Cecconi’s

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There’s nothing I hate more than when a restaurant makes you feel like you should thank them for letting you eat there. It should always be the other way around. At Cecconi’s, I imagine that even if you are one of the wealthy regulars who swans down from their Mayfair pad for a casual lunch and catch up about the latest shop window displays on Bond St, then maybe, just maybe the staff will care about who you are. But for the rest of us though, it is tough luck.

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It really is a place-to-be seen and everybody here is dressed for the occasion. It’s one of the only restaurants where you type its name into Instagram and get more photos of people posing there, than actual photos of the food, which just about sums it up. It’s an incredibly good looking restaurant, and has the feel of a younger and more casual Scott’s. Prices are high, but given the location I don’t mind parting with the money, and there are many restaurants neraby that are more overpriced than this.

But beneath the glamorous surface, things began to fall apart. My  parents were down for the weekend and so I booked it for a Saturday lunchtime. After two incessant voicemails telling me to confirm my reservation I rang them only to be on hold for 7 minutes. I hung up. On Saturday morning I rang them to tell them that my parents’ train was delayed, and asked if they had anything later. No of course not. So we changed the table to a 2. When my parents train made up time, meaning they could then join us, I immediately asked if we could up the size of the table again. No, the table had gone. This may have been the case, but what was frustrating was that three tables around us sat empty for the duration of the meal.

So after the whole fuss with the table we were seated by the window and given a menu and some good bread and olive oil. We ordered two glasses of wine which we then had to remind our waiter twenty minutes later to bring (no apology of course). Rather than chatting to us, or even welcoming us, his first line was to reel off the specials. He then promptly left. He was like this for the whole meal, and literally couldn’t have been less helpful. He was so aloof that it felt like I should have swapped places with him and then paid for his meal.

So to the food. Not learning our lesson from Cafe Murano where we ordered just about everything, we again failed to grasp the Italian style of dining and ordered too much food. From the cicchetti we had Aubergine parmigiana (£8) which really was tasty, and much better than the one we had at Zucca a few weeks back, and even though it was only a little slice it was so rich that it was sufficient.

We also went for a small porion of the crab ravioli (£15). Again for this price portions were a little small, as it was only four pieces of ravioli. But each one was filled with crab meat and the pasta had a lovely bite to it.

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We also had the meatballs (£7) after we were told they were out of porky belly. The meatballs were tender but the sauce was boring. It basically tasted of the tomato passata you’d buy in a supermarket.IMG_0346

Next up was the Calamari fritti (£12) which were about as good as calamari can get (although not quite as good as the squid I got a few weeks ago in José). A good squeeze of lemon and dollop of fresh mayonnaise with a hint of garlic is all they needed. IMG_0347

Judging by the starters, I wasn’t then expecting the size of the main courses that turned up. The lamb shoulder with potato and artichokes (£22) was a huge portion, so big that I couldn’t finish it all. Maybe the style is to share? The lamb was tender from the slow cooking but overall the dish was just a little boring and needed a hit flavour from somewhere. Maybe even just some garlic. It was solid homecooking, the type you can’t always be bothered to labour over on a Sunday, but for a restaurant of this standard they could have added another dimension.

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My girlfriend chose the lobster pasta (£29) and again it was a huge portion, although admittedly there was a lot more pasta than lobster. Again it was a fine dish without doing anything to overly excite. Really all there was to the dish was a basic tomato sauce and (presumably) homemade pasta. It was only the addition of lobster that meant the price shot up. All I was thinking was just how good value Burger & Lobster is when compared to this dish.

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We passed on desserts and with three glasses of wine lunch came to just over £140 for the two of us. We did order too much food and this could easily have been dinner, so the bill could have been less. Overall the restaurant has a great feel to it with a constant buzz and it’s easy to see the appeal. It isn’t about the food here, so if you want top Italian dining then go elsewhere, instead this is about getting a taste of that scene, which will keep bringing people back. What puts me off rushing back  to join them though is the service, which was really poor.

Food: 7/10

Service: 4/10

Atmosphere: 8.5/10

Value: 6.5/10

Overall: 6/10

5A Burlington Gardens, W1S 3EP

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Pitt Cue Co

Pitt Cue Co is a meat dungeon where no more than 30 hungry prisoners are lucky enough to be served up trays of smokey meat. On what was probably the last pleasant day of the year before the 6 month slog of winter arrives, what better way was there to spend it than in a grey windowless bunker. At least it would be helping me with the unintentional fattening up that tends to start around this time of the year.

As is the ongoing trend around Soho there are no reservations, which usually means tenting up outside the door hours before it opens, only to still somehow be told that the wait time is 2 hours the moment the doors open (fuck you Burger & Lobster). But today I beat the system and we were seated within five minutes. It feels great when you are one of the lucky twenty to have a seat, and when I left I smugly grinned at all those in line.

Downstairs really is tight. There’s barely enough room to squeeze past people without rubbing your crotch across their back. It also means that if you are a two then you’ll be sharing the table. We were cramped up next to a couple of Americans who were gasping about the quality of the BBQ (always a good sign) and as they kept knocking back more shots of bourbon were becoming increasingly more flirty with each other, to the point that they started leaning over the table to plant kisses on each other. At 12.15 on a Thursday afternoon, this made for an entertaining lunch. What makes the sharing of these small tables fun is that the food here is not neat and dainty, and instead it’s the type you get your fingers and mouth dirty with. Grinning with pulled pork clinging to my teeth at the American packed in closely to me, she gave me a grin back with BBQ sauce all around her chops. We had become table buddies, and by the end of the meal we had joined them on the bourbon shooters.

We shared a snack of beef on toast (£5) with a half pint of ‘Whatever’ (the beer on tap- £2.50). It was a surprisingly neat and tidy dish, but we soon changed that by tearing into it with our hands. If only all toast tasted as good as this. The drunk Americans next to us were so jealous that they went ahead and ordered two of them.

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Then came the pulled pork bun with a side of bone marrow mash (£9.75) . It wasn’t the biggest or messiest I’ve seen but the flavour made up for this. It had a great tangy smokiness and the bun was buttery and soft. The mash tasted of meaty caramel and was so smooth that it soon served a condiment which we dipped the bun into.

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I went for the spicy pig’s head sausage (£12.50) with crushed celeriac and leak. If this had been dinner then I’d been a bit disappointed by the size of the portion on the prison tray in front of me, but again the flavour was great. I couldn’t shake the image of McDonald’s sausages given their shape though! The picture isn’t the best, but it was taken in a dungeon!

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We were in and out within 45 minutes, so it’s ideal for a lunch or quick dinner, but hardly a place if you want to relax and let the food settle. There’s hardly enough space for the waiters to do much more than just put the trays down in front of you, but they were friendly and of course hip (although without beards- maybe this is going out of trend now?). A lunch for two with a couple of beers came to £40. I wouldn’t say that the food knocked me out, after all it is just BBQ smoked food, so I wouldn’t queue for an hour like I’m sure some people happily do. Instead I’d be more inclined to nip down the road to Bodean’s where the pulled pork sandwich isn’t quite as good, but at least you have a better chance of getting a seat and don’t feel like you’re hiding from the Luftwaffe when you do.

Food: 8/10

Service: 7.5/10

Atmosphere: 7/10

Value: 7.5/10

Overall: 7.5/10

1 Newburgh St, W1F 7RB

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The Fish and Chip Shop

Upper Street has raised its game this year with a string of new trendy restaurants. It has to be said, it needed to. There was always plenty of good bars and pubs, but far too many fast-food burrito joints or over-priced average meals to be had. This year Smokehouse (just off Upper Street), John Salt and today’s stop The Fish and Chip Shop are just a few that have opened and there are more on the way, making Upper Street the place to go now.

Today it was a very hungover Saturday, so anything small or healthy was immediately ruled out. Our slow-functioning minds meant that we drifted from Angel tube almost to the top of Upper Street, grumbling about how hungry we were, but being too indecisive to choose any of the places on show. And so we stumbled across red and blue front of The Fish and Chip Shop. It was a exactly what we needed.

This is a very Upper Street version of the classic chippy. If you’re expecting grease stained white walls, a smell of vinegar and plastic tables to crouch over, then you’ll be in for a  surprise. This is a chippy with a Yuppie’s makeover- dark wood, leather booths, cool artwork and a cocktail list. This follows in the trend in recent years of what is essentially take-away food given a good sprucing up. First came the burger joints, then there was champagne and hotdogs at Bubbledogs, and now rather than Irn Bru washing down your salty chips, it’s an elderflower and Prosecco cocktail. Next it will be kebabs with caviar. But despite this considerable makeover, the largely Yuppie crowd and the classic trendy bearded London waiters, it still managed to have a traditional chippy feel.

We were shown to a booth, and handed the brown paper menus that is made up of simply cooked, unpretentious and what turned out to be really tasty food. For starters you’ll see things like a prawn cocktail and crab on toast. Then there’s a selection of butties, main dishes and good old fish and chips.

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A sharing portion of London particular fritters (£9) was an excellent way to kick things off. Five lightly battered crushed pea and mint fritters with chunks of ham hock, and a mustard dip. They were no mushy peas, but as far as substitutes go, this was right up there with the best.

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Then came the main event- Camden Hells battered haddock (£9.50). A good-sized (it looks a lot smaller in the photo) crispy battered fish cleanly presented with a slice of lemon. It was soon to be lathered in chunky tartar sauce and a big blob of ketchup. The beer had done it’s job because the batter was perfect- thin and crispy, closer to a thick tempura than the greasy batter I’ve become accustomed to.

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With it we went for a chip butty with curry sauce, good value at £4. Like all good butties the bread was covered in butter that had melted from the heat of the chips. The chips were great, but were let down by the curry sauce. It was too thin and tangy, rather than the gloopy deep coloured sauce that my palate has grown used to.

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The waiters were excellent. They seemed to sense that we were hungover and in desperate need of food and weren’t in the mood to wait around. They were informative, chatty and passionate about working there. From our seat we could see the pass, and it was good to see that each waiter took care to check how each dish looked, sligtly tweaking it, or polishing away any finger prints before seving it. This is definitely something I’ve never experienced in a chippy before.

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The Fish and Chip Shop won’t set your taste-buds alight, but it ticks every box in delivering good quality fish and chips for a reasonable price. Although we didn’t drink, we ate enough to fill anybody, and the bill was just over £20 a head with service. These days you’d struggle to get good fish and chips from a take-away for much less than £7, so at £12.50 you can’t argue. It’s a perfect place for an informal meal, or for a lazy afternoon where you can eat your way through a hangover. I’ll definitely be going back.

Food: 7/10

Service: 8/10

Atmosphere: 7/10

Value: 8/10

Overall: 7/10

189 Upper Street, Islington, N1 1RQ

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Zucca

Zucca is located right in the heart of foodie’s heaven on Bermondsey Street, just a five minute walk from both Maltby Street and Borough Market. It offers quality authentic Italian cooking without the high-end prices. Sitting up at the bar overlooking the open kitchen, the food is cooked and presented with the minimum amount of fuss. It is clean and precise, with the focus firmly being on the main ingredient of each dish. If a piece of meat only requires a little salt and squeeze of lemon, then that’s all that it will get.

A starter of venison, beetroot and parmesan (around £8). was a simple marriage of flavours and textures. A slice of aubergine lasagne (£7) was lovely and rich but such a tiny portion that it left us wishing it was twice the size.

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On the waiter’s recommendation my partner went for the tagliatelle with guinea fowl (£15). More meat wouldn’t have gone a miss, but the pasta was perfect and what little sauce there was had a great flavour. A veal chop with spinach and lemon (£18.50) with a side of cannellini beans (£4.25) was a great example of how little needs to be done to a dish to make it taste as good as it possibly can. A succulent grilled chop served bang-on medium-rare, and bed of spinach laced in fresh lemon juice. It was probably the best chop of any kind that I have ever eaten.

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With a glass of red wine (£7.45), two bottles of San Pelligrino and a couple of strong Italian coffees, the bill came to £85 after service. The staff were friendly and extremely informative, and it was great sitting up at the bar watching the chefs at work. There’s a great buzz in the modern and chic dining room and it’s the perfect place for a casual Saturday lunch or simple dinner.

8/10 (£££)

184 Bermondsey St, London

Zucca Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Spuntino

We turned up just before 7pm on a Friday and it was already packed with people shovelling food into their mouths and knocking back cocktails. It’s Soho scruffy-chic at its best- Fleetwood Mac blasting, industrial style lamps, hipster staff. We were told we’d be seated in twenty- perfect time to knock back a couple of cocktails. A Dark and Stormy and a New York Sours. Both were good, if a little sweet.

The Waitress came back to us after ten minutes and told us there was space in the back, in the dark little cove where you have a view of the wall in front of you, rather than up at the buzzing bar.  We were getting hungry so we went for them. Another couple of cocktails stopped our grumbling, and we skimmed the menu. Like the rest of the Polpo group, a paper menu doubles up as your table mat, and is filled with small plates designed for sharing. Nothing on the menu cuts back on calories, so it’s not the type of place to come if you’re thinking about holding back. It’s all fried and cheesy, exactly the type of food you want to wash down with half pints of Camden pale ale (£3).

First to come was a cup of popcorn with chilli salt, a nice little touch to keep you wanting more beer, although the chilli salt didn’t have a kick. The buttermilk fried chicken (£4.50) was the perfect accompanying bar snack, prepping our stomach for the onslaught of fat to come.

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Next up a heap of crispy shoestring fries (£3.50) which we laced with the chilli salt and ketchup. The bone marrow and beef slider (£5) missed the mark, it was a little small and the bone marrow was lost on me.

Next up was the famed truffled egg toast. It looked great, oozing with yolk and cheese, and I’d heard so many good things about it. But I’m sad to say it just didn’t live up to the hype. I’m sure this was just an off day for it, because it has all the makings of something you want to die eating. But tonight it was underseasoned, and there wasn’t that hit of truffle, and even the cheese could have been stronger.

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This disappoinment was short lived because next up was ham hock and chicory salad (£6); the ham was salty and crispy croutons came with it, giving it a good oily crunch. With it the pork belly salad (£8.50), a little expensive for a few chunks of pork belly, but there was no denying that it tasted great.

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Now we were already full, but the drink was kicking in, so we decided to order the mac n cheese (£9); a big portion with a with a delicious crumble on top and sticky cheese and leeks in the molten centre.

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By now I was loosening the belt buckle, ready to ask for the bill, but then the waitress told me that the PB & J sandwich (£6) was ‘life changing’, so I could hardly say no. The two ‘bread slices’ are made out of the peanut butter ice cream, and its littered with crunchy nuts and sugary raspberry jam. One of the best puddings I’ve eaten in a while. Maybe by life changing the waitress meant that it strips years off your life. Either way I’ll certainly be going back again and again for it.

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The bill came to £94 for the two of us. Admittedly we didn’t really need the mac n cheese, and we had two cocktails and two beers each, so it is probably about right, if a little on the expensive side for what is essentially cheap-and-nasty late-night diner food that has been given a good sprucing up. The service wasn’t great either. There was a couple of times we were having to catch their eye to ask for more drinks and the small plates were piling up before they were moved. Maybe it was just because we were tucked away in the dark corner, but it did feel like we were forgotten about at times. This is only a minor complaint, and we left feeling happy, full and drunk, so you can’t ask for much more. Spuntino is rowdy, sweaty and you’ll wake up with a hangover, but sometimes this is exactly what you need. So if you ever find yourself in need of a treat after a tough day there are few better places to go.

Value: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/10

Atmosphere: 9/10

Overall: 7.5/10

61 Rupert Street, Soho W1D 7PW

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Caravan, Exmouth Market

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The only other time I have eaten at Caravan was for a very hungover brunch, and all I can remember is that the Bloody Mary was strong and provided the right dose of hair-of-the-dog and that the ham hock filled the right hole. All as I have heard since then off everybody who has been is how brilliant Caravan is. And since we couldn’t get a table at the new venture in the now-trendy Kings Cross, we settled for Exmouth Market, and after a great meal I get what all the fuss is about.

We turned up at eight without a booking, having been told over the phone that they would do their best to find us a seat despite it being fully booked. This usually means seating you up at the bar for an hour and letting you spend a good whack on cocktails before giving you a pokey little table in the basement. Not at Caravan. As soon as we got to the door a smiley waitress welcomed us, and promised us she would get us seated.

We then ordered the cocktails- a summery fruity one with gin, and something that the guy next to me was drinking that had rum in it. They were both great and got us on a roll. All of the staff were brilliant. Attentive, chatty and knowledgable. They seem happy to be working in this trendy joint and they do their best to make sure you share the fun. The waitress soon came back and offered us a table. There was no ‘we need it back by 9’ that so often seems to be the case these days in restaurants. Instead the service was friendly and relaxed, matching the vibe of the restaurant.

She told us a little bit about the menu, how it’s named after a spice caravan to reflect the owner’s travels, and so it has a little bit of everything. As is the fashion the food is to be shared, with around five dishes between two of you the amount they’d recommend. You’d have to be pretty comfortable with the person you’re eating with to share the soup.

We went for a sharing board that was made up of cheese, ham, an egg deep with a crispy batter, spicy sausage, green beans and a tomato salsa. No picture or description can do this justice. Every ingredient tasted far better than it sounded, and as sharing boards go this was a great one to kick off any meal. Then came the barrage of sharing plates. First the ham croquetas with a fiery mustard sauce, that we could have easily eaten double the amount of- not because the portion was small, but because they were that good. The turnip bhaji split opinion. My girlfriend thought it was burnt and didn’t like it, but I thought the charred finish added to the texture and flavour. The ribs were simply good ribs. Plenty of meat on the bones and a sweet sticky sauce, although not something I’d choose next time.

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The one let down was the quail. It came with cashews and pak choi, but it was all a bit watery and the sauce lacked the spice it promised. Maybe I just like my food to have a real kick, but it seems that too often a dish claims to be spicy and doesn’t deliver on it. The quail skin would have been nicer had it been crispy, and the cashews lacked a crunch.

To finish we shared a banoffee pie, and it came with a shard of dark chocolate and was light and rich. We washed it down with the renowned Caravan coffee that they roast on site in the basement. The flat whites were as good as they get, and the perfect way to end a meal.

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The bill came to just under £100, and at £50 a head it sounds a little expensive. But the service is the best I’ve had for a long time and made the whole experience worthy of the price. I was in Gaucho Piccadilly the following night and paid twice the price for a meal and the waitress was rude and uninterested, and you remember the bad service more than the quality of the meal. We did have three cocktails and a beer each, so if you aren’t drinking as much this could be closer to the £35 a head mark. It’s worth going either way. Perfect for every occasion, even if you’re just nipping in for a coffee and a quick read of the paper.

Food: 7/10

Service: 9/10

Atmosphere: 8/10

Value: 8/10

Overall: 8.5/10

Caravan, 11-13 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QD

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Yalla Yalla

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Yalla Yalla is hidden down a little back alley just off Brewer Street, which of course means that it in the neighbouring doorway there’s a ‘Models Upstairs’ poster and a few lingering seedy men who aren’t in the area for the Beirut street food. Although it serves up main dishes, and will no doubt be just as crammed for dinner, it is much more of a lunch spot. The restaurant could be twice the size and there still wouldn’t be enough tables to meet the constant queues, so turning up at lunch it is a gamble whether you’ll get seated. To compensate it also offers a takeaway service, and this comes at the annoyance of most of the diners in there as the tables are already cramped in closely together so having the added chaos of a queue pushing to order a takeaway from the counter makes it all a bit hectic. If you’re in one of the doorway tables like we were then you will get knocked and constantly be squeezing your chair in. The result of this is that the staff can get flustered and on a couple of occasions they came across as a little rude to people who presumed they could just take a seat, and were promptly ordered outside to wait their turn. But for those of us who were smugly seated, it all made for eventful watching. This bustle is all part of the vibe and it’s hardly the place you come to for a long relaxed lunch.

Once we were finally settled we had to prompt the waitress we were ready to order- at one point I went up to the counter assuming you ordered there, but was told to sit back down, and then waited another five minutes to order. The menu is made up of small plates to share, all reasonably priced, and it was hard to choose because they all sounded so appetising.

We went for baba ghannouj with tahini and lemon juice, and pomegranate seeds. It was tangy and mopped up quickly with the fresh pita. Then came samboussek lahme- deep fried balls of pastry filled with spiced lamb, onion comfit and roasted pine nuts, that were perfect crispy balls packed with flavour. Already the food had made up for the service.

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Then came soujoc- spicy sausages with tomato, parsley and lemon juice. This was the best dish; the acid from the lemon juice and tomatoes really balancing the spice of the sausage and giving it a fresh lift. Next was the sawda djej (try and pronounce that)- chicken livers with garlic and pomegranate molasses. We ordered it only because the menu told us it was one of Time Out’s 100 best London dishes. I don’t even like chicken livers so it was great marketing on their part. The dish had a deep flavour that was brought out by the sweetness of the molasses.

As if we weren’t already full enough two lamb sharwarma’s (£4.80) followed- an uncessary addition to what was initially intended to be a light lunch. They were as good as a shawarma can be, and if only greasy kebab shops could serve these at 3 in the morning, I’d be waking up feeling a lot less guilty most Sunday mornings.

The meal came to £15 a head, but you could quite easily have your fill for under a tenner. For the prices and the how good the food is, then even if you aren’t going to sit in, then next time you are thinking of getting a rubbery panini from Starbucks or a Pret sandwich, then nip here and get a wrap.

Service: 5/10

Food: 7/10

Atmosphere: 7/10

Value: 9/10

Overall: 7/10

Yalla Yalla, 1 Green’s Ct, London, W1F 0HA

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