Coal Vaults - Not for a school night

March, 2014

Inconspicuous, secretive, and easy-to-miss… she’ll already think you’re pretty cool for being in the know. The lighting’s sexy, and the music’s ideal. Tables for two are suitably intimate, or larger cellar booths are great for a small group.  The old school light bulbs, exposed pipework, concrete floor, high tables, and humble tea lights are all very cool, and the young staff are friendly and attractive, sorry, attentive.

This review’s going to be lengthy as, quite simply, there’s too much good to shout about, (and two girlfriends and I recently made it our mission to near enough sample everything on the menu, including most of the cocktails…).

I started with the Marano: short, strong and seductive. There’s a big berry flavour to the gin infusion, and a wonderful tart, sour flavour in the Prosecco chaser. The latter compliments the former wonderfully. Drinks at Coal Vaults demonstrate that mixology is both a skill and an art. The barmen here think of the cocktails every bit as intricately and intelligently as any Michelin chef would in conceiving a new dish. Textures, flavours and accompaniments are played with creatively, as is the aesthetic of every drink.

Boys, start with the Oliver Reed – a fantastic (and at the risk of being sexist) very manly loosener. I’m never sure how I feel about that word, but given the strength of this number it’s highly apt. The absinthe shard is too delicious – it has a wonderful, slightly bitter, caramel flavour, which pairs well with the deep apple-y bourbon. I’ve never taken to scotch, but the Marwar Pony comes with smoked almonds, and this inspired accompaniment flatters the drink no end. Try having a sip on its own, and then again whilst enjoying an almond… see?

On to the food. We started with the braised pig cheek with red onion jam and buttermilk brioche. The pig cheek was so meaty, and came in the tiniest Kilner jar imaginable. The tart and tangy jam, and the freshly toasted brioche were both great. The Crozier Blue croquettes are dangerously moreish – definitely start by sharing a plate of these.  The pan-fried king scallops with white asparagus, balsamic bianco and truffle, were devoured with the immortal words ‘I’d take these scallops over sex any day’… I found it hard to disagree. They were divine and succulent, and paired with the crunchiness of the asparagus fantastically.

The pulled rabbit was my favourite main course plate. The sweet and sour pineapple relish, the deep smokiness of the char-grilled flatbread, the barbecue flavour in the pulled rabbit, and the low-lying hit of chilli mingled together for a true taste sensation. I definitely recommend ordering the Maricastana to drink with this, as its tequila and tamarind go beautifully with the Mexican inspired dish. Finally, the sea bass plate – wow. It’s spinach puree was brilliant, and the contrast of the salty, vinegary capers (best ever) with the sweet and smoky peppers was wonderful.

And so to pudding: an attempt at conveying the sensation of eating the salted, flourless chocolate cake will only fall short… quite simply, go to Coal Vaults and try it. Coal Vaults’ take on an espresso martini, the Bolivia, was fantastic; I defy you not to inappropriately lick the fine coffee sugar from the rim. The only way to see off the night.

Hand’s down, this is absolutely one of the best dating restaurants I’ve reviewed on my blog so far, both for its exceptional food and drink, but also for its ambiance. Cocktails are wickedly strong (making the delicious, balanced flavour of each all the more impressive), surely no bad thing for the dating scene, just not on a school night...

Hibicus - True Love...

December, 2013

Right – the notion that my trivial little dating blog features Hibiscus is fairly ludicrous, I am aware of this. This restaurant is the absolute crème de la crème of the London - nay, world - restaurant scene. This is unequivocally not a restaurant for your latest Tinder squeeze, it’s more apt for a special wedding anniversary, or, dare I say it, a proposal…

The restaurant is, of course, very formal, yet avoids being stiff or unwelcoming. The staff at Hibicus are truly fantastic; they’re friendly, playful, and attentive. Their generosity and hospitality on this particular visit was extraordinary. The dinning room is small and intimate – especially if you have a table in a corner. Striking blue velvet chairs, interesting artwork, and colourful water glasses add pops of colour to the demure room, which allows the food and wine to do the talking.

After a glass of divine champagne, we were presented with several canapés, all excellent, but the cheese choux buns were exceptional. Pre-starters were so exciting… a little carton of eggs was presented, each hollowed egg filled with truffle custard, coconut foam and curry powder. This gem was followed by fois gras ice cream and mango coulis, presented in the tiniest little savoury ice-cream cones, standing in a bucket of ‘sand’.

Going forward, my linguistic capabilities will fall disastrously short of conveying the sheer beauty and flavour of each dish, thus please help me with the powers of your imagination in conjuring the delectable nature of all that follows..!

Isle of Skye scallops had a hazelnut, English mustard and crunchy apple brunoise crust, and were served with tart grapefruit jelly, and a hilariously imaginative pork pie sauce. What a take on surf and turf! Monkfish was paired with horseradish, cauliflower, coq au vin jus, a mulled wine reduction (inspired!), and a crunchy brussel sprout salad. A very clever combination of wintry, Christmas-y flavours. The micro florets of broccoli and cauliflower on the plate were adorable.

My dish of the night was an egg yolk and potato ravioli, served on a bed of creamy truffle purée, with truffle oil and freshly shaved black truffle. Utterly sensational. Yes, this is a two star restaurant, but I shamelessly licked my plate clean...

I’ll have to speed things up now. Fois gras was served with liquorice and pears. The pink duck breast had a cumin crust, and was served with pumpkin and passion fruit. The venison was very special – fully deserving of the over-used description of ‘melt-in-the-mouth’. It was flavoured with mace and orange, and paired with persimmon, roasted Jerusalem artichoke and quince aioli.

Pre-dessert was a silky panna cotta, with a sweet Golden Delicious puree. Yum. I simply cannot convey the indulgence and beauty of our main dessert… the crisp and buttery cocoa sable shell of each chocolate tart was filled with a secret warm, rich chocolate fondant, which seductively oozed out of its case when broken. This was offset with a basil ice cream and star anise tuille.

I haven’t spoken of the cheese course, a second pudding course, or the petits fours, but rest assured all were delicious. I also haven’t even touched on the wines, but each was fantastic. The sommelier suggested wines for several of the courses, and each paring was divine.

Hibiscus is simultaneously classical yet playful. It’s creative, imaginative, and in every aspect, perfectly executed. I quite simply, cannot sing its praises highly enough. What a talented group of chefs and front of house team.

Is it expensive? Of course. Is it over-priced? Not in the slightest. Just make sure they're the one.



Mama Lan - Beeijing Street Food Brilliance

I don’t know what happened last Friday… stars were aligned, and restaurant gods smiled on Ella and I as we walked into Brixton Village, for Mama Lan’s usual queue of patient, ravenous diners was no where to be seen…

People haven’t stopped recommending Mama Lan to me since I moved to Brixton – it had become a bit of a bother. We leapt at the chance to finally knock this one on the head - ‘Yes, yes I have been. Yes, yes it’s incredible’ – and boy, was everyone right!

We were amazingly fortunate with our timing, for no less than five minuets after being seated, the queue started to grow... Before raving about the food, let me say this - don’t let Mama Lan’s popularity put you off. Yes, you might have to wait, but, 1), the atmosphere is awesome, and it’s a great spot to soak up the village vibe, and, 2), the food is worth it.

The menu is small, being broken down into ‘noodles’, ‘dumplings’, and ‘street snacks’. It’s strait forward, user-friendly, and all is to share: perfect for dating. Flavour, flavour, flavour is the agenda here.

We opted for king prawn and Chinese water chestnut dumplings – so succulent, sweet, and flavoursome; beef and spring onion dumplings – where the meat was wonderfully tender, rich, stringy, and utterly moreish; and spicy chicken wings – literally, life-changing. These wings were hot, yes, yet with exceptional balance of flavour, avoiding that deeply unpleasant annihilating smack to the taste buds. Their crunchy exterior was such a fabulous texture; you can’t help but get stuck in and devour every crumb… A real ice-breaker if an early date! I cannot wait to return to Mama Lan for the wings alone.

The dumplings were all light and delicious, and served as a very generous portion - five or six per dish, I recall. Dipped into a mixture of chinking vinegar and light soy sauce they were a true delight. The ‘smacked cucumber’ was tangy and juicy, and the seaweed salad was refreshing and mild, a perfect compliment to the bold flavours on center stage.

All Mama Lan’s meat comes from Moen & Sons, Clapham’s top-notch butcher, so is free-range and ethically reared, and their veg is strait from the village. All of this feeds into the quality of the food, but also into the restaurant’s local, familial vibe.

Drinks here feel incidental, given that the food’s so damn tasty. Cocktails are okay, although, in my opinion, a distraction. A cold beer is perfect.

There’s a real hustle and bustle about the place, and thus seating is cramped, or, to the dating aficionado, intimate. There was some pretty loud live music going on outside Harry Otto & Sons the night we went, (my favourite fishmonger in the village!), which only added to the atmosphere and energy of eating at Mama Lan.

All in all, Mama Lan is some seriously prime dating turf: the food’s exceptional, the bill is modest, the atmosphere is buzzing, and there’re a million options for drinks afterwards if all’s going well…

Click here for Mama Lan's website.


A Wong - A Winner

October, 2014

I would say that A Wong in Victoria/Pimlico would be a brilliant choice for a unique date; perhaps not the place for a romantic, intimate evening, for it's bright and busy, but entirely perfect in the early days. However, the informal atmosphere and modest décor are not indicative of the food; there is such finesse to A Wong’s food, it is simply exquisite.

Dishes are bright and beautiful, and delicately presented without being fussy or overworked. It’s a food photographer’s dream. It’s simultaneously a local gem, and a restaurant worth crossing London for.

I’ve never been crazy about Chinese food previously, but then perhaps that’s because my experience has been rather limited, I’m ashamed to say, to the odd fluorescent, MSG-loaded take-away… Supper here will utterly do away with any preconceived notions you might have about Chinese cuisine.

Start with the prawn cracker to share, and each order the A Wong dim sum basket. The prawn cracker is charming and playful, and utterly delicious; it sets the bar very high for all that follows. Black sesame, crispy sweet and salty seaweed, sweet chili, and satay are some of the flavours that accompany it. The dim sum are almost too beautiful to eat. The chicken one bursts with delicate, fragrant miso stock, the prawn one is adorned with citrus foam, and the third is topped with a tiny little curl of pork crackling!

The pickled cucumber is also a great starter-style dish, or side dish. Portions here are on the smaller side, so I would order a few extras and share. The crispy chilli, caramelised beef, with pickled carrots was exceptional - the stand out dish of our evening. There’s plenty of choice, both for the conservative and the adventurous.

A date here shows imagination. Perhaps you’ll both try something you haven’t had before. The food offers plenty of talking points, and a great opportunity to order together and share (although no feeding!). It is a great rarity to find food this special and unique at such modest prices too, which is a huge added bonus. Remember to book – tables here are hot property.

The Dairy - Cream of the Crop

April, 2015

Having been for a cocktail at the bar here in the past, the friendly staff, unique style and relaxed atmosphere of The Dairy had wet my appetite to return and eat. Needless to say the constant flurry of beautiful dishes coming out of the kitchen enticed me further... And now, after having had the pleasure of eating here on a recent date, I can confirm that, as suspected, The Dairy’s fantastic seasonal cocktails are the tip of the iceberg...

I have not eaten such truly brilliant food since a very special dinner at Hibiscus, and this was every bit as good as the two star heavyweight from the first of the ‘snacks’ to the final petits fours. Their tasting menu is £45 a head, excluding wine, and given the caliber of the food would cheap at twice the price.

You are presented with 6 ‘snack’ courses to begin with, each creatively served on mismatched china, little artisan wooden boards, and rough-cut black slates. These ‘snacks’ vary in size from little bites or canapés, to a bread course: a crusty warm sourdough roll to share, presented in an adorable little hessian sack, with a black slate of smoked bone marrow butter and chicken liver mousse, unspeakably light and rich…

Without a doubt the stand out ‘snack’ was the game faggot with perigord truffle and game tea. The flavour of the faggot was enormous, and the ‘tea’ - or game broth - poured from a little teapot, was divine. This was a personal favourite, along with the Nocellara del Belice olives, which we nibbled on throughout the opening dishes of the night.

A ‘sea’ course then followed - we had mackerel, nasturtium root and dill - and then a ‘land’ course. The venison here was the best I’ve ever tasted. The deer was from Kent, and all other seasonal ingredients were sourced from the UK, with their provenance laced into the menu.

Skipping cheese we jumped strait into the pre-dessert: an elegant mash-up of meringue, rhubarb and ginger. The pudding of the night was the salted caramel, cacao and malted barley ice cream – mind-blowingly delicious. By comparison, my frozen pear with honey, lemon thyme and almonds, while interesting and creative, played second fiddle.

If either of you are foodies – even ever so slightly – you’ll both adore this restaurant. The food is incredibly special, and yet the atmosphere is laid back and informal, it’s the perfect combination for dating. No starched tablecloths or undue airs and graces stifle the mood.

This is creative British, seasonal cooking at its very best. I cannot recommend highly enough.

Click here for The Dairy's website.