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Terroirs, Charing Cross, London


Awful name, Terroirs. It's that niggling, wriggling little plural, the silent S gilding an already ponced-up lily. The word's yet to enter anything like ordinary English, of course, and remains a fairly prissy piece of jargon - a loanword adopted cautiously, as you might a young offender. Try to Anglicise it, though, say it in an English accent, and you sound like Lloyd Grossman. Tear-warr. Scientific research - I will not disclose my methods - leads me to conclude that only 13.6 per cent of the British public has the slightest clue what it means. As a name for a restaurant, then, Terroirs is about as democratic as Chad. And for the few who do know it, it’s a daft bit of underselling by the wine merchant owners, a misbranding on the scale of Woolworth’s ‘Lolita’ range of kiddie furniture. Because ‘terroir’, reeking as it does of swill and spittoon, of noble rot and pigeage entre-deux-mers, implicitly suggests that food here plays second fiddle to plonk. Which it doesn’t.

The restaurant opened six months ago but has been shamefully underreviewed, no doubt in part due to this barmy ‘wine bar’ marketing. It doesn’t even have a proper website, just (like Jesus) a ‘Coming Soon’ message. As the first photo shows, the exterior is understated to the point of concealment; and despite being a Molotov cocktail’s throw from Trafalgar Square, it’s pretty hard to find. You can imagine tourists shuffling past, staled and stupefied by the National Gallery: rattled parents tugging slack-jawed ten-year-olds, seeing the name and assuming it sells dogs.

I went with London Eater and the editor of Metrotwin, a crafty website that links Big Smoke with Big Apple. It was a magnificent lunch. The wine list, which naturally deserves attention, places emphasis on small growers and biodynamic producers, and has a groaning rack of organic bottles. The menu is self-consciously arresting, rustically artful, utterly du moment. Small, tapas-style plates are very vogueish right now, with Bocca di Lupo doing a similar thing. It’s a concept that caters for the picky, the sociable, the pinched and the stingy alike. Here, depending on wallet and appetite, you nibble or scoff. There are bar snacks priced at a couple of quid, several small dishes at £4 to £9, or half a dozen main courses, each under £15. There’s also a good selection of charcuterie and some cheeses, the latter £3.50 apiece. In short, it’s a place that comfortably allows for a drink and a nibble, a medium snack, or a substantial meal. You can guess which one we plumped for.

In fact, we order so much it’s almost embarrassing. From the bar snacks, cervelle de canut, 'silk worker's brain', a base of fromage blanc muddled by vinegar, is a delight: refreshing and milky, drizzled with what I’m pretty sure is walnut oil, and dressed with tiny rings of chive. Another taster, though, is a let-down. Duck scratchings, which sounded promising, are crisped boils, bitty explosions of cold grease. Amongst the smaller plates, steak tartare is available with or without heat: we order it spicy, and though it lacks an appreciable kick, it’s fresh, eggy and sharp, budded with a capery tang and excellent on hot toast. A pricey (£9) bunch of new season asparagus is perfectly cooked – so many places underdo it nowadays – with a vibrant splodge of hollandaise.

Bone marrow with truffle (oil, naturally) is the best dish of all: jellied discs of tissue wobbling like the busts on can-can dancers, dotted on a thickly foresty duxelle. Clams steamed in vermouth are plump and juicy, in a delicate, wormwoody sauce with grassy currents of parsley and a garlicky dollop of aioli. A pot-roast quail with braised artichokes is mellowed yellow, the bird of an infant tenderness, in a sauce salty with pancetta and with that curious sweet-and-sour note of the thistle. Puddings too, of course: a clever crèpe made with a caramel of salted butter, double-taking the tongue; and the best panna cotta I’ve ever had, quivering like a dumped lover’s bottom lip, its vanilla richness sliced by blood oranges steeped in Campari.

London badly needed a place like this, dextrously serving honest, compelling food in a sociable and unpretentious setting. The concept, for want of a better word, is as up-to-date as the Speaking Clock. The young chef is Ed Wilson, who trained with the Galvin brothers and who somehow produces everything from an open-plan kitchen slightly larger than a hankie, with just a couple of electric griddles and not even any gas. Pricing is ludicrously low for a restaurant of this calibre. The current lunch deal is a tartiflette, a green salad and a glass of ingenious white for ten measly pounds. I’m going back next week.

Now, any suggestions for a new name?

Terroirs, 5 William IV Street, London WC2

Tel. +44 (0)20 7036 0660

See on the TFYS Map

Indefensibly large lunch for three, including drinks and service, costs £138

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

Chicken with Oranges and Olives [Recipe]

The combination might sound a tiny bit odd, but this is a deliciously clean and nourishing midweek supper. The contrast of sweet oranges and bitter olives has a warmth and freshness which are simply beguiling. The dish has Nigel Slater written all over it, and is in fact lifted from Real Fast Food, the book that launched that writer's career. Like so many of the recipes in that brilliant volume, this one can be made up almost entirely from a good storecupboard. The only minor change I made this time was to cook the parsley stalks in the sauce. I suggest a few further alternatives I've had success with at the end of the recipe.

Serves 2


2 chicken legs
50g butter
2 tbsps olive oil
8 destoned black olives (Slater suggests 12, but I think 8 is plenty)
250ml chicken stock
2 small oranges or 1 large one, the juicier the better
Small bunch flat-leaf parsley, leaves and stalks separated, both finely chopped
Fresh thyme leaves

In a heavy pan or casserole, heat the oil and half the butter. Brown the seasoned chicken legs on both sides. Let them take on as much as colour as possible - they'll bring the dish its deepest flavour. While the chicken's cooking, segment and peel the oranges, reserving all the juice you can. When the chickens are nicely browned, pour in the stock. (I pour out most of the fat just before, although Slater doesn't call for it.) Add the olives, oranges, thyme and parsley stalks, and simmer on a low heat for 15-20 minutes.

When the chicken's done, remove it from the pan and keep it warm. Turn up the heat and bubble the sauce fiercely to reduce by half. Whisk in the rest of the butter and correct the seasoning. Serve the chicken with the sauce poured over it, garnished with the rest of the parsley.

I've served this with noodles and also with lemony bulghur wheat before, but a mixture of wild and basmati rice favours the dish particularly well. In the past, I've added fresh spinach to the sauce towards the end of the reducing, which is a clean, green addition. Chestnut mushrooms, chopped and fried with the chicken, work well. As you might expect, given a certain once-trendy combo, this is equally good with duck.


Hereford Road, Notting Hill, London

Hereford Road

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love rediscovered, born-again, new-fangled British food as much as the next man. I respect the compromise of old and new, the feel for memory and season, the roots in history and soil. I like mutton, jugged hare and Sussex pond pudding. I think an honorific for Fergus Henderson is long overdue. (Though to name St. John the 14th best restaurant in the world, 29 places above the Louis XV, is frankly barking.)

But here’s the rub. There’s a reason British food became an international joke – one that plenty of countries still find funny. At its Victorian worst, our food was as bland as clingfilm, as tame as Lassie. And at least one modern restaurant, serving resurgent English grub to metropolitan foodies, is crippled by a comparable timidity. Hereford Road is less a development of St. John than a faint, approximate copy of it. Tom Pemberton is the head chef, a former protégé of Henderson and, funnily enough, once a schoolmate of Giles Coren. The site is an old butcher’s shop (St. John, of course, was once a smokehouse) on a street twisted with Notting Hill affluenza. The room is as welcoming as a headmaster’s study. Like St. John, fabric is deemed a Neronian extravagance, so it’s all bare floors, unlinened tables, empty walls. I do wonder at the point of all this austerity. What’s wrong with a bit of cloth?

‘Tap or mineral water?’

What a nice question! Tap of course, and it comes in a pretty decanter. The menu, which changes daily, lists ingredients rather than dishes. ‘Rabbit, mustard, spinach and mash.’ ‘Roast Blackface lamb, courgettes and mint.’ ‘Apple and elderflower trifle.’ We all know that British food (especially savoury) is often little more than a shopping list of seasonal ingredients, simply prepared. Tonight, although asparagus and wild garlic nod towards spring, most of the food is still in chilly hibernation. Who wants to eat roast Jerusalem artichokes with the daffodils blooming? Or, for that matter, kale, the wintriest veg of all? ‘Seasonal’ means this season, not any old season, and a daily menu is a luxury that should emphasise this.

20 minutes pass, an aeon at a foodless table. A fennel and wild garlic soup tingles with aniseed. It’s flecked with green strips of wild garlic leaves, but not, oddly, with their flavour. This is essentially a cream of fennel soup, with a dim chivey whiff. I rarely add salt to a dish, but I do here, and plenty of pepper. Crab on toast is better – a rich smear of brown, flushed with lemon, on crumby toast. The meat has a decent pastiness, but again, needs lifting with salt. It’s strange: the ingredients are obviously excellent, but something is missing.

Hours seem to pass before the main courses show up. Little is as fraught and anxiously depressing, as thumb-twiddlingly, wine-sippingly painful, as a long wait for restaurant food. C is excellent company, but we’ve come here to eat, and the excitement and pleasure of the evening begin to ebb like a dying Catherine wheel. When the food finally appears, and I’ve shaved off my white beard, it’s a mixed bag. Onglet is an insole, with cold and mealy chips. Calf’s liver is milky and perfectly cooked, budding with lentils and those wintry flaps of kale. Ox cheeks are the dish of the evening, collapsing like they’ve run a marathon, richly sauced in flavoursome, slow-cooked murk. There’s proud and fluffy mash too, unlike the puddle popularised by Joël Robuchon. It’s an excellent dish, exactly the sort of thing you hope for in a restaurant like this. Sad, then, that it should be the only plate to stand out.

I finish with a rhubarb meringe, apparently assembled by a dyspraxic three year-old. I know that Hereford Road is about unadorned food, none-of-your-poncy-frou-frou-stuff-here-matey, but well, you know... look at it. It tastes a bit better: the fruit is zingily tart, which compensates for the overcooked meringue. And hang on… oh God. I reach to my lips and pull out a short, black, curly hair. The waitress apologises and politely sweeps away the plate, bringing another helping in its place. She knew I’d still want it.

We emerge rather dispirited. The menu at Hereford Road promises like a sugar daddy but delivers like the postal service of Zimbabwe. It sources terrific produce only to treat it with a kind of baffling indifference. Food is consistently underseasoned, and I find the studied inelegance of the presentation distracting, rather than comforting or homely. These aren’t teething problems, either: the restaurant’s been open since October 2007. Pricing is fair and service is friendly. The ethos, you see, is faultless: I just can’t say that for the execution.

3 Hereford Road, London W2
Tel. +44 (0)20 7727 1144

See on the TFYS Map

Dinner for two, excluding drinks and service, costs £53.


Hereford Road on Urbanspoon


Sambrook's Brewery and The Westbridge, Battersea

Sambrook’s Brewery and The Westbridge, Battersea

Sambrook’s began brewing last August, in a desolate strip of Battersea. It’s a joint venture between David Welsh, who has 30 years’ experience in the trade, and Duncan Sambrook, twentysomething accountant-turned-brewer. Like many ideas – and people, come to that – it was spawned from a booze-up. But less commonly, this drunken brainwave has proved a success.

I find it a happy thing that the atavistic resurgence of English cooking, for which St. John takes a lot of credit, should be spreading to beer as well. In the age of WKD, wifebeater and the Wetherspoons beer ‘n’ burger, some people have gone back to basics, and are doing things properly. Sambrook’s is one of the very few breweries operating in what might charitably be described as central London; its closest neighbour, and soi-disant competitor, is Fuller’s in Chiswick.

Beer is easy stuff to eulogise. John Bull doesn’t get misty-eyed over anything quite like the English pint. It’s wedded to something deep within us: our climate, our temperament, our history. Real ale, as it has to be called nowadays, is as stout as a bulldog, as smooth as the Cotswolds, as full of life as an August afternoon amang the rigs o’ barley. Malt, hops, yeast: three humble organics bubbled to tawny greatness, the whole far greater than the sum. Almost as soon as our ancestors arrived on this rainy island, they started brewing. And from monks hunched over pewter, raking malsters, East End pickers and a nation constantly testing, testing, tasting – we produced something outstanding, unique, and incontrovertibly British. Best of all, it gets you pissed.

They brew just one ale here, called Wandle, in cask and bottle. Anyone from Wandsworth will tell you that the village lies on the river Wandle – so the brewery has a sense of its geography. I was invited by Dan, who works at Bibendum – a fine blogger with a gift for wine writing. Also present were his colleague, Gareth, as well as The Wine Sleuth, who’s provided excellent audio-visuals of the evening, and Charlie McVeigh, a convivial and witty restaurateur, and a blogging natural. Afterwards, Charlie treated us to a fantastic dinner and beer tasting at his pub round the corner, The Westbridge.

Duncan was hugely informative on the arcane craft of brewing – kettle and mash tun, liquor and gypsum. The brewery uses fresh hops, unlike the pellets more typical nowadays: three strains, with the gloriously English names of Fuggles, Goldings and Boadicea. It’s the last of these that gives Wandle its distinctive, proud astringency, and like the old battleaxe herself, it takes no prisoners. Fresh hops, with their weedy green aroma, are a lot more work, and in the past, Duncan has had to clamber into the tanks to fish out buckets of sodden strobiles. It’s too much to say that his labour seasons the beer, but it’s testament to his commitment for the project.

And so to tasting. Wandle is a deep amber, catching the light in bubble and foam. On the nose, it has hints of strawberry and almond. The taste is a glorious interchange of sweet and mellow bitterness, soothing and summery. It lingers with a dryish and not unpleasant finish, delicately nutty. In all – and I say this as far as I can with critical detachment – it’s a delicious pint.

The Westbridge is simply a gem of a gastropub, serving simple but well-executed food in a setting of undistilled nostalgia. The stairway down to the loos is decorated in vintage He-Man wallpaper, the sight of which gave me a Proustian jolt back to my childhood, the tinny theme and evocative nomenclature of that brilliant series: Grayskull, Orko, Eternia. Nick Drake plucks and twangs on the stereo. We ate meaty Irish rock oysters, splashing with osmazome, and then a good fish and chips with crispy, auburn batter and pearly flakes of pollock. A lamb steak looked excellent; and when I peeked at the prices, they were very reasonable. In total, we tasted six beers by the third-pint (which, it turns out, is a valid legal measure), providing a thorough overview of the well-chosen selection. The best was a porterhouse stout made with crushed oyster shells - a pleasantly encompassing complement to the bivalves. And so home we contentedly rolled.

Writing about evenings like this, in which you eat and drink for free, it’s perhaps harder to show that you approached the experience in as balanced a fashion as normal. There are two things I’d say to this. The first is the obvious point that in a restaurant, good service can enhance your enjoyment of the food. So, in reality, I write about these places just as I would anywhere that treated me well, or which I felt had gone the extra mile. The second is more complex. Dishing out freebies can be counterproductive for restaurateurs. As customers, we all want to avoid seeming like we’ve been hoodwinked, or sensing we were gulled into being nice. As a result, when writing about the perks they’ve been given, bloggers can be harsher than normal, accentuating faults they might otherwise have let pass, so as to display their uncorruptibility. That, I hope, isn’t the case here. Duncan and Charlie have objectively excellent products, which they’re keen to share and profit from. I certainly don’t blame them for it - in fact, I salute them.

Sambrook’s Brewery, Unit 1 & 2 Yelverton Road, London SW11
Tel. +44 (0)20 7228 0598

See on the TFYS Map

The Westbridge, 74-76 Battersea Bridge Road, London SW11
Tel. +44 (0)20 7228 6482

See on the TFYS Map


Westbridge on Urbanspoon


Franco Manca, Brixton, London

Franco Manca


My only job in catering, if you can call it that, was during the school holidays in Edinburgh, at a deliveries-only Pizza Hut. I took the orders over the phone, folded the boxes, foil-bagged the Ben & Jerry’s and the Irn-Bru. I sliced at the ‘cut table’ with a huge mezzaluna, and I slid the pizzas into cardboard. I made them, too – or at least, I assembled them. This was a curious operation. We removed thin, frozen pizza slabs from plastic wrapping. We splashed a pre-set quantity of fat into the deep dishes, dropped the cold discs in, and sprayed them heavily with chemicals from a mysterious and unidentified canister. Overnight, they defrosted, and swelled like boils into the pans, their dough as wet and pale as drowned corpse. Then we smeared them with tomato and cheese, and scattered them with toppings: rabbit-droppings of beef and pork (distinguished by different shades of brown), dry, raw chunks of green pepper, uniform slivers of salami, and stinking slugs of anchovy. ‘We eat the mistakes,’ the manager told me on my first day. He meant it as an incentive. I took it as a threat.

Franco Manca is nothing like Pizza Hut. It’s nothing like Pizza Express or Strada, either – those serviceable, clean and still very modern chains, each as blandly uncontroversial as an episode of Friends. Franco Manca is loud, brash and uncomfortable. It serves the worst white wine I’ve ever drunk, a lukewarm blend of bat piss and great-aunt's sherry. The salad, which has a little chopped fennel, is actively boring. The much-trumpeted home-made lemonade is rather sickly, to my taste, although it’s cheap at a quid a bottle. The menu is as brief as a pair of Y-fronts.

But it makes the best pizza in the country.

It’s buried in Brixton Market, between plastic and plantains. An old Nigerian man wanders around outside yelling passages from the bible. As you queue – and you will queue – they take your order, and as soon as you sit down, the pizzas arrive. The wood-fired oven roars at 500 degrees, and the dough needs just 40 seconds to form a glorious speckled char, like leopardskin, for the cheese to bubble across the surface, for the tomato to roast until only its sweet, sunny essence, its deep red colour, are left.

I went with Kang, who runs one of the best-looking food blogs of all, London Eater. He recently hosted a competition on his site, which I won, and I suggested we put the prize towards lunch. Next on my list of places was Franco Manca, so that’s where we went. I told him where it was, adding: ‘You know, Kang, you’ll have to answer to the puns of Brixton.’

And I spent all week looking forward to it. Pizza is all about promise. It’s a treat biked to the door, in grease-doused cardboard, piping cheesy steam from corrugated port-holes. For kids, it means a fun day out – Saturday lunch in a bright room, dough balls and an American Hot. And even more, written in the history of pizza, almost in its soul, is a bigger and more powerful promise: the hope and expectation of a better life. The pizza we eat today is an actively, greedily mercantile mating of Old World and New. The ur-pizzas, proto-pizzas, those combinations of flour, leaven and salt, eaten across the northern coast of the Med - they were taken west (arguably to Lombardi’s in Manhattan, where I've eaten fine specimens), and commercialised, franchised and supersized, crust-stuffed, deep-dished, ham-and-pineappled, topped with caviar and smoked salmon, or hoi sin and shredded duck. Pizza is now the most globalised food of all. In it is everything you need to know about the motives and movement of people around Europe, America, and everywhere else. Kim Jong-Il loves it, for God's sake.

For anyone of my generation, we can measure out our lives in the pizzas we’ve eaten. When I was ten years old, the universe offered no bigger treat than a Meat Feast on a Saturday night. When my parents divorced, and it was six years before we ate together again as a cracked, estranged family, that first meal was in Pizza Express. In the Oxford branch, in the oldest covered market in England, I ate more pizzas than I care to remember – always wine-fuelled and roaring, and never for much more than 20 quid. There, too, one Thursday, I got a stay of execution for a doomed relationship. And since I began working in London, the Strada at St Paul’s has probably fed me more lunches than anywhere else. Franco Manca makes better pizza than all of these places. It's a new benchmark. From now on, when I want pizza, and I'm able to go, I will. (It follows market hours, and only opens for lunch Monday to Saturday.)

The thing is, I could tell you about the 20 hours they leave the sourdough to rise. Or how the dough was started in the 1730s. I could talk about the surgical attention to sourcing – meat from Brindisa, coffee from Monmouth, olives from Spain because the owner, Giuseppe Mascoli, thinks they're better than Italian ones. I could mention the cheesemaker he flew to England to teach Somerset buffalo farmers how to make the milkiest, silkiest mozzarella. I could add that the oven is the only one of its kind in the country, and was shipped here from Naples. But it's all extraneous. Go there, and eat, and you won't care. It's too bloody good.

Franco Manca, 4 Market Row, Electric Lane, Brixton, London, SW9
Tel. +44 (0)20 7738 3021

See on the TFYS Map

Lunch for two, including drinks and service, costs £20. That's all.

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon


Trojka, Primrose Hill, London


Among the staunchest foodie values is a solemn respect for so-called ‘peasant food’ – the rustic one-pot stuff which, we romantically imagine, raisin-faced nonnas and the cast of the Olivio ads eat among rustling vines and tumbling plains, lunching on lycopene and snoozing in hammocks all afternoon. ‘Oh, it’s just a typical French peasant dish,’ simpers Georgina as she sets down her Le Creuset, lifting the lid on a daube of Lidgate’s beef and rare-variety carrots from the weekly Abel & Cole. In good times, it’s true that life as a Tuscan or Provençal farm-hand was rich in fish, flesh and fowl. The same, though, couldn’t be said for the Russian serf, scraping existence from taiga and steppe. The food of the poor is always with us – so now we find even this ‘peasant food’ in one of London’s smartest areas.

I’ve eaten a range of food in Russia. In a school dining room in the foothills of the Urals, I was served ashen gristle swimming in the stuff that birds regurgitate into the mouths of their young. On train journeys lasting days, I munched on pickled herring with soured cream and wispy fronds of dill; and in the kitsch fakery of Moscow’s Café Pushkin, I guzzled spoonfuls of Beluga with the sickly local ‘champagne’. (Jay Rayner writes about this singularly bogus place with hilarious precision in The Man Who Ate the World.) I’ve eaten far better in Poland, as it happens – swollen knuckles of steaming pork, kotlete and those squidgy dumplings, pierogi, and my favourite, the sweet-salt soup żurek, made with fermented rye bread and utterly delicious. It’s all good, sunless grub, filling and honest, and I welcome its appearance here.

Trojka – pronounced troika – serves unapologetic and rarely bastardised dishes from Poland and Russia: herring with beetroot and potatoes, bigos (‘hunter’s stew’), ‘gypsy latke’ (a kind of goulash) and shashlik kebabs. If the prophets of doom are right, and we shall all soon be sitting down to boiled turnip by candlelight, food here might make a good introduction. Primrose Hill, one of the prettiest streets in London, offers the best ground-level view of the thrumming city – the rearing battalion of Canary Wharf, the nobbled greys and reds of the West End, the great arc of Wembley, the frozen twist of the Gherkin. Sweet B, the mother of an old friend, won dinner here in a raffle. The room is coloured in gold-leaf and lung: there’s a kind of depressed luxuriance to the spartan tables, the uncarpeted floor, the harried air of the waitresses. We’re told to sit in a murky corner of the room, within earshot of the swearing kitchen. After a Siberian winter, the food appears.

Herring fillet has a silvery sheen – fishy and firm, marrying well with bloodied beetroot and some dependable potatoes, although the ‘tartare sauce’ turns out to be nothing more than soured cream. Borschtch, that violet classic, is a refreshing consommé with a good dairy dollop. Blinis are soft and bready, with a sour nuttiness from their buckwheat, topped by more herring and an uninspiring salad of dry cucumber slices and raw, shredded carrot. Then coulibiak – a pie of salmon, mushrooms, spinach and rice. It’s a gloomy dish, the pastry sagging towards sogginess, and I suspect this isn’t the first incarnation of the salmon. The accompanying tomato sauce is thin and insipid. A hunter’s stew is something of a raid on the freezer: smoked sausage, chicken and beef, but its dark brown sauce is silkily good with sauerkraut, a good spoon of mash bringing the ingredients to harmony. For pudding, a pancake is rich and sugary, stuffed with tangy cream cheese, but spurted with horrible aerosoled cream.

It’s a credit to the owners of Trojka that, in the age of Baltic and Wódka, and with rockstars and supermodels only round the corner, they’ve remained seemingly unmotivated by greed. The borschtch is £2.50 a bowl, and is probably the cheapest starter I’ve ever reviewed. Caviar aside, the most expensive dish is a sirloin steak at £9.50 – a steal when the kitchen is this competent. Though there’s some evidence of scrimping on ingredients, and the service is rather patchy, overall it’s difficult to find too much to complain about when most of the food was very tasty. I’d happily go back the next time I’m in the area, and you can’t say much more than that, can you?

Trojka, 101 Regents Park Road, Primrose Hill, London NW1
Tel. +44 (0)20 7483 3765

Dinner for four, excluding drinks and service, costs about £50


Trojka on Urbanspoon