Marcus

Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. Or rather, a chef is born free, and then they get a Michelin star. This tends to be my feeling whenever I come out of a two star restaurant. With the exception of Dinner by Heston, I’m yet to have a 2 star meal that was truly memorable. Fera, Sketch and The Square all blend into one memory. A memory of a certain type of cooking, one that was excellent at the time of eating, but forgettable soon afterwards. These restaurants sit in a purgatory. They lack that freshness and enthusiasm to push boundaries that many of the new 1 star restaurants do, and they aren’t the game changers at the top of their field like the 3 star restaurants. Instead it sits uncomfortably between- it is cooking that has earned its stripes over the years and honed in a style of its own, and will always deliver a fantastic meal. But it seems that many of these chefs, in search of that elusive third star, have forgotten what got them their first. They are focused on maintaining and perfecting what they have, not thinking outside of the box. The box here being the dining room filled with a predominantly wealthy, middle aged clientele, who are not here to be challenged by a new dining experience, but instead just want that dish they’ve seen the (no doubt now celebrity) chef cook on TV. There’s also the contracts these chefs have with the prestigious 5 star hotels, which no doubt are like getting a 5 year contract at Chelsea. The stand out performances that got them noticed in the first place stop, and instead they go into cruise control, producing the same high standard each time, without pushing on. They’re like a world class player earning their final big pay cheque. Fully deserved, but you know that they can still do better if they really try.

In the other camp, sit restaurants like The Typing Room and The Clove Club, that strive to try things new, and that for the moment are cooking without any chains. But then, they aren’t yet cooking to the standard of a restaurant like Marcus. So it’s a fine balance. Many of these up-and-coming chefs, just like you see on Great British Menu, are so determined to make their mark and get noticed that they will push to do more with new surprising flavour combinations or the latest cooking techniques. But this doesn’t always improve. A great chef knows that less is more. No doubt Marcus Wareing and all the other masters of high end cooking, were once just like that, but a point must come when the experimenting stops and the honing and perfecting becomes the focus. So really it comes down to what camp you prefer. A less perfect but more exciting and challenging meal, or a perfect but more familiar and safe meal.

Today it was the latter- as soon as you walk into the dining room you know the brand of cooking and type of experience you are in for. A library hush, more staff than diners, a decor made up of neutral colours (it’s duck-egg blue in Marcus) and a predominantly suited middle aged clientele. There was a choice of either the full Taster menu (£120) or the lighter Taste of Autumn lunch menu- 5 courses for £49, or £75 with wine pairing. The menu was refreshingly simplified, listing only the three primary ingredients of each dish. There was no aggrandising techniques, instead the cook disguises himself in the menu. The ingredients are king here.

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An amuse bouche of polenta cake with a black olive crumb and fresh basil and then Dorset crab with peach, were both strong indications of the cooking to come. Flavours that are familiar, but have been lifted to the best they can get.

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A starter of burrata, aubergine and sourdough was a superb demonstration of this. It was lifted by a little heat from paprika and a fresh crunch from spring onion, along with some excellent olive oil. Crispy Rhug Estate chicken with sweetcorn and tarragon, threatened to be a little on the sweet side, but the portion size was perfectly judged to prevent this.

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For mains, the lamb neck, with beetroot, runner beans and pearl barely was again a tried combination that was cooked to its full potential. I would have preferred to see the lamb pinker- if it hadn’t been so juicy (perhaps from being cooked sous vide) it would have come across as being over-done. The roasted bream with chorizo and tomato was again was playing it safe, and was the only dish where I felt the balance wasn’t quite right. The tomatoes were too sharp and combined with the smokiness of the chorizo the fish was overpowered and lost a little in the dish.

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Next a good Lancashire cheese with a smoky fig chutney and poppy seed crackers, followed by plum, vanilla and damson which was refreshing and light, with some perfect choux buns.

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Then the famous egg custard and nutmeg tart. A small square bite that summed up this brand of cooking. It looked simple, and of course is a flavour you’ve had many times. But not this good. The custard managed to be textureless, so that the only bite you get is from the crust of the pastry, and then the rich creamy flavour and hit of nutmeg washes over. If you asked any aspiring chef in the country who is making their name pushing new boundaries, to attempt to cook this custard tart, they would not come close to replicating it.

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Lunch here costs the best part of £90 a head (with a service and wine), but that’s to be expected, and the cooking and ingredients justify the price. It a three hour lunch, so either bring your iPhone or really like the person you are dining with, because three hours next to anybody will threaten to drag. My feeling after eating at Marcus, was that the cooking was precise and measured, that every single ingredient was taken to its full potential, and so each dish that was served was as good as it could be. But then, writing this, with the exception of the egg custard tart, I had to look over the menu again to recall exactly what it was I’d eaten. Perhaps it’s easier to remember a dish like Meat Fruit, which stands out primarily because of its technique and appearance. Still, it felt that with some of London’s best cooks and one of Britain’s finest chefs at the helm here, that there’s a feeling of taking what they have got and cooking within those 2 star parameters for the duck-egg blue dining room. I’d love to try the food if they took these chains off.

8.5/10 (££££)

The Berkeley, Wilton Pl, London SW1X 7RL

Marcus - The Berkeley Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Similar Restaurants:  Dinner by Heston

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Tapas Brindisa

There are few things better in this world than pan con tomate. Few things more simple. Bread with tomato. No fancy cooking techniques, no long list stating the provenance of all the ingredients. Yet it’s a dish that so many restaurants get wrong. Often the bread is soggy having stood pre-prepped hours before service, or they aren’t brave enough with that rub of garlic, or there’s big chunks of tomato rather than the finer pulp spread across the bread. Recently a Spanish restaurant presented me with a full tomato, a slice of toast, an unpeeled garlic clover and olive oil. DIY pan con tomate. The lazy bastard of a chef must have been on his siesta. Needless to say the rest of the meal was just as disappointing. A good pan con tomate to start a meal off makes a big promise. It shows a confidence from the kitchen that they will let the ingredients do the talking, and at Brindisa they get it spot on. What followed was ingredients put together, rather than dishes- Spanish cooking at its best. Padron peppers with salt. Summer vegetables with chorizo and a duck egg. Prawns with crispy garlic and a fiery kick of chilli. Pork fillet served pink with sweet peppers and some chorizo oil.

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All Spanish restaurants know what to do with a potato and here the chorizo tortilla was as good as any. But the Huevos Rotos was the star of the show. If ever a dish was designed to soak up last night’s booze then this is it. It’s the hair-of-the-dog of dishes. So good that you’re ordering an Estrella half way through it. Served in a small pan the slices of potato are glued together with the rich egg yolk and have a lick of salt and colour from the chorizo. Offered this or Kendall Jenner as a last dish to feast on before I die, and I’d probably take this.

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Brindisa has a lot of competition- not only for Spanish restaurants in London- but set on the corner of Borough Market, you only have to walk five yards to get stuck into a a range of cheap lunches. But it continues to hold it’s own. It’s not quite as adventurous or refined as Barrafina or those in the Salt Yard Group- but for it’s sheer simplicity, it remains my favourite spot for a weekend lunch.

8/10

18-20 Southwark Street London SE1 1TJ
Tapas Brindisa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Similar: BarrafinaJoseMorito

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Fino

There’s plenty of good Spanish food in London, but you must be prepared to empty your wallet to get your fill. Those addictive little toothpicks and endless tapas dishes soon add up to a hefty bill. But when it is done well, there are few more enjoyable meals to be had. It’s also the home of small plates, something London is obsessed with at the minute. Just about every new restaurant is jumping on this small plates band wagon, which is fine if the dishes naturally merit being shared, but as was the case with Social Eating House recently, pearl barley or a fillet of turbot were not really ideal for passing across a table. The Spanish have perfected this style. The food is easy to share, and it all combines to make a meal feel like an event. It is something that brings people together to chat and take their time with plenty of wine over a long evening. We might not yet be able to relax in a London restaurant, but at least we have managed to capture the vibe of these little tapas bars. The pick of the bunch are Jose, Morito and Barrafina, which usually mean queuing up to get your arse on one of the few cramped seats. If this isn’t for you, then there is also more serious Spanish dining to be had. For those who like to turn up for dinner at the right time without the anxiety of getting a seat. The Salt Yard group and Fino fall in this category. The food is just as good, and you’ll not have somebody hovering over your shoulder waitng for your seat. But the downside, it that they just aren’t as fun.

Tonight it was Fino, the older sister of Barrafina, now in its tenth year of service. It’s a much maturer restaurant, with an older more suited clientele. Tucked in a classily decorated basment just off Charlotte Street, this is all about starched napkins and a thick wine list, rather than stuffing food into your mouth with your fingers and sloshing down bottles of beer. The food is what does the talking though, and the dishes, just like the service, have been perfected over time, making it a consistently solid experience. There’s none of the experimentation you might find at other Spanish restuarants across London, just tried classics that are simply presented and taste great.

Everything is done well here, right down to the pan con tomate (£2.80 per slice) which comes on a thickly sliced lightly toasted slice of bread with chunks of fleshy Spanish tomato and plenty of salt.

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The manchego cheese with membrillo (£6.80) was a bit underwhelming, mainly because of size of it. There was no real bite to the slices of cheese, and so the flavour didn’t come through as much. I had a similar dish at Morito, but there they grilled the manchego and gave a much bigger chunk.

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The tortilla is unrivalled in London. It’s better than most of the tortillas I’ve had in Spain. With strong chorizo and aioli (£8.60) combining with the creamy egg that bursts out the perfectly crisp outer shell of the tortilla this is as good as it gets.

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The stuffed courgette flowers were the star of the show tonight. They outshone the same I had at Smokehouse earlier in the month. The balance here between the sweetness of the honey and the strong hit of goat cheese was perfect. The batter was so light that a gentle press of the spoon caused the cheese to ooze out. Simple and perfect.

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The calamar en tinta (£8.90) was a stuffed baby squid, cooked in the ink. Again a solid dish that leaves you with a jet black smile.

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The grilled quail (£8.50) had been butterflied and had a crisp salty skin, but it needed a kick from a sauce to give it a punch. Maybe some romesco, or even just a hit of garlic or lemon to bring it to life.

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The grilled pork (around £13) was served pink and had a lovely deep meaty sauce with plenty of paprika, garlic and chorizo that combined perfectly with the sweet garden peas.

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To finish I had the torrijas (£6.5) which is a slice of bread that has been soaked in milk with honey and spices, which has then been fried and came with a scoop of rich vanilla ice cream. It as really sweet, but it was hard not to love these ingredients working together.

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It was a really enjoyable meal, but there’s not much value for money to be had at Fino. £5.40 for a bottle of Estrella is pushing the boundaries of what I’m willing to pay. As is £7.80 for one courgette flower no matter how good it tastes. With a bottle of Calcari (£33) the bill shot up to the £70 per head mark, which makes this more of a special occasion or expense account sort of place, rather than a casual bite after work. Even though the cooking was just as strong, Barrafina remains my pick, even if it is a struggle to get a table. It’s just a lot more fun than this, and that’s what tapas should be.

Food: 8/10

Service: 8/10

Atmosphere: 6/10

Value: 6/10

Overall: 7/10

33 Charlotte St, Fitzrovia, W1T 1RR
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One Sixty

Smokehouses are the in thing at the moment. We aren’t quite at that burger phase yet, but Londoners are really hot on their smoked comfort food. With Big Easy Covent Garden and Smokehouse adding to my yearly summer gut in recent weeks, tonight it was the turn of One Sixty to add on the pounds. It was the first time I’ve been to West Hampstead, mainly because I didn’t expect anything to be cramped between Kilburn and Finchley Road, and so it was about the last place I expected to find a trendy high street lined with nice bars and restaurants.

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One Sixty fits the vibe with it’s scruffy-chic black walls and school furniture. This is the bed-hair of restaurant decor. By that I mean it looks like it has just been thrown together with no effort, but really, as with all those Southern tosser students who plagued Newcastle and sent me south, it is all very deliberate. A lot of time goes into making something look this way. Why? Well that’s another matter. This sort of style is the fucking toast of London at the minute. Some bastard must have seen it working in New York and brought it over to plague our shores. Please London hurry up and get it out of your system. There’s only so many splinters in my arse I can take during a meal.

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What makes up for the splinters is the beer list. This will please any craft beer fan. There’s plenty of local stuff, all the American heros, and some micro breweries I haven’t come across before. This all makes for a cracking tasting session as you work your way through dinner. It also fits with this whole hipster/Yuppie vibe, in other words for those pretentious bastards (me included) who pride themselves on knowing their IPA from their standard pale ale. From being able to comment on the level of hops. It sure as hell is an elite crowd to be part of.

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The menu keeps things simple with a few starters/side nibbles to go alongside belt-slackening classics. If you aren’t licking your chops at the prospect of 8 hour smoked ox cheek or pork ribs then you’re nobody I want to know. We settled for some cracking little hot wings (£6) that had enough heat and an addictive sour, salty and cheesy dipping sauce. A mac and cheese was good, but not sticky enough for me, and it could have done with some crumble on top to give extra bite.

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Then it was time for the Smoked pork ribs (£14) that really were smoky. They had a smokers-jacket taste to them, and I mean this in the best way possible. They were like having a cigarette at the end of a drinking session. Something you crave again and again no matter how bad it is for you. Plenty of salty goodness and enough pink meat to get stuck in all your teeth.

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The Smoked Lamb (£17.50) we liked less, but only because it was all a bit neat and tidy, and a little small when compared with the ribs. Thought had gone into the presentation, and even though the meat was delicious, it was just a bit precise for the type of food I was after. Stick to the ribs and you can’t go wrong. A side of mash and gravy and chips (£4 each) were spot on, and needed to fill you up.

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To finish we shared the drunken banoffee jar (£5) which was a bit of a lightweight on the booze but bloody tasty regardless. I’d have wolfed 3 of them no bother.

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The bill came to around £35 a head with a couple of great local beers and a solid smoky meal. If this is the new craze London is getting off on, then I’ll be one happy punter.

Food: 8/10

Service: 7.5/10

Atmosphere: 7.5/10

Value: 7.5/10

Overall: 6/10

291 West End Lane, NW6 1RD
One Sixty on Urbanspoon

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The Lockhart

When I think of southern soul food, I imagine a greased-up, smoky shack serving huge sloppy portions. Something like Freddy’s from House of Cards. A guilty pleasure sort of place where you get your fingers dirty. The Lockhart couldn’t have been further away from this. Set just off Edgware Road on a trendy little side-street it is clean white walls and chic vintage furniture. It all verges on being a bit cold and boring. What doesn’t help its cause is that the whiskey bar is downstairs and the open kitchen is hidden in the back corner.

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Once seated I couldn’t resist a bottle of Lone Star (£5) after being hooked on True Detective. It’s the type of beer that deserves to wash down spicy finger food. The food here is too refined for that. To kick things off we were given a slice of decent bread and butter made from rendered pork fat or something like that (although it just tasted like normal unsalted butter to me) was good brioche-like stuff. Then came the starters. Literally within 30 seconds of ordering them they came. This really pisses me off, and is the third restaurant in London in the last few weeks that have fired out the food. The Wedge Salad (£8) was a big old thing with plenty of boiled eggs. It only got interesting when I got to the bottom though and got all the creamy dill sauce. The rest of it was basically just iceberg, eggs and crispy bacon bits.

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The catfish gumbo (£9) had plenty of going on with a good hit of heat. This was more like the food I’d been expecting. Just a shame it came so quickly.

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For main the pork belly was hardly the biggest cut and I would have preferred a bit of crispness on the skin. The sauce was too sweet for my liking, making the whole dish a bit maple-syrupy and just a bit sickly. IMG_2423

The fried chicken was 2 legs that had a great crispy coating and were succulent. But really only 2 legs? This was part of a set 3 course deal, but it was still around £17 for the main course. A side of coleslaw was decent and the collard greens were tasty but it didn’t blow me away.

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The cornbread (£6) is probably the most fattening and indulgent side order in London. It’s basically a Medeira cake with extra butter melted all over it. For a few bites this is a great thing, but it’s a bit too close to cardiac arrest territory for me. Still wolfed the lot though.

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I wasn’t given a dessert menu, instead my partner’s dessert (from the set menu) came straight away. It was a ‘deconstructed’ (how very modern of them) lemon merignue pie, and was top notch. The meringue was like the best marshmallows cooked over a fire and then that sharp tang of the lemon sitting beneath it.

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So the meal came to an end within an hour. This absoloutley ruined the meal. I’ll begrudgingly accept this whole 2 hours turnover time, but for £50 a head I want to be in there for longer than an hour. It was also overpriced. Some bottles of beer were around the £7 mark and wine soon shot above £40 a bottle. Even the food, which wasn’t exactly Southern sized portions, didn’t merit the price tag. I wanted to love this restaurant, but sadly it was all a bit forgettable.

Food: 6.5/10

Service: 3/10

Atmosphere: 6/10

Value: 6/10

Overall: 6/10

22-24 Seymour Pl, W1H 7NL
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Lockhart on Urbanspoon

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Smokehouse

Neil Rankin was the Scottish chef in the baseball cap on the latest Great British Menu who made bold statements about fine dining being dead, and it now being all about big hearty cooking. I’m certainly with him on this, and I’d happily swap any molecular gastronomy for a good slab of meat any day of the week. But sadly for him, the judges, or rather creepy Jeremy Lee, didn’t buy it. His indoor BBQ heart-on-the-sleeve style of cooking was thrown to the kerb and so he’s back in the kitchen at Smokehouse.

I’d always wanted to try this place, but the far end of Upper Street is a ball ache to get to for me, even if the promise of wholesome smokey food is tempting. But spurred on by his Great British cameo, we booked a table for Sunday lunch. On a sunny day with a packed beer garden of Yuppies there’s a great laid back vibe, topped off by the superb staff who refreshingly actually gave a shit about where they worked and what they were serving. Our waiter was even giving me beer pairings and all his reccomendations were spot on.

To start things off I had the smoked potted duck and sourdough. It was a decent start to the meal, but I wanted more of that smokiness to come through.

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My partner went for the courgette flower with blue cheese and honey on the waiter’s recommendation. This was an excellent starter- light, sweet and with plenty of depth coming through from the blue cheese.

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Then came the roasts- I opted for the Roasted pork rib eye & smoked shoulder (£16.50) which had all the makings of a classic and was packed with flavour, but there wasn’t enough of it. There needed to be more of the smoked shoulder to balance out the various sweet purees, and just simply more roasties and veg. It also felt like it had been standing there for 30 minutes, which given our 3pm table time, it could well have been. There was just a limpness to it, like it was the leftovers from the various dishes that had been slapped on the plate.

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The Roasted Highland beef (£18) fell at the same hurdles. First up the beef was cut to thin, making it a little bit Toby Carvery, and less like the prime cut of Highland beef that it was. It also meant that whilst it came perfectly medium rare, the central section of the beef was just a bit chewy. There again wasn’t enough of it. If Neil Rankin is going to come out on national TV and say it’s the era of big hearty dishes, then he needs to think about upping the size his meat portions here first. The Yorkshires were also crap. They were cold and dry as if they had been lying on a counter for an hour. They hadn’t risen anywhere near enough to give that big rustic homemade feel, and instead these were more Aunt Bessie, rather than a fitting part of a high end London roast.

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I was still happy though and cleaned the plate. I’m only grumbling about the portions because I’m a greedy bastard. But I’d set the bar high and had hoped for slightly better. But then came the desserts. First up was the T-cake or the Double D Tart- their name doesn’t give much away- which ever of the two it was, it was nougat, choclate ganache and pistachio ice cream.

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This was topped by the Sticky toffee apple cobbler (£6.50) which is hands down is the most satisfying pudding I have eaten. Sticky toffee pudding at the best of times is a nailed on winner. Throw caramel apples into the equation with vanilla ice cream and you don’t get much better.

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The bill came to around £75 for a few drinks and a three course Sunday roast. This isn’t exactly cheap, especially given the roast itself wasn’t the best. But I still loved Smokehouse. I imagine that Sunday lunch sees the menu at its most boring, and no doubt the a la carte plays up the smokehouse name much more. It’s a restaurant that made me want to come immediately back, half because I absolutely loved it and half because I felt that I missed out on the main event and need to give it another try before casting judgement.

Food: 7/10

Service: 9/10

Atmosphere: 8/10

Value: 7/10

Overall: 7/10

63-69 Canonbury Rd, N1 2DG

Smokehouse on Urbanspoon

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Big Easy, Covent Garden

Getting to the Big Easy on a Friday night reminded me why I always try to avoid eating in Covent Garden. It’s a certain type of tourist who crowds to this part of London. A bit like the ones who go to Camden. What exactly is it they are going to see? The central arcade is boring after 2 minutes, just like the trashy Camden market is. Instead they all just crowd around snapping photos of everything and getting in the way of the unfortunate Londoners who have somewhere to get to. Big Easy fits perfectly into the Covent Garden mould. It’s huge for one, and also the perfect mix of completely false with quite trendy. It’s very much like Balthazar in this respect, another restaurant in the area which is trying to be the authentic New York-French brasserie, and has spent millions trying to achieve this look, but in the end just falls short.

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We were given the worst table in the restaurant. It was essentially hidden from the eyes of any waiter. Well that’s the only reason I can think why they ignored us for the first 35 minutes. That’s right, 35 minutes before we got a drink. I had to ask 3 waiters for a drinks menu before one came, and 4 different waiters for water, which didn’t come until we had finished the meal. And of course they employ that 2 hour rule, which would be fairer if they didn’t take nearly an hour to take the order. To say the service was a disaster would be an understatement. This was comically bad.

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But in a group of 4- this place is made for groups, not a quiet date- once the beer was flowing we stopped caring about the useless staff, and enjoyed the brash vibe. A huge sharing plate (£19.50) kicked things off. How this could possibly be for 2 people as it recommends on the menu, I do not know. You’d have to be American to finish these portion on your own. It wasn’t anything special. I mean it was perfect, but only because everything deep-fat-fried is. Chicken wings, big battered shrimps, calamari,and Hush Puppies (deep-fried cornmeal batter and chilli jam). It tasted exactly like the sharing platter you’d get at somewhere like Sports Cafe in Leicester Square. Something that big kitchens churn out all day without thought or effort. But with plenty of beer (which hits you at £5.50 a bottle here) this is the exactly the type of food you want.

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Next up things got considerably better, and considerably bigger. The Bar.BQ Blow Out(£17.95 per person) was Flinstone size portions of meat. There was enough meat to see you through the week. The ribs were stunning. Big fat juicy things with plenty of flesh to dig into. Then there was 2 giant hunks of chicken with charred crispy skin and juicy flesh. As if there wasn’t already enough pork, there was a pot of pulled pork, that was a good attempt, but didn’t have enough smokiness for my liking. The cornbread was rich and fatty, and the side of coleslaw and pit-smoked beans did a job.

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The Lobster Fest (£20) is either a 1 lb lobster roll or a full lobster, with fries, salad and a pint of beer. Choosing the lobster roll this was one heavy thing, packed with juicy lobster flesh. It wasn’t as good as the Burger & Lobster version, but still no let down. It was just a bit heavy, as if they thought packing in more and more meat would make it better. Something like this needs a lighter touch. And 2 portions of chips? Who’s getting through all them.

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The Lobster Bake (£19.50) was another huge dish, this time packed with seafood- Half 11⁄2 lb Lobster, Peel ‘n’ Eat Jumbo Shrimp, Mussels, Crab Claws & New Potatoes, with Hot ‘n’ Spicy or Garlic White Wine Sauce. Just reading that tells you there’s a load of food. I’d hate to see how much food gets scraped in the bin here because nobody on any of the tables was finishing. Some people will love this, but I wish they’d just cut back a bit and spend more time making sure it all tasted great.

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It would have been impossible for us to try a dessert. We were so full that we had to cancel the night out we had planned. There’s no easy way to do Big Easy. No way to cut back here. It’s the most American sized portions I’ve seen outside of America.There’s a lot to love and hate about this restaurant. It’s obviously not for everyone, and isn’t somewhere you’d come often, mainly because you’d likely die if you did. It’s very in-your-face loud and brash. But at times I love this. The food was as good as it gets for this type of cooking. It was also great value given just how much you get- the bill came to £45 a head with 3 pints each. Given the rest of the restaurants in Covent Garden, you can do a lot worse than just accepting Big Easy for what is is, and coming here.

Food: 6.5/10

Service: 2/10

Atmosphere: 8/10

Value: 8/10

Overall: 6.5/10

12 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7NA

Big Easy on Urbanspoon

Similar: BodeansFlesh & BunsBurger & Lobster

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