Friday, 22 October 2010

Albion café

In 2008 Tracey MacLeod gave Terence Conran's Boundary Project in Shoreditch, and its menagerie of outlets stacked in an impressive converted warehouse, a glowing review, saying of the ground floor Albion café, 'the food is great: well-made versions of traditional British caff grub'. So, with the positive write-up in mind, and ringing endorsements from friends, even though I'd been let down by food at Boundary rooftop last summer, I popped in for lunch.

Strategic design places a food shop and bakery up front, whetting the tastebuds and drawing in hungry mouths before even a glance at the 'posh caff' menu, which promises to deliver all the heart-stopping British classics: Welsh rarebit, devilled kidneys, Full English, fish and chips...

I'm no snob when it comes to a cooked breakfast. Nothing beats the no-frills local caff on East Finchley high street for its bottomless mugs of milky PG, endless rounds of toast, and hilariously nonchalant service. A perfect greasy-spoon fry up to soothe a booze-addled head. And, if I crave an upmarket breakfast, Lantana Cafe always delivers.

Albion cafe certainly looks the part. The space is airy and welcoming, staff delightful, and the bread top notch. However, as soon as the plates hit the table, our hearts sank.

Pint of prawns £8.50. Pricey, and not particularly fresh (I could name a dozen gastropubs that make a better fist of this simple dish).

Beetroot soup £4.75. Boring and insipid. Lacked bite, and seasoning. Again, not a hard dish to get right.

And, finally, the £10 fry up. Bloody miserable. One soggy tasteless tomato, the worst hash-brown/bubble and squeak we'd ever come across (raw potato), mediocre rubbery sausage, measly portion of beans, toast!

Beauty is clearly only skin deep at Conran's caff. As Luiz, The London Foodie, says, 'another classic example of style over substance' (read his review here).

We left feeling short changed, annoyed, and still hungry, so headed to Brick Lane for a satisfying record trawl at Rough Trade, picking up a brownie from the Albion bakery on the way, a vast improvement on what the cafe kitchen had to offer.

Next time I'm in the area I'll return to the old faithful, St. John Bread & Wine.

The Hamper Project

Time to dig out the old winter coat (yes, that's sadly singular), and think about what I'll be putting in this year's Christmas hampers.

Convincing myself every year that creating hampers of homemade edible goodies is a thrifty gift idea, I blindly purchase ingredients and packaging (who can resist the Le Parfait jars?), only to find each hamper has cost me about £40. Nevertheless, I carry on regardless.

Preserving is the first task that springs to mind, though how keen is everyone on chutneys? I have at least half a dozen unopened jars gathering dust from Christmases past. Perhaps jellies are closer to the mark: cranberry, damson, redcurrant, or mint.

Ideas so far are tending towards crowd-pleasers: fudge, chocolate brownies, pesto, shortbread, spiced nuts, chocolate truffles/salt caramels, pickled shallots, and parmesan crisps.

I'd like to add a few shop-bought treats too, maybe some Neal's Yard Dairy cheese, a small bag of Monmouth coffee, a chunk of Parmesan wrapped in greaseproof paper, a pretty bottle of chilli oil from the local Chinese supermarket, or a good salami.

I'll follow up with more 'Hamper Project' posts as we near C Day and I get cooking.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Street Kitchen

I wrote this post yesterday, then lost it. After a fierce bout of cursing, nearly throwing my Mac out into the street, and damning technology for all eternity, I went out, had a few glasses of champagne to celebrate a 1st birthday, and returned wondering what all the fuss was about. Here's a truncated version of the original.

The London Restaurant Festival, in its second year, is coming to a close. Bigger and better than ever, it brought together hundreds of the capital's restaurants, each of which offered a special discounted 'festival' menu, and a stellar stream of chefs collaborated, popped up temporary residencies, and emerged from their subterranean sweaty kitchens to lure in the hungry public and tout their wares. Celebrating eating out: Fay Maschler (the festival's founder) hit gold.

One such culinary collaboration brought a silver Airstream caravan filled with seasonal British food to the city's streets, courtesy of two of London's finest chefs, Pearl restaurant's Jun Tanaka and Mark Jankel, chef and founder of The Food Initiative. Aptly named Street Kitchen, it offered a small but perfectly formed selection of dishes, for all tastes and appetites: soup, fish, meat, salad, and sweet, all keenly priced at between £4.50 and £6.50. Visiting them at their final parking spot - Spitalfields Market - we picked up three of their savoury dishes for lunch.

The carrot and rosemary soup with brioche was silky smooth and heavenly, the earthiness of the carrot lifted by the pungent yet fragrant rosemary. An imaginative combination: this is definitely one I'll attempt at home.

The hot smoked salmon was a hefty chunk of tender flaky fish (incredibly generous for £6.50 - it must be the absence of restaurant overheads that makes such pricing possible), sitting on sweet roast beetroot and crushed potatoes. Simple yet refined.

Braised featherblade beef with carrots and celeriac. This dish had already made itself known to me, courtesy of Giles Coren's enthusiastic write-up in last Saturday's Times Magazine. Ripe, rich, and gamey, the meat was outstanding. I haven't had a piece of beef that impressive since my last visit to Hawksmoor. Needless to say, its pedigree was impeccable. The celeriac and carrots complemented it perfectly and made it the standout dish on the menu.

To give my digestive system a final kick in the balls, having overindulged on two main courses, I stopped at the Caravan restaurant stall nearby (their permanent base is on Exmouth Market) to pick up some of their own-blend coffee with a free Anzac biscuit. Both were perfectly made, and being coffee lovers that is not a term we use lightly.

I'd like to appeal to the festival organisers for less high end events in 2011, and more frontline crowd-pleasers such as Street Kitchen, as only those already enmeshed in London's food 'scene' are quick enough off the mark to book the hottest restaurants or buy tickets to the events, leaving the rest of London leering hungrily through restaurant windows, and salivating at enthusiastic blog posts.

It's a shame we don't see more gourmet food vans in the UK. They're a big hit in the States, so perhaps the trend will rub off. London needs decent street food. We are well catered for when it comes to the finery and frippery of fine dining, but finding decent takeaway food is still a challenge (unless you're lucky enough to be near a branch of Leon or Ottolenghi). Word has it that the runaway success of Street Kitchen has made Jun and Mark think about making their temporary venture more permanent. Keep an eye on their website and @streetkitchen to be the first to know, or hot-foot it to Spitalfields before the close of the festival on Monday 18th Oct.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Morelli's ice cream parlour

Drizzly, chilly October: not ideal conditions for tasting ice cream at one of Britain's hottest gelato spots. But visits to this south-east corner of Kent aren't frequent enough to be picky about the weather.

Morelli's has been causing a buzz lately, as the independent family-run business is fast expanding, opening branches in Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Dubai, and Monte Carlo, adding to their (rather overpriced) Harrods outlet. Broadstairs is home to the original seafront parlour, which opened in 1932.

As soon as you step over the threshold, overlooking the picturesque harbour, you are hit by a kitsch 50's sensory overload: the jukebox playing Del Shannon and Billy Fury, formica tabletops, pink leather booths and gloriously tacky Italian wall friezes.
The day we visited they were selling just 6 flavours, not the 20 they promise on their website, though given that they make ice cream daily on site, and the seaside village had a rather desolate air, you can understand why they wouldn't bother. True to Italian tradition, the gelato are milk-based rather than cream-based, making it much easier to overindulge.

I had been craving the famed lemon sorbet (which Sheila Dillon recently waxed lyrical about on Radio 4's Food Programme - listen again), but we weren't in luck. Instead, we shared mint choc chip, chocolate, biscuit, and strawberry, all equally impressive. Smooth, just sweet enough, with bright, fresh and intense flavours. Not a hint of the synthetic aftertaste you find with anything from the supermarket freezer chests.

I hope the expansion doesn't dilute the passion and dedication to quality over quantity that keeps lovers of all things cold and sweet faithfully returning. Marine Ices, another famous Italian ice cream parlour, based in Chalk Farm, London, has resolutely and perhaps wisely resisted the lure of franchise: their product remains consistently gorgeous.

NB: Enter Morelli's competition by inventing a new ice cream flavour.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

At Home: Cracking Crackling

Crackling. One of the many joys of being a vociferous carnivore.

Pork was a meat I discovered later in life, as bland pork chops were all I'd been accustomed to as a child. Fortunately, a taste of rilette in Provence, and barbecue ribs in the Midwest, got me hooked, and I'm now a sucker for anything porcine.

There's an art to creating perfect crackling, and everyone claims their way is the best way. And methods are multitudinous: to baste or not to baste. Fry? Remove the rind from meat and cook separately? Dry skin with a hair dryer? Blast of heat at beginning or end of cooking, or both?

For me, the best crackling still has a bit of soft unctuous fat underneath, the crunchy skin finely blistered and sprinkled with coarse sea salt. This method never fails to create gorgeous crispy crackling (for me, that is! Please tell me if you've discovered another failsafe method).
  • Ask your butcher to score the belly, or do it yourself with a Stanley knife, cutting right through the skin and fat to the meat, but not through the meat.
  • The belly must be left at room temperature, uncovered (to help the skin dry out), for a few hours before cooking.
  • Rub fine sea salt into the skin, dabbing off any beads of moisture that appear on the surface with kitchen towel.
  • Preheat your oven to its highest temperature (about 220C).
  • Grind a tbsp of sea salt to a fine powder in a pestle and mortar with a tbsp of fennel seeds. Rub thoroughly into the dry skin with a tbsp of light olive oil, right into the scored crevices, then sprinkle over another tbsp of coarse sea salt (not ground).
  • Place the belly in a roasting dish on top of a trivet of onions and apples, peeled, and quartered, seasoned and doused in olive oil, and tossed with a handful of thyme sprigs.
  • Roast on the highest oven shelf at 220C for 20 minutes, to give the skin a good blast of heat, then turn the heat down to 160C and cook for a further hour and 15 mins.
  • Turn the heat up to 200C (this would be a good time to put the roast pots in the oven if you're being indulgent), and cook for a further 40 mins.
  • Your belly is ready.
For a perfect gravy/sauce: remove the pork from the roasting tray to a serving dish, save any onion/apple that has miraculously not turned to mush in the cooking process (serve with the pork), and pour off the oodles of fat. Place the roasting dish on the hob, pour in a generous glass of dry cider, and let it bubble away for a few minutes, scraping the bottom of the dish to release all the gooey bits. Thicken with arrowroot/flour if you like - we prefer it thinner, so it gets easily soaked up by the belly meat.