One of the first London life lessons I learnt was that one should plan ahead to avoid disappointment, which makes it even more hilarious that one of the last lessons I learnt was that even the best laid plans can be thrown into disarray. All it takes is one mistake, one mishap, or one big misunderstanding and the next thing you know, Oxford Circus tube station is closed and the restaurant you had your heart set on visiting for months decides to follow suit. And all because two drunkards got into an argy bargy, some noises were heard, and Chinese whispers ensued… but that’s another London life lesson right there.
So that was ‘goodbye big blow-out meal at Bonhams’ and ‘hello to plan B…’ which consisted of changing out of the glad rags, throwing a ‘why are people so silly’ tantrum, heading down to the cosy local bistro, and frantically scouring Opentable for a decent Saturday night reservation. I wasn’t hopeful but my luck was in and hey presto… hello to The Frog E1! Both of Adam Handling’s amphibian offerings have piqued my interest for some time now but they just kept being buried deeper and deeper in ‘the list’ so I thought Friday night’s woes might actually be Saturday night’s blessing in disguise.
As I hoisted myself into position at The Test Kitchen, a slight apprehension began to creep over me. What does one open themselves up to when they choose to dine in a restaurant where a ‘test’ is so crucial to the concept? Who is being tested here, the diners or the chefs, I wondered? A dear friend of mine thrives on ‘interesting’ dining experiences, so I imagine that he would be in his element, playing guinea pig to chef Adam Simmonds and his team. Whereas I, despite my fascination with ingredients, provenance, culinary wizardry, still dine by a much simpler litmus test – does it taste good and would I want to eat it again?
I would prefer dishes to have been tried and tested before they got to me, but then a certain someone rather pointedly reminded me that I also enjoy giving my two cents worth and this time the chefs actually welcome it. Touché. With no response, I pulled myself together and settled into my seat, which by the by, was not designed with petite people in mind, bracing myself for what was to come. The opening gambit, a small bowl of roasted pearl barley was an easy pass. Parsley gave the nutty barley a green glow and freshness, the garlic was faint yet warming, and all finished off perfectly with crispy shallot rings!
I am still dreaming of a white Christmas… just like the ones in all those feel-good movies and devastatingly catchy Christmas tunes. I can imagine the scenes now; everyone is dressed in their best Fairisle jumpers, looking all smug and cosy, there is always a roaring fire, and smiles all round from those Baileys-spiked hot chocolates… and all the while, the snow falls gently outside. Oh Santa, now that is the Christmas of my dreams! It is the Christmas I once foolishly thought I would be having when I moved to the Northern hemisphere, but here we are… three Christmases in London later and not a single snowflake has fallen in my presence!
So this year, to save me from tears, I decided to take matters into my own hands and improvise with a little help from Harrods, who might as well be the next best thing after Santa anyway! Harrods still couldn’t make it snow but they did manage to shower the UN Ballroom at the Four Seasons Ten Trinity Square with so much festive spirit that even the biggest grinch could be converted. Needless to say, I was giggly with glee as soon as I walked in and saw the opulence and flair that I would expect from a Harrods Christmas!
When people ask me what I miss most from Wellington, I dutifully rattle off a list which ranges from the sentimental to the purely practical. This includes: my family, seeing the sea on a regular basis, walking from my central city apartment to my office in under thirty minutes, being on the waterfront with a drink in hand on one of those notoriously good Wellington days, and a hot chocolate from Mojo. All fairly simple and probably in common with other Wellingtonians who have left our windy city… but recently, I realised there was one more thing I would add to that list – the upstairs yakitori bar on Courtenay Place. Your eyes do not deceive you, yakitori in Wellington, even I surprise myself sometimes.
It is a wild card but I often find myself reminiscing about those umami-rich skewers; tended to lovingly by the chefs and devoured hungrily by the diners in that hazy den of a restaurant. It was one of our favourite haunts, the place we went when we wanted some soothing for the soul. I thought it was good back then, but it feels even better now that every attempt to find something to fill this yakitori-sized hole in my life has so far been a flop. However, being a glass-half-full sort, I picked myself up from the last disappointment and dragged us to Sakagura, a stylish izakaya tucked in that unassuming lane behind Regent Street which happens to be laden with eateries.
I overheard the guy at a neighbouring table tell his date that heswore they were walking into a pub. And who could blame him; I could have sworn the same thing because from the quiet street in the middle of St John’s Wood, Crocker’s Folly does look like a pub. However, pass through those heavy front doors and you too might have that ‘we’re not in Kansas anymore’ feeling because this is nothing like my neighbourhood pub. The mixture of marble and wood panelling lovingly retained from the original Crown Hotel created by Frank Crocker feels lavish but passable, though the chandeliers that loom over each of the dining rooms are undeniably ostentatious. I am a magpie, so naturally I love this glitz.
In case you are unperturbed by the surroundings, then the other dead giveaway that you have not stepped into a pub is in the food. No roasts, no bangers, no Thai takeover night, instead you will be greeted by an extensive array of Lebanese mezzes and grills, and a cocktail menu straight from any Soho lair. Between you and me, I’m utterly confused for the first fifteen minutes that I’m sat in Crocker’s Folly. The location, the exterior, the interior, the menu – none of it seems to fit together but perhaps that’s the folly which makes it work. Sometimes it is best not to overthink these things and just eat… I can forgive all manner of sins and silliness as long as I am well fed and watered.
There are very few places in the City where I find myself wanting to linger a little longer, it’s just not the done thing in this part of town. People are more likely to be strutting from meeting to meeting, sweet-talking themselves into networks and closing deals, and the spaces are equally sharp and business-like. In a world where time is money, no one can afford to linger around too long… which is what makes Bar20 at Birleys even more of an anomaly. Sitting pretty in the shadow of the Walkie Talkie building, the location couldn’t be more City if it tried… but inside, it feels more like Mayfair.
Bar20 at Birleys is part of the Robin Birley portfolio which explains the private members club atmosphere; it’s plush and refined but still very relaxed. I get the feeling that the breakfast and lunch rush does have a certain City spirit and speediness to it, but in the evenings the bar descends to a pace which is perfect for those of us who have the luxury of time. We settled into a table by the window but I would have just as happily cosied into any of the corners under the eye-catching and conversation-evoking artwork (which is courtesy of Mr Birley’s private collection) or lounged on one of the large sofas in the centre of the room.
These days, parmesan and balsamic vinegar are pretty much household staples, or at least for those in the cooking-show-watching households anyway. I’ll be the first to admit guilt; I’ve drizzled balsamic vinegar over rocket leaves which I’m not entirely sure I like eating, and dutifully grated parmesan over my pasta as if my Italian street cred depended on it. But of course, that would be exactly the thing not to do… I should instead be ditching these imposters and going back to their true Italian roots, I should be stocking my shelves with Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO. Bit of a mouthful, bit more expensive, but a little bit goes a lot further when you are using the real deal.
Both Parmigiano Reggiano PDO and Aceto Balsamico Traditionale di Modena PDO are probably victims of their own success; their increased popularity have driven a desire for increased accessibility and as a result the parmesans and bog standard balsamics of the world have flooded our supermarket shelves. But the traditional Italian producers are fighting back and re-educating consumers. I think the proof is in the tasting. I always thought the cheese and vinegar I picked up at the supermarket, while not the best on the market, was good enough… but I soon realised what a naïve view that was.