The Battle of the Italian Chains

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italian

We avoid chains generally – not necessarily because we are snobbish (although we are a bit) it’s just that we like to think that menus change due to seasonality, availability of fresh ingredients and less ‘on message. Damn it we like people with passion making a business on good honest food. However recently we have been invited to arguably the three main Italian chain restaurants in the UK that we would normally avoid with a barge pole, with mixed impression (surprisingly good and unsurprisingly bad) which we thought our readers may be interested in taking a look.

Firstly we were invited to go to Prezzo in Haymarket. This is mainly a pizza restaurant but does some serve salad and fish dishes but these are limited. The restaurant is pretty plain in decor – trying to be Italian but also catering for all tastes so is plain and lifeless. Here we ordered the calamari for starter and the bread and tomato foccacia. The foccacia was very doughy and lacked the vegetable filling or flavour and the calamari was incredibly greasy with a thick cheap mayonnaise dip. For main course I ordered a salmon salad – as I thought this would be healthy – and we ordered the pepperoni pizza. The pizza went down well although again very oily but the salmon salad was more like dressing with a little salad on the side. The thick sickly dressing covered the salad and the salmon was cold, dry like cardboard. Terrible. The service was ignorant and incredibly slow, to the point we had to stand up to get the attention of the staff. Not great.

 Star

Our second restaurant that we tried was ASK in Uxbridge. We were welcomed in the restaurant, which is more than we can say from Prezzo so that worked. We sat down in the soulless decor of the restaurant but at least we had a civilised waiter. We ordered the garlic bread and olives to start – this place is not great if you don’t like carbs or are intolerant. The garlic bread was generous in size but the cold garlic butter was hard and overly garlicky. For main course we ordered the chicken in its mushroom sauce and the spaghetti carbonara. Now we liked that the main course options were more extensive in size from Prezzo who did focus on pasta and pizza but the cheesy pasta was a little too thick and lacked the cheese kick. The chicken was clearly pre-prepared and a little dry but I did love the mushroom sauce that was creamy and really flavoursome.

2 Stars

Finally we went to Zizzi the other week. We went in with trepidation as the atmosphere again tried to please all and failed to be quirky and the eastern European waitress was rude and refused to get us a table immediately despite there being spaces (it was a Monday afternoon). But things soon changed as we saw that the menu was not just the stereotypical pasta and pizza menu but really did have some real Italian options. Outside we saw that there was a special lunch menu deal but had to ask twice to get this but once we did we like the looks of this. We both ordered the mozzarella and tomato salad which was fresh and tasty. For main course we ordered the courgette spaghetti which was a little heavy but was well spiced. I ordered the super healthy salad, which was served with goat’s cheese and butter nut squash. The salad was served with chicken – at an additional cost – and despite being a little too oily it was freshly made, which was a relief after the two above. As a result we liked it and would consider coming again, which shocked us.

3 Stars

italian food

Jane Tira

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janetira

We came for a casual dinner with friends at this Thai ‘street food’ restaurant in Soho. There is a no booking policy at Jane Tira but as we came early there was no queue. Saying that, we were originally told we could book but when I moved the order from four to five we were told this was not possible and our booking was cancelled! Anyhow as I said there was no wait so I was not too annoyed and we were seated immediately by the window. The restaurant is small and rectangular in shape. Décor is simple with wooden benches – typical Thai inspired.

We ordered a bottle of white wine and checked out the menu. We ordered the spring rolls and the moo ping (mainly because we liked the name) which was pork skewers marinated in lemon-grass and coconut milk. These came out quickly and both were tasty and delicious.

We went on to order our meals but two of the group were told they could not have the main meal they chose as it was too spicy for the Western European palettes. This made us laugh as we knew they must be right and appreciated this tip rather than being annoyed. So instead of ordering the mackerel curry, the two ordered the lamb massamum – a coconut lamb curry – one of us ordered the ‘crying tiger’ sizzling beef with chillies and I ordered the Thai green curry with rice.

The food came swiftly and almost (not quite) at the same time – which we all appreciated. The Thai curry was delicious and spicy with creamy chicken that melted in the mouth. The lamb curry was the winning dish, which was rich, meaty and spicy but the beef was a little tough.

Halfway through the meal my friend started to cough loudly and I tried to ignore her and told others to do the same as I know how embarrassing it is for people to watch you have a coughing fit. I saw her waving at me but assumed she meant carry on the conversation – It then dawned on me she may be chocking. Right, so I panicked and tottered off to find a waitress. They both said ‘not again’, I assume this is regular occurrence! While my other friend was shouting ‘Heimlich’ the other stroked her back gently wondering why my other friend was shouting in German at him. Fortunately our friend managed to dislodge the meat as my friends; the waitress and I were about as useless as a chocolate tea pot. My other friend then got bad news and had to leave the table – she came back upset which again caused a little atmosphere. At this point the waitress came up to us with a bag for my friend who had freed the blockage ten minutes ago to spit in. Ah it was an eventful night although the focus was less on the food but more on the events.

We liked this little place which is full of Asian guests and it very authentic in service and atmosphere. Food is spicy which is often dulled down to suit English taste. Sex Drugs and Bacon Rolls liked a lot (despite the events):

Food                            Service                           Atmosphere

3 Stars3 Stars2 Stars

janetir

Polo Bar

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polobar

We have been here for a coffee before (see our London cafe section) and was pleasantly surprised by this small 24/7 cafe that caters for police, taxi drivers and those after grub after a long night partying. This place is being renovated and there are currently three floors (a basement, ground and first floor) with a second floor being opened any time now. This shows the popularity of this place. Despite all appearances – tightly squeezed in on the main street opposite Liverpool Street and serving all types of people at all different hours – this place has been going for over 50 years and prides itself on good English cafe food. At the front of the cafe is the small counter area with a host of delicious cakes, breads and biscuits.

Walking through the entrance the place is very narrow but they have made the best use of space and this place feels trendy and brand spanking new- not showing its true years. On the walls written in chalk are some breakfast options such as champagne breakfast, full English or just a healthy low carb option.

We arrived at breakfast time so it was quite busy but we managed to get a table upstairs. Again this room is very small but works well – feeling cosy rather than stuffy. We ordered a mint and English breakfast tea followed by a poached egg on toast and poached egg on a bed of spinach. I was on a strict one week ‘clean’ diet at the time so I did have some strange requirements but when the food came out these were met which was a refreshing change I must say!

The poached eggs were cooked to perfection, literally running into a golden river once touched with a knife. The eggs were of quality and the size and rich goldenness of the yolk really showed this. The spinach was well seasoned and still retained a bit of bite. The toast served was granary bread with a good helping of salted country butter. Our dishes were cleared away swiftly and we finished the last dregs of our tea before heading off for the working day.

Whether for a work breakfast meeting or a lazy weekend breakfast we would strongly recomedm this place if in the vicinity. It is simple but the quality stands out in everything it does.

Food                            Service                           Atmosphere

5 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

polo2

Chicken Shop

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chicken shop

I am a protein lover, so the name of this restaurant was a clear win. The Chicken Shop is a Hoxton trendy restaurant based under the railway/tube in Whitechapel.

Don’t pick up the phone to book now based on my simple description as it has a no booking policy.  It does look a little grubby based in this tunnel but it really does work. We were served drinks while we waited outside – I would say not to visit on a rainy day as you literally do have to wait outside – the drinks took quite a long time to come out. Service is a little young (focused more on trendiness rather than the experienced so please be prepared for a slower, forgetful and overly friendly *shudder* service.

We managed to get a seat after 15-20 minutes of waiting and were seated on simple wooden benches. The restaurant is small but it allows you to get a glimpse of the open fire kitchen. The menu is simple – rotisserie chicken with simple sides or a few different hot dogs. We ordered a whole chicken to share with sweet corn, fries and avocado and butter lettuce salad.

They have their own branded sauce and spices which are actually quiet good I have to admit.

Food came out fairly quickly and we were served in sharing bowels. The chicken was cut up into pieces which were served on the bone. I really hate meat served on the bone; I know it’s more juicier etc but I do, sorry, despite my personal preferences it really was well cooked and seasoned. The salad was simple with blobs of avocado in it and the sweet corn cut into pieces making it easy to share.

I liked the simplicity and the obvious effort to try and make it a relaxed and sharing environment.

This place is a winner if you want a hipster Nando’s that tastes so much better and is a little more sophisticated but the service is a little slow and on the verge of trying too hard.

I would suggest giving it a try if you are in the area or a protein freak like me.

Sex Drugs and Bacon Rolls gives The Chicken Shop:

Food                              Service                            Atmosphere

4 Stars3 Stars3 Stars

chcienshop2

Jackson and Rye

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We stumbled across this place looking for a place for brunch. Located in Wardour Street this place could be susceptible to becoming a tourist trap but currently only Londoners seem to have found this – may be because it looks so unassuming from the outside. This place is fairly new so allows for ‘walk ins’ as well as few group bookings. Jackson and Rye aims at American cuisine.

Although we were warned of the queues we were seated right down in the corner of the front room immediately. There is a small front cafe/restaurant area and then a much larger space at the back which is separated by a small bar serving American beer, wines and cocktails. There is also a downstairs restaurant which gets busy at weekends.

The tables are small with limited leg room; making more tables available. Their weekend menu is an all day menu, separated by pastries & pancakes, eggs, mains, grills and sandwiches. We ordered a breakfast sour cocktail and the ham, egg and spinach as well as the salmon and cream cheese bagel.

We waited a good while for our food to arrive and it eventually did. The waitress was  smiling but did not ask us if we needed anything else so we were left a little stranded as we wanted some sauces and water. The baked egg was delicious; with a nicely baked top with the yolks still soft in the middle and the spinach offsetting the rich mixture. My cousin’s bagel was rich with a cream cheese and fleshy salmon. We finished the lot and were satisfied.

Now I know there are often mistakes when starting a new restaurant for the first time but the clumsy service really did not bode well. The food was good and hearty. We really liked it as a change and it was well priced.

I do have to say I went back two weeks later with my mother and the service again was terrible. The food fantastic but there were three waitresses waiting on four tables – we were downstairs this time – and we were asked for our food orders three times and given the wrong dishes once. Again there were only four tables seated in this area. How hard can it be? Still I do want to say the staff were happy and friendly; just needed less of them and more training. With training will come confidence.

As a result Sex Drugs and Bacon Rolls gives this place:

Food                             Service                          Atmosphere

2 Stars4 Stars3 Stars

jacksonegg

Best All You Can Eats (and Drinks)

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Flesh & Buns
Flesh and Buns unlimited brunch provides you with a cocktail on arrival and a selection of delicious hot and cold plates, including sashimi, tempura and soft shell crab, all rounded off with a main course of hirata buns with your choice of filling. There is also unlimited fizz.
Flesh & Buns. Unlimited Sunday Brunch is available noon to 5pm. Two menus at £29 or £36 per person, both include Unlimited Prosecco, red or white wine. 2 hour time limit on all bookings.

Aqua Kyoto
Infinity Sundays include free flowing Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, an endless supply of Japanese appetisers (sushi, yakitori, noodles) accompanied with  views across the London. After filling up on the bubbles and snacks, there’s a charcoal-grilled main and, of course, desserts.
Aqua Kyoto. Infinity Sundays is £55, 12-7pm, 2 hour time limit on champagne.

Roka at Canary Wharf
 Brunch comprises a welcome bellini, wines throughout, sushi platters, sharing desserts and a self-serve counter, proper buffet style, before consuming a chosen main, such as buttery black cod, rib eye or lobster, if you’re feeling flush.
Roka at Canary Wharf. Brunch menus vary, priced at £42, £54 or £66, depending on mains and drink selection. Available Saturday and Sundays from 11.30am-4pm

Avenue
Avenue conducts a treat for the weekend with free-flowing fizz. Food is US style and there is also the option of a  ‘Build your own sundae’.
Avenue. Saturday brunch menu, £20/£25, unlimited Prosecco or Bloody Mary additional £10. Build your own sundae, £5.50.

Penkul & Banks
 Penkul & Banks is a refreshing addition to the foodie landscape. They offer tapas, with a European and Asian edge with unlimited prosecco or Bloody Mary’s.
Penkul & Banks. Weekend brunch offer is two brunch plates, plus unlimited Prosecco or Bloody Mary for £20 per person.

1 Lombard Street‏

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lombard

For a very special birthday celebration we decided to treat ourselves. 1 Lombard Street is based in the city – as the name infers and was previously a bank still with great original features and architecture inside and out.

Lombard Street is a huge restaurant that has a grand circular bar right in the centre of the restaurant. The stone walls have large imposing works of art that lightens and creates colour in the whole room which would be fairly bland without. The roof made out of a huge glass dome which brings even more light to the restaurant. We were seated near the entrance next to a huge bread cutting machine and could really appreciate the simplicity yet sophistication of the restaurant.

Water was served on the table and was consistently being topped up. We were served fresh bread with salted butter on a slate plate. We opted for the octopus salad, onion & gruyère cheese tart as well as the Lentil soup of the day. I choose the octopus salad and definitely choose well – this was served with colourful petals and looked absolutely beautiful! It was soft, delicious and perfectly cooked. The cheese tart was light, fluffy and creamy with a delicious crispy base. The soup was creamy and thick with a delicious spiciness. We loved all of this.

For our main course we ordered the steak tartare, scallops & prawns with a mango and chicory and the pear and manchego salad.

The steak tartare was served on the plate with grilled bread. It was spicy and had a little texture from the mince and peppercorn. The scallops were left with their coral on and all were well cooked – just seared and still opaque. However I felt there was too much mango which over powered the dish making it a little too sweet and sticky despite having the peppery chicory there which admittedly did help the dish. This I have to say was perfectly presented with the scallops and prawns lying over chicory. The the pear salad was served raw and was light and looked pleasing on the plate again.

The manager came over to check that we had enjoyed our main course as the dishes were swiftly swept away.

Food                             Service                          Atmosphere

4 Stars4 Stars5 Stars

lombard salad

Barcelona Tapas

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barcelona tapas

We met here for a working lunch one day and what a mistake this was. I mean whoever chose this place for our meeting really should have been put off immediately just by its name. I mean Barcelona Tapas, really? It might just as well been titled ‘Really Authentic Tapas…Honest’. This is a chain so it must be frequented by the public enough to make the place successful but trust me, I won’t ever cross the door again.

We met at the Barcelona Tapas in Aldgate East, situated behind the tube and bus station. The restaurant looks on to a rather run down and dubious street. The outside of the restaurant has a Gaudi inspired mosaic. The decor inside is colourful and aims to look fun – to me it just looked tacky.

We ordered a range of tapas including, potatas bravas, sliced meat, garlic prawns, chorizo in wine and tempura vegetables – basically the typical tapas dishes you see on the most uninspiring Spanish restaurants usually run by Brits. The prawns and meat were over cooked, the tempura had obviously not been cooked fresh as it had the texture of cardboard and the chorizo lacked any spice. As there was a few of us were ordered quite a few dishes that names escape me now but I just know they were unsatisfying, greasy and lacked quality and taste.

At lunch time this place was fairly empty but clearly had its regulars. The waitress (there was only one waitress due to the lack of diners) was friendly and talked us through the dishes with confidence. Unfortunaly this could not cover up the huge cracks in the uninspiring menu and food quality.

As a result Sex Drugs and Bacon Rolls gives this place:

Food                              Service                       Atmosphere

 Star3 Stars Star

tapas

Polpo

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polpo

Feeling slightly left out we decided to try out Polpo because of all the recent hype surrounded this restaurant. Instead of the more popular Covent Garden or Soho branches we took the short walk from work to the Farringdon establishment.

Polpo is a Venetian restaurant which is quite specific and is also well known for its meatballs. Upon arrival there was a queue outside – you cannot book in advance – but the other diners that were waiting were in groups so were seated immediately.

The restaurant is small and quite rustically Italian in design, but we have to say after all of the hype we were a little under whelmed by the decor.

We were seated and our drinks orders were taken by a vacant waitress who seemed keen to move on to the next table and left us worrying if she would actually remember to process our order.

The sharing menu looked good and since we wanted to see what the different dishes they had to offer, we opted for the tapas style dishes.

We ordered a cicheti plate for starter. This consisted of aranchi (a fried rice ball), a smoked salmon, beetroot and horseradish, anchovy and liver crostini. I obviously had to ask what aranchi was as I had no clue – call me ignorant but it would be nice to have seen descriptions on the menu. Anyway, the salmon and beetroot were fabulous, fresh salmon was rolled with the beetroot and horseradish paste in between. The pate was a little strong for my taste buds and the aranchi were nice.  A good start I’d say!

For main course we ordered Prosciutto, mozzarella & basil bruschetta, Mussels, clams & monk’s beard, lamb and mint meat balls, Fennel, almond & endive and octopus with borlotti beans. Phew that does sound a heck of a lot of food.

The mozzarella and brushetta were delicious however the mussels were tasteless, over cooked and had no real substance to make this dish filling (thank god we ordered plenty).

The fennel worked well with the nutty almonds and the sweet chicory. The meat balls were good; huge like cricket balls, juicy but was very forgettable which was a bit of a let down since this was their specialty dish.

We liked Polpo but think it is very over hyped and we would not go out of our way to visit again.

Maybe the Covent Garden and Soho establishments do have that wow factor but this one certainly doesn’t!

                  Food                          Service                       Atmosphere
3 Stars3 Stars2 Stars

 

meatballs

Albion Café

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albion

We went to the Boundary Hotel for lunch at the Albion Café, which is a British café / casual restaurant in the hotel. It is very retro in style with old fashioned bottles, tins and confectionery. As you walk in, there is a little deli with freshly made bread, cakes, jams, pickles as well as organic grocers from small businesses. There is always a queue especially at the weekend (when I came here a few years ago it was like a hidden gem – now it is well know with the trendy foreign visitors as well as the hip Hoxton set.

The wait was supposed to be 40 minutes but we were nicely surprised when the maître d’hotel found as a table after only a 15 – 20 minutes wait.

We ordered a bottle of French white wine along with a crab omelette, vegetable tart and the house omelette, which is served with a salad and a glass of wine. The service is very relaxed and at some times a little too slow but the waiters we had were French and very professional and thorough. The wine was sweet and strong; just how I like it and served in casual water glasses. Cutlery and napkins are served in reused golden syrup tins. We liked this idea a lot.

When the food came out we all agreed the dishes looked delicious. The omelette was plain but incredibly fluffy and tasty with the delicate side salad. The vegetable tart was full of Mediterranean vegetables and a golden top. My crab omelette again was fluffy but the crab meat gave a nice bite to this.

This place was much better before, without the hype and crowds, but it is a fabulously British café that is full of personality. Food is simple yet 100% tasty and full of flavour and thought. As a result Sex Drugs and Bacon Rolls gives this place:

            Food                             Service                          Atmosphere

4 Stars3 Stars4 Stars

albion 2

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