Condesa, Covent Garden

A couple of weeks ago, I escaped the hustle and bustle of Covent Garden for a brief but deliciously enlightening adventure into Spanish and Mexican cuisine. Condesa is a little wine and tapas bar, tucked away amidst other more imposing pubs and chain restaurants in this ever-heaving district of London. Blink and you'd miss it, so make sure you keep your eyes wide open as you walk past, because it would be a sad thing if you did miss out on the delights Condesa has to offer (not least of which is Daniel, the rather charming owner).

Run by Daniel Caballero, originally from Mexico, Condesa is an example of what happens when someone with a deep and ingrained passion for food decides they want to share that passion with the people of London. Ingredients are sourced with the utmost care, great attention is paid to every detail on the plate, and the result is a riot of big, bold flavours, surprising tastes and textures, and a little bit of excitement in every dish. You can tell, after spending a few minutes in the place, just how much care goes into the entire enterprise.

I was expecting a large restaurant, so was surprised to find myself in a small and rustic-looking wine bar. You can perch at the bar on stools and read off the menu and wine list written on a large blackboard across the wall, or sit at small tables dotted along the side of the room. The place definitely has atmosphere for being so small; everyone around us seemed to be having a great time, and there's a really laid-back feel to everything. It's a proper Spanish tapas bar, not an English restaurant attempting to take some of those elements and enlarge and commercialise them. This is evident from the extensive list of wines written on the board, from Argentina, Chile, Spain, Mexico and France; it's obvious that the food and wine are of equal importance at Condesa.

It's a bit of a treat for wine lovers, particularly with Daniel's expert knowledge to recommend wines to match the food. We started with an Amontillado sherry, which with its sweet, honeyed tones was the prefect thing to whet the appetite before the food commenced. We also sampled a range of Mexican wines, which I found very intriguing, having never tasted wine from that part of the world before. A sweet but crisp and refreshing Chenin Blanc, Daniel explained, gains its sweetness from the salty sea breeze that perfumes the grapes, lending them a distinctly honeyed aftertaste.

Condesa offers big, bold, vibrant food, yet also food that demonstrates a huge amount of skill and care in the blending of flavours and textures. The specials board changes every two days, and ingredients are carefully sourced from Mexico, Spain and local suppliers, with emphasis on quality and authenticity. There's a separate lunch and dinner menu, the former featuring bocadillos (home-made sandwiches), with fillings such as pulled pork, chicken chipotle, jamon serrano with olive oil, and goat's cheese with cranberry sauce, all costing around £5-6. The latter showcases a range of Spanish and Mexican classics, such as charcuterie, ceviche, tostadas and quesadillas.

If you're looking for fancy, artistically-presented restaurant food, with foams and garnishes and the like, go somewhere else. This is the kind of food I really love to eat, the kind that makes me fail to see the point in Michelin-starred places: it's hearty, generous, but also perfectly balanced to deliver a really exciting taste experience. There's meat and cheese. Toasted bread. Olives. Chilli. Beautiful fresh fish and seafood. I really cannot think of what more a person could want.

My favourite dish was the pork pibil sliders, beautiful soft buns filled with slow-cooked pork shoulder that had been marinated in anatto seeds, orange, lime and grapefruit, lending the meat an incredibly rich, salty, tangy flavour. It was served with a tomatillo dip, which was an amazing blend of spicy and cooling at the same time - ice cold yet tingly on the tongue, the perfect zingy complement to the rich meat.

Another favourite, and one which I think epitomises the food at Condesa, is the charcuterie board. Daniel explained the provenance and production process of everything on the plate, which featured - among other delicacies - the famous Iberico ham, which was slightly sweet and salty and melt-in-the-mouth rich. My favourite, though, was the mojama - dried tuna, served drizzled with olive oil and almonds. This is like nothing I've ever tasted - it's basically tuna, cured in the same way you would meat. The result is an incredible concentration of its sea-sweet saltiness, perfectly offset by the grassy oil and the toasty almonds.

We also tried a delicious Manchego; Daniel explained that he had sampled a nine-month old cheese, but thought it would be too dry for local taste, so chose a six-month specimen instead. It was perfect, delivering that sweet grainy taste I love so much about manchego. You can't serve manchego without membrillo, quince paste, which was also excellent. We also had two different types of olives - manzanilla, and guirdillo, which were slightly spicy.

The Mexican dishes on the menu were probably the most exciting. A ceviche of tuna, with lime, olive oil and agave, had an incredible soft, melting texture, but still retained that subtle flavour of the sea, lifted by the zing of the citrus, perfectly 'cooked' cubes of delicate tuna keeping their shape and flavour. Served on top of a crisp tostada, which balanced out the sharp citrus with a deep, buttery toastiness, it was utterly gorgeous - the kind of fresh-tasting food I could eat all day.

In the same vein and equally wonderful were the prawn tostadas. On top of corn tostadas (baked not fried), sat a fabulous medley of prawns fried with onions, leeks, red cabbage. The prawns were beautifully fresh and sweet, almost buttery in flavour, with a lip-tingling hint of spice. What really made the dish was the habañero mayonnaise, which lent a delicious creamy texture and spice to the whole thing. What I especially loved, though, was that the sweet prawns weren't overpowered by this assertive layering of flavours.

In a similar category to the pork sliders - that of sheer, unadulterated, carnivorous joy - are the braised pigs' cheeks. It's no secret that I love pigs' cheeks, economical morsels of meat that braise down into succulent melting goodness. These were cooked in a mixture of PX sherry, bay leaf, leek, onion, carrot, and served on roast potatoes. I have to say that after the other vibrant, zingy flavours we'd eaten, I found these a little bit on the bland side, but I think that may have been simply because everything else was just so zingy, spicy and delicious. A plate of these on their own would, I'm sure, satisfy any ardent meat cravings. The cheeks were deliciously tender and the sauce rich, thick and meaty.

The ultimate in crowd-pleasing dishes, though, is the corn truffle quesadilla. Both this and the pigs' cheeks were originally on the specials menu, Daniel told us, but they proved so popular that he's decided to put them permanently on the menu. You can't really go wrong with crisp, toasted tortillas sandwiched around melting cheese and earthy, salty, rich corn truffle (a fungus which grows naturally on ears of corn and has a similar deep flavour to Italian truffles). The combination of textures is so satisfying, as is the gooey richness of the melting cheese and deeply savoury truffle within. This is proper comfort food, at a different end of the scale to the vibrant ceviche and tostadas - I would recommend having all of them, to experience the delightful differences in flavour and texture.

To finish, we devoured a plate of exceptional cheeses: Manchego, Valdeon (a Spanish blue cheese from Leon), and Murcia al vino (a goat's milk cheese, the rind of which is washed with red wine during maturation). The Murcia was soft and creamy with that unmistakeable goat milk tang; the Valdeon also deliciously creamy with an assertive blue cheese sharpness. These came with membrillo and fig jam, the latter absolutely wonderful with the Valdeon. To wash all this down, a glass of Crema sherry, which is aged for longer than the other sherries on the menu and as a result is darker and sweeter; it's a great match for the tangy cheese.

The eating experience at Condesa is just as a tapas bar should be - portions are small enough to order a few and make for satisfying sharing, but large enough that you don't feel cheated and have to order out of your price range in order to fill up. The prices are reasonable, too - charcuterie plates range from £5-11, meat dishes around £5-6, fish dishes between £8-11, while salads are around £4-6.

Condesa was genuinely one of the best restaurant experiences I've had in a while. I loved the informality of the place, the friendliness of the staff, the buzzing atmosphere, the delicious wines. Most of all, of course, I loved the vibrant food, which I found truly exciting, a really refreshing change from the standard things you find in restaurants all the time now. I would urge anyone feeling slightly jaded by the generic restaurant scene to go along and let Daniel surprise them with his fabulous and expertly-judged food and wine; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

(Also, apologies for the slightly dodgy photos - my camera is useless in dim lighting so I had to use my iPhone, which isn't much better...)

Nutmegs, seven dined as a guest of Condesa. Many thanks to Lucy for arranging the evening and to Daniel and his staff for being such excellent hosts.

Penang! restaurant, Westfield

I've had a lot of disappointing meals out recently. There's nothing in the world that will sap you of vitality quite like a meal that promised great things and delivered very little. There are various factors that can contribute to a poor restaurant experience, and naturally these will vary depending on the diner. Some people are extremely fussy about tablecloths, background music, or the availability of branded hand wash in the toilets. I, personally, am fussy about portion size, service, balance and the dessert menu.

That is, portions have to be generous, and this INCLUDES starters and desserts (one of my biggest restaurant bugbears is tiny desserts - some people save space for them, you know!); service has to be attentive and friendly, but not obsessively asking if everything is OK every five minutes, and it's definitely a no-no if I've booked a table and the restaurant claim to have no record of it; the dishes have to be well balanced, with enough carbohydrates to complement the meat/fish/vegetables or enough acidity to temper a very rich ingredient like duck or cheese; the dessert menu has to include proper desserts, like crumble, tart and pie - not like creme brûlée or panna cotta, which I consider a pointless waste of calories.

Several of these issues have been involved in my restaurant trips recently. I've had distinctly average pizza, incredibly bland and stodgy 'Asian' food, a delicious but overly rich duck dish which even the beetroot salad couldn't rescue from cloying, two consecutive experiences at the same restaurant where they lost my booking, a lacklustre bowl of 'Thai-flavoured' mussels...all these recollections are hurting me a little. I'm going to stop.

All these dishes were obtained from perfectly respectable restaurants with good internet reviews, which had promised much. Despite the unimpressive food, I've at least learned something: a nice facade, branded hand wash in the toilets, friendly staff and a good ambience are no indication of good food in the restaurant world.

I haven't quite got out of this 'don't judge a restaurant by its peripheral attributes' mentality, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Penang!, a new Malaysian restaurant in Westfield Shepherd's Bush, London. Its location in one of the biggest shopping centres in the UK, its cheery yellow and blue exterior, the exclamation mark at the end of its name, a pain to use in reviews because readers will constantly think I'm joyously exclaiming at them, its slightly odd on-purpose-bad-English on the menu, with titles like 'Little dish for big smile' or 'fun food on stick!'...all these attributes left me somewhat confused, a tad sceptical as to what the food would be like.

I was pleasantly surprised, then, to eat one of the best meals I've had in a long time at Penang!

Penang! does not claim to serve authentic Malaysian cuisine. Rather, it hopes to bring Malaysia's blend of Malay, Indian, Chinese and Thai food to the mass market, to introduce some of the classics of the Malaysian street food scene (the 'capital' of which is Penang, the Malaysian coastal state) to British palates (which sometimes necessitates the toning down of what is a very spicy cuisine). While we consider ourselves pretty au fait with Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisine in the UK, you don't find much Malaysian food.

The Penang! brand has chosen for its ambassador the character of Mr Zuhri, a 'Malaysian ex-rockstar'. His caricature decorates the menu, and his 'voice' gives a little introduction to each of the dishes. On the back of the menu is Mr Zuhri's handy guide for helping you decide what to eat - simply choose your mood from a list such as 'You no like it hot?', 'You want no meat?' and 'You look for much healthy dish?' and he offers a list of suggestions. While no one could argue that this was sophisticated, it did - against my better judgement - raise a wry smile from me as I perused the menu, which I imagine is the point. It's certainly a memorable dining experience, with your every glance at the menu set to the backdrop of the imaginary Mr Zuhri's garrulous exclamations, and while the whole thing is somewhat gimmicky, I'm willing to forgive them that, as the food is excellent.

The restaurant is bright and airy, a cheery yellow, with a casual set-up: the menus, on brown paper, are on the tables and also serve as placemats. The cutlery (both chopsticks and knives/forks/spoons) stands in holders on each table, along with chilli and soy sauce. There are small plates - as the menu is really designed to be shared, you can order several dishes between your group and help yourself to your own plate. There were lots of families eating at the restaurant when I visited, which perhaps explains the jokey Mr Zuhri aspect - given its location inside a major shopping centre, it does a good job of catering to all tastes and ages.

The menu is divided between small sharing dishes ('Little dish for big smile') and 'Big bowl plates': one-bowl main meals like laksa, steamed sea bass and grilled marinated chicken. There are also satay skewers ('Fun food on stick'), sides (roti, rice, greens, prawn crackers), and desserts. Wanting to try almost everything on the menu, we ordered seven of the small sharing dishes so we could try a selection. I did notice, though, as we were giving the waitress our order, that at around £4-7 each it would easily get very expensive to order three or four of these small plates, particularly when you want to eat everything on the menu. However, as you'd probably order just one curry (£6-7.50) and several of the smaller dishes (around £4), it might still work out fairly reasonably. It is London, I suppose, and the menu does cater for those on a budget by offering the option of a 'big bowl plate', starting at £8.50 for laksa and peaking at £12.50 for a sirloin steak.

I don't normally do pre-dinner cocktails, but if it's a mango mojito I might make an exception. Fortunately just such a thing was on the Penang! menu - a delicious blend of lime, rum, sugar, mint and mango purée. It tasted dangerously like an Innocent smoothie, and I could probably have had three. (And then passed out on the tube home). The 'Penangoska', a blend of lemongrass vodka, fresh lime and mint was also intensely refreshing, though not quite as flavoursome as the mojito. There are several other cocktails as well as a fairly comprehensive wine list. 

This is a food blog, though, so here's the stuff you really care about. I apologise for the slightly odd lighting in the photos - restaurant lighting is never particularly camera-friendly, but hopefully you get the gist.

We had two Malaysian curries: ikan assam pedas, which was a very spicy sweet-sour salmon curry, with a strong lemongrass flavour and nice crunchy vegetables; and the classic beef rendang. The rendang was my favourite dish of the entire evening: the beef was so tender you could pull it apart with chopsticks, and it was cooked in the most exquisite sauce, sweet and rich and slightly tangy, fragrant with coconut and lime. I would have been happy with a plate of that on its own, with some steamed rice (which was also very well cooked, and came in its own little bamboo pot). It's in no way a glamorous plateful, given that it is entirely brown, but don't be put off by this - the flavour is intense and delicious.

We also had two smaller dishes, often key components of your standard noodle bar menu: gyoza - thin steamed dumplings with a deliciously tender and juicy prawn filling - and salt and pepper squid, which was gloriously crispy with a spicy, peppery hit. The gyoza were perfect little parcels, slightly chewy with a wonderful fragrant filling, accompanied by a salty dipping sauce. They're one of the healthier-tasting options on the menu, but still very flavoursome.

The squid was incredibly tender - very hard to achieve with squid - and still tasted juicy and of the sea, not overwhelmed by its peppery batter. It achieved that rare thing with deep-fried food: to be crunchy and crispy but in no way greasy or cloying.

Nasi goreng, the classic Malaysian fried rice dish, had a good texture, with crunchy vegetables, slightly chewy rice and huge meaty prawns. It was very moreish and savoury, in that way fried rice always is, and was a good side dish to accompany the other treats on the menu, though it might be a bit samey to eat on its own, which I imagine is why it appears as a small sharing dish rather than a one bowl meal.

Another highlight of the menu was the itik, a steamed white bun filled with crispy hoi sin duck. This was exactly like cha siu bao, the Chinese barbecue pork bun, but with duck instead. The bun was perfectly fluffy, and its sweet, meaty filling was delicious. A wonderful contrast of flavours and textures: crunchy spring onion, soft duck, delicate chewy bun...I could have eaten several of these.

Finally, to cleanse our palates, a pomelo salad. I discovered this incredible salad in Vietnam, and the Penang! version did not disappoint, although I'm not sure about the inclusion of tomatoes - the salad itself is so sweet and acidic that the tomatoes are a bit overpowering. There were juicy chunks of sweet pomelo (like a larger, much sweeter and less acidic grapefruit), crunchy leaves and a delicious sweet-sour dressing, with the crunch of peanuts. It is a fabulous addition to a meal otherwise rich in carbohydrates and strong, meaty flavours, offering a refreshing burst of flavour. There are other salads, like mango, available too, which I really like - sometimes you need a dish that is fresh and vibrant to balance the heavier, saltier, richer noodle dishes and curries of Asian cuisine.

The menu recommends 3-4 of the sharing dishes per person, and this seems about right - after seven between us, we were comfortably full. I couldn't resist a dessert, though, since the menu looked so appetising. It's rare for Asian restaurants to offer proper desserts, so I was truly enticed by the prospect of ginger and lemongrass cheesecake, mango pudding, chilli chocolate mousse, or fried banana with ice cream and coconut sauce.

We had the fried banana and the ginger cheesecake. The banana fritters, for so they were, came with creamed sago and a scoop of ice cream. The fritters were delicious, the ice cream lovely, and the texture contrast with the sago was interesting. I'm not really a fan of sago and rice pudding-esque things, though, so it wasn't really my thing. I imagine children would love it though.

The cheesecake, however, was one of the best I've ever had at a restaurant. It was a huge portion - appreciated - of baked cheesecake, with a thick, rich, creamy texture, a crunchy biscuit base, and the most delicious sweet, citrus flavour. It was studded with small pieces of sweet stem ginger, the preserved kind you get in syrup. I've never tried a cheesecake like this before, and now I can't wait to recreate it. Some people might find the portion a little overwhelming, but I'd much rather have too much on my plate than too little. There was quite a lot of cheesecake compared with biscuit base, but again this is not really a complaint. It was gorgeous, one of the most indulgent desserts I've had in a while.

None of the food we ate was particularly fancy. Some of it wasn't much to look at, either - it's hard to present beef rendang, which is all one colour and texture, in a very dignified and elegant way - although the duck bun in its own steamer was a nice touch. But every single dish was delicious, satisfying, and unusual. It looked like food you want to eat - nothing too artful, just presented nicely in a way that invites you to dig in. There is something for everyone on the menu - light fish dishes, rich aromatic curries, healthy noodles and stir fries, grilled meat, soups - and every dish is wonderfully different, bringing its own great combination of textures, flavours and spices. Given that Malaysian cuisine is not about fine-dining faffing around with garnishes, the presentation and design of the dishes makes perfect sense. It's about sharing, digging in, and having a good time without any pretentiousness. 

The atmosphere, menu and staff at Penang! reflect this perfectly. Our waiting staff were very helpful and friendly, frequently topping up our water glasses, something often forgotten in the rush of busy service in most restaurants. The atmosphere is informal, full of people just having a good time and enjoying the food. The menu - its organisation and content - I think perfectly encapsulates the whole point of Penang! - to bring Malaysian street food to the masses. It may not be authentic, but it's a delicious change from the tired Thai and Chinese food we find all too often on the high street. Everything tasted like real effort had gone into each individual dish, rather than the mass-produced feel you can get from some chain restaurants. I hope that as it expands, Penang! doesn't lose this somewhat quirky charm.

Nutmegs, seven dined as a guest of Penang! Thank you very much to the kind people at Penang! for my meal at their restaurant. I look forward to returning some time in the future.

Where to eat in Cambridge

[Note: this page was created in 2012. While many of the recommendations are still current, it's always worth checking reviews before you visit these places in case things have changed!]

It was pointed out to me recently that, while I have a page devoted to extolling the very best highlights of the Oxford restaurant scene, my blog is sadly lacking in culinary recommendations for Cambridge.

In case you're wondering: yes, I grew up in Cambridge and then went to university in Oxford. The amount of people who have pointed out this crazy paradox to me as if a) it's wildly unusual that I'd want to leave the small town where I'd spent eighteen years of my life for somewhere new and b) I didn't realise this fact myself is slightly ridiculous, and it kind of pains me to have to put on a forced smile every time it's pointed out to me and be like "yes, well, I quite wanted to go somewhere new".

Oh and, in answer to the other inevitable question, I support Oxford in the Boat Race.

There is a reason that I have a huge list of detailed restaurant recommendations for Oxford and not Cambridge. Cambridge is widely acknowledged to be the place where gastronomy goes to die. It has the highest concentration of chain restaurants out of any town in the UK, apparently. You're hard pressed to find somewhere to eat that isn't a Cafe Rouge or a Pizza Express, and generally the standard of independent restaurants is pretty appalling, especially when compared to Oxford.

However, there are a few places that I would recommend, should you be on the hunt for somewhere to eat moderately well in this wasteland of culinary ingenuity.

Fitzbillies - 52 Trumpington Street. A Cambridge institution, Fitzbillies is most famous for its Chelsea Buns - soft, sweet rounds of dough twirled around an impossibly sticky, sweet, cinnamon-spiked filling. It also offers a wide array of excellent cakes and is perfect for a spot of quintessentially British afternoon tea. On the savoury side, they offer hearty, rustic lunch dishes such as mushrooms on toast and delicious soups and salads, as well as more exciting combinations like venison pâté with toast and quince compote, or rare pigeon salad. I can't comment on dinner as I haven't yet been lucky enough to go, but the food at lunch is thoughtfully prepared, and simple yet delicious. Just make sure you have enough room for one of those buns and be warned: sharing one is not an option and you will need to wash your hands afterwards. Don't even attempt to eat it with a fork.

The Oak Bistro - 6 Lensfield Road. I used to work here, many moons ago when I was a young and carefree undergraduate on her holidays. This may make you claim I'm biased for putting it up here, but I would suggest that it's actually the opposite. Working in a restaurant often puts you off the food they serve, either because you just can't stand to see another plate of confit duck waiting at the pass for you to pick up, or because you see the dodgy stuff that goes on behind the scenes, like using ready-made ingredients out of a bag, microwaving things, and - god forbid - spitting in the food of annoying customers. Fortunately, none of these apply to The Oak.

Instead, I go and eat there on a regular basis as a paying customer. Why? Because it's one of the best restaurants in Cambridge, by all accounts. The atmosphere is always buzzing (there's a lovely outdoor garden seating area for that brief two-week period in the British calendar when it's warm enough to dine al fresco), the staff are fantastic (obviously), and it's not too expensive; a three-course à la carte meal will probably set you back around £30-£35. Often fully-booked (best to call in advance if you don't want to be disappointed), The Oak serves hearty, gastropub style food with a bit of a twist. Think Cajun-spiced swordfish on a mango, green bean and walnut salad; crispy pork belly with a mustard and apple compote; fillet of sea bass with palm hearts, tomato and coriander. They also do simple, big flavours very well: braised lamb shank with winter vegetables; crispy confit duck leg with red cabbage and mash (the mash is so soft, unctuous and creamy you could sleep on it); salmon fishcakes with tomato salsa; wild mushroom and truffle risotto. Apparently, their steak is the best many people have ever eaten; it comes with a melting slab of flavoursome truffle butter, chips (The Oak does incredible favourite ever shifts were the ones where the chef would make a bowl of chips for the staff to eat) and is always cooked to perfection, however you order it. I once asked the chef if he's able to tell when the steaks are cooked just by touching them, and he scoffed at me, with a look that said 'Of course I can, you idiot. In fact, I can tell just by looking at them from the other side of the kitchen.'

 Leave room for the melting chocolate fondant that has never moved from the menu because, quite simply, it's worth making a pilgrimage for.

Cotto - 183 East Road. OK, I've worked here as a waitress too. But again, it only made me more likely to pay for the food. Chef and chocolatier Hans Schweitzer is an absolute genius in the kitchen, taking simple ingredients and turning them into something utterly fabulous. The emphasis at Cotto is on well-sourced, high quality produce, treated simply to maximise its potential. While on the expensive side, it's widely acknowledged to serve some of the best food in Cambridge. Again, it's often fully-booked, so call in advance. Mouthwatering dishes from the past include salt marsh lamb with a garden herb crust, pan-fried fillet of turbot with hand-dived scallops, and a trinity of wild sea trout. As you might expect from a restaurant whose chef is a chocolatier, Cotto produce some incredible cakes and desserts; when I worked there the Tunisian citrus cake, plum crumble tartlets, Mocha layer cake and fruit custard tarts were always popular, and the creme brulée was so good that even I, a creme brulée hater, had to try some. What really stands out in my mind, though, is the chocolate dessert he used to produce, featuring a mini grand piano made out of various textures and types of chocolate. It had to be seen to be believed. Don't leave without trying something sweet.

Charlie Chan - 14 Regent Street. Charlie Chan is a Chinese restaurant in the heart of Cambridge. If you go for dinner, you can sit upstairs in their quaint, old-fashioned dining room, where some of the tables have lazy susans to make reaching for your favourite dish a little easier, and there's live jazz at weekends. They serve an extensive menu of meat, fish and vegetable dishes, as well as a selection of complete noodle and rice dishes. My favourite, however, is the dim sum menu served at both lunch and dinner. For an incredibly low price, you can enjoy a succulent array of tender steamed or fried dumplings, filled with rich and intriguing flavours. My favourites are the cha siu steamed pork buns, a pure white, cloud-like fluffy dough encasing a tangy, sweet, sticky pork filling. Also excellent are the 'half-moon' steamed prawn dumplings, the fried taro croquettes (like a potato croquette, but with a juicy meat filing) and the minced pork and prawn dumplings. For about £15, you can completely stuff yourself with dim sum and jasmine tea to the point of collapse.

Efes - 80 King Street. Efes serve classic Turkish food in a small, buzzing restaurant painted with charmingly gimmicky frescoes of ancient ruins. The place is dominated by an enormous grill, on which they cook everything from lamb kebabs to swordfish. The menu is a homage to the best of Turkish food; start by ordering a mezze selection and tuck in to classics like taramasalata, hummus, stuffed vine leaves, feta cheese, stuffed aubergine, falafel, red pepper puree and lots of warm pitta bread. Proceed to a kebab which, far from resembling hideous drunken student fare, involves tender grilled meat or fish - mostly lamb and chicken - served with deliciously fragrant basmati rice and a selection of crunchy salads. For dessert, you have to have the sweet, syrupy baklava, a perfect antidote to all that rich meaty fare. The set menu is great value and comprises a mixed hot and cold mezze, a mixed kebab and salad, baklava, and coffee. Serve is always ultra-friendly and the atmosphere is great. Perfect for a convivial meal with friends.

The Hole in the Wall - Primrose Farm Road, Little Wilbraham. Run by Masterchef finalist Alex Rushmer, The Hole in the Wall serves exquisite food in beautiful and relaxed surroundings. It has a lovely cosy country pub feel, with rustic wooden tables and simple yet elegant tableware - there are little plants on each table and the butter is served on a wooden slate, sprinkled with sea salt. Everything I ate was delicious, from the homemade soda bread and sourdough we slathered in said butter, right through to the incredible dessert. I had a perfectly-cooked fillet of wild sea bass on a bed of pecorino tortelloni with asparagus and pea puree. The tortelloni were the best I've ever had - the pasta was perfectly al dente, giving way to the rich cheese filling within. The asparagus was fresh and crunchy, and the sea bass meaty and delicious. My boyfriend had the roast sirloin of beef, which arrived so beautifully pink I could have cried with joy on his behalf. It came with two perfect Yorkshire puddings - the right balance of crispy and gooey - and the best duck fat roast potatoes I've ever eaten. They were so crispy you could hear one being cut into across the other side of the restaurant.

For dessert, I agonised over a choice between the lemon and passion fruit tart with pineapple sorbet, or the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding. Yes, that's right - not sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding, but both in one. Why have I never thought of that before? I told the waiter about my dilemma, and he actually laughed at me for being so ridiculous as to even have a dilemma. He rightly pointed out that I would hate myself if I ordered the tart. I saw why, when my pudding arrived.

It was a quivering, custardy square of gooey bread and juicy raisins. It came drenched in a molten puddle of sticky toffee sauce with more of those plump, caramelly raisins. There were blobs of passion fruit coulis. There were two little strawberries for decoration. There was a scoop of - wait for it - clotted cream ice cream, perched atop a crunchy biscuity mixture. The texture of the pudding was just sublime - you couldn't detect the individual bread layers, as it had all melded together into one tender, creamy mass, slightly gelatinous and subtly sweet. The raisins gave a perfect bite to the whole thing, and the toffee sauce was so fabulous that I nearly picked the plate up and licked it clean. The coulis gave a welcome sharpness to the whole thing, and the clotted cream ice cream helped lift the richness of the sticky sauce. When the waiter came to collect my plate, he actually laughed at me and said "How insane were you, thinking about having a different pudding?"

Alex Rushmer is a genius. Go and eat his food now, while you can get a table. Service is really friendly, the atmosphere is fantastic, and the food is beautiful. And don't even think about ordering the lemon tart over the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding.

De Luca Cucina & Bar - 83 Regent Street. Want Italian food in Cambridge? Please don't go to Zizzi, Ask, Bella Italia or Pizza Express. Go here, where the food is slightly more interesting, unusual, and thoughtful. From chorizo arancini (deep-fried risotto balls) to fillet of beef with gorgonzola sauce and calves liver with duck pâté crostini, this is a decent independent restaurant and much nicer than your bog-standard chain. The inside is classy and they offer a range of good-value menus offering genuinely interesting food.

The Belgian waffle stall at Cambridge market is not to be missed (as if you could miss it - the smell wafting from it around the city is enough to reel you in and make you part with your cash in exchange for a sumptuous, buttery waffle topped with anything from nutella and bananas to strawberries and cream). You can see, at the top of the page, me eating one. I always made my boyfriend swear he'd never upload this photo to the internet, so I've decided to pre-emptively do it myself so I won't be embarrassingly surprised should he do so one day. I have pink hair. That might distract you from the gaping enormity that is my greedy open mouth.

Finally, although I've never been, Midsummer House is the obvious choice for Cambridge dining excellence. With two Michelin stars, it has received rave reviews, and chef Daniel Clifford recently made it through to the final of Great British Menu with his amazing and inspired deconstructed modern dishes. It hurts me that this restaurant is literally 200 yards from my family's house, but I have never managed to get there. One day, perhaps. If you're looking to splurge, the food is apparently amazing and the service faultless. 

Five things I love this week #5

1. Tracklements Caramelised Red Onion Relish. It's National Sandwich Week this week, and so Tracklements were kind enough to send me a selection of their top sandwich-enhancing products. I tried their take on two classics: first, a jar of proper thick, tasty mayonnaise, enhanced with Dijon mustard for a bit of a kick and a delicious creamy flavour; secondly, a lovely tomato ketchup made with ripe Italian tomatoes that had a much deeper flavour than your standard Heinz. I'd much rather use this than something mass-produced on such a large scale. It would be delicious in a classic bacon or sausage sandwich. There was also a delicious country garden chutney - so-called because the first batch was made from all the vegetables Tracklements could find in their garden - with lovely tangy chunks of onion, carrot, swede, parsnip and turnip, and an interesting kick from apricots, tamarind, apple, sultanas and mustard.

My hands-down favourite, though, is this wonderful caramelised red onion relish. I love using caramelised onions as a garnish for any dish involving cheese, but cooking them down to tangles of sweet tenderness in a pan takes time. With this, all the work is done - the onions have been slowly caramelised before the addition of vinegar, muscovado sugar (which adds a lovely caramelly depth of flavour), salt and pepper. The jar suggests it would be the perfect partner for a steak sandwich, which I can't wait to try - possibly with a little blue cheese. If that doesn't make you rush out and buy a jar, I don't know what will. For now, though, I'll suggest this sandwich as a celebration of National Sandwich Week, which I made for lunch yesterday and which was amazing, really showing off the red onion relish to its best advantage:

Take some good sourdough bread (I made my own because I'm hideously enviable like that. But you could buy it). Lightly toast. Smother with crumbly, tangy goat's cheese. Dollop with Tracklements caramelised red onion relish. Top with quartered fresh figs and a few basil or mint leaves, roughly torn.

Eat. It'll be messy. Enjoy it. Relish it, if you will. Have a napkin ready.

2. Baked plums with ginger and orange. I found these gorgeous plums at the market yesterday and couldn't resist buying a few. Because raw plums are often so disappointing when flown in from halfway across the world, I like to bake them to bring out their sweet-tart flavour.

Simply halve and stone your plums, then arrange cut side up in a baking dish. Splash over a glug of orange juice (bottled is fine), scatter over some light brown sugar, and take a ball of stem ginger in syrup and cut it into little cubes. Scatter this over the plums before drizzling with a little of the ginger syrup. If you don't have ginger in syrup, use fresh grated ginger and add a bit more sugar. Bake at around 170C for 20 minutes or until soft but still keeping their shape. The ginger, sugar and orange will have formed a succulent syrup around the base of the plums. These are amazing served with vanilla ice cream, but are also good for breakfast on muesli, granola or porridge.

3. Two Greedy Italians. I know I'm a bit late with this one, as it's been on TV for a while, but I've only just got round to watching it. There couldn't be a more refreshing antidote to the swarm of waif-like, vapid, impossibly manicured female 'TV chefs' currently gracing our screens with their perfect lipstick and clearly false claims that they 'love cheese' while they strut around in their size six jeans and take small bites out of cakes they've made. Such shows irritate me beyond belief, especially as the recipes are so often unimaginative rehashes of things that have been done a million times.

You can't get more honest than two decidedly un-waif-like effusive Italian men gesticulating wildly whilst wolfing down everything in sight and playing pranks on each other in the process. Not only is it a fascinating insight into the lesser-known sides of Italian life, but the recipes are also unusual, original and intriguing. Chestnut gnocchi, orange rice cake, barley risotto with minced pork, buckwheat pasta baked with cheese and swiss chard...this is the kind of food I want to cook and eat, and in no small part because of the heartwarming and amusing way it is presented on the screen. I think I might have to buy the cookbook...and buying the cookbook to accompany a TV cookery series is something I told myself I would never do...

4. The Hole in the Wall, Cambridge. I've been meaning to go to Masterchef finalist Alex Rushmer's restaurant ever since I heard it had opened; it's not often that you get a contestant from your home town on national TV, and I was yearning for him to win and put Cambridge on the culinary map (not likely to happen anytime soon, as it apparently has the largest concentration of chain restaurants in the UK). Despite not winning, he's certainly done very well with his place out in Little Wilbraham on the outskirts of Cambridge. I finally ended up there for Sunday lunch this weekend, and was absolutely charmed by the place. It has a lovely cosy country pub feel, with rustic wooden tables and simple yet elegant tableware - there are little plants on each table and the butter is served on a wooden slate, sprinkled with sea salt. Everything was delicious, from the soda bread and sourdough we slathered in said butter, right through to the incredible dessert.

I had a perfectly-cooked fillet of wild sea bass on a bed of pecorino tortelloni with asparagus and pea puree. The tortelloni were the best I've ever had - the pasta was perfectly al dente, giving way to the rich cheese filling within. The asparagus was fresh and crunchy, and the sea bass meaty and delicious. If I were to make a very minor criticism, I'd say that I'm not entirely sure they belonged together on a plate - it felt rather like two very different dishes; the pasta didn't actually need the sea bass. But I enjoyed it immensely and could have eaten another plateful. My boyfriend had the roast sirloin of beef, which arrived so beautifully pink I could have cried with joy on his behalf. It came with two perfect Yorkshire puddings - the right balance of crispy and gooey - and the best duck fat roast potatoes I've ever eaten. They were so crispy you could hear one being cut into across the other side of the restaurant.

For dessert, I agonised over a choice between the lemon and passion fruit tart with pineapple sorbet, or the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding. Yes, that's right - not sticky toffee or bread and butter pudding, but both in one. Why have I never thought of that before? I told the waiter about my dilemma, and he actually laughed at me for being so ridiculous as to even have a dilemma. He rightly pointed out that I would hate myself if I ordered the tart. I saw why, when my pudding arrived.

It was a quivering, custardy square of gooey bread and juicy raisins. It came drenched in a molten puddle of sticky toffee sauce with more of those plump, caramelly raisins. There were blobs of passion fruit coulis. There were two little strawberries for decoration. There was a scoop of - wait for it - clotted cream ice cream, perched atop a crunchy biscuity mixture. The texture of the pudding was just sublime - you couldn't detect the individual bread layers, as it had all melded together into one tender, creamy mass, slightly gelatinous and subtly sweet. The raisins gave a perfect bite to the whole thing, and the toffee sauce was so fabulous that I nearly picked the plate up and licked it clean. The coulis gave a welcome sharpness to the whole thing, and the clotted cream ice cream helped lift the richness of the sticky sauce. It goes straight to the Elly McCausland Pudding Hall of Fame - in there with my top five restaurant puddings of all time. When the waiter came to collect my plate, he actually laughed at me and said "How insane were you, thinking about having a different pudding?"

Alex Rushmer is a bloody genius, people. Go and eat his food now, while you can get a table. Service is really friendly, the atmosphere is fantastic, and the food is beautiful. And don't even think about ordering the lemon tart over the sticky toffee bread and butter pudding.

5. Roasted cauliflower. Banish all thoughts of watery, grey, smelly, overcooked mushy cauliflower from your minds. Yes, it can be horrible. It can be anaemic-looking, flavourless, squashy and reminiscent of old socks. Here's how to change that.

Cut a cauliflower into florets. Toss with some olive oil, half a teaspoon of cumin, a sprinkling of cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon juice. Season well with salt and pepper. Bake at 180C for 10-15 minutes until parts have turned crispy and it is tender in the middle.

I promise you, this is a cauliflower revelation. You can vary the herbs and spices as you wish, but be sure to be generous with the oil and salt for a perfect experience. It goes very well with Indian dishes, but also with any roast meat or as part of a salad. Good flavour partners are tahini, lemon, lentils, couscous, pomegranate seeds, lemony roast chicken or spiced lamb.

Five things I love this week #4

1. Tracklements Pear & Perry chutney. If you're feeling a bit jaded by the world of condiments, this is one for you. It's much lighter tasting than a traditional chutney, which I often feel can be rather overpowering in its flavour and end up masking the ingredient you want it to complement. Made with British pears and a 'generous dash' of Perry (pear cider), this chutney is lovely and sweet with a delicate fruity flavour and lots of nice textures - tender pieces of onion and juicy sultanas that burst in the mouth, plus a little kick from mustard, ginger and cinnamon. Tracklements recommend pairing it with salty cheeses like mature cheddar or Pecorino; I found it worked beautifully with a mild goat's cheese. I'd also suggest serving it with cold meats, particularly pork.

2. Café No. 8, York. My boyfriend and I stumbled upon this fantastic cafe/restaurant when we visited York back in October. I returned again last week, with fond memories of a truly gorgeous sandwich I'd eaten. It was no ordinary sandwich - the bread was a thick, doughy flatbread, encasing soft chunks of goat's cheese and marinated artichokes. The lovely oil from the artichokes soaked into the dough and covered my fingers, leading to many messy but sublime mouthfuls.

This time I had a sort of bruschetta featuring an unlikely combination of ingredients: goat's cheese, rhubarb chutney, lemon oil, and fresh figs. I'd never have thought of pairing all those together, considering it overkill, but it worked harmoniously and was so good. For dessert, one of the best cheesecakes I've ever had. The ratio of biscuit base to creamy filling was nearly 1:1, which is the holy grail of cheesecakes and one as elusive as it is wonderful. There was a thick, creamy topping, quivering slightly but still holding its shape, a topping of gooseberry compote - I bloody love gooseberries - and - it gets better - crumble. Thick shards of buttery crumble, scattered over the top. Just in case this wasn't decadent enough, the whole thing was drizzled with cream. I absolutely devoured it and am still thinking about it a week later.

So it's lucky that I'll be moving to York in October to embark on a three-year PhD. I have a feeling this place is going to be my regular haunt. If you're in the area, do visit - you won't be disappointed.

3. South African fruit. I was lucky enough to be sent a gorgeous hamper of plums and nectarines from South African Fruit recently. South Africa, with its Mediterranean climate and quality soil, has a thriving fruit industry that produces nectarines, peaches, plums, apples, pears and grapefruits. I've seen South African produce in shops and supermarkets but never really thought twice about it, until now.

The fruits arrived nestled in wrapping, beautifully cosseted and snug in their little basket. I could smell their perfume as soon as I opened the box. Normally a bit sceptical about imported fruit - especially plums  and nectarines which have a tendency to be a bit woolly and bland even when home-grown - I found these ripe, juicy, and fragrant. I usually like to post a recipe featuring products I've been sent, but I'm afraid in this case I didn't want to do anything more than eat the fruit. It was so delicious and perfect on its own that I couldn't bring myself to adulterate it in any way. Next time you're in the fruit aisle of the supermarket, have a look for the South African fruit and enjoy a little taste of summer in the cold winter and spring months.

4. Smoked quail eggs. I found these at the East Anglia food festival a couple of months ago and oh, are they addictive. Can't imagine a smoked egg? Imagine eggs and smoky bacon. There's all that rich, meaty smoky flavour, yet without the bacon. They're utterly fabulous and so moreish, giving a rich flavoursome bite to anything you pair them with. I used mine in a potato salad, with celery, dill, cucumber, broccoli and green beans, all in a tangy mustardy vinaigrette. It was one of the best impromptu meals I've ever made, with the eggs the real star of the show. If you ever see smoked eggs, or know someone with a smoking kit, get your hands on some and be amazed.

5. Thinly sliced fennel. Although not so cool when it causes you to lose the tip of a finger, fennel shaved wafer-thin on a mandolin is my current vegetable of choice for meals. I love coating it in a vinaigrette of olive oil, mustard and lemon juice and tossing with smoked mackerel and segments of blood orange, or with cooked salmon and pomegranate seeds. It's also wonderful mixed with thin slices of pear and pomegranate seeds - I ate this with a veal burger, and the combination was heavenly.

Prepared this way, with a little acidity to sharpen it up a bit, fennel is fabulous with all sorts of protein  - smoked fish (mackerel, trout and salmon), smoked meat, cooked meat of all varieties but especially lamb, beef and chicken, fish in general (oily or white) - and also with cheese (mozzarella, feta and goats' work particularly well). Add something to give it a bit of fruity bite, like orange or grapefruit segments or slices of apple or pear, and you have lunch or dinner in almost an instant. It has a pleasant crunch that makes it infinitely refreshing, and a lovely mild aniseed flavour that is the perfect foil to rich meat, fish or cheese. Plus its pale green tendrils look beautiful in salads.

Duck, dhal and disappointment: The Hand & Flowers, Marlow

Photo taken from here:
In a sentence: I was disappointed by the Hand and Flowers. I had such high expectations, as I suspect many of the diners there do, given its chef patron Tom Kerridge has won Great British Menu's main course twice in a row. My expectations were only compounded by the fact that it has recently won a second Michelin star. I've only eaten in one Michelin-starred restaurant in my life, and that had a single star, so I was - legitimately, I think - expecting the Hand and Flowers to be twice as delicious.

Apparently, that isn't how the scoring system works. How it does work is a total and utter mystery to me.

The interior of the restaurant isn't exactly what you'd expect from the word 'Michelin'. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. Instead of hushed silences and waiters fawning over you to place your napkin in neat folds in your lap or top up your water between sips, you have what basically feels like a cosy gastropub. Complete with ceilings so low that you have to be told by the waiters not to decapitate yourself as you walk to your table. The tables, incidentally, are wooden and sturdy, devoid of fancy linen, adding to the relaxed theme of the place. It's a very pleasant setting for a meal, and all the nicer for not being too posh.

The food, then, is where you'd expect it to get a bit more posh. The prices certainly do, with main courses ranging from £19.50 to £32. Thirty-two pounds is a lot of money for a transient gastronomic pleasure. As with all these places, though, there is a very good value set lunch menu, with three courses for £19.50 (the price of the cheapest main course on the à la carte). However, on the day I went it looked so boring that I couldn't bring myself to order it. Poussin may sound exotic, but it is basically chicken, and why would you go to a two-Michelin-starred restaurant to order chicken? The dessert was trifle, which I do not like. So I went à la carte, and didn't fare much better.

The menu, to read, is exciting and intriguing. It had a few things on that I had never heard of, which is always a good sign. I had a hard time choosing my starter, salivating over the prospect of a glazed omelette of smoked haddock and parmesan, tempted by a parsley soup with smoked eel, bacon and parmesan tortellini, and intrigued by braised pearl barley with Somerset hare, orange oil and foie gras. I ordered the latter, because I love the richness of hare and I'm also a big fan of the nuttiness of pearl barley.

I was really annoyed about the bloody foie gras, though, and more so when my starter actually arrived. What is it about owning a restaurant with a Michelin star or two that automatically makes the chef feel he has to put the stupid stuff on everything? I don't think it's that bad when it is actually relevant to the dish or adds something, but in the case of my starter it was literally a slab of foie gras plonked on top of the dish, and what's more, it didn't taste right with everything else, at all. I make a point of not ordering foie gras in restaurants because I don't agree with the ethics behind it, so in a desperate attempt to stick to my principles I left the piece of foie gras almost totally untouched in my empty dish. I was trying to make a point, but I bet they just scraped it into the bin without even noticing, which is even worse.

It really did annoy me, because some poor goose had died in vain for that starter - there is simply no need for its flabby liver to sit there on top of what was otherwise a very nice culinary creation. The barley was crunchy in places and tender in others, silky and unctuous with the orange oil, and serving as a bed for beautifully cooked loin of hare, juicy, gamey and wickedly dark. I'd never have thought of combining hare with orange, but it worked well, the zestiness of the fruit lifting what is a very acquired taste in the world of meat, such is its strong flavour.

Jon had a sort of Scotch egg made with chorizo and served with a spicy peppery sauce. It was very tasty, but to be honest most things you stick chorizo in are going to be tasty - it's an instant recipe-saver. I don't think it was as good as a smoked haddock Scotch egg I'd had at the York & Albany about a year ago, though, but it was very nice.

Incidentally, before we tucked into our starters we were given some excellent bread, and also some deep-fried whitebait served in a paper cone with a marie-rose type sauce for dipping. The whitebait were delicious, as was the bread. I do so love the con of amuse-bouches in restaurants, making you feel like you're getting something for free when actually you're being robbed blind by the menu prices. Still, those crispy baby fish were lovely. I wish we could have had more bread though, but you never feel like you can ask for it. I've never recovered from an incident in Venice where the bread was so nice that we kept emptying the basket and they kept bringing us more, only to find once the bill arrived that we'd been charged five euros for every refill.

The main courses were even more difficult to decide between than the starters. Unfortunately the roast hog that you may remember from the Great British Menu banquet had been taken off the menu only a couple of weeks before. I was gutted, as Jon and I had planned on sharing it (it was only available to order for two people, minimum, presumably given that it is quite literally almost a whole hog). That left me torn between Tom Kerridge's winning duck dish from the year before (slow cooked duck breast with savoy cabbage, duck fat chips and gravy), and two fish dishes: spiced sea bream with smoked aubergine, 'dahl' (I believe it is actually spelled dhal, but I could be wrong), sea aster and moilee sauce; and Cornish day boat skate with bacon roast parsnip, trompettes, clams and lardo.

In retrospect, I wish I'd gone for the skate. Or anything else. Because my sea bream was...odd. That's the best word I can think of to describe it, and I've done two English degrees.

The fish was fine - crispy skin, cooked well, but I had clearly forgotten when I decided in a moment of madness to order it that sea bream is possibly the most boring fish on the planet. Tom Kerridge had clearly realised this too, so he decided to chuck a load of weird and wonderful things at it in an attempt to rescue the poor thing.

The dhal was lovely - earthy and satisfying, it made up for the fact that there were no other carbohydrates on the dish (why is this so often the case with fish dishes? Is it because they assume only women on a diet are going to order them?) The smoked aubergine was delicious, although I heard a woman at the adjacent table complaining that it was burnt (it wasn't. She was just clearly an idiot). The moilee sauce, which I had to ask a waiter to explain as I'd never heard of the term before, was a lovely velvety, coconutty liquor that was great with the fish. Sea aster, a coastal vegetable like samphire that resembles spinach leaves in appearance, was fairly tasteless and added mainly for aesthetics, I think.

The dhal was nice. The aubergine was nice. The sauce was nice. But none of them went together. I really couldn't figure out the thinking behind this dish. It sounds like a lot of my homemade salads - just chuck a load of things I really really like onto a plate or bowl and hope they work together. In this case, they did not. The moilee sauce and the fish - great. The dhal and the moilee sauce - great. The smoked aubergine and the dhal - great. Put it all together, though, and it really didn't work. The individual flavours were far too strong, wrestling with each other for pole position in the mouth and ending up creating a rather unpleasant flavour explosion on the tastebuds. A flavour explosion is normally a positive concept; in this case, I wish I'd been able to put it out.

The whole thing came garnished with what I think was meant to be an anchovy fritter. However, the ratio of batter to contents was a bit mad - I may as well have been eating battered batter, judging by how thick and greasy it was. The only indication I had that there might once have been an anchovy in there before it got battered into sheer oblivion was the overwhelming saltiness of the whole thing. I drank a couple of litres of water during our hour-and-a-half lunch, largely due to this ridiculous salt fritter. It was actively unpleasant, and if I hadn't been trying to consume every last morsel on the plate given the absence of carbohydrates, I would have left it. In fact, halfway through my main course I considered not finishing it, simply because I couldn't be bothered.

I couldn't be bothered to finish a plate of food costing £19.50. This sort of thing should never happen.

Jon fared a bit better. He ordered the Great British Menu duck, which in hindsight is what I should have done, instead of daring to be different. The presentation was lovely and rustic; it all came on a wooden board with the accompaniments in individual pots and pans. It was also delicious - perfectly cooked duck breast; rich, meaty gravy, the kind you dream of; a little copper pan full of savoy cabbage flavoured with (I think) crispy duck pieces; and those duck fat chips, which brought such delight to everyone on GBM and to me, sitting there staring at my carb-free main course.

However, what I thought was utterly ridiculous was the portion size. It wasn't even a whole duck breast. It was a slice from out of the middle of a duck breast, a little piece about two inches square. For TWENTY-TWO POUNDS. A duck breast costs about £4. Surely the chef, no doubt raking in all the cash from new customers attracted by his newly acquired star, could afford to put the rest of the breast on the board? Apparently not. This sort of thing makes me a bit cross.

So it was with a sad face and a heavy heart that I finished off the rest of my weird fish dish, eyeing Jon's chips longingly and hardly daring to take more than a wafer-thin sliver of his duck to try, given its scarcity.

For dessert, we shared the glazed cox apple tart with eggnog ice cream, and the chocolate cake with salted caramel and muscovado ice cream.

They were fine. The apple tart was fine, the eggnog ice cream gave a big hit of alcohol and not much else. The chocolate cake was less of a cake and more of a fancy kind of chocolate cube with a soft centre, the kind of thing you might find on a foil tray in a gorgeous French bakery surrounded by equally beautiful cousins. The muscovado ice cream again was fine, but not as rich and treacly as its name led me to anticipate, and the cake wasn't really warm enough to make ice cream a perfect partner for it.

To be honest, I'm having a hard time remembering the desserts we had, which tells you everything you need to know - they weren't brilliant. I always, always remember good desserts. I still remember the incredible tarte tatin I ate at a restaurant in Nice three years ago, how giant and billowy and juicy the apples were. I remember the sticky toffee pudding I ate last summer in a small country pub in Dorset, how it had little chunks of crunchy dark sugar interspersed throughout, an exciting surprise in every mouthful. I salivate over the memory of a Sicilian cassata cake I ate at Bocca di Lupo in Soho a good three years ago, a taste sensation I'd never experienced before and which has left me longing to return. My mouth waters at the thought of the hot chocolate waffles my college used to serve on special occasions at formal hall.

But my memories of the Hand and Flowers' desserts have faded already. They were perfectly edible, but not as promising as their menu description had suggested.

And that, dear readers, pretty much sums up the entire experience. I'd gone expecting greatness, and experienced mediocrity. I really cannot fathom the system that gave this place two Michelin stars, when the Yorke Arms, worth every penny, only has one. Nothing about the food we ate suggested two stars...or maybe it did, in which case two stars is definitely not the accolade it appears to be. I'd love to say it was a case of bad ordering, or we went on an off day, but a £50 lunch should never be the victim of either of those.

As usual with these sorts of scenarios, if I'd paid half the price, I would have been a happy bunny. Instead, I handed over my debit card with a lump in my throat, such was my complete disappointment with the whole affair. The setting was nice, the service was perfectly fine, but the food was totally lacking in any sort of wow factor. Such a shame.

Do you agree? If you've been to the Hand & Flowers, I'd love to hear what you thought!

Polpo, Soho

Tapas-style eating scares me. As someone who is, let's face it, greedy, I tremble at the notion of someone else being able to lean over and help themselves to any plate of food that I have my eye on (which, needless to say, is every plate of food). Fortunately, I think Polpo have come up with the solution: make everything on the menu sound so delicious that you simply have to order far more food than you can possibly eat, and therefore get a satisfying amount of each dish without someone else stealing it. 

The format is based on the Venetian bacaro, a wine bar serving cichetti, which are small, bite-size snacks that you'd normally eat standing up at the bar. I think the owners realised that the English might be averse to a) eating their dinner standing up and b) eating things in bite-size portions. The menu is therefore divided into tiny snacks, and larger dishes. To begin with, we had arancini and crostini. Arancini are deep-fried rice balls, a typical Sicilian snack. I ate one in Palermo once that was the size of my head, and I had only a small, flimsy napkin with which to stem the flow of oil that trickled down my wrist as I bit into the creamy, starchy interior. These were very much smaller, about the size of small dumplings. They were non-greasy and immensely satisfying. The fig, prosciutto and mint crostino was very good too - you can't really go wrong with chargrilled bread, fig and ham. I thought mint might be a bit odd, but it worked well. 

Then the culinary onslaught began. Dish after dish arrived - I thought I'd been restrained when I ordered, but everything had just been too tempting and we ended up with slightly more than I had anticipated. First, a mackerel tartare served with horseradish and carta di musica, which is a long, wafer thin piece of bread. The tartare was nice and refreshing when eaten alongside all the other dishes we'd ordered, but it didn't taste enough of mackerel for my liking. Perhaps that's because I associate mackerel with a crispy, flavoursome, charred skin, which obviously you miss out on if you eat it raw. 

Possibly my favourite was the simplest dish of all: roast pumpkin, prosciutto, and ricotta salata. This cheese is something I've only ever had in Italy or in Italian restaurants (proper ones, like Bocca di Lupo, also in Soho - not Pizza Express), and it is divine - it has the saltiness of parmesan but the creaminess of a good goat's cheese. Sprinkled over a fat wedge of pumpkin, meltingly gold but charred and stickily caramelised in places, the ham draped over it like a blanket, it made a perfect contrast of textures and flavours: salty ham, creamy cheese and sweet pumpkin. The topping of crispy pumpkin seeds finished it off beautifully. It was the quintessence of Italian cooking: totally simple, but utterly wonderful.

Also wonderful was the wild mushroom piadina. Oh, how that word brought a leap of joy to my heart. I discovered piadine in Ravenna a year ago; they're very popular in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. It's basically a chewy flatbread made with pig fat as the shortening (so a cross between pastry and bread) which is then stuffed with whatever you like, folded in half and grilled. Like a panino, but infinitely better. The pig fat part sounds gross, but it doesn't taste like that - it just tastes like a chewy pitta bread. I had one in Ravenna filled with parma ham, mozzarella and rocket. I had another filled with a cheese with the most wonderful name - squacquerone - which was like a very mild cream cheese, and caramelised figs - almost black and dripping with aromatic syrup. The inside melts while the outside stays chewy and doughy...oh, it is actual gastronomic heaven. The thought of it fills me with happiness. I genuinely can't believe the idea hasn't caught on abroad, when almost everything else Italian has. Perhaps there is a niche in the market read it here first...

Ah. A tangent. Anyway. Polpo's version was drenched in mushrooms. I'm not sure if you can apply the word 'drenched' to something that isn't liquid, but these mushrooms were so saturated with garlic butter that the dough really was drenched. It had been grilled to crispiness on the outside but was still chewy in the middle, and I think the chef had tipped an entire pan of mushrooms onto it. Beautiful, soft, earthy wild mushrooms. My only criticism is that there was far too much salt, but I was prepared to overlook this for the sheer joy of biting into chewy dough and dark, tangy, garlicky mushrooms.

Who would have thought that the humble panino could ever legitimise its presence on a restaurant menu? Well, stuff it with cured pork shoulder and peperonata (roasted, sweet, soft peppers), and you may never want to eat anything ever again. The peppers in particular were just perfect, juicy and sweet and wonderful against the rich slivers of pork. 

Dessert was a struggle. Even for my often-deployed second stomach, it was a challenge. But I wasn't going to pass up a flourless orange and almond cake with mascarpone. It was sweet and syrupy and rather lovely, but perhaps not moist or sharp enough for my liking - this is a very minor complaint, however, and if I hadn't just eaten a lot of rich food, I probably wouldn't care about sharpness. We also had an amazing layered dessert of thin pastry, caramelised apples and raisins. A bit like a deconstructed apple strudel...but somehow so much better. 

Please go to Polpo. Its atmosphere is great, the staff are really friendly and it's not bad, price-wise, for London (about £20 a head, depending on how greedy you are). Order more than you think you can eat, and then eat more than you thought you could. It's Italian food, but not as you know it - and this is definitely a good thing. 

Incidentally, polpo means octopus in Italian. I have yet to figure out why it's called that. I'm sure there is a reason.