In the nearly prehistoric early days of my blog, there were no freebies, no invites to review, no Twitter or Snapchat or Instagram. There were no readers either, but I still enjoyed putting my words out there for no one else but me to enjoy. Maybe occasionally my investment banker friends (and frequent dining companions) liked to read my words,. (And my mother, to reassure herself that I was still alive.) My banker friends were perhaps smarter than me all these years ago and would often tell waitstaff at restaurants that I was a “famous” food critic. I would shrink in my seat, mortified to my soul, as they said so. I just liked to write for myself, really. So I wrote for myself and kept myself anonymous and no one really knew who was I was for a while, but then a certain UK journalist told all of England that I wanted to quit my job to become a professional food critic — I’m 5 trillion percent confident I never said that and please can you imagine the conversation when I went into the office on Monday — and then the invites to review starting coming, and I said no and no and no again. (There is no free lunch really.) Then this one time in 2009 I said yes and it was all very nice but I wrote about my conflicting feels and well…
I returned to London in 2014 with a new “Just say yes” attitude. There were a lot of reasons for this new mindset, best discussed over cocktails and copious carbohydrates and having nothing to do with my blog really but more to do with being a slave to The Man for so long and not having much fun while I was back in Chicago, really. I was determined to have more fun in London now that I was back. So I started saying yes. I thought saying yes would mean fun!
When The Gate emailed me earlier this spring, this “Just say yes” mindset led me to say yes but it was hard to find a date for anyone to come along because, well, I am still a slave to The Man and The Man pays my bills and I like money, you know. (Even though I try to like money less than I once did, I still like it.) The PR was dogged. She did not give up, although I was ready to and in fact had so in my mind because after so many emails with so many people about so many dates and times and vegetarian food and yes, Angel was still on the Northern Line, I decided that maybe we should all just Netflix and Chill instead.
But! Miracle of miracles! I finally found a night without conference calls with the west coast or other incidents that prevent work/life balance. And I owed A Girl Has to Eat an invite after the many kind invites she had extended to me. We were also long overdue a catch-up about work and life and balance. (And yoga.)
I like the location of The Gate, just down the hill from Angel and up the hill from Roseberry Avenue. The restaurant was buzzing with the pre-Sadler’s Wells Theatre crowd when I entered but as soon as I sat down, they all stood up and headed off to their show. Now that’s great timing! A Girl Has to Eat arrived shortly later and we went to town on the menu.
We started with some excellent focaccia and olives. I really wanted more of the focaccia but also didn’t want to ruin my dinner.
We then split starters of miso aubergine and slow roasted leek tart. The miso aubergine topped with toasted cashew nuts, micro coriander and ponzu sauce was fresh and summery, but it was the leek tart — with swiss cheese, sweet balsamic dressing, sprouting lentils and raw beetroot salad — that I really loved. I could easily eat this leek tart every day of the week. The pastry was particularly excellent.
This is a terrible photo of the mushroom chipotle because all you can see is rocket. I’m sorry.
For mains, I opted for the wild mushroom chipotle, a mix of foraged wild mushrooms, sauteed in a rich chipotle and sour cream sauce on a bed of braised wild rice and rocket. I am not a huge mushroom eater but the magic word “chipotle” pulled me in and I was glad that it did. What’s so strange about The Gate is that you are eating vegetarian food but you totally forget that you are! It’s like they weave a magic spell over you when you enter: Forget meat! Forget meat! Mushrooms are meat!
The tasty sweetcorn cakes
A Girl Has to Eat opted for the Sweetcorn Cilantro Cake, served with a black bean, roast pepper and grilled corn on the cob salsa, topped with char-grilled Mediterranean vegetables and chunky guacamole. I had a bite and had food envy, even though I was perfect satisfied with my main!
Service was prompt and friendly during our visit, although our dessert took a very, very long time to arrive. Also, one of the women at the table next to us would not stop talking and SINGING during our meal and it was so distracting and annoying that I really couldn’t even enjoy the much delayed dessert and finally just said to A Girl Has to Eat, “I gotta get outta here” and fled out into the street, which was blissfully quiet and calm in comparison. Ah, also while we were at The Gate, one of the toilets overflowed. Good times. (Signs in the ladies’ loo warn you about the sensitive toilets.)
The Verdict: I really, really like The Gate. Great food, and you leave feeling virtuous and like your cholesterol is lower! It’s amazing. That being said, I think I am done saying yes to invites for review for a while. This blog has always been a hobby and a way to pass the time, and the economist in me understands that there really is no free lunch. My job keeps me busy — too busy at this time of year, and I enjoy my site more when I write what I want to write when I have the (admittedly limited) time to write it. If you can tell by the lack of posts as of late, now is not the time when I have time. So things will go back to the way they sort of were at some point before I lost my penchant for my own discoveries, and I’ll say no to invites to review more often. (But yes to events because I like events. I really really like events.) It was a worthy experiment, but it’s time is over. After, uh, I get a few more of these invites to review posts out of the way first. 🙁 Sigh.
Note: I was invited to dine at The Gate with a guest. We did not have to pay for anything. I tipped on the full amount, if not a little more, and handed the cash directly to our server.
Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa opened in London right after I left this fair city back in 2010. It’s weird to leave a city before an entire complex — One New Change — exists, and then to return and have it all in full swing. I miss the old Balls Brothers that used to stand at the corner there with its tremendous (both in size and location) outdoor drinking area, but I also understand that the world and London in particular keeps changing and while we might miss the past, there really is no going back…no going back at all.
We had dinner at Barbecoa on a fateful evening — a week before the Brexit vote. Here we were: three Americans, albeit one born in Serbia and naturalized, all of us with UK work authorization, two of us also naturalized British citizens, two of us married to British citizens, all of us with long careers in financial services. Call me psychic but my contribution to the conversation was something like “If we vote out…1. the pound will crash 2. the UK credit rating will get slashed 3. interest rates will go down and 4. any global company who has been looking for any sort of excuse to get away from the high cost of labor AND real estate in London will move to Amsterdam or Frankfurt.” Thank you, University of Chicago. (Seriously, American companies in particular really don’t understand why they have to pay so much for everything in London AND give people 25+ days holiday a year. Please see here for average prime rental costs in major European cities. Also, different topic but same theme…see here for the UK — non-replacement! — birth rate of 1.83 and how 27% of births were to mothers born outside the UK Have a cup of tea and consider the future funding of of UK state pensions based on all this information + Brexit.)
Back to Barbecoa…so if you’re going to have dinner the week before the London economy starts tanking, you might as well have it at in the heart of the city of London, where finance predominates, at uh, an American-ish restaurant called Barbecoa. We had a great table overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral and the floor to ceiling windows made the most of the sunny and nice day. (Food bloggers everywhere will love the natural light, especially at this time of year.) I was surprised by the number of large parties out for dinner on a Wednesday but then again, Fidelity Investments is right next door along with at least one-third of the other fund managers in London. If you want to take guests somewhere “London-y,” you really can’t beat Barbecoa for the views and the buzz. Book ahead, because this place was packed. Also, ask for a table overlooking St. Paul’s.
Lee (you may know her as Feathers) had been to Barbeoca before and insisted that we start with the Devil’s Cornbread, which was a thin cornbread layer covered in cheese and Nduja, a word I had never heard before my return to London in 2014. Now Nduja is as popular as Peter Andre was in 2004, although to be fair, I haven’t seen Mr. Andre in the gossip mags in quite some time. Our Devil’s Cornbread was tasty and well, I could imagine it being even tastier if I had a hangover. (That is a compliment, to be clear. This cornbread is EXACTLY what you want to wake up to after a night on the lash. That and a fizzy Coke.)
Next up some tuna ceviche with watermelon, which some of us were nervous about but which turned out to be delightful. The tuna wasn’t as thinly sliced as I would have liked, but between the tuna and the watermelon, it was all very refreshing and I made a mental note to keep this dish in mind for a hot day. Now that being said, you know I’m not much of a cook but I’m sure I can convince Lee to make it for me.
We came to a place known for its meat but we played it coy. Just an order of pork belly — which came with a waffle and who doesn’t love a waffle — and the sirloin. The pork belly was densely rich — I could only manage a bite or two before my eyes started to cross — but if I had just run a marathon, I imagine this would be pretty much what I would want to eat.
The sirloin (£34) — medium rare of course — came with a little patch of tomatoes and a little drizzle of olive oil. While I definitely appreciate char, the char here was perhaps a little overpowering for me, taking away from the flavor of the meat. This is my bias though after living for so many years in Chicago and enjoying so many Chicago steaks.
We splurged on sides and they were party pleasers. The macaroni and cheese and the onion rings were particularly good. Really, really good actually.
I asked Lee and Natasa for their feedback and while I think Natasa is still trying to figure out Brexit, Lee responded with…
“I liked everything. I recall the steak tasting like a proper bbq steak. I have a flashback to my father in Philadelphia doing London Broil on the Weber Grill. This steak lives up to the restaurant’s name. (You will have to link in a definition of London Broil as I bet no one will know.) Pork: The Brits scoff when Americans put bacon and maple syrup together and this takes it to another level. Waffles, pork and jalapenos means spicy and sweet — the ultimate combo.”
So it’s fair to say that Lee liked Barbecoa a lot.
The Verdict: I received an invite to review Barbecoa and given £150 to spend on the experience. It gave me a nice excuse to catch up with Lee and Natasa. We had a nice time and I can see myself bringing my dad back here when he visits. The views are fab and the service (most of whom seemed to be immigrant like us) and design are also very nice. Note please…the happy hour cocktail menu at Barbecoa is a FANTASTIC value. £5 quid per drink! As we waited for our table, we sipped rose martinis and thought about our UK retirement plans and the hit they were about to take. Also, we tipped on the full amount. I hope our service person puts that money in a nice Europe ex-UK equity open-end investment fund.
I never thought I’d say this but guys, I’m ADDICTED to Snapchat. I experimented with it last summer and never quite figured it out. That’s because I didn’t follow anyone who was doing cool stuff. Then I saw an article somewhere about Adventurous Kate and how you should follow her on Snapchat and I did and now I totally get it! And I love it. In university, I used to do radio and I loved putting together my shows. Snapchat can be sort of like that, which I love. And it’s one of the reasons why I like Adventurous Kate’s use of Snapchat so much. It’s almost like she makes little news reels of her travels and adventures. She did a great series on her visit to Savannah Georgia the other week. Now I just have to get over my fear of selfies. (So so so not into the selfie or lecturing the camera.)
Anyhow, I say all this because I’ve been snapchatting a lot of my meals and adventures these days. If you want to follow me, find me on @kristainlondon. (Surprise.) Or do the whole Snapchat scan thing by scanning my Snapchat thingy over in the right sidebar.
I don’t have a cat (many of the people I follow on Snapchat seem to have cats) and I don’t do a lot of (any?) talking TO the camera though, just so you know. So I guess what I’m saying is that Snapchat is the most instantaneous way to know what I am up to. (I find with Instagram, I string out my photos over time rather than posting them in the moment.) The other night, while I was at Pizza Buzz with May from Eat Cook Explore, I Snapchatted the interior of the restaurant, but oddly not the food. I was too focused on EATING the pizza. Here’s the interior…
I was also focused on Atila, the uber-charming pizza maker. Guess where Atila is from?? HUNGARY. Atila the Hun, get it?? Love it. Love Atila. And I love his pizzas.
Although if you go to Pizza Buzz, I wouldn’t recommend the odd combinations they offer on the chalkboard. We tried one of them — veal meatballs and caramelized onions — but the onions made the pizza too sweet and who wants a sweet pizza? Not this New Yorker. There was also some sort of Irish pizza with potatoes that I just didn’t even want to imagine.
We did admire the crispy, slightly charred crust of both our pizzas though. Only 2 minutes in the pizza oven, flaming away at the back of the restaurant! 2 minutes! The miracle of pizza, my friends. Of the three combinations of pizza we tried — May wisely went for a half/half — we liked her spicy pizza with nduja sausage the best.
With our pizzas, we enjoyed a very good version of a Caesar salad, with nice creamy, garlicky dressing. We also had some burrata with rocket; the burrata could have been a bit creamier but one really cannot complain about burrata because, well, it’s burrata. And to top it all off, I had GOAT MILK MINT CHOCOLATE CHIP ICE CREAM. Like I had died and gone to heaven. (I really really like mint chocolate chip.)
The Verdict: Pizza Buzz is fun and friendly. Pizzas start at about £7 and go up from there, depending on what toppings you order. You can see the full menu over here. Note that things look like they could quickly add up…
The Fine Print: I was a guest of May’s during our visit to Pizza Buzz. She was invited to try Pizza Buzz out so we did not pay for our meal.
Guys, I have a new obsession. I love The Sichuan on City Road, halfway between Moorgate and Old Street. (At Worship Street, if you know it.) I want to eat at The Sichuan all the time now. I love it. I mean, firstly, I love Sichuan food in general. But secondly, I really just love the location and the offering. Sometimes, I like the staff. The sweet guy on my first visit, who was from Chengdu himself, has been my favorite. Other times, I have been somewhat unlucky. That being said…if you had to choose, what you would rather? Friendly, efficient service or someone who actually knows the food? (Ideally, of course, I’d like both but what if you had to choose???)
Most of all, besides liking the food, I like the prices. A small bowl of dan dan noodles for £4.50!! A very large serving of ma po tofu for £7.50! It’s truly amazing. If I still worked across the street like I did for many years, I would eat here EVERY DAY. Every day. Check out the lunch menu! Did I mention they are open on weekends? A sit-down Chinese restaurant on City Road — and a Sichuan one to boot — that is open on weekends during the day? It’s like my dream has finally come true!
The chef used to be at Bar Shu. Also, Hutong at The Shard. So he’s the real deal. And so is his food. Note that the decor is nothing spectacular, and neither are the loos.
The Verdict: You should go. Look for me. I’ll probably be there.
One day, I will leave EC1, I swear. BUT EVERYTHING I NEED IS RIGHT HERE. So why go far? And look, there’s a new pizza place. Did you know that pizza is the #1 most ordered item on JustEat? Oddly, for the UK at least, pizza is about the last thing I ever order as takeaway. I much prefer an in-person pizza. Maybe it’s the way bridge & tunnel people in New York are raised. We eat pizza IN PERSON.
So The Wedge Issue. Relatively new to the ‘hood — oh how I wish their was a neighborhood Facebook group to discuss these new local things — and I was hungry and maybe the tiniest bit hungover so I made the slog and was one of the maybe four people in the place. After placing my order relatively quickly — I had sussed out my order in advance — the smoke detector went off multiple times . Surprise surprise, the restaurant filled with smoke. Doors and windows were opened so instead we shivered as we sat waiting, eventually smoke free. Then they were out of the IPA I wanted, and then my replacement beer order took ages to arrive because they were letting the foam settle. (Communication, people.) My Soho pizza — N’duja sausage, peppers, chilli, mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce — was tasty but a little soggy in the middle which made me sad. The husband-wife team that run the place seem very sweet, albeit a bit distracted. (American? Canadian? I’m not sure.) But hmmm. Too many questions. Most specifically, who were ALL THE PEOPLE that came out of the basement???
The Verdict: Maybe I caught them on an off day. I’d give them another shot. Good for groups and for one of those lunches where you have to please a lot of people with different tastes.
WHY IS IT SO HARD PEOPLE? WHY? (I will start an Opening Hours Page of Shame soon. Get ready for it.)
Back to Ngon Ngon in Clerkenwell. It turns out they were open on a Sunday afternoon when I dropped in for a restorative bowl of pho to cure what ailed me. So that was good. (But please…someone please come up with the cure for the common cold.)
Not so good? The fact that the temperature in the restaurant had been set to “Par-Boil.” I could barely eat, I was so hot. And I certainly couldn’t eat a steaming bowl of hot pho.
So I got some spring rolls and some noodles instead. And while the veggie spring rolls were delightful, the beef noodles had me contemplating the word “unctuous.” Is “unctuous” a good word or a bad word? I really can’t decide. “Unctuous pork belly” doesn’t sound so bad. But “unctuous noodles” makes me feel a little, well unctuous.
The redeeming factor? Service was sweet and the prices were right.