Tuesday, 30 June 2009

3rd July Menu

Menu for 3rd of July:

Kir Royale


Courgette flowers stuffed with cheese

Spaghetti Vongole al cartoccio, one of my favourite dishes from the last few months(veggie option too)
Home-made Garlic focaccia

Passionfruit Pavlova with salted caramel (thanks Arno of Saltoun Supperclub)


Everything subject to change however...

Dear Prudence, a tour of Sipsmith's distillery

The inside of the still can contain 300 litres or 500 bottles

The Botanicals

Sniffing powdered liquorice- the sweetest natural substance on earth

Sam, looking like a model from GQ magazine, sipping on a G & T on this hot summer's night.

Mais la curiosité de la maison était, au fond, de l'autre côté d'une barrière de chêne, dans une cour vitrée, l'appareil à distiller que les consommateurs voyaient fonctionner, des alambics aux longs cols, des serpentins descendant sous terre, une cuisine du diable devant laquelle venaient rêver les ouvriers soûlards.

Emile Zola 'L'Assommoir' 1877

Emile Zola knew the attractions of a copper alambic, an intestinal boiler for distilling alcohol. Copper, of course, has alchemical properties. Venus, the planet of romantic love, sugar, perfume and dimples, rules copper (1). The alambic at Sipsmith brewery is named Prudence; after Sam Sipsmith's mother, a judicious warning about the enticingly corruptive influence of alcohol or the Beatles song?
Sipsmith applied for the first distiller's license in London for 190 years.(2) They make London Dry Gin and Vodka.
London Dry Gin is an appellation, with a minimum of 55% Juniper, distinct from the Dutch Ginever (sweetened with copious amounts of liquorice to cover the roughness of the alcohol) and plain Gin.
London Dry Gin uses a mix of botanicals; Coriander seeds (we were encouraged to crush them in our palms, smell the tropical pineappley aroma, I must have been over-enthusiastic as I found several seeds later that night in my bra), Angelica, Juniper, Liquorice, Seville Orange peel, Lemon peel, crushed Almonds, Cinnamon, Cassia bark and Oris root from Irises.
The Sipsmith team, Fairfax, Jared (apparently the author not only of several books on alcohol but also on astrology) and Sam, researched artisanal spirits in the United States. The emphasis there is on the hand-made, almost intuitive process of distilling. Sam explained
"It's not a science, we are loading the still by hand".
He talked of adding the botanicals one by one, using their noses to sniff the 'spirit safe' and as one smell fades, adding another spice.
Sam was reluctant to say how much Prudence, custom built by a German family firm and taking nine months, cost: "between 100k and 250k".
The Gin is made from the second cut of the Vodka, a 40% 'cut', an aggressive 'heart' cut which "keeps the butteryness" according to Sam.
I tasted the vodka. To be fair, I rarely drink straight spirits but the aroma hurtling up from my glass was enough to stun me; more reminiscent of glue-sniffing or a wound-swabbing surgeon than Seabreeze girly cocktail.
Sam, passionate:"It's got sparkle, pepper, prickliness".
You bet. I think I'm too much of a wuss for one shot distillation.
The Gin was easier on the palate, lemony and fragrant, particularly good with Fevertree Tonic that unlike Schweppes, still contains Quinine which would make it popular with old Africa hands, embibing it as an anti-malarial.

(1) From Wikipedia: Copper was associated with the goddess Aphrodite/Venus in mythology and alchemy, owing to its lustrous beauty, its ancient use in producing mirrors, and its association with Cyprus, which was sacred to the goddess. In astrology, alchemy the seven heavenly bodies known to the ancients were associated with seven metals also known in antiquity, and Venus was assigned to copper.

(2) The last distillers licence to be awarded in London was to Beafeater Gin in 1820.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Summer and Gin tasting event

I'm taking a little break this summer to write the book, visit other restaurants. I may even do a pop up restaurant in St. Tropez! So my last dinner until September 11th is this Friday 3rd of July, barring special events. Unless I miss it all too much!
I will be back in September with The Underground Restaurant hopefully with batteries recharged and plenty of ideas. Following on from the collaborations I have been doing, I am also interested in giving other chefs an opportunity to cook, either a course or a dinner or host events at The Underground Restaurant so please contact me at theundergroundrestaurant@googlemail.com
On the 26th of August I'm hosting a gin tasting event with the girls from @tastingsessions. They do alcoholic tastings with a difference, each time in a different venue. This will be the first tasting event in a home restaurant.
We will be exploring gin through the ages...from Hogarth's 'Gin Lane' via Her Majesty the Queen Mother ( whose favourite tipple was gin and Dubonnet with lots of ice) and perhaps to Sipsmith, the first copper distillery to launch in London for 190 years.
There will be dressing up boxes in each room, canapés, talks from experts, and plenty of gin. Feel free to come dressed up as Nell Gwynne!
Details of where to book will be published soon...

Sunday, 28 June 2009

Japanese and Jackson night at The Underground Restaurant

Shiso leaf sushi. This is a Japanese herb. It tastes a bit like stinging nettles.

French beans dressed in sesame paste, lemon and mirin sauce

The production line to prepare the katsu kebabs

Prepping the katsu kebabs

Katsu fried in breadcrumbs.

Katsu sandwich with Japanese brown sauce and mayonnaise. Basically Japanese motorway cafe food. In Japan it's considered hangover food.

Making green tea 'matcha' ice cream.

Green Tea ice cream with wasabi meringue and cherry

This is burdock root. I scraped off shavings and deep fried it with fresh sliced lotus root. It has a woody sweet taste. The fresh lotus root is similar to parsnip.

Taka from Tsuru restaurant

Various maki rolls, made by Emma of Tsuru, plus daikon pickles, umeboshi plums, pickled shitake mushrooms.

Emma Reynolds of Tsuru, wearing a skirt. If you know her, you know this is unusual.

Tempura: avocado, sweet potato, red peppers, chili peppers, asparagus.

'Inari' sweetened tofu pockets stuffed with flavoured sushi rice, umeboshi and seeds, and chilli and orange pepper rice on camelia leaves.

Hiro from Akashi Tai sake came to serve and talk about sake and Japanese plum wine 'Umeshu'. As if he was going to get away with that! He was quickly, especially as he was wearing a dark suit and white shirt, press-ganged into service as a waiter.
It was a hot night and the sake was served chilled.
Emma Reynolds of Tsuru Restaurant (do check it out!) and I spent all day prepping a Japanese menu for The Underground Restaurant. I visited a local Japanese shop 'Natural Natural' on Friday, gaining inspiration from the range of products. At this shop the staff speak good English and are happy to explain how to cook things.

The young man at 'Natural Natural' has an ingredients book under the till. He will look anything up and tell you how to cook it.

I would like to learn more about Japanese food and it was great having Emma, Taka and Hiro on hand. I tried to introduce some new ingredients to the standard fare you get at sushi restaurants. Some of the ideas I found in an old Japanese cookery book. I used shiso leaves to wrap rice. I also picked camelia leaves from my garden, an unusual method of presentation.
I bought products such as Burdock root, fresh lotus root, pickled daikon and umeboshi plums which I adore. I like anything umami, the fifth flavour after salty, sweet, bitter and sour. One night I am going to do an entirely umami menu!
As guests arrived, we had Michael Jackson playing.
This is the final menu:

Chilled Sake from Akashi-Tai

Edamame with Maldon salt and pink peppercorns

Ippin Ryouri (Japanese tapas)

Tempura Set including Asparagus, Avocado, sweet potato, peppers, chili peppers

Aubergine, red onion and mushroom skewered kushi katsu in soft white bread seasoned with Japanese mayonnaise and Japanese brown sauce 'tonkatsu'

Cucumber and Wakame Salad

French Beans with white Japanese Sesame paste (the difference between this and tahini is that it's made with roasted sesame seeds) lemon, mirin and ginger dressing

Salmon Sashimi on a bed of Mizuna lettuce with Ponzu Sauce (I told one girl off for not eating her lettuce."That cost me a fortune" I remonstrated. She ate it quickly.)

Shiso leaf onigiri

Maki Sushi

Salmon & Avocado/Carrot & avocado/Japanese pickle selection including daikon, sweetened shitake mushrooms, pickled carrots, umeboshi plums

Crispy salmon skin maki with shichimi chili pepper

Inari Sushi (Sweetened tofu parcels with onigiri rice)

Miso soup with Enoki mushrooms

Deep fried burdock 'Gobo' and lotus root


Green Tea Ice Cream/wasabi meringue/cherry

Green Tea

Chilled Plum wine (this was a massive hit!)

I think that's the most 'courses' I've ever served. A record!
It was interesting getting the perspective of Emma, a professional restauranteur...
"Cooking for this many people on your own with the help of a 15 year old girl is the ballsiest thing I have ever heard".
She continued:
"It's really tiring. It reminds me of catering for a wedding. It's a special kind of tiring. And you are doing it with just a domestic kitchen. One under the counter fridge. That's hard."
I need some more professional kit: a proper full-sized fridge (an Aga one would be nice, you know, matching etc), a decent large rice cooker, a good ice cream maker. Any firm willing to offer these will earn my undying love and a million arse-licking blog posts. Yes, I am absolutely willing to whore myself out for a bit of kitchenalia.
Afterwards I went out with Tim Hayward, the Guardian journalist who has just won Digital Food Writer of the Year award. Cruising Kilburn, I found most of my restaurant 'staff ' and guests (including one lovely guy, a returning guest, who asked me to start 'Loyalty cards' lol) at the North London Tavern.
Tim and I discussed masthead photos for journalists, most of which are at least 20 years younger than the offending hack. Women have their pictures taken from above...reduced weight, double chin etc. The men, however, have a double whammy: shoot from below, you get the jowls; shoot from above, you get the bald patch!
As it closed, we moved across the road to Powers bar which usually has an interesting mix of clientele; drunken pirates huddling in dark corners, Britpop mod-rockers and old Kilburn Irish. It was closing so we ventured next door to Brondesage, the hangout for the Eastern European set; Albanian builders swigging back shots of Jagermeister. The pavement was wobbling, the bouncers had boobs bigger than mine and a smoochy-eyed long-haired male model kept feeling up my pearl necklace slurring seductively "in my country we call these perlahs".
Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' came on the turntable and the whole joint commenced writhing joyfully. As the track finished there was a spontaneous and mass chant "Michael!Michael! Michael!".
The end of a fantastic evening and sadly, the end of an era...

Left to right: Taka, Emma and Hiro, the team out on the piss in Kilburn after a hard night's work. After we took this photo, Taka announced dryly to Emma...
"Japanese tradition. Person in middle of photo, will die first".

Friday, 26 June 2009

Legal pop up restaurant at Gray's Inn

Serving a menu or a writ?

The gardens with the marquee of the restaurant on the left.

Al fresco tables.

Absolutely delicious toasted goats cheese with a wasabi salsa.

Grilled sardine. I seem to have forgotten to take pix of the mains. Probably a bit drunk.

Strawberries with a quenelle of fresh cream. The perfect summer's day dessert.

Raspberry brulée

The delicious handmade chocolate truffles plus nougat.

Long tables like this are the source of phrases like 'treading the boards'. In the old days, tables or boards like this were put together to make a stage.

The lady patron of the Inn-Elizabeth I

The stained glass windows, which were removed during World War II, fortunately, as the whole building was bombed.

The griffin, adding to the Harry Potter air of the dining rooms, the house of Gryffindor.

Part of the hall, these wooden pillars were filched from the Spanish Armada during Elizabethan Times.

The hall. Benchers are allowed to come through that door at the back. Nobody else.

A modern painting, every one of these men a Lord.

The red rose and crest of Lancaster adorning the ceiling.

Prince Charles is an honorary 'bencher'.

A lady treasurer. This position changes annually. This painting reflects the era, the 1980s.

The Queen's chair, reupholstered upon her coronation. The last chair, upholstered for her uncle, was never used by him as he reigned for such a short time.

There is a difference between pop up restaurants and home restaurants. (Press/TV take note). Pop up restaurants, meaning simply that the site is impermanent, have been sprouting up for years and are not necessarily illegal.
The Honorable Society of Gray's Inn Banqueting is more legal than most, the majority of guests being barristers. For six weeks every summer, for the last decade, this restaurant renamed The Griffin, relocates outside when it opens to the public. The gardens, originally designed by Sir Francis Bacon, are a hidden and pollution-free haven behind the office blocks of Holborn. Local workers in the know, wend their way through the secret passageway (very Diagon Alley and the Harry Potter links don't stop there), past the squares of law offices into the refreshing green lawns of Grays Inn.
The menus for this restaurant resemble legal documents, all Wimbledon green embossed covers and gold tassels. The prices are reasonable, especially considering the setting; £18.95 for two courses, £22.95 for three. And the food, as can be seen by the pictures, is extremely good.
Waiters are attentive, they have to be, normally they are performing silver service for 'barrister's dinners', to Queens counsel, often peers of the realm. To become a barrister in the UK, after passing your exams, you have to attend, wearing a gown, 12 formal dinners (link to an account of this).
In the old days, all the surrounding buildings were lived in by students of the bar and every meal was eaten in the hall. Students were not allowed to eat in their rooms and female guests were banned, unless they were over 40 (good rule that!).
Nowadays Judges use some of the accommodation as pieds à terre in town. The Grays Inn restaurant does every so often get a judge in his dotage, having had a little too much to drink, having difficulty in making his way home, despite it's nearness, because the housing looks alike.

The Griffin open from the 27th of June to the 23rd of July.

The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn
8 South Square

Telephone: 020 7458 7960 / 7968

Email: banqueting.functions@graysinn.org.uk

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Wakana from Akashi-Tai sake

Wakana of Akashi-Tai, a small family run sake brewing firm.

Wedding sake

This Saturday The Underground Restaurant is presenting a Japanese menu in conjunction with Tsuru, a Japanese restaurant near the Tate Modern.
Emma, one of the owners of Tsuru and I are still working on the menu but it's looking like this:


Sake from Akashi-Tai

Edaname (with and without shichimi pepper)

Ippin Ryouri (Japanese tapas)

Tempura Set

(Asparagus, Avocado, carrot, sweet potato, peppers, Mars bars) (jokes)

Aubergine, red onion and mushroom skewered katsu

Cucumber and Wakame Salad

French Beans with Sesame Dressing

Salmon Sashimi with Ponzu Sauce

Maki Sushi

Salmon and Cucumber/Japanese Pickles (v)

Inari Sushi

Sweetened tofu parcels with rice


Green Tea Ice Cream


(Japanese pancakes with custard or adzuki bean filling)

All of this is subject to dishes getting a bit fucked up, mistakes, errors, seasonality, pure whims and changes of mind/wind of course.

Wakana, the 'face' of Akashi-Tai sake, popped over this morning. She brought some beautifully straw packaged Akashi-Tai Honjozo bottles of sake.

"These are usually used for weddings" she explained "They are served chilled."

There will be one for each table. Smaller tables will have to share with bigger tables. There is also 'Umeshu' a sweet plum infused wine that tastes a bit like prunes in Armagnac (but less sickly). Proper sake, made in Japan, uses the best water and rice. It has no artificial elements, hence no hang-over. Cheap sakes made in California or China compromise on rice quality and water. One of Akashi-Tai's sakes is made with rice that is polished down to 40% of the original grain. This means that only the starch is used, making it sweeter.

I discussed with Wakana food blogger Bellaphon's assertion that Japanese rice does not taste as good in the UK because of our hard water. She agreed saying that some rice in Japan is so good you can just eat a bowl of it plain, with nothing on it. Water in Japan is soft but for Sake purposes, hard water must be used, which is only found in a couple of areas of Japan.

Wakana comes from the Okinawa islands. Her family own an old shrine and every month shamens come to pray. Their religion, Ryukyuan, is pre-Buddhist, the equivalent of our pagan religion. I am going to set up a little altar, comprised of a dish of rice, a bowl of sake and some herbs, placed in the Western corner, to placate the kitchen or hearth gods, Hinukan.

Together we looked at an old imported Japanese cookery book that I have, that I bought for a huge amount of money at the 1991 Japanese festival at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Some of the recipes are clearly meant to appeal to Westerners, for instance the 'spam' sushi. I first got interested in Japanese food when I saw the 1985 film 'Tampopo'. I have never been to Japan however. It's on my to do list.

Rachel Khoo's Mashup dinner at The Loft

Frog spawn

Each table was given a felt tip to write notes on their menus.

Rachel Khoo calls herself a 'food creative' not a cook. A graduate from St. Martins, she has been living in Paris for the last four years. As I know from personal experience, it's not easy to ingrain yourself in the scene there, to find work. It's a culture that functions on 'pistonnage', who you know, not what you know. Rachel, however, has done very well, styling food for magazines and creating patisserie for chic cookbook hangout 'La Cocotte' (in the 11eme arr.).
She is in London this week to present another of her 'Mashup' dinners at The Loft supperclub. 'Mashup' started as a tecchie computer term, describing the move from an older traditional technology to a more loosely defined, newer Web 2.0 format. It has come to mean anything, music, writing or visuals, that takes influences from several, sometimes disparate, sources recombining them into one. In food terms this can be a menu that 'quotes' from different cultures and cuisines, to form a dish. It doesn't mean you will get mashed potatoes. Although you can't rule it out.
The theme tonight was 'Garden'. Rachel enlisted the help of French illustrator Thomas Baas to create table settings in apple green.
Our first course was duly appropriate in look and ingredients: a terracotta flower pot with potato pebbles and fresh flowering vegetables, carrots, radishes, an artichoke sprouting out of the top accompanied by a delicate lemon aioli. Guests started to pluck the crudités out of their pots.
Rachel smuggled the produce over from Paris, heaving a bulging suitcase on the Eurostar.
I was sitting next to Nuno Mendez, The Loft's chef/patron who lent out his space to Miss Khoo for the night. Talking about the time that I smuggled two baby chickens to the UK from France (I was stopped by customs who searched my van for illegal immigrants but missed the chickens. I drowned out their squawks by playing very loud techno), Nuno mentioned that many London restaurants drive weekly to Rungis, the Paris wholesale food market to buy their produce. I can't blame them. You don't get potatoes, tiny, waxy, naturally buttery, like that over here.
This 'crudité' course is accompanied by the best bread I've had in a while, direct from the Paris bakery 'Du Pain et des idées', chewy and smoky.
The second course boasted an interesting and successful flavour combination: watermelon gazpacho with disturbingly realistic bugs made from iced black olives. There are gasps of shock and slight nervousness from the guests down the table.
Rachel is performing two jobs...hostess and chef, therefore, like me, she too cooks in full makeup and heels, then trots out of the kitchen to explain each dish.
We moved onto the main course, sustainable Halibut on a bed of rice and garden vegetables baked in a banana leaf. Again this dish was beautifully presented, very summery, very jardinier.
We had two desserts: the first was thinly sliced strawberries in a balsamic reduction, encased in a gelée, which was my favourite dish of the night. The second dessert answered a question for me; I'd recently bought a packet of multi-coloured balls in an Asian supermarket. They've been in my cupboard but I didn't know what to do with them.
To my delight Rachel was using the very same packet, boiling these tapioca balls. These balls are used in 'bubble tea' and sucked up with a huge straw. Rachel served them in a pool of Darjeeling tea, topped by a creamy pandan leaf flavoured frog. This was paired with a dessert wine, Muscat de Rivesaltes 'Vagier' 2007.
All the wines were wonderful and well matched.
Rachel has a sensitivity to salt which was reflected in the seasoning of the savoury dishes.
On the way home we chatted about Paris, the food scene there. The underground restaurant movement seems to be confined to American chefs. We wondered why that could be...
"The French don't like to mix in the way we do, to share tables with strangers" Rachel said.
It's not a 'mates' culture in France as it is in Britain. People hang out with their families, for it is, after all, fundamentally a Catholic nation. When I lived in Paris, it was rare to see my friends at weekends as they all returned to their family house on the outskirts or in the country. (1)

Nuno's restaurant Viajante (Portuguese for 'traveller' representing Nuno's nomadic inspiration for his food) will be opening at the Bethnal Green Town Hall next year. He plans to keep The Loft going as a space "a cooking gallery" for creative chefs to showcase their work, like an artist in residence.
"I'm moving out, so the chef can live here for a month and set up dinners. I want to promote new talent" continues Nuno "I know how hard it can be not to be able to do your own food if you don't have a restaurant. This will be an opportunity for chefs to show what they can do".
I asked Nuno if he would feel happy to open a 'normal' restaurant again.
"Here, I'm my own boss. I've enjoyed the freedom. No rules. It's my playground, as long as the neighbours don't bitch too much. At Viajante I have partners so I will have to compromise. It's not just me."
Is there anything he would take with him from this experience?
"I will have a long mixed table again, near the kitchen. This has worked very well."
Nuno feels that his food is moving away from molecular cuisine.
"I like clean food, that makes you feel healthy. It is influenced by my travels in Asia, living in New York and my Portuguese background."
He loves Hackney and the East End of London however.
"I was given opportunities to open up in Trafalgar Square. But I want to stay local. I like the way this part of London is anarchic, edgy. The other day I saw a crazily decorated car, like a work of art. You don't get that in the centre of town"

(1) I also recall going to pre-natal classes when I was pregnant in Paris. These classes are an opportunity in Britain to make friends with other pregnant mothers. In Paris, the other mothers made it clear they were not there to bond or socialise, just wanted to learn how to do the proper breathing. I gave up after two classes. The French call themselves 'individuel'. This is often mistranslated to mean 'individual' as it does in English, but in reality points to the fact that the French do not like clubs, associations, community in the same way as say, Anglo-Saxons. That's why they don't queue either.