Taste: The Rythre Arms

In the middle of Yorkshire lurks a little pub serving generous cuts of prime beef. The Rythre Arms could be any country village free-house; kegs for tables, horse shoes on the wall and an open fire in the corner. However, as the county's foodies arrive, the locals are swept aside and everyone's chatter turns to the Rythre Monster, a 78oz main attraction.

For 20 years the Linleys have been serving the same menu. Below the headline T-Bones are a selection of rumps, sirloins and fillets served in Maid Marrion or Friar Tuck slabs from £14 to £32 (£44 for the monster). All ours were as described and to specification, medium-rare, naturally. Nobody this evening went for the Monster, A 78oz oz steak is the size of a laptop. It would've been nice to see the cuts beforehand, if only to gawk at them.

I went for the otherwise massive 'Giant T-Bone'. 42oz of phenomenal meat; An even cut of marbled sirloin on one side, tender fillet on the other and both in endless supply. I paused only once to try the potatoes, carrots and onion rings dotted around the table garnish and immediately returned to the meat - clearly no need to deviate and quality wise - best left along.

There are a couple of non-beef options on the menu although I can't vouch for them. A popular order is the quirky named carpetbagger (£30); a fillet stuffed with tiger prawns or king scallops and smothered in a rich tomato and tarragon sauce. A little rich maybe, perhaps go for the £9 surf-n-turf seafood enhancement to any steak if you're into that kind of thing.

Owner and master butcher Eric Linley clearly needs no approval and word of mouth has people driving across two counties for a place at one of the two nightly sittings. Our two hour round trip featured my apprehensive stomach grumbling all the way there and on cloud 9 for the return in a way that only the best T-Bone I've ever had can accomplish.

The Rythre Arms
Main St
Ryther, Tadcaster,
North Yorkshire,
LS24 9EE (map)


Taste: River Cafe review

River Cafe is not an ideal place to approach from the tube on a blustery November evening. From Hammersmith station go south across the roundabout, under the A4, round the back of the Apollo and through a couple of estates. From there through a gap in the fence to the river, across a patch of deserted building site and finally along an eerie stretch of waterside path where a couple of dark silhouettes will have you rehearsing that talk-them-down speech we've all prepared for that moment (touch wood) when mugged. Mine begins something like "yes, absolutely here's my wallet - but first may I keep that photo of my daughter, I wish I'd taken more when she was alive... have children, do you?"

Across Richard Rogers' tidy courtyard, into the restaurant and that's easily forgotten. A welcoming party unwraps our coats and we're ushered over to a modern attractive bar where blazered professionals chat 'shop' and martinis promptly arrive.

Chatter flows through from the dining area; a large, attractive, clearly architecturally considered space. A polished and cake-laden service bar runs the length of the room on one side from an open kitchen at the end. Every other square inch of floor space is tessellated with diners, between who wait staff in crisp pinstripe shirts and clean aprons synchronise their darts and nips.

Ours waiter is confident, personable and clearly ofay with the melee of seating. Zipping ahead he leads us across to the far side of the room to a table on the edge of the throng and at the mouth of the kitchen's show-piece, a beautiful wood-fired dome oven.

The ever changing Italian, traditionally coursed menu is all literally mouth watering. Clearly rendered physically choice-less the water suggested a current one-off, Gnuddi (River Cafe's own spinach gnochi), served simply with their currently limited batch of decade-ish old balsamic and olive oil. It hit a light heavenly spot I wasn't familiar with. A taste I will never forget and probably never find again. Scallops, too, were served very simply. Large, perfectly cooked and on a par with my #1 for seafood: the company shed.

For mains, a friar tuck sized veal shin, on the bone with canellini bean and Swiss chard was another first, superbly textured somewhere between great lamb and fantastic steak. Sea bass fillet baked in a bag with porcini, thyme and Vermouth, with spinach was another delivery of balanced taste and perfectly prepared ingredients.

By the end of an Almond Tart with Strawberries and Grappa Pannacotta we were blissfully weak at the knees.

Sure, the logo is appalling and barely better is the projection-clock dominating the room, but these strands of hair aside and River Cafe is in my experience the finest Italian restaurant in the country. We'll be back in spring when the River Cafe spills out onto Rogers' tidy courtyard.

River Cafe
Thames Wharf
Rainville Road
London, W6 9HA (map)
+44 (0)20 7386 4200


Taste: cha cha moon

Filling a space that used to be a nightclub (or was it a couple shops?), Alan Yau has snuck his latest restaurant into a very tidy spot on Ganton St which opens onto the recently worthwhile Kingly Square. Now that the awful umbarella-awnings have been lifted away, Cha Cha Moon offers accessible, asian, al-fresco dining all but out of reach in this part of town unless you’ve pink pounds to spend.

With a simple 3-fold menu more akin to Wagamama than Yauatcha, cuisine is pan-asian (mayte!) with Hong Kong style influences. Three main types of dish are offered: soup-noodle, stir-fry and Lao Mian (on flat, stocky noodles with a side-soup). As an opening-week offer that was never cancelled all dishes are £3.50 and in the medium-small bracket. At this price it’s worth skipping the starters and going for 2 mains.

Lao Mian crispy duck, jasmine tea soaked chicken and Singapore noodles are high achievers in this class of uncomplicated box-ticking food. The huge open-plan kitchen is churning out plate after plate of pitch perfect dishes to the masses. An army of wait staff, in “have you been to the moon” t-shirts all working a specific function, buzz along precision-packed shared trestles.

Don’t expect to feel special. Once the “have you been here before” script is over there’s no love lost by the unimpressed servers. Food is brought over when it’s ready and sometimes afterwards. In earlier visits at least one plate arrived late and lukewarm but that has recently improved.

Cha Cha Moon is solid. Design, ambiance, presentation are all straight from the Yao playbook, managing an air of exclusivity despite canteen-esque atmosphere – and reality. Unfortunately the word has spread beyond the congregation and evening queues (no booking allowed) often wriggle, back out the front door. At least the display of cookery precision on the other side of the blue glass wall provides interim entertainment.

Cha Cha Moon
15-21 Ganton St
Soho, London
W1F 9BN (map)
+44 (0) 20 7297 9800


Taste: A touch of Novelli

Super-chef Jean-Christophe Novelli is not afraid of getting his name around. A nudge of Floyd, a sprinkling of stars & rosettes and a central London "empire" leave a calendar full of Hell's Kitchen, The Apprentice, Richard & Judy, Hello Magazine, MTV Cribs and so on. Fortunately for those amongst us who like a chef to stir soup he's opening a chain of Gastropubs around the country starting with The French Horn in Steppingly and here, attached to the The White Horse Pub in Harpenden.

Branded A Touch of Novelli this converted barn is about as subtle in presentation as it is in name.You're hardly going to eat here without knowing who owns the place, the super-chef continuum has permeated through. There he is, pondering back at you from the restaurant's card, his lead-cast hand print hanging from the wall.

The rest of this barn-conversion has been done in good taste, modern, clean, elegant with a matching open kitchen along one side. Perhaps it's a little too IKEA - but even Prouvé would struggle to divert one's eye from the frosted glass scrawled with, yes, "Novelli" at one end of the 60 covers space.

30 miles north of London and prices are slightly more affordable at £8 starters and £15 mains. Of course we've been slapped with some off-plan bread before the menus have been opened, at least it has been quaintly baked and presented in a terracotta pot, still warm.

Starters include Soft boiled duck egg, Bayonne ham, marinated globe artichokes, tapenade toast and Bressola of Aylesbury duck breast with horseradish panna cotta, beetroot and macadamia nut dressing to start. Both refreshingly not shy of their respective headliners and realised in the unique way so expected of Michelin star caliber. The horseradish, beet and nut medley working enchantingly well together.

Pan fried breasts of pigeon with foie gras tortellini and minestrone broth showed the bird in a new light. Impossible to replicate ticking one box, fois gras the other and a perfect balance of succulence the third. For minimum surprise, Sirloin steak with hand cut chips was prepared only one way, medium-rare - and that's absolutely super. Surprisingly the beef source isn't mentioned - oh it's 'locally sourced' - organic too? must be fine.

Desserts, well, bad options maybe. Pizzazz lacking sorbet (were we expecting anything else?) and a way belowzero peach-melba lacking the kiss of life. Lesson learned - if only the Jack in the Box award winner was on the menu.

More of a daub than a touch, Novelli's is far from subtle. Definitely not a gastropub and hardly somewhere you'll be staying long past the last mouthful. Each mouthful, however, means none of this matters. This is super-chef Novelli delivering the goods.

A Touch of Novelli
The White Horse
AL5 2JP (map)
+44 (0) 1582 469290


Taste: Haozhan Review

Every other review of a restaurant in Chinatown includes an msg soaked starter reminiscing about Gerrard Street's good old times. Food was terrible, service non existent and any complaints answered with five thunderbolts. Not too sure about the last one but over the past few years I've definitely eaten in a few hum dingers in London's China epicenter.

Not much has changed really. Just our budgets. A couple quid extra has opened the door to the chinese powerhouses of the Golden Palace and Feng Shui Inn. Now though, for a few more pennies there's a 'modern oriental' kid on the block.

Flashing a contemporary feel, Haozhan has been opened with the help from a former chef at Hakkasan. As you'd expect he's brought a keen attention to detail and presentation and influences from Japan, Malaysia and Thailand.
This being lunch, delicately grilled and herbed gyoza-style dumplings and light duck spring roll (served in a glass) made tasty light starters. Onto a clean, meaty champagne cod, soft and succulet jasmine ribs and a waiter recommended dish - beef in red wine served in a crispy noodle nest: Succulent beyond imagination and a taste not experienced before. Seeing one served elsewhere we praised ourselves for ordering a cream of pumpkin desert despite being far more satisfied than expected. It almost crept up - but everything was welll timed, well balanced and, well, delicious.

Haozhan is different. They've borrowed a couple ideas from the likes of Yuatcha, Nobu and Hakkasan and brought the experience down a level without compromising on the senses (or the wallet). It's a bit cheeky to go with such a homophonic name and, mate, the menu has pictures... but that aside and here is a welcome addition for when beef ho fun and char siu isn't quite enough.

8 Gerrard Street
W1D 5PJ (map)
+44 (0) 20 7434 3838


Taste: The Empress of India Review

High-rises, gangs, prams, Olympics and best-of-the-worst awards come, go and hackney strides on. Victoria Park Village has barely batted an eyelid, nestled safety and uninterrupted in the arms of Britain’s oldest public park. This one and a half stretch of amenities and boutiques stands proud and unmoved like a portly war veteran – who’s puffed out chest is the grand red awning of the Empress of India.

As the menu-prologue is eager to point out, the current incarnation of this elegant British gastropub is the latest in a line of rebirths. At present it features a spick and span layout with grand well-stocked bar presiding over one side. A separately themed dining area to the other half is decorated with a mosaic floor and exotic murals depicting elephants, palaces and turbans

Ambiance here is calm, organised, methodical (not particularly busy on this night). The 15 or so tables are served by two who are obviously experienced and comfortable with the strong menu. A regularly updated handful or so dishes per course are available at around £6/starter and £13/main.

Full flavoured Fois Gras parfait with even fuller port plums joined forces in a rich, delicious combination of my preferred starting staple. The hot smoked salmon, avocado mousse and Bloody Mary sauce was more adventurous, lacking in exhilaration but no less tasty. For mains, I went for the special; Rare short horn lamb on a bed of spinach, potato and delicate goats cheese. Special indeed, more succulent than any lamb I’ve ever tasted. I honestly hummed every mouthful in a one-man throng of euphoria.

From Tom and Ed Martin (including The Gun in Docklands) The Empress isn’t cut from the same cloth as the other gastropubs around town. It is, as the best ones should be, a refined collection of finest quality produce cooked well with culinary genius (in this case, Tim Wilson, former chef at the Ivy). Unlike the others it has less of a traditional hectic feel, more sedate, solid, timeless – like the proud village of Victoria Park surrounding it.

I’ll be going back again.

The Empress of India
130 Lauriston Road
Victoria Park
E9 7LH
+44 (0) 208 533 5123


Taste: Belgo Review

The aptly named "Centraal" branch of Belgo's Belgium Restaurant and Bierodrome is less Belgian and more Laserquest. Grey, mesh and metal greet you once inside along with a steely stare-down from the front desk.

Maybe because of it's popularity with tourists, maybe because it's christmas or maybe because the staff are simply too important we're instantly told all the party must be present, we must line up in front of the desk and must await walkie-talkie confirmation from a relay of ushers if we've got any chance of sitting at a table. Forget Laserquest, it's more like a leg of the Crystal Maze.

Drill passed, down a set of stairs covered in black and yellow warning tape through another couple of holding areas and we're inside a bustling, noisy underground canteen. Thanks probably to places like the Dove, this is a couple countries away from the cosy, inviting experience I was expecting. Here is a themed restaurant with an attitiude. Wait staff lumber around pacing between the two main dining ares at each of a vast, angry kitchen. Plates are being produced on-mass by teams of cooks, one laying out steaks, one on sauce and the other with chips. A couple of diners have become enthralled on their way to the bathrooms and stare in bewilderment.

The broadsheet menu, an ugly collection of boxes accentuates the large collection of beers on offer. I went for a Slag Pilsner and a strong, golden Duvel. Both demonstrating the complexities and variation of good beer production. Around the table are a collection of nods in agreement.

Food. Average. Forgettable. The signature dish, a kilo pot of mussels provencale (the other option was mariniere but white wine & beer?) was not sandy, not small but was too bland. The others all chose steak to great satisfaction but when you're paying £20+ a cut it's hard to get them wrong.

It's not a bad place and obviously very popular. It should have been about the beer and the food but instead we received a mouthful of the rest.