SPECIAL FEATURE: Culinary Christmas crackers!

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I LOVE CHRISTMAS! It’s my absolute favourite time of the year (decorated my flat on 30th November as per the picture above) – I love mulled wine, winter fashion and most importantly…festive FOOD. December is a time for indulgence (safe in the knowledge you can hide a multitude of sins under a baggy Christmas jumper!)

London is a complete winner when it comes to festive pop ups and themed events. So I set about visiting a couple of great offerings and hope you will follow suit and make the most of the festivities the capital has to offer!

First stop – CHRISTMAS ON THE PENINSULA

I live on the beautiful Greenwich Peninsula and I adore how the peninsula square (slap bang outside North Greenwich tube station) gets jazzed up with a variety of events throughout the year (e.g. outdoor cinema and mini music event in the summer).

Winter is no exception. ‘Christmas on the Peninsula’ is a small event with a great community feel. There is the opportunity to visit Father Christmas, several shows, an exhibit and selection of food stalls topped off with a tepee bar which houses a couple of open fires, live music, a photo booth and an array of festive beverages!

I visited the bar and the atmosphere was fantastic (although, word of warning, you will come out smelling like a bonfire – but in my opinion the cosiness makes it worthwhile!) Myself and a few friends sampled the mulled wine and mulled cider – both very tasty and affordable (considering the bar is directly in front of the 02 Arena – prime tourist haunt!)

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The picture above was one I snapped whilst peeking into the bar when it first opened – as you can see it’s extremely inviting! If you’re in the area or fancy a relaxed, Christmassy catch up with friends I would definitely recommend.

Now, on to the serious business = FOOD.

My boyfriend and I have sampled several of the food stalls and I’m going to rate them in order of enjoyment! I won’t include the churros on this list as they don’t really fall into a ‘meal’ category (debateable!) but you MUST try them if you visit. They’re amazing – I have to resist the urge to buy them every evening when I walk home from work!

  • HOG ROAST **BUY THIS**
  • WOODFIRED PIZZAS
  • STEAK BURGER
  • OSTRICH BURGER

As you will expect the food isn’t cheap but it is very nice quality and they don’t scrimp on portions (WINNER).

Please do give ‘Christmas on the Peninsula’ consideration – it’s a fab little experience which I love to support! I can’t wait to see what the 2017 events calendar looks like…!

Next stop – FOREST ON THE ROOF @ SELFRIDGES

Continuing the festive theme I booked to go to Forest on the Roof @ Selfridges last weekend. I’m a sucker for an overpriced themed pop-up but I had really high hopes for this one as I had heard great things from their event last year.

It took us a while to find the entrance as there is a special fast track lift on the ground floor (do not make the same mistake as me and assume you take the escalators as far as they will go!) and as expected it was jam packed. However, the staff were very friendly and efficient and we had cocktails in the bar area whilst we waited for our table to become available.

Once we were seated at our table we were very well looked after – the food arrived quickly and despite being busy the staff all had beaming smiles!

My boyfriend and I both went for the burger and shared two lots of chips (don’t judge us) – the fondue fries which were incredible and the truffle fries, which were also great but the lingering taste of truffle 5 hours after the meal is not so pleasant! We also the cheesecake for dessert but it was devoured before I had chance to snap a picture!

Here is the main meal…

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The burger was well cooked – I thoroughly enjoyed the meal! We washed it down with a bottle of white wine and the bill was around £100 (including service charge) – appreciate this is not at all a cheap evening out but if you’re looking for something a little bit special in preparation for the festive season then look no further!

Tip – try to avoid the peak times if possible and head up on a weekday afternoon to take advantage of the wooden cabins on the terrace outside the restaurant – super cute!

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I hope this little snapshot inspires you to check out some of the awesome festive options in and around London! Whether you’re a Scrooge or the equivalent of Buddy the Elf there are culinary delights and experiences to suit everyone…!

Finally – here’s a festive snap of me and Father Christmas hosting our Christmas party earlier in the month!

MERRY CHRISTMAS ALL! x

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*Dining Diva on tour* – Lisbon 

I’ve recently returned from the most amazing time in Lisbon. The city is so relaxed, easy to navigate, affordable and full of friendly people. This was my first visit to Portugal and I cannot wait to return as soon as possible! A major plus point for me is the extensive range of incredible eateries in the city – strong up and coming foodie scene.

During our trip we also took day trips to Sintra (think historical Disneyland) and Cascais (the nearest beach town to Lisbon). I would strongly recommend making these visits if your trip expands beyond a couple of days.

If you are planning a trip to Lisbon (you should) then please browse my thoughts on a couple of the stand out restaurants we sampled! There is so much choice and I would encourage you to explore but I find it extremely helpful to have a rough idea of some culinary hot spots before I arrive!

As I write this I am experiencing SERIOUS holiday blues. I’ve been lucky enough to have multiple trips this year but returning from an amazing break is always gutting!

A Cevicheria 

We visited this restaurant on our first night in the city following a recommendation from a friend. We arrived early (around 7pm) and there was already a queue outside! We put our name on the list and proceeded to have a glass of wine al fresco!

The wait was around 40 mins in total. We were seated at the bar so had incredible views of the chefs preparing the dishes using all the fresh produce. We decided against the tasting menu and instead ordered around 5 plates to share.

The photo below is of the salmon ceviche (their signature!) and I am not exaggerating when I say it was one of the most amazing plates of food I’ve EVER had. It was so fresh and succulent with perfect flavours. If you go in and order just one dish, make it this. You won’t regret it.

Other plates we had were tasty and pleasant but we peaked too soon having the salmon first! I could rave about it for hours!

For an upmarket place the food prices were reasonable and the wine was incredibly cheap (tip: go for the house brand; it’s lovely!) I’m tempted to get the founder Chef Kiko’s cookbook and attempt to recreate some of the delights myself!

Top tip: try to book a table in advance or go as early as possible to avoid hanger!

Sommelier 

We attempted to go to this steakhouse on our second night in Lisbon. We were greeted with a warm welcome by a waiter who told us the restaurant was full but he would check with his manager if anything could be done.

The manager informed us that they would be unable to offer us a table until 11.15pm which we politely declined (starving by this point!) and he insisted on suggesting some alternative dining options. Whilst relaying this to us we were given a complimentary glass of white port to enjoy which I thought was a very generous, classy touch.

We were so impressed with the service we had received that we booked a table for our last night in the city. We looked forward to it all week and were excited to go back to round off our trip!

The service was once again great but unfortunately the food was a little bit underwhelming (I blame our high expectations and my food choice!) I went for the burger (medium rare) on the beetroot bun however when it arrived it was cooked well done which is not to my taste. I would urge anyone visiting to learn from my mistakes and order a steak! My boyfriend’s steak was cooked very well and tasted lovely! Also, be sure to order the breads to start with the butter “foams”; these were delicious!

To drink we had an incredibly named Sexy Golden Brut sparkling wine; I admit we ordered it for the name but it was very nice!

To finish we both had a red port (when in Portugal and all that…) and the Portuguese cheeseboard which was also great. There are so many wine options and the staff are very knowledgeable and helpful with suggestions.

I would definitely recommend booking to go here if you can!

I didn’t manage to capture snaps for all the places we tried but special mentions to the following:

  • We stayed in the Sheraton Lisboa and visited their restaurant – food was delicious and it has the best views of the city (aim for a window seat!)
  • Champagneria – this fantastic little wine bar/restaurant was a great find! Slightly off the main tourist track we enjoyed some lovely bubbles and sharing plates – plus our waitress was excellent which really topped off a wonderful evening.
  • 5 Sentidos (Cascais) – After walking around for ages trying to find a lunch spot we stumbled upon this little gem! Seafood bonanza! I had garlic prawns and the salt cod risotto; both were delicious (and huge!)
  • Pasteis de Belem – for a world famous secret recipe custard tart (local delicacy!) There are large queues but they move quickly.

I hope the above has inspired you to consider lovely Lisbon as your next holiday destination!

DARWIN @ SKY GARDEN

A couple of days ago I visited Darwin Brasserie, located on the 35th floor of the “walkie talkie” building in the City for lunch.

As you can tell from my previous blog posts I have a penchant for restaurants with a view and this one has been on my list for a while.

Unfortunately, upon arrival we were not greeted with the warmest welcome! We were herded in like cattle through the security checks (completely agree that these are needed but the organisation is atrocious!) and one of the bouncers barged into me with no apology – not the most relaxing start to my afternoon!

Once we arrived at Darwin the atmosphere and service changed for the better – thankfully! The hostess was very pleasant and we were seated at an excellent table with clear riverside views across the London Bridge area.

Our waitress was helpful and attentive, suggesting various dishes and highlighting the the day’s specials. I must admit I had a cheeky look at the menu before visiting so I was already pretty set on what I wanted to order.

Now for the good bit, culinary visuals!

Starter (shared) – Salt Beef salad; really tasty and a great sized starter!

Main – Lamb; my boyfriend had this dish (I obviously had a taste!) – he said it was really well cooked and, again, a decent sized portion.

Main – My main course – Sweet Potato Gnocchi; I have to say I was slightly disappointed when this arrived as it was SO much smaller than my boyfriend’s meal – luckily the pasta was very filling and turned out to be just the right amount.

Dessert (shared) – Pistachio Cake; this was delicious! Slightly out of the ordinary with a quirky presentation it was a real treat – the toasted marshmallow bits were absolutely gorgeous!

 

Lunch complete = TO THE BAR…!

I thoroughly enjoyed my meal and drinks here and appreciated the fact that for an upmarket venue it was not pretentious or snobby. I would highly recommend the cocktail bar for after work drinks! As for the bill, with all the above food, a bottle of prosecco and service charge this came to a total of £115; a pricey lunch for 2 but there are options to suit all budgets – if you are looking to enjoy the view and sample some more affordable food head towards the bar area where you will find a cafe serving sandwiches, cakes and other delights!

Darwin Brasserie – speedy summary:

Grub for your gravy ***

Calibre of cuisine ****

Vibrant vibes ***

Top treatment ** (perhaps slightly harsh but taking into account the full experience from start to finish – i.e. the horrendous entrance) 

Diva direction – Politely request a window seat when booking and definitely sample the cocktail menu!   

DUCK & WAFFLE 

On a very rainy and cold August night – YES; AUGUST – I left work very excited to try Duck & Waffle for the first time (following a booking made THREE MONTHS ago – this is imperative if you don’t want to be tucking into your evening meal at midnight).

I had visited Sushi Samba last year which was impressive so I had high hopes for its Heron Tower buddy.

Before heading to the restaurant we stopped by Canto Corvino near Liverpool Street station to take advantage of the happy hour cocktails (2 for 1, 5-8pm, Monday – Saturday). They were delicious and we will definitely be heading back for a meal at some point!

Following pre-dinner beverages we battled the rain and arrived at Heron Tower to be greeted by a friendly doorman who sent us on our way to the 40th floor! We were shown to our table straight away and to our delight we had a fantastic window seat (perk of being a party of 2!) with incredible views across Shoreditch and beyond! Despite the weather we could still see for miles.

Our waiter was extremely attentive and our drinks arrived quickly. As we were celebrating our anniversary we pushed the boat out with a bottle of champagne which we sipped whilst perusing the menu. The staff were on hand to explain the dining style and offer recommendations. We were advised that the dishes are best suited as sharing plates so we ordered a selection of snacks and small plates then one “for the table” main to share.

Prepare for food envy. Here we go…

For our ‘snack’ we order BBQ pig ears – they looked like fries and were tasty and moreish! Thankfully they don’t scrimp on portions.

Our small plates were as follows:

Glazed lamb breast salad (unfortunately didn’t manage to get a snap before demolishing it!)

Yellowfin tuna

Foie gras creme brulee

Spicy ox cheek doughnut

Every plate was fantastic but my favourite small plate was the lamb (closely followed by the tuna – I can’t possibly pick just one fave!)

For our main we ordered the duck & waffle; of course! The signature dish did not disappoint – in fact it was the highlight for me, the combination is incredible!

The only slight criticism I have was that the small plates were brought out rather rapidly which encouraged us to eat faster and subsequently become too full for dessert! Although – I would prefer that to waiting hours for one course so I don’t want to dwell on that too much.

All in all the evening was outstanding – one more place ticked off the London restaurant bucket list!

The food is reasonably priced considering the location and hype around the venue; our food amounted to approximately £80 (let’s not add on the champers price here…!)

Duck & Waffle – speedy summary:

Grub for your gravy ****

Calibre of cuisine ****

Vibrant vibes ****

Top treatment ***

Diva direction – Book WAY in advance to avoid disappointment or head there for brunch which seems to have more reservation flexibility.  

AQUA SHARD

Wow.

The picture above captures my view at 8 am on a gloriously sunny day. I visited Aqua Shard for a special occasion and this iconic location did not disappoint.

As soon as we arrived we were treated excellently and shown to our fantastic table location – the views were incredible! I especially loved that the restaurant was very nearly empty so we were free to wander around and soak up the sights at our leisure.

I had eyed up the menu long before I arrived but still faced the dreaded food dilemma when it came to placing my order. As we went for a breakfast sitting I am not best placed to report fully on the food selection and quality. However, that is not to say that the breakfast offerings are to be overlooked!

I am on the verge of fan-girling about this restaurant, which I make no apologies for as it was wonderful. I had the crab scrambled eggs with crab butter covered soldiers! I’m pretty obsessed with breakfast/brunch and as a seafood lover this meal ticked all the boxes. Accompanied by a delicious cappuccino and fresh juice this was the perfect start to the day.

This was a fantastic experience and I would love to see how the view from double the height exceeds this as I was already pretty blown away!

Aqua Shard – speedy summary:

Grub for your gravy ***

Calibre of cuisine *** 

Vibrant vibes *****

Top treatment ****

Diva direction – A luxurious experience with the best views of London! 

Heliot @ The Hippodrome Casino

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I must admit I rarely venture into Central London on a Saturday night. The area screams overcrowded and overpriced restaurants and bars. When my brother suggested going to Heliot restaurant at The Hippodrome Casino I was dubious about what we were letting ourselves in for. The casino is slap bang in the middle of  Leicester Square (a place I tend to avoid as much as possible) but after looking at the menu and reading other reviews (and seeing that it was a Bookatable winner in 2015) I was up for giving it a try.

My boyfriend and I arrived early and had a drink in the cocktail bar which was excellent. The drinks were of a really high standard and reasonably priced (around the £10 mark), particularly considering the area! I was pleasantly surprised by the atmosphere, it was relaxed and spacious and the staff were friendly and welcoming – not at all what I expected of a casino!

When my brother and his girlfriend arrived we were seated in the restaurant. We were greeted warmly and our table was ready on time. The setting is very different to anything I have experienced before – the restaurant overlooks the casino tables making it a fantastic people watching spot! Despite being so close to all the action you are detached enough to enjoy your meal without feeling like you’re eating in a casino (and you’re not too close to other diners).

The food selection was great and the price was excellent for the quality (the biggest steak was approx. £30). We had four steak based meals with sides and alcoholic drinks and the bill came to just under £200 – including service – a huge difference from other well known steak houses of an on par quality.

Focusing on my individual meal (main course pictured above), I had a smoked salmon starter and surf n turf with Bearnaise sauce and onion rings for main. The steak was beautifully cooked (ordered medium rare) and the accompanying prawns and scallops were also perfect. The main course portions are large and there was probably no need for a starter in my case although it was very tasty! We didn’t have dessert but from peeking over at the table near us I would suggest trying the chocolate bomb-looking delight if you have room!

After our meal we wandered down into the casino for a while (I’m not up to speed with casino etiquette and was constantly told off for using my phone – oops!) which provided for a fun, unique evening – we had all completely forgotten that we were in Leicester Square! So please don’t be put off by the location/perceived environment and get yourself a booking at Heliot!

Please note that under 18s are not permitted (even in the restaurant) and ID may be required at the door. 

Heliot @ The Hippodrome Casino – speedy summary:

Grub for your gravy ****

Calibre of cuisine ***

Vibrant vibes ****

Top treatment ***

Diva direction – Ideal for a fun central London night out with a twist! 

The Ivy Market Grill

This past Saturday I visited The Ivy Market Grill in Covent Garden with my mum, who ventured from the Forest of Dean to join me in the big smoke for the weekend. 

This restaurant has been on my list for a little while and I booked in advance to ensure we could get a table. I was told when booking that my reservation would be for a 2 hour slot (pretty standard in Central London) which was fine with us. 

The decor is classy and inviting. The white, black and green colour scheme is reflected in all aspects of the venue – down to the staff uniforms!

I had one key issue on my mind for review during this visit. My mum suffers with coeliac disease which means she must stick to a strict gluten free diet. Eating out has been a struggle since she was diagnosed, with many eateries not fully understanding the severity of the condition or simply treating it as a hassle. 

I’m delighted to say the experience at The Ivy Market Grill exceeded my expectations! The staff were pleasant and accommodating and told my mum she could choose anything she wanted from the menu and they would adapt it to suit her needs (very impressive!) They engaged with us during the entire evening and nothing was too much trouble. 

I would register this restaurant on the higher end of mid range; the main courses are around £20. That being said, I felt that the pricing was reasonable for the quality. We paid just shy of £100 for 3 courses each and bottle of wine including 12.5% service charge – which we felt was fair. 

I took a few snaps throughout the meal (yes, I was one of THOSE people) and have included them here for your viewing pleasure!

My order was:

Buffalo mozzarella 

Aromatic duck curry with jasmine rice (amazing flavours!) 

Frozen berries with yogurt sorbet and hot white chocolate sauce 

And my mum selected:

Prawn cocktail (70s throwback ha!) 

Lamb shoulder with polenta mash 

Chocolate bomb (novelty dish which tasted great!) 

We ended up exceeding our time slot but this was never an issue and we were not rushed or encouraged to move along at all.

The restaurant was bustling and full but we were made to feel special and the pace of the evening was wonderful – perfect gaps between courses. 

Please do consider this restaurant if you’re looking to eat centrally but want avoid tourist haunts/chains. 

Just a note – unfortunately due to licensing restrictions, customers are unable to stop by for a quick drink at the bar, you must be eating a full meal. This is a little disappointing as the bar area is lovely and the bartenders mix up some delicious looking cocktails! 

The Ivy Market Grill – speedy summary:

Grub for your gravy ***

Calibre of cuisine ****

Vibrant vibes ****

Top treatment ****

Diva direction – Highly recommend for diners with dietary requirements. 

CHAMPAGNE & FROMAGE

I visited Champagne + Fromage (Greenwich branch) for a few birthday drinks recently. The restaurant is in a lovely location; a stone’s throw from the Cutty Sark and Greenwich Market.

The venue itself is compact, I would go as far to say a little cramped, but overall there is a nice relaxed atmosphere, best suited to an evening meal and drinks (it definitely has date night potential!)

C + F have a fantastic happy hour deal running from Monday – Friday at 5pm – 7pm where selected bottles of champers are half price! This really does help to make it an affordable evening out without comprising luxury.

Food wise, we had a baked camembert with lovely French bread which was absolutely amazing! There are several flavour options to suit all cheese lovers. The menu contains a range of charcuteries and cheeses at a reasonable price.

The staff are attentive and friendly and genuinely seem interested in the customers and the food and drinks on offer. Our waitress was lovely and gave us various suggestions without being pushy!

I will definitely return and would recommend it to anyone in the Greenwich area looking for an indulgent evening without breaking the bank.

Champagne + Fromage – speedy summary:

Grub for your gravy **** (considering the drinks deal)

Calibre of cuisine ***

Vibrant vibes **

Top treatment ****

Diva direction – due to the space restrictions I recommend booking in advance to avoid disappointment!

FIVE GUYS 

Recently I tried out Five Guys; the American fast food chain that seems to be popping up all over London! That being said, the popularity seems to have slightly dipped in recent months but crowds still flock to the Covent Garden branch so I thought it was worth checking out.

I must admit I played it safe with my order – standard hot dog, fries and a Diet Coke. Not the most exciting of choices but it’s simple and classic and *should* be done well.

Unfortunately, from the minute I stepped in the door I was stressed! It was extremely busy and the ordering system wasn’t at all clear (perhaps I should have researched this in advance? Or maybe I’m being dramatic…) but the staff were helpful and efficient.

After working out how to collect my food I was excited to tuck in! I considered the food decent quality for a fast food joint but not spectacular. It didn’t help that there were a fair few intoxicated people making a scene, which didn’t exactly create a pleasant dining experience (through no fault of Five Guys!).

For a speedy lunch I would recommend to a certain extent but I felt it was rather pricey for the quality and atmosphere.

Five Guys – speedy summary: 

Grub for your gravy ***

Calibre of cuisine **

Vibrant vibes **

Top treatment ***

Diva direction – Ideal for a carb-loading refuel during a shopping trip…! 

GAUCHO

Let me start by saying that this is not a restaurant you would visit every week (unless you’ve got extremely deep pockets!) However, for a special occasion it is ideal. When I moved to North Greenwich and was looking for a venue for a celebratory meal, Gaucho at the 02 immediately jumped out! I’m a huge fan of steak and my expectations were through the roof after hearing excellent things from friends.

The 02 arena may not appeal as a particularly good location for a relaxing stress-free evening but as soon as you step through the doors into Gaucho’s famously dim lit interior any sense of apprehension will fade away! The staff are very friendly and attentive without being overbearing (annoying staff = a sure fire way to put a dampener on the evening!)

Our waiter thoroughly explained the different cuts of meat available and guided us through the wine list. As we were celebrating we had a bottle of champagne, Chateaubriand to share (medium rare), fries and a side salad. Being a bit of steak snob I was concerned that the food would be disappointing…there was absolutely NO need to worry! The food and drinks were delicious – the best steak I have ever eaten (big claim, but warranted here). Succulent and full of flavour, the meat was cooked to perfection.

Not content with stopping there we also had the “dessert sampler” – a trio of mini seasonal desserts. I particularly liked the chocolate mousse so I hope that features as one of the delights if you happen to visit!

The entire evening was brilliant – a great mix of fun, fabulous service and fine dining! Funds allowing, I will be returning!

Gaucho (02) – speedy summary:

Grub for your gravy ****

Calibre of cuisine *****

Vibrant vibes ****

Top treatment ****

Diva direction – Special occasions/feeling flush/someone else paying 😉