If you judged the nation’s eating habits from the contents of food blogs alone, you’d be forgiven for thinking we hardly visit restaurant chains at all. In reality most of my non-blogger friends, just like the wider population – especially those with young children – often favour chains, the best of which offer familiarity, family-friendly menus, a comfortable and pleasant environment, consistency (and hopefully good quality) of food and service, all at a known price point. And the truth is that us food bloggers visit chain restaurants too even if you don’t see it on our blogs very often; my personal favourites include Byron Hamburgers and Ask Italian, and I had an excellent meal at Jamie’s Italian last year. It’s just that it’s so much easier to write about (and let’s face it, more interesting and potentially more delicious to visit) one of the many exciting independent restaurants – and us Londoners are certainly spoiled for choice; our city has more restaurants than we could visit in a lifetime!
Guest blogger Janine Marsh visited Giraffe’s London Spitalfields branch to check out some of their new summer dishes and cocktails, as well as a few menu stalwarts. An excellent writer with attention for detail and a nice turn of phrase, this is Janine’s first foray into restaurant reviews, and I think she’s done a great job of bringing the experience to life.
Over to Janine:
My lasting impressions of Giraffe were formulated from a trip once with a (now) ex-boyfriend who had decided that vegan was the best way forward for our relationship and for the ease of cooking. I would eat vegan at home (his not mine) and have non vegan food whilst eating out. This resulted in the exotic dish of Huevos Rancheros full of richness of eggs and cheese that turned me upside down and inside out and left me with a traumatic memory. Thinking it may have been food poisoning but actually now putting it down to my ex and his simple living ways, I have now returned to Giraffe a few years later as a newly reformed non vegan both at home and out and about, hoping to seek pleasure and comfort in a new summer menu.
It was early evening and the branch in Spitalfields was not very busy. Sometimes I have found this can make staff more lax in their service however it was the complete opposite during this evening service. The staff were welcoming and attentive right from the moment we walked in. I noticed everyone was keeping themselves busy cleaning, sorting and attending to the customers with a frequency that was not enough to overstrain anyone’s sense of personal space.
My friend (a fellow foodie) and I started with a cocktails from the summer menu and decided to taste one each of the Grapefruit and Vanilla Daiquiri (£6.75) and Mango Colada (6.75). The Daiquiri had an immediate kick to it although you couldn’t taste the vanilla. The grapefruit was really refreshing and summery with sour notes. It was sophisticated and easy drinkable and as a result of its deliciousness, finished rather quickly. In contrast, the Mango Colada was more watery than creamy, with a strong pineapple undercurrent and absolutely no taste of mango. It’s been a while since I had one but let’s say it didn’t take me back to the paradise that I had it in. It slightly changed taste when sipped with the starter of Prawn Saganaki and became a little more intense but still not something I wanted to finish.
There’s nothing to say about the Prawn Saganaki (£6.50) other than ‘bring me more please!’ From the minute you put the first prawn in your mouth which was succulent and full of flavour, the tomato sauce was simmered to perfection in a full flavoured and mildly spicy way. The feta cheese provided an amazing creamy contrast and depth to the tomatoes. The Tuscan bread was a little dry and not very flavoursome but worked well for finishing the juices off. I would eat that again and again!
My friend counts herself as a semi officiado of Salt and Pepper Squid (£4.95 and for sharing £8.95) and has eaten a lot of this dish from the antipodean lands of her husband’s birth to the variety of Vietnamese restaurants up the road from this Spitalfields branch, in Hoxton. It’s unusual to have the chilli sauce as a dip and the batter was a bit heavy but the squid was cooked well and it had a nice peppery kick but not very salty although with today’s health warnings, the chef may have been thinking of the customer’s tickers. The portion size was perfect for one.
We also shared the Tuscan Lamb Meatballs (£6.25). I have had a love affair with meatballs since the heady days of the 90’s as a twenty one year old in Little Italy in NYC. It’s now one of my dinner party dishes and I pack a lot of flavour in when I cook them. With these though, there was not a huge amount of flavour. The lemon yoghurt granita topping overpowered a flavour that should have been there if there was anything to counterbalance. It definitely needed to up the amount of seasoning in the dish. More parsley, thyme, and maybe some evidence of pancetta needed to make it authentically Tuscan? It would give it something worth eating for.
During the starters, there were eagerly awaiting for our humble fingers, a couple of those Lemon fronted ‘FRESHER PACKET FOR CLEANSING’ sachets. My first thought is, we are definitely not flying first class. Please bring back finger bowls and lemon slices? Hot towels? Nothing at all? The ladies toilets were out of order so we had to form an orderly queue but very happy to refresh my hands using the normal soap and Dyson high speed dryer which is a pre-requisite for most establishments now considering everyone is always in a twenty first century rush.
For the mains, the waitress suggested we try another of the new cocktails and also her personal favourite the Whisky Cooler (£6.95). We found during the evening that she was very well informed and knew her food and what was the best on the menu. Woah! A straight up your nose fizzy, fruity, whisky with a rounded flavour, passion fruit seeds (like bubble tea but less work) wonderful summer drink! The Whisky Cooler. Finished.
The El Diablo (£6.95) with ginger beer, lime juice, cassis and Tequila, according to my friend was both sweet and sour and refreshing, similar to that of an adult ice lolly. The Tequila gave a sourness and the ginger beer its fizz. Like fangtastic Haribos she said!
So to the Bombay Chicken Dahl (available from 12-5, Monday – Friday, for £7.95 as part of lunch menu). A plate of Dahl. You lost me at Plate! For someone who regularly eats out with a dining club called the #EATUPCREW based mainly of South Indian food experts, this was Dahl with an identity complex. Black bean, chickpea, butternut squash (hard and watery), chicken (watery), (I hate anything watery) this should be labelled curry but even that is at a push. The tastiest part was the Pink onions on the salad. Salad? Where was the rice? This dahl really doesn’t really know what it is yet in terms of evolution. I felt sorry for it. I now know that I should never go for curries in a non-authentic environment.
The Scandi Salad (£11.95) however was love at first taste! No celery or cucumber for those whose reflux is of a delicate nature. This salad was packed full of fresh dill, crunchy lettuce, slightly crushed potato, a scattering of salty capers and a vinegary sharpness. It was like the best potato salad you have ever eaten but better as it was topped with a substantial portion of a lightly fragrant poached salmon. It was summery, moreish, light and hearty all at once. It was ‘forks at dawn’ for my friend and I. Never normally going for a main course salad, this was massively substantial and has changed my mind. I would go back for it in an instant!
We decided to try a vegetarian option in homage to my previous life and Bowl for the Soul (£7.50) came recommended although the waitress said this was not a popular choice with customers but one she had tasted and loved. The dish was vegetarian only because the lack of chicken or prawns which was an extra you could add from the menu. I think that they should think of something hearty like tofu to add texture but the overall dish was exactly what it describes itself as. A comforting Bowl for the Soul. Oozy fried egg with crunchy edges that gave a lovely sauce, fresh coriander, a nice hit of chilli, peppers, French beans that felt like they had been lovingly bubbled in a steamy sauna to crunchy fresh perfection. It reminded me of my first taste of Nasi Goreng in Kuala Lumpar. There could have been an option of soy sauce in the condiments basket but we settled for a splash of tabasco instead.
There was also a small cheeky side dish of Sweet Potato Fries with chipotle mayo (£3.95) which was crunchy soft and definitely moreish.
For pudding I ordered the White Chocolate and Passion Fruit Cheesecake (£5.50) and my friend, the Banana Waffle Split (£5.50). I was a bit confused when ice cream sundae spoons were placed next to a fresh napkin. I couldn’t taste the white chocolate and the unusually chocolatey base was crumbly but not very flavoursome. The passionfruit overpowered everything. More flavour in the cheesecake was needed. Give me a good vanilla cheesecake done well any day. Another fall back from my days in NYC.
My friend’s reaction to the first mouthful of the Banana Split Waffle was ‘Oh that’s good’! With a banana gooey caramel taste, chocolate sauce and caramel. There were different textures in one mouthful alongside the sweet crunchy waffle which maybe, on second taste could have been a little lighter on the batter but apart from that it was a waffly good dessert. Could also be good for breakfast, was a suggestion.
My usual Giraffe Moroccan Mint Tea (£1.95), which was missing its normal sprig of mint in the glass, ended the meal whilst my friend’s chosen ending, a Flat White (£2.55) was too milky but that’s coming from someone whose husband’s antipodean roots invented the drink so she knows her coffee.
In conclusion, I think it’s ambitious to put yourself out there as a World Café. It doesn’t always work when you are selling a wide variety of dishes. I would say stick to simpler dishes that don’t take too long to create stronger flavours. Curries always need a lot of love and attention if they are to have the authentic taste. Make them authentic and bubble them for days, serve dahl in a bowl with a spoon. Be bold! That never to be mentioned again dahl had never even had a curry leaf wafted near it let alone in it.
There are certain world foods that could be created for the mainstream taste like Mexican although Wahaca has changed those flavour combos for me and constantly rocks my world. I will go back to Giraffe for the Prawn Saganaki, Bowl for the Soul (but for breakfast), my usual Mint tea and Halloumi Falafel Burger (a previous favourite) and of course breakfasts (my fave meal of the day) but until next time, I will dream of that Scandi salad. Did I mention that Scandi salad?
Kavey Eats reviewer Janine dined as a guest of Giraffe.