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.