It’s all about the pig

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I reckon I could spend a good few weeks exploring the restaurants around Exmouth Market and I still wouldn’t have been to them all. It’s a serious foodie destination and I won’t deny that I love it: chilled, cool, unpretentious and authentic. I mentioned the Quality Chop House recently, we’ve been to Moro, albeit some time ago — so in the interest of fairness, we decided that we’d try a few others.

First on the list was a rather attractive looking Porchetta bar / restaurant right on Exmouth market from where, one gloomy midweek lunchtime, I decided to bag a fantastically great takeaway porchetta sandwich . At the time I didn’t realise that is was a ‘proper’ restaurant but the sandwich was bloody lovely all the same. Heaps of well seasoned pork with salsa verde in a chewily fresh bun. Oh my god it was lovely. The lunchtime trade is seriously competitive on Exmouth but I thought it was up there with the best I’ve tasted, even though I do fancy myself as a dab hand at the old Porchetta.

So when Mrs D and I decided to have an executive lunch, we headed right there. This lunchtime sandwich  bar, it turned out, was more than just that…it’s a full on dedication to all things piggy: a restaurant called Blackfoot.

Sometimes I’m just a bit dim and I didn’t realise at the time whose restaurant this was. Blackfoot was  founded by TV food celeb Allegra McEvedy along with Tom Ward (both ex Leon bosses, which is A* in my book)…but you could just tell someone amazing was behind the cooking, even from the simple elegance of their humble pork sandwich.

The front of the restaurant pays homage to its origins as a pie and mash shop (no, I’ve still not tried P&M yet if you’re wondering) and there are more traditional tables in the rear. The menu is super simple and the service is warm and welcoming. Our waitress studied in Leeds , recognised our accents and we had a lovely rapport.

We weren’t really in the market for a blow out lunch so Mrs D opted for pulled pork tacos and I went for the long smoke pork belly. I know it doesn’t sound like it, but these were quite clean and not hugely stodgy, although the fiendishly good chips to share put paid to any dietary smugness we might be feeling. We washed this down with a bottle of the house white, which was superb value and very good indeed.

My pork belly was smokier than Lauren Bacall’s voice in To Have And To Have Not and Mrs D’s pulled pork tacos defied civilised eating, resulting in a finger-licking good lunch. Chips, black treacle and star anise, salsa verde, pickles, salad all complimented each other beautifully, adding bright flavour and satisfied grins to our lunch.

We wimped on desserts and vowed for an evening return when we didn’t have to be responsible and talk sensibly to people in the afternoon. Superb.

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Bank Holiday Sunday

Cafe Murano

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Those three words are the most wonderful combination to us Brits. They are the signpost to those of us who work long hours midweek that a long weekend of chilled activities lie ahead and the most delicious thing of all: a Sunday where there are no Monday morning blues to worry about.

May in particular is joyous with a whopping two long weekends to enjoy and we thought we’d make the most of the first one since the weather was so lovely and our dear friends D&G were in town for their first visit to our new home.

Home made asparagus and duck eggs got the day off to a cracking start. The quality of the early, delicate Yorkshire asparagus from our favourite farm in Sand Hutton was a delight and the titanium-shelled duck eggs poached a treat, although our electric hob (that I’ve not got quite to grips with yet) gave me a scare or two re overcooked eggs.

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We had a lunch booking at Cafe Murano, the little sister to Angela Hartnett’s impressive Michelin-starred mother ship in Mayfair. We’d carefully timed our day to allow a leisurely mooch along the South Bank, although the manic tourist bank holiday crowds and a well attended Spanish food festival meant it was reasonably stressful for my crowd averse outlook. But we rocked up early for our table and, joy of joys, we got seated early and the natural order of things was resumed.

We’d eaten here before on a very busy Valentine’s night and really enjoyed ourselves in the  busy Friday night hubbub but the Sunday afternoon vibe was quite chilled and very enjoyable. Our late booking meant we were unrushed and the service was good (not that it wasn’t last time).

Italian small plates are the order of the day here and after much deliberation we each of decided to skip about the menu, ordering different plates of different sizes. It’s the perfect kind of menu for us: we love smaller dishes and more choices. It means more flavour and variety.

Mrs D and I went for frito misto, I added the Lobster linguine followed by the pork belly with clams. The lovely wife can’t resist a good risotto, especially one bursting with spring flavours like pea and mint. The frito misto was light as air, delicately leading the way for the Italian onslaught of flavour. Lobster linguine packed a deliciously fishy punch with an unusually generous amount of lobster meat. The pork belly with peas, clams and romanesco was sticky and comforting without being too cloying. At one point a peas stuck to the bottom of my fork and refused to move, such was the unctuous liquor in the dish. I didn’t want this dish to finish. The cime de rapa (humble turnip tops) accompaniment were bitterly beautiful, the warmth of chilli and the massive dose of iron delivering a real sense of well being — or maybe it was the perfect Gavi by the 500ml carafe doing its job.

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Other highlights from our party included warm octopus with chickpeas and pesto (‘a triumph’), pea and mint risotto with ricotta (‘fresh and lovely’) and squid ink tagliolini with crab and radicchio (‘amazing freshly made pasta’).

Desserts were were admirably resisted but G and I couldn’t resist a vin santo with cantucci biscuits, the ice cold vin santo soaking into the pistachio-peppered biscuits with glee. By now the restaurant was emptying out towards the end of service and we slurped some energy boosting espresso and paid the bill. It’s worth noting that although Cafe Murano is in one of the smartest parts of London (St James) where real estate prices are amongst the highest in London, the chef patron is a Michelin-starred TV celeb, the prices are very reasonable indeed. We averaged £75 per head — but we did have two carafes of very good Gavi — D&G noting that a meal in Leeds earlier in the week wasn’t far off this cost but not at the same quality by a long chalk.

Footnote:

People have been asking me a lot about the cost to eat out in London, since we moved here. It’s true that you can spend a fortune — if you have the money — on some of the best food in the world, after all London is one of the true global cities so it’s to be expected. But I would say that the competition at the mid range level is fierce — and even fiercer at the low end. My conclusion is that If you’re canny, eating out in London can be done at a lower price and higher quality than in cities like Leeds or Manchester.

The truth is, Cafe Murano is a truly superb central London restaurant charging what are essentially Leeds prices. I have a very clear view about who is best served, the diners of the large regional cities in their captive markets, or the diners of London with infinite choice and competition.

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Buttylicious

The Quality Chop House

There is actually a sandwich shop in Leeds called Buttylicious and I take no credit for this ridiculously good play on words. But I did think that the word summed up the lunchtime sandwich experience I had this week when I visited The Quality Chop House food shop in lovely Exmouth Market for lunch this week.

I’ve eaten at The Quality Chop House restaurant before and as a dining experience it was an elegantly simple and high quality experience, so I was expecting great things from their humble sarnie.

In keeping with the trend to open food establishments off the back of a restaurant, the Quality Chop House now has its own superb butchers — the meat looks beautiful, dark with proper ageing and etched with marbling. Next to the butchers there is a well curated deli, serving all manner of lovely things: homemade pies, artisan cheese, home smoked mackerel, wine…anyway you get the picture. In summary: it’s my kind of place.

On the day I visited, I was drawn in by the offer of hot, slow roasted beef sandwiches, freshly carved for £5 a pop. That may seem like a lot, but a fiver seems to be the average price for a street food / takeaway lunch of quality in Clerkenwell where I’m based and usually for this price it’s well worth the modest investment. You can easily spend that in a Pret and it’s a dull and unfulfilling experience.

I wasn’t disappointed — the sandwich was divine. the beef combined beautifully with peppery watercress, dijon mustard and meat jus to create an outstanding sandwich. Monumental even. It was served rare as you like too and it just melted in the mouth.

I couldn’t resist a hot sausage roll (sublime, packed with well seasoned meat) and a handmade lamb family pie for dinner later, which was also wonderful, packed with tender meat and topped with a delightfully crisp crust. I can see myself on first name terms with everyone in this shop before too long!

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Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen

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The nearest restaurant to our new home in London is Jamie Oliver’s Fifteen restaurant. Made famous by the television series over twelve years ago, Fifteen is still going strong tucked away just off Old Street roundabout (or silicone roundabout as its now rather oddly known) in a very cool part of London.

When we rented this flat of course we knew that our local was Jamie’s but that wasn’t the main reason for living here — honest. In fact it is dangerously expensive to have a restaurant of this quality within one minute’s walk from our front door. It’s not that Fifteen is  a costly restaurant per se, compared to London, but like everything else, it does seem to add up!

We have already eaten here three times and the most recent dinner was with the sister who was in town seeing us forth first time since we’d moved to London. We managed to grab a table at the last minute (played the local card) and we took our table on a busy Saturday night over the Easter weekend. The vibe was buzzy and loud on the night we were there, it’s more chilled at lunchtime, but Saturday nights are made for letting your hair down and tonight was no exception. All profits from the restaurant go to the Fifteen Foundation so we can be happy that not only are we having a blast, it’s all going to a good cause too.

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The menu in Fifteen is simple and seasonal, with an Anglo Italian attitude. We opted to share some oysters and a whole rotisserie chicken, which we were told would take forty minutes to cook (it did). We slurped wine enthusiastically — like one does —quaffed the oysters and happily waited for the chicken to turn up. I’m not one for waiting an overlong time for food in restaurants but this was OK actually, if you’re not very patient I’d suggest ordering something else from the menu. The oysters were beautiful, particularly the caramelised shallot pickle and chicken was simply roasted, but came with a peppery salad and summery dressing.

The service was as crisp as the chicken skin (as the sister can testify) and we left feeling very happy with our lot, which is the job of every restaurant I think. I can’t help feeling that we’re really quite lucky to have a neighbourhood restaurant like this just around the corner…

Tramshed

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It’s not in every restaurant that you see a real Damian Hirst artwork in the middle of a dining room, but then London’s Tramshed isn’t your everyday kind of restaurant. Tucked away in the super cool hipster backstreets of Shoreditch, Tramshed is the latest restaurant opened by Mark Hix, he of Chophouse and Lyme Regis fame.
The name gives away the building’s previous existence and the cavernous exposed brick interior is both wow and cool from the get go. We visited on a Sunday night and it was still jammed, so much so we could only get a seat at the counter, which turned out to be a great move.
Sitting at the counter you get instantaneous service, the eye of your server but a blink away. It delivers a more engaging experience too, one which we tend to shy away from in this country, perhaps it’s our famous reserved nature – but we really enjoyed it and I would recommend it here. We even discovered that our server’s dad came from Wakefield, now that wouldn’t have happened if we’d sat at a table.

The place is all hustle and bustle, with a lively, laid back, family friendly vibe early on a Sunday evening. Watched studiously by the cow and chicken in formaldehyde—which has pride of the place in the centre of the room – we ordered cocktails and perused the menu. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable taking you through the form on the menu—what you should order, how much etc,  some people get annoyed with this perceived nannying approach, but I like it: information is power, especially in a cool London restaurant.

The menu is very simple indeed, chicken or beef ( hence the Hirst artwork and many others in the same vein adorning the Hoxton hipster brick) except for a few bits and bobs, which add some variety to the stripped back offering. I confess I do like this kind of menu: it makes life super easy for me and given I’d had beef the day before, my life just got even easier so we shared a full Swainson House Farm chicken (barn-reared Indian Rock, no less) and the birds are served legs akimbo, with feet attached, golden roasted with a ceramic pot where the head could be. Quite dramatic and very cool.
Starters were simple but lovely: light as air Yorkshire pudding with whipped chicken livers (oh my) and a shaved pumpkin and walnut fennel salad paved the way for a slap up feast that made us smile. Chicken, chips, onion rings, proper chicken gravy – before long we were knee deep in a perfect combination of a homemade / upmarket / dirtbag food experience. Some would say that is the perfect foodie storm and who can disagree?
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Tramshed white vino was excellent at a sub £20 price in London—shame on pricey Leeds gaffs pricing wine as a way to boost revenues. We don’t mind paying of course, but it’s in London that you see the value of a highly competitive market.
As per usual our eyes were bigger than our bellies and the chicken beat us and in turn edged out the desserts, but we left happy and full, satisfied that London cool needn’t cost the earth and provide a warm and engaging experience.
Northern restaurants can learn a lot from this—and I note with encouragement that newbie Rare in Leeds has taken a few cues from Tramshed, with great success, more on that later…
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Meat Liquor

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This is a place in London I’ve been looking forward to visiting. It does what it says on the tin: Meat and Liquor. On trend dirtbag food and cocktails – perfect!

The menu is pretty simple: burgers, sliders, chilli fries, fried pickles – you get the picture… all served up with real attitude and great cocktails. The restaurant itself is very rock & roll too with nightclub-loud rock music (great playlist BTW) and super subdued lighting (ie almost pitch black) all adding to the Hollywood Boulevard vibe. The interior design of the restaurant is right out The Lost Boys too with uber cool graffiti montage imagery creating an exciting and almost illicit American roadhouse feel.

Prices were very reasonable too especially given the restaurant’s location near Mayfair. £8 for mains is very sensible and actually compared to Leeds prices, pretty much a bargain.

It’s worth noting there’s a no booking policy as is the other trend right now but as we were eating early doors, we strolled right in. When we left about 8pm there was a very long line waiting to be seated.

It’s very much a down with the kids joint and who am I to argue??? We had a fun time and if you fancy a really mischievous night out eating and drinking what you shouldn’t, then Meat Liquor is the place for you.

 

Barrafina

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If you are a regular viewer of this site you will notice that I have recently been going down to London quite regularly and the posts reflect that. However it was not until last Wednesday that I managed to get to my favourite Tapas actually perhaps my current favourite restaurant, Barrafina on Frith Street in the heart of Soho. Yes you have to queue (1 hour) along the side as you can’t book but the buzz and anticipation is worth it, particularly as the obligatory Gitana with Padron peppers keeps you going. I am not going to eulogise about the dishes AGAIN, specials menu and a selection dishes are pictured below, traditional meats etc are of the very highest calibre.

YOU MUST GO!

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