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Da Maria

Jay Rayner of the Observer reviews Da Maria: “This tiny outpost of Naples is the pride and joy of Notting Hill. Now comes the terrible news that it is under threat.”

Da Maria on London’s Notting Hill Gate is not much to look at, literally. It is less a fully fledged restaurant than a strip-lit, table-laid cupboard. It looks like a sandwich bar with ambitions above its station, which is exactly what it is. The space did once just knock out sandwiches. Then the Ruocco family arrived and in 1980 opened it as a Neapolitan trattoria.

There is a menu of pastas and pizzas and secondi, supplemented by specials made by Maria Ruocco, depending upon what’s in the fridge and on her mind. There are a couple of wines. And of course, it’s cheap. Nothing is more than £8 or £9. When we wrote about it last year we described it as “the best Neapolitan family cooking” north of the San Paolo stadium.

It’s the kind of place that keeps a city like London both human and, more to the point, humane. In the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, a restaurant of this quality at these prices is akin to a bloody miracle.

Which makes the news that there are attempts to wipe it from the map by turns infuriating and utterly heartbreaking. Da Maria’s sliver of heaven is within the building occupied by the Gate Cinema, now part of the Picturehouse group. Their entrances are side by side. They share a landlord, Imperial Resources Ltd, which has made a planning application to extend the cinema’s foyer, by knocking through into Da Maria and putting the restaurant out of business after 37 years.

The Coal Rooms in a former train station office in London’s Peckham is just the ticket, says the Evening Standard’s Ben Norum.

The entrance and front room is particularly tastefully restored, though sadly the back room where most of the dining takes place is a newer and less charming addition.

Still, platform views offer decent compensation and the room develops a lively atmosphere as it fills up. This is aided, no doubt, by swiftly served and keenly priced cocktails including a smoke-imbued and particularly filthy Dirty Martini.

A mound of shredded smoked goat shoulder is soft and juicy, oiled by a rich gravy. Grits topped with jalapenos and crunchy ‘canchita’ toasted corn kernels are creamy and rich. A blackened coal-roasted cauliflower lavished with an ultra-umami miso bagna cauda and crunchy Japanese seaweed is a highlight that should absolutely not be left just to the veggies. And chewy Peckham sourdough isn’t to be forgotten, either – it is triumphant spread thickly with smalec, a pork fat-based ‘butter’ studded with spices.

The exception to the sharing rule is a cod cheek kedgeree topped with a runny egg yolk, which could be held up as an example of how this great dish should be done. You won’t want to share that.

Oh, and to finish do go for the apple cheddar pie. The cheddar is in the crust and it really, really works. A cheese course and pud in one.


Grace Dent of the Evening Standard enjoys Marcella’s heavenly pasta with seasonal produce in Deptford, which is certainly having a moment.

So, don’t shoot the messenger, but Deptford is certainly having a moment. Where this leaves all the indigenous residents on the circumference of this moment is a heady question, but if you want to make your own mind up, I can think of nowhere nicer to begin than Marcella, the new addition to the high street and the sister to Peckham’s Artusi.

Marcella is continuing Borough’s Padella tradition of proffering simple plates of heavenly and relatively pocket-friendly, seasonally changing pasta, like the fresh tagliatelle with girolles, which I sucked into my face, emitting savage-like sounds on my last visit. Or a fantastic plate of deftly seasoned bucatini with salsiccia. The saffron arancini were both delicious and vividly sunset-coloured. And they do a great negroni for £6 and Gavi di Gavi by the glass. Service is gorgeous and chipper.

There are, indeed, larger sharing plates of delights such as bream stuffed with fennel and clams or Hereford short rib, but when excellent pasta is on offer, sometimes it’s good to stay simple, then round off with a humble bowl of homespun blackcurrant ripple ice cream.

The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon reviews the Wigmore, London: ‘I was surprised to find the Scotch egg was pork – rather than, say, sautéed unicorn’.

From the outside, it must be said, The Wigmore doesn’t look like a pub. In fact, it looks more like a bank. An old-fashioned, exclusive sort of bank. I’d be surprised if many passers-by pop in on impulse for a quick pint.

Now, everyone knows what a Scotch egg is like. It’s a burp trapped in breadcrumbs. But not at The Wigmore. These didn’t even look like Scotch eggs. They looked… hairy. Big, round, brown, and hairy. Side by side they sat, the pair of them, like something unmentionable lopped off a yak. The hair turned out to be strands of vermicelli pasta. I took a bite. Prickly – followed by a warm squirt of yolk from a quail’s egg. Yes, a quail’s egg. I was almost surprised to find that the meat used was pork – rather than, say, sautéed unicorn.

My wife, meanwhile, was goggling at her toastie. The menu had listed it as a mere ‘snack’. It was about the size of an ironing board. Still, it tasted good: molten cheese, lavishly thick, scattered with red onion and gherkin.

Also among the snacks were the ox-tongue potatoes. Thin, gnarled, witchy fingers of layered potato, each a good foot long, and accompanied by a dip of anchovy sauce. They were shatteringly crisp and blisteringly salty.

There are treasures to be found at Melur in London W2, says the Guardian’s Marina O’Loughlin.

Melur has been popping up on the timelines of the kind of Instagram otaku who takes the search for bergedil or ayam berlada hijau very seriously indeed. That’s where it came to my attention: just as well, because nothing else here is exactly designed to draw in the passerby – forget any kind of kerb appeal. I follow the don’t-read-book-by-cover ethos as much as the next culinary nerd, I know the deal whereby the swankiest outpost is not necessarily the best, but Melur seems almost calculated to repel. From leery, acid-coloured posters of the menu attempting to camouflage the building works next door to those green-walled, scuffed stairs leading down to a windowless basement, it really does not give a gal the glad eye.

But persevere, because there are treasures here, a comprehensive Malaysian adventure from light, crisp fried squid with a lurid sweet chilli sauce (excellent) to pandan pancakes. There’s satay, obviously; from the choice of meats – including beef – we choose lamb. But this is no mere lambkin, this is mutton: the chewiest, charred-fat, muttoniest mutton. It’s the kind of thing that makes you imagine sheep bits scooped from firepits in Moroccan markets, or from flaming coals in Macau side streets, or kept under saddles on the Mongolian steppes.

Portions are humungous. Nasi lemak is listed under “rice dishes”; like eejits we expect a side of coconut rice with a scattering of the usual accompaniments. Instead, it’s a riotous spread that could easily feed two: a dome of nutty, perfumed rice, a bowl of bone-in chicken curry, fierce with cinnamon and clove, spiky little dried anchovies (ikan bilis), excellent peanuts – truly, some peanuts are better than others – and a deep, scarlet sambal of spectacular heat and sweet richness.

I’m going back for the kari laksa. Or pre-ordering the whole crab with all the red chilli. Or the Indonesian-style rijsttafel. Hell, it may not be the most beautiful restaurant in town, but try and stop me.

Game bird

Giles Coren lunches with the editor of the Times at Game Bird in the Stafford hotel in London.

Hats off to the elegant little Stafford hotel, more famous for its American bar and secluded location down a St James’s cul-de-sac than its restaurant, for hiring the young and relatively unheralded English chef James Durrant to have a crack at making something of the food. Just a glance at his à la carte menu online – gala pie; roe deer tartare; whole Dover sole meunière; salt marsh lamb lobscouse; steak and ale steamed suet pudding – tells you he’s travelling in the right direction: forwards, with an eye on the past. Or possibly backwards, with an eye on the future. Both are good.

I’ve chosen venues for lunch with editors of The Times before, this current (and, may I say, excellent) one included. It’s quite stressful. Because not only do I have to make sure that I do not say or do anything stupid during lunch – like any employee – but so does the restaurant. I can make all the right moves, hit the right mark between lively banter and fawning deference, drop the odd pearl of gossip, hardly swear at all, and then someone gives him a bit of overcooked liver or some soggy chips and I’m finished. Reputation shot. Job security a-wobble.

I had the chicken Kiev, made from the fowl that we decided many thousands of years ago was the only one tasty enough to be worth domesticating.

It arrived looking like a small brick: a heavy amber rectangle, gritty with crumb. Next to it was a quenelle of mashed potato about two thirds its considerable size, with four thick flakes of summer truffle on top….With the bird broached and the butter puddled out, I took off the bib, reclaimed my dignity and chowed down. It was utterly historic. Crisp on the teeth then superbly soft and buttery, tangy but not high with the garlic. The mash was perfect and was lent an earthy dignity by the truffle.

But I’ll be going back to the Stafford because anyone who can do this with a chicken and a potato (and about a kilo of butter) deserves to have his suet puddings, côte de boeuf, braised English rose veal, calves’ liver, egg and chips and oysters Rockefeller very closely looked at.


Varsity hotel

Tom Chesshyre of the Times loves the £6m refurbishment and rooftop bar at the Varsity hotel in the heart of Cambridge.

Waiters deliver champagne cocktails and G&Ts to the 100 or so drinkers lounging on sofas and chairs set amid potted plants on the artificial-grass roof, gazing across St John’s College and the Bridge of Sighs. This has to be one of the best spots to enjoy a tipple in any city in the UK (blankets are available when it gets chilly).

Will Davies, who graduated from Cambridge in 1995, opened this slick hotel in 2010. It stretches across a couple of buildings, including a former warehouse. Although he did not have a background in hospitality, Davies raised cash for the project from friends. Last year he secured a £6 million bank loan and completed a full refurbishment, adding a sixth-floor restaurant. There’s also a gym, spa and steakhouse restaurant in buildings, with separate entrances at the back.

The 44 rooms are bright and breezy, many have floor-to-ceiling windows. Patterned wallpaper with pink flowers on a gold background give rooms a lift. Jars of jelly beans and cashew nuts (both £5) are for sale in the minibars, as well as bottles of well-judged wine (good malbec for £25). Light switches are uncomplicated and bedside lighting is perfect for reading. Bathrooms have spotless white tiles and monsoon showers (Elemis toiletries supplied).

Playful décor is the focus of the newly opened six bedrooms at the Mount Edgcumbe, a restaurant with rooms in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, says the Guardian’sJane Dunford.

This affluent commuter town may have a rather staid reputation but here a sense of character and eccentricity strikes as soon as you walk in the door. For starters, there’s a cave just off the bar. Chiselled into sandstone in the sixth century (the house was built over it), it’s now a cosy snug with leather sofas, tonight busy with young drinkers.

The current owners, Robert and Sally Hogben, reopened the Mount Edgcumbe as a restaurant in 2012, keeping many of the original Georgian features. And last month they opened six rooms on the top floor after a lengthy restoration project. Sally obviously had lots of fun decorating the place (with an interior designer friend, Fiona) and Rob, who is also a builder, did much of the work himself with help from his son. The second-floor hall has bold harlequin-print wallpaper and playful touches, such as dummy doors floating in the wall above the stairwell.

The restaurant is all wood floors, exposed brick, interesting art and mismatched furniture – and it extends to the first floor on busy nights. The menu offers meze-style sharing platters and upmarket pub grub. We follow starters of prawn and crayfish cocktail, and chilli salted squid (both £7.25) with mains of salmon with beetroot slaw (£16.75), and tuna steak with cucumber salsa (£16.50). Flavours are fresh, the fish perfectly cooked and portions generous. We fall into bed satisfied and sleep well in super-comfy Hypnos beds, despite rumours that the (friendly) ghost of a lady called Mary roams the building.