Capital Choices from London

At last, restaurants are reporting an increased appetite for eating out; perhaps those green shoots really are sprouting. I’ve had several requests from readers for an update on the London food scene. Lots of good things are happening over there – despite the cautious atmosphere, many young people are ‘chomping at the bit’ to open cafes, restaurants and gastro pubs. There’s also a new semi underground movement that’s gathering momentum. ‘Pop-up’ restaurants and Secret Suppers are spreading ‘virally’. Word of their location spreads among friends through Facebook, Twitter and by text. There are lots of variations but it works something like this, young cooks and chefs who often can’t afford to open a restaurant, find a vacant premises, maybe a daytime restaurant that’s closed in evening or a rowing club premises or even a warehouse. They decide on a menu, or a theme, send word to their circle of friends who pass it onto friends of friends. Each guest pays a set price and usually brings their own wine. The idea is spreading like wildfire, and many already have a cult following. Stevie Parle lives on a barge on the River Thames and was one of the first young chefs to have a ‘moveable kitchen’. Stevie did a 12 week course here at Ballymaloe Cookery School in 2002 with Clodagh McKenna and Thomasina Miers of Wahaca fame. They were all totally passionate about food. Stevie went on to work with Sam Clarke at Moro, the River Café with Rose Grey and Ruth Rodgers and then onto Petersham Nurseries to work with Skye Gyngell. A stint with April Bloomfield at the Spotted Dog in New York followed – all of these restaurants are on my ‘favourite list’

Stevie soaked up their words of wisdom and philosophy, travelled and cooked and experimented and organised many ‘pop-up’ dinners. His fan base grew and grew and now at last he’s in an ‘immoveable kitchen’, a great space next door to furniture designer Tom Dixon in what used to be the Virgin Headquarters in Portobello Dock hence the name The Dock Kitchen. A class mate Lughan Carr came from Petersham Nursery Café to work with Stevie. I had lunch there just before Easter and I loved it. When I arrived Lughan was boning a milk-fed kid for dinner, outside fresh herbs were growing, fenugreek, borage, sage…in an old builder’s bag and there was a tiny vegetable garden in a great big furniture crate. Stevie was inside the open kitchen preparing some beautiful Agretti or Barbe de Fratti. It is a type of sea weed called ‘monks beard’ that I’d never tasted before, so Stevie explained how to cook it – just boil for a couple of minutes, drain and then toss in extra virgin olive oil, he served it with a generous grating of bottargo, it was exquisite. I followed that little feast with the first of this years broad beans from the Scilly Isles with cous cous, cumin, coriander and seasoned yoghurt – also totally delicious.

For main course I chose the juicy Suffolk Spring lamb chops with smoked green wheat, turnip leaves and tahini sauce – an inspired combination. For pudding I had to make another impossible choice between roasted almond ice-cream, plum jam and hazelnut tart or a piece of Folores from the Portuguese Bakery but I passed all of that up and chose a new seasons Alphonso mango from Maharashtra with a blob of fresh yoghurt. Altogether the best lunch I’d had for a many a long day. At present Dock Kitchen is open Tuesday to Saturday for lunch and Wednesday to Saturday for secret suppers.

A few other finds on the London café scene. The coffee everyone is talking about is from Square Mile coffee roasters in Hackney, this is the coffee served by Flat White Espresso on Berwick Street in Soho, a tiny café run by a couple of New Zealanders, tiny but great.

Leila’s Café and Shop on Calvert Avenue in Bethnal Green is another high street gem, simple timber tables, open kitchen and black boards – the butter is in enamel pie dishes, the sugar in white pudding bowls. They serve great toast and jam, Robert Wilson’s teas and a short seasonal menu – I loved the fried eggs with sage. Then there’s the beautiful old fashioned grocery shop next door slate tables, huge galvanise containers for rice and beans and old crates full of freshly picked organic vegetables and herbs.

Cocomaya on Connaught Street in Paddington was also charming, stacks of gorgeous wee buns, brownies, cute little short bread bunnies and chicks with pastel icing and irresistible éclairs. Teeny poppy seed cakes with lemon icing drizzled and flower petals sprinkled over the tops, choccie mousse confections, single muffins in cellophane bags, good bread, little quiches, honey cakes…

There is just one table to enjoy the treat of your choice and a cup of coffee in the brilliantly bling gold cups and saucers.

My favourite new discovery is Towpath, the teeniest café you can imagine, owned by Italian-American food writer Lori di Mori and her photographer husband Jason Lowe. It’s at the end of Regent Canal and is literally four and half feet deep with a seat by the wall covered with hessian sacks as cushions and just a few carefully chosen treats on the menu. Already the toasted Montgomery Cheddar cheese and spring onion sandwich on bread from St John Bakery has become a legend, as has Cappezanna Olive Oil Cake.

Lori doesn’t do take-away coffee so punters have an excuse to sit a while to watch the dab chicks and swans glide by. As I sat there, a river barge puttered by and the captain shouted out a compliment to Lori ‘great frittata we had at lunch time today!’

Towpath is open from 8am for breakfast, people queue up for pinhead oatmeal porridge and homemade granola. Another little gem, I can’t imagine how people find it but it’s worth the effort.

Stevie Parle from Dock Kitchen’s new book My Kitchen – Real Food from Near and Far will be published by Quadrille early July. Stevie kindly gave us a sneak preview with these delicious recipes.

Cous Cous with Broad Beans

Serves 4

Try to pick your broad beans when they are small and tender, do not peel off the skin unless they have grown too large. Often raw beans are smashed in a pestle and mortar with a little garlic, mint, basil, pecorino, olive oil and lemon juice – an excellent antipasto on bruschetta with crudo ham.

Different broad beans deserve different treatment. The first of the season’s beans should be eaten raw, even with the pods, and then as the novelty wears off and the skins thicken other dishes can be tried. Large end-of-season beans can be slow-cooked with milk and sage as they do in Italy (the milk softens the tough skins) or with off-cuts of strong ham or sausage as they do in Spain. One of the best dishes is the Roman vignole, a stew of artichokes, peas and broad beans with ham, mint and parsley, so named because it is from the crops that grow beside the vines.

At this time of year in Morocco a delicious dish of cous cous with yogurt, coriander, cumin, and broad beans is served by the side of the road. When we were driving through the mountains, I kept pestering our driver to stop to eat this most delicious of dishes one more time.

 

1 cup of fine cous cous (not the coarse precooked stuff)
1 cup of small podded broad beans
1 very small clove of spring garlic
1 tsp cumin
5 tablespoons of yoghurt – preferably home made
2 tablespoons of chopped coriander leaves
Olive oil

Briefly boil the broad beans in unsalted water (salt toughens the skins) then place in a bowl with the couscous. Sprinkle with salt and a tablespoon of olive oil. Rub the couscous and beans between your hands to make sure everything is well coated in olive oil. Pour hot water over the mixture, just enough to cover and leave unti the water is absorbed.

Crush the garlic in a pestle and mortar with a little salt to a fine paste. Toast the cumin until it crackles and then grind with the garlic, add the yoghurt and black pepper.
Chop the coriander leaves.

Mix the cous cous mixture with the seasoned yoghurt, check the seasoning and serve with a little olive oil. Delicious as part of a larger mezze style lunch for a picnic, or as a starter, snack or eccentric breakfast (with less garlic and cumin perhaps) on its own.

Tlacolula Slow-Cooked Pork

Serves 6

This is a recipe from Oaxaca in Mexico. If you can’t find smoked or sun-dried Mexican chillies you can use dried Spanish ones instead, though the smoked ones are so good it is probably worth buying some from coolchile.co.uk.

8 sun-dried or smoked Mexican chillies,

1/2 pork shoulder, about 2kg (4lb 8oz)

1 whole head of garlic

200ml (7fl oz) cider vinegar

1 tbsp dried oregano,

1 tin tomatoes, drained,

6 bay leaves,

1 tbsp allspice, crushed

Break the stems off the chillies, shake out some of the seeds and discard. Soak the chillies in 300ml (10floz) boiling water. Drain off the water and briefly whizz the peppers in a food processor.

Put the pork in a big pan with all the other ingredients. Pour in enough water almost to cover and season well with salt. Cover and set over a medium heat. Bring to the boil then turn down the heat as low as possible, and let the pork cook gently until really soft – about 2 hours.

Eat with some greens and salad of radish, celery, coriander and lime, plus crusty bread or corn tortillas.

Rhubarb and Brown Butter Tart

Serves 6

This is based on a delicious plum tart from Chez Panisse in California:

For the pastry

180g (6 1/4oz) plain flour

110g (4oz) unsalted butter

50g (1 3/4) icing sugar

2 egg yolks

For the Filling

350g 12oz (¾lb) of young rhubarb

100g (3½oz) sugar

180g (6 1/4oz) butter

juice of 1 juicy lemon or 2 not so juicy ones

2 eggs

160g (5 3/4oz) sugar

1 tbsp brandy (optional)

few drops of vanilla extract

pinch of salt

2 tbsp double cream

3 tbsp plain flour

Whizz the flour, butter and sugar in a food processor then add the egg yolks. Whizz a bit more then turn out on to an un-floured work surface and bring it together with your hands. Wrap in Clingfilm and leave in the fridge for a few hours.

Wash and slice the rhubarb into 5cm pieces and roll in 100g of sugar and roast in the oven at 160ºC until just tender. Allow to cool and drain off the syrup.

Grate the pastry on the course part of a grater into a 10in (25cm) loose-bottomed tart shell. Push down the grated pastry to cover the base and sides reasonably well. You can leave it a bit rough – try not to work the pastry too much. Put the shell in the freezer, and, after a few minutes when it is hard, put in the oven and bake until pale brown – about 15 minutes. Set the pastry case aside and turn up the oven to 180ºC/350ºF/gas mark 4.

Put the butter in a small pan over a moderate heat. Once it has melted, let it bubble and go slightly brown. When it has reached the desired nuttiness, take off the heat; squeeze in the lemon and leave to cool.

Beat the eggs and sugar together in an electric mixer until thick and fluffy – about 5 minutes. Add the (optional) brandy, vanilla, salt, cream and flour and cooled butter. Mix with a spoon until everything is incorporated.

Arrange the drained rhubarb in the pastry case and pour over the egg mixture. Bake for about 35 minutes or until light brown and set. The tart can be eaten warm or cold, and is nice with crème fraiche.Wildfood

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Nettles are growing in great profusion around the countryside at the moment particularly on nitrate-rich soil. Gather them while they are young and tender and not too strongly flavoured. You’ll need gloves to protect your hands. With their high iron and vitamin C content, nettles were prominent in folk medicine and, like many other wild foods, they helped in some small measure to alleviate hunger during the Irish famine. Older people knew their value and made sure to eat a feed of nettles 4 times during the month of May to clear the blood. In fact, herbalists confirm that nettles contain iron, formic acid, histamine, ammonia, silica acid and potassium. These minerals are known to help rheumatism, sciatica and other pains. They lower blood pressure and blood sugar levels to increase the haemoglobin in the blood, improve circulation and purify the system, so our ancestors weren’t far wrong. In more recent times, nettles have also become a much sought-after ingredient for trendy chefs.

Roger’s Nettle Beer

My research assistant for my Forgotten Skills book Nathalie found this recipe in Roger Phillips’ book, Wild Food. It makes delicious beer – sweet, fizzy, perfect for summertime. But she bottled it before it had finished fermenting, and one night, the glass bottles exploded. Oh well, practice makes perfect!

Makes 12 litres

100 nettle stalks, with leaves

11 litres (3 gallons) water

1.3kg (3lb) granulated sugar

50g (2oz) cream of tartar

10g (12 oz) live yeast

Boil the nettles in the water for 10 minutes. Strain, and add the sugar and the cream of tartar. Heat and stir until dissolved. Remove from the heat and leave until tepid, then add the yeast and stir well. Cover with muslin and leave for several days.

Remove the scum and decant without disturbing the sediment. Bottle, cork and tie down.

Hottips

To celebrate the revamp of their dining room, The Crawford Gallery Cafe is launching their One a Month Dinner Nights starting on Thursday May 20th. A six course tasting menu of local, seasonal food will be on offer for €50.00 a head Reservations only, to book, phone 021 4274415 crawfordcafe@gmail.com

 

Are you thinking of re-skilling? Would you like to own/operate a food business with passion and professionalism – while making a profit? Consider the 12 Week course at ‘The Restaurant Advisor’ Blathnaid Bergin’s new School of Restaurant and Kitchen Management in Abbeyleix, Co. Laois. For more information on the course that starts on 23rd August visit http://www.therestaurantadvisor.ie/restaurant-mangement or telephone +353 (0) 87 679 0854 info@therestaurantadvisor.ie

Truly Tasty – the brainchild of Valerie Twomey – is a cookery book especially for adults living with kidney disease. Some of Ireland’s top chefs including Rachel Allen, Rory O’Connell, Neven Maguire, Paul Flynn and Clodagh McKenna have contributed to this book and each recipe has been analysed by dieticians and the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute. Published by Atrium with beautiful images by photographer Hugh McElveen.

 

Dock Kitchen www.dockkitchen.co.uk 0044 2089621610

Towpath Café by Regents Canal 42 De Beauvoir Crescent, N1 5SB London

Square Mile Coffee Roasters www.squaremilecoffee.com

Thomasina Miers Wahaca www.wahaca.com

Moro Restaurant www.moro.co.uk

The River Café www.rivercafe.co.uk

The Café Restaurant Petersham Nurseries www.petershamnurseries.com

Cocomaya Restaurant: www.cocomaya.co.uk