Friday, 19 March 2010

The Blackbird Bakery

This tiny bakery in Crystal Palace, South London, is one of my favourite shops on this planet. I love everything about it, as I’m one of those freaks who actually runs into traffic towards a good bakery window display. When it opened several years ago, I was one of their first customers through the door and think it sells the best croissants outside of France!

Everything at the Blackbird is handbaked using organic flour from Shipton Mills. The quality is fantastic. You can buy knobbly rustic loaves that feel satisfying when you pick them up – some sourdough, others flavoured with aromatic herbs such as rosemary and caraway, plaited challah loaves and spelt bread topped with seeds. They also make knockout cakes: think lemon and poppyseed, apple and spice, carrot with cream cheese icing or flourless chocolate cake. Proper wedges of English cake – not flimsy slices.

The bakery occupies a triangular Victorian corner shop space that was derelict for several years because retailers couldn’t figure out how to fill it, but it fits in perfectly, as though it has always been there. Aside from the tempting cake counter and shelves of homemade jams and biscuits, there is a wood burning stove, a general air of chilled out contentment and you can sit inside and watch the world go by nursing a nice mug of tea and some thick slices of toast. It’s cosy bliss.

But what I would walk across hot coals for are their plain butter croissants. They are magnificent – huge, crusty, buttery, salty and boasting a properly serious heft to them without being stodgy. Being half French, I feel I have a little bit of a say in what makes a good croissant, and I seriously consider these ones to be the best I have eaten outside of France. French friends of mine have also been amazed by them.

In fact, I start thinking about my weekend croissant from the minute I reach my desk on a Monday. I’m not even joking!

The Blackbird Bakery
71 Westow Street
Crystal Palace
London SE19
Tel: 020 8768 0357

Branches also in Dulwich and Herne Hill

Monday, 15 March 2010

Surviving at Butlins

Last weekend I hoofed it down to Somerset for a dance music festival called the Bloc Weekender, which was hosted at the Butlins holiday camp in Minehead. So although I wasn't strictly going for the official Butlins red-coats 'n singalongs experience, I got a pretty good intro as to what holidaying there would be like. And, me hearties, in terms of food offerings, I barely made it out of there alive!

First, let me set the scene. Butlins is a vast conglomeration of concrete council-estate style residential flats, bungalows and static caravans, united by various communal areas such as mini golf and fairground areas, and large concrete buildings housing swimming pools, bowling alleys, arcade games and low-rent chain restaurants. It's not unlike being trapped inside a ginormous Welcome Break (for the non-UK readers, that's our UK chain of motorway service stations - ie NOT glamorous!). I was rather hoping Butlins would all be a bit retro with faded 1960s colourschemes and vast ballrooms with swirly carpets. Those days are sadly long gone - see below:

Wierdly, everything inside this building smelled of gravy, at all times:

And what is the raver meant to survive on during a long weekend of jumping up and down to nosebleed techno and dubstep? Well, woe betide the person who hasn't booked the self catering Butlins appartment with kitchen, because then, there is truly no hope for you. Once inside the Butlins portals, you are treated to fast food in its every guise - you can eat deep fried anything, candy floss or frankfurters - which makes the resident branches of Pizza Hut and Costa Coffee look exotic and otherworldly. On my travels inside the main Butlins complex, I found no evidence of anywhere selling food that was fresh, or, heaven forbid, fruit or vegetables in any format apart from sweets or crips. This is what the poor raver had to survive upon, from its in-house branch of Spar and various outlets:

Butlins, you don't rock - note the charming printed names...

Possibly the least nutritious item I could unearth - a candy bead pirate flag, which, if consumed in its entirety, would probably kill you:

Oh good - the full range of Rustlers microwaveable burgers is fully represented:

Perhaps a nutritious yoghurt? But wait, does a yoghurt made of Rolos or Milkybar count?

Butlins make their own delightful sweets:

And look at these appetising logs of chocolate, the size of mammoth Yorkies, with eye-wateringly cloying flavours such as creamy white choc and strawberry...argh...

Quick, I need more sugar:

Phew, I have found some delicious meat products:

Thankfully, the hungry raver could walk out of Butlins up the road to the pretty town of Minehead for sustenance - it had a fair sprinkling of decent food shops. But...the curse of crap food seemed to reassert itself in a resident cake shop, which boasted these theme cakes in its window:

It's a fry-up: note the hash browns and their appetising metallic sheen:

Er...what's the message here? Eat this and fall through a roof?

Allotment cake circa 1953:

Back to Butlins, though, I am not so stupid to have expected any kind of gourmet food experience - although a nice plate of decent fish and chips (Minehead is on the seafront) not swimming in a cesspool grease would have been nice. But I was a bit horrified that the only foods on offer were basically vacu-packed sandwiches, deep-fried mystery meat products, wall-to-wall Ginsters pasties and horrifying amounts of sugar. Unless you fancied the salad buffet at Pizza Hut, that is...but I thought I'd give it a miss! I can just picture families and their kids on holiday here, the kids going absolutely tonto from an excess of candy pebbles...

This lovely slogan really summed it up for me - the ruddy shamelessness of it!

Monday, 8 March 2010

The Modern Pantry

I was so excited at the thought of brunch at The Modern Pantry, I practically skipped up the road from Farringdon station in the winter sunshine. Things were looking mighty impressive - having checked out their interesting brunch menu online (think breakfast dishes with an Aussie twist), I was salivating at the thought of a hearty feed. My friend C had been recommended this place by her brunch-obsessed friend, and I was hoping for whopping portions of loveliness. Which, sadly, isn't exactly what happened.

This being a Sunday, and feeling a bit weary, I ordered a Japanese Bloody Mary which was made with sake instead of vodka and had wasabi paste instead of freshly grated horseradish. It was delicious. So I ordered another. It seemed that this time around, I was being punished by the gods above for being greedy - this second drink was so over-salted and pungent with the taste of soy sauce that it was undrinkable. I passed it round the table - nobody could drink it. I sent it back and requested a cappuccino instead.

I was thrown off balance here, and failed to remember to take any photos of the food I ate - sorry about that!

For my brunch, I ordered 2 poached eggs and toast with halloumi cheese, spinach and roast tomatoes. It looked pretty on the plate, but was ungenerous. Two small bullet-hard poached eggs sat atop two minute pieces of rustic buttered toast, next to two tiny slices of halloumi, a mound of bland steamed bok choy and two small oven-roasted tomato halves. I was a bit shocked - I had deliberately eaten a smallish early breakfast to leave room for a brunch of supreme indulgence, and instead got a very modest plate of not very special food. I mean, it was perfectly edible, but so pretty are the surroundings of The Modern Pantry - all trendy greys, whites and mismatched retro crockery - I was expecting the food to be a bit special too. It was just all a bit 'blah'.

Only a scoop of rice pudding ice cream lightened my mood a little, but it didn't make me go 'wow'. Other people at the table fared a little better with their menu choices, especially the delicious caramel 'hokey pokey' ice cream, but I don't think that for £23 I will be returning. A shame - I really wonder if this was an off day, and not the usual standard of fare. I hate leaving feeling as though I need to have a snack on the home journey! I have a couple of suggestions, though - how about a basket of bread on the table, instead of two measly small slices on the plate? And what about two scoops of ice cream per serving, instead of one ball? Just a thought...

Oh dear - read the ramblings of AA Gill on the subject...

The Modern Pantry
47-48 St John’s Square
Tel: 020 7553 9210

Sunday, 7 March 2010

L'Autre Pied

So my wonderful husband treated me to a belated birthday dinner on Friday, at L'Autre Pied, the sister restaurant to top restaurateur David Moore's Pied a Terre. How do I know about David Moore? Well, I was totally hooked on the BBC series 'The Restaurant', in which Raymond Blanc offered one couple the chance to open a restaurant with his financial backing; David Moore, his quietly-spoken restaurateur sidekick, hardly ever raised his voice, and only once got truly pissed off with the contestants: watching David's calm yet terrifying display of wrath vented at one hapless guy who couldn't lay out cutlery properly, I was expecting extremely high standards at L'Autre Pied. I wasn't disappointed...

We were finding it impossible to choose between the intricate-sounding dishes, and decided (with about 7 seconds' hesitation) to opt for the 7-course tasting menu...with the accompanying wine tasting menu. Whoops! This ensured that the evening lurched ahead in a bit of a blur, because instead of getting smaller-sized glasses to accompany each course, we were treated to full-sized ones. Thank goodness I took photos of the courses, because I might not have remembered what they were!

In any case, the food was sensational. The photos do not do it justice.

To start, we had an amuse-bouche of a soft-boiled egg with an amazingly savoury chestnut and celeriac reduction. It was rich and intense, and came with two nutty-tasting soldiers of toast for dipping:

A Jerusalem artichoke and hazelnut Velouté, with mushroom vinaigrette and cubes of foie gras (naughty naughty): smoky, nutty and with umami savouriness:

Ham Hock, Smoked Pigeon and Foie Gras Mosaic, Quince Purée Morteau Sausage Jelly:

Roasted Cod, Sweetcorn, Ragout of Chanterelle, Mushrooms, Winter Truffle:

Oops - by this point I was a bit tanked up and forgot to take a photo of the main course: a roasted breast of guineafowl with an amazing sauce...

Cheeses: Goat's cheese, Camenbert, Keen's Cheddar, Stilton with buttery melt-in-the-mouth savoury biscuits and cumin seed-studded flat crackers:

An outrageously good 'pre-dessert' of a vanilla pannacotta with swirls of tart blackcurrant syrup and crunchy dehydrated tangy blackcurrant bits:

Milk Chocolate Mousse, Marmalade Ice Cream - really smooth and velvety. I don't normally like milk chocolate desserts, but this had a satisfying richness and good flavour:

I would recommend this restaurant to anyone who wants Michelin-star-quality food without the hefty price tag. The seven-course tasting menu was pretty good value at £55 per head, and the matching wine list was around the £35/head mark, which, when you consider you would pay the same if not more for one bottle of wine, this is practically a steal. The service was friendly and very slick, the cutlery was arranged at precise right angles and napkins were artfully folded up for you when you left your seat - hurrah for David Moore and his exacting standards!

L'Autre Pied
5-7 Blandford Street
London W1U 3DB
Tel: 020 7486 9696

* By the way, I am still in shock, several months later, that Raymond Blanc chose to open his new restaurant with those two hilariously useless boys 'JJ' (I mean, really?) and Chris, who dressed like they were in a 1980s Duran Duran video (all big sunglasses, white jackets with sleeves rolled up to the elbow, jaunty tilted caps) and who couldn't cook to save their lives, spending much of the time whooping and high-fiving each other in ostentatious displays of exuberant buddy-love. I mean, seriously? Were the ratings that bad that they had to let those two cartoon characters win? I was sometimes nearly crying with laughter at their attempts to combine 'summer picnic eating' (er...scotch eggs and salad) with trendy cocktails and summer fashions all year round, but wasn't nearly everybody on the programme a better cook? I think that the lovely Chris (the other finalist chef) was completely robbed...