Chi Kitchen

Chi Kitchen

If I were to tell you that Debenhams on Oxford Street is the place to go for a really great meal, you would probably laugh in my face.  To be fair, I wouldn’t blame you.  Department store eateries are generally a little bit sad.  Old ladies and bored husbands huddled around weak coffee and dry cake, surrounded by beige formica.  No thank you.  And Debenhams?  A middle-of-the-road shop with about as much character as a clothes peg; the one that’s not as classy as John Lewis.  But…department stores are realising that shopping habits are changing and that it’s going to take something extra to get customers through the door these days.  And that something is great food.  Selfridges, unsurprisingly, led the way with the likes of Hemsley + Hemsley and Aubaine.  John Lewis has outposts of Benugo and Comptoir Libanais.  Debenhams has welcomed Chi Kitchen.

Chi Kitchen is a pan-Asian restaurant, part-owned by Eddie Lim of the renowned Mango Tree in Belgravia.  The executive chef is 2014 Masterchef winner, Ping Coombes.  I remember watching Ping’s Masterchef journey and thinking that her food looked amazing right from the outset.  So Ping Coombes plus Eddie Lim plus Debenhams added up to a very intriguing proposition.  “Pan-Asian”, however, is a concept that always feels a bit wishy-washy to me.  Just because a group of dishes come from the same – vast – geography doesn’t necessarily mean that they will all gel together harmoniously.  I guess this is where Ping’s skill as executive chef comes in because, despite the humongous menu, nothing that we ate felt jarring or out of place.

So, about that humongous menu.  I defy anyone to visit Chi Kitchen and not find something that they would like to eat.  There are a whopping 13 sections to choose from, including dessert and sides.  Two sections are dedicated to sushi alone.  This is before you even reach the small plates (i.e. starters).  Then you’ve got noodles, robata, signature dishes….  We had to enlist the help of the restaurant manager to guide us through this epic tome because, basically, I wanted to eat it all.

We started with a selection of smaller dishes to share – Alaskan crab and XO dumplings, salt and pepper baby squid, and the Chi Kitchen maki rolls.  The squid was perfectly moreish; the crispy exterior giving way to tender pieces of squid, with a chilli dipping sauce on the side.  I could have grazed on this all day long.  The dumplings looked pretty and were generously stuffed with crab.  Most importantly, the XO sauce didn’t overpower the delicate flavour of the crab meat.  A huge slab of maki rolls was presented with a jug of dry ice on the side; a slightly pointless piece of theatre when the dish looked impressive enough anyway.  They, too, were loaded with seafood and avocado, with slices of extra fish laid over the top of each roll for good measure.  Again, very easy eating – well, except for the fact that I’m rubbish with chopsticks!

We ordered two of the signature main courses to share between us.  The Thai green chicken curry and the nasi lemak.  Thai green curry is pretty much a classic dish now, one that I have had many times.  Nasi lemak, however, was completely new to me.  It’s from Malaysia and was described on the menu as “chicken curry, dried anchovies, sambal, peanuts, egg and fragrant coconut rice”.  I totally expected it to be a big bowlful of curry but, in fact, it was daintily presented as separate elements on one plate.  We were advised to dive in and mix everything up together.  While it tasted good, the chicken curry bit was actually one thigh and one breast covered with a few spoonfuls of sauce, so I found the whole dish a little dry.  A little more sauce – and maybe a little more chicken – would have been ideal.

The Thai green curry, however, was on another level entirely.  As I mentioned, I’ve eaten quite a few versions of this dish over the years but this one is probably the best I’ve ever had.  The sauce was silky and soft with coconut cream; a big bowlful of warmth, spice and love.  Chunks of aubergine amplified the lusciousness, while a surprisingly fiery kick of chili kept everything from getting too rich.  If you only order one thing from the mega-menu, make sure it’s this.

Sides included the usual rice, but I recommend getting the roti with Malaysian curry sauce on the side.  The bread was thin, flaky and finger-lickingly buttery.  And when I say “curry sauce”, I don’t mean the sort of thing you get with your chips on a Friday night.  This sauce was vibrant and velvety, with a little heat but not overwhelmingly so.  Just like the salt and pepper squid, if someone presented me with a plate of just this bread and sauce then I would be more than happy to sit there and demolish the lot.

Desserts in Asian restaurants can be tricky – unless you’re a big fan of tropical fruit – and Chi Kitchen was no exception.  They have a couple of interesting dishes, particularly the baked green tea Alaska, but they didn’t live up to the standards of the savoury courses.  This isn’t to say that they weren’t very good, but that Thai green curry was a lot to live up to!  My partner ordered the green tea Alaska, which looked super-cute, but the ice cream was rock hard.  Green tea is very much the in-thing at the moment, so if you’re a dedicated matcha lover then it’s worth giving this dish a whirl.

As for me, well it had to be the chocolate sphere with hot caramel sauce.  This dessert is getting to be a bit of Instagram staple, and rightly so.  Who doesn’t want to see a chocolate ball slowly melt and ooze into a naughty, saucy puddle?  The waitress poured the hot caramel over the chocolate; a piece of theatre that was justified in this case.  The chocolate slid away to reveal a centre of vanilla ice cream and berries, now surrounded by a pure chocolate and caramel sauce.  The berries were a welcome surprise as the dish was more than a little sickly, so their fresh sharpness was exactly what was required.

The addition of Chi Kitchen is a savvy move on the part of Debenhams.  I’m not a fan of spending time on Oxford Street or in large chain stores.  But I’d definitely go back to Chi Kitchen, which means that I may well end up in Debenhams more often than I usually would.  And that also means that I may spend more money there.  Is department store dining the way forward?  Who knows…  Two things are certain, however.  I need to start working my way through more of the Chi Kitchen mega-menu and I definitely need more of that Thai green curry.

Chi Kitchen, Ground Floor, Debenhams, 334-348 Oxford Street, W1C 1JG
A meal for two people, excluding drinks, averages £40 per person

Many thanks to Chi Kitchen and Neil Reading PR for inviting me to visit.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

The best Valentine’s Day I ever had didn’t involve hearts, flowers and chocolates.  It didn’t even include a card.  The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was spent with one of my closest friends, getting drunk in a rooftop bar in Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and is located in the south-east corner of the island.  While Havana is swiftly becoming sanitised, Santiago has all the faded elegance of the capital but feels grittier, grubbier, seedier.  It’s sweaty and tropical, closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than it is to Havana – both in terms of geography and atmosphere. Reggae mixes with salsa, the heat makes everything feel languid, yet the spirit of the revolución remains close to the surface.  It was the home of Frank País, a revolutionary who campaigned for the overthrow of Batista and who collaborated with Fidel Castro.  It was where Castro’s rebellion began, and where he eventually proclaimed victory in 1959.  It’s also where I found myself one Valentine’s Day…

Turns out that Valentine’s Day is a massive deal in Santiago.  It felt like the whole population was out in town that evening, dressed in their finest, parading arm in arm.  Heart shaped balloons were everywhere – outside restaurants, being carried by grinning girls, even in the form of giant balloon arches in the plazas.  “Careless Whisper” belted out of a huge sound system while couples enjoyed dinner out.  So popular is Valentine’s Day that it was completely impossible to get into any restaurant in town.  Everywhere was booked out.  After drifting aimlessly around town, we eventually wandered into the Hotel Libertad in the hope of at least grabbing a seat and a drink while we came up with a plan.  Little did we know that we wouldn’t be leaving until we stumbled out in the early hours of the morning.

The Hotel Libertad looked like most of the other old colonial hotels you find around Cuba.  A sky blue exterior gave way to an elegant interior, lots of marble, wrought iron etc.  Not a bad spot to kill some time.  However, my eagle-eyed friend spotted a sign saying “rooftop bar”. Several flights of narrow stairs later and we were in another sort of hotel altogether.  A makeshift sound system had been set up, pumping music videos onto a projector screen.  A simple bar contained one, slightly stressed, barman, a fridge full of beer and Coke, and lots of rum.  And best of all, we had a spectacular night time view over the sticky, pulsing city.  We were the only foreigners in the place, which did feel a little intimidating at first.  But we quickly realised that no-one cared who we were.  We were there for a good time and that was all that mattered.

As pretty much everyone knows, when you’re in Cuba, you drink rum.  It kind of goes without saying.  And Santiago de Cuba is actually where the Barcardi brand originated.  You won’t find Barcadi in Cuba though; the Castro government confiscated all of the company’s assets in 1960 and they moved overseas.  In its place is Santiago de Cuba rum, which is produced and bottled in the oldest distillery in Cuba.  I’m no rum conoisseur – unless I’m drinking the really good, really aged stuff it all just tastes like fire to me.  That’s why I prefer to drink it in cocktails.  My trip to Cuba so far had involved liberal consumption of Cuba Libres – rum, Coke and lime.  The lime didn’t always make an appearance and the rum usually filled up half a highball glass.  If you could see through the Coke, you knew it was going to be a good drink!  Valentine’s Day was no exception.  The barman spoke no English and the music was loud, but at least my basic Spanish included “two more Cuba Libres please”.  I always make a point of learning the important phrases…  The cocktails were strong and cheap.  Two turned into four, four into eight…well you get the picture.  Afterwards, we gatecrashed a party back at our own hotel, having mistaken it for a disco.  We still laugh about that night to this day.

I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day but I had felt a little sad earlier, having seen photos of my ex on Facebook celebrating with his new girlfriend.  But rum, music, dancing and laughing under the warm night sky of a Caribbean town?  Who needs romance when you have these things instead?

Where to eat on Seymour Place

Where to eat on Seymour Place

Once upon a time, I had a truly terrible job working for a company on Seymour Place.  I think I lasted all of four months, and they felt like the longest four months of my life.  There wasn’t even anything exciting in the area to make up for the work woes.  I spent my free time eating claggy pasta salad from the local caff or drinking cheap wine in one of the old man pubs nearby.  So, funnily enough, it’s not a part of town that I tend to frequent much these days.  But, London being what it is, Seymour Place has evolved and developed over the years into somewhere really rather interesting.  The lower part of the street, closest to Marble Arch, is now a hub of independent shops and restaurants, with everything from Italian to Basque to the good old fashioned British pub.

Bernardi’s
Located right at the bottom of Seymour Place, Bernardi’s is a slick Italian restaurant with the relaxed atmosphere of a neighbourhood bistro.  The team behind it – the Bernardi brothers and chef Sabrina Gidda – have injected both the venue and the food with a youthful energy, while still retaining classic Italian flavours.  A large globe of burrata was wonderfully squidgy, its richness offset by the sweet roasted peppers from the accompanying peperonata.  Cornish squid with garlic, parsley and peperoncino (a type of chilli) looked simple, but the perfectly tender squid and smack-in-the-mouth flavours demonstrated real culinary skill.  Italian staples like arancini and pizza are given a modern twist with the inclusion of more unusual ingredients such as n’duja, taleggio and celery leaf.

Donostia and Lurra
If you’re a lover of Basque food then you need to get down to Seymour Place asap, as you will find not one, but two, great Basque restaurants.  Both are owned by Melody Adams and Nemanja Borjanovic; a couple who decided to jump head first into the hospitality industry with no prior experience.  Their gamble has paid off because both Lurra and Donostia are now firmly on the culinary map.  If you’re feeling flush, go for the dry aged Galician Blond beef.  It’s everything a great steak should be.  The meat was presented on a sizzling hot plate and was already sliced, making it easy to share.  Not only was it melt-in-the-mouth tender, it embraced all the naughty stuff like beautifully rendered fat and a generous sprinkling of rock salt.  Their cheesy croquettas, bursting with bechamel sauce, are also worth checking out.

Vinoteca
I’m a big fan of the Vinoteca brand and have visited some of their other branches several times over the years.  They’re always reliable; you know that you’ll get good, safe food, together with a stellar wine list.  Their Seymour Place offering is consistent with the rest of the group.  It has a relaxed, bistro feel, with a broadly European menu that changes every day.  What’s more, they have over 300 different wines available – so even the most discerning oenophile will find something they like.  If Oxford Street drives you completely around the bend, then you can escape just around the corner to Vinoteca and numb the pain with a few glasses of wine.  It may only be a few minutes walk, but it feels a world away from the West End nightmare of nasty shops and slow moving tourists.

Sandy’s
Sandy’s is an old fashioned pizzeria – with a twist.  Their speciality is Corsican cuisine.  If you love beer and pizza but you’re bored of the usual fare, then I recommend paying Sandy’s a visit.  Their pizzas feature lots of gruyere; a departure from the usual mozzarella and indicative of that French/Italian fusion that’s so typically Corsican.  The pizza bases are light and thin, letting the toppings take priority.  They even have a pizza named after Napoleon Bonaparte, in a cheeky nod to Corsica’s history.  Another first for me was Corsican beer.  I’m not much of a beer drinker but I really enjoyed the glass of light, crisp Pietra that came with our pizzas.  Oh, and they also do takeaway.

The Gate
The Seymour Place location is the third and latest branch of vegetarian powerhouse, The Gate.  Even a dedicated carnivore like me can find something interesting on their menu (which has so many allergies flagged that it reads like a periodic table).  I tried their butternut rotolo – sage infused potato lined with a mushroom duxelle and stuffed with butternut squash.  It was served with smoked butter beans and courgettes, a maple parsnip puree and a few other miscellaneous veggies.  I’m pretty certain I got all of my five a day in one meal but, perhaps unsurprisingly, I found it all a bit too sickly and rich.  Their jalapeno margarita, on the other hand, was immense.  I consider myself to be a bit of a margarita connoisseur – or a bit of an alcoholic – and this fiery version of a classic ticked all the boxes.

The Portman
The Portman is a two in one experience.  Downstairs, it’s a traditional pub; upstairs, it’s a smart restaurant.  If “classic British” is what you’re after, then this is the place to be.  Their menu plays it fairly safe with dishes like fish and chips or pie of the day.  However, everything is given a little more finesse than you would perhaps expect from a West End boozer.  My shepherd’s pie was made with generous chunks of slow cooked lamb in a rich, meaty gravy, with fluffy mashed potato prettily piped over the top.  It was a hug in a pie dish.  In true “classic British” form, The Portman also specialises in game so you can expect to find things like venison, hare or teal on their daily changing menu.

Many thanks to The Portman Estate and Coverdale Barclay for giving me the opportunity to visit the restaurants on Seymour Place.  All views are, as ever, my own.

Ognisko

Ognisko

I generally try to avoid South Kensington as much as I can.  Despite the plethora of world-class museums in the area, it still manages to feel like bit of a soulless wasteland.  When I’m not being helplessly swept along by the tourist hoard, I’m aimlessly wandering around looking for a decent place to eat.  Somewhere that’s not a chain or life-ruiningly expensive.  So when my friend suggested we go to an exhibition at the V&A, I immediately went into panic mode.  A day out is just not complete without a bloody good lunch and there was no way we were going to end up in Carluccios.  Fortunately, I think I’ve managed to find the holy grail – an interesting, independent restaurant that isn’t going to break the bank.  Welcome to Ognisko.

Regular readers will know how much I like Polish food.  If there’s a menu that’s full of game, pork, some kind of fruity sauce, anything stodgy like dumplings, then I’m all over it.  Polish cuisine is a great big hug on a plate.  But it’s not really know for having much finesse, is it?  Well, Ognisko challenges this right from the outset.  It’s based in a beautiful townhouse at the north end of Exhibition Road.  Even the entrance alone whispers elegance and class.  In fact, it’s a club that was established in 1939 for the Polish community in Britain during World War II, which goes some way to explaining the rarefied feel, the warm yet deferential service.

Deciding what to eat was so hard!!  There were so many delicious looking dishes on the menu, plus whole sections just for dumplings, blinis and potato pancakes!  Eventually I settled on a starter of roast quail with spiced pearl barley and plum chutney.  The quail was served whole and had been spatchcocked, so I could get plenty of meat off it.  The plum chutney wasn’t a “chutney” as I know it, i.e. something fairly rustic and chunky.  It was a smooth plum sauce, but I wasn’t complaining because it was delicious and really united the whole dish.  Even the pearl barley, which I generally find about as exciting as dust, was tasty and added a different texture to the plate.  My partner in crime chose the smoked eel with Russian salad and a horseradish and mustard dressing.  The presentation was incredibly dainty, and the salad was the perfect foil for the smokiness of the eel.

For my main course, I went for the game option again.  I’m just so predictable…  But how could I resist roast haunch of venison with swiss chard and cherry sauce?  While it may not have looked quite as pretty as the starters did, the fact that the venison was cooked to absolute perfection more than made up for aesthetics.  The meat had clearly just kissed the pan and so was dreamily tender.  And, in my opinion, there are few things more delicious than that sharp pop of berries in the same mouthful of rich meat.  The one negative element was the duck breast that my friend ordered.  It had been over-cooked to the point of ruination – grey, chewy and unappetising.  Duck that’s not pink is pretty unforgivable in my book.

I feel that now is the right time to mention the dumplings.  Because, of course, we ordered dumplings on the side just like regular people would do.  Right?  We chose the fried kopytka dumplings with chestnuts and forest mushrooms.  I was expecting something like a few large crispy balls filled with mushrooms, but what we got actually resembled more of a pasta dish.  The dumplings were little strips of dough mixed into a creamy mushroom and chestnut sauce.  The sauce was absolutely stuffed with garlic and parsley; the smell of it alone was enough to make us drool.  Unsurprisingly, the dish was super-rich but we couldn’t stop eating it.  It was the gastronomic equivalent of crack cocaine.

The dessert selection looked pretty interesting; you could choose from the likes of caramelised spiced plums and Sliwowica flamed poached pear tart.  We were so full after all the dumplings and meat and stuff, that we decided to share a pudding.  Dietary requirements meant that we had to “make do” with a chocolate fondant.  Chocolate fondants are notoriously tricky to get right, as many a Masterchef contestant has demonstrated, but this one was bang on.  A torrent of chocolate sauce poured out from the middle, swirling into the vanilla ice cream and sour cherry compote that accompanied the fondant.  Delicious.

Ognisko was a real treat.  Not only because it’s always brilliant to discover a great “new” restaurant, especially in a part of town that so frequently disappoints, but also because it felt like the kind of place you visit for a bit of a splurge.  Everything from the elegant interior, the slick service and the sexy plating spoke of fine dining.  However, here’s the best bit, the prices didn’t.  Ognisko is pretty reasonably priced, with main courses in the region of £17-£19.  It’s also really close to all the museums, making it perfect for a day out.  Maybe there is hope for South Ken after all….?

Ognisko, 55 Princes Gate, Exhibition Road, SW7 2PG
I was lucky enough to have lunch bought for me as it was my birthday, so I don’t know exactly how much the bill was.  However, it was in the region of £80 for two people, including drinks.

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

With cheap flights to Europe seemingly a dime a dozen, it’s easy to overlook the delights of our very own green and pleasant land.  For a start, travel in Britain is expensive!  So, of course, it’s tempting to forgo a trip to the English countryside in favour of something a little more…well…foreign.  That’s a real shame though, because there are some darling destinations right on London’s doorstep.  The historic town of Rye, on the border of East Sussex  and Kent, rises up out of the endless flats of Romney Marsh as if it wants to flaunt its medieval beauty to the world.  And rightly so, because Rye is movie-set stunning.  What’s more, it is a haven of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  You won’t find a Starbucks or KFC.  Instead you get to discover the likes of Edith’s House and the Rye Deli.  Rye puts you in a situation where you have to take a punt on an unknown quantity.  And isn’t that what makes travel exciting?

I’d made a few day trips to Rye several years ago, but this time I was staying for a whole weekend.  I had booked myself into The Quarter House – a cosy medieval retreat in the heart of the town.  I was looking forward to a break after a particularly difficult few months, and the thought of escaping into the misty silence of a wintery Romney Marsh was really appealing.  As usual, though, I was looking forward to exploring new places to eat.  Even before I arrived, I had decided to treat myself to dinner at the Mermaid Inn, which is one of the oldest buildings in town (making it positively ancient).  Taking up prime position on the impossibly beautiful Mermaid Street, this hotel was rebuilt in 1420 but has cellars dating as far back as the 12th century.  Never mind the food; just spending time in a building like this is an experience.

The hotel restaurant has been awarded 2 AA rosettes and the menu celebrates local produce; something that always get a big tick from me.  However, something about the place was reminiscent of the hotel restaurants I’d experienced as a child in the 1980’s.  Obviously it was going to be dated – see above.  However, the dried hops and “Old Masters” decorating the walls, plus the rather formal service, all combined to create a weirdly “bad retro” vibe.   Furthermore, the staff were all dressed in a strange mix of historic costumes, although I’m not sure whether they do that all the time or if it was just because it was almost Christmas.  Their awkwardness was palpable.

Anyway, onto the food.  The Mermaid offers a set menu with two courses for £29.50 or three for £38.50.  I opted for a main and dessert, in a half-assed attempt to save money.  Thingskicked off with an amuse-bouche of butternut squash soup.  They may have thought that this would have been welcome on a cold, December night – and they wouldn’t have been too far off the mark.  The soup was tasty and comforting, as butternut squash should be, but also fairly average.  I’m also unconvinced by the effectiveness of aheavy soup as an amuse-bouche.

I was particularly excited about my main course: trio of Romney Marsh lamb.  Locally sourced lamb is usually fantastic and this was no exception.  Thelamb arrived in the form of a cutlet, a cricket ball of pulled lamb that was deep fried in breadcrumbs and some kind of fillet (the waitress wasn’t sure what).  It was accompanied by a potato mille-feuille, Jerusalem artichoke puree, poached apricots, green beans and a curry jus.  It was like one of those dishes you see cooked up by some hapless Masterchef contestant, desperate to show off all their skills in one go.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, the puree was earthy and the apricots added some welcome sweetness.  However, the potato mille-feuille could have done with being cooked for a bit longer in a lot more butter, and I couldn’t detect any curry flavour in the jus.  Although I wasn’t too sad about that last point.  The addition of curry probably wasn’t necessary.

Choosing dessert was particularly tricky, as there were so many tasty options on the menu.  After much hemming and hawing I eventually asked the waitress for her recommendation.  She suggested the blackberry souffle, with honey and vanilla infused blackberries and shortbread.  Now, I have a MASSIVE sweet tooth, but eating this was like licking a pot of  blackberry jam.  Don’t get me wrong, it did taste really good (albeit slightly under-cooked).  But I suspect it’s probably given me diabetes.

I was a little underwhelmed by the Mermaid Inn.  The food was ok, but the main draw is the beauty and the history of the building.  For really good food, head to another inn: The Ship Inn.  As with most places in Rye, the Ship is housed in a historic gem; the building dates from 1592, when it was a warehouse used for storing contraband seized from smugglers.  These days it’s a super-cosy restaurant with rooms, owned by the former proprietors of The Engineer in Primrose Hill.  That tells you everything.  Imagine a fabulous London gastropub transplanted into a medieval warehouse.  Squishy sofas and fairy lights mixed with wooden beams and flagstone flooring.  The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and I could tell straightaway that this was the kind of place you could easily lose a few hours in.

This was helped by the food.  The menu consists largely of straightforward comfort food, like steak or cottage pie.  The sort of thing you can you demolish without too much effort.  I actually decided to order a couple of things that I’d never tried before, starting with potted smoked cod.  This arrived in a jar with some wholewheat toast soldiers on the side.  The cod was blended to a pate-like consistency, making it easy to spread onto the toast, and had a surprisingly delicate flavour.  They could probably have got away with a bit more smoke, but overall it was an interesting and tasty dish.

The main course was where things got really good.  I ordered ricotta dumplings with butternut squash and sage.  Again, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I was delighted to be presented with a dish containing ricotta-stuffed dumplings the size of my fist, smothered in a cheesy sage and butternut squash sauce.  I use the word “sauce” rather loosely as it was actually more just like melted cheese.  It was the stuff dreams are made of.  I could feel myself melting into my chair with every creamy mouthful.  Admittedly, that might also have been because this dish was incredibly rich and therefore made me feel incredibly fat.  It was pure decadence.   It also meant that dessert was totally out of the question!

Rye is really easy to reach by train from London and there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a weekend.  It’s easy to forget just how much of a tonic it is to escape from the Big Smoke, even if that’s only taking a train to somewhere an hour away.  Rye may not be as exotic as Reykjavik or Rome, but it’s hard to beat when it comes to quintessential English beauty.  Sometimes a staycation can be just as rewarding as a trip across the Channel after all.

What are your thoughts on staycation vs vacation? Let me know in the comments.

Boulogne Bar

Boulogne Bar

A few months ago I wrote about the “London bubble“.  How it’s easy to get complacent, shuttling along from home to work to home, rarely visiting new areas.  Or maybe that’s just me?  Anyway, as per previous post, I have lived in London for a long time but there are still parts of town that I have never been to.  One of these is Kentish Town.  Which is a bit embarrassing actually, as it’s not like it’s on the furthest fringes of the city, like Edgware, or in a public transport vacuum like most of south-east London.  Although, in my defence, I’ve never really had any reason to go there.  But then I was invited to a cocktail masterclass at Boulogne Bar.  Where I would make martinis.  And drink mulled vodka.  Three perfectly good reasons to head north of the wall.

At first glance, the Boulogne Bar is cunningly disguised as a pub.  It’s tucked away upstairs at The Bull & Gate on Kentish Town Road.  The Bull & Gate is a rather lovely Youngs pub, which has a modern gastro feel to it but still retains a suitably “pubby” atmosphere.  As I visited the week before Christmas, it was wonderfully festive, complete with huge Christmas tree, open fires and loads of people clearly enjoying the fact that there were only a few days of work left.  While The Bull & Gate is a great place to settle in for a few hours, preferably with a good bottle of wine and a roast dinner, my appointment was with their sexy little sister upstairs.

According to their website, Boulogne Bar is inspired by the gentlemen’s clubs of a bygone era, and the contrast to the buzzy pub downstairs could not be more dramatic.  Dimly lit, with jewel coloured sofas, chandeliers and bookcases, it feels like all sorts of mischief could go on here.  As the bar was closed for the cocktail masterclass, the space felt even more intimate.  The evening was hosted by Kentish Town local, William Borrell; owner of well known ex-public toilet bar, Ladies and Gentlemen, and – as I have just found out – brother of the lead singer from Razorlight.  He has also set up Vestal Vodka and our little soiree at Bar Boulogne was also our introduction to his product.

We were welcomed with a “hot voddy”, which was kind of a mulled vodka made with warm apple juice and spices.  Perfect for a freezing December night.  We all then cosied up on the sofas while William gave us a brief intro to vodka – where I learned that most vodka is actually made from grain, not potatoes.  Vestal is, in fact, made from potatoes and its USP is that it’s a genuinely premium product, getting a score of 5+ from Diffords. In true Slavic style, we poured out shots of neat vodka but then used them to create something known as a nikolaschka.  This involved coating lemon wedges in sugar, perching them on top of the shot glasses and adding a few drops of bitters.  We then knocked back the vodka and sucked the lemon, in a more palatable version of a tequila slammer.

William then showed us how to make the perfect vodka martini, as well as imparting some nuggets of wisdom along the way.  For example, I had not realised that a dry martini is one with very little vermouth and that a dirty martini includes olives.  All I knew was that a martini generally tastes like firewater.  Of course, my friend and I didn’t do much to change that by adding far too much vodka to our martini – ooops!  Fortunately, William came to our rescue and we ended up with a lovely – albeit slightly strong – vodka martini each.

By this point we were pretty well sozzled and the rest of the group seemed to be heading in the same direction.  So of course, we thought it would be a great idea to do another nikolaschka before stumbling over the road to Ladies and Gentlemen.  But that is a story for another time…

It’s safe to say that we had an absolute blast at Boulogne Bar.  Their cocktail class was so much fun and, what’s more, everyone was really friendly.  I’m definitely heading back to see what the bar’s like during normal service, especially as their cocktail menu looks fantastic (Cherry Amaretto Sour? Yes please).  And, over the course of one night, I discovered three great venues.  I started off with three transient reasons to visit Kentish Town, but now I have three very firm reasons to go back.

The Bull and Gate/Boulogne Bar, 389 Kentish Town Road, NW5 2TJ

Many thanks to the team at Boulogne Bar for inviting me along to their cocktail masterclass.  All views are, as ever, my own.

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

Yes, everyone keeps saying that 2016 has been the worst year ever.  But when it comes to food and drink, this year has been a cracker.  With more new restaurants and more foodie entrepreneurs than ever, there is no excuse to eat badly.  Here are the best things that I snaffled into my greedy face this year:

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen
I wanted to eat everything on Arabica Bar & Kitchen’s menu.  I’ve eaten a lot of samey mezze over the years, but these guys really know how to sex it up.  It’s easy to be bamboozled by choice; however, you should definitely include the chicken and pistachio shish in your order.  Forget all about those dry old shish kebabs you may have had the misfortune to eat in the past.  These little skewers are succulent, dripping with meat juices and are infused with the flavours of the Middle East.

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Kürtöskalács in Budapest
Yeah I have no idea how to pronounce it either.  But that won’t be a hinderance to you when you visit Budapest because you can find it everywhere.  It’s a chimney cake made from a doughnut style dough and rolled in sugar.  It’s served hot with various toppings, like nuts or desiccated coconut, but I chose good old fashioned cinnamon.  It was huge but worth every stomach-straining bite.

Fried chicken waffle from Waffle On
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating at Maltby Street market.  However, I can definitely recommend the fried chicken waffle with maple syrup butter from Waffle On.  Street food is generally naughty but this is really decadent.  The chicken is fried to perfection, and the combination of sweet and savoury flavours here is sheer bliss.

Rabbit risotto from Cafe Murano
Rabbit’s another one that is so often dry and dull.  And a perfect risotto sometimes feels like the holy grail. Not so when these things are in the hands of the chefs at Cafe Murano.  The risotto was creamy, topped off with chunks of juicy rabbit meat and a drizzle of stock.  It’s a wonderfully, sinfully rich dish that stood out on a menu that was full of wonderful dishes.

The Meihua Shan at Oriole
Many bars claim to be “speakeasies” but Oriole probably comes closest to the real deal.  For a start, it’s genuinely hard to find.  I walked past it a couple of times in increasing confusion.  But once you’re in, you’re truly through the looking glass.  Their incredible cocktail list – inspired by the golden age of exploration – helps to transport you to another era and another world.  Again, you can be bamboozled by choice (and some unusual ingredients), but the Meihua Shan is worth splashing the cash on.  Made with Hendricks gin, plum rosolio, juniper chou syrup, egg white and lemon, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.  And, as with all the cocktails from the team behind Nightjar, it looked like a work of art.

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

All of the cheese from La Latteria
La Latteria specialise in mozzarella, stracciatella and ricotta.  And they do this exceptionally well.  Scoffing down a plate of their ricotta felt incredibly naughty – it was that creamy.  Then I did the same with their stracciatella.  Seemingly simple produce that, when done well, tastes exquisite.  Find them at newbie food destination, Mercato Metropolitano.

Pork confit bao from BAO
Yes, this has become a bit of “a classic” but justifiably so.  Judging by Instagram, I think everyone in London has now eaten this but, if you haven’t, then brave the queue at the door of BAO.  This little squidgy mouthful is worth it.  As is the rest of the menu.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat
Goat is a much under-rated meat but, when it’s handled well, it’s delicious.  Gourmet Goat know exactly what they are doing and their goat kofte salad is delightful.  The meat is tender and flavoursome, and the salad is one of the tastiest I have eaten.  It was packed with beetroot, chickpeas, goat kurd and came with a punchy chilli “pistou” – and I gobbled the whole thing up in a matter of minutes.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

Everything I ate at Rotorino
Admittedly, I’d had a few shandies before my friend and I decided to grab a bite here.  But everything I ate here was delicious.  So much so, that it managed to make an impression through the fog of gin that surrounded me – and one that has lasted.  My starter of marinated mackerel with pinenuts, almonds and breadcrumbs was fresh and zingy.  The roast chicken on toast (yes, toast!) that followed was one of the tastiest roast chooks I have eaten (although annoyingly a little under-cooked in places).  The buttermilk pannacotta with rhubarb for dessert was perfectly executed.  Can’t wait to go back.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses from Meza
It’s taken me 7 years to get around to going to Meza in my ‘hood of Tooting.  I now can’t believe that I have gone without their chicken livers for so long.  Melt-in-the-mouth with a sticky, sweet, tangy dressing and a great smack of Middle Eastern spices.  I think I might have to nip up the road and get some now….!

“Strawberries and Cream” from Fifteen 
This wasn’t a dish of strawberries and cream.  It was actually a cocktail, made for this year’s London Cocktail Week.  The list of ingredients was as long as my arm but the end result was simple and elegant.  It really did taste of strawberries and cream, reminiscent of those old fashioned boiled sweets.  And of course it looked as pretty as a picture.

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

Slow cooked beef cheek pie from The Holly Bush
My second choice dish from the menu at The Holly Bush in Hampstead actually turned out to be the right decision after all.  This “proper” pie was fully encased in buttery shortcrust pastry and stuffed full of the most tender chunks of beef cheek I have ever eaten.  It came with a rich, dark gravy and every mouthful was a pleasure.  Comfort food at its best.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye
This dish.  My God.  Ricotta, sage, pumpkin all forming a perfect storm of flavour.  It was so delicious and so comforting to eat.  The cheese was rich and gooey, counterbalanced by the sweetness of the roast pumpkin.  Exactly the sort of thing you want to eat on a dark, chilly winter’s night on the Sussex marshes.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

Disappointment of the year: Hatchetts
Hatchetts, a new arrival in 2016, had a limited, unimaginative menu that was very over priced for what they offered.  Weirdly, they had a “Christmas dinner” on their standard lunch menu when I visited.  I ordered it because the other three main courses available appealed to me far less than this one did (which is saying something).  It was average.  So was their chocolate fondant dessert.  The plates were stone cold and the restaurant was empty.  When you charge premium prices then you should deliver a premium experience.  This was just lazy and complacent.

I ate a lot over the course of 2016, but I barely scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants and bars that are only in London  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions but I think, for 2017, I’m going to have just one: eat more.

If you have any recommendations for me then drop me a line.  I’d love to hear them.  Happy New Year!

Tub 4 Grub/The Collective

Tub 4 Grub/The Collective

Raw cookie dough as part of the Tub 4 Grub campaign

I have a confession to make.  I hardly ever cook.  For someone who writes about food, this is a little embarrassing.  The thing is, I used to love cooking.  I’m a total feeder.  I cooked for friends, colleagues and loved ones, and I would always go crazy, making more food than they could possibly eat.  I cooked for my boyfriend all the time.  In fact, I became a proper little domestic goddess, enjoying nothing more than getting out of bed at the crack of dawn to cook him an amazing breakfast.  We hosted parties together and I would push myself to produce fantastic dishes to impress his friends.  I baked him cakes and pies just because.  We grew fat and happy.  Then the relationship ended and a rug was pulled out from under my feet.  As he fell out of love with me, so I fell out of love with cooking.

But sometimes life gives you a much-needed kick up the backside.  For me, this came in the form of The Collective and their Tub 4 Grub campaign.  The Collective make yoghurt.  You may have seen their tubs in your local supermarket.  Initially started in New Zealand, they were so successful that they expanded to the UK.  With interesting flavours like honeyed plum with stem ginger, Russian fudge or wild blueberry, it’s not difficult to see why they are doing so well.  But they also give a little something back.  Tub 4 Grub is an initiative that they started to support Action Against Hunger, with the goal of raising £20,000.  Once you’ve eaten your tub of The Collective yoghurt, don’t throw it away.  Wash it out, fill it with goodies (ideally ones you have made yourself), personalise it, then give it away to someone who needs a treat.  All tubs sold will raise money for Action Against Hunger and the team will donate a further 50p if you share your good deed on social media.

Tubs of The Collective yoghurt

I think this is a really lovely idea so, when I was approached about participating, I jumped at the chance.  And I knew exactly who I wanted to donate my tub to.  CARAS is a charity based just around the corner from me in Tooting.  They support refugees and asylum-seekers, particularly women and children, through a range of services such as mentoring, outreach and training.  Now, more than ever, it feels appropriate to do something, even if that’s only a small thing like baking biscuits.  Here was a reason to get back in the kitchen.

Making cookies for Tub 4 Grub

There are a few recipes on the Collective website, but I decided to make chocolate chip cookies because, well, who doesn’t like chocolate chip cookies.  Plus, biscuits are generally really easy to make and I’m more than a little rusty when it comes to baking.  I followed a great recipe from the BBC Good Food website, which was quick and straightforward.  Ok, so my cookies didn’t look quite like the photo on the BBC website…..  But they tasted good which is the main thing.  I filled up several tubs, labelled them and set off to CARAS.  A children’s group was running as I arrived.  Despite the dreary weather, the children were playing outside, running about and laughing – which is exactly what children should be doing.  I don’t know where they came from and I don’t know what they have been through, but I sincerely hope that life for these kids will only get better from now on.

Freshly baked chocolate chip cookies

The team at CARAS were so lovely and were also very kind about my slightly rubbish cookies.  What’s more, I began to remember why I used to enjoy cooking.  I guess it’s twofold.  Firstly, creating something is always pleasing.  You feel like you’ve achieved something, even if it’s some squished biscuits that you can make in a morning.  Secondly, the act of sharing food is incredibly meaningful.  Not just from the sense of pride that you get when someone enjoys your cooking, but also the connections that you make as a result.  So I’d like to say “thank you” to The Collective for giving me the motivation to dust off my pots and pans, dig out my apron and use something other than the microwave.  And my friends had better watch out because I’m going to be making you fat once again!

Thanks to The Forge and The Collective for introducing me to the Tub 4 Grub campaign.  If you want to take part then visit The Collective website for more details and remember to share your efforts on social media using #tub4grub.

The Holly Bush

The Holly Bush

The exterior of The Holly Bush pub in Hampstead

Picture the scene.  You plan a long-overdue visit to one of your favourite restaurants.  You sit down, browse the menu and immediately spot an amazing sounding dish.  This is definitely what you are going to order and you can’t wait to tuck in.  But then – disaster! The waitress informs you that it’s not actually available.  A mistake was made and the menu is incorrect.  Sad times….  This is exactly what happened on my visit to The Holly Bush in Hampstead and, needless to say, I was more than a little irritated.  However, all was not lost.  This story does have a happy ending…

The Holly Bush is a wonderful pub.  It’s tucked away in a pretty corner of Hampstead, a neighbourhood that has more than its fair share of pretty corners.  One of my favourite things to do at this time of year is go for a wander on Hampstead Heath followed by a slap-up meal in The Holly Bush. The pub is made for cosy winter days – a warren of rooms, all wood panelling, log fires and hearty, seasonal food.  It’s the sort of place that American tourists dream of when they think of an English pub.  It feels like the perfect country pub which means you can forget that you’re in the middle of a big city.  And sometimes this is a very good thing.

Game terrine in The Holly Bush pub

Disappointment over menu cock-up aside, we got stuck into our lunch. My starter of game terrine with pickles and bread might have frustrated the We Want Plates brigade, but I quite liked its rustic presentation on a wooden board.  The terrine – made with rabbit and duck – arrived in a sealed jar which was packed full of big chunks of meat.  While the serving was generous, the same can’t be said for the flavour; I found the whole dish a little bland and under-seasoned for my tastes.  However, the meat was lovely and tender, and the pickles provided a welcome sharp note.  My friend ordered the ravioli with artichoke and ricotta in a lemon and poppy seed butter sauce.  This was perhaps an unusual choice but it tasted delicious.  Really light and tangy.

The main course was where I’d had to plump for a “second best” option.  I had wanted roast goose leg.  I got beef cheek pie.  I enjoy a good pie as much as the next greedy bastard, but they’re a bit ordinary.  Or so I thought.  I must admit that I was fully expecting a fairly generic dish of stew with a puff pastry lid and a bit of veg lolling around on the side.  What I got was The Beast.  This was a pie of medieval proportions, the kind of pie that would do someone an injury if you lobbed it into their face.  It was fully encased in shortcrust pastry, which makes it a proper pie in my book, and was chock full of HUGE chunks of beef cheek.  The meat was velvety and just the right side of fatty.  The gravy was rich.  The pie arrived perched, castle-like, on top of smooth mashed potato and some token green veg (which was actually very tasty).  A moat of gravy and mushroom sauce swirled around it.  I tried to eat it all.  I failed.  Not because it wasn’t absolutely bloody amazing, but because my eyes are bigger than my belly.  It did not go to waste, however, because my friend took offence to such a thing of beauty being ignored and gobbled it all up.  After having already polished off a steak.

Beef cheek pie, mash, gravy in The Holly Bush pub

Despite being painfully full at this point, I still ordered a pudding.  This was for two reasons.  Firstly, there is such a thing as a pudding belly, which entirely separate to the main belly and therefore needs filling.  What do you mean “you just made that up as an excuse for your own greed”?  Secondly, The Holly Bush generally does really good puds.  We both chose the apple, pear and blackberry crumble which came with ginger ice cream.  The crumble element was the definitely best bit.  The fruit base hadn’t been cooked down enough, so it was slightly watery and the fruit itself was a little hard.  The ginger ice cream, however, was lovely.  A great flavour to pair with a fruit crumble.

Apple, pear and blackberry crumble in The Holly Bush pub

The Holly Bush is kind of a fairy tale pub and, like all good fairy stories, my lunch came with a few twists and turns.  I didn’t manage to best The Beast single-handed but, with assistance from a trusty companion, the challenge was overcome.  Ultimately, we strolled off into the sunset (thanks to the short winter days) and lived happily ever after….

The Holly Bush, 22 Holly Mount, NW3 6SG
Approximately £80 for two people including drinks

The Holly Bush Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Plot Twist

The Plot Twist

Flaming cheese wheel at The Plot Twist

Beans on toast.  Steak and chips.  Wine and cheese.  All pretty familiar meal time combinations.  But Hungarian food together with Italian food?  Never heard of that one before!  While both of these cuisines rank pretty highly on my list of favourite foods, I’ve never eaten them in the same sitting.  There may well be a reason for that, which I shall come to later.  However, I found myself indulging in the staple food of both of these great nations thanks to The Plot Twist and their new pop-up restaurant in Holborn.  If comfort food is your thing then you need to hit these guys up because you won’t be disappointed.

The Plot Twist are actually a couple – both in business and in love.  Tamas is Hungarian and Agata is Italian, hence the cuisine mash-up.  They have run a few other foodie events around London, but they have now teamed up with two Italian chefs (The Cuoppo) and opened their first ever pop-up bar and kitchen.  If there was ever a time of year to open a restaurant focusing on solid, stick-to-your-ribs food it’s now.  The menu is fairly brief and comprises mainly of goulash and pasta, with a few lighter options to start.  We kicked off with the Hungarian-Italian charcuterie and cheese board.  This was a mixture of meats and cheeses from both countries, served with pickles and the most delicious little fried bread balls called zeppoline.  I had no idea what bits came from what country (apart from the bread and the pickles) but it was all tasty, standard charcuterie board fare.  I could have easily demolished a plate of the zeppoline alone – and, as they are a menu item in their own right, I would recommend you get stuck in.

Goulash soup in a bread bowl at The Plot Twist

Next up was goulash soup served in a bread bowl.  I visited Budapest earlier this year where I ate a lot of goulash soup, all of it excellent and therefore a very tough act to follow.  The version by The Plot Twist lacked some of the layers of flavour, and the dumpling to meat ratio was a bit skewed towards the dumplings.  I do love dumplings so this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.  However, there was the slight issue of the huge loaf of bread/soup bowl already vying for space in my stomach.  When I’m faced with fresh, crusty bread that is soaked in a rich, meaty sauce then, of course, I’m going to eat it.  It’s kind of a no-brainer.  Although it’s perhaps not too sensible when you’re munching your way through a carb-tastic feast of epic proportions.

Cheese and sausage pasta at The Plot Twist

Speaking of which, the next stage of this culinary odyssey did not disappoint – both in terms of taste and its ranking on the carb-o-meter.  It was tubetti pasta with potatoes (yes, potatoes!) and sausage from a flaming wheel of Parmesan cheese.  This bears repeating: a flaming wheel of Parmesan cheese.  Our chef literally flambéed a huge slab of cheese in front of us, which was then used to make the pasta sauce.  There are few things better than melted cheese, unless you’re talking about melted cheese with pasta.  And sausage.  This dish was rich.  Like, Bill Gates rich.  But the sausage had a lovely, slightly nutmeggy, flavour that really complemented the cheese and cut through some of the creaminess.  The whole thing was a fun spectacle and, like the goulash before, it was the perfect meal for a chilly November day.

No matter how full I am, I can always find room for pudding.  I was very excited that our dessert came from Hungary and, furthermore, was something I hadn’t even heard of.  Túró Rudi is a curd cheese cylinder wrapped in a thin layer of chocolate, which came served with a sticky cherry sauce. Hungarian puds are notoriously rich, but this was pleasingly light and very easy to eat.  This might have something to do with the fact that it’s not actually a pudding, in the strictest sense of the word, but was actually a chocolate bar that was popular in Hungary during the 1960s!  Of course, this version had been pimped up for us but I love the idea of retro chocolate.  It tasted pretty good too; just creamy enough with a welcome sweetness from the cherry sauce.  Maybe one day there will be a hipster pop-up specialising in retro desserts from around the world….?

Turo Rudi dessert at The Plot Twist

So, the reason why you don’t usually eat Hungarian and Italian food at the same time?  It’s heavy.  Really, really heavy.  With lots of carbs.  And it always tastes really good so you just keep on eating, even though you’re already painfully full.  Both of these countries have a reputation for delicious food that is cooked by people who really like to feed you, and The Plot Twist ticks all of these boxes.  The menu is simple but tasty; homely, hearty food that you could imagine eating alongside Tamas, Agata and their families.  Plus they offer an excellent wine list which, as both Italy and Hungary make amazing wine, is another very good reason to visit.   They are only around until 21st December so you need to get in there fast.  But maybe don’t eat for a few days first.

The Plot Twist x The Cuoppo, 51 Red Lion Street, WC1R 4PF
Many thanks to Tamas and Agata for inviting me to try their food.  All views are, as ever, my own.