We try out some of the best (and most over-hyped) foods in our nation’s capital as we head to London for our traditional August Bank Holiday at Frightfest.
Welcome back! I forgot to ask – Did you all have a good August Bank Holiday? As usual I spent the last long weekend of summer in my favourite way: sat in the dark in a cinema in Leicester Square watching back-to-back horror movies for 3 solid days.
Regular readers might remember that the past couple of Augusts I’ve dragged my mates away from the Frightfest schedule to have at least one posh meal. In 2011 we tried out the set menu at Dinner at the Mandarin Oriental. Last year, 2012, it was Hawksmoor Seven Dials, whose formidable side dishes were the inspiration for our Heston vs Hawksmoor Macaroni Cheese experiment.
We try not to go “off-message” (and by message we mean “Heston”), so you’ll have to excuse us being a bit self-indulgent here. But, we genuinely think London is the greatest city in the world to eat out in, and we thought it’d be fun to talk about some of the great (and over-hyped) food we tried there. Hopefully it’ll give us all something to discuss in the comments section.
All the places I’ve visited this trip have been covered by much better blogs like the Critical Couple, to whom we’d like to dedicate this post. Their mixture of humour, humility and an ability to secure reservations makes them a fantastically enjoyable read and the ultimate resource for tourists like us.
The weekend’s burger-theme was more a result of convenience than actual intention. Two of Eel-Town’s most-hyped places are within a few minutes’ walk of Leicester Square, and then Honest Burgers is next door to ChinChin Labs (which we would obviously be visiting every single day).
Here’s what I stuffed into my face between Saturday afternoon and Monday night:
Honest Burgers, Camden
A much smaller place than I expected and an equally simple menu: Veggie, chicken or three variants of beef. Skin-on fries as standard with every burger. They also sell a fetchingly vibrant slaw. I went for the signature burger, which is £9 with chips included.
I like the way it’s served with a knife. Weaklings can use it make the burger more manageable to pick up and Instagrammers can cut the thing in half and take photos of the lovely pink middle. I’m also a fan of the retro tin serving plate. I like to imagine a dashing WWI pilot finishing eating and then trying to have a shave in it.
This is clearly a much better sourced burger than the rival chains back in the West End. A fat, juicy patty, buttery brioche bun (identical to the one they use 200m from my work desk at Dock Grill, Media City) and top notch dressings.
It’s probably sacrilege to say this, but I enjoyed this burger slightly more than the Dead Hippie at MeatMarket last year.
Honest Burger served with House Chips: £9
ChinChin Labs, Camden
A Mr Whippy ice cream on Lytham St Annes seafront was always the highlight of each day during my childhood holidays (see our Heston’s Vanilla Ice Cream recipe post). But even this powerfully nostalgic memory doesn’t excuse the unhealthy obsession I have with ChinChin Labs.
For those who’ve never been – it’s a small place in Camden that makes ice cream in front of your eyes using liquid nitrogen. Given that you’re reading this on a blog about Heston Blumenthal recipes and techniques I probably don’t need to tell you that using liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze ice cream to minus 192°C results in the smallest possible ice crystals, and so the smoothest imaginable ice cream.
This technique is great for texture, but useless without fantastic flavours. Fortunately ChinChin Labs do the best chocolate or vanilla ice cream you’ll ever eat in the UK (yes, even better than my childhood favourite from Lytham St Annes). However, it’s the specials that make the trip to Camden worthwhile.
Today’s was Tonka Bean and Caramelised Walnut, seen hear wearing caramelised pretzels. I don’t generally like walnuts but this pairing was particularly inspired. We’re desperate for them to bring out a recipe book.
My mates and I are an odd-looking ensemble, but even so it’s incredible that the owner now recognises us whenever we walk through the door. Remarkable considering the kind of turnover the place gets. He clearly loves all his customers as much as he loves making fantastic ice cream. It’s a huge discredit to me that I don’t know the guy’s name, but if he ever reads this: your ice cream is one of my favourite things to eat on the whole of planet earth.
Ice Cream: £3.95
Five Guys, Covent Garden
This is essentially located opposite the front door of Frightfest, so it was as easy to visit as it was obvious.
I know you all hate Five Guys. Personally it just made me think of Subway. Remember when Subway first came to the UK and we were all excited by the infinite flavour combos of their pick n’ mix salad and sauces? And nowadays we’re all bored to death of the limp bread, slimy meat and bland flavours.
This is clearly a very efficient operation. The number of young, perky, staff blew me away. They even have a guy explaining the menu while you queue (presumably to avoid delays from order-ditherers).
Craftily, they use sacks of shell-on peanuts to delineate the queue, so you can shell them and snack on them while you wait. It’s pretty depressing that two staff are needed to permanently sweep away the debris this causes, each a sort of minimum-wage Sisyphus. There was a slightly hostile atmosphere in the store when we visited, but that was probably down to it being 10pm on a Saturday night. “Wochor fackin problim?” etc.
I ordered their basic burger with the works (hold the tomato), which includes: Lettuce, onions, pickles, peppers, grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, ketchup, mustard, mayo. It’s fun to pile on loads of your favourite flavours, and that was what made this burger interesting. But the meat is cheap and flavourless and the spongey bun is squashed and woeful. Less a “Dirty Burger”, more a “Gutter Burger”.
The skin-on fries were the worst of the three places we tried, greasy and flavourless. Unexpected given the in-store signage boasting the farm the potatoes came from. Even without a drink this cost me more than I’d probably pay for two Whoppers with fries 50 yards away. It was novel, and a bit tastier, but not by much.
In spite of all that, I’d probably go back. But only if I was in a hungry hurry round Lie-Sester Square and it was a choice between queuing at Five Guys or queuing at the Pizza Hut counter.
Five Guys Cheeseburger with The Works & portion of fries: £8.95
ChinChin Labs, Camden
Have I ever mentioned how much I like ChinChin Labs?
Every year at Frightfest actor & theatre director Andy Nyman hosts a quiz. I’m terrible at quizzes, so skipping it gave us the roughly 60 minutes needed to make the trip to Camden Lock and back.
The special was a dairy free Mango, Honey and Ginger. A beautiful, summery flavour combo. As always, it was more than worth the trip. Seriously, I cannot praise these people or their food highly enough.
Ice Cream: £3.95
Shake Shack, Covent Garden
I made the mistake of thinking I could make it from Seat O 38 of Empire Screen 1 to Shake Shack and back again in the 30 minutes between films. This was impossible on a bustling Bank Holiday Sunday lunchtime. I barely made it back to my seat in time, and ended up eating a hefty sack of lukewarm food in the dark. I am convinced the guy sat next to me found this far more horrifying than opening 20 minutes of In Fear.
The sheer amount of photo-friendly sunlight streaming through the roof of Covent Garden makes me think the Shack guys picked this location with camera-wielding bloggers and tourists in mind. There were tons of idiots just like me, gawping and taking pictures.
Again there was an army of chirpy staff present, all gigglingly eager the way I imagine only someone on a zero-hours contract could be. Familiar format of queue, order, get a handheld buzzer, then collect your meal from a serving hatch.
The most fun part of collecting my order was asking for a bag to take the food away in. They immediately offered to package up the contents of my tray. My response: “Ah, no. I’m going to take pictures here where it’s light, then bag the food up and take it away”. Pause. Blank looks. “Yeah, I’m one of those guys” Shrug. Nervous grin. I give them full marks for helpfulness and generosity.
The concrete, Shake Shack’s gourmet McFlurry was only so-so. In perverted a break from tradition I had to wolf this down first. It was half melted by the time I got the meal back to my seat in the cinema, so unless I wanted to drink it I didn’t have much choice.
I’d chosen their Sticky Toffee Concrete, hoping it’d be similar to the Hawksmoor Sundae. What an idiot I was for thinking such a thing! Full of horrible bits of sugary biscuit with occasional bursts of salted caramel. It’s is better than a McFlurry, but I can ChinChin Labs think of ChinChin Labs better places in London ChinChin Labs to get ChinChin Labs ice cream.
The classic Shackburger was utterly forgettable.
The Shack-cago Dog benefited from being more substantial than anything you’d be served at Bubbledogs, but obviously comparing the two is pointless. It lacked The Snap.
I did like the crinkle cut fries though. Novel -and very crunchy on the outside- these were my favourite of the three places I visited. This might be purely personal since I do love crunchy textured foods; Monster Munch, nut brittle, anything that leaves your tongue raw.
Shake Shack certainly has better aesthetics than Five Guys. At the latter you’re either stood in the middle of traffic fumes or broken peanut shells. Covent Garden market is a much more gentrified place, full of soft colours and bright light. And Shake Shack put a lot of effort into making the food photogenic, again the opposite of Five Guys. The St John connection gets them points for sourcing too.
Shake Shack and Five Guys are both much of a muchness, with Five Guys having the convenience edge for hungry horror fans. I’d eat at Shake Shack again, but only if I was with friends who hadn’t tried it. Personally though, if I’d already come all the way to Covent Garden for food I’d prefer to walk the extra 90 seconds to reach the vastly superior MeatMarket.
Shackburger, Fries, Shack-cago Dog, Concrete: £16.25
A beautiful sideline of Balthazar restaurant next door. Walking in it’s like being a kid in a sweet shop – provided you’re a kid who likes sweets that are exclusively beige and made of flour.
I jest, but this place is a magical wonderland of baked goods. I came in with the agenda of picking up a single croissant to brunch on during the day’s first film, and ended up carrying a suitcase full of food back into Empire Screen 1. I really did pity the guy sat next to me.
It was a tough choice between the Bayonne Ham & Gruyere Croissant and the Mushroom, Spinach and Comté Croissant. So I just got both. Also a Raspberry and Pistachio Fiancier and a Chocolate Salt Caramel Tart. After that I stopped – otherwise you all might think I was being a bit greedy on this trip.
They are wonderful people who serve you in Balthazar Bakery. Enthusiastic and proud. And they have every right to be when surrounded by stuff of this quality. The croissants were crisp in exactly the right way, the fillings of the highest standard and perfectly balanced. Both the fiancier and tart were indulgent without being sickly. That’s in spite of them being loaded with what feels like half a jar of jam or a pint of melty chocolate respectively.
My only regret was that I didn’t drag my sorry arse out of bed at LSE High Holborn early enough on Tuesday morning, and so didn’t have enough time to go back “on the way to” Euston for another luggage-sized picnic. Not only is the food here of impeccable quality but it’s very competitively priced too. I’d be happy to go back any time and Balthazar Boulangerie would be my first choice for a portable breakfast in the West End.
2 Breakfast Croissants, Fiancier, Chocolate Tart: £10.95
ChinChin Labs, Camden
The previous day’s parting words: “We’ve got a new special tomorrow – Coconut Sun Cream” was all the excuse we needed to skip a film for a third trip to Camden on our final day. Besides, Odd Thomas looked rubbish.
Again it was a beautiful ice cream. As well as creating stunning recipes the guys at ChinChin have a fantastic talent for matching flavours to the weather. Never trying their “Freshly Cut Grass” flavour is a regret I will carry to my grave.
I got a chocolate one as well because I hadn’t had that flavour since 2011.
It takes approximately 3 hours 50 minutes to drive from my house in Leigh to Finchley Central Tube Station car park. From there it’s 20 minutes on the Northern Line and a five minute walk to reach 49- 50, Camden Lock Place, NW1 8AF. A total of about £60 in diesel, parking and Oyster charges.
If I were feeling flush and exuberant I’d gladly spend all that time and money just to get an ice cream at ChinChin Labs. It really is that good.
Ice Cream x2 + extra topping: £8.35
Hawksmoor Seven Dials
Or “Orks-mu-weh”, as we pronounce it in Lancashire.
We absolutely loved this last year, so a return visit was inevitable (especially since we’re still waiting for confirmation of when their Leigh branch will open).
As always the set menu is phenomenally good value for this quality of food. Especially when served in this quantity as well.
Very few changes have been made to the choice-of-three-things Set Menu since last year. I went with Bone Marrow & Onions, since I’d had the Potted Mackerel last time. Plus, snooping our neighbour’s table revealed that Doddington Caesar Salad was just a pile of lettuce (the leaves so big they hung over the sides of the plate) and not much else. The marrow was slightly too rich for my palette. They were a bit stingy with the bread. Back to the Mackerel in future.
Steak was impeccable. A change from our last visit where the meat was the least interesting thing we ate. The chips aren’t quite as good as the ones they serve at Dinner. But you get a hilariously big portion, even on the cheapo menu.
Hawksmoor’s take on Sticky Toffee pudding is still probably one of the finest traditional desserts being served in the British Isles. I was shocked at how airily light it was compared to the version I’ve been making at home, with the aid of their cookbook. Though I put pecans in mine, which evens the score. It’s still impossible to finish due this to the miserly portion of clotted cream they give you.
Actually, it’s also impossible to finish the STP because even the value menu leaves you fit to burst by the third course. That, and the Cornflake Milkshake I’d ordered is practically a dessert in liquid form. Horrendously calorific and utterly delicious. As you’ll have read – it tastes exactly like the milk left at the bottom of a cereal bowl.
As a bonus, they brought us a plate of Salt Caramel Rolos because it was Danny’s birthday. This was a double treat: 1. Because I thought you could only get these at Air Street. And ,2. We got some from there before Book of Mormon, but by the time we got round to eating them they’d melted.
Of course we were all far too full to eat more than a single bite. Danny, crippled half way through his Raspberry Eton Mess, handed his to the girl at the next table. Crisp snappy chocolate and magnificent gooey caramel. A childhood favourite made grown-up and wonderful. Y’know, the way Heston does with his childhood favourites (phew, back on-message).
Express Menu & Cornflake Milkshake: £30
In spite of its name and distinctly horror roots Frightfest encompasses a wider range of genre’s than you’d think. Last year’s big closing film, Tower Block, was a straight-up thriller. This year the festival ended with an Israeli black comedy about corrupt police.
But, even though it encompasses this broader range, the quality of any given Frightfest is dependent in large part to the films on release in any given year. 2012 had a fairly woeful selection. Mis-steps by the programme organisers can be partly to blame. You only need to look at this year’s sell-out second screening of Willow Creek for proof of that.
My own opinions are often at odds with the post-festival dissection over on the Frightfest forums, but if I had to pick three favourites this year they’d be:
– A spectacularly engaging four-hander that asks how far you’d be prepared to go if you were desperate for money. The performances and production are all the more astonishing when you consider this was shot over 14 days on a budget of just $100,000.
Big Bad Wolves
– Without question the biggest hit of the festival this year. A hilarious masterpiece, part Coen Brothers and part South Korean crime caper. More than worthy of being the final film to be shown on the screen of Empire 1 before they tear it down to build an IMAX.
– Found footage movies get a lot of bad press. But I am a huge fan of them. This is a perfectly executed example of the format. No cheesy reveals, plus a fun balance of mystery and scares. Ted Levine’s Hunter S Thompson impersonation is a scenery-chewing joy.
Oh, and yeah. For a people who famously put vinegar on pies and chips on pizza these Londoners seem to be able to eat out to a pretty high standard nowadays.
This year the ones we didn’t have time for were: Pitt Cue Co in Soho, Peking Duck at Four Seasons on Gerrard St, the Short Rib French Dip at Hawksmoor Air Street bar, Bahn Mi 11.
Not to worry, there’s always the Frightfest All-Nighter in October. Now go to ChinChin Labs.
Would you have visited any of these places in London, or do you have any recommendations of places close to Leicster Square we should have tried instead? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments section.