Elgin Street Diner – Poutine for breakfast!

It’s Canada day and I’m located in Ottawa, a city that wholeheartedly embraces the spirit and festivities of the day. Before downtown becomes a heaving mass of red-swaddled patriotic Canadians we thought we’d indulge in a hearty breakfast to keep us going throughout the day (and absorb any pre-lunch refreshments as if such things could possibly happen). Hearty breakfast=diner in my book. So I was led on a merry walk down Elgin Street by my Canadian compatriots to find the very aptly named Elgin Street Diner . Everything you want in a diner, with big portions of tasty (if not healthy) food served all day (and night) from a pretty unassuming interior.

I’ll admit right now that although I wanted a hefty breakfast, I didn’t necessarily want to be in a food-induced coma for the next 3hrs, I’ve never had an enormous appetite in the morning. So whilst the Blue Plate special sounded great (imagine a giant full English with a side of Poutine) I thought I’d go for something a tad lighter and more unusual. French toast sounded great, with a side of Peameal bacon (apparently a thicker cut, imagine a long slice of English back bacon rather than American bacon) and topped with loads of whipped butter and maple syrup of course. Oh, and a side of beans.

Breakfast is served!Which ended up looking a little like this! Certainly a generous portion but just able manageable. The French toast was pretty thickly cut however and a touch heavy. The bacon was great, thick-cut and properly meaty. And who can resist the salty-sweet-savoury mix of fried meat, eggs, bread and maple syrup. The butter was an indulgence but I liberally spread it on still. The beans, whilst out-of-place, get a mention for being deliciously tangy and smoky as an after-meal snack. As to the person next to me who ordered this plus a side of smoked-meat poutine, I salute you (and the generous offer of a few gravy soaked chips which were great) but wouldn’t have the stomach for a whole plate.

 

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Montreal Coffee – Café Différance

As well as food and beer, coffee has quickly become another obsession for me. Fuelled by a trip to Melbourne a few years ago (the Flat White habit is hard to kick) I’ve sought out coffee in London and become fairly skilled with my Rancilio machine and Baratza grinder. Whilst good coffee is a great treat, it is definitely an art and once you’ve had a few good ones the bad and downright awful excuses for coffee that are sold by most other places become pretty unbearable. In which case I wholeheartedly admit I am a coffee snob.

So finding myself in Montreal for a morning, a city noted in the guidebooks for its coffee, I set off on a random mission to find some. And I most certainly was not disappointed. Starting off at a small chain place I was served a perfectly acceptable macchiato, but then on the way I stumbled past Café Différance and could smell the beans from outside.

Nice foam art!I wish I’d come here first, but hey-ho. I dropped in for another macchiato since I couldn’t resist. Attempting to order in French was amusing, particularly as the server then turned to her colleague and spoke English. But I could see from expert jiggling of the grinds in the portafilter and the twist of the tamper this was going to be good. Quite a dark roast compared to the slightly more modern beans in the UK, but deliciously rich and balanced, with a perfect bit of foam and even some great foam art. This gave me the kick I needed for the bus to Ottawa.

 

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Dine Mile High – Sicily (well, London really)

The London popup and supper club scene seems very healthy at the moment, with social media driving people to abandoned shops and living room soirees. There was even a feature on radio 4 this morning (surely a sign of the beginning of the end). Guiltily though, I admit I haven’t been to many. Hence when a friend suggested we go to Dine Mile High for a Sicilian experience I booked my ticket, exchanged some currency and checked my passport hadn’t expired.

My passport for the evening

OK, it’s actually still in London but the theme is the golden age (bar the frequent crashes) of airline travel, say around the 50′s. We were greeted promptly at 6:30pm at a boarded up place on Regent St of all places, and after some issues with missing doormen and Westminster regulations we were in. Greeted at check-in by 2 airline staff, we were issued our passports plus tickets and taken through to the bar.

There was a short list of 4 crowd-pleasing cocktails, appropriately themed to the location and somewhat to the era. Bottles of Campari and Aperol hinted at the always delicious Negronis and Spritzs on offer, plus a bellini-style Martini and a julep. The night was sponsored by various drinks companies which shaped the menu, however they were all made very well. Included in the £65 ticket were 2 cocktails, canapes, a 4 course dinner, some wine and a disco afterwards. A nice touch was the Campari stamps we were issued in our passport with each Negroni.

A couple of Negronis later.

Settling into the white leather banquette with my Negroni and in the balmy heat of a muggy June evening the theme was definitely working well. Two stewardesses (1 “Australian”, 1 “Soviet”) popped round with some fried courgette slices and big balls of arancini flecked with a bit of truffle (I think) and cheese. They had a nice bit of banter between them, adding a touch of humour together with the young Italian pilot schmoozing guests. I would guess at a few acting school employees here.

We were some of the first to arrive and so had a good hour and a half or so to settle into some serious pre-dinner cocktails. The arancini helped soak them up though. Then we were called by name to board, and taken through to the dining room, which was nicely dressed in white with long shared tables to sit at. The chef is ex-Moro (Oliver Templeton) and we had a fixed menu of 4 courses in front of us. The starter was a marinated swordfish salad with cinnamon, fennel and pine nuts. It arrived on a pretty small plate which to be honest I thought was dressed a bit scruffily and portion wise was quite small. Maybe I’m being harsh, on the one had it is a pop-up with a big dining room to feed simultaneously, on the other this is at the top end of the scene. It was a solid dish and I finished it, the orange came through nicely with some crunchy fennel. I didn’t really detect the cinnamon and the swordfish texture had gone pappy, perhaps marinated too long in something acidic?

The second course was pasta alla Norma, an addition since part of the team was Tom who has worked at Bocca di Lupo. This was served as a sharing platter between 6 of us. A hearty mix of home-made pasta, tomato and aubergine, it was a very rustic comforting dish. Fortunately it was also cooked to perfection, mixing pasta with a nice bite; a huge rich umami filled tomato sauce and soft aubergine. No complaints here and plenty to go around.

Next up was the main, pork belly, cabbage, beans and Sicilian lemon. Another rustic dish, but cooked very well again. We were served a slice of soft unctuous pork belly meat topped with the all important crisp crackling. A classic side of white beans and cabbage provided a good accompaniment, and a slice of soft bitter lemon offset the fatty rich dish.

Dessert was fairly simple, a burnt peach gelato with pistachio praline and ammerreto biscotto. The gelato had a solid peach flavour and was a nice, refreshing end to the meal. Between 6 of us there were 2 OK bottles of wine included and any more had to be bought. We tried a bottle of the top-end chardonnay as well, the name eludes me. Afterwards the bar turns into a disco with pumping tunes and a lot of dancing.

So overall, a great evening out. The theme and detail was very good, the food was mostly excellent if relatively simple, and you get a decent amount for your £65. And yes I clearly should have taken some photos of the food, apologies.

Ruchi – Kilburn

After reviewing Vijay last week I thought in all fairness I should add a review of my usual favourite Ruchi. You can never have too many curries in a week anyway. Ruchi is a relatively small place, with perhaps twelve tables inside and some more outside for the occasional balmy summer evening. It has quite a traditional decor and feel, although the paintings for sale on the wall add some extra character. We were seated quickly and ordered poppadoms and Cobra to peruse the menu.

The cold Cobra came quickly, and as advertised was ingenious due to its less gaseous nature. The poppadoms arrived (they weren’t cracked when arrived, we were just too keen to get stuck in). The typical raita, mango chutney, fresh onion and lime pickle. All good so far, the raita was an appealing light green with a fresh taste, the poppadoms felt a little stale and soft though.

The main courses next. I felt like something new so went for the chef’s special, chicken murgh bade sabha (chilli, coriander ginger, yogurt, butter and spices). It is pictured front, was fragrant, slightly tangy and medium spicy. Unfortunately the sauce had split a bit which gave it an overly oily texture.

My friend’s vegetable jalfrezi was great, nicely cooked veg in a spicy rich tomato sauce, the most heat out of all the dishes for sure. A side of brinjal bhaji (aubergine) was soft and rich with fragrant spices and oil.

Breads and sides were excellent, as they always are at Ruchi. The naan was cracking, with nice colour on it, beautifully soft in the middle and buttery / herby on the top. The pilau rice was fluffy and the chapatis soft and warm.

A nice touch is the fresh orange segments to complete the meal, refreshing and juicy. The obligatory refreshing towels were there as well, can’t say I’m ever a big fan of these. Anyway for 4 we were looking at just over £65 including service. A decent meal although not quite up to their usual standards, my split sauce was disappointing and I needed a bit more heat. Hopefully a blip in a usually consistent favourite of mine.

 

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Vijay, Willesden Lane, Kilburn

Whilst my corner of NW London isn’t awash with restaurants, it is a reliable source of good Indian cuisine. Ruchi in particular is a fantastic spot with their Goan green masala (green with coriander and mint) and soft garlic naans. Something new is always good though, so we headed down Willesden Lane past Kovalam (another South Indian staple of mine) to Vijay.

Also specialising in South Indian cuisine, it looks comfortably unassuming but has received some very good press in the past (see this Independent review). On arrival we had a very warm welcome and were seated quickly with menus.

A cold Cobra beer is always welcome whilst perusing the menu. I should mention my dining partner Phil is temporarily Vegan (don’t ask) but being South Indian there were a huge number of vegetable / lentil focused dishes (as well as a lot of seafood). The staff were great at checking what was vegan and if ghee was being used which was appreciated.

A couple of poppadoms were nicely crisp and unusually thick. They were served with a mango chutney, a raita and fresh onion. Given Phil couldn’t eat the raita, they very kindly brought a special chutney which was sweet with lots of fresh onion, a nice touch.

My main was a prawn spinach dish. Reasonably small prawns but they had a nice texture with lots of spinach and fresh herbs. The dish was fragrant with a mild-medium heat, I don’t agree with the menu’s description of medium-hot quite though. The pilau rice was fluffy and tasty. Phil’s Tarka Dal right at the back was well flavoured although it had a runny texture (I prefer a slightly firmer dal personally).

A couple of sides topped off the meal. The paratha was delicious, nicely crisp on the outside with flaky soft layers inside. The Bombay potato was another great dish, spicy hot with a touch of citrus and large chunks of tomatos and peppers.

The grand total for all that food, a couple of small Cobras each and service was £28. A cracking local then, the food was all hot, fresh and flavoursome, great service and a congenial atmosphere. I’ll be back!

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The Breakfast Club – Liverpool St

The Breakfast Club“, that’s a bold name for a restaurant and certainly implies a serious level of expertise in the morning food department. I was heading off to help Ferdie at Ferdie’s Food Lab prep and wanted some good sustenance to take me through the day. A late brunch seemed a good call and after a quick search The Breakfast Club came up.

I arrived about 12:30 and given its proximity to the city and re-development of Spitalfields it was already full with a loud mix of suits and trendy Hoxtonites. The neon light was glistening off the oversized glasses of the hipsters and the oversized watches of the suits. But I digress, the welcome was not particularly warm and took a good 6-7 minutes to even be noticed, I daren’t sit down given the big sign telling me to wait.

Once I was attended to the waiter was friendly to be fair and took me to a seat at a shared high table. Flat white and orange juice ordered whilst I perused the menu. There were sections for classic fried breakfasts, pancakes, eggulars (egg based dishes), things in bread and oaty things. I ordered an apparently brand new dish, chilli lime avocado on toast with a poached egg and side of chorizo.

Drinks arrived and things looked good. Decent foam on the coffee, even if it was a slightly large for a flat white. Unfortunately the coffee was a tad watery and bitter which warranted a dash of sugar, not the worst coffee but not quite up to standard for a brunch specialist. The orange juice was freshly squeezed which I was hoping for, unfortunately that also meant it was warm and overly tart. A new choice of oranges would help I think.

The food. Tasty wholemeal granary toast with plentiful seeds made a good base. Loads of avocado on top. Strangely also a thick lime slice which should have been a clue, the avocado was overly tangy unfortunately and slightly under-salted. I can’t fault the texture which was great, it was a shame the chilli wasn’t chopped finer and could have been hotter. The avocado was also cold (fridge cold, not room cold) which sucked the heat out the dish very fast.

Poached eggs should be the lynch pin of any breakfast establishment and this didn’t disappoint, with a runny yolk and (very almost) fully cooked white. The chorizo side was an odd texture, I nearly sent them back since I couldn’t determine if they were even cooked but they were slightly warm and had a slight char, I think a more aggressive cooking would help a lot.

The bill came for a bargain £7.50 which seemed fantastic, then I noticed the main dish had a price of £0.00 (it was new). Being scrupulously honest I had it corrected which brought it up to £14.50 without service. Given the location not outrageous but hardly cheap. Definite potential and nothing too bad but I left feeling a bit disappointed.

Ida – Queen’s Park

I was feeling a little uninspired by the selection of restaurants in my corner of North West London, and wanted somewhere new for lunch. A small Italian restaurant, Ida, has been at the back of my mind for about 3 years to try now, it’s a little out of the way but I often end up going past it and being intrigued. Hence off we went.

Ida is in a very pretty corner shop towards the back end of Queen’s Park. We walked in to find a basic dining room with open kitchen and lots of vintage accoutrements adorning the walls. To my mind just what you want in a neighbourhood restaurant. Around 1/2 the 12 or so tables were full which was a good sign for a weekday lunchtime. That was probably helped by the lunchtime special, 1 course for £5.95 or 2 for £9.95 from a good selection of antipasti, primi, secondi and dessert. We ordered the ubiquitous Peroni (Moretti was also on offer) and they also had a blood orange Pellegrino drink which I hadn’t seen before.

We ended up opting for the normal a la carte since it sounded so good. First up was a shared classic starter, mozzarella with tomatoes and green beans. It was a large portion of mozzarella and tasty enough, it had developed a bit of a skin though and could have been fresher (or ideally home made). The green beans were still warm and it wasn’t a combination I had before, but I was pleased with it. At £8 it was quite heavily priced in my opinion, although the quantity made up for it.

Onto the main event, we were really here for Ida’s renowned pasta. One of the regional specials on offer was “guitar string” pasta with a classic tomato, garlic, basil and anchovy sauce (£7.50 for a small portion). Spaghetti in tomato sauce essentially, but one of those dishes that if done right can whisk you back to a backstreet restaurant in Naples. And it was done well, the hand-made pasta had just enough bite and a rough texture to the outside that gave it real character. The tomato and anchovy gave a gutsy rich umami hit to accompany the punch of garlic and chili. Simple, delicious and comforting, it felt like authentic Italian at its best.

I opted for another classic, tagliatelle al ragu (£10 main). Once again the hand-made pasta had the perfect bite and a touch of texture. The ragu sauce was deep and satisfying, a perfect comfort dish. It came with a sage bunch on top although I couldn’t detect any in the sauce which was a shame. Small complaint though, it was a great dish.

So, the pasta at Ida is incredible and certainly worth heading out for. It blows away any of the usual chains or slightly cheaper Italians that fill most high streets, with far more authentic and flavoursome simple dishes. A great neighbourhood restaurant, I’ll certainly be back.

 

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Dabbous – Soho

“Hot” restaurants are a growing trend in London. It’s good because it shows a maturing and evolving restaurant scene with some of the best dining options in the world. It’s bad because it means you can’t get a bloody table.

However I saw slightly ahead of the scene and booked a table at Dabbous just before the hype hit, admittedly still 2 months away. Then we booked our holidays and the inevitable clash occurred. Could I really justify cancelling a week’s surfing in North Lanzarote. Perhaps but it wasn’t an option with the wife. Hence persistent online attempts and calls finally resulted in a Friday lunchtime table a further 2 months later. We were in!

 

They have a small well designed a la carte section (of smaller dishes we were told, hence you probably want 4 courses each) and a very reasonably priced set lunch (£22 for 3 / £26 for 4). But given how elusive the booking was the tasting menu seemed the only way forward. At £54 it’s not cheap but for an 8 course menu it compares very well to other London tasting menus. We also opted for the matching wines (£40 for a glass with each course), the wines complemented each course and I had no complaints. None of them were stand out amazing but for the price it’s a good option. Unfortunately I didn’t pay enough attention to recall them here.

The bread was a nice touch in its own date stamped paper bag. Very tasty as well with hazelnuts although I found the texture a little heavy, good soft creamy butter.

A beautifully simple and intriguing menu title, peas and mint. What we actually got was a delicate pea mousse, peas in a pod, pea shoots, mint granita and edible flowers. The peas retained their delicate fresh flavour wonderfully, this dish clearly took a light touch in terms of flavour and delivered spectacularly.

Mixed alliums in a chilled pine infusion. The softly cooked (poached?) onions were sweet with softness and just a hint of bite. I found the chilled pine infusion slightly too light personally although the oil added flavour as well, but still a good dish and certainly innovative and intriguing. Edible flowers added to the look and taste of the dish. There was also a flavoured mayonnaise (or butter?) which I found a bit strange texture wise in the liquid.

Next was what is perhaps becoming their signature dish, the coddled egg. It is served in the shell with mushrooms and smoked butter. The perfect texture of the egg, smokiness and rich butter made it very decadent. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Fish next, a well cooked piece of halibut atop a lemon verbena sauce, with celery. A solid light fish dish with good lemon and herby flavours. The celery is a classic addition but was prepared and cooked precisely. The sea herbs (astor?) gave even more freshness to the dish.

Onto the meat. After the light and elegant dishes I was looking forward to a hunk of red meat. Which was certainly delivered, even if it was pork. A nice chunk of Iberico pork barbequed to sear but left pretty rare. The sides reflected the diet of the pigs, with acorn (sauce) and turnip tops (pickled). The pork was rich, tender and meaty. The slightly sweet and nutty sauce mingled with the sharp green pickled tops and meaty slab to provide a balanced mouthful.

We were offered cheese next, at a supplement (£9). My concern for being too full and also the fact I personally prefer cheese after dessert meant we put off the decision for now and went to the first dessert, peach in its own juice. When it arrived it didn’t look particularly swimming in its own juices, that is until they brought around the small carafe full of juice and ceremoniously poured it on top. The clean sweet peach taste was accented by slivers of almonds and coriander shoots, a surprising but successful combination. The biggest surprise was a marigold leaf which provided a punchy earthy and slightly spicy tang.

Onto the final dessert, which on the menu didn’t appeal hugely to me, a custard cream pie. It was served in crisp brik pastry (I think it was salted?) which gave a richness to the banana puree and cream sitting inside. More edible flowers both for flavour and very attractive presentation.

Cheese was the final course (I couldn’t resist but you probably guessed that). It was a good selection and we were given two generous glasses of port even though we only ordered one portion. Unfortunately due to the matching wines I can’t quite remember which cheeses we had but suffice to say it was an excellent and British selection!

Finally a very good coffee, and a herbal tea together with two mini canales. Quite a lunch for sure! Dabbous succeeds in creating clean, elegant dishes that sing with pure flavour, and adding a few subtle twists along the way. The essence of each dish is focused and clear, and barring a few tiny quibbles all tastes amazing.

The final bill was around £115 a head, which to my mind for an accomplished tasting menu with matching wine in London is excellent value. It’s obvious why it’s booked up, get a reservation now and you won’t regret it (whenever you finally get to use it).

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