Best Part: The dependability!

Bellaccino’s (or the Italian place on French Row as I call it as I can never remember it’s name) is something of a St Albans institution. Founded in 1978 (maybe) it will still be around when the relentless march of time has ground the once proud Cathedral tower down to a rubble nubbin, oblivious to fads, trends or social media. Not for Bellaccino’s the craft beer, pulled lamb or en trend shade of grey. The menu is probably not much altered from when it opened.

And an extensive menu it is, covering café standards like all-day breakfasts and jacket potatoes but also venturing into more exotic areas like Lasagne and even Tapas. Arriving first and short of time I was planning on ordering for Mrs Midweek Lunch, but when faced with the bewildering array on offer I thought it best to wait. I was tempted by the American breakfast, if only to see what was American about Cumberland Sausages and Hash Browns, but I settled on the Mediterranean Chicken Breast.

Service was very smiley, friendly, and, most importantly in our time poor state, quick.  And portions when they arrived were generous, £6 in my case buying a large plate full of flavoursome rice, a whole orange chicken breast and a token gesture towards salad. Normally I would think nothing of the vegetable garnish but there was a little smear of really very nice blue cheese sauce that livened even this bit up. I think they weakest point was probably the chicken, which was certainly tasty but had the stringy, slightly rubbery, texture that suggested it wasn’t in the first flush of being cooked. I washed it all down with a very refreshing home-made lemonade.

My wife who was in a hurry to get to the hairdresser chose a wrap to house a grilled vegetable sandwich rather than a crunchy baguette or panini. She has never forgotten a very bad family experience of being late for a wedding due to an ambitious ciabatta lunch. This was apparently my fault again. I digress. A wrap can be eaten quickly. In the event of getting it though my wife was delighted and only wished she could take her time. The wrap was warm, soft and slightly doughy; more like a flatbread. An imaginative twist on a classic. She was very pleased indeed.

The design of Bellaccino’s is not particularly innovative but exceedingly functional. There is a half hearted attempt to make us think they had a book case but we saw through it in minutes. But it was open and breezy on a lovely sunny day, and our fellow diners were a nice mix of tourists, old folk and Russian double agents.

It must be mentioned that of all our lunch time experiences so far, Bellaccino’s was the speediest. Well done indeed. That is not to say that we felt rushed or wouldn’t have wanted to linger. We would have happily spent the full 50 minutes here if we had and the time.

You do not visit Bellaccino’s for cutting edge excitement, you visit it for reasonable and dependable food. This might seem somewhat damning with faint praise, but it can be worryingly rare to find such things. The menu hopes that we keep smiling, and I think as long as Bellaccino’s stands I will.7.6/10


Smokehouse Deli

Best Part: The Sweet Potato Fries!

I must ask our readers to forgive this extra review which goes slightly off task. On this occasion our mid week lunch was not in the city centre but at the Smoke House Deli on Cell Barnes Lane.

Smokehouse Deli replaced a much loved greengrocer at the start of 2015 but has quickly become a new favourite in our local area. We often stop there after school for a real Italian ice cream and love the welcoming family atmosphere. They sell a variety of high quality Deli goods fresh and store-cupboard and just looking at these is enjoyable enough. Their cakes are particularly beautiful – imaginative doughnuts and rainbow sponges; yum! Needless to say for any establishment started in the last 12 months, the Smokehouse Deli is en trend in its grey colour scheme. It is smart, clean extremely friendly and the purveyor of great food. A breath of fresh air for our neighbourhood and worth a trip out for those living further afield.

On this occasion we decided to try out their lunch time fare and were not disappointed. I went for “The Greek”, roasted vegetables, halloumi and a gorgeous garlic mayonnaise. I wish I had chosen a ciabatta or baguette instead of the granary option as I don’t think it toasted particularly well, but this was my bad choice (well, my husband’s, but let’s not worry about that. Though it was definitely his fault), not their wrongdoing. I couldn’t fault the filing – well balanced flavours and well cooked. We chose a side dish of very fine sweet potato chips with mayonnaise. So good I can still taste them.

My husband went for that day’s special, a slow roasted pork bap with stuffing and apple sauce. His first bite enraptured him, but as he went on he began to look a bit less convinced, and ended it by proclaiming it maybe a little too rich, almost to the point of tasting offaly. He was more than happy with his English Toffee flavour milkshake, though, none of that foreign Scottish toffee muck for him.

It being a sunny day, we took the opportunity to use the outdoor tables and sat and watched the great and good of mid-week Cell Barnes wander past. Due to our interesting demographic mix we did manage to observe a large group of violent sweary men take issue with each other, but as we did not have the children with us and there was no actual fisticuffs we could take it in the spirit of local colour.

For those with families, they have a good children’s sandwich lunch deal, changing facilities and plenty of highchairs.  Probably because the proprietors have their own children they are really clued up. What a relief. However this doesn’t stop it being a trendy and desirable place to go. Important looking people with tablets and phones sit next to young families, the only thing on common being a love of good food and good service.

Well done Smokehouse. May you serve the community for as long as the Greengrocers…I think that is about 49 years to go!


Bistro Paprika

Best Bit: The Butter!
When we first started our weekly mid-week lunches over a year ago, long before this blog was a twinkle in our digestive systems, we decided that Paprika should be one of our first destinations. The reason for this priority was that we had a horrible feeling it might disappear at any moment. We had an amazing meal that day and are very happy that it’s still here for our return visit. However I still have a sense of unease.
I guess I don’t really get who eats there, and when. We visited for lunch, and we were the only diners (I believe it was the same last time we went). We have thought about going for dinner before but it closes at 9pm (9.30pm on Friday and Saturday), which seems a bit restrictive. It would be great for grabbing dinner before a show, but it’s not particularly well placed for anything unless you are going to a performance at the Meating Place. But I really do hope it keeps on going, because it is a unique and wonderful place.


The whole thing proceeds with a Gallic disregard for anything that might be considered dining convention. There’s no drinks menu, no licence, no set menu. The décor is absolutely eccentric and charming, in a way some places wrongly think they can achieve by buying a job lot of Readers Digest editions from a charity shop and flinging them around the place. For some reason it seems to have a tap as the focal point for the entire bistro, possibly to emphasise their unique selling point of serving tap water. But it is a wonderful place to watch people wandering along Catherine Street from the large windows.


In the absence of any drinks list or alcohol we followed the subtle hint and went for tap water, but when my wife wanted something more interesting they provided a little jug of elderflower cordial to mix in, at no extra cost, a lovely touch. A minor quibble, there was no ice with the water which would have been exceedingly welcome on such a hot day.


Given our time constraints we passed on starters, including an intriguing dish of pork belly and octopus, but instead ordered the bread basket. I’m very glad we did for it featured not only a duo of breads (normal and olive) but a trio of butters. The variety of colour, texture and taste on offer made the bread basket potentially the high point of the meal. There was a tangy black squid ink butter with chunks of garlic (my wife’s favourite), a sweet pink beetroot butter and a buttery butter butter (which I think was my preferred choice).

Then the mains arrived, each with their own little jug of sauce that our waiter poured whilst explaining their contents. I chose the Grilled Bistro Steak with Triple Cooked chips. All of the non-steak components were excellent. The chips were crispy on the outside and fluffy in the middle (though I confess I do prefer stringy fries more with a steak), the red wine jus was sticky and sweet, even the carrot was a delight, caramelised and sharp. The only slight disappointment was the steak itself. This might be because the last time we were here I had the best steak in living memory (mine and humanity’s), but I found it a bit chewy and reminiscent of school dinners (not that I ever had steak for school dinners, but something about the texture of the meat brought back unpleasant canteen memories).
Mrs Mid-Week Lunch was more fortunate in her meal. She chose trout with gin and apple sauce and beetroot gnocchi. It was exquisite in taste and appearance managing to tread the fine line between being delicate and very flavoursome. The garnish was an amazing large onion crisp. My wife was overwhelmed and gives it the fine praise it deserves by rating it the best main course so far in the history of St. Albans Midweek lunch! Congratulations Paprika!
Service was very attentive, possibly a touch over-attentive as the only diners. Water was refilled constantly and there was always an awareness of a presence. When my wife asked for the bill ensuring that I would be back at work promptly she was scolded slightly by the waiter; “The gentleman is still eating.” It didn’t get nasty however and the price, just over £30, was more than reasonable for the outstanding level of the cuisine. I was back at work with the allotted 1 hour period feeling very satisfied.
I am so glad Bistro Paprika exists in St Albans, and even though there are places I probably prefer I would recommend it more than anywhere else. I feel we all have a moral obligation to prove that somewhere as idiosyncratic and delicate can survive in this rough world of market forces and Maison Blanc.

Thank you Paprika, we award you our second highest score so far;