Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Tayyabs: A Classic

There are some restaurants I have been going to for such a long time and which are so well known that I never get round to writing about them.  What could I possibly say that has not already been said about such institutions as Brindisa, for example.  Tayyabs is one of those places.  I take it for granted that people know about it (and its more canteen-esqe cousin, The Lahore Kebab House).  If you want to go for a curry then surely people know to skip on by the fluorescent-coloured curries of Brick Lane and on to the real deal around Commercial Road.

That said, Brick Lane still seems to be thriving.  The restaurants remain packed, people seem to like them. So perhaps one more review of Tayyabs will be useful.  Maybe, just maybe, people will realise there is another type of curry house out there.  One where the curries are not classified solely by heat. Where it is about the curries rather than oversized flagons of Cobra and spicy onions. Where ordering a saag paneer rather than a beef vindaloo proves you are a "real man". 

And so, with some visitors over from West Virginia who were curry virgins (seriously!) we headed down from Liverpool Street, past the bright lights of Brick Lane, to Tayyabs. With beers dutifully bought along the way (Tayyabs is BYOB only), we joined the queue.  Despite having tripled in size over the last decade, there is always still a queue! 

We started by sharing the lamb chops - meat marinated in spices for what must be at least a year, then cooked over coals.  The Fashionista and I constantly argue over whether they are better here or at the Lahore Kebab House (I prefer the latter), but needless to say they are excellent in both! You cannot go to Tayyabs and not get the lamb chops.  We also shared some veggy pakora, okay but someway behind Glasgow's finest, a city where kebabs are a distant second to pakoras in late night revellers' choice of booze sponge!

Original and cumin seed poppadoms with mango chutney and yoghurt and chili sauces.

A Tayyabs Lamb Chop

Veggie Pakora, not Tayyabs at its best

On to the mains, we had the "dry meat", another Tayyabs classic.  Beef cooked in a rich sauce until it has all but evaporated, leaving you with tender meat, coated in a kind of curry reduction.  We also shared karahi bhindi (okra), not everyone's favourite vegetable, but I think it works great in curries, saag paneer, spinach and paneer cheese, and a chicken curry.  All full-flavoured, deep, rich curry. Spicy, but not sweat inducing.  Mopped up by some freshly cooked garlic and peshwari nan.  This is what curry should be like.

Half eaten portion of Dry Meat

The Karahi Bhindi (Okra)

The Saag Paneer
For desert, the girls had the mango kulfi - Indian ice cream made with evaoprated milk and double cream.  Rich and creamy, but refreshing after the curry.

I am sure most of you have heard of, and eaten in, Tayyabs. Most people in London have. However, if you have not, I beseech you, ditch Brick Lane. They do not deserve your custom.  Head a little further East and you will be rewarded tenfold.  There really is no comparison.
Tayyabs on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Tip top tips for a culinary trip to San Francisco

I recently returned from a two week tour de force sampling the best culinary offerings in San Francisco and the Bay Area.  Obviously I wasn't organised enough to get a reservation at the French Laundry, but I thought I would nevertheless share some of the highs (and the lows) in a city which many proclaim to be the home of inventive cooking in the US.

On the day we arrived in "Everyone's Favourite City" we went to a place called Brenda's French Soul Food.  I have to confess I was mostly asleep during this meal, having endured a rather tortuous trip over with Virgin Atlantic, however from my hazy recollections the food here was very good indeed.  Creole-inspired French cuisine may not be what San Francisco is traditionally all about, but Brenda's nevertheless seems to have hit the spot.  We started with baked oysters done three ways, followed by cheese grits (which put Spuntino's, admittedly perfectly acceptable version, to shame) and fried chicken with incredibly light "biscuit" - an unleavened bread, similar in many ways to a scone, often served in the US with gravy.

The next morning we went to Dottie's True Blue Cafe - San Francisco's equivalence of The Breakfast Club - queues snake around the block.  Thankfully we had jet lag on our side and were sat, ready to devour our first American breakfast, by seven thirty sharp. I had the scrambled eggs with smoked whisky fennel sausage, mushrooms and spinach - delicious. The Fashionista had the French Toast with strawberries and balsamic reduction, good for a while, but a bit sickly for me.  Huge portions!

Mission Chinese, which serves up Chinese inspired Californian cuisine, has been receiving rave reviews coast to coast in the USA.  Such has been the clamour that chef Danny Bowien is even opening an outpost in NYC. However we were going to where it all started, the Mission district of San Fran (for which read Shoreditch, London). It is a ramshackle restaurant lit by fairy lights, with a large red dragon hanging from the ceiling, but with RnB providing the beats.  A clash of cultures which continues onto the menu.  We had "Mouth Watering Chicken" - cold chicken breast with chicken hearts - heavily-laden with Szechuan pepper- the radishes with pig jowl, broccoli with beef jowl (lacked cheek) some fried rice (pretty good), and tea smoked eel served wrapped in thick noodles with cognac, which was very good indeed.  My conclusion, interesting, rather than great.

On the Friday night we went to what can only be described as Eat Street and Borough Market rolled into one, Off the Grid.  Food trucks have undergone a revolution in SF in recent years - from our equivalent of a greasy spoon, they have morphed into outlets serving some top notch produce with ground-breaking innovation. On each Friday over 30 such vendors descend on a car park in the Marina district to serve up their wares.  A great night with delicious treats from such trucks as the Chairman's buns and Koja Kitchen.

Chairman's buns
We had been recommended Nopa by a couple we met just before heading off - "the best burger in San Francisco".  A high standard indeed.  It beat the likes of Umami Burger hands down, although was pipped to the post as the best burger on the trip by the burger served at Treebones in the Big Sur.

The highlight of the trip was Coi - the two Michelin-starred stalwart of Californian cuisine.  To do it justice I have written it up as a seperate blog, but needless to say Coi will provide you with a dining experience different from anything you have had previously. No cream, no butter, delicious food.  How?  Top notch.

Other highlights of the trip included Humphrey Slocombe ice cream (the salted dark chocolate was incredible), Hog Island Oyster Company (nice in the city, better up at the farm in Marshall on Tomales Bay, if you can make it up there), Delfina in Mission (the tripe was special), Tartine for baked goods and Cafe la Haye in Sonoma, for inventive Cali-Italian cuisine.

Places which disappointed despite previous positive reviews included Pica Pica, Venezuelan sandwiches - think I will stick to wheat rather than maize bread from now on, another craze I just don't get - and Umami Burger, despite its legendary status, even GBK would give it a run for its money.

Nopa on Urbanspoon Umami Burger on Urbanspoon Pica Pica Maize Kitchen on Urbanspoon Delfina on Urbanspoon Hog Island Oyster Company on Urbanspoon Mission Chinese Food on Urbanspoon
Humphry Slocombe on Urbanspoon Tartine Bakery on Urbanspoon Cafe La Haye on Urbanspoon Brenda's French Soul Food on Urbanspoon Dottie's True Blue Cafe on Urbanspoon

St John Bread and Wine: the last in the trilogy

My journey round Fergus Henderson's empire (of "Nose to Tail Eating" fame) started some three years ago with a trip to his original restaurant in Smithfields.  Before Fergus' intervention up and down the UK incredible parts of the animal, so common on the menu of any self-respecting "Gastropub" today, were being discarded. From sweetbreads to chitterlings. No. Unless it was a standard cut, we just weren't interested. Give me sirloin they cried, you can keep your belly! And then came "Nose to Tail Eating", a revolution in the very meaning of "delicacy".  After opening his original restaurant in 1994, FG then opened Bread and Wine in Spitalfields in 2003, and thereafter St John Hotel and Restaurant in 2011.

Despite living in the East End, I had only been to the Smithfields and Soho outlets, both of which I love.  And so, with Jubilee weekend upon us, what better reason than to complete the triumvirate of all things offal.  Needless to say our attempt to get a ring-side seat for the Jubilee float-past failed, stuck in the rain for almost two hours we were, with more chance of seeing the Pope than the Queen.  Thankfully, however, we had been to St John's Bread and Wine on the way and were, therefore, at least warm on the inside.

As with his other restaurants, the interior is stripped back white, utilitarian.  The menu is a little different, however.  Rather than being split in the usual way, this menu is divided by time: dishes available post 12:00pm, others available post 1:00pm, the desserts presumably available all the time.  As we weren't looking for anything too heavy, having gorged ourselves at God Save the Clam the night before, we decided to have a couple of post 12pm dishes as they seemed on the lighter side.  (I have to admit though, having seen the gigantic whole Cornish crabs being served, I did have some serious food envy).

I had the pig's head, rolled and pressed into cubes, breaded and fried. This came with delicious crunchy radish and a tarragon mayo.  The pig was juicy, gelatinous, as pig's head should be.  It was nicely offset by the mayo and radishes although a couple of leaves would have improved the dish for me by cutting through the fat from the head.

The Fashionista had the crab broth with cuttlefish and butter beans.  The liquor was intense and you were left thanking your lucky stars that the portion was small.  Delicious at this size, but more would have been too much.  Unfortunately the soup was served with a rather large bit of herby butter plonked in the middle.  This did little to improve things, the dish would have been better without.

All in, with some lovely sourdough bread (you would expect nothing less from St John, the bread is always second-to-none) and a coffee, the bill came in at a very reasonably £17 for the two of us.  Not massive portions, but enough to feel that you had had a very enjoyable lunch indeed.  Highly recommended.
St John Bread & Wine on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Coi: a game changer

So you read a review.  The person announces with due solemnity that the restaurant in question has changed (delete as appropriate) the game/food/their life/the world forever.  Things will never be the same again.  I have visions of people around the world standing in amazement, dumbfounded by the morsel of whatever it is they have just eaten.  And so you traipse along to whichever new place is making the waves.  Inevitably you stand in line for at least an hour as everyone else has read the same life-changing review.  You then eat what you have been told is the thing to have.  Invariably you say, "wow, this is incredible"  You have to.  You wouldn't want to be the plonker who has queued for an hour for something which is only moderately better than the version of the same dish you had last week from your local chippie.

Even knowing all this, when I read a review of Coi in which someone said that Daniel Patterson's cooking was different/nothing like other 2 Michelin Star chefs' food, I had to go.  So let's start with what's different - well DP's a forager.  But unlike others, he's been at it for quite some time.  In fact for over 18 years since he opened his first restaurant in Babette, Sonoma County - way before foraging was in vogue.  The menu, dominated by seafood and vegetables, is clean and fresh.  None of the heavy, creamy sauces you might expect in places of this calibre serving French food.  It also claims to have terroir - it is the food of "the place"- it tastes of California.

And so, turning to the evening in question.  Things did not start well.  Arriving for our table at eight forty five we were not led through to eat until nearer ten.  Now I don't mind waiting for places where there is no alternative.  I have been known to wait almost two hours to get into the Meat Wagon in its New Cross Gate days.  But when you are visiting a two-starred restaurant, with a reservation, that is not what you expect.  Apparently neither did the four other couples who were similarly delayed. Yes we were fed the usual free champagne, but an inauspicious start to say the least.

Things then improved. Fast.  Our waiter was friendly, not stuffy, knowledgeable.  To make up for the wait, we were offered matching wines for free.  That certainly helped.  And then the food started coming.  That helped even more, and the lengthy wait was soon forgotten as we were blown away by Daniel's cooking.  Given there were twelve courses, I will not go through them all in detail, instead I will just let the photos do the talking.

Grapefruit granita - fresh and cleansing.

Oyster, asparagus and oyster stock jelly - simple, but all the flavours were so distinct that it worked incredibly.

Bergamot beets with wild flowers and several types of mint - the earthy flavours were a great contrast to the fresh acidic flavours in the first couple of courses

Pea soup, buttermilk and nasturtium flowers - the very essence of pea, with tangy buttermilk and peppery nasturtium - these seemed to be a real favourite more generally in California, we were served them everywhere.

Artichoke cooked under a weight - nice, but not really memorable.

Abalone with a coriander sauce - grilled to enhance the meatiness of the abalone, this worked perfectly.

Fried egg, not fried - inside the crumb was a slow-cooked yolk, silken, rich and very tasty.

Poached and chilled duck breast with jasmine and endive - the breast was tender and incredibly moist, the jasmine flavours subtle.  On top were sprinkled pieces of crispy duck skin - unfortunately these were slightly oily and detracted from an otherwise nice plate of food.

Duck leg, fermented tofu and coriander puree

The cheese course - crisp beeswax tart filled with sheeps' milk cheese that was only a week old - tangy, crisp pastry and sweet from the apricot - one of my favourites!

Marshmallow - sweet and soft homemade marshmallow which had been coal charred on the top - underneath lurked frozen lime - hot and cold, sweet and tart, this was incredible.

Grapefruit 1996 - originally served a s a starter, this dish had been rejuvenated by a recently appointed dessert chef, we were encouraged to smear a strong smelling grapefruit reduction on our wrist while eating the dish - really worked to enhance the flavour.

Kiwi, white chocolate and soy - creamy, sweet but also tart - possibly the most beautiful plate of food I have ever been served and it did not disappoint in the flavour stakes - if soy tasted this good all the time, dairy might not get a look in!
 Now I know I said all those annoying people who right about places say "wow".  But here I am.  I am becoming one of these people.  So here goes: "wow, that was the best meal I have ever had". Hands down.  No debate.  Head and shoulders above anywhere else. Rather than being full to the brim, as is so often the case with tasting menus, I left feeling invigorated, healthy, raring-to-go. Did it change my life?  No.  Did it make me realise that there is a whole genre of cooking which I had previously been unaware of?  Yes.  If you are ever in San Francisco, go, you will not be disappointed.
Coi on Urbanspoon
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