Thursday 29 December 2011

Vinishas - Sri Lankan in Lewisham

My friends told me excitedly about a new Sri Lankan place near where I live; their tales of fiery curries and bargain prices meant a trip was scheduled soon after. The restaurant isn't big, with a handful of tables and we were the only customers there for a late lunch. Handed takeaway menus to peruse, the plasticky tablecloth and the radio station playing wasn't exactly a promising start.

Chilli paneer (£4.79) was cloyingly sweet and only with the gentlest of chilli kick. When our lovely waiter later came to take our dishes away and asked if it was ok, we told him how we felt and he took our criticism with enthusiasm. "Next time, we'll make it spicy!".

We fared better with the rest of our meal. Chilli appam (£1.19 each), also called hoppers were pancakes made with ground, soaked rice. This is mixed with coconut milk and water to form a batter, and then left to ferment for a few hours. This resulted in a pancake that was spongy in places and crisp in others, great textural contrasts. The chillis were atomic and my heartbeat rocketed after eating this. My stomach, so laden with cheese and cream and butter of the Christmas just past, was roused from its cosy swathes of fat.

The menu was littered with curry classics but I wanted to try the typical Sri Lankan dishes so instead opted for 'pittu (3 pcs) with mixed vegetable curry' (£4.29). The pittu (below picture, foreground) was 3 pieces of cylindrical ground rice layered with coconut and spices. This was a stodgy cake to be broken off into chunks and dipped in the vegetable curry. The curry was deceptively delicious; when it was first placed down it looked common enough, but on first taste it revealed complex and ferocious spicing. The pittu grew on me. At first I found it a bit bland but soon grew to love it as a coconut-tinged vehicle for the curry.

Mutton Kothu (£5) was on the lunchtime specials blackboard outside. When my friend ordered this he asked for 'proper spicy please, not mild white man stuff', to the amusement of our waiter. The silver dish turned up which contained far more than one would imagine; this fed both of us easily. The menu says you can choose what your Kothu is made up of and in this instance, it was parotta. Parotta is a Tamil Nadu layered flatbread, much like the Northern Indian paratha. Chopped up, the parotta is cooked on a hot griddle with egg, meat and spices and served with what is listed on the menu as bone gravy.

This was fantastically textured, the small pieces of bread feeling a bit like noodle. Everything is chopped up the same size giving a really pleasant mouthful. The pieces of mutton were sparse but tender, and the heat of the spices were a slow burn, gathering momentum as the dish was eaten.

We paid a paltry £8 a head for the above plus service. Although it wasn't a comfortable dining experience - don't sit by the window, unless you like cold gusts of wind freezing your sides - the food more than made up for it. The menu is extensive and I'm looking forward to going back to try the dosai, idiyappam, idly and sambols.


2 Loampit Hill
Lewisham SE13 7SW

Tel: 0208 691 7944

Wednesday 28 December 2011

Christmas 2011

Christmas is over for another year, and the one we had was low key, austere almost. This year was just me and my parents for a couple of days so rather than stuffing the fridge full of various meats and then racing against time to get them poached / simmered / stewed / roasted and in our faces, we went for one centrepiece. Given we were to have one blow-out meal, it was a risk that we ordered online from a company we'd never used before but it paid off.

East London Steak Co. has a sleek, easy-to-use website and within a few clicks the Christmas beef was ordered. Customer service was great; originally I couldn't find the correct date for delivery and one tweet later I was told I would be emailed when my date became available. The meat arrived at my parents' place, neatly packaged with a Christmas card from the team and a calling card bearing the meat's provenance.

For our roasted bone marrow starter, we amalgamated two recipes; St John's famous parsley & caper salad accompanied the bone marrow shafts, but these were also smothered with caramelised shallots, an idea taken from the Hawksmoor At Home cookbook, my dad's Christmas present from me. The sweet onions worked beautifully with the sharp and herby salad, with the wibbly wobbly marrow smeared over a little bread.

What of the beef? The 1.5kg rib joint (around £30) was from a breed called Dexter and it was a beautiful deep ruby red. Well laced with fat, it was simply seared on both sides and cooked for an hour at 180 degrees then rested for 20 minutes in a warm place. The meat came out medium rare and was gorgeously beefy and well flavoured. The fat was divine. I am devastated I'm not around for the beef sandwich leftovers.

The gravy though was perhaps the best I've made so far. Again inspired from the Hawksmoor cookbook, it was sweet with onions and Madeira and enriched with some leftover bone marrow. By the end of the meal I was grabbing roasted potatoes, squashing them flat for more surface soakable area and dunking then straight into the gravy jug.

Madiera Gravy

Enough for 4

1 onion
6 fat cloves of garlic
1 carrot
2 bay leaves
2 tbsp plain flour
200ml Madeira
300ml beef stock / water
1 bone marrow shaft
Salt & pepper

Place your joint of beef on top of the onions, halved (but not peeled). Scatter the garlic cloves around and break the carrot in half and throw this in. Add a splash of water and roast your meat as you please.

When the meat is done, pour the fat out of the pan leaving about 1 tbsp. There should be some nice dark meat juices in there. Scatter the plain flour and stir well over a low heat. Add the Madeira bit by bit, stirring and amalgamating as you go. When all of it is added, add the water / stock and bring to the simmer. Add the bay leaves and simmer for a good 10 - 15 minutes. If it becomes too thick add a little water. Add the bone marrow and stir into the gravy - ours was already roasted so it slipped in easily but you can also put it in raw. Simmer for a further 10 minutes until it is as thick as you please, then taste, season with salt and pepper and serve.

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Orange & Hazelnut Stollen Squares

Mince pies are great and all - especially with a sliver of cheese under the lids of the pies, and baked till warm. Seriously. - but shop bought ones aren't great, and I just ran out of time to make mincemeat. I spied Dan Lepard's orange & pistachio stollen bars on The Guardian and they looked like the perfect Christmas treat to knock together. The master of baking, I knew Lepard's recipe would see me right. I made some substitutions and what emerged from the oven was festively spiced, nice and squidgy and perfect with a glass of mulled cider.

Orange & Hazelnut Stollen Squares

175gr caster sugar
75gr butter
125gr full fat cream cheese
1 tsp baking powder
1 egg
2 tsp orange extract
1 tsp orange zest
1 tsp glycerine (I found this in the baking section of Sainsburys)
1 tsp mixed spice
3/4 tsp cardamom seeds, ground and husks discarded
100gr dried currants
100gr chopped hazelnuts
75gr ground almonds
250gr strong white flour
250gr marzipan
Melted butter and icing sugar

Beat together the cream cheese, butter, sugar, orange extract, zest, glycerine and spices. Add the egg and mix well, then add the baking powder, ground almonds and flour. Mix this well; it's quite a dry mixture.

Add to a foil-lined baking tin and use your fingers to press into an even rectangle into the corners. Bake at 180 degrees C for 30 minutes so that it is puffed and golden.

Remove, brush generously with butter. Once cooled, peel off the foil and dust heavily with icing sugar. Apparently this keeps for a fortnight but it didn't last more than an evening in my house.

Sunday 18 December 2011

Black Pudding & Apple Sossidge Rolls

I'm not sure why but I associate sossidge rolls most with Christmas. Perhaps it's the decadence of wrapping pork in buttery, fluffy pastry? Or that I mainly make them for parties, most of which occur around Christmas time. I usually try and put a twist on them; mixing the sausagemeat with raw chorizo works well, as did these beauties; black pudding and apple. The black pudding gives it a deeper porky flavour, with the chunks of the Bramley apple bringing out the flavour more and adding some sweetness. I've found that fruit works the best; chunks of soft apricot and apple with some hot smoked paprika also went down a storm.

Black Pudding & Apple Sossidge Rolls

Makes shitloads

500gr sausagemeat
2 slices of black pudding
1 small Bramley apple
1 small onion
1 sheet of ready rolled puff pastry, or make your own rough puff
1 egg

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees C. Dice the apple and the onion. Mix with the sausagemeat. Chop the black pudding up finely and then add to the sausagemeat, mixing well again. Slice the sheet of pastry lengthways into three. Add the sausagemeat in a roll down the middle of each sheet and pinch the pastry closed around it.

Slice into bite sized pieces. You can freeze this on a sheet now and bag it later, or brush with egg and bake on a greased tray for 20 - 25 minutes, until golden brown.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Top 5 of 2011

Toptable asked me to submit my top 5 restaurants of 2011 and I went for a couple of the obvious and a couple off the beaten track. I tried to steer clear of my Top 10 of 2010 just for some variation, and here they are:

1. Jose - good lord those prawns. That jamon. The bustling atmosphere.

2. The Heron - FIRE! In my face!

3. Dragon Palace - Still the best steamed dim sum I've had in London.

4. Chaconia - Soft, pliable rotis stuffed with curry. I've only been twice but I get such a warm welcome.

5. Meat Liquor - Burgers, cocktails and you leave with a mild sense of sleaze. I am obsessed with their deep fried pickles.

The worst?

That goes to Fish! in Borough Market. I visited with my parents and a friend and a rude, sarcastic waiter should probably be looking to work in a different industry. Depressingly packed to the rafters, the room was loud and uncomfortable; waiting staff pushed past my chair to get to other tables. I had to ask THREE times to order some wine; I get grouchy when I am denied booze. To top it all off, £50 per head for two mediocre courses and no sides. Avoid like the plague.

So, what did I miss? Where should I be going immediately?

To see other bloggers' Top 5, click here.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

East Street, Rathbone Place

The very idea of 'Pan Asian' makes me sigh wearily and roll my eyes and I know full well that this is the snob in me. The countries are so different in their flavours and techniques I can't understand how a chef can be skilled enough to do all of them fantastically; yet I don't even raise an eyebrow when I see a 'Modern European' restaurant. I suppose perhaps having grown up in the Far East makes me fiercely protective, and no amounts of people telling me they like to have the option of sushi with their Thai green curries will fix that. Not to mention the sheer bloody wrongness of mixing those cuisines with such fervour - it's just not for me. I was almost apoplectic with indignation upon catching sight of Dim Sum Diner's menu.

So you might wonder why I accepted an invite to go to East Street, newly opened on the site of the former Eagle Bar & Diner. I'll be honest. I was seduced by the website. It's all pretty and colourful! And not a California roll of sushi in sight. I had high hopes.

I took a friend I knew would know his Asian and between us we picked dishes that spanned across the continent. Edamame was served freshly steamed and warm while we waited for our first dishes to appear. Bulgogi was thinly sliced grilled beef served with lettuce leaves and kimchi. The beef was grilled nicely to pink and it went well with the spicy kimchi. Wrapped up in a leafy parcel it was pleasant enough.

Tempura prawns were nicely battered crisp, served with the standard tempura dip. Though well priced at £5.75 for the dish, I think you should either pad it out (surely some tempura vegetables can't break the bank?) or use a smaller plate. It seemed sparse.

When our waitress explained the menu to us - and when I say explained, I mean read out the titles - the salads were described as suitable as a main course. Uhm. No. But when shared alongside, it was very nice. The chicken was nicely grilled and the vegetables crunchy, but we both agreed it needed more sourness, a bit more pep. The advertised coriander was barely there.

Special dish of the day was Mee Goreng, from Malaysia. This is a dish of fried yellow noodles with meat, sometimes pickles and egg, often cooked in lard for extra deliciousness. The dish presented to us was nothing of the sort. It was gloopy and lacked any of what we call in Cantonese 'wok hei', breath of the wok. That's the smoky, charcoal smell you get from frying things in a wok at a high heat - that's the kind of smell you encounter all over South East Asia.

My own dish, Khao Soi noodles was billed as chicken and yellow noodles in red curry sauce. A whole two chillis sit next to this menu listing so I was expecting something nose clearing, or at least sweat inducing. Disappointingly, it didn't even induce a sniffle. Again, it was gloopy and rich without enough lime or fresh red onion to cut through that heavy coconut. Deceptively deep, the bowl turned out to be quite small for the £8.95 they were charging though given that I lost interest half way through all the better for the small serving. Why bother with this? What is even the point in saying it's hot on the menu when you won't make it so? This sort of thing really pisses me off; if you're too lame to serve dishes authentically spiced, then don't serve it at all. Open a pie and mash shop or something.

That famous mango with sticky rice dessert seen all over Bangkok was a total disaster. The claggy clump of sticky rice was barely sweet and physically taxing to get through, the coconut cream served either side of it rendered completely useless. The mango was only just ripe, perhaps a touch under given it had still a powdery texture. Miles away from the real thing.

The Malaysian bubor pulot hittam was a black glutinous rice dessert with coconut cream and palm sugar. This was luxurious and tasty, the rice nicely cooked.

All in all, it was as expected. Jack of all trades and master of none. I know people will love this; the bright colours, Cath Kidston-esque decorated stools and the manga cartoons projected onto a huge back wall will be an instant hit, but then again people love that hell hole that is Cha Cha Moon, and for God's sake people still flock to Wagamamas. But me and Pan Asian, we are over. It was a brief flirtation and it just didn't work out.

East Street

3 - 5 Rathbone Place
London W1T 1HJ

Tel: 020 7323 0860

East Street Restaurant on Urbanspoon

I didn't pay as I was invited to review but this would have been £20 / head.

Monday 12 December 2011

Fried Chicken

I don't know anyone who doesn't like fried chicken. I also don't know any vegans, so the two might be connected. Yeah yeah, I know everyone always slags off KFC and how disgusting they are but every now and again I get a deep, intense craving for the crunch of that deep fried crust, the overpowering saltiness and the guilty film of chicken fat. It is unbeatable.

In all its forms the chicken does well deep fried. Katsu'ing and dousing in curry sauce in the Japanese style is how I have it most often, but recently I've had dark thoughts about a filthier affair, one tinged with the tang of Frank's Hot Sauce. Buttery thoughts clouded my mind for days. A friend conducted an experiment in veganism and abstained from all things animal for a whole month and I taunted her with tales of my trips to meaty establishments. I felt like a pretty bad person, so as soon as her month of pain and woe was over I promised her wings. Lots and lots of wings covered in a silky, buttery sauce.

I couldn't stick to one format though. A whole dish of hot sauce-doused wings was one thing, but since we were going through the rigmarole of deep frying, I took the opportunity to try my hand at KFC, or rather Korean fried chicken. A hodge podge of ingredients were slung into bowls ready for the wings to emerge from their bathe in the hot oil to be finally doused in fire.

The coating of the flour makes sure the seasonings stick to the wings and the second frying, though monstrous for your health, give the wings that crisp exterior which is terribly crucial considering the next step of slathering them in sauce.

The frying took longer than I thought, maybe a good 20 - 25 minutes in total. Bear that in mind so that you're not handling saucepans full of shimmering oil and gawping at the TV like I was.

Fried Chicken

Serves 3 with sides - such as celery with blue cheese dip and other such artery cloggers

1 kg chicken wings
1 tsp onion salt
1 tsp paprika
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp dried oregano
2 tbsp plain flour

Snip the fleshiest piece of the wing away so that they are in two pieces. Toss with the ingredients above and leave for at least 3 hours. Heat up enough vegetable oil in a large saucepan or wok and fry the chicken wings in batches; remove when golden brown and drain on kitchen towel. Fry again until a deep caramel brown colour. Douse in the sauces as detailed below, and serve with kitchen towel and beers.

For the Buffalo Wings:

100ml Frank's Hot Sauce (I'm told you can buy this at Sainsburys now.)
100gr butter

Melt the butter. Mix it with Frank's hot sauce. There.

For the Korean Fried Chicken

3 tbsp gochujang (you can buy this in Chinatown)
3 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 inch of ginger, grated
1.5 tbsp rice vinegar
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp sesame seeds

Mix the above together except the sesame seeds - these are for sprinkling on the chicken once coated.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Shaker & Company

One blustery freezing evening, I was invited to Shaker & Company to try out some cocktails and the food they serve alongside it. Located in a bit of no man's land-esque area in between Euston and Camden, it was the drinks that lured me in as it was opened by the people of Shaker BarSchool, renowned for training up world class bartenders.

We warmed our insides with a potato sack sour; I'm not sure what gives it its name, but the flavours of Aperol, lemon and peach shone through. The frothy top was made with adding egg white when it is being shaken, giving the drink a smooth lightness and you a foam moustache. A procession of dishes came from their Deep South-inspired menu, ranging from a Waldorf-ish salad to gumbo and jerk chicken wings, which were nothing of the sort, though still delicious in their breadcrumbed, barbecue sauce way.

The most expensive dish on the menu at £7 was this spicy jambalaya, packed full of chicken and prawns. Served in a deep urn, the rice was well cooked, the heat of the spices giving a good kick.

Though I really liked the soul fried chicken bites - come on, who doesn't love a bit of battered chicken? - my pick of the bunch was this tempura okra. Though the coating is a little thicker than most tempura I'm used to, I loved the sliminess of the okra nestled within the crunch of the batter. A smidge more salt and it'd have been perfect. I also became quite addicted to the sweet potato fries; crispy in places, soggy in others, they were delicious dunked in the spicy dip. Gourmet food this is not, but great for nibbling on over some heavy boozing.

Most unusual drink of the night was the 'Call Me the Milkman'. It looked like it would be soft and creamy, but was in fact quite the opposite and a bit of an acquired taste. Other drinks included a whiskey-based drink that tasted of Christmas, as well as hot toddies, all at £7.50.

No one goes out for just one cocktail though so we finished up the evening with the Dillionaire; the most orangey cocktail I've ever sipped. It was the very essence of orange.

I really enjoyed Shaker & Company and no doubt I'll be back given its close vicinity to work. Often cocktail bars are either too expensive (hello, Experimental Cocktail Club), too snooty or snobbish (hello, Experimental Cocktail Club) or just a bit crap but Shaker & Company have all the makings to be none of the above.

Shaker & Company

119 Hampstead Road

Tel: 020 7060 6877

Sunday 4 December 2011

Pizarro, Bermondsey Street

I fell completely in love with the informal tapas bar, Jose, that Jose Pizarro first opened. Small and bustling, it was sweaty and uncomfortable at high summer, standing at the bar nibbling on things and necking sherry. It was busy and frantic but they served the best goddamn prawns I've eaten.

Mere months later, Pizarro has opened on the same street. Same man, but actual tables and chairs for you to eat at. We visited on the last day of the soft opening, and 5 minutes before opening time there was already a small crowd of people formed.

The menu was split off into starters and mains, but we're greedy so we ordered a selection to share. The boquerones with black olives and roasted red peppers came with an unadvertised vivid soft boiled egg - my opening picture has not been doctored - perched upon a slice of toast. This was oustanding, the richness of the egg binding the slightly vinagered anchovy with the red pepper. It was a classic example of a simple dish made great by well sourced ingredients.

Ham croquetas were just as they are at Jose - SEXY. How does he make them? The slightest suggestion of pressure reduced them to a creamy puddle in your mouth / plate, while still retaining crunch on the outside. The man is a genius.

Quail with Romesco sauce arrived with its legs crossed looking like it was dying for a wee. It could have benefited from a crisper skin, but nevertheless the tiny bird was juicy and well seasoned. The Romesco sauce was nutty and suitably chunky.

I don't often see cauliflower as a main ingredient on menus, which is what prompted us to order this. I think the florets were lightly pickled and it worked well with sprigs of thyme, chard and a goaty soft cheese. The walnuts were intensely flavoured and brought a richness to the dish. I imagine this would work just as well with beetroot.

These prawns were the best I'd had when I was at Jose, and this time round they were fancified with a few slivers of Serrano ham. I'd have preferred the prawns a little more drenched in garlic butter or oil but then that thought was banished as the fatty ham also brought out the sweetness of the prawns. Dark reddish brown head juices oozed out and were sucked greedily out for extra intensity. Thus ended our procession of starters.

The Secreto Iberico (pork fillet) was mildly disappointing when it was brought out. Strips of pork cooked through were splayed on a mound of olive oil mash. While it was certainly enjoyable, especially the fatty bits, I was expecting swathes of meat cooked to medium like the pluma Iberico is served at Jose. Perhaps I've been spoilt but had I paid full price at £15.50 I'd have probably got a sulk on.

Hake with black cabbage and clams was also disappointing as only three clams, one of which was closed, were in the dish. The fish could have done with less cooking but the new potatoes that came in the sauce were sweet and flavoursome.

Onto desserts, our pear sorbet in Cava had us in raptures. A single thread of saffron bobbed about in the liquid and as we slurped up the contents, flavours ranged from apricot to peach and finally turned into a pear slush puppy.

Chocolate with caramel ice cream and toast was similarly gorgeous and we amused ourselves with making ice cream sandwiches. The olive oil drizzled about the plate gave it an extra dimension, though we remarked that if the size of the smaller ice cream ball and the chocolate ball were to be switched it would be ideal; that chocolate is serious.

The room itself was packed to the brim with people waiting in the bar area when we left, though it never sounded noisy at any time. A nice bustle and warmth came from the open bar and Jose Pizarro himself, known for frequently being present at Jose, was there asking us if our food was ok. Though not everything was perfect, they were in soft opening and I am looking forward to visiting again when they reach their stride.


194 Bermondsey Street,
London, SE1 3TQ

Opening Times: Restaurant 12 – 3 p.m. then 6 – 11 p.m. Bar open all day

No reservations

Thursday 1 December 2011

Basic Chirashi Sushi

I can't be arsed to cook at the moment. The days are dark, project deadlines loom menacingly and there's the horrifying prospect of Christmas shopping to do, though I know I'll be the one running around the West End on the 23rd December, sweating with frustration. Happily then, that The Japan Centre have a sashimi-grade counter for you to blow all your hard-earned spondoodlies on. They also sell miso pastes, dry goods, frozen foods, vegetables and crockery and you're guaranteed to spend a small fortune.

They'll indulge you your request for tiny amounts of mackerel, salmon and tuna for you to slice up all pretty (or not so much in my case) at home. I love the combination of the blister-like bursting of the ikura (mmm! nice.) and the velvety soft fish, the citrus-tang of the shiso leaves adding another contrast.

Chirashi Sushi

Serves 2

For the rice:

150gr sushi rice
Enough dashi stock to cover the rice, plus up to 1 section of your finger
3 tbsp rice vinegar
1 scant tbsp sugar
1/2 tbsp mirin
1/2 tsp salt

Mix the rice vinegar, sugar, mirin and salt together. Rinse the rice twice, then on the third time gently rub the grains together while rinsing. Add to a heavy bottomed pot with a tight fitting lid and add the dashi stock. Bring to barely a simmer and simmer very gently for 10 minutes. Take off the heat, remove the lid, put a teatowel over the pot and then put the lid back on. Leave for another 10 minutes.

Turn out onto a plate and add the vinegar mixture. Mix the rice using a turning and cutting motion, while fanning the rice to cool it. Perhaps recruit another person to help you out with that bit.

75gr sashimi grade salmon
75gr sashimi grade tuna
40gr salted mackerel
2 tbsp ikura (that's the large salmon roe)
1 tbsp ponzu (soy sauce with yuzu)
4 shiso leaves
Marinated seaweed - this comes in tiny pots and is salty-sweet

Soak the ikura in the ponzu for at least half an hour. Slice the salmon, tuna and mackerel into slices the thickness of a pound coin. I've also seen chirashi with diced fish so you can do that too. Roll the shiso leaves into a cigar shape and slice thinly. Lay the fish on top of the room temperature rice. Add a tablespoon of the ikura and marinated seaweed per serving, and scatter the shiso leaves on top. Serve with wasabi and soy sauce.