Sunday, 31 May 2009

At home: how to make a stew magical

Once you've browned your meat, and added the requisite fresh herbs + bay, onions, and garlic, and before you add the wine/stock + veg, add a selection or all of the following to give your stew a lift:

• whole red chilli, chopped (deseeded if liked)
• heaped tsp sichuan pepper, crushed, or whole black peppercorns
• 3/4 brown anchovies from a jar/can
• crushed/sliced thumb-sized piece of ginger
• a few strips of orange zest
• 4/5 whole ripe tomatoes

I can guarantee you'll be licking your plates, and the casserole dish (given half the chance...).

I braised some beautiful lamb shanks for a couple of hours with all of the above the other night, with the addition of streaky bacon, and some steamed jersey potatoes, with roasted asparagus, baby artichokes, and fennel alongside. It went down a treat.

Thursday, 28 May 2009


It was a Bank Holiday Monday, and we found ourselves in Covent Garden with friends at 10pm, following a sunny day strolling and pub-crawling along the Thames, needing sustenance of a restoring and sobering kind.

Covent Garden is not really the place to pitch up when you want a wallet-friendly half-decent meal. After ruling out Carluccio's, Terroirs, and the Bedford & Strand Wine Bar - not being in the mood for their butter-heavy specialities - we headed in the direction of Wahaca, but the wait for a table was 1 hour. I'd read about Hazuki in Harden's, and passed it dozens of times, so this was as good a time as any to try it out.

Just a stone's throw away from Wahaca, tucked behind Trafalgar Square, Hazuki serves simple Japanese fare. The mezzanine was full so they sat us in the darker ground floor area, where we could conveniently see what was on offer as it passed our noses on its way to the floor above. The staff were disorganized yet their greeting was warm - they even demonstrated for Jon and Lee precisely how the curved Japanese sword displayed inches behind Jon's head is used. Slash, not stab, is the principle, as far as I recall... the plates passing by, piled high with assorted tempura, were distracting me.

The soothing green tea took the edge off the sword demonstration. We started with two of squid dishes (one of liberally salted tentacles, the other grilled with soft yet pungent garlic shoots), and deep-fried oysters with teriyaki (kaki fry). All had been cooked beautifully, but the grilled aubergine with sweet miso (nasu dengaku) was the undisputed standout dish, unctuous smoky flesh liberally laced with the intense caramel sweetness of the miso. Apparently this is a dish that can often be found at an Izakaya (Japanese tapas bar). It could easily have been a main dish, however, paired with some sticky rice.

With some Yaegaki hot saki (to hell with sober intentions), and appetites as yet undiminished, the main dishes followed: the salmon teriyaki was a generous and delicately cooked fillet, and the braised thinly sliced pork belly with soy and ginger (buta shougayaki) was more than serviceable, although I had been expecting fatty pork belly pieces, not shreds of boiled yet tasty meat. With starters, mains, and drinks coming in at £20 each, it offers good value for money, too.

Hazuki does not offer high-style dining, but does deliver delicious no-fuss Japanese cuisine. I'll be returning soon to try their sushi for lunch, so watch this space...

Hazuki on Urbanspoon

Monday, 25 May 2009

Dehesa, Soho

I've eaten at Dehesa once before, sitting up at the wooden benches, and ate exceedingly well, so had been waiting for an excuse to return. The good fortune of, firstly, a dear friend visiting from out of town for the evening, and secondly, the fact they've started taking reservations, created the perfect opportunity. This no bookings policy is fair, I get it, but it's the reason I've yet to try out Barrafina on Frith Street. I do not have the patience of a saint!

This Spanish-Italian tapas and charcuterie bar on the corner of Carnaby St and Ganton St, in Soho, is owned and run by Sanja Morris and Simon Mullins, who also own Salt Yard, an impressive little place near Charlotte Street that serves tapas along a similar vein.

The minute we arrived, the evening was off to a good start. We were seated at one of the comfortable window booths instead of the benches, and ordered two glasses of their cava before delving into the wine list and choosing a bold and full organic red from the Terra Alta region. Our waiter was welcoming and helpful, mysteriously always there when we wanted something, but not overly attentive. Brindisa: listen up, and get your service up to scratch.

Right, on to the food. Having recently had the good fortune to taste the best chickpea dish ever, in Barcelona, I was keen to see how Dehesa brought them to life. We ordered Grilled squid with chickpeas, chorizo, and mint, Chargrilled marinated chicken with new potato, piquillo pepper, wild garlic, and chorizo oil, their trademark Courgette flowers with Monte Enebro and honey, Spanish meatballs cooking in Manzanilla, Aubergine parmigiana with fresh basil, and some Jamon de Trevelez. As if that was not quite enough, we also added some Padron peppers and sourdough bread with aioli to the order.

None of my pics turned out very well - probably a less than desirable combination of too much good wine, and the fact I'm a hopeless photographer. But, here are the deep-fried courgette flowers: a wonderful dish you MUST order when you visit either Dehesa or Salt Yard.

The rest of the food was almost impeccable. The chargrilled bread didn't quite surpass Moro's but was still devoured instantly, smothered with lashings of aioli; the squid was uncharacteristically melt-in-the-mouth, with no hint of rubberiness, but the chickpeas didn't reach their full potential or let the mint sing a note; the marinated chicken was tender, and the wild garlic brought a welcome burst of subtle aromatic Spring flavour to the dish; the meatballs and the aubergine were incredibly rich yet the vibrant base of tomato lifted both dishes to make them moreish rather than stodgy. We could have done with more ham for £8.95, but that's always the case! The only dish we didn't manage to polish off was the Padron peppers, simply because there were so many of them, and with 7 other dishes in front of us, we were a little distracted... and had no room for dessert.

The buzz of the place, and the superior quality of the ingredients, surpasses any of the minor niggles I mention above, and makes it a place I will return to again and again. It's no trailblazer, but its presence lifts the London food scene and delivers satisfying food for the discerning palate.

Fabulous tapas in a fabulous location. I think that's recommendation enough!

Sunday, 17 May 2009

St Pancras Grand Restaurant and Oyster Bar

Kings Cross is becoming quite a hot spot for pleasurable eating. With Oliver Rowe's Konstam and Arthur Potts Dawson's Acorn House in the vicinity of the station, and the spectacular reconstructed St Pancras (with its Eurostar connection up and running) to admire, it's become a destination in its own right, not just a place to pass through.

Back in '08 I skim-read a lot of marketing spiel about Searcys new oyster bar, and a bunch of reviews, but it was not until I was meeting a friend at the station that I had an excuse to take a closer look. The champagne bar, Europe's longest, sits alongside the Eurostar platform, and is certainly an impressive site, but on the night we went it was completely empty, not a soul enjoying its picture-perfect setting.

Unperturbed, we ventured in to the restaurant. Again, an impressive space, not unlike the oyster bar and restaurant at NYC's Grand Central Station, but woefully empty. They apparently called in Fay Maschler and Richard Corrigan to consult, and the menu does have a cohesive British posh nosh note to it, but looks - dare I say it - a little bland?

We started with some rather lovely native Colchester oysters, served with the requisite tabasco, lemon, and shallot vinaigrette. Our Smoked Finnan haddock with crushed potatoes and poached egg, and Fish pie were certainly satisfying, but both resembled cooking by rote, not a reflection by any means of the grand setting which promised so much more.

The wine list was impressive, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed a reasonably-priced white pinot noir, that is until the waiter replaced it with a different wine for my second glass, insisting it was the same. After an unfortunate spell of disagreement, he reluctantly relented and replaced it. Accommodating isn't quite the word that springs to mind!

Our dessert was odd. A lemon curd crème brûlée with lemon shortbread, topped with a scoop of what tasted like margarine. We were assured this was clotted cream, but I've tasted the real stuff and this wasn't even a distant cousin. In fact, it was frankly inedible, and far too rich to accompany the cloyingly sweet curd: even the two of us, with big appetites, couldn't finish it off. A dud, I'm afraid.

St Pancras Grand is not yet a destination restaurant, but I hold high hopes for it, and next time I'm catching a train, the opportunity to sip a glass of champagne and guzzle some oysters under the glorious vaulted roof before departure won't be missed.


Saturday, 16 May 2009

Pinotxo, Barcelona

I was on the lookout out for Pinotxo on our final day in Barcelona, as we spent the last precious hours before our flight exploring the delights of the indoor food market: Mercat de la Boqueria. I was in foodie heaven, my senses overwhelmed, feasting on its gustatory delights. The offal stalls were particularly fascinating: swathes of tripe surrounded by pig heads, hearts, and assorted entrails. Just as impressive were the displays of salt cod. Although I'm not a fan, I hear this is a mecca for the stuff. At a jamon stall, I plumped for a selection of packaged jamon iberico bellota to take home, and a slice to eat as we walked, and retraced our steps to refuel at Pinotxo.

It was packed, and the owner was holding court, gossiping with the regulars. With little subtlety we eyed up what was on offer. We didn't have to wait long, and once we'd pulled up our stools we were welcomed enthusiastically by the chef, who recommended their take on some Catalan classics (there was no menu - simply dishes made with what was available and good to eat that day): melt-in-the-mouth veal stew with pine nuts (estofat de vedella), oven-roasted artichokes (carxofes al forn), chickpeas with crumbled Catalan sausage (cigrons butifarra), and strawberries in sweet syrup to finish. Everything we ate was sublime, and was possibly the best food we'd eaten in Barcelona. The artichoke, burnt black by its long slow oven roasting resembled a rather angry deep sea creature, but held within it it the softest, almost toffee-like, flesh I have ever eaten. Likewise, the humble chickpea was taken to a new level.

I noticed our neighbour's divine Catalan twist on ratatouille, samfaina, and wanted to sample their seafood dishes, but it was too late - we'd consumed our fill, so reluctantly left our perch for others to hurriedly claim.

I can't think of a more appropriate or delicious way to sample the best a market has to offer. You simply must make a bee-line for this place. And, apparently, Ferran Adria eats here when he's in town, his El Bulli test kitchens being situated just the other side of La Ramblas (should you need another reason to visit).

Friday, 15 May 2009

Inopia, Barcelona

Seeking out this popular tapas or 'pintxo' bar was one our first priorities. As a devotee of all things Adria, I had high expectations and had prepared myself to be thrilled. His brother, Alberto, opened and runs the place. Luckily were staying in the l’Eixample area, so were just a short walk away. Seeing a queue of people outside is a good sign, as is a friendly yet ruthless doorman. Those waiting were a happy combination of gastro-tourists and Barcelona regulars. Our name was officiously added to the blackboard, so we headed thirstily to the X Bar opposite for an ice-cold Kronenburg. Half an hour later, back across the street, our names had not moved. Back to the bar…

By 11pm we were in!! Safely ensconced on stools by the bar, we got stuck in. Already well watered, we ordered a promising combination of tapa, all at around 6/7 Euros each: fried artichokes, chicken kebab, pork crackling (confusingly translated as ‘slices of pork belly’), delicate white asparagus with a soft creamy vinaigrette, and Iberico ham croquettes. All were delightful, particularly the kebab and croquettes, which hid within a delicate crust a soft and pillowy centre: food to soothe the soul. The staff were eager to please and warm with their service as well as their recommendations. A generous freebie was a shot of Pernod-laced raspberry ‘smoothie’, which we devoured alongside some perfumed and intense wild strawberries served in moscatel with orange zest. The fried artichokes were the only bites that didn't hit the right note: the flavour of the succulent heart didn't manage to hold its own, as it fought against a dense over-seasoned batter. Much better are those at London's Bocca di Lupo, although this comment will I'm sure be deemed sacrilegious.

We loved it so much we returned the next day, but at the more conservative North-European dinner time of 8pm, and promptly got a place at the bar. The place was more subdued, and the chefs exuded the air of an orchestra warming up. This did, however, give us the opportunity to order freely from the menu without the risk of any of our favourite dishes running out. After sweet gift-packaged caramels de jabugo (pastel-shaped cured sausages, wrapped in individual parcels) we indulged in far too much house rose, Gilda (anchovies wrapped around green olives on a stick with slices of hot green pepper - a powerful mouthful), more croquetas, and a Bomba de l'Eixample, which I can only describe as a hot, garlicky, meaty, deep-fried gutsy crowd-pleaser.

Many of their dishes main components come from the jars and cans of preserved goods you can see on shelves pictured above. I tried the baby squid in oil, but they didn't like me, neither I them, so we cut our losses with that one, ending our second visit instead with a beautiful, decadent and sexy Catalonian take on egg custard.

All I missed was some charcuterie and cheese, but these flavours are well catered for elsewhere in the city.

Visit, you must!