Wednesday 30 September 2015

Cal Pep, Barcelona

When researching restaurants and bars for my Barcelona trip, Cal Pep was probably the one recommended to me the most. Bar some naysayers, I was told it was the best tapas in town, and I should get there early if I wanted a coveted seat at the bar. Indeed, I believe Barrafina's owners took inspiration from Cal Pep when opening their own place. 

Barrafina is better. 

That's not to say Cal Pep isn't good though. I rocked up on a Monday 15 minutes before opening time, and slotted into the queue at fourth place. As I was alone, I was instructed down to the far end of the bar; meanwhile larger groups who had booked carried on through to a dining room with tables. I will never choose a table over bar seating if I can possibly help it. 

My waiter asked me a flurry of Spanish, at which point I gathered there was no menu. He barked words at me - "fritto misto?" "almejas?" I nodded enthusiastically. "Tortilla?" I made a face. The older chap sitting next to me was also alone and caning the white wine like it wasn't a Monday, and so our dishes came out in tandem. Clams, cooked with tiny slivers of jamon, white wine and garlic were gorgeous, plump little things. A chef working behind the counter tsked at both of us, ordered us to put our forks down and slurp directly from the shells. I did as I was told. 

I very much enjoyed watching the chef behind the bar constantly tossing seafood through seasoned flour and dumping it into the fryer - toss, toss, fry, dump, repeat - and I wondered if that was his job all day. The fritto misto itself was fairly unremarkable; well fried, sure, but some of the small fishes I assume you're supposed to eat whole, like anchovies or sprats, were too big and after almost choking TO DEATH on a fish bone I came to deboning each with my fingers. It was a bit of a drag. 

So despite the face I got the tortilla anyway, and I'm glad I did as it was really delicious. The top was smeared with ...mayonnaise? And the insides were creamy and ever-so-slightly liquid. A whole tortilla for one was a bit much though (which I anticipated, hence my face) and I wish I'd been able to share it with Grandpa to my left who was ploughing gamely through his, onto his fourth glass of wine. 

By this point I was roundly stuffed as well as feeling incredibly vegetable-deficient but I wasn't quite ready to call it quits yet. Around me people who weren't alone had tuna tartare and sausage with beans (botifarra, not Heinz) and I wanted just one more thing. When asked, I told them I liked prawns, and I was offered two. What then ensued was a good fifteen minutes of what looked like the head chef attempting to weigh them, take the battery out, bash the scales around a bit, find another battery, weigh them again... I suddenly became slightly nervous that I had no idea what these (or anything else) cost, and if they're weighing them then... 

The answer is €17. Two big red prawns (not carabineros) were €17. Baked in salt on the plancha, they were juicy and just cooked - a second less would have rendered them undone. As I peeled the prawns the chef approached, ripped the top of the prawn's head off and proffered the brains to me to eat up. Luckily I was going to do so anyway - anyone more squeamish might have quailed under his expectant gaze. An espresso and a bill of €55 later, I gave up my seat to an extremely pushy woman, sad that I wouldn't be able to watch the spectacle of her ineffectual rudeness. Tourists, eh? 

Cal Pep
Plaça de les Olles, 8, 
08003 Barcelona, Spain

Sunday 27 September 2015

The Newman Arms, Fitzrovia

Around these parts, The Newman Arms used to be called ‘that pie pub’. I worked 10 minutes away from it for 6 years, and I went a few times – mainly in the depths of winter, to hunker down in the tiny little room upstairs with sticky tartan carpets and too-close-together tables. It smelled like cabbage and butter, and the only thing on the menu was – yep – pies. Most of them were the kind of pies that pie purists get their knickers in a right old twist about; you know the ones, they harp on endlessly about pies needing sides, and these! These! They shout, brandishing their pitchforks. These are CASSEROLES WITH LIDS! Snore. 

Those days are gone now, and so are their pies. The upstairs has been refurbished; nothing extensive, just pared back simplicity. The dining room is tiny, and the kitchen even more so which makes it all the more impressive for what comes out of it. It's still a pub downstairs, and on a Friday night you may have to jostle through a street-full, then a pub-full of drinkers to make your way up the rickety stairs. 

The Cornwall Project has taken the space over; they're also in residence at The Adam and Eve in Homerton, The Three Crowns in Stoke Newington, and The Duke of Edinburgh in Brixton. They like their pubs. The Project started five years ago with Matt Chatfield, a Cornishman who has worked closely with suppliers in Cornwall to bring London restaurants the finest produce, and has now branched out on his own.

From a short and changing menu, duck hearts with beetroot, blackberries and cobnuts is a great little starter; vivid on the plate, and the tender hearts sweetened with the fruit. It felt wonderfully autumnal, and the softer, squidgier textures were offset by the roasted, crunchy cobnuts. Some fine bread, loose-crumbed and sourdoughy, came with a generous pat of butter.

Mackerel with cucamelons - cucamelons! How cute are they? - and dill oil could have done with a heavier hand on the pickle flavour but otherwise the fish itself, served raw, was as fresh could be. Mackerel is an oily fish which has a tendency to go very fishy if it's been sitting around for a while, but there was absolutely no sign of that here. I am in love with cucamelons; grape-sized, cucumber flavoured and with a hint of citrus. 

I loved the aged rump cap beef tartare, properly beefy and chopped coarsely, so you could feel each little piece in your mouth. My poor companion, an avoider of the raw flesh, found that she really liked this one in small doses. Me? I piled that chargrilled toast up high, relishing the pickle and the smoked anchovy cream that dotted the tartare. 

An unexpected treat from the kitchen came in the form of lamb rump with an incredibly, impossibly crisp skin. God I love salty salty lamb fat. Pickled shiitake mushrooms made a change from the usual, a more interesting accompaniment to what can sometimes be a fairly standard meat-and-two-veg choice. 

The turbot though. Now this was pretty damn special. Pearly white flesh, on top of crushed potatoes, grilled yellow courgettes and purple micro-basil. Don't ask me what the sauce was - I have no idea and the menu missed this bit off - but my word this was good. Even though I know turbot is one of the most expensive fishes out there, at £25, it's the most expensive dish on the menu so it had a lot to live up to. Thankfully it did, and I was loathe to share it. 

It's very well I did, because otherwise I may have been denied the salt-baked celeriac with Tunworth cheese. It says a lot about a restaurant when out of 4 main courses you still fancy trying the vegetarian option (ok, maybe it says a lot about me), choosing over pork belly and beef shortrib. I have fond memories of salt-baked celeriac from The Ledbury; the salt-baking really intensifies the flavours, condenses the textures. Tunworth cheese is a runny, pungent one, adding some extra oompf. Pickled walnuts were a nice touch, and I especially liked the cubes of crisp, sharp apple; completely unexpected and it sounded bonkers on paper, but worked beautifully on the plate. 

I didn't take a picture of dessert. I completely forgot. I was having such a lovely time that once the dessert was set before us, we went at it and that was that. It happens a lot with me and desserts. The chocolate mousse was not, in fact, a mousse but was actually a baked fondant, those things with a liquid centre that Masterchef contestants seem to decide to make all the time despite its propensity to go completely wrong. This did not. The insides were molten, the outsides were cakey. It was light enough, topped with ice cream, for us to wipe the dish clean, and not so rich as to make us feel sick. 

As you can tell, I am a big fan of The Newman Arms in its new incarnation. We had a couple of dishes gifted to us (the beef tartare and the lamb) because Matt is just a bloody nice bloke but without it I can hand on heart say that I would feel the same way. These days finding a restaurant in the environs of Soho and Fitzrovia that is actually bookable, with brilliant food that won't bankrupt you is a rare find, and The Newman Arms is all three. 

Oh! There is ONE pie. It's on at lunchtime, when there is a ludicrously cheap 3 courses for £19 deal. I believe it might even have pastry sides to it, but don't hold me to that... 

The Newman Arms
23 Rathbone Street, 
London, W1T 1NG 

Sunday 20 September 2015

Bar Del Pla, Barcelona

I've just spent two weeks in Barcelona for work; you'd think in a city so full of restaurants you'd try to get to as many as possible, but actually I enjoyed Bar del Pla so much, I went twice. 

We experienced both sides of the spectrum; perched at the bar, and sat down properly in the back dining room. No prizes for guessing where had the better ambience, but since both times they were full and we had a short wait, we weren't being picky. Pan con tomate, a staple of the Catalonia region, was rich with pulp and twinkling with salt crystals. A squid ink croquette was startling in colour, but as good as any I've had; melting inside, crisp outside. Long, thin peppers, blistered and hot replaced the usual padrons. These were spicier than their more squat counterparts, and we spluttered often. 

I'd never have ordered the 'mushrooms and wasabi' if I hadn't been so vegetable-deficient by this stage of the trip. Man I am glad we did. Chestnut mushrooms, shaved incredibly thinly and served raw, mingled with pieces of strawberry, curls of a sharp cheese that might have been manchego, and slivered shiso leaves - all drizzled with a wasabi-scented dressing. It sounds completely bonkers doesn't it? It was so, so good. A simple tomato salad featured firm, large chunks of the sweetest fruit, heightened by great olive oil and sherry vinegar. We flicked more salt crystals off.

Asparagus were grilled until tender, a smokiness imbued within them. Romesco sauce, made with red peppers, almonds, bread and olive oil blitzed to a coarse, red paste is another Catalonian speciality, and added richness to the vegetables. We devoured this. I'm not sure the cress added much (does it ever?).

From the larger 'granny's cuisine' dishes, I only ordered this dish because @jmdale01, who'd recommended me the restaurant, said to; on the menu, it was labelled 'Iberican Cheek Café Paris' and it didn't sound particularly exciting (more baffling...), but the perfectly cooked cheeks, fork-tender and gelatinous were in its' braising juices that tasted lightly curried. Almond-scented croutons topped the dish which added a surprising, slightly sweet dimension, while the potatoes remained al dente, ideal for swiping up extra sauce. This was a real highlight of the whole trip. 

I don't normally go in for foie gras. I find it a bit too much and it finishes off what remaining appetite I might have, but I wasn't eating alone and I can't always have my way I suppose. True to form, the foie gras was incredibly indulgent, but cooked well with a crisp caramelised crust and custard-smooth inside. The 'crispy beef' was slow-cooked shredded beef, wrapped around a thin filo-like pastry and deep-fried. Rather astoundingly, this dish was only €5.90.

'¡¡¡A Tapa of Tripe!!!!' was how the menu described this cast-iron dish of, well, tripe. Cooked with chorizo, the pieces were gooey and frilly in the mouth. I liked it, though less so when it repeated on me through the night. My companions were apprehensive, crying off with mumbles of being overly full to take it on.

Both times I was surprised how cheap the bill was; with ample of their delicious white rioja and tip, we barely scratched £25 a head. Well worth a visit. Or two.

Bar Del Pla

Carrer Montcada 2,
80030 Barcelona

Wednesday 2 September 2015

Korean-Style Glazed Meatballs

I'm as guilty as the next person of buying groceries and promptly forgetting about it, going off to meet friends, work late, neglect dinner. It always makes me feel really guilty; so guilty in fact that I find myself boiling eggs at 1am, half drunk, so they don't go off and I can make the most of them. Waste is a bad thing, and I hope I never change in this respect. I don't want to be one of those people who can wantonly throw away food without a thought behind it. Long may the guilt live. 

This recipe was borne out of that very feeling. I watched flat peaches slowly wrinkle, the skin toughening, the fruit ripening. I just kept forgetting about them until it wasn't possible to ignore any longer. I could bake a cake with them, or make them into compote maybe. That would then sit in the fridge and grow fur. 

Or I could make Korean-style meatballs! A much better idea. These are a perfect starter for a few people, or you could have them over rice. I actually preferred them wrapped in lettuce leaves, like a riff on bo ssam, that pork dish served wrapped in leaves, with condiments. A bit of fresh lettuce crunch is perfect with the sweet spiciness of this sauce. 

Korean Style Glazed Meatballs

300gr minced beef with a bit of fat
A handful of panko breadcrumbs, soaked in a splash of milk
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 inch of ginger, peeled and grated
A hefty pinch of salt
2 small flat peaches, peeled and cut into cubes
2 tbsp gochujang 
1.5 tbsp rice vinegar
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp water
A handful of chives, snipped
Lettuce leaves - round, Iceberg or Romaine, washed and cut into palm-sized pieces

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Place the peach in a small saucepan with a lid and cook on a very low heat until the fruit has softened and released its' liquid. Add a splash of water if it is catching. 

Meanwhile, drain the breadcrumbs and add to the beef with the garlic, ginger, sesame oil and salt. Mix lightly with your hands, and roll into golf-ball-sized balls. Place on a oiled sheet of greaseproof paper and place them in the oven. Cook for 15 minutes. 

Once the peach has softened into a mush, add the tbsp of water, gochujang, vinegar and soy sauce. Blitz with a handheld blender, and return to a low heat to simmer for 3 - 4 minutes. Keep warm. 

Fan out the lettuce leaves on a plate. Dip each meatball in the sauce and roll it around so it is covered, then place on a lettuce leaf. Repeat, and then scatter with snipped chives, and serve.