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Thursday 28 February 2013

Cocktails and Empanadas at Moo Grill

Words and Photography by Simeen Kadi

Moo Grill first became popular a few years ago as the best place in London for a lomito; big, delicious Argentinian sandwiches usually stuffed with meat and cheese (see earlier review here). A few years on and it is still in the lomito lead. But while the original Moo Grill continues to satisfy the lunchtime cravings of legions of City workers, the owners have recently opened a larger, more stylish restaurant just around the corner for more after work drinking and dining, Argentine-style.

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Now there are quite a few Argentinian grill restaurants in town. Some sadly, like A la Cruz, have been charred to extinction while others, like Gaucho, have become a black and white spotted rash across the posher postcodes of the city. The Argentinian beef is the main attraction, offered in a variety of cuts and cooked on the parilla while accompaniments such as chimichurri (a sublime sauce of peppers, garlic, parsley and chilli) and humitas (sweetcorn steamed in its husk) give an exotic twist.

And Moo Grill does all the above commendably, sourcing its grass fed beef from Argentina and neighbouring Uruguay. However, it was their cocktails and bar food that we were here to try. With more space in the new restaurant and a well-stocked bar, Moo Grill is as good an option for after work drinks as a meat feast. Cata, the cocktail maestro has created a cocktail list that celebrates the flavours and drinking culture of Argentina as well as giving the classic British G&T an Argie makeover, with variations involving rosemary, ginger and even grapes, all to good effect.

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To give us a taste of cocktail hour in the hottest bars of Buenos Aires, despite the claggy London drizzle outside, Cata’s list draws on national staples such as Yerba maté and dulce de leche. Maté is a social tradition in Argentina with a ceremony not unlike tea ceremonies of the East; the leaves of this bitter herb are dried and crushed before being infused, sometimes with the addition of honey or sugar. Moo Maté was a long and refreshing cocktail, blending cognac with orange juice and fresh mint leaves to balance out the bitter, herby flavour of the maté infusion. Another Argentine obsession, dulce de leche is a thick, milk toffee with a name that sounds so much better than boiled condensed milk. At Moo Grill it was married with vanilla vodka and rum with a crumble of ground coffee on the top to add depth. Skip dessert and go for one of these instead.

One of the highlights of the evening was the Bloody Moo, an Argie riff on the brunch sharpener featuring what is possibly the country’s greatest culinary triumph, chimichurri sauce. This is one of those combinations which just makes so much sense you wonder how you will ever make do with boring old Worcestershire sauce and celery salt again.

To accompany the cocktail tasting session we were served some of the best empanadas I have ever eaten (I am no empanada aficionado but I have had a few in my time). Crunchy, crusty pockets with deeply satisfying, meaty, cheesy fillings, enlivened with some zippy chimichurri. They are the perfect accompaniment to a stylish cocktail evening and, if things get a little out of hand, you’ll be glad you had the good sense to line your stomach with this scrumptious alcohol soaker.

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Other notable cocktails we tried included the Argentinian hipster’s drink of choice, Fernet Branca and Coke. Fernet is a European import, and its bitter, herby flavour gave a grown-up edge to the Coke. Cata also mixes a well-balanced rose martini, named Sandro after the country’s most famous ‘60’s popstar. Rose tinted and delicately flavoured, the rose works well to bring out the flavours of some very fine gin.

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Try at home - here’s a recipe for Chimichurri sauce to go with meat, grilled vegetables, even a toasted cheese sandwich:

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4 tablespoons lemon juice
60ml red wine vinegar
60ml red wine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
50g chopped fresh oregano (or dried will do)
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
60ml extra-virgin olive oil
handful fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

Combine the lemon juice, vinegar, wine, garlic, salt, black pepper, oregano, parsley and red pepper flakes in a bowl, stirring until ingredients have combined.  Mix well as you drizzle in the oil.

Likes: an unpretentious bar and restaurant run by genuinely nice people who create a relaxed and fun atmosphere. Go for cocktails and moreish empanadas, a glass of some excellent Argentinian wine, a hunk of grilled cow or even a lunchtime lomito – it is open from 11am during the week.

Dislikes: The beef may be out of this world but it has travelled extensively around it to get to our plates. Another example of the constant tension we face of loving the multi-cultured culinary scene of London but hating the environmental impact.

Info: Moo Grill 40-42 Middlesex Street, E1 7EX 
Tel.: 020 7650 7948 

Wednesday 27 February 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Mexico - Merida, Uxmal and Kabah

The capital city of Merida is a great place to soak up the Yucatan state's colonial and Mayan cultures, whiling away the hours in one of the city's beautiful squares, with live music being played in almost every bar and restaurant in the old town and a seriously chilled beer (see earlier review here).

Colonial architecture

It is also the most convenient spot from which to reach some of the state's most impressive archaeological Mayan sites at Uxmal and Kabah, and the fine coastal towns and nature reserves of the Mayan Riviera.


The city also boasts some of the best Yucatecan restaurants in the region, and this is where I had one of my best meals in Mexico (see 'Where to Eat' below). 

Where to Stay

Hotel Hacienda Merida

Hacienda Merida was by far the most elegant hotel we stayed at during our trip in Mexico. A small boutique hotel, it was recently named one of Condé Nast's best new hotels in the world under US$200.

The hotel is owned by French ex-corporate executive Alex Degoute, who travelled the world on business in his former life, but decided to settle in Merida when the opportunity to purchase a couple of derelict colonial houses arose, which now make up Hotel Hacienda Merida.

The hotel is on Calle 62, just a stone's throw from the main square, and has a very unassuming appearance from the street which adds to its charm, as few would anticipate such grandeur on walking through its doors.

The hotel is divided into two - the original building with 8 rooms having a reception area and small bar open to the public, and a second 'VIP' building with 6 larger rooms with no reception or direct access to the general public. It is quieter and more private, and it was in this latter section that we stayed.

It was a long, painstakingly hard process taking Alex's total devotion to bring the houses to their current state, but it has definitely paid off. Dotted with beautiful French antique furniture and paintings, the hotel has discreet indirect lighting, white drapes between the Romanesque columns, polished ochre floors, and crystal-clear, well-sized swimming pools with loungers.

Our room faced one of the swimming pools, and included a private veranda, a large separate closet and luggage storage room, and a very spacious bathroom. The room was huge, with high ceilings and was very elegantly furnished. I have stayed in a few 5-star luxury resorts that didn't have half the sense of style that the Hotel Hacienda Merida has but charge twice as much.

Breakfast is taken in the courtyard by the swimming pool, and includes individual cafetieres of good strong coffee, a generous platter of freshly cut fruit, pastries and a cooked breakfast of bacon, eggs and fried potatoes. It was wholesome and generous, and started us off on a good footing for both our days there.

A gourmand at heart, Alex was very friendly and generous with his time giving us excellent advice on things to do and eat in Merida. Hotel Hacienda Merida was one of the highlights of our trip to Mexico, and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Merida.

Where to Eat

Merida was also where I had the best meal of my trip in Mexico. La Chaya Maya, opened only a year ago, and is now considered one of the best restaurants in the region. There are two branches in the city, and I was so impressed on my first visit that I decided to visit the second branch during our four-day stay in Merida.

Both restaurants are in the historical centre of town, close to the main square, and are within easy walking distance of each other.  They have the same menu, but are very different in style. The original restaurant is smaller, modern in style, occupies a corner on Calle 62 and is busy and lively.  The newer version, occupying a large colonial home, is more elegant with an open courtyard and several different dining-rooms including al fresco and indoor dining options. 
La Chaya Maya - newer, larger and more elegant branch

I was surprised to see turkey being featured in many of the dishes on the menu but was later told that it is the poultry of choice for that part of the country. I am not a great fan of turkey but the "Sopa de Lima" (£2) a  soup made of shredded turkey, turkey stock flavoured with lime and topped with crisp tortilla sticks was delicious and an excellent start to our meal.

Our second choice of starters were "Panuchos" (£3). These were handmade crisp corn tortillas which had been split and filled with black bean purée and then topped with shredded turkey, lettuce, cucumber and tomato, pickled red onion and slices of avocado. I really enjoyed this, they had a fresh and well balanced combination of flavours and great texture - crunchy, creamy and meaty.

The best dish of the evening however was the "Tikim Xic" at £5.50. This was a generous portion of fish fillet marinated with achiote (the seeds from the Annatto flower), cooked in banana leaves and stuffed with shrimps, squid and clams. The achiote gave a nice, reddish colour to the dish but also imparted earthy, peppery and smokey notes to the fish and seafood. In retrospect, this was the best dish I had in my entire trip in Mexico, and a good break from the more stodgy and meat laden local Yucatecan dishes.

For dessert, Dr G and I shared a "Dulce de Papaya" (£2). This was a portion of pumpkin in chunks cooked in a sugar syrup flavoured with spices including cloves and cinnamon and topped with grated cheese. This is a similar dessert I grew up eating in Brazil which brought back many happy childhood memories.

La Chaya Maya - original and smaller venue

Of our four days in Merida, we decided to return to La Chaya Maya for our last meal in the city. This is the original La Chaya Maya, a smaller but equally busy venue. Given that this restaurant is relatively pricier than most restaurants in town, I initially thought it catered primarily for visitors, but it was nice to see many Mexican families also eating there.

For this meal, Dr G and I decided to go for "Los Cuatro Yucas" which is a set of four traditional Yucatecan dishes for 2 people (£9.50). This offers a good opportunity to taste four dishes at once (each individual dish is priced at £5). I enjoyed all dishes, they were well seasoned and delicious although I was craving for some vegetables or greens of any kind as an accompaniment rather than the ubiquitous tortillas which was served with every dish.

Cochinita Pibil - pork marinated with achiote, sour orange juice, spices, sweet chilli, tomato and onion, then cooked in banana leaves and served with black bean purée.

Pavo en Relleno Negro - turkey and minced pork cooked in a spicy sauce made from different varieties of black beans, chillies and spices.

Pavo en Sac col Indio- thick slice of baked turkey served in sac col, a rich turkey gravy seasoned with dried herbs and Mayan spices, garnished with olives.

Pavo en Pipian - turkey simmered in a deliciously rich pumpkin seed mole.

What to Do

There is a lot to occupy a few days in Merida (see earlier review here), but here I focus more on the places of interest outside of the city. However, a couple of things I enjoyed doing while staying at the Hotel Hacienda Merida were relaxing by the hotel's pool, and strolling around Parque Hidalgo.

Relaxing and people watching at Parque Hidalgo

The Hotel Hacienda Merida has a beautiful pool, good for relaxing in the hot afternoons, as well as spa with affordable rates for massages, at around £25 for one hour. Parque Hidalgo on the intersection of Calles 59 and 60, about 50 metres north of the Main square is a pretty spot surrounded by hotels and restaurants, and is a good place to retreat and relax with a drink, being calmer than the main square and surrounding streets with their continuous music and wandering street vendors.

Beyond the confines of the city, It would be a shame not to visit one of the Mayan ruins in the vicinity, of which Uxmal is probably the best and largest example. We took a whole day excursion, being picked up from our hotel at 09.00, and returned at 17.30, with Turitransamerica.

Carlos, the larger than life guide, drove us around and gave a very detailed explanation of all the sites. Although it was entirely in Spanish, he was so expressive that it was not difficult to follow what he said for anyone with a smattering of the language. There was certainly much more detail on the buildings in his tour than we had in our guide book.

The ruins at Uxmal are in many ways more impressive than those at Chichen Itza, but far less visited, and are within an hour's drive from Merida. Thanks to its good state of preservation, it is one of the few Maya cities where visitors can get a good idea of how the entire ceremonial centre, pyramids and buildings looked in ancient times.

After a few hours at Uxmal, we had a good lunch included in the tour price (£25 per person), and then visited the smaller but equally impressive ruins at nearby Kabah before returning to our hotel.

Another option for a day trip from Merida, which unfortunately I did not have time to visit is the coastal town of Celestun ( 2 hours each way by bus), for a swim in the Gulf of Mexico, and a visit to the wildlife reserve to see great flocks of flamingos and other waterfowl. This is also provided as a day trip by Turitransmerida, including a fish lunch on the beach. 

Travel Essentials

Hotel Hacienda Merida
Calle 62, 439 x 51 y 53
Centro Historico, Merida

Trip to Uxmal and Kabah was arranged with Turitransmerida, at a cost of £25pp including a pick up from the hotel and transport to and from all sites, lunch and a guide
Calle 55, 504 x 60 y 62 
Centro Historico, Merida 

La Chaya Maya (New Branch - more elegant)
Calle 62 481, Centro
97000 Mérida, Mexico
+52 999 928 4780

La Chaya Maya (Original Restaurant)
Calle 57 x 62 (corner), Centro
97000 Mérida, Mexico

Monday 25 February 2013

The London Foodie Goes to Mexico - City of Merida

The capital of the Yucatan state, Merida has been a major city since before the Spanish conquered and renamed it (from T'ho) in 1542. With around one million inhabitants and with many different barrios spreading in all directions, Merida has the historic charm of neighbouring towns but also all the amenities of a major city.

That said, Plaza Grande or the main square is the city's focal point with most sites of interest to visitors located within a 5-block radius. At night, this area comes alive with live music in almost every bar, tables outdoors and street hawkers.

If you are not flying to Merida from Cancun or Mexico City, it can be reached by ADO bus (a good, frequent and great value service) from Cancun (4-6 hours) or Valladolid or the walled town of Campeche (both 2.5 hours). It is also the most convenient spot from which to visit the magnificent Mayan ruins at Uxmal. 

Where to Stay

Rosas y Xocolate

The über-cool Rosas y Xocolate Hotel is on the Paseo de Montejo, the city's answer to the Champs Elysées. It is a wide, green boulevard dotted with fine mansions built by wealthy families at the end of the 19th century, some chic shops, the city's anthropological museum and a smattering of banks.

Two such mansions were purchased and renovated by Carol Kolozs to create the boutique hotel and spa Rosas y Xocolate. No expense was spared in the process, and today the hotel, part of the Design Hotels Group, is an ultra-stylish example of contemporary Mexican architecture.

In tones of chocolate brown and rose pink, the modern feel of the hotel is accentuated by the clear lines and elegant Italian furniture, discreet lighting and beautiful Mexican artefacts in its rooms and common areas.

There is also a swimming pool in the central courtyard, a fully equipped gym and luxury spa where massages and other treatments make use of chocolate.

Our room was very spacious, with a huge open air stone bath, and the highest ceilings I have ever seen helped to keep the room cool despite 35C temperatures outside (air conditioning is available, but we didn't use it). I liked the way the designers (Salvador Reyes Rios and Josefina Larrain) sympathetically incorporated modern features like plate glass walls, Bose sound systems and flat screen cable TV, blending them with colonial architecture to create a room in which they didn't feel out of place.

The hotel breakfast is served in its open air cafe, with a number of options available. Jams and pastries are made in house and were delicious, as were the Mexican specialties on the menu, including Huevos Motulenos and Huevos Rancheros.

The open-air roof-top terrace bar has a DJ or live music being played most evenings of the week, and is a place where Merida's in-crowd get together for cocktails and music. We had a lovely evening there with an American jazz band, a few Margaritas and a couple of Montecristo Cuban cigars.

The hotel's restaurant is well regarded in the city, and although I didn't get the chance to sample its food, I saw from the menu that it presents an interesting fusion of local Yucatecan ingredients with French and Italian techniques and influences.

I very much enjoyed my stay at Rosas y Xocolate, it is one of the most stylish boutique hotels I have stayed at, with very personable and friendly service.

Where to Eat

Los Trompos

Los Trompos is a few metres from the main square, and is mainly notable for its live and rather loud Mexican music, and tables outdoors in the evenings. It's in a touristic corner of town, and looks fairly undistinguished but is a good place for people watching, has a wide selection of beers and cocktails, and serves reasonable food.

We were recommended on more than one occasion not to be put off by its appearance, but to go and try one of their 'Combo' dishes.  There were several different Combos at £15 that feed three people, and we went for one including a selection of barbecued pork, beef and chicken pieces, along with a large pot of melted Manchego cheese, salad, tortillas, guacamole and refried beans.

I enjoyed this dish - although simple, it was quite a nice break from the rather stodgy Yucatecan fare we had been eating since our arrival. There was so much that we couldn't eat more than half of it, and I'm not one to leave food on my plate. This was also where I first came across Horchata, a delicious and very popular Mexican rice drink, sometimes also flavoured with coconut.

What to Do

An attractive city, Merida is a good spot to stay for a few days, from which to enjoy the nearby Mayan ruins, or its colonial architecture and squares. It has innumerable grand colonial houses, many of which have been restored as private homes, hotels, banks, shops or restaurants, but still quite a lot are looking rather neglected (and incidentally are going for a song if you have some spare cash).

Merida's main square (Plaza Grande) is regarded, since Mayan times, as the grandest in Mexico outside the capital, and is the centre of interest both for visitors and locals. This is a good place to idle away a few hours over some chilled beer in one of the square's open-air bars and soak up this city's lively atmosphere.

Catedral de San Ildefonso

There are several interesting buildings around the square, including the Catedral de San Ildefonso (built between 1561 and 1598, it is the oldest cathedral in the whole of the Americas), the Palacio de Gobierno for its stunning murals depicting the troubled colonial history of the Yucatan state, and the 16th century Casa de Montejo (now a Banamex Bank).

Palacio de Gobierno

Parque Hidalgo, another beautiful and smaller square in the corner of calles 59 and 60, has many restaurants and bars with outdoor tables, live music and street vendors and is also a great place to visit and spend a few hours.

A few blocks away from Plaza Grande, the Paseo de Montejo was constructed much later (19th century) than the city centre (16th century), but is worth strolling along if only to appreciate the wealth of the late 19th century city landowners, who built huge mansions for themselves on this wide and leafy boulevard. There is found the hotel Rosas y Xocolate, but also a number of much larger mansions, one of which now houses the Museum of Anthropology (Museo Regional de Antropologia). Sadly this was closed for a 3 month renovation when we were in town, but it is said to be very informative in its own right, and also to provide an interesting insight into the extremely prosperous lifestyle of the city rulers who built it.

Travel Essentials

Merida can be reached by ADO Bus' extensive network. A first class ticket from Valladolid costs around £8, and the journey takes approximately 2.5 hours. Alternatively, flights are available from Mexico City and Cancun with AeroMexico or Mexicana de Aviacion.

Hotel Rosas y Xocolate 
Paseo de Montejo 480 x 41
Col. Centro, Merida
Tel: +52 (999) 924-2992
Email: info@rosasandxocolate.com
Website: www.rosasandxocolate.com
Rooms cost from US$ 235 to US$ 695 (master suite) 

Restaurant Los Trompos
Calle 59 por 60 No. 602, Centro, Merida 
Website: www.lostrompos.com.mx

Museo Regional de Antropologia

Paseo Montejo Nº485  97000 Mérida, Mexico
Tel: +52 999 923 0469
Website: http://www.arqueomex.com/

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