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

Like the title says, this was a much needed weekend away. It was a girls’ trip and it was going to be all about food and shopping, a proper escape from the working weekends we’d all been having recently. We met at St Pancras after work on the Friday night and caught the last Eurostar train to Lille, arriving a little after 10pm. If you’re familiar with Lille, you’ll know that there’s not much open in the centre past 10 or 11pm but we did just manage to dump our bags at our hotel and then go straight to Flam’s for a flammekueche dinner.

We sat outside and dined on two of the flams and a warm salad. I loved the thinness of the tartes and how light it all felt (yeah, sure, there was cheese on top and plenty of lardons on everything but, look, salad!).

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And we couldn’t help it and shared a chocolate banana flam for dessert as well. With drinks, it came to only €30 total for all three of us. An excellent late night eat.

Chocolat-Banane

Flam’s
8 Rue Pas

On Saturday mornings, Lille has a small local food market around the Theatre Sébastopol and the stalls all looked excellent. We only bought some cherries and they were very good indeed. We didn’t find the breakfast we were looking for though, finding patisserie and not viennoiserie.

Cherries

Marché Sébastopol
Place Sébastopol

And so we stopped at a random cafe close to the market and fed ourselves with cafe cremes, croissants, …

Cafe Creme et Croissants

… and giggled at the cappuccino that came with whipped cream! Definitely more luxurious than your bog-standard one!

A "Cappuccino"

Then the shopping began in earnest… and I’ll spare you the details. Well, other than to say that the sales at this time of the year were fantastic and prices were already at their third markdown.

Lunch! I couldn’t get a dinner booking at Bloempot, run by Florent Ladeyn of French Top Chef fame, for any time in July and instead we tried to get a walk in table for the midday meal… and we succeeded! By going a little early (12:30) we had our pick of tables in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it restaurant down the end if a narrow alley; by 14:00 the whole restaurant was packed.

Bloempot

On weekends, they serve the same menus as weekday evenings. There’s a choice of three menus which differ on the number of courses you get and we went with the cheapest at €34, getting us a starter, main, cheese and dessert. Drink pairings are also available. It’s a surprise menu based on what’s good at the market at that time of the year, though they do take allergies and dietary restrictions into consideration.

The little extras were more generous than I was expecting. Prior to our starter, we received a mound of fresh radishes with plenty of salt, butter and a soft fresh cheese. Very good bread too, in a paper bag.

Radishes, Butter and Fresh Cheese

Our starter was a beautiful roulade of thinly sliced kohlrabi with a quenelle of a fresh drained cheese topped with tarragon.

Kohlrabi and Fresh Cheese

Our main course was fish. A perfect piece of skate was served with sliced razor clams, mangetout and the loveliest little potatoes.

Skate, Mangetout and Potatoes

Then came what we originally thought was our cheese course. This was a massive bowl of maroilles foam topped with lardons and parsley crumbs, served with a big hunk of toasted bread crust for dipping. (Maroilles is the famous odoriferous cheese of the region) It was insanely good and we requested spoons to hasten its transfer into our mouths.

Maroilles Foam Dip with Lardons and Parsley Crumbs

Our waiter then came around with three small glasses half filled with a yellow-green liquid. He explained that we were being served a limonade made using their homemade sorrel syrup and topped up the glass with fizzy water. It was a lovely and necessary touch to clear our palates after that cheese onslaught.

Limonade d'Oseille

Our actual cheese course then arrived – yes, the Maroilles foam was an extra. This was thin slices of tomme de sec bois topped with fresh raspberries, rose petals and a drizzle of syrup.

Tomme with Raspberries and Rose Petals

Dessert was a dream. Fresh perfect berries, sorrel sorbet, langues de chat and a milk custard ladled on the side – I could have had another few bowls!

Berries, Sorrel Sorbert, Langues de Chat, Custard

Bloempot is highly recommended!

Bloempot
22 Rue des Bouchers

Then it was back to shopping. When the shops finally did us in, we headed straight to Meert for refreshments.

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Thé Glacé

The cakes were all excellent as usual (and that waffle!) and the iced tea was exactly what I needed.

Meert
27 Rue Esquermoise

We swung by the hypermarket next to the train station and picked up goodies for home before finally taking a break at the hotel before dinner. Can you tell that we were trying to cram all the shopping in on Saturday? Like most other places in France, 99% of Lille shuts down on Sundays.

Our night was going to be spent on Rue de Gand, a street lined with restaurants and wine bars. I had made a booking at Chez la Vieille, a highly regarded Lillois estaminet (and one in which we couldn’t get a table the last time I was in Lille). They served large portions of hearty northern French food and we struggled to finish it all.

Croquettes aux crevettes were excellent and full of little brown shrimps.

Croquettes aux Crevettes

My friend’s Coeur des Flandres was a fantastic homemade tart filled with minced pork, onion and apple.

Le Coeur des Flandres

My Gratin de la Vieille was insane. An entire cooked endive (and a fat one at that) had been wrapped in ham and then drowned in plenty of bechamel and topped with maroilles cheese before being grilled on top. With frites!

Gratin de la Vieille

Estaminet Chez la Vieille
60 Rue de Gand

And then we crashed back at the hotel…and I think all the day’s cheese affected the others as they awoke around me recounting strange dreams the next morning. Haha!

We checked out, dumped our now overflowing bags, and headed straight to the Marché de Wazemmes. The walk along the way was through a deserted city but as we got nearer to the market, it became exceedingly clear that the entire city was there. The first thing I did was find the lady who was selling Tunisian bricks – this was the brick that got away the last time I was in Lille!

Brick!

Brick!

It hit the spot. This one was filled with minced lamb and onions and the essential egg.

After walking once around the market (and perhaps I’ll mention here that not everything was peachy – we had coffee at a specialist place where they treated us badly), we noticed there was a bar (L’Oxford) at one corner with plenty of outdoor seating and everyone sitting there had ordered drinks at the bar and were tucking into food purchased at the market. Yeah, we wanted in on that! We surveyed all the rotisserie chicken vans (there were a few) before choosing our favourite and for the grand sum of €9, we received one roast chicken, plenty of potatoes that had been cooked in the drippings, and a giant spiced potato and lamb patty.

Preparing our Lunch

Lunch!

That poor chicken never stood a chance.

Marché de Wazemmes
Place Nouvelle Aventure

The afternoon was spent in the Palais des Beaux Arts de Lille and when we emerged, it was raining (not in the original weather forecast!). We had a couple hours to kill before our train back and headed out to the Quai du Wault in search of a hotel that used to be a convent, hoping to wait out the weather. That was the Alliance Couvent des Minimes and we sat in their bar eating pastries…

Cafe Gourmand

… and ice cream.

Ice Cream!

Alliance Couvent des Minimes
Quai du Wault

And then it was time to catch the Eurostar back to London. Back to reality. I highly recommend Lille for a short break. It’s easy to get there and prices at restaurants are lower than similar restaurants in Paris. And if you’re there during the sales… well, I take no responsibility for that.

All my photos from Lille can be found in this Flickr album.

My garden! I never thought that I’d have my very own garden! Of course, it’s Blai’s too but he’ll be the first to admit that I’m the crazy one who insisted on growing almost all our vegetable plants from seed (our living room is south facing with lots of light and I’ve been treating it like a greenhouse). It’s a modest little patch (about 10 square metres plus a number of pots – the rest of the garden is lawn and herb/flower bedding) but so far I’m quite pleased with what I’ve managed to harvest from it, even this early in the season.

The tally so far in our garden is: 9 tomato plants, 2 courgette plants, 8 cucamelon plants, a small patch of carrots, 3 purple bean vines, 3 runner bean vines, a tiny patch of wild rocket, a small patch of cime di rapa, countless radishes dotted everywhere, a few spring onions looking like string, 2 little cavolo nero plants, 5 rainbow chard plants, 1 pot of pea shoots, 2 pots of cut and come again lettuces, 1 pot of strawberries, and 1 small potted fig tree. As you might be able to tell, I’ve aimed for variety and experimentation with yields in this first year and we’re not in any way looking to be self sustained from this little plot.

We’ve had a few great salads, radishes with butter, cime di rapa pasta, and quite a few strawberries. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

And the courgette flower this morning!

Our first itty bitty (unfertilised, I think, as there were no male flowers alongside) courgette and we ate it!

Yesterday's bowl of homegrown salad leaves!

Our first cima di rapa harvest!

And our little patch of wild rocket always seems to look full, even after picking lots for salads

Pre-breakfast radishes in the garden

🍓🍓🍓

Of course, not everything has gone to plan. My aubergine seeds didn’t germinate earlier this year and now I suspect that some of my tomatoes in pots are damaged by possible herbicide in the compost I purchased. But what really surprised me was how much I’m enjoying gardening and how happy the garden is making me. And the bees! I love seeing the bees do their thing with the flowers. I do know, of course, how lucky we are to have some green space (we have had no green space whatsoever prior to this), especially in London…

I should say that I really had nearly no experience whatsoever before embarking on this wild and crazy sowing scheme! Books that have been helpful include The New Vegetable and Herb Expert, the same in the series for fruit, and Alys Fowler’s The Edible Garden. The last book has an accompanying television series that’s watchable on YouTube. Useful websites and blogs are You Grow Girl (I’ve been reading this one for years!), Mark’s Veg Plot, Grow Your Own, the gardening section of the Guardian, and the Royal Horticultural Society.

If you have any tips/suggestions on what I ought to grow, do let me know!

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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