Murray Blake

London food and coffee writer


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The Begging Bowl & Mohsen

The Begging Bowl
168 Bellenden Rd, Peckham, SE15 4BW
Nearest tube: Peckham Rye
020 7635 2627
Click to add a blog post for The Begging Bowl on Zomato
website; map

“Its signature dish was a great big mulch centred on a banana leaf. I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say it looked about as appetising as a stewed triffid. It was hair-raisingly good.” Zoe Williams, The Telegraph

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The Begging Bowl opened in 2012 and was one of the first new wave restaurants to arrive in Peckham’s Bellenden road.  Head chef and co-owner Jane Alty hails from New Zealand and learnt her trade in some of London’s best kitchens, including Galvin at Windows and Bibendum.  A stint travelling through Asia led her to fall in love with Thai food and when she returned to London she joined the team at David Thompson’s Thai trailblazer, Nahm, spending over three years there including a spell working in Bangkok.  Alty’s food isn’t traditionally Thai and has more of a street food slant to it.  The Begging Bowl has an odd menu set-up: four circular symbols in different colours at the top suggest portion size and prices (ranging from small at £6.25 to large at £14.50), which I think is a bit naff.

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Our first dish was disappointing – grilled aubergine salad with minced prawns and a duck egg (£8.25).  The egg was served cold and hard-boiled, the aubergine was also cold and under-seasoned; the prawns were unremarkable. Much better was the grilled baby squid with homemade chilli oil (£6.25) – the squid was cooked perfectly, it was light, soft and not at all chewy; the spicing was spot on.

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Having read some good write-ups of the Rabbit green curry (£12) I was keen to try this (Alty makes her own curry paste) – it contained both apple and pea aubergines and some sharply flavoured Thai basil.  The sauce was thin and the homemade paste was lost in a sea of coconut milk.  There was a scanty amount of meat: it was overcooked and slightly rubbery.  On a positive note, the vegetables were cooked perfectly and the medium-hot spicing had just the right amount of chilli kick.  More pleasing was the stone bass and cockles in coconut curry (£12) – the large chunks of bass were meaty and cooked so that the flesh was still firm.  The light but slightly spicy sauce brought some interest to the fish which isn’t especially packed with flavour.

Verdict: a disappointment 5/10

Mohsen
152 Warwick Rd, W14 8PS
Nearest tube: Earl’s Court
020 7603 9888
Click to add a blog post for Mohsen on Zomato
map

“…..prices are low for this part of west London, the service is extremely friendly and the café-like decor offers a laid-back alternative to some of the capital’s more showy Persian restaurants.” Time Out

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Mohsen is a decade old Persian restaurant on Warwick Road, a short walk from Earl’s Court tube.  The interior has been recently made over and is rustic, with rural Iranian artwork on the walls and simple furnishings.  I have read about brusque and inattentive service in many reviews (eg see Andy Hayler) but I won’t be able to comment as I visited with my Persian friend who spoke to the staff in Farsi and we received excellent service.  The highlight of the meal was the wonderful Persian naan which is made to order using a traditional oven sitting in the window of the restaurant – this is a thin and slightly crispy naan, laden with sesame seeds and was wonderful straight from the oven.  We opted for a simple yoghurt and shallot dip which was light and fresh, working well with the bread.

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We shared ox tongue (£5) as a starter which was served in a white sauce enhanced with some turmeric and a hint of saffron – the tongue melted in the mouth and had a mild, beef-like flavour.  The sauce was pleasant enough but there was too much of it.  For main course I had Koresh Badjeman (braised lamb and aubergine £10) with rice – the aubergine was sweet, not at all bitter or greasy.  The morsels of lamb could have been cut with a spoon and the tomato based sauce was nicely seasoned and (of course) had a hint of saffron.

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We finished with some saffron ice cream which was certainly homemade (and contained the odd ice crystal) but that I still really enjoyed.  They don’t have an alcohol licence but you can bring your own bottle (there is no corkage charge); they also don’t accept debit or credit cards.

Verdict: authentic Persian food at bargain prices 6.5/10

 

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More reviews – no. 3

Smoking Goat
7 Denmark Street, WC2H 8LZ
Nearest tube: Tottenham Court Road
map
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The food at Smoking Goat isn’t finger-licking good, it’s fist-and-wrist-and-possibly-elbow-and-knee-licking good.” Marina O’Loughlin, The Guardian

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The smoking goat opened last autumn and its rough and tumble, messy Northern Thai street food has received a lot of attention since then, with favourable reviews from Marina, Fay and even a minor royal.  Head chef Seb Holmes was poached from another Thai kitchen, the Begging Bowl in Peckham, and is joined by Gino Tighe who previously worked at The Quality Chophouse.  It is situated in a former Soho dive bar – space is tight with around 40 covers, most of which are seated around the bar  and the smell of the smoky wood ember barbecue permeates the whole room.  They employ the requisite no bookings policy and score extra hipster points for having no phone or website.  A lot of reviews have focused on the queuing, darkness and noise, but I didn’t encounter problems with any of these: I arrived early (just before 7pm) and was seated straight away; for me, the atmosphere was fun and buzzy.  The menu is short and sweet with a handful of choices for each course – starters are up to £6 and mains £15-20.

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We started with the popular fish sauce wings (£6) – these were the biggest wings I have ever eaten (monster chickens?) and came deep fried, smothered in sesame seeds and sticky, crispy batter.  The meat was dark and packed with flavour, with only a subtle hint of fishiness: it was very juicy and simply fell off the bone.  Our next dish was a special of roasted whole scallops (great value at £3.50 each) – these were served in the shell complete with their coral.  The scallop had been carefully prepared and cleaned so there wasn’t any grit and the cooking was bang on: the flesh was soft and silky, with a slightly smoky finish.

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For mains we had slow roasted duck legs (£15) and pork saddle chops (£20).  The duck legs were firm and juicy, encased in a rich, sticky glaze and paired well with a lemongrass and kaffir lime dip.  The pork saddle chops were the day’s special, the meat having arrived freshly in the morning – the chops had been chargrilled and were firm, glutinous and lightly smoked. Som tam (green papaya salad) offered some light relief from all the sticky proteins – it was loaded with chilli and laced with zesty lime and sweet palm sugar.  We washed all this down with pints of Gamma Ray American Pale Ale by Beavertown which were full of vigorous hops with a nice tropical fruit finish (all for an eye-watering £6.75 a pint).

Verdict: great value Thai food in a hip setting 8/10

Luc’s Brasserie
17-22 Leadenhall Market, EC3V 1LR
Nearest tube: Bank
020 7621 0666
Luc's Brasserie on Urbanspoon
website (it plays an annoying tune); map

Luc’s Brasserie has been fattening up pinstriped Lloyd’s underwriters for many years, situated at the heart of Leadhall Market they serve traditional French bistro food in a relaxed setting. They offer a set price lunch menu of 3 courses for £19.95 (which is fairly reasonable given its central location)  and an a la carte with starters up to £9.50 and mains for £12.75 to £17.50.  Dishes include many French staples, including baked Camembert, steak tartare, duck confit and toulouse sausage.

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I went along for a mid-week lunch, starting with smoked haddock gratin with mussels.  This arrived very promptly and must have been pre-assembled and then finished under the grill, but the fish was fresh, firm and full of flavour; the breadcrumbs were crispy and nicely laced with cheese.  I really enjoyed the sauce which was creamy and rich (I think it might have been enhanced by a drop of fish stock).  A simple but very pleasing dish.

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Feeling unadventurous, I opted for the half of roasted chicken with frites for my main course.  Again, this arrived suspiciously quickly: the leg and breast had been separated from the body and were clumsily presented along with an old-school sauce boat of gravy.  The meat was a tiny bit dry but still fairly juicy and the skin was perfectly crispy.  The gravy was reasonable and the frites were thinly cut and freshly made. Service was fast, efficient and generally friendly.

Verdict: reasonably priced French bistro food 6.5/10

Bleecker burger
Spitalfields Market, Unit B, SP 4 Pavilion Building, E1 6EA
Nearest tube: Liverpool Street
Bleecker St. Burger on Urbanspoon
website; map

Zan Kaufman’s route to London foodie fame is an unusual one.  She started out as a New York corporate lawyer, but her love of food led her to take a second job in a Manhattan burger restaurant.  Then she decamped to the UK (her husband in British) and, inspired by KERB founder Petra Barran, bought a truck and converted it into a food van.  Her Yankee style burgers (made with rare breed meat from The Butchery in Bermondsey) quickly received rave reviews, including a 10/10 from the Burger Addict blog.  She opened a permanent space in Spitalfields market in February (although the burger van is still out and about) and I went along there for a mid-week lunch. They have a small unit near the main entrance of the market and a few picnic tables of seating around – beware, the market is covered but still outdoors, so it can get pretty chilly there.  The menu is short and sweet with the only offerings being a cheese or veggie burgers (£6), a bacon cheeseburger (£7), a double cheeseburger (£9), and the mighty Bleecker Black (£10).

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I couldn’t resist trying the Bleecker Black – a double cheeseburger with black pudding, American cheese, onion and hot sauce.  The burgers were smaller than I imagined and were cooked wonderfully medium rare though well coloured on the outside, the meat was properly seasoned   The bun was of the more traditional seeded variety (rather than brioche as is the trend these days) – it was lightly toasted, had a nice light consistency and stood up very well to the burger juices and sauce.   I enjoyed the black pudding which was moist and peppery, with a hint of crunch although it’s flavour did dwarf the burger meat somewhat.  Surprisingly, I really enjoyed the “American” cheese which was sharp and slightly sweet, it melted nicely into the burger meat and bun.

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On the side I had “angry fries” (£4) which come smothered in blue cheese and hot sauce – they are made from Maris Piper potatoes and are cut freshly (skin-on) every day.  The fries were nicely crispy, liberally salted and the little hints of skin added texture; the hot sauce wasn’t too hot but worked well with the punchy blue cheese.

Verdict: great quality burger and fries, probably my second favourite in London behind Patty & Bun 8/10

 

 


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A Medley of Reviews

Dotori
3A Stroud Green Rd, N4 2DQ
Nearest tube: Finsbury Park
020 7263 3562
Dotori on Urbanspoon
map

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Dotori serve both Korean and Japanese food.  For me, the two cuisines do not mix – bold, rambunctious and hearty Korean food bullies its delicate, healthy and subtle Japanese counterpart.  Therefore we went entirely Korean on our visit.  Their starters are mainly Japanese, with the stand-out Korean offering being the intriguing sounding kimchi pancake (£5.5); it is probably best to start your meal with kimchi – they have the option of traditional or cucumber (both £2).  We opted for the cucumber which was full of flavour – very tart and with a rich spicy body, the fermentation was perfectly measured so that the cucumber retained its crunch.  This was on par with the kimchi that I have eaten in the popular Korean restaurants near Tottenham Court Road in “K-Town”.

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Dotori have eleven Korean barbecue options (£6.5-9 with a seafood platter at £16) – we went for the safe option of beef and pear which was tasty but unremarkable: the quality of the meat was good – it had been cut very thinly, marinated in a rich soy/pear sauce and then cooked quickly.  The seafood options looked more interesting and if you like spicy food you can opt to make any of the dishes extra hot.  They also offer a range of meat, fish and tofu-based stews (£7-8) many of which involve beans, be they red, black or soy.  We had a half bottle Korean rice wine (£9.5) which was eye-wateringly strong and should not be drank by anyone with a weak constitution.  The restaurant is small, noisy, bustling and cramped but still manages to be oddly cosy, possibly because the staff are extremely friendly and the clientele unpretentious.

Verdict: definitely worth the trip to Finsbury Park but I would recommend sticking to the Korean menu 7.5/10

Roast
The Floral Hall, Borough Market, SE1 1TL
Nearest tube: London Bridge
0845 034 7300
Roast on Urbanspoon
website; map

Roast sits in the mezzanine above the bustling Borough Market and has been a successful exponent of simple British food for the past ten years.  It was founded by the man who kick started the modern “refined” curry movement in Britain, Iqbal Wahhab, owner of the Cinnamon Club.  The menu at Roast is unfussy and seasonal, boasting classics like slow roast pork belly (£22.5), hake fillet (£25) and fish and chips (£16).  This being game season, they have a whole roast grouse at £30 and redleg partridge at £24.

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They open through the week at 7am so we went along early one morning to try their supposedly famous fry-up.  The breakfast menu is curt, focusing on Sassenachian (£15) and Scottish fry-ups (£16.5)- the Scottish version boasts tattie scones and a flat sausage whilst the Anglo option centers on bubble and squeak.  I opted for the full English – the star of the show was the black pudding which is sourced from Ramsay’s of Carluke in west-central Scotland – the texture was moist but it retained a nice crunch, the spicing was subtle and the body rich and earthy.  Next best was the bubble and squeak which was composed of light and fluffy potato and slightly sweet but crunchy cabbage, along with the odd slice of carrot, I think it had been fried in butter so it was incredibly unhealthy but mightily tasty.  The fried tomatoes and mushrooms were unremarkable – they were rather tasteless and not dissimilar to standard supermarket offerings.  Both the bacon and the eggs were of decent quality and cooked well.  The major disappointment though was the sausages which are apparently a “Roast recipe” but seemed to be composed of cheap meat and were severely underseasoned.  I also had a filter coffee which was truly terrible – unfortunately the London coffee revolution has not yet reached Roast and I hope some hipster baristas invade and string up the oaf that produced such repugnant coffee.

Verdict: a breakfast that was less than the sum of its parts – it is not in the same league as Caravan and I would strongly recommend going there instead 4/10

Rasa
55 Stoke Newington Church Street, N16 OAR
Nearest tube: Stoke Newington
0207  249  0344
Rasa on Urbanspoon
website; map

Rasa is a family-run Indian mini-chain – the first (entirely vegetarian) restaurant appeared in 1994 and there are now six restaurants in the stable, including one in Newcastle.  We went to the Stoke Newington branch which is painted a gaudy bright pink and about a five minute walk from Stoke Newington train station.  The food is Keralan vegetarian (there is a meat/fish serving Rasa Travancore opposite).  We started with a great little mix of pickles and chutneys, which are all apparently home made – stand outs were the rich, smooth garlic pickle, the punchy lemon pickle and a fruity coriander chutney.  We followed with banana boli (£3.25) deep fried slices of plantain (the batter is made from chickpea flour) served with a salty/sweet peanut dipping sauce – an unhealthy but very tasty starter.

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Better still was the Bhel Mix (£3.25) which consisted of crispy chickpeas, puffed rice, crunchy noodles, peanuts and onions, all topped with chopped coriander.  We then moved onto a selection of curries (all £4.5) which were reasonable but unremarkable: the best was a beetroot and yoghurt dish with a smidgen of mustard seeds which added a slight kick, the day’s special mixed veggie curry was well spiced but its components were overcooked; our aubergine with tomato, curry leaves and coriander was simple but well executed – the aubergine was slightly sweet and not at all greasy.  We mopped these up with a fantastic paratha (£2.25) and some light, melt in the mouth poories (£2).

Verdict: an extremely tasty and great value carb overload 7/10

Busaba Eathai
319 Old St, EC1V 9LE
Nearest tube: Old Street
020 7729 0808
Busaba Eathai on Urbanspoon
website; map

Stuck for somewhere open at 11pm on a Friday night, we stumbled across Busaba Eathai, a Thai chain restaurant which now boasts eleven sites across London (they close at 11.30pm at the weekend).  Busaba serve generic, cheap and cheerful Thai food, with a range of soup and wok noodle dishes, grilled meats, curries and stir-frys.  I think they must rely on customer volume to make money (possibly coupled with cheap ingredients) because their outlets are based in prime locations and the most expensive item on the menu is £12.50.

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We started with fishcakes and peanut relish (£5.9) which on the face of it was very tasty, but a couple of hours later when we tried to get to sleep we realised that the dipping sauce must have been laced with MSG – I was hot and restless, with a thumping headache.  I wouldn’t recommend going to Busaba, but if you do end up going there (probably because everywhere else is closed) then ask for your food to be prepared without MSG.  We then moved on to a green chicken curry (£9.5) that was served in a big coconut milk broth, again there may have been MSG involved in this because the sauce was very tasty but not seemingly fresh, the chicken was plasticy and tasteless, but certainly palatable with a big spoonful of said sauce.  We also had the chilli prawn rice with mushrooms (£8.5) which was similar to the sort of meal served by high street Chinese restaurants – the rice was cooked well but the prawns were devoid of character.

Verdict: please avoid this place like the plague….but if nothing else is open apart from kebab shops then eat here but ask for no MSG in your food 1/10

Ichiban
58A Atlantic Rd, SW9 8PY
Nearest tube: Brixton
020 7738 7006
Ichiban on Urbanspoon
website; map

Opening in 1999, Ichiban was the first sushi bar in Brixton – it has survived waves of gentrification and commercialisation and still sits in its original location in Atlantic Road.  Ichiban’s history is interesting – I came across some discussion about Brixton people boycotting the restaurant due to staff mistreatment, finding a facebook protest page from 2011 stating that a Latin American couple employed in the kitchen had been dismissed and the owner had refused to pay maternity leave wages and unused holidays (also see photos here).  I was oblivious to all of this on my visit to Ichiban and will focus my review on the food, which was decent, although given this mistreatment case I am now not sure I will return.

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The menu is vanilla Japanese with a mix of sushi, sashimi, soups, curries and fried rice dishes.  The pricing is very keen with curry and teriyaki dishes all at £6.5-8, sushi pairs £2.7-4.5 and sashimi sets around £10.  After starting with a decent miso soup we opted for a range of tuna and salmon sushi and sashimi.  The fish was very well prepared and fairly fresh – the rice was rolled quite loosely and retained a bit of crunch and texture.  The dining area is very much no frills but the waiting staff were friendly and attentive.

Verdict: decent sushi 6.5/10


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Zilouf’s

270, Upper Street, N1 2UQ
Nearest tube: Highbury & Islington
020 7226 1118
Ziloufs on Urbanspoon
website; map

Zilouf’s is a Thai restaurant near Highbury tube – it does brunch, lunch and dinner, and offers a great mid-week dinner deal of 2 courses for £15.  The menu is pretty mixed from soup and steak tartare to chickpea fritters and pad thai.  You could maybe describe it as British Asian fusion.  It’s very decently priced with mains from £10 to £14, and rib eye steak at £16.  The decor is trendily mismatched with charity shop furniture and old rugs, with the atmosphere cheered up by the handsome staff who are bouncy, friendly and great at keeping you topped up.  We opted for the mid-week deal and there were about 5 starters and 5 mains on offer (expensive items like scallops were obviously not included).

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I chose the cuttlefish salad with wasabi, sesame and thai basil – this was the first time I had tried cuttlefish (possibly because I associate it with smelly fish hanging in bird cages) but I really enjoyed it.  The texture was similar to squid and it had been cooked so it still retained a nice crunch.  The thai basil was very light and fresh, and made a great pairing with the fish.

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For main, I had the veggie pad thai which featured a few varieties of wild mushroom, bean shoots and peanuts.  I really hated this – it had been cooked with too much tamarind so it had a bitter taste and it seemed under-seasoned (or maybe I am used to eating pad thai covered in msg).  I had a taste of the confit duck leg with panang curry which was delicious and made me regret choosing the veggie option.  All in all, a fun place with good service but a rather mixed up menu.

Verdict: decent cooking but I’m not sure the British Thai concept really worked for me.

Also see: London Chow and Rate my bistro.