Grain Store

Much like it’s next door neighbour, Caravan, Grain Store represents the current trends in London food. Careful sourcing of ingredients, simple cooking and an interior that could be one of a hundred restaurants (high tables, funky stools, exposed brickwork, industrial paraphernalia). However, they’ve generated a considerable buzz since opening – is there any substance to the hype?

Arriving without a booking just after 12 they were happy to seat us provided they could have the table back in 90 minutes. Grain Store has a particularly cosmopolitan menu – vegan and vegetarian options abound. I definitely want to come back and try their chefs choice menu – you pay £35 a head and get fed. Brilliant! Sadly that’s not available for lunch/brunch. I opted for their daily special from the josper oven – pommes dauphinois and rabbit.

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Served in a cast iron pan, the potatoes were nicely cooked and the rabbit was beautifully tender. I’d have preferred a little more crunch, but otherwise it was a lovely dish – carefully balanced and creamy. The presentation isn’t anything to write home about, but then this is a rustic dish.

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I also sampled their pancakes and bacon. The pancakes were impressively thick and very fluffy while the bacon was the perfect balance of savoury and sweet – they could have been a little more generous with the maple syrup though!

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Service was accommodating and friendly and they had a happy buzz on a dreary Saturday lunchtime. By early afternoon the queue of people waiting to be seated was testament to their popularity!

If you’re looking for something fun and modern, and especially if you need to cater for those of a vegetarian persuasion, this is an excellent option – despite the cookie cutter environment, they do offer something different.

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Tota

I’ve recently moved south of the river – deep into a land known for the quality and quantity of its curry houses. But slowly, as has happened in Clapham and Balham, a different breed of restaurant is opening – catering to the young professionals attracted by the cheap housing and good transport links.

Modern – ‘trendy’ restaurants all seem to be cut from the same warehouse cloth. The exposed lightbulbs, bare brickwork and vintage chairs are very much in evidence – as is the emphasis on simplicity and flavour. Tota is born of this mould – a stones throw from Tooting Broadway it offers a welcome alternative to the indians and chicken shops that populate the high street. On a damp Sunday morning they were reassuringly busy, but managed to squeeze us in.

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Their brunch menu ticks all the boxes: eggs, pancakes, yoghurt – even waffles. I opted for something from the specials board – huevos rancheros.

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It was really rather lovely – simple and none the worse for it. Slightly light on seasoning and chilli but I can understand that some people don’t fancy a full frontal assault on their tastebuds first thing on a Sunday morning.

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The rest of their menu looks enticing, their orange juice was blessedly cold and the staff were friendly and attentive – if you’re in this neck of the woods and looking for brunch then it’s a great shout.

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Mel’s

I’ve written already about the emergence of brunch as a social event in London. There’s something wonderfully civilised about going to a restaurant with your friends for breakfast – enjoying some good food and a chat and still having the rest of your weekend available. The perfect brunch should combine a varied menu – I’m beginning to come to terms with the fact that not everyone views a full English as a ‘light’ option – with a relaxed environment and a convenient location. Mel’s has all these things.

Situated on Garratt Lane – a stone’s throw from Earlsfield station and a leisurely walk from the shiny new base of Rob’s Food Blog – Mel’s is trendy, relaxed pub that opens it’s doors early for a variety of brunch based delights. The weather was gorgeous so they’re garden seating was much appreciated, there’s even a decent amount of shade for those of us who are prone to burning. They offer the usual range of coffees, juices and cocktails – the orange juice was nicely cold, though a little small, but the coffee was excellent if a little timid – if I’m heading out the door for breakfast I want something strong enough to jump start a hippo.

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I went for their ‘Young American’ pancake stack – a pile of fluffy thick American pancakes, interspersed with bacon, sausage, tomato, mushrooms and topped with a fried egg. All drenched in maple syrup – obviously. It was heavenly – nicely cooked with good ingredients and the perfect way to start the day. My friends went for their fruit and nut stack and the baked eggs with potato and chorizo given the happy munching that ensued I think they enjoyed it. Service was prompt and the staff were very friendly – for brunch in nice surroundings it’s even reasonably priced.

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On a sunny Saturday morning, there aren’t many places I’d rather be.

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Skylon

Skylon has been a fixture on the London restaurant scene for years. Located on the rear of the Royal Festival Hall, facing out over the south bank and the Thames, the enormous windows are the restaurants best feature. There are still hints of the original post-war architecture but it has been heavily re-designed inside into a sleek, modern dining space.

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Split into two – the front section is a grill/brasserie, while further on represents something closer to ‘fine dining’. The menu is refreshingly simple – there is no a la carte – just order a starter, main and dessert. Dishes are titled just as clearly – lamb, sole, duck etc. The wine list is extensive – we went for a lovely californian Zinfandel.

A complimentary ‘amuse’ started off the meal – small pieces of bread with unremarkable toppings – nice, but by no means special.

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To start I had venison carpaccio. The dish was elegantly presented, the meat sliced thinly and the beetroot carefully cut – but it lacked a certain something. It could easily have been beef.

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My main was the lamb – I asked for it pink, but it came much closer to medium. The jus was a lovely consistency, if a little light on seasoning. The sweetbreads, however, were excellent; crisply fried and delicious. The griotte marmalade was a nice touch while the chard ‘gratin’ was a bit unnecessary – potato would have worked far better.

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Between courses we were brought a hibiscus palate cleanser. The foam was slightly unusual – i’m assuming they’ve used agar agar and I’m not sure it’s worked. While it was very light, the taste was just faintly floral. Citrus would have felt cleaner!

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For dessert I opted for their take on a black forest gateaux. This dish certainly stepped up the technicality of the cooking both in terms of technique and textural contrast. Light modernist sponge (gas siphon and a microwave?) with rich cherries, chocolate pieces, almond crumble and a lovely pistachio ice cream. It was clean, precise, and if you like deconstruction – great fun. My only criticism would be a lack of booze – a good slug of kirsch would have transformed the dish.

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Skylon is a good restaurant – anything else is just being mean. Service was friendly, if a little slow, and the dining room is gorgeous, if a little loud. They serve food which is refined and elegant, if a little soulless. It’s a study in ‘fine dining’ but makes you miss those who are prepared to push it a little further and let their ingredients sing.

Skylon on Urbanspoon

The Hand and Flowers

The world of haute cuisine is unashamedly stuffy. Sommeliers prowl among linen clad tables clutching wine lists thicker than dictionaries. Immaculately coiffured waiters glide serenely through extravagantly decorated rooms, explaining in hushed, reverential tones the provenance of course sixteen of the tasting menu. This is the world of the michelin star and the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, culinary landmarks. So you can imagine the stir when a little pub in Marlow was handed two stars, easily ranking it among the top twenty eating experiences in the UK.

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Set in a quiet little riverside village, around an hour outside London on the train, The Hand and Flowers is a shining example of all that’s wonderful with British food. Over the last eight years Tom Kerridge has honed and refined his vision of the perfect pub. There’s a bar with a great selection of real ales, the dining room is small, initimate and relaxed; and there’s ample parking with a lovely garden. That’s where the similarities with your local stop. Reservations are like hens teeth, for weekends and evenings they’re booked out six months in advance. The waiting staff are friendly and wonderfully efficient. The menu ranges from traditional pub fare (fish and chips) to the exotically gastronomic (whole baby truffle encroute – with foie gras). The wine list is a connoisseurs dream – several keenly priced bottles are available and the selection of ‘natural’ and biodynamic wines is second to none.

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On a beautifully sunny April afternoon I made the trek out from London for a luxuriously late lunch. A gentle stroll through the picturesque village from the station was a great way to start the meal. We were greeted warmly and shown to our table in the centre of the small but perfectly formed dining room – it really does look like a normal, if rather nice, pub. The menu proved a real challenge though – I could have happily picked five or six starters and at least four mains. After much deliberation I went for the Duck and Foie Gras Parfait, followed by the Lamb Bun. My dining companion opted for the Blowtorched Scallops and the Venison.

While we waited, a lovely selection of breads was brought out with a funky vinewood butter bowl and knife. A lovely cone of whitebait also helped ease our hunger pangs.

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Parfait of Duck and Foie Gras with Orange Chutney and Toasted Brioche.
The quenelle was beautifully executed – I snagged a small sample of the chilled parfait with the fork and was instantly rendered speechless. It was incredibly smooth and rich with a gorgeous ducky tang. Adding it to the brioche gave some lovely textural contrast and the sweet, fluffy bread worked really well with the rich parfait. The final flourish was the orange chutney – sticky, spicy and full of citrus flavours. Duck and orange is by no means inventive, but it works for a reason and i’ve never enjoyed the combination more. To create a dish where each element is executed perfectly is one thing – to make them all sing in unison is quite another.

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Blowtorched Scottish Scallop with Warm Roast Chicken Bouillon,
Morels, Nasturtium and Apple.
This dish appeared on Masterchef: The Professionals and is deceptively clever. Cooking the scallops with a blowtorch helps prevent overcooking them while adding the lovely flavour of caramelised scallop. The warm chicken bouillon relies on a modern hydrocolloid to create a thick, warm gel. The flavours are matched and layered with real precision.

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Essex Lamb “Bun” with Sweetbreads and Salsa Verde
This is another of Kerridge’s signature dishes – a beautifully presented bread/pastry sphere encases a protective caul-fat layer, cabbage, slow cooked lamb and sweetbreads and a final nugget of lamb in the centre. It’s a wonderful dish, I love the combination of sweetbreads with two different types of lamb and the salsa verde adds a really nice citrus note with just a delicate mustard hit.

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Loin of Cotswold Venison, King Oyster Mushroom “Farci”, Blowtorched Gem Lettuce and Salt Baked Beetroot
The venison was immaculately cooked, the mushroom provided a lovely earthy note, the lettuce brought a smokey sweetness and the beetroot was sweetly divine. Venison is a great ingredient that doesn’t need embellishment – but if you’re going to do it, this is how. Every element helped support and show a different aspect of the flavour. Magic.

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Hand and Flower Chips
Presented in a little copper pan – these are among the finest chips I have ever snaffled. Cylindrical, freakishly crispy and well seasoned.

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I was initially concerned that we hadn’t ordered enough sides – but by the time we were done we were surprisingly full! With a dessert menu that tempting though – pudding was always going to happen.

Hand & Flowers Chocolate and Ale Cake with Salted Caramel and Muscovado Ice Cream
The immaculate cube of cake (with a lovely powdered coat) masks a salted caramel centre. The muscovado ice cream is inspired and adds a lovely nutty note. The dish was served with a small glass of strong beer which really helped bring out the flavours of the chocolate. It’s a cunning idea and one i’ll definitely be trying in future!

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Banana Soufflé with Gingerbread Custard and Yoghurt Ice Cream
This souffle is nothing if not impressive – a towering edifice to culinary skill. They’ve managed to endow it with a deep banana flavour which marries well with the cinnamon spice of the custard. The texture is almost ethereal, but backed up by a lovely crunchy crumble on the top. Magnificent.

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Conclusion
The Hand and Flowers is a fantastic experience – I adore restaurants that take an idea and polish it to perfection and this is the prime example. There is a daunting array of culinary skill on display and real care and thought taken with each element. They haven’t strayed from the pub format and the really relaxed, friendly environment and staff make it thoroughly enjoyable. The menu is reasonably priced for the ingredients and quality while the set menu represents incredible value – it’s the cheapest michelin starred food in Britain. My only criticism would be that it’s too far away and far too popular. Go – you won’t regret it.

Hand & Flowers on Urbanspoon

Bam-bou

Perched on the corner of Rathbone Place and Percy Street, Bam-bou serves Chinese/Vietnamese/Thai fusion in a converted London town house. The succession of rooms across several floors creates great spaces for group dining and they have a number of set banquet menus to choose from. I’m always slightly nervous about restaurants that blend very different asian styles – instead of capturing the best of both you often end up with a strangely spiced melange – but having heard glowing reviews from several trusted sources I was looking forward to giving it a go!

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The menu we went for was:

Giant Crackers with Bam-Bou Chilli Jam
Nice crackers, but after A. Wong I question if they’re really giant. The jam was lovely, sticky with just the right amount of bite.

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Roast Red pepper and Mango Salad
This was probably the stand out dish for me. Sweet, delicious, light, tropical and just hot enough. Balancing this kind of combination is very difficult and they got it right on the mark.

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Asian crab Cakes with Cucumber Relish
Lovely meaty crab cakes with a firm texture. The lightly pickled cucumber went well and cut through the richness nicely.

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Crispy Prawn Roll with Nouc Cham
The rolls were just ‘good’. Crispy, but a little light on the title ingredient, however the sauce really made it – intriguing and exotic. Yum.

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Grilled Pork Salad with Peanuts and Garlic
I approve of any salad which shoe-horns in some animal. The textural contrast is really the crux of the dish and it works, lots of crisp and crunch. I’d have like to have seen them extend it the other way – some pillowy dumpling pieces would have made it incredible.

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Wok Fried Mushrooms with Broccoli, Sesame and Ginger
While the broccoli made up the bulk of the dish, the star was certainly the mushrooms. Rich, meaty and full of umami.

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Yellow Duck Curry with Pumpkin
A really lovely dish with a strong Thai influence – lots of coconut and lemongrass.

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Steamed Sea Bass with Edamame Salad and Ginger Dressing
At the bottom of a mound of oriental veg is some really well cooked fish – the seabass is a perfect vehicle for the aromatic flavours, they just need to tweak the presentation to show it off!

Stir Fried Prawns with chili and Tomato
A classic combination of flavours. Like the last prawn dish – this was really good, just a little light on the prawns!

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Served with:
Steamed Fragrant Rice
Bam-Bou Noodles with beansprouts and Ginger – A bit of a non-event, compared to the quality of the other dishes – this was a bit ‘meh’. Noodles should have body, the beansprouts should have a bite, it’s not rocket science!
Work-fried Bok Choi with green Chilli and Tamari – The bak choi were small and tender, the seasoning was quite conservative which befits a side, but they could have pushed it a little further.

Oriental Fruit Plate – An exotic mix of fruit, hard to muck up.

Kumquat Brulee – I’m a sucker for anything vaguely citrusy and this was essentially marmelade brulee – what’s not to like!? The crust was thin and crisp while the custard was almost a panna cotta in texture. All it needed was a wildly inauthentic shot of Gran Marnier.

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Service was polite and friendly and they were perfectly happy for us to move at our own pace through the courses. They have a nicely varied wine list and were happy to cater for our group’s varied dietary requirements.

Fusion cusine is very difficult to pull off but they produced a great meal with lovely variation, from the sweet and light to the rich and dark – if you’ve got a group of friends who are looking for a funmeal somewhere a little different then this is a great shout!

Bam-Bou on Urbanspoon

Bubbledogs

Bubbledogs enjoyed one of the hottest restaurant openings of recent times. It’s spent the last few months floating around the top of the ‘talk of the town’ ratings and has generated a phenomenal buzz. When I turned up on a Tuesday evening, the substantial (90 minute) queue was testament to their success – but is there any fire beneath all the smoke?

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Bubbledogs is on Charlotte Street, near Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street. The restaurant is small, seating around 40 people. The decor is fun with sausage dog cartoons and a ‘warehouse crossed with a ski chalet’ feel.

Their concept is very simple – gourmet hot dogs and unusual, small producer, champagne. Hot dogs are available in a range of styles, and in beef or pork. There are only three sides and no desserts. Five or six champagnes are available by the glass and many more by the bottle.

I sampled the Buffalo Dog and the Fourth of July. The bun is wonderfully soft and the sausage nicely spiced if rather thin – I’d have preferred a bit more meat! The toppings were generous and really tasty, the flavour combinations working well with some great textural contrast. I particularly liked the blue cheese – it’s great with the sausage and something I fully intend to borrow. The sweet potato fries were delicious with a really nice crunch. I wasn’t impressed with the Potato Tots – they were just a bit bland.

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The champagne was the real star. I sampled four glasses, all delicious and very different. They ranged from light and fruity to rich and mineraly. In terms of how they work with the hot dogs, I liked it from a ‘child’s fizzy drink’ perspective, it felt like a grown up take on lemonade at a barbecue. Given the level of spice in the food I’m not sure it gives the subtle flavours of the fizz a chance to shine, but it’s a really fun match nonetheless.

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The service was faultless. The hostess on the door was great while we were queueing. Later on, inside, she recognised us as people who’d been waiting a while and took the time to talk to us.

I had a really great time – I’m not sure how long the concept will last, but I like restaurants that focus on one thing and do it well. They’ll face some real challenge when Five Guys finally open in London, but for now they’re pretty unique. I’d like to see more sides, more dips and bigger sausages. They are also very very busy – more locations would help ease the pressure and make getting a table easier. But if you can get there at at time when there isn’t a queue? It’s the perfect ‘fast food’.

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