Saturday 26 December 2015

Fennel & Pink Peppercorn 'Gravadlax'

I don't know when it became a Mabbott family tradition to cure our own salmon for home-made Gravadlax to eat on Christmas morning, but it's one that has stuck, despite none of us having any Scandinavian roots whatsoever. Usually served with a Bloody Mary for the able-bodied in the family - half of us have an alcohol allergy. Could you guess it's not me...? - at around brunch time, it is one of the things I most look forward to at Christmas. 

If you're unsure of what gravadlax is, it is cured salmon, made using just sugar, salt and dill most traditionally. Often other ingredients are added to enhance this, such as gin, juniper berries, or beetroot for a prettily stained purple colour. Often served with a sweet mustard and dill sauce, in our house we've never bothered, opting just for wafer-thin slices over buttered bread with a squeeze of lemon. Dad has always worked to a 50 / 50 sugar to salt cure, for 5 days. The cure is mixed up and spread over the large fillet of salmon and down the sides, then topped with masses of dill, and sandwiched with another identically shaped piece. This is wrapped well in cling film, then foil and placed in the fridge with something heavy on top to weigh it down. It then needs to be turned and drained of any residual juice every day. It's best to use the freshest salmon you can find - sushi-grade from the fishmonger, if possible.

It's funny that you just go home for Christmas and expect all your comforts and traditions to be in place. I didn't think anything of it that my parents had emigrated to Spain this year, until with horror at the supermarket I stared dumb-struck at the lack of dill. And then at the market. And then at another supermarket. We were going to have to improvise.

Firstly, what does dill taste of? It's a bit aniseed-y - tarragon would have been perfect. There is no tarragon in Spain. In fact, the only fresh herbs we could find were mint, basil, chives or coriander. So we looked to spices to make up the dill flavour, and then we threw all caution to the wind and decided on a new take. 

I'm just going to give you what I used here, as all of it is very dependent on how large your fillets of salmon will be: ours were about 6 inches long. You will just have to eyeball it and remember that it's much better to have too much than not enough. That's a life philosophy, that. 

Fennel & Pink Peppercorn 'Gravadlax'

Makes the cure

3 tbsp fennel seeds
2 tbsp pink peppercorns
6 tbsp sea salt flakes
7 tbsp caster sugar 
Zest of 1 lime
A large bush of coriander stalks and leaves, chopped finely

In a pestle and mortar, pound the fennel seeds, lime zest and the pink peppercorns roughly. 

In a large bowl, add the salt, sugar, and fennel seed mixture and mix well. Add the coriander and mix again. 

Lay out a sheet of cling film and place the cleaned, boneless salmon fillet (skin on) on the cling film skin side down. Spread the cure all over the fillet and on the sides. My dad also sits the salmon on some cure but given it's got the skin on and you don't eat it, I've never seen the point. I don't argue this though.  

Place the other salmon fillet flesh side down on top to sandwich the two together and wang any remaining cure around it and down the sides. Wrap tightly with clingfilm, then with foil and place in a baking dish or casserole dish that fits it snugly. Weigh down with a heavy object, like a bag of rice, and place in the fridge. Turn daily, draining any juice out, for 3 to 5 days. Many recipes do 3 days - we've always done 5. 

To eat, remove foil and cling film, brush off the cure from the fillets with a piece of kitchen roll, and slice very thinly. You can serve with mustard sauce if you like.

Monday 14 December 2015

Viet Food, Wardour Street

Wardour Street, the Chinatown end south of Shaftesbury Avenue, used to house a stalwart Vietnamese restaurant, opposite the infamous Wong Kei's. Inside, paper tablecloths, strip lighting, sticky chopsticks and bland food meant I only visited a couple of times. To survive as long as they did, which is to say at least the 11 years I've worked in London, is a testament to the tourist footfall that passes through Chinatown. 

That's all changing, now. On the corner used to be a giant buffet restaurant where drunks and people of questionable taste could pile gloopy orange chicken atop deep red crispy chilli beef, stabbed with a flaccid spring roll on a huge plate and repeat, and repeat ad nauseum. Slowly, that's being refurbished into Shuang Shuang, a steamboat restaurant that I am most excited about (more on that later). Next door, Viet Food has sprung up. The pedigree is good; the Chef / Proprietor is Jeff Tan, of Hakkasan Mayfair and others. I had high hopes. 

When we arrived we were hit by the unmistakeable smell of pho, that heady, anise-laden broth that characterises the noodle soups of Vietnam. We announced our intentions and we waited. We waited some more as others who'd booked squeezed past us. Then we were asked to wait outside. So we waited even more. Finally I cracked and asked if there was actually a table to wait for, and we were sulkily shown to an upstairs sharing table. 

The menu is huge. Separated into 'Incoming', soups, chef's specials, pho, bun, rice... we stared at the list groggily, trying to figure out what to order. Summer rolls were big and bouncy, packed full of lettuce and prawns but not a patch on Uyen Luu's. There are no interesting herbs here, just the crunch of the greens and a hoi sin-style sauce for dipping. 

Coconut calamari is much talked about when Viet Food is mentioned. I didn't get it. Bland, rubbery rings with a slightly sweet, crisp coating, served with a miniature bottle of sweet chilli sauce that was just a pain in the arse to extract. Grumpf.

Chargrilled glazed lemongrass chicken wings were a meagre portion. Sure, they were £4.50 but it was slightly embarrassing to look at on the plate; the plate was large enough to make them look stingy. There were four of us and three joints of the wings were hard to share. The lemongrass flavour was absent. They're chicken wings! Cheap as anything. Make it a fiver and pile them on. 

Happily, smoky spiced quail was a whole bird (which you'd hope for £8.50), neatly jointed into 4, and indeed spiced. Lime and salt were provided to sprinkle on at whim, and we made light work of them. 

'Slow-cooked haddock with Chef's special sauce' (£8) came in a claypot in, er, special sauce (are you thinking that too?). Chunks of fish, tender enough for Granny to gum her way through, came in a slightly sweet, slightly savoury cornflour-thickened sauce that was nothing to really write home about. 

The Pho Chin Hue, featuring slow-cooked beef in spicy broth, featured none of the promised heat but had a nice flavour. Upon its arrival we were presented with a bottle of fish sauce - "we don't use MSG in our food so you might need this for more flavour". Quite weird. I'd rather they just used MSG rather than having to add my own umami. Or I dunno, cooked it with more flavours. And before you say it, MSG is fine. 

Bun Thit Nuong, which is chargrilled lemongrass pork with round noodles in a salad form, was decent with a good amount of herbs but it was presented as just a big ol' mess. I've seen street food vendors turn out a more aesthetically pleasing dish on a hot and muggy roadside. 

The unexpected highlight of our evening was the steamed okra with soy sauce (opening picture) £5. Now that was delicious; the vegetables were still crunchy, with a hint of soy and a sprinkling of deep fried shallots. I've never known anything made of okra to be so universally liked.

We weren't exactly full by the time the food was finished, so the dessert of the day had to be ordered. Pandan sago with caramelised banana was served portioned out table-side. The banana was in no way caramelised, but we still enjoyed it. 

I really wanted to like Viet Food. I was hoping for a West End alternative to Pho, at which recently meals have been disappointing, with dishwater-like broth, but the food felt lacklustre, the portions stingy - exactly the opposite of what Vietnamese food is about. Shame. 

Viet Food
34-36 Wardour Street, Soho,
London W1D 6QT,

Monday 7 December 2015

Rockfish, Brixham

As well accomplished The Elephant's food was, the experience seemed cold and passionless. Our lunch the next day at Rockfish in Brixham was a total contrast; the service was warm, knowledgeable and friendly, and the room had a cheerful airiness to it. 

Opened by Mat Prowse and Mitch Tonks, Rockfish sits right on the fish harbour at Brixham, meaning the day's catch barely has to travel to get to the kitchens of the restaurant. There are four restaurants now, all serving a menu of sustainable and ethically sourced seafood. At this particular restaurant, the fish market is overlooked by the terrace which unfortunately in November was out of the question; you could imagine on a summer's day that those are the hot tables, especially with a glass of blush rosé. Inside is bedecked in white wood and beams emblazoned with uplifting maritime slogans, and the tables are laid with paper placemats listing different kinds of fish. Our waitress circled and priced the fish from the list that were available that day, all either battered, grilled or both. 

We all zero'd in on the fine print on the menu. All meals are served with unlimited chips. UNLIMITED CHIPS! Now that's a gauntlet thrown if ever I saw one. 

As we were 6, we were able to order a variety of starters. Sprats were the biggest I've ever seen; I deconstructed the first as I wasn't sure of the stabbiness of the bones; I needn't have worried, as they were soft enough to munch through, undetected.  

Salt and pepper prawns were big fat ones, battered and fried until crisp. I was actually hoping for prawns with heads still on, stir-fried with seasonings so that you could really get stuck in there with your hands, beheading the prawns and the like, but it wasn't to be. I'd clearly not read the menu descriptions properly. 

Is there much more pleasing than shellfish cooked in garlic butter? I'd say no. These were cooked with "loads of garlic", but somehow managed to retain their own flavour. I found the bread a bit pointless, but others made light work of it. 

The sharing platter of starters came with dressed crab, more crab meat, cockles, whole head-on prawns to get messy with, and 3 oysters. Cockles I avoided - has anyone ever had one that wasn't remotely gritty? Why do we bother with them? - and headed straight for the prawns, ripping shells off, dunking them in aioli - my favourite way to eat them. I am but simple. 

Heroically one of our party ploughed onto mains with a deep-fried mixture of seafood; no mean feat, given the previous deep-fried selection. I opted for the Dover sole (£20) healthily grilled, to enable me to fit more chips in. 

The fish was cooked simply and perfectly, lightly grilled on each side so that the meat slid from the bones with ease. The South Devon crab roll, though I didn't try any, was very well received, as were the mussels. I had eyes only for my fish, and the pickles selection.

Chips were fat and crunchy, fluffy inside and the pickles and sauces were absolutely exemplary. 'Chip-shop curry sauce' - a a guilty little pleasure of mine - was indeed like the chip shop versions; gloopy, slightly clumpy and wonderfully mild. I used to turn my nose up at the mere mention of curry sauce but I was wrong, very very wrong indeed. Mushy peas were proper - none of that crushed pea bullshit - and the pickles! Delhi pickled cucumbers, sweet and sour pickles, and pickled fennel. We were in pickle heaven, let me tell you. I often find a wally overwhelming (snigger) but these were just perfect - all sliced and ready to refresh each mouthful of fried fish. 

Service was pleasant and friendly - turns out the most amount of unlimited chips consumed isn't as much as you might think - and they were there when we needed them, and absent when not. We only wished we didn't have to dash off for our train. 

Rockfish, Brixham
Brixham Fish Market, 
Brixham, TQ5 8AJ
01803 850872

We dined as guests - all views are very much my own. 

Monday 30 November 2015

The Elephant, Torquay

It's difficult to judge The Elephant in Torquay. We arrived for a late lunch on a Saturday afternoon, and it was almost deserted. A lone elderly couple eyed us up nervously as we sat down, and hurriedly paid up and left. The restaurant itself, with ill-fitted black leather chairs and black tabletops felt a bit outdated. The serving staff, though well-meaning, were I suspect students on weekend jobs, a little bored and clumsy.

We were offered the three course set menu, which at £16.95 is cheap by most standards. Additional extras, like these oysters, can be added on. These were plump and briny; "shall I take these mussels away?" enquired our waitress, when we were done. 

I liked the riff on ham and pineapple for my starter - I am a fan of the Hawaiian pizza after all - and once you got over the slightly gelatinous quality of the pressed terrine and the jelly melted a bit in the mouth, the flavours were very enjoyable. I really liked the wafer-thin discs of daikon, bolstering through some of the richness of the meat. 

Each course had two choices, and when faced with Torbay plaice fillets with cockles, samphire and capers over pork belly with fondant potato, especially where I was sitting with a view of the sea, the choice seemed obvious. It was a generous portion, piled high with grilled fillets and a few cockles strewn around. The vinegar butter sauce was heavy on the latter, thankfully light on the former. 

Sides, priced at £3, each had a different herb flavouring them so the resultant combined bites tended to clash. Carrots were dressed with flecks of coriander and new potatoes had leaves of sage stuck to them, like hair to lip-glossed lips in high wind. I preferred the simply buttered kale, and the crisp chips to sweep through any remaining sauce. 

Dessert featured an impressively shiny raspberry cheesecake, so glossy I could almost see my face in it. A sharply sliced rectangle worked its sweet creaminess well with a tart sorbet of the same fruit, but cheesecake and sorbet was never going to win any prizes for innovation. Although executed well it came across a bit safe. 

For £16.95 for three courses, you can't go wrong with the value. The food was all present and technically correct, cooked well and tasted nice, but it just felt like something was a little lacking. It lacked warmth, and felt a little staid - much like the room itself. 

We ate as guests of the restaurant; as always, all opinions are my own. 

The Elephant
3-4 Beacon Hill, 
Torquay TQ1 2BH
01803 200044

Wednesday 25 November 2015

Weekending at The Cary Arms, South Devon

I don't explore England enough. It's well enough saying that it's good to get out of London sometimes, but having done weekends in New York, Berlin, Rome, Madrid, and Copenhagen this year, those types of weekends aren't exactly relaxing. Airports themselves I find quite stressful - if you've ever been on the verge of missing a flight, I'm sure you can sympathise - and then you're racing around trying to see everything on the limited time you have. I know, I know. Woe is me. Recently I spent a couple of days in rainy Devon, cozying up by roaring fires and eating a whole lot of seafood, and it happened to be just a mere two or so hours on a very pleasant train journey. I was clearly lucky enough to avoid Sunday replacement bus services.

The Cary Arms is an adorable converted pub, down a steep hill and right on the coast of Baddacombe Bay. It has typically low ceilings and several nooks and crannies to hide away in with the morning papers, or indeed a digestif. Probably not a digestif in the morning though. 

We were a group of five, invited to visit by their people. They have rooms as well as cottages, and the Beach Cottage was very well equipped with everything you might need for a self-catering stay. When we arrived we warmed ourselves by the Aga, before migrating over to the living room for a couple of board games. A pre-stocked fireplace made it incredibly easy to light... by someone else... I'm terrible at practical things like that. I'm much better at pouring out sloe gin that came complimentary and - joy! - was replenished daily. 

Unlike most self-catering cottages though, here you still have the luxury of nightly turn-downs in the spacious bedrooms. When I tiredly whipped off the covers of my big bouncy bed I discovered a hot water bottle warming the sheets. There is not much more glorious than getting into a pre-warmed bed.

For breakfast, fruit, honey, granola and yoghurt were on offer as well as a more traditional European-style breakfast of sliced meats and cheeses, thus enabling a three course breakfast once you factor in the cooked breakfasts that obviously I wouldn't turn down.

I ordered the grilled kippers and I got literally all the kippers in the world. See? That was just for me. It was a bit much actually. We giggled so heartily at the size of it, the waitress shrieked into the kitchen - "'ere! They're laughing at your kippers!" I gamely attempted it in its entirety but had to stop, fearful of a slow death by salt. They were good kippers though.

Much more manageable was the smoked salmon with scrambled eggs. I felt the eggs could have been a little creamier, a little fluffier but that was merely a light gripe. 

As it pissed it down with rain, we donned our raincoats and, er, leopard print trainers ("you definitely didn't bring wellies...?") and set off with David Beazley, our wild food foraging instructor. 

Sure, we look pretty soggy and bedraggled. But David was really brilliant, and took us on an hour long leisurely walk, picking out various leaves, encouraging us to taste them as we went.

We gathered leaves along the way in little plastic tubs, with the view of making our own salad as we went along. Many of the leaves were citrussy in flavour, some strongly of celery, others a hint of cucumber. 

The views along the way were stunning. Admittedly it might have been rather more picturesque if the sun had been shining and we were romping around the coast in shorts and hats, but then we definitely wouldn't have seen this mini waterfall.  

Once we'd gathered all our leaves we dressed them with a squirt of sweet sea buckthorn dressing that David had made, and in went some roasted hazelnuts he'd brought along. It was really delicious - refreshing, and interesting. A lot of salad I eat from pre-bagged or bought tend to be heavy with rocket, or bland with watery leaves, but these actually had flavour. Bitterness, sweetness, citrus, all in there. All the tastier because we picked it ourselves. 

I have absolutely no recollection of which leaf was what, which is incredibly helpful, but luckily David has a Kindle book and an app that details pictures as well as recipes. 

What else is there to do in the area? I'll come on to that later, to avoid this becoming the longest post there ever was, but what was an incredibly enjoyable way to spend a morning is a wine and cheese tasting at Sharpham's Vineyard. There's nothing quite like legitimising an 11am glass of wine - only really acceptable at weddings or wine tastings APPARENTLY - and Sharpham's wine is very fine indeed. 

If you want to learn anything about English wine then I would strongly recommend visiting. On account of said pissing rain we forewent the vineyard tour, opting instead to have a good sit under some warm blankets and be guided through all their wines instead. The Dart Valley Reserve was my favourite, and happily you can find it in Borough Market. 

What Sharpham's also do incredibly well is cheese. Each cheese we tried matched a different glass of wine, but standalone we could only sit on our hands to avoid scoffing the lot. Well worth seeking out - stockists are listed here

Back to our abode, and The Cary Arms also serves food in the evenings, with a menu that can only be described as gastro-pub with a strong leaning towards seafood. Full of solid comfort food like steak and ale pie and fish and chips, they also do lighter, more elegant options. I really enjoyed the seared (very local) Brixham scallops with crisp parma ham wafers. The star anise jus lifted it from being a bit obvious to bringing something a little different about it.  

The 'trio of fish' changes depending on what's fresh at the market. Cooked very simply and sympathetically to bring out the best of each, the seabass, ling and hake were all topped with pistou sauce. A seasonal vegetable accompaniment of mange tout, green beans and cubes of fried potato really did make me reminiscent of the veg sides you get in countryside pubs. That's not a criticism, it's just very straight-forward. 

On another night, seared pigeon breast with butternut squash puree and a black pudding sauce was very generous with not one but three whole breasts, cooked perfectly blushing and juicy in the middle. Someone had a big day on the red cress garnish, but the flavours worked really nicely, the tang of the black pudding off-setting the sweetness of the squash.  

I opted for the Devon crab salad with wholegrain mustard mayonnaise and while I was happy to get both white and brown crabmeat, the mayonnaise was a bit too plentiful to fully appreciate it. 

We all got dinner envy at the Otter ale-battered fish and chips. The less said about crushed peas the better since the person actually eating the meal loved them and I'm a big mushy girl. The fish looked perfect. Sigh. I really liked the newspaper garnish, harking back to how fish and chips used to be served. 

With a sticky toffee pudding and a cheese board to properly finish us off, there was really only one thing for it - either fall asleep in front of a fire, or take advantage of the ex-pub's throwback - pool. 

They also have a spa there, with treatment rooms. In 2016 a set of beach huts will be built, completing their spa and offering rooms right on the seafront. After a restful night's sleep in a properly dark, properly silent room - this is a novelty for a Londoner - we were treated to a 25 minute neck, shoulder and back massage. Completely blissful. Afterwards I flopped into a big squishy seat and stared at the sea for a while. 

I was invited to The Cary Arms, but as with everything on this site, all opinions are my own. Rooms start at £196 per night for two, including breakfast.

The Cary Arms
Babbacombe Beach
South Devon
Tel:  + 44 (0) 1803 327110

Saturday 7 November 2015

Mushroom & Perilla Tagliatelle

Perilla is a brilliant herb. Incredibly beautiful, with purple undersides, it's a robust leaf and it has an incredible fragrance to it. A little anise, a hint of mint, slightly medicinal, it is used across Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese cooking. It is very similar to shiso - I would find it difficult to tell the difference in a flavour test. In London, you can buy huge bunches of the stuff cheaply at Longdan in Elephant and Castle - they also have other branches. You can buy shiso leaves at The Japan Centre, but here they're not cheap at all. I bought this particular bunch for the Bun Rieu, and I was left with a huge bunch of the rest. So what to do? 

Pasta. Obviously. 

This kind of pasta, called 'wafu', is based on Japanese fusion. It takes European ingredients and fusions it with Japanese flavours. Here, I used tagliatelle and a rich butter and miso sauce to dress the pasta in. Exotic mushrooms like shimeji and brown beech mushrooms are bolstered with oyster mushrooms too. I loved this; the butter gives it a luxurious richness, and when mixed with soy sauce and miso, it really adds a whole lot of umami to those mushrooms. Shredded perilla give it an extra citrus-like freshness. 

Mushroom & Perilla Tagliatelle

Serves 2

400gr dried tagliatelle
A handful of oyster mushrooms, washed and roughly chopped
A half handful each of shimeji & brown beech mushrooms, washed well
1 clove of garlic, minced
40gr butter
2 tbsp white miso 
2 tbsp light soy sauce
A rib or two of cavalo nero or spring greens, shredded finely
1 stalk of spring onion, greens finely sliced at an angle, whites saved for another
3 perilla leaves, shredded
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Put the pasta on to cook in heavily salted water. 

Melt the butter and mix in the white miso and soy sauce until completely incorporated In a cast iron pan, add the oil and heat on high until smoking. Add the oyster mushrooms and sear for a few moments before moving them around the pan. Add the clove of garlic and stir continuously so the garlic doesn't catch. Add the shimeji and brown beech mushrooms, cook for another minute, and then add the butter miso and soy mixture, taking it off the heat as you mix it in. 

For the final minute, add the cavalo nero to the pasta cooking water, then drain, reserving 4 tbsp of the cooking water. Add the tagliatelle to the mushroom mixture and mix well, with a little of the reserved cooking water. Serve, and garnish with the spring onion and perilla leaves. 

Wednesday 4 November 2015

Blacklock's New Sunday Service

Blacklock, which opened this year, is one of my favourite meat emporiums. A subterranean den of affordable excess, I fell in love with their chops. Now though? I'm even more in love, for they have pulled off the nigh-impossible; an amazing Sunday roast. 

I was invited to the test run, and it ran like clockwork. You can choose from pork, beef or lamb but we decided not to worry ourselves with having to make a decision. Like their regular menu, you can go 'all-in' and get the works. For £20 per head, beautifully cooked meat, steamed broccoli and colourful carrots, a giant Yorkshire pudding and more crisp, golden fluffy potatoes than we could eat. There was so much rich, flavoursome dark golden gravy we dipped potatoes directly into the jug. Some classic 80s and 90s hits played just loud enough for me to want to sing along. It's just really really fun. 

Go. Why on earth wouldn't you?

(The Pinot Noir is dangerously drinkable.)

24 Great Windmill St, London W1D 7LG