InSpiral Vegan Cafe, Gloucester Arms and general London eating

We were in London recently for the weekend to see an amazing folk band called Show of Hands at the Royal Albert Hall (for a fabulous review of our evening check out my boyfriend Ben’s post on his music blog, BamRambling!) I booked tickets as a surprise for Ben (what a good girlfriend!) and arranged for us to stay with our good friend Sam on the Saturday night. We had National Express tickets early on Saturday and late on Sunday so we had lots of time to kill which was mostly spent eating.

My favourite place we ate at was a vegan cafe in Camden called InSpiral. It’s a small, busy place with a big counter brimming with vegan and raw treats and a few tables with lovely views of Camden Lock.

It wasn’t too busy when we got there and I was able to spend a few minutes agonising over the array of choices – they all looked so good!

In the end neither of us could resist the amazing looking vegan lasagna which came with a choice of three sides. I got an apple juice and Ben got an orange juice and we got a little table for 2 over by the window.

The portions here are HUGE! Our food came on very smart black rectangular plates which had plenty of room for the delicious side dishes that were generously spooned on next to our lasanga. I chose to have the channa masala, root vegetables and curly kale, all of which were really good. The root veggies were roasted and covered in a sweet nut and herb mixture which was incredible! I chose the channa masala in a moment of panic as I felt I couldn’t get potato wedges as I already had root vegetables (schoolboy error) but they turned out to be my favourite part!

The lasagna itself though. Oh my goodness. It was roasted vegetables in a rich tomato sauce with the most amazing cashew nut ‘cheesy’ bechemal sauce. I could have drunk a glass of it, it was that good. We also opted to have vegan pesto on the top of the lasagna which just took it above and beyond! I felt so virtuous eating this lunch knowing that everything was meat and dairy free and so fresh and wholesome. I managed to eat all the lasagna but was very upset that I had to leave some of the side dishes. Tears were nearly shed.

The juices we ordered were made fresh and I was slightly alarmed when my apple juice came out all frothy and bitty…but it was delicious! I will never again judge a juice by it’s frothyness.

Tragically we were too full for dessert and although I had plans to sample some of the raw chocolate truffles and vegan ice-cream, I never got the chance. We will be back though! InSpiral is not a cheap lunch option (especially compared to the rows and rows of Chinese, Indian, Mexican etc food stalls in Camden Market) and our lunch came to £30ish but we couldn’t pass up the chance to try some authentic vegan food and are really glad we visited.

While we were in Camden we also visited Whole Foods – one of the UK branches of the huge American health food store. We tried to visit the one in Orlando while we were in Florida last year but it was a lot further away than we thought so we couldn’t which was very upsetting. I was excited to visit the Camden one but I had lowered my expectations considerably because lets face it, it’s Britain, not America. It was a nice shop, loads of awesome hard-to-find products and a fabulous hot and cold salad and soup bar. Although we didn’t need a meal (or even really a snack…) we couldn’t resist buying a couple of goodies and ended up with some items from the fridge.

I had a vegan spinach and tofu pancake.

The brand was ‘Lauras Idea’ and there were lots of similar items in the shop. The pancake was delicious – light and fluffy with a slightly toasted flavour. The filling was rich and indulgent with an intense creaminess from the silken tofu and a satisfying bite in the spinach from a sprinkle of nutmeg. I really wouldn’t have guessed this was vegan as the tofu confidently takes the place of what would normally be ricotta.

Ben chose a vegetable calzone. We were pretty sure it was meant to be heated up but he really fancied it so threw caution to the wind and ate it straight out of the fridge.

It was filled with a mixture of roasted vegetables in a rich tomato sauce. No complaints from Ben and it was gone pretty quickly!

The other eating experience from our London trip was a visit to the Gloucester Arms pub, about 10 minutes walk from the RAH. I was looking for somewhere to eat before the show that wasn’t eye-wateringly expensive (nigh-on impossible in that area!) and the Gloucester Arms seemed to have pretty bargainous food and drink prices.

The menu is very extensive and it seriously took us about 15 minutes to decide what to order as everything sounded amazing! Eventually though I selected the very item that had first piqued my interest when viewing the menu online – Vegetarian Fish and Chips! And the best part about it? The ‘vegetarian fish’ was IN FACT battered halloumi! Can you blame me for ordering!? I also couldn’t resist ordering a side of onion rings and for reasons known only to myself at the time, a pot of curry sauce. And the meal came with bread and butter anyway. So basically, I looked like a huge greedy beast with 5 plates of food around me. In my defence I was hideously hungover and after coming back from a near-death state in the early hours of the morning when I first woke up and enduring 2 hours on a coach then 5 hours walking round London, I think I deserved it.

The halloumi was perfectly amazing in the way only battered cheese products can be. The batter was extremely thick though and unfortunately (although not surprisingly given my side dishes) I was unable to finish it and had to make the tough decision to just eat the halloumi. The onion rings were also delicious and obviously you can’t go wrong with bread and real butter!

Ben got the same as me but Sam went for the burger and very kindly paused to let me take a photo.

Overall we all loved our meals at the Gloucester Arms and if I’m ever in that area again I will definitely be going back! The food in London was brilliant as ever and I never cease to be amazed by the huge range of choices everywhere you go. I love it!

Polly’s Pantry – Milford-on-Sea

Now, my review of this delightful New Forest tearooms is going to be quite obviously biased because…my parents own it! But I realised I’ve never mentioned it on the blog and it is a big part of mine and my families life so this needed to change.

Me and Ben travelled to Milford-on-Sea last Sunday to visit Polly’s for the first time, embarrassingly, in about a year. It was also the last day of the Milford-on-Sea Food Festival so we wanted to catch the Farmers Market and general shennnanigans that were taking place on the Village Green.

We arrived in a very windy Milford about 1pm and after a cursory glance at the market decided to head for the warmth of Polly’s before we tackled the stalls.

My Dad works full-time at Polly’s and is the resident chef, manager and general jack-of-all-trades. Because Sunday was expected to be a busy day what with the Food Festival and all, my Mum also came down with him to work for the day. So it was a real family affair!

It was absolutely heaving when we walked inside but we were able to squeeze onto a table for 4 at the back of the tearooms which was later switched to a table for 2 after I offered to swap with 2 ladies who were meeting friends.

My Mum and the two girls working that day were bustling around taking orders so we had a good amount of time to choose our lunch – a bonus because I was really having trouble deciding (as standard.)

Polly’s serves a full breakfast menu til 12 noon (Full English’s, sausage and bacon baps, scrambled eggs etc) and then an extensive lunch menu which includes jacket potatoes, sandwiches, baguettes, panini’s, omelettes and hot meals like ham, egg and chips. I was torn between a hot, buttery baked potato and a simple chicken mayo baguette. In the end the jacket potato won out and we actually both ordered them; mine with ham and cheese and Ben’s with the classic combo of cheese and beans. My Mum scolded me as a ham and cheese jacket potato is not TECHNICALLY on the menu but if you remember from the Morgan Christmas 2011 post, my Dad does a mean baked ham and quite frankly it would have been rude not to sample some.

I took some photos of the interior as we waited for our lunch – as I said before I am biased but I think it is so pretty! There is a collection of vintage teapots on shelves all around the tearooms which always get lots of attention and admiring looks from customers.

As a bit of a treat our lunch was brought out by the Chef himself! Very exciting, I like to think he only does this for extra-special customers.

Here is my jacket potato…I think the photos speak for themselves!

Ben’s was equally resplendent;

We were especially impressed with the generous portion sizes! I loved that we got sides of salad and coleslaw as they paired perfectly with the potato and helped make the dish more of a meal. Needless to say, we were absolutely stuffed afterwards and I’m ashamed to say I couldn’t even finish it! I picked out all the ham and ate it though. Obviously.

I seriously was gutted that we couldn’t manage dessert as Polly’s is world-renowned (ish…) for it’s cakes and sweet treats, many of which are displayed proudly in the windows causing serious pedestrian hold-up.

I would (obviously!) recommend Polly’s Pantry but I hope you can see past my honestly biased review and choose to visit based on the quality of food shown in my photos. Our lunch was delicious but I wish I had taken a photo of the cream tea – two huge homemade scones with vats of clotted cream and jam to slather all over them, plus a pot of tea, with change from a fiver – the cries of delight from customers as they receive their plate says it all!

Piccola Roma – Bishops Waltham

We’d been wanting to try this new Italian restaurant for ages but only got a chance last Thursday, a good excuse to celebrate the start of the long weekend!

We went for drinks in the newly refurbished Crown Inn beforehand – absolutely beautiful inside and worlds away from it’s previous incarnation – I actually struggled to believe it was the same pub once we were inside! Definitely worth a visit if you are in the village and the perfect place for a cozy glass of wine before dinner.

We arrived at Piccola Roma about 8pm and it was very quiet in the small restaurant with only a couple of tables occupied. The lovely owner greeted us and said we could pick any table we wanted, a huge bonus in my book! We chose a little table for two right in the window and ordered a glass of wine and a beer.

The decoration is really lovely inside with dimly lit tables and a generally romantic atmosphere. There was a couple on the table next to us and a family  on a larger table near the door. There was a huge print of the Colosseum stretching over the wall next to us which got us chatting about how much we’d like to visit Rome one day.

We perused the menu first and decided to share a couple of starters in order to leave room for what sounded like a stellar line-up of main choices.

We ordered mixed olives and the bruchetta. Both came out looking magnificent!

The olives were perfect – fat, pitted and doused in a flavourful garlic, chilli and herb oil. The bruchetta was presented as a trio and we halved each one to ensure a complete tasting experience. My favourite was the chopped olives – perhaps an olive overdose for some given our second starter but the intense olive hit was just perfect teamed with the crispy grilled bread. The mixed pepper and sliced tomato bruchetta were also lovely and we obviously scraped the plate clean of balsamic glaze.

I was having some trouble deciding what to order for my main and was stuck between a having a bowl of cheesy, creamy, comforting tortellini or just going for it with a massive steak. The owner came over and chatted to us for a bit and eventually I plumped for the steak after she declared it “the best I’ve ever eaten!” Obviously biased but I’m not going to let a declaration like that pass me by and before I knew it I’d ordered it, medium rare please.

Ben was absolutely spolit for choice at this restaurant and had a choice of at least 3 different main courses! We had seen on the online menu that they served an aubergine parmigana which he was quite keen to try but after asking our server we learned it had been taken off due to lack of interest. Unfortunate but understandable. In the end he went for the pesto pasta with a side salad of onions and tomatoes.

Our main courses were brought out and I literally could not have been more excited to see the sheer size of my steak. Ben said as soon as he saw it he knew we’d be coming back! It was a 10oz rib-eye steak with a creamy dolcelatte sauce, chips and a salad. I have recently become obsessed with blue cheese and have been adding it to pretty much everything I eat so the chance to have a steak slathered in it pretty much made my day.

We were both impressed because I have only ever had a steak like this in Florida – sitting proudly on the plate, taller than everything else. Normally I get a bog-standard sirloin or similar which, while delicious, cannot match the impressive appearance of a fillet or rib-eye. The steak was perfectly cooked and in fact next time I may have to chicken out somewhat and order it medium as  the thick, meaty centre was very very rare. As it should have been! Only I wasn’t expecting the sheer girth of it and overcompensated thinking they would err on the side of caution.

The insanely rich sauce complimented every single bite of the steak. I was so tempted to ask for more sauce (pretty much to just drink) but I remembered I am actually on a ‘diet’ (using the MyFitnessPal app, it’s amazing!) and although we had walked to the village and so burned an additional 300 odd calories, I really shouldn’t push my luck. As it was I really scraped my plate clean, using the chips more as a vehicle to get sauce into my mouth than a side dish in their own right. They deserved more than that really as they were lovely chips.

Ben was very happy with his main course and although it appears quite small and forlorn in the vast bowl, he was actually struggling to finish!

His side dish of onion and tomato salad was somewhat resplendent in appearance and rather stole the show from his main.

More balsamic glaze, score! He was pleased because the pasta was cooked al-dente (they actually state this on the menu and you can ask for it to be cooked longer if you prefer) and the pesto was fresh and flavoursome. The salad provided a lovely contrast to the pasta and helped break up the unavoidable monotony that afflicts most pasta dishes.

We were contentedly full after our main courses and I was pleased we had shared a starter (although does it really count as sharing if you order 2…) and happy to leave without dessert in order to avoid the wrath of MyFitnessPal. Our dinner came to £42 which we thought was really very reasonable with a drink each and starters. Saying that, I did order the most expensive thing on the menu so we could have quite easily kept costs down if I’d gone for the tortellini. Oops.

We will definitely be going back to Piccola Roma given it’s fantastic food, convenient location and friendly service. The owner was very pleasant to chat to and we learnt that she lived in Rome for 6 years and actually met her husband there, the chef at Piccola Roma! Fantastic to hear we were receiving real authentic Italian food and for me, lovely to hear the back story from someone who is so obviously passionate about Italy and Rome.