The opportunity to try Theo Randall’s cooking at a fair price in a relaxed atmosphere. A great spot for a date where the food impresses without the formal setting.
As we made our way from Earl’s Court station to Theo’s Simple Italian I was actually slightly apprehensive. Theo Randall who came to fame as head chef at River Café, opened Theo’s Simple Italian earlier this year with the aim of creating a casual dining experience, where the recipes would be pared back, and the ingredients would do the talking. I am a great fan of simple but it is reliant on top quality ingredients and the dishes being cooked to perfection. There is no margin of error and as I was making my way there, I was just hoping that Theo would manage to pull it off. After all, simple is often far more difficult than complex.
I needn’t have worried though. There is a relaxed atmosphere within the restaurant that comes across straight away. We were given a warm, friendly welcome, and shown to our table. They have worked hard to ensure the décor fits with the simple, casual dining approach. As such, the restaurant is well-lit, with light wooden panelling, marble tables and comfy leather chairs.
For the “primi” course I went for the Tagliarini Pescatora, whilst my date opted for the Penne Pomodoro and Burrata. Expectations were high, after all these two dishes are staples of Italian restaurants all over, and if you are trying to create a casual Italian dining experience, these are the dishes that you need to get right. What we received on our plates met these expectations – both meals having a freshness and a clean flavour that is rarely met in London Italian Restaurants. Moreover, the portion size was generous on both plates, and they could easily constitute a meal by themselves at a very reasonable price.
As good as the primi were, it was the second course that really delivered. I had the Agnello al forno and it was delicious. This is lamb at its wonderfully tender best, where every mouthful was full of flavour. My date went for the grilled beef. Again, a generous portion with a richness that is offset by a fresh rocket salad. The staff, who were attentive throughout without being overwhelming, were extremely useful at this point. On the whole, I tend towards caution when it comes to ordering wine in restaurants and stick to fruity wine that I already know. But trusting the knowledgeable waiter, I went with a glass of full-bodied red, which ended up complementing the lamb perfectly.
Having had two good sized dishes, a dessert felt ever so slightly indulgent. Again the waiters managed to convince us that we could probably manage to share a dessert. In the end, we chose a chocolate cake, which was tasty without being too rich or adventurous.
A more casual offering than the Intercontinental, Theo’s Simple Italian gives you the opportunity to try Theo Randall’s cooking at a fair price in a relaxed atmosphere. A great spot for a date where the food impresses without the formal setting.
OK, I am being harsh and unhelpful to the lovers out there who will no doubt be looking for ideas. If you were wooing me in London, I’d want to be taken to Trullo, Brasserie Chavot, Garnier, The Ledbury, Casse-Croûte, Honey & Co or Café Murano. If you wanted to not woo me, yet see how far away I can throw a shoe at you and still hit your forehead, take me somewhere ‘no reservations’ and ask me to stand in the doorway.
I was sent to Scarfes Bar at the recently re-enlivened Rosewood hotel in Holborn to check out its capacity for romantic ambience, which seemed to have great potential due to its enormous, twinkly prettiness as one passes from the road, plus the beautifully restored Grade II-listed Edwardian courtyard through the arch, which has the ‘wow’ factor quite vital to wooing. The bar itself, I am told, had been ‘lovingly evolved into a living canvas by political cartoonist Gerald Scarfe’ and ‘meticulously designed’ by the renowned Martin Brudnizki. It’s a high-end hotel bar in Holborn with a roaring fire, velvet armchairs, over 200 single malts, oodles of champagne, rare specialisations in sloe gin, dozens of cocktails and bookcases filled with antique books hand-picked by a Portobello antiques dealer.
But let’s be frank, it’s a bit like Alexander Meerkat’s living room: pretty and pompous. I can’t vouch for the comfiness of the velvet armchairs. I called in the morning to reserve a table and was informed they have a ‘no reservations’ policy, but when I arrived there were ‘reserved’ signs on the tables, which caused my mood to curdle so badly a knot of dead toads fell from the sky in Michigan.
In plainness, Scarfes Bar, at the moment, has great potential for fabulousness but misses the mark. The bar staff are handsome and expensively kempt, but lack that golden touch of knowing when one requires serving, even if you’re sitting in direct eye-line miming chronic dehydration. Gosh, I miss American bars, where they’re so on the ball it’s impossible to leave. I drank Perrier-Jouët at £16 a glass and attempted to order bar ‘delicacies’ from a menu inside an antique book that was swept away whenever I put it down. A pianist tinkled through mournful jazz versions of ‘Teenage Dream’ by Katy Perry and Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. An affluent barfly two seats west of me chatted up office girls and seemed unsure what day it was. I tried a jar of Jason Atherton-esque smoked salmon pâté. Well seasoned, charming enough. Some skewers of chicken tikka — I found no evidence of tikka. Lobster momos — think Wagamama dumplings — were watery and ignorable. Lamb cutlets lacked any oomph and flapped about on the bone like a Heathrow windsock. My favourite item was the fish goujons: essentially posh fish fingers with mayo in a slightly spiced breadcrumb. I would not cross the road to eat any of this again and this is a problem.
At around 11pm, just as I was about to pay up, a fantastic female jazz singer appeared and hammered through one of those sets one might catch on Jools Holland. Yet here she was on a wet Wednesday playing to chuntering hotel guests and corporate groups comparing laptops. Scarfes Bar is fitting for Valentine’s Day as it feels like many relationships I’ve been in. All the right elements are present. I’m just not in love with it.
You can tell a lot about a place by the punters it attracts. By that measure the City Social, Jason Atherton's new restaurant on the 24th floor of Tower 42 in the City, is to be avoided, at least by me. Early on I am waiting at the bar where I am approached by a middle-aged woman with hair the colour of the peroxide aisle at Boots. "I don't normally interrupt people," she says with the nasal twang ofAlison Steadman's Beverly in Abigail's Party. "But I'll make an exception for you. I'm a newly elected Ukip MEP and a real foodie and I'd like to invite you to lunch."
It speaks much for the Liberal-Left bubble I inhabit that I am astonished she should admit to her Ukip victory. But she's said it with such enthusiasm that it's clear she's said it before and been met with applause. Not this time. "You support a party which attracts racists, homophobes and bigots," I say. "Lunch is not going to happen." Her lips quiver. "You're… you're the bigot," she shouts. And she storms off. I suppose in the sense that I am bigoted against bigots I am indeed a bigot, but only over a very narrow bandwidth.
City Social, the latest in a line of London restaurants with the S word in the title, really isn't very. It is all the very worst of the 1980s revisited. It's full of clumping tumours of men, jangling change in their pockets and barking at each other about the latest position taken by Millennium Capital. There are large tables of men, with hard jaws and bald heads and glazed eyes from the working hours, boasting, and stamping and clapping each other on the shoulders. The testicle count is enormously high here, which is fitting because there's an awful lot of bollocks at City Social.
The place is fitted out in the 427 shades of brown visible to the naked eye so as to suggest an old gentlemen's club: curving leather banquettes by the windows, wood trim everywhere, dark floors that suck what available light there is so that menus have to be read by the torch app on your smartphone. Except it's only just opened and has the whiff of the glue-gunned stage set.
They try to serve cocktails in pewter tankards, as if it's a proper old inn that is slipping into the Thames. It isn't. You can tell that from the wraparound view of London up here. It should be said that the chaps behind the bar quickly nod agreement when I laugh in the face of pewter and ask for a bloody glass. Indeed, the barmen are the most human aspect of the whole place.
The rest is faff and bother and heel click. It's the kind of place where dishes are brought on trays by one person but delivered by another in a clumsy dance that stops all conversation; where waiters are drilled to scrape the table for crumbs none can see; where if you decline bread they will remove your bread plate so you may never change your mind. The staff behave as if constantly on the edge of being bawled out by the customers. (Nothing to do with me being recognised; the PR company later made it clear that they didn't know I'd been in.)
Wine service is the pits. It's one of those lists priced to make you feel inadequate. It's priced to give the tedious men barking at each other about Millennium Capital a way to look interesting by spending stupid amounts on wines with names they can't pronounce. I ask the sommelier to find me a bottle of Pinot Noir for under £50. He puffs out his cheeks, shakes his head, points at things costing £56 and, at one point, something costing £99 which isn't Pinot Noir. "It's very difficult with Pinot Noir," he says. No it isn't, I tell him. You can get a great one for under a tenner wholesale. It turns out there is one for under £50 – a Chilean for £49 – but I spot it after he has left our table. The man either doesn't know his own list or wants us to spend more.
All this grind and hand wringing and willy-waving makes the food an afterthought, which is a shame. At his best Jason Atherton, who oversees the kitchen here for the consultants Restaurant Associates, which actually runs the venue, can be very good indeed. Witness his seafood linguine: a coil of silky pasta lies in a bowl surrounded by curls of crisped squid, steamed mussels and cockles and a dice of razor clam on the shell. On to this is poured a seafood velouté that is heavy with the cooking juices. Aside from the irritation of wrestling the sauce boat off the waiter so you can have more, it is about as good a seafood pasta dish as you could hope to find in London. As it should be for £14.
But Atherton does have a tendency to overwork things. What might be a great steak tartare – heaps of chopped and seasoned prime beef scattered about the plate – is undermined by splodges of "dried vinegar", a vinegar gel, the acidity of which bullies the subtleties of the meat. A beautiful tomato salad with tomato jelly and sprinkled with basil granita is let down by tomatoes which are like some of the clientele: all right to look at but with little to say for themselves.
Technically, mains are a masterclass. There are pieces of rabbit saddle, bound together and wrapped in ham to form a cylinder, plus an impressive rabbit sausage and a side dish of a barley-like grain with braised rabbit. A duck dish brings hunks of breast and boulangerie potatoes and a berry compote. Technically impressive they may be, but they lack heart and soul. About the meat there is the raw squidge and bloodiness of sous-vide. The animal proteins have been denatured under vacuum, but not uproariously cooked. A kind of perfection has been achieved; it is not the kind I enjoy.
Dessert, at least, is without a fault: a foamy strawberry soufflé, a classic custard tart with a welcome dusting of ground nutmeg. But the whole effect is deadening. Across from Tower 42 is the Heron Tower with, at the top, Duck & Waffle, looking down upon us. Midway through my meal I look up and know that if it's dinner and a view I'm after, that's where I'd rather be. It's 20 floors higher, 50% cheaper and 100% more fun.
A fun vibe and a buzzing atmosphere. Expect fresh, sharp flavours and a comforting, soulful experience.
In the heart of Dalston, you can find Rudie’s, a much talked about restaurant that offers a fresh and contemporary twist on Jamaican classics.
Minimalist and unassuming from the outside, when you walk into Rudie’s you know you’ve entered somewhere special. There’s a buzz about the restaurant. The atmosphere is warm and the decor is slick – the focal point of which is the skandi-style, floor-to-ceiling lights that resemble coconut trees in the dining area. There’s an eclectic mix of friends and dates and as the dinner service warms up, it’s hard to see an empty seat.
First things first, it’s important to make it known that Rudie’s has the largest selection of rum in the UK. This knowledge alone should be enough to entice devoted rum fans from across London and afar. My date and I are no strangers to rum, so we started the evening with a ‘Ting Wray’ and ‘Rum Punch’ – both fruity and both strong (maybe opt for a cab on the way home).
The staff really know their menu and can educate on the extensive collection of rum on display as well as foodie favourites. To start, we ordered ackee and saltfish moneybags – dainty pastry parcels packed with flavour and beautifully accompanied with a pickled sweet lime dressing. We also shared the soft shell crab. Fried in jerk batter and served with a lime and coriander dip, it was another dish without fault.
We couldn’t come to Rudie’s and not have jerk. So for the main course, my date had the signature half-chicken which is marinated in a secret blend of herbs and spices for 24 hours before being chargrilled, chopped and served on a board. The result is beautifully crisp, smoky-flavoured and tender chicken. It’s served with a selection of sauces to suit your spice preferences. There’s a fiery jerk sauce for seasoned spice fans as well as a sweet and spicy ‘ketchup’ – a thoughtful addition for those new to the jerk world. On the side, my date had sweet potato fries and a mango salad. The sweetness of the mango went beautifully with the smoky jerk flavours.
I opted for the curry goat from the specials menu. The dish was a rich and earthy curry, with a mild and subtle spice and tender meat on the bone – a perfect winter warmer. It’s served with a good portion of rice and peas.
To finish, we shared a mango and berry cheesecake which was delicate, smooth and not overly rich. Wanting to explore more from the UK’s largest rum menu, we ended the evening with the waitress’ recommendation – the Jamaica Nice. This was a seriously good rum smoothie; a sweet and sour blend of lime, coconut, pineapple, nectarine and almond. I’d definitely recommend this refreshing way to end a meal.
Rudie’s has a fun vibe and a buzzing atmosphere – an ideal environment for a date. The cocktails are out of the ordinary and the menu has plenty to offer. The prices are reasonable for London and Rudie’s staff are knowledgable, friendly and attentive. Expect fresh, sharp flavours and a comforting, soulful experience when you come.