I made it one of my resolutions at the start of the year to visit a few places in the UK which are new to me. I haven’t actually been very good at this, but did manage to co-opt a few friends into joining me on a trip to Bath, which we selected after a five-minute discussion almost at random.
Bath is a smallish spa town, distinguished for its Georgian architecture and the extensive use of Bath stone, which gives the buildings a tawny, yellowed look (I’m sure you’re not meant to think this, but it actually reminded me a little of smokers’ fingers…forgive me) and has contributed to the city’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Since, on a more charitable note, the colour of Bath stone also recalls sepia and aged newspapers, it contributes to an overall sense of genteel eighteenth-century elegance. The town’s history as a fashionable, expensive, buzzing Georgian town (name-checked by Jane Austen, Bath is the setting of Persuasion, her romance of longing and second chances) is both reinforced and challenged by the hordes of tourists from every part of the globe who throng the streets and the many tea rooms made to look like period pieces (or at least our televisual idea of such). The many people tramping about the city centre give it a sense of real vibrancy, recalling it as the bustling epicentre of fashionable life, and also generates the impetus to preserve the look and feel of Georgian Bath. However, tourism inherently engenders a range of tensions and contradictions: it leads to competing claims over space and geography, and to the sometimes artificial preservation of the old at the expense of the evolution of the new; and of course the need to build the kind of infrastructure to accommodate all those out-of-town visitors can sometimes undercut the supposed authenticity offered up to the tourist. In the case of Bath, one minute you can be looking at a lace-curtained tea room with its (female) staff in long skirts, shawls, and bonnets; the next moment you’ll see a row of bins, each printed in a different language – French, Chinese, Spanish – with instructions to avoid feeding pigeons and mind the seagulls.
In addition, Bath is a university town, with the campuses of the University of Bath and Bath Spa University a short drive away, which means that in addition to elegant and/or touristy places to eat and drink (both types of place are found in my which my reviews below!) you can find some very good, hearty, decently-priced food
The trip to Bath was a bit disorganised and we didn’t plan out things as well as we could have, resulting in a few things being missed – if we went again I would like to visit the Roman baths, for example – but we did see a lot of the city, including the famous Royal Crescent of posh Georgian houses overlooking the parks, which were also soothing to walk in. I also enjoyed wandering round the cathedral, gazing up at the scallop-shaped ceiling and reading the many memorial plaques, some of them very touching. All in all, it’s a good place for a quick weekend away if you fancy.
On the first day, we had lunch at The Circus, which my friend Juliet arranged for us (you will need to make advance reservations, especially for dinner). The restaurant serves a seasonal menu with beautiful British produce – it describes its food as ‘modern European’ but I thought the food was in many ways very British, in the best way: fresh, eclectic, driven by European technique for sure but with an adventurous, internationalist outlook rather than one excessively hide-bound by tradition. As the menu changes regularly with the seasons you wouldn’t be served the exact same food, but all was delicious and exquisitely prepared and I’d be fully confident in going back.
We shared a starter of a Parma (or at least Parma-style, since I think it was British) ham, nectarine and tomato and mozzarella salad. Such composed salads are not necessarily about originality but about delicious ingredients who are respected by allowing their quality to shine…and this salad hit the mark. The tomatoes were bursting with ripe, juicy flavour; the nectarines were the perfect ripeness to serve in a salad, still firm and crisp but juicy and honeyed, not underripe; the ham was excellent, with that silk-stocking texture you get from good-quality fat from a pig that has eaten a nourishing diet and a mouth-filling, nutty flavour of its own that isn’t just saltiness. The mozzarella was the necessary third element, all soft milk and cream. It was a wonder with the Bertinet bakery sourdough we were served to start.
We live in an era where occasionally you can take off to Europe at a moment’s notice and spend a long weekend in another country and, recently (just before Easter), that’s just what I did. A friend was visiting from Australia and suggested a European adventure, and shortly after we had booked tickets to visit Girona. Spain is such a classic British holiday destination (and Belgian one, for that matter) that it was hard for some of my colleagues to understand that this was my very first visit, ever.
Girona, which is close to Barcelona, is considered one of Catalonia’s major cities, but it’s population is – compared to London – tiny, with just under 100,000 people living there at last count. This accounts for the peacefulness and quiet of the town which I experienced; even at busy points it was pleasant and easy to walk around. Although the narrow alleyways and winding streets can make it confusing to navigate – all the stone walls merging into one – the size of the place makes it manageable (although I readily admit that I was entirely dependent on my friend, who had a homing pigeon’s instinct for finding our AirBnB).
It’s also easy to get to and from other areas – Barcelona is obviously close by, but we opted to take a day trip to Salvador Dali’s birthplace Figueres and visit the museum which he helped design (the entrance pictured just above). Dali is a somewhat controversial figure in the art world – the genius of his works is not doubted, but his changeable politics, which verged on outright support for Franco, can certainly be considered questionable – but the museum helped me to appreciate his body of work much more. His strange inventiveness, delicate skill and exquisite tenderness of his paintings was so much more than melting clocks.
In terms of food, there were, predictably, a lot of tapas. On the first night we ate a restaurant at the steps of the San Felix church, which made for an atmospheric setting but markedly average food which in some cases seemed extremely Americanised – think stodgy cheese batter studded with mild chilliest, served with a barbecue-style sauce (we expected jalapeños stuffed with cheese from the description of it). We also ate at a branch of König, a mini-chain with branches around the city which we had actually avoided on the first night there on account of its Germanic name and long and mostly not very local menu. However, during a walking tour the next day, our guide mentioned it had won an award for the best patatas bravas in Catalonia. The tour ended just outside one of their branches, so the small group (four of us were on the tour) ate some decent bravas – chunky and without excess grease – and some average, but decent, seafood croquetas, and also slightly better ham croquetas. None of it was revelatory but it was satisfying. We cooled off with ice cream from Candela afterwards. They had some innovative (and not, to my palate, successful) flavours such as tomato ice cream, but also more delicious classics such as coffee, chocolate and pistachio. I had a lovely local walnut ice cream completely studded with chopped nuts – no mimsy sprinkle here. They were happy to provide samples before we bought our cones, too – always a bonus.
We also had some excellent coffee at Espresso Mafia, an elegantly minimalist cafe where they roast the coffee beans in-house. The friend I was with, who is Australian and therefore highly attuned to quality coffee, approved heartily. The flat whites were delicious; the chai latte was spicy and flavourful with a good gingery kick, but a little cold. They also serve a ‘dirty chai’, which is a chai latte with a shot of espresso; not my cup of tea but interesting enough. The baked goods were tasty standards – coconut, chocolate and Oreo cakes, banana breads and a range of oatmeal-based cookies, as well as a vegan option.
The second time we went to Espresso Mafia, coffees in hand, I purchased a handful of churros (picture at the top) from the Montse l’Artesana, a small churreria just opposite, to nibble on during our walk to the train station. The churros are sold by weight so I was able to request only three, which was sufficient for a (shared) mid-morning snackette. They were not freshly fried to order and served with thick chocolate, as you might expect, but were fried in advance, some plain, some covered in a chocolate glaze and some in a veil of white icing. I chose plain ones sprinkled with granulated sugar. They were more like a crunchy cookie than a tender, moist fritter with cakey insides, but this actually meant they went well with the coffee. I don’t think they were exceptional, probably, and yet I really enjoyed them, and eating the last of the sugar from the tip of the cone with a moistened finger.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I was lucky enough to spend 9 days in New York at the end of May/beginning of June. I’ve always very much wanted to visit the United States generally – this was my first trip there! – but also, specifically, have been desperate to see New York. It’s been a passion of mine that has, I think, slightly bemused my boyfriend. As he, not entirely unfairly, points out, I moved from one big global city (Singapore) to another (London); what could I possibly want from a third? (His idea of a great holiday involves the Splendour of Nature). But the main reason I’d been put off from pressing NYC as a holiday destination has been the cost/distance/effort factor. The United States is a much bigger commitment than Europe, and it involves flying for a really long time.
So it was a pretty amazing opportunity when one of my bosses at work asked me if I’d be able to attend a conference on our department’s behalf…in New York City. I have travelled for work before, but that was to Sheffield (great place, but not quite the Big Apple). New York was another kettle of fish. The frisson of excitement as I accepted, trying to look as cool and professional as possible, must have shown. “Maybe you could take a few days’ holiday around it, if you wanted to stay and see the city?” Well, maybe I could. Like any jobs, mine has its occasional downsides…but the people I work for are very, very nice indeed.
For the first few days of my stay in New York, I was in Midtown, along the Avenue of the Americas (6th Avenue), not far from Central Park. This is movie-set New York: the skyscrapers which hurtle upwards like hungry steel and glass trees (see main photo); Museum Mile; Times Square not far away, with its massive blinking screens which shine bright even at mid-day. But compared to the more residential streets of the East Village, it is also, relatively speaking, a bit of a food desert. I mean yes, of course, there are heaps of restaurants in this area, a well-worn tourist path. But many of them are expensive and the food can be average.
The staple of my lunchtimes during this brief stay in Midtown (shortly before decamping to Tribeca, where David joined me for the holiday part of the trip) was Cafe 53(1301 Avenue of the Americas, 10019 New York) just opposite the Midtown Hilton Hotel (I’ve not found a website but it replaces an establishment called the W53 Gourmet Deli). It offered the principle advantages of a) not being an ubiquitous Pret A Manger – I like Pret and it’s nice to see a British export doing well, but…I can eat Pret anytime in London, and b) being close to the conference I was attending, enabling me to step outside briefly and catch some fresh air. Cafe 53’s chief attraction from a culinary perspective was an extensive salad and hot food bar/buffet. The concept is simple: you take a plastic or reinforced carton box and fill it up with whatever you want from the bar, and pay by weight at the counter (it was $8.99/LB). Obviously, the salad is very cheap, as the leaves are light, but you’d pay more if you piled the macaroni and cheese, spare ribs and meatballs into your box (they had a ‘non salad hot food’-type bar as well).
The salad items were, admittedly, sometimes on the bland side; a lot of the offerings had heavy, creamy dressings, and dried cranberries seemed to feature in almost everything, making it a little undistinguishable. Still, it was a useful place to have in the vicinity, and its presence was the main reason I was eating a good amount of fruit and vegetables every day, which can be hard to find when travelling. In the morning, there is a mini fruit bar, and a boxed fresh fruit salad to start the day was very welcome. I’d avoid the roasted carrots amongst the lunchtime offerings, however, as they were hard within and leathery on the outside. The meatballs in tomato sauce, however, were utterly delicious: light in texture, with a robust, savoury flavour. The quinoa salad was also good and I enjoyed the kale salad very much – it was creamily dressed, but lightly so, and the dressing had zesty punch. The quinoa salad was quite North American in character, featuring pecans and cranberries, like a traditional wild rice salad. It was excellent.
You could sit inside Cafe 53, but I ate outside on one of the public seating areas. It was intensely hot and sunny and sometimes a little humid, not always the best weather for someone dressed to attend a conference in an icy hotel room…
In the evenings, I ate dinner with two of my colleagues. The first night, I identified a nearby restaurant called La Bonne Soupe, a bistro my guidebook described as ‘popular with the thrifty’. We agreed that thrifty sounded good. The meal at La Bonne Soupe was easily the best I had in Midtown. Effectively, La Bonne Soupe offers decently-priced, well-rendered, very classic French bistro favourites. It is not a restaurant to go to be surprised, but seemed to me to be quite reliable. Possibly less than exciting if you live in Europe and have access to French food most of the time, but that doesn’t reflect on the overall decency of the offerings.
My colleagues between them ordered the boullabaise and a lamb burger with goat’s cheese. The boullabaise was classically rendered, with toasted bread rubbed with rouille on the side. Although served as one course, the idea was to pour the rich tomato and fish liquid into the plate and then eat the seafood separately, in the traditional manner. The seafood soup was rich and deeply flavoured; although too salty, it tasted strongly of fresh and briney seafood. The lamb burger was juicily cooked with a generous serving of goat’s cheese. There isn’t much to say about it: it was well-cooked, it tasted of lamb, it was not too cluttered with excess garnishes, there was enough good melting goat’s cheese to taste it.
I ordered the steak haché Paysan. Steak haché is effectively a refined hamburger patty, served without a bun. The waitress was at pains to explain this to me: “There’s no bun. You eat it with silverware.” (I mean, I will eat a burger with silverware, too…). I guess the term steak might mislead those diners unaware that ‘haché’ means ‘minced’ (I’m not bragging, my knowledge of French pretty much ends there). Indeed, dare I say that I had ordered it to reduce my refined carbohydrate intake, which was essential, as I had already torn through copious amounts of the contents of the complimentary bread basket. It was topped with a pat of richly green butter. For the steak haché Paysan, good things come to those who wait: as the butter melts into the meat, it bastes it and infuses each morsel with an intense hit of parsley, fresh, pungent, brightening garlic (I love garlic) and the perfect amount of salt to season the mince. Wait, don’t dive in immediately, and let the butter melt and pool on the hot surface of the patty: it is an amazing sensation, the liquid butter and firm, crumbly meat, only delicately seared. I had mine medium-rare and the tenderness of the centre echoed the softness of the butter.
We also ate dinner at a restaurant called Sangria 46, which is on, you guessed it, West 46th. It offers both tapas and mains; we shared a Spanish tortilla, spinach croquetas, empanadas and shrimp (plancha, grilled in garlic and olive oil) as starters. The tortilla was good, if a little dense, and I did enjoy the croquetas, which were appropriately crisp without and soft within. The shrimp were quite large, and not as firm and sweet as the ones we can buy in Europe. For my main, I had arroz criollo, rice with shrimp and Spanish sausage accompanied by plantains and avocado. I love the latter two ingredients. Overall the dish was average, characterised by a dull sweetness brought on by the slightly sugary tomato sauce which dressed the rice, the sweetish sausage and the starchy plantain. There was quite a lot of it; I couldn’t finish it. I also had a strawberry and peach sangria which had a similar industrial sweetness: the tinned peaches were soft and flavourless, as were the strawberries, still slightly out of season. Overall, undistinguished. We ate outside in the tiny terrace at the back of the restaurant, into which the aircon extractor roared and darkness descended with alarming finality, as there were only a few lights there.
Finally, we dined, dahlings, at the Rockefeller Centre Center Cafe, down in the sunken Concourse level. There, you are guarded over by a massive golden statue of Prometheus which silently but no less explicitly proclaims that yes indeed, John D. sure was a rich man. Speakers boomed out Justin Bieber’s music at an ear-splitting volume and looking up at the skyscrapers from below ground level gave an eerie sense of reverse vertigo.
The food was average but you knew that already, didn’t you? Eating at the Rockefeller Center is about the ambiance, about being there, at the Rockefeller Center, surrounded by skycrapers and American flags, the pleasure of sitting outdoors. Pity about the loud pop music. Anyway, I ordered a burger. The meat was well-cooked. The bun was average (not even brioche!) and slightly dry, but not offensively so. The pickle was a standard pickle, thinly sliced and flabby. The tomato was thickly sliced and not at the peak of ripeness. The fries were fine, perhaps, if I’m being picky/honest, a shade too blonde for my liking.
The prosecco was very delicious and very expensive. We were slightly surprised that it was served in acrylic champagne flutes, which is really not quite the same as a proper glass, although it is of course an ever-so-practical choice. the hard flagstone floor mean that any glassware dropped would shatter pretty definitively.
Anyway, undistinguished in terms of food, but friendly service (as everywhere in New York). Quite on the expensive side for what you get, but I’ll say it again, you don’t go there for the food.
Moving on from the food ever so briefly, as you can see from the photo above, we were fantastically lucky with the weather. A few days after the conference had ended and I was unleashed from work for a few days, David and I spent an afternoon tramping around Central Park. We didn’t expect it, but we were there for the whole day in the cool green oasis, which really is a refuge from the city in a more significant way than any London park. Walking around Central Park made me realise how many pockets of greenery there actually are in London; New York lacks the tiny, briefly bucolic squares of the world’s second – or first – global city. Instead, it makes up for this absence with the sheer size of Central Park.
I did not eat at one of NYC’s ubiquitous food carts – around 53rd/6th, where I saw a lot of them, most of were from The Halal Guys. This wasn’t really a hygiene concern – although I’m much less sanguine about where I eat after a nasty bout of gastroenteritis in Paris in December 2015 – but simply because I don’t really like chicken, which their carts featured heavily. I did, however, eat a hot dog in Central Park. I think this is more or less essential. I’m not going to pretend it was a gourmet item by any means, but there’s something appealingly subversive about frankfurters, with their preternaturally smooth mystery meat and salty, hypertension-inducing filling. Anyway. It was good. It was a hot dog! The bun was dry and it needed a liberal dose of ketcup and sweet American mustard to liven it up, but who cares? Central Park was sunny and green and I ate it lounging on the grass with friends who, coincidentally, also had booked a trip to NYC. It was a lovely day and the processed food fuelled us for post-lunch boating on the lake.
Coming up: I eat the Momofuku empire and emerge a David Chang fangirl (but there are caveats!); eat a pizza topped with molten pork fat…and will I manage to get my hands on the much-hyped original Cronut?
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.
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.
For 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.
My 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.
Over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I visited Dublin with my boyfriend. I’ve wanted to go to Ireland for a long time – I’m fairly sure this longing was based on reading Marita Conlon-McKenna’s ‘Wildflower Girl’ over and over as a child. This, and the commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising, made a trip irresistible to the historian in me. My interest is not just in the past, but in its use, commemoration, and sanctification by the state, popular culture, media, and corporations. Events are remembered (and, equally crucially, forgotten) and reworked all the time, and how we use the past says more about our own concerns, fears and hopes as a society than it does about the events themselves.
In addition to observing and (seeking to) understand the significance of the Easter Rising in Ireland’s national story – as someone with an interest in the First World War I’ve only ever really understood the Rising within a wartime, rather than a national, context – we also ate plenty of food at various Dublin establishments. The city was packed out and we didn’t manage to get to all the places on my list, but from a culinary perspective the trip was a great success.
If you’re interested in knowing more about history and its use in society – that is, outside of academic settings – then you absolutely must read Ludmilla Jordanova’s ‘History in Practice’. If, however, you’d like to know more about the food I tried in Dublin, then please stay and read on here!
After watching the commemoration ceremony and laying of the wreaths in central Dublin (on screens just outside the beautiful Trinity College), we were both absolutely starving, but the centre of Dublin was utterly rammed. I suggested we make our way to Slice, which had come recommended by a forum I frequent and had the advantage of being a little bit further out (so further from the crowds). But as we made our way there, we came across Wuff and, well, with a name like that, how could we not decide to go there? As soon as we entered, a table for two cleared, and within minutes of sitting down it started pouring with rain outside. Just meant to be, I reckon.
The ambience is not unlike slightly more hipster-ish, trendy brunch places in London: lots of wood and repurposed tin cans holding cutlery, although there were also, appropriately, lots of bright paintings of dogs dotted around the room.
Starving and somewhat cold, we both went for the full Irish (we really needed something warm!), although I forewent the serving of baked beans. On the plate: a couple of pieces of toast and two pats of butter; well-cooked bacon, a nice mix of crispy and softer pieces; a fried egg; black and white pudding (which I think is what makes this truly distinctive from the full English); and a gloriously cooked sausage, golden and appetising. And baked beans, should you want them. A traditional cooked breakfast is of course not the most exciting of food but it was executed well and the individual elements were delicious. The egg had a nicely runny yolk, which I like; the discs of pudding were scrumptious and it was a revelation to me. I had always thought I wasn’t fond of black pudding, but I realise now I just don’t like it in the incarnation of Belgian bloedpens, which is heavy and fatty. The black and white puddings were more like haggis, meaty, salty and crumbly with oatmeal. The standout, though, was the sausage: densely meaty (always a good sign), with good, porky flavour and pleasantly studded with leeks. My only real surprise was that we had white farmhouse bread instead of soda bread. The tea, an Irish breakfast blend, was also good: Irish breakfast tea blends are more weighted towards stronger, malty Assam tea than English breakfast, which includes a higher proportion of Ceylon and Kenyan tea. The Irish blend results in a stronger cup, which suits me to the ground.
Obviously, as I only had the one meal there I can’t comment broadly, but it was very good, and there are plenty of modish options if you’d like – lots of elegant women were ordering platefuls of the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, which sounds like the lighter option if you ignore the generous puddles of buttery hollandaise poured around the English muffins. They looked great.
Avoca was another recommendation and when we arrived, shortly before it opened, there was a small queue forming outside. The cafe, which is situated above a gleaming shop of edited homewares, clothes, and books, became packed within minutes of it opening, so I’d recommend joining the pre-opening queue. Avoca, with its clean wood lines, on-trend rows of baked goods and jugs of cucumber and mint water, is clearly the place to be, and it’s also a place to be seen.
The breakfast menu is a typically brunchy mix of classics (the full Irish, pancakes) and trend-led superfood-y stuff – power porridge, green juice. Incidentally, the printed menu we received was not exactly the same as the one online. I ordered a fruit scone, which appears on the online menu (and the scones were visible in baskets), but didn’t appear in print. My boyfriend hesitated over the power porridge before, somewhat shamefacedly, going for his second full Irish in two days.
His verdict on the Avoca full Irish, though, was that it was ‘nice’ but not particularly striking. The sausages didn’t appear as good as the one we had at Wuff and he confirmed this was the case (even though they are advertised as coming with leeks, as the Wuff sausages did). The Avoca cooked breakfast came with bacon and sauteed mushrooms, a pile of rocket salad, scrambled eggs (you could replace it with a poached or fried egg though) and a bit of tomato: lacking the black or white pudding, it didn’t seem particularly different to an English breakfast, and, given the pile of rocket, was definitely a modernised version.
My scone came with cream, jam and butter, which was heaps of fun. The size of a fist or two, it was beautifully light and with an exceptionally fluffy interior, which made me wonder if it had been made with cream. The rocky, slightly sweet crust provided a textural contrast to the delicate interior without being tooth-breakingly hard. The scone was studded with raspberries but I would have preferred a more generous handful. The raspberry jam the scone was served with was exceptional, though: so sharp and really perfectly preserving the acidic bite of the fresh fruit, tempered by just enough sweetness.
Verdict: The scone was lovely, the cooked breakfast only so-so. Instead of breakfast, pop in for a cup of tea and cake – baked goods are clearly where this place shines.
I was in a fairly grumpy mood when we popped into this tiny, centrally-located cafe, mostly from sheer hunger. Although going to a Parisien-themed cafe seemed a bit of a waste of an opportunity to seek out a more locally-flavoured option, quite a few of our listed alternatives were actually closed on the bank holiday. I perked up, however, at the sight of the croque monsieur, a weakness of mine, which I ordered along with a pecan tart. David ordered a lemon tart.
Service here was broadly friendly but erratic, and somewhat slow. A French couple sitting near us left, slightly huffily, without ordering, because they had not been served since their arrival (they did say to a passing waitress that they had to go to the airport soon but this did not result in speeded-up service). The pecan and lemon tarts arrived. I waited for the croque monsieur, and reminded the waitress I’d ordered it. I waited some more. It never arrived and I ate my pecan tart, which was excellent: crumbly, sandy pastry, gooey-sweet caramel filling with enough burnt sugar edge to stop it from being sickly, pecans with their fattiness cutting through it. The lemon tart had qually good pastry and a light, creamy filling which, for me, lacked enough lemon flavour and sharpness to hit the mark. Both were served with squirty whipped cream. Cheered up (though slightly missing the croque), we went to pay – we got up to pay at the counter rather than wait and it still took a while to get the bill, which, of course, had the croque monsieur listed. The staff were apologetic about having forgotten and it’s not the end of the world, and waitering is a thankless job, though obviously it’s not great business practice to miss people’s orders. Apparently something was wrong with the till that day so if you pop in your experience may vary.
Verdict: The tarts were very nice but honestly I could have given this one a miss, and you should only go if you have the time to spare on slightly slower service.
Spoiler alert: dinner at this centrally-located fine-dining restaurant was the foodie highlight of the Dublin trip for me (I even mentioned it in my March Food Favourites video). I would advise booking because we were turned away one evening when it was packed to the rafters. On the day we went, though, it was quieter and had a cosy feel; we were tired and happy to be tucked in the corner of the window in two enormous velvety armchairs.
The menu was one of those agonising ones where everything looks amazing and it’s painfully difficult to choose; as both of us dithered lengthily, we had to send the conscientious waitress back a few times when she enquired if we were ready; fortunately, she took this with good grace. David agonised between the rib eye of beef, which came with chips and salad, and the wild mushroom gnocchi, while I mentally flitted between the slow cooked pig’s cheeks with roast autumn vegetables, pomme puree and horseradish foam (I have yet to eat foam!) and a special of braised lamb with colcannon mash and carrot puree. I always struggle with whether I should ordered a special because there’s a school of thought which says a one-off menu item will never be as good as the ones the chef practices and perfects night after night. But in the end, the ‘Irishness’ of a dish of lamb, potatoes and cabbage won the day, and the boy was won over by the steak, which he ordered medium-well.
Lamb, potatoes, cabbage and carrots it may have been, but the dish which was served up was no rustic peasant food but was elegantly refined, though not overly-fussy; the perfect balance. The lamb fell apart at the slight prod of the fork and was just meltingly perfect: sweet, with a strongly-flavoured glaze that didn’t compete with the lamb but brought out its essence. The lamb croquette had the perfect interplay of textures: crisp, robust crust and tender inside. Although the idea of carrot puree artfully decorating the plate might be a turn-off for some, the concentric circles of sweet carrot provided a lovely counterpoint on the plate and was a more imaginative way of presenting cooked carrot. The colcannon was deliciously creamy and buttery and perfectly smooth.
My boyfriend’s steak was perfectly cooked according to his request: it was exactly as you’d want a medium-well steak to be, slightly pink but not bloody, and still retaining a delicate, tender texture. The cafe de Paris butter was well-flavoured and the chips were robust and well cooked: crisp exterior, fluffy interior, and enough of them (there’s nothing so annoying as parsimony with respect to chips at a restaurant, no matter how refined).
We didn’t have dessert (on account of the Easter eggs waiting for us back at the hotel), but I did indulge in an Irish coffee. It was deliciously balanced: hot coffee, the background burn of whiskey warming my throat and stomach, and the cool, aerated cream adding a lactic sweetness to balance the heat of the coffee and alcohol. In truth I would have preferred it a tiny bit sweeter – I like my coffee sweet – but this was admittedly perfectly executed.
Verdict: Centrally located, beautifully cooked food. As far as I’m concerned it’s a must-try. Book in advance.
There’s a slightly Scandi-hipster vibe at Green19: clean wood and soothing green tones (even the menu cover is wood – I accidentally scorched it by placing it over the tealight in the centre of the table), friendly, bearded waiters, and minimalist, clean type. It’s a smallish place; although we might have gotten away with dropping in I think it’s best to book in advance.
They’d run out of a few items on the menu when we at there (no chicken wings, mackerel, or hake), so if you’re going with your heart set on something, it might be worth checking in advance (though I don’t know how typical it is for the kitchen to run low). I ordered the pork belly, which came with spinach, green beans (it was meant to be butternut squash as per the menu but…they’d run out) and mustard mash, and David, staggering a little under the weight of numerous Irish breakfasts and steak meals, went for a vegetarian main in the form of the gnocchi, which came with a creamy mushroom sauce.
The gnocchi were lovely and bouncy and the rich sauce had a smooth, supple flavour, full of that slightly dusty, woodsy, meaty mushroom taste. The sauce was also studded with pumpkin, lending its sweetness, and dusted with parmesan. It was rich, filling and indulgent, which is always nice in a vegetarian dish.
The pork belly I had was fabulous. The belly was cooked shy of falling-apart tender, but it was soft and unctuous. The mustard mash was sharply tangy, which was an interesting contrast to its creamy texture, and of course provided the necessary counterpart to the rich pork. The beans were cooked until crunchy and bright green, the way I most prefer them. But the star of my dish was really the flat slab of pork belly skin which topped the plate: crisp and puffed, it shattered in the mouth, salty and brittle.
We also ordered dessert at the end of the meal; I went for the spiced apple crumble and David for the chocolate brownie. Both came with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I’d characterise both desserts as good, solid, though not groundbreaking versions of the classics. The apple crumble came in a crumbly pastry case, which is a bit different, and the spicing leaned more towards clove and star anise than to cinnamon, which was a nice change. The brownie was moist and cakey rather than fudgy, and although light in texture was rich in chocolate flavour. The teas were served with a skinny stick of dark Valrhona chocolate, which was a nice touch.
Verdict: I liked the food here a lot: give it a go. It’s classic comfort food, rendered well.
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.
Say ‘Franco Manca’ (or type it into Google) and very soonthe 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.
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.
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.