Temper

Address: 5 Mercer Walk Mercers Yard, London WC2H 9FA
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Sunday
Meal:  lunch
Price: ££
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 20.59.36Temper has been high on my hit list of restaurants to visit ever since I read a review celebrating its hellacious fire pit, which takes whole animals and smokes and grills them, pushing out vast shoulders of lamb, legs of beef and bellies of pork, leaving your hair, clothes and soul ingrained with smoke for days afterwards.

Unbeknownst to me, however, there are three Tempers, and I have now visited all of them except the one I wanted. Late last year, we went to Temper City, near Bank, where we ate some lukewarm Indian food and lost badly in a 1980s-themed quiz. Sat directly adjacent to us was the founder and head chef at Temper, Neil Rankin, along with a gaggle of his friends. Far be it from me to even hint at foul play, but it was in fact Rankin and his gang who won the quiz…

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 21.00.20Last week, keen to finish what I started, I wandered into Temper off Covent Garden, forgetting entirely that the mothership restaurant with its pulsing fire pit is actually in Soho. The food served in the Covent Garden branch was not as expected. It tried hard. There was thought behind it. But it didn’t quite hit the mark.

It wasn’t even serving the great cleaved slabs of meat that the review promised. The menu consisted of tapas dishes and pizzas. Not being a big fan of pizza (unless using it to soak up the remains of a big night out and tame a raging hangover), we restricted ourselves to the tapas.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 20.59.59First up was the lardo carbonara I don’t say this often, but it was like nothing I’ve ever tasted in my life. Smothered in a mountain of grated parmesan, it was cold, it was flavoursome, it melted, it was mercurial. It had the texture of an eel.

I was curious as to how pasta could feel like this. A nervous looking waitress told us that the strings of ‘spaghetti’ were actually made purely out of pork fat. My partner in culinary crime looked queasy. I stand by the dish though. For cardiac reasons, it’s probably not something to eat in large quantities on a regular basis, but it was the best thing they served us, and a true culinary original.

Our fried tortellini with hot honey were stodgy, comfort food, something you might get on the side with a domino’s pizza. A platter of charcuterie was decent, but when you live 200 metres from Brindisa, and can gorge on plates of fat, soft, acorn-fed iberico ham at the drop of a hat, you have been well and truly spoilt, and anything else seems like a slippage in standards.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 20.59.51A beef cannelloni, with provolone and mozzarella cheese, cooked with anchovy butter, had a bubbling warmth, the tang of capers coming through, and melted on the spoon. A big wedge of garlic bread, sprinkled with rosemary and cooked with nduja butter, was greasy, ridiculously filling, and essentially flavourless. It was the low moment of the meal, a piece of culinary flotsam spat out of the kitchen.

Some entertainment was provided by the Korean American family on the table next to us. The father of the family announced to the waitress that he made a living from running a food rating app., and proceeded to pose his food and snap photos of it with an ancient looking camera.

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Before sitting down, he had been wearing a sort of straw boating hat, which he placed upside down on the free seat at the table. As he photographed a bizarre looking pizza covered in clams, his wife accidentally jolted the table, sending a dozen of the juicy crustaceans tumbling into his jaunty hat.

He shrieked at his wife and daughter to keep back, as if the clams were nuclear waste, and proceeded to scoop them back onto his plate, before giving his fishy hat a good shake. He acted too hastily: clams in a hat would have made for an excellent photo on his app, and perhaps started a new culinary trend.

Screen Shot 2018-06-19 at 21.00.10In any case, there is only one branch left go. By process of elimination, we shall get there. Neil Rankin has one last chance to awe us with that fire pit, before we finally lose our Temper.

Ladurée

Address: 1 The Market, WC2E 8RA 
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 4/10

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.34.13People living in London are almost tragically grateful for the merest hint of warm weather. Particularly at this time of year, when we have been hibernating under hats, coats, scarves and gloves for the preceding seven months. Like starving people unleashed on an all you can eat buffet, the population of London floods into parks and beer gardens, strolls along the bank of the Thames and fights for space on wind-blasted rooftop terraces.

We at Life at the End of a Fork are no better. When, a few weeks ago, London was warmly embraced by a one week micro-summer, we surged out of our respective offices in search of somewhere to dine al-fresco. Exchange Square was dangerously crowded, every single blade of grass either sat or stood on, and hundreds of people snaking around the block for the right to buy a pint of cider for £6. Rather than risk being stampeded by sun-crazed city workers, we travelled down to Covent Garden.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.15London is bereft of many good outdoor dining choices, which is understandable, given the miserable weather. The few slices of pavement that you can eat on normally sit in the shade of some vast building, which obliterates any wan ray of sunshine which may have penetrated the clouds.

One exception to this is Covent Garden, where a number of restaurants do allow for sun basking. We found ourselves in one of these: Laduree. It is a strange place. The staff are so incompetent that at times you wonder whether they are actually playing an elaborate prank on you, that this is not a restaurant at all, but part of some slapstick social experiment designed to see how far a diner can be pushed before he or she finally suffers an apoplectic fit.

One example from the start of our meal will give you a flavour. The couple next to us had been served coffees, and asked staff if they could have some sugar. A grinning waiter returned five minutes laterwith an enormous pot of mayonnaise, dumped it on the table and departed before they could register protest.  We offered them the sugar that sat on our table, at which point the clownish waiter returned, grin still fixed ear to ear, and transferred the mayonnaise to our table. Coffee and mayonnaise…? Perhaps that’s all the rage in the Parisian bistros that Laduree apes.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.29.47The food was tolerable. My partner in culinary crime continued her life-time ambition to eat smoked salmon in every restaurant she sits down in, and declared Laduree’s offering to be “pleasant enough”, although you’d probably want praise more extravagant than that to justify an £18 price tag.  I had a cheese board and a tiny little roll of bread that would have been too insultingly small to throw to one of the many pigeons that were marauding around the square.

We both ordered the lobster roll in brioche buns for a main course. These were decent enough, slightly inferior to the sort of thing you’d get for half the price in a Burger and Lobster.

Screen Shot 2018-04-29 at 17.28.53The dining area is directly next to the space in Covent Garden that is given over to magicians and various other ‘comic’ performers. During the hour and a half in which we sat there we saw a man performing some basic tricks on a yo-yo (whilst heckling the audience for not applauding enthusiastically enough), and then some break-dancers in tracksuits, who rolled around on the floor and jumped over each other a few times. I thought of suggesting that the waiters and waitresses of Laduree offer themselves up as entertainment. Their serving skills were certainly more comical than the gentleman and his yo-yo.

Any humour however, was removed from proceedings when the bill arrived. It was comfortably north of £100. I started to feel as if I was suffering from sunstroke.

Stay away from Laduree, whatever the weather.

Rules

Address: 34-35 Maiden Ln, London WC2E 7LB
Bookings:  Booked
Day:  Friday night
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.46I think it’s one of the marks of a civilised society that people find things more interesting the older they are. But as a student of history, I’m probably biased. For me, a room is a more interesting if interesting things have happened there, if fascinating people have walked through it and talked in it. Places are enriched by their stories.

It was this magnetism of the past that drew us to Rules, London’s oldest restaurant, founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule. Over the next several centuries it has hosted some of the world’s greatest actors (Laurence Olivier and Charlie Chaplin were regulars), Charles Dickens scribbled ideas for his novels at its cramped tables, Edward VII held secret meetings with his lover, Lillie Langtry, in its private dining room, and a bomb fell on it during the Blitz. There has been much water under this bridge since it first started hawking oysters 220 years ago.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.56Does that make its food taste any nicer? Not really. If I was judging Rules purely on the basis of culinary quality, I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops. It serves heavy, solid food in the classic British style, the menu rich with hare, deer, pheasant, pigeon and quail, anything that can be shot in a field essentially. Indeed, Rules sources much of its game meat from the Lartington Estate, which is owned by John Mayhew, also the proprietor of the restaurant.

I ordered a middlewhite pork terrine to the start, which came with piccalilli and toast. It was a big wedge of meat, thick and tasty. But it wasn’t bursting with the earthy, farm-rich flavours of the very best terrine. There was something subtle missing from it.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.53.19My partner in culinary crime had smoked salmon with scrambled eggs, which in most places would have been considered a hearty brunch, but at Rules is just a tantalising warm-up for the main event.

For my main-course, I had a grilled leg of lamb, spiced up with some curried spinach, big boulders of potato, and minted yoghurt. Think British country pub meets India. The lamb was good quality, but slightly burnt, and then served freezing cold, which was an unusual combination: as you bit into the chilly flesh the charcoaled flavour gave a taunting reminder that once upon a time this meat must have been hot.

My partner in culinary crime ate a Gressingham duck breast, bathed in a beetroot puree. She reported it as delicious, on a par with the legendary duck we were once served at Comptoir Gascon, opposite Smithfield Market, so many moons ago. For once, size was what let Rules down. My partner in culinary crime was left searching the plate in vain for a final morsel of duck.

Screen Shot 2018-03-26 at 20.52.33Finally, we shared a bread and butter pudding, with prunes and custard. It was simple, warm, familiar and comforting, nothing extraneous or extravagant, made just as bread and butter pudding should be.

And all this is served in a unique set of surroundings, creaky old stair cases, faded, frayed carpets, thousands of paintings of long-dead grandees wearing monocles or hunting foxes, stuffed pheasants glaring from the walls, and a rather alarming, more than life-sized, mural of Margaret Thatcher as Britannia triumphantly standing over the Falkland Islands. This is a proudly British restaurant, with a legendary past, a vibrant present, and occasionally suspect food. A little bit like the country then.

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Balthazar

Address: 4-6 Russell St, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5HZ
Bookings: no booking
Day:  Sunday
Meal: Brunch
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.06.47We stopped off for Sunday brunch at Balthazar, the showpiece, Covent Garden restaurant that is the handiwork of Keith McNally and Richard Caring. McNally opened the first Balthazar in New York in 1997, before bringing the brand to London in 2013. It falls into the category of restaurants that looks better than it cooks. Not that the food is bad, it’s just fairly good, whereas the room itself is a bit of a show-stopper, in a self-conscious kind of way.

It is also crammed with people. Being without a reservation, we were seated cheek by jowl at the bar. The menu nearly caused a crisis right off the bat, placing my partner in culinary crime’s two favourite starters directly above one another: salmon tartare and seabass ceviche. Like a malfunctioning robot, she moved her finger from one to the other and back again, mumbling repeatedly: “the seabass… no the salmon tartare… but what about the seabass?”

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.07.48Just as I thought her indecision was so great she might open up a wormhole to another dimension – swallowing up the entire restaurant in the process – she bravely settled on the salmon tartare. Full of resolution, I picked the French onion soup.

The salmon did not disappoint, cool and refreshing, a small pot of garlicked crème fraiche adding some body, while some thinly sliced cucumber was well flavoured with mustard and honey.  My French onion soup was a molten volcano of thick cheese, soft onion and disintegrating bread, an indulgent, nourishing antidote to the frigid, nipping wind outside.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.07.58Embracing the brunch theme, my partner in culinary crime had avocado on sourdough toast, with poached eggs, for her main course. The eggs were well-cooked, their interiors bright orange, ready to flow at the prick of a fork, the avocado fresh, a tomato salsa adding a snap to the ensemble. It was solid brunch-time fare, without doing anything to move the needle.

I ordered a bowl of mussels with French fries. The mussels were stacked high, threatening to the topple at any moment across the bar. They were unmemorable, a little small and a little shrivelled, the sauce a bit weak and thin, too little garlic, too little cream.

Screen Shot 2018-02-25 at 18.07.28The waiter behind the bar was a talkative chap, but without being irritating or intrusive. He kept all but the most standoffish customers entertained and well-served. And he gave us some excellent tips on where to buy mattress topers and easy chairs in central London. That’s priceless advice, and so for the first time in my life I left a double-tip, which is an act of epic generosity given that I was about to drain my wallet on some sickeningly over-priced furniture.

It’s hard to attack Balthazar. It fulfils a role: decent brasserie classics, in an impressive room, with excellent service. I would prefer The Delaunay for food in a similar style, but not everything can be number one.

Rambla

Address: 64 Dean St, Soho, London W1D 4QG
Bookings: Booked through Opentable
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.17.07Our first review of 2018 finds us in Rambla, a Catalonian restaurant named after Barcelona’s most famous boulevard. Rambla is buried in heart of Soho, and our seat in front of an enormous window makes us spectators onto a slightly less illustrious thoroughfare, Dean Street.

The pane of glass is so large, and the table so close to it, that as night falls and crowds gather, you almost feel immersed in nocturnal Soho, with all its noise, colour and oddness, which is a mixed blessing, but great for veteran people watchers, or those struggling for conversation at the table.

Inside, the restaurant is equally lively, waiters, waitresses and chefs calling out to one another across the open kitchen, and new diners stumbling in with hungry anticipation written across their faces.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.54Is this anticipation deserved? The food is certainly nice here. A plate of ham is perfect, marbled with just the right amount of fat, its texture oiled and rich, each strip curled temptingly on a wooden board. A bowl of blistered padron peppers – which my partner in culinary crime won’t lay a finger on – are wizened, salted and wonderfully bitter. A pair of pan con tomate, the bread gently toasted, the tomato almost made into a paste, suffused with a subtle olive oil, shards of salt scattered carelessly across the top, is good.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.41But I was left with a feeling of slight disappointment. Some of the reviews I had read of this restaurant over the previous month or two spoke of it with the reverence and awe normally reserved for places of worship or Unesco-approved world heritage sites. Critics described the dishes served at Rambla as stunning, as things of beauty, food worth clogging an artery for. I did not feel quite like that.

Four small wheels of cured salmon were so salty that even my partner in culinary crime, no stranger to smothering a dish in condiments, had to take several water breaks to get through them. Some lamb chops with rosemary aioli were a little washed out, the meat lacking that vibrancy of flavour. Some seabass with Jerusalem artichoke was good, but it didn’t have me scraping the plate to ensure I removed every last morsel.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.26Perhaps my expectations were too high. Perhaps Rambla had been projected too far into the stratosphere by frenzied restaurant critics for me to leave without a tinge of disappointment. If I juxtapose Rambla with Barafina, it falls short. I would probably place it half a rung below Ember Yard as well.

The restaurant also did not help itself by having a number of waitresses whose English language skills were so minimal that they struggled to function on the floor of a restaurant. No one is asking that restaurants staff themselves exclusively with English literature graduates from Cambridge, but if a waiter can’t understand the phrases “please can I have a gin and tonic?”, “one more of these please,” or “bring me the bill!” then we have a slight problem.

Screen Shot 2018-01-06 at 14.16.13I will go back to Rambla. A place so well-regarded deserves a shot at redemption. It is also great value for money. But for now, I am not ready to sing its praises, even drunkenly on a street in Soho.

Frenchie

Address: 16 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8QH
Bookings: Booked through Open table
Day: Friday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.49Friday night saw my partner in culinary crime and I on our last pre-Christmas restaurant excursion. For this valedictory event, we picked Frenchie, the 2016 offering from French chef Gregory Marchand.

Marchand has something of an interesting backstory. Placed in an orphanage at the age of 12, after his mother died, he cooked his first dish (escalope normande… a type of chicken) when the home’s chef was having a weekend off. Cooking became a form of self-defence, his talent for whipping up concoctions in the kitchen earning him the protection of bigger – but very hungry – kids in the orphanage.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.16At the age of 16, he left and joined a culinary school, before moving to London in his 20s to begin a cooking odyssey across a number of the capital’s prominent restaurants, including the Savoy Grill and Electric. He also worked as the head chef at Jamie Oliver’s restaurant Fifteen.

It was Jamie Oliver who, summoning all his immense wit and creativity, dubbed Marchand ‘Frenchie’, a name which became Marchand’s personal brand when he set his up own restaurant in Paris in 2009. After many accolades and much adulation, and a stint cooking in New York, he came back to London last year, bringing his Frenchie brand with him.

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And we’re glad that he did. Frenchie is a good restaurant, and a fun one as well. It is not tethered to strict French culinary traditions, either in terms of the food it serves, or the ambience it cultivates.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.37The menu was small, but interesting. I launched into a dish of burrata, with slices of avocado, pickled onion and olives. It came with great shards of crisped bread which were useful tools for scooping up the burrata, which was perfectly creamed on the inside, soft and delicate.

My partner in culinary crime honed in on the sea bream tartare, with yuzu, quinoa and chestnuts. As someone who has eaten more raw fish than a leopard seal, her verdict on such dishes carries weight, and she pronounced it excellent, light and fresh, carrying that sharp undertone that characterises the best fish tartare.

For my main course, I had the pan seared gnocchi, which came with shimeji mushrooms, potato confit and tarragon. It was an excellent twist on gnocchi, well sauced, powerful and full bodied, the texture excellent.

Screen Shot 2017-12-23 at 16.18.26As I was wolfing this down, my partner in culinary crime was grumbling that her roast duck was too tough. Looking up, I saw that she was sawing at it with the wrong side of the knife… once this was pointed out, and the knife was flipped, the duck cut beautifully. She declared it succulent, the exterior well-crisped, the interior bursting with flavour.

We finished off with a selection of 3 cheeses: Spenwood, an unpasteurised sheep’s milk cheese, a lovely Innes Log, which is a goat’s cheese, and a Deauville, from France. Only the Deauville missed the mark, with a 4-second aftertaste so smoky it felt as if you’d swallowed a small ash tray.

So, dinner was a success, not tainted even by the occupants of our adjacent table who talked loudly, at length, and in detail, about a range of operations recently undergone on various body parts, which isn’t ideal background music for the eating of gnocchi or cheese.

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Never mind. My partner in culinary crime and I are fleeing London for Christmas, but we shall pop up again before New Year, to regale you with further culinary adventures. Have a lovely Christmas.

Margot

Margot is an Italian restaurant on Great Queen Street, just around the corner from Covent Garden. Everything inside is low-slung, symmetrical, squeaky clean, glamorously lit, soft, deep-green, inviting banquettes lining the walls, glasses and wine bottles hanging behind the bar, refracting the lights. Everything exudes a calmness and a confidence, a world within a world, detached from the babble of the streets outside. The waiters, masters in their realm, glide from table to table, dispensing bread with a polite serenity, if even if they do look faintly ludicrous in full dinner jackets, complete with bowties.

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Sticks’n’Sushi

The irritatingly named Sticks ‘n’ Sushi is just off Covent Garden, on Henrietta Street. Apparently it is based on a Danish “concept”, which I think means that the décor is minimalist, and the furniture may or may not come from Ikea.

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Terroirs Wine Bar

Terroirs is a restaurant and wine bar on William IV Street, a stone’s throw from the National Gallery. We were there on Tuesday night, as part of a week-long extravaganza of joyous treats in honour of my partner in culinary crime’s birthday (exactly which birthday shall go unspecified).

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Barrafina

Address: 43 Drury Ln, London WC2B 5AJ
Bookings: no bookings allowed
Day: Wednesday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££ (including alcohol)
Rating: 8.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.53Barrafina probably serves the best tapas in London. If somewhere north of Spain does it better, then please inform us in the comments section below and we will be eternally indebted to you.

There is a life, an energy and an exuberance to the dishes at Barrafina that you rarely find in a restaurant, and very rarely across such a breadth of the menu, and so consistently, visit after visit.

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Going there for a mid-week dinner, we ordered portobello croquettes, which were piping hot and erupted with flavour at the prod of a fork, the creamy mushroom interior rich and powerful.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.34Eruptions were a theme of the night: we ordered a stuffed courgette flower – probably the highlight of the whole dinner – which overflowed with goat’s cheese laced with honey at the slice of my knife. The dish was so delicious we ordered two, to prevent warfare breaking out over how to split a courgette flower exactly in half.

The tapas comes thick and fast at Barrafina, and everybody sits perched up on a bar, facing the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, a whir of waiters and cooks, chopping, frying, pouring and serving, all the with energy that characterises a kitchen staff who know they are part of something special.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.20No sooner had we mopped up the last atom of goat’s cheese with a crust of bread, then the next dish was sliding across the bar top towards us. We’d ordered a selection of miniature mushrooms, onions and carrots, soaked in chicken stock, an egg with a stunningly orange yolk heaped across them. This dish was a work of art to behold, but was the only mildly disappointing one we ordered, a slight blandness pervading it.

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We then tucked into the most filling of our plates, two chunks of iberico pork, sliced from Spanish pigs grown fat on acorns, and placed some swede puree and carrots.

Finally, I broke the habit of a lifetime and ordered a savoury dessert, a selection of Spanish cheeses, insisted on by my partner in culinary crime. She wasn’t wrong.

No review would be complete without an element of complaining, and Barrafina cannot get off the hook entirely. It doesn’t take bookings (which is irritating, but forgivable), but then commits the cardinal sin of not letting you leave the restaurant whilst you wait for your table.

In the age of mobile phones, there is nothing easier in the world than taking a number and releasing a diner to enjoy the distractions of Covent Garden whilst they wait for their table.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.48But Barrafina does not do this. It insists you stuff yourself against a wall and wait in a line for a table to become available, something we did for over an hour on Wednesday night, becoming more and more filled with a visceral fury at a family of four who finished their meal and then proceeded to sit for a further thirty minutes without a morsel of food or drink passing their lips. Instead, they just chatted, and occasionally glanced at their phones, oblivious to the suffering and hunger of forty people who stared at them with simmering rage.

It was only the amazing food we subsequently had that calmed us down. But if anyone from Barrafina reads this, PLEASE reconsider your waiting policy, and you may just find yourselves on the receiving-end of a complaint-free review.