Come dine with us

Come dine with us

23rd May 2011

by James Lawrence

We love this time of year. Everyone is in a consistently upbeat mood at the beginning of May - optimism rules over experience and we all plan for a long British summer. B&Q constantly advertise the latest garden furniture, supermarkets purchase billions of disposable BBQs and magazines become full of alfresco dining tips. Wonderful!

In keeping with the spirit of things, quite a few members have asked us for some venue recommendations in London for good summer alfresco dining. We will be releasing a guide to our favourites next month, but in the meantime our founder James went along last week to review a Sisha lunch in the Courtyard at 51 Buckingham Gate – perhaps the capital’s most salubrious outdoor dining venue:

Funnily enough, despite the incredible diversity and ever-changing nature of its food scene, London does not have that many good restaurants that specialise in summer dining. Of course, there are plenty of rooftop bars, terraces and beer gardens but specific outdoor restaurants are few and far between. Many restaurants in Soho and the like put a few tables outside for those who fancy eating alongside car fumes and hoards of party goers. Not very alluring!

The Courtyard is the outdoor arena of the Buckingham Gate luxury hotel in Victoria, part of the Taj Resorts and Palaces group. 51 Buckingham Gate is certainly a very plush hotel with all the prerequisite bells and whistles, not to mention a superb, michelin starred restaurant - the Quilon - next door. Apparently one of the suites even has 9 bedrooms! I suppose the super rich must need to change beds more often than the rest of us.

Arriving at the scenic Courtyard last Wednesday I was greeted by Su-Lin, PR for the Taj group, who very thoughtfully thrust their signature cocktail into my hand. Not a bad way to say hello. The 51 cocktail has a real kick, a potent blend of Tanqueray no.10 gin, grapefruit juice and elderflower liqueur.

After our very welcome cocktail the team of chefs gave a presentation to whet our appetites for the feast to come. Head Chef Abdul had lots of good advice, including making sure you have an acidic element in the marinate (such as sherry vinegar), and don't over-marinate fish and poultry 1 hour - 3 hours maximum. Last but not least, Abdul stressed that people always tend to overcook on BBQs, often 15-20 minutes is fine for meat and fish. Good tips, especially for a novice like me. More than once, I have had to return food to the grill because my guests think that the chicken is 'slightly' underdone. We Brits seem to think that BBQ meat needs to be cremated lest a food poisoning epidemic hits Rotherham. Let’s start a new food movement - BBQ lovers against nuclear - reactor style sausages.

Where was I? Oh yes, our hosts prepared a fantastic lunch for us, which consisted of:

  • Djaj Shwa - Moroccan diced chicken marinated in onions, garlic and saffron, grilled on a skewer

  • Lamb Kofta - North African macerated milk lamb with onion, garlic, olive oil and cumin, grilled on a skewer

  • Paneer Kebab - Cheese kebab seasoned with yoghurt, chilli and aromatic spices

  • Lokoz Meshwe - Fillet of seabass with almond chermoula

Lamb Kofta stole the show - perfectly cooked, exquisitely flavoured tender lamb that remained on our plates for about 4.7 seconds. The Seabass was equally as impressive; so often grilled fish can dry out and lose its soft texture but this was as succulent and very moorish. It made me realise how much farmed Seabass pales in comparison. The only slight misfire was the chicken which was very dry, but overall it could lay claim to the best BBQ I had eaten in years. I plan to contact Adbul for some more lessons :)

Sisha lessons followed, aided by one of the Sisha tenders. For a non-smoker, the thought of smoking apple (or raspberry) tobacco didn't exactly fill me with joy but it is fun to smoke Sisha in company. As the accompanying leaflets says; it involves cooling the tobacco smoke by passing it through water, the herbal tobacco referred to as Shisha is burnt using coal, passed through the water vell and then you inhale from a long hose. Much favoured in the Arab world, Sisha is becoming quite trendy in cities around the world and apparently it sharpens your taste buds?

Funnily enough, in this extreme anti-smoking climate, 51 does cater for those who enjoy the occasional taste of tobacco with a gorgeous cognac and cigars terrace – visitors can sip and smoke late into the night, which is an increasing rarity in London. While I hate smoking during a meal it was refreshing to see that smokers were catered for, we can often be too keen to demonise and place them in the same bracket as murderers and Big Brother contestants.

Lunch finished with an explanation of what delights were in store for music lovers. From July 1st till August 13th a series of concerts and Opera pieces will be performed in the Courtyard. It’s a crowd pleasing concept - dinner and music under the stars; maybe making it a good date venue for the more mature category of diners?

Classical music lovers apart, the sedate Courtyard at 51 won't be to everyone’s taste -if you are looking for a young, buzzy vibe with cheap and cheerful food then look elsewhere (try the Queen of Hoxton). If, on the other hand you fancy a relaxed evening in gorgeous settings being serenaded by highlights from Madame Butterfly, then 51 Buckingham gate is right up your Victoria Alley!

Further Information

The Courtyard at 51 - Buckingham Gate. Tube Station: Victoria

For reservations telephone: 020 7963 8373


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