Sunday, 31 October 2010

Café Boheme - the Friday Night Steak Frites

There’s a dizzying flurry of incredible restaurant openings in London this year. Providores’ Gopapa and Hawksmoor in Covent Garden, St John Hotel in Chinatown, Bar Boulud, Les Deux Salons, Polpetto...

Quite frankly, I can’t keep up.

You know if you want to eat at these places (and I do) there will be months of ‘fully booked’ or two-hour-long waits amidst the hype. And now that it’s pretty much winter and the temperature has plunged to an unsociable degree, most nights I’m happy to nurse a bottle of red wine and sit staunchly in front of the X Factor/Downton Abbey/The Apprentice.

But it’s reassuring to know when you are out post-pub you can still stumble into the depths of Soho on a Friday night and get a no-frills humble dinner without the pressure of knowing what you should order, how you should order it, snaking queues, and above all, waiting.

Seeing the pulsing bar of Café Boheme in Soho is like catching sight of the golden arches. Yes it’s busy, crammed and London Underground-esque; but push through the bottleneck of Old Compton street crowds and you reach the oasis of a familiar faux French brasserie. You tentatively ask if there’s a table on the busiest night of the week, you begin to wince as you expect that no. And then... and then... relief! They say yes.

Perhaps it’s the relief that makes the food so good. I only ever order the steak frites with a simple side salad here. The steak is a good ol’ ribeye marbled with a wonderfully unfashionable amount of fat. It’s meaty and beefy and begging to be ordered rare. The frites are almost matchstick - crispy and even better with a coat of béarnaise. It’s not the best I’ve ever had. But it’s pretty damn good.

You can tell Café Boheme is the same stock as the Shoreditch and Soho Houses, same banquettes and French tiling, impeccable service, amazing drinks. The place is reminiscent of the upmarket Cafe Rouge feel of Pastis and Balthazar in New York, but with that London crowd piling in from GAY and the throb of Bar Soho, this is something unique. The lack of pints is an oddity (only halfs, two pint jugs or bottles sold here), but it’s just an excuse to down a G&T instead.

Boheme shouldn’t be your destination. It should be the place to go when you don’t want to end the night. It should be your golden arches because it is there, just when you need it most.

Café Boheme
13 Old Compton Street

London W1D 5J
020 7734 0623

Cafe Boheme on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Wolseley: The Art of Breakfasting

Mr Random has breakfasting at The Wolseley in Piccadilly down to a fine art.

The staff have his direct line. He skips through the door confidently as he exhibits the mutual love and respect between them. A breakfast without at least three unplanned fortuitous meetings would be unthinkable; The Wolseley is his office and his playground.

I had previously eaten at The Wolseley approximately two and a half times. The half because I had been taken for dinner with a good friend, a vegetarian, who unreasonably banned me from eating fois gras and meat. The other two times had been forgettable, not because The Wolseley had underperformed, but because I had - by suffering from drinks-related ailments.

So when Mr Random, a stalwart of the advertising industry (who coined his own name on account of bumping into me randomly three times), invited me to The Wolseley, I knew this was going to be the real thing; the Pixie to my Katie Waissel, the Coke to my Pepsi.

There are a few things to the art of breakfasting:

Sitting at the right table
"It used to be a car showroom, now it's a people showroom,” my companion says. “You can have that one," he adds mischievously. And indeed it is. We sit in a banquette intimate enough for good conversation, but open to see and be seen. Normally I would object to this sort of behaviour, but his working of the room as streams of people who knew him came to our table, made fascinating viewing.

Wearing statement attire
My companion was encased in top-to-toe purple. A peacock designed to be looked at, with the fabulous addition of striking cufflinks fashioned from Viagra pills. If you’re a girl, Louboutins help.

Ordering unembarrassing food
Think carefully before ordering the fully stuffed bacon roll. This is akin to ordering spaghetti on a first date. Don’t do it. The expectation is that you eat as you talk. Be ready to jump up and greet. To say I have been caught out on occasion is a huge understatement. AA Gill once wrote an ode to porridge for his first review of The Wolseley. Now I know why.

And so to the food.

My companion ordered classic eggs benedict with coffee.

I had scrambled eggs on white toast with slats of bacon.

The scrambled eggs were perfectly set, with that slight creamy wibble (and you know how I like wibble). The bacon had edges of crispness. If I wasn't in a people showroom, I would have shovelled the clouds of scrambled eggs with a rasher in my mouth. But I didn't want to embarrass my companion, so I resisted.

Some English Breakfast tea, fresh orange juice and fruity chat washed the breakfast down - a breakfast elegant but hearty helped by the impeccable service.

I could write a whole other post on the art of conversation, but shall leave that for another time when the artist, Mr Random, next decides to exhibit.

The Wolseley
160 Piccadilly, London, W1J 9EB
020 7449 6996

The Wolseley on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The lemon, ginger and honey effect

My half drunk steeper

So, with a wave of coughing and sniffing and spluttering striking down my fellow postgraduates (and, it seems half of twitter), this post is for all those who have suffered this week.

Last Monday I was sandwiched between two coldy sniffers for four hours, and lo and behold, by the evening I was a wreck, gibbering and crabby, and from then on unceremoniously adorned permanently with tissues.

I have a steeper to share with you - a most heartening tonic to drink day or night - that makes you feel that little bit better. It beats hot Ribena, it beats Berocca and it beats feeling crap all day.

Take a loved mug and stick the kettle on. Drop in 2 tablespoons of runny honey, 2 slices of unpeeled ginger, preferably bashed once with the handle of the knife. Pour the boiling water over and stir in. Leave for a minute to steep before adding a satisfying squeeze of lemon.

And for a frisky Lemsip which really greets your sinuses, I like to add a slug of whisky. A gentleman's measure, if you please.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Fuchsia Dunlop Interview at Bar Shu

Chinese food authority and writer Fuchsia Dunlop talks junk food, women chefs and the cookery school back in her heartland of Chengdu

Photograph by Patrizia Benvenuti

“Average Chinese takeaway contains equivalent of a glass of fat”: the Daily Mirror headline informatively tells us in August. This is the backdrop that Fuchsia Dunlop, award-winning food writer, is working against. Easy slurs on the reputation of Chinese food, preconceptions of artery-clogging meals, a historical association with fast food and junk that has been difficult to shake off.

Despite these perceptions, Dunlop is still lauded as one of the main ambassadors and heroes of authentic Chinese cooking. Both academic and accessible in her approach, her journey from novice to expert becomes ours when reading her acclaimed book Sichuan Cookery which sits proudly in Observer Food Monthly’s top 10 best cookbooks and more recently into The Independent’s 50 best cookbooks.

So, why is Chinese food so ubiquitous yet so misunderstood? Dunlop believes this is down to being one of the earliest immigrant cuisines in the country.

“Chinese restaurants were starting to pop up more than 100 years ago.” Dunlop explains, “But Brits were very conservative in their tastes so [the Chinese] adapted the food and dumbed it down.

“Chinese food was handicapped from coming very early and I don’t think the community has been historically very good at communicating their food. I never understood why they weren’t they giving the good stuff to westerners, and that was because westerners weren’t used to it.”

Dunlop has been partly responsible for an exciting development in recent years - the regionalisation of Chinese food, and restaurants specialising in cuisine from Sichuan or Hunan have been appearing among unvarying Cantonese restaurants and takeaways. As consultant to Soho restaurant, Bar Shu, which in its success has spin off sisters Baozi Inn and Ba Shan (which has just launched its new Hunan menu) she has seen London embracing this regionality.

“When Bar Shu opened, we knew that the Chinese community were dying for a Sichuanese restaurant and had a guaranteed market of Chinese people. And that so many people are going on business to Shanghai, going on holiday to China, makes it easier.”

The audience she writes for may be well travelled and keen to try new things, but there’s no point being too adventurous. “The recipes have to be able to work outside of China so there’s no point writing recipes for bamboo shoots that you can’t get here.”

When I meet her over a pot of chrysanthemum tea in Bar Shu, she is very much the English lady and Cambridge graduate who grew up in Oxford, casually elegant in long white skirt and pearls, graciously apologetic for being slightly late. I’m only slightly put out that she can speak better Chinese than me and read better Chinese than me - the only thing she can’t trump me on is looking more Chinese than me, but then - she has used that to her advantage. As the first Westerner to be taken on by the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, she has often said that being an outsider gave her the “license to do anything”.

“But there was such a stultifying system in China; nothing would happen unless you made it happen.”

Unafraid by the bureaucracy and layers presented by the Chinese when she was there, she soldiered on with the course, as recounted in her autobiography Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, learning to read and write Chinese so she could understand the theory behind the cooking, and was only one of two women on the course among 50 men. In a system where women did not generally become chefs in kitchens, and where the provincial government would not let her take her final chef exams, these circumstances have not held her back.

She doesn’t think the number of women chefs in China will change and recounts the time she interviewed a head chef who told her women were just not strong enough. “I said 'HA!' and he said ‘come on then!’ and I made a complete fool of myself. I’ve only really met one female chef running a large kitchen and she’s a really tough cookie.”

She is now collaborating with businesswoman Diane Drey in designing the program for a cookery school back in her alma mater in Chengdu. It’s a project that lets her pass on the knowledge she so obsessively learnt when she was out there over fifteen years ago.

“I’m committed to the writing and communicating so it’s very complimentary to be working with Diane who loves the organising side of things.”

The school runs over two weeks, and mimics the intensity she originally experienced. The students are shown key skills and classic Sichuanese dishes to cook in the morning, and recreate them in the afternoon. And it’s a huge immersion into the culture - not just in the learning but eating at the local restaurants and spending time in the Chengdu so evoked in Shark’s Fin.

With more interest in real Chinese food Dunlop may well see those headlines change for the better. “What’s so completely mad is that most people in this country think that Chinese food is unhealthy and junky.

“One of the things that occurred to me more than anything else in China was how healthily people ate. The Mediterranean diet is held up as the ideal. Why not the Chinese diet?”

Cooking School in China
Course dates for Autumn: 24th October 2010 - November 5th 2010
Course dates for Spring: March 13th 2011 - March 25th 2011

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Chinese Restaurant picks in London

"When I was reviewing for Time Out I use to go to lots of places but now I’ve just got my favourites. Chinatown is not always the best place to eat."

Hunan: 51 Pimlico Road, London SW1W 8NE
“It’s lovely, very good, although I haven’t been for a while.”

Phoenix Palace: 5 Glentworth Street, London NW1 5PG

Bar Shu: 28 Frith St, London W1D 5LF
Baozi Inn: 25 Newport Court, Chinatown, London, WC2H 7JS
“I come to Bar Shu. And Baozi Inn, obviously. I LOVE that place.”

Royal China: 30 Westferry Circus, London, E14 8RR
“My favourite place for Dim Sum. The food is heavenly.”

Royal China Club: 40-42 Baker Street, London, W1U 7AJ
“A good place to splash out. I don’t often go because the ordinary Royal China is so damn good.”

Sunday, 17 October 2010

What I did with my Romanesco

Carl Warner makes art with his. The lovely people at Riverford Farm are reminded of “Madonna’s aggressively brassiered breasts” by theirs. When I see those intricate peaks I think of exotic Cambodian temples.

Carl Warner's Coralscape

It’s the season of the romanesco broccoli. With its luminous green colour and other-worldly appearance, this is a broccoli that alarms as much as it impresses.

The texture is similar to broccoli as you know it - the calabrese. Romanesco is as crunchy, but the flavour is not as nutty. Riverford are right when they say it’s “somewhere between cauliflower and calabrese”.

It was difficult not to stir-fry this, which is what I would normally have done with broccoli, but I decided to see what it was like pared down, so just littered it with a silly amount of garlic and adapted a recipe from the brilliant Riverford cookbook. And the broccoli was clean and delicious, and a lovely accompaniment to a good meat dish.

Romanesco with garlic and chilli

Start by making a hot dressing. Gently heat a few slugs of extra virgin olive oil in a frying pan. Slice three fat cloves of garlic and pop the slices in the pan. Crumble two dried chillis in and fry for about two minutes to soften. Don’t let the garlic brown.

Cut one romanesco broccoli into florets. I urge you to use the stalk too. Blanch in boiling salted water.

Drain the romanesco and mix immediately with the flavoured oil. Squeeze some lemon, sprinkle some salt and serve.

It’s also a happy partner with some fried off lardons and pasta for a quick supper.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Purple Sweet Potato: Climbing the Purple Mountain

Behold the purple sweet potato - as exciting as a purple carrot and destined to have the alarming effects of beetroot.

Though the colour may be as rich as a Cadbury’s wrapper, the flesh is not so sweet. We had it mashed - boiled then buttered, as was recommended to me, but the consistency was slightly chalky and flavour blander than a normal sweet potato. I would think roasting would intensify the sweetness, so a dry roast whole then mashed, or roasted wedges with a touch of honey might be the ticket next time.

Apparently this exotic thing will be hitting the shelves under the name ‘Purple Mountain’. The potato is American, but like me, its origins lie in China. If you’re tempted to try it - let me know what you make, and whether you think mashed is the best way to go.