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 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.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

At Home: Spanish tortilla

The main ingredient in an authentic Spanish tortilla is patience. And without doubt, the best recipe is Sam and Sam Clark's in the Moro Cookbook. I've made it endless times, but always forget to take a picture of it sliced - rest assured it is dense and moreish.

I've recently cooked for two parties of 30 or so, and had to quickly grasp which dishes would be crowd pleasers. Tortilla is ideal: you can make it a day or two ahead, and slice it into cute cake-like slivers to accompany meat and salads.

Two rules: PLEASE don't skimp on the oil! Tortilla was never meant to be, and is never going to be, a low-fat dish. Enjoy it in small portions if you're counting the calories. And, cook the onions as slowly as you can, for as long as you can. Revealing that elusive intense sweetness is key.

While I'm on the subject of parties, other crowd pleasers include: brownies, made ahead and cut into cubes, topped with whipped cream and a berry/edible gold stars; saffron pilaf with pistachios and roasted squash; teriyaki-marinated chicken wings, baked in the oven; parmesan biscuits; a great big platter of Neal's Yard cheese.

Le Café Anglais

Rowley Leigh (of Kensington Place fame) and his cohorts chose an odd place to open Le Café Anglais in 2007 - Whiteley's shopping centre in Bayswater. Apparently once a thriving complex, the two times I have ventured through its pristine interior, you'd be lucky to see a single customer. Handed a promotional flyer, we headed to the shopping centre's 'Piano Bar' for an aperitif. Hell, it was depressing! The cheek of it: the 'piano' was no such thing. Instead, an electric monstrosity that the fumbling barman had to switch on to play recorded lift music as he poured our prosecco, as if it was the first drink he'd ever served. How desperate. How quickly we fled.

Back to the reason we're here. Entering Rowley Leigh's lair through the elegant Porchester Gardens entrance is like entering another era. The beautiful art deco-inspired interior, flanked by floor to ceiling windows, and full of light, is grand and tasteful. The seating is a mixture of booths and tables, and the bar at the entrance has ample room for lounging and surveying the comings and goings. (Shh, don't tell anyone that this room once housed the local McDonalds.)

The menu has filled out a bit since my last visit. Dare I say it's not as ballsy. The signature dish, Parmesan custard and anchovy toast (pictured above), is still there with other imaginative hors d'oeuvres, as is the courteous nod to the French (it's all in the name). We struggled to work out, though, how Thai green curry and pilaff fits into the mix sitting alongside dishes such smoked eel, foie gras, rotisserie classics, and marinated mackerel.

The three course £25 set menu was a pure distillation of Rowley Leigh's Anglo-French no-fuss cooking style, but sadly didn't inspire my non meat-eater friend, who had trouble concocting a satisfying three-course meal from either the set or extensive full menu.

Our starters of Heirloom tomato salad with burrata and the imaginative Parmesan custard were probably the highlight of the evening. The salad composed of first-rate ingredients, delicately dressed, and the rich, smooth custard stood out as perfect examples of the kitchen's intelligence. My Lamb fillet with crushed peas won't be etched in my memory until the end of time, but it was certainly a fine piece of charred meat with fresh seasonal accompaniments. Steamed scallops with choy sum and ginger dressing were fine, but not outstanding: after-thought on the menu, after-thought in the kitchen, it seems. The service was amicable, with tap water willingly offered. We moved from a rather-too-sweet Loire white, to a lighter Italian, freeing our palates for the food. The wine list is varied and impressive, splitting the French by region. I practiced my French pronunciation by reading out every one to my companion - her patience and lack of embarrassment were admirable.

Apparently, desserts aren't Rowley's thing, so he offers lots of fruit. Great idea. We shared Chocolate and raspberry roulade and White peach with coconut ice cream. A decadent and refreshing end to a meal that left us both happy and replete, and came to a quite reasonable £40 each (given the amount of alcohol consumed). We will most definitely return.

Le Cafe Anglais on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 16 August 2009

St. John Bread and Wine

No Victoria Line, again. Our Richmond Park picnic plan was scuppered, so we caught the overland train to Liverpool St. instead. It's taken me 7 years of living in London to finally cross St. John Bread and Wine's threshold. An offshoot of Fergus Henderson's St. John, in Clerkenwell, there is seriously no better place in London to have a relaxed weekend lunch. After a stroll around Spitalfields, and before embarking on the mayhem of Brick Lane, we wandered in. The bright airy space, not unlike St. John with its stark bare walls and utilitarian furniture, was welcoming, as were the staff. No sooner had we sat down and a leaning tower of bread arrived, with a jug of iced water. The menu is a pick of the best late British summer has to offer, in combinations both traditional and inspired: Broad bean and lovage soup, Peas and ticklemore, Lentils and girolles, Smoked sprats and horseradish ... all tender interpretations of British food.The Meantime Pilsner, brewed locally in Greenwich, was refreshing and stood up well to the strong-flavoured dishes. J chose Foie gras and duck liver toast, with a Butterleaf salad, and I went for Tomatoes and wild marjoram, and Snails, bacon and cauliflower. You could smell the confidence in all four dishes. Which restaurants dare serve a single variety of salad leaf, dressed in a plain oil and vinegar emulsion? Only those whose relationship with food is respectful and instinctive enough that they know when to leave well-sourced ingredients well alone.
Nothing shocked, but every mouthful was a delight. To be safe, book ahead, but if you're languishing in London come August-time, you're pretty sure to get a walk-in spot any time of day (and might just get a little celeb-spotting while you're at it: Katie Grand and Giles Deacon were in on our visit). Oh yes, prices. All the dishes pictured were £5-6, and a satisfying lunch with beer brought the bill to £30. Good value, needless to say!
St John Bread & Wine on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 August 2009

The Giaconda Dining Room

Denmark Street is all too familiar to me. The wonderful Helter Skelter bookshop (RIP), and gigs at the 12 Bar Club spring to mind, as does its role as a handy shortcut to Charing X Rd, but food - I'd never have thought it. The Giaconda Dining Room sits modestly among the guitarists' porn mag that is a street dedicated to rock 'n roll. Oddly placed, perhaps. Petite, most definitely.

Seating just 30, on closely packed bare-wood tables, its ambiance is more wine bar/café than foodie mecca. Mercifully free of music, voices ring off the cream walls and low ceiling with a happy cheer. Paul Merrony, trained by the Roux brothers, and veteran of Sydney's food scene, has brought a touch of finesse and culinary sunshine to an area I had thought resolutely unrefined.

The menu resists categorization. Southern Mediterranean influences strike a pose alongside distinctly Eastern European egg-and-potato heavyweights. Apparently Merrony's signature dish, I start with "almost boneless" Crisped Pigs Trotters. Delightfully soft gelatinous meat, perfectly seasoned and rich, sat on a bed of sliced boiled eggs and potatoes. Why this already substantial starter needs potatoes, I know not. The crisp leaves added a welcome astringent touch to the dish, however, and the trotter won the day. Minus the carbs, 5/5.

My companion had a delectable Pumpkin risotto with mascarpone. Our starters promised good things to come. Fish cakes with tartare sauce, and Sautéed chicken with wild mushrooms, roast garlic and new potatoes on order, we cleansed our palates with the only non-alcoholic drink on offer, citron pressé, and ordered an extremely good value glass of refreshing Picpoul de Pinet (at under £5). Tiny gripe: pressé really requires a sugar syrup with the lemon juice. It took a lot of stirring to persuade the granulated sugar to dissolve.
The sautéed chicken was Provence on a plate. Breast, leg, and thigh portions were amply dressed with an intensely savoury and fragrant reduction, and scattered with butter-rich, fried wild mushrooms, and countless roasted garlic cloves. Its composition was faultless. Needless to say, only my circulatory system was grateful for the garlic's pungent and powerful presence that night.
By the time we'd reached the lower echelons of the menu, the room was packed. The two efficient waitresses were miracle workers, eyes on every table and happy to accommodate all manner of requests. I'm amazed my questions about the pudding - Iced nougat with raspberries - didn't prompt sighs of irritation. The nougat, though a skillful fusing of fruitiness and creaminess, had an overwhelming bitter edge that I just couldn't put my finger on. Its mouthfeel was reminiscent of ground almond kernels rather than citrus fruit, though they insisted it was grapefruit rind. Who am I to argue! My companion's Tiramisu took soft, pillowy pudding decadence to a new level. Tiramisu is so often bastardized by leaving out the egg, or adding Baileys. Needless to say, Merrony can be relied upon to do nothing of the sort.

As we left I caught a glimpse of the impossibly tiny galley kitchen, and there he was in his Wonderland, happily frantic. After a thumbs-up to Paul, we wandered to Freud's (cocktail bar at the Giaconda-end of Neal Street) for a digestif.

£30 for three courses cooked by the man himself, whose food mercifully doesn't play tricks, but rather speaks of honesty, enthusiasm for ingredients at their best, and an intelligent palate, is a wonderful experience. Needless to say, I will return.

Giaconda Dining Room on Urbanspoon