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Reviews of London's Restaurants, Supper Clubs and Hotels, Wine Tastings, Travel Writing, and Home to the Japanese and French Supper Clubs in Islington

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Tuesday, 28 December 2010

London Cooking Club - "An Evening of Portuguese Food & Wines"

Back in September, Dr G and I went to Porto for a week's holiday. Staying with friends who own a villa there, I thought this the perfect moment to bring them a copy of Tessa Kiros' cookbook "Piri Piri Starfish - Portugal Found" and for me, a golden opportunity to try out some of the recipes using the local produce.

It was a magnificent week of cooking and eating amongst friends with plenty of Vinho Verde, the freshest/tastiest produce, seafood, chorizo, and bacalhau. What a great week that was, and luckily most recipes turned out well. Inspired by this, I decided to hold a London Cooking Club based on the same cookery book a few weeks later.

On this occasion, we were fortunate to have the generous offer of a supply of matching Portuguese wines from Casa Leal. Our drinking experience in Northern Portugal was a revelation to us - excellent value wines made interesting by the relatively undiscovered national grapes which are still widely used today. With the exception of the light and easy drinking Vinho Verde, these wines were generally full-bodied, hot climate examples with plenty of fruit and character. Miguel Leal, a London-based importer of premium Portuguese wines, was unable to attend the event but still very kindly offered to provide all the wines for the evening.

How It Works

Every month, I choose a theme, cookery book or cuisine, and have a group of readers of The London Foodie come to my home to cook, eat a delicious meal, drink and talk. I distribute a suggested menu a week or so prior to the event, the participants choose their dishes and I e-mail out all recipes. Each person contributes a dish and accompanying bottle of wine.


I thoroughly enjoy these evenings as they are proving to be a great way to meet others who stumble upon this blog and who are passionate about cooking and good wine. As much as I like eating out and finding some of the London gems I write about, I also love cooking and this was primarily the reason why I started The London Foodie.

All recipes cooked on the evening were taken from Tessa Kiros' cookbook "Piri Piri Starfish - Portugal Found"


"Croquetes de Bacalhau" (Salt Cod Croquettes) - one of my favourite Portuguese snacks, I made these from a mixture of shredded and rehydrated cod (de-salted for 24 hours), potatoes, shallots and coriander. A little fiddly to make but well worth the effort. The croquettes were served with an 09 Vinho Verde from Quinta de Linhares.

As with most Vinho Verde wines, this was made to drink young (Verde), it had hints of fresh citric fruit (sweet lemon) and honey flavours, enough residual sugar to balance the high acidity, and went well with our choice of fish canapé.


"Caldo Verde" - prepared by the lovely Helen of Fuss Free Flavours, Caldo Verde is Portugal's national soup, it is a hearty and rustic soup made from potatoes, green cabbage (or more commonly spring greens or kale) and chorizo sausage.


"Polvo à Moda de Açores" (Octopus from Azores) - octopus dishes are much loved in Portugal, and like squid, it must either be flash-fried or slowly cooked to avoid toughness. This recipe, cooked by Peruvian Jaime founder of Guestaurant, was delicious - the octopus was melting in the mouth having been cooked in a mixture of white wine, brandy, garlic, oregano and cloves for well over an hour and served with fried yam.

To drink, we had "Arca Nova Vinho Verde Doc Rose Escolha 2009". Espadeiro is a red Portuguese wine grape planted primarily in the Minho region for making vinho verde. The most famous vinho verdes are white but this was a great rosé, tasting, crisp and dry with hints of strawberry.


"Camarão com Piri Piri, Whisky e Limão" (Prawns with Piri Piri Sauce, Whisky and Lemon) - this was a lovely dish prepared by May of Slow Food Kitchen and Tamar, an Israeli journalist who was in London for a month's course at the Cordon Bleu. The prawns are fried in butter, bay leaves, garlic, piri piri and paprika. The pan is then de-glazed with whisky and lemon and the reduced sauce poured over the prawns. It was served with bread to mop up the delicious sauce.

2008 Alvarinho & Loureiro by Morgado do Perdigao (Silver Decanter World Wine Awards 09). This was a very impressive Vinho Regional white from the northern coastal area of Minho, made from a blend of Alvarinho and Loureiro grapes. The nose was delicately scented with citrus and floral notes while the palate was well structured, with stone fruit (apricot) and good body. This was an excellent wine to accompany the garlicky and rather spicy fried prawns.

"Bacalhau com Tomates, Pimentão e Azeitonas" - (Salt Cod with Tomatoes, Peppers and Olives) - a Portuguese meal would not be complete without a "Bacalhau" dish. A bit fiddly to prepare, I was happy when my foodie friends Regis and Tim offered to cook this for us. The salt cod was perfectly rehydrated/de-salted and baked on a bed of fried peppers, olives, tomatoes and potatoes. It had a lovely texture and Mediterranean flavours.

To accompany the meaty salt cod in rich tomato sauce, we decided to try the red Corpus 2007 Douro. Produced by Veredas do Douro, this wine made from a blend of native red grapes had youthful black fruit flavours, with plentiful balancing tannin and vanilla notes - a very well made wine.

"Porco com Ameijoas" (Pork with Clams) - this is one of my favourite Portuguese dishes but is also one that people seem hesitant to try. The combination of pork and seafood is wonderful and it was not a difficult decision when choosing which dish Dr G and I would cook for the evening's menu. Pork shoulder is marinated in a "massa de pimentos" (cured/salted red peppers paste) and then slowly cooked in wine, onions and garlic. In the last ten minutes of cooking, clams are added with some lemon juice and green olives, and just before serving, potato cubes fried in olive until crisp are tossed in to create the finished dish. A sumptuously rich and delicious treat I cannot wait to try again.

2006 Pontval Vinho Regional Alentejano Syrah. Despite Syrah not being an indigenous grape to Portugal, this example had intense aromas of mature fruit, with hints of mint, pepper and cedar. The palate was full and spicy with fine tannins and acidity which stood up well to the rich pork and clam dish.


"Favas com Chorizo & Arroz Assado na Manteiga" (Broad Bean with Chorizo and Baked Butter Rice) - Marta of Muscovado Cafe cooked these two delicious dishes which accompanied the two main courses.


"Gelado de Frutas Citricas, Louro e Canela com Ginginha" (Citric Fruits, Bay Leaf and Cinnamon Ice Cream with Portuguese Sour Cherry Liqueur) - I loved the combination of unusual flavours in this ice cream prepared by Sue of London Food Finds.

Bay Leaf ice cream is not a flavour I have tried before but it tasted intriguingly good served with "Ginginha" and Sue's homemade Madeleines.

To complement Sue's ice cream, we had "Tawny Port by Casa de Santa Eufemia". Blended from the traditional combination of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca and Tinta Roriz, it underwent deliberate oxidation leading to an orange tinged wine with fragrances of dried red fruits while in the mouth dry figs, nuts and raisins blend in delicious combination.

Our shared opinion of Tessa Kiros' Portuguese cookbook was very good overall. However we felt that the text layout was not as reader friendly as it could have been. Moreover some of her cooking instructions seemed odd, for example de-salting the cod for 3 days (far too long), or skinning tomatoes with a sharp knife rather than immersing them in boiling water and rubbing gently.

Thank you all for attending the event and for cooking such marvellous dishes and to Casa Leal for providing us with the excellent matching Portuguese wines. For more information on future events and themes, please see the London Cooking Club page on this blog.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Mission: Find the Best Burger in London - Fine Burger Co. (REVISITED)

Fine Burger Co. (REVISITED on 4th and 9th December 2010)

Sometimes I get a "thank you" e-mail from restaurants I review (which is nice), and occasionally a restaurateur will get in touch saying he/she has noted some of my "dislikes". It was with some surprise though that I heard recently from the Fine Burger Co. following my review (here).

Sam Steele, the marketing director and wife of one of the company's two founders, invited me to meet her and Austin Latimer (head chef and co-founder) at their Islington branch. Sam, a former BBC employee, quit her job to join Fine Burger Co.'s top management team and assist the company to address some of the quality issues which they acknowledged had been a problem at the time of my earlier review.

It was with some apprehension that I accepted this invitation but I really should not have worried - Sam and Austin were highly professional, friendly and interested in hearing my feedback. We had lunch together, and unsurprisingly the burgers, chips and onions rings were excellent. The meat was delicious and had been perfectly cooked. The bread supplier had been replaced and the improvement was significant. But then what was the likelihood that I would be getting a bad burger sitting with two of the company's owners/top managers?

Dr G and I decided we had to return anonymously to find out more. On the 9th December 2010, we arrived at the restaurant just before 10pm. Long after peak time, the restaurant wasn't busy, and I half expected things to be past their best. I was pleased to see that the waiter in charge was not the one I had seen there previously with Sam and Austin, so our cover was not blown. The French waiter who helped us on the evening (Lucas) was brilliant - attentive, very friendly and unobtrusive.

I ordered a "Beef Sizzler" @ £7.80 (smoked bacon, aged cheddar, tomato relish and mayo) while Dr G went for "Beef Guacamole and Bacon" @ £7.95 (coriander and mayo).

The burgers were again very good - excellent, tasty meat cooked medium rare as we had ordered. The sandwiches were not overfilled by other ingredients and the focus was entirely on the quality of the meat. The bun had the perfect texture and was strong enough to hold the sandwich together without being chewy or hard.

To accompany our burgers, we also ordered portions of "hand-cut chips" @ £3, "tempura onion rings" @ £3 and "fried baby squid" @ £4.95. The chips and squid were both good although I felt that the onions rings were a tad greasy.

We had a bottle of Spanish Tempranillo at £17 (surprisingly the most expensive bottle on the menu). It was a lovely wine at this price point, with red berry fruit flavours, and a hint of vanilla from the oak ageing.

A very interesting addition to the restaurant since our last visit is their new interactive touch screens by Touch UK Limited. These are great - not only can we see pictures of the dishes but we can also order through these screens. Most importantly, diners can play various games including food and drinks trivia, and play against other tables if desired, much fun.

Much to my surprise I find myself recommending the Fine Burger Co. following my two recent visits. I would be very interested to hear your experiences with this restaurant in the coming months.

Cost: the Fine Burger Co. is affiliated with the Taste Card which gives members 50% off their food bill. Our bill on this occasion was £34 after this discount including a bottle of wine. Excellent value for the improved quality of their burgers.

Likes: much improved patty and buns, great burgers, chips and a very good Tempranillo at £17 only. The FBC participates at a number of events throughout the year including Glanstonbury, Big Chill, Royal Ascot, among others.

Dislikes: the onions rings were adequate but a little greasy in my opinion. Having lettuce under the patty would also help prevent the lower half of the bun getting soggy.

Verdict: greatly improved burgers, very friendly service, excellent value. Recommended.

Fine Burger Company on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

London Restaurant Reviews - Café Luc


Marylebone High Street is undoubtedly one of the prettiest addresses in London (despite its proximity to hectic Oxford Street). Providores, the Conran Shop, Rococo Chocolates, Divertimenti, Cucina Caldesi and La Fromagerie, just around the corner, are some of the places I love to visit whenever I am in the area.

I would have probably missed Café Luc in one of these trips had I not been invited by Massey Travel for a meal there this summer. Since my first visit, I have had the chance to return to this Belgian brasserie a number of times with friends, so this is a round-up of the five or so meals I had there this year.

French resident chef David Collard, former executive head chef at five star Langham Hotel, has worked with other top chefs including Joel Robuchon at Restaurant Gormand, Marcus Waring at Petrus and Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park. I had the pleasure of meeting David on a couple of occasions, and more recently he showed me around his kitchen and demonstrated how he prepares one of Café Luc’s signature dishes – Steak Tartare.

Growing up in Brazil, I used to love eating kibbeh nayyeh (raw minced beef or lamb mixed with bulghur wheat, and seasoned with onions, mint and olive oil) in the many Syrian restaurants there, so I am a real fan of the European equivalent of this loved dish – “Steak Tartare”.

Café Luc’s did not disappoint – the meat, a 21-day dry aged LMC ("leg of mutton cut") of beef supplied by Finclass Butchers, was ultra fresh, silken and well seasoned with onions, mustard and capers among other spices. I really loved this dish but felt that the texture could have been slightly improved had the meat been finely chopped as opposed to minced. At £7.50 for a starter portion (£17 as a main), I also thought it was rather well priced.

Another excellent à la carte starter was the “Crab Tian” @ £10.50 – a beautifully presented dish made of Cornish crab with avocado, tomato dressing and quail egg which I enjoyed on two of my visits.

One of my favourite à la carte main courses was the “Roasted Partridge” served with caramelised chicory, foie gras and truffle shavings and @ £18.50, it was again very good value.

The “Chicken in Champagne” served with wild mushrooms, diced bacon and papparedelle pasta @ £16.80 (apparently one of David’s family recipes) had a deliciously creamy sauce and earthy flavours from the mushrooms which combined well with the pasta and grilled chicken.

(Picture Courtesy of The Wine Sleuth)

Two of the most popular desserts are the "Roasted Pineapple" @ £7 served with coconut sorbet and pistachio, and the "Apple Tart" @ £6.50 with caramel and Grand Marnier sauce.

It is Café Luc’s excellent value 3-course menu @ £15.50 however where David’s resourcefulness and cooking flair come into their own. In my opinion, this is one of the best value set menus in London at the moment - the menu changes regularly and is available throughout the day (as opposed to pre/post theatre menus available elsewhere).

Some of the highlight dishes that I had from the set menu included:

"Fine smoked salmon, English crumpet and horseradish cream"

"Terrine of duck confit with foie gras and served with toasted sourdough"

"Pea risotto with aged Parmesan, and wild rocket"

"Steak with peppercorn sauce and pommes frites"

"Crème Brulée au Nutella"

"Lemon tarte with raspberries and chantilly"

The wine list is primarily old world and rather comprehensive with a large number of bottles also available by the glass or carafe. Of the entire wine menu, there are only two bottles priced below £20 (at £18.50), and despite some of the wines being available on tap, I still felt that the mark up was slightly excessive (the cheapest 500ml carafe on tap was priced at £15.30).

On my first visit, the sommelier suggested a bottle of 08 Patrimonio by Domaine Leccia. Patrimonio was Corsica’s first Appellation region (AOC), where the native “Nieluccio” varietal is used. The wine was terrific with black fruit (cherries) and vanilla aromas, full bodied and with great complexity but sadly a price tag to match.

Service at Café Luc can be inconsistent – I have had the most attentive service there (both as an invited reviewer and as an anonymous paying customer) but there was more than one occasion when I felt it was a tad rushed and impersonal.

Cafe Luc is offering a set menu for £1 for lunch, afternoon tea or dinner. There are 15 3-course set menus available per day for the period of Friday 7th January until 7th February 2011. To find out when to book – subscribe to their mailing list, Facebook page or follow them on Twitter (@CafeLuc_)

Thanks to Massey Travel for introducing me to Cafe Luc.

Cost: the set menu is priced at £15.50 while the à la carte menu would cost around £35 for a 3-course meal (excl. drinks).

Likes: the Patrimonio Corsican wine was excellent (although expensive), as were the crab tian, steak tartare and Nutella crème brulée. The set menu @ £15.50 is in my opinion excellent value.

Dislikes: inconsistent service and a wine list with very few affordable options.

Verdict: well executed cooking, prime location and and a reasonably priced set menu make Café Luc an attractive lunch/dinner option on Marylebone High Street. Recommended.

Cafe Luc on Urbanspoon
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