Food & Drink: Those marvellous little places: Swanky to funky: Emily Green enjoys three London discoveries
Before buying his first restaurant, he wisely worked in many others: he has at least 10 years' experience as a waiter. He left Kensington Place when he bought his first place, Brasserie du Marche in North Kensington. There he hired a charming manager named Jane Billyard, and together they maintained a pretty room and a genial vibe, served good beer and terrible coffee. The food? Variable.
Like the post code it flaunts, Avenue West Eleven is altogether swankier. The dining room and downstairs bar, done out in dusky pastels and and shaggy woven rugs of the American South-west, might make more sense in Nevada. Yet, to be fair, they are lovely rooms, and modish: downstairs a windowed wall allows drinkers to watch the kitchen at work.
The chef on display is Alan Bird, who 10 years ago won a Michelin star before going off to run a fish-and-chip shop in Dorset. He returned to London enamoured of dishes whose titles sound like strange inventories: 'Dorset crab, Chinese-style egg custard pancake, shiitake mushrooms and bean curd' for one.
The food wearing these great big terrible titles is generally OK, sometimes very good, and only occasionally dodgy. The crab, almost a crab cake, was surrounded by mushrooms (slightly tough but flavoursome) and little cubes of fried tofu in a light slick of good-tasting liquor. A pot-roast chicken had good flavour, but suffered dryness from having been boned out to accommodate the stuffing. The malfati, little faggots tasting of vine leaves and over-cooked spinach, were fine.
A daily special of wild salmon in a buttery sauce with samphire (overcooked) was perfectly good, the fish firm and full of flavour. Only a warm salad of dry, rubbery rabbit dressed with a sweetish glaze and served on salad leaves was close to inedible.
There is a short serviceable wine list. We drank dry Californian chardonnay, Konocti, which we were told was buttery and rich. For the record it was dry, though quite acceptable.
'Cherry Vanilla Alaska' had grey ice-cream, cherries and passable sponge beneath a lot of lightly cooked meringue. Espresso was good. One could eat perfectly well for pounds 20, but order two courses, share a dessert, drink half a bottle of pounds 13.75 wine, have a glass of pudding wine, a large espresso and a bottle of mineral water, then add a tip, and it will be more like pounds 40.
Carnevale, in the middle of the roughneck Whitecross Street market behind the Barbican, is that exceedingly rare thing: a vegetarian restaurant serving good food. The name refers to the revelling in Roman Catholic countries that often precedes the forsaking of (among other things) meat for Lent. In London the name seems inappropriate, not least because the restaurant's beauty is austere rather than festive, and the owners are not staging a pre-Lenten blow- out, but ushering in Lent early, for no fewer than 365 days a year.
Still, the cooking is good. Dishes sampled included perfect chilled gazpacho, and cool, eggy frittata made with late-season asparagus, accompanied by well dressed rocket salad. Something called a 'deli plate' came loaded with goodies: a little round of goat's cheese, roast peppers, spicy chickpea salad, slow cooked okra.
The gentle and strikingly pretty blonde who appears so regularly with the bread basket is the co- owner, Pippa Ungar. She worked last year at a Mayfair cafe called O'Keefe's under a talented regime and, as a consequence, she has the nous to list delicious fresh lemonade and make perfect espresso. There are sandwiches to take away out front and, in the pristine rear dining room and tiny garden, two-course meals for pounds 6.50, three-course for pounds 8.50.
On the drawing board, Crowbar Coffee was a streetside coffee kiosk. When several local authorities sniffed at the idea, the designers found premises in St John Street, Islington, on a short lease - and, in their own words, 'took the prototype and plugged it in'. Thus everything about Crowbar Coffee is temporary: basic tables screwed to the floor, a menu painted on the wall. The espresso is served in disposable little paper cups - the 2oz variety used to wash down pills in a doctor's surgery.
The three owners are: American sculptor Adam Sodowick and British architects Samantha Hardingham and William McLean (son of the artist Bruce McLean). The godfather of Crowbar Coffee is a Portuguese gentleman named Mr Gomez, owner of Lisboa patisserie in Golborne Road, North Kensington. It supplies the sweetish Sical coffee and the Portuguese baked goods, including Lisboa's classic custard tarts.
There are sandwiches and from the look of a newly planted herb garden out back, some sort of green stuff; but this minimal hole in the wall is more a provider of an artsy caffeine buzz than food. 'We'd like it to be a venue where people can show work, give lectures, do performances,' says Ms Hardingham. To this effect, an Argentine band called Progresseciva will be performing Friday night.
Avenue West Eleven, 157 Notting Hill Gate, London W11 (071-221 8144). Open lunch and dinner daily. Major credit cards except Diner's.
Carnevale, 135 Whitecross Street, London EC1 (071-250 3452). Open 8am-7pm Mon-Fri. Cash and cheques only. Crowbar Coffee, 406 St John Street, London EC1 (071-713 1463). Open 8am-12 midnight daily.
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