Browns, Cardinal Walk, London Victoria

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Victoria Station and its surroundings have changed dramatically in the last couple of years. It is now full of pedestrian areas and buildings made of glass and steel. Cardinal walk is probably one of the oldest of these but still fits nicely into this environment. The décor and the ambience of Browns matches this well too, it is set over two floors, all glass. The restaurant is on the first floor so if you get a table by the window you can watch the world go by as you eat.

Their Pinot Grigio is good, although at over £8 for a large glass, it needs to be. They have a reasonable selection of beers and the cocktail list looks impressive although we did not try any. The service was good, our waiter was friendly and helpful, but he wasn’t really that busy, so maybe he should have picked up on our indifferent response when he enquired how the food was.

The thing that let them down was the food. The fish pie was ok, but I expect better than that when I pay over £15 for it. The only way to tell the difference between the different fish was texture, the overall effect was bland and the potato topping was runny. The steak sandwich was also all right, no butter on the bread – just mayo, but the chips were only slightly hotter than luke warm and they didn’t have any English mustard. The side order of onion rings contained four rings!

I wanted to like this place because I have enjoyed other restaurants in this chain in the past. With such a large choice of places to eat around Victoria now, average food will not get repeat business.

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The Albert Square Chophouse, Manchester.

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This restaurant is very centrally located – in a beautiful solid brick building, on the corner of Albert Square. The entrance is up a few steps to a nice bar space with a mixture of sofas and chairs. The restaurant is downstairs, it looks impressive as you descend, an industrial sized room filled with fully set dining tables, booths and banquettes. The windows are set high and the kitchen is open and visible from the dining room. The walls of both floors are lined with photos of Manchester luminaries, some recognisable others less so.

The menu is traditional British. The corned beef hash cake is a great starter, meaty and comforting. I had a rib eye steak and it was flavourful and tender, one of the best steaks that I have had. The steak and kidney pie was reportedly great too, done in the old fashioned way with suet in the pastry.

The wine list looked good, the house rose was excellent. They have a full bar, so the selection of beers is good too. The service was friendly and helpful. It is not a cheap restaurant, but everything they do is high quality, so definitely a meal to sit and savour. This is a venue for a night out, to enjoy the evening and chat after.

We ate early, 6pm, so we managed to get in without booking, but it was quite full by the time we left, so I would imagine it would need to be booked if you wanted to eat at a more popular time.

We thoroughly enjoyed it and will be back next time we are in Manchester.

The Pen and Pencil, 57 Hilton St, Manchester

pen-and-pencil-3The Pen and pencil is a great venue for breakfast/brunch. It has very social tables with benches that can easily accommodate 8 people. The menu is a little different to the usual breakfast/brunch fare, although there are some breakfast type things on there, the eggs benedict are very good, I was told. We were there on a Saturday and Sunday morning around 11ish, it was busy without being rammed.

The music is just the right level, low enough for you to discuss the night before, but loud enough that you don’t notice the ringing in your ears! The service is good, the waiter was able to describe every dish very well and seemed genuinely interested when he enquired whether we were enjoying our food.

The smoothies are interesting, I loved the “Welcome to Americana” – peanut butter, banana and a little chilli! I am told the “Salted Caramel” is good too.  I also recommend the ‘Nduja baked eggs, warm enough to clear your head after the night before. The “Eggs Pen and Pencil” is good too, really good hollandaise. They do a “Bottomless Brunch” for £40 where you can eat and drink as much as you like between 10am and 1pm. That sound like it could get messy!

Hilton Street is a trendy side road about 5 minutes away from Piccadilly Gardens and even less from the rail stations, you will know you are getting close when you start seeing street art dotted around the walls. If there is a group of you and you are staying in separate hotels, it is the perfect place to meet your mates the following morning! Recommended!

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Royal Dragon Restaurant, Gerrard Street, London, W1

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Royal Dragon is in the heart of Chinatown on Gerrard Street. Decorated in browns and creams; when you step in, it is calm, away from the bustle just outside the door.

We had dim sum to start, Prawn dumplings and pork dumplings served in stacked bamboo servers. These were very flavorful and they were accompanied by a small dish of sweet chilli sauce and a dish of hot chilli sauce.

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This was followed by crispy duck with pancakes and a plum sauce. The duck was deliciously crispy, the pancakes were hot and fresh. We finally had lobster with ginger and spring onion. I am a bit of a lobster novice, but this was amazing. It was a huge portion of lobster served on a platter of noodles in a succulent ginger sauce. It even came with its own implement, a lobster fork, the first time I have seen one.

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To be honest, I forgot to check the wine list, I don’t often drink wine with Chinese food. There were three brands of beer on offer, Asahi and Carlsberg were the names I recognised. The service was excellent.

It is a relatively small restaurant, for Chinatown, we were there in the early evening and the place was busy without being packed. It is open late and it does Karaoke between 11pm and 3am. The waiter said that this happens in private rooms, so it should not disturb your meal. While we ate, there was background music; it was quiet and unobtrusive.

If you are looking for somewhere quiet and smart, and you want to stay in the centre of Chinatown, the Royal Dragon fits the bill.

Skylark Café, Wandsworth Common, London

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The Skylark Café is in a lovely old fashioned building in the middle of Wandsworth Common. It has been decorated in a more up to date fashion once you are inside, with a built in banquette into the bay window and child friendly furnishings in the back room. There is floor space for the children to run around here too. If you prefer a less boisterous area, there is a room at the front which had a more adult clientele on the day we were there. There are also seats outside. The views are pretty, Wandsworth Common is well maintained, and there is a pond nearby where you can bring your kids to feed the ducks.

It has a good community notice board although you have to go into the toilet area to read it. It also has a blackboard listing different events that it hosts during the month. In April, for example, it has music days and popup shops. If you would like to see what to expect before you go, it has a particularly well designed website.

The food offering is good. It does soup, sandwiches, and a wide variety of cakes and muffins. There was even healthy snacking food for the ducks! It was busy with parents and children on the weekday early afternoon that we were there, so it is obviously popular with local people. The service was attentive, helpful, and friendly.

It is about halfway along section 5 of the Capital Ring, so it is the perfect point at which to stop for refreshment, if you are doing that walk around London. A very pleasant place, and just what a park café should be.

 

 

Hawksmoor, Deansgate, Manchester

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I like the Hawksmoor ethos. They eschew ostentation. They keep it simple. They do it well. Hawksmoor Manchester stick to this blueprint. The décor is wood panelling, wooden floors, leather banquettes, and solid tables nicely spaced. The have proper napkins, good plain crockery, and the cutlery is steel and sturdy.

The menu is relatively short but you can be sure that everything on there is  prepared to a high standard. On the night we went, the potted beef with Yorkshire pudding was an excellent starter. The Caesar salad had romaine lettuce, anchovies, parmesan, croutons, and plain but perfect Caesar dressing. The fillet was high quality, soft and tender; even though it was rare, and the rib-eye had just the right amount of fat to bring out the flavour of the meat. This is all as you would expect from the Hawksmoor brand. The chips were full cut and well cooked. The mac and cheese, which we ordered as a side, was indulgent.

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The wine by the glass was excellent, the Malbec robust and rich, and the Pinot Grigio Rose was dry and pale, possibly the nicest I have had. The service was impeccable, just as it always is at a Hawksmoor restaurant, never too close but always at hand when you want something.

If I  have a misgiving about Hawksmoor Manchester, it is the bar. The area here veers toward the austere. It feels a bit more like a church vestibule than a comfortable place to chat and wait for friends. They have good wines and all sorts of premium spirits, but their beer list is short, and it has little recognisable on it.

The restaurant is not cheap, but you get what you pay for. Everything is of the highest quality, and if you want somewhere that you can rely on to deliver a fine dinner, in pleasant surroundings, with polished service; then Hawksmoor Manchester should be one of the first places that you consider.

Brasserie Blanc, Trinity Square, London

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The view from this member of Raymond Blanc’s brasseries is spectacular, from your table you overlook the crenellations of the Tower of London, with Tower Bridge in the background.

We ate from the Fixe Price menu and found the fare a little more average. The beetroot salad was nice and the soup good, but only lukewarm, we considered asking for it to be reheated, but in the end did not.

The mains were ok. My steak was good but small, the Beef Lyonnais were a little less tender than amazing and the cod was reportedly delicious after we had sent it back to be reheated.

The apple crumble was the highlight of the meal. the apple retained its consistency beautifully and the crumble was perfectly crisp and short. The chocolate pudding was also nice but once again had to be sent for reheating, as it was cold in the centre.

The waitress was excellent; very helpful and quite attentive, she brought us small glasses of the rose wines to try when we enquired about their flavours. The wine list looked very good, by the way, and not outrageously priced for central London.

Overall, this restaurant is decent, but go primarily for the view and you will not be disappointed.