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)