Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Best Barcelona tapas, cava, cocktails & cinnamon buns

I spent three rather blissful days in Barcelona last week, returning with some valuable advice for the city:
  1. Eating a big plate of bread and manchego cheese at midnight does indeed make tumblers full of whisky and 2 hours of sleep less awful before a 7am flight.
  2. Don’t drink shots of absinthe laced with tobasco.  We didn’t.  This saved us.
  3. Probably don’t go to the W Hotel Bar (despite the 26th floor view), unless you are partial to very loud (bad) Eurotrash music and men with sweaters tied over their shoulders.

Aside from these areas of avoidance, I do have some excellent tips on where to go.  The places we visited were a mixture of tips/research before going, local recommendations (it’s handy to sit at a bar and befriend a bartender) and lovely places we stumbled upon.  This resulted in no dud tapas, cheap cava and a few fabulous finds for shopping.

La Boqueria
Most people I asked before going mentioned La Boqueria, the giant food market (just off La Rambla).  It’s full of fish, meat, cheese, cured meat, fruit and vegetables, mixed in with tapas bars, with counters to perch and stop off for food.  

Mercat Santa Caterina
Mercat Santa Caterina
It’s certainly big and bustling, but I would instead head for the Mercat Santa Caterina in El Born.  It’s a smaller and quieter version (with less tourists), in the beautiful modern building with snaking, colourful tiled wavy roof.  We had some of the best tapas here at La Torna.  

La Torna
This included a bowl of paprika speckled Pulpo Gallego (tender octopus with potatoes), beautifully shiny jamon iberico, grilled asparagus and meatballs in a great mushroom sauce. 

Bar del Pla
Bar del Pla
Another place to head for tapas is Bar del Pla, where we had squidgy black (slightly scary looking, but delicious) squid ink croquettes and octopus bombs (a little like big, round croquettes, but with potato mixed in).  Most tapas dishes in the city will come with a plate of Pan Con Tomate, the tomato and oil brushed bread.  The pile at Bar del Pla was the best example – it’s always a little surprising how much flavour you can get with the right bread, oil and tomatoes that actually taste of something (far too many insipid kinds in the supermarket).

If you are near Sagrada Familia, or all the other Modernist buildings that I maybe saw (just a map and no signs is sometimes puzzling), Tossa is a good bet for lunch.  Plates of smoky salty padron peppers, a fresh salt cod and tomato salad and tortilla revived us after a long walk in the sunshine.

Hofman Pastisseria
Hofman Pastisseria
For something sweet, I am being a little biased and picking places within five minutes of our hotel in El Born.  But never mind, as they were so gorgeous.  The first is Hofman Pastisseria, tucked down Carrer dels Flassaders.  All manner of croissants (even stuffed with apricot and chocolate), pastries and exquisite chocolates (with a buttery/sugary smell of baking to convince you to buy anything).  The cinnamon bun was the best I have had, flaky and sticky.  Just up the road and round the corner on Carrer de la Princesa, also stop in the very old-school Pastisseria Brunells, for brown paper wrapped bars of chocolate to take home and addictive almond biscuits to munch then.

Olimpic Bar
The trip involved lots of cava (even lots of very cheap cava).  We went to El Raval one night, with Carrer de Joaquín Costa a spot for a little grungier bars (including slightly weird ones called Olimpic and Manchester).  

On the other scale, the very classy Cocktail Bar Juanra Falces was perfect for expertly mixed drinks.  It used to be called Gimlet (and is still referred to by most) – it would therefore be rude to not have one of the gin-laced namesake drinks.  Another favourite was Disset 17 Graus, with the best brut Imperial cava we tried on the trip.


To offset the eating/drinking, the Picasso museum and Musuem of Contemporary Art (MACBA) are definitely worth a visit.  We avoided La Rambla as much as we could – El Born was a brilliant area to stay in.  Finally, don’t miss getting the furnicular up to Parc de Montjuïc, stopping off for a tea in the Miramar Hotel, with views over the city.

Miramar Hotel Terrace
View from Montjuic

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Rotorino, Dalston

I usually miss out wandering up the stretch of Kingsland Road north of Haggerston to Dalston, usually just passing through on the 243.  There’s now a very good reason to, with Rotorino open at number 432 (a second actually until middle of May, as the Mussel Men site is a few doors down – apparently the Sunday seafood roast is the thing to go for).  

Stevie Parle (of the Dock Kitchen) is behind the menu, with Ruth of Legs Long Length  behind the wine, and Jonathan Downey as a partner (of Milk & Honey, Streetfeast etc).  The interior is a rather gorgeous mix of geometric 60s wallpaper, shiny over-sized industrial hanging lamps, bare brick and blond wood.  There’s a bar and long sharing table at the front, with tables and boots for four people at the back.

The menu is split into First (small dishes, under cured, raw/cold, fried and grilled), Second (pasta), and Third (meat and fish dishes).  From the first, we started with the octopus (£4), grilled with the smoky fragrance of its rosemary sprig skewer, and really tender with the chilli and soaked bread sauce (I’ve forgotten the rubbery over-cooked sort, with all the lovely silky/justthe right bite kind I have had recently).  

From the First, the chickpea fritters (£3.50) came as little square pillows, with fried sage.  N thought they were a little bland, but I really liked them alongside the sweet/salty tang of the aubergine, tomato, celery, pine nuts and raisins in the caponata (£4.80).

There was a selection of four pasta dishes, to come as a small or big bowl (great blue and white spot spattered enamel bowls by the way).  We had the pistachio casarecce (small £7.50), a little like a non-cheesy pesto with lots of crushed pistachio nuts with the basic, garlic and olive oil.  The other we tried was the mussels fusilli longhi (£7 for the small size), with the seafood chopped and intense, with tomato, oregano and chilli.  Rotorino will definitely be added to my top 5 London pasta places (in progress at the moment).

It’s often good to go with the waitress recommendation.  It paid off with the Sasso chicken (chicken’s usually my last choice on the menu) – there’s tender meat, with ricotta stuffed under the crispy chicken (£14 for a one-person version).  It came on rich chicken juice soaked toast, and was absolutely delicious.  We had it alongside the Monk’s Beard (£4.50) with lentils (Monk’s Beard looks a little like samphire, and tastes similar but less salty, and has only a five week season where it grows in Tuscany).

The rest of the bottle of very good red wine (all very reasonable) and pudding pretty much finished us off.  The pudding was billed as chocolate cake (£5), but it came as a very rich, dark fudgey cocoa ball, sprinkled with pistachios and honeycomb.  They also obliged with swapping the sour cream on the side with the excellent hazelnut ice-cream. 

You can really tell the team behind it come from successful existing places – service was spot-on, and it’s just the relaxed room you want to rush back to.  Alongside the excellent, and well-priced, interesting Italian menu, I’ll be hopping off the 243 bus on Kingsland Road more often.  

Rotorino on Urbanspoon

Friday, 18 April 2014

Wright Brothers Spitalfields, Spitalfields

Maybe it’s a little macabre to choose the crab destined for your plate.  I watched some of the critters in the tank at Wright Brothers Spitalfields, and did partly want to select the tastiest looking (I’m not quite sure what signs you should look out for to equal a delicious cooked state).

I didn’t make the fatal selection, but the crab we had was excellent - really fresh, with a tangy pot of mayonnaise and sourdough bread (and £13 for a small crab, even if it was very sizeable).  The oysters were also beautifully briny, dressed with pickled cucumber on top (£9 for three).  The new site from the oyster farmers, shellfish merchants and two existing London restaurants (Soho and Borough) has 1,400 live shellfish upstairs to select, along with 9,000 more in holding tanks in their basement.  You can’t get much fresher from tank to table.

The first side of the menu is made up of the shellfish, with the other side items from the kitchen.  From the kitchen, we shared the octopus with potatoes (£10), tender with the red burnish of paprika, and the sprouting broccoli with chunky green sauce packed with capers (£5.50).  The fried stuffed olives (£6 for three) were a little different to the last kind I tried at 8 Hoxton Square – here they came chopped with the anchovy and parsley, then reshaped within the crispy crumb, with the same pleasingly saltiness/bitter ness.

We sat at the bar – it’s definitely the best spot for watching the construction of the impressive shellfish platters, or today revealing the whole baked sea bream from their snowy salt crusts.  The room has the salty tang of the sea, and it’s a brilliant spot for seafood (a welcome addition to Spitalfields too, which has a generally not very exciting selection of restaurants in the market).

Wright Bros Spitalfields on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Lockhart, Marylebone

The Lockhart opened in Marylebone last year – the new southern American place was on my radar (and added to my restaurant list).  But I really started reading rave things about it when Brad McDonald, the new head chef, arrived to cook the food of his Mississippi childhood.

The menus are nicely concise, and we tried much of the lunch one on Friday.  We shared a couple of each of the starters, including crisp catfish goujons (£4.50) and grilled chicken oysters (£5) on a tangy mustard sauce.  The buttermilk wedge salad (£8) was very delicious for such a seemingly simple sounding bowl, with the fresh crunch of iceberg lettuce, salty bacon crumbs, hard-boiled egg and great dressing.

Half the table ordered the fried chicken plate (it had to be done, especially watching other tables eating theirs), which came with sweet potato puree and beans (£12).  I sneaked a bite, and it was I think the best I’ve tried (I’m no expert in this field, but tender meat and perfect coating).  There was also a bowl of melting lamb shoulder with pommes puree and wild garlic (£17), and the mysterious Muffuletta.  It’s a actually a giant sandwich (you get ¼ for £12), stuffed with different cured meats and cheese. 

I had the shrimp and grits (£14), which made any recent shrimp and grits pale into comparison (sorry Jackson & Rye).  The rich grits were under sweet prawns, mushrooms, bacon and spring onion – a beautiful comfort food dish (I’m not a fan of the similarly corny sloppy polenta, so I’ll be sticking to the grits here).  The sides were very good, including a clean, sharp coleslaw (£4) and spicy collard greens (£4), with some more chunks of pig tucked in there.

The cornbread needs a special mention.  It arrived warm in its dish (£5), all glistening with the honey butter.  I have sometimes found other cornbread a little sweet, but even with this butter it was utterly perfect. 

After the brilliance of everything else, we felt we needed to try the desserts (around the £7 mark – I forgot to make a note).  These included a creamy rice pudding, and an interesting version of a kind-of lemon meringue pie and doughnuts.  The former involved graham cracker crumbs with lemon curd and ice-cream, with toasted meringue on top – a great combination (better than the usual kind I think).  The doughnuts were Calas, light little New Orleans rice flour beignets, on top rich cocoa dark chocolate, and sprinkled with fennel icing sugar.

It’s sweet inside, simple with wooden floors and tables, and mis-matched crockery. Do remember that the fried chicken isn’t on the supper menu, but they do brunch at the weekend (where you can even get it with waffles).  There’s definitely a place for southern American food in London, especially with execution this good.  Go there sharpish for your grits, cornbread and fried chicken.

Lockhart on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Barnyard, Fitzrovia

My list of restaurants to visit doesn’t ever get seem to get shorter.  Some get taken off after eating there, with plenty of new places added.  There are a few that have stayed for over a year.  Dabbous is one of them.  Ollie Dabbous’ restaurant opened to absolutely rave reviews two or so years ago, and subsequently got very, very booked up.

I never quite got round to thinking in advance for booking a table.  But now there’s now a second place, run by Ollie and Oskar Kinberg (who runs the bar downstairs at Dabbous), with Joseph Woodland in the kitchen.  It’s more fun, with picket fences, corrugated iron and lots of checked shirts.  You can’t book, so get there early – we had an hour wait at the bar when the two of us got there at six on Friday evening.

There’s an interesting drinks menu to keep you occupied.  It includes shakes (that you can have with bourbon/rum added), along with a new kind of shandies – innovative cocktails that all include wine/beer.  To fit with a little of a farmyard feel, the menu is split into pig, cow, chicken, egg and vegetables (and other sides).  We picked each animal to try, sharing some sides too. 

The roast suckling pig (£11) was a perfectly cooked slab, with juicy (not too fatty) tender meat under a deliciously crispy crackling, and a little pot of shredded celeriac with caraway seeds.  My favourite dish was the pink roast beef on crunchy toast with peppery watercress salad and a warm horseradish buttermilk (£9) in a tiny milk bottle.  The chicken in a bun (£6) came tender with tangy avocado inside the toasted brioche bun, but would have been nice with something a little crunchy.

The cauliflower cheese (£3) was very rich and really excellent – I will try and find out their secret, as there must be something special added to the usual white sauce.  We also had the nicely crunchy charred broccoli (£3), and the hispi cabbage (£3) with the interesting addition of clover (a little aniseed-y). 

It’s a relaxed place perfect for Friday night.  There was great service over the evening, and really interesting to give feedback to our waiter, who turned out to be one of their directors working on the floor that night.  I also love the fact it’s not another menu of  just burgers/other American re-workings, as I think London’s maybe reached its capacity of these.  If you you haven’t got round to organising your table at Dabbous, it’s a great alternative just down the road.

Barnyard on Urbanspoon