Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Bill's Produce Store, Covent Garden

Once a virtuous and quirky place, situated in an old bus depot in the heart of Brighton, Bill's Produce Store has since been gobbled up by Richard Caring's vast restaurant empire (he of Le Caprice, Soho House, and The Ivy), and homogenised beyond all recognition.

Our visit to the Covent Garden branch (there are now five branches across the UK) was miserable. At first site, it's a replica of the original - kitted out in rustic, farm shop style - but that's where similarities end. We were seated at a ridiculously tiny table with our 11-month-old boy. They neglected to offer us a menu. Ten minutes in, a grumpy waiter became aware of our presence.

The menu bears no resemblance to Bill's original, which featured inventive salads and beautiful puds, all freshly made and seasonal. It reads like a poor imitation of Giraffe, a mishmash of standard tourist fare with no obvious theme: butternut squash risotto, burger and fries, fishcakes, thai green curry, lasagne, BLT. Tedious, and uninspired.

Our two burgers took another 40 minutes to arrive, by which time Charlie had finished his lunch, and was itching to get out of his highchair. The meal wouldn't fit on the table, so we had to put drinks and chips on the floor, and the salad we had ordered was missing. With no apologies forthcoming, I found the manager, who gave us a couple of free drinks. She was doing her best with a bad lot: sullen lazy staff, mediocre food, a slow kitchen, and the place thronged with tourists. I didn't envy her.

How was the burger? It looked promising, in a light brioche bun, but was bland. Instantly forgettable. And most definitely not worth the wait. The meat was sub-standard and tasteless, and I couldn't detect any pickle or crunch.

In trying to satisfy the tourist trade, and devise a menu around a new business model rather than seasonality and fresh local produce, the concept behind the original Bill's Produce Store has been well and truly abandoned. What a shame.

Bill's Produce Store on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 26 May 2011

At Home: Ragu Wraps

A rich ragu that has had a few days to mature is a great thing. The ingredients get to know each other better, making for a deeper, more complex flavour. Rather than serve it as you did first time around, try these simple, speedy wraps. I found that the ragu had become thicker and more gelatinous, perfect for spreading over a toasted flatbread. The marriage of cool crunchy cucumber, creamy avocado, tender rich meat, and a touch of Jamaican pepper heat, is addictive.

Serves 2

Two flour or corn tortillas (or flatbread of your choice) per person
Leftover beef shin ragu/beef stew, warmed through
1 avocado, stoned, skin removed, and flesh cut into strips
1 cucumber, sliced in half and cut into long strips
8 cooked new potatoes, roughly diced
6 tbsp sour cream
Jamaican Hot Sauce (use sparingly)
1 lime, for squeezing

Warm through the tortillas in a dry frying pan over a medium heat. I like them to char a bit, five minutes on each side normally does it.

Fill each tortilla with the remaining ingredients, being as generous as you wish (within limits - you want to be able to close them up).

Close the wraps, and secure them with a cocktail stick. We'd run out, so forks were the next best option.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

At Home: Beef Shin Ragu

It pains me to start this post with a less than inspiring pic. I hope that the description will serve as the appetite whetter instead. It tastes bloody spectacular, I promise.

Thrift never translates into bounty as readily as when a cheap cut of meat becomes a tender, rich, and satisfying supper. Shin is ideal for a ragu, as the meat falls apart easily with long slow cooking, and it pairs beautifully with pasta.

Ask your butcher to leave the bone in the shin. Failing that, add a pig's trotter to the mix. A morsel of marrow is a lovely thing, but in its absence the gelatinous nature of the trotter is a more than acceptable substitute, and will improve the texture of the ragu no end.

Pavel at How Not to Do a Food Blog was the inspiration for this dish. His recipe read like food porn, and I was hooked. And, I stole Helen Graves' (find her post at Food Stories) clever idea of perking up the finished dish with a gremolata.

Be adventurous with the aromatics. I've stuck to the usual suspects here, but you could try Stevie Parle's suggestion of allspice, fennel seeds, and star anise, or a stick or two of cinnamon/cassia bark, and a dried chilli. Or, Pavel's celery seed idea.

Shove any leftover meat into a salad wrap with avocado, cucumber and sour cream (for the hot heads, add a dollop of jamaican hot sauce); mix it with mashed potato and fry (for the gluttons, put a fried egg on top); turn it into a quesadilla filling with melted cheese and pickles. Or, simply spoon it on top of a steaming baked potato.

2 tbsp light olive oil
1.5 kg (3lb 5 oz) beef shin, thickly sliced into steaks (bone-in, if possible)
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 celery sticks, finely chopped
2 onions, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
5 black peppercorns
Bouquet garni (sprig of thyme, sprig of rosemary, 2 bay leaves, 2 sage leaves)
2 large glasses of medium-bodied French or Italian red wine
500ml good quality beef or chicken stock
400g tin of chopped tomatoes
½ tsp grated nutmeg, and a generous handful of grated Parmesan, to serve

For the gremolata, mix together:
a handful of flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
grated zest of 1 unwaxed lemon, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
  • Pre-heat your oven to 130C (266F/Gas ½). Add the olive oil to a large heavy casserole dish and warm over a medium heat. Season the meat and fry it in batches (you want it to brown and caramelise, not steam). Remove the meat to a plate, and set aside.
  • Add the vegetables, peppercorns, and herbs to the casserole dish. Turn down the heat, and sweat them gently for 10-15 minutes until soft but not coloured.
  • Return the meat to the pan, and add the wine, stock, and tomatoes. Bring to a simmer, then cover and cook in the oven for 4-5 hours (the longer the better). Check it every hour or so, to make sure it's not drying out. If it is, add a little water.
  • Remove the meat from the sauce, and tear it apart with a fork and spoon (it should yield wilfully). If you'd like a gooier sauce, reduce it on the hob before returning the shredded meat to the dish. Remove the bouquet garni, and season to taste.
  • Serve with a robust pasta, such as rigatoni or pappardelle, or gnocchi, and sprinkle with the gremolata, some Parmesan, and a touch of grated nutmeg.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011


The trend of small plate eating has taken London by storm. A recent venture to join the bandwagon, in Covent Garden, is Kopapa. It sits pretty on Monmouth Street (check out its worthy neighbours Monmouth Coffee House and Kiehl's cosmetics), and has garnered largely positive reviews from London's food bloggers.

An all day café, restaurant and bar in the chic-boutique Seven Dials district, its founder and co-owner is 'fusion king' Peter Gordon, a Kiwi chef who has already tried and tested his formula at the great but pricey Providores in Marylebone.

On a lunch-hour dash, time was not on our side. The menu didn't help, resembling as it did a hyperactive child: hard to get a grip on, and rather quixotic (lists of light meals, quick bites, platters, tapas, mains, sides, in no particular order). Where to start? I had a budget, which helped. The rest was down to potluck and a dining partner with a decisive disposition.

Shichimi-crusted baked tofu with shiitake, carrot & miso mustard dressing £5.50. Being a devoted carnivore, this isn't what I'd choose to eat, and I didn't. I stole some from my friend Sarah's plate. It was surprisingly tasty, though I think it was the seasoning I preferred over the protein. Sarah loved it.

Cassava chips with avocado, sriracha chilli sauce and crème fraîche £5. Moreish. A puffed-up plantain/parsnip is the best description I can come up with. The sauces brought the fluffy chips to life. I last had cassava chips at The Modern Pantry, a fantastic fusion place in Farringdon, run by Anna Hansen (another chef hailing from New Zealand, and an old team mate of Peter Gordon's). Cassava clearly beats the humble potato when you're in fusion territory.

Steamed and salted edamame £4. They couldn't have (and didn't) go wrong with these.

Lovely pillowy Flatbread and babaganoush with olives £3.50. A perfect snack with drinks. I could have skipped the larger dishes and just gone from this to dessert (which we didn't have time for).

Garlic sautéed chicken livers on focaccia with grapes, red onion jam and Muscat jus £7.80. Cooked perfectly, but perhaps a touch too sweet for my taste. One of the too-mean-to-be-main, but too-big-to-be-tapas dishes (aka 'small plates').

This was comfort food, and it met the brief.

I'd have liked to try dessert, and some of the Asian-influenced dishes, to get a better grip on the menu, and the breakfast offerings look special (as do the puds). If fusion and innovation is their 'thing', I want to taste it.

Until then, I recommend it as a good place for lunch, and probably a great place for breakfast and brunch (going on the reviews of bloggers I trust). If you are there for lunch, have bread, one dish, one salad, and a sobering sparkling water and you'll get change from £20.

Kopapa on Urbanspoon