Gillray’s Steakhouse and Bar, Marriott County Hall, Review

London Marriott Hotel County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1 7PB

Cheese plate, Gillray's Steakhouse, Marriott County Hall

How do you do a steakhouse differently? Well if you’re at Gillray’s, you start the dinner with a cheese laden Yorkshire pudding and a serving of horseradish sauce.

“A Yorkshire pudding? How strange” you might think. And yes, to a certain extent, it is. But it’s also terribly well made, amusingly different and very English. After all, the inspiration behind Gillray’s is the English caricaturist James Gillray.

Housed in the London Marriott County Hall, Gillray’s boasts views of the Thames, Houses of Parliament and the London Eye. Head chef, Gareth Bowen, is said to have worked at Michelin-starred restaurants all over the world before landing at Gillray’s at the beginning of this year.

So what might you find at this very English establishment? Well the menu is certainly peppered with English ingredients – Brixham diver king scallops, Forman’s London cure smoked salmon, Devonshire crab cakes and Surrey duck egg salad – all very quaint.

Half a dozen Cornish oysters, baked with cheddar and spinach, is probably what you should go for though: plump, creamy and delicious. But don’t stop to count the calories before moving on to the main course – steak.

You can, of course, choose from a selection of cuts, including bone-in or bone-out, and a special ‘ladies’ cut’ fillet. The meat is Yorkshire Hereford cattle from the Duke of Devonshire’s Bolton Abbey Estate, 35 day dry aged. Then you can have it cooked to anywhere between blue and well done, according to the very scientific measurement of temperature; so says the cooking chart on the menu anyway. The steak is very well cooked but not as gamey as you might expect for something which has been aged for so long.

The steak comes with tomatoes, mushroom and a sauce of your choosing. There’s no Béarnaise – that wouldn’t be very English – but there is tarragon butter, which is very much the same and just as good. If you require something more, the truffle and parmesan chips offer a pungent earthly delight, which are seriously good.

The wine list is rather small though, and if you were looking to spend a small fortune on wine, you probably won’t succeed. Instead, go for a very good mid-range Pinot Noir from Robert Mondavi, which is light but intensely fruity and a good contender against the steaks.

If they insist and you are so inclined, do go for a cheese course. The entirely English selection consists of variations on blue, brie, goats’ and cheddar, all served with chutney, apple and croûtes.

Classic desserts like sticky toffee pudding are on the menu but the keenly selected choice of ice creams and sorbets are just delicate enough to finish a heavy meal. The elderflower and champagne, in particular, is the epitome of summer.


(First seen on Bon Vivant)

Piccolino, Heddon Street, Review

Piccolino, 21 Heddon Street, London W1B 4BG

Piccolino, Heddon StreetBefore I visited Piccolino in Heddon Street, I mentioned to a few people that I was going there for dinner. They told me that the service was excellent but spoke little about the food. Curious about this strange recommendation, I checked out Piccolino’s website to find out more. From there, I gleamed that it’s a small chain of Italian restaurants with 22 venues across the country. And it promises to be a neighbourhood sort of venue, offering chic yet informal dining.

Indeed the Heddon Street branch, with its brassy lighting, red leather banquettes and wooden chairs, boasts rustic charm meet city slick. Being so close to Regent Street, it’s central location is easily accessible for shoppers and tourists alike and the size of the restaurant comfortably accommodates the traffic. Outside is a sheltered al fresco area sharing the buzzy atmosphere of neighbouring venues, while inside is an open plan space with views into the kitchen.

My friend (who provided the illustrations below) and I chose the comfort of the red banquettes from which to finally sample the food.

At the start of the evening service the restaurant is filled with families but as the night progresses, the clientèle gets younger with small groups of friends starting to drift in. Even later, it seems, those who’ve finished work and a few drinks in the nearby bars start to take their seats for a late supper. But no matter what time, there’s a steady stream of guests entering Piccolino maintaining a hubbub. Despite it being so busy, the staff were still able to take time to smile and joke with the customers – there’s even the occasional wink. Is that what keeps people coming in I wonder.

Some Italian restaurants seem only to serve pizza and pasta, but Piccolino is definitely not one of these. While the menu is extensive, though, the food was a bit hit and miss.

Poached egg on asparagus at Piccolino, Heddon Street

Grilled asparagus with a neatly trimmed poached egg made a healthier alternative starter to the calamari fritti, which was a little greasy. For the main, it’s A3 menu offered the staples of pizza, pasta, risotto and salads for a few pounds more than the starters. There were also fish and meats to choose from.

The Nodino di vitello (veal chop on the bone) offered a taste of Milan with a parmesan and rosemary breadcrumb crust – something I enjoyed very much on a previous trip to Milan. This version wasn’t bad at all. There were of course the usual cuts of steak on the menu too – ribeye, sirloin and fillet. The chips served were matchstick thin but not quite crispy enough to be fries. These were probably the most disappointing aspect of the meal and rather hard to forget.

On the plus side, there’s some 10 desserts on the menu as well as gelato and sorbets to choose from. The torte di limone delivers a sharp tang via its limoncello filling, which is then balanced out thanks to the candied lemons served on top. The panna cotta is richly flavoured with vanilla, rendering the slightly over poached rhubarb redundant.

To accompany the food, there’s a good selection of table wines from sauvignon blanc to cenin blanc and rioja to merlot. A small section of the drinks menu is dedicated to red, white and rosé wines by the glass, in a caraf or as a bottle. The rest of the drinks menu consists of wine, champagne and prosecco by the bottle only, some of which is also available by the glass.

By the end of the meal, we were a whole lot fuller but not quite fully satisfied. I guess there was a reason for that strange recommendation. And I guess if you were looking for the neighbourhood restaurant with great service, this would be it. But if you were looking for great gastronomy, then you’re probably unlikely to find it.


Wahaca, Soho, Review

80 Wardour Street, Westminster, London W1F 0TF

The last time I had really good Mexican food was in America – the kind that was so good, it remained with you for a long, long time. Back in the UK, whenever I rave about Mexican food in London, the name Wahaca comes up. And I’ve been hearing all good things about the chain that first opened in 2007 for a while now.

I actually had the opportunity to review Wahaca a little while ago but, as these things do,  it was pushed back and I never got round to it. So tonight, while out looking for some post-cinema grub, walking past Wahaca, Soho, meant the perfect opportunity to go in and sample the goods.

The Soho branch is the latest to join the chain of Mexican restaurants by celebrity chef Thomasina Miers. And in case you didn’t know, Tommi – as she’s known in the trade, won Masterchef back in 2005 and is a very passionate advocate for Mexican food.

You know that the restaurant is going to be true to its market roots when you walk in and smell the food – and it smelt good to three hungry diners. Service was a little on the slow side but I guess that’s to be expected of a restaurant that’s still packed at 9pm on Tuesday night. It’s not that there isn’t enough space, it’s simply that people are still streaming in well until 10pm.

To settle us in, we had a couple of drinks and gaucamole and corn chips. It’s light enough to not take anything away from the main, and in my case it was a British steak burrito. The burrito is such a Mexican classic but it can go so wrong. In this case, it was just perfect. The burrito was tightly wrapped, full of flavour and it came with a side of corn chips with salsa. I’m not sure it matched my Mexican of mythical proportions from America but it was certainly pretty good. That said, it could have done with a little less cabbage and rice and a little more beans.

Despite the fact that we weren’t very hungry, we were still somehow persuaded to have desserts. But when hot chocolate and churros are on the menu, it was pretty hard to resist. The hot chocolate was excellent, but the churros rather let the side down. It felt a bit too greasy and needed a sprinkle or two more of sugar.

Given the bustle of the restaurant, the slow service was acceptable. And in fact, our waitress was more than lovely – especially given the ridiculousness of my blue mouth (damn the raspberry slush). For the price? There is not question about going back – it was a thoroughly jolly good night.

A potted tale of Canteen

Canteen's Great British Food cookbookCanteen is the critically acclaimed mini restaurant chain whose raison d’être is to serve wholesome British food and this has been a major factor in its success from day one. There are four busy locations across central London playing host to a branch of Canteen: Spitalfields, Royal Festival Hall, Baker Street and Canary Wharf.

Now coming up to its fifth year of serving up simple delicious food, it’s still as busy as ever. So I took the opportunity for some sumptuous steak and chips to meet the founders and talk past, present and the recently released Great British Food.

The story began when co-founders Patrick Clayton-Malone, Cass Titcombe and Dominic Lake gathered round a table at the Real Eating Company, a restaurant that Cass was running in Brighton at the time. When it came to the subject of food, the three discovered that their different upbringings had converged on to one point, they all had a love of good quality British food, the kind grandma used to make. This is something which they felt passionate about and yet at the same time found to be uncommon on the British High Street. They craved for something that was good and wholesome but that was also affordable and accessible. So the idea for Canteen was born, a restaurant which served simple, high-quality ingredients in an unpretentious environment.

So here we have classics like devilled kidneys, fish and chips, and treacle tart to choose from on the menu. But perhaps in many respects the seed was sown many years before that when each of them were introduced to their idea of real food. For Patrick, the key influence on his ideology of food was perhaps growing up in rural Dorset and being immersed in home-grown produce and home-made food. Then of course there were the cattle markets, farmers’ stalls and village fêtes which also played a key role in his experience of eating local, something which is very central to the ethos of Canteen.

Patrick’s first job was that of a kitchen porter at a Tex Mex restaurant, which although uninspiring, did propel him into the hospitality industry. He went on to a career in events organisation and promotion which later morphed into multimedia production. During this time, Patrick ate out regularly and discovered the growing discrepancy between the cheap but low quality high-street brands and fine-dining experiences. While event organising in Bath, Patrick met a young chef called Cass who later went on to work for Daphne’s, The Collection and Pasha in London.

Like Patrick, Cass also grew up with home-cooked meals in a rural surrounding. His parents were small-holders in Wales before it became cool. For Cass, memories of food were all about making elderflower champagne for the summer, preserves for the winter, raising chickens and ducks for eggs and goats for milk. Cass had felt for sometime that his heart lay with organic and seasonal food so when Patrick introduced Cass to Dominic, Canteen began to take shape. By pure chance, Patrick had also met Dominic through one of his oldest friends and discovered that he had a strong entrepreneurial streak. Despite studying at Central St Martin’s School of Art and Design to begin with, Dominic went on to become an investment executive at a boutique venture capital company before gaining an MBA from the London Business School. Dominic has always had a passion for food and in 2001 he even organised the European Motorcycle Extravaganza, combining Europe’s mountain roads with the best of Michelin starred restaurants.

The meeting with Cass moved Dominic firmly away from fashion and into the food arena. Of course, while each was passionate and committed, it wasn’t as simple as upping sticks and opening a restaurant. There were logistics to be worked out. So after many months of planning, recipe tasting and tentative site applications, the first Canteen was finally ready to be revealed. And on the 19th of October 2005, Canteen was opened to the public at Old Spitalfields Market where it was welcomed with open arms. And it seems that everyone who is anyone on the food scene has eaten there, liked it and written about it; everyone from A. A. Gill to Fay Maschler.

Fast forward to today, Canteen remains a firm favourite of critics and customers alike and continues to serve those traditional dishes. And by popular demand, the three founders have decided to release their first cookbook, Great British Food. A cookbook which embodies the entire ethos of Canteen, from its tweed cover and simple layout to the nostalgic collection of their favourite Canteen recipes inside. It’s clear that Canteen has worked hard to stay true to its ethos and in meeting with its founders I firmly believe that it’ll continue to do the same for years to come. And my steak and chips? It was simple and delicious.

(First seen on Foodepedia)