£10 steaks & cleaver cutlery; the joy that is Flat Iron…

It’s no secret that London can be an expensive place to eat. For every Michelin starred restaurant that’s worth the splurge but requires a re-mortgage of your house, there’s a hidden gem where you can fill your face for under a fiver but often, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This quandary between eating well and having a roof over your head is what makes Flat Iron such a head-nodding, back-slapping, applause-giving winner in the value, the taste & the experience stakes. Yep. Believe the hype and get in line now. ‘But it’s only Monday’ I hear you cry…’but it’s amazing steak for a tenner in London…’ I holler back.

There are now 3 of these steak meccas in central London making any one of them a great shout for meeting up with friends but the newest incarnation on Henrietta St is especially worth a visit. Whereas the others are intimately small (great for dates, lousy for queues), this is the biggest and hopefully, the one that’ll boast a quicker turnaround of tables. Arriving at 6pm on a Friday night, tables for 2 were hitting the 60-minute wait mark – any more in your group and you’re looking at nearer 90-minutes but let’s be honest, it’s not like you’re in a barren wasteland devoid of refreshment. Fling a cocktail umbrella into the street and it’ll land on the doorstep of any one of a dozen spots bidding for your Happy Hour custom as the weekend kicks off so put your name down at the restaurant, give them your number then go get involved with something bubbly to wash away the work week.

After only 45 minutes wait, we were led through the snugly lit and packed restaurant to a cosy table near the back. Staff were Friday-vibe cheery as they explained the menu – which TBH doesn’t require much brain power given its brevity – and delivered mugs of beef dripping popcorn with a smile. Yeah, you read right. Beef dripping popcorn – a near perfect snack for soaking up the drink or two you’ll have already had without filling up precious steak room in your stomach.

As I mentioned, the food choices are short. No, really they are. This place boasts the Danny DeVito of menus. It’s basically steak. There might be a burger on the specials board but if you’ve come here and queued here and got excited to be sat here, then I know you’re here for the meat. Drop your veggie friends off at nearby Mildred’s, tuck a napkin in your collar and get ready for the meat.

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A £10 cut of beef from the shoulder is your only option but unlike other ‘one dish’ places in London, this one knows what it’s doing. Our steaks came medium rare as suggested, and within what felt like minutes of ordering. What’s extra nice about Flat Iron is that despite service being prompt, once it arrives, you’re very much left alone with no constant ‘how’s it going?’ which can often imply more of a concern with when you’ll be giving the table back as opposed to how you’re enjoying your meal. We were never ignored but we didn’t feel rushed for a second and as this was a girly catch up of the red wine fuelled variety – alarmingly quaffable Malbec FYI – it was appreciated.

The steak itself was superb. Flawlessly cooked and served in plumply blushing slices on a board unfussed with anything else, it was juicy, pink & tender. The quirky cleaver that comes with your fork – and a plea not to be pilfered at the end of the meal – sliced through with the minimum of bother and a generous pot of accompanying house salad was fresh, crunchy & tangy with mustard.

Sides of creamed spinach and broccoli were deliciously creamy & firm and ‘Sophie’s Salad’ was generously peppered with chunks of blue cheese, candied pecans and lemon dressing. Getting any cut of steak right is something that’s befuddled dozens of other places in London but a confident streamlining of the menu here shows exactly how you should get it right.

If anything can make me love a place more than a perfect slab of meat, it’s the bestowing of a free salted caramel ice-cream cone at the end of the meal. Creamy, sweet and speckled with chocolate shavings, it’s literally everything you want when your belly is full of cow but your second – and entirely separately – stomach is open for business and open for dessert and it finished girls night on just the right note.

It’s brave to only sell one thing in a restaurant and a lot of the time it’s foolish, pointless or downright annoying. For every Smack Lobster or Balls and Company (yay), there’s a Cereal Killer Café or a Hip Chips (yawn). You gotta pick what you’re cooking carefully and then you’ve gotta actually make it worthwhile paying for. Luckily Flat Iron has done both and long may they continue to do so – the capital’s steak scene is all the better for it.

 

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Adoring the start of a new Roman empire at Palatino…

Palatino is the kind of place you want to make your local. You wanna duck in there on a cold wintry night, be greeted warmly, asked how you are and shown to your regular seat at the bar from where you can enjoy an unobtrusive view of the restaurant, a plate of gnocchi alla Romana & a glass of sparkling Moscatel that find their way to you without even having to ask…or at least, this is what I want. This is my Italian dinner daydream, heavily laden with the fragrance of sage and the flavours of Rome.

Going there for dinner on the recent soft launch was one of the loveliest dining experiences I’ve had in a while. It’s not just that the food is fabulous – which it is – or that the décor is gorgeous – which it is – or that the staff are effervescent about the menu – which they are. It’s that it’s all of those things and it’s all of those things done with a lovely, elegant, quiet, assured, timeless style that make it frankly brilliant.

It’s a barn of a building that mixes long, wooden, communal tables with mustard yellow booths and tall tables for two and it’s a blessed relief to see beautifully stylish fixtures that don’t include bare filament lightbulbs & crumbly brick walls…#canwemoveonfromthesenowplease?

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The menu here is a tricky beast to tame because you’re going to want to order everything on it. Seriously. Consider that due warning. Two of us devoured two starters, two pastas, two meat courses and a shared dessert (a 60-40 split to me naturally) before finishing off our dessert wine and rolling ourselves companionably out of the door. The fried sage with apple & honey vinegar is an absolute treat. Fact. Crispy, light and really rather ridiculously moreish, this was one of my favourite dishes of the night. Some might scoff at the idea of paying for the privilege of eating battered foliage…let them. I couldn’t give a flying fig because that just means there’s more for me and you and all the people who know that there’s more to the starter section of a menu – and more to frying – than chicken wings & onion rings.

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A n accompanying salt cod crudo with blood orange and olive oil arrived fresh & light enough to have just strolled out of the ocean but it was those brittle leaves that kept us dipping back for more.

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Bombolotti ragu Marcella introduced me to the sweetest baby pasta I’ve ever cooed over before wolfing down, one greedy, meaty spoonful at a time while that aforementioned dream dish of gnocchi alla Romana came slick with brown butter and has haunted my every waking moment since this visit. Honestly, if I’ve spoken to you over the past fortnight and not implored you to go there and try it, I’ll be amazed because I feel like I’ve evangelized about it to anyone who’s crossed my path. Go there. Try it. Charred on the outside and oozing like fudgy, treacly velvet on the inside, it has forever changed what gnocchi means to me. Tiny, fork-tined potato pebbles be gone.

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Chicken, pancetta & pistachio meatballs on a bed of polenta were light & savoury – I loved the added texture & flavour from the nuts – and Onglet steak was tender, juicy, cheekily pink and painted with sunset hued salsa rossa piccante.

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This is the food of Italy that Italians would want to eat; it is not the food of Italy for those who consider a deep dish, stuffed crust, pineapple speckled pizza to be an accurate representative of the country’s cuisine. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy both at the right time – well actually that’s exactly what I’m saying about the pineapple, diplomacy be damned – but you need to know what you’re gonna get and what you’re flipping well not gonna get here.

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I foresee myself swinging past one day for a slice of quince, almond & rosemary tart for breakfast because I’m a grown up and that’s what we do but dessert on this occasion was chocolate & sour cherry tartuffi ice-cream with whipped cream. Dark, sweet, creamy, pretty as a picture and every bit as lick-the-plate-clean delicious as you’d expect something made up of those ingredients to be, it was like the humble choc ice had finally – splendidly – come of age.

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Although you may deduce from the casual love letter that has poured forth here that I quite liked the menu, it’s worth noting that the service is every bit as excellent as the food. Arriving half an hour early because I’d had a senior moment and actually forgotten what time I’d booked – seriously, I think I need to up my cod liver oil intake and recharge the old grey matter as a matter of urgency – wasn’t an issue and we were seated immediately & graciously whilst a lost glass of dessert wine was apologised for and replaced with two tasters that were even nicer. You’re made to feel as though the team here are so glad you’ve come to have dinner with them, something that a lot of other London restaurants could do with reminding of now and again.

When I mentioned this place to a colleague on the hunt for somewhere to take his wife, he said that he never really considered Italian food for an evening out and there are enough places in the capital that have disgraced the name of all that is deliciously Italian for me to understand why this might be but I’ll say to you what I said to him; this place is different. It’s really good, it’s worth getting over those galling memories of bad Italian food done poorly for and y’know what? I’ll shout you dinner at the Hut if you disagree…dinner for one mind you. I’ll be at the Palatino bar eating all that gnocchi and enjoying my local.

 

 

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Painting Oxford St with the colours & flavours of Mexico at Corazon…

Tacos, ah tacos. I have an eternal hunger for them that I spend extravagant amounts of time trying to fulfil; my all-time favourites come from a glorious little bolthole on Sunset Strip called Pinches, closely followed by ex-Noma pastry chef Rosio Sanchez’s new venture ‘Hija de Sanchez’ in the perhaps less-obvious-for-Mexican-food setting of Copenhagen.

Here in London, Taqueria in Westbourne Grove has long held my heart but I’m constantly on the lookout for new spots that’ll give me my fix of soft homemade tacos filled with messy hunks of meat, spicy vegetables & squidgy cheese so new spot Corazon was always going to be high on my ever-inflating-like-Violet-Beauregard, culinary hit list. img_8973

Boasting a great central location just off Oxford St means that I now have an actual reason to gird my loins and do battle down London’s busiest road, something which I’d normally walk twelve miles out of the way to avoid. The vibe inside is bright, clean & fresh, dressed in shades of white, green & grey with a decent sized bar to perch at if you’re dining on the run. The space is big enough to make you feel that there’s likely to be a buzz when busy but not so vast that the back wall of the place seems Mo Farah distance away. Service was super friendly and genuine throughout and plates were delivered with a smile and a timely check back that everything was ok.

The menu is small but there’s enough on it that’s both familiar and interesting to convince you this is a place that knows its stuff; I’m not a fan of TGI length menus that take an hour just to scan only to find that there’s so much stuff on it, I’m left seriously doutbing that the kitchen actually know what they’re doing.

If you order only one thing – not something I’ve ever been able to do when eating out – make sure it’s the Sikil Pak, a Mayan spiced pumpkin seed dip served with jicama & cucumber. It might resemble the ‘before’ in an 90’s makeover movie but it’s absolutely delicious. Silky & rich with a slight oiliness from the seeds and a refined earthiness, it doesn’t taste like any dip I’ve had before but it tastes a heck of a lot like a dip I’ll be having again and again now.

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You’ll find this place is free from enchiladas and fajitas but heralds tostadas and tacos that are served two per portion with prices starting at £6 and topping out at £11. Carnitas tacos were dripping-down-to-your-elbow fantastic and Carne Asada’s blue corn tortillas added a nice flavour to well-cooked meat that had been marinaded in orange, soy and chipotle.

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The beer battered Baja fish will draw me back for a return visit (well, that and the marshmallow frosted Tres Leches cake…I’m only human after all) whilst a trip here over the festive period offered the chance to indulge in a parsnip purée & Brussels sprouts taco you’re unlikely to find elsewhere. Although there’s a nice selection of other dishes including Pozole Rojo – a pork shoulder stew – and Esquites – a herbed corn dish – the coffee & ancho chile braised short rib was a little underwhelming in flavour. I was hoping for a real gut kick of intensity however it ended up being more mellow than memorable.

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Wash it all down in the evening with a beer, a margarita or a cocktail – Trump’s Wall is alarmingly current – or reclaim your lunch break, come at 12pm and order horchata; Corazon’s version is a gorgeous take on the traditional Mexican drink which is made with rice & almond milk and agave and comes heavy-on-the-cinnamon & served deliciously cold.

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I’m not sure this is the place I’d head to for a long dinner over a pitcher of cocktails in the evening – the thought of having to fight my way out and up Oxford St again afterwards puts me off a bit TBH – but I’d absolutely come back for a well timed, well priced, well flavoured lunch and if you want a respite from the crowds outside and a little taste of sunnier, spicier climes, I’d urge you to do the same.