For all the chatter about new restaurants, I reckon, after quickly perusing the Hot Dinners site, that fewer than ten of the seventy-odd places listed as having opened this year were and still are of real interest.
There are positives on the horizon: I’m delighted that Pizza Pilgrims have a roof now and that Neil Rankin will get to cook what he wants at Smokehouse; Koya-ko will be great, as will the return of Polpetto; I’m intrigued by Flesh and Buns and Gymkhana; and fingers crossed James Lowe will end a two year search for a permanent spot soon. Others will stick their capable hands up too, but there’ll also be a whole load more that, really, add very little.
In any event, a number of recent meals have reminded me that confident, well-oiled machines are often more satisfying than young pretenders finding their feet and creaking under the pressure and strain of hype.
Around eighteen months ago I wrote on this theme after meals at the Blueprint Café and St. John Bread and Wine prompted me to try and balance my restaurant habits. Either interestingly or ironically, the chef at the Blueprint, Jeremy Lee, moved to Quo Vadis fairly soon after and became the talk of the town, and half the openings east of Old Street in the last year are derivations of Bread and Wine. Still, I quite fancy another go at noting a few other stalwarts ticking along quite nicely just below the radar. They’re not extraordinary, just decent examples of restaurants sending out good food and drink and, ultimately, providing the setting for an enjoyable, social time. Which is what this whole eating out game should really be about.
32 Great Queen Street
Are GQS and its sister restaurant the Anchor and Hope the only restaurants in London without their own websites? Quite possibly. Unlike the Anchor and Hope, 32 Great Queen Street also bucks modern convention by taking bookings. Which makes it a great spot for a central meal – and one that is as accomplished at hosting fairly large groups as it is at facilitating cosy tête-à-têtes.
The food bridges that fuzzy grey but happy line between classic French and Middle England. A celebratory family meal last week featured whole globe artichokes with a very mustardy vinaigrette dip; warm and runny lobster ‘pots’, dipped into with cheesy straws and otherwise scooped and slurped up using teaspoons. There were fatty game rillettes and confit de canard, super whole mackerel and hulking thick pork chops, served just pink and with the requisite inch of glorious rendered then crisped fat. I imagine a Frenchman would have balked at my bastardised Salad Niçoise (rabbit instead of tuna), but it served me very well. On a less balmy evening, a large steak pie between two or shoulder of lamb between more would have been mighty tempting.
The best of the puddings included a rustic apricot frangipane tart and gooseberries with a sizeable scoop of set buttermilk cream. Hearty and wholesome and, along with numerous bottles of decent but inexpensive wine, they helped to frame a fun evening.
32 Great Queen Street in 3 words
Wholesome. Sociable. Franglish.
Well priced. Starters £6-8. Most mains £12-16. Plenty of bottles under £30.
No website – 32 Great Queen St, WC2B 5AA – 020 7242 0622
The Clerkenwell Kitchen
If I stopped procrastinating and actually became a doer, rather than an observer, I think I would want to open somewhere like this. It’s a hidden gem and, crucially for the (unrealistically) idealistic chef who wants the best of both worlds, doesn’t open in the evenings other than for occasional supperclub style events. The owners hail from River Cottage and La Fromagerie, so you can imagine how the vibe is simple, casual, produce focused, and slightly better than (good) home cooking. It’s basically just solid, tasty fare; though when they want to push it out a bit more, they can and do.
Their site is in the mazy part of Clerkenwell and includes a charming courtyard, complete with outside seating and a wood burning oven – from which, the other day, my friend had an excellent roast bream with a simple salad, and I a generous portion of chicken served with tarragon butter and mighty enjoyable sautéed potatoes. There were other salads and tarts and on another visit I saw squid ragu with fettuccine, Dexter beef with radishes, and candied beetroot with peach and mozzarella salad. Nothing complicated, but good value, tempting, and served with enough skill and a genuine smile. Lovely stuff.
The Clerkenwell Kitchen in 3 words
Simple. Warm. Tasty.
Mains hover around £10. There’s a takeaway menu too – good quality sandwiches, soups and salads for under a fiver.
theclerkenwellkitchen.co.uk – 27-31 Clerkenwell Close, EC1R 0AT – 020 7101 9959
Royal China Queensway
To be honest, you could substitute ‘Pearl Liang’ or ‘Phoenix Palace’ for ‘Royal China Queensway’, because over the last few years they’ve all done the same job of satisfying my roughly once a month craving for Sunday lunch dim sum. There’s no ‘best’ place for mid market dim sum in London, but these three are in the top tier.
For some reason I like waiting, numbered ticket in hand, in the entrance to Royal China alongside an eclectic rabble of hungover 20-40 somethings, large Chinese families, non-speaking tired looking couples and their pram(s), and everything else the cat dragged in. I like that it underwent a refit last year for no noticeable difference. I like the chaos of the large room and the grumpy, brusque, stonewall service. And I like the speed with which the miserable buggers deliver seriously satisfying bamboo baskets of steamed goodness.
You can’t really go wrong with a group of four or more friends and three to four choices each. Simple pork xio long bau, prawn and / or scallop and chive har gau (dumplings), pork char siu bau and char siu sou (buns/parcels), turnip cakes and pork and scallop cheung fun are all very solid. House specials of chilli pork dumplings, steamed fillet of beef in chilli oil sauce and pan fried roast duck gyoza are often great. Can’t say I’ve ever tried anything beyond the dim sum.
Royal China Queensway in 3 words
Dim Sunday feasts.
Usually £20-25 per person
Stupid web address – 13 Queensway, W2 4QJ – 020 7221 2535