Saturday, February 25, 2006

Food For Thought, Covent Garden

Food For Thought
31 Neal Street
Covent Garden
London WC2

Lunchtime in Covent Garden offers a few choices for vegetarians, and one of the most popular is Food for Thought in Neal Street.

When we arrived, the doors were only just opening and there was a queue of half a dozen or so people outside. We joined the queue and very soon more people were behind us.

Food for Thought has a sit down restaurant downstairs and a takeaway section upstairs. From the menu boards, they both seem to sell the same stuff.

To say that the downstairs restaurant is cosy is an understatement. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as I can imagine that all sorts of converstations are struck up by people forced to share tables. It isn't really the place to sit and enjoy a long, leisurely meal, its more the kind of place that you pop in, fill up and then leave, so even if its full, it probably wouldn't take too long for a space to become available.

You select your food from a counter, pay and then take your seat. I had butternut squash and apricot soup with coriander pesto and Jamaican Blackbean Hotpot. My wife had a moussaka and a salad. The soup was quite nice, the apricot gave it a slight sweet taste. The hotpot was tasty, but on tasting a bit of the moussaka, I noticed that the tastes of both were very similar. Still, it was filling, and just the kind of thing that would warm you up on a cold day. The salad was lovely. Best of all, are the prices. For the two of us, it cost us around fifteen pounds. Not bad at all for a hot filling meal in the West End.

Overall, I wouldn't choose this restaurant for a 'meal out'. But if I just needed a quick, hot meal at a reasonable price then I certainly wouldn't overlook Food for Thought.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Carnevale, London

135 Whitecross Street
London EC1Y 8JL
Tel: 020 7250 3452

Last night I made a return visit to Carnevale, near Moorgate. This time, I've the opportunity to do a better review and mention some of the dishes that we ate. I was accompanied by an actor friend of mine, who was over the moon because he had just been complimented on his art by what he described as 'proper actors.'

Carnevale is very cosy and has, at most, a dozen tables. There is a covered 'yard' out the back where there are a couple of tables which the staff quaintly refer to as 'the garden' and we were seated there.

The menu was better than the last time I was there, with a couple of extra dishes in each section. However, my first choice of starter (potato gnocci in a cep sauce) was unavailable so I started with a brioche with spinach, wild mushrooms and a soft poached egg. The brioche was very nice, the bread was a bit soggy by the end, but I'm not sure you can do much about that, spinach does tend to hold vast amounts of liquid. The egg was just right for me, not too runny, but not too hard so the yolk stayed on the bread rather than trying to explore the whole plate.

My friend enjoyed his starter of fried halloumi and salad. Apparently, according to other diners, the butternut squash soup was very good too.

For main course we both plumped for Breaded Aubergine stuffed with Smoked Mozzarella and Ricotta. This was served with Romesco Sauce and Green Beans. I'm always interested to see what different chefs can do with aubergine and this was really good. The aubergine was so tender, that you probably wouldn't have known it was there. However, this did mean that it's taste (such as it is) was somewhat overwhelmed by the cheese and the sauce, but I think it was there to provide a base and hold everything together - which it did.The sauce went well with the other ingredients and was tomatoey and spicy without being overpowering. On the side of the dish was a green salad. All very good and my friend was very impressed.

The dessert menu had a rasberry crème brulee, so I had to have it - real vanilla, topping suitably crispy, served chilled but not too chilled - about 8/10 on the creme brulee scale. My friend had a vegan white chocolate pudding with summer fruits (which were primarily strawberries.) He was surprised that it tasted so good, and I think, was tempted to lick the bowl clean. All this plus coffees and drinks for £25 each plus a few quid for a tip.

The food is of a high standard, and has none of the 'hippy health food' connotations that many people seem to think that vegetarian restaurants have, this was almost fine dining - the food was presented really well and I don't remember a single lentil on the menu. The service was friendly and prompt and the atmosphere is pretty good although, because of the closeness of the tables, when it gets busy it's difficult to hold a private conversation, but nice and easy to listen in to other peoples! Overall, I think the menu has improved since my last visit and it was pretty good back then.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tony Tobin @ The Dining Room, Reigate

Tony Tobin @ The Dining Room
59 High Street

Tel: 01737 226 650

It's nice when you ring up a top restaurant to ask if they have a vegetarian option on their menu to be told that they have a vegetarian menu. And so it was with Tony Tobin @ The Dining Room.

Tony Tobin is probably known to most people from his appearances on Ready Steady Cook and he took over this particular restaurant in 2001.

The restaurant itself is above the shops and were shown to a window table that looked out over Reigate High Street.

The veggie menu isn't bad, and there are three choices for both starter and main courses. I chose Rich Cepes Risotto for starters and Roasted Root Vegetable Kromseki with Garlic Mash and Braised Puy Lentils.

While waiting, we were presented with a choice of breads including cheese, sundried tomato and herb.

The starters arrived. Unfortunately, there had been a mix up and I was presented with the risotto from the set menu, on which was sitting a lump of fois gras. Not the best dish to set before a vegetarian. Still, the error was sorted out quickly without fuss and the vegetarian risotto arrived with apologies, so no harm done.

The risotto was well presented, suitably gloopy and the cepes had a nice smoky flavour.

The main course consisted of roasted parsnips, roast carrots, wild mushrooms, spinach and puy lentils inside a ring of garlic mashed potato. On top of this was a ball of potato, tomato and thyme (I think) that had been cooked to give it a crispy coating. The vegetables and lentils were really tasty and something in the mix gave it a bit of a kick. The garlic mash was incredibly smooth, creamy and had a wonderful flavour. The potato ball on that sat on the top of the vegetables had its own flavour and finished the dish off nicely.

For dessert I had a dish which I think was described as a Banana Tatin (or similar). What arrived on the plate wasn't far off a work of art. The banana had been halved lengthwise and was placed on a banana shaped pastry and then caramelised. This was served with ice cream, a biscuit and drizzled with caramel and chocolate sauce. Wow! It tasted lovely. I was terrified that the biscuit was going to explode everywhere while I was trying to break off bits with my spoon, but luckily it was not to be.

The service was very good, the waiting staff very attentive and they dealt very well with the little glitch at the start of the meal. The restaurant itself is very well dressed and tidy, much as you would expect a restaurant of this calibre to be. If you've a special occasion coming up (or even if you haven't) Tony Tobin @ The Dining Room is worth a visit.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Fifteen, London

Westland Place,
London N1 7LP

To celebrate my sister's 40th birthday, she decided that she'd like to dine at the loveable mockney cheeky chops, Jamie Oliver's restaurant, Fifteen. So, last Saturday evening, having booked many moons ago, we made our way to Clerkenwell to sample the fayre.

The restaurant has a tasting menu which consists of six courses plus nibbles and coffee. They have a meat and a vegetarian version of the menu. You can also have your wine matched to each course of the menu if you wish.

I, of course, chose the vegetarian menu, but I shall let you know what the others in my party thought of the various meat dishes.

We arrived at the restaurant and the door was held open for us and our coats were taken. We had arrived early, so we sat in the bar for a while watching with interest the open kitchen in the Trattoria part of Fifteen and marvelling at the piles of anti-pasta on display.

Very shortly we were led downstairs to the restaurant and seated in one of the 'booths' against the wall. The restaurant has a 'seventies' feel to it in contrast to the modern European look of the Trattoria upstairs.

Very shortly our waiter arrived with the menus and the meal began.

First off we all had some olives with rosemary bread and oil for a few nibbles while we chose between the various options on the tasting menu. Shortly after that the sommelier arrived with some champagne (Louis Reoderer Brut Premier, NV if you're interested) and explained where it came from (Reims in France) and how it compared to the Verve Cliqout we had been drinking earlier in Kettners before arriving at Fifteen.

The olives were of the big sweet ones I mentioned in the review of The Neal Street Restaurant and were just as tasty. The accompanying bread was lovely.

The starters were served in spoons and were barely a mouthful. However, a wise man once said something about quality and quantity and the the quality was superb. For my part I was served Pickled Treviso and Roasted Beetroot with Marjoram and Horseradish. The Treivso was much as you'd expect pickled lettuce to taste, but the beetroot was something else. As someone who is more used to pickled beetroot this was somewhat of a revelation. The small square of beetroot had an amazing explosive taste brought about, I assume, by the addition of marjoram and horseradish. The others had Pork Loin with Salsa Rossa Piante and Scallop with Cauliflower and Marjoram Salmoriglio. Both were pronounced as really nice, especially by those who had not had scallops before.

Once the starters were finished, we were presented with Jamie's Fantastic Salad, a salad of buffalo mozzarella, comice pears, honey toasted almonds and a wild herb salad drizzled with Selvapiana olive oil. The only difference between the vegetarian and normal menu was the addition of prosciutto. To accompany the salad was a beautifully peachy Basa Blanco which complimented the salad perfectly.

Next up was a choice of meal. For myself I had the choice of a Mezze Lune of Squash and Chestnuts with a sage butter sauce or Gnocci with Gorgonzola, Watercress and Crushed Hazelnuts. I chose the Mezza Lune. It was divine. Even the smallest amount had huge amounts of flavour and the sage butter was gorgeous. To accompany this I was served Michelot Meursault 2002 which was, quite simply, the best Chardonnay I have ever had. The others had Papardelle with a venison ragu (pronounced “Orgasmic” by my brother in law) and Gnocchi with crab and mussels.

Now, I have to mention, that through all this the waiter and sommelier were incredibly knowledgeable and helpful and, despite the restaurant filling up, we were still made to feel like we were the most important customers there. They described each dish and wine and why the two complimented each other.
Before the next course, the waiter appeared with a mouth refresher of a Rhubarb and port sorbet. Yumm!

For the next course I had the choice of a Tartlet of Wild Mushrooms, Tuscan eggs, spinach, pecorino and truffle oil or Buffalo Ricotta Fritters. I chose the tartlet. It was okay, but a bit 'eggy' for my taste. That's not to say it wasn't nice, but it wasn't as nice as the other courses on the menu.

The choice for the others was between a slow-roasted leg of pork and Sea Bass with saffron and anchovy potatoes, lemon aioli and wood sorrel. Both apparently were extremely tasty.

The next course was the cheese course. I had a Hereford Finn and the others had Lincolnshire Poacher. Both were served on a wooden board along with a sticky date and an apricot chutney. Accompanying this was a Quinta de la Rosa Port, which matched the cheese perfectly.

For dessert we were all served Tiramisu with cappuccino ice cream, blood orange and biscotti. It was divine and when all eaten together with a leaf of the accompanying mint the combination of flavours was quite amazing. An MR Moscatel was the wine of choice here and it was lovely.

We finished the evening with a coffee, paid the bill, collected our coats and left.

We all agreed that the evening was perfect. The food was some of the best that we had ever eaten and the service was impeccable. I mentioned once, at the beginning of the meal that I would be having the vegetarian menu and I never had to remind the waiter when the food was delivered. The wine selection for the veggie menu was different to the meat one and, once again, I never once had to tell the sommelier that it was me that was the vegetarian. Even when we picked our coats up at the end of the meal, we didn't have to mention who we were or what table we were at – the correct coats were handed to us. Now, Fifteen isn't cheap, but we all agreed that the whole experience was superb and well worth the money. And that's what it was. It was more than a meal, it was an experience, and an experience that none of us could stop talking about on the way home, and one that we are all keen to repeat sometime.