Often I'll eat somewhere but not review it because I've only popped in for one course, or a snack, or not stayed long enough to feel there's much to say. I like my posts to be comprehensive and say everything I feel there is to say about a restaurant. That said, the downside of this is that places which serve good grub and deserve the recognition of a mention sometimes go unlisted. To address this, I've introduced Sound Bites - a simple, alphabetically-ordered list of places I've visited and would recommend, along with a mini-review.
Black Prince, Kennington
Despite its ostensibly being our 'national dish' - the French even call us les rosbifs for our putative love of it - it's ridiculously difficult to find a good roast dinner in London at a fair price. Roasts tend to fall into one of two sorry categories: low-grade ingredients cooked first thing and kept warm all day, served with a pool of piping-hot, freshly-made (from granules) gravy to disguise the tepidness of the rest; or top-notch meat and veg, cooked well but then so spectacularly buggered about with presentation-wise as to require a degree in civil engineering to dismantle and consume. For me as for many I'm sure, the Holy Grail of Sunday roasts is one that has good meat, all the trimmings - veg, Yorkshires and crunchy-outside, fluffy-within roasties - served hot, in generous quantities, with lashings of home-made gravy. It's something I've only ever found at home, or more specifically, at other people's homes - until now.
The Black Prince in Kennington, once a scary spit 'n' sawdust boozer, has been given a sensitive and tasteful going over with a paintbrush, and smart wooden furniture - hand-crafted by the landlord's dad it transpires - has replaced the slashed and fag-burned stools of old. What's most impressive however is the really fantastic food; over the course of three visits I tried roast chicken, beef and pork belly and all were mighty fine, excepting that the latter could - and should - have been much crispier. Pricing is very reasonable - about £10 give or take a quid - and portions as big as at home. There's not much in the way of starters but a mezze platter - all home-made - was superb. Desserts are a glorious gut-busting array of sundaes and steamed puds, the hokey pokey ice-cream and chocolate fondant being the ones to go for. Service is make-yourselves-at-home friendly, and the only thing that'll stop you from doing so is the understandably high demand for tables at busy times.
Black Prince, 6 Black Prince Rd, London SE11 6HS Tel: 0
Cafe Sol Dos, Clapham
Reading a particularly excoriating review of a new 'gourmet' Mexican restaurant recently served to remind me that every time I visit Cafe Sol Dos (numero uno is in Greenwich) on Clapham High Street I mean to write it up and then never do. I am happy to put right this egregious omission and can tell you that Cafe Sol serves superlative, familiar Tex-Mex staples - the burritos are particularly bien - and excellent cocktails in attractive, if frequently very noisy, surroundings at cheap-as-tortilla-chips prices. Gourmet it ain't, glamorous it certainly is not, but if you want Mexican favourites served with genuine warmth without breaking el banco, you won't go wrong. It's one of a handful of favourite restaurants that I've eaten at so often over so many years I've lost count of the number of times I've visited, but I do know there's never been a bad one. If you don't love it too, I'll eat my sombrero.
Cafe Sol Dos, 56 Clapham High Street, London SW4 7UL Tel: 020 7498 8558 http://www.cafesol.com/
Cha Cha Moon, Soho
I've visited Cha Cha Moon, Alan Yau's cheap 'n' cheerful pan-Oriental canteen in the Kingly Court development, on a number of occasions and always been very satisfied; my latest visit, for lunch with the gorgeous and prodigiously talented fashion writer and blogger Joel Dash, was no exception. I very much enjoyed my soft shell crab salad on cold spiced noodles, and Joel's Singapore style noodles were good although they took far too long to be served. Wagamama-style, food is served when each dish is ready, which is fine as long as it doesn't result in uncomfortably long waits between plates coming to table as was the case on our visit.
This service style isn't the only characteristic Cha Cha Moon shares with its Yau-founded Japanese cousin. Seating is at the familiar communal benches and prices are super-low (albeit double what they were for a few weeks after opening, when a main course cost less than a glass of wine); a main course and a Coke each plus a decent tip came to twenty quid. My only real gripe about this otherwise excellent all-day pit-stop is that the payment system necessitates credit cards being taken out of sight for processing; I'm not accusing anyone of ID theft or card cloning but it still makes me feel uneasy and I wish they wouldn't do it.
Cha Cha Moon, 15-21 Ganton Street, London W1F 9BN Tel: 020 7297 9800 http://www.chachamoon.com
Fentiman Arms, Vauxhall
For all that it's part of a fairly large chain, The Fentiman Arms in Vauxhall manages to be quirky without being twee and polished without being corporate. It's basically a good local pub - a leisurely ten minute stroll from chez Wright - serving decent pub grub without any fancy-pants gastro affectations.
On my most recent visit (July 2010) for Sunday lunch, Alyn and I both enjoyed the generous half roast chicken served with a good selection of green and root vegetables. Roasties could have been crisper and the chicken a shade moister and more confidently-seasoned but it was better than fine and good value at thirteen quid. The wine list is diverse and fairly priced but won't excite the oenophile; it's a safe selection of familiar grapes designed to complement the safe and familiar food, which is no bad thing for a neighbourhood pub.
Fentiman Arms, 64 Fentiman Arms, London SW8 1LA Tel: 020 7793 9796 http://www.geronimo-inns.co.uk/thefentimanarms/
Gurkha Cottage, Crystal Palace
Nepalese is not a cuisine I've been longing to try and Crystal Palace is many miles from my usual W and SW postcodes comfort zone, but friends will have their birthday dinners in the strangest of places. Unsure of what to expect - visions of yak burgers and multiple toasts to Saint Joanna of Lumley - I was pleasantly surprised to find that Nepalese food is very much the same as more familiar Indian and Bangladeshi food with its kormas and biryanis, but with some distinctive regional dishes. Particularly good - and filling - was a Mismas Karahi special, combining chicken, lamb, prawns and seekh kebab in a thick sauce of tomato, ginger, wine and green peppers.
Vegetarians are very well looked after with about half of the menu made up of meat-free dishes. Daal Makhani, a thick stew of black lentils, tomato and cream cooked overnight on the tandoor oven was as warm and nourishing as cassoulet, and Karahi paneer, thick slices of the salty cheese marinated in spices and served on a sizzling-hot cast iron skillet, made for an interesting and substantial main course. Side dishes and accompaniments - naans, poppadoms, chutneys and veg - are all well made and, like the mains, served in generous portions. Pricing is almost laugh-out-loud cheap; so much food we could barely walk, endless birthday drinks and a hefty tip in recognition of exceptionally courteous and attentive service still barely broke the £20-a-head mark. It's not somewhere I'd make a special journey for but if you're in the area, or live anywhere nearby, Gurkha Cottage is worth a visit if only because it's there.
Gurkha Cottage, 17 Westow Street, Crystal Palace, London SE19 3RY Tel: 020 8771 7372 http://www.gurkhacottage.com/
Migue's Restaurant and Tapas Bar, Oval
While certainly not a connoisseur of the humble beefburger, and wont to scratch my head in sheer disbelief at the trainspotter-like obsession with which some people seek out the best examples of this most egalitarian of snacks, my palate is discerning enough to be able to tell the difference between a good one and a bad one. I might not know - or more accurately, care enough to have any opinion on - the rights and wrongs of toasted or un-toasted bap, seeds or not, what are 'acceptable' toppings and the like, but I know when something I eat is amazingly, memorably delicious, and that's certainly the case with the burgers at Colombian caff Migue's on Brixton Road.
From a lengthy but not particularly varied menu - it's basically grilled meat, fried meat or meat made into burgers - I chose the 'Super Burger with everything',on its own a bargain at £4 and also available in a variety of combos with chips and a drink thrown in for a couple of quid more. Toppings purists who lose sleep over the inclusion of certain items between their two pieces of bun would be apoplectic at what's inside the Super at Migue's; as well as lettuce, tomato, cheese, fried onions, and special sauce, there's also a fried egg and, truly bizarrely, a couple of crisps for a bit of crunch. The actual patty itself most certainly isn't prime Angus beef or cooked perfectly to medium as at, say, Byron, but the sandwich it anchors is a massive, meaty, messy delight, served wrapped in foil to catch the juices which ooze from within. It also cures any hangover and fills one up most agreeably for hours after. Chips are fantastic too, crispy, golden and dried of all traces of oil; they're even more delicious dipped in the eponymous, super-friendly Migue's excellent hot salsa.
Migue's Restaurant & Tapas Bar, 40-42 Brixton Road, London SW9 6BT Tel: 020 7793 9693 No website.
Vapiano, central London
At last, a solution to the crushing awkwardness - who had what? Who drank? Who didn't? How much do we tip? - which often accompanies the splitting of restaurant bills. Vapiano, on Great Portland Street, has a truly innovative payment system whereby everyone receives a smart card on entering, charges everything they consume to it as they order, and pays on leaving. Brilliant! As the name suggests, the food is Italian with a lengthy selection of pizzas, pastas and a few salads all made to order while you wait at one of the canteen-style service stations. As well as the usual Bolognese and quattro stagioni-type affairs there are some more unusual combinations including my favourite of the pasta sauces, spicy sausage with figs. Everything can be tweaked to your personal tastes - a pinch of extra chilli here, a handful of herbs there - and if it's going to take more than a few minutes you're given a pager which will vibrate merrily to alert you when grub's up.
Prices are absurdly low, especially considering the just-north-of-Oxford Street location - no main course costs more than £8.85 - and there's no service charge because, of course, you serve yourself. But Vapiano is no spartan, low-rent cafeteria; it's a super-chic space offering a range of dining areas sprawling over two floors, and the toilets are some of the most glamorous I've seen. There's a full range of drinks available, including plentiful jugs of free tap water dotted around the place, and a concise, unsurprisingly Italian-biased wine list offering some relative bargains. It's open from lunchtime until very late and although no bookings are taken it's sufficiently large to ensure that you'll never have too long to wait - even if you're a large group. The only thing I can find to criticise about Vapiano is that, to date, this branch is the only UK outpost of a large-but-growing chain; surely there should be one in every town?
Vapiano, 19-21 Great Portland Street, London W1W 8QB Tel: 020 7268 0082 http://www.vapiano.de
Wright Brothers, Soho
As well as having an extremely elegant name, Wright Brothers is a lovely spot for a quick half dozen oysters propped up at the bar or a more leisurely and substantial meal from the short, seafood-heavy menu. An offshoot of the brothers' much-loved Borough original, the Soho branch - only their second - does feel rather like the template for a chain, although at the time of my visit it was so new that the paint was barely dry, which might explain the lack of character. Occupying an entire split-level floor of a Georgian townhouse, Wright Brothers offers three dining and drinking areas. The restaurant proper, accessed via Kingly Street, is cosy and convivial; downstairs there's a smart bar and informal cafe-style seating and when weather permits there's an outside terrace within the fashionable Kingly Court mini-shopping centre.
Oysters are the focus here and are served in threes; five varieties are regularly available as well as occasional specials. The stand-outs for me were the Carlingford rocks (£6/three) which were fat, smooth and robust and small-shelled, big-flavoured Kumamotos from the specials list. I also tried the fish soup with rouille and Gruyere which was very, very good indeed although I did leave reeking of rouille. Drinks-wise there's a French-biased, heavily marked-up list; slightly more affordable are draught beers at £4 a pint. Sipsmith gin and Chase vodka make a welcome appearance on the spirits list. Service is super-friendly and well-paced; as a solo diner I was made to feel very welcome which always earns brownie points from me.
Wright Brothers Soho, 13 Kingly Street, G7/G8 Kingly Court, London W1B 5PW Tel: 020 7434 3611 http://www.thewrightbrothers.co.uk/