Sunday, 24 March 2013

Rotary Bar & Diner, Old Street

Despite my recent resolution to blog more often, my writing was rather lacking last week.  The week was instead taken up with an all-consuming house hunt after last-minute letting agent/landlord let-downs in the search for a new place.  Luckily the housemates and I found somewhere on Friday, so with an end to the looming fear of being homeless (with only a load of makeup and silicon kitchen utensils to show for myself), a celebration was in order on Saturday night.

After spending a good twenty minutes checking how close the new Farringdon home is from my favourite London spots, I thought it would be apt to go to one with H (Old Street – 1.0 miles, 20 mins Google maps walking, just in case you wondered).  We went to the Rotary Bar & Diner on City Road, a newly opened temporary-ish place from the people behind Redhook and Giant Robot in Clerkenwell (part of the Rushmore group that also own Milk & Honey and The Player among others). 

It will be there for 10 months or so (the entire block is then being re-developed), and open until late 6 days a week.  It’s been done out with a retro 70s formica décor (including lots of orange and a mountain-scape mural), with nice wines, slightly scary sounding pint-sized cocktails, and food from their chef partner Carl Clarke (currently at Disco Bistro at the Rising Sun in St Paul's). 

The menu includes snacks, buns (chicken, pollock and spicy crab, beef and veggie), wood-grilled fish, steak and pig, with BBQ offerings coming soon (their smoker is apparently in transit).  We started with buttermilk fried chicken wings (£5), that were crispy outside and tender within, and great with the tangy hot sauce (we went with the lovely waiter's recommendation).  We also had hot smoked salmon (£5) from the snacks section, piled on top linseed crackers with cream cheese and wild garlic.

I then popped next door to get us some delicious Yum Buns.  Yum Bun have been going for a while with their street food offering of Asian steamed buns, and have now set up next to the Rotary.  You can buy them to take away from the little shop, or can walk through to the bar to eat them (it’s the perfect way to have them - street food is not so fun in freezing temperatures).

There are 4 different filling options – chicken, mushroom, pork and beef.  We went for one pork (tender roasted belly with hoi sin, cucumber and spring onion,) and one beef (sticky slow-braised ox cheek with coriander and peanuts).  Both were fantastic, and it’s only £6 for two.

H and I finished with a rich salted milk chocolate pot with salt-caramel peanut sprinkles (£5) from the Rotary’s menu (there are also choc-ices from the tasty Sorbitum ices, with flavours including tempting bourbon caramel and sour cherry).

The Rotary and its Yum Bun collaboration is a great idea, and it’s just a shame that it’s only there until the end of the year.

The Rotary Bar & Diner on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Rita's Bar & Dining (at Birthdays), Dalston

The term ‘hipster’ seems to have been bandied about a lot recently, particularly in the talk of restaurants.  Take the Evening Standard’s a little grumpy review of the newly opened The Clove Club in Shoreditch Town Hall, toting it as one of the hottest openings of 2013 ‘for the food-bloggers and hipsters anyway’, mentioning its clone-like diners and plentiful beards.  Although there is a certain look to the bars/restaurants/cafes/outfits in trendy parts of (usually East) London, frankly the term's just a bit silly.

If you were to use it though, the home of the ‘hipster’ would most probably be Dalston.  I’ve never properly explored it, but the lovely L from work decided I needed to leave N1 on Saturday night, so off we went for some cocktails and food.

We started at the Ridley Road Market Bar with ginger mojitos, before going to Rita’s Bar and Dining.   Rita’s is a ‘travelling food and drink collaboration’ between Jackson Boxer, Gabriel Pryce and Missy Flynn – it’s currently at Birthdays, and they were at Feast last weekend at Tobacco Dock.  They are also hosting Rita’s Supper Club in collaboration with Feat, with a series of dinner nights (£45 tickets for dinner and drinks).

This Rita’s menu includes versions of American-ish classics, all a little artery-clogging (bacon-brittle anyone?), but those we tried were delicious.  The fried chicken roll (£6.50) arrived fast-food style in a Rita’s brown paper bag, and was the best fried chicken I’ve had – juicy and tender meat in the crispy coating, in a squishy, glazed bun with lettuce and mayo.

The patty melt (£6.50) was richly savoury, with beef mince, melted cheese and sweet onions inside the toasted, greasy bread.  We also ordered greens with a tangy mustard sauce (£3.50), and the green chilli mac and cheese (£4), with a dollop of avocado on top.  On the next table the specials of pulled pork Cuban sandwich and crispy fried crushed potatoes looked just as good.

The food’s not expensive, at just £10 each with our pretty restrained ordering, and we also had some great Tommy’s margaritas (just tequila, lime juice and agave nectar - £6.50) beforehand at the bar.  The place was pretty packed on Saturday night when we left about 10, so we headed to Ruby’s bar up the road for rhubarb sours.  L’s compliment of a man’s beard got us free cocktails, so maybe the pride in a trendy Dalston beard isn’t such a bad thing after all.

UPDATE Dec 2013 - The Rita's residency at Birthdays has finished, but they now have a permanent home on Mare Street in Hackney.  An updated post is here.

Rita's Bar and Dining on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Guardian Masterclass by Jay Rayner on the craft of good writing

I think I sent 127 emails today.  Most of my days in the office are spent furiously typing away, but since starting my blog I’m sometimes stuck for words.  I absolutely adore food and think I know more than a bit about it, but writing about it takes a little more effort.

I’ve been thinking of ways to work on my writing, especially when reading the witty posts and articles of more established bloggers and professionals.  Jay Rayner is a great writer about food – as the Observer’s restaurant critic since 1999, he has been responsible for rather a few scathingly, hilarious reviews.  I spotted that he was running a Guardian Masterclass called ‘Choosing your words – the craft of good writing’, so booked a place and went last night.

It was a really useful and insightful three hours.  In the first half Jay talked over four of his pieces, going through the structure of each and how he put them together, taking questions throughout. This included one of his restaurant reviews (his panning of Novikov – I asked and apparently it really was that bad), but the most important part for me to take away was that to be a good food writer, you need to be a good writer.  It’s not all about the topic, but instead about building the ability to write something that's engaging.

The second half was all about the importance of the beginning.  The group were tasked with writing the first line or two of a piece about an opera singer, who Jay interviewed for 15 minutes.  He also wrote his beginning, and talked us through, after gently critiquing some of our efforts.  More questions after also answered some of my own about his restaurant reviewer role; his lack of scoring (he feels a rather middle of the road 3/5 score would put people off the more interesting prose), legal issues (a lawyer is cc’d when he submits his work) and how he decides on where to go (mixture of PRs, recommendations and research). 

After also talking to the fabulous organiser of the Masterclasses about blog tips, I left feeling really inspired.  I can’t promise any posts that would sell national newspapers, but hopefully writing that's a little tighter and a little more entertaining will follow.

I would thoroughly recommend the Masterclasses – do have a look at what they are running in the coming months:

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Coya, Piccadilly

Last year saw a spate of Peruvian restaurants opening in London.  There was Ceviche in Soho, with lots of ceviche, surprisingly enough; Lima in Fitzrovia, with its beautifully colourful food; and Coya, a new restaurant and members’ club on Piccadilly.  I’ve decided my favourite Peruvian import is the pisco sour (sours made with pisco, a grape brandy), but I also tried some interesting and mostly delicious food at Coya for lunch last week.

The décor is plush Latin with lots of dark panelling, acid lime velvet and neon-knitted tribal masks on the wall.  The place is big, with different sections of the open kitchen on show, and a separate pisco bar before you get to the restaurant (there is also a members’ part too).  The menu is also big, with small dishes including ceviche and little skewers, with larger dishes including those cooked with their Josper oven.

I made the mistake of not taking notes, so have been trying to remember all the rather mysterious Peruvian sounding ingredients (bear with me – I think I’ve remembered the crucial parts).  We started with a fresh corn salad and a stunning ceviche of corvina (a white fish), with the perfect balance of the citrusy marinade and earthy truffle.  

The thinly sliced raw yellowtail tuna came with a cool but spicy green chilli, coriander and lime sauce and daikon, and the scallops were perfectly cooked with their limo chilli crumb and onion and pea shoots.  The chicken skewer was tender but lacked a punchy flavour of aji Amarillo (South American hot yellow chilli) and garlic, but the crispy squid with coriander and ginger dipping sauce was a nice take on fried squid.

The best main was the beautifully tender and pink beef fillet, with crispy spring onions, rocoto chilli and star anise.  The lobster and tiger prawns both came with the same chilli salsa, and were both a little underwhelming after the other dishes despite the fancy shellfish.  From the sides, we tried patatas bravas (different to the usual Spanish kind, but tasty nonetheless), and nicely simple asparagus and sprouting broccoli with chilli and garlic butter.

We finished with their Fortunato chocolate fondant, with almond and roasted white chocolate ice-cream, chilli-chocolate ice-cream and a refreshingly tart citrus pisco sorbet.  The corn sundae with sweet corn ice cream also sounded an intriguing and fun dessert.

I went to Coya on a work lunch, but if you are footing the bill, the smaller dishes are around the £10 mark, with the larger dishes around £15-30.  The service was very good, and the food was impressive on the whole, with vibrant flavours and interesting combinations, and all very beautiful on their lovely earthenware plates.  I haven’t yet been to any of the other Peruvian places in town, but will make it my mission to search out the best pisco sour this year.

Coya on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Roka, Fitzrovia

The restaurants on Charlotte Street are always teeming with media types on Friday lunchtimes.  If I’m lucky enough to get an invite, I’m sometimes one of them, and a few Fridays ago got the chance to go to Roka for a work lunch.  It was the perfect opportunity to go again, as I was impressed with the modern Japanese food and its beautiful presentation on lunches before, but it’s a pricey place.  They don't have prices on their website, and as the saying goes if you have to ask, you can't afford it.  A treat if someone else is picking up the bill.

The menu includes sushi and sashimi, along with a focus on their Robata grill.  There were eight of us for lunch, so we got to greedily work our way through a lot of the menu.


We started with tempura (we tried all kinds on the premise that deep fried=good), with crunchy and nicely fishy soft-shell crab, fresh prawn and vegetables, all in the light, bubbly batter.  The favourite of rock shrimp has been replaced by Scottish langoustine (apparently rock shrimp are too hard to get hold of now) – not quite as good, but still very tasty with the chili mayo.

From the sushi selection we had some with more soft-shell crab with cucumber and kimchi, and some very fresh tuna rolls.  The gyoza came next and were lovely – sticky, golden beef, ginger and sesame, and my favourite dish of little dumplings filled with black cod, crab and crayfish with a tangy ponzu  citrus dressing. 

Roka’s black cod is the best version I’ve tried, with buttery, soft fish in the delicious yuzu miso marinade.  The beef skewers and tender, pink beef fillet were also very good, and the vegetable dishes were fantastic, with asparagus with sweet soy and sesame and squidgy soft and sweet aubergine with mirin, ginger and soy.

The real showstopper was the dessert platter – about three foot long, with exotic fruit, colourful balls of sorbets and ice-creams, and a selection of their desserts.  My favourites were the dark chocolate pudding with a slightly-scary bright green macha tea filling oozing from the middle, and a lychee custardy pot topped with granita and a nutty, chewy coconut biscuit.  Just don’t try the stinky snake fruit (like a disgusting lychee, which no-one needs even if it is very exotic).

The cocktails are also great – twinkles (champagne, vodka and elderflower with a lemon twist), and the lawnmower (vodka, the Japanese spirit shochu, lemon, pepper and vanilla) being the best I tried.  I haven’t been downstairs to the Shochu Lounge bar below, but have heard it’s always buzzy for evening drinks.

I was just as impressed by Roka on this visit, but just maybe wait for someone nice to invite you there.

Roka on Urbanspoon