Monthly Archives: September 2013

“Here it is!” Obikà brings some Neapolitanism to Canary Wharf

Copyright of Obikà. Sourced from Obikà website

Copyright of Obikà. Sourced from Obikà website

Cuisine: Italian

Address: Unit 1, West Wintergarden, 35 Bank Street, E14 5NW

Area: Canary Wharf

Nearest Station: Heron Quays/Canary Wharf

Tel.: 020 7719 1532

Website: http://obika.com/portal/GB/en/home/

Pricing: Cheap-Medium

Good For: Takeaway, Fresh ingredients, Leisurely lunching

“Obikà!” the cry did not go when we stepped into the restaurant. As a Neapolitan exclamation meaning “Here it is!” I was sort of hoping that mine and my friend’s arrival would warrant such an announcement.

I’d been to Obikà previously for takeaway lunches as their mozzarella bar offers up some good and hefty portions of focaccia, insalata caprese (tomato and mozzarella salad) and cannoli (Sicilian pastry tubes with sweet fillings) for quite decent prices, considering that we’re in the Canary Wharf Banker Land. Certainly, there were many days during our wonderfully scorching hot summer where all I felt like doing at lunch was sitting in a park somewhere, having some fresh tomatoes and mozzarella on springy and moist focaccia. Definitely beats getting your regular bog-standard sandwich from Pret or, God forbid, some pointless sushi from Wasabi. Probably healthier too.

I wish I had an office outdoors

I wish I had an office outdoors

But what was it like to go for a proper sit-down meal there? I was meeting my friend for our first catch-up lunch since my moving to Canary Wharf, and suggested with some caution that we may be able to get a table there. Turns out I make false promises – we didn’t get a table, but we did get placed atop some tall stools by the bar.

Obikà sits within an open space inside the West Wintergarden (any ideas on the name? Still trying to work out why the complex is called the Wintergarden), so it has a very corporate glass-and-steel feel to it; you could sit here with colleagues, possibly even clients and listen to a thousand-and-one conversations reverberating around you. It’s light and airy in summer, making it a bit of an uplifting and pleasant place to be dining.

We enjoyed the atmosphere as we swiftly made our choices; as feared, the lunchtime press did mean that our dishes and even our drinks were not as swift to arrive.

When it finally came, our starter of mozzarella di bufala affumicata went down a real treat: we treated ourselves to a lovely woody smokiness infused into such creamy mozzarella; it certainly got our appetites going. Accompanied by a simple basil garnish, it was a punchy start to the meal.

Our main courses soon followed (again, no shouts of “Obikà!” to announce any sort of arrival…), but we did have to wolf them down, being conscious of the impending end of our lunch hour. My friend’s parmigiana di melanzane (aubergine parmesan) looked quite enticing, even if the presentation did seem to emphasise the smallness, in my mind, of the portion. She tucked in heartily and with much enjoyment, so I didn’t quite have the will to steal a bit from her.

Mo' mozzarella please!

Mo’ mozzarella please!

As for my schiaffoni di Gragnano pasta with mozzarella di bufala and ‘La Motticella’ sauce, the flavours were good and warming, and the addition of torn mozzarella pieces really lifted the pasta with their bursts of creamy refreshment even if their numbers were not legion. It was a nice and simple dish – zing and juiciness from the tomatoes in the sauce, savouriness from the parmesan and creaminess from the mozzarella. However, what of the pasta there was on my plate was far too al dente and really needed a few more minutes’ cooking. Most likely they were trying to rush orders out to deal with the busy lunchtime trade – at least, that’s me giving them the benefit of the doubt. Which, considering that they seemed far too busy and rushed to even take our bill, seems to be quite likely.

Isn’t it funny how even if the service has been great throughout, if they tarry in doing the one thing you really need them to (you sort of, like, need to leave when you ask for the bill), it can potentially colour your opinion of the visit? Just a thought that’s struck me far too often in far too many places…

And so, at the end of that experience, what do I think of Obikà as a lunchtime option? I’m actively thinking of their focaccia now and planning my next lunch excursion there. A simple caprese on some soft and well-made bread for a decent price; how can you go wrong? As for a sit-down lunch? Only if you’re willing to spend a bit more, and you’ve got the time and patience – and maybe a very irregular lunch hour.

VERDICT – A good place for takeaway, an okay experience for a sit-down meal. If you work in Canary Wharf and want to mix things up a bit at lunch, I’d really recommend heading on over to Obikà to grab one of their focaccia sandwiches. Maybe don’t take it out to the park, as it’s not so warm any more. But if you are after a bit more of a formal dining experience, I’d imagine that Obikà would still deliver and meet your needs – you may just have to time it right and be prepared for a small meal.

Currently listening to: The Presidents of the United States of America – Peaches

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Getting some TLC from your granny: Little Nan’s Bar loves you

Copyright of Little Nan's Bar. Sourced from Little' Nan's Bar website

Copyright of Little Nan’s Bar. Sourced from Little’ Nan’s Bar website

Cuisine: Cocktail bar

Address: 46 Deptford Broadway, SE8 4PH

Area: Deptford

Nearest Station: Deptford Bridge / Deptford

Tel.: 07792 205 375

Website: http://www.littlenans.co.uk/

Pricing: Cheap-Medium

Good For: Good cocktails, Friendly conversation, Chilled evening, Eccentric night, Nostalgia, Party times

If you were planning a birthday party, what would you do? Bear in mind that the previous year, you’d thrown a pretty banging house party with a whole roast lechon as its centrepiece (naturally, that part was amazing; I’ll just give myself a pat on the back), and you were thinking that you wanted something a little bit different.

Stanley the lechon pig made a special guest appearance at my birthday, 2012. Life hasn't been the same since

Stanley the lechon pig made a special guest appearance at my birthday, 2012. Life hasn’t been the same since

If you live in Southeast London, more specifically the golden, er, diamond that is New CrossBrockley-Lewisham-GreenwichDeptford (okay it may not be a diamond), you should check out Little Nan’s Bar on Deptford Broadway.

Many are the times I’ve walked past a non-descript door with an old balloon-bedecked chair standing watch outside, wandering what pleasures/terrors lurked down that dark corridor to Little Nan’s Bar. It was just begging me to find out.

"You want us to go in there...? Are you sure...?"

“You want us to go in there…? Are you sure…?”

A dark, foreboding room that says "Open". What could possibly go wrong?

A dark, foreboding room that says “Open”. What could possibly go wrong?

And so I did.

The concept, from what I saw, experienced, and gleaned (and liberally interpreted) from top grandson Tristan, is that Little Nan’s Bar can sort of be summarised as the result of an alcoholic grandmother deciding that she wanted to open up a speakeasy in her twee living room. Really.

A little glimpe of the bar in Little Nan's living room

A little glimpe of the bar in Little Nan’s living room

You have rickety coffee tables covered in porcelain tat and old magazines, battered arm chairs and musty sofas, vintage pieces and art hanging from the walls, and giant teddy bears propped up and looking for some hugs; cover up the exposed brickwork with some heavily-patterned wallpaper and maybe freshen the air and smell a bit, and you could be back in my gran’s front room in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. I wouldn’t be surprised if Tristan had a good rustle through Abstracticus next door, in the Deptford flea market or in Aladdin’s Cave on Lewisham Way (big up Southeast London yo) to get all these items – they all add up to make quite the atmosphere.

THUG LIFE

THUG LIFE – photo courtesy of a friend!

To top it all off, cocktails are served in mugs, porcelain cups and even teapots – yes, teapots. And with names like Queen Victoria, The Queen Mum and even Princess Eugenie of York (“I’ll have a little bit of Princess Eugenie, ooh err”), Little Nan’s Bar has one foot firmly planted in old-fashioned monarchist granny territory.

High Tea, anyone?

High Tea, anyone? – photo courtesy of a friend!

That’s not to say that Little Nan is not open to new things and experimentation (oooh errr): as I made a booking for my birthday, I was offered to have a cocktail made in my honour. My exact instructions were, “I’m a fan of gin-based or rum-based cocktails – something a bit zingy and fresh and crisp but not overly-sweet (think Tom Collins or Dark and Stormy)”, and the resulting concoction was the Lord Mark. Dark rum laced with ginger beer, and topped off with fresh lime wedges, fresh mints and a hefty handful of blueberries; that sounds pretty spot-on, no? Chilled with ice and served in a teapot, it made for a very welcome birthday drink.

Cocktails in a teapot. Something for all the family (granny included)

Cocktails in a teapot. Something for all the family (granny included)

Indeed, all of the cocktails I was able to sample were lovely – though as I was exercising my birthday rights by stealing/accepting offers of drinks from different, unlabelled (as far as I could see… perhaps some tags would be a good thing to use in future?) teapots, I am unable to offer any good opinion on specific Little Nan creations. I do wish I was able to try the signature cocktail of the bar, the appropriately-named Little Nan Loves You, but alas it was not available that night.

It was a very fun evening overall, with me and my friends making a raucous racket of ourselves (we were not the ones who knocked over the cabinet, I hasten to add!) as we soaked up the eccentric atmosphere. They’ve done a thorough job in creating a unique and fun space and in coming up with a drink offering that is both cheap and cheerful and good quality too – and as Little’s Nan grandchildren are on hand all the time, it’s very easy to build those relationships and connections that make you feel a part of something special that you won’t find elsewhere.

Fun and games to be had at Little Nan's

Fun and games to be had at Little Nan’s

Places like Little Nan’s Bar are why I’ve come to quite like living in New Cross and Southeast London in general – we’ve got cafés with well-made food, pubs with character and good taste in beer, cheap and cheerful Vietnamese without the crush, apparently one of the best Turkish restaurants in London (and other really decent offerings too), food and produce markets that still feel like your local neighbourhood affair, Filipino supper clubs offering something tastily different (did I just big up mine and my brother’s venture? I think I just did!) and now bars that offer up something fun in an eccentrically inventive manner. AND there’s enough exposed brickwork for all who want it.

Who needs East London, eh? It’s all about SE postcodes, babeh!

VERDICT – Highly recommended. I had a spiffing good time for my birthday, and I’m sure others would too. It would certainly add a touch of something unique and different to any proceedings taking place there. With a creative mix of cocktails and a rather fun vibe to it, all packed into a very ‘cosy’ environment, it’s definitely a place to party on with friends. Stay a while for the drinks and the atmosphere, and then come back again because, quite simply, it was fun.

Currently listening to: Open Hand – Tough Girl

Categories: Cocktail Bar | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

C’est une tête-à-tête: French one-upmanship at The Green Man & French Horn

Copyright of The Green Man & French Horn. Sourced from The Green Man & French Horn website

Copyright of The Green Man & French Horn. Sourced from The Green Man & French Horn website

Cuisine: French

Address: 54 St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4EA

Area: Covent Garden

Nearest Station: Leicester Square

Tel.: 020 7836 2645

Website: http://www.greenmanfrenchhorn.co

Pricing: Medium-High

Good For: Smart-casual dining, Wine selection, Friendly conversation, Seasonal menu, Place for romance

And so the birthday celebrations continued… this time, with my mum doing me the honours. Being a true mummy’s boy, I wanted to show her that my birthday (and by extension, me) would be so much better than that other son of hers – as he had opted for a little bit of French bistro stylings at Balthazar, I thought that I would go one better and choose The Green Man & French Horn.

However, as with my brother’s birthday dinner, I was held up in getting out of work and turned up late. Yes, I turned up late for my own birthday dinner (shocking, I know). This did concern me a bit, as the online booking I had made did specify that we would only have the table for two hours… this did not prove to be a problem, as not only were we finished in just about that time, but we were not really hurried out the door (who was going to sit at our table anyway? The place was half-empty by the time we were done).

We were in for a ride down the Loire Valley for this meal, as that’s what The Green Man & French Horn is all about. For someone who’s a bit of a (ignorant) Bordeaux vinophile, this meant that I was completely stumped when it came to sniffing out a good wine from the extremely extensive wine list. But the chatty and knowledgeable Kiwi (?) waitress was on hand to offer her expertise; based on my instructions that I wanted a red wine that was a) not too tannic, b) was medium-bodied c) was not fruity and d) was easy to drink, she recommended the 2011 Le Cousin ‘Le Grolle’ from Domaine Cousin-Leduc, Olivier Cousin, which fit most of my criteria perfectly: it was indeed an easy-drinking, medium-bodied red, but it still had a nice complexity to it that finished with light pepperiness. I may have very visibly showed my delighted surprise when I tried it out, maybe even a bit too much, for I think she had a bit of a giggle to herself. Ah well, I just have that effect on women, I guess (*cough*)…

So, what is a culinary trip along the Loire like? To start with, I had fried sand eels, lemon, garlic and parsley, primarily because I’d never had sand eel before. They taste very similar to whitebait, and I’d presume that to the unknowing eye, it probably does look like whitebait. Crunchy yet soft on the inside, the garlic was subtle whilst the lemon added real zing.

Sand eels. Fried. Sand not included

Sand eels. Fried. Sand not included

Moving away from the estuary of the Loire and up into the wooded valleys, I moved on to civet of rabbit with girolles and fresh pasta. What I got was a wonderfully dark hunk of rabbit meat – almost black in the dim light. Rich and strong flavours of red wine, onion and aniseed (probably too much aniseed for my liking) came out of the succulent meat. This was all nicely countered by the plainness of the tagliatelle-like pasta, which also added some welcoming al dente textures to the whole affair. The girolles were rather pleasing too, let’s not forget them!

The dark lighting adds to the darkness of the meat

The dark lighting adds to the darkness of the meat

I managed to have a try of my brother’s Bourbonnais lamb belly with coco beans and girolles. The meat was tender but a bit softly-flavoured for lamb, and the coco bean and tomato stew was very hearty and warming. I’d imagine that this would be a great winter dish.

Lamb from the Bourbonnais. Beans from the coco

Lamb from the Bourbonnais. Beans from the coco

These were all traditional, simple dishes coming with good, mostly strong flavours. It was therefore rather suitable for us to follow up with desserts that were a bit lighter. I’d already made my mind up as to which three desserts we should get, but we had to go through the formality of deciding who would order which – our kindly waitress had to return a few times before we felt ready to tell her our deepest desires.

The crémet Nantais with figs was delightful – light fromage blanc mixed with whipped cream and then paired with fresh figs in a sweet sauce to produce a dish of contrasts. Next up was the white chocolate mousse with coffee and almonds – sweet but not overly so and smooth and creamy to boot. Completing the trio was baked peach, fromage blanc and sablé biscuit, which was I quite enjoyed, as the fromage blanc offered a slight tart creaminess against the caramelised pear.

Green Man & French Horn dessert

A trio of desserts. not all for myself, obviously (duh)

The Loire region is a (big) part of France I’m not too familiar with, so I appreciated the little introductory session we had at The Green Man & French Horn. Excellent wine, hearty food, friendly and helpful service; what a birthday dinner. It was definitely better than my brother’s (ha!).

VERDICT – A good place. There was a nice, grounded and personable atmosphere at The Green Man & French Horn that made this a rather welcoming place. Throw in a meal well-enjoyed and a wine recommendation much-appreciated, and I think you have the makings of a decent French bistro experience, right in the heart of London.

Currently listening to: Engel – Blood of Saints

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Working up an appetite: The Quality Chop House

Copyright of The Quality Chop House. Sourced from The Quality Chop House website

Copyright of The Quality Chop House. Sourced from The Quality Chop House website

Cuisine: British

Address: 92-94 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3EA

Area: Clerkenwell

Nearest Station: Farringdon

Tel.: 020 7278 1452

Website: http://thequalitychophouse.com/

Pricing: Medium-High

Good For: Fresh ingredients, Seasonal menu, Smart-casual dining, Friendly conversation, Wine selection

It was my birthday recently, don’tcha know (“Hooray, Happy Birthday Mark, we all looove you”), and you know what that means – fine dining courtesy of the parents, oh yeah.

First up was dinner with my father – being of good English stock, I thought that a good place to try out with him would be the Quality Chop House, a restaurant serving up good, honest, solid and hearty British cuisine (or so I’d been told) on the Farringdon Road.

Utilitarian spaces are soo hot right now

Utilitarian spaces are soo hot right now

It’s a fairly no-nonsense ethos that permeates what the Quality Chop House does – from the fact that it was, according to their website, borne out of Rowland Plumbe’s desire to make “utilitarian spaces for the masses that had a touch of glamour” (much of this working man’s café feel has been preserved, to the great benefit of the place), to the fact that in the Dining Room there is only one thing you can have – the set menu.

The set menu comprised of several sharing dishes that would be brought out one after the other, with the quantity tailored to the size of the dining group. As our lovely and obligingly informative waitress said, the whole point was to let patrons focus on the food (which changes day by day, dependent on what they can source from their suppliers), and leave all the messy decision-making to the kitchen.

Our set menu for the evening. Laconic, to say the least

Our set menu for the evening. Laconic, to say the least

Though there is an element of choice allowed: the Quality Chop House prides itself on having an extremely extensive and wide-ranging wine list. Whilst they do make pairing recommendations for the set menu, they were kind enough to let a philistine such as myself to choose our bottle for the evening – being a Bordeaux vinophile (a love gained from doing some volunteer work there some years back), we had a 2005 Chateau Bernadotte from the Haut-Médoc region. It was rather pleasing, delivering a smooth complexity that was not overpowering and was without a strong tannic edge.

Our drink selection for the evening

Our drink selection for the evening

And so, having made that choice, we were then ‘railroaded’ into our set menu:

Peas & lemon – this was a simple dish of fresh and crisp peas with real bite, served with two types of lemon sauce (one a cream and the other more syrupy) and sprinkled with flower petals. It was all about the peas, a vegetable which can be quite divisive I know… but it’s a great way to start the meal.

Quite evidently not just "Peas and Lemon"

Quite evidently not just “Peas & lemon”

Grilled squid, smoked spring onions – large, smoothly-textured and meaty hunks of squid cooked in a warm and earthy chipotle sauce, served with slightly-sweet fried and smoky spring onions. Does that sound good? Because it tasted amazing; each piece of squid was delectably more-ish and gave a real sense of satisfaction with each hefty bite.

Squid - how I enjoyed thee

Squid – how I enjoyed thee

Pressed lamb, pickled walnuts – essentially a lamb terrine. Unusual, I know, but quite a plucky concoction. The meat was soft and easy-going, and melted in your mouth. The pickled walnuts added something different, with the acidity going a little way to cutting through the richness of the terrine.

Lamb pressed into service

Lamb pressed into service

Duck hearts, girolles, chicken liver – initially this was a dish we were fearing, being none-too-keen on eating heart, but we were pleasantly-surprised. Served in a rich gravy, the duck hearts packed a really umami punch and were soft and savoury; the girolles added further to this taste sensation and also added a contrasting chewy texture; the chicken liver parfait was smooth and extremely flavourful, but was not rich and overpowering at all, making it a perfect accompaniment to the duck hearts and great for spreading on the hunks of bread we were served.

What a 'hearty' dish that will warm the cockles of your heart

What a ‘hearty’ dish that will warm the cockles of your heart

Middle White pork, beetroots, runner beans, boquerones – this comprised of two cuts of pork (one was shoulder, I’m sure) that were roasted until juicy and tender, with such superb crackling, topped off with boquerones for an extra savoury hit, with perfectly-cooked runner beans and beetroot. A very good combination indeed, one that relied on quality ingredients thrown together in a simple dish. Do you really need anything more?

Does what it says on the tin

Does what it says on the tin

Pink fir potatoes – not dry, not over-cooked; good starch to accompany the pork.

Chocolate, blackberries, smoked walnuts – what a classic and straightforward combination: chocolate, berries and nuts. Think Black Forest gâteau, think pralines; and then think of creamy and dense dark chocolate parfait, sprinkled with ground walnuts packing a smoky punch, surrounded by a very berry sauce and generous offerings of blackberries. Despite all that, it still seemed like a rather light way to end the meal. And afterwards, I was able to wash it down with a glass of 2005 Robert Weil ‘Kiedricher Gräfenberg’ Spätlese, a Riesling from the Rheingau that served as a decent palate cleanser.

Chocolate, blackberries, smoked walnuts. Loquaciousness is not a quality much-appreciated here

Chocolate, blackberries, smoked walnuts. Loquaciousness is not a quality much-appreciated here

Once done with the eating, the drinking, the post-prandial chit-chat and the settling of the bill, we were approached by one of, I presume, the managers. A rather charming and friendly lady, she said she’d heard that it was our first time here, asked how our evening was and even explained a bit about what they were trying to achieve with the Quality Chop House.

That was a nice and warm touch, capping off what had been a fine and welcoming performance by the staff all evening. There was even one point where our waitress conspiratorially leant in and enquired whether the ‘ambient noise levels’ were okay with us (in reference to the rather loud and excitable crowd sat behind me); although we said we were fine, we were pleasantly surprised by her kind enquiry.

We tumbled back onto Farringdon Road, appetites sated and our taste buds delighted. Thinking back on it, I’ve become a bit melancholic that the chances are I will never have that meal – those exact ingredients, that combination of dishes – ever again, as the Quality Chop House’s menu will change and change again. At least I will have the fond memories of a birthday dinner thoroughly enjoyed.

VERDICT – A good place. The Quality Chop House is a gem of a place – lovely historic atmosphere, friendly and helpful staff and some good quality food and wine. The set menu we had contained some superficially-simplistic dishes that turned out to be excellent; on that note, I would say that you should not be put off by the straightforward nature of the Quality Chop House, as it is one of its greatest strengths.

Currently listening to: Cancer Bats – Old Blood

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