Eating Around: TGI Fridays, Wembley, London

With a half day off work at our fingertips, my husband and I decided that before attending our evening comedy gig at Wembley Arena, we should certainly spend a decent chunk of our free afternoon indulging in a complete pig-out of a lunch-come-dinner. Although we don’t know Wembley well as an area, the nearby London Designer Outlet shopping haunt provided more than enough choice for our rumbling tummies, with my husband selecting popular American burger joint TGI Fridays as our chosen food refueling spot.

We had visited a TGI’s in the past, many moons ago when we were first dating, around our local Essex, in Lakeside. Since we hadn’t been in so long, we were intrigued to see what updates had been done and whether the menu lived up to our fond memories of meals gone by, of finger-licking meats and full-to-bursting plates. Upon entering, TGI’s certainly blasts you with cherry-picked and stereotypical aspects of American diner culture, its loud and brash style unapologetic and vibrant. Flashing neon light decor, shiny red leather booth seating, and cranked up music added to the black and red theme across the roomy and spacious restaurant. We were seated at a row of tables for two, Dan taking the lower red leather sofa style seat across the back of all the tables, while I sat opposite him on a dining chair.

Since TGI’s is renowned for its cocktails, I felt compelled to have a peruse. The options were certainly plentiful with an entire book full of the different available options, whether you wanted luscious dessert style options, large sharing goblets, or maybe something frozen. With such an abundance of options, I was stumped for a bit, but then I decided to try and be vaguely healthier by ordering a skinny margarita in the blackberry flavour. When it arrived at the table, it wasn’t really what I was expecting, as it was a blended frozen cocktail, served in a tall, thin glass with a blackberry perched on its icy top.  It was delicious, refreshing and I loved the blackberry tones, which also gave it a fabulous purple colour. However, when I ordered a repeat cocktail later on during the meal, it arrived in a martini glass, and was a thin, pale purple toned liquid rather than frozen. It is very apparent that I had had two very different blackberry cocktails, but since I didn’t know how the drink was meant to be presented in the first place, it’s difficult to know whether to question it or not. I have a feeling my second drink was actually the correct one, as I did not ask for a frozen cocktail, but either way, both drinks were tasty and refreshing even if one wasn’t one I ordered.

We decided that for starters, we would choose a couple of dishes and then share in a true romantic fashion. Scanning the menu, I was really intrigued by so many of the options; it appears to me that TGI has jazzed up its menu to deliver typical American grub but in creative and imaginative ways. For example, one of our starters was Chick Cones. This is basically miniature waffle cones, like you would have with ice cream scoops, however these ones were stuffed with Cajun chicken pieces, interlaced with a fresh tomato salsa type sauce and heaps of fresh and spicy guacamole. The three cones were wedged into a white triangular sundae dish, and I have to say it looked really appetising. I loved how different it was, as I haven’t seen anything like this before. The chicken was tender and lightly spiced, however the heat was in full force when it came to the guacamole and salsa! You almost needed the chicken and the plain cone to help tone down the fiery warmth! There were moreish and soon disappeared in a few bites each. Our other starter was some garlic ciabatta bread, which was cut into four windmill wing pieces. Crunchy and crispy on top, the ciabatta underneath was soft, the garlic butter permeating through each layer of the hole-ridden bread. We really enjoyed the starters, and we were certainly contemplating how we would make room for our main course.

When picking my main course, I did something I have never done before; I ordered a double stack burger. Yes folks, that’s two flame-grilled beef burgers. I clearly took the indulgent afternoon off meal to a whole new limit when I selected the Warrior burger. This bad boy not only contained two thick patties of beef, but also featured gooey breadcrumb coated mozzarella dippers, both Colby and American type cheeses that were oozing over my burger layers in a slick caress, bacon, caramalised onions and some of TGI’s mayo for good measure. Throw in a tomato and some onion and the burger was complete. It was a complete monster of a tower, and although my mouth was watering just looking at it, I was also intimidated! What I found hilarious though was the balance of the meal. Next to this colossal burger mountain was a single lettuce leaf, acting as a mini platter for a dessert spoon of apple coleslaw. The rest of the wooden, rectangular chopping board plate was full of crunchy, narrow skinny fries. I also had some of the cheese sauce served on the side in a small dip dish.

This burger was impressive. It even had three bread layers, so was fundamentally an entire burger and then a whole second burger, just without a top bun. Its size was undoubtedly its most eye-catching element, however it did actually taste as good as it looked, which is always such a bonus when it comes to burgers. The beef was moist, flavoursome and a decent chunky patty, which I love. The beef was also the perfect conduit for the cascades of cheese in my burger, but for me the mozzarella dippers were a really unique touch that set the burger apart. The breadcrumbs added just that bit of crunch but the stringy melted cheese within just accentuated what else was in the burger. The bacon gave a salty hit to slice through the opulent cheesiness, while you simply cannot go wrong when it comes to caramlised onions; they just enhance every dish they have the pleasure of gracing. This burger was epic, and I thoroughly enjoyed pigging out and indulging in being greedy for once.

The apple coleslaw was quite refreshing and added a vibrant and colourful crunch, which pepped up the presentation of the plate. I liked the addition of raisins for a fruity chew as well. The chips were pretty standard in my opinion, with a solid crunchy outside and soft potato on the inside. Dunking the fries luxuriously into my cheese dip was delish. I managed to make decent headway into my meal considering its size, and I only left a handful of chips, much to our waitress’s admiration. She commented that I’d cleared a lot more than other customers have done when tackling the Warrior. To be honest, I was unsure whether this was a compliment or a veiled insult!

Stuffed to the rafters, we couldn’t even contemplate dessert, so we quit while we were ahead (read: could still waddle), paid the bill and left. From my younger days, I remember TGI’s being a bit of a teenage hangout, but now my perception has changed. The menu is more extensive and certainly brings a more imaginative type of American cuisine to our British plates. I mean, the pulled pork sundae on the starter menu also sounded pretty immense to me. The menu is so big that there will be something for everyone, the portion sizes are full of American generosity and I would say the prices are standard for this type of grub too. The serving staff were polite, even though the cocktail confusion was a little bit of an oddity. We really enjoyed our lunch at TGI’s and I’m sure we would not be adverse to visiting again when we are next passing by.

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Eating Around: Lazybones Farringdon, Farringdon, London

Entering competitions, especially if they happen to be on social media, can be a very hit and miss affair. There’s only so many posts you can like and share with the gleeful optimism of hopeful anticipation before you begin to take more seriously the fact that maybe Lady Luck just doesn’t have your back after all. However I take back all resentful fist-shaking with regards to Facebook competitions, after I was lucky enough to win an awesome prize from the team over at rib joint Lazybones Farringdon. I was crowned the winner of a Facebook competition that entitled me and three pals to a two-course meal from their Christmas meal, two cocktails each and a glass of Prosecco too. Wowzers. Since this was Literally The Best Thing I’ve Ever Won, I promptly grabbed my husband, twin sister and her boyfriend, so we could enjoy a free double date courtesy of Lazybones Farringdon.

Situated a mere two minute walk away from Farringdon station, the location couldn’t have been easier for my husband based in Chancery Lane, or even for me as I work in Soho. It was a bit more of a stretch for our dining companions, which led to them being a little late, but there is no rest for those on the quest for free food. Lazybones Farringdon is actually tucked down a small cul-de-sac almost, giving it a much more casual, quiet and chilled vibe than if it had been bursting out onto the pavements of the main street. I was expecting more of a restaurant, however Lazybones definitely has more of a distinct bar-come-street food feel that just echoes good times. By the main entrance are smaller and more intimate wooden tables and stools, designated more for the bar drinkers, while further in are longer and larger wooden tables, almost picnic bench style, that have been designed to house the diners, such as ourselves. We were tidily tucked away in a corner on a table for four, my husband and I nabbing the sofa style seating as we arrives first, saving the dining chairs opposite us for the rest of the attending family.

The bar arched lazily around the back of the room, the clean white backdrop showcasing an array of alcohol bottles loud and proud. Above the bar, brightly coloured beer cartons and boxes added a retro touch. This worked really well alongside the kitsch lamp shades in various shapes and colours that dangled down from varying length ceiling lights. The lighting was dialled down a notch to create that slightly unwound ambience that really hits the spot after a long day in the office. To the right of our table and near the back of medium-sized space was a corrugated iron style food truck where the food was coming out from. This helped add to the all-American tone of the food but also contributed a healthy dollop of clean cut British greys, teals and accents of red to crank up the style factor. All in all, the décor was simplistic, with chalk boards and plenty of wood, but this helped create an atmosphere of relaxation, as if you could kick up your feet and no-one would mind.

To start the evening, we decided to order our first round of on-the-house cocktails. The restaurant manager, Natalia, nipped over to our table to take our order. Interestingly, Lazybones only does table service until 5pm, then it’s a case of placing your food order at the bar to be served. As lucky competition winners however, Natalia was more than happy to save us the effort, which was really lovely and helpful too. To kick off the night, I opted for one of the special Christmas cocktails that imbued two of my favourite flavours combined: chocolate and orange. Aptly named Chocolate Orange, this potent concoction, which was served in a heavy criss-cross decorated glass tumbler, featured dark chocolate liqueur, vodka, marmalade and ginger. Since I don’t like ginger, I asked for one with no ginger, and I’m so glad I did. Served with a fresh slice of orange next to a chocolate orange segment too, it tasted exactly like the famed round chocolate but in alcoholic liquid form. I couldn’t believe how punchy the chocolate flavour was. Total bliss for chocoholics like me and I definitely knew what my second cocktail choice was also going to be. The others all chose the same Salted Caramel Apple Pie, which came in a martini glass. This cloudy coloured beverage contained vodka, salted caramel, apple juice and cinnamon, topped with a dried apple slice.

Among our group, it was decided that the boys would order starters and mains (sharing the starters with us girls), while my sister and I would order mains and desserts (not sharing anything at all) to fill our two-course quota. To this end, both menfolk ordered the baby back barbeque rib ends under female supervision. These were delicious and I could see why rib-lovers would flock here to tap up the Lazybones favourite. Because it was the rib ends, they were bite-sized, covered in just the right amount of marinade to give that sticky sweet flavour, and the meat was so tender it simply slid off the bone in one delicious gulp. I avoided the slices of red and green chilli that adorned the typical white and blue rimmed dish; however I totally gorged on the thick peach barbeque sauce. This was the consistency of a chutney and the peach really accentuated the sweetness of the barbeque sauce. I subtly hid the rest of the silver dip dish behind my water glass so I could save some to have with my main course.

For main course, there was no other choice really but The Crimbo-ger; the festive special currently sitting pretty at the top of Lazybones’ Christmas menu. I’d seen pictures of the dish on Facebook that had really whet my appetite, so I was super pleased to finally be able to get my chops, hopefully, around this delectable stack. The brioche bun would be filled with a fried buttermilk turkey burger, apricot and sage pigs in blankets, fried sprout tops and a cranberry ketchup. Served with skinny French fries, you also got a silver dip dish of a turkey gravy dip. When our four burgers arrived at the table, it was certainly an ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ moment. The burger was stacked sky high and even had an extra pig in blanket speared on top of the bun for good measure. For me, the success of the burger lies in the combination of the flavours together; it just worked really well. I had to cut my burger in half to pick it up, but then I was hands on all the way. The sprout tops were not sprout tops, so sorry to disappoint the Brussel lovers among you, but it was actually kale. This worked better for me as I prefer kale and it was nice and crispy too, a bit like the seaweed you get at Chinese restaurants. The cranberry ketchup was more of just a traditional cranberry sauce than a ketchup in my opinion, but that was fine with me as it was lovely spread all over the juicy turkey. The burger itself was yummy, with the turkey being a decent thickness. The meat was soft but the outside was fried to a golden crunch which was a great texture contrast, especially when paired with the succulent sausages and the salty bacon. Each component alone would have gained a thumbs up but together it really hit the nail on the head and was a really fantastic modern and trendy take on the bog-standard Christmas dinner.

The fries were presented in a dusky teal coloured mug next to the burger. I promptly tipped them out and drenched them in the turkey gravy dip, which was so flavourful. I didn’t even need a lot of ketchup, which those who know me will find shocking.  I only used ketchup when I ran out of the turkey gravy and the reserved dip from the starters! The turkey gravy was quite thin for a dip so certainly more of a gravy. The brioche bun on the burger was super shiny, which always looks great, and was sturdy enough to keep the burger in one piece too which saves you getting everything on your hands rather than in your mouth.

For dessert, I chose the Mince Pie Brownie Sundae. This was basically chocolate, hazelnut and mincemeat brownies served with vanilla ice cream and a hot chocolate fudge sauce, piled up in one of Lazybones’ large glass tumblers. This was very rich and filling, but I adored it nonetheless. The brownies really did carry over that mince pie vibe because of the mincemeat and the hazelnuts, but the chocolate was wonderfully dark for a full on flavour kick to really drag the fluffy cream and the cool ice cream into a sharp taste contrast. The brownies were just the right side of stodgy to instead be squelchy and gooey, just about holding their form to be really cakey and dessert-like. The vanilla ice cream collected at the bottom of the glass while the squirty style cream adorned the top of the sundae, so the rich and dense chocolate was sandwiched mainly between the two lighter flavours and textures. It was heavy to eat but I thoroughly enjoyed it and really loved the unique festive flavour of the brownies in particular.

Also known for its cocktails, we couldn’t leave Lazybones without getting a few more under our belt, although a round of cocktails for four people came to just under £40 so make sure you are prepared when you get the bill. The Porn Star Martini had a really fabulous full-on passion fruit flavour that sang out loud and proud for a refreshing hit of tropical, especially when paired with that very satisfying shot of Prosecco! I also had an Aperol Spritz, a true classic and for obvious reasons as it’s simple, orange toned and Prosecco topped. What’s not to like?

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening at Lazybones Farringdon, and now that I’ve found it, I’m sure I’ll be returning to this hidden gem of a spot. The atmosphere was just perfect for chilling on our double date, and we were all able to unwind with ease to the background chatter and the aroma of cooking meats. Although I was at first questioning the fact that it appeared more bar than restaurant, I now know how seriously Lazybones takes its food, and I’ve already earmarked the beef brisket sandwich for my next visit. Natalia was fantastic too, bringing over the Prosecco when we arrived and taking our food and drinks orders throughout the night. Even when they ran out of marmalade for the Chocolate Orange cocktail, they found an alternative using cherry jam which tasted just as awesome.

Thank you Lazybones Farringdon for picking me to win the competition! We all loved our evening with you, and we hope to see you again in the new year!

Eating Around, Dirty Bones, Carnaby Street, London

American burger joints are forever having a modern makeover in a bid to convince Londoners that it’s classy fodder really. Whether that’s by creating at atmospheric ambience or transforming burgers into unrecognisable relations, traditional burger restaurants can be a bit hit or miss. However, when my good friend Charlotte recommended that we check out casual American inspired restaurant Dirty Bones, I was definitely up for some investigating, especially since their Carnaby Street venue is mere minutes away from my central London office.

Although we visited on a weekday, the very small size of the restaurant meant that we had a 45-minute wait before we would be able to get a table. Eyeing up the food through the windows, we surmised that the wait would most likely be worth it, so we went on a hunt for some pit stop wine clutching our bleeper that would alert us when our table was ready. When we finally made it in to the restaurant, I wouldn’t say the décor was anything unusual or special; plenty of dark wood, clashing coloured ceiling lights casting glows of light into the dimly lit ambience, duck egg grey adorning the walls. We were shown to a row of tables for two, were Charlotte took the wooden bench seat, and I sat in the dining chair opposite, just enough space between us and the tables either side of us so that it didn’t feel invasive.

We decided to start as we meant to go on by ordering a cocktail, and since we are both coffee-lovers, we had to sample Dirty Bones’ spiked iced coffee, an intriguing mixture of Courvoisier VS cognac, Mozart dark chocolate liqueur, triple espresso and cream, served in a long glass and topped with chocolate shavings. The alcohol hit was quite subtle for me, but it was certainly enjoyable and far too easy to gulp down in happy slurps, the coffee  and chocolate combo a clear winner in my book.

While we enjoyed our first round of cocktails, we perused the food menu. We opted to share a starter of cheeseburger dumplings as they just sounded so different and fantastic. Traditional Chinese-style gyoza dumplings, that were soft and pliable as you picked them up but had a slight crisp on the outside, were stuffed with your typical burger mince and melted cheese for an American- oriental cuisine fusion. Presented with Dirty Bones’ signature burger relish as a dipping sauce, I loved the originality of this dish – I had not seen anything like it before and I haven’t since. The homemade dumplings were really tasty, and had obviously been fried a little on the outside to give them a slightly different texture to the occasionally soggy typical gyoza. The mince inside was a tasty little meaty morsel, the melted cheese helping to combine the filling. The burger relish dip gave that accent of slightly spiced tomato to the whole dish, which helped to pep up the dumpling shells. These were light to eat and a unique way to whet the appetite.

For my main course, I couldn’t resist diving in and ordering The Mac Daddy. It was certainly a case of go big or go home with this bad boy, as the brisket and dry-aged steak burger was piled with pulled beef short rib and lashings of luridly hued mac and cheese, BBQ sauce oozing around every edge and the sesame seed-adorned brioche bun top balancing very delicately atop the meat and cheese mountain. Served on a small, round grey plate, the burger looked delicious as the mac and cheese run gooeily down the sides of the meat. The mini pasta tubes were cooked perfectly – I don’t really do al dente – and the cheese sauce was strong and flavourful; I imagine typical American cheese was used to get the more vibrant orange-yellow hue. The cheese doused meat was also lovely and really thick and decadent. It was juicy, tender and made me feel like a complete carnivore.

The one thing that I feel is a bit of a con here, is that no sides are included with any of the main dishes. The main dishes are literally just the meat. So the plate with my burger, and just my burger, was the main meal. A burger main meal in the majority of other restaurants would include at least chips, and then perhaps you would order additional sides, for example some onion rings. However, Dirty Bones are cheeky here, slapping London’s premium prices on all of their side dishes, knowing you have to order one so that you can actually have a full meal. Despite my raised eyebrow at this rather underhand tactic, I order the cheesy truffle fries. These were basically French fries that were covered in a cheese sauce, which featured cheddar, aged parmesan and white truffle oil. Undoubtedly, the truffle was the star of the show here. I absolutely love truffle, and will pretty much order anything with truffle included. Luckily for me, truffle was the predominant flavour here, the cheeses merely acting as a gooey and creamy conduit and background flavour to the lovely, yummy truffle. I daydreamed about this truffle-centric sauce for days after my visit. No lie.

Since Charlotte was a smidge too full for a proper dessert course, we settled on another round of cocktails instead. This time I selected the grown-ups jaffa, which combined two of my favourite flavours of chocolate and orange and paired it with alcohol. #Winning! Featuring tequila, dark chocolate liqueur, orange syrup, chocolate bitters and a marmalade ice cube to top it off, this short drink was served in a tumbler, which to be honest, I always find a bit too small for cocktails. Nevertheless, I loved the flavours, which slowly got punchier the more I drank! Both the chocolate and orange flavours came through really nicely in the smooth liqueur style beverage, and I have to say the marmalade ice cube was a stroke of genius. It helped slowly add a sticky sweetness to the drink to counterbalance the chocolate and meant that drink constantly had an undulating flavour, which I quite liked. To be honest, I rather like jam in cocktails anyway as I find it really intensifies the flavour and adds a different tone.

I enjoyed my evening at Dirty Bones and would recommend it as a venue for the hard-core burger lovers among you. It wasn’t the most affordable of venues, although that might be down to the cocktails, however I thought the non-inclusion of sides with something as traditional as a burger meal was just a shade too underhand. The cocktail menu was very extensive and literally had something for everyone, with some very unique combinations. The atmosphere is perfect for hooking up with friends and having a natter, as it is very relaxed, comfortable and casual. The service was also good and the waiting staff were very friendly and chatty.

Eating Around: Duck and Waffle, Bishopsgate, London

Standing at the bottom of Bishopgate’s Heron Tower, staring awkwardly up at 42 floors of sheer, streamlined glass, it is easy to see why Duck and Waffle has been escalated up the ranks when it comes to fine dining and being a tourist must-see, yet all the while still nabbing an elusive spot in the heart of Londoners. Since its introduction to London’s elite restaurant roster, I have literally been gagging to eat at Duck and Waffle. Although its prices are as sky-high as the venue itself, my sister Jess and I had carefully squirreled away our birthday money, in order to award ourselves a proper foodie treat and finally quench our curiosity thirst regarding the imposingly awe-inspiring restaurant.

As soon as we arrived outside the Heron Tower, I could barely contain my excitement as we hot-footed it down a red-roped off queue, my heels tucking tidily into a pathway of red carpet. Once inside, we were immediately greeted with a foyer of lifts, all busily zooming hungry diners up and down to either Duck and Waffle on the 42nd floor, or to Japanese restaurant Sushi Samba, or its bar area, on floors 41 and 43. Entering the lift, the iconic Duck and Waffle emblem indicated the button for the 42nd floor, so we eagerly watched as the doorman pushed the button and sent us on our way. One side of the lift was completely clear, thick glass, affording the most magical views of London falling away at your feet as you rose higher and higher into the skyline of the capital. Tearing your view left and right, there was so much to see, especially as we visited in August, so the dusky summer evening light seemed to paint the city a rosy gold just for our special twin date.

Emerging on the 42nd floor, we were shown into the bar area to wait until our table was ready. All of the external walls were floor to ceiling and completely clear, enabling those stunning cityscape views to simply flood every nook and granny of the interior. The décor of the bar was so simplistic – very city chic – however it really didn’t need anything else. Even one hint of obtrusive decoration would have clashed with the sheer grandeur of having the sky of London at what feels like touching distance.  I loved the collection of empty jam jars hanging in a circular ornament from the ceiling, while the white and blue patterned floor reminded me of fancy china. Splashes of deep red paint added to the oriental vibe, while the completely open bar area, that saw waiters make and serve drinks from the outside of the stainless steel bar rather than behind it,  only added to the immense feelings of spaciousness.

The restaurant itself was again very simple, but with every wall a sheer showcase from which to view London, the décor had to be minimal. Mustard yellow waves covered the ceiling in a woven effect, while simple wooden tables and rustic painted wooden chairs helped to tone down the drama of the cityscape. Our table was incredible; we were pocketed in an alcove right in the corner of the room, so right next to the window-wall. We had vast views to my left, and behind me, I could even spot the spear of the BT tower piercing the clouds. It was simply sensational and very literally took my breath away. My eyes hungrily gnawed at every view and every angle I could consume, my fingers flicking rapidly to take photos. Everything was just so beautiful and just really slammed home to me why I love my capital as much as I do.

As if the stunning scenery wasn’t enough to compel a visit, we were then given the menu. We started by picking a wine, settling on a sweet and fruity Portuguese white wine. We chose this partly because it sounded lovely, and partly because it was the cheapest wine on the menu at £32 a bottle. At Duck and Waffle, service is everything, so we were greeted by our personal sommelier for the evening, who was in charge of ensuring our glasses stayed topped up at all times. He offered advice on what the Portuguese wine tasted like when we asked, and I think I accidentally gave the man a heart attack when I attempted to refill my wine glass myself later on in the evening. Rookie error on my part to be fair. The wine was slipping down very nicely, so we then turned out attention to the food.

We decided to order a few small plates to share as a starter. We kicked this off with a spicy ox cheek doughnut, which came to the table as a large circular doughnut that looked more like a scotch egg, sitting in a pool of pale brown sauce. Cutting it open however, revealed its true magic. The bulging centre of the doughnut was filled with masses of pulled ox cheek that had been cooked in a collection of Indian or Moroccan style spices to give it a wonderfully warming and rich flavour. The dark meat was delicious and enhanced by the addition of a lovely apricot jam that helped marry the spices together with a lovely sweetness. The dough of the doughnut, so to speak, was thick, soft and divine; it was even coated in a smoked paprika sugar for that traditional doughnut finish. The sauce mirrored the spices used with the ox cheek to produce something sweet and spicy. I loved dunking chunks of the bare edge of doughnut into the sauce, the sugar crunching and the doughnut absorbing the yummy sauce. A very decent size portion too.

The next starter to be ready and therefore presented to the table tapas-style, was yellowfin tuna. The small, raw pink cubes of fish were tossed together with picked watermelon, mustard, olive and basil for something incredibly light and zingy; a complete contrast to the depth of the doughnut before it. I’m not usually a fish fan, especially when it comes to raw fish, however this tuna was so smooth, so soft and so delicate, I couldn’t believe what I was eating. It felt and tasted like very tender cooked meat, but fresher. Surprisingly lovely this one for me.

For our third sharing plate, we chose the nduja and gruyere bread. Wowsers, this was impressive when it arrived at the table, sat atop a big wooden chopping board that was armed with a decent bread knife. The bread itself was a round cottage-style loaf; rustic and crispy on the outside, soft and fluffy whiteness on the inside. However, melted on top of the bread was a generous layer of diced spicy salami, with sheets of the gruyere cheese melted over the top to stick it to the bread. Jess cut the loaf into chunky quarters and we dove in. It was great that the salami flavour inundated the bread so much flavour wise, and the topping also added another texture to the bread to really give it punch. The nduja is notoriously spicy, so it was hot, but paired with the bread, it worked really well together. So soft and yummy.

Coming to Duck and Waffle, it was pretty much a given that our main course would be, yep you guessed it, the restaurant’s trademark duck and waffle dish. This included a gorgeously crispy-skinned confit duck leg, sat atop half of a round waffle. A fried duck egg sprinkled with rock salt perched on top of the duck meat, while a small jug next to the waffle held a mustard flavoured maple syrup. This dish is so elegant, yet homely and just was heaven to eat, it really was. The yolk of my egg burst merrily and continued to flood seductively across my plate, while I poured the syrup carefully over my waffle, its indents rapidly filling with the sweet yet fiery nectar. Every element of the dish was sheer perfection alone; combined it had my tastebuds celebrating with fireworks and shaking hands in congratulations. The duck was superb with tender, dark meat and a crunchy crisp skin, while the waffle was soft and sweet by comparison. The gooey egg was a great addition to help combine the flavours, and the syrup gave a nod to waffle’s sweeter, breakfast like past. What a dish. We also ordered a side of sweet potatoes, which were served with a crème fraiche sauce peppered with fermented black chilli, mint and capers. Yummy and something very different too.

Reclining in a very happy food coma state, we still had room to order dessert, and there was no way I was passing up the chance to chow down on the salted caramel choux bun, which featured a smoked hazelnut cream. The choux bun was stunning when it arrived at the table; a decadent dome covered in dark chocolate and topped with a luscious swirl of caramel cream that was studding with crispy caramel wafers. Served alongside a scoop of caramel ice cream, I dug in to the bun, and was delighted to find hiding inside the chocolate a delicious choux and a very luxurious and almost running salted caramel sauce along with the cream. It was traditional sweet flavours but they had been combined in a slightly differently way for an upmarket take on a classic dessert. I loved it and polished off my plate easily.

With some of our second bottle of wine left to drink, we were asked to leave our table for the next diners. The waiting staff informed us they had reserved us seats in the bar, so we headed back there. Turns out the seats that had been saved for us were bar stools perched next to a bar style ledge that was against one of the glass walls. As we sat down, we could see the Gherkin directly opposite us, and it was great seeing a slightly different view to the ones we had enjoyed over our dinner.

We decided that after our wine we should certainly sample a cocktail before we headed home, especially as Duck and Waffle has a very unique ‘origins’ cocktail menu, where each drink is focused around a predominant flavour. I decided to try the ‘lime’ cocktail; this was served long and included lime leaf Bombay Sapphire gin, discarded lime husk cordial, lime juice, egg white and lime ash. It was so lovely, the lime was fresh and tangy yet not really in your face or harsh in any way. It was an elegant celebration of the little green citrus fruit, the egg whites softening the edges of lime that could potentially have been too bitter. Very classy.

For me, Duck and Waffle is without a doubt my favourite restaurant that I have ever been to so far. Not only is its food creative yet simple, and executed perfectly to deliver the ultimate in flavour and taste, the whole experience of Duck and Waffle is just sensational. Its escapism yet reality; quality and luxury and opulence a stone’s throw from the commuter babble. It was prestigious, oozing that snazzy London class that encompasses elegance emulated but with a jaunty chip on its shoulder too. It was just a wonderful, wonderful evening that I will never forget.

A word to the wise though, I’m very glad I saved my birthday money for this super special outing. Splitting the bill, Jess and I paid £90 each for our treat, and although I would say it is worth every single penny, it’s certainly not something the majority of us can look to do regularly.

Homeward Bound: Osteria Due Fratelli, Hornchurch, Essex

I’d been meaning to visit Osteria Due Fratelli for quite a while before I finally got around to booking a table. It always looked so welcoming, the family-run restaurant painted an alluringly inviting shade of post box red. As an independent Italian restaurant amidst the sea of nearby chain eateries such as Ask, Wildwood and Prezzo, I was also interested to see what Osteria Due Fratelli could possibly bring to the plate that could successfully hold up against these big, pizza-swinging rivals.

Inside, Osteria Due Fratelli continues the family-run vibe, with the décor reminding me of a country style kitchen. The bold splashes of iconic red were still present and correct, paired with a bright white, and finished with photographs in both black and white as well as colour, the frames eclectic and in different shapes and sizes.  The chairs had a worn and rustic look with a muted whitewash, paired against a hodgepodge of different sized tables in a variety of shapes and wood shades. My friends from my badminton club and I visited on a Saturday evening, so the atmosphere was bustling with the majority of the tables taken, however there wasn’t a rushed feel at all. It had the ambience of enjoyment, of friends relaxing together and revelling in each other’s company, of stretching a meal out because conversation is flowing.

We sat down at a rectangular table for four and ordered a bottle of house red to share. Despite just being the house beverage, it was a lovely red wine with a smooth consistency and a medium body that was fruity and not too heavy to drink. While we were musing the menu, a basket of rustic ciabatta style bread was brought to the table, the loaf cut into medium thick slices. With olive oil and balsamic vinegar already sitting on our table with the other condiments, I saw it as very necessary to pool first the oil and then the vinegar on top on my bread plate, before dunking my slice decadently in the slick on my side plate. This is one of my favourite things to do so having the bread brought to the table without prompting or asking was a nice added extra. The bread itself was very Italian, with a dark, chewy crust and a spongey, hole-filled centre – perfect for absorbing all the lovely oil.

Having loaded up on bread, I decided to skip starter, and focus my attention instead on main courses. Feeling in a pasta mood, I opted for the rigatoni amatriciana, which featured wide, cylindrical white pasta in a tomato, Napoli based sauce, finished off with pancetta, onions, red wine, basil, parmesan and pecorino cheeses.

Firstly I was pleased by the portion size; sometimes pasta plates come up minutely small for a main meal and it can be very frustrating to fish around for your pieces of pasta while your companions are spearing a gutsy steak. So tick there for portion size. Next up, I liked the fact that the pancetta was cut into chunky cube-like strips. Pancetta can be served in niggly little cubes that aren’t worth the chasing in pasta sauces, however the pancetta in this meal was really something you could get your teeth stuck in to and enjoy. It was also nice and lean with a real gammon flavour, so that’s a thumbs up for me. The tomato sauce was pretty standard to be honest with you, and I wouldn’t say it had anything majorly different to traditional tomato sauces from other Italian restaurants. Combined, it was a really lovely pasta dish and I it certainly hit my pasta craving nicely.

Dessert couldn’t be anything else other than tiramisu to be honest with you. As we ordered more red wine, I got stuck in to my large, rectangular portion. Tiramisu is one of those desserts that will be completely different in every, single restaurant that you eat it in, and Osteria Due Fratelli’s version was very cakey, with the creamy mascarpone being quite dense. Sprinkled with cocoa powder and drizzled with a sticky, dark chocolate sauce, this coffee dessert is always a nice conclusion to a meal, especially when you get a generous portion like this one.

Now, since I was out for a birthday meal with friends from my badminton club, we may have been a bit looser with the alcohol than normal. We completely indulged, ordering expresso martinis that arrived in unusually shaped cocktail glasses, the hard-hitting coffee flavoured cocktail delivering on expectations there. Furthermore, we also ordered liquor coffees, the rich black coffee underneath steeped in our alcohol of choice before being topped with a silky, flat layer of cold cream. I continued my coffee theme and opted for Tia Maria in mine. After another round of wine, the restaurant brought us over limoncello shots, this feisty, firepowered lemon flavoured liquor succeeding once more to blow my socks off!

As we continued the evening drinking in the restaurant rather than moving on to a bar, our bill was obviously more expensive as a result. We ended up paying around £45 per person, which I don’t think was too bad in the grand scheme of things bearing in mind how much we had to drink overall! The food itself was very reasonably priced; one member of our group had a ribeye steak main course which was £16. After arriving at 7pm, we were the last to leave the restaurant at nearly midnight, almost being kicked out by staff as they finished stacking seats and taking off aprons. For a relaxed and uncomplicated evening out, give Osteria Due Fratelli a go. The food wasn’t mind-blowing and the service was patchy due to the restaurant being busy, however the food was nice and the atmosphere is really relaxed.

Eating Around: Banana Tree, Soho, London

Mulling over where to take my mum for her birthday dinner before visiting the theatre in London, my sister and I decided we had to pick somewhere with an Asian cuisine style feel, as this is her favourite type of food. We also wanted to pick somewhere quirky, that none of us had been to before and that wouldn’t take too long as we had to be at the theatre for a set time. When I spotted Indonesian venue Banana Tree near my office in Soho, it pretty much hit the nail on the head. I was really intrigued to see whether we would enjoy the food and whether it would match up to our expectations.

img_0373Firstly, the restaurant had a really great atmosphere to it, although that could have had something to do with happy hour. Selected cocktails were included, so when I arrived at the table, my sister had already generous ordered me two tequila sunrises, straws pointedly waving in my direction. What can I say, I just can’t resist that lovely orange to red gradient of the orange juice combined with the berry flavoured grenadine. Oh and I like the tequila too… The cocktails that were included in the happy hour offer were your standard choices and there wasn’t anything unusual or out there on the cocktail menu. It was all about making diners happy with old, faithful favourites that you can come back to, time and time again.

Thinking I should probably have some food with the lashings of alcohol, I decided to go for something that was hailed the ‘king of curries’ on the menu, the legendary rending, made using beef. This slow cooked dish is an Indonesian speciality and I have to say, it knocked my socks off. The large beef chunks were well cooked and so tender that they flaked easily, almost as if you were preparing pulled beef. The sauce was a sticky and plentiful pile of dark brown that had a much spicier kick than you would imagine, especially considering that the sauce has a coconut base! It was fragrant and nutty with a warm kick, the wonderful aromatic flavours fully infusing the beef for a well-rounded and moreish flavour.

img_0374I decided to ‘combo’ my main course which meant that it came with an array of sides rather than me just picking one side. This included a crunchy house salad, complete with roasted nuts for extra flavour as well as sweet corn cakes, which I absolutely loved. They reminded me a bit of an onion bharji, as they had that same crispy, fried exterior, yet the inside was wonderfully soft and also sweet because of the vegetables used. These were a lot tastier than I imagined, although the large prawn cracker that also came with the dish was really nice too and very helpful for dunking in my curry sauce. The final side included in the combo was aromatic spiced rice, which was basically a plain white rice that didn’t compete too much with the strong flavours of my curry.

Although it doesn’t look like a massive portion, this meal was very filling. The curry was the star of the show with big, bold and powerful flavours, that wiped the floor of my sides. The different components of the side dishes worked really well with the main meat dish and acted as the perfect accompaniments to really bring out and accentuate the flavour combinations. It was a well thought out and creative dish. I have never really dabbled in Indonesian food before, but this has definitely whet my appetite to try some more. I loved the presentation of the dish too – it reminded me of sunshine and beaches with the big palm fronds and mounds of crushed nuts.

The modern interior of the restaurant made an average Wednesday feel like the weekend, and although the décor wasn’t really that memorable, the menu and cocktails certainly were. The staff were lovely and although the prices are a little expensive for my taste, I still really enjoyed the food on offer.