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Posts Tagged ‘London Bridge’

interior of Hiba Lebanese restaurant

For reasons not worth going into here, last week, I ate Lebanese food three nights in a row.  Yalla Yalla on Thursday.  Hiba on both Friday and Saturday.  Both places enjoy positive TimeOut reviews, with Yalla Yalla enjoying some extra buzz after the recent opening of its Oxford Circus branch.

Still, I left Yalla Yalla thinking it was a nice option to have when shopping on Oxford Street, but otherwise, I wasn’t super impressed.  The service was a bit pushy (my friend and I ordered seven mezze to share and the server still asked us “are you *just* having mezze?  no main courses?”), and the food, while attractively presented, ranged from not-good (e.g., squeaky, over-salty halloumi) to good-but-not-memorable (e.g., fattoush).

24 hours later, I’m at Hiba Restaurant, an oasis on an otherwise forlorn stretch of Borough High Street.  Where Yalla Yalla was spare and Wagamama-cafeteria-dining like, Hiba aims for chic, nighttime atmosphere.  It’s warm and inviting, and I was glad we’d made a booking, because the restaurant was packed on both Friday and Saturday nights.  Minor hiccup when a server told us we’d have to wait a few minutes for a table “because you were 14 minutes late for your booking.”  I swear we were less than 5 minutes late for our booking, but in any case, I could have done with less accusation, generally.

best grilled halloumi, ever (£5.50) at Hiba

Star attraction at Hiba:  Halloumi.  There were many tasty, memorable dishes at Hiba (e.g., crispy, fragrant falafel, refreshing grilled aubergine with tomato, onion, parsley and mint (bazenjan al-rahib)), but for me, the halloumi stole the show.  I ordered it both nights I was at Hiba, and it was superb on both nights.  Yielding, almost-juicy tofu-like texture.  No squeakiness.  Mild, creamy almost-mozzarella flavor with a hit of smokiness from the grill.

salty grilled halloumi topped with even saltier olives at Yalla Yalla

Contrast with Yalla Yalla’s version, which looked pretty.  But the halloumi was a bit squeaky and grilled to dryness.  Worse still, the halloumi’s saltiness was further compounded by the salty olive topping.  My friend and I, lovers of halloumi, couldn’t finish it.

fattoush (£4.95), kibbeh (£5.50) and labneh (£4.75) at Hiba

chicken wings at Hiba were saved by the garlic labneh (£5.50)

Order anything at Hiba that comes with labneh, a thick cheesy-tangy yoghurt.  The chicken wings at Hiba, for example, were a bit scrawny, but they were saved by the garlicky labneh served on the side.  Hiba’s kibbeh, which was better/more moist than Yalla Yalla’s version, still benefited from the rich labneh we’d ordered.  Labneh can transform any dish for the better, it seems.

slight advantage to Yalla Yalla's fattoush, which was beautiful and well dressed

I will say that Yalla Yalla does a better job of plating than Hiba does.  Everything at Yalla Yalla was visually prettier, especially the fattoush.  Salads usually taste better when they look pretty, I think.

Yalla Yalla's sfihe, pastry filled with minced lamb, onion, tomato and pomegranate molasses

But it takes more than good looks to win me over.  Take, for example, Yalla Yalla’s sfihe, whose menu description sounded perfect.  But in reality, the “pastry” was really just a stodgy, thick bread filled with very little lamb/onion mince.  The pomegranate molasses had such a strong flavor that more savoury mince filling was desperately needed to balance things out.

Yalla Yalla's baklava (not pretty and about £5)

Hiba's baklava - lovely to look at and lovely to eat. And free!

Ending was no competition.  Pale, stolid-looking baklava at Yalla Yalla for about £5 versus delicious, flaky baklava for free at Hiba.  Advantage Hiba, obviously.

Prices at both restaurants were similar, with most mezze costing less than £5 and most mains at £12.  None of my three meals cost more than £25, including service and wine.  If you’re looking for a relaxing, tasty night out with friends or a date, Hiba fits the bill perfectly.

Hiba, 134-138 Borough High Street, SE1 1LB; 0207 357 9633; closest Tube station:  3 minutes’ walk from Borough

Yalla Yalla, 12 Winsley Street, W1W 8HQ; 0207 637 4748; closest Tube station:  5 minutes’ walk from Oxford Circus

Hiba on Urbanspoon
Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

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Caphe House on Bermondsey Street

Caphe House on Bermondsey Street

Last Friday, Jon and I had tickets to see Romeo & Juliet at the Globe (and obviously, Jon was very excited, because what man doesn’t love R&J?). And because the show started at 7:30 pm, the challenge was finding a quick, tasty, nearby place to eat dinner. (Much as I love the South Bank, it’s a bit of a culinary wasteland around the Globe, and Friday nights around the always-packed Borough Market area are a major hassle that I prefer to avoid).

The stars aligned when my friend at work, Val, who lives on Bermondsey Street, told me about the new Vietnamese cafe that opened on her block: Caphe House. Sitting next to me at the office, Val is familiar with my love for banh mi and immediately noticed that Caphe House advertises banh mi in its window. So the plan that formed in my head was to drop by for a sandwich after work and eat it on my walk to the Globe. That Charmaine gave it her stamp of approval in TimeOut a few days after Val shared the news set my plan in stone.

a (half-eaten) pork banh mi from Caphe House

a (half-eaten) pork banh mi from Caphe House

The cafe is small and pretty. In keeping with the neighborhood, it’s simple, but much more upscale than Banzi in Surrey Quays. When I showed up just before closing time at 7 pm, the cafe tables were still filled with Aussies (who appreciate a good Vietnamese cafe, I suspect). I ordered two of the pork banh mi, which were £3.50 each, and the friendly guy making the generous-sized sandwiches explained that Caphe used “special” bread that was extra crispy. [Irony alert.]

Well, as Charmaine wrote in her blurb, the banh mi fillings were great: *tons* of pickled carrots and daikon; superb creamy pate with a strong offal flavor that held its own; good chili kick; and pork slices that still had bits of meaty aspic clinging to them.

But can you guess what was wrong? Indeed, it was the bread. Sure, it was crispy. But it was also *thick*. And there was butter slathered on it. Though the butter must be a nod to this being England, I much prefer a quick swipe of mayo.

Ah well. Good to know banh mi is popping up all over London, and always nice to find a cheap, pleasant place on the South Bank. But call me when the baguette is finally thin *and* crispy.

Oh, and as for the play: I want those three hours of my life back. How anyone could produce a Romeo & Juliet so devoid of chemistry between the title characters is beyond me. At least I had a decent dinner beforehand.

Caphe House, 114 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3TX; 020 7403 3574; closest tube station: London Bridge (plus a 15-minute walk)
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french toast pudding at Magdalen

french toast pudding at Magdalen

Magdalen opened in early 2007 to rave reviews across the board. Reading those reviews, I learned that the chef, James Faulks, had worked at the Fat Duck, and his wife, Emma, was pastry chef at the Mandarin Oriental. And in light of how uniformly gushing the pro reviews were, I couldn’t believe the place had never before shown up on my radar. A friend of mine lives on nearby Bermondsey Street and hadn’t been. You’d think there’d be more excitement about the place, especially if you lived nearby, no? [Now that I’m blogging about it, I see that Around Britain with a Paunch had a good meal there in September 08 but that things ended on a bad note with the service charge.]

In any event, three weeks ago, Jon and I turned up for our 9 pm reservation, and we were pleased to see the intimate, dimly-lit dining room was packed. Our table wasn’t ready yet, so we cheerfully had aperos at the bar. The bartender was both friendly and generous: my glass of champagne was filled all the way to the top. It set a nice tone for the evening.

potted crab and toast at Magdalen

potted crab and toast at Magdalen

The menu offerings were what you’d expect at an ambitious gastropub, except that Magdalen’s starters were priced at the high end (£8-10). That said, the quality of our starters was very high. Jon’s generous portion of potted crab was very good – creamy, sweet essence of crab. As happens most times I order potted anything/rillettes, though, I wished for more toast.

squid and chickpea starter at Magdalen

cuttlefish and chickpea starter at Magdalen

While my braised cuttlefish was not much to look at, it was a delight to eat. There was definitely some pork in there lending a rich, meaty note to the creamy garbanzo beans and squid ink. A bit of Spain in London.

pigeon

pigeon in mushroom cream sauce

I can never resist pigeon because when it’s cooked right, it’s pretty much duck-meets-steak (i.e., super!). Magdalen’s was spot-on tender and juicy. The pigeon was a bit tough to cut without a steak knife, so I really should have asked for one instead of resorting to my fingers. (Jon said he didn’t mind, but then again, we’re married so he’s stuck now).

rabbit and black pudding

rabbit and black pudding

Jon’s rabbit with white beans and black pudding wasn’t the obvious choice for a hot June evening. But it was as you’d expect: hearty and meaty. On a cold winter’s night, I’m sure I’ll be craving this dish.

Our mains were £16-18 each and sides (of which we ordered two) were £4-5 each.

After so much tasty, hearty food, I would normally have skipped dessert. But feeling decadent, I tried the French toast and ice cream, which was well worth the ten thousand gazillion calories’ worth of butter and cream in there. £6.50 was never better spent.

Overall, the cooking and service at Magdalen were wonderful, and I loved the availability of wines by the carafe (we ordered one of red for £15 that went well with our meal). Our tab for two, including service, was £120.

The thing is: £60 a person is lot of money for what seemed to me like gastropub fare. We ate a lot of food, and it was top-notch cooking, to be sure, but nothing on the menu seemed destination-dining-worthy. Perhaps Magdalen has toned down the ambition of its menu since it opened in 2007 in order to become more of a neighborhood place. But if that’s the case, then it’d be worth lowering prices as well.

Magdalen, 152 Tooley Street, SE1 2TU; 0207 403 1342; closest tube station: London Bridge

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The Garrison gastropub near(ish) London Bridge

The Garrison gastropub near(ish) London Bridge

Last weekend was memorably sunny (I’ve lived in London long enough to say things like “I remember that sunny week in April 2007”), so Jon and I headed to the South Bank, one of our favorite places to walk in good weather. Instead of our usual walk west past the Globe and Tate Modern, we headed east towards Tower Bridge to meet our friends Andy and Maggie for lunch at one of their fave gastropubs, the Garrison.

The Garrison has a bright, cheery interior with high ceilings. It feels old and modern at the same time, and it was packed last weekend, as many good gastropubs are. Eating lunch at a gastropub on weekends is the closest ritual here to having brunch, I think.

pork-and-sage meatloaf at the Garrison

pork-and-sage meatloaf at the Garrison

The food options were homey and eclectic. You had classics like roast beef (which looked rare and good, though a bit meagre), and you had a few surprises, like Maggie’s homemade herb-stuffed ravioli.

Me, I couldn’t resist the meatloaf. I haven’t had meatloaf in about ten years. Upon ordering, I worried a bit that I’d end up with a dense brick of meat, a la school cafeteria lunches of days past. But I shouldn’t have worried. My meatloaf was almost – fluffy! There must have been a lot of breadcrumbs in there, because if I closed my eyes, I’d swear I was eating a matzoh ball made of pork. [Oh, wouldn’t that be ironic!?] I enjoyed the juicy, meaty, “lightness” of it, and the slightly-firm, bright veg on the side were also great. The potatoes were stale, which was too bad. I’ll bet when they came out of the oven, they were magnificently crispy.

salmon fillet and veg at the Garrison

salmon fillet and veg at the Garrison

For the healthier among you (Jon, my make-me-look-bad husband), the fish options were good, too, but why eat fish when you can have meatloaf? Obviously.

Service was cheery, but really, really slow. Your classic two-servers-for-a-hundred people scenario. The tables looked more comfy than the booths, oddly enough. Our booth seemed proportioned for, I dunno, leprechauns(?) (and I am not a tall person), so prepare to have your knees knocked up a bit if you end up at a booth.

The Garrison was a lively, pretty place, and if it were in my neighborhood, I’d be there all the time. But it’s about a 15-minute walk from London Bridge station, so I’ll go back only if I’m taking visitors out to see the Tower of London/Tower Bridge. Andy and Maggie love the breakfasts there, but note that the Garrison stops serving brekkie at 11, which is a bit early for me.

Most starters cost about £5; most mains £14/£15. Our total tab for main courses only, coffees and (my fave) Luscombe lemonades came to about £20 a person.

The Garrison, 99-101 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3XB, 0207 089 9355; closest tube station: London Bridge

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