The House of Ho, Soho

When I booked The House of Ho for my birthday, I got some worrying looks. ‘I know you’re newly single S, but is this really the route to happiness?’. Turns out it was, so despite their concerns, my friends dutifully followed me to dark, debaucherous Soho.

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If this was the 70s, my post would be very different, more exciting and – let’s face it – confined to a diary as the wondrous internet was still a figment of TimBL’s imagination . But as it’s 2014, I will focus on what The House of Ho really is - a relatively new Vietnamese restaurant full of lively Londoners of all ages, gender and sexual orientation.

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We kicked off dinner with a bottle of Prosecco and a few dishes from the ‘Light & Raw’ section of the menu. Crab Pomelo Salad (£7) was, fittingly, ‘light’, refreshing and full of texture, and Duck Pho Cuon Rice Noodle Rolls (£5.50) were a lot like cold Dim Sum…in a good way.

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The biggest ‘Light & Raw’ treat was Spicy Salmon Tartare (£7), which was topped with a raw quail’s egg yolk and encircled by chopped pistachio, Shiso (an Asian herb) and Jicama (a type of yam). Our waiter stopped us eating until we’d mixed all ingredients together into one, mushy lump. Turns out that lump was pretty damn good, especially when scooped with a cracker or two.

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Of the ‘Hot & Grilled’, the BBQ Baby Back Ribs (£6) felt too heavy next to the other, more delicate dishes, whereas bland Smokey Aubergine (£6) could have used some spicing up.

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‘Ho’s Dishes’ were much better - The ‘Shaking Beef’ was wonderfully succulent (£14) and Lemongrass Monkfish balanced sweet, sour and meaty fishiness, despite being a little chewy.

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I think we picked the best side (thank you Mr Waiter) as Morning Glory (Water Spinach at £4) was just as satisfying as its meatier counterparts, making us vow to replicate the dish at home.

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My friends’ mischievous faces gave pudding away – Molten Maru Chocolate (£6.50) with ice cream, a candle, Happy Birthday written in sauce and a rousing chorus of singers. It was eaten with relish, just as Birthday cake should be.

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The House of Ho combined interesting, delicate food with good prices and a fun, buzzing atmosphere, making it a perfect birthday treat and a worthy recipient of a LLE Rating of 7 / 10. 

House of Ho, 55-59 Old Compton Street, Soho, London W1D 6HW 

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Duck & Waffle, Shoreditch

I’ve wanted to eat duck, on a waffle, topped with a fried egg, drizzled with syrup for some time. I got my wish two weeks ago and, as we shot up the glass elevator, knew I was in for a treat.

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Duck & Waffle is perched on the 40th floor of the Heron Tower, opposite Liverpool Street Station. If you’re sat by the window (asking to move works!), you’ll be able to see London in all its shimmering glory.

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My biggest tip is don’t over order (or look down). Ignore the waiters; unless you’re the Hungry Caterpillar, you don’t need three small plates before you move onto mains.

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What you do need are aromatic Coal Charred Aubergines scooped up with warm pittas (£9), juicy Roasted Octopus with Chorizo (£13) and imaginative Spicy Ox Cheek Doughnut dunked in apricot jam (£10).

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All that, and a portion of freshly baked bread. Wild Mushrooms with Garlic, Thyme & Ketchup (£9) is like a puffed up, spongy pizza…which isn’t said to put you off.

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As for the other ‘small but actually large plates’, we should have ordered the highly recommended Bacon Wrapped Dates (£9) rather than over truffled Fillet of Beef Carpaccio (£15) and mushy Wild Pollock Cornish Meatballs (£11).

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Then the moment came for Duck & Waffle (£17) . I was a couple of Cosmopolitans down, so probably appreciated it even more. It was wickedly rich, sinfully sweet and my new favourite dish. Next time, it’s all I’ll have.

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As my ears popped on the way to commuter land, I took 30 seconds to think about my meal. The view made the experience special, but I didn’t feel the same about all the dishes. Some were fun and inventive, others bog standard and a little blah, so for that, Duck & Waffle gets a LLE Rating of 7/10.

Duck & Waffle, Heron Tower, 110 Bishopgate, London EC2N 4AY

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Barnyard, Fitzrovia

Cockadoodledoo, Barnyard is cool. The staff are fun, the interior…barn like…and the food exactly what you’d expect from Ollie Dabbous – bloomin’ brilliant.

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You can’t reserve, but you can give your number and wait in one of Charlotte’s Street many bars. Don’t be put off – we were told three hours, which ended up being an hour twenty.

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Another ‘sharing’ joint, the menu is divided into ‘Pig’, ‘Cow’, ‘Chicken’, ‘Egg’ and ‘Vegetables’, so we dutifully chose from each section.

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Everything from the paper bag of irresistibly warm corn bread (£3) impressed  and had Ollie’s signature style. I was in heaven eating Broken Eggs with Mushrooms, Garlic & Parsley (£6) and found the Roast Suckling Pig with Celeriac & Caraway delightful, mainly because of the expert crackling (£11).

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Roast Beef on Toast with Watercress Salad & Warm Horseradish Buttermilk (£12) was an original take on Sunday lunch and Crispy Chicken Wings with Smoked Paprika, Garlic & Lemon (£4) was too hot for me, but had a lively flavour.

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Dessert was Popcorn Ice Cream (£4) with a smokey fudge sauce, washed down with a Tahitian Vanilla Shake (£6). Spiked with Bourbon, the shake was light, creamy and a must have – next time, I’d be tempted to try a BlueBerry Pancake.

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If you can’t get into or afford Michelin starred Dabbous, this is a very good substitute and gets a LLE Rating of 9/10. Amazingly priced, it’s worth waiting for – just remember to arrive early as the queues will grow as Barnyard’s reputation does.

Barnyard, 18 Charlotte Street, London W1T 2LZ

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The Hand & Flowers, Marlow

When Tom Kerridge opened The Hand & Flowers, he put pretty Marlow on the map. It’s a gastropub with two Michelin stars. A gastropub that’s been on my restaurant bucket list for well over a year.

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We booked at Christmas and went three weeks ago – something the hungry punters at the bar should have done. Our square, wooden table was at the back of the charming restaurant, complete with exposed beams, white-washed walls and wild flowers.

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We chose from the Michelin priced menu, whilst munching on complimentary white bait and bread. The homemade sourdough and soda was delightful and the lightly battered fish was dunked and devoured in an instance. We were off to a great start.

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Pumpkin soup from the very reasonable set menu (two courses for £15, three for £19.50) was velvety, nutty and made all the more special with aromatic truffle.

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Crab Ravioli (£11.50) had a wonderful flavour, but the best part sat on top - sweet, chargrilled calcot onion smothered in smokey butter. Delicious.

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Mains were Cornish Monkfish smeared in a peanut crumble and served with roasted cauliflower (£29.50) and a Half Beer Roast Chicken with Glazed Celariac and more of that tasty truffle (£28).

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The chicken was succulent and, much to my surprise, blew the monkfish out of the water. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the fish - who knew it went so well with peanut?

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Across the table sat pork belly from the set menu. The verdict was clear from the mmms, ahhhs and ‘this is the best crackling I’ve ever had!’ statements. Another hit.

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We couldn’t refuse a couple of sides (all £4.50 each), so chose Curly Kale with Crispy Ham Hock (a meal in itself) and the Hand & Flowers Chips – a staple for any good gastro.

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Dessert was a must. Sweet Malt Gateaux with Malted Milk Ice Cream (£9.50) wasn’t my usual choice, but Lent made chocolate off limits. It was presented beautifully, but for me, didn’t have as memorable a flavour as the other courses.

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Tom Kerridge – aka Mr Gastropub – deserves a handshake and a bunch of flowers. This bloomin’ marvellous pub gets a LLE Rating of 9/10 and a strong recommendation to anyone visiting or lucky enough to live in Marlow.

The Hand & Flowers, 126 West Street, Marlow SL7 2PB

FISHBone, Kensington

A pop up has its uses. It can create buzz around an existing restaurant, or ‘test the waters’ for something new.

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FISHBone sits in the former camp. It’s an offshoot of fish brasserie Kensington Place, right by Notting Hill station. The concept is a ‘seafood spin on the gourmet fast-food trend’, so being a fish fiend, was right up my street. Continue reading…

FISHBone, Kensington Place Restaurant, 201 Kensington Church Street, W8 7LX

Okan, Brixton Village

Each time Shrove Tuesday comes around, I stuff my face with pancakes wondering why I don’t make them more often. They are so easy and versatile – this year’s combinations ranged from cheese, ham & mushroom to salted caramel & banana…via traditional lemon & sugar and the odd Nutella.

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I guess I’m just lazy, or eat so many I can’t bear the thought of more. So, for an alternative pancake experience, I turn to Okan – a tiny Japanese restaurant in the heart of Brixton village.

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Okan specialises in okonomiyaki – a savoury pancake that’s commonplace on the streets of Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. It means ‘as you like it’ and typically combines fermented cabbage (kimchi) with batter and a range of toppings.

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After our Otumami (starters) of warm, salty edamame (£2.20) and wonderfully aromatic Onasu (fried aubergine with soy, honey, ginger & miso dressing – £3.25), we ordered the Okan Special with prawn, squid and corn (£8.25), as well as a Kimchi & Pork (£7.95). This was topped off with a bottle of white wine (they also have a great range of Japanese beers and sake).

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Cooked in on steaming grills beside us, the okonomiyaki were large, thick and piping hot. The kimchi made them quite salty, but not to the point of unpleasant, and the fillings were in generous supply. The flavour was unique and took some getting used to, but it was refreshing to try something so different.

Okan was one of the first Brixton Village eateries –  no frills, charming and serves original food that transports you miles from the bustling streets of Brixton. For that, I’ll give it a LLE Rating of 8/10. A very happy – albeit belated -Pancake Day to you all.

Okan, Unit 39, Brixton Village, SW9 8PS

*To avoid embarrassment, it’s worth noting that Okan is Cash Only

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The Dairy, Clapham

Clapham’s always been a graduates playground – a place to relive university years of partying in terrible clubs, living with five too many friends and spending afternoons lazing in the park. It was never the place for cutting edge food; if you were hungry, a high street chain would have to suffice.

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This is starting to change. As restaurants run out of space in central London, proprietors are forced to face the suburbs, making it easier to get a decent meal on your doorstep. The Dairy is a great example. Nestled between Clapham Common and the tube, it has a menu that’s reminiscent of Dabbous…and a price tag to match.

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We went for a long, boozier than expected, Sunday lunch. We sat towards the back of the rustic dining room and, after our waiter’s pitch, soon agreed on the £45 tasting menu. After all, sharing plates always add up and take time to decide on; we just wanted to eat, drink and gossip.

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Over three hours, we had everything from wickedly moreish Chicken Skin with Kale & Wild Mushrooms, the many textures Cornish Crab, Malted Barley & Salsify and a board of freshly baked sourdough with lighter than air Chicken Liver Mousse and an interesting Smoked Bone Marrow Butter. And that’s just a handful of our ‘Snacks’.

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We moved onto the ‘Sea’ and ‘Land’ courses, with a pleasant Monkfish with Swiss Chard & Bonito Butter, the more robust Lady Hamilton Smoked Cod and my favourite of the mains – melt in the mouth Yorkshire Venison with a creative combination of sweet beetroot, sour rhubarb and flavour enhancing nibbed cocoa sauce. A must if you’re going a la carte.

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The cheese was an extra £4 per person, so as we’d already spent and eaten too much, we shared a plate between three for curiosities sake. As it turned out, the truffled brie was so intense, we couldn’t have managed more than a mouthful.

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The desserts didn’t blow me away. The ideas were interesting, but I personally found them too sweet or too insipid. Unsurprisingly, Salted Caramel with Biscuit & Malted Barley Ice Cream stood out, but still lacked the punchy flavour I’d hoped for.

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Fortunately for my sweet tooth, there was a secret dish in store – a delicious meringue with fruity ice cream. It was a lovely end to what was, on the whole, a lovely meal.

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I’m giving The Dairy a LLE Rating of 8/10. Long may Clapham continue to give South Londoners an interesting place to eat when you don’t feel like venturing far from home.

The Dairy, 15 The Pavement, Clapham Old Town, London SW4 0HY

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