After a couple of weeks of admirable almost-austerity, this has been a week of sheer indulgence. Not only have I managed to acquire a new laptop (unlike my last one, it actually works for more than five minutes without the display dissolving into a migraine-inducing quivering fuzzy mess), but I’ve eaten at St John Bread & Wine, da Polpo and (fanfare please) The Ledbury. Add to this some quality boozing at Zetter Townhouse and B@1 – I can’t apologise for the latter; I love it there – and I really have no idea how I woke up at 6.30am today. Oh yeah: my laptop was due to arrive and I was as excited as a child at Christmas.

St John Bread & Wine was as fantastic as ever, and I was particularly pleased to see my old favourite, fennel and Berkswell with pickled walnuts, on the menu. No trip to Fergus Henderson’s Commercial Street outpost would be complete without one of their incredible Eccles cakes with Lancashire cheese. Every time I have one I’m tempted to order a spare for the next day’s breakfast. One of my favourite festive moments involved unexpectedly running into my friend Adam on the train up to Northants a few days before Christmas, and discovering that we’d each brought an Eccles cake for the journey. AND he’d brought a wodge of Lancashire cheese. Unfortunately, neither of us had thought to bring a hip flask.

I’m a huge fan of Russell Norman’s Polpo group of restaurants, and da Polpo, the Covent Garden-based new addition to the family, is no exception. The queues are of a far more palatable length than at the Beak Street original, and although da Polpo’s menu is less varied, the convivial atmosphere, friendly service and unfailingly tasty food makes for a reliably great night out. I headed there, with my friends Vicky and Helen, after four cocktails apiece at B@1 (it’s buy one get one free until 7pm, and you just can’t argue with that), all distinctly peckish but unwilling to end our evening too early. We gorged ourselves on pizzette, ‘meatballs’ and two salads (zucchini and Jersey royals), stuck to tap water and left very happy and each only £11 lighter of pocket.

Yesterday, in celebration of the lovely Sarah’s ‘big birthday’, five of us headed west… to Notting Hill’s Ledbury Road. The Ledbury is a two-Michelin-starred establishment that boasts the best service I’ve ever been lucky enough to experience – so wonderfully good-humoured yet faultlessly efficient. The staff didn’t even laugh at me (too much) when I arrived and thought I spotted my party at the back of the restaurant, only to discover that it was in fact their reflection in the huge mirror that makes up the back wall.

And the food…

Our waiter cheerfully produced an entire vegetarian set-lunch menu for me to peruse over a shared bottle of Nyetimber (this alone made my day), from which I chose a heritage tomato salad followed by celeriac baked in ash. I can’t even begin to tell you just how good the tomato salad was: served at room temperature for maximum flavour, the mixture of dark-skinned, green, cherry and classic red tomatoes was accompanied by a herby (but not overpowering) dressing and dried olives, as well as two flawless feuille de brick pastry tubes filled with perfectly light, creamy goat’s curd.

The celeriac, with its deliciously ashy coating, was beautifully combined with hazelnuts, summer truffle and grated hen’s egg. I’m not usually a truffle fan, but these had an extremely delicate flavour that only added to the perfectly balanced dish. And as Mr Ottolenghi has shown us, nuts should be liberally sprinkled over pretty much all food for instant yumminess.

The set menu dessert of elderflower panna cotta didn’t appeal (not veggie-friendly), so I chose brown sugar tart with gooseberries and stem ginger ice cream from the full menu. It was as amazing as it sounds. I don’t think I could do it justice with mere words. This feast was followed by coffee (fresh mint tea for me and the birthday lady) and petits fours in the form of raspberry jellies, salted caramel chocolates and tiny hazelnut shortbreads sandwiched together with something delicious and a bit creamy.

For the first time ever, I’d managed to attain that ideal level of fullness and tipsiness that leaves you warm and happy rather than alarmed and queasy. Still, a bit of a walk was in order for Paul and me after lunch, and we headed towards Books for Cooks on Blenheim Crescent. I managed to resist buying anything, and Valentine Warner was there. All in all, a perfect afternoon.

(Photos courtesy of Paul)

I can’t believe it’s almost a week since I landed at Heathrow after a week in sunny Spain. Seville is a beautiful city, with a maze of impossibly narrow winding streets and incredible architecture… but obviously my main concerns were a) sherry and b) FOOD. I knew that it could prove tricky to eat a varied vegetarian diet there, Andalusia’s obsession with jamón and bacalao being what it is, but I managed perfectly well. With hindsight, it might have been a good idea to book some self-catering accommodation to take advantage of all the delicious-looking fresh fruit and vegetables we spotted in the markets (but which never seemed to appear on the tapas menus).

My favourite Sevillan speciality was definitely salmorejo – think extra-thick, concentrated gazpacho. I discovered after the first night that it usually comes topped with chopped egg and ham, so Paul spent most of the week scooping the ham off the top for me while I tried to pretend that there was nothing piggy about it all. Tortilla was a great staple, as were slices of manchego cheese (often drenched in olive oil, as if it isn’t delicious and greedy enough as is).

Vegetables, where they appeared in tapas, were generally smothered in cheese and baked – no bad thing, but I craved some fresh veg once the novelty had worn off. A notable exception was Las Golondrinas II, just around the corner from its sister bar, and recommended by Sevilla Tapas as a veggie-friendly choice. Most of the dishes on their menu contained fish, but a selection of small salads included amazing radishes, simply dressed with olive oil and sea salt, and a plate of tender beetroot with red onion. All washed down with copious quantities of Tio Pepe, of course.

Another great recommendation from the Sevilla Tapas website was Soravito, south of the city centre. A wonderfully convivial and low-key neighbourhood favourite, the bar was run by a very friendly multilingual lady who recommended their mushroom croquettes, amongst other dishes, including homemade chocolate tart and cheesecake. We soon realised that we’d been very lucky to get a table there at all as the room filled up very quickly, but, as in every bar we visited, there was never any pressure to pay up and clear the table – lingering over a glass of wine was positively encouraged everywhere.

The weirdest thing I ate all week was without doubt ajo blanco, a cold soup of (I think) milk, almonds, garlic, and grapes. I was initially excited and enthusiastic about something so deliciously different, but soon came to realise that it was the sort of soup of which a shot-glass would suffice. A large bowl of cold garlicky milk soon loses its charm, even when consumed in a cosy characterful bar that takes its name from its speciality.

Ajo Blanco

Venturing out of Seville for the day to visit Córdoba, we found all the recommended restaurants packed out at lunchtime, as well as being alarmingly expensive for what they offered, and so ended up having much the same tapas spread as usual for lunch. We kicked ourselves pretty hard later, when we stumbled upon El Astronauta for a late-afternoon beer and read their lunch menu, which looked inventive, exciting, and tasty. A pity we were too stuffed with fried food to manage anything there.

El Astronauta

We tried to be relatively frugal throughout our stay in Spain, sticking to tapas bars wherever possible, but we did splash out a bit on lunch at ConTenedor, which prides itself on market-fresh produce and hosts art exhibitions on some days of the week. There was nothing vegetarian to be found on the menu at all, but the lovely French waitress managed to convince the kitchen to produce a plate of their rice and mushrooms (much better than it sounds!) without the promised duck. Paul nursed an admittedly naïve and unfounded hope that his jamón iberico and bread might come with “some sort of salad” – as if! Sherry again for me, and we finished with a meltingly tender chocolate fondant to share.

ConTenedor

So now it’s just a question of trying to adjust to not starting every meal with a sherry, not having a sleep in the afternoon, and having to wear layer upon layer of clothing every time I leave the house. Sad times.

I’m not an ice cream fanatic by any means – I don’t think I’d ever order it on its own as a dessert – but under the right circumstances I have a real soft spot for a good gelato. Scoop, conveniently located quite close to my office in Covent Garden, does a great pistachio gelato, although I’m often put off by the long post-work queues on hot summer evenings. After a difficult day on Wednesday, I managed to convince Paul to accompany me on a walk down Shaftesbury Avenue to Gelupo. (It wasn’t difficult.)

As well as gelato, Gelupo also sells granita in various delicious flavours like sour cherry or blond almond (I’m having that next time), and sorbets. I went for avocado and honey sorbet, and fennel seed and pine nut gelato; Paul chose two gelati: chestnut, and coffee, ricotta and honey.

Left: fennel seed and pine nut gelato; avocado and honey sorbet. Right: coffee, ricotta, and honey gelato; chestnut gelato (buried underneath).

The avocado and honey sorbet was pretty nice, but the fennel seed and pine nut gelato was everything I hoped it would be. Absolutely and unusually delicious. Paul’s selections were, if possible, even better: the coffee, ricotta, and honey gelato was rich, creamy and tasted beautifully of all its ingredients, and the chestnut one tasted exactly like an ice cream version of the Clément Faugier sweetened chestnut purée that I’m really very fond of eating straight out of the tin.

The flavours on offer at Gelupo change regularly and have been known to include a blood orange granita that I will most definitely have to try. Anyway, I’ve got a loyalty card now so it’d be rude not to go back.

A vegetarian at the Anchor & Hope? I know, I know – it seems so wrong. But I promise I’ve been very well fed there in the past. More than anything else, I love the bustling atmosphere of the bar that spills over into the restaurant, the heavy red velvet curtains that divide the two sections, the buzz of the crowd, and that joyful moment when a waiter fights his way through them all to tell you that you finally have a table.

On a rainy Thursday evening, Laura and I splashed our way along The Cut to one of my favourite pubs. It was her first visit (it featured on her wish-list for 2010), and my heart sank when I saw how busy the bar was. How would we find anywhere to linger over our pre-dinner drinks, let alone to sit down and eat? We were warned of an hour-long wait for a table, which disappeared in a blur of verdicchio, Guinness, and gossip. Finally seated around a corner of a table for six, I was a little disappointed by my available menu options. Not to worry – I’d known what I was letting myself in for, and a quick iPhone search revealed that leeks gribiche was, indeed, vegetarian. I plumped for that, along with a green salad and new potatoes. Laura could be more adventurous, and chose a cuttlefish and ink risotto and a small plate of bresaola, and I treated myself to a glass of prune and prosecco fizz to make up for my restrained dinner.

Leeks gribiche

The leeks were beautifully cooked – tender, but still flavoursome – and the tasty sauce added a very welcome hit of rich, dairy goodness. Laura later declared her risotto to be “awfully nice”, and tucked into the bresaola with gusto.

Bresaola; cuttlefish risotto; new potatoes (obvs); leeks gribiche

I’d already made my mind up that a dessert was most definitely in order, shared or otherwise. Luckily, Laura was of the same opinion, and we shared a quince and almond tart that was, without a doubt, the highlight of the meal for me. The tart was stickily glazed, with quince cooked to tender perfection and beautifully buttery pastry, and came topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream. As we headed out into the dark, damp night and the infinitely less convivial surroundings of the Victoria line, I was warmed by the memory of such a fantastic dessert.

Quince and almond tart

Last Saturday, I woke up as excited as a child on Christmas morning. The day had finally arrived! After months of waiting, Helen and I were finally off to our cupcake decorating class at the Make Lounge. Our class was led by Janine Rose, who runs a bespoke cake business and was the sort of excellent teacher who made everything look easy.

The Make Lounge is a lovely place, where you find yourself believing that all manner of crafts are perfectly possible, if only you had access to the supplies conveniently offered in their shop, and a patient teacher. And maybe some sort of manual dexterity. After we and our classmates were ushered into the long, light workshop, our first task was learning how to quickly and easily make a piping bag from a piece of baking parchment. I was dangerously close to losing my enthusiasm straightaway, as I battled with my paper before finally, with a bit of help, ending up with something that might do the job.

Using these bags, we then practiced piping lettering with buttercream. I can sort of see how I might learn to do this in a more accomplished fashion if I had a never-ending supply of buttercream and a steadier hand, but my efforts mostly looked like a shaky old lady’s handwriting. I apologise in advance if you get a cake from me while I’m still learning.

The most exciting part of the class was decorating our cupcakes (we were given seven to customise and take home) with coloured, piped buttercream, as a base for further embellishment:

The first stage

We were let loose on a variety of paste colours, resulting in some outlandish colour combinations around the table. Once the buttercream was in place, it was time to really go to town with sprinkles, glitters, and dyed marzipan hearts, stars, and flowers. All restraint disappeared at this stage:

My favourite!

I can wholeheartedly recommend this class – it’s not cheap, but you’re given all the guidance, techniques, and tools you need to produce a box of cupcakes that you’ve decorated entirely by yourself. I splashed out a bit in the shop afterwards on heart- and star-shaped plunge cutters (those things are amazing), and am confident that I’ll be able to recreate something suitably lurid and sparkly at home now. I’ve never found making the cakes themselves as much of a challenge as making them look pretty, but I definitely feel like I’m a step closer.

Cold, damp, and miserable on Tottenham Court Road last night, Paul and I had a brainwave. Where was guaranteed to cheer, warm, and feed us? Of course: The Salt Yard. Forget the fact that we hadn’t intended to eat out at all that evening. As buzzy and bustling as it was on our last visit a couple of years ago, we managed to score a couple of stools in the upstairs bar for drinks and tapas. The warm welcome and convivial atmosphere was exactly what we needed after trudging round the shops in the rain, and after a fino for me and a white wine for him we were sufficiently revived to consider the food menu.

Paul went for tuna carpaccio with baby broad beans and salsa verde, and we shared fried violet artichokes with pine nut purée and black olive oil, deep-fried courgette flowers filled with Monte Enebro cheese and drizzled with honey, patatas fritas with romesco sauce and aioli, and chargrilled bread with olive oil. The artichokes were crispy nuggets of deliciousness, and the purée added smoothness and substance. I have the courgette flowers every time I visit the Salt Yard, which used to be much more often, and although I was disappointed to note that the plate of three flowers has now shrunk to two, the quality was as high as ever; a perfect balance of crispness, melting cheese, sweet honey, and green freshness from the courgette. I really must learn to make them myself. Even though the patatas fritas were blatantly just chips, they were good ones and the duo of dips classed them up. Chargrilling had added a lovely hint of smokiness to the bread, although the accompanying dish of oil was redundant considering the bread had already been liberally drizzled.

By the time we headed back out into the night, the restaurant was fit to burst, and soggy diners waiting for their tables were queuing around us. It’s definitely worth booking a table in the downstairs restaurant for a more relaxed meal, but the bar’s the place to be if you’re after a more authentic tapas-style experience (and lighting that’s too low for photography, hence the lack of pictures here). Just make sure you have the courgette flowers.

I’ve been something of a regular visitor to Terroirs since it opened near Charing Cross station last year. I think it’s exactly what the Covent Garden area needed; a haven of good food and fine wines away from the overpriced tourist traps. The fact that it’s conveniently located near my workplace is neither here nor there… honestly. The delicious food, friendly service, and convivial, bustling atmosphere mean that it’s become my first choice for a weekday lunch that’s just a bit special.

One of the main reasons I’ve been back to Terroirs several times is the caponata from their selection of ‘small plates’ – more than enough for lunch when accompanied by their excellent bread – it’s seriously, meltingly delicious and is served with goat’s curd and garlic toast. Seasonal eating being what it is, however, it was absent from the menu on last Friday’s visit. C’est la vie. Instead, I tucked into a bright bowl of autumnal pumpkin soup with parmesan and chestnuts (delicious and beautifully textured – I saved the chestnuts till last to enjoy them all the more), accompanied by a green salad and a glass of verdicchio. Laura’s snails, bacon, garlic and parsley were, I’m told, rich, tasty, and very garlicky indeed.

With the aforementioned bread, the soup would have been plenty for lunch on a normal day. However, I was recovering from the flu and desperate to get back on the eating horse, and there was no way I was leaving without trying the salted butter caramel crêpes:

Although they eventually defeated me, I’m so very pleased I tried them. The caramel was cooked to just the right side of dark and bitter, and the sprinkling of salt cut through the sweet sauce for a perfect balance.

Laura opted for the pear and almond tart:

I’m not much of a pear fan but this was excellent, with moist sponge and biscuity, buttery pastry of the kind I long to be able to make myself. We left Terroirs stuffed to the gills, but oh so very happy. So happy, in fact, that I’m going back next week, possibly to try out the newly opened downstairs restaurant. I can’t imagine that it’ll be anything less than fantastic.