Restaurant Review: Malmaison Brasserie (Chez Mal), Manchester

Malmaison Manchester – Birthday Brasserie at Chez Mal

Organising a Saturday night group booking in Manchester was a surprising pain in the derriere. Despite the plethora of culinary hotspots the fine city offered, it became oddly frustrating: El Gato Negro (no bookings), Refuge By Volta (limited tapas menu), The Hawksmoor (hates vegetarians), Mr Cooper’s (no availability), Iberica (brilliant, but went recently), Manchester House (too expensive)…Then, down a dreary Piccadilly, the shimmering mirage of Malmaison Brasserie rose from the horizon and my anxiety washed away with the rain.

On paper, Malmaison Manchester ticked the boxes required for this 30th birthday. It appeared suitably ambient, dark and sophisticated, while the menu was diverse, interesting and not extortionate.

On arrival, Chez Mal was gently buzzing away. Men in jackets and ladies in denial of Manchester’s Baltic conditions filled the space. My parties interest didn’t register a flicker of emotion with the staff, and I slouched to the bar. Some bourbon based beverages were mixed together with too much sugar and not enough rapport.

We slipped to the large tables in anonymity and given only the Al La Carte and Wine List in silence – The Chez Mal Set Menu was mysteriously withheld. Some well-chilled dry white wine arrived in a laboured manner, sluggishly followed by fresh bread, served with the panache of a prison officer issuing their least favourite death row inmate’s last meal.

To start, the Tuna Tartare was elegantly presented with sophisticated, vibrant flavour combinations – if only there was more of it. The Duck Ragu Soup could have passed for a school canteen’s Sponge Pudding; fortunately, it was delicious. Despite its suspicious beige, lumpy demeanour, the depth of flavour and balance of seasoning was superb. One guest was allergic to prawns, and so asked for the Tempura Calamari & Prawns to be adapted – this was ingeniously accommodated by serving half the starter at the full price. The smell of the Spatchcock Quail made my omnivore mouth water with jealousy. The dead bird was wonderfully smoked without it drying out, with the pomegranate providing an exotic touch.

For mains, the Lobster Risotto was suitably Al Dente, with well-formed, proud standing Arborio, draped in well seasoned, rich stock. Unfortunately, the dish was lacking lobster and thus its raison d’etre. The fleshy morsel placed on top was really a delicious garnish. The Venison was an excellent autumnal thing – well rested, properly seared and satisfyingly meaty. I also had it on good authority the Chez Mal Burger managed a respectable account of itself.

For desserts, the Chocolate Fondant was a black hole of sensual cocoa, which I liked so much it was embarrassing. Finally, the gooey Le Fromage Tray sluttily spread itself everywhere and was as good as any I can remember. I wasn’t advised what constituted it – unfortunate, as this was Malmaison’s highlight.

Chez Mal, Malmaison Review Summary

Atmosphere 7/10    Cost 5/10    Quality 8/10    Service 3/10

Malmaison Manchester Restaurant Review

My Kind of Love Note

Malmaison Manchester Restaurant Review

Zingy Flavours & Stingy Portions

Malmaison Manchester Restaurant Review

Grilled Spatchcock Quail

Malmaison Manchester Restaurant Review

Slow Roast Highland Venison Steak

Malmaison Manchester Restaurant Review

Lobster Risotto

Malmaison Manchester Restaurant Review

Valrhona Dark Chocolate Fondant

Malmaison Manchester Restaurant Review

Le Fromage Tray

Find Chez Mal, Malmaison

Afternoon Tea Review: The Colonnade Hotel, Maida Vale

The Colonnade Hotel: Not Tea Total

Maida Vale, a place where buying a semi-detached house demands winning the lottery – twice. Strolling by the meandering canal of Little Venice, admiring the surrounding handsome creme Regency mansions, I almost overlooked the plethora of tantalising kebab opportunities down Edgeware Road, just spitting distance away.

The quality of The Colonnade Hotel’s Afternoon Tea was ultimately disappointing. The scones were exceptional, but M&S sold superior sandwiches, cakes and pretty baked things Yummy Mummy’s like. Pret A Manger felt like a Michelin star in comparison. Some drinkable ‘champagne’ made an appearance, which was probably as French as Winston Churchill.

The Colonnade Hotel’s staff were smiley and organised. Curiously, I planned on booking for one o’clock but was asked to arrive an hour later due to a preceding large party. Not a problem, but rather than any residual buzz, the Colonnade Hotel’s atmosphere was as dead as Rolf Harris’ career.

The Colonnade Hotel’s subterranean bar needed obvious attention; the aqua and peach colour scheme was nobody’s cup of tea. If this was genuinely four-stars, go glamping and drink Prosecco from a Thermos instead. Weather permitting, there’s a charming raised garden, but the skinny trees only marginally muffled the traffic distractions. Actually, the garden was preferable to The Colonnade bar regardless of the weather.

As the afternoon tea was bought heavily discounted through Groupon, the experience provided fair value for money. London’s an expert at fleecing tourists, but even by its shameless standards, The Colonnade Hotels full price was ridiculous.

The Colonnade Review Summary

Atmosphere 4/10    Cost 5/10    Quality 4/10    Service 6/10

The Colonnade Hotel Afternoon Tea London Review

Standard Issue Afternoon Tea

The Colonnade Hotel Afternoon Tea London Review

‘Champagne’

The Colonnade Hotel Afternoon Tea London Review

The Caliphate of Maida Vale!

Find The Colonnade Hotel

Bar Review: The Elephant’s Head, Camden

The Elephant’s Head – Victorian Camden

Camden Town, the simulacrum of whatever it used to be or thought it was. This one-time home of John Lennon, Charles Dickens and Sir Ambrose Fleming, saw a heroin-chic renascence in the early naughties. The skinny-limbed antics of Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty preceded Noel Fielding and Russell Brand entertaining audiences by competing to have the silliest hair. Today, Camden’s biggest export is Dappy from N-Dubz. Camden falls over itself screaming how alternative it is while trying as hard as possible not to care, as carefully as possible. Camden is a hangout for biker gangs without motorbikes, the worst cocaine in Europe, and enjoys a working-class brashness despite one bedroom flats renting at £3,000 a month.

The Elephant’s Head was a scruffy, characterful pub full of scruffy characters, the kind that makes the past-time of London boozing a uniquely British pleasure. I love dark Victorian London Pubs; I like to imagine Jack the Ripper sitting at the bar, nursing a pint of mild, fiddling with a Soduku. The Elephant’s Head dates to 1832, being once part of the famous Camden Town Brewery, producers of ‘Elephant Ale’ in the 1800’s. Feeling like Julian Barrat in Nathan Barley, I sought refuge in something genuine – something with more purpose and age than me – away from the surrounding nonsense. The classic checkered floor, dark wooden bar and low ceilings filled me with hope.

The pub was teaming with leather clad punters, holding what I assumed was a piercing convention. The standard issue Full English and a pint of bitter both did the job and weren’t unreasonably priced, given the fiscal hell-hole that is Zone 1. Unfortunately, members of The Elephant’s Head staff were the sourest, patronising and most abrasive as I’ve come across.

The Elephant’s Head Review Summary

Atmosphere 6/10    Cost 6/10    Quality 5/10    Service 1/10

Elephants Head Camden Pub Review

Camden Street Artist (Of Sorts)

Find The Elephant’s Head

Restaurant Review: London Fish & Chips, Covent Garden

London Fish & Chips –  First Plaice For Awkwardness

It would have been less awkward if Basil Fawlty was serving exclusively German customers. Three tables – six diners – everything went tits up. No pair received their food together; how can two ingredients go that wrong? As the restaurant is called London Fish & Chips, I expected them to have this bass base covered.

As a Lancastrian living near London, I physically can’t pay more than £10 for takeaway fish and chips. I didn’t care it was Covent Garden, even in Buckingham Palace, I couldn’t justify it. Fortunately, London Fish & Chips was available through a thrifty Groupon voucher, which made this transaction morally comprehensible to my northern sensibilities.

Despite London Fish & Chips having zero queue, it took thirty minutes to produce two of the eponymous meals. A meal, to clarify which was 50% potato. I assumed this was from a standing start of peeling the spuds and turning the fryer on. While waiting, I scanned London Fish & Chips promotional placards proudly proclaiming their fish was ethically and sustainably sourced; excellent, and was warmly advised all their meat was Halal. What a comfort knowing their “Signature Taste of Britain”, was barbarically butchered purely for Allah’s gratification.

Redeemabley, their glorious fish and chips were as good as any I can remember. Likewise, the accompanying succulent prawns induced a deluge of saliva. I deemed it a national disgrace all chip shops didn’t also serve these muscular crustaceans. It was all golden, piping-hot goodness: the batter was crunchier than a Crunchie and the haddock was a hulking athlete of a sea-monster. The steaming, salty chips were piled high, and I got happier and happier, getting fatter and fatter. It was all so jolly good I belted out the national anthem.

Despite London Fish & Chips’ interior feeling like an eleven-year old’s bedroom, Covent Garden produced a serious rival to the fish and chip heavyweight Whitby – I even forgave the lack of gravy.

London Fish & Chips Review Summary

Atmosphere 1/10    Cost 3/10   Quality 10/10    Service 1/10*

*Score is based on the general price, not the temporary discount

Find London Fish & Chips

Restaurant Review: Yu and You, Blackburn

Yu and You Restaurant – My Chinese is Tso Tso

Blackburn’s curiously named Yu and You restaurant was intriguingly Gordon Ramsay’s best UK Chinese Restaurant in 2010. Perhaps I fell prey to overly high expectations, but this accolade now seems outlandish.

Despite a rural Blackburn location, a bouncer worryingly patrolled Yu and You’s door. Guests are invited to have a drink prepared by a ‘cocktail mixologist’, begging the question – what other kinds of mixologists exist? The Yu and You Cocktail Menu was apparently a product of six years of creativity; concerning, as the vast majority were long-established classics. The only ‘Oriental’ element of ‘Yu and You Oriental Old Fashioned’ was the barman.

Moving passed the stylish, polished black bar, the restaurant atmosphere became non-existent with a sterile, silent dining room. Harsh, stark lighting shined directly on our faces rather than the table. Chairs awkwardly cramped back against each other, while swathes of space to the side remained unused.

Yu & You started promisingly with the Hot & Sour Soup – the benchmark of any Chinese restaurant. It was certainly hot, but also comforting and complex. The sound of the sizzling dipped prawn cracker greatly lifted my spirits. The Char Siu pork element was eye-wateringly sweet, but certainly enjoyable.

Charlie Yu’s Chicken Curry followed, being indistinguishable from chip shop curry sauce. Considering this was the house speciality, it was genuinely shocking. My partner’s ‘Tai Po Crispy Chicken’ was the kind of fatty, salty dish my partner was trying to avoid.

Dessert at Yu and You produced the novel Strawberry Samosas. Presumably not particularly Chinese, but intriguing against an otherwise barren list. This delightful dish had a pleasing contrast of temperatures, with light, golden, crispy pastry – it provided a fun, novel talking point, while delivering on flavour.

Service by Yu & You’s manager Victoria was warm and welcoming. After my partner spilt a drink, she graciously cleaned it up, generously providing a replacement. The rest of the young team were polite but often distracted and unintuitive: although Victoria graciously commanded the dining room, it was otherwise difficult to attract attention.

Yu and You beat Mayfair’s Kai Restaurant, winning Gordon Ramsay’s approval, with ‘Wok seared 8oz Wagyu beef with sweet soya, lime, garlic and ginger’ at £65. Similarly, I can only assume Yu and You’s rave TripAdvisor reviews followed their premium duck, seafood and beef dishes – around £27 each (inc the required sides). They could well be stunning but seems expensive given the location and environment.

Yu and You Review Summary

Atmosphere 3/10    Cost 3/10    Quality 5/10   Service 6/10

Yu and You Restaurant Blackburn Review

Excellent hot & sour soup

Find Yu and You

Restaurant Review: Bibimbab Cafe, Bloomsbury

Bibimbab Cafe – Time For A Korea Change

I fully expected to love Bibimbab Café. It benefited from a fantastic location – spitting distance from the fabulous British Museum. Unlike many of the surrounding restaurants, it bravely managed to be both independent and reasonably priced. These positive omens, combined with an unfamiliar cuisine and empty stomach, provided an appetising prospect.

Unfortunately, Bibimbab Cafe’s atmosphere was so dour, it made Pyongyang seem like Las Vegas. When I learnt Bibimbab Cafe was a Korean, I assumed South not North. Service was so anonymous, I came into the restaurant knowing nothing about Korean cuisine and left knowing less.

Feeling like the typical Brit abroad, the laminate drinks menu left me utterly clueless; with no support on offer, I meekly helped myself to a Diet Coke. The drinks menu was at least genuine, and no doubt familiar for the already initiated.

The menu focused on finely shredded healthy things honouring a sliced egg, terracotta broths with brillo pad sized tofu and uniform sushi. The website proudly advised: “Bibimbab can be almost anything you want it to be” – the one request it couldn’t accommodate was flavour.

The Spicy Pork was not spicy; I gave it the benefit of the doubt it was pork. It was languid with redundant floppy fatty pieces, served in an impressively anaemic soup. The Korean Style Beef had the elegance of a Döner kebab, but certainly had a punchy flavour that really was the dogs’ bollocks.

As Bloomsbury offers other Korean restaurants; unfortunately, I can’t justify a return to the Bibimbab Cafe.

Bibimbab Cafe Review Summary

Atmosphere 2/10    Cost 7/10    Quality 3/10    Service 3/10

Bibimbab Cafe London Review

Little help?

Find Bibimbab Cafe

Restaurant Review: Ristorante Luigi Pomata, Cagliari

Ristorante Luigi Pomata – Poor Attempt At Fine Dining

Foodies visiting Cagliari (or Sardinia) for the first time, will, as I, fall in love with the food. It is simple, fresh and delicious. It is food that has been sun-kissed, honest, and direct from the land and her people – precisely the kind of food lacking from British mid-week dinner tables. It speaks volumes of the Sardinian culture and should be celebrated; however, presentation is rarely considered, menus are incredibly insular in technique and ingredient, and restaurants rarely expect guests in anything smarter than T-shirts. Ristorante Luigi Pomata on paper provided a refreshing, modern alternative.

Unfortunately, Ristorante Luigi Pomata was the worst kind of restaurant: it thought it was sophisticated, but wasn’t. The only thing worse than a snob is an inept snob. I can only assume Luigi saw Michelin star restaurants on TV and tried to emulate them without leaving the house.

Luigi Pomata’s staff for all their running around and snooty faces were entirely unintuitive and inefficient – as though Italy’s declined industry was paralleled in the dining room. The atmosphere, unless eating shortly before sunrise, is non-existent. I find our continental cousins evening dining habits strangely sophisticated, so arrived when it was suitably dark outside. Still, it was quieter than lunch in Islamabad cafes during Ramadan. I’m English; admittedly, but wasn’t staggering in, chanting “Vindaloo, Vindaloo!” I had the decency to turn up before midnight, yet received less rapport than on my driving test.

In Italy, the idea of pushing the boundaries of flavour is daringly swapping oregano for rosemary on focaccia. At least Ristorante Luigi Pomata was serving unique dishes for a 100-mile radius. That said, never eating octopus and chickpeas together won’t keep me up at night. The food, although thoughtfully presented, was largely style over substance; however, the quality of ingredients was self-evident across all dishes.

Ristorante Luigi Pomata thought it should only sell food, not ambience. At least their extra dry Prosecco is as good as a champagne three times its price in England.

Ristorante Luigi Pomata Review Summary

Atmosphere 2/10    Cost 3/10    Quality 6/10    Service 2/10

Ristorante Luigi Pomata Restaurant Review

Swordfish & Mozzarella

Ristorante Luigi Pomata Cagliari Restaurant Review

Octopus & Chickpeas

Ristorante Luigi Pomata Cagliari Restaurant Review

Tuna & Vegetables

Find Ristorante Luigi Pomata (Cagliari)

Restaurant Review: China City Restaurant (Jin Li), Leicester Square

China City Restaurant – Don’t Canton Them

The imaginatively named China City Restaurant benefited from a great central location, and with a recent Groupon Voucher offered excellent value for money given the expensive area.

Unfortunately, the atmosphere was rather stern. Despite being busy, the restaurant was almost silent, with fellow diners choosing to read each other’s minds rather than engage in traditional forms conversation. The servers echoed this stoicism, which exaggerated the unnecessarily serious environment.

We were warned before being allowed to sit that we had to pay the optional service charge – as though I had a badge warning “I don’t tip!”. Why I needed to pay someone £1.80 to open a screw top bottle of wine was never explained. London after all never misses an opportunity to take every penny possible.

Regarding the food, the portions were generous and satisfying. The food arrived quickly and was served pleasingly hot. However, this was the typical too: salty, sweet, gloopy Chinese food you get everywhere except probably China. Everything for some reason was shiny. Unfortunately, the obligatory sculpted carrot didn’t do enough to refine any of the dishes. For anyone stumbling out of Soho seeking stodgy sustenance, China City Restaurant is an option. For anyone else, the abundance of other Chinese restaurants in the vicinity will probably prove more fruitful.

China City Review Summary

Atmosphere 2/10    Cost 8/10    Quality 4/10    Service 4/10

*Since this review was first published, China City Restaurant is unfortunately no longer with us –   hence the lack of link*

Restaurant Review: The Cuban, Camden

The Cuban – Close But No Cigar

Camden was typically frenetic: hordes of the weird and wonderful spilt in from all angles. The Cuban was found nestled in Camden’s eclectic epicentre, buzzing with shoppers resting from buying vintage tracksuits, vinyl and Novocaine.

The Cuban Camden’s boisterous atmosphere seemingly overwhelmed the staff who were less than composed. After politely advising I had booked, menus were shoved in my general direction. I loitered like a lemon, looking for anything resembling a table without success; a second server limply gestured to the lift, leading to a dead second floor.

The Cuban Camden’s menu advised: “our chefs spent time learning traditional Cuban cooking techniques”. The fact tapas should be ordered often and served quickly wasn’t learnt:  the food came together and after a long delay.

Regarding The Cuban Camden’s food, the anemic Calamari was the blandest pieces of squid known in existence. I doubt the complete absence of seasoning was part of the “authentic Cuban experience”. Better Olives & Feta can be sourced in Morrisons down the road -hardly the “best Cuban ingredients in London”. The Plantain was okay, but a giant banana served in three pieces didn’t excite. The Chorizo was enjoyed, but this should be the star of any tapas restaurant and was average at best. The Albondigas were well cooked and seasoned but lukewarm. The fried Sweet Potato & Plantain were tasty but just crisps with ideas above their station. Finally, the Chicken Tenders were fine, but which “neighbouring Caribbean Islands” serve schnitzels?

Under normal circumstances, The Cuban Camden is a rip-off tourist trap; however, it is regularly on Groupon providing much better value.

The Cuban Review Summary

Atmosphere 5/10    Cost 4/10    Service 4/10   Quality 3/10

The Cuban Tapas Restaurant Camden Locks

Below Average Tapas

Find The Cuban

Restaurant Review: Olive Tree Brasserie, Preston

Olive Tree Brasserie – Failed To Ameze

Located in the Miller Arcade, Preston city centre’s first Greek restaurant thankfully didn’t fall prey to cliché emulsion white ruins and checked tablecloths. The Olive Tree Brasserie’s interior was in fact rather industrial, with exposed metal strip lighting, sharp corners and an attractive polished finish. The contrast between the contemporary interior and Victorian exterior created a sophisticated atmosphere which the area cries out for.

Upon arrival at Olive Tree Brasserie Preston, my party was warmly greeted, and shown to the table through a surprisingly busy dining room. Once seated I was majestically bathed in the green neon of the adjacent Subway; you may want to be savvy and select your preferred table in advance. Never one to resist a bargain, I ordered from the Olive Tree Brasserie’s Early Diner Menu, offering three courses for just £13.50. Although very restricting, it was only to be expected from such a sharp price, and available until a reasonable 7:00 pm (6:45 pm on Friday and Saturday).

Some olives and related nibbles were promptly ordered and arrived very quickly, with the young floor staff continuing to work efficiently throughout the evening. Despite just opening, service at The Olive Tree Brasserie Preston was well organised and polite.

For starters, everyone chose the Dolmades which arrived on miniature pallets for no discernible reason. These three rolled vine leaves, stuffed with rice and minced beef, were the perfect sized starter. They were fresh, delicious but very salty. The extra lemon-dill-cream sauce was pleasingly light and perfectly balanced. Incidentally, their own brand mint-balsamic dressing had an incredible depth of flavour and was liberally applied to everything. A Sauvignon Blanc washed this down with a decent smack of Gooseberry but shrivelled my tongue with brutal tartness.

For mains, the Lavraki sounded intriguing. It was Sea Bass “Spetse Style” – a style not even Google knew about. It arrived looking like it lost a punch up en route to the table. The fish itself was perfectly cooked, with a very salty but at least flavoursome crust. The accompanying Kolokithakia (courgette fritters) were the best thing on the plate. They made for an exciting Mediterranean alternative to chips, which in my head seemed healthier. The sexy Mediterranean cousin of the British mushy peas were the stewed capers, but the last thing salty fish and saltier vegetables needed was the world’s saltiest foodstuff showing off. They were unpalatably bitter and left on the plate. The wine was swapped to Pinot Grigio; overlooking the warm glass, the humble house white had a mineral crispness and was perfectly drinkable.

Friends had the Fishcake & Seasoned Chips and wished they hadn’t. Arriving on a spare cheese board, it was impossible to cut without scattering the contents around the table. The overall flavour of the fishcake was potato rather than fish and equally lacked seasoning. Moving on, the Kota Skordata was a chicken skewer on rice, with dip and a side salad. The meat was nicely marinated, well grilled and succulent. No complaints, but it couldn’t justify its full £13.95 price tag.

Desserts from The Olive Tree Brasserie Preston’s bargain basement menu were an afterthought: generously portioned, but the Berry Compote was so sour only a few mouthfuls could be kept down. Conversely, its partner in crime – the Honey Compote – was so sickly sweet, I saved it for my diabetic brothers’ next hypo.

The ambience and staff were equally pleasant, but the Olive Tree Brasserie Preston’s food demonstrated obvious flaws. However, due to the exceptional early bird prices and positive atmosphere, I can’t hold a grudge.

Olive Tree Brasserie Review Summary

Atmosphere 7/10    Cost 9/10    Quality 3/10    Service 8/10

Olive Tree Brasserie - Menu Lacked Balance

Olive Tree Brasserie – Menu Lacked Balance

Olive Tree Brasserie - Menu Lacked Balance

Olive Tree Brasserie – Menu Lacked Balance

Olive Tree Brasserie - Menu Lacked Balance

Olive Tree Brasserie – Menu Lacked Balance

Olive Tree Brasserie - Menu Lacked Balance

Olive Tree Brasserie – Menu Lacked Balance

Find Olive Tree Brasserie (Preston)