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 The restaurant itself, with ill-fitted black leather chairs and black tabletops felt a bit outdated.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