Posts Tagged ‘Angel’

TenShi in Islington

I’ve lived in Angel Islington for close to five years now, and I love this ‘hood.  The many food-shopping options and shopping options, generally, make me happy.  As does running along the Regent’s Canal and being able to walk to work.

What holds Islington back from Best Neighborhood Ever status, I think, is its high percentage of mediocre restaurants.  So whenever I hear about a new place in the ‘hood with good reviews, I show up with high hopes, and honestly, I’m usually disappointed.  The latest example of this cycle of disappointment:  TenShi sushi, which opened earlier this year and has gotten recommended a number of times by TimeOut for being good value.

prawn tempura roll

I didn’t order anything very unusual, and yet it was all sub-par.  The prawns in my prawn tempura roll were flavourless, and instead of including crunchy cucumber slices with just the right dab of sweet mayo and wasabi, the rolls were flavored only with soy sauce. In fact, everything at TenShi that I tried tasted of soy sauce:  agedashi tofu, udon noodle soup.

yaki soba

Yaki soba, again, tasted mostly of soy sauce with a dollop of grease mixed in.   Whoever worked the kitchen that night was a lover of soy sauce, for sure, and I kept thinking of that scene in the Joy Luck Club where the clueless dinner guest destroys his food by dousing it in soy sauce.

Service was attentive and fast, and the prices were low (four mains and two shared starters totaled £60).  But if I’m craving sushi and want to stay in the ‘hood, I’ll  stick with Sa Sa Sushi (which is closed on Sunday evenings – hence why I was at TenShi on a Sunday evening).  So without further ado . . . .
Tenshi on Urbanspoon

Sa Sa Sushi

I’ve meant to do a blog post about Sa Sa Sushi for ages.  It’s one of those places where I eat very often and take for granted, and I feel very protective towards the kind and welcoming people who work there, so I suppose a part of me didn’t want to subject them to potentially-unfriendly scrutiny.  But you know, after eating the fish here at least three times a month for a couple of years, I owe them a shout out, no?

assorted nigiri and rolls at Sa Sa Sushi

Jon and I don’t vary our orders much here.  It’s our prerogative to avoid exploring the menu when it’s just a quick bite out in the neighborhood.   Which is all to say, I vouch for the rolls and the nigiri and have no opinion either way on Sa Sa Sushi’s other dishes.   Prawn tempura roll, of course, is one of my favorites, as are the crunchy-and-spicy [insert any fish here] rolls.  I like, for example, that when you order a spicy tuna roll, you don’t end up with a mayonnaise-chili-mash of last-week’s tuna.  Instead, the roll includes a hefty piece of identifiably-fresh tuna that is delicately spiced with chili.

udon noodle soup at Sa Sa Sushi

Jon’s an udon noodle lover, so he gets this a lot.  I’ve had a taste of his a few times, and it’s good, but when I show up at Sa Sa, I’m there for the fish.

Service at Sa Sa can be slow, but most times the slow-ness is due to the care with which the sushi chefs are making each roll and piece of nigiri (I’ve watched them while sitting at the sushi counter up front).

The restaurant’s decor is bright and inoffensive, if a bit charmless, and prices are reasonable (£4-6 a roll), so the tab usually comes to £20 a person if you’re sticking only with the sushi options (which you should).

I’m not claiming the place is a destination restaurant, but I confidently assert that Sa Sa is one of the best places to eat in Islington and miles better than what I’ve tried at TenShi.

Sa Sa Sushi, 422 St. John Street, EC1V 4NJ, 020 7837 1155; closest tube station:  Angel (exit the station and make a left, away from Upper Street and towards City Road).
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The Compass Pub, Islington

The Compass Pub, Islington

Despite the good number of tasty gastropubs in Islington, it’s still nice when a new one opens in the ‘hood. The Compass has been open about three months, and for a place that doesn’t want to be known as a gastropub (they insist they’re a pub that happens to serve food – whaaat?), the place is packed with dining tables.

Jon and I have eaten at the Compass twice now. Once on a Friday night, and another time for Sunday roast. On a busy Friday night, despite having booked a table for 9 pm, Jon and I stood around near a till for several minutes trying to figure out who to speak to. When someone finally made eye contact, we were shown to a table that already had someone sitting there. Uh, no thanks.

So we had a drink at the bar (the beers on tap are varied – I was especially happy to see a hefeweizen) and waited for a table to open up. I wasn’t in a rush to go anywhere, but really, what was the point of making a booking?

roast foie gras starter at the Compass

roast foie gras starter at the Compass

Seated with our menus, I could see that the Compass is trying to be much more than a pub. For example, they offered a roast foie gras starter for £8. Not a slice of terrine, but a whole slab of foie. At that price, I had to try it, and you know, it was really good. The accompanying roast peach and fig were sweet and smoky complements to the salty. rich meatiness of the foie gras. I should’ve stopped eating right there because it was a meal in itself.

mussels steamed in cider and chilis

mussels steamed in cider and chilis

Jon’s chili-cider mussels arrived in a small portion and tasted much less interesting than the description on the menu suggested. The mussels were plump, but I didn’t taste any chili kick in these, and there didn’t seem to be much difference in cooking the mussels in cider versus a white wine. Still, they were good steamed mussels.

Speaking of wine, the Compass offers at least a dozen wines by the glass or by the 500 mL carafe. I like places that do that.

roast partridge with mushroom cream sauce

roast partridge with mushroom cream sauce

My main course of roast partridge was also straightforward and comforting, with tender meat and crispy skin. But the accompanying mushroom cream sauce had congealed over a bit, so the visual put me off eating it. What little I tried tasted intensely of mushrooms, but I couldn’t get past the gloppy appearance.

Compass roast rib eye

Sunday roast rib eye

On Sundays, the Compass offers a more limited menu. Last weekend, the choices were a roast rib eye, a risotto, and a pan-fried skate. I was glad my roast arrived looking pinkish-red, and the meat was tender and juicy. The horseradish sauce was much welcomed, and the steamed veg and Yorkshire puddings were tasty and attractive sides served separately to keep them crunchy, I guess. The Yorkshire pudding could’ve tasted more of pan drippings, but I suppose I do like my YPs on the oily side.

The pumpkin risotto was also a (surprise) winner, with the rice perfectly al dente but creamy and the pumpkin adding just the right amount of sweetness.

Yorkshire pudding and veg at Sunday roast

Yorkshire pudding and veg at Sunday roast

Overall, the Compass is a nice addition to the neighborhood. The decor and service aren’t stand-outs, but the food – while simple – is well cooked. With drinks and service, both our meals cost about £30 per person.

The Compass, 58 Penton Street, N1 9 PZ (towards the end of Chapel Market away from the M&S and Waitrose); 020 7837 3891; closest tube station: Angel

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Waitrose at Angel station, Islington

Waitrose at Angel station, Islington

Some of you know that I live in Islington, near Angel. There are many reasons I love my ‘hood, but with the opening of the new Waitrose at Angel station last Thursday, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explain why Angel is a dream for grocery shopping.

I mean, Waitrose is nice to have (though what’s up with the congested cash register situation and the closing at 9 pm?), but it’s far from the only game in town around these parts. For example, we already have a trusty M&S and an enormous Sainsbury’s bookending the Waitrose. Then there are two Tescos (one at Islington Green, and the other at Highbury & Islington station), a Budgens and a Sainsbury Local in the “middle” bit of Upper Street, and that’s just the big-chain supermarkets.

For 10kg bags of jasmine, basmati or sushi rice, as well as rice sticks, fish sauce, soy sauce, sesame oil and other Asian pantry basics, there’s the small, tidy and unfailingly-friendly Thai-An just behind the Sainsbury’s.

I get my ripe-and-ready-to-eat avocados, enormous bags of nuts, and cheap, huge bunches of herbs at the Chapel Market (which looks seedy and lowbrow at the Liverpool Road end, but gets more interesting, food-wise, the further back you go).

The otherwise charmless N1 Centre hosts outdoor French and Italian food markets every other weekend, which can be handy if you’re craving a crepe or cannoli, though of course the goods there are no match for the fresh pastas and classic Italian biscuits at Monte’s Italian Deli off Upper Street on Canonbury Road.

Jon and I happily queue up on Saturdays at the Steve Hatt Fishmonger, where the prices are high, but the quality is unbelievable. I’ve even thought about learning to be a sushi chef so I can really appreciate the beautiful freshness of their inventory. As the weather gets warmer, we can’t think of anything more mouthwatering than throwing a few of Steve Hatt’s king prawns on the grill.

Special-occasion, special-order meat comes from either E. Wood on Liverpool Road, or James Elliot, next door to Steve Hatt (handy).

For super-high-quality butters, eggs, well-chosen charcuterie, cheeses and olive oil you can buy in bulk (just bring your own container), we hop over to the Barnsbury Grocer on Liverpool Road.

And last but not least, Jon and I live for the Islington Farmer’s Market. While nothing will ever replace the variety, color and excitement of Borough Market, Jon and I are always pleased by what we find at our local market on Sundays behind Islington Town Hall. We always hit the goat cheese guy (the garlicky one is the best, imho) and the Perry Court Farm guys all the way in the back (they’re generally the cheapest of the bunch). We pick up our eggs from the meat guys across the way from the egg-specialist lady (bc the meat guys sell their eggs for only £1.50 per half-dozen and the egg lady charges £2 . . . we seem to be the only ones who’ve noticed?), and we love the buffalo-milk cheese guy who sets up near Kingcup Farms. When we’re feeling really flush, we buy fruit from the ubiquitous Chegworth Valley people and pork goodies from Downland Produce peeps.

So, Waitrose, welcome to the neighborhood. But you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Now, here’s the gauntlet throwdown: if you think your nabe can compete with Angel Islington for food-shopping greatness, drop a comment below explaining why.

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potato pizza at the Regent

potato pizza at the Regent

Since the Regent opened a year ago, I’ve been a fan. During the day, it’s a bright, airy place to park yourself with a paper or laptop, and at night, it’s a warm, friendly place to have a drink and eat good pizza.

As we all do with neighborhood places, I have my habits (ruts?) now when it comes to ordering. I always get the vegetable pizza or the spinach pizza – the latter because it’s super garlicky and has an egg in the middle, which adds yolky creaminess to mellow the garlic. Genius.

The other night, I was with friends who ordered the potato pizza, which I’ve seen on menus in Rome but have never gotten around to trying. So I tried it. And now I’m going to add the potato pizza to my Regent rotation. It’s not the bland carbo bomb I expected. In fact, the cheese has the strong salty tang of gorgonzola, and the sweet creaminess of the potatoes mellows out the gorgonzola. Balance in all things.

The pizzas can take a while to show up at your table (because there’s only one wood-burning oven), but the Regent is a relaxed place, best enjoyed when you’re not in a rush. The pizza’s no New York slice, but it’s still pretty tasty. And it’s hard to find a better dinner for £7, which is what most pizzas there cost.

The Regent, 201 Liverpool Road, N1 1LX, 0207 700 2725; closest tube stations: Angel and Highbury & Islington

Regent on Urbanspoon

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Vigata Ristorante in Islington

Vigata Ristorante in Islington

Except for when I schlep down to Olivo and its sibling Oliveto in Belgravia, I’ve been disappointed when I eat at Italian restaurants in London. Compared to New York, London doesn’t have a huge number of Italian restos, so when I want to go Italian, I feel like I have few choices between a chain like Carluccio’s or a high-end place like Locanda Locatelli. During our (almost) three years In London, Jon and I have missed having a reasonably-priced, local neighborhood Italian resto to take the pressure off a weeknight when we’re too tired to cook.

Imagine our excitement when we saw that the always-empty Shahnaz Tandoor was finally shutting down and that an Italian resto, Vigata, would be opening in its place.

Vigata opened for business on 17 July. Jon and I have already eaten there twice. The menu prices have changed about a dozen times already. It’s fair to say that Vigata is still working out the kinks, but here’s what I think is promising about Vigata: (more…)

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The Sampler Wine Merchant, Islington

The Sampler Wine Shop at 266 Upper Street is a place that’s both romantic and practical. Romantic because it’s owned by partners who decided to turn their passion – wine buying and wine tasting – into their livelihood, and practical because as a customer, you can taste up to 80 bottles of wines before you commit to buying a bottle (or twelve).

“Wine Icons” at the Sampler Wine Merchant in Islington

Think about the last time you walked into a wine shop and had the chance to try so many bottles at once. Or the last time a wine shop opened a $600 bottle for tasting? These things happen, like, never, because wine shops can’t afford it. Or can they? (more…)

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The Regent Pub, Liverpool Road, Angel, Islington

On the corner of Liverpool Road and Richmond Avenue, businesses have come and gone. In the past 12 months, the space has changed from forgettable pub to art gallery and now back to pub, the Regent.

Jon and I have been eyeing the latest renovations for weeks, especially after we saw a wood-burning oven installed. Where there’s such an oven, there’s bound to be pizza!As many good pubs as there are already in our neighborhood (The Draper’s Arms, Albion, Barnsbury Pub, Islington Tap), none of them serve pizza. At least, none of them serve good pizza.

This past weekend, the Regent had a “soft” opening and started serving pizzas and beer in a clean, modern, warm space. There’s Peroni on tap, a fireplace area with big, cushiony sofas, a free jukebox loaded with Johnny Cash and Guns ‘n’ Roses songs, and friendly, helpful folks behind the bar.

Veg Pizza at the Regent Pub

Most importantly, the pizzas Jon and I tried on Sunday are pretty good. The crust on my pizza was thin, crispy and just the slightest bit smoky. Toppings on the vegetarian pizza and the porchetta pizza were generous and flavorful, and the pizzas were served from oven to table, so they were hot and fresh.

Even though my preference is for a little more sauce on my pizza, Jon says I’m on crack and that the pizzas were perfect. So there you go.

The Regent, 201 Liverpool Road, N1 1LX, 0207 700 2725; closest tube stations:  Angel and Highbury & Islington

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Paul A. Young Chocolates Caramel Chocolate Spread

Somehow I managed to live in Islington for several months before I realized that hidden away just off of busy, somewhat chain-fied Upper Street is Camden Passage, a series of pretty, pedestrianized walkways lined with small (read: non-chain), charming shops.

Paul A. Young Fine Chocolates is one of these shops.

London being a great world city, there’s no shortage of high-end, artisanal chocolateries in town. There’s L’Artisan du Chocolat, purveyors of chocolates to restos as revered as the Fat Duck and located just east of uber-posh Sloane Square. (Though it feels disloyal to my ‘hood to say so, the jasmine tea chocolates and the chocolate-covered almonds at L’Artisan are pretty damn delish).

Maison du Chocolat has a London outpost near Green Park, and the Chocolate Society promotes its fresh and varied goodies in Belgravia.

But in the end, there’s no place like [the] home [neighborhood], and I like that when I walk into Paul Young, the service is friendly, casual, but knowledgeable. Paul Young himself (he of the flaming red hair) is often working in the shop, and the chocolate flavors offered, just like good restaurant menus, always change. Admittedly, some of the flavors, like marmite-and-Ingredient du Jour, are so “creative” as to not appeal to me and my relatively boring chocolate tastes.

Paul A. Young Truffles

Last weekend, I brought our visiting-from-NY-and-DC friends, Laura and Julie, to Paul Young, and while Laura picked out two boxes of chocolates (they’re so fresh and delicate that the shop insists you eat them within five days of purchase – a challenge we can all rise to, no?), Jon and I pigged out on free samples of brownies so rich that you begin to think you’d gladly pay the £2.75 for one, except then you consider the size of those things and you wonder how one person could possibly finish something that dense and intense?

Paul Young Brownies

So we kept things “light” and opted instead for the ice cream covered in hot chocolate. One scoop of chocolate brownie-and-pecan ice cream, and another of rose petal-masala ice cream. Both flavors tasty on their own, but even more fun when the molten chocolate poured on top immediately turned into a rich, bittersweet shell as it hit the ice cream. Like a high-end Magic Shell.

Definitely make Paul Young a destination if you even sort of like chocolate. And if you don’t want to take my word for it, then read the New York Times article about it.

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Mucho Mas Burritos, Islington

Last night, Jon and I were on our way to grab some Turkish food on Upper Street, the main street in our neighborhood. Just the usual weeknight laziness about cooking.

We stopped dead in our tracks when we spotted Mucho Mas. A burrito/taco joint. In our ‘hood. Holy cow.

It seems at least two other bloggers have already posted about this place (amazing because the owner of Mucho Mas told us he’d just opened last Friday), so I’ll keep it quick with following comments:

1. If you miss Chipotle, you’ll love Mucho Mas. While there’s no Niman This and Niman That going on here, the shredded beef and the shredded pork (carnitas) burritos at Mucho Mas were fresh-tasting and delicious. I was surprised to give shredded beef the slight edge over the carnitas, given my undying love of carnitas, but the beef had stronger seasoning yesterday.  Carnitas was a little undersalted and not as spicy as I would have liked.

2. The guac at Mucho Mas deserves special mention. I don’t know why it’s so hard for restaurants to serve good guac, but the extra dollop at Mucho Mas is well worth 75p. It’s salty, creamy and limey-tangy.

3. Last night, the owner assembled the burritos himself, and we couldn’t imagine a more gracious, friendly bit of service.

The burritos are priced at £5.15-5.95, which means you get a meal in a wrap for about half what a takeaway lunch costs at Itsu. I’ll be eating there mucho mas in the future.

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Thai An Grocery Islington

I was beginning to worry that my blog was moving away from all things food and travel and towards sports, what with Ascot and Wimbledon and then the part of my weekend spent watching the Tour de France time trials in Hyde Park.

Oh, and did I mention that Tom outdid himself by getting his hands on two tickets to the Women’s Final and Federer’s semi-final match on Saturday?

Despite all this sports fabulousness, what I really want to share is Jon and my discovery of the Thai-An Grocery off Chapel Market in Islington.

What’s so noteworthy about the Thai-An Grocery? I thought you’d never ask!

Normally, Jon and I buy 10kg (22.2 lbs) bags of jasmine rice in Chinatown. What this means is that whenever we want to re-stock up on rice, Jon slings this heavy, large bag of rice on his back and schlepps it through the hordes of tourists in Leicester Square, onto the tube, and then to our place in Islington.

With the discovery of Thai-An, a clean and organized Asian food store here in our neighborhood, Jon and I can now walk a few minutes to Chapel Market to pick up all the Asian basics in a pinch: fresh tofu, Thai eggplants, bean sprouts, sushi nori, frozen xiao long bao, and varieties of soy sauce in sizes much larger than the piddly condiment size stocked at our Sainsbury’s. And as Jon will tell you, the best part about Thai-An is that now when he has to lug 10kg of rice around, he doesn’t have to contend with crowds and a tube ride.

Chapel Market, by the way, is a daily outdoor market near Angel tube station that makes up for its extreme unattractiveness by selling useful goodies like rolls of garbage bags for a pound. Because the vendors sell such random, prosaic items, it’s never going to be a tourist attraction. And that’s the way I like it.

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The Albion gastropub, Thornhill Road, London N1

Just a few weeks ago, in early April, the Albion gastropub reopened after an extensive renovation. The Daily Candy, whose restaurant alerts I normally ignore, associated chef Richard Turner’s creds with Tapas Brindisa, a restaurant I like very much. Throw in the Albion’s location around the corner from my flat (journey time door-to-door: 5 minutes’ walk) and of course I checked it out.

Five out of the seven times I’ve eaten at the Albion since it reopened, I was in heaven. The service was a little unorganized (e.g., every time I called to book a table, I was told the restaurant was full, but then I’d show up as a walk-in and end up being seated almost immediately), but always friendly. So despite service slowness, the pros far outweighed the cons: The pub dining room and bar are cozy and welcoming; the large outdoor garden is a perfect place for large groups of friends to meet and hang out; and the prices are reasonable (10-15 GBP per main course and most bottles of wine for under 30 GBP). Best of all, though the food was simple, it was made with care.

Potted Duck at the Albion gastropub, Islington, N1

Among my favorites is the potted duck appetizer (photo above). I joked with my photographer friend Julie Kubal (who took all the photos in this post) that there’s no way to make potted duck a visually-appealing dish, but Julie proved me wrong.

Potted duck, in case you were wondering, is duck cooked in a lot of its own fat – confit’ed – until it’s soft enough to be a spread. I love schmearing the potted duck onto a crispy, hot slice of toasted baguette. In moving to the UK, I may have irretrievably lost bagels and cream cheese, but I won potted duck. It’s not a bad trade.

Gloucester Old Spot (pork belly) at the Albion gastropub, Islington, London N1

For my main course, I’m a big fan of the spring vegetable pot pie and the Gloucester Old Spot (photo above), which is a poetic-sounding way of saying I like to eat pork belly. Lately, though (as in: the last two times I was there), the slab of Gloucester Old Spot that arrives on my plate has been hard-as-a-rock on top and mushy on the bottom. It used to come lightly browned and crisped on top and juicy and meaty on the bottom. So are things sliding down hill, or have I just hit two bad nights by accident?Albion fries chips, Islington, London N1

And worst of all is the downhill trend in the quality of the small details like the chips. Just a month ago, the triple-fried chips were excellent – golden and ultra crunchy. To the extent the world is divided into crust lovers and middle lovers, I fall into the former category, so the crispier the better.

Alas, on my last two visits, the chips were soggy – definitely not triple fried or even double fried – and mealy in a way that I thought only frozen pre-bagged chips could be.Service during my last two visits, while never particularly good at the beginning, was also on a slide.

On one Saturday evening, the server brought out a wrong dish and kept insisting that it was our fault the dish was incorrect. It was an unpleasant conversation and the gist appeared to be that because the server had already brought out the dish, we should just accept it and eat it.

On another recent occasion, our table of six waited a half hour for a server to take our order, despite its being a quiet (empty) Wednesday evening.

Overall, I’ll give the Albion another try or two to see if things shape up, but I don’t understand how a place could start out so well and be already headed downhill.
Albion on Urbanspoon

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Draper’s Arms Gastropub, Islington

It’s been a pretty uneventful week, which is why my posts have focused on neighborhood restaurants.Today was notable only for the high winds blowing in London. My coworkers (and later on, Jon and my friend Jane) were reciting to me the mounting death toll “because of the wind,” and both Jon and Jane had their trains to other UK cities canceled this evening because of the high winds.  We’re not talking about a tornado, but apparently the wind today was strong enough to wiggle skyscrapers and shut down the inbound Docklands Light Railway (DLR), my commuter rail of choice.

So for dinner tonight, we stayed close by in the neighborhood, dropping by yet another cozy, tasty little gastropub: the Drapers Arms (that’s “the Drapers” to those of you in the ‘hood).  In case you’ve missed earlier posts (how could you?!?), gastropubs are traditional pubs that have installed kitchens and therefore serve “real” meals.

In London, gastropubs are the closest you come to mid-range dining. They vary widely in sophistication of food, but the Drapers is definitely on the more ambitious end of the eating spectrum.

I love both the pub’s exterior (which has a very “English” look – see above photo) and the simple, warm “colonial” interior. Dining room fireplaces are glowing, the light is amber-hued, and the customers are locals (so yeah, a lot of locals are from other countries, but whatever) — it’s the British answer to the French bistro.

The Drapers serves a tempting fish and chips – lightly battered, moist and flaky fish paired with some crispy-on-the-outside, smushy-on-the-inside chips/fries. At £13.50, it’s pricey for a f&c, but it’s high quality and always comforting. This is the route Jon took this evening, while Jane and I got a little more wild and crazy by ordering a roast pollack and a duck confit, respectively.

I enjoyed my salty duck confit, but Jane’s pollack could have used a little more flavoring or sauce.

Desserts (fruit crumbles, chocolate cake, etc.) are simple and warm, just like the room.

Overall, while the food is above average, the real draw to the Drapers is the atmosphere and decor. A true neighborhood place.  Main courses are mostly under £15, so it’s a popular place to go for a relaxed dinner with friends. Tonight, it was also the perfect escape from the winter wind and rain.

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Le Sacre Coeur Bistro, Islington

On Friday night, Jon and I browsed one of our favorite cookbooks, Thomas Keller’s Bouchon, for inspiration. We love the prose, explanations, and recipes, but what really sucks us in and gets the tummy rumbling are the gorgeous photos of bistro food.

Not feeling up to cooking a Thomas Keller meal that night (but which we cooked later in the weekend, on Sunday – the mussels mariniere recipe with the kick of mustard and saffron is genius), even if it was from Keller’s “simple” bistro cookbook, we walked around the corner to Theberton Street and tried Le Sacre Coeur bistro.

Honestly, why did it take us so long to try it out? Perhaps complacency born of knowing it’s just around the corner? We’ve lived in this neighborhood for a year and a half now; several French colleagues of Jon’s have highly recommended it; and by London standards, it’s modestly priced (i.e., main courses for £11-18).So we dropped by at around 8:30 hoping for a walk in. C’est un bistro, after all. But despite claims to casualness, the place was packed, so we accepted a reservation for 9:45. We walked home and got a head start on our meal with some wine and cheese, and then walked back to claim our table sometime around 10 pm.The restaurant was still packed. A good sign considering the hour (this isn’t Spain, you know).The dining room is small, dark and cosy. The tables close together. Bistro decor – check.We were squished into a corner table near the kitchen, which was not ideal, but hey, we were there for a quick, local dinner, not to celebrate anything. To my right was a young Asian couple. The man spoke English with a British accent, and his companion spoke in British-accented English to him, and in flawless French to the servers (who all spoke French, bien sur, and were friendly). This is one of the things that I love about London – that people can have occasion to speak other languages in public places without seeming pretentious. Nobody seems anxious to assimilate here, which has its pros and cons for society, I think, but as a perma-tourist of sorts, I enjoy listening to all these different languages.
Jon started with French onion soup, which looked covered in too-thick a layer of cheese, but which Jon said was pretty good once you peeled off the cheese layer. His beef stew special was savory but a little tough, which is sad given how relatively easy a dish it is to make (i.e., just cook it for a long time!). But I think the buttery mashed potatoes saved that main course in Jon’s eyes.My smoked duck salad was as salty and meaty as I’d hoped, but the dressing was too oily.I’d say the main reason we’d check out the place again is because my main course was exactly what we were looking for: hearty and flavorful. I had ordered a wild boar stew, which was probably braised in the same sauce Jon’s beef was cooked in – some red wine, shallots, carrots, bacon. Unlike Jon’s beef, however, my wild boar was fork tender and juicy. If I could have traded my new potatoes for Jon’s mashed ones, we would be talking the perfect winter bistro dish. Eaten with a strong Cotes du Rhone, my main course was the perfect antidote to a cold winter night.Overall, at £50 for the two of us, I’d give the place another try, but I’m not in a rush.
Le Sacre Coeur on Urbanspoon

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I organized an outing on Thursday night at the Charles Lamb Pub (16 Elia St, N1 8DE, 020 7837 5040), which just happens to be in my neighborhood (here’s to the prerogative of the planner).

I love that I live in a city where someone connected Elia and Charles Lamb. In case you’re a little hazy on your British essayists, Charles Lamb wrote “The Essays of Elia” in the early 19th century. His pen name, Elia, is a recurring clue/solution in the New York Times crossword (bc there are lots of vowels in a row?), and perhaps most interesting to everyone (to me, anyway) is that his sister stabbed his mother through the heart with a table knife. So sayeth the wikipedia.

So, back to the food, the pub is tiny, and you seat yourself. I arrived first asked a group of three men to switch from a table for six to a nearby table for four so that I could take over the six-table with my friends Brian, Jane, Bill, Bill’s cousin Kate, and Bill’s friend Raghav. (All of us American, except for Raghav, who’s from Delhi). The guys who moved tables were super nice about it, so cheers to them. I had every intention of ordering them a round when our orders were taken, because in the UK, nothing says “thank you” quite like free beer. But of course my group cheerfully chatted and waited at our table for about an hour before we noticed on a chalkboard the message: “order at the bar.” Oops. And by then the guys had eaten and left the pub.

It shows you (1) how easy-going the pub is to let a big group sit at a table for an hour without ordering anything; and (2) how accustomed we are to slow service here that waiting an hour for someone to take our order was OK.

The pub seemed to have just one server, so we figured the server was really overwhelmed and we didn’t want to be pushy Americans. Of course, it turns out the pub has only one server because, well, you’re supposed to order at the bar.

My chicken pot pie was pretty disappointing. It had a hot, flaky crust, but the pie filling tasted like oversalted chicken soup. How hard is it to make a nice, thick pot pie filling? Just spend two minutes spent adding some butter, milk and flour, right? The pub’s fish pies tasted better, I thought, with their pillowy mashed potato tops, and Jane’s duck confit was probably the best of all the dishes ordered (not dried out, but with most of the fat rendered and the meat salty and tender).

Who would have thought you should come to a pub and skip the pies but order the duck?

Of course, the beer selection was good, as was the price – our total was £17 a person. Throw in the cozy atmosphere – the pub had about five tables and a roaring fireplace in the dining room – the warm, soft lighting, and a buzz of locals in and out by the bar, and you have a welcoming place to meet friends. It’s worth another visit, and next time, I’ll steer clear of of my pre-conceptions of what a small pub cooks best.
Charles Lamb on Urbanspoon

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Isarn Restaurant interior, Islington

This past weekend, I met a few of Cathy and Bobby’s banker-couple friends for brunch on Saturday. We went to a very attractive and fun French-y place called Aubaine on Brompton Road. I see its appeal, but the food was pricey for what it was, though not bad. I guess you’re paying mostly for the ability to hoard your table for hours on end (as we did for almost three hours). Side dishes were the strong point — buttery, crunchy haricots verts and a creamy potatoes dauphinois were good.

Saturday night, I met my friend Sinead for dinner in my neighborhood. We dropped by Isarn on Upper Street, which I hadn’t been to in a while – not because I didn’t like the food, but more because the last time I went, I thought it, too, was kind of overpriced. And because the restuarant is owned by Alan Yau’s sister, I keep thinking it’s just a vanity project that became reality only because the brother is a big restauranteur in London.Green chicken curry, Isarn restaurantStill, it’s a pretty restaurant (see photo of the interior at top) and it’s nearby.

This time around, I enjoyed my meal there. We ordered some mixed appetizer deal for £12, and the chicken satay was juicy and flavorful, which is always a good sign considering chicken satay is normally a throwaway item on the menu.

My green curry was the right mix of spicy, creamy and sweet (the last time I had it, it was not so well balanced) and our bottle of rose went well with our meal. So yes, I’d go back – dinner for two was £70.   [Note: I have been back several times since this post and I do still enjoy eating there. The service is friendly and efficient, which is another plus I’ve come to appreciate over time.]

We dropped by Keston Lodge and the Islington Tap and then called it a night. What’s slightly entertaining (or sad, depending on how you look at it) is that the next day, Sunday, I met other friends for Sunday roast at the Keston Lodge and then of course we spent the rest of the afternoon lounging at the Islington Tap, chatting and occasionally watching the footie on the flat screens. Very relaxing.  

A “proper Sunday roast,” by the way, means you get a huge hunk of meat, some form of potato, Yorkshire pudding and maybe some braised vegetable – all covered in a brown sauce/gravy. And the one at Keston Lodge was very good. I ordered lamb, which was tender and of course flavorful when smothered in the gravy. And the potatoes were crispy and hot. The Yorkshire pudding (which is sort of like a popover or brioche – very eggy and airy in the middle) was kind of deflated by the time my dish arrived, but it was fine once you covered it in (of course) gravy!

The big downside is that it took the Keston Lodge servers about an hour and a half to serve us. Ahhh, Sunday in London.Islington Tap

And I’ve come to really like the Islington Tap. It’s just so comfy and warm (and just down the block). I used to be annoyed that it feels as if no coffee places in London are open past 6 p.m., but it turns out that if you just want to hang out with friends or read a book or newspaper, you go to your local pub. And that’s what the Tap is perfect for. I like knowing I have a “local” where the bartender and manager recognize me and say hi. [You can hear the Cheers theme song now, I know.]

The place is nothing special, but I like claiming it as mine and always finding a seat there.

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