Saturday, 19 December 2009

Pomegranate molasses, Château Musar and memories of Lebanon

This week, at a Christmas party at my daughter's nursery, I was chatting to another parent about unusual ingredients available at a local food shop, Phoenicia in Kentish Town. Pomegranate molasses was mentioned as he fancied the sound of it, but wasn't sure what to do with it. This took me straight back to an extraordinary holiday in Lebanon. We went as wedding guests of the Hochar family of Château Musar and spent several memorable days in this fascinating country. As soon as we arrived in Beirut we went straight out to get some food. Despite being quite late in the evening, it was still very warm and, sitting outside in a bustling street, we enjoyed a fabulous spread of mezze that included chicken livers cooked in pomegranate molasses. As it was so distinctive (and as I love offal) I have tried to recreate this dish back in London, quickly sautéing the livers in a hot pan, pouring in some of the molasses to coat and almost glaze them – delicious. As the dish is quite rich, it's probably best served with wedges of lemon with some fresh parsley sprinkled over or, if you find the pomegranate molasses too cloying, you could add a splash of balsamic vinegar during the cooking to make the dish a bit more tangy. With a slice of toasted sourdough bread and a handful of some green leaves (watercress would ideal) this is a really tasty starter or light supper.

Late-night mezze in downtown Beirut.

Woman making flatbread.

Bottles ageing in the cellar at Château Musar.

Lunch at the Hotel Palmyra after visiting Baalbek.

Late afternoon in Byblos.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Port and the magnificent Douro

Now with Christmas almost upon us, I've been busy stocking up on plenty of goodies to eat and drink. Depending on your taste, certain things become staples at this time of year and in our household port is a particular favourite. It's great having a bottle handy to serve at the end of a meal with some cheese, nuts, dried fruit and chocolate or just to sip slowly at the end of a busy day. I absolutely adore complex, nutty, mellow tawny port – the older the better, but I also love sweeter, fruitier vintage port and seeing how it evolves with time. Either way, it's a warming, soothing treat.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to be included in a visit to Porto and the Douro organised by the Symington Family, producers of Graham's, Dow's, Warre's, Quinta do Vesuvio and Smith Woodhouse. I joined a party of leading sommeliers and we stayed at the elegant, historic Quinta dos Malvedos, having taken the train up the Douro valley from the city of Porto. This journey along the river is truly breathtaking and combining it with a couple of days in the characterful, bustling city of Porto would make an ideal trip for a long weekend. The cultural significance of these places has been formally acknowledged as the historic centre of Porto and the Douro valley vineyards are now classified as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

It's almost ironic how this wild, dramatic, sunbaked region produces a wine so suited to winter drinking and I hope these pictures, taken during our springtime visit, provide a bit of warmth on a cold December day.

Looking across the Douro to Vila Nova de Gaia from our hotel in the Ribeira district of Porto.

Enjoying the journey.

Steep terraced vineyards typical of the valley.

Pinhão station.

This detail of traditional local tiling depicts the grape harvest.

Leaving Pinhão station.

Arriving at Vesuvio station.

Quinta do Vesuvio.

Early evening drinks on the terrace at Quinta dos Malvedos.

A view of the valley showing the dry, flaky schistous soil.

Another view of the Douro.

Back in Porto looking across the river towards the port lodges (with brand names on the roofs).

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Spiced carrot soup with lime: winter warmth with an exotic twist

Big fanfare: this is the first recipe I've posted on the blog. Despite sounding a bit mundane, it ticks so many boxes. This is seasonal, warming, healthy, inexpensive and utterly delicious (that's why it's here!). If you read my recent review of Texture, you'll have seen what's possible with dull, worthy sounding winter vegetables. Here we have the humble carrot – read on to see what you can conjure up quickly and easily for a tasty lunch. You could even serve it as a starter for a dinner party as it looks so enticing with its deeply autumnal, yellow/orange colour which is complimented by the nuts (ideally with a glass of aged amontillado sherry). It freezes well, too – I pour a ladle or two into freezer bags for individual servings. I've cooked versions of this for many years, but this recipe is based on one I recently found in Sainsbury's Magazine, but I'm afraid I can't recall the author as the name doesn't appear on my torn-out page. The fresh ginger and lime provide a tangy, aromatic lift to the already complex flavours.

2 onions
oil for frying
2 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tsp peeled and grated ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
1-2 tsp ground cinnamon
1kg carrots, sliced (you can leave the skin on if you like, but make sure they've been washed and scrubbed)
1.5 litres chicken or vegetable stock

to finish:
1 tsp brown sugar
juice of 1 lime
sea salt to taste

Peel and roughly chop the onions and add to a large pan of warmed vegetable or olive oil (sometimes I'll use chicken or duck fat if I have some handy in the fridge). While they are cooking, add the garlic and, once the onions are translucent, add the spices. Continue cooking, stirring, for a couple of minutes, then add the carrots and stock. Allow to come to the boil, then reduce the heat, cover and gently simmer until the carrots are tender (over a low heat you could leave it for 30 minutes to an hour). 

Using a hand blender liquidise the soup until smooth. Stir in the sugar, lime juice and season with the sea salt. The soup is now ready to serve or can be allowed to cool and be frozen.

I like serving the soup with a spoon of yoghurt (or crème fraîche) stirred through and sprinkled with toasted cashews or pinenuts. The original recipe suggests seasoning with some of the Moroccan spice, sumac, just before serving which adds even more fragrant tanginess. Gorgeous.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Texture: London's top restaurant for wine lovers?

Our entire experience of Texture was a pleasure. Even booking the table was met with a helpful, welcoming attitude. Perhaps it's a sign of the (economically challenged) times that I was asked what time I wanted, rather than it being the other way round and being allocated a slot and made to feel grateful for being admitted at all. In recent years too many top London restaurants have made you feel as though they were doing you a favour by granting you the privilege of allowing you through their doors to spend large amounts of money. What a welcome change.

This was our wedding anniversary, so we were looking for something a bit special. Texture appealed as the emphasis seemed to be as much on wine as food, co-owned by chef Agnar Sverrisson and award-winning sommelier, Xavier Rousset, who met while working for Raymond Blanc at the Manoir aux Quat' Saisons. Furthermore, pictures I'd seen made the bar and restaurant look gorgeous in an understated, contemporary way: cool white décor showing off intricate Georgian period features. It has a grown-up Nordic feel – no surprise, really, as the chef is Icelandic.

On arriving we decided to relax with a drink and peruse the menu in the bar before going to our table. Not only was the bar achingly glamorous, but the selection of Champagnes exemplary. We settled on glasses of Jacquesson Cuvée 732 and a tasty selection of nibbles followed immediately: wafers made from bread, potato and parmesan, with barley yoghurt and wasabi dips, popcorn, and some deep-fried cod skin (sensational with the wasabi). We ordered, keeping things simple by indulgently selecting the tasting menu with accompanying wines. The staff were helpful and unexpectedly warm and friendly, remaining so throughout the evening.

Once we were installed at our table, we were offered some much too tempting breads. A stylish trio of light, whipped tapenade, fruity olive oil and sea salted butter were left on the table. A glance around the room quickly revealed how much Texture glamorises wine: towards the front of the room was a glorious line up of empty Château Lafite bottles and the back of the room featured a stylish back-lit wine display.

A few minutes later an appetiser of pumpkin, blue cheese and walnut soup was served. It set the tone for the rest of the meal: seasonal ingredients, pure flavours and interesting textures. The chef's light touch and confidence were clear from the outset. The mouthwatering acidity and lush grapefruit aromas of our first wine, Wittman Scheurebe Trocken 2008 (Rheinhessen), complemented the fresh, yet gently complex flavours of the food.

The first course of autumn vegetables with pickled celeriac infusion and hazelnuts continued to demonstrate that you don't need to use deluxe ingredients to impress (and NOT seeing the usual expensive suspects on a menu made this seem much more interesting and exciting). Served in a bowl, this wasn't so far removed from a stylish, refined vichyssoise and, although creamy, it was delicately balanced and well textured (yes, that word again). With this dish the Scheurebe helped underscore the fresh earthiness and poise of the dish.

The second course of boned English quail (chargrilled with sweetcorn, bacon popcorn and red wine essence) was quite a dainty dish with a range of complex flavours and textures, but with nothing overwhelming or dominant. This subtle treatment of food allows great wines to articulate themselves and integrate, rather than stand alone as an almost separate experience. The ripe, supple, slightly earthy Domaine Drouhin Pinot Noir 2007 (Willamette) was an elegant foil to the dish.

The third course of Cornish monkfish with Jerusalem artichoke textures followed. Domaine Ostertag Heissenberg Riesling 2006 and Niepoort Redoma 2007 (Douro) were both poured with this dish and the sommelier explained how much they wanted to hear our views on the two choices and this led to an interesting chat once we'd tasted them. We felt the white Douro had a more restrained style with nicely lifted acidity that worked better with the earthy flavours of the dish and had a fresh, seasoning effect on the meaty fish. The Riesling, despite being a magnificent wine, had too big a presence (dry, yet rich and deeply yellow in colour – generous botrytis?) and was a touch cloying.

The main course of beef rib eye, chargrilled and served with ox cheek, horseradish and olive oil béarnaise was a fabulous dish for meat lovers. Here were two contrasting cuts and cooking techniques – both were equally complex tasting and melted in the mouth. Again, you are impressed by the skill of the chef who allows all the key components, as well as the wine, to sing out in equal measure. It is cooking of the highest order. The Domaine Richeaume Cuvée Traditionelle 2007 (Côtes de Provence), a Cabernet-Syrah blend, was excellent alongside it, with gently spicy fruit, supple balance and enough tannic grip to cope with the meat. The wine's Mediterranean ripeness picked up the olive oil in the sauce, but there was still enough earthiness to balance the heat of the horseradish.

After a palate-cleansing sorbet, spectacularly served over bowls of dry ice, our dinner reached its conclusion with mango and pineapple soup with lemongrass, basil and olive oil. We also detected a strong presence of lime (Opal Fruits-strength) which, unfortunately, did unbalance the flavours of the dish. The final thoughtfully selected wine was Clos Lapeyre La Magendia 2005 (Jurançon) with complex mineral fruit, fresh acidity and just enough sweetness to match, rather than smother the mango and pineapple.

Even the petits fours were impressive and memorable and, in case you needed a pick-me-up at the end of the meal, included a fun sinus-clearing little meringue flavoured with Fisherman's Friend.

We left Texture completely bowled over and fantasising about our next visit (funds permitting).

34 Portman Street
London W1H 7BY
Tel 020 7224 0028

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Polpo and a glimpse (and taste) of real Venice

Venice isn't particularly renowned for its food and it certainly isn't what draws people to the city (although everyone should visit the Rialto market – see pictures). Visitors might have enjoyable memories of the local fizz, Prosecco and, of course, Bellinis but they probably have less favourable experiences in many of the city's overpriced and unremarkable restaurants. BUT (and this is a very big but) scratch the surface of Venice and you will come across café/winebars called bacari. Traditionally, Venetians visit them for a quick glass of wine or a coffee and to snack on a few cicheti (a sort of Italian tapas), often leaving after several minutes to go on to the next bacari. They are a godsend to visitors as, not only do they offer a rare glimpse of authentic Venice but, unlike so much here, you don't leave feeling completely fleeced.

Bacari have been the inspiration for the recently opened Polpo in London's Soho. The premises have been home to many restaurants over the years and I had a sense of déjà vu when I recently met up with a friend to try it out. She was slightly delayed and I was very comfortable sitting, waiting for her with a newspaper, bread and olive oil and some refreshing Trebbiano-Garganega from their selection of mainly northern Italian wines. About half the wines are also available in quarter-litre and half-litre carafes to allow for some experimentation.

Once my friend arrived we homed in on the tasty selection of crostini and cicheti before sharing a couple of main courses and some vegetable dishes. These were all very tasty, but the melt-in-the-mouth octopus salad really stood out (as it should, given the name of the place). Even with a couple of puddings and more wine, our bill came to about £30 per head. There were a couple of problems: the noise level is high, particularly as they have unnecessary background music. There was also too much thickly sliced toasted ciabatta bread. They helpfully found me something more delicate to accompany my pear and gorgonzola, as my gums had started to get quite sore by the end of the meal. Gripes aside, Polpo is well worth a visit for a great value, buzzy evening in the heart of London. Perfect pre- or post-theatre as long as you don't have to wait too long as bookings aren't taken.

Back to Venice – good examples of the real thing can be found in little backstreets behind the Rialto market in the San Polo district and near the Ca' d'Oro (Cannaregio). Al Bottegon (Dorsoduro), with its pretty location overlooking the San Trovaso canal, stands out in my mind as it doubles as a wine shop. Happy memories.

41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Julie and Julia: a film for food lovers

Earlier this week I went to see the film Julie and Julia. I loved it and, if you like food, you'll probably love it, too. As a Brit, it didn't matter that I was only loosely aware of Julia Child or that there was no mention of Elizabeth David who was just as influential. It is warm, gentle and thoroughly entertaining and reveals the powerful role food can play in people's lives; as someone who has adored cooking since the age of seven, I was captivated from beginning to end.

The film portrays two food-obsessed women. Julia Child's passion is fired when her diplomat husband's work takes them to Paris. Via hatmaking and other hobbies, she settles on cookery, studying at the Cordon Bleu school. Half a century later in New York, failed novelist Julie Powell realises that her enthusiasm for cookery compensates for the deficiencies of her job in a insurance company. The two women's stories are brought together by Julie's decision to try every recipe of Julia's book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking and document her experiences in a blog.

There are a number of memorable scenes depicting both women sharing their creations with their husbands and friends (and seeing Meryl Streep's Julia Child enjoying Parisian restaurants and food shops and markets for the first time is priceless). The film demonstrates just how pleasurable and therapeutic cooking can be and how it is a tool for expressing love.

In our materialistic, yet economically challenged world, reflecting on these simpler pleasures helps remind us what really matters. This delightful film shows how mood enhancing some time in the kitchen can be, whether Julia Child in Paris or Cambridge, Massachusetts or Julie Powell in Queens (or Lucy in London). Bon appetit!

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Miscarriage: no justice

As a passionate lover of food and wine and someone whose thoughts are always on their next meal, pregnancy throws a big spanner in the works. While pregnant with my three-year-old daughter Alice I felt as though I'd been hijacked. The ongoing queasiness of my mild morning sickness put me off most food (baked potatoes with cottage cheese became a staple) and I didn't want to think about wine; attending wine tastings and events professionally felt quite surreal. I didn't even enjoy reading about it. Actually, this was all quite helpful given the long list of official recommendations of what mums-to-be should avoid consuming.

Food and wine play and enormous role in my life professionally, socially and domestically. Early in 2008 we started trying for a second child and, so far, I have had two miscarriages in just over a year. As a woman trying for a child, your months work like this: during your period you relax and eat and drink what you like. As the month goes on and you think you might be pregnant, you start being a 'good girl' and become aware of what you are drinking and keep the intake moderate. At the end of your cycle either your next period comes and you're back to eating and drinking as normal or, in the absence of a period, you lay off booze completely and start cooking all your meat thoroughly, avoid certain cheeses etc etc.

With miscarriages, on a practical level this process is infuriating (aside from all the emotional issues). Before having my first miscarriage, I didn't feel remotely pregnant, so a huge effort was required to stay on the straight and narrow food and drink-wise. The latest one (this summer) was easier as I did feel pregnant and had the familiar queasiness and desire for bland starchy food. Just as you begin to accept your new routine a couple of months into the pregnancy, bam, you discover you've lost the baby. For me, this involves visits to University College Hospital in London and each time I come away with not just the sad news but some tasty treats I'd hitherto been denied. Last month I was consoled by some delicious sushi from a Japanese take-away conveniently located just across Tottenham Court Road from the hospital. That evening I enjoyed it with a strong gin and tonic before a supper of steak and kidney pie and a rich, ripe red wine. Since then I've been partial to juicy steaks, prosciutto, pâtés and unpasteurised cheese (and, yes, some rather special bottles of wine), although even this was interrupted by a week on some powerful antibiotics that apparently would have made me nauseous if I'd drunk any alcohol. How I resented having that silver lining dented.

So, here I am back at square one. We'll see what the future holds, but I don't relish the idea of having to keep repeating the first few weeks of pregnancy, both emotionally and gastronomically. For now, though, cheers and bon appetit!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

O'Shea's: carnivore's paradise in Knightsbridge

A recent visit to the V & A gave me a good excuse to visit some interesting sounding butchers just off Brompton Road. I'd first heard of these butchers (and got a glimpse of their gorgeous shop) on a Heston Blumenthal tv programme when he was comparing cuts of beef to create the ultimate burger.

O'Shea's specialises in beef sourced from Black Angus cattle in southwest Ireland. A vast range of steak is available, including onglet, pope's eye, the triangular picanha cut, as well as the usual classics. The beef is dry aged for between 28 and 65 days and in the shop it's fascinating seeing how the appearance of the meat changes according to the ageing. An imposing rib joint aged for 65 days looked magnificent, a world away from the bright red, watery offerings on supermarket shelves. On our visit, they had a particular speciality in stock, (rose) veal bavette. This was exquisite when we enjoyed it a couple of weekends later, well seasoned with salt and pepper and simply fried; complex, tender, enlivened by a dab of Dijon mustard and deliciously partnered by a bottle of ripe, spicy, muscular Lirac from the southern Rhône.

I also bought sausages from a broad range. Ours were Italian in style, flavoured with fennel and very tasty and meaty. I was also tempted by some lamb chops. Like the beef, this was deliciously satisfying and almost melted in the mouth. What's more, these were a decent size so we only needed one each. With a bottle of claret, this was an elegant, yet easy little supper.

A visit to this shop reminds you of what shopping really should be about – beautifully presented high quality produce and welcoming, informative staff. Really special.

O'Shea's of Knightsbridge
11 Montpelier Street
London SW7 1EX
Tel 020 7581 7771

Saturday, 26 September 2009

La Beaugravière: an exquisite taste of the Rhône

Ever since visiting this restaurant with rooms deep in the Rhône valley, it's played on my mind in a dreamlike way. Does it really exist? Was I actually there? I still have their business card and my receipt, so I know it wasn't a dream (and I know how much it cost!).

La Beaugravière is a rare, totally genuine, unpretentious place on the outskirts of an unremarkable little town near Montélimar, about halfway down the Rhône valley. Run by a couple close to retirement age, this attractive building has a simple dining room typical of many provincial French restaurants and, certainly on my visit, three slightly shabby hotel rooms. But, to lovers of Rhône wines and regional cuisine (especially truffles when in season), it takes on a hallowed status.

I have just been reminded of La Beaugravière as, reportedly, on a recent visit to the restaurant, a particularly influential American wine critic selected some surprisingly young and modest bottles, given the extraordinary gems tenderly amassed in the cellar. As La Beaugravière has been a long-standing favourite of many Rhône producers, almost every imaginable great name and vintage is present. As I was there on a freezing cold, dark January evening (during the truffle season), not only was I able to enjoy the truffle set menu, but also some spectacular wines. We treated ourselves to Château Rayas Châteauneuf du Pâpe Blanc 1989 and Chave Hermitage 1991 which partnered the food beautifully, both bottles in immaculate condition, quietly singing in complex, mellow tones, in harmony with the deliciously fragranced, earthy food. No surprise, then, that I've been haunted by the memory ever since (and hope the owners keep postponing that retirement).

(Visited January 2004)

Restaurant La Beaugravière
RN 7, 84430 Mondragon
Tel + 33 4 90 40 82 54 (the website shows it has been spruced up since my visit)

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Bull and Last

On a beautiful spring evening four of us were keen to try out what sounded like another good local gastropub, delightfully situated on Hampstead Heath. The pub changed hands last year and was taken over by Etive Pubs who also own the Prince of Wales in Putney. What’s encouraging from the start is that there is a blackboard above the bar listing some interesting food suppliers that include Mary Holbrook (cheese, British Lop pigs and kid), Rushbury House Farm in Gloucestershire for beef and Colchester Oyster fishery in East Mersea. It also raises expectations.

As it was a weekday, we were seated at a table in the main part of the bar (busy and noisy). Apparently they don’t use the upstairs dining room until the weekends – something I’ll bear in mind for next time as I take a while to adapt to noisy environments. The service was friendly and attentive. For starters the others ordered potted mackerel, crab toast, celeriac and wild garlic soup and I had the homemade charcuterie board. It was difficult to fault any of this. The servings are generous – admittedly mine was the priciest at £10, but it was shared around the table and would be ideal for two. The potted mackerel was keenly balanced between the oily richness of the fish and refreshing lemon, pickled beetroot provide further lift. The modestly named crab toast was, in fact, a slice of sourdough toast topped with a luxurious pile of dressed crab. Very decadent. The deliciously seasonal soup was served with mace butter and hazelnuts and my charcuterie included delicacies such as duck proscuitto and a very tasty cube of deep-fried lamb breast, enlivened by side portion of tangy pickles. To accompany this lot, we selected a bottle of Godello from Galicia in Spain – sufficiently clean, fresh and aromatic, yet with some creamy richness and weight. It worked very well.

Our main courses were skate with purple sprouting broccoli, almonds, shrimps, brown butter and capers; beer battered haddock with pea puree, chips (fabulous big wedges, triple fried) and tartare sauce; hare cannelloni with oakleaf, capers, raddichio and hazelnut salad and English rose veal, beef ragu, creamed spinach and crispy potatoes. And we had moved on to a versatile bottle of ripe, juicy Vin de Pays du Gard Syrah-Grenache. We were all very impressed and felt that, compared with other local hostelries, they were going the extra mile, serving food that was clearly a step up from, for example, The Junction – and this is no criticism of them. The prices are all a couple of pounds or so higher at The Bull and Last and justifiably so. For the sake of research, although we didn’t need it, to finish the meal, we shared a couple of portions of home-made Ferrero Rocher ice-cream which, despite sounding a bit pikey, was gorgeous!

The wine list is clearly laid out and includes some smart looking ciders as well as keenly selected varied wines, most of which under £30 a bottle. Furthermore, several wines are available by the glass or 375ml carafe. There are also several sweet wines and ports by the glass and, being a very decent pub, a great range of beers. My only gripe was that, given the tasty range of bar snacks and olives on offer, no sherries are served.

Our bill came to about £40 per head without service, but you could be much more restrained than we were! The informal nature of the place also means that you could just come in for a drink and some nibbles (eg the amazing chips) – lots of options. We had a super evening and will definitely return. Apparently, they will also be offering picnic hampers for the Heath.
(Visited April 2009)

168 Highgate Road, London NW5 1QS; tel 020 7267 3641

Square Meal
Bull & Last on Urbanspoon

500 Cinquecento

I’d heard some good things about this local Italian restaurant, just down from Archway. The owners, chef Mario Magli and manager Giorgio Pili, met while working Antonio Carluccio’s Neal Street Restaurant and went on to work at Passione in Charlotte Street. Magli also had a spell at Jamie Oliver’s 15.

At 8pm on a Tuesday the restaurant was almost full and buzzy. It is a simply decorated room that does get fairly noisy (bare tables, no curtains etc to absorb the clatter and chat). The service is efficient and helpful and an assortment of superb home-made bread quickly arrived at the table. The menu spoils you for choice as there is a tempting selection of anti-pasti/appetisers, followed by pasta dishes in starter and main course sizes, delicious looking main courses and some ‘specials’. We selected the Tagliere 500 from the specials, a mixed platter of cured meats, cheese, pâté, assorted vegetables, a tiny dish of leek and potato soup and something lovely with crab. We also couldn’t resist the sound of the deep fried ravioli filled with provola cheese and mint (Raviolo ripieno di provola e menta) so we ordered what we expected to be one each and ended up with four per portion!

We were already feeling quite full when the main courses arrived. My friend’s ravioli filled with duck served with a butter and cinnamon sauce (Ravioli ripieni di anatra con salsa di burro e canella) was a beautiful dish: silky pasta encasing tender duck seasoned with a touch of orange and the sauce was rich yet balanced. My gnocchi with braised leeks (Gnocchi di patate con porri) had a featherlight texture and the leeks had complex caramelized overtones. Very very good! Some of the portions are very generous – I couldn’t finish my gnocchi and they kindly let me have a doggy bag!

Somehow we found space for puddings and concluded our meal with Panna cotta with pistachios served with a strawberry sauce and Semifreddo al torrone (nougat ice cream) which was topped with crushed hazelnut and served with a chocolate sauce. The dessert menu also suggests a sweet wine to accompany each dish – also difficult to resist as the recommendations read so well.

A couple of points about the wines: there is an excellent selection by the glass starting at just over £2 and the main wine list offers a broad range of Italian wines with a quite a few bottles under £20.

We were thoroughly impressed. The cooking is of a very high standard and 500 offers great value for money. Including wine and tip (service is not included), our meal came to just over £70 and could have been considerably less. A quick supper of some pasta and a spot of wine needn’t come to any more than £15, but do try to spoil yourselves a bit more if it’s your first visit – local restaurants don’t come much better than this. Booking is essential.
(Visited January 2009)

782 Holloway Road, London N19 3JH; tel 020 7272 3406
(Apparently, the name is inspired by the iconic tiny car by Fiat.)

Square Meal

York and Albany

At the top of Parkway, opposite Regents park, this imposing but previously neglected Nash building has been renovated and transformed into an up-market bar, restaurant and deli.
I was delighted to hear about the renaissance of this landmark and couldn’t wait to try it out. However, I have to admit that I’m not the greatest fan of Gordon Ramsay: although his smarter restaurants are slickly run, they lack the touch of magic or alchemy that really excites me and I find his approach leans towards the safe and commercial. That said, Ramsay has some great people working for him and his standards are high. Jason Atherton at Maze and Angela Hartnett are exceptional chefs who cook with real flair and it is the latter who oversees the kitchen at the York & Albany.
Anyway, on the wintry evening of our visit, we were struck by how elegant, warm and relaxed the place was and ordered cocktails at the bar from a varied and fairly priced list. (There is a particularly tempting ‘after dinner’ section including the delectable sounding ‘lemon meringue martini’.) As we were running a little late, we moved through to the restaurant and placed our order. The service was friendly, informative and efficient, and almost instantly a generous wooden platter of Italian meats and sausage appeared as an appetizer. To begin, my husband ordered game ‘mosaic’ (terrine) with toasted sourdough and I went for the fried duck’s egg with field mushrooms, Jerusalem artichoke and Parmesan. For the main course we settled on a shared roasted corn-fed chicken with bread sauce and seasonal root vegetables. The starters were excellent, particularly my duck’s egg, which was an inspired medley of autumn flavours with a generous drizzle of truffle oil. Our roast chicken was comforting and satisfying – simply prepared, allowing good, intense flavours to shine through. The menu as a whole was very tempting and offered lots of seasonal British ingredients, many prepared with a stylish Italian twist. The wine list has a reasonable selection of bottles under £30 and includes several wines available by the glass and 50cl carafes. Our carafe of ripe, yet supple Vin de Pays d’Oc Rouge was a versatile choice.
We thoroughly enjoyed our evening, finishing off our wine back in the bar in deep, comfy chairs. What’s more, we were pleasantly surprised when our bill for the two courses (including wine and cocktails) came in at under £100.
I have since been back twice for drinks and been equally impressed (and reassured seeing Hartnett herself at the helm in the kitchen). The place is ‘grown-up’ and combines a sense of occasion with sleek, relaxed professionalism – more Manhattan than London. Highly recommended.
(Visited November 2008)
127–129 Parkway, London NW1 7PS; tel 020 7388 3344

Square Meal

York & Albany on Urbanspoon

Le Ribouldingue (Paris)

This restaurant really caught my eye as it specialises in offal and other off-cuts. We ate ravioli of pig's trotter and ear with a light, foaming foie gras sauce and lamb's tongue salad. Our main courses were veal kidney poêlé and a suberb ox cheek dish – like the best casseroled beef you've ever had! We kept things simple (as our blowout at Senderens was to follow the next evening – see separate review) and stuck to a bottle of nicely maturing, farmyardy Côtes de Provence red which went excellently with the earthy flavours and strange textures of the food. I can't remember Nathan's pudding because I was so blown away by the 'special' – pain perdu with caramel and fleur de sel ice cream. Exquisite!

(Visited November 2007)

10, Rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre; 75005 Paris

Senderens (Paris)

Our meal at Senderens began with an amuse-bouche of pumpkin purée which had a sprinkling of crunchy grains of rice fluffed up like 'rice crispies'. The first glass of wine included in the 'menu dégustation' hadn’t arrived at this point, but the elegant soup was satisfying enough on its own.

The first course (scallops with ravioli of swiss chard, foam of Jerusalem artichoke, served with a finger of toast with caper butter and thin slices of raw chestnuts) was accompanied by Côtes de Provence, Domaine Pinchinat 2006 (Rolle and Clairette). The wine’s 'mineralité saline', as described in the menu notes, was a pleasing match for the scallop and had enough breadth of fruit, floral notes and fresh acidity to handle the range of flavours and textures of the dish (even the slightly tangy, crunchy raw chestnuts). This versatile wine might also have worked nicely with the amuse-bouche.

The second course (roasted foie gras with a salad of fresh figs, powdered liquorice and slivers of almond) was served with Porto Rozès White Reserve which had been aged in oak for seven years in a 'tawny' style. This was an interesting and daring partnership – the semi-sweet, spiciness of the port working well with the foie gras, fruit and medicinal spice (on the corner of the plate into which you dip the liver). The broad texture of the port stood up to the richness of the dish, but the alcohol was a little too warm and dominant. About halfway through our meal the sommelier asked us what we thought of the wines chosen for the set menu and agreed that the port might have been a touch too overwhelming, particularly as the foie gras was roasted and then cut into slices, so not as caramelised as it might otherwise have been. He did seem genuinely interested in what we thought, something you wouldn’t necessarily expect in such a 'destination' restaurant.

The main course was roast Spanish milk-fed lamb with pequillo peppers and 'cocos de Paimpol'. The meat was served in three ways – quickly cooked for a pink and juicy result, meltingly slow-cooked and tender and, thirdly, the pepper had been stuffed with loosely minced lamb. The dish had been garnished with fine crispy slices of garlic with a puffed texture like 'Quaver' snacks, and deglazed pan juices were poured over the lamb at the table. Gauby’s Côtes de Roussillon Villages 'Les Calcinaires' 2006 was a particularly successful match. This blend of Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah is a sleek, polished wine with layers of complex dark fruit, spice and stony minerality. These aromas and the wine’s intensity and length were delicious alongside the lamb (slightly sweet), pepper, garlic and creamy beans. The elegant structure of the wine, with its fine-grained tannins and freshly balanced acidity worked seamlessly with the lamb’s delicate texture and slight fattiness.
Our little pre-dessert was iced curry mousse with a thin slice of chocolate: a gently spicy 'pick-me-up' that we enjoyed with a few more sips of the white port that we had left over from earlier on.

The spicy theme continued with the dessert proper – Szechuan pepper meringue served with crystallised lemon marmalade and ginger ice cream. This kaleidoscope of distinct, bold flavours and textures was enthusiastically embraced by Sauternes Doisy Daëne 2002, with its rich, waxy texture, luscious candied fruit and spicy vanilla oak.
We also really enjoyed finishing off the Sauternes with the petits fours and it was particularly mouth-watering with some pink grapefruit dipped in white chocolate: a memorable conclusion to a delicious meal in a very stylish restaurant that seemed to really care.

(Visited November 2007)

Menu 150 Euros incl wines
Menu 110 Euros excl wines

9 Place de la Madeleine; 75008 Paris; tel +33 (0) 1 42 65 22 90
This review also appears on

Drinking with take-aways

Just because you're having a take-away doesn't mean you can't have something decent to drink with it. Here are a few suggestions.

Classic choice: beer – thirst quenching, refreshing and versatile. Good wine options include ripe, fruity, moderately tannic reds (eg Chilean Merlot, South African Pinotage, Californian Zinfandel). These wines have enough flavour to stand up to strongly flavoured food, but are still fairly gentle on the palate; for some reason, heavy, dry tannins really accentuate spiciness (and not in a good way). Fruity whites or rosés also work well: refreshing, easy to drink and able to cope with a range of flavours and textures. Off-dry or slightly sweet wines can be surprisingly good with spicy food to offset the heat. 

Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese
I've grouped these together as often they all include a combination of sweet, sour and spicy flavours, although Chinese can be a bit more fatty. Some delicate Chinese cuisine and dim sum could warrant some decent Champagne (see Japanese below) but, otherwise, refreshing, dry, aromatic, unoaked white wines such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Austrian Grüner Veltliner fit the bill. Off-dry Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris also work, but might get a bit cloying with rich or fried food. There's always chilled lager for spicier dishes, and China tea as a non-alcoholic option. If I'm not drinking wine, I really enjoy ginger and lemongrass cordial with Oriental food.

Classic choice: sake (rice wine), although it’s a bit of an acquired taste. For delicately flavoured dishes eg sashimi and sushi equally subtle wines: blanc de blancs Champagne (as it’s only made from white grapes ie Chardonnay). Unoaked, neutral, restrained whites: Muscadet, Chablis, northern Italian whites (eg Soave, Gavi) and modern Spanish whites (eg Rias Baixas) should also help enhance the purity of the food. For more oomph to counter wasabi, try Australian or New Zealand dry Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc. Soft, round, fruity reds (see above) are a good choice for spicier dishes such as anything with a teriyaki marinade.

Classic choice: Italian reds eg Chianti, Valpolicella, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. If these aren’t available, try something that also has good acidity and a slight rustic touch, such as red Loire (Saumur, Chinon), Pinot Noir (ideally lower level or inexpensive Burgundy) and Portuguese reds would all help tackle the oiliness of the melted cheese (and meat/sausage).

Fish and chips
At times I consider fish and chips such a treat that I’ll happily have it with a bottle of something sparkling which, being refreshingly acidic, cuts through the fat beautifully (Cava, Prosecco and beyond according to your budget). Unoaked, crisp, citrussy white wines perform a similar role (eg lean Loire Sauvignon Blanc or Chenin Blanc; northern Italian or even English whites). A delicious choice of beer would be a fresh, lemony weissbier/wheat-beer such as Hoegaarden.

Yes, I know these are generally consumed AFTER drinking, but if you’re calmly enjoying kebabs at home, why not try to get some tasty, characterful Greek wine to continue the Mediterranean mood (Oddbins and Waitrose)? If not, southern Italy and Spain would do the trick – reds and whites. Rosé might also help remind you of holidays. Otherwise, you could always get the beers in…

Take-aways: what I love about them

I love food and I'm quite greedy so, of course, take-aways can be very appealing. I'm only human! But, as someone who loves cooking (and who is married to someone who also loves cooking), we get a bit choosy about about take-aways and when we do treat outselves to a take-away, it's usually something we wouldn't attempt to cook. Here are a couple of our favourites:

Firezza Pizza
This small pizza chain has two local outlets (St Paul’s Road, Islington and Crouch End). I’ve been a devoted customer for several years now as used to live down the road from the Islington branch. What makes Firezza so special is that they use traditional wood-fired ovens – resulting in a thin and deliciously smoky pizza base. What’s more, the ingredients used for the toppings are top-notch and the menu is completely mouth-watering. The pizzas are served by length, a half-metre being the minimum order which can be made up of two toppings. This is about the same as two 12” round pizzas, but better value (although 12” round pizzas are available). A little bit confusing, but worth getting your head around as the pizzas are sensational. The menu also includes some really tasty veggie options (especially the Vegetali which features wood-roasted aubergines) and some tempting side dishes and salads. There are also some desserts if you think you’ll have space. (We’ve never needed them as we almost always over-order and enjoy our leftover pizzas reheated for lunch the next day.) Firezza’s delivery service also includes wine, beers and San Pellegrino water and decent soft drinks (and even cigarettes for you naughty smokers); a number of different offers and deals are available on the website.

Blue Sea Fish Bar
This is over on the western side of Kentish Town, but it’s well worth the short drive or cycle as Tufnell Park lacks a proper old style chippy. The Blue Sea clearly has a loyal following judging by the queues for the fried-to-order fish served up by two very friendly and chatty brothers. I’m afraid I’m partial to roe and mushy peas, as well as battered fish, but you can go easy on the chips here. One large portion should be plenty enough for two people (particularly if you, too, like all the ‘extras’). The fish comes in quite a light, crisp batter encasing moist, tender, flaking flesh, and you can choose from a good selection (although it’s worth asking what they recommend that particular day). The chips are fairly big, but crisp and, like the fish, will have been freshly fried. The popularity of the place does ensure a good turnover of food, so nothing seems to have been sitting around for long. A really indulgent classic supper.
143 Queens Crescent, NW5 4ED; tel 020 7267 2299

Take-aways: what I hate about them

Here in north London, like so many towns in the UK, we are overwhelmed by fast food outlets and it makes my blood boil seeing how many are clustered around local schools preying on hungry teenagers (councils really need to do something about this). So much of this food is morbidly fatty and made with frighteningly cheap and manipulated ingredients (KFC anyone?) What's more, most people don't seem to realise that fast food is an expensive meal option compared with cooking from scratch. And it's not even that fast. A five-minute walk (or drive) there and back, a bit of a wait for your food (considerable longer if you're ordered over the phone from Pizza Hut or your local Indian which could be half an hour or so): you could cook some pasta and serve with pesto, tinned sardines or tomato sauce in less time and it won't cost anything like as much. So there!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

The joys of self-catering in France 2: Loire

I have such a soft-spot for the Loire Valley. I first went there as an exchange student in my early teens and a few years later spent a year in Tours while doing my French degree. This year, for the second year running we stayed just south of Doué la Fontaine, near Le Puy Nôtre Dame (about half an hour from Saumur). The Layon river is only a few miles away, meandering in a loosely north-westerly direction towards Angers. The wine routes are well worth following to explore these pretty valleys and historic towns. We were actually staying in the Saumur AOC, with a number of local producers offering great value wines: dry whites, reds, off-dry and sweet whites and sparkling. A mixed case or two from a producer such as Château Beauregard in Le Puy Nôtre Dame would see you nicely through your stay (although expect to give your French a bit of a workout here with the chatty proprietor, Alain Gourdon). This estate is on the edge of the town and, as the name suggests, the view is beautiful. The Cave de Saumur in St Cyr-en-Bourg also offers an excellent range at good prices and has tours around their extensive cellars. Their range also includes some supple tasty Saumur-Champigny (and wine boxes - easily slotted into the car and useful for everyday drinking). This is on a another scenic wine route that takes you much closer to the Loire river. For some age-worthy wines from our daughter's birth year 2006, we also visited Château de Villeneuve (Souzay-Champigny; pictured above) for finely structured, concentrated Saumur-Champigny and Saumur Blanc and, in Chinon, Bernard Baudry (Cravant-les-Coteaux) for some of their elegant, expressive wines (with beguiling salty minerality).

We kept our food shopping quite simple and local, using small shops as well as the comprehensively stocked Super U on the outskirts of Doué la Fontaine and the town's Monday market. A little further away on the western side of Saumur there is an enormous Leclerc that also has a useful child-friendly restaurant. Our supermarket purchases included Loué free-range chicken, onglet steak, veal chops and, for easy lunches, cheeses and tubs of rillettes. We also stock up on Bonne Maman jams (the complex tasting Myrtilles Sauvages being our favourite). Decent boulangeries are close by in Le Puy Notre Dame and Les Verchers sur Layon. The best one we came across, though, was in Chinon, offering bread in all styles, pastries and exquisite tarts which we enjoyed for lunch, sitting alongside the Vienne river. We had three savoury tarts: smoked salmon and chives, goat's cheese and one in a quiche lorraine style using rillons (flavoursome chunky lardons – a Touraine speciality), all with light, puff pastry cases. Completely luxurious (if a little messy!).

Just a final note about wines from the Anjou and Touraine stretch of the Loire and their food-friendliness. Both red and dry white wines have restrained fruit and notably fresh acidity allowing them to partner a wide range of food without ever dominating; the grapes Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc have naturally low pH levels. Oak rarely features in these wines (only in some reds) which really boosts their versatility (and drinkability). They are a particularly good foil to fatty foods, such as local charcuterie. I love the firm tannic structure of young, juicy Cabernet Franc with grilled steak or lamb. After several years' ageing, the complex aromas and silkiness of a maturing Chinon or Bourgueil would be perfect with game or roast beef and delicious with duck. Complex, mineral dry whites such as Vouvray, Savennières, Saumur or Anjou Blanc (eg from Pierre-Bise in Beaulieu sur Layon) are superb with simply cooked fish. We had a particularly memorably meal of baked trout with a bottle of Château Villeneuve's Les Cormiers 2006. As for the heavenly late-picked sweet wines that can age almost eternally, I'd be tempted to sip them before or after a meal – either as an aperitif or instead of pudding. That's if I can be persuaded to open a bottle, although life's too short to keep putting off drinking special bottles. Where's that corkscrew...?

Thursday, 9 July 2009

The joys of self-catering in France 1: Roussillon

For the past couple of years our family holidays have combined the hot, sunny Mediterranean coast with the lush and watery expanses of the Loire Valley. Quite frankly, this is the best of both worlds. Self-catering might sound a bit dreary (and hard work) but, for food obsessives like me, it's the perfect choice of holiday as it allows you to be in control of precisely what you eat (and drink) and when. It also gives you the excuse to a lot of food shopping - bliss! Furthermore, with a toddler in tow, once she has gone to bed, we can have a relaxing evening on our own terms, in our own space - something that's much more difficult in a hotel.

Both these locations have so much to offer foodies. St Cyprien is in Roussillon (Catalan France), where the local specialities encompass local fish and seafood (notably anchovies and sardines), mountain honey and cheese (from the nearby Pyrenees), *abundant fruit and vegetables (peaches, apricots, cherries - the local town of Ceret is the 'cherry capital' of France and has an annual cherry festival). What's more, this corner of France is currently one of the most exciting wine regions in Europe. You might have heard of the fortified sweet wines of Banyuls and Rivesaltes and the deep reds of Collioure, but this hot, dry region produces reds, whites and rosés from a broad palette of grape varieties. For easy drinking we buy from our most local producer, Domaine de l'Esparrou near Canet who produces prize-winning rich, spicy Côtes du Roussillon and Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalans reds and rosés and a delicious fragrant Muscat Sec (all of which we are continuing to enjoy back in London from the wine boxes 'fontaines à vin' we brought home with us). For more serious drinking, favourites include Gauby (Calce) and Le Clos des Paulilles (Port Vendres). Gauby is possibly the region's most exciting producer - extraordinary, intense, complex reds and whites (Côtes du Roussillon Villages and Vin de Pays des Coteaux Catalans). Clos des Paulilles makes powerful red and white Collioure and fortifieds labelled as Banyuls. They also have an charming outdoor restaurant where you can be soothed by the gentle lapping of the waves while you eat: they are right on the coast. Since we visited in 2008, they have converted some outbuildings into rather stylish looking accommodation. Delightful place.
* Farm shops are handy for local seasonal produce and are often well sign-posted. We use the one in nearby Taxo (which also has an impressive wine selection) and St Cyprien has a comprehensive market on Tuesdays and Fridays.

The house we use in St Cyprien has an outdoor kitchen with a large built-in barbecue. This is the perfect environment for my some of my favourite Mediterrean dishes, grilled fish and seafood, perhaps with a drizzle of olive oil and some lemon juice (and glass after glass of local wine). In this instance, sardines - always unbelievably good value, bread, salad, chilled rosé and great company. If we fancy something after all that, we might nibble some Pyrenean sheep's cheese (Ossau Iraty or Brébis) with some cherries. Heaven!

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Au Coeur de Meaulne

I'm just back from two superb weeks in France. The weather was gloriously hot and sunny both on the Roussillon coast and in the Loire Valley.

To break our outward journey, we stayed overnight in a small town called Meaulne near the Tronçais forest in the Auvergne (source of some of the best oak used for wine barrels). This turned out to be a real treat.

Au Coeur de Meaulne is a member of the Logis de France group and is run by a Swiss couple, Karin and Patrick Rajkowski. He, clearly, is a very fine chef (as we were to discover) and she runs front of house helpfully and efficiently. Sitting outside on a shaded terrace, looking across their large garden towards the surrounding forests and listening to the birdsong, we selected the 28 Euro menu (mid-priced option). Firstly little appetisers of mini gougères (cheese puffs) and succulent olives were served and we went on to have a starter of smoked duck breast with a carrot cake made in the style of pain perdu. This came with papaya chutney and tiny balsamic onions and was a really interesting, delicious dish. The main course was grilled scallops with fillets of sea bream with a taboulé of quinoa and dried tomatoes. The scallops had been subtly scented with citronella ('citronelle') and the dish came with a drizzle of sauce made with local sparkling wine flavoured with a hint of saffron. Light and refreshing – delicious summery food. A very comprehensive, well selected cheese board followed – eight large portions including a deeply satisfying, complex, aged gruyère. This was such a generous course that we didn't then need dessert, particularly as some gorgeous petit fours were served with the coffee. The wine list covers a range of French classics: Bordeaux, Burgundy, along with some enticing bottles from around Sancerre (which is quite close by), but we keen to try some local wines from the Auvergne. We had glasses of St Pourcain rosé (good with the duck) and then St Pourcain white with the main course. Both were quite rustic and interesting to taste in a quirky way, but didn't really work with such sophisticated food. We played it safer with the cheeses and had some red Sancerre – refreshing and silky.

We had a good night's rest in our comfortable, well appointed room and were then equally impressed by the breakfast buffet selection, although it was restricted to a dining room, rather than being able to enjoy the lovely terrace again. We tucked into cheeses, cold meats, compotes made from local fruit, breads, pastries, home made (heart-shaped) cake, excellent coffee.

It's a bit more expensive than some Logis hotels (rooms approx 50–70 Euros; menus 20–40 Euros), but well worth considering if you need a restful overnight stop and great food near the A71 autoroute (between junctions 8 and 9). It's also very family friendly. Highly recommended.