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Beach Blanket Babylon

“Our meal is so grim that I’m baffled it still exists at all,” says Marina O’Loughlin reviewing Beach Blanket Babylon in London’s Notting Hill in the Sunday Times.

I’d eaten at this bizarre restaurant in the past and vowed never again. It may have wowed the younger me with its daft decor: dank brick chamber after chamber, linked by chained mini drawbridges; fireplaces in the shape of lions’ mouths; faux-rococo furnishings. But even then I knew the food was bad. Today, the undeniably handsome Georgian townhouse feels less “sexy count’s exquisite torture dungeon” and more “1990s video game”; we’re plonked right beside that loud, large party in an otherwise deserted restaurant: do we now have to beat level two?

The menu is short — normally a good thing, a sign of concentrating on a few things and doing them well. Not this one: it’s like the result of a stressed trolley-dash around Iceland (not the country). It’s not even a homage to the restaurant’s 1990s heyday — we appear to be in a Berni Inn circa 1976: tomato linguine with parmesan shavings (ooh, get you); risotto of the day; chicken breast supreme with chive mash and cabbage; fillet steak, peppercorn, salad, fries. I have nothing against this kind of thing done well. But it just isn’t. “Panko prawns” are Kerry Katona canapés with tooth-resistant orange exoskeletons; calamari are rubber restraints — left over from the dungeon? — weirdly bendy and brittle.

One pal tries her overcooked salmon’s sauce and says, startled: “It’s a Müller Corner!” I have a taste and it could be a new flavour: possibly Vanilla and Lemon with Undertones of Sugary Fish. This is dismal but, astonishingly, not the worst dish. That accolade goes to “Moroccan confit duck leg”. This poor bird is not confit, it’s cauterised, with all the luscious, juicy tenderness of a blowtorched pterodactyl. It comes on a bed of couscous and dried apricot drenched in honey, so sweet it makes me long for some Scottish tablet as a palate cleanser.


The Guardian’s Grace Dent reviews Another Place, Ullswater, Cumbria: ‘Undressed rocket? That’s just trolling.’

Decor is vague Scandi-chic and sub-Hamptons glamour blended with a touch of former Georgian grandeur, and it pulls together prettily. The Instagram Stasi would like it, but I’m not sure they’d find much to nom-nom about in the two dining options – The Living Space or the more formal Rampsbeck restaurant. We ate in the Rampsbeck, where the menu is largely yesteryear Britannia: Herdwick lamb, Morecambe Bay shrimp and Lakeland beef.

Alarm bells go off when the sample menu online lists vegetarian crumble as the sole main-course nod to “free-from” eating. Let me get this straight: you want people to drive somewhere so out of the way even local taxis can’t find it, and to pay hundreds of quid for a weekend, yet expect them to assemble evening meals out of side dishes of “chunky chips” and “wedge salad – hold the Caesar dressing”?

A shallot tarte tatin is a stodgy affair, with no depth or ochre hue to the onion. It arrives on undressed rocket, which for me is just trolling. Very year-10 home ec. Nothing on offer, aside from the tatin, is terrible, but you can eat better and cheaper than this in several nearby pubs.

I’m still conflicted about the Lake District trying to be hip, and it’s clear some people are keen. They’re just really rather bad at it.


The ivy

The Telegraph’s Michael Deacon believes the Ivy has spread to quickly and lost some style in its expansion as he visits the Tunbridge Wells site.

There’s practically a table for every man, woman, child and dog in Britain. And, brand-wise, it’s not an easy balancing act to pull off: trying to be both exclusive, and ubiquitous.

The place was decorated in the Ivy’s familiar art-deco style. The chairs were plump. The walls were riotously busy with pictures, a chaotic clash of abstract and realist, barely a square inch spare.

To start, we ordered the truffle arancini, the wasabi prawns with salt and pepper squid, and the wild mushrooms on toasted brioche. They arrived with almost startling speed. Wetherspoon’s could hardly have served us quicker.

The truffle arancini were very good: gorgeous little orbs of creamy nuttiness. I liked the wasabi prawns, too: big and satisfyingly crunchy, dipped in wasabi mayonnaise for a teasing tingle of heat. The toasted brioche with mushrooms, though, was soggy and wan.

My wife’s main was dukka-spiced sweet potato. An exotic name for a bowl of bland squidge. Not that she’d had much choice. Though the menu was packed to bursting with options, only one other main was vegetarian – there wasn’t even a vegetarian version of the Ivy burger.

My shepherd’s pie, billed as an Ivy classic, wasn’t much better: stewy, soupy, gloopy, the potato limp and listless. My side of creamed spinach was wilted damp slop. (Bit of a theme here: the worst dishes were all weirdly wet. Maybe a pipe had burst in the kitchen.)


The Times’ Giles Coren pretends to be a ‘rich person who didn’t care’ at Harry’s Dolce Vita, London SW3.

The charming restaurant manager suggested the flatbread with ’nduja and the house carpaccio, which were both terrific, as were the unusually slim and crispy zucchini fritti. Then, because I was a guest, I had the tagliolini with white truffle shaved generously over it. Delicious. Not the natural dish for an inquisitive restaurant critic on his own expenses to choose, but exactly what a rich person who didn’t care would have, which was what I was pretending to be, for journalistic purposes.

My dessert was bonkers. Named, I assume, after a rare Venetian genito-urinary affliction, “Harry’s Toadstool” was a Disney-like recreation of a giant fly agaric, the stalk made of iced vanilla parfait, the head made of white chocolate filled with mascarpone and then dusted with coloured icing to create the red with white polka dots image of fairytale. Finally, a green sludge of hot pistachio sauce was poured round it to create a rus in urbe scene not unreminiscent of the London 2012 Olympics’ opening ceremony.

The coffee was excellent, the limoncello was poured dramatically onto flaked ice, the lighting, the brass, the parquet and the signature Bellini with frozen peach balls in a flute of neat prosecco were all gleaming, and the whole experience was a great demonstration of what a nice time rich people can have and how much money they can spend, if you only let them in.


Enoteca Rosso

In Enoteca Rosso London’s Kensington now has a welcoming neighbourhood restaurant mysteriously transported from Milan, says the Evening Standard’s David Sexton.

If the wine list covers the country, the food from head chef Flavio Militello, who has worked at Michelin-starred Felix Lo Basso in Milan, is distinctively north Italian, tending to the rich and the unctuous. Not for vegans, not for January dries, Enoteca Rosso.

There are “tagliere”, boards of cuts of salumi or cheeses, served with home-made focaccia. We tried the grandest, the Tagliere Rosso at £25, enough for four rather than two. Lardo has become a Hackney hipster fad and never seduced me in this form. Here the Lardo di Colonnata IGP (lard aged for six months in salt in marble basins in Carrarra), sliced thin, to be spread over bread, was indecently good, an essence of pig, aromatic and silken, ethereal even.

The pasta dishes are helpfully served in small (£7), medium (£12) or large (£24) portions, the small ones being quite chunky, it turns out. Chestnut gnocchi, bland and floury, came with sweet pumpkin velouté, oil-based, flavoured with rosemary, a herb that kept reappearing here: nice stodge but no main dish. Black ravioli containing burrata and served with a light basil pesto, were interesting and unusual — dark pasta envelopes made with a commercial powder of blackened vegetables as well as flour, an intriguing half-green, half-ashy taste.

Fine homemade tagliatelle, flavoured with saffron visible in the form of tiny red embedded specks, were served with a lamb ragu, well de-fatted but still slick — this was an ultra-comfort food. From the short list of meat dishes (£12, £24 and £42 for the different sizes), a wild boar stew was well braised, highly flavoured chunks, a little over-spiced with crunchy whole cloves and peppers included, served on a loose, salty polenta made from coarse grains.


The Observer’s Jay Rayner finds chips worth shouting about at Parsons in London’s Covent Garden.

So, the chips: not the offensive chunky kind, which speak of a kitchen that can’t be fagged to cut the potatoes properly. Not matchstick-thin either. These are Goldilocks chips, fried to golden brown. They are properly crisp so you can snap them. Shake the bowl and they rustle, like taffeta on taffeta. But bite in and there’s still soft, steamed potato inside. You’d think chips would be one of the easiest things to get right, but no. All too often I come across a serving which feels like a waste of potatoes and calories and hope; which are a masterclass in slackness and disdain. If a kitchen can’t be bothered to get the chips right, the entire staff should be taken out and shot as a warning to others. Or at the very least given a stern talking to.

Start with their potted shrimp croquettes, which are one of the best uses for a nutty brown shrimp I’ve ever come across. The light béchamel is heavy with cracked black pepper and all the spices you associate with potted shrimps. It’s a massive flavour bomb inside a crisp panko breadcrumb shell. It leaves you chasing the last smear about the plate, hopelessly. Smoked cod’s roe, a pleasing beige, is whipped up with a little lemon juice and served with crisp shards of cracker. It’s a north European take on tarama, with just an edge of bitterness. Then there is the brown crab pissaladière, the tangle of slow-cooked onions laid over a mess of sultry, baked brown crab meat in turn on a disc of thin, friable pastry. What makes it sing is the rush of aniseed from dollops of a bright green tarragon mayo alongside tiny leaves of the same. These are strident flavours that can be hated by some, while being loved by others. The haters are obviously wrong, but that’s OK. More for the rest of us. At £4 it is a small but thrillingly formed piece of edible loveliness.


HOTELS

Lifehouse Spa & Hotel

Sherelle Jacobs of the Telegraph is hoping her stay at the Lifehouse Spa & Hotel in Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, will lead to a more Zen-like lifestyle.

My session with Michael, the hotel’s energy healing master, started with half an hour of meditation. This involved focusing on deep breaths and bashing away any random thoughts, like how early I’d have to get up the next morning, and whether I have a vitamin D deficiency. It was 30 minutes of tortured struggle. But Michael insisted that doing it for three minutes a day could drastically lift my mood.

After my treatment, I felt like the lady of the manor, strolling among the sunken gardens, ice-crusted lakes, and the charcoal silhouettes of the handkerchief trees. Interiors are more Scandi-chic: crackling fires in the grooves of granite feature walls, black kidney-shaped sofas and candles in flaking, “distressed” bowls. Fun prints of carrots (“the visionary”) and ginger (“the soother”) line the walls. In the bar, with its white orchids and walls inset with piles of logs, guests sip protein smoothies on retro chairs with tapered legs.
Food aims to please both alkaline dieters and the prosecco pampering brigade. I found healthy options tasty, from superfood salad with tenderstem broccoli, pomegranate and flaxseed crispbread; to courgette and carrot spaghetti with spirulina pesto.

This not a flawless hotel. For a tranquil stay, avoid busy Saturdays. Some hallways have purple-striped carpets that would better suit a head office in Staines. But the spa facilities are excellent. After my energy healing session, I let off steam ping-ponging between the sauna and the freezing plunge pool.