Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Leila's Shoreditch

You’re such a lovely cup, why don’t you fill me up…with hot chocolate. With this thought, on a cold November morn I stumbled to Leila’s café in Shoreditch for Sunday brunch. 

Leila’s café and neighbouring store, is located on Calvert Avenue close to Shoreditch High Street Station, and its hot chocolate has the same warming effect of the Grouplove song. Our group wait outside for the busy café to empty out to avail of a table for four. Fortunately, we only have a five minute wait before being seated at one of the tables with its distressed feel to it. The distressed feel at times extends to the staff, a smile from whom wouldn’t go astray every once in a while.
As the bones defrost, I take a look at the menu, though there’s no need to, as I already know I’m opting for the eggs and serrano ham – same as almost every other time I visit, with the exception of the time I selected the eggs and sage. Now I’m a big fan of sage. The only thing about sage though, is that while it might make me wise, it definitely is not ham. So back to the ham, and now I’m sage enough never to opt for the wise option again.  
A member in the group starts with a bowl of porridge having it suggested by the wily waiter who spots a soft touch. It’s served in a large breakfast bowl with some stewed apple. It’s ok, too tepid, and is not special enough to waste words on.
The eggs and ham are served with bread, and they are tasty. Usually I have brunch at Leila’s with one other and the eggs can be quite greasy for just two, but on this occasion, there are three of us having the eggs and ham and the extra eggs ensure the optimum amount of grease to egg and ham. The egg yolks have that orange hue to them indicating that possibly the chicken may have even seen the sun at some stage during its life, unlike those horrible pale yellow yolks that you find where chickens are farmed in terrifyingly small spaces. Granted, they may not have been running around at home on the farm every day evading the teeth of mister fox, but the egg quality seems to indicate that they’ve had a decent quality of life and decent feeding.
People come and go as we indulge in brunch many of whom don’t seem to comprehend that doors have a latch upon which the door should be attached to as they enter or leave the café. Seriously, folks, in the words of a great 21st century philosopher, JT I believe to be his name; cry me a feckin river and close the fucking door, you weren’t born in a field. It’s not a difficult task and makes life a lot easier for those enjoying brunch, and makes life more comfortable for the good lady seated beside the door who repeatedly closed the door on their behalf.
Having finished the eggs and ham, our waiter suggests an in season pear for the table. Excellent suggestion, it’s juicy and perfectly ripe. We follow it with a Portuguese custard tart seasoned with cinnamon. Cinnamon can be over-powering at the best of times and the custard is slightly over-powered by the cinnamon.
We depart to make way for the next set of guests to take their seat and head back out to a wintry London mid Sunday afternoon. Though, surrounded by the red brick buildings of Calvert Avenue, we could be in New York’s Greenwich Village, but it's even better, we're in London.  
Leila's Shop on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Jose's Tapas Bar

I can’t even pretend to be subjective with this review. I have been heading to Jose’s tapas bar on Bermondsey Street since it opened its door officially to the public in June. I love it, and each time I visit, I love it a little bit more. I love the food, I love the chefs, I love the waiters and I love the décor. I just love it. But maybe I'm being too subtle, I reallly do love it. Jose’s is the brainchild of Jose Pizarro, previously of Brindisa fame. He set up shop on the corner of Bermondsey Street and Morocco Street in a building that previously housed a sandwich and coffee shop which closed tragically in 2008. In the intervening 3 years, the building remained dormant until Jose transplanted a little piece of Spain bang smack in the heart of Bermondsey.
Jose’s is tiny and no advance bookings are taken so it probably wasn’t the best location for me to choose to invite 10 + people to meet and catch up. The first thing to check out upon arriving and getting settled is the daily specials board to see what Jose’s has on offer on a particular evening.
Between our group we have a lot of food. I start with some pardon peppers – the rock salt makes the taste. They are good and it is only after their consumption that I remember I should have taken a picture. Oops. Fail. The bread with tomato is tasty and the patatas bravas are served with a tomato based sauce and alioli. I don't taste them on this occasion but they look as good as they normally taste.
The tortilla was excellent. I always think tortilla should be an easy concoction, however the number of purported Spanish restaurants that manage to mess it up makes me think that perhaps there is something special to getting it right. Jose’s gets it right and scales the dizzying heights of good tortilla.
The croquettes are too creamy for my liking, I much prefer the croquettes at Brindisa, but others in the group adore them, which in essence makes me question the tastes of my friends. But then again, they are hanging out with me, so boom boom. The chorizo iberico with bread sticks is great, and the pork from the daily specials defies description, such is the tenderness and smoky taste. They are delicate and divine.

Others in the group raved about the ham, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the pork fillet and chorizo which were the highlights of the meal.
I’ve been to Jose’s on a number of occasions since it opened, and the venue maintains its high quality in terms of food and wine, and sherry. The plates average between £4 to £8-ish.
The limited amount of space ensures that people get up close and personal but without encroaching upon personal space, though maybe that was the effects of the red wine. My favourite time visit Jose’s is any evening after work, or on a Saturday at 12, after a visit to Maltby Street for a glass of bubbles.
Bermondsey Street is now host to two of the best restaurants in London – Jose’s, and the awesome Zucca (more about in the future). Foodies are in for a treat however, with the launch of Jose Pizarro’s latest venture – a restaurant also on Bermondsey Street. It opens to the public the first weekend of December. Like Jose’s, Pizarro’s shall have a no booking facility. Unlike Jose’s however, it will be more of a restaurant type establishment for punters to enjoy having much more space. This is altogether very exciting. I look forward to visiting.
José on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 26 November 2011

The Long Table

The concept is simple. Get together the best food traders in London, put them into a disused space, add a few long tables, some candles, drink, and a bit of music and the masses will come. And indeed for the launch they came in their droves. Fortunately I had the good sense to get there for 6pm. People were already waiting to sample the delights on offer.  The place filled quickly as people sought an eclectic eating experience in a convivial atmosphere.
When you look at the traders present, the quality is apparent. Moro from Exmouth Market brought their lamb to the table. I didn’t have it at the long table, but anytime I have it on Exmouth Market I love it. Yum Buns were there with their sublime pork belly. Everywhere I turned, everyone seemed to have a bun. Happiness is pork belly in a bun. Burger aficionadas were spoilt for choice and possibly need therapy having had to decide between the burgers from Hawskmoor or Lucky Chip.  What a choice!
I opted for the pork and beef meatball in a spicy sauce from the boys at the Bowler. The boys do great meatballs. Already well established at the recently created Brockley Market (more to come on that in future blogs), they bring their exceptional culinary talents to the table. I have mine with a little coriander which complements the meaty and spicy flavours. The meatball cost £2, essentially a taster.
I then have half of a chicken hot chicken ciabatta with salad and a chilli dressing. The reason I only had half, was because my friend has recently quit being a pescatarian and decided to give chicken a chance. It was an emotional moment. The chicken was roasted on a spit with potatoes roasted in the chicken juices. The ciabatta was tasty and the chicken of good quality, and very good value at £4.50.
The outdoor food revolution continues unabated in London. The best thing about the market is that the traders love their food and the quality is apparent at a decent cost. Everyone in London should make their way to Dalston on a Friday evening until December 16th and support these micro-enterprises.  Everyone wins.
The queue upon leaving was mental, working its way back to Kingsland road. Some people in the queue didn’t even know what was going on, but they figured it must be cool if so many people were queuing to get in. Sometimes it must be tiresome to try too hard to be cool. Forget about the queue, get there early and enjoy the evening. It is that good.

St. John Bar and Restaurant

There are many reasons to be cheerful  when visitors descend upon London – you know catch up, hang out, shoot the breeze, blah de blah; but, it’s also an excuse to eat out at nice restaurants – if ever an excuse was necessary. St. John’s (of the doughnut fame I reviewed in my first blog) of St. John Street in Clerkenwell has long been on my list of restaurants to eat out in, and when a friend was in town from D.C. it gave the ideal opportunity to visit the Michelin star rated restaurant.
The restaurant itself has a school canteen feel to it, quite a wide space and the restaurant is full for a Wednesday night. There’s a relaxed feel to the building and the clientele comprised of lots of men in search of offal. We were seated at the back of the restaurant which was the perfect position to witness the transportation of the suckling pig to a private room where a 70th birthday party was taking place. A suckling pig on a spit is an impressive sight and the smell was beautiful.  To the heavens I give thanks for swine.
Bread is brought to our table as we peruse the menu. The bakery at St. John’s is excellent and the bread is as always very good. For my main course, I’m torn between the grouse or the mallard and beetroot, and I select the mallard. It’s quite tasty, and the mallard has quite a strong taste to it. The piece d’resistance among the three main courses is the braised rabbit with red cabbage and prunes which is delicious.
The rabbit pretty much melts on the tongue. It’s delightful so I have some food envy.  The final main course is the roast middlewhite with turnips. The piece of pig however is quite fatty and as the most expensive main course on the menu (£23.80), a disappointment.

We get sides of new potatoes and savoy cabbage, of which, the spuds were the highlight. The cabbage was very buttery in my humble opinion.
For desert I get the caramel tart and clementines. The caramel has a mousse like texture and it’s the best caramel tart I’ve ever eaten (and I’ve eaten some nice caramel tarts). I know St. John’s is known for its meat primarily, but really, the desserts they make deserve high praise. Between their doughnuts to be found a Maltby Street (not on the menu here), and this caramel tart, they just get it.
We also have half a dozen madelines which are basically queen cakes baked in an oyster shell type baking tray. They’re nice, but at the end of the day, they’re still queen cakes.
The final dessert was the gingerloaf & butterscotch sauce. It’s gingery and rich and is served with a scoop of ice-cream. What's not to like? 

The service was excellent, the staff friendly and informative.  The bill for three was just shy of £150 including a couple of bottles of very nice wine, so it’s certainly pricey, but is it worth it? If I had opted for the braised rabbit, followed by the caramel tart, this would be a 5 star review; the roast middlewhite however was the only real let down. The thought of the braised rabbit and caramel tart makes me salivate whenever I think about it. I would certainly go back.
St John (Farringdon) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Wolseley

On a list of the best renowned London institutions, The Wolseley surely hovers at the top of such a list batting away at ease the young pretenders who lay claim to its crown. With such anticipation and high expectations, it’s The Wolseley I select for breakfast with a couple of visiting folk from out of town.  Upon arriving and being seated at our table I order a hot chocolate to assist me whilst I peruse the menu. 

Bustling with advertising execs, media types and business folk, the establishment is somewhat reminiscent of the grand coffee houses of Wien. Indeed, it’s a throwback to the splendid grandeur of when the British and Austro-Hungarian empires were at their peak and full of pomp. Additionally, the menu also pays homage to this Viennese lineage but that’s just about where the comparison stops. In the case of The Wolseley, there is none of the stuffiness. The food is superior, the drinks are better, and above all the service is outstanding, a thing that will never be found in a Wien coffee house.

There is nothing uptight or rigid about the venue. Tables are seated close together but not cramped, creating a bubbling atmosphere, one which is busy yet relaxed. The café manages to balance attention to detail without appearing uptight or having any sense of self-importance. To achieve such a delicate balance with such ease is commendable. The staff are friendly without being intrusive, attentive without being pretentious. A refined luxury permeates its presence, from the architecture to the china, and of course, not to forget, the food. 
And the food; oh my, the food. We start breakfast with a mixed basket of mini pastries which are made on the premises. I start with the Danish as it’s my plan to work my way towards my favourite – the cannelé bordelaise. Each pastry is a treat, from the croissant to the pain au chocolat. The amandine pain sucré au beurre normand was absolutely incredible, possessing a subtle almond flavour which complemented the crystallised sugar coating. It truly was terribly good, and because it was unexpected, made it even better. And, I had yet to taste the cannelé bordelaise, which lived up to the high expectations I had of it. It’s the juxtaposition of the crunchy caramel exterior, with the rich eggy centre.  It really is a magical creation. Whoever put together the recipe back in the day should have been hailed the local town hero and have had a statue erected in their honour for people the world over to revere. The pastry chef is to be applauded.
Now you may think this is a lot of pastries, but they are mini pastries, if you will, a tapas of pastries to be shared among three. There also was an almond croissant in the basket, however one of our group thought that sharing meant scoffing the whole thing himself. I’m told it was most enjoyable but I only have his word for it. But I’m not bitter, no not at all. Nor, in years to come when we refer to the lovely breakfast at The Wolseley shall I refer to that almond croissant*, though in terms of tasting, the almond croissant would only have been second to the cannelé bordelais on my list of preferences. Traumatic indeed.
*In addition to not referring to the strange case of the devoured almond croissant; in the future I shall also not refer to the fact that my delightful company picked up the bill…still doesn’t mitigate the almond croissant travesty though. 
Having initially opted for the kedgeree for my breakfast main course, I change to the French toast with blueberries and bacon which is served with maple syrup. The sweetness of the blueberries and their sauce balances the crispy stringy bacon. I also taste the Greek yoghurt with fig compote which is divine, and according to our waiter, not as fattening as you might think. My companion states with aplomb that it’s the best Greek yoghurt she’s ever tasted.

The institution lives up to its long-standing and well earned reputation. In terms of ambience, atmosphere, staff, food quality and décor, breakfast at The Wolseley is simply unbeatable.  
The Wolseley on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Netil and Broadway Market

From Maltby Street, it’s a hop, skip and a cycle over Tower Bridge and north eastbound towards Netil Market. Having commenced with dessert at St. John’s for breakfast, unless you have tunnel vision, it’s next to near impossible not to get distracted by the delights of Broadway Market. Continuing on the dessert theme, I happen upon Fiendish & Goode, dealers of delectable dainties, as they describe themselves. The lemon drizzle with green crushed pistachios, and parsnip pecan ginger with mascarpone cream cakes match their description.  
My intention was indeed to traverse around the wonders of Broadway market and make my way to Netil market, but it was ne’er impossible not to get waylaid once again by the good people at yum bun who sell slow roasted belly pork with cucumbers, spring onions and hoi sin in steamed buns. The good lady selling the pork steams her own pillow soft buns – with difficulty apparently, according to her partner on the stall – and a fine job she does too. It must be a labour of love. Combined with the succulent free range blythburgh pork it all melts on the tongue. They are delicious.

They are about to commence an enterprise at London's only outdoor food night market from Friday the 25th of November until Christmas at the Long Table on Abbot Street in Dalston. Given the company they find themelves in at this market, including two of my favourites -Hawksmoor and Moro, it seems like an exciting venture.

Eventually, my nose leads me to my destination at Netil Market which is located at the top of Broadway Market as you approach London Fields and take a right. The market sells vintage clothing, bits and bobs, has a few food stalls, and even has a place to fix your bike. There is a queue at the Lucky Chip burger van and I’m told there will be a 20 minute wait. The smells emanating from Lucky Chip intimates that it will be worth the wait so I order a burger with bacon (no cheese for me) which comes with pickles and lettuce and seek a seat to wait.

Space is at at a premium in the market. Given the scarcity of seats, my cunning plan is to sit on my new folding bike which I am still getting used to and which is static and in its parked position. Instead of sitting on it however, I manage to end up flat on my arse as I fall off the bike in slow motion. Now, elsewhere when something like this happens, you end up receiving a round of applause and collective guffaws. At Netil Market, full of the too cool for school East London brigade, hardly anyone bats an eyelid. So when a right auld eijit ends up on her backside laughing at her own idiocy, no one pays an iota of attention.
The burger, when it arrives, brings happiness to one’s life. It smells and looks great. It’s served in a brioche bun, which is incredibly light, the pattie is juicy and reminds me of the great burgers you can get in New York. Sometimes a burger is perfect, other times, it’s even better. This is one of those occasions. At £6.50 the burger is worth the bruised backside and the even bigger bruised ego. 

Maltby Street

There’s no two ways about it. Saturday is a holiday. And what better way to start a holiday, than a £2 custard doughnut at St. John’s under the arches on Druid Street. Technically then, this post should be titled Druid Street. However, I always consider St. John's to be part of the Maltby Street revolution. Since I discovered the doughnuts at St. John’s about a year ago, I have desisted from having a doughnut anywhere else. So I tell myself it’s actually healthy to have a doughnut at St. John’s when it prevents me having one elsewhere. It’s not just that they taste great, brim full of creamy custard in divine dough. It’s just that they are that much better than any other doughnut. This is not an over exaggeration, they just are. They also offer a jam doughnut, but I just can't drag myself away from the creamy custard texture. Unfortunately, I have yet to master eating the doughnut, it’s probably more apt to describe its consumption as an inhalation of happiness outside Monmouth on Malty St. Indeed, it's a lovely way to commence the morning.