#12 – Croatia – Riviera, Acton

The first EatFIFA of 2013 took a crowd of twelve to the outer limits of London’s sprawl to find a dedicated Croatian restaurant. An hour on the Piccadilly line (for me, not for Adam, who lives conveniently locally) and we found ourselves at Acton Town, ten minutes’ walk from which is a little restaurant called Riviera. From the outside, it could be mistaken for a greasy spoon, however it is like the Doctor’s Tardis on the inside, and surprisingly spacious and modern.

Upon our arrival, we were greeted by the charismatic owners Dara and Tomislav, quite possibly the loveliest people in Acton. Never before has EatFIFA been showered with so much attention, although we were admittedly the only customers – and would remain so for the rest of the evening. The night kicked off with a round of drinks, including some distinctly un-Croatian bottles of San Miguel, before Dara came round and took our order for starters. Now, at this point, it must be made clear that Riviera’s menu isn’t entirely Croatian. It is a mix of Mediterranean staples, with four or five traditional Croatian dishes. Dara and Tomislav, however, are proud Croats and that was already enough for us.

To kick off the Croatian feast, a plethora of dishes found their way onto Dara’s scribbled notepad – whitebait, deep fried calamari, meat platter and a “Croatian salad”. This salad, being the only apparently national dish among the first course, looked suspiciously like a Greek salad, but I’m no professional food critic. The general consensus for the starters was positive – the fish dishes were cooked very well, including some well-seasoned whitebait. To accompany the food, Riviera pipes out some Eurovision-worthy Croatian retro-pop into the room – Dara tends to nudge the volume button up a couple of notches for her favourites, too.

On to the mains – a couple of steaks (a la Dalmacija, no less), pašticada, Dara’s very own grilled lamb recipe and a grilled sea bass were ordered. If I had one qualm then it was with the Croatian idea of a medium-rare steak – it was a little on the tough side. That aside, the sauce and side dish of sautéed potatoes were delicious. There was an air of envy when the fleshy sea bass was delivered to the table. That looked bloody good. A wide range of Croatian wine was on offer, including a (no doubt opinion-dividing) white by the name of “Zlatan”.

So, to finish off, we were treated to some of Tomislav’s snenokle, “eggs in snow” in Serbo-Croatian, a kind of meringue plunged into custard. We also had some rožata – Croatia’s answer to crème brûlée. Both were pleasant, but just lacking the wow-factor that other nations’ desserts had provided previously. All the food was helped down with a complimentary shot of pear liqueur Marasaka Kruskovac, which was delicious.

To the scoreboard…

Food: 45.6

Drink: 71.7

Service: 77.3

Atmosphere: 79.1

Value For Money: 62.3

SCORE: 67.20

Dara and Tomislav hail from a country with a cuisine that’s hard to pin down, but they have created some very nice dishes in their small enclave in W3, enough to sneak them ahead of Portugal in our rankings. Pay them a visit!

Next stop – Greece.

Živjeli!

EatFIFA.

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#11 – Russia – Mari Vanna, Knightsbridge

The last EatFIFA of 2012 took us to London’s Russian stronghold of Knightsbridge and Mari Vanna, reportedly one of Roman Abramovich’s favourites. There were no oligarchs in sight this evening, but almost certainly some of their WAGs.

Coming in out of the cold to the warmest of welcomes (never has an offer of taking one’s coat been extended with such glee), we were shown downstairs to a cosily-lit dining room. The staff, who can only be described as impossibly beautiful, flitted in and out the tight corridors and stairways of what feels like a rich Russian grandmother’s house. Every square foot of shelf and wall space is taken up with charmingly authentic clutter, from (somebody’s) family photos to various pots and pans. A bit like a Harvester, but with a hell of a lot more effort, history and extravagance involved. And then there’s the toilets…

Sat underneath the biggest lampshades ever seen, we quickly decided on some starters. Pirogi, filled with beef and pork, were a more robust pastry affair than their more commonly-seen Polish counterparts, resembling mini Cornish pasties rather than ravioli. Blinis, served with salmon roe and a selection of condiments, harked back to the dark days of EatNetherlands, albeit with a reassuringly eye-watering £23 price tag. No-one had the borsch, and we will regret it for all eternity.

The smiling waiter returned to take our orders for the main course – Golubtzi (stuffed cabbage leaves), dumplings, calf’s liver (accompanied by a charming urn of mashed potato) and a couple of beef stroganoffs. The modest portions packed a rich, creamy punch that slowed you down to a satisfying pace, and we all felt surprisingly full afterwards. There was just about room for some deliciously sour cherry dumplings, tempered only slightly by the cream poured on top. Complimentary shots of Russian Standard took the edge off the arrival of the hefty bill, but Mari Vanna had charmed us too much to care about that.

Food: 76.7

Drink: 71.2

Service: 84.3

Atmosphere: 81.2

Value For Money: 61.3

SCORE: 74.94

Russia elegantly slides into third place in our rankings, behind the exotic delights of Argentina and Colombia. Mari Vanna is a surprisingly versatile option – we six men, with no oil fortunes to speak of, dined next to some Uzbekistani ladies of leisure. No sign of Abramovich, though…

на здоровье!

EatFIFA.

#10 – Colombia – Santafereño, Brixton

A journey into the exotic unknown for EatFIFA this time. But enough about Brixton.

Google threw up a handful of possibilities, mostly located in the apparent Colombian stronghold of Elephant & Castle. The best reports were from a tiny unit in Brixton Village, Santafereño. No need to book, it said, and we ambled through the bustling maze of smells and sounds on a Friday night with great expectations.

A beaming welcome awaited us, and we squeezed into our seats at our little table. The menu instantly promised two things – value and variety. We wanted to order the entire selection of entradas but, with a few off the menu by that time, we settled for fried cassava, chorizo, empanadas and (quite possibly the greatest piece of bread ever to touch our lips) pandebono – all washed down with some Club Colombia.

As with the South American entries previously, the menu was dominated by grilled meat and all the carbohydrates on God’s earth. Opting (perhaps unadventurously) for two “country platters”, we were assured this would satisfy the three of us. Upon arrival of our mains, some giggling Brixtonite regulars on a nearby table found our reactions to the giant portions rather amusing.

Upon a mound of buttery rice, we got stuck into some thin (but perfectly cooked) steaks, another delightfully textured chorizo, fried plantain (a satisfying alternative to potatoes), beans and – to unanimous acclaim – some exceptional pork belly. With Colombian TV blaring in the corner (minor bouts of rioting seem popular over there) and a the multilingual hubbub of the packed floor, we knew this wasn’t going to trouble the Dutch disappointment at the bottom of our rankings.

Food: 75.3

Drink: 71.7

Service: 76.3

Atmosphere: 77.3

Value For Money: 83.7

SCORE: 76.9

Dessert, the frequent afterthought on our EatFIFA travels, arrived in the form of a jellified selection of tropical fruits. Then came the bill, to inform us that our stomachs had been stuffed to the tune of a mere fifteen quid. The pandebonos had all gone, though, scuppering our greedy takeaway hopes.

Adiós!

EatFIFA.

#9 – Argentina – Santa Maria del Sur, Battersea

The night EatFIFA had dreamed of.

With eight major nations already eaten, eyes are starting to wander further down the FIFA rankings to see what lies in store for EatFIFA in 2013 and beyond. First, though, we had to negotiate the highest-ranked uneaten cuisine – Argentina.

The burgeoning reputation of Santa Maria del Sur, tucked away on Queenstown Road, meant that a decision was reached quickly on this month’s venue. Several debutants signed up for what promised to be a tasty edition, with one guest earning his EatFIFA cap for his fifth outing. A late booking allowed some leisurely drinking beforehand (and some entertainingly arduous journeys home for some), and we arrived through SMdS’s doors in high spirits.

Welcomed very warmly indeed, we then took in the sultry atmosphere – this is as much of a date venue as it is one for seven starving friends. We took our waiter up on his recommendation of several large bottles of Quilmes to share, with a well-made pisco sour thrown in for good measure.

To the menu. Eyes were drawn to the all-bases-covered appeal of the mixed grills – often the anti-climactic afterthought in the Punjabi grillhouses and ocakbasi of east London. In this case, the parilladas on the menu gave us the opportunity to try two cuts of meat and a selection of their entradas. The  majority of our party opted inevitably for a share of the Deluxe, and we suggest you do too. Boasting a 14oz sirloin and 10oz fillet, along with pork sausages, black pudding and provolone cheese, they were delivered on huge hotplates to which we gleefully helped ourselves. The juicy, salty chorizo was an early bite-sized victim, before the impressive chunks of fine beef were divided and plated up.

The rind of god. Santa Maria del Sur was proving to be the Maradona to Hawksmoor’s Shilton, for this must be the best steak in London. The medium-rare sirloin was attacked first, saving the fillet for a grandstand finish. All the steak clichés applied here – the knife gliding through the juiciest chunks of meat EatFIFA had yet witnessed. The chimichurri sauce was ladled generously over these bovine breezeblocks, and we barely stopped for breath. The provolone cheese was an inspired accompaniment, sturdily standing up to the hotplate but not daring to threaten overpowering the meat. Garlic chips completed the set, with perhaps only the basic mixed vegetables blotting our selection copybook.

The final forkful of fillet was consumed with a rueful sigh, but we knew we’d eaten just enough. No-one fidgeted in their seat, uncomfortably full, and we happily declared ourselves ready for dessert. Out came a textbook slice of creamy cheesecake (I wasn’t paying any attention to anyone else’s dessert by this point) and I was already reaching for my EatFIFA scorecard to dish out the plaudits. The scores rolled in, and Argentina’s immaculate showing seemed destined for top spot:

Food: 88.2

Drink: 72.3

Service: 74.4

Atmosphere: 79.6

Value For Money: 71

SCORE: 77.10

The bill was hefty (not surprisingly so) but this was a glorious treat on a rainy end to a working week. Argentina have stormed to the top of the EatFIFA rankings, over six points clear of Italy, and have laid down the gauntlet to the remaining 195 nations.

As things stand, Colombia lie in wait for us in November – all suggestions welcome, and please get in touch if you’d like to join or, dare we say, host us!

Chao!

EatFIFA.

#8 – Italy – Polpo, Smithfields

 

EatFIFA’s 8th outing saw Sebb’s faithful followers visiting Italy (not really, just ended up dining at an Italian restaurant). Italy currently lie 6th in the Fifa world rankings, despite making their way to the European cup final. Italy are well represented in London, thanks to Italy being world renowned for being great producers of food. For EatFIFA’s latest outing, the decision was made to permit attendees to suggest restaurants to visit. Italy’s representation for EatFIFA thus fell onto the shoulders of Polpo in Smithfields.

Our visit kicked off in Polpo’s very own downstairs bar, where such delights as Gin Fizz, Dark & Stormy and Moscow Mule are served in an intimate setting. The lights are turned so low, that you can just make out the glow of the light bulb filament. Despite barely being able to see anybody, the cocktails were fantastic. The Gin Fizz dare i say, was more refreshing than the classic Gin & Tonic.

After a few drinks we made our way back to the ground floor to be seated at our table. The waitresses at Polpo are without the doubt the best EatFIFA has encountered to date. The refreshing honesty of our first waitress telling us that we will get wet if it rains as there is a leak in the ceiling, made it perfectly ok. The atmosphere in Polpo is excellent. They don’t try to cram too many people in, making the chitter chatter from other tables pleasant, rather than too loud/invasive. Music was also very good. Polpo got off to a very good start (if you disregard the bit about getting wet if it rains, despite being inside).

Before the food was ordered, something more important had to be done. EatFIFA had its first cap to present to its first two members to attend 5 events.

Time to eat. With a crowd of 6 this month, a collective decision was made to order as many dishes as possible and to share everything, as and when brought to the table. We started with a lovely selection of olives and some grilled focaccia. This was accompanied by a Buffalo plate. A delightful plate of Italian cured meats and some fresh mozzarella to top it off. This was quickly followed up by Calf’s liver with sweet onions and some potato & parmesan crocchetta and Summer pea & speck crostino.

If I had to cite one flaw with Polpo, then it would be this; the portion sizes are not particularly big. Don’t get me wrong, the food was very good indeed – they could just give you a little more of it.

We followed up the selection of starters with linguine vongole, cuttlefish & ink risotto and the Octopus & potato salad – all of which were excellently prepared. One EatFIFA attendee opined that the Octopus was cooked to perfection due to its ‘lovely smooth texture. Overcook it and it turns in to a bit of rubber.’ All in all the food was magnificent, but the best was yet to come.

Normally the majority of the EatFIFA crowd skip dessert. Not this time. We had the awesome line up of:

                       Baked Peach, amaretti cream

           Tiramisu pot                  Strawberry & pistachio gelato cake

                                   Affogato al caffe

                                  Chocolate Salami

The line up of desserts had everyone’s saliva glands working overtime. The Tiramisu = wow wee. The strawberry & pistachio gelato cake, despite its hardness, contained such an incredible flavour. Don’t even get me started on the baked peach with amaretti cream…….. The chocolate salami, despite sounding a bit rank, turned out to be a very good rocky road in the shape of a salami.

So…. The scores. How did Polpo do? Has it done enough to finally knock Spain from the top spot after 7 months?

 Food 76.8

Drink 64.6

Service 76.6

Atmosphere 72.8

Value For Money 64

SCORE: 70.96

 

Polpo has propelled itself to the top of the EatFIFA chart, once and for all knocking Spain from their pedestal. The food and drink lived up to the wonderful food Italy is renowned for. When you infuse that food with a great soundtrack that was pumping out of Polpo’s speakers, then inevitably it was a no brainer. £45 a head which includes pre drinks, starter, main, desert, a cocktail to accompany the dinner and 2 bottles of wine. All in all great value for money – lets just work on our portion sizes, yeah Polpo?

Congratulations to Italy and Polpo.

Cheers!

EatFIFA.

(*September’s FIFA rankings pending)

#7 – England – Hawksmoor, Spitalfields

After a month off, EatFIFA was back down to business with England, the highest-ranked uneaten country in June’s FIFA rankings.

Not necessarily the easiest port of call in our London-based mission, the quintessential English dish is a matter of some debate. Fish and chips, the fry-up and the often-touted chicken tikka masala were all candidates, but the Sunday roast prevailed as our most English of EatFIFA nominees. Once that was decided, the hunt for London’s greatest roast was a formality – it could only be Hawksmoor. Now boasting three sites (soon to be four, but still not flouting our ever-bendable rule about chains), Hawksmoor opened its first branch on Commercial Road six years ago and aimed to be the best steak restaurant the capital could offer. It’s no best-kept-secret, by any stretch, and their Sunday roast has already achieved legendary status, but we try and aim for the greatest on offer.

An eight-strong EatFIFA congregation took their seats on a typically busy Sunday afternoon at the east London branch, and several glasses of Shaky Pete’s Ginger Brew – a refreshing mix of gin, ginger syrup, lemon juice, crushed ice and London Pride – were ordered.

The mountainous roasts (and a couple of burgers, for the distinctly unpatriotic FIFAEaters among us) duly arrived, complete with gigantic Yorkshires and slabs of pink rump steak sourced from vaunted butchers The Ginger Pig. The meat, rather unsurprisingly, is the star – a salty, charred exterior gives way to the melt-in-your-mouth goodness. Deluxe roasts are ten-a-penny in London’s gastropubs these days, but very few can hope to match dear old Hawksy. Only the terrifying pile of cabbage threatened the balance of the dish, which was supplemented by the superb bone marrow and onion gravy. Past visits to Hawksmoor on a Sunday have been rewarded with entire roasted garlic cloves on the plate, but this time we had some shallots, still sitting shyly in their skin. Once disrobed, they were essential companions to a mouthful of the beef.

Conscious of our frequent aversion to desserts after previous EatFIFA feasts, we made up for it here by calling for the pudding menu. Unlike many steak restaurants, Hawksmoor’s desserts (like their starters and sides) are more than merely peripheral afterthoughts – salted caramel provides a nice touch to the line-up of hearty classics. We opted for the peanut butter shortbread and chocolate malt tart, which we just about finished off after the meat had done its best to conquer us.

Food: 80.6

Drink: 77

Service: 63.3

Atmosphere: 67.1

Value For Money: 62.1

SCORE: 70.02

Hawksmoor was a dependable banker in our voyage of discovery, and certainly didn’t disappoint. At £19.50, the roast costs a pretty penny, but is justifiably priced above its competitors for sheer volume, let alone quality.

The scores looked set to propel EatEngland to the top of the EatFIFA rankings, but the Spanish remain top of the table by the thinnest of margins. The competition has begun to hot up, and EatFIFA’s mission continues with another culinary heavyweight next month in the shape of Italy*.

Cheers!

EatFIFA.

(*August’s FIFA rankings pending)