Monday, 21 December 2009

At Home: Pink Grapefruit Marmalade

My first attempt at making marmalade, late last year, was not a resounding success. It was Seville orange marmalade, and took hours to reach setting point. I had to hurry it along by chucking in a muslin bag filled with lemon rind. Also, it had boiled down so much it was more a thick caramel syrup than a marmalade. The pieces of rind were as long as spaghetti, so it wasn't an easy spreader.

This time around I tried Nigella's Pink-Grapefruit Marmalade from How to Be a Domestic Goddess. It seems too simple at first glance, but works brilliantly.

You boil two grapefruit for 2 hours, until they're soft. Then drain and slice thinly, chopping a bit (removing any large pips), before returning to the pan, along with 1kg preserving sugar, and the juice of 2 lemons. After boiling for 15 minutes or so, test for setting point. The easy way to do this is to have a plate in the fridge. Place a teaspoon of the mixture on the plate, and leave for a minute. If the surface of the mixture creases when you push it, the marmalade is ready. Pour into clean jars, and seal.

'Foolproof' is a dangerous term, as all recipes require a certain degree of common sense and judgment. My husband points out that often these foolproof recipes are anything but, requiring a considerable level of culinary know-how. For instance, would everyone know what Nigella means by 'boil until setting point is reached'? If you know the jam basics, though, this is a hit.

A couple of notes.
  • Nigella doesn't tell you to skim the mixture as it boils. I would recommend doing this though, as the scum that rises to the surface can make the finished marmalade cloudy rather than clear.
  • It may well take longer than 15 minutes to reach setting point. Mine took 35 minutes. Be patient, and test it every 5 minutes or so.
Another great addition to Christmas hampers. Give it a go!

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Hix, Soho

This is Hix's third establishment. The two I've visited - the Hix Oyster and Chop House in Farringdon, and Hix in Soho - have both been designed wisely, and front of house and kitchen never fail to impress. Assuming the canny business sense comes from the man himself, I wouldn't be surprised to see another open before too long, but hope this doesn't impact negatively on the 'Hix' name. Too many ventures, born of a chef's passion and zeal, end up watered-down corporate entities, as we all know (Leon, Canteen, Gordon Ramsay's empire...).
So, it was comforting to see Mark Hix present and correct on a wintry Tuesday night, propping up the bar with Fergus Henderson and Mitch Tonks for company. This new Soho spot has had no end of positive write-ups over the past few months, for its simple food, first-rate ingredients, and happy buzz. Everyone loves him, even hard-to-please AA Gill.

The dining space on the ground floor is very pleasing. Off a narrow street, you enter through an enormous imposing wooden door, and are greeted in a corridor from which you can turn left to enter the restaurant, or descend to the basement bar. The restaurant itself is a large barn-like space, with low well-spaced seating (no one made to face a wall), the furnishings simple yet comfortable.

The menu is a hymn to the best of our isle's seasonal produce, from field to shore. If providence is your thing, you'll be amply rewarded here: West Mersea oysters, Cornish sprats, Sheringham mussels, Orkney lobster, Aberdeenshire beef, Woolley Park Farm chicken...

Unfortunately, being pregnant meant most of the menu was off limits. Where I would have gone for oysters, black pudding and apple (Heaven and earth), and Barkham blue cheese, I instead was limited to: De Beauvoir smoked salmon 'Hix Cure' with Corrigan's soda bread (£12), Blythburgh pork chop with celeriac mash and Bramley apple sauce (£19), and Sea buckthorn berry posset (£6). Fortunately, none were a disappointment.

The generously thick-cut salmon is reverentially plated up with none of the usual accompaniments, save two slices of Corrigan's famous rich, treacly soda bread. Simple intoxicating flavours. I usually avoid pork chops, so often dry and dull, but as you'll see from the picture below, Hix knows his chops. Cut on the bone, thick, with lashings of fat and seared flesh, every succulent mouthful oozed porky goodness. Suffolk's Blythburgh pigs live a good life, and it shows. You can buy their pork products online.
My companions each had the Fillets of red gurnard with cockles (replaced by potted shrimps) and wild chervil (£18). The cockles would have worked beautifully, we all agreed, but the potted shrimps were just too rich, and the whole dish was swimming in butter.
Our two hours were up. Rather than kicking us out into the cold, the staff cleared a sofa in the basement bar so we could finish our meal in comfort. Full of mismatched leather sofas, metal tables, a pool table Hix won on eBay, and colourful rugs, the scene is anything but pretentious. The barman made a beautiful non-alcoholic cocktail for me (pineapple, mint, lime and ginger) and served it in a special goblet as we lingered over dessert: one of the two possets, covered with a tart berry posset...
and the Barkham blue with Hix Oyster Ale cake, which was just a touch too dry.

Although there were a few lapses in concentration, resulting in a lack of culinary finesse from time to time, the produce is first-rate and the menu impressive. A fine example of how far British food has come in the last 10 years. Hail Hix!

Hix on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The Ebury

This is a great place for a lazy Sunday lunch. Housed in a handsome building on the corner of Pimlico Road, not far from Sloane Square, the airy and gently lit ground floor brasserie and bar welcomes you in from the cold.

The Ebury has a loyal local fan base, and they were all out on the bracing December Sunday I met old uni friends for lunch. Smart chaps in brogues standing at the bar sipping Bloody Mary cocktails, thirty-something ladies groomed to within an inch of their lives, picking at oysters and salads (mind that creamy dressing, girls!), and Sloaney family outings. My mojito was exceptional, better than those concocted in some of London's best drinking spots. If that's not enough to draw you in, try the food.

The gastropub-style menu isn't anything to shout about. A hotch potch of the usual pan-Med stuff: smoked salmon, foie gras, salads with goat's cheese, risotto, gnocchi, lamb shanks, coq au vin. But the surprise was the attention lavished on each dish. They clearly care as much about the Caesar salad as the roast beef.

We all, it being Sunday lunch, chose the Roast Beef with Yorkshire Pudding and veg. For £15.50 the plates were generously piled with thick chunks of medium-rare tender and flavourful beef, and all accompaniments were well-conceived. A steal, particularly in this area of town.

It's not as easy as you might think to find a dependable place in Central London for Sunday lunch. You can pay through the nose, book a month in advance, risk a pub with a no-booking policy, or just settle for something second-rate. At The Ebury you can expect decent food, cooked with care, and enjoy it in a comfortable, pleasing setting. If you're with other foodies, you may prefer Hawksmoor, or Smiths of Smithfield's, but if your companions aren't seeking culinary fireworks, or a particular cut and breed of beef, The Ebury will hit the spot.

Ebury on Urbanspoon

Polpo

It's taken me a while to get around to writing about this one, so I hope my memory won't betray me.

Back in October I and another food enthusiast/book editor, who often try out new culinary enterprises together, wandered into Soho after work to eat at Polpo, the new Italian-Viennese joint that's secured short-term (and hopefully long-term) success with many generous and gushing column inches in the national press. When we visited they were taking bookings, but it's now first come first served. Our waiter explained why they scrapped reservations: apparently it's more egalitarian and they believe it will give Soho locals and Londoners the chance to use it as a neighbourhood restaurant, somewhere you can drop in on a whim. This seems fair, but I'm not looking forward to the queues - this is why I've never made it to Barrafina. And is it fair on out-of-towner's, who'll probably not risk the commute without a guarantee of a table? But then, is this simple joint the kind of place people book months ahead?

On our visit, we were given a warm welcome by Russell Norman, the new proprietor and former manager at Zuma and the Ivy Club. The distressed bare walls and rickety wooden tables certainly gave the place an unpretentious feel. Having sadly never visited the bacari wine bars of Venice, I can't claim this resembles the real deal, but it was certainly buzzy and jolly.

Small plates for sharing, much like Spanish tapas, is the concept (the chef is from Bocca di Lupo down the road). We shared 10 plates: Arancini, Figs with mint, Salt cod crostini, Fennel salad, Slow roast duck with peppercorns, olives and tomatoes, Grilled polenta, Spinach with chilli and garlic, Roast beetroot, Tomato and tapenade pizzetta, and a Honey and walnut semi-freddo. With most dishes costing less than £4, our final bill, including wine, came to a very reasonable £46. This is simple fare, and the ingredients were most certainly top notch. The chicheti and pizzettas were the most delicious of the lot, the arancini the most pedestrian (though we could hardly complain at £1.50 a pop).

Unfortunately, the tables surrounding us were occupied by the kind of people who eat at a place because it's trendy and 'the place to be', not because of the food. One poncy toff dared challenge my vegetarian friend, telling her what she was 'missing out on'. Prat.

Irritating fellow diners aside, the food and service is welcoming. Nothing to set the world on fire, but a great place to meet up and hunker down for a few hours of decent wine, grub, and gossip.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

At Home: Honeycomb

I've always wanted to try making honeycomb. On a weekend escape to Brighton, I popped into the excellent Steamer Trading kitchen shop in the Lanes and picked up a sugar thermometer for under a fiver. The ingredients for honeycomb are simple enough (basically, sugar), but the key is getting it to the right temperature.

For such a simple sweet, there are an awful lot of recipes out there. Some use honey, others liquid glucose, and the old Gary Rhodes recipe I chose from More Rhodes Around Britain uses a knob of butter.

I should start by telling you all how quick it is to make. Once the sugars (225g caster, 225g demerara, 50g golden syrup) have melted with 2 tbsp water, it's just a matter of popping in the thermometer and patiently watching the mercury rise. Once the bubbling caramel reaches 138-140 degrees centigrade, you stir in the tbsp bicarbonate of soda, let it fizz and rise, and pour the mixture into a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper to cool. Simple. It took 20 minutes at the most.

Adding a knob (10-15g) of butter is unusual, but the result was delicious. It was softer than standard honeycomb, but still crunchy and crumbly, with a spicy rich flavour.

A cheap, quick treat, and a lovely homemade gift for Christmas stockings and hampers. Pop a sugar thermometer in the stocking and hamper too, with the recipe written out on the gift label, and they can have a go at making it themselves. (Remember to store the honeycomb in an airtight container so it doesn't lose its crunch.)

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Launceston Place

This recession has brought with it a few positives for food lovers. First, cooking from scratch at home is becoming trendy again as wallets are leaner, so the cookery book business is booming, and second, most the top end restaurants are trying frantically to get bums on seats and a buzz back in their businesses by offering affordable set menus. So, when we want to eat in, there's more than enough material online and on our bookshelves to inspire, and when we want to eat out, we can start trying out the fancy restaurants that would previously have bust the budget.

One of the many restaurants offering attractive deals is Launceston Place (among others: Quo Vadis, Bentley's Oyster Bar, Wild Honey, Modern Pantry, and Le Cafe Anglais). Granted, £26 per person for a 3-course set Sunday lunch isn't pocket money, but if value for money, wonderful produce, and a mastery for cooking bring a smile to your face, consider this a steal.

This old Kensington haunt is tucked in a beautiful residential village enclave. It was acquired by D&D London in 2007, owners of Coq d’Argent, Plateau, Sartoria, and Le Pont de la Tour, and is the stomping ground for Tristan Welch, former head chef for Marcus Wareing at Pétrus, and his junior sous chef Steve Groves, who has just won the BBC's MasterChef: The Professionals.

Our 3-hour lunch began with a warm welcome into the smart and intimate boutique-hotel-style interior: thick linen tablecloths, mirrors, black matte walls, taupe carpets, and suede chairs. It had been a while since we had caught up with our friends, so we were hoping the atmosphere wouldn't be hushed and sombre, as these fancy West London places often are. We needn't have worried. There was a gentle buzz, and the partitions and soft furnishings prevented our enthusiastic levels of conversation troubling anyone else.

We went straight for the £26 set menu, my vegetarian friend being offered an a la carte dish for her main to substitute the fish/meat course for no extra charge. A welcome surprise, once Nina had chosen a decent bottle of French white, was the attentive and friendly service. They even graciously laughed at Jon's jokes! (sorry, Jon)

The first amuse bouche, a gentle, light and delicate cold pea foam floating on top of warm vicchyssoise.The set menu offered a choice of three starters: Pumpkin soup, beetroot and Berkswell cheese, Crab risotto, garlic and parsley, and Potted foie gras with Maldon sea salt. The pumpkin soup was ceremoniously brought to the table in individual pumpkin shells, and poured gently into the warm bowls. The tart flakes of cheese and cubed beetroot, with sweet pea shoots, worked perfectly with the silky soft, sweet and earthy soup. A triumph.
The Potted foie gras. Time for a quip from Jon about the line of salt...
Helen's vegetarian offering for the main course was a work of art: Spinach and homemade ricotta, nutmeg, artichokes, and sage butter. Petite though the serving was, from afar the combination of tastes and textures looked delightful.
The set menu mains included: Gloucester Old Spot pork, Scottish girolles, cobnuts and quince, Devilled Cornish mackerel, braised onions and capers, and Traditional roast long horn beef with vegetables and gravy (£6 supplement). The rare beef, selected from two cuts before being carved into bread-thick slices, was enthusiastically devoured by my companions, and I went for the pork, a generous plate of ballotine stuffed with pistachios and a sliver of belly with divine crackling. The accompanying vegetables were the only low point of the meal: the cubed celeriac in a cream sauce was over-seasoned, and the roast potatoes were hard and tasteless, not crisp and fluffy as they should be. I sympathise with the kitchen: roast pots are notoriously difficult candidates for oven re-heating, and don't cope well with sitting around for hours under hot lamps. If I'm being tough, I'd say better the kitchen stray from the standard Sunday lunch components and serve mash/dauphinois/sauteed potatoes than offer sub-standard roasts.
Before dessert graced the table, another amuse bouche was offered. This time, raspberry mousse with pear sorbet and tiny slivers of crisp caramel. Another contrast in temperatures that revived the palate and was light enough to stimulate rather than rob us of our appetites.
Finally, dessert. On offer: apple tart with homemade clotted cream (for two), Banana sticky toffee pudding with Guinness ice cream, cheese trolley (£6 supplement). The sticky toffee pudding, enjoyed by all, was delightful. Not overly sweet, the deep hints of treacle complemented the savoury banana. However, with palates muddied by all the previous courses, I couldn't detect the Guinness. No matter. All plates were clean in minutes. The afternoon light had slipped into dusk and most tables were vacant. Rather than trying to chuck us out (it was clear we weren't in the mood for boozing, and hadn't consumed more than a bottle between 5 of us), the staff who had cosseted us all afternoon sweetly let us linger. The final bill was £212 between 5 of us.

The kitchen is clearly filled to bursting point with talented chefs. A little more focus, perhaps, on those veg, might just bring it its first Michelin star in 2010. It has the style, and more than a modicum of substance. In the meantime, make the most of the set menu offers while you can.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Billingsgate Fish Market

Not being an early riser, this was tough. Up at 4am, to be at Billingsgate for a tour around the market at 6am prompt. I was there to learn about fish, and the experience was worth every nocturnal minute.
Believe it or not, it was starting to wind down when I arrived and took this picture from the offices that overlook the market. The fishmongers, chefs, and restaurateurs buying stock for their London businesses had been and gone, and those left scanning the traders' wares were about to clear off before the Canary Wharf commuter traffic took hold. We had an hour before the traders would start to pack up and head home, so hurried down.

The London traders I'm used to are those just minutes from our front door, on Walthamstow Market. The calls of 'pound a bowl!' ring in our ears as we pick bowls of apples, peppers, aubergines... that we never use up. I would agree it's a false economy, but the 50p-worth we manage to eat is still good value, and the rest goes on the compost. I digress, back to fish. The traders at Billingsgate have their banter alright, and are very friendly chaps, but the atmosphere's a bit more shifty. Competition is fierce, I suspect, and the fish business is a tricky and sensitive matter. Quotas, margins, and price fluctuations make life difficult for the fishermen who sell to them, as the traders know all too well.

Here are some pictures, which I hope will set the scene.

Assorted shellfish, including hand-dived scallops.
Beautiful mackerel, so fresh the fish were still in a state of rigor mortis.
Edible brown crabs.
Canadian lobster. You can see hundreds of eggs sitting under its tail. This was a sad sight: lobster shouldn't be caught and sold if it's still reproductive.
This, I was not ready for. Enormous live eels writhing around in chests of metal drawers (reason for this: they require a constant flow of running water. The water cascades through the drawers, keeping them fresh and happy).
After catching the sunrise as the porters packed up the unsold fish in freezer rooms to be sold cheap the next day, I and my soggy fish-stinking jeans squeezed onto the tube - and back to life as I knew it - for the journey to work.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

At Home: Pecan Pie

Thanksgiving's on the way, so what better excuse to face my fear of pastry and have a trial run with Pecan Pie.

There are a lot of recipes out there, most of them bastardized versions of the American classic. After trawling through books and blogs, I finally came across Melissa Kronenthal's version on her lovely blog, The Traveler's Lunchbox, and set to work. The flaky pastry ("crust") recipe sounded bizarre to a pastry novice: cider vinegar? Philadelphia cheese? No eggs? Melissa attributes it to Rose Levy Beranbaum's Pie and Pastry Bible, and my Ohio-born mother insists authentic Pecan Pie must only be made with cream cheese crust, so I wasn't going to submit to regular shortcrust. I needn't have worried: it was simple to make, easy to roll, and incredibly light and flaky. The mix itself took just a couple of minutes to prepare.

Unfortunately I cooked it on too high a heat, and the top burnt before the inside was properly cooked. I turned the oven down to finish it off, and hid the charred top with a liberal dusting of icing sugar. Lesson learnt.

Before...
And after...I'm going to have another go next week, making individual tarts as Thanksgiving gifts for family, and will cook them a little more gently this time. Pics to follow...

Well, here's one pic. They aren't as pretty as I'd have liked. The pastry stuck to the individual tart tins because I forgot to butter them, but I'm pleased to say they passed the taste test. I'll be taking a box to Automat for Thanksgiving dinner with mum and sister tomorrow night.

Friday, 13 November 2009

At Home: Double duck breast, pepper salad, lemon posset

At last, an opportunity to try one of David Tanis's menus from A Platter of Figs! With avid carnivores coming over for Sunday lunch, I decided on the roasted pepper salad with liver toasts, and double duck breast roast with baked figs.

It shouldn't be hard to get hold of duck breasts these days, but I had to order them in at our local butcher, two days in advance. Four large breasts for £11 isn't unreasonable, and I know many who love the rich, gamey flavour of duck meat, so why are no E17 supermarkets or butchers stocking it? I'd like to see cheaper cuts of meat (trotters, pork belly etc.) made more accessible, too.

Back to the grub. The double duck breast is an ingenious and simple dish. You simply rub the breasts with a spice mixture the night before (crushed cloves, juniper berries, allspice, peppercorns, salt and garlic), tie two breasts together - skin side out - with a few bay leaves in the middle to create two sandwiched roasts, and chill them overnight.
Next, sweet pepper salad. Tanis recommends removing skin not by sealing them in a plastic bag after grilling/charring, but leaving them to cool as they are. It stops them steaming and overcooking, and it was just as easy to peel off the skins. We served them with antipasti and thin toasts with foie gras.
Next, the roast duck... with wilted greens, dauphinoise potatoes and baked figs. The figs were a let down - they just collapsed into soggy wet mush.
And finally, a recipe from Richard Corrigan's A Clatter of Forks and Spoons for dessert. Sharp lemon posset, with a base of fresh raspberries.
Calorie-luscious.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Flying Fish and Arcade Diner, Memphis

Memphis, Tennessee, is a split personality city. It is the Home of the Blues, Birthplace of Rock 'n Roll, and key player in the Civil Rights Movement, yet has a soulless empty business district much like the identity-crisis cities of the Midwest or an '80's Canary Wharf, and sprawling, crime-ridden, impoverished suburbs.

Stick around for a few days, though, and it starts to reveal its magic. Beyond the world-famous Beale Street and Graceland, in the diners, coffee shops, takeouts, and pizza joints, we were welcomed with the renowned Southern warmth and generosity.

The Flying Fish restaurant, a bustling gem in a nondescript office block downtown, offers good cheer and hospitality by the plateful, along with the Arcade Diner. A small Southern chain of fish joints, Flying Fish serves up fish and seafood battered, fried, grilled, or steamed, with a no-fail ordering system: fetch chosen drink from chiller (preferably an ice cold beer), order and pay at counter, take buzzer to your table, buzzer buzzes when your food is ready to be picked up. Simple.

We were too busy eating to take pics of our food, but I can promise you the Grilled Shrimp Ka-Bob with Beans and Rice is mouthwatering, and a steal at $9. We returned the next evening to fetch takeout for a lazy hotel night in.

A brief mention of the Arcade Diner, Memphis's oldest restaurant (opened in 1919) and regular haunt for Elvis in his younger days. I can honestly say I have never had a better cooked breakfast than this simple home-style masterpiece.The bacon was heart-stopping, as was the syrup sitting proudly atop a mound of warm pancakes. I have yet to find streaky bacon in the UK as tasty as American-style smoked. I'm sure it's the dodgy colourings, preservatives, and added flavourings, but I love it! Two perfectly fried eggs and warm buttery grits made this the perfect breakfast. I wouldn't need a hangover to enjoy this every morning, just an elasticated waistband and reinforced arteries.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Ciao Bella

Ciao Bella is a London gem, hidden in the heart of historic Bloomsbury, on Lamb's Conduit Street. This Italian is one of just a handful of London restaurants that I can safely say will never disappoint.

They are not looking for Michelin stars or culinary accolades, so you won't find any adventurous dishes on the menu, or be titillated by the presentation, but they are looking to feed you home-style Italian food, and feed you well. It isn't trendy by any means, so mercifully (for purely selfish reasons) avoids inclusion in the usual London gourmet lists and guides. Until October, that is, when it appeared in this London Lite article: 'Where top chefs eat'.

As always, a packed restaurant is a failsafe sign of good food. Ciao Bella isn't on a busy tourist thoroughfare, so I used to be surprised to find I had to book two weeks in advance, but now full expect it to be heaving every time I return. When you do book, ask to be upstairs, as the basement is windowless, and rather cold and bleak.

What to recommend? Well, the Seafood Spaghetti in a Paper Bag is a show-stopper. An enormous plate of steaming, fragrant, garlicky pasta and seafood ceremoniously poured from its paper vessel by your waiter. If you're going for the full retro experience, have the Parma ham and melon to start, and I suggest sticking with the gorgeous pizzas and pastas. All dishes are light on the wallet, so you'll have ample change for a digestif in the charming Victorian pub, The Lamb, next door.

Ciao Bella on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Restaurant 7 Portes, Barcelona

One of Barcelona's oldest restaurants, Restaurant 7 Portes sits on a grand colonnade in the port-side district of Barceloneta. Being true to its name, this landmark of Catalan cuisine has retained its 7 original doors, sheltered by porticoes. It is listed and recommended in most travel guides and therefore often mistaken for a tourist trap. I cannot give a fair review of the atmosphere, as our appetites on this 2-day visit were set to UK time, and had us eating mid-morning and mid-afternoon in largely empty spaces, but no matter - the classics were sublime.

The space is split into 4 high-ceilinged rooms, all highly polished dark wood furnishings and crisp white linen. Cosseted in the smaller smoking rooms were tables of merry Catalonians having a long lunch, but we were guided to the main room where they herd all the tourists, it seems. We were even given menus that were translated into 7 languages. Trying not to feel ostracized and patronized, we headed straight for the Spanish classics: gazpacho, and paella.

I have tasted many a gazpacho in my time, even attempting it myself with British summer produce, but nothing came close to this. Please, please, take anyone with an aversion to cold soup here, and they'll be converted. It tasted so green, sweet, and fresh I had a bit of a turn, gasping, wide-eyed in my appreciation at every silver spoonful.

The paella was similarly tremendous, although I'll refrain from awarding it the 'best ever' title until I've tasted the real deal in Valencia. Perfectly seasoned, one paella was more than enough for us to share, and we got off lightly with a bill for less than 40 euros.

If you tire of tapas queues, bar seating, fried plates, and frantic atmospheres, 7 Portes will calm your senses and delight your palate.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Grand Central Oyster Bar


The vaulted crypt-like subterranean space beneath New York City's spectacular Grand Central Station is home to a quintessential NYC eating experience.

Back in January, taking shelter from the bone-chilling gale, we settled in for much-needed warm bowls of Manhattan clam chowder (not outstanding, but good enough), followed by a dozen Long Island oysters, chosen from a list of over 30 on offer. They were wonderfully fresh, and delicious, as they should be having been caught only a few miles away. The tiled floors and ceiling and no-fuss furnishings give the vast rooms an air of practicality, as workers and tourists happily mingle as they catch a quick lunch.

Stick with simple unadorned dishes and bivalve goodness, and you'll leave with a happy and satisfied palate, won't feel significantly poorer as a result, and will return to the streets with a spring in your step, and energy for yet another gallery, shop, park....

At Home: San Marzano tomato sauce

I can't seem to get it right. Every Spring our lovely neighbour, Helen, hands beautiful cherry and beef tomato seedlings over the garden fence. We stick them in a sunny spot, nourish them, prune them, and tend to them, but our attentions never bear fruit. These San Marzano beauties, however, given to me as inch-long seedlings in a cardboard box by a green-fingered work mate, were a little more forthcoming.

@TheModernPantry kindly suggested some ways to put them to use (tomato and plum galette, tomato sorbet, gazpacho), but on cutting one open and revealing a pale grainy texture I didn't think they'd hold their own. So I tried a safer option: Pim's aubergine in tomato sauce. No gourmand award for this simple dish, but if you've a glut of cooking tomatoes of suspect quality languishing in your garden, there couldn't be an easier way to make the best of them. Yum.

Cal Pep, Barcelona

Barcelona's Cal Pep, on the edge of the Barri Gòtic, has quite a reputation. People - largely gastro-tourists - wind their way through the city's squares and narrow alleys with an 'x' on their map marking this tapas mecca. I passed its hallowed doors in April this year, but both times it was shut. An unexpected work trip brought me back, and on our return from the beach they were just about to open the doors.
Unsurprisingly, the waiting queue did not feature any locals. Ever seen a local eating supper at 6pm?

Joining the rush, we squeezed in and propped ourselves on stools to watch the action.

There's no menu, just a selection of their dishes of the day. Pep himself (chap in glasses below, who has run the place for over 25 years) sized us up, and scribbled down a list of 6 tapas for us to try.
Fritura mixta: a massive plate piled high with mixed deep-fried seafood. Incredibly tasty, particularly the tiny whole shrimps (eaten head and all) and sardines, but just too much!
Pan con tomate: the ubiquitous Catalan bread, rubbed with tomato flesh, garlic, and olive oil. Always welcome, particularly to mop up the juices of...
Tallarinas con ajo y perejil: beautifully sweet clams swimming in a sherry sauce with garlic, parsley and cubes of jamon. Sadly, the juices were just a touch too salty for me.
Fried mushrooms: local mushrooms, much like the portobello, briefly fried in oodles of butter and drizzled with a pesto-style dressing.
Fried artichokes: crispy morsels of artichoke heart, battered and fried to perfection.
Tortilla: the standout dish, cooked to order. A truly wonderful example of the famous Spanish dish. Not yet set inside, crusty and caramelized on the outside, and slathered with allioli (garlicky mayonnaise). Tiny cubes of homemade chorizo nestling in the soft warm egg were a delight.

The atmosphere was thrilling - the staff hollering at one another, the diners moaning in appreciation with every mouthful, the clamour of the kitchen. Cal Pep is rightly famous and lauded for its skill with the deep-fryer, but our selection of dishes just overwhelmed us on that front. But be in no doubt, I'll return, armed with a keener grasp of Catalan and so better able to influence Pep's decision making.

Of all my recent culinary experiences in wonderful Barc, however, Pep cannot top Bar Pinotxo in La Boqueria. For me, it has the edge.

Mangal

With friends living around the corner, we've often found ourselves getting a carnivorous hit at Mangal, the no-fuss Turkish Ocakbasi off the Kingsland Road in Dalston, East London.

'Ocakbasi' translates as fireside, or open fire, and that's the first thing you see, an open charcoal grill smoldering and dominating the entrance alongside rows of raw kebabs waiting for their fate.

This is a welcoming BYO place, and every time a group of us venture in the tightly squeezed wooden tables always packed (although you can take away, too). The menu is meat, needless to say. Meat, any way you like it: on the bone, cubed, marinated, flash-grilled, minced. If you're ravenous there are a few Turkish sides and starters, the patlican salata with their warm homemade bread being the standout dish. I recommend keeping it simple on your first visit, making sure you have room for every morsel of flame-crusted meat.

A plate of delicious baklava delivered with a friendly pat on the back from the waiter, is a sweet conclusion to an excellent meal. If you rate first-class ingredients, cooked simply, with skill and respect, you've come to the right place. (Note of caution: they don't take cards, but given you'll be hard pushed to spend over a tenner each, it would be churlish to complain!)

Kingsland Road, the focal point of uber-trendy, chic-but-shabby Dalston is filled to bursting with Vietnamese, Middle Eastern and Turkish restaurants, cafes, and takeaways. If you're looking for unpretentious, diverse, authentic tastes, head here rather than risk mediocre imitations in zone 1.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

At Home: Jewelled pumpkin rice

As autumn leaves begin to fall, and dark evenings creep upon us, I start thinking about comforting and earthy flavours: warm spices, golden roots, orchard harvests, funghi and slow-cooked beasts. Pork belly roast with British apples, a hearty beef stew, spicy curries, and risottos - these are some of my favourite autumn foods.

Sam and Sam of Moro have created a dish that epitomizes autumn. Their fragrant Jewelled pumpkin rice recipe (a pilav of sorts) is a vegetarian godsend, but also effortlessly satisfies a carnivore's appetite. I've cooked this many a time, eating the pistachios as I shell them, while the sweet smell of roasting squash fills the kitchen. Without further ado, here it is, just slightly modified - I had a few Merguez sausages in the fridge.

Serves 4-6
  • 500g peeled and seeded butternut, or other winter, squash, cut into dice
  • 1 tsp fine sea salt
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • big pinch of saffron
  • 100g unsalted butter
  • 2 Merguez sausages, chopped (leave out for vegetarian version)
  • cinnamon stick
  • 4 allspice berries, crushed
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced across the grain
  • 15g currants
  • 50g shelled pistachios
  • 1/2 tsp ground cardamom (freshly podded and ground if possible)
  • 300g basmati rice, soaked in tepid, salted water for 1 hour
  • 450ml vegetable/bouillon stock
Preheat the oven to 230 degrees centigrade/Gas 8. Toss the squash with half of the salt and the olive oil. Spread in a baking tray, and roast for 30 minutes. Mix the saffron with 3 tbsp boiling water, and add 25g of the butter. Set aside.

Heat the remaining butter in a medium pan with the cinnamon and allspice until it foams, then add the onion and remaining 1/2 tsp of salt. Fry over a medium heat for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until soft and starting to colour. Add the currants, pistachios, and cardamom, and cook for 10 minutes more, until the onion is golden and sweet.

Drain the rice and add it to the pan, stirring for a minute or two before pouring in the stock. Taste for seasoning, scatter with the roasted squash, cover with greaseproof paper and a tight-fitting lid, and cook over a high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for a final 5 minutes. Remove the lid and greaseproof paper, and drizzle with the buttery saffron water. Replace the lid and leave to rest, off the heat, for 5-10 minutes.

Recipe credit: p192, Moro East, by Sam and Sam Clark (Ebury Press).

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

J. Sheekey Oyster Bar

Occasion: our 5th wedding anniversary. Where better to celebrate than an oyster bar. They may have been as plentiful and cheap as Big Macs in the 18th and 19th centuries, but present times have placed oysters firmly at the top end of gustatory pursuits.

J. Sheekey oyster bar, sitting alongside the 100-year-old Sheekey restaurant on a winding backstreet in the heart of Theatreland, was smaller than I expected, though pleasingly lit and furnished. They've squeezed in a couple of tables, but the place to sit is up at the bar, where you can watch the action, and eye-up your fellow clientelle: a mix of solitary diners, amorous couples, and the odd old-school toff. Black and white photographs of venerable thespians fill the walls, framed in sober black, and it oozes history, charm, elegance, and conviviality. Frosted windows shelter familiar faces from the limelight they've just basked in on stage, and give it a distinct gentleman's club feel.
After a fair amount of eavesdropping, we turned our attentions back on each other, and our appetites, and ordered a dozen West Mersea natives with champagne. Slippery, creamy, singing of the sea, and guzzled with the industrious sound of molluscs being cracked in the background, they were the best oysters we've eaten in London.
The bar menu sticks to simple classics, much as the other London stalwart, the Ivy, does. The seafood is left to speak for itself. 'Bar' is the operative word: only a fifth of the menu lists food. Naturally, we wanted to continue with the fizz, so chose a more affordable Col Vetoraz Prosecco to go with my lobster and chips, and J's tender and full-flavoured sautéed octopus. Both were small for main courses, but couldn't be faulted. The side orders of chips and spinach were standard fare.
The petite starter and mains, though rich, left us still peckish. Moving on to desserts, there are plenty of French classics such as creme brulée, cheeseboard, and almond tart, and fruit gets a look-in too. I couldn't quite stomach J's rich brulée, so tried Scandinavian iced berries with hot white chocolate sauce (poured over the berries at the table by a friendly chef from the kitchen). A tooth-killer, but an intriguing and pleasing combination.

An hour later, having unwittingly managed to consume £45 of wonderful Makers Mark Bourbon propped up on bar stools, we headed home invigorated, enthused and, safe to say, rather drunk.

If you go easy on the champagne and oysters, you can easily depart satiated and content for £20 per person. Whether you've got your eye on a blow-out, or post-theatre comfort food, the oyster bar is an indulgent homage to the bivalve that must not be missed.

Monday, 31 August 2009

Boundary Rooftop

Conran's been busy. His new 'Boundary' complex on Boundary Street in achingly trendy Shoreditch houses not just a new restaurant - Conran's 50th - but a grill, a shop, a café and a 17-room plush hotel. I haven't been around long enough to know what it was like when Conran first came on the scene, but I feel the effects everywhere. In which lifestyle pit-stops, be it food or furniture, has he not - at some point - been ringleader?

Initially, we booked a table at the basement restaurant, given fair but not thrilling reviews when it opened earlier this year. But seldom does the sun shine on a Saturday evening, so we swiftly chose to cancel the booking and eat at the rooftop grill. Not as easy as one might think, however. To do this, I went down to the basement restaurant, who sent me up a lift to the hotel reception, who then had to phone the grill and the restaurant before I could get back in the lift to proceed to the rooftop (the rooftop doesn't take reservations, so you just have to get lucky). The fuss was worth it. On a balmy evening, the taupe decor, typically Conran, oozes Mediterranean glamour and beach-side chic. Just don't gaze into the distance expecting a view to die for: Texaco station and Old St traffic are the only landmarks on this side of town.

You can eat at the comfy sofas, or upright under a canopy beside the galley kitchen. The grill offers a safe and straightforward selection of French-style bistro classics. Anchoïade, tapenade, breads, grilled meats and fish, and roasted Mediterranean vegetables. My poussin with salsa verde is pictured below. The food gets a rather lame 5/10. The anchoïade should have tasted of more than just mashed anchovies, the salsa verde was far too salty and dense. But the breads at £2.50 a bowl had much more going for them: filled with pesto, studded with tomatoes, and clearly home-baked.

Just as we were getting chilly and looking over longingly at Shoreditch House, we managed to procure some blankets. Huddled up, we got stuck in to the wine list, choosing another French pleaser for £20-£25. I was reliably informed by N that Conran happens to own a great swathe of Provençal vineyards... quelle surprise.

Don't come here for the food. So-so, so Conran, and frankly it's not worth the effort of queuing/getting past hotel reception. Apparently the café on the ground floor, Albion, hits the mark on that front. Do come here for an al fresco drink and snack though, if the weather's favourable. The staff are friendly, the drinks decent, and the setting impressive.

At Home: Spiced chickpeas with spinach

I have Niamh of eatlikeagirl.com to thank for this dish, which I've appropriated and only slightly adapted. Her 'Spiced chickpeas with spinach' recipe is ideal for lunch or a light dinner, under 30 minutes to make, and cheap. It's comfort food without the guilt. The humble chickpea is given a rough ride these days, and rarely makes it on to anything other than Middle Eastern or Indian restaurant menus. But why? It's an endlessly versatile creamy legume: you can mash it, fry it, boil it; turn it into soups, salads, curries, stews, and - of course - the ubiquitous hummus.

Here's my adaptation of Niamh's recipe. Serves 4.

• 800g tinned chickpeas, drained
• 1 tsp coriander seeds
• 1 tsp cumin seeds
• ½ tsp turmeric
• ½ tsp garam masala
• ½ tsp chilli powder
• 1 fat clove garlic, finely chopped
• thumb-sized piece of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
• 1 small onion, finely chopped
• 2 sticks celery, finely sliced
• 1 aubergine, cut into small cubes
• 2 tbsp tomato purée
• Juice of half a lemon
• A couple of handfuls of fresh spinach
• A handful of chopped fresh coriander
• Light olive oil for frying

Toast coriander and cumin in a hot dry frying pan for 30 seconds, or until they start to pop. Grind the toasted spices in a pestle and mortar. Combine with the turmeric, chilli and garam masala.

Fry the onion, celery, and aubergine in 2 tbsp oil until the onion is translucent and aubergine cooked through, add the spices, ginger, and garlic and fry for a minute. Add the tomato purée and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the chickpeas and stir. Add the spinach and stir until wilted. Add another tbsp of oil, and 4 tbsp water, to bind the dish. Take off the heat and stir in the coriander leaves and lemon juice. Season to taste, and serve with toasted pitta breads and some yogurt.