Aubaine: Not your average chain…

Easy and predictable, there is a lot to be said for the chain restaurant, however we tend to avoid them in the big city – there are just too many independent places offering great food and drink. Today though, having arrived at Inn the Park (in St James’ Park) momentarily too late for Sunday lunch, all day dining was evidently required, and as at only 7 restaurants we are unsure whether it is really a chain, Aubaine on Heddon Street beckoned. While we were hoping for a table in the sun on the outdoor terrace, unsurprisingly none were available, but we were warmly welcomed by the charming Maitre d’, and found a quiet corner inside (which, with large windows open, was almost al fresco anyway). Cheerful, relaxed service was the theme throughout, and despite a constant turnover of guests, many in for tea and patisseries, we were never hurried or pressured.

Something that I rarely pay much attention to is the bowl of bread that invariably greets you, however I’m very glad that we investigated it’s contents today: the fresh and crusty French bread was absolutely brilliant (as one can expect from a restaurant that evolved from the quest to find perfect French bread in London), and came with a pat of my new favourite food: Beurre d’Isingy, possibly the best butter in the world – an exceptional and simple combination. On to the menu, then, and while all the starters sounded delicious (though after a few days in the home of the Carpaccio, I’m not sure I will be able to even look at another one for a little while), today was not the day, and we pressed straight on to the comprehensive list of mains.

Like Carpaccio, sea food was off the cards, so I opted for the Roast rack of lamb with niçoise garnish. The lamb was tender and succulent, and beautifully presented on a bed of buttery crushed new potatoes, surrounded by tasty green beans, olives, onion, courgette and carrots, all packing a flavoursome crunch. GG went for a Duck Confit Parmentier, which was very tidily put together – rounds of parsnip mash, shredded duck and parmesan that would have been acceptable to anyone with mild OCD, and that was also full of flavour and was nicely complimented by a side of perfectly fresh spinach.

As ever, our firmly held belief that pudding goes into a separate stomach came into play, and rather than a menu to peruse, we were presented with a great slate of patisseries, each of them with an explanation – making what is usually a tricky choice even harder. Resisting the temptation of the enormous Millefeuille we settled on a chocolate eclair, in beautifully fresh choux, and a slice of the rich and moist chocolate cake, which was equally satisfying, a great end to a good lunch. Sunday lunch isn’t the same without something to wet the throat, and we accompanied today with a bottle of flavoursome Sancerre from the relatively short but comprehensive wine list.

In all then, Aubaine gave us charming and attentive service, delicious food and drink, and a thoroughly civilised end to the Easter holidays. Two courses come in at around £25-30 per person, and the wine list starts at a very reasonable £18 a bottle. If every chain restaurant felt this personal, I’m sure we wouldn’t ever avoid them.

Aubaine, 4 Heddon Street, W1B 4BS. 0207 440 2510.

Beautifully arranged and delicious to boot...

Beautifully arranged and delicious to boot…

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Big Beef in Hawksmoor…

Trudging up the stairs from Air Street, feeling a little delicate (as might be considered traditional on a Sunday), calls to mind the proverb “you cannot take hawks without climbing cliffs”. Happily this hawk is unlikely to fly away, as in the short time the Hawksmoor have occupied this first-floor sweeping curve of Regent Street, it is clear that they have become firmly established. Much fȇted as Hawksmoor’s first, and very successful, venture into seafood, that aspect will have to wait for another visit, because Sundays are for one thing – roast lunch, and it is on the chain’s reputation for great steak that we are staking our satisfaction.

Air Street seems a little dark, and I will admit to gulping slightly as we headed into what could have turned out to be a dark and small restaurant. My fears, however, were quickly allayed as we emerged into the bar and restaurant above, faced with an acre of parquet floor and a very cool art deco interior that seems to stretch off as far as the eye can see. We are seated promptly and waited on attentively throughout, though our initial order for a couple of head-clearing cokes is misinterpreted as two Full-fat Old Fashioned cocktails, an Air Street creation that puts me in danger of falling back into the night before, but that is smooth and buttery. Perhaps, had we known what we had inadvertently let ourselves in for, we would have gone for something from the “Anti-Fogmatics” hangover cure section of the extensive and original cocktail list.

While the selection of starters on offer was appetising – think every variety of west-country seafood and little meaty delights – there was to be no hanging about – and no need to try to decide what variety of roast this week – only beef is on the menu, and only beef needs to be. After a brief wait we are presented with two enormous slabs of meat, rare and succulent, atop a mountain of deliciously fluffy roast potatoes, the most enormous Yorkshire pudding, deliciously fresh greens and carrots that have been well seasoned, and a small lake of bone marrow and onion gravy. Eyes wide, we tuck in, and both GG and I are immensely satisfied – great quality beef and just as much care and attention has been paid to the accompaniments. A glass of full, fruity Bordeaux (Château de Ricaud, 2009), from a long wine list that starts below £20, is a nice fit, and we find ourselves unable to move for the next while.

However, “unable to move” pales when faced with a good-looking pudding menu, and Hawksmoor certainly did that. My Chocolate and Salted Caramel Cup (which came with an extra feel-good charity donation – how my bank manager laughed) was immensely rich, weighing me down even more, but very delicious, soft and creamy, with an almost bitter caramel layer on top. Yum. It pains me to say, though, that GG probably made the better pudding choice – Lemon Meringue Pie, a Prep School favourite which can also, it seems, be grown up. This one certainly was – less luminous than institutionalised versions, nicely tart, with light and slightly moist meringue – and light enough to permit walking away from the table unaided. Great.

So after a slightly disappointing first stab at trying to find London’s best roast lunch (see The Garden Gate, March 2013) this week is much more satisfying, with very little I can say about it – if you don’t mind paying just a little bit more (Roasts come in at £20 a head and drinking pushes up the bill significantly) – then delicious meat, great care and attention in a very classy central London joint should suit the most discerning of Sunday lunchers. We’ll certainly be back and will have to get involved in the seafood as well.

Hawksmoor, 5A Air Street, London, W1J 0AD. 0207 406 3980.

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More please, Moro…

Midweek jaunts to town are a fairly rare treat, especially when most people are slaving away at work, and so in my book at least they should be enjoyed. Having managed to coax GG out of the office for the day, and after much discussion about what to do on a seasonable but rare sunny day, we set off to Exmouth Market to find Sam & Sam Clarke’s Moro for lunch. This Spanish-North African cross has been on my list of places to eat since I discovered their first cookbook a few years ago, and I relished the opportunity to find out what the things I have been cooking for years should actually taste like.

Exmouth Market itself, to a complete newcomer to the area, felt very village-like, and on a Tuesday lunchtime there were plenty of people enjoying the warm sun outside a multitude of restaurants, cafes and independent shops. The street could serve as a lesson in how to do urban gentrification – a once run down area that has easily outgrown it’s past, trendy but not even remotely edgy, the key to which seems to be a very unpretentious feel – which extends into Moro itself.

Despite a last-minute delay to our booking (it turns out that my navigation of unfamiliar London streets can leave a little to be desired), we were warmly welcomed by the staff, all of whom seemed genuinely happy and enthusiastic throughout the afternoon, which was especially helpful when it came to interpreting the menu – something that must be required by almost every diner, though there was no sign of it turning into a chore. The translations only served to make our decisions harder though, as every single item appealed, so we resorted to blindfolded pointing to settle on our choices.

I started with the Dressed Grelos with Mojama – turnip tops with a deliciously fresh dressing, serving as a bed for deliciously salty dried tuna, that was far meatier than I expected – a winning combination. GG went for the mouth-watering sounding Trinxat with crispy pancetta, a much more interesting Spanish version of bubble and squeak that was herby and flavoursome, and was the perfect antidote for a long walk from the tube.

The main courses on offer all sounded simple – wood roasted pork, chicken or sea bass, or charcoal grilled bream or lamb – but posed just as hard a choice as the starters. My charcoal grilled lamb with anchovy and paprika butter, braised spinach and lentils was an explosion of flavours that had a real wow-factor. The meat was pink and succulent, given a real bite by the anchovy and paprika butter, and nicely balanced by the aromatic and tender lentils – which would, I think, have convinced even the greatest of doubters of their virtue. GG’s wood roasted pork with new seasons’ garlic and onions cooked with Pedro Ximenez and mashed potato was similarly divine – an enormous portion that would satisfy even the hungriest of diners, the pork was juicy with a perfect thin edge of crackling. The sherry-caramelised onions and garlic were rich and soft, and combined with the light and fluffy mashed potatoes, matched the pork very well.

While we could quite happily have walked away completely full and satisfied at this point, we maintain the view that humans have a separate stomach reserved for puddings, and very much didn’t want to miss out on what promised to be another highlight. The Yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranate appeared, at first glance, to have been dropped onto the plate from some height, but turned out to be absolutely delicious, and bursting with flavours – reminding us to stop judging books by their covers. Seville Orange Tart was very bright and fresh tasting, and on deliciously light pastry, which helped me to avoid a Mr Creosote-esque moment at the end of an exceptional lunch.

The wine list is very Spanish-orientated and does very well at matching the food (there were some suggestions on the menu, also), and we washed our little feast down with a bottle of Sisquella (Clos Pons, 2011), that had a taste of early autumn fruits and a little citrus – an ideal accompaniment to everything we ate. Overall a long and lazy lunch came to £120 for three generous courses and wine, which seems perfectly reasonable, for what you get. Moro gets my absolute recommendation – entirely focused on delivering exceptional food in a friendly environment, it is unpretentious (almost surprisingly, with such a good reputation), and a thoroughly enjoyable place to pass the time.

Moro, 34-36 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE. 0207 833 8336.

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Forget Aladdin, Momo’s cave is the place to go…

So ever since chilling with Beirut’s coolest cats in the trendy Momo at the Souks last year, I’ve been looking forward to indulging myself at the London outpost of this classy little empire, and at first glance it appeared that many of the hallmarks of this middle-eastern gem that had so enticed me in the Lebanon were on hand to do so again at Momo on Heddon Street. A chance visit last Saturday night to the bar and cafe convinced us to come back – great mezze, delicious cocktails and in attractive surroundings, low lit and seductive, where the smell of sheesha bubbling away outside occasionally wafts through the little clusters of stools and sofas which hold love-struck couples as comfortably as groups of friends kicking back on the weekend. After being thoroughly impressed, it would have been rude not to come for dinner properly, and not being the types to hang around, GG and I just about managed to beg a table on a very busy Friday evening.

The restaurant has a much more obviously Moroccan decor, and is far noisier and more bustling than the bar was. Couples can forget all notion of a quiet corner – small groups are stacked up on lines of tables that see you sit next to whoever walked in before you, which was far less intrusive than we feared, however anyone searching for romantic nooks and crannies is looking in the wrong place. The staff are charming and enthusiastic, all smiling and enjoying a busy evening, and you get a sense of a big happy family, especially when there is someone celebrating their birthday – the place erupts with cheering, whistling and dancing, though by the third time in one evening the song might start to feel oppressively loud! We were welcomed very well, and the maitre d’ dealt very charmingly with a slight bill mishap as we were about to leave – a word from the wise: always check the number on the card machine: everyone makes the occasional mistake!

Remembering fondly the cocktail list of the week before, the sexily red Burning Desire and a cool and refreshing Real Iceberg Martini certainly got us into the swing of things, and took the edge off having to choose from the extensive and delicious sounding menu very nicely. Tempted by the idea of small starters to share, we somehow both ordered for two (oops, funny how that happens), and so were rewarded with a good spread of plates. The Wood Pigeon Pastillas were deliciously gamey, and whilst GG falls into the camp of those who don’t like icing sugar sprinkled on their starters, I secretly thought it made for a nice contrast (though couldn’t say that at the time, obviously), like a very refined sweet and sour. The Chicken Bourek again coupled a fine eye for detail with a great combination of flavours – chicken parcels with a delicious saffon, almond and honey dip. These meaty treats were healthily offset by Mechouia and Zaalouk – delicious pepper and aubergine dips that played host to a whole range of spices and flavours.

Although filling up rapidly, we pressed on with the main courses which arrived a sensible time after we had made short work of the first round. My Lamb Tagine was perhaps the best i’ve ever had – high quality, lean lamb in a bubbling sauce that was bulging with fruity flavours – full, plump dates and a tender pear crowning the small mountain of meat in the middle. I don’t think it can compare, however, with GG’s Saddle of Lamb – perfectly tender, succulent meat with a perfect accompaniment of spelt, mushrooms and a lamb jus that only just stayed beautifully presented for a couple of minutes before it was hungrily devoured. Her pudding was also something to behold – Momo’s Chocolate Plate – a wafer cup of cookie dough and ganache, with a chocolate straw and rich ice cream – a work of art packed with strong and delicious flavour. I went for the Crème Brûlée, which turned out to be an interesting choice – a delicious mango and passion fruit carpaccio and sorbet with three little balls of battered custard. A novel spin on a classic pudding that I couldn’t help but be pleasantly surprised by, but the batter was just a little too fritter-esque, a little sickly and bland that was at odds with the rest of the food we very much enjoyed (I suspect this is very much a matter of personal taste).

We eased this extensive spread down with a bottle of Savennières (Cuvée les Bastes, Domaine des Barres, 2010) which, rather rich and spicy, complemented the food very adeptly. All in all, therefore, an enjoyable evening, and we staggered into the bitterly cold London air feeling very satisfied, if rather heavy. The food was of a high standard, presented with panache and served with a sense of fun that was contagious, and although a 13% service charge lifts the bill a fair whack (though not as much as a slip of the finger on the card machine), for a top-end night out in central London with a small group (the optimum number to guarantee a table seemed to be 6 or thereabouts), I don’t think you’re paying over-the-odds. 3 courses will sit in the region of £40, plus whatever you drink. While for intimacy I’d probably favour the next-door bar and cafe, Momo gives a dining experience that I’d recommend to anyone.

Momo, 25 Heddon Street, London, W1. 0207 434 4040.

Momo's Saddle of Lamb - delicious.

Momo’s Saddle of Lamb – delicious.

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A roaringly successful Somerset pub…

Long days at work and mild sporting endeavours tend to leave many of us with what feels like a gaping chasm in our stomach, and certainly for me, the culinary “delights” offered by our on-site chefs don’t always fit the bill. Fortunately, this particular part of Somerset offers a wealth of local pubs with excellent kitchens, many of which have saved us from disappointing meals at the hands of Sodexo at some point. Tonight, it was the turn of the Red Lion Inn at Babcary, just a few miles away, and conveniently located just a stone’s throw from the A303. The fact that it is frequented by students from the local cookery school (Lou Hutton’s Food of Course) is an early indicator that we shouldn’t be disappointed, and it soon becomes apparent that they know a thing or two about eating well.

Despite a slightly unhurried welcome (though admittedly, 6.30pm on a Tuesday is unlikely to be a peak time), the bar area that greets punters is homely, with a wood burner in the corner, an assortment of sofas, church pews and window tables, and a pound coin glued to the bar that causes every visitor a moment of consternation when they can’t pocket it… How the staff must laugh. There is a fair selection of ales and ciders on offer, and an extensive wine list (roughly 60 bottles) that at a brief glance looks like it has something for everyone.

The kitchen doesn’t open until 7pm and so armed with a drink we found ourselves a table in the back of the bar (the four main rooms encircle the bar, which can be confusing for anyone searching for the loo). As soon as the kitchen was open a waitress appeared to take our order, and from that moment on the service we received was very attentive and efficient – with just the right amount of time between courses to let vast platefuls settle but not fill us up entirely. Choosing what to eat took some deliberation – the well thought out menu presents a mixture of pub standards (Burgers, Shepherd’s Pie or Ham, Egg and Chips) with more creative fare (Trio of Duck Liver or Goats’ Cheese Cheesecake with Chorizo jam), but at no point did we feel hurried – everything happened at a very comfortable pace.

After whetting our appetites with a plate of Olives, Stuffed Peppers, Hummus and French Toast, which felt small at the time but given the generous portions that were to follow was perfectly sized, I opted for the Moules Marinièrs to start. Deliciously fresh (ever since living on a beach, ageing seafood has been my pet hate), they came in a relatively large bowl that might have been daunting as a starter had they not been so beautifully cooked – and at no point did I even contemplate not finishing everything in front of me. The sauce was deliciously rich but easy on the stomach, and not so strong that it clashed with the cider accompanying it. For my main I was unable to resist the Slow Roasted Belly Pork with Braised Red Cabbage, Mustard Mash and Apple Sauce, a personal favourite. This 8-inch strip of meat had been cooked so that the thin crackling was crunchy without being inedibly hard, and the pork beneath almost falling apart. It wasn’t the leanest cut in the world, but if you can’t accept the odd bit of fat, maybe Belly Pork isn’t the thing for you. The mustard mash had a moreish tang that paired very well with the sweetness of the red cabbage, and the apple sauce was smooth and subtle.

David opted for the Goats Cheese Cheesecake with Chorizo Jam to start, and was very impressed – the cheesecake was light and fluffy, but with plenty of flavour, and the chorizo jam found the balance between being meaty and sweet perfectly. The Red Lion Burger (with cheese and bacon), Hand Cut Chips and Salad for his main proved that the kitchen produces pub staples just as well – it was meaty and succulent, delightfully fresh meat that had not been allowed to lose any of its flavour. The accompaniments were equally fresh, and generously apportioned, as was the case for all our food.

All in all, The Red Lion served us very well, with big plates of fantastically fresh food that had obviously been meticulously prepared. At £31 each for two courses, “nibbles”, a couple of ciders and a coffee it also comes in significantly cheaper than most other decent pubs in the area. I’m always happy to say this, and hope I don’t overuse it, but… I’ll be back!

The Red Lion Inn, Babcary, Somerset, TA11 7ED. 01458 223230.

Beautifully fresh and cooked perfectly.

Beautifully fresh and cooked perfectly.

Belly Pork

Belly Pork

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