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Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Firebrand Pizza: Potato pizza anyone?

Roast potato, pesto and pine nut pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

FIREBRAND PIZZA IS…CARB ON CARB ON CARB

I don’t need any excuse to stuff my face with carbs. I do it on a daily basis. The Atkins Diet? Forget it. Cauliflower rice? WTAF?? I’ve accepted the fact that I’m never going to be Giselle Bundchen and, having seen what she eats, I wouldn’t want to be. Bring me all the bread, pile high the potatoes and pass me the pasta because I am carb-tastic. So when I saw that Firebrand Pizza use roast potatoes as a pizza topping, I knew that I had found my place.

Firebrand is located just a few minutes away from Marylebone Station, in one of those strange parts of central London that has managed to resist the inexorable steamroller of gentrification. Officially their thing is sourdough pizzas made with caputo flour from Naples. Caputo flour is very much on trend as far as London pizzerias go. It’s considered to be the Godfather of pizza flours and lends an air of Neapolitan authenticity to a Marylebone pizzeria. It also gives your pizza base that all-important crunch. However, in reality, Firebrand’s thing is roast potatoes. On pizza.

Bechamel stuffed mushrooms from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

There are a handful of non-pizza items on the menu at Firebrand, such as lasagne and sea bass, but none of them were particularly interesting or exciting. It’s all about those pizzas. We decided to order a couple of antipasti to start with – béchamel stuffed champignon mushrooms and parmigiana. Ok, so it may have been a little risky to order such rich dishes before tucking into a couple of pizzas but you know, YOLO. I needn’t have worried. The mushrooms were watery and totally devoid of flavour, each containing a serving of béchamel sauce that can be politely described as “miserly”. They were served with a salad that basically tasted of nothing; its only contribution to the dish was to make it extra watery. The parmigiana fared better; arriving at our table shimmering with heat, molten cheese bubbling away between each layer of aubergine, with yummy crunchy crozzled bits around the edge.

Aubergine parmigiana from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Pizza is such an ubiquitous dish that I automatically love anywhere offering a slightly different variation on the theme. It’s easy to be bold and to experiment with pizza toppings, as long as you know what flavour combinations do and don’t work. The Coach and Horses, for example, pulled it off with the likes of their breakfast pizza. Firebrand’s twist on this is roast potatoes. There are no less than TWO roast potato topped pizzas on the menu and there was a third on the specials board when we visited. And who doesn’t love roast potatoes, right? It was inconceivable that I wasn’t going to order one of these, so I chose the pesto, pine nut, rosemary and mozzarella version. In the interests of diversity, my friend begrudgingly ordered a non-potato pizza – goats cheese, caramelised onion and black olives.

Goats cheese, roasted onion and black olive pizza from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Yes, I know carb on carb is not particularly healthy. Yes, I know it’s rather high up on the stodge scale. But who bloody cares because roast potato pizza is the marriage of two of the best food groups ever. Actually, no. Make that three of the best food groups ever because, of course, there is the addition of cheese. It wasn’t elegant, even with the artsy spiral of pesto swirled around it. It was down and dirty, honest to god, don’t give a f*ck comfort food. It was like a rosemary coated, cheesy chip buttie with a squirt of pesto for that token bit of greenery. The goats cheese pizza was also rather lovely thing. The combination of creamy goats cheese and sweet, jam-like roast onion is a classic and rightly so – it’s bloody delicious. I did have to pick the olives off though because they are the devil’s snack.

There is a limited list of desserts, although we were both so stuffed that eating a third course seemed almost impossible. Almost… We shared the salted caramel cheesecake, which arrived in one of those clip top jars that you see everywhere. It was a smart way of presenting a cheesecake, which is a fairly simplistic dessert and can often look like a sad sloppy slice on a plate. As far as flavour goes…well, it’s difficult to go wrong with salted caramel and cream to be honest. We hoovered it up.

Salted caramel cheesecake from Firebrand in Marylebone, London

Pizzerias in London are a dime a dozen; from the monolithic chains like Pizza Hut and Pizza Express to a plethora of independents across the capital. It can be difficult to differentiate yourself when everyone is doing kind of the same thing. This was the first time I had ever seen roast potatoes as a topping, so kudos to Firebrand for offering something a bit different. It may not be the place to visit if you’re on a diet, but if you’re in training for a marathon or just love a bit of stodge then Firebrand could be your place too.

Firebrand Pizza, 41-43 Lisson Grove, NW1 6UB

Many thanks to Captivate Hospitality and Firebrand Pizza for inviting me to dine there. All views are, as ever, my own.

Coach and Horses: Where everybody knows your name

Coach and Horses: Where everybody knows your name

Pizza with Portobello mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts and truffle oil at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

“La la la….where everybody knows your name”. The theme song for Cheers set out the show’s premise of that friendly local boozer where you’re surrounded by friends. But of course that isn’t the real world, is it? Maybe in a small village where there’s only one place to go drinking and you have no choice but to get to know the bar staff, but in London?? That most unfriendly of places?? You’re kidding. So when I visited the Coach and Horses in Clapham for the second time, handed my card over the bar to start a tab and the barmaid couldn’t spot my name, it was a pleasant surprise to hear her colleague say “It’s Pinkstone, she’s been here before”. It was rather lovely to be able to have a laugh with the staff over the fact that I was ordering an espresso martini at lunchtime. And not much compares to being asked to help pick out a kitten for one of the barmaids (except perhaps getting a kitten yourself).

I read an article the other week that said London has lost 25% of its pubs since 2001. That probably comes as no great surprise to anyone who lives here; the twin evils of rent increases and property development make pubs a risky business to be involved in. But people still love a good pub, right?  I certainly do and, what’s more, I love what pubs are doing to get to grips with the change in the weather. From getting in guest chefs to hosting tasting sessions or cocktail classes, the modern London pub will usually keep you on your toes. Soggy beer mats, sticky carpets and pork scratchings are a thing of the past. So, as well as a warm and friendly welcome at the Coach and Horses, you can also expect to find the following excellent reasons to visit: pizza, cocktails, doughnuts.

Pizza with 'nduja, cherry tomatoes and rocket at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

If, for some strange reason, you don’t actually like pizza then make sure you eat before visiting the Coach and Horses because that’s pretty much all you’ll find on the menu. However, these aren’t just your bog standard pizzas. Sure, you can find a margherita and a pepperoni, but there’s also a beautifully piquant n’duja pizza with sticky, jam-like smashed cherry tomatoes and roasted fennel. A “breakfast” pizza of crispy bacon, free range baked eggs and spinach also came with a great big fiery kick in the palate, thanks to the sprinkling of dried chilli across the eggs.   I would have liked the eggs to have been a little softer; the idea of a runny yolk oozing into the bacon and cheese really appeals to me. However, I get that eggs on pizza are in the same realm as pineapple and anchovies, so it’s probably best to play it slightly safe. Either way, this unusual take on pizza was delicious and should be on breakfast menus everywhere.

Pizza with bacon, egg, spinach and chilli at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

As if a bacon and egg pizza isn’t unusual enough, the Coach and Horses also do a “white based” pizza. This forgoes the traditional tomato base in favour of one made with ricotta, cream, nutmeg and black pepper. It comes topped with roasted Portobello mushrooms, spinach, pine nuts, thyme and truffle oil. Decadence thy name is pizza! The funky aroma of truffle combined with garlic immediately set us drooling. I really expected this to be overly rich but the creamy base had been applied with a light touch, so the whole thing was dangerously easy to eat. In fact, the beauty of all these pizzas – in my eyes – is that the dough base is incredibly thin, so you can scoff down an entire pizza without stopping to take a breath. Or perhaps that’s just me… And if you’re gluten intolerant then you don’t have to miss out! The Coach and Horses also do gluten-free pizzas.

The dessert menu only has one item on it, but that’s ok because it involves Nutella. Doughnuts covered in melted Nutella to be exact. Word of warning: these doughnuts are HUGE. And you get three of them! So unless you’re absolutely starving, you might want to share a portion. We tried and failed to even make a dent in them when attempting to get through a plate each. But all was not lost however, because the Coach and Horses will box up your leftover doughnuts and/or pizza for you to take home and have for breakfast the next day. Or, again, perhaps that’s just me… Second word of warning: it may sound weird but it really is best to ask for cutlery. Unless you enjoy covering yourself in Nutella in public.

Nutella doughnuts at The Coach and Horses, Clapham, London

Drinks-wise, the aforementioned espresso martini is a good bet, as is the raspberry margarita. The cocktail menu is a work in progress, but the Coach and Horses also do a decent selection of wines. Lovers of craft beer will be in hoppy heaven as they can choose from a wide range of  small London-based breweries on tap, as well as bottles and cans from the likes of Beavertown, La Chouffe and Piston Head.

I’d really like to believe that there’s life in the London pub scene yet. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I do think that they are still in demand – and not just as “luxury apartments”. There’s not much wrong with the world when you’ve got a slice of pizza in one hand, a beer in the other and a friendly face behind the bar. The Coach and Horses is a real little belter of a pub. Long may it last.

The Coach & Horses, 173-175 Clapham Park Road, SW4 7EX.

Many thanks to the team at the Coach and Horses for inviting me to have pizza and cocktails with them. All views are, as ever, my own.

Where to eat on Seymour Place

Where to eat on Seymour Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

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

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

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

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

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

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

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

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

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

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

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

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

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

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

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

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

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

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

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

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

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

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

The Plot Twist

The Plot Twist

Flaming cheese wheel at The Plot Twist

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

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

Goulash soup in a bread bowl at The Plot Twist

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

Cheese and sausage pasta at The Plot Twist

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

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

Turo Rudi dessert at The Plot Twist

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

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

Mercato Metropolitano

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.

Processed with Snapseed.

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.

Artusi

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

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