Holiday Munchies: The London Inn, St Neot, Cornwall

When visiting my mother-in-law’s tiny rural village in Cornwall, it’s interesting to draw comparisons with my London-based lifestyle. For example, the concept of ‘your local’ is different in the village of St Neot. Unlike my base in Essex, where an abundance of pubs are pound a penny along the majority of hustling streets, The London Inn is the one and only pub-come-restaurant-come-inn situated in the centre of the little community, making it a mini hub of activity in its location next the large church building next door.

On the last day of my husband and I’s last visit to countryside Cornwall, we visited The London Inn as a family for a friendly final meal before hitting the road the next day. It certainly looks the part of a rural pub, with its whitewashed exterior, swinging pub sign above the door, and umbrella shaded picnic benches propped outside next to a wall planted with blooming red flowers. Heading inside, the rural stereotype continues with wonderfully quaint charm; the white ceilings are not only low in true country cottage style, but they also come adorned with black painted wooden beams that also structure the walls too. A sage green colour on the walls lightens the room considerably, while an odd assortment of knick-knacks, such as white china figurines and colourful Chinese patterned tankards cluster across random surfaces for a kitsch and homely feel.

The tables and chairs are all dark and polished wood, reminding you of the universal furniture that all grandparents seemed to have at some point. The natural beams of the cottage seemed to form walls to segregate different sections of the inn, providing plenty of peaceful and not overlooked nooks and grannies where you could sit to eat. We chose a large round table near the main door, the centre of the table decorated with a simple glass jar filled with a pink rose and accompanying white floral as well as a small vegetable box style holder which contained cutlery and condiments. The menus, presented in old school leather bound holders, was a simple A4 printed Word document, with a limited selection of British grub to whet the appetite. Although it was traditional and homely, it was also oddly eclectic, and I rather liked this mish-mash of home comforts.

After ordering a glass of sauvignon blanc at the bar, one of the owners came to the table to take our food order. As I was pretty hungry and the choices were sparse, I opted for the traditional beef burger. I never used to really eat burgers out, but I’ve gotten quite into them of late, and where better to sample a British beefburger than at a classic country pub? When it arrived at the table, I was soon gawking with anticipation, as it looked absolutely epic. The beefburger itself was absolutely huge; you could tell it was a  lovingly prepared handmade job that was made with a great thickness and flavour in mind rather than any notion about fitting into a bun. Stacked on top of this colossal meat patty was grated cheddar and slices of bacon, as well as three squashed together onion rings. A soft white bun top balanced precariously on top, the skewer through the centre of the burger attempting to keep it together mirroring Pisa.

Also on my stylishly rectangular plate was a pile of skin-on fries, a simple salad of leaves, tomatoes and cucumber, as well as a splodge of creamy coleslaw. By this point, my mouth was absolutely watering, and I couldn’t wait to dive in to this vastly satisfying-looking dish. I have to say, it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. The burger itself was delicious and really let the beef sing. It was juicy, succulent and full of flavour; and I also loved the chunky thickness and meaty mouthfuls. Soft and tasty, it paired well with the salty bacon which livened up the beef flavour, as well as the mature cheese, which melted into the hot juices of the burger rather nicely. The onion rings were tasty too, being just the right amount of crispy to add a contrasting texture and crunch alongside the burger, but in no way overshadowing. Plus, onions and beef is probably one of the most well-loved flavour combos too, and it will always taste lovely together. The burger bun suited me too; the soft white roll held together better than I anticipated and was sturdy enough to act as a burger bun but not too crusty, which I liked.

The skin-on fries were very moreish, the salad pretty standard, and the coleslaw a nice creamy addition to provide some silky crunch. Dunking the chips in the coleslaw worked well in my book. All in all, the dish worked well altogether and was really well executed. The burger really was all-singing and all-dancing, proving that all those fancy burger chains in the city sometimes just can’t compete with something a little more rustic and substantial.

Dessert was also a very small choice, so I went for the chocolate fudge cake. It wasn’t the best in the world to be honest, and I imagine desserts are more shop-bought to compensate maybe for the extra TLC that clearly goes into the main courses. The cake itself was a little drier than I would have liked, although getting two scoops of vanilla ice cream instead of the usual one was a nice perk. The chocolate sauce was drizzled in layered circles around the edge of the plate, which looked very nice too. Dessert was just average really.

I enjoyed my evening in The London Inn, and the hospitality is what you would expect from the countryside too, with one of the owners soon divulging in conversation with us while taking our orders. Dogs were roaming in and out as well, which meant it would be a suitable location for any ramblers passing through, and we also had a child in our group, so it was certainly agreeable for a family with mixed age ranges. Although the choice is very limited compared to modern menus, it was a delicious meal and I still daydream about that burger. Although dessert was a little non-plussed, for me the burger can drown out any niggles I might have had by its sheer epic-ness. I also loved the quirky, home-grown décor. Certainly worth popping in if you are passing through.

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Holiday Munchies: Black Rock, Clacton-On-Sea, Essex

The evening before a half marathon is always slightly trickier when you are staying away from home, and therefore having to negotiate your carb loading with a menu that hasn’t been self-concocted in your kitchen to optimise your performance the following day. Knowing my body and my pre-event food preferences rather well by now, I figured that I would be fine visiting steak restaurant Black Rock the evening before I took on the Clacton Half Marathon. After all, protein is essential for us athletes.

Although Dan and I have been to Clacton before, we did not spot Black Rock, snuggled down a narrow stairwell between two large and imposing outdoor seating terraces of the restaurants either side of it. With an American style black sign signalling steak and an arrow down the stairs, this whet our curiosity to check out the menu, and then to make arrangements to come for dinner in a few hours’ time.

At the bottom of the stairs, Black Rock has a really cool vibe that is centred around home-grown friendship and community. The focal point is undoubtedly the very chunky and long wooden tables, that are set up to accommodate large groups with ease. With such lengthy tables aligned down the centre of the room, it almost gave the restaurant the feel of an old school banqueting hall, with dining chairs tucked neatly under the centrepiece tables. Despite this nod to the communal eating scene of days gone past, Black Rock is actually rather trendy. Mottled wooden flooring that matches the tables is juxtaposed against crisp white walls, small spotlights studding the ceiling to add to the decorative tools of the trade for creating space. The plain walls were the ideal backdrop for kitsch black and white prints of famed actors and actresses, such as Charlie Chaplin and Audrey Hepburn, which gave an almost hipster vibe to the modernly clean-cut space. The atmosphere was relaxed, and since we went early for food, it was still nice and quiet, although the frown when we said we hadn’t booked a table was a wee bit off-putting.

The main reason we wanted to come to Black Rock was to try their specialty steak dish, called ‘Steak on the Stone’. This is basically an impressively sized hunk of 10z of sirloin steak that is served pretty much raw on a sizzling rock plate. Following the trend for cooking at the table, us diners then finish cooking our steak by cutting slices off the main slab of meat and cooking it on the hot black rock embedded in a wooden chopping board style plate in front of us at the table. Having done this type of dish together at Steak and Co in London, and also wanting a lot of protein for my run the next day, this seemed to hit the nail on the head in more than one way.

I ordered a glass of refreshing sauvignon blanc with my meal, while I waited for the steak to arrive. When it came to the table, the edges of the meat had barely brushed the base of a frying pan, patchy very pale grey-brown streaks indicating that it had seen an attempt at searing, however the bulk of the cooking would be left to me at the table. The steak itself looked in good nick; it was very large, rather thick, and I couldn’t see too much fat or grizzle to put me off either. It really was a complete hunk of pure meat. Served alongside it on the rectangular chopping board was a portion of skinny fries on a white rectangular plate next to the hot stone, and then in three little indents at  the back of the chopping board were little white dip dishes, containing garlic oil, peppercorn sauce, and a mushroom sauce. A side salad also shared room with the chips.

I tailored my dish by swapping normal fries for sweet potato fries, however both Dan and I found that our chips were cold anyway, so it didn’t make much difference. Dan attempted to heat his up alongside his steak on the hot plate, but I’m not sure of his success rate there. The generously-sized steak was delicious; you really cannot go wrong when you have a slab of good-quality meat for a beef steak. I was cooking my steak slices to medium-rare pinkness, and I absolutely loved generously dunking my beef into the garlic oil. I am a big garlic fan at the best of times, and I loved how the oil absorbed into the meat to really enhance its succulent flavour with that beautiful garlic warmth and the smoothness of the oil coating the meat and adding to it, rather than drenching it like some thicker sauces. I’m not a mushroom fan, so I avoided that sauce dish, although I did dip in the peppercorn a couple of times too. It was pretty standard in that respect, with a few token peppercorns bobbing around in the coffee coloured, thin-ish sauce, there’s no hiding from the kick and back-of-the-mouth-burn a peppercorn sauce will always bring. The side salad was very simple, just a few dressed leaves and veg really.

With our steak, we ordered a side of onion rings, as Dan loves a decent onion ring. Unfortunately, these did not get the husband’s seal of approval, as they were also pretty cold. The rings were thin and the batter was light, however they came up slightly soggy, and with barely there onion inside and such a thin coating of batter on the outside, they really were pretty non-descript, which is a shame as a gourmet onion ring done well can be a massive win in encouraging return custom. Let’s face it, everyone loves an onion ring. They were served in a napkin laid basket for easy sharing, but flavour and texture wise, they were a let-down.

After polishing off our steaks, we thought we might share a dessert (read: I wanted dessert, we pretended to share). The dessert menu was rather small, so I soon zoned in on the chocolate fudge cake; a very traditional offering that can usually be found on any British menu worth its salt. Served with a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream and a chocolate sauce drizzled wafer, it came to the table quite quickly. There was plenty of dark chocolate sauce drizzled all over which I liked, and the cake slice itself was ok as well; small desserts are life’s biggest disappointments. The cake itself was very chocolately yet not overly heavy, although it did have a slight brownie-like tinge to it in my opinion, where it was very chocolately and a little dense around the ganache frosting sections, which was luxuriously thick and gooey. Certainly a decadent chocolate-overload, it was a simple dessert that ticked the box for something sweet and chocolate to finish the meal.

All in all, I liked Black Rock as a restaurant. The service was ok, if not full of dazzling personality, and I liked the décor and vibe of the place. It has been put together well and presents itself nicely. The steak is undoubtedly their big winner and where they put all their chips behind; it was certainly a lovely piece of meat and we enjoyed the drama of cooking it ourselves at the table. I guess it also saves effort for the chefs too. However, the sides massively let the dish down which is a bit disappointing really, as the potential for them to enhance the meal is huge. Considering the chefs don’t actually have to do anything with the meat – there was no marinades, rubs or salts at all, it was plain meat – you would have thought they could have put a bit more time and effort into delivering sides that are worthy of sitting alongside the steal showpiece. Price wise, it’s not shabby at all being in little old Clacton, and at the end of the day, it was a lovely place to unwind.

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.

Eating Around: The Swan, Shakespeare’s Globe, Southbank, London

I’ve visited Shakespeare’s famed Globe theatre more times than I can count over the past few years, enjoying a wide variety of performances both in the outdoor circular stage area as well as the indoor Sam Wanamaker theatre. One thing however that I have been dying to do for absolutely ages is have a meal in the accompanying Swan restaurant. Peeking through the windows of this opulent looking British eatery, there was nothing I wanted to do more than nab myself a table and check out the menu. Luckily for me, my sister Jess and I received some money from our grandma at Christmas, with strict instructions to book ourselves in to see a performance and treat ourselves to dinner beforehand. We excitedly booked to see The White Devil in the Sam Wanamaker, preceding our show with an early Sunday dinner.

No doubt about it, the Swan restaurant is gorgeous. It’s so visually stunning that you simply feel more elegant and regal just by sitting in there. In glorious rich hues of gold paired with a statement charcoal grey and an abundance of modern ball lights and chic cream ceramic animal heads, the Swan manages to capture both trendy yet traditional, stylish and chic yet comfortable. It is glamourous in a rustically English way that polishes up lovely. It felt wonderful to be there as we were shown to our table in the restaurant, which is situated above the bar.

Ordering a bottle of Chenin Blanc from our suited waiter, we then turned our attention to the important task at hand – dinner. We had been given the Sunday menu which included the deal of two courses for £24.50 or three courses for £29.50. We immediately opted for the three courses. As we were mulling over our options, a bread basket was brought over, alongside a flat dish housing a disc of creamy butter. The bread had the holey inner appearance of a ciabatta, however it was also flavoured with herbs – I think rosemary, with green flecks here and there in the bread. With a dark, chewy crust and cut into thick doorstops, we knew we had found a safe food haven if this is how they served bread.

Starters was a tough choice, however I decided to play it safe and have the ham and savoy cabbage terrine, served with Yorkshire rhubarb and sourdough toast. Presentation wise, it was very arty and colourful. The terrine was the traditional ham coloured pink, flecked with large chunks of orange carrot studded throughout as well as the layer of bright green cabbage running through the centre for an extra splash of colour. If this wasn’t lurid enough, the rhubarb actually came in the form of a vibrant and robust puree, served as a puddle next to my lightly toasted half slice of sourdough bread. The puree was potent and punchy in flavour, really enlivening the terrine. It was colourful and creative and I enjoyed tucking in to this playful plate.

As it was Sunday, I decided to remain stoically British and have a roast dinner, however I veered away from the classic cuts of meat and inside opted for the pork belly, something I don’t usually have at home. When my plate arrived, I couldn’t resist licking my lips at the satisfyingly large hunk of meat sat dead centre in my plate, an island topped with crackling that was surrounded by roast potatoes, a caramelised onion, boiled carrots and cabbage as well as a large and imposing Yorkshire pudding. A dish of apple sauce was placed on our table, and our waiter poured gravy over our meals from a silver gravy boat. Wowee what a roast. The pork belly was amazing. The underbelly meat was tender and flavourful, the fat absolutely bursting at the seams with rich yumminess, while the crackling adding a moreish juxtaposition in texture, despite being more chewy than crisp (maybe due to the gravy?). Regardless, the meat was splendid and proves just how decadent a simple dish can be when executed perfectly. The Yorkshire pudding didn’t have the soft and squishy centre that is usually my calling card, however it was yummy and crisp. The roast potatoes were spot on with that delightfully fluffy centre paired with a crisp outer shell, while the colourful veg added a nuance of colour and healthiness to the edge of the plate. The onion was an unusual but really lovely touch – I haven’t had caramelised onion served with a roast before, however I think this combo really worked. This was some impressive roast dinner.

Despite being full to the brim thanks to the more than generous helpings, we were not going to stumble at the last hurdle, no siree. Plus, I had already spied the vanilla rice pudding served with plum compote and I was not going anywhere until I had tried it. Oh it certainly lived up to my dreamy expectations. The rice pudding itself was wonderfully flavoured so as not to be overladen with vanilla, but rather just beautifully accented, with the texture at that fantastic middle ground between goo and set custard which basically equals rice pudding perfection. The plum compote was zingy, flavourful and a real taste injection which was magic with the rice. The whole dessert was sprinkled with flaked almonds too giving the dish extra crunch and a creamy, nutty element. It was a match made in heaven with these flavour combos so I adored every spoonful. I didn’t need room to breathe, I just needed more dessert!

The wine we had selected was also fabulous and a great choice from Jess. It was fruity and light, very drinkable and bursting with zingy, fresh flavours. Our waiter helpfully propped it up in an ice bucket next to our table, even refreshing it when the ice turned to water to ensure our wine remained at an icy chill. The waiting staff were incredibly professional, poised and polite, with a splash of charm thrown in.

Price wise, with the bottle of wine, our meal came to £91. Usually such a price tag would have me cringing – not that I’ve ever paid that much at a meal for two! – but luckily this was a Christmas present treat, so we could afford a bit of a blowout treat on something so special. And it was special. The food was magnificent and I can’t compliment it highly enough. It may be basic and simplistic British favourites but the food is also uniquely playful and exciting, in both colour, appearance and taste. I absolutely loved going to The Swan and I think I’ll definitely be putting this on my Christmas list again next year!

Eating Around: Santi, Stratford, London

Based in Stratford’s up and coming East Village, Santi officially opened its doors in July 2016, offering lucky nearby residents an array of traditional Italian fodder, including thin-based pizza, seafood-drenched pasta, and more mozzarella than you can shake a stick at. When looking for a convenient and cosy restaurant to base a birthday meal with friends, Santi quickly cropped up as the ideal choice; in part because it is round the corner from my sister’s flat, partly because it’s on my way home back to Romford, and thirdly, because the food is absolutely delicious.

Santi is decorated very simply, letting its flamboyant food do all the talking. Stark white and dark wood form the majority of the colour theme, with the occasional flash of red to correspond with the restaurants logo dotted here and there. We were sat on a medium sized round table, ideal for nattering as a group, the table dressed with wine glasses and white linen napkins.

We ordered a couple of bottles of white wine to get the evening started, with my sister Jess taking the lead on the choice there. Our waiter presented us with a standard main menu each as well as a spring special menu, which boasted of being a whole three courses for a mere £20. We took a pick and mix approach, with some people sticking solely to the special menu – which did have a very impressive array of options for that style of menu – and some of us having two courses from the special menu and then one of the other courses from the main menu. Either way, this led to the food being very affordable all round, while still providing a pretty much entire menu to pick from. Win win if you ask me.

As we were reading the menu, a bread basket arrived at the table, alongside a dish of green and black olives, speared with cocktail sticks. Always a nice extra treat when table snacks arrive before you’ve even ordered, and so I tucked into the soft, thickly sliced bread with gusto, playing catch with the salty and small olives too.

While sipping the fresh and fruity wine, I ordered the scamorza impanata from the main menu for my starter. It sounded ideal for me, with breadcrumbed smoked mozzarella served with sautéed aubergines. This was probably one of my favourite starters that I have ever eaten to be honest with you. The mozzarella was stringy and soft, oozy out of the golden breadcrumbs when I cut the large discs on my plate. The cheese had a lovely creamy flavour that was accentuated by its sheer meltiness, the softness of the cheese working wonderfully with the crunchy breadcrumbs. The aubergines were cooked in a tomato style sauce to add a bit more variety to the texture of the dish, the squishy, earthy veg adding a hint of depth to the lighter cheese. The main components of the dish were sat on top of some decoratively scattered rocket, the edge of the plate drizzled in a balsamic glaze that I would have licked clean off the plate if manners would have permitted me to. I really loved this dish; everything worked together so well and you simply cannot go wrong with some form of melting cheese. The portion size was also more than generous with three large circles of cheese. This certainly whet the appetite healthily for what was to come.

For main course, I couldn’t resist my usual temptation treat food of Italian pizza, which I chose from the spring special menu. I went for the vesuvio, an interesting combo of salami, mozzarella and a fried egg on top. The pizza was a standard size with a generous scattering of salami spread across the circumference. The cheese on top looked a little sparing; however the wobbling fried egg on top was a thing of beauty. When I popped it’s golden yolk centre, it melted deliciously across my pizza, giving me extra to dunk my crispy yet doughy, wide crusts in. You really can’t go wrong with an Italian pizza in my view and this one was bellissimo.

I chose my dessert from the spring menu as well, opting for the cannoli siciliana to be brave and try something new. I’ve never had cannoli before, but I’ve heard the term tossed around plenty, so I was intrigued as to what it actually was and what it tasted like. I have to confess I was severely disappointed here, spending the duration of dessert jealously eyeing up Jess’s tiramisu. My cannoli featured a rolled up, thin biscuit, which had a similar taste to a brandy snap, yet it’s texture was very crisp and crunchy with real bite. It was meant to be filled with ricotta cheese, sugar and chocolate flakes, yet to me it tasted like sugar-sweet, liquid white icing sugar had just been poured inside, adding nothing to the flavour. The chocolate flakes could not be tasted in any way, shape or form. Although another decent portion size, I was really gutted by how bland and uninviting this dessert was. Next time, I’ll definitely go with my trusted dessert option.

Value for money is very apparent at Santi. There were five of us all together; we shared a couple of bottles of wine, and four of us had three courses, one person had two. Bearing in mind all that, we paid a puny £27 each. I couldn’t believe how cheap it was, considering both my starter and my main course were so tasty that I devoured them at warp speed. Our waiter was lovely as well, very polite yet chatty, efficiently serving our meal. We went on a Wednesday, so the restaurant as a whole was a bit quieter than I’m sure it would be on a weekend, however it had a very relaxed atmosphere and the food was lovely. I’d recommend a visit if you are passing by and need to put your feet up after hitting Westfields. Aperol spritz anyone?

Il Castelletto, Holborn, London

Set Menu:

  • Location: Il Castelletto, 17 Bury Place, London, WC1A 2JB (nearest tube station is Holborn)
  • Date of Visit: Thursday 23rd February 2017
  • Time of Table:30pm
  • Deal Bought From: Living Social
  • Deal Price: £19 for Two
  • Dinner Companion: Twin sister, Jess

Getting More for your Money?

This dinner deal includes:

  • Two Starters
  • Two Main Courses
  • Two Desserts
  • For Two People

What we ate…

Katie:

  • Starter: Insalata Caprese
  • Main: Risotto Vegetariano
  • Dessert: Tiramisu

Jess:

  • Starter: Minestrone Soup
  • Main: Tagliatelle Mare E Monti
  • Dessert: Tiramisu

What we drank…

  • Bottle of Costal upo Illuminati (not included)

What did we think?

With a love of all things Italian, when I spied this fantastic Living Social deal, just a mere 10 minute walk from the front door of my office, I couldn’t resist snapping it up and inviting my fellow foodie and twin sister to share the experience with me. Located down a peaceful side street off the main concourse of Tottenham Court Road, Il Castelletto has a real ‘hidden gem’ style vibe. Its exterior was all prim and neatness with a lick of deep forest green paint and tidy awning ballooning over the front door. Traditional checkered tablecloths adorned outdoor tables; however it was the inviting, large arch style windows showcasing a beckoning interior that had us licking our lips in anticipation.

Upon entering, you are enveloped by a sense of warmth, family and comfort, the atmosphere a pure invitation to simply unwind after a hard day, glass of wine in hand. With flickering candlelight gently illuminating the very small, yet strangely not poky, restaurant, we were placed at an intimate table for two. As I sat down, I admired the yellow brick decorated walls, checking out the impressively golden gilded mirror opposite my seat. Spinning around in the wooden dining chair, I cast my eye over the traditional and well-stocked bar opposite the main entrance. Above the bar, neatly decorated blackboards detailed the wine list, while further blackboards on the walls explained the daily specials, including some very well priced lunch deals. To me, Il Castelletto felt as if you were visiting an old friend that you hadn’t seen in a while, merely slotting in where you left off and instantly relaxing into something comfortable and well-loved.

Our deal was a complete bargain at £19 for two people, so I was expecting a set menu. The restrictiveness of the menu however took me aback briefly, with many of the items being incredibly similar, so although the menu looked extensive from afar, the choice itself was much more limited. Getting over my initial disappointment, I began to look at what I was actually going to order. With a love of mozzarella, the insalata caprese seemed like a good start, due to doorstep slices of the pale, creamy white cheese, colourfully layered against equally thick rounds of bright red tomato. Further decorated with little piles of rocket, for me it was the balsamic dressing that really made the dish. I love balsamic at the best of times, but it works exceptionally well with the soft mozzarella, the zing of the vinegar a pure juxtaposition to the dense creaminess of the cheese. Nice and light, this simple yet winning starter whet the appetite very nicely.

I did struggle to pick a main course, as nothing immediately grabbed my fancy. I decided to have risotto, as it’s something I don’t usually have at home because my husband isn’t a huge fan of this gooey rice-based dish. If I’m going to have a risotto, it may as well be done by the experts. I chose the vegetarian one, and boy was this good. Firstly, the portion size was lovely. I am normally fearful of selecting a risotto when at chain Italian restaurants, as often two tablespoons later you’ve finished your dinner before everyone else; however this was not the case at Il Castelletto, and I was able to enjoy a really brilliant and full bowl. My risotto featured a great mix of vegetables, such as peppers, broccoli, mushrooms and carrots, all steeped in a fantastic tomato sauce that inundated both the vegetables and rice. The sauce had a real garlic heat to it, which massively enhanced the flavour. The rice was perfectly cooked and soft, the vegetables also cooked to tender and therefore to my liking; I’m not really an al dente kinda girl. Ensuring to get lashings of grated Parmesan on top, I really enjoyed this risotto, even if it wasn’t something I would ordinarily pick. Stealing a bite of my sister’s pasta however has me gagging to return just to order a pasta dish, as her tagliatelle was melt in the mouth in true Italian fashion.

For dessert, when in an Italian restaurant, there is simply only one option – the famed coffee-soaked and cream laden speciality tiramisu. Now I have eaten a lot of tiramisu in my time (please don’t judge), and no two restaurants ever serve it the same; it’s one of those things! To me, that makes the dessert even more special and unexpected. Il Castelletto’s version of this dessert was much more cake like, served in a rectangular slab, again with a generous portion. The mascarpone was thick set and unctuous, the chocolate drizzle sauce a nice added touch, and the coffee flavour spot on. All in all, a lovely take on tiramisu.

To accompany our meal, we went for a mid-price bottle of white wine. Usefully, the wine menu features flavour descriptions, so we were able to better select something that we would like. The wine was light, fruity and very drinkable. At under £20 for the bottle, it was also very affordable.

Although our food came quickly, I wouldn’t say the service was spot on. Some of the other tables seemed to be having difficulty in getting their food. The servers tended to clear your plates and give you the next course at the same time, which is unusual, but it didn’t really matter as we were still getting our food. Our meal was delivered pretty promptly so I have no complaints there. Staff were polite but not over warm or chatty.

I have to confess, I fell in love with Il Castelletto. I adored its relaxed atmosphere, the really delicious food, and the whole package really. Copping a glance at the full price menu, it still seems like a very affordable venue, although on this occasion we just paid a tenner each to cover the wine, as our £19 vouchers covered the price for our three course meal each. I can’t wait to go back and try a few more menu items…any volunteers?