Thursday, July 31, 2008

Christmas in July

For Christmas last year, my sister gave my wife and I a "show and dinner" package. Finally, last weekend we went up to London for the day to finally partake of her present.

We started with lunch at El Cantara, a Spanish/Moroccan restaurant near Shaftesbury Avenue in Frith Street. We arrived around 2.30pm and were the only people in the place. The welcome and service was very friendly and we sat at a table where we could watch the rest of the world go by out of the window.

We chose a couple of dishes to start, Zaalouk which was smoked aubergine with mixed spices, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic, and Piquillo de Patatas which was a baby pepper stuffed with a potato and carrot purée. We had some Moroccan bread to accompany them, and it was all really tasty. For main course I had a vegetable tagine, accompanied by a really good bowl of couscous, flavoured with cinnamon. There was just one thing that annoyed me. Service was included on the bill and yet the credit card machine still offered us the chance to add a tip. What's more, the waiter asked if we wanted to add a tip when he handed me the machine to which I politely pointed out that he'd already included it on the bill.

From there we made our way to Covent Garden and to the theatre to watch the Woman in Black. It's a great play and the tiny size of the Fortune Theatre makes it more spooky.

Once the play had finished we made our way to Maxwell's which was the restaurant where we were to enjoy the meal that came along with the theatre in our present. It's a burger and grill bar and, to be honest, I quite fancied a burger and fries to finish the day off.

When we arrived, we splashed out on a cocktail each and I ordered potato skins for starters. I was brought ones with bacon, but these were replaced without fuss when I pointed out the error. My wife had crab cakes, which she enjoyed.

For the main course we both had burgers; I had a spicy bean burger, my wife had a meat one. Both came with salad and fries and we both enjoyed them. We were both too full for dessert, so we ordered the bill. We both enjoyed the meal and the service was friendly and very prompt. It's a great place for a pre or post theatre meal if you want something quick, simple and reasonably tasty.

All in all, we had a very enjoyable day. Thanks Sis, and Happy Christmas!

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Sundridge House, Sundridge

73 Main Road,
Sundridge, Kent TN14 6EQ Map

We ended up here on a company night out. It was decided that the easiest thing to do would to be to order a set menu for the table. As the only vegetarian in the office, they ordered a veggie set menu for me to have. Actually, as the minimum order for the set menus was for two people, I had two portions of everything!

It was all pretty good. My meal started with some spring rolls and some spicy tofu. While the others had crispy duck, I was brought some pancakes and vegetables. For mains, I had spicy aubergine, sweet and sour vegetables, deep fried tofu with pak choi, spicy ginger tofu and steamed rice. It was all very good, especially the aubergine dish.

For dessert, I had the ubiquitous banana fritters.

All in all, it was pretty good, the service was friendly and we all had a good evening.

Mango Tree, London

46 Grosvenor Place,
London, SW1X 7EQ Map

Mango Tree is a Thai restaurant in Belgravia, London. It's a stone's throw from Victoria Station and is nice and easy to find. In fact, I went past it on the 73 bus every time I worked in London and I often wondered what it was like.

We arrived early, and sat in the bar where my wife had one of the best margaritas she has had, and I had a JD & Coke. Shortly after, we were collected and shown to our table.

The dining area is quite a large, high ceilinged room with a row of banquets down the middle and tables set along them and along the windows. The tables are set quite close together, but not uncomfortably so.

There are quite a few vegetarian options on the a la carte menu. However, as I flicked to the back of the various menus, I discovered a vegetarian menu that had all of the dishes that were on the a la carte, plus quite a few others. Actually, that's a bit unfair. Make that, quite a lot of others.

For starters I chose to have Tow Hoo Satay which was skewers of grilled tofu, peppers and tomatoes with a satay peanut sauce. It was very nice - the sauce especially- and, for a starter, there was plenty of it.

Now, I don't know about you but I'm so used to only having a couple of choices on a menu, that when I have to choose from half a dozen or more, I have no idea what to do - I just want to try everything!

I had narrowed my choice down to two, Gaeng Kiew Wan Pak - an aubergine and vegetable green curry - and Pad Thai Jay - noodles, beansprouts, chives and peanuts. I asked the waiter which he would recommend. He said that why not have both and suggested that my wife and I had the Pad Thai instead of rice. It was an excellent solution, and he was right, both the dishes were great, but the Pad Thai had the edge.

And so to dessert. The menu mentioned a dish called Sang Ka Ya Vanilla which the menu translated as Vanilla Creme Brulee. You all know the rules by now, so it was duly ordered. It looked nice, the caramel was good, but the custard was very thick - my wife said it was pasty, which summarises it quite well. So, it comes in at a 6.5 on the chart.

My wife chose Guay Ob Ma prow Sod, which was layered banana and coconut with caramel sauce and banana ice-cream. Actually, I chose it for her so I could have a taste. It was okay, but very heavy.

Despite the desserts, it was a very enjoyable meal. The service was excellent - very attentive and very friendly. The prices aren't bad, but they are "London" prices. We were on a 50% off deal through Toptable which saved us thirty quid, which made the meal very reasonable.

The only complaint that I have, is that the large room and high ceiling make the restaurant very noisy. Its certainly not the place for a quiet romantic meal, and if you had a large party, I doubt youd be able to hear people more that a couple of places away from you unless they were shouting. That, said the food is great and it wouldn't put us off going back.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Spice Club, Tunbridge Wells

37 Mount Ephraim,
Tunbridge Wells TN4 8AA Map

The Spice Club in Tunbridge Wells is part of the chain of restaurants that include Alishan in Tonbridge and the Spice Club in Sevenoaks. They all offer a more contemporary kind of Indian restaurant experience, with well presented food and tidy, nicely decorated interiors.

The menu is quite varied, with most of the old favourites, with some new dishes. The main course menus don't mention any vegetarian dishes except for a vegetable biryani, but I'm sure that they could rustle something up, as the menu says that "if you would like a dish that is not on our menu, please ask our staff..."

The vegetable side dishes can be ordered in a main course size if you so wish, and some of those sound quite interesting, such as spinach dumplings in tomato and fenugreek sauce and stuffed baby aubergines in a spicy peanut sauce.

After some poppadoms, I had spiced potatoes and garlic mushroom. This consisted of several nicely spiced potato balls and thinly sliced mushrooms and salad. It was very tasty and well presented.

Next I had the vegetable biryani (pictured above) and a side of the aforementioned aubergines in peanut sauce. The biryani was quite tasty - there was plenty of it too - and the aubergines were beautifully tender and the peanut sauce was nice, but could've been a tad more spicy for me. None the less, overall it was all pretty good.
For dessert, I had a halva with various crushed nuts and, again, it was presented very nicely and tasted good.

The service was very friendly and prompt, and the whole experience was very enjoyable. As it's quite close to us, I can see it becoming a regular choice when we fancy a curry.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Vanilla Black, London

17- 18 Tooks Court
London EC4A 1LB Map

Vanilla Black used to be in York and on my visits to the city I never managed to get a table as it was always full. It always got good reviews and the menu always looked fantastic. When they announced that they were moving down to London, I was excited.

The restaurant itself is a five minute walk from Chancery Lane tube and looks quite unassuming from the outside. Inside, it is nicely and professionally laid out with white-clothed tables all perfectly set.

We were given a very friendly welcome and were shown to our choice of table. We were given the menus and wine list. Some nice home-made rolls were brought to the table along with a couple of small pats of butter, one saffron and one salt.

Vanilla Black is totally vegetarian, but its not your "nuts and lentils" place, this is vegetarian fine dining with a very imaginative menu.

Shortly after ordering, the waitress turned up with an "amuse bouche" of some small choux-pastry rolls stuffed with olive paste and topped with yoghurt. They looked like small chocolate eclairs and tasted great.

Then came the starters. My starter was chosen for me by "The Rules". It was a Cep Creme Brulee. On the scale, due to the consistency of the custard, thickness of the sugar etc it rates a 7.5. However, I still can't quite decide if it worked or not. The Cep custard was lovely. It had a really strong mushroom flavour and was very smooth. Did it go with the caramelised sugar? Not sure. Let me know what you think if you go there and its on the menu.

For main course, I had Poached Duck Egg and Duckette Cairphilly Pudding. The pudding was like a cheese souffle and the egg, just runny enough without being too runny, was perched on top. Accompanying this was a hickory smoked potato croquette along with some pineapple pickle which, when eaten together were divine.

My fellow diner had Mushroom Duxelle Torte with Parsley Custard which I had a mouthful of. There was definitely a taste of truffle in there and it was really nice, but slightly dry. With a sauce of some sort, it would have been perfect.

For dessert I had Brandied Apple and Crumble Shortbread which was very thinly sliced apple steeped in brandy topped with shortbread and ice cream. It sounds great doesn't it? It was...

I also had a taste of Fig Roll and Black Tea Syrup which was also very nice. But the highlight of that dish was the Iced Milk that accompanied it.

It's great to see that more vegetarian restaurants are serving this kind of imaginative, well-presented fare these days. One of the nicest things about Vanilla Black though, is the price. For two courses, no matter what you have, it's £24. For three courses, it's £30, which is pretty good for food of this standard in a London restaurant.

On the way home, my fellow diner who isn't veggie like myself, mentioned that he'd quite to visit it again as some of the other dishes on the menu sounded great. That has to be a great recommendation for Vanilla Black, and I totally agree with him.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Weight Watching...

There is a certain stereotypical image of vegetarians, that of a pasty-faced and skinny person. Personally, I don't know any veggies that fit that description and I certainly don't. One of my biggest problems is that a large amount of my protein comes from dairy products, and I seem to end up piling on the pounds.

I've never been very good at diets, but some pictures I saw of me at the New Year and the scales hitting 15 stone, made me decide to lose a few pounds.

I decided on the Weight Watchers diet. My wife used to belong to a local group, and has belonged to the online community. We have plenty of their books and there are plenty of good vegetarian recipes in them.

Now, as it quite obvious from this blog, both my wife and I love our food, so I decided that I wouldn't forgo my favourite hobby, but I would follow the diet at home, cut out snacks and join a gym. Okay, so it would take a little longer to lose the weight, but I hoped that by not being quite so strict I would be able to achieve some success.

So that's what I did. And after six months I've lost two stone and am still going.

The most pleasant surprise is how good some of the recipes are. One of my favourites is Thai Green Pumpkin Curry, pictured above. One of the difficulties with doing anything Thai for a vegetarian is the fish sauce or shrimp paste that appears in just about all the "Thai" sauces and pastes on the market. Normally, I use an Indian paste instead, which tastes just as good. Occasionally, if I've got the ingredients I'll make my own.

However, I discovered that Blue Dragon do a Thai Green Curry Paste that is suitable for vegetarians, but be careful though as they also do one that isn't. They do a Red Curry Paste in the same range that is fish free too. Boy, is it spicy - and I ended up having one of the hottest curries I've had for quite a while!

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cantina del Ponte, London

Butlers Wharf, 36c Shad Thames,
London SE1 2YE Map

I joined Toptable a while back, and its really good. It makes booking really easy – no hanging on the telephone for hours only to be told that the day you want is fully booked – you just book online and wait for an email to tell you whether the booking is confirmed or not. In addition to that, you get told of special offers that the restaurants are doing, and some of them are really good. That, in itself, is worth joining for (and why wouldn’t you anyway – it’s free) but in addition, for every meal you book and review through the website, you earn points, and when you have reached a certain amount, you can have a free meal from a list of selected restaurants.

So it was, that having gorged ourselves at enough restaurants to earn a free meal for two, my wife and I decided to have a day out in London spending the afternoon at the theatre watching Dirty Dancing and taking advantage of a free lunch on the way.

The restaurant we chose was Cantina del Ponte, which is set on the bank of the Thames, just down from Tower Bridge. As it was a rare sunny summer day, we had a table outside with a nice view of the bridge and the river.

The free meal deal was from a set menu, from which we had the choice of two courses. Of course you could decide to pay for a third course if you so wished, however as we were also planning to go out in the evening - just to finish the day off - we decided to limit ourselves to starters and mains.

To start, I had a fairly basic parmesan salad that was well presented, very fresh and crispy.

For mains, I had an aubergine and smoked cheese ravioli in a pesto sauce. The smokeyness of the cheese really came through and complemented the pesto sauce really well. The aubergine seemed to be there more for texture rather than taste. It was very good. My wife, who has very rarely found a fish dish in the UK that she likes, went for the swordfish, but didn’t enjoy it at all. To accompany it, she ordered some rosemary potatoes, of which I had a taste, and they were very nice – and perfect for mopping up the last of my basil sauce!

The service was very friendly and efficient, and the setting was lovely. We paid for coffee, the potatoes and a couple of glasses of nice wine which came to about a tenner each. Okay, so not a completely free meal, but that’s not bad for a two course lunch in London!

As for Dirty Dancing, well the less said about that the better – it really wasn’t my thing at all…