Savouring Basque delights at Lurra

Today we’re heading into Marylebone in central London. It’s kind of behind Marble Arch (north of Oxford Street) and an easy place to get lost with its labyrinthine streets lined with some of the Capital’s trendiest eateries and bars. Also a good place to get lost – you certainly won’t go hungry or thirsty here.

When I first moved to London I lived very close to the Marylebone Road and soon learned of the trickeries the English language throws at you when it comes to correct pronounciation. And the importance on getting it right! How they laughed when I told new friends I lived off the Mary-la-bone road. It’s nothing to do with Mary – despite the spelling – or la either. I was soon murmuring Mar-lee-bone under my breath until it settled for good in my grey matter. Don’t get me started on the hilarity I caused on telling people I worked in Grosvenor Square (even trickier to pronounce), but that’s another story.

Anyway, back to our actual destination for today, set in the lively streets of Mar-lee-bone. Lurra (which means land in Basque) is the second restaurant from Melody and Nemanja and opened in 2015. Their first was Donostia (which is the Basque word for San Sebastian), which opened in 2012 and is just down the road.

The legend goes that the pair were inspired after an unplanned stop in San Sebastian to leave their City careers and go into the restaurant business, opening establishments offering traditional Basque-style cuisine properly done. Must say I’ve had plenty of similar revelations myself but have never actually got down and done anything about it – so good for them…and for making a success of it.

Lurra is bright and modern with lots of pale wood and glass – and a lovely courtyard off to the side. Love a courtyard – straight on my list for next year’s summer eating.

The menu has happy Spanish familiarity about it, though I’ve never been to San Sebastian – something of a culinary hole for a Spainophile like me. Oh well, I’ve put that on one another of my many lists populating my many notebooks.

Gordal olives have happily become a regular fixture in my foodie life recently. Gordal means fat in Spanish and these plump babies are firm and juicy. Truly the king of olives.

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Fat olives make the perfect start to any meal

And then there’s anchovies, another Spanish star. This dish is called Matrimonio which, fairly obviously, means marriage in Spanish – and a great one it is too, with a mix of salted anchovies and boquerones which are marinated in vinegar, olive oil and garlic. Served up with mango vinaigrette and a pile of the sweetest marinated peppers. The flavours hit your taste buds with a real zing, and the different textures complete a joyful dish.

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Two types of anchovies in a pretty row

There’s a range of tapas dishes and a section called Large Sharing Plates, which includes a yummy-sounding slow-cooked suckling lamb shoulder. Feeling like a good meaty hit we went for the 14-year Rubia Gallega – Galician Blond steak dry aged on the bone. It was served on very medium-rare on a hot iron platter with a sprinkling of salt. Plenty for two to share, it’s rich and served with the bone on the side – a bone I wanted to take home to chew on. And somewhat appropriate that I was eating a bone in Mar-lee-bone. Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

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The aromas leap off this beautiful steak, making your mouth water

Steak and tomato is a dream combo for me. And the Spanish know their tomatoes. This is called peeled Pata Negra tomato salad and is marinated in some kind of magic. Sweet, soft and tangy.

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A tomato salad that brings happiness

We started off with a glass of bubbles. Cava is one of my favourite drinks and looks especially tempting in this stylish glass. Oh and there’s the courtyard in the background.

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Cava to go with the Gordal olives…yum

Another happy Spanish lunch in London Town. So happy I can enjoy those irresistible Basque flavours without the need for EasyJet.

Today’s price point

Lunch for two cost £85.50 without wine. Most of that went on the stunning steak which is £65.

White wine starts from £22 a bottle, rose is £34 and red starts from £24. It’s worth mentioning that the restaurant has a very special selection of one of the most fabulous Spanish wines ever (in my opinion), Vega Sicilia, which you can enjoy for £280 a bottle. I better start saving now!

Lurra is at 9 Seymour Place, Marylebone W1H 5BA.

The taste of Venice in chic St James

Today we’re eating in London’s West End in swanky St James. The area was developed in the 17th century as a residential location for the British aristocracy. Now it’s home to fine clothing stores, chic art galleries, gentlemen’s clubs and beautiful terraces. And of course its share of top restaurants. It certainly exudes class and you can feel a general poshness in the air.

Veneta is the latest in the fantastic Salt Yard stable which includes one of my favourites – its sister in Soho – Ember Yard. The elegant eatery is in the shiny new St James Place area and its menu is inspired by classic Venetian dishes. It has a real feel of glamour and plushness, the kind of restaurant that lifts your spirits as you walk in the door. You can just feel good things happen here!

We started off with heavenly focaccia, topped with a dusting of crunchy salt and rosemary sprigs.

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Warmly soft and flavoursome focaccia

I’m a bit of an anchovy addict and these were tastily luscious, served simply with paper thin toast and butter. The perfect way to get the gastric juices going.

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An anchovy snack to delight

Autumn brings beetroot to many menus and this colourful seasonal salad was packed with flavour. Slivers of salt-baked carrots and beef were served with sheep’s ricotta, date puree and oregano.

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A colourful autumn display

From the small plates section we chose this kid goat ragu with fresh pappardelle. Seems like goat is popping up on menus all around London Town and I must say I’m loving it. This ragu was in a class of its own, beautifully rich and silken, coating the wonderful fresh pasta.

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Goat seems to be all the rage in London

A bowl of polenta with parmesan cream and topped with earthy girolles from the vegetable section made the perfect accompaniment to the richness of the pork.

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Creamy polenta and earthy mushrooms

Our meaty choice was the charcoal grilled pork ribeye. The tastiest piece of pork I’ve had in a while, with that irresistible charred flavour and courgettes on the side.

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Pork chop perfectly charred

And then it was dessert time. I’m not much of a one for pudding but Italian sweets are not for resisting. Their mini tiramisu tower was exquisite, I especially loved the coffee cream on the side.

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Finishing the traditional Italian way

Today’s price point

Our lunch came to £50 for two people.

We opted to eat tapas-style mainly from their small plate section. There are also large plates on offer.

Veneta is at 3 Norris Street, St James W1.

It’s open from 7am Monday to Friday and 9am Saturday and Sunday for all-day dining (including breakfast).

The Barbary: It’s simply stupendous

Today I’m back in Covent Garden – in the delightful surrounds of Neal’s Yard. It’s a really cute, characterful area that is home to sister restaurant to The Palomar which I visited recently.

The Barbary takes its inspiration from the Barbary Coast – an area around the Atlas Mountains which includes Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The area was infamous for its pirates and until the beginning of the 20th century was home to the Barbary lions which are now sadly extinct.

The menu reflects these countries from the Atlantic Coast and also through to the Mediterranean Sea and Israel. It makes for an amazing mix of ingredients and some of the most stunning and different food I’ve eaten in a while.

Food comes in tapas-size portions so there are plenty of opportunity for tasting. Seating is around the bar looking into the open and buzzing kitchen. You can’t book so there’s always the risk of queuing (one of my pet hates) so I’d recommend you go for a later lunch (after 2pm) or an early dinner (around 6pm) and you shouldn’t have much of a wait.

It’s the sort of menu that needs some explanation before those big decisions are made and the staff are very keen to help and describe the dishes with passion. They make them all sound so good but even once you’ve been guided by their knowledge you’re still not sure what you’re going to get. It’s just food I hadn’t encountered before but the good news is there’s no need to stress – I’m telling you that whatever you order is going to be fabulous.

Make sure to start with the Araya which is in the snack section. Little parcels of mince grilled on the fire and served with a tahini-style dip, these are sausage rolls in a league of their own.

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Simply heavenly sausage rolls

Masbacha chickpeas are soft and succulent with a wonderfully herby dressing.

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Zesty, herby chickpeas

And then there’s the Jerusalem bagel, a tasty, elongated delicacy generously coated with sesame seeds and served with a twist of spices on the side for dipping.

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The beautifully chew Jerusalem bagel

I am partial to a bit of chopped chicken liver and again this is spectacular, I think my favourite dish of the day. It’s chopped with hard boiled eggs and spring onions and served with a creamy, mustardy sauce. Another combination made in heaven.

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Chopped chicken liver and mustard

The fattoush salad of chopped tomatoes and herbs is topped with the creamiest whipped feta and a lovely limey dressing. A real star of a salad.

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Juicy tomatoes and soft clouds of feta

Our waitress enthusiastically recommended we order the pata negra neck which came with golden bulbs of roast garlic. I don’t really have the words to describe this amazing piece of meat. Rare and tender with a lovely charred crust from the fire, it melted on my tongue, the richest of flavours dancing across my taste buds.

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Melt-in-the-mouth flavourful meat

The Barbary’s bread is also stupendous. This amazing buttery nan was the perfect partner for the fishy taramasalata-like dip in all its pinkness.

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Naan and a fishy dip

The final wonder today is the goat. The second time I’ve seen goat on a London menu recently, it was roasted, shredded and crisped up on the fire. Served on a bed of garlicky tzatziki and topped with pickled red onion and fresh mint. Wow!

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Anyone for goat gyro?

I loved the mats which give you a clear picture of the region that’s inspired this marvellous food.

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I thought I’d also treat you to a picture of the beautiful Barbary lion with its dark mane that goes all the way around its stomach. They needed to keep warm up in those Atlas Mountains.

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And here’s a magnificent Barbary lion

Today’s price point

This array of dishes cost around £70.

Wine starts from £29 a bottle.

The Barbary is at 16 Neal’s Yard, Covent Garden.

Christmas delights at Spaghetti House

It’s that time of year again – Christmas. Okay it’s only early November but the Christmas lights have been up in London for some time already and the shops are bulging with decorations, food and ideas to make it your best Christmas ever. All that sort of stuff.

For me the best part of Christmas is the chance to spend time with friends and family – and of course, the food. So I was delighted to get an early taster of Spaghetti House’s tasty Christmas offering. I do love this family-run group of London restaurants. You’re guaranteed top quality, authentic Italian dishes, it’s great value for money and there’s always a warm welcome.

The set Christmas menu offers a choice of four starters, mains and desserts. So something to suit everyone. We watched the expert chefs led by Achille Travaglini prepare everything fresh in front of us. Achille was also happy to share some of his top tips with us, like the use of orange zest in his prawn cocktail to give it an extra zing, and a slice of orange to serve for colour.

Here’s a taster of what you can enjoy for your Christmas celebration.

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Spaghetti House’s take on cocktail di gamberetti

The involtini di melanzane al forno  is a generous portion of baked aubergines stuffed with basil and ricotta with Napoli sauce. Beautifully rich and satisfying, and extremely cheesy. A deliciously indulgent starter.

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Baked aubergine filled with indulgent ricotta

The sea bass fillet (branzino also scalogno) came with shallot dressing and balsamic drops, grain mustard mash and spinach. Sweet and perfectly pan-fried fish topped a pile of smooth, zesty mash.

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The sea bass is a delightful fishy option

Pasta lovers won’t be able to resist the tortellini al funghi and tartufo. Handmade pasta parcels are filled with mushrooms and black truffle and served with a creamy mushroom sauce, crispy sage and lemon zest.

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Little parcels of truffle, mushroom deliciousness

For red meat lovers there’s the medaglioni di manzo al vino rosso. Beef tenderloin medallions are served on a bed of aubergine puree with a red wine sauce and smoked sautéed potatoes.

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A substantial plate of tasty beef and potatoes

Italian desserts are my absolute favourites and I do love a good tiramisu. Made here with soaked espresso biscuits, mascarpone and amaretto liquor. Simply yum.

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Tiramisu is the king of Italian desserts

Winter fruit compote came with toasted traditional panettone – feather-light panettone soaks up the richness and syrupy-ness of the compote.

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Panettone and winter fruits to delight

There’s also an Italian version of crumble – the Bramley apple crumble is served with a  large dollop of vanilla ice cream.

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A pot of apple crumble topped with rich ice cream

Of course there are also traditional choices available like chicken liver pate to start, roast Norfolk turkey with all the trimmings for mains and a stunning Christmas pudding with brandy sauce.

The Christmas menu is available from 21 November to 21 December 24 2016.

Today’s price point

Spaghetti House’s Menu Natalizio (Christmas menu) is great value at £16.95 for two courses, £19.95 for three courses or £29.95 for three courses with half a litre of wine.

To find out more visit spaghettihouse.co.uk

The food of modern-day Jerusalem at The Palomar

Today I’m in the middle of all the action in Soho and I’m also being transported somewhere way more exotic. The choice in London’s restaurantland is mind-boggling and we’re heading for The Palomar to sample what they describe as the food of modern-day Jerusalem.

It’s a small restaurant with a sixteen-seater bar up front for walk-ins and a 40-seater space at the back with banquette seating and light flooding in through the large skylight.

Having never visited Jerusalem, I had no idea what to expect. On perusal of the menu I also spotted a lot of North African, Turkish and even Spanish influences. And all the dishes are designed for sharing, my favourite way to eat.

The menu is divided into unusually titled sections. First up, Rip and Dip. The Kubaneh is a little loaf of Yemeni pot bread which is served with tahini and velvet tomatoes. The perfect description for a wonderful dip – tomatoes with the texture of velvet. The warm, soft bread was tipped out of its little pan onto the board in front of us and easy to tear into bite-size morsels by hand. From this section we also ordered the burnt courgette tzatziki, mint, garlic, sumac, olive oil, lemon and almonds, a beautifully zesty combo.

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The freshest of bread ready for some dipping

Next up time for some Raw, Cured, Chopped. A delectable selection of fish and meat choices.

The beef tataki came Damaskus Gate style on a miniature piece of crispy Jerusalem bagel with tahini and spicy tomato to lift it. Lovely tender beef with subtle spicy undertones.

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A colourful plate of tastiness

On to Stove, Josper, Plancha (loving these exotic sections).

The Shakshukit is described as deconstructed kebab with minced beef and lamb, yogurt tahini, cured lemon and harissa. A pan of delightfully spiced mince drizzled with a tasty choice of sauces.

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A mince dish to inspire

And then there’s the Bit on the Side – never has a vegetable section sounded so tempting. The polenta Jerusalem style was served with asparagus, mushroom ragout, parmesan and truffle oil. Aromas of truffle drifted upwards from the wonderfully soft and creamy polenta. A truly stunning dish that you simply have to order.

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Truffly polenta to dream about

I loved The Palomar. The menu is certainly unique and I’d happily try everything on it. The service is warm and welcoming and it has a cosy, intimate feel. If you’re sitting at the bar you’ll have a great view of all the kitchen activity – and there’s a lot of magical dishes coming out of that kitchen.

Today’s price point

Lunch for two cost £42.80

A bottle of French Rose was £26

The Palomar is at 34 Rupert Street, W1. Piccadilly Circus is the closest tube station.

The taste sensations of Tredwell’s

Today I’m back in my favourite part of London – Covent Garden – eating out in the Seven Dials area to be specific.  Seven Dials was originally laid out by Thomas Neale (who Neale Street is named after) in the early 1690s. The seven streets are designed in a series of triangles and Neale commissioned a centrepiece for his development – the Sundial Pillar (which is where the reference to dials comes from). The pillar was pulled down in 1773 but the name and concept of the area has stuck.

Neale’s vision was for Seven Dials to become the most fashionable address in London. Unfortunately it did not go at all to plan with the area deteriorating into a slum which became renowned for its gin shops. There was a time that each of the seven apexes facing the monument housed a pub with their cellars all connected providing handy escape routes for the neighbourhood’s criminal element, which seems to have been substantial.

It may have taken a while but I’m guessing he would be pretty thrilled with the way his creation looks in 2016. It’s all happening here with plentiful eateries, bars and designer shops – one of which is high on my list of must-visit London restaurants for anyone – Tredwell’s from Marcus Wareing.

The welcome is warm as you walk into the glowing interior which has booths lining the walls downstairs (gotta love a booth). We ate in the large open space upstairs where we experienced plenty more of that warmth. The service was exceptional, with friendly, knowledgeable staff who seemed to sense our mood and gauge the pace for our dinner just perfectly. I love it when somewhere gets it absolutely spot-on right, it’s no easy matter.

The menu takes some perusal and thought. Every dish reads like mix of magical ingredients and often turns up something totally unexpected. Love that.

Like my starter. On the menu it says: slow cooked hen’s egg, Alsace bacon, mushroom, brioche. So I was sort of imagining a kind of egg, bacon and mushroom concoction on toast – given Marcus’s special touch of course! But no, a little bowl of creamy deliciousness arrived instead. Rich, earthy mushrooms, salty bacon chunks and a brilliant yellow yolk immersed in a light, savoury liquid. And brioche soldiers for dipping. This is bacon and egg taken to a new level, so clever and just so delicious.

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An inventive version of bacon and eggs

The chargrilled scallops were served with butternut squash, miso and crispy sage. An amazing combination and the sweetest of tender scallops.

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A beautifully vibrant plate of scallops

I rarely order chicken in restaurants, it needs to sound suitably intriguing and like nothing I’ve ever cooked myself. Like this crispy buttermilk chicken which was tender and crispy with flavours of bergamot and served with crunchy pickled cucumber and radish.

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A plate of crunch in pinks and greens

And so on to mains. A tempting selection of meat and fish dishes makes for an almost impossible decision. I spent so much time pondering,  confused myself several times – and eventually went for the rare roast beef salad which was served with pickled mushroom, sesame and rocket. The beef was so skilfully thinly sliced, packed with flavour and generously coated with sesame seed crunch. A lovely light dish of great textures.

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Tender slivers of beef star in a delectable salad

The sea bass came with beetroot, aioli, smoked creme fraiche and fennel, all stunningly displayed.

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A delicately sweet fish dish

The prettiest plate of lamb was done two ways – Hardwick lamb rump and braised lamb belly and served with piquillo and sumac creme fraiche and a dollop of delicious smoked aubergine.

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There’s a selection of cuts of steak on the menu, including their Chateaubriand (put that down for a special celebration). The Lake District 35-day dry aged ribeye was served with a pretty giant bone marrow, shallot and peppercorn sauce. Plates for carnivores don’t come any better than this.

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The irresistible steak and marrowbone combo

As well as this amazing array of food Tredwell’s also has one of the most exciting assortment of sides you’ll see on any menu. As result we ordered several. The triple cooked chips came with and absolutely sublime hollandaise mousse that I could have drunk with a straw or eaten with my fingers even.

Okay, truffled macaroni cheese is a little indulgent for what is basically a vegetable course, but it was just one of those nights. And it was perfect, light with tiny bits of macaroni and plenty of that unique truffle flavour.

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A truly indulgent truffle side dish

We really had a feast tonight which sadly meant we just couldn’t venture down the pudding page. Though we did manage to retire to the lovely, cosy Tredwell’s terrace (complete with heaters and blankets) for mint teas and coffees – and a chance to inhale more of that Seven Dial’s atmosphere. Thank you Thomas Neale.

Today’s price point

Food for four people cost £145.50, which included a starter and main course each and four side dishes.

We had a bottle of house red wine for £26.

NB All my price points don’t include service charges.

Tredwell’s is at 44 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2. It’s a very short walk from Leicester Square Underground station.

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