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.  

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.

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…..no…..  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.

Fresco
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…

Badiani
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 (www.mercatometropolitano.co.uk)
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.

Tayyabs

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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.

Zooteek
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.
http://zooteek.co.uk/

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.
http://poeticlicensedistillery.com/

Milkboy
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.
http://www.milkboy.com/

Gluten free chocolate chip cookies by Doughlicious

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.
http://www.doughlicious.co.uk/

Aphrodites
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.
https://aphroditesfood.com/

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.
http://www.dukeofdelhi.com/

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.
http://www.belindaclark.co.uk/

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.
http://chasedistillery.co.uk/

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.
http://www.thesaladkitchen.co.uk/

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.
http://www.bbqgourmet.co.uk/

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.