Dabbous

Three years of trying and finally I bagged a table that wasn’t 5.30 or 10.30 on a Tuesday night. Back when Dabbous opened it was the go-to restaurant for contemporary cooking in London. There was a buzz surrounding the restaurant, and the chef, Oliver Dabbous, who was being touted as the man to take the London restaurant scene in a new adventurous direction. It made it virtually impossible to get a reservation. Now the hype has died down and there are other restaurants with a similar style of cooking like The Clove Club, The Typing Room and Portland, but after eating there this still feels as fresh and new as anything I’ve tried in London recently. With tables now easier to get, there are few restaurants I can recommend more.

The decor is deliberately minimal with exposed bricks and pipes, which fits the menu which only has two choices- a Tasting Menu (£68) or a set Dinner Menu (£56)- both with no choice over which dishes you are getting. It’s a ballsy brand of cooking that has no place to hide if it doesn’t deliver. But Dabbous absoloutely pulls it off. 

A starter of Fennel with lemon balm and olive oil, placed all it’s emphasis on the central ingredient. The cooking was exact and precise, and it quite simply was the best that this ingredient could be. Caesar mushroom shavings with lesser calamint, pine nuts and bitter leaves, was a clean and fresh dish, with waves of flavour in each bite. First a barbecued earthy flavour from the mushrooms and pine nuts, and then a herbal peppermint wash from the lesser calamint. It was familiar and yet surprising, a dish that seemed so simple with very little actual cooking, but takes an excellent kitchen to execute.

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Next Lard on toast with black truffles (£9 supplement) was a dish I wanted to hate. Served on a black slate there was nothing to distract from the fact that with a few shavings of truffle you’re looking at a £20 slice of toast. But it just tasted so good- creamy and fatty and then the luxury of the truffle coming through. 

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Cornish squid with butterhead lettuce and clover was again a winning combination. The shrimp has been shredded so that it resembled noodles and served in a buttery, nutty sauce. Best of all was barbecued Iberico pork that was trimmed of all fat and cooked perfectly. An acorn praline and radishes provided the added crunch and the sharpness from the crushed green apples brought the dish together. It was a faultless plate of food.

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A pre-dessert of iced lovage was surprisingly refreshing and then the only dish that didn’t blow me away- milk pie infused with fig leaves. It was a little bland and stodgy- the milk sauce was too thin and only had the faintest hint of the fig leaves, and its texture was a bit like half-baked croissant dough. The sort of dessert you’d eat if you’d left you dentures and palate back in the house.

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The meal came to over £100 a head but on the cooking and service was as good as any high end restaurant. So often a tasting menu can drag- this was a seamless experience, bang on two hours. There may be hotter tables to get in London now, but this still feels like some of the boldest best cooking in the city. I only hope it’s not three years until I next dine here.

9.5/10 (££££)

39 Whitfield St, London WIT 2SF

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

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Portland

Most exciting things happening in the London food scene are taking place in the East. Rents are slightly cheaper there meaning less barriers to entry for up-and-coming chefs to ply their trade, and there’s more bearded hipsters who are willing to give their new, paired back brand of cooking more of a chance. Portland is Fitzrovia’s attempt at joining this scene. With only a choice of three dishes for each course, the menu is confidently minimal. It matches the dining room which is simply designed with white walls and school chairs, lacking slightly in any real warmth or identity. Take away the open kitchen and you have a school detention room. This being Fitzrovia, it was busy with ad execs and creatives (think Oliver Peoples and casual shirts), and the menu with it’s unusual combinations might well have been drawn up in one of their think tanks. It’s all very present, but lacks any roots that give you a way in.

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Snacks were the most enjoyable dishes of the night- a thin crisp of chicken skin had a rich liver parfait on top with candied walnuts and a slice of grape (£1.50 each) to cut through- it was a skilful piece of cooking and tasted as good as it looked. As did the wild rice cracker with yellow fin tuna, lime and shisho (£3 each) which was a refreshing mouthful. Bread with smoked butter and shaved ox heart (a bit of a pointless addition) was lovely, but only 3 half slices left you wanting a lot more.

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For starter a Halibut sashimi with buttermilk and black radish (£11) looked like an anaemic flower petal. The black radish added a freshness and light crunch but it distracted slightly from the flavour of the fish. It was a dish that was all surface, with nothing exciting beneath. The other starter of Salsify with thin strips of ‘Mangalista’ pig (basically crispy bacon) and Comte (£10), was forgettable. These flavours all work together, but there just wasn’t enough love in the cooking to make it anything more than a shrug of the shoulders.

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From the specials Partridge with blood sausage and fermented damsons (£24) was a taster menu portion. The meat was slightly dry and there just wasn’t enough to the dish to make it of much interest. It needed the side of potatoes with Montgomery cheddar (£5) just to fill the dish out, but even they lacked any love. The boiled new potatoes were under-seasoned and had not been cooked with the cheese, so none of its flavour had seeped through into them. Miso-grilled deer with aubergine and yoghurt (£26) was cooked well but again it was criminally seasoned meaning the meat couldn’t shine. Perhaps chefs here must be allergic to salt. A side salad of baby gems with radishes and buttermilk (£5), was crunchy but nothing else.

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Dessert was an interesting combination of apple with rosemary ice and vanilla ice cream, again presented in a distinctive modern way that didn’t immediately draw you in. The flavours were a perfect marriage and it was a refreshing finish to the meal, but an added texture or maybe just chunks of apple would have made it feel a little more substantial. Like the rest of the dishes it felt like more of an essence of something, or an idea for a dish, rather than something complete in itself.

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I really wanted to love this restaurant- it’s trying to do things differently and it was refreshing to see a slim, focused menu. But having a menu this minimalist was a bold statement that didn’t quite come off. It’s confident cooking with obvious flair, but less focus on the look and idea of the dishes and a little more attention to depth of flavour (or just salt) and things would have been a lot better. At £65 a head I had expected more. It was all texture and colours, without a soul.

6/10 (£££)

113 Great Portland St, London W1W 6QQ
Portland Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Similar: Picture10 Greek Street

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Coya

In our quest to constantly try what’s new without having to leave the W1 postcodes, Peruvian cuisine has recently been given the London makeover. Lima, of Fitzrovia, remains the best if you are going for the food alone, and was awarded a Michelin star for it. But eating in London is rarely only about the food. So if it’s a pleasant demonstration of Peruvian cooking without the risk of the unfamiliar or too foreign, then Coya will be perfect for you. With outposts already in Miami and Dubai, it is a restaurant made for the international class- those who stay in the Grand Park Hyatt and look down on the exotic streets from their 30th floor room. You can say you’ve been there, and tick it off the list, but really it’s no different to your experience of any other city or cuisine.

Opened in 2013, by Arjun Waney, who is one of the founders of Zuma and Roka, the restaurant is all high design and has a menu that is constructed to please. Set in a grand old house on the quieter end of Piccadilly, it’s a glamorous postcode, but in reality is a thoroughfare for taxis, buses and tourists heading to Hard Rock Cafe. Suited bouncers and an upstairs members club set the scene for a pricey meal. The basement pisco bar and restaurant has a dark and metallic decor with flashes of colour, giving it the feel of a posh bomb shelter. The menu is split into sections, too many to read through, but is essentially raw dishes or food from the grill. It’s Zuma-high prices, so no matter what combination of dishes you put together you’re looking at over £80 a head.

From the starters a wild Sea bass ceivche was a beautiful fresh dish with orange and fennel shavings and a zingy avocado and red onion salsa (£12). Pork belly (£12) had been cooked on the Josper grill giving it a strong smoky flavour, freshened by the fennel and mint, but there just wasn’t enough of it. This was Weight Watchers pork belly, with all the flat trimmed off. A corn salad (£8) was full of different textures, but served by itself meant you were just eating spoonfuls of what tasted like tinned corn. It would have been far more enjoyable alongside the skewers which came next- first beef (£10) that had a lovely spicing but a slightly unusual mushy texture, and then monkfish (£10) which were perfectly cooked with a smoky red pepper dressing.

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A main of sea bream with potatoes and a fennel salad (£17) had a great balance but was let down by the overcooking of the fish. Grilled Tiger prawns with chilli salsa (£27) could have been braver with the chilli and again were a little overdone. From the waiter’s recommendations, sea bass (£33) cooked with rice, lime and sweet corn in iron pot was the best dish of the night. It was a soothing best savoury porridge with an incredible depth of flavours. Once all mixed together it was the sort of dish you want to spoon up on a hungover Sunday. Sides of patatas bravas were like the best bits from the roasties tray and broccoli with sesame seeds and chilli tasted as it does on any other menu.

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To finish a thin slice of salted caramel ganache with raspberry sorbet was rich, and needed the raspberry to cut through it.

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Portions are small and expensive, and if you’re in the mood for drink, the meal can easily creep up to the £100 per head mark. My previous experience of Peruvian cooking was at Lima, where the flavours were completely new to me and every dish surprised. Here the bold flavours are toned down, and many of the dishes taste very similar to what you have at Roka or Zuma, just with slightly different spicing. It’s undeniably a seductive restaurant that coaxes you into emptying your pockets, but break from its spell and you’ll see that it is far from an exciting take on Peruvian cooking, and is just another addition to stylised international Mayfair scene.

7/10 (££££)

118 Piccadilly, Mayfair, London W1J 7NW

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

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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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The Bull and Last

The word gastropub annoys me. Almost as much as ‘artisan’ does. It just sounds so up its own arse, which in a pub it translates to them believing they need to use italics on the menu and name the provenance of every ingredient, right down to the beer the fish has been battered in- recently it was Camden Hells batter- like I really care. It also usually means my single most hated thing will make a cameo on the menu- triple cooked chips. Two big fingers to that gastronomic tosser Heston for brining these damned things to the earth. The Bull and Last is caught somewhere between still being a local boozer that serves good grub and being a posher ‘artisan’ gastropub that has embraced all of the frustrating and unnecessary things that come with name- think silly little pots for sauces, eating off wooden boards.

Set on Highgate Road just a couple of minutes walk from the Soho House 3-in-1 joint, it has gained a solid reputation over the years and claimed the Best Sunday lunch award back in 2011. It has a great local pub vibe, and even on a Tuesday night it was a full house. With a great list of ales and beers to choose from there’s a lot to love about this place.

To start things off we shared the charcuterie board (£16) which would have easily been enough for 4 to share. What I loved about this was that for once a charcuterie board wasn’t all neat and tidy. The food was spilling off the edges. There wasn’t carefully folded and displayed slices of cut meat, this was rough and ready, it was proper pub food. There was plenty to get your teeth into and enjoy, especially the ham hock terrine and the chicken liver parfait which were both top notch. This is as good a sharing board as you will find in London.

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The fish and chips (£14) came with some of the best chips I’ve had in a long time. They were crunchy, salty and filled with piping hot fluffy potato. If only there’d been more- a side of skin on fries sorted this out though. The fish wasn’t the biggest catch and even though the batter was good and free from the chip-shop grease, it was a little on the bland side. A tiny portion of mushy peas and tartare sauce should have been notched up a scale. I hate it when mushy peas are served in stupid little pots, and these were more crushed peas rather than your classic chip shop mush.

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My partner went for the chicken with cauliflower puree, cauliflower and barley (£20). This tasted great, especially the charred chicken skin, but was it really a £20 main. For a pub meal that isn’t a steak, this is pushing the boundaries. It also came on one of those annoying boards that are just frustratingly difficult to eat of, especially when the chicken came with a gravy that you just couldn’t mop up. The waiter even asked if we needed a plate to transfer the chicken onto. Why not just put it on a plate to start off. That aside, we licked the board clean.

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We were too stuffed to move onto dessert even though the banoffee sundae was doing its best to seduce me and so we got the bill which at £73 for 2 pints and 2 course meal was a bit overpriced. The quality of the ingredients shone through and there is no doubting that the chef knows how to bring the best out of them, and for this reason I will definitely be coming back. Maybe it’s because of the accolades and reputation that the prices are fairly high, but then again it is comfortably the best gastropub in North West London.

Food: 7.5/10

Service: 7/10

Value: 6/10

Atmosphere: 7.5/10

Overall: 7/10

168 Highgate Rd, NW5 1QS

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Bull & Last on Urbanspoon

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Holborn Dining Room

Holborn is just about the last place in London I ever go. It’s even more corporate than the City. It’s basically the City without any of the good bars or restaurants. Instead it’s endless office blocks filled with faceless suits. People churning out an existence. But things are changing. There are plans to turn this into London’s equivalent of Midtown. A destination to go to, rather than a place where you feel the life sucked out of you as you pass through. There’s no surer sign of this change than the luxury Rosewood Hotel opening its door last year, and with it The Holborn Dining Room, a grand all-day brasserie that on looks gives The Delaunay a run for its money.

The restaurant is huge. Think Brasserie Zedel but with less of that cold train station vibe. They have spent an enormous amount of cash to make it look like this. Everything about the room is luxurious, but it can’t shake the straight laced Holborn corporate vibe. The menu didn’t get me excited, nothing was demanding to be ordered. It definitely could have done with being more adventurous. Prices reflect the location, as no doubt a lot of expense accounts dine here, letting them get away with it. A starter of griddled prawns with lemon and garlic butter was £15, and although the prawns were big and juicy, there was nothing more to the dish than 6 of them simply cooked and presented.

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Asparagus with hollandaise (£10.50) was again a brutally simple dish. This is the type of food you can churn out to hundreds of covers. It isn’t going to offend anybody, and admittedly the asparagus spears were a good size and tasted great, but it’s not something you’d rush back for.

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The mushroom soup (£5.50) was…well it was mushroom soup.

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For mains the grilled calf’s liver with piquante sauce and crispy sage (£18.75) was a solid main course, as was the whole lobster coming in a hefty £38. With lemon and garlic butter and a side of fries, there’s no going wrong with this dish, but for £38, especially given you can get it for half that price at Burger and Lobster, I was expecting more.

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My main course of roast rib eye ‘club cut’ with pepper sauce and crispy onions (£26.50) was a real let down. First of all there was 2 onions that weren’t that crispy alongside some flaccid lettuce leaves. The steak wasn’t a particularly good cut, and it was tough and flavourless. Something wasn’t right, as if it hadn’t been cooked on a hot enough grill, or that it hadn’t properly been left to rest. The pepper sauce didn’t have any punch and was basically just a jus. With no sides it is also overpriced, and the steamed spinach at £5,50 was under-seasoned and could have done with some lemon or nutmeg. If you’re doing food this simple, you had best get it right.

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The puddings are a list of classics that all sound appetising. We settled for the Steamed treacle and whisky pudding with custard (£6.50) which was the worst of the three, only because none of the whisky came through. The boozy trifle made up for this though and was strong enough serve as a nigth-cap. The lemon and rhubarb posset was pleasingly refreshing and a solid end to the meal.

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I wouldn’t rush back here, but I can understand the pull of this place. You’ll no doubt always be able to get a table given its size, and it does have that distinctly London vibe. It’s a restaurant you couldn’t get anywhere else in the country and with the excellent Scarfes bar sitting opposite it, also part of the Rosewood Hotel, you can have a great night out coming here. But it will cost you. With a bottle of wine (£55) and a round of beers to start, the bill shot to over £80 a head. The food in no way merited this price, and when you think that The Delaunay is cheaper and has a much more ‘special occasion’ feel, then I know where I will be going next time I want that grand brasserie experience.

Food: 6/10

Service: 7/10

Atmosphere: 8/10

Value: 5.5/10

Overall: 6/10

 

Holborn Dining Room on Urbanspoon

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