In fair Girona: travels in Spain

 

Churros

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.

Hidden alley

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).

Dali museum

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.

Espresso Mafia

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.

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What’s in the fridge? – Juliet, London

You can read Part One (my fridge) of this series here and Part Two – my friend Emma in Tbilisi’s fridge – here.

13442503_10153550800491759_787005479245608244_oMy friend Juliet and I met – as you might predict – at university, where she rapidly gained a reputation as a pretty extraordinary baker. Back then the mighty cupcake loomed large in her repertoire, but she had conquered the macaron well before we donned the graduation cap. She is still an admirable baker – she kindly shared her recipe for matcha choux puffs – but her skills go well beyond the kitchen. Juliet has upholstered chairs, knitted cup warmers, handmade a skirt, built a picnic bench and passed the GDL. She’s a solicitor in London and while her days might be spent in the office her nights are definitely spent in pursuit of fabulous food and travel – as can be seen on her Instagram. Despite leading a very busy life, she has an admirably impeccable kitchen.

Who do you cook for?

Mostly myself, but I love having friends over and cooking for them too.

Do you have a cooking philosophy or approach of any kind?

If I’m cooking for someone else, even if it’s just one other person, I like to really think about what I’m making. I want it to be special and something they’ll enjoy eating. If I’m on my own, I’ll happily cobble things together from what I have.

Where do you buy your groceries?

I’m a Sainsbury’s girl through and through! I grew up shopping at Sainsbury’s and even now that it’s not my nearest supermarket, I go out of my way just to shop there.

Tell us a little bit about your kitchen. Is it minimal or cluttered?

My entire life is minimalist. I find clutter too stressful, so I try and keep things organised. That’s not to say that my cupboards aren’t packed with crockery, utensils, Tupperware and dry goods, but everything has its place. Generally, I try to keep the worktops clear, save for a few appliances.

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“My entire life is minimalist.” She’s not joking…

What’s in your fridge?

I had a dinner party at the weekend, so I’m working my way through all the leftovers. In addition to my staples, I’ve still got some tomato sauce left. I managed to get through the chorizo, escabeche and chocolate cake the other day though…

What are the three most useful ingredients in your kitchen (and why)?

This is a really tough one! Flour, butter and eggs. I always have these on hand. They’re so versatile! If I have a craving to do some baking I can usually cobble something together with other ingredients I keep stashed away. Eggs are probably the hero ingredient though. Even if I’m not baking I can always do something with eggs, whether it’s frying, scrambling or poaching them, just to add a little extra protein to a meal.

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What three foods are always in your fridge?

Soy milk, jam and apples. It sounds like an eclectic mix.

Soy milk – I honestly prefer the taste of soy milk to regular milk. I buy the pasteurised stuff so that I can just keep two or three cartons in the fridge at a time.

Jam – I have lots of half empty jars of jam. I’m not sure why, but I just can’t seem to get through them.

Apples – I probably eat an apple a day, because y’know, it keeps the doctor away.

Is anything currently missing from your fridge?

Not really. Apart from a few staples, I try to buy food as I need it. My biggest fear is having to throw food away because it’s spoiled.

What treats do you keep in your fridge (or cupboards)?

I really try not to have treats in the fridge/cupboard at home. I like to eat healthily, so I try to remove the temptation to eat sugar laden treats.

What foods were always in the house when you were growing up?

My house growing up was the complete opposite. We had (and still do) an entire drawer full of cakes, biscuits and pastries. My mum is continuously panicking that supplies are running low.

What three gadgets or tools are most important/helpful for you when cooking?

I love my K-mix equipment! I have a kit that has a stick blender, soup blender, electric whisk and a blender. That’s really handy and will pretty much sort me out for anything I want to make. I also recently acquired a K-mix stand mixer, which has been brilliant. It’s the only way to safely make Italian meringue. The last tool I couldn’t live without is a sharp knife. Everyone should have at least one.

If you had to make yourself a meal with the food in your fridge (and pantry) right now, without going to the shops, what would you make?

If you had to make yourself a meal with the food in your fridge (and pantry) right now, without going to the shops, what would you make? So many options! I’ve got some gorgeous slow roasted tomato sauce leftover from the weekend. I could toss that together with some pasta. Alternatively, I have some salmon fillets and sweet potato fries in the freezer. I’m sure I could turn that into a delicious dinner.

When there really is nothing in your fridge, where do you go out to eat?

Living in London, I’m spoilt for choice. Near me I have a choice of chain restaurants in Canary Wharf (Wahaca is a favourite of mine). If I’m craving something that feels home cooked though, I would go to The Eagle in Clerkenwell. It’s not really near me any more, but I still spend a lot of time in that neighbourhood. It’s a great place to grab a casual, inexpensive, freshly prepared dinner.

The Little Taperia, Tooting

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

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Octopus, grilled, with many, many, many capers

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

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

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I will always eat a croqueta

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

 

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

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

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

 

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Pickled chillies and chives to garnish…?

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Dublin collage
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!