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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.

LondonEats locations map here.

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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.

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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On Location: Brixton Cornercopia (Brixton, London)

Maybe you’re totally on trend, or maybe it has passed you by, but there is not doubting that the food scene Daaahn Saaaf is kicking off, and Brixton Village is well worth visiting for foodie delights.

The Village is located in Granville Arcade, a series of covered pedestrian streets. A couple of years ago there were just one or two cafés in the middle of shops selling anything and everything, alongside a rather forlorn corner where there were always a few empty lots.

Fast forward a couple of years, and those empty spaces have been transformed into bakers, coffee shops, sweet shops, ice cream parlours and there are places selling great Thai or Italian, alongside the famous Franco Manca sourdough pizza joint.

I was down in this part of town as the London heatwave was peaking and the whole vibe was like being in the winding streets of a smart continental town, as everywhere had tables outside (well outside-inside!) and the night air was still warm. It’s all got a slight retro air (there is a vague sense of a 1950s street party about all this) but is also seems like great fun. People are eating and drinking and really enjoying what is being served up. There is a genuine feeling of something exciting happening here, and it’s great to be a part of it and to see it developing.

I’ve been here quite a few times, but I had been promised “somewhere new” for dinner by friends. In fact, I didn’t want to know – I liked the idea of the surprise. As long as it was veggie, I was willing to take a punt and to try something new. In the end, we were heading to Brixton Cornercopia. It’s a cornucopia of delights, located on a corner. Hence the name!

Now this place is tiny but very charming. And of course, the bijou proportions don’t matter when the charm spills out the door and onto the tables outside and the whole place is bright and fun – vases of flower, gingham tablecloths, pots and jars of local produce and a prancing satyr on the menu. Cornercopia is also big on produce from local growers, and my friends tell me that you can from time to time pass the door to see a sign saying “Sorry we’re closed – making jam today“. If you’re brave, this goes as far as the wine – Cornish white (!) and beer from a local micro-brewery. Aside from that, you can enjoy local fruit and veggies too.

Enough gushing. How was the food?

Well, they do what I think might be my new favourite way of going to a restaurant, where they have three things on the menu for each course, and one of them was veggie (other than desserts, of course!). Takes all the stress out of choosing. But we started off by tucking into great slabs of sourdough bread (I know you shouldn’t fill up on bread but it was so darn tasty!) and got in a bottle of Cornish wine, which was billed as “England’s answer to Sancerre”. And you know what? It was good! Never had it before, but I would go for it again quite happily.

The starter was a very simply heirloom tomato salad with a crisp crumb. One of the tastiest things you can eat – tomatoes plus a little oil, salt and pepper. Beautiful colours and fantastic flavour.

The main was a very substantial platter of roasted beetroot, roasted onions, hazelnuts, watercress and a creamy blue cheese mousse. These are all some of my favourite flavours, and it was just delicious. They’ve managed to product some fantastic vegetarian food that looks good, tastes good and is very, very substantial. I shouldn’t have eaten it all. I should have stopped half way through. But it was so easy just to pick at a little more beet, a dash of mousse, well, maybe a little more of the roasted onion…

With hunger satisfied, the show started.

No, not some strange cabaret that is laid on in some restaurants that can be amazing but often tends to tread the strange line between weird and embarrassing. For one of our group was convinced he knew the hostess. So he asked her. Reaction was muted as they tried to work out where she could be familiar from. A local cafe? The market? The lido? We concluded that they must just have seen each other around….

…then 10 minutes later, our friend was still convinced, so decided to give her another grilling. And yes, before we knew it, we were treating that strange line between weird and embarrassing after all. The thing is, I am quite keen to go back there, so I hope that there isn’t a little black mark next to my name…ah well, we will see!

After all this, it was time for a dessert. Chocolate slab with orange and pistachio, yoghurt panna cotta or a selection of British cheeses? Stuffed as we were, it was only right to try at least one of them, and the chocolate it was to be. Let’s just go for what is clearly the richest, heaviest and most decadent option, shall we?

This was sensational. The chocolate was rich and dark, avoiding being too sweet, and had a pleasant orange flavour and generous number of bright green pistachio nuts. I also appreciated that it was not served straight from the fridge – makes such a difference, as the depth of flavour really comes across so much better.

So…would I go back? it will not be a surprise to hear the answer is a resounding yes. Nice place, great food, good vibe, friendly staff. Ticks all the boxes, and located in a fun area to boot. Highly recommended if you find yourself in this part of town.

Brixton Cornercopia, No. 65, 4th Avenue, Brixton Village Market, Coldharbour Lane, London, SW9 8PS. Tel: 07919 542 233. Tube: Brixton.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: The Fellow (King’s Cross, London)

King’s Cross is up and coming. But ask most Londoners and they roll their eyes, and then make a comment about “that old chestnut” or scoff that it’s been on the cards for years, but really

Well, actually, things are changing. In the time I’ve lived here, we’ve seen the revamp of St Pancras station into probably one of the most glorious rail termini in the world, which has brought with it a clutch of rather chic places for a drink and a bite to eat. It’s also going to be from here that people will board those nifty “javelin” trains that will whisk them out to the shiny new Olympic park. So, in short: it is indeed up and coming.

Clearly there are all manner of grand projects, but there are also a nice range of bars, cafes, brassieres and the like springing up. And that’s how I found myself in The Fellow on York Way.

Now, the bad news first – there is not a lot of veggie stuff on the menu. If you’re looking for the sort of place that will spoil you with choice, it’s not here…

…but the good news is that what they do offer is innovative, beautifully presented and very, very tasty. I also has the sheer joy of some of the best service I may ever have had in London. A waitress who was friendly, attentive but not hovering, and who could actually express an opinion about the menu. She knew her stuff, which I love. My friend Sunshine taught me to ask questions, and I think it’s always a good sign if the people who are working there know their dishes. It’s also got a rather nice vibe too – good decor, trendy but not too fancy, and feels very relaxed. It isn’t trying too hard, and is all the more pleasant for it. You could come here with friends for a relaxed dinner, or equally come here for a slightly more intimate dinner à deux.

So what did I have? Well, as I said, it was limited choice.  I started with the unappetisingly-named “cow curd” on toast with truffle honey. What it turned out to be was something akin to the most pillowy-soft mozzarella you could imagine. Not stringy, not rubbery, just perfect. It just held together and then collapsed when you ate it. Worked beautifully with the honey (just a fleeting hint of truffle, no more) and some baby basil leaves. The fact is was a small starter was also really quite a nice touch. Starters don’t need to be the size of mains, in my view. Clean, simple, fresh and tasty. Big tick!

Now, the main. It could so easily have been the dreaded mushroom risotto. And I am sure that if the chef in The Fellow made a mushroom risotto, it would be delicious. But not tonight. Instead, there was a barely pilaf with pecorino cheese and wafer-thin strips of fresh yellow squash, and a splash of good olive oil and fresh black pepper. I can honestly say it was one of the tastiest things that I’ve had for a while. It was a great contrast of textures too.

As we had not filled up on bread or other nibbles before the meal, when the waitress wandered over and asked if we wanted to look at the dessert menu, not much persuasion was needed. Nice, seasonal desserts (a greengage fool or a selection of British cheeses being some of the highlights), but there was one thing that really stood out for me – deep-fried choux buns, served with a dusting of cinnamon sugar and blueberry compote. Sublime. I wish I had a picture, but it was just a great big fried-sugary-jammy mess which tasted super. Like a luxury take on churros.

Would I go back? Definitely. And that is saying a lot for a place that usually only has one veggie option. So it’s great that it’s not much more than a hop, skip and a jump from where I work. And if you happen to find yourself seeing someone off on the train to Paris, you might be tempted to skip some of the chains and try somewhere a little different too.

The Fellow, 24 York Way, London N1 9AA, Tel: 0207 833 4395. Tube: King’s Cross St Pancras.

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: Genestar (Alcúdia, Mallorca)

More on Mallorca! But this time, less tourism, more some sharing a little bit of the restaurant scene.

Palma has its fair share of fancy places, and I am sure any visitor there land on their feet if they want to, so I’ve plumped for one that is slightly further afield, in the very pretty northern town of Alcúdia. This is just a hop, skip and jump from tourist-focussed beach resorts, but this town is smart, chic and clearly trying to go rather up-market. This was fully apparent to me when I popped into a deli to buy some local produce, and left many, many Euro lighter. But Alcúdia…now, I fully understand that this is not the sort of place that you’re likely to be passing (compared to places in London or Brussels) but then again, isn’t it nice to have a few gems tucked away for that day that you do happen to find yourself in this part of the world? Here is one such gem.

My pick is the rather space-age sounding Genestar. At first, I puzzled about the moniker. What could it mean? As it turns out, it’s simply the name of the chef, the magnificently-named Joan Josep Genestar Amengual (think Joan as in “Juan”, not Collins). In all likelihood, I was pronouncing Genestar incorrectly too.

Our Joan is not a hands-off, back-room man. For it was he who took the booking, where I flagged that I was veggie and would this be an issue. He came to greet us at the table, explained the menu, advised us about wines and indulged all the questions we had, and played the roles of host and chef magnificently. Now, it’s probably a lot easier to come out and talk about the food when you don’t have a menu, for Genestar’s concept is that you come, you’re taken care of, and you enjoy a tasting menu. Perfect for those days when you don’t want to choose, and want to be marched somewhere and told what to do. Except that here, it is all done with flair and friendliness, all in lovely surroundings. And it is great to hear about the food from the guy that’s gone to all the effort of preparing it.

Most interestingly of all, at least to me, was that Joan was not in the least fazed by the fact that I wanted to eat vegetarian. In a place that is as meat and fish friendly as Mallorca, this could have been an issue. Not here. Joan seemed to take to it as a challenge, and the results were delicious. Of which more later.

But before the food, the wine! Joan was an enthusiastic promoter of local wines, and there was one on the menu that caught my eye – a White Merlot. As he was telling us what we would be eating (we were being told, this was no process of selection!), he recommended a couple of other whites, but I just couldn’t resist. How was the white Merlot? Oh, it’s very good. But it is unique. Some people find it too unusual, but it is very good. You should try it is you would like to, but if it’s not your thing, we can change it. Now, that is something a few placed in London could learn from. It was a constant theme here, but on Mallorca, it seems people are genuinely enthusiastic about their products, and are willing to stand behind them. The wine came, and it was indeed excellent, and it was quickly decided that we would not be sending this back. It had a light golden colour and a noticeable richness of aroma and flavour. It was a white wine with gusto, a noticeable robustness and a lot of the brioche-quality you get with some champagnes made from red grapes. I loved it. Thank goodness they were also selling bottles of it in the airport.

What I do suspect is that while I was not the first vegetarian to visit Genestar, I may be the pickiest. No fish, but also no eggs on their own (i.e. not scrambled, boiled or fried). Cue a little head scratching at first, but our friend Joan just saw it as a challenge and vanished into the kitchen to produce some good things to eat.

Before the meal started to arrive, we were given some fresh rolls and a little local olive oil and sea salt. You get this in London, but here…it just tasted better. Maybe because it’s holiday, maybe because the weather is warm…but it was unusually tasty. And yes, I ended up buying a bottle of the local olive oil later when I popped back to that deli.

First course was a light salad with grilled vegetables, nuts and a simple olive oil dressing and topped with fresh herbs. Incredibly simple, but beautifully presented and packing a real flavour punch. Smooth buttery lettuce, toasted nuts, tangy tomatoes and rich oil.

The next course was pasta with artichokes and mushrooms. Sounds simple. Sounds boring even. But no! Frankly, I do not think my picture does this one justice – partly due to the light, and mainly due to the fact I was aware that this was a nice place and I didn’t want to be that person spending the whole meal taking pictures of it rather than enjoying it. This might have been a simple dish, but utterly delicious. These were the freshest, most tasty baby artichokes I have ever had – lightly grilled so they just had a subtle smokiness, but kept a little crunch too. Again, the simplicity meant the flavours were there to be fully enjoyed. And it went well with the wine too.

To follow this, there was a substantial bruschetta-type affair piled high with mushrooms, tomatoes and beansprouts, all on an rich emulsified buttery sauce. Again, not sure that my picture really does it justice, as it was a lovely combination of flavours and textures, and it certainly looked impressive on the plate (note to self: candlelight is not good for pictures…). I liked that this contrasted with the previous course too, moving from simple to more fancy.

And to finish, the dessert was a Mallorcan take on bread and butter pudding, a little piece of some sort of pastry, dipped in custard and baked until the top was a crisp caramel. Finish with a dash of cold custard sauce and some strawberries, and it was a the perfect bite-sized sweet end to the meal. Well, it was once it was augmented with a little glass of dessert wine. Hey, it was a holiday! What I very much liked was the dinky size – I think this is the way to finish off a meal, just a little something sweet rather than a wedge of cake.

Mid-way through the meal, something struck me. There were very few tourists in the place, and the foreigners here were obviously people who have moved to the area. Then, around 9, it suddenly became very, very busy as the locals descended in droves. In pairs, groups of four and very, very large groups. The atmosphere was buzzy and lively, but never too busy or noisy. This was clearly the place to come to enjoy of good night with friends and excellent food. Knowing somewhere is a hit with the locals is always a boon to me!

So, just in case there is any doubt, I absolutely loved this place. The host and the staff were super-friendly (and found my basic bumbling Spanish rather amusing), the decor is clean, modern and bright, and the food excellent, excellent value, and rather unexpected in a rather touristy part of the island. Would I go back? In a shot. My only regret is that this is one of the nicest new places I have been to for some time, and yet it’s so far away…so if you do happen to be passing, it’s worth stopping in. But if you’re veggie, just call ahead first. And ask for Joan. And say hi.

Genestar, 1 Plaça Porta de Mallorca, Alcúdia, Mallorca.  Tel: 971.549.157 / 630.039.169. Email: info@genestarestaurant.com

LondonEats locations map here.

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On Location: Hive (Brixton, London)

Buzzzzzzzzz…let’s head South of the River. After making honeycomb, let’s go to Hive.

If you don’t live in London, the whole issue about whether something is north or south of the Thames might be a little surprising/irrelevant, but there is still a hard-core of people who are staunchly in favour of one or the other, and those souls will just point blank refuse to cross a bridge unless really, really forced to do so.

Lucky, then, that I am not one of those people. I was in Oxford Street to buy a new camera, and got chatting to a friend who suggested lunch in Brixton. After too much travel between London and Brussels, she was tired and did not want to come into town, so I headed down to her neck of the woods. A bit of umming and aaahing and we headed to Hive for a late brunch/lunch affair. More laziness than anything, as we do have a tendency to go there quite a bit when I’m in Brixton.

I have to say, I quite like it here. The atmosphere is relaxed, testified by the tables of mums with a kid in tow (one kid per mother, both engaged with each other, rather than just wall-to-wall screaming), or people sitting on their own reading the weekend papers over a late brunch. The decor is great too – the bee motif is picked up throughout the venue, and there is a lot of character from the shabby-chic details.

Now, the bad news: if you are a strict vegetarian, there is not a huge amount of choice. Typically one starter and one main, plus some options on the sides(*). However, while the choice can be limited, what I have eaten here has always been tasty.

This time, I had gnocchi with tomato sauce and pesto on a bed of roasted squash and aubergine. Simple, but just perfect. The gnocchi were cooked perfectly, still plump but a little chewy, and fried just enough to provide the merest whisper of a crisp coating, but without been oily or too heavy. The sauces were both good – the tomato was fresh, fruity and juicy, and the pesto was nice and fresh (so easy to get wrong, so extra credit for getting this right!). All of this on top of well-cooked aubergine and squash, which fell apart nicely on the plate. It was a nice, simple combination of flavours and textures which I thought really worked well.

In contrast, if (unlike me) you are a fan of eggs, then there is a decent brunch selection to choose from. My lunch companion chirpily informed me that these dishes were tasty, and I have to admit that they certainly looked and smelled pretty good. I might not eat them, but I can appreciate when they look good on the plate. Fortunately, there is also a nice choice in desserts and cakes – I plumped for a slice of orange and carrot cake, which was moist, soft and beautifully spiced with nutmeg and cinnamon.

So would I go back? In all honesty, I would not come all the way to Brixton just to visit Hive. However, this is nothing really against Hive, and when I am in this part of town, I think it has a sufficiently relaxed atmosphere with reliably good food and friendly staff(**) that it is a great place to potter about, read the papers and while away a lazy Saturday afternoon.

(*) In terms of sides, the chips are pretty darn good – and come in a rather nifty little container with a paper collar, à la the newspaper from the chippy in days gone by.

(**) Really, they are always super-friendly. Chatty when you are in the mood for that, but leave you in peace if that’s what you want too. Keep it up!

Hive, 11-13 Brixton Station Road, London SW9 8PA. Tel: 020 7274 8383. Tube: Brixton

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On Location: Konstam at the Prince Albert (King’s Cross, London)

Update: It seems the Konstam has shut in the last couple of weeks. Sorry to hear that.

It has been a while since I wrote about a London venue, so time to change that.

Konstam at the Prince Albert looks pretty cool and does something rather cool as well. According to its website “Over 80% of the produce used in the Konstam kitchen is grown or reared within the area covered by the London tube network“. Sounds kind of fun to eat stuff that mainly comes form the area. And they are also big on the idea of slow food. And mercifully, the London Underground reaches as far out as the Essex countryside in the east and the Chiltern Hills in Buckinghamshire in the west, so the risk that you are eating things from traffic roundabouts is hopefully quite small.

Starting off with the superficial, the restaurant looks wonderful. The inside is a lot of black, green and wood, with spectacular glass chandelier-type lights. The sombre decor combined with lots of candles gives the place quite an intimate feeling. I like to go somewhere with friends where you can feel that it’s just you. Yes, you can see other tables with other people, but you’re not really aware of them and you can’t really hear them. It’s tricky to get right (too often in London you end up sat three inches from some screeching nightmare and her equally obnoxious beau), but Konstam seemed to do it beautifully.

Before I went, I admit that I was aware of their “local” concept, and thus I was prepared for the vegetarian options to be limited. And, of course, I was right. On the night, I was unsurprised to see there were four starers and four mains, meaning there was a choice of exactly one starter and one main that I could eat. But I did not fret, as I have been to places where there was only one “choice” and I nevertheless dined very well indeed. So, while there was not much choice, I just went with that was on offer and trusted the chef. However, to make up for the limited choice in what I would eat, I made sure to take the aperitif of the day, a rather lovely strong apple wine from the West Country. Not something I would usually start a meal with, but it was delicious and a great way to start the evening.

To make up for the lack of choice, I also agonised over whether to have the veggie appetiser, in the end decided that I very much favoured bread and pickles. When it came, it was surprisingly Nordic in nature, which I loved. Bread with a touch of rye, a dill-infused yoghurt sauce and pickled green tomatoes, which managed to tread the magic line between sharp and sour on the one hand, and mellow and sweet on the other. Mine certainly looked good, and a few fellow diners expressed that they wished they had ordered what I had rather than their non-veggie options. Result!

For the starter, it was chilled cauliflower soup. Now I admit that I was well on my merry way when ordering, and did not quite appreciate that I would be getting something cold, so it came as a bit of a shock to the system. Cauliflower is a rather peculiar flavour, and while I adore is when covered in a pillowy white cream sauce crammed with very sharp cheddar or as part of an Asian curry, this just didn’t do it for me. I think it would have been rather lovely if warm, or even at room temperature, but the fact is was chilled really did kill some of the flavour in there, which was shame as I did like the pairing with the fennel.

Main course was mushroom, dill and cheese pierogi – which looked, quite hopefully, like little tortellini made from pastry. Now we will ignore the fact that any vegetarian was getting a double hit of dill with this meal, and I put my hand up as a big fan of pierogi in their various guises in European cuisine, but there was a fundamental error here. Salt. It’s obviously essential to enhance flavour, but these were just waaaaaay too salty. I checked with another vegetarian in the group, who was similarly taken aback by the saltiness of this dish. This really was a shame, as they had a great texture, and the mushroom and Tunworth cheese flavours were nice. It was just that the salt kept coming back again and again. So here is the niggle: it’s not as if there was just a little too much salt in a sauce, there was clearly too much in this batch, and I would imagine that someone must have tried at least one of them in the kitchen at some point. So either someone loves salt, I am over-sensitive, or no-one checked before serving. I would recommend that Konstam check this out, as it rather overshadowed the rest of the meal.

By the time we ordered dessert, I decided to skip it, and instead took the apple dessert wine that was on offer. As with the pre-dinner aperitif, this was a cheeky little stunner which did round off the meal beautifully.

So the big question…would I go back? As I ate the pierogi, I didn’t think I would. But thinking about it, the rest of the meal was actually pretty nice, and I didn’t actually tell the kitchen that I wasn’t happy with the level of salt in my food (albeit because the waiter was too busy flirting with another diner by discussing the Slow Food movement…). On this basis, and as we like the idea of the local food and the atmosphere, and given that I’ve checked the website a few times since and the new dishes do sound rather nice, I would be willing to give it another go. But over-salt again, and it goes on “the naughty list”.

Konstam at the Prince Albert, 2 Acton Street, London WC1X 9NA. Tel: 020 7833 5040. Tube: King’s Cross St Pancras.

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