Monday, 23 February 2009

Bento Cafe 1

On Saturday night dinner was courtesy of Bento Café in Camden. Over the last year since living in North London I have become a frequent visitor here. It’s a venue that is amazingly good value for money yet provides top quality, fresh Japanese food, the ideal place to go when you want a reliably good feast with minimal fuss or effort.

Their speciality, as the name suggests, is Bento. I have tried these and they are super however what constantly delights is the salmon sashimi which is just the most tender melt in the mouth fish I have ever eaten. Served simply with some pickled ginger, shredded carrot and wasabi each mouthful is so incredibly delicious that it seems a shame even to mar the purity and delicacy of the salmon with any of the accompaniments. A dip in some soy sauce is all it needs if anything. I cannot rave enough about this.

As you enter the restaurant immediately ahead of you is a counter where the sushi chefs are preparing the fish. It’s a stunning display of all manner of aquatic beings and seeing these guys at work is always a treat, they are geniuses.

So Thomas and I shared a portion of salmon sashimi, yet again rendering us virtually speechless whilst we polished it off. Then came the kinoko yaki, or mushrooms baked in foil with a butter sauce. These were good, the aroma was notable when the foil was opened.

Thomas ordered chicken teriyaki and egg-fried rice, both faultless dishes. The chicken arrived on a sizzling hot plate, the child in me is always impressed by this assault on the senses, visually, audibly and aromatically pleasing. The taste more than lived up to expectations.

I opted once more for the special hot and spicy seafood soup. This offers a heady mix of scallops, squid, prawns, seafood sticks (I’m always amazed to see their use in Japanese cookery having associated them with decidedly non sophisticated eating in my youth) mushrooms, carrots and cabbage in a hot and sour broth with a big citrus hit courtesy of lime.

I love this. It’s always in a scorching hot bowl and I pick out the fish piece by piece then move onto the vegetables and am still left with a gloriously tasty broth, I can never finish the whole thing. I love how I can methodically plough through each element of the dish, exhibiting a slightly ritualistic way of eating which takes me back to my childhood when I would carefully deliberate exactly how I might tackle the food in front of me.

The service here is rather brusque, at times almost verging on impolite but in my experience I feel it matters very little. It’s an eat and run situation mostly when we pay them a visit but the service may irk others who are making an evening of it.

Bento Café
9 Parkway, NW1

Bento Cafe on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Burger night

There’s been a recent spat of posts on food blogs in London relating to burgers. Having unsuccessfully attempted to snag a last minute table at Hawksmoor this weekend (they claim to serve unbeatable steaks and ‘the best burger’ in London) we resigned ourselves to making our own. Hell, we could probably do better anyway we thought and I think we can say that we did.

I arrived home from work bearing beer, surely the only suitable alcoholic accompaniment??

Thomas had already purchased the ingredients and we set straight to work! I was on chip duty as we’d decided to make our own, partly inspired by Dinner Diary, who strangely also prompted my craving earlier in the week for horseradish mash. Great minds think alike.

So, for a first attempt I think the chips turned out well. I found the process quite a scary one but luckily Thomas was at hand to take charge! The potatoes that we had were fairly small so the chips were therefore relatively short. We parboiled them then fried them in 2 batches for about 8 minutes. Drying them out on some tea towels (in the absence of kitchen towel) between stages.

They were beautifully crisp and we added lots of salt, Thomas said we should use chicken salt, which I’ve never had before but assume if to be a seasoned salt of some kind and I think this would have been better. And for personal preference I would have liked a liberal sprinkling of malt vinegar.

As for the burgers – they were magnificent! Even if I do say so myself.
Thomas made them using, beef, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, Tabasco, paprika, wholegrain mustard, 1 whole egg and salt and pepper. They were monsters and we cooked them for about 5 minutes on each side owing to how big they were.

On the basis of how well these turned out I’d say it is definitely worth making your own burgers. They beat anything I’ve had in London and the joy is that you can add or omit anything that you might want or not want. Customized hamburgers. We topped them with various things, a grilled portobello mushroom, mature cheddar cheese, gherkins, lettuce, tomato and onion. Then french’s mustard and ketchup.

This one was mine, a big tower of a burger, I couldn’t take a complete bite because it was so tall. It’s was a messy business but absolutely was not to be eaten with a knife and fork.

The actual burgers themselves were amazingly tender and juicy due to the use of a combination of 10% and 20% fat beef. The buns were granary with a variety of seeds atop each one.

This was Thomas’. We actually had 4 between us, both feeling extremely full by the end of it but the joy of making these together and seeing everything laid out before your eyes on your own table makes it impossible to not overindulge. I’m still very keen to try the burger at Hawksmoor. Judging by the pictures on Dos Hermanos they are a major contender for the best burger in London prize. We shall be visiting soon in our quest to find it.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Salt Yard

Our visit to Borough Market at the weekend has seen an increased desire for Tapas and lots of it. We purchased loads of stuff and had a feast of our own making on Saturday and Sunday and also this week visited Salt Yard.

I’ve been wanting to go here for a while, being too lame to tackle the queue at Brindisa and as the chefs at Salt Yard started out there I guessed it would come a close second.

On a quiet weekday evening we were seated immediately, downstairs where it was kind of buzzing but in a relaxed way, lots of chat and laughter in an intimate candle lit environment, I liked it straight away.

We ordered an array of dishes from the tapas menu which were staggered in their delivery. I wanted to have potato croquettes but I was disappointed by their absence from the menu, which changes monthly if you believe the website.

First up came the salt cod fritters.

I loved how these looked with a dollop of orange aioli atop each little ball shaped fritter. The taste was satisfying also but Thomas thought they ought to have been saltier. Suitable impressive nonetheless and a very good start for sure.

Next came the patatas fritas (more commonly referred to as chips!) again served with aioli and additionally romanesco sauce.

These were good. Crisp and very hot and the aioli was delicious. Both sauces for dipping were hugely enjoyable actually, in turn providing a perfect hit of garlic and red pepper. Lovely.

Queue meatballs.

Now, Thomas and I have become avid meatball makers over the last few months and these just did not live up to anything we can rustle up at home. They come with caramelised onions, mushrooms and artichokes and whilst tasty they had a rather abrasive exterior, I think they were a combination of beef and lamb possibly, but this was not confirmed on the menu. Slightly disappointing.

Then came the scallops, which were a delight.

Liberally sprinkled with capers and moscatel (little grapes) they were incredibly full of flavour. I’ve never had them paired with capers before but it was a triumph, working amazingly well together with the actual scallops, which were cooked to perfection, and the bed of cauliflower puree. Each mouthful was divine. Thankfully Thomas let me have 2 of the 3!

Next up were the Butternut Squash and Goat's Cheese Ritollo with Brown Butter and Sage.

This was my personal favourite of all the dishes. They were so tasty, bursting with goodness and depth of flavour. Butternut Squash and Goats cheese is a dreamy combo, these were warming and satisfying though they did look a bit of a mess.

And lastly, but by no means least, the chorizo.

This was really quite spicy upon first bite and the red pepper flavour certainly packed a punch. It came on a bed of marinated peppers and was chargrilled, making this a visually pleasing choice and it’s some of the best chorizo I’ve ever had.

We had a bottle of the house white which was faultless and shared a pannacotta for dessert.

This was brilliant. Served with oranges and was almost too pretty to eat. I love how pannacotta looks, majestically wobbly and unfussy. This ticked all the boxes.

Portions are quite small and it’s not cheap but I would heartily recommend Salt Yard, just don’t have the meatballs. I’d like to return and sit at the bar, where it seems to be a bit livelier, and try some of the charcuterie offerings, what I could see of the hams and cheeses that the upper level patrons were tucking into made me wish we’d ordered more, but then that may have been at the expense of the pannacotta so, no regrets, just a pending second visit in the offing. I thought the service was impeccable too.

Salt Yard
54 Goodge Street

Salt Yard on Urbanspoon

Monday, 16 February 2009

St John Tavern

Not to be confused with THE St John in Farringdon, The St John Tavern in Archway was our chosen venue for lunch on Saturday after a slightly hectic trip to Borough Market. Hectic because it was ridiculously busy, if only I could take their advice and avoid the queues by going on a Thursday, alas, one has to work!

So in need of some calm we head up the road from where we live in Tufnell Park for a spot of pub grub by an open fire. We used to be frequent patrons at the St John but have not eaten there since Benj came to stay last September when I was incredibly impressed with the cod fritters and seafood stew I was served.

On Saturday we arrived, sat beside the fire and ordered first a glass of white wine and some tap water (the latter was actually offered rather than requested which is always nice). The wine arrived in enormous glasses which were filled to a 125ml marking.

Okay, so they were large, not enormous but they looked as though we were in need of a top up before we’d even begun. Bizarre. Thomas, naturally, enquired as to why they used such large glasses and the waitress (admittedly with good humour) agreed this was funny and offered to bring 2 more glasses, which we declined, adding also that at least it was cheap. Haha, I had to laugh though Thomas seemed less amused, which made me laugh more!

As for the food, I was tempted to have the fish soup, having read a rave review of the soup eaten here by Krista in her St John post. This was the artichoke soup though, not an option on Saturday and I felt like something heartier so went for the fish (plaice) and chips.

I loved it. The mushy peas were an added treat and the chips were thick cut and perfectly crisp yet a little soggy, just how I like them, with lots of vinegar, The tartare sauce too was very good, home made I suspect because it was far superior in flavour to any pre made ones I’ve ever had.

The fish was lightly battered and not too fatty and inside it was almost steamed and falling apart. It was just what I needed after the hustle and bustle of the market.

Thomas went for the char grilled ribeye steak which, in the Londonelicious review, did not go down well at all and this time it was similarly underwhelming.

We were puzzled by the limp watercress adorning the dish, the tomato was a nice addition but only to be expected really. The same chips as had accompanied the fish did little to make up for the disappointment of the steak and we confidently declared that we could do better at home.

We usually sit in the fancy bit of the bar (where the fire is). In this section a 12.5% service charge is added and bread is served shortly after you've ordered. I like that they offer the choice between this and a more informal style of dining. The main bar is usually louder and full. Then they always have the actual restaurant at the rear of the building.

In conclusion, the St John is a bit too hit and miss for me to give it the thumbs up. That said, I am usually impressed by my choices which are more often than not fish dishes and Thomas is usually less than satisfied. He prefers the nearby Lord Palmerston which is slightly more pricey but has outdoor seating and is perfect in summer for enjoying an al fresco jug of pimms. Bring on the warmer months (hoping there will actually be some!)

St John
91 Junction Road, N19

St John on Urbanspoon

Les Trois Garçons

On Friday night for an early Valentine’s Dinner Thomas treated me to a meal at Les Trois Garçons.

I’d heard many good things from friends about this venue and it sounded quirky and different enough to warrant extreme over excitement in the run up to Friday. Outfit planned, website and reviews checked out but I held off on looking at the menu, preferring to have a surprise upon arrival.

Following some pre dinner champagne and cocktails we arrived (on time – our table was booked for 9:45) and were greeted and seated by a staggering 4 members of staff, all very nice, the lady at the door seemed a little bit frantic but was polite and relieved us of our coats before directing us to a chap who took us half way to our table before another helpful waiter led us all the way there. (The 4th person loitering in the reception area bid us hello - all very nice).

The deal is 2 courses for £42.50 or 3 for £49.50 with a further £3 supplement for select dishes. The actual dining room is bizarrely decorated with stuffed animals and all manner of sparkling dangly things hanging from the ceiling so there’s plenty to look at, I loved it, it’s very different.

I particularly liked this fellow who presided regally over our section of the restaurant.

The tables are rather close together, but the overall feel is a romantic and cosy atmosphere. I liked the bathroom, a rather grand black marble affair but there was only one toilet.

Onto the food. For starter I had the tartlet of fresh Dorset crab with green olives and coriander. This came with a cute little pastry top and a sort of salsa verde. It looked very pretty and was rather delicious. The only thing I would say is that I thought the crab was a tad too cold.

Thomas had the home-made fois gras with pears and toasted brioche. I’d never had fois gras before and this was just delicious. It’s obviously a fairly rich dish and this portion was generous but I was mightily impressed by how smooth and creamy it is, it’s one of those things I’ve just never got round to trying because I probably would never order it myself. Thomas liked it too and declared he could “take a bath” in the crab!

For main course I had the scallops with curried parsnip puree and white polenta. This was incredible. Scallops are one of my ultimate favourite things and I usually always order them if they appear. The dish on the whole was exquisite. I felt I had made 2 perfect choices.

Upon devouring the initial forkful I was concerned that the curried parsnip was a little overpowering. However, subsequent bites put pay to this thought and I think I’d just greedily loaded too much of it onto the scallop. The white polenta was a marvel. It was perfectly light and crumbly with a crispy outside that brilliantly complimented the dense softness of the scallops.

Thomas had the rump of lamb with artichokes, aubergines and fondant potatoes, after some debate about what to order. I was unusually decisive by comparison. The lamb won out in the end mainly because Thomas rarely orders lamb and wasn’t entirely sure why not.

This was amazingly tender and flavoursome, another virtually faultless offering.

For dessert I had the Vanilla crème brulee with blood orange cake which was an absolute whopper and probably the best brulee I’ve ever had. A few years back I went through a crème brulee phase and then tired of it so it’s been a while and here it made a welcome and triumphant return.

The orange cake was rather underwhelming but the brulee didn’t even need an accompaniment really. Thomas’ chocolate tart paled in significance but looked very pretty.

It was a bit too dense and not all that chocolaty but luckily the brulee came to the rescue being probably 3 times too big for me to finish.

My only gripes would be the length of time between courses, between the starter and main we waited for about 45 minutes, not good. Also, the bread arrived just as we'd finished our starter, perhaps wisely to bridge the gap between courses?

The bread was okay. The wait was not really, considering that they weren’t at capacity and the relatively short menu should ensure swift plating up. We had a good table, tucked away nicely in the far corner but the diners next to us were a little too close for my liking and there were empty tables, more consideration when choosing where to seat people would have made for a more comfortable experience. The food was brilliant but pricey. But because of the lateness of our booking they had run out of a number of options from the menu. In all Les Trois Garçon is a restaurant that’s great for a special occasions (particularly Valentine's Day or an anniversary perhaps) wowing the diners with decadent décor, a slightly barmy ambience and, more importantly, the food, if you pick wisely. Ooh, for the record, the white wine we had was great but I’m not sure what it was, Thomas picked and I was a tad tipsy!

Les Trois Garçons
1 Club Row
E1 6JX

Les Trois Garcons on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Pasta Brown

For lunch I went to Pasta Brown with Patrick and Rob. I’ve never been before but have noted with interest on a number of occasions that they often have a plate of what look like croutons on a table outside. I’m not sure whether this is likely to tempt a passer-by in for a meal but it’s a nice touch I suppose.

The staff were very attentive and the service pleasingly prompt considering the mid lunchtime rush and they were almost full.

I went for the spaghetti pomodorino which was good, the pasta cooked well and the sauce, with a dozen or so cherry tomatoes, was pleasantly sweet yet tangy but was lacking something. A spicy note would not have gone amiss but the scattering of fresh basil and parmesan lifted the dish beyond dull. A solid choice I thought.

I was somewhat disappointed to see no salads on the menu (except for the side salad and mozzarella and tomato starter). They guys both opted for Pizzas which looked pretty decent and there were certainly no complaints from them.

All options are incredibly reasonably priced and there was no qualm when we requested a jug of tap water. They even presented us with a plate of cheesy, garlicky bread “on the house” which was a little oily for my liking but a very nice touch.

Pasta Brown claim to be offering ‘authentic Italian made foods, wines and smooth vibes’ and there can be no arguments on the food front, (I’m not so certain about the smooth vibes but then I’m not generally in search of any kind of vibes come lunchtime).

Their strength lies in impeccable customer service and super value for money. I was slightly alarmed by the presence of 2 police officers quizzing the maitre’d at the door as we left, perhaps they were looking for the croutons (which were not making an appearance today). The maitre’d, however, was not bothered by them in the slightest, bidding us goodbye and thanking us for our custom as we breezed by.

Pasta Brown
35/36 Bow Street

Pasta Brown on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Snow (and more Pizza)

Snow based fun was, of course, to be had last night, Thomas and I made a snowman on the roof! It’s a flat roof which handily doubles as a ‘roof terrace’ in months where the weather is finer. In the absence of a carrot a strategically placed stick of celery worked just as well as the nose.

Very pleased with our efforts we head back inside for more pizza, we still had some of the dough in the fridge and, although obviously identical in ingredients to the first batch, the extra day had improved the overall taste of the base. We made one slightly bigger pizza with the same toppings as pizza number 1 from my previous pizza post.

It was even better this time, we loaded it with cheese and added rocket when served. The edges got slightly crispier and the centre seemed less soggy.

By morning said snowman had collapsed! My snowman making skills clearly more in need of fine-tuning than my dough kneading ones!

Monday, 2 February 2009


Blimey, how cold was it this weekend? What a cracking amount of snow! And as predicted things come to a standstill! I managed to make it to work which was not the case for most of my colleagues. It’s deserted.

On Saturday night Thomas and I made pizzas. It’s such a great thing making fast food for yourself. Once perfected it can be so much more satisfying than the convenience foods that we’re tricked into thinking can only be done by the experts, if you can call them experts. The best pizza I’ve ever had was, predictably, in Italy. I’ve not found a great one in London, nothing that wows so we attempted to produce something superior at home.

We selected various toppings at the deli and I set to work making the dough whilst Thomas got stuck into the tomato sauce.

For the Sauce (we made LOADS of sauce to freeze and use for other things like meatballs):

2 large jars passata
3 cloves of garlic
1/2 onion
1 bunch of basil stalks
1/4 pint milk
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp dried chilli

The sauce was amazing, reducing down whilst I worked away at the dough, I don’t really have suitable arms for this kind of job but I did my utmost!

For the dough (enough for 4 large pizzas):

12 oz strong flour
400ml hand hot water
1 sachet dried yeast
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1 egg

The first pizza was our favourite, the toppings we chose were mozzarella, cheddar, mushrooms, salami, fresh tomato and tomato sauce. We had logistical problems because we don’t have a pizza tray or slice. Or a very good oven. However the result was a roaring success.

It was brilliant. The dough could perhaps have done with being a little more solid, it was a bit soggy in the very centre but I actually quite like that. Pizza is one of the ultimate comfort foods and comforted we were.

Our second one was topped with mozzarella, cheddar. olives stuffed with chilli, fresh anchovies, artichoke, fresh tomato, tomato sauce and rocket (added after this pic was taken). There was a bit much going on I think. It was still yum but would perhaps have benefited from being a bit simpler.

The whole process was very satisfying. Seeing the yeast doing it’s work in the water and becoming all frothy then watching the dough swell and literally double in size, encouraged by the warmth, it’s really very rewarding making your own. Similar to the feeling you get when baking a cake. I’m planning to try again, and perfect the dough, maybe omitting the egg to reduce stodginess. A work in progress.