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.

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.

A Mexican adventure with Yelp

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Everyone’s a critic these days.  And with so many apps and websites around, having your say on a bar, restaurant or hotel has never been easier.  But how do you pick your weapon of choice?  Really, what’s the difference between them all?  Well, most of you have probably heard of Yelp.  But what you may not know is that they also organise events and reward their members with something other than a virtual badge.  If you write lots of reviews, you eventually get made into a “Yelp Elite” which gives you access to all sorts of goodies.  I’m not a “Yelper” (as they like to call themselves), but I was recently invited to check out some of their events so I could see for myself what all the fuss is about.

As it happened, these events all had a Mexican theme.  Now, I have a slight confession to make here.  I’m not really that keen on Mexican cuisine.  I’ve spent time in Mexico and found the food extremely boring.  So would this foray into Mexicana change my mind?  Was I just eating all the wrong things when I was in Mexico?  The first event, Mexifest, certainly gave an all-round flavour.  This was open to everyone, not just Yelpers, and was held in conjunction with the Mexican Chamber of Commerce.  It felt a bit like a village fete, only with tacos, tequila and luchadors.  This was compounded by the fact that it rained.  And did it rain….   Huddling under a canvas awning while clutching some soggy nachos did give it all a bit of a British feel, despite all the sombreros and pinatas.

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There were a few rays of sunshine though.  Cafe Pacifico were serving up great margaritas and the cheese from Gringa Dairy was sooooooo good.  Seriously people, you need to check these guys out because not only do they make award-winning cheese, they make Mexican cheese.  In Peckham!  This is just so quirky and niche that I actually love them for it.  They create three different – and distinctive – varieties of Mexican cheese, all of which taste fab (although my personal favourite is the queso Chihuahua).  Also, the event was free if you checked in on the Yelp app, which is a small price to pay.  Wait, actually it’s no price to pay.  Never a bad thing in my opinion.

The next event was solely for Yelpers.  It was a “secret taco takeover” at the recently opened Soho branch of Chilango.  The fact that I’m not a Yelp Elite and didn’t even really use the app made it particularly secret for me.  So with no idea what to expect, I arrived at Chilango and joined a group of around 15 people for a quick briefing from the Yelp community director before we got straight into the food.  Chilango is very much a “quick and dirty” kind of place.  The menu is brief – tacos, burritos, nachos, salads.  You go up to the counter and the team builds your meal in front of you, adding your choice of meat (chicken, pork belly, steak, prawns), salad and sauces.  You pay at the till and off you go.

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Chilango is perhaps best known for crowdfunding their restaurants and, to be honest, this will probably define them more than their food.  Not that there is anything especially wrong with what they are churning out.  The food is edible and the portions are generous.  But it’s all just a bit average.  The canteen-style approach shows through in the quality of the food – chewy meat, lots of extraneous lettuce, lack of any interesting flavour.  As they can probably now be considered a chain, with 12 restaurants under their belt, perhaps my expectations should have been lower.  I was drawn in by their cool decor and neon lights, both of which are infinitely more exciting than their food.

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The group of “Yelpers” were lovely, excitable and clearly very proud of being members of the Yelp Elite squad.  And why not?  They get free food as a result of writing “it was good/it was bad” 300 times over.  I don’t think anyone could complain about that – not even the restaurants who benefit from the heaps of publicity they get through Yelp’s enormous user base.  In all seriousness, it’s actually pretty cool that Yelp give back to their community of users and it is a fantastic incentive to keep posting and sharing through their site.

If you need some inspiration when it comes to fun things to do around London, then you could do a lot worse than checking into Yelp.  However, have I changed my opinion on Mexican food?  Ermmmm……..  Maybe I should actually look at my Yelp app for a few recommendations.

Mercato Metropolitano

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Every now and then, a magical night happens in London.  They are little gems, strung together like a Swarovski bracelet, that remind you why you love living in a big, chaotic city.  I recently experienced one of those nights at, believe it or not, a disused factory down the road from Elephant and Castle station.  Sounds a bit odd?  Well, this old factory has been transformed into the most wonderful food market called Mercato Metropolitano.  If Italian food is your thing, then this is the place to be.  And if Italian food just makes you yawn and shrug your shoulders, then this is definitely the place to be, because your mind will be changed.

Mercato Metropolitano originated in Milan, which pretty much says it all.  You know the quality of food is going to be outstanding before you take your first bite.  Luckily for us, Mercato Metropolitano has now opened its first UK site, in an empty paper factory between Elephant and Castle and Borough.  It’s a mixture of lots of lovely things.  Firstly, there is a supermarket, but please don’t make the mistake of imagining something along the lines of Tesco.  This is the supermarket of dreams, rustic and beautifully lit, with every kind of Italian ingredient you could think of.  Fresh fruit and vegetables piled high, shelf upon shelf of wine, more varieties of meat and cheese than I could count.  It’s a little slice of heaven for any foodie.

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Beyond the supermarket, there is a sprawling street food market.  You can easily lose a few hours meandering around the various stalls, which are scattered throughout several rooms as well as spilling over into an outside area.  There are stalls catering to every taste, but my personal highlights were:

La Latteria
These guys make the creamiest, dreamiest cheese you could ever hope to put in your mouth.  Specialising in soft cheeses, like mozzarella and ricotta, La Latteria have their dairy in central London so they can ensure the freshest possible product.  You can order snacks like bruschetta or the intriguing rollatina (a thin sheet of mozzarella rolled into a wheel with things like bresaola or tomato).  Or just dive straight into a plateful of fresh stracciatella and let your cares melt away, along with your waistline.

Pizza-lovers rejoice!  “The best pizza maker in Naples” is at Mercato Metropolitano.  The man behind Fresco, Alfredo Forgione, was made a Knight of the Republic by former President of Italy Giorgio Naploitano.  So you know you’re getting the really good stuff here.  We ordered the pasqualina which came with mozzarella, Italian sausage and friarelli – a green vegetable similar to broccoli.  The pizza is made fresh and served piping hot, with lots of oozy cheese.  I’d never had friarelli before but was pleasantly surprised by how well it worked as a pizza topping.  Plus it meant I could count pizza one of my five a day…

Yet another world-class artisan producer…  You’re spoiling us Mercato Metropolitano!  Badiani won the top prize at this year’s London Gelato Festival and is frequently described as the best gelateria in their home town of Florence.  Their Buontalenti gelato (named after the 16th century Florentine architect) tastes ridiculously good for something that sounds so simple.  Made only from cream, milk, sugar and eggs, it was created for a competition to commemorate Buontalenti.  Of course, Badiani won the competition (yes, another one) and the rest is history.  The Buontalenti is the obvious choice to fill your cone, but their other flavours like pistachio and black sesame are worth checking out.

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I could wax lyrical all day about all the great things to try at Mercato Metropolitano (the sour beer, the fried gnocchi, the enoteca…), but really you just need to visit and go on a culinary adventure of your own.  There’s more to discover than just food.  The market is currently host to Backyard Cinema and will also feature concerts and exhibitions.  You might think that London doesn’t need another food market and, with Borough Market just up the road, Mercato Metropolitano does have some stiff competition.  However, not only does it offer a different variation on the theme, you can also find some really, really interesting produce.

As for me and my magical night?  Eating a huge tub of gelato beneath fairy lights and a fat golden moon, surrounded by friends and live music, is a pretty decent way to spend the evening.  It felt like one final fling with summer, complete with fizz, fireworks and fond memories.

Mercato Metropolitano is at 42 Newington Causeway, SE1 6DR (
Thank you to the team at The Tom Sawyer Effect, as well as the market vendors, for giving me the opportunity to write this post.  All views are, as ever, my own.


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First dates are the worst.  I particularly hate first dates that involve going to a restaurant because I get so nervous that eating – such a simple thing – becomes impossible.  So a first date that involves not just food, but very spicy food, really is the stuff of nightmares for me.  On the plus side, however, this date took place at Tayyab’s.  Despite the fact that the relationship eventually crashed and burned, I will be forever grateful to him for introducing me to this gem of a restaurant.

Tayyab’s is a Punjabi restaurant tucked away down a side street in Whitechapel.  It is something of a local institution, with people prepared to queue down the street for a table. Tayyab’s made queuing for a restaurant a thing before those pesky, oh so trendy, no-reservations restaurants were even a twinkle in Time Out magazine’s eye.  It is worth persevering with the wait though, because the food here is something else.  Seriously, forget all about going down the road to Brick Lane because Tayyab’s is the real deal.

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My friend and I visited on a wet Saturday evening, getting in just before the queue got too crazy.  The sound and scent of sizzling meat was all around us, transporting me right back to when I visited the Punjab.  Tayyab’s is rightly famous for its mixed grill, particularly the lamb chops which pack a real punch.  However, on this occasion we ordered the karahi chicken and the karahi lamb chops, with rice and a tandoori naan.  A karahi is a large, circular pot used in traditional Pakistani and Indian cooking.  Karahi dishes are similar to stews, where the meat and spices are slowly simmered together for a really robust flavour.

If I had to use one word to describe our meal it would be this: decadent.  Now this may not be a word that you would usually find when reading about an East End curry house, but every single mouthful felt indulgent.  The meat fell apart, the sauces were rich and silky, the bread was soft and oozing with melted butter.  Eating this meal felt like I was wallowing in a velvet-covered room while being gently massaged by someone wearing fur gloves.  And, of course, the spicing was spot on.   My former flame made sure that I continued to appreciate Punjabi fare over the course of our relationship, mainly via his mother’s cooking.  For the first time, I began to understand the delicate balance between heat and flavour – something that I constantly struggle to obtain with my own cooking!  Tayyab’s totally nail it.

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For me, Tayyab’s is a restaurant of discovery.  I discovered great food off the beaten track in east London.  I discovered Punjabi cuisine and learned that it is complex and flavourful, something that I will keep coming back to.  I discovered that I love a mango lassi.  I discovered that you can experience luxurious cooking for next to nothing – Tayyab’s is exceptionally reasonably priced.  But, perhaps most importantly, I discovered that it’s a really bad idea to eat very very hot food on a first date because that face-melting look is never sexy.

Tayyabs, 83-89 Fieldgate Street, E1 1JU
£30 for two people including soft drinks

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

10 Food Brands You Need In Your Life

A selection of Basque food from Zooteek

I’m guilty of being horribly lazy when it comes to food.  There are so many new brands coming onto the market every day that working out what’s what can sometimes feel like way too much hassle.  Recently, however, I’ve dragged myself out of my food rut and complied a list of speciality food brands which will amuse your bouche.

With the arrival of restaurants like Pix and Eneko, Basque food is finally having its moment here in the UK.  It’s perhaps best known for pintxos – small snacks such as slices of bread topped with meat or fish and held together with a toothpick – but don’t make the mistake of thinking that Basque cuisine is just a tiny open sandwich.  San Sebastian, on the Basque coast, has more three star Michelin star restaurants than London, so we’re talking about some pretty incredible ingredients here.  Zooteek import Basque food and wine to the UK, and I was fortunate enough to try a small selection of their huge product range recently.  The variety of cheese alone was fantastic; I basically ate myself into a cheese coma because it was all so damn good.  At the moment they only supply to trade but hopefully we’ll all be able to buy from them in the near future.

Bottles of Picnic Gin from Poetic License distillery

Poetic License
Gin is in right now and there are hundreds of boutique distilleries opening around the country.  Which is great if you’re a boozehound like me, but the sheer volume of choice can also lead to what I like to call “decision paralysis”.  A good place to start would be with Poetic License.  This tiny distillery in Sunderland is turning out some lovely spirits.  Their pink Picnic Gin is as sweet and summery as the “strawberries and cream” title suggests, yet with a freshness that makes it dangerously drinkable.  Likewise their Graceful Vodka, which has a mellow flavour making it taste deceptively innocent, particularly when mixed with cloudy lemonade.

I eat a lot of chocolate.  And by “a lot”, I actually mean “a LOT”.  As a result my chocolatey palate has become slightly jaded.  Then I discovered Milkboy and OMG!  It was like an old married couple suddenly remembering that they fancy the pants off each other.  Milkboy do Alpine Swiss chocolate that blows Lindt out of the water.  Their white chocolate with bourbon vanilla was so superb that it made me want to slide to the floor and do a Meg Ryan.  Even their dark chocolate got me going, particularly the 60% cocoa with pine tree oil.  Pine with food is always a risky combination, perhaps due to the obvious association with household cleaners, but this really worked.  Not only that, it made dark chocolate actually taste interesting, which is an achievement in itself.

Gluten free chocolate chip cookies by Doughlicious

Doughlicious provide bags of ready made cookie dough, already rolled into individual cookie-sized balls, for you to cook in your oven, microwave or even just to eat raw while binge-watching Netflix in your pyjamas.  My personal fave is the “Nutty”, because peanut butter cookies are basically a no-brainer in my world, but they also do an amazing gluten-free chocolate chip variety.  My experience of gluten-free products has not been particularly positive (shuddering at the memory of mushy, collapsible bread), but these guys have nailed it.  I could honestly not tell the difference between their gluten-free and their gluten-full cookies.  The company is just starting out so be sure to show them a bit of love on Instagram – and by buying their cookie dough of course.

Londoners may already know of Aphrodites through the food market scene, where they sell Eastern Mediterranean food from their van at various locations.  However, they have also been working on creating their own sauce for customers to use at home – the distinctive Pomegranate Ketchup.  Made with pomegranate molasses, tomato puree and spices, this is a great Middle Eastern twist on a very traditional British condiment.  The spices give it a vaguely Christmassy flavour, making you feel all warm and cosy inside.  It goes great on a bacon sandwich, but you can also use it in some of the more exotic recipes found on the Aphrodites website.

Duke of Delhi
Bombay mix conjures up images of 1970s dinner parties and dusty newsagents shelves.  However, the Duke of Delhi have up-cycled this rather passe snack and transformed it into something a bit more interesting.  The secret ingredient is….chocolate.  They have a range of chocolate bars in numerous Indian-inspired flavours, like cardamom, cinnamon or lime, all including Bombay mix.  However, perhaps their most fun product is actual Bombay mix with chocolate chunks.  It’s so simple but it really does taste great.  They also produce a version with orange peel, for the non-chocolate lovers among us.  Personally, I’m all about mixing the two together for a spicy, crunchy chocolate and orange snack-fest.

Belinda Clarke
Marshmallows have never floated my boat.  Sure, they look pretty but the flavour rarely lives up to expectations.  So I was pleasantly surprised when I tried Belinda Clarke’s marshmallows and suddenly found a little party going on in my mouth.  They come in seven different varieties but the raspberry ones are heavenly.  Not only do they actually taste of raspberry – so many marshmallow brands just taste synthetic – they manage to be fluffy and juicy all at the same time.  It takes some doing to impress me with a marshmallow but Belinda Clarke did it.  The marshmallows are also all gluten-free.

Chase Distillery
A potato farmer in Herefordshire does not necessarily make you think of glitz and glamour.  But potatoes can turn into all sorts of fun – and profitable – things, as William Chase discovered.  The founder of Tyrrells crisps has turned his hand to booze, and done a pretty good job of it too.  Chase offers a range of top notch gin and vodka, which stands out in a very crowded market.  Alongside the usual plain spirits, you can also buy slightly more eccentric delights like gin made with apples and oak smoked vodka.  My personal fave is the pink grapefruit gin, which is a perfect marriage of flavours.

Goats cheese salad from The Salad Kitchen

The Salad Kitchen
You don’t make friends with salad according to Homer Simpson, but if you give me a salad from The Salad Kitchen then I’ll be your friend for life.  You can forget all about limp leaves and sad tomatoes here.  These guys do “proper” salad, salads that actually feel like a meal.  I was very impressed with the goats cheese salad that I tried – and for me to say that about a salad is praise indeed!  Besides the creamy cheese, I particularly liked the addition of lentils and cous cous.  They are based near Old Street so be sure to check them out.  Even if you’re not a salad-lover, I guarantee that you will be converted.

BBQ Gourmet
When deciding whether to feature a product, my main criteria is something along these lines: does it make me groan with pleasure when I put it in my mouth? Just one mouthful of the evocatively named Blues Hog Smokey Mountain Sauce and I was groaning more than Keith Vaz on a night out.  The sauce was supplied by BBQ Gourmet, a provider of “real” BBQ sauces, rubs and marinades.  This is hardcore, badass American BBQ.  BBQ Gourmet aim to bring competition-winning BBQ condiments and accessories to the UK, giving us a taste of the US in all its smokey, meaty, testosterone-fuelled glory.  Fans of cremating meat over a large flame will be really spoiled for choice when visiting this site.

Thanks to all suppliers mentioned above for giving me the opportunity to try their products either at the Speciality and Fine Food Fair and/or the Food Sauce birthday event.

Taking A Bite Out Of….Las Vegas

Cheeseburger and fries in Las Vegas

Las Vegas has a certain reputation.  Brash. Blingy. Larger than life.  And with so many top chefs setting up shop in Sin City you would expect its food scene to be just as epic.  But guess what?  It really isn’t.  Dining out in Vegas is a bit like losing on the slot machines.  You get drawn in by the shiny colours and flashing lights, excited by what could happen.  But you end up disillusioned and broke.

This was my experience after visiting Zefferino, an high-end Italian restaurant in The Venetian.  The location is perfect, overlooking the “Grand Canal”.  However, the food is no better than what you would find in an average Italian chain in the UK.  This is somewhat disappointing when you’re paying between $26 – $46 for a bowl of pasta.  My starter of tuna carpaccio with avocado, capers and lemon dressing (clocking in at $24) just tasted of stale olive oil.  The penne with caramelised onions, pancetta, peas and spinach in a Parmesan sauce did actually taste really good, but was it worth $27?  No.  My friend ordered the fettucine with lobster, jumbo shrimp, crabmeat and fresh tomato.  For $45 you would expect this to be flawless, but there were bits of shell mixed in with the pasta.  She couldn’t eat it.

Tuna carpaccio with avocado at Zefferino in Las Vegas

We learned our lesson after that and stuck with cheaper chain restaurants, like The Cheesecake Factory, for the rest of the trip.  My knowledge of The Cheesecake Factory up until now came purely from The Big Bang Theory.  I was actually pretty impressed though.  The menu is HUGE and everything on it looked amazing.  I could honestly have ordered everything.  I restricted myself to “just” the mini crab cakes, followed by crispy chicken Costoletta.  This is described as chicken breast lightly breaded and sauteed, served with lemon sauce, mashed potatoes and asparagus.  The reality was actually three chicken breasts.  Whaaaaaat?  It was tasty enough but come on….  I barely made a dent in it.  The crab cakes were just “meh” by the way and barely worth mentioning.

Fried chicken, mashed potato, asparagus at The Cheesecake Factory in Las Vegas

Of course, we had to get cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory even if it was to take away.  The list of cheesecakes alone was something like three pages long.  Between us we ordered the Toasted Marshmallow S’mores Galore, the Ultimate Red Velvet, Adam’s Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple (no idea who Adam is but he makes a good cheesecake…) and the Snickers Bar Chunk.  Admittedly we ate them much later that night after consuming a great deal of gin, but they all tasted as decadent and naughty as you would expect.  From what I can recall…

Speaking of decadent and naughty, a special shout-out has to go to the Bellagio buffet.  You just know that an all-you-can eat buffet in the States is going to be crazy.  For $44 you can get unlimited food and alcohol at the Bellagio brunch buffet, and we approached it like the starving.  Actually, not eating for a good 24 hours before our visit probably would have been a good idea because we could not do it justice.  The range of food is staggering – pancakes, pasta, smoked salmon, salads, all kinds of meat and fish, sushi, pizza, cheeses….  And don’t even get me started on the desserts.  Considering the amount of food and the fact that the unlimited alcohol includes champagne, this is actually a pretty good deal.  And the Bellagio is a very cool hotel.  If they ever make Ocean’s 14, I’m definitely playing the fat one.

A sample of desserts at the Bellagio buffet in Las Vegas

So with the exception of Zefferino, which was terrible, most of the food I ate in Vegas was just kind of ok.  Then…finally….a meal that ticked all of my boxes.  A big, fat, juicy burger and fries from….the airport.  Yes, that’s right.  My best Vegas meal was actually from the PGA Tour Grill at McCarran airport.  God it was good.  Massive, but not obscenely so, and cooked to perfection with loads of cheese, salad and relish.  I can honestly say that I did not expect my best meal in Vegas to come from a bland airport restaurant.  But maybe there’s a metaphor for life in there somewhere.

If you’re a Vegas virgin, like I was, then you can expect it to be even crazier and even better than you ever imagined.  Every taste is catered for – except perhaps the taste for mind-blowingly great food.  Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that, in a town that’s all about style over substance, the best restaurants are the ones that don’t expect you to be a high roller to dine there.


Marinated octopus salad at Artusi

London’s a strange one.  You move here all bright eyed and bushy tailed, excited by the endless variety and eager to explore all that the capital has to offer.  Fast forward several years and you find that the city has shrunk to a bubble of “home” and “work”.  That’s why it’s great to suddenly find an excuse to venture beyond the borders of your own little world.  For me, that excuse has been flat-hunting – and my search took me to Peckham and Artusi.

Peckham’s association with Only Fools and Horses is long gone.  These days you’re more likely to find a beardy hipster sipping on a Negroni instead of Del Boy knocking back a Pina Colada.  A clutch of enticing restaurants and bars has emerged, several of which have made it onto various “best in London” lists.  Artusi is one such place, oozing minimalist chic in both its decor and its Italian-inspired menu.  The menu is just a handful of dishes on a chalkboard yet it’s attention-grabbing nonetheless.  It changes on a regular basis but you’re likely to find risque treats like pigs head and ox heart alongside more vanilla pasta options.

I visited on one of those rare roasting summer days so, booze-hound that I am, the first thing I needed was a glass of very chilled wine.  The helpful waiter knew exactly what would fit the bill and returned with a gorgeously dry Sicilian white.  This was the perfect accompaniment to my starter of marinated octopus salad.  The octopus was served alongside potatoes, capers, parsley and a generous slug of olive oil.  It was a fabulously fresh and summery dish, transporting me straight to the Mediterranean.  Special shout out for the olive oil which was outstanding.  It’s clear that Artusi takes great pride in the quality of their ingredients.  This was a simple dish with nowhere to hide and they pulled it off.

Courgette and chili fusilli at Artusi

As Artusi is renowned for its fresh pasta, I had high expectations for my fusilli with courgette and chili.  Sadly though, it really wasn’t anything special.   Sure, it was pleasant enough and the addition of mint was a great touch.  However, I didn’t get any “oomph” from the chili and the whole thing could have done with a generous smattering of garlic.  Overall, it was just a bland, rather ordinary bowl of pasta.

Things improved with dessert.  With a choice between cake and sorbet, I chose cake – obvs!  The cake in question was a torta di caprese, which came prettily presented with cherries, creme fraiche and crushed biscuit.  Flourless sponges can sometimes be a bit on the dense side, but this one was fluffy chocolate heaven.  A lovely zingy punch was provided by the addition of orange zest to the cherries.  This one simple twist lifted the whole dish.

Capri cake with cherries and creme fraiche

Artusi is teeny tiny, so either get there early or book ahead.  I loved the whole unassuming vibe of the place; the spartan decor, the deceptively casual menu.  If you’re already in the neighbourhood and you’re looking for a decent place to eat then go for it.  However, is the food worth braving Southern Rail for a special trip to Peckham?  Well, it didn’t set my world on fire so I remain unconvinced.  Maybe a second visit is required as the flat hunt continues.  Or will my search for an affordable property lead me in an entirely different direction….?

Artusi, 161 Bellenden Road, SE15 4DH
£31 for three courses plus wine (service not included)

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

Cafe Murano

Tuna carpaccio at Cafe Murano

Mondays suck.  There is very little doubt about this.  Dragging yourself out of bed at an unreasonably early time, squishing onto the sweaty tube, dealing with emails before you’ve had a cup of coffee.  No thank you.  However, there are one or two things that can improve a Monday.  Leaving work at lunchtime always helps.  A visit from your mum and lunch at a top restaurant, like Cafe Murano, pretty much guarantees a better start to the week.

Here’s the thing.  Cafe Murano isn’t actually a cafe.  It’s a rather sophisticated restaurant from Angela Hartnett, former chef-patron of The Connaught.  The “cafe” element comes from the fact that it’s a more laid-back version of Murano, a fine-dining restaurant in Mayfair.  However, don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a second class spin-off.  The quality of the food and service, as well as the sleek interior, ensures that you are in for a treat when you dine here.

Like most traditional Italian restaurants, Cafe Murano offers four courses.  We opted for just three which was sufficient for lunchtime.  I started with burrata, tomatoes and basil.  The burrata was creamy without being overly rich, and the tomatoes with basil gave a welcome flavour contrast.  Mum had the tuna carpaccio with orange, cucumber and samphire.  The exceptional quality of the ingredients used was evident in both of these simple dishes.  They were fresh, clean and incredibly tasty.

Rabbit risotto at Cafe Murano

We chose dishes from the primi menu for our main course.  I’d had my eye on one dish in particular ever since I made the reservation: the rabbit risotto.  Fortunately this did not let me down.  I usually like the idea of rabbit more than the reality, which often turns out to be dry, tasteless disappointment.  The rabbit at Cafe Murano was exceptionally tender, falling apart to touch, and arranged on top of a creamy, wine-rich risotto.  Mum chose the garganelli with squid, tomatoes and samphire.  Garganelli may sound a bit like a Star Trek alien but it’s actually flat, square pasta rolled into a tube.  The squid was so fresh and not even a tiny bit rubbery.  These were both extremely interesting dishes, a million miles away from the sort of thing you’d find on the menu of a more run-of-the-mill Italian restaurant.

Pistachio meringue with lemon curd and raspberries at Cafe Murano

Dessert also illustrated Cafe Murano’s use of excellent ingredients to create simple, yet delicious, food.  The meringue with pistachios and lemon curd was exactly what a meringue should be.  Crunchy with a hint of chewiness and generously heaped with lemon curd.  Pistachio nuts and raspberries provided some extra bite and a splash of colour.  I didn’t think I’d be able to finish it but *somehow* I managed to clear my plate.  Possibly something to do with how ridiculously yummy it was.

You don’t need the excuse of a Monday pick-me-up to visit Cafe Murano.  In fact, no excuse is needed at all.  Go on any day of the week, for any reason whatsoever.  You won’t regret it.  This is food that makes you feel better about everything.

Cafe Murano, 33 St James’s Street and 36 Tavistock Street (I visited the St James’s Street restaurant)
£84 for three courses, including wine, for two people

Café  Murano Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Polish Bakery

Loaves of bread from The Polish Bakery

In the murkiness of a post-Brexit world, there is one thing for certain.  Living in London has allowed me unparalleled access to a huge array of cultures and new experiences.  I feel so lucky to be able to choose from cuisines as eclectic as Eritrean or Ecuadorian, Swedish or Swiss.  However, I do have a weakness for food from one area in particular – and that’s Poland.

I travelled to Krakow last year where I engaged in acts of unspeakable gluttony.  It’s very difficult not to overindulge when you are confronted with delights such as pierogi, boar steak and apple cake. Fortunately the large Polish community within London means that I am able to continue stuffing my face while saving on the air fare.  Most recently, I was introduced to The Polish Bakery who offer a range of breads and cakes vast enough to satisfy even the most dedicated carb-loaders out there.  The Polish Bakery is a family-run business based in Wembley, and is the oldest Polish bakery in London.  Their bread is based on traditional recipes, with many ingredients imported from Poland.

I tried three different breads from The Polish Bakery: chia seed, rye, and rye with cranberries.  Chia seeds are very much in foodie fashion at the moment; my Instagram feed is full of photos of chia seed pudding.  Chia seed bread, however, is a new one on me.  It tasted like a lighter version of sourdough, slightly nutty with a hint of yeastiness.  It also makes fantastic toast!  I’m not a proponent of superfoods or “clean eating” but, for those who are, chia seeds are alleged to be full of antioxidants, Omega-3, fibre and protein.  So this is a way to get a relatively guilt-free carb fix.

Both of the rye breads were delicious.  I tend to avoid rye bread as it’s often like chewing on a bit of carpet underlay.  However, the rye bread from The Polish Bakery was surprisingly light and soft.  The rye bread with cranberries was a particular delight; a combination that I have never tried before but that worked really well.  Again, it makes great toast.  Loaded up with butter, it would give a quirky twist to a traditional afternoon tea.

My carb-fest didn’t stop with bread, however.  I also tried two of the many cakes available from The Polish Bakery: a fruity cheesecake and – hurrah – apple cake.  Both cakes came supplied as huge doorstop-style slabs, in true Polish fashion.  The cheesecake wasn’t overly sweet, which I liked, and the fruit cut through the density of the cream cheese.  However, it was the apple cake that really got me going.  I had some stunning apple cake when I was in Krakow, warm and rich with cinnamon, so my expectations were already high.  I decided to warm up the cake from The Polish Bakery and the smell that filled my kitchen was heavenly.  The apple filling oozed out onto the plate like the best kind of comfort food.  It tasted exactly as I expected it to: apple crumble in cake form.  Delish!

Fruit cheesecake from The Polish Bakery

I have one – very minor – criticism.  Both the cheesecake and the apple cake used the same thin sponge base, which tasted a bit inauthentic and seemed out of place in both cases.  I would have preferred the cheesecake with the more traditional “buttery biscuit base” to add a bit of texture, and the apple cake really didn’t need a separate sponge base at all.  However, this wouldn’t stop me from buying more cakes from The Polish Bakery, especially now that I have seen the drool-worthy range available on their website.

So my love affair with Polish food continues and doesn’t look like it’s going to end any time soon.  I’m grateful that – for the time being – I live in a world where I can get my greedy mitts on amazing, fresh European food.  It’s not just about eating, it’s about a growing understanding and appreciation of the communities and cultures around us.

The Polish Bakery very kindly supplied me with a selection of their products but all opinions are, as ever, my own.