Friday, 25 June 2010

Seville: Slight Return

Holidays have  a habit of coming to an end.  Real life reasserts itself all too quickly. In the weeks since coming back from Seville my computer has suffered a rupture of some kind and is now running at half speed and work has been far, far more work-y than usual. So I take this opportunity to return to sunnier times, to the leisurely pleasures of the Spanish morning ritual, to coffee served strong and unadorned, accompanied only with a croissant (me) and a cigarette (my mother).
One morning we decided we required something a little more substantial, something a little more belly-challenging. And so there were churros. Fresh from the frier. Hot and glistening and glorious.
Here we have a what is supposedly a serving for two people.  Look at that pile. It's a veritable churro-suvio of fried dough. We decided against eating them with chocolate and instead mimicked the old ladies sitting at a nearby table who simply sugared theirs and dunked them in their coffee. Even this method presented its issues and despite our dual efforts we eventually had to concede defeat or risk the alarming prospect of Not-Having-Enough-Room-For-Lunch. This bordered on churro overload and we didn't feel the need to repeat the experience for the rest of our trip. But now, back in London, I could seriously go for a churro or two...

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Urban Vegetarian in Seville

Having had our first attempt at a holiday this year sabotaged by the Icelandic ash cloud, my mother and I were looking forward to a few days in Seville. Neither of us had spent much time in Spain but we were soon to realise what a mistake this had been on our parts. Seville appealed to us on so many levels and we soon snapped into a rhythm that included very many gaps for meals, snacks, and, by necessity as gets pretty hot this time of year, plenty of Cruzcampo beer.
Travels with my decidedly not vegetarian mother can prove prickly but here we managed to eat incredibly well for the entire stay. We were staying in La Macarena near the Basilica and the old city walls, a fair walk from the main sights, the Barrio Santa Cruz and the more tourist-luring establishments, but close to some superb tapas bars and the wonderful nocturnal bustle of the Alameda de Hercules.
Obligatory shot of dangling jamones

I wondered how well I could eat as a vegetarian in a place where piggy parts are so venerated and solicited advice from the Ginger Gourmand and Sevilla Tapas. Their tips proved incredibly helpful but even without them I suspect I’d have done OK as everywhere we went offered some non-meat based dishes and some places were particularly creative in this regard, though I can see how one could easily end up eating variants of the same dishes over and over again.

And so to the eatables. Salmorejo is the local version of gazpaco, a lovely garlicky tomato soup served cold - the addition of more bread than usual gives it a thicker consistency and a distinctive pink colour. As well as being served as soup it appeared everywhere, drizzled over meat, swaddling slices of tortilla, pooled around crisp sticks of fried aubergine. The best example we tried was at the popular Bar Eslava where it was lovely and creamy.
Espinacas y garbanzos was also a dish I saw a lot of. An aromatic stew of spinach and chickpeas, this was incredibly tasty but proved too robust for a hot summer lunch.
Here we have some spinach croquettes and fried aubergines in the ubiquitous salmorejo, both at Las Coloniales.
I also ate plates of delicate, lace-like fried onions, lovely cheeses, beetroot dressed in garlic and oil, glistening ribbons of roasted peppers, lemony cous-cous salads, wedges of tortilla laced with whiskey, papas bravas and plenty of plump, green olives.

I learned to be wary of the Sevillian habit of adding canned tuna to the vast majority of their salads. Fortunately my GCSE Spanish was surprisingly sturdy after a decade of dormancy and I was usually able to check if this was the case and order accordingly. The most inventive vegetarian tapas I ate were at the popular bar Eslava, probably our favourite of all the bars we visited. Here I ate courgettes ‘charlotte’, a kind of intensely savoury vegetable terrine that was coveted by my mother and a vegetable strudel that was far tastier than its name implies.

My mother was also in her element, munching her way through thick white pieces of fried cuttlefish, deliciously rich slow cooked pigs’ cheeks, springy grilled squid drizzled in garlic and oil, an indecently large piece of suckling pig, numerous platefuls of fried boquerones, hunks of silky salt cod, and, of course, that gloriously marbled jamon iberico. She also ate and enjoyed the following:

Slow cooked piggy bits in Pedro Ximenez

Fritters of baby shrimp

Skewer of prawns with cous-cous

Cuttlefish balls with potatoes

Quails eggs with serrano ham

Her favourite dish was also at Eslava, espinacas con chocos en su tinta. This was dark and rather forbidding in appearance but my mother got very excited about it, dunking her bread into the black, inky sauce and making noises of general contentment.

We never had a bad meal the whole of our visit, though some places were more memorable than most. Of all the bars and restaurants we ate at, three really stood out. The first was Bar Eslava (get there early, it fills up fast). We went there twice and managed to get a table in the back both times through a combination of luck and a willingness to eat at the - by Seville standards - early time of 8.45pm. There's a more formal restaurant next door, but we were happiest sitting in the back ordering dish after dish from a menu scrawled on a whiteboard in marker pen. We also liked Alcoy 10, a tiny bar in the same neighbourhood with pavement seating and some inventive dishes, and Las Coloniales, which was more touristy than the other two but had a very pretty terrace on a leafy square.

Many thanks to the Ginger Gourmand and Sevilla Tapas for some excellent recommendations.

Bar Eslava, Calle Eslava, 3, Sevilla

Alcoy 10, Calle Alcoy 10, Sevilla

Taberna Coloniales, Plaza del Cristo de Burgos, 19, Sevilla

Monday, 31 May 2010

Scoop, Covent Garden

Ice cream has always left me a little cold (so to speak). It’s perfectly fine as an accompaniment to something cake-y or pudding-y but not a thing I would usually crave in its solo state. Gelato on the other hand, proper Italian style gelato, is far more exciting. The differences between the two may be small but they're also huge, if you follow me. In gelato the fat content is slightly lower and the churning process is, I believe, slower making for an end product that is somehow smoother and lighter and altogether more melty.

Scoop in Covent Garden sell Italian style gelato in all the familiar Italian flavours – straciatella, bacio, zuppa inglese – and the quality of the ingredients is evident in each mouthful. The gelato is heaped high and drizzled with good things; look at those happy hills of gelato.
I’ve noticed in the past that they made a pine nut flavoured gelato and it was this I had in mind as I ambled up Neal Street – because pine nuts are obviously awesome in any capacity. But, sigh, no pine nut gelato was in evidence on this occasion so after a bit of um-ing and humming I went for my default pairing of hazelnut (nocciola) and coffee (caffe). A small tub costs £2.80 and holds two generous scoops, which was ample for a sunny London afternoon.

The coffee flavour wasn’t overly intense in its coffee-ness but it had nice bitter bite supplied by little dots of coffee bean; the hazelnut, on the other hand, was a step up, being subtle and fruity and tasting almost exactly as I remembered it tasting in Italy. The Guardian Word of Mouth blog recently carried a piece about how things eaten on holiday can rarely be exactly replicated when back home but this hazelnut gelato was transporting stuff and I was instantly connected with memories of munching on a hazelnut gelato brioche sandwich in Sicily while a thread of the sweet stuff ran down my wrist or attacking a cone in Verona in the shadow of the arena.

In short, it was very, very good indeed. But next time, pine nut gelato you will be mine…

Scoop Fine Italian Gelato on Urbanspoon
Scoop, 40 Shorts Gardens
London WC2H 9AB 020 7240 7086

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Cocktails and Canapes at the Cobden Club

This week I went to a Qype event. This was a first for me. I’m not that good at things were one might need to make small talk (or big talk for that matter) but I was lured by the prospect of cocktails and canapés at the Cobden Club in west London.

The food and drink was laid on by Drinksfusion with sponsorship from Ketel One vodka and there were very many eatable and drinkable goodies on offer, with the result that a teensy bit of giddiness ensued by the end of the evening.

The prize for prettiest drink goes to this rose concoction, a blend of gin, vermouth, raspberry and rose liquors garnished with a rose petal and served in a coupe. It was fragrant and not overly sweet but, my word, was it potent: a pretty thing with a sting its tail. Possibly more appealing, especially on a warm evening, was the next drink I tried, a rhubarb and elderflower cocktail served long and over ice with slivers of rhubarb swimming in the glass – very summery and refreshing. Their only fumble was the bellini which was made with peach puree as it’s meant to be but was a touch too sweet for my tastes, but then judging by the number of drained glasses this clearly wasn’t an issue for most people.

The company also laid on food. Vegetarians can get overlooked when it comes to canapés. I remember being at more than one party when the lone platter of goat’s cheese nibbles had been picked clean before I’d even seen it. But while certain dishes were obviously off limits, the veggie-friendly canapés were very nice indeed, particularly the gorgonzola and fig thingies. There was also a rather lovely platter of white and green asparagus which was served with a large bowl of salsa verde for dipping purposes.

The Drinksfusion guys also offered canapé and cocktail pairings which I could admire if not fully appreciate. For one of these pairings a piece of seared tuna was served with a small shot glass of watermelon, vodka and sauvignon blanc garnished with coriander. I skipped the tuna but did try one of the watermelon cocktails which was crisp and refreshing; I would have been intrigued to see if it did succeed in complimenting the fish.

There was a chocolate fondue to finish with an array of blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and plump, little chocolate truffles (which some people saw fit to dip in the fondue too). This was accompanied by a dinky chocolate honeycomb martini, which once again was rather potent, but suitably warming for the long totter back towards the tube station.

Cobden Club, 170 Kensal Road, London W10 5BN 020 8960 4222

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Tea for Two at Bea's of Bloomsbury

There can be few more pleasant ways to spend an afternoon than idling over a stack of sweet things with a pot of tea at your elbow. Bea’s of Bloomsbury offers an affordable and inventive alternative to the afternoon teas offered at London’s grand hotels. Bea’s has no intention of competing in terms of glamour or luxury, instead they focus on the food and this, on my visit, was all superb.

The room itself is basic, functional and on the dinky side - so booking is necessary if you intend to opt for afternoon tea. Half the people present seemed to have gone down this route, groups of girls mainly though not exclusively; there were a lot of cooing and ooh-ing as tottering towers of cakes floated past. The basic sweet tea costs £9.90 which gets you two plump scones, a cupcake apiece and an assortment of mini brownies, blondies and meringues as well as a pot of tea of your choice. Apparently one can add sandwiches to the mix on weekends but, as it was, this was ample food for two.

The actress and I order a pot of jasmine tea and waited with a measure of anticipation for the edibles to arrive. Visually Bea’s teas do not disappoint and we spent a few moments in mute awe, dithering over where to begin. We decided to start with the scones. Oh, such scones. Such scones as dreams are made of. These were light and crumbly and golden. For me it has to be clotted cream first and then a spreading of jam, but not too much of either as these scones deserved to shine. The actress, who was fortunate enough to have afternoon tea at the Ritz earlier in the year, was just as smitten and said these scones pipped their glitzier sisters – and I bet the Ritz don’t serve theirs on a cake stand topped with a pair of kissing bunnies either.

Sated with scones we moved on to the baby brownies and blondies. The former were dense and dark, the latter were fine – but then blondies are always a bit of a let down purely by virtue of their not being brownies. The tiny blobs of meringues were spot on, chewy and light.

All this was mere build up to those two cupcakes. The Lamington cupcake had a decent, moist chocolate base topped with a thin layer of chocolate cream icing and a sprinkling of desiccated coconut, but the raspberry cupcake was my favourite of the two. It was a pity to dissect this one as it looked so very pretty and we duly cooed over it for a few seconds before setting about it with our knives. The cake base again was lovely and light and the pink buttercream topping tasted of raspberry. So often cupcakes fail to deliver, but these had substance as well as style on their side.

Full as we were, we still were able to gawp at the teas winging their way to others even , at one point, suffering from a bout of mild cupcake envy (“look, look, I’m sure they’ve got a red velvet!”)

The staff were friendly and the whole experience was pleasant and memorable. A true treat.

Bea's of Bloomsbury on Urbanspoon
Bea's of Bloomsbury, 44 Theobald's Road, London WC1X 8NW 020 7242 8330

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Zucca, Bermondsey

Zucca is a breath of fresh air. It pleases in so many ways. My not-at-all-vegetarian mother was dubious about coming all the way into London for an Italian meal, her apprehension building as I dragged her down Bermondsey Street repeatedly if not exactly confidently assuring her that “it wasn’t much further, honest,” but she ended the evening conceding that it had been more than worth it.

The room is simple as can be: white chairs, white tables, open kitchen, the only real splash of colour coming from an (aptly) pumpkin-coloured daisy on each table. The bread – ciabatta and foccacia – was fresh and served with two sizeable cubes of frittata and a bowl of green, clean Sicilian olive oil for dipping. Note there was no cover charge for all that.
The menu is small, with only two or three dishes in each category, but almost everything sounded appealing; I presume there will always be one meat and one vegetarian pasta dish available.

To begin I went with the baked onion, which was served not with ricotta as the menu stated, but with an assertive Italian goat’s cheese. I doubt there are many places that would consider serving up half an onion baked in its skin, but this, though simplicity itself, was a lovely pairing: the sweetness of the onion combining with the saltiness of the cheese, all elevated by a generous scattering of tarragon.

My mother went for the smoked eel bruschetta and though she found the bread a little too charred, she loved the topping of rich eel coupled with the sharpness of capers and what we were fairly confident was celeriac.

Given the prices (no starter over £4) we’d expected dinky portions, so had also ordered a plate of zucca fritti to share. We were a bit taken aback by the small mountain of fried pumpkin we received, but the batter was light and tempura-like and the addition of a little fried tarragon made it a mountain we were more than capable of scaling.

My plate of fettuccine, asparagus, lemon and parmesan was probably one of the best pasta dishes I’ve had outside of Italy. The pasta was homemade and perfectly cooked, with just the right amount of bite; the flavours were all clear and distinct and complimented one another superbly.

Any combination of pork and beans makes my mother happy so when she spied pork loin, borlotti beans and mustard fruits on the menu her mind was made up, though she was momentarily diverted by the prospect of octopus. This huge hunk of pig was very much to her liking, as was the bed of mustard-flecked beans and spinach on which it sat.

We were feeling quite full by this stage but we valiantly tackled the tart of the day which in this case was a lemon tart. This was everything it should be, tart and lemony, and only let down slightly by slightly underdone pastry. The tart, as with the bread and pasta, was all made on site and it showed. The service was friendly, attentive and informative, though we did have to remind them to bring us our wine (and it’s unwise to make my mother wait for wine). Our bill came to £50 without service - wonderful value for such a high standard of cooking and such generous portions. The fact that they can achieve so much while charging so little made me reflect rather bitterly on the kind of prices you become inured to living in London; I hope other places follow its lead.

The whole set up makes me incredibly keen to go back and not in a vague some-time-down-the-line kind of way, but as soon as I can reasonably (or unreasonably) drag a friend down to Bermondsey.

Zucca on Urbanspoon
Zucca, 184 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3TQ 020 7378 6809

Monday, 17 May 2010

Lunch at Gazette, Balham

Considering it’s not one of the most vegetarian-sympathetic cuisines around, I do like French food. Or more to the point I like the admittedly romanticised and rose-tinted idea of Parisian life I’ve compiled over numerous trips across the Channel: the omelette or the salade de chevre chaud consumed while sipping a glass of wine and watching the world go by, that sort of thing.

We simply don’t have the same food and restaurant culture here, I know that, and I realise the futility of trying to recreate a time-dimmed memory out of context, but even so I am drawn to places like Balham’s Gazette.

This is one of a pair of south London bistros - there’s another in Battersea – and has many of the necessary elements in place to be a decent local restaurant, if it ever gets its act together. Unfortunately, there’s a degree of slapdashery in evidence that at times even verges on indifference, a lack of heart, which is a shame as it has the potential to deliver a lot more.
The menu is full of French bistro staples: croque monsieur, various eggy things, soups, salads, crepes, steaks and the like. There’s a two course set lunch for £10 and a fairly extensive French wine list. The table tops are coated in blackboard paint and there’s a little pot of chalk on each one; the desire to create one’s own table art is a strong one (though I resisted on this occasion). There’s a bar at the back, a small terrace and some amusingly low-hanging lampshades on which people regularly knock their heads. Euro-pop plays on the speakers and the staff all appear to be French.

My solo lunch started with a kir framboise and then, after a longish wait, a crepe with goats’ cheese, tomato and spinach (£5). The crepe was tasty enough if a little greasy; basic but satisfying. Many of their dishes are served, not on plates, but in Le Creuset pans and various other kitchen receptacles. This initially seems an appealingly quirky touch, but it’s actually somewhat counter-productive, as these aren’t the easiest things to eat out of and sometimes can get worryingly hot. I’d rather they concentrated on the getting the food right.

I followed this with a couple of freshly made madeleines and a little pot of rich dark chocolate sauce for dipping and dunking. This was a perfectly enjoyable way to an end a meal and wonderful value at £1.80.
The service was friendly enough but rather laid back. I was initially presented with a croque monsieur instead of my crepe; this was returned to the kitchen with a shrug and a giggle. I also waited for a good long while to get the bill even though the place wasn’t particularly busy – I didn’t mind overly, as I had my book (Diana Athill’s eloquent memoir Instead of a Letter) and I wasn’t in a rush to return to my desk.

I’ve had a few lunches here, but they're consistent in their inconsistency, sometimes they deliver but often there’s evidence of carelessness, sloppiness. I want to like this place more, as it’s local, not part of a chain, and if you squint and concentre you might be able to briefly leave behind the grey of Balham, if only for an hour or so, but it has a lot more work to do.

Gazette on Urbanspoon

Gazette, 1 Ramsden Road, London SW12 8QX 020 8772 1232