Monday, 31 December 2012

An amazing birthday meal at Bocca di Lupo

A friend from work recommended Bocca di Lupo to me over a year ago, but for some reason I never got around to trying it out. When I finally ended up going there for my birthday meal a few weeks back, I was treated to one of the best meals I've had in London. Now I'm already planning my next visit (and kicking myself for not going there sooner), and for anyone who hasn't been, all I can say is...GO!

Bocca di Lupo offers a very traditional Italian dining experience: dishes are brought to your table in a near continuous stream of individual courses, and everyone tucks in together. It's a very social, relaxed way of eating, and because you don't get everything at once you are really able to appreciate the individual components of your meal. In addition to the delicious food, the service was exemplary - the friendly, efficient waitstaff really added to our enjoyment of our meal - and the atmosphere was great too: stylish yet somehow cozy and intimate at the same time.

Upon our arrival we had to wait 10 minutes or so for our table to become free, despite being on time. I suppose this is partly my fault for having my birthday a week before Christmas, as the restaurant was very busy with Christmas parties and the like! However,  the girl on the front desk was lovely, and more than made up for the inconvenience by getting us each a glass of prosecco, on the house.

Our meal got off to a good start, with a helping of those beautiful, vividly green Puglian olives (firm flesh; fresh, tangy, almost nutty flavour) that you are starting to see more and more nowadays, and a bread basket accompanied by a dish of fantastic olive oil.

Bocca di Lupo has an extensive menu, split into sections according to course and method of preparation (raw and cured or fritti antipasti; pasta; boiled, grilled or roasted meats...), and in an attempt to try dishes from as many categories as possible, we ordered a huge amount of food. First to arrive were the buffalo mozzarella bocconcini from the fritti romani menu. We chose these over tempting treats such as the deep-fried artichoke alla giudia, pork and veal mince-stuffed olives, and suppli (deep-fried risotto balls), and were not disappointed.

Despite what one may expect from a dish consisting of deep-fried cheese, the bocconcini were not at all greasy - in fact they were surprisingly light, with a delicate coating of golden breadcrumbs and a beautifully gooey mozzarella centre.

We also ordered a couple of the grilled scallops (at £10 each these were a bit pricey, but it was a special occasion!). The two enormous scallops - tender sweet, and obscenely plump - were served in their shell, and doused in an incredible thyme butter

Mindful of the need to save room for dessert, we decided to share only one dish from the pasta menu, and settled upon the tajarin (a brilliantly yellow, egg-rich pasta) with duck egg yolk and Parmesan, which we garnished with 1g of white truffle (you can add as much as you want - however, at £9 a gram we thought just a hint of truffle would be enough, and to be honest, it was plenty).

This was lovely - the heady flavour of the truffle infused into the rich, golden sauce, and paired perfectly with the strands of eggy tajarin. However, I would probably go for one of the other pasta dishes next time - the oriechette with 'nduja sausage, red onion and tomato perhaps, or the intriguing pumpkin and amaretti risotto - something a bit more adventurous than what, at the end of the day, could be described as a very fancy bacon-less carbonara.

For the meat course, my boyfriend selected the roast partridge. Moist and flavourful, and exuding delicious meaty juices, this served as an exotic alternative to chicken without being overly gamey.

Meanwhile I went for the grilled gilthead sea bream with rocket and lemon. The fish was seriously good, with crisp skin and tender, juicy flesh. Served with only a slice of lemon and a handful of oil-dressed rocket leaves, it was an incredibly simple dish, but the perfect execution and fantastic quality of the ingredients turned it into something really special.

We ordered two side dishes with our meat and fish course; the four cheese taragna polenta (Taleggio, Parmesan, Gorgonzola and Asiago) and a serving of caponata (without anchovies).

The polenta was fabulous - I don't normally like blue cheese, but the strong flavour of Gorgonzola really mellows with cooking, and this was delicious. Cheesy and rich, with an incredible velvety texture, it was particularly good with the meaty partridge.

Sadly the caponata failed to live up to my (admittedly very high) expectations. I ate some amazing caponata on holiday in Sicily a couple of years ago and have been craving it ever since. I had been hoping Bocca di Lupo may be the place to finally satisfy that craving (and with the procession of consistently flawless courses, my hopes climbed ever higher), but sadly it was not to be. This was slightly too oily, with an overwhelming celery flavour, and didn't quite achieve the delicate sweet/sour balance I enjoyed so much in the Sicilian version...Oh well!

Despite the high standard set by the earlier courses, the dessert was by far the highlight of the meal for me. Having observed the next table receiving their sweet course, I knew I wanted to try the zabaione, an Italian custard-like delicacy made from egg yolks, sugar, and Marsala wine.

Ladles of exquisite golden custard are spooned from a copper bowl over your choice of base. At the neighbouring table, one diner received an enormous (plate-sized, 3-inch thick) slice of what appeared to be lightly toasted panettone. Despite the oohs and ahhs this elicited when it was being served, he struggled to finish (eventually leaving most of the cake), and I felt this option would be better saved for another night...and perhaps shared between 3 or 4 people!

Instead I went for the pear poached in red wine as the base for my zabaione. Served warm, the combination of flavours was simply incredible - a heavenly melding of mellow pear, sweet red wine syrup, and rich golden zabaglione.

My boyfriend ordered the trio of "lucky dip" gelato cones - with ice cream from the celebrated Gelupo gelateria across the road. This was very good, but totally overshadowed by the flamboyant arrival of my zabaglione!

It wasn't a cheap meal...but then, it was my birthday: we ate a lot, ordered some pricier dishes from the menu, and had a bottle of prosecco too. Most things on the menu are actually pretty reasonable, and there's a great lunch and pre-theatre menu too. With so many dishes still to try (and with my newly discovered thirst for zabaione) I'll be going back at the next possible opportunity. In the meantime, I'm recommending it to everyone I know.

Bocca Di Lupo on UrbanspoonSquare Meal

Friday, 28 December 2012

A Christmas Eve (or New Year's Eve) feast

In Germany, Christmas Eve is almost as important as the day itself, with families coming together to mark the end of advent by exchanging gifts and tucking into a tasty home-cooked meal. As my mum is half German, we always kick off our traditional English Christmas celebrations with a big weihnachtsabend feast the night before.

Our Christmas Eve spread

In addition to opening the majority of our presents, we celebrate with a spread of cold plates (smoked fish, frikadellen meatballs, salads and dips) and the all important bunter teller - decorated plates piled high with chocolate, sweets and lebkuchen biscuits. This kind of meal would also be perfect for New Year's Eve (or any other celebration to be honest) - because the dishes are all served cold, you can prepare everything in advance and focus on the festivities.

Bunter Teller

Smoked mackeral and poached salmon, garnished with lettuce, tomato, lemon, and spinach leaves

In addition to the fish plate (pictured above) we had cold sausages and home-made frikadellen meatballs, my mum's special German potato salad (chopped potatoes, apples, boiled eggs and gherkins with Heinz sandwich spread - it's amazing!), prawns in a Marie Rose dressing, a selection of vegetable crudites and dips, and - the highlight of this year's feast - two very delicious bean salads.

The first of these was based on a recipe for "butterbeans with sweet chilli" from the Ottolenghi cookbook. This is a lovely dish with a subtle (but not overwhelming) Asian influence; hints of nutty sesame, sweet chilli and soy sauce all combining to bring an interesting fusion feel to the traditional bean salad.

Here is the original recipe:

400g dried butterbeans
6 garlic cloves, crushed
70ml sweet chilli sauce
2 tbsp sesame oil
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp lemon juice
2 red peppers, cut into 2cm squares
4 spring onions, chopped
35g coriander, chopped
30g mint leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper

Sweet chilli bean salad

Soak the butterbeans overnight in cold water (use enough water to cover the dried beans by twice their volume). The next day, drain the beans and place in a large saucepan. Cover the beans with cold water and simmer for between 35 and 55 minutes, until tender. Skim any froth from the surface of the pan, and top up with boiling water as needed.

While the beans are cooking, prepare your dressing. In a large bowl, combine the crushed garlic with the sweet chilli sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, and lemon juice and mix well. Add the chopped red pepper, and season.

When the beans are done (soft but not mushy), drain in a colander and allow to cool slightly before adding them to the dressing along with the chopped spring onions, coriander, and mint. Mix with your hands, and adjust the seasoning to taste. Serve warm or cold.

I richi e i poveri, aka prawn and bean salad

The second bean salad was based on a recipe from Nigella Lawson's Feast cookbook, i richi e i poveri, a prawn and borlotti bean dish whose name translates as the rich and the poor (a reference to the combination of luxurious seafood with humble beans).

Here is Nigella's recipe:

500g dried borlotti beans
4 tins of borlotti beans, drained
750g of raw shelled prawns (or pre-cooked if you prefer!)
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar
Juice of half a lemon
1 onion
2 bay leaves
1 clove of crushed or finely chopped garlic
150ml extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 heads of raddichio
Fresh flat leaf parsley (optional)

If using dried beans: Soak your beans overnight. The next day, drain and place in a large pan with the bay leaves, onion, and enough cold water to cover the beans by around 13cm. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for around 45 minutes or until tender (removing any scum which appears on the surface). Drain the beans, discarding the onion and bay leaves.

Add your beans (dried beans, cooked as per the instructions above and still warm, or tinned beans) to a large bowl with the crushed garlic, half the olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and set aside.

If using raw prawns, place your prawns in a saucepan with cold water, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and the teaspoon of white wine vinegar. Bring to the boil and cook for around 4 minutes (test a prawn at this point to see if it is done). Drain and set aside. My mum used pre-cooked prawns and they tasted great - so skip this step if you prefer!

Not too long before you plan on serving your salad, combine the beans and the prawns, adding the remaining olive oil and lemon juice to taste. Seperate the raddichio heads into leaves and line a large plate with them. Heap over the bean and prawn mix, and (if you wish) sprinkle chopped parsley over the top.

Note: My mum prepared a big batch of beans - dried cannelloni, borlotti and butterbeans, soaked overnight and cooked until tender, then seasoned and dressed with olive oil and lemon juice while still warm (to prevent them from drying out, and to make them extra flavourful) - and used them in both of her salads. Both dishes were as delicious with the mixed beans as they are with their original ingredients, so feel free to mix it up with your choice of bean!
So there you have it - a few ideas for a feast of your own. Happy New Year everyone!

Monday, 24 December 2012

A Christmas brunch - Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs

Smoked salmon and scrambled eggs makes a perfect light brunch for the festive season - we usually eat this on Christmas day at my mum's house, but as I'm celebrating Christmas with my dad's side of the family this year, we had it a few days early.

It's incredibly simple to make, and with a glass of champagne on the side, it feels pretty celebratory without being too decadent.

All you need is thick cut smoked salmon, lemon quarters, scrambled eggs (made with plenty of butter - it is Christmas after all!), and some good quality rye or soda bread. Lay everything out in the middle of the table, gather the family round, and dig in!

Smoked salmon scrambled eggs is also a great dish for those weeknight evenings when you can't face cooking anything too complicated. I use smoked salmon trimmings (much cheaper than the full slices), adding them to the pan with the eggs so that they cook slightly. To serve, I top my salmony scrambled eggs with a dollop of creme fraiche, a teaspoon or so of capers, and plenty of lemon juice and black pepper. Add a toasted, buttered bagel on the side, and you're good to go!

Friday, 21 December 2012

Moro - it's a little bit Moorish...

 Exmouth Market, home to the fabulous Moro

I can't say enough good things about Moro: The cookbooks! The lunch-time stall on Exmouth Market! Sister restaurant Morito! And then there's the place itself. With a monthly-changing menu of delicious Moorish cuisine (think charcoal grilled fish and meat dishes, paired with classic Mediterranean ingredients - chickpeas, aubergine, pomegranate and garlic all feature heavily), Moro is hands-down one of the best restaurants in North London. I visited with my mum and brother last week and was once again impressed with just how good the food there is - beautiful ingredients, perfect preparation and fantastic flavour combinations coming together in some truly memorable dishes.

I apologise in advance for the rubbish photos - blame the atmospherically dim lighting!

To start, I had the hummus and aubergine puree with spiced lamb, pinenuts and pomegranate seeds. Served with a soft, deliciously doughy flatbread (perfect for dipping), the combination of slow-cooked lamb, golden pinenuts and sweet pomegranate seeds with the chunky hummus and baba ganoush was truly fantastic.

It reminded me a bit of one of my favourite dishes from Moro's lunchtime stall on Exmouth Market, the spiced lamb wrap (a soft flatbread is topped with a smear of hummus, a sprinkling of incredibly fluffy coucous, and a generous helping of slow cooked spiced lamb, before being finished off with salad, chilli flakes, and  a deliciously garlicky alioli £5 it's a steal so if you ever get the chance, I definitely recommed checking out the Moro stall on your lunchbreak!).

My mum opted for the charcoal grilled squid, which was also extremely good. The plump cylinders of squid were incredibly tender, their delicate flavour enhanced by a pleasant smokiness from the grill and the warm spiciness of the Harissa.

Chicory with toasted hazelnuts and blue cheese sauce

My brother shocked us all by plumping for the vegetarian option: braised chicory with a Picos de Europa sauce and hazelnuts. The blue cheese sauce was a bit strong for my liking, but if you're a fan of the smelly stuff, the combination of bitter chicory, creamy sauce, and toasted hazelnuts could be a winning one.

I really struggled to pick from the tempting list of main courses. I knew from previous experience that Moro does fish exceptionally well (charcoal grilled sea bass served with okra, aubergines and pomegranate seeds, and drizzled with a gorgeous saffron-yohurt sauce was the highlight of my previous visit), but I also love their lamb dishes, and the duck fattee sounded delicious too...

Gorgeous wood-roasted sea bass

In the end I decided to go with the sea bass again, this time paired with garlic, crispy capers and slow-cooked fennel. The fish was as good as I remembered, flesh so tender as to be almost buttery, with a crisp golden skin and a lovely hint of smokiness. Luckily (and perhaps somewhat surprisingly) the strong accompanying ingredients didn't take over the dish, leaving centre stage to the delicious seabass.

Mum went for the charcoal grilled lamb, which was served with farika (a grain often used as an alternative to rice in Middle Eastern cooking), a hot mint sauce, and the most delicious leeks I've ever tasted, while my brother opted for the wood roasted pork, which came with roasted vegetables and a lovely, slightly sweet quince alioli.

Then it was on to dessert (the food at Moro is pretty light, so there's always room for something sweet afterwards!). I ordered the Malaga raisin ice cream, which was fantastic: a scoop of creamy ice-cream scattered with plump raisins and drenched in rum - a delicious interpretation of this classic flavour combination.

Mum went for the sherry trifle. Served in a flat clay dish, this was a slightly Mediterranean take on the traditional English dessert. The fruit and sponge layer was seeped in a lovely sherry (Moro and Morito are both big advocates of this slightly unfashionable spirit, as attested by the impressive list of sherries on the menu and the recent sherry tasting event at Morito), and topped with whipped cream and tasty flaked almonds.

My brother had the dark chocolate and apricot tart. Accompanied with a yoghurt sauce, this was a very 'grown-up' dessert - bitter chocolate, tangy apricot and tart yoghurt combining in an intense but satisfying close to the meal.

Moro on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

More Kopapa (cocktail time!)

I've reviewed Kopapa before, but I came back the other week for some pre-Christmas party drinks (because that's always a good idea...) and the food and cocktails were so great that I feel obliged to spread the word again!

In addition to copious amounts of wine, and a few choice beverages from the very festive cocktail list (which features such delights as Christmas pudding martinis and hot buttered rum shots ), we sensibly ordered a few small plates to share.

The burrata mozarella (served with black vinegar dates, mint and roast beetroot) was mind-blowingly good. Creamier and slightly richer than mozarella, burrata is always one of my favourite starters, but I can safely say this was one of the best I've had. Drizzled in a fantastic slightly sweet dressing and garnished with fresh mint and black vinegar dates, I would have been happy to have a plate to myself...

We also ordered some more 'traditional' bar snacks in the form of chips and calamari. The latter were particularly good: beautifully seasoned with sesame and a hint of chilli, they were delicious with a squeeze of lime and a dunking in the excellent sumac mayonnaise dip.

My orchard bellini - while not as christmassy as some of the other cocktails on offer - was lovely. A delectable combination of poire william, fresh apple and Zubrowka vodka, with a hint of vanilla, was topped with prosecco and decorated with a fan of finely sliced apple (as an added bonus, it is listed under brunchy cocktails - making it perfectly reasonable to drink this before noon!)

That's all for now - although I'm sure I'll be back again! And if you have time in the next week or two, I'd definitely recommend checking out the festive cocktail list below.
Kopapa on UrbanspoonSquare Meal

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Exmouth Arms

The Exmouth Arms is one of my favourite local pubs. Situated midway down Exmouth Market, this green-tiled haven is a great place to grab a drink after a meal at one of the many neighbouring eateries, and - with a wide collection of excellent beers and a fantastic bar menu - is equally worthy of a visit in itself.

The highlight of a trip to the Exmouth Arms has got to be the sliders. The buns (from the esteemed Harvey Rinkoff bakery) are superb - soft and gloriously squishy - and the broad and oft-changing array of innovative fillings will keep you going back for more. (See the menu below for the impressive selection on our last visit).

We decided to try the beef brisket, venison, and thai prawn sliders: all were excellent (the beef brisket - tender flakes of slow-cooked meat drenched in a beautiful salsa - was especially good). At £6.50 for three, they make a great light dinner - or,  shared, a tasty snack - and are infinitely more exciting than a bowl of chips or a packet of prawn cocktail crisps.

 Not the best picture!

Aside from the excellent beer and tasty bar snacks, the best thing about the Exmouth Arms is the atmosphere, which strikes a perfect balance between lively and laid back. It's always busy - but in  a 'groups of people getting together for a relaxed drink' way (no blaring music or obscenely long bar queues here). Basically, it's just how a local pub should be, and if you live nearby (or are just passing through), I highly recommend checking it out.

Monday evening at 6pm - it filled up pretty quickly after this

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Mishkins, Fishdog and Meringue Girls @ FEAST

After stuffing our faces at Ceviche, we made our way around the rest of the stands at FEAST: we didn't have much room left after the stew, meat skewers, and ceviche we'd already eaten, so we had to choose carefully...

The salt beef muffins at Mishkins were too good to pass up on - soft doughy English muffins, buttered and toasted on the griddle, were filled with tender flaking hunks of salt beef, and finished off with a smear of tasty pickle salsa and a drizzle of fiery mustard...lovely.

We passed up on Big Apple hotdogs in favour of a Hix 'Fish Dog'. Served in a soft bun with a dollop of tasty minted mushy peas and some tartare sauce for good measure, this was basically a very posh (and very tasty) fishfinger sandwich.

A hot, golden, flakey fillet of fish...mmmm

We ended our 'FEAST-ing' with a visit to the stunning Meringue Girls stall, where the incredible boozy winter Eton mess quickly became the highlight of my evening.

So pretty!

In addition to the best meringues I have ever tasty (soft, chewy and crunchy, in perfect measure - I regret not buying a big boxful to take home with me!), this festive dish boasted segments of cointreau-soaked clementine, pomegranate seeds, flurries of whipped cream, dehydrated raspberry pieces, and crushed pistachio nuts. 

Boozy winter Eton mess, on the left - just WOW
And just for the road, a couple of pictures of the uber-cool FEAST venue; the dis-used North London Mail Centre in Angel..

Mishkin's on UrbanspoonSquare Meal