Tag Archives: On Location

On Location: Waterhouse (Shoreditch, London)

A few weeks ago, after a tough spell almost chained to my desk, I was really quite relieved to have been released for the weekend and to be going for dinner on Friday. Blinking as I walked out, the sun on my face, I will freely admit there was a real sense of freedom.

And a few short hours later, via an Aperol spritz on a terrace, I found myself sitting next to a canal and with bikes whizzing past on the other side of the water, with the vague feeling that I was somewhere in Holland. It is this stretch of canal that gives its name to the restaurant – Waterhouse in Shoreditch. This place also prides itself on an eco-friendly ethos, seasonal ingredients and giving local people opportunities in the restaurant trade.

I got to know about this place a few years ago through friends who worked with the trustees, and it’s the sort of place that might be difficult to find unless you know exactly where it is. It’s in an unassuming building, tucked down a quiet side street just off Kingsland Road and could be incredibly easy to overlook. You need to keep your eyes peeled for the water droplet symbol.

While the restaurant has glass windows and canal views from one side, the kitchen is brightly lit at the back. I’m a bit of a fan of places where you can see the kitchen staff cooking away in the background. I don’t mean that I need to have things sliced-and-diced in front of my face, but scenes of business being done on the other side of the room provide an assurance than things are being cooked from scratch.

My starter was chilli paneer on lemonade bread with raita. I have no idea what makes this lemonade bread – it seemed to be something like a small, puffy pita. Maybe some lemonade in the dough? I didn’t know, and a post-dinner check via Google didn’t illuminate me much. If anyone out there can enlighten me, then please do!

This confusion about ingredients aside, this was a delicious starter, possibly one of the best that I have had for quite a while. First off, there was a really generous amount of paneer, which I love. This was all coated in a sweet, spicy, fruity, sticky sauce with a goodly amount of chilli too. It was rich and lightly fiery but avoided being too hot.

My main was that veggie staple, the mushroom ravioli. However, I don’t think that really gives a true flavour (ha ha!) of this dish, for the secret was in the sauce. I spied that this was served with wild garlic. I’ve been rather frantically busy recently, and have not come across any of this stuff, either in markets (having not been to any) or in the forests around London (again, due to a lack to time to go walking, and little inclination due to the recent cold/wet/damp snap).

I had in my mind that this would be a pasta dish served with some sort of wild garlic pesto. When it came, it was a buttery sauce with wild garlic added to impart flavour, so it was delicate rather than vampire-repelling strong. For the sake of my fellow diners, probably a good thing, but a little ramekin of wild garlic puree to add to the ravioli would not have gone amiss.

I really liked this. The filling had a rich, earthy mushroom flavour, and a bit of texture – finely chopped fungi rather than the more familiar paste that you so often get. The sauce was buttery and had an agreeable mild garlic flavour. All in all, very tasty, even if it wasn’t the plate of bright emerald green I was expecting.

So…would I go back? Yes. I go here from time to time anyway, and I like the variety of the menu – the dishes, in particular the veggie dishes, tend to be somewhat different to the usual suspects (I have yet to experience risotto here) and for that, we all need to be grateful. It’s also got a certain charm from being stylish but also somewhat secret, another rare treat in this town. The staff are also fantastic – fun, friendly and unpretentious. In Shoreditch – who’d believe it?

Waterhouse, 10 Orsman Road, London N1 5QJ. Tel: 020 7033 0123. Tube: Haggerston.

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Eye Bar (Noord, Amsterdam)

I’m just back from a few days in Amsterdam, and of course that meant I had the pleasure of wandering along picturesque tree-lined canals and peering across the water at pretty, tall houses. But sometimes, it is also interesting to find yourself in a part of town that might not be on the list of tourist hotspots, but which is changing and which brings with it a distinct buzz. In my case, I went to the “new” northern quarter of Amsterdam.

Noord is a corner of the city that is clearly about to change. Years ago, a trip to Amsterdam involved arriving at the main station, and heading south towards the charming old buildings and leafy canals as soon as you could. North? Oh no. The mighty river IJ (pronounced “eye”) marked the end of the city and beyond was terra incognita as far as the visitor was concerned, most probably unexciting territory won from the water. In short – not promising territory for those more interested in Dutch Masters and vintage flea markets.

But the times are changing. The city is building a new metro line to connect this quarter with the rest of the city. I’m sure it’s quite a feat as they have to deal with all those canals. As part of the renovation project, a new film museum has already opened on the north of the river. It gleams like a sleek yacht belonging to an unknown millionaire and has a cladding that is something of a nod to Dutch artist MC Escher, made from tessellating trapeziums (isosceles trapezoids, if you’re keen on geometry…I think).

But there is no need to wait years for the metro to be finished – just jump on the (currently free) boat behind the main station (which leaves every 5 minutes) and you’re on the other side of the IJ in, well, the blink of an eye. So what does this place offer the visitor? Besides some rather grand architecture of the building itself, there is a rather fantastic little cafe and restaurant, the Eye Bar-Restaurant.

I have to confess that it took me a moment to work out the clever name – it’s a play on the fact that it’s a cinema, and it’s on the River IJ, so the whole complex is called the Eye. In my case, it clicked after about 10 minutes. I like it.

The decor is wood and lots of black and white (a nod to the history of film) and the Eye has large glass windows offering vistas of Amsterdam. Now, let’s be honest, Amsterdam seen from here is not exactly picturesque. However, you do get to enjoy big skies and lots of sun dancing on the water. It’s actually all really rather lovely.

I didn’t arrive at the Eye at the right time for lunch, but I can recommend it as a place for coffee and cake. During my visit, they had only three sweet options on offer, which might seem a little bit thin. Just apple, lemon and chocolate.

However, what there might have been lacking in quantity was more than made up for in quality. The lemon and chocolate cakes came from Patisserie Holtkamp, and the apple tart (appelgebak) was from Patisserie Kuyt. A promising start!

Now, I need to confess that my picture really does not do this applegebak justice at all. It’s very much a tart – a buttery, crumbly base with generous amount of apple slices, currants, flaked almonds and cinnamon. Absolutely delicious.

I wondered if this was a healthy apple tart? Probably it was getting there, apart from some sugar and the rather heroic swirl of whipped cream along the side of the tart. But to have had it without the cream? Well, it probably would not have been the same experience. If you arrived flagging and ate a slice of that with your coffee, you’d leave happy and ready to take in more of the city.

Would I go back? Most certainly. The service was good, the coffee and cake excellent, and the Eye Bar has a spectacular terrace that allows you to make the most of a sunny day, or large windows to let in lots of light while protecting you from the elements. It’s also an area that is sure to change in the near future, so I’m sure I’ll pop back in if I’m in the neighbourhood.

Eye Bar-Restaurant, IJpromenade 1, 1031 KT Amsterdam. Tel: +31 (0)20 589 1402.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Diamond Jubilee: a tea party at Charbonnel et Walker

While tea party baking is a pretty big part of this weekend’s festivities at parties up and down the country, I was fortunate enough to receive and invitation to a tea party at Charbonnel et Walker, traditional London-based chocolatiers and…ta da…holders of a royal warrant.

So these are the people who provide chocolates to Buckingham Palace. As you can see below, they are also feeling very patriotic at the moment!

Charbonnel et Walker have been “purveying” chocolates in London since 1875. You might wonder where the French link comes from? Well, the future King Edward VII was rather partial to continental chocolate, and encouraged a French chocolate maker, Mme Virginie Charbonnel to leave Paris to seek her fortune in London. She teamed up with Mrs Minnie Walker, and the pair set up shop in Bond Street in fashionable and expensive Mayfair.

This is very much a traditional chocolate shop – beautiful boxes, lovely packaging and satin ribbons. The Jubilee, in particular, has inspired a lot of the gift boxes – lots of crystal crowns and Union Flags. However, if that’s not your thing, there are lots of more restrained (dare I say more British?) boxes to suit those tastes.

This last photography in particular is quite special – it is the actual royal warrant granted by HM The Queen.

I know Charbonnel et Walker’s chocolates, but the treat of the evening was the chance to actually taste things side by side – which truffle was my favourite, what chocolates did I like, and what new ideas are they thinking about?

We started with the classics – truffles, and would be tasting pink champagne, milk and dark versions. First of all, the very romatic pink champagne truffles. These are a milk chocolate centre with a white chocolate shell and dusting of powdered strawberry to give them a blushed look. These are the sweetest of the lot, and look very romantic, and are one of the best sellers. For the Jubilee, there are limited edition boxes encrusted with Swarovski crystals – I thought they looked rather amazing. If you were going for a more bling look at your party, this is clearly the way to go.

We also tried milk truffles, and then finished with dark chocolates dusted in cocoa. I liked all three, but it was the dark truffles that I loved. Rich, smooth and with a lingering warm earthiness from the cocoa powder. I might even go so far as to say the man’s truffle of choice?

After the intense richness of truffles, we got the chance to taste some more of their classic chocolates. And this is where things got very, very British. English rose and violet creams! These are fondant centres with rose or violet essence, and then topped with a crystallised petal. I’m normally someone that is a little wary of florals in chocolates but I was very pleasantly surprised by these – you know that these have rose and violet in them, but it’s delicate and refined. These have a very traditional flavour, so rather fitting for the nostalgia of the Jubilee. Indeed, I though these would be the sort of chocolate that would make wonderful wedding favours.

We also tried a couple of the “in development” flavours, which I gather are still top secret so I won’t talk about them. But there is one that I am going to rave about. For, to finish off, we were then treated to a new truffle that was about to go on sale. Salted caramel truffles.

Now, you might be sitting there thinking “yes, I’ve had salted caramel flavour in truffles before”. But these are different. Inside the chocolate shell there is actual liquid caramel and actual salt. Some bit into the truffle, and the caramel got everywhere. Others popped them in whole and let the flavours unfold. I was impressed. These things are very rich but seriously stunning chocolates. I’ll be keeping an eye out for these.

To wrap up our evening, we finally did get offered some teacups – it was a tea party, after all – but they did not contain tea. It was Pimm’s o’clock, the perfect summer drink to get us in the mood for a weekend of celebration.

So if you’re a visitor in London, you might see these chocolates on sale, but if you’re passing Piccadilly, you might want to pop in for a glimpse into the traditions on British chocolate. You’ve even got a portrait of Mme Charbonnel on the wall, keeping an eye on the whole affair.

Charbonnel et Walker, One The Royal Arcade, 28 Old Bond Street, London W1S 4BT. Tel: 020 7318 2075. Tube: Green Park.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: Alvar Bar (Birmingham)

Oh my – rather a lot of posts by me from bars and restaurants recently! Well, here’s another. This is a quick post about a nice little place I popped into during a flying visit to Birmingham last week – the Alvar Bar in the Hotel La Tour.

It’s fair to say the city has changed a lot over recent years. One of the most striking new buildings is posh department store Selfridges, which is housed in a smooth, undulating building that looks part-mirror, part-sequins thanks to lots of metal panels.

I found myself in the Midlands for an all-day training event, and feeling surprisingly enthused, I was resolved to use the free hour I had before my train back south to have a cheeky drink somewhere nice. On my way up that morning, I’d put out some feelers via Twitter to see what was suggested, and the answer came back to check out the new bar at the new Hotel La Tour, a recent opening in Birmingham.

So I had a little peek online. The hotel’s Aalto restaurant is run by a chef that trained under Marcus Wareing, so it’s something of a sister (or cousin/long-lost-friend?) of the Gilbert Scott just next to where I work in London. Coincidence? I don’t think so! I took it as a sign that I should go there, and it’s fair to say that I spent quite a lot of the day thinking about perusing a fancy cocktail list. Priorities and all that…

The style is very sleek – as the building is new, it’s on the scale that I’m not really used to in central London. It’s light, bright and I loved the way you enter the bar – via a spiral staircase around a large light sculpture that takes you up from the hotel – it had the vague air of the sort of thing you might expect to see Fred and Ginger tap dancing down in Top Hat, as if reinterpreted by a Nordic designer in thick-rimmed fashionable glasses. Nice way to make a grand entrance!

I had in my mind that I would order a Negroni (still current favourite on the apero front) but the cocktail list had some rather innovative creations.

I toyed with the “Chamberlain” (made with rum, Somerset apple cider, brandy, lemon and mint) named in honour of the Birmingham political dynasty, but in the end I was swayed to go for the “Grand Junction” (Plymouth Gin, Dubonnet, grapefruit, lemon and champagne), named in honour of the first railway in the city. I was waiting for a train, so it seemed rather fitting. It’s also a rather nice cocktail for the Diamond Jubilee – the gin, the Dubonnet, the champagne…and on balance, very nice it was too. The Dubonnet gives a vibrant pink hue, sweetness and spiced/herbal notes, the gin adds substance, the champagne adds a little sparkle and the citrus fruits add a sour twist to keep the drink fresh. I’d probably have had a second if I had not only a rather tight ten minutes to get form the bar to the station…

So…would I go back? Well, clearly it’s not the sort of place I’ll be passing on a regular basis as I’m not in this part of the world too often, but if I’m back in Birmingham, I can definitely imagine popping back.

Alvar, Hotel La Tour, Albert Street, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 718 8000.

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On Location: Kipferl (Angel, London)

Everyone like a bit of Austro-Hungarian grandeur now and then, and I was really rather excited when I learned that one of the nicest little streets around Angel has acquired Kipferl. If you know your baked goods, this should be saying “Austrian” right now, and this little café brings a little hint of Viennese life to the area. It’s located on Camden Passage, a lovely little pedestrian lane just off of busy Upper Street, with a great mix of independent antique shops, art stores, jewellers (think original 1930s art deco a la Wallis Simpson) and vintage clothing stores, so it’s a welcome addition.

A friend had mentioned this place to me, and I went there one Monday in January. I had a free day, and fancied that something noodle-focussed with cheese, a piece of chocolate-and-apricot-jam-rich Sachertorte and a cup of Wiener Melange would be in order against the cold weather.

Too bad – it’s shut on Mondays. Firmly shut. Ho-hum.

Well, finally, finally I manage to get myself together and go there for dinner, and I’m very happy to have discovered that it’s really a rather lovely little place. Given this is a short bus ride up the hill from my place of work, all in all this works out rather well.

The style is what I recall from my visits to Austria as “new Viennese” – white walls, lots of wood, and veering towards the Nordic (but there are nods to history – can you spot Mozart up on the wall?), and everything in a modern, functional font. It’s a clean look that does work rather well in a café, as I have a bit of a fear that lots of dried flowers and ruffles probably hide nightmares made of dust.

So, all things equal, if you’re looking for chintz, baroque and lots of Empress Sissi, this probably isn’t the place to come. Of course, you’ve got a riot of purple and decadence across the street in the Paul A Young chocolate shop, and I’ve no doubt that their sweet treats would have made the French (but in reality Austrian) Queen Marie Antoinette really rather happy. Would she have tried the Marmite flavour? Doubtful, but she would have love the salted caramels and truffles.

However, I digress. Back to Kipferl. The name is German for croissant, and it offers a simple, modern take on Austrian food. I’ve got a soft spot for this cuisine and the Austrian people after spending a few holidays in Styria in the south of the country, where the local specialities are white wines and pumpkin oil (of which more below), both consumed on terraces in the middle of small vineyards that cling to the sides of steep valleys. In Vienna, I’ve been to excellent chic restaurants that served traditional food prepared simply but well – memories of fried Spätzle noodles with cheese still linger.

It’s fair to say that this is all good, solid fare for people who would be doing a lot of walking up mountains. Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp children might have enjoyed singing up the side of a mountain, but I would wager that it was a plate of Kaiserschmarrn or Spätzle that powered them up there and helped them recover after the hike back down.

During my visit, we tried a goat cheese and lentil salad, spinach dumplings and the classic – cheese Spätzle noodles!

The first two were delicious, but the latter – oh my! The picture doesn’t really do the dish justice, but it was delicious – substantial, with lots of cheese and a side of fried, golden-brown onions. I wolfed this lot, then picked the pan clean.

After all that hearty food for a main dish, you might think there was no room for a dessert, and you would be right.

Except…those Austrians have a knack for cakes and sweets. Think about it – Danes don’t eat Danish pastries, they call it wienerbrød (Viennese bread). The French nibble on Viennoiseries (“thing from Vienna”). And at Kipferl there is a decent selection of bakes to have with coffee as well as a choice of traditional goodies – rich Sachertorte cake, Kaiserschmarrn chopped pancakes with fruit compote and apple Strudel. With a beaming waitress egging you on, it is sort of difficult to say no…

Both desserts were delicious. On balance, I have to plump for the Kaiserschmarrn which were rich, lightly sweet and came with a dark cherry compote and fresh berries. It was a calorific way to round off a meal, but very pleasant.

Just room left for the coffee, and I loved how the different options – from very milky to black – are explained with this little colour chart. Rather nifty!

After dinner, I had a little wander over to their display shelves, where you can pick up Austrian wine and pumpkin oil. It’s the latter that I was delighted to see – it’s made from pumpkin kernels, which give up a thick, dark green oil that has a rich, nutty flavour. It works wonderfully on simple green salads, drizzled over noodles, stirred into risotto or mixed into thick natural yoghurt for a dip. It tends to be on the pricey side, but if you do happen to see some, it’s well worth picking up a bottle.

So…would I go back? Most certainly. This place has a nice, relaxed feel to it, and it’s just that little bit hidden away so as to stay special. In particular the staff were very charming – I suspect they were Austrians, and could not have been more polite or helpful, yet maintaining a distance when you were mid-meal. You might not be able to work out how to solve a problem like Maria, but you know that you would at least be able to have a heart-to-heart with her over a decent Wiener Melange in London town.

Kipferl, 20 Camden Passage, London, N1 8ED. Tel: 0207 704 1555. Tube: Angel.

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On Location: Skylon (South Bank, London)

Having recently waxed lyrically about the neo-gothic splendour of St Pancras station, it’s a trip south of the Thames to the very 1950s Royal Festival Hall, and in particular, the bar at Skylon. As you might expect, there is a Modernist twist to the bar, and that retro feel of “the future as seen from many years ago”, which I am rather fond of.

First of all – the name. What is a skylon? The name is taken from a futuristic sculpture that used to grace the Southbank. It was installed as part of the Festival of Britain in 1951, and the logo and coasters recall what it looked like – a long cylinder, tapering in at either end. It was installed in a way that gave the impression that it floated effortlessly in mid-air.

While the original is long gone, the name now lives on in the bar. There has even been a campaign to get it re-built – so who knows, it may yet come to take its place again in skyline. It might look rather at home with the London Eye, the Gherkin and the Shard.

The “view of the future from the 1950s” theme runs through the decor – sleek seating banks and lounge chairs that have the vague air of a UFO about them. One of the things that I love about this place is that it benefits from being a large space with windows along one side – offering fantastic views across the river to some rather grand buildings, and the BT Tower hovering in the distance. All very serene by day, but at night, like in so much of London, the view really comes into its own. Sitting in the bar with a sophisticated drink, mellow lighting and the city by night – it’s great.

While Skylon is a good place for a drink, I was – unusually – there in the early afternoon, and in the mood for a cup of tea and little something sweet. As you can see below, the sleek “50s futuristic” look continues even down to the napkin holder and the bespoke chocolates. I loved these touches. They looked good in their brown-and-bronze colours, and I think this might finally have explained why so many of the more ghastly 50s and 60s buildings in London are brown – it probably looked rather nifty back in the day!

Tea arrived – a cup of Assam, which is my favourite, and in a decent china cup. It makes a difference. I like the strong flavour and intense colour, and yes – I spoil it all with a dash of milk. I’m British – it’s what we do!

However, tea was only half the story. I had anticipated that my “something sweet” would end up being some sort of standard fare – a chocolate brownie or a cupcake. But no. No, no, no. Skylon came into its own, as it had a rather intriguing item at the bottom of the menu – a selection of four mini-desserts. For a tenner. Frankly, it had to be done.

I’d gone for those, and when they arrived – well, see below, but wow! Proper dainty little dessert-like cakes. They looked absolutely beautiful – perfect and brightly coloured, the reds and yellows contrasting with the deep blue Japanese plate.

This little selection comprised a dark chocolate cake with dark chocolate cream, a raspberry and passion fruit cake, a pear, caramel and chocolate mousse  and a fruit cheesecake. A good selection, a nice balance of fruit and chocolate, and quite frankly – perfect to share between a few people if you’re after a rather informal but still swish express afternoon tea. Each was delicious in its own way, and it was nice to have quite a bit of variation in flavours and textures. Like a gastronomic mini-tour through the world of cake.

So…would I go back? For sure! I know this place for drinks, and it really does offer a unique view of the river and the site by night, making for a perfect place to meet up before going for dinner. However, I’m also pleased to have discovered that this place offers a simple alternative to a full-blown afternoon tea, so you can assuage the need for a little something sweet and a cuppa without going overboard. A real gem.

Skylon, Royal Festival Hall, London SE1 8XX. Tel: 020 7654 7800. Tube: Waterloo or Embankment.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: The Gilbert Scott Bar

I’ve been incredibly busy at work recently, and I’ve come to appreciate the pleasures of a drink at the end of the day. We’re not talking the usual way that Brits seem to unwind together “down the pub” over multiple rounds of beer. No, I lived in Brussels for too long to pick up that habit. But a chance to unwind with a colleague in a classy bar, now that is appealing.

I happen to work near to fairytale-like St Pancras station in London, and so it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the Gilbert Scott bar.

I love it. I actually love it. It was a touch too busy when it first opened, but these days, it’s still buzzy but you can usually wander in and get a table.

A big part of the attraction is the decor – it’s all quite elegant as far as seating arrangements go, then it goes crazy – lots of carved stone, gilt and an elaborate painted ceiling in gold, rich reds, deep blues and luxurious greens. I always think that the ceiling has a rather glamorous “Arts and Crafts” feeling to it. It also has that sort of subtle lighting that makes you want to huddle round the table and share stories – whispered, and not shouted. All very Victorian and discreet.

The drinks menu is great – interesting cocktails, which change by the month (juleps in January, flips and fizzes in February, mojitos in March…get it? On tenderhooks to see what April will offer – advocaat or apero?) and the classics are pretty darn good (my drink of choice is a Negroni for the time being). For those that love a touch of fizz, the award-winning English sparkling wine is also worth checking out.

Now…let’s talk damage – it’s not cheap, but this is quite a classy place with a classy crowd. I love that it still has the feeling of a grand station café, where people next to you could be about to travel up to the wilds of Yorkshire, dash to the Eurostar to travel to Paris, or are waiting for the Caledonian Sleeper to take them up to the Scottish Highlands.

This is the sort of atmosphere that lends itself to ordering something sophisticated and then having a good old catch-up with friends. If you’re not quite taken with the cocktail list in any given month, they also seem to be willing to go off piste – the staff are friendly and know their stuff, and when I was there, my friend spent most of the evening raving about a rather interesting creation that included red wine and cocoa nibs.

In addition to a decent cocktail selection, there is a nice line in bar snacks, including fat chips with Sarson’s mayo, and my favourite – Countess Morphy’s potato croquettes.

Countess Morphy? You don’t know her? Well, neither did I, but it turns out she is the author of “Recipes of All Nations”, a tome from the 1930s that brought glimpses of exotic lands to the British kitchen. She sounds like a foodie aristo that could have some straight out of Downton Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs, but it is rumoured that the Countess did not actually enjoy a title, and may in fact have been Marcelle Azra Hincks, a native of New Orleans. Whatever her story, I had an admiration for a lady who clearly understood the value of branding and turned that to her advantage. I want this book, and I will be keeping an eye out for it when I pass vintage bookshops. And she has a darned good recipe for croquettes too.

And if you’re hungry but not quite ready for the ware of Countess Morphy, I love these little silver containers with salt-and-pepper popcorn. An interesting touch instead of plain old nuts or crisps.

So…would I go back? Well, I tend to end up here at least once every couple of weeks, so I hardly count as an objective source. But I think this is once of the nicest bars in the area, and a really special place to enjoy a drink while you want for that someone special to arrive on the last train from Paris. They’re about to launch afternoon tea too, so I get the feeling I’ll be back just a little more often too.

The Gilbert Scott Bar, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, Euston Road, London NW1 2AR. Tel: 0207 278 3888. King’s Cross St Pancras Tube.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: The Lido Cafe (Brockwell Park, London)

“South London” and “Miami Beach” are not terms that you would usually expect to find in the same sentence. However, there are times where you can get the feeling of being in the latter while actually being in the former, and one of those times is when you’re at the Lido Cafe in the lovely Brockwell Park on a warm, sunny day.

No, really! Sitting next to a 1930s-style building next to a bright blue pool, the sun beating down from a cloudless sky, a table laden with healthy brunch items and fresh fruit juices, you can just about imagine you’re lazing somewhere on South Beach. This is how we enjoyed it during the summer when we had a few warm weekends.

Anyway, that was all six months ago…I was there again yesterday, and let’s be honest – when it’s three degrees in London and you’re wrapped up in a thermal jacket, scarf and gloves, that Miami-vibe is not quite as obvious. But fret not – it might not feel like SoBe, but the cafe is thankfully still pretty darned good.

First things first is the building, which alone is worth a mention. At its heart is the lido itself – a large open-air swimming pool, which is great for a dip in summer. The structure is a 1930s construction (I lean towards calling it art deco in my naivety, but I get the feeling I might not be right on this). This all means the cafe is a large, airy space with lots of windows to allow light to flood in. It’s bright during the day and all summer, and as the sun does set, you catch glimpses of the sunset over Brockwell Park. As you can see, the look is quite simple and stylish, and very relaxed.

On previous occasions, we’ve enjoyed breakfast here, and it’s pretty good – delicious pancakes, mushrooms on sourdough toast, exotic fruit juices (and – bonus – they serve Marmite with the toast if you want it!). However, on a chilly January day, following a long and bracing walk in the park (which offers some great views towards central London), we veered towards coffee and cake. We plumped for a slice of the tasty, lightly spicy carrot cake with a generous spread of cream cheese frosting, and a slice of orange, almond and polenta cake.

We hit the place just before it was time to collect toddlers form the local nursery, so it was pretty much kid central for around an hour. If you appear around 3:30, be quite prepared for a series of small child to appear behind you, to tug your clothes and then ask you questions. All part of the charm. And if you’ve got a couple of small folk in tow, this place is a pretty safe bet to make them happy, especially when the pool is open in the summer. You’ve also got the park outside if the energy from all those cakes needs to be burned off.

Finally, I just want to draw your attention to the funky wallpaper that adorns the back of the cafe. Amazing, isn’t it? I have a vague recollection that we had curtains like this at home when I was growing up. Ah, memories…

So…would I go back? For sure. I love this place – the 30s building, the bright, open space and the delicious food. It’s pretty much kid central, but just sit back and enjoy the ride. In summer, it is fantastic sitting outside by the pool, and there aren’t a lot of places in London where you can do that.

The Lido Cafe, Dulwich Road, Brockwell Lido, London SE24 0PA. Tel: 020 7737 8183. Brixton Tube or Herne Hill Rail.

LondonEats locations map here.

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Tom’s Kitchen (Chelsea, London)

That’s kitchen, not diner. Much as we all love the Suzanne Vega hit, try to resist the urge to hum it. Because if you do…it will be stuck in your head by now, and will stubbornly stay there for at least the next 20 minutes…actually, in all likelihood, already too late…

I’ve unexpectedly found myself with a couple of weeks of leisure time in London in the middle of January. I could have gone somewhere, but actually…and this is the big secret…London is a great place to hang out it when you’ve got time off. Sure, the weather isn’t guaranteed, but that doesn’t matter – you’ve got cafés and restaurants galore, and more culture than you can shake a large stick at. I love in particular that so many of the galleries are free, so you can pop in and consume culture in bite-sized chunks. Now, I realise that sounds terrible gauche, but in saying that, I mean you can see a few pieces at a time when your mind is fresh and clear, and really enjoy them. When you’re starting to flag, just step out side and do something else. Our great galleries contain some superb works, and really, seeing them should not be a chore. Hence – bite-sized chunks!

Yesterday I got a call from my friend Kristine to meet up. She proposed Chelsea, late breakfast and some art. The sun was shining and the morning air clear and crisp. A perfect day out.

The venue was Tom’s Kitchen, her suggestion and somewhere that is apparently well-know for its breakfasts, especially the American favourites of pancakes and French toast.

I was due at 11:15, but of course I was not on time. Stoke Newington to Chelsea is not quick at the best of times. Then factor in the randomness of London’s transport network, a seemingly endless wait in the tunnel (which was probably a minute but felt longer) and helping a couple of people with prams, and of course I ran late. So when I emerged above ground I called ahead and asked her to order me some pancakes.

Rushing through the streets of Chelsea, I felt rather happy that I’ve dressed smartly for the day. People probably think I’m going somewhere important to do important things. Of course, the reality was more mundane, just that I didn’t want to arrive to cold pancakes. Depending on what matters, I suppose that is rather important. Still, I enjoyed my little mystery dash down Onslow Square and the very picturesque Pond Place.

I arrived, hot and flustered, and settled down. The place is lovely  – all white tiles and wooden tables, and while it clearly gets busy at weekends and for lunch or dinner, if you get there during the morning of afternoon lull, it’s really quite peaceful. My pancakes were on the way, but we decided that as it was approaching lunchtime, we would order a little more. My timing was bang on – breakfast runs until 11:45, and I had about two minutes to spare. Kristine opted for the Bircher Muesli with fresh berries, and I ordered the beans on wholemeal toast with cheese.

The beans – they are very, eh, ‘huge’. The waitress told us this while at the same time gesturing with her arms that we could expect something rather massive. She was clearly aware that the pancakes plus the beans would be a challenge, and that’s always a piece of advice I’m happy to receive. Suggests they are thinking about you. But, I was hungry, and after this mammoth late breakfast, we were up for a long walk in the fresh air then some culture, so fortification was needed.

The beans came, and they were indeed huge. Lots of toast, lots of baked beans, lots of cheese on top. This was marching food in terms of portion size, so I have to credit our server for giving due warning about the volume of food we had ordered. They were fantastic. Lots of bread, loads of beans, and a lovely great big generous topping of melting cheese. Having stepped inside from the chilly streets of Chelsea, this was all very welcome.

After making short work of those beans, it was pancake time. I’d had in my head that I would be tucking in to a pile of many small pancakes, artfully arranged in a stack. It wasn’t like that. Instead, it was one thick pancake, with lots of blueberries hidden underneath. I mean lots. I can’t stand when you get only a few pieces of fruit in a dish that has the name of that fruit in the title. So today – I was very happy! The thicker, slightly spongy pancake reminded me of the German Kaiserschmarrn. A serious pancake, to provide a solid foundation for later. I probably drowned the poor thing in too much maple syrup, but it happily soaked the stuff up. A sweet, sticky, messy, fruity treat. Delicious!

Our lunch consumed (for we finished late, and well past midday, so it was getting a little silly to pretend it was still breakfast), we had a little wander through the side streets of Chelsea. Now, how posh are the street signs, enveloped in wisteria? We also took in the culture at the Saatchi Gallery just off the King’s Road. All in all, this confirmed that I really am really rather good at enjoying having time off.

So…would I go back? Definitely. Tom’s Kitchen offers some very good food and a relaxed atmosphere. Simple as that, and a great way to set yourself up during the week for sightseeing or shopping in and around Chelsea and South Kensington. But as we left, it was getting seriously busy with the lunch crowd, so booking ahead is probably no bad thing!

Tom’s Kitchen, 27 Cale Street, London SW3 3QP. Tel: 0207 349 0202. Tube: Sloane Square or South Kensington.

LondonEats locations map here.

PS…you might also notice that the pictures today are a little different – yes, this is all thanks to Instagram. Now, you may wonder why I am doing this when I am also the proud owner of a DSLR camera? Well, there are a couple of reasons. Firstly, whipping out the bad boy at the dining table is cumbersome and I think really annoying for other diners. Click, click, flash, click. I think it’s annoying, and thus don’t do it to others. The iPhone is far more discrete (well, OK in a cafe or when eating somewhere informal…I think I’ll be keeping it firmly in my pocket when it come to fine dining experiences). Plus – I like the “Polaroid” effect on these shots too, simple as that. If you’ve got a view on the subject – do share!

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On Location: The Library Lounge at County Hall

Psssst! Fancy going for afternoon tea with a great view?

I’m always on the lookout for somewhere to go for afternoon tea. Tea, finger sandwiches, cakes, scones and maybe a glass of something. That, and visitors love doing something so thoroughly British, and when there is a great view to boot, who could resist?

Recently I went to the Library Lounge at the Marriott County Hall. This is somewhere that offers fine views and some interesting history. The County Hall building is located on the south bank of the Thames, next to the London Eye and just across the river from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. So the view is one of the great views in the world. Yes, in the world. It does not fail to excite – show it to anyone, and they know what they’re looking at straight off.

County Hall was the home of the former Greater London Council until the 1980s, when the then-government got rid of it. There were a series of spats, but one of the things that annoyed the government of the day was the propensity of the occupants in County Hall to drape banners with inconvenient political truths down the side of the building – which was not something the occupants of Parliament were keen to see across the Thames when looking out of their offices! You still see extracts of this history – the walls are dotted with old political cartoons based on the battles between the Government and the Greater London Council.

While the location is stunning, it can also make it easy to overlook – locals might avoid this part of the Southbank given that it gets busy, and visitors tend to walk along the riverbank and then turn  straight onto Westminster Bridge and head towards Big Ben. So, time to change that!

Since the 1980s, County Hall has since been redeveloped, and you are now able to wander in and enjoy afternoon tea in the former library. This is a truly lovely space, living up to its name with books lined up on heavy wooden shelves. I think this is what makes the atmosphere so nice – the shelves break up the space, so it feels really rather very private – you could imagine the politicians of days gone by in this place, gossiping, making plans and scheming!

You’ve got a number of options in the Library Lounge, and faced with the selection, we plumped for the champagne tea. It just had to be done. I was there just before Christmas, just having completed my gift shopping. It had been hard work, and heck, I felt I had earned it.

I had arrived around 3 o’clock, on a clear evening as the sun was beginning to set. And I have to admit that there is a real thrill sitting there with a glass of chilled fizz, looking out over the Thames towards Parliament, and seeing Big Ben light up against the twilight sky. As a (pretend) local, it’s actually such an unusual thing to do, so easy to overlook, but it’s also a simple pleasure really worth enjoying. It’s one of those sights that makes you remember how great our city is. I know, I keep going on about the view, but it was lovely!

When it came to the tea, there was the usual wide selection, but a little touch that I rather enjoyed was receiving a tray of samples to test.

You unscrew the sample jars, and can then take in the aroma of the teas on offer. There was a good combination of classic teas (Darjeeling, Lapsang Souchong and my own favourite, Assam) as well as herbal teas including rooibos with orange and cinnamon and a nice blackcurrant and lavender. Helpfully, the server was also able to offer some tips on which teas to take as well as sharing her own favourites.

As I was there just before Christmas, afternoon tea came with a festive twist. Following a section of finger sandwiches (a veggie selection was not an issue – hummus, cheese, avocado), we had Christmas cake, cranberry tartlets and tree-shaped cookies with edible pearls.

However, the highlight for me were the truly delicious scones. Light, fluffy and still warm. Yummy!

As you can see, I eat my scones the “Cornish way”. That is to say – split, spread with jam and then add the clotted cream. Apparently if you eat them with the clotted cream first and then the jam, that’s the “Devon way” – fine if you’re in Plymouth, but frowned upon if you’re in the Cornish town of Penzance.

So, would I go back? Definitely. The afternoon tea was lovely (as evidenced by the fact I managed to demolish three scones, in addition to the plate of finger sandwiches and all the cakes), and the view is breathtaking.

If you’re got a visitor to entertain, it works out a treat as you can take in the sights around Westminster, then nip in and enjoy the calm with an appropriate vista. My tip? Call to book, and check whether you are able to get a table near the window!

Library Lounge, London Marriott Hotel County Hall, Westminster Bridge Road, London SE1 7PB. Tel: 020 7902 8000. Tube: Waterloo or Westminster.

LondonEats locations map here.

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