Friday, 30 November 2012

Thali Cafe, Bristol



Ah Bristol. How I heart thee! With your chilled out enclaves, buzzy graffiti, hilly inclines and just enough edge to keep everything interesting. I could really live here one day, it’s such a wonderful city. On a recent visit I noticed literally tonnes of groovy looking independent cafes around the Gloucester Road and Stokes Croft areas and hardly a chain in site. So very refreshing, as most cities in the UK have a tendency to look identical these days with their never-ending bland-outs involving Starbucks, Costa, Mac D’s et al. I often wonder, if I was to be parachuted out of a plane and not told in which city centre I was landing, whether I’d actually know where I was because all the shops look THE SAME almost EVERYWHERE!

I am not against all chains per se, it’s just the blandness of most of them that is so bloody soul-destroying. Urgh. Anyway, enough ranting. I wanted to tell you about a mini-chain of super-cool Indian cafes in Bristol called the Thali Cafe, which happen to be the complete opposite of bland. We ate lunch at the Montpelier branch, one of four, and everything was absolutely wonderful. We arrived, harrassed and starving with a squawking toddler in tow, and were made to feel welcome immediately. We entered a beautiful universe of sumptuous Indian-style decor- all hot pinks, vintage movie posters and twinkling mirrors - and smelt beautiful spices wafting out of the kitchen. Our waitress beamed at us and our demanding toddler and rushed over glasses of spicy chai to warm us up. She didn’t bat an eyelid as our daughter started to shout and throw things all over the floor. A high chair was produced within seconds, and then we could all relax.

The food was really, really good. Light, aromatic and zingy, popping with spice and freshness. We ate every last grain of rice, and drank about 143 cups of amazing chai. I wish this place was on our doorstep.*

Behold – Masala Fish Fry (fillets of white fish, fried in
masala batter served with mango, chilli and lime chutney):


Mogul Chicken Curry (slow cooked chicken, tomato and coconut curry):


Beautiful space  - all that wonderful warm colour:





Lovely things everywhere:



Thali Cafe
12 York Road
Bristol BS6 5QE
t: 0117 942 6687

*Even if you don’t live anywhere near Bristol, you might catch the Thali Cafe at various music festivals over the summer, such as The Green Man Festival

Saturday, 29 September 2012

A first birthday cake


As some of you will already know, I take cakes very seriously. They are an essential part of life, and if I was a doctor, I would prescribe regular cake injections to everyone as a way to stay content! So when it came to the task of making my daughter’s first birthday cake, it was major pressure for me to find something that looked fun and tasted delicious, obviously, but also one that wasn’t too complicated to make, because I didn’t want to have a nervous breakdown. I also didn’t want to make anything that was prim and proper or PINK (I don’t do prim cakes, and neither, I suspect, would our daughter, as she can be quite blokey!).

So thank gawd for the wonder-blog Smitten Kitchen, because after trawling endless celebration cake websites, I found inspiration for the perfect one here – a monkey cake. Fun!!! Not only was it pretty straightforward to make, but it was delicious – a silky soft banana cake enrobed in fudgy frosting. SK recommends that you make a little cake on the side, called a ‘smash cake’, in this case a decorated muffin with the same monkey face, so that your baby can bash it up and smear it all over themselves. I duly presented baby daughter with her little cake. E decided, after regarding it with some calculated deliberation, to throw hers on the floor, icing side down. Hah!

Here’s how everything got made…

The frosting – one colour for the monkey face, the other colour for the monkey ‘fur’ and cake sides:


Pinning the  bottom layer of monkey ears to the head – a halved muffin, placed either side, and fixed in place with cocktail sticks:



The base cake layer and ears get their layer of filling:


Then you attach the second cake on top, as well as a second layer of ‘ear’, fixed with a cocktail stick:


Piping on the outline for the monkey faces on the big and small cakes:



You fill in the white ‘face’ first, then go around it with the brown frosting, then you chill the cakes for an hour or so in the fridge:



When the first layer of icing is chilled, you go at the cake with a second layer, mmmm:


Use a piping bag to make the eyes, noses and mouths:


Voila – ready for action!


Find the full recipe here.

Happy birthday E – at least you didn’t throw the cake AT me! xxx

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Bambino Coffee, Crystal Palace, London


I get tired of drinking pillar-box-sized over-milky cappuccinos or rubbish burnt-tasting brews, and find inspirational coffee hard to track down. (Starbucks and Costas = double ugh; Nero, Pret and Eat, you are passable but nothing more). The worst coffee I had recently was at Membury Service Station, just off the M4, at their branch of Starbucks. I was desperate for something to wake me up, but their interpretation of a flat white tasted weak, burnt and sad, and I squinted in the neon light at the pallid customers all knackered from driving on the motorway.

Coffee in the UK is getting better, though, and I have got to share Bambino Coffee in South East London with you. The coffee here is the some of best I have drunk in most of the UK, and you won’t feel like you’ve inhaled the Thames after even their biggest size of cuppa. All the coffee here is made with the best quality beans and is served in manageable sizes (4, 6 and 8oz to be precise). The guy running the show is a properly insane coffee nerd – and I do mean that in the nicest possible way!

This straight-talking Kiwi barista (known on his loyalty cards as ‘Anarchista Barista’) installed his coffee machine and a few tables in the front part of Crystal Palace’s vintage shop Bambino earlier this year and locals have been flocking to taste his great coffee from the get-go. The experience of sipping lovely drinks surrounded by vintage oddities really makes me enjoy the wonderful bohemian atmosphere here. You can while away the time people-watching (a mix of old and young, and some fairly eccentric folk wearing fab vintage clothes, grand) and ogling at the great stuff for sale, such as old petrol pumps, leather biker jackets, props, rare vinyl and comics. You can kiss any notion of chain cafe uniformity goodbye – think of a Black Books style atmosphere, without the character Bernard’s drunken hostility*, but where Manny might saunter out from the back of the shop wearing a kimono, asking if you wanted a sandwich.

I digress. A month or two ago, I innocently asked the Kiwi barista for a mocha, and his face clouded over. He shook his head despairingly and prompted me to look at the menu to choose from the Antipodean styles of coffee. No Italiano lattes or macchiatos here – it’s all Long Blacks, and other wondrous sounding brews called the ‘Technivorm’, ‘Red Eye’ and the ‘Split Shot’. I overheard him telling a customer: “I’ve removed all the Italian-isms from the menu, because this is how we drink coffee Down Under, it’s totally different.” Don’t be disheartened if you don’t quite understand the coffee at first – persevere! You will be rewarded with a quite sensational cup of something magical. It will also blow your freaking head off.

The shop – bohemian wondrousness:


Anarchista Barista takes his beans and brewing technique very seriously. He uses beans from small local roastery Volcano Coffee (based down the road in Gipsy Hill), and any other interesting UK independents, such as Square Mile and Bristol-based Extract. He was a chef and a coffee machine servicer for 10 years, so he really knows his stuff. He will grind a bag of coffee beans for you according to what device you are going to use them in at home – he didn’t like the sound of my Braun bean grinder and said he would prefer to grind the beans correctly for my cafetiere. His strictness makes me wonder what would happen if you asked him for a Nescafe – he might well explode!

Here he is making some brews:


Beautiful skull motif on the loyalty cards – Costa Coffee this is not!


My 8oz coffee with milk – a thing of bea-uty!


Bambino Coffee
Church Road Market
Crystal Palace
London SE19 2ET

*Can’t resist posting this Black Books clip of Bernard requesting a lolly made of wine. Gold!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Holy guacamole


There is, quite literally, no end to my talents. First of all, I queued up the other day for a takeaway coffee with my top hanging open too low and my bra popping out. The cashier was too mortified to say anything and I discovered my wardrobe malfunction later on, after I’d spent 30 minutes pushing my trolley round a busy supermarket. An hour or so later, in a fit of recklessness (I get my thrills where I can these days) I thought I’d park the car in our too-narrow driveway. Why? I had never done this before, I always park on the road because the entrance to our drive is just too narrow, and there is a lamppost RIGHT THERE getting in the way…but anyway, the weather was tempestuous and I had tonnes of shopping and a baby to get out of the car and into the house. This resulted in me crashing slowly, but determinedly into the neighbour’s adjoining wall, causing it to cave in slightly, scratching all the paint off one side of the car, denting it in various places and busting the headlamp. Then I burnt dinner.

So, anyway, on that note, I thought I’d give out a relatively foolproof recipe for guacamole, continuing this month’s Mexican theme. Perfect for eating sitting indoors looking out at the endless rain lashing into our gardens, day in and day out. Viva the British summer. I just can’t wait for more rain. And some more. And then some more. It’s making me insane. I want to go out and hairdry the garden – it’s waterlogged. I long to take the so-called jetstream, juddering about in the wrong place above Northern Europe, and give it a good swearing-to.

This recipe will feed around four as a dip, with everyone getting plenty.

You will need:

2 perfectly ripe medium avocados
juice of 1/2 lime
A few fresh coriander stalks, about 10, roughly chopped
1 big handful fresh coriander stalks and leaves, chopped up fine
1/2 tsp habanero chile powder, or 1 fresh birdseye chilli, chopped fine
1 large ripe tomato (or handful of cherry toms) diced
1 clove garlic
Salt to taste

Optional: 1 tsp ground coriander and 1/2 tsp ground cumin (extra nice if you toast the whole spices first, then grind up, but ready-ground is fine too)
You can also substitute the chopped tomatoes for pomegranate seeds or diced red grapes if you fancy something a bit different

To serve – salted tortilla chips

Pound the garlic clove and coriander stalks together with a pinch of salt in a pestle and mortar till crushed up, then add your avocado and pound all this together. If your avocado is a tad on the unripe side, you can cheat and use a stick blender to whiz it all up if it won’t mash well. (But to be honest unripe avos will taste a little bitter). Add the chilli, then the lime juice and mix together, and then add the spices if you are using them. Add the chopped tomatoes and chopped coriander, mix together and taste. Add more salt if you think you need it. Remember your tortilla chips that you dip in will be very salty, so don’t overdo it.

You might have noticed that I don’t add raw onion to my guacamole – this is because I absolutely HATE raw onion in any form and find it too overpowering. Yuk! You really don’t need it, the garlic, chilli and spices are enough to give lots of flavour.


Thursday, 12 July 2012

Casa Morita


I think that it’s probably harder to find decent Mexican food in this country than it will be for punters to buy chips on their own at the Olympics. If you live in London, you can brave the queues to eat good street food at Wahaca, but aside from a few other mini-chains doing great burritos, such as Benito’s Hat or Chilangos, most Mexican fare on offer in the UK is of the damp cardboard Tex Mex cheese ‘n nachos variety. How ecstatic was I when Casa Morita opened up in Brixton Market touting its Oaxacan-inspired menu– the food here is so exciting that I will willingly brave the uncomfortable-ness of the chairs to eat here while trying to balance a baby on my knee, it’s that good*.  It’s light, fresh, and tastes really really different – smoky chipotle, fresh lime, crispy tacos, authentic corn tortillas all popping with clean flavours. Double yum. Go, go!

The cheerful interior:


Huevos rancheros – a light, fruity chile/tomato sauce and black beans covering fried eggs and a corn tortilla, totally delicious and a lot lighter and fresher than what you might expect:


Vegetable tostada – guacamole, spicy vegetables, salad and feta cheese sitting atop a crispy corn taco. Vibrant and refreshing:

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Casa Morita’s simple cheese quesadilla:

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A delicious filling of melted cheddar, feta, guacamole, coriander – really fantastic, I could eaten 10 of these.

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Excuse the bad pic – this is Sopa Azteca, a smoky tomato broth containing fresh avocado, feta, strips of tortilla and dried chillies. So good I had to eat half of it before I remembered to take a photo.


A cup of Mexican hot chocolate, aromatic with cinnamon and cloves. Perfect treat for anyone needing a spicy pick-me-up.


The waitress is a little, uh, ‘mellow’ when it comes to speedy service, but the cafe is friendly and relaxed. Nobody batted an eyelid as my baby daughter proceeded to throw most of her lunch all over their floor, furniture and walls. You can buy Mexican produce, such as Ibarra chocolate and tinned black beans, and choose from a vibrant display of Day of the Dead tin wall ornaments to kitsch up your home. I can’t wait to come back when I can drink lots beer, fall over and make a real evening of it.

Casa Morita
Unit 9
Market Row
Brixton Market

*To be honest, I find the most exciting places to eat never have high chairs. Just cause I have a baby doesn’t mean I want to be constricted to bland kid-friendly places like Giraffe! 

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner


Once upon a time, we went to eat at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck restaurant in Bray. The legendary tasting menu blew our heads off – we were so overwhelmed by the meal on every level (speeded along by the addition of matching each psychedelic course to a wine, yikes) that we had to go and lie down on Bray village green afterwards, groaning. Passers-by stared. The meal was an unforgettable experience, and neither me nor my husband have ever quite been the same since. It was like being dragged into the strange world of Alice in Wonderland and having your head turned inside out along with all your preconceptions of food and flavour.

So – now to Dinner, Heston’s new-ish restaurant tucked away in the Mandarin Oriental hotel in London. It’s very different to the Fat Duck – much less of the chilled country vibe, it simply oozes urban adult sophistication from every pore. Think dark woods, leather and glass, gleaming temptingly underneath tasteful lighting. It doesn’t suffer at all from that fustiness which befalls some restaurants located in hotels. A meal here was just what we needed as an antidote to becoming parents last year. We wanted somewhere that was so adult that we wouldn’t remember what a child was by the end of the meal. Ha! (only slightly joking)

Admittedly the meal we had here was several months ago, but it is still most definitely worth mentioning and showing you. Heston has chosen to get inspiration from ancient cookbooks – some as old as 14th century – so your meal is like a journey through history, taking in some truly otherworldly flavours. You can shut your eyes and try to imagine yourself in some ancient royal court, feasting on the unusual flavours in front of you. There are some very weirdly delicious flavour combinations that make you scratch your head and think for a bit, and others that are comforting and familiar. Dinner doesn’t do a tasting menu in the style of the Fat Duck, but no matter – you leave full, content and happy, with historical flavours dancing on your tongue. No need for a lie-down in Hyde Park, either.

The legendary ‘Meat Fruit’ (c.13th – 15th century). It’s a fruit, right?


Not so fast. ‘Tis an orange in appearance but contains the most delicious meat pate, and the citrus ‘peel’ is a tangy fruit jelly, contrasting brilliantly with the richness of the filling. Clever, huh?


Salamagundy (1720 The Cook’s and Confectioner’s Dictionary by John Nott) – chicken oysters, salsify, marrow bone and horseradish cream. Super tender chicken, some very interesting smoky flavours.


Some excellent breads:


Powdered Duck Breast  with smoked confit fennel and umbles (c.1670 The Queene-like Closet or Rich Cabinet by Hannah Wolley): the meat was almost a tad too rare, but delicious nonetheless, and all the flavours on the plate just swam together effortlessly.


Spiced pigeon with ale and artichokes (c.1780 The Ladies’ Assistant and Complete System of Cookery by Charlotte Mason) – super tender pigeon with smoky spices, marrying cleverly with artichoke – who would have thought?


Fries: Heston’s famous triple-cooked ones, delicious!


Buttered carrots with caraway: INSANELY good


Brown bread ice cream (c.1830 – A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Eliza Rundell) – the ice cream was strangely unsweetened and wasn’t quite the bombshell dessert we were expecting. But still pretty good.


Tipsy cake with spit roast pineapple (1810 The English cookery book by J.H. Walsh). Quite literally one of the most delicious things I have ever put in my mouth – the hot, buttery, sugar-encrusted brioche was simply heavenly, and went magically with the caramelly pineapple. Oof!


A lovely free addition – a chocolate pot with a caraway biscuit. Not that we needed it, but clearly the waiter thought we needed to kill a bit more time before we returned to the land of babycare!


Dinner by Heston Blumenthal
The Mandarin Oriental Hotel
Hyde Park
66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA