I think it was the bib that did it. I’ve come to terms with my complicity as a food blogger in the rise of popular restaurants. I’m happy to book a month in advance, push through a queue of other desperate Londoners and sidestep past tables of clicking SLRs to add my low level hum to the communal buzz. I don’t mind building on a place’s 57 positive Urbanspoon reviews and providing grassroots UGC marketing for free.

I’m not even adverse to Burger & Lobster’s business model. Their aggressive expansion plans (three branches in year one, sky’s the limit for Q1 of 2013) and low-choice menus aren’t unique to them. It’s not the only restaurant in town that will only let you book if there’s six or more of you and a guaranteed spend in the hundreds; there’s plenty of other places that will politely kick you out of your seat after two hours and more than enough attention-seeking concepts in the capital. (Nearby Bubbledogs for starters: the current king of the publicity stunt menu, the David Blaine of the food world, and a place I won’t visit on principal, unless perhaps they start a line in Scrumpytacos).

But something about wearing a plastic lobster bib, in a frenzied photo shoot of a restaurant at the Instagram motherlode, made me feel a bit of a mug. Of course the babywear makes sense – anyone who can afford lobster for supper will want to protect their shirt and it’s a common fun gimmick at any family crab joint – but it also felt like a kind of uniform, marking us all out as willing zeitgeist addicts with our wallets open and our promotional tweets there for the taking.

Burger and Lobster main
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I really wanted the Covent Garden pulled pork stall I just tried to be better than Pitt Cue Co. I wanted to wax lyrical about its fiery beans and meaty succulence, use it as a counterbalance to my anti-Aberdeen Angus food snobbery, have it act as an example of how branding, smart Twitter strategies and hip furniture do not necessarily a great place make. I wanted to rave about its awesomeness and turn the tables on the ‘in the know’ brigade heading to the likes of nearby Meat Market and prove that sometimes tourist destinations can offer the goods – to encourage you to block out the hype and try a bite to eat occasionally that hasn’t been socially endorsed.

Problem is it wasn’t and I couldn’t, so I won’t and you shouldn’t.

Covent Garden pulled pork
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Do you call it dude food or man food? Junk food, or just lunch? I’m talking about the hot dogs and tacos that are clogging the city’s arteries and crammed into every lifestyle supplement at the moment: the burgers and lobsters of Burger & Lobster; Mark Hix’s kamikaze poultry at Tramshed; The Player’s Lucky Chip sliders.

For me it’s guilt food. I don’t mean that in a dieting sense; I’m not thinking about my waistline or balancing the calorie count with the miles I promise myself I’ll run tomorrow. I just mean I usually feel a bit wrong about two thirds of the way into eating it. This kind of salted, saturated food is so tempting and so quick to eat, its pleasure payoff so instant, that you can’t help but overorder, go at it with deranged gusto, and then want it out of your sight – and belly – before you’ve even finished.

This compact cycle used to only apply to the chain restaurants and the early hours – that 2am trip to blend six pints with a Big Mac before bed – but it’s snuck into daylight and more respectable establishments, and was in full force round Rita’s place.

Ritas Fried Chicken
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A month later and Shrimpy’s still feels like a dream. Everything about my visit to the summer’s most hyped restaurant seems a fictional memory or an elaborate trick from some nefarious third party, as if the whole place was a set piece from some 2012 sequel to The Game. In retrospect it just doesn’t seem like it really happened.

It’s just such a surreal place. It’s conjured in old petrol station in that infamous clubbers memory-vacuum behind Kings Cross; cacti sprout by stencil-specked walls and lamps are made of pineapples; sea kelp moisturiser is dispensed in temporary toilets seemingly transported last minute from backstage at V Festival. Our waiter sported a pencil tache, a white lab coat and a French accent and took our orders on an iPad. I thought at one point I might slip into a daze and wake the following morning in the harsh morning sun in an abandoned forecourt wondering what happened. I didn’t though; it’s just a restaurant.

Shrimpys, Kings Cross
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Yes, it’s not supposed to be the same, and yes it still says “chicks” and “dicks” on the door, but there’s a few reasons why MM isn’t a patch on ML. Namely:

You can wander in to Meat Market
While earnest foodies (myself included) have been huddled in hopeful lines down Welbeck Street since the dawn of time to get into Meat Liquor, and critics like Zoe Williams wait an astonishing 90 minutes to get the downlow rather than tell their editors to stick it, there’s no wait at all down the Market. In fact there’s more “no queue-jumping” signs than there are people.

The burgers aren’t as good
I know it’s against the law to say their burgers aren’t great, and they were great, but they just weren’t burgers. Mine looked like something out of Prometheus, and was more of a burnt onion soup with oversized (and to be fair delicious) chunks of chuck beef patties squelching within. All of their offerings come with two massive patties, and all are even harder to eat than their predecessors.

Of course, half the charm of the Meat chain is the sloppy mess you get yourselves in eating them, but these leave you literally dripping in oil, onion and bits of beef and feeling like a Game Of Thrones mountain savage. Plus they look about as sexy as Chris Huhne.

Meat Market Burger
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There’s a guy who hits up the Bankside Health Club at lunchtimes who tries way too hard. If he’s not throwing himself across the floor on a rowing machine he’s back-peddling on a cross trainer faster than a Tory near a pasty, or gimpily performing thousands of upside down sit ups on a Powerplate all dead-eyed and eye-of-the-tiger visaged. It’s annoying. (NB: I look like I’m giving birth after two reps so I can hardly talk but still.)

The point is, you should never try too hard. Or look like you’re trying too hard. In gyms, or indeed in restaurants. Of course, and mentioning no names, many places do, but it’s a lot better to let the concept speak for itself. Meat Liquor has no manifesto; there’s no ‘philosohy’ to Pitt Cue Co. Overtly quirky or stylised places miss the point, as does anywhere that feels the need to explain itself. Restaurants that want to succeed and entice: just be.

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Look lively, El Camino, Buen Provecho and Adobo, there’s a newbie in town and they just booted the last one of you out of the Taco Top Three. And as for El Camino on Brewer Street, best get the staffs’ P45s ready, because La Bodegra Negra is set to show Soho a really good time.

La Bodega Negra Cafe 14
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Hands up who’s sucked on a second hand bike chain. Or surreptitiously sniffed the chiselled palms of an East End mechanic at the end of the day. No? Well surely you’ve nibbled on the odd burnt match, right?

These might not be normal activities, but they’re sensations unquestionably evoked when you spend an evening in the company of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

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January sucks. There’s no two ways about it, it sucks big Simon Cowell balls. It’s particularly painful if you’re trying to adhere to a healthy regime, and as I’m three weeks away from my wedding there’s a crushing spartanism to our household’s diet right now. In fact, my fiancée won’t go within three feet of cheese, wine, bread, glucose, carbs, Coke, egg yolks, etc etc, anything fun god I’m boring myself thinking about it.

It doesn’t leave you many dining options. Google ‘healthy restaurants’ and try finding one outside California. Dig a bit deeper and you’ll get the odd half-hearted feature from some eating site on London, citing Saf (God help us) or, bizarrely, Masala Zone. Let’s face it, though, going out to eat and worrying about what the food will do to your waistline is more depressing than the words ‘president Newt Gingrich’. It defeats the purpose.

The Hill interior
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Say what, a decent Mexican takeaway? In the middle of London’s arid burrito desert? That isn’t another Tortilla factory full of cheerless automatons churning out bland slop for a fiver-plus (guacamole 50p extra)? You’re joking, right? Fortunately not, and although it’s taken me a year to find it, Holborn now has a place worth checking out.

While Waterloo workers have Buen Provecho, Kings Cross denizens got Eat Street, and the Tottenham Court Road office bods have been enjoying Chipotle for some time, round these parts was always a bit of a Chilango fest. But thanks to Adobo that’s all changed.

adobo
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The Best And Worst London Restaurants Of 2011

December 19, 2011

A systematic and unbiased round-up of London’s movers, shakers and jokers in the restaurant world during 2011, aka an SEO-grabbing re-run of places I visited throughout the year. Tis the season for repeats. Enjoy and as ever make your own thoughts plain below.
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Why Is A Restaurant Like Meat Liquor Rarer Than Tartare?

November 29, 2011

Where were you when you first heard about the Meat Wagon? I was here, in front of my computer, and reading Cheese & Biscuits. It was May 2010, pre-van theft, pre-Meateasy and at a time when the gales of hype were just an area of high pressure somewhere far away.
A few months later I got [...]

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Getting Drunk By 8.30am At Hawksmoor Guildhall

November 3, 2011

What time do you start drinking? 6pm? 5pm? Half five? Midday? Hell, it’s always cocktail hour somewhere. How about 6, 7, or 8am?
Drinking within hours of sunrise might sound like the preserve of the depraved and the deranged, the homeless and the can’t-find-home, but it’s a fine tradition in certain parts of London. Pubs, usually [...]

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Great Balls Of Meat – Meatballs & Giant Robot Reviewed

November 1, 2011

Some balls are held for charity, and some for fancy dress. But when they’re held for pleasure, they’re the balls I like best.

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Eat Street At Kings Cross – I-Spy A New Streetful Of Street Food

October 18, 2011

I’m going to need a street food score card soon. Or maybe an I-Spy book. Five points for a rustic BBQ ‘n’ bourbon truck. Ten for a taco shack, and an extra two if it’s really good. A certificate from the tubby tyre man if you get three pop-up stands within a month.

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Review – Wolfgang Puck’s CUT at 45 Park Lane

September 13, 2011

On the long, long list of things I love about America, the country’s unashamed hard-on for classic rock is currently very much top five (somewhere between Drive-Thru Starbucks, In-And-Out, DFC, and Man Vs Food).
Whether you’re jammed on a freeway, languishing in a spa, or wandering round some shopping cathedral, you’re never more than five feet [...]

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Dante Fried Chicken – An Insanely Good Protein Pop Up At Protein

September 7, 2011

It seems almost perverse to tell you about a pop-up that popped up for three days and has no plans to pop back (for a while), but if you’re a fan of properly fried chicken, or tacos, or tacos with fried chicken in them, you may be interested.

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Buen Provecho – Viva La Street Food Revolución

August 10, 2011

Well bugger me sideways and throw a looting chav in the canal if we haven’t finally found a street food stand worthy of La Revolución. Forget Pitt Cue Co, I’ve found* some more guys really worthy of the tag: Buen Provecho, of Lower Marsh Street and – for one afternoon only – the Red Lion [...]

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Kopapa Review – Fusion Or Confusion?

August 5, 2011

Likes it, likes it, really likes it, doesn’t like it, likes it, doesn’t like it – a quick scan of the Urbanspoon thumbs up-or-down sadly reveals no clear consensus on Seven Dials fusion restaurant Kopapa, and I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help either. I liked it, really liked it, didn’t like it, [...]

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Pitt Cue Co. Review – Is This The Best Our Street Food ‘Revolution’ Can Do?

July 28, 2011

We’re mugs in London, we really are. Not always, but we definitely have muggish tendencies. Sometimes we’re pretty savvy – God knows we like to think we are – but it’s not hard to back us into a corner with spin and PR and word of mouth and mug us good and proper. We built [...]

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Dean Street Townhouse And The Best Sunday Roasts In London

July 22, 2011

London’s Best Sunday Roasts – the leaderboard so far
Soho’s Dean Street Townhouse holds more hidden history than Rebekah Wade’s shredder. Hogarth lived here. Francis Bacon has propped up the bar. Ivor Novello knocked some walls down to expand while the various floors have played host to snooker clubs, message parlours and the infamous Gargoyle club.
I [...]

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Islington’s Banana Tree Canteen – Where overwrought flavours mug unsuspecting diners

July 19, 2011

I liked the Banana Tree Canteen, I really did. Doesn’t mean to say it was anywhere near very good, but I liked it all the same. Their MO – blandified pan-Asian food at honest prices, trestle table dining, and quickfire service – is fair enough I suppose. There’s a demand for that kind of thing [...]

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Burger Monday – A New Weekly Way To Worship The Burger

June 2, 2011

Structure, form, geometry: three topics of conversation you’d probably expect more from an architects’ office than an East London caff on a drizzly Monday night. But then you’ve probably not experienced a Burger Monday. If you had trekked, like we did, out into the rain on a Bank Holiday to stump up £35 for a [...]

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Kentish Canteen – Best Cheap Eats In North London?

June 2, 2011

The Kentish Canteen may only be eight months old but it shot straight into The Guardian’s North London Budget Restaurants list last month. And if their crab, lemon and chili linguine at £6.50 for a small bowl is anything to go by it’s a throughly deserved accolade. Spicy and zingy (yes, zingy) and packing more [...]

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Stoke Place – A Gourmet Gorgefest 30 Mins From London

June 2, 2011

I went on a foodie retreat this weekend. Actually, it wasn’t really a foodie retreat, I just felt like throwing those two cringeworthy words together. It wasn’t a cookery course or a foraging foray or anything more than just taking a train to a hotel just for a gourmet meal but it was some kind [...]

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Review: Marcus Wareing’s The Gilbert Scott At St Pancras – A Huge Let Down, A Monumental Meh

May 24, 2011

Kings Cross / St Pancras: our most infamous den of iniquity, a vice-ridden and pimp-pocked pimple, home to The Big Chill and the illicit thrill, a land of all-night raves, warehouse gatherings, depressing liaisons and any number of Whistle Stop type sandwich bars.
Kings Cross St Pancras Station: the doorway to London, the city’s messy porch, [...]

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Review: Marylebone’s Royal China – Still Here, Still Worth Eating At

May 17, 2011

If you’re ever in the Baker Street part of town (unlikely I know, unless you’re lost, fresh off the train at Paddington, or a Beatles / Holmes maniac), I’ve got a place I want you to try. Believe it or not, there are places (or at least one place) worth a look on the NW [...]

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Review: Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social – 2011’s Second Best New Opening

April 23, 2011

What’s in a name? Quite a lot for me actually. I’m a bit of a stickler for monikers and make desicions based on rubric all too often. It’s why it took me years to bother checking out Elbow and why heading to Spuntino wasn’t a foregone conclusion despite the praise. It may be irrational but [...]

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Russell Norman’s Spuntino – Perfect Party Food In The Lower East Side (Of Soho)

April 19, 2011

Double-edged swords rarely come much sharper than hype. Tapes N Tapes will tell you that. As will Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. As will, come April 2012, The Vaccines. The Twang are currently telling that to anyone who will listen (which is no-one). Everybody wants a bit of praise and a modicum of respect but [...]

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Camden’s Gilgamesh – Collagen-Packed Dining Brought To You By The Letters W-T-F

April 15, 2011

Places like this are why I love London. Quite how a £16m, 520 seat theme park named after the Sumerian king of Mesopotamia can exist under my nose for so long is beyond me. I’ve walked the streets of Camden a thousand times, and been lost in that neon cybergoth dungeon on more than [...]

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Funthyme & The Pale Blue Door – Two Pop-Ups Worth Popping Into

April 12, 2011

I’ve always avoided pop-up restaurants. There’s something about the concept, a combination of the faddishness, the transience and the lack of culpability, that used to grate. There was something so inescapably London about the whole thing – so fixed wheel and pencil tache East London if I’m honest – about the race to discover, [...]

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NOPI – Yotam Ottolenghi’s New All-Day Canteen Venture In Soho (Recommended)

March 8, 2011

“We like to think of ourselves as the haute couture of the food-to-go world.” Bold words. Dangerous words. A choice of words that in the wrong hands could be turned against you. Uttered by Pret they’d be risible; by Otarian cause for litigation. They appear on the ‘philosophy’ section of Yotam Ottolenghi’s website, and having [...]

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Jamie Oliver’s Barbecoa – Planned On A Napkin And It Shows

March 5, 2011

The omens were not good. A dismal Sunday in a deserted part of town. A long-suffering girlfriend in tow mewing about things we could be doing at home. Dreary grey skies casting forlorn shadows on empty gum-and-concrete streets. Reviews online, not the best (“Mediocre…lousy…overpriced”, “should have gone to Nando’s”, “Barbecoa? wouldn’t goa”).
I don’t know if [...]

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Secret Dinner Party – A Real Life (Or Non-TV) Come Dine With Me

February 22, 2011

We were hoping for some belly dancers. Or, failing that, a rummage round someone’s underwear drawer. Or, failing that, a conversation with a guy from middle management who somehow’s lost two wives but thinks he’s Mr Gordon Ramsey. But no, sadly (or more accurately happily), Ollie and Dee’s secret dinner party last week (for the [...]

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Dinner By Heston Blumenthal At The Mandarin Oriental Hotel Hyde Park – Review

February 2, 2011

The follow up restaurant is never fun. It’s the difficult second album. The time to make good on the unexpected success of your debut effort, and start navigating the treacherous waters of sophomore slumps and shitty sequels. As you try to build on the glory of your early triumphs you can only two ways – [...]

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Viet Grill – Excellent Vietnamese, Despite The Odd Pho Pas

January 25, 2011

I get the feeling they weren’t too pleased to have us at Viet Grill. For starters, we hadn’t booked. Second, we *sigh* had so many bags with us. Third, we didn’t know what we wanted to eat before we sat down. And from then on we certainly lacked a ruthless efficiency in our ordering, consuming, [...]

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L’Anima – Soulless Place, Average Food, Unbearable Clientele (Although The Cheeses Were Good)

January 20, 2011

So L’Anima missed out on a Michelin star again. Francesco Marezzi – a man with much experience in kitchens that please the tubby tyre man – must be furious. Rave reviews from critics and bloggers alike have done nothing to appease that strangely revered committee, and he can look forward to another twelve months of [...]

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The Best, Worst And Weirdest London Restaurants Of 2010

December 21, 2010

It was a year ago Friday I chomped and nearly chundered my way through one of those gristle bricks the Aberdeen Angus Steak House get away with selling every two minutes across the capital, and made a quiet pledge to trundle round the city looking for better places to eat for the same price (£31.75 [...]

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Top 5 New Restaurant Openings In London 2010

December 17, 2010

My favourite five new openings in 2010, with apologies to Cantina Laredo…

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Saf At Kensington’s Whole Foods – Vegan And Raw Haughty Cuisine

December 14, 2010

I want my next birthday at Kensington’s Whole Foods. Despite being a regular worshipper among the Stoke Newington congregation, and occasionally making a pilgrimage to Camden’s branch, I only hit this one up recently – and it’s immense. If you’re a fan of artisan food and reassuringly rip-off prices, it’s the promised land, a Toys [...]

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The Three Crowns In Stoke Newington – Trying To Be All Things To Several People And Failing At Most

December 2, 2010

The Three Crowns sits in an enviable location. Perched on the corner of Church Street and Stoke Newington High Street, it straddles two distinct segments in London, placing one foot in the bourgeois enclave of the former and dipping another in the murky waters of the latter. In theory, it should represent the best of [...]

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Foxcroft & Ginger – Brunch? Not Really, But Pretty Good All The Same

December 1, 2010

There’s a definite theme developing among independent central London coffee joints, a style of interior design that’s fast becoming textbook. From Kaffeine to Farringdon’s Farm Collective to this week’s victim Foxcroft & Ginger, they all share striking architectural similarities. Concrete counters feature heavily, as do half-finished decorating jobs and quirky furniture, as if they’ve been [...]

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Bob Bob Ricard – Utterly Bizarre Dining In The Heart Of Soho

November 24, 2010

Where to even begin with this one? Seriously, where to begin? Imagine, if you can, a Russian-owned English restaurant designed like an Edwardian railway carriage serving “posh comfort food” in the darkest depths of Soho. A vintage brasserie straight outta 2008 filled with plump banquettes and garish brass bits and bobs where the staff wear [...]

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Four Pies And Mash – What More Do You Need To Know About The Paxtons Head In Knightsbridge?

November 24, 2010

Sometimes a picture says a thousand words. Or at least a couple hundred. Ok four: this dish was amazing.

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Hawksmoor Seven Dials – Home To The Infamous Kimchi Burger

November 18, 2010

Fusion: not a word you hear much any more. I guess because, in this increasingly shrivelled and conjoined world, the concept of mix ‘n’ matching various cultural cuisines has passed from pioneering to passé pretty fast. Or maybe not passé, just something that, y’know, happens. Walk into most restaurants nowadays and you’ll see the world’s [...]

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Comptoir Libanais – judging a book by its bog

November 16, 2010

You can always judge a place by its loo. From Numara Bos Cirrik’s shall-we-say homely charms to Dishoom’s mirror-riddled and quirky conveniences, the little boys and girls’ room says more about a place than anything else, and I always make sure I take a look. So what kind of place is Comptoir Libanais?

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19 Numara Bos Cirrik 2 – A Worthy Contender To Mangal’s Turkish Crown? Fraid Not…

November 2, 2010

As welcomes go, “there’s a five pound per bottle charge for corkage” isn’t one of my favourites. It’s not a great way to start an evening at a high end restaurant, less so a local joint in the badlands of Stokey, and even less so when it’s the only greeting you get for the first [...]

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London’s Hawksmoor – The Most Predictable Blog Post You’ll Ever Read

November 2, 2010

I highly doubt this post will surprise you. So Hawksmoor* just won the Observer Food Monthly’s Best Sunday Lunch 2010 award. I went to try it. It’s the best Sunday lunch I’ve ever had.

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Covent Garden’s Dishoom – Half As Good As Everyone Says It Is (So Twice As Good As Anywhere Else Then)

October 20, 2010

Wow there’s a lot of rules at Dishoom.

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The Flask In Highgate – Time To Call It A Day

October 19, 2010

I love you, The Flask, but I think we should break up. It’s just not working any more. I don’t know who you are these days, or what happened to the Flask I used to know. The Flask I fell in love with, the dusty labyrinth of special spots and comfy corners and long afternoons [...]

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