Heist: the London anti-gallery involving food, music, cushy sofas, and more Friday, Aug 1 2014 

2014-06-12 19.05.20-1Hidden in a quiet corner of Notting Hill, women with plumage milled around a white-fronted house; flanked by security guards, paparazzi and bohemians, sipping lavender lemonade and mingling. This might have appeared to be like any other gathering of arty celebrities and socialites, but this was the much-awaited launch of Heist, “London’s first anti-gallery”, billed as an immersive experience for lovers of fine art photography.

The aim of Heist is to smash down the barriers that many contemporary fine art photographers face when attempting to bring their work to the public, whether new to the scene or well-established. By collaborating with Heist’s founders (Mashael Al-Rushaid, J. Harry Edmiston and Anna Pia Lubinus) and displaying their work in this beautiful space, artists can bridge the divide between artists and collectors by selling their work directly as exclusive Heist prints and ultimately making their creations more accessible.

The inception of Heist was online. Edmiston and Lubinus (a couple, both with a strong background in business, photography and fine art investment) created heist-online in 2013, hand-picking artworks based on their photographic merit rather than reputation. Joining forces with Al-Rushaid, they focused on creating an “offline” counterpart in Linden Gardens featuring the most appreciated artworks from its online sister, where people could experience something a little out of the ordinary.

In addition to exhibitions from new and exciting international photographers, Heist wants the viewer to interact with their surroundings by experiencing performance art within the open space of the gallery, as well as tasting fine cuisine inspired by the artists and the exhibition itself.

Walking up the stairs of this beautiful residential property (clutching a glass of bubbly or lemony cocktail), you are surrounded by staggeringly powerful photographs, beautifully scented candles and roses. To the untrained eye, Heist is…well… a gallery. It’s not some parallel dimension where you experience vaporised art inhaled through your eyeballs (anti-gallery is a therefore somewhat pretentious term) – it is a series of actual rooms with actual photographs in heist cakethem. However, there are also cosy bar areas and lounges, secret corners and balconies within this place; it’s as much built for socialising as it is for art appreciation. Heist is trying to step as far away from being a ‘white-cube gallery’ as it can. The house itself was buzzing and shimmering with people. In the spirit of Heist, various musicians such as Jackson Scott & Into the Moon were performing live, and samples of the food inspired by images and artists were shared around; cuts of pork garnished with flowers, miniature burgers, sea bass and pumpkin ravioli are just some examples.

heist artSurroundings aside, Heist is excellently curated. There is an enormous variety of work on show: a man having a woollen brain haemorrhage; urban kaleidoscopes; 90s Kate Moss; a crown of nude women; striking neon angular architecture contrasted with ethereal Alaskan landscapes and hyper-real close-ups of everything from feathers to Bibles to skin. The selection is inspiring, original and invigorating, and can veer from disturbing to delicate from one photograph to the next. Even for non-collectors, it is a fantastic array of work. This is a place for eating, laughing, listening, discussion and debate.

The current exhibition can be viewed online at http://www.heist-online.com/store-exhibition/ as well as in person at the anti-gallery in Linden Gardens. In terms of purchasing, the prices range from approximately £400- £20,000 and beyond. This may put it beyond the reach of ‘accessible’ for some. Heist (as it was portrayed at the launch) was strongly impressive, but without visiting on a quieter afternoon, it remains to be seen how this translates into an anti-gallery experience for the casual passerby who is not a potential buyer. I however encourage you to take a look and discover Heist for yourself.

Gemma Summons

Restaurant Review: Clos Maggiore, London Sunday, Jan 19 2014 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAClos Maggiore is reputed to be one of the most romantic restaurants in London, and the origin of this reputation is clear from the moment you enter: what loved-up couple wouldn’t want to eat beneath skylights and fairy light-entwined flower bowers, with a roaring log fire in the background?

Luckily, the food matches expectations too. At an affordable £22.50 a head, the prix fixe menu consists of three courses during a weekend lunchtime service, and impressions are good from the beginning. The Scottish crab mayonnaise with celeriac remoulade is light and refreshing, while the confit goose, Serrano ham and cranberry ballotine served with toasted sourdough keeps up the festive theme even in January – a good call when everyone is feeling miserable after all the Christmas decorations have been taken down (although those watching their waistlines may prefer the crab).

The starters were perhaps a little more enjoyable than the mains, although only fractionally so. The veal belly went down well, and the guinea fowl was so tender that you could practically cut it with a spoon. The latter came with the smoothest mash on the planet and smoked bacon, as well as a rich red wine sauce. Side orders are perhaps unnecessary, but if you would like one, we can vouch for the spinach, which is fresh and not at all stringy, and of which one portion served two people comfortably. All of this was chased down with a glass each of an excellent red wine from Puglia, which comes from Clos Maggiore’s well-stocked wine cellar.

By this point, the small restaurant was virtually full. Even though there appear to be many people eating inside it, this is achieved only by the clever use of mirrors – in reality, there are no more than 40 covers or so. Having tried to book a month in advance before Christmas and been unable to get in, further difficulties were experienced when attempting to book for dinner. This is clearly a popular haunt and booking in advance is without doubt necessary (with lunch being easier to get a table for).

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPortions are generous, so cheese is definitely an optional extra. Dessert could be described as traditional with a twist, with the menu featuring Calvados pain perdu, and pear crumble with cottage cheese ice cream. The latter was full of contrast thanks to the crunchy topping, the soft fruit, the sweet sugar and spices and the tangy cottage cheese. However, on the whole both desserts leaned more towards the homey than the refined. This was greatly compensated for by the excellent sweet wine from Veneto that accompanied it, and by the high-quality coffee that followed (which was better, ironically, than the coffee served at Gauthier Soho, which costs twice as much). The petits fours were also a naughty but nice bonus thanks to the combination of chocolate, walnut and orange.

At around £80 for two people for Sunday lunch (including wine, coffee and service), this makes you feel like you’ve had a treat without breaking the bank. While Clos Maggiore, despite its name, lacks a clear Italian identity beyond a few token wines and one pasta dish on the menu, the food is indulgent without being overpriced, and with its prime location just off Covent Garden, definitely comes recommended for anyone visiting London.

33 King Street, Covent Garden, WC2E 8JD

www.closmaggiore.com

Restaurant Review: Gauthier Soho, London Sunday, Dec 29 2013 

During one of our recent stays at Club Quarters’ Trafalgar Square location, we were looking for a convenient spot to dine after a matinée concert and cheeky visit to Fortnum and Mason. Having been unable to get through the door of the fêted Covent Garden restaurant Clos Maggiore, we had made a reservation at Gauthier Soho, which is conveniently located a short walk from the hotel.

The uniqueness of the restaurant is apparent even before you’ve stepped through the door: dressed up as a glamorous London residence, it has a shiny black front door not unlike that of Number 10 Downing Street, and you have to ring the doorbell in order to gain entry, which all adds to the sense of occasion that is at times lost these days when dining out. This is nicely combined with a warm yet professional welcome from the overwhelmingly French staff, who continued this demeanour throughout the night’s service.

There are several options in terms of dining at Gauthier (à la carte; 3 courses, 4 courses, 5 courses; 7-course tasting menu…), but these are all presented in a clear manner both orally and in writing. This is made even more impressive thanks to the excellent (albeit expensive) wine list that complements it. As well as a range of bottles to suit every taste, wine by the glass is also available – we enjoyed a wonderful Barbera, which is a slightly carbonated red wine due to the unique maceration process involved in making it. It combines fresh fruity flavours with ashy, mineralised ones, which suited our hearty main course well (more of which later). We also had a glass each of Sauternes and Jurançon with our desserts, which balanced botrytis and freshness pleasingly.

Gauthier’s seven-course, £70 tasting menu appears tempting and of good value, but even three courses (which we opted for at £40 a head) still makes for a plentiful feast. The restaurant’s use of seasonal ingredients and its formal French finish arguably makes it a more affordable “Manoir-lite” which makes you feel like you’ve had a quality meal with plenty of wow-factor while not making the meal the centre of your day. To begin, there were canapés, consisting firstly of delicate cheese straws, and secondly of colourful tomato jelly on mini bruschette, offering appropriate contrasts in texture, and an idea of the quality of flavour to come. But before our starter there was also an amuse-bouche, in the form of a truffle and mushroom raviolo on squash purée. Suffice it to say that this was worthy of a whole bowlful by itself, heightening the anticipation of your meal even further.

One side of the table had chosen an apple and pancetta salad, which was served with appropriately autumnal vegetables (celeriac and marrow), as well as an aged vinegar dressing. The other side of the table took soup to new heights thanks to the head chef”s chestnut and pheasant concoction. While the aniseed infusion perhaps could have had a more intense flavour, the pink liver that it came with was a perfect complement, and the crispy onion rings and leaves added great textural adventure. In terms of the main course, the wild duck served two ways proved tempting, but ultimately two plates of the Highland venison were ordered, to no regret. Served with pears poached in red wine, caramelised pumpkin, and truffle and celeriac purée, the tannic flavours intermingled playfully with the sweetness of the pear, pumpkin and celeriac, and were given added depth by the earthiness of the truffle. As for the venison itself, it came cooked to perfection (even though I had forgotten what “à point” was in English when asked how I would like my meat cooked), thus leaving us sorry that it was gone once we had cleaned our plates (it is a testament to the portion sizes and the lightness of the food that we did not feel as stuffed as a Christmas turkey).

The dessert menu offered a host of temptations to celebrate the festive season indulgently. While the dark chocolate mousse with crunchy praline was a serious contender, as were the refreshing-sounding blackberry, rose and pineapple sorbets, in the end one meal was completed with the restaurant’s “mandarine givrée”: a frozen mandarin orange that has been hollowed out and then refilled with the mandarin segments, before being served with extra segments, edible flowers, orange jelly, and a chocolate orange stick. While the shortbread in the description was conspicuous by its absence, and the tarragon could have made itself more obvious, the flavours, textures and temperatures combined to make a refreshing, low-fat, festive and original finish to the meal. On the other side of the table was another delight: a pear millefeuille served with cider ice cream, which again proved fruity, refreshing, contrasting and original.

To end our meal, disappointing coffee was served with far superior petits fours: a cherry marshmallow, a chocolate financier, and even a mini mince pie (whose wafer-thin pastry, full flavours and highly diminutive size all proved notable). This epitomised the beautiful harmonisation of French and English traditions that Gauthier Soho is producing in its kitchen – and is just one of several reasons why we would go back (regardless of the circa £150 bill for two).

21 Romilly Street, London W1D 5AF

Telephone: 020 7494 3111

www.gauthiersoho.co.uk

What a load of Carp(o) Thursday, May 23 2013 

carpo

Some of you already know I’m a bit of a Graze addict. However, there’s a new kid on the block, and I’ll definitely be checking them out the next time I’m in London (approximately July 27th). Carpo, which is located in Piccadilly, purports to sell the finest snacks from across the world, and as I’m a sucker for dried fruit and nuts in various combinations, I shall be very interested indeed to see what they offer.

In Greek Mythology, Carpo was the goddess tasked with ripening and harvesting fruit in autumn and providing food for the people. It is this that has driven the philosophy and offer at the new store, with myriad choice of healthy treats prepared using products harvested at the peak of their ripeness to ensure amazing taste. Quality and seasonality are all important, with particular care taken that products only arrive in the store when at their absolute prime.According to their website, their most intriguing selections so far appear to be their dried chickpea snacks, along with the mysteriously-named Tiger and Juanita snacks. As for the fruits, I can’t wait to try the Spanish grapes and the Golden Incas. Not to mention the array of dried mushrooms that I can use in my Italian and Asian cooking – shiitake and agariko mushrooms grace their shelves, to name but a few. There’s also a range of chocolate, coffee and honey to explore – in short, enough to keep our household going for months. A number of the products are sourced from Greece, where the company itself also originates (the flagship store opened in Athens in 2011), seeking to revive Greece’s economic fortunes and enrich the British palate simultaneously. What’s not to like?

While the firm doesn’t (yet) offer delivery to our doors, this means it probably can’t quite replace Graze in my affections. However, I look forward to it taking its place alongside – and will be sure to report back once I’ve had a chance to visit in July.

Restaurant Review: The Gilbert Scott, London Sunday, Apr 21 2013 

Being a practically lifelong Spice Girls fan (which I know does wonders for my credibility), I admit to being a tad excited about dining at the Gilbert Scott, which is housed inside the Renaissance St Pancras Hotel, where the famous girl group filmed their debut music video, Wannabe, in the mid-1990s. Here I am on the iconic steps, rocking some blurry girl power:

7 Spice Girls

Ahem.

Before this, we’d had a gut-busting lunch at the restaurant, which is run by Marcus Wareing and offers a £27 Weekend Roast option comprising 3 courses. We all caved in when faced with this option and all 3 starters made their way to our table of four: the roasted carrot soup, venison terrine (with Somerset cider chutney), and omelette Arnold Bennett. Presentation was flawless and flavours harmonious, with perhaps the highlight being the dinky frying pan in which the omelette was served.

When it came to the main we were more selective: of the four choices available only two were selected by our table: corn-fed chicken, and roast pork belly. Crackling did not disappoint and the chicken was moist and flavourful. Gravy was also available in abundance.

However, none of the dessert choices were neglected: banana bread and butter pudding (with chocolate jelly and divine rum ice cream), classic sticky toffee pudding and innovative vanilla panna cotta (with blood orange and passionfruit jelly) were all sampled. The latter made for a particularly refreshing finish, and the rum ice cream was the final flourish of an alcohol-fuelled lunch (which had already seen us drain a bottle of Minervois and a round of gin and tonics).

With all of the alcohol involved, this came to around £50 per person. In addition, we took coffee in the hotel’s plush lounge, which was all white upholstery and natural light. Coffee was of good quality, and service was attentive without being stifling, making for a wonderful birthday weekend lunch. Ultimately would visit again for the beautiful setting, high standard of food and excellent service, which combines to make very good value for money indeed. Plus, that 90s-themed photo opportunity is in itself priceless.

Afternoon Tea Review: Blake’s Restaurant, London Friday, Mar 15 2013 

blakes

Being tea and cake aficionados, we seek out new afternoon tea experiences at every opportunity, whether that’s by choosing a new tea to drink at home or by opting for a new establishment when we’re out and about. When in London a week ago, we went for Blake’s Hotel, which is found off an unassuming residential street close to Gloucester Road tube station. It is so discreetly located that we wondered initially if we’d got the address wrong, as we walked past row on row of terraced Victorian houses that have now been converted into flats. However, a dark facade spreading over several of these houses soon looms into view – so ultimately the hotel is not that tricky to find after all.

We had booked in advance, but this probably wasn’t necessary, as when we got there we were one of only two or three parties taking tea. Tea is served in a basement chamber (the Chinese Room) that could be described as a little poky: more effort is needed with some of the furnishings, such as the flooring (which is comprised of grubby white tiles), and the adjoining room, which is reserved for private functions, is proof that the hotel can provide a high standard of fixtures and fittings, as this area is far more sumptuously decorated. However, the colour scheme of black, orange and gold, is far more original than the red and black which seems to proliferate among more modern establishments. A piano also sits in one corner of the basement, which suggests that live music is a possibility at some times of the day or week. Tea can also be served in the hotel garden (unfortunately for us, it rained throughout the duration of our stay in London, making this an impossibility on this occasion).

Back, however, to the tea. At £19 per person, this is considerably more affordable than some other afternoon teas being served in the capital, and an upgrade to champagne would still only bring your total bill to £26 each. This was served by courteous and discreet staff who made every effort to ensure that we were comfortable, offering us a choice of tables, asking about any allergies, and advising us that the thoroughfare passing our table would be busier than normal due to preparation of the function room, giving us the chance to move if we wished.

Unusually, the tea at Blake’s Hotel is served almost in two separate courses. The sandwiches are brought first, served on a slate platter and with a small undressed side salad of lettuce and cherry tomatoes. Knives and forks are also supplied with which to eat them. The sandwiches ranged from the classic (egg/cress, salmon, cucumber) to the slightly more innovative (beef/horseradish; chicken/ginger), and while the salmon and cucumber came up trumps (they are classics for a reason), the chicken and ginger also comes highly recommended, and is something I would seek to recreate at home to jazz up my work lunches.

Following this came the scones and cakes. The scones were plain ones (i.e., without raisins) but were well-made, and were served with a more unorthodox choice of vanilla cream (rather than clotted cream) and fresh strawberries (as opposed to strawberry jam), which made for a refreshing and light change from the scones served traditionally with afternoon tea. So far, so lovely. The other cakes, however, were a little more of a letdown, as they were lacking in innovation and refinement. Higher quality ingredients could have been used to achieve a better result – two separate types of loaf cake were virtually indistinguishable from each other, and the chocolate mousse was not made with a chocolate that had a high percentage of cocoa solids. All of this gave a distinctly home-made effect – which is fine when you have made them yourself, but perhaps less so when you have paid £19 each.

With our sandwiches and cakes we had a pot of Lapsang Souchong and a pot of Chinese green tea, which came in impressive-looking silver pots. Our one complaint with the tea was this, and it’s far from unique to Blake’s: too many establishments do not use adequate systems for the filtering of loose-leaf tea. If left in the pot too long, the tea becomes overstewed and tannic, meaning you have to drink up quickly for the best flavour. A better system is a removable filter, which means that loose leaves can be removed all in one go before serving. It’s a pity that high-quality tea can be as good as ruined by the use of inadequate systems used by those purporting to deliver a superb standard of afternoon tea.

Ultimately when we go for afternoon tea we look for a ‘wow’ factor, and unfortunately Blake’s did not provide this. We will, however, continue to shop around various establishments and let you know if we find any hidden bargains.

33 Roland Gardens, London SW7 3PF

http://www.blakeshotels.com

Restaurant Review: Cay Tre, London Sunday, Mar 10 2013 

Staying in one of the busiest parts of London – Trafalgar Square – this weekend, we knew we would have no problem finding a place to eat after a concert we were attending at St-Martin-in-the-Fields. Soho is just a few minutes’ walk away and this opens up the possibility of restaurants of just about all varieties. However, we eventually settled on a Vietnamese restaurant called Cay Tre, and booked online a few days before. We were glad we did this, as when we got there, even with it being 9.45pm, it was absolutely packed. We took this to be a good sign, and were keen to fill our bellies with their delicious fare, having had our second main meal of the day in the form of afternoon tea around five hours earlier.

Looking at the menu, I found I wanted pretty much everything (the Cha La Lot dumplings in particular sounded to die for), so the set menu, by which we got to taste a wide range of dishes, seemed to be a good bet. At £22 per person, it’s ideal for sharing, with everything served on large plates that are placed in the centre of the table, making for a very sociable experience. The surroundings also lend themselves to a lively atmosphere: servers and chefs are extremely efficient, and with tables placed close together, it’s without doubt a place for mixing with friends, rather than cosy romance. This could go well or badly depending on who you’re sat next to: the groups on tables near us were mostly discreet, but a more boisterous gang arrived later (luckily just as we were finishing).

We ordered non-alcoholic cocktails to go with our set menu, which were delivered swiftly from the bar with varying degrees of innovation and flavour. The Hanoi Red River delivered an intensely fruity hit thanks to its blend of guava, lime leaf, passion fruit and coconut water, while the Saigon Lime Soda tasted more of soda water than of lime (only lime wedges and a kaffir lime leaf provided the faint lime flavour). These were extremely reasonably priced, however, coming in at £4 and £3.50 respectively. Plenty of alcoholic beverages are also available, ranging from Japanese wine to Vietnam-themed punches.

Also of good value was the set menu itself. The sharing platter (the ‘starters’, if you will) is the same for all: pork spring rolls, chilli and salt pepper squid, lotus stem salad, wild shrimp rolls, and the cha la lot that I’d been ogling earlier. The stars of the plate were without doubt the cha la lot and the deep-fried squid, although the shrimp and pork rolls were not without merit. Two different dips were brought: chilli oil, and hoisin. Extra hoisin and chilli sauces were available on the table in case extra was required.

As for the main, each person chooses one from a set list, along with a side order each. If there are 6 of you in your party, this means you really do get to try everything. As for us, we went for the slow-cooked Mekong catfish and the roast baby chicken royale for the mains, and jasmine rice with Chinese mustard green for the sides. When it arrived, it was all thoroughly delicious: the catfish came in a spicy red sauce with enormous depth of flavour, and was so tender that you could cut it with your chopsticks. The baby chicken, too, was moist and well-seasoned, and came with a sauce that took it far away from a traditional Sunday roast. Also up for commendation were the greens; they were crunchy without being under-cooked, and offered even further energy and refreshment to proceedings. We had only one complaint: portion sizes were far too large and we felt really guilty about wasting almost half the food. While we do feel that what we ate was good value, we would rather have smaller portion sizes, with the option to order more food if necessary, rather than paying for food that we didn’t eat. We would have taken the leftovers away with us, but would not be returning home until the next day, and draw the line at Vietnamese food for breakfast.

Desserts do not appear to be offered at Cay Tre, but needless to say we did not require them anyway.

Cay Tre is definitely worth another visit, with branches in Soho and Shoreditch to choose from. However, ordering the set menu is only advised if starving hungry, with the à la carte options being far better choices if not.

http://www.caytresoho.co.uk/

42-43 Dean Street, London

Afternoon Tea Review: Intercontinental Park Lane Tuesday, Nov 6 2012 

 

I have a proper sweet tooth, and my husband is fascinated by the quite unFrench concept of afternoon tea (which is just about starting to arrive here, albeit in a bastardised form). This means we’re constantly on the quest for the next one to try – and having seen their delectable-looking sandwiches being prepared on TV one day, we were keen to try the afternoon tea being offered at the Intercontinental Hotel on Park Lane in London.

After a rainy dash there on a typically English July afternoon, we were very pleased to arrive in the hotel’s calm and luxurious lobby. We had tried in vain to reserve in advance, but the hotel website had not been terribly forthcoming in this regard, so we had in the end just turned up to try our luck. However, we need not have worried: we were greeted at the height of English politesse, which combines formality and friendliness in exactly the right balance, making you almost feel like the staff were expecting you.

The Wellington Lounge, where you take tea, is decorated in cream and replete with cream upholstery, but it is so light and airy with it that this feels modern, not like you’re at your grandmother’s house. It is instantly relaxing, and with that, you are ready to order your tea (of which you have a choice of three or four types, with increasing quantities of food involved, plus optional champagne). We plumped for the Wellington Tea, whose menu is (mostly) shown above and which costs £28 per person. To begin with you have four types of sandwiches, which come in refined yet innovative combinations: salmon and caviar, and lobster and shrimp, are just two of them. And not an egg to be seen! (Well, except in the mayonnaise. But that’s not a bad thing.)

Next comes a dazzling array of desserts served on a silver cake stand. Just a few of the cakes involved here are mango tranche with blackberry cream, and chocolate torte. These are served separately to the traditional scones, strawberry jam and clotted cream, which make you think initially that you must have been mistaken when you saw them on the menu. However, these arrive after the cakes, on their own separate plate, and make a wonderful traditional end to the tea after the stunning displays of creativity that have gone before.

As for the tea itself, the hotel provides an extensive list, of which regrettably I have no reproduction here. My husband plumped for traditional English teas, while the hotel’s own blend, the Wellington Tea itself, was relished by me for its own unique character. As the hotel is accredited by the Official Tea Guild, connoisseurs will not be disappointed.

Staff are utterly discreet and attentive while you enjoy your tea, without hounding you in the least. You feel in no hurry at all or like anybody is waiting for you to leave. Free refills of tea – even of a different variety – are also legion, with no questions asked.

At £56 this is not cheap, but is in line with other luxury hotels of this calibre. For the service, tranquillity, and high-quality food and drink, we would definitely return.

1 Hamilton Place, Park Lane, London W1J 7QY

T: 020 7318 8649

http://www.ichotelsgroup.com/intercontinental/en/gb/locations/london-parklane

Restaurant Review: Le Mangevins, Tain l’Hermitage Sunday, Jun 10 2012 

The town of Tain l’Hermitage, arguably the oenological epicentre of the Northern Rhone valley, was our choice of destination for our first wedding anniversary lunch, with the restaurant selection – Le Mangevins – having caught our eye from the pages of the magazine Revue de Vins de France. Truth be told, the venue makes an excellent location not just for special occasion meals like this one, but also proves a regular haunt for locals’ weekday lunches. It’s not hard to see why: you get luxury and authenticity combined with affordability (there are no lunchtime deals, but two courses cost around €25). And the town itself is also quite a catch – you could easily spend a whole day here, not because it’s a raving metropolis (it isn’t) but more due to its wealth of wine-tasting activities at producers such as Chapoutier, shops selling foie gras, and proximity to the Valrhona chocolate factory.

Le Mangevins itself is not set in the most scenic of territories thanks to its roadside location, which also makes parking a bit of a gamble. However, once inside there is no danger of being bothered in the least by this. The fact that the restaurant has a mere 22 covers makes for an intimate and sociable feel without the impression of others invading your personal space, and while the red and black colour scheme is a bit populist, this is compensated for by the wine barrels and wooden cladding, which add individuality and rusticity to the decoration. Barstools, padded benches and cushioned chairs make for modern yet sumptuous seating that many Parisian restaurants could learn a lot from.

Equal emphasis is placed on food and wine at Le Mangevins. A pared-down menu with just a few choices implies that quality, not quantity, is concentrated on, and there is a range of carefully-selected affordable local wines available by the bottle and by the glass. We initially chose a 2008 Cornas from Courbis. Its vintage makes for a lighter wine, but it was nonetheless smoky, authentic and rich – making a perfect match for the complimentary charcuterie and crusty bread that preceded our main course.

Service was surprisingly friendly and attentive for France and the food also not only met but exceeded our expectations. The slow-roasted lamb proved tender and flavourful, and was accompanied by plenty of vegetables and potatoes (more in fact than we could eat). Following this was the cheese, a platter of high-quality selections from the Auvergne (we were surprised that they weren’t local, but they tasted fabulous nonetheless) – a St-Nectaire, a Reblochon-like cheese with a charcoaly and Cheddar-like flavour, and a blue cheese that came with chutney. With this, we drank a Crozes-Hermitage white from Vincent Jaboulet, which was herbal and not in the least overpowering.

Where the restaurant didn’t go local with the cheese, they did with the dessert – a Valrhona chocolate fondant ticked all the right boxes and would go the distance in any setting, whether you’re there for romance or to party. Finally, Nespresso coffee was served accompanied by Valrhona chocolate (total bill for the two of us: €78), and by this time the social yet civilised atmosphere was winding down into near-total silence as customers began to leave their long and relaxing lunches (it’s good to see that the 2-hour weekday lunch still survives in some areas of France). Everyone seemed satisfied; Le Mangevins’ passionate and knowledgeable approach to its food, wine and ingredients is clear for all to see, and it was a perfect way to celebrate our first wedding anniversary before heading to the Valrhona factory around the corner for the obligatory chocolate-based stupor.

6 Avenue Docteur Paul Durand, 26600 Tain l’Hermitage

00 33 4 75 07 73 85

Chain Review: Vapiano Monday, Sep 5 2011 

We picked Vapiano on a whim for lunch on our last day in London this summer chiefly for the unromantic reason that it was close to both the Tate Modern and where we’d parked the car. In more detail, and more seriously, I was attracted by its plant-filled interior, quirky quotations and illustrations on the wall (including Sophia Loren’s famous “everything you see I owe to spaghetti”) and by the fact that I just love Italian food.

However, we didn’t realise that Vapiano was more than just an Italian restaurant until we got inside and the greeter directed us to the cash desk. There we were issued with a card each, which you can either pre-load with cash and come in and use for quick meals (to eat in or take away), or leave ’empty’ to settle the bill at the end of every meal. Once you have your card, you can go to the antipasti, pasta, pizza, dessert and drink stations where your order cost is placed onto your cards individually for each course and each person. This method should definitely help to avoid arguments when settling up!

I was in awe of the pasta-making station, with its see-through windows and shiny pasta machines. All pasta is made fresh in-house before being boxed up into individual portions for easy access by staff at peak times, and in a number of different varieties – their spelt pasta, which I had wanted to order, was clearly popular, as it had run out. You’re not short of choice on the pasta shape front either – from papardelle to penne, there’s something to suit everyone. The 21 sauces are categorised by cost, too, from £6.10 for the pasta of your choice with arrabiata or pesto, to £9.10 for duck and seafood varieties.

But the fun doesn’t stop there, oh no. The sauce is not pre-made, but rather made in front of you with pre-chopped fresh ingredients, so you can see exactly what goes in. What’s more, you get plenty of control – you are asked at regular intervals about your preferred amounts of garlic, seasoning and chilli, and when it comes to serving, you’re asked if you want cheese or extra seasoning. The result is that the pasta is perfectly and speedily cooked, served with a healthy sauce, and all to your taste.

The pizza is prepared similarly, although my husband commented that you could tell that the pizza dough had been more quickly than you’d cook a homemade pizza at home. Nonetheless, the pizza toppings also received equally high marks. We did not sample any antipasti, desserts or wine, but the choice seems extensive and authentic. Italian soft drinks are available, too, and these we did sample with gusto.

Two mains and two drinks came to under £20, and not only were we full and satisfied with the high quality food, we were hooked. We were therefore surprised and delighted to find that this innovative concept has indeed made it to France (which is hardly innovation personified), with locations in Puteaux and Lyon. However, less of a surprise was the fact that Vapiano is in fact a German invention – with that level of efficiency and quality, it was practically a guaranteed success.

Sadly the only UK locations at present are in London; I look forward to its expansion so that all of you can try it too.

www.vapiano.de

Locations: see the website for more details, but there is at least one location in just about every European country, as well as outside Europe – Australia, Austria, Bahrain, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, Croatia, Czech Republic, Egypt, Estonia, Finland, France, Greece, Germany, Hungary, India, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Oman, Poland, Qatar, Romania, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, Slovakia, Sweden, South Korea, Switzerland, Taiwan, Turkey, UAE, UK, USA

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