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



Monday, 19 June 2017

Small Plate Sessions at the Last Days of Shoreditch

You know summer is really here when London's rooftop bars, terraces and outdoor spaces start opening up - including the Last Days of Shoreditch, East London's iconic food and music venue. For those who missed my last blog post (What?? No excuses - go back and read it now!) and in the interests of full disclosure and transparency,  I have been to a couple of Chef Ben Spalding dinners recently as a guest - although this particular visit was as a normal ticket-buying foodie. I mention this only because he has a restaurant residency in the heart of the site and, as a self-confessed fan, I was queueing up to check it out.

The restaurant is the raised, mezzanine part of Last Days of Shoreditch; I visited on the first weekend of opening and the signage wasn't immediately obvious but then you can't really miss it -  in a wonderfully fun and quirky touch, you take stairs up . . . and a slide on the way down!


The restaurant itself is only about 45 covers so there is a fabulous view of the kitchen, where you can watch Ben and his head chef Josh work their magic.

If there is ever a chance of a seat where you get to see the chefs work I am absolutely there. I am endlessly fascinated by the process and the sheer skill involved and I find it humbling to see the energy, passion and focus that goes into every plate.

I had to have the now-famous chicken skin sandwich; literally a sandwich made with thin crispy chicken skin instead of bread - step right up, low-carb Lean in Fifteeners!

Reading the description, I wasn't completely sure about the chicken skin element but actually it is delicious - very light and not at all oily (in other words, not remotely dense and pork scratchings-esque, which was my fear) but still full of that lovely roast flavour. I'm such a convert that I am definitely trying this at home; I'm thinking of mini versions as drinks/pre-BBQ nibbles? 


This was one of the stand-out dishes of the day for me; mackerel cured in Hythe seawater and served with mint, aromatic mango and a Marmite and sourdough mayonnaise. Fear not, haters; you can't actually taste Marmite as such, there's just a light umami tang that beautifully balances out the natural delicacy of the mackerel, paired with the freshness of mango. This is a gorgeous and beautifully plated, summery dish that lets the ingredients shine.

Those of you who have read my Meat Lust BBQ bus tour blog from February (Aw thanks guys! Love you too!) will know how excited I was to finally get to try this Ben Spalding signature dish for the first time.

Ben has changed it up for the restaurant with a duck version and I was not about to miss it in its new incarnation. It didn't disappoint; the creamy richness of the duck set off by the dark caramel notes . . . and that's without the inevitably wonderful people-watching opportunities, as the way you get both together is to lick the parfait off the brick - no cutlery allowed! (Is this the perfect ice-breaker dish for a first date?)

Next up was the beef shortrib. I am not sure how Ben manages to coax such intensity of flavour out of beef but this is fabulous - yielding, rich, intensely meaty. This was a dish from the terrace and so had been cooked on a Mibrasa charcoal oven to give it that delicious barbecue hit. 

The terrace is hands down the best vantage point at Last Days of Shoreditch. This picture was taken as it had just opened - an hour later it was at capacity and people were being turned away at the door (which is good, as they never let it get uncomfortably, heavingly busy - just full and buzzy). The restaurant is bookable on Chef Ben Spalding's website but the terrace is no-reservation; I found that, if you arrive early enough, you can nab a pretty good spot, grab a drink, order your food and  sit back to watch London at play. 

I had a cocktail from the restaurant bar and my companion went for a craft beer from the Gipsy Hill Brewery. My only small gripe would be that, on my visit, wine was only available by the bottle and, with a beer-drinking companion, I would have liked the option of a glass (or two). 
So, on to desserts. Lemongrass Vs Ginger is a light, airy lemongrass cream with a lemongrass puree, zingy, crispy ginger and iced lemon thyme. I'm not normally a sweet person, (yep, not in that way either) but this was good - cool, creamy and refreshing at the same time.


Silky charcoal fudge is given a kick with the inclusion of the Ribman's famous (or perhaps infamous) Holy Fuck sauce, made from scotch bonnet peppers and naga jolokia chillies. It sounds odd, but it really, really works; there is the sweetness of the fudge and then a gentle tingle of warmth from the sauce, which seems to wake up your tastebuds and intensify the depth of chocolate taste. Again, I don't have a sweet tooth but I would say this could be a sharing dish, it's a generous portion. Oh - did I mention it's splashed with rum and SET ON FIRE? Yep.  Welcome to Small Plate Sessions.

The live DJ sets happen immediately beneath the restaurant and terrace, so there is a seriously cool soundtrack to your evening. We stopped by here after dinner and chilled out with a drink to sets (Ben also curates the music on certain nights, under his PuzzleProjects banner) by Ray Mang and Chuggin Edits; it's not often that you get both food and music by such respected names in one place. For those, like me, who love the quality and imagination of seriously good food but don't like the stuffiness, formality, self-importance and price tag that normally goes with, then this is your spot.

We also had a wander around the rest of the site; we had stuffed ourselves so much that we didn't have room for anything from the food stalls but somehow managed a cheeky jug of Pimms and a longing look at the deckchairs. All in all, a pretty fabulous Friday night. Well hello summer . . .  I've missed you. 









Yours, loving the summer evening one-stop shop, 
London Girl About Town xx

Sunday, 21 May 2017

#AllGunsBlazing with Ben Spalding and Arnaud Bignon

Consider this a serious food-porn alert. I am about to walk you, dish by dish, through the most recent of Ben Spalding's #AllGunsBlazing events.

If you've never been to one of these, it works like this: Ben is joined by a fellow chef (usually Michelin-starred, always extraordinary) and they work together to produce a twelve-course menu. Some dishes are from Ben, some from the guest chef and some are cooked collaboratively. Previous luminaries have included JP McMahon (Aniar), Adam Handling (The Frog) and Calum Franklin (Holborn Dining Room), creator not only of legendary pies but also of the world's best Twitter hashtag. (No, I'm not telling you, go and look.)

In the interests of transparency — about which I have pretty strong views — it's worth mentioning here that I've been lucky enough to have been invited as a guest to several of Ben's dining events recently (although not this one; I bought these tickets, back in February after blogging the Meat Lust bus tour). I will remain, as always, fully open and honest about my opinions - I have long thought him an extraordinary talent, and the evidence is only building — but this has given me a little more insight into what motivates and drives him as a professional, which has been fascinating.

Anyway, back to #AllGunsBlazing; this time, in partnership with Arnaud Bignon of two Michelin-starred The Greenhouse restaurant in Mayfair.
The event hit the ground running with a selection of Table Nibbles, waiting for us as we were shown to our seats by the lovely Sarah. Arnaud contributed the spelt crisp with soft cheese and smoked duck along with the liquid Greek salad, which not only looked beautiful but was one of my favourite dishes of the evening. A perfectly bite-sized, glistening red globe with a tiny basil leaf garnish, this bursts in your mouth to release a flood of fresh, complex Greek salad flavours — an experience not unlike the tomato sphere in the Prairie Oyster at The Bar with No Name (in other words, wonderful).

Ben provided a varied range of nibbles, my favourite of which I think was the caramelised kohlrabi, buttermilk jelly and white chocolate skewer. Characteristically inventive, this might sound like an unlikely combination of flavours but it was marvellous — as was the roasted pickled onion in chicken butter and spicy ginger wrapped in nori. Spalding's dishes are regularly outside-the-box creative, but never for novelty's sake; every single component adds to the flavour and balance of the final dish.

We officially started with B&B; Hackney Wild sourdough bread served with Grant Harrington's gorgeous cultured butter, sprinkled with brown sugar and mushroom powder, lightly blowtorched and served on a board with smoking spruce twigs.








One of the fabulous things about the #AllGunsBlazing dinners is that it removes the barrier between chef and diner. Ben and Arnaud were not hidden away in a high-tech kitchen but mere feet away, preparing and plating everything right in front of us, introducing the dishes and interacting with guests throughout the evening. I can't help thinking that this must be a welcome change for the chefs as well as extremely cool for the guests. I should probably point out here that all this is being prepared and served in an event space above a corner shop in Hackney, with very few of the standard toys and equipment which chefs at this level are used to. I have huge respect for professionals willing to step so far outside of their comfort zone.

First up from Arnaud was this dish, Hemoglobin;  vividly-coloured, elegant and stylishly presented, with the bold, earthy flavour of beetroot balanced with the tang and acidity of yoghurt, smoked eel, pumpernickel and dill.

Then came Tomato Vs Tomato Vs Tomato, Ben's delicate and delicious salad of late spring tomatoes prepared in different ways — including an intensely-flavoured, almost jammy, dried version — with radicchio, sour cream, pomegranate molasses, grapes, ripped mint and iced basil in a spruce bark honey dressing.

The bar set high by both chefs, we moved on to Arnaud's next dish, Iodine, which was preceded by a flurry of activity on the part of the chefs and a waft of woodsmoke. Little Kilner jars arrived at the table, containing a cold jellied dish of cockles, mussels, calamari, dashi and basmati rice; when opened, a fragrant wisp of smoke drifted up towards each guest.

Here, opinion on the table was divided. I really liked this dish; for me, this was the closest thing to eating an oyster without actually eating an oyster — cool, briny, slippery, tasting of the sea. One of my companions however was not a fan of the texture. (I ate hers. I'm not too proud to admit it).

Ben's next dish, Mr Mung, characterises his love of taking a Cinderella ingredient and transforming it into the belle of the ball. Here, the humble mung bean is fermented with over thirty different flavourings and served with tom yum mayonnaise topped with MSG chicken skin and pork skin, creating a delicious houmous-type dip with contrasting crispy nuggets of crackling.



The next item on the menu, simply entitled Cauliflower, was the first collaboration dish. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the #AllGunsBlazing dinners; two incredibly talented chefs with very different styles, not only delivering their own dishes but working with each other to create one savoury and one sweet dish for the evening. (It was particularly fascinating this evening as they were so very different; Ben positively fizzes with energy, whereas Arnaud has an almost yogi-like zen calm about everything he does.)

This dish was another of my favourites: cauliflower, slow-roasted in beurre noisette with garam masala, shaved almonds, yoghurt, black garlic crumble, marmite cream cheese and grated bitter dark chocolate. Every component intensified and enhanced the flavour of the cauliflower, bringing out an extraordinary, unexpected, satisfying depth. You know when you bump into the unattractive kid you went to school with and they're now unbelievably hot? The Neville Longbottom thing? Brad Pitt in Friends? That.

On to a dish created by Ben, which the menu informed us is called Piggy Cheesy Cheesy Piggy; this typifies not only the quirky and playful aspect of his cooking but also his guiding principle that exceptional food doesn't have to be formal and priced beyond the reach of most — as evidenced by his frequent and absolute willingness to dispense with cutlery of any kind. This was a delicious shot of Italian prawn, Iberico pork and warm Parmigiano Reggiano broth with raw peas and chilli oil, in a glass.

I'm going to mention here the hand model for this particular shot; my neighbour for the evening, Head Chef Asimakis Chaniotis of L'Autre Pied. Another thing that makes these evenings such fun is that the vibe is so buzzy and relaxed (Ben also curates a playlist of rare funk, groove and classic disco from the music side of his business) you end up brazenly chatting to the perfect strangers sitting next to you — and no, this time its's actually not just me.

Asimakis was there with restaurateur and founding Director of Pied à Terre and L'Autre Pied, David Moore (pictured, left, with Arnaud Bignon). I have to say, they were the perfect dinner companions: interesting, great fun and utterly charming both. Just as well really, as the friend sitting next to me was deep in conversation with the person to her right, chef James Wilson, getting an insider tip on seasoning steak.

Next up was another cutlery-free dish that really makes you get up close and personal with your food — a warm malt loaf and butter mousse that is squirted onto the back of your hand in a picturesque rosette for you to lick off.

Confession time; my camera skills may have been deteriorating slightly at this point and, by the time much faffing had been done, the mousse had melted into a rather unphotogenic blob. It was great fun though, and utterly delicious.
Did I mention there is a cash bar providing cocktails and a brief but carefully selected wine list, including a sprightly Sauvignon Blanc and a hefty, full-bodied, spicy Château Musar 2009 that went very nicely with Arnaud's next dish?

This was Black is Back, a visually dramatic and intriguing dish of meltingly tender lamb neck with aubergine and harissa providing a wonderful, deep smokiness.

And so on to desserts, the first of which was another collaborative dish, Liquorice: toasted liquorice marshmallow with sweet potato ice cream, blueberries dressed in tonka bean caramel, crispy artichoke and young lemon balm. I'm not a huge liquorice fan but this was really good; the sweet potato ice cream in particular was a revelation. The guests also had a front row seat for the theatre of top chefs toasting marshmallows over a blazing fire - indoors. As you do.

Arnaud's sweet dish, Tagada, was a light dessert of strawberry, basil and popcorn with a delicate freshness and an accomplished mix of textures. I loved the note of basil lifting the sweetness.

Our final dish was Aromatic Fudge, from Ben: a trio of chocolate fudges made with dark, milk and white chocolate, all flavoured with cardamom and served with whipped maple cheese, iced lemon thyme, crispy pea shards, toasted pecans and dusted with raspberry powder.

The intensity of the fudge was beautifully balanced by the accompaniments and it was so interesting to see how the aromatic warmth of the cardamom came out differently in each of the three chocolate fudges.

The #AllGunsBlazing dinners are a steal for both the quality and quantity of food, even without meeting the chefs and seeing them at work. If you haven't been, I highly recommend it - I think there is one more booked (with Jonathan Tam of Relæ) and, at least at time of writing, there were tickets available. It is so chilled, so much fun, and the food is awesome. And, please, go hungry.







Yours, in foodie heaven,

London Girl About Town xx



Sunday, 30 April 2017

Hai Cenato & the Drunken Oyster

Hai Cenato, as pretty much everyone in London now knows, translates as 'Have you had dinner?' and is Jason Atherton's latest venture. Situated in the increasingly interesting Nova food centre in Victoria and launched in collaboration with Social Eating House Chef Patron Paul Hood, the focus is on New York/Italian food: small plates, sourdough pizza, pasta, risotto and grills in relaxed surroundings and at accessible prices. So far, so good.



There is a deli on the ground floor (which we didn't visit) for those after a quick breakfast/brunch, or perhaps stocking up for some al desko dining. Entrance to the restaurant is through giant tinted glass doors opened for you by sharp-suited staff who wouldn't look out of place hustling a president into a black limo. Inside, the ambiance is quite intimate for a large-ish space, with low lighting (hence, apologies for the quality of the photographs) and a mixture of seating. Caricatures of Atherton's fellow chefs adorn the walls (sparking much competitive muttering at nearby foodie tables) and there is a monthly 'guest chef' pizza from one of the greats.

We visited when the pizza was courtesy of Tom Kerridge; the signature sourdough base came topped with ground spiced venison, Milano salami, Gorgonzola dolcelatte, sorrel and lemon zest. Clearly we couldn't eat here without trying this - and I'm very glad we did. The buzz about the pizza here is entirely justified; the huge domed pizza ovens that dominate the counter area like 1950s sci-fi robots really deliver.

I've eaten an awful lot of pizza in my time, but this was one of the best. Distinctive but balanced flavours in the topping (although, note to self - grated lemon zest is really hard to distribute evenly over anything) and an absolutely first-class base. Thin, crispy, chewy, with a tangy, sourdough kick, this was seriously impressive.
To go with, we were recommended a light and very drinkable Villa Mura Malvasia Veneto, pretty reasonably-priced at £25. There are five reds and five whites available by the glass too, if you prefer.

We also ordered the confit guinea fowl risotto and some satisfyingly crunchy cracked potato with garlic aioli, rosemary and sea salt; imagine serving up the roasties and then scraping the bits from the bottom of the tray. Wonderful.

By now I was so carbed-out by my holy trinity of bread, rice and potatoes that I didn't have room for the planned mini gelato cones that you can get from the deli, so it was straight off upstairs to the in-house cocktail bar, 'The Drunken Oyster'.

The bar is dimly-lit and cosy in a members' club kind of way. We could have sat and reminisced about the pizza with the 'taptails' - a range of prosecco-based cocktails literally on tap - but, though tempting, we decided to hit the main list.

The Cosa Nostra was one of my favourites: a sophisticated mix of Havana 3yr rum, Amaro Montenegro, Palo Cortado and blood orange sherbert. The seasonal bellinis are a refreshing, lighter alternative and the affable staff are happy to make your favourite to order if it's not on the list (as witnessed by my companion, for whom an evening is just not complete without at least one espresso martini).

I'm going back. I'm having the grilled octopus starter. I'm having the gelato. I'm having taptails. And I'm always, always having the pizza.







Yours, with a new pizza pitstop,

London Girl About Town xx