Tag Archives: restaurant

Not forty yet

It’s always tricky trying to decide where to have my and Melanie’s birthday meal. Do I plump for the easy – La Margherita or thereabouts – or try to find somewhere we haven’t been before for this particular celebration. I usually opt for something new, sometimes deciding months in advance (as last year). This year I couldn’t make up my mind.

Eventually I settled on the Fleur, having finally rejected the Punter after one tedious risotto too many on previous reconnaissance visits. I knew the Fleur would do decent food and one or two people attending hadn’t previously eaten there. Sadly we had to pre-order – tiny kitchen versus fifteen diners – but that went smoothly, my simple spreadsheet printout of who-and-what deemed “the most organised pre-order we’ve had” by the barman. The final tally was seventeen, with latecomers Nadia and ex-ANT colleague Simon squeezed in and allowed to order on the night.

A good mix of people, I thought; the usual suspects bolstered by former ANTers and more recent chums Andrew and Doron. There was even, astonishingly, some mixing between the groups.

The food was, as usual, excellent. I was slightly worried that my creamy tagliatelle would cause me some difficulties in my present confinement, though those worries were misplaced; possibly doused in alcohol. I declined dessert, since I never eat dessert (© Chef).

To round off a fine evening, the presentation of a magic voucher got us 15% off the bill for the entire table. And it doesn’t get much better than that.

Avaragado’s rating: fifteen peas



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Culture and stuff

To London yesterday, in a chill February wind, to meet a friend. The plan was to meet at Baker Street but dozens of police officers and a couple of fire engines put paid to that: some kind of alert meant a mumbled apology from the tube driver and we trundled past Baker Street to Edgeware Road.

Tannoy man at that station told us to walk back down Marylebone Road to Baker Street. All very well if you could find Marylebone Road and then know which way to walk. Humorously the iPhone Maps application had the hump and wouldn’t even find London let alone Edgeware Road. I followed my instincts; reading signs helped.

Friend located and bags dumped, we went to the Dinosaurs and Pushchairs ConventionNatural History Museum for the Wildlife Photography of the Year Exhibition. Some stunning photos. Inspiring stuff.

From there, via a cup of peppermint tea, to Mildred’s in Lexington Street. An all-veggie cafe/restaurant, packed out. We were warned it might take 30 minutes for a table but were seated in five: very lucky. The food was outstandingly good and the service quick and cheerful. I had the chargrilled artichoke crostini with lemon aioli to start: artichokes on toast, in other words. To follow, sundried tomato, bean and tarragon sausages served with grain mustard mash, green beans and a red wine and onion gravy. Absolutely delicious.

Avaragado’s rating: garlic on toast

We chose a pub-based dessert, in a place whose name I forget but which is apparently a haunt for post-performance actors etc. It turns into a members-only establishment at some point in the evening, but we arrived early enough to get in for free. Celebs spotted: zero. Another pub followed before we walked back along rapidly icing streets to the hotel.

This morning we went to see The Wallace Collection, full of those fiddly bits of furniture adorned with cherubim and seraphim and slathered in gold leaf that were all the rage in pre-revolutionary France. First stop was the posh cafe for breakfast – mint tea and an omelette – to steel ourselves for the onslaught of ostentation.

The museum included only one example of the Loud American, thankfully. Highlights included an infinite number of portraits of women with rosy cheeks and big hair, a job lot of Canalettos of Venice, and yer actual Laughing Cavalier. Very little tat, and not a patch on the Vatican Museum for sheer greed.

Avaragado’s rating: one bowl of fruit with a gratuitous monkey


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Shaving tips

The moral of Sweeney Todd appears to be: never visit a Dickie Davies-lookalike barber working above a pie shop. Oh, and never eat the pies.

Chris, Melanie and I braved the crowds at the Picturehouse last night to see Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, two shock castings for a Tim Burton movie, sing their way through various brutal slayings.

Depp’s Todd sports a direct descendant of the Jack Sparrow accent; his arrival at a grim, almost monochrome, early nineteenth century London by boat made me momentarily think I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean 4: The Dark Knight Returns, but then he bursts into song. Well, not burst exactly. He’s not Julie Andrews and we’re not up a mountain with some annoying children, a job lot of lederhosen and some rubbish Nazis. Nor does the entire cast suddenly start dancing, possessed by the tortured souls of a thousand Dick van Dyke chimney sweeps. When the time is right, characters just start singing instead of talking.

With music by Stephen Sondheim the songs are high quality; they’re altered from the stage musical but apparently not completely different. The lyrics are worth paying attention to – they’re often funny and always clever.

The only strong colour in the film – apart from one brief sequence that’s more in the mind of Bonham Carter’s Mrs MigginsLovett than reality – is red. And that’s confined to the several, spectacular scenes in which our demon barber despatches his victims, usually to a jaunty tune. If you are at all squeamish about blood – in particular, blood gushing copiously from freshly sliced necks – then I recommend watching something more pedestrian instead, like, say, Driller Killer.

From the supporting artistes, Alan Rickman plays Alan Rickman to great effect, as usual. Timothy Spall enjoys his part tremendously by the look of it, and I’m glad to say there’s a great performance – even in the songs – by child actor Ed Sanders playing Toby. Sacha “Ali G” Baron-“Borat”-Cohen appears as a rival barber, adding a touch of humour to the early stages.

It’s a fantastic film and a strong contender for my film of the year, even though it’s still January.

Avaragado’s rating: one mince pie

After the film we returned to the Picturehouse bar to join Louise, Colin and Louise#2 for a quick drink, then all six of us went for a meal at Varsity.

My only previous visit was in November or December 1988. It was near the end of my first term at college (which is why I can pin it down to those dates) and all the current Cambridge students from my school were invited to dinner by our headmaster, Chris Lowe. I’m not sure why; he never did it again.

Following the “never again” theme, I suspect my next visit to Varsity might not be for another twenty years. The food was OK but the service was appalling. It took them ages to take our order, and our waitress struggled with it – returning at least twice to clarify details. Many of the dishes weren’t available, neither was our first choice of wine.

Only two of the six starters arrived; and then a third, but it certainly wasn’t the hummous the waitress claimed it was – it was grilled halloumi – so back it went. It must have been about ten minutes later when another waiter asked us whether we were waiting for more starters. Almost as he did so more appeared, but not my hummous+pitta. Eventually I got the hummous, but the waitress mumbled “no pitta” at me and scurried off. Louise#2 shared hers with me. (The “no pitta” was a blatant lie, since more appeared later.)

It took another age for the starters to be cleared. The main courses arrived with a mumbled apology that they were running short of salad, so we got smaller portions. Nice. Louise#2 said her halloumi tasted of salt with a hint of cheese. My moussaka was OK but I wouldn’t have called it hot.

Not coincidentally, we talked for a few minutes about Fawlty Towers.

Speaking as an expert on restaurants, having watched almost all episodes of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares, I’d hazard that the kitchen had lost control of the orders on a busy night and our waitress was new on the job (and not particularly fluent in English).

Oh well. We heavily under-tipped and scarpered.

Avaragado’s rating: one tin of fruit salad

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Wherein Chef sets a new record, and other tales

It was Chef’s birthday last week so he invited us down to London for a quiet drink and a few light bites. Ahahahaha. In fact he booked a table at Enoteca Turi, which apart from being a very poor anagram for “Caution: Tree” is apparently one of the best restaurants in London. Or best Italian restaurants. Or best Italian restaurants in Putney. Or something. Chef said so.

I trained down early on Saturday afternoon and braved the crowds in the Apple store on Regent Street, successfully not buying an iPhone (not sure how long I can hold out though). Then I skipped across to Goodge Street, sidestepped loonytunes Scientologists recruiting outside their HQ near the station, and checked into the (rather posh) hotel in Bloomsbury that Mikey had booked, neither of us much fancying a night on Chef’s floor.

Chef’s detailed itinerary for the evening suggested 6pm at A Pub In Putney before 7pm at the restaurant. Mike and I made our own way to Putney, quickly discovering that neither of us had bothered to click on Chef’s link to find out where the restaurant actually was in relation to Putney Bridge tube. Chef then texted to say that they were running late; we unilaterally decided that a place called The Temperance successfully matched all important elements of A Pub In Putney and settled in with a couple of pints of Deuchars in old-man-style mugs. Flat caps, pipes and whippets were not provided.

We’d just started our second pint when Chef rang to say that his mob were going straight to the restaurant, and told us where it was: apparently we were the wrong side of the river. Putney Bridge solved that problem once we’d finished our pints, with Chef increasingly fretting via the medium of text since it turned out we only had a limited timeslot at the restaurant.

We arrived at Caution: Tree and almost immediately had to order. Proper Italian-style courses, too. I had some antipasti (v nice); something like wholemeal pasta with bits in oily, salty water (not v nice); and a pumpkin/cabbage lump arranged inside a pasta cylinder looking not unlike a big fat sushi thing (not bad). Accompanied, of course, by several bottles of wine chosen from the £££ end of the wine list. (Universal Poshness Indicator #94: new wine glass for each bottle.)

No dessert: our timeslot was up and the bill arrived with a hefty clunk. Nine of us, £606. Chef decided to pay half and our wallets were suitably grateful. God help us when he really decides to push the boat out.

Avaragado’s rating: 2 breadsticks

Back over the bridge we tubed to Tottenham Court Road and walked to Soho, having a beer or two outside in the cold at the Dog and Duck. When that shut we were directed across the road to an establishment called Garlic and Shots. In a downstairs bar we drank more beer and several of the party – but not I – moved on to shots. I did take a sip of one particularly evil concoction, I believe called a Bloodshot: like drinking fire. Chef’s friend Mark downed it in one, bless him, and spent the next ten minutes in tears.

Spirits exhausted, various flavours of bed beckoned. Chef headed home with several people in tow, and on past form they probably watched an entire series of Extras back at his while glugging more wine and with Chef cackling over all dialogue until 4am. Just a theory.

Mike and I walked back to the hotel to our beds. Here I learned the day’s amazing football results and decided that England still won’t qualify, obviously.

This morning, after checking out we wandered the streets for ages looking for a cash machine and somewhere to eat breakfast. We eventually found an acceptable little Italian cafe just off Oxford Street. Then Mike suggested the Science Museum, and it was so.

Hadn’t been there in, um, 25 years? Shocking.

Bizarrely it was Stephenson’s Rocket that got me, I guess because I wasn’t even sure it still existed. But there it was, behind ropes, the “ROCKET.” nameplate complete with punctuation in that funny way they used to have, with “No. 1” on the front. Cor.

Most of the other historical stuff was great too: the Apollo 10 command module, a V2 rocket, a 1958 Ampex video recorder, the 1919 Vickers Vimy that flew to Australia, Babbage’s actual brain, cuddly toy…

I wasn’t taken by the for-the-kidz newer interactive stuff, not being one of the kidz. I can tell you, however, that no kidz are interested in tedious Flash-like educational games even if they are projected onto a circular table. Two entire floors in one wing were closed without signage to that effect until you reached the entrance, which was pretty poor. Shame, I wanted to see someone’s laughable attempts at predicting the future.

The shop (sorry, “store”) was packed with oversugared children. We avoided buying anything; a low-tech mug was tempting but undersized, and I really don’t need a USB-powered plasma ball. I tutted disapprovingly at a “stationary set”; yes, as Mike pointed out, it wasn’t actually moving. But anyway.

Finally we took a packed tube to King’s Cross and the world’s longest WH Smith queue before boarding our respective trains home, feet complaining all the way.

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On Friday night Andrew and I decided on the spur of the moment to go for a meal at Cambridge’s (allegedly) first gastro-pub, The Punter (né Sino Tap, né The Rope and Twine, né The Town and Gown). Unlike previous name changes, which were accompanied by a lick of paint and a quick dust down, this latest refurb cost a bit more than a trolleyload at B&Q; the entire pub has been gutted.

Whereas previously the bar sat in the middle of two separate seating areas, it now lives where the old fireplace was, with one large seating area. The toilets have moved, the kitchen is now out in the old back bar (unused since the T&G era), and the former dancefloor is now a proper dining room, alongside a wood-panelled function room.

The transformation is amazing and extremely well done, if not entirely wheelchair-friendly (it’s a listed building and several hundred years old, there’s only so much you’re allowed to do). This was apparently a controversial redevelopment, but I reckon someone visiting the pub for the first time wouldn’t realise how much has changed.

On arrival Andrew and I looked around, retrieved our jaws from the floor, checked that the 10%-off voucher that came through my door the other day was still valid, and bought some drinks. We found a table off to the right, in a relatively unchanged area, and reminisced about the olden days.

To eat, Andrew chose the duck with bean cassoulet (verdict: excellent) and I tried the garden pea risotto (unusual, fine, no complaints). None of yer generic pub grub here. For dessert Andrew had the tart, I the spotted dick, and we made all the jokes ourselves thank you very much. My only complaint would be that the beer was on the turn. No, not that kind of turn.

Avaragado’s rating: two runner beans

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Cider with Herring

Chris and I took the 5.15pm train to King’s Cross on Friday – the Cider Express judging by Chris’s intake – to meet up with Chef for Richard Herring’s show at the Arts Theatre on Great Newport Street. I was also going to squeeze in a drink with someone I’ve been chatting to on and off online.

Chris’s two cans of cider on the train were followed up with two pints in the Duke of York on the platform at King’s Cross – his mum was there waiting for a train back to Hull. Chef joined us here.

Then to the evening’s second duke, the Duke of Wellington in Soho, where I was meeting my friend. Chris and Chef thankfully made themselves scarce for the duration.

At nine we headed to the Arts Theatre and took our seats in row A – the second row, the first row naturally being row BB. Nobody sat in row BB, though, so row A was effectively the first row. This mattered deeply as we expected Richard Herring’s chubby little fingers to point to us during the show, and so it proved (some nonsense about Chef sitting with me and Chris to make himself look good). At least none of us was dragged on stage.

He talked more or less non-stop for over an hour, longer than my Fisher Price bladder could last at any rate. Almost entirely new material, with a recycled Fist of Fun joke clearly identified as such. Good stuff.

Avaragado’s rating: one lollipop

After the show, since Chris and I were staying Chez Chef overnight, we wandered around looking for somewhere to eat. We settled on the Alastair Little Restaurant on Frith Street. I think Chef’s paydar must have taken us there, since it wasn’t cheap. I had what I believe was the world’s most expensive lasagne. Very tasty though.

Avaragado’s rating: two wild, absolutely livid mushrooms

We scandalously turned down dessert to avoid missing the last tube back to Chef’s in Kentish Town, where further wine was taken.

Chris and I returned to Cambridge relatively early on Saturday morning, via tube, train and, sigh, replacement bus service from Royston.

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Taster evening at the Fleur

The new-look Fleur Bar and Bistro finally opens its kitchen from September 3rd, completing the superhero triplet of Captain Alcohol, Entertainment Man and, er, The Food. Tonight it held a taster evening where interested punters could sample the dishes to be unleashed next week and the chef could make a start on the paracetamol.

How unlike this time last year, as Andrew said tonight, when landlord Malcolm would sit grumpily on his chair by the bar slowly wilting along with his customers, all held up only by the cloying fog of cigarette smoke. And where the concept of a taster evening would quite possibly fall foul of some law or another.

There was a palpable feeling of stress as we arrived. It felt as though the kitchen and the management weren’t in complete agreement about the food they were offering, but for a taster evening that didn’t matter. As expected it wasn’t a full menu, everything was bite-sized rather than plate-sized, and you got what you were given: but it was all free. Free is good.

We took a seat and wondered what would happen next. Some time later, the cellar door opened – a trap door inside the bar, health and safety field day, etc – and various staff went caving, emerging moments later with plates of meze. One of these made its way to us. Marinated artichokes, sundried tomatoes, humous, parma ham, pitta bread, cheese and black olives. We probably had enough for four, but we just kept eating; I think we left an olive and a dollop of humous.

Marinated artichoke dipped in humous tastes like porky turkey. FACT.

Next were some loud Americans. Oh, and some home-made roasted vegetable soup. Perfect: thick, textured, flavourful (yes, I am talking about the soup).

By now the pub was filling up. The soup was followed by some crostinis: a fig/goats cheese concoction (best), a beetroot-oriented pepper thingy (OK unless you’re beetroot-phobic) and a horseradish/smoked salmon lump (which I didn’t try but was apparently pretty good).

Food deliveries slowed to a crawl, possibly because we were the wrong side of the pub from the kitchen. When service came our way Andrew had a go on the pan-fried scallops on a prawn mash (in a tiny taster pot) and pronounced it good, and a much larger pile of Thai green chicken was declared “succulent” before being spirited away to another table. At that point Andrew had to leave, and as I fancied a lift home we missed out on the grilled seabass with lemon and cream and the bruschetta with peppers, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella.

It’s a very promising start indeed, given that I’d anticipated semi-plastic food and at least one Big Gay Strop™. If they can keep up this quality and drag in sufficient paying customers to make it viable, I think they can make a mark. Well worth a night out with the usual suspects once service starts for real next week.

Avaragado’s rating: one panino and another panino makes two panini

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It’s a Mini adventure

The Spade and Beckett: a place known today only in legend wherein, so the elders say, Barrie gave Julian Francis the nickname Geoffrey after the beer made him incapable.

Today it’s now La Mimosa, an Italian restaurant – another Cambridge pub lost to the overwhelming might of garlic bread. One day only the Eagle shall remain, a beercon of hope fighting to last orders against the invading hordes of Starbuckiana and the Islamic Democratic Republic of Carphone Warehouse. With Toby propping up the bar.

I seem to have digressed.

Chris, Andy, Louise, Lynda and I spent a pleasant few hours at La Mimosa on Friday night (Melanie laid low by a greek salad, apparently, and Chef unwilling to leave London on a Friday). Our conversation included, but was not limited to: facebook; the upcoming amazing Avaragado Pictures dual-action premiere night; men; women; the Mini Cooper now belonging to Andy; kittens; pants.

Avaragado’s rating: asparagus tips

After the meal Louise went home while the others accompanied me to the Fleur. We sat in the beer garden, Chris not wanting to sit inside that sort of establishment in case an act came on stage. There followed another couple of hours of nattering, interrupted by several people I knew and some I didn’t (everyone has an opinion on a Friday night), before the 1am chuck-out.

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Wagamama POTCAWE

Cambridge has in the last few weeks gained a spanking new Wagamama, hiding above All Bar One. At midday on Monday, it being a wet’n’windy Bank Holiday in the traditional fashion, we were banging on the front door begging to be fed (AKA waiting patiently for a youth to tell us we could come in, and tutting about lack of respect when an old man jumped the queue).

We were on a tight timescale – just an hour to eat and escape for the 1pm showing of Pirates of the Etc #3. A nice young man with a biro and a memory took our order promptly, scribbled it on our placemats and in his head, and wandered off. I ordered number 72 – aubergine/potato lumps in breadcrumbs, with a light curry sauce and some Japanese rice – and expected to receive something else entirely.

Meanwhile Chris told us of his exploits cycling around Ireland (well, Connemara). And Andy explained why he spent quite so much time in lifts while in Rome for work (the closest thing to a Faraday cage, apparently). And we drank a bottle of wine between us (except for Melanie, keeper of the car keys).

Happily, all numbers were correctly delivered to the appropriate placemats. My breaded lumps in curry sauce was acceptably tasty.

Avaragado’s rating: number 73

A short skip and a hop through the rain to the Picturehouse and it was time for the Johnny Depp three-hour, hereinafter called POTCAWE, presented in super-crisp digital HD. I miss cue marks already.

There’s no plot to speak of, just a sequence of set-pieces tied together with an unnervingly accurate CGI version of old rope. Much like POTCDMC in all respects. I was glad to see that Keith Richards had more than a one-line throwaway role, but it wasn’t much more. On balance a good thing; the film is long enough as it is.

I had a suspicion there’d be a post-credits scene, and there is, but we didn’t stay for it – I heard about it afterwards. Ah, I’ll google it.

Overall, my enjoyable-toshometer glows a healthy orange-yellow (contrast with POTCTCOTBP’s brilliant white). The sequeliser, however, remains firmly anchored at 2.

Avaragado’s rating: arrrrrrrrrtichokes

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Macaroons, obviously

Despite it being slap-bang in the middle of town, I’ve never been to the Jinling Noodle Bar before. Pardon me, I keep typing Noddle. I’ll try to stop. Noodle. Noodle.

According to the reviews it’s popular with Chinese students. I certainly felt very occidental (/me imagines Chris making the obvious pun) as we walked in, although there weren’t very many people there at the time.

The wine was drinkable, the spring rolls were juicy, the noodly main course was generous and unfinishable, and the bill wasn’t too bad (insert joke about Chef’s absence).

Young Mr Heckford had the Ant Climbing Up Tree. Mushy pork, I think.

Avaragado’s rating: two soups

A short dawdle along the road to the Corn Exchange, where we joined an audience we all felt privileged to be a part of, mainly because we were younger than them. For it was Acorn Antiques: The Musical.

None of the stars, obviously. The cast – including the woman from the Philadelphia advert who goes “lovely”, you know the one – gamely did their best to emulate the original performances, but there was a whiff of the uncanny valley about it all. The actress playing Julie Walters playing Mrs Overall did a very good impression, but she wasn’t Julie Walters so it just wasn’t as funny. Better than Mike “Look, it’s Frank Spencer! Ooh Betty” Yarwood, but lacking the essential Julie-Waltersness of Mrs O; the joie de vim.

We had seats not more than three or four rows from the front. A hindrance, as it happens: the band were close by, and their tootling tended to overwhelm the cast. I’m sure we missed loads of gags in the lyrics.

I’d like to see the show with the original cast. I bet it’s much funnier.

Oh, there was a real-life cock-up at the start. A curtain failed to fully retract, which we all thought was part of the act, but it wasn’t; the main curtain swished across to an apologetic announcement. Cue a few minutes of Morecambe and Wise-style bustling behind the main curtain (I imagined grizzled old stage hands played by John Junkin lookalikes in long brown jackets and flat caps) before the show continued.

Avaragado’s rating: macaroons, obviously

Chris and Melanie then gave me a lift to the Fleur, wherein I dallied for a while with Andrew and Stuart. And then Robert turned up with Richard, and shortly afterwards the pub decamped to the Rose and Crown, where Artie mumbled drunken incoherent things at me, apparently lost the world’s orangest man’s jacket and wallet, tipped a small amount of drink over my head for no discernible reason, stumbled his way to the dance floor and was very soon escorted from the building. He’s from Poland.

Bed at, uh, just after 4am. Early night.

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