Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Chilli Pickle, Brighton

I've just spent the past weekend in Brighton, enjoying the glorious last rays of summer. We went to celebrate my birthday (AHEM IT'S TODAY!) and as anyone who knows me might be able to tell you, I rarely go anywhere without planning somewhere decent to eat. With 8 people on a Friday night after a long week at work, I wasn't about to leave it up to spontaneity or chance. That way lies hanger

The Chilli Pickle sits in a square opposite Wagamama and Pizza Express which doesn't bode enormously well, and once inside it's dark and noisy, lit with neon. But the smell inside is enticing and we sat down beside shelves of tiffin boxes and jars of pickle, of which they're famous for. The menu is large (this online one is out of date), made even larger by a separate set menu sheet and the drinks list is even larger, listing beers from India, America and Germany, as well as our own home-grown. We snacked on poppadoms and an excellent range of pickles while we decided what to order. Namkeen chaat were salt crackers topped with a tomato relish, strong and spicy in ginger. Messy to eat, they were palate-cleansing and punchy. 

We decided to order a bunch of things to share, which I immediately regretted upon tasting this corn on the cob. They were seriously good; steamed and coated with a little chilli sauce and crushed peanuts. The dish of yellow sauce you see at the back there was coconutty and creamy, and when we asked, were told it's like a korma but without the nuts. We poured that stuff directly into our mouths. 

'Manchurian' is a style of Chinese cooking adapted to Indian tastes, so basically deep fried and tossed in a sweet and sour but spiced sauce. In this case it was applied to the blandest of vegetables - the cauliflower. Underneath the crisp casing was merely matter to fill, and the pink yoghurt dip reminded me of strawberry Yazoo. Not that it tasted of much, mind you. I left this one to the group. 

We were back on track with the Chennai skate fry. The piece of skate wing was dusted in spiced, seasoned flour and fried until crisp, so that when you pulled the flesh back from the cartilage you get both soft meat and a crisp contrast. I loved this, especially slathered with the coconut sambal and chased with the tomato and grapefruit salad. Luckily so, as another two portions turned up by mistake.

I love dumplings, so I had to order the Nepalese pork momos, even though they seemed incongruous on a menu like this. They were quite thick skinned, the filling bland, but helped along by the tomato sambal and a fruity sauce flavoured with apple. 

It soon became clear that the mains at The Chilli Pickle aren't intended to be shared. Each of them arrived on its own tray, with all the requirements of a complete meal around it, which struck me as a slight shame, since what I love most about Indian food is a selection of dishes. In particular the oxtail madras; while it was well spiced, with great flavour from the gravy - which would also explain why it is their permanent 'special' - it is also incredibly rich, and after a mouthful or two we'd pass the dish down. The chunks of oxtail meat pulled away from the bone easily, but for a dish with three chillis which was the maximum heat rating, it lacked punch.

I loved the Mysore malasa dosa. A large thin pancake made with rice flour is wrapped around potato curry, mild and creamy, scented with curry leaves. The accompanying vegetable curry had chunks of courgette in, and the red coconut sambal had a bit of a kick to it. 

The chicken tandoori platter lacked the charcoal whiff of the tandoor, but made up for it with a very herby chicken keema kebab, scented with cardamom. The naan beneath it soaked up all the chicken juices, and was perfect for dipping in the buttery black dhal. There's that tomato salad again. 

Tandoori lamb chops were tender and succulent, though they'd need a stronger hand with the spicing, and much crisper and abundant fat to give Tayyabs a run for their money. I really liked the green chilli and mint chutney that came with it, and the lurid pink beetroot raita was soothing, yet surprisingly spicy. I have no idea what the round puck was - it didn't look particularly appealing, and instead I got on with dipping our extra garlic naan in the dhal of the day, a yellow lentil tarka. 

So, a meal of ups and downs, but mostly ups. I like that the menu ranges widely from very obvious South Indian style, touching upon Gujarati, and a brief pause in Nepalese. It did make it a bit awkward when our visibly uncomfortable waitress couldn't tell us what the difference between kesar, pasanda and rajput gravy were, nor could she explain much else on the menu. Our numerous grievances with the service, such as more beers than we'd ordered turning up, our poppadom order doubled, and a starter tripled were put down to the training status of our waitress, so it seems mean to call them up on it, but I wonder about the wisdom of assigning a server in training to a table of 8, with a potentially complicated order on a busy Friday night. Maybe I'm mean. There's obvious skill in the kitchen though and with plenty of booze and more food than we could fit in, we paid £32 each including service.

17 Jubilee Street

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Breakfast at Nopi, Oxford Circus

The monthly breakfasts are still going strong and, if I'm honest, it's getting a little difficult to find a breakfast that isn't very heavy on the Eggs Benedict vibe, especially if you're a sweet avoider as I am. Happily, though, Nopi near Oxford Circus, provides something a little different. 

From the Ottolenghi stable, I've enjoyed lunches and dinners here, though much like Ottolenghi's recipes themselves I've sometimes found their dishes a little... over-flavoured. As if perhaps they'd taken it one flavour profile too far. 

Not so much the case for breakfast, thankfully. Shakshuka is a traditional Middle Eastern dish of eggs poached in a spiced tomato and pepper sauce. Here, they're served in individual roasting hot cast iron pans with a dollop of smoked labneh - that's a thick, strained yoghurt - on top, that threatened to overwhelm but in fact tempered the spices. Perfectly poached, rich orange-yolked eggs were scooped up with toasted bread that was just the right amount to stave off any morning waddle. 

Do go and have a gaze around the ladies loos when you're there. They're something to behold. 

21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584
NOPI on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Stuffed Courgettes with Avgolemono Sauce

When is a courgette a marrow? Is a marrow an over-grown courgette? I'd say yes, and my housemate and I had this exact... debate when she returned from her family's allotment, wielding a bag stuffed full of courgettes / marrows.

I know a few people who aren't keen on the courgette; watery and tasteless are a couple of adjectives used to describe them, but I don't believe that to be true. They have a delicate flavour, yes, but when cooked properly they're a great vehicle for flavour and a soft, buttery texture. I often stir fry them in shit-loads of garlic, or stew them in olive oil and garlic until they're a mush; garnished with parsley and a spritz of lemon, this mush is wonderful smeared on bread or tossed through pasta.

For something a little more involved though, this lot were stuffed and drizzled with avgolemono sauce. Don't ask me how to pronounce that. It is Greek in origin, and made using stock, egg and lemon. It can be a bit of a tricky bugger if you rush through it, as the egg takes a bit of delicate handling, but otherwise it's a smooth and deceptively creamy sauce; perfect with the beef and dill stuffing the vegetables.

Stuffed Courgettes with Avgolemono Sauce

Serves 4

4 medium courgettes, or 1 large marrow

200gr minced beef
1 small yellow onion, diced finely
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
50gr bulgar wheat
A handful of dill, chopped finely
1/2 tsp salt, for seasoning
Table salt, for salting the courgettes
1 tbsp cooking oil
400ml chicken stock

Avgolemono Sauce

300ml hot stock (strained from the cooked courgettes

2 eggs
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp butter

Firstly, slice the courgettes into slices about 2 or 3 fingers thick. Remove the inside core seeds, leaving a couple centimetres of white flesh with the skin. This is best done using a small knife and a sturdy teaspoon.

Dissolve plenty of salt in little boiling water, then fill up with cold water, enough to submerge the courgette slices. Leave for 20 minutes, then remove, rinse and pat dry.

Add the cooking oil to a large, non-stick deep sided frying pan on a medium heat. Fry the onion, garlic, cumin and paprika with the minced beef and the bulgar wheat. Add the 1/2 tsp salt and mix well. When the beef has lost its rawness, remove from the heat and mix in the dill. Move to a bowl to cool, and wipe out the frying pan.

Preheat the oven to a warm setting to keep the courgettes warm while you make the sauce. To stuff the courgettes, place each round down into the pan and pack each well with the beef mixture, pressing down with the back of a teaspoon as you go. Set on a medium heat and add the stock around the courgette rounds. Place the lid on, or top with foil tightly. Once the stock comes to a boil, turn it down to a low heat to gently steam. After 10 minutes, remove the lid and carefully turn the courgette rounds with a knife and a spatula. Steam again for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, place the courgettes into a heatproof serving dish and place in the oven. Remove 300ml of stock for the sauce.

To make the sauce, heat a saucepan on a medium heat with the butter and the flour, whisking well. Cook for 2 - 3 minutes to cook the flour out. Next, add the stock dribble by dribble, whisking well in between adding more, until all of it has been added. Simmer for 2 - 5 minutes until it has thickened. Next, pour the egg and lemon mixture into the sauce VERY slowly, mixing well continuously. When all has been poured, take off the heat. Pour the sauce around the courgettes and drizzle it on top before serving.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Barrafina, Adelaide Street

When I heard that Barrafina, one of my favourite places to while away a few hours, was opening a second branch I was immediately excited. I checked their Twitter page obsessively, wondering when they'd bloody well open dammit. Weeks went by and then, suddenly, they were open with a bang. Pictures flooded my Instagram feed and I stared longingly at images of those famously expensive Carabinieros - massive red prawns, often at £20 a pop. Yep, each. £20 for a prawn. But if it isn't the best freaking prawn you've ever eaten, then you need to tell me where you had one better. 

Back to the beginning. The original Barrafina, a Soho stalwart, is a busy place. If you don't get there at opening hours you're facing down a queue of 45 minutes to an hour and a half for one of those coveted 23 seats at the bar. I don't begrudge them the time; after all, you can have a beer and a croquetas or two while you wait. I've never had tapas as good in Spain. I had high hopes for the new place. I had fears that with expansion, the quality would drop. 

I needn't have worried. On the day Marina O'Loughlin raved about the new branch, I rushed over there for lunch, happily surprised to nab the last two stools at 1pm on a Saturday. The polished bar snakes around the corner, and the space is bright and airy. The croquetas (£4.50 for 2), updated with crab instead of the usual jamon, were textbook; creamy, crabby and impossibly mousse-like insides and a crisp coating. They're the kind of things you bite into and then wish everyone would just be quiet for a moment while you savour the skill needed to make them and the flavour within them. I'm a fan of the new zushed-up versions. 

Chiperones (£7) (little baby squid) were expertly battered and deep fried. A good squirt of lemon was needed to cut through the friedness of it all, and they became infinitely better when scooped up with plenty of chopped almost raw garlic and parsley. Make sure your date eats some too to avoid a one-way garlic-filled snog. 

Chicken wings (£6.50) were grilled on the now-ubiquitous Josper grill that gives them that trademark smokiness, and then smothered with mojo picon sauce. Traditionally, its made with red peppers, paprika and sherry vinegar; a little spiciness, a little sweetness. I was amused to see my neighbours eating these politely with a knife and fork. We showed no such restraint. 

On my last trip to Spain, I discovered the magic of sherry vinegar. The tomato, fennel and avocado salad originally raised an eyebrow at its £7 price tag but it was worth every single penny. Beef heart tomatoes lay at the base, topped with sliced smaller tomatoes and quartered blood-red cherry tomatoes. These were as tomatoey as you'll find, sweet and juicy. We wondered if the fennel would work with the avocado, and of course it did. But it's the memory of the dressing that makes my mouth water. Grassy olive oil, perfectly balanced with the sweet depth of sherry vinegar. I could drink it. I might have drank it.  

Salmorejo was another thing I discovered in Seville. It's like gazpacho, but creamier, milder, sweeter. Originally from Cordoba, it contains more bread than gazpacho, which gives it its creaminess. Here, chicory topped with meaty anchovies makes it one of the best damn vegetable-ish dishes I've had recently (though I'd hope so, for £8.80). Salty anchovies, sweet Salmorejo and bitter leaves combined balance out beautifully. 

We couldn't resist ordering this little bocadillo (£7.50); seared, naked squid in a lightly toasted bun, smeared with confit'ed onions. There's no sexy way of eating this and it's likely that your fist bite will pull some tentacles out of its bready home, leaving them dangling to your chin. I worried that, like many crusty French baguettes, it would take the roof of my mouth off, but the freshness of the bun prevented it from doing so. It was the shoestring-esque fries that got me, with their salty, crisp goodness. I told the waiter off for taking them away from me before I'd devoured them all. 

It could have been over-consumption, but I was less enthused about the grilled skate wing with black olives and pine nuts from the Specials menu. The fish was cooked well, but I found the mashed up black olives a bit... samey samey. A bit one-note.

Nevertheless, it's safe to say I loved the new Barrafina. Of course I loved it. I had no doubt that I would. The service was spot-on, as per Frith Street; friendly and unobtrusive. Sure, its not cheap - we spent £40 a head, but actually for food at that standard, with a glass of sherry and two glasses of wine each, I actually felt it was really good value. Spanish food is often about great quality ingredients treated well and these don't come at your typical pound-a-bowl market stall. We didn't go for any of the heavy-hitters - a plate of Iberico jamon, for example, will set you back £18 - but order carefully and the bill won't be too much of a nasty shock. Then again, who wants to order carefully? Next time I'm going for a jamon-crazed bender. There are Iberico pork ribs on the menu!


10 Adelaide Street
London WC2N 4HZ

No reservations. Obvs. 

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Raw Duck, Hackney

Raw Duck is the sister to Duck Soup in Soho, which I loved - it's a great date venue, though the bill can rack up pretty easily. This one has a bit of a history - when it first opened it was located on Amhurst Road in Hackney; however, the building they were housed in had to go through an emergency demolition in November of last year. Devastating news for the owners, but they bounced back and re-opened a few months later on Richmond Road. 

Google Maps doesn't know this though, and when you type Raw Duck into the app it will direct your very flustered friend to Amhurst Road. We arrived for brunch in dribs and drabs in varying states. It was one of the hottest days of the year, and I was baffled as to how anyone could sit in the courtyard with the sun beating down on them, but they did. The inside is large and airy, tables topped with white stone towards the back, while the middle is occupied with Scandinavian-style wooden tables and chairs. A far cry from the cramped bar seat nature of its' original, the menu is also very different. Some of it we didn't understand - tropea onion? Burlat cherries? - but the drinks list intriguingly listed 'drinking vinegars' and 'morning ferments'. Unfortunately many weren't available on the day we visited, but judging by their pickle shelf (above), fermentation is very much their thing. 

'Broken eggs' (£8) turned out to be a lightly scrambled omelette, served in a cast iron skillet. Flavoured with anchovy and sage, the ingredients were of good quality and it was an inspired pairing. I couldn't stop stealing tastes of it, spooned on top of sourdough bread. 

The 'dirty bird' (£7) was a massive sandwich, stuffed full of cold roast chicken and - joy! - a sheet of perfectly crisp chicken skin. My only gripe was that the advertised 'jalapeno mayo' was actually just mayo with jalapenos on the side for you to add in yourself. I wanted them incorporated, dammit. 

The 'Reuben', also £7, suffered from sauerkraut that wasn't tart enough to cut through the richness of the pastrami and cheese. Strange for somewhere that posits fermentation as a thing. The advertised wasabi mayo was indistinguishable

Trombetta courgette (that's a long, thin skinny one) was served with broad beans, peas, dill, pomegranate and tahini yoghurt (£10). We had wondered if it would be a flavour explosion but our resident vegetarian enjoyed it very much, making a nice change from the usual
mushrooms / aubergine sole vegetarian offering. 

The drinks list is as interesting as Duck Soup's - unfortunately our waiter was a little short on information, and couldn't tell us what 'On ya Bicyclette' consisted of, so when we ordered it on a whim, it clashed rather horribly with our hangovers. White wine and Campari doesn't slide down easily. But an orange wine available by the glass was cider-like and refreshing, and got us back on track. On the whole, service was a bit haphazard and we had to physically flag people down and the restaurant wasn't full, but it was a minor inconvenience rather than anything major. 

If I'm in the area, I'd return for dinner as the menu evolves to include exciting things that you don't often see, like salted coconut yoghurt, Sicilian red prawns and salt cod & pea fritters - not all together, mind. It strikes me as a worthy local restaurant, though perhaps not quite special enough to be somewhere I'd undertake a two hour round trip journey from home for. 

197 Richmond Road
Hackney E8 3NJ

Tel: 020 8986 6534  

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Pea, Ham & Mint Soup

Pea and ham soup, the ultimate winter comforter, isn't just for winter. For a start, the most traditional of the soups uses dried split peas, soaked overnight and cooked for until the peas collapse and release their starch, creating a soup so thick you can stand your spoon up in it. There's a time and a place for these soups; for me, mostly around the festive season, using a stock made from the bone of the Christmas ham. 

In the summer it's just as feasible; a big bag of peas in their pods, painstakingly shelled is how I made mine with some frozen peas to bolster them, but you can also use only frozen peas for ease and to save on time. It's the gammon that needs a little attention. I used a small lump from the butcher - poached gently in water with some aromatics to create a smoky stock, it was then fished out, de-skinned and roasted with a layer of mustard and sugar for crisp and flavoursome fat. Cold or hot, this soup was accompanied with a ham sandwich for dunking in. I don't make soups often, but when I do they have to be textured; there's no danger here of getting bored of every mouthful being the same. 

Pea, Ham & Mint Soup

Serves 6

500gr peas in their pod, podded
300gr frozen petit pois
3 medium sized floury potatoes, peeled and chopped into a small dice.
1 large onion, chopped roughly
400gr gammon joint, with skin
A handful of mint leaves
2 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp brown sugar
2l water
Creme fraiche and bread, to serve
Salt and pepper

In a large saucepan, place the gammon joint in with enough water to cover and bring to the boil on a high heat. Boil for 3 minutes, then take off the heat and throw away the water. Rinse the joint and the pan and fill again with 2 litres of water. Add the onion and half of the pea pods, put the lid on and bring to a gentle simmer for 45 minutes on a gentle heat. 

Preheat the oven to 220 degrees C and line a baking tray with foil. Remove the gammon joint from the broth and leave to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, strain the stock into another saucepan and discard the onion and the pea pods. Add the potato and place on a medium heat. 

De-skin the gammon joint, leaving a thick layer of fat and score it in a criss cross with a knife. Mix the mustard and the sugar together in a small bowl and slather on the gammon thickly. Place in the oven to roast for 15 minutes, then leave to cool. 

By now, the potato should be soft. Add 2/3rds of the peas and all the frozen peas and simmer for 5 minutes, then take off the heat, add the mint leaves and blend using a blender or a stick blender. Add the remaining peas back in and simmer for another 3 minutes, then take off the heat. 

Divide the gammon joint in half and chop half roughly. Taste for seasoning - it may need some salt. Slice the rest of the ham thinly. To serve, ladle into bowls and decorate each bowl with chunks of ham, a blob of creme fraiche and a slice of ham-topped buttered bread on the side. 

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Wilderness, Oxfordshire

I'm a big fan of festivals. Obviously there are downsides to them; there's the British weather, camping isn't the most comfortable way to live especially when you're rubbish at being a pack horse / putting up tents, and portaloos are definitely not a fun experience, but there is sheer joy in spending a few days bumbling around, listening to good music, usually in a drunken haze with a bunch of friends. It is completely permissible to wear whatever ridiculous outfit you want, and to cover yourself in glitter and generally behave like a big child.

My taste in festival has become more refined, though. You wouldn't catch me dead at Reading, with all the teenagers throwing piss all over each other. The Big Chill was incredible the two years I went; then it was bought by an events company and turned into a big-branded corporate nightmare, before it folded after 2011. I went to Bestival once, in 2008, and it was so horrendous I had to take a two year hiatus; it wasn't Bestival's fault that the severe weather turned it into a mud swamp, but the general air of aggro wasn't my thing. 

Wilderness is fairly new in the festival world - three or four years, maybe? - and music isn't the core focus to it. Food plays a pretty big role here - indeed, on their website the chefs attending and hosting lunches and dinners in the Banqueting Hall are given equal line-up space to the headline acts. This year Angela Hartnett, Simon Rogan, and Russell Norman with Polpo cooked banquets in the enormous marquee. We'd made a last minute decision to go to Wilderness and by then all the banquets were sold out, but we lucked out by wandering past the hall in time for a lunch and a couple of people were selling tickets that their friends or partners were too hungover / didn't want to attend. 

Unlucky for them, as Angela Hartnett's lunch was excellent; all the dishes were served family style to share, and we got chatting to our neighbours, as music played - it felt almost like we were at a wedding party. Crisp, mushroomy arancini, antipasti dishes of cured meats, grilled aubergines, pickled artichokes and basil and spongy foccacia with grassy olive oil started us off. Rigatoni with bolognese and spinach and ricotta tortelli made up the pasta courses, and we were well aware we still had a chicken main to come. Luckily, courses were served in a very relaxed fashion, with a decent amount of time between them for maximum digestion time. I was agog at what a slick operation it was, given we were sat in a field. 

Chicken with slow roasted onions and fried potatoes damn near finished me off. The leaves were dressed with incredibly intense lemon and was essential in balancing the rich sweetness of the onions. Dessert was baked peaches with amaretti biscuits and zabaglione - a very liquid custard - I just about managed a couple of mouthfuls before we declared ourselves defeated, and went for a lie-down with our new friends and a pint in the sunshine. The cost was £45 a head, with an aperitif, red and white wine to share between 6; considering that most of the food on offer hovered between £7 - £10, sitting down in a banquet hall and being served 4 courses with booze seemed a pretty good bargain.

Otherwise, Southern fried chicken tacos from Ambriento were okay, but not as great as they usually are from their regular East Dulwich spot. Pork and beef chuck meatballs from The Bowler were life-giving goodness - nestled on wild rice and swimming in tomato sauce, they were also topped with fried shallots, sour cream and coriander; every bite was full of flavour. Anna Mae's macaroni cheese benefitted from a squirt of Sriracha, and was comforting and filling. Casual food offerings were vast and plentiful, from yoghurt and muesli (hah.) to your more usual, like pizzas, burgers and hot dogs. This is not the crappy stuff you'd be more used to at festivals in the early 2000's though; I regularly hear that Bleeker Burger are one of the best in London and I am only sad that I was too delicate to face a burger while I was there.

Moro, Hix and St. John all had their own tents in which they held feasts and Moro very cleverly set up a takeaway operation too. Charcoal barbecues emanated wafts of lamb cooking and flatbreads charring, enticing you in. For £7, two spiced lamb chops on a bed of chopped salad and flatbreads were great value; the lamb chops were dusted in a variety of spices and they were some of the most juicy and tender I've tried, though they had a slightly heavy hand with the salt. 

Credit too, to Spit & Roast who were selling some incredible fried chicken. After a skinful of wine on the Sunday night we came across their stall and almost ran towards it, tripping over each other in haste. The chicken was properly crisp, with juicy insides and a flavoursome crust. The fruity chilli sauce took no prisoners and was incredibly addictive too. 

Initially I was slightly nervous that Wilderness would be full of hooray Henrys, quaffing wine and rah'ing all over the place but actually (and despite the Mulberry 'craft' tent and Laurent Perrier champagne garden) there was a good mix of debauchery. Small, nondescript tents revealed secret casinos and the like, meaning it was impossible to stay in one place for too long. Deep inside a valley, the Pandemonium stage fired off dry ice and lasers, disco balls lazily spinning while seemingly most of the childless at the festival partied there until the early hours.

On the one day we actually had constant sunshine, going for a swim in the lake was incredibly refreshing. Lifeguards were on hand, mostly bemused by naked streakers running down from the campsite. Although we didn't actually make it to any of them, there were lots of outdoorsy activities available, though you had to book them in advance; yoga, horse riding, archery and foraging were all things that would have been good if I'd got my act together in time. Instead we plonked ourselves down with a healthy view of the bar.

As I get worryingly close to 30, festivals like Wilderness are more my bag; decent food, interesting talks and things to go and see, balanced with DJs to dance like a dickhead to until the thoroughly decent finishing time of 4am. My only gripe was that the festival was a bit too spread out; there was a lot of traversing to get from one group of friends to the other, and we had a tendency to get very lost, all the time. 

Tickets for 6th - 9th August 2015 are available at 

(I went to Wilderness on press accreditation, but we paid for my companions' tickets, the food and booze.)