A couple of weeks ago, when the weather was almost as shit here as it is now, I spent a few days in Venice on a job. It was bloody great. I didn’t love Venice when I first visited for work, for the opening weekend of the Biennale last year – too many bridges, too many tourists and infuriatingly unreliable wifi. It was as if it had been built entirely as a theatre backdrop and no-one had actually considered how it might function as a city where you might want to, I don’t know, buy groceries, or send an email, though it is astonishingly well co-ordinated for having an affair. Just FYI.

But then in April, I went back with friends to a rainy city which completely charmed me with its absurdly higgledy-piggledy streets, most of which have one of only about eight names (especially when they’re right next to each other but don’t actually reach the same point), and its cute little restaurants and bars. It helped that I made some new friends who live there, Diana from Mexico and Grazina from Lithuania, who have since introduced me to some of their favourite places, which is the point of this post. So, despite Venice’s reputation for shit food at outrageous prices, here are some really great places to go. NOTE this slightly doubles up with a feature I wrote which came out yesterday in The Times, about Titian’s Venice. If you want check it out, it’s here: http://thetim.es/MH8JTy (£)

Restaurants

Bancogiro, Sottoportego del Banco Giro 122, Rialto Market

A modern, airy little osteria with friendly staff and delicious food at a price that belies its enviable, central location. Within the Rialto Market, which has been a working market since 1097. I had the Venetian antipasti misti for 12E, which is entirely fish-based and DELICIOUS – a sort of creamy baccalau, which is great on bread with a slice of sweet tomato, a very typical Venetian dish of sardines with onions, fresh, steamed squid and anchovies. Venice is famous for fish – it’s really worth visiting the Rialto market to look at the fish mongers there, and the beautiful fruit and vegetables. It’s on most mornings until 1pm.

Image

ImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Ai Promessi Sposi, Calle dell’Oca, Cannaregio

This is a really local restaurant with traditional Venetian fish and meat dishes to die for. If your Italian is up to it, just ask them to bring you a couple of plates of whatever’s good and go with it. My favourite things were some perfect scallops, a gorgeous dish of tiny shrimp, dipped briefly in a very light batter and fried – exactly the same as whitebait, but with shrimp – and a tomatoey moules mariniere which I wanted to drink. I didn’t photograph much, because I was too busy troughing.

Image

Image

La Zucca, Calle del Tintor (at Ponte de Megio), Santa Croce

Vegetarians, especially those who don’t eat fish, get pretty short shrift in Venice so this place is a haven. The sweet and sour pumpkin pie has to be tried to be believed.

Bars

Taverna del Campiello Remer, Campiello del Remer, near Campo San Giovanni Crisostomo

Not the easiest place to find but worth it – duck down a completely unmarked, unpromising alleyway next to a shop just off the Campo San Giovanni Crisostomo and then don’t lose your nerve even though it looks like you’re heading for nothing. It’s a friendly little pub which sits on its own little square on the canal, looking across to the Rialto Market. Gather around the well head in the centre of the campiello and have a Venetian classic spritz. There’s a sort of graduation of spritz – the easiest to drink is Aperol, which is the sweetest and a sort of virulent orange colour, then Campari, which is more bitter and pinker, then the real stalwarts go for Cinar, which is like cough medicine and a disgusting brown colour. I love it. Not everyone will.

Timon, Fondamenta della Misericordia (some maps call this part Fondamenta degli Ormesini, it’s the same stretch)

For a really local experience, head further into Cannaregio and far off the tourist trail for cheap drinks and a cordially riotous atmosphere. When it gets busy, in good weather everyone just perches willy-nilly on the edge of the canal. They have really nice cicchetti – Venetian tapas served in almost every bar and Enoteca – the best being the three different types of baccalau on bread. They do the creamy one but also more chunky arrangements – the one with tomato is particularly good.

Alla Vedora (AKA trattoria Ca’ D’Oro), Calle del Pistor, Cannaregio

You can book a table at this famous local place just off the Strada Nove, but it’s more fun to perch at the bar or stand outside with an ombra (a tiny glass of local wine from jugs on the bar, specify rosso or bianco) for 50 cents (I know! I know! that’s like, 40p!) and a plate of their amazing cichetti. They are generally considered to make the best polpette di carne – breaded meatballs – in the city; they are crisp on the outside and cloudy and light on the inside. Don’t expect more than grunts from the staff though; if you’re not a regular, you’re just a tourist.Image

Bar, Campo Due Pozzi, Castello

I have absolutely no idea what the name of this place is. It’s an absolutely ordinary local bar, but far from everything remotely touristy and with a propensity to get pretty busy and raucous and really fun. Diana put it best: “If I’m going to go to a bar where I don’t want to meet anyone I know, then that’s the bar I go to.” Like I said, Venice is well set up to misbehave.

A Little of What You Fancy, 464 Kingsland Road, E8 4AE

In the six and a half years I’ve lived in Dalston, it has gone from what one west-dwelling colleague once described to me as ‘your pungent suburb’, to officially the most fashionable spot on the face of the planet. Almost every Friday and Saturday night I come home to find my doorstep, which is flanked by a trendy club and an increasingly busy bar, littered with slender, gazelle-like young people, heavy of eye makeup and musical of laugh, fagging away (that’s ‘smoking’, Americans) like mad, having a simply lovely time. It’s very sweet, but it’s also a bit wearisome, sometimes, so when a little restaurant calling itself A Little of What You Fancy opened up a few doors away, I feared a fashion flashpoint rather than what I sorely wished for, which is a lovely local restaurant with friendly staff which is serious about food. Astonishingly, I got the latter.

It was a late lunch (at 2.50pm, the kitchen closing at 3), so I thought I’d make it easy on them and myself with a simple goat’s cheese salad and a glass of red. What I got, to steal a turn of phrase from commenter Al Watt, was a sort of meta-goat’s cheese salad.

Fabulous tomatoes, saturated with flavour; the goat’s cheese just warm enough, a generous dollop of home-made pesto on the top (perfect foil) and a simple salad of baby leaves and rocket – not too much, not all stalky and difficult to eat. Delicious Rioja, one of their ‘Christmas specials’. They were hugely friendly, and not remotely grumpy about me arriving about 4 minutes before the kitchen closed. Giddy with happiness after my salad, I asked to see the desserts, and spotted the warm mince pie, which I requested with a wedge of stilton (not a combination on the menu). Not an eyelid was batted. If I’m going to pick holes, the mince pie could have been both a bit warmer and significantly less sweet, but other than that it was delightful.

The room, simple white and a bit of brick, is warm and welcoming, the staff are absolutely charming, the table decorations are really sweet (currently a little stout glass full of soil with a tiny festive spruce planted in it) and though it’s hard to tell whether the vaguely countrified chaos of fruit crates and farm sacks by the counter is artful or not, it’s not annoying. It’s just lovely. And it’s all about 4 minutes walk from my flat. So if you don’t mind, I’d rather you didn’t come here and clutter it up. It’s mine.

As usual, I’ve eaten out too much this last few months (if such a thing were possible, I’m not personally sure it is – rather like there being too much cheese. Can’t get my head around it) which is why, conversely, I haven’t blogged much. Making excuses about being too busy is much easier than sitting down and judging stuff. But now I find myself in, on a Saturday evening, and blogging is more fun than cleaning, so I’m going to bite the bullet and try to post on a few places, all in London, which have made me more or less happy in the last month or so, starting with:

Wapping Food (at the Wapping Project), Wapping Hydraulic Power Station, Wapping Wall, London E1W 3SG

Just down the road (albeit quite a long road) from my office, I’m only really now beginning to appreciate the WP, which is housed in the main hall of the old Wapping Hydraulic Power Station. This is a spectacular building, with huge windows along one side and mysterious, heavy machinery ranged down the other, covered in tempting dials. I brought my dear old friend JS here because he lives in Leicester and though he lived in London for years, I knew that he wouldn’t have been (why would you, it’s in Wapping) or have seen anything like it. It’s a really brilliant place to bring people who like cool things or whom you want to impress, especially as you can now get there on the Overground. It’s astonishingly pleasantly lit for such a massive room, all sparkly bits, candles and uplighting but then it is also (actually mostly) an art gallery, so the owner, Jules, has a pretty good eye. They’ve done some amazing projects here including Richard Wilson’s Butterfly. Remember to go out of both the doors at the back of the dining hall and have a look at the exhibition space (down) and the roof (up).

We had a really superb dinner – grilled squid and fish stew to start, both very simple but really fantastic; proper taste explosion sort of stuff. We both plumped for venison, which was unctuous and wonderful and elicited ‘wow’s from both of us. I can’t help thinking that it’s a tiny bit overpriced (main course venison was £19.50, which I think is a bit steep, though I’ve looked back on the website since and venison pie, which isn’t quite the same thing, is about 17 quid which somehow I think is more reasonable). The staff are very formal, but very sweet and the presentation of the food is faultless, really pleasing. I suppose in the end that’s the point; fine dining with fine service and really bloody nice glassware, in a spot you wouldn’t expect it.

One word of warning however: it has quite an annoying website. If you want the phone number, DON’T CLICK ANYTHING. It’s at the end of the scrolling text along the bottom of the home page. Or, it’s here: 020 7680 2080. If you want to eat after about 8.30pm you’ll probably need to call and book, because all the people who live in the amazing warehouse flats looking out on to the river come home from their jobs in the City, and it’s more fun eating here than firing up the unused Neff oven which probably still has the instruction manual sitting disconsolately under the grill.

69-71 Dean Street, London W1D 3SE

Last week I went to the Dean Street Townhouse and I fear I may have tarnished my honour. Those readers who have not given up on this blog due to lax updating on my part may remember that a few months ago at Gautier I was alarmed to find myself being placed at a table next to my former boss and his wife, who is our chief film critic (which makes me technically her editor), who are genuinely delightful but I don’t want to make up a four unexpectedly, this isn’t the 1920s and we’re not playing tennis. I performed a polite hissy fit for our poor waiter and escaped to another floor for a thoroughly enjoyable dinner with SB. SB is tall, handsome, and a good ten years older than me. Last week though, in the Dean Street Townhouse, which is a very different sort of establishment, I met up with the lovely JM, who is short, handsome, and a good ten years older than me. Now as every journalist knows, two is early adoption and three is a rapidly growing trend, so I was mildly distressed to find that once again, we were seated a mere table away from my former boss and our chief film critic, thus unwittingly providing evidence of my own moral turpitude. I fear scandal threatens. One more incident such as this (and I have, I realise with some embarrassment, no shortage of suitable companions to assist my good name’s inevitable descent into squalor) and I’m going to find myself saddled with a reputation. In addition to any other reputation I may already have acquired. I shall be heavy with shame.

They’ll have to catch me first though, which will be tricky since I almost certainly won’t bother going back to the Dean Street Townhouse. Not for the food, at least.

It’s a nice enough room, classically clubby with dark wood, red leather banquettes and booths, candles and low, warm lighting – I particularly liked the pots of rosemary on the bar. The bar staff, indeed all the staff, are charming and helpful, though I object quite strongly to being addressed as ‘boys and girls’ by anyone, least of all a maitre d. The martinis are, as I had been previously advised, very good – I ordered off-menu and they didn’t hesitate – though I feel wistful for an old fashioned martini glass of the 1980s Bond sort, rather than this current fad for little absinthe-style goblets, which might well be very Left Bank but is not terribly West End. You can’t have it both ways.

Mika, the pop singer, and a ‘very successful’ (his own words, overheard) American record producer sat at the next table, which was mildly interesting once I’d finally realised that he was a famous person and not just another of those pouting little fashion boys who hang around smoking on my doorstep in London’s Trendy Dalston of a Friday night.

And you know what, the food was ok. If you went to a British boarding school and were remotely nostalgic about it, then it’s probably even pretty good. I had a steak, I now recall, having googled the menu to jog my memory. It came very rare, as I requested. The chips were rather anaemic and I ate, I think, three. My twice baked smoked haddock soufflé starter was exactly what you would expect – lightish, cheesy and fishy, with absolutely no surprises. I’m looking at the dessert menu right now and none of it is ringing any bells, so I may or may not have had one. I just can’t remember. But unusually for me, this is nothing to do with the martini, or the wine, or the three further martinis I had later at the Ivy Club (also in those weird little glasses. Where have all the martini glasses gone, that’s what I want to know. I’ll have them if they’re going cheap, I can make use of them, no problem). It’s down instead to the total lack of ambition in any of the dishes on the menu. It was just so boring. British food – fish and chips, steak, Dover sole, mutton pie – was exciting a few years ago. We were discovering it anew, thanks to the likes of Mark Hix and Fergus Henderson and getting excited about the rich produce of these small islands. But now, everyone with a gas ring’s doing it, and it’s become lazy. Comfort food is all very well, but done without even a modicum of flair at restaurant prices it becomes almost insulting. Mince and potatoes for fuck’s sake. I can do that at home. I can do it at home and it wouldn’t cost me £11.50, but I wouldn’t even bother to do it there, because it’s dull. It’s not even amusing, or ironic. It’s just mediocre and unimaginative. So buck your ideas up, Dean Street Townhouse, or it won’t just be my reputation taking a dive.

After a hideous week of Frieze art fair, being ill and relaunching the features section of my newspaper, my dear friend L and I escaped the madness on Sunday night and went to Andrew Edmunds. AE is the quintessential Soho establishment – cramped, candlelit, friendly and with a bloody brilliant wine list. The food is very nice, but it’s not really the point – you go for the atmosphere. Having said that, despite the fact that we were too busy bitching to do anything but inhale our dinner, we did pause for a moment to appreciate L’s particularly tasty starter of Gorgonzola and pear risotto, which, having an unexpected night in on Tuesday, I was inspired to recreate. Approximately. It wasn’t completely successful but I think it worked pretty well.

In butter, cook up about half a pear, chopped into modest chunks, on a low heat until softish (about 15-20 mins) then put it aside while you make the rice, which I cooked with a bit of garlic. The garlic might have been unnecessary. Had I had any white wine open I probably would have put a slug in with the stock, which I think would have refined it slightly. When the rice was cooked I stirred in the pear and the cheese – about the same volume as the pear, and a small amount of grated Parmesan. Annoyingly, Waitrose didn’t have any Gorgonzola, darling, so I made do with dolcelatte. It’s not as good, too mild and too soft – Gorgonzola would probably retain its structural integrity a bit more (i.e. not melt) but you get the idea. The key is to then stir in a handful of finely chopped fresh parsley, which lifts all the flavours and stops it from being too cloying. Needless to say I forgot to do this. Still, it gave me very entertaining dreams.

The Bull and Last, 168 Highgate Road, London NW5

I know that I said I wouldn’t be dining out this month, but this was an emergency. Last week I visited a dear friend who is currently wading through the bitter treacle of a divorce. This is, as you might imagine, pretty grim. We went to the pub.

Well, technically the Bull & Last is a pub, but really it’s a restaurant in the evenings, as practically all the tables get booked up. And there’s table service (though it’s infuriatingly difficult to get anyone to come and take your money if you’re hidden around the corner from the bar. A tip – book for more than two people, otherwise you’re stuck under the stairs, by the loos, in the dark).

I do like it, it overlooks Hampstead Heath, the service is cheerful – our waitress was gently dancing, I’m not even sure she knew it – and the music is brilliant: nothing like only-just-audible Guns ‘n’ Roses to get you in the mood for a massive plate of fish ‘n’ chips. I plumped for oxtail papardelle with bone marrow, which was unctuous and savoury, and we both ate every scrap of our meals. Plump is definitely the right word, at least in my case.

Since I’d broken my vow to eat in, I thought I might as well do it properly and join BB in a pudding, choosing Pimms jelly with cucumber sorbet. This is an extremely silly dish, as if a long drink had been separated into its component parts, and then distilled into a concentrate. It made me feel a bit like I was a short step away from just slinging a bag of the stuff over the banisters and mainlining it into my arm. Still, there’s nothing quite like an intravenous analgesic to round off a night, right?

Aranyszarvas, 1013 Budapest, Szarvas tér. 1, Hungary

Really there is only one thing wrong with Aranyszarvas restaurant in Budapest and that is the fault of the European Parliament. Recently, a motion was passed to ban the chemicals routinely used every summer by the city council to kill off the monstrous mosquitoes which breed vociferously on the hot, humid banks of the Danube. This means that after a perfectly lovely evening on Aranyszarvas’s terrace, I write this lumpen and misshapen with huge, angry welts disfiguring my already not especially elegant legs. I look like a leper. Such are the lengths to which I will go for a good dinner.

Fortunately this was a very good dinner. Based on traditional Hungarian cooking, this restaurant drags an otherwise rather staid cuisine into the contemporary arena with huge success. I started with a duck liver cream with paprika caramel which was both sweet and smooth, with an almost citrusy freshness – you’d expect it to be horribly rich but it was light somehow, I suppose whipped with cream or perhaps with crème fraiche; almost like a mousse. Then followed a fabulous black pudding with chanterelles – three short lengths of succulent blood sausage, just the right quantity, and a scattering of lightly sautéed mushrooms. It was the side dishes that really sang though, since they so rarely do – clementine oil marinated courgette was a revelation. The courgette was still crunchy and the oil had a lighter, less overpowering flavour than you might expect, imparting just a hint of citrus and a bright freshness like that you find in cucumber. Pinched from other people: broccoli with anchovies and flaked almonds (genius, but then I think the addition of anchovies improves practically anything) and sautéed egg barley, which sounds revolting but was firm, nutty and incredibly moreish. We pondered about it for ages and came to the conclusion that they must cook up the barley first, drain it, then mix it with beaten egg and sauté it. I’d love to try it at home. I almost certainly won’t. The result if I’m wrong doesn’t really bear thinking about.

Pudding porn

June 30, 2010

A couple of weeks ago I ate the best dessert in the world. I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth, so usually at that stage in a meal I default to cheese, or if too full for cheese, to cursing and coffee. On my last visit to Bocca di Lupo (yes, again) however, I was sufficiently intrigued by the prospect of Bergamot and prosecco granit-a-laska to throw caution to the wind. It was DIVINE. Bergamot is the herb that you find, extremely diluted, in Earl Grey tea – here it’s neat and its aromatic bitterness is extraordinary. In a large martini glass they pile the bergamot granita, pour over a splash of Prosecco, then top it with a two-inch layer of very soft meringue, which is then browned gently. The combination on the spoon, of hard, icy, crunchy, bitter granita and soft, warm, smoky-sweet meringue is like having somebody slowly kiss you while gently clamping a cold shackle around your ankle. Slightly alarming, but with a flush of promise. Yep.

Gauthier, 21 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AF

Met SB this week for our irregular restaurant expedition. Last time we did Galvin La Chapelle and left drunk, poor and ecstatic. This time, we did Gauthier and left less so on every count. It’s run by Alexis Gauthier, formerly of Rousillon (whence also comes the sommelier). We threw them off kilter as soon as we arrived by refusing our table, which was by chance situated right next to my old boss and his wife, who writes for me. They’re perfectly charming, but I’m not going to sit a foot from them at dinner. That said, once we were seated safely on a different floor, it shouldn’t have taken quite that long even to get a menu. They have a hilariously French waiter hierarchy, so that the guys in white coats can bring you plates and take them away, but they can’t take your order or bring you a menu, and the guy who can, who wears a suit to denote his superiority, can’t bring you a wine list or take your wine order and has to fetch the sommelier. Eventually, after enduring a display of two different olive oils, two different butters and about 87 different breads, we managed to order (I’ll list the dishes alongside the wines – selected by the sommelier – for interest in a separate post).

Green asparagus with truffle and brown butter was perfect, very savoury and cooked with just enough bite. We were also intrigued by herb and ricotta ravioli with sautéed broad beans and ‘jus de roti’ (thin gravy, essentially). Unusually it was packed with thyme, which gave it a fabulous herby kick. For the second course my favourite was truffle risotto with chicken jus reduction (oh look! Gravy again) and brown butter. I could have shoveled in a pint of the stuff, it was so light and yet comforting, and it had real wow factor combined with the wine. S loved the roasted scallops, which were sweet and soft.

Gauthier was famed at Rousillon for his attention to vegetables, and lo, we were both slightly disappointed by the fish and meat courses, particularly the fish, to which he appeared to have paid only the scantest of heed. Sea bass with langoustines was fine in its component parts, but had a really weird effect in combination the contrast of the firm bass and the very soft langoustine made them seem dry and soggy respectively. Red mullet and baby squids with fennel and confit tomatoes was ok, but you need to be a bit concerned when the bit that makes the most impression is the confit veg. Fillet of Angus beef was very good but it didn’t make my heart beat faster, though the accompanying bone marrow potatoes were great little potato cases made to look like bones, stuffed with roasted marrow, and the mousserons mushrooms were delightful, though not as superb as the morels that accompanied the sweetbreads in our other dish. I admit I found these a bit much I expected them to be delicate, like brains, but to me they tasted overwhelmingly like that weird smoked cheese you used to get tubes as a kid. It was accompanied by a lettuce and veal jus, apparently, which by that stage tasted to me exactly like all the other jussss (plural).

You know what, it was fun. It was fancy. The vegetables were perfect, which is rare. But ultimately, what with the complicated waiting dance and the fat bloke halfway across the restaurant talking endlessly and insistently to his silent companion about targets and markets non-stop for two and a half hours it was just a bit exhausting.

Crazy Bear, 26-28 Whitfield Street, London W1T 2RG

Took a quick trip here for a business lunch today at the invitation of a contact, despite misgivings about the name. I can’t imagine why they thought it was a good idea to make a pan-Asian restaurant sound like a Canadian theme pub, but there you are. This restaurant is nothing if not incongruous, in every way. The menu is reasonably unpretentious (except for the tasting menus, which are just silly), it’s not especially authentic but is perfectly pleasant, with curries, noodles, ribs, duck rolls etc., the usual Thai-ish suspects cheerfully adapted for the Western palate.  It was quiet at lunchtime, possibly because it’s tricky to find – the clubby (and by clubby I mean gentleman’s, as opposed to Ibizan) wooden exterior doesn’t carry a sign, instead it is discreetly inlaid to the front step. But it’s worth the effort purely for the interior, which is a kind of insane Belle Epoch/Speakeasy blend of brass lamps, comfy swivel chairs and near-pitch darkness. The most gloriously bizarre thing about this place though, is the toilets. I still have no idea whether I was in the ladies because there was no sign on the door, indeed no indication was given that there was a door at all. I had to feel my way around pressing all the walls before I fell into a dark (again), completely mirrored room, lit only by a hideous purple light emanating from the trough sink, which started gushing as soon as I got close to it. Visiting the cubicle was disconcerting, partly because I made the mistake of looking up to find myself regarded by my own sombre reflection, and partly because I wasn’t  at all sure I’d be able to find my way out again. It was like being in Labyrinth, if Labyrinth had been entirely set in a futuristic Russian retro-theme-bar with no-one but a witheringly disdainful Eastern European bartender to help you rescue the baby. I was quite glad to get back to the office.