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!

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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?

Homeward Bound: Bella Italia, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

P1030575With a penchant for meaty pizzas, a birthday food fest that needed arranging and an impending hen holiday in Rome, it was only natural that I went Italian when celebrating my 25th this March with my girlfriends. I have long looked curiously at chain Bella Italia so I was pleased to finally have an excuse to book a table, opting to phone the Southend branch for a late lunch one Saturday afternoon around my birthday. Although they seemed to have no notification of my booking when I arrived with my group, it was luckily quiet enough that this didn’t matter, and we were still seated with ease, ready to chow down on some delicious Italian grub.

P1030578The ambience of the Southend restaurant was very much elegantly rustic, with stylish nods at an Italian countryside feel, for example a blackboard listing fruit and vegetable market prices. The venue seemed to be divided into varying dining sections utilising stripped wood to section off different areas. Terracotta and peach tones dominated, contrasting the heavy wood presence but creating a really homely yet classy feel, with large chandeliers dipping down to provide a musky light. Assorted jars and bottles served as decoration, homage to the Italian’s love of food and a feature in many Italian venues.

P1030579Settling down at our table of six, we started with the drinks menu, deciding on a bottle of Trebbiano to kick things off, the fresh citrus flavours accompanied by tones of apples and pears. In for the long haul, this was a three courser for sure, so I excitedly began browsing the menu for options. Starters I actually managed to pick pretty quickly for indecisive little me, opting for the Polpette, which is basically little pork and beef meatballs that are baked in a small dish, drenched in a thick tomato based sauce. Topped with cheese and a rustic hunk of ciabatta for dunking purposes. I have to say, this was probably one of my favourite starters that I have eaten, and I’m not usually a starters kinda girl. I love meatballs and these ones were cooked perfectly and faintly spiced which added to the flavour and also enhanced the passata-style sauce. The ciabatta looked a bit like a random afterthought just P1030583thrown on top of the dish, but it was a decent size to allow me to eat with my meatballs and mop up the tasty classic Italian sauce too. It reminded me of a bolognaise type sauce actually, in both consistency and flavour.

For my main course, I can never resist a large, juicy calzone – a great spin on the classic Italian pizza, so I decided to choose the Diavola option, although I have to say I liked the sound of almost all of the calzones! This one though contained N’uja sausage and pepperoni, so salami like meats, as well as chicken, bell peppers, green chillies and onions, served with an arrabbiata sauce, so again tomato based with a fiery bite to complement the chilli. In my opinion, this calzone was distinctly average, and although I enjoyed it, as I enjoy a calzone, I really wasn’t overly impressed. Firstly, the portion size seemed small for a calzone, as they normally come up huge – and I was starving! Secondly, the filling was incredibly sparse, so although the flavours worked well together, you couldn’t actually have a mouthful which combined them all. Meat was especially thin on the ground, as if the chef has been scrimping. I know a calzone is a folded up pizza, so toppings can be in short supply, but calzones are usually more full, so this was rather disappointing not to find more of the ingredients held within the soft and thin pizza dough P1030582casing. The pizza dough itself was delicious and just to my liking. One thing I did like about the main course was the fun plates – once I had mopped up my meal, I found a funny slogan ‘Just like mamma makes it’ painted onto the plate in swirled green handwriting. It was a great element of surprise and made me smile at the end of a very so-so main course.

At this point, more wine was in order, and since they had run out of the Trebbiano, we settled on one of my favourites instead, a Sauvignon Blanc, which turned out to be a lot nicer than the Trebbiano, so a result there!  It had a softer texture to drink and was less harsh, also with sweeter undercurrents.

For dessert, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Cookie Dough Lava Cake, a chocolate chip cookie cake with oozyP1030585 chocolate sauce centre, topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and drizzles of caramel sauce. This did not disappoint in the slightest, and I thoroughly enjoyed this dessert, tucking in with gusto. The cake itself was moist and studded with large chocolate chip pieces, spearing the dense little cake. The chocolate centre was a pleasant surprise as it leaked slightly when cut, quickly being absorbed in to the surrounding cake. The natural vanilla flavoured ice cream was the perfect accompaniment, acting as a tool to help peel the caramel sauce from the plate, the flavours all working really well in sync with each other. The cake was a nice size too – I was worried it was going to be a little on the thin side, but it came up rather beefy which was great, as I wanted to tuck in with relish. Maybe not a classic Italian dish, but using popular winning flavours, it was always going to be good!

P1030574After the food, I ordered my customary cappuccino.  It was presented nicely and was lovely coffee, so a nice way to conclude the meal. But would I come to Bella Italia again? The menu has a fantastic array of choice, and mulling the online menu a few days beforehand, I was stumped as to what I would eventually pick as I have about five must-try dishes on my list! Despite this, when I received my meal, I was a little let down by the main course, not that I didn’t like it, but I was expecting better. My sister’s pasta dish looked delicious and made me half wish I had gone for the shredded duck pasta instead.

P1030580The service in the Southend venue could also do with brushing up on. Although I had made my reservation on the phone a good month in advance, the waiter at the front of house couldn’t find my reservation and seemed constantly confused about what I was trying to tell him. Not a good start. The waiting staff on the whole were friendly, however they weren’t efficient at taking drinks orders or ensuring that we stayed topped up – our designated driver for example had to ask numerous times just to get one orange juice. We were there in the late afternoon and the restaurant was empty, so not much excuse as to why the service wasn’t up to scratch. Prices were reasonable and what you would expect from a chain, so no complaints there. I’d be keen to visit Bella Italia again to tick off some more of the dishes that I fancy trying, although I think I would visit the Lakeside venue which is a bit nearer home for me and may have better service. We’ll have to wait and see! On the whole though, tasty food and great flavours – I just needed more of it!

P1030584The Dinner Dates Opinion:

Here’s what my friend Robyn made of our meal out:

“Walking into Bella Italia, there was an obvious rustic feel to the restaurant and a very relaxed atmosphere which may have been due to the fact that we did not arrive at peak dinner time. The service also felt extremely relaxed, to the point of being a little slow but the staff were all friendly and polite nonetheless. For a starter, I ordered the Insalata Rosso which consisted of tomatoes, onion, olives and a dressing – good to get the taste buds going but nothing particularly special (but really, what do you expect from a salad?). For main course, I designed my own pizza, adding my choice of two toppings to a standard margherita (chilli and spinach). The pizza itself was delicious and looked homemade which I would imagine, to quote a popular advert here, was just ‘like mama makes’. Overall, the food was enjoyable, the service was satisfactory – but really, I think it’s the company that makes a meal… and let me tell you, I had some rather incredible dinner guests.”

P1030576

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Eating Around: Mahzen, Ipswich, Suffolk

Starter selection

Starter selection

After a more hectic than usual week in the office, colleague and close friend Vick and I decided that to celebrate Friday, we needed good food, good wine, and lots of it. Being an Ipswich local, Vick recommended nearby haunt Mahzen, an art deco styled Turkish restaurant directly opposite the waterfront. With a classy exterior boasting a deep blue front with a backlit stencil screen effect, I was looking forward to seeing what Mahzen had to offer, and whether it would live up to Vick’s high praises from previous visits.

As soon as we entered, the succulent smell of barbequed meats instantly hit my nostrils, making my mouth water almost instantly. The kitchen is completely open to the restaurant floor, with only a clear screen between the open charcoal barbeque and the diners. Décor wise, I was really impressed by the obvious and oozing sophistication, with the venue clearly trying to create a comfortable and relaxing atmosphere yet ensure it still carried a degree of opulence. The muted brick effect walls were in calming, neutral shades, square alcoves with picturesque blue backdrop lighting held silver and copper metalwork pieces, even including the letters of the restaurant name. Large, scrolled and gilded mirrors hung regally, whilst the camel coloured lamp shades dripped down low to provide a dimmer atmospheric lighting effect, perfect for a chilled out evening.

My main course

My main course

The square, dark wooden tables were nicely presented, with small white plates set for starters and wine glasses just asking to be filled. Nectar and honey shaded mosaic style tea light holders held miniature candles to add yet another layer on to the varying lighting effects, which I really liked since it was so different to other eateries and formed such a nice ambience. Nice and spacious, the restaurant was empty when we arrived at around 6.40pm ish, and with first impressions seriously ticking my boxes, I couldn’t wait to get stuck into the menu. Sneaking into a table for four at the back of the restaurant, we promptly ordered a bottle of the house pinot grio, and began pouring over the potential food choices.

Inside Mahzen

Inside Mahzen

The wine was really light and pale in colour, with a vague tang of taste, but not bitter or dry which was nice. The menu was a real classic Turkish affair, offering a really wide mix of both hot and cold mezze to start. There was also an array of both meat based and vegetarian options, with so many of the dishes catching my eye. Although a lot of the dishes contain the same core ingredients, with rather a lot of aubergine, tomato and onion in pretty much most of the dishes, there was a slight slant in each one that made it different. Unable to decide on just one starter, Vick and I opted for the failsafe pick a few and share mantra. We chose an aubergine pate, served with bread, which was a chargrilled cross over between flat bread and pitta. We also chose grilled halloumi cheese, with four, thick ovals that were a really deep golden brown. They were a bit over-grilled for my liking and I wasn’t expecting them to come up so dark in colour, however I really enjoyed the salty flavour of the cheese and the thick texture, although it was a tad drier than expected. Our third and final starter was cigars of filo pastry topped with grated and melting cheddar. The crisp and golden pastry encased beautifully oozing feta cheese, which was perfectly soft and an ideal juxtaposition to the crisp casing. The pate was a lot looser in texture than I was anticipating, like a slightly more runny hummus. It also had a really delicious warmth of garlic, pepped up with a zing of lemon and a swirl of olive oil. Really tasty when smothered on the fantastic bread. All in all, I really enjoyed our selection of starters and it definitely got me in mind for my main course.

Baklava

Baklava

Perusing the options for my mains, I really struggled to decide what to have, as it all sounded so delicious! I opted for one of the specials, which was basically a lamb shish drenched in a rich tomato and butter sauce, topped with specks and swirls of yoghurt. The meat and sauce combo sat atop a mat of diced bread, the same type as featured in our starter, and was served with a dome of orange, small grained rice and a nice, fresh salad. The portion size was brilliant, filling a large, white rectangular plate, mainly with the succulent meat, which there seemed loads more of compared to the rice and salad. Being a meat lover, this suited me down to a tee, especially since the meat was delicious. It was completely melt in your mouth, beautifully tender, and this worked so well with the buttery, tomato sauce that luxuriously coated each cube and dripped wonderfully down to be soaked up by the bread, creating little nuggets of contrasting textures. The yoghurt on top created a sharp, fresh slice of taste that cut through the dense tomato and gave an added highlight. Lamb is also lovely with this style of sauce and these guys really knew how to execute the dish to perfection.

White wine

White wine

There was nothing over difficult or fussy about the dish – it was just meat cooked very well, and served in a typical Turkish fashion, with a medium consistency sauce that packed bags of husky flavours. The rice was boiled soft and was tasty, the salad again, nice and simple with just onions, tomatoes and cucumbers snuggled down among the lettuce leaves. Despite looking like a dish you can easily plough through, it is definitely more filling than you may anticipate, maybe because of the bulk of meat to veg, or maybe because of the heavy sauce and extra dose of bread, but nevertheless I managed to clean my plate, leaving not a speck left. It was Turkish food at its best.

Coffees

Coffees

After letting our main course go down, I had to follow up on Vick’s recommendation of the traditional dessert baklava, a syrupy and nutty pastry with shreds of filo pastry squashed together to form a gooey yet crunchy morsel. Teamed with vanilla specked ice cream, this was a lovely dessert. We were given three fat fingers of baklava each, served with a single scoop of the impossibly silky and creamy ice cream, which cut nicely through the dense block of honeycomb flavoured pastry. The filo provided a light crisp crunch, while the pistachio paste added a fantastic salty flavour as well as its trademark green hue. With hints of honey, caramel and general stickiness, it was the perfect conclusion to the meal and another tick in the box.

Vick's main course

Vick’s main course

Wanting to finish with coffees, we seemed to wait an age to flag down some of the waiting staff, and then we managed to wait for at least half an hour before we could get a different waiter’s attention to say that our latte and cappuccino had been forgotten – to make amends we were given the coffees on the house, the waiter in question immediately coming to our table to personally apologise, which I must admit is rare. The coffees were really nice so can’t complain about anything other than the wait. The busier the restaurant got, the more flustered the staff appeared and the less able they seemed to cope with delivering food and taking orders in a timely fashion. The prices on the whole were fair as well, and generally what you would expect to pay, so ideal for a midweek treat. I thoroughly enjoyed my meal at Mahzen and I would definitely return.

Table layout

Table layout

View of the restaurant

View of the restaurant

Homeward Bound: The Pipe of Port, Southend-on-Sea, Essex

Bread, Olives and Oil

Bread, Olives and Oil

With a decidedly wintery chill in the air, and a husky breeze blowing across the seafront, my family and I watched the annual Southend firework display ripping the blotted night sky with streaks of vividly flashing colour and glitz, an appreciative awe descending on the collected masses clustered on the prom. After ten minutes and with growingly numb fingers, the eruption of dazzling and booming brilliance finished, so we headed back towards the high street in search of some warming grub. My Southend native sister had booked us a table at the nearby The Pipe of Port; a Dickens’ style wine bar and dining room that she had had her eye on for a while. Serving homemade classic British food with a nod to the occasional contemporary twist, we knew the food would suit my classic diner dad, whilst also hitting the creative taste buds of my foodie mum.

Upon entering, we went down some stairs that seemed to lead us into a basement, where the restaurant was situated. The very first thing that struck me was the absolutely mouth-watering scents that seemed to lace the air; the smells of richly roasting garlic, seared and plump meat as well as the undercurrent of beautifully freshly baked bread all seemed to combine and sit laden in the air, waiting to be consumed by my eager sniffs. Instantly impressed by the wonderful aromas, I couldn’t wait to get seated, as we were shown to a quirky alcove table.

Six Fingers of Toast Starter

Six Fingers of Toast Starter

With an old world feel and a nod to a bygone era, The Pipe of Port is extremely well decorated – thoughtful but not try too hard. Decked out in floor to ceiling wood panelling, the mahogany tables are neatly dressed with fine dining tips, such as small white side plates, housing a paper napkin and cutlery for each plate setting. A wide based green champagne bottle innovatively acted as a taper candle holder, the white wax racing diligently down the side of the empty bottle creating a gorgeous dripping lace effect, reminiscent of old Italian eateries. The slate flooring is generously scattered with lashings of sawdust, shelves holding row upon row of wine bottles, faded paper luggage tags offering insights into the names and flavours contained within. Blackboards adorned almost every wall, reeling off an abundance of information. The one nearest our table usefully informed us of Paul’s favourite wine, which intriguingly had chocolate as well as blue and black berry notes. I must say, the board did its job as I was getting increasingly curious about what the wine would taste like, as I imagine a chocolate and fruity red would be right up my street.

Mussels

Mussels

Coat rails hung cosily from the walls for us to drape our winter wrappings on as we headed for our alcove, the large table having a wooden two seater high backed bench tucked round the back, with low slung wooden dining seats dotted around the other sides of the table. Slipping round to hog the fancy bench seat with my sister, our parents sat opposite, while Jess’s other half took the head of the table. Nice and snug in our corner, we were tucked rather out of the way, but this worked well for us being a bit of a larger group than the other guests. It also gave us more privacy and we didn’t feel overlooked at all. The atmosphere was quite a mixed bag – in parts it felt sophisticated and grown up, whilst there was also a talkative buzz and chatter, a delicious hint of fun, laughter and having a good time. It felt like a mature gastro-pub; it was time to grow up from the alco-pops and get serious about our wine and food.

Decor

Decor

It was completely evident from the outset that this is a serious wine venue, not only by their ‘Merchant’s Corner’ where they display an eclectic selection of wines for you to sample and drink in house or even buy to take home, but every single dish on their food menu comes with a personalised wine recommendation. Taking the tome of a wine list, you can tell how much thought has gone into it, as it is divided up into flavours and colours, so even a novice wine drinker could navigate their way to a beverage they would enjoy. I instantly looked under the ‘Aromatic, Light and Fruity’ white wine section, as I knew this was my type. I skipped the ‘Crisp and Refreshing’ options as I dislike those, although I was intrigued by the ‘Light and Elegant’ red choices, although my dad seized upon a Rioja under the ‘Intense and Spicy’ red category. Wine wise and liking it sweet, I settled on a Riesling, which turned out to be full-bodied and a deep yellow shade, with tangy citrus notes and a husky punch for the aftertaste, although no bitter dryness which was good.

Duck in Red Wine and Gooseberry Sauce

Duck in Red Wine and Gooseberry Sauce

Starters wise, I decided to keep it light, as I am much more of a dessert girl, so I wanted to save myself. I went for the typical ‘for the table’ option of bread and olives with balsamic vinegar and oil. When it arrived at the table, I must say, it looked so good. Served on a long and thin rectangular white divided plate, the right hand section housed a neat pool of Italian olive oil, a tidy square of black balsamic sunk to the bottom. Next, overflowing from a small dip dish were a selection of green and purple olives; wonderfully juicy and lip-smackingly salty, they were really moreish and not overpowered by any additional flavourings. I think one of the olive types was Kalamata, but I can’t be sure on the others.

Outside The Pipe of Port

Outside The Pipe of Port

The bread was clearly homemade and truly divine. Large, rustic quarters had obviously been sawn from a fresh loaf, one chunk a traditional white, the other a mildly grainy whole wheat. The crusts were pliable yet that wonderful challenge where you have to get your teeth stuck in and tear sideways to rip your mouthful off. The bread itself was so soft and fluffy it was like eating lovely carby air – so delicious. Covered in a thin layer of marg and dunked in my oily dip it was really tasty yet not too filling, so this really hit the nail on the head for me. Jess, my mum and Andrew all went for the mussels, artily scooping the fishy morsels from their shiny shells, whilst my dad went for the odd option of fingers of toast topped with stilton cheese and anchovies. Served on a square of black slate, it definitely looked the part of posh gastro pub.

Table Setting

Table Setting

As soon as I saw duck hiding under the meat category on the main course menu, I knew it was a done deal. Served pink with a  gooseberry and red wine sauce, it sounded ideal and was definitely something that I wouldn’t prepare at home, giving me all the more reason to pick it. It came on a bed of curly kale, which tasted like spinach really but with an interesting crunch and a more substantive texture, which I actually really enjoyed mixed with my sauce. Although the dish came with mash, I opted to swap this for the more elegant dauphinoise potatoes, as again this is something I wouldn’t have as often at home. This arrived at the table in a separate side dish, a delicate stack of single slices of potato, the creamy, milky sauce collecting between the layers and dripping tantalisingly down the sides. With a nice crisp layer on the top, I slid the potato pile onto my main plate, again so I could smother it in the sauce. The potatoes were cooker perfectly and tasted so buttery, so that was lovely, especially with the rich sauce.

Inside The Pipe of Port

Inside The Pipe of Port

The star of the show though was naturally the beautiful duck and that unique sauce. The duck portion was much larger than you would receive in other establishments, with four lovely large slices that were thick and topped with bubbling skin. The meat was moist, soft and squidgy, served pink and incredibly tender. My knife sliced through it simply and it literally melted in the mouth. The red wine and gooseberry sauce had that punch of fresh fruit that always works so well with duck, the green gooseberries rolling around in the sauce adding a more pungent punch of flavour when squashed onto the duck with my fork. The red wine reduction was light and rather thin, yet still flavoursome and rich, the depth of the wine working wonders with the game meat. The gooseberries were peppy and a vibrant splash compared to the rich meat and sauce, so the combination together was just lovely, especially when matched up with the crunchy kale and the buttery potatoes too. Every component was perfect just as it was, so when they were all put together, it was a harmonious plateful that I thoroughly enjoyed getting stuck in to. Needless to say I polished this off nicely, leaving a very clean plate.

Chocolate Truffle Torte

Chocolate Truffle Torte

The great thing about the meal so far was that the portion sizes were spot on. They were decent enough to fill you up and give you enough of a plateful to work through, yet they didn’t overfill you. This meant I still had plenty of space for dessert, so I happily ordered the chocolate truffle torte, deciding to have it with vanilla ice cream instead of cream. When it arrived at the table, I was pleased to see that it was a much bigger slice than I was anticipating, served with a swish of cherry compote and a single scoop of the slowly melting ice cream in a little clear dish. Taller than the average cheesecake, the torte had a thick, ganache style topping that was basically a soft layer of scrumptious chocolate. The torte filling itself underneath was soft and like a mousse, but with an intensely rich chocolate flavour, which was amazing considering how light and fluffy the mousse was. Thick, a bit sludgy in texture but oh so perfect to eat, I literally sighed happily with every mouthful of this deliciously decadent dessert – it felt so opulent but really was the ideal mix of textures, delivering a powerful and potent chocolate flavour but with a mix of consistencies that was a real pleasure to eat. Really yummy.

Lemon Meringue Pie

Lemon Meringue Pie

Undoubtedly the food was top notch, in terms of the creative and thoughtful menu, the quality ingredients and the careful and considerate execution. This was reflected in the prices however, with my main course costing £15 and my dessert hitting £6.30. My starter was £2.90 and I’m not sure how much the wine was, but since the restaurant is famed for its wine, I don’t think this is an area they would scrimp on. As a table, we shelled out just under £200 for five people so fabulous for a treat night or a special occasion, but I’m not sure how suitable it would be for a regular date night at these kinds of prices. The service was good as well, with the waiting staff being very diligent. We had a problem at one point when all our main courses had been brought out save my sisters, so since hers came out late, she was given a drink on the house for which she chose a gin and tonic. Her meal came out probably when we were all halfway through ours, but since she is a quick eater it luckily didn’t make too much difference to the atmosphere or pace of our meal, which is a relief.

Apple and Nutty Crumble

Apple and Nutty Crumble

On the whole, I would say The Pipe of Port is a fantastic venue, very original with gorgeous décor that makes you feel comfortable yet feels swanky and like a trip back in time. The owners clearly know their stuff with regards not only to local produce and quality ingredients, but with that fabulous array of wine – I don’t think I have ever seen a wine list so detailed or categorised that way before, and I actually really liked this. It made choosing a wine easy since you could search based on what flavours or types of wine you liked, and it made the whole notion of the ‘wine list’ approachable, so you didn’t have to know every style of wine available to pick something you would enjoy. Well worth a visit if you happen to be visiting the seafront for a festive day out day, although this is definitely one for the grown-ups so leave little family members at home!

Blackboard Recommendations

Blackboard Recommendations