Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Beerd, Bristol - the new face of pubs?

If you were going to open a new business would you send up your potential customers? Calling a beer bar Beerd and - cheekier still - getting your waitresses to wear T shirts with 'beerdy weirdy' on the back seems a high risk strategy akin to calling a new nail salon Chavs. Especially if some of your punters are not noted for their sense of humour.

So, Bath Ales' new opening in Bristol - a craft beer and pizza bar along the lines of the new places that have been opening in London (Brewdog, Craft Bar & Co and Draft House) - is a brave move and one I hope will succeed.

Its audience is obviously going to be very different from the CAMRA crowd. The airy rooms are dotted with brightly coloured tables, the bar sports bright neon hand pumps, lots of bottles and - shock, horror - keg beer. It's a student area - near the university and next to the hospital. Will they be interested in bottles of Scheider Aventinus at £7.95 a pop and small tapa style bowls of padron peppers at £4? I'm not sure.

They should go for the pizzas though our youngest, just out of uni and a pizza aficionado pronounced them underseasoned. I thought they were pretty good myself with a fantastic crust but I think I just chose a more interesting topping (prosciutto, artichoke, olive and mushroom). They were hard to cut on the somewhat slithery plates though and took a fair while to come which I'm guessing could mean a long wait on a busy evening.

Still it was only the first full day's trading and the friendly staff were eager for feedback. Apparently they'll be changing the beers regularly and they obviously know how to serve them, as you'd expect from a brewery-run operation. My half of Thornbrige Jaipur was in very good nick. And it's great to find them available in thirds for tasting as well as halves, two thirds and pints.

An interesting development. Cool beer places serving 'craft beer' rather than 'real ale' are going to be one of the hot trends for 2012, I reckon. Let's see if I'm right.

Friday, December 16, 2011

My top 10 books for Christmas

My bookshelves are groaning under the usual end of year avalanche of books. Despite the recession there seem to have been more than ever in 2011 - and bigger ones than ever. Publishers' answer to the relentless march of the iPad and other readers seems to have been to produce larger and more lavish volumes to demonstrate that a screen can never replicate the pleasure of handling a book.

So what would I give my friends (books being the most useful of last-minute presents for the congenitally disorganised)? Here in no particular order are my top 10:

Tasting India Christine Manfield (£40 Conran Octopus)
The biggest and blingiest book of the year, this gold satin-covered tome is admittedly not one I’d pick up in a bookshop not least because its weight (about 2 1/2 kilos) would cripple you on the way home. It’s also totally impractical for a messy cook like me. BUT despite the sumptuous presentation and photography it’s no mere coffee table book, but a passionate tribute to Indian food and culture by Australian chef Christine Manfield with some surprisingly straightforward home cooks’ recipes. Including an irresistible number involving potatoes which makes it a must-buy for me. At £23.30 on amazon, the price of a modest Indian takeaway, it’s a steal.
Who should I buy it for? Anyone who loves India and Indian food.

Short and Sweet: Dan Lepard (£25, 4th Estate)
A misnomer if there ever was one. At 560 pages this book is far from short but the recipes, it’s true, are reassuringly brief. Reading Lepard, who in addition to being an cracking good writer is also a talented food photographer, is like having a friend in the kitchen. The book is peppered with really useful tips (such as that you need a lot of baking powder in a banana cake to avoid it being heavy) and explanations of techniques. It covers everything from bread to home made sweets with some irresistible savoury recipes (garlic butter and cheddar scones, anyone?) along the way. The most inspiring baking book of the year - and there have been many.
Who should I buy it for? Someone who thinks they can’t bake. (Like me). Or someone who can but wants to bake better.

Perfect: 68 essential recipes for every cook's repertoire. Felicity Cloake (Fig Tree £18.99)
Despite my dislike of ‘the perfect’ tag on recipes this is a terrific book based on Felicity Cloake’s engaging weekly columns for the Guardian where she seeks out the ideal method for many of our best loved dishes. Cloake’s rare combination of diligent digging and lightness of touch makes these absorbing reading even if you might not agree with her conclusions. (I still can’t be persuaded that tomatoes are the right topping for macaroni cheese)
Who should I buy it for? Someone who doesn’t want too many recipe books (amazingly there are such people) but wants their recipes to work first time. Recently graduated students.

The Good Cook: Simon Hopkinson (£25 BBC Books)
For me this was the TV series of the year - much to my surprise. I feared that ‘Hoppy’ would be stiff and awkward in front of the camera. Instead he was warm, reassuring and inspiring and these are the recipes he cooked. He also writes like a dream. Don’t make the mistake of doubting his word as I arrogantly did with a recipe for baked papardelle, pancetta and porcini which I thought didn’t contain enough pasta. He’s a supremely accurate recipe writer. Trust him.
Who should I buy it for? Any good cook will love it but older ones will probably have all his other books. Keen cooks under 40.

Made in Sicily: Georgio Locatelli (£30, 4th Estate)
I don’t actually own this book yet, but have flipped through the pages on amazon and fingered it longingly in bookshops and it strikes me as the Italian cookery book you’ll most want to own this year. (Hint to my nearest and dearest). Locatelli is one of London’s most talented Italian chefs and Sicilian cooking is very special, quite unlike the rest of Italy. The recipes are simple and delicious but you will need good ingredients. Insalata calda di polpo (warm octopus salad) is not going to be something you can run up from your local Tesco fish counter. Maybe download it on Kindle and take it on holiday.
Who should I buy it for? Any Italian food nut. Chef groupies.

Pieminister: a pie for all seasons, Tristan Hogg and Jon Simon (£17.99 Bantam Press)
A strong contender for comfort food book of the year this book does exactly what it says on the tin. Lots of great ideas for wacky pies like the wabbit roll (pork, rabbit and black pudding), ‘flying frying pan’ smoked haddock and cider pie and plumble (mulled wine and plum crumble) should ensure your New Year gets off to an unhealthy start. There’s even a spread on booze matching.
Who should I buy it for? Pie obsessives.

Veggiestan: a vegetable lover’s tour of the middle east. Sally Butcher (Pavilion £25)
I’m impressed by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new veg book, I must confess, but celebrities of his ilk don’t need any further endorsement. Instead buy Sally Butcher’s quirky and delightful Veggiestan for the veggie in your life. Sally owns an Iranian deli in south London and it’s her second book (the first being the equally entertaining Persia in Peckham). My copy is already full of Post-it notes marking recipes I want to try like Afghan leek pies, Armenian Green Lentil Garlic and Spinach soup and Onion, Chilli and Mint Marmalade. A refreshingly original book.
Who should I buy it for? adventurous veggie cooks. Adventurous cooks who cook for veggies

Supper Club: Kerstin Rodgers (£25 Collins)
The name Kerstin Rodgers may mean nothing to you but if you inhabit the blogosphere you’ll know her better as underground restaurateur Ms Marmitelover. This is less a cookery book than a manual on how to run a supper club and entertain your friends outrageously. (Think punk Nigella.) In contrast to Simon Hopkinson I would treat the recipes with a certain amount of caution. To give you a flavour: Chav’s White Chocolate Trifle with Malibu, Cockaleekie without the Cock, deep-fried peanut butter sandwiches .... Hugely entertaining.
Who should I buy it for? Lovers of kitsch

Couture Chocolate: William Curley (Jacqui Small £30)
Confession time. I don’t get that excited about chocolate and wouldn’t dream of making most of the recipes in this book by Britain’s foremost chocolatier William Curley but it undoubtedly wins the prize for the most beautiful book of this year (just look at the picture of Curley’s gleaming millionaires shortbread which he makes with salted caramel. Well maybe I might have just one ....). Although the techniques involved are complicated there are clear step-by-steps and some of the recipes like chestnut and sesame brownies look surprisingly straightforward. Stunning.
Who should I buy it for? Aspiring pastry chefs, chocoholics

Jellies and their Moulds Peter Brears (£12 Prospect Books)
Prospect Books in Devon is a tiny publishing house which publishes titles no other publisher in their right mind would touch. I eschewed two of this year's offerings (Tripe: a most excellent dish and Testicles: Balls in Cooking and Culture) in favour of this delightful book from last year on jelly from food historian Peter Brears. There are some charming illustrations which I can’t help but feel Ms Marmitelover would approve of.
Who should I buy it for? Jelly lovers and those who like to read cookbooks in bed

And then there’s . . .

Hawksmoor at Home (£25 Preface publishing) in which I had a hand along with my son Will Beckett, his business partner at Hawksmoor Huw Gott, chef Richard Turner and Dan Lepard, this time as photographer. I like to think I can be objective enough to say I’d want to own it even if I hadn’t been involved but clearly I’m not. It is a terrific book though, full of outrageously meaty recipes and killer cocktails along with some splendidly discursive meanderings on the origin of recipes, food traditions and ingredients for which Huw is largely responsible.
Who should I buy it for? Meat fiends. Food history geeks. (Not vegetarians. Oh no.)

And some other books I’ve already reviewed and enjoyed this year: Signe Johansen's Scandilicious, James Ramsden's Small Adventures in Cooking Niamh Shield's Comfort & Spice and Everyday and Sunday by Jane Baxter of Riverford Farm.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Is Meat Liquor as good as it’s cracked up to be?

Maybe I expected too much. I’d been gagging to go to Meat Liquor or Meatwagon as it then was since last summer when a chef friend seemingly went down there every night to get his burger fix. And now there was a restaurant. Just off Oxford Street. With amazing cocktails. In jam jars! And deep fried pickles. Heaven!

The menu certainly reads well. I’m up for any burger called Dead Hippie (2 patties, sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions) apparently their take on the Big Mac. I loved the fact they put a whole roll of kitchen towel on the table. Yes, it’s THAT messy.

But the burger was a real disappointment. Overcooked, it tasted more like mince then chopped meat. The chips were pallid, bland and frankly McDonalds-ish. The homage had gone too far. My daughter’s chicken burger looked - and tasted - a bit like KFC. What on earth had gone wrong?

Maybe lunch is the wrong time to go (I suspect it is). Maybe you need a couple of serves of House Grog “a dangerous blend of light and dark rums with a splash of overproof rum” before you get stuck in. Maybe you should ask the ‘burgerette’ for some Pure Death Sauce. There must be some reason why everyone is raving about it except me.

Frankly if you’d come across this restaurant in say, Luton or Leicester and they’d served a burger like that you’d have thought ‘that’s not a bad burger’ but from a joint touted as serving some best trash food in London it felt like a massive let down.

Two other quibbles - the wine list while fun isn’t exactly cheap. £9.50 for a glass of Washington State riesling, even if it’s called Kung Fu Girl is going it a bit. And while the service was fine the message “‘Cheers mate’ is not an acceptable tip” on your bill is just plain cheeky. (For the record we tipped. In cash. But I didn't need to be instructed to.)

If you want a great burger, Honest Burger in Brixton Village which I checked out the other day is streets better. But what about you? Is Meat Liquor as good as the original? Meatwagon fans tell me I had an off day . . .

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Five new blogs to enjoy

I can't believe we're over half way through November already. Which makes it doubly embarrassing that I not only failed to have a blogs of the month feature in October but it's taken me this long to get one up this month too. Still, they're worth the wait . . .

For a start, who could resist a blog called Warm & Snug & Fat. Certainly not me. It's written by Amee from Co. Galway, "a graphic designer, kids books illustrator; accidental Aga enthusiast, amateur gardener & learner camera owner" as she puts it. If so she's learning very fast as these stunning images of her apple pie muffins testify. And although it's mostly baking there are other delicious things as well. Check out this homemade celery salt crusted baked potato.

I was also charmed by Mailhos Cuisine du Jardin whose author Carol - coincidentally also Irish - wrote to me to tell me about her blog. (I wish more people would do that. It makes it more of a discovery than hearing about them at second hand.) They have a smallholding in S.W.France where they grow over 100 varieties of vegetables and 75 fruit trees, all local varieties. It sounds totally idyllic. A recent post on my favourite base for tisanes, lemon verbena or verveine, also has a recipe for verbena chicken. Read on and drool.

Then there's Liza de Guia's delightful foodcurated.com which is full of very professionally shot, quirky videos about people in food. Like Erin Evenson a 'competitive home cook' who enters contests like the Food Experiments National Championship in Brooklyn for which she cooked a dish that required 150 cods tongues. A really unusual and captivating blog . . .

. . . as is Mise au Poing, a visual blog by food and interiors prop stylist Samira Buchi who lives in Switzerland. (Thanks to Trish Deseine for this one). Look at this lovely series of pictures of quinces.

And finally a rising star in the world of wine - Matt Walls, who, er, calls his blog Matt Walls Wine Blog. He used to sell wine and now writes and gives talks about it and has just been signed up by Quadrille as the latest author in their New Voices in Food series. Impressively his blog doesn't rely on pictures, just on very good writing as you can see from this recent post on California. One to watch.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Taste the Difference Dun Leire 8yo Irish Single Malt

It's not often I feel moved to write about whisky (well, actually, slightly more often since I went to Islay a couple of months ago) but this is a real bargain.

Sainsbury's is selling its excellent Taste the Difference Dun Leire 8yo Irish Single Malt for £15 for the next three weeks instead of the launch price of £19.99

Those who poo-poo Irish whiskey as being inferior to Scotch (my late mother-in-law was always outraged if we tried to sneak one by her) would have to acknowledge that this is a fine dram by any standard. Matured in American Bourbon and Irish whiskey barrels it's made by the Cooley distillery.

My tasting note says - rather lamely, but it was the end of a long wine tasting - 'beautifully sweet and fragrant'. For a more evocative description you'll have to turn to Jim Murray's Whisky Bible which describes it as 'one of the great whiskies from Cooley, ever' and names it his Irish Single Malt of the year. At £15 it's a steal.

Sainsbury's also has a trio of Scottish whiskies in the Taste the Difference range, a 12 year old Highland, a 12 year old Speyside and (my favourite) a 12 year old Islay, all at £28.49 (though I'm waiting to see if there are special offers on those too). They're all non-chill filtered, unusual for supermarket whiskies, which adds to the complexity and flavour.

It's interesting how whisky seems to be becoming the new battleground for supermarkets. Aldi is selling a very fine 24 year old Glen Marnoch whisky in its stores next Thursday for £29.99 which might sound expensive but is probably about a third of the price you'd have to pay for a bottle of that age and provenance. There will only be a few in each branch though so get down there early.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A three course lunch at Brixton Village (all at different restaurants)

The problem with living out of London is that you feel totally out of the loop when it comes to new openings. The whole world, it seems - certainly the whole blogging world - has been to the conglomeration of cool cafés and restaurants in Brixton Village, a place where you might once have hesitated to set foot unless you were in search of callaloo and tripe. But that's not the case, of course, and if you haven't been, as I hadn't until yesterday I strongly recommend you go.

I went with my good mate Fiona Sims (the other Fiona) which was a mistake. The original intention was to have a quick burger at Honest Burgers and return to the very interesting biodynamic wine tasting we'd been at up to then. But as there was a queue at HB we had to explore other options. Fiona favoured Elephant (Pakistani street food), I wanted to try the okonomiyaki at Okan.

We settled on Elephant (above) where we shared a spinach pakora and a veggie Thali. Being an aficionado of Bristol's Thali Cafe I don't think it quite lived up to theirs - but it was hot (in both senses of the word) freshly prepared and cheap - by London standards. (About £11.50 for the two of us). Great value.

While we were there we spotted the owner bringing in a plate of something tasty for his own lunch - which turned out to be the okonomiyaki so we had to move on to Okan to try one. We bickered amiably about that too - Fi wanted tofu, I opted for pork and kimchi (wouldn't you?) and won this time. Again, good but I've had better - a bit too much gloopy sauce on top and the bottom was slightly burnt but it looked amazing and the eggy/cabbagey bit was great. £7.95.

By this time were were totally stuffed but the queues at Honest Burgers had disappeared and we couldn't miss that burger. Which was awesome - fabulously beefy with a gorgeous light bun and hopelessly moreish triple cooked chips with rosemary salt. They very sweetly divided it into two for us to share. That was £9.

So we never got back to the tasting (I went clothes shopping instead, always a bad idea when you're feeling feckless) but I think we did Brixton Village proud. You should try at least two places if you go - there are many more tempting ones as you can see above and in this review Jay Rayner wrote for the Observer and this one by Marina O'Loughlin in Metro. And some fantastic food shopping to be had around the various food and home stalls. I can't wait to go back.

NB We went on a Thursday afternoon - I suspect it gets a lot more hectic at weekends.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

An Epic Breakfast at Hawksmoor Guildhall

I debated (for about 30 seconds) whether I should blog about the new Hawksmoor Guildhall breakfast. I am, after all, intimately related to the joint owner Will Beckett ('Will’s mum' being the moniker by which I’m most commonly known these days). But I’m so fired up about the place and the food which is actually masterminded not by Will but his business partner Huw Gott and chef Richard Turner, that I couldn’t resist.

Full English takes on another meaning at Hawksmoor. Those of you who have already experienced the brunch at their first Spitalfields restaurant will be familiar with the outsize bacon chops, steaks, and HkMuffin (Hawksmoor’s cheeky take on the Egg McMuffin) which make it unnecessary to eat for the rest of the day.

All make an appearance at the new Guildhall restaurant along with British stalwarts such as kippers, omelette Arnold Bennett and - what I decided to eat before I even sat down - the Edwardian favourite devilled veal kidneys on toast (above).

Just to demonstrate I haven’t entirely abandoned my critical faculties I would say the devilling was a touch fierce for 9am in the morning, even penetrating my current cold but the kidneys were perfect, the saucing just right and the toast firm enough not to disintegrate under the onslaught. Partnered with a side of Hawksmoor hash browns (the best I’ve eaten, a must if you go there) it made a bracing start to the day.

I also sneaked a bit of the Marmalade French toast which hadn’t penetrated my radar which is served improbably but successfully with hot chocolate given the Flat White treatment. Drenched in custard spiked with Pedro Ximenez sherry it probably runs perilously close to breaching most City firms’ anti-alcohol policies.

There had been reports - and somewhat unflattering pictures - of the doughnuts which do have the unfortunate appearance of spewing something unspeakable but believe me They Are Good, oozing with creamy vanilla custard (they like custard at Hawksmoor) and fresh-tasting plum jam. I also managed a bite (just a bite - honest) of a melty chocolate Danish-cum-pain-au-chocolat, an outrageously rich toffee-pecan thingy and an almond pastry stuffed with an indecent amount of almond paste.

On the credit side I managed to resist anything boozy (French toast aside) including the new Cornflake Hardshake (cornflake milkshake with added bourbon), my favourite marmalade cocktail, which you can also order at Seven Dials, and the Bloody Mary ‘buffet’ (pic at top of post) where you can go up and mix one to your own taste, opting instead for an invigoratingly healthy orange juice blend (carrot, orange, yellow pepper and ginger) of a livid colour that might come as a bit of a shock if you have a hangover. You may want to wear your shades.

Trying very hard to be objective, I would love Hawksmoor even if I wasn’t related to it. Theres an Alice in Wonderland ‘eat me’ edge of mania about the food which owes a great deal to the inventiveness and greed of Huw and Rich. And the staff are always so incredibly friendly - though you would, I suppose, be nice to the boss’s mum wouldn’t you . . .

PS Nearly forgot to say. They also have a couple of dinner dishes they don’t do at Seven Dials and Spitalfields including veal chops and oysters, a ginormous mixed grill (to pre-order) and a seven course beef menu to share for parties of 8-10 including the outrageously good beef shin macaroni which you can find - ta-daaa - in the new Hawksmoor at Home book in which I'm proud to have played a small supporting role.

PPS Hawksmoor Guildhall is only open from Mondays to Fridays

Disclaimer: I ate at Hawksmoor - and generally do - as a guest of my son. So take maternal fondness into account.

Friday, October 28, 2011

How good are food apps?

If you've got an iPad you've probably been as tempted as me by the avalanche of food apps that you can now download. But how good are they as a way of learning about ingredients, cooking techniques and recipes? I wrote about some shortly after I got my iPad. Here are the apps I've acquired more recently and how I rate them:

Donna Hay ***** (Free - for the moment)
I'd been wondering whether Donna Hay would do an app and now I've seen it can understand why it took so long. this is the most beautiful, sophisticated, mouthwatering on-line magazine around. There are some great interactive sections and some spectacular video effects as a tiered white cake gets covered with pink macarons and a whole ricotta disappears scoop by scoop off a plate. The photography is utterly stunning, the recipes have Hay's trademark style and simplicity. The first issue is free - you're bound to want to buy the second and subsequent ones.

Green Kitchen *** (£2.99)
A very pretty app designed for the iPad with an easy to navigate grid of healthy (and quite hardcore) vegetarian recipes. If I have a criticism it would be that the recipes themselves aren't quite as assured as those from established cookery writers. I like the look of the Baked Pistachio and Herb Felafel and Rustic Potato Pizza, though (rather less so the Bean Brownies . . . ) Green Kitchen also has an equally attractive website.

Baking with Dorie **** £8.99
I'm a big fan of Dorie Greenspan, a baking superstar in the states (and an incredibly nice person) and you can't fault the content of her new app. But with 20 baking lessons and over 100 videos it's a monster to download at the rather sluggish broadband speed we have at home and I lost it altogether when I was updating my iPad software and had to reload it. I'm not sure I wouldn't rather have Dorie in book mode really. (Her best known is Baking: from my home to yours and her latest, which this post has reminded me to order, Around my French Table)

River Cottage Every Day *** (£1.99)
Another iPhone app that doesn't work quite so well on the iPad. It's also annoying that you have to sign up with your personal details once you've downloaded it - presumably so that you get to be on the River Cottage mailing list though if you've paid your money I think you're entitled to instant access to the content. Nice to have ideas for how to use what's in season though and I like the well shot 'how to videos' including how to prepare a pheasant, how to fillet a fish and how to build a wood-fired oven.

My kitchen table * (Free)
A sample selection of recipes from well-loved TV presenters including Mary Berry, Antonio Carluccio and Madhur Jaffrey. Designed for the iPhone and obviously based on their books it doesn't work too well on the iPad and took a fair time to download. Not especially easy to use and there are some weird anomalies like recommending Ainsley's Chilli-glazed mango with yoghurt as a good accompaniment for Antonio's pappardelle with meat sauce. And the shopping lists don't seem to come up yet. Obviously the idea is to get you to buy other apps on the back of it like Mary Berry's My Cakes and Desserts (£1.99) but I'm not sure I'd bother.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The 10 best things we ate in Paris

The week we've just spent in Paris was not a great gastronomic pilgrimage. We actually went to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary and to check out the flourishing natural wine scene in which we're both interested. We deliberately didn't make advance reservations or hit any two or three star restaurants, preferring the casual informality of bistros and wine bars. But we still ate well and here are - in no particular order - the 10 best dishes we had.

Steak frites at Café des Musées
Every trip to Paris should include a classic steak and chips and this was a cracker. Admittedly there was more fat than the average steak you'd get in a British restaurant but the taste was superb and the accompanying sauce béarnaise and very crisp hand-cut chips just perfect. The only thing that spoilt it were the loud Americans on a neighbouring table.

Radis beurre at Aux Deux Amis
Another French classic given a contemporary twist by including heirloom varieties at Aux Deux Amis, a tiny bistro on the Oberkampf (11e). Beautifully presented - I also love the whipped butter and the smoked sea salt. An ideal light start to a meal

Brandade and salad at Aux Deux Amis
OK, this doesn't look much but you have to trust me. Brandade which is made from salt cod normally comes as a sloppy purée you have with toast but this had been turned into a deconstructed fish pie. The old fashioned lettuce salad with it was the perfect accompaniment. I'm going to try this at home

Hake with crushed jerusalem artichokes, mint and olives at Rino
My husband who is more of a carnivore than I am probably wouldn't agree but this was the best dish at the best meal we had all week - at a tiny modern bistro in the 11th which serves a very short set-price lunch on Fridays and Saturdays for 20€ for two courses. A wonderfully subtle, imaginative combination of flavours. We ate it very slowly to make it last longer.

Red mullet with grains at Rino (top of post)
This was the first course at the same meal - red mullet with what they described as a 'soupe' of grains and lentils and some chard. Again, very clean and pure with a slightly Asian twist I couldn't quite put my finger on.

Joue de veau at Le Baratin
Le Baratin is probably Paris's most famous natural wine bistro - with a reputation for famously rude service as you can read here. But we found them politeness itself and the food was great. There were two main courses involving cheeks - ox cheek and veal cheek - both stellar. The ox cheek was better with the wine we ordered but the veal cheek was the lighter and more elegant dish.

Saucisse en cocotte at Vivant
Vivant, in the rue des Petites Ecuries in the 10th, is the new up and coming rival to Le Baratin. You can read my review here but I particularly liked this dish of robust Toulouse sausage served with all kinds of amazing root veg - beets, radish and turnips - steamed in their own juices en cocotte. Much lighter than the classic sausage and mash.

Oxtail croque at l’Avant Comptoir
We were pretty pleased with ourselves at squeezing into a small corner of the bar at Yves Camdeborde's ultra fashionable L'Avant Comptoir but it took a while for us to work out how to order. You think at first there's just the regulation charcuterie but there are lots of imaginative small dishes or tapas listed on cards that hang from the ceiling. This was my favourite - an oxtail 'croque' (fried sandwich) with horseradish chantilly (whipped cream). Totally delicious.

Poached pear at Philou
As you may have gathered we're not great ones for desserts - and were eating so much it was probably just as well - but this was a really lovely poached pear with salted caramel with some kind of baba-ish thingy we ate at a newish bistro Philou, just off the Canal St Martin.

Pistachio eclairs at Gosselin
And finally we did succumb to the pastry shops just once when we'd had a lighter than usual lunch, picking a pistachio eclair (at the back) from the multi-coloured selection at Gosselin in the rue St Honoré. So much more stylish than a cupcake. Just as well we didn't make patisserie the main focus of the trip . . .

Monday, October 17, 2011

Paris without a reservation

We took a different approach to our latest trip to Paris which was not to make any reservations. Partly because we'd had to cancel two trips here already and didn't want to tempt fate by booking yet another swathe of tables we might have to cancel and partly because the plan was to visit as many small bistros and wine bars as possible. Actually I tell a lie. We booked a table for our first night but we've booked nothing else more than a day ahead. For hard to get reservations like Le Baratin we rang up earlier the same day and still got a table.

So far it's worked like a dream. There's been nowhere we haven't managed to get into including Inaki Aizpitarte's new wine bar Le Dauphin, Yves Camdeborde's L'Avant Comptoir, Vivant and Rino, a restaurant we'd spent hours trying to get a booking for our last trip without success. A lot of these don't take bookings anyway or are so small that they won't take reservations on the phone especially from tourists

It's made me think that we go about visiting cities quite the wrong way these days, frantically trying to get a reservation at the most sought after restaurants and bars. Committing ourselves to a particular time slot which might not suit us because we're doing something else more interesting at the time. Squeezing in two meals a day when we might only fancy eating one. Stressing because we'll not be able to write up the hottest restaurants on our blog or for a future feature.

What we've done is wander in and have a glass of wine and a plate of charcuterie or couple of small plates then find somewhere else to have a main course or skip that and find a gorgeous cake from some enticing patisserie. We have had some fixed price meals - mainly at lunchtime - but have then eaten lightly in the evening.

Of course it's helped that there are only two of us and that we've been here for the week which removes the sense of urgency from the exercise but even if I was staying 3 to 4 nights another time I think - hope - I'd deploy the same tactics. It's also hugely reduced the cost of eating out.

What you do need so far as Paris is concerned is to come at the right time of the week. And that, unfortunately, is not at the weekend when many restaurants are shut or insanely busy but midweek from Tuesday to Friday (Mondays are also a popular closing day). Even then Parisien restaurants have erratic opening hours so do your homework, find out when the places you might fancy going are open and have a back up plan of a restaurant you could go to nearby if you don't manage to walk in. I admit I'm lucky to have a husband who likes nothing better than devising such strategies.

You also need to be prepared to eat at lunchtime rather than in the evening and earlier than might seem comfortable - the French start lunch at 12 so 12-12.30 is a good time to get a table. The added bonus is that the lunch menu is often cheaper than the dinner one.

There's always the delightful possibility you might walk past somewhere that's not on anyone's radar, where the locals themselves eat and which is a genuine find. One of the main problems these days - and I'm guilty of this myself - is that everyone goes to the same restaurants so your fellow diners are likely to be food critics and bloggers. Is that would you really want when you're exploring a city?

So how do you handle weekends - or midweek trips - to major destinations like Paris or New York? Plan ahead, leave things to chance or a bit of both?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Lahloo Pantry: a thoroughly modern tearoom

I'd better get the disclaimer out of the way first. Kate and Neil of Lahloo Tea live practically opposite me so I'm hardly likely to diss their new venture, Lahloo Pantry which opened in Bristol yesterday. But having been there at lunchtime today I can honestly say that it's brilliant - an all day café where you can drink really good tea and eat (and this is what worries me) wickedly delicious cake.

It's in a former Asian deli on Kings Road just off Boyces Avenue in Clifton village. Upstairs there's a communal table which would be fabulous for someone coming in on their own to sit and read. Downstairs, a cosy cafe with tables outside when it's fine.

You can have breakfast, lunch or tea so at 12.30 my daughter and I had lunch and breakfast respectively. A perfectly wobbly smoked haddock tart with a range of salads in her case; soft boiled eggs and soldiers in mine. Or soft boiled in theory. The kitchen was struggling with an induction hob which was turning out one egg uncooked and one hard (ironic when they'd produced cakes as perfect as these chai brulée tarts). They may have given up and be serving scrambled eggs by the time you read this.

They will apparently be doing takeaway (takeaway cake!) once the containers arrive (another glitch) and you can, of course, buy one of the very beautiful tins of tea you can see lining the walls.

If you're familiar with smart London cafés like Peyton and Byrne or Konditor and Cook you'll feel quite at home. This is a great addition to the Bristol eating out scene.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Zucca: an affordable smart London Italian

Zucca’s been around for a good few months now so it’s hardly a find but because it’s off the beaten track for many London visitors - down the far end of Bermondsey Street, about a 10 minute walk from London Bridge - it might have escaped your notice.

It’s worth the detour, as Michelin says. It’s a cool contemporary restaurant serving immaculately cooked modern Italian food at more than fair prices. It's also just been listed in the top 3 Italian restaurants in Europe by the World's 50 Best - a somewhat hyperbolic accolade but one which underlines that it is something special.

We kicked off while we were waiting for the rest of our party with what must be a signature dish of ‘Zucca’ fritti (above) - perfectly cooked squash fritters intermingled with sage leaves which added a nice bitter note to what can be an oversweet and slightly bland veg.

We then grazed through a few more antipasti - carpaccio of sea bass (above - stellar), bruschetta of smoked eel, mozzarella, yellow courgettes and sorrel (yum) and san daniele, ventricina and lardo (the least interesting of the four) - all of which were under a fiver.

I wished for a moment I’d had my son’s pappardelle with hare ragu (above) which looked - and tasted - fabulous (pasta is one of the highspots at Zucca) but was more than happy with my cacciucco, a Tuscan-style fish stew with couscous. And my husband, who always orders rabbit if it’s on the menu rated his slow cooked sweet and sour rabbit as good as his own - high praise indeed ;-).

We shared a delicious crumbly walnut cake (below), an Italian spin on bakewell tart and some icecreams which were all top drawer and not too sweet.

With a bottle of Falanghina and a couple of glasses of red the bill came to £136 for 4 of us and a baby (my grandson!) who tucked heartily into his own plate of pasta. That included service for which, they make a point of stressing, they don't charge. You could easily spend that much in Jamie’s Italian and eat half as well.

This week they have a pig week which I’m sorry to be missing. Follow their tweets @SamZucca to find out what else they have on.

* Oh, and a footnote. Bermondsey Street, which is an up and coming London food destination (it's not far from Maltby street market) also houses the excellent José tapas bar so you could call in there for a sherry first. José's own restaurant, Pizarro, opens down the road next month.