An Italian walks into two pubs...
Thursday 28th August - Over 130 branches of Vapiano exist in 28 countries, and yet I had never heard of them before I went last week. Have I had my head in the sand or is anyone else with me here?
Anyway, after my trip to their newest site in Soho (their third following Bankside & Great Portland Street), I'm kicking myself for not noticing them sooner.
Vapiano Soho is a rather attractive, relaxed Italian restaurant with a couple of twists - on arrival, you are handed a card which loads up the cost of your meal as you go along for you to settle up at the end. This system is necessary as you head off to various counters (Insalata, Pizza, Pasta, Bar) to order different courses as and when you want. If this all sounds a bit Nandos with gift cards, don't worry. When you get to the front of the (very short) queue, you are greeted by a skilled Vapiano chef who cooks your food up fresh on the spot for you to take back to your table instantly. I was intrigued to see how well the system worked.
After some agonising over the tempting menu, I sent Will up to the salad counter with one of our cards. A minute or so later, he popped back with a taster of a raspberry-maple dressing we were eyeing up. He was clearly making friends. He soon returned with some larger plates, a selection of antipasti and a quirky spinach & strawberry salad, with goat's cheese, pine nuts, red onion and the afore-mentioned raspberry-maple dressing. Considering the ingredients, it did well to not be too sweet and it all came together nicely. On the antipasti plate, the mozzarella with pesto combined wonderfully with the fuss-free bruschetta, whilst the meats, roasted veg and parmesan went down very nicely with our excellent glasses of house red and Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc.
"Where did the wine come from?", I hear you cry. Well, much to Vapiano's credit, they haven't done away with floor staff as many might do with this concept. Plenty of charming waiters & waitresses were on hand to fill in gaps and speed up processes such as wine, coffee and desserts, and to suggest specials and popular dishes.
|Strawberry & Spinach Salad|
Next it was my turn to visit the chefs. I wandered up to a counter and was given a few decisions to make. What type of pasta? Extra chilli or garlic? Free ciabatta? I hazarded a guess at Will's preferences (which proved to be accurate) and gave him some linguine for his Salmon Carbonara. I opted for pappardelle with my Salsiccia con Ficci (Spicy Italian Sausages with Figs and Tomato Sauce), mostly because I like saying the word. All of their pasta is made fresh on site in their mannifatura (machine) which is always on show in all of their restaurants.
A few minutes and some friendly small talk later, I was on my way back to the table with our mains. What a great idea to have you connect with the chef briefly while he prepares the food without the awkwardness of having them watch you eat it! Another nice touch is the herb gardens dotted around, and the plants on the table, free for you to pick from if you fancy some extra basil or similar.
Will gave grunts of approval whilst demolishing his unusual bacon-free Salmon Carbonara, whilst I devoured my curious plate of pasta, Italian sausage and figs which again had just the right amount of sweetness, balancing the dish perfectly.
|Linguine Salmon Carbonara|
|Pappardelle Salsiccia Con Ficci|
During the mains, a twist on a strawberry bellini, served long over ice with fresh strawberries instead of ice found its way to our table for us to give feedback on. A continuing theme of the meal, sweetness was again well balanced thanks to the superiority of fresh strawberries over purée. Their mixed drinks are extremely competitively priced at £4.50, a much more agreeable price for an Aperol Spritz than many London bars that somehow get away with charging £7+ for such a basic drink.
|Not A Strawberry Bellini|
Since we'd had strawberries every step of the way, we continued the trend to the end by getting a fresh glassfull to dip in to sweet basil pesto with white chocolate, mint and almonds. After several generous portions, this was a great, light dish to finish.
|Fresh strawberries with sweet basil pesto, white chocolate, mint, almonds|
Before departing, we checked out the stylish downstairs space which was quiet at lunch but apparently fills up very quickly in the evenings. One side is for dining, whilst the other is a cosy café of sorts, complete with a charming mini-library. If only all chains with over 100 outlets had this much individuality.
It is comforting to know that Vapiano is out there in 28 countries serving great food with a smile. They have obviously had fun discovering things along the way: Why are there no characters for rocket in South Korea? How can it be that there's no basil in La Réunion? I might just seek them out next time I'm abroad, but I'll almost certainly drop in to another London branch again soon. Very affordable, delicious, filling food.
Oh, and if I haven't convinced you yet, there are free gummy bears on the way out.
I'll leave you with their motto:
“Chi va piano, va sano e va lontano”: According to an old Italian proverb, “If you have an easy-going and relaxed approach to life, you’ll live more healthily and longer”.
Friday 29th August - At the time of writing, London has 71 breweries. SEVENTY ONE. Pretty ridiculous. Anyway, London pubs have no excuse for not having exciting, fresh beer on tap, and some have taken it to extremes by only pouring London-based beers (e.g.Peckham Beer Rebellion).
Another pub joining this club is The Hop and Berry in Islington which just opened on the old site of The Barnsbury (after a speedy two week turn around). I went along to the launch night with one half of Anspach & Hobday to take a look around.
The décor is pretty eclectic - bright red lights on the bar, cosy dining tables tucked away, a gym vault by the door, an odd shaped garden and a fishbowl (with Ron & Jeremy inside) keep you guessing. An empty London brewery map will soon be filled in / have pins attached. Pride of place is the beer board, a striking list of London beers with the added detail of how far away each brewery is - a very nice touch.
Delicious food came round on sharing plates, but you will have to investigate the menu properly for yourself. I can comment on the range of beers, which were well kept and not too pricey. Brews from Hammerton (new kids on the block, well, 0.4 miles away), Pressure Drop, Brew By Numbers and Anspach & Hobday all impressed, though my favourite of the night was Brodies Sour Clementine - a great example of the genre if sour beers are your thing.
|Brodies Sour Clementine|
The Hop and Berry, 209-211 Liverpool Road, N1 1LX
We decided to tick off one more pub whilst we were far from home, stopping off at The Three Johns on White Lion Street near Angel tube station. It's another great Barworks pub (Harrild & Sons, Exmouth Arms, Earl of Essex etc) though it doesn't have the 5CC cocktail bar attached as three others do.
It's one good looking place, with eye-catching brickwork and lighting all around. The back bar disappears towards the ceiling, packed full of high-end spirit bottles that I could see no way of reaching. And the beers are predictably impressive, as they are in all of their venues, particularly the extensive bottle list which is neatly presented on well-designed menus. Hackney New Zealand Pale (a welcome discovery) and Beavertown Neck Oil went down very nicely.
Sadly, we arrived just as the kitchen was closing, so I didn't get to sample their enticing pizzas. Fennel sausage, chilli-roasted sprouting broccoli, mozzarella and parmesan has my name on it next time. You can in fact get them delivered if you live close enough using Deliveroo, one of several new companies aiming to deliver food from classier eateries to your doorstep.
The Three Johns is another top Islington watering hole to add to the map. It hasn't pulled in the crowds yet (it was very quiet for a Friday night), but hopefully Angel residents will start to support it some more, if they can tear themselves away from Craft Beer Co. for an evening.
The Three Johns, 73 White Lion Street, N1 9PF