Monday, 6 June 2011

Cafe Review: Coffee Cake // Crouch End

“We have been open about seven/eight years now”, my waiter informs me. Why on earth have I left it until now to walk in? Coffee Cake is owned by chef Ali Benammar and serves a mixture of continental French and North African cuisine. For a while I have eaten in below par coffee shops in my north London neighbourhood, finding them either too expensive, of poor quality, or both.

‘Coffee Cake’, proudly displays the history and flavour notes behind the beans they are using, on a chalk board above the kitchen. The furniture is well spaced and modern, with wooden flooring contrasting exposed brickwork on the walls. As you walk into the space, you can see and smell the menu all around you. Meringues in the window, cake lined tables, tarts and quiches in open top fridges. Anything you can’t see is displayed on the specials board.

I loved the feel of the place and hoped the staff would be as welcoming. My waiter walked me through all the patisserie and savouries with a good explanation of each. The interactivity of being surrounded by the menu was refreshing; as opposed to a filled counter that divides staff and customers. Everything looked great and the colours were vibrant. My crayfish and tomato tart was like a tall, opened sided quiche. Served hot and with a well dressed salad, it was a steal at £3.50. My chocolate cheesecake that accompanied my cappuccino was buttery, soft and moist, the coffee, equally good.

The service was friendly, efficient and unfussy. You’re in good hands. I grabbed an apple, pear and ginger smoothie to take away. This was made with pure juiced fruit, no additives. A nice touch was that these smoothie’s are customisable, using a variation of any in-house fruit.

Ali Benammar is part of a patisserie revolution in this country, one of the many great benefits of multi-cultural London. Let’s be honest, it’s an area we needed a bit of help in. However, there are even more coffee shops than baby bumps in Crouch End these days, but I am confident that where the others fall down in their infancy, coffee cake will hold its own.

2-Course lunch (exc. drinks) for two at Coffee Cake: £20
Crouch End
28 Broadway Parade
N8 9D8
020 8342 8989

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Product Article: Flavoured Balsamic Vinegars from South Africa

This weekend I got talking to a market stall owner near the Saatchi gallery, in Chelsea. Her name was Stefania Cuda. On the day, Stefania was selling Balsamic Vinegar which is produced by the gruenard family in Stellenbosh, South Africa.

This was the usual ‘condiment grade’ of vinegar, made with white grapes, minus the caramelised sugar which darkens the product. 

Single herbs are introduced before the vinegar and before fermentation. One with dill, one with lemon thyme and so on. No herbs were visible in the bottle, just a clean hue of white grape. I expected the usual low hum of herb that you might find in a flavoured olive oil, which I always find quite unimpressive. What hit me instantly was fresh dill. Bang, right there on the front of my tongue, follow by a rounded, crisp tang from the vinegar. I could see possibilities with this stuff instantly. A fillet of bass finished with this dill vinegar would not be out of place on a menu of gastronomy, both confusing and delighting the diners.

I could pontificate for a good few more paragraphs, but I will leave you to decide the uses of this great product.

56 Penywern Road
+44 7963 599 958

Friday, 20 May 2011

London – Two Weeks in Food / Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of Two Weeks in Food, London town style. I would like to apologise in advance for the length of review number one. I wanted to convey every negative emotion that Oslo Court instilled in me. It just required a lot of characters to do that.

For Part 1 - Step this way

Oslo Court - Restaurant Review

I honestly do not know where to begin with this place. I think the best place to start would be to give you, the reader, a bit of background information. Oslo Court is a French/English restaurant that is situated at the bottom of a block of 1930s flats in the affluent area of St John’s Wood, serving food from the 1970s...Not produce from the 70s... well, maybe? Across the internet, it is seemingly loved and hated in equal measure. Some refer to it as the best restaurant in London and others walk away feeling like they have been robbed.

After my weekend of Broadway Market and sushi, I was invited to Oslo Court to join my parents for dinner, as my father was celebrating his 62nd birthday. I looked the place up online and it seemed to have very good reviews. It also seemed to be ‘themed’ in the sense that the entire decor was pink and the menu, very 70s. My initial reaction was fairly positive and I thought that the whole experience would be steeped in irony and self-awareness.

When we arrived, the exterior was as I expected and I clung to the potential for Irony. We entered the pink room, with waiters hovering in tux’s, as I strolled through in smart/casual, feeling completely out of place. One table filled with elderly people, another table with a textbook upper-middle class family from the 70s, with two young children that looked like they had been dragged there by parents who used phrases like, “children should be seen and not heard”. Chateaubriand, spatchcock chicken, prawn cocktail and Steak Diane predictably crowded the menu. There were no prices, except for one that said it was £42.50 per head. Right. Does that mean you have to have three courses? If you don’t, are you just charged the same? Why do they only do half bottles of wine? Why are they all overpriced?

I chose Lobster Bisque for starter and Crispy duck with cherry sauce and vegetables for main. In typical 70s style, they have a job lot of veg out back, that they believe just goes with everything.

The service has been praised by many, as excellent and very friendly. I found it neither here nor there. It wasn’t bad and it wasn’t great. The Lobster Bisque arrived. Straight away, the colour was wrong, it was a greyish brown. No Lobster bisque is greyish brown? It tasted greyish brown. My heart sank. Bisque at its best is creamy, velvety, full and rich. It is packed with depth of flavour. It is sweet and herbaceous. This tasted like they had boiled two day old lobster in vegetable stock cubes mixed with water. My heart sank deeper. They have no idea. There is no irony here. All that lies here is a group of people that enjoyed the mediocre melange of food they ate as younger adults and now accept it as the height of haute cuisine, in 2011.

My main course was a large piece of crispy duck. It wasn’t great, but seasoned well and crispy none the less. The cherry sauce had a slight sweetness but no depth. The many vegetables were average and in total there was far too much food, even for a 6ft 5 man with a big appetite, such as myself. As I waded through the masses of food, just finishing it as not to embarrass our hosts, I looked around at my surroundings and back at my food. I felt like I was in an old people’s home and the food was all the budget would allow. The chef; maybe employed off the back of being a dinner lady in the 1960s? We were paying for this and that depressed me.

The much talked about dessert waiter delivered the menu verbally, like some poetic riddle. To be fair to him, he was the highlight. He was camp, 1970s style. You know, where they allude to being gay, but don’t quite ‘come out’ as it were.

I had the strawberry tart with whipped cream. (oooh matron). This was actually the best dish of the night. It lacked any presentation, but it was fresh, the pastry was good and it had just the right amount of sugar through the cream. However, it was not enough to save this meal. The bill weighed in at over £160 for three people. As I looked at the bill, then down at the dog under the neighbouring table full of grannies, I didn’t know who wanted to be there less.

As we left, that “robbed” feeling that Oslo Court manages to instil in so many of its guests enveloped my body. In another 20 years time, this restaurant will no longer be here. The reason; anyone that a) thinks that food hasn’t improved since the 1970s and b) enjoys the nostalgia of the experience, will all have passed on.

Despite all of this, I find it hard to dislike the proprietors of Oslo Court. In the same way you find it hard to dislike your own grandmother for using the word n***er in passing. They are of another time, they don’t know any better and they don’t want to know any better. How can you argue with that?

1 Star

____________________________________ << let's draw a line underneath it

Comptoir Gascon - Restaurant Review

Located in the heart of Farringdon, opposite the meat market, Comptoir Gascon offers good quality fresh food, which has been very well executed, at fair prices. My friend and I went in for a casual lunch after a hankering for charcuterie. My first course was exactly that, aptly and humorously named ‘piggy treats’. This consists of cured pork and sausage, with a few sweet & tart (not spicy) pickled peppers. These acted as the perfect palette cleanser between bites of fatty, salty meat. A well thought out dish.

In order to avoid an overly heavy lunch, I went for a light vegetarian pasta dish as my main. Baby basil ravioles in a light cream sauce, with what I believe was sweet asparagus slithers and crispy deep fried kale leaves. These were bitter, which again offset the creamy, aromatic pasta. The baby courgette served a third purpose. It was all perfectly seasoned and again, well conceived.

My friend’s main course was a simple barbecued chicken supreme with French fries. The chicken was once again, perfectly seasoned. It was a chunky piece of meat but still so, so moist throughout. Thick breast meat can be tough to get right. The fries were thinner due to their French beginnings. However, they tasted as though they were done in beef dripping. Very Moorish.

All washed down with a crisp beer and back out into the London sun; it was a very satisfying 2-course lunch with drinks. The chefs here have great palettes. They know how to keep dishes interesting throughout eating and they know how to season. At under £20 a head, Comptoir Gascon have bagged themselves a couple of regulars.

4.5 Stars

Newman Arms - Pub with food Review

When one of your favourite films is Michael Powell’s 1960s thriller, ‘Peeping Tom’ and you like a good pie, it seems to make sense to visit the location of the film’s opening scene, to enjoy “one of the best pies in London”. That is exactly what I did one lunch time during the week. Located on a quiet street in Fitzrovia, this famous pub is fairly small and set across two floors, the top floor being ‘The Pie Room’. The atmosphere is cosy and old fashioned, without feeling stale and stuck in time.

The pie is king at the Newman Arms, so I plumped for that British classic, steak and kidney. I washed it down with a pint of London Pride. All the pies are served with mash, carrots and other veg of the day. When the pie arrived, I knew it could not be up there with the best. Why? It was a floater. By floater, I mean a casserole with a pastry lid put on top. This is not a pie. A real pie is encased in pastry. That aside, the pastry was very good. The filling was rich and meaty with soft kidneys and tender beef. It was a little colder outside than it could have been on this spring afternoon, so it all helped. Is this one of the best pies in London? Absolutely not. Is it a nice pub in a nice area, with nice pies and beer? Yes. Have a visit if you’re in the area and/or are a massive fan of films about murdering prostitutes and the psyche of fear.

3 Stars

Part 3 coming soon -  CAMRA Pubs of the year and quick Korean hits high holborn...

Thursday, 12 May 2011

London – Two Weeks in Food / Part 1

It was over a year ago that I moved away from my birthplace and home, to explore the north of England. Tired of the daily grind and claustrophobic commute, I went in search of pastures new. How easy it is to take a city like London for granted. Returning twice over the spring period (inc. The Royal Wedding) I was able to see London with fresh eyes again. I crammed my time with theatre, exhibitions, public parks and lots of beautiful food. Allow me to talk you through where I went, on my food tour of London.

Broadway Market

What better way to start the weekend than with a stroll through Broadway Market and London Fields? Where else can you find the plumpest olives, the freshest bread and the gamiest game? Okay, probably Borough Market in London Bridge, but this is better. It is better for being scaled down to fit a residential road crawling with young and vibrant minds. I couldn’t help but say to my friend, how nice it was to see so many young people thinking, doing and absorbing. Not only can you eat like a king here, but you can feel part of something that is current and exciting. This is the generation of people that have grown up listening to their parent’s LP’s, the generation that are revelling in their freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

At the beginning of the market is ‘The Cat & Mutton’ pub. The staff seem to think their shit don’t stink and they don’t do ale, but the sardines are good and so is the atmosphere, that happens to flow from the market and through their doors. Grab a pint and people watch, whilst you take a rest from the bustle of the market.

Recently, a program focusing on the revival of British baking saw Michel Roux Jr visit an artisan bakery in one of the arches underneath London Fields rail. Arch 402. It was the gentleman’s 200 year old sour dough starter mix that sold it to me. At £3.20 a loaf, it is worth it, just to remind you what bread is. Not bleached, tasteless pap, but fluffy and filled with depth of flavour that runs through the satisfyingly crunchy crust.

At the market, you can eat Persian, Indian, French, British Game, Mediterranean & Greek amongst others. There should be something to satisfy all palettes.

Atariya (Japanese Sushi) - Restaurant Review

Located just off of Oxford Street on the Bond Street end, this Sushi restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside. With a sign dirtied by the nearby buses and cars, it looks a world away from the super clean and sleek environments we are used to eating our Sushi in these days. However, do persevere for some excellent food. A trio of chefs await you on the left as they prepare the orders of local workers who have rung in advance. If you are in a hurry at all, you do have to know about this, as it is all sliced and prepared to order. I ordered Edamame beans to nibble on whilst I waited.

The interior is rather like a small cafe, with only a few tables inside and a couple outside. I think most people just takeaway here, but sitting in wasn’t at all unpleasant for a light lunch. I wanted to sample everything I saw but ended up getting some bream, bass, tuna, octopus, mackerel and scallops. All came served with the usual accompaniments of soy, pickled ginger and wasabi, with what looked and tasted like some finely shredded Kolrahbi or similar. Everything was fresh and moist apart from the octopus, which maybe could have been slightly wetter. For me, the highlight was the scallops. Up until this point, I didn’t know they could be eaten raw. Sliced about 3/4cm thick and served between slithers of lime, they were so soft and juicy. Very different from cooked scallops, I think I could eat them like this every time. Texture is a big part of our perception of food and this simply melted. The rice was light and sticky and the fish was fresh, what more could you want?

For everything pictured it was £13. More than you might normally pay for Sushi, but a world away from the conveyor belted chains of two hour old, revolving fish. Also, for me it always comes down to that old adage, “pay a little more, gain a lot more”. This is the nicest sushi I’ve eaten, but I’m by no means an aficionado on the subject. If you’re in the area, I would recommend popping in, but maybe make a note of the telephone number, if you don’t want to be hanging around.

20 James Street, London, W1U 1EH
0207 491 1178

Stay tuned for Part 2, in the coming week...

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Recipe: Indian Methi (Fenugreek) Chicken

I first smelt this herb in dried leaf form years ago, whilst at University. It isn't until now that I have had a proper go at cooking with it. If you like dishes such as Balti and Jalfrezi (i.e. medium hot tomato curries with a touch of yogurt) then you’ll really like this. All served up with an India Pale Ale named after the Bengal Lancer’s of the 19th century.

It is important you use thigh meat here as we are not searing the meat. Using breast meat will make the meat rubbery, less full flavoured and less authentic.


1 Tbsp Sunflower Oil & 1 Tbsp Mustard Oil (Or just 2tbsp Sunflower/Veg Oil)
1/3 tsp Methi (Fenugreek) Seeds
½ tsp Cumin Seeds
1 Medium Onion, finely chopped
2 Large Garlic Cloves, grated
1 inch piece Ginger, grated
3 small hot green chillies, chopped
½ tsp Turmeric
2 Vine ripened sweet red tomatoes, chopped fairly fine
2 Tbsp Ground Coriander
½ tsp Red Chilli Powder
2 Tbsp Fat Free yogurt, whisked with 2Tbsp Water
450g Chicken Thigh meat, bone and skin removed cut into 1 inch pieces
2 tsp Rice vinegar (or other vinegar)
½ tsp sugar
1 ½ Tbsp Dried Methi Leaves, ground nearly to a powder
½ tsp Garam Masala (preferably homemade)
Salt to taste

Fire it up...

Heat a thick bottomed casserole pot or non-stick frying pan to a high heat, then add the oil(s). Add the Methi seeds and Cumin Seeds as you turn the heat down to medium. Allow the seeds to splutter for about 30 seconds. Add the chopped onion and fry for 5-7 minutes, stirring frequently. Add a little bit of salt at this stage to season as you go and get flavour all through the dish. Add the garlic, ginger and green chillies. Fry for a further 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the turmeric and turn the heat down to medium-low. Stir for 30 seconds.

Now let’s make the sauce happen...

Add the chopped tomatoes, ground coriander and red chilli powder. Stir this all together, adding the yogurt slaked with water. Bring this to the boil, then turn the heat down to very low, put the lid on it and simmer gently for 5 minutes to bring the sauce together. Whilst this is happening, just mix the chicken with the little bit of vinegar, a pinch of salt, the sugar and the methi leaves.

Add the chicken and it’s mixture to the pan. Stir this all together and cover with the lid again. Simmer for about 5-7 minutes until the chicken is almost fully cooked.

Finish it off...

Remove the lid and cook for a further 5 minutes to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the chicken. Add the Garam Masala and check the seasoning. Add more salt if necessary. Put the lid back on with the heat off to allow all the flavours to infuse whilst you prepare the rice on the plates.

Spoon the curry onto the plate with Basmati rice and garnish with freshly chopped coriander. Blow the top off your favourite beer or lager and enjoy.

N.B I left the skin on the thigh meat for more flavour but it adds more fat/oils to your dish. Remove the fat if preferred.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Gourmet Crisps: An Article

I have been thinking about writing this article for a while. However, it is not until today that I have felt compelled to do so; the crisp packaging that pushed me over the edge? The Hairy Biker’s ‘Keralan King Prawn with Coconut’ crisps.

When I was growing up, you had salted, salt & vinegar, cheese & onion and beef. This was about 15 years ago. Now, I am not someone who doesn’t like when things change or evolve, in fact I love it. I love when things get re-invented or gain a new lease of life.  However, the price of crisps has gone up and so has the expectation. Do they live up to that expectation? Of course not. Mind you, can we blame them for not being able to make the humble potato taste like a Sunday roast, or a Thai green chicken curry? What’s next? Heston’s 12 course - Michelin starred tasting menu, dehydrated, powdered and then shaken in a bag with fried potatoes being sold for £20 a bag? I think we may have an idea that could get to market there!

Back to the Hairy Biker’s.

How can anything in this bag possibly be Keralan? Okay, so it’s possible that they sourced the powdered Crustacean’s from Kerala, which begs the question, ‘Why did you waste some of the greatest produce this world has to offer on a bag of crisps!? Also, who are we to prove or disprove that the prawns were ‘king prawns’ and why would we care, seeing as they’ve been obliterated into a crisp seasoning!? Picture in your head now, a beautiful steaming dish of spiced Keralan prawns with a splash of coconut cream and half a fresh coconut on the side, sat on the beach looking out at the Indian Ocean. Now imagine yourself eating a bag of crisps. These two things are poles apart! Stop making heaven seem attainable on a Waitrose supermarket shelf!

Then you have the more commercial, saturated end of the market, such as Walker’s Thai Sensations and Pringles Gourmet Beef Burger. Gourmet? Crisps? Unthinkable!

It all reminds me of an over the top cafe, me and a friend once joked about opening. The business plan was, ‘see how much you can rip people off by selling them everyday food at inflated prices, just by tinkering with the description.’ So, here’s an example.

Jacket Potato & Beans gets sold at £12.50 by telling yummy mummies the following;

The finest British baking spud, sourced locally and crisp roasted with Lebanese Olive Oil, piped with mature cheddar, locally churned butter and Britain’s favourite...haricot beans baked with a sweet and salty tomato sauce.

Funny I know, but is it that far removed from what Waitrose and the Hairy Biker’s are selling us in order to keep their profits gigantic?

What it all boils down to is this; Don’t just buy any old crap at inflated prices, because someone has romanticised it as much as humanly possible. After all, we’re famous for our abundance of potatoes, how much can you possibly get away with charging for them?

Hairy Biker’s Crisps are now available at Waitrose for £1.79 per 150g. Flavours available are (try not to laugh);

Keralan King Prawn with Coconut
Chicken Tom Yum
Prosciutto Ham & Blue Cheese
Lemon & Olive Tagine

NB. I actually quite like these two. They remind me of my nan, only my nan never got rich off crisps.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Restaurant Review: Horoscope Chinese Harrogate

Name: Horoscope
Cuisine: Cantonese, Szechuan & Peking
Location: Harrogate, North Yorkshire

Ever since my first bite of a Thai dish, Chinese food descended down the ranks of my favourite cuisine. It was like eating Chinese food with bells on, lots more bells... and whistles. I’m not going to proclaim that Horoscope changed these views, but it has gone a long way in restoring my faith in what this vast country has to offer.

After a string of disappointing experiences with gloopy sauces and wilted vegetables, I gave up ordering Chinese takeaways and begun cooking them at home. This works great and I am proud to have that ability. However, sometimes you just want someone else to cook for you. Someone you can trust. Enter Horoscope.

I have eaten in here and ordered take-away. I have tried the char siu barbecued pork in scezchuan sauce, the chicken satay (hong kong style), the spring rolls, the kung po, the crispy duck and a few others. Every time, I have been impressed. There seems to be a good stock at the base of their sauces, mother’s marinade at the healm of their meats. It is these extra touches that make you want to pay the extra. A carnivores choice at the local Chinese might set you back £6-7 with today’s fuel prices, but Horoscope charge more like £9-11. This begs the question; ‘Do I want to eat inferior meat and old veg in a melange of monosodium glutamate and cornstarch thickened salt water? Or do I want to be able to taste the variety of ingredients that I read on the menu, which enticed me in the first place?’ Well when you word it like that...

Like a lot of good quality Chinese restaurants, this has a deceptive appearance. A dodgy name, dated decor and fortune cookies. All of that falls away when you sit in and see families of people enjoying the super efficient, friendly service and the extremely tasty food. Some people think that the efficiency these restaurants show is backed by a desire to get you in and out as quickly as possible. I don’t agree. These guys watch without being intrusive and are there when you need them, because they know that if a desire is felt by the customer, but not met, they have failed themselves and the client.

The duck from here is superb. A bone-in piece is taken to the table and shredded for the customer (very quickly by someone who clearly has years of experience) and served with the usual accompaniments. When I asked how it was cooked, he was happy to answer that it was slowly boiled with flavours such as anise and peppercorns, then deep fried to order (giving the crisp). I never realised this is how it was made. When we thought we were done, another waitress came over and offered to remove the last bits of meat from the bone, giving us one more round of wraps.

The spring rolls were light, tasty, well filled, not greasy and a good size. The main of chicken satay was done hong kong style. Which basically means it is fried in a sauce with veg as opposed to the satay you might know as being barbecued on sticks with a dip. Clean flavours with a smokyness and a good level of heat.

Whenever I have eaten out here, I am always given prawn crackers, even if the order is small. We are always given 1 or 2 more fortune cookies than we need, just in case we are feeding more than it may seem by checking the order. Little touches.

Tasty food and good service = returning customers. Horoscope understands the formula for a successful catering business and I have somewhere to get good Chinese food from on a Friday night. Hallelujah, or should I say 哈利路

2 courses for two excl. drinks £30-35

4.5 Stars NB. All ratings are given with respect to the cuisine and the price range. e.g. a review for 5 stars in £30-40 price range, will not be equivalent in quality to a 5 star restaurant costing £100+