Saturday 31 October 2009

Fernandez & Wells Food & Wine Bar, Soho (London)

Forget meditation and long walks through the park. On a chilly London evening, when I need to get to my happy place, I go to Fernandez & Wells.

Last night the Greedy Diva and her trusty side kicks hit the Fernandez and Wells Food and Wine Bar for some pre-dinner merriment. Chris was visiting from North Carolina and, having dragged him around to a few old man pubs during the week, it was time to turn things up a notch.

By day Fernandez is a cute lunch spot, loaded up with tasty bocadillos and ciabattas, salads, soups and stews. The ham, Montgomery cheddar and piccalilli, and the mortadella, aioli, sausage, rocket, shaved parmesan and parma ham, are particular Greedy Diva favourites. Grill them up and chow down in glee. The Portuguese custard tarts ("pasteis de nata") are also gold. All are the result of simple, fresh, quality ingredients, knocked up beautifully.

By night Fernandez transforms into a lively hive of revelry, particularly by the end of the working week. Binge on comte and manchego as you savor a delicious selection of wines by the bottle or glass. Crowd among the hanging hams while gorging on chorizo, cured hams, salamis and cornichons. And the raclette....well, they won't pour it directly down your throat (I checked) but forget about Weight Watchers for a night.

Service is smiley (wouldn't you be?) and helpful. One gets the feeling you need a passion for food and wine to work here.

For those who feel they have thoroughly done the rounds of the plentiful Fernandez wine board, word has it that the selection is changing in the next few weeks.

A little treasure on Lexington Street, Fernandez is just around the corner from the Fernandez and Wells Cafe on Beak Street - our morning coffee staple. In addition to similar sandwich options as at the Wine Bar, the cafe is a haven for rich espressos, cakes, pastries and the delectable toasted ham and cheese croissant.

The Fernandez and Wells Espresso Bar, just a short stumble away in St Anne's Court, recently snared a liquor licence. It will soon evolve into a more casual version of the established Food and Wine Bar (more tapas, less jambon), which is probably a format better suited to its narrow alleyway location. I'll be on the look out.

Until then, the Food and Wine bar remains a happy place to find foodie bliss. And a good one to pull out of the box when you need to impress your globe trotting friends.

Fernandez & Wells Food and Wine Bar, 43 Lexington Street, Soho, W1F 9AL

Fernandez & Wells on Urbanspoon 

Tuesday 27 October 2009

Top 10 Snack Attacks, London

Despite my focus on restaurants, I love a good, dirty pig out on the run. Here are my top 10 snack attacks, scattered around London, for when you're eating on the hoof...

1. The Breadman: Gorgeous Berwick Street market stall run by two affable chaps, Chris and Tom, from Mondays-Fridays. Best Portuguese tarts in London. Don't even think about stopping at one. Beigels hot out of the oven from Brick Lane - get them plain, with hot salt beef and mustard, chorizo and other delicious fillings. The doughnuts bursting with raspberry jam or custard are also delicious. Great prices. Berwick Street market, Soho

2. I Camisa & Son: My favourite shop in London. Step in the doors of this tiny Italian grocer and see, hear, smell and taste Italy. Stock up on fresh pastas, home made pestos and sauces, cheeses, truffles (the white Alba truffle is in stock now), hams, salami, jars of tuna, sweet peppers, olives, anchovies, wine, panattonis hanging from the ceiling and fabulous olive oils and balsamic vinegars. The staff are real Italian nonnas, the prices are great and everything's all the better if you can barter in Italian. Prego. Take away rolls and focaccias can be made up with all their fresh ingredients, starting from about £1. Yes, £1.  61 Old Compton Street, Soho W1D

3. Brick Lane Beigel: Needs no introduction. Join the queues to wolf down a giant, salt beef, pickle and mustard beigel made by the masters. 159 Brick Lane, E1 6SB

4. Nordic Bakery: The cinnamon bun is a knock out. They also do a rich hot chocolate to help wash it down. 14a Golden Square, London, W1F 9JG

5. St John: Order a box of fresh madeleines, lull over a wine while you wait, then take them home freshly baked, and don't let anyone else in the house. Scoff them all. Heavenly. 26 St John Street, Smithfield, EC1M 4AY.

6. Princi: This is not the first time I have sung the praises of the marvellous cannoncini and chocolate chip biscuits - see here. 135 Wardour Street, Soho, W1F 0UT

7. Leila's: Warm up over winter with a rich coffee, and a hearty slab of ginger cake or The Peanut Gallery's beloved Portuguese rice flour brioche thingie. 17 Calvert Avenue, Shoreditch, E2 7JP  Leila's Shop on Urbanspoon

8. The M&S Scone: Cakey, sweet, crumbly mounds of joy.

9. Flat White & Milk Bar: Love the haloumi and bacon bagel with brown sauce. Everything tastes better with haloumi. Amazing coffee too. Flat White: 17 Berwick Street, Soho, W1D; Milk Bar: 3 Bateman Street, Soho, W1D

10. Scoop: Divine Italian gelato, made with ingredients sourced from Italy and the UK. I love a sizeable scoop of the Nocciolo made with hazlenuts from Piedmont, their spiritual home. The coffee, dark chocolate and caramel varieties are also sensational. Even worth a bit of frost bite in winter. 40 Shorts Gardens, Covent Garden, WC2H 9AB 
Scoop Fine Italian Gelato on Urbanspoon

Finally, Borough Market: Ok, so this makes 11. But would I really miss out this glorious mecca of cheeses, meats, veg, bread, olive oils etc, with Neal's Yard Dairy just up the road? Loiter around the cheese stalls and steal as many samples as you can before they start recognising you, load up on a monstrously big roast pork roll with stuffing and apple sauce, scoff samples of chocolate brownies and banana cake, try creamy balsamic vinegars, wrap up a fabulous, giant almond croissant and with your spare hand, or borrow somebody else's, indulge in a lovely Monmouth coffee. Mmmm...  Borough Market, 8 Southwark Street, London, SE1 1TL.

Feed me: Let me know what I have missed!

Monday 26 October 2009

32 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden (London)

Finally, I can sleep again at night. No longer do I need to lie awake at grim hours, tossing and turning, racking my brains, for a worthy place to meet friends for a pub lunch in the realms of Soho.

Soho is great for coffee, wine bars, restaurants and, obviously, drinking out of a brown paper bag with a crack pipe in your pocket (if that's your thing). But foodie pubs are another story. The quest to find one has been the source of an inordinate amount of anguish and heartache in my obsessive little life. Yet somehow, despite my enormous snout for a good Sunday lunch, I had missed a corker: 32 Great Queen Street was that missing piece of the puzzle.

The Peanut Gallery and I had a date for Sunday lunch with our ever affable friend, Ray, on his brief visit from Australia. Ray is one well-travelled foodie, so the aim was to show him some decent British fare, vaguely in the vicinity of his hotel. Related to two other great British gastro pubs, the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo and the Eagle in Farringdon, 32 GQS was likely a safe bet.

There is nothing pretty or fancy about 32 GQS. The dining room is dark, scuffed and shabby with a hotch potch of non matching chairs, ricketty wooden tables and thimble sized wine tumblers. However, it serves up gutsy, traditional British pub fare. The food is simple, fresh, hearty and it's good.

The first promising sign was the bread - wholemeal, thick and hearty. Bread can say so much.

I happily tucked into a pidgeon with cannelloni beans (above) - seasonal and delicious. The Peanut Gallery's cuttlefish braised in its own ink (below) was so sumptuous he covertly tried to hide it from us (if you can call building a wall with the menus "covert").

Ray's shoulder of lamb (below) was juicy and sweet and I'm fairly sure I saw him licking the plate while I was distractedly ordering more beers.

I like to think we shared tasty sides of potatoes, fresh buttery cabbage, and mixed leaves - but, truth be told, I pretty much hogged them all.

We finished off with a chocolate pot that looked like a short macchiato (Ray reported it was more cakey than moussey, but in a good way), the white chocolate, raspberry and amaretto cheese cake (yes, it sounds scrumptious and it was) and chocolate doughnuts with sour cream and chestnuts.

This latter dish has since been the source of much lively debate between its owner and I. It has been noted before that The Peanut Gallery loves a doughnut. However, he was not overawed by these examples - he insists they should have been vanilla flavoured (not chocolate) and that the sour cream and chestnuts added nothing. At this point, I was hitting him over the head with my handbag and screeching denials in the middle of Long Acre Road. I loved this dessert and, as this is my blog, let that be the final word.

32 Great Queen Street, you are worthy of your pedigree, and I'm so delighted to have found you at last. I'll be back for the crab on toast.

Great Queen Street on Urbanspoon

Sunday 25 October 2009

Princi, Soho (London)

When I think Milan, I don't think Gucci, Prada, Armani. I think Princi. (Ok, I also think veal milanese and the best red wine I have ever tasted, but that's another posting).

It was a cool, overcast day in March 2008 when The Peanut Gallery and I, feet aching from endless hours spent trodding the well worn, cobblestoned streets of Milano's shopping district, stumbled upon a breathtaking bakery. In a trancelike state, we were forcibly drawn, mouths agape, into its bounty of loaves, cakes and delights both savoury and sweet. Like greedy piglets at the trough, we ate everything - pizza, bread, sausage rolls, pastry, cake. All at once and in no particular order, we devoured, pillaged, ransacked and consumed, leaving in our wake nothing but a scattering of crumbs at our feet and a trail of grease around our lips. This is my lasting and most pleasant memory of Milan.

So it was a certain amount of gluttonous anticipation that we watched the familiar Princi layout spring up in Soho last year. Could it be the same one? If it was, would we ever be able to look down and see our feet again?

And so it was that Rocco Princi, famed as the "Armani of bread", teamed up with Alan Yau, the man behind Wagamama, Busaba Eathai, Hakkasan, Yautcha and Cha Cha Moon, to bring the Milanese baker's delights to London last year.

Helen and Suzi joined me there late on Friday night, after our invigorating Italian feast at a nearby eatery. We simply followed the drool up Wardour Street, passed the noses pressed up to the glass and stepped into the buzzing throng that is London's Princi.

For the food lover, Princi looks like food porn. The counter runs along the left hand side of the restaurant with giant bread ovens and shiny loaves in the background. It is stocked up first with Italian pastries, then a glitzy array of cakes, biscuits and slices. Further along come the olive bread sticks, focaccias and pizzas, enticing one down to the amazing and colourful side salads, before the counter intersects with a hot food bar containing meaty meals and various pasta dishes.

But let me start by saying something controversial. As far as the sweet stuff goes, with some notable exceptions, the overall impact of looking at a smorsgasboard of 20 colourful treats oozing with cream, custard and chocolate is actually more magnificent than any one of them, individually, tastes. The croissants and chocolate pastries were the biggest let down for me - expecting the French style pastries I love, I don't bother with the heavier, breadier Italian style pastries here.

The exceptions include the delectable custard filled cannoncini and the chocolate chip biscuits. The Peanut Gallery is addicted to these and if he does not bound in the door on the way home to pick up an evening selection, he is at least blaming me for deterring him from doing so by espousing my ridiculous notion that we should, in the interests of good health, hold back at least one night per week. As we stare into space entranced by the after glow of dinner, it will be a rare night indeed if The Peanut Gallery does not break the silence with a hopeful "Princi?"

On Friday night, the divas and I chose the happy triangle of passionfruit cheesecake, chocolate fudge & biscuit slice (I'm sure it has a more technical Italian name) and a bold newcomer, the lemon custard and sponge slice topped with soft, gooey meringue. The cheesecake is tangy and creamy and the chocolate fudge thing hugely rich. Both are good, but they are not as amazing as you think they will be when faced with a counter-full which could only be conceived by an Italian Willy Wonka on acid. The meringue number was the best.

The pizzas and salads are delicious, although we didn't sample them on Friday. And all are reasonably priced.

Service is chaotic and often disorganised. Serious teamwork and strategic coordination of military precision is required to obtain everyone's food items at the same time. Finding a seat among the communal benches is tough. And what's with the water feature running constantly down the back wall?

However, despite the catches, I still love it. Princi has a late night buzz and enough good stuff to keep us coming back, and to be attracting the crowds in their droves. It's open for breakfast, lunch and dinner until midnight (although I believe the doors are open all night in Milan...).

Princi, 135 Wardour Street, London W1F 0UT.

Princi on Urbanspoon

Saturday 24 October 2009

Bocca Di Lupo, Soho (London)

Food should be joyful and therapeutic, celebratory and satisfying. Above all, food should be all about pleasure.

Clearly, anyone blogging under the Greedy Diva pseudonym subscribes to a healthy "live to eat" philosophy. I will never understand those contrary "eat to live"-ers, who would sooner pop a pill to deal with their daily calorie intake at minimum fuss than spend every spare moment day dreaming about what they might devour next. I put them in the same category as morning people. A complete enigma.

So for those who, like me, start mentally planning lunch while they are still swallowing that last piece of crumpet, Bocca Di Lupo is a fine place to celebrate food at its honest and satiating, pleasurable best.

Lucky for me, Bocca is my local Italian so The Peanut Gallery and I have sampled its fare since its first week of opening (it was brilliant from the start, and certainly easier to nab a seat). On Friday night, it was definitely time for a return visit, this time with my fellow hungry divas, Helen and Suzi. What better place to celebrate Helen's birthday and lift the pesky veil over Suzi's "what happened in Vegas, stays in Vegas" recent travel tales.

Bocca serves up simple Italian regional food, perfectly done. If you haven't already guessed it, it's my kind of place. The menu itself is like a gastronomic guide book to the regions of Italy. And almost every dish is served in both small and large portion sizes, so you can hop between gazillions of courses, or tuck into one hearty bowl of pasta or a roast suckling pig. My fellow divas and I chose to cruise around the menu.

The crudita di mare from Veneto consisted of raw sea bream, langoustine and scallops with rosemary oil (pictured below). This was the best dish of the night. Forget all jokes about the raw prawn - each piece of seafood basked luxuriously on the taste buds, enhanced perfectly by the opulent greenish oil. Sometimes, sharing really is overrated.

The Ligurian grilled whole squid with gremolata (above) was lovely, as was the romanesco broccoli, served chilled with parsley and parmesan (pictured below). The whole, leafy grilled radicchio with a firm, grilled Asiago cheese of Veneto (above) was also a favourite.

Choosing a pasta was difficult, but we settled on the orecchiette with cime di rapa (a sauteed, leafy broccoli), garlic and chilli from Puglia (below). A challenger for first place, this was a gorgeous plate of perfectly firm ear shaped pasta pieces, packed with simple, scrumptious flavours.

The wet polenta with parmesan was milky with corn flavours, even if it did look a little like baby food (it is polenta afterall). We shared a crescentini (fried bread) with finocchiona (pork salami with fennel seeds), speck and tangy, creamy squacquerone cheese attibuted to Bologna.

As the Greedy Diva's head was causing a solar eclipse of the lighting, the Bocca photos do not do the food justice. Or perhaps it was just the 2nd carafe of wine at work - a smooth, light Ulysse Etna....

There are some intriguing desserts on the menu, like burnt almond granita with bitter chocolate sorbet (Sicilian) and sanguinaccio (sweet pate of pig's blood and chocolate with sourdough bread of Abruzzo). However, we had a date with with a Milanese bakery up the road.

Needless to say, this place does not have a bog standard London restaurant take on Italian food. For duos, I prefer the action of eating at the bar, but the tabled restaurant area is also lively and fun. Our meal cost around £32 per head, including wine and service - a reasonable price for such great food, sparkling company and the perfect atmosphere to gossip over tales of crazy nights in Vegas.

Bocca Di Lupo means "mouth of the wolf". And no matter how many times I visit, I'm still howling its praises.

Bocca Di Lupo, 12 Archer Street, Soho, London, W1
Bocca di Lupo on Urbanspoon

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, London

Shining brightly in his galaxy of 18 Michelin stars, down a dark Covent Garden alleyway, lies the glittering L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon.

The Greedy Diva and her fabulous foodie friend, Helen, dabbled in a cheeky mid-weeker at L'Atelier this week. And with Michelin star food at the sparkling pre-theatre price of £19.00 for 2 courses, why on earth not?

L'Atelier shrugs off the formality of other restaurants of its calibre. The food is the focus and the theatre of the kitchen is the centrepiece of the room. Laid out like a Tokyo sushi bar, diners can prop up at the u-shaped counter to watch the grills being worked or linger among the darker shadows and vines at high tables and chairs.

The red and black interior is dark and sultry. And the food, oh the food, is classical, creative and delicious all at once.

This was not my first visit so I knew that no-one, I repeat, no-one should go without dessert at L'Atelier. Just take a look at the dessert menu which reads like sweet toothed poetry from the gods. Therefore, we skipped entrees and went straight to main course. I chose the cockerel with a smooth, creamy pilaf. Flavoursome, moist and lovely.

Helen went for a colourful dish of sea bream and bok choy with a red onion, corn and tomato salsa. I couldn't distract her for long enough to steal a nibble, but she gave it the thumbs up.

Our wines by the glass were also matched perfectly - a Hungarian white for Helen's bream, and a smooth Barbera d'Alba for me. So far, so good.

Then along came Dessert. Dessert was a masterpiece of chocolatey heaven in all its glory. Think what would happen if a big, magical, marvellous food genie combined light, crispy mielle feuille, sumptious chocolatey fudge and a beautifully placed dollop of voluptuous chocolate ice-cream with a smear of rich chocolate sauce. Sounds all a bit chocolatey? Well, somehow, it wasn't overkill. Exquisite.

One doesn't get the best from L'Atelier by sticking to the prix fixe options - doing so is like going to the Vic market and not coming home with a bag of jam donuts (substitute "Brick Lane" and "bagels" for those who don't know what I'm talking about). Gastronauts with time to explore the amazing and extensive a la carte menu would unearth more from the experience. However, L'Atelier remains a fuss free, fun way to sample some deluxe fare whether you're eating on the run or have some time to linger and be dazzled. Enjoy!

L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, 13-15 West Street, London, WC2H 9NE

L'Atelier on Urbanspoon

Monday 19 October 2009

Galvin Bistrot De Luxe, London

Apparently, French women don't get fat. According to Mireille Guiliano, by sticking to time tested principles of French gastronomy, French women can indulge in bread, wine, cheese and frequent 3 course meals without fear of gradually expanding through the seams of their French pantalon. Food must be savoured, not rushed. Eating is all about joyful pleasure. At this point of the theory, the Greedy Diva is high-fiving Mireille all the way to the patisserie.

Similarly, the French Paradox is the observation that the French population suffers lower rates of coronary heart disease despite thriving on a diet lavish in saturated fats. Many attribute this phenomenom to the health benefits of plentiful red wine consumption. Fabulous - where do I sign? Eating high quality food is also a likely key. My thoughts exactly. Other probable contributing factors are the low incidence of snacking in between meals and smaller portion sizes. Hmm.....

This is where the Greedy Diva's subscription to living the French principles of eating comes to a screeching halt. Because the better something tastes, the more one must eat of it, non?

Fortunately, the Galvin brothers seem to concur. The portion sizes at Galvin Bistrot De Luxe, their fabulous French bistrot in the nether regions of Baker Street, are ample and hearty, while maintaining the high quality and classic style for which the chefs are reputed.

The Peanut Gallery and I opted for the lunch menu prix fixe: 3 courses for £15.50 (also available for dinner at £17.50). This would have to be one of the best value lunches in town, particularly when compared to the cost of a Eurostar ticket - sip your red wine, soak up the buzz, and one is instantly transported to Paris...voila!

We commenced proceedings with the chicken and root vegetable terrine. Colourful, if slightly Picassoesque, this was a delectable and satisfying starter. The Autumnal vegetables (mainly carrots and greens) blended beautifully with the luscious, rich chicken. The serving size was also generous, and certainly took more than the edge off the next course.

The Peanut Gallery wisely chose the short rib of beef for his main, accompanied by pumpkin puree, baby onions, carrots, greens and a rich sauce (pictured top). This would normally be the dish for me, but to broaden our explorations of the menu, I opted for the salmon and haddock fish cake with poached egg and herbs.

Fish cakes are not something I normally choose, but this was probably as good as a fish cake can get and the poached egg on top was a lovely touch. However, drenched in a bechamel type sauce, it was not only enormous but insanely rich. In the spirit of principled French eating (and a rare show of meal defeat), the Greedy Diva had to abandon a portion on the plate.

But then her lack of French blood inevitably revealed itself. The Peanut Gallery had also declared himself defeated by the beef. This was surely a crime for a dish so completely and utterly delicious. So tender, rich and lush. The Greedy Diva treated herself to a morsel. Then another. Until, mid sentence, The Peanut Gallery looked down at his plate and gasped in horreur. Somehow, in a matter of seconds, The Greedy Diva had managed to scrape the (once) well covered bone clean and was now licking her lips bashfully. It was then that I knew I would never master the effortlessly elegant ways of a French woman.

Finally, after some breathing space, the potted cheesecake arrived. The caramelised fig topping was too strongly spiced, but the cheesecake and biscuit base were divine. We also noted some robust blackberry souffles flaunting around the room, which would definitely warrant a repeat visit.

Galvin Bistrot De Luxe won London's Best French Restaurant of the Year Award in 2008 and it's easy to see why. It would have to be one of my new favourite lunch spots, and the reasonable prices are a bonus. If you were settling in for the evening, the extensive wine list has a great selection to keep you entertained.

While slightly stiff and formal looking on first glance, with its wood panelling, white linen and well-to-do older crowd, Galvin Bistrot has a charming and chattering buzz. It's easy to imagine you have just stepped out of your chic Parisian apartment to grab a meal and a glass of wine before taking a tiptoe through the Tuileries. What more could you want?

Galvin Bistrot De Luxe, 66 Baker Street, London, W1U 7DJ 

Galvin Bistrot de Luxe on Urbanspoon

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