Thursday, 23 January 2014

Quick Review: Ember Yard

Ember Yard on Berwick Street is the latest restaurant from the Salt Yard group. It opened its doors for the first time a couple of months ago.

It is another tapas concept with Italian and Basque influences where the menu all looks reasonably priced but the amount you end up having to order to have a proper dinner means the price rapidly creeps up. I am not sure it was worth the £35 I ended up spending but it was predominantly delicious. 







The night began well with the bar snack pimientos de pardon - almost impossible to get wrong - but for £4.50 the portion was generous, giving me false expectations of what was to come. 



Next came the prawns and the octopus from the tapas menu. The prawns were hot off the grill, garlicky and succulent. The octopus meanwhile was a small helping of thick tentacles that were ever so slightly chewy as a result of the outside being overdone so the inside wasn't raw. The relish they were served with was well caramelized and worked together with the herby aioli.




The feta-filled battered courgette flowers were next, dripping with honey - salty, sweet, herby, earthy, crispy, soft and firm - a delightful myriad of textures and flavours. This was the best dish of the evening, but, although I am only too aware that all good things must come to an end, each portion consisted of a rather meagre 2 pieces for £8. 



After this we had a rather chewy pork shoulder dish served with a flavoured butter. This was the strangest of what we had and not a favourite of mine at all. I have a reputation among my family, borne from my behaviour as a toddler, of absolutely loving butter, but dipping a piece if pork into it too fatty, even for me! Other than that, we tried to fill up on the chips which were great but came with a sauce I didn't particularly like. The waitress swiftly provided me with some aioli in its place.  



Maybe the name itself is somewhat inauspicious, the experience did seem to end in embers... the second round of dishes didn't live up to the first and the intriguingly named ganacha pudding was a rather prosaic chocolate fondant with ice cream, yawn. 

That said, the house white was reasonably priced and refreshing and the service was pretty good. I won't be rushing back for more but I wouldn't object to going back either...



Monday, 20 January 2014

Quick Review: Bar Shan

My latest foray into a substantial portion of London's Sichuanese restaurants might easily paint me as an all out Chinaphile (see Sichuan Folk,  Bar Shu and my footnote to My Old Place). Yet when a friend recently confessed that they didn't like Chinese food I chimed in 'neither do I' automatically. This got me thinking, in the context of London / the West and what 'Chinese food' more often than not means, I really don't. Sweet, sticky, oily, battered 'feast food' is fine for a celebration but rarely what I feel like for a casual meal out... Sesame prawn toasts and crispy seaweed just don't whet my appetite that much.



I suppose what I'm saying is that my enjoyment of Chinese food is very regionally focused, and in my experience, the restaurants in London that decide to have a regional twist tend to offer more authentic and fresh fare (it's hard to keep your food fresh if there are a thousand things on the menu). These specialist restaurants cater to a more discerning crowd who have bothered at least to do a little bit of Googling as opposed to the increasingly outmoded idea of an ignorant westerner with set ideals of what Chinese food should be.

That said, there are still numerous regional cuisines that I am pretty ignorant of, and that my month in China couldn't possibly cover. I am however continuing my research in London, the fruits of which will are appearing in this blog.

Hunan


At Bar Shan I recently discovered the culinary delights of the Hunan province (South East of Sichuan), which I would strongly recommend to anyone who doesn't mind a lot of spice. Sister restaurant to the Sichuanese Bar Shu and just across the road from it, you can discover the differences between the two cuisines by visiting both.

As Wikipediaj has kindly informed me, the principle difference is that Hunan food is "dry hot (干辣) or purely hot" whereas as Sichuan cuisine is known for its distinctive "mala (hot and numbing)." The Hunan cuisine I sampled did seem to have a fresher taste and was absolutely delicious, though not quite as addictively cathartic as the numbing heat of Sichuan peppercorns.

Unfortunately the menu isn't available online at the moment so I can't write down the actual names of the dishes I had but I can describe them so here goes... 


We started with a street food noodle dish that was extremely simple but good. 



Then we had 2 meat dishes - a cumin spiced rib dish that had a crisp layer of spice coating it and a beef and rice noodle soupy dish that was very hot. Both were packed with flavour and cooked perfectly so that the meat was tender.



We also had dried fried green beans with pork mince which were crunchy and garlicky. This was accompanied by steamed rice and Tsing Tao beer. 

I left feeling full, very satisfied and looking forward to many more visits to come. 


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

An alternative to boredom: Lost Lectures


If you haven't yet been to The Lost Lectures, you must. This series of talks that open up new dimensions in your thinking, export you to previously undiscovered venues and provide you with a totally different kind of night out to the default: go down the pub/ out for a meal with the beard or the bird/ fall over face first into a kebab.




I went to Lost Lectures towards the end of last year and had a refreshing time drinking mulled wine, avoiding other people's squeezey mustard hotdogs (we had already eaten), and listening to a wonderful variety of talks from Ruby Wax, Simon Baron Cohen (yes, that is Sacha's brother but more importantly he is a neuroscientist) and a rap vs. poetry battle. The whole thing took place in Bethnal Green's working boxing ring, giving it a rough and ready atmosphere and filling the speakers with adrenaline which most of them couldn't help but comment on.


Unfortunately, if you follow my advice and book for their next talk, you will not have the same experience that I had. The point of Lost Lectures is to enlighten you differently every time you go. I was lucky enough to hear Ruby Wax speak out about mental illness which was both brilliantly inspiring and... well, a little bit mental. This is an aside, but I was quite shocked by the horrible playground tittering that was going on behind me at one point. Whilst everyone else was mesmerised by the bravery of her honest personal account, there were a few who found it easier to laugh at the problem she was highlighting. Ironically, she spoke of the denial by 'polite society' of mental illness and how when it's something that people can actually see, they are far more sympathetic. Sorry for this tangent but I have to send a message to the haters that their hating comes from weakness and their judgement was misplaced as well as just plain RUDE. Ruby - you are right: you are quite mad but we love you all the more for it.



This January, Lost Lectures is putting on The Festival of The Imagination so if you're looking for a little more inspiration this January than dry nights, 'New Year, New You' drizzle and Orange Wednesdays then look no further than here. You won't regret it. You would however regret waking up unenlightened, bored of your own brain and face down in a kebab once again. This, friends is the alternative. Think about it.


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Monday, 13 January 2014

Showstopper Pavlova




This is dish is the perfect party dish, a fantastic focal point for any pudding table, and, importantly, a breeze to whip up. 

It is a little retro but there is something timelessly opulent about the glossy peaks of meringue.This one isn't just pretty though, it really packs a punch and is a far cry from those rather anaemic, cream-filled desserts that grace supermarket shelves and school canteens. 

The secret ingredients are curd cheese and Drambuie, giving the filling a tartness that cuts through the meringue and a luxurious boozy finish that leaves you wanting another helping. The alarming rate at which this pudding disappears is testament to the above.

I cannot claim credit for the recipe since it is one of my catering client’s classics that I make for her Christmas party every year. I have however improved the meringue to filling ratio, and added my own Italian meringue method for greater stability when trying to assemble the layers.


Recipe (serves 20)

For the Filling

This is best made a few hours before serving but can be made the evening before if kept refrigerated.



Ingredients
500g curd cheese
130g caster sugar
4 tablespoons soured cream
4-6 tablespoons Drambuie (to taste)
300ml double cream
Berries (see end of recipe)

Method:
Whisk together the curd cheese, soured cream and sugar (an electric whisk makes life a bit easier). The curd cheese will loosen with whisking.

In a separate bowl, whisk the double cream until it forms peaks but taking care not to over-whisk to the point of it separating / becoming granular.

Mix the curd cheese mix into the double cream and stir in the Drambuie. The mix is now ready. Keep in the fridge until needed.


For the Meringues




Ingredients

900g caster sugar

450g free range egg whites
3 tsp rosewater (should be in the baking section of a large supermarket)

Method

Preheat oven to 200C/Gas mark 6.

Spread sugar evenly on large oven tray lined with baking sheet. Place in the heated up oven for 8 minutes (you should start to see it dissolving at the edges)

Meanwhile, whisk the eggs with an electric whisk on high speed for 1 min or so, so the whites really froth up.

Decant the hot sugar into a bowl and add slowly while whisking the whites.

Add the rosewater and keep whisking on high speed for 10 minutes until it is completely cool. It should then be very silky and keep its shape.

Turn the oven down to 110C. Line a baking tray, sticking the baking sheet down with a few dabs of meringue mix between it and the baking tray.

Draw around a 20cm cake tin on a sheet of greaseproof paper that you have stuck to a baking tray using dabs of the meringue mix. Scoop half of the mix into the middle of the circle and work the mix outwards with a large metal spoon until it fills (or goes over) the circle in random, sweeping peaks. I like to make two peaked meringue circles, decide which I prefer and then smooth out the other one with a spoon so that it can form the bottom layer easily.


Place in the preheated oven and leave for about 2 hours, check if they are done by tapping them to see if they sound hollow. If not, cook for longer. Turn the oven off and leave the meringues in the oven while it cools for several hours. This makes them easier to lift off. If you will need the oven in the meantime, just let the meringues cool out of the oven but make sure they really do sound hollow when you tap them. 


To assemble: 

Extra ingredients:
2 punnets of blueberries
2 punnets raspberries
1 punnet of red currents to decorate

Method
To assemble, place the flat meringue on a plate. Spoon the filling mix into the middle of the meringue, spread it out evenly with a spatula. Scatter half of the berries (excluding the red currents) over the cream filling. 

Carefully place the top layer of meringue on top of the layer of filling (if it breaks a little it should still be able to sit on top of it. 

Sprinkle berries over the top of it and dust with icing sugar.

As you can see from the picture below, I didn't have red currents or icing sugar but it looks even prettier when you do








Friday, 10 January 2014

Bar Shu - Sichuanese in the heart of Soho

Sichuanese Hot Pot - Chengdu

In these cold winter months I have been longing for a nostalgic taste of my Eastern travels. After all, there is nothing like a load of chillies and Sichuan peppercorns to scare away a cold. I enjoyed Sichuan Folk a few months ago but went a little closer to home this time - to Bar Shu in Soho - for my Sichuan fix.

Although I didn't enjoy my travels in China overall - oppressive politics, declined Tibetan visas and closed Tibetan provinces meant that I wasted a lot of time in Chengdu - the Sichuanese food that we experienced there ended up being a real highlight. Exploring the city, ducking in and out of torrential tropical rainfall, I stumbled upon all sorts of unlikely places serving just one or two mind-blowing dishes.

Bar Shu

Bar Shu hit the spot in that respect with the street food part of their menu which offers by far the best value of what they do. The Dandan noodles and sweet potato noodles were the best things we had and at £4.50 each are great value (compare that to the pork / beef dishes of £17-£22 or a simple plate of greens at £10).

Dandan Noodles
Sweet Potato Noodles
Alongside these we had the pickled lotus which I wouldn't recommend since I have had better elsewhere and the morning glory which was delicious but bad value at £10.



For our main sharing dishes we had a spicy crab dish which was delicious but a pain to eat - we were literally picking through the honeycomb of the crab with our chopsticks - and so messy that I would not recommend it. We also had the dry wok beef that was perfectly spicy and very, very tasty. 



All in all I would definitely recommend it and feel that if / when I return I will now know how to order much better. I would go for 3 street food dishes between 2 (2 noodle dishes and 1 dumpling dish), plain rice and 1-2 meat / fish mains (the gung bao chicken is an absolute classic if you haven't tried it already and only £12). This would come to around £20-30 each on food whereas we spent around £50 each leaving us feeling a little out of pocket. 


P.S. If you are thinking of going to ‘My Old Place’ in Liverpool Street instead, I would strongly recommend against it. It serves mucus-y MSG filled fast food that tastes a bit stale. I was pretty ill after eating there.


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Thursday, 9 January 2014

Cornwall in Winter


This year, I wanted to get away between Christmas and New Years. I'm soon to be embarking on a project of a life time and renovating a very small and somewhat wonky dilapidated Victorian House, which I'm kind of in denial about because A. I can't really afford to, and B. I know nothing about renovating houses... *ahem*. Because of this, I entered into the post-Christmas stupor, both broke and in need of escapism. I am back now and ready to swap last year's sun-soaked sailing photographs for paint-speckled dungarees and riveting pantone chat (I will try to make this interesting, I promise). 

This mini break in St. Ives was exactly what I needed. 
Flo and I have both written about what St. Ives has to offer in the Summer and Autumn months but there's a whole different feel to the Cornish Coast in Winter. The pubs are cosy and warming, watching the waves batter the coast line is exhilarating, and the walks are more deserted. 


Where to stay: The Queens Hotel St. Ives

The Queens is a lovely Gastro pub with a hotel directly above. The rooms are simple which is reflected in the price, but they are put together with taste and serve their purpose well. The real benefit of staying here is that the food is fantastic. The breakfast, which is included leaves no detail spared - details like home cooked granola and home made bread make all the difference when you stay at a B&B. The hotel is run by a London couple who escaped the smoke permanently to move to Cornwall and run this and a great bar/ restaurant on the harbour, which we will get to in a moment. One day, I want their life.





Where to eat (when you're not eating there):

The Loft

The boy and I had arrived in St. Ives on the 27th. Storms were predicted for that night, we had driven for hours and it looked as though most things along the main high street and the harbour were closed for business. Determined to have a proper good feed, we squirrelled away to our room with a bottle of bubbly and Love Actually on the iPad before calling all of the well reviewed restaurants in St. Ives. Finding no luck, we eventually ventured out in the pouring rain. We had passed The Loft earlier in the day and noticed that it was open, but other than that we knew nothing about what kind of food it served or how good it was. 

After walking through a completely deserted harbour (the weather warnings had gone from bad to worse over the afternoon), we stumbled back there and sheltered inside. Usually this is the point in the story where the food is awful or cold or they have run out of everything except for Pot Noodle and some soggy crisps and you just deal with it because the alternative is to go outside again and potentially find nothing. However, this did not happen. We totally lucked out...


Not only was The Loft the cosiest little romantic hideaway, it also served us the most delicious food from a fresh seafood menu. We had the mussles and bacon in a white wine sauce and a seared soy, sesame and beef salad to start, followed by Hake and battered squid in a saffron curry sauce with kale, sprouts fried with flaked almonds and honey roasted butternut squash on the side. Everything was mouthwateringly delicious, the service was perfect and the chef even gave me his recipe for perfectly roasting squash with the skin on. Book here.



The Coldstreamer 


This Gastro Pub is to be found in Gulval, between St. Ives and Penzance. It is a beautiful old building with a roaring fireplace, a great wine selection and a fantastic menu - which has to be a tribute to French management - not what you're expecting when you walk into a pub in a small Cornish Village.

We ordered a mixture of bar snacks and light bites all sea-themed and were very content. A pint of prawns with home made mayonnaise, a crab rarebit, marinaded sardines, a green salad and chips. It was exactly what we needed between two long beach walks. 
 Book here.

The Rum and Crab shack:

This bar and restaurant is owned by the same people as The Queens Hotel St. Ives. It is a lovely little cabin-like bar elevated above the harbour serving a great selection of spiced rums and sea food. I had the 'Corn & Oil' cocktail which consists of aged dark rum and cane sugar syrup - plantation style.

I was a little disappointed to find soft shell crab on their menu, as this is only ever shipped in from California or Japan and when you can literally see and breathe the sea from your seat it feels wrong to be serving seafood from so far away. That aside, the local seafood we ordered was cooked to Caribbean style perfection and made for a lovely and atmospheric evening. Book here.

...and then there were the walks. From Penzance to St. Ives, and little cobbled streets to harboursides, cliff walks and beach walks, it was all breathtakingly beautiful and exactly what we needed post-Christmas. The weather conditions meant that even when it wasn't stormy, the sea was rough and where it met rock, it was sending spray up more than thirty feet into the air creating billowing white clouds of water.


I will be back in the spring or the summer when I need to run away from my new house-related responsibilities. Let me know if there are any great spots that I have missed... 
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