (roasted foie gras with a salad of fresh figs, powdered liquorice and slivers of almond) was served with Porto Rozès White Reserve which had been aged in oak for seven years in a 'tawny' style. This was an interesting and daring partnership – the semi-sweet, spiciness of the port working well with the foie gras, fruit and medicinal spice (on the corner of the plate into which you dip the liver). The broad texture of the port stood up to the richness of the dish, but the alcohol was a little too warm and dominant. About halfway through our meal the sommelier asked us what we thought of the wines chosen for the set menu and agreed that the port might have been a touch too overwhelming, particularly as the foie gras was roasted and then cut into slices, so not as caramelised as it might otherwise have been. He did seem genuinely interested in what we thought, something you wouldn’t necessarily expect in such a 'destination' restaurant.

The main course was roast Spanish milk-fed lamb with pequillo peppers and 'cocos de Paimpol'. The meat was served in three ways – quickly cooked for a pink and juicy result, meltingly slow-cooked and tender and, thirdly, the pepper had been stuffed with loosely minced lamb. The dish had been garnished with fine crispy slices of garlic with a puffed texture like 'Quaver' snacks, and deglazed pan juices were poured over the lamb at the table. Gauby’s Côtes de Roussillon Villages 'Les Calcinaires' 2006 was a particularly successful match. This blend of Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah is a sleek, polished wine with layers of complex dark fruit, spice and stony minerality. These aromas and the wine’s intensity and length were delicious alongside the lamb (slightly sweet), pepper, garlic and creamy beans. The elegant structure of the wine, with its fine-grained tannins and freshly balanced acidity worked seamlessly with the lamb’s delicate texture and slight fattiness.
Our little pre-dessert was iced curry mousse with a thin slice of chocolate: a gently spicy 'pick-me-up' that we enjoyed with a few more sips of the white port that we had left over from earlier on.

The spicy theme continued with the dessert proper – Szechuan pepper meringue served with crystallised lemon marmalade and ginger ice cream. This kaleidoscope of distinct, bold flavours and textures was enthusiastically embraced by Sauternes Doisy Daëne 2002, with its rich, waxy texture, luscious candied fruit and spicy vanilla oak.
We also really enjoyed finishing off the Sauternes with the petits fours and it was particularly mouth-watering with some pink grapefruit dipped in white chocolate: a memorable conclusion to a delicious meal in a very stylish restaurant that seemed to really care.

(Visited November 2007)

Menu 150 Euros incl wines
Menu 110 Euros excl wines

9 Place de la Madeleine; 75008 Paris; tel +33 (0) 1 42 65 22 90
This review also appears on

Drinking with take-aways

Just because you're having a take-away doesn't mean you can't have something decent to drink with it. Here are a few suggestions.

Classic choice: beer – thirst quenching, refreshing and versatile. Good wine options include ripe, fruity, moderately tannic reds (eg Chilean Merlot, South African Pinotage, Californian Zinfandel). These wines have enough flavour to stand up to strongly flavoured food, but are still fairly gentle on the palate; for some reason, heavy, dry tannins really accentuate spiciness (and not in a good way). Fruity whites or rosés also work well: refreshing, easy to drink and able to cope with a range of flavours and textures. Off-dry or slightly sweet wines can be surprisingly good with spicy food to offset the heat. 

Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese
I've grouped these together as often they all include a combination of sweet, sour and spicy flavours, although Chinese can be a bit more fatty. Some delicate Chinese cuisine and dim sum could warrant some decent Champagne (see Japanese below) but, otherwise, refreshing, dry, aromatic, unoaked white wines such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Austrian Grüner Veltliner fit the bill. Off-dry Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris also work, but might get a bit cloying with rich or fried food. There's always chilled lager for spicier dishes, and China tea as a non-alcoholic option. If I'm not drinking wine, I really enjoy ginger and lemongrass cordial with Oriental food.

Classic choice: sake (rice wine), although it’s a bit of an acquired taste. For delicately flavoured dishes eg sashimi and sushi equally subtle wines: blanc de blancs Champagne (as it’s only made from white grapes ie Chardonnay). Unoaked, neutral, restrained whites: Muscadet, Chablis, northern Italian whites (eg Soave, Gavi) and modern Spanish whites (eg Rias Baixas) should also help enhance the purity of the food. For more oomph to counter wasabi, try Australian or New Zealand dry Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc. Soft, round, fruity reds (see above) are a good choice for spicier dishes such as anything with a teriyaki marinade.

Classic choice: Italian reds eg Chianti, Valpolicella, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. If these aren’t available, try something that also has good acidity and a slight rustic touch, such as red Loire (Saumur, Chinon), Pinot Noir (ideally lower level or inexpensive Burgundy) and Portuguese reds would all help tackle the oiliness of the melted cheese (and meat/sausage).

Fish and chips
At times I consider fish and chips such a treat that I’ll happily have it with a bottle of something sparkling which, being refreshingly acidic, cuts through the fat beautifully (Cava, Prosecco and beyond according to your budget). Unoaked, crisp, citrussy white wines perform a similar role (eg lean Loire Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc; northern Italian or even English whites). A delicious choice of beer would be a fresh, lemony weissbier/wheat-beer such as Hoegaarden.

Yes, I know these are generally consumed AFTER drinking, but if you’re calmly enjoying kebabs at home, why not try to get some tasty, characterful Greek wine to continue the Mediterranean mood (Oddbins and Waitrose)? If not, southern Italy and Spain would do the trick – reds and whites. Rosé might also help remind you of holidays. Otherwise, you could always get the beers in…

Take-aways: what I love about them

I love food and I'm quite greedy so, of course, take-aways can be very appealing. I'm only human! But, as someone who loves cooking (and who is married to someone who also loves cooking), we get a bit choosy about about take-aways and when we do treat outselves to a take-away, it's usually something we wouldn't attempt to cook. Here are a couple of our favourites:

Firezza Pizza
This small pizza chain has two local outlets (St Paul’s Road, Islington and Crouch End). I’ve been a devoted customer for several years now as used to live down the road from the Islington branch. What makes Firezza so special is that they use traditional wood-fired ovens – resulting in a thin and deliciously smoky pizza base. What’s more, the ingredients used for the toppings are top-notch and the menu is completely mouth-watering. The pizzas are served by length, a half-metre being the minimum order which can be made up of two toppings. This is about the same as two 12” round pizzas, but better value (although 12” round pizzas are available). A little bit confusing, but worth getting your head around as the pizzas are sensational. The menu also includes some really tasty veggie options (especially the Vegetali which features wood-roasted aubergines) and some tempting side dishes and salads. There are also some desserts if you think you’ll have space. (We’ve never needed them as we almost always over-order and enjoy our leftover pizzas reheated for lunch the next day.) Firezza’s delivery service also includes wine, beers and San Pellegrino water and decent soft drinks (and even cigarettes for you naughty smokers); a number of different offers and deals are available on the website.

Blue Sea Fish Bar
This is over on the western side of Kentish Town, but it’s well worth the short drive or cycle as Tufnell Park lacks a proper old style chippy. The Blue Sea clearly has a loyal following judging by the queues for the fried-to-order fish served up by two very friendly and chatty brothers. I’m afraid I’m partial to roe and mushy peas, as well as battered fish, but you can go easy on the chips here. One large portion should be plenty enough for two people (particularly if you, too, like all the ‘extras’). The fish comes in quite a light, crisp batter encasing moist, tender, flaking flesh, and you can choose from a good selection (although it’s worth asking what they recommend that particular day). The chips are fairly big, but crisp and, like the fish, will have been freshly fried. The popularity of the place does ensure a good turnover of food, so nothing seems to have been sitting around for long. A really indulgent classic supper.
143 Queens Crescent, NW5 4ED; tel 020 7267 2299

Take-aways: what I hate about them

Here in north London, like so many towns in the UK, we are overwhelmed by fast food outlets and it makes my blood boil seeing how many are clustered around local schools preying on hungry teenagers (councils really need to do something about this). So much of this food is morbidly fatty and made with frighteningly cheap and manipulated ingredients (KFC anyone?) What's more, most people don't seem to realise that fast food is an expensive meal option compared with cooking from scratch. And it's not even that fast. A five-minute walk (or drive) there and back, a bit of a wait for your food (considerable longer if you're ordered over the phone from Pizza Hut or your local Indian which could be half an hour or so): you could cook some pasta and serve with pesto, tinned sardines or tomato sauce in less time and it won't cost anything like as much. So there!