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

Saturday, 13 September 2014

What Joanna Ate Top 4 September 2014


Figs - I didn't use to be very keen on fresh figs. Just childhood memories of fig roll biscuits. Squidgy and sticky in the middle, kind of crumbly outside, in the rather squashed roll shape.  I haven't had these for years, and the plump dark purple fresh kind are now a favourite. If perfectly ripe, crunchy seeds, beautifully fragrant (I love the scent of fig trees - especially Diptyque's Philosykos).  They are great in salads, paired with tangy feta or a soft goat's cheese, or with prosciutto on slices of toasted sourdough.  For sweet, they are excellent with bitter dark chocolate, roasted with honey and vanilla, or anything toasty almondy (a fig frangipane tart would be perfect).  September is perfect season for them, so look out for them now.

Pizza Locadeli - A little alliteration for somewhere to eat this month, with a pop-up pizzeria place. The beautifully plush Italian Locanda Locatelli is closed for a refurb until October, but for three weeks Giorgio and Plaxy Locatelli are running a temporary restaurant, nearby on Blandford Street.  More pared back, the menu will include wood-fired pizzas, pastas and other simple Italian dishes, with a bar upstairs.  Get in there quick, it sounds deliciously relaxed with I'm sure fabulous food, but only until the 28th September.

Mission - The couple behind the Hackney Road wine bar Sager & Wilde now have a second site in Bethnal Green (just up from the tube station).  It’s penned as a Californian wine bar and kitchen, with brunch and dinner menus (their first site is more a bar with bar snacks).  It opens proper on Monday 15th following the soft opening, and the sample menus look very good, with some rather Italian dishes (including duck pappardelle, octopus with farro, rabbit with polenta, pancetta and girolles, and bites of nduja arancini). There is of course a wide wine choice, with many by the glass (and bar snacks if you just want to pop in for a drink).

Oysters – Now there is an R in the month, the season has begun for native oysters.  I’m going to head to Wright Brothers (either Soho or Spitafields), or to the oyster bar at J Sheekey.  Just choose your garnish.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Dukes G & Tea (and a martini in Dukes Bar)

Yesterday’s G & T was a little different.  Rather G & Tea.  A dainty cup and saucer of tea-infused gin (choose between black vanilla or earl grey), with a splash of tonic syrup and a slice of lemon.  It’s part of the special afternoon tea at Dukes, tucked away in the quiet luxury of the Mayfair Hotel's rooms.





The first cup was excellent alongside the neat sandwiches, with a perfect cucumber and a fantastic coronation chicken (and I’m usually suspicious of the curry/chicken/fruit/sandwich mash-up).  Then the cake stand with a second (even stronger) cup, with the top tier including a teeny, sharp lemon meringue tart, light chocolate mousse, mini panna cotta and squidgy carrot cake.  The stars were the doughnuts below, the proper kind filled with jam, rolled in lots of lip-licking sugar, most importantly still warm.  The scones were toasty too, just not as fluffy as some, but lots of jam and clotted cream for slathering on top.

It’s a lovely (boozier) take on the classic afternoon tea.  At £35 per person, it’s not quite as much as the showier Ritz for example, but I liked the smaller rooms, and it's all a little more understated.  We weren’t at all rushed, as with extra sandwiches, just beaten by the sweet things, and a proper hot cup of tea, we were there for three or so hours.  While it’s still warm (ish), nab a table in the little covered courtyard, complete with Dukes blankets.




Then to the bar, which is more than a little famous for its martinis.  There’s a menu, but we asked for Alessandro (head bartender, sharp in his white jacket, and charming to boot) to come and suggest.  After giving him a few likes and dislikes, he came back wheeling a trolley laden with bottles and garnishes, making our drinks by the table. 




Mine was a fabulously savoury vodka martini, complete with white truffle and a shiny green olive inside.  The glasses are frozen, but no shaking or stirring, so rather strong (no dilution).  You are apparently only allowed two, which is probably safest (especially at £18+ for a martini).  A very special cocktail experience.

Dukes Bar on Urbanspoon