Sunday 22 November 2009

Tate Britain, Millbank, central London

Housed in an imposing neo-classical building overlooking the Thames, the Tate Britain is the place to come to see five centuries of British paintings and sculptures. The words "Everything's Going to be Alright" (an exhibit, apparently) are spelt out in neon letters incongruously above the four pillars guarding the main entrance. Inside, the art is surrounded by plenty of space on the brightly-painted walls and on a Sunday afternoon, many of the 30 galleries are pleasingly empty. One of the best rooms, entitled John Constable: The Struggle for Recognition, has a fine series of early nineteenth century pastoral landscapes which really show off Constable's skill in portraying dramatically-lit, cloud-filled skies.

Sunday 15 November 2009

The Prince Regent, Dulwich Road, south London

Opposite Brockwell Park and stranded half way between Brixton and Herne Hill, the Prince Regent is an inviting and popular gastropub that has retained most of its Victorian ambiance. It has outside tables, in the shadow of two stocky antique lamp posts, while light floods in through the large windows into the cosy, wood-panelled bar adjacent to a dining room with an array of big, sturdy wooden tables. The laid-back atmosphere is accentuated by the newspapers, the well-thumbed books and the pile of board games. On draught are a couple of real ales, plus a handful of well-known lagers, such as San Miguel (£3.50 a pint) and Becks (£3.10). If you want something soft, the cloudy apple juice is good and is served with a slice of apple wedged on to the glass.

On a Sunday lunchtime, the Prince Regent quickly fills up with mostly middle-class locals attracted by the fine roasts served up by a French chef. While you read the menu, you get hunks of fresh and nutty, brown bread served with olive oil. The selection of a half-dozen main courses include a substantial serving of roast chicken with roast potatoes, cauliflower cheese, mange tout and a light Yorkshire pudding in gravy (£11) - all well-seasoned and very tasty. The rich, slow-cooked beef bourguignon (£13) is also delicious, but the large cod and chips comes with a bit too much batter, while the roast beef is pricey at £16. If you haven't had breakfast, you might be tempted by the brunch menu, which includes a couple of thick slices of lean ham, two fried eggs and some fine chips (£6). You can also get a traditional English fry-up or some more exotic options, such as kedgeree. Service can be sluggish, but the Prince Regent's food is generally well worth waiting for. 8/10

Thursday 12 November 2009

The Anglesea Arms, Selwood Terrace, central London

Popular with sleek, well-heeled twentysomethings, the Anglesea Arms' heated outside tables and front bar can be buzzing early on a week day evening. The dining room, downstairs at the back, has a more sedate atmosphere, but you may still need to book in advance to secure a table. There is a wide selection of drinks, including real ales, such as the spicy Doom Bar and the local stalwart London Pride. But the chirpy service by the lone waitor in the dining room can be erratic and even forgetful - some drinks orders might never appear. The menu is gastropub through and through. The starters (£4 to £6) include a well-seasoned watercress and lentil soup and a nicely-balanced squid and chorizo salad, but both are on the small side. Among the main courses, the rich and very meaty beef burger (about £12) with smoked cheese and salty, chunky chips is tasty and very satisfying, but should really be accompanied by a proper side salad and a better quality bap. The sausages and mash is nicely-presented, but is not very substantial for the similarly-hefty price tag. Not great value, given the slipshod service and the slightly stingy portions, but the Anglesea Arms is a cosy pub with a lively atmosphere. 6/10

Sunday 8 November 2009

Ty Mawr, near Lisvane, Cardiff

Set on high ground with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and suburbia, Ty Mawr's setting is a cut above that of the average Brains-owned pub. The large interior, split between a bar and restaurant, is full of wooden beams and blackboards. The menu, which ranges from Welsh cawl to swordfish steak to Texan chilli, is suspiciously long and international, but the food is generally excellent, given the low prices. On a Sunday lunchtime, you can order a slow-roasted shoulder of lamb (£12), which is a generous hunk of delicious meat that falls easily off the bone, lying on a bed of creamy mash potatoes doused in gravy. It is accompanied by slightly over-cooked carrots and broccoli. Both the scampi, served with chips and a salad of well-dressed cherry tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, and the roast beef with Yorkshire pudding (£8), also make for tasty and filling plates of food. Alternatively, you can get a moist piece of fish, caked in a thin and light batter, served with fat chips and some minty, mushy peas. There is a dedicated kids menu or children can have slightly smaller versions of the adult meals for just £4.50 and most will struggle to finish their plate.

Mini doughnuts
The deserts include a small mountain of mouthwatering and moreish chocolate sponge full of hot chocolate sauce, served with ice cream and a strawberry. Among the four deserts on the kids menu, all just 99 pence, is a big bowl of decent ice cream or four mini doughnuts served with a chocolate or strawberry sauce. The drinks are also very reasonable - a pint of Brains bitter, which is smooth and refreshing for an ale, is £2.35. Unsurprisingly, it can be tough to get a table inside on a November Sunday, but there are plenty of tables outside, if the sun is shining. From here, there are fine views and you can keep an eye on the kids running around the playground or the big, bumpy, grass lawn, which is good for a kick around. 8/10

Caerphilly Ridge, near Cardiff

Overlooking Cardiff and the Mouth of the Severn beyond, Caerphilly Ridge rises more than 250 metres just a few miles north of the city. From one of the small car parks, you can walk through the picturesque woodland clinging to the hillside and it is worth making the steep climb through the trees up to the top. From the clearings on the ridge path, you can see the white superstructure of the Millennium Stadium rising above the cityscape in the distance. Caerphilly Ridge is a good place to head for a scenic stroll within easy reach of the Welsh capital. 7/10

The Barrage Walk, Cardiff Bay

If you have kids, the round trip from Cardiff Bay to the playground on the barrage, enclosing the harbour, makes for an invigorating two mile walk. As you head towards the attractive waterfront of Penarth in the distance, you can survey an eclectic mix of ultra modern and nineteenth century architecture. Lined with old-fashioned lamp-posts, the route takes you past the space-age glass and steel of the Welsh Assembly and a Norwegian white clapboard church, housing an arts centre and coffee shop. Outside the church is a striking, but amorphous, mosaic statue of a sailor. Further along, the wide path is lined with ugly and high mesh fences, patches of wasteland and disused Victorian warehouses and docks. But look back across the yachts in the bay and you'll see a red brick Gothic harbour building, which looks a bit like a Rhineland fairytale castle, against a backdrop of the gleaming gold armadillo-shaped Cardiff Opera House. Further around is a row of handsome Victorian terrace houses flanking a large and smart white apartment block with a funky arc mounted on its flat roof. As you approach the barrage itself, you come to an imaginative wooden playground with a nautical theme. The centrepiece is a shipwreck, with colourful bunting hanging from its masts and barrels strewn around, half-buried in the sand. From here, you get a fine view of the grassy mounds of the islands in the middle of the wide open waters of the mouth of the Severn. If it also had a coffee shop, it would be a great spot for both adults and kids to pass an hour or two. 7/10

Le Petit Parisien, Grove Lane, south London

Stripped-back and laid-back pub-cum-brassiere with overt French theme and funky music, which can be cranked up quite loud. The bar has upright, but comfortable, leather seats, while the restaurant has a bunch of small wooden tables. The decor is fairly bare, except for a few pot plants, some small French prints and the numerous spherical lights hanging down from the ceiling. Many of the signs and labels are written in both French and English. As you would expect, there is a good selection of French wines by the 175ml glass (between £3.75 and £6) and continential lagers, such as San Miguel (£3.50 for a pint), Becks and Leffe, on tap. There is a keenly-priced bar menu and you can get a bowl of economy peanuts for 50 pence. Le Petit Parisien attracts a variety of punters, from small groups of young people to middle-aged loners either reading books or using the free WiFi. The young staff, some French, some English, are friendly and chilled. It is the sort of place where the chef hangs around the bar, in between orders, fiddling with the stereo and chatting with the bar staff. 6/10

Natural Kitchen, New Street Square, central London

Occupying a corner of this smart square of new office blocks, the Natural Kitchen has big windows, high ceilings and plenty of space. Wicker baskets, bare-brick walls, hessian sacks and metal pales give this cafe a highly-stylised rustic ambiance. It is divided into two areas - one laid out like a restaurant with square tables for four and the other with big, long tables, lined with benches. The canteen-style section is where you can eat food ordered at the counter. Served in a cardboard box, a fist size, piece of cold, but tasty, chicken, or a fat slice of quiche, accompanied by two helpings of salad, costs about £6. The lightly-seasoned tomato salad and potato salads are both fresh and tasty. To drink, you can choose one of the array of soft drinks, from coke to flavoured waters, in the large chilled cabinet. Jazz music is piped over the speakers in the ceiling. If you are looking for a lunchtime alternative to sandwiches, the Natural Kitchen is not a bad bet. 7/10