Friday, 30 December 2011

The Cambridge Bar: Big Big Juicy Burgers

Back up in Edinburgh for Christmas, I met up with one of my mates for a lunch on the Friday before Christmas.  With a half day in the bag a hearty lunch and a few beers were on the cards.  Cambridge Bar came the cry from the Strakattack and we had a plan.

The Cambridge Bar, along the road from the Oxford Bar, a regular in Ian Rankin's Rebus novels, is a small pub on Young Street in Edinburgh's New Town.  The menu is simple - burgers and some more burgers - however unlike many of the new fangled burger places, the Cambridge Bar does burgers "old school" - big burgers, even bigger toppings! Now that is not always good, sometimes a more refined burger would be my preference, but facing an afternoon of beers these seemed perfect.

I went for a bacon cheese burger - the burger was rare and delicious, the toppings good if not great.

The Strakattack went for the Mexican - looked pretty tasty with lashings of chili and jalapenos.

Along with the burger we shared some nachos rather than getting chips to share - they were okay but the cheese wasn't melted in a few places and all in all they could have been a bit better.

If you're in Edinburgh and fancy a quick burger, the Cambridge would be top of my list! 
The Cambridge Bar on Urbanspoon

St John Hotel Bar and Restaurant: as good as the original?

I love everything about the original St John's.  The idea of using all the parts of an animal to create wonderfully tasty dishes really chimes with me in these days of fiscal and environmental uncertainty.  With that in mind, the restaurant at the St John Hotel has a lot to live up to.

Tucked in behind Leicester Square on Leicester Street, Fergus Henderson has opened a small boutique hotel with bar on the first floor and restaurant at ground level.  The restaurant is a reasonably small room with open kitchen to the rear and, like St John's at Smithfields, is painted all white - a nice but utilitarian design.

The daily menu leans less heavily on all things offal and has a real focus on fish (which LJC and I both decided to ignore almost completely save for the roe in my starter).

While the potted goose with pickled prunes looked good, I settled on deviled pigs' skin (crackling to you and I) and smoked haddock roe with a sprinkle of paprika.  The skin and the roe worked surprisingly well together - a fantastic dish.  Even better however was LJC's starter of tender pig's cheek, snails, lardon soaked croutons and sorrel juice.  Every mouthful of this dish was an absolute joy!

For main course we decided to share the beef and kidney pie along with some potatoes and brussel tops.  The pie was gigantic and could easily have fed three or even four, needless to say by the end there was nothing left! Deliciously tender slow cooked brisket in a thick gravy was topped with a suet crust (crispy on the outside, just slightly soggy (and I mean that in a good way) with all the wonderful juices from the meat on the inside). 

The brussel tops were also particularly nice - cooked in butter with just enough crunch left.

St John Hotel has a lot to live up to but if keeps on producing food of this calibre, maybe one day it will be renowned in its own right rather than simply as the follow up to St John's.  An excellent meal.

P.S. A special mention should go to the wonderful restaurant manager who managed to sneak us a table despite our lack of reservation - thanks!

St. John Hotel on Urbanspoon

Zucca: Fantastic Italian

This year I was charged with organising the Christmas lunch for my secretary at work - she asked for "not too posh Italian, somewhere I can have a nice bowl of pasta".  Within minutes I had a shortlist:  Boca de Lupo (still on my to-do-list after all this time), L'Anima, Time Out's London Italian of the year, and Zucca, one of my favourite places in London.  I put the options on the table - Zucca came back as the unanimous favourite.

And so on the last Wednesday before Christmas at 1pm sharp the five of us trooped out of the office and off to Zucca.  Now for a Christmas lunch, Zucca was not very Christmassy - no crackers or paper hats here (a blessing if you ask me!) - but the food is so consistently good I was sure all would be okay.  In fact I was relying on the food being a bit better than okay given that we had a couple of devoted foodies in our midst.

Zucca is at the far end of Bermondsey Street, an area well worth investigating even if you can't manage to get a reservation at Zucca given the excellent food on offer at both Pizarro and Jose and the great drinks at The Woolpack and the Hide!  Inside it is all clean lines with large windows and a kitchen open to the dining room.  The menu (which is made up of the type of food you find in good local restaurants throughout Italy (no pizza or gloopy pasta carbonara here!)) changes daily, although the zucca friti (pumpkin fritters) and veal chop seem to be regulars.

We had a glass of prosecco to start (it is the festive season after all!) and were provided with a bowl of various forms of bread along with a couple of slices of tortilla.  This is one of my favourite parts of any meal at Zucca as the bread comes with their own-brand olive oil - it has a wonderfully grassy flavour, this is probably my favourite olive oil -right up there the oil at Osteria Francescana.

I had the sea bass carpaccio with olive oil and finely diced sweet red peppers and chili.  The thinly sliced fish was absolutely delicious and was complemented well by the sweetness and crunch from the peppers.  A couple of the other diners started with the zucca friti which  also seemed to go down well.

For main, I went for the veal chop.  I had seen this coming out of the kitchen on previous visits but had always been sidetracked by other daily specials, safe in the knowledge that it would be there next time I visited.  This time I was not so distracted.  The wonderfully chargrilled veal chop was tender and juicy, served on top of nicely wilted spinach.  Simple, brilliant.

Being not much of a dessert fan I went for the cheese (served with delicious chutney and fruit bread) for afters, but I have to say that, when the pannacotta and poached pear came out, it seemed as though I had made a mistake.  This looked, and apparently tasted, very good indeed.

I cannot recommend Zucca enough.  The restaurant is welcoming and the food is both consistently good and more interesting than most other Italian restaurants in London.  
Zucca on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 December 2011

Okan - Delicious food from Osaka

There are not all that many places left for me to try in Brixton Village such has been the draw of this place for me over the last few months! Heading there for a quick bite to eat Saturday lunchtime we considered getting one of the best burgers in town at Honest Burgers,thought about getting some more Beijing dumplings from the excellent Mama Lan but settled on something new, Okan!

This diminutive Japanese restaurant serves up staples of the Osaka street food scene - not a piece of sashimi or sushi roll in sight at this place and it's all the better for it.  Not that I am averse to a bit sushi, I love the stuff, its just nice to have a place which brings other Japanese staples to London.

We started with some Onasu, sweet fried aubergine cooked with soy, honey, ginger and miso - absolutely delicious.

We then shared a plate each of pork and kimchi (pickled spicy cabbage from Korea) Okonomiyaki and squid Yaki Soba.

For those not in the know, Okonomiyaki is one Japan's favourite street food specialities - a mish mash of a Japanese pancake with cabbage and, in our case, kimchi with pork.  Okan's version was as good as anything I tried in Japan.

Yaki Soba are egg noodles which in our case were served with delicious tender squid!!

Both the Yaki Soba and the Okonomiyaki came smothered in Japanese style mayo - tasty, and that's from a man who normally trys his best to steer clear of anything mayonnaised.

Along with the food we had the ginger and elderflower drink, one hot, one cold.  The hot version was delicious but the cold one lacked a punch.

Okan is another welcome addition to the Brixton Village scene, reasonably priced and absolutely delicious, I have no doubt it will continue to go from strength to strength.  I for one, will certainly be back for more!

Lupita: A Step Up From Wahaca

I was out with the Weegie on Friday night and we needed a quick bite to eat before heading on for a night of beers and whisky.  Nothing fancy, something to line the stomach.  We were meeting people at Trafalgar Square and settled on Lupita when we were walking up from Embankment tube.

I had noticed Lupita a couple of times so was happy to give it a shot.  We were seated downstairs, next to the bar after having asked not to sit at the bottom of the stairs.

With a modelo negra in hand (the Wegie went for a Margherita, typical!), we had a look through the menu. There are some staples - tacos, quesadillas etc - but also some more interesting things.

We started by sharing a ceviche and some chorizo.  The ceviche was absolutely delicious, tangy lime, avocado and fresh fish.  The chorizo was less impressive - it did not have that wonderful smoked paprika taste that you expect from chorizo and all in all was a little disappointing.

The ceviche.
For main I went for the Costras - Arrachera steak (flank steak that is normally quite tough but wasn't in this case), flour tortillas and "crispy cheese" - when drizzled with a couple of the accompanying salsas this was actually pretty good.

The Costras
The Weegie had the Alambre - corn tortillas with Chile Poblano, onion, bacon and steak.  He seemed pretty happy with this although it did look a little plain.

If you are looking for sophisticated then Lupita is not the place for you.  But if you are looking for a quick bite of Mexican you could do a lot worse than steering clear of the distinctly average Wahaca and heading to Lupita instead. 
Lupita on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Tiger- good pub grub!

The Tiger in Camberwell is one of my favourite pubs in London. An oasis of warmth, good beers and friendly people. I have been many times, but mostly just use it as a watering hole before heading out. Last night, however, we decided to go along for some dinner - it was pub grub we were after and the Tiger's menu has always looked interesting.

The menu is a step up from the usual pub fayre, but thankfully has not strayed so far from this as to think it is something it is not. We started with a duck liver pate, cornichons, red onion chutney and some toast. The pate was smooth, the chutney sweet and delicious, but the slices of toast too few. All it needed was a few more pieces of bread to mop up the chutney and pate and this would have been very good indeed.

The Fashionista went for the sausages and beetroot mash. The sausages were okay, nothing special, the gigantic mound of beetroot mash was as it should be.

I had a cheese burger, tempted by the fact that what was once a lowly staple has been taken to a higher level by places like The Lucky Chip, Honest Burgers and Meat Liquor! Unfortunately the Tiger did not quite hit those highs. Homemade it was, but the meat was just a little overcooked, dry and underseasoned. The chips were great, however.

For the price you pay, the food at the Tiger is very good and certainly a step up from the general standard of pub food you get in London.  Weatherspoons this is not, I would definitely go back!

Tiger on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Tasty Treats at the Long Table

And so London's enduring love with all things pop up continues, this time in the form of The Long Table.  This Friday night market which is running for four weeks in December 2011 in a small car park tucked in behind Dalston Roof Gardens is a who's who of the London foodie scene -  from Big Apple Hot Dogs to Yum Bun and Moro they are all here. The highlight, however was a pop up rib shack from The Loft Project, the underground food society headed up by Viajante's Nuno Mendes (but more on that later).

The Fashionista and I headed straight from work on Friday night and managed to get there for just after half past six - we had hoped to beat the queue but unfortunately even by that time a large queue had already formed (apparently the week before had been even worse).  Having queued for about about forty minutes we were unleashed on the small car park stuffed full with food stalls and fire-filled oil drums - to say we were excited is an understatement.

Having done a quick initial circuit we started with duck and chorizo arroz with aioli  from Moro- a generous portion of super tasty rice with melt in your mouth chorizo and duck but with a couple of crispy bits of duck dropped in for a different texture. A great way to start the night!

By this time we were on a roll and so started the long queue for The Loft Project ribs - such was the queue that we carried out scavenger missions to keep us topped up - a pilsner from Meantime here, a croque monsieur from Petit Paris (a little disappointing, not enough ham) there.  At last we got to the front: having queried whether there was really any difference between a seven pound or five pound portion, I think the the girl at the grill felt obliged to give us a particularly large helping- delighted!

Apparently the ribs are marinated for 13 hours, they were sweet, char grilled, sticky, incredible.  They came with some wilted greens, mushrooms and a smear of sauce.  To my surprise it was the sauce that stole the show (even from the ribs).  I have no idea what was in it (although if I was to guess I reckon it must have included mushrooms, peanuts, chocolate - a kind of mushroom mole but with no chilies) - if anyone has any tips as to how to make this it would be much appreciated!

After the ribs we both agreed that we were done - and so, five minutes later with a beer in hand from the London Fields Brewery (called the Landlord - puts Timothy Taylors to shame), we were in the queue for Yum Buns.

While waiting in the queue we ended up standing next to a drinks place which looked like it was serving coffee.  Only when we got close (and having been informed by a rather excited chap in front of us) did we realise that they were in fact serving some of the most creative cocktails I have ever had: served by the former barman of Viajante, @kuckoos_nest.  And so the beer was suitably disposed of and we moved on to cocktails - my one consisted of old navy rum, lemon bitters and beer foam- innovative, brilliant!  The Fashionista had a cocktail of gin, mint, elderflower cordial and lemon foam, also very good.

A couple of cocktails down, we got to the front of the queue for Yum Buns- no vegetarian option left so we got one each of the pork buns -  soft bun, cucumber, spring onion, delicious pork with hoisin and chili sauce - very good.

And so, smiling cheek to cheek we headed off, thereby letting another two people from the queue in to the enjoy the delights of the Long Table.  If you can make it along in the next couple of weeks before the Long Table shuts up shop I would highly recommend it -  if you can't make it to Dalston by half five you will have to queue but its worth it even if its just to try those ribs! 

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Mishkins - Yet Another Russell Norman Venture

Having been late to get to Spuntinos (I think I was probably the last person in London to go) I was determined to get to Russell Norman's latest venture, E.Mishkins, as soon as possible after opening.  After it opened on the Friday I was there bright an early on the Saturday lunchtime with the a friend and was promptly told that it was still their soft opening and to look elsewhere...

Undeterred I went back again on the Wednesday night with the Fashionista.  Like Spuntinos there is a bar at the front which is unreserved, but at the back there is a large seating area for reservations so you don't just have to turn up and hope.  The decor is classic Russell Norman, pre-stressed wood, retro wall papers, strip lights on the wall -  needless to say, as always, it works!

The Fashionista started with a gin martini - no olive served as standard which was a bit disappointing.  After a bit of a delay we ordered the smoked eel with apple sauce and latkes, the meat loaf, lamb and pistachio meatballs and cod cheek pop corn.

The smoked eel was delicious, the latkes (crispy Jewish potato cakes) very good and the apple sauce worked well.

I had heard good things about the meatloaf and was not disappointed - very well seasoned mince wrapped round a soft boiled egg that oozed yolk, very good.

I was excited by the cod cheek popcorn but they were a  little disappointing - underseasoned, they needed the chili and the lime they were served with to kick start the flavours.

The lamb and pistachio meatballs were missed off our order and we had to ask for them a while after the other dishes had been finished.  When they arrived, served in a rich tomato sauce, they were delicious.

Although we probably didn't need it, in the interests of trying as many things on the menu as possible, we ordered the duck hash and fried egg and a half and half (half onion rings half chips).  The duck hash on its own with the fried egg was simply okay, but when the liqueur (a rich gravy), as it was called  on the menu, was added it became very tasty.  The onion rings were light and tasty, the chips average.

As you would expect from a Russell Norman venture, Mishkins oozes style.  The food is mixed, some of it very good indeed, some of it not much better than average.  The prices are, however, very forgiving which means that even if you make a couple of errors along the way, you will leave having had at least a few dishes which will have put a smile on your face.  

Mishkin's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Mama Lan: A Threat to Silk Road's Crown?

One of my favourite restaurants in London, or maybe anywhere, is Silk Road in Camberwell.  No pretence, great northern Chinese food and friendly staff - it never lets me down.  There is, however, a young pretender to Silk's crown as the best northern Chinese restaurant in south London, Mama Lan - another new restaurant in Brixton Village.  I know I keep going on and on about Brixton Village but really what is happening down there in terms of new restaurants right now really is that exciting.

In the tradition of Brixton Village, Mama Lan is a small, basic restaurant with seats about a maximum of 20 at any one time.  The menu is short (always a good sign for freshness) with a couple of noodle soups (a beef and a tofu one), three choices of dumplings and a few other bits and bobs.  We went for the spicy beef noodle soup, the pork dumplings and a seaweed (kelp) salad.

The soup was quite tasty but the broth lacked a bit of heat and the noodles were a little mushy - pretty nice though.

The dumplings were incredible.  Nicely fried to be crispy on one side, the filling was super tasty - the best dumplings I have had in London (even better than Silk Road).  If you can't get a seat or just fancy a snack while wandering round the market (they do dumplings to take away) get involved- they are definitely worth it!

The Fashionista was a big fan of the kelp which was served with a sesame and soya sauce dressing -  for me it was okay but not a patch on the kelp with chili at Silk.

All in all a pretty tasty lunch and I will definitely be back, even if it is just to get some more of those dumplings!
Mama Lan Supper Club on Urbanspoon

Spuntino - Another Success for Russell Norman

Spuntino has to be one of the most talked about restaurants in London this year.  With the success of Polpo and Polpetto (the sister restaurants) already in the bag and with so many glowing reviews, it would have been easy for them to have sat on their laurels - so I thought I would go and check.

The tag line for Spuntinos is "no telephone, no reservations", but it may well have included "no sign".  This is a place for people who read about food.  Situated at 61 Rupert Street is what looks like a disused shop, with only the faintest scrawl above the windows to let you know that you're at the right place.  Stepping through the door, however, everything changes.  You are met by a bar with high seats and low lights, candles flickering - effortlessly cool - this is the definitive answer to "stripped down" decor.

Sat at the end of the bar we ordered a couple of small, but perfectly formed, Bloody Marys and were given a cup of freshly popped popcorn served with paprika and a lug of tasty oil to work through while we pondered the menu.

There menu is made up of various salads, a good selection of sliders (mini-burgers), some interesting small plates (fried olives?) and some tasty looking mains.

We settled on marinated artichoke and coppa crostini, a beef and bone marrow slider, spicy sausage with cheese grits, soft shell crab with tabasco aioli and aubergine fritters with fennel seed yoghurt. 

The marinated artichoke and coppa crostini -  looks a total mess but was absolutely delicious!  Juicy artichoke, tasty coppa (a tasty cured ham made from the neck of the pig) and toasted bread- my kind of food and an absolute steal at £4.50.

The beef and bone marrow slider - I had read a lot about this and, in truth, was a little disappointed.  Tasty meat, but a little dry.

Spicy sausage and cheese grits (a corn dish of American Indian origin) - delicious spicy tomato sauce, with cheese grits -  I had never had grits before but they were pretty good, reminded me of a cheesy semolina. May not sound too good, but it worked.  Little tight on the sausage though, with only three thin slices.

Soft shell crab with tabasco aioli -  I read recently that soft shell crab was a chef's dream -  incredibly cheap but considered a delicacy!  Overpriced or not (and I don' think it was) this was one tasty tasty dish.

The eggplant fritters with fennel seed yoghurt -  we had got these to add as a filler - as we had heard that the plates were generally quite small - but it stole the show.  Soft aubergine in a crisp sesame seed crust and delicious fennel seed yoghurt -  absolutely incredible.

I had not wanted to like Spuntino.  It sometimes nice to go against the crowd.  But try as I might not to, I really like this place.  Effortlessly cool decor, friendly staff and great tasting food -  another success from Russel Norman.  If it's half as good as Spuntino's I can't wait to visit his next venture, Mishkins, a jewish style deli serving old school cocktails (opens late November 2011).

Spuntino on Urbanspoon
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