May 212012
 

Let me be candid for a moment. I’m a little bit of a snob when it comes to restaurant chains. Over the years of eating out in such places, whilst I’ve only occasionally had truly awful experiences, neither have I encountered truly great food either.

I’m not such a prat that I refuse to set foot in such places, and I’ve eaten my share of meals in Pizza Express, Wagamamas et al. They’ve been fine. And of course, I’ll grab a coffee and croissant from the various chains or a quick lunch on the run. But when it comes to choosing where to spend my hard earned cash for a nice meal out, it’s not usually a chain I turn to.

But there are upsides to chains, not least the expectation of a familiar menu, delivered in a consistent way, at prices that have benefited from economies of scale in purchasing. Many chains do a pretty good job of providing food that their public enjoy and can afford, in well-managed spaces run by well-trained staff.

Recently, I accepted an invitation to review Thai Square, a small chain of 17 restaurants in London and nearby towns.

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Existing commitments made it easiest for me to visit the St Albans branch, located in the heart of the town centre, on the junction of the tiny George Street and Verulam Road.

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It’s housed in a really beautiful 15th century timber-framed building which has been refurbished sensitively to retain original features. Large windows along the George Street side let in plenty of natural light during the day. It’s a very pleasant space.

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To start, we both went for freshly blended non-alcoholic fruit drinks. My Melon Mint (£5) was delicious, like a glass of summer, full of the freshness of melon and mint. The layer of froth was enormous though, which meant that the glass contained far less drinkable volume than it appears. Pete’s Kiwi Berry (£5) fared better on that front, and was equally fresh and tasty, combining kiwi fruit with red berries for an altogether sweeter result. Both benefited from being light rather than smoothie thick or sticky; too many places make their non-alcoholic options too dessert-like.

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Our first starter was the Giant Duck Spring Roll (£6.50). These were decent, crispy without being greasy and with a nice filling of duck, cabbage, carrots and vermicelli. The hoisin sauce alongside was a decent one, with pleasant slightly smoky flavour. Pete commented that it was like a fried version of aromatic crispy duck pancakes.

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For our other starter, we actually ordered a main dish, the Yum Nua (Beef Salad) (£8.95). Described as thinly sliced grilled sirloin with a “fresh cucumber salad, Thai herbs and spicy dressing” I was a little disappointed that there was more celery than cucumber (but that’s because I dislike it and picked it out – the husband didn’t mind its presence at all). The textures and flavours were great, with lovely freshness from cucumber, tomato, raw onion and shredded lettuce, a nice bit of chew from the beef and great heat and flavour from the dressing and herbs. Another plus point is that the salad had been properly tossed, ensuring that all the components were nicely coated in the dressing.

The portion was decent, and would be ideal on its own for a light, healthy lunch.

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For actual mains, we quickly selected a (Chicken) Gang Penang (£8.50) as it’s a dish we order regularly and have tried at many Thai restaurants over the years. Described as a “dry curry” it was served with a thick sauce, thicker than we’ve encountered elsewhere. Although the menu listed this dish as relatively hot, with the same two chilli icon as the beef salad, it was actually milder than we expected and could have benefited from a touch more heat.

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Wanting to try one of the many fish and seafood dishes on offer, I asked for guidance from the staff and was directed towards the Chu-Chee Goong (King Prawns) (£13.95), recommended for the enormous size of the king prawns. Sadly, although our waitress had just written down our order for Penang chicken, it didn’t occur to her to point out that the sauces are virtually identical. Indeed, when I asked after the dishes had been delivered and tasted, staff confirmed that the only difference was the addition of extra lime leaves to the Chu-Chee. The lack of variation in flavours was a disappointment, but still, the prawns were good, and as promised, the four giants on the plate were truly enormous! Serving them in their shell underneath a thick sauce did make them difficult to eat, but I persevered!

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A side dish of Pak Choi With Garlic And Oyster Sauce (£5.95) was excellent, cooked to just the right point of softness and crunchiness and coated nicely in the sauce.

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Chicken Fried Rice (£7.50) is another dish we often order, a plain and simply comfort dish that we occasionally crave in place of richer offerings. Although egg fried, coconut or sticky rice might be a more appropriate choice to go with the rest of our order, we wanted to see how Thai Square’s version compared to those we know well. In short, the flavours were right but there was not enough chicken and the portion was much smaller than we’ve encountered elsewhere.

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The Kooneow Mamuang (Coconut Sticky Rice With Mango) (£6.50) was surprising and delicious. Surprising because the faintly green rice was not only wonderfully chewy (which I expected) but also salty rather than sweet (which I didn’t). This dense, mildly savoury rice was a great contrast to the fresh mango, though the latter wasn’t as sweet as the best mangoes can be. The coconut cream on the plate served more as decoration than ingredient for me, as it had very little flavour of its own.

So, as you can see, we had a good meal. I’d rate it as decent rather than stellar, but I’m not trying to damn with faint praise. What we ate was certainly better than we’ve had in many (independent, non-chain) Thai restaurants, though not the very best we have experienced.

My only remaining issue is that the prices seem a little high, and that’s even to someone accustomed to London prices. St Albans has a great many dining options, and whilst there’s a large enough population (and visitors) to support them, I can’t help but feel most of the prices are £1 or £2 too spendy for what we ate.

On the bank holiday Saturday lunch time of our visit, we weren’t the only diners, but only 3 other tables were occupied in a space that can seat many, many more.

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Thai Square.

Jan 242011
 

ThaT Burger opened on Watford High Street in August 2009.

It’s an odd location for a new burger joint that’s bringing American-style fast food burger culture to the UK, not least because Watford is not renowned for it’s dining scene – the local market for genuinely good fast food is relatively small. I know many burger obsessives willing to travel clear across London for a good burger. I’m not confident the same applies to Watford!

Still, I’d read good things about them and I work just a few minutes walk away, so I finally made my first visit on my first day back at work, in January.

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Inspiration for ThaT Burger comes from from US chains In N Out, Five Guys, Sonic and others, none of which I’ve visited but all of which I’ve read lots and lots about. The photos in this post on Five Guys, Chicago makes that clear, from decoration alone.

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The interior is very much a regular fast food burger joint with a simple red, white and chrome colour scheme.

The full menu is located on the pillar; the meal deal options on the overhead boards.

A standard burger (with two patties) with a regular soft drink and fries, comes to £4.55. You can down size to a single patty burger meal for £3.80 or pay more for additional toppings (including different types of cheese, bacon, jalapenos) or to substitute onion rings for the fries, or a milkshake or J20 for your regular fizzy drink.

Alternatively you might fancy a chicken burger, a falafel veg burger, an order of buffalo chicken wings or a portion of homemade cheesecake.

We experienced a minor frustration with placing our order, working through the numbered panels on the overhead menu boards: we tried to order a burger meal, then give our chosen toppings, followed by our drink and then our side. Unfortunately, the till software is not set up to match the menu boards and the member of staff who served us insisted on skipping ahead to fries and onion rings, which threw us a little bit. Not a big deal, just a minor detail.

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Orders made, you will be given a pager to let you know when your order is ready for collection – orders are prepared freshly for each customer. You can choose to grab a seat or pop back out onto the high street, if you prefer, though it’s unlikely you’ll have to wait more than a few minutes.

Our order was ready very quickly and we got stuck in.

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The burgers were pretty good! Pete went for a standard two-patty burger plus American cheese. I chose the standard plus guacamole and mushrooms.

The patties were fairly thin (to allow for fast cooking, given that orders are cooked fresh) so a double patty is the minimum number I’d want. The beef was good quality, with a pleasant flavour.

Pete’s American cheese was just as you’d expect, with that strangely plastic quality of its kind. My guacamole was rather nice but didn’t go that well with the gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato also included. I’d ask to skip the gherkins, at the very least, if you go for guacamole yourself. The mushrooms, I’m not sure about – they were actually too strong and reminded me of rehydrated dried ones. I picked most of them out and then my burger was just right.

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Fries are hand cut on site, with the skin left on. They were good.

Onion rings were a thing of beauty and absolutely fantastic. Probably the best that I can remember having, certainly in the span of my working memory. The onion was sweet and cooked just enough to be both soft and have a bite. The batter was very, very light and crispy and only just clung to the onion. A thing of wonder!

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On my second and third visits, I opted for the chicken burger instead of beef. Oh, my goodness me! Like the onion rings, this blew me away – easily the best chicken burger I can remember! A generously sized, moist chunk of chicken, evenly bread crumbed and freshly fried and served with the same default gherkins, lettuce, onion and tomato. Really, really excellent!

My only request would be to have homemade coleslaw as an additional topping – my very favourite thing to have with a chicken burger.

Oh and can I say a word about the milkshakes? ThaT Burger use high quality ingredients and stir real fruit into the frozen drink before serving. My banana and chocolate milkshake had a wide straw so I could suck up chunks of soft, fresh banana and broken up pieces of chocolate bar – yes I needed to chew now and then! It was mighty fine, as was the strawberry milkshake Pete had on a later visit and the strawberry banana one I had another time.

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For a regular meal deal, with some additional toppings, you’re looking at about £5. If you go for onion rings, milkshake or more toppings, you’ll hit the £6 mark. Of course, you can make it a blow out by adding chicken wings and cheesecake, if you’ve got the room!

Whilst the prices are a little higher than the main high street fast food burger chains, especially when those chains are running one of their price promotions, I’d say they are very reasonable for what you get. What you get is good.

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Judging by the Wall Of Fame, some of the regulars haven’t held back from ordering extra patties or competing for the fastest 10-patty burger eating time!

Having had such a great experience on our first visit, I made a quick phone call and arranged to pop in the following week meet and interview one of the owners, Justin.

Justin launched ThaT Burger with his brother Ian, plus a couple of other investor partners. He tells me he and Ian are “partners in everything we do” and work together on their various businesses. Ian runs restaurant businesses The Rotisserie and Delisserie; Justin runs an internet business; they also have a catering business.

How did ThaT Burger come about?

Justin lived in California for 10 years. He tells me “there are quite a few [burger restaurant] concepts over there, In N Out being the oldest one, Five Guys is another, which has been an explosion over the last 8 years…

I love burgers, that’s why I’ve opened this… it’s not just that I lived in California! I love burgers, I’ve eaten burgers every day for the last 25 years, probably more than I should have eaten. I know what a burger is supposed to be…

This genuine love for burgers, together with inspiration from across the pond, lead to Justin and Ian developing their own brand of fast food burgers for the UK.

Their burgers, Justin tells me, are somewhere between In N Out and Five Guys. Their fries are Belgian style, and the decision to keep the skin on came from asking their Facebook fans for input. The onion rings were inspired by those at a well-known chain in South Africa (where they were born and grew up). The milkshakes take a leaf from the fresh fruit ices and smoothies at Sonic. All were refined by the brothers and trialled (with the help of Facebook fans again) to appeal to the local market.

Look, we do very few things here but everything we do we do better than most, especially in a fast food environment, I’m not claiming to have the best burger in the world, I’m claiming to have the best fast food burger in England, without a doubt!

On those I’ve sampled so far, I’d have to agree with him!

The biggest question mark for me is the location.

I mean, this is a concept that needs a sufficiently large audience who appreciate a really good fast food burger and are willing to pay a little more than they might spend at BK and McDs for the privilege. There are certainly some of those punters in Watford, but clearly not enough.

Justin candidly agrees that location is their biggest mistake and that he’s somewhat frustrated. Their very loyal fans visit regularly but the masses are not beating a path to the door.

There’s something about a burger that is cool, for me at least, but Watford is not the right place.

He has confidence in the concept and tells me that they are talking to investors and looking for other sites.

I’m gunning for London, maybe Soho or Camden… I shall keep my fingers crossed.

ThaT Burger is located on The Parade (a continuation of Watford’s High Street, at the East end).

For those coming from out of town, it’s a 10 minute walk from Watford Junction station. Direct trains from Euston take less than 20 minutes. Journeys are charged for zone 8.

ThaT Burger
15/17 The Parade
Watford, Hertfordshire
WD17 1LQ,

ThaT Burger on Facebook

Please note that my first and third visits were made anonymously. I met and chatted to Justin on my second visit.


Sadly, ThaT Burger is closing. Its last day of trading is Sunday 6th February. I shall keep my fingers crossed for a London location in the future.

 

I love strawberry picking.

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It’s one of those quintessential childhood memories – piling into the car with family and friends, tumbling out in a screeching gaggle, excited to see row after row after row of beautiful strawberry plants, scalloped green leaves revealing lush, red berries… spreading out across a few rows, mums together, kids finding their own corner… everyone laughing, chatting, giggling and picking fruit… competing over who’s picking the biggest berries or who is the fastest to fill their punnet… and later, smeared in sticky juices, making our tired but happy way back home again clutching our precious baskets of fruit.

And then, over the next day or two, helping my mum make the most delicious strawberry jam from the fruits of our fun. (I couldn’t bring myself to call it a labour!)

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At university too, there was a pick-your-own farm just down the road from the campus. Better still, they had an honesty system – when you took your strawberries to the till to be weighed and paid for, a small note asked you to make a guestimate and contribute towards the berries you’d eaten whilst you picked. I loved that, as it meant I didn’t feel guilty about popping berries as I picked … I’d even be willing to bet that most pickers over- rather than under-estimated their consumption.

I have picked strawberries now and again, in the intervening years, but must confess that back, hip and knee problems make crouching and crab-walking along the ground difficult to manage for more than a few minutes at a time.

Last year, just too late for the strawberry season, I came across a recommendation for Parkside Farm in Enfield. Mention of their table-top strawberry system appealed hugely and I bookmarked the site, checking on it regularly these last few weeks, waiting impatiently for the strawberry season to arrive.

Finally, on the last Saturday in June, off we went… me bubbling with excitement, just as I had when I was a child. The farm was busy; families with kids of all ages playing hide and seek between the rows, an elderly couple taking their time to select only the most perfect fruits, four middle aged friends striding purposefully from the entrance, people of all ages, speaking many different languages but sharing the delight of picking one’s own…

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So, what about the table-top system? What can I tell you? I’m an absolute convert! Strolling comfortably along the rows of waist-height troughs of healthy plants, their ruby red fruit hanging so easily in reach, takes away the pain but without losing any of the pleasure I remember so fondly.

(Pete, being 6 foot 6 inches tall, still has to slouch just a little, but for the rest of us, the strawberries are at just the right height).

What did I do with our 4 kilo harvest? Strawberry jam, strawberry ice-cream, strawberry vodka and, of course, fresh strawberries and cream!

The quote in the title, by the way, is by William Allen Butler, a 19th Century American lawyer, poetical satirist and travel writer.

 

The end of May bank holiday was so gloriously sunny, it really seemed to herald the coming of summer. We took it suitably easy with a little gardening, a little DIY and a lot of relaxing and good eating!

On Saturday Pete and I drove up to Burnham Green (Hertfordshire) for a country pub lunch in the White Horse pub. It’s a fair journey from where we live in North West London, but it’s a pub Pete used to visit with colleagues when he worked in nearby Welwyn and it’s a lovely place. When we fancy a country pub lunch after a meandering drive, it’s one of a handful we pick from.

I suppose most people would describe it as a gastropub – the interior has been modernised and made light and airy and the menu favours modern tastes too, but I hesitate to use the gastropub label as it has come to carry connotations of pretentiousness. The White Horse is altogether too relaxed, warm and welcoming for that. Although there were plenty of tables free outside in the sunshine, we chose one next to one of the big windows – the best of both worlds – and checked out the menu.

Pete ordered a pint of cask ale and I decided to push the boat out by ordering Pimms. Not a single glass of it, oh no! I ordered an entire jug! (I figured I’d easily get through 3 glasses and a jug cost less than 3 glasses so… the rest was a bonus!) The expression on the waitress’ face when she delivered the drinks was priceless – she seemed to take in the table, with just the two of us sitting there, and bite down on asking how many were joining us! I didn’t quite finish the entire jug but did enjoy several glasses through the meal!

Anti-social it might seem to others, but we sat in companiable silence, reading the Saturday papers (laid out on the bar for customers to borrow).

Instead of two starters we ordered 5 items from the “tasting slates” selection, priced at £1.95 each. We ordered some lovely sliced ham (possibly Iberico, I forget), chorizo salami, balsamic onions, feta-stuffed pepperdews and classic sourdough (served with a generous bowl of thick balsamic and olive oil for dipping. All very good, particularly the bread.

For my main I chose a rib eye steak and chips, both cooked simply and well. The skin-on chips were really nice. Pete had chicken with a honey and mustard marinade, also served with chips. I’ve used a honey and mustard marinade on meat myself; this one tasted fabulous and the meat was also flavoursome and moist.

At this point, we really didn’t need desserts but we both failed tor resist the temptation of the latte mousse on the dessert menu. And to make our fail even bigger, we didn’t order one between us but a greedy one each! The mousse was delicious, served in a coffee cup with a moist, cake-like almond biscuit, in the shape of an Italian amaretti biscuits.

You can imagine how full we were by the end of all this feasting!

Our bill came to a very reasonable £48 + tip. Restaurant prices, yes but restaurant quality food too served by warm, friendly and efficient staff in a relaxing environment.


On Sunday we headed out of London to meet friends for dinner, at another pub called the White Horse, this time located in Shenley (Hertfordshire), where our friends live. They joined us there for a lovely dinner. Like it’s namesake in Burnham Green, the Shenley White Horse has been modernised inside and offers a modern menu offering mainly restaurant-style dishes with a few pub classics (plus traditional roasts on Sundays). It’s a deceptively large space with plenty of tables, inside and out. Some are in the restaurant area and others in the more relaxed pub section, though I believe the same menus are available throughout.

We had booked a table in the restaurant area; inside but not far from doors left open through the evening.

Although it was very quiet throughout our meal, service was lackadaisical. Interactions with the staff were friendly but they were neither efficient (mistakes were made in taking down our order) nor consistent (sometimes it was very hard to get the attention of two waitresses looking after only a handful of tables between them). The kitchen wasn’t totally on the ball either, though the food, when we got it, was good. The daily specials menu informed us that the normal head chef was not in today, and the kitchen was being managed by his usual sous.

A and I chose the warm chicken livers + pear + pancetta + frisee + creamy garlic dressing which was a wonderful dish. The flavours and textures worked very well together, contrasting and complementing each other even better than I’d expected.

L really enjoyed her smoked mackerel pate + celeriac remoulade + toast. Even though, when Pete ordered his starter of chicken breast + crisp tortilla crumb + iceberg + guacamole + salsa + chilli + sour cream,(also available as a main), the waitress repeated “chicken salad” back to him and said it was her very favourite thing on the menu, she managed to input duck salad instead, which we discovered when the starters were served. It was another several minutes before the correct dish came out, though this was justified by the very freshly deep-fried breadcrumbed chicken pieces served over the various salad elements. Pete said it was worth the wait!

Pete was unlucky once again. As three of the mains were served, and L detected the smell of what she thought was burnt toast, Pete was told apologetically, that chef had burned his Piccante – pepperoni + chorizo + tomato + jalapeno pizza and was making another one! In the meantime, as the other mains were ready, the other three of us were served.

L ordered from the specials menu and her roast rack of lamb + crushed thyme potatoes + asparagus + wild mushroom + truffle sauce looked wonderful. She said all of it was good but the sauce was especially so. A ordered a classic burger + onion + gherkin + mustard mayo + frites which he’d had before. Served medium, as requested, it looked like a decent burger. My spit roast duck + cherries + cassis jus + frites was a generous portion and tasty too – moist meat with lots of flavour and thin, crispy skin. The cherries were mildly sharp and worked well with the mildly sweet jus. My only disappointment was that the “frites” were regular fat chips – to me, using the word “frites” implies thin french fries, which I was really in the mood for. The chips were OK but not as tasty as the BG White Horse skin-on chips. Pete seemed to enjoy his pizza though, as I’d predicted, it didn’t compare to those available from some decent Italian pizzerias near home.

Somehow, all four of us found room for dessert. Between us we had a sticky toffee and date pudding with toffee sauce and cream, a marshmallow cheesecake with turkish delight sauce, a passionfruit pannacotta with , I think, mango sauce and my (excessively large) apple and strawberry crumble with cream. Although A enjoyed it, I wasn’t too keen on the texture of the sticky toffee pudding – I found it tough rather than moist and light, like better example I’ve enjoyed. L’s panna cotta looked delicious and she definitely enjoyed it. Pete sang the praises of his choice, explaining that the cheesecake had a great marshmallow taste and fiercely guarding the turkish delight syrup from thieving fingers! My crumble was just OK. The fruit was undersweetened, which I don’t mind when balanced by the sweetness of a generous topping, but in this case, there was far too little topping for far too much fruit, made and served as it was in a dish that was too large and too shallow. Custard rather than cream would have helped with sweetness too. As it was, it was a bit blah and I didn’t finish even half of it.

Through the meal I enjoyed Pimms once again, this time two (generous, pint-sized) servings. Pete and Ade enjoyed Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and both A and L had wine during the meal and we had one coffee and one after-dinner whisky on the list too. Our bill came to 126.75 + tip though we didn’t leave a huge one. Service here has never quite matched that in the BG White Horse as it’s always hard to catch the attention of staff, though usually that’s because it’s busy. That said, it’s usually not sloppy – the mistakes in ordering and from the kitchen are not the norm. In retrospect it would have been a nice gesture for them to offer Pete a complimentary dessert or drink, given his two delayed courses, though these weren’t serious enough lapses for us to ask for a discount ourselves.

 

Looking for a nice lunch stop between home and Willows Farm Village (which we visited on Saturday to check out custom-made wrought iron gates for the new front garden wall) we decided to stop at The Green Dragon. We’d been once before and enjoyed the good quality grub and thought we’d see what they had on offer for lunch.

The menu looked great.

Starters were all priced at £4.50 and included Roasted Tomato & Basil Soup with Crusty Bread, Pea & Leek Tart with Glazed Asparagus, Roasted Pear Wedges with Maple Glaxed Pork Strips and Crispy Bacon & Poached Egg on a Rustic Bubble & Squeak with Hollandaise Drizzle. I’d happily have eaten any one of them.

Mains were £7.95, although two courses (starter and main or main and dessert) were just £9.95. Again, there were a number of appetising options including Steak & Ale Pie with Lyonnaise Potatos and Broccoli, Goat’s Cheese, Sweet Potato & Leek Lasagne with Buttered New Potatoes & Green Beans and Golden Crumbed Salmon & Hake Fishcakes with Fries, Rocket & Parmesan Salad.

There was also a section labelled Classics listing some main dishes such as Beer Battered Plaice with Mint Pea Puree and the Homemade Beef Burger. These were priced between £6.95 and £12.95 and were not included in the lunch special offer. A sandwich selection included fillings such as Grilled Halloumi Cheese and Mediterranean Vegetables and Crayfish Marie Rose with Rocket.

Inside The Green Dragon is modern without being too anodyne. Lots of light floods in through the windows, the furniture is comfortable and the staff smile often.


As indecisive as ever I decided to order two starters instead of a main and chose the Pan fried Chicken Livers on Toasted Ciabatta and the Golden Crumbed Brie Wedges with Fruits of the Forest Compote. I asked for them to be served together, at the same time as Pete’s Duo of Free Range Pork Sausages on a bed of Creamy Mash, Parsnip Crisps and Onion Gravy which they were.

My chicken livers on ciabatta and my fried brie and compote

The chicken livers were cooked as I like them – properly browned on the outside and pink inside. They hadn’t been fussed with, just a drizzle of what I first took to be balsamic but which I think may have been some kind of beetroot reduction, and some plain salad. Tasty! The brie was my favourite – the cheese itself had a decent flavour, unlike some of the more insipid examples of the variety and was beautifully melted inside the golden crumbs. The fruit compote was a wonderful mix of soft blueberries, tart raspberries and a sweet berry sauce. This dish may be ubiquitous but The Green Dragon made a very enjoyable dish from the cliché.

Pete had a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord and I had a soft drink. Our total bill came to less than £19. For a well cooked, well presented meal served by friendly staff, I think this is very reasonable.

Pete enjoying his pint

Address: The Green Dragon, 2 St. Albans Road, Barnet, Herts. EN5 4RE | Tel: 020 8449 2972 | Web:

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