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Comptoir Libanais

South Kensington is a place I often find myself, either after wondering around the V&A or one of the surrounding museums and I continually have a problem trying to find anywhere good to eat or drink.

Every place I stumble upon seems to be ridiculously over priced or just rubbish and surviving on the fact that so many tourists, and non West Londoners like myself, are hungry or thirsty and will just drop into anywhere nearby. Luckily I’ve found a few options to safeguard against this and one such is Comptoir Libanais on Exhibition Road.

This is the second in the chain of ‘fast’ food Lebanese restaurants and it’s ideal for a quick, tasty meal that won’t break the bank. You can choose from several platters piled up with deliciously comforting treats such as smoky aubergine baba ghanoush, falafel, hummus, and salads with pitta bread for dipping and fried vegetable samosas. These are to share but if you’re feeling greedy and a lover of  creamy hummus topped with pomegranate seeds, and let’s be honest who isn’t, then you might be able to go for one.

For the main meals there are lots of small dishes and I had the prune and lamb tagine which was so tender it virtually melted into one. There are also meat koftas with side salads, whole salads for those attempting to be healthy and lovingly prepared mousakas with crispy fried onions and fresh pomegranate seeds on top – it doesn’t sound like it should work but it does. A mouthful of this feels a bit like a giant duvet wrapped around you, it’s delicious, warming and will leave you feeling comfortably full.

The pudding selection is a bit of a must. There are lots of beautiful looking sweet treats, from rose water macaroons to more varieties of baklava then I ever thought possible and as they’re so tiny you can almost believe they’re calorie free.

All the dishes are around £7 which is a bargain given the location and the quality of the food. It’s a little bit like Leon but better and the bright paintwork and pictures create a cheery atmosphere which is a must at this time of year.

One thing I would avoid next time is the wine. Despite the good value and tasty food, the wine was expensive and the quality was no where near as good as the food. Instead I would go for one of the freshly made juices or some traditional green tea.

This article was originally written for Who’s Jack.

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Bistro du Vin

Bistro du Vin Soho When walking through the door at the Soho branch of Bistro du Vin you’re immediately met with a bright, open restaurant decorated with light, modern features. The bar stretches along one side of the room and nestled in the corners of the room is a cheese room which is opposite an impressive wine cellar.

The bar offers a wide range of cocktails, from your usual gin and tonics to specially created and blended seasonal drinks, and if you fancy a quiet one it’s an ideal Soho spot.  The menu changes every few months and each ingredient is perfectly balanced to create a mixture of flavours to compliment each other. As it’s Christmas there are several current delights on offer, and if you’re bored of mulled wine already try the light and creamy eggnog drink with bacon flavoured whisky (needs to be tried to be believed).

After you’ve exhausted the cocktails, it’s time to move on to the menu. It’s a step down from Hotel du Vin, but only in price as the quality offers every bit as much. From delicate rabbit terrines and soup to rich seafood platters, you could probably spend an evening on starters alone so make sure you restrain yourself for the main event.

The meat is the big player in the mains and if you’re a steak fan go for something cooked on the Jasper Grill. It gives the meat a succulent moist texture but with a smoky flavour to make you think it’s just been thrown on the barbecue. If you don’t love your meat, do not fear, there’s plenty more to indulge in and I would recommend the bream doused in roasted garlic, butternut squash ravioli or if you’re feeling extravagant the lobster. Prices for mains lie around the £14 mark.

Next is the (mandatory for some) cheese course which if you miss out on you will regret, guaranteed. The cheese room is stacked with your old classics and some regional specialities and you can go in and choose whatever takes your fancy or leave this up to the experts to pick for you.

Another must – desert. Chocolate tart with crème chantilly or if you’re feeling full the gratinated figs with marsala. To wash it all down there’s an extensive wine list so unless you’ve spotted your favourite, ask for a recommendation – the waiting staff were falling over each other to help (but not in an annoying way).

Bistro du Vin is not trying to be something it’s not – it is a chain restaurant and you can get cheaper Plat du jour dishes through the week. If you’re looking for something a bit nicer than Strada and Café Rouge but for around the same price this is it. It says “We don’t do pretentious” (which in itself sounds a little pretentious) but it really isn’t. It’s an affordable treat and every part of the experience is enjoyable.

This article was originally written for Who’s Jack.

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French Steak On A Budget

Chez Gerard

I love a good steak and I hate the kind of people who believe you need to spend an excessive amount in order to find a good quality slab of meat, especially in London.

I set out to disprove this theory and was recently proved right as I sampled the tasty French food on offer at Chez Gerard. I had always dismissed Chez Gerard for some reason and would never have picked it as a first choice but when entering the charming, Parisian-style restaurant I was quickly proved wrong.

Firstly the food is good, really good, and once inside you feel a bit like you’ve been transported to a classy restaurant somewhere in the French capital.

The menu is full of tempting dishes but I would highly recommend the steak. Depending on your budget you can choose anything from the Onglet (£16) (which for those of you not up to speed with your French lingo is also known as hanger steak and best served rare) right the way up to the Chateaubriand for two people which is a 16oz beast.

If you’re not a steak fan there’s plenty to keep you entertained, take the sea bass, mussels or slowly cooked melt-in-the-mouth boeuf bourguignon and even one or two healthy-looking vegetarian dishes like the timbale of carrot and courgette filled with spinach, roasted red peppers and a creamy goat’s cheese sauce for those less keen on meat eating.

To finish it off there’s a desert menu to please even the fussiest sweet tooth and I went for the classic tarte au citron which was fresh, zingy and delightful but my friend had the poire pochee – a beautifully cooked pear desert cooked in mulled wine syrup and a mandarin sorbet which left me fighting with food envy.

To wash it all down there’s a vast selection of alcoholic drinks to take your fancy. From delicate French cocktails to rich red wines – there’s a drink to match any budget and dish.

I went down to the Chez Gerard on the South Bank and it was a welcome change to the chainy restaurants down there. The décor is clean and fresh but traditional and the staff fell over themselves to be friendly and helpful (but not in an annoying way).

It’s perfect for a late lunch or a Friday treat away from the office and you can have two courses off the a la carte menu for £15.50 or three for £19.50 if you go in before 7pm.

It’s less pretentious and expensive than many French restaurants across London, but classier, tastier and all together more enjoyable than many other French chains and it won’t break the budget.

This article was originally published on Who’s Jack.

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Swing Down To Circus London In Covent Garden

Circus London

We urge you to swing (literally) down to Circus London in Covent Garden where an array of performers are on hand to entertain you on any evening of the week.

As you approach this west end cocktail bar it’s easy to miss the entrance, formed of two large steel black doors and a lack of any obvious direction. Once you manage to get in the entrance hall is cloaked in darkened lights and mirrored walls, which add to the bar’s magical charm. The venue is lit with candles, glitter balls and mirrors (less tacky than it sounds) with a large granite table taking centre stage.

If you’re sitting here be warned – this is not a spot for the faint hearted as the artists will swing over and around you, within centimetres of your cocktails, and may even take a swig if you leave your drink in their way. The performers change all the time so you’re unlikely to see the same thing twice – a clever way of keeping Circus shrouded in secrecy. But you’re unlikely to be disappointed, just in one evening I saw everything from gymnasts who make their bodies contort in unnatural directions, fire-eaters with no pain nerves left to glamorous burlesque dancers and traipses artists.

Between courses the lights will go down and shutters block out the kitchens while the performers appear and make standing on one arm while balancing their body weight seem to be quite an easy task.

Located in Endell Street, it’s less exclusive now than when it first opened but don’t be surprised to see a celebrity or two here and prepare to pay for the night with prices starting around £70 each. The bar is by no means just about the performers either and offers a delicious selection of Pan Asian food to tuck into while watching the artists balancing on their heads or eating fire sticks. As you’re meal is split up between acts, platters or sharing plates are ideal and there’s a wide range to choose from, including Thai green curry, tuna sashimi and fresh noodle wraps. The cocktail menu is also in a level of its own with fresh concoctions and twists on the usual favourites to try out (starting at around £9).

I enjoyed the hibiscus margarita not really knowing what to expect and was impressed by the fruity blend while a friend ordered the mixed berry julep served in a golden cup similar to those used by a Roman emperors. Circus has managed to create something a little different from your normal restaurant or bar while successfully avoided the novelty cliché. It’s the ideal place if you’re looking for an alternative night combined with great cocktails and food. Despite the theatrics the bar remains a trendy spot for cocktails and because of its popularity table bookings are a must.

This article was originally published on Who’s Jack.

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Seasonal delights

Heading out of Finsbury Park tube there’s not exactly a huge variety of encouraging sights, as with any tube station out of zone one, endless kebab shops and newsagents seem to line the immediate vicinity.

But one place that caught by eye when walking around in my new neighbourhood is the Season Kitchen on Stroud Green Road. It’s a five-minute walk from the tube and well worth the effort.

The restaurant boasts a changing monthly menu including only seasonal, and where possible, local produce so don’t go expecting to get the same thing twice. It also lacks the pretentiousness (and price tag) you might expect from such a message. Independently owned, the staff are friendly and welcoming and pleased to talk you through each dish and pick out something you will really enjoy.

The atmosphere is intimate with only one large dining room largely reserved for couples on a weekday night, but don’t let this put you off as the food is exciting, fresh and delicious.

I tried the sea bream with lentils and a melting sauce of anchovy and lime butter (£13.50) which was cooked to perfection and served beautifully. The fish was clearly very fresh and smelt and tasted as if it had been swimming a few hours before. Blended with the  lightly fragranced herb sauce and the lentils it went down very well.

Also on the menu I tried the roast pork belly dashi, with spring greens  and shitake mushrooms – for those unfamiliar with the name, it is basically a very light Japanese broth. This dish puzzled me at first, as every time I’ve tried pork belly before the most appealing part is the crispy texture. It was successful because of the delicate blend of each flavour sitting alongside each other, although it might have been better with a different meat.

To finish I had poached rhubarb with ginger shortbread and a vanilla and mango parfait (£4.95). Now I am a big fan of puddings and if it was up to me I would eat one for every course so as quite the connoisseur I can safety say this topped everything I’ve tried in recent months. It was delicate and delicious and the tangy rhubarb was sweetened by the vanilla parfait. The texture of the creamy stewed fruit with the light ginger shortbread went perfectly and I only wish I could have had more.

It’s not hugely cheap compared to other restaurants in the area but the food is of a very high quality and you can guarantee you’re not going to be served soggy strawberries in December. By visiting Season Kitchen you’re getting a culinary lesson in sustainable eating, while enjoying some very good food. Enjoy.

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