Monday, 21 December 2009

Marvellous Mooli's

Think of Indian cuisine and your mind doesn’t immediately leap to delicate bread making. If you think of baking at all then the familiar British high street fare of stodgy elephantine naan breads, oily poppadoms or chewy parathas may well be what springs up. These slander-worthy imitations of the delicious creations found on the subcontinent are as far away from the original as processed orange slices are from real cheese.

A visit last week to the newly opened Mooli’s in Soho brought to mind the pleasures that Indian bread in its true form can be. In a small, bright, premises at the north end of Frith Street two devout foodies presented me with perfectly baked, soft Indian flatbreads, known as rotis that taste just as they do in their homeland.

Freshly baked every day on a machine lovingly named Moolita, these rotis are the real thing: almost as thin as a French crepe the dough yields pleasingly as you bite into it, the perfect encasement for the delicacies within.

Behind the counter the concise menu is hung high, brightly listing the five types of Mooli available. Wanting to try everything our stomachs would allow we went for a feast of mini Moolis which arrived on vivid pink and green plastic trays, each with a corresponding chutney, made specifically to compliment its partner.

Asparagus and potato with tamarind chutney was demolished in seconds as we tried to guess the spices which had lent each mouthful such a moreish quality. Next a warm parcel of tangy tender chicken was brought to life by apple and mint, buzzing memorably on your taste buds. The paneer, while interesting to try, didn’t work as well, the mild flavour lost next to powerful tomato chutney and the texture and tepid temperature being slightly obscure for what is in essence cottage cheese.

The pork and beef were firmly back on track though; each mouthful of the soft meat gently releasing the punchy spices soaked up in the long cooking process which the owners are determined to maintain. Spicier than the first moolis we tried, the beef is cooled with raita and coconut while the pork is speckled with pretty pink pomegranate seeds.

As we got talking to Sam and Matthew, the entrepreneurs behind the restaurant, it became clear just how much attention to detail has been fostered onto this project. The two men have an infectious enthusiasm for their products with a story behind everything on the premises – whether it’s the ingredients sourced from far corners of India, recipes handed down from relations and perfected during hours of trial and error or the specialist equipment which has been hauled across the Atlantic.

Listening to them you quickly become caught up in what has been a labour of love to bring the flavours of Mumbai, Delhi or Kerala to our own pavements, for while at the high end of the London restaurant scene the likes of Benares and the Bombay Brasserie turn out world class cuisine, high street and fast food outlets rarely do justice to the Indian kitchen.

Mooli’s with their clean, fresh flavours and enthusiastic approach may well change this though. These parcels even win marks on the health front – there’s a complete absence of frying or oil, everything in the kitchen is baked (even the poppadoms) and nowhere will you find a cloying dollop of mayo.

Given the choice between an unfulfilling salad box and a marvellous Mooli, the decision is obvious. Mooli’s is a very welcome addition to the Soho lunch time scene as their already loyal customers will attest to – one in particular is so taken that he has promised to introduce a new customer every day.

Keep an eye on Twitter to hear about the challenges to win Mooli's for free.

50 Frith Street
London W1D 4SQ
020 7494 9075

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

The Providores

The Providores popped into my life in the nick of time; just as brunch had begun to get boring. London is a city awash with generic morning menus and this mecca for early eaters brings imagination in spades.

Opened eight years ago by Kiwi chef Peter Gordon previously of Sugar Club fame, The Providores is housed unobtrusively behind a wooden framed shop front on Marylebone High Street. Having been told to expect a queue we arrived early and sure enough a line of hungry punters had already formed; this in a city bereft of patience is evidence of the delights within.

Step over the threshold and a high communal table forms the centrepiece. Smaller tables line the walls and even the bright bay window has been cleverly turned into a breakfast bar, occupied today by lone diners and piles of Sunday papers. The space is compact, the diners many and the staff busy, yet the atmosphere is relaxed and unhurried.

Settling down at our table we take in the surroundings: statement white lamp shades draw your attention to the high ceilings in the centre of the room while oversized unadorned light bulbs dangle over our heads, their orange elements glowing brightly. The interior is clever, the lighting creating an illusion of space where there is none, features like nifty coat hooks hiding under tables keeping clutter minimal.

The menu is a revelation. Ingredients like sumac, yuzu, miso and tamarillo sit alongside bacon, bread and oats. Pancakes of sweetcorn and blueberry (£8.80), baked beans with smoky molasses (£2.80) and perhaps the most intriguing of all the combinations – poached Turkish eggs with yoghurt and chilli butter (£6.20). Read on further and the choice becomes impossible so intriguing are the dishes.

Tumblers of strong rich coffee arrive, the frothy topping bearing the baristas arty signature. A pot of fragrant earl grey is accompanied by a tea cup into which a small milk jug has been snugly slotted, another space saver or perhaps just stylish after thought.

Our eagerly anticipated choices arrive and we are impressed. A generous slab of French toast (£8.80), stuffed with bananas and pecans, topped with plenty of streaky bacon and surrounded by a pool of vanilla syrup disappears in seconds. This indulgent combination takes the best from European and American classics and creates a satisfying winner.

Opaque flakes of hot-smoked salmon, layered with spinach and perfectly poached eggs on walnut toasted bread, dripping with yuzu-hollandaise (£10.40) is mouth watering (yuzu being an oriental citrus). Labelling this a variation on the ubiquitous Eggs Benedict does it no justice, the dishes may have similar origins but I belie any classicist to try this without undergoing instant modernisation.

And finally: a bowl of porridge. Not just any old oats but “brown rice, apple, maple syrup and miso porridge made using soy milk and served with tamarillo compote.”(£6) A description so pretentious I couldn’t resist it. This porridge is so ridiculous it doesn’t contain a single flake of oat and despite not wanting to like it, the verdict was good. The brown rice lent an unusual texture but the finished dish was creamy not rich, sweet not sickly and made fresh by the apple puree, though nearer to rice pudding than the menu description suggests.

As our squeaky clean plates were whisked away it became clear that a return trip was a necessity. This first visit was just a sample of a menu brimming with intriguing and innovative combinations. It updates and questions the classics and is not afraid to be provocative in doing so.

The clearest illustration of this restaurant’s nature though lies beside the boiled eggs: the toasted soldiers come with vegemite. Any restaurant on British soil ballsy enough to usurp marmite with its cousin from the subcontinent has to be worth a visit.

The Providores & Tapa Room
109 Marylebone High Street
London W1U 4RX
020 7935 6175

Providores on Urbanspoon

Friday, 4 December 2009

Cupcake Crazy

If there were a turf war between the oversized American cupcake and the humble British fairy cake the smaller species would have suffered the same fate as red squirrels at the hands of their grey cousins. A similar fortune has befallen the sugar sprinkled ring doughnut; now little more than a memory as the green and white Krispy Kreme stands have marched their sugary march through our station platforms and supermarket aisles.

Not that I’m complaining. I have been charmed by the enemy, defected and emerged as a staunch supporter of the opposition. Any fond childhood memories of fairy cakes at birthday parties and village fairs faded into the recesses of my mind when my teeth first sunk into an offering from the Hummingbird bakery.

Before this moment I wouldn’t have thought to complain about the paper cased treats I had greedily gobbled, but with hindsight they were not exactly gourmet. Sometimes they were show stoppers, topped with all manner of decorous sugary glazes, sprinkles, sparkles and spots. Yet often a solid chunk of slightly charred Victoria sponge cake lurked beneath, concealed by a dollop of hastily mixed butter icing, made with granulated sugar, leaving grains in your teeth. The lavish decorations and liberal doses of food colouring were I think an attempt to induce a sugar and colour rush precisely to disguise the sad little sponge beneath.

The Americans have nailed it though. Their supersize version is a light, airy, sweet sponge; the soft texture melting on your tongue like candyfloss, hardly requiring a chew. On top a gluttonously thick layer of fluffy smooth icing makes you wish for a bowl of the stuff and accompanying spoon.

Hummingbird and Magnolia bakery books have been on my shelves for months and each time I’ve flicked through their appetising pages something has stopped me from attempting to recreate these regal cakes. If I’m honest I didn’t think for a second that my own version would rival the heavenly heights of those in the bakery itself.

Amazingly though the Hummingbird vanilla cupcake recipe is without a doubt the easiest and most successful cake recipe I have ever tried (I’ve tried a lot). There is no beating, creaming or sifting; just a few blasts in the blender. And resisting all my instincts to change the method to something more traditional as I went along paid off because I bet the results would have passed a comparison test in the bakery’s window.

In fact it did make me wonder how publishing the book has affected their sales.

Better still the recipe works as a larger cake. Doubling the quantity, splitting it between three tins, filling them with homemade blackcurrant jam and topping with vanilla butter cream resulted in the most well received cake I've ever produced. Seriously, this triple layered beast of a cake seemed to have magic properties, is highly addictive and has already resulted in two job offers. Try it!

Hummingbird Vanilla Cupcakes

120g plain flour
140g caster sugar
1 ½ tsp baking powder
pinch salt
40 g unsalted butter
120ml milk
1 egg
½ tsp vanilla extract

Vanilla Buttercream

250g icing sugar
80g unsalted butter
25ml milk
½ tsp vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 170°C and line a muffin tray with 12 paper cases. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together then flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and butter until just combine and sandy in texture. With the mixer running add half of the milk and mix until just combined. Beat the egg, remaining milk and vanilla together and gradually pour into the mixer while it’s running and continue mixing until smooth. Pour or spoon into the paper cases and bake for about 20 minutes.

To make the buttercream sift the icing sugar into the mixer, add the butter and beat until smooth, scraping in any mixture from the sides of the bowl. Gradually add the milk and vanilla extract and continue beating until light and fluffy.

When the cakes are cool spoon the buttercream on top.

Hummingbird Bakery on Urbanspoon

Friday, 27 November 2009

Diet kebab anyone?

The Food Standards Agency is soon to release guidelines for our local caffs and chip shops to produce healthy versions of our favourite unhealthy takeaways. The prospect of the nannyish traffic light system, which is now fixed to every supermarket packet, adorning the wall alongside a donor kebab fills me with horror. Yes, the saturated fat levels of golden battered cod may be enough to induce a mild panic if not heart attack, but deep down we already know that we're not exactly nibbling on a carrot stick.

Going to the nearest greasy spoon to find calorie content and salt levels on the menu is surely a step too far? And will government imposed restrictions extend to the cream laden dishes in Michelin kitchens? More ridiculous still would be a late night chippie offering steamed sweet potato sticks or a quinoa salad to go with your burger.

Across the pond American’s are used to calories being displayed on all sorts of menus but surely this clouds choice to the point that diners no longer order what they actually want to eat but rather what they feel they should. Or, arguably worse, will leave a restaurant guilty, haunted by calorie counts and nutritional waffle.

I’m not trying to persuade anyone that doners, chips or pizza should be lauded as health foods but the FSA’s latest drive will hammer another nail into the coffin of the individual’s right to choose. I’d like to be able to indulge in a paper parcel of traditionally cooked fish and chips in all their salty, oily, vinegary deliciousness and savour every moment without the lingering guilt induced by an FSA poster proclaiming them as a ‘bad’ food. And I’m not sure I would want them to be cooked in healthier oil, fat-free batter or low sodium salt flakes.

Besides which, when it comes to kebabs, if you avoid the cylindrical twisting stack of dubious animal meat and go for grilled shish or tandoor kathi, your pitta bread will actually contain something less nutritionally offensive than the over laden high street sandwiches we stuff ourselves with daily.

Before the guidelines go crazy and we’re greeted with weight loss tips as we stagger over the doorsteps of our favourite eateries, it’s about time we celebrated the staggering array of street food that’s all over the capital.

Here are a couple I go back to again and again. They’re so good I’ve sort of stopped exploring so need to hear where yours are???

Good Morning Vietnam, Clapham Junction

Ranoush, High St Kensington

George’s Fish & Chip Bar, Portobello Road
Fish Club, St John's Hill

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Scarsdale Tavern

There are some places that should be kept secret. Local haunts that thrive on anonymity, that you only mention to the people you trust not to ruin them and you wouldn’t mind bumping into if they paid a visit. The unassuming backstreet canteen, neighbourhood coffee shop or third-generation bakery that feel like life enhancing discoveries when first you walk through the door.

Unfortunately much as I try, I’m terrible at keeping secrets. I would be an interrogator’s dream. If there’s any sign that an exciting bit of news might be well received, before I know it, it’s out. So while I’m not one to keep your deepest, darkest skeleton in the closet, I am one to divulge a few of my own.

On a quiet, residential square at the wrong end of Kensington High Street you could almost miss The Scarsdale so unassuming is the entrance. Quietly blending into the adjacent terraced houses as it does seems fitting for a pub that is still very much a local.

In the summer colourful hanging baskets tumble over the railings and now in early winter ever-green plants guide you towards the Georgian building and the welcome heat within. As we walked in we spied a blackboard proclaiming the arrival of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau which meant our tipple was chosen for the day.

For once, finding a table among the assortment of mis-matched wooden furniture presented no challenge and we settled down in a cosy corner next to an antique dealer who throughout our stay played host to various punters. He eventually gave up his table to a trio of affable drunks playing a game that seemed low on rules and high on hilarity.

A bustling square bar takes centre stage, the layout allowing you to completely circle around it, passing through the vaguely formal dining area that stretches back to the kitchen. Finding empty tables here (to sit at them you must be eating) is frustrating when so many loyal regulars cram for space on the other side. I’m sure that most of them, given a pew, would naturally indulge in something more substantial than the moreish wasabi peas, pistachio nuts or twiglets currently stoking their appetites.

The blackboard menu spans the realms of pub grub, a step above standard but not in gastro league, with starters of homemade butternut soup, goats cheese salad or chicken liver pate served in generous portions; each a meal in itself. The fishcakes are hearty potatoey stodge, lacking fish and smothered in sauce - they sell out regularly so can’t be all bad. A peculiar, pungent sauce arrives with our salmon fillet and the lamb salad with mint dressing seemed more like Sunday lunch leftovers than an evening meal.

But the Scarsdale is about atmosphere, not fine dining. If you stick to the burgers, steaks, pies or nachos you’re safe; they seldom leave anything but a clean plate behind them. Venture onto the more elaborate main course combinations and love the place as I do, I have to confess there is room for disappointment.

Guest wines, such as the Beaujolais, occasionally appear at the bar as addition to the concise, wallet friendly house list. And tall elegant brown bottles of Aspall’s Suffolk Cider will tempt even the most abstemious visitor.

I reaslie, reading this back, that the Scarsdale sounds like any number of neighbourhood London pubs. I can’t quite put my finger on why it has such strong pulling power - perhaps it’s just because it’s my local and your own local is always unsurpassable.

The only serious complaint is that closing time always comes far too early.

Scarsdale Tavern on Urbanspoon

The Scarsdale Tavern
23 Edwardes Square
London W8
020 7937 1811

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Noodle Noodle

The name isn’t great is it? It doesn’t really inspire you to go inside and test out their offerings. Take any other cuisine and it gets all the more ridiculous – a restaurant called ‘rice, rice’, ‘spaghetti, spaghetti’ or ‘pie, pie’ doesn’t work either but maybe I’m being unimaginative.

Name aside this oriental canteen just north of Victoria station is quite an exciting find. It’s the sort of place you walk past a hundred times without even thinking of going inside. Away from the lunch time chaos, it turns out it’s worth spending a pound or two more than you would in Eat or Pret for an excuse to sit down and chatter over bowls of spicy pad thai, chicken-katsu curry or ramen soup.

Big beakers of juice arrive at the table in record speed and after our order is taken generous portions of fragrant fodder follow close behind. My Tom-Yum soup (£5.95) comes in a cavernous china bowl. Fine rice noodles swim in flavourful spiced stock along with tender poached chicken, spring onions, bean sprouts and a chunk of lemon which leaves a tangy punch. On a cold day like today this is comforting, with a hangover it would be cleansing and really, there are few days that this classic concoction wouldn’t be well received.

Jess, who introduced me to this little place, has spicy fried chicken (£7.95)which arrives with sticky rice and a thick, weirdly bright, sauce. The crunchy crumbed fillet is well received though and judging by the empty plates flying back to the kitchen from all corners the chefs have got the lunch time formula pretty much spot on. Mountainous piles of wok fried noodles, plates of steaming dim sum and all sorts of soups magically disappeared all around us.

Noodle Noodle isn’t gourmet, the ingredients aren’t sourced from suppliers in rolling English valleys and there’s no way the waiters know the provenance of the chicken on your plate but it’s fresh, healthy, quick and satisfying. In comparison to the array of high street vendors offering their latest attention grabbing sandwich it beats them hands down.

Noodle Noodle on Urbanspoon

Noodle Noodle
16-18 Buckingham Palace Road
London SW1W 0QP
020 7931 9911

Monday, 23 November 2009

A date with Daylesford

The first date is a tricky thing and despite being desperate to fall in love last Saturday, the object of my affections was not to be the one. Daylesford Organic in all its wholesome finery has received a mass of praising press and I should by now know that from the peak of expectation the fall to disappointment is all the more acutely felt.

The Daylesford brand, founded by the Bamford family with the first farm shop opening in 2003, has become synonymous with modern organic luxury. Proudly displayed throughout the Westbourne Grove store are Soil Association certifications, organic labels and various testaments to the nutritional wonders of their super foods.

One colourful wall placard describes the happy life of the Friesian herds who’s udders have produced all the milk, butter and cheese that will pass your lips. If you can get your hands on a jug of the white stuff that is, something that we failed to achieve despite numerous pleas from our bereft teacups.

Sitting down at a streamlined glass bench decorated with lines of chalky gravel we looked around for a waiter, first with anticipation, then with frustration and eventually with despair as we found it nearly impossible to spy anyone who might take our order. The manager was doing a sterling job, trying to steer her severely understaffed ship, but ultimately one lonesome person is never going to be able to keep a whole floor of Saturday breakfasters in high spirits.

Because of this we had plenty of time to ponder the concise menu which despite its shortness satisfies most appetites with its variety. A basket of toast (£3), bowl of granola (£5) or pile of pastries (£3.50) being the more traditional options but paperdelle bolognaise (£9.95) and spicy vegetable pad thai (£9.95) make the list for the more adventurous morning eater.

After managing to place our order - this felt like quite an achievement - we were rewarded with swiftly appearing sustenance. Earl grey and elderflower tea and smooth rich coffee were served with a delicious square of soft chocolate brownie; perfectly cooked sticky sponge dotted with white chocolate chips. Next to arrive was a statuesque vase of water, long slivers of cucumber curving through the liquid and for once tap water didn’t feel like the poor man’s choice. Sadly the Virgin Mary lacked for everything, the plain tomato juice missing any seasoning or spice at all.

My plate of scrambled eggs (£4) was perfect: Fluffy, well seasoned, creamy and orange-yolked on top of crunchy buttery sourdough, they paid testament to the happy hens from which they came. Eggs Benedict and Florentine (£6.95) were both devoured with smiles, the bright shiny hollandaise lemony and well balanced.

Sugar-free, wheat-free, granola muesli with almond milk had the potential to resemble chewy cardboard but the glass bowl was full of satisfyingly crunchy cereal, flecked with goji berries and seeds. The pappardelle with bolognaise sauce was sloppily presented in comparison and the flavours good but not memorable.

Plates finally cleared, our verdict was that the food is fine, the atmosphere and service less so. The almost complete absence of staff make dining here a stressful experience for both customers and employees. But there’s something about Daylesford, the concept is so attractive, the ethos so compelling, that I did something I never do in the dating world and after a less than convincing first experience, said yes to date two.

And I’m glad I did because this time the service was quicker, the staff were not so frenetically pressured and there was time to appreciate the surrounding space with it’s bar stacked with loaves of spelt sourdough, pumpernickel and baguettes. Or the meat counters housing pork, lamb, beef and game from valleys of the south west, guarded by startled looking stuffed pheasants. And the flickering open stone fire, ordered shelves of juices, wines and oils and impressive stacks of cakes.

The shop is a decadent emporia housing every food lover’s fantasy. Chocolate covered nuts, sambuca-flavoured honey, pretty pink peppercorns, cases of marons glace, cellophane wrapped biscotti, juniper berries and roasted seeds are just a few of the delights displayed on their elegant shelves. The choice is bewildering – in a good way.

The retail experience is exciting, the food full of flavour and the concept one with which it is easy to be taken with. But the service is so non-existent that date three is still not a sure thing.

Daylesford Organic Larder Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Daylesford Organic
208-212 Westbourne Grove
London W11 2RH
020 7313 8050

Friday, 13 November 2009

Tuna Gravadlax

Never one to read a recipe without immediately wanting to stamp my mark on it, I had the slightly dubious idea of making gravadlax from tuna instead of the traditional salmon.

Undeterred by a Google trawl which returned no similar ideas I ventured into the fishmonger, full of excitement about my culinary invention soon to take the world by storm.

Less than impressed by the idea, they quickly assured me it wouldn’t work, tuna being a very different beast to salmon.

Which is pretty obvious really, I’d realised they weren’t first cousins, but not a reason to give up entirely. They’re both oily aren’t they? And they swim, have scales, fins and gills. Bound to work.
Yet as the fishmonger sceptically wrapped up the gleaming red tuna loin my confidence in this fledgling food was definitely dented.

A few days later it turns out I needn’t have worried though because it works and not only does it work but it’s definitely worth trying out.

The flesh kept its lustrous winey hue, made even more vibrant by the leafy green shards of dill. Finer in texture than when made with salmon, the paper thin slices are unexpectedly delicate.

The colour makes it somehow exotic and it’s delicious eaten on its own, between your fingers with a drink, as you would eat carpaccio or parma ham. Otherwise I’m sure it would pair well with rye bread, drizzled in lemony crème fraiche.

Unlike with a single slab of salmon the two layers of tuna fuse together during the curing time, sandwiching the herbs you use between them. Each slice then has a thick vein of green running through the middle but I wonder what would happen with a little imagination and the addition of red chillies or strips of lemon rind.

Tuna Gravadlax

225g very fresh tuna loin
1 ½ desert spoons rock salt
1 ½ desert spoons white sugar
1 tsp dried dill
15g fresh dill
a little olive oil

In a bowl mix together the salt, sugar and dried dill.

Take a sheet of foil and spoon roughly one third of the salt mixture into the middle. Spread out to about the same size as the tuna slices and place a slice on top. Cover the tuna slice with another third of the salt mix and cover this with a layer of dill leaves. Place the second slice of tuna on top of this, followed by the remaining salt and sugar and a few more leaves of dill.

Fold the foil tightly round the tuna to form a neat parcel. Then wrap in a second layer of foil. Place on a deep plate or flat bottomed container with a second plate on top to weigh it down slightly. Leave in the fridge for two to three days turning the parcel once or twice and draining away any liquid.
Discard any liquid and unwrap the parcel. Slice as thinly as possible and serve with ribbons of beetroot and cucumber. Or freeze for up to three months. It slices even more easily if partially frozen.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Cider Tasting

As the autumn leaves start their annual descent, the British apple season is upon us. Shelves of amber skinned Cox pippins, caramel brown russets and bright Bramleys fill shops and farmers markets across the country. For anyone with an orchard or even just one solitary tree, finding a use for this influx of flavoursome fruit presents quite a quandary.

Middle Farm in East Sussex provides one tempting solution: cider. Countless varieties of local apples are brought to the farm, passed through a press and distilled to produce gallon upon gallon of this appley brew. Take along your own apples and you will leave with containers full of the stuff.
Endless rows of cider filled barrels line an old farm building which has been lovingly fashioned into a tasting room. Our thimble sized plastic glasses were filled again and again with deceptively potent liquid of up to 8.5% ABV, also available by the pint or barrel.

On tap during out visit was a vat of intense mulled cider. Cigars of cinnamon, a few cloves and chopped winter fruit are gently heated with the cider to produce a fragrant spicy drink with none of the acrid after taste of mulled red wine and hopefully none of the hangover.

The Middle Farm recipe is simple and if anyone’s feeling abstemious it works pretty well with apple juice too. For anyone feeling the opposite adding a glug of brandy doesn't go amiss:

4 pints still cider
3 apples
2 oranges
1 lemon (juice and zest)
2 tsp ground mixed spice
8 whole cloves
2 cinnamon quills
6 tbsp light soft brown sugar

Put all the ingredients into a pan, cover and heat gently for at least 1 hour. Don’t let it boil. That's it, ready to serve.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Eat with your environmentally friendly head

If you read most of the coverage of Lord Stern’s interview in The Times a couple of days ago you’d think he was advocating an immediate and universal switch to veganism.

Really, he’s making the important point that the meat industry has negative effects on our environment and that if we’re to tackle climate change one important area to look at is meat production and consumption.

For we all eat far too much of it. Bacon for breakfast, beef sandwiches for lunch, pepperami at petrol stations and steak for supper. The western and European mantra of meat and two veg is ingrained in most of us from an early age but you only need to look the cuisine of say Kerala, to realise how full and varied a low meat diet can be.

And that’s the key. Stern isn’t advocating a ban on meat as some coverage has interpreted, he’s just suggesting we tweak our protein laden tables. Turn the leftovers from a Sunday roast into soup, try out a mushroom risotto, pasta primavera, asparagus frittata or go crazy and buy a bag of lentils occasionally.

Adopting a regimen based on nut roasts, tofu and soy milk is not what this debate is about. It’s about being abstemious with what we have, making sacrifices for our future and eating with a conscience. Forego a weekly portion of meat and try something from the pages of imaginative fodder in Nigel Slater’s new book Tender or Simon Hopkinson's vegetable creations.

It wasn’t that hard to start recycling, turning off light switches and getting on a bike once in a while and this is just a step along the same path.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Is spaghetti sexy?!

If you were choosing a romantic menu would you really choose spaghetti? In the Times today Alex Renton chose two dishes as classic seduction cuisine. No oysters, chocolate, strawberries or champagne for his lucky date…but instead spicy, garlic spaghetti or devilled kidneys.

The dangers of trying to wind yards of spaghetti round a fork and magically get said fork into your mouth without dropping most of it back on the plate or in your lap are surely too perilous to risk on a date?

Unless of course we’re talking of the famous cartoon scene in Lady in the Tramp when two floppy eared mutts fall for each other over their shared strands of pasta.

It gets worse though – he suggests flavouring it with chilli and garlic - even the Italians know this flavour combo isn’t going to do your sex appeal much good.

And if you were lucky enough to find yourself back at Lord Lucan’s bachelor pad you would have been in for a real treat…kidneys. Just the aphrodisiac every girl has always dreamt of.

I completely get his point though. There is something irresistible about a man who can create a fine plate of food without the kitchen descending into tsunami like chaos.

But please, not garlic and curried offal. Not a hint of it on Ms Marmite Lover's menu.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Parsnip Soup

The parsnip season begins in earnest after the first frost which judging by the plummeting temperature will be soon upon us.

This pale and more intensely flavoured cousin of the carrot develops in flavour as the temperature drops below freezing. Its welcome presence on winter menus at least partly makes up for the iciness of the season.

Before potatoes made their way to European soil in the sixteenth century parsnips often filled their place, their roots even being ground to flour to make bread. As versatile as a spud they can be roast, mashed, boiled or chipped, their distinctive taste complementing a wide array of winter flavours.

Dice and add to stews for a bit of depth or grate and simply fry to make a rosti. My favourite way of using them is in a warming spiced soup or turned into home made crisps…

Parsnip Soup
(makes four large portions or six starter size)

1 medium onion
1 stick celery
3 cloves garlic
600g parsnips
1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp garam masala
salt and pepper
bay leaf
chicken stock
oil for frying

Peel and roughly chop the onion and parsnips. Peel the garlic but leave whole and chop roughly chop the celery.

Heat some vegetable oil in a large sauce pan and when hot add the onions and celery. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring occasionally before adding the garlic and parsnips, stirring again and keeping over the heat for about five minutes. Add the garam masala and cumin, mix through the vegetables and cook for a minute or two more. Add the bay leaf and chicken stock to cover the vegetables, bring to the boil and simmer for twenty minutes, adding more stock if needed.

Allow to cool partially, remove the bay leaf and liquidise with a hand blender. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Parsnip Crisps

raw parsnips
sunflower oil

Peel the parsnips and still using the peeler slice them into strips lengthways. Soak the strips in a large bowl of cold water for twenty minutes or longer which will release some of the starch and mean they curl.

Heat enough sunflower oil for deep frying in a large saucepan. Drain the parsnip strips and drop into the hot oil, separating them with metal tongs. Once golden, remove to some kitchen paper and with salt.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Duck Liver Salad

Having my card declined in the local butcher was the pretty embarrassing tipping point which has since prompted a rethink of my food shopping habits. It seems that if prices continue their ever uphill march I will soon be grouping many previously affordable staples in the luxury category along with precious saffron and caviar.

Not wanting to test the worn plastic of my card on lamb fillets, steak or even a chicken I looked at ingredients I usually bypass. While both lamb and calves liver can be a minefield of unpleasant textures if not prepared or cooked properly, the same of a duck or chicken are more straightforward, delicious and importantly won’t break the bank. In a supermarket you can pick up enough for four people as a starter for less than £3 and in a few minutes turn them into a paté with just butter, brandy and garlic. It seems that in these tight times all sorts of offal is becoming more popular.

Or pan fry them and add them to a salad or pile on top of toast.

Duck Liver Salad (serves four as a starter, two as a main)

400g duck livers
150-200g salad leaves (baby spinach and lambs lettuce are ideal)
1 heaped tsp dijon mustard
4 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp red wine
salt and pepper
oil and butter for frying

Trim the livers of any obvious gristle or veins with a sharp knife and cut them in half or thirds to make chunks of roughly the same size.

Heat a little oil and butter in a heavy based frying pan until almost smoking. Fry the livers in batches for about a minute on each side, until sealed and browned, removing them to a warm plate and adding a little more oil and butter in between batches if needed.

Return all of the livers to the hot pan and add the red wine, stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan. Add the balsamic vinegar, mustard, salt and pepper and simmer for a couple of minutes with a lid.

Dress the spinach and lettuce leaves with a little olive oil and lemon juice in a large bowl and then arrange on four plates. Allow the livers to rest for a few minutes, check the seasoning and then spoon on top of the salad, drizzling with the balsamic sauce.

Either serve as it is or with slices of crusty bread or toast.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Monachyle Mhor

Driving through a meandering Trossachs valley in central Scotland last weekend we started to wonder what would greet us as the winding road narrowed and civilisation faded away. The mirrored watery surface of Loch Voil reflected it’s steep mountainous sides and bright blue skies in mesmeric perfection as we hungrily sped towards our lunch destination, the Monachyle Mhor Hotel.

A family farm and estate since the eighties there has been hospitality on this site for years. Now under the helm of three siblings a small empire has emerged with fifteen bedrooms, a restaurant, farm and two shops in the local town of Callander.

A herd of Tamworth pigs provide pork for the business while devouring the vegetable waste from the kitchen. Eggs come from farmyard chickens and venison from estate deer. Mhor’s website depicts the dream of self sufficient business and having heard so much we were keen to see the results.

Greeted by a friendly border collie and similarly welcoming waitress we sat down at our table, set with colourful discs of Limoges crockery, and gazed through the windows onto the autumnal hillside. From this spot the view became more idyllic with each glance as the dappled afternoon light cast itself over the valley.

The short menu made for easy ordering and our concern over the rich ingredients was short lived.

To start, a frothy rich potato mousse flecked with truffle encircled a perfectly soft egg presumably plucked from underneath one of the chickens clucking not far away. The attention grabbing presentation made the unusual texture and distinctive flavour of the mousse all the more memorable.

And next an equally pretty plate of pigs cheek tortellini, tender monkfish tail, apple and sage sauce. My father had meltingly tender guinea fowl shaped into perfect cylindrical discs and served with wild mushrooms and foie gras.

The food was tantalising, making us wonder at the technical composition of the dishes and admire the combination of such strong flavours which produced such a subtle and balanced result.

By the time we finished with a simple cafetiere and perfectly made tablet our reservations over the hefty price tags had left us. Mhor is not cheap but it is worth the pennies to experience this magical example of all that can be made of Scotland’s ingredients.

Driving back through Callander we stopped at their well stocked bakery and picked up crumbly sweet bannocks and wholemeal bread from another happy Mhor employee. Our breakfast at home was all the better for it, the Mhor baking easily matches up to the standard in their restaurant.

Monachyle Mhor Hotel
FK19 8PQ
01877 384 622

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Mini Empanadas

Empanadas are a staple in South America. Distant cousins of the Cornish pasty they’re quite stodgy and come in with an array of fillings, commonly including beef, vegetables, cheese and always a bit of spice. These are miniature versions made with filo pastry which are much lighter and great with drinks or as part of a tapas type meal.

Prawn Empanadas

1 small onion
1 green chilli
2 cloves garlic
400g raw king prawns
few drops green tabasco
salt, pepper, paprika
½ tsp tomato puree
Juice of ½ a lime
handful fresh coriander
2 packs filo pastry

Makes about 36

Very finely chop the onion, garlic and chilli. Heat some sunflower oil in a heavy frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sweat for two minutes, add the garlic and chilli and continue to cook until softened but not coloured.

Either finely chop the raw prawns by hand or whiz in a food processor until almost minced. Add to the onion mixture and cook over a low heat until completely opaque. Season with tabasco, salt and pepper and perhaps a little paprika to taste. Stir in roughly chopped coriander, tomato puree and lime juice. Allow to cool completely and then discard liquid. (Assembly instrutions below)

Spicy Beef Empanadas

1 small onion
2 cloves garlic
1 red pepper
400g minced beef
1 beef stock cube
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp tomato puree
salt, pepper, smoked paprika
fresh coriander
100g grated cheddar/emmenthal

2 packs of filo pastry

Makes about 36

Very finely chop the onion, garlic and pepper. Heat some sunflower oil in a heavy frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sweat for two minutes, then add the garlic and red pepper and continue to cook until softened but not coloured.

Add the minced beef and stir continually, breaking it up completely. Crumble in the stock cube and add the chilli powder, tomato puree, salt, pepper and paprika. Bring to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes over a low heat. Check for seasoning and let the mixture cool completely. Stir in the cheese.

Vegetable Empanadas

1 red onion
1 red chilli

2 cloves garlic

2 red peppers

300g sweet potato
200g courgette

1 veg stock cube

salt, pepper,

smoked paprika

fresh coriander and parsley

100g grated cheddar/emmenthal

2 packs of filo pastryMakes about 36Very finely chop the onion, garlic, chilli, pepper and courgette. Cut the sweet potato into 1/2cm dice. Heat some sunflower oil in a heavy frying pan over a medium heat. Add the onion and sweat for two minutes, then add all of the remaining vegetables and cook for another two minutes. Crumble in the stock cube and add the chilli powder, tomato puree, salt, pepper and paprika. Add about 200ml of water, bring to a simmer and cook for 10-15 minutes over a low heat until the sweet potato is tender. Check for seasoning and let the mixture cool completely. Stir in the cheese.

Putting them together

To make the empanadas take two sheets of filo pastry. Lay on top of one another brush with oil. Cut into four horizontal strips. Place a small teaspoon of the prawn or beef mixture at on end of each strip and fold at right angles into a triangle, keep folding over until you reach the end of the pastry strip. Brush with oil.

Repeat until you have used all the filling. Either cook immediately for 9 minutes at 200°C or freeze and cook from frozen at the same temperature for about 14 minutes until golden.

Salmon with Gremolata

Salmon Fillets with Gremolata

Gremolata takes a few minutes to throw together and is delicious with fish. The traditional Italian version doesn't include anchovies and is often served with their rich veal stew, Ossobucco alla Milanese. This recipe is a quick way to cook salmon but the mixture works well with all types of mullet and sea bass. Just make some slashes into the skin, stuff with the gremolata and bake.

3 cloves garlic
3 anchovies
1 lemon
big handful parsley
few springs mint
olive oil
4 salmon fillets
salt & pepper

Grate the lemon rind onto a chopping board. Peel the garlic, place it onto the board with the lemon rind, parsley, anchovy, mint and a tsp or two of olive oil. Chop it all together very finely with a large knife. Keep going until you can't see any chunks of garlic. Put the salmon fillets in an oven tray, grind over some salt and pepper and spread a quarter of the gremolata on top of each fillet. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon around the fillets and if you've got it a slug of white wine. Cover with foil and bake at 200 for 12 minutes.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Breakfast at The Botanist

On the north corner of Sloane Square, the stylish Botanist brasserie apes its elegant setting in the safe way one would expect of its Chelsea location. The venue has been lent its theme by the legacy of Sir Hans Sloane; prints of flora and fauna from his collections are decorously woven into the dressing of the rooms, creating a calm and fresh interior.

Floor to ceiling windows flood light into the spacious entrance and make the most of the dramatic metallic bar made complete by oversized vases, tall stools and diners draping themselves on its edge. Wandering through to the dining room we sit down on pale leather banquettes next to another magnificent expanse of glass and ponder the eclectic breakfast list which features sauteed cepes, Parma ham, pancakes and porridge.

Considering there are only one or two other groups and several unoccupied waitresses it takes an extraordinarily long time to order our drinks; perhaps the serenity of the location has taken too strong a hold. But when the loose leaf Lapsang does arrive in its charming pastel ceramic pot it is delicious and the cappuccino is well, a cappuccino – warm, frothy, caffeinated, not particularly memorable – standard in a city where every other shop front conceals an Italian coffee machine.

Sir Hans Sloane was responsible for bringing cocoa to our shores and discovered that with milk and sugar this strange exotic bean was almost palatable. We should of course have tried the decadent Botanist Hot Chocolate, created in his honour, but I wasn’t convinced that poached eggs and a Rococo chocolate stirrer would make such a perfect pair.

The scrambled eggs which arrived atop smoked salmon and English muffins told the same story as the coffee, they were remarkable in nothing bar the small portion. And my poached eggs were undercooked, watery and tasted more of vinegar than anything else. This is not in any way bad food, if you were in less impressive surroundings perhaps it would taste better, perhaps not, but the over all sense is that the cuisine plays second fiddle to the atmosphere.

Just as Sir Hans Sloane’s legacy was arguably the result of lucrative investments and fortuitous circumstances rather than inspired intellect or hunger for discovery so the Botanist’s success seems to be based on design and setting rather than innovative or interesting culinary mastery. The team behind it just doesn’t think outside the box, or in this case the very famous Square.

The Botanist
No 7 Sloane Square
London SW1W 8EE
020 7730 0077

The Botanist on Urbanspoon

Friday, 10 July 2009

The Spice Shop

This tiny box of a shop just off the main drag of Portobello Road is an Aladdin’s cave for any food lover, stocking countless herbs, spices and unusual flavours from across the globe.

The concept

Originating as a stall on the North End Road in the nineties to satisfy the German owner Birgit’s cravings for paprika, the next step was to open a shop on Blenheim Crescent. A staggering variety of pepper, paprika, sumac, chillies, cardamom, saffron and vanilla are just a few of the gems lining the walls alongside Birgit’s own blends, such as Ras al Hanout which contains an incredible 48 spices. The emphasis is on high quality pure spices, responsibly sourced from reputable producers. Sushi mats and wasabi appear next to nutmeg graters, mushroom essence and sunflower seeds.

Who goes

Nigella Lawson, Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver have all visited seeking inspiration for new projects. Tourists and locals alike wander through the door to re-stock their cupboards or to browse and experiment with a new ingredient. As the shop’s assistant Brendan mentioned he ‘learns from the customers’ how to use the encyclopaedic range.


Their distinctive bright orange and red tins are fun, instantly recognisable and make a great gift. You’ll be hunting for Middle Eastern recipes after experiencing the intense citrusy flavour of the sumac and the chai tea mix transports you to the subcontinent. Spice blends are the best sellers but old fashioned whole spices are making a come back.

Any downsides

The shop is minute so by the time a few tourists have piled in it’s hard to manoeuvre and fully appreciate everything on the shelves. That said, the assistants couldn’t be more helpful and there’s usually buzzy music being played. Avoid visiting on a Saturday when the market will be in full swing.

What you’ll spend

Bagged spices and blends are usually under £3 for 50g. The same weight in a tin is about £5. Persian saffron can set you back as much as £8 for 1g and vanilla pods too can be quite pricey. The quality of the produce means that a little goes a lot further than equivalent supermarket varieties.

Anything else

The website has the full range available for sale online and has customers across the world. Interestingly many well-heeled Indians make large purchases via the site because the quality is superior to the often dirty, sun-dried spices for sale on their doorstep. Birgit gives cookery demonstrations over the road at Books for Cooks making use of the wealth of food knowledge she’s picked up travelling to source produce.

The Spice Shop
1 Blenheim Crescent
London W11 2EE
020 7221 4448

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Aziz on Urbanspoon

I feel I have made a profound discovery this weekend, probably starkly obvious to the rest of the world: communal dining works but only for grown ups. It does not work when a deli floor is turned into a nursery complete with mini tricycles, when open bottles of maple syrup are substituted for rattles, when scrambled eggs become ammunition for fork catapults or when milk filled straws are used as water guns to fire upon slightly hungover and completely off-guard occupants of your table.

On Saturday, having hurdled over a few small children to take up position at one of the large wooden tables in the Fulham branch of Del’aziz, I had almost begun to relax into my surroundings when a cold splatter of milk landed on my right cheek. As I turned I was confronted with a very satisfied three year old brandishing a dairy laden straw while his proud parent smiled benevolently on.

In the last few years communal dining has been reinvigorated, creeping across the capital in a range of eateries such as Ottelenghi, La Fromagerie and Wagammas. But embarking on a meal with strangers at your side in any one of these places you can probably assume you have one thing in common with your fellow diners; that you have all learnt the fine art of transporting food from plate to mouth without showering each other with it.

Kids aside, this Mediterranean brasserie and deli, is a pretty smart act. The stacks of oversized cakes lining the window will have your mouth watering before you’ve glimpsed the menu and are available by the slice, whole or bespoke. They are magnificent creations, the kind that would make you hesitate with guilt before breaking a knife into the carefully crafted layers of chocolate, sponge and cream.

Dark wooden shelves line the walls and are adorned with all sorts of edible and non-edible wares from Moroccan crockery to olive oil, authentic spices such as sumac and harissa or Turkish delight and baklava. Sadly, lazily foraging the shelves isn’t comfortable for diner or shopper as the tables are close to the walls and waiters continuously scuttle through the gaps.

The brunch menu makes a refreshing break from the standard formula which has been adopted by so many bistros. Yes, scrambled eggs are on the menu but come with home cured gravadlax or piled onto confit Portobello mushrooms. Moroccan muffins replace the traditional plain version and tender white beans accompany the vegetarian breakfast as a welcome replacement to Heinz.

My berber pancakes, thick spongier versions of their American cousins, arrived dusted with flaked almonds and drizzled with fragrant honey. A generous trio of these comfortingly sweet cakes were accompanied by a fruit salad, the tartness of which provided perfect contrast to the runny honey.

The Eggs Royale could not have been better and we are hard to impress on this front, so often the results are disappointing. Aziz presented perfectly poached eggs, tasty salmon, tangy hollandaise and a herby muffin base all topped beautifully with two slender chives.

As we ate, a sizzling pan passed by us, landed in front of our neighbours and generated envy in spite of our own delicious choices. The aptly named ‘Frying Pan’ is gluttonously filled with chorizo, peppers, bacon, potatoes, cheese and eggs and produced a satisfied smile from the other side of the table.

The mint tea is made with plenty of the fresh herb, the coffee strong and full of flavour and the smoothies, although expensive are packed with fruit. There is a lot left to try on the brunch menu alone and this is without turning the page to the huge range of mezze served after midday. Quite amazingly, considering the fast pace, loud noise and multiple functions of the venue, the staff remain calm and the service quick.

If you can block out the ghoulish wailing of multiple toddlers and the ineffective protests from their bewildered parents, which together combine to create a less than harmonious buzz in Del’aziz, then you are in for a feast.

24-32 Vanston Place
020 7386 0086

Friday, 26 June 2009

The Regency Cafe

When you walk into the noisy bustle of this old fashioned canteen, right in the middle of Westminster, you can almost feel the history pouring from the old fashioned white tiled walls. The diversity of the clientele is mesmerising and it would be easy to lose a couple of hours aimlessly watching the continually growing and then shrinking queue and the countless characters that feature in it.

In the short hour that we occupied our plastic chairs and formica topped table we saw civil servants, scaffolders, builders, school children and even a shadow cabinet minister pass by to order combinations from the chalk inscribed kitchen blackboard. At the Regency, high-vis vests sit comfortably next to pin stripe suits and create a compelling snapshot of the personalities that form London life.

You wonder which famous faces have tucked into stodgy pies and pasties in a vain attempt to ease the ill effects of a night of booze fuelled networking. Or how many government ministers have pulled up to refuel with a cup of sweet tea and a buttery bacon sandwich. The banter and stories which you know are etched in the fabric of this unassuming square canteen are what make it feel as much of an institution as the landmarks that surround it.

It’s loud. We wondered if they held auditions for what seemed to be the pivotal roll in the kitchen: bellowing loudly across the canteen to announce to customers that their heavily laden plates are ready for collection. Or perhaps these powerful vocal chords are developed over time as the staff work their way upwards in the frantic kitchen.

As I heard ‘egg, bacon, tomato, hash brown’ boom out across the room I jumped, nearly fell over in my haste to reach the collection counter and arrived just in time to hear the authoritative announcer quietly mutter the question ‘why does it have to be so hard?’ presumably in frustration at his customers’ inability to register his broad calls and pick up their food on time.

My egg was fried in exactly the way you’d expect in a canteen, with just a little too much grease, the tomatoes were tinned, the hash browns deep fried, the bacon re-heated, and the milky tea from an enormous stainless steel pot. And it was delicious, every mouthful of it.

Chips feature high on the agenda and seemingly arrive with everything in vast piles. There are daily specials too: curry on Wednesday or battered fish on Friday and large Cornish pasties which arrive on a sea of baked beans. The meat pies were the only unappetising fodder we saw, the pastry shrinking soggily from its foil container.

The addition of eggs Benedict to the menu seems completely incongruous with everything else about the Regency and was thankfully made less fussy by the neon label on the wall mentioning the grilled eggs. This is not a place to poach.

There are no frills, nor would you want there to be. I have only been once but don’t doubt that this will soon turn into once a week.
The Regency Cafe, 17-19 Regency Street, London SW1P 4BY

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Whole Foods

Whole Foods on Kensington High Street has, since it’s opening in 2008, become something of a Mecca for anyone in the city with even vaguely gastronomic pretentions. Frequented in equal measure by greedy gluttons, svelte vegans and camera touting tourists, the recycled brown and green bags have become emblematic of our post-millennium drive towards ever-healthier sources of nourishment.

Three floors tall, the former site of Barkers Department Store is vast and houses everything an epicurean could dream of, from the familiar to the completely obscure. The frustratingly long checkout queue left me with time to notice the vastly disparate items in my basket. Japanese pickled ginger lay next to Middle Eastern Harissa, a cheddar cheese sandwich and South African biltong.

Decadent piles of colourful, organic produce fill the halls, laid out upon eye-pleasing timber stands, while knowledgeable staff offer tasters of purple tortilla chips, protein energy bars, tomato salsa or wine. Diversity is certainly not lacking.

In one display a tumbling heap of black skinned avocados sat alongside tubs of freshly made guacamole and it struck me that placing attractive component ingredients alongside their corresponding creation is an extremely effective marketing idea. By doing so, Whole Foods appeal to both the creative cook, glad of a recipe idea, or those happy to take home the shop made version.

There is an elegant temperature controlled cheese room, a handmade chocolate counter, a book store, a fishmonger and butcher, eggs of any bird known to lay, homemade soup, a create-your-own salad bar and my personal favourite, a machine where you can make your own peanut butter. I think Roald Dahl must have had a hand in the creation of the shop or at the least I would bet the designers are fans of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Upstairs the choice in the restaurant and café is equally overwhelming with a big focus on customer involvement. Many staff line up behind the counters to help you create personalised pizzas, wraps, sandwiches or burritos which arrive in enormous portions with matching price tags.

Breakfast is the best time of day to drop in, when the restaurant is wonderfully free of queues or customers towing their screaming pushchairs. You can calmly build your own yoghurt pot, indulge in crepes, or detox with a super-food smoothie while sinking into an arm chair and gazing through the tall windows at the bustle of Kensington commuters.

I’ve been to Whole Foods many times and tend to leave feeling hurried, as though I’ve just emerged from the northern line (which, by the way, doesn’t touch the just escaped from a war zone sense of relief on leaving Tescos). There are usually too many people milling the spacious aisles, it does take a long time to find anything specific and the sheer range of choice is in itself an assault on the senses. Stopping yourself piling yet more fodder into your trolley is a challenge and I suppose this is what the management bet on, that we as shoppers are both greedy and bereft of will power.

For me, the ostentation of the mammoth displays sparks a bit of guilt at our gluttonous approach to food in the Western world and is enough to stop me splurging or returning too often. Not quite guilty enough though to be able to resist the chocolate brownies on the way out.

This could easily turn into a thesis so suffice it to say you should probably visit to form your own opinion. Their latest launch is a two course evening meal for £10 which sounds like it is well worth trying and was well received by Jasper Gerrard in a recent Telegraph review.

Whole Foods Market, 63-97 Kensington High Street, London W8 5SE

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Breakfast at Automat

Going out for breakfast usually leaves me feeling inspired, keen to chatter about my latest find with other restaurant lovers, or at least with an anecdote or two for a riveting review. Yesterday I left Automat feeling flat which says a lot about this American Brasserie in Mayfair, open since 2005, which professes itself as a “cultural exchange” between London and New York.

As my best breakfast buddy and I step into the café interior with its black and white floor tiles, our first impression is of Parisian chic, right down to the disinterested waiter who greets us grumpily from behind the bar. We are quickly led into the adjacent railway carriage style diner, seated in roomy booths, intimately lit with cute chrome reading lamps, and transported away from the early morning bustle of Mayfair.

The surrounding tables are occupied by smart local businessmen, presumably breaking transatlantic deals over their espressos and muffins, lending the room a buzzy atmosphere without being noisy. The compact menu seems promising with classic egg dishes, buttermilk pancakes, waffles, muffins and a full breakfast including fillet steak for those of ambitious appetite.

Being classicists and on the British side of the cultural exchange we both order egg dishes, and of course tea, and then watch with slight envy as a pile of pancakes is placed at another table.

Scrambled eggs and smoked salmon arrive quickly and are unfortunately substandard. Dry, pale eggs on quite acceptable toast, surrounded by a couple of slivers of relatively tasty smoked salmon. Sadly, it is no tastier than you could find in the fish section of your local supermarket. Knowing that in a renowned dining room, just across Piccadilly, a generous stack of Scottish salmon, buttery eggs and soft brioche will greet you for a similar price perhaps puts Automat at a disadvantage but it is one that they chose through default of location.

The American options on the menu: muffins, pastries, waffles and milkshakes served in elegant bulb glasses, are received warmly at the nearby tables and the baskets of baked goodies seem delightfully decadent so early in the day. Our large glasses of apple juice were tangy, fruity and refreshingly cold but the pots of stewing Twinings tea were disappointing considering their hefty price tag.

When it came to paying, spending ten minutes attempting to make eye contact with any of the three waitresses left us feeling a bit neglected, especially considering there were only six other tables of diners.

Automat’s opening website statement mentions nothing about food and we left with the sense that for both the people who frequent it and for those that run it, the style of the crockery is more important than the breakfast upon it. Which is a shame, because this well decked out and atmospheric brasserie has plenty of character, an enviable location and unrivalled milkshakes. Next time, I’ll cross the Atlantic divide and have pancakes.

Automat, 33 Dover Street, London W1S 4NF, 020 7499 3033

Automat on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

I've become a breakfast buff

I can’t think of a more idyllic way to wake up to the world than to spend an hour lazily lingering over snow white poached eggs with rich orange yolks that burst satisfyingly under your fork or buttery croissants dunked in bowl sized cups of café-au-lait.

Watching office-bound commuters scurrying along pavements, while absent-mindedly turning the page of the paper, feels like the ultimate indulgence. It is a pleasure worth struggling out of bed an hour earlier for, before surrendering to the confines of the workplace.

I could talk about the pleasures of petit dejeuner indefinitely and am amazed by the myriad possibilities provided by the oeuf. Whether in the golden fold of an omelette, fried and glistening with butter or boiled and waiting for its soldier, the egg is key and without it breakfast is at a loss.

I find choosing from the many tempting delights on a morning menu taxing, especially so close to dawn. Should I have Eggs Benedict, Florentine or Royale which come nestled on toasted muffins and draped with tangy, velvet hollandaise. Or a pile of American style airy pancakes that melt into their moat of blueberry dotted maple syrup. Perhaps gratifyingly crunchy, nut filled, granola hidden under honey topped Greek yoghurt will suffice, or maybe a soft envelope of granary bread stuffed with crispy rashers of smoked bacon.

I am yet to work out if these classics are so satisfying simply because your body is at its hungriest, twelve hours since your last meal. It does seem that breakfast combinations are designed with comfort in mind perhaps derived from the familiarity of childhood classics or the sugar hit of sweet waffles and honeyed toast.

Having just returned from an inferior breakfast in a slightly superior restaurant I’ve realised that having your expectations disappointed by second rate sustenance sits even less well at sunrise than at other mealtimes, although I’m willing to admit that this may be attributable to the absence of booze and resulting clarity of memory.
So, in pursuit of breakfast nirvana I’m going to embark on a quest to find the best, worst, most obscure, interesting, healthy or heart attack worthy morning meals on offer.

Any suggestions for places to try would be very welcome…

Monday, 15 June 2009

Picnics in the Park

Whatever the occasion make the venue outdoors in one of London’s many parks which all have something unique to offer.

Green Park – Post-work Picnic

After a day spent gazing through the office window at glorious sunshine, an impromptu after work gathering on the grass far surpasses a pit stop in the office boozer.

Green Park provides the perfect space for central London workers and provides a good stop off for anyone on their way to Victoria station or West London. It has the advantage of a park-side Marks and Spencer, just inside the tube station, which stocks everything you could need from plastic cutlery to sandwiches, sushi or mezze.

Or if you fancy classic English fare and your wallet can be stretched, wander along Piccadilly and drop into Fortnum and Mason for a selection of nibbles any wicker hamper would be proud to house. Choose from perfect pork pies, terrines and cold meats in the basement delicatessen and find yourself helpless to resist the impressive array of condiments and savoury delicacies which have become synonymous with Fortnum’s.

Hyde Park – All Day Weekend Grazing

A perfect antidote to that all too familiar weekend hangover, lazily lounging in the park is a fail safe way to relax and recharge the batteries. Being central and easy to get to, the open expanses of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens make it easy for people to drop in throughout the day. And for the aquatic minded the rowing boats and pedalos on the Serpentine could provide the opportunity for a floating banquet.

The obvious pitfall is that everyone might arrive cradling the same pot of humus and bag of tortillas, so delegation is key. Essential equipment includes a frisby, the weekend papers and painkillers for those struggling to get over the previous nights antics.

Whole Foods, at the Kensington Gardens corner of the park, is a well known food-lovers Mecca and has an almost bewildering range of choice for any al fresco feast, but with a little bit more organisation this is the ideal opportunity to indulge in some culinary creativity and embrace the Tupperware boxes sadly resigned to the dusty top shelf.

Regents Park – A Romantic Rendezvous

The picturesque rose gardens and topiary of Regents Park are an ideal setting for a romantic stroll while the surrounding tree spotted lawns offer plenty of secluded spots to throw a cashmere blanket. In the early evening sunshine picturesque Primrose Hill, to the north of the park, is a wonderful setting to share a bottle of something sparkling but remember that swigging from a full sized bottle is never seductive, this is not a time to forget the glasses. Finally you could complete the evening at the enchanting open air theatre which is showing productions throughout the summer, from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to Oscar Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest.

En route to the park try and pass by La Fromagerie on Marylebone High Street which is home to all sorts of picnic possibilities such as classic continental charcuterie, juicy olives, sweet or savoury breads and as the name would imply a staggering collection of cheeses.

The organically farmed pork sausages from the Honest Sausage cafe, halfway along the Broadwalk, may not make for elegant picnic food but are scrumptious all the same either in a bun or with buttery mash.