Thursday, 30 October 2014

Spring, Aldwych

Apt for its name, Spring is very pretty.  All pastel/blush shades, graphic white floral installations on the walls, a glass-roofed leafy courtyard tucked to the side.  Even beautifully pink floor tiles in the toilets.  Looking at my photos after, there's a kind of girly glow to the place.  But all set in the slightly austere and imposing high ceilinged corner of Somerset House, along with rather severe tunic uniforms (from Egg and Trager Delaney, but I liked Fay Mascher’s Handmaid’s Tale reference).

Opened just a few weeks ago, the seasonal menu is more autumnal than its spring setting.  It changes often (each time I’ve looked, its been different on their website), all relatively simple sounding, but delicious combinations.  There’s excellent bread for menu reading, complete with a salt crusted ball of butter.  From the starters we picked silky ravioli of onion squash and ricotta with marjoram butter (£12.50), curls of squid with white polenta and chilli oil (£14.50) and crab cakes with lemon mayonnaise and rocket (£16.50).  Mine was the latter, which came as three crispy little balls rather than the usual flatter pucks, crammed with the crab (nearly as delicious as the Barrafina croquettes).

For the next course I had the wild sea bass (£28) with excellent girolles and chanterelles, the fish crispy-skinned, flaky and heady with the fragrant oregano of the salmoriglio (Italian dressing with the herb, lemon and olive oil).  The other two chose Dover Sole (£34) with a dainty mound of cannellini beans and three cornered garlic on the golden fish (the three-cornered a kind of wild garlic).

It’s a big follow up for chef Skye Gyngell, a while after her departure of Petersham Nurseries.  I didn’t visit, but some had a bit of a gripe that it was all a little too simple to justify the prices (along the same lines of some comments levelled at The River Café), which I’ve also heard for Spring.  The dishes were not super complex, but were perfectly cooked plates, beautifully combining great ingredients – the main courses do push the £30 mark, but it doesn’t feel crazily over-priced, especially set against inflated bills in some London restaurants.  I loved the space too, maybe partly because I love Somerset House for its LFW madness, exhibitions and riverside setting, and the service was relaxed but quite charming.

But maybe just best to do as I did, and wangle a work/treat lunch there (they do also have a set lunch menu, 2 courses for £25.50 and 3 courses for £29.50).  The restaurant critic of the magazine I was with happened to be visiting too, with a decidedly not gushing one sentence on the way out.  I'm interested to read the stream of reviews sure to follow for Spring.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The Colony (at The Beaumont), Mayfair & Fischer’s, Marylebone

Breakfast at The Wolseley was an 18th birthday treat.  I felt fancy, sitting in the plush room (a converted car showroom), all gilt, marble and silver tableware.  Eight years later (living in the city for nearly five), I’m less easily impressed.  Yet it’s still one of my favourite places to return to, for morning scrambled eggs and smoked salmon, or tea/cake in the afternoon.  Chris Corbin and Jeremy King were onto a good thing with The Wolseley.  It became a place to be seen (or for great people watching).  They followed with The Delaunay, Brasserie Zedel and Colbert, all with their own menus, but most with the grand European café feel.  They might not always have completely flawless plates, the food mostly dependable favourites, but always a polished yet kind of comforting time.

I was thinking about this when visited the last two of their openings in 24 hours a few weeks ago.  Just by chance, a work lunch at The Colony on the Wednesday (in their first hotel, The Beaumont), and a late breakfast at Marylebone High Street’s Fischer’s the next day, the start of a long weekend off.

The first has been open a month or so, discreetly tucked in Mayfair’s Brown Hart Gardens.  The Colony restaurant is past the glossy American bar (all dark leather, for strong drinks and snacks including), penned as a traditional grill room.  There are grilled meats, eggs different ways, American sandwiches, salads, pastas and Les Plats du Jour (including meatloaf, brisket and shepherd pie).  High-end comfort food with some New York gloss. 

We started with oysters (from £12.75 for a half dozen) and the New York shrimp cocktail (£16)– not the prawn cocktail kind, but lighter with the beautifully sweet shellfish perched on a silver iced dish, complete with little pot of a tomato relish.  Steak tartare (£21.50 for the large) was tender, finely chopped (depending on how chunky you like it), silky with egg yolk and alongside skinny fries.  There’s a playful pudding for after, with a little sundae tick-box list, to choose ice-creams/toppings/sauces.  Definitely start with The Beaumont cocktail (gin, dry sherry, elderflower, pineapple, lemon, champagne), ours drank while trying to peer at what Tom Ford was having for lunch on the booth behind our table.

The morning after, a Viennese breakfast at Fischer’s, the Austrian one of the family.  A plate of smoked meats and sausage, boiled egg, tomato, gouda and soft pretzel roll (£10.50), lovely with their fresh cherry juice and tea.  The teeny Viennoiserie were excellent too (and sweetly a birthday freebie), especially the little flaky croissant (plain and almond) and pain au chocolat.  The Austrian Gröstl also sounded very good, a mixture of paprika-fried potatoes and onions, with bacon and an egg.  It’s a cosy room, perfect for a wintry long brunch, with just the gleaming clock hanging down to keep an eye of the time.

The Colony Grill Room on Urbanspoon Fischer's on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Brussels (with a little Ghent too)

Holiday eating/drinking lists are important.  Research is key.  Going off-list can sometimes work (stumbling upon somewhere fabulous looking).  But this is risky.  Going off-list is more likely to end in disappointment, at worst crappy food in a sneaky tourist trap. 

But it does mean that much of the trip is spent traipsing around, in search of that perfect version of the local speciality, or that perfect little hidden restaurant.  Luckily my friends humour me on these hunts.  And they do usually end up with pretty good dinners.

The list did fall down for the perfect frites in Brussels (I had read Frit Flagey was the place to maybe take this accolade, but I didn’t quite realise it would be shut on Monday lunchtime).  I left, empty-handed of chips, no piping cone, the crispy frites smothered in some kind of mayonnaisey sauce.  

Moules at La Marée
There were some frites on the trip though, alongside a very perfect pot of moules, in a Provençal vegetable broth at La Marée restaurant, just up from Place Sainte-Catherine.  It's the area for seafood, complete with the famous Noordzee Mer du Nord, fish glistening on the ice, with plates to takeaway, perching nearby in the square.

Waffle at Mokafé
Waffle at Mokafé

Other Belgian favourites were ticked off too.  Including a delicious waffle at Mokafé (in the glossy covered arcade Galerie du Roi, seemingly just full of chocolate shops). Golden and crisp, the squares filling up with dark chocolate sauce poured on top, complete with a scoop of ice-cream too.  Chocolate and beer was also necessary.  For beer, our favourite places were Moeder Lambic (for a large selection), A La Mort Subite (for old-school charm and cubes of cheese on sticks), Le Fin de Siècle  (for great people watching on  Rue des Chartreux).

Les Filles
Away from rather stereotyping, we also visited Les Filles, escaping torrential rain for a cosy buffet.  All you can eat, with bubbling pots of soup, a stew of beans, tomato and mince, orzo salad, broccoli with feta.  Plus fantastic bread, cheese and a banana cake to finish, complete with a tart blob of speckled vanilla fromage frais.  It’s also a cookery school and shop, just look out for the big door on Rue du Vieux Marché aux Grains. 

Jour de Fete
Jour de Fete
Another favourite was Jour de Fete, with bowls of interesting salads to choose from, along with dishes chalked on the blackboard to order.  I had the perfectly crisp and super-fresh fried fish, on top a vegetable quinoa salad (which was very tasty, hard for quinoa, harder still as a kind of chip replacement on a plate that also included tartare sauce with the fish).

Simon Says in Ghent
Joost Arijs
Eclair at Joost Arijs
We spent one day in Ghent.  All pretty cobbles and water; like Bruges, but much less touristy.  Winding up by the canal to Simon Says for brunch, a B&B and smart café, run by a UK couple.  The plate of cheese (one smoked, with seaweed inside) and ham, along with soft, doorstep chunks of seedy bread was simple but perfect.  The two rooms above look beautiful (after a little post-visit research), with charming service.  Simon also gave us a tip on where to go for the best patisserie, 15 minutes walk away at Joost Arijs.  We followed advice with an éclair, full of chocolate crème patissiere, and a sticky chocolate glaze on top, artfully piped.

Before you leave, definitely pick up a box of biscuits at Dandoy, tucked in their white and gold spotty boxes.  I returned to London, with a sugar-ban vow.  But also the idea of buying a waffle iron. 

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

What Joanna Ate Top 3 October 2014

It’s finally getting chilly and dark.  A plus point is the excuse for autumn shopping (finally weather for coats).  I’m sat writing this, back wrapped in black opaque tights, thinking of cosy things to cook in October.  The list is a couple of seasonal ingredients, plus a new London opening (perfect for holing up inside with a martini, away from the rain). 

Apples - The humble apple is sometimes a little forgotten.  Shunned for blushing berries or fragrant exotic fruits.  But this time of year is perfect for eating British grown apples, with ties to the autumn harvest.  Sharp and crunchy raw, mellowing to a sweet squidge when cooked.  For puddings, apple crumble and custard is a proper comforting bowl - scrunch walnuts into the crumble mix, scenting with lots of nutmeg, or mix the fruit with blackberries for the proper hedgerow combination.  An apple brown Betty is a quick alternative, pouring melted butter over sweetened breadcrumbs (I like to use rye sourdough breadcrumbs, with a good sprinkle of nutmeg), before baking.  Savoury-wise, pig works best - I like to slice thinly and quick pickle, or grated in a stuffing with sausagemeat or bacon, and lots of sage.

Pumpkins/Squash - Not just for the Halloween pumpkin carving. This actually put me off the vegetable when younger, with the strong smell sticking on your hands, from scooping out the stringy mess in the middle.  Now I like to roast either pumpkin or squash (sweeter, with silkier flesh), and blend into soups or mix with interesting dressings/toppings.  You need spice or tang to cut through the vegetable's sugar.  I've been cooking lots this week from Ottolenghi's Plenty More, with the squash recipes including just that: he roasts with cardamon and nigella seeds, or under chilli yoghurt and coriander sauce.

The Colony & American Bar (at The Beaumont) - The Beaumont is the new addition to Corbin & King's plush mini empire.  A hotel this time, tucked in Mayfair's Brown Hart Gardens, a suitably lovely oasis from Oxford circus just north, all lacquered wood, dark leathers, shiny deco touches. The hotel includes 51 rooms and 22 suites, plus The Colony and American bar.  In their words, the former a classic grill room, with appropriately classic dishes from either sides of the Atlantic. The latter a bar open until midnight each day, with fabulous cocktails (try The Beaumont, the namesake drink full of gin, sherry, elderflower, champagne and pineapple) and a menu including a much-wanted grilled cheese with wallies (big old pickled gherkins).  It's my hottest opening for the month (especially after an excellent lunch today - fuller post coming shortly).  Sure to follow in the glossy footsteps of The Wolseley, The Delaunay etc. 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Simple Sourdough Pancakes

Other twenty somethings might be acting all grown up with pets/houses/engagements.  But my responsibility currently consists of my sourdough starter.  A Tupperware box of grey, sticky goo, with a rather strange smell.  It just needs feeding every fortnight (before being used for baking something).  A bit like a very low maintenance pet.  Rather less response, apart from helping deliver bread. 

Since my introduction to sourdough course at Borough Market's Bread Ahead, I've been baking loaves.  Kind of with varied success.  Anything made with fully white flour has the lovely open texture and slight sour tang, complete with dark golden chewy, crunchy crust.  Anything with much wholemeal/rye/spelt has been rather solid and brick-like.

So I don't feel I have quite mastered the art.  In the meantime, I'm sharing a simpler recipe for sourdough pancakes.  If you have a sourdough starter already, you can just scoop out a spoonful.  If not, it's easy to make.  Just mix 50g flour (a hardy kind like rye is best) with 50ml of water in a tub - leave it out, not airtight, then repeat the process for five days.  It should be bubbly and smell fermented.  Then just store in the fridge (with a lid this time), ready to use. 

For one person, whisk together 50g of the sourdough starter with 40g spelt flour (my favourite), 50ml full-fat yoghurt (I used goat's), one egg and a splash of olive oil or spoon of melted butter.  A little more oil or butter in a medium-heat pan, then fry spoonfuls until starting to show little air bubbles, and flip (this quantity will make 3 or 4 squat small ones in a pan), until golden and a little crisp. 

If serving savoury, season the batter with salt and pepper before cooking. For Sunday brunch, I topped with a mixture of yoghurt, dill, flakes of hot smoked salmon and cucumber (peeled, de-seeded and chopped smallish).

For sweet, any kind of fruit is lovely:
  • Ripe figs, ricotta, a drizzle of honey and toasted pine nuts
  • Cinnamon roasted plums with flaked almonds
  • Peaches, goat's curd and mint
  • Maple syrup caramelised apples and pears, creme fraiche and walnuts

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Hubbard & Bell (in The Hoxton, Holborn), Holborn

It’s a bit unfair to judge on a soft opening visit.  It’s the practice run.  The time to iron out any kitchen kinks, or front of house chaos.  It’s also key for feedback, to ensure everything is smooth for full opening.  So this post on the just opened Hubbard & Bell is no critique.  More just information on a new opening.  But dinner last night was very good indeed, especially for day three (even if we had paid the full prices, rather than the soft launch half price).  

Hubbard & Bell is the bar and restaurant in the just opened The Hoxton, the second outpost in Holborn (just on High Holborn, a few minutes from Holborn tube walking towards New Oxford Street). It’s from the people behind The Soho House group’s restaurants, the hotel also with a Chicken Shop in the basement (one of their mini-chains).  The all-day menu starts from breakfast until late at night, with sections of raw, cured, things on toast, meat and fish from the grill, burgers, salads etc. 

We started with deep ruby bresaola (complete with teeny, tangy pickled onions, £5), and toast piled with ricotta, fig and honey (a beautiful, classic combination, £6).  The chunky beef tartare (£9) was tender, studded with capers, with garlic crisps for scooping up. 

Next, rosy chunks of duck in agrodolce sauce (£14), with delicious sides of truffle fries (hot, crunchy, salty, mustiness of truffle oil, £7) and chargrilled leeks, the long folds topped with caramelised onions (£5).  We also shared a plate of scampi – not the battered kind, the butterflied shellfish grilled with lots of garlic and chilli (£12).  I broke my no sugar week afterwards, properly fallen with a slice of key lime pie (£7) between us – sweet, creamy, crumbly and nicely tart. 

Hubbard & Bell is a great addition to the slight restaurant no-man’s directly around Holborn (The Rosewood/Holborn Dining Room has definitely helped).  The bar part of the front is a comfy spot for drink – it’s open until 2am most nights, and the cocktails are nicely potent.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Bocca Di Lupo, Soho (plus my version of their sweet and sour onions with anchovy)

I’d suggested Bocca Di Lupo rather wistfully for a few work lunches, with newly opened places winning instead.  Finally dinner there last week; the fabulous Italian food living up to the slightly high expectations.  Pretty much based on the greatness of their ice-cream in Gelupo, across the road on Archer Street.

The menu changes each day, across regions (labelled Roma, Veneto, Parma etc).  From the raw and cured section, first was a slice of slightly sweet, nutty pecorino with a bowl of leafy cobnuts for cracking (a really lovely combination).  There was also a plate of parma ham with the sweetest, deep red fig, and sweet and sour tropea onion with lightly smoked anchovies.  Both simple, but both utterly delicious mixtures.

Fried artichokes
From the Fritti Romani, crispy baccalà – their home-salted cod deep fried, like the very best kind of fish and chip fish, but salty through (with the firmness to the flesh that the salting gives).  The deep-fried artichokes were frilly and crunchy, a little bitter, the vegetable coming through strong. 

Orecchiette with 'nduja
Then the pasta and risotto, with three small plates shared between us.  An earthy, deeply mushroom intense fresh porcini risotto, ricotta tortelloni verdi with butter, sage & walnuts and a fiery orecchiette with 'nduja, red onion & tomato.

Spicy sausage with chickpeas
You can choose big or small for the whole menu, so shared a few of the small plates from the roast and grilled section.  This included a squidgy and mozzarella stringy aubergine parmigiana amd home-made spicy sausage with chickpeas (giant versions, and one of the nicest versions of the sometimes too bland/hard pulse).  The sides were great too – fresh borlotti beans with tomato, caponata and very moreish pumpkin and sage chips. 

Burnt ricotta and sour cherry pie
I just fitted in pudding, trying the burnt ricotta and sour cherry pie (true to the name, blackened on top, full of the creamy cheese and purple blobs of the cherry).  The three nut granite were very special – 3 glasses of nubbly, nutty granita (one pistachio, one hazelnut, one almond), each topped with a little cloud of whipped cream.

Dinner was suitably delicious and lovely for celebrating my Mum’s 60th birthday.  A  few days later I was cooking for nearly 40 on Saturday night.  Just drinks and canapes (I say just, after a day and night crammed with cooking).  Venetian was my theme, with a fridge full of Prosecco and plattters of cicheti.  The Polpo cookbook came in very handy (definitely the only Venetian cookbook on my shelf), with excellent things on bread (many cicheti are this simple).  These included rocket and walnut pesto (I think better than the usual basil kind), tuna and leek (with brandy, which really works) and the lovely mix of prosciutto, fig and mint. 

Another was inspired by the tropea onions at Bocca Di Lupo.  I guessed with the recipe (I need to investigate if it’s in their cookbook), peeling and slicing up a kilo bag of red onions into wedges, then slow, low cooking with lots of olive oil and a few bay leaves.  When tender, I added a good few glugs of red wine vinegar and a few heaped tablespoons of dark brown sugar, until it had the sweet/sour tang, before cooking for ten or so more minutes.  It worked on crisp toast, draped with a marinated anchovy (the soft, white kind rather than the little tinned or jarred dark brown ones).  Not quite as perfect as in the restaurant, but almost there.  The cicheti assembling was a little busy, so photos of the little skewers and crostini were forgotten.  But all was eaten and praised – it’s a relatively simple way to do drinks and food.  Just factor in enough Prosecco.

Bocca Di Lupo on Urbanspoon