Number 22

(In the light of my sniffy comments about The Rosendale and Pizza Express, it seems only polite to record a happy dining incident in Herne Hill.)

I’m not big on seafood or red meat, so my relationship with tapas has been a tentative one over the years. I like manchego, and boquerones, and patatas bravas and tortilla, but show me an octopus or a pork cheek (what?) and I’ll likely run and hide. However, since the Great Cooking Revolution of 2009 I’ve gradually become more adventurous, so I’m a better prospect for a tapas date now than I’ve ever been. And I’d heard good things about Number 22 on Half Moon Lane, even if it does pretend it’s in Dulwich (it is a two-minute walk from Herne Hill station. It is as much in Herne Hill as a thing can be).

Anyway, it was better than I was expecting, and I would be giving it a round five stars (out of five) if I hadn’t been cold all the way through the meal. I am a naturally cold person, which is why one day I am going to go and live somewhere tropical, but I was wearing a wool dress and tights and furry boots and a scarf and I was still too cold; a problem I exacerbated when I ordered the saffron and passion fruit panna cotta for pudding, having gotten my Italian deserts mixed up (I was expecting a pannetone, and by the way, wouldn’t a saffron and passion fruit pannetone be AMAZING?). A chilled pudding is not what you want when you’re too cold.

But rewind, rewind, because I’ve left out all the good stuff. And there was lots of good stuff. The interior is halfway between a wine bar and someone’s living room, with the obligatory bad art for sale on the walls (this is such a feature of Herne Hill eateries that I would feel bereft if it weren’t there). The tables are well-spaced for such a small place, and we had a nook of our own whose only disadvantage was that we had to stand up and wave to get a waiter’s attention, so tucked-away were we. But rather that than one of my pet restaurant hates: the waiter who comes by and interrupts the conversation every few minutes to ask whether everything’s OK, as though you might not have the wit to let them know otherwise. They always seem to arrive just as I’m at the punchline of a joke. I can’t help suspecting they do it deliberately. I’d always rather too little attention from waiters than too much.

But mainly I want to talk about the food, because the food was terrific. We ordered padron peppers and chorizo and potato skewers with bread and oil to start, and then rabbit, clams, seared tuna with fennel and orange, tortilla and deep-fried goat’s cheese for the main course (unlike in traditional tapas bars, Number 22 times everything to arrive together, so they have the dishes divided into appetisers, tapas and extras), but the waitress told us the goat’s cheese was best with the bread and oil and suggested we have it alongside the appetisers rather than with the main course, which we did. I like it when the staff know better than you and politely tell you so.

All the appetisers were good, although if I had to nitpick I’d say that the bread was a bit dull (but then, is Spanish bread a thing? I don’t think it is, really), but the mains were really spectacular. The tuna was cooked in that way that proper cooks cook it, where you just wave it over the heat for a split-second, and I was nervous about eating it because I thought it would be chewy and jellific, but in fact it melted in the mouth like a pâté de foie gras, only more ethical (just). The rabbit was moist and delicious, the tortilla had exactly the right consistency, and the clams, which I only tried out of curiosity, expecting to hate them (I traditionally gag on shellfish), were completely delicious and the surprise star of the night.

It’s not cheap – our bill came to just over £80 with service, and that was without wine, although it did include a bottle of beer and a brandy, and a ginger beer, which I would heartily recommend as a non-alcoholic alternative to dessert wine – but for a special occasion it’s as good a suburban restaurant as I’ve eaten at. Just maybe go in the summer, or pack a spare jumper.

Rough customer

I promised months ago that I’d write about the Rough Guide to Cyprus and why it’s no good at all, and then I forgot, and then I remembered but didn’t have the book to hand in order to quote it. But now I do, and flicking through it I discover I’m every bit as bemused by it as I was at the time.

It may be that Rough Guides are not designed for people like me, who just want to go on holiday. Here is a short quiz which will help you to determine whether you are the kind of person the Rough Guide to Cyprus might be aimed at:

Question 1

Do you look down on everyone else who has travelled to your holiday destination at the same time as you?

Question 2

Do you describe yourself as a traveller, rather than a tourist?

If you answered mostly YES, you may get on with The Rough Guide to Cyprus better than I did. I found it pompous, snobbish, humourless and ill-conceived. I first noticed this when I was reading the section about Cypriot cuisine. It says:

Food throughout Cyprus is generally hearty rather than refined, and on the mainstream tourist circuit at least will get monotonous after a few days. In many respects resort food – especially in the South – is the unfortunate offspring of generic Middle Eastern, and 1960s British, cooking at its least imaginative.

Well, that’s simple enough – just don’t eat at any “resorts”, “especially in the South”. Got that? Never mind that people have varied tastes and palates (personally, I like “generic Middle Eastern” food more than almost any other kind). Never mind that even smallish Cypriot towns on the “mainstream tourist circuit” offer a range of international cuisine as wide as anything you’d find in an English town of twice the size. No, Cypriot food in any of the places you’re actually likely to be staying (there’s a reason it’s called the tourist circuit)  is monotonous and unimaginative.

(There’s a lot of this guff about the “mainstream tourist circuit”, incidentally. The writers don’t seem keen on your visiting any of the places on which Cyprus’s economy depends for a substantial part of its income, preferring to recommend remote spots which you have  to drive to, environmental considerations clearly playing second fiddle to the traveller’s desire for an authentic experience, whatever that is.)

It was in Cyprus that I first tasted halloumi, which is one of my favourite foods in the world. Surely, I thought, they can’t be rude about halloumi. Everyone like halloumi.

Unfortunately, inferior rubber halloumi – full of added yeast and powdered (cow) milk, squeaking on the teeth when chewed – abounds; when you finally get the real thing (from sheep or goat milk, with the butterfat oozing out at the touch of a fork), you’ll never willingly go back to the other.

Well, I have eaten more halloumi, in Cyprus and elsewhere, than anyone I know, and I think that’s bollocks. Sure, the cheap stuff is squeakier, but it’s still terrific.

(And yes, the writing is all like that.)

We were staying between Paphos and Coral Bay, so I had a look at the restaurant listings for both places to see whether I could find any recommendations I liked the sound of. It only listed a few places, but one caught my eye:

La Piazza: Very upmarket Italian with a Venetian flair, its menus and recipes vetted once yearly by a North Italian professor.

A what now?  This bizarre detail struck me much as those adverts do that begin with a confident, and meaningless, “Scientists say…”. No extra information was given, and I should have asked when we ate at what turned out to be a fairly average but perfectly pleasant Italian, but I forgot. If you go and find out, do please let me know.

The best thing about La Piazza is not the food but the view, which looks like this:

beach view

The writers of The Rough Guide to Cyprus clearly don’t have much time for this view, though, because if you look up what to do in Paphos, it says:

The main resort strip in Kato Pafos, east of Apostolou Pavlou and the harbour, consists of opticians, estate agents, ice-cream parlours, fast-food franchises, more estate agents, indistinguishable restaurants, nightclubs, still more estate agents, clothes shops, souvenir kiosks, banks and excursion agencies, the characterless pattern repeating itself every couple of hundred yards along Leoforos Posidhonos, the shoreline boulevard. The only “sight” on this lacklustre sequence is the Paphos Aquarium…

Well, that’s more or less true, but as an introductory paragraph to a section on what to see in Paphos, it leaves something to be desired. I’d have started it like this:

The main resort strip in Kato Pafos, east of Apostolou Pavlou and the harbour, has all the shops you need to stock up on provisions for your holiday, as well as an abundance of places to stop to eat, drink and enjoy the view of the harbour. There are also plentiful tourist agencies where you’ll be able to book trips to the more inacessible parts of the island, but don’t forget to spend some time sitting still and absorbing the busy, bustling atmosphere and headily international population of this cheerful tourist town.

And if you can describe an aquarium as “the only sight” in a place this lively and friendly, you have a very narrow view of what counts as a sight, and you probably won’t enjoy your holiday at all. Incidentally, that line of stones stretching out into the sea in the photo above is an ancient breakwater.

Coral Bay, a few miles up the coast and much smaller than Paphos but with the advantage of a glorious sandy beach, is a genuine single-duty tourist town and much less varied, but it does have a lot of restaurants. What did the Guide have to say about them?

Restaurants on the main strip are generally pretty forgettable; much the best local eating is at the South-Indian-run Keralam, northwest of the main beach in the Aristo Coral Bay complex.

Right. Because us Brits don’t get the chance to eat good Indian food at home.

(Here, as an aside, are my two recommendations for places to eat. In Coral Bay, Phideas Tavern (which I can’t find on the web but which you’ll find easily enough once you get there) looks like a canteen but does fantastic traditional Cypriot food for almost no money at all, and you get to spend the evening with Phideas himself, who is great fun. I ate here in 2001 and again in 2010 and was charmed and delighted to find that it hadn’t changed at all.

And in Paphos, you absolutely must go to Seven St George, which does some of the best food I’ve ever eaten, and is one of the few places in the world where I’m happy to eat pork and lamb. Like Phideas, it’s run by a family, all of whom you’ll meet during the course of your visit, and what George lacks in cheeky banter he makes up for with a beguilingly serious dedication to good food. There’s no menu at Seven St George: they just bring you meze dishes until you’re full. Everything is tiny, beautiful and delicious, and you’ll have eaten your own body weight before you notice it. Seating is outside on a flower-covered terrace, and dinner there is like sneaking three hours in heaven.)

Writing about Phideas and George has lifted my mood and almost made me forgive the writers of the Rough Guide to Cyprus their snobbery, except that as a final insult, the glossary of useful Greek and Turkish words doesn’t include the word for “cheers”, which I’ve found is the most important word to know if you, like me, like to meet people and talk to them when you visit other countries, rather than sniffily disapproving of the tourism industry that keeps most of them in work.

So as my final gift to you today, cheers is “yiamas” in south Cyprus and “şerefe” in the north, and if you go, you’ll have plenty of chances to use them both.


I decided yesterday that a meal in a properly swanky restaurant is worth at least a weekend away, for the amount of pleasure it brings. This was on the back of lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Claridges restaurant, which might have been the best meal I’ve ever had. We had the set lunch, but it was so good I’m tempted to go back and try everything else, and if I could afford it that’s exactly what I’d do. As it is, I’ll just share the menu with you so you can enjoy it vicariously.

Since it was a special occasion our waiter gave us a whistlestop tour of the kitchen, which was much calmer and quieter than you’d expect. I thought kitchens of posh restaurants were supposed to be a louder and hotter version of actual hell, but this was more like a very orderly production line. Which, I suppose, is what it is.

(Do you like my new design, by the way? It’s not my own; it’s one of WordPress’s standard designs, but I like the layout and the header image, which makes me think of Ireland, where I will be next week. A fantastic meal may be a good substitute for a holiday, but there’s no harm in having one of each.)