Eating Around: Villandry, St James, London

Brunch; isn’t brunch wonderfully indulgent? The fashionable younger cousin of prim and proper breakfast and steady-as-a-rock lunch, brunch instead offers diners the chance to be frivolous and steer the curve of convention away from the traditional three meals a day. A perfect weekend treat, there is only way one brunch could possibly get better; by making it a bottomless Prosecco brunch of course! When our parents treated my sister and I to a bottomless Prosecco brunch voucher at Villandry in London’s upper crust St James, we couldn’t wait to book our table and enjoy a fizz-fueled twin date.

Villandry’s St James branch certainly sets the tone for a luxurious treat meal; even its exterior screams classy polish with its contoured white stonework, smooth columns and decorative arches above the windows. Already feeling vaguely glamorous, we entered the restaurant and were quickly shown to a corner booth with post-box red leather cushions and windows either side to catch the morning rays. Once we were nice and comfy, we were presented with our menus. I was astounded and instantly chuffed that our brunch would in fact be a three-course affair, adding to the laziness of eating mid-morning, and our bottomless Prosecco would run for two hours. Luckily for my sister and I, we arrived a good 25 minutes early for our table, so I’m pretty sure we were able to smuggle in a few additional glasses of fizzy goodness.

So, first things first, we started our brunch with a pastry round, where we were able to pick from a choice of pastries to have one each as a starter of sorts. While the twin instantly opted for an almond croissant, I was more hesitant as I toyed between a pain au chocolat and a pain au raisin. The chocolate won out in the end and we placed our first round order as the Prosecco continued to be poured. Our pastries were brought to the table in a wicker bread-basket lined with a napkin, and these were certainly not the disappointing mini pastries that clutter breakfast meetings across the city. Oh no, these were full-sized, buttery and crumbly all in one flaky crunch. The chocolate streams in the centre of my pastry were wonderfully dark and chunky, adding a gorgeous yet not overbearing sweet punch to the pastry, which was soft and sheet-like on the inside, yet golden on the outside. My sister loved the gooey centre of her almond croissant and we both were very happy with how brunch was kicking off.

For mains, so to speak, we went for quite different options but allowed us to graze at each other’s too! I decided to try something different, so I ordered the sourdough toast that was topped with fresh spinach leaves, pools of mashed avocado and two pert poached eggs as round as tidy ice cream scoops. A joy to pop and have the yolk cascading messily over my greenery. The sourdough toast was cut slightly thicker than usual and had the tones of wholemeal bread, the glossy spinach adding a fresh hit that paired nicely with the thick and creamy avocado. The eggs helped to combine all of the separate ingredients by oozing over everything in the most satisfying way. My twinny ordered pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, and I have to say I was instantly jealous and green with food envy rather than too much avocado. Her pancakes were large, fluffy and delectable, the bacon tasty although there wasn’t much of it compared to the size of the pancakes. Her maple syrup was in a side dip dish, allowing us to dip and pool as we wished. Luckily, there was plenty of it. We were also a wee bit naughty and ordered an extra side dish too, but as soon as I saw mention of truffle, I’m afraid I was sunk. The Villandry Aspen fries are a magic concoction of skinny fries tossed in white truffle oil and Parmesan, two of my favourite flavours. Needless to say, these were divine. I’m not usually a fan of skinny fries however the additional flavours on these bad boys had me scooping them up with gusto. Definitely clean plates all round.

Our last round was dessert in the form of a cake plate. This was basically like the top tier of an afternoon tea as each of us was presented with a small white plate showcasing a collection of five miniature cakes on a decorative zig-zag drizzle of raspberry coulis. Sitting pretty in the centre was a neat cube of rich chocolate brownie that was still warm, wonderfully dense and dusted with icing sugar. A turquoise macaroon glued together with a sticky fruity centre was also quickly devoured, soon followed by bright pink raindrop shape of meringue, which had that soft and chewy centre paired with a crunchy outer shell. The mini lemon meringue pie was so precise, with a tidy, tiny fluted pie crust, spoldge of lemon curd in the middle and a neat pearl of grilled meringue on top. Finally, our last cake was a choux profiterole type cake, filled with a light vanilla creme patisserie and a very unusual forest green decoration on top. I have no idea what it was but the whole bun was delightful and may even have been my favourite cake of the lot. Small and neat, these cakes easily hit our sweet spot after having a main meal but didn’t overfill us, which was ideal.

And throughout all of this scoffing and admiring, we were slowly but surely getting squiffy. The waiting staff are very attentive with the Prosecco, which if you’ve paid the extra money to go bottomless ensures you get your money’s worth, otherwise you might as well have just ordered a glass. I don’t think our flutes ever went under half full, so I have no idea how much we drank. Sometimes it would be topped up after just a few sips. It all added to the sheer luxury of the experience and it was wonderful having the light, sweet and fizzy Prosecco with our meal; it really was the ideal accompaniment.

Although our bottomless Prosecco brunch was bought for us as a gift voucher, I would love to go back again and try all the foody bits I didn’t get round to; and drink more Prosecco of course! Villandry’s weekend brunch menu is £25 per person, with an additional £15 per person if you want to go bottomless, so it does make quite a different yet affordable way to meet up with friends, as you would probably spend that amount on a dinner and drinks anyway.

We loved our bottomless Prosecco brunch and I can’t wait to go again. Fingers crossed I receive another gift voucher… *nudge nudge*…

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Eating Around: Maxims, Kensington, London

There’s something about west London that simply carries the air of luxury merely in the breeze; discreet wealth seems to exude from every store front and a highly polished veneer of sophistication drapes over every opulent building with that classic London panache. Therefore, when this east London lass won a recent Facebook competition for a three-course meal for two at high-class casino, hotel and restaurant Maxims, situated in Kensington, I literally couldn’t grab my husband fast enough as we hot-footed it there after work one Friday night for a date night like no other.

Upon arrival, my coat and spare bags were magicked away into a hidden cloakroom and I was gently ushered down a carpeted stairway into a glamorous bar area to await the other half. Large, bucket shaped armchairs in lush leather shades of cream and berry were artfully clustered around dark glass drinks tables, scatter cushions invitingly plumped and chandelier lighting atmospherically dimmed. The bar, tucked away in one corner, was like a golden beacon of alcohol, with multi-coloured bottles clustering together like a police line-up. A smartly dressed waiter presented me with a brown leather bound drinks menu, which showcased over 100 different types of whisky, stating that I could order whatever I wanted from the menu or even something not on the menu. I mentioned that I’d won the Facebook competition, and I was simply told “We know who you are”. Feeling rather like a fraudulent VIP, yet also absolutely loving the star treatment, I settled into an armchair and began grazing on the trio of nibbles that were brought over, including mixed olives, crunchy spiced corn balls and a mix of spices nuts. This, my friends, is the life.

When my husband arrived, he was presented with a matching menu and we both decided to order a cocktail, since we were going to have wine with dinner. I opted for a tequila-laced margarita while hubby chose a porn star martini. My drink arrived in its typically kitsch cocktail class, the rim smothered with salt, and a lime carefully spearheaded the left side of the glass. The pale green, cloudy cocktail was a refreshing and potent wake-up call that was just what the doctor ordered after a long week at work. While relaxing with our cocktails in the bar area, our friendly waiter gave us the main menus for us to peruse at our leisure. Flicking through the menu, I was really impressed by the fantastic array of cultures represented in just one menu. French and Italian European classics sat just a page away from Chinese and Indian delicacies, while turning another page led to a reel of Turkish and Moroccan specialties. There were both starters and main courses available in all these cuisines, and my stomach rumbled with the concentration of indecision.

In the end, I settled for a European pasta starter of aubergine and scamorza ravioli, dressed in a classic Italian Neapolitan sauce, while the other sauce hit the Chinese selection for some deep fried prawns. For main course, I skipped a few countries to select the lamb tagine, filled with fragrant dried prunes and apricots and served with cous cous. Husband chose the Turkish mixed grill on the other hand, a carnivore’s paradise laden with chicken, kofte and lamp chops galore. We ordered while still sat in the bar, the waiter dashing off to check our order was in stock before confirming with us; he also kindly recommended a side salad for the husband’s dinner too. A bottle of wine was included with our winning meal, and when I inquired, I was told it only applied to the house wines. Typically, this would be one white and one red however Maxims would not stoop to such poor choice. The waiter proceeded to reel off at least three different types of wines for each colour. I speedily chose the fruity sauvignon blanc. With our meals all ordered, the waiter then asked if we would like to be first into the dining room so we could pick our seats, adding that we had priority this evening. I gleefully hopped up, swiftly followed by the other half, polishing off the last of the nibbles as we sauntered into the dining room.

The dining room of Maxims is small but incredibly glamorous. Gorgeous horse-shoe shaped booths sat along one side of the restaurant while three roomy square tables were placed opposite, so there was only about five or six tables in total. This merely added to the incredibly air of luxury and seclusion. I spied a large booth at the back and made a beeline for it. It was far too big for two people, but very comfortable and I loved snuggling into the golden cushions lined up against the beige seating. The table presentation was also lovely, the plates adorned with lilac tones European building watercolour style paintings, numerous large cream cotton napkins waiting to clear any spillages and a small posy of fuchsia flowers adding a vibrancy to the otherwise neutral colour palate. Awash with gold and beige tones, scattered with pink floral decorations, the room felt peaceful, quiet, romantic and private. It felt like an actual escape from our hurried London lifestyles.

Instead of the typical bread basket that precedes a meal, Maxims pushed the boat out with a gloriously colourful and vibrant crudities dish. A deep, white, bucket-type china dish filled with ice acted as a planter for an array of raw vegetables, cut into neat spears for easy finger-food picking. Baby corn nestled against cucumber and lettuce, while whole baby carrots made a bed with asparagus, radishes and a variety of peppers. In the centre of this vegetable bouquet was a dip dish of thick and creamy blue cheese dip. I found this a fantastically different way to start the meal and I really loved the variety of vegetables. The bread basket was also brought round before our starters arrived, and I chose a multi-grain bread studded with raisins and nuts, which had a thick, chewy crust yet was wonderfully soft and flavoursome in the centre.

Starters arrived and our heavenly evening continued, our wine glasses never nearing empty and our utmost thoughts being attended to by the ever-present and attentive staff. My pasta was dreamy; I loved the filling of the aubergine with the cheese, it was creamy yet smoky and ideal to cut through the sweet tomato sauce that zinged across the palate with a rush of freshness. The pasta was smooth and soft and the portion size was also very decent for a starter. It was incredibly yummy and certainly set a high standard for the remainder of the food. My husband’s prawn dish arrived on an impressive platter, joined by two different dips for his deliberation too. We were both in food heaven.

Our main courses were also delectable. My tagine arrived in its traditional terracotta dish, the tender cubes of lamb absolutely bursting with flavour and infused with a fragrance and sweet spice that transported me across the globe. The squashy dried fruit added a richness and depth to the lamb which helped give the taste some punch and added to the succulent sweetness and permeated every mouthful. The lamb was served with a generous side dish of yellow cous cous, which was light and fluffy. The other half attacked his mixed grill with vigour, although I had to help out nearer the end. Served on a shiny silver platter, an array of chargrilled meats wafted their juicy scent across the table as the kebab-style meat lay next to spears of flatbread and peppers. The side salad featured crispy croutons made from this flatbread too, which I found very moreish and really unique too. A really delicious and decadent main meal, and I thought it was great that I could sample some different types of food that I wouldn’t ordinarily have. A decided treat for sure.

And it didn’t end there. Dessert started with a glass of dessert wine, honeysuckle sweet and the colour of syrup, my sweet tooth was sobbing in gratitude at its light drinkability yet smooth sweetness. I ordered the pistachio creme brulee as my afters, simply because I love green pistachios and I adore custard, so this dessert really was a lot of my favourite flavours combined. My creme brulee arrived on a blackboard plate, next to a neat pile of halved strawberries. Using my teaspoon to snap apart the crisp caramel top, this dessert was dreamy. The sharp shards of the topping were a complete contrast to the super silky green custard hidden beneath, the nuttiness really enhancing the flavour in a magical way to bring the whole dish to life. The strawberries added a nice accent as a compliment and the dessert wine’s honey tones tied it all together. The husband ordered ice cream as a nice palate cleanser.

Tea and coffee was also included in our win, and little did we know our hot beverages would also come with a fully-loaded plate of chocolates! I loved exploring the variety of truffles and treats hidden in the multi-toned metallic toned wrappers; I think we sampled every type of chocolate and combination under the sun. It was a fun guessing game to see what shape and size chocolate was what flavour. My cappuccino was also lovely, with a light-as-air frothy topping.

Despite our table being booked for 7pm, my husband and I stayed at Maxims until gone 11pm. We felt completely at ease, relaxed and away from everything. It felt like a calming slice of luxury, enveloping us in its opulence for one evening of extra-special attention. We felt like complete celebrities and cannot commend the Maxims team highly enough for the perfectionist waiting service and the high quality of the food, which was delectable. We had the most wonderful date night and it almost felt as if we had been spirited away from normality to a world we would never typically be able to afford. It was a slice of how the other half eat and we loved it. The variety of the menu alone is excellent and enables you to try a mix of different cuisines with ease as well as finding something suitable for everyone, so fussy eaters would have no problems here. Maxims, I salute you and thank you for the magical evening.

 

Eating Around: Brasserie Blanc, Tower Hill, London

A day out with my mum is always a treat, however it’s also a sure-fire way to get to enjoy some proper decent grub, as my mum is as much of a foodie as myself and has always been a complete whiz in the kitchen, much to our family and friend’s gratitude. Spoiling me to a day in my favourite capital back in September, she had even picked out a restaurant for our dinner venue, selecting somewhere glamorous yet cosy, famed yet comfortable and also a mere stone’s throw from the Tower of London, where we had spent the majority of our sun-filled day. Owned by renowned French chef Raymond Blanc, Mum had chosen the Tower Hill branch of Brasserie Blanc for our special evening meal, and I couldn’t wait to sample the menu.

Sleek and chic French styling was evident from the first, from the neat black awning and tidy white block writing decorating the exterior of the restaurant to the spacious and airy interior, painted a warming deep sage green, and the floor tiled with a dark green and white checkered pattern. Small ceiling spotlights threw plenty of light around the room, the majority of the space filled by dark wooden tables and chairs. Along the side of the restaurant that housed the windows overlooking the pavement and the Tower of London, there were horseshoe shaped booths, the woodland green leather upholstered seating arching around a similarly shaped black table. These booths had plenty of space and also held an air of intimacy and privacy that was ideal. The whole restaurant felt luxurious and very chic, yet it also felt accessible, and somewhere you could relax easily with friends as you attempted to mirror the stylishness of the decor. As we slid inelegantly into one of the booths, we were both pleased with our first impressions, now all the more looking forward to the meal ahead.

To drink, I ordered a wonderful glass of honey-coloured sauvingnon blanc with the most amazing fruity flavour; the passion fruit tones were fresh on my tongue, paired with the sauvingnon’s classically gooseberry palate. A beautiful wine in a French restaurant, surely I didn’t expect anything less?! Suitably watered with my lovely wine, we turned out attention to the a la carte menu in order to choose our starters. We decided to share the charcuterie for two; in some ways, there is nothing more satisfactory than a decent sharing platter. This one was loaded with salami slices, such as saucisson sec, as well as a selection of other cured meats, served in neat, wafer thin round slices. The platter also included chunkier slices of a meat that was a bit like haslet or stuffing, as well as a proscuitto style meat. Cut on the diagonal, two elongated slices of toasted baguette served as the basis for a blue cheese rarebit. I don’t typically eat or like blue cheese, however this melted and gooey option was actually delicious and I could eat it with ease. The blue cheese flavour as such was mild enough not to hinder my enjoyment of the rarebit, and I could get stuck into the oozy cheese with gusto.

On one side of the platter was a baby kilner jar, filled with picked vegetables, such as mini gherkins and pieces of cauliflower. The tartness of the vegetables was the perfect foil for the slimy salami, and I thought it was a great combo to wrap the individual vegetables in the various slices for a taste explosion. The the centre of the round grey plate was the obligatory pile of leaves. The platter was really delicious and had a decent amount of food for the two of us to share. I loved the pick and mix style of eating, just diving in with your fingers and pairing different salamis together with the other components on the board to create an array of different flavours and textures, although each item was also individually very yummy. This starter certainly whet the appetite for the meal ahead, and had us licking our lips for more.

Being in one of the homes of French cuisine, we simply had to try the Boeuf Bourguignon, which Mum reported had received rave reviews online. This rich beef stew was heartily filled with plenty of bacon lardons, full and rounded baby onions, mushrooms and a smooth red wine sauce. The beef was so tender than it simply fell apart at the merest prod from my fork, into a cascade of delicious pink morsels that soaked up the wine-fuelled sauce for an even deeper and more luxurious flavour than I thought possible. Chunks of carrot and celery bobbed in the pool of dark sauce on the  bottom of the large grey circular plate, and again I enjoyed pairing the different elements together for a variety of textures and flavours, all contained within the one dish. It was an excellent stew, hallmarking from rural France, and the beef was simply superb for a melt-in-the-mouth meat.

Instead of the creamy mash that was meant to accompany our matching stews, we decided to pick a few sides to share that were more up our street. For example, we opted for dauphinoise potatoes, which Mum loves, as well as a bubbling mac and cheese. We also ordered some roasted mixed vegetables, which contained vibrant chunky rounds of deep purple beetroot among more flavourful slices of white and orange from various root vegetables. The mac and cheese was a really generous portion for a side and was so silky and creamy to eat, also being very gently grilled on top for just the lightest hint of colour. Soft and full-on cheesy, this was decadent and rich in a very different way to the stew. The potatoes were simply lovely too, the super thin slices piled high in an individual white side dish, scattered with chopped chives on top. The potatoes were soft to eat with a slight skin on top, the milky sauce offering a vaguely creamy flavour that wasn’t too in your face but just enhanced the taste perfectly. The sides were really lovely and a great addition to the meal. 

Despite being so very full, I was not leaving without satisfying my sweet tooth, especially when I saw what was on offer on the dessert menu. My eye was instantly caught by the Pistachio Souffle, that would be served with a rich chocolate ice cream. Listing two of my favourite flavours in one, I had to have it, so I ordered it excitedly. And boy, it didn’t disappoint. When it arrived at the table, my jaw dropped in shock at how large it was; the souffle towered impressively from its ramekin into an enlarged muffin shape, with a lightly browned top. A single scoop of dark chocolate ice cream pooled meekly in a small white dish next to it. Eagerly diving into the souffle, I speared its wobbly top with my spoon, and was delighted to uncover an exuberantly soft green filling. The souffle was wonderfully light to eat, gorgeously fluffy and had a really natural and moreish pistachio flavour, as well as the nut’s memorable green colour. It really was one of the most lovely desserts I have ever eaten, and certainly a dish I had never tried before or seen since. It was really excellent. I even loved the light dusting of cocoa powder that had been put in the ramekin so that the souffle wouldn’t stick, as this simply added to the flavour. I would most definitely eat this again in a heartbeat. The chocolate ice cream was very rich since it used dark chocolate, and was the complete opposite to the airy and nutty souffle. A very special dessert in my book.

Mum and I had a wonderful evening at Brasserie Blanc. Not only was the restaurant stylishly casual yet elegant, but the service was good and prompt, and the food was dreamy. Staple French classics had been given the stardust of a Blanc makeover to transform them into magical dishes that we thoroughly enjoyed. I would definitely return and do it all again.

Eating Around: Red Dog Saloon, Soho, London

Once again into the realms of double dating, my sister’s boyfriend has long been advocating the burger-filled delicacies of Red Dog Saloon, an American chain restaurant with a penchant for blow-your-head-off chilli sauce, fiery chicken wings and The Devastator, a burger with a reputation just as sizable as its succulent beef patty. Since my husband is also a fan of American grub, we decided it was about time Sam showed us what Red Dog Saloon had to offer, so we headed to the Soho branch near my office for a double date where we left our table manners at the door and our appetites took control.

Red Dog Saloon is actually quite dark on the inside, maybe taking the notion of a scenic ambiance a touch too far in my opinion, however the dimly lit vibe also suited the casual and laid-back attitude of the restaurant, simple brick walls adorned with black framed photos, bright red napkins the only hallmark of colour among the wash of wooden tables and chairs. Simplistic in style, Red Dog Saloon feels like a hang out for friends that instantly puts you at ease. We were seated in a wooden booth at the back of the narrow restaurant, which gave us a prime viewing spot to admire all of the highly stacked plates coming out of the kitchen.

First things first, my sister and I ordered a bottle of red wine to share, while my husband Dan and my sister’s partner Sam ordered their preferred beverages. Looking at the menu, we decided to forgo starters in order to pile straight into the main course, which naturally consisted of four burgers. We also opted to order a range of side dishes too so we could all share and tuck in to whatever we fancied. Granted the menu on the whole is quite small when it comes to variety, however with Red Dog Saloon, you know what you are signing up for. You visit because you have heard the burgers and wings are epic, so to be honest, the menu doesn’t really need to be any more extensive. Red Dog Saloon simply does what it says on the tin, very, very well. It offers a range of wings, chicken, slow cooked meats and burgers, has starters and desserts for those who fancy it and plenty of drinks to wet the whistle of guests.

With Sam gamely ordering the 18oz Devastator burger, I decided to play my meal a little safer for my first attempt, so I chose what is satisfyingly called The Punisher. This 6oz chuck steak patty was paired with 16 hour smoked pork butt, applewood smoked bacon and American cheese. The burger arrived on its own wooden rectangular chopping board, sitting pretty in the centre, a wooden skewer through the middle holding the impressive stack together. The pork looked like pale, non-saucy pulled pork and was piled at least an inch high in a delicious meaty bundle on top of the thick slices of bacon. Wafer thin bacon is always so disappointing, so I pleased that the bacon in this meat-lover’s burger was thick, flavoursome and salty to boot. The smoked flavour was really mild and acted to merely accentuate the lovely natural flavour of the bacon without overpowering it at all. The slices of bacon was a great texture contrast to the dryer pork piled on top, which had a lovely soft and flaky texture and a full-on pork taste. The beef burger itself was served medium so it was pink in the middle, and I always enjoy my meat pink so that was perfectly fine with me. The beef was succulent and juicy, evidently good quality and again worked really harmoniously with the other flavours in the burger. I often find that burgers are all about flavour marriages, finding textures and tastes that really bring out the best in each other, and for me, The Punisher had that in spades. With gooey cheese and sauces thrown in for good measure to avoid the burger being too dry, it was absolutely delicious and a complete handful. I cut my burger in half and then tackled each half with my hands; you simply cannot eat a burger with a knife and fork and I will sadly shake my head at anyone who attempts to do so! Especially since the burger bun managed to stay intact throughout the entire eating; it didn’t fall apart at all, its shiny brioche top neatly encasing the layers below with no problems whatsoever.

Although the burger was undoubtedly the centre of attention here, providing bucket-loads of meat-centric flavours and textures for me to get my chops around, the sides were also very tasty. We shared a basket of skinny fries, which were standard really, and a basket of large, thin onion rings. The batter was thin and golden, fried to a neat crisp, the onion inside still slimy and slippery. This was served with a cheesy dip that was also great with the fries. We also got a round white bowl of chunky and creamy coleslaw, which went down a treat with bits of burger bun, and a matching dish of oozy mac and cheese. I adore mac and cheese but I don’t have it often since Dan has a dairy intolerance, so whenever I am out, nothing is more satisfying than to gorge on tiny pasta luxuriously coated in a thick and yellow cheesy sauce! The mac and cheese was incredibly gooey and a real indulgence.

I really enjoyed my burger and I thought the whole meal was delicious. Eyeing up this Devastator challenge, where you have a time limit to eat the famed burger plus numerous sides, I’m quietly confident that I could take this on with aplomb! When our mains were cleared away, we then turned our attention to dessert. The dessert menu was very small and full of pretty uninspiring American favourites to be honest. However, when one has a sweet tooth like I do, dessert is very often a necessity for satisfaction, so I ordered the ice cream sundae. Anything with brownie pieces is a surefire way to get my attention, and this sundae was full of them. It was also compiled with cherries, chocolate sprinkles and, naturally, lashings of whipped cream.

When the sundae arrived at the table, again it seemed to loom over the table with an impressive size, a whipped cream Afro hairdo sprouting from the top of a clear glass sundae dish, the squiggly cream layers studded with numerous brownie cubes. The sundae was a simple concoction of all things vanilla, creamy and chocolate sauce, with plenty of brownie cubes throughout. The brownie pieces were not overly squashy or gooey but more crumbly and cake-like, with dark chocolate tones.

As well as our meal, we also sampled a Red Dog Saloon special, just because Sam wanted the rest of us to experience it. The chilli sauce is hallmarked as fiercely hot, so Sam ordered us a small bit to try. The waitress even bought us an extra portion of chips to try with it, as she was so concerned about us sampling it solo. I am a bit of a dunker when it comes to chips, but even I went in with a restrained air. Despite only dabbing the smallest amount on the very end of my chip, the instant searing heat of the sauce made my eyes water, and I reached chokingly for my water. I believe there is a chicken wing challenge that involves this super spicy sauce, so anyone thinking of tackling that, beware!

Overall, we all enjoyed our meal very much and it certainly lived up to the tall tales Sam had been telling us in the months leading up to our double date.  As a specialist burger joint, Red Dog Saloon gets the double thumbs up from me, and I would definitely be very interested in taking on the Devastator next time I visit. The staff were friendly and polite, and although London prices were in full swing, we left with very full tummies, as the portion sizes were decent and the food was very filling. We loved our double date evening and I’m glad I’ve found another tasty location a stone’s throw from my office…although that’s probably quite dangerous for my waistline…

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.

Gourmet Pizza, Gabriel’s Wharf, London

Set Menu:

  • Location: Gourmet Pizza, 56 Upper Ground, Unit 20, London SE1 9PP (nearest tube station is Waterloo or Southwark)
  • Date of Visit: Tuesday 17th October 2017
  • Time of Table: 6.15pm
  • Deal Bought From: Groupon
  • Deal Price: £24 for two people
  • Dinner Companion: Good friend Charlotte

Getting more for your money?

This dinner deal includes:

  • Starter each from a selection
  • Main course each from a selection
  • Glass of house wine each

What I ate:

  • Starter: Garlic Bread
  • Main Course: Vegetarian Pizza

What I drank:

  • A glass of house white wine

What did we think?

Heading to the Southbank always feels trendy, but especially so when I was visiting Gourmet Pizza in October. I had never before stumbled across Gabriel’s Wharf, and I found it to be an intriguing cul-de-sac of random bars and quirky shops, the venues framing a roomy central space scattered with picnic-style benches. Certainly more of a hot-spot in the summer, I was here to meet my friend Charlotte for dinner at Gourmet Pizza, which scenically faced the river Thames. The restaurant looked like it would be more at home propped up over a pier, with its black wooden plank structure and tent-like extension, heated lamps keeping the clear plastic add-on section nice and toasty. Despite looking a bit out of place, the aromas wafting out of the restaurant were alluring to say the least, and since we both love pizza, when this voucher cropped up on Groupon, we thought it would make the ideal cheap friend date. The voucher was £24 for two people, which equated to £12 each. For this, we would get a two course meal and a glass of wine.

When I arrived, the restaurant was already packed, despite it still being early evening on a random Tuesday. Luckily I had pre-booked a table, so I was shown to a tiny table to two immediately, in the plastic tent extension section. Here, there wasn’t really any decoration to speak of, but the tables and hard dining chairs were all dark wood to match the black exterior. Charlotte joined me at the table when she arrived, and we eagerly awaited someone to give us the food and drink options that were applicable for our voucher.

When we bought the deal from Groupon, part of the online description listed the menu we would be able to choose from. It gave a selection of starters and main courses and also named a few desserts too, therefore both Charlotte and I already had inklings of what we wanted to pick for our meals. We also both wanted to do a main course and dessert rather than a main course and starter. However, we were thwarted before we had even begun, as when a waiter arrived to explain what we could choose from, he said that they had changed the available voucher options after we had purchased the deal, and we now had literally half the choice that we had previously. We had only three starters to pick from, pretty much a salad and a couple of pizzas for mains, and we were also told that the offer did not apply to desserts, but just for starters and main courses. As you can imagine, this left us feeling rather hard-done by as it wasn’t what we had signed up and paid for, and we would have preferred to have what was actually advertised. However we decided not to make a fuss and to try and enjoy our now limited meal as much as we could. We started by ordering our house wine options; I went for the white while Charlotte selected the red.

Since I didn’t fancy soup, I could either choose bruschetta like Charlotte or go for the garlic bread. I decided to pick the garlic bread, and to be fair, it was lovely. It came as an individual, thick oval of soft and doughy bread, a dent in the middle of the portion pooling the melted garlic butter. The top of the garlic bread had a lovely buttery golden sheen that added a bit of bite to the bread overall, although it was satisfyingly soft and also very tasty. Let’s face it though, it’s hard to go wrong with a decent garlic bread! A nice way to whet the appetite, it was a good size and a lovely bread.

For main course, I thought it was only natural to pick a pizza sent we were at a pizza restaurant, however we only had two pizza options to pick from. Charlotte went for the pepperoni pizza, however I decided to venture away from my usual meat-fest and instead pick a vegetarian option. My pizza therefore featured red and yellow peppers, olives, artichokes and spinach for a Mediterranean vibe. When the pizza arrived, it was pretty standard fare to be honest with you. The crust and base was nice and thin, it wasn’t burnt or too brown at all and the crust still had a doughy yield in the centre which I like. The tomato sauce base was very vibrant, hallmarking the use of fresh tomatoes, while both the cheese and toppings were generously scattered over the top. The cheese had melted gorgeously and was speckled with grilled brown flecks; the toppings were colourful and plentiful to cover the top of the pizza. It was a yummy pizza and a nice size for one person, filling me up but not leaving me uncomfortable. The veggies were all tasty too, with a lightly grilled tone.

The main issue however was the length of the service. It was absolutely appalling. We waited an age for whatever we ordered, whether it was our wine at the beginning or our pizzas for our main meal. Everything was coming out of the kitchen and bar with an absolute snail’s pace, which quite frankly is ridiculous considering that pizza is a typically fast food to cook and serve. We waited so long for absolutely everything that we didn’t even attempt to buy over and above our voucher by having dessert; we weren’t even offered the menu After our pizzas, we literally waited and waited, then decided to just stand up and leave since all we’d consumed so far was included as part of our voucher. If the service had been better, we most likely would have had dessert and another round of drinks, but the service was slow, generally poor and definitely not worth the wait since the food is just average anyway. The bad service certainly cast a negative shadow over the evening; we even saw other couples nearby receive pizzas that were burnt or stone cold. With raised eyebrows, we decided to quit while we were ahead and go and get a concluding drink elsewhere.

Although our meal at Gourmet Pizza was enjoyable, it wasn’t out of this world, and you could definitely go to other Italians venues for the same food but better service. It’s a shame really as such a prime river-side spot could be a real money-spinner, however I also was not impressed that they changed the voucher details halfway through its stint on Groupon. Surely you would wait until afterwards and maybe do it for the next time you run a deal rather than halfway through a current offer? We didn’t get what was advertised and the food did not make up for the bad service. The best bit of the evening was getting to catch up with my friend for a thankfully cheap price. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy my meal and I delivered clean plates each time, but for waiting times are really not worth the hassle.