Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Polpetto, Soho

My TV watching seems to fall into two camps: 1) subtitled crime drama 2) food/restaurant programmes.  I’m sure these both age me about 30 years in terms of TV profiling.  Anyway, the joy of not actually having a working aerial means I am very selective.  One of my favourite shows at the moment (falling into the 2nd group), is The Restaurant Man on BBC2.

This features Russell Norman of Polpo/Spuntino/Mishkin’s/The Ape & Bird, giving budding restaurateurs advice.  Unsurprisingly many think they (stupidly) know best.  Definitely give it a watch – Norman is great, and his knack for opening buzzy, inexpensive and trend-setting places in London is testament to his know-how.

I liked the tale he regaled of his research and obsession into the perfect bar and bar stool height.  At the recently re-opened Polpetto (in its new Berwick Street Home), they have natty fold-down metal stools, which I’m sure are his 75cm tall (this kind of attention to detail is definitely key to making great restaurants/bars).  The bar area at the front is lovely, with sweet napkin lightshades over the bar top.

There’s a lot more covers on the tables behind than at the tiny original location above The French House (still one of the best pubs in Soho, maybe London, and definitely an institution).  Florence Knight is still in the kitchen – do also check out her book published year, One: A Cook and her Cupboard.

Polpetto shares the look and small plate set-up of Polpo, with its own menu.  The scallops (£12) were plump and perfectly cooked, on a silky cauliflower puree with a little lardo draped across the top (I think it needs to be used pretty sparingly like this).  My favourite dish was written as cavalo nero, anchovy and burnt bread (£7), and was essentially a much better Caesar salad.  I love cavalo nero, but have always it cooked more – it’s brilliant way to use, retaining more of its bite.

Whitty pear was new to me - the whitty pear butter with the bacon chop (£9) came as more of a sticky jam, which worked with the smoky meat and walnuts.  The game faggot (like a solitary offally meatball), came nestled in celeriac and leeks (£11), and was especially good alongside the bowl of nubbly, earthy lentils (£3.50). 

The hare pappardelle (£8) was rich and melting - I am currently compiling my top 5 places for pasta in London, if you have any other suggestions (this bowl could maybe edge its way in).  More meat with the bowl of veal cheeks (£10), slow cooked and tender, with white wine and fennel.

We didn’t have any desserts – the waitress said the best (a Maple Tart) had finished, but there’s also fried pecorino (fried cheese will always be extremely tempting).  I instead finished with another of the pretty blush rhubarb and rose bellini (£6), which they have on the menu at the moment. 

A welcome return for the little (albeit bigger then before) sister of the Polpo family, and I’d like to return at night when it’s more busy.  There’s a downstairs too, which you can hire out (good to know if you need a room for 12 or so).  

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 22 February 2014

4 of the best 1 or 2 item menus in London (for those who don’t like sharing or choosing)

When I was writing a recent blog post on a small plate place, it got me thinking about sharing. This trend, with its tapas-ish origins I suppose, has exploded over the past few years in London.  I love sharing, but lots of people don’t.  So I thought I’d compile a list of places where there is only one or a couple of choices on offer, which should suit your non-sharing friends much better (their plate still might look nicer, even if it’s the same thing). 

They are also good for people who like to procrastinate just a little too long over choosing.  Or moan after getting food envy of another dish.  Just don’t take any vegetarians.

Burger & Lobster – As the name suggests, there’s two things on offer. Technically three menu choices, with a lobster roll alongside the whole lobster and the burger, all at £20.  It could be a little gimmicky, but I have always found it fun (there’s even bibs), and excellent lobster, especially if you dip it in the little silver boat of garlic butter.  The first site was Mayfair, with outposts now also in Soho, Farringdon, the City and even on the Fifth Floor of Harvey Nichols.

Le Coq
Le Coq – The star of the show (and only main course, apart from Sundays) is their Sutton Hoo chickens, golden burnished skin turning on the rotisserie, tender meat inside.  There’s always two starters and two desserts (one a tart, one an ice-cream), which they change regularly, along with the accompaniment.  It’s £17 for two courses or £22 for three, but don’t miss an extra side of the chickeny rotisserie potatoes. 

Le Relais de Venise – The only choice you really have here is how you want your steak cooked.  The starter is a salad before the steak frites, which comes with their special (secret) recipe sauce.  They bring the steak frites in two lots to keep it warm – a very sensible decision.  There is a selection of very French desserts (profiteroles etc) and cheese afterwards.  The original is in Paris, with the London sites in Marylebone, the City and Canary Wharf.

Flat Iron – Another steak place, this time with just the flat iron steak on offer for a bargain £10.  It comes with a salad, but you can add some dripping chips and sauces.  They now occasionally serve a burger too – watch out for any updates on Twitter.

5 of the best London restaurants to impress an important client

A bad restaurant experience can escalate to truly awful if your guests are important clients.  You need a solid, not overly wilde menu (usually not sharing if they are quite old-school/senior), a comfortable and not too crowded/noisy room, and excellent service (there’s nothing worse than worrying about catching the waiter when in the middle of a work conversation).

The below are a few that I would recommend based on the above – all a little pricey, but luckily it will be going on your expense account anyway….

Berners Tavern
Berners Tavern – The room is grand and showy – try and get one of the buttery leather booths around the middle, with great acoustics and lots of space.  It’s one of Jason Atherton’s restaurants and the food is excellent, with great British produce and a few twists.  You must try the vanilla brioche pudding. 

34 – A more discreet sibling to The Ivy/Scott’s/J Sheekey etc, just off Grosvenor Square in the middle of Mayfair.  The menu is varied, with enough grills to satisfy those who like a plate of meat and vegetables.

La Petite Maison
La Petite Maison – A beautiful place to treat, with all the classics of the south of France, executed elegantly.  The classics are brilliant and refined – one of my favourite dishes is the dainty slices of salty, anchovy-rich Pissaladière.

The Delaunay – The Delaunay can sometimes be a little noisy, but it is a great venue, with the glamour of a traditional Grand European Café.  Pop in for breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea – the schnitzels are very good.

Bob Bob Ricard – The best thing about this whole place is surely the ‘Press for Champagne’ button next to the booths.  It’s decadent but still fun, with luxury Russian and English comfort food, including both a lobster burger and a lobster macaroni cheese.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Paris (with a few hours left for food exploring)

Last week included a whistle-stop tour around Paris.  After business, I had about 6 hours of pleasure, with the mission to cram lots in (rushing around, with some eating too).

One of my friends had recommended Rue des Martyrs, for all its food shops.  I started at the top from Pigalle, winding my way down the street, finding a few of my favourite stops.  I first popped into Popelini, with lots of rows of little choux buns with different fillings, with colourful splodges on top.  I tried the pistachio, with an intense nutty, chalky filling.  

My nutritious breakfast continued with a deliciously flaky and squidgy almond croissant at Sébastien Gaudard, a very beautiful patisserie (Sébastien Gaudard used to work at Pierre Herme, with their swanky macaroon shops dotted around Paris). 

Premiere Pression de Provence was full of lovely things from the south of France.  I was curious of the dried tomato powder (never seen it before), so bought a jar to use back in London – it is 100% Provence tomatoes (picked when at their reddest and most tasty), and can be used in sauces, dressings, or supposedly sprinkled on top of anything you fancy. I think it will be brilliant for added depth to stews/sauces, so look forward to experimenting with.  

La Chambre aux Confitures is the most chic jam shop I have visited, with its rows of rainbows of any kind of jam you could imagine (a few chutneys, honeys etc too).

There are a number of chocolate shops, and lots of of fabulous butchers and greengrocers if you were cooking, along with some suitably stinky cheese shops (I don’t think the Eurostar would have appreciated me transporting that back).  Definitely an excellent road for food shopping.

I then popped down to Le Marais, and sought refuge from the pouring rain in the very Breton Breizh Café. The main restaurant/café was full, but there’s a shop/café next door with one big sharing table – perfect for popping in your own.  They serve galette de blé noir (the buckwheat kind), with a wide choice of fillings, all with fantastic quality ingredients.  I had one of the specials, with silky leeks, cheese, slices of smoked tuna, crème fraiche and a sunny, runny egg (€14.50).

I had already reached my sugar limit for the day, but there are many sweet options involving salted caramel, which can only ever be a good thing.  There’s lots of the organic buckwheat – you can buy bags of the flour, and there's even buckwheat caramel, honey and ice-cream.  They serve cidre too – a little brown bowl of the excellent dry stuff was perfect with the galette.

It’s also worth mentioning the restaurant we visited the night before – Restaurant Ballon et Coquillages (just down from Porte Maillot).  I hadn’t researched places for the evening with one of the others remembering it from before, but it was a great example of a traditional French bistro.  We went for some of the bistro stalwarts, including steak tartare with skinny frites, garlicky snails, puy lentil salad and a rich boeuf bourguignon.  

I had the oeufs en meurette, the first time I’ve tried egg poached in red wine, with smoky lardons, little onions and even a heart shaped-crouton (as the waiter pointed out - it was nearly Valentine's Day).  Finally there was an apple tart with salted caramel ice-cream, which combined with red wine, was a perfect Parisian end to the night.

An exhausting, but no means exhaustive, food trip – I’ve hopefully still given a few tips for any Paris visits.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Non Valentine’s (but very pink) Roasted Rhubarb

The 14th February has come round again.  The shops are full of anything that can feasibly be formed into a heart (heart-shaped cheese anyone?), or made a shade of pink/red.  Every magazine, website or type of social media seems to be listing your perfect Valentine’s gifts/beauty regimes/menus/outfits/night out/night in.  All vaguely ridiculous, with everyone making sure they must do something VERY NICE on this one day.

I’m ignoring all this, but I have written a post on my one of my favourite, and coincidentally very beautifully pink, fruits.  Rosy forced rhubarb is in the shops, its slim stems the gorgeous hue after growing in the dark.  It’s perfect in different cakes and puddings, or even in savoury dishes, with its sour tang there to cut through fatty/fishy.

I like to keep it simple some of the time, to really make the most of the pretty colour and flavour.  Roasting is best.  Just chop off the knobbly ends, before cutting the stems into 5cm or so pieces.  Mix with a few tablespoons of honey (I used 3 tbsp for 400g rhubarb), and roast in the oven (covered with foil) for 45 minutes or so at 150c, until tender (test with a sharp knife tip). 

Rhubarb also loves the warmth of spices (rhubarb and ginger are often the natural match).  I used cinnamon and long pepper (look out for it in the supermarket), which is brilliant in desserts, especially anything creamy or with roasted/caramelised fruit.  I grated a little on top before roasting, before tucking a few of the peppercorns in with the rhubarb to impart a little more fragrant spiciness.

The roasted rhubarb is great on its own, but here are 3 excellent ways to use it:
  • Use to top a creamy rice pudding.  I always make mine with coconut milk, infused with a few cardamom pods and vanilla.
  • For an instant cheesecake pudding, mix together equal quantities of mascarpone and ricotta, with a little pinch of sugar or swirl of honey to sweeten.  Dollop on top the rhubarb, perhaps adding a few crushed amaretti biscuits.
  • The sharpness of rhubarb is great for offsetting super sweet meringues.  For a floral pudding, add a tiny dash of rose extract/water and red colouring to the meringue mixture, and top with the rhubarb and a cloud of whipped double cream.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

BOB's & Co (at the Rising Sun Pub), St Paul's

I just realised that this blog post is number 100.  It’s a bit of a milestone.  Most have been restaurant write-ups, so thinking about it, I’ve visited quite a few places in London over the past year and a few months (plus all the, often dud, ones I haven’t written about).

It feels quite apt that this post features lobster, surely the king of celebratory ingredients.  Last Thursday, C and I went to BOB’s & Co, the pop-up residency above the Rising Sun on Carter Lane in St Paul’s.  They started just as the BOB’s Lobster van, which I mentioned on the visit to Street Feast at Hawker House at the end of last year (with an excellent Lobster Mac & Cheese).

We had to try the Lobster Roll (£15), with the sweet meat stuffed inside toasted brioche, tucked in the basket with a heap of chips and homemade pickle. Definitely ask for a pot of their chipotle mayonnaise too.  We also had the fried oysters (£6) – a new way for me (and good for oyster haters), which came in a crisp crumb, wrapped in shiso leaves within the shells.  The tuna tacos (£9), were super crunchy and filled with the sushi-grade tuna, avocado and some spicy sauce (I forgot to make a mental note of exactly what).

There’s a focus on seafood on the menu – some of the other dishes included scallops with caramelised onion puree, clam chowder and shrimp and grits.  But there is also a burger, Jersualem artichoke soup and pig cheek tacos, for those who aren’t so seafood friendly.

There were a couple of puddings to choose from too.  I had the caramelised banana, with crunchy brioche croutons, banana bread and a coffee crème anglaise (£4).  C went for the most homely of puddings, with a bowl of rice pudding (£5).  This was topped with plum, which they had also used in the fabulous Plum Margarita (£8).  I loved the description of how they used the whole fruit, including a plum sugar too for the rim of the glass.

This passion really comes across when we spoke to the BOB’s team about the menu too.  It’s a cosy spot, with lots of red and white check and lobster memorabilia – definitely hidden away if you didn’t know it was above the busy pub.  BOB’s & Co is there for a few more months, so catch them while you can.  Just remember that they are open Tuesday to Friday – you can also book, and there’s space for walk-ins too.

Bob's & Co on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Prawn On The Lawn, Highbury & Islington

When I visited the charming Bonnie Gull, I remember writing about how the London bias towards burgers/steaks/hotdogs/generally all things meaty over the last few years has eclipsed poor old fishies.  Their so-called Seafood Shack of Fitzrovia had brilliant, responsibly sourced and fully British seafood (good news that they are opening a second branch April-ish time, just up the road from me on Exmouth Market).

My visit to Prawn on the Lawn on Friday night made me think I haven’t been to many other excellent seafood places since.  It’s a perfect combination of lovely fishmonger/tiny restaurant, with sustainable fish and seafood (they don’t request certain fish or get fish from the trawlers, but instead get what the fishermen have brought in that’s good that day/week).  There’s a few barrels and bar along the side to sit, but they have recently done up the basement in addition, which seats around 12.

There’s an excellent drinks list for such a small place (everywhere should have coupe glasses for Prosecco/champagne), with the food menu chalked up on the wall.  Most dishes are smallish and good for sharing, all prepared at the back of the room in the little kitchen area.

We had to try the namesake dish – Prawn on the Lawn (£6.50) is toasted soda bread, topped with mashed avocado and a couple of plump prawns, with the freshness of coriander, lime and chilli.  Another of the first dishes was the calamari (£7), hung from the bar above the seats (nice touch), which was a cold salad, and really light with the chilli, parsley and lemon.  The steamed ray wing (£9) was delicate and lightly fragrant, with carrot, spring onion and soy.

We decided to keep adding extra from the menu with their half pint of prawns (£6) came with a little crème fraiche for dipping the sweet bodies once de-headed and de-tailed.  The two stews were both excellent – one a tomato and chorizo stew topped with slices of tender monkfish (£9.50), the other a light broth (with some fennel I think) with clams, mussels and prawns (£9).  Both with more of their home-made soda bread (I think it’s often the best kind of bread to have with seafood).

It’s a small place, and there was just the four of them working in there – it’s very much a personal business, with the dessert made by one of the sweet waitresses (a tangy lemon posset with blackberries, £6).  I didn’t get a chance to pick up some fish to cook, but it’s an excellent place to come for cooking at home.

I loved the cosy room with the fish counter at the front, great music and attention to detail (just little things like the glassware, napkins, and the bill attached to the top of a sardine tin, filled with pink shrimp sweets).  It’s a special place tucked away in Highbury, and a must-visit for those that love all things fishy.

Prawn on the Lawn on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Pear & Mincemeat Bakewell Tart

It's February already, with Christmas a very distant memory.  But some things last well after - take a jar of homemade mincemeat found at the back of the fridge.  It needed a use, but mince pies would have been a festive step too far.

I instead decided to make a kind of Bakewell tart, using the mincemeat instead of a jammy layer.  I also used pears inside, chopped and mixing with the mincemeat (as I had a few spare) - they work really well with the spiced dried fruit and almondy frangipane layer.

The best sweet shortcrust pastry recipe I’ve found is in Dan Lepard’s Short & Sweet (my baking bible, and a really excellent book).  It uses a little icing sugar, with egg yolks to bind together.  I didn’t blind bake for this recipe, but if you give it enough time in the oven (some covered with foil), you should escape the dreaded soggy bottom.  I haven’t given an extremely detailed pasty description, but do hunt down his book or another if you need lots of pastry advice.

Pastry (you will have some left over)
250g plain flour
150g unsalted butter (I like Dan’s description of cold but pliable texture for the butter)
50g icing sugar
Pinch salt
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp ice cold water

Frangipane Mixture
125g ground almonds
50g softened butter
125g caster sugar
3 eggs
½ tsp almond extract

250g mincemeat
2 pears – peeled, cored and cut into small chunks
Handful flaked almonds or thin slices or pear to decorate (optional)
  • For the pastry, rub the butter into the flour, icing sugar and salt with your fingertips, then mix together with the egg yolk and water (mix these together first) until it comes together.  Wrap the pastry well and chill in the fridge for at least half an hour
  • Pre-heat the oven to 180 (fan)
  • For the frangipane layer, just mix all the ingredients together until combined
  • Take the pastry from the fridge, and roll out on a lightly floured surface until approx. ½ cm thick
  • Line a loose bottomed fluted tart dish with the pastry (it’s easiest to move it with using the rolling pin), before trimming the excess with a knife

  • Return the pastry to the fridge to rest for another half an hour
  • Mix the mincemeat and chopped pear, then spread onto the bottom of the pastry case
  • Top with the frangipane mixture before smoothing out, then decorate with a few flaked almonds, or even some thinly sliced pear
  • Bake on a tray in the pre-heated oven for 10 minutes, before turning down to 170 for another 25 minutes.  Cover the top with foil (it should be golden brown at this point), and bake for another 15 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and leave to cool a little before eating