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Bea's of Bloomsbury at One New Change near St. Paul's Cathedral

Last weekend, my lovely friends and family in London threw me a baby shower.  Baby showers aren’t big here, but from the name, you’ve probably guessed that the occasion revolves around “showering” the mom-to-be with gifts.  Essentially, this means the shower was tons of fun for me and required tons of goodwill and patience on the part of friends and family who attended.

My friends couldn’t have chosen a better venue for the shower:  afternoon tea at the newish Bea’s of Bloomsbury location at One New Change.  Unlike neighboring restaurant, Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa, which is large and loud and mediocre, Bea’s is quiet, relaxing and maintains the same high standards that you’ll find at the original Bea’s of Bloomsbury location.

meringues, 'mallows, brownies, blondies, scones . . . oh my!

The decor at Bea’s at New Change is sleek and chic, and what I most appreciated was how everything tasted as good as it looked.  The cheeky serving tiers at our tea held buttery, crumbly scones, rich brownies and chewy meringues.  I wasn’t a huge fan of the blondies, which tasted unpleasantly under-baked, but happily that was the only clunker at our tea.

cupcakes and savouries

Most cupcakes in London bakeries rely on frosting to cover up the fact that the underlying cake is dried out.  Happily, this isn’t the case at Bea’s, whose cupcakes were moist and came in interesting, delicious flavors like passion fruit and Bailey’s.  Savoury baguette sandwiches were also fresh and delicious.  We shared platters piled high with vegetarian and meat-lover’s sandwiches and washed it all down with individual pots of Jing tea.

the end of the affair (fantabulous wellies and flowers courtesy of friends)

It was a great afternoon tea, and when you compare the generous spread at Bea’s with that of London hotels charging 2-3 times the price, you’ll see why I was so impressed with Bea’s version.  Considering how tourist-friendly Bea’s location is, they could probably get away with serving mediocre food, but I’m glad they don’t.

Afternoon tea at Bea’s is £15 per person and £22.50 with a glass of Moet.

Bea’s of Bloomsbury One New Change, 83 Watling Street (aka the side of the One New Change mall that’s closest to the Thames/Millennium Bridge), EC4M 9BX; 0207 242 8330; closest Tube station:  St. Paul’s
Bea's of Bloomsbury on Urbanspoon

Zucca restaurant

Zucca opened on Bermondsey Street back in March 2010, and I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve unsuccessfully tried once every month or two to get a table there.  If you think Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner is a hot ticket these days, Zucca is still going strong 14 months later. Last week, I finally gave up on snagging a weekend table and took a Tuesday evening spot.

So what’s Zucca’s appeal?  Oh, I don’t know.  Chic decor; good service; simple, fresh Italian cooking and low prices?  A dime a dozen in London, right?  Sure.

zucca fritti (£3.95)

There were plenty of tempting-sounding starters on the menu.  Jon and I ordered three to share, and while all of them were good, if I had to prioritize, I’d put the zucca fritti (fried pumpkin) at the bottom of the list.  Sure, they’re a house specialty, but diminishing returns kicked in after just one or two of these.  Perhaps better to order them if you’re with a bigger group.

grilled asparagus, egg, parmesan (£4.75)

Grilled asparagus, egg and parmesan was as described on the tin.  Each component was fresh and well-prepared (the egg and asparagus, that is), but the flavors never came together.  Maybe it needed a sauce?

mozzarella lentils garlic shoots (£4.25)

Loved the creamy fresh mozzarella complemented by the earthy, meaty lentils.  The garlic shoots lacked bite, but I’m biased towards scare-away-your-date strong garlic flavors, I must confess.  The mozzarella and lentils could have easily taken on stronger garlic taste, though.

casarecce with bolognese (£7)

Highlights of our dinner were definitely the pastas and the main we shared.  Rustic casarecce pasta retained a chewy al dente texture, and the pork ragu was stunningly good with a great balance of acidity, sweetness, salt and meatiness.

taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs (£7)

The taglierini with fresh ricotta and spring herbs was lifted from ordinariness by a slight citrus flavor.  If I had to complain, I’d ask that the kitchen go a little lighter on the olive oil next time.

grilled veal chop (£14.75)

And the veal chop is as good as everyone says it is.  Tender, juicy, charred.  Unbelievably good value for £14.75.  I contrast Zucca’s version with the similarly-excellent one I ate at Paris’s L’Agrume a couple of months ago, which cost 32 euros.

affogato (£4.25)

I couldn’t resist ending dinner with affogato, which was a generous serving but how sad that there were bits of ice/freezer burn in the scoops of vanilla.

The room is large and comfortable, and while the furniture isn’t quite as luxurious as that of L’Anima, the all-white contemporary look of the two restaurants is similar.  And Zucca is about 1/3 the price of L’Anima.  With a couple of glasses of prosecco and wine, our total for two came to £65.

If you can afford to be choosy about tables (i.e., you’re not like me and just incredibly grateful to have finally landed a reservation), avoid the one or two right in front of the kitchen pass.  The servers hover there waiting to ferry dishes to customers, and you’ll end up feeling like there are four pairs of eyes watching your every move (which I assume you agree is a minus, but if you consider it a plus, then by all means request it).

Zucca, 184 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 31Q; 0207 378 6809; closest Tube station:  London Bridge (it’s still a 15-minute walk from the Tube station, though).
Zucca on Urbanspoon

Over the last three weeks, I’ve been eating out at a lot of cheap Asian places, and while none of them have been so stellar that I felt like blogging about them, there have been a couple of stand-out dishes worth mentioning.  So with the caveat that the following restaurants don’t constitute destinations on the basis of all their menu offerings, if you happen to be craving a good example of a particular dish, they are worth a visit.

pad thai with prawns (£6.95)

First up:    Charuwan Thai in Tufnell Park/Archway, which benefits from a rave review in TimeOut.  It’s hard to find good Thai food in London.  I’m not sure why.  Usually, I end up at Busaba Eathai or Rosa’s, which aren’t perfect, but are cheap, serve a spicy-sweet green curry and are conveniently located near my home and office.

Charuwan Thai is a bit of a schlepp to reach, but it’s a nice-looking place with super friendly and attentive service.  While the two curries we ordered (a green curry and chu chee pla — crispy fried fish topped with red curry in coconut milk) were overly-sweet and not very spicy, Jon and I really enjoyed Charuwan Thai’s pad thai.  The rice sticks had great texture (not oily or clumpy the way it too often is served in restaurants), and the sweet, sour and salty flavors of the sauce were perfectly balanced.  Prices were cheap with most mains costing less than £9.

Charuwan Thai, 110 Junction Road, N19 5LB; 0207 263 1410; cloest tube stations:  Archway or Tufnell Park (Northern Line)
Charuwan on Urbanspoon

Assa is one of the several Korean restaurants lined up around Centre Point.  The atmosphere is cheap and cheerful.  Highlights were the starters (banchan), particularly the pickled radish and sesame spinach (skip the flavorless bean sprouts).  Although Assa’s beef dolsot bibimbap was bland and the pajeon was greasy, limp and filled with flavorless seafood, the kimchi hotpot was excellent.  Spicy, filling and warming the way great hot pots should be.  (Koba, by the way, remains my fave place in London to eat crispy pajeon).

Assa, 53 St Giles High Street, WC2H 8LH ; 020 7240 8256; closest tube station:  Tottenham Court Road
Assa on Urbanspoon

Peking Duck at Zen China (£26 for a half and £42 for a whole)

Zen China, near the London Eye and Aquarium, is the last place I’d try out, except that once again blogger Mr. Noodles shared a valuable tip that the restaurant serves excellent Peking Duck.  The restaurant is spacious and comfortable and has great views of Big Ben.  Fellow diners were a mix of camera-toting tourists and groups of Chinese.  And in case there was any doubt Mr. Noodles would lead you astray:  the Peking Duck really is outstanding.  Crispy skin, succulent meat, freshly-made pancakes and carefully-julienned cukes and scallions.  Each element is excellent and together make a sum greater than the whole.  The duck is served tableside, so when you order it, don’t let the waiter disappear with 1/3 of the duck left on the bone.  Our waiter claimed he’d be using the rest of the duck to create another dish for us, but the additional dish was a meagre portion of diced duck meat in lettuce wraps.  Bland and skimpy.  The Peking duck was the priciest item on the menu, but worth every penny.

Zen China, County Hall, Riverside Building, Westminster Bridge Road, SE1 7PB, 0207 261 1196; closest tube station:  Westminster
Zen China on Urbanspoon

Garlic chili fish

Last but not least, there’s Golden Day Hunan restaurant in Chinatown.  Jay Rayner gave it a glowing review in this April 2010 review and in the same month, TimeOut’s Guy Dimond also had flattering things to say.  Our group of four ordered several of the dishes highly recommend in both reviews, like the dry pot chicken, and we were underwhelmed by its lack of spice and flavor.  What was wonderful, though, was one of the chef’s specials, a garlic-and-chili fish.  The fish’s flesh was tender and silken, and the garlic-and-chili topping was the sort of thing you’d gladly eat with plain white rice.

Golden Day, 118-120 Shaftesbury Avenue, W1D 5EP; 0207 484 2381; closest tube station:  Leicester Square

Ba Shan restaurant interior

Like many readers of food blogs, I’m ruled by my stomach.  Like many Americans, I miss the American-Chinese classic known as “the General.”  Put the two characteristics together, and it makes sense why, when Mr. Noodles announced the appearance of General Tso’s chicken at Ba Shan (the former Szechuan restaurant now revamped as a Hunan place), I high-tailed it to Ba Shan immediately.  It hardly mattered that the last time I was at Ba Shan, it was just another inconsistent Szechuan restaurant.

pickled spicy cucumbers (£4.90)

The hard part was deciding what else to order besides the General.  This being a Hunan place, we figured it’d be wise to try the pickled goodies, and Ba Shan’s spicy cucumbers were highly addictive.  Crisp, refreshing, and with a chili kick alleviated by soy sauce and sesame oil.  We felt virtuous eating vegetables prior to the arrival of the General.

General Tsos chicken (£7.90)

Like most highly-anticipated things in life, Ba Shan’s General didn’t quite meet expectations.  For starters, the chicken pieces are too small, and the sauce wasn’t intensely sweet and salty enough.  This being a Hunan-inspired dish, I was expecting more chili spice.  And there really shouldn’t be any stir-fried vegetables in there (at most, you usually see big chunks of broccoli on the side).

Click here to see how the General is supposed to look and taste.

Still, even if the dish wasn’t quite General Tso’s chicken, it was tasty.  I mean, battered-and-fried chicken pieces dumped in a lightly-sweetened soy-based sauce.  Hard not to like it.

Pengs fried tofu (6.90)

And for the tofu lovers out there, Ba Shan’s version of Peng’s fried tofu was excellent.  Large, meaty slices of tofu slathered in chilis and sauce.  Perfect over plain white rice.

Overall, Ba Shan has improved a lot by becoming a Hunan restaurant, so I’ll be back to try some of the other dishes.

Alas, the search for the General continues . . . .

Ba Shan, 24 Romilly Street, W1D 5AH; 0207 287 3266; closest Tube stations:  Leicester Square or Piccadilly Circus.
Ba Shan on Urbanspoon

Cowley Manor

A couple of Thursdays ago, wanting to take advantage of the recent sunny and warm weather, Jon and I called up Cowley Manor in the Cotswolds to see if they had any last-minute specials for the weekend.

The good news is that they had a few “Better” rooms available.  The bad news was that these rooms weren’t offered on discount and still cost £385 a night.  (What happened to the general hotel practice of lowering prices to fill an empty room?)   Instead, Cowley agreed to waive its two-night minimum stay requirement, so we could arrive on a Saturday morning and make full use of facilities both that day and Sunday.

a "better" room at Cowley Manor

When Jon and I visited Cowley Manor last August, we’d tried out the “Good” rooms (the cheapest ones available) for £250 a night.  I was pretty happy with the room we had, which was in the Main House and had views of the beautiful back gardens.

The “Better room,” while more expensive, wasn’t as appealing as the “Good” room, I thought.  For the additional money, a Better room got you a suite spread over three floors, including your own sitting area.

I’m not sure who values having their own little sitting area, but it wasn’t me.  I’d much prefer to take advantage of the large, stylish “common area” sitting rooms in the Main House.  The other reason I wasn’t keen on our Better room is its location in the converted stable blocks, which by definition lack the Main House’s heaps of character.  So if you’re deciding between the “inexpensive” Good rooms and the pricier “Better” rooms, I say take a Good room and spend your savings on an extra spa treatment.

caesar salad

chicken sandwich and chips

On our last visit to Cowley Manor’s restaurant, we thought the menu offerings were fussy and not well executed, so this time we kept most of our meals simple.  Sandwiches, chips, salads were all  simple, freshly made, and good value at less than £6-7 an item.

Breakfast was lovely, partly because whoever supplies Cowley Manor with its croissants is a master.

We would’ve skipped dinner in the restaurant, but because it was included in the price of our room, we didn’t motivate to leave Cowley for a meal elsewhere.  The food was just as fussy and unimpressive as we remembered from last August, with the low point being dessert.  I asked the waiter if the “cinnamon donuts” were freshly fried, and he replied that they were and highly recommended them.  I also asked if the accompanying “apple crumble sorbet” could be replaced with just plain vanilla ice cream, and again, he swore the apple crumble sorbet was not to be missed.

Sadly, our waiter was 100% wrong on both fronts.  The donuts were hard as a hockey puck.  totally bizarre, and honestly, a 50p bag of Tesco donuts would’ve been superior to what I was served.  The apple crumble sorbet was watery and gritty.  Just awful.

gardens at Cowley Manor

fountains at Cowley Manor

But food isn’t Cowley’s strong point.  The grounds and spa are.  Taking advantage of the lovely weather, we did lots of walking around the gardens, which have both manicured bits and wilder bits.

wellies on loan

Key for getting through the wilder, muddy bits:  wellies.  Lots of wellies in every size are made available for guests.  Definitely a great, practical novelty for us Londoners.

outdoor (heated) pool at Cowley Manor spa

indoor pool at Cowley Manor spa

And of course, the Cowley Manor crown jewel:  the spa is as peaceful and pampering as ever.  Treatments are long and relaxing, and all the staff super accommodating and attentive.

If you’re looking for a lovely country getaway, it’d be hard to surpass Cowley Manor.  Ideally you drive there so you can sample food in nearby Cheltenham, though, and while you’re at it, save yourself the train and taxi fare, which add up.

Cowley Manor, Cowley, Gloucestershire, GL53 9NL; (0)1242 870 900; reachable via First Great Western train from Paddington Station to Kemble Station (1.5 hours or less depending on whether you have to switch in Swindon) and about £40 per roundtrip ticket. Then a 30-minute taxi ride costing £35 each way.

lobster and hand-rolled linguine at Murano

You’d think that after my recent disappointment with dinner at Locanda Locatelli that I’d swear off high-end Italian restaurants for a while, but it was my friend L’s birthday, and a celebration was in order. We figured we were due for a revisit to Murano, Angela Hartnett’s flagship restaurant in Mayfair, so off we went.

Despite my having only good memories of both a lunch and dinner at Murano, I haven’t been back in over a year.  The place still feels cozy and plush, and happily, while you’re scanning the menu, Murano still serves fresh-from-the-fryer, truffle-perfumed arancini, great breads and silky charcuterie.  It’s nice when the good things haven’t changed.

In the past, I hadn’t noticed a contrast between the tasting menu offerings and those of the a la carte.  This time around, though, the tasting menu read a lot more Italian with its appealing-sounding scapece, bresaola and vitello/veal courses.  Unfortunately, having arrived for a late seating and having already filled up on snacks at the nearby and excellent Connaught Bar, our group chose the a la carte.  Three courses for £65; four courses for £75.

My starter of lobster linguine (pictured at top) was the highlight of dinner, with generous chunks of juicy, sweet lobster served with gorgeously al dente linguine.  There was chili and garlic kick, smoothed out by the sweet tomato sauce.  This beat Locanda Locatelli’s version by a mile.

sweetbreads with cauliflower puree and smoked maple dressing

A friend’s sweetbreads ticked the silky-meaty box, though the piece I tried didn’t taste much of the smoked maple dressing, which I’d been curious about.  L’s carnaroli leek risotto with braised oxtail had great balance between meat and creamy starch until the last overly-sweet notes of vinegar kicked in.

Middlewhite pork belly, braised cheek and chervil root puree

Not to get too possessive, but “my” pork belly was also outstanding, though lacking in identifiably Italian characteristics.  The braised cheek added texture and meatiness to the lusciously fatty pork belly (with skin crisped to perfection).  If I had to choose only one adjective to describe the best parts of our meal, it’d be silky.  So yes, the pork belly was silky silky silky.

monkfish Meuniere, lardons, squid ink, fregola

Jon’s monkfish Meuniere was the only real clunker I remember from the evening.  The ingredients sounded brilliant on the menu, but nothing really blended in actuality.  A crispy lardon here, a perfectly-battered piece of fish there . . . .

pistachio souffle

Pistachio soufflé, served hot and airy.  Picture perfect and tough not to love, though it was a tad too sugary for me.  The warm bittersweet chocolate helped balance out the sugar, though.

Overall, while we had a few misses this time on the a la carte, Murano remains my fave of the high-end Italian restaurants in London, though admittedly it is the most Frenchified of the Italian restaurants.  (The cheese cart is a wonder).  If you stick with the tasting menu, the place will feel more Italian, though.

Murano’s service was attentive and friendly as ever, though entertainingly a couple of servers must not have noticed I was preggars because they kept pushing the wine (“Oh come on, it’s Friday night! You should have another glass!”).  I guess the spacious table miraculously hid away my enormous self and the servers don’t communicate this sort of thing with each other, but I could have done with less pressure as I was already feeling a little guilty about two large glasses I’d enjoyed.

Murano, 20 Queen Street, W1J 5PP; 0207 495 1127; closest Tube station:  Green Park.

Murano on Urbanspoon

view of St. Paul's cathedral from our table at Barbecoa

When Barbecoa opened last fall, Jamie Oliver’s name got thrown around a lot.  For me, though, the draw was his partner, Adam Perry Lang, whose BBQ shows and cookbook many of my barbecue-loving friends in the US swear by.

Early blog reports were not good.  Neither Cheese and Biscuits nor Food Stories enjoyed their meal there, but because their reviews were written so early and left me with the impression that they’d hated their steaks, I thought perhaps over time things might improve on the barbecue front.  After all, when I go out for barbecue, I’m not looking for a steak.  In fact, I’d be surprised if a barbecue place in the US even offered steak on the menu.  So query why reviews like this one in TimeOut seemed to suggest a good barbecue place should be serving lots of steak?  (“For a barbecue restaurant, the choice of beef steaks is very limited . . . .”)

Jon and I turned up on a Friday night.  It was my first trip to the shiny New Change shopping mall (where Barbecoa sits).  In that sense, it definitely felt like America.

Barbecoa is a huge space with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking St. Paul’s Cathedral.  But I’m sad to say that like many places with fantastic views, Barbecoa should work a little harder at its food.

crispy calamari, smashed avocado, lemon and mustard greens (£10)

When Jon and I looked over the menu, we were disappointed to see relatively few barbecue dishes.  I can now see why people have been ordering steaks and burgers — the menu offerings are really heavy on those.  That’s fine for a steak place, but this is supposed to be a barbecue place!  Why are baby back ribs served only as an appetizer?  Why, for that matter, is only one style of ribs served?  And where’s the fried chicken?  Buttermilk biscuits?  Now, I’m not claiming Blue Smoke in New York is the paragon of barbecue places, but this is more what I was expecting from Barbecoa.

Jon and I tried to zero in on the more “American” looking dishes, like the crab cakes.  Alas, our server informed us that no crab cakes were offered that evening and tried to push us towards a crab salad instead.  When we ended up ordering the fried calamari, the waiter asked us why we didn’t want the crab salad, which I thought was a funny thing for him to do.  He was surprised to hear that crab cakes, in our opinion, are a special American treat – hard to find in London.  Crab salad, on the other hand, not so special.

It was probably for the best that we ended up with fried calamari given the non-existence of jumbo lump crab meat in London.  And the calamari, while a relatively small portion for £10, were good.  Greaseless and not rubbery.  The smashed avocado was pretty useless, though.

baby back ribs with an apple cole slaw (£9)

Baby back ribs as a starter had its high and low points.  It was pretty weird.  A few of the ribs were very good, with the right amount of spice and tang and a falling-off-the-bone texture.  Other ribs, though, were a bit dry and tough.  From one point of view, it’s remarkable that ribs right next to each other could taste so differently.  But it didn’t make for a pleasant dining experience.

pulled pork shoulder with jalapeno corn bread (£16)

Finding nothing else among the mains that looked “barbecuey,” both Jon and i ordered the pulled pork shoulder.  I’d hoped the cornbread would be served in a way where you could make a pulled pork sandwich (which is *the* way to eat pulled pork, imho).  But no.  The cornbread was just damp and oily, so nothing much has changed on that front since Food Stories and Cheese & Biscuits ate at Barbecoa.

Jon and I ordered the “bread board and butter” for £4 in order to make our own sandwiches topped with the cole slaw that accompanied our pulled pork.  That improved things somewhat, though the bread board, as you’ll see below, isn’t ideal for making sandwiches:

bread board and butter (£4)

With just two glasses of wine, our total came to £86 for the two of us.

Service was polite and extraordinarily fast (Barbecoa’s slick-looking ordering systems waste no time in ensuring your food gets to the table asap, and the tables turn at dizzying speed), but based on our experience, the staff don’t seem particularly enthused or knowledgeable about barbecue.

So go for the views of St. Paul.  Bring your out-of-town friends and drop by for drinks.  But don’t go for the barbecue.  *Sigh*

Barbecoa, 20 New Change Passage, EC4M 9AG; 0203 005 8555.


Fifteen on Urbanspoon

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