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Tow Path Cafe

30 May

My last trip back to London was glorious, and reminded me of the many reasons to love the city. I put it down to two significant factors. The Royal Wedding and an extended period of good weather. For some people the Wedding was a joyous moment for the nation, for others it was a tedious media circus best used as an excuse to leave town. Whichever way you looked at it London was the winner. The masses that chose to get away left a half empty city full of happy people enjoying the sunshine and revelry.

I spent a morning on The Regents Canal enjoying the contrast from one side of the water to the other. It seems odd that the extremes of expensive  modern or renovated buildings and the local authority stock of Hackney can exist peacefully with only a slip of water to separate them. I loved the irony of Orwell Court and its many ‘surveillance’ cameras (a really good reason not to love London).

But what I loved most of all was starting and ending at The Tow Path Cafe. I remember first hearing about it when I bumped into my friend and the head chef Laura on the Eurostar to Paris. It struck me as a lovely idea but not one that would necessarily last. However thanks to her excellent food and the endeavours of the owners it seems now both very sensible and well established.

The food is delicious and based on a simple rotating seasonal menu including a very indulgent toasted cheese sandwich, rilette of duck with St John bread, mozzarella and prosciutto, English peas, and now best of all superb soft serve ice cream. Apparently the machine alone costs £4000 so the fact that a generous single serve costs only £1.50 makes it a deal not to be missed.

London By Cafe

31 Jan

Lantana

No trip to London would be complete without a breakfast stop at one of the best cafes in town. Lantana specialises in good coffee and good food without pretense.

The sausage and egg sandwich is always my choice however as you can see their pancakes look pretty good too! Shelagh the owner also writes a great blog.

Ottolenghi

It would seem pretty disingenuous to describe Ottolenghi as a cafe, although ultimately this is what it is, albeit an upmarket one. I would recommend anyone who lives or is visiting London to search out one of their four branches and sample the delights. They offer both eat in or takeaway options except in the tiny Kensington branch.

More often than not Ottolenghi is a stop en route to friends, a guarantee of welcoming smiles, that is for the recipients not always the staff. But on this occasion I met a friend for lunch and we were looked after very well. The salads for which they are rightly famous for were as good as ever and a perfect rhubarb and ginger cheesecake finished things off nicely.

Monmouth

Monmouth has been the benchmark for London coffee for over 30 years and for a longtime has had little competition. More recently an Antipodean invasion has forced the standards of coffee ever higher and with a little effort  you can now find good coffee in most London neighbourhoods. Of course there will always be those that rise to the top, The Espresso Room being my favourite. Yet Monmouth manages to hold its own in the ever more competitive market. A quick stop in the ‘cosy’ shop and cafe on Monmouth Street offered one of the best lattes I have had in a long time.

Leila’s

Leila’s Shop on Calvert Avenue is somewhat of an enigma to me. Now adjoined by her eponymous cafe which is always busy, the shop has seemed on many a visit little more than an oversized pantry, always stocked with the best of quality but on many occasions rather a bare offer. On this flying visit I stopped by and was immediately drawn in by the one of the few reasons to be cheerful in January, Blood Oranges. Once in temptation was too much. From picking up an orange I was then ‘forced’ to get a chunk of Comte and then while paying at the till was seduced by the large slabs of Valrhona cooking chocolate. This gave me an idea for what to use the oranges for. So a little lighter on cash and with my bag of goodies I jumped on my Boris Bike and headed home to make some pots of chocolate and orange ganache.

River Cafe

The final stop on my list is definitely not a cafe. A tip-off led us to Hammersmith’s River Cafe for a Winter special of 2 courses for £22. In context this is practically a freebie that you would be mad to turn down. The quality of cooking and ingredients is not lessened despite the special price, however having seen the full menu I was a little tempted by the Aberdeen Angus Sirloin (£34). Anyway I had a delicious chicken broth with fennel and a ricotta crostini, followed by spatch-cocked chicken and cannelini beans, (Calfs liver with cavalo nero, pictured) we shared desserts and fortunately the famous chocolate nemesis was on the menu.

I advise anyone with the ability the get out of work for a spot of lunch to head down to Hammersmith for a rare treat. (Offer ends March 31st)

Boulud and Brawn

28 Jan

It seems very little has changed while I was away. I left for London just over 3 weeks ago after a very heavy snow fall and have arrived back in NY just in time to catch another one.

In the meantime I had the chance to sample some of London’s top eating and see what I had been missing.

Even if it was in an American’s restaurant it is good to know you can still get a good burger in London. This was my second visit to Daniel Boulud’s UK outpost and as with the first it was the stand out service that made me smile. The food was excellent on both occasions, and I loved being able to see the action in the beautiful kitchen, but the warmth of the staff with just the right level of attentiveness was what really made both visits so enjoyable. A special thanks to the waitress who noticed us busily fighting over the last of the chocolate sauce that accompanied our dessert, and glided over with a fresh pot for us to devour.

Next up was Brawn. Owned by the Wine importer Les Caves Des Pyrene, this is their second restaurant following on from the success of Terroirs in Covent Garden.

The menu treads along similar lines based upon smaller sharing plates rather than starters and mains. We greedily set about the menu and began in the delicate negotiations always involved in this style of eating.  There are plenty of reassuring name checks including the newish E5 Bakery based in London Fields and the unbelievably good Valenti Olive oil they use (available at Melrose and Morgan) After some tooing and froing consensus was reached.

We happily cleaned all the plates that came our way, but I at least was left feeling a little underwhelmed. Everything was good, but nothing was great. The pork rilette was bland and all I could really taste was an excess of fat. A solid chunk of cod was let down by a limp rather than crispy skin and while the mussels with leek, bacon and cider were good they were nothing to get too excited about. Prawns dressed in chilli and gremolata were pleasing, and the spatchcock quail with pomegranate another  step up. All this reminded me that whilst I always enjoyed the food at Terroirs, it was the charcuterie that stood out above all the other dishes.

We all agreed the desserts to be the highlight, which again I found strange as it was always the other way around at Terroirs. A delicious, light vanilla pannacotta was accompanied by blood oranges although lacking in the stated Campari, and the chocolate mousse was devoured in moments.

It was a good meal and I would certainly not run the other way if offered the opportunity to go back, but it lacked any real standout dishes. The service was in stark contrast to Bar Boulud, not bad, just accidental. I feel myself wavering between finding fault where there is none, and not wishing to swoon over simply good fare. The truth is that you would be very happy to stumble across this place but not so excited if you had to make too much effort.