Monday 27 June 2016

Banh Banh, Peckham Rye

When I was travelling around the South of Vietnam, I was besotted by the food there. Giant bowls of steaming hot broth came with tangles of noodles, and baskets of fresh glistening herbs to tear into, to season each mouthful. Each street corner was cluttered with ladies hunched over charcoal barbecues, wafting smoke lazily as skewers of meat sizzled away. Every scent was mouth-watering, and I found it almost impossible to go by several hours without a snack. 

Banh Banh has opened recently in Peckham Rye. Great! Near my house. Owned by Peckham-born Vietnamese siblings, the restaurant inside is light and airy, a small number of wooden tables, nearly all booked. The menu is short, concise and keenly priced, ranging across the ubiquitous summer rolls, through to noodle salads and pho. 

Banh khot pancakes (£9) pictured above are their speciality; small, crisp savoury pancakes, their predominant flavour is coconut. A large prawn nestles in the middle, and the idea is to wrap the pancake in lettuce and herbs, dip in a nuoc cham-based dipping sauce, and eat. It's a messy business, and unfortunately I didn't really get on with them. They were just incredibly bland.

Flock and Herd fish sauce wings (£6) were impressive for the meat's good provenance, but were not even comparable to ones better, such as Salvation in Noodles' version, or those of Smoking Goat. They were apologetic in flavour, lacking in a crisp exterior. We lost interest quickly. 

It was a very warm evening, so instead of the pho, we opted for the cold bun noodle salad (£9). This came with barbecued pork patties, a spring roll, julienned lettuce and cucumber, all to be mixed in with fried shallots, noodles and a fish sauce dressing. Once again, I found the flavours to be muted; it was all very mild and felt a bit generic. 

Better was the papaya salad, which had proper acidity and zing. The black sesame cracker was a nice touch, to pile the salad on to.  

Likewise too, the beef in betel leaves drew no complaints with us, and we happily munched away on these, drenching the vermicelli noodles underneath with more nuoc cham sauce. 

All in all, it was all a bit meh for me. I had expected fun and exciting things from a place that billed itself as 'Vietnamese street food', but actually everything felt a little tame. I really wanted to like Banh Banh, but there was just no magic. 

Banh Banh
46 Peckham Rye
London SE15 4JR

Tuesday 14 June 2016

Padella, London Bridge

It's such a simple concept that it's a wonder no one thought of it already. But in a climate where you can't move for courgetti and people spiralising the shit out of our poor, unsuspecting root vegetables - M&S now sell 'noodles' made from butternut squash. I ask you! - I am glad that common sense has prevailed and the people of London are queuing up to get their forks twirling around some proper carbs. 

Padella is a cute little spot, and comes from the people that started Trullo, an Italian restaurant in Islington that's always really busy, and still turning out some incredible food at prices that won't make your eyes water. Their signature dish was braised beef shin ragu, served with pappardelle, and the popularity of that dish paved the way for a pasta-centric casual restaurant. It's by Borough Market, and you'll know it by the queue that now snakes out of its door.

I went during the press preview for lunch, and I loved the marble-topped tables and the high bar where you can watch the chefs preparing each dish. I found the squid ink tagliarini, dotted with mussels and deep with the flavour of the sea, to be a little gritty, the pici cacio e pepe (that's a hand-rolled noodle-like pasta in cheese sauce) a little too chalkily al dente. But that beef shin ragu with large, flappy pasta folds was good as ever, a delicate shaving of parmesan decorating the plate. Promise shone through.

A few weeks later I went back and after queuing an hour with a friend, happily nattering away, we sat down ravenous and resolved to order pretty much everything. This time we were seated in the cavernous basement, tables lining the walls, another bar overlooking the drinks preparation area. Burrata was served simply dressed with fruity olive oil, and a refreshing radicchio, watercress and rocket salad was bitter and properly peppery, reviving our palates for what was to come. A little salt on the leaves goes a long way. Tagliatelle with nduja, mascarpone and parsley was, as the waitress warned, nose-runningly spicy. Those delicate ribbon-like folds of pasta were a masterpiece. 

This time, the pici cacio e pepe was cooked perfectly, with a strong black pepper flavour coming through. Is anything so simple, so satisfying? Cheese, pepper, butter, pasta. I'm not sure. We waited for our third pasta dish, while the serving staff, obviously harried from the busy dining rooms, rushed past. Our beef shin pappardelle had been forgotten, but no matter, as in catching their attention we were then able to order the other three pasta dishes we'd also had our eye on. 

Tagliatelle with smoked eel and amalfi lemon was generous and rich, though comparatively it became a little one-note in flavour, the smokiness overwhelming.

You know what this is. It's that glorious beef shin pappardelle. It tasted like the beef had been braised in butter, so tender and flavoursome was it. We questioned whether that width was regulation pappardelle size, and then we realised we didn't care, as we gobbled it up.

Pesto will never taste the same again, after a sterling dish of Stracci Genovese. Stracci are sheets of pasta, torn into irregular pieces, wafer-thin and silky. Made properly with potatoes and green beans, the pesto was bright with basil.  

Ravioli of ricotta with sage butter was somewhat lacking in the flavour of sage, but when you're eating dreamy pillows of cloud, little else matters. I'd like more sage flavour though. 

Reader, six pasta dishes between two are possibly too much. One is not enough though, so take my advice and avoid wobbling home like an over-stuffed walrus and stick with two per person. You'll thank me for it. 

Obviously we were far too stuffed to even contemplate dessert, but if the lemon tart from the press preview is anything to go by, they are simple and accomplished and perhaps should not be missed if you are a sweet lover. 

With a bill of £90-ish including a litre of wine which surely would have fed 3, or even 4 petite eaters, Padella is so affordable I'd go every day if it weren't for the queues. I also have a horrifying suspicion I'd soon resemble Queen Victoria in her later years, so people of London, do me a favour and keep that queue up. 

I never thought I'd say that. 

6 Southwark Street

Sunday 12 June 2016

My Ultimate Fish Pie

Fish pie is my favourite of all the pies. It's a little renegade, with a fluffy mashed potato topping instead of pastry; and sure, it doesn't wrap all the way around the sides. Cheese? Cheese on top? Cheese and fish? What the...? I also complete this unholy triumvirate by having just the lightest splodge of ketchup, because any type of crisp potato, like the one up top here, demands ketchup. 

I draw the line at putting hard-boiled eggs inside it though. That's just too much. Instead, I use a mixture of smoked fish, white fish and salmon, encased in a thick, rich white sauce that absolutely has to be rammed full of fragrant tarragon. If you don't like tarragon (WHY) then this is not the pie for you. 

On the topping, I have experimented far and wide with this too. One particularly fun experiment was to layer very thinly sliced new potatoes, buttered liberally, so that you get a scalloped fan effect. While it looked very impressive, it lacked the comfort of mash, and this pie really is all about the comfort. I've used a mixture of normal potato and sweet potato (don't bother), and finally I tried replacing some of the potatoes with celeriac, just because I really bloody love celeriac. It worked beautifully, but if you don't like celeriac then just go full mash. 

You must serve this with buttered peas, maybe lightly minted. I've deviated before, with steamed tenderstem broccoli, or garlicky spinach, but nothing is ever as good or as appropriate as peas. I don't know the science behind this. 

My Ultimate Fish Pie

Serves 2

1 small onion, sliced
1 bay leaf
5 pink peppercorns, lightly crushed
1/2 tsp coriander seed
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1 glass of dry white wine
400gr raw mixed fish; I use a mixture of smoked haddock, hake / pollack, and salmon at a ratio of 30% / 40% / 30% - chopped in chunks
400ml milk
40gr plain flour
60gr butter, + 10gr butter for the mash
A small handful of parsley, finely minced
A handful of tarragon, leaves picked and finely minced, stems reserved
1/2 a lemon, zested and juiced
350gr floury potatoes, peeled and quarted
150gr celeriac, peeled and diced into small cubes
A small handful mixture of cheddar and parmesan

Bring a large saucepan to the boil and add the potatoes and celeriac, cook until tender. Drain, and leave in the colander in the saucepan off the heat with the lid off to steam some of the moisture away, for 10 minutes. Next, mash thoroughly with 10gr of butter and plenty of salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, simmer the white wine with the peppercorns, sliced onion tarragon stems, coriander seen and bay leaf, until the white wine has reduced by half. Leave to one side to cool. 

In a small pan, add the milk and the fish, with a generous seasoning of salt. Bring to the boil, then remove immediately, and lift the fish out carefully with a slotted spoon, and arrange in an appropriate pie dish. 

In a small saucepan, make the roux by melting the butter and the 40gr plain flour on a low heat and stirring with a balloon whisk well. When the mixture turns caramel colour and the flour has cooked out, add the wine mixture through a sieve and whisk for your life, to make sure there are no lumps. Add a ladleful of milk, whisking again, and repeat. By this point, you should have a smooth sauce and be able to add the rest of the milk in without having to whisk any more. If you have got lumps, give it a quick blitz with a handheld blender. 

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Leave the sauce mixture to simmer gently for a few minutes; you want a thick sauce that healthily coats the back of a spoon. You may need to simmer it for up to 10 minutes to achieve this, but keep stirring with that whisk so the bottom doesn't burn. 

Remove from the heat, add the lemon zest and juice, taste for seasoning. Add the tarragon and the parsley, and pour over the fish mixture. Next, using either a piping bag if you can be arsed or a spoon and fork, distribute the mash over the pie mixture; the sauce should be thick enough that the mash doesn't sink. Sprinkle the cheese over the top; at this point the pie can cool down and go in the fridge or freezer to cook later, if you like. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes, until the top is nicely golden and the cheese has melted. Leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving, and serve with buttered steamed peas and a sploge of ketchup.