Monday, 31 December 2012

Obligatory end-of-year lists

Lists are everywhere. In the spirit of Hornby, the Christmas down-time gave me a chance to think of what I noticed from last year. It's pretty much all positives as it's nice to positive when looking back over a year and it's more fun to write positively.

1) The Cursed Restaurant, Chinatown.
There is a site next to De Hems which had four different restaurants this year. It's haunted or cursed or is very lacking in rabbits' feet. In two of its incarnations I had two lovely meals. The first time was the in its Manchurian Legends guise: wonderful sweet and sour delicately battered pork loin and oozing stewed pork belly. The 2nd time around a very simple braised beef brisket noodle soup for a stupid £5.80, which made me want to try much more of the menu. It shut 2 weeks later and is now rebranded Leong's Legends Inn which appears, from the menu at least to be a carbon copy of the restaurant opposite.

2) Ginstock
It all worked out perfectly. One of those joyous breaks in the summer weather where the sun finally shone to make up not only for miserable summer but also for Ribstock's drenching and we all drank far too much gin, served every which way and loose. It got busy: too busy. People complained in person and on twitter and the complainers who left missed rivers of booze flowing for the rest of us. Bad luck! £1 negronis from the Polpo team? Oh alright then - I'll have five. I really hope that this sort of event proves viable and profitable for the organisers to continue with these as the 'stocks so far have been have all proved remarkable value. When you get good weather into the mix it's a no-brainer. And no, I was too much of a nonce to try Rumstock the morning after.

3) The Beer House, Charing Cross Station
A pub? In a station? I officially declare that 2012 was the year of Pubs in Stations. The Parcel Yard in Kings Cross was a delight. This one in Charing Cross Station with its huge array of craft beers (and Heineken for the unsteady on their feet) doesn't necessarily make it a "go to" venue but definitely makes it a "Oh I'll get the later train then" venue - and also makes it my most-visited watering  hole in 2012. Having said that, I have deliberately taken two people here this year because it's stocked to the rafters with all manner of beer from around the world. The soundtrack is often quite good here, too. A hugely pleasant surprise given the previous pub in that location was somewhere you'd probably need chainmail to enter to be on the safe side. They have also apparently opened in Paddington and Waterloo. Good on them.

4) Burgers and More Burgers
I refuse to declare that 2012 was the "Year of the burger". I'm sure someone else has. Using the Young and Foodish Top 10 from 2011 as a guide, I tried pretty much all in the Top 10 with a group of friends and above all, it made me realise that burgers come in myriad forms but the simplest are seemingly the best. With that I mind I tip a meaty hat to guys at Tommi's Burger Joint. Very reasonably priced, bursting with flavour and served by friendly people. No low-lighting and grease everywhere, no immaculate presentation in a slightly stifled pub dining room atmosphere, just a simple, meaty, tasty, well-priced burger served by charming staff - at around two thirds of the price of the former and about one-third the price of the latter. And it is (for the time being) BYO. Handy.

5) Spuntino
Remember that place?! Really cool when it opened. Everyone loved it! And likely everyone got sidetracked by burgers and ramen and other openings. It's still really great. Really great. I had one of my favourite meals this year here. House pickles here would be on another "Top X" list somewhere for favourite dishes in London. The chef was sat there whilst I ate and was kind enough to share a printout of all the pickle recipes. How is that for service? Makes you want to come back time and again. Fried chicken, house slaw, sliders. Some of it may coat the arteries, but it also warms the soul.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, 8 December 2012


Given that the world (OK, London) has gone ramen-mental, this recipe for stock took my eye on Felicity Cloake's article on ramen in the Guardian. It was actually posted in the comments page by someone called "Sparebulb". Sparebulb, thank you. I think I'll give this a try.
"...what I learned was to make a great stock you should avoid vegetables since they take more away than they contribute.
If money is no object then I use 1KG (approx.) of chicken wings for every litre of finished stock, essentially a supermarket pack. Since stock is always better made in bulk (just because of the time it takes to make a reduced clarified stock) you could order a 25KG box of chicken wings from a butcher or wholesaler, they will be cheaper than buying the equivalent weight from a supermarket- they will probably come frozen or have previously been frozen.
Now, while buying 25KG of chicken wings seems very expensive, you now have a lot of chicken wing tips that serve no real purpose, in fact you could argue the only bit of a chicken wing is the ‘mini-drumstick’ part- save them for the first BBQ of the season, they will be fine in the freezer and can be prepared at the same time- the marinade won’t work below 6C but you just bring them up to room temperature and it will kick in. You might even add them to the finished ‘ramen’ if you wish.
Anyway, back to the stock, for every litre of stock, in addition to the chicken, you want an inch of ginger, a supermarket bunch of spring onions and about a tablespoon of chopped garlic. The garlic (and the other vegetables) is all optional, but you will get the general style this way. I have long since dispensed with chopping garlic and ginger and use frozen cubes available in many supermarkets and ethnic stores- they are ice cube sized so you just use one of each. The spring onions I just chop into thirds (remove blue rubber band first).
The rest is simple stock making, but for added value I will run past that. The vegetables do their work quite fast, so they can be removed early on, based on a few litres of stock this will be about one hour, the finished stock will be strained after 2 hours. Always start with 150% of water for the finished stock (at the two hour point, see below you can reduce that further later). When it comes to straining the stock, you obviously need something to contain it, a colander to contain the now cooked to death chicken bits only fit for the bin. You also need muslin, not a Muslim, although an extra pair of hands is useful and food can build bridges between communities. You probably haven’t got muslin, buy one of those bandages used for supporting broken arms, they are sterile and all pharmacies sell them.
Finally refrigerate the stock, at this time of year, and if you have masses of finished stock, use one of those 25 litre plastic containers that Wilkinson’s sell for home brewers and stick it outside- the lid will protect it and we are looking at overnight temperatures that are probably around freezing. Any sediment will drop to the bottom overnight and then you can gently simmer the stock down to about a third of its original volume."

Monday, 10 September 2012

A Taste of Noma at Claridges

Three months off work on gardening leave comes to an end. My last day of being a man what lunches. And why not end it all off by spending £300+ in the space of about two-and-a-half hours. Insert high-class prostitute comparison here. I'll admit here to being not particularly too bothered with "fane daning". Starchy tablecloths. The table de-crumber applied always by the most unsmiling member of the waiting staff. Just the bloody table de-crumber full-stop. The feeling you're being watched; monitored, even. Monitored for bad knife skills. But it was my last "working" day of 3 months off so why not spunk it up the wall.

Ushered into the main room at Claridges it was immediately obvious that two things were present. Firstly, a really nice buzz, flecked with excitement. Secondly, fuckloads of CASH. Lakshmi Mittal was centre stage on a table of ten people with plenty of staff and - latterly - Rene Redzepi cooing at them. Half of my table were also cooing at Mittal from a distance. Money talks?

The food arrived and first up were some "snacks". A selection of foraged plants with edible soil were very...planty? The soil was gritty and honestly, not particularly nice to eat. Then came the ants. The ants! Live ants desperately trying to escape from creme fraiche on lettuce. I'd read about these on twitter and opinion was divided, including my 2nd least favourite word, meh. It sits behind nom, in case you're even remotely interested. The ants tasted of lemongrass. There we are. I'm not even going to put a photo up. You know the score. Ants.

Then the real dishes came out. A raspberry soupy thing in a teacup was pleasant. I that all I can muster on the subject? I guess so. It was very pretty, though:

Better was the caviar and clotted cream alongside it that was served with Claridges own scones. Savoury delight. Try not to use umamj here, Richard. I Next up was an oyster poached in buttermilk for a short while. I've tried oysters twice. Both times I daren't chew. Both times I just tasted the vinegar and shallots with which I washed them down. I'm not going to bollock on about loving oysters and then only ever swallow them without chewing, so I tried chewing. Nope, I still don't like oysters and their mineralness. Not even when Rene tries to tease me into liking them.

Things then took off. The best sourdough bread - heck the best bread I've probably ever had was served with very light almost cream-like butter and a punchy goat's butter. I'd jested to my host that I didn't like goats cheese before the meal and he took it literally; a pungent rapeseed oil was brought out for me. Bless. Beef tartare, which we ate with our hands and came with a wipe of tarragon was beautiful and perfectly seasoned and gave a first glimpse into why Rene bloky is popular.

A lump - yes a lump - of celeriac was next, poached in goat's butter and served with a slick of truffle sauce and was nice for two mouthfuls. But after the 4th and all the way to the 8th it became overkill, but I'm not helped by thinking that truffle reminds of stale sweat. Still, things were end on a high. The 48-hour cooked neck of lamb served in hay and with a pea broth (that was suggested should be mixed with creme fraiche when we'd finished the excellent spring vegetables in it) was tremendous. 

Several of the table thought it was the best lamb they'd tasted. I wasn't arguing and it got me thinking about working out how to set my oven to 75c to invest in some serious slow-cooking at weekends. All weekend. I couldn't help thinking "expensive cut of meat", but maybe I'm just a tight-arse who wants value from his sizeable outlay. A cheery bunch of elderly gentlemen on the adjacent table were dismantling the lamb with their hands on the next table and knawing on the neck-bone. Maybe this sort of thing happens every day at high-end restaurants. Does it?

Not having a sweet-tooth, the dinner surprisingly peaked at dessert. Walnut ice-cream came topped with frozen dust-like cream and frozen berries. I'm assuming here that someone was having fun with some dry ice. It worked, oh how it worked. Nothing on the plate was too tart or too sweet, a glorious gentle dish. Apparently it comes from the menu in Denmark: no wonder they wanted to show it off.

Would I do it again? Probably. Was it mind-blowing? Nope. Were there some really memorable dishes? I reckon so. Did you not enjoy some aspects? Yep. Oddly enough, the one thing I'll take with me was the hum in the room and the cheery, chatty staff that Claridges offered up, both of which helped to dispel my disinterest of high-end eating out - at least for the afternoon.

When I walked out, a group of people were cooing over Rene Redzepi and asking him to sign all manner of things. I briskly walked over, offered him my hand and simply said "Thank you". He looked touched and held his heart. I suspect I'll be doing similar when I dare to look at my bank account. 

Scores on the doors, Miss Ford: somewhere between 6 and 7.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Le Gia, Deptford

It seems as though the Kingsland/Dalston type area of London is the place to be for Vietnamese food. I'm sure at one time - not too far in the distant future - that Kingsland and Dalston were quite edgy, before it got inhabited with cool people with beards, knitted jumpers and skinny-fit jeans. I am getting old because I find this funny.

Deptford and environs however seem to remain edgy. Downright rough, in my not particularly finely-honed opinion. On the other hand, it does seem to have a coterie of Vietnamese places. A trip to Panda Panda last month threw up a half-decent banh mi and directly over the road from this place is a large whitewashed building that houses Le Gia. I've been twice now.

First time I had some pretty decent fresh rolls and this second visit threw up a very decent pho. On both occasions I was the only person in there for lunch. Eerie. Especially when the only thing accompanying me was a) the waiter (on both times courteous and friendly, for what it's worth) but b) seemingly the Stock, Aitken and Waterman equivalent of Vietnamese pop - on karaoke for me to sing along to. If I could pronounce the words.

Anyhow - that pho. It came with a light stock, much lighter in colour than the one I had further up the DLR at Cafe East that stands as my benchmark in pho (in my limited experience) in London:

Pho Tai, Lê Gia, Deptford

Generous amounts of beef - that in its journey from the dumb waiter down to my table had already gone from rare (if it indeed started off as rare) to cooked, but had a good flavour nonetheless. The stock itself was very savoury - maybe a slightly heavy hand on the cinnamon, but not enough to make it unlikeable and it was duly supped up. I also quite liked the noodles that came with it that were al dente (or Vietnamese equivalent) and not at all mushy.

Seeing as it's not too much of a faff of a detour to head there en route to London, I'll be back - but maybe I need to try the other places in the neighbourhood. 7.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Fennel, radish and cherry tomato salad

I don't enjoy queuing. Which is why I've never been to Barrafina. That was until Saturday just gone - that glorious Saturday of the year where you know it's really Friday as you've still got Sunday and Monday off. En route to a friend's place I thought I'd stop off in Soho to visit Koya. However, I walked past Barrafina, and pretty much like Soho on this weekend, it had about 2 people in it. Seize the day.

The highlight of the entire meal - all of which (croquetas, salt cod fritters, pan con tomate) was a lovely quick eat, was the fennel, radish and cherry tomato salad. I liked it so much, I made it at home and it's sodding easy and sodding lovely - and look - the photo turned out alright !

  Fennel, Radish and Cherry Tomato Salad

Chop a fennel bulb very thinly, do the same to some radishes and halve some cherry tomatoes. The one expensive ingredient here was moscatel vinegar from Brindisa (I asked at Barrafina and the lovely waitress happily shared the recipe's secrets) which set me back a wallet-disgracing £7.50. It is lovely and mellow though. To this I added some grassy, delightful olive oil from a friend's parents farmhouse in Italy (get me). Mix it all up and there you are. I felt quite virtuous after eating it.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Ragu alla Ricardo

When I first got into cooking, I recall one of my Meteorology lecturers, the wonderfully avuncular Ross Reynolds giving me a photocopy of a recipe for a ragu - i.e. spag bol sauce, let's face it. This recipe called for all sorts of ingredients which as a fresh-faced 21 year old was going to be a challenge. I recall fucking it up completely but the seed was sown for what is about 15 years of tinkering with recipes. I've finally settled on "my version" that's been guided by various Telly Chefs and friends. It's not authentic, unique, real, seasonal, locally-sourced, passionate or other words thrown around about food, but my version. Maybe you can give it a try and see what you think. I have a horrible feeling I may have written about this before, but what the hell.

1) Chop up 1 1/2 onions, 2 sticks of celery and 2 carrots into very small bits. Fry these in olive oil with two star anise (thank you Heston) for about 45 minutes very slowly.

2) In a separate pan (fry pan usually good for this), fry off 500g of minced beef (the better quality, the better, I'd guess) and let it sit there to get a nice crust before turning over (thank you, Giorgio). Drop this into the cooking vegetables and do exactly the same with 500g of pork mince. As with all these things, a bit of fat in the meat never goes amiss. Pour pork mince into the veg and deglaze pan with red wine.

3) Turn the veg/meat mixture up to high and empty in a generously large wine glass of red wine (something gutsy) and burn all the alcohol off until it doesn't smell "tart" any more.

4) Add 3 cans of chopped tomatoes, I usually pick Cirio which I can get in my local Sainsbury's as they're supposed to be good quality (and seem to be coming down in price - as well as suddenly getting advertised on mainstream telly) as well as a good 2-3 second squirt of tomato ketchup.

5) Let it blubber away for about 3-4 hours with the lid off on a lowish heat. Stir occasionally to make it feel wanted. As it starts to lose liquid, top it up with milk. Serves maybe 6-8 people with British "too much ragu" sized portions or probably 60-80 italian understated ragu portions. Here it is blobbing away early in its 4-hour marathon:


I actually only settled on this recipe about 2 months ago and have cooked it twice now and it seems pretty nice. I used to add pancetta as well and that might reappear in time. Who knows. The star anise came in a year ago and the "topping up with milk" was the most recent addition. The ketchup was there from the start, heathen that I am.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

I love you, Anchor and Hope

It seems as though the way of attracting attention to you new venture is to make it a pop-up. Do it for 2 days, 2 weeks, 2 months and leave the audience wanting more. Ephemerality rules. Blogs and restaurant reviews tend to focus on the new and cutting edge. Got there first, done that, when's the next opening.

I sometimes wonder whether it would be nice for someone in their newspaper column to spend a year revisiting the stayers, the survivors that have been here for yonks and whose reputation has passed down through word of mouth: off the top of my head Blueprint Cafe (although now lacking its guiding light), St. John and here - the Anchor and Hope.

Anyhow, about since 6 months since my last visit I was back there for the Sunday lunch. £30, no choice, the pub opened out and all tables full. And you can book. I thought my last meal at Manchurian Legends could be up there with the best this year - so could this one. 2012. Two meals, two big hits.

Arriving early we got a great table in the corner and as there were five of us, everything came served on an enormous plate for us to dig into. We kicked off with a few nibbles on bread - oxtail and tongue and beetroot and horseradish that set the palate up. First up was a large plate of watercress, tangy stichelton blue chees, pecans and pear. I am in my infancy of blue cheese love, but this all works. I've seen it on the menu before - and can see why it's still there, everything playing off each other.

The main should really have come with a fanfare. A huge, triumphant plate of porchetta sat atop fennel and roasted potatoes with a magnificent gravy swimming beneath it all. The stuffing of the porchetta was deeply, deeply savoury and the only thing I could have criticised was the cracking that failed on one quarter of my slab of pork. The pork itself retained plenty of moisture. The unanimous decision was one of "Good Lord". Take a look at it in all its grainy iPhone photo glory:

Porchetta - Anchor and Hope

Dessert doesn't usually interest me but it was good to see tarte tatin coming out - caramelised to within an inch of its life with a deep brown colour, sweetness with the slight sour hit of the mascarpone that came with it.

Tarte Tatin - Anchor and Hope

We were all full. And happy. Maybe it's best that the Anchor and Hope doesn't get re-reviewed for those unaware of it because quite frankly a) it doesn't need to be as it's always full and, selfishly, b) I want to be able to get a table. A glorious 9.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Manchurian Legends

New Year - the event itself and the couple of days that follow it is an enormous waste of time, energy and faux excitement at the turn of the New Year. The days that follow it are usually grey and uninteresting, so I headed out to Soho where I headed to meet Soho's finest floater Mr Wilson for a pint and a suggestion of Manchurian Legends - which had seemingly split the Rayners, Corens, Normans and Gills down the middle.

It's fair to say that I wouldn't be surprised if my first meal out of the year turned out to be one of the "Top 5" that everybody loves to compile come the year's end.

We ordered based on recommended dishes from the aforementioned viewers and wasn't disappointed at all. Highlight of the entire meal was the pork, slow-braised in a oriental broth with glass noodles probably maxed out on savouriness. Yes the pork was fatty, but the slowness of the braise had rendered it wonderfully soft. And for once I take a photo that does it some vague justice:

Braised pork belly with glass noodles - Manchurian Legends

The other killer dish was the sweet and sour pork. The instant thought of sweet and sour pork is fatty, chewy pork covered in greasy batter in a lurid overly-vinegary mass-catering sweet and sour sauce. This was bloody well nowhere near it. Thin slices of what seemed to be pork loin had been delicately battered and served in a thin, balanced vinegary sauce. Addicting, as they say in America.

There was also some lamb skewers coated in chilli flakes that had really strong lamby flavour - a little bit chewy maybe, but by no means a failure. The pork dumplings were the only let-down. Maybe it's the way in Dongbei that their dumplings have thick skin but the filling lack flavour - better off heading to Jen Cafe for something similar done much better.

But it's for the first two dishes that I'll be coming back - as well as the several other interesting options on the menu. Anyone fancy sharing a hot-pot?