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An East End food safari


There's pretty much no better way to spend a Saturday morning than drinking champagne in a sunny, high-walled courtyard near Liverpool Street.

That's where we find ourselves on the first stop of London Restaurant Festival 2012's Gourmet Odyssey, a whistle stop tour of the East End's burgeoning food scene.

East London has experienced something of a culinary renaissance in recent years, with a series of chic, independent bars and restaurants opening up, backed by both big-name chefs and critical acclaim.

ABOVE: Champagne! What better way to start the weekend?

We're here for a snapshot experience of four foodie hotspots, starting at the Old Bengal Bar. Formerly home of the East India Company, this eighteenth century warehouse boasts exposed brickwork and a plethora of cool, retro features (including a giant clock on the front of the building).

ABOVE: The terrace at the Old Bengal Bar is a wonderfully mellow drinking spot

Its airy courtyard - most likely packed with city workers during the week - is a supremely mellow place for weekend drinking, with large comfy white sofas, giant bay windows and an array of carefully manicured pot plants.

There's just enough time to throw back a glass or three of champagne before we head abroad an old school double decker Routemaster, for the start of what is possibly the world's best bus ride.

ABOVE: All aboard the magical mystery bus

First stop: Tramshed in Shoreditch. There's little doubt Mark Hix's giant cavern of a restaurant is a jaw-dropping venue. It's not just Damien Hirst's iconic formaldehyde Cock and Bull centrepiece (although this does act as a nifty preview of what lies ahead in the menu stakes).

It's the sheer, performance-level status of the space - the enormous high ceilings and steel frameworks of this former electricity generating station feel more like a movie set than a restaurant. And yet Tramshed is full of eager eaters, both in groups and pairs at the bar that runs the length of the warehouse. There's even a mezzanine level, which is pretty much made for people-watching.

ABOVE: Damien Hirst's cow and cockerel centrepiece at Tramshed is the perfect ad for treats that lie in wait

The presentation of the dishes is as show-stopping as the venue itself. Whole chickens come stuffed on a spike, feet up in the air within a circle of fat, wedge-like chips. Our Yorkshire pudding starter is enormous - it could easily feed a small army and is little match for its whipped cauliflower sauce dip.

ABOVE: Moyallon bacon and Burford Brown eggs make for a very tempting breakfast salad

The Moyallon bacon and Burford Brown egg dish is cunningly presented in a salad, for possibly the healthiest fry-up format ever. And then there's woodland mushrooms and artichoke à la Grecque (Greek style), a seemingly delicate offering that comes with an implosion of earthy flavours.

ABOVE: The Yorkshire puddings at Tramshed come in super-sized portions

Starters over and we're on the move once more - this time to cool neighborhood hang-out Brawn just off Columbia Road.

From the outside, Brawn is surprisingly low-key: it could be an office or even an exhibition space. It's only once you make it over the threshold that the cheery, Boho ambiance hits home.

ABOVE: Brawn near the Columbia Road Flower Market - brunch-lovers, book your place now

Brawn is the kind of easy-going, elegant restaurant that you could easily waste away the whole day at without noticing. It has friendly, long wooden tables to spread out newspapers and drinks on and an impressive list of organically sourced natural wines.

ABOVE: The wine list at Brawn comes with plenty of zest and flavour

Our main is melt-in-the-mouth confit duck on a bed of green beans and butterbeans. A dish that needs no Photoshopping...

ABOVE: Confit duck and beans - a main that's both hearty and healthy (sort of)

For veggies, there's Cèpes risoni - an irresistibly rich and creamy creation that will leave you feeling full for around three days.

ABOVE: Cèpes risoni is a delicious Vegetarian option at Brawn

Reinvigorated by what feels like a casket of red wine, we're back on the bus once more for our third and final stop. Hawksmoor is famed for its generous, meaty mains but it's actually dessert we've come for this time round.

Down in the basement of its East End branch lies the Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar, a surreal and secretive bolthole that bridges a 1930s, gentleman's club vibe with that of a submarine.

ABOVE: The atmospheric Hawksmoor Spitalfields bar

There are all manner of ingenious design touches, from emerald green-tiled drinking booths to Sherlock Holmes-style lamps on the wall and a backlit drinks menu advertising such delights as Green & Red Margarita and Marmalade Cocktail.

We're here to sample the drunken sticky toffee pudding, a ridiculously indulgent concoction that oozes gooeyness and clings stubbornly to the bottom of your stomach (in the way that only great puddings truly can).

ABOVE: Anyone for a drunken sticky toffee pudding?

There's oodles of clotted cream to smooth it all down with - and as a last, brilliant touch - a hearty glass of Shaky Pete's Ginger Brew.

ABOVE: Shaky Pete's Ginger Brew is an eclectic combination of Gin, ginger, lemon and London's Pride

This life-affirming signature drink brings with it a glow of feel-good warmth and with hues of ginger and lemon, it tastes like it could almost be good for you.

It's the perfect way to round off four hours of solid eating and drinking in some of London's freshest food spots (with a bit of bus-top tourism thrown in). At the end of this culinary marathon, I can't wait to do it all over again - albeit with a long lie-down somewhere first...

The London Restaurant Festival runs until the 15 October and the final Gourmet Odyssey Tour of the new restaurants that are shaking up the capital (Novikov, Banca and Brasserie Zedel) takes place on the 13 October. Click here to find out more

Watch video highlights from this year's East London Gourmet Odyssey tour, below

Words: Anna Brech



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