Monday 30 December 2013

2013: The Year in Review

2013 flew by in a whirlwind. Food festivals, restaurant openings, a temporarily life-changing drunken injury - I didn't sit still for much of the year, except for that excruciating week with my ankle in a cast. Here are some highlights - it's not good to dwell on bad times - and some good food memories. So in no chronological order whatsoever....

I kicked off the year with one of the few 'fancy' meals, which was the tasting menu at Dabbous. This mashed potato with meaty jus and shavings of truffle was decadent and comforting, rich and luxurious. Plans are afoot for another site, though that is just what I've heard whispered. 

A trip to The Ledbury revealed that my beloved front of house man (so beloved I never found out his name) had left, but the service did not suffer for it. Stalwart dishes like the scallop ceviche with horseradish snow and seaweed oil were as good as the first time I had it, way back in 2010

I'm nothing if not a creature of habit, so when a special occasion arose I took the opportunity to get down to the grey, windy seaside and visit The Sportsman in Kent in April. My fourth visit in as many years, and I still love that slipsole (this time in seaweed butter). I defy anyone to go and not love the place. 

A trip up to Manchester in October to eat at Simon Rogan's restaurant, The French at The Midland Hotel revealed what is a contender for my best dish of 2013. The ox tartare with coal oil was so clever - the flavoursome beef had the texture of raw but the flavour of cooked, due to the intense charcoal flavour. I marvelled at every mouthful of this. You can read more about this meal here, should you wish to. Simon Rogan has been named as the person taking over the restaurant at Claridges, so I'm really looking forward to seeing how that pans out in 2014. 

It's a shame I was too lazy to write about it at the time, because we had a lovely meal at Drakes Restaurant in Ripley last August. Although the room was a little stifled and the service a little slow, the dishes were accomplished and beautiful, with clever combinations of flavours. The quail with sweetcorn was a particular favourite. I'm such a London-centric snob that I went in there thinking it wouldn't be as good as anything we get up town, but I was, happily, wrong. The full set of pictures is here.

This was the year I discovered my favourite Cantonese restaurant, Gold Mine in Queensway. I've visited three times now and friends, clients and family alike have all loved the meals there. Roast duck is lacquered, fatty and delicious, and the steamed egg custard is wobbly goodness. The service is patient and helpful, the bill usually averaging about £20 / head. Forget Chinatown. 

Speaking of Chinese, my two favourite dim sum meals go to Bright Courtyard in Baker Street (top photo, of the HK style cheung fun) and Hutong up The Shard - the prawn and century egg roll pictured. Both rather posher than the usual, the dim sum is of a higher standard - closer attention to detail and fresh, exciting flavours, some a twist on the norm. I haven't tried A. Wong yet - a disastrous dinner there put me off, but seemingly a one-off as they have regularly been credited with some of the best dim sum in London. One for 2014.

Bao London exploded onto the street food scene, with their beautifully designed stall frontages that only graphic design student alumni can come up with, and properly good pork buns. Soft and pillowy, the steamed baos are home-made and the filling has great texture contrasts in the slow-cooked pork, crunchy pickled veg and crushed peanuts. When I first had one in April I declared them better than Momofuku's, and many baos later I stand by that sentiment. They also make incredible soy milk fried chicken. I'll be damned if they're not in permanent premises soon.

I've spoken about Silk Road before, so I'll round off my Chinese restaurants with keeping it brief. Silk Road is just as good as it was when I first visited in 2010. TEP noodles is my new favourite dish; the sweet tomato melding together with the softly scrambled egg and chewy noodles. I must have been at least once or twice a month since, and though some dishes are more fiery at times, it is just about the most consistently great restaurant I've been to. I've celebrated 3 of my birthdays there, so confident am I about it. Long may they continue. 

Two of my favourite restaurants in Soho, both on Frith Street, did a kitchen swap for a few nights last June. I went along to Koya when they did their mash up with Barrafina, and the union was a fine thing. A seafood and tomato stew with udon noodles was perfect Spanish / Japanese fusion food. 

This year Koya expanded next door to open Koya Bar. Perhaps it is less exciting and innovative as some of the Specials at the original Koya, but it serves the original menu efficiently and comfortably, letting it's older sister get on with being a bit kooky. What they have that Koya doesn't is a breakfast menu, featuring bacon and egg udon, curry udon and the 'kedgeree' - congee made with smoked haddock, topped with a hot spring egg. Open just a couple of months, I've already been for breakfast there twice. 

I did a little bit of travelling this year, kicking off with a long weekend in Istanbul. We ate our way around the city, scoffing kebabs and lahmucun like there was no tomorrow. I wish someone would bring Kaymak to London - I fell in love with the clotted cream and honey, slathered on bread, for breakfast.

We also did some great eating in Seville and Cádiz, guided by the internet and a newly made friend. We ate all the cuts of pork at Cumbres Mayores in Cadiz, always accompanied by deep fried potatoes and a slice of tomato. Another contender for Best Dish 2013 was the innocent-looking potato salad at Bodeguita Romero (top); still slightly warm, creamy potatoes dressed in a grassy oil and sweet sherry vinegar. I drool at the memory. Operation Recreation will happen in 2014. 

Despite trying chiparones (that's baby squid) in several different restaurants in Spain, nothing came close to the crunchy, tender sumac-dusted version from Morito in Exmouth Market.

We had a blinding summer, one with actual proper sunshine and no time was better spent than having lunch in the courtyard of Rochelle Canteen in Shoreditch. Miraculously, for a restaurant that only opens weekday lunchtimes, I made it there twice and feasted on crisp-skinned chicken with aioli, barbecued aioli with remoulade and the pictured rabbit and offal salad. Happy, sun-drenched memories. 

Closer to home, my neighbourhood suddenly became the cool place to be for anything decent to eat. Andy Oliver spent a few Mondays with his Thai grill at Bar Story in Peckham. Previously of Nahm in Bangkok and London and currently of The Begging Bowl in Peckham, Andy's skill in Thai food is obvious. Sticky skewers of moo ping (pork) dipped in a fiesty sauce were hoovered up in minutes (my recipe is here, should you wish to try it out), while grilled pork neck and a whole slow-smoked duck made the meal I had there one of the most memorable. 

I had several dinners and lunches at The Begging Bowl, as previously mentioned. Crispy salmon skin, salmon with pomelo and fresh, zingy herbs was a perfect light lunch with some sticky rice, and I also loved khanom jeen noodles with red chicken curry. I only wish they'd use Thai terminology on the menus; I like having a vague sense of what I'm eating in the native language. Quite a minor niggle, that. 

Toast ED opened on Lordship Lane in East Dulwich, mere minutes from where I live. I've had boozy dinners there, lightly boozy lunches and have often gone to buy wine from their vats. The dishes are innovative and exciting, the menu constantly changing. Another steak tartare above, dotted with bone marrow and leaves of kale was a particular highlight, and they do amazing things with kale and tuna. I'm a lucky person to have it as a local. 

Sandwich of the Year goes to Merchants Tavern, newly opened this year in Shoreditch. This Ogleshied and ham sandwich in thick cut, fluffy white bread was toasted until golden, its innards oozing. It is a serious thing. 

Surprise of the year came from actually enjoying the salmon and melted mozzerella nigiri at SushiSamba. I know. I am still surprised. 

And at home? I cooked a lot of kedgeree for brunch. 

Gong Bao quails legs were made after a trip to The Ginger Pig in Lower Marsh saw me impulse-buying a bag of them. Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe is tip top - I usually replace peanuts with cashews, as I just like them better.

The one and only recipe I wrote this year that wasn't Asian was way back in March, with this steak and blue cheese salad. That's probably not going to change; I simply enjoy cooking Asian food at home more. 

Khao Soi noodles was probably one of the best things I made this year. Egg noodles in a coconutty, spicy gravy with chicken, garnished with pickled things, crunchy things and spalshes of chilli and lime - what's not to like?

Bring on 2014. My prediction (or hope?) is pickles - lactic fermentation, sweet pickles, vinegar pickles, and beyond kimchi. What's yours? 

Thursday 19 December 2013

Pick N' Mix - Part 7

So, for the final Pick N' Mix of the year. On an uncharacteristically mild December evening, we stuck out the whole evening sitting outside under lamps at The Miller, a pub just a mere stones throw from London Bridge. The menu was devised by Street Kitchen; dominated by hot dogs, there are also salad boxes listed which were promptly disregarded. 

The 'Boston Hound' immediately grabbed my attention, and I'm fairly sure that's down to the mention of both pork belly and crackling. It was a big long smoked sausage (snigger), properly snappy skin and topped with pickled red cabbage, barbecue sauce and pickled cucumber. Slices of pork belly lined the bun. Too cumbersome to eat with hands, I was reduced to a knife and fork. 

Special mention should be made to the chicken wings, which were pretty freaking awesome. Some might recognise them as being quite similar to those at Patty & Bun, and I believe Street Kitchen helped them develop their menu. These were better though - they had more bite, more texture, more pull on the meat. For £3.50 a pot they were also great value. Skin-on chips were hot and crisp, though apple and celeriac slaw was just mush. I wasn't sure what I was expecting for £1 a pot, though. For £12.50 per head, it was a cracking dinner to soak up some booze. 

96 Snowsfields Road
London Bridge
London SE1 3SS

Boopshi's in Fitzrovia has just opened. Specialising in schnitzel and spritzes, the dining room is almost Scandinavian in austere style. A basement bar, closed at lunch though open in the evenings, sounds less so. I went along for lunch with their PR contact (disclaimer it was free etc.) and tried a selection of the dishes. The schnitzel is offered as pork, rose veal or chicken variants and the rose veal was crisp and well fried. A variety of toppings, like an egg or capers are offered and we plumped for the anchovies. At £1 extra, they weren't the best quality specimens I've sampled, being a little dry and overly salty. The bill can soon rack up - a veal holstein (so, garnished with egg, capers and anchovies) would set you back £17.25. But well-sourced meat costs. 

Ox tongue, lentils and carrots was a delicious dish, boasting both tender meat and al dente lentils. The bratwurst was served with a pot of sweet mustard for dipping, and all the more interesting for it. I particularly enjoyed the spatzle n' cheese; it could have taken more salt, but was ultimately comforting and stodgy. Sauerkraut could have been sauerer, but pickles had a welcome tang. I'd go back for the schnitzel in bap form with a few (hundred) spritzes, which they're planning on introducing to the downstairs bar. 

31 Windmill Street
London W1T 2JN

Lastly, I neglected to mention a dinner at Peckham Refreshment Rooms way back in October, I suppose due to all my photos coming out terribly. But! I had a wonderful mutton pie there, as well as some very decently sourced mozzarella that they put on a plate and drizzled heartily with a punchy salsa verde. Dish of the night was Sicilian aubergine with borlotti beans - the beans were creamy and soft, the aubergine sweet yet sour. I could have eaten buckets of this. All the stories are true - the stools are monstrously uncomfortable. 

12-16 Blenheim Grove 
London SE15 4QL 

(No reservations)
Peckham Refreshment Rooms on Urbanspoon

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Beagle, Hoxton

Underneath the arches of Hoxton station, Beagle is a warmly lit, exposed-bare-brick of a restaurant. Separated off into two sections via archways, we were seated on banquettes facing the open plan kitchen. The menu was mainly meaty, leaning towards the British. We kicked off with some punchy cocktails from their extensive range; my Silver Fox, made up of gin and lillet, was particularly startling for a lunchtime aperitif. Several bloody marys were listed, ranging from the intriguing (chorizo-smoked vodka) to the slightly bizarre; I'm not sure how many hangovers are cured by a bloody mary seasoned with fish and oyster sauce.

A tray of native and rock oysters, plonked rather unceremoniously down by our surely-she's-a-model waitress were plump and briny, brightened by a cucumber mignonette. My Dorset crab and puntarelle salad was a behemoth portion; the tangle of bitter leaves was dressed with fragrant preserved lemon, the creaminess of the emulsified dressing taming the bitterness of the chicory. Sweet nuggets of crab meat was a background note to the greens. I soon made light work of it.

Tenderstem broccoli with Stilton and walnuts was equally impressive and the flavour combinations of the sweet young broccoli married up well with the strong cheese. A slice of duck liver and foie gras parfait with quince jelly was actually bigger than my head and thicker than an inch, served with a toasted slice of brioche that would never be enough. It had an impressively mousse-like texture, though.

A blackboard above our heads advertised the sharing steaks they had on offer, and between three of us we plumped for the 1.2kg prime rib, served with duck fat roasted potatoes. For £85-ish, expectations were high and the steak that was laid out before us certainly had the wow-factor. The fat had a good flavour to it, and the steak cooked appropriately to the requested medium rare, but there was something that was missing that I only really realised about halfway in - it was lacking in any kind of juiciness. There was no puddle, and we remarked that around the edges of each slice of meat looked like it was cured, almost smoked in consistency. A slathering of horseradish cream patched it up.

Duck fat potatoes were crisp hunks, crunchy on the outside and fluffy within and a generous portion at that. Through lack of any sauce, I asked for ketchup and was given a bowl of thin, tomatoey spiced gravy when all I yearned for really was Heinz. Buttered greens were appropriately drenched.

I was too stuffed for dessert, but my companions were ever so brave and they soldiered on. A slice of ginger loaf, drenched in a sticky dark butterscotch sauce was cooed over, while I particularly enjoyed the boozy Armagnac-soaked prune that came surrounded by a tart.

Not your cheapest lunch venue, with starters coming in at around £8 - £10 and mains hitting the £20 mark, which might be why it was only a quarter full on a Thursday lunchtime this close to Christmas. I found the flavour executions on the starter to be far more accomplished than the steak, though one might argue just how far you can go if you order a steak, but for the money (more or less), I'll stick with Hawksmoor. Their brunch menu looks worth returning for though (I'll admit - I am curious about that fish & oyster sauce bloody mary). 


397 - 400 Geffrye Street
London E2 8HZ

Beagle on Urbanspoon

Wednesday 4 December 2013

Rita's Bar & Dining, Hackney

Rita's Bar and Dining, temporarily of Dalston Junction, has just re-opened on Hackney's Mare Street. I only visited their previous incarnation once; perhaps it was nerves from being on a second date, but I found the experience somewhat stressful. The room was big and bright, brash, noisy and smoke-filled. I left smelling like a grill, drunk on frozen margaritas. 

Their new spot couldn't be any more different; it's all clean lines and dim lighting, a long narrow room with an open-plan kitchen, and a further basement dining room. From what I remember, the preceding menu had a Mexican-ish slant - here, vaguely Asian, a smattering of the Med, a nod to America. Spiced lotus root crisps, crunchy and salty, accompanied my well-balanced and all-too-easily-drank sour cherry bourbon concoction. It's not immediately clear from the menu what portion sizes one can expect, but we were guided through it gently by the patient staff. 

From the specials board, the steak tartare was made with the flavoursome bavette cut, chopped finely for tenderness. Seasoned with fish sauce and ponzu, little rounds of chillis interspersed within were little firecrackers. A clever take on the traditional, and one I enjoyed very much. A plate of house pickled onion, daikon and cucumber went unexpectedly well with them, the strong punch of vinegar counteracting the richness of the beef.

A deep bowl of incredibly addictive sticky wings followed. Dressed in a sauce dark with kecap manis (a sweet Indonesian soy sauce) and liberal ginger, once the bones were nibbled clean we kept the bowl of sauce for further dipping of, well, anything. I was tempted to stick a sly finger in there now and again. My Chineserness was affronted when I was offered a spoon to dish out the plate of spiced noodles with pigs head ham (above) but it soon became clear why they were offered. The noodles used are the wide flappy rice noodle variety (hor fun), prone to slipperiness and wanton sauce sprays. The noodles were light on promised spicing, and due to the beetroot they cooked with, not a particularly pretty number. I struggled for much ham flavour.

We were back on track with a behemoth plate of fried chicken. For £19, half a bird portioned up is served with a pot of honey and a pot of sausage gravy. A typically Southern styling, the gravy was like a peppery bechemel with bits of sausage in it. The chicken itself (once I recovered from it being hotter than napalm) was encased in crisp salty batter, the flavour further enhanced with the chicken skin having been removed, crisped, powdered and dusted over the chicken pieces. Hello, my new Ultimate Fried Chicken. I abandoned the honey in favour of the ginger-spiked treacle the wings had been served in, pleased as punch that I happened to be positioned nearest to it. 

I topped the chart for Potential Heart Attack with a few spoonfuls of green chilli mac and cheese, carefully navigating around the scoop of guacamole on top, for I am adverse to the hot, or even warmed avocado. Fine, fine comfort food.

Stuffed to busting, I insisted to the table (we were three) that we had to try the beignets with dulce de leche and foie gras. It's foie gras. In a dessert. With doughnut-ty things. Given what we'd just eaten, I'm not entirely sure what possessed me. The caramelly, toffee sauce smeared all over the hot beignet (this is becoming porn territory) was jolly nice, though I didn't detect much of a foie gras flavour. Perhaps for the best, given my now-protruding belly. 

We ate handsomely for £40 / head, including service and a couple of cocktails each. I'll be back. Maybe for brunch. Whenever really, as long as that chicken is on the menu.

Rita's Bar & Dining

175 Mare Street 
London E8 3RH

Tel: 020 3096 1530
Rita's on Urbanspoon

They take reservations!

Monday 2 December 2013

Posh Breakfasting: Koya Bar... Again.

This month's episode of Posh Breakfasting is actually a repeat. I know. All those places to go and eat, and I revisit Koya Bar. I couldn't help it. The lure of a curry for breakfast was all too much for me. 

This was a piping hot bowl of vegetable curry udon. The gravy had chunks of carrot and taro in, as well as green onion. On a day as baltic as it was, washed down with a pot of hot Japanese tea, it was just the thing to power up my morning. My friend's kedgeree made with rice, cooked down to a porridge was cleansing and sweet in comparison to my big ballsy bowlful. The curry udon is not for the faint-hearted, I'll grant you that, but if you're the kind of person who could really eat anything for breakfast, it's a pretty great option. 

Koya Bar
50 Frith Street,
London, W1D 4SQ

No Reservations 
Opens 8:30am for breakfast

Sunday 1 December 2013

Hartnett, Holder & Co., Limewood Hotel - New Forest

A much-needed break from the Big Smoke was needed, and I booked an impromptu night away in the New Forest. Impromptu for me is a week in advance (I like planning...), and I had no time to look into restaurants for what would be our Friday night there, until we actually went. Time and time again, people on Twitter recommended The Pig - a hotel, but actually self-described as 'a restaurant with rooms'. Their website told me they were fully booked, but we decided to head over there for a mosey around and a drink. 

It was incredibly cute. The main dining room was warm and cosy in the greenhouse, and the adjoining library and bar areas were lit with log fires, furnished with squishy sofas. 

The spa was a little hut at the end of this bridge, surrounded by the vegetable gardens, mainly growing chard and kale for the restaurant. I swallowed my disappointment that even the waiting list was 20-person strong.

We did, however, realise that the Limewood Hotel was just up the road and was part of the same group. A little memory triggered that Angela Harnett was now heading up the kitchens there, at the restaurant named Hartnett & Holder. And they had a table free, hurrah. I had, originally looked to stay there on our visit but with the most basic room starting at £250-odd, I shut that browser window down quickly. 

So impromptu was the visit that I hadn't anticipated such swank, and when we arrived in the great big swish courtyard, roofed with a retractable glass ceiling I wished heartily I wasn't in Air Maxes. I needn't have worried about much stuffiness though, as the bar staff were incredibly charming, and later we found the dining room very relaxed - filled with chatter and buzz. A copper pot of piping hot, crisp and mushroom-spiked arancini accompanied our aperitifs, as well as some juicy, fat green olives and some salted almonds.

The menu was long; split off into primi, pastas, secondi and sides, Hartnett's signature Italian. We had a lot of trouble choosing what to have, with waiting staff sent away a couple of times as we uhm'd and ah'd, before deciding that the polenta ravioli with black truffle at £42 was out of the question. My red mullet, pan fried until the skin was crisp, the flesh soft and just-warm, sat atop a rainbow of lightly pickled vegetables. Carrots, artichoke hearts and delicate onion semi circles made up the bed, and each bite was a lovely contrast of sweetness and sharpness, soft and crunch. Across the table, an enormous plate of smoked cod's roe, whipped into an airy mousse-like texture, was topped with pork crackling. Accompanying rye crackers were finished before a quarter of the plate was. As delicious a dish it was, it all became too daunting and was abandoned partway through. 

When the gnocchi with game ragu arrived, my eyes widened at its bath-like appearance. This was one hearty dish. Nuggets of fat, I assume bacon, seasoned the meat and the gnocchi were few and far between. It felt like the proportions were all wrong on this - I had hoped for an abundance of gnocchi and a light coating of ragu but as it was, the airy-light potato dumplings were completely overwhelmed. A shame really, as the ragu was gorgeous; rich, intensely savoury with a hint of offal. It defeated me. 

The agnolotti stuffed with squash, goats cheese and sprout leaves were almost sweet in comparison. The thin, delicate pasta burst pleasingly as your fork stabbed it, and it was a beautifully made dish. In stark contrast to the gnocchi, it was light but flavoursome, a hint of bitterness balancing the sweet from the sprout leaves. 

We skipped dessert and retired to the bar for a digestif. By no means a flawless dinner, but the setting and ambience of the place made us forgive their flaws. The £148 bill was something of an eye-brow raise, though that'll teach us for bookending our meal with cocktails at a hotel with a starting rate of £255... 

Hartnett, Holder & Co.
Lime Wood,
Beaulieu Rd, 
Hampshire SO43 7FZ