Saturday, 29 August 2009

Midnight Steakout

Drinks cabinet stored on the piano

A few wasabi peas to start

The steak. Les assures me it was good quality.

In the kitchen

Tuna steak and gratin dauphinoise

A rainy night in London's East End, above a betting shop, you find the supperclub of statuesque Florida native, artist and DJ Amanda. Charmingly she gives no specific instructions on how to enter other than the address. Fat Les and I giggled as we walked around trying to find the entrance:
"Do you think we go through the betting shop to a back room?" I wondered, visions of passing through thugs in shirtsleeves, wearing visors and waistcoats, high rollers over a green baize card table.
Finally, round the back, we climb dark stairs to a candle-lit rooftop, laid out with red and white checked oilcloths on tables and overhead a vine covered pergola. It feels like a Greek taverna, stranded in wet cobbled London.
Midnight Steakout is a barbecue, but this is Britain and you can't rely on the weather. Amanda worries...
"Shall we bring all the tables inside?"
She looks glamorous in towering heels, a vintage pinny, bare legs and a kimono top.
"No, it's going to clear up"
she announces brightly with can-do American positivity.
Venturing outside after a couple of gin and tonics, a blanket was laid over my shoulders as I sat down, by 'Tracks', tonight's front of house volunteer. Some people get wet bums on the rain-soaked chairs but soon warm up as good red wine is handed out. We are given warm buttery fresh peas in their pods and bowls of radishes to snack upon.
Apart from Fat Les, I am sitting with a beautiful Bengali girl, a PR for Sainsburys who seems to know an awful lot about S & M clubs and a guy who plans to open a Cal-Mex burrito joint in Dalston.
The Bengali girl and I compare conventional restaurants to underground restaurants:
"When I go to a normal restaurant I'm always in the position of wondering if I can afford the whole experience...dessert, coffee, aperitif, wine. Here I know I can" she says.
Tracks takes our money and asks how we'd like our steak. Amanda fires up the barbecue, a roll up hanging from her lip, displaying an insouciant glamour at the grill. But relaxed vibe aside, she knows her stuff: my tuna steak and Les' beef steak are beautifully seasoned and cooked. It is accompanied by creamy gratin dauphinoise, French beans and three different sauces: horseradish, mustard and mayonnaise. 50s music, a tape made by Amanda, tinkers in the background.
For dessert we are given tiny vintage glasses which are filled with Armagnac to match with almond cake, raspberry sauce and cream.
Sometimes Amanda comes to sit with us "This started out as a dinner for friends who could then bring a friend" she explains. "I just wanted to make simple food: steak and potatoes and salad".
Simple it may be, but everything is delicious.
After dessert we make our way inside, Roy Orbison is on the turntable. Cheese, biscuits and cherry chutney are handed around.
Later one of the guests tinkers melodically at the piano; the window is open and the curtain blowing; the vibe is mellow. Amanda proffers a heart shaped box filled with mint chocolates; generous hospitality, Yankee style.
At midnight we get up to go, Amanda (who reminds me of another tall American beauty in London, Jerry Hall) is dismayed, drawling
"I can't believe you are all going so early! I'm just getting started..."

Friday, 28 August 2009

Upcoming dates at The Underground Restaurant

Forthcoming Autumn dates and themes at The Underground Restaurant

All dinners £25, £20 for unemployed, unless stated otherwise. A dinner is generally a free cocktail with nibbles, home baked bread, starter, mains, salad, dessert, coffee. And remember the shed can hired as a private room, £50 extra including bottle of champagne.

2nd Sept: Private birthday dinner, possibly with Flamenco dancing
5th Sept: Afternoon focaccia making course with nibbles and drinks £40
11th Sept: All things 9/11, including I love New York and conspiracy theorists
12th Sept: Previous night's menu, but tweaked!
25th Sept: Quiz night with Marcus Berkmann, writer and quiz master of The Prince of Wales, Highgate.
26th Sept: Quiz night with Marcus Berkmann
4th October: Meet the Domestic Sluts from Domestic Sluttery for High Tea and vintage glamour. 3pm
10th Oct: Gay men's night, singles encouraged
11th Oct: Gay women's night, contact Citipink
31st Oct: Harry Potter night, magical food including butterbeer. Sorting hat, which house are you in?
13th Nov: Good food.
14th Nov: Same but with 'The Conversational'. Also 'Expert in a shed'.
28th Nov: Umami night with food anthropologist @scandilicious. Every course umami...
5th Dec: Baked Vacherin night or Cheese fondu. 'Tis the season...
12th Dec: Getting into the spirit of Christmas...
25th Dec: Christmas day at The Underground Restaurant, open fire, crackers, mistletoe, games, champagne, smoked salmon, roasted vegetables in the Aga, all kinds of goodies £60 (Doing it so you don't have to...)
31st Dec: New Years Eve...£50

More dates may be added...

If you would like to do a house concert or would like to perform at The Underground Restaurant please get in touch...

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

The Last Supper Club in Brixton

The confessional menu

View from the back

The kitchen

Aubergine with pesto and pine nuts

Saltfish croquettes with salad and spicy tomato sauce

Tasty frangipane (particularly delicious) with home-made icecream


The gorgeous room upstairs...

Kitchen Jezebel, as she'd like to be known, has finally found a use for her basement! Turn it into a supperclub!
I met Fat Les there and we started with drinks in the garden, moving inside to the exotically decorated lower ground floor room for dinner. The other guests, two of whom, like Jezebel, were from Irish backgrounds, were all interesting and the conversation soon moved onto politics. Some of us despaired that we had no one to vote for. One guest felt so strongly about voting that he felt people should be jailed if they didn't. Conversation was stimulating and lively.
The dinner was wittily themed around The Last Supper:

An eating ceremony:

Confessional Menu
Bad Thoughts
Glass of Pomegranate fizz
Venal sin
Aubergine and goats cheese wraps with pine nuts, thyme and caper sauce.
Mortal sin
Salt cod croquettes and sweet tomato sauce.
Almond tart with blackberry ice cream.
Tea, coffee and pistachio biscotti.

Having just come from a day trip to Lille in which I spend all day eating, I didn't feel that I could do her food justice in the way that it deserved on this occasion. Especially as, upon entering, the first thing she said to me was "I've spent days cooking. It's such hard work!"
Jezebel by day is an eco consultant, she has campaigned for safe cosmetics, primary prevention of breast cancer and a 'nesting' project which encourages nesting mothers to be to cautious about toys and the use of chemicals when decorating and furnishing the room where their baby will sleep.
She doesn't use synthetic fragrance, believing that in the future, wearing strong synthetic perfumes in a restaurant will be as unseemly as smoking over your food. She cites the example of the perfume 'Poison' being banned in certain restaurants.
Jezebel says
"Strangely,when we are clean we spray, lather, rub and douse ourselves with a cocktail of toxic substances and then, depending on your perception, we might 'stink'. People would be shocked if they knew what's in the products they use. The closest thing some products have ever come to 'natural' is the picture of the flowers on the bottle! The whole issue of our perceptions of what is 'clean' is something that's studied closely by the cosmetics industry."
The writer William Boyd agrees, writing recently in The Observer that 'it can't be long before perfume is banned like smoking'.
Jezebel is allergic to dairy, wheat, vinegar and sugar but does eat meat. She minimises the use of salt, preferring to let the inherent taste of fresh food shine through.
However she will cook dairy and wheat dishes for the supperclub but will do a special evening for the increasing numbers of people who share her allergies. She also plans to do an Irish night with stew and soda bread.
Contact Kitchen Jezebel to book places and find out more here. Tickets £25

Monday, 24 August 2009

Day trip to Lille

.. Souviens-toi
Ça parlait
De la Picardie

Invited by Eurostar, food bloggers were invited to take a 'little break' to encourage us to visit nearby European cities such as Paris, Brussels and Lille for the reasonable price of £59 return. Lille is probably the least known of this trio.
Lille is situated in the North-West corner of France. The coal and mining industry there, like in the North of England, was decimated in the 70s. Statistics show that the Northern French are poorer and drink more. On the route from Paris, the architecture gradually changes as you near Calais. Buildings are made with red bricks and you see terraced houses with gardens, unknown in the rest of France. The people are known as 'ch'timis'; they add a 'sh' sound to anything beginning with 'c' (eg 'ch'est =c'est). The Picardie or ch'timi dialect springs from early French with Flemish influences. One of the biggest comedy hits last year in France was the film 'Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis' poking gentle fun at this unloved area.
As the best of British manhood, soldiers, come home from Aghanistan, in ever increasing numbers, rotting in their bodybags, sent by politicians so that their own sons can continue to live consumerist lives, I remember also that Picardie was the scene of some of the worst carnage of World War I.
Yves Montand, the French Frank Sinatra, famously sung 'Dansons la rose (Les roses de Picardie)' although the song was originally written by a British officer in 1916, inspired by his love for a French widow while staying under her protection in that area.
Our trip lasted 12 hours, taking the 7am train and returning at 7pm. The point of this promotion is to show that even in such a short period of time, you can take a break, have a change of air, and return refreshed.
You can spot a food blogger a mile off: they aren't slim (bar the Asian food bloggers such as the thorough and hard-working WorldfoodieGuide, who have a horridly unfair genetic advantage). We were a sight with our muffin tops, beer bellies, double chins, pudgy hands, chafed thighs and flat feet. We didn't so much tour Lille as waddle around it. Give us another year and Eurostar will have to provide wheelchairs for a similar trip.
This was our schedule:
6.59 Eurostar leaves St Pancras. We met romantically under the enormous bronze statue of a couple saying farewell to each other. I tried to encourage food blogger duo 'Dinner Diary' to replicate this pose. I noted that Krista of londelicious was wearing sexy but impractical patent leather wedges.
On train: we weren't in First class but some sort of Club class. Nice. Big bucket seats, copies of Paris Vogue, and breakfast: tiny sliver of smoked salmon, two tiny blinis, bit of creme fraiche, coffee or tea, yoghurt, orange juice, rolls etc. Helpful staff. I didn't eat much, had a feeling I might have to pace myself.
On the way I talk to two bloggers/mothers: Margot of coffeeandvanilla, who is Polish, married to a Dominican, hence the 'ebony and ivory' style title of her blog. She creates Eastern European/Caribbean fusion food. Also Michelle of greedygourmet who plans to set up a site for food bloggers to sell their food, a gastronomic 'Etsy'. Great idea! Sign me up!
9.27: Arrival in Lille: the young French PR girls lead us around Lille. It's sunny and the shops aren't open yet. We are shown a belfry, very typical here, and a building with cannon balls wedged into the walls, result of a siege. We are shown Benoit Chocolatier. I thought we would taste some chocolate but the girl behind the counter backs away looking nervous when faced by 15 food bloggers photographing manically.
We discover a cake shop that sells multi-coloured macarons. We get a bit in trouble with shop owner because we help ourselves. I buy two cakes because I never liked macarons. Kang gives me a macaron to try. Amazing. I now love them.

11.00: Coffee and Patisseries at Meert: set in a beautiful 18th century tearoom with high ceilings and an enormous chandelier. Some of us order the speciality 'gauffres' or waffles. But these are not the large waffles you might imagine, they are tiny, slim wafers filled with Madagascan flavoured butter cream. Nice. Up the other end, they'd ordered 'Merveilleux' cakes which were like giant Ferrero Rocher. They were about 1o cms high and 6cms in circumference. Eventually they were passed down for the rest to taste, the summit of gluttony only partially reached.

13.00: Cooking course at L'Atelier des Chefs. We were divided into groups and asked to cook Northern French specialities: Pavé de cabillaud au miel de fleur de bière, palette colorée de légumes de saison: cod sautéed with honey and beer eau de vie/a fricasée of finely cut seasonal typically Northern vegetables and Ch'tiramisu, a ch'timi version of the classic dessert.
I learnt things:
  • start with a cold pan and the skin of your fish doesn't burn
  • you can cook radishes (treat them like little turnips)
  • Not all food bloggers can cook. Some of them are more gifted at going to restaurants and eating other people's food.
I signed my fish plate with my own signature in balsamic glaze. We all sat down and ate together, family style. This was my first ever cooking lesson, very enjoyable and even though this was pitched at beginners, you can always learn more.
I bought a flat pastry brush and some fizz bomb sprinkles at the shop. Eatlikeagirl's bag was getting heavier, she can shop like a champ.

16.00:Beer and Cheese Tasting at La Capsule. Entering into the damp dark cavern of this typical corner bar, which also has a specialist beer shop, even the greediest of us were flagging a little by now. The owner, Aymeric, prodded us through the beer tasting.

Beer is roughly divided into three categories:
Belgian: syrupy, sweet, round
German: lagery, light, refreshing, clear
British: bitter, warm, hard minerally water

Aymeric jokes:
"we have a phrase in French about English food ...'if it's cold it's probably soup, if it's warm, it's beer'"
The beers of Northern France are Belgian in style. For this tasting I sat next to Liz Upton and Andrew of Spittoon. A good idea because I know sod all about beers and they were slurping and sniffing knowledgeably and saying stuff like "coriander!'"and "hoppy!" I tried to join in with words like "aspirin" and "horlicks" but I don't think they were fooled.
Andrew doesn't really look like a wine blogger because he has facial hair, doesn't wear a neckerchief/cravat and isn't gay. Beer bloggers look like Bill Bailey, I imagine.
This joint reminded me of Garlic and Shots, that goth restaurant in Soho. I once had a date there. The bloke had waist length black hair, was dressed head to toe in black leather and kept biting my lips to the point of drawing blood! Nice guy but didn't want to join the undead.
The Lilleputan Aymeric giving us the tasting asked if any of us are members of CAMRA, the campaign for real ale. Liz put up her hand. He is trying to start a French version. Beers are rather swamped in France by wine. Many of the beers we tasted not only could not be bought in England, but wouldn't be available in the rest of France either. The beers were local and distributed within a 20km radius.
1) Page 24: rhubarb, coriander, made 'à la chicorée' which doesn't mean it was made with chicory. It's a 'faux ami' between French and English: chicorée is endive and endive is chicory.
2) La Bavaisienne: darker, caramel, oldest beer, made in 19th century copper tank.
3) Etoile du Nord: a bit like Jenlain, hoppy, bitter, 60 IBU. For comparison Stella is 3/4 IBU.
4) Kaouet pronounced [cowet]: made 20 kms from Lille. Blackcurrant. The owner says the name comes from a village festival which celebrates a Giant in the shape of a cat called Kaou. It all sounds a bit Wickerman.

Goths at the bar

The Batcave

Marcus of Big Brother beer mat
The beer was accompanied by some local cheeses which matched well.
1) Cremet du cap-blanc-nez..ok but bland compared to the others...
2) Maroilles ...really strong, like two day old socks, but my favourite. There is also Vieux Lille also known as Lille Stinker which we didn't get a chance to try.
3) Mimolette Francais, Extra Vieille, dark orange, a bit like Edam
4) Crayeux de Roncq, creamy pungent, strong
These cheeses are available from Phillipe Olivier's cheese shop.

17.45: Shopping and leave for Eurostar. We go to a beer shop which also sells sweets, violet liqueur and gauffres from the region.

Les gauffres/waffles

I adore French sweet packaging

Eatlikeagirl and me get a bit distracted whilst shopping. She is now carrying so many bags, one of which appears to contain a tree trunk, that she is limping. We get a bit lost. We discuss the fact that we don't actually want to go back but then we imagine the poor PR girl, Sarah Oliver, who organised this, getting in trouble for losing food bloggers. Eventually we find the station. Sarah is looking worried. Eatlikeagirl and me feel like the naughty kids at the back of the coach on a school trip.
18.35 Eurostar departs: we are given dinner with champagne. I'm dead full. But order the dinner anyway. The menu sounds fab:
Tortellini farci aux epinards et a la ricotta avec aubergines, pesto et coulis de tomates.
Which turned out to be: luke warm, been sitting there for hours, tortellini, topped with tinned black olives, under-seasoned vegetables with a rusty salad. I taste it, put down my fork and sigh out loud
"Why is the food so bad?"
Foodstories, the Julie Christie of food blogging, with her heavy blonde fringe and big blue eyes, looks round and agrees. I continue...
"I mean you can understand it on a plane but on a train. How hard can it be to do tasty food?"
Suddenly the people that work on the train come over looking concerned
"You don't like it? Normally coming from the Brussels end it's pretty good"
I feel a bit guilty. Sometimes my own food fascism irritates me.
"I know I'm not paying for this, it's a press trip, but why tinned olives?"
"We will pass your comments on..." he says nicely "have some more champagne"
I turn round and notice the other food bloggers such as Cheesenbiscuits haven't even bothered with dinner, they are guzzling champagne, free mini bottles of wine and the contents of their beer shopping from Lille.
Once at St Pancras they all go on to the champagne bar...

I'm really tired. But it's been a great day. Lille is pretty, has plenty of activities, is fantastic for shopping and well worth a visit. Although by the time I arrived home, I realised I had a blister on each foot, nappy rash and two squashed cakes.

Information about @little_break:

Eurostar operates up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras International to Lille with return fares from £55. Tickets are available from or 08705 186 186. Fastest London-Lille journey time is 1 hour 20 minutes.


Eurostar operates up to 10 daily services from London St Pancras International to Brussels with return fares from £59. All Eurostar tickets to Brussels are valid to/from any Belgian station at no extra cost. Tickets are available from or 08705 186 186. Fastest London-Brussels journey time is 1h51 minutes.


Eurostar operates up to 20 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare de Nord with return fares from £59.

Tickets are available from or 08705 186 186. Fastest London-Paris journey time is 2hr 15 minutes. Since 11 August there has not been any extra fee for telephone bookings.

Competition alert!!! Win a pair of Eurostar tickets to Lille... take your own ‘Little Break to Lille’

Eurostar have kindly offered this prize to the reader that writes the funniest or most interesting comment replying to this post. If you are on Twitter, tweet a link to this post and you get extra points!

Small print: make your own way to St Pancras. Replies and comments in by end of September 2009. Winner will be tweeted and posted here first day of October!

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Tropezien tarts

The famous 'tarte tropezienne'.
Some call them 16/61's , a friend of mine dubbed them 'Don't Look Now's' after the Nick Roeg movie in which a child's figure in red suddenly turned round and was in fact a wizened dwarf. I call them Tropezien tarts, in part a nod to the famous cake created in St. Tropez but also a tribute to the world centre for women who, from the back look young and from the front look, well, their age.
Femmes d'une certain age in France don't just settle, British style, into elasticated waist bands and comfy shoes. They write books like 'French women don't get fat', live on a mix of caffeine, slimming suppositories and steak tartare. They obsessively 'maintien leur ligne'.
The women of St Tropez all look like Brigitte Bardot. Now.
When you get pregnant in France, the doctor spends his whole time exhorting you not to put on weight, you must 'fait attention'. You are allowed to put on a kilo a month only. Most British women put on three stone, more than double.
French women may not get fat, but they aren't much of a laugh. There ain't no sistahood in French culture, despite boasting such luminary feminists and forward thinking women as Simone de Beauvoir, Colette and Chanel.
If your man is unfaithful to you in France, everyone will shrug 'et alors'. You will get scant sympathy.
I do admire the fierce determination not to age gracefully however. My favourites are the one's that dye their hair bright red, in the style of Edith Piaf or 70s nightclub owner Regine, as if to say "I'm not grey!"
Below: not before and after, but back and front.... Click on the photos to see close-ups
My 15 year old daughter has a dress like this...
Shoes from the lady above. Hmmm.
After 30 you have to be careful with frou frou skirts and lace.
Pushing that 'yummy mummy' look a little too far...
The top half Parisian chic, the bottom half, St Tropez bohemia!

She looks chic, this one.

You feel naked without a little doggy in St. Tropez.

Lovely sun hats only 15 euros

The world's poshest car park is in St Tropez

Piped music and a floor so clean you could eat off it...

Even the homeless in St. Tropez are tanned and happy! Oh yeah.