Wednesday 27 April 2011

The Drapers Arms Invasion

When the day came for The Drapers Arms Invasion, I was weirdly nervous. Nick, the owner, emailed us to let us know that a mammoth 1080 eggs had arrived for us from Clarence Court. We'd asked for 60. I could sense an eggy future. The were Cotswold Legbars; gorgeous pale blue shells and vivid orange yolks. I pushed a box on everyone leaving that evening.

The sunshine blazing, we got to work in the cellar, separating out the fruit and veg boxes kindly donated by Riverford. It was a flurry of fruit flying around, a frenzy of activity.

The very first thing we did was to give the 6 shoulders of hogget, from the hugely generous Donald Russell a good 4 hour bathing in red wine, leeks, onions and carrots. They then went into a low oven to be braised until it was tender enough for the meat to fall off the bone. Then, we got to work making the super rich, super fudgy chocolate brownies, melting huge vats of chocolate from Green & Blacks.

Helen and I spent a good 2 or 3 hours boiling, peeling and halving quails eggs for canapes. Poor Helen spent a further hour stuffing them with the mixture I'd made using the yolks, creme fraiche, smoked salmon from Donald Russell, spring onions, lemon and parsley. There were millions of them and I didn't even manage to get a photo of the final product.

Bread from Kindred in Herne Hill arrived still warm and smelling gorgeous. The walnut bread was sliced thinly and dill sour cream was smeared on, to be topped with flakes of soused mackerel and herring. Lumpfish caviar pepped it up some.

A last minute panic ensued when the supplier of our ham hocks and trotters for us to make the starter simply forgot to send them to us. Luckily, Polpo stepped up to the plate and donated us enough terrine for 55 - superstars. Perhaps a bit of a cheat on our part, but we were in some dire straits. We fancied up the plates with a fennel and orange salad - it is HARD dividing a bowl of salad into 55.

The meat from the hogget shoulders were removed, the sauce reduced. Loins of hogget were also sent to us and these were started in a hot pan, then roasted in the oven until they could be sliced nice and pink. The platters were then sprinkled with gremolata for a bit of freshness. Sides of purple sprouting broccoli and swiss chard were steamed and tossed in garlic butter. Jersey royals got the same treatment, plus a sprinkling of parsley and mint.

A truckle of Stichelton donated by Welbeck Farm Shop was enormous and well received with Peter's Yard Crispbreads and onion chutney from Tracklements.

Rhubarb pavlova was perhaps not the prettiest, but dolloped with whipped cream, the chewy meringue made by Ollie and James sweetened up the tart rhubarb and orange sauce. Brownies followed swiftly with bowls of Rodda's clotted cream to really finish our guests off.

Wines donated by Bibendum Wine, Berkmann Wine Cellars, and wines from Rioja and Germany were gulped down. Beer from Meantime, Innes & Gunn, Duvel, and Westons cider were, presumably devoured, given the happy faces I caught a glimpse of.

We raised £2000.35 in total for Action Against Hunger, a pretty damn good achievement. Thanks, of course, go to The Drapers Arms but also to their lovely chef James who lent us a helping hand and made everything look easy (it wasn't). Also, their brilliant KP who saw us in a sticky time-pressured situation and scrubbed about a million potatoes for us as well as all the washing up. Thanks also goes to We Got Tickets who agreed to donate 20% of the booking fee to Action Against Hunger.

Gone midnight that evening, I fell into my front door and headed straight for the shower, a sweaty, smelly mess. I realised we'd eaten nothing but scraps all day. I had always wondered how it was possible there were so many slim chefs.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Spanish-Style Seafood Rice

I hesitate to call it paella, even though that's what it was intended to be. We didn't follow a recipe, but rather made it up as I went along, and it wasn't even cooked in a paella pan. So instead, let's call it Spanish-style seafood rice.

After a scorching weekend in the sun, we fancied something light yet comforting. A big delicious Pimms-fuelled lunch by the riverside at The Ship in Wandsworth knocked us out; after a quick lie-down on Clapham Common, we headed back home South East, raiding the shops on the way to knock this up.

The subtle saffron flavour in the rice, pepped up with the paprika smokiness of the chorizo and the freshness of the lemon gives this dish a really summery feel. White fish, added at the last minute to just cook through isn't the most strongly flavoured meat but a tin of smoked mussels bought on a last minute whim added an extra seafood oompf.

Spanish-Style Seafood Rice

Serves 5

500gr paella rice
1 onion, diced
7 cloves of garlic, minced
2l fish stock
150ml white wine
1 tsp thyme
5 tbsp chopped parsley
A large pinch of saffron
150gr chorizo
400gr firm white fish - we used cod
1 tin of smoked mussels
1 lemon
1 bulb of fennel, sliced thinly
2 sweet red pointed peppers, chopped roughly
100gr cherry tomatoes
1 tsp paprika

Heat the fish stock so that it is at a very gentle simmer. Add the saffron strands. In a large pan, heat the oil from the tin of smoked mussels and add the onion and garlic and cook on a low heat. After 10 minutes, add the paprika. Chop the chorizo roughly and add to the pan, along with the thyme. Once the chorizo has released its oils, add the rice and stir to cover. Add the white wine and simmer until it has been absorbed. Add the sweet peppers and the fennel, then add 1.5l of the stock. Simmer on a low heat for 10 minutes. If it's looking dry, add more stock. Don't stir it too much or the rice will go mushy.

Next, chop the fish into large chunks and halve the cherry tomatoes. Add both to the pan, stir very carefully and cook for another 5 minutes. Take off the heat, scatter the parsley over the dish and put the lid on, leaving to stand for 5 minutes. Taste for seasoning - I found it needed an aggressive hand with salt - before serving with lemon wedges.

Tuesday 19 April 2011

A Hot & Sour Soup

Not the prettiest of dishes, I'll give you that. But it was definitely tasty, spicy as hell and it felt nourishing. That extra soft tofu made a reappearance (I confess, I'm quite addicted to it) and its wibbly chunks, bobbing around in the fiery soup packed with vegetables slid down easily.

It's not the most traditional recipe, given I used random things I found in the fridge, but as long as you get that sour-spicy balance, I think that's fine. An egg, cracked into the soup and left for a few minutes to set enriched it and was a riff on whisked egg, usually drizzled slowly while the soup is cooking.

Hot & Sour Soup

Serves 2

100gr extra soft tofu
4 dried shiitake mushrooms
A handful of dried woodear mushrooms
1 small tin of bamboo shoots
Some form of greenery - I used courgette batons
1.5 tbsp chilli bean paste
300ml pork stock
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp cornflour
3 tbsp Chinese black vinegar
1 garlic clove
1" of ginger
1 red chilli
A pinch of sugar
2 spring onions
A handful of coriander
A drizzle of sesame oil

2 eggs

To start, boil some water and soak the mushrooms in it. Slice the bamboo stalks into thin matchsticks and set aside. Prepare your greenery. Heat a little oil and fry the garlic and ginger until fragrant. Add the chilli bean paste, fry for a few minutes and then add the pork stock. Set on a very light simmer.

Meanwhile, mince the coriander and slice the spring onions diagonally. Drain the mushrooms and shred the woodear. Cut the stalk out of the shiitake mushrooms and chop roughly. Add to the pork stock. Put the tofu carefully into the pork stock in chunks. Add the greens whenever so that they cook properly, then add the Chinese black vinegar and sugar. Taste and add more vinegar if necessary. In a bowl, mix up the soy sauce with the cornflour. Add this last and simmer till thickened slightly, then take off the heat.

To serve, ladle the soup carefully into each bowl and garnish with coriander, chopped red chilli, spring onion and finally crack an egg into the broth. Cover with a plate for a few minutes until the egg is set, then eat.

Sunday 17 April 2011

Breakfast at The Riding House Cafe

I've worked in the Great Titchfield Street area for the past 3.5 years and I've seen the transformation of this place. When I first made the move from Soho to Fitzrovia, it was a generic Slug & Lettuce, as bland as they come. Later, I laughed heartily at the name and endured many pints when it became Chutney n' Lager, a tacky restaurant / bar that would serve poppadums with your beer, with various sports on big screens. I usually stood outside.

In its new guise as The Riding House Cafe, the sleek teal and wood interiors and all day brasserie-style menu shows it means business and is here to stay. We clattered in at 8:30am on their official day of opening for a spot of breakfast. Workmen still flitted about, screwing in various bits and bobs.

Service was somewhat sketchy and we waited a while for menus, and then were given more menus even after we'd ordered. No matter, they were sweet and it was opening day after all. My companions were alarmed when our waitress suggested the bircher muesli. "Christ, do we look like muesli people?!" We shunned her suggestion and I ordered the Eggs Hussard, with an extra order of buttermilk pancakes with berries and clotted cream for a sweet note.

I wasn't sure what Bordelaise sauce was that came as part of my dish, but after one bite I was sure. Red wine sauce. With Hollandaise. At 9am. Oooof. A toasted slice, slowly soaking up the sauce was topped with good quality ham, a slice of tomato and wilted spinach, before being topped by two poached eggs and a generous helping of the aforementioned Hollandaise. While one egg was perfectly poached with a runny yolk, the other was over done and the yolk had set. The serious sleeps were starting to set in, but I soldiered on gamely.

Buttermilk pancakes has slightly crispy edges and fluffy innards. Drizzled with maple syrup and then smeared with some excellent clotted cream, the berries balanced out the sugar with a hearty tang. With coffee and service, the final bill came to £14 per person. Again, not an every day breakfast, but for a spot of indulgence.

I have no doubt that The Riding House Cafe will have more staying power than its predecessors. Having had a brief glimpse of their lunch menu, I know I'd be torn with indecision as everything sounded tasty. I hear they do good cocktails too...

The Riding House Cafe

43 - 51 Great Titchfield Street,
London W1W

Tel: 020 7927 0840

The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday 14 April 2011

Le Wei Xiang, Lewisham (EDIT - new name, Tasty Inn)

Good God, my friends are difficult to get together. Way back in December, we arranged to visit Le Wei Xiang in Lewisham, a restaurant that seemed to specialise in far more than your average neighbourhood Chinese restaurant. Four attempts later, and with only half the originally intended group, we finally got there.

So, straight to the 'genuine Chinese tastes' section. Our party of 5 kept shouting random orders: "tripe! I want the tripe!" so in the end, it was just easier to write a list of numbers. One of the first to arrive was the cold tofu, steeped in a mixture of soy sauce and black vinegar, garnished with chopped preserved duck egg, spring onion and coriander. One of my favourite dishes of the evening, it was cool, creamy and flavoursome. The egg isn't as strong as you might think; it's jelly-liked textures and mild flavour was liked by all.

Lamb skewers were, dare I say it, better than Silk Road's. Juicy, pink meat, the cubes didn't alternate with crispy lumps of fat as in the aforementioned, but each piece was generously fatty. Alongside a dusting of cumin, these were marinaded with fennel seeds and had a caramel-like sweetness to them. I could have eaten the whole plate.

Sliced sea bass with preserved vegetable was a behemoth of a pot. Bobbing in the broth was silky slices of fish. At first, it tasted slightly bland, but blandness turned to comfort when spooned over a bowlful of rice.

Cucumbers in chilli oil were garlicky, spicy and wildly addictive.

Double cooked pork Sichuan style wasn't as spicy as I'd hoped but the pork was well seasoned and tender. Potato shreds with Sichuan pepper (opening photo) were properly and utterly mouth numbing. Other dishes such as aubergine with minced pork and cold noodles in 'sauce' were fairly unexciting but well made but one total failure of a dish was pigs blood and tofu soup, which managed to taste of absolutely nothing with a hint of dishwater. It was left untouched.

For £17 a head with (sweet and friendly) service and a couple of beers, we were all stuffed to the brim. I think for the money, Silk Road perhaps edges it slightly, but Silk Road doesn't do that tofu dish. And Silk Road doesn't deliver to my house...

Le Wei Xiang

80 Lee High Rd,
London SE13 5PT

Tel: 020 8318 2525

Wednesday 13 April 2011

Breakfast at St John Hotel

After what felt like eating a million noodle or rice dishes in South East Asia, what better contrast than to go breakfasting at the newly opened St John Hotel?

I've been following their progress for a while. From when the scaffolding first went up outside Manzi's on Leicester Square, every day twice a day I've been peering at that facade, willing it to hurry the hell up and open. Don't get me wrong; I'm not some sort of weird restaurant stalker, it's my route to and from work. Honest.

Sadly, our early December booking was cancelled as the hotel was late to open. Similarly our January reservation. And then hooray! Finally, our day had come.

The room is very white and very simply decorated. We walked in at 8:15am, the only patrons, and it remained that way for a good half hour.

The breakfast buns had to be ordered. Served with a gorgeous yellow raspberry jam, we halved each a butter, a cinnamon and a currant bun. They were warm, flaky and incredibly decadent.

I spent a long time uhm-ing and ah-ing over boiled egg and anchovy soldiers, or Arbroath smokie with potato and egg. The latter won out. The smoked fish was worked into smooth and creamy mash, topped with buttery sauce and a perfectly poached egg. It all looked very beige until the egg was burst; rich, intensely orange yolk spilled forth. It was a matter of very few minutes before it was all hoovered up.

We sat back, replete. The menu isn't huge, what with 5 or so main items but what they do have is resolutely British, very in keeping with the St John style. At £25 a head with coffee, juice and (worthwhile) service, it's a luxury breakfast but well worth the money.

I didn't eat again until at least 2pm.

St John Hotel

1 Leicester St

Tel: 020 3301 8069

St. John Hotel on Urbanspoon

Monday 11 April 2011

Street Food in Bangkok

We found it fairly difficult to find street food that weren't noodle soups in Bangkok. This was no bad thing; we often started our day with a bowl of thick, hor-fun noodles and a choice of duck or goose. Chillis steeped in fish sauce and a little deep fried garlic ensured we'd be carried through till lunchtime. But where were all these som tams, the laab salads, and curries galore? Perhaps we didn't look hard enough; after our binge in Penang our palates were a touch jaded.

But what a way to liven up the tastebuds with a searingly hot seafood salad (above). Raw prawns, squid and little clams were selected from a big tray of ice and dumped briefly in boiling water, before being fished out and then added to a plate. Tomatoes, strips of raw onion, lime, fish sauce and garlic are pounded in a pestle and mortar, then added to the seafood. It was a slow-building heat, leading to proper fire in the mouth.

Our first night saw us meeting up with @NicolaChilton for some street-side eats. It's always great to be taken around a new place by a local, even though you've never met before and Nicola took us for some cracking pork noodles. We then headed off to Soi 38 off Sukumvit, to sample Pad Thai cooked ferociously in a wok, packed full of vegetables and allegedly made with condensed milk. The vegetables had a great crunch and a lovely, smoky flavour to it, without the sticky sweetness you get in London Thai restaurants.

We finished off with sticky rice and mango. The mango was soft and deliciously sweet, while the intensely coconut flavoured rice was light, not like the dense, rich examples I was used to. Outstanding eats.

Another food highlight of our trip was stumbling upon a street food vendor near the Khao San Road. Not a word of English was spoken, and in the end we resorted to pointing at another table's food with a thumbs up. A pork laab, heavy on the shallots and topped with toasted crunchy rice was accompanied with a little plastic bag of sticky rice. Tom yum soup, also with pork, came as a big vat. Sour, spicy and savoury all at once, it was as good as I've ever had it.

Staggering around Chatuchak Market with a raging hangover was pretty painful. The biggest open air market in Asia, it was heaving and hot. I took refuge at a bright cafe, and all they served were Isaan-style salads and Thai sausages. Deep fried chicken tossed with shredded papaya, chilli and limes took the edge off the Sangsom head I was sporting.

It wasn't all good. Intrigued by the 'broccoli and mozzerella pie' and the dessert 'corn pie' in McDonald's, we ordered both to try out. Both were fucking disgusting. We weren't hugely surprised.

Thursday 7 April 2011

Nahm, Bangkok

When I was asked whether I wanted to review Nahm, David Thompson's new restaurant housed in The Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok, I did hesitate. I only had four days in Bangkok; did I want to spend a precious meal in a hotel restaurant? And then I remembered we'd be just coming off a 22 hour sleeper train, from Malaysia to Bangkok. We'd probably be world-weary, tempers frayed and a bit grubby so a nice posh meal might do us good. That's my justification.

In reality, the train was bloody brilliant. For a mere £20 in second class, our seat changed into beds and a train attendant took our dinner and breakfast orders. They were such delicious meals that we were agog. But nevertheless, Nahm would prove an interesting contrast between high-end and street food that we'd been eating. As we shuffled into the hotel with crumpled clothes fresh from our backpacks, we were greeted warmly. A Tom Yum-tini was spicy and full of lime. No fish sauce, thank god.

We were recommended the set menu, which allowed us to have all 3 canapes, a choice of a salad, a curry, a stir-fried dish to share and a soup each. At a whopping 1500 baht each, compared to the 40 baht bowls of noodles we'd been eating, this really felt like pushing the boat out. Candied pork on pineapple chunks were sweet, yet deeply savoury and juicy.

Quails eggs topped with pickled green chillis, balanced on a puff of pork crackling was the perfect balance of soft egg and crisp crackling that was light as a feather. Blue swimmer crab on top of a rice cracker had similar textural contrasts. The crab was sweet and fresh.

Watermelon with fish floss and betel leaves were... odd. The watermelon was sweet and juicy, the fish floss intensely dry. Wrapped in a crunchy betel leaf, the contrasts were extreme. I rather enjoyed it, though my friend found it slightly unpleasant.

We picked the braised salted beef rib green curry and it packed some serious punch. We were told that curries in Thailand were a much of a muchness, many of them being too similar to pick the best but this was well flavoured with an absolute shitload of chilli, some galangal and kaffir lime leaves. The beef was fall-off-the-melt-in-the-mouth deliciousness. I need to salt some beef ribs.

To bat the chilli heat away, the lobster and young coconut salad was bland and soothing. That sounds like a criticism, but it wasn't really. The juicy coconut with the sweet lobster was a tongue-soother.

Of the soups, my friend and I couldn't have picked more polar opposites. I love big gutsy flavours, so this smoked fish soup with sour leaves whalloped you right in the taste buds. Conversely, my friend's crab and snake gourd soup was reminiscent of the Chinese egg drop soups I grew up with, with hints of coriander.

We asked our waiter to recommend us a dish and he enthusiastically recommended this fermented fish dish. The idea was to eat it with a wodge of rice, topped with a citrus-flavoured leaf. I'm fairly used to fermented things, what with stinking my kitchen out with fermented tofu on many occasion, but I found it hard to get over the kiff.

Jackfruit simmered in coconut cream was quite the heavy ending to what was a deceptively big feast. Full of weird textures and fruity flavours, it defeated us.

Maprang simmered in perfumed syrup was baffling. I still to this day can't tell you what maprang is, but the syrup tasted of jasmine and the sour prunes complemented it well.

While Nahm was pretty expensive in comparison to the rest of Bangkok, it was an absolute bargain for London prices, and the food was great. I have no point of comparison having not eaten in any fancy hotel restaurants in Bangkok, but it was far more refined and a damn sight better than any Thai restaurant I've visited in London. Aside from a fairly bland squid cooked in ink with sugarsnap peas (which, arguably, was the right kind of blandness given the massive flavours we were contending with), the food was all delicately but perfectly balanced. I particularly liked that they didn't scrimp on the heat for where would obviously be a place frequented by Westerners - we had brows of sweat.

(Oh, and the cocktails were great.)

Concierge looked amused when we asked for a taxi to the Khao San Road.


Metropolitan Bangkok

27 South Sathorn Road
Bangkok 10120

Tuesday 5 April 2011

Other Malaysian Eats

Let's start with breakfast. We were totally addicted to roti canai, a flaky bread served with a curry dip, varying in spiciness. We craved this daily, and washed down with a frothy teh tarik (tea made with sweet condensed milk) it was an ideal start to the day.

Banana leaf curries were common. Walking along a busy main road, we ducked inside a grimy-looking cafe, only to be served one of the best curries of the trip. Sweet sticky chicken drumsticks, dolloped with a ladle of spicy curried green beans, lightly spiced cabbage and rice served from long silver containers. I was less impressed with the lizard that ran up my leg, causing me to scream like a total girl.

Murtabak, eaten here at the night market in Kota Bharu, were egg-laden treats. We watched mesmerised as the maker flipped out the roti dough nice and thinly, and on it went to the hot plate to be spread with whipped eggs and a curry mixture, folded, folded and folded again until hot and crisp.

It sounds like a rude word, but in fact Popiah are like a cross between spring rolls and the Vietnamese summer rolls. Amongst the best street food we sampled, I watched as the lady warmed up a wafer-thin crepe wrapper, spread it with a hoi-sin like sweet sauce, before piling on shreds of daikon and some scrambled tofu.

Chilli sauce seasoned each mouthful, and it was a delight to chow down on a mixture of soft wrapper, crunchy vegetable and piquant and sweet sauces. To my distress, they seem almost impossible to replicate at home unless you're a master of dough. I am not.

Desserts came in the form of small bowls, often flavoured with coconut and riddled with beans or jelly-like textures. The most famous, Cendol, was made with shaved ice, coconut cream, caramel, threads of flour-based noodle flavoured with pandan and sweet kidney beans. It was icy and surprisingly refreshing.

Weirdest dish of the trip was perhaps 'Tandoori Kashmir Chicken'. A naan bread, topped with tandoori chicken and watermelon, banana, apple, and cashew nuts. Like a big chickeny fruit salad.