Opso, London

exteriorI like being the first one of my party to arrive for dinner. On a cold February night this gave me the chance to get a good first look at the modern Greek tapas joint that is Opso. I craved comfort after getting lost outside Regent’s Park tube station, but walking into the sexy bar area I felt a bit underdressed and began self-consciously peeling off layers. I appreciate the urban style of such a bar — hidden lighting features, bearded bartenders, a grid of steel pipes balancing stemware and bottles — but on this occasion I sought cosiness. Glancing at the dining room beyond, I found it: brown paper table coverings and wicker, farmhouse chairs. In this corner of Marylebone, it seems, I had found an urban-pastoral mash-up (with a touch of dirty take-away…but I’ll get to that).

My friend arrived and I handed her a glass of the bubbly the chalkboard advertised that night: NV Amalia Tselepos Brut. We headed to the comfort zone. About half of the dining room featured small tables, with a communal, high table at the center. interior

I’m surprised whenever a waitress asks me if I’ve ever had tapas (“Do you know how it works?” “Are you OK with sharing?”), but then I remember to savour the now: modern-day London, with its scores of small plates and global cuisine. One could share every meal for 365 days, and never have to face another shepherd’s pie. The only real question is how many dishes will satisfy two people, and here the answer was five. So we ordered seven.

Classic spanakopita came first, a handmade pie with spinach and feta that we ordered almost out of obligation to Greek society, but — holy Acropolis — did it deliver. Sourdough bread cubes came with a sort of Greek hummus: yellow fava-bean spread from Santorini, topped with crispy capers and red onion.


Spanakopita and sourdough bread cubes with yellow fava-bean spread

The healthy option arrived next: Dakos salad, in another sublime example of what any of us would consider quintessential Greek food: cherry tomatoes, olive oil rusks, organic capers, Kalamata olives, and lovely, ultra-smooth mature feta cheese. Behind the salad lurked the sin: fried Metsovone cheese, inconspicuously perched on a slab of slate. A tight shell of breadcrumbs concealed a small cylinder of smoked cheese, the likes of which I may never erase from memory. Smear it with homemade rhubarb jam and it’s easy to forget you don’t even have bread or crackers. You’re just forking it in with abandon, molten bite after molten bite.


Fried Metsovone cheese with rhubarb jam

Here’s where the dirty take-away factor dropped in: our next two plates weren’t actually plates. The arrival of small fast-food boxes made me look at my watch with alarm, before I processed the situation. It’s the mash-up aesthetic again: mixing casual street-food style into our otherwise elegant meal. Dinner had gone from traditional to trendy in one beat, but I couldn’t find fault with either. Although it did leave me wondering if Opso’s having a bit of an identity crisis, trying to be all things to all diners. Some questions should just be ignored for the sake of beautiful flavour.

The first box revealed our soutzoukaki hot dog;  personally, I would never disrespect such a delicacy with the term “hot dog”, but I think I’ve visited too many American ballparks. This was a grilled beef shortrib patty with a traditional tomato-cumin sauce in a tahini brioche bun.  The second boxed item was a salmon burger with tomato jam and aioli mayo in a striking squid-ink bun. We shared both tapas, but probably should have ordered one each.

You know when you forget you’ve over-ordered and you’re kicking back, digesting, when suddenly you’re staring at a steaming pile of noodles? That is when I advise you to ignore the wheel of hot cheese you’ve already consumed and draw upon your inner strength. The pastitsio noodle box (yes, another box) sheltered traditional hylopites pasta, with slow-cooked pulled beef cheek dripping in a tomato-and-beschamel sauce. To be fair, it was much like dessert, having a certain sweet quality, and I have no regrets about skipping the official last course.
Opso also has a basement floor, with more of the same vibe, and on a Tuesday night neither dining room felt too crowded. After paying the bill I took a quick trip to the loo, only to return and find the waitress waiting beside my friend at our table, to let us know the next party had arrived. We had pre-agreed to relinquish our table after 1.5 hours, and were still well within this range, so it would have been nice to leave with a bit more dignity. Still, we were fed, we were warm, and we knew the way back to the station. I maintain: no regrets.

Opso: 10 Paddington St, W1U 5QL, Marylebone, London, http://opso.co.uk

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Flat Iron, London

ceilingI recoil at the sight of raw meat. But picturing it charred and lying supine next to a sharp blade? That’s a vision that gives me the good kind of shivers. In London, as in almost any major city worldwide, steak is primarily a luxury. A birthday treat. An expensed work dinner. An option you offer up when you know your dad will pay. The creators of Flat Iron clearly took a hard look at this sad truth and stampeded into Soho to capture the hearts of We With Fragile Overdrafts.  For less than the price of a Zone 1 travelcard you can nurture your bloodlust at the original Beak Street location, or its hot little brother on iconic Denmark Street. bathroom

The boyfriend and I had the audacity to swagger into the latter at 7 pm on a Saturday, having heard you can score a good steak and some salad for £10 but fully aware they don’t take reservations. Not sure what karma we had racked up, but we were seated immediately. In America you’d have to put up with 20-year old carpets and stale drapes to get beef that cheap; here was a decidedly tasteful new-world steakhouse, a sort of  carnivory palace outfitted with cleavers on every table and plenty of solid wood and iron. Daylight gave way to candelight and Flat Iron came into its own, oozing sexiness the way their sirloin oozes…well…sexiness.

A sublime Old-Fashioned to start the meal seemed essential. It’s easy to convince yourself of such things when your main costs only a tenner. I was sipping away merrily when a tin mug of popcorn alighted on our table, the better to whet our palate and necessitate more drinks. The mainly male waiters that night were casually elegant, in the same vein as Flat Iron itself. We couldn’t be more pleased at getting a high-end experience at bargain basement prices. menu

We each went for the speciality – flat iron, a shoulder cut known as butler’s to Brits – the boyfriend’s with peppercorn sauce and mine with bearnaise. We specified medium and it arrived looking – then tasting – about six kinds of awesome. Side orders range from creamed spinach to aubergine, but we stuck with fries to round out the ubiquitous steakhouse experience. Plus the steak comes with a perky little salad to appease your arteries. Medium steak

Each location features apparently daily specials of specially sourced UK meat, in addition to the flat-iron; the night we went there were burgers, but a quick dip into their Twitter pool hinted at Wagyu beef and a belly cut at other times. I loved the intimacy of the Denmark Street restaurant, but I hear great things about the long communal tables of the two-storey Beak Street venue, and the St John’s doughnuts that are sorely lacking on Denmark Street. The prices aren’t not serendipity; they’re good business sense…I’ll come back to this lovely little spot again and again, throwing down my tenners and knocking back whiskey like JR on a Monday lunch break.

9 Denmark Street, London W1F 9RW (or 17 Beak Street WC2H 8LS) https://twitter.com/flatironsteak

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society