Bristol vs the world

A travel (and sometimes fashion) blog about exploring Bristol and the rest of the world, one post at a time.

Category: England: London

A Magical Afternoon

Outside Warner Bros studios
Usually, when everyone tells me how good something is, I end up leaving a bit disappointed. Having built it up in your head to be spectacular, it can never quite live up to expectations.

So having been told by at least ten different people that the Harry Potter (sorry, Warner Bros) studio tour is amazing, I was a little apprehensive. Although this didn’t stop me feeling like an excited child when we pulled into the car park.

I shouldn’t have worried. Our whole experience was incredible, and possibly even exceeded my – very high – expectations.

After the initial introduction, this is a self-guided tour. You wonder between the actual sets* to theme-specific exhibits, such as a costume rail, displays of props and (inevitably one of my favourite parts), a section on the animal actors who featured in the films. Televisions also accompany some of the sets, playing short interviews with crew members.

*It’s worth highlightinh that you view the sets from behind a rope, you can’t quite gp through them, understandably!

But what really blew me away was the amount of detail there was everywhere, how much attention was paid to every last thing. Whether it was dressing every inch of a set or how they created some of the more complex sets and props, everyone went to so much effort even for something that would appear for only seconds or just in the background. It made me want to watch all the films again, to take them all in with this additional knowledge in mind – knowing it’s far more than special effects (not that any less effort was went to with the special effects – these too are hugely impressive).

John has only seen a couple of the films (despite having read all the books), but even he was intrigued and absorbed. Being an engineer, the mechanics behind many of the props and sets particularly grabbed him. (I promise I didn’t force him there! In fact, he actually went voluntarily, having bought the tickets for as a birthday present – I’ll be hanging on to him!)

Personal highlights were walking across the bridge, Diagon Alley and the model of Hogwarts at the end. I won’t say much more, partly because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t been and partly because words wouldn’t do it justice, but they were all pretty incredible.

Diagon Alley Warner Bros Studio Tour
Diagon Alley Warner Bros Studio Tour

Any downsides? Well, there’s a reason you’ll spot quite a few almost-untouched Butterbeers lying around in the picnic area (though I’d have regretted not tasting it more. I am the sucker the marketing/sales people at Warner Bros must love. On the plus side, we did bring in our own sandwiches (well, Boots meal deal. We’re not that organised), avoiding the large queues and, from what I hear from others, not-cheap prices. So I think that makes it 1-all.)

Talking of prices, if you’re bringing kids (or are a big kid yourself) then prepare to march them through the extensive gift shop very quickly, or for quite a large credit card bill. Seriously – one chocolate frog (albeit huge) will set you back £8. Mugs start from about £10. You don’t even want to know the cost of one of the knitted House Colour jumpers… I was very tempted by the prints designed to advertised Weasley’s sweet products but somehow managed to restrain myself and only came away with a mug.

Knight Bus & Butterbeer Warner Bros Studio Tour
Also, John was kind enough to get me the ‘Complete’ ticket that, for £10 extra, comes with the souvenir programme and digital tour (these would cost £15 if you bought them and the entry ticket separately). In themselves, these weren’t a downside. Even though the programme doesn’t offer much additional content, it makes for a nice souvenir and contains some great photos – perfect if you realise after seeing all the sets that your camera was on a dodgy setting and none of your own photos have come out.

On the other hand, there is a lot of additional content on the digital guide, from additional interviews with crew members to galleries of images. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but it was so extensive that John, who opted not to have one, would have read everything about each section and be nearly ready to move before I had got even half way through the extra clips. Admittedly you probably could spend more time looking at the detail than he did, though. But regardless, if you’re going to get a digital guide, it’s worth either finding a way to share it around your party or persuading everyone to get one (they cost £5 if purchased separately from entry). While John was very good and patient (presumably part of the birthday present deal!), I did feel a little guilty about how long I was taking at some points.

Overall though, this was a fantastic, pretty-much-perfect attraction that will appeal to adult and child Harry Potter fans alike. It really is as good as everyone says it is.

Bridge @ Warner Bros studio tour

The Details
Warner Bros Studio Tour
Adult Standard Ticket: £30
Child Standard Ticket: £22.50 (Free for under 4s)
Family (Either 2 adults/2 children, or 1 adult/3 children): £89
‘Complete’ Studio Tour Package (including souvenir programme and digital guide): £39.95 (adult)/ £32.45 (children)
When you book, you’ll be asked to choose a date and time. I’d recommend leaving at least 3-3.5 hours to get round, so pick a time that will allow you not to rush!

Getting There
The nearest station is Watford Junction, and shuttle buses run from there
Driving is relatively easy and there’s free parking on-site

What I Wore
Skirt & belt: Vintage; T-shirt: (very old!) Topshop; Jacket: Monki

Food Friday: Take it away

To make up for the severe lack of Food Friday last week (and posts in general!), this post includes… multiple recommendations! This week, I decided to start compiling some of my favourite London spots to grab lunch if you’re in a rush but don’t fancy conventional fast food or sandwiches.

This list doesn’t include markets/street stalls (that’s for another post), or restaurants that do take-away versions of the restaurant food, for example Pizza Express. I’m starting with three of my favourites today, but will be adding further haunts, new discoveries and the many places I’ve forgotten as time goes on, too, so do leave any recommendations and favourites in the comments!

Rasa Express lunch box. Photo Credit: Ewan Munro



Rasa Express: Rathbone Street (Nearest Stations: Tottenham Court Road / Goodge Street), Euston Road (Nearest Stations: Warren St / Euston Square)
Website
Hidden at the back of the main restaurant, Rasa Express is one of the best value eats I’ve ever found, in London or elsewhere. The Keralan restaurants initially started as a vegetarian Indian, and has now grown into a small-chain of restaurants with different specialities, such as fish. (I know I said these weren’t takeaway versions of restaurants, but Rasa Express needs writing about – and is a little different to its restaurant counterpart).

The ‘speciality’ of Rasa Express is that is serves delicious curries and snacks in meal box form, all of which cost under £5. You can choose between vegetarian and meat, and the size of meal you want. On my last visit, I chose go all out and get the two curries, rice dish, side, bread and a pudding, which sorted me out for the day. However there are cheaper and smaller options if you’re after more of a snack, such as dumplings and potato balls.

The only negative is that there’s nowhere to sit and eat it – fine for us lucky folk who work nearby, but not ideal for visitors to the area. However the benches of Bedford Square and Soho Square are within a 5-10 minute walk, both lovely spots for outdoor eating when the weather’s right. And even if it’s not: these curries are worth withstanding a bit of drizzle for.

Benito’s Hat Exterior: My Metropole

Benito’s Hat (Various Locations)
Website
I’ve noticed a lot of burrito takeaways in London recently, and can’t claim to have tried them all. However of those I have tried, Benito’s Hat provided the best combination of good burritos and good value. Moreover, a lot of my colleagues are (very) regular visitors: high praise indeed considering us publishers aren’t exactly on bankers’ salaries, and so can’t just splash the cash on any old take out.

The food at Benito’s Hat isn’t limited to burritos, with tacos, soups and salads all making an appearance on the menu. Once you’ve chosen your meal, you then pick your base (a choice of beans), filling (veg, steak, two types of chicken or pork) and topping (various sauces, cheese or lettuce) – all for under £7, making it cheaper than a lot of other burrito outlets, and they don’t scrimp on the fillings either.

Eat in, take-away and even delivery (if you order before 11.30am) are all available.

Don’t have a Benito’s Hat nearby? Chilango is a little more expensive, but some argue that the burritos themselves are of a slightly higher quality. Try both and decide for yourself!

Oriental Star exterior. Photo Credit: The Local Data Company

Oriental Star, Finchley Road (Nearest Stations: Finchley Road / Finchley Road & Frognal)
Planning a trip to Finchley Road’s O2 Centre? Fancy something to eat? The centre itself, admittedly, is hardly short of affordable eating options, from Wetherspoons to Nando’s. However, your best bet is to leave the centre and cross the road (admittedly easier said than done – this is Finchley Road) to visit the unassuming Oriental Star noodle bar.

One of the best things about this place is the range of noodle and rice dishes on offer alongside the standard Chinese fare. The atmosphere there can vary – often it’s people in a rush, but on some evenings you will find locals shouting across the canteen-style tables to one another. Quick, tasty and cheap (most dishes are under £5 and very generous portions), this is a hidden gem on Finchley Road.

Food Friday: Mishkin’s, Covent Garden, London

First off, apologies for the lack of posts this week – birthday weekends and weeks aren’t very conducive to blogging! However, I couldn’t let Food Friday go – even belatedly – without tying it into the holiday season.

You’re probably wondering how exactly I plan to tie-in restaurants and Easter. A Hot Cross Bun Café? A chocolate shop dedicated to Easter eggs? Or just somewhere that does a particularly good roast to rival your Mum’s?

No, no and no. (Although I may do a pop-up Hot Cross Bun Café next lent – imagine the smell!) Because this weekend in my World isn’t Easter, it’s the beginning of Passover. A Jewish festival. And for me this is a good enough connection for me to be reviewing Mishkin’s, a ‘kind of Jewish deli, with cocktails’ in Covent Garden – the latest venture from the Polpo Group.

Photo Credit: We Love Food, It’s All We Eat
Photo Credit: Total Access
Photo Credit: Restaurant Gossip

By kind-of, they mean that the food served is based on Jewish comfort food, such as salt beef sandwiches, chopped liver and chicken matzo/matzah ball soup. However the restaurant isn’t, and doesn’t pretend to be, kosher. In fact, it suggests on its ‘About’ page that they serve hot dogs (that said, either I completely missed it, or this has changed recently, but I can’t actually find this option on the menu itself).

My main reason for visiting Mishkin’s was the salt beef sandwich (and before anyone points it out for me, I am aware of the irony (if it can be called irony, anyway) of reviewing a sandwich on Passover*. But I’m doing it anyway). It didn’t disappoint. The beef was tender and moist – perhaps a tiny bit less salty than I think is the ‘norm’, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. And the portion size was more than generous. This was John’s first taste of a salt beef sandwich, and it far exceeded his expectations.

We ordered chips and onion rings for sides. The chips came with their skins on, which made them better than your average chip. As John pointed out, onion rings often have a tendency not to ‘break off’ properly, leaving you with a mouthful of onion and clutching some empty batter. These definitely did not do that, making them some pretty tasty onion rings in our opinion. I think in future, though, I’d either order one side to share, or one carb-y side and something else like the slaw – this was our main meal of the day, we hadn’t eaten lunch and we were still unable to completely finish everything between us.

Besides the food, the other thing worth noting about Mishkin’s is the décor. It’s American diner with a twist. Red booths surround Formica tables boasting plastic condiment bottles and plastic water jugs and plastic-topped salt and pepper shakers. The floor is black and white checked, the walls exposed brick and feature a specials board using those plastic white letters to spell out the food of the day. I also loved that the blue and white bowls in which our sides were very similar to some dishes and plates my Grandma has. It’s a lot sleeker, and nowhere near as as busy  (in terms of décor) as the American-Jewish diners on which it’s modelled – no photos of celebrity guests all over the walls for example. Nonetheless, it still succeeds in feeling like a diner – it’s just a bit ‘cooler’ than your average one.

Photo copyright Paul Winch-Furness
Photo Credit: Rocket & Squash
Photo copyright Paul Winch-Furness

Although I’ve heard mixed reviews about Mishkin’s, we had no complaints. (Though most of the negative comments seem to relate to the non-sandwich based dishes, and suggest that portion sizes don’t quite live up to American-sized expectations. Definitely not a problem with the sandwiches!) It was reasonably priced: sandwiches are £9, sides £3-£4 and desserts around £5. Drinks are a bit more expensive, at £6+ for a glass of wine and £7+ for cocktails, but not extortionate considering the central London location. Service was fine – if nothing to write home about. And then there’s the interesting surroundings, full of interesting details and objects to spot.

If you want an authentic Jewish experience then there are definitely better places to go. But if you’re looking fun, filling New York deli-inspired food with an accompaniment of cocktails in the centre of London then Mishkin’s is definitely worth a visit.

*For the uninitiated to Passover, you eat unleavened bread for the duration of the festival. You can find out more information here.

The Details
Mishkin’s
25 Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JS
Bookings: 020 7240 2078
Menu available on their website

Food Friday: Siam Central, Charlotte Street, London

One of my main memories of Summer 2011 is the smell of Thai food. More specifically, the memory of standing outside the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street, cider in hand and catching the scent of the Thai restaurant opposite that made the Salt & Vinegar crisps we were sharing between five feel even more inadequate (the realities of being students/publishers in London, eh).

Outside Siam Central. Photo Credit: Square Meal

That restaurant was Siam Central. It being on Charlotte Street – home to many an expensive and upmarket restaurant – I had always assumed it would be out of my price range and made do with the crisps and cider. How wrong I was! A couple of weeks ago, tasked with finding a restaurant for a department meal, I decided to take a walk up said Charlotte Street to find affordable options (there are more than I first thought, incidentally). But it was Siam Central’s smell, alongside its Express Lunch Menu options starting at £6 that sealed the deal. I mean, for that price even if the food was awful then we wouldn’t have paid much for it. And at least it would smell good (hopefully).

Even at 12.45 on a Tuesday, Siam Central was pretty busy; it filled up considerably in the time we were there so I’d recommend making reservations. We were seated in the basement which was quite simple but more than adequate. Upstairs has a bit more of a ‘Far East’ theme, but nothing particularly extravagant. Not that you’ll be concentrating much on the decor once the food comes along.

One of Siam Central’s USPs is that you can choose from either a regular menu (mains around £7-£8 out of lunchtime) or to have ‘Thai tapas’. Although these cost a little less than the standard mains, other reviews suggest they’re worth indulging in – interesting and tasty.

However, we all went for the express menu, 2 courses for £8 option (you can also get 3 for £10). For starters most of us opted for the spring rolls (fresh, rather than crispy) and prawn toast. Although the latter might sound more suited to a Chinese menu, it still went down well with our crowd and looked tasty. My spring rolls were full of flavour, and the accompanying dip was perfect.

Pineapple fried rice, duck penang curry (I can attest to the lamb version being excellent),  chicken pad thai (very popular with our group) and chilli and basil stir fry with beef. Photo Credit: The Catty Life

For my main, I had the lamb curry. I was a little concerned that the spice might overpower the taste, but needn’t have worried. My only quibble was that there wasn’t more of it. Not because the portion wasn’t generous – it was what you’d expect really – but because I loved it!

Other popular choices were the Penang Curry and Pad Thai. A perpetual favourite with those who chose it, they all agreed that this was an excellent version of the dish. The only critique I heard was that the drunken rice was a little spicier than expected, but still tasted good.

The only downside to the meal is that express menu really did mean express. We didn’t take particularly long over out starters, but some main were brought out while some still had food on their place from the previous course. That said, we still spent an hour or so in the restaurant and otherwise the service was fine so it’s not something that would stop me recommending the place or even returning and eating from that menu again.

The perfect place to go if you’re looking for cheap and tasty Thai food in Central London.

The minimalist Far East interior. Photo Credit: Square Meal

The Details
No website, but reviews can be found at London Eating.
Location: 14 Charlotte Street, W1T 1LX
Price: Express lunch set menu costs from £6 – £10. ‘Thai Tapas’ cost more. Drinks are anything from £2 for non-alcoholic to around £15 for the cheapest bottle of wine (apparently).
Reservations: 020 7436 7460

Food Fridays: Chez Bob, Belsize Park

Chez Bob’s colourful interior. Photo credit: chezbob.biz

With Hampstead’s many gastro pubs just up the road, Belsize Park could easily be overlooked for interesting dining options. Especially as most of the restaurants lining this area of Haverstock Hill are your standard chains. But Chez Bob offers something different.

A restaurant called Chez Bob, and particularly a restaurant called Chez Bob in upmarket Belsize Park, is in danger of sounding – and being – pretentious. But in practice, the restaurant is a lot more ‘Bob’ than ‘Chez’. The floor is lined with brightly patterned tiles, the walls with cheerful, colourful wallpaper. Seemingly always busy, the restaurant’s soundtrack is the happy hum of others’ conversations. There’s also an outside dining area which is lovely in summer, and just far back enough from the road that you can ignore the passing traffic. All in all, Chez Bob is bright, friendly and fun and not at all show-offy. Service too is always great – the waiters don’t rush you, are friendly and seem happy to provide recommendations.

The restaurant’s name, presumably, comes from the its premise of ‘French bistro meets steak house’ (Chez being French, Bob being American-sounding – geddit?). In practice, I’d say it’s probably more upmarket British pub food, sometimes with a bit of a twist. But more important than what type of food it is exactly, is that there’s a lot of choice that means everyone will find something that suits both their tastes and budget: mains range from £6.95 – £19.95, with most being around £10 – £13.

Having been a bit of a regular at Chez Bob’s, I have come to particularly love the starter of Bob’s Nachos, which always come piled high and smothered in toppings. £6.50 might sound steep for a starter, but the huge portion can happily feed 3-4 hungry people, if not more.

Choosing a main is more difficult. You can choose from a range of burgers and sandwiches, comfort foods including as mac ‘n’ cheese (£6.95), and more full-on meaty options, such as steaks and ribs. I’m a huge fan of the lamb steak with sweet potato chips (£13.95). The steak is juicy, full of flavour, and always cooked perfectly (I go for medium-rare), and the sweet potato chips compliment it really well. My vegetarian sister particularly enjoys the goats cheese and red pepper burger (£8.95). Bob’s Beef Burger (£9.95, add £1.30 if you want cheese or bacon) always seems to go down well with everyone who tries it. Presentation of the food is also nice, with many mains served on thick wooden boards rather than plates.

If you’re feeling particularly hungry and aren’t on a budget, I recommend the ribs (£19.95). It’s hard to convey quite how large they are, but if I say that there’s a reason they don’t come with a side as standard you might start to get an idea. This is somewhere where quantity isn’t prided over quality, though, and my Dad’s always found them really tasty (I’ve never been brave enough to try them!).

The huge Chez Bob ribs. Photo credit: chezbob.biz

And it’s always worth saving room for dessert. I’m usually a chocolate girl when it comes to pudding – and I can’t deny that the chocolate brownie is good. But Chez Bob’s apple, raspberry and pecan crumble is absolutely stunning. I can’t say more than that it’s just perfect. You’ll just have to try it! As with the mains, though, dessert portions are pretty generous and most people would probably be more than satisfied with sharing one.

Although the list of wine and beer isn’t huge, it’s more than adequate. That said, the beers all hail from the other side of the Atlantic, which may be a problem for some. I’m also not sure what I think of the menu designating the wine as ‘cheap’, ‘decent’, ‘good’, ‘excellent’ and ‘Bob’s pick’: cute and quirky, or just embarassing if you order the cheap option? (Perhaps that’s the point.) There’s also a cocktail menu; ranging from £6.50 – £6.95, the cocktails aren’t cheap, but there is a half price Happy Hour from 5-7 on weekdays making them a more affordable choice. The Frozen Passion Fruit Daiquiri sounds particularly interesting.*

There’s also a good selection of non-alcoholic drinks. As well as the standard fizzy brands, you can also choose from juice, ginger beer, root beer, fresh lemonade (which is delicious), iced tea, smoothies and milkshakes (also delicious).

Chez Bob’s Crumble of Dreams (Picture Credit: chezbob.biz)

If I had one criticism, it’s that the main restaurant can get a little loud at times, meaning you sometimes have to shout accross the table. The outside always feels a little more relaxed but, this being England, eating alfresco isn’t always (or often) an option. As a result, the lively atmosphere makes this a venue more suited to dining with family and friends than a partner.

The only other ‘problem’ is that the restaurant can get very busy, so it’s always worth booking a table if you’re coming for dinner or a weekend lunch/brunch.

With some much choice and such great food, it’s hard to do Chez Bob particularly cheaply out of Happy Hour – though it is possible if you’re careful. Some of the dishes do seem a bit expensive – if you’d forgotten that you were in Belsize Park, paying £12.50 for fish & chips or £9.95 for a plain burger is a quick reminder. However whenever we’ve visited the food has always been excellent and the portion sizes more than generous; on my many visits, I’ve not once been disappointed. This, combined with the friendly service and fun atmosphere, make Chez Bob well worth a visit.

Chez Bob’s weekday 5-7 Happy Hour also extends to the food; during this time, you can get penne arrabietta, steak or Bob’s Burger with a glass of house wine, Red Stripe beer or soft drink for just £8.95.

Contact Details
Chez Bob
205-207 Haverstock Hill
Belsize Park, London
NW3 4QG
Telephone: 020 7435 4925
Website: http://www.chezbob.biz/
Menus: http://www.chezbob.biz/menus.php