Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The importance of the local: The Florence, Herne Hill

Bar at the Florence

The "local" is a British institution. A place to have a quiet drink, a place to hang out with friends, a place to eat, a place to throw some darts or play pool. Back when I was younger, I look back on my "local" fondly. The Running Mare in Cobham was a mecca for the teenage Tehbus. Somewhere to get away from the parents and a haven for other young people. It is where I learnt to play fruit machines (thanks Michael) and make an idiot of myself in front of girls. More importantly, it was where I grew up.

After I graduated, I made my first foray south and moved to East Dulwich. Yes, it had the East Dulwich Tavern, which was technically closer to my home, but it was a bit too trendy and a bit too expensive for me. Further down the road was the Foresters Arms. Proper locals propped up the bar, the kind of people who had their own stools and would shout abuse at any passing strangers. It was smelly and had sticky carpets, but it showed the football and had a pool table. We went there a lot in the year we lived in East Dulwich.

When we moved to a rather cushy pad in Camberwell, we hunted for a pub we could call our local. Between the George Canning (good food, expensive pints but on way home from the station) and the Wishing Well Inn (full of the aforementioned old people on their own stools), we just couldn't decide. Both had their own charm but often polarised opinion. My female housemate wanted nice, my male housemates wanted pork scratchings and footie on the telly. We ended up compromising and heading down to the Castle down the road.

Essentially, no matter what I did with my life, or where I moved, there would always be one constant, that search for the "local". I still live in Camberwell, but my friends have moved away or got married and had kids, rendering their desire for the pub high, but the chances of them actually coming rather low. I now live with my sister who doesn't drink. I thought all hope had been lost.

Inside at the FLOREN...

On the odd occasion that those friends who had consulted their diaries (girlfriends/wives) and found that they were free for a few hours, we would catch up like old times. One of our favoured destinations had been the Florence in Herne Hill. Close to where some of my closest friends lived and with a stunning array of beers, we often spent many a happy hour there. Alas, they moved away/had children and I was on my own again.

Cheese and Bacon burger

It took a fabled burger from the Meatwagon to make me return, and I am glad I did. The pub was still the same. Wide array of beers, friendly staff and loads of comfy chairs. I was surrounded by some of the new friends I had made through this blog, and we ate and drank and were very merry. I indulged in a game of table football, drank shots and the pub dog tried to eat me. I even made friends with the pub manager. I never wanted to leave.

The Florence, Herne Hill

A few days later, I was asked back with @ibzo and his girlfriend to try (yep, invited, it was free for full disclosure) their food and I couldn't resist. To drink, I sampled a pint of their "Bonobo" ale. Home brewed in their very own micro brewery, the fruity and malty ale got my taste buds tingling. We were given a basket of buttermilk fried chicken, served with a tangy coleslaw dip. The chicken strips had a crunchy batter around it that I can only compare to the best crunchy bits from a KFC bucket (that's a good thing). Light and nigh on grease free, the batter had a deep smokiness and the chicken was astonishingly tender. This was great chicken.

The Florence, Herne Hill

Next, we were served the house burger. Made from filet steak and served with home made burger sauce, this double patty leviathan was a most delicious burger. I separated the patties and crafted a single cheeseburger with pickles (served separately but sliced to accommodate pickle haters) and a dash of their home made (on trial) chilli sauce. It wasn't as good as the burger I was eating here a few days ago (nothing in England can compare to that) but it was highly enjoyable.

The Florence, Herne Hill

Stuffed to the gills, they still brought us dessert of a mixed chocolate pot and some strawberries with yoghurt. No idea how we did it, but most was devoured. Suffice to say, I had enjoyed the food, but equally enjoyed the chat. We were chatting with the assistant manager (about his love of panto's) so much, that at one stage, we completely forgot to eat, unheard of.

I love the Florence. It's a fab pub and ticks almost all the criteria I search for in a decent "local". Through this blog, I have now been reacquainted with a pub I had thought I had lost, and having made friends with many of those involved with the place, I wouldn't feel ashamed to grab my own stool, and settle in for a few pints on my own.

The Florence - 131-133 Dulwich Road, London SE24 0NG

The Florence on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 17, 2010

Brothers in arms: Zucca and Maltings Cafe

Zucca, Bermondsey

When Zucca opened not so long ago, a fanfare followed. Bloggers and reviewers alike were won over with its straightforward Italian cooking, showcasing great ingredients and simple & delicious flavour combinations. It had made a heralded entrance onto the restaurant circuit, and being located in the wasteland that is Bermondsey, this was no mean feat. People were willing to travel south, a sure-fire sign that something was up.

Zucca, Bermondsey

Arriving for lunch, I was stunned with the simplicity of it all. An airy dining room with an open kitchen, white tables and white chairs. I liked it. We sat down and immediately were treated to an array of bread and some olive oil. It's not often I make the effort to talk about the bread but the 3 slices of focaccia were superb, slightly oily and crunchy on the outside and bouncy on the inside. Matched with the grassy olive oil, I snaffled the last piece without even asking. I don't like being rude, but it was that good.

Pappardelle and meat ragu
(pic courtesy of mokka chokka latte)

With a mere 3 choices under each heading (fish, meat, starters, pasta, dessert), the menu is tight. We opted for starters and mains, not wanting to go too crazy. Soon enough, my pigeon crostini and speck arrived. Pretty decent, but very boring. On the other side of the table was a starter portion of pappardelle with a ragu. The smells wafting across the table were drawing me in, sirens in the form of pasta. I think my dining partner saw my pitiful eyes and asked me if I wanted a bite. I almost bit her hand off. Soft yet perfectly al dente homemade pasta intermingled with delicious ragu, packed with flavour from all sorts of morsels of meat. God it was good, I looked down at my plate and almost cried.

Zucca, Bermondsey

It appears that I am not blessed with making the best choices at the dinner table. Starters done, our mains were on the way. I was blinded by the words "pork" and "belly" and ordered it without thinking. This was going to be a winner, pork belly never fails to excite me. It was placed in front of me and it looked great, so far so good. First taste was decent, the beautifully rolled slice of pork belly mingling well with the salsa verde. It was sat on a bed of lentils which are nigh on the most pointless of vegetables (after most beans) and added nothing but annoyance. Nice, no crackling, but still rather enjoyable.

Zucca, Bermondsey

When I had taken time to look up, I saw the most joyous slab of meat sat opposite me. A huge veal chop perched on some steamed greens. It was simple yet it was so beautiful, I shed a small tear. Again, my dining companion took pity on me and offered me a bite. So soft and tender, each chew was heavenly. The light taste of the veal which had a slight char, and a small rivulet of fat on the outside, each chew was better than the next. I looked down at my pork, it had been ousted from my heart, I only had love for the veal chop. I made my puppy dog eyes, but this was a battle I was not going to win. No more veal chop for me.

Too full for desserts, we opted for a quick stroll to nearby Borough market for some coffee. Zucca had been an enjoyable experience. The service was highly personable and friendly without being imposing, ushering in a very nice and comfortable vibe. The food, well, pretty decent and the verdict on the cost, very affordable with mains at around the £12 mark. On reflection, my dishes were still of a good standard but I was blown away by the food sat across from me on the other side of the table. And the bread, how can I forget THAT bread?

Maltings Cafe, Bermondsey

A few weeks later, I was lucky enough to accompany my friend down to Maltings Cafe, effectively where it all started and a mere stones throw from Zucca on Tower Bridge road. The smaller but older brother of Zucca, it focuses more on "Mediterranean" cuisine, although the influences still seemed to be firmly based in Italy. It was tiny inside and packed to the brim by 1pm. Disappointed punters were ushered towards the takeout counter, which appeared to be doing a brisk trade.

Maltings Cafe, Bermondsey

I chewed on some familiarly moreish bread (no focaccia this time) and perused the menu written neatly on a chalkboard. This was even more streamlined than Zucca, with one side, one fish, one meat and one pasta option. They were spoiling us with desserts as there were two on the menu. We felt a little embarrassed but decided that ordering everything was the order of the day. The waitress smiled and said "Don't worry, it's quite common".

Maltings Cafe, Bermondsey

I am glad to say that I was very pleased with my choice this time. The char grilled steak was absolutely heavenly. Sat on a salad of warm vegetables, I thought that the dish could have done with a tad more moisture to bind it all together, until I discovered the broad bean and pea (I think) puree that the whole dish was sat on. I had no aspirations in trying my companions pan fried squid with squid ink risotto and it was my turn to hand over some of the goods for her to try.

Maltings Cafe, Bermondsey

The accompanying polenta had no aspirations in rocking my world, but then again, it never had a chance. I have no real love for the yellow gloop, creamed or baked. Our other "side" was an interesting pasta dish which we shared. I had never heard of "mafaline" before, but it turns out it’s a fat tagliatelle with a crimped edge. Cooked with roast broccoli, and topped with a spicy breadcrumb topping known as a pangratatto, I revelled in its simplicity. Really enjoyable and was an excellent accompaniment to my slices of steak.

Maltings cafe is not designed to serve hearty portions, but each serving is just right. Even eating everything on the menu between two, the bill came to less than £30, excellent grub at affordable prices. It's amazing what you can achieve by just using a few key ingredients and cooking them well. I love the fancy restaurants where they do everything 15 ways with sploshes and swirls culminating in a piece of art that you feel guilty eating, but sometimes you just need to kick back, savour the simplicity and enjoy your food. I will be back, and next time, I am getting the veal.

Zucca - 184 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3TQ

Zucca on Urbanspoon

Maltings Cafe - 169 Tower Bridge Road London SE1 3NA

Maltings Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, May 15, 2010

New friends: Hurricanes Grill and the Chinese Noodle Restaurant, Sydney

Darling Harbour, Sydney
Darling Harbour

Before I flew out to Sydney, I thought it would be prudent to look up some of the Sydney based food lovers I have met (virtually) through blogging. After all, these are the people who would be in the know and it's always fun to meet people you don't know what they look like or how they sound.

First up was Kate, aka @katejferguson. After a few tweets, we realised that we were mutual friends with the one and only Catty and Kate was instructed to take me out to eat ribs for fear of death. Hurricanes Grill was our destination and is a bit of an institution in Sydney. With two branches (one in Bondi and the one I went to in Darling Harbour) it is very much like our beloved Bodeans in London, serving steaks and more importantly, succulent ribs.

When I met up with Kate, she recognised me instantly. Not only had we scoped each other out on Facebook, but I was the guy very much looking like a tourist drinking on my own. It's always nice when you instantly like somebody and we nattered away quite comfortably until the time for ribs was upon us. Once arrived at Hurricanes, we met up with another of Catty's old entourage, a lovely guy named Geoff. Overlooking the harbour, we asked if we could get moved from our allotted table inside to one outside. Although it was rammed, the staff accommodated us with little hassle and we were soon sat enjoying the view and the lovely late summer breeze.

Hurricanes Grill, Sydney

The menu covers many of the meat groups and advertises itself as a steakhouse but the night was all about the ribs. The ordering could not have been simpler, 3 full racks of pork ribs please, thankyouverymuch. It didn't take too long before they had arrived and the nice touch of adult bibs were tied around our necks by the delightful waitress. The rack was huge but I was hungry. I tucked in rib after rib, savouring every smoky and tangy mouthful. Soon, the gigantic rack was reduced to a pile of bones, sucked dry. I felt like I was in an episode of Man v Food and this time, Man definitely won.

Hurricanes Grill, Sydney

Kate and Geoff were lovely and I actually felt quite sad to be leaving them. Really nice people and perfect eating companions. The next day I had scheduled a lunch with yet another mysterious lady, Denea aka The Gourmet Rabbit. Running a hybrid blog/magazine and hot on the pulse of the Australian food scene, I've been following her adventures with great interest from the other side of the world and I was excited to meet her in real life.

Chinese Noodle Restaurant, Sydney

What she had in store for me was quite a treat. The destination was her favourite noodle house, simply called the Chinese Noodle Restaurant located in the heart of Chinatown. The tiny little place had quite a queue forming, but owing to the astounding pace in which they seemed to be able to turn tables, we got a table fairly quickly.

Chinese Noodle Restaurant, Sydney

Staring through the open window into the kitchen, I saw the team working at a feverish pace, preparing dumplings and hand pulling the noodles to order. One of those batches of noodles was for us, as well as a mountain of dumplings and some aubergines drenched in a sticky sweet soy sauce. I was stunned. Such a tiny unassuming place was rolling out fresh, springy and extremely tasty noodles, with stunning dumplings to match. I guess I shouldn't really have been that surprised, after all, queues speak for themselves.

Chinese Noodle Restaurant, Sydney

Denea and I chatted for a while but it wasn't long before we were shooed away, more hungry punters were waiting for their fix of noodles and dumplings and were demanding to be fed. We settled the bill and at less than £20 for both of us, I laughed a little chuckle to myself at how cheap it was.

Denea eating a mango pancake

She had one last secret up her sleeve as she took me to sample a famous Sydney mango pancake. At this stage, I was full to the point of delirium but I wrapped mine in a little paper bag and saved it for later. It was a little while before I could muster the strength to try it but I am so glad I did. A thin pancake holding a luxuriously creamy egg custard "block" sat on top of the most divine chunks of sweet mango. I was in heaven and devoured mine in under 30 seconds flat.

It was great to meet fellow lovers of food and was a privilege to be shown to some of their favourite places in Sydney. A fitting end to a simply fat (and rather excellent) time in Sydney.

Hurricanes Bar and Grill - Harbourside Shopping Centre, Darling Harbour, Sydney

Hurricane's Grill & Bar on Urbanspoon

Chinese Noodle Restaurant - Shop 7, 8 Quay St, Haymarket, 2000 Sydney

Chinese Noodle Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A breath of fresh air in Victoria, Pimlico Fresh

Pimlico Fresh, SW1

During my two and a half year tenure in a big glass box in Victoria, you would often find me grumbling about the food options. Limited to a stroll around M&S or notching your way towards that elusive free whole chicken at Nandos, you could say I was looking for a bit more. In my search for a decent feed, I have been to Kazan, Giraffe and Cyprus Mangal, all decent eateries in their own right but not really ideal for a quick light lunch. I let out a long sigh and resigned myself to my regular trips to M&S where I would always spend way too much on stuff I didn't really need.

Pimlico Fresh, SW1

Enter Pimlico Fresh, stage right. A mere couple of months after I left the big glass box, never to return, what do I stumble upon but exactly what I was previously looking for. Located on Wilton Road, a mere stroll from the aforementioned big glass box, Pimlico Fresh is a new(ish) cafe selling good quality fresh food, all simply prepared, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. I walked in and was directed to choose from the menu scrawled (well, written in rather neat handwriting) along the entirety of one of the walls.

Pimlico Fresh, SW1

I plumped for a coffee (flat white naturallement) and an avocado toast with extra bacon. I sat down and started to read snippets from the newspapers strewn across the tables and a short while later, food arrived. What I got was slices of avocado and tomato salsa on a toasted sourdough base, with a few rashers of delicious bacon thrown on top for good measure. Simple food, but delicious and affordable.

So Pimlico Fresh, a mecca away from the grease merchants and various fast food establishments that seem to have infested Victoria and the surrounding areas. I really wish this had been open during my tenure in the big glass box. There is so much that makes me happy about it. It is uncomplicated, but simple and decent grub. The staff are casual but attentive and the communal tables force the more unsociable amongst us to smile at strangers where we previously may not have. Still not enough to make me move back to Victoria, but a nice distraction when I am in the area.

Pimlico Fresh - 86 Wilton Road, Pimlico SW1V 1DE

Pimlico Fresh on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 10, 2010

A new burger enters the ring at Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

Another day in London, and another new opening. It's been open a mere 4 days and already quite a buzz lingers around Bar Boulud in Knightsbridge. Located in the Mandarin Oriental, it is the latest restaurant from none other than Daniel Boulud. Fear not if you haven't heard about him yet, but you most certainly will in the near future. Bar Boulud is his first foray into the British market, but he is one of the most established chefs across the Atlantic in the US. This year, Daniel NYC, the flagship of the Boulud empire and owner of 3 Michelin stars, was named as the 8th best restaurant in the world at the San Pellegrino 50 Best restaurants awards, a rising star, having jumped a massive 33 places. Basically, it's a bit good.

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

So what’s this place all about then? Well, I was meeting the delightful @gourmetraveller and she had kindly sent me the menu in advance. This was a bad move, well, for my laptop anyway. French food with American influences, I was drooling quite heavily at his charcuterie, sausages and burgers, all things that the Boulud empire was famous for. Unfortunately in my unemployed state, I couldn't go crazy and give the menu the workout I desperately wanted, but the £20 prix fixe is pretty astounding value.

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

I started with a "Salade glace de petit pois" or a chilled pea soup. I was looking for something light to prep my stomach for the impending burger feast, and this certainly fulfilled that criteria. The first few mouthfuls were flooded with fresh flavours of pea and mint, with hints of rosemary from the dots of cream. As I delved deeper, I chewed on a crisp and delicious croutons and started to scoop the billed "spring fricasse" from the bottom. I'm not sure if my brain was playing tricks on me but the soup garnered a deeper, meatier flavour as I neared the bottom of the bowl, although I sense the "fricasse" had something to do with it.

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

So, the burger. The chosen burger was the "Frenchie", a burger comprising of a brioche bun, topped with confit pork belly, Morbier cheese and rocket, all sat atop a tomato and onion confit. I say chosen, the choice was thrust upon me. I did ask whether we could swap the "Frenchie" for another burger on their menu but I was shot down after a rather prolonged visit to the kitchen. Pretty disappointing seeing as the Frenchie is actually the most expensive burger on the menu. The poor waiter mumbled something along the lines that the kitchen was unable to accommodate me, a blip on an otherwise excellent service. The burger itself vexed me. I poked around and the advertised "confit pork belly" appeared to be two small bits of what looked suspiciously like bacon. I took a bite and the juices of the beautiful beef patty, perfectly cooked medium pink, flooded my mouth, only to be barged out of the way and invaded by the rather strong tomato and onion confit. As I continued eating, pockets of mustard were so strong that they started to burn the sides of my mouth. The beef is excellent but all the other flavours were so strong that they struggled to represent themselves, ending up in a bit of a mess. A little bit like the current election.

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

There were other good things about the burger than just the quality of the beef. The peppered brioche bun was just about as perfect a vehicle for a burger as you will find. It was light and slightly sweet, with a substantial amount of give, although keeping its shape and not falling apart. And I even liked the Morbier cheese used, which I really thought may overpower the burger, but in relation to the other battling flavours, was subdued and complemented the beef. Chips were ok, and had transformed from chunky chips earlier in the week, to thin and crispy (if slightly over salted) ones.

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

Unfortunately, things didn't get a whole lot better with my choice of the Gateau Basque. Advertised as a custard cake with cherries, the flavours from the cake again had my brow furrowed. The pastry was immense, as it was light and tasty, breaking away with a swift crack of the spoon, but the custard had a very odd flavour. Predominantly orange with a background metallic twang, I really wasn't sure if it was meant to taste like this but I wasn't particularly enjoying it. A tiny puddle of vanilla custard (no flavour) and a pile of cherries (redundant and probably an afterthought) sat alongside, looking at each other, outcasts wondering if they had been invited to the wrong party.

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

The Gateau Chocolat-Framboise was much more highly accomplished, a classic combination of flavours well executed in an extremely rich dark chocolate cake. Extra flairs of raspberries filled with raspberry coulis, an excellent sorbet and even a decorative raspberry chocolate stick were all touches so drastically missing from my dessert.

I know that I may have been quite critical but there were glaring faults in my dishes that left me rather disappointed. Daniel Boulud has a fearsome reputation and those burgers should be the burgers of my dreams. Instead, it felt like a burger that was just trying too hard to impress. And frankly, on reflection, I thought the dessert was a bit of a car crash. I still can't get that metallic flavour out of my mouth and that's even after a few mini martinis straight after. I really do like the room, a fairly open clean space, and the service was for the most part excellent, if a little too over attentive at times.

Bar Boulud, Knightsbridge

I realise that I only ate off the lunch menu, and I really do want to give it another go once I get on the payroll again, but it was a disappointing meal. However, it is still early days, and I spotted Daniel Boulud himself walking the room and chatting to none other than Lloyd Grossman who was dining behind me. I overheard that he is here for 2 weeks to ensure that the ship is sailing at an even keel and I do realise that we are only 4 days in. I am sure things will only get better.

Bar Boulud - Mandarin Oriental, 66 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7LA

p.s. You should definitely check out his website. It has the funkiest music of any website I have ever heard.

Bar Boulud on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Surprises in the South East. Bella Vista, Blackheath

I speak rather highly of my home in the South East of London, but if I am being totally honest, I realise it's not all I paint it to be. Don't get me wrong, the immediate vicinity to where I live is great and I feel totally safe (most of the time). But this trust has been earned over many years of living here and I would be an idiot if I didn’t realise that some of the associated prejudices of the South East are probably true. Only last week, a 15 year old school kid was stabbed on his way to school (thankfully, he lived).

When I was invited for a meetup of some South East London based Tweeters in Blackheath, I immediately had the preconception that it wouldn’t be very nice. I saw dark alleys, broken lamps and burning cars. How wrong I was. Blackheath is actually bloody lovely. And not only is it lovely, but it has a rather good Italian restaurant called Bella Vista which was the destination for our little meetup.

Bella Vista, Blackheath

Bella Vista has been in Blackheath for quite some time, but it has only been since January that Alex Tyndall took over as the head chef. He has some pretty decent pedigree (having worked for Michelin starred Chapter One in Kent) and had kindly prepared for us a special menu to show off some of his repertoire of dishes. As well as a gaggle of tweeters, Ben from Enotria UK came along for the ride and kindly prepared a matching wine flight to complement the meal.

Bella Vista, Blackheath

I’m not going to go into the wine, as I am a total wine cretin and have literally zero idea of what I am talking about, but head on over HERE and you will find my photos of the night with the pics of the wines in all their beauty. The food, on the other hand, I am more at ease with. The first dish of stuffed squid, for example, was excellent. Tangy tomato sauce, an earthy bitterness from the monks beard (a vegetable I had never come across before) and the squid itself stuffed with its own tentacles and perfectly cooked to a soft bite.

Bella Vista, Blackheath

With a meaty interlude of bresaolo, the next dish was a real challenge for me. A filleted mackerel stuffed with capers and anchovies were sat on top of a bulghur wheat “salsa”. Mackerel AND anchovies?? I puffed my chest out and took a bite. And another. And another. Eventually, the whole thing was gone. It was absolutely delicious and it was quite surprising how well this went down. The anchovy element was not overpowering and the fish must have been extremely fresh as it had no trace of that "fishy" taste I normally associate with oily fish such as this. A very pleasant surprise.

Bella Vista, Blackheath

The fish was followed by a well executed pasta dish comprising of a few oversized penne (aka paccheri) sitting in a sweet and tangy tomato sauce, smothered in tonnes of stinky pecorino. The meat course of lamb, tomato and marjoram was sadly the lowlight of the meal for me. The lamb was exceptionally cooked and returned good flavour but was woefully underseasoned. The white bean puree that it sat on didn't help with the dish and just made everything taste even more bland. It was disappointing, although the dessert that followed certainly did not. Date and mascarpone tart was light and not overly sweet. The frangelico and hazelnut syrup added moisture and a change in texture. We were so full by this stage but our plates returned to the kitchen scraped clean.

Like I mentioned earlier, I am a bit rubbish with wine, but even I enjoyed the wine matched to the courses and I can genuinely say I learnt a little and enjoyed wine a tiny bit more. The food was excellent and as good an excuse as any to travel into the depths of South East London. I met a few more people from the #SEmassive as well as having a good laugh with a few of the ones I had already met. Great night, great food and great people. Thanks to Rob Macintosh, big daddy of the SE Massive for organising and long live South East London!

Bella Vista - 3-5 Montpelier Vale, London SE3 0TA

Bella Vista on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A few more supper clubs, The Secret Larder and Comida Divertida

One of the best things about starting this blog is the amount of people you meet. I have been lucky enough to meet chefs, journalists and PR's, but most importantly of all, I have met many many people who just love food. Two of these people are James and Charlie.

Both of these guys love their food, but have taken their passions one step further than just cooking and writing about it. James, or Rambo to his mates (pecs of steel), spent a few months out in the wilds of Ireland at the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School and now spends his days writing about and cooking food. Charlie, or simply Nels, is a chef who has spent time peeling veg in the kitchens of the Fat Duck and huddled over the stoves at Hibiscus, and now spends his living designing stuff for a food related magazine. Both their lives are entrenched in food and now you get a chance to try some of it.

The Secret Larder

I was a late sub at Rambo's Secret Larder. Some poor unfortunate souls were struck down with some sort of lurgy or another and two spaces made themselves available. Me being gainfully unemployed and my little sister being a student studying for her finals are grateful for any sort of distraction and were more than happy to make up the numbers. Seating 20 split onto 3 separate tables, we all started nattering to each other. It is inevitable that a few groups come together but I was seated with a lovely bunch of old Edinburgh uni students and had a great time. Asparagus, pigs cheek and mackerel were all on the menu and all extremely enjoyable.

Comida Divertida, Shoreditch

Charlie, on the other hand, opted for a menu based firmly in Mexico. Being his first supper club, it was a night for experimenting. Having a margherita thrust upon you as you enter the flat is not the worst way to start an evening and with homemade nachos on the go, we began to mingle with the rest of the crowd. We were then led upstairs where we were introduced to the main dining area. Again, there were about 20 of us and this time split onto 2 tables. Various delights rolled out of the kitchen and the supper club soon descended into a full on party.

Supper clubs are popping up ten to the penny at the moment, but there is good reason for this. There is a dearth of great chefs out there looking for an outlet, and like any other “business”, if they aren’t any good, they will struggle to survive. I enjoyed myself thoroughly at both of these and would happily go again, and with a donation of £25 suggested, it’s not likely to break the bank. Personally, I say long live the supper club and long live to dining with new friends!

The Secret Larder – Somewhere in Holloway.
Comida Divertida – Somewhere in Shoreditch.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Hint of the East out in the East, Viajante

Viajante, Bethnal Green E2

There’s something about the East end of London and I. We simply don’t get along. I’m not sure where this deep seeded hatred originated from but I sense it could be down to two things. Reason number one probably has something to do with the fact that I lived out East during my second year at university. Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time, but the fact that it was so far away from the action got on my nerves somewhat. Now that I live in Camberwell, it seems that the East has got a lot trendier and a fair few of my friends have decided to relocate in this vicinity. The second problem for me is another one of transport; south to east just doesn’t exist.

Until now, that is. All hail the new East London overground! Back with a slightly new name, some new signs and fancy new trains, this is essentially the old East London line but revamped and extended. At time of going to press, it is running a limited service but I managed to hop on to take me to my lunch date, a meal at Viajante with 5 other food lovers.

Viajante has been in the pipeline for quite some time. Nuno Mendes (head chef) has been testing out his style of cuisine on paying guests at the Loft Project for quite some time, but for those like me who were unable to make it, Viajante was my first chance to try out some of his much lauded food. Bringing in Iberian influences from his home and family, and combining it with his love of Asian ingredients, the end result was quite an experience.

Unfortunately, the first experience I had was not good. I ordered a Skye Julep on arrival, and although it sounded rather appealing on the menu, what I received was a cocktail which tasted of dettol. Dettol is a disinfectant. Disinfectant (or the flavour there of) does not belong in a drink.

Viajante, Bethnal Green E2

Thankfully I was distracted from the horror of my beverage by a bevy of nibbles. Opting for the three course menu at a very affordable £25, we were not told what the dishes would be so we had no idea when the first course actually started amongst the flood of "amuse". First we were brought an "Iberian" crisp bread (not sure what its real name was, but it was covered in lovely things like olives, garlic dust and dots of romesco). Next up was a "jelly" of aubergine, although this was by far the most disappointing dish, tasting of nothing. Finally, my favourite of the trio, a mini sandwich of chicken and quails egg called a "Thai explosion". I popped it into my mouth and began to understand the nature of its name, wonderful flavours of lemongrass, coriander and Thai basil flooding your tastebuds.

Viajante, Bethnal Green E2

With bread consumed and with my mouth now fully woken up, we moved onto our first course in earnest, a squid ceviche with a squid ink granita. Bloody hell this was nice. Beautifully presented but the power definitely lay in the flavours and texture. The squid was beautifully tender and dressed in a light dill oil, the granita adding a different depth in flavour and a nice contrast in temperature. This was a cold starter, but there were different levels of cold. The squid itself was sliced into a perfect checkerboard, high levels of attention to detail were evident in its presentation.

Viajante, Bethnal Green E2

The main course was a variation of surf and turf. A few prawns and slices of tender fatty pork neck sat alongside strands of savoy cabbage on an anchovy puree. Now, I have a major angst when it comes to anchovies, but took a dab of the puree into my mouth and was pleased to find it creamy and not at all overpowering. It wasn't the largest portion I have ever seen, but all the "bites" presented to us earlier certainly add up and was just about enough.

Viajante, Bethnal Green E2

Having worked our way through the myriad of savouries, we were presented with a palate cleanser, a green sorbet of Thai basil and lime. All 6 of us on the table took a mouthful almost simultaneously and pretty much exclaimed "Wow" in unison. The lime packed a punch but it was the Thai basil that really jumped out. The flavours from the sorbet were dancing about, having their own little party in my mouth. Each flavour was so clean and crisp; every mouthful was just as good as the next. I even started reducing the size of my spoonfuls to extend the longevity of this experience. But all good things come to an end, and looked at my empty glass longingly as it was whisked away.

Viajante, Bethnal Green E2

The dessert proper was a very well executed chocolate fondant (especially considering its size) with hazelnut ice cream and a seriously tart blackcurrant sauce. I have omitted the silly chocolate dots as although this dish was erring on the side of "very naughty", the design of the plate is just silly. I mean, it's a big plate, but all the food is huddled into the corner, away from the dots. Stupid design, great flavours.

Viajante, Bethnal Green E2

The journey didn't end there as we were presented with a crème Catalan (or orange cream) and some great if a little crazy petit fours (white chocolate and mushroom truffle anyone?). I was quite sad when I had eaten my lemon jelly. I knew it was the last morsel I was going to be devouring and that made me sad. To say I enjoyed Viajante is an understatement. Many places have such hype surrounding them, but few ever live up to it and I am glad to say that I believe Viajante really does.

Not only is the food excellent (if you ignore the ghastly aubergine abomination), but barring one incident involving lack of cutlery and missing plates, the staff were attentive and eager to tell you about the food. Nuno is highly visible and attentive in the open kitchen and uses the space more like you would have expected at his supper club at the loft. Even when the food is ready, he comes out and brings the dishes with his serving staff. At the end of the meal, we collared him and asked him a few questions about himself and Viajante. The ingredients of south eastern Asia were highly prominent in his food and when asked where this influence came from, I could see him almost start to gush with enthusiasm as he spoke of his love for the area and its ingredients. Viajante means "traveller" and not only was the meal the fruits of Nuno Mendes' travels, it certainly took me on my own journey. One that I would happily experience again and again.

Viajante - Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF

For a few more pics, please click here.

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