Although Matt and Cat have explored all corners of the Isle of Wight, they’re not particularly adventurous travellers otherwise.
Cat’s experiences of foreign parts are limited to various budget trips to European cities, eating frugal picnic lunches in public parks and worrying about running out of francs. Yes, her last foray abroad was before the introduction of the Euro. Matt actually left Europe once, but it was last millennium, and he has not shown any sign of wanting to repeat the experience.
Matt and Cat fantasise about visiting a city with style; swapping flophouses for luxury hotels, and giving up aimless blundering to enjoy a tour with a native guide. One day M&C’s wish was granted. It just so happened that they were offered the chance of a curated trip round some of London’s eateries with a knowledgeable sherpa, a chap who happened to own a fashionable London coffeehouse. Such an opportunity was not to be missed. With a fourth Island gastronaut in tow, they took an cockerel-startling early train to Waterloo, empty stomachs at the ready.
Their first destination for an early lunch was Elliot’s in Borough Market. Trotting along, Matt and Cat barely had time to gawp up at the construction of the Shard - due to be the tallest building in western Europe - and cast their eyes down into the cellars of the Clink prison museum before entering the first selected venue.
Squid starter for 4: £8
Stuffed pumpkin £12.50
The chap at Elliot’s opened the door for his guests and greeted Matt and Cat’s guide warmly before showing the quartet to their table. M&C soon realised that they’d definitely got a suitably influential fellow to show them around - before they’d even sat down the manager promised to bring a special off-menu starter of calamari.
The lunch menu was pretty simple; just four main course dishes, and straightforward pricing (all main meals were £12.50). The venue’s website proclaims that the menu directly reflects the range of produce available at the adjacent Borough Market: a part of London's food culture since the 13th century and at its current location since 1755. That’s some heritage: food was sold there years before the first Needles lighthouse was even built.
The calamari arrived in good time. No sign of the usual breaded rubber-bands, these molluscs were spectacular. Big, twirled lengths of squid steamed on a rustic stoneware plate; with wedges of lemon and a hefty dollop of garlicky aioli. Some hearty chunks of bread arrived to mop up the tasty juices. With a slightly smoky chargrilled nuance, the squid was heavenly; tender and pleasing to the eye where it had been scored lightly in a cross-hatch pattern. All four diners shared the plateful, and united in their praise for this inaugural dish.
Knowing that this was the first of many places that the group was going to eat, Cat chose what she guessed was the most modest main; baked pumpkin, raschera cheese, mushrooms and chard. Matt was very conscious that he was in a venue judged by influential food blog Young&Foodish as supplying one of the top ten burgers in London. But when M&C's two companions both ordered the famous burger and shoestring fries - and mindful of the day of treats to come - he took an unusual course. In a nod to the Island, he ordered pan-fried gurnard, mussels, chicory and Jerusalem artichokes.
The restaurant was filling up; as it was a mid-week lunch, professional-looking folks took their seats in a casual way, draping their jackets over the chairs and chattering into their BlackBerrys in a range of languages. It was all delightfully relaxed and cosmopolitan. Matt and Cat were struck by the absence of young mums, pensioners and other leisure-timers typically in the Island's cafés at lunchtime. Borough Market’s busy byways and eateries were populated by a surprisingly uniform throng of multicultural young(ish), well-groomed metrosexuals and their female counterparts. Matt, who would normally be quite inconspicuous, felt like a bumbling rustic in his best (and only) Millett’s fleece.
Cat’s baked pumpkins were adorable little inverted domes filled to the brim with melted cheese. The Italian raschera was mild and very stringy, and once Cat had teased some of it out the hollowed vegetable, she discovered that it was shielding a little nest of tasty chopped mushrooms. The pumpkin was served with a slightly salty bean, mushroom and chard salad and, dashing her hopes of a light lunch, it was surprisingly warming and filling.
Matt’s fish was presented with a medley of other seafood and vegetables. A handful of shelled mussels was casually arranged, forming a flotilla alongside the gurnard, chicory and carved Jerusalem artichokes, and all were draped in various fresh herbs. The whole lot was coated with a smooth butter sauce. It was an impressive presentation for a lunchtime dish, to say the least, and when Matt set to work on it his eyebrows were raised. This was really excellent food. The gentle musky taste of the artichokes perfectly set off the subtle fish, which had a salty crust to it that Matt simply loved. Luckily for him, his burger-munching companions donated some spare shoestring fries, so he had the benefit of the delicate little fish creation whilst staving off any possible hunger pangs.
This was a great start to Matt and Cat’s London tour. Elliot’s has its finger well and truly on the fashion-forward pulse, with trendy exposed brickwork, wooden refectory tables and chattering clientele. The food was well-considered, keenly priced, sourced from the nearby market, and extremely tasty. Matt’s gurnard had really impressed him, but would it be the best of the day? There was plenty more metropolitan food to try before M&C would be heading back overseas to the Island. Declining the offer of dessert, the foursome took their leave of the cheerful little café and made their way out into the bustling market.
(More London reviews from Matt and Cat's day out are to follow - here's Prufrock Coffee).