This year, Air Malta experienced a huge surge in Malta-London bookings on all its flights. Starting from November of last year and with the slump of the Sterling, we canny Maltese started flying out in droves to buy whatever we could lay our hands on: expensive cars, expensive clothes, expensive shoes; well, they were, relatively, expensive no more.
Quite a few misguided people booked with Ryanair, not realising that in many cases, the few euro of difference in the advertised price would change from being in their favour to working against them the moment they had to haul the luggage, a la Maltija, back with them and actually pay to check-in, even online. They had fallen into the great big hole of ‘low-cost’ flying.
It is very important to be sharp when booking your flights. Get yourself to an airport which is well served with the tube (Heathrow or Gatwick express) and leave some of your money for the food: lots and lots and lots of yummy food.
The best places are hard to get into, so you also need to be canny here. How to a table at that impossible restaurant? Simple: call and tell them you’re a restaurant critic. Seriously now, don’t. Most restaurants of a certain calibre employ their own PR companies and they will check you out. Unlike Malta, London eateries are very well-served on the web, so you can, in most cases, try and book via their own online booking systems.
The best and easiest trick though is to call. With VOIP, calls are superbly cheap. Pre- and post-theatre timings in the West End are very difficult to get but you can pursue your table by calling over and over. I sometimes also call and say I’m my own PA, giving myself superb importance and bagging a table in the process.
Restaurants that are always packed, such as J Sheekey (reviewed last week and on www.planetmona.com) does not normally take bookings for the bar area so you can just turn up. You might have to wait. ‘Just turning up’ is also a good idea in most difficult restaurants because these places almost always leave some empty tables for their celebs. In this case, you will be the celeb. The trick is to never give up.
[The Mid-Range Wonders]
Asakusa I don’t know if you can call Asakusa ‘mid-range’. In my head, a £35 Japanese dinner with loads of fresh seafood, quality ume sho (plum wine) or sake thrown in is nothing if not dirt cheap. The owners and most of the staff are actually Japanese and the food is just fabulous: as real as anything in the back streets of Tokyo.
What brings the price down and keeps it packed every night (now this is one you absolutely need to book from at least a week before, usually more) is the location: Asakusa is in the horrible Eversholt Street. In comparison to the nineties, there are few homeless people in London, but many of them seem to like it around here.
The first room, which is like something the cat dragged in, having busted its spine in the process, seats some 25 people. A narrow corridor beyond this has been converted in a bar area where you can (almost - the bar is too high) watch the sashimi chef preparing your food. It seats just seven people. If you are as unlucky as me and get to sit next to a slurper, you’ve had it. Take your iPod.
The overall look is your mum’s 1980s living room gone horribly wrong. The carpet is red and mismatched from one room to the other. The wall is covered with wood cladding in places and plastered in others. But the food: oh lord; the food is just superb.
The amaebi sashimi - sweet prawn with soy sauce and green mustard - is the stuff of dreams. How do you get a prawn to taste so sweet? Simple: do nothing to it. The buta kakuni (simmered pork belly) is perfect cold-weather staple. The deep-fried soft-shell crab is so tender you eat it lock, stock and shell. The Asakusa salad with vegetables, seaweed, nuts and raw fish is enough to fill you up on its own and I absolutely adore their soups overflowing with excellent quality soba or other noodles, fish and meat, sometimes in tempura. The yellow-tail sashimi is slick and soft. The problem at Asakusa is always one: how on earth do I stop eating? The trick is simple: stop ordering.
265 Eversholt St
London, NW1 1BA, United Kingdom
+44 20 73888399
Racine My introduction to this absolutely fabulous French bistrot-style restaurant was through the book written by its then Chef, Henry Harris, who is as English as they come. Harris was the first haute-cuisine chef to write a low-carb cookbook. Sometimes I feel like sending him a copy of Mona’s Meals: The Foodbook, because in his, there are practically no desserts. Harris sold his share in Racine and moved on to the Soho House Group.
Whoever took Harris’s place is doing an excellent job and of course, the French selection is as low-carb, or not, as you want it. The crème brulee is stunning and so is every dessert dish available. The calves’ brain with black butter and tiny, punchy capers is an epiphany - you must ditch all your preconceptions and just tuck in. The creamed spinach is possibly the best I have ever tasted anywhere, including France. The steak tartare is so perfect you will never ever want to taste another. This restaurant is more French than many restaurants in Paris itself.
Racine has some of the best service in London: the staff will put away your multitude of Harvey Nichols bags (do I speak from experience? Possibly), seat you at a buzzy table rather than hide you away even if you are on your own, and are knowledgeable about everything you ask about, from the wine to the individual dishes. And when you totter out, through the packed tables, back to the hotel, they will accompany you and pack your bags in your taxi. I have sent many people to this Knightsbridge institution, including some food-obsessed Frenchies, and they all come back as happy as little puppies.
239 Brompton Road
Knightsbridge, London SW3 2EP
Tel: 020-7584 4477
The Wolseley Not everybody gets this restaurant, but I certainly do. In so doing, I join AA Gill, who wrote their book and Michael Winner, who is there very frequently. Did I see them when I was there? No I did not. Did this make any difference whatsoever to the dining experience? Of course it did not.
The Wolseley is, first and foremost, truly gorgeous. It is housed in a Grade II listed building which harks back to 1921 and has been packing its floor since 2003. Sit in the balcony area at your peril since it is considered to be the least visible and therefore dining Coventry. Everybody wants to be seen at The Wolseley.
The best thing about it is that it is open from breakfast onwards, so there is a breakfast and all-day menu, a lunch menu and a dinner menu. You can spend as little, or as much, as you want. They do all the traditional British items including scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, all manner of omelettes, porridge, Cumberland sausage with tomato relish and salt beef and mustard on rye bread.
I went for dinner: the fish dishes are sublime and the service was always attentive and olde-worlde even though at my table it was just me and my book. I was given a good table rather than shuffled to the back away from the groups and the couples. Try the Matjes herring with pumpernickel or if you are there on a Saturday, the dish of the day: a 7-hour cooked lamb. The desserts are sublime. Whatever you eat at The Wolseley, you can be sure that it will be cooked perfectly and accompanied with the traditional sides, exactly as they should be.
160, Piccadilly, London WIJ 9EB
Tel 020 7499 6996
The Liberty Tearooms This is one for when you are laden with bags or planning to be very soon. The 1875 Liberty building is stunning and worth visiting just for the architecture, not to mention the Pleats Please and all manner of funky designers stocked inside the department store - that includes Giuseppe Zanotti.
Liberty Tearooms are very pretty - they are spot-on ladies who lunch fare for those who are well below the 50 age group complete with massive Liberty-print butterflies on the wall. You can have pies, excellent sandwiches and a huge selection of teas including single-estate and never-heard-of exemplars. Their cakes are wonderful and I remember the warmed scones with Cornish clotted cream and home-made jam extremely fondly. So do my thighs.
Then, once you’re ready, you need to burn it all off. Hop across the street to Banana Republic, cross the road to Molton Brown and walk to the right to Sketch where you can start planning on getting drunk for the evening. That is, if you can make it past their ground floor Beauty section which includes Kiehl’s, OPI, Aesop, Ren and every single other brand worth funding.
London W1B 5AH
Petersham Nurseries After so much time in London, you will need to get out and let your eyes take in some green. A 20-minute train journey out of Hammersmith takes you to the wondrous Petersham Nurseries in Richmond, bang on the border of posh Surrey. If you need to work in London this is absolutely the place to live. Of course, it is superbly expensive (the property, not the Nurseries).
Book. On a weekday, the restaurant, run by Skye Gyngell, whose name is too cool for nursery school, will be absolutely packed. And small wonder: the set three-course lunch menu has black figs with heritage tomatoes, Parma ham and dates, slow cooked lamb shoulder with tomatoes, courgettes and bulls’ blood as well as lemon curd with strawberries.
Gyngell is big on ingredients, as you can imagine. She uses only seasonal items and does it extremely well. If you do not manage to eat, you can always have a cake and some tea from the tea-shop. Be prepared for the unbelievable quantity of yummie mummies and quite a few brats. They also do not accept cards at the tea-shop so take cash.
Go prepared: they stock a lovely quantity of seasonal plants and herbs, some of which are so baby that you can bring them back with you. Leave them in your hand luggage, complete with tags and receipts, so that the security people will not think you’re trying to lug over coca plants.
Off Church Lane,
Restaurant bookings only: +44 (0)20 8605 3627