Xian and the City
The first restaurant that saw me ratcheting up visits time and again, like an obsessive groupie, was A. Wong in Victoria. Obsessional, frequent, rat-a-tat visits that clocked way past 20-30 visits in record time – I was hooked, suckered, like a fish with hook in mouth.
Having caught wind of a few whispers towards the end of 2012 of something good happening in Victoria, my 'new opening' radar was twitching: the doors were soon blown open by the review from Fay Maschler in the Evening Standard. Next day saw me hammering down the Victoria line. The number of visits soon blurred into one long lunch at the bar.
Pure Rosé 2017
Rosé yeah, whatever yeah? Well, seems the rosé category has been on good form over recent years, and Mirabeau are a good place to start for classy, dry rosé. A stunning weekend of weather in London (with a Provençal kinda swagger) had me dashing into the garden with samples from Mirabeau, set up by British couple Stephen and Jeany Cronk.
Ideally the sunshine will be bathing the garden – rosé drinking with an overcast sky just doesn't cut it – and this pale, delicately scented glass of redcurrants, strawberries, raspberries and whatever other summer berries you may find in there, will slake the thirst admirably. 60% Grenache, 40% Syrah, grown on clay and limestone at 300-400m altitude, some of the highest in the area, with sustainably certified vinification.
Get on it, ice bucket out, smoked salmon blinis flying – the Instagram post must include #bliss for maximum #jelz.
Available: waitrose.com (£13.99)
62,000. That’s the capacity of the new stadium that Tottenham Hotspur will move in to later this year – built on the existing site of the former 36,000 White Hart Lane – and the attendant upsurge of activity in N17 that has been ticking along over the past year is no coincidence: no doubt about it, the new home for Spurs is the main thrust for everything happening in the area.
The first flickerings of a Tottenham uplift began a couple of years ago, and once it was confirmed that the club would indeed be staying in the area rather than gallivanting across to another postcode, it felt like someone, somewhere, pressed a button labelled GO for all things food and booze related.
Find Your Folkestone
Tubbs peers over his spectacles at me:
“I have a room for you, but I can’t confirm for another ten minutes or so, until I move a few of the rooms around.”
Checking in to The Grand Burstin hotel, a hulking cruise ship shaped edifice overlooking Folkestone harbour – built in 1984 on the site of the 1843 Royal Pavilion Hotel – I have walked inadvertently straight into an episode of The League of Gentlemen: it’s eerie, it’s dark comedy, it’s a quite unexpected way to end the evening.
The Fordwich Arms
Where The Light Gets In
The Mash Inn
Grand Trunk Road
The Laughing Heart
German Doner Kebab
Black Axe Mangal
House of Ho
Leyton Pub Rising
"Are you looking at my bird, mate?" and "Will you sing your songs outside?" – The Coach and Horses felt like this kind of dive for years: scuzzy carpet, grimy lavs, faint aura of menace.
It's all change with this impressive revamp, the kitchen led by hip-hop loving local chef Steven Wilson, who has spent time in some top London kitchens. With Leyton Orient currently languishing in the Vanarama National League – within chanting distance of the pub – this is another welcome boost for Leyton which has started getting jiggy, most significantly on Francis Road with the additions of Yardarm, Kettle & Ryan, Marmelo Kitchen and friends.
Several visits and the 'perfect pub' classics are being ticked off:
* Sausage roll is a Platonic ideal (massive) and a very fair £4.50 for the size. 1-0.
* Scotch Egg: Cumberland mince with a smattering of Clonakilty black pudding. Top corner.
* Crisp potato cake with roasted garlic mayo. Cheffy layers of mandolined potatoes, a nod to the classic Pavés de pommes de terre.
Hat-trick (2', 57', 89').
Return trips are made to make sure this isn't a mirage, just to check that it's a bona fide pub with owners that give a massive toss about what's going on. The Sunday Roast is a beauty, probably the best that Leyton has seen for decades. Beef suet pudding with mash and liquor is the clincher – deeply satisfying on a drizzly day, a mound of suet giving way to reveal hunks of tender short rib, the whole lot collapsing into parsley flecked liquor (no eel juice here, no eels on the menu...yet), with a jug of extra liquor on the side. Woof.
The owners have form, led by Ronnie Finch who transformed The Duke in Wanstead a few years ago, as well as partnering with chef Chris Hruskova on Hackney bakery The Bread Station – next project is the reopening of The Leytonstone Tavern.
"Will you sing your songs outside?" – Yes mate, just let me finish this Scotch Egg...
391 High Road
It was the 'Mission Chinese' spices on the fried chicken that hooked me in: have only seen Danny Bowien's firecracker Sichuan peppercorn charged spice mix appear in London once, at the peerless Black Axe Mangal in their 'wing spice'. Then a sausage and egg 'McMuffin' with slow cooked egg yolks and kimchi ketchup, appears on the brunch menu. Disciples of Bowien? Sod this, it's around the corner from me on the Wanstead/Forest Gate borders....cover me, I'm going in.
A short walk from Forest Gate and Wanstead Park stations, Arch Rivals occupy one of the arches on Winchelsea Road, and unlikely looking strip already perked up by wine shop and bar Burgess and Hall, and The Wanstead Tap. A couple of visits and I'm a believer: tiny menu of asian accented dishes to smack across the chops, alongside a sharply chosen list of beers, wine and cocktails. Pinot Gris from Mount Difficulty in Otago, New Zealand, is a winner with the food.
Jitterbugging across Asia over six dishes, these are bites falling squarely into the 'booze food' category, full of punch and spice to sustain and revive after a skinful. Sichuan aubergine here, smacked cucumber over there, a rib steak with miso butter and kimchi, XO sauce and Mapo Tofu darting in and out of the evening and brunch menus.
We just miss out on Dan Dan fried rice one evening (pork runs out) but with a swift substitution of kimchi for pork, it reminds me of a raucous evening in the Lower East Side in NYC, and a fried rice dish of salt cod at Bowien's Mission Chinese: oh look, there's a kedgeree fried rice dish with smoked haddock on at brunch. Riffs on Bowien, flashes of David 'Momofuku' Chang – we spot books from both on the shelf, alongside Pok Pok's Andy Ricker – reveal the influences the kitchen enjoy playing with most.
That 'McMuffin' is a gem: free-range pork patty with American cheese, the ooze of slow cooked egg yolk, kick of kimchi ketchup between a particularly good toasted muffin. Mushroom Mapo Tofu with jalapeño cornbread and eggs, hopping with Sichuan peppercorns and black beans – while feeling slightly dusty from the night before – is a most welcome Saturday breakfast.
I'm liking Arch Rivals – a bar with attitude and hutzpah.
361 Winchelsea Road
"You have the best job in the world, you really do...”
So the refrain goes, a bit of admiration laced with a dash of jealousy and a smattering of “Oh FFS, all you guys do is drink for free all day, you massive old soaks.”
Sure, I used to enjoy them, revel in them: back when gin and tonics were still fizzy and vegans didn’t exist – glory days.
Then something started to happen, a stealth attack, a creeping feeling...
The rise of the English sparkling wine industry has seen its bottles move from “plucky outsider” status to champagne-beating cellar essentials, claiming a record number of international trophies along the way. England is fizzing, and the world is taking notice.
"What on earth is wrong with you?” The question comes out of nowhere, a sly uppercut into the soft underbelly of my fragile (often) sense of worth. “I mean, seriously. What is your problem? What?”
On the ropes by this point, I come out swinging: a wounded tiger, an annoyed, wounded tiger. "Look, if I want to drink Grosset’s ‘Polish Hill’ Riesling with special chow mein, then I will. Alright?”
— It started with venison medallions and a Barossa Valley Shiraz: the dish that sent me down the path of food and wine while living in Sydney. A career change from advertising began by joining Oddbins in 2003, then to independent merchant The Winery (specialising in German Riesling, Burgundy, Piemonte, California), moving to selling wine to London restaurants, and a stint as sommelier at Zucca in Bermondsey — the writing kicked in after all of this. I’ve written for various publications including The Evening Standard, The Guardian, Christie’s Magazine, The London Magazine, Noble Rot, Completely London, Caterer, and Ocado magazine. I consult on wine lists for restaurants, recent projects including Smoking Goat, Kiln, Coombeshead Farm, Bibo, Arabica Bar and Kitchen, Frontline Club, Cây Tre and Martello Hall.