Sunday 30 January 2011

Opera Tavern, Covent Garden

Opera Tavern, a tapas bar and restaurant from the people behind Salt Yard, opened up at the end of January in Covent Garden. Taking advantage of their 50% off the food soft opening, 4 of us visited for dinner. The place was heaving, the downstairs nicely buzzy around the bar. We were led up to a quieter dining room upstairs.

The menu reads nicely, with bar snacks such as smoked almonds, padron peppers, smoked anchovies and the like. Charcuteries and skewers from the grill complete the page, and turning over the tapas dishes are listed by meat, fish and vegetable. There was so much we wanted that in the end, it probably would have been easier to tell our waiter what we didn't want.

We started off well. Sea bass carpaccio (above) with blood orange and deep fried capers was well balanced and pretty to the eye.

Lamb with brown butter and pumpkin gnocchi was similarly delicious, in particular the gnocchi drawing delighted gasps from us. Another gnocchi dish, this time with trompettes and Tallegio was pillow-like, earthy and unctuous with the crunch of the migas (breadcrumbs) on top.

Iberico & foie gras burger was highly recommended by others. Little deep fried crispy onion rings were intensely sweet on top of the meaty burger and the pickled chillis on the side complemented it. Pigs ears were salty and crisp, jamon Iberico was silky, creamy pig. And then it went downhill.

Short rib of beef with polenta managed to be strangely flavourless. Crispy squid with chilli aioli was well fried but the batter lacked seasoning. It also had something in common with the braised and seared octopus; the portion was so stingy that even at half of the £7.40 full price we still felt ripped off. Barely a whole tentacle was presented to us. We were agape.

After a second round of charcuterie and some meaty skewers from the grill to sate the hunger, we hit the desserts which were pleasant, if unremarkable. Though we'd had a host of good dishes, the mean portion sizes left a bad taste in our mouths and we left £41 lighter each, well aware that we would have hit at least £65 per head were it not for the soft opening. For that price, I'd stick to the far superior Barrafina.

Opera Tavern

23 Catherine Street
London WC2

Tel: 020 7836 3680

Opera Tavern on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Squid, Fregola & Cavalo Nero Stew

There's something quite appealing about cooking green vegetables long and slowly, past the point of crisp and crunchy and into the arena of a slight slime and silkiness. I don't do it often enough, but this squid, fregola and cavalo nero stew begged for it.

Fregola is a Sardinian pasta made of semolina dough and rolled into small balls. I first had it at Vinoteca and have been itching to use it ever since. Much like at Vinoteca, it went into a fishy stew. Squid was scored so that it curled up in the heat and slow cooked with red wine, tomatoes and hot smoked paprika. Diced bacon gave a further undertone of smoke, with essential porcine flavours complementing the cephalod. Parsley added at the last minute and a squeeze of lemon on serving was all it needed to properly bring out the flavours.

Squid, Fregola & Cavalo Nero Stew

Serves 2

2 medium sized squid
1 onion
3 cloves of garlic
1 tsp hot smoked paprika
1 glass of red wine
A pinch of chilli flakes
1 stick of celery
2 rashers of smoked streaky bacon
1 tin of peeled plum tomatoes
A handful of peas
100gr fregola
A few leaves of cavalo nero
A handful of parsley
Half an unwaxed lemon

Clean the squid and score it in a diamond pattern, slicing the body into 3. Fry the onion and the garlic in a little oil until softened and add the celery, finely diced.

Add the bacon, diced and fry for a good 5 or so minutes. Add the chilli flakes, hot smoked paprika and the squid, giving it a good stir to coat it all. Add the glass of red wine and simmer until reduced by half. Add the tin of tomatoes and the cavalo nero, chopped roughly and simmer slowly for 40 minutes, adding more water if it looks dry.

Boil a pan of water and add the fregola, simmer for 5 minutes. Drain, rinse and add to the squid. Add the peas and simmer for a further 10 mins, a little more if the pasta is still hard - the stew should be quite soupy so add more water if it's looking too thick.

To serve, chop the parsley and throw over. Zest the lemon into the stew and serve with the juice squeezed on top.

Sunday 23 January 2011

Bacon & Halloumi Sandwich

As I huffed and puffed my way through a rare hour of Saturday morning exercise, all I could think about was stuffing a bacon and halloumi sandwich in my face. The idea came from a meal I had at The London Particular, but this time I fancied a spicier kick. Tomatoes from the shops are pretty insipid this time of year, so I made a few tweaks.

Chipotle chillis were soaked in a little boiling water for 15 minutes and were then whizzed up into a puree with a teaspoon of lemon juice and then mixed into mayonnaise. Fresh warm granary bread was slathered with the spicy, smoky sauce before a couple of lettuce leaves were added, then some griddled halloumi and finally some excellent back bacon. You might think the sandwich is a complete salt-fest, but the lemon and lettuce balance and freshen it all up. With a steaming hot strong cup of tea, it was a near-perfect Saturday brunch.

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Chicken & Mushroom Filo Pie

I tend to over-cater. My reasoning is that it is always better to have too much than not enough and I've never knowingly sent anyone from my house hungry. Which is why roasting two enormous chickens and cooking a million (yes, a million) roast potatoes to feed 5 of us for a Sunday lunch seemed a good idea.

In the aftermath, we all ate ourselves into a stupor. There were people strewn across my living room floor, groaning in over-indulgence. We had a communal nap.

And yet there were still leftovers. A simple dinner of bubble and squeak made light work of the leftover vegetables. The carcasses of the chickens were stripped, flesh ripped off the bones and the stock bubbled in the oven overnight. I woke up the next day and staggered into the kitchen in my pyjamas, polishing off a cleansing bowl of broth for breakfast. When the time came, the stock was reduced by two thirds. Dark and rich, the resultant liquid coated the mouth with intense chicken flavour. There was only one thing for it; PIE.

Filo pastry is a total bitch to work with if, like me, you are cursed with clumsy oafishness. I gave up trying to line my dish with layers upon layers of delicate casing. Instead, the leaves of pastry were scrunched up to make a topping. Crisp shards crunched in the mouth giving way to a rich creamy filling. I did away with the typical mashed potatoes and instead opted simply for courgettes fried with garlic to accompany the pie.

Chicken & Mushroom Filo Pie

Serves 4

Leftover cooked chicken meat - about 300gr
300gr mini portabello mushrooms, chopped roughly
1 leek, chopped roughly
2 stalks of celery, diced
1 rasher of smoked bacon, chopped finely
3 fat cloves of garlic
3 sprigs of thyme
1 large handful of parsley
200ml (ish) strong chicken stock
50ml double cream
3 tbsp plain flour
50gr butter
A few sheets of filo pastry
A sprinkling of hot smoked paprika

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Add some oil to a pan and fry the bacon for a few minutes. Add the leek and the celery and fry till softened. Crush the garlic and add to the pan, stirring well. Throw in the mushrooms with a hefty pinch of salt along with the thyme leaves. Fry for a few minutes, then add the stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Mix the flour with a bit of the sauce mixture in a small bowl until smooth ad whisk into the sauce. Add the chicken and the double cream, simmer until nicely thickened. Take off the heat and add the parsley, chopped finely. Taste for seasoning.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. Spoon the chicken mixture into a baking dish. Carefully brush each filo sheet with butter and scrunch lightly, laying it on top of the baking dish. Repeat until it is covered. Sprinkle with the hot paprika and place in the oven, cooking for 40 - 45 minutes.

Remove and leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Sunday 16 January 2011

Zucca Again

My original visit to Zucca was boozy and blurry, and I came away from it knowing I'd had a fantastic meal but slightly hazy on the finer details. Five months later, I finally made it back for lunch. The place was buzzing, families out with young children and couples lunching. Prices have crept up since I was last here, but it still made for extremely good value as my starter of smoked eel on bruschetta came in at £4.25. Generous streaks of smoky, oily fish nestled amongst the finely sliced fennel, bursts of brine and saltiness from the capers. I only wished for a bit of acidity for balance.

I couldn't come to Zucca and not have one of their pastas; the special of the day was oxtail rigatoni. I was under the impression that rigatoni were big flappy tubes, whereas these seemed very mini. Either way, the pasta was cooked perfectly, enrobed in the deeply meaty sauce and topped generously with Parmesan. It was a healthy starter portion at £7 and towards the end I regretted the previous gorge on foccacia dipped in their gorgeously fruity olive oil.

I'm a huge fan of polenta so I couldn't resist the slow-cooked octopus with wet polenta. The octopus was deliciously tender in its tomato sauce, the polenta surrounded with more of that olive oil but I felt it a bit one dimensional and it could have done with another texture. Again, my companion had the much-lauded veal chop; again, I was insanely jealous.

Stuffed to the brim we declined dessert and opted for mint tea instead. At £40 per head including a bottle of wine, it's not cheap but for the quality of the food, it's definitely good value.


184 Bermondsey Street,
London SE1 3TQ

Tel: 020 7378 6809

Wednesday 12 January 2011

#MEATEASY - The Food

Just a short one - these are some well dodgy pictures of the food at the #MEATEASY in New Cross. I dutifully brought my camera along to the opening party only to find that I'd forgotten the memory card like some sort of idiot so the good ol' iPhone sufficed.

The fries are heavenly; thin, crispy and salty. Onion rings were huge and served in a stack, there's obviously a deft hand at the fryer. Burgers were as good as always, and the macaroni cheese laden with onion was so addictive I almost filled myself up on it. But I still had room for buffalo wings, so deliciously crisp and moist that we could scarcely believe they weren't breadcrumbed. My absolute favourite, though, was the chilli cheese dog. The sausage tasted smoked and was juicy and bouncy, horrifyingly messy.

Yes, there is a wait for your food. Yes, you will have to queue to place your order. But it's not a fast-food joint; have some (excellent) cocktails, have a sit down. In a testament to how good it is, when I was thrashing around in an insomnia-induced strop in the wee hours all I could think about was the food I'd eaten; I was like a woman possessed.

I still am.

For further details, click HERE. For better photos, click HERE.

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Sichuan Fish & Tofu Hot Pot

A friend of mine is a big fan of Sichuan food, so for his birthday myself and a friend offered to cook him a Sichuan feast. We arrived at his house, laden with chillis and other goodies that made his kitchen table heave. Cooking 9 dishes while getting slowly sozzled, there were some misses (namely a made up bitter melon with black fungus dish) but most were hits. Fish fragrant aubergines were as delicious as usual, while twice cooked pork was seriously moreish and a smacked cucumber salad was soothing yet spicy.

One of my contributions was a fish and tofu hotpot. It was the veritable firebomb; dried chillis and Sichuan peppercorns bobbed around in the broth while it simmered merrily away, intensifying in flavour and turning a deep, troublesome red.

Cubes of tofu were slipped in for some wibbly wobbly texture and at the very last minute, chunks of coley were added to barely cook in the broth.

It was stunningly, awesomely spicy. "Eee! Arrrghh! AHHHHH!" resonated around the room as we slurped a teaspoonful of broth each. When tempered with plain white rice though, the flavours of the fish shone through, freshness added by the spring onion garnish.

Sichuan Fish & Tofu Hotpot

Serves 4 as part of a multicourse meal

1/2 a block of firm tofu
300gr white fish, cut in chunks - I used coley
500mls chicken stock
A couple handfuls of dried chillis - we used the long, finger-shaped ones and the squat bell shaped chillis
2 tbsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 tsp salt
3 slices of ginger
2 stalks of spring onion

Add the chillis, ginger and the peppercorns to the stock and simmer for a good 40 minutes. 10 minutes before serving, add the salt and the tofu, cut into chunks. Finally, add the fish to the broth and take off the heat. Leave to stand for 10 - 15 minutes, garnish with the spring onion and serve. Instruct your guests to fish out the tofu and the coley, spooning minimal broth on lots of steamed white rice as you go.

Other dishes we made are detailed here.

Monday 10 January 2011

Product Review: Tefal ActiFry

January is usually filled with dirty miserable words like 'detox' and 'diet', so when better than to post about the Tefal ActiFry I was sent to review? As part of their Nutritious & Delicious range, it is billed as the healthy alternative to deep frying. It has a patented hot air system that cooks the food while a rotating paddle inside the fryer keeps food moving, ensuring even cooking.

When it came to giving it a go, after unpacking the main thing I noticed is that it's one big bastard. Weighing around 1.5kg, it took up a hell of a lot of kitchen counter space.

It's biggest and most advertised claim is that it can cook 1.5kg of chips with just one spoonful of oil so this was the first to be tested. Potatoes peeled and chipped, in they went and 40 minutes later, we had chips. They weren't like ordinary chips though; they had a slightly tough skin and not much of that crisp outer shell that you'd get if you deep fried. A good enough result, but inevitably the deep fried variety are superior. But then that's not such a surprise.

Next to be tested was cooking some meat. Chicken drumsticks and thighs had been marinating in a yoghurt and spice mixture, ready to be cooked and eaten with an onion salad and a bowlful of dhal. In they went, no oil needed and half an hour later, they were done. When they came out they were cooked nicely, succulent throughout and the dried-out nature of the cooking method made the skin crispy and not at all greasy; a rather good result. The amount of fat left behind showed the health benefits of the ActiFry.

All in all, you can see the obvious draw of the ActiFry. For people keeping watch of their fat consumption I'm sure it's invaluable as you rarely have to use more than 30mls of cooking oil for meals to serve 4. For me, the drawbacks though outweigh the benefits; as I mentioned before it's big and takes up a lot of counter space so preparing anything else in concurrence with whatever was cooking inside it was a problem. My kitchen is open plan to my living room and the noise the ActiFry made, while not deafening still meant that you had to crank the TV right up. What's more, I had to do a lot of scrubbing to get that bowl and paddle clean after cooking the chicken - oh for a dishwasher! Perhaps if you have a nice big kitchen, this is the product for you.

The family size Tefal ActiFry costs around £170 and you can buy it here. I was sent one to review.

Wednesday 5 January 2011


If you haven't already heard about The Meatwagon, I'm going to assume you're not much of a burger enthusiast or you don't live in London, because they are the best burgers around. Yianni parks up his van in various locations, mainly in South East London. Tales of legendary queues have been told, moans from the weak have been whinged about waiting an hour for a burger, but the wait never bothers me because once I get my chops around that burger, I know it's worth it.

Disaster struck when on the 6th December the Wagon was stolen. But all is not lost, as from Wednesday 12th January, for a few precious weeks Yianni and his team will be satisfying the burgerists of London upstairs at The Goldsmiths Tavern in New Cross - my hood - in what has been labelled the #MEATEASY. Not only will it keep our meaty needs at bay, but hopefully enough money will be raised for a brand new wagon.

The Goldsmiths Tavern has been bought by Capital Pubs, and it will soon be renamed The New Cross House. With the pub downstairs with the #MEATEASY upstairs, it's not a pop-up; more chop-up. Think dive bar - it's open till 2am on Thursdays and Fridays, 5am on Saturdays. There will be parties, boozing, burgers and other meaty delights, and all five minutes walk from my flat.

What about New Cross? 5 minutes overland to New Cross Gate from London Bridge, or the East London Line Overland serve both New Cross Gate and New Cross - the #MEATEASY is equidistant.

#MEATEASY opens in the evening of Wednesday 12th January. Don't bother trying to book a table; it's not that kind of place. They'll be serving in the evenings and lunch is a possibility if the interest is there.

I, for one, am really excited.

The Goldsmiths Tavern

316 New Cross Road
London SE14 6AF

Thanks to A Rather Unusual Chinaman for letting me use a couple of his Meatwagon photos.

Monday 3 January 2011


One of the great successes over the Christmas period was the gravadlax my dad made. Cured in salt, sugar and dill for 5 days, it had a beautiful flavour and the four of us ate an entire side with our fingers, as Dad sliced wafer-thin strips for us. We never bother with the sweet mustard sauce, as we like it perfectly as it is. I managed to snaffle some to take home with me; some was eaten as is and the rest went into a warm salad.

A bunch of multicoloured beetroot was roasted so that its flavour intensified, its earthy nutty sweetness shining through. Toasted walnuts were given an extra oomph with the use of walnut oil in the dressing and curls of gravadlax draped on top. This all nestled in the peppery rocket; it makes a great starter, or a wintry main course salad. I know, I know, winter and salad shouldn't be uttered in the same sentence, but after a few days of meaty indulgences it hit the spot.

Gravadlax, Beetroot & Walnut Salad

Serves 2 as a starter, 1 as a main

200gr gravadlax
1 bunch (about 250gr) of beetroot - I used multicoloured, but you don't have to
2 tbsp olive oil
2 handfuls of rocket
1 handful of walnuts
3 tbsp walnut oil
1 tbsp white wine vinegar
Salt & pepper

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Without breaking the skin, toss the beets in the olive oil and roast for 30 - 40 minutes. You should be able to insert a skewer into them easily. Leave to cool.

When cool, peel the beets and slice into quarters. Toast the walnuts lightly in a non-stick frying pan without any oil. To assemble, combine the walnut oil, vinegar and salt and pepper to taste. Toss the beets and the rocket in the dressing and add to a bowl. Scatter the walnuts on top, and lastly top with thinly sliced strips of gravadlax.