The Riding House Café

It was my mother’s birthday last weekend so I decided to take her out to lunch to celebrate. I’d been wanting to try the Riding House Café for some time, and it seemed the perfect venue. The café had the perfect ambience for the occasion. It was light, open and had a sense of casual sophistication.

After selecting our wine we set about deciding the menu for the afternoon. We were both in the mood for a leisurely meal so agreed to take a staggered approach to ordering. In addition to starters the café offers a range of small plates affording a tapas-style approach to dining. From amongst these we selected the beetroot carpaccio with sheep’s ricotta and the buffalo wings with blue cheese sauce (naturally). We also ordered an entrée-sized chorizo and squid salad with pickled chillies and saffron aïoli.

We started with the buffalo wings. Meat Liquor take note, they were delicious! While I cannot realistically vouch for their authenticity, they certainly adhered to the descriptions of “real” buffalo wings that my ex-Chicagoan had afforded me. The meat of the wings was full of flavour, and the sauce in which they were covered was genuinely spicy, but not overpoweringly so. The blue cheese sauce was just gorgeous! It had that wonderful rich, sweet mustiness of a blue cheese but was still sufficiently subtle to work with, rather than compete against the rest of the flavours. Just to note there were four wings, we just got a bit excited and I forgot to take a photo before we started eating.

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Judging that it would help to cleanse our pallet we progressed to the beetroot carpaccio next. This was a nice dish. Beetroot and goats cheese are of course a wonderful combination and this was no exception. However, I felt that the beetroot lacked flavour so the pleasurable contrast between the sweetness of this element and the sharpness of the cheese wasn’t as apparent as could have been expected.

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Finally we moved onto the chorizo and squid salad. Different elements were really good. I particularly enjoyed the chillies which were beautifully sweet with a nice touch of vinegariness. I also enjoyed the combination of the saffron aïoli with the chorizo. However, the squid was very disappointing. It was incredibly bland, to the point of tasting watery and was effectively redundant within this dish.

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Although we’d already eaten well there was still room for more and we decided to order a main to share. While there were a number of tempting options, we knew from the outset that it would have to be the longhorn beef burger with bone marrow. As soon as it arrived we knew we’d made the right choice. I’m not sure I have the words to describe how phenomenal this burger was. So much flavour. So much deliciousness. This is what beef is supposed to taste like. I’m not even going to attempt to convey this fully, it has to be experienced!

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Now I have to confess I was the one to ask for the dessert menu. I should have known better. Two glasses of wine in and I was having to convince my mother not to have a little lie down on the couch at which we’d been seated. Clearly will power had left our company some time ago. Probably after the first glass of wine. So instead of birthday cake we ended up sharing two desserts. The first was a chocolate fondant with coconut ice-cream. I have to say I wasn’t a fan of the ice-cream, it was just a bit bland. However the fondant was excellent. It had a wonderful richness and intensity but wasn’t excessively sweet enabling us to really savour the flavour of the chocolate. It also had the perfect balance of pudding exterior and gooey centre.

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The second dessert was cinnamon donut balls with a custard centre served with a glass of chocolate sauce and cream. Utterly decadent. Once again the flavours were well balanced so that it wasn’t excessively sweet. I was really pleased to be able to taste all the different elements in each mouthful.

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Ok, we overindulged. But the food was so good that we couldn’t resist it and will certainly return for another helping.

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Wheelers of St James

Some time ago I purchased a voucher (£30 for 3 course mean with half bottle of wine) for a meal at Marco Pierre White’s Wheeler’s of St James. In need of a quiet weekend after working way too many hours during the week I decided to cash in and take myself out for a bit of culinary pampering. I was surprised to be able to secure a reservation on a Saturday night so easily. Arriving a little early for my reservation at 7:30pm, I was also acutely aware of how few people there were in the restaurant. Maybe Wheelers is a place were people come to dine later in the evening? The table was fully prepared for me despite my premature attendance, including my special limited menu associated with my voucher. I was pleased to see five different options for each course, I’d anticipated only three. However, I did notice that there was no vegetarian option available within the list of main courses, something that others looking to make the most of such deals may need to be aware of.

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For my starter I selected the potted duck with peppercorn and toasted sourdough. I chose to scrape the duck fat off the top knowing how much food I had ahead of me. I felt it was necessary to make some concession to calories. The flavour of the patê was excellent. I really liked the balance of duck and peppercorn, such that the peppercorn was an equal partner, not just a flavour enhancer to the duck. The sourdough was nice, but a third slice was really necessary given the volume of patê.

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I opted for the ribeye steak (medium rare) with triple cooked chips and béarnaise sauce for my main course. The dish also included green beans and roasted cherry tomatoes. This is the point at which the meal started going a little awry. The beans were just shy of being clearly overcooked. So although the flavour was fine the texture wasn’t as pleasant as it should have been. The steak had a good flavour, but it wasn’t striking in any way. It was a little chewy and I think in this instance I would have had a better experience if the steak had been cooked medium. The béarnaise sauce was nice, but again nothing exciting in any way (contrasting greatly with somewhere like Gaucho where I quite happily sit with a pot of béarnaise sauce and eat it by the spoonful). I really enjoyed the roasted cherry tomatoes, and it’s possibly quite telling that I felt most positive about this aspect of the dish. As for the triple cooked chips…well actually I good them to be quite inconsistent. A couple were really crunchy, to the extent that you would expect of triple cooked chips. Others were more chewy, and then some were the same consistency as chips cooked in the standard manner. While it was a nice dish overall there was just nothing that really blew me away.

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I was really torn when it came to dessert. I’d seen the rhubarb crumble and it looked really nice. However I’ve tried rhubarb only once before and didn’t really enjoy it. I was also intrigued by the pannacotta but wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the consistency. So int he end I stuck with my standard preference for sticky toffee pudding knowing that at least I’d have some frame of reference for assessing the quality of this dish. Again I just wasn’t sure about this. The flavour was really good, however the texture just wasn’t right. The pudding had clearly been produced on mass and then cut into individual squares, and I was provided with a jug of caramel sauce to pour over the top. The consistency of the pudding was, well inconsistent. In some places it was beautifully soft, in others it was almost chewy. The ice-cream was clearly inferior to that which I’d been served at Hush Brasserie. So although it tasted good, but it just wasn’t quite right.

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Overall I was left with the sense that I’d been served with a solid, genuinely good meal, but not a great meal. I have to say, I expected better. I might have been just a pleb with a voucher, but surely there is a standard to maintain even in such circumstances.

The Balcon

It was my birthday on Saturday and what better way to celebrate than a three course meal with a very dear friend? The venue for the evening was The Balcon. A three course the Marché menu with coffee and a glass of wine on a gorgeous art deco setting for £25 each seemed to good a deal to pass up.

The Marché menu offered a choice between three dishes for each of the courses. Well I had three options but as a vegetarian my companion was effectively working with a set menu. I drank red wine and he drank white and we were both happy with our selections. We were soon presented with a basket of rye, olive and white bread rolls and a choice of salted and unsalted butter. We both agreed that the olive bread was the best. However the real star (oddly) was the salted butter. It had a wonderful richness and an underlying sweetness reminiscent of honey. I could have eaten it all night!

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As an entrée I had a salad of rocket, croutons, and cornichons surrounded by slices of Parma ham. The quality of the ingredients was excellent, although I still felt that it could have benefited from a light dressing. My companion devoured his cauliflower soup with evident relish, commenting on its pleasing cheesiness. I was surprised by the strength of the aroma of cauliflower wafting towards me from the opposite side of the table. Clearly this was excellent soup.

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After pausing to focus on the wine and conversation we moved onto the second course. I had opted for a seafood sauerkraut with salmon, cockles, mussels, and I think sea bass, from memory. It sounded like an unusual combination and I was pleasantly surprised by the combination of flavours. The sauerkraut had a very light pickled flavour and had been dressed in a white wine and cream sauce. This meant it was far less acidic than is typical for this condiment. The result was really lovely and it worked incredibly well with the seafood. Both pieces of fish were unfortunately slightly overcooked, but retained a strong and appetising taste. The quality of the cockles and mussels was outstanding! One mussel in particular had me laying down my cutlery to concentrate on the depth of its flavour. Amazing! Unfortunately my friend’s vegetable biriyani did not rate as highly. He described it as vegetables and rice, lacking any clear sense of having being spiced according to the description. In once sense this was fortuitous because he doesn’t enjoy firey foods. Still it was a little disappointing.

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The staff were happy to allow us to sit and digest our meals over more wine and conversation until we were ready for our desserts. This time we’d agreed that the pear charlotte was the only way to go. This was a layered sponge and mousse cake served with dark chocolate sauce. I thought it was nice, but nothing spectacular, but my friend thought it was the best course of the meal, which surprised me given his evident delight in the soup.

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Overall I was quite happy with our meal at The Balcon. Obviously some areas for improvement, but in terms of value for money, it was definitely a good choice.

Hush Brasserie

I recently made a commitment to myself to eat better, not only in terms of healthiness but also with respect to the standard of food I eat. Choosing quality over quantity, which also helps the health aspect in preventing me from eating twice as much pasta as I normally would at home simply because it’s been served to me in a restaurant. Of course, there are two challenges in realising this resolution. The first is the quality of the food i cook. Well that’s ok, I’m already working hard to become a really good cook. The second is my salary. Working for a charity means that regular patronage of high end restaurants is an unrealistic goal. So I am exploring a range compromises. Groupon vouchers, Toptable discounts and the like. Even Michelin starred restaurants offer set lunch menus at a significantly reduced rate. Will I experience the same quality as the full price clientele? There’s only one way to find out.

I began my investigation last weekend at Hush Brasserie. The restaurant offers a 50% discounted set menu, not including drinks. Diners can choose to have two or three courses, and there are three options per course.

I’d made an early reservation as I had plans later that evening, so the restaurant was relatively quiet when I arrived. I was quickly presented with the wine list and the set menu. I opted for a glass of minervois, chateau montoulier, languedoc, France 2010. Food I’m good at, wine I’m not, so it was red and yummy and that’s about as much as I can say about it.

I decided to choose a starter and a main, reasoning that I could always change my mind later and treat myself to a dessert if I so wished. As an entrée the leek and gruyère tart with rocket was a must. It was also impossible for me to resist the pork belly with spring greens an apple sauce for my main course. I will admit to eying off the sticky toffee pudding to finish my meal…just in case I felt I needed it, of course.

My first course was not as I anticipated. I assumed that the filling of the tart would be set. Instead it was more of a case of the leeks having been cooked in or mixed with a gruyère sauce and place in the pastry case. I also expected the gruyère to be quite prominent. However there was an abundance of leeks that had been perfectly softened and were so full of flavour that they were very much the dominant aspect of the dish. Also, while the sauce was beautifully rich and creamy the gruyère had been added sparingly, so was more an essence than a genuine flavour. The pastry was thin and crisp and had a rich buttery taste. It was a nice dish and a good start to the meal.

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I was pleased that upon finishing my starter I was asked whether I would like my main immediately or to have a break between courses. In general I have to say that the service I received was excellent. I chose to have a little break to focus on enjoying my glass of wine.

After about 15 minutes my second course arrived. The first thing that struck me was the presentation. While it looked pretty, it was a little impractical in terms of being able to access the sauces to use with the different elements on the plate (which disappointingly was chipped in two places). Still, the food was really good. The spring greens had clearly been cooked in butter. They were vibrantly coloured and cooked to the perfect consistency, soft but still terai if a slight resistances. The gravy was heavily seasoned with rosemary, which had been a little too roughy chopped. Unfortunately the restaurant was quite cool, which meant the gravy lost its heat too quickly and became increasingly congealed as it did so. The apple sauce was fascinating. Far more savoury than any I’ve had before (generally I don’t like apple sauce because I find it too sweet an accompaniment) and I’m certain the recipe included pears, bringing a really unusual but delicious dimension to this condiment. The pork belly was mouthwateringly succulent and had a robust flavour which was enhanced by the infusion of fennel. I was a little pleased with myself for being able to correctly identify this seasoning before finding the fennel seeds embedded within the flesh. The crackling in the pork was golden and crisp and so perfect looking that I saved it until the very end.

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Having finished my two courses my thoughts turned to dessert. The sticky toffee pudding was calling to me. Besides, I still had wine in my glass. When placing my order I was given the choice between vanilla ice-cream and crème fraiche to accompany my pudding. Unable to decide I asked for a recommendation, and was offered servings of both. As I said, excellent service. The vanilla ice-cream was beautifully richly flavoured. You know it’s going to be good when you can see the vanilla seeds dispersed throughout the ice-cream. The crème fraiche brought a really interesting contrast in flavours, and in and of itself was really lovely. However it was just too powerful to compliment the pudding effectively. The pudding itself was lovely, soft, and moist, although personally I like my sticky toffee puddings a little gooier.

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I thought that this was the end of my meal, but no. As there was still time left on my booking I was offered a complimentary coffee or glass of champagne. Naturally I took the champagne. Did I mention the excellent service?!

Despite a few minor hiccups I had a really lovely meal at Hush Brasserie, and would definitely go there again.

Ermita catedral 530

On my final day on Granada I was determined to eat somewhere other than Calle Navas. It sounds like it should have been an easy task but it actually took me some time to achieve. Not that Granada is lacking in restaurants in any way, it was just a matter of finding one that was consistent with my mood. Eventually I happened upon Ermita Catedral 530. I was really pleased to see that most dishes could be ordered in three differently sized portions. Always easier for a lone traveller wishing to try an array of cuisine. The restaurant had outdoor seating and since it was a nice day I decided to indulge in a little sunshine.

Shortly after being seated I was served with a portion of olives and a selection of breads. The olives were very powerful and had almost a meaty flavour to them. I’m not sure if this was a reflection of the type of olive or the concoction in which it had been marinated. Either way, it was highly unusual, but not unpleasant in small quantities. However, they were so intense that I couldn’t eat the entire serving.

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Still, it was nice to have something to munch on as I contemplated the menu. Eventually I selected three tapa-sized dishes:

• Pulpo a la gallega con pimenton de la Vera cristal decsal

• Secreto iberico asado con salsa de setas y almendras

• Lomo de Bacalao al pil pil

Unusually, the octopus was served warm. This was no more or less pleasant than a cold serving, just different. I was delighted that the tentacles around the flesh, and therefore the fat between the two had been retained. It was probably the best octopus I had the entire trip. The texture of the flesh was perfectly soft with the overall flavour enhanced by sweet richness of the fat. A particularly strong and delicious olive oil had been drizzled over the meat, which had also been sprinkled with large salt crystals and paprika.

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The shoulder of pork was served next. I could see the remanent grains of fat lining the chunks of meat. Not surprisingly, the meat was incredibly flavoursome. The accompanying sauce was unfortunately under-seasoned. However with a little salt the flavour was enhanced sufficiently to subtly compliment the rest of the dish. As for the chips…well who could resist such perfectly golden morsels of enticement?! Certainly not me!

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The cod fillet was a little disappointing. It was served covered with a gratinated aioli sauce topped with slices of fried garlic. I found the fish to be slightly overcooked, although I had no qualms about the flavour. Also, while the sauce was delicious, I didn’t feel that it was the right accompaniment for the fish. The flavours just didn’t blend into a cohesive meal.

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Still, overall I was very happy with and well satiated by my meal. It was also nice that for the first time in Granada I didn’t leave the table feeling guilty about the quantity of food I’d just consumed!

Divisa Blanca Taberna

Ah Granada! A beautiful city with a standard of food to match. On my first day there I spent five hours wandering around the Alhambra (advertised average viewing time is three hours) and at the end of my tour I was ravenous. Conveniently my mother had just sent me a text recommending a restaurant called Los Diamantes in Calle Navas. Having made no plans for lunch I decided to investigate this proposition.

Calle Navas in and of itself was a wonderful suggestion. The street is lined with restaurants, providing ample dining options. My mother had warned me that Los Diamantes was tiny and chaotic, and this was certainly an accurate description. So much so that it was too much for me and I decided I couldn’t eat there. I was also put off by the price of the food. While a full racionne to be shared would have been good value, half portions were still two-thirds of the price, making this less economical for lone travellers such as myself. This is no reflection on the food however, which did look incredible appetising.

So I left Los Diamantes and wandered up and down the street reading each of the plethora of menus before me. Finally I settled Taberna Divisa Blanca, on the basis of the range of lovely looking tapas being consumed by other diners. Searching through the menu I couldn’t find the the pulpo a la gallega that I had seen served to other patrons. A quick check with one of the waiters confirmed that this was free tapas served with a drink. Cheap good red wine and free octopus tapa? The opportunity was too good to resist. The octopus was heavily seasoned with rock salt and paprika, as well as a hint of olive oil. The consistency of the flesh was, actually, inconsistent. Some pieces were the softest octopus I’ve ever eaten, others were a little more chewy, although not unpleasantly so. It had a lovely flavour and hey, it was free so I was more than happy with it.

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Selecting my actual meal from the extensive menu was challenging. I would have loved to have tried the Fritura Variada, which was a massive pile of mixed battered and deep fried seafood. It looked amazing and seemed incredibly good value at €18, but it was just too much food for one person. The Special Salad was equally generously portioned and looked highly appetising and would have made an incredibly filling and healthy meal. However, I opted for the Surtido de Tapas. This was quite simply a platter with an array of tapas of morcello, croquettes, manchego, pork, anchovies on crisps, mix of roasted red peppers and onion, parma ham, potato salad, and fresh slices of tomato.

I was incredibly impressed with the quality of each of the elements of this meal. The morcello was better than I’d eaten in Madrid. Not only was it more flavoursome, but it had a spicy heat to it and had been spiced with maybe fenugreek and/or cumin. It doesn’t matter what it was actually, because more importantly it enhanced the flavours of the morcello beautifully. The croquettes were ham and cheese and again they were perfectly cooked with a golden crunchy crust and a warm, soft-verging-on-gooey centre. The pork had been pan fried in escalopes and covered in a deliciously sweet but unfortunately unidentifiable sauce. The rolls of parma ham were incredibly generous and tasted fantastic. I adore manchego and I have to say that this was the best I have ever had. Absolutely to die for! The same can be said of the potato salad, which was different from any I’d eaten previously. I’m certain there was no mayonnaise involved in this recipe. Instead it tasted like very smooth, creamy, buttery cold mashed potatoes with chunks of potato and whole shrimp mixed through. The anchovies had been marinated in olive oil, parsley, and vinegar. The marinade dripped down onto the bed of crisps, making them too delicious to resist.

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It was an insane amount of food but it was too good to allow to go to waste. Yes, I ate it all myself! Looking around the internet, Taberna Divisa Blanca has only received moderately good ratings from other diners. Maybe I’ve had less exposure to tapas than these reviewers, but from my perspective, this meal was one of the highlights of my trip!

Orixe

On my last day in Madrid I knew I wanted to eat somewhere I hadn’t been before. I wandered around the restaurant areas with which I had become familiar over the past few days but just couldn’t find anything that drew me to a table. So I randomly went down a different street which was conveniently lined with restaurants. Actually not that surprising in Madrid. While I felt I was more in the mood for a meal, a restaurant called Orixe caught my eye. The glass door was covered in recommendation stickers and the tapas was very reasonably priced at either €2 or €2.75 each, and there were even half portions of racions available, which is always convenient for the solo traveller.

The restaurant has both a bar and seated area, although only the bar area was in use at the time. Tables might have been available but my Spanish is so incoherent, in fact non-existent that I was unable to ask. Still I could by this time recognise key words sufficiently to be able to peruse a menu written entirely in Spanish and make a somewhat informed selection.

To start with I ordered a “Bacalao con láminas con una base de patata y cebelli confitida y aoli de miel” and a “Solomillo de cerdo con cebello confitada y queso de cabra”. I also decided that since it was my last day I was entitled to a glass of wine (especially at a minuscule cost of €2,60!) and opted for the Solar de Saminiego Rioja.

While waiting for my order to be prepared I was served with a small appetiser. I have no idea what it was, but it tasted seafoodish, creamy and good.

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My two tapas were ready within minutes and I was soon munching, sipping and reading to my heart’s content. Actually it was more my taste buds that were content. The tapas was fantastic! I started with the Solmillo de cerdo first which was a slice of pork on caramelised onions topped with a piece of cheese, possibly camembert. Let’s face it, it’s hard to get it wrong with that combination of ingredients. The Bacalao was of cod fish but it was served on caramelised onions and a slice of potato and topped with a lemony aioli that had been gratinated. Outstandingly yummy!

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I decided to have two more tapas. While the mini-hamburger had been recommended to me, this felt a little faux-Spanish. Instead I settled upon the “Rollitos de morcilla de león y manzana” and the “Pimientos rellinos a Jarrette guisado y beshamel”.

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I have absolutely no idea what was in the rellitos. There was definitely tomato paste on top which brought a really lovely sweetness to contrast with strong pepper flavour throughout the rest of the dish. “Manzana” means “apple”, but I couldn’t detect that flavour. I’m pretty sure there was rice mixed in as well. I expected the pimientos to be deep fried peppers filled with béchamel sauce. It was a deep fried mini red pepper but it was filled with cooked fish, I believe tuna, which had been mixed with a creamy sauce.

Four tapas doesn’t sound like much but it was all served on slices of thick bread so it was surprisingly filling. I can honestly say that I couldn’t choose a favourite from amongst the four dishes because they were all delicious. Orixe is definitely somewhere to go next time you’re in Madrid.