Thursday, 29 April 2010

Polpo: An Education

Ah Venice. If only I’d paid more attention when I was there last, I would have known how to drink and eat in a bacaro. This story of ignorance begins years ago, when a radiant redhead and I whisked ourselves off to read Latin in the Venetian heat for our impending Finals, finding Ovid and Virgil indigestible in the wet of England. Every morning we’d down cappuccinos, read 200 lines of the Aeneid before claiming heat-exhaustion and playing for the rest of the day. We ate well - beautifully thin cheap pizzas with courgette flowers or langoustines still in shell laid sculpturally across it, drank bellinis a peach colour you’d never see in England – just the way they’re meant to be drunk, from tumblers in Harry’s Bar.

But I can safely say, so immersed in hexameter were we that we failed to take advantage of the bacari. We noticed gondolas, crazy lace from Burano, glass orchestras from Murano, horny art students... but no Venetian working mens’ drinking holes serving wine in tumblers and cichetti (small tapas/pintxos-eque snacks). So thank god one has come to find us over in rainy Soho. And contrary to my previous experience, this time I did know about Polpo because no one would stop talking about it. And I like Bocca di Lupo, the other nice Italian down the road, and since Polpo has its former head chef Tom Olroyd, I guess it's worth trying.

There was one thing for it...reclaiming the experience I never had. So three ladies rock up to this bit of Venice carved off Carnaby Street. The bar is full of trendy things, chatty things, datey things. It’s all cheeky banter and casual dates jammed in an osteria. The first thing we need is prosecco (almost every meal is improved if opened with good prosecco). And then we order. Everything to share. The girls look to me to do it. Gulp.

“Right. Ahem. The prosciutto, the arancini, salt cod...the parmesan crocchetta, smoked salmon crostino, salami grissini... the er.. mussels and clams, fennel salad..will you tell me if we’re ordering too much?”

“No no – this doesn’t look much at all!” our waitress says brightly.

“Ok..” I soldier on, making up for my inadequate Venetian knowledge. “er.. the flank steak, the zucchini salad, the white beans and wild garlic and erm.. some pork belly. Thanks.”

I look sheepish. The waitress processes quickly. “Yep – looks fine to me!”

And that’s it. Anxiety over. And so to the food, and what I should have ordered in Venice.

Cichetti: from top right, clockwise: arancini, potato & parmesan crocchetta, prosciutto and mozzarella di bufala, smoked salmon with horseradish & dill crostino, salt cod on grilled polenta, salami & pickled radicchio crostino

The plate of cichetti comes quickly. Each piece - a couple of quid. A good juicy wedge of creamy mozzarella with the salt of the prosciutto, warm arancini (tiny rice ball filled with mozzarella) crunchy surface, and yielding inside and satisfying. Smoked salmon and dill crostini? Does the job.

Breather as a bottle of Gavi di Gavi is opened. Pour, taste, lovely...back to the food.

The flank steak is excellent. Already thickly sliced, our medium-rare, slightly bloody plate is adorned with a white truffle cream subtle and perfect with the steak and elicits feelings of naughtiness – white truffle cream. It’s the sort of dish your eyes flit to automatically on the menu and can’t let go. And, blow me! It lives up to its name.

Grilled flank steak, white truffle cream, and grilled zucchini & rocket salad

The steak is superior to the belly pork with hazelnuts which was well-flavoured but slightly tough. The mussels and clams are crunchy with breadcrumbs, garlicky and sweet. We were drinking the clear broth by the end. White beans and wild garlic? Fantastic. Courgette salad and fennel salad with whole crunchy almonds? Again, fresh and faultless. I could eat these five times over.

Fennel, curly endive, almonds, and mussels & clams

Two niggles though. First – polenta. I do have issues with polenta, I’ve only ever enjoyed it with about half a wheel of parmesan cheese in it.

The salt cod that topped the polenta - tasty, the polenta – wet and slimy.
Secondly – the grissini – a tiny breadstick the size of my little finger wrapped with salami and pickled radicchio costing £1.90. This does upset me. That 5 of these breadsticks would cost almost £10 is absurd.

However, we would have ordered the whole menu if we could, but somehow exercise a little self restraint. We’ll have to go back to try the rest. I’m glad a little bit of Venice has come to find us - the best education I've had in years.

41 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SB
020 7734 4479

Happy. Empty plates

Do NOT come here on a Thursday or Friday night, you will not get a table without a horrendous wait. Come for lunch with friends you really like and make it last, order an inordinate amount and go overboard with the mains, share as much as you can, you WILL eat it all.
Polpo on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Hot Stuff: the Rival

My friends who live down the road from Hot Stuff, in Vauxhall, cannot stop raving about it. They have been going to this Indian for years. I’m slightly jealous of the attention it gets - the affection with which they talk about it surpasses friendship. So when I’m invited for a birthday I jump at the chance to meet this rival.

Poor Hot Stuff. 17 of us descend onto this local favourite which is so compact, it’s about the size of my lounge. And I would never think of squeezing in 17 people plus other diners into my lounge. The room is so small that the toilet is practically in the kitchen, and over the course of the night there is undignified limbo-ing under the table to reach that toilet.

But it’s all in the spirit of keeping diners happy, and the Hot Stuff team seem at ease with the numbers. With owner Raj back in Kenya to get married, I’m sure the rest of the crew are wishing they were back in Kenya as well when we come along.

But, quite simply, the service is faultless. Dishes arrive in quick succession, we all share fun-coloured curries, they put up with our bad jokes – they even smile at some of them. I can see I have stiff competition. Oh, and did I mention that it’s BYO with no corkage fee? Damn, they’re doing well.

So, to start. Chilli paneer, pleasingly orange and mildly hot. For me, paneer has previously sat up there with halloumi, slightly unsatisfying for the amount of love it usually gets. My head isn’t fully turned, but this is moreish, like a bar-snack. Perfect with a swig of Cobra.

Jeera chicken – definitely the dish of the night. The pieces are lightly spiced with cumin, softened with yogurt, and begging to be nabbed at by fingers.

Lovely coconutty peshawari naan comes to mop up all the juices, whilst keema kofte, and onion and potato bhajis served with tamarind and mint chutneys are party food for us screaming kids.

Then come the mains. Sweet butternut squash and spinach, achari chicken (cubes of breast with tomatoey, almost sour sauce), aloo gobi, lamb dopaiza a dish both onioned and underwhelming. Garlic naan,savagely torn to pieces, it was so good.

The mains aren’t the star of the show - when you try them all at the same time, the punch of flavours all gets overwhelming, but they are fine dishes, and extra fine for the price. It all comes to £22. It’s not the best curry in London, but if I lived in Vauxhall, this place would supply my curry hit. I think I’ve made a new friend.

Hot Stuff restaurant and takeaway
19 Wilcox Road, London, SW8 2XA, 020 7720 1480

Hot Stuff on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Easiest Springtime Accompaniment – Pea Shoots, the Veg de Jour

Pea shoots are in.

Every supermarket wants to flog them to me - I can’t open any food magazine without being told they’re a must-have of the season. There are websites dedicated to them, and even Nigel Slater, whom I utterly adore, pins up the glorious greens and paired them with spelt risotto in last Sunday’s Observer Food Monthly.

And who am I to disagree with Nigel Slater.

Unfortunately, unlike Nigel, I don’t have a garden, and with defiant un-saintly behaviour snatch bags of shoots from the supermarket when I see them. I am hooked. And a total victim of supermarket marketing.

Anyway, I have the most easiest most stylish accompaniment to any Chinese dish (yes, it deserves multiple superlatives it’s that easy). It takes literally three minutes from start to finish, and I’ve been cooking this for years. Pea shoots can often be found on Chinese restaurant menus but I always try to resist ordering them as the cost is usually more that I can morally part with for a plate of leaves.

Flash-cooked garlicky pea shoots (or dou miu)
Serves 2

I prefer using soy sauce usually, but if the main dish it accompanies has lots of it in, then I may use Shaoxing rice wine with salt instead. I like these with chicken with chinese mushrooms.
You can use any leaf like baby spinach if you can't find pea shoots.
Make these at the very last minute, just as you are about to serve. It’s eye-blinkingly quick.

2 bags of washed pea shoots OR 100g pea shoots washed
1 BIG garlic clove finely chopped
EITHER 1 tablespoon light soy sauce OR 1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice with a little salt
A little sunflower/vegetable oil for frying

Heat wok/frying pan until very hot. Add oil, and wait until very hot.
Add garlic and soften for half a minute
Up-end the two bags of pea shoots into the wok. Stir fry for 20 seconds.
Add the soy sauce/Shaoxing wine and salt and stir fry for half a minute until the leaves are slightly wilted. You don’t want these mushy.
Done. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

The Ivy Part II: the Art of Dining

"To dine is to linger." - C. LeSage, 2006

A veteran of the advertising industry imparted this wisdom to a group of upstarts before a celebratory Claridges dinner. He was old New York money (like a descendant from the Age of Innocence), vulgar and elegant at the same time, often referring to David – David Ogilvy, the original advertising Mad Man. And with that, the upstarts did not just eat, they dined. Lingering over the foie gras, bavarois and petit fours, retiring to the Macanudo Fumoir for a puff of a Monte Cristo in the days where you weren’t spanked for smoking indoors.

The meal was over too soon, we rightly lost our upstart sensibility through the years, but those words stayed with us.

As soon as we walk into The Ivy, we know we will be dining because everything about that restaurant wants you to linger. The service, the theatre, the carpet for towering heels. The food is almost secondary to the feel of the place.

We linger over our aperitifs at the crescent wood-panelled bar, before we are shown to our intimate table. (Apologies for the badly lit photos. As cameras and mobiles are banned, sleuthlike, I capture what I can.)

The starters come. A grilled squid, chorizo and parsley salad - juicy and clean - layered with mellow, caramelised strands of fennel. A palate-cleanser for me.

It’s a steak tartare for him. He chooses to have it mediumly spiced. A thick rounded diamond of capered and cornichoned vermillion meat, at once refreshing and moreish. I keep nicking bits of tartare. It’s my favourite dish of the night.

Soak in the chatter, the smiles, the intimacy of the place. At J. Sheekey you feel part of the party. At The Ivy, you are part of the club. Linger linger.

Out comes a Middle White pork belly with buttery zeppelins of Goldrush apples and cider sauce. The milk-white belly is delicately delicious on a bed of pommes purée with just the merest layer of golden crackling on top. The cider sauce is too much like toffee apples, sickly-buttery and sweet.

He is tucking into shepherd’s pie. Do not be fooled - it looks small, but it’s actually huge. Bloody good shepherd’s pie and minced meat a-go-go after the tartare.

To accompany is, what we can only call battered courgettes (or parmesan-fried according to the menu) which is to be avoided at all costs, and cauliflower cheese, which is divine.

Then, to round things off spectacularly, the extravagant Baked Alaska. For your £15.50, you get a huge dessert for two and a performance as kirsch is wildly set alight, poured all over the baroquely sculpted soft meringue which hugs ice cream and sponge, before Griotte cherries are spooned over.

I’m mildly embarrassed. It must be the British in me.

It is delicious. I’d like the meringue to be a little more caramelised, but I forgive them because the serving of the Baked Alaska was done with such good humour.

After the dessert and the coffees we linger some more. Mostly because we’re so full that we can’t do anything but linger.

We have dined well tonight.

The Ivy, 1-5 West Street, WC2H 9NQ
020 7836 4751

The Ivy on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

The Ivy Part I: The Bittersweet Beginning

First time at The Ivy. Need a drink.

Sometimes I wonder how I haven’t been here before. And then I think there are so many places to go in London - The Ivy was never top of my list.

Today, though, it’s a fine occasion and a good excuse to check it out.

Ordering an unhurried aperitif at the bar. Mojito for him (Too too sweet). Negroni for me.

I started drinking Negronis when working with Italian clients - a perfect antidote to countless meetings in Milan. The great thing about Milan? Aperitivo. This is pre-dinner drinks during 'happy hour' served with free nibbles. Being Italian, nibbles are prosciutto and melon, sea-salted focaccia, hot pasta with black olives. It's a sneaky way to prevent binge-drinking. I wasn't complaining.

My first Negroni was horribly bitter on taste but it mellowed. By the third sip it was so right - bringing back memories of my first ever coffee. Now, I think the blood-orange stained drink is sundown in a glass, to be sipped and to be savoured.

It’s made with bitters, gin and red vermouth, but the trick to a good Negroni, I’ve learnt, is the vermouth. The Ivy use coffee-coloured Punt e Mes, a red vermouth from the makers of Fernet Branca (the main ingredient of Fergus Henderson's cocktail Dr Henderson).

“Dubonnet is too light,” the suave barman duly tells me, “Martini Rosso is factory-made and tastes it. Punt e Mes is the secret to a good Negroni.”

And here is the recipe of the drink that exudes the heat and urbanity of Milan. Campari-haters, turn away now.

The Ivy's Negroni

1 part Campari
1 part Bombay Sapphire
1 part Punt e Mes

Fill a large mixer glass full of ice.
Combine the Campari, Bombay Sapphire and Punt e Mes in the glass and stir well.
Strain into a short drinking glass filled with ice.
I like to top it with an orange wedge, which is a treat at the end as it bursts with alcohol on biting.

Monday, 12 April 2010

The delights of lime and lovage

The first time I met lovage I was unprepared.

I’d just arrived at my hosts – a lovely house in Warwickshire.
The door opened in welcome.


It was like the smell of ten French cheeses left in the sun hitting the lacto-free nose of a practicing vegan.

Astounding. What can you possibly say that’s not rude? What on earth was it?

“Why, lovage of course,” came the breezy reply.

A herb? I thought a whole cauldron of this leaf must be on the stove. How was it that something that looked like this:and tasted like celery was such an olfactory offender?

But no, it was an innocent and simple dish. Fresh from the garden, the lovage was muddled with the vigour of sour-sweet limes and mellowed with cream - forming the base of a sauce for beautifully cooked chicken.

Chicken with lime and lovage.

Told that this dish was made from a competition-winner’s recipe torn from the Observer years ago, it seemed to me that it was like a sweet Madeleine dipped in tea for the hosts - a nostalgic reminder of childhood dinners.

Surprisingly, I think I even had seconds.

This dish has now been savoured many times, served with a pile of fluffy long-grain rice and lashings of sauce. I can tell you that this springtime chicken - when the lovage is prime - is not something you can have mixed feelings about.

I love it. Ardently.

Which is why I’ve decided to post this recipe – with thanks to Professor J. Shattock, whose lovage was lovingly plucked for this brave dish.

My photo honestly doesn't do it justice.

Chicken with lime and lovage
Serves 4

I’ve tinkered with the original recipe which called for chicken breasts but in the light of my previous post I propose using six chicken pieces. The only thing affected here will be the time taken to brown the chicken.

1 chicken cut into 6 pieces (thighs, breasts, drumsticks)
Flour to coat the chicken pieces
2 limes, zested and juiced
¾ pint chicken stock
¼ pint single cream
Handful of button mushrooms, sliced
1 onion, diced
Big bunch of lovage (or celery leaves if not available)
Parsley to serve
Salt and pepper

Coat the chicken pieces in flour.
Heat a frying pan on medium-high heat and brown the chicken pieces. Do not overcrowd the pan with chicken else the chicken won’t brown.
Place the chicken in a large casserole dish pour the lime juice and zest over the juicy chicken pieces and watch telly whilst marinating for half an hour and preheat the oven – Gas 6, 200°C.
Roast for 30 minutes.
While roasting fry the onions in the same frying pan on a medium-low heat and when softened add the mushrooms. Chop the lovage.
When the mushrooms are cooked, add the chicken stock. Bring to the boil, add the lovage and simmer for five minutes.
Add the cream, simmer for a further two minutes.
Before serving, add chopped parsley and pour over the chicken.

Serve with steaming white rice and lash on the sauce.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

A treat from Barry

Ah, for those who read about Barry's love for coffee, he's sent us a hello from Harlem. Enjoy the smoulder!