Thursday 28 May 2009

Cafe East - A Vietnamese Feast

There has been much talk between Helen and I about Vietnamese food. I've seen many posts about the Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road, and neither of us had visited a single one of them. I crave the freshness of summer rolls, the comforting Pho noodle soups. I've visited Pho, a chain of Vietnamese restauarants before, and I found that while convenient, they lacked a certain punch and were rather insipid.

While chatting about it on Twitter, Cafe East was recommended. Even better; it's situated close to home, in Surrey Quays. A simple journey (although not so simple for some!) brought us right on it's doorstep.

Upon arrival, it looked closed. The blue neon sign shone brightly, but the doors were locked. We paced around it maddeningly, until we discovered a large entrance and a patio round the back.

We were greeted warmly to a large and simple dining area, packed with Oriental diners. A good sign. Laminate menus with photos consisted of two pages. I knew what we had to have; summer rolls. We also chose banh cuon, which was like the Chinese dim sum dish, cheung fun - rice noodle pastry except stuffed with minced meat, topped with shallots and bean sprouts, served with nuoc cham, a fish sauce, garlic, chilli and lime juice sauce. This was my favourite dish. The rice noodle pastry was light and warm, topped with slices of mystery-meat ham and those lovely fried shallots. It was light yet comforting with just the right balance of spicy tang from the nuoc cham.

Summer rolls were tightly packed full of goodies. Shredded lettuce and vermicelli noodles provided a great crunch, with a few mint leaves strewn in there for freshness. The prawns were sweet and juicy, and the accompanying spicy peanut dipping sauce providing a messy yet welcome dip.

Of course, you can't go to a Vietnamese restaurant without trying out some sort of noodle soup. I was immediately drawn to the Bun Bo Hue, the noodle soup with prawns, chicken and beef. We were asked if we wanted the beef rare or well done (rare, of course) and spicy or not. We went for full-on spice.

This came with a plate of chopped chillis, halved lemons, beansprouts and herbs which we added as we saw fit (i.e. we chucked it all in). You can't tell from the picture, but te beef was indeed perfectly rare. We slurped this down greedily, enthusiastically enough to splatter our clothing with it. It was a generous portion.

All this was washed down with an eye-wateringly strong Vietnamese iced coffee which will keep me up till the early hours. Service was sweet and efficient, and even after we finished I couldn't help gazing at other peoples' dishes. I can't wait to return, and given that I live 15 mins away by bus, it shan't be long before I do. £30 for 2 starters, 2 mains and 2 drinks. Can't argue with that, can we?

Cafe East

100 Redriff Road

London, SE16 7LH

Tel: 020 8691 7777

Tuesday 26 May 2009

Sushi Say

Fresh off the back of my trip to Sushi Hiro, I visited Sushi Say in Willesden Green with a friend last weekend. I had read a few good reviews about this place, and given that although Sushi Hiro was a trek, it was one that I'm glad I made.

Being a bank holiday weekend, there were some travel difficulties. The whole of the Jubilee line being under maintenance, for example. Because of this, I had to get a train, then a tube, then another train and then a bus in order to get to Willesden Green. It took me almost 1.5 hours. I hoped it was worth it.

Upon arrival, the restaurant was nearly empty. There was a young family sat by the sushi counter, and two other tables were occupied. I sat down opposite my companion, who had a face resembling thunder. Apparently when he asked if we could sit at the sushi counter, the waitress told him that it was not for lunchtimes. And yet there was this family sitting there, happily munching away. If I'm honest, it put a little damner on my excited spirits.

The menu is vast. We opted for tempura soft shell crab, which was delicious. Not a hint of grease, light and fresh. We also ordered the top picture, a raw squid dish. My companion wasn't too sure of the texture but I loved it - slimy, slightly crunchy with a little heat from grated ginger and the umami of the nori seaweed. An excellent start. Some vegetables lightly poached in dashi stock cleansed the palate and were refreshing.

I also ordered an uni nigiri, only because I've never tried sea urchin before. This was perfectly tasty with that iodine tang that they're famous for, although I can't help thinking it would be more delicious scooping the orange roe straight from the shell in the sunny south of France with a glass of chilled rosé.

We both opted for the 'Maze Chirashi' set. This consisted of the 'Chef's Special Clear Soup' which was surprisingly flavoursome given it was completely clear. This accompanied a deep bowl of rice with raw fish which came already soy sauced. I was quite surprised when this turned up, as I had envisaged large pieces of sashimi adorning the rice, rather than the slivers and chunks. The use of diced fake crabsticks also confused me a bit; I'm not adverse to them, but they don't really scream high quality to me. I was impressed by the amount of tobiko, though. This was a filling dish. I finished all of mine like a good girl, but my companion struggled to do so.

To finish, we ordered a scoop of wasabi ice cream and a scoop of red bean ice cream. The wasabi ice cream was delightfully pungent, although after two or three mouthfuls I'd had enough. I did muse whether a lime and wasabi sorbet would be more appropriate.

All in all, a nice little place. The waiting staff telling us we couldn't sit at the counter whilst others could left a bit of a sour taste in our mouths, especially since they weren't busy. The food was lovely (£30 a head with a beer), but we left a little despondent.

Sushi Say

33B Walm Lane

Willesden, NW2 5SH

Tel: 020 8459 2971

Sushi-Say on Urbanspoon

Sunday 17 May 2009

Lime & Ginger Trout

Now that the weather is getting a bit warmer (there - I said it. Here comes the rain), thoughts turn to lighter and fresher meals. I no longer return home craving mashed potato, unctuous stews and root vegetables; instead, stir-fries, noodle soups and steamed fish return to grace my dinner plate.

This recipe is one I have been making for quite some time. It works equally well with salmon or trout, and it goes from fridge to plate in an hour. Perfect for those weekday dinners, and healthy to boot. The fish always comes out moist, tender and well flavoured, with the rice providing an adequately bland vehicle for shovelling in your face.

Lime & Ginger Trout

Serves 1

1 trout or salmon fillet

3 sprigs of mint, leaves picked off

A small handful of coriander

1 lime

1 red birds eye chilli

2 tbsp fish sauce

1 clove garlic

2" ginger

Mince the ginger and the garlic together. Add to a bowl, with the fish sauce and the juice of half the lime. Add the chopped chilli. Roughly chop the mint and coriander (reserving some coriander to garnish) and then cover the fish with this marinade. Leave this to marinate for half an hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200 degrees.

After half an hour, wrap the fish in foil and make into a loose bag. Make sure you add any of the marinade left in the bowl. Seal tightly, but ensure there's space in the foil bag for the heat to circulate. Pop in the oven for about 10 - 15 minutes. I usually give it a prod after 10 minutes. If the fish flakes easily it's done.

Garnish with a half lime wedge and a scattering of coriander. Serve with steamed white rice. I also stir-fried some carrots and courgette with garlic, ginger and chilli, garnished with spring onion as a side.

Saturday 16 May 2009

Eating Eurovision: Lithuania

For this year's Eurovision, Andrew Webb organised 'Eating Eurovision'. The idea was that 25 food bloggers would get together, pick a country at random out of a hat, and then go off and eat the cuisine of that country. But it's not that simple; we didn't just want 25 themed dinner parties, we wanted to get to the nitty gritty.

You should have seen my face when I chose Lithuania. I felt slightly panicked; I don't know anything about Lithuania. But as I pondered my choice on the way home, I started to feel a bit excited. After all, it's an opportunity to learn about a new country, do some exploring, and hopefully meet some fun people. So the next day, I put a plea for help out on Twitter. I got several leads, including a link to a dodgy-looking caff in the East End but the one that helped the most was the link for Lituanica, a small chain of Lithuanian groceries. When I called them, the nice lady recommended Juoda Balta, which although was in Barking, was indeed Lithuanian. Having had no luck with the Lithuanian Embassy as to any further adventures, I duly booked a table, taking note that they seemed less than interested when I told them I was researching Lithuanian food.

We set off into the night. We arrived at Gallion's Reach DLR station; the torrential rain had just finished, but the wind howled around us. We circumnavigated an extremely big roundabout only to find the road we needed to walk down had an ominous 'No Pedestrians' sign. There was nothing around us; no shops, no cab ranks - only wind and wasteland. "I think we're in Hell", remarked my companion. I agreed. Finally we flagged down a black cab. The cabbie was dubious as to whether or not we had the right directions, but set off at our insistence. He swung down a road marked 'Buses Only', straight into an industrial estate. I gulped. "Girls, I ent letting you out here, I'm not too sure of this". And then, like a beacon in the mist, I spotted Juoda Balta in amongst the Cineplex.

When we walked in, we had to stifle fits of hysterical laughter. It was amazing. A band on stage sang Lithuanian ballads, the black laquered tables were accompanied by faux cow hide chairs, and all the women had waist-length platinum blonde hair, 5" heels and were supping Champagne. All the men were muscled and had the same short, back n' sides haircut. I suppose this is where they get stereotypes from, eh? We were greeted by a big, burly man who I assume was the owner, and we were seated.

It went pretty much downhill from here - warm beer, requests for water ignored. We decided to order some bar snacks and just one dish to share. I'd seen the portions coming out, and although I'm not a girl of a slight appetite, we had just finished a Danish dinner an hour previously. 'Smoked pigs ears, cheese slices, roast bread' - rinkinukas prie alaus (kepta duona,sūrio juostelės ir rukytos kiaulės ausys) in Lithuanian - sounded pretty interesting.

Oh, it was interesting alright. Cold deep fried bread soldiers were so crunchy it hurt my head, yet chewy. The cheese was lightly smoked and tasted like Dairy Lea. The pigs ears were a crime against pork; it had the texture of really old jellyfish. Along the centre of each slice ran a tasty sliver of cartilege, and this was surrounded by pork skin and pork jelly. We tried our best, but we left most of it.

Feeling slightly despondent, we waited for our 'cepelinai', a traditional Lithuanian potato dish, to arrive. Some time passed before this glory landed on our table:

We were gobsmacked. They were gigantic - and this was one portion! They looked like a pair of steamed suet sponges, garnished with sour cream and bacon. We tentatively cut into the zeppelins:

They were bready, stodgy, slightly sticky and filled with a non-descript unseasoned meat. Oh, for some herbs in the sour cream! Or maybe even just some vegetables for a texture contrast. I think I did quite well to eat half of one.

My companion looked a little upset. The euphoric rush of having arrived was a distant memory. All hopes of having a jolly good knees-up were dashed upon sitting down as table after table looked at us with slight disdain. We tried desperately to finish at least one dish, but to no avail. In the end, we gave up trying to get the waitress' attention, and went to the bar to pay. The lady owner of the joint glanced over. "You didn't like it, did you?" I insisted it was just very filling, but she gave a short laugh and told us that although it was their most popular dish, it was food men eat. Having seen the size of the men in there, I wasn't surprised.

Standing outside in the carpark, smoking a cigarette and being rejected by several taxi firms to pick us up, a young Lithuanian man approached us and asked for a lighter. We told him we were English - he asked if we'd just been to Frankie & Benny's. No, we said - we've just been to Juoda Balta, same place as you. "Really?!" he exclaimed, "fucking hell!"

Well, indeed.

Friday 15 May 2009

Help! Any Lithuanians out there...?

So, I'm taking part in Eating Eurovision. The premise is that 25 food bloggers pick a country each (from a hat, I hasten to add) and off we go, in search of food experiences.

I picked Lithuania.

Here's my plea for help - do you know any good Lithuanian restaurants? A secret (or not so) Lithuanian community? A good bar where Lithuanians hang out? I have to go tonight so speedy answers are much appreciated!

Monday 11 May 2009

Sushi Hiro

This weekend was the Real Food Festival at Earl's Court. Since we were schlepping it out west, we figured we could ride the Picadilly line a little further and finally visit Sushi Hiro, which I've heard so much about.

Situated in Ealing Common, it is a bit of a trek. I hardly go out west at all, so I was happy to note that it is opposite the tube station, giving you no chance to get lost (much). I'd heard the decor isn't much to look at, but seeing as my favourite sushi place, Ten Ten Tei in Brewer Street isn't either, this could only be a good thing.

From the outside, Sushi Hiro looks a bit lifeless. Frosted white glass makes it look closed. When we walked in, we were immediately greeted with the smell of very fresh fish - a bit like the seaside, and not at all fishy. Tables line the walls, simply decorated with chopsticks, a napkin and soy with saucers, as well as some stools at a sushi bar.

The menu is a tick box affair, with a plastic laminate guide with pictures. It's a really short menu with no hot dishes except miso soup - sushi and sashimi was the order of the day. I tend to suffer from great indecision, so it was good to see the deluxe set had a nice long list of fish it included; belly tuna, surf cram (sic!), salmon, sweet shrimp, scallop, mackerel, roe, eel, and... er... I forget the rest. We also ordered some pickled gourd and pickled radish maki to accompany, with a beer to wash it all down with.

When the sushi arrived, I was relieved to see it didn't resemble the rather depressing platter offered at Tomoe, which was also called the Deluxe Nigiri Set and at the same price. Visually, it was stunning. The fish was of excellent quality and the rice was freshly cooked and still a little warm. The fish to rice ratio was perfect, and a great selection of fish - not just the standard salmon and tuna. Easily the best sushi I've had in London. The pickled vegetable maki was also good, although we did comment that it could have been a little more pickled. We are pickle fiends though and knowing Japanese pickles are usually a lot sweeter, I think it's pretty inconsequential.

I definitely want to go back and go for a big blow-out as I was watching the budget this day. It was great value; the excellent platter, the maki and a beer each for came to £65 for the three of us, with some complimentary edamame and green tea thrown in. The rather long journey was worth it. Watch out for the funny opening hours though.

Sushi Hiro

1 Station Parade,

Uxbridge Road,

Ealing, W5 3LD

Tel: 020 8896 3175

Lunch served 11am-1.30pm, dinner served 4.30-9pm Tue-Sun

Sunday 10 May 2009

Goats Cheese, Pea & Chicory Pasta

For fear of alienating (and turning the stomachs of) any vegetarian audience I might have, I thought it best to blog this pasta dish I made. After many meaty meals I craved something light, fresh, and healthy. All slapped on top of pasta. That's healthy, right?

Chicory is an ingredient I never liked as a child. It looks pretty, all tightly folded up around itself, but it is a little bitter which is a touch off-putting for children. However, I love bitter food now and so chicory has made an appearance many a time on my table.

Cooking it makes it a touch sweeter, especially if you griddle it. In this case, I just sliced it and lightly fried it. It worked really well with the goats cheese (blue cheese would also be great) and the sweetness of the peas balanced it nicely. A bit of pancetta wouldn't have gone amiss...

Goats Cheese, Pea & Chicory Pasta

Serves 1

100gr spaghetti
1 spring onion
A handful of frozen peas
1 small head of chicory
3 sundried tomatoes in oil
A wodge of goats cheese (or blue cheese)
2 tbsp double cream
2 cloves garlic
A few basil leaves

Place the pasta on to cook. Place the peas in a bowl and add boiling water. Mince the garlic and fry in a little oil until softened. Add the sliced whites of the spring onion. Roughly chop the chicory, and add to the pan. Stir-fry for a few minutes, then add the sun dried tomatoes chopped roughly. Turn to a low heat and stir in the cheese and the cream. Drain the peas and add to the sauce. Take off the heat and put the lid on. When the pasta has cooked, drain it thoroughly and then add to the saucepan, tossing it well. Garnish with the basil, the sliced greens of the spring onion and plenty of black pepper.

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Barbequed Shoulder of Lamb

It's not ofen that I cook a great big hunk of meat on the barbeque. I'm usually too taken by the idea of burgers, sausages, ribs and kebabs to want to devote a whole barbeque to just one plateful. However, this weekend I had the opportunity to have two barbeques. The first was at a friend's house, whereby we filled the sausages / kebabs / ribs quota, and the second was the perfect opportunity.

I was feeling rather glum on bank holiday Monday. The grey skies and blustering wind did nothing to help my mood so this was the perfect slap-it-on-and-leave-it kind of technique. With the aide of a friend who expertly built up a pyramid of briquettes (and by that I mean applying the lighting gel liberally), we soon had some nicely whitened coals to be cooking this whole shoulder of lamb over.

As lamb is quite a fatty cut of meat, it's important to babysit it for the first part of the recipe. The dripping fat causes the flames to flare up and if you're not careful you could have a rather more charred piece of meat than you'd like. This method of cooking the lamb imparts a wonderfully smoky flavour to the meat. Next time I'd like to try it with wood chippings, but the coal worked well too. It does take a while to prepare, but once it's done you will be well rewarded for your efforts - lightly spiced, tende meat with a deep smokiness.

Barbequed Shoulder of Lamb

Serves 5 generously

1 whole shoulder of lamb (ours was 1.6kg)

6 cloves of garlic

4 anchovy fillets

A few sprigs of thyme

1/2 tsp hot smoked paprika

1 aubergine, sliced and oiled

1 kettle barbeque

Plenty of coal

Lighting fluid

Build up plenty of coal in the base of the barbeque, applying lighting gel as you go along. You'll need a lot, as it'll be going for a good three hours or more. Trim the shoulder of any excess fat and cut slits into the flesh. Stuff with garlic, chopped anchovy and thyme. Rub with the paprika.

Light the bbq and then the coals are white, place the shoulder carefully on the heat. Carefully lay the slices of aubergine around it so that they grill, and turn overafter about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside. If the coals flare up move the meat around so you don't get any burning. We had some proper flames but it didn't get burnt much, but do keep an eye on it. When you've got a nice colour on the lamb and the coals have cooled down a bit, put the lid on the barbeque with the vent open and cook for 3 hours. Turn the meat over every hour or so.

To serve, rest the meat for 20 mins and carve into chunks. I served it with some tzatziki, shredded little gem lettuce and sliced red onion all rolled up in a flatbread.