Murray Blake

London food blogger


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Po Cha

56 St Giles High St, WC2H 8LH
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road
020 73797381
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Stuck for decent lunch options in Soho, my friend suggested we head to “K-Town” – a row of down at heel looking Korean restaurants behind Centre Point and a short walk from Oxford Street.  I had never eaten Korean food before, and, conscious of quite a few new Korean restaurants springing up around London, I was keen to see what all the fuss was about.  We chose Pho Cha because it appeared the busiest and most inviting of the restaurants in K-Town, it also seemed to have a predominately Asian clientele.  The restaurant is split over two floors, with the downstairs dining area being a bit more dingy than the main area on the ground floor – we arrived pretty early and were able to get a seat at the bar in the main room.  The space is dark and low ceilinged, and takes turns at becoming very dark as large buses stop directly outside.  The tinny Korean pop being played on loop and non-English speaking waiters add to the authentic atmosphere.

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They do a great value set lunch menu for £5.50 which involves a main dish and rice along with kimchi or miso soup.  The main menu is quite long and I think some items are lost in translation; starters seem to be mostly pickled vegetables, supplemented by dumplings and “pan cake”; there is a small section of rice cake dishes followed by stews and then cold and hot noodle dishes.  I was keen to try kimchi (fermented Napa cabbage) and so ordered the kimchi stew from the set lunch menu which was served in a hot stone dish and based on pork and tofu with a spicy stock and rice.

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The food arrived very quickly, blocks of tofu and nuggets of pork sizzling menacingly in a stone throne – the rice was spooned straight from a rice cooker behind the bar and was wonderfully sticky yet still firm.  Once the dish had cooled to a suitable eating temperature (which was about five minutes after serving) we tucked in – starting with the creamy, light tofu which was enhanced by the rich pork stock.  The pork chunks were not plentiful, but they were soft and slightly fatty, so they melted in the mouth.  And the kimchi was amazing – tart, slightly bitter and with a lovely crunch, it warmed the cockles of my heart.  The non-smiling staff were efficient but generally aloof, although they did seem amused by my taking pictures of the menu.  I will definitely be going back to try their a la carte offerings and discover what “pan cake” is.

Verdict: great value, healthy and seemingly authentic food 7.5/10


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Artusi

161 Bellenden Rd, SE15 4DH
Nearest tube: Peckham Rye
020 3302 8200
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Artusi received a glowing write-up from Peckham resident Jay Rayner a few months ago, but seems to have been off the radar of most London bloggers ever since (North London bias perhaps?).  I decided to head along to offer an impartial opinion and to sniff out any potential home-bias from Jay.

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Artusi is nestled in the recently gentrified Bellenden village, a place where hip new restaurants and artisan butchers sit shoulder to shoulder with greasy kebab shops and Caribbean fruit and veg shops.  It’s interior is stripped back using a coolly understated palette of white, grey, slate and charcoal.  Plain wood tables are crammed into the relatively small dining area which is topped by an open kitchen.  The menu is short, seasonal and keenly priced, with three starters (£5), two pasta dishes (£6 or £10.5 for a larger portion) and three mains (£13) on offer.

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We opened with mortadella – a pork cold-cut from Bologna, laced with garlic and pistachio nuts.  The portion was very generous: the fatty, flavoursome, meat had a slight garlic aftertaste – for me, it was very enjoyable but I imagine that some would find it’s richness a bit heavy going.  Our other starter was seared ox heart with salsa verde – the meat was served rare but had been properly rested so it almost melted in the mouth.  The salsa verde was zingy, lifting the strong flavour of the ox heart and lending clean citrus undertones.

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For our pasta main we chose pappardelle with artichoke.  The pasta had certainly been made in-house using good quality eggs, giving it a fantastic yellow colour; it was rolled very thinly and cooked so it retained a bit of bite.  The artichokes were (I think) steamed and then soused in a butter sauce.  This dish was a reminder of the amazing pasta dishes that I have eaten on holiday in Italy – it was by far the best pasta dish I have eaten in the UK.

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We followed the pasta with old spot pork, beans and artichoke. The pork had been slow cooked and was so soft it could have been eaten with a spoon.  It had been finished in a little olive oil, with cream and a hint of parsley.  Texture was added by the earthy, nutty beans and freshness by the artichoke.  An incredibly simple, but beautifully executed dish.

Verdict: humble, great value food in a relaxed, yet stylish setting 9/10

 


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José

104 Bermondsey Street, SE1 3UB
Nearest tube: London Bridge
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Following a tenure as head chef at Tapas Brindisa, José Pizzaro opened José in 2011 – it was the first of London’s new wave of stripped-back, authentic tapas restaurants (also see Bar Tozino).  Pizzaro is from Extremadura, a distinctive region of Spain which borders Portugal – the area is famous for its agriculture and in particular, the black Iberico pigs which munch mounds of acorns in oak groves.

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José does not accept bookings and has very few seats, so expect to stand for a chunk (or possibly all) of your visit.  The staff will take drinks orders when you are in the queue and are great at keeping track of your place in the pecking order, meaning you can wait, relax and enjoy your drink.  The chalkboard menu is short and simple, featuring some old classics like tortilla but also including some more unusual Spanish regional dishes, like Catalan butifarra (described below).

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We started with a safe bet, patatas bravas (£5), the potatoes (which I think were maris piper) had good colour and were perfectly crispy.  They came smothered in a rich tomato and garlic sauce, which was finished with a hint of paprika.  There was also a generous helping of very garlicky aioli which had been freshly prepared with good quality eggs.  Our next dish was a russian roulette of padron peppers (£5) – whilst the majority were mild and refreshing, a couple of them were so spicy that they made my eyes water.  Supposedly around a fifth of the peppers turn out hot, depending on the amount of water and sunlight they are exposed to.

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When I spotted butifarra (£7) on the menu I couldn’t resist it, I have fond memories of munching butifarra in Catalonia: raw and thinly sliced, grilled with white beans or fried atop sliced bread.  José’s offering was served in pisto, which is a Spanish slant on ratatouille, featuring courgettes and peppers.  It was tasty enough, but a bit underseasoned.  The butifarra was disappointing: the quality of the meat was not great, it seemed more like offal rather than (as it should have been) leg, shoulder and loin. It must be very hard to source good quality butifarra in Britain; this was possibly an English butcher’s failed attempt to recreate it.

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We finished with fried calamares and octopus (£9) which were wonderfully fresh, encased in a light and thin batter – the squid was melt in the mouth and had a mild, sweet flavour; the baby octopus was firm and meaty.  And a final note on the (entirely Spanish) wine and sherry lists: these are generally served by the glass and are listed on the blackboard by vineyard (not grape) – so unless you know a lot about Spanish wine I would advise you to ask the staff for some guidance.

Verdict: simple, great value Spanish food in a fun, bustling atmosphere 7.5/10


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Gymkhana

42 Albemarle St, W1S 4JH
Nearest tube: Green Park
020 3011 5900
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Gymkhana opened in September 2013 and is the sister restaurant of Michelin-starred Trishna in Marylebone.  It has received rave reviews from all the major critics (scoring 10 out of 10 from Giles Coren in the Times) and was recently voted as the best restaurant in the UK in the national restaurant awards.  Gymkhana is a British colonial term for a sports club and the decor (leather, dark wood and marble) emulates an ex-pat Gentleman’s club.  Chef patron Karem Sethi is a North London boy who started his working life as a caterer, and following a stint in the kitchen at Zuma, opened Trishna at the tender age of 23.  He has since set up the Sethi group which provides financial backing for a number of restaurants in London and abroad, including Bubbledogs.

The menu at Gymkhana is relatively short and relies on British ingredients, including an interesting range of game (roe deer, guinea fowl, pigeon, quail, muntjac). In addition to a selection of fairly typical Indian starters, they offer “nashta” which are tapas style sharing dishes, and a range of meat, seafood and vegetable tikkas.

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We started with the now infamous kid goat methi keema, with bheja (brain) on the side (£14) – this was the highlight of the meal for me, the minced goat meat was full of flavour, almost gamey but with just the right fat content so that it was not dry.  The pao buns served alongside were slightly sweet and similar to brioche, they were a perfect way to mop up the fenugreek stock of the curry.  And finally, the brain (top right in the picture above) was glorious – rich, gelatinous, melt in the mouth……certainly my culinary highlight of 2014.

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The rather diminutive duck dosa (£8.50) was served in a pancake tipi, the sheltering meat was dense, fibrous and only lightly spiced.  Our final starter, a quail kebab with green chilli chutney was rather underwhelming – the meat was characterless and the chutney, whilst light and refreshing, needed stronger spicing to tart up the lackluster meat.

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Tandoori Guinea Fowl (£20) utilised both leg and breast – the meat was superbly tender and had the perfect level of tandoori smokiness; the charred skin added texture and depth of flavour.  The menu advertised a “green mango chat” and I was hoping for a light mango salad, rather than some splinters of mango atop a whole chopped red onion (see above).  The quality of the meat in the Nalli Lamb Kebab (£25) was again very good and the light spicing allowed the deep flavour of lamb to come through.  We finished with suckling pig vindhaloo (£18) – the waitress had warned us that this was very spicy but the resulting dish was, by modern British standards, at most medium spiced.  The curry was delicate enough, the sweet subtleness of the suckling pig was lost in the spicing.  And a final note on the pricing – I think that the main courses are a tad overpriced, especially given portion sizes are small, but I am happy to pay a premium for cooking of this quality.

Verdict: a certainty to get a Michelin star this September – book as soon as you can 9/10


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Reviews from North to South

(Far) North
White House Express
63 Brent Street, Hendon, NW4 2EA
Nearest tube: Hendon Central
020 82032427
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White House is a Kosher Israeli grill restaurant in the London-Jewish heartland of Hendon.  Bizarrely, the menu strays into Thai dishes, but I would stick to the traditional middle eastern grills, which include Shishlik (Israeli lamb Shish kebab), Sharwarma and Shnitzel.  You can choose from a wide range of salads and sides with all the meat dishes – I opted for a bit of everything and was rewarded with creamy coleslaw, tart red cabbage, sour refreshing gherkin, and the star of the show, sweet roasted onions.  My beef kebab (£15) was served with a tasty char on the outside; the inside was slightly pink and completely melt in the mouth.  The meat had just the right fat content to make the kebab juicy, but not fatty.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hummus was fantastic – it had a deep, earthy flavour with bitter tahini undercurrents.  The photo below does not do the meal justice – this was a truly refined and perfectly executed dish.  I washed my food down with a quaffable kosher red from Argentina which was very reasonably priced at £4 for a large glass.

Verdict: Geshmak! 9/10

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North
The Elk in the Woods
37-39 Camden Passage, N1 8EA
Nearest tube: Angel
020 72263535
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website; map

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Elk is a Scando-British restaurant/bar a few steps from Upper Street.  The decor owes inspiration to Swedish summer houses, hipster East London bars and Victorian public toilets…..it is a real mismash, but manages to achieve both individuality and comfort.  They serve an extremely popular and diverse breakfast menu including elk sausage baked eggs and smoked cod kedgeree (they also use Monmouth beans for their coffee).  Unfortunately, it is a bit far for me to drag myself on a weekend morning, so we went for dinner on a busy Friday night. The menu is long, rich and rather spendy: we started with elk kebab (£6.5) with apple and bacon, the meat was smoky but rather chewy – a rather disappointing signature dish.  More pleasing was the special of smoked cauliflower (£5) which had a nice balance of creaminess and smokiness.  For main course I had home smoked duck, braised chicory, dumplings and pickled cherries (£15.5) which was also a bit disappointing, the dish was too sweet and the duck overly smoked.  The accompanying dumplings were under-seasoned and their texture was stringy.  For dessert I couldn’t resist the homemade popcorn ice cream sandwich with salted caramel (£5.1) but in reality the dish was highly calorific, the sandwich was made of pan loaf and the popcorn stone cold.  I pride myself on having a tummy of steel, but after all of the rich dishes, lots of meat and very few greens I felt rather ill.  I think the menu needs to be slimmed down, the smoking tamed and portion sizes (and prices) trimmed.  The concept is good but the execution needs some more work.

Verdict: less is more 5/10

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Central
Koya
49 Frith Street London,
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Rd
020 74344463
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There was great hype and long queues when Koya opened a few years ago, but now things have calmed down and you should only expect to wait on weekends and even then for a short time only.  They specialise in udon (thick wheatflour) noodles which are served in four different ways: hot noodles in hot broth, cold noodles in hot broth, cold noodles with cold dipping sauce, or cold noodles with a cold pouring sauce (do you follow?!).  There is a lot of labour in the production of the noodles – they are made fresh every day and painstakingly rolled out by foot (thankfully covered in plastic sheeting).  I opted for the day’s special of hot noodles in hot pork and miso broth, topped with a tempura langoustine (£7.9).  The broth was complex and salty, with bags of umami; the noodles were firm and slightly sticky – simple but very tasty food.  Udon is essentially fast food in Japan and I suppose the service/atmosphere at Koya reflects this – it is rather clinical and does not encourage you to linger for long.

Verdict: simple, good value Japanese fast food 7/10

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South
Brindisa Food Rooms
41 – 43 Atlantic Road, SW9 8JL
Nearest tube: Brixton
0207 733 0634
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website; map
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Brindisa have a London mini-chain of tapas restaurants and Spanish produce shops – their home base is at Borough market and they have restaurants in Shoreditch, South Kensington and Soho.  They have recently opened up in Brixton, a few minutes’ walk from the tube station.  The shop has a tiny kitchen and mainly serves “Llescas” – a Catalan invention of stale bread slices rubbed with tomato and garlic then topped with cured ham or vegetables.  We started with a wonderful white asparagus, chive and soft cheese dish (£5.25) – the asparagus was earthy and fresh (we should really grow more white asparagus in the UK) nicely complemented by the mild soft cheese.  We followed with some decent Salchichon (£3.95) and Chorizo (£5.25) which was of better quality than you can buy in the supermarket – the portions were generous and the dish was served with side salad.  The menu is small and not very diverse, which lead us to order a Manchego Llesca (£5.45) even though I think that Manchego cheese is rather boring, again the cheese was of decent quality but it did not have enough character to be exciting. We finished with a grilled anchovy dish (£5.75)- the anchovies were large and meaty with a nice level of saltiness.  Their wine list is very reasonably priced – the cheapest glass is £3.75.

Verdict: a limited choice of good quality produce treated well 7/10

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Berners Tavern

10 Berners Street, W1T 3NP
020 7908 7979
Nearest tube: Goodge Street
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2013 was a big year for Jason Atherton.  He was declared the best dressed chef in the UK by GQ (surprising, given when seen on TV he normally looks like a gaunt East Enders underling) and then much more importantly, the Social Eating House was awarded a Michelin star, becoming his second starred restaurant.  His  restaurant empire (up to 13 at my last count) continues its expansion across London and South East Asia, with Berners Tavern being the most recent addition.  It is situated in the swanky Edition hotel a few minutes’ walk from Oxford Street; the dining room has grand pretenses – it is capped with an immensely high ceiling adorned with intricate cornicing and dribbling nouveau riche chandeliers.  It is trying very hard to be stylish and it is certainly an apt setting in which to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail.   From a small and generally citrusy selection I chose “Dill or No Dill” (£11.50) which was a refreshing mix of Tanquery gin, smashed cucumber and fresh dill, with a hint of lemon juice and elderflower syrup. Surprisingly, the weedy sourness of the dill worked very well with the fragrant gin and sweet syrup – highly recommended.

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The head chef is Phil Carmichael who has served under Atherton for almost ten years, starting as a senior sous chef at Maze London, then going on to work in Prague and Cape Town.  His menu has a nice mix of meat and seafood dishes (but only has a token handful of vegetarian options) – the focus is on French bistro food, supplemented by some grand sharing plates, including chateaubriand and whole baby line caught bass.  It has received rave reviews from the majority of critics – Zoe Williams in the Telegraph archaically stated that “one struggles to find fault” with the Tavern.

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However, it is with a heavy heart that I report that we made a horrendous ordering error…..we chose the appealing sounding “British Fruits of The Sea”, which included dressed crab, langoustines, clams, cockles, whelks and periwinkles, all served over ice for a cool £65.  The dish was very grandly served and looked extremely pretty, but unfortunately did not deliver on any level.  Everything was very cold and slightly congealed – it seemed like it had been cooked at best first thing in the morning, and worst the day before.  The clams were tasteless and contained a lot of sand – I don’t think they had been left to rest in water to tease the worst of the sand out of them – I suspect a lazy commis chef may have plopped them straight into boiling water. The periwinkles were small, black “common” winkles – I attempted to skewer the body out of around 50 of these little buggers but I only succeeded in actually retrieving about 4. The whelks were plentiful but extremely dull – I struggle to believe that they were not cooked from frozen.

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The meal was somewhat salvaged by the chunky, sweet langoustines and the creamy/salty dressed crab, but these did not sufficiently wash away the bitter taste from my mouth – it is not acceptable to charge £65 for a dish of such poor quality.

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Thankfully, we finished with a remarkable coconut creme brulee with pineapple, coconut and Malibu sorbet (£8.5) – the texture of both the brulee and the sorbet was silky smooth, the alcohol and sweetness perfectly balanced.  Our other dessert was possibly my favourite so far of 2014: chocolate rice pudding with orange star anise jelly, white chocolate and orange sorbet (also £8.5) – the quality of the chocolate was excellent, the rice was still firm and the consistency perfect, a real triumph. The desserts were fantastic, and a reminder of the fatal error we had made earlier in the meal.

Verdict: order anything but the fruits of the sea

 

he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf
he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf
he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf
he head chef is Phil Carmichael, who has worked with Jason Atherton for years in various capacities. He was executive chef of the ill-fated Maze in Prague, then of Maze in Cape Town, and from November 2011 has been head chef of the Jason Atherton restaurant group. – See more at: http://www.andyhayler.com/restaurant/berners-tavern#sthash.12IreDiq.dpuf


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Peckham Refreshment Rooms

Unit 4, 12–16 Blenheim Grove, SE15 4QL
Nearest tube: Peckham Rye
020 7639 1106
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website; map

You could easily miss the refreshment rooms – it is on a quiet street of Afro-Carribean hairdressers and the exterior is unadorned, save for a little printed menu by the door.  It’s name is a nod to Peckham’s past, deriving from what is now the Bun House pub on Peckham High Street but was originally called The Refreshment.  I am going to avoid ranting on about the gentrification and Hipsterfication of South London – have a read of Jay Rayner’s glowing review if you are interested in the changing sociology of the area.  Instead, I will focus on the food, which was delicious……

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The restaurant may seem a tad ramshackle, but don’t be fooled – a lot of thought has gone into the concept: it is the brainchild of Sven Munder, an Oxbrige educated arts strategist who is one of the crew behind the ever popular Frank’s cafe.  He has been one of the driving forces behind the regeneration of Peckham and works closely with local artists and galleries.  The interior is stripped back, with high formica tables and uncomfortable seats: this is not a place to linger; the service is quick and efficient, the atmosphere bustling.  As is typical of new wave restaurants, the menu is pared down, offering bar snacks, cheese and charcuterie plates to start, followed by seven main course choices.

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We started with some wonderfully meaty, sweet mussels, swimming in a light cream sauce with shallot and garlic (£7) – simple and homely, but very well executed food.  We followed this with parmesan and truffled honey (£6) – the slices of parmesan were large and generous: crumbly, dry and full of flavour – the truffled honey a perfect sweet and punchy counterpart.

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The gnocchi (£8) were much larger than I was expecting: their texture was soft and they had a rich crunchy exterior enhanced by a touch of parmesan.  They were light, fluffy and not at all gloppy – anyone that has been put off gnocchi by chewy, tasteless supermarket offerings or the efforts of highstreet Italian restaurants would be converted by this dish.  We rounded off a fantastic meal with a decadent treacle tart which had been freshly removed from the oven.

Verdict: rustic and homely, but ultimately great value, fantastic food 9/10.

 

 

 

 

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