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.

Artusi

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.
http://www.thepolishbakery.co.uk/

Bao

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I used to date a guy whose motto was “we don’t queue, we don’t pay, we just large it”.  Many years later, I can safely say that I do pay and I’m not really sure that I large it.  I do also often find myself queuing, much as I dislike it.  Therefore queuing for a restaurant is something I try to avoid, especially when there are plenty of bookable, queue-free options around and when London weather is not exactly queue-friendly.  This is why I had never been to Bao.  Until now.  And yes, I did have to queue.  And yes, it was totally worth it.

A bao is a Taiwanese steamed bun made with milk and filled with all sorts of lovely things.  Bao the restaurant started life as a stall in Netil Market where these little buns proved wildly popular.  The team then opened their first restaurant in Soho in 2015 (a second one is about to open in Fitzrovia).  It’s very much a no-frills sort of place, resembling a wood panelled cloakroom with some tables and a counter.  The menu is deceptively simple – some baos, some other small plates, some side dishes.  However, the food itself is intriguing.  Pigs blood cake, erynjii mushroom with century egg, guinea fowl chi shiang rice.  If this is indicative of Taiwanese cuisine then it has certainly got my attention.

I ordered a pork confit bao, the guinea fowl chi shiang rice and a fried Horlicks ice cream bao.  The pork confit bao arrived first; thick slices of pork smothered in sauce and crispy onions, and stuffed between a white doughy bun.  The pork fell apart as soon as I took a bite and the sauce was surprisingly spicy, which provided a pleasant contrast to the soft, slightly sticky bun.  To pack so much flavour in only a few mouthfuls of food shows some serious skill.

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I had no idea what to expect from the guinea fowl chi shiang rice but it came presented as a rice bowl with the component parts sitting separately on the top.  There were guinea fowl slices, some pickles, crispy onions and an egg yolk all prettily arranged over sticky rice.  The prominent flavour was tangy and a little sour, offset by the richness of the egg yolk; however the delicate guinea fowl felt a little lost amongst everything else.  It was a pleasant dish but didn’t set my palate on fire.

The Horlicks ice cream bao was the dish I was most looking forward to.  Horlicks is such an old fashioned flavour, so I was surprised to see it pop up on the menu of a very millennial restaurant.  What a great idea for ice cream though!  It’s malty, creamy and comforting.  The slightly sweet bun even reminded me of the bread and butter that I used to eat at my grandparent’s house.  Such a simple dish, but everything that a dessert should be.

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The drinks menu is as curious as the food menu.  A mind-boggling array of teas are available, alongside beers, ciders and sakes.  What wasn’t mind-boggling was the price.  You can eat well here and still have change from £20 – a rarity in London these days.  So while I’m still more than a little queue-shy, the diversity of dishes and the bold flavours available at Bao will certainly be tempting me back.  As long as it’s not raining.

Bao, 53 Lexington Street, W1F 9AS
£16 for three dishes without drinks

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

Gold Rush

IMG_1849[1]Channelling my inner Yosemite Sam isn’t something I tend to do very often.  Yet last Friday night I found myself  “yee haw”-ing to my heart’s content, whilst downing shots of buffalo juice.  This was not some marathon session of Looney Tunes, however.  It was Gold Rush.

Gold Rush is the latest pop up from Django Bango.  Sounding like a cross between a Tarantino film and a 90’s dance tune, the team have previously held successful events such as Wild West Town in Shoreditch earlier this year.  Gold Rush sticks to the Wild West theme; this time transforming a steel yard in Vauxhall into a gold mine worthy of the Klondike.  A cast of cowboys and saloon lovelies, including hostess Miss Trixy Dixy, are on hand to welcome all of us potential prospectors.  However, it’s not just all eating, drinking, and carousing in this here gold mine.  We were also going to be doing a spot of mining ourselves.  Some pesky varmint had stolen the gold and stashed it around the mine.  Including in the food!  Anyone who finds any gold will win a mystery prize so, with five courses on the menu, it was time to get digging.

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The set dinner commenced with muffnuts.  Muffnuts sound vaguely naughty – and that’s exactly what they were.  I had to keep reminding myself that there were another four courses to come, otherwise I would have eaten far more than my fair share of these buttermilk muffins filled with pulled pork and covered with melted Monterey Jack.  Course number two arrived in the form of a washing line with dinky metal pails dangling from it.  These contained crocodile tempura bites, and were accompanied by a sauce boat of salsa verde.  The crocodile was a bit on the chewy side, sadly, and the salsa verde was overly oily.  All was forgiven, however, when the next course of BBQ beef short ribs was served.  These had clearly been in the slow cooker for hours and the meat fell apart with a gentle prod of the fork.  The addition of a hefty dollop of BBQ sauce and slaw made sure that this dish ticked all the boxes.  I’ve always been a sucker for American comfort food and this was definitely doing it for me.

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Three courses in and still no sign of any gold!!!!  Was I going to end up empty handed, albeit full bellied?  The arrival of course number 4, a cast iron pot containing smokey sausage gumbo, certainly guaranteed the latter.  I was beginning to flag by this stage in the proceedings, but the gumbo still went down a treat and the inclusion of a jambalaya “arancini” provided an interesting nod to fusion food.  The feast then concluded with a decadent slab of Rocky Road.  This was perhaps a little on the heavy side after four other fairly rich courses but who cares?  I had already fully surrendered myself to the inevitable food coma and it tasted utterly delicious.  And then….my spoon clanged against something suspiciously hard.  There, glinting out of the chocolatey darkness, was a shiny nugget of gold.  Yee haw!!!!!!

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As if all the food, gold and general mine-y fun isn’t enough, there is live music throughout the night and a drinks menu that is more comprehensive than you’ll find in your average saloon.  The cocktails are particularly good (my personal fave was the MineyMcMineFace – a potent brew made up of mezcal, fresh lime juice and hibiscus syrup).  Giving the event a shout out on social media can also net you a shot of the mysterious buffalo juice, which does taste a lot better than it sounds.  So dig out your stetson, pack your pick axe and stake your claim on this hugely entertaining night out.  The London Gold Rush has begun.

Gold Rush is on every Friday and Saturday until October.  Tickets cost £35.
(http://www.djangobango-goldrush.com/)
Use the discount code ‘goldenprosecco” when booking, for a free glass of prosecco upon arrival on the 24th and 25th June.

I would like to thank the team at Django Bango for inviting me to join them at Gold Rush but all opinions are, as ever, my own.

Syrian Supper Club – Part 2

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A little while ago I wrote about the Syrian Supper Club and the Hands Up Foundation; a group of young people who were motivated to start a pop-up event aimed at raising money for those affected by the crisis in Syria.  Well, the sound of all that Middle Eastern food made me really hungry so I decided to put my money where my mouth is and check out one of their supper clubs.

Supper clubs are very much on trend at the moment, but I’m a bit ashamed to admit that I had never been to one before.  There are so many to choose from, where do you even start?  So I had no idea what to expect when I arrived at the E5 Bakehouse in London Fields, clutching my bottle of red wine.  The first thing I noticed was the incredible smell coming from the kitchen.  It was the scent of spice, warmth and the exotic.  The second things were the delicious welcome cocktail and the array of mezze dishes dotted around the room.  Waves of these plates were brought out to us and included shwander (beetroot dip), the softest homemade Turkoman flatbreads, little filo pies made with leek and halloumi, and a spiced pistachio soup.

After a short introductory talk about the Hands Up Foundation and the causes that they support, we headed through the kitchen to the candlelit dining area.  Our main course was mehshi halabi – Aleppo-style potatoes stuffed with beef in a tomato and tamarind sauce, with saffron and barberry rice.  This was what had been creating that intoxicating Middle-Eastern scent.  The beef was minced and formed into meatballs, smothered in a sauce so full of flavour you could tell it had been simmering away all day.  The addition of a yoghurt “raita-style” dressing was a lovely touch that cut through the richness of the tomato sauce.

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Just in case we weren’t already as stuffed as the potatoes, we were then presented with two desserts.  The first was halawiyyat – a meringue roulade with rhubarb, MarmalAid, rose petals and pistachios.  This was a delicious Middle-Eastern twist on a classic dish.  The roulade was supplemented with ma’amoul which are shortbread pastries filled, in this case, with rhubarb, walnuts, cinnamon and orange blossom.  I’m glad there were only enough for one each, as I might have found myself engaging in a feeding frenzy worthy of an entire flock of herring gulls.

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I felt a little apprehensive about attending a supper club alone, but the nature of the event meant that it was easy to chat to people.  And while it all felt very lovely and enjoyable – drinking red wine by candlelight, being served course after course of amazing food – it’s important to remember why we were all there in the first place.  The money raised from the supper clubs goes towards funding medical staff and equipment in Aleppo, as well as projects like a prosthetic limb clinic on the Turkish/Syrian border.  This particular supper club raised a grand total of £1,283.16, every penny of which will go to people who desperately need it.  It’s such an easy way of contributing towards an excellent cause that there’s really no excuse not to go along.

Syrian Supper Clubs are held monthly at E5 Bakehouse and cost £35 (BYOB)
http://www.syriansupperclub.com/

The Little Taperia

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On a grey bank holiday Monday, it’s tempting to spend the whole day watching Netflix in your onesie.  Alternatively, you could pretend that you’re somewhere else entirely, somewhere with good food, good wine and summer vibes.  Tooting may not be the first place that springs to mind, but step over the threshold of The Little Taperia and it’s as if you’ve gone through a wormhole to sunny Spain.

The Little Taperia is the lovechild of two of Tooting’s leading foodies: Hikmat Antippa of Meza and formerly Caprice Holdings, and Madeleine Limm of The Little Bar and ex-Food & Drink editor of the Independent magazine.  There is much noise made about Tooting being “the new Shoreditch” and the emergence of restaurants like The Little Taperia give weight to the neighbourhood’s hipster credentials.  The interior of The Little Taperia is straight out of Barcelona or Madrid – tiled floor, vintage prints on the walls, a huge bar lined with high wooden seats and stocked with everything you need to make a good cocktail.

The menu is straightforward, with tapas bar staples such as chorizo, croquetas and patatas bravas.  Furthermore, it’s all extremely reasonably priced.  You could happily order the entire menu without breaking the bank.  There’s also a substantial wine list, a decent selection of cocktails plus options for cava, sherry and port.  All Iberian bases well and truly covered.  Food-wise, we decided on the morcilla scotch egg with piquillo pepper chutney, salt cod fritters, chorizo in red wine and arroz negro.  Although seemingly simple, these were dishes at the top of their game.  The fritters were freshly fried puffs of soft saltiness, the arroz negro was satiny with squid ink and contained little morsels of squid and prawn buried within the blackness.  Chorizo is chorizo, but can often be overly rich and greasy.  Not the case with these fat little sausages.  However, the highlight was the morcilla scotch egg.  Banish those memories of the sad soggy specimens found on many a family picnic.  The breadcrumb “shell” was crisp, the yolk was soft, and the addition of pickled piquillo peppers on the side is genius.  Their sweetness is the perfect foil for the rich, meaty black pudding.

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We ordered churros with chocolate dipping sauce for dessert.  The churros were great – freshly fried and heaving with sugar.  The chocolate sauce was surprisingly bitter which is ideal when paired with such sugary morsels.  However, the sauce lacked depth of flavour and would have been better served warm.

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If you’re looking for a sunny spot in south-west London then The Little Taperia is perfect.  The food is of an extremely high standard, especially considering the price.  You can perch at the bar with a crisp glass of white and graze your way through the day.  When we actually see some real sun (can you sense the optimism here?) this little bolthole will make Tooting feel like Tenerife.  Well, almost….

The Little Taperia, 143 Tooting High Street, SW17 0RU
£21 for four plates of tapas, dessert and wine (based on their lunchtime menu)

The Little Taperia Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Syrian Supper Club

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The scent of orange blossom filled the house in the old town of Damascus.  The courtyard garden, complete with its orange tree, offered a relaxing haven from the hustle and bustle of the city that was home to Louisa Barnett and Rose Lukas.  As students of Arabic, they moved to Damascus to learn the language and quickly fell in love with Syria’s intoxicating atmosphere and welcoming people.  However, the spark of revolution had been lit across the Middle East, and this grew into a raging inferno that consumed Syria.  In 2011, as the Arab Spring left chaos in its wake, the girls were forced to leave.

Back in London, Rose and Louisa could not forget the kindness and generosity that had been shown to them by the Syrian people, and so they started coming up with fundraising ideas to help those affected by the civil war.  Taking inspiration from their love of cooking, Syrian food and the increasing popularity of pop-up events in London, they teamed up with two others (George and Johnnie) and decided to host a supper club at their home, inviting friends to join them around their kitchen table.  The Syrian Supper Club was born and quickly grew to become a regular event.

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The supper club team now have their own registered charity, The Hands Up Foundation (Hands Up) which is the channel for all the funds raised at Syrian Suppers to reach Syria.  They work alongside partner organisations such as Syria Relief, a Syrian-run charity whose aim is to provide care to the 7.6 million people who have been internally displaced by the conflict, and to help reduce migration from Syria.  By providing those still within Syria with the means to survive, the team hope to encourage people to remain in the country, preventing the loss of vital knowledge and expertise.  This not only fosters local support, it also means that Syrians can look ahead to rebuilding their country.  Both Rose and Louisa have friends who still live in Syria, so providing in-country assistance is something that is particularly important to them.

With this in mind, the money raised through the Syrian Supper Club goes towards tangible projects which have very clear and demonstrable results.  One example of this is medical care.  The supper club fundraising has paid for hospital equipment, such as X-ray machines, as well as salaries for a team of medical staff in Aleppo.  Once there were over 5000 doctors in Aleppo, now there are only 35.  Can you imagine having access to only 35 doctors in London?  It’s hard to comprehend.   However, the supper clubs can potentially raise enough money to fund four years of medical salaries.  Some of the money also goes towards a prosthetic limb clinic on the Turkish border.  The staff had been making limbs from incredibly limited resources but, thanks to the Syrian Supper Club, they can now create around 60 limbs each month, giving people back their movement and their dignity.

Almost four years on from the very first supper club, the team now cater to 40 people each month at the E5 Bakehouse in Hackney, serving three courses of Middle Eastern-inspired food, plus a cocktail, for £35 a head.  The events are so popular that even overseas visitors make a point of attending.  The supper club team not only want to remind people of all that’s great about Syria – the food, the culture, the people – they also want to encourage others to host their own supper clubs.  As Louisa said, “Most people hold dinner parties for their friends so it’s actually really easy to fundraise; take the initiative, get out there, spread the word”.  Syrian Supper Clubs are now held as far away as Singapore and the USA.

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And if you’re not able to attend a supper club in person or host your own, then there’s still a way to contribute.  That orange tree in Damascus , with its bounty of bitter oranges, inspired Louisa and Rose to make their own marmalade.  They continue to do this in the UK and have even won a bronze award at the Dalemain Marmalade Awards.  Jars can be purchased at the supper clubs and the team are investigating options with retailers too.  So it really doesn’t have to take much money and effort to support the actions of Rose, Louisa and their team, as well as experience a taste of Syrian culture beyond what we read in the news.

Find out more about the Syrian Supper Club here
Photos courtesy of Syrian Supper Club

Arabica Bar and Kitchen


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You’re supposed to feed a cold, or so the saying goes.  So when my birthday rolled around and I was feeling less than fabulous, it made perfect sense to go to one of the few restaurants where I could easily eat pretty much everything on the menu.  Arabica Bar and Kitchen regularly features in Time Out London’s Top 100 Restaurants list, and it’s been on my radar for some time.  With food “inspired by the sun rise nations of the Levant”, it offers more than your bog standard mezze restaurant.  The menu features dishes such as whipped feta with chillies, mint and pumpkin seeds, Lebanese style roasted cod, and sticky lamb belly and ribs with a pomegranate honey glaze.  It’s not difficult to see why I was so spoiled for choice.

The restaurant itself is a rather sexy little number and, like the menu, offers a happy departure from the majority of Middle Eastern restaurants.  Exposed brick walls replace heavy fabric drapes, you sit on actual chairs instead of cushions, and there’s not a belly dancer in sight.  It’s more like a trendy urban cafe and has the same busy vibe.  We began with an aperitif.  In my case, this was the spiced Lebanese wine, which was basically mulled wine served in a dainty little cup.  Operation Defeat Cold was on.

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Our waiter advised us to choose a selection of small plates to start with, and then one main course each which we could share between us.  We kicked off with some moutabel, which is smoked aubergine with tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon, falafel (natch), halloumi (can’t resist), and spiced venison bourekas.  This latter dish was a puff pastry parcel filled with pulled venison meat and sultanas, topped with flaked almonds and icing sugar.  It was like a richer version of the Moroccan pastilla, and one of the few more unusual dishes I got to try during this meal thanks to some fairly unadventurous dining companions.  That said, the mezze staples like falafel and halloumi were pretty fantastic and definitely a cut above the usual stuff that gets trotted out at most Middle Eastern restaurants.

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Again, our main course options were fairly limited thanks to my two companions both ordering the same dish.  Their choice was the chicken and pistachio shish with cardamom, honey and green chilli.  I’m always a bit wary of chicken kebab dishes, having eaten more than my fair share of dry, chewy scraps of meat.  Happily, these particular kebabs were moist and flavoursome, rich in their own juices.  My choice of main was the imam bayaldi.  This was half a roasted aubergine filled with a spiced lamb ragu and topped with tomatoes and pine nuts.  It was pleasant enough but I feel that it could have been a lot richer, with more depth of flavour.

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There was a smidgen of room left for dessert and right from the start I’d had my eye on the knafeh.  This is a Lebanese cheese pastry served warm, with orange blossom honey and crushed pistachios.  I had never tried one of these before so I was looking forward to scoffing it down.  The pastry was fine and flaky, like that on a baklava, and soaked with sweet honey.  It was filled with soft, elastic cheese – more like cooked mozzarella than baked cheesecake – but this was actually a lot nicer than it sounds.  Using a semi-hard cheese means that the whole dish is prevented from becoming overly rich and sickly.  Plus I’m sure all that honey did wonders for my sore throat…

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Getting to Arabica involves running the gauntlet through Borough Market, and I would advise you to keep your head down and not let yourself get distracted by all the loveliness on offer there.  You need to go to Arabica hungry.  Cold or no cold, there’s no excuse for not stuffing your face.

Arabica Bar and Kitchen, 3 Rochester Walk, SE1 9AF
£45 per person for three courses including drinks

Arabica Bar & Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato