Friday Food Things, part V: the miracle of seasonality

I haven’t written in a bit because the past couple of weeks have involved the following: preparing to travel (including trying to finish off as much work as possible before leaving the office); travelling and enjoying myself enormously; recovering from travelling. My travels took me to New York, where I visited the Statue of Liberty, strolled around Central Park, and ate some amazing food. You can read the first instalment of my adventures in the Big Apple here.

IMG_2336Since back, I have absolutely devoured Barbara Kingsolver’s magnificently inspirational Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Kingsolver is primarily known as a novelist, with The Poisonwood Bible probably being her most immediately recognisable work (true to form, I haven’t read it, but I’ve read The Lacuna which, if nothing else, introduced me to the concept of the lacuna). (That sounds flippant. It was very good). Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, however, is something like a memoir, something like a work of journalism, something like a handbook for seasonal eating. It follows Kingsolver and her family as they move to her husband’s farm in Appalachia and agree to eat seasonally and locally for a year, as a family project. I’ve always been interested, in a token way, in locality and seasonality, and occasionally get so prickly about our general reliance on fossil fuels, a reliance embedded deep within the food supply system, that I wake up in the middle of the night and sit bolt upright, panicking. However, in recent years, what was once a passionate interest has seemed marginal when I have struggled to find time to cook at all on occasion. Even when you love food, the reality of cooking

Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)
Seasonal, local vegetables from Farm Direct (see below)

when you’re home at 7pm, 8pm, ground down by a long journey deep underground in a rattling carriage, can be a prosaic and joyless chore at times. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was like that moment when I drink my third cup of coffee: an awakening. Kingsolver lives on a farm, so it’s arguably easy for her to eat locally, seasonally. But the advice is generous and understanding about the impact even a few cumulative decisions can have on the whole fossil fuel-dependent global supply chain of food, how it can reduce our reliance on them, and how a few small changes can directly benefit farmers. Yes, the book is a little dated now, and it’s obviously focused on the US, which doesn’t map exactly with agriculture in Europe. In the EU, we simply don’t have the same issues with growth hormones in milk, concentrated animal feeding operations and patented genetically modified crops, partly due to EU regulations and partly due to consumer rejection. Interetsingly, disagreements about food standards are one of the issues holding up agreement on the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

 

IMG_1162I can’t and won’t live without aubergine, but I am making an effort to eat seasonally and locally. In this I have been aided by two things. The first is April Bloomfield’s A Girl and her Greens, an ode to vegetables which bursts with creativity and ideas for beautiful, sometimes unusual, vegetables. Not all the recipes are 100% to my taste (like many professional chefs, she uses more butter than I am personally comfortable with!) but I feel genuinely excited when flicking through this book, inspired to cook new things in different ways. The quirky illustrations of dancing pigs and quizzical chickens are also a delight.

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These dancing pig illustrations in A Girl and Her Green never failed to draw a smile

The second aid to seasonality is Farm Direct, a website my friend Mehrunnisa directed me to. It’s effectively a virtual marketplace where farmers can list their produce; the food you order is delivered straight to your door. I browse the website like some people browse Asos or Tiffany’s: I just want it all, and everything is precious. So many wonderful things are growing around this time of year and I piled my online basket high, and then reluctantly took stuff out, bitterly acknowledging the fact that we are a two-person household who can only eat so much. The fantastic thing about the produce offered is that there are plenty of things simply not available in supermarkets: think sorrel, baby purple turnips, red spring onions. I find the prices competitive, too, especially for the unusual and organic produce, and I like the fact that farmers are earning more than they would if I purchased their food through a supermarket. I can’t wait for my next crate of baby turnips, gooseberries and Tiptree strawberries to arrive this weekend.

IMG_1172So immersed in my new love of seasonal, more local, eating (fresher! Directly benefitting farmers in my locality! Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels!) was I that reading Adam Johns’ opinion column ‘What’s so great about reating seasonally?’, published in the ‘A Good Rant’ section of delicious magazine was something of a shock. Johns describes encouragement to eat seasonally (though he intertwines this with the issue of eating locally – admittedly the two are very intersected) as an “absurd foodie dictum” and characterised by “piety, hypocrisy, and chauvinism”, not to mention snobbery and “culinary xenophobia”. He bemoans being unable to find South African apples in his local supermarket. I found the article pretty judgemental, but most of it was just his opinion, and I’m excellent at living and letting live on those (I just don’t have the energy to get exercised about how other people feel most of the time). However, there were two parts in particular where I thought Johns’ arguments were specious. Firstly:

Shoes and clothes are still made in the UK, but how many of those who insist on ‘buying locally’ make a point of wearing these items? […] why is that permitted if it’s not okay to eat an imported tomato?

My counter-point to that argument is the simple issue that fresh food is perishable. When it is imported via air, huge amounts of fuel are used to bring over produce which is, largely, destined to have a relatively brief shelf life. Coupled with the knowledge that UK households throw out 7 million tonnes of food items a year, half of which could have been eaten, the implication is that a lot of food is being imported only to be thrown away. A huge amount of non-renewable fossil fuel has been used to transfer out of season green beans to our rubbish (or perhaps compost!) bins. When importing clothes and shoes, there is no real shelf life (beyond the vagaries of fashion) as these are not perishable items, therefore importing them is not so risible. They are also much more likely to be shipped by container, and not a refrigerated one, either.

The second argument that Johns makes is as follows:

There’s also a mean-mindedness to the seasonistas’ stance. Every time you turn your nose up at a green bean from Kenya or a bunch of asparagus from Peru, you deny farmers in such developing countries the chance of a better living.

Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct
Heirloom tomatoes, spring garlic and a hint of artichoke, from Farm Direct

It’s been well recorded that the market distoring impact of the Common Agricultural Policy has had the unwelcome effect of flooding developing countries’ markets with subsidised food grown in Europe, resulting in the decline of local food production; in addition, the CAP’s subsidies mean developing-world farmers cannot compete with their European counterparts on price. While the CAP has been reformed, these structural problems remain and arguably will continue to do so. The idea that farmers in the developing world are making a decent living due to our appetite for their vegetables is risible. A lot of the growing is done on large-scale monoculture plantations or farms owned by local or international corporations.

 

The restructuring of developing countries’ food markets to grow crops for the Western world’s table is also having a serious impact on the local environment and is in some cases compromising local peoples’ access to fresh, affordable food. At the same time, I recognise that food exports will be an important source of income for many people in the developing world and that whole countries’ economies rely on export of primary products. My point is that the whole issue is complex from a range of perspectives, including human, economic, and environmental, and Johns’ reductionist argument, painting those reluctant to buy foreign-grown vegetables as xenophobic Scrooges does a disservice to this difficult issue.

As I said I am unlikely to be able to live entirely without products from the world’s larder: in my fridge and on my counter I have bananas, aubergines, tinned Italian tomatoes and herbs and spices from around the world (and when it comes to fossil fuels…I did travel to New York recently!). But attempting to tread a little more lightly on the earth by reducing my reliance on foods imported by fossil fuel is driven not by xenophobia or pettiness but by an attempt to live more responsibly in my day to day actions. I don’t think this is a bad thing.

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Chloe Eats New York: Where I Ate in Midtown: hot dogs, salad bars, La Bonne Soupe

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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.

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Did I mention I was in New York?

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.

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Very good kale salad, nicely creamy avocado, slightly bland sausage, disappointing carrots on a bed of really nice quinoa

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 W 53 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).

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Totally awesome meatballs. The pasta salad was fine. There is some avocado out of shot

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.

Going for vegetarian protein power with black beans and quinoa, and even more avocado.
Going for vegetarian protein power with black beans and quinoa, and even more avocado.

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 Soupea 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.

LaBonneSoupe collage
Boullabaise, served authentically; lamb burger with goat’s cheese; steak hache paysan

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.

Sangria 46
Peach and raspberry sangria, tortilla, shrimp, spinach croquetas

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.

Prometheus at the Rockefeller Center in flashy mode. So that's how Zeus caught him...
Prometheus at the Rockefeller Center in flashy mode. So that’s how Zeus caught him…

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.

See what I mean?

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.

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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.

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The boating lake, Central Park

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.

This is not gourmet food
This is not gourmet food
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Chilli dog, a la Sonic the Hedgehog

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?

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.

 

Eating Dublin: The Larder, Wuff, Avoca, Green19 and Le Petit Parisien

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.

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Scenes from Dublin, Easter Sunday, 2016 (most images from outside Trinity College)

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!

Breakfast

Wuff
Benburb Street

Wuff's full Irish breakfast (sans baked beans)
Wuff’s full Irish breakfast (sans baked beans)

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.

Bow-wow
Bow-wow

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 is093 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 094farmhouse 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.

Verdict: Definitely worth a visit

Avoca
Suffolk Street

Great scone and truly excellent jam
Great scone and truly excellent jam

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.

A more modern take on Irish breakfast: see the rocket
A more modern take on Irish breakfast: see the rocket

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.

Tea

Le Petit Parisien
Dame Street

Perfectly lovely but not quite worth the hassle
Perfectly lovely but not quite worth the hassle

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. 126I 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.

Dinner

The Larder
Parliament Street

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.

Slow-roast lamb, lamb croquette, colcannon mash, egg-yolk yellow carrot puree
Slow-roast lamb, lamb croquette, colcannon mash, egg-yolk yellow carrot puree

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.

043My 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.

Green19
Camden Street Lower

127_edThere’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 132_eda 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.

134The 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 browdessertsnie. 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new thing: my first food video!

I recently made a video where I talk about the food and food-related things I’ve been enjoying recently  – restaurants I’ve been to, dishes, and particular food products. It’s a new departure for me since I’ve always been very focused just on writing, but it was a lot of fun to make – although the editing process was admittedly a slog! Anyway, if you like discovering new food things it would be lovely if you’d take a look; I hope to make them a more regular thing as and when I have the time. I anticipate it will be a new and fun way to get to know the food community!

 

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