Sunday 28 September 2014

Peckham Bazaar, Peckham

Towards the end of last year, Peckham Bazaar was becoming one of my favourite restaurants. Serving food from the Balkans, the menu was littered with sauces and seasonings I could barely pronounce, let alone come across before; za'atar, adjika, ktipiti, melokhia and the likes tingled my tastebuds, and the charcoal grill outside was manned bravely against the elements to impart that wonderful flavour to the meat and seafood they served. They closed abruptly for a refurbishment, hot off the heels of a 4* review from Fay Maschler. 

Devastatingly, for both them and us, the closure was long while their various challenges were ironed out. But they're back and a shiny new grill now sits within the premises, and chef John Gionleka has a roof over his head in which to work his magic. We sat outside at a wooden bench amongst vines and sunshine, primed with a bottle of crisp, Greek white wine that slid down surprisingly easily for midday on a Saturday. 

The time off hasn't harmed the cooking. Still, the dishes are executed beautifully, and still I end up googling their contents. Tomatoes bathed in fruity olive oil, topped with radishes and a charred spring onion. A large green pepper was split and stuffed with 'tsalavouti', which I believe is a Greek cheese. Creamy, soft and salty, it counteracted the slightly bitter flavour of the blistered pepper. 

Octopus, charred with blackened spots on the grill was a large tentacle, curling protectively around buttery potatoes. So often octopus is overly soft, flaccid with over-braising but ours was perky and gave just the right resistance to the teeth. Samphire and capers added a savoury touch to the creamy tarama, which one might usually find luridly pink in tubs; here, the fish roe flavour was delicate, the texture light. 

Skordalia, a dip made with creaming together potato and garlic, was powerful and tempered the tang of the marinated beetroot. We fought over the crusted parts of the baked feta, the soft middles having long been scooped up. Such pretty colours stained the plate. 

John is a man who knows his vegetables. While the Cornish sardines were blistered simply on the grill with the merest sprinkle of chilli flakes, the esme salad was bold and flavoursome, each component part of sumac, tomato, red onion, cucumber and parsley shining through to complement the oil-rich flesh of the fish that slid easily off the delicate bones. 

Mains were no less impressive. I can't resist quail when I see it on the menu, and this was no different. Marinated in both sweetness and tart, the skin was blackened on the grill, leaving tender pink flesh underneath. I tucked a napkin into my shirt collar and got stuck in with my hands, stripping it for all the meat I could get. The puree was incredibly smooth, made with fava, and soft braised bobby beans beneath were surprisingly spicy. 

Lamb and pistachio adanas were plump and juicy, pink in the middle. The internet tells me that 'adjika' is a Georgian dip made with peppers, and it was slightly rough in texture, vibrant on the plate. 

Grilled lamb neck fillet was served with artichokes 'a la politico', which we were told meant in the style of Istanbul. No idea. The sauce was flavoured with dill, and two large artichoke hearts sat beneath the lamb, cooked perfectly to pink. The expertly turned new potatoes hinted at John's classical culinary training. 

Grapefruit and pistachio baklava with mastic ice cream was certainly a pretty thing but it was never going to hold much sway with me, since I avoid both honey and cinnamon of which it had both of. I just don't like it. The mastic ice cream was pretty interesting though - the mastic gives it an almost chewy texture. My companions hoovered up their portions. 

As you might be able to tell, I loved my lunch at Peckham Bazaar. The food is just unlike anything I've had before in London; such interesting and exciting new flavours, and such skill in their execution. It's very reasonable too - sure, we paid £50 / head, but then we also had (ahem) three bottles of wine between the four of us. The starters hover around the £7 region, the mains in their early teens. The menu changes often, so I have plenty of impetus to return. They're going to start doing a brunch menu soon - mmm, shakshuka - and they roast whole animals on Sundays, as a Eastern Med-style Sunday roast. Last week I was tormented by pictures from diners of suckling pigs, this week was lamb. Go, go and go. 

119 Consort Rd, 
London SE15 3RU

0207 732 2525

Peckham Bazaar on Urbanspoon

Sunday 21 September 2014

The Chilli Pickle, Brighton

I've just spent the past weekend in Brighton, enjoying the glorious last rays of summer. We went to celebrate my birthday (AHEM IT'S TODAY!) and as anyone who knows me might be able to tell you, I rarely go anywhere without planning somewhere decent to eat. With 8 people on a Friday night after a long week at work, I wasn't about to leave it up to spontaneity or chance. That way lies hanger

The Chilli Pickle sits in a square opposite Wagamama and Pizza Express which doesn't bode enormously well, and once inside it's dark and noisy, lit with neon. But the smell inside is enticing and we sat down beside shelves of tiffin boxes and jars of pickle, of which they're famous for. The menu is large (this online one is out of date), made even larger by a separate set menu sheet and the drinks list is even larger, listing beers from India, America and Germany, as well as our own home-grown. We snacked on poppadoms and an excellent range of pickles while we decided what to order. Namkeen chaat were salt crackers topped with a tomato relish, strong and spicy in ginger. Messy to eat, they were palate-cleansing and punchy. 

We decided to order a bunch of things to share, which I immediately regretted upon tasting this corn on the cob. They were seriously good; steamed and coated with a little chilli sauce and crushed peanuts. The dish of yellow sauce you see at the back there was coconutty and creamy, and when we asked, were told it's like a korma but without the nuts. We poured that stuff directly into our mouths. 

'Manchurian' is a style of Chinese cooking adapted to Indian tastes, so basically deep fried and tossed in a sweet and sour but spiced sauce. In this case it was applied to the blandest of vegetables - the cauliflower. Underneath the crisp casing was merely matter to fill, and the pink yoghurt dip reminded me of strawberry Yazoo. Not that it tasted of much, mind you. I left this one to the group. 

We were back on track with the Chennai skate fry. The piece of skate wing was dusted in spiced, seasoned flour and fried until crisp, so that when you pulled the flesh back from the cartilage you get both soft meat and a crisp contrast. I loved this, especially slathered with the coconut sambal and chased with the tomato and grapefruit salad. Luckily so, as another two portions turned up by mistake.

I love dumplings, so I had to order the Nepalese pork momos, even though they seemed incongruous on a menu like this. They were quite thick skinned, the filling bland, but helped along by the tomato sambal and a fruity sauce flavoured with apple. 

It soon became clear that the mains at The Chilli Pickle aren't intended to be shared. Each of them arrived on its own tray, with all the requirements of a complete meal around it, which struck me as a slight shame, since what I love most about Indian food is a selection of dishes. In particular the oxtail madras; while it was well spiced, with great flavour from the gravy - which would also explain why it is their permanent 'special' - it is also incredibly rich, and after a mouthful or two we'd pass the dish down. The chunks of oxtail meat pulled away from the bone easily, but for a dish with three chillis which was the maximum heat rating, it lacked punch.

I loved the Mysore malasa dosa. A large thin pancake made with rice flour is wrapped around potato curry, mild and creamy, scented with curry leaves. The accompanying vegetable curry had chunks of courgette in, and the red coconut sambal had a bit of a kick to it. 

The chicken tandoori platter lacked the charcoal whiff of the tandoor, but made up for it with a very herby chicken keema kebab, scented with cardamom. The naan beneath it soaked up all the chicken juices, and was perfect for dipping in the buttery black dhal. There's that tomato salad again. 

Tandoori lamb chops were tender and succulent, though they'd need a stronger hand with the spicing, and much crisper and abundant fat to give Tayyabs a run for their money. I really liked the green chilli and mint chutney that came with it, and the lurid pink beetroot raita was soothing, yet surprisingly spicy. I have no idea what the round puck was - it didn't look particularly appealing, and instead I got on with dipping our extra garlic naan in the dhal of the day, a yellow lentil tarka. 

So, a meal of ups and downs, but mostly ups. I like that the menu ranges widely from very obvious South Indian style, touching upon Gujarati, and a brief pause in Nepalese. It did make it a bit awkward when our visibly uncomfortable waitress couldn't tell us what the difference between kesar, pasanda and rajput gravy were, nor could she explain much else on the menu. Our numerous grievances with the service, such as more beers than we'd ordered turning up, our poppadom order doubled, and a starter tripled were put down to the training status of our waitress, so it seems mean to call them up on it, but I wonder about the wisdom of assigning a server in training to a table of 8, with a potentially complicated order on a busy Friday night. Maybe I'm mean. There's obvious skill in the kitchen though and with plenty of booze and more food than we could fit in, we paid £32 each including service.

17 Jubilee Street

Thursday 18 September 2014

Breakfast at Nopi, Oxford Circus

The monthly breakfasts are still going strong and, if I'm honest, it's getting a little difficult to find a breakfast that isn't very heavy on the Eggs Benedict vibe, especially if you're a sweet avoider as I am. Happily, though, Nopi near Oxford Circus, provides something a little different. 

From the Ottolenghi stable, I've enjoyed lunches and dinners here, though much like Ottolenghi's recipes themselves I've sometimes found their dishes a little... over-flavoured. As if perhaps they'd taken it one flavour profile too far. 

Not so much the case for breakfast, thankfully. Shakshuka is a traditional Middle Eastern dish of eggs poached in a spiced tomato and pepper sauce. Here, they're served in individual roasting hot cast iron pans with a dollop of smoked labneh - that's a thick, strained yoghurt - on top, that threatened to overwhelm but in fact tempered the spices. Perfectly poached, rich orange-yolked eggs were scooped up with toasted bread that was just the right amount to stave off any morning waddle. 

Do go and have a gaze around the ladies loos when you're there. They're something to behold. 

21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584
NOPI on Urbanspoon

Sunday 14 September 2014

Stuffed Courgettes with Avgolemono Sauce

When is a courgette a marrow? Is a marrow an over-grown courgette? I'd say yes, and my housemate and I had this exact... debate when she returned from her family's allotment, wielding a bag stuffed full of courgettes / marrows.

I know a few people who aren't keen on the courgette; watery and tasteless are a couple of adjectives used to describe them, but I don't believe that to be true. They have a delicate flavour, yes, but when cooked properly they're a great vehicle for flavour and a soft, buttery texture. I often stir fry them in shit-loads of garlic, or stew them in olive oil and garlic until they're a mush; garnished with parsley and a spritz of lemon, this mush is wonderful smeared on bread or tossed through pasta.

For something a little more involved though, this lot were stuffed and drizzled with avgolemono sauce. Don't ask me how to pronounce that. It is Greek in origin, and made using stock, egg and lemon. It can be a bit of a tricky bugger if you rush through it, as the egg takes a bit of delicate handling, but otherwise it's a smooth and deceptively creamy sauce; perfect with the beef and dill stuffing the vegetables.

Stuffed Courgettes with Avgolemono Sauce

Serves 4

4 medium courgettes, or 1 large marrow

200gr minced beef
1 small yellow onion, diced finely
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp paprika
50gr bulgar wheat
A handful of dill, chopped finely
1/2 tsp salt, for seasoning
Table salt, for salting the courgettes
1 tbsp cooking oil
400ml chicken stock

Avgolemono Sauce

300ml hot stock (strained from the cooked courgettes

2 eggs
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tbsp plain flour
2 tbsp butter

Firstly, slice the courgettes into slices about 2 or 3 fingers thick. Remove the inside core seeds, leaving a couple centimetres of white flesh with the skin. This is best done using a small knife and a sturdy teaspoon.

Dissolve plenty of salt in little boiling water, then fill up with cold water, enough to submerge the courgette slices. Leave for 20 minutes, then remove, rinse and pat dry.

Add the cooking oil to a large, non-stick deep sided frying pan on a medium heat. Fry the onion, garlic, cumin and paprika with the minced beef and the bulgar wheat. Add the 1/2 tsp salt and mix well. When the beef has lost its rawness, remove from the heat and mix in the dill. Move to a bowl to cool, and wipe out the frying pan.

Preheat the oven to a warm setting to keep the courgettes warm while you make the sauce. To stuff the courgettes, place each round down into the pan and pack each well with the beef mixture, pressing down with the back of a teaspoon as you go. Set on a medium heat and add the stock around the courgette rounds. Place the lid on, or top with foil tightly. Once the stock comes to a boil, turn it down to a low heat to gently steam. After 10 minutes, remove the lid and carefully turn the courgette rounds with a knife and a spatula. Steam again for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat, place the courgettes into a heatproof serving dish and place in the oven. Remove 300ml of stock for the sauce.

To make the sauce, heat a saucepan on a medium heat with the butter and the flour, whisking well. Cook for 2 - 3 minutes to cook the flour out. Next, add the stock dribble by dribble, whisking well in between adding more, until all of it has been added. Simmer for 2 - 5 minutes until it has thickened. Next, pour the egg and lemon mixture into the sauce VERY slowly, mixing well continuously. When all has been poured, take off the heat. Pour the sauce around the courgettes and drizzle it on top before serving.

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Barrafina, Adelaide Street

When I heard that Barrafina, one of my favourite places to while away a few hours, was opening a second branch I was immediately excited. I checked their Twitter page obsessively, wondering when they'd bloody well open dammit. Weeks went by and then, suddenly, they were open with a bang. Pictures flooded my Instagram feed and I stared longingly at images of those famously expensive Carabinieros - massive red prawns, often at £20 a pop. Yep, each. £20 for a prawn. But if it isn't the best freaking prawn you've ever eaten, then you need to tell me where you had one better. 

Back to the beginning. The original Barrafina, a Soho stalwart, is a busy place. If you don't get there at opening hours you're facing down a queue of 45 minutes to an hour and a half for one of those coveted 23 seats at the bar. I don't begrudge them the time; after all, you can have a beer and a croquetas or two while you wait. I've never had tapas as good in Spain. I had high hopes for the new place. I had fears that with expansion, the quality would drop. 

I needn't have worried. On the day Marina O'Loughlin raved about the new branch, I rushed over there for lunch, happily surprised to nab the last two stools at 1pm on a Saturday. The polished bar snakes around the corner, and the space is bright and airy. The croquetas (£4.50 for 2), updated with crab instead of the usual jamon, were textbook; creamy, crabby and impossibly mousse-like insides and a crisp coating. They're the kind of things you bite into and then wish everyone would just be quiet for a moment while you savour the skill needed to make them and the flavour within them. I'm a fan of the new zushed-up versions. 

Chiperones (£7) (little baby squid) were expertly battered and deep fried. A good squirt of lemon was needed to cut through the friedness of it all, and they became infinitely better when scooped up with plenty of chopped almost raw garlic and parsley. Make sure your date eats some too to avoid a one-way garlic-filled snog. 

Chicken wings (£6.50) were grilled on the now-ubiquitous Josper grill that gives them that trademark smokiness, and then smothered with mojo picon sauce. Traditionally, its made with red peppers, paprika and sherry vinegar; a little spiciness, a little sweetness. I was amused to see my neighbours eating these politely with a knife and fork. We showed no such restraint. 

On my last trip to Spain, I discovered the magic of sherry vinegar. The tomato, fennel and avocado salad originally raised an eyebrow at its £7 price tag but it was worth every single penny. Beef heart tomatoes lay at the base, topped with sliced smaller tomatoes and quartered blood-red cherry tomatoes. These were as tomatoey as you'll find, sweet and juicy. We wondered if the fennel would work with the avocado, and of course it did. But it's the memory of the dressing that makes my mouth water. Grassy olive oil, perfectly balanced with the sweet depth of sherry vinegar. I could drink it. I might have drank it.  

Salmorejo was another thing I discovered in Seville. It's like gazpacho, but creamier, milder, sweeter. Originally from Cordoba, it contains more bread than gazpacho, which gives it its creaminess. Here, chicory topped with meaty anchovies makes it one of the best damn vegetable-ish dishes I've had recently (though I'd hope so, for £8.80). Salty anchovies, sweet Salmorejo and bitter leaves combined balance out beautifully. 

We couldn't resist ordering this little bocadillo (£7.50); seared, naked squid in a lightly toasted bun, smeared with confit'ed onions. There's no sexy way of eating this and it's likely that your fist bite will pull some tentacles out of its bready home, leaving them dangling to your chin. I worried that, like many crusty French baguettes, it would take the roof of my mouth off, but the freshness of the bun prevented it from doing so. It was the shoestring-esque fries that got me, with their salty, crisp goodness. I told the waiter off for taking them away from me before I'd devoured them all. 

It could have been over-consumption, but I was less enthused about the grilled skate wing with black olives and pine nuts from the Specials menu. The fish was cooked well, but I found the mashed up black olives a bit... samey samey. A bit one-note.

Nevertheless, it's safe to say I loved the new Barrafina. Of course I loved it. I had no doubt that I would. The service was spot-on, as per Frith Street; friendly and unobtrusive. Sure, its not cheap - we spent £40 a head, but actually for food at that standard, with a glass of sherry and two glasses of wine each, I actually felt it was really good value. Spanish food is often about great quality ingredients treated well and these don't come at your typical pound-a-bowl market stall. We didn't go for any of the heavy-hitters - a plate of Iberico jamon, for example, will set you back £18 - but order carefully and the bill won't be too much of a nasty shock. Then again, who wants to order carefully? Next time I'm going for a jamon-crazed bender. There are Iberico pork ribs on the menu!


10 Adelaide Street
London WC2N 4HZ

No reservations. Obvs.