Hiit Kitchen

Best Part: The Protein
Price for 2 diners: £35
In and out within 1 hr: yes
Where: Chequer Street
Rating: 7/10
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We have often walked past Hiit kiitchen and despite admiring its cutlery logo have not been inside. It looked a biit healthy and intiimiidatiing. However on this occasion we were in our second week of a cold and decided a healthy vitamin boosting smoothie would be sensible.

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We were not expecting food let alone such a range. Yes, smoothies were definitely present, but the café also boasts healthy sandwiches and a variety of substantial meals e.g. salmon and roasted veg cous-cous. We didn’t have room for any of this but both went for a burrito. We had walked past Benito’s Hat on the way and so clearly had Burritos on the mind.

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Feeling as unhealthy as I was I was tempting by the vitamin boost shot at £3. It was luridly orange and I expected it to sate of turmeric and chilli. It was in fact a surprising punch of ginger that left my throat on fire for a few minutes. After my eyes had stopped watering I couldn’t wait for my final glug. My word, I felt WONDERFUL! My sore throat had disappeared and I felt to take on any of the nonsense that I usually have to manage on a Thursday afternoon. Wowzers.

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For our main drinks we opted for various fruit juices at £4ish. They were similar to a Wagamama juice in taste and price. We also shared some egg white crisps which were interesting and probably had some arcane health benefit but are not going to usurp the potato from it’s crispy throne anytime soon.

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After the high note of my vitamin boost shot, my burrito was an anticlimax. It was fine but not as good as Benito’s. Mr midweek lunch was very pleased with his Pulled Pork affair, the crispy cabbage was not something he would purposefully add to a burrito but the textural counter-point made the whole thing less unremittingly squidgy. It was certainly substantial, and though logicially it doesn’t seem like it really could be a particularly healthy option he still left the place with a sense of smug self-satisfaction.

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The overall price was higher than we were expecting. In fact our drinks bill was almost the same as the food. The service was fine and the ambience non-descript. The interior is a little dark but sitting by or along the window benches provides good people watching possibilities. I would not feel self conscious eating here alone but it is a quiet enough to be a good venue for a catch up with a friend without having to shout.

We would go again buut noot in a hurrrry.

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Wagamama

Best Part: Ginger
Location: Christopher Place
Cost: Less than £30
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I don’t need to tell you about Wagamama’s, I’m sure you’ve all been there. Informal, Non-Destinational Eating Establishment, long benches, food comings out irregularly. If you’re like me, though, you might have started taking it for granted. In short, Wagamama’s: have you forgotten how great it is?
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For me the problem arose many years ago. The people at the office I was working at went through phases of getting obsessed with one restaurant that we would go to continually. At one stage this was Wagamama’s (there weren’t many options in Brent Cross in those days), and we would be going 2 or 3 times a week. Whilst I would try and vary my order I would often find myself coming back to the Ginger Chicken Udon (number 77), because it is awesome. But familiarity breeds contempt and eventually I found myself non-plussed with the Wagamama concept. I would still go, on occasion, but more with a sense of duty than excitement.
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Time passes, and heals all wounds. Like a teenager who had over-indulged on vodka, I now find myself at the point where I can view the whole experience objectively. In this metaphor the Ginger Chicken Udon is my vodka and coke. I have rediscovered why I loved it so much in the first place. The flavours are just so crisp. The coriander is fresh, the bright pink ginger is sharp and the noodles are thick and stodgy. It is a dish that has been polished to perfection, and reliably delivers said perfection every time you order it. Add a ginger beer and you’re in ginger heaven.
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Mrs Midweek Lunch never lost her Wagamama Love, however. Her favourite menu section is the Fresh Juices, and on this occasion she had a Clean, Green Juice (with kiwi, avocado and apple supplying both the cleanliness and the greenliness), which made her feel like a smug, invigorated vegan.
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Her Vodka & mixer of choice is the Vegetable Katsu Curry. There is always too much rice but it is presented in a gloriously perfect dome that marvels her with it’s symmetry. The vegan Katsu sauce is creamy with a coconut zing and a slightly spicy edge that is not over-powering. The succulent vegetables are encased in a pleasingly crispy batter.
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As a side we got a couple of steamed mushroom and aubergine buns, as is en trend at the moment. The filling was fine but I found the buns a trifle under-done, almost becoming liquid at some points. My wife stringently disagreed on this point, and found these little bundles of dough and panko the high-point of the meal. But she is wrong about this.
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The décor was largely the same as any Wagamama across this fair land. Utilitarian, friendly staff, open kitchen. For some reason, however, the St Albans branch was weirdly dark that day. The blinds along one side were all drawn, but not enough to stop them flapping in our faces on occasion, and it meant we couldn’t people watch the various folk strolling around Christopher Place. Maybe that was their intention.
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Anyway if, like me, you have found yourself neglecting the old Wagamama recently why not treat yourself and give them a visit. They are quick, they don’t cost the earth and they even rotate their menu if for some crazy reason you feel like something that isn’t Ginger Chicken Udon.

Nkora Coffee

Best Part: People Watching

Location: Opposite Christopher Place

Cost: About £20 including cake

Website: http://nkora.co.uk/  

Dined within an hour? Yes

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Why Nkora? Is it an anagram of anorak? Clearly not. A homage to romantic comedy ‘Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist’? If so it’s a tenuous one. All I can say is that this mini-chain started in Shoreditch, which is probably explanation enough. It’s intriguing name might be enough to tempt you inside but failing that it’s convenient position close to the high price tag shops and Flying Tiger will seal the deal.
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I chose the delicious vegan sandwich; creamy avocado and hummus offset with sweet picked cucumber in sourdough. This really was a high end sandwich and correctly priced under a fiver at £4.50. We both enjoyed plenty of Canton English a Breakfast tea correctly served in a trendy pot with cups and saucers. Sugar was self-service at the counter which involved a bit of extra steps, but is probably better for the environment.
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My Husband enjoyed his smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwiches. He had ordered a salmon focaccia, and the bread that enrobed the salmon was not focaccia. But it was a nice sour-dough, which is generally sufficient. They weren’t stingy with the salmon, neither.

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Afterwards we treated ourselves to cake from their extensive selection catering for vegans coeliacs and nut allergists. As a diner with food sensitivity issues I was impressed. As we had agreed to share our cakes there was a fair amount of compromise, but the range was enough that we were all happy. My husband was nearly not happy, as he thought I had gone for an oatmeal and raisin cookie, but it was actually chocolate, with chocolate chips and more chocolate so disaster was averted.
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It is a great café for people-watching via a breakfast bar arrangement along the front window. Now plenty of eateries do this but most have made the mistake of using a high counter and bar stools. Nkora have made theirs standard table height which means one can truly relax without the worry that one might fall from a great height. Their décor is pleasing too – unfussy but smart. On the whole we felt very much at home. Although not as at home as the lady next to us who got out a packed lunch. As space is fairly limited here you can’t help but know everyone else’s business/lunches.

In scoring Nkora, we were faced with the following dilemma. It could almost have done nothing better for us – gorgeous food, great value for money, relaxing ambience and professional service.  We also fulfilled our midweek lunch brief to be in and out within our lunch hour. The potential problem is that their sandwich menu, however flavoursome was very limited. There were only three fillings to chose from – a vegan, a fish and a meat. Not a problem for us today but as a vegetarian (after this, my second visit) I now need to have a little break. Nkora might consider also serving a quiche and salad option in the future even if they are going more for the afternoon tea market as their large sweet selection indicates.

However we were extremely satisfied with our lunch and give it our hearty recommendation.

7.8/10

The White Hart

Best Part: The Warmth

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It was a dark and stormy day as we struggled up Holywell Hill against the driving rain. Falling exhausted and damp into the White Hart we were welcomed with a friendly smile and an increased ambient temperature, which set the tone for our entire experience.

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It is a lovely old place, timbers and panels and for some reason real honest-to-goodness thrones. There is also supposedly a ghost but she failed to make her presence known during our visit. What they did have was a good selection of beers (this is one of the few places I’ve found local brew The 3 Brewers on tap), and a very inviting set price deal. It was £12.95 for two courses, including a pint or glass of wine, however as we were in a rush we just went a la carte. This time limit was probably something of a disservice to the place, I had to get back in time for a meeting so we were slightly on edge for the duration. They were certainly not slow with the service, but it wasn’t as fast as, say, McDonalds, and when it did come we had to wolf it down. Given we were the only guests it could have been snappier.

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It was food that deserved to be savoured not wolfed. As I was feeling drenched to the bones I needed something stodgy to warm me up, and the most likely candidate was on the starter section of the menu. It was goulash, not a frequent visitor to menus these days but absolutely welcome in this case. It was big chunks of beef, in a melty state and in some cases still on the bone. There were some slices of French bread on the side to sop up the delicious sauce, but possibly a bread with a lower crust to non-crust ratio would have performed the task more effectively.

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As this was a starter, I also ordered another starter to make it up to full meal size. Actually, when they came either one would have made a more than adequate lunch, but then there is neither one that I would have wanted to do without. The second half of my lunch was chicken wings, 6 of the bad boys. The coating was spicy without being offputtingly hot, and the skin was crispy. The best bit, though, was the juiciness that oozed out once you’d crunched through the aforementioned crispy skin. There was also an unexpected side portion of chips, of a very high quality. As stated, there was a lot of food, and not a lot of time to enjoy it but I diligently ensured nothing but a few chips remained.

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That wife of mine went for some pizza. It was a very good pizza and again she only wished that she had more time to do it justice. Fortunately they packed up the leftovers for her, although this took a while to organise which somewhat defeated the purpose. It was a colourful vegetarian pizza with a good variety of flavours and textures. It was also generously sized, which meant there was plenty to enjoy the next day.

 

I spent most of the afternoon (once I’d finished apologising for being late for my meeting) thinking back fondly on my lunch and enjoying the flavour sensations all over again. If we are able to dine for our own pleasure, and not to benefit and inform you St Albans Midweek Lunchers, one of the first things I’ll be doing will be returning here and getting right in there with the set menu. Possibly with a headless ghost as my dining companion, possibly not. Only time will tell.

8/10

https://www.whiteharthotelstalbans.co.uk/tudors-restaurant

 

Aspava

Best Part: The crispy cigar-looking things

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The restaurant spot next to the Alban Arena is home to newcomer Aspava. You would think that the Turkish food market in St. Albans was exhausted but this is not the case. The first diners to arrive we were placed by the window – our natural beauty and obvious food knowledge was possibly why it filled up quickly with a range of clientele. Either that or they already have a good reputation.

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So what makes Aspava so special? Well firstly they have a great value set menu £9.99 for 2 courses and £11.99 for 3. Secondly that menu is varied even for a vegetarian which is refreshing. Thirdly the atmosphere is welcoming – lovely staff and cosy decor. I particularly liked the coloured glass lampshades.  Fourthly of course is the very tasty food.

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Before we even got started on the starters, we were given some hot flappy bread and a couple of dips. These got the appetite going nicely without being too filling, and were excellent company for the Efes beer that we ordered. When they can make you so happy with just bread and beer you can be fairly sure that you’re in safe hands. And that was just for starters! Although not starters, because the starters came next.

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We shared a couple of starters between us, because a strong marriage is based on shared interests and because it meant that we could try more different types of cheese. Firstly we had halloumi, because we are the type of people that could never see halloumi reaching out to us from a menu and leave it hanging. It was good halloumi.

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But not quite as good as our next cheese-based starter. These Sigara Boregi (literally Boris’s Cigars) were excellent crisp tubes filled with tangy feta. The crunch then the fatty tang as you bit into them were delightful (or Turkish delightful if you will), and had I been a worse person I would have reneged on our starter sharing deal and taken full ownership of both as they had clearly been my choice. But strong marriages are not based on stealing each other’s starters so I contented myself to just one. This time.

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Tasty is an unfashionable word but it is the best one to describe our meal and especially my vegetable moussaka. Lovely combinations of exciting and comforting flavours that made me want to keep eating. Moussaka can be stodgy but this was the second best I had tasted in my life (first place goes to the departed secret garden cafe on George street). It was creamy, tangy and well balanced. Also, it came on a wavy plate that made it seem jazzy.

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Loyal reader will probably by now have worked out what Mr Midweek Lunch went for. ‘It’s a Mediterranean restaurant, there’s got to be some lamb in there somewhere, right?’ Well, he stayed true to form and ordered the Adana, grilled lamb sausages with rice. They were good, and anywhere else they would form a find solid main course. But after the soaring heights of the starters they did feel somewhat disappointing. A bit of sauce would probably have elevated them to the point where they could hold their head up high against the rest of the menu. When my husband described this eloquently to me I pointed out that we still had quite a lot of sauce left over from the bread. This cheered him up no end.

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We didn’t have time for pudding but would like to go back again to give it a go. Aspava served the midweek lunch remit well as it fitted within our lunch hour, was super value and food with a great level of service. The staff were welcoming and attentive without being fussy. We sincerely hope it does well and it should consider collaborating with the Arena for some kind of pre/post theatre meal deal.

8.2/10

http://aspava.uk/index.php

Benito’s Hat

Best Part: It’s s Mexican Restaurant! In St Albans!
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Sing hosannas to the highest of high, the long stranglehold on St Albans by Italian and Turkish restaurants has  finally started to be loosened. We have an actual (well, not actual) Mexican restaurant, with burritos and neon cacti and everything!
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To manage expectations, Benihana’s Hat is a friendly, fun place rather than an upmarket dining establishment. But unpretentiousness and a relatively small amount of seating should not put you off. Neither should the fact that it is on the site of two Jamie Oliver failures; Jamie’s Deli and Jamie’s Pizzeria. The whole mood is generally of street food, but indoors. It’s perfect if you’re in a rush and thus an ideal mid-week lunch spot. I would call it a non-destinational eating establishment like Wagamama’s, if it wasn’t for the fact that we had made it our destination as soon as we were aware of it’s existence.
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The set-up is a bit like Subway. You choose your filling and your casing and your sauces and they assemble it then and there. To my mid-week-wife this was something of a problem, as she suffers terribly from decision paralysis. All the many options thrown at her, in a new environment and with loud background music and a quiet waitress, made it quite a stressful experience. It was only when we sat down and I expressed surprise that she had not gone for the Jackfruit that she realised that the option had ever been on the table.
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I had no problem as I just went for the biggest thing on the menu, the El Presidente. This monster, over half a kilo, contained all the different type of meat thus taking away any of the agonies of choice. It was so big that the burrito attendant struggled to roll it up, which is how I like my burrito. The meat was all beautifully juicy and beautifully melty and possibly a little under-spiced, though I could have gone for some hotter sauce so it’s on me as much as them. It felt good to eat, and was incredibly warming on a very un-Mexican day. There were a few tortilla chips on the side that tasted slightly stale but still had a load of salt so were by definition great.
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My companion went vegetarian and thus was entitled to a 30% discount for Veganuary, despite having cheese and sour cream which are not traditionally vegan. She decided against the grilled vegetable filling favouring the tofu which didn’t quite work in a burrito. The accompanying vegetables and fixings were delicious however. Our meals were washed down by eye-catching, one might say lurid, imported Mexican pop drinks (see picture).
There is a danger when you have anticipated something for so long that when it does finally turn up it is something of the disappointment. I have wanted a local Mexican restaurant for a very long time. Now I have one. I don’t care that it is a chain, and that it has a somewhat limited menu. If I am in town and I want a burrito I can now get a burrito without having to go to Wetherspoons. I am therefore #blessed.
8.7/10

Waddington Road

Best Part: The Independence

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There are times when a midweek luncher just wants to go to a café. An independent café that doesn’t claim to be something it isn’t, a café that doesn’t look intimidating. Well if you are shopping in town and feel the same way we would encourage you to gander up the side street that houses Panda cards (another marvellous St. Albans business) and a few shops down you will find Waddington Road café. Interestingly this road is called Waddington Road, which speaks to the imagination of the café owner.

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A few years ago these premises were the site of a greasy spoon café which has now come under different management. It is now a clean, modern, smart café with an excellent lunch menu and lovely décor. However it has not got above itself – the staff and cliental are friendly and the delicious menu reasonably priced. It is the perfect spot for restorative tea and cake or a lunch (either a simple or imaginative.) My vegetarian options were almost overwhelming. If the old greasy spoon seeker had returned after a few years, possibly forgetting he had sold his café in a drunken haze, he would still be able to buy a cheese omelette. But the owner assured me these are now made with free range eggs and they have halloumi in. I have had one here on another occasion and was very pleased. Even my children, one vegan and one fussatarian were happy to eat here.

 

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This time I had a halloumi and tomato ciabatta which had a good balance of flavours and textures. Although they serve tea in a pot (as everyone should), I was tempted by the homemade fruit smoothies. I opted for a banana and blueberry one and it certainly perked me up after an unpleasant morning.

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Mr Midweek lunch was new to Waddington road and was in a festive mood. This was perhaps premature as we were not far into December, but he does get over-excited about these things. One of the reasons he gets so excited is the Christmas sandwich, as long time reader may remember from his series of vignettes on different Christmas sandwiches a few years ago. He therefore went for a Turkey and Stuffing panini, and it was pretty good. Nowhere near the majesty of an actual Christmas Sandwich made from leftovers from an actual Christmas Dinner, put pretty good. There were a few crisps on the side, but they weren’t real crisps so we won’t discuss them.

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Luckily we had brought some proper crisps as a starter, as we were very hungry on arrival, so the fake multi-coloured non-potato crisps were less egregious.

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Waddington Road is one of a small group of great independent St. Albans cafes where you can be sure of good food and service that doesn’t break the bank. There aren’t many of them and you have to look hard but I now consider this one to be my friend and will be there again soon. Why not give it a try too?

7.8/10