Thursday 30 August 2012

Bubbledogs&, Fitzrovia

I was unsure whether to write anything about Bubbledogs&. Firstly, I completely forgot to take photos so all I have to remind me of the wonderful few hours I spent on Charlotte Street last night is one grainy shot of a table groaning with hot dogs and cocktails. True, nobody ever came here for world-class food photography, but an interior as impressive as this deserves as much exposure as possible. Secondly though, and more importantly, lavishing yet more gushing praise on a place that has already, despite having only just opened, received more gushing praise than almost anywhere else in the capital, seems rather pointless. There's probably nothing that hasn't already been said - Bubbledogs& is great, and you'll love it, and you should go. End of story.

But here we are anyway, and although I'll still keep it brief, the scale of husband-and-wife team Sandia Chang and James Knappett's achievement in making a roaring success out of this most unusual of concepts deserves just a bit more praise. The truth is, I was far more looking forward to the opening of Knappett's Kitchen Table (the & of the Bubbledogs&), a 16-seater fine-dining project hidden behind curtains at the back of the main bar, than the bit involving sausages and fizz. I assumed the rest of it was just a gimmick, a headline-grabbing advertisement for the fine-dining real deal to follow, and though I was reasonably sure I'd enjoy eating hot dogs and drinking champagne (being both human and not dead), I wasn't expecting fireworks.

I also wasn't expecting the Bubbledogs& bar area to be quite so beautiful. Exposed brick walls and hanging light bulbs are hardly new in 2012 restaurant design, but wooden panels and dinky little mirror "windows" give the place a sort of log cabin feel, and a gleaming copper-plated bar at one end of the room wouldn't be out of place in any top London hotel. Downstairs, the walls of the bathroom area are plastered quite brilliantly in menus from restaurants all over London and the world - collected personally by James and Sandia I was told. I hardly ever mention décor as it takes quite a bit from anything to distract me from what's on my plate, but this place really does look good.

And we've all had hot dogs before but the range of toppings Bubbledogs has put together are mini masterpieces in fast food for £6 a pop. The Buffalo Dog was a clever rearrangement of Buffalo Chicken Wings into hot dog form, with Frank's hot sauce underneath and a topping of blue cheese and celery. The K-Dog came topped with a generous mound of spicy, zingy kimchee, and the José with guacamole, sour cream, salsa and fiery jalapenos. And if you think the poor pig itself would be lost under this barrage of toppings, think again - it was always the dominant flavour thanks to incredibly good sausage meat, certainly on a par with those from Big Apple Hot Dogs if not (whisper it) perhaps even better.

Sides were just as luridly addictive. North Americans will be more familiar with "tater tots", sort of mini hash browns fashioned into dinky little cylinders, than a native Brit but I'm sure they'll find an appreciative audience here. They went particularly well dipped in "Cheese Whiz", best described as a salty neon-yellow custard, like the kind you get with nachos at a multiplex cinema. It bears as close a resemblance to cheese as a pack of Quavers does to a truckle of aged Comté, but what the hell, I loved it anyway.

As with anywhere charging not very much for great food, Bubbledogs& is likely to be hugely oversubscribed. I believe the current queuing system is similar to Burger & Lobster - you put your name down and kill time nearby waiting for a call rather than line up outside - but this may change depending on how well it works long term. The worry I have is that the room and atmosphere and service is just so lovely that people will be tempted to linger and thus make the queues even more terrifying, but that's still not going to stop me trying. And in fact, they'll even save you a table if you book in groups of six, so maybe just grab a few friends together. And if you can't immediately find six friends? I imagine having a table booked at Bubbledogs& is the perfect way to make some new ones.


For photos that are far better than I could have come up with even if I had remembered to take any, try The Skinny Bib

Bubbledogs& on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 29 August 2012

Caravan, Kings Cross

Much has been made of the "transformation" of Kings Cross over the last few years. The stunning redevelopment of the St Pancras Renaissance hotel, the new Eurostar terminal, the remodelling of Kings Cross station itself and now the opening of the Granary building and a new wing of St Martins College are all evidence of the vast sums of money that have poured into the area, and of course these are all for the good. But actually, plenty of the "old" Kings Cross still exists and is just as grotty as it ever was. Instead of turning out of the station towards the smart Regents Canal developments, for example, head over to Argyll Street and see how many seedy hotels are still lurking around. And based on the alarming signs on the doors of the kebab shops on Euston Road, pickpockets still operate at very much pre-regeneration levels there.

So perhaps the "transformation" isn't so much about cleansing NW1 of petty criminals and grotty tenants than it is just giving people something else to associate with the words Kings Cross. And there are certainly plenty of nice new things - not least the vast dancing fountain outside the Granary building, which I spent a good twenty minutes transfixed by as I waited for my lunch companions to turn up. This incredible piece of water art is worth the journey alone, and despite my empty stomach it was very difficult to drag myself away from it and into the queue for food at Caravan. I'm glad I did, though.

You can (apparently) book a table at Caravan in the evenings but not during the day, and I was worried the first-week hype (and some good reviews) would mean a long and hungry wait. In the end though we were seated in around five minutes - or perhaps it just felt like five minutes once I'd knocked back a couple of house cocktails (the Cherry Gimlet I can recommend; a horrible Bloody Mary with about half a pound of grated horseradish in it I can't).

Food continues the Australasian brunchy theme from the original outpost on Exmouth Market. There were lots of things involving eggs and bacon, and (this not being a complaint at all) lots of things fried. My own choice - a "Raclette" (of sorts) French toast with spinach and bacon was everything you'd want in a hangover-cure breakfast, with plenty of crunchy melted cheese, a good slab of excellent bacon and just enough spinach to make you believe you might be doing yourself some good.

Jalapeno corn bread also played a clever game in combining ingredients alternatively tasty/filthy and tasty/healthy. There was a surprising punch of chilli in the fried bread, and the egg had plenty of good runny yolk, but our favourite bit was the chunks of green tomato on top which had an extraordinary amount of flavour and a lovely bouncy texture. It's a shame you don't see more green tomato on menus.

Best of all, though, was a salt beef "bubble" (sort of a fried potato fritter) which would have been worth the £9 even without the two perfectly-poached eggs perched on top, covered in hollandaise. The chunks of beef were thick and fatty (this is a good thing, in case you were wondering) and the deep-fryer had added crunchiness without greasiness. In fact it was a laudable feature of all three dishes mentioned so far that the combination of textures and cooking ability had produced some pretty impressive results.

Which is why the "Fried chicken and waffles" was all the more baffling in its utter ineptitude. It must be pretty difficult to cock up waffles, but these were thick and bland and bready, like slabs of pressed sand. Pickled chilli did absolutely nothing other than make you wish it wasn't there, and even the maple syrup was strangely thin, like it had been diluted with water. But the chicken itself was disastrous - a huge, square slab of desperately dry chicken paste, coated in greasy unseasoned breadcrumbs. It was a dish so out of place with the delicate touch shown elsewhere that, for once, we felt compelled to mention it to the staff.

It turns out that the "paste" was chicken leg meat, removed from the bone, shredded, pressed into a brick, coated, then deep-fried. "Why don't you just serve a breaded, deep-fried chicken leg?" was our obvious question. "Yes we might do that, now you mention it." was the disarmingly honest response. And to their endless credit, the Chicken Brick was removed from the bill and no more was said. Still, it makes you wonder what was going through the chef's head in the first place.

I will give Caravan the benefit of the doubt and assume the rather, er, rustic toilet arrangements won't last - I have nothing against unisex cubicles per se, I just would rather the two pretty girls doing their makeup at the bathroom mirror didn't have to raise the volume of their conversation over the sound of me taking a piss. But there is still enough to like about Caravan Kings Cross. The staff are energetic and attentive (just as well in a large room that sees so many customers during the course of a day), the room, with its high ceilings and exposed brickwork, is a gorgeous space to spend time in, and if you're into that kind of thing I'm reliably informed they take their coffee very seriously, with a huge roaster at the back of the room being pressed into service very shortly.

Most of all about Caravan, I liked the feeling that these were people doing things differently. I know there may be those of you who could reel off a list of Australasian brunch spots in London but I've never been to places like Lantana or even the original Exmouth Market Caravan and I was genuinely surprised how well it was all (well, most of it) done. Brunch has never been a native British preoccupation, and yet neither were burgers or hot dogs or any number of current foodie obsessions until certain people just started doing them well. And Caravan, for the most part, is doing what it does very well indeed.


Caravan Kings Cross on Urbanspoon

Thursday 23 August 2012

Dirty Burger, Kentish Town

There's a fair amount of huffing and tutting amongst street food purists whenever an established restaurant or company launches a mobile van. If you've bought into the whole independent, counter-cultural ethos of queuing in the rain for your lunch then the idea that some faceless corporation can buy their way into direct competition without spending years building up a rabidly loyal following could, I suppose, be quite irritating.

But if the food's still good, what's the problem? Byron's mobile shack serves burgers just as good as any of their restaurants (which are very good indeed), Wahaca's taco van is actually only the natural next step for somewhere that only ever claimed to make "Mexican street food" in the first place, and now we have Dirty Burger from the guys behind Pizza East, operating in true street food fashion out of a converted shipping container in the car park in Kentish Town.

And Dirty Burger is very good as well, I'm pleased to say. The menu is short, in fact outside of breakfast hours there's literally just the one main course option - a cheeseburger, and very reasonably priced, the burger being £5.50 and a side of crinkle-cut fries or onion fries an extra £2.50. It's all served well wrapped-up in a branded paper bag and greaseproof paper whether you are going to eat it in the industrial-chic premises or not, and indeed plenty of people from the surrounding area, builders from a site at the bottom of the road and various office workers, seemed to be taking advantage of this and had their burgers to go.

I don't know how many people out there are desperate for a forensic analysis of a cheeseburger, so I'll try and be brief, but it's probably worth pointing out why, though very good indeed, this just falls short of the very best in London. Firstly, I noticed the mince was stored in drawers in the kitchen, pre-divided into neat little cubes. I can understand why, of course - for consistency of burger shape and to save time during service - but they looked rather unappetisingly grey thanks to exposure to air and there's probably a reason MeatWagon (the van at least) tear their mince from a large block as and when needed. Perhaps due to this then, or maybe just down to a leaner mince, the beef was slightly on the dry side and didn't have a huge amount of flavour. Also, although well melted (thank God) I hardly need to tell you that good old American Yellow would have been a better cheese choice than the strangely bland Cheddar-a-like seen here.

But! But. With a good kick of mustard mayo, a subtle layer of sliced pickles, a very nice slice of tomato (first time I've ever been able to say that in this country, I'd like to know where they get theirs from) and - most impressive of all - a firm, glossy bun that held its shape until the very last bite despite a river of tomato juice spilling out with every bite, the burger as a whole worked. It's a great size, not too tall or too wide, the ingredients packed neatly inside (thanks to the takeaway packaging) and with every element weighted perfectly. Ironically, then, for something called a Dirty Burger it's perhaps the least messy of any of the "new wave" London burgers to eat, and certainly compared to the Day-Glo Americana of MeatLiquor or Lucky Chip, one of the more conservative. But it is impossible not to enjoy the process of eating it - and enjoy it I most certainly did.

I also enjoyed a portion of wonderfully crunchy crinkle-cut fries. A million miles away from the depressingly uniform style you may have seen elsewhere, these were golden brown and charmingly irregular, full of flavour and dangerously addictive. To say they're the best crinkle-cut fries I've had in this country isn't much of a compliment, so I'll just say that a visit to Dirty Burger would be wasted without a side of these little beauties.

It's a testament to the staggering pace of improvement in London burgers that even so recently as a couple of years ago Dirty Burger may have enjoyed a position at the top of the tree. That there are now a tiny handful of outlets doing this thing very slightly better, though, doesn't mean that it's still not very much worth the journey to NW5 - for £8 you still get a lunch worth grinning about, and if you're lucky enough to live or work in the area you should feel very smug indeed. And if you're a street food pedant and you've already decided to boycott the place based on the fact it's run by the Soho House group, well, it's your loss. I'm sure they will do very well regardless.


I visited Dirty Burger during soft opening, and everything was 50% off.

Dirty Burger on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 21 August 2012

The Holborn Whippet, Bloomsbury

Sometimes I even surprise myself with my capacity to get annoyed about bad food. You'd think by now, wouldn't you, after 33 years on the planet, the best part of a decade in London and six years writing a restaurant blog, that a disappointing dinner would just be one of those things, a professional hazard, a passing inconvenience, water off a (force-fed) duck's back.

And yet, the opposite seems to be the case. I find myself getting increasingly grumpy whenever dinner I've paid good money for isn't up to scratch. I take it personally when I'm on the receiving end of some half-assed fusion concept or desperate bandwagon-jumping relaunch. I heave great sighs of anguish over a feeble steak, a sugary Pad Thai or stale Yorkshire Pudding. Perhaps I'm spoiled after so long spent seeking out the very best the city has to offer, but my capacity for disappointment seems to be at an all-time low; and what's worse is that the harder I try to avoid such disappointments, the more often they seem to be thrust upon me.

Take my lunch today, for example. The Holborn Whippet is a newish craft beer bar and diner at the end of Sicilian Avenue in Holborn. Sicilian Avenue is one of those hugely over-elaborate Victorian arcades which at one time you would have hoped housed fine jewellers and shops selling gentlemen's smoking accessories but now, given presumably sky-high rents and its proximity to main tourist drags like the British Museum and Covent Garden, is mainly populated by dreadful nationwide chains like Spaghetti House. But the Whippet is not a chain (at least not yet), and thanks to a very tasteful job on the interior and an impressive line-up of proper beers behind the bar, I had high hopes a similar effort may have been spent on the food. I can't emphasise that enough - I had every right to believe that lunch at the Holborn Whippet would have been worth paying for. I did nothing wrong.

The first creeping elements of doubt appeared once I'd had the chance to study the menu in more detail. The Whippet club sandwich, for example, is described somewhat unnecessarily as "two or three slices of toasted bread with mayonnaise and slices are held together by small sticks". The steak sandwich is apparently both "padded with roasted vine tomatoes" and "Severed[sic] with crinkle fries" which makes it sound rather dangerous. All menu items, in fact, seem to be paired entirely randomly with either "crinkle fries" or "string fries" apart from the Bloomsbury Burger (a name they're so pleased with they've seen fit to TradeMark(TM) it) which is "served with string and crinkle fries", which either means two different types of potato product on one plate, which would be odd enough, or, er, some string.

As it turns out, the Bloomsbury Burger(TM) comes with neither string fries or crinkle fries (or even string) but a mound of pappy school-canteen chips pointlessly scattered with parsley. The burger itself looked the part at first - the glazed brioche bun reminded me somewhat of Goodman's, and there appeared to be a nice dark crust on the two rounds of beef - until a bite revealed watery, grey meat of barely supermarket mince standard. "Cheese" (an optional extra for 50p and not included as standard) was in fact a very strong blue of some kind, cold and unmelted, that had been sandwiched in between the two patties and did nothing but utterly overwhelm the tasteless meat. Salad and some decent sliced pickles did the best job they could, but the battle was already lost.

Oh yes alright then, you can probably have a decent time here if you stuck to the beers and didn't eat. I'll have to give them that. And a few years ago I wouldn't have been anywhere near as harsh on the burger, either - I certainly still wouldn't have enjoyed it but perhaps I would have said that at least the bun was good and the pickles came sliced and it still cost less than a tenner. But unfortunately for the Holborn Whippet this is 2012 not 2008. The very first thing a new diner opening up in central London should do is check out the competition; and either they have, and are unable or unwilling to do things properly, or they haven't, in which case they deserve everything they have coming to them.

Anyway, I don't think serving a nice range of craft beers is ever going to be a good enough excuse for serving crappy food. They're still charging for the stuff, none of it comes free with a drink. It was still my lunch hour they spoiled, my money they took, and had I only bought a club sandwich "held together with small sticks" to soak up twelve pints of Adnams Gold I most likely still would have considered it a waste of money. So, damage done, all I can do is ensure that as many other people as possible don't make the same mistake, and make a solemn promise to try extra hard to avoid any such disappointments in the future. Wish me luck.


Holborn Whippet on Urbanspoon

Friday 10 August 2012

Duck & Waffle, The City

I'm sure I never used to be scared of heights. But as the glass lift at the Heron Tower torpedoed up into the sky, and the traffic of Bishopsgate dropped alarmingly away, I found myself gripping the handrail tighter and tighter. My friend who had agreed to come along for the ride that evening was taking no chances - she had her back to the view and her eyes tightly shut. I bravely attempted to enjoy the experience until the point where I realised we were nearly level with the top of the Gherkin and still rising, whereupon panic set in and I stared at my shoes until the doors opened on the 39th floor.

It's worth the petrifying journey, though. At least, Duck & Waffle on the 40th floor is. I'd like to tell you a little more about sister restaurant SushiSamba below, but after waiting 20 minutes for someone to pour us a glass of champagne, then giving up, that will have to wait for another time. It seemed popular enough, and of course everywhere you look there's that incredible view, but the bar staff seemed more preoccupied with accusing each other of petty crime ("He keeps stealing my muddler", "Would you like me to have a word?") than serving paying customers. First week nerves perhaps.

No such issues at Duck & Waffle. Shown to a windowside table overlooking Tower Bridge, we got our champagne within 30 seconds of asking for it, and from that moment onwards everything was gloriously, effortlessly enjoyable. A mysterious sealed bag was the first thing to arrive, along with a bijou portion of cod tongue fritters. The bag contained strips of spiced pig's ears and were exasperatingly moreish - I was trying so hard not to fill up on 'snacks' before the 'main' courses arrived but these tender bits of seasoned pork did not help. The cod tongues, ironically presented on newspaper like chippy fish, were lovely too, moist and crunchy and accompanied by a chunky tartare with bits of boiled egg.

Oysters were next, and no complaints here either. They had each been properly loosened, and retained a perfect amount of brine.

These pretty little things were slices of raw scallop on apple, topped with black truffle and lime. They arrived on top of a big pink brick, and we were told that if we considered the scallops a bit underseasoned to give them a "rub on the brick", which was actually raw Himalayan salt. They didn't need it, being perfectly seasoned already, and the combination of lime, truffle and raw seafood was incredibly successful.

Next, our favourite dish of the evening, a stunning rabbit ragout pasta topped with pecorino. Rabbit is a tricky old bird to get right, but this was preternaturally moist and rich, mingled with super-silky ribbons of pasta.

The two dishes ordered from the 'Brick Oven' section of the menu, while perfectly edible and well presented, paled slightly in comparison to what had come before. Lamb cutlets were overcooked and underseasoned - I half thought about asking for that salt brick back, but decided against it. Quail had been very cleverly (and presumably very laboriously) boned and rolled and wrapped in pancetta before roasting, but there was something unbalanced about the flavours - too much salty pork, not enough game bird. It may be, though, that we were just stuffed by this point and it's easier to pick fault when you're not ravenously hungry. They were both still very much worth the money.

Somehow between us we found room for a chocolate brownie with a fantastic peanut butter ice cream, and as the sun set spectacularly over West London we paid up and shifted next door to the Duck & Waffle bar. Here, enthusiastic and creative staff working on unusual "inside out" stations (there's no 'bar top', encouraging customers to feel closer to the drink-making process) are trialling inventive twists on traditional cocktails. Their "gin and tonic" comes with a gin-spiked yuzu sorbet floating on top of the tonic, and looks and tastes extraordinary. They are working, too, on a Negroni which comes inside a frozen globe of ice, which you smash apart with a little hammer to release the liquid, and coming soon is a drink which arrives inside a bag full of fruit essences - you pierce the bag, it collapses releasing the fruit mist, and you finish off with the cocktail. Sounds like a reason to go back, to me.

And believe me, it's not the only one. So often with restaurants in beautiful or otherwise desirable locations, it's a case of "never mind the food, look at the view". And the view from the top of the Heron tower is, make no mistake, unfathomably gorgeous - more than once last night we found ourselves just staring across London, speechless with awe. But the dishes from the kitchens at Duck & Waffle were reasonably priced, made with skill and served with care. It is, I'm guessing, possible to leave with a bill of £35-£40 a head if you're careful with the booze and although we didn't - ahem - quite manage to reign in our cocktail consumption I still don't feel anything was excessively priced. There are things I'd change - the stools in the bar raise your head up to just the height of the large window frames, meaning you have to duck under or peer over to see a proper view, and security at ground level meant a bit of a queue just to get into the lift - but these are niggles. Duck & Waffle expertly walks a line between spectacularly glamorous and accessibly homely, and I defy anyone to spend an evening here and not have the time of your life. I intend to be a regular.


Duck & Waffle on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Flat Iron, Shoreditch

If you were to design a restaurant that ticks every box on the "London Restaurant Trends in 2012" list, where would you start? No reservations obviously, that goes without saying. You should describe yourself as a "pop up" too, even if you have no intention of ever "popping down". A no-choice menu, they're awfully trendy aren't they, printed on recycled paper in that typewriter font that Polpo use, and absolutely no currency symbols. There should be a cocktail bar serving drinks in wildly unsuitable glassware, tables should be uncomfortably close together, and make sure you have as much exposed brick and bare light bulbs as possible. Once all the above is in place, then it hardly matters what the food is like does it? They'll be queuing down the street.


Flat Iron is an operation so desperately on-trend in so many ways it's almost a parody. There's the tin cups of popcorn from Spuntino; the huge block of ice behind the bar from MeatEasy; the juleps in metal cups from Hawksmoor. There isn't a single item of décor or presentational quirk that hasn't been "researched" (ie. nicked) from somewhere else; even the waiting staff's outfits looked rather familiar. All of which would be excusable, of course - deeply irritating, but excusable - if the One Thing they have on their menu - the titular Flat Iron steak, a cut from the featherblade - was any good. It isn't.

Before I get to that though, a couple of things that weren't terrible. The chips were quite good - cooked in meaty dripping, nice and crispy, and a pretty generous portion for £2.50 - sorry I mean "2.5". There's a decent beer list, too, consisting of bottles from the London Fields brewery (uber-localism is fashionable, after all) as well as the always-popular Brewdog. And service, from an efficient gaggle of attractive twentysomethings, was spot-on, meaning despite everything I was quite happy to pay the automatically-added service charge.

But oh dear, the steak. First of all, it had a very unpleasant smell, sort of a cross between a cowpat and a high street butchers. I'm not entirely sure why, but perhaps I'd rather remain in the dark on that. It had also, I think, been slow-cooked in some kind of waterbath as the colour was uniform inside, a common shortcut in lesser steakhouses that need to churn out hundreds of dishes an hour with inadequate grilling facilities, but still annoying. But usually, even when rubbish restaurants sous-vide their steak, they at least finish it off over charcoal to provide a bit of texture and a nice smoky flavour. Not so here as far as I can tell - they arrived soft and gelatinous inside and out, admittedly tender but with no crust and no sign it had been anywhere near a flame. And why provide a (grubby) ironic butcher's cleaver as a steak knife if you're going to slice up the meat before serving it anyway?

"But it's only £10" I can hear you say. "What did you expect?" Well, yes it is only a tenner, far less than you'd pay for the cheapest steak on the menu anywhere else, and on the face of it quite a bargain. But it's a false economy. This was a bland, incompetently cooked bit of cheap meat - why pay £10 for a deeply unsatisfying steak when you can either pay more for a good one, or eat something else entirely? Except, at Flat Iron you can't because steak is all they do. Because no-choice menus are trendy.

It wasn't just the steak that irritated, though. The tables all seated about 12 people so if you turn up as a couple (and as you can't reserve, most people do) there's a good chance you'll end up sat between two complete strangers, sharing your conversation as well as your elbow space as the distance to your friend opposite is slightly too big for confidentiality. And each of the cocktails we ordered - a Bramble infused with thyme (for some reason) and the house julep - were very sweet although I'm willing to admit they might have been OK if you like sweet cocktails.

Of course, inevitably, depressingly, Shoreditch is lapping it up. The queue trailed out the door by the time we'd paid up (the best part of £25/head once a cocktail and portion of chips each had been added) and plenty more hipster types were milling about in the bar area waiting for spaces. In this most slavishly trend-conscious part of town it seems few can resist the lure of somewhere that so expertly, if so cynically, gives people just what they want - the illusion of an "underground" discovery, the lengthy queue, the bragging rights of securing an oversubscribed table, the cocktail served in a jam jar. As for what happens when you sit down to eat, well, who cares about that?


Tuesday 7 August 2012

Vinoteca, Soho

Even as the paint was drying at MeatMarket, the second outpost of MeatLiquor, I saw someone on Twitter describe them as a "chain". How running just two restaurants in the same city, with different menus, makes them the next McDonald's I'm not sure, but it got me thinking about what exactly does constitute a chain. "Lots of identical restaurants all serving exactly the same food" seems a straightforward place to start, and there are no shortage of examples that fit this description, although even McDonald's tailor and tweak their menu to local tastes, and the interiors of any Nando's I've ever been inside (not that many, since you ask) have been commendably diverse.

The word "chain", then, isn't so much a category of restaurant as an insult thrown at anywhere that looks like it's sacrificed individuality and care for corporate consistency and shareholder returns. The ETM Group, for instance, despite running ten sites across London, avoids the "chain" label because each of its pubs has a proper chef and a unique menu, whereas the Real Greek, which I'm reliably informed was once one of the tiny number of places you could get good Greek food in London, has long since expanded, sold out and is now a "chain". The Polpo restaurants aren't a chain, Carluccio's is. The Galvin restaurants aren't a chain, but Café Rouge is. It's all in the attitude.

Vinoteca, then, isn't a chain, even though there are three in London now - the original in Farringdon which is always rammed (no mean feat when you've got St John as a neighbour), one in Marylebone and this, the latest, just a couple of doors down from Polpo and right opposite Bob Bob Ricard. Perhaps they like to choose their locations based on the quality of the competition; I expect the fourth will be in Cartmel or Bray.

Sorry about the appalling photos; it was quite dark in our little corner of the room and they turned out badly even by the desperately low standards of this blog. Suffice to say that these three chorizo croquettas did not look like beached sea cucumbers in real life, and tasted pretty good despite the overly thick, greasy crust and not quite enough béchamel inside.

House bread did a good enough job, and a bowl of salty "Catalan" almonds (not sure whether they were Catalan by origin or cooking style) from the 'snack' menu were just about worth £3, but the first bit of proper cooking was a grilled mackerel fillet in watermelon sauce, a great charred skin and moist flesh demonstrating that someone in the Vinoteca kitchens knows how to cook fish.

Unfortunately, though, the same care and attention hadn't been shown to this artichoke, which was overcooked and seems to have lost most of its tender internal leaves, perhaps an over-zealous effort to remove the hairs from the top of the heart. The dipping sauce was OK but I've certainly had better artichokes.

Best of the mains was my rose veal and girolles, a generous portion of tender veal and silky mushrooms in a garlic butter sauce. At £18 it was at the upper end of what you might want to pay for this kind of thing, but you did get plenty on the plate for your money.

Baked tomato, ricotta & swiss chard "tart" was bizarre though - a square of pastry topped with tomato and chard, looking like a square pizza, and a huge mound of completely tasteless curd on top. The combination of everything in one mouthful wasn't unpleasant, but it's still quite far off what you might expect from something called a "tart" and I got the distinct impression this was just one of those token vegetarian options, the chef's heart not really in it.

So, serviceable food and for not a huge amount of money but not really anything to get the pulse racing. However, Vinoteca has a trick up its sleeve in the form of a huge and carefully built wine list, and I imagine it's for this that many will choose to visit. I am not a wine buff, and will always be more interested in what's on my plate than in my glass, but I know plenty of people who tend to match food to wine than vice versa, and as nice-but-not-exceptional, the food at Vinoteca is perhaps deliberately pitched to play second fiddle to the wine and provide those who appreciate such things a different way of enjoying an evening out.

And it's for that reason I can't be too down on Vinoteca. It's far too easy, in any blog post, to point out mistakes with the food than just say that, actually, none of it was disastrous and the atmosphere and service in this attractive building in the heart of Soho still meant that we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Service was attentive and friendly even before my cover was blown (I was invited to review but managed to slink in and find a table without giving my name) and judging by the happy crowd that had found their way into the centre of town as Olympics Mania raged all around them, it has its fans. Like those that came before in Farringdon and Marylebone, it's sure to do well.


I was invited to review Vinoteca

Vinoteca on Urbanspoon