Sunday, 4 November 2012

Yalla Yalla, Soho

On a recent trip to London, I met with my friend Hannah for some early evening drinks and dinner. I had left the decision-making of where to dine entirely up to her, which isn't something I usually feel comfortable with (note: not just for Hannah, but for anyone!). She'd assured me that she'd been there before and that the food was good. I'd been informed it was Lesbanese street food, so I was expecting something a little different to the loud music and bright lights of Yalla Yalla, hidden just far enough behind Oxford street to give it some breathing space from the hoards of tourists beating each other up with their huge Topshop and Uniqlo bags.

We decided to choose entirely from the mezze section of the menu as we are both secret fatties (see 2007: us as 16 year olds at Leeds festival eating Dairy Milk chocolate bars dipped into hot chocolate for breakfast) and like to try as much as is humanly possible. We were quite sensible this time and managed to reign ourselves in, which is also a good thing given the amount of pitta you end up filling-up on.

I was disappointed that they were out of Jawaneh Meshoue (chicken wings) but were told we could substitute it for another dish on the menu and have it at the same price. Cheapskates that we were (especially after drinking £8 cocktails on Wardour street), we went for the most expensive dish on the menu, the Lebanese equivalent of fritto misto - Makale Samak - sitting on a bed of crispy aubergine and garnished with pomegranate seeds, the latter a great trick in pronouncing something Lebanese. (I really wanted to try the chicken livers but Hannah's a wimp when it comes to stuff like that, so I'll blame her for what followed.)

At first, this dish was tasty, but as the batter wilted and the grease became more evident, it actually wasn't that nice. It was also a huge portion, particularly in comparison to the other dishes (normally, not a bad thing, but we couldn't finish this).

Baba Ghannouj - aubergine dip - was as good as any I've had. Garnised with mint and the compulsary pomegranate seeds.

Soujoc - essentially spicy sausage - insisted I order it. This lovely little morsel of meat can be found in an array of cuisines, from Turkish to Bulgarian. I first had it simply fried in Northern Cyprus with halloumi and pitta. This one came with tomatoes and parsley and was delicious; a dish that's hard to mess up.

Halloum Meshoue - oh, how I love halloumi. There isn't a better - or more fun - cheese. The squeaky sound it makes when slightly overcooked ensured a welcome introduction to cheese when the only other stuff I'd eat as a nine year old was mild cheddar. I'm sure this was probably fairly bog standard stuff but it was bloody tasty.

Apologies for the slight shake on the camera. Of course, we had to order their falafel, although I sort of wish we hadn't. They were huge, and definitely filling, and the accompanying salad was rather tasty but they weren't impressive, particularly not for a Lebanese restaurant. I'd rather eat the ones from Go Falafel at the end of Rusholme; now they do a good falafel.

The best dish of the night, and also the most unphotogenic, were some lovely little pastries - Samboussek Lahme - filled with lamb, onion confit and roasted pine nuts. These were delicious and I could have eaten several of them.... think: a dry lamb tagine encased in pastry. Greggs need to get these on their menu now, ha! I should also mention that you are given pitta and pickles as standard.

The food wasn't expensive, but nor was it cheap for food of this level. It seems that Yalla Yalla has caught on to the street food trend and is aiming itself at Londoners who don't fancy eating in a rundown Lebanese cafe (like the one by Marble Arch, whose name I forget, but which does amazing falafel). In general, it felt to me a bit like a Lebanese Wahaca, though not as good. I would go back, but only before my evening meal just to try an amuse of their chicken livers, if I have a willing accomplice.

Yalla Yalla
12 Winsley Street, London
020 7637 4748

Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 1 November 2012

October Foodie Pen Pals

I know, I know, it's November and I'm behind in blogging my parcel from last month, but these last few weeks have been super busy and I've generally been rubbish at life. We moved house, I quit a job, I've had three separate bouts of cold/flu & I am now looking for a job. Anyway, enough of my drivelling excuses, here's what I received from the lovely Sue at Sue In Training, all the way from Germany - my first international parcel!

My German GCSE came in handy
I was quite confused at first, especially with regards to the 'back-oblaten'. I really should be more patient, as there were instructions which helped explain everything. Sue had asked me about teas, and sent me a lovely little selection box of various herbal teas, which have complimented my home tea selection perfectly! The chocolate coated almonds are already half gone... very delicious! Inside there was also a madras curry spice grinder in the most beautiful packaging, quite a world away from the spice containers found in the supermarkets on the Curry Mile (where I have been spending a lot of time since our house move).

Now, for everything else... all of the other bits can be put together to make Lebkuchen! These are a perfect Christmas treat, and I shall definitely be making them in a few weeks time to get into the Christmas spirit. Even better, Sue said they usually last for a couple of weeks (if hidden from Jamie, I imagine) in an air-tight tin. I think I might even make some of these to give as Christmas presents, as I have decided to try and go home-made this year! I shall certainly blog about them so watch this space...

I sent my parcel to a lady called Rachael, who has two sons aged 3 and 6. She told me that they were as excited about the concept as her so I made sure there were some things she could share with them in it. Rachael didn't mention if she has a blog or twitter so I thought I'd show you what I sent her here:

Rachael had mentioned that she didn't drink caffeinated drinks so I sent her my favourite herbal teas. She also told me she had a sweet tooth so I sent some of my favourite Green & Blacks, & some healthy-ish chocolate coated rice crackers. I had the boys in mind for the yo yos, but I absolutely love these - and send them in nearly every box! Rachael had also asked me for some recipes so I included anchovy fillets to go with a broccoli, chilli & anchovy pasta dish which is so easy to make. I also wanted to send her some capers but my local supermarkets cater for students - meaning they have no interesting ingredients!! But I did still send a recipe for slow cooked mutton with leeks & capers which we will post here soon too...

Sign up for next month here.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Linen Autumn/Winter Menu

Popping candy toffee apple
A recent relocation to Rusholme and subsequent dearth of free time mean that it’s been a while since our last blog post. So, what better way to show our faces again than with a review of Linen’s new Autumn/Winter menu? 

Head chef at Linen - Jaromir Hlavsa
It’s been a good two years since Anna or I have been to Linen so we were quite excited to see if and how things had changed. The addition of new head chef Jaromir Hlavsa has been the catalyst for a new menu and a new direction with the food.

For those who don’t know Linen, it is the restaurant at the Manchester235 casino, located on a mezzanine floor, a decent distance from the gambling tables. And, after a wonderful ‘Basil Smash’ cocktail (courtesy of the Drinks Enthusiast)and an inspection of the chef’s table, the conversation turned to people’s perceptions of Linen and whether the association with the casino is a detrimental one. 

Having walked through the casino to get to the restaurant, the experience is, shall we say, a little odd – escalators and roulette tables aren’t your normal precursors to a great meal. But, with a new entrance from the AMC complex and a high standard of food, this is nothing a bit of well-done marketing can’t solve. If I were a gambling man (pardon the pun), I'd bet that a lot of people wouldn’t expect a restaurant of Linen’s calibre to be found in a city-centre casino.  

We were seated at a table with Kat from Echo Pr and fellow twitter foodies DineInOut and StokieSimon amongst others. After an appetizer of bread and olives we were presented with a trio of starters, all introduced by head chef Jaromir Hlavsa, who has recently moved from Malmaison and was keen to promote his seasonally-inspired dishes. There is something in his manner that very much reminds me of Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park (I'd like to know if anyone else can see the similarities!).

The house-smoked salmon and beetroot salad was a beautiful-looking plate of food - three different colours of beetroot with dots of horseradish and vodka creme fraiche and tender, delicate hot-smoked salmon. Usually a bolder smoked fish, like mackerel, is paired with beetroot and horseradish, but the salmon more than stood up to the other ingredients.

Smoked salmon and beetroot salad
The rustic pork and pistachio terrine was well made - it made me think of Raymond Blanc who asserts that you can gauge the standard of a restaurant by its terrine. I've seen the combination of duck and pistachio in terrines quite often, but never pork and pistachio. The classic accompaniment of pickled vegetables worked well and the overall feel was quite light, if a little dry. A nice change to pâté which, though delicious, I sometimes feel can be too rich for a starter. 

Pork and pistachio  terrine
The pigeon breast with hummus and red wine jus was superb - the pigeon was cooked to a glorious scarlet, nicely mirroring the beetroot. The hummus was made as usual but substituting roasted beetroot for the standard chickpeas. Earthy, vibrant, and very seasonal. I believe that every menu should have a pigeon dish at this time of year - it's a great alternative to duck and has a more assertive flavour than pheasant or partridge. 

Pigeon breast with beetroot hummus
Next a trio of main courses, two meat dishes and one fish. The Cumbrian lamb loin chops were divine, complemented exquisitely by some Scottish chanterelles, garlic confit, potatoes forestiere and a truffle jus. When I'm in the mood for something rich and delicious, this ticks all the boxes. Meat and mushroom give a powerful umami hit; the garlic and truffle jus bring everything together. Garlic and truffle love lamb and mushrooms. 

Cumbrian lamb loin chops
I confess I've never eaten wild boar which is having its own mini-renaissance at the moment. The wild boar steak with venison chorizo was thus a new experience for me and a very pleasurable one at that. The boar was not as gamey as I'd expected - obviously similar to pork but slightly darker and more intense, nutty and sweet. It's hard to judge it, as I've nothing to compare it to, though it did strike me as perhaps being a little overcooked. The tiny cubes of venison chorizo were tasty but I think it would be impossible to detect the flavour of venison underneath all the garlic and paprika. The highlight of the dish was the mulled wine jus - a traditional mulled wine recipe, reduced almost to a syrup. Delicious with boar, I can imagine it worked well with duck which loves those oriental spices.

Wild Boar

The bream with salsify, purple potatoes, and saffron sauce was one of the highlights of the night and another dish that seemed perfectly fitting for the time of year. The earthiness of the potatoes and the salsify perfectly complement the muddy, sweet flesh of the bream and the rich saffron sauce livened up the dish. The fish was wonderfully cooked. A dish I'd highly recommend ordering.

Fillet of bream
Turning to the dessert menu, I was immediately drawn to the ‘Raspberry Rippled Baked Alaska’ and the ‘Toffee Apple Creme Brulee’. To my delight, the Jaromir had chosen both for the tasting – a fact which led me to utter an ecstatic and uncharacteristic whoop! 

I'm a sucker for a good brûlée and I wasn't disappointed. It was perfectly cooked with cubes of apple inside and a thick caramelised crust, and the normally redundant shortbread here complemented the apple with their cinnamon notes. A tiny toffee apple coated in popping candy was the proverbial icing on the cake. It made me think of bonfire night and also brought me back to the idea that desserts should be fun. The Graham Beck muscadel, our dessert wine, was the perfect match with its nuances of caramel, raisin and apple.

Toffee apple creme brulee
The baked alaska, that childhood classic, was transformed into something more adult and inspiring with the addition of toasted coconut and a rum sabayon. A great contrast of temperatures and textures - freezing, smooth ice-cream cocooned in warm, crispy meringue. If you hadn't guessed by now, Jaromir likes to use booze in his cooking - he confessed that his office is more like a bar! 

Baked Alaska
The only dish that disappointed was the Baileys cheesecake - a sure-to-be favourite over Christmas, the batch we had was almost unanimously considered under-sweetened.

So, all things considered, there were very few negatives to take away from our evening at Linen. Kat Atakuru and Sophie Baxter did a great job of sussing out of opinions of Linen and didn't ram their marketing spiels down our throats (which can happen all too often at these events) and we're really looking forward to the food that will be coming out of the kitchen in the future, thanks to new head chef Jaromir Hlavsa.

Saturday, 6 October 2012



Time for another moment from the Barca back-catalogue.

As soon as I visited Igueldo's website and saw the picture of their tartare of beef with beer yoghurt, I was sold. Not the most outre fare, granted, but the draw of a good tartare is irresistible. And the Spanish love them - tuna, salmon, mackerel, tomato, you'll find one on most menus. 

So off we wandered to Eixample and once again entered a restaurant where the staff outnumbered the customers by at least three to one. Surprising in a way, since, as you can see from the above photo, that this is one of the finer dining rooms in a swanky neighbourhood. Then again, we were probably a little early for dinner: it was nearly 10pm.

The tasting menu was too well-priced to pass up despite it being our third in a row. A little unusually, the head chef came to take our order, though I imagine this will prevent any communication breakdowns with front-of-house. After chatting to Paco Guzman later in the week it does seem like chefs are beginning to break out of the kitchen and trying to interact more with diners. Or, they're just that bored in Barcelona in August!

Wine ordered, we waited for our amuse-bouche, while being lulled into a romantic mood by the soft lighting and even softer music. This was definitely the most intimate dining experience, bar the fact that we were sitting with a view into the kitchen, watching some inactive chefs slouch around. I don't mean this as a criticism - there were only three diners when we entered so I wasn't expecting to see a flurry of activity.

To whet the appetite, a miniature hot-dog with a sweet wholegrain mustard sauce. A delicious morsel but not amongst the most exciting amuse-bouches I've had. But like petit-fours and desserts, this is the time to have fun and it was nothing if not that.

Next the beef tartare (below). Well balanced, well seasoned, and just about the best tartare I've ever tasted. And I've had a lot. The beer yoghurt added interesting yeasty and sour notes which cut through the richness of the tartare nicely.

Beef tartare with beer yoghurt

Next up was the most unpleasant dish we were to eat all holiday: Iberico ham and foie gras ravioli. It looked extremely unappetising, hence the lack of photographic evidence; the mouthfeel was simultaneously pasty and slimey; the taste was overly rich due to a the butter sauce with which it was topped. It may have worked should the chef have noted that the best things come in small doses, but he plonked two large ravioli on the plate, with no thought for presentation. A disaster of a dish that left us both feeling a little ill.

Thank god for hake and clams. Perfectly cooked fish with delicious clams all coated with a chilli and garlic sauce, sat on a bed of wonderfully seasoned, thinly sliced potatoes. We were confused - the chef did understand simplicity. The slate was wiped clean.

Hake and clams
...only to find a pile of braised oxtail underneath. Served with a vanilla and sweet potato puree and wrapped in a savoy cabbage leaf, it was superbly flavourful but was too much considering the amount we'd eaten already. For a tasting menu, these were some of the most generous portions we'd ever seen. Good for your wallet; bad for your stomach.


Finally, something to snap us out of the ensuing food-coma: a lemon sorbet. The granita on my tongue felt like long-awaited rain on parched earth. This came perched atop lemon mousse, which was rich and refreshing in equal measures. However, it was hindered by the lemon vodka sitting in the bottom of the glass which created bitter sensations on my palette.

Lemon sorbet

I could have happily paid up and left feeling far too full, but there was still one more course. A somewhat British inspired cheese souffle, served with raspberry ice cream. The souffle was underdone, the ice-cream delicious.

Cheese souffle with raspberry ice-cream
At the time I would have said it was a great meal but with time I look upon it less fondly. It was only the tartare that made a lasting impression on me. Perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me, but perhaps it also shows that a fantastic dining experience isn't always about having the best meal of your life: the ambience of the restaurant was romantic and soothing, and the service quietly fantastic. It was a peaceful and cool break from the hustle of the busy city and an enjoyable evening.

There's a small part of me that also wonders whether myself & Anna would have looked on the restaurant more fondly if the head chef hadn't recommended a diabolical bar called el Boca Chica; style over substance if ever I saw it, where we only managed one drink after wanting to shoot the wannabe 'Desperate Housewives of New Jersey' sitting next to us.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection

It's that time of year again. Michelin mayhem: sleepless nights for chefs, winners leaked early, joy and pain in equal amounts. The power of the guide to grant chefs' dreams is undeniable; but only if you strive to 'dance to the Michelin drum' as Marco Pierre-White poetically claims. Is anyone else skeptical about the reliability of the guide, anxious about its impact on businesses, and most importantly, is it relevant?

These are some of the questions posed by William Sitwell in the 2010 BBC documentary 'Michelin Stars - The Madness of Perfection'. If you're wondering what all the fuss is about or incredulous as to the worthiness of a guide that started out as no more than a petrol station finder, then this piece of programming is a good place to start. Despite being two years old, its relevance seems ever present regarding the weight of Michelin, particularly at this time of the year. If nothing else, its worth a watch for Pierre-White's intense glare and rhythmic speech.

The pernicious influence of the guide is best demonstrated by the fate of French chef Bernard Loiseau. A notorious perfectionist, Bernard committed suicide after his restaurant, La Côte d'Or, was rumoured to be demoted from three to two Michelin stars. A tragic example no doubt of the pressure faced by award-winning chefs, but the documentary glossed over the fact that Bernard was also heavily in debt and suffered from bouts of depression.

Is it the fault of the guide or do the chefs themselves attach too much importance to the coveted stars? Marco Pierre-White, who famously handed back his stars, believes it is the latter, saying that chefs must accept that they are being judged by people who have less knowledge and skill than they do. Raymond Blanc, who publicly criticized the Michelin guide, wants chefs to aim for perfection rather than aim to please the whims of the Michelin inspectors.

The pursuit of Michelin stars undoubtedly drives chefs to be more creative, more exacting and hopefully leads to better food; but shouldn't chefs who want acclaim have these standards anyway?
And is the guide biased towards certain chefs? The programme claims that with the guide's heritage based firmly in the finesse of French cuisine, it naturally favours classically trained French chefs, citing the example of Alain Ducasse whose restaurant at the Dorchester was slated by well-respected food critics such as Jay Rayner, A. A. Gill, and Sitwell himself, yet was still promoted to three stars in 2010.

The big boss of Michelin explains that such decisions are not made lightly and when it is the case of awarding or removing a star the restaurant in question is visited numerous times throughout the year by different inspectors. One would therefore imagine a degree of objectivity and that bias is weeded out, but who truly knows when it comes to such a secretive organisation?

The best approach is surely one of ironic detachment. By all means, play the Michelin game but don't beat yourself up if it doesn't turn out the way you want. There are great chefs producing amazing food who aren't deemed worthy of a star but should be very proud of their talent and achievements.

What do you think - do you turn to Michelin for places to dine on special occasions or do you shun this potentially outdated authority and rely on other, more modern authorities? 

Monday, 1 October 2012

September's Foodie Pen Pals

This month I was treated to a lovely box courtesy of Helen at the Patient Gardener. After spotting the fantastic box she sent to Offally Good I did cheekily request some of her fantastic home-grown shallots, which I very kindly received. These have since gone into a mushroom risotto which I made using the dried porcini mushrooms Helen also sent...

Chestnut & Porcini mushroom risotto
I also received some lovely Amaretti biscuits which I naively learnt (from the ingredients!) are made using apricot kernels (and I call myself a foodie, huh!). These are going down a treat with a cup of coffee. Tyrrells are my favourite crisps so I was very happy with these, and vegetable ones always make me feel less guilty about eating deep-fried snacks. Helen also sent me a couple of old school chocolate bars - a Chomp & a Fudge for similar reasons - their size makes them appear guilt-free. Great for a post-work pick me up at this time of the year, when I struggle back from Castlefield in the pouring rain.

I'm saving the olive & cheese crackers for an after dinner cheeseboard when entertaining in our new home. We move on Thursday - I can't wait! Thanks for a lovely box, Helen. Oh, I forgot to mention, she had decided on an Italian theme for the box.

I sent a box of many little treats to Gemma (click for blog) who is currently trying to swim lots - and I thought lots of little snacks such as dried fruit & oat biscuits might be a perfect way to up sugar levels after a big workout. I also sent a couple of less healthy treats such as a mini bar of my favourite Green & Blacks chocolate (butterscotch), a tub of smoked sea salt, & the dark chocolate, macademia nut, cranberry & coconut Eat Natural bar. I hope she likes them!

Saturday, 29 September 2012

The Perfect Fish and Chips

Fish and chips was the first ever meal I cooked for Anna. It’s hard to imagine a candle-lit dinner of battered haddock – it’s greasy, messy, not in the slightest aphrodisiacal. Instead, if my memory serves me right, we sat on the backdoor step and ate it on a cool summer’s evening.  Romantic enough, I suppose.

I’ve been promising to make Anna the ultimate fish and chips for a while now. I even bought a nitrous-oxide powered whipping siphon to make Heston’s ultimate batter. They’re relatively cheap to acquire and have many uses beyond dispensing batter, and if you want to make decent foam they’re the best low-cost bet.

It’s a simple enough dish to pull off. Most foodies are familiar with Heston’s triple-cooked chip method and the batter is easy to prepare, put in the siphon and charge with nitrous oxide. It’s mostly about having that one piece of kit which will provide you with an incredibly airy, crispy batter. The addition of vodka to the batter helps achieve a less greasy coating since the alcohol rapidly evaporates in the hot oil, creating a protective layer between oil and batter. The malt syrup helps with colour and taste. Triple-cooking the chips is a tad laborious so you can opt out for a quicker meal - it won't be as good though.

The batter recipe is taken from 'Modernist Cuisine' and adapted from Heston Blumenthal.
For the fish and batter:

2 Cod/Haddock/Pollock/Coley fillets (choose any meaty white fish you like)
200g Plain Flour
200g Rice Flour
4g Salt
5g Baking powder

350g Vodka
200g Water
12g Malt syrup (can be found at Holland & Barrett)

NB: the batter is enough for four fillets so simply half for two people

-Sift together the dry ingredients for the batter
-Blend wet ingredients and incorporate into dry mixture
-Pour into siphon and charge with one cartridge of nitrous oxide
-Shake siphon and refrigerate

-Dust fish fillets in plain flour
-Siphon batter into a bowl and coat fillets with foam batter
-Fry in a neutral oil at 190-200 degrees c
-When batter is nicely browned (approx. 6-7 mins) remove and drain on kitchen paper

 For the chips

4 Large Maris Piper potatoes

-Cut the potatoes and rinse the slices under running water to remove excess starch
-Place in a pan of cold water and bring to the boil
-Simmer until almost falling apart
-Remove carefully with a slotted spoon and let steam dry
-Refrigerate for at least an hour
-Fry in 130 degrees c oil until lightly golden
-Cool and refrigerate again for at least an hour
-Fry in 190 degrees c oil until a golden crust forms
-Drain on kitchen paper

For the peas

1 Tin of marrowfat peas (or buy dried and soak overnight then cook until soft)
2 tsp malt vinegar
1 tbsp mint jelly
Pinch Salt and Pepper

-Place peas in a pan and bring to the boil
-Season with vinegar, mint jelly, salt and pepper
-Cook until the peas disintegrate and you have the 'mush'

Hope you enjoy the recipe and give it a go yourselves. It's worth it purely for the sound of a knife cutting through the ridiculously crispy shards of fried batter.