Banh Mi Bay

Address:  4-6 Theobalds Rd, Holborn, London WC1X 8PN
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6.5 /10

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.49I may have eaten at Banh Mi Bay in Holborn a hundred times, and in the words of a certain famous French cabaret singer: non je ne regrette rien.

Yes, convenience played a part. I could have punted a Vietnamese spring roll over the restaurant from my front door. But then again, you don’t make weekly missions to every restaurant over which you can kick or toss small items of food. No, Banh Mi Bay’s magnetism derives from the fact that it serves up consistently excellent food, to take away or to eat in, for less than £10. Each time, every time. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.35When taking out, I normally order the chargrilled chicken and boiled rice, which comes with a bundle of fresh vegetables, tomatoes, cucumber, carrots, and two pots of sauce, one fire-hot red chilli, the other a kind of Vietnamese soy sauce. The chicken is always grilled to perfection, trim and succulent, the rice sticky and light. The whole dish has a fresh and clean feel, healthy and simple.

Last week, I dropped in with my partner in culinary crime, a debutante at the restaurant. The place itself is simple: a huge glass panel window that faces the street; an open kitchen with a grill; twenty or so wooden tables with rickety little chairs.

I ordered the five spice lamb, marinated overnight and fried in a wok with peppers and succulent onions, served in a drop-dead soy and honey sauce. Outrageously nice. The whole ensemble came sizzling and spitting on a platter, the soft lamb and juicy onions browning before my eyes, the heat bubbling through the food as I speared at it with a fork. The rich fragrance came smoking off the platter, and for a moment it felt like I was in some ramshackle food market outside of Hanoi. I had a bowl of fried rice on the side, the grains crisp and aromatic.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.43My partner in culinary crime wolfed down a bowl of stir-fried flat rice noodles with fat little prawns, crispy shards of onion scattered over the top. Unable to set about them with the desired pace using chopsticks, she raided their cutlery draw for a fork and went hell for leather at the delicious mound of noodles.

The only disappointing dish was the Vietnamese spring rolls, which were pork and prawns wrapped in Vietnamese rice paper. These were cold, stumpy and somewhat gelatinous, and there was nothing welcoming about their taste. The main courses were very generous anyway, and so we left these dumpy little creatures on their platter with few regrets.

Screen Shot 2018-08-14 at 19.31.29All of this came to around £30, and as mentioned, we could easily have done without the spring rolls, meaning two people can dine well in this restaurant for £25. You can’t say that about many places in central London. Banh Mi Bay’s quality to price ratio is one of the highest in the capital.

Banh Mi Bay has now expanded to three locations, with venues in Fitzrovia and St. Paul’s joining the Holborn original. This success is well deserved. Try one of them. Like Edith Piaf, you’ll have no regrets.

Paternoster Chop House

Address:  1, Warwick Court, Paternoster Sq., London EC4M 7DX
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 22.12.22Paternoster Chophouse is part of the restaurant empire of Sir Terence Conran, who also sells sofas and salad bowls (think Habitat, BhS, M&S etc.).

It achieved a small amount of notoriety as the venue for the Channel 4 show First Dates, where an eclectic mix of people are paired up and then filmed making toe-curlingly awkward small talk, before deciding at the end of each episode whether they want to meet for a second date or not.

We went there on a random Tuesday evening (it certainly wasn’t our first date), and sadly no romantic encounters were being filmed. What was occurring however, was a besuited father taking his three-year-old daughter out for a burger. He fulfilled his paternal duties in the most basic of senses, kitting his daughter out with a range of colouring pencils – which she used on the table – and chatting on the phone whilst watching as she stood on her chair and washed her hands in her glass of water. Extremely romantic for those of us sat directly next to them.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 22.12.04As for the food, it slid somewhere in between adequate and good. Better than a Pizza Express, but worse than a restaurant you would recommend to a friend you wanted to keep. I started off with a chicken liver and port pate, which was the highlight of the meal, sharp and tangy, spreading smoothly over some decent bread.

My partner in culinary crime ate some smoked salmon, with shallots and capers, which she found nice. Although given that you can get nice smoked salmon in most British supermarkets, this is not the highest of culinary hurdles.

Screen Shot 2018-08-02 at 22.11.58It may be one of the driest summers in recent British history, but my main course of chicken Kiev came swimming in so much grease and oil that it could have been used to moisten the whole of the south east of England. It was accompanied by some cauliflower that had a green, unhealthy colour. Perhaps they were feeling sea-sick from bobbing up and down in so much grease.

My partner in culinary crime, a true scavenger of the ocean, ordered the sole for her main course. She liked it. The sauce was buttery, rich and lemony, a smooth accompaniment to a well-cooked fish.

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We finished with a Lancashire cheese and two rather sad little Eccles cakes. I’m sure it is a tried and tested combination, but I found the excessively sweet cakes a poor match for the strong, sour cheese. Perhaps the dish was a homage to some of the less successful dates that have featured on the show.

The restaurant is situated in the lovely Paternoster Square, bathed in the beauty of Christopher Wren’s masterpiece, St Paul’s. I would say that the best thing about this restaurant is the view you get of the cathedral as you walk out of the door. Hey, it’s a one in a million view. It’s not a one in a million restaurant.  No second date for me please.

 

African Volcano

Address:  6 Southwark Bridge Rd, London SE1 0EF
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.45I have explained the concept of Great Guns Social on this blog before. Different pop-up restaurants are allowed to take up residence in their kitchen for a brief period of time, normally a few months, before saddling up again and hitting the road, to be replaced by another chef with a stack of recipes and a dream.

Previously, we ate the tasting menu provided by Fodder, a pop-up specialising in foraged food. It was brilliant, surprising and delicious. They’ve vanished now, but the memory of their cooking remains vivid with us. Wherever you are Fodder, you have two fans here at Life at the end of a Fork!

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.10.39In their place is African Volcano, a pop-up specialising in the cuisine of Mozambique. It’s the creation of Grant Hawthorne and his wife, a pair of South Africans, who sell peri-peri sauces and marinades from their website, as well as at a stall in Maltby Market. They have a fairly large pair of foraged boots to fill, but at first taste, they’re having a good go of it.

Their peri-peri prawns with tomato and pilaf were a hit, rich and buttery, full-bodied and smoky. It was the kind of dish that you miss the very second you stop eating it. Spooning up the last morsel was like saying goodbye to a friend at the airport. I would happily have had a bowl five times its size and just sat around all evening with that plus a bucket full of chilled beers.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.37But all precious things come to an end, and before long the bowl was vanishing towards the kitchen, replaced with a plate of great, thick cuts of smoked salmon. My partner in culinary crime normally corners any fish dish (even if it’s nominally intended to be shared), and deflects any would-be scavengers with the tenacity of an African lion swatting hyena on Serengeti. This is fine in principal, but it does mean I have to take her word for it when reviewing marine dishes. This time was no different, so you’ll have to have it on her authority that the salmon was well smoked and full-bodied.

A plate of cured hams were marbled and glistening, almost purple. They were thin and lean, but full of flavour.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.54A southern fried chicken burger with spiced mayonnaise and red onions disappointed me. It was tall and narrow, difficult to eat, and strangely absent of the punch and vigour of the other dishes. It was certainly not volcanic. We found ourselves deconstructing it, eating the decent piece of fried chicken, and leaving the pretty pedestrian salad and bread on the plate. The ingredients of a burger should want to bind together. These had no affinity for each other.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.30The best dish turned up last at the party. Their Cape Malva pudding was an instant classic, one of the nicest desserts we’ve had this year. It came hot and spongy, studded with dark chocolate, a scoop of cool vanilla ice cream melting on the side, a cluster of fresh raspberries and strawberries gathered round it. Everything on the plate played perfectly, the sharp tang of the fruit and the deep flavour of the chocolate, the warmth of the cake and the chill of the ice-cream.

The dish took me by surprise. We’d dithered about whether even to have a dessert. But it was an ambush worthy of the African savannah, and it put an exclamation point on the meal.

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Congratulations to African Volcano. And congratulations to Great Guns Social for picking pop-ups so well, especially ones so sprawling different in their offering. Here’s to further culinary eruptions on the Southwark Bridge Road.

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.

Sugar Hut Restaurant

Address: 93-95 High St, Brentwood CM14 4RR
Bookings: Walk in
Day: Sunday
Meal: Lunch
Price: ££
Rating: 6/10

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.46.39On a cold, wintery Sunday afternoon we found ourselves in Sugar Hut, on Brentwood High Street, Essex.

Now, Sugar Hut doesn’t necessarily conjure up images of haute cuisine. For those not familiar with the venue, Sugar Hut is a small nightclub that acts as the local watering hole for cast members of the reality TV show The Only Way is Essex. It is a spot where more cheap champagne has been spilt than probably any other place on earth. Where luminaries like Joey Essex and Gemma Collins congregate of an evening to discuss the latest trends in nail varnish or back waxing. A place where the words “that tan is too orange”, “those heels are too high”, or “that suit is too shiny” have never, ever been uttered.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.47.17Given all these things, my expectations for lunch were not particularly high. I ended up being pleasantly surprised. With the place almost empty, a cheery waitress took down our order, enquired about our holiday plans, and brought a round of drinks before we’d even unfolded our napkins.

I decided to kick proceedings off with some calamari. Despite my fears that they would be as rubbery as a garden hosepipe, they were actually quite succulent, just firm enough without being chewy, spattered with sea salt, their batter a pleasant golden colour. They came with a decent bowl of garlic mayonnaise.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.46.57Meanwhile, my partner in culinary crime was tucking heartily into some lamb kofte, which despite looking like two burnt sausages, were apparently quite nice. Certainly, if the speed with which a dish is devoured is the most basic test of its quality, then this starter passed with flying colours.

I was served a beef stew for my main course, which came with thick, boulder-like potatoes. It was solid, hearty stuff, that chased away the memory of the nipping wind on the high-street, and left me full until at least 8pm that evening. The beef was tender, cooked just long enough, the sauce thoroughly absorbed.

My partner in culinary crime ordered a steak, which came nicely browned on the exterior, and pink and delicate on the inside. It did what a steak is supposed to do: be powerful, be tender, be juicy. That’s all you can ask.

Screen Shot 2017-12-27 at 21.46.23So, the ‘Hut surprised us, and reinforced that age-old adage: you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, no matter how orange and prosecco-soaked that book happens to be.

L’Osteria 57

I have eaten at L’Osteria 57 more than any other restaurant in London. Because it was delicious, and because it sits barely a ravioli’s throw from my front door. But then everything changed.

Italian, London, Restaurant, Review, Blog, City, Chancery Lane, Holborn, Pizza, Pasta, Mussels, Seafood, ITN

Kimchee

I have on many an occasion seen long lines of Koreans shivering in the cold outside Kimchee, on High Holborn. I have just as often been told that the best barometer for the quality of an Asian restaurant is its popularity with the relevant local Asian community. Putting these two elements together, I decided this weekend to pay the place a visit.

Kimchee, Korean, London, Holborn, Review, lifeattheendofafork, Food, Blooger, Steak, Stir Fry, Chancery Lane

El Pastor

The owners of Barafina, one of my favourite restaurants in all of London, had opened a Mexican restaurant in Borough Market, I gathered up my partner in culinary crime and headed straight for it, feeling sure that the long voyage in search of great Mexican food was finally at an end…

Food,Borough market, london, El Pastor, Barrafina, lifeattheendofafork, City

The Three Horseshoes

Driving through the quaint villages of southwest Surrey, when we came across the Three Horseshoes, a picture postcard pub in the leafy village of Thursley. A glorious beer garden at the back overlooked rolling, ploughed fields, trees studding the horizon and little cottages peaking cheerfully out from the foliage.

Surrey, Thursday, Lifeattheendofafork, Lunch,Pub,Pub lunch, food, blog, restaurant, Farnham, Cheese

Envy – Amsterdam

On Saturday night, we found ourselves in Envy, a long, dimly-lit restaurant that fronts out onto one of Amsterdam’s many canals. A small, eclectic menu consisted of tapas, our waitress advising 4 dishes per head. This seemed daunting, but we never need much encouragement to over-order, and so started demanding most of the things on the menu and she scribbled furiously to keep-up.

amsterdam, food, restaurant, tapas, Envy restaurant, lifeattheendofafork, life at the end of a fork, food blog, food blogger, lobster, steak tartare, ottos. Netherlands