The exotic tastes of the Black Sea at Babel House Mayfair

Babel House Mayfair

London’s restaurant scene is quite extraordinary – there’s so much choice it’s a wonder I can ever decide where to eat. Sometimes it’s simply because of the need for something completely different – like today. Babel House describes itself as serving food that’s a modern take on the traditions of the Black Sea and its rich cultural heritage.

So here’s today’s geography lesson. The Black Sea is bordered by six countries, including Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia and Turkey. It’s a popular summer tourist destination with its sunny weather and sandy beaches. Sounds like my kind of place. Oh and I do love that my geography is improving as a result of the food I’m eating.

The restaurant is named after modernist novelist Isaac Babel who was born in Odessa. Odessa is the third most populous city of the Ukraine. It’s a major tourist centre and sea port on the north-west shore of the Black Sea. And after a taster of Odessa-inspired dishes, I feel a visit there may well be in order. Here’s what we tucked into.

What’s on the menu

First up an exotic offering of the freshest of bread and herb and garlic butter – impossible to resist.

Babel House Mayfair: bread and butter

Delectable, exotic bread choices

There’s a range of cold and hot starters on offer including caviar (naturally), and traditional blinis and dumplings. I went for the beautifully fresh beef tartare, served with black truffle, mustard, capers and topped with a raw quails egg. I love a good beef tartare and this certainly was a good one with the indulgent addition of back truffle.

Babel House Mayfair: steak tartare

The luscious plate of steak tartare

The fried baby squid topped with spicy jalapeños and smoked paprika aioli. A delightful combination of sweet squid, spicy chilli and smoky paprika.

Babel House Mayfair: Squid

Crispy and sweet fried baby squid

There’s also a nice-sounding selection of soup, including both red and green borsch and spicy Georgian lamb, as well as grilled and smoked fish (smoked in-house).

And of course there are plenty of hearty traditional mains on offer. Delights like cabbage rolls stuffed with veal, beef Stroganoff, lamb tongues, and Odessan lamb stew. Being a pleasant summer day we decided to opt for salad selections rather.

Salads to dream about

And what a salad I had…the spectacular Salad Olivier. Also known simply as Russian salad, it’s a traditional dish originally invented by Lucia Olivier for the Heritage restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s. I’ve eaten it a bit – particularly in Spain (slightly bizarrely it’s big in Spain) and have even made my own version once. There are plenty of versions, with a wide range of ingredients to choose from, including different kinds of fish, potatoes, carrots, peas, eggs, pickles, to name a few, all combined with mayonnaise.

Babel House Mayfair’s luxurious take on this tastiest of salads has the addition of luscious salmon gravlax in the mix and is topped with juicy seared scallops and tobiko (fish roe). Undoubtedly my number one Salad Olivier ever and enough of a draw to take me back to Babel House Mayfair again…and soon.

Babel House Mayfair: Olivier salad

The totally indulgent salad Olivier topped with scallops

The simple smoked salmon salad was slathered in tasty mayonnaise, topped with more fish roe and served with leaves tossed in a truffle vinaigrette. Delicious simplicity.

Babel House Mayfair: salmon salad

Salmon salad with delicate mayo and truffle dressing

Today’s price point

And finally…

Today’s lunch at Babel House Mayfair came to a total of £58 for two people.

Wine starts from £37 a bottle.

Babel House is at 26-28 Bruton Place, Mayfair, London W1

Covent Garden’s latest lovely addition: Cora Pearl

Today we’re heading for Henrietta Street just off the Covent Garden Piazza to newly-opened Cora Pearl. It’s the second restaurant from the team behind Kitty Fisher’s in Mayfair (which I’ve never been to…should remedy that asap, especially as it’s in Shepherd Market, which I love!).

Both restaurants are named after famed courtesans (basically prostitutes, with wealthy or upper-class clients). Kitty Fisher was one of the world’s first celebrities who was famous simply for being famous. She swanned around London in the 1700s, getting painted multiple times by famous artist Joshua Reynolds.

Cora Pearl did pretty much the same in the 1800s. The story goes that having got bored living with her grandmother in Covent Garden she roamed the streets unchaperoned (horrors of horrors) and one day accepted the advances of an older man (more horror!) allowing him to take her to a drinking den and ply her with cakes and alcohol. He took her virginity and left her with £5, more money than she’d ever seen in her life. It’s thought she was 20 at the time and clearly switched on – as she quickly looked at her options and decided to focus on becoming the kept woman of several dedicated lovers – all with the financial means to keep her in luxury.

Cora’s namesake (I am the only one who instantly thinks of Downton Abbey when I hear the name Cora) is in a historic Covent Garden townhouse – how I’d love to live in one – with huge windows with light streaming through onto the stylish velvet green banquettes. The vintage mirrors and lights add to the sparkling ambience and the feel of opulence.

The food is a delicious mix of English and French cuisine with a touch of Italian thrown in for good measure.

What’s on the menu

There are a range of small plates which all looked so tempting we decided to share a selection. The Bloody Mary mackerel was nothing short of spectacular, so fresh it felt like it was just out of the sea and topped with crunchy onion and a spicy bloody mary jelly.

Cora Pearl: Bloody Mary Mackerel

The freshest of mackerel with a spicy topping

I’m rather partial to a good charcuterie plate – a tasty selection of ham and salami served with crunchy pickles of onion, gherkin and radish.

Cora Pearl: Charcuterie

Savoury charcuterie and crunchy pickles

Today’s magical dish was the pasta. Cow’s curd agnolotti, peas and summer truffles. Beautiful pillows of soft creaminess with a sublime sauce and that hint of the extravagance of truffles. And it looks so beautiful, too.

Cora Pearl: pasta

Heavenly pillows of truffley pasta

I’m also rather partial to a Caesar salad and this was a really clever take on it. Quail Caesar! (get it!?) had the same ingredients as a classic Caesar with the substitution of quail instead of chicken. Served hot with a delicious gravy-like sauce and a pile of little gem topped with parmesan and croutons on the side. Tasty and cleverly conceived of.

Cora Pearl: Caesar salad

An unusual and tasty take on Caesar salad

And then there’s the chips. These are ginormous constructions of heaven – crisp and golden on the outside and wonderfully soft inside making each mouthful magical. The king of chips worth a visit to Cora Pearl for on their own!

Cora Pearl: Chips

Giant chips to dream about

Having said that it’s all rather splendid. And just the sort of establishment I can imagine Cora would expect one of her gentlemen to take her to. And what a jolly good time they would have had, too.

Today’s price point

And finally, here’s the bottom line.

We paid £41 for our five dishes.

White wine starts from £29 a bottle and red from £27.

Cora Pearl is at 30 Henrietta Street, Covent Garden, just off the Piazza.

Filipino delights at Yuu Kitchen

So today we’re heading East – something I don’t do very often in London – to the E1 postcode close to Aldgate East tube station. And appropriately we’re going to be trying some Eastern food – Filipino to be precise – a first for me.

Yuu Kitchen predominantly serves the delightful food of South East Asia with a fusion of Japanese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese cuisine. And now they’ve added a special Filipino or Pinoy section. The Philippines is a melting pot of influences from the Pacific Rim, Malaysia, China, South America and even Spain – you’ll find a mix of cuisines from the many countries who have invaded or attempted to colonise the islands. And it’s a fascinating and fabulous mix.

What’s on the menu

The dishes are designed to be eaten tapas-style (my favourite way). We started with the pork chicharron, a pile of warm, crunchy pork scratchings served with chilli vinegar for dipping. The scratchings sizzle as you dip. I love a good pork scratching – a real guilty pleasure and even more, these are among the best I’ve had.

Yuu Kitchen: pork scratchings

Beautifully crispy pork scratchings

And now for something completely different and a first for me (it’s certainly a day of firsts!) – cassava fries. Cassava is a tuberous root that’s officially the third-largest source of carbs in the tropics. It’s pretty dense and I’m imagining takes some cooking. Our chef explained the cassava is boiled for some time before being fried to produce these, light tasty delights with their soft inside and crisp outer layer. They were served with hot-smoked paprika and tangy adobo mayo.  Adobo is a local vinegar-based sauce that also includes a combination of paprika, oregano, salt, garlic and soya sauce. It’s delicious.

Yuu Kitchen: cassava chips

Cassava chips are amazingly tasty

The presentation at Yuu Kitchen is also delightful with this clever, pretty plate of food bound to cause oohs of delight. The sisig lollipops contain a pork centre of seven-hour pineapple juice braised pig’s head covered in panko breadcrumbs and served with adobo mayo and chicharron – some of those delicious pork scratchings crumbled on the side. Dip the luscious lollipop into the mayo and then the chicharron to coat. So rich and tasty. Probably my favourite lollipop ever.

Yuu Kitchen: Sigsi lollipops

Sigsi lollipops look so cute and taste so good

Next up what I’m calling the Filipino version of burgers called cheese ube put (takes a few goes to get that past autocorrect intact). These mini treats are so delicious with their steamed buns, chorizo bilbao, caramelised onion, avocado and garlic aioli. Seems like this is a burger I could eat every day.

Yuu kitchen: burgers

Exotically delicious little burgers

They’re so good I had to show you twice!

Yuu Kitchen: burger

Up close on the mouthwatering burger

And there’s more

This meal was becoming quite a revelation with beautifully tasty, exotic dishes. I wasn’t so keen on trying the crispy pig’s ears, having sampled a version of them before and finding them tough and tasteless. Not today’s. These ears are slow-cooked for three hours and served with a honey soy glaze, sesame seeds, pickled radish and chives. The slow cooking has actually made them really tender and the honey soy glaze is the perfect flavour match. As a result, we agreed that this was actually our favourite dish of the day. Who’d have thought?

Yuu Kitchen: pigs ears

Delicious crisp and sticky pigs ears

The bistek is a little piece of steak in batter served on a crispy rice cake with lemon soy, and a trio of onion. Another pretty morsel rich in flavours. Also pretty exotic.

Yuu Kitchen: beef

Delicious morsels of beef on rice cakes

The lechon kawali is a 12-hour braised pork belly, thinly sliced and with delightful slivers of crispy crackling, topped with savoury mama sita’s sauce (it’s a secret but you’ll love it). Certainly love a good pork belly.

Yuu Kitchen: pork belly

Melt-in-the-mouth pork belly

Well that was the end of our Filipino delights. And time to sample a couple of dishes from the rest  of the menu. The tuna kinilaw is luscious raw tuna served in a spicy marinade of coconut milk, cafa lime leaves, lime juice, chilli and red onion. Beautiful.

Yuu Kitchen: tuna ceviche

Refreshing and zesty tuna ceviche

After quite a meaty feast we asked our chef to recommend a vegetable dish for us to try. Grilled cauliflower served with sweetcorn, jalapeño dressing, shallots, garlic chips and chives. Certainly the best cauliflower ever, smokey and spicy.

Yuu Kitchen: cauliflower

Possibly the tastiest cauliflower dish ever

Yuu Kitchen is a beautifully stylish place to eat with great murals decorating the walls and an incredible lighting display with ornate bird cages.

Yuu Kitchen: Murals

Yuu Kitchen is decorated with dramatic murals

Yuu Kitchen: Art

More stylish art

Yuu Kitchen: lights

Love the stylish lighting

Today’s price point

And finally, the bottom line.

It cost £68.50 for all the dishes I’ve described here. Certainly a real feast for two.

White wine starts from £24.50 a bottle, red from £23.50.

Cocktails start from £8.50.

There’s also a  selection of delicious fruit teas for £4.50.

Yuu Kitchen is at 29 Commercial Street, London E1. Aldgate East tube station is a five-minute walk away.

Tasty classic French dishes at Boulevard Brasserie

It’s time to head back into Covent Garden to continue enjoying our steamy London summer. Boulevard Brasserie is in what is known as Covent Garden’s Opera District, you’re sitting directly opposite the Opera House just off the iconic piazza.

There’s a lovely mix of sophisticated French classics and summery dishes to choose from in a welcoming, buzzing brasserie.

What’s on the menu

I adore asparagus and find it hard to resist when I see it on the menu. Today’s luscious green spears were served cold with pea shoots and incredible truffle mayonnaise. My idea of a starter made in heaven.

Boulevard Brasserie: asparagus

Delightful summer asparagus

The classic French onion soup was beautifully rich and sweet and packed with cheesy gruyere croutons. Almost a meal in itself.

Boulevard Brasserie: French onion soup

Sweet French onion soup and cheesy croutons

It took a while, but I eventually decided to go for this fabulous pork dish. The grilled pork chop was served with chorizo jam and baby spinach. All on top of an apple, prune and new potato salad with wholegrain mustard dressing. An incredibly tender and tasty pork chop (and pretty large too) topped with delightfully spicy chorizo jam. Chorizo jam – yummy – got to make some myself soon.

Boulevard Brasserie: pork chop

Beautifully tender pork chop with delicious sauces

The classic bouf bourguignon came in a steaming cast iron pot. Delightfully braised beef cooked in red wine with lardons and mushrooms and served with buttery mash.

Boulevard Brasserie: Bourguignon

The comfort of a rich French-style stew

Boulevard Brasserie: mash potato

Irresistible buttery mash

Another classic, this time for pudding. It’s hard to beat the buttery (more butter) lusciousness of a tarte tatin with its beautifully sweet and tart apples topped with creamy vanilla ice cream.

Boulevard Brasserie: tarte tatin

Sweet and buttery tarte tatin with ice cream

The French really know their cheese. And I loved the fact that there was an individual cheese option on the menu as I didn’t think I could manage a whole cheeseboard. So I enjoyed my (not insubstantial) portion of tongue-tingling roquefort, served with biscuits and apple chutney.

Boulevard Brasserie: roquefort

The creamy saltiness of roquefort

Boulevard Brasserie is one of those warm and comforting places with great classic food that you’d happily go back to again and again. Another Covent Garden favourite to savour.

Today’s price point

Our three-course dinner for two cost £64.

Red and white wine starts from £21 a bottle, rose from £24 and cocktails are £9.95.

Boulevard Brasserie is at 40 Wellington Street, Covent Garden WC2.

Chill out tapas time at Lady of the Grapes

Today we’re heading to one of my absolute favourite streets in the whole of London Town. Maiden Lane in Covent Garden is home to myriad bars and restaurants – the choice is quite mind-boggling. And there’s always somewhere new to try – like Lady of the Grapes.

This cosy little establishment describes itself as an organic wine bar and wine shop. It champions female winemakers with its extensive wine list. There are shelves along the walls packed with delicious deli products and there’s a delightful tapas menu.

What’s on the menu

We started off with a bowl of the freshest bread and some delightfully salty salami – with a side of tiny, crunchy cornichons.

Lady of the Grapes: Salami

Tasty salami served with cournichons

There’s a wide cheesy choice and we went for the beautifully creamy blue which was served with the sweetness of preserved figs.

Lady of the Grapes: cheese

Blue cheese with preserved fig

Luscious salmon gravlax was served on the freshest of bread and arrived looking a bit like a magical garden with the lovely fresh salad accompaniment.

Lady of the Grapes: gravlax

Little gravalax toasts beautifully presented

I am partial to a pissaladiere – a kind of tart of caramelised onions topped with anchovies – and in this case some roast red peppers too. The simplest of things so often taste the best.

Lady of the Grapes: Pissaladiere

The fresh and tasty pissaladiere with anchovies

Here it is up close and glorious.

Lady of the Grapes: pissaladiere

Close up on the scrumptious little tart

Lady of the Grapes is also a deli and the shelves are packed with bottles of delectable goodies and salamis hang temptingly, too. Don’t know how I resisted and didn’t take some home with me.

Lady of the Grapes: deli

The shelves are stacked with tempting goodies

Lady of the Grapes is the sort of place I’d want to be my local. Perfect for a quick after-work drink and a bowl of olives or a leisurely dinner lingering over their lovely range of tapas dishes.

Service is warm and friendly and the place gave me an all-round feeling of happiness. Well, that’s Maiden Lane for you.

Lady of the Grapes is at 16 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden WC2

Loving the Levantine flavours at Ceru in Soho

Plates of delight at Ceru

So today we chose the hottest day of the year (so far anyway) to venture into Soho, one of my favourite areas of London (after Covent Garden of course). Appropriately we were going where the food tastes of sunshine and summer delights – to Ceru whose motto is “Born from a love of food, drink and sunshine”. Love that – can I claim it for myself??

To be more specific, Ceru serves vibrant Levantine cuisine which is sort of Eastern Mediterranean and encompasses Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus and Israel – you can check out the area on the handy map below. Most importantly they promise small plates with big flavours and boy do they deliver.

What’s on the menu

To get going on our Levantine journey we dipped into the dips. I’m a big fan of dips, and these were in a league of their own. We went for a Three in One – a spoonful of our choice of three of the delicious dips. A colourful plate of deliciousness was delivered to our table along with a basket of fresh, warm and flavoursome pitta bread.

The three offerings were a traditional houmous (you’ve always got to try the humous). Then Pancar which is made from roasted beetroot, yogurt, garlic and crushed pistachio. And also Ceru Hammara – tangy red pepper dip with walnuts and pomegranate molasses. All fabulous, with the Hammara winning the prize as our favorite – as a result I’m on a mission to recreate it at home.

Ceru: dips

The vibrant plate of three top dips

The dips were served with the softest, warm pitta bread, clearly straight out of the oven and the perfect accompaniment.

Ceru: pitta bread

The softest of warm pitta bread

Summery salad and cocktails

There’s also a salad section, perfect for today’s London with a tropical feel. We went for crisp apple, mint and pomegranate with pea shoots, roasted pine nuts and green chili. Nice sounding ingredients, yes, but who’d have thought the combination would produce such a spectacular dish of food because this is one of the best salads I’ve ever enjoyed. Seriously.

Ceru also has a lovely cocktail list and I enjoyed their Passionista. It’s made from Russian Standard vodka, Passao (a passion fruit liquor), lime, sugar, passion fruit and egg white. Beautifully refreshing and fruity.

Ceru: Salad

The crunchy, zest salad perfect for a hot summer day

Ceru: Salad

A closer look at the wonderful apple salad

Moving on to the seafood section, we ordered the Karides. Whole grilled garlic prawns skewered and served with a dried lime and coriander labneh. Labneh is a wonderful thing, kind of in the middle of yogurt and cheese and it’s also great for some prawn dipping.

Ceru: prawns

Garlic prawns perfectly grilled with a wonderfully creamy dip

Tasty meaty choices

The Shish Taouk was served on a bed of herb yogurt. Tender cubes of chicken breast were marinated in paprika and lemon and grilled to perfection. They were beautifully succulent with great depth of flavour, a perfect match for the tangy, herby yogurt. I loved that every dish came with a different, delectable dip – certainly enhancing the whole experience.

Ceru: chicken

Tender chicken kebabs with a nice hit of spices

And finally – a Persian Kafta. This grilled skewer of aromatic spiced beef sat on a tartar sauce – kind of a garlicky, lemony tahini. Another incredible explosion of flavors.

Ceru: beef

The minced beef kebab packed with exotic flavours

We enjoyed our mains with the Orez Ceru – Arabic scented fried rice with crispy onions, sultanas and parsley. Certainly the nicest rice I’ve enjoyed for a while.

Ceru: rice

The tastiest of rice concoctions

What a wonderful selection of dishes – packed with flavour and perfect for London in a heatwave. As was the cool (in all senses of the word) interior. Certainly a big fan of those Levantine specialities.

Ceru: interior

The welcoming, bright and colourful interior

And here’s the Levant!

Today’s price point

Our six dishes came to £43.50, incredibly good value for such wonderful food in the heart of Soho.

It’s a different sort of list with wines from Lebanon, Macedonia, Turkey and Greece. We had a lovely rose from Macedonia – the Alexandra Rose Tikves which cost £20 for a 500ml carafe. Both red and white start from £17 for a 500ml carafe.

Ceru is at 11 D’Arbalay Street, Soho, W1