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St John Hotel

St John Hotel
1 Leicester St
London
WC2H 7BL
T: 020 3301 8069
Map

We happened upon this place completely by chance on a Friday night. Over a drink at the Hampshire Hotel in Leicester Square, we contemplated finding a restaurant which might approach the Hampshire’s level of civilisation in an area which, let’s face it, is not the first place you think of for a quality meal. A quick search on the internet revealed a hidden gem – an outpost of the well-known St John restaurant hidden amongst the casinos and fast food joints.

The restaurant is a large square room with an open kitchen all along one side. The room was buzzing with conversation and the staff were similarly chatty. We chose 6 rock oysters and a beetroot, sorrel, walnut and boiled egg salad to start. The oysters were big and meaty and the salad was very satisfying, with purple and golden beets that had been cooked to perfection, not crunchy but still offering some resistance. As we ate our starters we watched the chefs beavering away, one of them stopping only to slake his thirst with a large bottle of water before returning to the stove.

For the main course we couldn’t resist the ox cheek pie, which was for a minimum of two people. The waiter recommended a bottle of Bandol 2006 for this adventure, which was an excellent choice – a bold wine with plenty of tannins that had no problems standing up to the rich gravy that accompanied the pie. The suet pastry on the pie was simply superb, and we had no trouble finishing it.

We didn’t have much room for dessert but we did manage to squeeze in a honeycomb ice cream. This was excellent but we did rue the missed opportunity for some post-dinner cheese. Next time.

All in all, an excellent experience. This is an oasis of sanity in a strange part of town. I wonder whether the diners at the Aberdeen Angus know what they are missing. The bill was was £136 for two including a £54 bottle of wine.

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Vildsvin

Ferran, 38
Barri Gotic
08002 Barcelona
93 317 94 07
Map

Where we should have gone for dinner….

We happened upon Vildsvin after our experience at Ateneu Gastronomic. We were looking for some dessert and a drink to recover from our unpleasant meal. Vildsvin has a clean modern style and looked to be much more our sort of place. There probably would have been a wait for a table for supper earlier, but this is the place we should have gone for dinner. We ordered the Chocolate Mousse, which was dreamy, and the Biscuit a la Creme, which was also exquisite. We enjoyed the selection of foreign beers upstairs in the less formal eating area, but there is also a quieter more formal dining room downstairs. And perhaps best of all, one of the tapas on the menu is a slice from a 120kg Bologna sausage which stands just inside the door.

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La Fonda del Port Olimpic

Moll de Gregal, 7-8-9
Port Olimpic
08005 Barcelona
93 221 22 10
Map

This restaurant was recommended to us by our hotel. Having been to similar places in Madeira, I should have known that a seafood restaurant on the waterfront was probably not what we were looking for having asked for a “nice” place for dinner.

The hotel had made a reservation for us and on arrival we were taken to a tiny table for two at what turned out to be a major crossroads. La Ronda is probably best described as a zoo. The waiters were literally running around with whole fish and crustaceans showing them to the patrons who would later be eating them bumping into our table as they went. The place was bustling with the F1 crowd and outbursts of cheering and singing were not uncommon.

We ordered Fishermen’s Soup and Fried Calamari for starters, both of which were okay. We had a Seafood Paella for main course which was also good, but nothing special. Having spent enough time in this chaotic scene, we declined dessert and made a quick exit.

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Ateneu Gastronomic

Pas de l’Ensenyanca, 2 bis
Barri Gotic
08002 Barcelona
93 302 13 57
Map

Based on previous experiences with “traditional” Spanish and Portuguese food, my first instinct was to avoid this place. But with the Formula 1 race this weekend, Barcelona was very full and there was at least an hour’s wait at better looking places. We should have left before the waiter carried an aluminum table from the outdoor patio into the restaurant and over the heads of unsuspecting patrons. Our table was placed about six inches from two other tables and was right in the middle of the main thoroughfare, as well as directly in front of the toilets.

We ordered the Fishermen’s Soup and Melon with Iberian Ham for starters. Although well over-priced at €15.50, the ham and melon looked to be one of the safest choices on the menu and was in fact very good. (However I think it is difficult to mess up a dish that consists of a piece of fruit and some cured meat). The soup was average and contained both recognizable and unrecognizable pieces of seafood.

For the main course we chose the Fillet Steak and Grilled Sole. The steak was ordered medium but when it arrived it was almost raw and wobbled on the plate. After we reiterated the request for it to be cooked “medium”, the plate was whisked away and returned about twenty minutes later. The steak now looked more seared on the outside and slightly less wobbly on the inside. Meanwhile I wrestled with the Sole which had been grilled to the point of being suitable for use as a weapon. Using both my knife and fork, I attempted to pry the hard rubbery flesh away from the bones while avoiding the drab over-boiled vegetables. As it turned out, it was lucky that my Sole adventure was almost over by the time the steak reappeared. The aluminum patio table was not up to the task of supporting the forces incurred by the cutting of the steak and wobbled almost enough to spill the wine out of our glasses.

When we sat down the couple next to us had just paid their bill and didn’t look very happy. Now we know why… When the bill came we were absolutely shocked. We have never been charged so much for such terrible food. Combined with the dismal table location and nearly being clipped in the head with a chair being carried across the restaurant, there isn’t anything positive to say about this place.

On our way out we heard another couple say to the waiter “Excuse me. This steak is not cooked!” Although tempted to tell them to leave now before it was too late we selfishly left the restaurant as fast as we could. As we were walking away we realized that not once had they asked if everything was okay with the food. I guess they they’ve learned over the years that it’s best not to ask!

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Stazione Restaurant

1&3a Market Hill
Cambridge
CB2 3NJ
01223 352607

This Italian restaurant had been shut down for renovations for much of my time in Cambridge but reopened sometime in the spring of 2007. When I rang to book a table I was told they take cash only.. no cards, no cheques! which I thought was a bit strange for an upscale restaurant, but at least we were warned to visit the cash point before dining. The restaurant is below ground and upon climbing down the stairs we were quite pleasantly surprised by the nice decor and ambience.

For starters I ordered the calamari, which was strips rather than the rings I was expecting, but was tasty. On the waiter’s recommendation Rob ordered the baked mushrooms in some sort of creamy sauce. He find them to be overly good, but admittedly it wasn’t the sort of dish he would normally order. For the main course, I had the spinach and marscapone lasagne which was very thin and exceedingly cheesy. I typically find lasagne portions are far too big, but this one was just right. My dessert was champagne sorbet and was amazing. Rob’s chocolate fudge cake however looked like it had seen better days. It was served toppled over and falling apart.

The whole experience left us with the feeling that they were trying but just didn’t quite get it. The service staff were a bit disorganized. I think we were waited on by 5 different people and they came to take our drink order twice. We never got the feeling that anyone was looking after us, more that we were served by whoever happened to be passing by.

The live jazz, by a female vocalist and pianist and a male guitarist, was great and definitely made the evening. At one point the musicians and the rest of the diners were summoned to sign Happy Birthday to someone, which in general I don’t have a problem with, but if you having an expensive meal at an upscale restaurant, this is not the kind of thing you are expecting or looking for. Although the atmosphere was good for a Saturday night and we were inspired to go out afterwards, I wouldn’t say we are in a rush to go back.

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D’Arrys Wine Shop

2-4 King Street
Cambridge
CB1 1LN
01223 505015

Situated where the old Cambridge Arms Pub used to be, D’Arrys is a relatively new entrant to the Cambridge scene. I’m not sure when they opened (I would say at least six months ago), but since most of our taxi drivers haven’t heard of it, I would still classify it as a new restaurant.

Rob and I have been to D’Arrys for dinner several times and it has always been busy but good. I don’t think they take bookings but Rob and I like to have a drink at the bar while waiting for a table anyway. We’ve had a variety of things off the menu on other visits but this visit Rob had the Chicken stuffed with Chorizo on Rosti Potatoes and Salad and I had the Fish Pie with Roasted Potatoes and Garden Veg, both of which were yummy. Rob has also had the fish and chips a few times (and probably would have again if I hadn’t persuaded him to try something new).

We go back to D’Arrys because we like the buzzing atmosphere and the friendly staff. We tend to go late (9 or 9:30ish) and by having a drink before dinner, we can turn a meal into a nice night out. The menu does seem to be small though (but don’t forget to check the specials board) and the tables we get seated at are quite tiny. The tables for four people seem to be larger but cozy seems to be a theme. The wine menu is extensive although we usually get a bottle of our favourite, the Stump Jump red.

I definitely recommend D’Arrys for a nice meal with friends or a romantic dinner for two.

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