Sticks N Sushi is a stylish sushi and yakitori restaurant that recently made the leap from its native Denmark to London. The Wimbledon branch opened its doors in 2012, soon followed by the Covent Garden location in November last year. Founded 20 years ago, the chain took inspiration from the Rahbek brothers’ half-Japanese, half-Danish background – their restaurants feature stylish and modern interiors (each one quite distinct from the others), welcoming staff and beautifully presented Japanese food.

Given the existing popularity and prevalence of sushi restaurants in London, we may, perhaps, be a harder market to crack than Denmark but the combination of sushi and yakitori in one place is, as far as I am aware, unique and the attractive and spacious venue in the heart of Covent Garden will surely appeal to locals and tourists alike.

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Exterior and interior images provided by Sticks N Sushi

Because Japanese cuisine was not that well known in Denmark, Sticks N Sushi menus were designed to be extremely visual, so that customers could see exactly what they were ordering; this remains the case today. There are two menus – one showcases a long list of set plates featuring different combinations of sushi, yakitori or both. The other allows customers to pick and choose à la carte. I find the menus rather beautiful and a pleasure to browse through, though the sheer number of choices means it takes longer than usual for me to compare the options and decide what to order.

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The drinks menu also offers a lot of choice – as well as the usual range of soft drinks, there are beers, sakes, shochus, whiskies, ciders and a variety of wines.

The cocktails are particularly appealing, being as they are mostly unfamiliar and rather inventive. Japanese spirits such as sake, shochu, umeshu and whisky feature regularly and I’m happy to see ingredients such as yuzu, jasmine tea, honey and ginger. I like how simple icons in the menu make clear which cocktails come in tall, short and martini glasses. My (alcoholic) Yuzu Lemonade (£7.50) is refreshing but I like my Hanoko (£8.50) even more – jasmine tea-infused shochu with elderflower, honey and fresh lime is an inspired combination.

There are beers from Asahi, Kirin and Sapporo in Japan, plus Meantime here in London. But Pete tries the Sushi N Biiru White Beer (£6.40) and the Sticks N Biiru Black Beer (£6.80) made by Nørrebro Bryghus, a Danish microbrewery in Copenhagen. The two beers are mango-juice orange and a more restrained copper respectively. Chatting to our waitress, we express surprise at the colour of the black beer in particular, only to have her suggest that there isn’t such a thing as a properly dark beer. When we look slightly nonplussed and remind her of Guinness (and all the other popular stouts and porters available) she replies that “those are all made with coffee aren’t they?” I’d say a little staff training on the beer list wouldn’t go amiss!

Pete remarks that the White Beer, described as a wheat beer with yuzu, looks like a glass of Um Bongo. On the nose, it’s a fairly standard wheat beer, a little sweet and grassy but no citrus. In the mouth, it has quite a generous body. It’s on the sweet side with a touch of honey and a little sourness underneath, but still no yuzu that he can detect.

Putting aside its colour, the Black Beer has a caramel malt and slightly earthy hops aroma. In the mouth there is toffee and a decent underlying bitterness that’s deep and pleasing.

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Hot flannels are provided shortly after we are seated and, as is common in Japan, we’re encouraged to keep them throughout the meal. It’s a nice touch when finger food is involved.

We are asked a few times if we’d like to order some nibbles to start, with beef tataki being one of the suggestions, so we’re surprised when the mains come out first; our intended starters arrive some time later. Our waitress explains that she placed the order to “come when ready”; I suggest you make a specific request to have starters first if you’d prefer.

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Beef Tataki £9.50) doesn’t quite resemble the neat beef rectangles of its menu photograph but the beef is decent enough. The spicy gome (sesame) dressing is super but neither of us like the smoked cheese and chives and we can’t detect the promised yuzu koshu, a spicy condiment made of citrus and chilli. We are divided on the salted almonds, but they’re completely impractical to eat in any case, whether you use chopsticks, fork or fingers, and most are therefore left behind on the plate.

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Adam (£18.50), from the set menu, includes 1 salmon nigiri, 1 tuna nigiri, 1 yellowtail nigiri, 1 salmon New York (with garlic) nigiri , 1 tuna tataki nigiri, 1 shrimp nigiri, 1 tamago nigiri, 1 inari sushi, 1 black Alaska uramaki (inside out roll), 1 sparkling tuna uramaki, 1 mamma mia uramaki, 1 dreamy California uramaki and 2 gypsy futomaki (big rolls).

The quality of the fish is very good with a nice fresh taste and texture. All of the rolls are very tasty but we particularly love the gypsy futomaki which (so the à la carte menu reveals) contains seared fish, spicy sauce, avocado, cucumber, chilli, red onion, ginger and unagi sauce. The disappointing let down of the plate is the sushi rice which both of us find strangely dry and firm, like it’s been left out for far too long after cooking and mixing. I also find it a touch over-vinegared.

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On ordering, I ask the waitress if there are any other items from the sushi à la carte which aren’t part of Adam and which I absolutely mustn’t miss. She suggests the gunkan trout roe (£3.20 a piece) and I ask for one, with the quail egg yolk on top. Sadly the ikura (salmon and trout roe) doesn’t have the intensity of flavour that I’m used to – good ikura bursts in the mouth with a sharp, salty fishiness that is completely missing here.

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From the Sticks sets we choose Man Food (£19.50) which consists of 1 skewer of goat cheese in dried ham, 1 skewer of pork and basil, 1 skewer of beef with herb butter, 1 skewer of chicken breast with sasami chilli, 1 skewer of chicken tsukune, a bowl of plain rice, a pot of kimchee and a portion of edamame beans with salt and soy.

Asking the waitress if there are any other sticks she feels we simply must not miss results in an addition of 2 skewers of Miso Marinated Black Cod (£14.50 for 2 skewers). The little pot of Japanese Pickles – cucumbers marinated in ponzu (£2), that we ordered with the beef tataki as a starter, is served with the sticks.

Man Food is a deeply delicious set of sticks; but if you’re looking for more traditional Japanese flavours, it’s probably not the set for you. I’d find it hard to resist ordering this set again on my next visit though! The goat cheese in dried ham and skewer of pork and basil remind me of Italian (and I love them both). The soft and tender beef with garlicky herb butter is straight from France. The sasami chilli chicken and tsukune (chicken meatballs), both of which are moist and pack a flavour punch, are more traditionally Japanese. Excellent cooking!

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Edamame is edamame, much as you’d expect. However there is so much salt sprinkled over them that I have to wipe some off before sucking them out of their pods. The kimchee and pickled cucumbers are both decent, though the portions are small for the price. The black cod is undeniably tasty due to the excellent marinade, but the flesh is too pappy-soft, and I don’t think they are good value at over £7 a single skewer.

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Lemon, Yuzu and Meringue (£6) is a martini glass of yuzu sorbet, segments of orange, pieces of lemon meringue, lemon curd, small lemon and lime pearls and mini marshmallows. Oh, and a crispy shard of sugar with black and white sesame seeds. The marshmallows are a little stale and the tiny green pearls don’t contribute anything more than a funky appearance but oh my this dish tastes good – a satisfying citrus showcase!

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Four Tasters (£8) is just what its name implies – a small taste of four Sticks N Sushi desserts. Vanilla crème brûlée is excellent – a soft and loosely set custard full of vanilla with a crunchy sugar topping. Matcha green tea ice cream has a rich deep flavour and I’m happy it’s not too sweet, but the texture isn’t as silky smooth as I’d like. Chocolate fondant with caramel and hazelnut brittle is fabulous with a properly gooey centre of chocolate and caramel and a super nut and sugar crumble. Only the white chocolate with sweet miso and popped rice is a disappointment; the popped rice is soggy like a stale rice cake and there is no discernable flavour of miso in the white chocolate shell or milk chocolate centre.

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Some of the menu items seem a little too pricey, even taking quality ingredients into account. Sets are better value, though still a touch dear. But the food is, on the whole, very good and I do enjoy the combination of yakitori and sushi on the menu. The balance between traditional Japanese and European innovation is also very appealing.

It’s unfair to comment much on service, since we’re here on a pre-organised review visit, but certainly all the staff are friendly and enthusiastic. One of them assumes my picture-taking of our meal means that we must be on holiday and sweetly insists on taking our picture. I start to say no and think, what the hell, it’s been a good week and a lovely lunch, why not record our happiness?

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Sticks N Sushi.

 

Japanese consumers love limited editions so there was a lot of advertising and press interest when Burger King announced their Kuro (Black) Ninja burger in October. And this special edition was given its own mascot in the form of a cute cartoon ninja complete with black outfit and… a tongue stuck cheekily out! (No, I don’t know why, either…)

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I love BK Whoppers so when I learned that the Kuro Ninja was being launched during our recent holiday in Japan, I really wanted to seek it out.

On a day of eating that a hobbit would be proud of (during which we stopped for multiple breakfasts, multiple lunches and an enormous dinner), we finally tracked it down in Osaka.

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Most striking, of course, is the black bun, coloured with bamboo charcoal. It’s impressively black and with no discernible oddness of taste that we could detect.

Inside is a whopper patty, a round hash brown and a ridiculously long slab of thick bacon that lolls lewdly out from two sides. The regular lettuce, onions and sauce are complemented by Chaliapin sauce – this onion and garlic sauce is named for Russian opera singer Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin; during a visit to Tokyo in 1936, a steak and sauce dish was created for him by a hotel chef and has been named in his honour ever since.

Apparently, various of these elements have been seen before in some of Burger King’s earlier limited edition specials – the black bun also featured in 2012’s Kuro Burger, essentially a regular whopper but served with black ketchup (flavoured and coloured with garlic and squid ink); the bacon “tongue” was at the heart of Big Bacon Whopper, just a month or two before Kuro Ninja was available; and the Chaliapin sauce was a key component of the XT Steakhouse, a 2011 creation.

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What did we think? We liked it!

The balance of flavours and textures worked well enough. I found the hash brown made the burger a touch too big to eat easily; Pete had no such problem. The bacon tongue we folded inside, though that made the burger even bigger. Personally, I’d still choose a regular whopper over the Kuro Ninja… but I would really like to try the Kuro Whopper (no longer available) with its garlic and squid ink ketchup!

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Although the Kuro Ninja was advertised as ¥ 680 (burger only) / ¥ 830 (burger, fries and drink) the branch we went to in Osaka had increased the meal deal price to ¥ 1040 (about £7). But hey, we did get cute Kuro Ninja stickers for that too!

Read more of my Japan content, here.

 

As with most addresses in Tokyo, Zenyaren is difficult to find. When your overnight but sleepless flight from London landed only a few hours ago, and you’ve had a scant 1 hour nap since checking into your hotel, it’s doubly challenging. Luckily, Pete and I are with two Tokyo friends, Masamitsu and Voltaire, who manage, with the aid of smartphones, to track down my chosen venue.

How did Tokyoites navigate their city before the era of online maps and satellite navigation?

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Zenyaren is down in the basement of an office building, about 10 minutes walk from Tokyo Station. We are late for lunch and far too early for dinner, so much of the large space is empty. We are shown a large table in one of the cosier side rooms that break the space up.

The key attraction of Zenyaren is that it gathers together in a single place cooking from seven yakitori restaurants across Japan, giving you the chance to try regional yakitori favourites.

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Indeed, our waiter tells us that in his home region, yakitori is commonly made with pork (even though the word itself means fried or grilled poultry).

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With our drinks (umeshu for me, beer for the rest) come minced chicken balls, given crunch by the addition of finely chopped cartilage. Fabulous, and oddly reminiscent of Swedish meatballs!

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We order various mixed platters of yakitori, our waiter explaining the condiments that are intended for each. It’s a good selection, with each of us favouring different skewers, nothing lasts too long. We also try a chicken skin dish, which is very tasty but I’d like better if the skin were crunchy rather than flacid, and some whole fish that are a particular favourite of Masamitsu’s.

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With another round of drinks, the total bill for four is ¥10,220 (just under £70 at the exchange rate during our visit). For those planning to make a night of it, the menu also includes some reasonable drinks plans (where you pay a fixed price for unlimited drinks from a specified selection). Zenyaren is a great place to go with a group and I can imagine it becomes far buzzier when busy, during lunch or dinner hours.

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Luton doesn’t have many good restaurants. It had even fewer when I was a kid. But we went out to dinner regularly as a family, either to the local Beefeater or, in later years, to our favourite local Chinese restaurant, long since closed.

Nearly without fail, my sister and I would order prawn cocktails to start and big fat steaks, cooked medium rare and woe betide the chef who thought he knew better and sent them out medium well. Pops would delight in our weekly horror as he not only ordered his steak well done but egged them on to make sure it really was. Mum was never a big red meat fan and switched between the fish, chicken and vegetarian options.

As teens, we frequented the pub side of the Tavern instead of the restaurant, it’s probably where I had my first pint of beer, southern comfort and ice, tia maria and coke!

Until recently, I’d not been back for more than twenty years.

But recently, my sister and I decided to drag Pops out of the house for Sunday lunch while mum was away birdwatching. Since he fell off a horse in Nepal a few months ago, broke some ribs and fractured his back (he ain’t ever gonna age gracefully, not that we’d have it any other way), he’s been forced to stop his daily gym workouts and hasn’t really been able to do much walking either. We left the choice to him and he suggested the Tavern; still being a regular and knowing many of the staff by name.

Of course, it’s been refurbished since my last visit, probably a fair few times, and it was weirdly familiar and unfamiliar all at once. It’s a Beefeater pub, they’re a chain, they all look the same, you know the style…

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Feeling nostalgic, my sister and I both chose prawn cocktail (£4.99) followed by a 10oz Rib-Eye (£16.79), medium as per the waitress’ recommendation. She rightly pointed out that this fatty cut needs a bit of extra cooking to melt the fat, which makes it much tastier to eat. We added peppercorn and brandy sauce (£1.49) and upgraded the chips to Ultimate ones for an additional 69p. (That’s £18.97 for the complete dish).

Prawn cocktail was proper old school with a basic salad, lots of fairly bland but perfectly acceptable prawns drowned under a classic cloying Marie Rose sauce. Served with brown bread (and butter on request) it was exactly what I wanted. Of course, it could be improved by big fresh jumbo prawns but sometimes chefs are so keen to add their own twist that they lose sight of the pleasure of bouncy protein covered in sweet pink goo!

The rib eye steak was surprisingly good, far better texture and taste than I expected and the cooking was just right. Accompaniments were all good and whilst it wasn’t the very best steak I’ve eaten, it was certainly better than many I’ve been charged far more for in central London. It wasn’t a bargain either, I think the price is high for the restaurant but fair – with the exception of the T-bone which is £1 more, it’s the most expensive item on the menu.

Pops did comment that it was better than usual. It’s one of his regular choices and he says it’s not consistently as good as the ones we ate on this visit. It goes up and down, though it’s always the right side of acceptable.

In other good news: somewhere along the way, in the 30 or so years since our regular family visits, Pops has gradually switched from ordering his meat well done to medium rare. But he still likes to make the joke about visiting McDonald’s on the way home!

 

A restaurant on the 40th floor of a shiny city skyscraper, with all of London spread out like a sparkling map below, could probably just let the view pull in the punters. But at Duck & Waffle, the view (admired through wraparound floor-to-ceiling windows) is secondary.

While the view is amazing, the food is even better.

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Of course, if you are plugged in to the food twitterati, are an avid reader of London restaurant blogs or just read a newspaper restaurant critic’s column now and then, this is old old news.

Duck and Waffle, with chef Daniel Doherty at the helm, opened in August 2012 and it received rave reviews from the get go. It still does, long past that “first impressions” period, confirming that it and Doherty are both definitely more than a flash in the pan.

At just 29, Doherty is clearly a Rising Star; indeed he was named just that by Tatler in their 2013 Restaurant Awards announced this spring. In the Backstory bio on the restaurant’s own website, I smile as I read how his mother, doing the laundry one day, found an application to the Academy of Culinary Arts Scholarship in the pocket of his jeans, quietly filled it in and submitted it without telling him. Aged just 16, Doherty won one of just 28 scholarships (out of 2000 applicants) and so embarked upon the balancing act of attending classes and taking exams whilst also working an apprenticeship under Herbert Berger at (Michelin starred) 1 Lombard Street. He considers Berger his mentor, and Berger has described Doherty as his protégée. The rest of his resume shows a quick rise from chef de partie to head chef. Depsite being so young, Duck and Waffle is not the first restaurant Doherty has opened, having developed the menu and opened The Old Brewery in Greenwich a few years ago.

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At Duck and Waffle, Doherty has a large and well-oiled kitchen team working with him to produce his innovative dishes. The menu changes regularly, though a few signature items like the foie gras all day breakfast and, of course, duck and waffles, remain available.

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At the top of the menu are a few snacks. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it!) I was the only one who liked the bbq-spiced crispy pig ears (£5), with their bacon-rind-like chew centre contrasting with crunchy puffed skin in spicy coating. Served in a paper bag with a (sticky backed) “wax” seal, the presentation was pretty cute!

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From the Freshly Baked Bread section of the menu, rosemary & garlic (£6) also had a mixed reaction. All three of us liked the flavour, and I particularly adored the caramelised sweetness of the whole roasted garlic cloves, but we all agreed that the bread was a touch undercooked, making it a little claggy in places.

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We only ordered one item from the Raw menu section, the fillet of angus beef / foie gras / truffle / pecorino (£15). This was just perfect. The beef was a deep ruby red and its inherent meatiness was beefed up by umami rich pecorino, buttery foie gras and the headiest truffle I’ve eaten for a while. I made “wrong” noises, eating this. Yeah, I know.

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The rest of our choices were from the Small Plates section, as we eschewed the large For the table dishes and Sides so we could try more different things.

First a bowl of fresh mozzarella / granola / sage / honey / amalfi lemon (£10) which was somehow one of the best salads I’ve ever had. Of course, the quality of the milky mozzarella was excellent. But the combination of textures and tastes was the thing. The little crunch of insanely thin strips of candied lemon zest gave the perfect high note. I could eat this every single day.

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Pearl barley and wild mushroom ragout / goat curd / 63 degree hen egg (£11) was simple, hearty and made special by the quality of the ingredients (and proper cleaning of the wild mushrooms). Oozing egg yolk is always good.

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Essentially devils on horseback, bacon wrapped dates / linguica sausage / dandelions salad (£9) were stuffed with a rich sausage meat filling, in place of the usual sweet chutney or cheese. The combination of meat and fruit is one I really like, and it worked very well indeed in this dish.

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The only word for foie gras creme brulee / butter roasted Scottish lobster (£21) is decadent. Add insanely rich, utterly delectable and almost too much for three people to finish and you’ll start to get the idea. Served with toasted slices of brioche.

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I ordered the spicy ox cheek doughnut / apricot jam (£10) because, as I just mentioned, I love the combination of meat and sweet. In fact, the doughnut had only a soft beef stew within, served with a sharp rather than sweet apricot sauce on the side. Pleasant but, for the three of us, lacking the wow factor of a number of the other dishes.

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A little full, we refused to miss out on desserts. First to arrive was the poached peaches / tarragon creme fraiche sorbet / white chocolate & pistachio biscotti (£9). Simply poached with lots of flavour, the peaches were well matched by the intensity of flavour but light texture of the sorbet. For me, the rock hard biscotti were superfluous, though perhaps others welcome the contrasting crunch.

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As is the way with olive oil cakes, pistachio & olive oil cake / english raspberries / rose-scented chantilly cream (£9) was a dense, rich, moist cake, green from the nuts. The cream transported this dessert to the realm of 1001 Nights, with fresh raspberries the perfect foil to all the sweetness.

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My favourite of our desserts was definitely the vanilla baked alaska / strawberry consomme / mint oil (£9). Although it looked like an alien life form, it was actually a classic baked alaska, lifted by a fresh strawberry sauce and a surprising but rather wonderful light mint oil. That hint of herb really was a genius touch.

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Although the first couple of dishes I’ve listed didn’t quite hit the heights and we didn’t fall hard for the doughnut, everything else really impressed. The meal was a fabulous feast of tastes and textures, beautifully presented and served with warmth and friendliness.

Duck and Waffle is a great choice for a special occasion, though it’s not so expensive that you can’t just go along because you fancy some great food.

Duck & Waffle on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

I am not a classy bird. The truth is that words like elegant, sophisticated and lady-like are not ones you’d choose to describe me… and that’s OK by me. On the inside, I’d like to think I’m intelligent, fun, passionate, surprising and all kinds of other interesting things… and I reckon those aspects of me are far more worthy of attention than my body, my clothes, shoes and handbag, how I wear my hair, the fact that I don’t wear make-up or that I walk a little pigeon-toed.

I say this because The Sportsman in Kent reminds me of myself in pub form.

On the outside, the pub looks a little tatty, perhaps even unkempt. If you judged it on its cover, you might not even bother to stop, let alone go in and get to know it. But step inside and it’s warm and welcoming. The space is stripped back and open, with wooden floors, (generously sized, uncovered) tables, chairs and panelling. There are dramatic paintings of seascapes hanging on plain pale walls. Early on an October evening, huge windows spill in lots of light; later candles and pendant lights keep things cheery. And the staff are full of smiles, as they bustle behind the bar getting ready for the dinner service. Throughout the evening they are attentive, eager to help and to share the delight of dinner in this wonderful place.

That’s what this place is famous for, you see.

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Self-taught chef-patron Steve Harris and wine-expert brother Phil took over The Sportsman in 1999, with financial support from another brother, Damian. Since then, it’s built a huge fan base of locals and visitors alike and was awarded a Michelin star in 2008. In an interview after gaining the star, former City worker Harris explained that he felt many top restaurants in ’90s London tended to alienate ordinary people “from the experience by all the flummery that goes with it”. He wanted to “democratise” good food by serving it without the frills and fuss. From the start, he focused on using local, seasonal ingredients – something that’s matter of course now but was far less so when he opened. Brother Phil created an affordable and appealing wine list. As a Shepherd Neame pub, the beer was already taken care of.

Our meal is exactly what Harris envisaged – the highest quality of food, cooked and presented skillfully and inventively, served in an informal and relaxing setting by staff who are friendly and knowledgeable rather than stiff or formal. It’s a wonderful combination.

Having made sure to request it in advance, we enjoy the tasting menu which gives us the opportunity to try a much wider selection of Harris’ cooking.

We are offered the choice of seeing the menu in advance or experiencing it as a surprise. We choose the latter, though I do cave and ask for the menu two thirds of the way through the meal! Several of the courses served aren’t listed, so a few hastily scribbled notes serve as a memory jogger.

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Pickled herring with crab apple jelly, cream cheese and soda bread and parmesan and Ashore cheese and tomato biscuits.

Tasty little bites to kick things off…

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Egg yolk, smoked eel, parsley sauce and horseradish cream with sherry vinegar.

I could eat ten of these, though it’s as well I don’t, given all that is to come. Bursting with soft liquid flavour and colours that are each reassuringly robust and yet work with each other beautifully.

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Baked rock oyster, Jersey cream, rhubarb granita, crystallised seaweed.

I’ve eaten oysters plenty of times but never really understood what the fuss has been about. This dish, and the one after, really open my eyes to just how delightful the delicate flavour and texture of an oyster can be, when carefully paired with supporting elements.

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Poached rock oyster, beurre blanc, pickled cucumber, avruga caviar.

If the previous dish opened my eyes, this one opens my heart to oysters! I’ll never look at them in the same way again. Yes, it’s that astounding!

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Bread, butter and salt.

Not only are the three breads home-made – rosemary and red onion foccacia, sourdough and malted soda bread – but the butter is home-churned and even the salt is made from Seasalter sea water. I like all the breads but the dark soda bread in particular is a source of joy.

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Salt-baked celeriac, stewed apple and fresh cheese.

I’ve encountered salt-baked celeriac a few times in the last couple of years, in Scandinavian cookery demonstrations and classes, mostly. I really like it’s earthy taste and slight sweetness. I find the mustardy sauce a little too strong in this dish, though.

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Crab, carrot and hollandaise.

I’m not sure the carrot adds much on the taste front and though the colour is pretty, I find the crunch a little odd against the crab. But the crab is super! Fresh and sweet and generous and gone far too quickly!

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Slip sole in seaweed butter.

Slip sole, so Wiki informs me, is simply the name we give to small common sole; I haven’t come across it before. Firm, delicate and buttery but easy to slip off the bone, it’s fantastically well paired with the salty mineral flavours of the seaweed butter.

Later, at the bar, Phillip Harris tells me about how they dry the seaweed themselves; I’m minded to try some Mara Seaweed varieties mixed with butter and served over white fish or scallops.

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Brill braised in vin jaune with bearded tooth fungus.

This simple dish is my favourite of the whole meal. The way the vin jaune sets off the fish without overwhelming it is an utter delight. With a little sweet crunch from the beans and soft woodiness from the mushrooms, this plate is so tasty, so simple and so well-balanced I am left wondering why I don’t eat seafood more often.

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Lamb from Monkshill Farm (1).

Little two-bite breaded morsels of tender lamb belly are served with a fresh mint sauce. Unlike the usual vinegary condiment, this mint sauce is beautifully sweet and sharp and herbaceous and I find myself drinking sip after sip from the little cup, after the lamb is eaten. Of course, I haven’t realised another lamb dish is coming but our waitress doesn’t blink an eyelid and brings out more sauce before the next dish arrives.

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Lamb from Monkshill Farm (2).

The second serving of lamb includes a plump piece of rump and a cube of braised lamb shoulder. The first is a touch chewier than expected, but tastes very good. The second is marvellously soft and richly flavoured by its high fat content. I love the crispy charred spring onions and fresh sweet carrot but yearn for a little more sauce.

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Wild bramble ice lolly.

Essence of blackberries, the lolly starts to melt quickly. It’s served with a “cake cream” made from Madeira cake, cream and milk and the contrast between that and the juicy ice lolly is almost shocking to the palate. Fabulous!

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Meringue ice cream, sea buckthorn and seawater.

When I’ve had sea buckthorn before, this citrussy fruit must have been sweetened quite a bit. Here it’s very sharp, too sharp for me, and my jaws clench against the astringency. Pete, on the other hand, finds it delicious.

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Jasmine tea junket with rosehip sauce and breakfast crunch.

This dish isn’t on the tasting menu, but having spotted it on the à la carte puddings board, I asked earlier whether we might add it on as an extra or if one of us could swap out the meringue and buckthorn dessert. I’ve heard of junket, you see, but don’t think I’ve tried it before and I’d like to. Phillip graciously makes it a swap so Pete and share one of each between us. I am glad to try this, especially as the other dessert is too sharp for me. I love the wobbly nature of the set milk junket – though I struggle to detect any jasmine – and I enjoy the fruity sauce and the slightly incongruous crunch of granola and toasted seeds on top.

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Petit fours.

Already full to bursting, we only just manage these tiny custard and raspberry and chocolate tarts; crumbly pastry, gooey fillings. A lovely full stop to an epic meal.

All of this for just £65 per head (tasting menu) is astonishingly good value; a hard-to-get-my-head-around kind of good value, honestly speaking. The food, the setting, the service and the price all make it a no-brainer that this place is as well-loved as it is. Reservations are most definitely needed. The tasting menu must be booked 48 hours in advance.

We stayed overnight in a seafront hotel in nearby Whitstable and drove home through the most spectacular sheet lightning display I’ve ever seen. Bright enough to light up everything around us like day – if I’d been told it was a lightshow put on by The Sportsman, I might well have believed it. They are awfully talented!

Sportsman on Urbanspoon 
Square Meal

 

On a Saturday lunchtime, as I make my way from tube station to The Courtesan restaurant, Brixton is buzzing. I love walking down the long curve of Atlantic Road, peering at all the fish mongers, butchers and grocers, particularly fascinated by the number of items on sale that I don’t recognise and can’t identify. Only a short walk past the food shops, market and ever-vibrant Brixton Village, I find what I’m looking for.

Named for the Lady of the Court, the restaurant offers “modern dim sum” alongside selected teas, wines and cocktails.

Owner Hammant Patel Villa, a professional industrial designer with a passion for oriental food, was captivated by the stories and traditions of the original Chinese courtesan (and is at pains to dismiss the crasser modern meaning that the word has taken on). Originally, courtiers and courtesans were simply those who were regularly in attendance at the royal court. Many were nobles, but there were also members of the clergy, soldiers, business men and agents and even clerks and secretaries. Political lobbyists are perhaps the closest modern-day equivalent.

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For Hammant, the Lady Courtesan is a figure of mystery and elegance, power and knowledge, perhaps also a little romance and sadness. Her portrait hangs at one end of the main room and the decor of the restaurant pays homage; he points to a patterned wallpaper – he chose it to represent the tears of the courtesan, he explains. There is much dark wood, some a little worn with the patina of age, and the space is hung with elegant light fittings. The Birdcage bar is appropriately themed, with shelving units designed to mimic the real cages displayed above. Downstairs is the “Boudoir”, a dark and intimate space with its own bar, used for special events and available to book.

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I am really impressed by the drinks menu. For wine drinkers, nearly all the wines listed can be ordered by the glass or the bottle. There are three “desert wine” [sic] listings, though one is a plum wine and one a very dry sherry, so this section needs more attention. The beer list is short but more interesting than many, with a regular Brew, IPA and Chocolate Porter from Chapel Down Winery’s Curious beer brand and Imperial Lager and Cerne Dark Lager by Krusovice in the Czech Republic. There are champagnes and proseccos and a long list of inventive mixers for them. The usual comprehensive list of spirits, liqueurs, etc. is available. There’s even a sake. Soft drinks include a better range of juices than normal, though none are specified as fresh. The choice of teas is pleasing, ranging from Jasmine, Chamomile and White Peony & Rosebuds to Pu Erh, Lapsang Souchong and Iron Goddess of Mercy (£4.90), which I enjoy with my meal.

The cocktail list is particularly appealing; instead of following the same clichéd path of bitters this and vermouth that it offers more unusual creations such as China Ghost (£7.90, Wyborowa Vodka, Rose Liqueur, Lychee, Rose Peony) and Wang Zhaojun (£8.80, Violet Liqueur, Jasmine Tea, Beefeater 24 Gin, Wyborowa Vodka). Hammant says he likes to think of these as flavours the Courtesan might like, but that are also “ethereal, life and death in the same glass”. Both are utterly delightful!

I’m pleased both by the inclusion of tea in some of the cocktails and the pleasant change of there being some sweeter combinations for those of us that aren’t so keen on sour or bitter. There are also a few non-alcoholic cocktails, based mainly on the tea menu.

Once drinks have been ordered, the dim sum starts to arrive.

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Char Siu Puff (£3.90) are decent in texture but the pork is a little under-flavoured.

Pan Fried Pork Dumplings (£4.20) are excellent. The filling is juicy and very delicious, wrapped in a thin skin which is soft in places, crispy in others.

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Trio of Steamed Dumplings (£5.80) include one each of Prawn & Crab Dumpling, Wasabi King Prawn Dumpling and Scallop & Shrimp Dumpling. The wasabi nearly blows my head off, it’s incredibly potent, but once my eyes stop streaming, I enjoy the set.

Cheung Fun Tri (£5.20) comes with one each of Roast Pork, Prawn with Beancurd and Vegetables With Beancurd. Surprisingly, the vegetarian one is my favourite, with a perfect balance of tastes and textures.

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Char Siu Buns (£4.20) have an unusual style of dough, but are enjoyable nonetheless.

I ask for an order of Taro Croquettes (£3.90), one of my dim sum stalwarts and a good judge of a kitchen, I think. They are tasty, but the inner casing is far thicker than usual, leaving less room inside for the pork filling.

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Peanut Celery Salad (£3.50) is served warm. I hate celery, but do try the peanuts and love how they are soft rather than crunchy. Others enjoy the dish as a whole.

Stormy Seaweed (£3.90) is doused in a fiery dressing, a touch too fierce for me, but simple and a good match with the seaweed.

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Described as “spare pork ribs, first braised, then fried with Szechuan batter”, the Szechuan Style Ribs (£6.50) are fabulous. I’m not sure I’ve had spare ribs that have been breaded and fried before, but it works superbly well. Again, these are fairly hot on the chilli front, as I expected from the name.

Hot Frogs Legs (£7.20) are also utterly delicious, served hot out of the fryer. But beware – Hammant instructed his chef that he wanted the frogs to kick hard, so the chilli quotient is not for the faint hearted.

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I’ve always loved Black Sesame Balls (£4.50) but order them only rarely; they are so rich I can’t eat more than one and few of my friends like them. So it is a pleasure to have them here. The soft glutinous coat around a gooey black filling is spot on.

At the end comes Rose Peony Chocolate Truffles (£4.70). The ganache is made from cream infused with the white peony and rosebud tea. They are rich and dark and perfect to have with coffee, though the tea flavour hasn’t permeated much, that I can detect.

 

I am pleasantly surprised by the range and quality of the dim sum, having wondered ahead of my visit whether a design-lead space with a strong drinks focus would really do justice to the food. But I needn’t have worried, the dim sum is, in the main part, very good. Prices are reasonable too, especially for the cocktails list which is great value.

My visit also reminds me how easy it is to get down to Brixton, and a visit to those fish mongers, butchers and grocers is on the cards soon.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Courtesan.

Courtesan Dim Sum Bar on Urbanspoon

 

I’ll be telling you all about Omar Allibhoy – the wonderfully talented chef behind Tapas Revolution – in an upcoming post (and reviewing his recently launched cookery book too). But in the meantime, let me urge you to visit one of his two restaurants; you won’t regret it! There you can fill up on dish after dish of Spanish treats, washed down with a glass or two of something wonderful. The original branch is located in Westfield shopping centre (near Shepherd’s Bush, London) and the second branch is in Bluewater shopping centre (in Greenhithe, Kent).

Pete and I visited the Westfield site to interview Omar (about how he came to cooking, about the restaurant, about his motorbike tour of Britain and the cookbook); during our chat the three of us ate our way through a wide swathe of the menu.

The restaurant is bright, light and open to the public, with a small and tidy open kitchen at its heart. Customers perch on stools around the surrounding counter, though there are some nearby tables and chairs available if you prefer. The menu is a delight; a tight list of dishes that appeal to a wide audience but also give a true picture of Spanish tapas. We watched people stop by for a quick coffee, do fork battle over a plate of octopus, greedily grab fatty slices of cured pork with their fingers and order hot, fresh churros to takeaway.

Customers can also buy a selection of specialist ingredients, should they be inspired to have a go themselves; certainly, Omar’s book makes tapas very achievable for home cooks.

Omar is certainly planning to expand the fledgling chain further afield, so non-Londoners, keep your fingers crossed for a branch to open near you.

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I love good food and was very excited to try so many of the listed dishes. And yet, one of the most exciting aspects of the menu for me was the excellent list of soft drinks. It’s hard not to feel a little deflated when restaurants put such great effort into their wine lists (and, lately, their beer lists too) but let themselves down by sticking to long life fruit juice and fizzy drinks for their non-alcoholic offering. That is not the case at Tapas Revolution!

Limonada casera (£2.25), described as homemade lemonade with a touch of saffron, is a full on explosion of flavour; it’s simultaneously sweet, very sharp and intensely citrus and takes on just a hint of earthiness (as well as vibrant colour) from the saffron. This one will definitely wake you up, if eating too much tapas is making you sleepy.

Horchata (£2) is a classic Spanish drink made from tigernuts, the tuber of a plant in the sedge family, distantly related to water chestnuts. The nuts are ground with sugar and water to make a milk-like liquid which is served ice cold as a summer thirst-quencher. Elsewhere in Europe, similar drinks are made from barley, almonds and even sesame seeds but the Spanish preference for tigernuts was introduced by the Moorish presence in Valencia many centuries ago. It’s a distinct flavour and not everyone’s cup of tea, but I like it very much.

Mosto (£2) is a sweet red grape juice that is not for the light-hearted. It’s almost syrupy in it’s sweetness, and is best enjoyed chilled. With my sweet tooth, I adore this.

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A board of Jamón ibérico de bellota (acorn-fed Iberian ham) de Guijuelo (£8.95) is the perfect balance of sweet, salty, fatty meat and, for the price, the serving is generous.

Pan con tomate (£2.95) is a classic, and something Omar tells us he enjoys for breakfast several times a week, advising us to rub garlic underneath and tomato on top of the bread. Somehow this dish of bread, garlic, tomato and oliveoil is so much more than the sum of its parts and we cannot resist a second order…

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An order of Pulpo a la Gallega (£6.25) brings us a dish of tender steamed octopus with potatoes and pimentón paprika. Juicy pieces of seafood have a strong enough flavour to stand up to the paprika. Great balance.

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The menu warns that the fried Pimientos de Padrón (£4.95) are sweet but that some can be quite spicy too! I love the charred flavour against the sweet pepper flesh.

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Calamares fritos (£4.75), when done well, are a thing of beauty but are so disappointing when they’re not. But these deep-fried baby squid are just perfect, served piping hot straight out of the fryer, the batter is crunchy and the squid inside soft and tasty. Spot on.

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The crisp-crumbed exterior of these Croquetas de jamón (£4.50) give way to hot, gooey bechamel studded with porky goodness. Perfect examples of Spanish ham croquettes. Give them a few moments to cool from the fryer, if you want to avoid the monkey-like, burnt-mouth noises my impatience had me squealing!

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Pinchos morunos con mojo picón (£6.50) is beyond my elementary Spanish skills; luckily the menu explains that this dish consists of marinated beef skewers with a spicy dipping sauce. Whilst the beef is cooked properly, the spices in the marinade taste raw and harsh to me, and it’s the only dish of the day that isn’t a runaway success. The spicy dipping sauce, though, is fabulous.

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I seldom bother to order Tortilla de patatas (£3.95) because I’m seduced by other more exciting options and an omelette made with potato and onion doesn’t leap off the page. But one mouthful of Omar’s tortilla and I am converted – there’s a depth of flavour from the sweet onions that I hadn’t expected, which is perfect with the very thin slices of soft potato and egg binding. It’s actually amazing!

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If you’re looking for comfort food, look no further than Fabada Asturiana, a  white bean stew with pork and chorizo that is the very definition of “hearty”.

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This innocuous looking dish is Quesada con Frutos Rojos (£3.50), a fresh cheese cake with red fruit, baked (much like a New York cheesecake but without a base, the juices of the fruits leak into the cheesecake as it cooks). Delicious but very filling, if you’ve already eaten as much as we have!

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I don’t know why Churros con chocolate (£3.50 to eat in, £2.95 to takeaway) fill me with such childish glee? Perhaps it’s the wonderfully winding shapes that remind of me of the black snake fireworks I loved when I was little. Or maybe it’s just the hot fried doughnut dough, with ridges that are perfect for cinnamon sugar to adhere to and the glass of tasty hot dipping chocolate they are served with.

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We ordered twelve dishes between the three of us, and I was so full I could hardly make my way back to the car. Two dishes per person is plenty for a light lunch, three per person if you’re feeling hungrier.

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Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Tapas Revolution.

Tapas Revolution on Urbanspoon

 

In just 20 years, American restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill has grown from a single store in Denver, Colorado to a cross-country and international chain of over 1500 stores.

Founder and CEO Steve Ells spent some time in San Francisco (working at the highly respected Stars restaurant), during which he came to love the little taquerías he frequented in the city’s Mission district. These Mexican taco shops fascinated Ells; in the video on the company’s American website he explains how taken he was by the freshly-made burritos with a range of ingredients (rice, meat, beans, sauces) wrapped up inside a giant tortilla; he’d never seen anything like these before. He decided this was the kind of restaurant he wanted to open himself, using authentic ingredients and adding his own style to the setting. Of course, he also took note of the model of service in these little stores, where a small team of staff working along the length of a counter were able to serve a high volume of customers quickly and efficiently, understanding instinctively that it was a very economical way of running a restaurant.

He opened his first branch in 1993, with the second branch following less than two years later and the business has grown and grown and grown ever since. In 2010, the company came to the UK and now has 6 stores in London. (Note that only two of the six branches here currently make all the menu items at their own site, Charing Cross Road and Baker Street. The chain plans to convert the other stores to operate full kitchens in 2014)

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I was introduced to the brand early this summer, when asked if I’d like to visit Edible Ornamentals, the Bedfordshire chilli nursery who grow fresh tomatillos for Chipotle. (When they aren’t in season in the UK, Chipotle import from Spain, Netherlands, Portugal, and Mexico). Tomatillos are a key ingredient to authentic Mexican salsa but not an ingredient commonly grown in Europe, so Chipotle were very happy when Edible Ornamentals agreed they could grow and provide a UK supply. Pete and I loved visiting the nursery (and have since harvested lots of tomatillos from the pair of plants gifted to us by Joanna). Some months later, once British-grown tomatillos were finally in season and available on the Chipotle menu, we made our visit to the restaurant itself.

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Manager Anna Czigany showed me around and her enthusiasm, not just for the product but for the company as an employer, was very genuine. She is very proud that the company values staff retention, gives on-the-job training and encourages career progression. She started as “crew” three years ago; likewise, many of her colleagues have been in the company for a 2 or more years and similarly appreciate advancement opportunities. After we ate, she took me round the kitchen, explaining where and how the various menu items were made. She pointed out that because every item on the menu is made by the small team of staff that run the branch, everyone knows just how each item should taste and they are more invested in making sure everything is as it should be; it’s not just a case of serving some food but taking pride in serving food they have created.

Anna also told us about the company’s commitment to sourcing quality ingredients that are selected with the environment, animal welfare and customer health in mind. To this end, they use only Freedom Foods chicken, Farm Assured beef and Free range pork and buy vegetables and other produce from local farmers where possible.

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Another key part of the success story is in offering a limited menu and focusing on doing it well. Customers can order a burrito, burrito bowl, tacos or salad. That’s it. But they can ring the changes by choosing their fillings. They have a choice of four meat and one vegetarian mains plus a range of sides such as pinto or black beans, salsas, sour cream, guacamole, cheese, lettuce and rice. It’s perfectly OK to ask for a combination, which is especially popular when ordering the tacos, which come in threes. Speaking of the tacos, you can choose whether to have soft flour tortillas or crispy corn shells…

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We tried both the burrito and a portion of tortilla tacos (with a different filling in each), which allowed us to try all four meat options. The chicken (£6.70 regardless of which format you choose) is marinated in adobo before being grilled and diced; it had a good flavour and was deftly cooked so it wasn’t dry; it also had the advantage of being less messy than the braised beef or pork. Steak (£6.95) is treated much like the chicken and was perfectly decent. Beef Barbacoa (£6.95) is braised and then shredded to create a delicious, sloppy mess; it was very good, though rather spicy for me, being the hottest of the four. And lastly, Pork Carnitas (£6.95) is also braised and shredded and is not disimilar to the beef, but has the advantage (for me) of less chilli heat; a winner! (The vegetarian option, which we didn’t try, is also priced at £6.50 for burrito, bowl, tacos or salad).

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The burritos are enormous, by the way, so they are the best value for a quick and filling meal.

Also on the menu are tortilla chips, salsa and guacamole and a short drinks list including Margaritas (£4.35), Beer (£3.65 with Brooklyn, Modelo, Negra Modelo, Pacifico and Corona available) and a selection of soft drinks (from £1.15 to £2).

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I probably wouldn’t have thought to visit this fast food Mexican chain had I not been invited to learn more about tomatillos and how they are used in authentic Mexican Salsas. However, now that I’ve tried them, they are on my list of places I know I can grab a quick, tasty and filling meal.

By the way, I genuinely love this recent Chipotle advertising video, called The Scarecrow, I came across it via Facebook. It’s twee, yes but I still think it’s wonderful!

 

Kavey Eats dined as a guest of Chipotle Mexican Restaurant.

Chipotle Mexican Grill on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

 

For 7 months this year, I was working a contract in central Watford. Since I last worked for the same client a couple of years ago, their business has expanded quite a bit and staff are now split across three different buildings along the same road; meaning I was no longer 30 seconds away from the staff canteen in the original office building. This proved to be a good thing, as it forced me out of the office every day (and the canteen was never very good in any case).

But although the office is right by the shopping centre, Watford isn’t blessed with many decent, quick and affordable lunch options. The addition of a branch of Pret a Manger helps – I went through a a phase of rotating between their meatball wrap and bang bang chicken baguette for weeks on end. But there’s little else that appealed and it didn’t take long for me to bore of their offerings.

A few weeks in, a colleague mentioned a “great sushi place” inside the Watford Market and insisted I should go. Aware of my interest in food and relatively recent obsession with Japan, he was confident I’d like it. I put it off for a few more weeks; my memories of Watford Market were anything but positive and I couldn’t imagine finding great food within its walls. But when I finally checked it out, I was immediately hooked and visited at least twice a week every week for the rest of my contract! (Keep in mind it’s only open 3 weekdays per week…)

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Watford Market has changed over the last year or two; one end has been cleared out and space assigned to a mini-food court with three stalls – the Japanese plus an Indian and a Caribbean (which are looked over by a butcher, two fishmongers and a Turkish sweets and olives shop). The Japanese place has high stool-chairs at the counter and handful of regular tables just opposite; during the months I visited, this little business became more and more popular, and soon we made sure to head over at noon to be in with a hope of getting a seat. They are only open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday lunch times and if you can’t get a seat, they do takeaway too from a small fridge next to the till area – the sushi selections are far tastier, more generous and much less expensive than supermarket or sandwich chain offerings.

The sign above the kitchen reads Sushi No Mai (“Sushi Dance”), which is expanded to Sushi-no-Mai Japanese Grandpa’s Sushi Takeaway Shop on their business cards.

Grandpa, in this case, is Chef N Shimo and a framed document proudly declares his recognition by Sanchokai, the Japan Sushi Association. I believe he used to be a chef at Harrods before launching his his own business here in Watford. Throughout service, he quietly mans the sushi counter, occasionally querying an order or nodding greetings to a customer. His daughter (I think) cooks and plates tempura and teriyaki orders behind him. Two or three additional staff look after customer orders, payments and service.

Not only is the food delicious, it’s also extremely good value.

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Tempura don (£5) includes two or three prawns (depending on size), two or three pieces of fish (white fish and salmon), a slice of sweet potato, a fan of aubergine, slices of sweet pepper and a seasonal green vegetable such as courgette, green beans or asparagus. A generous dressed side salad is also included.

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Pork teriyaki don (£5) comes with salad and a boiled egg and plenty of sauce. The pork is tender, fatty and full of flavour. Salmon teriyaki don is similarly good.

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A sushi and sashimi platter called Scent of Scotland (£4.80) includes four pieces of salmon nigiri sushi and four of salmon sashimi. I’ve added a sweet omelette nigiri (£1) to my order, above. The fish is super fresh.

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The Edomae Set (£5.80) is one of the best value dishes on the menu, containing several pieces of nigiri sushi (including eel, salmon, tuna, prawn and seabream) as well as four large rolls labelled as Watford sushi which include both tuna and salmon as well as a selection of crunchy vegetables. Again, a generous salad is included.

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Chirashi Sushi is a couple of pounds more expensive but includes scallop sashimi and sweet omelette as well as the other types of fish already mentioned.

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Sometimes, if feeling extra hungry, I’d add a tuna roll to my order, for less than £2 this is another bargain and, like the rest of the sushi, comes with wasabi and pickled ginger. Soy sauce is already on every table.

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The only dish I don’t rate very highly is the ramen (£5), which I shied away from anyway, given my propensity to spill food all over myself and the need to go back to work looking half-way respectable! But when I did order it, it didn’t blow me away, perhaps I’ve been spoiled by the recent openings of great ramen restaurant in central London.

Green tea and soft drinks are £1 each.

 

Please note, a few of the prices have gone up (very marginally) since my last visit.

Sushi-No-Mai, Watford Market, Charter Place.

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