Sunday, 27 January 2013

MEATmission, Shoreditch

Last year seemed to be the year of the burger.  Gourmet junk food became all the rage (this brilliantly funny article by Marina O'Loughlin on the subject is worth a read).  There seemed to be a new must-visit burger place every week and I felt a little overwhelmed by all the reviews, blog posts and photos of ‘dirty’ burgers.

But I did feel a little left out not to have visited any of places that stemmed from the burger truck MEATwagon (the pop-up MEATeasy, then the first restaurant MEATliquor just off Oxford Street and more of a takeway MEATmarket in Covent Garden), hailed by lots as the daddy of the new breed of burger joint.  No-booking places are common and good for impromptu eating but I had avoided MEATliquor as I really don’t want to queue in the cold for a burger.  No matter how good the burger is.

But MEATmission, the newest addition to the MEAT family near Old Street, does take bookings (for one of the two rooms), and there is a bar you can drink at if you haven’t booked.  We left it too late to book and had to wait about 10 minutes to get in to the bar as it was full at 8 on Friday night, but our table was ready straight after, and I would have been happy to while away a few drinks at the bar.

The inside of MEATmission is great – there are playful nods to the building’s previous incarnation as a Christian mission (hence the name) with a fabulously bright stained glass ceiling, pew-like seating and religious stone plaques on the wall.  The music is loud (we had an eclectic mix of rock and Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff) – it’s the perfect place for a fun, Friday night. 

The menu includes the classic burgers and a few new additions, including the addictive Monkey Fingers (£7).  These are tender strips of chicken which are battered, then smothered in their tangy hot pepper sauce, with a mild blue cheese dip (and a few perfunctory batons of carrot and celery – you don’t come here for your five a day).  Before the burgers, we also shared the Currywurst (£6) – slices of German sausage in a sweet, sticky curry sauce and sprinkled with curry powder, served on top of fries.  The portions are generous – the Garbage plate on another table looked huge (it’s a mound of roast beef, fries, cheese, gravy and onion).

The Dead Hippie's close-up
The original cheeseburger £6.50) was great, but the Dead Hippie (£7.50) was the tastiest best burger we tried – it comes with two nicely pink mustard fried patties, with their dead hippie sauce, cheese, lettuce and  pickles, all combining to a juicy mouthful inside the squishy bun.  Messy but delicious. The fries (£3) are decent, but a little of an afterthought after the burgers.  The food comes on trays with just a roll of kitchen paper on the table, and is excellent value and all good for sharing. 

There’s a short wine list, a number of beers on tap and a great cocktail list with inventive, well-priced drinks (most £7-£8) with tongue-in-cheek names (favourite being their Mulled Meatjito). 

I really enjoyed MEATmission – they execute their niche offering of great burgers and cocktails in a cool setting really well.  You feel a little greasy afterwards (I craved salad the next day), but I guess that’s kind of the point.

MEATmission on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Tohbang, Clerkenwell

Most of the restaurant buzz in London focuses on new places – publicised launches, reviews in all the papers and queues outside.  It’s exciting to keep up to date and find new places to love, or even hate, but sometimes my favourite spots are little hidden gems.  They are unassuming and sometimes easy to miss, but reliable for tasty, and usually cheap, food.

It’s fabulous when there is a work lunch with someone else picking up the bill, but sometimes I need something more than a salad at my desk for a break from lovely spread-sheets.  Holborn is not the most exciting food area (there is definite lunch envy for those in Soho/Charlotte Street nearby) but a few months ago we discovered Tohbang, a fantastic Korean restaurant a few minutes away on Clerkenwell Road.  The slight obsession with their food peaked when we went 2 days out of the 3 day week back at the start of January…

It’s an unfussy room with friendly staff (who doesn’t like a hair complement at lunchtime??), with what I have taken to be authentic Korean food (never been, but I’ll maintain this unless corrected).  There is the normal menu and a brilliant value set lunch menu.  For £6.90 you get a noodle, rice or soup and rice dish, with pickles on the side (a little bowl of miso-type soup too depending on the order).  The little side orders vary but usually include some pickled radish, kimchee or little cubes of vegetables.

Dolsot Bibimbap
I have tried to branch out but always go back to the Dolsot Bibimbap – the classic dish of rice, vegetables and beef with an egg on top, in a sizzling stone bowl which makes the bottom layer of rice golden and crunchy.  Just mix it all together with your chopsticks with lots of the chilli sauce. 

Fried Aubergine

Doenjang Jigae (tofu and vegetable soup)
The other great main courses include the meltingly soft fried aubergine, fresh, wholesome tofu and vegetable soup and the Beef Bulgogi.

Seafood & Spring Onion Pancake

Pork & Vegetable Dumplings
The starters are also really good to share first (£5.90 on the lunch menu) – the best are the little pork dumplings and either the seafood or kimchee pancake.  The items on the normal menu include larger versions of the set menu, but are also good value, and include other tasty dishes like crisp, juicy prawn tempura.

This place is often rightfully packed at lunchtime – somewhere would have to be pretty special to take over Tohbang as my office’s favourite cheap lunch spot.

Tohbang on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Garufin, Holborn

Steak is big in London.  Places range from the deservedly feted Hawksmoor with its big, beefy British comfort food, to new places such as STK (apparently a female friendly steakhouse, presumably to combat any Man vs Food meat-challenge connotations) and Flat Iron (with just flatiron cuts on offer for a tenner).  Argentinian joints make up some of the cow-touting places, with a number of sleek but pricey Gauchos dotted around the city, and the recently opened Garufin in Holborn.

Garufin is run by three Argentinians and is the sibling restaurant to Garufa in Arsenal.  It’s tucked down in a basement on Theobald’s Road, with rustic exposed brick and black and white tiles (apologies for the photos – dim lighting and black plates do not make for great pictures).

Garufin’s menu was set out to build on steak houses such as Garufa, offering a bigger range of traditional and modern Argentinian food.  The menu therefore features meat from the grill, but also snacks and a number of smaller plates to share, split between ‘meats’ and ‘vegetables’.

At lunch two of us started with crisp cheese croquettes (£3.50) with a nicely strong provolone filling, and one of the three empanadas on offer, which had an interesting but well-balanced filling of sweet scallop and salty olive (£3.50 for one).

I then had the rump steak with white corn cream, which was a bigger maize grain with more of a bite than sweet corn in a lovely earthy sauce.  This also came with fried mushroom ravioli, which turned out to be little parcels of mushrooms inside empanada dough.  The steak could have been a little pinker, but overall the dish was a good mix and a bargain at £7.50.

The fillet steak was the most expensive thing on the menu (£20 for 200g), but the request for medium/well to escape any blood was taken to the other extreme, with too much blackened charring on the meat.  The vegetable dishes on the side were delicious though – a great tomato salad with smoky roasted pepper sauce (£3.85), and a nutty quinoa salad with pumpkin and mushroom (£4.25).

This place offers a more relaxed and affordable alternative to some of the fancier steak places in town, but surprisingly the stand-out dishes were those without meat, perhaps reflective of their goal to show a little more of Argentinian cuisine beyond steak.

Garufín on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Warming Soup & the Easiest Bread

So far January has been rainy, grey, very chilly and a little miserable.  This combined with the annual efforts to abstain from booze and anything tasty, means there is definitely the need for something comforting and wholesome to eat.  Soup is perfect.  It’s cheap, easy to cook and definitely doesn’t need to be boring.

Soup ranges from clear, zingy, cleansing broths to silky cream-laden bowls, but I like something in between that’s healthy and filling.  I spent Sunday afternoon cooking up a few batches - for both I started with the base of onion, celery and carrot, before going down different routes.  One was a calming mushroom and leek with pearl barley, and the other a lentil and spinach with some spicy warmth. 

Apart from Thai broths and miso soup, soup needs bread.  Nothing beats the smell of freshly baked bread, and soda bread is the perfect, super-easy option to avoid any kneading and rising.  It takes 5 minutes from cupboard to the oven, and is fool-proof, with oats and seeds added to this mixture to seem a little more virtuous. The loaf will be a little craggy looking, but tastes great and toasts well too. 

Mushroom, Leek & Pearl Barley Soup
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stick celery, diced
1 trimmed leek, finely sliced
100g mushrooms, thinly sliced
120g pearl barley
1 litre vegetable stock
Large bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped

  • Heat the oil in large pan, then gently fry the onion, carrot and celery until softened but not browned
  • Add the mushroom and leeks, and fry for another 5 minutes
  • Add the vegetable stock and pearl barley, then bring to the bowl before turning down and gently simmering for around 40 minutes until the pearl barley is tender
  • Add the parsley and check the seasoning before serving

This would also be great with some leftover cooked ham or shredded roast chicken added at the end, or some pancetta fried with the vegetables at the start.

Spicy Lentil & Spinach Soup
1 tbsp oil
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, diced
1 stick celery, diced
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp dried red chilli
200g red lentils
1 litre vegetable stock
300g passata
100g spinach
Fresh coriander to serve

  • Heat the oil in large pan, then gently fry the onion, carrot and celery until softened but not browned
  • Add the garlic, cumin, turmeric and dried chilli and fry for a minute more
  • Add the lentils and stock, bring to the boil then gently simmer for around 30 minutes
  • Add the passata and spinach, cook for another 5 minutes then check the seasoning before sprinkling with fresh coriander 

This soup is also lovely served with a swirl of cooling yoghurt or a dollop of cucumber and mint raita, and a sprinkling of finely sliced green chilli for a little more heat.

Oat & Seed Soda Bread
250g plain white flour
300g plain wholemeal flour
50g porridge oats
50g seeds (I used a mixture of sunflower, pumpkin and sesame)
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1 tsp salt
500ml natural yoghurt

  • Pre-heat the oven to 200 (180 fan oven)
  • Mix the dry ingredients together in a large bowl
  • Add the yoghurt and mix until it comes together, before using your hands to knead into a dough
  • Lightly flour a baking sheet and then shape the dough into a rough flat circle of around 20cm on the tray
  • Make a cross on the top with a sharp knife, then sprinkle with a few more oats and seeds if wanted
  • Bake in the pre-heated oven for 30-35 minutes until the base sounds hollow when tapped with your knuckles and lightly browned on the top
  • Leave to cool on a wire rack

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Naamyaa Cafe, Angel

Alan Yau’s restaurants have definitely played a role in growing the popularity of Asian food in the UK.  The budget friendly Wagamama has brought noodles to many a high street since the first site opened 20 years ago, with Hakkasan and Yauatcha at the other of the scale with their Michelin stars.  His chain Busaba Eathai now has 10 sites, and the new addition in Angel, Naamyaa, is also Thai, billed as an all-day Bangkok café.

In contrast to Busaba’s dark interiors and shared tables, Naamyaa is a light room with an open kitchen, pink patterned tiles, green leather seating, and a lot of gold Buddhas.  The menu is supposed to reflect the eclectic mix of East and West you would find in a tourist-friendly Bangkok café, with Thai dishes alongside burgers, sandwiches and salads.

The Po pia jay (spring-rolls) were crispy and grease-free, with a crunchy filling of shitake, carrot and cabbage, and a sweet chilli sauce with a proper kick (instead of the overly sweet red gloop you often get).  

The namesake dish of Naamyaa is made up of jin noodles served with a saucy curry (I chose the chicken and wild ginger), and a plate of pickled morning glory, star fruit, Thai basil, beansprouts, star fruit and a boiled egg to add.  It comes with a green melon soup on the side to offset the spiciness – although they warned me the curry was hot, the heat was not too intense and I really liked the dish (the egg was definitely hard rather than soft-boiled as promised on the menu though).

The Khao man gai, or Thai Style Hainan chicken with yellow bean, is a subtle and comfortingly simple dish of rice, poached chicken and the tangy yellow bean sauce.

The pricing is similar to Wagamama or Busaba (around the £8-£10 mark for main courses), but whereas they have always left me a little underwhelmed, I liked Naamyaa.  I wouldn’t go for a burger or even the cakes on the counter that go with the all-day café vibe, but would return to try some more of the spicy, fresh Thai dishes.

Naamyaa Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Opium, Chinatown

Although food always comes first, I have a soft spot for interesting and delicious cocktails.  Opium, the newly opened cocktail and dim sum parlour, has some of the best I tried in 2012.  Just don’t miss the inconspicuous jade door on Gerrard Street, and up the stairs you can escape the madness of Chinatown below somewhere altogether more inviting.

Inside, there is a maze of rooms spread across the floors, with the décor a cool mix of East meets West.  We spent a relaxed Friday afternoon in the Apothecary bar, but I would love to go on a busier evening and visit the Bartender’s table above, where you can sit around with other customers and the bartenders while they mix drinks.

Although they are happy to mix up any classic drinks, the star of this place is their nicely concise and inventive cocktail list.  The drinks feature intriguing combinations with seasonal ingredients and oriental flavours, all served with fun touches and a little theatre.  The Emperors’s New Clothes (vodka, vermouth, grape juice, aloe vera, lime juice and green tea syrup) was brought to the table in a medicine bottle (behind the bar there are no branded bottles, but instead rows of ‘Chinese Medicine’), and had a fragrant, soft sweetness.  The Royal Plums (tequila, Chinese plum wine, poached black plum and rosemary syrup), was garnished with flamed rosemary, and was punchy but well-balanced.

There are dim sum to eat (ranging from £5-£10), and the selection we tried were very good – soft, steamed vegetable dumplings, Char Siu Bao with a generous tangy barbecued pork filling, and delicious sesame lobster prawn toast.

The cocktails are a little pricey (most around the £13 mark), but worth it for the unique flavours and attention to the detail that goes into the drinks.  The service was great and I loved the look and feel of the bar – I will definitely be returning to Opium one evening soon.

Opium on Urbanspoon