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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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Monday 30 August 2010

London Cooking Club - "Ottolenghi"

Inspired by one of my favourite London restaurants and cookery books, we recently held an Ottolenghi evening for the London Cooking Club at my home in Islington.

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 other Londoners 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.

We had a great time at our Ottolenghi event and all recipes were taken from "Ottolenghi The Cookbook" and "Plenty". I got to meet five new members that evening in addition to other familiar faces. We were 10 cooks-diners and the dishes are shown below.


1. "Sweet Potato Galettes" - prepared by Patrice, an investment banker from Mauritius, these were surprisingly light with a rich savour of goats cheese, thyme and sunflower seeds. This was a lovely canapé and well matched with Patrice's excellent choice of demi-sec Cava.


2. "Green Gazpacho with Pear Crostini" - the recipes come from "Plenty" and were beautifully executed by Kelly, an Australian who arrived in London a few months ago, and with whom I had been in contact for a while but never met. An avid foodie, Kelly used to organise a similar cooking club back in Sidney called Food Safari, and on her arrival in the UK after a 24-hour flight, she made her way to brunch at Ottolenghi!

We loved the fresh, herby flavours of her green gazpacho and felt that the pear crostini which were griddled, and topped with creamy slivers of goats cheese were perfectly accompanied by the chilled, bone dry Manzanilla sherry she brought.


3. "Caramelised Garlic Tart" - another "Plenty" recipe made by Dr G. The recipe calls for four heads of garlic which are caramelised in a delicious mixture of balsamic vinegar, sugar and thyme. Puff pastry is baked blind and filled with two types of goats cheese, cream and garlic. This was a delicious dish we have made several times since and is fast becoming Dr G's signature dish.

4. "Char-grilled Asparagus, courgettes & Manouri Salad" - I was happy that Cara, aka Gourmet Chick, came to this event as she's been a supporter of my blog from its early days. A lawyer turned journalist for the Financial Times, Cara is also an excellent writer, restaurant reviewer and accomplished cook. I love reading her witty reviews and have been greatly inspired by her blog.

Her salad had some delicious flavours, was perfectly cooked and was served with Dr G's caramelised garlic tart.


5. "Char-grilled Seafood, Fennel & Lime Salad" - I chose this dish as it is one of my favourite recipes from Ottolenghi's first cookbook . I like its fresh, summery flavours and the combination of aniseed fennel, thinly sliced red onions, dill and griddled squid and prawns, with lime juice and pomegranate seeds.

6. "Harissa Marinated Chicken with Red Grapefruit Salad" - I had never tried this dish before and was pleased that Austrian interior designer Gerald decided to make it. A trained chef, Gerald had also been to Ottolenghi's cookery classes at Leigh's.

The chicken had been marinated in spicy harissa and had taken on its intense flavours. We were also impressed by Gerald's choice of Provençal rosé wine to accompany it. This was an excellent dish and perfectly executed and one I will make sure to try again.

7. "Roast Pork Belly with Spiced Red Plum, Ginger & Rhubarb Relish" - one of the stars of the evening was Hugh's roast pork belly. It was deliciously succulent and tender and with perfect crackling. The accompanying relish was slightly spicy and was a great match to the sweet pork meat. It was Hugh's first time with us at the cooking club, and after his ace pork belly, we hope to have him back again.


8. "Marinated Aubergines with Tahini & Oregano" - we loved the exotic middle-eastern flavours of this dish prepared by Linda, one of our regular members. Originally from Hong Kong, Linda has lived in the UK for most of her life, and works as a financier at an American investment bank in London.

9. "French Beans & Mange-tout with Hazelnut & Orange" - this is a dish I prepare regularly so I decided to add it as an extra accompaniment on the evening. The beans and mange tout are quickly blanched and seasoned with hazelnut oil, orange blossom water, chives and salt and pepper. Dry roasted hazelnuts and thinly sliced orange peel are also added to the final dish.

10. "Kosheri" - May, the Malaysian writer of the excellent blog "Slow Food Kitchen", prepared this delicious dish which was a mix of rice, vermicelli noodles & lentils served with a spicy tomato sauce. We greatly enjoyed the buttery flavour and unusual combination of textures in this dish and felt it went well with the meaty main courses.


11. Orange Polenta Cake - it was the first time that Elizabeth Truss and husband, Hugh O'Leare, came to our cooking club. After Hugh's excellent pork belly debut, Elizabeth came up trumps with a deliciously moist upside-down cake made with polenta (Italian cornmeal flour) and oranges. So discreet was Elizabeth that I was surprised to find out a few days later that she is a Conservative MP in Norfolk. Both Hugh and Elizabeth were delightful company and a dab hand in the kitchen and we look forward to having them back for future evenings.

This was one of the most successful London Cooking Club events - all the dishes worked out perfectly and there was a great mix of people. It was also when we were visited by Alastair Grant, an Associated Press photographer, who stayed with us for a while and took some lovely shots of the evening for various US, Canadian, Middle-Eastern and Asian publications (see links here).

As in previous London Cooking Club meetings, most people were meeting for the first time that evening but still a shared sense of fun, camaraderie and above all, love for good food prevailed. I would like to thank all the guests for being so kind and for the effort they put into cooking all those delicious dishes and for sharing them with us.

Our next meeting will be in on 25th September 2010 and the theme will be “Portuguese Cuisine” inspired by one of my favourite food writers Tessa Kyros and her cookery book “Piri Piri Starfish”. Please visit our Facebook page “London Cooking Club” or e-mail me if you would like to take part.

Monday 23 August 2010

London Restaurant Reviews - Skylon

Brazil Festival and Jose Barattino @ Skylon

Going to the Southbank brings back memories of my college days in London in the early 90's - I had no money, and like many other university students, I scraped a living working in bars, shops or doing odd jobs. The Royal Festival Hall became a regular haunt then because of its free Jazz on Fridays and other events, and also for its well priced pints and good cafeteria food.

Built in 1951 as an exhibition and music venue for post-war Britain, the Royal Festival Hall has been a focal point for music and cultural events in London ever since. Following a £91m refurbishment of the hall and surrounding area between 2005-07, the area has now been transformed and the Hall's 1950 features sympathetically restored.

The D & D London group of restaurants, of Quaglino's and Bluebird fame, joined forces in this project to create Skylon, a single space that incorporates a stunning raised cocktail bar, a fine dining restaurant and an all-day grill. The menu is modern European with a strong British influence.

As part of the Brazil Festival at the Southbank this summer, Jose Barattino (the award-winning head chef of Hotel Emiliano in São Paulo) was invited to Skylon to introduce his modern interpretation of some of Brazil's best loved dishes, and so I went there to meet him.

My student days are long behind me and now cocktails at Skylon is one of my favourite London things to do - the raised bar gives you a great view of the surrounding restaurant and the Southbank and Thames below; it is the perfect place to soak up the elegant atmosphere of the place and for people-watching. I was pleased to see a selection of Brazilian-inspired cocktails devised by Skylon's mixologists, and Barattino's accompanying bar food on the menu.

For cocktails, I went for "Delicia" which was made from Leblon cachaca (Brazilian sugar cane spirit), Chartreuse liquor and muddled fresh strawberries and lemon. Dr G opted for "Terra Samba", served in a snifter glass, it was also made from cachaca, passoa liquor, passion fruit and fresh lime. Both drinks were priced @ £10.50 and were exceptionally well executed with some vibrant flavours.

Rather like in Spain or Portugal, in Brazil alcohol is never drunk without food. The bar food at Skylon was an excellent representation of what is served in Brazil and included "Pastel de Bacalhau" (deep fried salt-cod dumplings), "Pao de Queijo com Pernil" (cheese bread with pulled pork), "Coxinha de Frango com Catupiry" (deep fried potato dumplings with shredded chicken and cream cheese), and "Torresmo" (Brazilian style crispy pork belly).

These dishes are ubiquitous in Brazil and found from the simplest ("boteco" bars) to the most expensive eateries in the country. It was interesting to see Barattino's take on such popular dishes, and appreciate these very familiar and delicious flavours in London.

On my visit during the first week of the Festival and whilst Barattino was resident at Skylon, only the fine dining menu was available to the public at £40 and £45 for two or three courses respectively. Surprisingly, the options were in my opinion less interesting than the ones from the Skylon Grill menu which were priced at £20 and £25 for two or three courses and only available a week later. To view Skylon Grill's menu, click here.

Dr G and I shared the two available options which were "Legumes Assados com Emulsao de Castanha do Brasil" (roasted vegetables with Brazil nut sauce) and "Cordeiro Assado com Especiarias Brasileiras, Quirera de Milho e Mel Nativo" (roasted lamb with Brazilian spices, corn meal and native honey).

Both dishes were beautifully presented and delicious with very distinctive flavours. I loved the corn meal which I ate many times in Brazil as a child (mingau de fuba). It is similar to soft polenta but has a strong corn flavour and coarser texture. It was a perfect accompaniment to the deliciously tender and well seasoned lamb. I found Barattino a highly talented chef - few can bring such modest ingredients into their cooking and make them taste good and feel right in a sophisticated dish like the one I had.

From the bar menu, I also ordered a "Escondidinho de Carne Seca" (Shredded jerk beef "hidden" under a layer of cassava cream gratin) @ £7.50. I love "cassava or manioc" which was brought to Brazil by Africans and the Portuguese in the 16th century and cannot recommend it enough as an alternative to potatoes. It makes for the most fantastic chips and mash. In this dish, the cassava is creamed and combines beautifully with the salty meat underneath. This is one of the dishes I make sure to eat whenever I visit Brazil.

For dessert, we had a "Torta de Banana com Sorbet de Açai" (warm banana torte with "Açai" sorbet). I love any desserts with bananas in it, but the real surprise for me was the Açai sorbet.

Açai is a berry from the Açai palm tree which grows abundantly in the Brazilian rainforest. It perishes within one day and is 10% skin/pulp and 90% seed, and therefore large quantities are required to make any useful quantity. It is rich in anti-oxidants and omega fats and is very nutrient dense. Many healthy claims are being made about Açai as a "super food" including weight loss but I would approach this with scepticism. It has a dark purplish colour and tastes like blueberries and chocolate.

To accompany our meal, we sampled a selection of "Miolo" wines from "Vale dos Vinhedos" in Brazil. "Vale dos Vinhedos" is in the southernmost Brazilian estate of "Rio Grande do Sul". It has a much cooler climate than other northern estates and it is where most Italians and Germans immigrating to Brazil settled. It is no surprise then that "Vale dos Vinhedos" is where the best Brazilian wineries are found.

Most European grapes are grown in "Vale dos Vinhedos" including merlot, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, and chardonnay. Miolo's sparkling wines follow the "Champenoise Methode" (second fermentation in bottle) and their wines have been garnering some national and international awards lately. These wines can only be purchased in the UK through Coe Vintners and Bibendum Wines. Miolo is considered to produce the best Brazilian wines, and is my wine producer of choice whenever in Brazil.

I was very pleased with my Brazilian meal at Skylon and for the opportunity to meet Jose Barattino who came out of the kitchen to introduce himself. He was incredibly enthusiastic about the opportunity to show his cooking in the UK, and was rather charming and unassuming.

Skylon Restaurant - http://www.skylonrestaurant.co.uk/
Southbank Centre, Belvedere Rd, London, SE1 8XX
(020) 7654 7800

Cost: £20 and £25 (Skylon Grill) or £40 and £45 (Skylon Restaurant) for two/three course meals. Cocktails are priced at £10.50. The Brazilian menu is only available until 5th September 2010.
Likes: fantastic cocktails, great location with one of the best views of London, classic 1950's elegance makes me feel like I am on the set of " A Single Man".

Dislikes: despite the comprehensive wine list, there are no bottles below £21.

Verdict: I can think of few London restaurants that would rise to the challenge of cooking fine dining Brazilian food with such aplomb. Skylon has got it right - from the cocktails, to the choice of wine and menu, and all at reasonable prices. I can't wait to return. Highly recommended.

Skylon on Urbanspoon

Thursday 19 August 2010

Food Photography & Styling Workshop by Alastair Hendy

I have always been a fan of Alastair Hendy, and enjoyed his food writing and photography in books such as Food and Travels: Asia and more recently Homecook. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the Embassy of Ireland in Grosvenor Place for a Food Photography and Styling Workshop sponsored by the Irish Food Board "Bord Bia".

Bord Bia was established in 1994 and has since then promoted links between Irish food and drinks suppliers and their potential or actual customers worldwide. For this event, Bord Bia assembled a good spread of Irish produce to be photographed by us at the Embassy.

One of these products was "Ballymaloe Country Relish", a delicious and spicy tomato conserve with raisins which is the perfect accompaniment for cheeses, cold meats and pork pies. It brought back wonderful memories of my visit to Ballymaloe House and Cookery School in County Cork a few years ago.

Having been photographing food for a year now for this blog, I thought I had some idea of what I was doing. The workshop shook me out of my complacency with the realisation that the techniques of the professional photographer conceal art within art.

Alastair made me think about structuring what for me can be a very haphazard activity. I learnt that giving a little thought to what I am shooting and trying to convey will help me tell a coherent story. The use of props and natural light was also discussed as well as other technical aspects I had not given proper weight to.

I would not say that I left the building that evening a better photographer. I realised however that a good food photographer will need more than just enthusiasm and a little creative flair, and that some basic techniques certainly help a great deal.

Thanks to the Embassy of Ireland, Bord Bia and Alastair Hendy for a very interesting and enlightening evening.

Saturday 14 August 2010

London Restaurant Review – Tom’s Terrace @ Somerset House

Having spent countless hours jogging, or idling my time drinking or walking along the South Bank, I have been pleased to witness the development of this formerly drab area of London in the last 15 years.

The area has much to offer and I was interested to hear that Tom Aikens had set up an open air restaurant on the roof of Somerset House this summer. The restaurant has received quite mixed reviews, and I was intrigued when an invitation arrived from their PR machine to join a bunch of food bloggers for dinner there.

Having just been to Tom’s Kitchen in Chelsea, I was surprised to see the simplicity of the restaurant menu being offered at the Terrace. Reassuringly short (and a tad overpriced), the menu includes only a few simple starters and main courses, and a selection of mostly British desserts.

Some of the starters we shared included “Coronation Crab Salad” @ £10.50, “Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Parfait” @ £13.50, and “Tartine of Red Onion and Aubergine Compote” @ £9.

My favourite starter was the “Coronation Crab Salad” with mango, toasted almonds and avocado. The crab tasted fresh, and the dish as a whole was deliciously creamy and rich.

The “Chicken Liver and Foie Gras Parfait” were equally good but I felt the portion was rather ungenerous @ £13.50. I also liked the non-fussy but honest presentation of Tom’s “Tartine of Red Onion and Aubergine” and enjoyed its simple flavours.

The best main course in my opinion was the “Hot Smoked Loch Duart Salmon” @ £17.50 with soft boiled egg, watercress and herb mustard vinaigrette. The salmon was lean and of top quality, and was balanced by the soft egg and the peppery watercress salad.

The “Beef Burger with Big Chips” @ £14.50 was the least successful of all main courses, while the “Grilled Paillard of Chicken” @ £16.50 with rocket salad and oven roasted tomatoes was well executed but again overpriced.

The Truffled Chips @ £6.50 were good, deliciously crisp and covered with truffle flavoured cheese.

We also shared a selection of three desserts all priced @ £8. They were rather large and equally delicious, and included “Poached Strawberries with Mint and Champagne”, “Eton Mess with Blackberry Coulis” and “”Mango Rice Pudding with Passion Fruit Custard”.

The Bar Menu also offers a few platters to share like “Charcuterie Board with Breads and Chutney” @ £22 and “Cheese Board and Biscuits” @ £18.50 which may be a better and more sociable option for after work drinks.

The drinks menu is equally short, with a few cocktail options in the £10 region, and six bottles each of white and red wines priced between £20 and £70. There is only one bottle of red wine (Australian Shiraz) below the £20 mark.

Cost: I was a guest of Tom’s Terrace, but I have quoted prices for all dishes I tried and estimate that a 3-course meal (excluding drinks and service) would cost around £35 per person.

Likes: one of the most coveted locations this summer, uncomplicated menu.

Dislikes: some food items are overpriced, limited wine options at a reasonable price.

Verdict: This is an attractive spot for summer drinks after work and a light bite to eat despite the higher than average prices. Recommended.

Tom's Terrace on Urbanspoon
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