I left the decision of where to eat on my birthday till a few days before. Twitter friends kindly helped me create a shortlist of fabulous options but in the end I remembered my longstanding desire to visit Scott Hallsworth’s Kurobuta Izakaya to try his small plate menu of inventive, modern Japanese food.

True to the nature of an izakaya (most commonly loosely translated as a pub), Kurobuta (which itself is the name for prized black pig breeds in Japan) is a casual environment with a relaxed and friendly vibe and friendly service.

The food is a step above casual, however; it shows enormous attention to detail, creative flavour and texture combinations, beautiful presentations and an appealingly wide range of choices.

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Fresh ginger-ade was punchy and balanced. My sake choice matched the menu description exactly and was light and delicate.

Guided by the cheerful Sam, we initially chose 6 dishes between two of us, adding one more savoury and a dessert to our meal later.

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Baby Shrimp Tempura with Spicy Mayo and Warm Ponzu Dipping Sauces (£10)

Superb quality prawns in a perfectly crisp batter – albeit a thicker one that I’d usually describe as tempura – these were served hot out of the fryer, with a simple spiced mayonnaise and thin ribbons of onion. Pete usually refuses to eat prawns but was persuaded by the unusually soft texture. An excellent start!

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Miso Grilled Baby Chicken with Spicy Lemon Garlic Sauce (£12)

Moist pieces of chicken. A good balance between sweet sticky marinade and a little acidity from the lemony sauce.

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Roasted Scallop with Yuzu Truffle Egg sauce and Yuzu Tobiko (£12)

A lovely combination of tastes and textures; large plum scallops, very fresh and cooked just right, with a beautifully rich sauce – essentially a Hollandaise made with yuzu in place of lemon; garnishes carefully chosen to add more complexity of texture.

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Beer Grilled Beef Fillet with Wasabi Salsa (£17)

This was the most expensive dish we ordered; I would probably have hesitated had it not been a celebratory occasion. But I’m so glad we did – a generous pile of very tender and perfectly cooked beef with enoki mushrooms and a real kick to the sauce and salsa.

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Nasu Dengaku; Sticky Miso Grilled Aubergine with Candied Walnuts (£8.50)

I adore nasu dengaku and this rendition didn’t disappoint. I missed the added texture of the skin, though that was cleverly replaced with the sweet, sticky, crunchy candied walnuts atop each cube of aubergine. The flesh was beautifully cooked to bring out the natural flavour, and enhanced by a beautiful miso marinade.

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Spicy Tuna Maki Rolled in Tempura Crunchies (£8.50)

There was nothing wrong with this dish; I enjoyed it well enough and particularly liked the subtle added crunch of the tempura batter stuck to the surfaces. But it was far more ordinary than everything else we ordered, and was the one dish I wouldn’t order again.

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Japanese Mushrooms Grilled on Hoba Leaf with Gorgonzola, Miso and Pinenuts (£9.75)

If you’re an umami addict, this dish cannot be beaten. The combination of mushrooms, miso, creamy melted blue cheese and pinenuts was a revelation and I have been dreaming about this one dish more than any other, in the week since we visited. Magical!

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Spiced kombu compressed pineapple, coconut & lemongrass sorbet, caramel, lemon sponge, crumble (£8.50)

A new dessert on the menu, designed by Filip Gemzell, Kurobuta’s executive pastry chef, this is another highly unusual but beautifully balanced dish with lots of flavours and textures to explore. Gemzell kindly gave me additional information about the amazing pineapple – he compresses it in kombu, green chilli, red pepper, lemongrass, Szechuan pepper, vanilla, salt and sugar. About the other wow element on the plate, the coconut and lemon grass sorbet, he was more cagey but it’s such a light, refreshing and delightful combination, I’m going to have a go at recreating it myself. And yes, that’s a birthday candle they snuck on for me too!

The key word that pervades the entire menu is ’balance’ of elements, flavours, textures. Ingredients are consistently high quality, the menu is imaginative, each dish is exciting to eye and palate and service is friendly, smooth and focused on ensuring that all customers enjoy a wonderful meal.

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Kurobuta is one of six Japanese restaurants participating in Japanese Journey, an experience organised by Suntory Whisky and the 2014 London Restaurant Festival, whereby diners make their way between the six restaurants and enjoy a Suntory whisky highball and a dish or selection plate at each. Pete and I were invited to preview half the journey at Sticks n Sushi, Shoryu and Chisou Mayfair. Check out photos from our evening on my Instagram page.

 

Yao Yao Cha means Shake Shake Tea in Chinese. The naming approach tickles me and certainly the little shop in London’s Seven Dials area has shaken up the local bubble tea market since it opened earlier this year. Yao Yao Cha’s founder and owner Susan Fang was born in Taiwan but has lived in New York, Dubai, Seoul, Beijing and now London (a city she describes as the most vibrant she’s lived in to date; I’ll drink bubble tea to that!)

In launching this business she wanted to bring us an authentic taste from her childhood, adding global influences gleaned from her globetrotting lifestyle.

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The storefront on Earlham Street and Dagaz, our friendly server

The menu offers classic Taiwanese bubble tea options alongside modern, global flavours.

Bubble tea (aka boba tea), for those who’ve not come across it before, is simply a glass of (usually) sweetened tea with a generous spoonful of tapioca pearls at the bottom. Served with an extra wide straw that allows you to suck the little spheres of tapioca up as you drink. I’ve found that most people either love or hate the chewy texture of the tapioca, with some of my friends describing them as frogspawn (how do they know?) and others delighting in the bounce, as I do.

Most bubble drink cafes sell a variety of drinks, so if tea isn’t your thing (and there are quite a few different teas to choose from) you one of a range of frappés instead. For tea drinkers, there’s matcha green tea, a range of fruit-flavoured jasmine green teas, several black teas including ones flavoured with salted caramel, chocolate, strawberry and lemon. Frappés include blueberry, mango, passion fruit, chocolate and even crème brulée!

The teas can be ordered hot or cold, though personally I think cold works best with bubbles.

Don’t worry if you don’t think you’ll like traditional bubbles either; another option is to order your drink with fruit pop spheres – tiny liquid-filled spheres available in a range of flavours, with not a hint of chewiness to them. Or maybe you’d prefer a flavoured jelly, chopped into teeny tiny cubes?

Teas are £3.50/ £4.50 (regular/ large) and include a portion of tapioca. Frappés are £4.00 and include one flavour of fruit pops or jelly. Extra fruit pops or jellies can be added to any of the drinks.

Oh and, if you visit in the evening, YYC are usually running a 2 for 1 offer on the bubble teas.

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Sweet milky black tea with lychee pops and salted caramel black tea with tapioca pearls.

Newer to the menu is the range of shaved ice desserts, known as baobing in Chinese and hugely popular across China and much of East Asia.

We had a lovely time chatting to Dagaz who came to London from Taiwan just a few months ago and is really enjoying working in Yao Yao Cha, improving his English and exploring the architecture of London.

On his recommendation, we went for one traditional shaved ice (with condensed milk syrup, taro, crème brulée pudding, tapioca pearls and red bean paste) and one modern option with fruit pops and jellies and a mango fruit syrup.

Tapioca pearls are included for free (if you want them) and the £5 price includes three additional toppings of your choice. Of course, you can add more if you like, for 50 pence per topping. Portions are enormous and one is plenty for two to share, or even three if you’ve just stuffed yourself with huge bowls of ramen, as we had!

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Shaved ice with traditional toppings; shaved ice with mango syrup and a selection of fruit pops and jellies

With lots of great restaurants in the immediate vicinity, I hope lots of Londoners discover the pleasure of a shaved ice dessert. With all the sugary toppings, it’s not a healthier option but it makes a refreshing alternative to the creaminess of ice cream and it’s particularly appealing when the weather is warm.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Yao Yao Cha.

 

I said a couple of years ago that 2012 was the year of ramen. That was prompted by the opening of four fabulous ramenya in London, each one selling a vastly more exciting (and generally, more authentic) offering than the Wagamama-style facsimile that was prevalent at the time. Since then, the enthusiasm for real ramen has continued to grow unabated – some of the four brands I mentioned in 2012 have launched new outlets; we’ve also seen the opening of United Ramen (which I tried last year during their pop-up phase and went to more recently when they launched their permanent location in Islington) and Ramen Sasuke (which I’m visiting soon). Old hand Ramen Seto (formerly of Oriental City) has moved into a new home near Camden Lock. The famous Ippudo chain is opening in London very soon too.

My latest ramen splurping was at another new kid on the block, Kanada-Ya, which opened without fanfare on the 2nd of this month, directly across the street from Ippudo’s soon-to-open shop. Located on St Giles High Street, steps away from Tottenham Court Road tube station (and the hub of several bus routes), Kanada-Ya brings to London a successful Japanese ramenya founded in Kyushu by Kanada Kazuhiro just 5 years ago. The London store is their third store, with their second being in Hong Kong – a very international expansion from the start!

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With the protocol-chain hailing from Yukuhashi in Fukuoka Prefecture, it is no surprise that Kanada-Ya offers tonkotsu (pork bone broth) ramen, in the Hakata or Fukuoka style.

Indeed, the menu is very short and simple with just three variations on ramen – all featuring the same base broth, so no options for vegetarians – plus a short list of extras and an even shorter list of onigiri (stuffed rice balls).

I’m surprised not to see gyoza as in Japan, the little dumplings were offered by all the ramenya we visited, but mollified when a member of staff confirms that their Japanese branch does indeed sell gyoza and they hope to do so here too, going forward. The challenge for the gyoza is that, like their ramen broth and noodles (more of which in a moment), they make not only the gyoza filling but the wrappers too by hand and want to make sure they can do justice to their own standards before adding to the menu here in London.

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Pete orders the Moyashi Ramen (£11) which features Kanada-Ya’s 18 hour pork broth, chashu pork belly, wood ear fungus, nori, spring onion and blanched beansprouts. And noodles, of course!

The pork broth is really rather good. Regularly skimmed as it cooks, it’s rich in flavour but light in texture. Tonkotsu is a difficult style to get right; I find some lighter broths too insipid but others with richer flavour so oily as to leave an unpleasant oil slick on your lips. Kanada-Ya achieves a great balance.

The noodles are absolutely excellent! Kanada-Ya make them on site using a specialist machine imported from Japan, that uses a special flour enriched with protein and alkaline salts. They offer the noodles cooked soft, regular, hard or extra hard; both of us find regular to be spot on. I reckon the texture of these noodles is the best I’ve tried in London ramenya so far.

Best of all are the Hanjuku eggs (which you need to order as an extra item). These blow any other ramen eggs I’ve tried out of the tonkotsu! They’re truly magnificent!

Chasu pork belly looks like it might be dry but actually proves to be soft and tasty, though not the best I’ve had.

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I order the Chashu Men (£12.50), which comes with a much larger portion of pork but collar instead of belly. It’s still soft and tastes good but I miss the fat. What I’d really like is the option of this much pork but belly rather than collar. Other than that, the only difference from the Moyashi is no blanched beansprouts.

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Curious about another of the extras, we order a portion of Black Garlic Sauce for £1. It has a lovely charred roast garlic flavour; rather than mix it into our broths, we dip occasional bites of food into it.

That includes the salmon onigiri we order. It’s odd to see these rice balls on the menu, as I’ve not encountered them in ramenya before, though of course they’re a popular snack across Japan. Perhaps they’re an easier option to produce while gyoza are not available? Our sake salmon-filled ones (£3 for 1, £4 or 2) are decent but the salmon inside is a little dull. The ume pickled plum (£2.50 for 1, £3.50 for 2) ones might be worth a try.

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On the drinks front, there are soft drinks only including the regular soft drinks and water, plus hot and cold tea, calpis and Japanese lemonade.

At the moment, they don’t list any desserts but offered us a taste of the ice cream mochi they hope to add to the menu soon. To my delight, these are Little Moons ice cream mochi, a brand I first encountered last year courtesy of United Ramen and they are very tasty indeed. We try the yuzu ice cream mochi (served with popping candy) and the matcha ones. Both excellent.

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With just 24 covers at traditional counter seating, Kanada-Ya is set to be a popular choice for the growing hoard of London’s noodle-splurping ramen lovers.

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of Kanada-Ya.

 

My baby sister got married in Croatia a couple of months ago. I can honestly say it was the joint happiest day of my life so far. (The other, for avoidance of doubt, was my wedding to Pete, exactly 20 years ago today). It made my heart so happy to see my sister and her fine fiancé tie the knot, surrounded by friends and family – utterly magical.

I thought I’d cry during my speech but breeze through my reading. In the end, my emotions (and voice) caught during the reading, which was part way through the ceremony and caused my sister to cry as well, oops sorry about that! But I managed the speech without sobbing, though it caused a few (good) tears amongst some of the wedding party, I think!

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The setting for the ceremony was breath-taking, in the truest sense of the word – a hotel’s outdoor terrace overlooking the old town harbour, city walls and red tiled roofs – a view that made us gasp. The weather was searingly hot and we sat (or stood in the case of the bridesmaids, best man and groom) wilting in the heat, but still all of us grinned at her beauty when we saw her arriving on my dad’s arm. The ceremony was lovely and soon they were married. Such an adorable couple.

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After the ceremony, the entire wedding party walked down to the harbour for a champagne reception on an old-style sightseeing boat. As the group walked through the old town, local buskers spontaneously switched to playing Here Comes The Bride, and fellow tourists stopped to watch and applaud. Boat trip around the city walls and nearby Lokrum island over, we walked back to the hotel where tables had been set up on the terrace for the evening meal, speeches and dancing.

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The entire day was glorious!

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Pete and I travelled to Dubrovnik a few days before the wedding and also booked to stay on another 4 days afterwards. We spent the first few days in a beautiful villa with pool with my sister and brother-in-law-to-be and the bridesmaids, best man and partners. For our last few days, we were very pleased with our choice of the Hilton Dubrovnik, with an enviable location right by Pile Gate and a very enjoyable breakfast buffet to boot.

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We had plans to do lots of sightseeing locally in Dubrovnik and take day trips to nearby islands.

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In the end, the weather in late June/ early July was so hot and humid that I was zapped of what little energy I can ever summon within minutes of stepping outside. I’ve certainly endured hotter but Dubrovnik’s summer heat was astonishingly oppressive. We hoped that early starts in the morning might allow us to evade the heat but discovered that it was already hotter than Hades by 8 o’clock in the morning!

All of which is why we did little more than eat out and walk the city walls for the entire week of our visit!

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… and we only managed to get half way around the city walls walk before my abject terror of heights (and the resultant need to scale most of the stairs sideways like a crab, clinging to the railings for dear life) combined with the excessive heat (even though we started the circuit the moment the gates opened at 8 a.m.) saw us admit defeat after an hour. Presciently, we began with the half that afforded us views of Dubrovnik old town with a backdrop of indigo blue sea and the island of Lokrum behind.

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But we did fall for the beautiful old town and quickly came to understand why my sister and brother-in-law chose this pretty place in which to tie the knot.

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We had many delicious lunches and dinners but here are my top picks; all three are located in the old town, inside or just outside the city walls.

Pizzeria Tabasco (Cavtatska ulica 11)

The company from whom we rented the villa gave us some excellent restaurant recommendations, including this lovely pizzeria located just outside the city walls, near the lower entrance to the cable car.

Enormous, wood-fire oven-baked pizzas with really delicious toppings, these were not only top quality but incredibly good value too. One of the toppings on mine was a local fresh cheese which quickly melted into puddles a minute or so after it was served to the table. One of the best Italian-style pizzas I’ve had, anywhere.

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Restoran Dubrovnik (Marojice Kaboge 5)

In the maze of narrow streets within the old town walls, this elegant restaurant is a little out of the way of the busiest thoroughfares and feels a little more peaceful as a result. The tables are on an open rooftop, with sliding roofing panels available to provide protection should the weather require. We loved this outdoor seating with its surround view of the beautiful stone buildings of the old town.

The menu is modern European with a focus on local ingredients and we enjoyed our first meal so much we booked to go back on our last evening.

Pricier than the other two, but (from our Londoner perspective) still reasonable for the quality – and much less expensive than other high end restaurants in town.

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Taj Mahal (Ulica Nikole Gučetića 2,

In spite of the Indian name, this is actually a Bosnian restaurant and the tables are tucked along one edge of a narrow old town alley.

By far the most popular dish amongst customers was cevapi – little grilled minced meat kebabs. They were simply served inside soft warm bread with raw red onions and the most amazing butter and fresh cheese condiment that I devoured (and then asked for more of).

They also do some delicious local meat and cheese platters and a range of other Bosnian dishes. Various others in the wedding party visited during the week and enjoyed the Taj Mahal as much as we did.

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As for ice cream (or gelato, as it’s mostly in the Italian style), there are many excellent ice cream vendors to choose from and I suggest you go for the nearest when the mood for ice cream strikes!

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Our plan is to head back to Dubrovnik (and the rest of Croatia too) in the next year or two for a spring or autumn break, when the weather is a little more conducive to more active exploration.

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Message on a bottle – words from Croatian natural water brand

 

P.s. Happy 20th wedding anniversary, Pete. I love you!

 

When it comes to tourism in Belgium, Brussels gets a bad rap.

Go to Bruges, they say, for the picturesque canals and mediaeval centre.
Go to Antwerp, they say, for world class art and hipster fashion.
Go to Ghent, they say, for more of the same plus cycling too.
Go to Ypres, they say, for WW1 history.

But Brussels? Brussels is often dismissed as little more than a hub for politicians and lobbyists.

Of course, there’s much more to Brussels than politics! Yes, Brussels is the home of the European Union, NATO and the United Nation’s European office…

…but it is also the capital of a country of two halves – the Dutch-speaking Flemish region of Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia in the South. Multicultural Brussels, the third region of the country, is bilingual though French is now more prevalent than Dutch. These days English is widely spoken as well as many other languages, indeed it’s said that as much as half the population speak neither French nor Dutch as their native tongue.

As a Londoner, one of the things I find most appealing about Brussels is this sense of multiculturalism. Although the issue of language is still a hot potato for many Belgians, especially when it comes to education and cultural identity, Brussels is a city that is very open to the world.  Indeed, we chat to Pierre from the local tourist board who tells us that the people of Brussels refer to themselves as zinneke (bastard dogs), wearing their mongrel heritage with pride. Pierre is himself the perfect example – his mother is gipsy, his father Walloon and Flemish, his wife Brazilian and his sisters are married to a German, a Frenchman and a Czech, respectively!

Brussels is a vibrant city with a historic heart and a modern outlook. And the Eurostar service takes you from London St Pancras to Brussels Midi-Zuid in less than two and a half hours!

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When it comes to sightseeing, you still can’t beat a good old-fashioned guide book, or the website equivalent. I won’t try to recreate that here but suggest that as well as the popular Gothic and baroque buildings of the Grand Place and surrounding narrow cobbled streets, the shiny Atomium housing a variety of exhibitions and the incomprehensibly mobbed corner where the Mannekin Pis resides you might want to look up Jeanneke Pis and Zinneke Pis – the squatting female and doggie equivalents of Mannekin, the Belgian Comic Strip Centre (and the Comic Strip walk that takes you past comics painted on the walls of a number of buildings), an amazing array of grand buildings such as the Cathedral of St Michael and St Gudula, the Bourse (stock exchange), the Royal Palace, the Basilique du Sacré Coeur and the architecture of art nouveau architect Victor Horta. Lovers of literature, art, history and even cars, will also appreciate several excellent museums in Brussels.

Instead, I’m going to share my tips for some great places to eat, drink, shop and sleep.

 

Chocolates and Patisserie

Brussels is awash with shops selling chocolate, but much of what’s on sale is cheap, bulk-manufactured products that are hardly worth wasting suitcase space for. Here are the ones that are worth seeking out.

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Laurent Gerbaud is one of Belgium’s rising chocolatiers and is fighting an uphill battle to move Belgians on from the idea of “Belgian chocolate” to an understanding of the actual origins and varieties available.

Like several chocolatiers I’ve met, Laurent was a chef first; he came to chocolate via chocolate sculpture with an artist friend, and that lead, eventually, to his current career. As a child, he developed an interest in China, perhaps because of several friendships he had with Chinese and Taiwanese families. He worked in Chinese restaurants, took courses in Chinese and, after a university degree in history, finally moved to China for a couple of years. There, he discovered that the Chinese don’t have as sweet a tooth as Europeans and he lost his taste for high sugar sweets. When he came back to Belgium, he had the obvious thought of bringing his experiences in China into his chocolate making but realised he wasn’t inspired by fusion flavours. Instead, he focused on quality ingredients, including some sourced from Asia.

Today, the Chinese influences is perhaps most evident in his logo which is an artistic interpretation of the Chinese hanzi characters for “chocolate” and his name.

Laurent is keen to make chocolate that people love to eat; he says “one of my purposes is to make junk food – you eat one and you want another because it’s really good”. Judging by the chocolates we tasted, he’s nailed it – I could have eaten a whole box of the chocolates made with dried figs from Turkey and candied oranges from Italy. His shop on Rue Ravenstein is also a boutique tea room, with plans to extend the service to offer a savoury menu too.

Tip: Of course, you can visit his shop just to buy some of his excellent chocolate, but for a more personal experience, book a chocolate tasting or chocolate making workshop.

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Pierre Marcolini is one of the few Belgian chocolatiers to make chocolate from bar to bean, before then using it to make a range of chocolates. His chocolate shop at 2 Rue de Minimes is certainly full of temptation but what I recommend above the chocolate is a visit to the address around the corner at 39 Grote Zavel, where his spectacular patisserie is sold. I found the macarons surprisingly disappointing but a glossy strawberry patisserie was a winner.

Other famous chocolate brands in Brussels include Wittamer (a long standing bakery and chocolate business) and Frederic Blondeel (a chef turned chocolatier who also makes chocolate from bean to bar).

 

Speculoos Biscuits

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Speculoos, hailing from Belgium and The Netherlands, are spiced shortcrust biscuits that were originally associated with the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in early December. Made from flour, brown sugar and butter with a spice mix that usually includes cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom and white pepper, these days they are popular and available all year round.

Maison Dandoy, established in 1829, makes a range of sweet bakery products but is best known for its traditional speculoos and gingerbread biscuits. These days, it has a handful of shops in Brussels, but its worth making a trip to its oldest remaining store at 31 Rue au Beurre, to admire the beautiful wooden biscuit moulds lining the shelves. The Tea Room on Rue Charles Buls (also known as Karel Bulsstraat) is larger, offering the opportunity to enjoy a wide range of biscuits, pastries and drinks inside. There are an additional four shops in Brussels, plus one in nearby Waterloo.

Having tried several supermarket brands of speculoos biscuit, I was surprised to discover that it’s not just a case of fancy shops and branding – the Maison Dandoy speculoos biscuits are definitely superior!

We also tried Dandoy’s pain à la Grecque, a crunchy bread-cum-biscuit coated with pearled sugar crystals. I was more fascinated by the origins of the name than the biscuit itself – over two centuries ago, the monks of a local Augustine abbey used to support the city’s destitute by giving them bread. The abbey was located near a place known as Wolvengracht (Wolves Ditch); the gracht pronounced grecht in local dialect. Over time, pain a la grecht morphed into pain à la Grecque, confusing generations of shoppers with its erroneous suggestion of a Greek origin.

Tip: If you’re as huge a fan of speculoos biscuits as we are, make a quick visit to a supermarket to pick up a couple of extra large packs of mass-produced biscuits as well. There’s a mini supermarket in Brussels Midi Station.

 

Cuberdons

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I first fell for cuberdons over two decades ago, and if anything, I love them even more today. A purply-dark red colour and conical in shape, the cuberdon is a raspberry-flavoured gummy sweet, firm on the outside with an oozing interior. In Dutch, it’s known as a neus (nose), in French it’s called a chapeau-de-curé or chapeau-de-prêtre (priest’s hat).

You can find cuberdons in quite a few sweet shops in Brussels, several of which sell multiple colours and flavours, a relatively recent phenomenon. But we’ve found that the best prices for regular raspberry cuberdons is from the Cric-Crac sweet shop inside Brussels Midi station, which sells by weight.

Tip: These sweets are best eaten within a couple of weeks of purchase, as the liquid centre can crystallise and harden if left for too long.

 

Waffles

Belgian Waffles fall into two types.

Firm, rich and chewy Gaufre de Liège (Liège Waffle) are made from an adapted brioche-dough and work well both hot and cold. These are usually oval in shape and have a slightly crunchy exterior from the crystallised sugar that has caramelised against the waffle iron. They’re great for eating on the hoof as they’re traditionally eaten plain (though you can buy them with toppings too if you prefer).

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Rectangular Brussels Waffles are made with a leavened batter, resulting in a much lighter and airier texture and are definitely at their best enjoyed hot, fresh from the waffle iron. Traditionally, Brussels waffles are served with a dusting of icing sugar but these days you can choose from a wide selection of toppings including ice cream, chocolate sauce and fruits. But I suggest you ignore all of those and ask for your waffle with a generous dollop of speculoos paste. With a texture much like smooth peanut butter, this sweet spread is the same flavour as the famous biscuit and melts wonderfully into the indentations of a freshly-cooked hot waffle.

Tip: You’ll find waffles on sale all over Brussels, often from hole-in-the wall vendors, but if you want to sit down and eat, try Maison Dandoy’s Tearoom.

 

Beer & Bars

Belgium is world famous for its beers and rightly so, with a rich tradition that goes back many, many centuries. The range of beers produced by Belgian breweries is impressive, including pale, golden, amber, red and dark ales, dubbels and tripels, Flemish sour brown, Champagne beers (which receive a second fermentation using the method now most strongly associated with Champagne), wheat beers and lambics (spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts that are native to the brewery, as opposed to the addition of cultivated yeasts).

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Both Pete and I absolutely love what owner Jean Hummler is offering at his two bars, Moeder Lambic and Moeder Lambic Fontainas, located at 68 rue de Savoie and 8 place Fontainas, respectively. He started the first bar less than five years ago, after a career working for industrial food businesses in France.

He starts off by telling us why he wanted to do something different; “most places are not very selective, they sell coca cola and junk food” and their beer selection is not very inspiring either. He is committed to selling only quality produce and that applies to the beers, the food and even the soft drinks. He has two key criteria, the way a product is made and how it tastes. “Making money and brewing great beer are often not the same job”, he laughs. He looks for products that are made by hand, adding that he doesn’t want “industrial anything”. For a beer to be selected it must be made with craft and it must pass the taste test – it must taste good! Right now, he has approximately 150 beers on the menu of which 46 are on tap. These include beers from around the world, including a number from the UK.

The same principles apply to his sourcing of cheeses and charcuterie (which form the main thrust of the simple menu) and the non-beer drinks menu (which includes some delicious farmhouse apple juice, for those less interested in the beers).

The cheese selection (€12.5) is utterly wonderful; all are raw milk cheeses and range from soft and mild to fantastically pungent, each one a genuine delight. In the centre of the serving board is a bowl of pottekees – a blend of fresh white cheese, onion, pepper and lambic beer. Just as excellent is the meat selection (€12.5) which includes garlic sausage, French sausage, paté made with geuze beer, hâte levée – pork cooked slowly in bouillon with garlic and spices, Tierenteyn mustard, Belgian pickles (which are a lot like piccalilli). Both plates are served with a basket of bread and a superb raw milk butter.

As he introduces each item on the plates, his enthusiasm for the producers and their products is self-evident; “The idea is to offer another selection, another quality, another explanation that most people don’t know exists”.

Two other key policies for Hummler are ensuring that all his staff know and love the product range, and establishing strong relationships with each supplier – and one (of many) ways he furthers both is the Moeder Fucker series of beers brewed by Le Paradis microbrewery not far from Nancy, in France. For each beer he sends two of his staff to the brewery to help make it; they decide which style of beer to make and work with the brewery team to create their vision. During our visit, Moeder Fucker IV was on tap.

As we talked, Pete tried five beers, guided by Hummler through the staggering range available. He drank Taras Boulba by local Brasserie de la Senne (Belgium), Moeder Fucker IV by Le Paradis (France), Mozaic Black by Mont Saleve (France), Cuvée De Ranke by Ranke (Belgium) and Fièvre de Cacao by Thiriez (France).

In the end, Hummler is a man after my own heart. “We all have to decide. Each citizen has to decide what they want to do with their life. I decided for myself that I wanted to eat very good food. I eat less and less meat, maybe once a week but what I eat is very good, like the chicken that is aged 120 days on a small farm. Taste is very important to me.

Tip: Ask staff for guidance in selecting beers for your own beer flight.

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Small and traditional pub La Fleur en Papier Doré was the perfect place to meet local friends for an evening drink. At 55 Rue des Alexiens, it was very close to our bed and breakfast, and also easy to reach by local bus. The menu shares a little of the history of the bar, housed in a small maisonette that dates from the mid 18th century. In the past it housed a convent, which moved to a new home in the middle of the 20th century. As a pub, it became the favoured meeting place of the Surrealist cultural movement with regulars including René Magritte; a few decades later it was a focus point for the Cobra (avant-garde) movement, creators of experimental art and philosophy. Mementos of both remain on the well-worn walls of the cosy pub, protected (along with the façade, the ground floor rooms and some of the furniture) by the local government which has decreed them of historical value.

Stop for a few beers (and some charcuterie) or for a simple meal.

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The Cantillon Brewery welcomes visitors for brewery tours (7 Euros including a beer) or to buy beer. You can buy to drink in or takeaway; lovers of lambic will particularly enjoy a visit. The address at 56 Rue Gheude is only a short walk from the central tourist district.

 

Lunch Stops

My first recommendation for a light lunch is the cheese plate and charcuterie selection at Moeder Lambic, above. Super quality, and each provides a generous portion for the price.

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Another great option is recently opened Peck 47 (amusingly named for its address at 47 Rue Marche Aux Poulets). This all day cafe offers a short menu of home made sandwiches, salads, soups, cakes, fresh juices, smoothies and a small selection of local beers. For just €8, my poached eggs on sourdough with smoked salmon and homemade relish was far more generous than I expected and all the items were of excellent quality. The eggs were perfectly poached, the salad nicely dressed and the home made relish very good indeed. Pete’s sandwich – roast chicken, rocket, lemon and basil mayo and slow roasted tomatoes – also impressed, for €5.

Tip: A particularly nice touch is that the free tap water is stored in the drinks fridge in large bottles stuffed with mint. Ask for some!

 

A Traditional Dinner

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I have to say from the off – don’t go to Restobieres if you’re looking for great service. The three staff on duty ranged from friendly but incompetent through utterly disinterested to downright sullen. That usually stops me from recommending a place but Restobieres is a good option if you’re keen to try traditional Belgian dishes alongside a range of Belgian beers.

Herve Cheese Croquets (€10) were a tasty comfort food, served hot and freshly fried. Homemade paté with Rochefort and foie gras  (€12) was a generous slab; light on the foie gras but tasty nonetheless. My calf’s liver with shallots and Chouffe  (€20) was decent; I really liked the beer and shallot sauce. Pete had satisfactory steak and chips with another good sauce and a generous well-dressed salad. The star of the mains was our friend’s bloempanch blood pudding (€12) which was both tasty and generously portioned for the price.

The only duff note (with the exception of the service) was a scoop of speculoos biscuit ice cream (€4) which we decided could only possibly have been made by a chef who’d never tasted speculoos (and not bothered to look up a recipe for the spices usually used). The texture was unpleasantly gritty too.

Located at 9 rue des Renards, not far from the Jeu de Balle flea market.

 

Brussel’s Modern Dining Scene

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I already explained how much we liked the multicultural vibe in Brussels. This goes equally for the food scene, which has some great restaurants to explore. One such place launched just a few weeks before our visit; located along very trendy Rue de Flandre in the Sainte Catherine district, Gramm is a restaurant offering bold, inventive and modern food. It’s headed up by Chef Erwan Kenzo Nakata, who grew up in Brittany to a French father and Japanese mother, thus explaining some of the eclectic Japanese touches to otherwise modern French cooking.

The evening offering is a fixed tasting menu, 6 courses for €38. Although the courses are individually quite small, we felt very satisfied at the end of our meal, having enjoyed the array of tastes, textures and colours in Nakata’s self-assured dishes.

While I felt the food was good value, I was less impressed with the drinks pricing, for wines, beers and soft drinks (which were served in shockingly tiny glasses) so if you’re on a fixed budget, keep an eye on your drinks orders to avoid a shock at the end of the evening. Also, do set aside plenty of time. Service is very warm and friendly but the wait between courses, even in a nearly empty restaurant, is a little longer than ideal.

Tip: Don’t be shy about asking for more of the excellent bread and butter, by the way, it’s great for mopping up some of the juices and sauces!

 

The Marolles Flea Market

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Usually, I’m not much of a shopper but offer me the chance to browse a car boot sale or flea market and I’m instantly excited, so I was very keen to return to the famous Marolles Flea Market held daily in the Place du Jeu de Balle. On sale is a charming mix of cheap tat and more expensive “antiques”; it’s definitely a case of one man’s rubbish being another man’s treasure. With my love of retro kitchenware, I was in heaven as there’s plenty of it here, at very bargainous prices. It’s actually a miracle I came away with only a couple of ornate old teaspoons and two Nestle branded cups and saucers in amber glass – there was, I think, a complete set of six in the box but most were too chicken-shit-and-feather covered to assess very well, so I just bought the two cleanest ones for a whopping €1!

The market runs every day of the year. Official start times state that it starts at 6 am and finishes at 2pm on weekdays, 3pm on weekends.

Tip: Take lots of small change with you and of course, be prepared to haggle!

Brussels has many more markets to visit including markets for art, food, flowers and vintage clothes.

 

An Elegant Pillow

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X2B Brussels is a family run luxury bed and breakfast in the heart of Brussels, just a few minutes walk from the Grand Place. The three guest bedrooms are each on a different floor – we booked the first floor double and were delighted to discover a vast room with soaringly high ceilings, simple and elegant furnishings and a very generous en-suite bathroom. Do note that none of the rooms have step-free access and, as you’d expect in a private home, there is no lift. Guests are welcomed either by owner Xavier or his mother Monique, who sit down with guests on arrival to share tips for visiting Brussels, personalised to their guests’ interests. Breakfast is excellent: a basket of fresh bread and pastries with an enormous selection of jams and spreads, cheese and cold hams, yoghurt, eggs however you’d like them, rounded off by coffee and freshly squeezed orange juice. The hot freshly made raisin bread pain perdu is a lovely touch. Free wifi is also a boon, for those of us who like to stay connected. From £160 a night including breakfast.

Tip: make sure you jot down the house number as well as the street name; there’s no obvious sign on the outside so we walked up and down the same stretch of road several times, eventually identifying the B&B only by peering at the tiny labels for individual doorbells.

 

Getting Around

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In terms of getting around, the key sites in Brussels are within a fairly small area and its certainly possible to walk. But you can also make use of the metro and tram network, as well as local buses. The Brussels Card gives unlimited use of public transport, free entry into some attractions, discounted entry into many more and discounts in shops and restaurants too. You will also be given a free city map. Available for 24, 48 or 72 hours for 24€, 36€ or 43€.

 

With thanks to Eurostar for the complimentary return tickets between London and Brussels and thanks to the Brussels Tourist Board for their assistance in planning some of our sightseeing highlights and their insight into historic and modern Brussels.

 

I recently started a new job in Victoria, an area jam-packed with mediocre chain restaurants and coffee shops. When I asked food friends for recommendations, Uni was a name that popped up more than once, with its salmon tacos singled out for particular praise. Taco shells filled with salmon tartare isn’t a dish I’ve ever come across before, so of course, I was intrigued.

It turns out that although Uni takes its name from the Japanese for sea urchin, it’s not a straight Japanese restaurant. Rather, it describes itself as offering Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian food. Japanese food is enormously popular in parts of South America; indeed Brazil is home to the largest population of people of Japanese descent outside of Japan and Peru the second largest. My only reference for the term Nikkei was the Tokyo stock index but I’ve now learned that it’s also a term for American Japanese.

In the main part, the menu is more Japanese than Peruvian, which is not a big surprise when you learn that head chef Rolando Ongcoy once worked at Nobu. The advantage of Ongcoy’s fusion background is an openness to innovate, resulting in some welcome twists on Japanese classics.

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Images courtesy of Uni restaurant

Located on a quiet residential street steps away from Victoria station, Uni is a strange place. The front door opens onto a mid-floor landing part way up a terrifyingly transparent staircase; up leads to white leather stools around a marble counter which comes across like an over-monied art student’s wet dream – I can’t say I’m a fan; downstairs is thankfully much more understated, with soft brown fabrics and no lurid art. There are a lot of covers squeezed into a very tiny space – our corner table was tucked beneath the staircase itself, though I’ll admit it didn’t feel particularly claustrophobic.

The downside downstairs is the tight size of the tables – with small personal plates, water and a drink each on the table, it was a struggle to find space for one dish let alone two or three.

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The drinks list has more of a Peruvian influence with Pisco Sours available, as well as a coconut-based Chilli Mojito. As someone who genuinely adores Midori (melon liqueur) I couldn’t resist the Midoroska (£9.50) which was a simple but delicious and refreshing combination of vodka, midori, sugar & lime. Pete had a Sapporo beer (£4.50).

As well as the cocktails list (alcoholic and non-) there is a small range of sake (including a sweeter sparkling option) and red, white, rosé and sparkling wine. For beer drinkers, there are just two – Asahi Super Dry and Sapporo. The whisky list reveals a big missed opportunity – not a single Japanese whisky is listed!

As we read the rest of the menu, we had some edamame (£4) with sea salt flakes to start.

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Of course, we ordered the salmon tacos (£6) as one of our selection of starters. Described as salmon tartare, cucumber, tomato, masago and creamy miso, I understood on first bite why these garnered such praise from fellow visitors – the crunch of the delicate taco shell is an excellent textural balance to the soft fish inside. I don’t think I’d had masago (caplin fish roe) before but, as part of a mixed mouthful, I didn’t detect a difference from ikura (salmon roe).

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Although I knew the Japanese words of a number of individual seaweeds such as kombu, wakame, arame and hijiki I wasn’t familiar with kaiso, which is the word for seaweed.

I don’t know which types this kaiso seaweed salad with goma dressing (£6) contained but, once again, the balance of tastes and textures was spot on. I love Japanese sesame dressings and could eat this salad every day.

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Peruvian tiraditos are somewhat like (seafood) carpaccio, ceviche and sashimi but not the same as any of them. I’d say the cut of the fish is a little thicker than carpaccio, a little thinner than sashimi and the spicy dressing is not the same as that used to cure ceviche (for which the fish is more commonly chopped rather than sliced too).

We chose the yellowtail tiraditos (£15.50) and found the small plate of fish superbly fresh and beautifully dressed (with kizami wasabi, yuzu & fresh mint). But at over £2.50 per slice of fish, it was steeply priced.

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I really enjoyed the tempura rock shrimp (£15) that our waiter Nachos encouraged us to try, particularly dipped into the creamy spicy sauce. Again, pricy but a decent portion and very sweet, tasty shrimp.

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I’m more of a fan of sashimi (3 pieces per order) than sushi (2 pieces per order) but I like that all the toppings are available either way.

We decided on an order of ibodai (butterfish £6) and toro (fatty tuna £9.50), as these are always part of my sashimi tray when I buy freshly cut sashimi to eat at home from my local Atari-ya shop. Again, the superb quality of fish was impressive.

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The highlight of the meal for me was uni in the shell (£9); I’ve never encountered such fresh, sweet uni in London! The beautiful presentation was just icing on the cake (or should I say ice in the bowl?) against the smooth, creamy treat of the sea urchin roe.

If you’re a fan of uni, you should visit for this one dish, let alone the rest.

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Unagi (eel) is another Japanese classic I love, not least for the traditional sticky sweet sauce it’s commonly glazed with. The unagi maki (£6) with nori and cucumber was excellent.

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Although friends raved about Uni’s wagyu steak, the wagyu tataki (£23) was the most disappointing dish of the meal for me. Served with ponzu, truffle oil & crispy garlic, I felt that the citrus notes in the ponzu sauce completely overpowered the flavours of the beef as well as the truffle oil, which I was unable to detect. Texture-wise, the beef wasn’t remotely as marbled as the (low and medium) grade wagyu I had in Japan; that beef was so rich with fat that it melted on the tongue just like fatty tuna. The garlic crisps were delightful but overall, I wouldn’t recommend this dish.

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For dessert, we shared the mochi moriawase (£6), an attractively presented plate of 4 different mochi – black sesame, yuzu, strawberry cheesecake and chocolate. All were delicious, and we couldn’t agree on a favourite.

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I finished with a pot of genmaicha (£3.50), served in beautiful tea pot and cup.

This was a wonderful meal, no doubt about it. We enjoyed nearly everything and really loved several of the dishes.

Certainly Uni is a little pricy, but the uncompromisingly excellent quality ingredients go a fair way to justifying that. We were greedy – not to mention keen to sample all the sections of the menu – and you certainly don’t need to order quite as much as we did, but if you do, the food above comes to £53 per person, with drinks and service on top of that. Take out just a couple of items, such as the traditos and the edamame and it’s already down to £43 a head (food bill) and still a generous feast.

Work is always busy but I’m keen to slip out one lunch time and try Uni’s bento box offering and of course, I doubt I’ll be able to resist a return visit for that uni soon!

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Uni restaurant.

Square Meal

 

A Friendly Argument

I wasn’t expecting an invitation to The House of Ho. I got into a friendly argument with Bobby Chinn you see…

I was a guest in the audience for a panel discussion about the Future of London’s Dining Scene hosted by Land Securities, a property development company behind the new Nova complex in Victoria. Nicholas Lander (former restaurateur and FT restaurant correspondent) chaired the discussion, with input from Henry Dimbleby (founder of Leon), Kate Spicer (journalist), Martin Morales (restaurateur, founder of Ceviche) and Bobby Chinn (restaurateur, founder of The House of Ho).

In reality, there was very little discussion on the future of the dining scene. Instead, the chatting was mainly centred on where we are today, how we got here and what is popular right now. The rise of social media and blogging was inevitably raised, during which Bobby Chinn took issue with a blogger who’d posted a review of his restaurant after visiting on the first day. He was also frustrated by that blogger’s willingness to pass comment on the authenticity of his Vietnamese food without ever having stepped foot in Vietnam.

As input from the audience was encouraged, I stood up and asked a question. Was the visit during a soft launch, with reduced prices to mitigate potential teething issues or was the restaurant charging full prices on the date of the visit? On the first full price day, he replied. Whilst I agree that it’s a little surprising to pass judgement on a new restaurant so early on, I pointed out that bloggers are not professional food critics, rather we are, in the main part, enthusiastic consumers with a voice. As such, if a restaurant is charging customers full price for its food, it should accept being judged on that basis.

We had a bit of friendly but passionate back and forth on the topic (with Bobby suggesting that bloggers might like to sink their own money into opening a new restaurant to appreciate how it feels) before Nick moved the discussion forward.

I should add too that Bobby clarified that bloggers have been pretty good for his business on the whole and he’s appreciated their coverage, which has mainly been positive.

After the panel session was over, I made my way over to introduce myself properly to Bobby and to say that, whilst I don’t tend to review restaurants quite that early on, mostly because I rarely rush to visit when places are so new, I stood by my statement that full prices means being fully open to criticism. Also, I felt that he had conflated two distinct issues – the right or wrongs of posting a review in the early days and the rights and wrongs of commenting on authenticity of a cuisine without the experience or knowledge to do so intelligently. I wondered if his frustration at the second aspect was colouring his feedback on the first.

In any case, I thanked him for engaging in debate so openly and exchanged business cards.

To my delight, as I was getting ready to leave at the end of the evening, Ranjit Mathrani (one of the owners of Veeraswamy, Chutney Mary and Masala Zone restaurants) approached me, shook my hand and told me he was in complete agreement with me, that I had spoken well and he too felt that as soon as a restaurant is charging full price, it should expect to be judged.

A week later, an unexpected invitation arrived from The House of Ho’s marketing manager, inviting me to come in and visit. After such an intense and engaging first meeting with owner Bobby, I couldn’t say no!

Bobby Chinn

So, who is Bobby Chinn? Well, as I discovered, he’s a larger than life character with a story to match. In his recently published cookbook, Bobby Chinn’s Vietnamese Food, he describes himself as an “ethnic mutt” – half Chinese-half Egyptian – who grew up in New Zealand, England and America. I suggest you read the book to follow the story in full but in a nutshell: in the mid 1990s Chinn’s father identified Vietnamese cuisine as one that would soon explode in popularity around the world. So Bobby moved to Vietnam, having recently discovered a love and skill for cooking, ended up establishing restaurants in Saigon then Hanoi, and became a genuine authority on authentic Vietnamese cooking in the process. At the same time, he launched his television career with a show about Asian food for Discovery Network Travel and Living.

In December last year, he opened his first UK restaurant, The House of Ho, bringing his brand of Vietnamese cooking to London. Whilst some of the menu is a faithful rendition of traditional dishes, the rest is Bobby’s modern take on Vietnamese cuisine, bringing modern and international ingredients and techniques into play. His book gives more background on the food he loves to cook, full of stories of street food vendors he persuaded to share their secrets, and the thought processes behind dishes he developed himself.

The House of Ho

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In fact, the menu is a little confusing. Dishes are divided between sections for Light & Raw, Hot & Grilled, Ho’s Dishes, Sides and Dessert. Pricing suggests that the first two sections might be starters, with Ho’s Dishes being larger, but we’re advised that the whole menu is about small sharing plates and are recommended to order 5 to 7 dishes between two, with no real guidance on balancing between the sections.

A Saigon beer (£4.50) and a refreshing Rosy Lemonade (rose petal, kumquat, lemongrass syrup and lemonade £4.50) kick off the meal and soon, our dishes begin to arrive.

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First to come out (in that “dishes will arrive when they’re ready” style of service that make life easier for the kitchen but less predictable for punters) is the BBQ Baby Back Ribs on a Light Asian Slaw (£6 from Hot & Grilled). The ribs are classic American Barbecue and the meat just the right texture – falling away from bone easily but not so soft it’s like baby food. Nice but not very Asian. That requirement is covered by the Asian slaw, which I really enjoy – light, crunchy and refreshing, though quite mild in overall flavour.

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Stuffed Tofu with a Mushroom Medley, Cellophane Noodles in Tomato Sauce (£5 from Hot & Grilled) is a pretty dish. Crisp-skinned soft tofu with a slightly bland filling of teeny tiny mushrooms and noodles, served on a puddle of rich classic European tomato sauce that would be the pride of any Italian mama. I ask Bobby about the dish later; he tells me that the original Vietnamese dish is a more rustic affair with a tomato sauce mixed into mushrooms, noodles and tofu. Knowing little about what is available in Vietnam, I wonder if the sauce is an influence of the French colonial period?

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Another prettily presented dish arrives, the Spicy Salmon Tartare, Chopped Pistachio, Shiso, Jicama with Asian Vinaigrette (£7, Light & Raw). This is excellent, with punchy flavours and some great textures. I’d never have thought of pistachios with salmon but love the combination. Those rice crackers are a thing of beauty and perfect to scoop up the mixed tartare.

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I like The ‘Shaking Beef’, Grass-Fed, 21 Day-Aged Fillet (£14, Ho’s Dishes) better than Pete. We both appreciate the excellent quality of the meat, and how very tender it is. Pete finds the flavours a little too understated, but I love the freshness and tastes of the mixed micro herbs, which add a lot to the dish. Even with the quality of the beef, it’s a little pricy for the portion, given that it includes no vegetables or rice.

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I absolutely love the Apple-Smoked Pork Belly, Braised Cabbage. Egg (£11, Ho’s Dishes) though, goodness me, there’s hardly any cabbage at all – more of a garnish – and two egg halves would make it a better sharing dish. But the fatty pork belly is cooked to perfection and the rich caramelised sauce is very good indeed.

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The portion of Lemongrass Monkfish with a Fish Caramel Sauce (£12, Ho’s Dishes) is disappointingly small for the price tag, though the tastes and textures are lovely. It’s not cloyingly sweet, indeed the key flavour is that of the lemongrass, with the welcome addition of the spring onions.

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A side of Morning Glory (£4, Sides) is simply, tasty and adds some much needed greenery. A jasmine rice (£2.50) is good to mop up juices.

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I often find chocolate desserts in Asian restaurants (of various nationalities) far too sweet so the Molten Marou Chocolate Cake (£6.50, Dessert)  is a pleasant surprise. Excellent quality dark chocolate is used to flavour a small cake, cooked just right to give a gooey centre.

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I love my little Lemon-Scented Creme Brulee (£5.50, Dessert). Pete thinks it’s too small, especially as the price point is that of a full size dessert, but the creamy richness and flavour means I’m not too disappointed though he’s right that I could happily have eaten a little more!

Not in the mood for drinking, we don’t pay much attention to the wine menu, but I do enjoy a shot of Misty Mountain, Junmai Usu-nigori Sake, (£6.50 for 50ml) with dessert. When I dither over my sake choice, the waitress kindly suggests bringing me a taster of the two I’m choosing between, which is a nice touch.

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Overall, we enjoy the meal. With such a short menu, I’d like to see more space given over to classic Vietnamese dishes, though I enjoyed Bobby’s interpretations well enough. Ingredients are of good quality, presentation is appealing and I’m always a fan of sharing a higher number of small plates rather than a couple of full size ones.

And I must comment on the beautiful crockery which contributed much to the visual presentation of the dishes – Bobby has an almost Japanese sensibility in the choice of beautiful individual dishes to showcase his food.

Pricing is a bit high, even taking into account the heart-of-Soho location – the BBQ ribs are good value, and the tartare and tofu fair, but the shaking beef and lemongrass monkfish are pricy. With our very limited drinks order, our bill would be around a ton (were we not dining as guests).

Service hasn’t been as consistent as I’d hoped. The tasters of sake were much appreciated. But it has been hard to attract attention even before the restaurant was full and it has sometimes been lacking in focus; at one point, our waitress turned away from us as I was mid-sentence, in reaction to a discussion between the customers and waitress at the table behind us, continued to observe their conversation for the next several minutes, and then wandered off in reaction to it, leaving us with our mouths open and no chance to complete our request. The friendliness is here, but not the attention.

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I did enjoy our window table, looking out on the hustle and bustle of Soho; it’s not every day you see two fundraising teletubbies wandering past as you dine!

 

Kavey Eats dined as guests of The House of Ho.
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Back in the late 1990s, a friend took me to Matsuri St James. It was a fair bit pricier than the restaurants we more commonly visited, but he’d heard good things about the food and was keen to try. Most of the clientele were Japanese and virtually all of them were men, probably a factor of its location within walking distance of the Japanese Embassy, the authenticity of its cuisine and the suitability of the teppanyaki experience for corporate dining, when Suits with expense accounts entertain groups of Important People.

We enjoyed it immensely. The food was excellent and the teppanyaki spectacle both entertaining but understated. I dropped a business card into a box and was delighted to win a meal for two, which gave me the opportunity to enjoy another fine meal there a few weeks later.

Somehow, after that, I never made it back. It wasn’t wholly a factor of price – even then, in junior roles with junior salaries to match, Pete and I regularly splashed out for special occasions. And it wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it. I think it just fell off my radar. Out of sight, out of mind. Always more restaurants to discover.

And that’s the problem Matsuri continues to face; well known within the London Japanese community and particular the Japanese business and diplomatic sector, it hasn’t really caught the attention of a wider clientele.

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After enjoying some drinks in the upstairs waiting area, we took our seats at the horseshoe teppanyaki tables for a welcome from the restaurant’s President, Yoshinori Hatta. He gave us a brief introduction to the restaurant, during which we learned that it was launched in 1993 as a joint venture between JR Central and Kikkoman soy sauce company; indeed Mr Hatta was originally an engineer with the railway company – now that’s a career change and a half! He introduced the rest of the team including restaurant manager Cristoforo Santini, sommelier Tommaso Riccardo Guzzardo and new head chef Ryosuke Kishi and told us they had recently launched a sushi bar within the restaurant.

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Assorted Sushi – Head chef Kishi-san making sushi for our starter plate. The selection was a little staid, but the quality of the fish was excellent.

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Prawn and Vegetable Tempura – Prawn, sweet potato triangle, shishito pepper, baby sweet corn in a delightfully crisp and light batter.

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Alaskan Black Cod Marinated in Ginger – Our teppanyaki chef Marvin made us smile when he referred to the beautiful cloche as a Japanese microwave! The silky cod was richly flavoured by the soy and ginger marinade. This dish was a favourite for many of our group.

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Txogitxu Galician Beef T-Bone Steak – From a Japanese breed of cattle (prized for wagyu) raised in Spain, this steak had a high fat content that made it rich and melting. Though not a match for true wagyu, it was very good indeed. I particularly liked that our chef cut and served the wobbly fat as well.

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For those who didn’t eat fish, an alternate course of Foie Gras, Smoked Duck and Mushroom was provided and they kindly let the rest of us have a taste. I didn’t detect any smokiness but the richness of the foie gras, moist duck and umami mushrooms was an excellent combination. Also pictured, is the gorgeous Virgule knife that I desperately covet and the fresh white and green asparagus, served with both the duck dish and the steak.

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Garlic Butter Egg Fried Rice – Though it was impressive watching this be fried, it lacked the depth of flavour I expected.

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Fire-Ball Ice-Cream – Dessert was the exact same one served when I first visited, almost two decades ago. There’s something rather charming about sticking to such a signature dish, and of course, it’s fun to see ice cream being cooked and flambéed on the teppanyaki grill. Decent, but would have been far more delicious had the restaurant sourced properly ripened and sweet pineapple.

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One of the key aspects of the teppanyaki dining experience is your teppanyaki chef, who explains the dishes as he’s cooking and adds to the experience by answering questions and injecting occasional humour. Marvin, who manned our grill, made us smile many times so I was irritated when a member of the management team gruffly admonished him to smile more, as though he were a performing monkey. It was, for me, the only sour note of the evening.

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Dishes were matched with sake and wine. With the exception of dessert wine, I’m not a wine drinker, so asked for a sparkling sake. This sweet bubbling option is enormously refreshing, with a floral peachy flavour that I particularly love. My dining companions made appreciative noises about the white and red wines served. I really loved the sweet umeshu (plum wine) served with dessert, Umenoyado Aragoshi.

 

Of course, all this comes at quite a cost. Our menu was specially put together to showcase the restaurant’s signature dishes but I asked Cristoforo to cost it up for me and he came back with a price per head for a group of 6 of £63, comparable to their cheapest set menu, The Matsuri, at £65 per head. However, be aware that The Matsuri Set provides only one main course against our two of black cod and steak, and there is a supplement to upgrade to garlic fried rice in place of steamed. More generous is the Aoi Set, which features both a seafood (lobster) and steak main dish, at £100 per person or the Okagura Set at £145. You can also order à la carte, and comfortably enjoy a nice selection for around the same price as the Matsuri Set. Plus drinks, of course.

Once upon a time, the quality and authenticity of the Matsuri St James offering was more than enough to justify the prices. Today, the popularity of Japanese cuisine has soared and there are more and more and more authentic Japanese restaurants for Londoners to choose from. What’s more, the Japanese concept of restaurants that specialise in a particular type of cooking or ingredient has reached us too and we can visit restaurants offering yakitori, ramen, udon noodles, okonomyaki and even kaiseki ryori. Older Japanese restaurants have stepped up their game by offering more adventurous Japanese menus. Newer ones are often enthusiastically geeky about their chosen area of focus. While Matsuri continues to do what it does and do it very well, it’s competing in a much wider field and many of those in the race are more affordable. That said, it still excels at fine dining for groups of 6-8 and sharing a teppanyaki table with a group of friends remains a great way to celebrate a special occasion.

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Matsuri St James. First two images reproduced with kind permission.

 

Some people love chef’s tables. Others really aren’t fans.

Blurring the line between kitchen and diners, a chef’s table invites a small group of customers to dine in the heart of the kitchen, where they can watch what goes on behind the scenes as the chefs bustle about their business.

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Respected critic Marina O’Loughlin describes the “chef’s table phenomenon” as “rich Victorians peering at Bedlam inmates for sport” and a commenter on her article labels people who like them as tosserati. But she’s talking about an experience in which the diners sharing the table are strangers, and she is stuck with a plate-licker and silent photographers for the duration. It sounds more like going to the theatre, but getting to eat as part of the performance.

More common are tables to be booked by a single group, like the one at Odette’s restaurant in North London.

Owned and helmed by Bryn Williams, this Primrose Hill institution has been popular with locals since it opened in 1978. Williams took over in 2008 and has gained a loyal following for his confident modern cooking and high quality ingredients, many of which are sourced from his home region in Wales.

During a recent kitchen refurbishment, Williams completely rearranged the space and found himself with a generously sized un-used alcove that was crying out for a chef’s table. Its position means diners who book Odette’s Kitchen Table have the opportunity to observe the chefs at work as much or little as they like, but have enough separation from the core cooking area to catch up with their friends and have a sociable evening together.

My visit was the result of a PR invitation, but with just six of us at the table, all of whom knew each other already, it was more an evening with friends than a typical media event. Indeed, while we appreciated the chance to have a quick tour of the kitchen, the invitation to help cook and plate one or two of our dishes if we wanted to, and the ability to glance up and watch the small team of chefs at work, we mostly got on with chatting about everything and anything, from holidays to weddings to families to our student days. Of course, photos of the delicious food were taken, but what I most enjoyed about the evening was that we spent virtually no time dissecting the actual dishes – other than brief comments of appreciation, we focused more on eating, drinking, gabbing and laughing.

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The kitchen table, Williams instructing his chefs, Ed being told about the fish before having a go at cooking, a chef finishing dishes at the pass, pans, Chloe helping with dessert

Dining at The Kitchen Table means booking an expanded version of the tasting menu. The standard tasting menu, available in the restaurant, offers 6 dishes for £50 (or 7 for £55 if you add the cheese course). You can add wines for an additional £35. The Kitchen tasting menu is £80, which includes the cheese course, several snacks before the first course proper and coffee and petits fours at the end. With wine, it’s £125.

The small team of chefs each “own” different dishes and as each one is served, the chef responsible comes to the table to introduce it in a little more detail than is provided on the menu.

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Slices of Carmarthen Ham – one of the “snacks” before the named menu dishes.

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Truffle Arancini – second snack, heady with truffle and very soft and moist.

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Goats Cheese Choux Pastry – third snack, served hot and fresh.

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Marinated scallop, pear, mooli & Carmarthen ham – like petals at the bottom of the bowl, almost translucent paper-thin slices of mooli, on top of these a mayonnaise made of scallop roe, oil and chilli peppers, then a small pile of diced scallop and pear (served raw), in a ceviche dressing of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and sugar and a garnish of sea purslane and Carmarthen ham. The combination of pear and scallop was surprisingly wonderful.

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New season asparagus, lardo, truffle & smoked rapeseed – blanched new season asparagus, a mayonnaise (made using Welsh smoked rapeseed oil, eggs, vinegar and Dijon mustard), a truffle dressing with shallots, mushroom, garlic, thyme, bay, madeira and truffle juice, finished with sherry vinegar and olive oil, on top a slice of lardo (cured pork backfat), micro herbs and truffle. This dish showed off top quality new season asparagus very nicely.

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Whole lemon sole Grenobloise, salsify, potted shrimp sauce – A fillet of lemon sole with a classic Grenobloise garnish featuring lemon, capers, parsley and croutons, modernised by the use of Lilliput capers, lemon segments, soda bread croutons, brown shrimps and sea purslane. Served with an emulsified sauce based on the butter and spices used to pot shrimp. Garnished with salsify. Perfectly cooked, with beautiful flavours.

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Welsh lamb, courgette & anchovies tarte fine, artichoke, tomato – rump of Welsh Elwy Valley lamb, medium rare. The description tells me it was served on a courgette, onions and anchovy tart but I neither remember seeing that on the plate, nor can I spot it in the photos, so I assume it was omitted. The baby artichoke was cooked Barigoule (in white wine, vinegar and lemon juice with herbs and spices) before being fried. There was also a spiced tomato chutney and virtually insignificant amounts of sauce.

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Perl wen and truffle – organic Perl Wen cheese with freshly grated truffle, served with bara brith (fruited brown bread) and savoury crackers with poppy and fennel seeds. Generous truffle with perfectly ripe cheese and excellent bread and crackers.

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Garrigette strawberries, cheesecake & elderflower – Strawberries lightly marinated in jus de fraise (strawberry syrup) and elderflower cordial, a thin tuile of feuille de brique pastry with honey, a quenelle of “cheesecake” (made with Philadelphia cheese, crème fraiche, cream, sugar and vanilla), elderflower and lemon granita and additional jus de fraise. Super sweet, but the very essence of fruit.

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Odette’s jaffa cake, orange cream & marmalade – layers of sponge with marmalade, dark chocolate mousse and orange jelly, chocolate soil, an orange burnt cream and a chocolate caramel tuile. A beautiful dessert, really well balanced, lovely textures, tasted fabulous and looked stunning.

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Chocolate truffles.

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Mini chocolate eclairs – generously filled with a soft creamy custard.

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Mini Madeleines  hot out of the oven. Delicious orange zest flavour.

 

As I’d hoped, the meal was excellent. It’s not uncommon with a tasting menu for there to be one or two dishes that aren’t as good, or simply not to my taste, as the rest but here I enjoyed every dish, from the first snack to the last petit four and everything in between. And for the courses we had, I thought £80 was great value.

Service, as in the restaurant proper, was warm and helpful without being obsequious or pushy.

Being in an alcove on the other side of the pass meant that we had great access to the kitchen but also had our own space. We were not pressured to watch the chefs in sycophantic fashion – rather their presence and our interaction with them was simply a small but fun extra facet of our meal. It was also a wonderfully peaceful kitchen with focused chefs calmly performing their jobs; no need for drama or stress or noise.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of Odette’s restaurant.

 

When eating out with vegetarian or pescetarian friends, it can be tricky to find a restaurant where their dietary needs are properly catered for… not just with the obligatory one or two clichéd dishes but with lots of appealing choices that are every bit as inventive as they could wish for.

Luckily, my vegetarian friend Sejal had heard about a place that might fit the bill, and better still, its location in Temple Fortune was virtually equidistant between us.

Cafe Also is attached to neighbouring business, Joseph’s Bookstore owned by Michael Joseph. I like to imagine a conversation where Joseph first expressed an interest “to open a cafe, also…

The cafe-restaurant sits on the corner of the block, with floor-to-ceiling windows along both fronts and a large door at the corner. Bookshop and cafe are connected by glass-panelled double doors and visitors to one are invited to check out the other.

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Exterior, Google Street View

Inside, boxes of beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables front the counter area, though sadly they’re not for sale; rather, they’re part of the cook’s larder, on display to customers. Second hand books line the shelves, including quite a few cookery book titles, if you’re so inclined.

Although the cafe opened back in 2001, owner Michael Joseph met current head chef Ali Al-Sersy just a couple of years ago. Egyptian-born Al-Sersy trained at Le Gavroche under the Roux brothers, and worked for the Qatari royal family, before opening his own restaurant Mims, first in New Barnet and then in Chelsea. At Cafe Also, he shares his unusual menu with a loyal local clientele. He goes to market several times a week to source fresh fish, fruit and vegetables, which inspire his appealing menu.

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On my first visit, we asked for guidance, as the menu isn’t divided simply into starters, mains and desserts. First, the breakfast items are listed, followed by a section of dishes that we assume (from their price point) are starters or lighter meal options, and then main dishes; after these, a selection of mezze salads and lastly, sweet things. Some of our questions to staff about the small dishes suggested they may be too generous to enjoy as a starter, so we adjusted our order accordingly, with my friend choosing a plate from the mezze salad section to start her meal.

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To begin, I chose roasted beetroot with homemade fromage blanc, pomegranate and orange essence (£6). I was completely bowled over by the beautifully presented plate that arrived and just as impressed with the perfect balance of flavours and textures – I would not have thought to combine these four key ingredients but as soon as I tasted them together, it made perfect sense.

My friend’s torched aubergine & tomato with barbequed oil and coriander (£2.50) was very generous for the price, and equally delicious. The aubergine was silky, smoky and beautifully complimented by the flavoured oil and coriander.

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Her main dish of crisped adzuki beans with broccoli poached in celeriac and peach tea, & broccoli cornmeal (£12.50) was deemed both an unusual and delicious choice, quite unlike the usual cheese or tomato pasta dishes that are so commonly the vegetarian’s lot. The soft “loaf” was moist and full of flavour, a world-away from the dry nutloafs of old.

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My hake with coconut, like, ginger, Chinese leaves & fondant potatoes (£13.50) was, as we’d now come to expect, a beautifully presented dish. I particularly loved that it was not swimming in a thick, gloopy sauce but that a light, fragrant sauce had been sparingly applied. It gave flavour but allowed the ingredients to shine in their own right. I had worried that fondant potatoes might be an odd match for the Asian flavour influences in the dish, but actually, they worked very well.

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Both desserts, banana ice cream (£3.50) and pear and vanilla cake (£3.50), came decorated with what I know as pashmak (Persian candy floss).

My banana ice cream turned out to be an altogether more substantial dish than I’d imagined – a whole caramelised banana (served warm) and a serving of ice cream frozen into the same shape and served, whimsically, within a banana skin. Both were wonderful, though far larger a portion than I could manage.

The cake and ice cream were delicious too, simple and well made with pleasing texture and taste.

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I returned just a week later for lunch with my mum; she’s pescetarian and seldom gets so much choice when eating out.

The menu was broadly the same, with a few small changes.

Fresh bread, made in house, was super; I’d guess egg-enriched.

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Mum chose the vegetarian burger with cheese, smoked mushroom relish, tomato, mayo, leaves and chips (£8.50). She really liked both, the burger had a wonderful flavour. The only issue here was that it was so soft and sloppy that it almost immediately fell apart, making it difficult to eat a sandwich. She persevered with knife and fork. The chips were excellent.

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After being so impressed with my hake, I couldn’t resist ordering the grilled herbed wild black bream with broccoli sprouts and roasted new potatoes (£13.50) and it was every bit as tasty as I expected. I’m not sure why the potatoes were presented on sticks, since nothing else about the dish was finger-food format, but those quickly removed, it was another fine dish; fabulously fresh fish, perfectly cooked and paired with simply accompaniments and dressing.

This is the kind of fish dish I want to eat much, much more of.

Both visits impressed me greatly. I’d recommend Cafe Also as a superb choice, not only for pescetarians and vegetarians, but for omnivores like me who are looking for something a little different.

Temple Fortune may not be the first neighbourhood you think of for top dining in London, but Cafe Also is definitely worth the visit. Breakfast and lunch are served six days a week (except Monday) and dinner five days a week (Tuesday through to Saturday).

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