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

Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Gate, Hammersmith

I’ve been meaning to visit The Gate for some time now, but when suggesting places to eat out with friends I’m always reluctant to go for a wholly vegetarian restaurant, to impose my choices on them, and I wouldn’t even chance it with my mother for fear of her response. Fortunately on this occasion - a kind of long-time, no-see, catch-up situation - it was one of my friends that suggested we meet here, thus saving me from my dilemma.

Hidden away behind the Hammersmith Apollo, it’s a place you might easily walk past if you weren’t looking out for it (one of my friends did just that). To get to a restaurant you go through a little gate into a pretty courtyard - which must be a lovely spot to lunch on days when the sky is slightly less imposing – up some stairs and into an attractive high ceilinged room.

The gate at The Gate

The Gate has been around for twenty years and has a reputation as one of the best vegetarian restaurants in London. I have their Easy Vegetarian book and use it often. It’s full of recipes I regularly return to, their dishes alternating between the Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian, and often meeting somewhere in the middle.

I started with the halloumi kibi (£6.25), a skewer of Cypriot cheese and chunks of roasted vegetables on a chick pea salsa, all drizzled in a tangy orange tikka sauce. The heat of this perked up what might have been pedestrian dish and gave it a bit of a kick. My main was more creative. Rotolo (£13.50) turned out to be a potato parcel filled with an herby butternut squash and goats’ cheese mixture, topped with curls of crisp parsnip. The flavours went well together but it became slightly monotonous towards the end. There were a few green beans underneath, but I could have done with a few more for the sake of contrast and texture. Mine was also not nearly as prettily plated as my friend’s version of the same dish.

For dessert we shared a lavender crème brulee (£5.50). This was a delicate tiptoeing dessert, ever so light – perhaps a little too subtle for my palate as I could barely detect any lavender (that said too little lavender is preferable to too much).

At some point I suspect someone must have leant on the light switch, as the lighting in the room descended from ‘intimate’ to ‘bedroom’ making interior photography all but impossible without getting my flash on, which I was disinclined to do.

The food was satisfying – none of my meat-eating friends left talking about grabbing a kebab on the way home – but nothing strayed into the ‘oh my god’ territory. To be fair the Gate was having a wild food festival on the night we visited so its regular menu was somewhat curtailed. If I’d have known in advance I’d have saved my pennies and gone for this option as there were some exciting looking things flying out of the kitchen. I really feel I’ve not tasted the best of what they’re capable of and will probably go back on a normal night – I might even make the suggestion myself.

Gate on Urbanspoon

The Gate, 51 Queen Caroline Street, Hammersmith, London W6 9QL

Monday, 10 May 2010

Brunch at The Fat Delicatessen, Balham

The Fat Delicatessen has nothing to do with a certain Mr Blumenthal. Instead, this Balham deli with a Spanish flavour, is one of those local gems that are so effortlessly good at what they do that it’s all too easy to take them for granted. It’s also just a short morning stumble from my front door and, as a result, folds itself in to the fabric of my week in a very agreeable way. This is the place my housemate and I usually kick off our weekends; it’s also a favourite place to pop into for a mid-week pick-me-up. The staff are friendly and know my face by now.

It’s a smallish space, but they squeeze a lot in. They have a cheese counter, a selection of tasty salady bits and one of those fierce-looking machines for slicing ham. They stock a small but intriguing selection of mainly Spanish wines and serve a menu of tapas dishes: grilled sardines, fennel gratin, snails with chorizo mash. Three nights a week, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, they stay open in the evening for dinner. My housemate adores the pork belly with white beans they serve here and talks about it often.

However, I’ve only had a full evening meal here once, and though that was pretty impressive - an experience that will have to be repeated soon - more often than not I pop in for lunch or perhaps for a coffee and something sweet. The coffee is fine if not spectacular, but their brunch dishes are things of beauty.

Look at that. Avocado on toast. Simple but ever so good. Perfectly ripe avocado piled onto a decent piece of toasted (sour dough?) bread, and flecked with chilli, sea salt and a glug of good oil. My housemate does not like anything green to besmirch her brunch so her default order is the chorizo and fried egg sandwich, pictured here just before she popped the yolk and let a slick of golden eggy goodness envelop the bread.

It’s easy to be complacent about things so close to home. I admit I often order unadventurously here, returning to the same couple of dishes, enjoying the comfort of the familiar, the blanket of the known. Though it’s probably not quite worth a trip across town, it’s an asset to the area and clearly run by people who care about the quality of what they serve; in this respect it dwarves many of the other local cafes. And, oh my, that avocado...

Fat Delicatessen on Urbanspoon

The Fat Delicatessen, 7 Chesnut Grove, London SW12 8JA 020 8675 6174

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Princi - a first bite

Every time I walk past Princi it’s buzzing. Seriously, there’s never a spare seat. I’ve been looking longingly at those beckoning, bread-laden counters for some time now, but I always end up deciding to go somewhere a little less busy. And then, one afternoon, passing by, I glanced in through the window and realized that there were spaces, there were empty chairs calling out to me: “come in, sit down, eat cake.” How could I refuse?

Princi is a little bit of Milan transplanted to Wardour Street - with a little help from Alan Yau (he of Wagamama, Hakkasan, Yauatcha and so forth). This is the first London branch of an established Milanese bakery. It’s a shiny and sleek space full of polished copper, marble and granite; there’s even a water feature - which wasn’t actually working, because this is London after all. In the middle of the room there’s a large communal table and, at the back, there’s a bar where you can order drinks; several people were standing at the bar, necking their espressos in true Italian fashion.

All of this is of course secondary to the long counter that dominates one side of the room, filled with pastries, cakes and cookies, plump eclairs, cinematic strawberry tarts, and oh, oh, oh, are those cannoli? I love cannoli. There are savoury things too. Some heavenly looking bread, a variety of pizza slices, and salads. It’s hard to know where to start. There were at least ten things I wanted to try but dinner was not that far away and in the end I opted for a slab of the pear and chocolate cake (a favourite combination). I also ordered a cappuccino; it’s self service so I paid at the cake counter and then took my receipt over to the bar to get my coffee.

The cake was perfectly good afternoon coffee fodder, slightly bready and rather more about the chocolate than the pear. It was not dissimilar from something I make at home and a bit over-priced at £3.20 (I’ve read that prices have been hiked since opening - is this correct?). The coffee was smooth, airy and light, a potent reminder of how inadequate most London cappuccinos are.

I timed my visit well and had only just taken my seat when the place suddenly swelled with people. Where did they come from? They just seemed to appear. The noise levels shot up too and I didn’t feel inclined to linger, but I suspect I will be lured back by the thought of those cannoli – provided I can find a free seat.

Princi on Urbanspoon

Princi, 135 Wardour St, London W1F 0UT (020) 7478 8888

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The Giaconda Dining Room, Covent Garden

Seemingly universally liked, The Giaconda Dining Room, a dinky restaurant on a Soho side-street otherwise devoted to guitars, is, as has been noted, a gem of place: cosy and welcoming, with an audible, beating heart.

The room is tiny and slightly suburban; the plain wooden tables are crammed closely together and wine bottles line the back wall on either side of the entrance to the kitchen. We were the first ones in - though the place quickly filled up – and, given a choice of where to sit, we chose to nestle in the corner by the coat hooks. A carafe of sparkling water, a small bowl of olives and a basket of average bread arrived at our table along with our menus.

There are a number of intriguing vegetarian dishes on the menu, though all are listed among the starters. There’s crevelle de canut - a Lyonnaise creamy, cheesy dippy thing – roast field mushrooms with garlic puree and baked eggs with spinach. The risotto of the day was broccoli and wild garlic. Though there was no fresh fish following the bank holiday weekend we were told that the chef, Paul Merrony, had made up a brandade of salt cod as the fishy dish of the day.

Amongst the list of specials I heard one of my favourite words. The asparagus it had to be. What arrived at the table was truly beautiful: a plate of glorious, gleaming green spears, perfectly cooked. This was served with a small bowl of sea salt and - the kicker – a silky scoop of red wine mayonnaise. This was an inspired pairing: the mayonnaise was smooth yet slightly tart and good enough to make this mayonnaise agnostic see the light.

Non vegetarian mother went, disappointingly not for the much written about crispy pig’s trotter, but for the beef carpaccio (£6.50). This pleased her considerably, though she thought it would have benefited from the kitchen being less giving with the parmesan.

To follow I chose the crumble of creamed shallots and wild mushrooms (£7). This was an intense and wintery dish, rich and sweet – that blob on top that looks a lot like chantilly cream was laced with horseradish. A more sensible person would have gone for some form of salad as an accompaniment, but I went for a side order of chips (£2.75). These came skin-on (which I like) and were, we were told, cooked in rapeseed oil; though they could’ve benefited from being a smidge crispier, they disappeared quickly, though it took an effort of will to finish the last few off – it was a generous (like everything here) portion.

Non vegetarian mother was in an offally mood and vacillated between the braised tripe with chorizo and butter beans and the sautéed veal kidneys with carrots, eventually opting for the latter (£11.75). These were incredibly good, she said, meltingly soft. The accompanying bowl of macaroni was declared unnecessary and shoved in my direction.

Dessert was perhaps overkill at this stage but we decided to share the chocolate mousse cake (£6). This looked to be, like all the best chocolate desserts, on the decadent side but a small puddle of orange caramel sauce helped counter the richness and it wasn’t nearly as heavy as it might have been. A smooth, superior cup of coffee rounded up what had been a superb meal.

Including a bottle of Cotes du Ventoux and a £1 per person cover charge we paid just over £70, not including service, which was friendly and helpful thoughout: brilliant value for what was one of the best meals I’ve had so far this year. This is the kind of place I could – and hopefully will – happily return to again and again. My mother is already talking about going for the pig’s trotter next time...

Giaconda Dining Room on Urbanspoon

The Giaconda Dining Room, 9 Denmark Street, London WC2H 8LS 020 7240 3334