The Elk in the Woods

37-39 Camden Passage, Islington, London

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Blackberry waffles with all the trimmings

Camden passage offers up a great strip of foodie delights amongst the famous antique stalls and vintage shops, from the sublime Pistachio & Pickle Dairy to Austrian restaurant Kipferl (although I must admit that I’m not sold on the popular Coffee Works Project).

I’ve often hungrily scanned the menu at The Elk in the Woods but never taken the plunge. When my boyfriend’s parents announced that they’d be visiting us for the weekend and staying in Angel, it seemed like the ideal location for Sunday brunch.

With its wooden floors, quirky décor and dusky interior, you could mistake this place for a pub, bistro or coffee shop depending on your mood or when you visit. I quite like that about it; it has a cozy ambience and is what you make of it.

The brunch menu consists of the obligatory full English (and boy, was it ‘full’ – the portion sizes are very generous here!) followed by their own twists on standard offerings, including an elk sausage skillet, bacon tortano with poached egg and poached plums with homemade granola.

I went for the blackberry waffles with roasted apples, smoked bacon, maple syrup and mascarpone. Perhaps the waffles could have been a little lighter and fluffier, but this is a small niggle. The smoked bacon was cooked to perfection, the roasted apples were a revelation and the mesh of flavours – sweet, smoky and salt – could not have worked any better together.

I’ll be back for dinner soon, I hope – the duck, home-smoked in cherry wood and orange peel, is calling me and the cocktail menu looks divine.

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Smokehouse

63-69 Canonbury Road, Islington, London

Yet another hidden gem in Islington, The Smokehouse opened its doors in 2013. Run by chef Neil Rankin, formerly of the Pitt Cue Co, the restaurant offers a range of meat dishes inspired by global cuisines, predominantly Korean and Argentinian.

Smokehouse - Brisket roll

Chopped brisket roll with gochujang

The starters – chopped brisket roll with gochujang (a spicy Korean sauce) and goat tacos – were salty, appetising and full of flavour. I chose the smoked lamb shoulder with polenta, raclette and sambal as my main course, plus a side of kale with sesame and chilli. The lamb was tender, smokey, and smooth. For me, cheese and lamb is not an obvious match, but this works well.

The puddings are all unashamedly good, old fashioned comfort dishes. I opted for the banana bread French toast with caramelised bananas, pecans and dulce de leche. Pair bananas with pecans and caramel, and I’m sold. It’s not a ground-breaking dessert, but every element was delicious, expertly done and an ideal end to the meal.

The meat is, as you’d expect, cooked fantastically. The added refinements make this place special: the spicy yet smooth gochujang, the morish kale, the delicate polenta and sambal mix.

The portion sizes were not overwhelming and the dishes aren’t greasy, as can often be the problem with a menu so heavily biased towards barbecued meat. We comfortably worked our way through the three courses, and you will want to, believe me! A vegetarian option is offered as an alternative in each course, but let’s not kid ourselves – this is a carnivore’s paradise.

Sunday

 169 Hemingford Road, Islington, London

Sunday - coffeeIn Barnsbury, just off Caledonian Road, lies this cosy café and restaurant. We arrived on a Saturday morning for brunch to find it jam-packed with hungry punters seeking refuge from the autumn rain.

The brunch menu offers a good combination of wholesome and comfort dishes. It includes the typical options of a full-English breakfast, croissants and granola; crowd-pleasers with a twist, such as the brioche French toast with banana and salted caramel sauce; and more unusual morning meals including a raw kale and beetroot salad. They serve cakes, lunch and dinner, too, all in an unpretentious, welcoming setting. You will almost certainly have to wait for a table for brunch, but the staff are incredibly friendly, which I think always helps to make the waiting around a little easier. Sunday - brunch

I had the Welsh rarebit with smoked haddock, bacon and a poached egg. I was skeptical about the inclusion of haddock, but my boyfriend talked me into it, and for once I didn’t have to suffer from food envy! I hadn’t realized until now what a tasty combination cheese, haddock, bacon and egg can be. The portion sizes are generous, the coffee is delicious, and Sunday excels in offering quirky touches, like serving each coffee with a complimentary mini Indian doughnut for one day only. The food and atmosphere here is well worth going out of your way for.

Patty & Bun

54 James Street, London (second branch at 22-23 Liverpool Street)

I visited Patty & Bun a couple of weeks ago with friends, one of whom was desperate to try the burgers a colleague had hailed as the best he’d had in London. I became an instant fan of the food here and quickly returned with my boyfriend after we’d visited the nearby Wallace Collection the following weekend.

Patty & Bun wrapperThese are burgers and sides served just as they should be – fast, tasty, messy and no fuss. I’ve now tried the ‘Jose Jose’ Chilli burger and the ‘Smokey Robinson’ burger. Both are served as regular cheese burgers in a brioche bun with trimmings and an amazing special mayo; the Jose Jose comes with chilli chorizo relish and pickled onions and the Smokey Robinson with bacon. They’re both divine in their own particular way but, controversially, I prefer my burgers without bacon and so would opt for the Jose Jose in future (I tried the Smokey Robinson first, having heard that it’s the best burger they do). Let’s be honest, fries are fries, and tend to be either good or ‘meh’; the fries served here are absolutely good.

For me, the star of the show is the side dish ‘Thunder Thighs’. Fried chicken thighs smothered in a spicy, southern-style butter sauce, these alone are worth a visit.

You’ll have to queue for a seat in the tiny restaurant, but the turnover is quick, food speedily served, and I guarantee that you’ll devour your meal in minutes. I hear that the Liverpool Street branch isn’t a match for the James Street branch, either for taste or atmosphere, so come to the West End for your Patty & Bun experience.

Rabot 1745

2-4 Bedale Street, Borough Market, London

Rabot 1745 is one of the two restaurants opened in 2013 by Hotel Chocolat, the other is Roast + Conch in Leeds. Marketed as a ‘gourmet chocolate restaurant’, it serves traditional dishes inspired by Caribbean cuisine (the name is taken from the cacao estate in St Lucia owned by the chain) and using cacao as a key ingredient.

Rabot 1745 Dessert

Tuna ceviche with lime, cacao pulp, coconut milk and sweet potato crisps

The flavours throughout our three courses were fresh and strong, enhanced by the taste of cacao; the best use was in my boyfriend’s lamb casserole – cacao nibs worked well with the spices in the sauce and added to the hearty flavours. I started with a tune ceviche in coconut milk, served with sweet potato crisps. The crisps were delicious and the sweet potato tasted very pure. For my main course I had the cod fillet with pumpkin puree and cacao pesto (the pesto is available in Hotel Chocolat stores) with a side of house chips fried in cacao butter. The chips were, surprisingly, a highlight of the meal, crispy with a wonderful deep flavour. My banana bread dessert was served with a deliciously dark and bitter chocolate sauce and a small scoop of chocolate ice cream.

Rabot 1745 Starter

Warm banana bread with conched chocolate ice cream

The overall experience was positive and I certainly enjoyed every course, as well as the cocktails which are also inspired by Caribbean flavours and use cacao as a main ingredient. My only gripes are that my mango bellini was served in a martini glass and the dishes in which our main courses were served were cold so our food cooled very quickly as a consequence. Yes, these are minor issues and I’m a pedant (!), but I do feel that if you are paying close to £100 for a meal (3 courses plus drinks and service) then everything needs to be perfect, particularly in the competitive fine dining London market. Having said that, there are some nice touches in the restaurant which complement the overall experience: the dessert menu offers an option of six specially crafted chocolates made by the on-site chocolatier and on the table to greet diners is a cacao bean with an invitation to break it up to feel, smell and taste the cacao nibs contained within. There’s no doubt that this is an essential dining experience for chocoholics, and, I found, an inspiring way to learn how cacao can be used as a savoury ingredient.

Kipferl

20 Camden Passage, Islington, London

Upon returning from my recent trip to Vienna I sought out London’s Austrian culinary offerings and discovered Kipferl in my new neighbourhood.  This laidback café and restaurant serves traditional light and hearty dishes, soups, sausages, breakfasts, and of course, coffees and cakes. Regular specials celebrate other Central European cuisines.

Kipferl - Kasespatzle

Kasespatzle

I’ve visited Kipferl a couple of times now and been impressed each time by not only the food but also the polite, friendly service. My personal favourite from the menu is the kasespatzle – panfried noodles with organic mountain cheese topped with fried onions and served with a green salad. This dish is ideal comfort food, satisfying and cheesy. The Wiener (Viennese) schnitzel is another gem; the veal is tender and crisply battered, served with herb covered potatoes and a divine cranberry sauce. The menu offers a small range of different sausage types – we chose the Debreziner (Hungarian, lightly spiced) sausages. These were served warm with chunks of rye bread, mustard and grated horseradish.

Kipferl - Sachertorte and Melange

Melange and sachertorte

As I discovered last month, the Viennese take their coffee very seriously. In a nod to the traditional Austrian coffeehouses, Kipferl’s coffee menu is colour-coded with darkening shades of brown to indicate the intensifying strength of the coffee. My preferred melange (espresso topped with milk foam or whipped cream) is, of course, included. It’s difficult to find cakes such as linzertorte and apple strudel in London so it’s refreshing to see the cake and dessert menus here offering such authentic sweet treats. I tried the sachertorte, a chocolate cake with layers of apricot jam, first created in Vienna in the 19th century. Having missed the opportunity to taste this cake in Vienna, I jumped at the chance to return to Kipferl in order to try it and was not disappointed – apricot is such an underappreciated ingredient in baking!

Whether out of intrigue or nostalgia for a past trip, you should visit Kipferl to try their menu; Austrian food deserves more attention than it receives and I’m yet to find anywhere in London that makes it so well as they do here.

Vienna

No trip to Vienna is complete without a visit to the traditional coffee houses (placed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2011) and beisln. These are my recommendations based on food, atmosphere and heritage.

Café Leopold Hawelka, Dorotheergasse 6

Vienna - Cafe Leopold Hawelka

Apple strudel and melange at Café Leopold Hawelka

Entering this coffee house is like stepping back in time; opened in the 1930s, Café Leopold Hawelka maintains a cosy, bohemian feel. The décor is dark and traditional, with marbled tables, booths and postered walls and the service is brusque in the typical Viennese style. A former haunt of artists and writers including Arthur Millar and Andy Warhol, it plays host these days to regular clientele engaged in debate over a melange (a Viennese coffee similar to a cappuccino, short and topped with foam or cream). They don’t serve much more than a range of different coffees and cakes, but the coffee is top-notch and I can whole-heartedly recommend the apple strudel.

Demel, Kohlmarkt 14

Vienna - Demel

Nussk cake at Demel

A café, bakery and pastry shop, Demel has an illustrious history. Having once-upon a time supplied the Austro-Hungarian imperial family and royal court with baked goods, the shop and café opened in the late 19th century close to the Hofburg palace, where it still stands today. Sprawled over 3 floors, it serves sweet treats, drinks and hot meals. It can get crowded but the divine cakes are well worth queueing for and you can watch the bakers at work in the kitchen while you wait. Indulge yourself with a slice of sachertorte or one of the many other delights on offer; I opted for the nussk cake (coffee-nut) and spent far too long wondering how they managed to get the sponge so light yet satisfying and the icing so perfectly sweet.

Vienna - Griechenbeisl outside

The entrance to Griechenbeisl

Griechenbeisl, Fleischmarkt 11

This historic inn dates back to the 15th century and is today one of the best beisln you’ll find in Vienna, having been frequented by many a well-known name along the way (Mozart, Beethoven and Mark Twain are just a few notable visitors). The décor, heritage and hearty dishes combine to make this an essential dining experience. Eights rooms make up the restaurant, each one wood paneled and decorated with hunting pictures, antique furniture and the like. The menu contains classic dishes made with only Austrian ingredients, including beef goulash, Weiner schnitzel and tafelspitz.

Loos American Bar, Kärntner Durchgang 10

Designed by influential Vienna-based architect Adolf Loos in 1908, this tiny bar is a real gem. The cocktail menu is astonishing – whatever tickles your fancy is featured and made by expert mixologists before being served by attentive waiting staff. That said, the bar is worth visiting for the architecture alone; the tiny interior seats just twenty inside (there are further tables and chairs outside) and is comfortable and stylish, with leather booths, mirrored walls and brass and onyx fixtures all in a classic early twentieth-century style.

New York

Finding a place to eat in New York can be an overwhelming experience. These are my favourite eating spots in the city away from the madness of Midtown.

Roberta’s, 261 Moore Street, Brooklyn

NYC - Roberta's

Crispy Glover pizza at Roberta’s

Some people will tell you Grimaldi’s, also in Brooklyn, is the best Pizza in NYC. Don’t listen to them; Roberta’s serves the best pizza you will ever taste. Located just outside of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s ‘of-the-moment’ hippest quarter, Roberta’s hides behind an entrance so unremarkable you will miss it at first. Take the L train to Morgan Avenue and don’t be disappointed by the barren surroundings, this area hides more than a few surprises. The ever evolving menu features a variety of pizzas with inventive topping combinations; past offerings have included honey, mozzarella, tomato and chili, and lamb meatballs with blue cheese, kale and oregano. On my most recent trip I had the Crispy Glover, topped with tomato, taleggio cheese, guanciale (an Italian cured meat), onion, breadcrumbs and chili. Every single pizza is expertly cooked and every topping lovingly placed. Full of ambiance and off the beaten tourist track, a meal here is a great experience.

The Spotted Pig, 314 West 11th Street, West Village

NYC - Spotted Pig

The Spotted Pig

The Spotted Pig is a popular gastro-pub serving traditional British and Italian food, the influence of British chef and co-owner Alison Bloomfield being very evident in both the menu and the set-up. It has a Michelin star yet remains laidback and affordable. Housed over two floors of a brownstone, the exterior is decorated with plants, fitting the picturesque surroundings of the West Village and the walls inside are covered in quirky memorabilia. Brunch, lunch and dinner are served or you can pop in for a casual drink at the pub-style bar. The menu manages to be rustic yet refined; plates range from steamed mussels with green curry and coconut milk to the chargrilled burger with Roquefort and shoestring fries (enhanced by dried rosemary and garlic). There’s a dish here to suit all tastes.

Chelsea Market, 75 9th Avenue, Chelsea

This two-floor covered food court is a foodie heaven and conveniently located just around the corner from the 14th Street entrance to the High Line, so you can grab a picnic or food to go and take it up with you. It’s packed full of restaurants, delis, bakeries and also has a vintage flea mini-market selling clothes and jewelry at the back. The building is a former cookie factory where the Oreo was invented in 1912. Must-visits are the Fat Witch Bakery with its amazing variety of brownies and Mŏkbar, a Korean-Japanese fusion restaurant serving the latest New York food fad of ramen noodles.

Cocina Economica Mexico, 452 Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side

NYC - Banana Empanada

Banana Empanada at Cocina Economica Mexico

A far cry from the gaudy, faux Mexican eateries to be found in abundance throughout the city, this small restaurant serves authentic Mexican food with friendly service in a cosy, warm atmosphere. All the dishes you’d hope to find are here – nachos, burritos, ceviche, quesadillas – alongside traditional, lesser known dishes such as avocado cornbread (to die for) and cactus, in addition to regular specials. Banana fans must try the banana empanada for dessert: a fried banana pastry with banana gelato and caramelised bananas. Drinks flow at the bar: the restaurant has a divine range of cocktails including the Spicy Cucumber Mojito and Maya Cocoa (a mixture of Kahlua, agavero and dark chocolate). To top it all off, Cocina Economica Mexico offers seriously good value for money; I paid $31 for a 3 course meal and cocktail, all of which were well made with quality ingredients.

Peacefood Cafe, 460 Amsterdam Avenue, Upper West Side

This vegan bakery and cafe is located just a few doors down from Cocina Economica Mexico and again serves well made dishes at a fantastically reasonable price. They have a second location downtown at 41 East 11th Street. Choose from salads, paninis, lasagna, tempura and more, all of which are of course completely dairy and meat free. The menu also includes a range of delicious drinks including smoothies, juices and organic coffees, all imaginatively devised – try the ginger soy latte or summer cooler (watermelon, mint, agave and ice). Finish off your meal with a sweet treat from the mouthwatering bakery display, perhaps the peanut butter cheesecake or key-lime pie.

Winchester

Despite being a small city, Winchester is bursting at the seams with outstanding coffee shops, restaurants and pubs. Here are my highlights from the foodie heart of Hampshire:

The Black Rat, 88 Chesil Street (also The Black Boy, 1 Wharf Hill and The Black Bottle, 4 Bridge Street)

Winchester - Black Rat exterior

The Black Rat

Awarded a Michelin Star in 2008, just a year after opening, The Black Rat is the best location for fine dining in Winchester. It’s run by the owners of The Black Boy, a famously eccentric pub filled with taxidermy and antique curiosities, and The Black Bottle, a wine bar in which punters load up cards with credit which can then be used to sample a selection from the extensive wine list. Housed in an 18th century building, formerly a pub, The Black Rat is full of character. The menu changes with the seasons and ingredients are mainly sourced from local suppliers, a vegetable garden at the back of the restaurant and their own forager. The dishes are inventive and unique, with flavour combinations that evoke fabulous taste sensations – my boyfriend’s parfait dessert came with a pine granita (among other things) which tasted to him, he said, ‘like a Scandinavian forest’. The current menu includes a selection of six starters, main courses and desserts. My current favourites are the day boat Cornish brill dish, served with chopped rock oyster, seaweed oil, florets, black quinoa, broccoli and soy relish, and the Iberico pork presa with smoked apple and beetroot puree, kohlrabi, apple and parsley salad, hazelnut praline and acorn salt.

Winchester - El Sabio

Tapas at El Sabio

El Sabio, 60 Eastgate Street

Residing behind an understated exterior, this tapas restaurant goes above and beyond the usual patatas bravas and calamari fare to bring the taste of sunny Spain to hungry diners. Live musicians and flamenco dancers perform on a regular basis, contributing to the already cosy atmosphere and Mediterranean feel. The pan catalán (traditional Catalan bread rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes), datiles cabrales (dates and soft cheese wrapped in serrano ham), venado con jerez y cabrales (venison stew) and queso de cabra frito con higos (deep fried goats cheese with fig dip) are highlights of the wide-ranging menu.

The Wykeham Arms, 75 Kingsgate Street

Founded in 1755, The Wykeham Arms is situated close to the cathedral and college; it’s a typical Hampshire pub with a roaring fire, walls adorned with bric-a-brac and pictures aplenty of Winchester’s rich history, and a faithful clientele. The restaurant at the back is small and popular and offers the best food you’ll find in a pub here. The meals served are well thought out and feature high-quality ingredients; the meat in particular is always of a superior quality to other local venues. The dishes are complimented by quirky elements such as hot onion panna cotta, cocoa gnocchi and harissa mayonnaise and the presentation is superb.

Winchester - Buddy's Diner

Buddy’s Diner

Buddy’s Diner, 5 Jewry Street

Let Buddy’s colourful décor, traditional diner booths and rock ‘n’ roll blaring jukebox transport you to 1950s America. This diner is an absolute gem and the best you’ll find this side of the Atlantic (trust me – I’ve spent a long time looking). The menu offers everything you’d expect to find here: burgers named after classic American cars, chilli cheese fries, hot dogs and buffalo chicken wings. The burgers are fat and juicy – the best kind of messy meal. Buddy’s also serve a range of milkshakes to which a double-shot of Bailey’s can be added if desired.

No. 5 Bridge Street, 5 Bridge Street

A restaurant, bar and hotel, No. 5 Bridge Street offers a menu inspired by local, seasonal produce, from grilled fish to gourmet pasta dishes (wild garlic gnocchi!) to posh burgers in brioche baps. Diners can enjoy their meals in the stylish surroundings – the restaurant was recently shortlisted for a Restaurant and Bar Design Award.

Black, White and Red, 28 Jewry Street

Winchester - BWR

Crumbed beetroot and potato cakes with poached eggs, spinach and mustard crème fraiche at Black, White, Red

This restaurant/coffee and wine bar combination has an impressive evening menu and holds regular wine tastings, but I recommend stopping in during the daytime for an all-day brunch; the ever-changing menu ranges from traditional to slightly more unusual dishes, such as my favourite – crumbed beetroot and potato cakes with poached eggs, spinach and mustard crème fraiche.

The Cornerhouse, 71 North Walls

Head here for a leisurely weekend brunch, but be prepared to book ahead. I recommend the eggs Alresford – muffins topped with poached eggs and hollandaise sauce and served with a generous helping of locally grown watercress. The Cornerhouse also serves lunch and dinner and the shabby chic interior creates a relaxed, homely feel.

Ginger Two, 28&29 St. Thomas Street

Winchester - Ginger Two

Ginger Two

Styling itself as a ‘boutique café’, this charming tea shop delivers on its promise to serve the best tea and cake in Winchester. For lunch you can choose from sandwiches, mezze platters, soups and salads or stop in for a reasonably priced afternoon tea.

Chococo, 152 High Street

Run by the award-winning Dorset-based chocolatiers of the same name, this shop and café sells artisan chocolate products, cakes and hot drinks – all of which are delicious. The teas are from the nearby Char tea specialist and the cakes are from Little Bee Bakery in Romsey.

The Big Easy

 12 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, London

The Big EasyThe Big Easy opened on The King’s Road over twenty years ago. I imagine they’ve done pretty well out of the ‘dirty food’ craze that has swept through London in recent years (see Meat Liquor, Burger & Lobster, etc) and the second restaurant opened recently in a disused power station near Covent Garden. With its Southern jazz soundtrack and dark wooden walls, the location perfectly recreates the feel of a New Orleans BBQ and lobster shack.

The menu allows you to choose from dry rubbed ribs, pulled pork, BBQ chicken, lobster, steak, a range of burgers or assorted sharing platters. It offers to serve up an authentic taste of the Southern States with traditional extras to compliment the main meals, such as a cornbread muffin or deep fried voodoo shrimp with blue-cheese dipping sauce. The Big Easy provides great value for money – for £16 I had a generous portion of succulent dry-rubbed ribs with a sweet, smoky and spicy pour-over sauce, pit-smoked homemade baked beans, slaw and a potato salad which can, if you prefer, be swapped for fries. The ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender and full of flavour, and the sauce was, quite simply, perfect.The Big Easy - tray

Our extra side of mac ‘n’ cheese wasn’t quite up to scratch; I had hoped for a cheesy, devilish dish similar to that at Hawksmoor, but it was dry and didn’t contain nearly enough cheese. However, this was the only disappointment. Everything else was spot on, including the service (although perhaps jovial is the only way to be when you know you have to fit a plastic bib around the necks of 10 hungry adult diners) and the atmosphere was great. The restaurant also has a small bar area and a bizarre but fantastic drinks menu including boozy shakes, cocktails or a range of whiskies served with pickles (‘Pickle Backs’) and musicians play nightly sets at the Covent Garden branch. They also serve a regular hog roast and limitless offerings of shrimp and pork. I’ll be back sometime soon to try a burger and the ‘Colonel Parker’ – a bourbon, banana liquor, milk and peanut butter ice cream shake.