Category: Restaurant

Oslo Court Restaurant

Oslo Court Restaurant

I love the crazy places of London. The places that seem improbable but exist anyway. How come a flying saucer with mushrooms in the ceiling landed in Knightsbridge was named Albert Hall and became one of our favourite concert venues?

Why are men currently throwing themselves into the icy grip of Hampstead Men’s Pond when they could be tucked up at home with a hot drink and a good book? Who knows but I’m glad they do even though I’m going nowhere near the place until the Spring.

I want to introduce you to another crazy place that I’d never heard of until friends took me there last Friday. It’s the Oslo Court Restaurant in St John’ Wood.

Its location is, to say the least, unusual. Walk down Prince Albert Road and turn into Charlbert Street and you’re met with a handsome art deco apartment block. Build in 1937 it boasts 125 one-bedroom flats many with balconies on to the park. Out front there’s a small sign that gives a clue that it also boasts a restaurant. Apparently in days gone by posh blocks often had restaurants but that fashion has disappeared.

Walking into reception a smartly dressed attendant directs you through a small unmarked door and suddenly you are in the pinkest restaurant in the world. It’s like falling into flock of flamingos and is something of a psychedelic shock as you reel towards your table. You are at a pink festival on Pink Day in Pinkland.

The owner, Tony Sanchez, has been running the joint for more than 35 years. The place definitely has a period feel. The single rose in the silver vases, the rich fabrics, the melba toast with vegetable croutons creates a time-machine that catapults you back to the 70s. There is nothing minimalist about Oslo Court. There’s no steel and glass here; it’s sumptuous.

Now describing a restaurant as having a 70s vibe will be about as welcome to the management as an outbreak of norovirus. Food in 70’s London was terrible, I know I lived through it, but I was poor at the time and I guess places like this must have existed for those with money.

Let’s get to the food. I started looking at the menu which as you’ll see has Dover Sole, Crab and Prawn Salad, Duck and Chicken Lver Pate, Salmon with Hollandaise sauce and sundry other 70’s delights though not (Tut Tut) Black Forest Gateaux or Prawn Cocktails. Suddenly a waiter arrived bearing news of at least twenty specials. I love a special.

Oslo Court RestaurantI opted for six oysters to start, served with an excellent sauce of Balsamic vinegar and garlic, then Beef Wellington (perfectly cooked and this is not an easy dish to get right) and for afters Lemon Meringue Pie with a side order of raspberries and vanilla ice cream. To finish up we had Petits Fours and coffee. A moment ago I described the atmosphere as sumptuous; the same goes for the portions. I then ordered a wheelbarrow to get me out of the place.

In the seventies, in between leaving school and going to University, I worked in a restaurant that boasted silver service. This is when the waiter serves your vegetables from a silver salver grasping the spuds and cauli between a spoon and fork and placing it effortlessly on your plate. Frankly I found it tricky and carrots typically ended up in the lap of some unsuspecting patron.

Silver service is now about as rare as a dodo, but not at Oslo Court where the waiters are dishing out the veg left and right while dressed in natty bow ties and dinner jackets.

This is a destination restaurant and if your destination factors in power cuts, a 3-day week, Ted Heath as PM it’s the place for you. The food is generally excellent but it’s not cheap; lunch comes in at £36 and Dinner £47. My only quibble was the vegetables were overcooked, but hey that’s the way we liked them 40 years ago.


Reservations: 020 7722 8795

Chalbert Street, NW8 7EN


 

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

Shucking oysters in Arcachon

A bivalve pilgrimage

Regular readers will know this blog recently decamped to France for a short break. Kicking the regal Biarritz dust from our heels the Preen family are on the road north to Arcachon.

Like Biarritz, Arcachon Bay is on the Atlantic coast and is known to the locals as Le Bassin or The Basin. The beaches are spectacularly beautiful, some of which can be viewed from a massive sand dune called the Dune of Pilat. It’s more like a mountain than a dune and something you’d expect to see in the Sahara rather than at a French tourist resort. Camels should have featured somewhere. From its summit you can gaze in wonder at the beaches and hang glide down to them if you’re brave enough.

But this isn’t a tourist blog, so get Googling if you want to know more. What we’re here for are the oysters as Arcachon is the oyster capital of France. We are on a bivalve pilgrimage.

Most French towns of any size have a covered market often called Les Halles where all kinds of fresh, French yumminess can be found from cheeses to hams to sausages, breads, fruit and vegetables. The French just take food more seriously than we do. Think of the words the English use to describe food, ‘grub’ ‘nosh’ and ‘chow’ spring to mind. We don’t like food getting above itself, so we put it in its place. Depending on your point of view, the French either exalt and treasure food or have a slightly bonkers obsession with it.

France’s local oyster, the European oyster, is now farmed and no longer harvested in the wild. After reaching two or three years of age, oysters are taken to so-called fattening grounds, typically in river estuaries and marshes. There they become plump and juicy and ready for the table by gorging on algae and other nutrients that are very appealing to the hungry bivalve. Thereafter they are graded for taste and texture. Little do they know what’s coming next.

At the back of the market in Arcachon we found the Bar à Huîtres where we ordered twelve of their best. While waiting for our order to appear and to the annoyance of the daughter I read aloud the Lewis Carroll poem the Walrus and the Carpenter. Spoiler Alert: Look away now if you don’t want to know what happens to the oysters at the end of the poem. Here’s an edited version, just an hors d’oeuvre, click here for the Full English.

O Oysters, come and walk with us!’

The Walrus did beseech.

A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,

Along the briny beach:

We cannot do with more than four,

To give a hand to each.’

 

But four young Oysters hurried up,

All eager for the treat:

Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,

Their shoes were clean and neat —

And this was odd, because, you know,

They hadn’t any feet.

Four other Oysters followed them,

And yet another four;

And thick and fast they came at last,

And more, and more, and more —

All hopping through the frothy waves,

And scrambling to the shore.

 

The Walrus and the Carpenter

Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock

Conveniently low:

And all the little Oysters stood

And waited in a row.

O Oysters,’ said the Carpenter,

You’ve had a pleasant run!

Shall we be trotting home again?’

But answer came there none —

And this was scarcely odd, because

They’d eaten every one.”

All around us men where shucking oysters, splitting the shells with a twist of the wrist in one deft move. Very quickly our plate arrived with the oysters set on ice and draped in seaweed fronds. They may have spent months being fattened in river reedbeds but at La Table de Preen they were gone in 60 seconds, well perhaps a little longer. I’m hopeless at describing food, I’m English for goodness sake, but they were plump and salty and slithered down with great ease. I could have ordered another dozen.

The next day part of the family spent the day at Aqualand , but not being the world’s best swimmer, I was given the morning off to mooch. Staying just outside Arcachon in a village called Le Teich, I wandered into the centre to get some lunch. There in front of the local bar I found Hercule selling oysters from a cart.

‘Douze huîtres s’il vous plait’ I said in my best ‘O’ level French and twelve were duly slung into a plastic bag in exchange for a few Euros. I headed back to the apartment, put the bag in the fridge and waited for the family to arrive.

How hard could it be to shuck a few oysters? Well let’s just say, I recommend gardening gloves and a police issue stab vest if you want to keep safe.

As you can see from the picture, the knife looks like something which would be of interest to the police if you were caught with it in one of the seedier parts of London.

The BBC’s Good Food describes the shucking process like this:

  • Wrap a tea towel over one hand and use it to hold the oyster firmly.
  • Using an oyster shucking knife in the other hand, place the tip of the shucking knife at the base of the hinge, twist the knife using pressure, then without the pressure, lever the knife upwards, or twist it to prise the hinge open.
  • Slide the knife under the top shell to release the oyster and remove the shell.

Sound so easy doesn’t it? Well, let me tell you, my oysters were no pushover. All that gorging on algae had made them tough little buggers who weren’t going to give up without a struggle.

What the BBC fails to mention is the bit where you inadvertently stab yourself in the hand because it’s so damn difficult to get the knife into the hinge. Or when you twist the knife and a bit of oyster shell flies off and hits you in the eye, the shell remaining tightly shut.

It’s a tricky business but eventually all twelve were opened, eaten and pronounced delicious. I guess all good things come after a bit of a struggle and oysters are no exception. Thanks Hercule, we’ll see you tomorrow.

Basqueing in the late summer sun

Basqueing in the late summer sun

This blog has decamped to France, so you are now reading Une Petite Vie Francaise or something like that. No doubt I’ve got the gender wrong and I’m certainly lacking a cedilla because I can’t find it on this computer keyboard. Sticklers among you will now be saying well that’s very nice for some, but what has this got to do with London which is supposed to be the blog’s USP. The answer to that perfectly reasonable question is not much, barely anything, but not absolutely nothing if I’m allowed to veer off into the double negative.

We are staying in Biarritz which is set deep in the heart of Basque Country. I know it’s Basque Country because I’ve discovered a desert called Gateau Basque. This is a pleasant cake-like thing made from ground almonds (probably) and in the case of the one I’m wading through right now, is stuffed with cherry jam. It may not be up there with the great French dishes such as Bouillabaisse or coq au vin but I seem to be able to eat it quite happily for breakfast, then as a desert for lunch and supper. Say what you like about Gateau Basque, it’s versatile.

Biarritz was once popular with the Beau Monde who came here to gamble and party, particularly in the early part of the last century. There is still a grand casino, large Art Deco hotels and wide sandy beaches which are now sought after by surfers rather than the crowned heads of Europe.

Come the sixties the better weather in Nice and the attraction of Brigitte Bardot and her ilk meant the money moved a little further South East to the Mediterranean and away from the more stormy pleasures of the Atlantic seaboard.

Miremont Biarritz
Miremont Café Biarritz

For breakfast we ventured, en famille, to a rather grand cafe called the Miremont. On the outside window there is a photograph of King Alfonso XIII visiting the Miremont with his ‘young’ wife. I’m not fully boned up on Alfonso V13, nor entirely sure which country benefited from his beneficent rule, but it looks to me like this might be Mrs King II, or the younger trophy wife.

The maitre d’, told us proudly that Biarritz was once the ‘Queen of resorts and the resort of Kings’ and that it was once said that at teatime there were ‘fewer pastries than Queens and fewer rum babas that Grand Dukes’.

Well the Preens are not easily intimidated, so barging a few Barons out of the way and treading a couple of Earls underfoot, we made our way to our table. The thing about mixing with The Quality is that it doesn’t come cheap. The creamy rich cafe au lait came in at €5.90 a pop while the croissants were a bank busting €2.20 and the daughter’s orange juice or fruit presse was €6.60. But Grand Dukes don’t complain about l’addition and neither do the Preens when the food is this yummy.

The Miremont prides itself on its ‘cosy charm and grand style’ which is a tricky combination to pull off. As we are leaving the maitre d’, who the daughter described rather unfairly as an old goat (vielle chevre), told us that King Edward VII, used to stay every year at the Hotel De Palais, while ‘remaining faithful to the Miremont’s confections’ and of course remained faithful to the wife who cost him the throne. We were also shown the Royal Coat of Arms that was bestowed on the Miremont by Queen Victoria who apparently used to send Albert down to pick up the buns.

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

Restaurant review: 24 The Oval

There are restaurant premises on Clapham Road close to Oval tube that have seen many manifestations and make-overs. In our 18 years of living in the neighbourhood it’s been: The Lavender, Oval Lounge and now we have a new eatery: 24 The Oval.

The new owners took possession of the property at the back end of last year and we all expected it to be open for the busy Christmas period, this didn’t happen. The place obviously took a long time to refurb and only opened earlier this year. I’ve been meaning to check it out for some time but finally got around to it when Mrs Preen and I visited last Wednesday.

I walk past the restaurant most days with the dog on the way to Kennington Park and had checked the menu. I was concerned it all looked a little pricey, certainly more so than the previous incarnations I’ve mentioned, plus I wasn’t seeing many patrons.

So, I was surprised when I called to make a booking for 8pm to be told there was nothing available until later in the evening. On our arrival I couldn’t have been more wrong about the lack of punters, the place was heaving.

The long refurbishment must have more to do with the kitchens and the elements not on display as the interior doesn’t look so different. It’s all pleasantly woody with flowers and plants giving it a charming country kitchen atmosphere. Strangely the music was very loud and given all the reflective surfaces of glass and wood, conversation proved a little difficult, but almost as soon as we’d sat down someone dialled down the sounds and chat commenced.

One their website 24 style their approach as ‘old fashioned, modern British cooking’. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but the menu is gratifyingly small and there were many dishes I would have been happy to order. While we were waiting, we were brought a yummy cheese fondue with savoury choux buns as a taster.

Deciding not to go for starters, my wife ordered the Roasted Skate, Jerusalem Artichokes and Rainbow Chard (£16). I opted for the very fishy mix of BBQ Monkfish, Smoked Mussels, Salsify and Seaweed (19). I’m not going to come on like a MasterChef judge and give you chapter and verse as to what was right and wrong with the dishes, largely because that’s way beyond me, but I will say both dishes were consumed with gusto and pronounced excellent.

Just one caveat, while the last thing we wanted were huge US-style portions, both dishes were a little on the small side. The Skate wing was more the size of a budgerigar wing; perhaps portion control could ease up a bit.

I had Treacle Tart and Ice Cream to finish, because I’m incapable of not ordering treacle tart if it’s on the menu.

Add in three glasses of house red wine (perfectly drinkable) a side order of Triple Cooked Chips and the bill came to a pretty reasonable £69.

A couple of other things to add: My wife is Coeliac and has to have a gluten free diet, this was speedily arranged with no fuss. There is a Tasting Menu which comes in at £38.50 per person, but best of all 24 is a dog friendly establishment.  A large silver haired mutt of indeterminate breed sat behind us beneath its owner’s table.

This looks like a really welcome addition to our neighbourhood which is not blessed with many fine eateries. A return visit to 24 is definitely on the cards, but next time with Bucket.

Vexed in Vauxhall

Vexed in Vauxhall

With apologies to Noel Coward and his poem ‘There are bad times just around the corner’.

They’re miffed at the Nine Elms intersection

They’re vexed in Vauxhall, outraged at Oval

And Fentiman Road, so I’m told, is on the verge of insurrection.

The President of the United States has been at it again and people round our way are not happy. First, when commenting on the new US embassy, he called our neighbourhood ‘off location’ – bloody cheek. Now at a rally in Michigan over the weekend he ramped up the war of words calling our locality ‘lousy’ and ‘horrible’ ahead of his planned visit to the UK in July.

Time to fight back south London and extol the benefits and merits of life (just) south of the river. So, with my Tourist Authority of Lambeth (unofficial) hat screwed firmly on my head here is why you, along with the most powerful man in the world, should take a stroll round our manor. Dodge the deadly bullets of Madame Tussauds, the London Dungeon and M&M World and take a trip to Lambeth.

  • First up there’s Battersea Park, perhaps the best park in London, which now boasts an excellent restaurant, the Pear Tree Cafe.  You can go boating on the lake or dangle from a zipwire, play football and marvel at the remnants of the Festival of Britain.
  • There’s a thriving gay scene headquartered at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern just south of Vauxhall Station.
  • There are so many bonkers buildings along Nine Elms Lane, including the new US Embassy, perhaps we should be marketing ourselves as the New Dubai.
  • We have art galleries: Tate Britain  and Damian Hurst’s Newport Street Gallery that was designed by the same Swiss architects that brought us Tate Modern.
  • Then there’s Little Portugal spread out along South Lambeth Road which includes the Estrella Restaurant  where you can sit outside and enjoy the sun, while sipping hot chocolate and nibbling on a nata.  A little further along is the local favourite, the Canton Arms, a gastro pub of note. I’ve not tried it yet, but we have a new place on Clapham Road: 24 The Oval which looks promising.
  • People are raving about Wright Brothers Seafood Restaurant at Battersea Power Station. They specialise in oysters, in case a basket of bi-valves is your thing. While there, you’ll also be able to take a look at the Battersea Power Station restoration; one of the biggest housing developments in Europe.
  • There is the huge Nine Elms Sunday Market, which can be a little on the scummy side, but if you want to indulge your inner Martin Amis you might want to give it a go. Close by is the newly located New Covent Garden flower market, but for this you are going to have to get up early. It opens at 4am. Come Christmas, it’s fun to pick up your Christmas tree there for a fraction of the normal London price.
  • Underneath the railway arches and strictly for the more adventurous we have Urban Axe Throwing and you can get to grips with the VauxWall climbing centre.

We should encourage Donald Trump to come to our neck of the woods and see what he’s missing. I’m sure we can assure him of a rousing reception.

(Now it’s over to you, local inhabitants, what have I missed?)

Asian food is everywhere, but there’s something missing

Asian food is everywhere, but there’s something missing

Asian food is everywhere in London with Thai Green Curry fast replacing Chicken Tikka Masala as our national dish. Ten years ago, we didn’t know our Pho from our Tom Yum, now your local pub probably has them on the menu.

I lived in Thailand for 8 years and love cooking Thai food, but frankly what passes for Thai food in the UK is often industrially produced rubbish with a lot of it not really Thai, but an unlovely mix of Thai, Chinese and Malaysian cooking. What is sold as Pad Thai is often just a gloopy mess. Part of the problem is that restaurants find it hard to source all the essential Thai ingredients. Thai aubergines are not so easy to come by in London town.

One small London restaurant chain that does quite a reasonable Som Tam or papaya salad is Rosa’s Thai Café. (Som Tam is the benchmark dish for me, if they get that right I’m in) I’ve been to their restaurants in Spitalfields, Soho and Brixton and while not perfect, their food is recognisably Thai. Try their pork grapou, som tam and gai ped met ma muang or chicken and cashew nuts.

If you fancy a try at cooking Thai then most supermarkets carry the essentials:  fish sauce, galangal, lemon grass and green curry paste. It’s also worth a trip to the Longdan supermarket on Kingsland Road, which specialises in ingredients from all over Asia and the Orient. They even have Thai aubergines on occasions. It’s open on a Sunday so you can combine a visit to Columbia Road flower market.

I also highly recommend all Blue Elephant products, particularly their Massaman curry paste. These are now available in the UK.

So what’s missing? Well there’s one essential element of Thai, Cambodian and Laos cuisine, that hasn’t made it over here: fried bugs. Stroll past Asian street-food sellers and there’s usually a wok full of deep-fried crickets, grasshoppers, worms and beetles. For some reason we are quite happy to eat prawns, which are just aquatic bugs but not so keen on eating their land-based brothers. Asian’s enjoy these delicacies as a snack food combined with a beer rather in the way we eat nuts or crisps with a chilled lager.

I have a feeling it’s going to be an uphill struggle to make these snacks popular here, but in many ways, they should be. As we attempt to feed an ever growing world population, bugs have a lot going for them. They are full of protein with little fat or calories, are easy and cheap to raise and require little technology to do so. They are a far more sustainable food source than livestock, which accounts for nearly a fifth of all green-house gas emissions, plus they’ll eat almost anything.

Still not convinced? Westerners find bugs hard to swallow, but would you eat an energy bar made with extracted bug protein? The people at Eat Grub clearly hope you will and are out to convince you that bugs are a sustainable, nutritious and above all delicious source of food.

But if bug related food is not your thing, go and buy a pack of Blue Elephant Thai green curry paste, some strips of chicken, jasmine rice, a bottle of fish sauce, substitute peas for Thai aubergines and you’ll have a feast of your hands.

The best Thai food in London is often served at our house, but I’m afraid we don’t have room for you all.


 

Stockwell Continental

Stockwell Continental

A new Italian restaurant in Little Portugal

Anyone who has read this blog knows I don’t like to criticise – it’s not an attack blog. But sometimes gentle criticism is appropriate.

It’s probably unfair to review a restaurant that’s only been open for a few days, but really Stockwell Continental you had better up your game.

Friday night supper with friends and family is something of a tradition with us. So, it was with real enthusiasm that we descended on this newly opened pizzeria deep in the heart of Little Portugal on South Lambeth Road. It comes with an excellent pedigree and is owned by the group that runs the much-loved Canton Arms which is just over the road. We are knee deep in Portuguese restaurants, so were delighted to welcome an Italian outfit into our midst.

The restaurant is on the site of the old Rebato’s restaurant which was famous for about five minutes a few years ago when a tired and emotional MI6 agent went AWOL from his HQ up the road and left a laptop full of state secrets behind. The restaurant dined out on this until it closed with newspaper articles and cuttings festooning the walls.

Menu

Looking at the Stockwell Continental menu we discovered it sold mostly pizzas, and as one of our party remarked they had better be good as it’s not exactly difficult to get a pizza in this town.

Unfortunately, things did not get off to a good start; as we came through the door we were met with the smell of eau de drain, with high notes of muck. The restaurant is long and narrow with bare white walls and is over lit. It has the mood lighting of a Chinese takeaway.

The staff seemed distracted, not rude but just not very helpful. One of our party, a coeliac, has to maintain a gluten free diet. None of the pizzas are gluten free and so we asked whether the risotto was suitable. The waiter went away to find out but didn’t return with an answer.

Latterly, we discovered that none of the main courses were GF and when I pointed out this was something they really needed to fix I was told in a quite belligerent manner, by someone who may have been the manager, that some of the starters, mostly the salami, were GF. It seems that at Stockwell Continental the customer is not necessarily right. We were made to feel we were the problem. Clearly the restaurant was not part of the solution.

Antipasti

And to be fair some of the starters were passable particularly the Roast pumpkin, chestnut and ricotta. Starters cost between £4 and £7 with the most expensive pizza coming in at £10, so pretty reasonable prices

Struggling for authenticity the menu does not wear its Italian heritage lightly. I had a Nduja pizza which was new to me. It came with Fior de Latte (soft cream cheese), Nduja (spicy salami) and pickled red onion. It also came topped with some unidentified green kale like substance that neither looked nor tasted appetising. Once I had swept much of the topping to one side I discovered a passable pizza lurking underneath.

Although it has since closed I remember when Counter at Vauxhall Cross opened a pizza restaurant, they announced it was a soft opening, that pizzas were half price and comments and criticism were welcomed. It’s a shame that Stockwell Continental didn’t adopt this approach.

As we were leaving the general consensus among our party was that we would not return, when we could get much better at Pizza Express. However, I think everyone deserves a second chance and I will go back in a couple of weeks to see if things have improved. We would love an excellent Italian restaurant in the neighbourhood and we all really wanted Stockwell Continental to be good. Let’s see if they can up their game.