Snakes, Soccer and Soho – Mr Wolfe’s Birthday Bash

It was our friend Mr Wolfe’s special birthday on Saturday so we decided to treat him to a meal out in that there London Town.

New Year's Eve Chinatown

New Year’s Eve Chinatown

It was also a special day in London’s Chinatown. The place was rammed with people doing their last minute shopping to welcome in the Year of the Snake, but as we were up there I did a big shop in the New Loon Moon supermarket (9a Gerrard Street) for spices and other Chinese goodies. Aside from getting a few bits you just can’t get in an ordinary supermarket, things like spices, coconut milk and soy sauce are so much cheaper in Chinatown that its worth lumping them back home on the tube.

Chinese lanterns Chinatown London

Chinese lanterns Chinatown London

Next stop was a swift pint for me and the Captain in the Coach and Horses in Greek Street, while Saucy Wench Mab and the Powder Monkey bought some chocolate coffee beans in London’s most aromatic shop, Old Comption Street’s the Algerian Coffee Shop.

The Coach and Horses, Soho

The Coach and Horses, Soho

Now we’d told Mr Wolfe about the Bodean’s at Tower Hill and were keen for him to discover all the meaty goodness of their smokehouse fare, but Bodean’s do not take bookings so we thought if we try the Soho branch in Poland Street and it’s full, there are plenty of other places to eat. When we arrived the waitress said we could have a table in 45 minutes, fair enough we thought and ordered some drinks. Now that was where it all came undone. drinks ordered (and paid for) we were told to go outside and wait on the seating where the cocktails would be brought to us . This turned out to be a couple of benches on the street where the mouth-watering smell of barbecued meat mingled with that of the rancid dumpster and tramp pee. Bodean’s idea of bringing the drinks to us didn’t quite match ours either, fortunately we heard the waitress hollering our order number from inside and we had to force our way back inside past the by now enormous queue to collect them.

By this time we were a bit cheesed off, especially as it had started to rain so when Mr Wolfe turned up we went across to Wahaca in Wardour Street where we got a table immediately and had a fantastic Mexican meal for about two thirds of what we would have spent in Bodean’s

chorizo and potato quesadilla

chorizo and potato quesadilla Wahaca

Like Bodean’s, Wahaca don’t do reservation, but they don’t expect you to wait on the street if they can’t fit you in immediately. Oh no they give you a bleeper and send you downstairs to the tequila bar, which is where we went after the meal and where we were all severely trounced in a game of table soccer by the Powder Monkey.

Soho – Coffee, a Shot of Garlic and some Pastis

Having a child free weekend it was off to Soho on Saturday night for a bit of adult time.

After a bit of booze shopping at Gerry’s we had a mooch in the Algerian Coffee Stores (52 Old Comption Street). Established in 1887 this has to be one of the best smelling shops in London with 80 fragrant coffees and 120 different teas on sale. You can even get a coffee to go at a bargain £1 for an espresso, beats Starbucks into a cocked hat in my opinion.

Best Little Coffee Shop in London, the Algerian Coffee Stores

Shopping done it was time for a drink so we went to the French House in search of some pastis. It’s not a big boozer and the downstairs was absolutely rammed, but one of London’s best kept secrets is the new upstairs bar where the restaurant used to be.

View from the top, upstairs at the French House

Just like downstairs you can only have beer in halfs, but you can generally get somewhere to sit down. There are some pretty groovy prints on the purple painted walls, featuring some of the French’s illustrious former patrons, like Aleister Crowley, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, which are available to purchase. We settled down at the bar and spent an hour or so chatting with the barmaid over a couple of Henri Bardouins, while waiting for Mr Wolfe to turn up. The French has an interesting history which you can read here

Our dinner date for the evening was at Garlic and Shots (14 Frith Street).

Garlic and Shots

We hadn’t eaten in Garlic and Shots for ages and some of the reviews I had seen on-line recently were pretty rough, but I suspect they must have been by people who hate heavy rock music and just don’t get the Swedish restaurant’s point. There are 50 shots on the menu and garlic comes with everything! It’s in the beer, the starters, main course and desert (garlic and honey ice cream is surprisingly good) . A round of garlic beers ordered we hit the menu. I ordered a crayfish starter which was delicious followed by the enormous garlic burger.

Garlic Burger

It was heavenly. We shared sides of baked whole heads of garlic and the most gigantic slabs of tasty garlic bread ever. I even forced down some of that legendary garlic ice cream. considering that there were four of us and we had three rounds of garlic beer, starters, mains, sides, water and desert I thought the final reckoning of £200 including service wasn’t bad.

The French House Soho

The French House (49 Dean Street, W1) is one of my favourite pubs in London.

The French House

This boozer has a tiny bar and gets very crowded. According to Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant this is his “favourite bar in the world”. During WWII General de Gaulle and the Free French adopted the York Minster (as it was then known), prompting the acquisition of its present name. Officially renamed in 1985, it’s no surprise that it serves more Ricard than any other British outlet.

Oddly enough it was founded by a German fellow by the name of Schmidt in 1910. However in 1914 it was bought by a Belgian Victor Berlemont, when Schmidt was deported as an enemy alien on the outbreak of World War One.

Wall space is crammed with former patron’s memorabilia, including original cartoons by the London Evening Standard’s Jak, complete with printer’s marks. Former guests include painter Francis Bacon, Oliver Reed and Guns and Roses. Don’t order a pint though, beer only comes in halves, save for the year’s first pint, traditionally drawn on 1 April by Madness singer Suggs. It’s a family thing; his mother was a barmaid here.

Cheers

Upstairs there is a restaurant, must try it one day.

 

Hats Off to Soho’s Backstreets

Sorry about the pun, unable to resist using it in conjunction with this picture that I snapped in Soho’s Hollen Street, just around the back of Oxford Street.

Hat Factory

The building dates back to 1887, but Henry Heath had been making posh hats in the area since the Regency. Of course it’s not a hat factory anymore, but home to various creative industry offices, where no doubt they appreciate the rather lovely lettering on the exterior.

Anyhow if you take a walk around the corner into Oxford Street you see this ornate pile above the Officer’s Club shop.

This is where Heath’s hat shop was. It was designed by the architects Christopher and White and if you look way up you can just about see three stone beavers. These photos were taken with ny old Sony compact which does not have the Nikon’s magnificatuion.

Cute you may think, until you investigate the beaver’s role in the Victorian hat industry!

If you want to find this building its opposite the 100 Club close to Tottenham Court Road tube station..

Soho Square

Fellow travel blogger Andrew Petcher of Have Bag Will Travel recently posted a countdown of the favourite Squares and Piazas that he has visited in his travels. That and the present good weather put me in mind of London’s Soho Square in the West End. I used to work close to Soho Square and  it was a little oasis of peace, where I could enjoy my sandwiches on a sunny day. It’s also a great place to spot the odd celeb visiting their agent or taking a breather from nearby Theatreland

Statue of Charles II by Caius Cibber.

The bloke in the middle of the photo is Charles II. He was originally put there in 1681, as part of a water feature, when the square was named King’s Square after him. Since then he’s been in the wars a bit. In 1875 he was removed from the square when it was renovated by Branston Pickle magnate Thomas Blackwell (of Crosse and Blackwell fame).  He gave the statue to his mate Frederick Goodall, who fancied having Charley on an island in the lake in his garden. Which is where he stayed until 1938 when he was returned to the square as one of the conditions in the will of WS Gilbert’s widow, Gilbert (the lyricist to composer Sir Arthur Sullivan) having bought Goodall’s estate in 1890.

The Square is home to lots of media companies as well as to two rather nice churches. This is the French Huguenot Church.

French Huguenot Church Soho Square

Originally founded for the French Protestant refugees in 1550 this splendid building was built between 1891-3 and is the only remaining Huguenot church out of 23 that were recorded in London in 1700 after the Huguenots were thrown out of France in 1685.

Above the door is this rather nice frieze showing the story of how the Huguenots sought refuge from persecution.

On another side of the square paradoxically is the rather fine St Patrick’s Catholic Church. Consecrated in 1792 it was one of the first new Catholic churches to be built after the passing of the Second Catholic Relief Act in 1791 (excuse the pictures it’s hard to photograph anything in the square at present because of building works for the Crossrail project)

St Patrick’s’ Soho Square

Now in just next to St Patrick’s there, is the Manor House. the present facade dates from 1838 when Edmund Crosse and his mate Thomas Blackwell made the Manor House the centre of their pickle empire, since then it has been the HQ for the Post Office Film Unit and is now an office building, but its past is far more fruity.

The original Manor House dates back to 1678 and was for a time the home of aristocrats before being bought by one Thomas Hopper in 1776. Hopper turned it into what has been described as a ‘high-class magical brothel’ complete with a Gold Room, Coal Hole and the infamous Skeleton Room where punters would have the frighteners put on them by a skeleton on wires…………….. er nice.

My Little Soho Pony

While we were in London on Saturday I spotted this rather well-groomed pony being taken for a walk down Greek Street

West End Pony

I imagine it must be in one of the west-ends musicals, either that or it’s on its way home from the Coach and Horses.

Shock Horror – The Coach and Horses Goes Veggie

Regular readers will know my favourite Soho boozer is the Coach and Horses in Greek Street.

The Coach and Horses, Soho

The Coach and Horses, Soho

Well strange things are afoot at Private Eye’s local, the kitchen has gone veggie. On Friday I met some pals there for lunch, well more a graze while we chewed the literal fat, but the bar snacks we sampled, courgette chips (£3.50), chips (£3) and Welsh Rarebit £5.20) were excellent. In fact the Welsh Rarebit was the best I have ever had.

The very tasty veggie sausage roll

On Saturday we popped in for a livener, as we were in town before meeting Mr Wolfe for dinner in Fitzrovia. I had just intended to have a swift pint, but down from the kitchen came the chef with a platter of veggie sausage rolls. I just had to have one, and so did Mab and Old Nick. Despite the thermo-nuclear temperature of the filling (aubergine, courgette, peppers,onion etc) they were so good, we devoured them in record time, leaving a small mountain of flaky pastry crumbs on the bar top.

Whether the new menu will find favour with regulars is another thing, and I for one will miss the Scotch eggs,

The late lamented bar snacks of The Coach and Horses

and especially the jumbo pork scratchings.

Pork scratchings

At least the decor hasn’t changed since Jeffrey Barnard propped up the bar and the only banging music is when Betty pounds the ivories for a sing-song.

The magnificent Betty at the Coach and Horses

A Dessert Bar in London’s Soho – are they Madd?

Well, yes the Madd restaurant in Soho’s Rupert Street, certainly is in name.

Madd Dessert Bar Soho.

Madd stands for Mango and Addiction, but whether the build your own mango dessert restaurant and cocktail bar will be addictive enough for London’s grazers, remains to be seen, however the tempting morsels put out for us at the grand opening last night were absolutely delicious.

Mango, Passion Fruit and Yogurt Desserts

In common with places like Poncho No8 and El Burrito, Madd’s concept is build your own combo, only at Madd it’s sweet rather than savoury. First you choose your mango dessert core, then add whatever toppings you desire. I got to sample the Mango Cheesecake, the Mango and Passion Fruit yogurt and a Mango and Pineapple Upside Down Cake and they were all very good. Desserts start ay £4.50 with extra toppings 80p for two, £1.50 for three.

Chocolate Tart

And for anyone who doesn’t like mango there’s always the Chocolate Tart or Raspberry Panna Cotta. I thought the Chocolate Tart in particular was gorgeous. Drinks include a variety of mango based cocktails like Daiquiris, Margaritas and Mojitos  (£6.50 each) or shooters (£3.50) made with mango puree.

Mad Ceiling at Madd

Whether there is going to be sufficient demand for a mango based dessert bar to survive in Soho is open for question. Places like Patisserie Valerie in Old Comption Street have been selling delicious desserts and cakes in the area for many years, but I can’t help but think Madd may be a little too narrow in it’s product offer. On the plus side the restaurant interior is nicely designed and the desserts are quite divine.

 

A Beer with Nick at Poncho No.8

You know a trip into London’s Soho is rarely uneventful. The other week just before the weather started to get a bit rubbish I took a wander down to Poncho No.8 in Old Comption Street to have a beer with Poncho founder Nick Troen. Approaching the bottom of Frith Street my attention was drawn to a gutsy rendition of Sisters are Doing it for Themselves from the pavement outside Cafe Nero.

‘That’s a very tight sweater that lass is wearing’, I thought, before it clicked that no sweater permits that amount of swing, yes she was naked from the waist up.  Naturally everybody around had become very British, sneaking a look as they pretended nothing out of the ordinary was happening at all. I maintained my own stiff upper lip and carried on to the restaurant where Nick joined me for a cold Pacifico and a very tasty burrito.

Poncho No.8 Old Comption Street

Now Nick had started his career in the world of corporate banking and I was curious as to why he and his business partner Frank Yeung, had jacked that sort of security in to do something as risky as opening a chain of Cali-Mex restaurants.

‘Well, it’s not as nuts as you may think in terms of crazy danger, just financially very risky! Though of course we’d done our research, I did my thesis at the LSE on burritos and Frank has had a lot of experience in the catering industry, so we felt the risk was significantly mitigated. On the other hand, we’d always wanted to work for ourselves, didn’t have any debt, and mortgage, any wife or kids, so if we did fail, it wouldn’t be the end of the world’.

‘Mexican food is so versatile and disparate, you can pretty much fashion it into anything you want, fast food, mid market or full sit down, and still have huge variations within those sectors. The popularity of Mex food was rising and we saw a lot of space to create a premium mid market offering. Our experiences from California and New York and seeing how the Americans had evolved the burrito into a more Western-centric food was a big factor. ‘

Huge Range of Burrito Fillings at Poncho No.8

I’d certainly agree that Mexican food is on the up, what with restaurants like Wahacca, El Burrito and Mestizo, all in London’s gatronomic mix and Tommi Miers‘s recent TV series Mexican Food Made Simple , but what is next for Poncho No.8, more restaurants or retail products?

‘So many options for where we can go, and whereas we’ll always experiment with different ideas like Ceviche, and Soho’s unique restaurant, more City branches are likely. We think the trend will move south towards Central and South America. We did a limited time offer of Ceviche – fresh fish cured with lemon and lime juice which is Peruvian in origin, but can be found throughout Latin America. Look out for some cevicherias popping up soon.’

Having tried ceviche in, of all places Edinburgh, I will look forward to that, but finally I could not resist asking whether Nick could cook or was he was just the brains behind the operation?

‘Er, neither! Frank is definitely the cook, and we both share strategic and operational decisions. My most particular role is directing the brand and voice of the company which I think is incredibly important. People like companies to reflect the personal element that exists in all of them (after all any business is run by people). Our company is all about funky food, great service and helpful service, and it’s vital to get this across in everything from the design of the shop, to being on hand to go drop some burritos off to a customer ourselves if we’ve got high demand!’

That’s got to more fun than being a banker!

The topless beauty was swilling coffee at one of Cafe Nero’s pavement tables in Frith Street as I made my way back to Oxford Street. I wonder where she kept her change?

Birthday Shopping Trip to Soho – Rum and a Wolseley Classic

This weekend my father had a small get together for his birthday, so we decided to treat him to a bottle of really nice Cuban rum to mark the occasion. Now one of the great things about working in the centre of London is the easy access to some brilliant shops and restaurants so I set off down Wardour Street into Soho, on my way to Gerry’s in Old Comption Street. the London home of exotic booze.
About midway down Wardour Street, just outside the Imli Indian tapas restaurant, I spotted this little blast from the past.
 
Wolseley 18/85

It’s a Wolseley 18/85 the top end version of the the Austin 1800 otherwise known as the Landcrab. Built between 1967 and 1975, the Wolseley variant had a six cylinder engine (hence the name) and a different front grill and rear end to the more common Morris and Austin models. Inside the higher spec even included a wooden dashboard and leather upholstery.  The car was designed by Sir Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini, and this shows in the surprisingly large cabin thanks to his inventive use of space. In fact the Wolseley 18/85 was more roomy inside than its Jaguar/Daimler contemporaries.

Despite that, like most British Leyland models of the 1970s it suffered from poor production quality and did look old fashioned for its day, so only about 61,000 were ever produced. In retrospect I think it’s rather charming to look at.  In 1975 the Six (renamed in 1972 but essentially the same vehicle) was replaced by the Wolseley Saloon, a rebadged version of  the horrible wedge shaped Austin/Morris AD071. It was the final production car to bear the Wolseley marque. This 18/85 has clearly had a lot of love spent on it so credit due to a caring owner.

After having a good look at the Wolseley and a perusal of Imli’s tapas menu (mental note must try it some time) I carried on past the Old Ship, Wahacca and the blue plaque marking the site of the old Marquee Club, where I misspent some of the finest hours of my youth, until reaching Old Comption Street. Gerry’s is at no.74, and it’s a cornucopia of booze from all over the world.

Window at Gerry's

The guy who runs the place knows his stuff too and hastily sold me a bottle of Santiago de Cuba Anejo rum for my father at £3 less than the Havana Club I originally asked for and then a bottle of el Tequileno Blanco tequila for home consumption. I remembered the Santiago rum from our trip to the island last year. It’s made at the former Bacardi factory that was nationalised after Castro’s revolution. It’s a really good sipping rum that bears drinking neat.

Some jolly nice rum and tequila

Apparently the El Tequileno used to be made by an old Mexican who refused to sell his produce to Gringo during his lifetime, Well his death was our gain as it went down a storm with my homemade guacamole!