Sunday, 24 September 2017

Too Many Chefs 2017, Drapers Arms

Hosted by Temper's Neil Rankin and by Nick Gibson at his Islington pub/restaurant The Drapers Arms, Too Many Chefs is back this year with another incredible line-up of top chefs. All of the proceeds from the ticket sales (plus half from the drinks spend on the night) are donated directly to Action Against Hunger, making it a truly unmissable event; I may not be a sponsored 10k run kind of a girl, but I can marathon eat with the best of them.

As an unexpected bonus I also managed to catch up with freelance chef James Wilson who is now starting his own business; provisionally called Angel and the Bear, it will provide private dining events and pop-ups with dishes like his 'Savoury 99' - a cone stuffed with sticky beef cheek, topped with beer ice cream and salted crunchy shallots. I will be keeping my eye on that one for you.

The menu for the evening was extraordinary: ten dishes from ten top culinary talents, with some intriguing offerings. Guests were welcomed with a cocktail made from British aperitif Kamm & Sons  to prepare us for the feast; I'll do my best to talk you through it but prepare for some serious meal envy.

Max Halley: Max's Sandwich Shop
A Little Crisp Bread Sarnie: cold roast English rose veal, tonnato sauce, shoestring fries, anchovies, oregano & boiled egg

I confess I had never eaten vitello tonnato before this; somehow, the marriage of tuna and cold veal seemed a rather unappealing one. I get it now; delicate rose veal, egg, creamy tuna sauce, the tang of anchovies - and here, the contrasting textures of crisp and yielding. There was a lot going on in just a couple of bites and the balance was impressive.

Gina Hopkins: The Drapers Arms
Spiced & pickled cauliflower, caraway yoghurt, coriander & mint

A brief aside: by the time the meal was about two courses in, we were chatting with the two couples at our end of the table like old friends. Food, particularly on sharing platters, will do that - along with the undeniable fact that people who like both good food and helping others are likely to be fabulous company. (As indeed they were - thanks again for the banter, feedback and of course the champagne!). I mention this because I put everyone in 'our group' on the spot and asked them to pick their top two or three dishes at the end of the evening.

After much agonising we all narrowed them down (there wasn't a single dish that wasn't somebody's favourite) and this dish was a top contender. The contrast of the warm cauliflower with gentle curry spices and the little cold, sharp, pickled florets was lovely, with the dressing complementing both. I would happily eat a big plate of this as a vegetarian main - and if it is on the menu when I go to the Drapers Arms in its normal guise, I fully intend to.

Elizabeth Haigh (née Allen): Shibui
Pickled potato, clam, smoked mussels, caviar & Sichuan oil

Shibui is Kaizen House's first restaurant concept, due to open Jan/Feb 2018. I went to a pop-up preview of Shibui at Carousel (see my blog from early this year) and can't wait for the permanent venue. This was a characteristically elegant and thoughtful dish with carefully balanced powerful flavours, accomplished and delicious.

Dan Doherty: Duck & Waffle/Sprout
Foie gras custard doughnut

Another contender for dish of the evening, this had it all; beautifully cooked golden doughnut, the most delicate foie gras centre, sweet glaze and what we originally thought was a sprinkling of blitzed salty popcorn but turned out to be the lightest possible pork crackling bits that just melted in your mouth. This was intriguing, technically brilliant and an absolute winner.
Rob Sachdev: The Quality Chop House
Diver caught scallop, BBQ peach, roast chicken

The roast chicken element of the dish was provided by wafers of crispy chicken skin, giving lovely textural and flavour contrast to the sweetness of the scallops The stand-out aspect, though, was the barbecued peaches, which were absolutely delicious and had everybody talking about how we could steal the idea.

Damian Clisby: Petersham Nursery
Cod, mussel & saffron broth, fennel & ginger

This very beautiful broth arrived in a huge dish (that's a serving spoon & fork, for perspective) with an entire side of cod underneath the mussels and peppery edible nasturtiums. It was temple food at its finest - summery, light, yet full of flavour. We had to force ourselves not to finish it, as we were only just halfway through the meal; I really hope I can track this recipe down, as I would love to serve this for a summer lunch with friends.

Rory Shannon: Winemakers Deptford
Mutton faggot, farro, mutton ham & rosehip jelly

We were given a tiny gap before the meat dishes came out, for which we were all grateful. A whoop from the other table heralded these beauties; hefty mutton faggots, topped with a delicious salty mutton ham, served on a bed of farro and greens, like an Irish stew on crack. Intensely meaty and rich, these were accompanied by a little jar of light rosehip jelly to cut through. We were all flagging a little and couldn't do these justice; next year I'm sneaking in a load of Tupperware for leftovers. Give me an autumnal walk in the park, an open fire and a plate of these and I would be sorted.

Ben Chapman: Kiln
Phetchaburi guinea fowl jungle curry

Traditional Thai jungle curry is made with wild meats and packs a punch spice-wise as it doesn't have the coconut milk element to tone it down. This was a classic version, fresh and fiery - a little too much for some of the guests but we found ourselves going back repeatedly for yet another tiny forkful. I love my spice (and lived abroad for a while, so have trained my tastebuds) so was a real fan of this one. I'm heading to Kiln very soon to try out some more of Ben's dishes.

Chantelle Nicholson: Tredwell's
Pear tarte tatin with miso & muscavado ice cream

A certain member of the group (yes Clemence, I'm looking at you!) had been pacing herself throughout the entire evening for this and it didn't disappoint. The tarte tatin was perfect: crispy, chewy, caramelised pastry and pears with just the right amount of give, served with an umami-sweet ice cream, this was wonderful.

Neil Rankin: Temper
Honey kouign amann & Stichelton

Yes, I admit it, I was kind of expecting Neil Rankin to have done a meat course, so this was a surprise. Unfortunately I have an intolerance to honey and so couldn't try this, which was pretty torturous given the reactions of those who could - basically, borderline When Harry Met Sally. I'm assuming it was pretty damn good. I feel a rematch at Temper is required!
Nick Gibson summed the evening up perfectly on his Instagram with this lovely picture and the comment, 'Ten stellar talents. Many well-fed people. All for Action Against Hunger. We choose love.'

All I can add is my heartfelt thanks to him, Neil Rankin and the other amazing chefs here for organising such a wonderful event; if you're looking for a definition of 'win-win' I think you've found it.

Yours, feasting and feeding others,
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Dan Doherty, Sprout pop-up

Dan Doherty is probably best known as the Chef Director of Duck & Waffle - and of the new fast-casual Duck & Waffle Local in St James's Market. Alternatively, you may have sponsored him on a marathon, trek or cycle ride in aid of Learning for Life, or possibly (like me!) you have a ticket for Too Many Chefs, where he will be one of the ten top chefs donating their time and cooking a dish for Action Against Hunger. No? Perhaps you own one of his cookbooks - Toast Hash Roast Mash, the latest, is one of those genuinely useful, home-cook-friendly chef offerings. Yep, that's all him. Exhausting isn't it?

Today, however, was about yet another string to his bow - a pop-up for his first solo venture, Sprout, due to open later this year. Dan's previous pop-up was on the Fifth Floor Terrace at Harvey Nichols; this one was at the rather lovely Nape in Camberwell, with around 30 guests per sitting for the 4-course tasting menu. I rather wish I lived a little nearer, as I am quite keen to pop in and try their usual offerings of British charcuterie, snacks and wine - most of which is available to take away from the wine shop/deli. It's officially on The List.

We started with Hangover Oysters; gutsy, punchy, juicy Bloody Mary-type oysters that would either kill or cure those in a somewhat delicate state. Simply, unfussily presented on a steadying bed of rock salt, these were served with a chilled glass of 'I Think' Manzanilla which stood its ground and complemented them beautifully, giving them a sunny Spanish tapas bar feel.

Next up was the pea hummus with smoked yoghurt and a selection of baby garden vegetables - radishes, courgettes, cucumber, tomato, carrots. Dan admitted that it happens to be one of the 'healthiest' dishes he has ever served; I would just like to say I am totally on board with the five-a-day thing when I can eat dishes like this. The pea hummus was delicious and the quality of the produce shone through.

I was a little undecided about the smoked yoghurt here; I loved the idea but found it slightly overpowering, perhaps because of the light, clean, fresh tastes of the rest of the dish, which was accompanied by a dry, fruity Sepo Pansa Blanca which balanced the fresh vegetables really well. I shall be stealing the combo for my next drinks and nibbles session.

Nape was a great choice of venue for a pre-launch pop-up; it has a relaxed, intimate feel and a long, narrow bar which puts the chef and his team never more than a few feet from the customers. This was a real chilled-out family affair; Dan's partner, digital editor Rebecca Brett (@HungryBecs on socials for you foodies) was helping out and their guest-magnet spaniel Miso was in attendance, being generally adorable.

The grilled skirt steak, zhoug, spiced aubergine and feta arrived basically in 'if-Carlsberg-did-kebabs' form portion for two - tender steak, fiery spices, served on a flatbread and accompanied by more smoked yoghurt (which worked fabulously here) and a glass of Barbera d'Asti. I couldn't have been happier and would absolutely order this if it made its way on to a permanent menu (cough).

The same goes for the dessert - deconstructed buttermilk cheesecake with fresh peaches and home-made hob nobs, drizzled with an intriguing caramel made from tarragon vinegar, bringing a bright acidity alongside the fresh fruit. This was absolutely perfect - a masterclass on appreciating the natural flavours of your ingredients and knowing when you've done enough to bring them out.

As you may have guessed by the name, greenery is going to figure prominently in both menu and decor at Sprout, with the emphasis on local, sustainable ingredients. It will serve simple, delicious, seasonal food that changes throughout the day in tune with the kind of food people want to eat - brunch, lunch & snacks by day, small plates and cocktails by night - in a relaxing, cosy space. The plants and ceramics will be sourced from the local community and for sale, with proceeds going to the original suppliers.

Dan has hinted that the eventual location of the restaurant will be a surprise; so, not Soho or Shoreditch then - or Islington, which seems to have had a recent restaurant/bar boom. Smart money is apparently on South-East London/Lewisham way (which would certainly match the community vibe) but we shall have to wait and see.There's certainly a rather sparse area on my Mapstr under Greenwich that could well do with a few more options.

Yours, first in the queue,
London Girl About Town xx

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Darjeeling Express

I must have walked past the entrance to Kingly Court countless times without noticing it; to be perfectly honest with you, I walked past twice without noticing it while I was actually looking for it. Ever the helpful chronicler, you can find it here; sandwiched snugly between Pizza Pilgrims and the Detox Kitchen.

The narrow passageway opens into a foodie Narnia; three levels of bars, restaurants and a shaded little courtyard, a perfect place in which to while away a lazy summer Sunday. I will definitely be back, but this time I was on a mission; I had booked the set menu Sunday lunch at Darjeeling Express; Calcutta Lamb Dum Biryani, a throwback to the restaurant's origins. 

Darjeeling Express started out as a supperclub in the beautiful London home of Asma Khan, a journalist and trained constitutional lawyer who taught herself to cook by immersing herself in the traditions, techniques and handed-down recipes of her family and her childhood. For Asma, this spans her royal Mughal heritage, Hyderabad and the Calcutta street food she remembers enjoying as a child. 

The restaurant is relaxed and stylishly homely. The lovely Florian Siepert talked us through the wine list (which, if you have ever heard his voice, is an experience in its own right) and recommended the Envinate Albahra Garnacha Tintorera 2015, which stood up to the spices perfectly. 

I admit to being a complete novice at all things wine-related (bar the drinking of it) but he was equally enthusiastic quizzing us about which wines we liked as a starting point as talking terroirs and altitudes with the table next door. He returned not only with the wine but with an equally charming dining companion for us, chef Jonny Rothfield (seen here with Asma, who walks through the dining room regularly, chatting to her guests). 

Our feast began with Papri Chaat, a classic Calcutta street food dish; soft spiced potato and black chickpeas on a bed of crispy papri, dressed with tamarind chutney and topped with sev (fine crispy noodles) and fresh coriander. It was incredibly good; each mouthful a play of salty, sweet, sour, soft, crunchy, fresh, spicy.

Battling with myself to leave room for the dishes to come, next up was the Beetroot and Cashew Samosas; delicate, crisp and light, a world away from the stodgy, oily offerings from your local takeaway. In fact, eating here will ruin a Friday night curry for you forever. This is not commercialised, westernised food; this is authentic Indian cuisine, the kind cooked at home, with love and patience, for friends and family.

The main event was a spectacular lamb biryani; two huge pots, sealed with dough and opened in front of the guests. Asma explained that the art of a perfect biryani is not only in the cooking but in the serving of the dish. There are two layers of rice, the top layer drier and sealing most of the steam beneath it; the trick is to dig deep and mix the layers so that everyone gets a balanced amount of both.

This was served like a home cook after my own heart; unapologetically generous portions piled high on sharing platters to be tucked into at the table. It was outrageously good. By this time we had got chatting to the family next to us and were serving huge, teetering, fragrant spoonfuls across the table to each other. You've got to love the almost magical ability of food to forge a connection between people, be they strangers, friends or family.

Served alongside this were a cooling tomato and cucumber raita, a feisty Bengali tomato, prune and apricot chutney and a wonderful Hyderabadi Mirchi Ka Salaan (the classic chilli and peanut masala accompaniment to biryani) which had us all reaching for our water glasses - repeatedly, as we couldn't stop eating it.

Dessert, after a merciful pause, was a dish usually served on the morning of Eid; Sheer Korma, milk infused with dried dates, served warm with pistachios and vermicelli. This was gentle and comforting; I rather liked it, but you do have to be a fan of warm milk, which not everyone on our table was.

Asma and her all-female team of wonderful home cooks have created something very special; a restaurant as relaxed and welcoming as the house of a close friend - a friend who happens to be a genius in the kitchen.

To share a meal here is a strangely soothing, almost restorative experience, as well as a culinary one. It's quite an achievement and I absolutely can't wait to go back.

Yours, feeling part of a new family,
London Girl About Town xx

Friday, 7 July 2017


Before we begin properly, a brief introductory anecdote; whenever I visit a restaurant that hasn't been open long, I try to avoid reading anyone else's reviews or blogs so I can go in with a completely open mind. I might make a note of a couple of dishes on the restaurant's Instagram feed I like the look of, but generally I just pitch up.

This approach occasionally has its downfalls.  Mostly it involves me missing out on a 'must-try' dish; clearly this means I have to go back, this time without subjecting my dining companion to bloggers' rules (no touching your food before the photo, get your arms out of the shot, don't make shadows on the table etc.). So, not too grim.

Hence, pretty much all I knew about Xu - apart from that it is pronounced 'Shu' — was that it was the newest baby of the Bao group, serving Taiwanese food in Soho. We rocked up on a sunny lunchtime, me in Camden market hippie trousers and him in a t-shirt and shorts, to find that Xu is actually a pretty swish place. Our sharp-suited waiter, clearly a part-time GQ model, seated us next to a table of worldly and immaculately dressed twenty-somethings with handbags worth more than my car. Awkward.

Except that it wasn't, at all. The staff were all breezily charming, the service perfectly pitched and the overall feel of the restaurant really relaxed. You could dress up to come here, but you don't have to. Halfway through the meal, I realised why; everybody is far too busy concentrating on their food to worry about you.

We started with a Taiwan Beer and a couple of dishes of peanut lotus crisps — ridiculously moreish crispy discs of lotus root with chilli, peanut and wintermelon syrup. These had a delicious peanut butter & jelly, salty-sweet appeal that had me eyeing my companion's plate enviously long after mine were gone. I may or may not have surreptitiously dabbed my plate clean with a damp fingertip.

We could have just ordered the entire starter menu as small plates, but we eventually went for the Xian bing - generously sized, aged pork pancakes, served with a chilli and vinegar dip. These were plump and perfectly cooked with a pleasingly crisp, browned exterior. Happily there were two to a portion or there could well have been a scene.

My companion is particularly fond of eel, so we also ordered the tomato and smoked eel with daikon. I am so very happy we did, as this was outstandingly good. I was initially a little disappointed at the size of the tiny, delicate pieces of eel but their flavour was so deep, rounded and gorgeously smoky that the eel balanced perfectly with the freshness and acidity of the tomatoes. When you go to Xu - and you really, really must - don't miss this.

Next up was the chicken wing with a punchy sanbei glaze topped with caviar. I first had this combination at Elizabeth (née Allen) Haigh's Shibui pop-up at Carousel and this was almost as good. It may sound like an unlikely pairing but the caviar adds the smallest briny zing to the dish which works really well with the other flavours.

On to the mains, and more difficult choices. We opted for the shou pa chicken; this arrived as what looked like an entire chicken, peppery, juicy and bronzed, adorned with softened ginger and spring onion. I know I have a tendency to over-ordering as I hate to miss out, but this was huge — and incredible value for money.

Unfortunately they did not have the char siu pork on the day we went, so that will have to wait for a rematch; the second main we ordered turned out to be my other stand-out dish of the day, the chilli egg drop crab. Served in the shell, this was everything I had hoped; the delicious, garlicky chilli sauce was pleasantly but not mouth-numbingly spicy, allowing the full flavour of the crab to come through.

We had ordered the bamboo chilli beef fat rice to go with — or rather alongside, as when it turned up it was a mini meal in itself. Chi Shiang rice from Taiwan with aged beef fat, chilli and coriander, wrapped in bamboo leaves, this was not dissimilar in style to the classic Chinese sticky rice in lotus leaf which is a staple of my every dim sum order. The Xu version was incredibly rich, full-flavoured and very satisfying. Fortunately we had already had a gentle suggestion from the front of house staff that a plain rice might be advisable to go with the crab. It was; I wouldn't have wanted to waste any of that sauce.

I didn't get to the desserts, so you are going to have to do that for me. I heartily recommend a visit to Xu; it's amazing value for such accomplished cooking, it has a great vibe and it takes reservations. Did I mention there is a tea salon downstairs and a cocktail bar upstairs? Well, I just did. Get there pronto.

Yours, a total Xu addict,
London Girl About Town xx

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Plaquemine Lock

Plaquemine Lock is the new incarnation of the refurbished Prince of Wales pub, appropriately situated near the lock on Regent's Canal at Angel Islington. It serves mainly London craft beers, a carefully curated selection of wines, a few potent cocktails — and an exciting seasonal menu of Cajun and Creole food.

There is a wonderful story behind the pub's name, menu and entire ethos; settle down and bear with, reader, you'll like this. Plaquemine, Louisiana is a city in Baton Rouge where — you guessed it — a lock was built in 1909 to connect the trade routes of the Mississippi to the Louisiana Bayou. The project brought together two young people — civil engineer Jacob Hortenstein and Carrie Beth Schwing. Carrie was Louisiana gentry, the daughter of successful local businessman Dr Samuel Schwing; she officially opened the new lock by smashing a bottle of champagne against it as the first boat passed through, which happened to be a steamboat named after her.

Carrie and Jacob married and had a daughter, Virginia, who became an artist, actress and socialite. Virginia married and had a daughter, Haidee, who is now a successful London-based artist and the creator of the murals inside the pub. Haidee married and had a daughter and a son, Jacob - Chef Jacob Kenedy, chef patron/owner of Bocca di Lupo, Gelupo, Vico - and Plaquemine Lock. How cool is that? (See, I told you you'd like it.)

So back to the present day and, with a new appreciation of my surroundings, I turned to the menu.

Whilst deciding we had a bag of cracklins, little spiced crispy nuggets of pork belly, and an elegant sharpener from the cocktail menu, a Pear 75 - Plaquemine Lock's take on the French 75 but with Miclo Poire William instead of gin. I'm not sure this was the most obvious choice of pairing on my part (I think the punchy snacks would be an excellent accompaniment to a cold beer) but I wasn't about to miss the snacks and these Luisian-inspired cocktails made me feel very southern belle; after all, a girl has to get in character.

We started with the mini crab cakes. There is no world in which crab cakes are on the menu and I won't order them. These were the home-made kind of delicious, which I mean as a great compliment. Allow me to explain. Some foods you want to be delicate, precise and refined: soufflés, mille feuilles, sandwiches at afternoon tea. Crab cakes, for me, are not that kind of food. I want them to look like they've been deftly squished together between capable palms, possibly rolled in a coating of some kind (that's optional) and thrown into a pan. These delivered: crispy, golden exterior, beautifully seasoned, packed with flavour and served with a spicy mayo.

We then dived straight in to the mains with a plate of boiled crawfish; a huge, heaped platter of spectacular creatures that are basically mini lobsters. Instagrammers, this is your #nofilter moment.

Plaquemine Lock's menu very helpfully not only contains a glossary of culinary terms so that you can tell your grits from your gumbo, but also a step-by-step guide to disassembling a crawfish: basically, twist the tail to remove, peel a segment of shell off to reveal the meat and then squeeze to release. I confess I have a weakness for interactive food; I love eating with my fingers, dipping, peeling, scooping and sharing. This was lots of fun — but be prepared to get messy.

You can't really go to a Cajun/Creole restaurant and not try the gumbo. This was one of my favourite dishes — a delicious hearty, spicy, thickened soup with okra, chicken, shrimp and andouille sausage served over rice. I'm writing this in the middle of a London heatwave but I can imagine an autumnal walk along the canal ending with a huge bowl of this and a craft beer.

My companion had a fried shrimp po'boy, a soft white roll with shrimp, lettuce, tomato and pickles; I was pacing myself but did have a tiny taste (obvs).

This I felt was good, if unexceptional; but to be fair it is, by definition, a relatively plain dish. It originated as a large sandwich given free to the 'poor boys', striking streetcar conductors, as a gesture of support and solidarity from a New Orleans coffee shop which was owned by two brothers who were both ex-streetcar conductors. Nowadays, I can see it as a great pitstop option with a beer if you don't want a full meal, or you don't like things too spicy.

I opted for shrimp 'n' grits with bacon and butter. For those who aren't yet familiar with traditional southern fare (though get ready guys, I have a feeling we'll be seeing more as the year unfolds), grits refers to corn porridge a little like soft polenta, used as a base for those big Louisiana flavours. I liked this a lot — creamy, soothing and spiked with bacon, spring onion and shrimp.

We then ordered six Oysters Rockafella. The original Oysters Rockefeller recipe is a secret; on my next visit (for there absolutely will be a next visit) I will try and corner the chef and tease his version out, as these were delicious and indulgently rich. I can only tell you that the famous green colour comes here from spinach creamed with absinthe. Hell, yeah.

As you can see, we had gamely eaten our way through pretty much the whole menu (you're welcome, dear reader) and were seriously flagging by the time it came to dessert. The most we could manage was a shared beignets and coffee but I'm so glad we did. Whatever you do, don't miss these — they are light, fresh and utterly divine.

Yours, puttin' some South in my mouth,
London Girl About Town xx