Sunday 26 October 2014

Lake Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia

When I found out that I was going to Ljubljana with work, besides its initially unpronounceable name, I didn't give it much else thought. Ignorantly, I'd put it down to be a grey Eastern Bloc kind of city, a bit drab and dreary. I imagined meaty stews and dumplings.

I couldn't have been further from the truth. After our 2 hour plane journey, I was taken aback by how picturesque Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, is. The city is split by a canal running through the middle of it and cobbled streets are lined with cafes and pretty peach facades of churches, topped with turquoise-green domes. Dragon Bridge, crossing the river is one of Europe's earliest reinforced bridges, decorated by four dragons on plinths (top picture); the legend is that Jason and the Argonauts founded the town, and they killed a dragon here. 

It's not a large place; we did most of our exploring by foot, and we could traverse the town in around 15 to 20 minutes. The city is divided into old and new towns, the old radiating out from the castle perched atop a steep hill, dating back to the eleventh century. A slog up a gravel path rewards you with an impressive view of the city; higgledy piggledy architecture of sandwich-shaped buildings, an abundance of churches, and strange grey blocks on top of buildings, telling the time. We discovered the funicular to descend in. 

I was, for the most part, wrong about the food too. What with its proximity to Italy, many menus featured pastas and risottos, and there was a lot of pizza around. At the time of our visit (October), what was most prevalent was the abundance of truffles. Truffles topped steaks, dressed pastas and were grated over fish. We were given a jar of truffle paste in our welcome bags from our hosts. I've eaten more truffle in my week there than combined, in my lifetime. 

Restaurant Julija presented our first truffle-laden meal. Their signature dish, the Steak Julija was a fillet, smothered in a creamy truffled sauce and accompanied by a chargrilled half-endive. Seven out of our party of eight ordered this, and each were cooked perfectly. It was no trifling portion - which was something we'd soon learn about Ljubljana - especially with hefty sides.

Less popular with the group were the cheese dumplings, a speciality of Ljubljana, called 'sirovi knedeljni'. Actually, I was the only person that liked them. They were very thin, papery crepes rolled up and interspersed with a curd-like cheese, mild in flavour. Seemingly boiled or steamed, they're soft and yielding to the fork. They reminded me very much of the Turkish borek, and later I found that 'burek' are indeed a popular fast food snack there. 

Horse was also common on the menus of the more traditional restaurants. Restaurant Spajza was firmly ensconsed in the old town, down a pretty street. The restaurant is split off into several sections, each holding one or two tables, candlelight struggling to brighten the wooden-panelled rooms. The menu was, as far as I could tell, as traditional as one might get - deer tartare, young horse carpaccio and smoked goose breast with truffles all appealed on the starters. We were given amuses of shredded horse meat topped with parmesan - smoked and dried, the flavour was much like beef. 

Having had a rather meaty time so far, I opted for the '┼żlikrofi' with shrimp tails and morels. ┼żlikrofi are delicate dumplings filled with potato, and in this instance they were dressed with a light cream sauce, the earthy morels dominating the flavour. I had thought they were a type of stuffed pasta, an influence from nearby-Italy, but actually these are so traditionally Slovenian that in 2010 they were awarded with protected geographical status. 

The Mediterranean-style octopus main course came in a huge cast iron pan in a puttanesca-style sauce, and the spicy tomato held chunks of new potatoes, olives, courgettes and capers; it was only a shame that I had to stuff it all in, having waited an hour for our mains and being pretty late for a meeting. I put that down to the sudden influx of diners, all suspiciously male, probably because of a certain US model dining at the table next to us. Otherwise, I'd strongly recommend Spajza - the food was well prepared, the menu was captivating and the waiting staff knowledgeable. 

Karst is a region in Slovenia well known for its caves and underground lakes - seemingly for their sausages too, as this dish was billed. The snappy skin of a frankfurter was evident here, and it was served with a smear of mustard that had the flavour, if not the colour, of French's. This one in particular from Zlata Ribica, a pretty canal-side cafe under sun umbrellas, came with the added bonus of palette-awakening grated horseradish on top, although the triangles of baked polenta were a touch dry. I'd seen it at other restaurants, also served in pairs, served with potatoes and a cabbage and apple slaw. 

We tried out a little of the high end, too. Restaurant Strelec, in the castle grounds, had sheepskin chairs for the outdoor tables and a view of the city. When we stopped by for lunch we were the only people in the restaurant - Ljubljana, it seems, is not particularly busy - and the 'poor man's bread' was probably the most impressive starter. A potato cylinder was cut open to reveal liquid egg yolk, pouring out to mingle with the potato foam covered with grated truffle (of course). We were told that back in the olden days, potatoes were cheaper than bread, hence the name. While our meal was well put together, it lacked a little passion; it was pretty and flavoursome food on stark white plates, made up of butter-laden creamy potato and rich, reduced jus. We could have been anywhere in Europe.

I can't be that long away without rice, and a trip to Sushimama made me wonder what Slovenian sushi would be like. It was very good. We eschewed the a la carte section of sushi and nigiri (some with truffle, obvs) for an easier sushi and sashimi section, all nicely made and well plated. Wagyu beef was served on a platter, raw, with a scorching hot stone to sear our own meat on, and a ponzu dip for swooshing in. My favourite was the eel (unagi), brushed with a smoky glaze. I'm never unhappy with this dish, it's just got the best combination of firm fish, savoury depth and sweet sauce, all soaking into rice. it wasn't the cheapest meal we had at around £45 / head but Japanese food rarely is. 

We headed to Bled. In the north west of the country, it's around a a 40 minute drive from the capital, passing white-topped mountains and lush green forestry. Lake Bled is a tourist spot; pictures of 'cremeschnitte' decorate the sides of buildings, and boats full of tourists are lazily rowed around the lake. Another castle on top of a hill, this from the 17th Century, was another breath-taking 15 minute hike - not recommended after a couple of beers. Amidst the tourists wielding DLSRs and waving iPhones around, it was a breath-taking view, and quite a peaceful one too. 

The cremeschnitte ('cream slice') itself is not to be missed - I don't think you could if you tried. It's a speciality of Bled, and it consists of flaky pastry, and a surprisingly light cream and custard mousse-like centres. 

We didn't eat in many restaurants in Bled since we weren't there for long, but the 'eco-lodge' feel of Garden Village was certainly impressive. The restaurant was made up of light wood with grassy squares and herb boxes built into the centre of the tables. They were kind enough to open up for our large group especially, and while a broccoli soup hit the spot, the buckwheat roulade with cream cheese that accompanied our mains was quite... weird. This was no cheese dumpling. Still, the unusual surroundings of the glass-sided building made for a sun-soaked early autumn setting. That evening, a cream of mushroom soup followed by the Autumn risotto with chestnuts, beef fillet and truffles at the Best Western was pretty damn tasty, much to my surprise (as I usually cynically am about hotel chains). A week of expectations smashed to smithereens.  

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Smacked Cucumber Salad, Turbo-Charged

A big part of my cooking life is the love of experimentation. I've fiddled and tweaked and added to already established recipes countless times because of curiosity, or carelessness in the shopping process, so that I've had to substitute something for whatever I forgot to buy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes that additional ingredient lifts that dish from the norm to the outstanding (often, it's fresh herbs) but other times it just doesn't need anything else. It's perfect as it is. But you don't know until you try, and with Smacked Cucumbers I've tried many things. 

Stripped down to its basics, it consists of these main components: Salt, chilli oil, garlic, sugar and vinegar. Salty, sweet, sour and spicy, in a happy balance, soaking into the bland cooling cucumber. What if you were to take each of these flavour profiles to the extreme? 

I started off with making an infused garlic oil, made by frying garlic chips of uniform thickness as a base. This then became the chilli oil, and to it, I added some spices. Fennel seed and coriander seed for fragrance, and a star anise for depth. Palm sugar went in next, for the most caramel-rich of the sugars, and the salty aspect, with a little sweet for good measure, came in the form of soy sauce and white miso. Chilli was provided by Korean chilli flakes - mild, but vivid red. Sichuan peppercorns give tingle, and the punch was provided by finely minced fresh green jalapeno peppers. Sour? Sherry vinegar, Chinkiang black vinegar, and a squirt of lime. 

It works marvellously. With a simple crisp-skinned salmon fillet and some rice, the richness of the sauce takes centre stage. For something to accompany meat stews or stir-fries, the simpler option is probably best for some cooling relief - otherwise, this turbo-charged version is a winner. 

Smacked Cucumber Salad, Turbo Charged

Serves 4 as a side 

200ml vegetable oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced very thinly
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds 
1/2 star anise
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 tbsp Korean chilli flakes
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp palm sugar
1 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 clove garlic
1 fresh green jalapeno, minced
2 long, slim cucumbers, washed and topped and tailed
1/2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
A few coriander leaves
Table salt

Place a clean tea over the cucumbers and smack lightly with a rolling pin, until squashed. Chop roughly and place in a colander - sprinkle with table salt and leave over the sink for the juices to leech out. 

Place the oil in a small saucepan with the garlic chips, cold. Place on a medium heat, and watch like a hawk. When the oil starts to bubble, swirl the garlic chips around to separate them. When they start to turn a light golden, take off the heat and carry on swirling - they will become browner in the oil. Do not let them go beyond a peanut brown, or they will become bitter. 

Drain the oil into a heat proof bowl, and place the chips on a piece of kitchen towel to soak up excess oil. 

Pour the oil back into the pan, and place back on a medium heat. Add the star anise, fennel seeds, sichuan peppercorns and the coriander seeds. Bubble for 30 seconds, then remove from the heat and add the chilli powder. Return to a low heat and stir continuously until the chilli powder darkens but does not burn. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. 

Remove the star anise, then add the sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegars, and clove of garlic. Place in a small chopper or blender and process until smooth. Add the miso and process again. 

Rinse the cucumber well and pat dry. Place in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over. Toss well to ensure all the pieces are covered. Place the cucumber on a plate, and garnish with the minced jalapeno, garlic chips and the coriander leaves. 

Sunday 19 October 2014

The Clove Club, Shoreditch

What do those folk at Michelin look for when they're dishing out the stars? It used to be stuffy dining rooms, starched linen and spotlit table settings. Perhaps a French waiter would sweep past to correct your napkin placement, and to hold a chair out for you when you return from the bathroom. Lobster, foie gras and truffles were the classic tick! tick! tick! of a menu that was aiming high, with a price to match it.

I went to The Clove Club mere days before they were awarded one, for a triple whammy family celebration. Happily there was no fussiness, and, given the high ceilings, I was surprised by how quiet the main dining room was, since most of the tables were taken. Clever acoustics. An open, turquoise-tiled and gleaming kitchen showed off the chefs gliding silently around each other at work. There are two options to the menu - a £55 course set, or an extensive £95 number. We decided on the former, declining the £11 addition of the pork chop. That decision was two-fold - supplements on a set menu is a bug bear of mine, and we weren't sure we could hack it. My new age is letting me down.

A few snacks arrived to kick off the meal. Wood pigeon sausage with greengage jam came skewered on toothpicks, while tiny little crisp tartlets, incredibly delicate, filled with goats curd and a disc of beetroot rested on a folded napkin. Chickens' feet, deboned and puffed until crisp and dusted with spice (top pic) came with ample dip, a creamy sort. Their famous buttermilk fried chicken that I first tried in 2011 was as good as its always been, and even better dunked in the aforementioned dip. Confusingly, the house-cured coppa arrived after our snacks, rather than with our aperitifs. But, no matter.

Beneath the mass of perfectly square mustard leaves was raw scallop topped with brown butter jelly. The dish played clever tricks on the tongue; the rich flavour of butter was in a clear jelly, while the clean, fresh sweetness lay in the creamy discs. I swiped the plate clean with dense, malty sourdough. 

The fish course was perhaps the least memorable, which was in part due to what followed. Still, the square of brill we had was heightened by raw shaved ceps and a swoop of inky truffle-scented sauce which, by the time I was done with it, stained the plate to look like a child's fury at art class. It's not that it wasn't good. It was just that the next course was such a highlight. We were presented with a wine glass in which 100 year old Madeira was poured into it and we were invited to sniff it. Slightly nervous-making for my mother who is, incredibly unfortunately, allergic to booze - the face reddens, the room wobbles, the vision swims, unpleasant things happen and an instant hangover sets it. I am beyond glad I did not inherit this. But our waiter pleasantly remembered her avoidance of our delicious, delicious wine and a small half measure was administered for her, and a serving of hot, clear liquid was poured into each glass. It was a broth made with duck, and if wasn't the best damn thing I've drank for a while then I don't know what is. Creamy on the tongue, sweet from the Madeira and slightly herbal in fragrance, it made you lick your lips and go back for more. I was genuinely upset it had finished. Mother survived intact.

Our next course was another milestone of mine; usually, I am a grouse-avoider. I just couldn't get on board with those gamey little birds, all smelling of heather and moorland, but this year has been a bit of a turning point - perhaps my tastebuds have changed? Starting off with Tim Anderson's (of Masterchef fame) grouse ramen, it no longer makes me wrinkle my nose in distaste. I suppose if anything were to change my mind it would be a bowl of noodles. The Clove Club's was a more traditional serving. The breast, taken off the bone was served with swede puree and bread sauce. I'm not sure how they did it, but the skin was roasted and crisp, the flesh beneath yielding and uniformly pink. The carcass was presented for us to nibble and gnaw on, with little lollipop legs (which had disarmingly furry claws) of darker, more flavoursome meat. The tiny little heart, vivid and bloody, skewered on a toothpick was tender and sweet. 

After such a rich and flavoursome meat course, the Amalfi lemonade with black pepper ice cream was positively cleansing. A small glass of of beautiful, creamy foam was given to us, and hidden within was a quenelle of ice cream, so what you had was a slight fizziness from the lemonade, followed by the spiciness of pepper. It was incredibly clever. Figs with hazelnuts and milk crisps were a plate of contrasting textures, ripe fruit and autumnal warmth in flavour. 

Service was discrete when we were in deep conversation, but open and friendly when we were distracted. Being moved to our table from the bar mid-drink, and the coppa served after the snacks made me a little more aware that I usually am of the table being booked out for a second sitting, and though the dishes came out in quick succession, I soon lost the feeling of being rushed. If you're after a long and languishing meal though, booking later in the evening seems best. 

The Clove Club was one of the best meals I've had so far this year; it eased me into the autumn and winter season gently with plenty of rich, earthy flavours, executed elegantly. I don't mourn the hot stickiness of summer anymore - bring on rich game, slow-cooked stews, and - most importantly - hot booze. I'm ready. 

Shoreditch Town Hall
380 Old Street, London

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