Saturday, 27 November 2010

Barrafina, Soho


What else can be said about Barrafina except for this: make haste and go there – it serves probably the best tapas I have ever eaten, even better than in Spain itself. You can’t book, but don’t fear the queues – just order a sherry and some nibbles while you wait, and the charming Spanish staff will sit you down at the marble countertop bar for the feast of your life…

Please note – the below wasn’t consumed in one sitting… I would have had to have been winched out of the restaurant, carried out Tudor-style in some kind of sedan chair!

Pan con tomate: garlicky, fresh, crispy and soft, drizzled generously with grassy olive oil – sensational:


Pimientos de Padron: one in every 20 is said to be hotter than Hades, but these little fellows were lovely and mellow:


Cured meats: melt-in-the-mouth:


Sardines: I don’t normally like sardines in this country because they’re never fresh enough, but there was no problem here:


Chipirones (baby fried squid): crsipy and very moreish, a bit like squid popcorn:


Chorizo with potatoes: smoky intense and delicious sausage offset beautifully by the creamy flavour of the potatoes:


Coca with spinach, raisins and pine nuts: beautifully savoury with flavours of nutmeg and bechamel sauce underneath the spinach – much more impressive than you’d imagine:


Ham and cheese croquettes: phwoarrrrrr! Crisp on the outside, creamy on the inside – nutmeg and salty nuggets of bacon. Yum!

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Clams (left) and fried potatoes with aioli and salsa brava: gorgeous garlicky plump clams, and the chips were a revalation because they’d been sprinkled with crushed garlic, fresh thyme and rock salt.


Santiago (almond) tart: flaky buttery pastry, gorgeous buttery almond top. Not really suitable for sharing.


Pedro Ximinez Hidalgo sherry: like drinking liquid Christmas pudding – intense!


54 Frith Street
Soho, London

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Joanna’s, Crystal Palace

Had a mediochre day blighted by tedium and annoyances? Feeling lacklustre and needing gastronomic comfort and a back rub? Well, Joanna’s in Crystal Palace doesn’t do back rubs, but their food is the next best thing. It’s the kind of place that every neighbourhood should have, serving delicious and well-executed food that is reasonably priced, and cleverly manages to feel posh and luxurious without being intimidating. And they make the best posh fish and chips I have eaten anywhere.

The restaurant, distinctive from the outside by its smart navy awnings is just swanky enough for you to feel special when you are eating there, but has a lovely snug laid back atmosphere. The waitors and waitresses are all super friendly without being overbearing, the bar staff make a mean cocktail, there is a great wine list and you can imagine that no matter how shite a day you’d just had, popping in to Joanna’s would somehow make everything seem better. Who cares that your boss might be a dick or that your job sucks when you can come to Joanna’s? Hmm?


The food is a mixture of British, European and Asian dishes – hearty portions presented beautifully. The decor is all dark woods, brass lamp fittings and mirrors. There is even a private booth nicknamed the ‘train carriage’ tucked away at the back which you can book out and have a tiny private party in. I did just that, last year, and it was brilliant. We felt so naughty!

Last night hubby and I popped there for a mid-week treat after both having experienced incredibly average days and needed cheering up. We thought we’d try the fixed menu as it was amazingly good value - £16.75 for three courses. We’d have been fools not to. At no point did we ever get the impression that we were eating from a pared-down bargain menu…just check out this amazing tucker…

Starter of mushroom soup – so much intense wild mushroom flavour, with a crisp garlic crostini:


Starter of chargrilled squid with chilli and rocket: great flavours, and the squid tasted as though fresh off a Greek beach barbecue:


The poshest fish ‘n chips: beer-battered goujons of haddock with homemade tartar sauce and minted pea puree – simply stunning:


Look at those bodacious chips – ooh me hearties:


Shepherd’s pie made with a combo of beef and lamb, with magnificent gravy – what a perfect slab of comfort (even though I dislike lamb, I couldn’t help but admire this creation):


A very decent Stilton and quince jelly:


A heartstoppingly-good chocolate brownie and vanilla ice cream sundae – there was a whole untouched wodge of brownie in here sandwiched in between molten vanilla ice cream on the bottom, and a ball of vanilla with choc sauce on the top. I actually couldn’t stop shovelling this into my mouth, even though I was totally full. Ah…greed…


For some reason, I always have the sensation that Joanna’s feels very much like a New York brasserie. I have a very limited knowledge of the New York dining scene, only having visited the city once in my life, but I have the idiotic fantasy that I will walk into Joanna’s one evening and see someone like Ted Danson propping up the bar, soaking up the swing jazz music, nursing a Whisky Sour. Whatever – the place is very definitely British, but I love the idea of it being like a portal that whizzes you directly to a neighbourhood on the Lower East Side! Great escapism.

I can’t believe we don’t go to Joanna’s more often – it’s just around the corner from our gaffe, and the chef cooks like a dream. Seems crazy – maybe we subconsciously always save this place ‘for best’. The meal we had above, including two glasses of wine and two cocktails was £30 per head. This menu is available from Mondays to Thursdays. Get your gourmet-loving asses down there!

Got a neighbourhood gem where you live? I want to hear about it…

56 Westow Hill
Crystal Palace
London SE19 1RX

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Wahaca, Soho


Tomasina Miers (victorious maiden chef-ess of Masterchef several years hence) has several very successful outposts of her Mexican streetfood restaurant under her belt, spanning Canary Wharf, Covent Garden, Westfield and now Soho. I had been a devotee of the first branch when it opened in the restaurant wasteland that is Covent Garden a few years back and was excited by her zingy, fresh Mexican food that actually tasted Mexican, as opposed to flabby Euro-Tex Mex. But  then I became super-irked when the restaurant became so popular that you had to actually QUEUE to leave your mobile phone number so that the maitre’d could call you on the off chance that a table became available. SO infuriating. Many, many harrumphing snorts of indignation and aborted trips to Wahaca. For the past two years or so, I had been in a ‘can’t be arsed’ huff with the place. I couldn’t take the rejection anymore!

But then quite by accident I stumbled upon the newest Soho branch a couple of nights ago, when out with my husband and mother-in-law. We approached the place with a fair bit of trepidation, because I really, really couldn’t be arsed with a long queue again – when I don’t eat I become absolutely vile-tempered and irrational like a child. But we walked in and a very friendly chap seated us straight away. I was almost in shock. The acid bright walls and Mexican kitsch gladdened our souls on a gloomy, rainy November evening, and as soon as an array of chilli sauces and tortilla chips was plonked down in front of me, I felt all was right with the world. And the food spoke for itself – all crisp, zingy and fresh flavours. Flavourful, aromatic Mexican grub served with flair and unpretentiousness. Lots of lovely smoky chipotle in everything. Great value, too.

Fill your boots – a selection from the streetfood menu:

Seasonal vegetable tacos:


Chicken taquitos:


Pork pilbil taco:


Super-crunchy corn tortillas and guac:


Black bean tostadas:


Chicken guajillo:


The restaurant has some great design touches – I coveted the hexagonal turquoise mosaic tiles in the toilets, the massive Jesus/Mary printed metal chain curtains hanging up in the stairwells (lush!) and the general riot of clashing bright colours on the walls. Lovely chunky recycled glassware, too. Instead of books of matches, they give away match books of chilli seeds. Brilliant. So…my advice is get there quick, before the restaurant becomes too popular again – give it a month or so and the queues will be out the door and you’ll have to get your elbows out!

Wahaca Soho
80 Wardour Street
London W1F OTF

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Feast your eyes 2

So many photos of gluttonous moments, so little time to write about them all properly - so feast your eyes on this lot:

The best 'pan con tomate' I have ever eaten, at London's Barrafina tapas restaurant in Soho. Had anyone attempted to share this with me, I might have stabbed them with a fork:


Mini tomatoes grown in my windowbox - I liked how they were all misshapen:


Apple and damson crumble with almond topping:


Sourdough bread live yeast starter - bejesus, it's alive:


The offspring of the sourdough starter – a craggy loaf made with spelt flour:


The best rice pudding I have ever eaten – recipe from St John’s:


Go away, I’m busy eating my rice pudding, and no, I’m not sharing…


Stroud farmer’s market veg, fruit and bread:


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Stroud farmer’s market alternative to Starbuck’s – much better!

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Superb ploughman’s and ale at The Woolpack pub, Slad, Gloucestershire – the pub where poet Laurie Lee used to drink:





Making fresh pasta sheets, using a chair as a drying rack:


Making porcini and mascarpone ravioli from Theo Randall’s book ‘Pasta’:



The finished dish – smoky, woody porcini mushrooms and mascarpone make a robust and deliciously punchy filling:


Till next time…

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Voluptuous Victoria sponge


For months I had wanted to make a really big, luxurious cake - one that, if I was a lady who lunched, I would have positioned on an elegant cake stand when my friends visited for afternoon cocktails. Sadly my life is not an endless succession of tea parties, and the moments I have to enjoy a proper sit-down cake-fest are limited and few. Making a proper Victoria sponge was something I had saved up as a 'treat for the future’, when I had a few days off. Which would mean that I enjoyed every single crumb.

I used Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s recipe, bouffed up with extra vanilla. This produced a generous, sexy cake, its two ample vanilla scented sponges voluptuously sandwiched together with a soft pillow of whipped cream and tangy raspberry jam. Oh yes. This was a cake that whispered ‘come hither’ from across the room. It tasted like the very best of British, but with its starchy tea room undertones flung usunder in a raunchy celebration of gorgeous gluttony, cream, vanilla and tart raspberry.

Would you just look at it, flaunting itself:


Can you hear it calling you?


Phwoar…you naughty thing:


Champing at the bit to make this? I’m actually drooling while writing…

Adapted from Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s recipe, found in the River Cottage Family Cookbook

To make a 20cm cake

You will need:

4 free range organic eggs
Organic butter (I always use salted – it’s just my preference)
Fairtrade caster sugar
Self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
2 tsp natural vanilla extract
A little milk, if needed
Good jam (raspberry) – about 4 tablespoons
200ml (small pot) organic whipping cream, whipped until soft peaks form, not too stiff

Set the oven to 180C. Line your 2 cake tins with baking parchment. Stand your eggs on the scales and weigh them – make a note of the total weight. Weigh out the same amount of butter, then using a handheld mixer or the back of a wooden spoon, beat it until very soft. Weigh out the same amount of sugar, and add to the butter a third at a time, blending together until the mixture becomes fluffy.


Weigh out the flour, add a pinch of salt, and set aside. Break one of the eggs into the butter mixture and beat quite hard until completely blended in. Add the other eggs in the same way, one at a time. Sift in a tablespoon of the flour with the last egg – this will help stop the mixture from curdling. Add the vanilla extract. Set a sieve over the mixing bowl and tip the flour into it – shake it all gently into the bowl. Using a tablespoon, fold the flour into the mixture, taking care not to knock out all the air.

Test the consistency of the mixture – if it sticks to the back of a spoon, add a tablespoon or two of milk to ease up the mixture a little. Spoon the mixture equally into the two prepared tins, then smooth the tops with a knife. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 – 30 minutes – until a skewer comes out clean. When you take each tin out of the oven, hold it 30cm above a hard surface and drop it straight down – this will release the air bubbles in the cake, and you’ll see that on the surface some of the bubbles on the surface will have broken. Essential to stop your cake sinking in the middle.

Leave the cakes to cool then loosen and turn out onto a rack. When completely cool, turn one of the cakes upside down so that the flat surface is uppermost and place it on a serving plate. Spread the jam over it, add the whipped cream on top, then gently sit the other cake on top. Sprinkle a little caster sugar or icing sugar over the top.

You won’t be able to eat just the one slice…I think I had three in a row, then more for dinner…


Heart be still!