Monday, 14 December 2009

Saltoun Supper Club

Sometimes I'm lucky enough to stumble upon the occasional hidden away eatery that is truly unique, a little bit under-the-radar, and with an edge of naughtiness. Somewhere with a rebellious spirit and a generous nature. I almost don't want to tell you about this one, but I'm feeling festively generous. And the food is a-mazing. Here it is: The Saltoun Supper Club, one of London's most feted underground restaurants presided over by a gregarious and enigmatic moustachiod cook. You won't be eating in a regular joint where you can book a table to order: there's a phenomenal waiting list, the restaurant only opens on Wednesday and Thursday nights and you'll be eating in Arno Masdoorp's second floor flat in Brixton, South London. Not only will you eat a meal fit for the gods, but you can rummage through his flatmate's book collection and smoke an illicit ciggy out of the skylight!

Arno has been running his supper club from March of 2009. From the moment you ring the doorbell of the unassuming Victorian terrace on Saltoun Road, you feel the thrill of the unknown. You don't know who you'll be sat next to or what the atmosphere will be like. But there's nothing to fear except having fun! He comes to greet every diner personally (there's only room for 14 people), and you sit in his living room which is festooned with curious and ornaments, and every table is beautifully decorated with striking design touches and vintage curios. It's like sitting in a jewel box - there is so much to look at. Arno and his head waiter (usually one of his good friends) are quick to make everyone feel at home and you're told you can roam everywhere you please in the house.

The food is excellent. Ok, so Arno has 20 years of restaurant experience, so you'd sort of expect him to be able to fan a melon, but it's not always a given that just because you've worked in catering that your food is good by default, is it? He cooks with real flair and elegance. The meal on our first visit is etched into my memory: a pre-starter salad of cucumber and feta cheese, a starter of rustic duck pate with caperberries and melba toast, a delicious main course of sea bass with new potatoes and peas, a divine dessert of mango with salted caramel and meringue, and petit fours served on gold platters. It was essential that we return...

Unfortunately this time around I decided to take photos (using my husband's rubbish camera phone). I was trying to be unobtrusive, avoiding snapping away with my bigger camera. But these will at least will give you a rough (and blurry) idea of what we ate...

Baked Beets, Peppers and Tomatoes with Mandarin Oil:

Such a humble looking salad which was an 'umami'-laden mix of savouriness, earthiness and zingy citrussy oil - amazing. And the bread was craggy sourdough from the Wild Caper deli in Brixton Market. Four of us greedily got through THREE baskets of this bread...oops...that's nearly one basket each!

Truffle infused Cauliflower Gnocchi:

This was my first experience of truffles. Our host had combined the truffles two ways: he'd infused them in the gnocchi, and also added perfumed dabs of truffle cream at the edges of the plate. Raw cauliflower was shaved over the top. I don't even usually like cauliflower, but this dish was HEAVEN. I can definitely handle eating cauliflower in this format - every day please...

Grilled Sea Bass with Saffron and Mussel Sauce:

Deliciously light and fresh, the sea bass was served with a fragrant seafood broth infused with saffron and mussels.

Pear Syrup Tart, Bramley Tart Fine and Salted Caramel:

Really buttery pastry, caremelised pears and heavenly salted caramel...I am crazy for the salt-sweet combination of caramel, salt and pears!

Petit Fours:

Wow-ee - how cute is this? A delightful selection of mini chocolate brownies, nougat, Turkish delight, vintage-style candy canes and chocolate toy cars? Heart be still!!!

Between courses, you're encouraged to go upstairs to Arno's flatmate's bedroom and have a cigarette out of the skylight, and you can sit on sofas and rummage through the books that are stacked floor-to-ceiling in artful piles. After dessert, he and his waiter serve up coffee or tea in vintage mis-matched cups and kitsch coffeepots, and then for the diners that linger, he generously cracks open his own wine supply and pops glamorous decanters down on the table. Arno sits and has a chat once the meal has ended, and he keeps on pouring the vino. It's very hard to leave!

You get all this for a very modest suggested 'donation' of £25 per head, which is staggeringly cheap for the superb level of food and number of courses (and it's BYO). Arno told us that he doesn't really make much money from doing the Supper Club two nights a week, but that it acts as the perfect vehicle to spread the word about his catering service. This is clearly a man who is passionate about food and entertaining - it takes guts and a lot of energy to invite strangers into your home and feed them to such a high standard week after week. But you sense that he and his flatmate absolutely thrive on the buzz and theatre of it.

So, if you want to eat fabulous food in fascinating surroundings, meet new people and have an evening that is really different, The Saltoun Supperclub might be the place for you. As we left - or rather wobbled - out of the front door with our friends A and K, they proclaimed that they'd had such an amazing evening that they wanted to 'eat Arno's flat'...

The Saltoun Supperclub
Secret Location, Brixton, South London

Monday, 30 November 2009

Happiness is...

I often like to take little snaps of foodie things that have made me content or just laugh out loud. Just quick pix with my crappy mobile phone. They don't really merit a whole blog post on their own, but, being a bit of a food nerd, I think they're worth a quick mention. On the left, you can see a bowl of porridge I ate at the Spitalfields branch of Leon. What made it so special were the Valhrona chocolate flakes and strawberry compote they put on top. Not sickly - simply delicious (and it almost makes me forgive Leon for no longer using free range chicken in their meals...but that's another story.)

Below, observe a blackbird singing from inside a chicken pie my husband made - cute, huh? And yes, the chicken was free range (not sure about the blackbird)!

This handsome cheese plate was set upon by several of us (in the manner of hungry dogs) at Tapas Brindisa in Soho one rainy Saturday afternoon. I had a monstrous hangover - this seemed to help steer me back into normality again:

The toasted sandwich below may not look like much, but believe me, it is mighty. This is one of the best things you can order at Crystal Palace's superlative brunch cafe Domali (a real local fave of mine) in SE London: you can be having the worst possible day and one of these toasties will envelop you like a warm hug. I ask for the exact same filling every time: tuna, cheddar, tomato and home-made pesto. They use enormous, thick slices of farmhouse granary. Beautiful!

Last week, a group of friends and I descended like hungry scavengers on Mien Tay, a Vietnamese restaurant on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, East London. The food was sensational - and the star of the show was this amazing crispy sea bream cooked with mango and fish sauce, a real mix of sweet, savoury and crispy:

Last, but not friend Paul recently had his 40th birthday at the aforementioned Domali cafe in Crystal Palace. But instead of a traditional birthday cake, he instead got a massive birthday pork pie. That is genius, is it not?

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Spicy lentil dhal

Some nights when I'm traipsing home from work in the dark and the rain, I know exactly what I want for dinner: a comforting spicy bowl of creamy lentil dhal. Perfect for curling up on the sofa with and watching some trashy TV. And when you fry the spices, your house will smell amazing! You would normally eat this as a side dish with other curries, but I think this is good enough to eat on its own in a big bowl as a main meal, garnished with a fistful of fresh choppped coriander.

To make a big pot (about 4 large servings):

1 tsp fennel seeds
1.5tbsp coriander seeds
1 tbsp cumin seeds
30 cardamom pods
2 tsp nigella seeds
1/2 cinnamon stick
2 medium onions
2 small hot chillies
2 fat thumb-sized pieces of peeled fresh ginger root
3 fat cloves garlic
1 400g tin chopped tomatoes
3 cups (about 600g) yellow mung dal lentils (you could also use red lentils)
Optional: 1 organic chicken or vegetable stock cube

First up, toast your spices - dry fry the fennel, coriander, cumin seeds together in your large pot until they smell fragrant (one minute on a medium heat should do it) and then grind them up in a pestle and mortar, then put to one side in a bowl. Repeat with the cardamom pods - dry fry until fragrant, then bash the pods in the pestle and mortar and remove the husks. Then grind up the black cardamom seeds and add to the bowl. Dry fry the nigella seeds and cinnamon stick and place them in the bowl of spices - no need to grind.

Thinly slice the onions and fry in a couple of tablespoons of rapeseed (or sunflower) oil and cook over a medium heat for a few minutes until translucent. Chop the chillies and grate the ginger on a cheese grater - add to the onions and fry gently for a few minutes. Add the spices and stir well for a minute. Crush the garlic cloves and add to the mix - take care not to cook the mixure very long so that you don't burn the garlic. Add the tinned chopped tomatoes, stir, and let bubble away for a couple of minutes while you boil a full kettle. Add the lentils to the spice and tomato mixture, mix, and then add about 700ml boiling water - stir everything well. Turn the heat down to a low simmer and put the lid on the pot.

The cooking time depends entirely on the type of lentils you are using, how old they are and where they're from - I find that pulses all have wildly differing cooking times. The yellow mung dhal lentils I used above were cooked after 30 minutes. Take the lid off a few times during cooking and stir, making sure the lentils don't catch on the bottom of the pan. If the lentils look too dry, add more boiling water. The lentils will soften and go creamy. When the lentils are soft, add a chopped chicken or vegetable stock cube to add a bit of saltiness, and cook for a further 10 minutes so that it is absorbed. (Note: never try to cook pulses in salty water or stock - they won't soften.)

Ladle a generous portion of dhal into a large bowl and garnish with chopped fresh coriander. I love my dhal drizzled with a bit of tamari soy sauce - this might seem a bit strange, but it's really delicious!

Pear, maple and almond cake

Here is the recipe of the pear cake I made last weekend - the one that sent me into a rage because the River Cottage recipe I was using as a guideline was wrong. Anyway, after all the angst and swearing, the resulting amended version was absolutely bloody delicious with a really buttery sweetness and wonderful mellow flavour from the maple syrup, pears and vanilla. I actually managed to eat three slices in quick succession, it tasted that good - I would make this again in a heartbeat!

Based loosely on two recipes by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Nigel Slater.

Serves 12

You will need:

For the pear filling:
3 pears peeled and quartered - not rock hard but not too soft either. (I used UK Comice pears in this recipe)
25g butter
3 tbsp maple syrup
2 pinches cinnamon

For the cake mix:
375g butter
315g caster sugar
5 organic medium-sized eggs
190g organic wholemeal spelt flour (I used the Dove's Farm brand)
190g ground almonds
2 tsps vanilla extract
2 tsps baking powder

Line a 23cm springform tin with greaseproof baking parchment. Then you need to cook the pears. Melt the butter over a medium heat in a frying pan, add the pears, maple syrup and cinnamon and bring everything to a simmer - let the mixture bubble away for about 10 mins, and turn the pears occasionally to make sure they caramelise a little. When the pears have browned, turn the heat off and leave to cool down.

Preheat your oven to 180C.

Now to make the cake mix. Cream together the butter and sugar until pale, with an electric mixer. Add the vanilla extract and then beat in one egg at a time, mixing in a little of the flour with each egg. Add the rest of the flour, the baking powder and the almonds, and fold them in.

Pour the cake mix into the tin and arrange the pears on top, like this:

Bake in the oven for about one hour, until a skewer comes out clean when you poke it into the cake.

Delicious on its own or with a dab of creme fraiche.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Kitchen rage

Yesterday I had a day where everything went so wrong in the kitchen that I wanted to stab a fork in somebody's eye. I was taken over with Kitchen Rage. My blog is called Tales of the Tiny Kitchen because that's what I have: my kitchen is minuscule, and the problem is worsened because my husband and I are total gourmand foodies and own just about every single bit of kitchen kit known to man* - every time you want to take something out of the oven and set it down, you either have to put it on the floor or lift up a very heavy juicer off the work surface and put it down in its place. Every square inch of worktop or cupboard is bursting full. We are thinking of starting to hoist kitchen implements from the ceiling. And the luxury of owning a dishwasher (I have dreams about this) is totally off the cards - one handyman came to look and see if anything could be done, and bar blocking out the only window or building outwards into next door's flat, there is nothing to be done.

Anyway, yesterday I had planned a lovely day's baking and relaxation, after a mammothly stressful week at work. For me, a real treat is to have the luxury of time to bake a loaf of bread or make a cake that I've not tried before. I had been looking forward to this day all week. Maybe there was too much anticipation. Anyway, everything seemed to go wrong from the word go. I failed to read the instructions properly when putting my white loaf in the oven, and turned the temperature up too high and didn't cut slashes in the loaf so the dough could expand properly. What emerged was this bulbous thing, burnt on one side and with a strange protrusion on the other.

The texture of the bread was like lead on the inside. "Never mind, it'll be good for toasting," remonstrated my husband. I felt like weeping, as the dough had taken 20 minutes to knead and several hours to prove and rest - it's not like you can whip this thing up in a few minutes, it takes the whole day! Plus I'd had amazing breadmaking lessons at The Lighthouse Bakery School last year, to make this very same loaf. If only the tutors could see me now...

The second disaster was trying to make a pear and almond cake. I had wanted to make one of these all week, after watching Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall whip up this cake in the rustic prettiness of his country kitchen on the new TV series of River Cottage Winter. How I drooled as he tucked into a huge cake with caramelised pears and cream. Lucky bugger. So I wanted to do the same, and found his recipe on the Channel 4 website. I also added a few tweaks of my own (maple syrup to cook the pears instead of sugar, a dash of vanilla), but it soon became apparent that the cake mix that I had assembled was just enough to fill...a tea mug. I scratched my head in disbelief and read the recipe again. Sure enough, I'd followed it correctly. I called my husband in.

Me: "Look at this cake mix. Does it look small to you?"
N: "Um...just a bit tiny. You'll have to make more, I think..."

Cue liberal amounts of sailor-strength swearing and shouting (me, not him). I wanted to throw the sodding cake tin out of the window. Gah!

N persuaded me to take a few deep breaths. I was inconsolable with fury. He helped me whip up more cake mix. We had to increase the amounts a further one-and-a-half times. I hurled the damn thing in the oven...and realised too late that I'd forgotten to add any baking powder to the second round of mixture. Guess what, Hugh's cooking time was wrong too. (Logical, I suppose - you add more mixture, it takes longer). Then the pears started to leak caramel all over the oven. I was almost past caring at this stage.

I had to sit down with a glass or three of wine while it cooked. My mood was moribund. Then the cake was ready. It smelt delicious, didn't look too bad (amazingly it had risen), but by then it was too late in the day to try it. I'll be trying it today. With cream. And ice cream.

So what I want to know, lovely readers, is how angry you get in the kitchen? Do you have tantrums when things go wrong? Is the size of your kitchen driving you nuts? Do you have to stack everything on top of each itself to get to the other side? Please tell me I'm not alone - write below and share your kitchen angst. I need y'all to make me feel better!

* But still no Kitchen Aid mixer - we could hoist one from the ceiling, no trouble! :o)

Friday, 13 November 2009

I heart Vietnamese food

My obsession with Vietnam and Vietnamese food began about six years ago when I read 'A Cook's Tour' by chef Anthony Bourdain. As I read his fervent descriptions of his culinary road trip through Vietnam, detailing the vibrancy of the food and its and eye-popping flavours, spices and marinades, I just knew I had to go there. So about a year later my then-boyfriend (now husband) and I packed our rucksacks and headed to South East Asia for a six-month trip visiting several countries, and we devoted one month of it to discovering Vietnam. Once we were there, we simply couldn't stop eating - great bowlfuls of beef Pho noodle soup decorated with herbs, chopped noodle salads doused in zingy marinades, fragrant stews, jewel-like fresh summer rolls, crispy spring rolls adorned with salads...oh God we were hooked. We had to extend our visas to stay a second month. Just to fit all the meals in. And we still didn't want to leave at the end...

Mid-way through our two month stay, we met an amazing chef in the picturesque town of Hoi An called Duc Tran. He ran a tiny neat cafe called the Hoai River Restaurant along a narrow backstreet, and we ate at his place for six days on the trot because he cooked like a god. We persuaded him to give us cooking lessons - he wasn't sure at first, but after twisting his arm we became his first ever students. For just $5 each, he spent the whole morning taking us around the local market to pick out produce, and then we made three dishes together: a squid and watercress salad, lemongrass, chilli and chicken stir fry and a crab soup. He wouldn't divulge the secret of how to make Vietnam's national dish of Pho, the legendary beef noodle soup with its aromatic broth of star anise and other magical ingredients - every family has its own secret way of making the broth. But no matter; we were totally bewitched with Vietnam's style of cooking, and we left the country determined to eat Vietnamese food as often as possible back in England.

The things that this style of cuisine so special to me are the liberal use of fresh herbs - mint, coriander, holy basil, sawtooth - and the abundance of fish sauce and aromatics such as lemongrass, garlic and chilli. Vietnamese cuisine is light and fresh, never making you feel bloated or heavy, even when you're as greedy as I am! I would be happy to eat this way every single day, and luckily in London we are blessed with 'The Vietnamese Mile' - a long stretch of Vietnamese restaurants on the Kingsland Road in Shoreditch, East London. My favourite one (of many) is Loong Kee, where you can feast on a veritable banquet of wonderful dishes for roughly £12 a head. No kidding!

Last weekend we took our very good pals S and C to Loong Kee - they are our ideal partners in greed as they also love to cook and eat as much as we do. And we knew they'd be impressed with the spread...

Crispy soft shell crab (left), fresh summer rolls, crispy squid with chilli and salt (right):

Beef in betel leaves:

Beef 'loc lac' (front) and king prawn rice noodles with lemongrass:

The magnificent 'cha ca la vong': Hanoi-style monkfish with turmeric and dill...

...and its accoutrements:

The carnage:

The happy diners at the end:

The thing that I love about Loong Kee is that it's totally unpretentious and the food is always good. You sit at formica tables and you can bring your own booze. The staff are efficient and friendly. The tantalising smells of fish sauce, garlic and anise waft out from the kitchen. There are absolutely no frills, and you will struggle to spend more than £15 per head even if you are a total uninhibited glutton. If you can't make it to Loong Kee, you will still eat very well at a number of the other Vietnamese restaurants along the Kingsland Road - Cay Tre and Viet Grill are two other great places to try out.

If any of you happen to go to Hoi An in Vietnam do go and see if Duc still has his restaurant there - here is the address:

Hoai River Restaurant
44 Nguyen Thai Hoc St
Hoi An
Tel: 0510 910 809

And when in London:

Loong Kee
134G Kingsland Road
London E2 8DY
Tel: 020 7729 8344

Get some preservation!

Photo: courtesy of Oliver Rowe of Konstam

So the autumn leaves are whipping about your feet, the weather's gone moody...what to do? Stay at home, bolt the door and hide under a pile of blankets? Or perhaps make some nice tasty preserves? I've managed to snaffle a couple of killer recipes from Konstam and The Duke of Cambridge organic gastropub (both very fine London dining institutions) and have a written a feature on chutney and pickles for Channel 4 Food - take a look...

Monday, 9 November 2009

Hospital 'food'

My poor friend K was unlucky enough to be admitted to Cambridge’s Addenbrookes Hospital recently for an op, and this is what they fed her (she was lucky to escape with her life, quite frankly):

Cheese pie - note the luminosity of the radioactive cheese and powdery mash:

Strawberry jelly: or is it ectoplasm retrieved from a Victorian seance?

Ready brek oatmeal cereal: please Sir, I don't want any more.

Tinned pear and custard: shoot me now...

Vegetable curry: Nurse, pass the sickbucket…

Note the complete absence of fresh food. Everything is processed, microwaved to within an inch of its life, suffocated in plastic wrap. If you’re recovering from any illness or op, the first thing you need is crisp, fresh fruit and veg bursting with minerals – my friend had to beg her boyfriend to bring fresh apples to the hospital. I know that none of these pictures will be news to anyone because hospital food has been crap for eternity: but not having been in hospital myself for a while, I didn’t remember just how brown and beige - and neon - it all is.

A hospital stay is usually made more bearable if you have relatives and friends who can bring you in supplies of fresh food so that you’re not relying on the hospital muck. But what if you’re on your own without visitors? I can imagine people getting much sicker eating this junk. It's ludicrous: you’re ill, so why not eat something totally inedible, devoid of nutrition? It defies logic. So even though the NHS might think it’s cheaper to serve up this toxic muck, it would actually save money spending a little more on fresh ingredients and training people to cook, saving tonnes of money in the long run because people would get better faster. C’mon Jamie Oliver – what are you waiting for?

Friday, 6 November 2009

Smoky butterbean dip & pitta chips

This is a really easy-to-make and delicious dip that is a life saver if you’ve got people piling round in 10 minutes, and haven’t had time to run out and buy some houmous. Not that this is like houmous at all: it’s a butterbean dip flavoured with lemon and smoky paprika. It’s really moreish and stupefyingly healthy, too.

Serves 4 as an appetiser with drinks

You will need:

1 400g tin butterbeans in water, drained and rinsed
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 heaped tsp smoked hot paprika (I use the La Chinata brand, available in most supermarkets)
1 lemon
Dash of tamari or soy sauce
Extra virgin olive oil or organic rapeseed oil – about 3 tablespoons
Salt and pepper
Optional: a few shakes of smoky chipotle Tabasco, chopped coriander to garnish.

You can either use a stick hand blender or a food processor to whizz this up. Place the butterbeans and crushed garlic in the blending receptacle, then drizzle over the oil and a shake of tamari or soy. Take your lemon and grate off its zest and add to the mixture. Cut the lemon in half and juice it, add the juice to the mix along with the smoked paprika and chipotle Tabasco (if you have it). Blend everything together until creamy. If the mixture is a little dry, add a bit more oil or a tablespoon or two of water until it comes together. Taste it then season with salt and pepper as you wish. Serve in a bowl, drizzle over a bit of oil onto the top and sprinkle on some more smoked paprika or chopped coriander. Great with pitta chips - see below:

Pitta chips

These are awesome! I got the idea from Chocolate and Zucchini's recipe for Zaatar Pita Chips and have adapted it slightly. You basically need pitta breads or flatbreads, oil and herbs. They are crispy, chewy and delicious – and make a nice change to regular crisps.

To serve about 4 people, you will need:

1 packet 6 pitta breads (both wholemeal and white work well)/flatbreads
Extra virgin olive oil or organic rapeseed oil
Zataar herb mix (delicious Middle Eastern thyme/sumac/sesame mixture) or any herb mix you like (Herbes de Provence work well, or you could even use a mixture of curry spices)
Salt and pepper

Chop up the pitta breads into small crisp-sized pieces, pulling the double layer of bread apart into single bits. Plonk them in a large salad bowl. Drizzle over a few good shakes of oil and toss with salad servers so that all the pieces are lightly coated. Sprinkle over a handful of herbs and toss them through. If your herb mix is pre-salted (Zataar sometimes is) you don’t need to add salt, but if not, grind over some seasoning and toss once more. Tip the mixture into a large oven tray and bake for 20 mins in an oven preheated to 200C. Serve with the dip above. Yum!

Friday, 30 October 2009

Potato and parsley bake

I love the Two Fat Ladies cookery show. Although Jennifer Paterson is sadly dead, the shows are still re-run on the Good Food channel. What could be better than the sight of Clarissa Dickson Wright pouring goose fat, clotted cream and lard into most of the recipes as she rants about the virtues of hunting, and Jennifer Paterson extolling the virtues of gluttony and smoking (sometimes breaking into song) while rubbing suet together with fingers that glitter with diamond rings. Both with the poshest of cut glass accents. And the sight of Clarissa and Jennifer riding around on a motorbike with one of them wedged in a teeny side car always cracks me up...

The following recipe is actually based on one of their healthier offerings. My mum used to make this to accompany the Sunday roast, and I'm recreating this from memory. It's fantastic with any roast meat - a herby potato tray bake that is crisp on the top and wonderfully gooey underneath.

Serves 6

1kg floury potatoes (such as Maris Piper)
1 litre hot chicken or vegetable stock (a good brand is Bouillon)
1 glass white wine
2 large handfuls chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic thinly sliced
1.5 Knorr chicken stock cubes, chopped into small pieces

Scrub the potatoes but do not peel them. Slice them up into thin discs either using the slicer attachment of your food processor or a mandolin.

Take a large oven baking dish and grease the bottom lightly with vegetable oil. Add a layer of the potato slices so that they completely cover the bottom. Sprinkle a few slices of garlic, pieces of chicken stock cube and a small handful of parsley over them. Repeat this process, building layers with the potatoes and interspersing with herbs, stock cube and garlic. Finish by putting a layer of potatoes over the top. Then pour the stock and wine over the potatoes - the liquid shouldn't come over the top, but reach about 3/4 of the way up.

Bake for about 45 mins - 1 hour at 180C, until the potatoes have gone golden and crispy on top. They will be a mixture of crisp on the top and wonderfully gooey underneath, with stock, herbs, garlic and wine combining to form a deliciously starchy sauce.

Served with N's roast pork last Sunday - there were five of us and we polished off a whole massive tray like total pigs!

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Village East

Ever been out to eat somewhere where the clientele make you feel as though you’ve hurtled into a timewarp? This was the bizarre experience I had when three friends and I went for dinner at Village East, a New York-style bar and restaurant on Bermondsey Street, South London, on Saturday night.

I thought I had Village East sussed out in advance: I used to work in the office directly opposite. I had occasionally gone for after-work drinks there and coveted the distressed leather sofas and retro lamps. It seemed like a cool and buzzy place, with a mixed clientele of people from the local offices and shops. Nothing too dressy or intimidating.

But how the weekend changes everything! The clientele were totally different, and this made the experience quite strange - and tres amusant! We didn’t notice anything awry at first, since we were plentifully distracted by the delicious cocktails and the megawatt enthusiasm of our Kiwi waitress. However, the penny began to drop as the restaurant area became packed out during our meal. I noticed most women were dripping in Very Grown Up glamorous dresses and uber-heavy makeup, drenched in heavy perfume. Lots of designer handbaggage. The men all looked as though they’d come straight from the office – suit jackets (some with sleeves rolled up!) stripy shirts, chinos, loafers. (Sorry, but in my book, chinos are pretty much unforgiveable unless you happen to be Prince Harry and chums hanging about in Mahiki). I got a few sideways looks from the ladies at our neighbouring table as they flexed their manicured talons and gave my Top Shop outfit snooty glances. Don't get me wrong - I love a bit of gloss and a sense of occasion, but when things are, shall we say, in-your-face, I tend to feel a bit freaked. Nonetheless, I didn’t let this deter me too much (I actually got a kick out of being scruffier than them) and our dinner went with a bang.

The food was excellent – and that is the most important thing. Village East excels with its gutsy Modern British-style of cooking, a style that I love, with robust flavours and exciting combinations.

I had king prawns, clams and spaghettini to start:

Baked sea bream with chips for main course:

And a sensational coffee Martini for pudding:

Several cocktails and a pair of wine bottles later, my friends and I clearly hadn't had enough to drink, so we waddled to the bar area. I was listing like the Marie Celeste. As I queued up to place my order, it was then that I felt really out of place. Not to mention the wrong decade. The guy in front of me was wearing – I kid you not – a sleeveless body warmer over a stripy shirt, chinos and a cashmere scarf draped around his neck. I half expected him to have his Ferrari parked up on the kerb and a massive brick-shaped mobile phone wedged under his chin to yap into about market shares. Buckets of champagne were being passed willy-nilly over people’s heads; there was a heady atmosphere of money and excess, as though we had travelled back into that rare time in history: pre the Eighties recession. Never mind the current recession! I felt like an interloper at an Account Director’s yuppie convention. And where was Gordon Gekko shouting out "Greed is good"? I was rudely shoved out of the way at the bar by two ladies with Power Hair and frosted eyeshadow, but I was too tipsy to care too much…and the nice bartender spotted this and served me before them anyway. Hah.

I’d definitely recommend Village East for the quality of its food and drink – and the staff really go the extra mile to ensure you have a good time. But I'd advise going during the week instead to avoid this kind of crowd. If you're going on a Saturday, though, perhaps dig out your shoulderpads and take a very large mobile phone with you - you might need to whack someone over the head with it!

Address: Village East, 171 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1
Tel: 020 7357 6082

Monday, 26 October 2009

More pizza at Franco Manca

So I went back to Franco Manca in Brixton for pizza (see previous near-religious-fervour for this cafe in my previous posting) and I took some photos just to get you drooling...

Tomato, chorizo and mozzarella:

Gloucester Old Spot Ham, tomato, mozzarella:

Tomato, garlic and oregano (left); tomato, garlic oregano, capers, anchovy, mozzarella (right):

Organic lemonade:

Monmouth organic espresso (will blow your head off):

Needless to say, not one single crust was left on the plates. I could have died happy right then and there. But I'm glad I didn't because I can soon go back for more (trouser waistband permitting)!

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Cheapskate eating

I love places to eat that not only serve fabulous grub but where you struggle to spend a tenner and leave with a full belly and a smile on your face. Sound too good to be true? Living in London makes it relatively easy to find such gems, as the city is truly blessed with a kaleidoscopic array of cuisines and prices to suit every wallet. And what with the recession making us all much more money-conscious, anywhere that is cheap and serving exemplary snackage is definitely on my radar.

Here are two recent finds:

Franco Manca, Brixton, South London

Good God – this is the best pizza I’ve eaten in this country. And I don't say that lightly - I'm really fussy when it comes to pizza. Franco Manca doesn't make the process of getting fed easy, but never mind that you have to queue with the tenacity of a bull to get a table here and can’t make reservations (get real: this down-to-earth cafĂ© is in the atmospheric and bustling Brixton Market Arcade, where baskets of live African land snails are shoved next to piles of yams and tins of shoe polish), or that you often eat cheek-by-jowl with total strangers in cramped conditions, and that the majority of clientele appears to be Guardian-reading middle class people like me (why do I find this embarrassing?) – anyway, none of this matters since the sourdough pizzas are just TO DIE. Just the right balance of chewy and crisp dough with lovely smokiness from the wood fire, and impressive toppings from a simple, no-nonsense menu. You can only choose from about four different types of pizza and one daily special. Wine comes in cheap tumblers. The coffee will blow your head off. There is rustic lemonade that looks suspiciously like cider. The restaurant manager does an impressive line in barking orders over everybody's heads like a military sergeant. In the picture above, my friend E is holding her pizza up as though she's been given a fantastic gift! I’m going to queue up there again tomorrow…

Address: Franco Manca, 4 Market Row, Electric Lane, Brixton, London SW9 8LD.

Benito's Hat, Fitzrovia, Central London.

For years it was virtually impossible to get decent Mexican food in this country. I was bored by crap nachos smothered in greasy cheese, refried beans out of a tin, no decent chilli in sight. But lo - all of a sudden London is now blessed with a sprinkling of places all versed in the proper ways of Mexican spicing, where the food will be laced with fresh herbs, zingy chilli and smoky black beans. And it's a great cheap way to fill up! We discovered Benito's Hat last weekend after having read good reviews about their freshly-made burritos. My husband opted for the steak burrito - a soft flour tortilla stuffed with strips of smoky beef, lime-infused rice, guacamole, chillies and coriander, and boy was it massive. Rougly the size of a doorstop. I chose the chicken tacos (see below) and they were delicious. Soft corn mini tortillas filled with spicy smoky chicken, grated cheese, guacamole and salad - garnished with a handful of salty tortilla chips. Everything tasted fresh and zingy. We both ate heartily for the princely sum of £9.50. Arriba!

Address: Benito's Hat, 56 Goodge St, London, W1T 4NB. Tel: 020 76373732

And where else could I recommend? Well. I return again and again to the Vietnamese restaurant mile on Kingsland Road in Shoreditch. You will eat like a king at Loong Kee, Viet Grill and Cay Tre (three personal faves) and rarely break the £20 mark. Most of them are BYO, which keeps the cost down, and the food is always sensational. I might have to do a proper posting on the Viet Mile soon...

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Posh Rasperry Jelly

No, not the retro stuff made from cubes out of a pack, this is a POSH raspberry jelly made with generous quantities of the real fruit. It's tangy, but not mouth-puckeringly sour, and is MAGIC served up with a shortbread biscuit and a ball of vanilla ice cream on the side. You get all these amazing textures together: soft wobbly jelly, crunchy biscuit and creamy coldness. It's nursery food all grown up. And if you're a bit of a vintage fiend, it's fun looking out in second hand markets for retro jelly moulds like the cute aluminium ones I found in the photos - the accessorising makes me feel like I've gone all Bree Van De Kamp!

Anyway, I've adapted a jelly recipe (originally for blackcurrants) from Skye Gyngell.

Makes enough to serve 6 people

You will need:

285g raspberries (approx 2 punnets)
7 sheets gelatine (the regular home cooking size, not the catering size!)
170g sugar
500ml water
Juice of 1 lemon

Wash the raspberries, then put them in a saucepan with the sugar and water. Bring to the boil then turn down the heat and let them simmer gently for 5 - 8 minutes, or until the raspberries have broken down somewhat and the sugar has dissolved, stirring a few times.

Take the pan off the heat and allow to cool slightly, then pop the gelatine sheets in a bowl of cold water and leave them to soften. When the raspberries have cooled down a bit (but are still fairly hot), pour them into a sieve over a large bown and press them through with a wooden spoon so that you extract all the juice and the pips stay behind.

The gelatine sheets can now be taken out of the water - squeeze them between a few sheets of kitchen roll to remove excess liquid. Then mix them into the warm raspberry mixture, stirring well so that they dissolve. Then pass the mixture back through a clean sieve. Mix in the lemon juice. Then pour the mixture into jelly moulds and put into the fridge to set - this takes between 4 and 6 hours.

Serve the jellies cold from the fridge - if you're using metal moulds, dip them for a scant second into a bowl of boiling water before turning out upside-down onto a plate. Delicious eaten with a shortbread biscuit on the side and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

My husband made these amazing cardamom-scented shortbreads to go with our jellies:

He used the recipe for Pistachio shortbread from the Ottolenghi cookbook as a base, but as he didn't have many pistachios, instead using a mixture of crushed pistachios and almonds. He also upped the sugar content, because without it, the dough tasted salty. These shortbreads have a lovely exotic twist brought by the addition of scented cardamom - they are buttery and spicy and impossible to eat in single numbers. Here is the recipe, slightly adapted:

Makes up to 20 cookies

8 cardamom pods
200g butter
25g ground rice (rice flour is fine)
240g plain flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
70g caster sugar
60g mixture of shelled unsalted pistachio nuts and almonds
1 lightly beaten organic egg
2 tbsp caster sugar

Gently crush the cardamom pods in a pestle and mortar, then remove the skins and crush the seeds into a fine powder.

Using an electric mixer with the beater attachment fitted, mix together the butter, ground rice, flour, salt, ground cardamom and the 70g caster sugar. Once the dough comes together, stop mixing.

Turn the dough out the counter, dusting with a little flour, and form it into a log 3 -4cm in diameter with your hands. Wrap the log in cling film and then let it chill in the fridge for an hour.

Roughly chop the nuts, then scatter them on a flat tray. Brush the chilled dough with beaten egg and roll the log into the chopped nuts. Wrap the dough back up in the cling film, and put it back into the fridge for another 30 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven to 150C. Remove the clingfilm from the dough and cut the log into slices 5mm - 1cm thick. Lay them out on a tray lined with baking parchment, spacing them at least 2cm apart. Dust them with the 2 tbsp caster sugar. Bake for roughly 20 minutes - they must not take on too much colour but should remain a pale shade of gold. Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before storing in a sealed container - they will keep for up to one week (if you can stop eating them).