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Member since Jun 2007
London | English Restaurants
Holy Trinity
Cowie has been revising like a geeky dervish for the last few months in preparation for her surveying exams. It's important stuff and quite stressful. So I wanted to do something local and relaxing with a touch of glamour. One of our first London dining experiences was at Polygon through TopTable. We had a wonderful meal. Canon of perfectly rare lamb and a luxurious fillet of beer if I remember rightly. But then Polygon disappeared and we almost shed a tear.

Trinity emerged in it's place with a flurry of great reviews and a menu that just begs to be guzzled up. I've been cycling past it on a daily basis and have to really concentrate to stop myself from lurching through their front door wearing my lycra and hi-vis jacket!

We were treated to a near perfect meal. The service was the best we've ever had. Everything was just right. We were given the best table in the restaurant. They remembered it was Cowie's birthday. They filled our glasses at the right time with just the right amount of wine. They didn't rush us. They even laughed at my attempt at banter! Legends!

We knew instantly what each other would choose. It's always the same and is a brilliant part of our relationship. Cowie chose the crab and tuna salad followed by a wonderful looking piece of monkfish. It was perfectly cooked. So often monkfish is over cooked, too meaty or dry. This was the spot on.

If Cowie's choices were delicate, feminine, light and the essence of Cowie. Mine were very me. Rich, meaty, a biz grizzly and sensuously deep. My starter of pigs head was sensational. Better than at Wild Honey. It oozed flavour. Not to mention a drop or two of fat!

My main course of hare two ways was almost as good. The slow-cooked, pulled leg meat was strewn in a semi circle over the top of the plate, interwoven with silky mash and brussels sprouts. And a circle of saddle meat anchored the rest of the dish. My only criticism would be to question whether the thin sheath of fat that coated the saddle shout have been seared off...

All of this wonderful food was accompanied by a classy chardonnay from the Langeudoc/Roussillon area of France. Think of a really good St. Aubin, but with a bit more to it.

Things at this point were stunning. But we were slightly underwhelmed by dessert. The lemon cheesecake arrived in a kilner jar an hour too early. That hadn't had a chance to cook it! They left the construction work up to us. Now call me old fashioned, but don't we go to restaurants to be cooked for? I'm all for a bit of interactivity... but only when it tastes good. A good baked lemon cheesecake is a thing of heart stopping beauty. This one tasted like it had come from a down-market supermarket. I don't want to be too rude because they had gone to the effort of writing "Happy Birthday" in toffee on Cowie's plate!

My Valhrona chocolate pudding was fantastic. But enough for an entire family! I tired to only eat on person's worth... but landed up eating my own body weight in rich, warm chocolate!

We're delighted to have finally made Trinity's acquaintance and are already planning our next visit. It would have got 5 stars but for the whoopy with dessert.
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Haozhan Resturant
London | Chinese Restaurants
Modern Chinese at Haozhan
We tried to book Great Queen Street for our Brown family trip after King Lear. But unfortunately their kitchen closes at 10.30 and we were unlikely to get there before 11. So we opted to give Haozhan a go instead.

Buzzing after being mesmerised by McKellan as a brilliant Lear we raced down from Covent Garden to China town and were treated to a master class in big tasting modern Chinese food.

Haozhan stands out from its Gerrard Street neighbours. Its what the Anchor and Hope is to the dodgy pub grub you get at a Toby Carvery. You won't find any freaky red plastic dragons or surly staff.

I was delighted with my chilli quail which was generous in both the portion size and the amount of spice. It brought an enormous smile to my face as I picked away at it with my greasy hands. Dad loved his curried soft shell crab; Mum enjoyed her sweet corn soup and Cowie couldn't have been happier with her single steamed scallop. You can order crispy duck and sweet and sour pork if you want but they have a piece on their menu encouraging you to try something new. Maybe Haozhan is the Sainsbury's of the Chinese restaurant world.

My cod with champagne and honey was stunning. The flesh flaked apart and was a sweet balance of golden honey and winey liquor. I swopped half way through with Cowie and upgraded to the XO cod which had a similar sticky, chilli sauce to my quail. Again is was delicious, if not quite as delicate as my original fish. Suz had an amazing loaf of bread filled with Assam prawns and Dad was delighted with his Sechuan lamb chops.

It was a brilliant way to end a much needed family day out and we can't wait to go back.
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The Harwood Arms
London | Pubs
The Country Comes to Town
Tucked a safe distance behind Fulham Broadway, is a pub that serves outstanding food, that goes by the name of the Harwood Arms. It's reputation for serving the Capital's finest scotch egg was enough bait to lure me in from South of the river. Lizzie, Chris and Helen tipped me off about these eggy bundles of joy, so I pre-ordered some when I reserved our table. Just to make sure!

From the moment we arrived, we felt at home. The service was slick and the surroundings were smart but relaxed. The Harwood Arms strikes a great balance between creating the warm atmosphere of a pub, but with the overall style and professionalism of a restaurant. The Holy Grail for any gastropub. Given that the mantra of the Harwood Arms is to bring the country to the city it is no wonder that 3 country bumpkins living in London liked it so much!

We tucked into our venison scotch egg like hyenas at Easter who'd given up eating deer Lent. Yolk dripped across my face and slurped over my hands as I failed to put into words just how amazing that moment was. Cowie and my Sister were equally impressed. So much so that I only got a sixth of a Scotch egg! I mopped up the remains with some of the best bread I've gobbled down in ages.

My starter picked up from where the pre-starter had left off. A wooden platter of soft boiled pheasant eggs served on toast with mushrooms had me yelping in appreciation. The crunchy toast and earthy mushrooms were a perfect match. I loved it, but on reflection, it could have done with a bit of sharpness to balance the mellow glossiness.

Poached salmon was rudely pink and criminally tasty. Almost ripe with flavour. It was impossibly attractive and just as tasty.

Spurred on by the joy of our earlier scotch egg, my sister followed this up with a limited edition, black pudding scotch egg that was served with some cold asparagus that was supposed to be hot. But, when the black pudding scotch egg is this good, they could have served it with a used condom and I'd have been happy!

Having wowed us with the starters, we were worried the kitchen would struggle to outdo itself with the mains. But we needn't have been. My grilled deer with bay, garlic potatoes and horseradish and beetroot spread was a dish that I'd happily have every day of the week. The meat was soft, charred and punctuated by the deicate flavour of bay that it had been skewered with. The beetroot and horseradish sauce was so good that Cowie annexed it to go with her cod! Garlic potatoes were upstaged dramatically.

Cowie's cod was delicious. Topped with potted shrimp and some garnished with sea greens it couldn't have been a lot better. But I just hope it was sourced from somewhere that isn't running out of cod.

My sister devoured her ray like there was no tomorrow. My little mouthful was far more citrus than I was expecting. Which was no bad thing. The only criticism would be the size of the portion. But then again none of us left feeling hungry and we couldn't find room for dessert!

The Harwood Arms is a top class gastropub, serving the sort of menu where you'd happily eat everything on it 7 days a week. The menu doesn't just pay lip service to seasonality and provenance, it genuinely lives and breathes it as you'll see by the way the menu changes when their larder AKA the countryside is having a glut. Look out for signal crayfish hitting their menu soon for instance. When you visit, which you must, just make sure you don't miss out on the scotch eggs. They are worthy of an entire page in the Dorling Kindersley Guide to London.
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What a fun evening
We had one of our most fun nights out of the year at Huong-Viet. All of our foodie friends from the North of London have raved about this Vietnamese canteen. As have Charles Campion, Time Out and Nigel Slater. It has a sense of authenticity and quirkiness that appeals in spades. Much of this is derived from the fact that the site for this restaurant used to be public laundry and baths and then became a community centre for Vietnamese refugees. It then evolved into a canteen serving authentic, inexpensive Vietnamese food to whoever was either close enough or brave enough to visit.

So when the excuse arose we pounced. With the aid of a compass, some thermals and an appropriately named Hackney Carriage we waded in on a mission to try the entire menu. With the aid of Edwin's impressive grasp of the Vietnamese language and Jack's sheer appetite we were soon swamped by so many dishes that we had to annex a second table!

Summer rolls were fresh, crunchy, soft, cool and fragrant all at the same time. I reckon I could eat these all day. For me they are on a par with the Paddyfield in Balham, if not better.

A Vietnamese omelette was unnecessary, given the amount of food we'd ordered, but delicious nonetheless. Stuffed with crunchy and gungy stuff it was a text book example of contrasting textures. Doused in firey chilli sauce and it really came alive.

The highlight to the first act of our meal was a plate of chargrilled squid which achieved the ultimate goal of being succulent and rammed with flavour at the same time.

Other starters such as fish cakes and beef wrapped in leaves were so good they disappeared before I could photograph them! Much to my irritation and everyone else's mirth. The beef transported me back to a lunch time cafe in Hong Kong which I became addicted to several summers ago.

It was as if the main courses didn't want to be outdone by the starters. My hot and spicy lamb was one of the favourite things I have eaten this year. It lived up to its name by delivering the sort of sticky, tangy heat that makes you lick your lips for days afterwards. I had to fight Jack and Anna off with my chopsticks.

Cowie's whole steamed sea bass was good enough to prevent me from being offered any. Always a good sign. It's just a shame they couldn't find a larger plate. But I guess that is part of the charm. incidentally, this appears to be one of Nigel Slater's favourite dishes.

Edwin's impressive ordering skills resulted in a scene that wouldn't have been out of place in an ad for HSBC! A waiter appeared holding a scorching hot plate at arm's length and deposited it, still spitting in front of Edwin. It was a wonderful piece of theatre. And cooking too. Given the amount of burning hot oil that splattered onto the table it was essentially a healthy option.

Other dishes included a fragrant chicken curry with a plenty of lemon grass and a saucy pork curry. All washed down with plenty of Vietnamese beer and a lot of banter. If you can judge a meal by how dirty the table cloth gets, then we had a whale of a time. By the end we were trying to interpret the oily splodges around Edwin's plate in a way that would have had psychologists raising a lot of eyebrows!

We loved the informal atmosphere, direct service, delicious food and cheap bill. Some writers have suggested that there has been a lull in quality in recent times. But that wasn't on show when we visited. We loved it and are already planning a return trip. We just wish that we either lived closer, or that they would consider opening in Brixton or Balham.
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Dish - Dash
I dearly wanted Quantum of Solace to be incredible. But it wasn't. It was merely a poor man's Chinatown with Daniel Craig and Judy Dench left to carry what turned out to be a pretty flimsy film. It's always a shame when high expectations aren't met. It's like pricking a balloon. One moment you're riding high, hoping for the best. The next it's burst and your realise that your expectations were artificially high in the first place.

We love Balham to bits. Gazette, Paddfield, Tagine, The BBC, Harrisons, The Exhbit, Cattle Grid, The Fat Deli, Trinity Stores, Holy Cow, etc. are all brilliant in their own ways. We're regulars at all of them but for some reason had never been to Dish Dash. It's Balham's answer to Persian food and has been talked of quite highly by a number of close friends. So on a bleak january evening we pottered along to check it out.

Despite being almost empty at prime time on Wednesday the staff were friendly and very helpful throughout. We were guided through the menu and ordered a collection of starters including an excellent hot aubergine paste, some perfectly cooked squid rings and hummous accompanied by a tower of village bread that looked like a witches hat! The aubergine was terrific - smoky, earthy and extremely moreish, reminding us of our trip to Korfez in Istanbul. The squid was amazing. Top marks for that one and the hummous was hummous. At this stage we were feeling excited about our kebabs. It's a bit like when you watch the opening sequence to a Bond film. It always gets you all revved up and you hope the rest of the film lives up to it.

Sadly, things went downhill rather rapidly. My lamb shish was criminally overcooked. I don't want to be rude but it was terrible. And just to show that it wasn't a fluke, they nuked Cowie's delicate fish kebab as well! Whoops! It was a real shame. I rarely get to eat kebabs so I was very disappointed. I've since spoken to a few people who have had similar experiences. If only they had told me in advance. Surely kebabs are not that hard to cook?

Our advice would be to go along for a nice glass of wine and some fantastic meze dishes and then save yourself for a kebab at the Kebab Kitchen if you are still feeling peckish.
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Franco Manca
London | Pizzerias
Gorgeous Pizza on my Doorstep
I took the rare opportunity of a day off in Brixton to sample the pizza at Franco Manca. After an in depth article in OFM a couple of months ago, the internet has been awash with chatter about this place. And I felt like it was my duty as a Brixton resident and foodie to see what all the fuss is about.

Foolishly I forgot to take a note of the address, assuming that it must be easy to find. But I found myself walking back and forth along Electric Avenue, dodging the market vendors, trying desperately to find this "hidden gem". It always helps of course if you are actually on the right road. A quick call to 118500 and I was back on track. I was put through to Franco Manca who then guided me into the restaurant which was about 18 yards from where I was standing. The charming chap on the phone even spotted me and came to greet me. Top class service from beginning to end.

Snuggled into the heart of Brixton Market, remember, if you can, that it's Unit 4, Electric Lane. The restaurant bridges both sides of the covered market alleyway which adds a great natural flow to environment. On either side are large pizza ovens that have been hand build over in Naples. They generate a temperature of 500'C which is the key to their sourdough pizzas having such a crispy crust and soft middle. I inspected them with great interest, taking notes for next year's big project where I am planning to build an outdoor earth oven in the garden. Should be epic. If anyone's got any advice, I'd love to hear from you.

I ordered the chorizo pizza which comes with dry and wet sausage from Brindisa. It arrived almost as soon as I had spoken. Given all the hype, I was determined not to be prejudiced and was hoping it would live up to all the noise. And it did. As promised it was gorgeously charred on the outside, with the appearance of tiger bread whilst the mozzarella, tomato and chorizo was perfectly cooked as well. The puffy crust was crisp on the outside and pillowy soft inside. A bit like a savoury, hot macaron!

The chorizo had a lick of char and otherwise was simply irresistible. I was tempted to add pepper and chilli oil but didn't want to tamper with something that had been thought through so clearly. The mozzarella made almost made me giggle as it unwound as I tried to eat it like some sort of practical joke. All this fatty, carby goodness was washed down by a jar of their delicious home made lemonade followed the best espresso I've ever had for £1!

All the ingredients are impeccably sourced with superb credentials. But the crowning glory is the sourdough base that takes 20 hours of careful nurturing before it meets its glorious fate in the super charged ovens.

I was amused when two gentlemen in suits arrived and loudly asked "are you the guys who make the best pizza in London". I felt like I stood out pretty badly in my brown cords and blue v-neck jumper, but I was a chameleon by comparison. It seems that word has spread and that this gem is fast becoming a lot less hidden.

Be warned that Franco Manca is only open on week days from 12-5. My pizza, lemonade and coffee came to well under a tenner.

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The Wellington Arms
Isn’t it about time someone built a rapid exit road from South London that links directly to the M3? I’m sick of having to crawl around the South Circular at a pace that makes Eric the Eel look like Michael Phelps. The grizzly shop windows look the same in Wandsworth, Putney and Sheen.

Having escaped the South Circular the M3 felt like one of those conveyor belts for lazy people in airports. We whizzed along without even trying. The jaundiced trees took on a trippy effect as they shed their leaves in the gusting wind. Rather than be mugged by the modern day highwayman that is the motorway service station, we had planned ahead and booked ourselves into The Wellington Arms, just north of Basingstoke.

Unusually, we arrived on time, which gave us a chance to admire their chicken coup and immaculate vegetable garden.

We read a glowing review of The Wellington Arms in Olive about 2 weeks ago and booked it on the spot. Further delving yielded warm reviews from Giles Coren and others. We’d been looking forward to it from the moment we booked. Everything we had read about was true. It is idyllic and must be one of the most stylish country pubs in the country.

With only 8 tables it’s cosy and full of charm. It feels less like a pub restaurant and more akin to being in a friend’s living room. Our waitress was a delight. My pint of bitter was perfect and Cowie’s lime and soda was full of proper lime. With a pint in hand we surveyed the chalk board menu, standing behind a table of very loud parents from Marlborough.

We often find it hard to choose, but this time it was as if the menu had been written just for us. Cowie was torn between a double baked goat’s cheese soufflé and the scallops – as was I which made things easy! And for the main event Cowie immediately chose the brill and I almost shouted out venison pie!

Whilst waiting for our food I couldn’t help noticing the plaque behind me commemorating Jason King’s Junior Gold medal in the Cooking Olympics. This was a sign of the brilliance to come as we were feasting on a range of sensational breads. In particular the soft dark, treacly rye bread was first class – it’s all made in the village by a chap who’s name I read whilst having a wee!

My scallops couldn’t have been cooked any better. Some people don’t like their sea food covered in butter – but I do! The bed of samphire had me purring like a kitten having his tummy tickled. I was so focussed on the scallops that I almost forgot to switch plates with Cowie. Her goat’s cheese soufflé was just as good. Well risen texture melted into that unmistakable taste of goat’s cheese. Fortunately our plates were cleared before I had embarrassed myself by licking them clean!

The excellence of the cooking continued with our main courses. Whilst all the other boring people on the other 7 tables seemed to be having fish and chips we fell head over heels for our more interesting dishes. My venison pie had a lid on it that any chef in the country would have been proud of. It stayed crispy until I had devoured the last morsel. The venison filling was moist and deep. The binary opposite of the dry and tough meat that occasionally plays the part of an impostor.

Cowie’s brill was huge. Enough for 4 Cowies! The outside was perfectly seared to a crispy, buttery finish, whilst the flesh inside was soft and peeled away like skate. The real treat was yet to come as Cowie unearthed a line of sweetbreads. Our cabbage and roasted courgettes were just as perfect and left us feeling like we’d just experienced the platonic ideal of a “Saturday lunch, just off the motorway, on the way home after a long week at work”.

From now on, whenever we have a long trip on the cards we are going to make sure we’ve got a good rural pub that serves great food lined up to refu
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Must visit gem
Gilly has been raving about Zayna for the last month. In that time he has been 5 times. And is already planning his next visit! Gilly and the rest of his company have decided to adopt Zayna as their "pet" restaurant.

Tucked away on New Quebec Street in no-man's land between Baker Street, Marble Arch and Edgeware Road, it's passing trade is always going to be very minimal. The whole area is about as lively as The Millennium Dome. Frankly it's brave opening a restaurant here. With hardly any natural footfall it means that the cooking has to be extraordinary for a restaurant to be successful. Look at Dinings for instance. It's tucked away in the backwaters east of Edgeware Road and is almost impossible to find first time out... but it's a brilliant restaurant. Having not seen their balance sheet I can't comment on their economic success. But that said they are always busy and attract an audience from across London.

This evening Zayna was almost empty. Admittedly, we arrived for what can only be described as afternoon tea at 7pm... but it never actually got more than a sprinkling of custom all night. And it was a random Tuesday night. The image below from their website sums up the Mary Celeste atmosphere.

But the truth is this place should be rammed full. The food is incredible. It's a great mix of robust Pakistani flavours, stylish cooking but without the pretense that accompanies some top end Indian restaurants.

We started with a small range of small dishes including a mixture of chickpeas with pomegranate and soured cream which was a very interesting and successful combination. A mango salad offered a fresh and tropical segue. And a spiced lamb chop was a hint of the culinary glory that was to follow.

But these little starters were only teasing us. Given that Gilly understands Zayna's menu better than anyone on earth, we let him order. We were treated to three stunning dishes. Let me try to do them an iota of justice.

Steamed tilapia arrived in a candle warmed bowl, swimming in a delicate, fragrant coconut marsala. The fish eased apart like Obama walking through a crowd. Tilapia is one of my favourite fish. It brings back memories of gorging myself on it's distinctive flesh in Ghana. It's a fish that responds brilliantly to spices. It was interesting that it had been steamed first before being doused in sauce. Great dish. One that I've never seen on an Indian restaurant menu before. I can't wait to order it again and have it all to myself.

A lamb curry provided a snapshot of what a good curry house should do well. What can I say really... the meat was great, the sauce was deep and tangy. And I wanted to pick the bowl up and and lick it clean!

But the real star of the show, and indeed, the star of Marylebone, was a prawn dish cooked with wine and garlic that had all three of us fighting for the last morsel. Oddly, it transported me not to the Subcontinent, but to San Sebastian. Rich, deeply garlicky and above all sensationally powerful. The prawns were the most succulent I have ever eaten and were worth the £33 for dinner along.

So. Dodgy location. Amazing food. Reasonable price. I feel like making it my mission to make sure Zayna is successful. If you've read this and like Indian food you've got to pay this place a visit. Because it is normally empty you'll be guaranteed great service. I just can't wait to go back for some more of their prawns!!!

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Not really a caffe - more of an Italian bistro
Our table for 5 could barely support the weight of the contents of the entire anti-pasti menu! All 6 of their starters appeared on our table and were devoured with a combination of greed, starvation and foodie curiosity. As you'd expect all of the wonderful hams and cured beef were exemplary. But the joint stars of the show were the ball of mozerella and the cougette matchsticks with calamari - a sqeeze of lemon transforms them into little sticks of joy.

Main courses were good too. My haddock was fine, but the spinach and tomatoes stole the show. The skin on the fish could have been crispier and the flesh was well cooked but its integrity had been compromised - maybe it fell apart as it left the pan and was carefully reconstructed. It didn't affect the taste - but as we all know we do eat with our eyes.

The girls had linguine with tomato, chilli and cream which looked great. I've had it before and can testify to its depth and kick. Jess had a vast veal escalope which was large enough to feed the whole of Northern Italy. Tasty though.

My panacotta with passion fruit was perfect. I am a complete sucker for passion fruit. Handled correctly I fall head over heels for it. It wobbled sexily before disappearing inside my already bulging tummy. Yum and twice yum.

We probably didn't need any Calvados - but it added to the fun of the occasion and put me in the mood for the Pie Competition to follow!

Our only gripe was the lethargic service. They didn't get anything wrong. But they just took an age doing everything. And it didn't help that we were obviously all wearing our invisibility cloaks. Probably best not to wear them next time.
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Dans Le Noir Ltd
London | Speciality Restaurants
Dans le Very Clever for a One Off
In a sudden fit of bravery we decided to take our wonderful Client out for an adventurous dinner. She is based in the States so we rarely get to see each other face to face.

This will now seem like a non-sequitor...

So we took her to Dans le Noir in Farringdon for a fabulous night of dining in the dark. We are working on a project that is all about sensual experiences, so it made perfect sense to finish the day's hard work with a meal that would push all of our sensual boundaries.

Arriving at the restaurant we were greeted in the foyer by a collection of very engaging maitre d's. They made us put all of our kit in a locker so that no mobile phones or watches with illuminated faces could disturb the sheer blackness of the dining room.

I don't think any of us were ready for the attack on our senese that was to follow. After a quick cocktail to instil a bit of Dutch courage in all of us, we queued up behind a blind waitress/guide and were led into the pitch black room. Some squealed. Others were a bit more stoical. We found our table using our hands and all sat down around what we all thought was a round table, but turned out to be oblong!

We groped around the table looking for water glasses and bottles. The only way you can pour everyone's wine is to put your finger in the glass and keep pouring until your finger gets wet! Not very hygenic. But great fun.

We all spoke very loudly to begin with as we acclimatised to the dark. Towards the end of the meal our voices became more calm and we shouted a lot less! It's bizarre just how reliant we all are on our sense of sight.

I found it really hard to determine what I was eating and to be honest can't quite remember. Memory works very badly when you remove the sense of sight. My starter may have involved something resembling spring rolls filled with what I thought was minced chicken and somebody else thought was tuna - which turned out to be duck.

Likewise I got terribly confused by my main course which I still swear to the this day was lamb, but turned out to be a mixture of ostrich fillet on one side of the plate and venison on the other. But we all recognised the distinctive smell and flavour of the truffled risotto that acted as a division between the two meats.

Personally I loved the whole experience. There is something very liberating about being in the dark. It may have been the amount of wine I was drinking because I was thirsty and couldn't find my water glass... but I found myself saying things at a work dinner that I would never otherwise have said. I've never had so much fun chatting a joking around a (now clearly rectangular) table. Everything seems funnier in the dark.

Be careful about coming here if you know people are claustrophobic or are a bit strapped for cash as it isn't cheap. But remember you are coming here for an experience and not simply a meal. In many ways this is the idea of a restaurant pushed to the extreme. It's not about the food. It's about opening your mind and having an entertaining time. We learnt a lot about each other during the course of the meal and feel like we all bonded along the way.

Will any of us return? Unlikely. But not in a bad way. We've all been talking about the experience ever since and won't ever forget that crazy meal we all had in the dark! It's a great place to come if you want to break the ice.
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