Monday, 27 September 2010

Camino - Puerto del Canario, Docklands (yes, the new one)

Camino has all the edgy good looks of a converted warehouse - with exposed brickwork, high ceilings, floor boards, industrial fittings and opens onto a funky bar next door. One wall is all windows, looking out onto the Thames, outdoor seating in summer and presumably some excellent sunsets. Unfortunately, I spent the prime romantic moments of sunset running around Canary Wharf like a stunned rabbit in the headlights - the place remains a black hole maze of mystery to me. But arrive by ferry and you'll land right on Camino's doorstep, a mere tip toe from your first glass of dry, palate cleansing Manzanilla.

About the ferry. Who knew? It's called the Thames Clipper and zips along the Thames past the magical sights and lights of London, picking up and dropping off at stops along the way - including Canary Wharf, Embankment and Waterloo. It's exxie (I paid £4.80 for a single) but it proved to be a wonderful way to to by-pass the disgusting late night Tube to end a fantastic evening.

Camino means "path" or "roadway", in this case between the wonderful regional specialities and wines of Spain on offer. We start with a dry vino de Jerez (sherry), tasting both the Manzanilla "La Gitana" (salty, yeasty, nutty) and the Amontillado (9 years old with almond and hazelnut flavours) before settling on a luxuriously smooth Oloroso Antique, Fernando De Castilla (£5.50/glass). All I can think about is how I would like to start every night with a sherry for the rest of my life.

Our waiter (who proves to be a delight every step of the way) recommends we nibble on a simple txigorki as we fall further in love with our sherry. It's a Basque style bread with sun dried tomato, oregano, peppers and grilled goats cheese (£5). It's alright - and the mellow goats cheese is a good accompaniment to our wine - but it's a bit non descript and, as we suspect, there are better things to come.

Pulpo A La Parrilla arrives straight from the charcoal grill - a hefty, wonderfully tender octopus tentacle with silky olive oil mash and smoky paprika (£9.75). Also from the grill, the Presa Iberica 6oz - luscious slices of charred Iberico black pig shoulder, cooked medium rare (£9.50). It's exquisitely rich and piggy - pure, heavenly indulgence on a plate. Steak lovers will be converted. Pork lovers will lap this one up and lick the plate. If there's one dish not to miss, this is it.

I am almost always disappointed by croquetas but our waiter recommends the Croquetas de Jamon (£4.75) and I'm enjoying the wine so much I go along for the ride. They're surprisingly good - crisp giving way to creamy and, I write on my menu, "grorgois" which I now translate as "gorgeous". And it's still early in the night.

No Spanish feast would be complete without some Jamon Iberico (cured for 36 months), the acorn diet of the pigs giving the ham its unique, sweet flavour. We share a plate which is creamy and delicious, although cut slightly too thick (£7.25). TPG even prefers the Jamon Serrano, meat from the grain fed pig, which has been cured for 18 months (£5.25) -  it's lovely, but for me it's no match for the more decadent Iberico.

Arroz Negro Con Calamares is a garlicky mix of black rice, made from cuttlefish, squid ink and calasparra rice, with baby squid and alioli (£6.50). It sounds like my idea of heaven but unfortunately its saltier than the Dead Sea which throws it out of balance. If they get the seasoning right (and I have a feeling they will), this could be a fabulous dish of contrasting textures which I would have on my table every time.

All fresh meats and eggs are said to be free range and all fish from sustainable sources, mostly caught on the coast of the British Isles.  The all Spanish wine list deserves a special mention. There's so much fun to be had here, even aside from the delectable sherries. Wines are available by the glass, carafe and bottle at reasonable prices, and are listed in order of weight. We accompany our meal with bottle of Petalos, Descendientes De Palacios, 2007/08 (£30) - it's quite a big wine, with cherry flavours and goes well with the food.

For dessert, I have a lovely trio of ice-creams (including ginger and leche) which I slurp up with a sweet, raisoney Pedro Ximinez (£5.50). The Peanut Gallery enjoys the gooey, rich Pastel Chocolate (£5.00) with a satisfying glass of port.

For a significant meal, expect to pay between £35 - £55 per head including wine and service. However, portions are generous so be careful not to over-order on the basis that it's "just" tapas. Before I sign off - there is but one unspeakable horror that needs to be aired. I hope you're sitting down. Nearly every dish (excepting desserts) comes decorated with an inexplicable ... sprig of parsley. A singular sprig. Parsley, be gone.

Greenery aside, this is a terrific little place which the workers of Canary Wharf will likely come to see as a welcome, gluttonous refuge. Nothing less would entice me to the Docklands - but put me on the sherry ferry bound for Camino any day, and I'll be back.

Camino, 28 Westferry Circus, Docklands, London E14  (Tel: 020 7230 7709) 

Greedy Diva was invited to dine as a guest of Camino.

(Camino at Canary Wharf is the newest branch of the original Camino located at Kings Cross. Across from the King's Cross branch is Bar Pepito - a tiny sherry bar (or Andalusian bodega) of the same ownership which I am now bursting to visit. It recently won Time Out London's Best New Bar Award for 2010).

Camino on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Sud de France Festival: Masterclass at Vinopolis

"Oak is like make-up. You don't want to see it", or so says Charles Metcalfe when discussing his white wines of choice at the Sud de France Festival in London.

Actually, my Australian palate doesn't mind a heavy hand with the oak (although I do go easy on the lipstick). Nevertheless, before the curtain closes on 30th September, here's my quick shout out to wine enthusiasts, francophiles and lovers of all things Mediterranean for the Sud de France Festival. 

Although the Mediterranean sunshine may have largely vanished for the year, this festival promotes the Languedoc - Roussillon region's producers and flavours for all seasons - from the giant cassoulet and wine lunch at Borough Market, to the Sud de France Market with free tastings held in the Duke of York Square, to guided WSET courses. Upcoming events include the WSET course with Frederic Grappe (Dynamic Wines) for an introduction to the organic and biodynamic wines of Languedoc-Roussion (Tuesday 28 September) and the Sud De France Walkabout Tasting at Roberson Wines (Thursday 30 September).

Last week, I was invited to attend a Masterclass at Vinopolis hosted by British wine critic, Charles Metcalfe. After an entertaining and evocative introduction to the region - its food, wine, soil, terrain and culture - Charles gave a room full of wine enthusiasts a tutored tasting to 7 different wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. We then enjoyed some great regional cheeses and rillettes before the cellar opened up to a tasting of 16 wines from the region.

A big thumbs up for the Domaine De L'Aigle, 2008 (Vin de pays d'Oc, Pinot Noir) - a gorgeous, elegant, soft Pinot which retails for only around £8-£10 at Waitrose - a bargain. I also loved the Paul Mas Mourvedre, 2009 (Vin de pas d'Oc, £8.99 Majestic). If you like rose, my favourite was the Chateau Combebelle (Cerisier, 2009, AOC Saint Chinian) - dry with cherry liqueur (£7-£9). My pick of the whites was the Guillaume Aurele, 2009 (Vin de pays d'Oc, Chardonnay, £6.50 from Heritage Wine) - unoaked, ripe and fresh. For a sweet finish (and if you like Pedro Ximenez), try the Ey Single Vineyard, Vigne D'en Traginer, 2001 AOC Banyuls - a caramel-like Grenache, great for matching with cheese, pudding or chocolate.

The Sud De France Festival runs from 17 - 30 September 2010. See the Sud de France Festival website for details. If you miss it this year, this is definitely one to put in the diary for 2011.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Meatwagon, British Street Food - the quest for a great burger in London

There's a lot of hype about The Meatwagon. In many ways, it's deserved. Yianni Papoutsis is making some of the best burgers in London, in a style which is as close to my spiritual burger of worship at the Shake Shack in New York as can be found this side of the Atlantic. Yianni's burgers have been inspired by his travels around the USA, sampling all that its street food scene has to offer - and it shows.

But I waited OVER 2 HOURS for it. Out in the OPEN AIR. For a burger. And not even a Shake Shack burger with amazing fries and a salted caramel milk shake on the side.

The facts: I queued for around 30-40 minutes to place my order (having arrived 10 minutes after opening). Many, many people who joined the queue just after me missed out. They waited about an hour to find out - although it was surely obvious to The Meatwagon crew much earlier that the last 30-50 people were likely queuing for an hour in vain. It's one thing to queue and be rewarded (I've done it before - happily - at Shake Shack), but quite another for it to be a complete waste of time. I can't help but suspect The Meatwagon doesn't mind this - it adds to the hype afterall. However, the whole scenario gave rise to many unhappy punters who I am sure will not be queuing for the privilege again. What I didn't realise was that I would still have to wait nearly 2 hours after placing my order at The Meatwagon to have a burger in my grips. By this time, it was almost 10pm.

At least we had some entertainment, and beers to ease the pain.

Was it worth the wait?

Well, sort of. Certainly, for a burger fanatic, if you're one of the privileged few to score a burger. And if you're in good company to keep you entertained while your stomach feasts on your inner organs.

The burger is excellent and scores points for USA style authenticity. The knobbly, juicy (but crumbly on the outside) beef patty is nestled inside a toasted sourdough bun (Yianni has apparently worked with a baker to perfect the right recipe). The mix is completed with fresh crispy iceberg lettuce, red onion, melted cheese, ketchup and French's mustard - all of which work in perfect proportion and harmony for around £5. However, my burger was outrageously over-salted in parts and there was far too much butter on the bun - melted butter was dripping furiously onto my lap at one point and the taste of it was overwhelming at times. I haven't heard these complaints before, so perhaps they were a freak occurence - the foundations for a good thing were clearly there.

Others would agree - The Meatwagon recently won the British Street Food Award for Best Sandwich (2010).

The delay can (perhaps) partly be explained by the cooking method - the meat is placed on a very hot grill, squashed down to perfect patty size, flipped and then 2 wonderful slices of American style cheese are placed on top where they melt gloriously during the grilling process. The patty is also steamed under a metal dome over the grill during the process. Only a limited number of burgers can fit on the grill at once, and the process (it seems) is not to be hurried.

Would I do it again? Probably not. Not unless the van rolled up to the end of my street and threw me a bone to gnaw on during the wait. I understand why South Londoners have taken The Meatwagon to their hearts - particularly as it is usually positioned closer to home for them. However, I will not go out of my way for it again unless I overcome my sneaking suspicions that these guys are slightly taking the piss out of their customers - the "treat 'em mean, keep 'em keen" school of thought has never been one that works on me.

Particularly when it's almost faster to fly to New York and have a guarantee of the world's best burger with sides to go.

The Meatwagon moves around and, when I visited, it was one of the street food vendors (including the fantastic Brewed Boy coffee trolley and the delicious Choc Star van) present at the Eat St event near the Towpath Cafe. After my burger, I feasted on some superb chocolate truffles and rocky road by Choc Star which I highly recommend. Brewed Boy's coffee is a personal favourite - you can find him on Rupert St, Soho during the working week. You can check The Meatwagon's website for its next location.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Yauatcha, Dim Sum in Soho

Sometimes, when one needs comfort food on a lazy Sunday afternoon, only dim sum will do. And as if to prove that comfort and style need not be mutually exclusive, there's Yauatcha. (There's also my new Massimo Dutti heels, the mildly glam-in-an-officey-way exterior of which belies a sensible, I'm-on-the-wrong-side-of-30, cushioned inner sole. But I digress.)

Yauatcha is a modern dim sum tea house with a refined air and a Michelin Star held firmly between its chopsticks. Formerly owned by Alan Yau, it proves to be surprisingly good value (say, around £25 per head) - particularly if you stick to dim sum and tea. Although I caution that the bill does start to stack up if you opt for larger dishes and wine.

The ground level, where we enjoy our lunch time dim sum, feels bright and fresh, with shades of blue and a large fish tank lining the entrance. Downstairs, is more dimly lit and clandestine - a popular option for the evening crowd.

We start with some roasted blue tea, the Fuijan Wuyi Yan, Shui Xian (£4 per pot), which we chose on the basis that other options are more expensive and our waiter tells us they all taste fairly similar. It's rather bland, and doesn't really improve with the food. Choose another one.

Dim sum comes in sets of 3 (reflecting the number's association with good luck and the word "alive" in Chinese superstition, but often resulting in heavy negotations for me and the TPG.)

The beautifully presented scallop shui mai (£7.50) is a treasure-like bundle of juicy scallops and prawns topped with gleaming jewels of roe. The winter melon dumplings look like pudgy carrots, but are an enjoyable taste of Thai winter melon, black fungus, straw mushroom and gong choi (£3.80).

The sticky rice in lotus leaf with chicken and shrimp (£4.80) is good (but not the greatest) but then the char sui bun (3 for £3.50) is fantastic (a must) - and also great value compared to the lesser morsels you might get for around the same price in Chinatown.

We steer off the dim sum menu to try the Szechuan seafood claypot (£17.00) - a fresh and colourful mix of prawns, (slightly too chewy) squid, peanuts, mushrooms, snowpeas, baby corn and chilli. TPG was more of a fan than I, but possibly because I think this a dim sum haven for me and I'm reluctant to diverge to the larger dishes unless it's for something extraordinary.

Our warm vanilla rice pudding with banana sorbet and caramelised pineapple (£7.50) is absolutely gorgeous, even if the pineapple was a little hard to negotiate. Handmade chocolates and macaroons are also on display - I tried a selection of 4 chocolates for £3 which were reasonably nice but no match for the pudding.

One possible hitch to any long, lazy, Sunday afternoon plans you might be hatching is that we were warned our table had to be returned after 2 hours - although no-one policed that once we sat down. We paid around £30 per head for our meal.

Yauatcha comes with my seal of approval for dim sum with a touch of glamour on the side. I was so impressed, that I've already booked us into Yauatcha's big brother, Hakkasan, next month.

My only regrets are that we missed the bulging, glistening har gua dumplings and the blue swimmer crab salad with sesame dressing, both of which we had to suffer through others enjoying on the next table. As if we need another excuse to go back.

Yauatcha, 15 Broadwick Street, Soho, W1F ODL (Tel: 0207 494 8888)

Yauatcha on Urbanspoon

Monday, 20 September 2010

Friday Food Club, Blackheath

Allow me to cut to the chase: the Friday Food Club is brilliant.

This terrific little supper club is run by Lee and Fiona Behan from their rather funky apartment in Blackheath. Formerly the GPO film studios and an art hall, the building has now been converted into apartments with high ceilings, huge ornate windows and (in the case of Lee and Fiona's apartment, at least) ritzy furnishings. This is a supper club with all the trimmings.

Lee Behan is a classically trained chef, while Fiona is the gorgeous, bubbly, front of house personality. They opened their doors in January 2010 and since then, it seems, have mastered the art of utter professionalism, while keeping things relaxed and friendly.

They often host special events - recently, Mark Hix took over the kitchen and this week they're working with Dhruv Baker (winner of Masterchef 2010). The Peanut Gallery and I recently attended for an evening with Prosecco Riccardo, and a menu designed to match.

A very seasonal corn veloute seduces us into the evening like the glorious pink sunset we watch through the windows. Served in small, white espresso cups, it is sweet, mellow and simply sumptuous. It is paired with Riccardo's lovely Superiore D.O.C.G. Spumante Extra Dry which is not as dry as the name suggests. Its apple and pear characteristics work well with the corn.

A starter of pork, pistachio and apricot terrine is served with red onion marmalade. It's terrific. And also smart - for the first 2 courses, most of the prep work can be done before the guests arrive, so everything is timely and relaxed, while losing nothing to quality and taste. The D.O.C. Treviso Spumante Brut is a fabulous accomplice, balancing dried fruit and floral hints.

Cornish pollack is pan fried to perfection and served atop a creamed Prosecco sauce of smoked bacon, leaks and clams. This dish really shows Lee's skills. The pollack is transformed into a thing of luxurious splendour, basking lavishly in its luscious, creamy sauce.

This dish had an unusual partner - a still Prosecco, Riccardo Prosecco D.O.C. Treviso Vino Tranquillo (for "tranquil"). Made with 100% Prosecco grapes, this wine had all the apple and pear flavours of Prosecco but without the fizz. While the wine was popular with other guests, it seems I'm a bubbles girl to the end. I like the lift that the fizz gives the flavour in a Prosecco and felt it fell a bit flat without it. However, the wine matched well with the pollack and so perhaps is more of a food wine for me.

If anything tops the main, it is a pretty late summer berry prosecco jelly balancing elegantly on white chocolate set cream - a divine match of flavours, so light and delicate, this was an accomplished dessert of which any Michelin starred restaurant would be proud. It matches wonderfully with the Riccardo Cartizze Prosecco Superiore D.O.C.G. Spumante Dry - very dry and delicate.

We were even given a home baked muffin as a parting gift to munch on for breakfast the next day. No, I did not wash it down with Prosecco (but I thought about it).

Douglas of Intoxicating Prose and Riccardo Tomadin from the winery did a sterling job of educating and entertaining us about the wines throughout the evening. Riccardo Prosecco is the business of the Fornasier family, which has been growing grapes since the end of the 1800s. "Prosecco" is no longer a label that can be used by any wine made with Prosecco grapes - as a protected designation of origin, the grapes of a Prosecco wine must come from the north eastern Veneto region of Italy and meet defined standards of quality and production methods. The Conegliano Valdobbiadene region was recently promoted to D.O.C.G. status, which means the wines are subjected to the most stringent quality and production standards for Italian wines.

The Friday Food Club is normally BYO and I understand they will advise guests on the most appropriate wines to match their menu of the day. Tickets normally cost in the range of £26.50-£38.50, although this event was subsided by Prosecco Riccardo and so lucky guests experienced the joy for a bargainous £18.

Ultimately, as a supper club, it's hard to fault. The only draw back is the last train leaves from Blackheath station at around 11.20pm, just as you get the sense that the party is about to warm up. So think about booking a taxi, sit back, meet some new people and enjoy.

Friday Food Club, Blackheath (a 5 minute stroll from the station), London, SE3

Greedy Diva was a guest of Prosecco Riccardo. Thanks to Riccardo Tomadin for the invitation.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

JING tea

JING Nilgiri tea

As you pour boiling water over your tea each morning, watching patiently as the soothing clouds of colour slowly stain the steaming water, it's easy not to spare a thought for the centuries of history and tradition, the cultural preferences and the passions that inspire the best teas of today. [Insert Tibetan gong sound here.]

Or you can just whack a bag of strong workman's tea in your mug, burp, scratch your chest and get on with the day. But I need something more if I'm to be diverted from my beloved - often life giving - cup of coffee. I like a tea with elegance.

I recently attended the launch of the new JING Nilgiri tea at The Cinnamon Club in Westminster.

Over canapes and tea based cocktails, David Hepburn explained the origins of some of JING's finest teas (there are 82 in the range). David takes his tea seriously.

My favourite, the Nilgiri black whole leaf tea, is mellow, warm and full bodied. I love the slight caramel undertones, and my notes suggest you might also taste malt and orange peel. Sourced from the Coonoor Estate in the Nilgiri Hills in Southern India, the tea is handled with care to produce large leaves and a premium quality product. It's so far above the ageing tea in a bag rubbish I drink at work that I've even bought myself some spanking new kit to drink the Nilgiri in style at my desk. Stylin'....

I was provided with some teas to try at home. Earl Grey is usually my tea of choice, and JING's is gorgeous. Delicate, comforting and aromatic, it's a whole leaf Ceylon black tea, scented with bergamot.

JING sources tea from a range of countries, including China, India, Japan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Egypt, and it has 14 Michelin Star restaurant customers (including The Fat Duck and The Lanesborough).

For more information or to purchase JING tea, check out JING's website here.

If you have an interest in tea, you might also like to take a peek at my earlier write up on the Teanamu tea tasting workshops in Notting Hill here. There's also a lovely section on tea, and how to make a decent pot of it, in Victoria Moore's "How to Drink".

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Draft House Tower Bridge, Bermondsey

While I’m on a porky theme, pull up a pew and let me tell you about the pork belly at the new Draft House on Tower Bridge Road.

The existing Draft House pubs (on Battersea Bridge Road and Northcote Road) are famed - around South London at least - for a housing a great selection of beers from ‘round here and yonder.

Owner, Charlie McVeigh (co-owner of Le Café Anglais), explained that each Draft House pub has a different range, so there are beers at the Tower Bridge outlet which you won’t track down at the others (or possibly anywhere else for that matter without a serious sniffer dog). There are 25 draft beers available at this branch – I believe there are 20 beers on bright, shiny, silver taps and dozens by the bottle. The word on the street is that the Draft House Tower Bridge will be the first pub in the UK to serve “Stiegl Paraclesus Zwickl” for instance – I don’t know what it is either, but you get the idea: this is a place to go for rarities and will delight serious beer enthusiasts. But it also seems there has been a deliberate upping of the ante on the nosh you might expect to receive at Tower Bridge.

Our party was there for a blogger event during the soft opening period last week. After kicking things off with a giant sized bottle of Italian Amacord Gradisca, the oddity of the Kermit green seating arrangements almost started to make sense. The décor is something along the lines of retro diner cross old school public house - with a beautiful dark wooden bar.

We were treated to a selection of canapés, which were mostly very good. Of particular note, was some moreish smoked ham hock on toast, a pre-mixed steak tartare thingamie, and a gorgeously velvety chicken and duck liver pate. Other bits, like a prawn and sesame toast and a smoked salmon and crème fraiche number, didn’t leave the same lasting impression, although all were perfectly fighting fit for pairing up with some top notch beers. Snacks, pots and toasts at the Draft House generally range from £4.75 - £5.75 per serving. 

With these, we guzzled the fruity Estrella Inedit by Ferran Adria, which was a little odd (of course it was) – as its flashy website explains, it is flavoured with coriander, orange peel and liquorice - but enjoyable nonetheless.

But most remarkable was a main course comprising some gorgeously tender Lincolnshire pork belly. Crisp crackling gave way to hunks of satisfyingly juicy, gloriously piggy meat. Alongside sat a hearty dollop of black pudding hash and apple sauce (£12.75). This was a pure, unadulterated joy to eat.  This was matched for us with my favourite beer of the evening, a Sierra Nevada 30th anniversary beer – for me a good balance of easy drinking but quite potent (weighing in at 9.2%) and a bit malty.

Before dessert, cheese. A great oozing brie captured my heart, followed closely by a Stichelton and a cheddar – all served with oatcakes and chutney. (The artisan cheese platter is normally £7.75 although presumably for a smaller one than we shared between our large party). These were paired with a completely full on Double Bastard ale which will blow your socks off (it’s a 10% alcohol heavyweight) – and perhaps requires a bigger cheddar to match it.

I thoroughly enjoyed my wobbly vanilla panna cotta with berries (which unfortunately doesn’t appear on the current online menu). It matched well with a cherry beer to finish off the evening.

I have already recommended the Draft House to my local friends as one to look out for, not only for some serious beer spotting but also for some solid pub fare. I do the same for you.

The Draft House, 206-208 Tower Bridge Road, Tower Bridge, London SE1 2UP

Greedy Diva was a freeloading guest of the Draft House Tower Bridge, attending with other bloggers.

The Draft House Pub on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Hog Roast: The Red Lion & Sun, Highgate

One of my most enjoyable discoveries this year (thanks to Lizzie) would have to be the big, fat, piggy hog roast at the Red Lion & Sun in Highgate.

This gorgeous pub in the far northern hemisphere (SO much leafy greenery - my eyes, my eyes...!) has an outdoor beer garden which can accommodate about 30 people. As we catch our last few mild nights for the year, I heartily recommend it as a place to gather your troops for a pig on a spit, drinks and easy going good times. However, as the air frosts up during the coming months, you can also take over the back area of the pub for your feasting.

Lizzie organised a hog roast bash here for 30 friends recently. Heath Ball, the friendly owner (@Pubhobbit on Twitter), managed to get his hands on a stonklingly good 75kg Gloucester Old Spot for our pleasure. It was basted in bourbon and roasted just to the point of beautifully juicy and tender - I couldn't fault it. Crackling was also top notch, and it comes with oodles of basic side dishes - potato salad, a colourful tomato and basil salad, coleslaw, freshly baked focaccia and - of course - apple sauce.

There was enough for us all to go back for at least seconds.

All this cost us £10 each. Price will depend on the size of the pig and the size of your group, so you can work that out when you call ahead to arrange things.

If pork is not your thing, (1) take a good hard look at yourself, and (2) perhaps try the lamb roast instead. Heath is a Kiwi so I'm tipping he knows his lamb roasts - I'm keen to go back to try it myself.

At this point, you may notice a distinct lack of happy snaps. The distraction? I was busy getting patriotic over the fantastic Australian wines from the D'Arenberg winery in McLaren Vale which were brought along for our group to sample for the evening (thanks Claire). If you want to try some terrific Aussie wines (with quirky names like The Love Grass, Stump Jump, The Hermit Crab), do look out for them. I've always been a fan so it was nice to sip them and remember the rolling vineyards of home....

You can see pictures of the evening taken by others here and here.

The Red Lion & Sun, 25 North Road, Highgate Village, London, N6 4BE (Tel: 020 8340 1780)

The Red Lion and Sun on Urbanspoon

Friday, 10 September 2010

Viet, Soho

Amid the chaotic clatter and chatter, waiters bump into tables and diners feast elbow to elbow on big bowls of steaming beef pho, fragrant noodles and colourful prawn salads. Best of all, it's BYO (including beer). Viet is not somewhere to go for a quiet meal.

It's been our favourite local Vietnamese for years. Admittedly, there's not much competition in Soho - or indeed, many places outside of East London. The small Pho chain has recently opened an outlet on Wardour St. But Viet is no polished operation. It's quick and dirty, cheap and cheerful, and feels like a little pocket of Kingsland Rd in Soho.

Soft summer rolls (goi cuon) come with prawns, herbs and salad almost bursting through the thin, translucent rice paper wrapping. Fried spring rolls are crisp, fresh and meaty. But best of all are the thin little parcels of juicy beef wrapped in betel leaf - a taste sensation.


Bun sa, cold vermicelli noodles with chicken cooked in lemongrass, with crispy lettuce, pickled vegetables, cucumber and mint were, on our last visit, somewhat lacking in flavour, and a little stingier on the chicken than usual. I have my suspicions that portion sizes are being sacrificed a little here to keep the costs so low. The noodles come with a side bowl of nuoc cham (fish sauce, zingy lime juice, garlic, chilli, sugar), essential for pouring over the mix.

Most people come for the pho, the comforting, spicy, noodley broth, which is slurped up hungrily, even as plates of starters and drinks arrive at their tables, apparently out of sinc. No one seems to mind. Extra fresh chilli and other bits are provided on request.

A personal favourite is the beef salad - slithers of beef with chilli, onion, lime, Vietnamese basil and smashed nuts. It's full of flavour, although the portion on my visit last week is (again) smaller than I remembered it.

Corkage is apparently charged on wine (about £3) but the bottle opener for our beers was unceremoniously plonked on our table last week and we drank without charge. This is one cheap night out. Starters are often around £2-4, and the average price for larger dishes is around £6-8.

Service is sometimes erratic, but never bad on my visits (I'm not expecting Michelin star service here), and the young guy who coordinates it all is smiling and helpful. He doesn't miss much when it comes to pointing out who needs what and when.

Viet's popularity means there are often queues on Friday and Saturday nights (some resort to cracking open their beers in the line), and you can't reserve ahead. So get there early, and tuck in.

Viet, 35 Greek Street, Soho, London W1D 5DJ (Tel: 020 7494 9888). No website.

Viet on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Cafe Luc, Marylebone

I may have mentioned before that The Peanut Gallery has a baby which has nothing to do with me. His bike. It's custom made and now has brand new wheels. It appears he is preparing for the Tour de France.  If I had, long ago, instituted a rule that every dollar spent on the bike is to be matched by expenditure on shoes for me, I'd be a very happy woman.

The trouble with having a such a bike is that you can never take it anywhere - or leave it anywhere at least. Many times, we have cycled around town looking for a nice coffee spot where TPG can not only secure his bike nearby, but eyeball it while he is eating, and be within a clear path to a doorway or open window to enable him to leap through the air and pounce in the event that anyone looks sideways at it. Sometimes it's easier just to go home....

So the bike valet service at Cafe Luc is something of a welcome addition to the London cafe scene for our household. After a cycle around the leafy streets of Primrose Hill and Regent's Park, customers can drop off their bikes with the bike valet and eat with the assurance that their pride and joy is safely locked up inside the building.

Apparently, they also offer a shopping valet service if find yourself unable to resist the temptations of the cafe's chic Marylebone High Street location.

Cafe Luc is run by Julie van Oostende and her father, Belgian restaurateur, Luc van Oostende. Despite their Belgian heritage, the menu at Cafe Luc is more broadly Modern European - although there is a Belgian week menu coming up from 20 - 27 September 2010. (Unfortunately there will not be waffles - the first thing TPG checked - although there will be speculoos, vanilla and salted caramel ice-cream which will appease him).

The interior was designed by Stiff and Trevillion (who were behind Le Cafe Anglais' decor) and is something like that of a larger Galvin Bistrot de Luxe, although slightly more corporate. It's a schlick looking brasserie, with muted walls, black wooden tables, chocolate banquettes and lots of mirror action. Eye catching light fittings include amber hand blown glass bulbs from Murano bubbling over the copper bar, and clusters of small black lampshades spaced along the walls. Even the loos are rather dashing.

Open all day from 7am, with a breakfast menu available until noon and a brunch menu available until 6pm, the hearty Full English breakfast (£12) was just what I needed last Sunday afternoon. The yolks of my 2 perfectly poached eggs oozed gloriously onto toasted brown bread, a delicious sausage (unfortunately no-one could tell me where it came from), black pudding, roasted cherry tomatoes, tasty bacon, sauteed mushrooms and baked beans. The baked beans were the only slight let down here - they were fine, but a home made batch would improve things.

Two upright eggs with soldiers (£5.50) were also perfectly cooked, although the smallish serving of toast may not be enough to satisfy you on it's own. I would suggest accompanying this with fruit salad, or the TPG went for pancakes - a dainty stack with maple syrup and berries were excellent (£7.50).

There are healthy options like Greek yoghurt with berries and honey and, while the menu is mostly quite conventional, more offbeat numbers like apple spring rolls with green apple coulis are available.

Juices are freshly squeezed (I had orange, but carrot, apple, pear and grapefruit are also offered) and I enjoyed a spicy, well made Bloody Mary to accompany my Full English. The coffee was fine, although not one to go out of the way for.

Service appeared to be helpful and attentive across the room. There were occasional gaps in product knowledge, but not too much to begrudge them - it's all very casual and friendly.

Cafe Luc is a good option for breakfast with cocktails in style - or one to remember if you're out free wheeling with an obsessive compulsive bike owner.

Cafe Luc, 50 Marylebone High Street, London, W1U 5HN (Tel: 020 7258 9878)

Greedy Diva was a guest of Cafe Luc.

Cafe Luc on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Kettner's, Soho

If any restaurant symbolises the "meh" factor in your average London dining establishment, it's Kettner's. In its current form, it wouldn't last a week in New York.

Kettner's holds a prime position on the corner of Greek and Romilly streets in Soho, just off Old Compton Street. Large windows capture the street scenes and the sunlight, and there's ample foundations to capture some charm. Trouble is, despite all this, it still somehow lacks character. Where's the buzz?

The menu reads well - all standard bistro fare and there's plenty on it I want to eat. But, while the way it's cooked is mostly alright, it's never spot on - no dish leaves us completely satisfied.

We've been twice now. The beef bourguignon looks the part in a classic pot, rich dark sauce, with carrots and potatoes in the mix (£16). It comes highly recommended by our waiter as what Kettner's does best. But the accompanying mash is watery and tasteless. I love mash. Mash is important. Get the mash right, people.

The free range corn fed chicken with tarragon jus is lovely (£15) - moist and flavourful - but the accompanying vegetables are (again) completely devoid of taste and are overcooked. The pretty looking potato gratin is also a mouthful of nothingness.

Our "simple salad" arrives undressed and is fairly unexciting. Simple indeed.

The 31 day Angus Pole Cross sirloin steak is cooked as ordered to medium rare, but lacks caramelisation and flavour (£18.50, 7oz). The house cut crispy chips and bearnaise are decent.

The duck confit with Sarladaise potatoes and rosemary jus (£14) was enjoyable, a fish soup starter all loveliness (£7) and desserts - strawberry pavlova and strawberry tart with creme chantilly - almost as good as they looked (£6 each).

The thing is, Kettner's should be something more. It's a place with history and prime location. The interior design was given a facelift a couple of years ago courtesy of designer Ilse Crawford. While I don't mind the shabby chic/rococo look on our first visit, in the cold hard light of our return trip, it's looking a bit tired and charmless. Perhaps its former decor - darker and leather clad - was more appropriate.

Service is reasonably helpful and friendly. Prices range from around £5 - £7 for starters, £11.50 - £21.50 for mains and £6 - £8 for desserts. Fair enough pricing, if only the consistency was there.

This is a restaurant gasping for some CPR. In its heyday, Kettner's was a haven for inexpensive but popular pizza and wine; a place to gather and meet over good, simple food - without spending a fortune. Somewhere along the line, it lost its way without even doing too much wrong. The problem is, it doesn't do enough right.

Kettner's, 29 Romilly Street, Soho, London W1D 5HP (Tel: 020 7734 6112)

Kettners on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Lesvos, Greece - Yia Yia's in the kitchen

Sardines in Molyvos

Our alarm clock in Lesvos is the sound of Yia Yia (TPG's grandma) stirring thick, black coffee on the stove top. The hot sun is already streaming in through a crack in the shutters and a rooster crows in a nearby backyard. Then comes the full cacophony of sounds to wake us fully from our groggy slumber - "peaches, watermelon, beans, tomatoes...." the call of the mobile fruit, veg, meat and fish markets rouses a full entourage of grey heads poking from the doorways. The slow shuffle of old ladies in black dresses forms a procession towards the source - small vans with megaphones - where they barter for the daily supplies. If it's a Sunday, the operatic high notes of the local priest can be heard belting it out in the local church and over small speakers dotted around town - conveniently close to our bedroom window. A typical day in Parakoila has begun.

Yia Yia orders the peaches

We start each morning with a sweet, thick black coffee, biscuits and sometimes a plate of fresh figs from a neighbour's garden. There'll be a frappe or lemon granita on the beach in the morning, to cool off from the scorching sun. Heading home for lunch at 1pm, the smell of bamyes (okra, tomato and onion) simmering on the stove top, soutzoukakia (sausage shaped meatballs with cumin, cinnamon and a sweet tomato sauce), manestra (sort rice shaped pasta) with tender ox tail, cinnamon and tomato, roast chicken or grilled fish will welcome us on approach.

One of 3 plates of fish presented to me for lunch one day

Bamyes (okra), tomatoes, onions

Greek salad
Manestra with oxtail and cinnamon


The unstoppable Yia Yia and her delectable Kalloni sardines

Best of all are the sardines from nearby Kalloni which are piled onto our plates, freshly grilled and dripping in local olive oil. They're the best sardines we've ever eaten. (At this point, Yia Yia pulls out a tupperware container indicating she's packing us some to bring home on the plane). Best of all, they're born to be washed down with the local ouzo - and we happily oblige.


But these are a mere side to my gigantic plate of huge, roasted yemistes (sweet stuffed tomatoes), a whole eggplant and green pepper, each stuffed and heaving with pilaff laced with mint, onion and vegetables and roasted until a mini heatwave is created in the kitchen on this 40 degree day. Yia Yia, a feeder, merely shakes her head in disgust that we can't eat more - then brings out a plate of freshly fried, homemade loukoumades (knobbly doughnuts dripping in local honey and crushed nuts). It's true - there is a second stomach for dessert.

Sweating with the heat and the effort (eating here is exercise), we can't imagine ever eating again. But by late afternoon, the salt water and sea air has worked on our appetites and we hit the local bakery for galaktoboureko (sticky sweet custard filled pastry) or a nutty, syruppy baklava. Or we might even settle for a bag of yellow peaches, nectarines or grapes.

We enjoy a sundowner (Mythos beer or ouzo) on the beach, before heading home for a late dinner where it all starts again. And Yia Yia doesn't take no for an answer. Even if I wanted to stop the feeding, I can't - Yia Yia can't speak a word of English and my Greek is limited to "ne, ne, carpuzzi" ("yes, yes, watermelon"), "parakalou" ("please"), "efharistou" ("thank you") and "fuscomeni" ("if I eat another thing, I will explode").

Naturally, TPG (a Greek Australian) relishes the opportunities this provides, explaining to Yia Yia at various times that "Diva likes whole chickens for breakfast", "Diva is still hungry" (as Diva tries to digest helping number 7) or, my personal favourite, the simple "Diva is drunk on ouzo ... again". (For the record, on this occassion, I am not.)

We are the only tourists in the small village of Parakoila and we get the customary stares as we wander about town that you might expect if a 2 headed, green alien walked into a bar in an old Western movie. But our flight to Lesvos (the second largest island in Greece - after Crete) was surprisingly packed with English tourists - who all head for the bustling main port town of Mytilini, to the easy going beaches of Eresos or to the stunning mountain top, coastal views of Molyvos. There, we have sampled lovely Greek salads with bright green peppers, capsicum, tomato and fabulous feta, seafood plates, stuffed courgette flowers and local cheeses - as well as some disappointing touristy trash. But if it's real Greek cooking you're after, Yia Yia is queen. And I have the pot belly to prove it - Yia Yia has won.

Thomson Air flies directly to Lesvos for around £200.

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