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Tapas at Pinchito

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Just over a year ago we swapped Clerkenwell and its myriad of destination restaurants for West Hampstead and its neighbourhood coffee shops. Looking back fondly on our EC2 days, we often rue the nights spent eating in rather than out sampling local delicacies. And a trip back to the old ‘hood compounded the feeling, when we discovered a Tapas institution only five minutes walk from our old flat. Pinchito: how had we missed it?

Pinchito is Clerkenwell meets Shoreditch, exposed brickwork and dim lighting provide some East London urban cool, but doesn’t leave Clerkenwell’s less cool professionals  feeling totally out of place. It’s buzzy, fun, not somewhere to dress up for: an ideal neighbourhood restaurant. It’s worth booking at weekends as it fills up quickly.

We ordered as many dishes as we could fit on our small, wobbly table – deep fried squid, patatas bravas, asparagus with artichokes, meat balls with green olive sauce, and tomato bread. The squid was flavoursome and moreish and not at all tough. Patatas bravas were only average, marred by a heavy hand with the garlic. Asparagus with artichoke, served cold, was disappointingly insipid and very wet. This was the only dish not to be speedily polished off by three hungry diners. The meatballs with green olive sauce was the star of the show; fantastically tender, juicy and tasty. We had five empty plates and three not quite replete tummys. Time for a second viewing of the menu.

Round two was chicken in pedro ximinez sauce, date, hazelnut and bacon skewers, chicken skewers and huevos rotas (fries, eggs and chorizo). Chicken skewers were on the dry side and the fries were bland, but the other dishes delivered the oily, moreish hit of high calorie flavour that tapas is known for. 

Pinchito isn’t bargain basement, but with prices averaging £6 a dish, it undercuts tapas favourite Barrafina by a pound or two, so if you find yourself on that side of town and need a hit of Espana, steer clear of Meson Los Barilles on the Goswell Road and head for Pinchito.

Details:

Pinchito, 32 Featherstone Street, London, EC1Y 8QX

Overall score: 7/10

Mummy friendly score: hmmm, space is limited so I don’t think a buggy would go down well. This is the domain of the childless urban cool, or those with babysitters.

Gastrodad score: 7/10

Cost of meal for 3 adults including sangria: £106

Calcot Manor: A weekend break with the kids

Since the first few weeks of Gastrobaby’s life, Gastrodad and I had been buoying ourselves with the thought of a night away sans child. A relaxed afternoon in a spa, dinner with no baby monitor to hand, lying in beyond 7am and a leisurely breakfast which doesn’t end with toast scattered across the floor. Gastrobaby however, had other plans and cunningly refused to ever accept a bottle, screaming should a teat so much as enter his line of vision, thereby ensuring that he need never leave mummy’s side for more a few hours. And thus we found ourselves searching for a baby friendly weekend break, rather than the oasis of tranquility we had envisaged all those months ago.

Calcot Manor in the Cotswolds came highly recommended by a friend, and so we booked the Sunday Spa break, which includes a £40 per person allowance for dinner, overnight accomodation in the best available room, breakfast, and £90 spa vouchers per room. The overall cost was £375 per room, and what really sold it to us was the Playzone, an Ofsted registered creche. For older children there is the Mez, ‘an Aladdin’s cave of entertainment, with PlayStations, Wii consoles, Xbox 360s, computers and even a 12-seater cinema’.

We arrived Sunday afternoon and were shown to a beautifully light and airy room with an adjoining children’s room. Fantastic, we wouldn’t have to shuffle around in the dark post-7pm for fear of waking our little companion.Each family room is equipped with steriliser, bottle warmer and changing mat, and a travel cot can be requested.

Determined to have some time off, we had prebooked spa treatments and time in the Playzone for Gastrobaby. The creche was clean, boasted an enviable toy collection, and there were sufficient staff to allow some one-on-one attention. The first afternoon past with no mishaps, and we collected a relatively chirpy baby after our treatments. Chancing it, we booked him in for the following morning, the outdoor hot spa pool beckoning. This was clearly one step too far though, as I looked up from my final lap of the indoor pool to see a member of staff approaching. After a very hasty shower, I retrieved a rather frantic little chap from the arms of a despairing carer, vainly attempting to calm him down with books and toys. Well, 20 minutes is better than nothing.

Returning to the previous evening, which saw us heading out to dinner having switched on the babylistening service in the room. We were free to choose between dinner in the more formal Conservatory restaurant or the Gumstool Inn. The Gumstool Inn was not quite the cosy country pub with a roaring log fire that we had hoped for and was in fact a little scruffy, so we opted for The Conservatory, a smart if not overly characterful restaurant. This was classic spa hotel decor, somewhat staid and soulless.

The wine list offered some good quality wines, though there wasn’t a wide range in the lower price bracket. A glance at the menu confirmed that the food would match the decor; there would be no surprises or ingenuity, just safe classics such as goats cheese tart, melon and san daniele ham, and other crowdpleasers.

A starter of beef shin with tagliatelle was meltingly tender, rich and tasty. The charcuterie plate offered a small selection of cold meats and failed to elicit great praise from Gastrodad, who thought it was ‘ok’.

The beef shin from my starter had a second outing in Gastrodad’s main of beef fillet and shin. The fillet arrived cooked as requested and accompanied by crunchy vegetables. My free range Madgetts duck glazed with honey and sesame was swimming in sauce which overpowered a nice piece of meat. The pumpkin puree with pumpkin seeds was tasty but also drowned in the sauce. I struggled to make my way through what was essentially duck in a lot of gravy.

For pudding we shared the plum and almond clafoutis which fell into the all to common trap of too much stodge and not enough fruit. Another dish which almost defeated us.

A spa break with kids is only ever going to be a compromise, and Calcot makes that compromise as painless as possible. Kids are well catered for and rooms and facilities are just luxurious enough to feel special, but not so special as to leave you mortified when your child regurgitates milk onto the spotless carpet. For the spa and kids facilities, Calcot is spot on, but if food is high up on your agenda, leave the children with the grandparents and find a restaurant in the surrounding area.

Details:

Calcot Manor, Near Tetbury, Gloucestershire, GL8 8YJ

Food : 5/10

Spa and facilities: 9\10

Child friendly score: 9/10

Gastrodad score: 8/10

Many thanks to The Willow Foundation, who organised and payed for our stay at Calcot Manor. The Willow Foundation is a charity that provides emotional support for seriously ill 16-40 year olds through the provision of special days.

Kai Mayfair

It was with some trepidation that we walked into Kai on the evening of our wedding anniversary. Their performance on Ramsay’s Best Restaurant last year had certainly piqued my interest but I couldn’t forget the surprising, and to many diners disappointing, lamb shank. Were we in line for a series of ambitious but misjudged and dissatisfying dishes, or would we be wowed by superior Chinese fusion cooking.

First impressions were strong; service was attentive and the interior was warm, relaxed and lacked pretension. The presence of a few children enjoying their Michelin starred food reminded us that this was Mayfair. The menu itself was a tome and a half, listing dish after dish and peppered with anecdotes regarding Chinese cuisine and Kai’s own approach. We ordered ‘The Parcels of Prosperity’ (£12), described as ‘miniature deep-fried ‘Chinese Croissants’ filled with finely chopped prawns’ and Soft Shelled Crab (£14), but the waiter convinced us that we couldn’t miss the Wasabi Prawns (£17). He was absolutely right, the wasabi prawns were delicious, and we could have eaten a whole plateful. The fiery wasabi mellowed alongside creamy mayonnaise and sweet mango and the prawns had a pleasing crunch . The soft shell crab  paled in comparison, delivering texture but falling short on flavour. The infamous lamb shank has held its place on the menu, but is accompanied by a carefully detailed description, presumably designed to prevent the unwelcome surprises we saw on Ramsay’s show.

Wasabi prawns

Soft shell crab

We resisted the £108 ‘Buddha Jumps Over the Wall’ soup (maybe for our silver wedding anniversary) and moved onto yet more prawns, this time ‘Chang Sah’ Prawns (£22). As before, the prawns were fresh and meaty and came served in a sweet, spicy sauce. An aforementioned anecdote reminded us that pork is the most widely eaten meat in Chinese cuisine, but we took a step towards China’s Western provinces and ordered lamb. The soy and honey marinated roast lamb (£18) was gently spiced and served pink. Certainly the most fusion of the dishes we had, the achar on the side reminded us of proprietor Bernard Yeoh’s Malaysian provenance.

Chang Sah Prawns

Soy and Honey Marinated Roast Lamb

Kai lists its deserts at the start of the menu, because they are  ‘an integral part of our meal experience’. And so they were. Dazzled by choice we acted upon the advice of our waiter once again and ordered Chocolate Fondant with Pistachio Ice Cream and 6 Textures of Chocolate and Peanuts (both £11). Chocolate flowed freely from the fondant as we dug our spoons in, deliciously rich, but for me the sweetness of coconut marred the cocoa bitterness of the chocolate. The ice  cream was delectably light and fluffy. This stalwart of puddings stood in contrast to the creativity of the chocolate and peanut affair we enjoyed alongside it. An array of sugary sweet, rich, chocolatey, salty treats, each one offering a different crunch, ooze, munch or pop. Six textures there really were, topped off with the crackle of popping candy. This isn’t one to eat often, we slumped into a sugar stupor quickly after, but it was a fun loving, lip smackingly yummy, surprisingly moreish note to end on.

Amedei Chocolate Fondant Pistachio

6 Textures of Chocolate and Peanut

I arrived at Kai expecting the hits and misses of highly experimental cooking, but in reality Kai serves well executed, top quality dishes, offering traditional flavours with a fusion twist. Prices on the menu can be staggering, but there is plenty that is more affordable and indeed justified by the quality of the food. The best Chinese restaurant in London may be one accolade too far, but for Chinese fine dining, Kai might just get my vote.

Details:

Kai Mayfair, 65 South Audley Street, London W1K 2QU

Overall score: 8/10

Mummy friendly score: babysitter required (unless you have older children and are willing to feed them Michelin priced food!)

Gastrodad score: 8/10

Slice of Ice

Sitting in my kitchen on a grey day, wrapped up in winter woollies, this post couldn’t be less ‘of the moment’. But just a week ago we were experiencing October’s hottest day ever, a veritable Indian summer. This was an event which without doubt called for both a trip to the Heath and to Hampstead’s #1 ice cream parlour.

Being the only ice cream fanatic in our family (though I’m sure Gastrobaby will join me in my passion soon enough), I stood alone in the queue, surrounded by adults and children alike. Serving Tea Pigs, Union coffee, Single Origin hot chocolate and natural probiotic frozen yoghurt, this place pulls in the young, free and single as well as hassled parents and sugar craving kids. The counter is crowded with sweet treats, and the menu boasts a super boost macha fruit smoothie, which at £6 seemed a little steep! Below all this sits nine tempting flavours of gelato, sourced from an Italian gelato producer, Il Gelato Di Ariela. This is real gelato, which avoids the use of all artificial flavourings and colourings.

A scoop of chocolate and a scoop of yogurt and sour cherry served in a cup was £2.80 when I went a week ago. The website now tells me however, that one scoop is £2.00, two is £3.00 and three is £4.00, while frozen yogurt starts at £1.50. The consistency of both flavours was soft and creamy, but the chocolate was disappointingly sweet. I was hoping for dark, rich and cocoa laden, but I suppose that might not have the younger clientele rushing back. The yogurt and sour cherry was delicious, holding back on the sugar and delivering a sour tang.

I’m unlikely to be revisiting Slice of Ice in the near future, but along with everyone else, I’ll be back when the sun reappears and we head to the Heath with a picnic rug. And next year, I’ll be enjoying my treat with Gastrobaby, who will have become Gastro-toddler.

Details:

Slice of Ice, 8 Flask Walk, Hampstead NW3 1HE

Overall score : 8/10

Mummy friendly score: 9/10 – what child doesn’t like ice cream?

Bucketloads of Pumpkin

The gift of an enormous pumpkin has left me scrabbling around for pumpkin recipes. Pumpkin and potato mash for Gastrobaby only made a small indentation, so next up was pumpkin soup. I considered an array of flavour combinations before hitting on caraway and ginger. If you’re not keen on caraway, you could try cardamom, ginger and nutmeg/cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg for a sweeter soup, or reference Indian flavours with cumin and ginger/cumin and mustard seed. Or for a South East Asian twist, throw some lemongrass, chilli, ginger and garlic in a food processor  to make a paste and replace the double cream with coconut milk.

This soup is incredibly straightforward to make with very little chopping, allowing me to keep half an eye on Gastrobaby shuffling his way across the kitchen floor. I roasted the pumpkin, partly to add flavour, partly because that way seemed less labour intensive!

Ingredients

800g pumpkin

1 onion

1 tsp caraway seeds

30g fresh ginger, grated or finely chopped

750ml vegetable stock

salt and pepper to season

2 tbsp double cream

1. Begin by slicing the pumpkin into wedges, place these on a baking tray and put them in the oven, preheated at 180. Check these after about 20 mins, they should be soft and just beginning to turn brown at the edges.

2. Whilst the pumpkin roasts, chop the onion and saute on a low heat in a knob of butter for 10 mins, or until soft.

3. Grind the caraway seeds with a pestle and mortar then add to the onions along with the ginger. Continue to saute for a few minutes.

4. Add the roasted pumpkin and the stock and simmer for 5 minutes. Blend before seasoning to taste, then stir in the cream.

 We ate this with soda bread, which can be made in under an hour. It can be difficult to find buttermilk, so I followed Gin and Crumpets’ recipe which substitutes a mixture of yoghurt and milk.

A Sunday Roast in Angel

Saturday night had been spent soothing a cross, tired baby who was fed up of being woken up as we moved him from buggy to aeroplane to baby carrier to car to cot. We finally arrived home from a week in Rome at 12pm and headed straight for bed, thinking that Gastrobaby would surely sleep in the next morning, given his late night. We were wrong. 5.30am and the day began. Lack of sleep and a post-holiday empty fridge made a home cooked Sunday roast unlikely, so whilst Gastrodad undertook emergency blackberry repairs, I mooched around Angel looking for somewhere to eat. While at The Regent (good pizza) for a friend’s birthday a few weeks before, I had spotted The Barnsbury a few doors down, so we thought we would try it out.

The atmosphere was laid back and kid friendly, with a couple of families with young children already there. We were handed the Sunday Roast menu, which listed six choices, all served with roast potatoes and vegetables. Gastrobaby had finally fallen asleep, so we ordered the roast rib of west country beef, Yorkshire pudding and horseradish sauce (£15.50) and the roast free range chicken, chipolata and bacon (£12.50), and settled down with the Sunday paper.

A fairly long wait meant we had made fair headway through the papers before the food arrived. I glanced nervously at Gastrobaby, willing him not to wake up before we’d even had our first mouthful. When two heaped plates appeared, I looked straight to the roast beef and was delighted to see beautifully pink meat, oozing juice.

The chicken was tender and the vegetables were well cooked, the carrots were particularly sweet and crunchy. The Yorkshire pudding on the other hand was a disaster, a lump of stodge, and the roast potatoes were only average. Both these things are tricky, but not that tricky, nothing a quick Delia tutorial couldn’t correct. It was as Gastrodad and I shared our disappointment over the yorkshire pudding that a member of the waiting staff did some overly zealous furniture rearranging right behind the buggy…and the wails began, and grew louder, and louder. A sleep deprived eight month old, who has just exchanged the sunshine of Rome for the drizzle of London was not to be consoled by pieces of courgette or carrot, no matter how well cooked. And so we ended our meal taking it in turns to walk the buggy up and down the street in an effort to get him back to sleep. Of course a baby is the parent’s responsibility, but waiting staff, please please make some concessions for a sleeping baby, because the cry of interrupted sleep will ruin the parents’ lunch far more than a stodgy Yorkshire pudding every could.

There was no time for pudding, but we could have chosen from a broad selection of restaurant classics (pannacotta, chocolate fondant etc). The wine list was decent, ranging from £15 to £36 a bottle, with a good selection of wines by the glass.

So aside from Gastrobaby’s interrupted nap, which I don’t think I can really blame on the waiting staff, how does the Barnsbury rate? Competition to the Peasant or the Eagle it is not, but neither is it trying to be. If I had the Barnsbury as my local I’d be pleased. They serve good quality, hearty food at reasonable prices, and it’s a great option for a laid back Sunday lunch.

Details:

The Barnsbury, 209 Liverpool Road, London N1 1LX

Overall: 6/10

Mummy friendly score: 7/10 (I didn’t have time to check for a babychange though)

Gastrodad score: 6/10 (one mark lost for waking up a sleeping baby!)

Hungry in Hampstead

From time to time those of us living on the wrong side of the Finchley Road like to make the trip over the road and up the hill into Hampstead Village. And so it is that I have twice recently found myself in Hampstead at lunchtime. Both times we were looking for something light with room for coffee and cake afterwards. A sandwich lunch doesn’t quite merit having an entire post to itself, so here’s a 2 for 1, Ginger and White vs. Gail’s.

For it’s mismatching tables and chairs, focus on British food and Square Mile Coffee, Ginger and White is for me Hampstead’s #1 coffee stop. I’m hard to please when it comes to brownies, generally comparing them disfavourably to those heralding from my own kitchen. Theirs are exceptional and give a reviving sugar hit after a long walk up Arkwright Road with Gastrobaby dangling from his baby carrier (he sports an impressively chunky pair of thighs and is not light to carry!). So it was my first port of call when my sister and I decided to take a break from window shopping one day in August. We were pleased to get a table outside on Perrin’s Court and decided to share the goat’s cheese, mango chutney with baby spinach sandwich (£4.95) and the feta, beetroot and bulghur salad. The salad was frankly quite bland, with too much cos lettuce and not enough bulgur. The feta was good quality though, with a firm meaty texture. The sandwich was low on filling and too dry; the tasty chutney only partially redeeming something that could have been knocked up in any Hampstead yummy mummy’s kitchen. From Gastrobaby’s point of view, Ginger and White has a baby change facility though it’s short on space for buggies. He’s looking forward to sampling their kid friendly fish finger sandwich when he has a few more teeth.

With memories of this disappointing lunch still fresh in my mind, we walked past Ginger and Spice at lunchtime today and headed for Gail’s, part of the expanding bakery chain. As Gastrobaby slumbered in the buggy, we settled down at an outside table taking it in turns to head inside to study the extensive array of tarts, pastries, sandwiches and salads. The salads looked tempting but small, and we were hungry. Instead Gastrodad chose the chicken and roast fennel sandwich whilst I made the uninspired but safe choice of a ham and cheese sourdough sandwich. Both were toasted and came to £10.75. Unsurprisingly for an establishment priding itself on its breads, the sourdough was excellent. The filling was a bit mean though with no cheese at all in the first few mouthfuls. Gastrodad’s sole comment on his sandwich was ‘it’s good’, but the speed at which he gobbled it down suggested that he was pleased with his choice.

Chicken and Roast Fennel Sandwich

Ham and Cheese Sourdough Sandwich

As we finished our sandwiches, the beginnings of a cry came from the direction of the buggy, suggesting our down time was up! With no time for cake there and then, we pottered back to West Hampstead clutching a bag containing a raspberry bite (£1.20), a pistachio and chocolate bite (£1.20), and a pecan brownie (£3). The raspberry bite didn’t have enough raspberries in it but was moist. I enjoyed the chocolate and pistachio combination, but the brownie was too sticky for me.

So who wins? For superior coffee and cakes as well as a characterful interior, Ginger and White takes first place, but for a tasty sandwich at lunchtime, Gail’s will be my first port of call. Breakfast is still up for grabs, and judging from the enticing menus on offer at both, it looks like it could be a tough one.

Details:

Ginger and White, 4a-5a Perrins Court, London, NW3 1QS

Gail’s, 64 Hampstead High Street, London, NW3 1QH