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Friday 27 March 2015

Moro - A Taste of Al-Andalus in Clerkenwell

Name: Moro

Where: 34/36 Exmouth Market, London, EC1R 4QE, http://www.moro.co.uk/

Cost: Starters range from £8.50 to £9.50, main courses from £16.50 to £22.00, and desserts from £6.50 to £9.00. Wines are largely from the Iberian peninsula, with whites from £19.50 for a Venas del Vero, Somontano, Spain, and reds from £22.00 for a Bobal - Tempranillo blend from Utiel-Requena, Spain. There is an extensive and well-priced sherry menu.

About: Moro is a Clerkenwell institution, opened by Sam and Sam Clark in 1997. With its little sister Morito next door (reviewed here), with a more casual tapas-style menu and no reservations taken, they have been the top choices in Clerkenwell for Iberian and North African food for years.

Moro has a laid-back feel about it, with wooden floors and bare tables, and an open kitchen with an old fashioned wood oven contrasting with gleaming stainless steel. The food is uncomplicated, relying on good ingredients prepared with minimal fuss.

I have been using Moro's cookbooks for years, they are among the few I have returned to over and over again - lately even more so since getting hold of their latest Morito cookbook, which has some wonderful recipes. I highly recommend their cookbooks -   you can find out more about them here.

What We Ate: With their comprehensive list of sherries, we could think of no better start than with some aperitifs and a glass of chilled sherry. We kicked off with some salted Marcona almonds, olives, some crusty bread and a couple of glasses of bone-dry  amontillado and an oloroso.

For starters, we shared the roasted quail ajillo (i.e. cooked in garlic), served in a fragrant jus of white wine and garlic, with shavings of black truffle (£9.50). The sweet quail meat had soaked up the garlic, butter and white wine, and made a great start to the dinner.

The other starter was a platter of chopped calves liver (£9.50), over fresh greens and herbs including chervil, and a smattering of toasted, lightly crushed hazelnuts. The dish had a wonderful combination of flavours and texture which I really enjoyed - creamy liver, crunchy nuts and refreshing green herbs.

The mains were quite substantial and wholesome. The wood-roasted Herefordshire pork (£19.50), was served with slow-cooked cabbage flavoured with chorizo pieces, and whole roasted chestnuts. The pork crackling was crisp, and the meat soft and flavoursome with hints of paprika, and a deliciously rich red wine jus.

Better still was the charcoal grilled lamb with Moroccan salads and chermoula (a sauce of coriander, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil) (£21.50). Served rare as ordered, the lamb was tender and the flavour lifted by the accompanying chermoula and salads. I loved the salads, and there were three - wafer-thin turnip with orange blossom and mint; celery with olives, tomatoes, cumin and ground ginger; and finally soft carrots, roasted with cinnamon and paprika. The flavours were fresh and aromatic, and were a great accompaniment to the lamb. I would love to have this dish again.

To finish, we had a delectable yoghurt cake with pistachios and pomegranate (£7.00). One of Moro's classic desserts for many years, this was light and creamy with refreshing acidity from the yoghurt.

But perhaps Moro's most famous dessert is the Malaga raisin ice cream (£6.50). Served with a luscious Pedro Ximenez sherry, the ice cream infused with plummy raisin fruit and a prominent hit of alcohol, this was vanilla ice cream like no other.

What We Drank: After a couple of excellent sherries, we shared a bottle of Sino da Romaneira 2010 (£42), from Douro, Portugal. A blend of Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Touriga Franca and Tinto Cão, this had a surprisingly restrained nose, but on the palate, plenty of red fruit, structured tannins and a long finish. It was weighty and complex enough to be a good partner to the richness of the meats. 

Likes: A small but well thought out menu which changes daily, top-notch ingredients, serving some of my favourite flavours from the Iberian peninsula and North Africa. The place has a casual vibe, and was heaving on the Wednesday evening of our dinner. 

Dislikes: None

Verdict: Top ingredients, expert cooking with little fuss, reasonable prices - no wonder Moro has been a favourite for Iberian and North African food in London for years. And judging by my latest visit, it would not suprised me if it continued to be for years to come. I can't wait to return. Highly recommended. 

Wednesday 25 March 2015

Gigi's - A Preview from The London Foodie Tipster!

Name: Gigi's

Where: 22 Woodstock Street, Mayfair, London W1C 2AR

Cost: Starters are priced from £8.50 to £15.00, with pasta dishes from £14.00 to £27.00, mains from £19.50 to £36, and side dishes at £4.50. Two or three course set lunch menus are £22 or £25 (Mon to Fri, 12 - 3pm). These change weekly, and include vegetarian options.  Cocktails range from £8.50 to £11.50.

About: Opened in September 2014, this Italian restaurant headed by the Neapolitan chef Ivan Simeoli, previously of Club Gascon and The Wallace, is tucked away at the end of a tiny enclave off Oxford Street that could easily be missed.

Gigi's is an elegant spot, on which it seems no money has been spared, with classic parquet floors, plush green velvet seating, chandeliers and a magnificent cocktail bar.

I could not fail to notice that on the evening we were there, all the waiting staff were Russian. On further investigation, it turns out that the restaurant is Russian owned, which might explain the staffing, and the huge sums that appear to have been spent on the decor. It also claims to have  served the world's most expensive cocktail at £9000 a pop.

What We Ate: It is rare in a restaurant for me to find that I want to order many items from the menu, but this was an issue at Gigi's, and choosing was difficult. After much deliberation, we decided to start our meal with the roasted octopus with borlotti beans and flamed onion broth (£11.50). I love the combination of seafood and beans, and here the octopus was excellent, with a deliciously char-grilled flavour and sweetness from the onions, and surprisingly was even more tender than the accompanying beans.

The vitello carpaccio tonnato (£13.50) is one of Italy's most popular regional specialties  from Turin. Gigi's take on this Italian classic, dotted with leaves of radicchio and sorrel, was superb, with finely cut rare veal, and a light and creamy fresh tuna mayonnaise. Having enjoyed this dish on a number of occasions in Italy, I can safely state that Gigi's was the best I have eaten to date.

The ravioli with Amalfi lemon and buffalo ricotta (£14.00), from the pasta section, had a heady citrus aroma, and a rich buttery sauce. A refined, beautifully presented dish, it transported me straight back to my last visit to Sorrento (reviewed here).

The pappardelle Zafferano with ossobuco and sage butter (£19.50), had freshly made, paper thin pasta, nearly as wide as lasagne. Served with veal and bone-marrow, this was rich, sweet and full of flavour. The chef had substituted the more traditional risotto with freshly made pasta, which worked a treat.

The salt marsh English lamb, with heritage carrots, sheep's milk and crunchy shallots (£24) was in my opinion the star of the meal. Tender and full of flavour, and with a magnificent, highly concentrated jus, it was exquisite both to the eye and the palate.

The White Park rib eye beef was served medium rare, with turnip tops and mustard (£36). Richly flavoured and well presented, this was also very good, although compared with the lamb, it did not fare so well in flavour or value for money.

For dessert, we opted for the Ivan Simeoli's interpretation of tiramisu (£7.50). A delectable deconstruction of an overfamiliar classic, this featured chocolate tuile, coffee meringue and a coffee parfait.

The liquorice sandwich with apple bubbles (£7.50) was very fine, with an intensely flavoured and aromatic apple foam, and a well made hazelnut parfait.

What We Drank: We kicked off with a Silver-tini cocktail - a refreshing concoction of lychees, gin, elderflower cordial, lime and pink champagne (£11.50). Equally good was the Rose Petal Martini, gin-based (Hendricks), but flavoured with rose and voilet liqueurs and lychee puree (£10.50).

With the main course, we had a glass of Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (£7.50 per glass), which was not a great match for the quality of the cooking.

Likes: The salt marsh English lamb was excellent, as was the vitello carpaccio tonnato, and both pasta dishes. Desserts were innovative and skillfully presented. Cocktails were strong and well made. The food menu is in the main well priced for the location.  

Dislikes: None

Verdict: There is some first rate cooking at Gigi's - Ivan Simeoli is a creative and talented chef using fantastic Italian produce to reinvent some of his country's classics. It's early days for Gigi's, and while it tries to find its feet on the London culinary scene, there is some serious cooking at surprisingly reasonable prices to be had. Highly recommended.

Thursday 19 March 2015

Pachamama - Peruvian Inspired Cuisine, Made in England

Name: Pachamama

Where: 18 Thayer  Street, Lonson, W1U 3JY, http://pachamamalondon.com/

Cost: The menu is small but well thought-out, themed around small eats, and grouped into snacks, land, sea and soil. 'Land' dishes (meat and poultry) cost from £7 to £29, 'Sea' (fish and seafood) from £5 to £10. The 'soil' small eats are vegetable-based, with squash, plaintain, asparagus and quinoa featuring prominently, and priced from £7 to £8. All the fish and seafood is sourced from the British coast, and the meat is all from Yorkshire. Piscos and cocktails are priced at £8.50. Entry-level wines start at £23 for a Spanish Macabeo or an Australian Shiraz.

About: Pachamama, meaning 'Mother Earth' in Quechua language, is one of a cluster of Peruvian restaurants to open in London in the last couple of years, situated in Marylebone, just a stone's throw from The Wallace Collection. With a discrete ground floor door that is very easy to miss, the restaurant opens up in the basement to a surprisingly cavernous space, with a 10 -seater bar for cocktails and small eats, and around 70 covers.

Fairly packed on the midweek evening we attended, the restaurant is all distressed wood-panelling, tiled floors, and plain wooden tables. The menu is Peruvian themed, with some Japanese-influenced Nikkei dishes, a small wine menu, and cocktails on a Peruvian Pisco theme.

The young head-chef Adam Rawson, formerly of White Rabbits in Dalston, has ambitious plans for the restaurant, having hired a Peruvian sous-chef in February 2015. 

What We Ate: From the snack options, we had salt and aji squid (£4.50) and chicharones (deep fried pork belly) with sweet onions (£4.50).  The squid was tender and well flavoured, served with a powerful aji mayonaise.

The chicharones were superb, with tender, flavoursome pork in a crisp shell.

From the 'Sea' menu, we had the Cornish seabass with pumpkin, samphire, red onion, radish, coriander and leche de tigre (tiger's milk) (£9).  The tiger's milk was golden from aji amarillo, with a nice amount of chilli heat and not too much acidity or sweetness, which are often problematic features of leche de tigre outside of Peru.

The yellowfin tuna with soy and pickled potato ceviche (£9), was also excellent. Flavoured with hot rocoto chilli in the soy, wasabe and olive oil dressing, this had some good Peruvian Nikkei flavour combinations.

Next came the Cornish crab served with purple potato and green herbs (£10) in a richly infused saffron-dashi which was creamy and delicious, akin to a crab-bisque.

Scallops conchita (£5), was served in the shell, with beautifully seasoned quinoa and a zingy tomato and red onion salsa, this was a very refreshing dish.

From the 'Land' menu, we had the crispy lamb belly with green miso (£9). Lamb belly can be very fatty, and is great for braising then deep frying. The meat was succulent but crispy with the spicy green miso made from white miso, green jalapeno chillies, garlic and lime helping to cut through the fattiness.

We also had the beef cheek Lomo Saltado (£14). Lomo saltado is a Chinese-Peruvian dish, cooked by the 'Chifa' Chinese migrant labourers when they came to Peru in the early 20th century, and today is one of Peru’s national dishes. Pachamama's version featured some unusual ingredients like beef cheeks and parsnips not commonly seen in this dish. It had little resemblance to the dish we tried in Peru, and lacked the vibrancy of the other dishes we had on our visit.

From the 'Soil' menu, we tried the Peruvian asparagus with saffron yolk and peanut (£8). Although I could not taste much saffron, there was quite a kick of chilli heat, and the asparagus was well cooked with a delicious smoky flavour.

Better still was the fried aubergine with smoked yoghurt and pecan (£8) – with unctuously tender flesh within a crispy deep-fried exterior, the aubergine was delicious accompanied by the smoky, nutty yoghurt.

We shared a couple of desserts -  the suspiro de Limena (£6.50), served in a Champagne goblet, had a sweet lemony meringue, and a creamy base flavoured with tart passion fruit – great contrasting flavours and textures.

The torta de chocolate with toasted quinoa ice cream was also good, with a malted, nutty flavour to the ice cream, although the torta had the texture and flavour more akin to a mousse than a cake (£6.50).

What We Drank: We kicked off with a couple of cocktails - the Shining Path was a refreshing Champagne based drink, spiked with cinnamon and Abbott’s bitters. 

The Rosa del Inca was one of Pachamama’s many Pisco cocktails - infused with pink peppercorns and Volcano coffee beans, vermouth, Campari, orange bitters, this was delicious, with a bracing combination of bitter flavours and subtle coffee notes.

With our fish dishes, we had the house white, Matos Blanco from Spain (£7.50 for 250ml), which was non-descript, and completely outclassed by the food. Similarly, with the meat course, we had the house red, Matos Tinto Tempranillo from Spain (also £7.50 for 250ml) - again fruity but undistinguished, and a very poor partner for the food offered. 

Pachamama has a reputation for its cocktails, so as a digestif, we had a couple more (£8.50 each).  The Dulce de Chasca featured dulce de leche, rum, Pisco, vanilla syrup and chocolate bitters, and was an appropriately fruity yet potent end to the meal.

The Pichu Pichu had Volcano Peruvian coffee, Pisco, Kahlua, chocolate and vanilla bitters - a generous hit of potent coffee and chocolate flavours to complete an excellent dinner.

Likes: Particularly outstanding were the chicharones, the Nikkei yellowtail tuna, the scallops conchita, the fried aubergine and lamb belly. The cocktails were strong and well made.

Dislikes: The music is loud to the point of being almost night-club level, and if you lean against the walls, they shake. Although we really liked almost all the dishes, they were uniformly quite spicy, and this does not reflect our experience of food in Peru, where there was a variety of spicy, citrus and savoury dishes. The lomo saltado was the weakest link of our evening, tasting like an English beef stew - nothing wrong with that but not what we were looking for in a Peruvian restaurant serving one of its great national dishes. 

Verdict: There is some seriously good cooking at Pachamama. With a good Marylebone location and a well-priced menu, this is definitely a place to check out. Highly recommended.

Monday 16 March 2015

Taste of Portugal 2015 – Discovering Bisaro Pork at Portal Restaurant

Words & Photography by Matthew Brown and Luiz Hara

Name: Taste of Portugal 2015 at Portal Restaurant

Where: 88 St. John Street, London, EC1M 4EH (Portal Restaurant has closed down on the 6th February 2015)

Cost: The Taste of Portugal event ‘Bisaro Pork Tasting Menu’, priced at £65 or £95 with wine-pairing, was specially created by Chef Ricardo Costa and Sommelier Antonio Lopes to highlight this uniquely Portuguese breed of pig for the Taste of Portugal campaign.

But if you missed the event, Portal’s a la carte menu offers plenty of opportunities to try Portuguese pork Bisaro or otherwise - sliced 40-month Pata Negra ham can be ordered by weight (£19/50g), starter of pork belly, black pudding and cabbage (£8), whilst Bisaro pork served with broad beans, chouriço, carrots and turnip (£25) is a popular fixture on the menu can be ordered as a main course. With three days’ notice, determined diners can even order a traditional Bisaro suckling pig, to feed 8-10 people, for £385. The restaurant takes its exclusively Portuguese wine cellar seriously, and though there are few bottles below £20, a large number are priced between £20-30 or available by the glass. 

About: Portal is one of London’s finest Portuguese restaurants, opened nine years ago by Antonio Correia, this is a favourite haunt of mine and the place I head to whenever I crave fine Iberian cuisine, please see reviews here and here.

The evening we visited was organised by Taste of Portugal, a campaign by Turismo de Portugal. Taste of Portugal 2015 is a season of culinary and cultural events - it is a great campaign I support strongly, directed at British foodies, as it highlights the relatively undiscovered cuisine and wines of this amazing country. If you haven’t visited Portugal yet, read on and be tempted. There are still several Taste of Portugal events still to come (check their website here).

On this latest visit to Portal, the menu was created by Ricardo Costa, a young chef who started his professional career in Portal’s kitchen years ago, before returning to Portugal where he is now Executive Chef for the restaurant in Porto’s exclusive Yeatman Hotel, which has the city’s only Michelin star.

Sommelier Antonio Lopes and Chef Ricardo Costa

Bisaro pork, which was at the heart of the menu we sampled, is one of Portugal’s proudest specialities. These pigs are from the Vinhais region in the north of the country, and are actually part-boar, growing to be more than a metre in length. Having been fêted for more than a century, they are fed on a traditional diet including chestnuts and acorns, giving the meat its rich and nutty flavour.

What We Ate: The first course was a game and chicken sausage, made by Costa’s team in the kitchen of the Yeatman Hotel. This is known as alheira sausage, and was invented by Portuguese Jews in order to fool the Inquisition that had forced them to convert to Christianity.

This was followed by a spectacularly rich belly of Bisaro suckling pig, served with taut slices of cardinal prawn (another ingredient native to Portugal) and a mixed sprout salad. The suckling Bisaro is one of Portal’s specialities, and the gamey, crispy meat lived up to its reputation. I love the Portuguese flair in combining seafood and pork so well (as in pork Alentejano style with clams), and I wonder whether this is something they picked up during the colonial period in China (Macau), or vice versa.

The Bisaro pork returned again in a stew, made with a caramelised pistachio and Madeira wine sauce. Costa placed a succulent loin of pork in the centre of the bowl, with its cooking jus spiked with Madeira poured over it at the table. The loin of Bisaro pork, despite being less fatty than the belly, was still very succulent, and it was interesting to note that this leaner cut was just as flavoursome.

The most surprising dish, however, was dessert: an Abbey of Priscos pudding served with citrus sorbet and cured Bisaro pork. The bacon transformed this traditional pudding of egg, lemon and sugar, with its salt unlocking the creaminess of the rest of the dish. Inventively designed to resemble a fried egg, the pudding was served on a base of pine nuts and with a garnish of red berry jelly. This level of detail is unusual in a dessert, and made it the unexpected star of the meal.

What We Drank: The evening began with a Portonic - a simple but refreshing cocktail of white port and tonic that easily gives the G&T a run for its money. White ports may be sweet or dry, but in this cocktail, a bone-dry version was used, making it a great accompaniment to a bowl of salted almonds, or, as we had it here, with Bisaro pork crackling. The white port we tried is available for purchase at Waitrose.

The wines for the evening were chosen by the recently appointed Official Taste of Portugal Sommelier, Antonio Lopes. Our first, a glass of Principal Rosé "Tête de Cuvée" 2010, was a good choice for the alheira sausage, with gentle berry and floral notes.

It was followed by another rosé, a sparkling Campolargo Pinot Noir Brut 2012 also from the Bairrada region. Much bolder, with strong bubbles and berry notes, this went excellently with the sweet Bisaro crackling.

The Bisaro stew was accompanied by a Meandro 2012, a darkly intense, fruit-driven wine with gentle tannins. With dessert, we had a 10-year old Madeira wine: Barbeito Verdelho Old Reserve. Golden in colour, and with plenty of acidity to balance its sweetness, this was a blissful end to the meal.

Likes: The Bisaro pork was magnificent, and in the capable hands of Ricardo Costa, it was elevated to the sublime. Portal has one of the UK’s finest Portuguese wine cellars, and this meal’s wine pairings showed that some relatively undiscovered national wines can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of France or Italy. 

Dislikes: None.

Verdict: This Taste of Portugal 2015 event featured Porto’s Michelin-starred chef, together with Portugal’s top sommelier, to highlight the wonderful produce and wines of the country available right here in London’s finest Portuguese restaurant, Portal. This is just one of a number of events by Taste of Portugal 2015, and if you get the chance to attend any of them, I would highly recommend it.

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