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.

Monday, 1 June 2009

Spring into Salad

The frustrating month of May with its yoyo weather patterns often leave us stoically resigned to the ill suited pairings of picnics with gale force winds and burgers hastily chewed under umbrellas.

As we bravely bask in spring sunshine and grocers’ shelves are stacked with fresh local vegetables, praising the joy of salad may not be original for this time of year but it is satisfying at least in its hopefulness for the opportunity to dine al fresco.

One definition I found of salad as ‘a diverse or confused mixture’ sits comfortably with our mildly schizophrenic national attitude to summer eating. Lauding the pastime of outdoor eating has long been a national pastime yet when Spring finally arrives we spend hours wondering when the temperamental British sky-scape will allow us to delve into our packed hampers.

While our gardens and farms now offer a huge range of slowly ripened morsels bursting with flavour, our salad repertoire often remains restricted. Beautiful leaves carelessly thrown, undressed, into a bowl, tender new potatoes smothered in cloying white mayonnaise or shop made coleslaw drowning crisp cabbage in salad cream do little justice to the wonderfully versatile produce we now have access to.

Raw or cooked, crunchy or tender, inject some colour onto your plates and choose dressings that highlight the natural flavours of the ingredients so that individual tastes sing through. Wander around your local shops and markets and pick up new offerings, get creative and experiment.

Green bean, radish and sunflower seed (serves 4)

250g french beans
200g radishes
50g sunflower seeds
1tsp wholegrain mustard
1tbsp olive oil
1tsp honey
Juice ½ lemon
2tbsp chopped parsley
2tbsp chopped basil
Freshly ground salt and black pepper

Top and tail the French beans and cut each into three. Bring a pan of salted water to the boil, add the beans and simmer for roughly four minutes until the beans are just tender. Drain, immerse in cold water and drain again. Slice the radishes into thin discs and place in a salad bowl with the drained beans. Heat a heavy based frying pan and toast the sunflower seeds, keeping them moving constantly until nicely browned. Be careful not to let them burn. Add to the salad along with the finely chopped herbs. In a smaller bowl whisk together all of the dressing ingredients, salt and pepper and mix in to the salad. Leave to infuse for an hour and serve.

Fennel, chicory, radicchio and pancetta (serves 6)

1 large fennel bulb
1 large chicory
1 small radicchio
6 slices pancetta
3tbsp olive oil
1tsp dijon mustard
1tbsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Fry the pancetta in a heavy based frying pan over a high heat until crispy. Remove from the pan and place on kitchen paper. Cut off the top and bottom of the fennel and half it vertically. Finely slice the two halves as thinly as possible, use a mandolin if possible. Repeat with the chicory and radicchio and put all the sliced vegetables in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the dressing ingredients and toss well through the vegetables. Transfer the salad to a serving dish, the flatter the better and crumble the pancetta over the top.

Beetroot, Feta and Walnut (serves 4)

100g feta
50g walnuts
3-4 whole raw beetroot
2 cloves garlic
1tbsp fresh chives
1tsp honey
1tbsp white wine vinegar
2tbsp olive oil
1tsp dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 180˚C. Wash each beetroot, wrap in tin foil and place on a baking tray in the oven for about forty five minutes until tender all the way through. Fifteen minutes before the cooking time is over add the garlic cloves, still in their skins. Remove everything from the oven and leave to cool. Toast the walnuts in a heavy frying pan being careful not to burn them and chop the feta into 1cm sized cubes. Peel the garlic, crush with a fork and mix together with the dressing ingredients. Finely chop the chives. When the beetroot is cool cut into chunks, place in a serving dish and mix with the dressing. Sprinkle the feta, walnuts and chives over the top and serve.