London


Work brought me to the Fitzroria area one weekday and as it was around lunchtime when I got out, I started looking at Google maps to see where was good to eat nearby. I found one restaurant I’d marked just a 5 minute walk away…. and it was really a canteen. The canteen of the Indian YMCA. Yes, I’d finally get to try it!

The canteen is just that… a canteen. And yes, it’s part of the Indian YMCA, which also offers short and long term lodgings. The food served is supposed to be very authentically Indian, very homestyle, and judging from that lunchtime, it’s very popular with both Indian and non-Indian people working in the area.

To get your food, you first queue at the back where you grab a tray and the dishes that interest you, before continuing in the queue to pay at the till. I loaded my tray with pilau rice, fish curry, daal, and a poppadom. Everything is priced individually and the more you pile on your tray, the more you’ll pay. Other things on offer were white rice, chapatis, chicken curry, lamb curry, a couple of other vegetable curries and dishes, yogurt, salad, chutneys, pickles. I was too late for the bhaji – that ran out. There was mango lassi on offer as well.

Lunch at the Indian YMCA

If I remember correctly, all this came to about £7.50. And it was fantastic! I couldn’t even finish that very generous portion of fish curry and the daal was excellent – highly drinkable. Everything was very fresh and I really wish it was located much closer to my regular workplace.

I’m definitely planning on making a visit on a weekend, when the lunches and dinners are served as a fixed price buffet (£8).

Indian YMCA
41 Fitzroy Square
London W1T 6AQ

Last month, I was invited to an event being put on by GingerlineThe Secret Island. I wasn’t familiar with the company and had to turn to their website to find out exactly what it was they do – and that turned out to be putting on dining experiences and The Secret Island was their first “multidimensional experience”. This event was being held in conjunction with the Singapore Tourism Board to celebrate 50 years of Singapore. As per their social media rules, no photos nor blog posts can appear until they give the all clear (that is, after their final day of The Secret Island). So yeah… it’s over now. You’re going to have to wait for their next event (their website indicates Autumn 2015).

My friend and I arrived at the secret location with plenty of time to spare before our “departure” to the Secret Island. The waiting area was set up like an old fishing port, complete with ferryman to take us on our journey and his daughter who played games with us. When our departure time was called, we all lined up to get into his “ferry” (some of us laden with wine bottles for the meal ahead) and we lay in there…

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… and whoooosh, our “ferry” sent us hurtling into another room, or should I say, another….jungle (there’s a great video of this experience on their website!). This was Singapore’s jungles, complete with colonial explorer in the grips of some tropical fever.

In the Jungle

The attention to detail was what really wowed me. Our first course of a mango and tomato salad were served in these plastic spheres which were dangling from the ceiling – I mean, “from the trees”! We were “foraging” for our dinners in the jungle!

Foraging

A small chest also appeared, filled with seared salmon sesame lollipops!

Sesame Salmon

Soon, we were ushered to the next room, which was fixed up to be a hawker market (styled in a way that’s perhaps reminiscent of Blade Runner). This was manned by one crazy hawker who certainly would not be passing Singapore’s strict hygiene laws!

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Luckily, our food wasn’t prepared by him but by an unseen kitchen hand beyond the room. We were served a Singapore chilli crab spring roll and an open fresh rice paper spring roll with char siu pork, coriander and rice noodles.

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When our allotted time was up, again we were ushered to the tranquility in the next, slightly smaller room – the Boardwalk.

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And yup, we sat on the boardwalk with our legs dangling over the “water” and sipped on cocktails served in bags, just like drinks (well, soft drinks) are in Asia.

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And then onwards we went to a dining room in a Peranakan home. Seeing this room and our hosts, the strict Auntie and her timid daughter-in-law, both dressed in Peranakan sarong kebaya, … well, it made me all warm and fuzzy inside as this was my heritage! The room was utterly beautiful, with its family portraits lining the walls (I wonder which family!) and painted lanterns.

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Served in a Peranakan tiffin was opor ayam with turmeric rice. The chicken dish was a spiced one with lots of rich coconut milk.

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On the table were bowls of chilli oil and sambal belacan to heat things up, …

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… a tomato raita to cool things down, …

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…and a green papaya salad for crunch.

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We were regaled with a lullaby in Malay and while Auntie fell asleep, we were rushed out to see the future of Singapore (hosted by the “great great grandson” of our previous hostess).

Singapore in the Future

I’m still confused as to whether this guy was supposed to be human or android. *shrug*

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Dessert was brought out from seemingly nowhere (hidden microwaves). Here was a pandan panna cotta, lychee gel, coconut puffed rice, yuzu and palm sugar caramel – a brilliantly modern dessert but with the traditional flavours found in Singapore.

Dessert

We’d never been to one of these immersive experiences before but thumbs up! It was fun! The food was a very gentle introduction to Asian food in general but it worked very well with the storyline. And I can only imagine how difficult it is to cater for so many people all night – there are a number of groups each evening and each group had about 16 people.

Thank you very much to Gingerline and the Singapore Tourism Board for the invitation! Tickets for this event were £50 each, and I’d expect it will be roughly that for their next event (don’t take my word for it). All my photos from the evening can be found in this Flickr album.

I wish I could say that my pre-birthday lunch at Gymkhana was outstanding but that would be a lie. In a weird way I’ve been wanting to write up the meal and yet at the same time I’ve felt entirely unmotivated to do so due to our overall general experience.

I’ll start with the good. Good: the food.

We booked for lunch last Saturday – I’d been really looking forward to trying this restaurant but as they close on Sundays, finding a day that would work for both me and Blai had been a bit of a challenge. Anyway, this opportunity arose and we went for their lunch menu: 3 courses for £30.

Drinks! Our Angoor Sharbat was the better of our two nonalcoholic cocktails, being more unique, made of homemade spiced grape juice and seltzer. The Lemon Teaser was a lemon (and lemon thyme!) fizzy drink. I really liked their nonalcoholic offerings – all were interesting and there were plenty from which to choose.

Lemon Teaser and Angoor Sharbat

Our meal started (or was supposed to start with as you’ll soon read) Cassava, Lentil & Potato Papads, Shrimp Chutney & Mango Chutney. I didn’t entirely understand until we received the basket that there would be two kinds of poppadoms here, with two distinctly different textures. I loved both.

Cassava, Lentil & Potato Papads

And both chutneys served were mind blowing. The mango chutney was the finest I’d ever had while the shrimp one was an intensely savoury and unique condiment.

Shrimp Chutney & Mango Chutney

For our starters, we chose the Soft Shell Crab Jhalmuri, Samphire

Soft Shell Crab Jhalmuri, Samphire

… and the Dosa, Chettinad Duck, Coconut Chutney. Both were excellent though the dosa just pipped the crab to the post. The crab was well spiced and tasty but that duck and dosa was really something.

Dosa, Chettinad Duck, Coconut Chutney

Dosa, Chettinad Duck, Coconut Chutney

Our main courses were the megastars of our lunch. Our Tandoori Chicken Chop, Mango Ginger, Leg Chat was amazing, easily the best tandoori chicken I’ve ever had. The chicken was just perfect, perfectly spiced, perfectly grilled, perfectly tender. And I must mention that ‘leg chat’, which was a tandoori spiced mixture of cooked and chopped chicken leg topped with crispy potato bits.

Tandoori Chicken Chop, Mango Ginger, Leg Chat

Our Hariyali Bream, Tomato Kachumber was also brilliant. This incredibly tender bream had been schmeared with a coriander paste and grilled and served with a fresh tomato relish; I’ve found the recipe online and hope to replicate at home one day!

Hariyali Bream, Tomato Kachumber

To go with our main courses, our set lunches also included a side each of Dal Maharani (creamy lentils) and Saag Makkai (spinach and corn). I loved these additions, rounding out our Indian meal.

Dal Maharani

Saag Makkai

For carbs we were given a bread basket with a naan and roti and also a large bowl of basmati rice. They were particularly generous with the rice and we didn’t manage to finish that!

Bread Basket

Desserts were very good indeed. A Rose & Rhubarb Kulfi Falooda was a ball of rose kulfi with rose petal jam, braised rhubarb, jelly bits, basil seeds and vermicelli, all served with a small pitcher of sweetened reduced milk for pouring over.

Ras Malai, Tandoori Peach Chutney

Ras Malai, Tandoori Peach Chutney was probably the finest ras malai I’ve ever had (clearly a theme throughout this meal) but I only wish that they’d been a little more generous with the fabulous chutney.

Rose & Rhubarb Kulfi Falooda

Overall, this was some of the finest Indian food we both had ever had and for that we were glad we tried the restaurant. The meal ended with these excellent passionfruit and chilli jellies but we almost didn’t get these as I mention below.

Passionfruit and Chilli Jellies

Now, the bad. Bad: the service. I’m not sure what it was about us but we were clearly getting shoddy service compared to those around us. I could see everything go flawlessly around us which really rubbed salt in the wound.

What we do not tend to expect from a one Michelin starred restaurant:

  • Waiting ages to be served. Having to ask for menus.
  • Receiving the first opening dish (the poppodoms and chutneys) after the second.
  • Watching the waitpeople roll their eyes above the heads of diners.
  • Waitpeople who try to clear our dishes about 2 minutes after we received them (yes, they were still half full).
  • Waiting 15 minutes for a single espresso, especially when we have a time limit on the table.
  • Being denied petit-fours, despite every table around us getting some. I only got them (the jellies above) after asking for them (and simultaneously making a complaint about service).
  • Waitpeople who, in general, avoid you.

Now, each event taken in isolation could have been considered an honest oversight but taken all together, it was increasing clear that we had been judged for some reason and judged to be lacking in some way and thus treated differently from everyone else. I made a complaint to our waiter but his response left me feeling very uncomfortable and I perhaps regret not speaking directly to management.

The day after our meal, a generic “we value your feedback” email popped into my inbox. I took the opportunity to send detailed email feedback to the restaurant and to their credit, they apologised and said they’d spoken to the waitstaff mentioned. But the fact that it even happened in the first place….not on, Gymkhana. While the food was spectacular, the whole lunch left a distinctly bad taste in our mouths.

Gymkhana
42 Albemarle Street
London W1S 4JH

A couple of Sundays ago, I had pizza on my mind. Now, without a local Neapolitan pizza place nearby, I had to turn to nearby Beckenham, the home of Sapore Vero, a traditional pizzeria that was recommended to me by Selina of Taste Mauritius (another Croydon local!). From East Croydon station, we took a tram all the way to Beckenham (TFL zone 4) and found ourselves upon a quiet little high street with a few restaurants. Sapore Vero was tinier than we expected but later on in the night, they opened up the cafe next door as well to customers (I guess they own that too!).

I was thrilled to see that the Italian fizzy water Ferrarelle was on the menu! I like its fine bubbles and it’s difficult to find over here; it was certainly a good start! And we didn’t have to wait too long for our meals from the huge wood burning oven at the front. Blai’s spinach and ricotta cannelloni (£8.65) was delicious, all covered with what was clearly a homemade tomato sauce.

Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni

My Milanese pizza (£12.95) was excellent. Tomato sauce, mozzarella, DOP Nduja sausage from Calabria, aubergines, fresh Italian sausage – a fantastic combination and altogether a delicious Neapolitan-style pizza. Good dough, good toppings.

Pizza Milanese

We couldn’t turn down dessert when we heard that like the rest of their food they were homemade! My order of their homemade tiramisu (£4.95) turned out to be the largest I’d ever been served! It was so huge I could barely finish it. Good stuff though, if a tiny bit dry.

Tiramisu

Blai’s homemade panna cotta (£4.95) turned out to be an entirely more modest affair. But though it was small, it was perfectly set and not too stiff, as some panna cottas can be.

Pannacotta

Excellent pizza in Zone 4, South London then! I’m glad I finally got around to trying Sapore Vero.

Sapore Vero
78 High Street
Beckenham, Kent
BR3 1ED

From a Chinese colleague, I received a tip about a relatively new Chinese restaurant near Euston station that’s popular with the Chinese students – Murger Han. It’s a restaurant featuring the food from Xi’an, which is the province of Shaanxi, so you’d expect lots of strong flavours, thick noodles and breads. We rocked up to the restaurant at about 6pm on a Sunday evening and were surprised to see a queue. Luckily, we managed to get in quite quickly but many tables had been reserved and that queue just kept getting longer. We were surrounded by Chinese students (everyone was approximately of student-ish age) and Blai was the only non-Chinese person in the restaurant. It felt like we were back in China!

After my taste of liang pi noodles at Xi’an Famous Foods in New York, I was keen to try more. An order of glass noodles with vegetables in sesame sauce (£6.00) was slippery smooth and tasty. Apparently sesame sauce is one of the traditional toppings for liang pi and here it complemented the thick noodles well. Underneath the pile of noodles were also tofu and beansprouts. It was cold and refreshing, with a lovely zing from an additional vinegary dressing underneath. This dish was probably Blai’s favourite dish of the night.

Liang Pi with Sesame Sauce

We also had to try their murger (apparently it’s the Chinese name for the chopped meat) in bai ji bread – the restaurant’s rou jia mo. We had one of pork (£3.20) and one of beef (£3.50). Both had apparently been cooked in some kind of ‘special herbal sauce’.

Pork and Beef Rou Jia Mo

This was my first time having rou jia mo proper! The bread was denser than I expected but still quite good (especially if dunked in a bit of some noodle sauce). The pork was a bit on the dry side but the beef was wonderfully moist and everything that I expected from rou jia mo.

Spinach noodles in stir fried tomato sauce with eggs (£8.00) was probably my favourite that evening. Lovely noodles topped with that Chinese classic of stir fried egg and tomato and there was some bok choy too for extra greenery. You can just see the green noodles at the top left of the bowl below. They were a little unwieldy though with the metal chopsticks provided and we left with tomato sauce splashed all over our shirts.

Spinach noodles in stir fried tomato sauce with eggs

There are also biangbiang noodles and spicy liang pi (rice or wheat) noodles and paomo available and I need to go back to try them all! Now to also try the other restaurant my colleague recommended…

Murger Han
62 Eversholt Street
London NW1 1DA

It took us a month (mainly my fault) to find a date that would work for me, Krista and Mr Noodles to meet for lunch and we finally met up at Rex & Mariano on St Anne’s Court (on the site of a former Vodka Revolution and across from the Good Housekeeping Cookery School) a couple Saturdays ago. Mr Noodles had been rapturous about the place and we were looking forward to tucking into some very affordable seafood. And I’d not seen either of them for a while – it turned out that it had been 5 years since I last saw Krista! Crazy!

For a Saturday lunchtime, we’d made a reservation but the restaurant was much larger (and brighter) than I’d expected and also quite empty. It seems it’s like that on weekends – fine by me, I like the idea of dropping in for some impromptu seafood. Ordering was via iPads, one left at each table when you sit down (and swiftly whisked away at the end). This allowed us to order as and when we liked, controlling the order and timing of our dishes, as well as keeping a running tab of the bill. We ended up ordering two rounds of cold and one of hot dishes.

One thing about the restaurant is that you have to buy your own bread. A delection of homemade breads (£3) is four huge tranches of bread: a focaccia, white studded with garlic cloves, white, and wholemeal. Our favourites were the first two and at the end of the meal, our waitress told us to request the specific breads we wanted next time. Alright! And the breads also arrived with a little ramekin of tuna pate. Good stuff.

Homemade breads with tuna pate

We started with a seabass ceviche with coriander, yuzu, red onion, and tiger’s milk (nope, me neither) (£7.5). This was extremely moreish, with its citrus and mild onion tang.

Seabass ceviche - coriander, yuzu, red onion, tiger's milk

There was also an excellent tuna tartare with chilli and chives and sitting on a swipe of pureed avocado (£8).

Tuna tartare - avocado, chilli, chive

Second round! Raw red prawns (£10) were beautifully fresh and beautifully arranged.

Raw red prawns

To begin with, a salmon carpaccio (£7.5) looked like the cured fish had been hacked at with a blunt knife; actually it had been topped with grated tomato, lemon, olive oil and micro-basil. This was probably the weakest of the raw fish dishes we tried but still was very good. You can see from the menu that the raw fishes available were tuna, salmon and sea bass and by having different variations of them on the menu, I guess that’s how costs can be brought down.

Salmon carpaccio - olive oil, lemon, tomato, basil

Third round – hot food! Sweet little clams had been steamed with white wine, parsley and chilli (£7).

Clams - white wine, parsley, chilli

The red prawns made another appearance but this time cooked and drizzled with olive oil, dusted with salt and served with a grilled lemon half (£10). I think I preferred these cooked ones as there were more juices to suck up and mop up with the bread.

Cooked red prawns, olive oil, salt, lemon

Fritto misto had been well seasoned with old bay seasoning (£9) and was a massive portion. There was plenty of calamari, a couple of whitebait and lots of chunks of fish (yup, you guessed it – salmon, tuna and sea bass offcuts!). It was a huge pile of perfectly fried seafood for an excellent price – thumbs up.

Fritto misto - old bay seasoning, lemon, aioli

Fried courgettes with aioli (£5) were not perhaps the most thrilling of vegetable dishes (this is one that Byron does better). While the outsides were crisp, the insides were a bit too soft and mushy.

Courgettes - fried, aioli

But otherwise I love the place! I love that one doesn’t really have to queue, I love that the restaurant takes bookings, I love the seafood. Prices are very good though and we could even have done to order perhaps 2 fewer dishes for the three of us (we were rolling out of there). I’ll be back.

Oh, it’s probably good to mention that unless you like/love seafood, there’s really no point for you to go here – there are no meat options nor vegetarian ones.

Rex & Mariano
2 St Anne’s Court
London, W1F 0AZ

Over the last long weekend, we found ourselves in our old hood, dropping by on old friends. We lunched at a new Mexican restaurant I’d spotted a few months ago – Habanera, a Mexican restaurant on Uxbridge Road, close to Shepherd’s Bush. The place was empty that Monday and we found a seat in the back, under the skylight, easily.

To take the edge of our hunger, we started with some chips and salsa (£3.50) – I liked that we could choose our salsa and we went with their excellent salsa verde with its tomatillo, coriander and chilli. The chips were whole small corn tortillas that they’d clearly fried themselves – good stuff.

Chips and Salsa Verde

To my delight, there were lots of non-alcoholic options on the drinks menu. A Sandía (watermelon, raspberry & tarragon) (£3.95) was refreshing, as was a homemade lemonade with mint (£2.50).

Drinks

Chicken tinga quesadilla (£5) turned out to be two and they were generously filled with spiced chicken and lots of perfectly toasted cheese.

Chicken Tinga Quesadilla

Carne asada tacos (£5.50) were topped with grilled steak, avocado, and salsa verde. I would have liked some extra hot sauce for these but I didn’t see any bottles until later, behind the counter. Our waitress could have been a bit forthcoming with this.

Carne Asada Tacos

Huevos rancheros (£7) were a generously sized portion of eggs, tomato, avocado and salsa verde again. This would make a fine brunch for one and I liked that they’d properly warmed the flour tortilla on the side.

Huevos Rancheros

The only thing is…we were eating a lot of salsa verde! I wish our waitress had actually looked properly at our order and warned us that the dishes we’d ordered all had salsa verde (they only say that there’s salsa on them). We would have switched the salsa with our chips at the beginning if we had known.

For dessert, I was thrilled to see an impossible cake (£6) on the menu. It also goes by the name chocoflan as, yes, it’s half chocolate cake and half flan. What makes it impossible is how it’s made – one of the batters is poured over the other but it magically separates while in the oven. We got a huge slice to share between us and to make it even more insane, there was a drizzle of dulce de leche or some other caramel on top!

Impossible

Overall, good food and generous sized portions but service needs some stepping up. It’s a great addition to Uxbridge Road though.

Habanera
280 Uxbridge Road
Shepherd’s Bush
London, W12 7JA

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