Sunday, 30 November 2014

What Joanna Ate Top 3 November 2014

After mild neglect in a busy November, I’m just sneaking this post in.  Before December 1st and Christmas taking over, my top three list of Thai barbecue, new favourite Bar Termini and one of the ugliest but nicest root vegetables.

Smoking Goat & Som Saa - Thai in London is looking up, with two new places bringing smoke and spice with barbecue/charcoal.  Smoking Goat on Denmark Street is a pretty tiny room, most seats a little crammed around the bar, and a small yet perfectly formed menu, coming from their barbecue at the back.  

At dinner earlier this week we started with a salad of crispy pork belly with cool chunks of pickled watermelon (£6) and coal roast scallops with red nam yum (£3.50 each), followed by smoked lamb ribs and slow roast duck legs (£15), all served with Som Tam (crunchy green papaya salad) and sticky rice.  It’s a bit squashed, hot and smoky when crammed full, but great food (I was expecting a little more chilli though, with all we tried really mild).  There’s also Som Saa winter residency at Climpson’s Arch, their charcoal frills and wood fired ovens bringing a North/North-East Thai menu (wider than at Smoking Goat, and also open for brunch at the weekend).  It’s on my list of places to visit, but hoping to add to Smoking Goat and Janetira as London Thai favourites.

Bar Termini – Tony Conigliaro is behind two of my favourite bars (69 Colebrooke Row and The Zetter Townhouse).  His new Bar Termini on Old Compton Street brings more of the smart white jacket uniforms and exquisite drinks, in the way of the nicest kind of plush Italian cafe. They serve coffee in the day (there will be a menu of cured meats, cheeses, sandwiches etc), with cocktails from 11am.  Do try the Marsala Martini, with a home-pickled almond at the bottom of the glass. 

Celeriac – Cold weather means root veg.  My favourite is the gnarly celeriac, faintly celery like, fantastic raw or cooked.  If raw, for a lighter version of remoulade, cut into match-sticks with apple, dressed in lemon juice and hazelnut oil (pairing with nuts brings out soft nuttiness of the vegetable), maybe a handful of fresh parsley or mint too. Cooked, it’s great in a creamy, garlic rich gratin, or mashed with lots of butter.  I love it roasted, either as a potato alternative, or mixed into hearty salad of nutty grains (farro works particularly well) with other vegetables and a good spoon of wholegrain mustard.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Mission E2, Bethnal Green

A brief brunch post.  An escape from torrential rain at Mission, complete with its leafy palm stretching up to the top of the railway arch ceiling. 

The second place from the people of Sager + Wilde (the wine bar on Hackney Road, with delicious snacks too) is just down the road from the tube station, a bit of a dubious view of flats on Paradise Row.  There’s a fabulous wine rack behind the bar, with an excellent accompanying wine list (lots by the glass).  We managed to fit some in during Sunday brunch/lunch, our choices split by more breakfast (11-2) and roast (as part of the other lunch choices, 12-4).

The ‘nduja baked eggs (£9) were from the former.  The spicy Calabrian sausage was almost melted into the tomato, black cabbage snaked around the just runny-yolked eggs, with toasted sourdough on the side.  The roast (£14ish) was a very good example, tender pork, golden crackling and roast potatoes, plus a spoon of quince jelly.  We shared a sundae glass of beautifully creamy salted caramel ice-cream, sweet with the bitter edge of a properly amber caramel.

A place to return for a few glasses of wine and a plate of charcuterie/cheese at the bar, or for a wintry dinner under the palm (especially with a plate of the venison pappardelle).

Mission Wine Bar and Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

4 days in Marrakech (sausages/slippers/souks/spices)

4 days in Marrakech last week were generally made up of the following 4 things:
  1. Souk/Medina rage.  The seemingly impossible to navigate terracotta roads/lanes/alleys, which made no sense to my general feeling of direction.  One day it took us approximately 2 hours to find our Riad.  We then couldn’t even find wine to ease said rage.
  2. Lots and lots of round loaves of bread. Most white, some chewier crusted, some a little more wholemeal, but served with every meal.  Used for scooping up food, or even stuffing full of rusty coloured merguez.  I had to self-impose a complete bread-ban once returned, after what felt like 3 mini loaves each day.
  3. Hamman and messages.  Do go to a hammam if you visit (we did the fancier spa ones rather than the very traditional, and perhaps the more scary).  A little sniggering from buckets of water poured on heads/lots of all-over scrubbing, but super soft skin and very relaxing combined with a massage (until the exhausts of motorbikes once outside).
  4. Mint tea.  All day, every day.  Just ask for it without sugar (there are lots of dentists in the medina).

I think Marrakech needs a little bit of searching/researching to find excellent food, with lots of reports of just rather passable tagines and/or mild food poisoning.  I’ve put together my recommendations from the long weekend, for a few ideas if visiting:

Do go to the main square for dinner one night.  A smoky, intoxicating bustle of dried fruit sellers, rows and rows of orange juice places, food stalls with steaming make-shift kitchens, snake charmers and maybe even a monkey on a lead.  The places to eat are crammed next to each other, most with the trestle tables boxing in the little kitchens.  Grilled meats seemed to be the key thing at most, piles of sausages at the sides, with a mini loaf of bread and dish of crushed up tomato at your place, tangy harissa at some.  The stalls are numbered, so head for either 32 (my favourite, with delicious mixed kebabs), 31 (very good aubergine and spinach alongside the sausages) or 1 (great harissa, spicy merguez). 

The strangest thing we had was a scoop from a sweet brown mound, a bit cake like but quite indeterminable, full of spices and sesame maybe.  Served with even sweeter cinnamon tea.  Maybe not quite as daring as lamb head or stuffed camel spleen, which I maybe avoided.

When we got hopelessly lost on the way back to our Riad on the first night, we stopped at Café Atay, firstly for directions, for wifi to help the first, and also a drink (not booze though) and plate of Moroccan pastries.  It turned out to only be about 5 minutes from where we were staying when we did eventually find the way, and we went back, partly out of gratitude, partly because the pastries were some of the best we had.  Dinner was very good value (I think £4 or so for the main course) – try the meatball and egg tagine.

Souk Café
Souk Café
Our favourite restaurant was Souk Café, one of the cheapest, with a lovely little roof terrace on the top (even if it was in the middle of a building site of next door).  Along with the beautiful mixture of Moroccan salads (6 little bowls of delicately spiced vegetables and lentils), we had a really tender lamb and prune tagine with fluffy cinnamon couscous.  They do brilliant smoothies too, especially if you need a break from tagine/sausages.

Café de la Poste
Riad el Fenn
We were slightly bad tourists in searching the (predominantly dry) city for the best place for a drink of wine.  After souk rage one day, we gave up on our search, but felt a little smug once we had a few glasses of gris (their very light rose), on a beautiful roof terrace, watching the sun set over the medina the next day.  Our favourite in the medina was the roof of Riad El Fenn (absolutely beautiful inside – a very stylish place to stay), but we also loved Café de la Poste outside of the medina walls.  A great terrace at the front for people watching.

I left a little ready to say goodbye to tagines/sausages/motorbikes/getting lost, but after having some brilliant food.  Obligatory tasselled slippers from the souk and questionably cheaper than at home spices tucked in my bag. 

Monday, 3 November 2014

Forza Winter, Peckham

Bus people-watching balances out the slightly unglamorous mode of travel.  Friday’s 11pm route home on the 63 provided excellent examples of terrible (i.e. too small/tight, rather than scary) Halloween outfits (lots of teeny mini-skirts and fake blood).  Starting at Peckham Rye and stopping nearly outside the front door, on the way back from a night of Fonduta at Forza Winter.

Forza Winter (from Forza Win, their previous and ongoing pop-up dining, in their words, all wood fired seasonal dining experiences in odd places) has just set-up for the season, in a lofty, almost-shed, in the maze of buildings just off Rye Lane (others included art galleries/raves/African clothing/martial arts on Friday).  It’s a little less popped-up than the previous, the Peckham location Forza Win's ongoing home. 

Their winter offering is centred around the bubbling pots of fonduta, the cheese fondue made of fontina cheese and double cream.  They apparently use 4kg per night, with lots of delicious things for dipping.  The pans of the fonduta were put on the tables (long trestle tables, everyone sharing), with little mushroom arancini the first to dunk (light, with lots of earthy mushroom).  Then polpette, the meatballs excellent with the salty tang of the fontina, followed by roasted romanesco cauliflower.  A bit like a posh cauliflower cheese smothered in the fonduta. 

The next platters were beautifully moist porchetta, complete with curls of dark caramel coloured crackling, roast squash with chilli and lots of just-charred red onions and bitter radicchio with walnuts.  You could have dunked in/drizzled on the cheese for any of these three, but they were very good without.  And after eating some of the fonduta as soup in the bowl (very decadent soup), I was just about ready to stop with the cheese.

Dessert was little pots of a dark chocolate and orange mousse. Boycotted by me (with my irrational orange dislike), but gladly finished by another and declared excellent.  The £30 ticket also included a hot cocktail at the start – I had the port and pomegranate (a sweet, intense mulled wine), with a bar for extra drinks (all really reasonable).  The music was great, with relaxed but fun service to match the room, complete with a bike hanging from the ceiling

Uploading photos, I realised I forgot to take one of the pots of fonduta, in all its 4kg of cheese glory.  But it’s definitely worth a bus trip to Peckham for (it's running Thursday to Sunday until 20th December) – just arrive hungry.

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.