The Little Taperia, Tooting

I’m not very good at weekends. Whereas magazines and newspaper lifestyle pages will refer to ‘lazy mornings’ spent in bed with a broadsheet, followed by brunch; and late meandering lunches; and evening suppers eaten at the kitchen island, legs dangling from bar stools, spoons dangling sleepily from fingers, I am usually in a state of nail-biting anxiety from the moment I close the office door on Friday evening. The anxious mental refrain is always about how I will manage to fit everything in to the measly 48 hours of rest to come: errands, the gym, meal planning, dishes, ironing…Perhaps one day I’ll have the dishwasher, clothing dryer and, I suspect, cleaner required to make those double-page spread Sundays a reality.

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Octopus, grilled, with many, many, many capers

Sometimes, though, I do manage to get things right. A few weeks ago, on a day that was blazingly hot, my boyfriend suggested we have lunch out. We may live in deepest darkest south-west London, but these days we’re pretty spoilt for choice in our area, with Wahaca, Franco Manca, Five Guys, Chicken Shop and Honest Burgers, not to mention London’s best south Asian restaurant (apparently Tooting is being called ‘the new Shoreditch’) mere bus rides away. But what caught my eye was a relatively newer restaurant, The Little Taperia. Since we ended up having lunch monumentally late, it felt appropriate to have Spanish food in honour of this and the heat.

The Little Taperia is, as the name suggests, tiny indeed: in fact the space it’s in was once a pet shop. If you’ve frequented Euston’s Honey and Co, you’ll have an idea of the scale. Still, we managed to find a seat, doubtless on account of the late lunching hour.

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I will always eat a croqueta

David and I shared a lunch of tapas: of course I ordered the ham croquetas, the Spanish dish I most adore, and garlic prawns, and patatas bravas with allioli – very classic. Finally, a beetroot, spinach and goat’s cheese salad – a slightly odd choice, more British than Spanish – and grilled octopus. When the waiter took our order he recommended a sixth dish; caught out, we dithered and ended up ordering his recommendation of pan con tomate.

 

I was a bit regretful at having panicked – after all, pan con tomate is just tomatoes on toast, easy to recreate at home, whereas I usually like to pick things to eat at restaurants I wouldn’t bother to make at home, because they’re too specialist or fiddly or time-consuming.

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Chives were everywhere. They look nice against the grated tomato.

Yet what arrived outstripped my expectations and was definitely worth ordering: a smear of sweet tomato pulp over bread that was both crusty and yet tender, lightly charred at the edges; a sprinkle of chives; and a generous drizzle of some exceptional olive oil, silky in texture but with a sharp green bite. It was a lovely example, and reminder, of the wonderfulness of simplicity when perfectly rendered.

 

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Pickled chillies and chives to garnish…?

The prawns in garlic and chilli were a little more astringent with vinegar than I would have expected – it was served with those jarred, sliced pickled chilli is rather than fresh – but still vibrant, the acid providing bite against the sweet and slightly smokey prawn flesh. There were only two prawns as part of this tapa, though, so you’ll have to order multiple if you’re dining as a group. It wasn’t my ideal version of this dish because of the pickled chillies.

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The patatas bravas with allioli were what you’d expect: crisp-edged potatoes, fatty garlic mayonnaise. It could have had more garlic, but then I do love a powerful punch of garlic flavour rather than a delicate hint. As a dish, patatas bravas is the most unchallenging Spanish food I can think of and rarely anything but delicious and moreish, even the versions which are comfortably middle of the road. You wouldn’t really want something innovative and groundbreaking even if it were offered, frankly.

245It’s much the same with respect to the ham croquetas: classically rendered, evenly crumbed morsels of ham-studded bechamel, they were crisp on the outside, and salty and rich within. I really do love them and very much want to make Miriam Gonzalez Durante’s recipe soon.

The two dishes I liked less were the beetroot and spinach salad and the grilled octopus (picture at the top of the post). I found the salad a bit bland, although I did enjoy the goat’s cheese, which had been beaten into a mousse – where I could find it. On the whole it was a bit same year and even a touch watery. The octopus was a bit too charred, harsh and, again, astringent for my taste, with perhaps too many capers. My boyfriend enjoyed it, though – chacun à son goût and all that!

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All in all, despite these blips, I was really pleased by this casual restaurant, which served up some very enjoyable food. Yes, the dishes are largely predictable, but that is part of the charm. And it’s even nicer to have something in the neighbourhood for when I’m able to embrace a relaxed weekend.

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London Bites: late-night desserts at Gelupo and Cutter and Squidge

Some time ago my friend Ariadne and I had one of the most middle class nights on the lash you can imagine, by which I mean we drank cocktails in Soho until I reeled and then, instead of piling into a greasy, garishly coloured meat palace for a late night kebab, we stumbled (literally in my case) into Cutter and Squidge on Brewer Street for some sweet pick-me-ups.

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I had heard of Cutter and Squidge before, and knew their bakery USP is their ‘biskies’, which they describe as a ‘unique, handmade sandwiched dessert’ and I call a sandwich cookie. So was I keen to try one. My lovely, much-less-drunk-than-I friend (I had in fairness drunk up most of her Negroni when she took a sip and said “It’s really bitter.” “Yeah…it’s a Negroni, dude,” I slurred, halfway through my Breakfast Sour already, to which she responded, “Umm…I thought that meant a sweet cocktail.”) and I dithered for a while in front of the display of ‘biskies’ before deciding that the Salted Caramel S’more was the only way to go. We also knew that we had to order a slice of cake to share as well because RULES, so we moved on from dithering over biskies to dithering over cake. We were clearly onto a kind of theme because we chose a wodge of the Peanut Caramel Pretzel cake, agreeing that to the marriage of salty and sweet we must admit no impediment. Note: the portions of cake are generous.

We parked ourselves in the corner of the bakery and proceeded to rip open the packaging to try our (almost) midnight treats. Sadly, we were both underwhelmed by both the bisky and the cake, which was a shame. I have read so much praise for this bakery, and the story behind it is sweet (it’s founded by two sisters) that I’d expected to absolutely love it.

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Bisky business

The bisky was all right: the base (and top) is a slightly soft-textured cookie, which the bakery refers to as a ‘cookie-cake’ hybrid but reminds me of slightly spongey whoopie pie shells (despite their protests to the contrary on their website!), or cakey snickerdoodles. It was dabbed within with salted caramel buttercream, which was really light-textured, which is Cutter and Squidge’s signature approach to buttercream. As so many buttercreams are, to my taste, overly cloying and heavy, sometimes even (gasp!) grainy, I did appreciate this. The gelatine-free salted caramel marshmallow had a hint of brown sugar and a floral depth that testified to good-quality ingredients; the texture was denser and stickier than the jet-puffed supermarket versions. There was also a slathering of salted caramel sauce topping off the fillings. But overall, I confess, it was not particularly distinguished. I am a pretty experienced caramel-maker and I bring my caramel so close to the brink of being burnt that it takes on a powerful, smokey complexity, a bitterness than belies the mass of sugar used to create it. Very few commercially-made recipes containing caramel will do this – I am very aware that my personal preference for caramel might be too dark for many – and consequently I always find them very sweet, unchallenging, and undistinguished. Overwhelmingly the impression was of a uniform sweetness applied over a variety of textures, and the promised ‘salt’ part of the caramel didn’t particularly materialise for me. Because the bisky was billed as a S’more, I would have expected, also, a toasted element, which was lacking.

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The Peanut, Caramel and Pretzel cake suffered similarly from sweetness and surprising blandness. The texture of the cake was lovely – soft, fluffy – and the buttercream texture was, as before, light and entirely suited to my taste. But the peanut butter buttercream tasted on the whole sweet and slightly bland, carrying too little peanut flavour, and the most memorable part of the whole thing was the commercial pretzels on the side. Kind of a shame, and I was surprised to come to this conclusion. The cake is damn beautiful to look at, though. Apparently the mission of Cutter and Squidge’s founders is to make cake cool, and visually their baked goods are entirely enticing.

But Cutter and Squidge is not the only place we have frequented in search of a late night sugar rush. We have also visited Gelupo, the gelato-focused offshoot of Jacob Kenedy’s regional Italian restaurant, Bocca di Lupo. The only thing I have ever eaten at Bocca di Lupo is a sweetened coffee dessert in 2012, which was delicious and memorable all these years later; Gelupo has been on my list for pretty much as long. I had a ricotta, coffee and honey gelato, and Ariadne had a flavour referred to, elusively, as Crema 101.

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Ricotta, coffee and honey, and the elusive Crema 101

I expected my gelato to be slightly sweeter and creamier than a standard, straight-up coffee gelato, and indeed it was. I couldn’t particularly pick out the ricotta and honey flavours, exactly, despite the recipe apparently using the powerhouse that is chestnut honey (the ‘castagno‘ sold by From Field and Flower at Borough Market is markedly, distinctively bitter and smokey – just the way I cook my caramel, in fact!). The gelato overall was mellow and milky; a comforting flat white rather than a bitter and punchy espresso. The texture was soft and delicate, which complemented the flavours. Overall, there was nothing wrong with this gelato, but it wasn’t to my personal preference, which, I discovered with each bite, is for a very singular, robust and pure flavour carried through the medium of cream or milk. The coffee flavour was too diluted for me, and I prefer the ever-so-slightly firmer set of gelato I’ve eaten in Corsica and Croatia (I have been to Italy. I just didn’t eat gelato there). In actual fact, my very favourite iced dessert texture is the slightly chewiness of Turkish ice cream, which contains gum mastic, making it stretchy. It’s very unusual and recommended, if you can find it.

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The ‘Crema 101’ was a very pure, creamy flavour, like a sweetened, cold, rich milk. There was something simultaneously nostalgic about it – recalling a memory of drinking unhomogenised gold-top milk straight from the fridge in Belgium (God knows where my mother found it) –  and yet it also being very plain and, if I’m honest, a little dull. It’s the kind of thing that might come to life set against, say, a syrupy slick of ripe red strawberries diced and macerated with a teaspoon of sugar and a drop of balsamic vinegar, but on its own fails to sing.

London Bites: a meal at Mestizo

Mestizo
Hampstead Road, NW1

Enchiladas de mole
Enchiladas de mole

A friend and I recently visited Mestizo for some post-work, pre-shopping (book shopping) refuelling. We are dedicated Wahaca afficionados, so I thought this authentic Mexican restaurant would suit us both. The restaurant is based near Euston, and feels a little remote, like a punctuation mark floating in the middle of a page, though this of course makes it all the easier to secure a table.

Inside, the decor is slightly Aztec-themed, as opposed, I guess, to Tex-Mex sombreros. The service system is interesting: once sat down, I was given a double-ended cuboid, one side red, one green. When in need of service, it’s flipped to the green side; when otherwise okay, you keep it flipped to the red side. My verdict on the service overall is that it was friendly enough, but not always attentive or careful: I had to ask for water a few times before it arrived, food took quite a while to come, and it was whisked away with a touch of haste, with bites remaining on the plate. The tables are also quite close together, which I doubt makes the life of the serving staff easy, and it can feel quite closed in and rushed at busy times.

I’m sorry to say I was disappointed by the food. It may shatter my foodie credentials to prefer a chain to an authentic restaurant, but the food at Wahaca is consistently fresh and bright, full of appetising texture and distinctive flavour – red onion, lime, chilli (there’s a reason I mentioned it as a food favourite in my video recently). The food at Mestizo was comparatively one-note.

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Cheese empanadas

For my starter, I ordered the cheese empanadas (from the Antojitos section of the menu). I’ve made my own empanadas and eaten them at catered events at work, so was looking forward to the contrast of crisp pastry shell and oozing, salty interior. I received a plate of four pale, somewhat undercooked-looking empanadas. They were deep-fried, and probably at too low a heat: the exterior was soggy with oil and unpleasantly greasy. The cheese interior was utterly bland: the cheese used was white and stringy but lacked even the taste of salt. I only found the empanadas edible when slathered with the tomato sauce and sour cream (or possibly crema) they came with, and the addition of coriander pinched from my friend’s dish. Even with these additions they were largely flavourless, but it served to cover the oiliness. The thing about deep-fried food is that it must be utterly delicious to be worth eating, and as I picked at the empanadas, all I could think of was that they were a waste of calories. Not good.

Arrachera tacosFor her starter, my friend had the arrachera tacos, spiced beef strips marinated in beer which came with soft tortillas and fixings – tomato sauce, chopped white onion, coriander – to assemble your tacos. The beef was, in contrast to my dish, very strongly flavoured with spices, though with a slightly metallic aftertaste (the beer, I guess) which I found somewhat unpleasant. The texture of the beef was disappointing: the strips were stringy and tough, requiring considerable chewing to get through, and I don’t think it was right for a taco.

For my main, I had the enchiladas de mole, because I wanted to try this signature, iconic Mexican poultry dish. The two enchiladas arrived with a little rice and black bean stew. The black beans were lovely: tender and richly spiced with deep, rich flavour. The enchiladas were slathered with the dark mole sauce. I knew, of course, that mole includes dark chocolate amongst other ingredients (over 40, according to Mestizo’s menu), but I wasn’t expecting the sauce to taste so assertively, and sweetly, of chocolate. The predominant spice note was cumin, and this didn’t translate well with the chicken: it was so sweet that the dish was almost a dessert in which some chicken had been tumbled. It was a strangely claggy, heavy eating experience. The flavours of the 40 different ingredients didn’t harmonise well, and the result was murky and overwhelmed my palate. For my taste, the dish was crying out for some bright, citrussy flavour to uplift it – lime juice and a sprinkle of coriander would not have gone amiss.

237My friend had the enchiladas cancun, which was admittedly livelier, with a tomato sauce, and uplifted by the garnish of pickled red onion and a few slices of avocado. However, we both agreed that it was still flatter than the flavours we were used to at Wahaca, and again the sauce was a little sweet for my taste.

By this point we were done and agreed to seek pastures greener for dessert.

Verdict: If you’re seeking Mexican or even Latin food in the capital, you could do better than Mestizo. It might not seem credibly edgy to visit a chain but Wahaca is a stalwart which I go to again and again for good reason: the food is reliably fresh and zingy. If you aren’t particularly seeking out Mexican food and want something a bit more indie, I’d highly recommend the Peruvian restaurant Ceviche in Soho which, in addition to vibrant plates of its eponymous fish dish, serves up a pretty perfect pisco sour.

 

Let’s talk about…Franco Manca

I felt compelled to write about the London-based upmarket/artisan pizza mini-chain Franco Manca because I have recently eaten there for the third time (across two of its whopping 19 locations), which is enough, I think, to make a decent assessment of the chain, and have finally collected my thoughts.

Clockwise from left: Special, with sausage and radicchio; No. 3 (ham, mozzarella, ricotta and mushrooms); half of a No. 6 (tomato, chorizo and mozzarella)
Clockwise from left: Special, with sausage and radicchio; No. 3 (ham, mozzarella, ricotta and mushrooms); half of a No. 6 (tomato, chorizo and mozzarella)

Say ‘Franco Manca’ (or type it into Google) and very soon the phrase ‘best pizza in London’ will out. Franco Manca is famous for its slow-risen sourdough crust, a crust which is baked, naturally, in a wood-burning oven on-site. It’s pleasantly chewy, pliant and has a deep, complex flavour. The attention paid to the crust at the pizzeria is a definite shift in perception: so often, pizzas are all about the toppings, piled incongruously on a lacklustre base.

It’s a place where there is a relentless commitment to everything being artisanal, with no shortcuts or mass-produced products. This applies to the beverages as much as to the food – you won’t be drinking a Diet Coke here (although you can order a San Pellegrino). The insides of the restaurants (I haven’t been to all of them, obviously) tend to be simple, with simple, graphic accents on the walls, and you have the choice to sit on communal benches or tables, which have a mixture of seats and backless wooden blocks. I hate those blocks, to be honest – firstly, where can I hang my coat and scarf (et cetera) in winter? Grr.

I’ve had some decidedly mixed pizzas at Franco Manca. Obviously, when food is handmade from start to finish, inconsistencies and differences are to be expected – you aren’t going to have 15 identikit, perfectly round pizzas – but given the almost inextricable link between ‘best pizza in London’ and ‘Franco Manca’, I would expect the quality to be equally high each time, which hasn’t always been the case.

Special, with prosciutto, parmesan, and cherry tomatoes
Special, with prosciutto, parmesan, and cherry tomatoes

I’v tried two specials, which I have found, on the whole, slightly weaker than the pizzas featured on the normal menu. This does make sense, in that presumably the specials aren’t as practised and perfected as the usual stalwarts.

One of the Specials was quite similar to the No. 3 on its usual menu, featuring, as it did, Old Gloucester Spot sausage crumbled over the top; it also had mozzarella and raddichio. There was only a small amount of sausage crumbled over the entire pizza, and the chunks were quite large, so unless you cut them up further yourself, most mouthfuls were sausage-less (hmm. I’m not sure about that turn of phrase). The herby sausage was delicious and pulled the pizza toppings together really nicely, so its relative absence was a shame. I did enjoy eating it, but I didn’t think any of the flavours stood out – radicchio is meant to be quite strong and punchy but there was just no impact this time, none of that characteristic bitterness which would have given the food some edge. This pizza ordinarily came without tomato sauce on the base but the waiter did ask if we wanted it, and we did – it was nice that the option was offered.

The other special I’ve tried, on another occasion (okay, it was Valentine’s Day) was also a ‘white pizza’ (no tomato base), but did have a few cherry tomatoes as a topping. It also featured prosciutto and parmesan. I normally really hate cooked tomatoes but the cherry tomatoes here were still fresh and juicy. This pizza had a well-cooked, slightly crisp base – which I noticed because the other pizza we ordered had a limp, soggy base, a fact which really surprised me, given Franco Manca’s reputation. I love both prosciutto and parmesan, and the base was delicious, but I found the pizza to be, on the whole, quite salty, with very little creamy cheese or anything else to balance it out.

No. 6 on repeat (this is the slightly undercooked one)
No. 6 on repeat (this is the slightly undercooked one)

The most disappointing pizza I’ve tried at Franco Manca was the No. 4 from the regular menu, which features Gloucester Old Spot ham, mozzarella, buffalo ricotta and wild mushrooms. Despite the ham I found this to be very bland, with a uniformly creamy texture from the cheeses, which actually overwhelmed the base. I only really enjoyed it when I poured over some of the chilli oil (provided, along with garlic oil, as standard, on each table), which gave the flavours some lift and kick. The ham was completely overwhelmed and I hardly tasted it.

As far as my friends and I are concerned, the piece de resistance is the No. 6, the tomato, chorizo and mozzarella pizza. Mostly because…chorizo. The sausage is juicy and delicious, not too spicy, and well-distributed over the pizza. (This pizza is a middle-class pepperoni, let’s face it). I’ve eaten this one three times. The first time I had it, I thought it was really, really, really nice, but I was a little surprised that this pizza was considered so ground-breaking. The second time, I thought it was absolutely delicious, the most perfectly balanced, delicious pizza, with the warm, slightly sour crust, the sweetness of tomato and the saltiness of the chorizo coming together really beautifully. The chorizo is a little thicker than a standard pepperoni slice, so you feel like you’re getting a good chew, too. The third time…the base was flabby and undercooked. The crust around the edges was a little doughy (if Paul Hollywood has pressed it, it would “have gone back to dough”) and the base was slightly rubbery in the centre. Although the pizza was still really tasty, it very much felt like eating a more hastily-banged out product than the ‘handmade’ ethos of Franco Manca would suggest.

This isn’t meant to be a hatchet job or a warning against Franco Manca at all: I should mention that the prices for pizza here are insanely reasonable, and they are all good eating. I do think, given my experiences, that I might have enjoyed the experience more if it hadn’t been so insanely hyped-up. Franco Manca’s pizza is definitely a big step up from such chains as Pizza Express (I like Pizza Express too, but they’re not really comparable), but I have had really nice handmade pizzas elsewhere in London which have been as satisfying as a Franco Manca product. When the Franco Manca pizza is as perfectly cooked as some of the ones I have had, they are utterly delicious and hard to beat; if the base isn’t tended to with as a great care, they definitely become much more average. The emphasis on the base and quality of toppings means the toppings can sometimes be a little sparse, and I haven’t always found the flavour profiles well-balanced. But I still really enjoy going there – just keep your expectations in check, and enjoy.

REVIEW: Iberia, Caledonian road

Place: Iberia Georgian Restaurant
294-296 Caledonian Road
N1 1BA

I was organising my birthday dinner and wanted to try a place that was unusual, not too spicy and which served a range of vegetarian foods. Iberia fit the bill: I’ve been curious about Georgian food for a while, and this seemed like a good start in a not too out-of-the-way place. It’s tucked away in Caledonian Road, about 15 minutes’ walk from the King’s Cross/St Pancras tube/train station; it’s not the kind of place you’d just stumble upon, and the decor is beautiful and elegant. It’s also extremely small: make a reservation.

Service: Really lovely. From making the reservation to dinner service the staff were attentive and hospitable. Our water glasses were regularly topped up (with free tap water!) and they answered questions about the food, and didn’t laugh too much at our attempts to pronounce the menu items.

If you’re ordering a mix of starters and main courses and want them all to arrive at the same time, do mention it explicitly. Ours arrived separately as the lady serving us thought the table was sharing starters, but actually a friend and I were splitting starters in lieu of a main course, which meant some people waited quite a while for their food.

Food: Delicious and unusual. I split several appetisers with a friend and had a taste of some of the mains. In general Georgian food has lots of walnuts and pomegranate; more Middle Eastern/Mediterranean than Eastern European.

The badrijiani – slices of aubergine slathered in walnut sauce – was a good, fairly well-balanced dish, although because I adore aubergine I wished the slices were a bit thicker. The flavours of creamy aubergine and rich walnut sauce went well together. Amazingly the aubergine wasn’t oily and so the addition of the walnuts didn’t make the dish too greasy.

Evidence of cicaka, lobio, blini (the cigar thing), khachapouri and pkhali

The cicaka – marinated red pepper slices – was good, although it had that vinegary, not-quite-pickled flavour that you get from bottled, preserved peppers. It was good but not outstanding – there were plenty of other more interesting things to try.

The lobio, a bean stew, was robust – the main course was just a bigger version of the appetiser. It was quite filling and richly spiced. I usually dislike red kidney beans but these were good: extremely tender, with soft skins (not tough and leathery), and the strong flavours were warming for the cool night. (And the night was cool, which just seems ridiculously implausible right now).

A spoonful of lobio

There were also blini – not the Russian buckwheat pancakes served with caviar and smetana but crisp, spring-roll like cigars filled with meat. They were good, in the way that a shattering, crisp shell contrasts with the soft filling is always good, and as with all the food offered were wonderfully seasoned.

My stand-out appetiser was, perhaps surprisingly, the pkhali. I say surprisingly because it seems odd that a cold spinach dish could have been so delicious, and yet it was: fragrant and sharp with coriander, with a melting texture. It also looked beautiful, diamonds of emerald green and a scattering of jewel-like pomegranate seeds.

I also had a bite of the soko, tender mushrooms filled with melting cheese, which were delicious and addictive as cheesy mushrooms are.

Of course I had to try the khachapouri, the famous Georgian cheese bread I’ve been dying to try since reading the description thereof in Nigella Lawson’s ‘Feast’. I accidentally ordered the megruli khachapouri, which is both stuffed and filled with cheese, but a friend ordered the imeruli khachapouri, which was just stuffed. The imeruli version was much better, in my opinion, as you got the contrast of soft, caramelised bread crust (delightfully speckled) and salty, melty cheese. There was less contrast with the megruli version and it was too much like a rich pizza for me – however the people around me who tried it had no complaints!

I had a bite of ostri (beef stew), which was brightly-flavoured. Although I didn’t try the baby potatoes they looked beautiful, tiny and caramelised. I also tried some of the cabbage tolma, which were rich and meaty. The leaves were tender and delicate – it was impressive that they held the filling!

You should bear in mind however that the portions are on the small side; if you want to leave full you should order appetisers and a main, and perhaps a dessert is you’re very hungry.

You can see the menu here.

Verdict: go! try as much as possible!

Do try: the pkhali. I don’t really want to eat spinach another way again.

REVIEW: Dollar Grill, Exmouth Market

Place: Dollar Grills and Martinis
2 Exmouth Market
Nearest Tube: Farringdon

A large group of friends and I went to Dollar Grill in Exmouth Market for a birthday dinner. It was a generally unpretentious place. The thing about Americana in London is that it’s inherently kitschy, and you can’t get away from that.

I really liked the fact that music wasn’t playing – I even commented to a friend on this during the meal – as we could actually hear each other talk, a rarity at places in London.

Service: attentive and generally excellent. The wait staff were friendly and informal, they took our orders quickly, and didn’t seem impatient to chase us out: I didn’t feel rushed. The staff checked that everything was fine and were quick to bring additional items requested like condiments. No complaints, in fact it was flawless (in a casual and relaxed way rather than a fancy fine-dining way) and really made my evening.

Food: my friend Juliet and I split calamari, french fries (they were sadly out of their hand-cut chips) and a goat’s cheese hamburger with slow-roasted tomatoes. She ordered a pear and elderflower martini, but I wasn’t feeling well and settled for a vanilla milkshake. The milkshake was extremely rich – I just about managed to finish half. It was sweet and thick, basically like drinking melted ice cream. I would save this for dessert in the future! They had other flavours too, like Oreo. I later had a sip of Juliet’s cocktail, which was rich and grainy (in a good way) with a true pear flavour. Again it was sweet, but delicious.

We were given complimentary bread and a herb and oil dip before starting the meal proper. They were both absolutely delicious. The bread, thick-cut white, had a fantastic texture, and the oil was flecked with coriander and chilli. It was a very light, flavourless oil, delicately bringing out the taste of the herbs. It may seem a small point but the fact that something free was actually delicious rather than a thoughtlessly offered sop to the masses was really lovely.

The burger arrived, and on the plate it looked a little disappointing: it just sat there alone on its white plate, admittedly piled quite high. It was tasty but overwhelming – I was glad we had chosen to split it. Admittedly it was one of the most luxurious burgers on the menu. There was a lot of goat’s cheese, maybe a little too much, actually. I think the tomato was raw rather than roasted, as well, but the fresh flavour was welcome in this case. If you go for this burger, split it unless you have a large appetite.

The calamari was fine, with that slight characteristic bounciness, although the coating was disappointing. It was too oily and thick for my liking and was soggy rather than light and crisp. I also thought it was a under-seasoned. The lime mayonnaise that came with them was a lovely condiment, though.

The bill was less than £20 for everything (bearing in mind I had split the appetiser and main), and the portions were definitely generous enough. We could even have done without the chips and were I to do it again I would have foregone the milkshake…if only to keep my appetite up, because it was tasty. If only they did half sizes…

Verdict: it’s worth a visit if you want a casual place good for hanging out with friends, where you can actually talk to people, and if you’re up for some hyper-real American kitsch

Photos courtesy Juliet

REVIEW: Yum Cha, Chalk Farm

Place: Yum Cha
27-28 Chalk Farm road
Nearest Tube station: Camden Town

A few friends and I went to Yum Cha to celebrate / commemorate another successful year running our student society. Yum Cha had come highly recommended by word of mouth, and the reviews I checked online were all glowing. All of them repeatedly stated how delicious and authentic the food was. I admit I had high expectations when I went, and was deeply desiring, particularly, pork buns and soup dumplings. (Soup dumplings are really exciting – a thin membrane of a dumpling skin encasing a mouthful of hot soup that explodes into your mouth once you rupture the surprisingly resilient wrapper. The quintessence of fun food!).

We went on a Wednesday evening at 6pm, which meant the dim sum menu had slightly less choice than during the day, but also meant the dim sum was half price! Well, we are students. The photo of the spread below was taken by one of my friends – the lighting wasn’t great but it gives an impression of the atmosphere.

Yum Cha spread

Service: highly variable. When we arrived there was almost nobody else there, so after a bit of back-and-forth between staff about where to seat us, we were brought to a table almost immediately. It took us a while to decide on all the dishes and we ended up writing down the ones we wanted and passing the note to the waitress (as we couldn’t keep track of which dishes we wanted otherwise). Service at this point was attentive and food arrived extremely swiftly after ordering. Later in the evening, the restaurant become extremely busy and unsurprisingly service became more brusque. We had to ask for our bill three times before receiving it, and waited so long to pay by card that we ended up going to the counter rather than remain at our table. The waitress then instructed us to go back to our table as it was too crowded by the counter (in fairness, it was fairly narrow).

Food: the overwhelming impression was that of sweetness. A lot of the dishes had a strong, sweet component – for my taste, too sweet. We ordered the honey-roast pork buns. The bun was deliciously fluffy, not dry at all, but even if it had been a foil for a salty filling, it was slightly too sweet to be a savoury dish. The filling inside was also very sweet, and the flakes of pork were small. In all I felt there wasn’t enough taste or textural contrast in this dish.

The sauce for the chickens’ feet was also sweet, so much so that I didn’t end up eating them, even though I’ve been curious about trying them for a while. They were also garishly orange. The mandarin-glazed ribs were lovely and moist. Obviously with a mandarin sauce they had a sweet edge, but maybe because they were the first thing I ate, it didn’t bother me so much – there seemed to be a balance between moist, rich meat and sweet-tangy glaze.

The soup dumplings were as fun as they always are. I was impressed by the dumpling skin, which despite repeated pokings as I manouevred it out of the steamer basket didn’t break till I bit into it. Excellent!

The salt and pepper squid was delicious – perfect, light, crisp batter, which was a pleasant contrast to the bouncy squid beneath. Saying the squid was a little bouncy or rubbery sounds negative, but it wasn’t chewy, just lightly springy, like al dente pasta can be.

The pig’s ears came sliced into ribbons of cartilage-rippled meat. The first impression was of chilli and spice, followed by an almost too-intense hit of musky porkiness. They were served cold, which I felt was a mistake – I wanted something crisp, shattery and hot, and the coldness didn’t bring out the flavour or texture of the ear in its best light. There was a crunchiness, from the cartilage, but it all felt a bit…clammy. Exactly like chewing on a dead animal’s ear, actually.

The jellyfish with smoked pork knuckle was interesting – crunchy/rubbery/bouncy, not unpleasant, but something I had to get used to. I can’t comment a to the technical qualities of the dish since it was just so strange to me.

I didn’t try the shrimp and scallop dumplings, as I don’t like shrimp, but everyone else seemed to enjoy them. I also didn’t try the duck tongues.

We finished with the custard dim sum. We ordered one portion each of the fried and steamed versions, to see which ones we like best. Most of us preferred the fried version, and I did too. While the steamed version was soft and fluffy, the texture was too similar and the bun a bit too clammy, cleaving to the palate a bit too much for comfort. The fried version, on the other hand, had a sumptuous, crackling crust to contrast with the fluffy bun and sweet, firm filling. It also seemed a bit less eggy than the steamed version, and I’m not very fond of egginess in desserts. We didn’t try egg tarts as they only serve them at lunch, not dinner.

All in all, this was an extremely cheap dinner (about £10 a head, and we ordered so much food!), and there were some delicious parts. However, I really felt it didn’t live up to the hype, and maybe if my expectations had been lower I would have liked it more. A friend who’d been there before said he felt the food was fresher tasting during the day compared to the evening, which may have played a part. However, ultimately, I’m not compelled to go again to try it out. The food was just too one-dimensional, with too many very sweet components to supposedly savoury dishes, to be satisfying to eat.

Verdict: not worth a repeat visit

Do try: the soup dumplings; salt and pepper squid

Don’t bother: the honey roast pork buns