Friday 23 December 2011

The Booking Office bar at the Renaissance Hotel, St. Pancras, central London

Built into the booking office of this grandiose Gothic station, the Renaissance Hotel has a jaw-dropping bar with a soaring ceiling, tall arched windows and fine vintage wooden panelling interspersed with heavily-restored brick walls. Although the furniture and lighting is mostly modern and angular, you still feel like you are sitting in a cathedral. It can be difficult to secure a seat, but once you do, the waitresses provide exemplary table service. Prices are high and the choice of beers is limited, but your ale does come in a pewter mug and is accompanied by some exotic nibbles. It is also worth wondering through to the beautiful and extravagantly spacious lobby next door. It too has bare brick walls, lead-paned arched windows and many of the original station's fixture and fittings, framed by attractive sky-blue ironwork, complete with rivets, nuts and bolts. 8/10

Monday 19 December 2011

Barrica, Goodge Street, central London

A buzzing and cheery tapas bar, Barrica brings a whiff of Barcelona to Goodge Street. The decor, with yellow walls, a tiled floor and a grand wooden drinks cabinet, is traditional Spain, while the service by the young, edgy Spanish-speaking staff is friendly, but a little haphazard.  Across the all-day menu and the specials menus, there is a broad selection of hot and cold tapas, plus cheese and meat platters. But some of the dishes listed aren't always available. And make sure you get to Barrica by 9.30pm, as the kitchen can close surprisingly early. The boquerones (three for £2.95) are very fresh, while the cockles, tomatoes and cod, swimming in brine, is a great combination and you can really taste the sea. The baby spinach with garlic and melted cheese is also very good, while the duo of ham croquettes is salty, succulent and delicious. The tuna salad is very fresh, but a bit small for a fiver. The pile of patatas bravas is crispy and oily, but still mouthwatering. Other highlights include the salami with caperberries and the saddle of lamb, which is cooked to be pink in the middle and is well seasoned. Although you may find many of the dishes too salty, there is free tap water and good bread.  On the lengthy Spanish wine list, the Martin Berdugo Tinto Fino (175ml glass for about £6) is smooth, yet rich. Barrica, which levies a service charge of 12.5%, has a good vibe and is good value. 8/10 

Wednesday 14 December 2011

The Stanhope Hotel, Rue du Commerce, Brussels

Housed in an hundred-year old building perfectly-located between the European Parliament and the heart of Brussels, the Stanhope Hotel doesn't have to try very hard to attract guests. The ridiculously ornate foyer, with its classical columns, is many years out-of-date and rather stuffy, while the dining room is also excessively formal, fussy and elaborately decorated with incongruous Chinese prints. The two-storey bedrooms on the first floor have very high ceilings, tall windows, massive curtains, wooden floors and some period style.  Downstairs is a desk, chairs, sofa, minibar, television and ageing bathroom. On a mezzanine-level, is a comfortable double-bed and not much else. Unfortunately, the narrow, steep staircase can be a bit treacherous in the middle of the night, but there are light switches everywhere. Note, even a small bottle of water from the minibar costs four euros and the smoking rooms have a real stench of tobacco. The buffet breakfast isn't great for 25 euros. There is a broad selection, but the food is really only passable, while the coffee is lacklustre and can be lukewarm. The waitors are friendly, but they seem to be trying to deal with too many people at once and confusion beckons. On top of the hefty room-rate, the Stanhope charges eight euros city tax and a further nine euros for 24 hours of decent Wi-Fi access.  Somewhat complacent, the Stanhope seems to be making too good a living from Eurocrats on expense accounts. 5/10

Sunday 4 December 2011

The Royal China Club, Baker Street, central London

For a Chinese restaurant, the Royal China Club has an unusually luxurious interior. It has very comfortable fabric chairs, starched white table cloths, bamboo panelling and leather padding on the walls. On the way in, you pass crowded fish tanks, packed with lobsters, eels, crabs and other sealife eking out their last few hours. The menus are long and comprehensive. From the dim sum selection, the sesame rolls filled with prawn and mango, which melt in the mouth, are a good choice, as are the succulent steamed dumplings - fillings include scallops and prawns with garlic. However, the minced lamb buns are a bit pedestrian - the flavour might remind you of a lame steak and kidney pie.  Among the larger dishes, the crispy duck with plum sauce, accompanied by wafer thin pancakes and crudite, is very moreish, but you don't get a great deal of food for £13.50 a pop. Similarly, the rice with chicken and seafood is a modest portion for a tenner. It is served in a huge leaf, making it good to look at, but hard to handle.  In general, the Royal China Club's food is a bit pricey, as are the drinks (330ml of Tiger beer for £4.50), while the bottled water is extortionate at £4.50 a time. You are served by a platoon of black-shirted, dour staff who keep topping up your glass. At busy times, you might have to wait a while for the various elements of your meal to arrive. The Royal China Club is comfortable and you can book a table, but you'll find a lot better value in Chinatown. 6/10

Friday 2 December 2011

Locale, East Dulwich Road, south London

One of a small chain of Italian restaurants, Locale East Dulwich does a hearty and competitively-priced three course Christmas dinner for £25 a head plus wine and service. There are about five options per course. Among the starters, the butternut squash soup is a bit bland and you'll need to go heavy on the seasoning. Still, the accompanying bread is very fresh and tasty. For the main course, the lamb shank is a huge piece of well-cooked meat sitting on a big bed of mash potato - it is quite good, but there is too much, and it needs some vegetables and some garlic. After the lamb, the large slice of  tiramsu is pretty intimidating. It tastes good, but looks suspiciously neat and tidy - like it may have been made elsewhere. While the service is attentive, it feels like the staff have one eye on the bill - they top up wine glasses regularly.  Still, the waitresses also make sure you are well stocked with iced water and the East Dulwich branch is a spacious and comfortable place to party. In essence, Locale serves mediocre food in generous portions at reasonable prices. 7/10