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Member since Aug 2008
The Sportsman
Whitstable | Pubs
Leagues ahead
I got the impression that we'd arrived for our meal at the Sportsman just as this remote spot was on the verge of transitioning from sun-baked and peaceful to windswept and desolate. It was a glorious late summer's day, a warm breeze blew in from the sea and the windows in this effectively but unsentimentally restored old boozer were all wide open. Thanks to various recent reviews the Sportsman still feels like a new find; in fact it's been here since for just over a decade - plenty of time, then, to hone their interior design skills and carefully managed hospitality. We took our seats at a huge rustic table decorated with humorously shaped vegetables, and waited for the show to begin.

Like the devil-may-care, adventurous foodies we are, we asked head honcho Stephen Harris to just serve us a tasting menu of whatever he saw fit. The Sportsman prides itself on serving local, seasonal produce - and when they say local, they really mean it. The salt is from the sea, about 20 steps away, what veg they can't grow in their own gardens is from a farm about 2 minutes up the road, and it's a little unnerving to be eating a perfectly cooked, juicy rack of lamb whilst simultaneously watching its live cousins gambolling in the field over the road. Well, at first perhaps - I soon got over it.

Our first course was a native oyster each (first of the season apparently - they weren't on the chalkboard menu put up for the other punters) with a tiny, spicy button of fried chorizo on top. I don't normally like anything other than a shallot vinaigrette with my oysters, but this was really nice, crunchy for a texture contrast and with a little spicy kick to liven up the briny flesh of the mollusc.

After gobbling down the oysters, a little stone tray of pork scratchings and pickled herrings arrived. The scratchings were mainly crispy but with the odd lovely bit of gooey flesh. They weren't as salty as I was expecting, and were even slightly sweet, but were delicious nonetheless. And the herring came as a little canapé, on a cocktail stick with rye bread, cream cheese and gooseberry jelly. Great to see gooseberry coming back into fashion, and it was a perfect compliment to this fish.

These bijou bowls of poached oysters, Jersey cream and gooseberry granita were delicate and fresh and an interesting flavour combination I've not seen elsewhere. In fact you don't really see many cooked oyster dishes anywhere, which is a shame because these were very tasty.

Slip sole (kind of a small subspecies of sole) poached in seaweed butter was an absolute triumph. I'm a huge sole fan, and the meaty, firm flesh of this little fish was cooked to absolute perfection. Overcooked sole is an absolute disaster (see The Bolingbroke), but it's a real mark of the skill in this kitchen that they can serve up such a (relatively) small cut of flatfish and get every inch of it just right. All of our plates were licked clean to the bone.

The next seafood dish, a crab risotto, was probably the best risotto I've ever eaten in my life. It wasn't just the superbly seasoned mixture, the confidently straightforward presentation or the perfectly-judged portion size. It wasn't even the overwhelmingly intense "crabbiness" of the aroma that seemed to fill the room the moment the bowl was placed down. No, what most impressed me was the way they had used the brown meat to make the rice mixture - the risotto itself - and topped it with a generous portion of the sweet white meat on top. So we had a brown-meat mixture topped with white-meat, cleverly and knowingly recreating a dressed crab in the form of a risotto. This was a multi-Michelin-starred dish masquerading as a gastropub starter, and it was brilliant.

I don't know if it was just that I'd chomped my way through some of the world's finest Iberico ham just a couple
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Unknown | Unknown
Brand-new, Bargainous and Brilliant
My, how time flies. I can hardly believe it was all the way back in March last year that I visited Bacchus, the experimental molecular-gastronomy restaurant housed in a refurbished pub in Hoxton. I had a spectacular, challenging meal, served by intentive and intelligent waiting staff and spent the next 18 months vowing to return soon. I never did.

The reason I never made a repeat visit was, of course, location, location, location. As a Battersea resident, for the time and effort required to make a return trip to Hoxton you might as well go for a meal on the Moon. But unfortunately that wasn't the only thing putting me off - you must believe me when I say there are very few areas of the country I consider to be obstacles in the way of decent grub; I spent the first 22 years of my life in Liverpool, after all. But after our lovely meal at Bacchus we spent much of the remainder of the evening at a friend's flat two doors down watching two people beat up each other (and various unlucky parked vehicles) with iron bars. I got a taxi home, and my friends have sinced moved to Stoke Newington.

Now, finally succumbing to market forces and the fact that a large majority of the fine-dining crowd do not consider carrying a bullet-proof vest and tazer to be the hallmarks of a relaxing evening out, Bacchus has relaunched as Bacchus Bar & Kitchen, and swapped foams for gravy, sous-vide for shepherd's pie, and Nuno Mendes (visionary gastronaut) for Richard Tewnion, formally of the Pig's Ear in Chelsea.

At first glance, little seemed to have changed inside Bacchus. It was, after all, a fairly relaxed space already as fine-dining rooms go, and with the addition of a couple of trendily battered sofas and a more accessible bar area, it now has completed an easy transition to a gastropub. The menu was pleasing in its Britishness - crab on toast, pea and mint risotto, sea bream and spinach - all tempting stuff. My first course was a rabbit terrine.

The generously portioned terrine was rich and hearty, shot through with just enough summer veg and sprinkled with salt to give it that extra burst of flavour. I wasn't hugely enamoured of the accompanying picallili (rather under-vinegared and slightly on the sweet side) but given that this was made in house I am willing to give them time to improve on the formula. This was a very successful dish and worthy of any top gastropub in the city.

Next was "chicken breast, potato fondant and cepes", and the first thing to grab my attention was a heady note of alcohol rising up from the plate. The chicken was attractively sliced and with a nice crispy skin, and the mushrooms weren't overpowered by the stock and alcoholic (possibly sherry) sauce. Although not a fondant as I would know one, the potato was well seasoned and arranged in a sort of mini-gratin beneath the chicken.

The best was yet to come - the bill, which was an astonishing £10 each. Given that these were two substantial and satisfying courses, we just didn't have room for dessert, but if we had they would have cost us an extra £3. We were even offered tea & coffee on the house, which we politely declined in a rush to get back to the office before our lunch hour was up. An extraordinary bargain - and I'm told one that probably won't last too long - so it's up to you to make the most of it while it lasts. Even if Bacchus hadn't been the lunch bargain of the century I would have still had a very good meal; at £10 a head this is unbeatable.

A trend has been developing over the last few months; it seems the less I spend on a meal the better it turns out to be. Of course I want everyone that can to go to Bacchus and have the best food you can get for the money in north London, but that was true of the old Bacchus as well. Whether their revamp will start attracting punters to the badl
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Restaurant Gordon Ramsay
London | French Restaurants
Rather good, as it turns out
When the nice lady from Ramsays called to confirm the booking last week she asked, "Is it a special occasion?"

"I hope so!" I quipped back, but maybe there was a bad line because she didn't seem to find it as funny as I did. To be fair to her though, dining at Ramsays Royal Hospital Road probably isn't something to be blasé about, as we had been trying to get a reservation at this particular restaurant, on and off, for about 3 years. So you can imagine that, during this time, its status as the pinnacle (or at least one of the pinnacles) of international haute cuisine had been built up in my mind to the extent that if we had arrived to the sound of angels trumpeting and rose petals being strewn in front of us as we got out of the taxi, we probably just would have assumed that this is part of what people had been making such a fuss about over all these years.

The place does make quite an impression as you arrive though - lots of mirrors and glass, lots of staff, and an atmosphere of a kind of hushed awe, almost as if all the other diners couldn't quite believe they'd managed to get a reservation either. It's all quite overwhelming at first, not least because each member of staff seemed to take turns serving everyone - a different person greeted us at the door, said hello inside, took our coats, led us to the table, served an aperitif, gave us menus and took our wine and food orders. That's about 8 or 9 different people to say hello to within 10 minutes of arriving. Perhaps they each just didn't want to be typecast as 'the coat guy' or 'the menu guy', but the effect was quite disconcerting.

Well then, the food. Canapés were a fois gras and truffle mousse, and a taramasalata with poppy seed crackers and potato crisps. Pretty but nothing extraordinary, which maybe is the point of canapes.

Once we arrived at the table however, things got a lot more interesting. Amuse-bouches consisted of a 'Cornetto' of somethingorother (yes I know I should have taken notes, or at least made an effort to remember, but this is my first blog so be kind), which was lovely, and little cheesey balls covered in breadcrumbs on a green pesto. These were, well, as you would expect - they tasted like cheese and breadcrumbs on pesto, but I don't suppose there's anything wrong with that.

After that, another pre-starter the waiter took great pleasure in describing as a Full English Breakfast. This was quite clever - a bit of lovely spicy sausage meat on a spoon, which after you'd eaten the meat you could use to attack the egg, which was a kind of bacon mousse (I think) on top of lovely creamy scrambled eggs, on top of (a fantastic little surprise) Ramsay's own version of Heinz beans at the bottom of the eggshell. Then that big "bacon" thing which looked impressive but actually just tasted like hard baked bacon rind. You have to admire their ingenuity though.

Finally, the proper starter arrived. This was English snails with vegetables and basil leaves surrounded by celeriac puree and jerusalem artichoke sauce. I've had snails before in various places in Spain and France, usually more out of a sense of "when in Rome" or bravado than actually wanting to eat the things, but these were gorgeous. Earthy and sweet, with a good firm texture and a distinctive taste, and the artichoke sauce worked perfectly. Interesting to note, however, that although this dish was listed unapologetically as "English Snails" on the menu, they still felt the need to describe another dish as "Pied de Cochon". Perhaps the pork wasn't British (I hope not), or perhaps the full horror of Pigs Trotters is too much for delicate British diners just yet (more likely).

Now I have to admit - I always get pigeon when I see it on the menu. I've had it done a few different ways - whole, French rustic style at the Anchor & Hope in
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London | Indian Restaurants
Great food, budget prices, but get there early!
I'm always rather wary of writing about "ethnic" foods - not being able to provide any particular insight into the style of cooking or a bunch of ingredients I've never heard of, I'm worried I might end up coming across as even more of an amateur than usual. I can bluff my way through French cooking, even Spanish or Italian on a good day, but when confronted with a curry all I can usually do is mutter "oh that's good" but have no idea why. The reason I'm breaking my own embargo for Tayyabs is because it's probably the best Indian meal I've had this year, and just because I have no idea why is not going to stop me writing about it.

Tucked away on an improbable anonymous backalley somewhere near Whitechapel, the place itself is notable first of all for the huge queue of people waiting to get in, this at 6:30 on a Thursday night. I've mentioned before that this is usually a good sign, so along with the healthy buzz of recommendation I'd been receiving over the past few months, my interest had certainly peaked. Inside, a throng of excitable diners tucked into some spectacularly noisy (due to the hot plates) dishes of bright reds and greens under claustrophobically low ceilings, surrounded by almost as many waiters in smart black & white outfits.

After a 10 minute wait or so (pretty good really considering we hadn't booked - in fact I'm not sure you can anyway) we sat down and a the whirlwind of activity began. Popadums were popped down with the requisite sauces and salad before we'd even caught our breath. Our order was taken about 30 seconds later. 30 seconds after that the food began arriving, and didn't stop until there wasn't a single spot of tablecloth left.

It was all delicious - the mixed grill of tandoori meats (lamb chops, chicken and kebab thingy) were cooked perfectly and spiced to perfection (as far as I know). Dry Meat, despite the offputting name, was actually a moist bowl of what I'm guessing is lamb with strips of tasty fried onion. Karahi King Prawn (the most extravagant item on the menu) was creamy and tomatoey, if a little bit chewy, and Sag Meat (why so shy about saying which meat? Maybe it depends on availability) also drew a chorus of approval. Even the popadums were unlike anything you'd get at your average takeaway - a lot drier, interestingly spiced and incredibly moreish.

We wolfed it all down in about 20 minutes, with the last of the empty plates being whipped out from under our noses even as the last forkful of rice was still airborne. The bill was slapped down almost immediately, we paid with cash and were back out on the streets of the East End about half an hour after we'd been queueing up to get in. Out of the corner of my eye as we strolled away I noticed a fresh serving of popadums appearing in front of the next set of stunned diners at our table. Service therefore was nothing if not efficient - but pulled off the impressive feat of being very friendly too, so you ended up with the impression that it was in fact your idea to get in and out of there so quickly, and not just a clever ruse to get more covers done in an evening.

On our way home we passed a mosque and a synagogue literally right next door to each other. Probably some town planner's idea of a joke, but it was nice to see, and with our bellies full and wallets only £15 lighter each, we wobbled off into the night.

P.S. I've been reliably informed Tayyabs is Pakistani. So now I know.
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London | English Restaurants
Uninspired but reasonably priced
I last visited Trinity, the latest venture from the brains behind the much-missed Thyme and the not-so-much-missed branch in Covent Garden, some time last January, and had a reasonably enjoyable if not spectacularly accomplished Tasting Menu paired with wine. A return visit therefore would have been a good opportunity to try some of the larger main courses or more interesting offaly starters they do (pig's head, trotters), and see if the kitchen copes better when dealing with more substantial portions. However I don't know what went wrong because I found myself again ordering the tasting menu this week. Perhaps part of the reason was that it looked so appealing on paper, and secondly this is a rare opportunity to try a fine-dining tasting menu for a good deal less than most other restaurants in the city. The wine pairing option had gone up by £5 since January, but even at £60 this is quite a bargain for 5 1/2 courses and 5 glasses of wine. At least, it would have been had the food been any good.

One change I immediately noticed from January was that with the advent (finally) of some good summer weather the restaurant had gone all al-fresco, with the large windows completely opened onto the road. This is quite a pretty part of Clapham, and the restaurant itself isn't too shabby inside either, so all in all this was a good move. Service was cheery and helpful, although a little too much on the "matey" side for a misanthrope like myself (more on this later), and after a glass of champagne to get ourselves in the mood, the courses began to arrive.

After breaking our jaws on a couple of bread rolls which had clearly been being kept warm for hours, was "Mackerel Tartar with Cucumber Gazpacho and Horseradish". The Mackerel itself was tasty and had an interesting texture, mixed with chunks of cucumber flesh. However, sprayed theatrically on top (at the table) was a good half pint of salty cucumber foam which may have been acceptable as a half teaspoon but in this quantity was bordering on revolting. Having to wade through 6 inches of salty cucumber foam to get to the meat is not the makings of a good dish. Perhaps the serving staff think they're doing you a favour by squirting so much foam around - I made it clear they weren't.

Next up, a duck confit with fois gras which suffered from having too much confit and not enough fois gras for my liking. Now, although I freely admit no fois gras would ever be enough for me, I still would like to taste more than I did, and the confit was a bit short on flavour too. Not bad though.

The "Scallop-stuffed Courgette Flower with Champagne Veloute" sounded a lot better on paper than it actually was, which is a shame because with raw ingredients like this you wouldn't think you could go far wrong. The scallops, rather than being fried juicy and whole, were actually turned into some sort of wobbly scallop-flavoured mousse and stuffed inside a limp looking courgette flower. It didn't actually taste too bad, but the textures were all wrong and it looked weird, like some sort of alien appendage. The champagne veloute was gorgeous however, rich and creamy and wasted on this plate.

Veal Shin and Onion Cottage Pie was a good example of its kind - finally something to get my teeth into. It was tasty enough and filling, just what the doctor ordered at this stage, although again there was something missing in the execution - perhaps a richer stock or more seasoning, I don't know. I just think it could have been better and it left me slightly underwhelmed.

Next a little item not on the menu, a summer fruits jelly thingy in a little glass. This was actually superb - the aroma was heavenly and it tasted every bit as good as it looked. A hit, this one.

Finally for the dessert proper was a "Valrhona Hot Chocolate Pot with Honeycomb Crunch".
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Bob Bob Ricard
London | English Restaurants
Bob Bob Ricard is a strange, glittering fantasy world at the best of times, as opulent as Versaille and as superficial as Oz, its chandeliers and emerald green lamps leaving just enough in the light to be beautiful, and just enough in the dark to be inscrutable. It's not so much like stepping back in time as stepping into another universe, or taking a trip on the Hogwarts Express to Wonderland, where bizarre details ("Press for Champagne") lurk at every turn, and charming staff in powder pink uniforms prepare psychedelic cocktails and serve beef soup from a teapot. Returning for the first time after the infamous Vintage Vodka Tasting evening, however, was an even more peculiar experience than normal. Occasional details and tastes would trigger a memory of groggy vodka-laced incident from last month, provoking a hot flush of shame or a sharp uncontrollable guffaw, or very often both at the same time. I'm sure my dining companion thought I was going mad. Perhaps I was.

But I said I'd be back, and here I was, settled into a cosy green booth and sipping on an extraordinarily good rhubarb gin and tonic, sweet and frothed with egg white. A vodka Appletini was equally good, served ice cold and in lovely glassware. Based on this evidence it would be well worth just popping into Bob Bob Ricard's downstairs bar for a cocktail, but then I'm not entirely sure it's possible to just "pop in" to Bob Bob Ricard at all. You never really feel in control of your own actions in this place - you're stealthily manipulated into having a good time, whether you like it or not.

I had specifically returned for the Zakuski - bite size Russian dishes served with ice-cold premium vodka. The pickled herring and boiled potato was as good as I barely remember, and salmon roe on quails egg was a delicious combination of soft egg and salty, bursty roe. Kauffman vintage vodka washed them down far, far too easily, and was again served in very attractive glassware, the immediate sight of which whisked me back a month and to a vision of me trying to decide which of two forkfuls of ox tongue in aspic I was holding up was real and which wasn't. I hope I guessed correctly.

The Bob Bob Ricard burger turned out to be one of the best I've tried in London. I won't go so far as to say this was a surprise - nothing in BBR is a surprise, your expectations are assaulted and confounded so frequently the abnormal becomes normal - but it was certainly welcome. Good quality beef, cooked perfectly medium, and a good strong sesame bun. Word has it that BBR are soon to launch an authentic American burger, using Kraft cheese. Another reason to go back, damn them.

A second main course - a special - of roast veal, foie gras and black truffle jus was simply wonderful. Light, pink veal, sliced into delicate pieces, sat on top of a bed of juicy spinach and beside a generous slab of wobbly, buttery foie. And the black truffle jus was so good (and came in such quantity) I ordered extra bread to soak it all up, only just resisting the temptation to drink it straight out of its silver serving jug. One of the best dishes I've eaten all year, and proof that Bob Bob Ricard seem to be able to master French cuisine as well as they do everything else.

I hardly ever order desserts, but I couldn't leave without trying some of their homemade ice creams, including a delicious salty caramel. I was probably too full to make the most of them, but sadly I didn't have a choice in the matter. The restaurant chose for me.

At the end of the evening, I'd spent too much, drunk too much and eaten far too much, but I can't say I feel too guilty - it was all essentially out of my hands. Bob Bob Ricard is a huge, manipulative, mind-altering experiment in decadence, and if you can relax and surrender yourself to their whims and fancies you are guaranteed
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Unknown | Unknown
Over the Hill
The blogger vs. professional thing has been done to death, and I'm sure I don't need to go over old ground. Long story short, you stick with anyone who's opinions you trust, and both your bloggers and your paid critics have a duty to reveal any freebies, special treatment or otherwise, just so everyone knows what the deal is. Policy here on Cheese and Biscuits is to not leave a numbered score beneath any free events or invitations to review - as well, of course, as making it clear in the text that said event was gratis. But I think it's important not to be overly apologetic, and also not to try and overcompensate and be more harsh than you would be normally just because a meal has been paid for.

It's stressful, though, accepting an invitation to review. At least, I find it is. No matter how much you tell yourself that it was their idea, they wouldn't invite you for a meal if they didn't want honesty, and nobody has anything to gain from a lack of it, there's a moment during a meal - usually just as the starters arrive - when you know instantly whether this is going to be a good or bad meal. The relief when you think it's going well is enormous - and the emotion far greater if you're being treated to it, the owner/managers hovering nervously on the sidelines, watching your every move. Likewise, if a meal turns for the worse, the next few courses can seem like the longest of your life, and with no bill to pay there's no full stop on the evening, so you just slink out after your last glass of wine, hoping nobody will accost you on the way out with the dreaded phrase "So, how was your meal?". I usually just smile and say "You'll have to wait for the review!", through gritted teeth.

The Hillgate, just around the back of Notting Hill Gate tube station, is not a bad pub. It is sensitively refurbished (with particularly nice toilets), atmospheric with its tea lights and large wooden furniture, and the waiting staff are friendly and competent. And I know I'm spoiled and speaking with the advantage of a geeky mental list of anywhere Michelin-starred or otherwise notable, and I should probably be a bit more realistic about the options available to your average gastropub punter who isn't about to travel halfway across town for a slightly better Scotch Egg and really doesn't give a crap if their risotto is a bit starchy, but I'm sorry, I do. And the problem for the Hillgate is that despite it not being awful, it's still fighting a losing battle against much better pubs for the same price in the city, places like the Harwood Arms and the Cadogan Arms and the Bull and Last and so on and so on. If you don't measure up to the competition, you deserve everything you have coming to you.

So, the dreaded starter. In fairness, my Warm Bacon Salad was as good as you could expect to get in many places. The seasoning was a bit muted, the bacon a little bit on the floppy side, and the poached egg quite bland. But it was still edible, and was a nicely judged portion size. And my dining companions did much better with their sautéed mackerel and beetroot, which was cooked perfectly with a crispy skin and soft white flesh. It also displays a level of ambition above the average when a place has more than one hot starter.

I'm afraid I didn't enjoy my main course much at all. A messy pile of risotto, with God knows how many different ingredients lurking in the mix (bacon, celeriac and cauliflower were listed on the menu, though I'm sure there were more), was the base for a dried out and chewy supreme of chicken. The risotto had also been laced with a reduced stock of some kind, and the flavours were overwhelmingly confusing, like the chef had just tipped out the contents of his fridge into the pan and plonked last night's leftover chicken on top. Although I should say - again - that although a bavette steak was rather
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Ed's Easy Diner
London | American Restaurants
Easily the worst Diner
The screaming, day-glo Ed's Easy Diner sits at one end of Old Compton Street, its juvenile décor rather out of kilter with the very adult bars and restaurants in the immediate area. Don't get me wrong - there's always a place in the world for a neon rocket, and it's hard not to be a little bit charmed by the sheer audacity of this chrome-plated Liberace of a restaurant, but it's hard to avoid the sense of superficiality. Trying too hard. A bit too Westfield and not enough Selfridges. Contrast, for example, with the grittily authentic Lucky 7s on Westbourne Park Road - it is possible to do real US diner without resorting to cliché, although I am really only talking about interiors. The food is another thing entirely.

Things started well. A generously proportioned and silkily rich Vanilla Malt was a real treat - certainly much better than the offering in Guerilla Burgers a couple of days previously, and malts are still a rarity in London. I half-heartedly flicked through the "50s Rock 'n' Roll" jukebox containing such Golden-Era classics as Celebration by Kool and the Gang and Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing.

Both the burger and the accompanying chilli cheese fries, though, were dire. The beef tasted cheap and processed, a very strange uniformly jellified texture that took me back to school canteen burgers, and despite asking how I liked it cooked (I said Medium) was cooked right through to the middle with no sign of pink at all. Having said that, I have a horrible feeling this patty would have been gray even when raw so perhaps it's for the best. Offering American cheese should be applauded, but this was awful plasticky UK Kraftalike and not the real thing at all. It was bland and stubbornly unmelted, like a sheet of cling film between the meat and the salad. The bun was fine by the way, if a little dry.

Just as bad were the "fries" - not French Fries at all but frozen pre-cut chips also resembling something you may have once been served with your lasagne at school. They were topped with admittedly rather nice chilli and some more of that bland cheese, but were still bitterly disappointing. And this small bowl of cheap frozen chips was £4.15 - almost as much as the burger itself. I pecked at them briefly but sent most back uneaten, muttering something about not being very hungry. "Ooh, you naughty boy!" scolded my waiter - I suppose it must help to have a sense of humour when you're serving food like this on a regular basis.

"If you can find a better diner, eat there!" is the rather belligerent tagline on the Ed's website. They probably meant it as a confident guarantee of quality, but the fact is that there really aren't many other US-style diners in London, and most of the ones that do exist aren't very good, and so you end up reading it as "We may be crap, but we're as good as you're going to get." Ed's may be the only diner in the village, but that's no excuse for mediocrity, and welcoming and hilariously camp service doesn't make up for dreadful, overpriced (all pictured, plus service, came to £17) food. I wanted to like Ed's, God knows at least they're trying, in their own cack-handed way, to be authentic, but penny-pinching and an eye on that inevitable "rollout" has sucked any life out of what decent ideas ever existed, and what you are left with is a vacuous, strutting "concept" signifying nothing. Thoroughly not recommended.
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Unknown | Unknown
I arrived at l'Art du Fromage, thanks to a combination of the dismal weather and the fact that London Transport falls completely to pieces at the drop of a broken umbrella, completely and utterly drenched to the bone. The long walk from Sloane Square in the rain was miserable but at least necessitated a walking pace that got me to the restaurant 30 minutes early, and my first instinct was to find a nearby pub to drip-dry in. In this strange, lonely hinterland between Chelsea and Fulham however, opposite the derelict and appropriately-titled World's End pub, there really is nothing but bookmakers and windswept concrete estates. So instead I squelched into the restaurant alone, leaving a pathetic wet trail between the door and my table at the back of the room. Fair play to the staff who, if they were concerned that this bedraggled figure was lost on the way to the homeless shelter, didn't show it.

L'Art du Fromage is clearly an excellent, and unique (at least in London), concept for a restaurant. For those of us that look forward to the cheese course as the highlight of a meal (and why wouldn't you?), the prospect of an entire evening constructed from such delights as Munster, Comté and Bleu d'Auvergne was pretty exciting. By the time my flatmate had arrived I had already mapped out the three courses I wanted, ordered a bottle of sweet Gewurtstraminer to go with them, and dribbled slightly onto the menu. I was ready.

First to arrive was a little amuse of chicken liver paté and what they called a "cheese marshmallow" but tasted a bit like halloumi - perhaps it was. One of these arrived when I was on my own, then when there were two of us another two arrived... leaving three in total between the two of us. Generous I suppose, but a bit strange.

My starter was three neat medallions of foie gras terrine, interspersed with rods of ginger biscuit, slices of apple and radish, and spicy chutney. Also scattered on the plate were some edible flowers, which is perhaps pushing the pretentious button slightly but they did look pretty. Not the greatest foie I've ever tasted but the textures were superb and it made a perfectly decent starter.

The Main Event was a Fondue "Savoyarde", a mixture of Emmenthal, Comté and Beaufort cheeses presented theatrically with a flaming dose of kirsch liqueur (to "aid digestion" as the waiter rather graphically put it). The bread was nicely toasted, only occasionally falling apart in the mixture, and the flavours of the cheeses really did create an interesting cocktail. There was a slight tendency for the mixture to separate towards the end but if anything this just made it more of a hilarious challenge to keep a nice blob of cheese on the end of your skewer. It seems silly to criticise a fondue for being "just a fondue" and I won't, but even if it was nothing more than a big bowl of melted cheese and white wine, that's still good isn't it?

Desserts were very French, and very good. Crème brûlée, although not up to the mark of the Chez Bruce effort I'd tried a couple of years ago, was rich and creamy and served with not only a nice vanilla ice-cream but some gorgeous homemade lemon curd. And the Ille Flotante was ethereally light, sat on top of a good Crème Anglaise and enhanced by what I think was a swirl of some sort of fruit syrup. No complaints from anyone on our table.

So with all this at least good and occasionally wonderful food, with sparkling service and the benefit of novelty, why only 7/10? A couple of things. Firstly, the room is very, very strange. It's tiny - five tables from memory, all for 2 people, so that makes a maximum occupation at any one time of TEN(!) people. There were three members of waiting staff and presumably at least one more person in the kitchen, so this is a customer-staff ratio that even the top 3* Michelin restau
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Hereford Road Restaurant
London | English Restaurants
St. John Lite
Hereford Road, a restaurant with a great press and even better pedigree (the head chef is ex-St. John) seems to have slipped off the radar recently but I was nevertheless very interested to try it out. The influence of the mothership is apparent first in the minimalist, brightly-lit interior and then in the bold and thoroughly British menu - potted pork, smoked eel, lemon sole, game pie were offered alongside a commendably long desserts list, and all priced very reasonably. I doubt there are many gastropubs or restaurants of any quality in London that offer a main course for £10, for example, albeit a vegetarian one.

The problem with setting yourself up as a St. John clone, however, is that the cooking has a lot to live up to. My black pudding and fried egg was very nice, the pudding itself wonderfully seasoned if a bit soggy and the fried egg... well, it was a fried egg. But Lizzie's "salt beef" was a complete and utter disaster - I'll leave it to her to describe just how bad it was, but suffice to say even the sight of it was depressing.

Trying to forget about the starters, we ploughed on to the mains, which fortunately were better. My lemon sole was beautifully cooked and seasoned, with a great crispy skin and tender, buttery flesh. It's a feature of St. John dishes that they are simply presented to allow the important ingredients to feature front of stage, and this can only really work with very, very good ingredients. This was a marvellous piece of fish, and enormous fun to eat. It also, essentially by complete fluke, went pretty well with a fresh, acidic Beaujolais "Les Tours Montmelas 2007" which I'd chosen for the starters. Who knew.

And so, passing on dessert because we were stuffed and it was getting fairly late, we were done. One complete disaster aside, the cooking at Hereford Road is pretty decent, especially within the price range. And this is more of an observation than a complaint, but the bright, immaculately appointed room, posh cutlery and numerous smart waiting staff sat at very obvious odds with the gastropub menu - still, if they can sell at these prices and turn a profit, then good luck to them. They also seemed just as happy serving me, gin-soaked in my jeans and trainers, as they were the other suited and booted customers of W2, although that may have been more down to the presence of Lizzie, who was, as ever, smart enough for the both of us.
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