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.


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.