Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Recipe: Poires Belle Helene with vanilla and creme fraiche ice cream


 For the #vinylandfood supper club this Sunday I made a classic French dessert, developed originally by the great 19th century chef Escoffier. I couldn't believe how good it was, the simplicity of poached pears, chocolate sauce and vanilla icecream. Times like these, I regret never having been formally trained in cookery, which means that I've skipped over classic dishes. We strain for originality and new worldwide influences but delving into the roots of European cookery can yield flavour combinations that we ignore at a cost. It's like ballet, you can only become a good modern dancer if you've studied classic dance. Yes this is my 'back to basics' conservative cuisine post.
So, Poires Belle Helene (named after an opera), how to make it?
The recipe is fairly easy and effortless, but on Sunday, never having made it before, I assumed that pouring the chocolate sauce over the pears, just like you see in Google images and on Pinterest, would result in the tear-shaped fruit glistening with a smooth artfully dripping chocolate sauce. Wrong.
Chocolate sauce will not stick to wet poached pears. Although it tasted great, it looked like a hot mess of unglossy congealed chocolate and slippery pears lurching on their sides like little drunks. So I spent Monday trying to figure out how to do it with elegance. After some pfaffing about with icing sugar, (will this get the chocolate to stick? answer: no) I came up with some solutions.
To get the sauce on top of the pears, you need to a) make sure the chocolate sauce is liquid and warm enough to flow b) cut off a sliver from the bottom of the pear so that it will stand up straight c) chill the pears d) have a dab hand with a spoon resulting in beautiful drips e) put the end result in the fridge straight away for the chocolate to set.
The problem with the chilling is that suddenly you don't have the warm pears/hot sauce/cold icecream triumvirate of triumphantly matched tastes, textures and temperatures. You can à la Delia, or like Poires au chocolat, pool the sauce at the bottom of the pears. Is that cheating?
If any 'proper' chefs know any more tricks, do let me know in the comments.

To serve 5.

5 Packham pears, peeled, not too ripe, not too hard
2 vanilla pods
200g white sugar
a glass of white wine

200g of dark chocolate, broken into pieces
5 tbsps single cream (optional)

Icecream
150ml of whole milk
100g of caster sugar
1 tsp of vanilla paste
A pinch of salt
5 large egg yolks
300ml whole fat creme fraiche


Peel the pears with a vegetable peeler, retaining the stalks. Cut a tiny slice off the bottom of the pears so that they stand up. I also scooped out a little of the bottom where the stalk ends with a tea spoon. Choose a saucepan which fits the five pears in snugly. Then add the vanilla, sugar, wine and top up with water until it covers the pears almost up to the stalk. Then poach the pears for 20 to 30 minutes until 'al dente'. Once cooked, remove the pears and reduce the poaching liquid to a syrup, 10 to 20 minutes. ( Don't let it boil down too much however)
For the chocolate sauce, I melted the chocolate pieces over a 'bain-marie', that is a bowl over a pan of hot water (or over the pan reducing the poaching liquid). It's important that the bowl doesn't touch the water. Or, you can melt chocolate in a micro-wave, in 30 second bursts.
Once melted, add some of the poaching liquid and whisk until glossy. (You can also add a few tablespoons of single cream, for a ganache, or a pear liqueur. I actually used some bay leaf liqueur I bought in Italy, I love bay).
For the icecream, make the custard by putting the milk, sugar, vanilla and salt into a medium saucepan on a low heat and heating until amalgamated. Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl then temper them by adding a few spoonfuls of the warm cream into the yolks, mixing well, then pouring the egg mixture into the saucepan with the cream. Keep stirring with a wooden spoon until it achieves a custard like consistency, that is, you can run a finger down the back of the spoon and it leaves a bare wooden streak on the spoon. Then take off the heat and allow the custard to cool for a few hours. Once cool, whisk in the creme fraiche. Then pour the lot into your icecream maker and follow the manufacturers instructions.
I now have a Cuisinart icecream maker which costs a couple of hundred quid, but I have to say, life is a whole lot better as a result. Making fresh icecream is now a cinch. In general, after the custard has cooled, it takes 45 to 60 minutes and has a superb scooping consistency. I start making the icecream just before guests arrive.


Saturday, 24 May 2014

Pear and cinnamon roll bake









Trigger alert: this recipe contains sugar, butter, cinnamon and makes your house smell good. 

Pear and Cinnamon Roll Bake

For this recipe I used the round squat Packham Pears from South Africa. I didn't peel off the skin when poaching the pears, but do remove the skin if you want. Pears are famous for their ripening volatility, for poaching I'd use pears that are not ripe but not too hard either.

Serves 6

250g plain flour
175g spelt flour
25g of fresh yeast or 10g of rapid dried yeast
80g golden caster sugar
250ml whole milk
1 tbsp cinnamon, ground
4g salt
90g butter, diced

6 almost ripe small pears
1 bottle white wine
200g granulated sugar
1 stick cinnamon
Water to cover


Filling
100g butter at room temperature
50g golden caster sugar
1 tbsp cinnamon, ground
1/2 tbsp water



To finish
Steinbergs vanilla sugar or light brown sugar
Egg wash or milk

Serve with: custard, cream or vanilla icecream


Prepare the dough: put the flour, yeast, sugar, salt, cinnamon and milk in a bowl, add the butter in pieces and mix the dough for five minutes.
Let it rest for 20 minutes then put it on a floured surface.
Shape the dough as a loaf and rest in the fridge for one hour.
Poach the pears: take a saucepan just big enough to fit all the pears upright and pour in the wine, sugar and cinnamon stick, then top up with enough water to cover the pears. Poach on a low heat until the sugar is dissolved and the pears are just tender. This will probably take 45 minutes. Then, remove from the heat and leave to cool. You could reduce the cinnamon wine mixture to make a syrup. 
Preheat the oven to 200c. 
Prepare the filling: mix butter, sugar, cinnamon and water to make a paste.
Take out the rested dough and, on a well floured surface, roll it out to a rectangle of approximately 20 x 30 cms and 3mm thick.
Spread the filling gently evenly with a palette knife or dough scraper all over the rectangle. 
Take each of your cool pears and dip them in a bowl of flour, this will enable the dough to stick to the pear. Then cut the rectangle of dough into 6 cross sections. Lay the pear on the dough at the end of the strip and roll the dough around it. Then squash the doughy pears into a large greased and floured cake tin, so that the stems of the pears are facing upwards. Cover and let them to rise somewhere warm until doubled in size. 
Then brush the dough with the milk or a lightly beaten egg, and sprinkle on some vanilla or light brown sugar. Bake them at 200 degrees centigrade, covered with foil for around 30 minutes or until golden brown. For the last five minutes remove the foil. 
Serve with plenty of custard, cream or icecream.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Recipe: Waldorf salad


But if baby I'm the bottom, you're the top!
You're the top! You're a Waldorf salad.
You're the top! You're a Berlin ballad.
You're the nimble tread of the feet of Fred Astaire.
You're an O'Neill drama; you're Whistler's mama; you're Camembert. 
vegetarian waldorf salad recipe
Waldorf Salad
 I was sent some South African apples, crisp sweet Braemars, and they were too damn good to cook. So I went classic...this is an old recipe, created in the last days of the 19th century in the big hotel kitchen of the Waldorf hotel. The vegetarian version of this salad often contains grapes, I decided to pickle them. 

Serves 4

Pickled grapes (optional)
150ml white wine vinegar
2 tbsp of sugar
3 tbsp of salt
250ml water
250g of grapes, washed, de-stemmed

1 baby gem lettuce, leaves separated, washed and dried
2 Braemar apples, halved and sliced thinly into half moons
2 sticks of celery, thinly sliced
75g of walnut
3 large pickled walnuts, thinly sliced


Dressing:
1 egg 
1 tbsp Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, minced
1 anchovy, minced finely
125ml of walnut oil (or a mix of walnut and groundnut oil)
3 tbsps Apple cider vinegar
40g Parmesan
White Pepper

To pickle the grapes, use white seedless. I used 'sultana' grapes from my local shop Where2Sav (the 'e' dropped off the sign). In a small saucepan, on a low heat, dissolve the sugar and salt in the white wine vinegar and water. Using a sterile jar, place the grapes, then pour over the vinegar mixture. Seal and leave for a for days before using. A good cupboard staple. 

To assemble the salad: place the leaves at the bottom of the bowl, then add the slices of apple and the crescents of celery. Sprinkle over the walnuts, then dress the salad. 
The dressing is based on another classic American salad, the Caesar salad dressing. Coddle the egg by cooking it in boiling water for just one minute. Crack it into a bowl, add the mustard, garlic and anchovy, whisk until smooth. Add the oil very slowly, whisking by hand or in a blender, so that it emulsifies. Finally add the vinegar and the parmesan cheese. Add the pepper. 

Finally add the pickled walnuts and pickled grapes. 

This salad can be served as a starter, as a side or as an accompaniment to a cheese course. 


Monday, 19 May 2014

Recipe: Lil yellow stuffed courgette

Summer eatin' had me a blast
Summer eatin' happened so fast
Tell me more, tell me more
But you don't gotta brag
Tell me more, tell me more
'Cause it sounds like a drag....

Ooh, but it's easy,
easy like Sunday morning
It's easy
Easy like Sunday morning....

Little yellow courgette
Baby you're much too fast
Little yellow courgette
You need a recipe that's gonna last

Stuffed yellow courgette and red pepper bake

Recipe for 4 -6 people


1 garlic head, roasted in a little olive oil

100g unroasted kasha buckwheat, cooked in 200ml of veg stock

5 yellow round courgettes, centre hollowed out, keep lid

3 small red peppers, deseeded, keep lids

200g cauliflower florets, processed until they look like couscous

200g broccoli florets, processed until they look like couscous

4 cherry tomatoes, quartered

A couple of sprigs of fresh thyme, tiny leaves pulled off the sprig

Olive oil

Salt and Pepper


Preheat your oven to 200c. First roast your garlic head in olive oil in a baking tray for 15 minutes. Then remove from the oven, let cool and squeeze out the garlic cloves. Set aside. (You can do more of these and keep them in a little bowl in the fridge, useful for many recipes).

Cook your kasha in double the volume of liquid, in this case stock, just like you would cook rice. You can buy this from any Eastern European shop. It's not a grain actually but acts like one. Healthy, low GI, no gluten, all that good stuff.

Then prep your courgettes and peppers. When I cook, I often start with colour. In my minds eye, I saw a yellow and red dish with a little bit of green. So I had some round sunflower yellow courgettes and postbox red romano peppers in the fridge. I sliced off the top of the courgettes, retaining the 'hat', then hollowed out the courgettes, but making sure I didn't gouge a hole in the side. I cut the romano pepper in thirds. I then stacked the courgettes and peppers, alternating the colours, in a small oiled baking dish.

Then, do this new thing that's all the rage: make couscous from vegetables. Maria Elia in Smashing Plates does it with carrots, American chefs are doing it with cauliflower and broccoli. You just put the raw florets into a food processor and process until they look like couscous. (You can also use this technique to make a raw salad).

I mixed the kasha, vegetable couscous with the cherry tomatoes and fried this mixture, lightly, in a frying pan, in olive oil, adding the roast garlic cloves. This took about 5 minutes. I also added some fresh thyme leaves.

Check your seasoning then with a spoon, stuff the mixture into your yellow courgettes and red peppers. Make sure you can see a little bit of red cherry tomato in the yellow courgette stuffing.

If there is any of that tasty oil left from the garlic clove roasting and the veg couscous frying, drizzle that over the courgettes and peppers.

Bake at 200c, covered with foil, for 15 to 20 minutes. Take off the foil for the last five minutes.

Serve this with rosé or this heady white wine
Stuffed yellow courgettes and red peppers

Apologies to Olivia Newton John, Lionel Ritchie and Prince.

Friday, 16 May 2014

Floral recipe: nasturtium and buttermilk soup

The grass is growing, the lilac is out, the clematis montana is spreading pinkly across my fence. My salads, neglected since winter, are sprouting into unwieldy unrecognisable alien towers, the mice have eaten a cake I left recanted in the shed, all, except the icing. I must abandon my recipe testing to mow the lawn. If only I had a husband, I've heard that they are good for that even if little else. 
I have a window box which I can see from where I do the washing up; it has a teapot without a lid, pouring mauve hyacinth bulbs, now waned, and a cloud of nasturtiums, spurting peppery orange and green into the sky. Inspired amongst the suds, in my head I create a dish. Everyone knows you can eat nasturtium flowers but don't neglect the leaves,  which can be used in salads, as a pesto or in a soup.


Nasturtium, courgette and buttermilk soup
Serves 4
50ml olive oil
1 large banana shallot, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced
2 large courgettes, cut in half lengthways and sliced
A few mint leaves
500ml vegetable stock (marigold)
1 tbsp of sea salt
300ml buttermilk
A large handful of clean nasturtium leaves
To garnish:
nasturtium leaves
nasturtium flowers
The rest of this recipe can be found on my blog post on WineTrust100 here. 

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Fortnum and Mason online food writer award 2014

Last night: me with my award and Eric Lanlard. 
I won! The Fortnum And Mason Best Online Food Writer Award 2014. This is only the second year of these awards but already it has the clout and glamour of foodie oscars. One feels one should be above it all, awards that is. But hell, I'm gonna bask in the glory. My blog contains no advertising or sponsored posts, I'm not paid to write it, so awards like this are fantastic for giving one the impetus to continue. The actual award itself weighs a ton and could be effectively used as a murder weapon. I drank champagne in the turquoise top floor then afterwards, took the lift downstairs where, rammed in the basement bar, the food world sat on each others laps, boozed and tucked into Italian canapés, gossiped and flirted. Such fun.
Thank you.
Here is a list of the other winners amongst some great, high quality shortlists. Special mentions for best online restaurant writer Chris Pople, best restaurant writer Marina O'Loughlin, best cookery writer Rose Prince and best radio award for the team of The Food Programme. 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

10 things I hate about restaurants

I've always loved going to restaurants. I was lucky, my parents took me out to eat from a young age. Proper restaurants, not fast food, there were no McDonalds when I was a kid. Every summer hols we'd drive through France, sometimes to Italy or Spain. My parents valued and spent money on travel and food, they still do. So we'd have meals in restaurants en route. My siblings and I learnt 'restaurant behaviour'. We had wine with our meals, watered down. We knew how to order. We knew whether to cut bread or tear it. We learnt about unsalted butter, horse meat steaks, sparkling or still water, about courses. We memorised the ice cream menu, lemon sorbet in a lemon, 'chocolat liegeois'  'dame blanche', off by heart. We even got bored with the formulaic menus.
The first thing we would do on returning, sometimes not even stopping to drop the suitcases back home, was go to the Agra, round the back of the Post Office Tower, to eat tandoori.
As an adult, I still love restaurants. The magic of a restaurant occasion is why I started a supper club, I liked it so much I made a 'pretend' restaurant in my house.
But there are few restaurants that I visit regularly. I don't go as much as other bloggers, unless there is something specific that interests me. Often I think, I could make this better at home. In fact I can't think of anything worse than only eating in restaurants. When I've been on holiday where I have no access to a kitchen, I get desperate to cook. Restaurant food alone is not sufficiently nutritious. It is over-handled by chefs, portion control is often stringent to the point of absurdity, and you'd be surprised by how much they buy in: bread, icecream, chocolate decorations for desserts, fresh pasta, puff pastry, pickles and sauces. My most asked question in restaurants? Did you make it? Is this home-made?


1) Noise
Loud music in restaurants, I always feel, is there for the benefit of the staff not guests. The music is to energize the staff, to make them feel their workplace is 'fun'. But what about the guests? If I'm going to a restaurant with someone else I probably want to talk to them. Only very low background music is acceptable in certain types of restaurant. We aren't going to a disco.
In The Spaghetti Tree, a book about the 'trattoria' revolution in 60s London dining, the famed restaurant designer Enzo Apicella declares: 'In Italy it's frowned upon... restaurants play pop or jazz because, it is supposed, it makes people eat faster, so they leave the place faster and can be replaced by new customers.'
And what about people with hearing problems? My mum is very deaf and she selects a restaurant based on acoustics, not food. For example, I enjoyed the food at MEATliquor, but the music was deafening, auditory water-boarding. I feel sure that it interferes with your taste buds. I like to concentrate on my food.

2) Topping up wine glasses
This is upselling the wine. They are doing this because making you buy another bottle of wine is an easy buck for a restaurant. I loathe it. I'm an adult and can top up my own wine thank you very much. It irritates me, this force-feeding of booze. Most people like to keep an eye on how much they are drinking. Three drinks is my maximum.

3) Small portions
Two examples: I went to Made in Italy in Kings Road recently. I had a spaghetti vongole, priced as a main course not as a starter (primi piatti), which couldn't have had more than 60g of cooked pasta. That's not a main meal.
At Pollen St Social, I ordered the much recommended burrata salad, I was shocked how stingy they were with the cheese, it was the size of a walnut rather than an apple.
Many of the fashionable restaurants give you smears and droplets rather than sauces. This makes it hard to eat, difficult to lift off the plate.

4) No bread
I judge a restaurant by its bread. If a restaurant has good bread, you can more or less forgive them any other failing. If you have to buy it, buy the very very best.

5) No vegetarian options
Even though I occasionally eat fish, I will often order the vegetarian menu, to see what they can drum up, without the easy option of meat and fish. I've rarely been impressed. So often it is yesterdays left-overs, wrapped in puff pastry. Or a risotto. Or beetroot. Yawn. Carnivores can't cook for vegetarians; the flavours are underpowered. My friend Les Wong often won't go with me to a restaurant 'you can only eat the sides'. That is a typically carnivore-centric attitude. I'm happy with sides.

6) No reservation
This is Russell Norman's technique and it has caught on. I remember waiting an hour and a half to be seated at the old Polpetto and then getting a bad table. Russell said to me "I don't want people from the provinces to be reserving tables. I want young workers from Soho. So I won't allow reservations". I then had to put up with snotty staff and loud music. It's a shame because the food was so good.
No reservations makes money for the restaurateur: to keep people hanging around in the bar spending money on drink while they wait.
I will not stand outside in a queue for the privilege of spending my money in your restaurant if you won't allow reservations.

7) Bar stools
I like sitting down. Properly. With my feet touching the ground.
Again, this is a profit boosting strategy: if you aren't comfortable, you will eat up more quickly and they can turn tables (or bar places) faster. McDonalds started it in the 70s with an extreme version: these were not just bar stools, but were tilted so that you couldn't sit in them, you just propped a section of your bum onto the ledge.
If you are going to have bar stools, perhaps because of a genuine lack of space, at least have a rung where small people (like women) can put their feet and handbag hooks attached to the bar so that it isn't stolen and is easy to reach.

8) Snotty staff and tips
One of the reasons I love restaurant critic Marina O'Loughlin's columns, apart from the honest and witty writing, is that she is anonymous. Hence she often gets the crappy seat that is so often assigned to the unimportant guest. Revealing. Here is a guide to the best tables at top London restaurants by critic Richard Vines.
Tips. I usually pay 10%. I didn't like it when they automatically added service then left a gap for you to pay more service but that seems to have fallen into disuse now. In the States it is a ridiculous competition as to who can pay bigger tips but it's generally about 20%. In France service is included.

9) Free services - cover charge, tap water, wifi
Cover charges tend to be a European thing, unpopular in the UK. Rowley Leigh used to have a cover charge, for bread, radishes and butter at Le Cafe Anglais but discontinued it after complaints. Is it to make sure that customers spend a certain minimum? Is it to pay for laundry, which can be 10% of a restaurants profits? (Although tablecloths seem to be a thing of the past, except in posh places).
In London today, most restaurants will give you tap water. Much of Europe, however, they have the same attitude as British restaurants did before 2010. It's now law that you can request a glass of tap water.
Wifi: every bar and restaurant should have free wifi. It's not an issue for me in the UK as I have a UK phone, but abroad, it's a nightmare. Even hotels still act like giving you wifi is a privilege you should pay for. Tourists need wifi. I'll often go eat in a restaurant purely because it has free internet, like the Wimpy bar in Maun, Botwana.

10) Dreary desserts
So many dessert menus are uninspiring. I think pudding is when the diner reverts to tradition, an urge that must be satisfied, even if one is quite happy to be modernist and experimental with the rest of the menu.  I think any pudding list should have:
  • a chocolatey thing
  • a fruity dish
  • an icecream
  • something meringue
  • something with salted caramel
  • something citrussy 
  • something cakey
I think it was Gordon Ramsay that said pudding was the most important course in a restaurant meal, it's the last impression one has of a restaurant.
But one pet hate: tiramisu. Who likes tiramisu? It's like the Bounty Bar of desserts, only weirdos like them.

So what gets your goat about restaurants? What rules do you have? 

Monday, 5 May 2014

New ingredient: purple yam

What is this? It's a purple yam (Dioscorea alata). 
  • Mostly used in sweet dishes, in this country you can buy it in jars marked 'Ube' in ethnic shops.
  • Ube is what they call it in the Phillipines. It can be used as a sweet spread. 
  • The sweet spread tastes like granular condensed milk mixed with chestnuts. 
  • Purple yams can be fried, boiled or baked. Keep the skin on when boiling, then peel off afterwards.
  • It can be used as a cure for leprosy, gonorrhea and hemorrhoids
  • Yam is an important tuber in African cuisine. In Nigeria, there is even a religious festival involving yam. It can be stored for months. 
  • It's important not to confuse purple yam with purple sweet potato or purple potato. Americans often call 'soft' sweet potatoes 'yams'. 



The fabric used here in the background is called 'Letesi' or German Print. I bought it in Botswana, where it is used for traditional print dresses. It is an oiled cotton made in South Africa, using copper etched patterned rolls. The best known trademark is 'Three Cats'. 

Friday, 2 May 2014

April Bites: Port, North London's strangest restaurant, Pips Dish and the Worlds 50 best

Here is a roundup of what I've been doing in April.
Churchills Port House, brainchild of Max Graham.
Churchills Port House, brainchild of Max Graham. 
Churchill's Port House

Churchill's Port House

Sherry has now rehabilitated its reputation as a serious drink, not just for grannies. Pop-up restaurant Churchill's Port house is trying to do the same thing for Port. This is the project of Max Graham, son of John Graham who started Churchill Estates in Portugal in 1981. Max went to school in Portugal and Britain and has linked up with Ricardo from Portugal behind the bar and a Spanish chef, Xavi Meroño. "We tried to get a Portuguese chef but they weren't as good" lamented Max.
I was invited as a guest and had a 'flight' of ports, ruby and tawny, some of them aged for ten and twenty years. It showed that port does match well with food, and isn't just for christmas. There wasn't much to eat if you were vegetarian/pescetarian but the beetroot gazpacho and rhubarb trifle were particularly good. My mate Jim the Stoner (with not so much a Camberwell carrot but a Manchester reefer) came with me, and loved the meat dishes while I enjoyed the salmon ceviche. Talented though the Spanish chef was, I do think Portuguese food would have completed the experience. There is such good food in Portugal and we don't see enough of it over here. Come on Nuno Mendes! Stop mucking about with all that modernist bollocks and do some proper Portuguese food!


soho chefs taking a break, London 2015soho chefs taking a break, London 2015
soho chefs taking a break, London 2015
soho chefs taking a break, London 2015
As I came out of Churchill's I saw chefs, front of house and kitchen staff outside almost every restaurant in Soho, smoking in their whites and blue striped aprons. I've been reading The Spaghetti Tree, about the trattoria revolution in London in the 1960s. I walked along to 22 Romilly Street, to see the original location of La Terrazza, run by Franco and Mario (both of whom had connections to Minori, as does Gennaro Contaldo, as does my Italian family!) It's now just a private house I think but the distinctive many panelled window is still there.
 Linhiniya, sri lankan restaurant in cricklewood

 Linhiniya, sri lankan restaurant in cricklewood
 Linhiniya, sri lankan restaurant in cricklewood

 Linhiniya

Up the A5 from me, further north along the Watling Road, is Cricklewood, a forgotten village of London. Probably the only known cultural landmarks of this area are Smiths crisps, invented in a Cricklewood garage (fist pump) and the author Zadie Smith, who scene-set her multi-cultural novel 'White Teeth' hereabouts. It's always dirty along the A5. There has been various attempts to gentrify Kilburn and Cricklewood but nothing has succeeded, bound as it is by that endlessly filthy straight highway interrupted only by the North Circular. But there are a few restaurants that are worth visiting. Persia II, run by an ex-political journalist escapee from post-Shah Iran. And Linhinya, which has a very casual attitude but nonetheless superb food from a woman chef. My friend Les and I walked into an empty restaurant. There was no menu. A family was sat in the back, amongst shop shelves selling Sinhalese products.
 "Are you open?"
The woman stood up, smiling, and said "we want to go home early tonight".
 Les sweetened them up by saying " I'm Malaysian Chinese!" Not sure what this had to do with anything but it seemed to do the trick. We were allowed to sit.
"What do you feel like eating?" asked the woman.
"Erm...hoppers?" It's hard to order from my vague memory of Sri Lankan cuisine when there is no menu.
"I eat meat, she doesn't" were the instructions from Les.
The woman nodded at me then to Les "You like chicken?"
 "Yes"
"Cream soda?"
"Yes"
And that was it. She disappeared for about ten minutes and then we were given a bottle of cream soda and a basket full of freshly cooked hoppers, a kind of concave pancake. Les had egg hoppers which is the same thing but with an egg cracked and cooked in the middle. They were gorgeous. I had spinach dhal and coconut sambal. Simple. Delicious. Scoffed the lot. Didn't even share. Les got a dish of chicken on the bone, which pleased him no end. "Why do European restaurants always serve breast?" he muttered "it's not even the best part". We ate quickly and paid under £20 for two.

Googling the restaurant for the purposes of this piece, I came across a local blog Gullets over Broadway, which has sadly stuttered into silence. They had exactly the same experience at Lihinya. In 2009. Unlike restaurants all over Britain, Saturday night is when they like to close. I'm not quite sure when you are supposed to go. In the morning?
Pips dish, restaurant
asparagus with anchovy sauce, Pips dish

Pips Dish

Phillip Dundas is silver-haired and silver-tongued, with periwinkle blue eyes. After running a pop-up in Islington in an old Citroen garage, he's now got the backing for a little restaurant in Covent Garden, which looks like a domestic living room.
There was an outstanding dish: just-in-season asparagus with anchovy sauce but the rest of the food was rather meat-based for me.
 spaghetti vongole:

This month's spaghetti vongole:

I was still hungry and so I went out for dinner immediately afterwards for spaghetti vongole at Sartori. It was the second night I went there for the same dish. The first night, after the Pink Lady Photography awards, I, slightly drunk, tried to jump the queue by claiming that I was a 'spaghetti vongole inspector'. Amazingly, this seemed to work.  The spag vong was superb: enough pasta, correctly cooked, tons of garlic, plenty of olive oil. Perhaps more white wine would have been good and a fleck of chilli. But the best spag vong so far on my quest around London. But on the second night, not so much: the sauce was watery, the garlic ratio was diminished. Should I try a third time? Just goes to show that you can't judge a restaurant on one visit though.

Sam and Sam, the husband and wife chef team behind Moro. His dad did the pink painting behind.
Sam and Sam, the husband and wife chef team behind Moro. His dad did the pink painting behind.

Morito

Before Ottolenghi, there was Moro, delivering a similar 'premium casual' dining experience with top quality Hispanic and Middle Eastern derived ingredients, thrown together seemingly without effort. It's like those women who appear not to be wearing makeup and have artfully tousled hair: it looks easy but it isn't. I visited Moro little sister Morito in Exmouth Market. I'll go to anything in Exmouth Market because my mum and dad live there! Morito has an eponymous cookbook out which has some accessible recipes in it, particularly a squid ink bread which I first encountered in Paris.

World's 50 best: 

Wristbands for the worlds 50 best restaurants
Wristbands. None of us knew what they meant. Fiona Beckett who is a Guardian columnist, with the yellow one, was supposed to go into a room and watch the event on tv. Ben Norum, who works for restaurant magazine Square Meal, with the orange one, we weren't sure where he was allowed to be. Mine is the stripey one with the letters 'seated'. The others weren't allowed to sit down. But then the PR relented and let them sit down next to me. 
Wine Chap wearing a glorious pink suit.
Wine Chap wearing a glorious pink suit. 
Sarah Canet, restaurant PR, wearing her Kate Middleton dress with chef Nuno Mendes.
Sarah Canet, restaurant PR, wearing her Kate Middleton dress with chef Nuno Mendes. 
I couldn't stay long at the Morito launch because I was actually invited to the World's 50 best restaurant awards. Outside in the courtyard in front of the 12th century Guildhall, chefs gather, chat and have their pictures taken; you hear Spanish, Swedish, French, Italian drifting on the wind. This is probably one of the few opportunities they have to meet each other. All that graft in the kitchen, the hours and weeks and years of pale-faced sweaty toil, this is their moment in the sun, literally. I didn't recognise most of them, not being accustomed to eating in top restaurants around the world. Basically if I don't get a freebie, it aint gonna happen. High end food isn't my kind of food, but it is good to try, to see, to get inspiration.
One woman was walking around carrying a bulging pillow. Why are you carrying a pillow? I asked her (thinking yeah I know the countdown is boring but still...) She is called Alessandra Tino and she is doing a project in which she photographs chefs laying down on a pillow. After asking what I do, she asked if she could take a picture of me on this bolster. So I laid down on the purple carpet on the white pillow and she climbed over me and snapped.
 Martin Morales restaurateur of Ceviche, Kate Spicer restaurant critic on MasterChef, Nick Lander restaurant critic of the FT, Henry Dimbleby of Leon, Bobby Chinn (Vietnamese restaurateur)
Left to Right: Martin Morales restaurateur of Ceviche, Kate Spicer restaurant critic on MasterChef, Nick Lander restaurant critic of the FT, Henry Dimbleby of Leon, Bobby Chinn (Vietnamese restaurateur)

Nova: the future of food in London

During a tube strike, the smart PR with a budget makes sure journalists/bloggers will attend by sending a cab for them, both there and back. (I hate it when they only send a cab for you to get there, then leave you stranded for the way back, very cynical). I wasn't really sure what this event was about to be frank. It seemed to be organised by property developers Land Securities who are trying to make the area around Victoria (specifically their development) into a hip place. Fat chance. It's so modern and corporate. Only the chains can be there. The panel were asked about popups and supper clubs; Kate Spicer and Henry Dimbleby were kind enough to mention me, as I was sitting in the front row. I said that popups were born of poverty, that I started a supper club because I wanted a restaurant but didn't have any money and that this is still the case. This wasn't really the right forum to say stuff like this, it was full of suits. Bobby Chinn, restaurateur, House of Ho, is quite a character, with tons of personality. But he said "You need a million quid to open a restaurant in London". Other remarks from the panel included "Fine dining is dead". As I said in my post 10 things I hate about restaurants, table linen is a thing of the past: Nick Lander said "I had a meeting with a restaurant linen provider. Five years ago, he supplied 4 napkins to every tablecloth, now he supplies 11". What this means is that restaurants have bare tables, and the linen supplies are now confined to serviettes.
Kate Spicer said that Londoners go out to eat, sometimes several times a day. Last weekend on Loose Ends on Radio 4, Tim Hayward said that Londoners eat out five times a week. I think this says more about Kate and Tim than it does about Londoners. Before I worked in food, I never ate out except on holiday. Now, using my own money, I'll eat out (or get a takeaway) once a week.
Are food experts and commentators are living in a bubble? Families in London can't eat out very often. Henry Leon mentioned that the restaurant trade refers to 'millenials', people born between 1980 and 2000. Mostly they haven't started breeding, have good jobs and can afford to eat out. But many 'millenials' are unemployed so while this demographic is more likely to go to a young hipster restaurant or pop up, most can't afford it. Probably the sector that posh restaurants most depend on are the suits, the business accounts.
One guy, an employee of Land Securities, 24 years old but stylistically looking at least ten years older, came up and asked me where I could recommend buying a good sandwich at lunchtime in Covent Garden. I'm sorry I don't know, I replied. I suppose he is a millennial.