Saturday, 26 June 2010

Taste of London

Last weekend we attended the brilliant Taste of London Festival, held in Regent's Park.

Now in its seventh year, the event brings together some of the capital's best restaurants, each offering a limited menu of 3 or 4 sample sized signature dishes. Described as an open air "pop-up" restaurant festival, it's a great concept that showcases some of the best food that London has to offer. Brought together in one location, Taste of London provides a great opportunity to try the cuisine from some of the top restaurants in the city.

About 40 establishments took part, the full list of whom can be found on the website, but to name-drop a few: Bentley's Oyster Bar & Grill (Richard Corrigan) Launceston place (Trisatn Welch), The Cinnamon Club ( Vivek Singh), Benares (Atul Kochhar), Le Gavroche (Michel Roux Jr.), Maze and York & Albany (both part of Gordon Ramsay's empire), Odette's (Bryn Williams), Rhodes Twenty Four (Gary Rhodes), the eponymous Theo Randall at the Intercontinental & Tom's Kitchen (Tom Aiken).

The festival currency is "Crowns" (£1 = 2 Crowns) and you exchange these for your chosen dishes. The portions are deliberately small to allow you to graze and try more than just a couple of dishes. The average dish was priced at 9 Crowns (£4.50). Some 'Icon' dishes were 16 Crowns and above - these were supposed to reflect a chef's most inventive cooking and finest ingredients. For example, Le Gavroche was serving Lobster cocktail with summer truffles and tomato jelly served in an engraved Le Gavroche glass (40 Crowns).

Spread over 4 days, we attended the Saturday evening session. What follows is a synopsis of the amazing food we tasted.

Having studied the menus before hand, on arrival we made a bee line for Launceston place. As we arrived a suckling pig on a spit was being paraded around the stand, to much shouting and chanting. Head Chef Tristan Welch and his sous chef Steve Groves (winner of the BBC’s Masterchef: The Professionals 2009) were clearly in high spirits and very obliging in posing for a picture with said piglet.

First we wanted to try the Goose Egg and Chips (as seen on the Great British Menu); deliciously thin and crispy hot chips smothered in a light as air goose egg sauce. The flavour of the sauce was quite subtle but it was interesting and an enjoyable combination.

We followed that with the Spit Roast Old Spot Suckling Pig and Black Summer Truffles which was amazing. Encased in a brioche bun, the juicy suckling pig was topped with snaps of crackling and wafer thin slices of truffle; a mean pork sandwich!

Next we visited the Salt Yard for Char-grilled Beef Bavette with Salsa Verde and Escalivada. Bavette is popular in France but much underused here. It's basically a well-trimmed skirt or flank steak and considered one of the cheaper cuts of meat. It really was full of flavour, well cooked and more tender than I expected. The escalivada (grilled vegetables seasoned with olive oil and salt, and sometimes with garlic as well) was slightly bland and we both thought a little disappointing.

On to Odette's where we sampled Braised Welsh Pork Cheek with Spiced Pineapple. The Asian flavours in the sweet pineapple sauce complemented the soft pork cheek and this was another winner.

Paul Merret was cooking in the Action against Hunger pop-up. We spotted his Homemade Scotch egg on a salad of pea shoots, green beans and roasted beetroot with grain mustard dressing and had to try it.

The scotch egg was about as good as they get; the coating was really crisp but the yolk inside still managed to retain a slight gooeyness. At only 6 Crowns it was a delightful dish, one of my favourites, and all the better as the proceeds went to charity.

The Cinnamon Club's spice crusted bream, masala mash and tomato lemon sauce was a revelation and we agreed it was probably the dish of the evening. The fish was expertly cooked - crisp skin on the outside and yet still tender within and the perfectly balanced use of spices in the mash truly showed the dish off. One of the few Indian restaurants to hold a Michelin star, it is easy to see why.We felt it was time for a drink so headed to the Young's Brewery stand where we enjoyed a pint of draught ale in the bar.

From there we moved on to Bentley's Oyster Bar and Grill where we couldn't resist the smell of Traditional fish and chips. We weren't disappointed; served in a cardboard cone the fish was perfectly cooked in a crisp better along with some golden chips and mushy peas.

Next was Busaba Eathai (a chain of quality Thai restaurants) for the Char grilled duck in tamarind sauce with Chinese Broccoli; the sour tamarind sauce and fresh greens complimenting the rich duck perfectly.

A second beer stop then we moved on to another favorite from Trishna; coastal guinea fowl curry with a pao bread roll had great depth of flavour and was really quite spicy.

Michel Roux Jr. was in-situ at the two Michelin starred Le Gavroche and we had the Daube de beouf a la Nicoise (braised beef with olives and soft polenta). I didn't think this dish was "pretty as a picture" but it certainly tasted great and the meat was melt in the mouth tender.

It was time for desert so we headed to Asia de Cuba where Dave ordered the Mexican Doughnuts with Butterscotch sauce. They were apparently so moreish that I wasn't allowed to share any!

Instead I had the Alphonso mango rice pudding with pistachio's and sweet chilli from Trishna. The deliciously sweet mango flavored rice was elevated above the norm with an after kick of hot chilli.

There were also talks and live demonstrations in the Taste Theatre, this year featuring Heston Blumenthal and Giorgio Locatelli. Add to that a busy line up of exhibitors - the best suppliers & producers with top-notch ingredients & quality food and drink from Britain and around the world - and this event is pretty much foodie heaven.

Premium tickets to the event cost £37 each, this included entry to the event and £20 worth of Crowns. We quickly spent these and ended up buying another £40 worth, so all in all we managed to polish off £80 of food between us. Not a cheap night, but we left having had a great time, sampled some exceptional food, spotted some famous faces and with a long list of restaurants we'd like to explore further.

Princess Louise

After the disappointment of the football we were in need of some more liquid refreshment and so, in the name of drowning our sorrows, we headed to the Princess Louise.

Built in 1872 and named after Queen Victoria's fourth daughter, the Princess Louise is one of London's most beautiful and historic pubs. Its classic Victorian interior has been gloriously preserved; from the high and heavily ornate plastered ceiling, flamboyantly decorative tiles, huge dark carved wooden bar and elaborate cut glass and mirrors. It is a Grade II listed pub and is also on CAMRA's National Inventory of Historic Pub Interiors.

During 2007 the pub went through a comprehensive restoration which saw the reinstatement of the wood and etched glass partitions, creating the sort of subdivided drinking areas common to the popular and lavish nineteenth century "gin palaces". It has created a wonderfully confusing warren of snugs and alcoves, each with its own access to the central island bar.

The pub is now owned by Sam Smiths, a notable if rather eccentric independent brewery from Tadcaster, North Yorkshire. Common to all their pubs, the Princess Louise sells only Sam Smiths branded drinks. Their own range of lagers, ales and ciders is reasonably comprehensive and good quality, some available on draught and some only bottled. Their Old Brewery bitter is a great pint when on form and at £1.99 is staggering value, even if this wasn't Central London.

The location and unassuming exterior means it would be easy to pass by the Princess Louise, but if you are in London it is definitely worth a detour for a lovely pint of traditional ale in amazing surroundings.

Princess Louise
208 High Holborn, Holborn, London, WC1V 7BW

Nearest Tube: Holborn

Monday, 21 June 2010

Canteen; Spitalfields, London

You could be forgiven if the term "canteen" conjures up bad memories of school dinners or second rate lunches served up in a work cafeteria, but this image couldn't be further from the truth here. Canteen does not pretend to offer fine dining, but does unapologetically offer a menu of solid British classics. It is unpretentious, carefully sourced and well cooked food at reasonable prices.

Canteen serves a casual all day menu from breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner. Nostalgia reigns and the menu pays homage to homely British grub; pies, stews and roasts (which change daily), macaroni cheese, Arbroath smokies, devilled kidneys and the good old fish finger sandwich all feature. The dishes are simple favourites, but all homemade and cooked to order using free range, additive free and seasonal produce.

Located in the re-developed Old Spitalfileds Market, inside the restaurant is surprisingly modern and minimalist; something of a cross between a functional transport caff and Wagamamas. There are communal wooden bench tables but also booth seating, along with a large covered outdoor dining area. The kitchen is open and you can see the chefs at work.

We visited for an early dinner last Friday whilst in London; it was perfect for a quick, informal yet good quality meal before the football.

On arrival we were seated in one of the booths by the huge glass windows overlooking the market. We ordered drinks - a fresh lemonade and an "English Rose" (a refreshingly different long mixer of cranberry, apple and rose) - which arrived promptly and our food order was taken by the friendly waiter.

We decided to share a starter (unusually, even I already had one eye on the tempting deserts) and so we ordered the Potted duck with piccalilli and toast. The duck was smooth and tasty and the toast to spread ratio was spot on. If I am being picky, for me the piccalilli was slightly too sweet and I felt that the dish would have benefited from it being a bit sharper, just to offset the rich meat. But a good start all the same.

For mains I went for the roast free range chicken, garlic mayonnaise and chips. Available as leg and thigh or wing and breast meat, I chose the former and it was deliciously succulent with beautiful crispy skin. The chips were a cross between french fries and thicker chip shop style chips, with crunchy edges - perfect dipped in the pungent garlic mayo. This was really simple cooking but, even so, utterly heavenly.

Dave had the daily roast, today it was pork and served with roast potatoes, spring greens and gravy and apple sauce. The pork was tender and full of flavour, topped with crispy pork crackling and tasty gravy.

The deserts sounded good enough to entice me away from the Neal's Yard cheese and I finished with Blackcurrant jelly, ice cream and shortbread. The jelly wasn't completely clear but was deliciously sharp and loaded with blackcurrant flavour. Dave opted for the classic Treacle tart with clotted cream; great comfort food.

Canteen's no-nonsense traditional menu has brought good British cooking back to the capital's high streets and it didn't disappoint. Unlike the England football team who let the side down with a deeply unsatisfactory 0-0 bore draw with Algeria. Maybe they are missing their food.

2 Crispin Place, Spitalfields, London, E1 6DW

Nearest tube - Liverpool St.

Also branches in Baker St, Canary Wharfe & Royal Festival Hall

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Good things come to those who wait: British Asparagus

I know you can buy asparagus all year round these days, but to be honest I’d sooner poke myself in the eye with it than eat the sad excuse for the stuff imported from Spain, Thailand or Peru that's on offer year round in the supermarkets! Taste it and you’ll seriously wonder what the fuss is all about, only those with a fertile imagination could possibly identify any real flavour in it. For proper asparagus, in all its glory, you have to hold out for the British asparagus season... and until then I'd rather go without.

So the season is long awaited but also desperately short; traditionally beginning on 1st May it runs for around seven to eight delicious asparagus-filled weeks, until the end of June. For me the shortness of the season only serves to heighten both my anticipation and enjoyment of it and I can happily devour it three times a week in something resembling an asparagus feeding frenzy.

We bought our first asparagus of the season on May bank holiday weekend at The Dales Festival of Food in Leyburn. Grown by the Spilman's at Pasture Lane Asparagus, it is some of the best around and we indulged in 2 big bundles of the unmistakable thick, purple tipped spears. Britain's climate means the plant matures more slowly than it does in warmer climes and this helps to develop the uniquely delicate flavour that is so prized by asparagus lovers. Proper British asparagus has an amazingly sweet, fresh grassy taste, similar to peas - only better.
We enjoyed it simply steamed and dipped soilder-style into soft boiled duck eggs, accompanied by some air dried ham and brown bread and butter. This must be what angels eat.

Simple is best where asparagus is concerned. I love it adorned with hollandaise sauce or even just butter and a spritz of lemon. It is also great quickly griddled on the BBQ, even better served with a "fondue" of Brie or Camembert (wrap a whole cheese in a couple of layers of foil and stick it over the coals until it melts, then dip said asparagus into the molten gooey cheese!).

Another favourite is an adaptaion of Jamie Oliver's recipe for Beautiful Courgette Carbonara. Probably not completely authentic, but it is indeed beautiful and only improved by the substitution of asparagus for the courgette.

And yes, eat too much and asparagus can make your wee smell funny. It can even turn it green. The science-y bit says that this is because of sulphur-containing amino acids in the spears that break down during digestion. I won’t be giving that a second thought though as I tuck into yet another bundle of the first taste of summer. Get your fill before it's gone for another year.

Pasture Lane Asparagus
Richard & Sally Spilman Lodge Farm, Helperby, York