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

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

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 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

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.

Tang at St Giles

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Don’t get me wrong.  I love autumn.  In fact, it’s probably my favourite time of year.  But the combination of the clocks going back and stupidly long hours spent in the office have left me in need of a little pick-me-up.  And pick-me-ups don’t get much littler than Tang.  Not because it didn’t have the desired effect, but because it is genuinely tiny.  This weeny Chinese restaurant is hidden away in one of those strangely unpalatable parts of the West End, just off Tottenham Court Road, and you’ll definitely need to keep your eyes peeled to find it.  It’s worth wandering up and down the tourist-choked streets of WC1, however, because Tang is a hidden treasure.

Tang is actually is part of the St Giles Hotel, which is another reason why you might walk straight past it as it’s a singularly unattractive building.  The hotel is more than a little dated, particularly when compared with some of their other hotels, but Tang itself radiates hipster chic.  The walls are covered with Chinese newspapers and old photographs, and you sit on long wooden benches at long wooden tables.  Perhaps this is a sign that the St Giles hotel group are moving towards a more contemporary feel.  Another sign is our reason for being there in the first place: the launch of St Giles 360.  This is a new immersive marketing tool aimed at giving visitors a window into each of the 6 locations where St Giles are based – London, New York, Manila, Penang, Sydney and Kuala Lumpur.

St Giles 360 is a really fun, innovative device but I’m all about food, not technology.  The team at Tang served up a tasting menu containing some fabulous Asian comfort food.  We started with the ambiguously named Black and White.  This was crispy homemade black bean tofu with a white miso dipping sauce.  Now, I probably wouldn’t order something like this if I was presented with a choice.  I would always choose something meaty over boring old bean curd.  However, this was probably my favourite dish of the night, which surprised me as much as it surprised those who know me well.  The little tofu bites were perfectly cooked, with just the right texture, and the miso sauce was delightfully tangy.  I could have happily spent the entire evening stuffing these into my face.

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Next up was a fried chicken bao served with hot sauce.  So basically an Asian-style chicken burger.  Was Tang taking inspiration from Colonel Sanders?  Don’t be daft.  For a start that hot sauce was HOT.  Seriously.  We were all doing that thing of trying to casually maintain conversations and style it out, as the sweat began to drip off our foreheads  But the chicken was that great combination of crispy and tender, which went perfectly with the soft little bao.  Again, I could have devoured a few more of these despite the face-melting sauce.

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We were then presented with a bowl containing braised beef short ribs, Asian vegetables and jasmine rice.  The smell coming off this dish was fantastic.  Just one whiff transported me straight to the Far East.  It was intoxicating and got me really excited about tasting it.  Sadly, the flavour did not live up to expectations.  Yes the meat was rich and tender, but overall the dish was bland.  I have no idea how something can smell so incredibly appetising but then fail to deliver on taste.   I hadn’t actually spotted the little pots of sauces on the table, which was a shame as they probably would have given this course the extra bit of ooomph it needed.

At this point I was pretty well stuffed but there was still one more course to go.  This was the chicken tang: a roast chicken broth with poached chicken, bean sprouts, egg, ginger sauce and noodles.  This is exactly the sort of thing you should be eating on a cold, damp November night.  I could feel that ginger sauce valiantly fighting off any winter lurgies that may have been hanging around.  Chicken soup is always a winner when you need bucking up and when it comes packed with all sorts of lovely extras, like that soft boiled egg, it’s a sure fire hit.

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Tang is a charming little bolthole, where you can eat the Asian equivalent of soul food and pretend that the outside world doesn’t exist.  It helps that there are no windows – not as grim as it sounds, honestly – so you can forget that you’re on that nasty corner by Tottenham Court Road tube, the Dominion Theatre and a Crossrail crater.  The menu is extremely reasonably priced – the most expensive dish is £10 – and the servings are generous.  I loved the extra little touches, like the beautiful crockery, that made the place feel more like someone’s kitchen instead of a restaurant.  Avoid the soulless chains and seek this place out because Tang puts the heart into an area of London that needs it most.

Tang London, 111 Great Russell Street, WC1B 3NQ
Many thanks to Talker Tailor Troublemaker, Colin Woods and St Giles Hotels for inviting me to the launch of St Giles 360.  All views, as ever, are my own.  

Tang Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pascual Toso: Tasting Argentinian Wine

A selection of bottles of Pascual Toso wine

I don’t write about wine very often.  I think this is probably for two reasons.  Firstly, despite attending many wine tastings, I still don’t know that much about wine.  This is probably because of the second reason: I always end up drinking too much wine and forgetting everything.  However, it’s safe to say that I am very enthusiastic about drinking wine, so hopefully that makes up for my lack of expertise.  Recently, I made a big dent in a selection of wines by the Argentinan winery Pascual Toso.  This was a really fun experience, not only because I got to hang out with loads of lovely bloggers, but also because we got to learn all about the wine directly from the winemaker himself, Felipe Stahlschmidt.

Pascual Toso, the eponymous founder of the winery, was actually Italian, not Argentinian.  Back at the end of the 19th century, he left his home in Piedmont and travelled to Argentina.  Having been involved in his family’s winery in Piedmont, he recognised that there was potential for winemaking in his new home.  He established his first winery in 1890 and the rest, as they say, is history.  You know that a wine is going to be good when it’s got over 100 years of expertise behind it.

A glass of red wine

Anyway, onto the wine itself.  Argentina is known for its big, bold reds and Pascual Toso was no exception. We kicked off with that classic Argentinian wine – Malbec.  The Pascual Toso Estate 2014 Malbec – their “entry level” variety – was everything you would expect.  It was peppery and spicy, with hints of berries which took the edge off the oak.  It tasted lighter on the palate than a lot of other Malbecs that I have tried – which is probably a dangerous thing!  I took a bottle of this home with me and discovered that it goes fantastically well with camembert!  The next wine was also from the Estate collection but this time it was a Cabernet Sauvignon, also from 2014.  This is another favourite of mine and it did not disappoint.  Classic Cab Sav flavours of berries and vanilla made it very easy to drink.

As per all wine tastings, we worked our way steadily towards the really good stuff.  A Malbec from the Selected Vines collection was richer and fuller bodied than the first one we had tried.  It had that “ooomph” that I have come to associate with Malbec, and I could easily imagine enjoying a couple of glasses with a great piece of steak.  The Selected Vines collection is so called because Pascual Toso only use grapes from specially selected vineyards, and it certainly tasted like it was a bit more special.  Things were kept interesting with the inclusion of a spicy Syrah, before we moved on to the cream of the crop: The Magdalena Toso.  The Magdalena Toso is the ultra-premium blend of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvigon, and was created as a tribute to Pascual Toso’s mother.  This really was a treat.  Why choose between a Malbec and a Cab Sav when you can get the best of both worlds?  The combination of the two grapes created a real depth of flavour, that was also soft on the palate.

A winemaker holding a bottle of Pascual Toso wine

The great thing about all of these wines is that none of them – with the exception of the Magdalena Toso – are particularly expensive.  They start at £10 which is a steal for wine this drinkable.  And, of course, I did end up drinking too much of it.  But why change the habit of a lifetime, eh?

Pascual Toso wine can be found at Soho Wines, Whalley Wine Shop and The Vintner.  If you want to treat yourself to the Magdalena Toso then you can buy it from Addison Wines Online
Many thanks to The Forge for inviting me along to the wine tasting.  All views are, as ever, my own.

London Cocktail Week 2016

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My poor liver.  It’s taken a bit of a battering lately.  All in the name of research, you understand…. Recently one of my favourite events took place – London Cocktail Week.  Now, usually I try and pace myself, spread my “investigations” throughout the week, break it up a bit.  But this year?  No.  This year I decided to cram it all into the final weekend.  So it was less “London Cocktail Week”, more “London Cocktail Weekend”.  Never before have I planned a drinking sesh with such military precision, and never before have I necked drinks with such speed when it’s not closing time.  However, I lived to tell the tale so here are my highlights from London Cocktail Week:

Strawberries & Cream – Fifteen
The recipe list for this cocktail read like a random collection of ingredients – including gin, tarragon and cider vermouth – so I was intrigued to see if the end result really would taste like strawberries and cream.  And do you know what?  It actually did.  In fact, it reminded me of one of those boiled sweets that used to be around when I was a kid.  It tasted deceptively simple for what was clearly a very complex drink.  What’s more, it was one of the prettiest cocktails I have ever seen. Pure elegance.

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Rhubarb Margarita – The Drunken Monkey
The barman managed to totally confuse me by offering three different flavours; not helped by the fact that he was a bit of a mumbler.  It really doesn’t take much, especially when I’m already a few cocktails down… Fortunately I guessed correctly and ended up with the drink I’d had my eye on: the rhubarb margarita.  All bars should offer this version of a margarita.  The tartness of rhubarb just works amazingly with tequila and triple sec.  This British twist on a Mexican classic was simply great.

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Hebrides & Ivory – Milroys
I often shop in Milroys – a gorgeous old whisky shop in Soho – but I’ve never stayed for a drink.  To be honest, their LCW cocktail wasn’t up there with my favourites, although I’m not a fan of whisky cocktails to start with.  What I loved here was the atmosphere.  The amber glow of whisky fills the creaky old shop and it’s probably one of the cosiest places to while away these chilly autumn evenings.  What’s more, the staff are knowledgeable, friendly and funny. While I wasn’t keen on their cocktail of Kilchoman Machair Bay Scotch whisky, Couer de Genepi, St Germain and grapefruit bitters, I’ll definitely be back for their single malts.

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Langers in Manhattan – 46 & Mercy
These guys “won” the dubious honour of creating my favourite cocktail of LCW 2015, so I was intrigued by what they would pull out of the bag this year.  Langers in Manhattan did not disappoint (my Cork friends may well have a little titter here).  Made with only three ingredients – Jameson Caskmates Irish whisky, Cocchi di Torino vermouth and homemade chilli liqueur – this drink was incredibly interesting.  It was sweetness, sharpness and heat all in one glass, with a rich caramel taste before the bite of the chilli kicked in.  I probably couldn’t drink too many and my lips did start to feel like they were melting but, once again, these guys have delivered a stunner.

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Blossom Martini – The Harcourt
Once upon a time I worked for an awful property company on Seymour Place.  I would regularly meet friends of mine for after-work drinks in The Harcourt Arms, which was an unassuming “Swedish pub” around the corner from my office.  It has had a bit of a makeover, dropped the “Arms” and is now an upmarket Scandinavian restaurant.  Their LCW offering was one of the new “Sip and Snack” deals introduced this year: for a bit of extra cash you get a cocktail with a paired snack.  The Blossom Martini was made with homemade lemongrass infused Absolut Elyx vodka, fresh lemon, ginger and pink peppercorn syrup, rose liqueur and cherry bitters, and was served with gravadlax on rye bread.  The cocktail itself was surprisingly sweet and refreshing, and it was clear that a lot of love and effort had gone into it.  I was also particularly impressed with their rye bread, which can often taste like a bit of cardboard.  Here, it was sweet, malty and soft.  If this is indicative of the quality of their food, then I’d love to go back for dinner.

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Leonard Woolf – The Bloomsbury Club
My reaction upon taking a sip of this cocktail was “ooooooooh that is SO good!”.  Both the cocktail and bar were exactly what I needed on a wet, cold London afternoon.  The bar itself is a charming little bolthole in the depths of the Bloomsbury Hotel.  It’s like stepping back in time, to a more charming era, with the exquisite service to match. The cocktail was another simple one: Maker’s Mark bourbon, Monin ginger syrup and orange bitters.  It was comforting and rich – and would no doubt make a great variation on a hot toddy.  This is the first whisky cocktail I have ever liked, which is really saying something.

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The Monkey Club – Graphic
Graphic is one of my all-time favourite bars, and was one of the few places where the cocktail-making process was explained.  Their take on a Clover Club included Monkey 47 gin and Cocchi di Torino vermouth.  It was fruity, sweet, bursting with berries and tasted a bit like an alcoholic smoothie.  It was so easy to drink that I was able to finish it off in record time, due to the fact that I was actually sitting at someone else’s table. Kudos to the security staff who helped me find a spare seat.

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As usual, it was great to see such innovation and creativity on display – plus LCW is a fantastic excuse to try out new bars and visit some old favourites.  London really does have some of the best bars in the world.  There were so many amazing cocktails but my absolute top choice this year was the Strawberries & Cream by Fifteen.  It was so clever and was clearly created by someone who really understands flavour.  Not only did it taste delicious, it looked a treat too.

I’d like to say that I’m now going to detox for a bit but I think we all know that’s a lie….

Chifafa

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You don’t mess with a man’s kebab.  No, that’s not a euphemism.  This was a piece of advice given to me by my teenage crush John, back when I used to hang out in the dive bars and clubs of Newport.  You see, John was more interested in his post-club styrofoam container of kebab meat and chips than he was in talking to me so, in a fit of pique, I knocked it out of his hands and on to the floor.  It did not have the desired effect.  With his faith in the five second rule clearly intact, John gathered his food off the pavement and so spoke those words of wisdom.  I have never forgotten them.  Just as I have never forgotten all those awful kebabs I ate in days gone by – much as I would like to.  So would a trip to Chifafa – London’s first gourmet kebab restaurant – convince me that kebabs are worth eating sober?

I recently met with Nick Green, co-founder of Chifafa, over lunch in his Clerkenwell restaurant.  Nick is a brave, brave man.  A former journalist, he decided to open a restaurant with absolutely no experience whatsoever.  And he didn’t go for a nice, safe restaurant either; something like a burger bar or “modern European”.  Nope, he chose to open a restaurant specialising in kebabs.  Nick believes that the kebab is actually a bit of an unsung hero.  Meat, salad, bread.  Fundamentally there is nothing wrong with these three things.  In fact, a meal made of of these three things can actually be rather healthy – if it’s done right.  And there’s the kicker.  That classic image of the dirty post-club kebab just makes you think of the sweaty looking “elephant leg”, chips and maybe a token bit of salad.  No-one cares where the meat is from.  A simple dish ends up being lazy and unpleasant.

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So Nick’s challenge is to make a kebab as good as it can possibly be.  This extends to the entire experience.  You won’t find an elephant leg in Chifafa, nor will you find any styrofoam or strip lighting.  The trendy Clerkenwell vibe is evident in spades.  The restaurant is urban, industrial and buzzing.  People are queuing almost out of the door.  This bodes well.  Could these kebabs really be *that* good?  The menu itself is simple: five different types of kebab, rice boxes, salad boxes, sides.  Being an indecisive sort of person, I was glad to see that two of my favourite fillings were available as a combo – lamb and halloumi.  It arrived piping hot, was roughly the size of my forearm and stuffed full of meat, cheese, salad and sauce.  Nick may be hoping to challenge the belief that a kebab is “man food”, but dainty this was not.

Undeterred, I chomped into it and – despite making a horrendous mess –  really rather enjoyed it.  Nick is absolutely right.  When a kebab is made with fresh, good quality ingredients, it’s actually a lovely thing.  The lamb was wonderfully tender, having been marinated for 24 hours in a mix of 17 spices.  And the bread…..oh wow the bread!  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Nick and the team wanted to move away from the traditional pitta bread.  Instead they use souvlaki bread as it’s much softer.  I could seriously have eaten just a plate of bread.  The only minor gripe is that they weren’t all that generous with the halloumi.  There is no such thing as too much halloumi.  Nick’s chicken kebab came with crumbled feta, cucumber and a mint tahini youghurt.  Definitely not the sort of thing you’ll find down your local kebab house.  It tasted amazing; such a great combination of flavours and the freshness of the ingredients hits you straight in the tastebuds.

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Chifafa has the same levels of quality that you would find in a restaurant, but the speed of a fast food joint.  Currently focusing on the lunchtime crowd, the ethos is “fast casual”.  Nick feels that more and more people are looking for something a bit more exciting than a supermarket sandwich these days, and that’s where Chifafa steps in.  Longer term, he’s hoping to open another, larger, branch which will have a wider evening menu and offer more of a restaurant experience.  For someone who has never run a restaurant before, Nick knows which boxes to tick so it will be interesting to see how his plans unfold.

So in a way my old flame, John, was right.  You don’t mess with a man’s kebab.  In fact, you really shouldn’t mess with a kebab full stop.  By keeping things simple but focusing on quality, Chifafa are lifting the kebab out of the gutter.  My days of the post-club kebab stop are pretty much over.  But my days of the lunchtime kebab stop could be just beginning.

Chifafa, 45-47 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5RS
Many thanks to Nick Green for inviting me to join him for lunch.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.

Chifafa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Tequila, mezcal and all things agave

Hands up if you have ever had a “bad experience” with tequila.  Ok, hands up if you think tequila tastes pretty nasty.  Just so you know – my hand was up both times.  I may like alcohol to bite back, but tequila has never floated my boat.  To me, it’s just firewater with about as much subtlety as a house brick.  Now, hands up if you have heard of mezcal.  Until recently, this drink wasn’t even on my radar, let alone my palate.  So when I had the opportunity to go to a festival celebrating all things agave, I jumped at it.  I would get to do some mezcal tasting and maybe even learn to love tequila.

Tequilafest was organised to educate us non-Mexicans about tequila and mezcal.  For most people in the UK, tequila is something that you slam down when you’re already pretty drunk.  Or perhaps when you need a helping hand to get pretty drunk.  Or for a drunken bet.  Whatever your motivation, chances are you’re not drinking it because you want to savour its flavour.  So the team behind Tequilafest want to help us understand that, actually, there’s more to tequila than just cheapo shots. For a start, it has appellation of origin status.  This means that its production is tightly controlled, so you can forget about those plans to set up a boutique tequila distillery in your shed.  Furthermore, there are three different classes of tequila: blanco (unaged), reposado (rested, i.e. aged for between two-twelve months) and anejo (vintage, i.e. aged for at least twelve months ).  I’ve only ever tried the blanco variety and, in fact, wasn’t even aware that there were other grades.  This was going to be a steep, and possibly very wobbly, learning curve.

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Mezcal may also be made from agave, like tequila, but we now start to enter the realm of all things artisanal.  For one thing, it was historically made in the poorer Mexican states where people were just distilling it for their own use.  So whereas tequila is traditionally more popular and is now mass produced, mezcal is much more niche.  It also tastes different – and I was actually pleasantly surprised.  It has a smokey flavour reminiscent of some whiskies.  This is because it is heated over a wood fire during the distillation process.  The process of making mezcal is steeped in tradition, with no two versions being the same.

Tequilafest was a celebration of all things Mexican, not just alcohol.  It coincided with the weekend after Mexican Independence Day and was aimed at demonstrating that there’s more to Mexico than pinatas, sombreros and tequila slammers.  The organisers want us to understand the culture of Mexico – the music, the history, the produce.  And I get that.  Having visited Mexico several years ago, one of my happiest memories is of sitting outside a restaurant in the main square of Merida, sipping on a turbo-strength margarita, listening to a mariachi band play while the locals danced.  It was one of those sublime moments that I wheel out whenever anyone goes on about how dangerous Mexico is and how you should never step foot outside your Cancun resort.

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Upon entering Tequilafest, we were given a wristband with ten tokens.  These were for the ten shots of tequila or mezcal that were included with the price of entry.  I’ll just repeat that.  TEN shots.  Fortunately, there was plenty of stodgy Mexican street food available to soak up the alcohol and prevent me from blowing a hole in my stomach lining.  Here is a quick summary of what I learned:

  1. There is nothing good about unaged tequila.
  2. If I’m going to make a sober decision to drink tequila then I’m going straight for the anejo.  It still burns a fiery trail straight through your digestive system, but it at least tastes slightly more palatable.
  3. There is such a thing as chili liqueur and it is amazing.  Check out Ancho Reyes.
  4. Mezcal is extremely interesting and I would definitely drink it again.  I’m a fan of whisky so I appreciated the wide flavour range and the craft behind it.

I think I got through, maybe, six or seven tokens before I had to admit defeat.  One esophagus-searing encounter after another just got a bit too much, so I  called time before I had another “bad experience”.  I may not have learned to love tequila but I do have a new respect for it.

Thanks to the team behind Tequilafest for giving me the opportunity to attend.  All opinions are, as ever, my own.