Saturday, 14 July 2012

The Modern Pantry: New Zealand cuisine, who knew it?

So what is New Zealand cuisine? According to that all-knowing source, Wikipedia, it is "a diverse British based cuisine, with Mediterranean and Pacific Rim influences as the country becomes more cosmopolitan".  So basically a bit of everything.  Set up by New Zealand raised Anna Hansen, the Modern Pantry has been pigeon-holed as serving New Zealand cuisine (at least by my proudly Kiwi roommate at work - All Black flags a plenty in my office).  But a quick look at the menu shows it is so much more than that.  Anna takes a bit of what she likes from around the world and fuses ingredients together to create bold new dishes.

We headed along on a Sunday lunchtime, the place packed with mid-twenty something professionals  regaling their tales of the night before.  The great thing about going at this time, though, is that you can take advantage of the two courses for twenty, three for twenty five, offer. 

I started with the salmon sashimi and squid ink dressing, delicious. Others had the marinated feta salad with pickled gooseberries and broad bean salad and some grilled aubergine with Thai cress and a soy and and ginger dressing.  Contrasting flavours from around the world, perfectly merged together.

Salmon sashimi with squid ink dressing

Grilled aubergine with Thai cress and crispy shallots

Marinated feta with broad bean and pickled gooseberry salad

What I had next perfectly sums up the approach at the Modern Pantry, with nods to South America (plantain chips), Thailand (a som tam style salad) and Europe (slow cooked pork belly with wonderful crackling).  A seriously good plate of food. LJC had the butternut squash - this had been mashed with ricotta and what I think was coconut milk and wrapped in a thin, crispy dosa-style pancake. She declared it to be one of her favourite dishes of the year. Also very good, but perhaps not quite up to the other dishes, was the Barbary duck  with saffron and poppy seed spatzle. Nice, but didn't really excite me.

The Barbary duck

Pork belly, plantain chips and Thai salad

Butternut squash and ricotta
Following two delicious courses we were starting to strain at the waistline so decided to skip on the interesting looking ice creams and settled instead on sharing a bowl of black cherries.  These were a little expensive, priced as they were at four fifty. But, in saying that, they were probably the best cherries I have ever had so the price can probably be forgiven.  Served straight from the fridge, they were wonderfully juicy and sweet.

Those cherries
For me fusion is a dangerous word when it comes to food, it is after all only three letters away from confusion.  And mostly that is what I find fusion food to be, confused.  I am therefore very cautious to brand the Modern Pantry as a "fusion" restaurant.  That is what it is though.  It serves ingredients from around the world, fused together.  Thankfully, in this case though, the food is quite exceptional. There is no doubt or confusion in my mind, the Modern Pantry is excellent.
Modern Pantry on Urbanspoon

Upstairs at the Ten Bells: Simply Brilliant

Made up of James Low, Isaac Mchale and Ben Greeno, the Young Turks were formed way back in 2010.  These three, along with the Clove Club (a private dining club based in Dalston), have been nomads for some time now, wandering around the Capital, popping up in strange places (atop a ten story car park in Peckham!) to cook delectable treats.  And so, when they set up in the space above the Ten Bells pub (of Jack the Ripper fame) between November last year and April this year, it looked like it was going to be the usual fleeting visit.  But at last they seem to have found their home, no longer are they twisting, this time they seem to have found somewhere in which they are happy to stick: a permanent place,  Upstairs at the Ten Bells.

There is no longer a tasting menu, but the addition of a "snack" option at the start and cheese at the end made it into a five course banquet when we went.

The snacks are intriguing, challenging, delicious.  Homemade chipsticks (so retro!) with smoked cods roe, buttermilk chicken with pine salt, served in pine needles - the best chicken nuggets you've ever had, but the pine was unpronounced - and single segments of white onion with a dollop of aubergine and walnuts on top.  We shared the three between five, loved them all.

Homemade chipsticks with smoked cod's roe

Buttermilk chicken with pine salt

White onion, aubergine and walnuts
Next I had the poached egg, fonduta (an Italian fondue made with fontina cheese, milk egg and truffles) and gherkin. The fonduta was rich and creamy, working well with the yolk of the egg, could have done with a bit more crunch though, despite the addition of almost raw cauliflower.  Other starters included tomato salad (three types) with shiso and iced goats milk.  The sweetness of the tomato worked well with the chilly goats' milk, the shiso provided the punch.  The smoked mackerel, pickled melon and green olives was intriguing, the Fashionista loved it - pickled melon was a new one on me.  However, my favourite dish was the courgette soup with razor clams and Indian spice.  The soup, which came chilled, was poured around a tower of fried razor clam:, crispy, hot, smooth, cold, excellent.

Poached egg, fonduta and gherkin
Chilled Courgette Soup with Razor Clams and Indian Spice

Mackerel with picked melon and green olives

Tomato Salad with Iced Goat's Milk
For main I had a saddle of lamb with spinach puree which was spiked with small dots of in-your-face anchovy puree! On top was balanced a light potato rosti, with more air than potato.  Masterful cooking, one of my favourites of the year, sadly no pic.  Also very good was the smoked pork belly with radishes and oat groats (a favourite ingredient of the Turks).  Less impressive was the plaice, mushrooms, elderflower and wild fennel.  Excellently cooked, but I felt it lacked substance and paled alongside the other options. There was severe food jealousy from that end of the table.

Pork Belly with Raddish

Plaice with mushrooms, elderflower and wild fennel
One dessert was strawberry tart with white chocolate and elderflower ice cream.  Accomplished?  Certainly. But blown away by the alternative of blueberry mousse, tarragon sponge and milk crisps.  Light mousse (made with creme fraiche rather than cream), aniseedy sponge that would probably have taken off if you hadnt already eaten it and the most incredible biscuity milk things (I am sad to say I have no idea how these were made).  Perfect is a strong word.  I am reticent to use it.  This was perfect.

Blueberry mousse, tarragon sponge and milk crisps
We finished with a good selection of French cheese (from Androuet in Spittalfields - owned by Alex, an affable Frenchman who trained under the great Mr Androuet in Paris and who now trades under his name in London) and some incredible wine recommended by our chirpy waiter.  Sadly by that point we had had rather too much and the name escapes me.  Needless to say it tasted like a very dry scrumpy, but was definitely red wine: a good match for cheese.
Get yourself a reservation at Upstairs at the Ten Bells before the queue snakes around the block.  The atmosphere is welcoming, unstuffy, the food of the highest order and cheap at half the price.  Five courses with three and a half bottles of wine and a cocktail for around fifty quid each.  You will struggle to eat better in London.

Ten Bells Pub on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Bar Shu: Szechuanese in the heart of Soho

After an outlandish trip to John Lewis, which resulted in me emptying my pockets for a (rather handsome) SMEG fridge, the Fashionista and I were on the lookout for a cheap but cheerful dinner around Oxford Street. Preferably somehere at least one of us hadn't been to before.  Having tried to get a table at Pitt Cue Co (still no success!), 10 Greek Street, Polpetto (now moved!) and Barafina, we were struggling.  Our options dwindling, the Fashionista suggested we head to Bar Shu, a Szechuanese restaurant which is more Soho than Chinatown.  A place she had been to before with a friend from Singapore.

The menu is long, page after page of pictures showing various animal parts, generally cooked in a mountain of chilli.  Having suffered before from the heat at places like Gourmet San, we were determined to see if there was more to this region's cooking than the mouth-numbing effect of Szechuan pepper. 

We started with a couple of appetisers: thin sliced pork in a spicy, garlicky sauce and what was described as "numbing and hot dried beef".  These both worked better as sides (the mains followed shortly behind) rather than starters.  The pork belly was wrapped around thinly chopped carrot and spring onion, the sauce deep and rich.  The beef was intense, a slow burning heat that only caught up with you a few minutes later.  Too strong to have on its own, but good to share!

Pork wrapped around shredded carrot

Dry and spicy beef
On to the mains, the twice cooked pork was less impressive.  Slices of salty pork belly with leeks, I was not a fan.  Much better, however, was the minced chicken with preserved mustard greens.  Served on lettuce leaves, it tasted very similar to a Thai larb.  Refreshing and invigorating, I loved it.  I am not sure how "authentic" it was, lettuce is not something I normally associate with Szechuan.  However, what it lacked in authenticity, it more than made up for with flavour.  Delicious.

Minced chicken with preserved mustard greens

Twice-cooked pork with leeks
In our attempt to discover another side to Szechuan, we strayed a little from the essence of what Bar Shu is really all about - dishes which hit you round the face with gobsmacking heat from red chilis and that leave you tingling from the numbing effect of Szechuanese pepercorns - the culinary equivalent of being tag-teamed by the Klitschko brothers.  And so, we left feeling a little underwhelmed.  Go, but stick to what the Szechuanese do best, heat!
Bar Shu on Urbanspoon

Market House: a disappointing meal, but a nice place for a pint

I started coming to Broadway Market in the summer of 2009.  At that time I was still living in Scotland, visiting the Fashionista on the weekend in Camberwell.  I had overfilled on Borough market and Broadway was a refreshing change.  Yes there were heritage tomatoes and Comte by the bucket load but it had more of a local feel (in fact I loved it so much so that when I eventually got round to moving down, I decided this was the place for me).  The ratio of tourists to local was in London's favour.  Broadway market is still like that, although the Londoners are more Rupert and Rodger than Dave and Darren these days.

And so, with this gentrification, restaurants have been popping up all over the place.  Outlets which are just not up to scratch fall by the wayside very quickly to be replaced with more accomplished offerings.  Take, for example, La Vie en Rose.  At the end the food they were serving up was so below bar and overpriced I am surprised they lasted as long as they did.  But from the ashes came Market Cafe.  A great little place serving Italian influenced, reasonbaly priced, delicious food in a retro seventies vibe, formica and print wallpaper heaven. 

Market House (which is half way along Broadway Market) has been threatening to open for some months now.  Renowned as the "roughest pub on Broadway" in the good ol' days, it had been spruced up, painted white, ready for Rupert to arrive.

I had the pork belly which came with a disc of black pudding, glazed apples and a "mustard gravy".  The belly had been shorn of its crackling before cooking, a small amout of which (I suppose the chef must have had the rest) came seperate, satisfyingly crunchy. The problem with removing the crackling is, though, that you are left faced with a rectangle of meat topped with soggy fat.  Not even the stuff that is melt-in-the mouth-I-know-I-shouldn't-be-eating-this-but-it-is-too-darned-good-not-to fat, just fat. Not nice. The apples were okay, the black pudding dry, the gravy was more Bisto than Maille. 

The Fashionista had the fish and chips.  The cod was fresh, the batter was okay.  The chips were soggy, really not up to much at all.

All of this would not have been so galling if the prices had not been so high.  That belly, fourteen quid.  The fish and chips, twevle.  Elsewhere on Broadway you can eat exceptionally well for these prices.  The Market House is flanked on one end of Broadway by the Michelin recommended Cat and Mutton, and the aforementioned excellent Market Cafe on the other, both of which serve great, simple food in the ten to fifteen pound range.  Market House is going to have to go through the gears quick snap if it is going to remain a place people chose to eat on Broadway. 

In fairness I should mention that they do serve a great pint of London Pride.  My advice, go there to drink, not to eat.  Good pub, bad gastro pub.  But in the days when everywhere has to be about both food and drink, perhaps that is not such a bad thing. Maybe Market House will end up being a slice of original Broadway in amongst the boutiques, a place for a pint (without the pie).
The Market House on Urbanspoon
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