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Travel Gourmet’s Top 5 Pre-Theatre Menus in London

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One of the best things about living in London is the fantastic choice of theatre, from thought-provoking drama, to uplifting musicals and cutting-edge new works by up-and-coming writers. Live theatre is one of my greatest pleasures; little excites me more than watching a great play, and in London that often means performed by some of our finest actors. I go to the theatre often and usually I meet the friend I’m joining for a meal beforehand. I always prefer to eat early rather than late; even in my younger days I was never keen to eat late, but many pre-theatre menus are also available as post-theatre menus too.

Although I’ve given this post the title ‘pre-theatre menus’, I’m often on the lookout for a good place to eat pre-gallery talk, or pre-cinema. Another passion of mine is art and I go to quite a few talks and lectures at London art galleries. I’ve therefore included my favourite place near Tate Modern. And, it has to be confessed, I often take advantage of good pre-theatre offers just to meet up with a friend early evening and eat a reasonably priced meal.

What I’m looking for in a pre-theatre menu is good food at a good price. If it really is pre-theatre or pre-event, then the likelihood is that you’re going to want to eat in about an hour; not in a rush but no lingering over the meal. And if you’re not going to linger over the meal, then you don’t generally want to pay a lot. I always like to eat well though, so a miserable sandwich in a chain café doesn’t fit the bill for me. It also makes more of the evening to eat a nice meal first, have time to catch up with a friend you may not have seen for a little while, and then go to the theatre.

So, here are my top pre-theatre restaurants at the moment. I’m listing them according to location rather than in any order of preference.

 

COVENT GARDEN

Joe Allen

Well, I have to start with the restaurant that’s known as ‘theatreland’s canteen’! For over 40 years, Joe Allen has been a favourite haunt of actors, writers and producers – and my friend Annie and me! Though we’re not famous; just devotees, and I should emphasise that our loyalty only spans about 20 years not 40!

Recently transferred to Burleigh Street, just off The Strand, it offers one of the best pre-theatre menus going and is ideally located for not only the many theatres along The Strand and into The Aldwych, but also The Royal Opera House. I’ve eaten there before going to the National Theatre too, which is only a short walk across Waterloo Bridge from the restaurant. For more about Joe Allen, click here.

 

SHAFTESBURY AVENUE, Soho

Brasserie Zédel

Brasserie Zédel is hidden in a little complex of walkways just behind Piccadilly Circus, and off Shaftesbury Avenue. The food is great, the prices very reasonable and you can enjoy a lovely sense of being in an old Parisian brasserie while you eat. So many of the big London theatres are in Shaftesbury Avenue it’s a great location for pre-theatre, and it’s also close to The Haymarket, another theatre area. For more about Brasserie Zédel, click here.

Mele e Pere

Mele e Pere was a fairly recent find in Brewer Street in London’s Soho, just off Shaftesbury Avenue. I’d read enthusiastic reviews for some time before I went and am really glad I finally got there. It serves great Italian food and there’s a nice, lively atmosphere without it being too noisy. I went before a talk at the National Portrait Gallery (only about 8 minutes walk away) but of course it’s handy for all the nearby theatres, and the Curzon Soho cinema. For more about Mele e Pere, click here.

 

SOUTH BANK

Côte Brasserie

Yes, I know it’s a chain and chains aren’t usually amongst my list of favourite places, but my visit to this new branch of Côte right by the Royal Festival Hall only last month was a huge success. This was actually a post-art gallery dinner, but it’s wonderfully located for the National Theatre, the British Film Institute, the Royal Festival Hall and the Hayward Gallery – where I’d just been. We got in in time for the pre-theatre menu which is available until 7pm. It’s one of the best value early evening menus I know. Again, like Zédel above, you can enjoy being temporarily transported to Paris, should you feel sufficiently fanciful. Chains are inevitably slightly variable and I have been to a couple of Côtes I didn’t like much, but this one on the South Bank and my local Richmond one are great. There are a lot of restaurants on the South Bank but few inspiring ones, so I’m never quite certain where to go. But I’ll definitely be making Côte a regular haunt when I’m in the area. For more, click here.

 

BANKSIDE

Capricci

This is a fantastic location for Tate Modern and also The Globe Theatre. I’ve eaten at Capricci a couple of times early evening before talks at the gallery. There are places to eat inside Tate, though not always open in the evening to coincide with talks and lectures midweek. And while I used to love the Tate Modern Restaurant, my last visit was very disappointing so I haven’t wanted to go back. Capricci is set in a development right by the gallery and there are lots of chain restaurants and cafés, but Capricci offers something more exciting and individual. Their Italian food is great and there’s a deli where you can opt to sit at a counter and have a snack if you don’t want the full restaurant experience. There is no set menu but you can eat fairly cheaply and quickly and each time I’ve ordered pasta dishes as a main course, which both times were delicious. For more about Capricci, click here.

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Of course London is full of restaurants offering pre-theatre menus and I’ve only sampled a very few, but I hope this list of my favourites, and in different parts of central London, will be helpful and offer you some inspiration next time you’re looking for a great and reasonably priced early evening meal.

 

Freekeh Salad with Aubergine, Feta & Pomegranate

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With Nicola & Rachael down from Worcestershire for the weekend to celebrate my birthday, we had a busy day planned for Saturday – which included High Tea at the famous Maids of Honour tea rooms in Kew. With uncertain timings and knowing we’d have more ‘tea’ than I usually do – in fact I don’t usually eat anything with my afternoon cuppa! – a selection of cold mezze and salads with some nice fresh bread from Paul bakery seemed an excellent plan. That way, whatever time we returned to my house, food would be ready; no preparation needed other than removing it from the fridge and laying the table!

Freekeh has become my favourite ‘grain’ over the last couple of years, since discovering it in my local Revital health food store. It has generally become more popular and is quite fashionable. What’s so great about it, apart from it being quick and easy to cook, is the wonderful, nutty flavour. Grains can be pretty boring but freekeh is delicious in its own right – though of course even more delicious with some well-chosen additions! It’s also wonderfully healthy and nutritious.

There are a couple of other freekeh recipes on the blog but I decided to put together this version because with the aubergine and feta, it makes a meal on its own, even though it can work as part of a selection of middle eastern mezze or a side with perhaps some grilled chicken.

Freekeh Salad with Aubergine, Feta & Pomegranate 

  • 120g freekeh
  • 1 aubergine, cut into roughly 1.5cm cubes
  • about 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 spring onions, thinly sliced
  • ½ pomegranate
  • 12 cherry tomatoes
  • 100g feta
  • small bunch flat leaf parsley, leaves roughly chopped
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Dressing

  • juice from the ½ pomegranate (see method below)
  • 2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses
  • 6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

   

Put the freekeh into a small saucepan with twice the volume of water (120g freekeh is roughly 1 cup). Add some salt and bring to the boil, turn low and allow to simmer until the water is almost absorbed. Check whether it’s tender just before all the water has gone as I sometimes find it doesn’t need quite that amount – you want it cooked but to retain a bit of a bite. Drain and allow to cool.

While the freekeh is cooling, prepare the aubergine. Trim the ends off the aubergine and cut into smallish cubes. Put a couple of tablespoons of the oil into a large frying pan and fry the aubergine over a medium heat, turning frequently so it doesn’t burn. Add a little more oil if necessary as aubergines do soak up a lot of oil. You want the pieces nicely coated and cooked through but not browned. Once ready, leave to cool.

   

Cut a pomegranate in half. (The spare half can be added to salads, yoghurt or cereal.) Hold the half you’re using over a bowl with a sieve on it. Squeeze slightly and start to pull open, allowing the pomegranate seeds to collect in the sieve. Remove any bits of the white pith as they’re not pleasant to eat and keep any juice that collects in the bowl for the dressing.

I happened to have a mix of yellow and red cherry tomatoes but just red is fine. Cut about 12 in half.

   

   

I used just half my pack of feta but if you’re making this into a meal on its own (it will serve about 2), then you might like to add all the cheese.  Feta quite often comes in 200g packs.

Put the drained and cooled freekeh into a large bowl. Add the aubergine, spring onions, pomegranate seeds, tomato halves and parsley and crumble over the feta.

Make the dressing: mix any juice collected from the drained pomegranate seeds with the pomegranate molasses and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk with a fork and pour over the freekeh salad. Fold in with a spoon and mix thoroughly. Transfer to a serving dish.

You could eat this straight away but it’s quite nice to cover with cling film and leave for about an hour for all the flavours to come together. If you’re leaving it for more than an hour, put in the fridge.

I served it as a kind of mezze meal with hummus, bread, olives and cheeses. It really is so delicious and will keep well in the fridge for a couple of days.

The Original Maids of Honour

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Once upon a time, about twenty-odd years ago, I used to pick my children up from school and for an occasional treat we would drive to Kew and have tea in The Original Maids of Honour tea rooms. Since I began the blog – nearly 7 years ago – we have been saying that ‘we must go back to The Maids of Honour’ for tea sometime. I’m not sure why it’s taken so long; we all regularly go to Kew Gardens just down the road from the tea rooms. It took a birthday. Nicola and Rachael were coming down from Worcestershire for the weekend to celebrate my birthday and amongst the discussion of ‘what we could do’, Nicola said she’d like to go for a walk in Kew Gardens and why didn’t we have tea at The Maids of Honour afterwards. Thus the plan was set.

The Maids of Honour is very traditionally British when it comes to tea. I hadn’t been there for about 20 years but it looked just the same. The same furniture; the same pink walls; the waiting staff dressed in traditional black and white dress. It boasts a wonderful history for it is said that the little Maids of Honour tarts – a speciality here – were loved by Henry VIII. Apparently he discovered these tarts when he met Anne Boleyn and the Maids of Honour attending the Queen were eating the tarts off a silver plate. He loved the melt-in-the-mouth sensation of eating them and – the story goes! – demanded the recipe which was then kept in a locked iron box at Richmond Palace. The recipe is still a secret!

   

It was a beautiful sunny day and after working up an appetite walking round Kew Gardens, we walked along Kew Road to the tea rooms. We were quite early for tea; lunch was just finishing but a friendly waiter told us they served tea anytime. We were shown to a table by a window and the menu brought.

   

There are a number of choices of set teas including High Tea (£15 per person), Savoury High Tea (£17pp), Champagne High Tea (variable according to number – from £50 for 1 to £110 for 4). We settled on High Tea:

 

Pot of Tea or filter coffee

Traditional Tea Sandwiches (5 quarters)

Two Scones Plain or Fruit

Clotted Cream (or English Butter) & Preserve

Your choice from Today’s Patisserie or Maids of Honour Tart

 

It was all beautifully presented on a stand; the little Maids of Honour tarts, which are always served warm from the oven, on a silver plate (just as Henry VIII enjoyed them). We all decided we had to have these as our cake choice. We asked about the sandwich fillings and our friendly waiter offered to swap ham for another non-meat choice.

The tea came first: a pot each and traditional Willow Pattern china. The little sandwiches were delicious. The crusts cut off, traditional style. There was smoked salmon, egg mayonnaise, cheese and – of course! – cucumber sandwiches. They tasted freshly made and we enjoyed them a lot.

Next we tucked into our scones. Two had sounded a lot but they were quite small; not as small as ‘bite sized’ but a perfect size – as Goldilocks might have said. There was a generous helping of clotted cream and jam. They were good scones: light and fluffy.

   

Then the Maids of Honour. We’d long been debating whether they were like Pasteis di Nata for they look similar.

The custard was in some flaky and very light pastry. The ‘custard’ isn’t as creamy as Pasteis di Nata and has a slight cheesy – cheesecake – flavour. They were served warm and were very tasty and delicious.

It was a lovely tea; eaten slowly at leisure, just as a traditional tea should be. The staff were so friendly and helpful too, which always makes a big difference to one’s enjoyment. It was a great way to spend the afternoon and a nice treat. On the way out we stopped to look at the bakery-shop at the front.

Rachael bought a few things to take back for her parents.

Meanwhile, as a local, I really mustn’t wait another 20 years to go back!

The Original Maids Of Honour Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Travel Gourmet’s Top 5 Gelaterie in London

With the weather warming up and the sun shining at last, we’re definitely moving into the ‘ice cream season’. Though in truth, I’ll eat ice cream at any time of the year. I confess to having a big addiction to ice cream; well, gelato. I’m an ice cream snob (I’ll own up so you don’t need to accuse me). I don’t buy those old British favourites that you find in your local newsagent, I seek out the many and growing number of wonderful Italian gelaterie in London. Thus this will probably turn into an ongoing post that needs frequent revision (and frequent tastings of gelato!) for I have sampled only a few, so there are many, many more to try. But of the ones I know, here are my favourites. And while I rarely stick my neck out on these pages and attribute rankings – I’m doing it here … and top of this list has to be my local and very wonderful …

1. Gelateria Danieli, Richmond upon Thames

Tucked down the pretty alleyway, Brewer’s Lane, off the centre of Richmond’s high street, you will find some of the very best gelato in London. Made in-house and overseen by owners Carlo, who comes from Sicily, and Bridget, a nutritionist, there’s a fabulous choice of flavours, and the gelato is to die for. Currently you can have a small cup for £2.50 with 2 flavours; a medium cup is £4. My favourite flavours are Crema Siciliana (oranges and lemons) and Dark Chocolate Sorbet. Their pistachio is heavenly too, made from the finest Bronte pistachios, which grow in the Mount Etna region of Sicily, and are thought by many to be the best in the world. They use organic and natural ingredients with no artificial flavourings or colourings. You can eat in or on a lovely summer’s day, walk to the end of the alleyway and sit on a bench on the edge of beautiful Richmond Green. Click here for more on Gelateria Danieli.

2. La Gelatiera, Covent Garden

I’d passed this gelateria many times in New Row, Covent Garden, before I tried it. I’d read great things about it but never seemed to be there at a good time to indulge in gelato. It was my friend Lucia who suggested meeting there one evening. And I’m so glad she did! Why had I taken such a long time to try it? The ice cream is fantastic and they have frequent changes of flavours and some really exciting ones. Their hand-crafted ice creams are made daily in small batches and contain only the finest ingredients, they offer flavours like ‘Honey, Rosemary & Orange Zest’ and ‘Basil & Chilli’, and ‘Watercress & Lime’. When I was there last summer, a medium cup with 3 flavours was £4.50. For more about La Gelatiera, click here.

3.  Gelupo, Soho

It was my Italian teacher Fabio who told me about Gelupo (part of Bocco di Lupo restaurant). I’ve been back many times since my first visit in 2014 and introduced it to my family. It’s always a temptation to pop in if I’m in the Shaftesbury Avenue/Piccadilly Circus area and last time I went was just before meeting friends at a nearby theatre; I was so close I couldn’t resist. They have some exciting flavours too – ‘Strawberry & Pink Pepper’, ‘Avocado Sorbet’ and ‘Lemon & Rosemary’. It really is exceptionally good artisan gelato. For more about Gelupo (and Bocca di Lupo) click here.

4. Amorino, Covent Garden

Amorino is a worldwide chain, but don’t let that put you off! The ice cream is wonderful. I’d eaten in Amorino in France and Italy but only finally got round to trying out one of the London branches last week, after a gelato conversation with Fabio, who told me how good it is. For more, click here.

5. Scoop, Covent Garden

Scoop was another recommendation from Lucia. You can see I’ve clearly been getting the right authentic Italian advice where gelato is concerned! Made daily, this fabulous artisan gelato can be found in Covent Garden, South Kensington and Harvey Nichols. For more about Scoop, click here.

With all this gelato excitement, I’ve introduced a new ‘Gelaterie – Ice Cream Shops’ category on the blog so you can quickly check out where to find the best ice cream: click here. And I think you may be sure that I will be adding to it over the coming summer months!

What’s your favourite gelateria in London? Do please let us know!

A Spring Morning Walk in Kew Gardens

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This post is for my dear friend Jane – and she will know why.

Spring is very late coming this year. I know this particularly as it’s my birthday in a couple of days’ time and so I can recall birthdays when spring was further along, apple blossom on trees, a taste of summer in the air and even sun cream needed. However, the long wet winter and frequent strong cold winds have kept that March feeling going for far too long, so it’s been great over the last day or so to be blessed with some warm weather – and sun!!

With blue skies and the promise of the temperature hitting the early 20s, I couldn’t resist going to Kew Gardens this morning. You’ll find a lot of information about these world famous botanical gardens on the blog, so this is more of a photo post – to share my lovely walk. I entered the Gardens by the lower Lion Gate, rather than my usual main Victoria Gate. This is a quieter area, close to the Pagoda (that’s currently undergoing renovation so has some scaffolding on it) and a wooded area.

   

By the Japanese garden, cherry trees were in full blossom and looked so beautiful.

   

Cherry blossom and a very tall pine tree reaching up to catch the sun.

   

I found a huge and wonderful tree house that’s just been built. It won’t open until the summer but you can enjoy walking round this quiet woodland area, follow a log trail and see the badger sett.

I always love spending time by the lake and there are plenty of benches to sit and enjoy a moment of peace. Although there were some very noisy geese chasing around this morning, calling excitedly to one another.

   

   

In the main, trees and bushes were still fairly bare of blossom – apart from those wonderful cherry trees. Even the magnolias were hardlly showing signs of flowers. I guess I might have found camellias flowering, as my own in my garden are, but Kew Gardens is a huge place and I didn’t get round to the ‘camellia’ area today.

   

The area outside the Palm House is always well planted out, changing frequently with the seasons, and this was full of colour.

It was a lovely walk. It’s a privilege to live so close to these fabulous Gardens, and lucky that I can visit them early in the morning, and midweek, when it’s not as crowded as weekends. If you want to see more photos of Kew, or know more about the Gardens, take a look at my A Year in Kew Gardens series when I followed Kew through a whole year, recording the changes and highlights of each month.

Gelateria Review: Amorino, Covent Garden

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My Italian teacher Fabio comes fortnightly and for an hour we discuss what’s been going on in our (mainly my) world for the past two weeks. We talk food a lot. He’s been a loyal follower of my blog for as long as I’ve known him and like all my Italian friends knows a lot about food, especially Italian food. And of course writing the blog, food is a big focus of my thoughts. From time to time we talk about which is our favourite gelateria in London. For a long time we’ve both named Gelupo at the top but Fabio surprised me a couple of weeks ago by saying it had dropped down a little for him, to No.3, and his top two were my local Gelateria Danieli (where co-owner Carlo is from Sicily like Fabio) and Amorino. I agreed with Danieli but added La Gelatiera in Covent Garden as another favourite of mine.

I was slightly surprised by his choice of Amorino as I’ve always thought of it as a chain. It’s hard to get away from the idea that a ‘chain’ of anything is mediocre. But then I’ve had ice cream at Amorino in Nice, Deauville and Florence – they started in Italy in 2002 and now have boutiques worldwide –  and have always enjoyed it. They use only natural flavourings, nothing artificial and some organic produce. So, I decided I had to go to an Amorino in London soon. And today I passed one at a time when I was on the lookout for food and thus was presented with the ideal opportunity.

I was due to attend a course at Two Temple Place on Jazz & Art History with the brilliant Hotel Alphabet in the afternoon. I headed into London early enough to get some lunch before the course began at 2.00pm. It was very busy when I got to Covent Garden and I settled on a salad in Carluccio’s; mainly on account of my actually being able to get a seat and table! I’d only wanted a snack; not a meal. By a wonderful stroke of serendipity, a branch of Amorino was just opposite in Garrick Street. Thus, after my ‘healthy’ salad, I crossed the road and went into the gelateria.

I always have gelato in a cup; never a cone. This partly arises from once having spent five weeks in Rome and some of the gelatiere wouldn’t even offer ice cream in cones so I decided it wasn’t the done thing – when in Rome always ask for a cup. And the habit has stayed. But then I’m someone who never wants bread or biscuits with cheese – I want to taste the cheese on its own. So it makes sense to taste ice cream on its own too.

There was a choice of 4 or 5 sizes and I went for the smallest at £3.70. It was a pretty good size though; perhaps a medium size in some other places. How many flavours could I have, I asked the girl behind the counter. As many as I wanted, she replied. Gosh! Well, I’d never been told that before. Sometimes a small cup is strictly one flavour; occasionally you might be allowed two. But as many as I liked! Well, I certainly had to have more than one! So I chose three: hazelnut-chocolate, raspberry and pistachio.

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They had macarons too, which looked good, but I resisted those. I ordered a macchiato and was given my ice cream and told to take a seat and she’d bring my coffee.

   

It was a generous helping of ice cream. I tucked in. Wow! It really was very good. I loved the pistachio, which had a few whole pistachios in it – and of course no colouring, so a natural colour. The chocolate-hazelnut was like a gelato version of Turin’s famous gianduiotto and absolutely fabulous. The raspberry a gorgeous flavour with that slight ‘raspberry’ tartness and not too sweet. I thought the ice cream a little denser, less light and soft than many I’ve had, but none the worse for it. It really is superb ice cream.

   

I seem to have got into a new habit of ordering a macchiato with ice cream and this was a perfect one: a good espresso served with a little foam on top. There are 12 Amorino boutiques in London, from Ealing in the West to Stratford in the East and a number in central London. Find one! And enjoy some fabulous Italian ice cream.

Amorino Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Restaurant Review: Côte Brasserie, Royal Festival Hall

My friend Annette was in London for a few days; back from Italy where she now lives. It was great to meet up and she suggested visiting the Hayward Gallery, which has recently undergone a major makeover. Built in the 1960s, the Hayward is a fine example of Brutalist architecture, which was popular at the time. To be honest, I’ve always found its ‘brutalist’ style rather off-putting and uncomfortable and I hadn’t been for a while, but from what I could remember there seemed to now be a new lightness; the gallery was much more attractive, even though still very minimalist, with more natural light coming in. The first exhibition features the photos of renowned German photographer, Andreas Gursky, ‘a true innovator engaged in thinking about and picturing the times we live in’ (Ralph Rugoff, Hayward Gallery Director). It was indeed an excellent exhibition and it sparked a great discussion between us.

When we emerged from the gallery around 6.45pm, it was much busier with people coming to the South Bank after work. Where should we eat? We looked at the BFI (British Film Institute) but their restaurant was closed for renovation. We headed towards the Royal Festival Hall, just a little further along where there are a large number of restaurants, though all chains; most OK but nothing very exciting. Long queues were forming and so we decided to go up to the next level, Festival Terrace, which runs along one side of the Festival Hall, as we knew there was a Pain Quotidien there. As we pondered whether to join their queue, Annette spotted a Côte a couple of doors further down. There was a queue here too but we were told the wait was only 10 minutes. I looked at my watch; it was 6.50. I knew their Early Evening Menu finished at 7pm. I asked the guy – who seemed to be the manager – whether we could still have the fixed price menu. Certainly, he assured us, and he’d also give us complimentary drinks to enjoy while we waited. Soon we had a glass of delicious French pink fizz in our hands and indeed a table did materialise in only 10 minutes.

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We were shown to a nice table downstairs – a table for 4 but just for us. There was a good buzz from happy people around us but our table in a quieter corner was perfect.

This branch of Côte only opened a month ago. I’ve been a big fan of the Richmond branch for some time, although have had less happy experiences at a couple of other branches. That’s always the way with chains: there’s a certain reliability you can count on but an inevitable variation because of different staff in the kitchen and front of house. At this Côte on the South Bank, everyone was incredibly friendly and helpful, right from the moment we walked in. Annette joked that maybe my ‘fame’ came before me and I was recognised as a food blogger; maybe it was their enthusiasm from opening a new branch. But actually I find the service at Côte is almost always excellent: friendly, wonderfully efficient and if there is any problem they deal with it perfectly. This is what makes you want to go back – and also for their great value early evening menu. At just £12.95 for 2 courses and £14.95 for 3 courses, it’s hard to beat.

Côte do manage to convey a sense of being in France too; the decor and ambience go a long way to temporarily transporting you to Paris, from the (mostly) French staff to the (now rare) linen napkins. The menu contains French classics and the wine list is made up totally of French wines.

The early evening menu offers a good choice with 7 starters and 7 mains. I opted for ‘Pear and Endive Salad’ – pear and endive salad with frisée, croutôns, goats’ cheese and toasted hazelnut and mustard dressing.

It was a good size portion, nicely presented, very fresh and tasted delicious. The dressing was perfect: the salad nicely coated but not drowned; a good balance between sweet and acidic.

Annette chose ‘Tuna Rillettes’ – flaked tuna ‘rillettes’ with fines herbes, lemon and toasted sourdough. She was very complimentary about it and so we both enjoyed our starters a lot.

We ordered 175ml glasses of Chablis (£7.50) to have with our meal, which was also very good. Côte always serve complimentary filtered water in a bottle, which I like; it’s a step up from tap water but makes buying bottled water unnecessary.

We chose the same main: ‘Sea Bream’ – grilled sea bream with courgette purée and shaved courgette, broad bean and rocket salad.

Again, this had a wonderful freshness to it. The sea bream was perfectly cooked – moist flesh with a crispy skin. The courgette and broad bean side was really good and a delightful accompaniment.

Neither of us wanted a dessert (though there was a good choice) and had just coffee. We’d sat there happily eating and talking for a couple of hours. Every so often, but not obtrusively, the waitress checked everything was OK. The bill for the two of us, including tip, was just under £52. It’s amazing value for central London: the service had been wonderful, the food very good and the ambience perfect. I can see this new Côte is going to become a regular haunt for without doubt it’s the best place for a reasonably priced meal along that part of the South Bank.

Cote Brasserie Royal Festival Hall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Win a Year’s Subscription to GPSmyCity

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GPSmyCity’s mobile apps – iOS and Android – feature self-guided city walks and GPS-powered travel articles that turn your smartphone or tablet into your very own personal guide. Each walk or article comes with a detailed travel route plotted on an offline map to lead you to all the attractions mentioned. You can go at your own pace; you can read the article and use the map offline so you don’t need to use data roaming or find WiFi; nor do you have to carry guidebooks and maps with you. You won’t get lost and you’ll be guided to the best attractions, cultural sights, markets, cafes, bars and restaurants in the city and be given information about them.

The GPSmyCity app is free to download (see their website) and you can access all articles for free but to get the true GPSmyCity experience, and the best out of the app, with a customised offline map and GPS directions to guide you around the city to all places mentioned in the article, you pay a small upgrade fee of $1.99 per article. So successful has the app been that GPSmyCity have now introduced a subscription option so you can always have the ‘full GPSmyCity experience’ with you on your phone or tablet, wherever you are, to access at any time. You can buy an annual subscription to all travel articles for 900+ cities worldwide for $12.99/year OR $18.99/year for full access to all walking tours + travel articles covering 1,000+ cities.

GPSmyCity now publish nearly 30 of my travel articles, which I’m very excited about. I’m also excited that they’ve offered to give 10 of my followers a free one-year subscription (each worth $18.99). Thus I’m setting a competition to give everyone the chance of winning this great prize and the opportunity to try out GPSmyCity for free for a whole year. This is great timing as we head into spring, with summer ahead of us, and you have the opportunity to have this guide for wherever your travel plans are taking you in 2018.

For a chance to win the competition, tell me in less than 50 words via a Comment below what your dream travel destination is and why you want to go there. All entries must be in by Monday 23 April. I’ll choose the most interesting entries as winners and in the event of a tie (i.e. I can’t choose from so many great ideas!), I’ll draw 10 names from a shortlist in a hat. Winners will be notified by email of how they can claim their prize.

So – get thinking! Where would you love to go if you could choose anywhere in the world and there were no limitations, like money and what you can afford. What is your dream destination and why? Tell me below in Comments and maybe you’ll be a winner! (Unfortunately I can’t send you to your destination but I am looking forward to hearing about where people dream of going!)

San Marzano Tomato Sauce for Pasta

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It was while I was wandering around Waitrose today that I saw packs of San Marzano tomatoes. I’d no particular plans for supper and thus couldn’t resist buying these famous Italian tomatoes to make a pasta sauce. Although actually when I got home, I saw these came from Spain! To be honest, it is a little early for the true tomato season; I’m pretty sure Italians wouldn’t approve of my doing this post now. When I was in Florence last year where many classic recipes contain tomatoes, they believed certain dishes could only be made in June when tomatoes were at their best.

But hey! It’s quite rare to see fresh San Marzano tomatoes here – in some specialist Italian food shops you can find tinned – so I wasn’t going to give a good opportunity up. But what’s so special about these tomatoes, you might ask. Well, the San Marzano tomato is a king amongst tomatoes in Italy. More particularly, in the Campania region. They came originally from the small town of San Marzano sul Sarno near Naples, which lies in the shadow of the Mount Vesuvius volcano. It is said that a true Napoli Margherita pizza can only be made with San Marzano tomatoes. The volcanic soil in which they grow gives them a deep, sweet flavour like no other tomato. Where the pizza comes in, however, is that while they’re not particularly special raw, cooking them produces a wonderful and unique flavour. Long and pointed, they have a firm flesh and few seeds, which makes them ideal for slicing or chopping to cook with. Now – as with mine from Waitrose – they’re grown in other parts of the world, including US, but it’s hard to imagine they can really compete with those genuine Italian ones grown in the volcanic soil.

I make fresh tomato sauce for pasta quite often. It has a different, fresher taste to a sauce made with tinned tomatoes. Tinned tomatoes have their place – just as dried herbs have their place – but seem to me to be a favour better suited to winter with their deep, earthy flavour. Today has been a brilliantly warm and sunny day, so what better than making a supper that reflects the beautiful weather?

Now, I have quite a few Italian friends and I knew I couldn’t risk making the sauce and serving it with the wrong pasta. You may think pasta comes in different shapes and sizes just for the fun of it; buying whichever shape you like the look of. But oh no! Never, ever say that to an Italian! I love their passion for food (well, really passion for life). Italians are always very knowledgeable about food and they have a strong loyalty towards the food of their region. And the thing about pasta that you need to know is that you should always match the shape of your pasta to the kind of sauce you’re serving it with. This is why Italians – especially those from Bologna – get very upset about serving a Bolognese ragu with spaghetti. An Italian would never serve a meat sauce with spaghetti because it’s not the right shape to support the heavy sauce. The sauce needs to cling to the pasta; wrap itself round the pasta.

So, there was only one thing to do. I walked down into central Twickenham and into Corto Italian Deli. I told Romina about my tomatoes – and she was kind enough not to question my using fresh San Marzano so early in the year! – but instead directed me to the perfect pasta for my sauce: Casarecce. There was even a picture on the front of the box of the pasta served with tomato sauce. The sauce would wrap itself into the pasta, she told me.

Back home, nearing suppertime, I got started.

San Marzano Tomato Sauce for Pasta – Serves Two

  • 400g San Marzano tomatoes, skinned and chopped
  • 1 large shallot or small onion, thinly sliced
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, plus a little extra to serve
  • 1 large clove garlic, crushed
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • a few fresh basil leaves
  • 200g casarecce pasta
  • Parmesan to serve

   

Cut crosses into each end of the tomatoes (mine were large so I needed to cut both ends) and cover with boiling water. Leave for a couple of minutes then remove. Carefully – as they’ll be hot – peel off the skin (some people plunge them in cold water at this point to prevent burnt fingers). The skin should come off easily.

   

Cut the tomatoes in half and then chop into even-sized pieces- about 1cm cubes.

   

I like to use shallots as they have a milder, sweeter flavour that’s not so overpowering as onion for this kind of sauce, but a mild small onion will do fine. Put the sliced shallot into a pan with the olive oil. Cook gently until the shallot starts to soften.

   

Add the crushed garlic (don’t put in too early or it can become bitter if it browns). Immediately add the chopped tomato and stir to mix. Add seasoning. Bring to a simmer and put a lid on. Leave for 15 minutes, giving it a stir halfway through. I then mashed the sauce down a bit with a potato masher. I didn’t want a smooth sauce, so mashing was a good way to thicken the sauce but retain some bites of tomato.

   

Tear a few basil leaves into the sauce. Stir and put the lid back on and leave for another 5-10 minutes.

   

Meanwhile, start cooking your pasta. Mine needed 9 minutes cooking but check instructions on your packet. Drain. Return to the pan. Check the seasoning of the tomato sauce then add it to the pan of pasta. Stir gently but thoroughly to mix well over a low heat for just a few seconds. Italians always mix the pasta and sauce like this – they never plonk the sauce on top of the pasta! And I think you do get a better flavour doing it this way.

Transfer to serving dishes. Grate over some Parmesan and drizzle over a little extra virgin olive oil. Garnish with a few more fresh basil leaves.

I served mine with a side green salad. Really it was the simplest of meals – just a few ingredients. But everything was perfect: the best ingredients cooked to be eaten straight away. The sauce did have a lovely flavour. I’d like to buy more of the tomatoes later in the year when they’re at their best; hopefully find some Italian ones from the Naples area to get the authentic San Marzano experience. Meanwhile, my supper was a glorious way to see the sun set on a perfect spring day and brought back some lovely memories of Italy.

Restaurant Review: Masaniello Surbiton

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The Italians know how to throw a party. Masaniello was opening its new branch in Surbiton this evening and an invitation to regulars and locals went out to join the party. I arrived soon after 6pm when it was due to begin and it was fairly quiet, but a warm welcome from owner/head chef Livio Te, waiter John who I recognised from Twickenham, and I immediately felt at home. Soon I had a glass of prosecco in my hand and was talking to other guests: friends, family, Twickenham regulars, Surbiton locals who’d passed the restaurant in the day when all was being prepared and were invited to come back later for the party. The restaurant started filling up fast and within a short space of time was full to the brim with happy people celebrating the opening of this new Italian restaurant.

The new pizza oven was going full blast at the back, getting ready to bake some of Masaniello’s wonderful pizza. Livio comes from Naples; his family ran a pizzeria there so he definitely knows just what a good Napoli pizza should be.

Meanwhile other foods came out to nibble on: arancini, bruschetta, calamari. Glasses were topped up with prosecco, wine, Aperol spritz. Children were given balloons.

   

   

Livio welcomed everyone; the live music began, a singer with a great voice.

   

The party was in full flow. By now the pizziaolo was busy with the pizza dough, pulling it into shape, adding the toppings, sliding it on to a pizza paddle and straight into the hot oven.

   

It was great to watch it rise so quickly in the oven, puffing up beautifully. Within seconds it seemed, it was ready. Then straight on to waiting plates, a quick cutting into triangular pieces, and people were reaching out and helping themselves to what I consider some of the best pizza in London.

It really was superb. Wonderfully light, the dough had a fantastic flavour.

For now Masaniello Surbiton will be open for breakfast, coffee and lunch – from 8.00am to 5.00pm. But the plan is that in two or three weeks’ time it will it stay open into the evening offering a more extensive menu. There’s also a private dining room downstairs. You’ll find it at 115 Ewell Road, Surbiton KT6 6AL, Tel: 020 8399 8336.

Masaniello Twickenham is one of my favourite restaurants: fantastic food at reasonable prices, consistent quality, with great and wonderfully friendly service. I wish them success in Surbiton and I hope the people of Surbiton soon discover what fantastic Italian food has come to town.

Masaniello, Surbiton Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato