Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Modern Pantry

I pass The Modern Pantry every morning on my way to work, peering enviously at the people enjoying leisurely breakfasts in the Scandi-chic interior or - on sunny days - sipping their coffees in the outdoor seating area; newspapers open, dogs lounging at their feet. So, when I had a day off recently, I knew exactly where I wanted to go...

The Modern Pantry has a fantastic breakfast menu, boasting of a number of really innovative dishes - from a sweetcorn, feta and polenta waffle, spiced with green chilli and coriander and served with bacon and maple syrup, to a sugar cured prawn omelette with smoked chilli sambal - alongside some more classic options.

I've actually been for weekend brunches a few times before: the eggs benedict with yuzu hollandaise is a winner - beautifully crispy strips of bacon and perfectly poached eggs balanced atop doughy English muffins, smothered in a rich-yet-citrusy hollandaise sauce; the use of yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit) marking an interesting departure from the norm. And in less hungry times I've opted for a simple but delicious breakfast of toasted sourdough bread with preserves, or shared a gorgeously flakey almond croissant with a friend over a cup of fantastic coffee.

This time - while sorely tempted by the idea of ricotta and raspberry pancakes (with roast apricots and creme fraiche mmm) - I decided to try out the intriguing riff on runny egg and soldiers, which Modern Pantry has sexed up with the addition of marmite.

WOW. I wasn't sure if this would work, but it was incredible. Butter and marmite, melding together, had soaked into the toasted strips of sourdough bread; the tangy saltiness of the marmite partnering exquisitely with the oozing golden yolk at every dip...This is a flavour combination I will definitely be re-creating at home.

I've also stopped at Modern Pantry a couple of times for drinks. Once on a beautiful summer's day, when my cousin and I sat outside in the pretty patio area sharing a bottle of crisp white wine. Despite its proximity to Clerkenwell Road, the outdoor seating area - sitting in the cobbled environs of St John's Square - has a mellow vibe; and with a fortuitously south-facing position, it's a perfect spot for soaking up the sun.

And then again, last week: inside this time (damn you autumn), and - more sensibly - combined with some food. The dinner menu at The Modern Pantry is even more exotic than the breakfast one, bursting with unusual ingredients and innovative flavour combinations. It was hard to decide what to order in the face of so many exciting dishes, but after much deliberation we decided to share the grilled aubergine in the sesame, ginger and soy dressing and the black fig and mozarella salad with pomegranate roast red onion, broad beans and endive, followed by the cheese platter.

The aubergine dish was good, with a pleasant nuttiness from the sesame dressing and a distinctly Asian flavour, but it was the fig and mozarella salad that really stole the show: the combination of the tangy buffalo mozarella with the pomegranate molasses-roasted onion was beautiful - something else I'll definitely be recreating in my own kitchen.

The cheese board, already semi-devoured!

The cheese board boasted a good selection of cheeses, served alongside tasty flower-shaped crackers and a delicious chutney replete with caramelised onions and plump raisins: an excellent accompaniment to the carafe of red wine we were sharing.

I'm sure I'll return to The Modern Pantry soon - there's so many dishes I still haven't tried, and for a relaxed weekend brunch (or a weekday breakfast if you're lucky), it really is hard to beat.

Modern Pantry on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Vietnamese (ish) sea bass

I've eaten a lot of good seafood since moving to London - most recently at the Morito Seafood Festival - but my two most memorable seafood meals both took place on a trip to Vietnam a couple of years ago.

The first was in Mui Ne, a pretty coastal town half way between Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang. If you walk along the bay - past the endless stretch of hotels that line the shore - you come to a little fisherman's village, where you can find some of the best food in town at obscenely low prices.

Freshly caught seafood sizzles on make-shift barbecues, filling the air with the mouth-watering scent of charred fish, while locals dish up steaming platters of seafood noodles and chunky fish stews. The calamari I ate there - piping hot morsels of golden-fried squid that literally melted in my mouth - was one of the highlights of my trip, and none I've eaten since has ever lived up to to their memory.

Seating comes in the form of child-size red plastic tables and chairs (actually identical to the ones I played at as a child), and while this can pose a bit of challenge for the taller diner - it was hilarious watching my 6 foot 3 boyfriend squeezing in, knees almost touching his chin - I think it adds to the overall experience...!

 The other meal was in Halong Bay (of Top Gear Special fame), on one of the many floating restaurants that line the shore. I'm pretty sure it gave us food poisoning - or at least made the food poisoning we already had worse - but it was definitely worth it*. A huge, sizzling fish, freshly caught - skin golden and crisp; flesh soft, white and flaking - was fried up with an incredible medley of lemongrass, ginger, chillies and garlic; intense, fragrant flavours which had us picking the bones and scraping the plate clean.

Recently, I decided to attempt to recreate this (hopefully sans food poisoning) at home...


Sea bass (gutted and descaled as I waited by the lovely lady at the Waitrose fish counter)
Fresh ginger root, finely sliced
Red chillies, sliced
Lime, quartered
Kaffir lime leaves
3 lemongrass stalks, finely sliced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
Toasted sesame oil
Soy sauce
Coriander (to serve)

Tear off a large piece of silver foil and spread it onto a metal roasting tray. Grease the foil with the toasted sesame oil and place the two fish fillets onto the centre of the tray.

Cut slits into the side of the fish. Stuff the cavity of the fish with the quartered limes, ginger, lemongrass, chilli, and garlic, and push any leftover lemongrass and ginger into the side vents.

Douse the fish with mirin and soy sauce for extra flavour, and place into a pre-heated oven at 200C for about 30 minutes. Top with chopped coriander and serve piping hot.

While this meal was pretty good, it didn't even come close to the original. My decision to bake rather than fry the fish - motivated by a desire to minimise washing up and general stinkiness - could be to blame, as could the scarcity of 'fresh-from-the-sea' fish in central London. Or maybe things just taste better when you're floating in the turquoise waters of a tropical bay. Next time I make this I'll try frying it over a high heat and see if that helps!

*When you've had food poisoning on and off for four or five weeks, it becomes a bit of a non-event!

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Ottolenghi - Part 1

Ottolenghi is hands-down one of my favourite places to eat in London. This deli-cum-cafĂ©/restaurant was amongst the first attractions I sought out when I moved here: having poured over the incredible photgraphs in my boyfriend’s mother’s Ottolenghi cook-book, I was excited to find that the flagship restaurant lay a mere 10 minutes’ stroll from my flat.

I adore cookery books, and of the many publications lining her kitchen shelf, this one caught my eye the most: bursting with a wealth of jewel-coloured salads (emerald greens, ruby pomegranate seeds, the rich gold of sweet potatoes), this was food photography at it best: enticing, tempting, and begging to be sampled. And the ingredients – za’atar, ras el hanout, zumac, pomegranate molasses, preserved lemons – none of which I could easily find as a student in Durham - intrigued me even more

Since my first visit to Ottolenghi, almost 2 year’s ago now, I have returned more times than I can count – brunches, lunches, girly catch ups over coffee and cake in the afternoon...I'm sadly lacking in photographic evidence of the majority of these meals, but I will attempt to write about a few of my favourite dishes below.


Bread board

In the mornings, fire-engine red toasters line Ottolenghi’s stylish white tables – a DIY approach to breakfast which makes it all the more enjoyable (as well as resolving the age-old issue of cold, soggy toast). While Ottolenghi offers a number of hot brunch meals, the breadboard is excellent value - at only £5.50, it is easily large enough to feed three.

The sourdough bread, once toasted, goes perfectly with the accompanying array of spreads: a dark chocolaty ‘nutella’, sexed up with the addition of whole hazelnuts; glossy raspberry jam (seedy, sweet and runny); and an incredible banana preserve, whose smoky caramel depths and sticky sweetness make it the star of the show.

I always ask to switch the grape focaccia (too savoury to be comfortably paired with the fantastic spreads, with its strong flavours of olive oil and rosemary) for one of their delicious brioches – glossy golden brown domes hiding light, buttery interiors, milky and sweet. [Note: despite having done this at least 6 times at the time of writing, the waiters are always hesitant to make this switch…however, a hunk of gorgeous brioche, slathered in raspberry jam, makes it worth any hassle]

For the pastry option you can choose between croissant (almond or plain) or pain au chocolat. I would recommend the latter – I’ve tried the almond croissant and found the filling to be somewhat too heavy, while the pain au chocolate (flaky, crisp outer shell, soft innards, and a dark chocolate centre) hits the spot…but each to his own!


This is by no means an exhaustive sample of the cakes I’ve tried at Ottolenghis – if I include the stolen forkfuls I've speared from the plates of my dining partners, I think I've tasted at least three quarters of the impressive array of cakes which grace the window display. But here are a few of the most memorable:


Crowned with a blob of smooth, tangy marscapone and a colourful cluster of berries (which seem to change with every visit), the financiers are my first choice when it comes to dessert at Ottolenghis. The texture of these cakes – made with ground almonds and egg whites – is unspeakably delicious: a dense chewy crust surrounds an incredibly moist golden centre; sweet and buttery, with a hint of almond nuttiness, and, baked into the middle, a hidden treasure of the same fruits that decorate the top.

Orange and almond cake with dark chocolate ganache

I have yet to meet someone who hasn't been blown away by this gorgeous orange and almond concoction. As handsome as it is delicious - sunshine yellow cake topped with a thick smear of glossy chocolate and a sprinkling of flaked almonds - this is a proper 'grown-up' dessert: the fragrant notes of orange and almond pairing perfectly with the intensely dark chocolate ganache.

Apple cake with maple icing

This cake - served in very generous slices - is the perfect comfort food on a damp autumnal day (or any time really!). The cake is good; moist and (predictably) apple-y, but the icing is the crowning glory (both literally and figuratively) of this decadent treat. The maple syrup – an unusual addition to a cream cheese icing – is sweet and smoky, combining with the cake below to produce an overall flavour pleasantly reminiscent of toffee apples.

And for a light, refreshing accompaniment to a decadent treat, go for the fresh mint tea – a glass cup filled to the brim with mint leaves steeped in hot water, this is the perfect palate cleanser between forkfuls of lucsiously rich cake.

Review of Ottolenghi to be continued - with more pictures, I promise (and maybe even some salads!) - after my next visit.

Ottolenghi on UrbanspoonSquare Meal

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Morito Seafood Festival: Review for Bookatable

I had the pleasure of attending a sherry and seafood tasting event at Morito last week, in celebration of their first annual Seafood Festival. I wrote about it for Bookatable here:
It's running until the end of this week, and if you like seafood, I'd definitely recommend getting yourself over there to try some of the tasty tapas they have on offer!

Monday, 17 September 2012

A tasty brunch at Wahaca

Last weekend my boyfriend and I wandered over to Charlotte Street for Sunday brunch. We'd planned to try out Lantana - the brunch menu there looks absolutely amazing - but unfortunately were met with a queue spilling out onto the street and "at least 30 minutes wait" for a table.

Hungry (and in my boyfriend's case, extremely hungover), we decided - on this occasion at least - to try out one of the area's many other eateries instead. Wahaca - the Mexican eatery everyone has been talking about - caught our eye with it's brightly coloured facade (and availability of tables!), so we headed inside.

Free tables :-)

While Wahaca does offer a breakfast menu (featuring Mexican favourites such as huevos rancheras and breakfast burritos), we were drawn to the Street Food section of the main menu, which boasts a tempting assortment of tacos, tostadas, taquitos, and quesadillas.

Following the instructions of our waitress (who recommended ordering 2-3 dishes per person), we opted for the pork pibil tacos, the tender marinated chicken tacquitos, and the black bean & cheese and chiptole chicken quesadillas from the Street Food menu, along with crispy squid (the special of the day) and a side dish of fried sweet potatoes.

Soft shell tacos, topped with a smear of delicious sauce, a mountain of tender shredded pork, and a red onion and fresh herb garnish, went down a treat! Fresh and light, this was an unexpectedly successful rendition of a dish which can so often be greasy or overly spiced.

The black bean and cheese quesadilla - redolent with both cheddar and mozarella - was an oozey delight. We both agreed that the pocket of crisp toasted tortilla, filled with flavourful refried bean paste and an abundance of melting cheese, was better than anything we had on our trip to Mexico earlier this year!

Chicken chipotle quesadilla was equally good: while lacking the glorious gooeyness of its cheesey counterpart, the tangy chipotle sauce and bounty of tender shredded chicken served as apt compensation.

Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo of the marinated chicken tostada, but you'll have to take my word for it: this was a very good-looking dish. Two deep fried tortilla cyclinders, housing a tasty filling of tender chicken breast, were topped with shredded lettuce, tasty tomato salsa, and a sprinkling of crumbled cheese. Delicious.

Given the absence of decent Mexican restaurants in London, Wahaca is a revelation. And, at only £26 for two (both of us stuffed to the brim by the end of the meal), it was stunningly good value too.
Square MealWahaca Charlotte Street on Urbanspoon

Friday, 14 September 2012

Baker and Spice

I'd heard good things of Baker and Spice, so when my mother and I happened to pass by the Belgravia branch recently, we decided to stop for coffee and cake and try it out.

There was a tantalising array of pastries and other sweet treats on display, as well as some appealing savoury options. While tempted by the very comprehensive breakfast menu*, we decided - after much consideration - to split a slice of blueberry cheesecake and a square of apple tart.

The blueberry cheesecake was a bit too rich; the texture overly moist and creamy for my liking. I prefer a baked cheesecake to have a bit more bite, to be slightly crumbly, even. However, the flavour was good and an abundance of plump, juicy blueberries meant that it was still pretty tasty!

The apple tart was as good as it looked. Tasty caramelised apples achieved a perfect sweet-tart balance, and the crisp pastry base was deliciously flaky. The only thing missing was a big dollop of whipped cream...

The coffees were also very good (to be fair - where aren't they good, in London these days?), with an impressive depth of flavour, and just the right amount of smooth, creamy foam on my cappuccino.

The location of this branch was lovely. With tables spilling outside onto the quiet, pretty street, it was a great spot for soaking up the sunshine and watching the world go by.

Baker & Spice on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Smiths of Smithfield

I love Smithfield Market: the oldest and largest wholesale meat market in the UK, it transforms each morning into an unlikely meeting of besuited office workers and white-coated butchers; coffee-clutching bankers side-stepping huge wheelie bins of animal carcasses on their way to the City.

The surrounding area is home to a number of fantastic restaurants, many of which source their meat from the nearby market. One such place is Smiths of Smithfield (S.O.S.) - split into four floors, each with a different menu and ambience, the overarching focus is on good quality meat used in solid, well-thought-out dishes.

I recently ended up visiting twice in one week - once with a group of work friends, for a boozy meal in the Second Floor "Dining Room", and once for a relaxed weekend brunch on the Ground Floor.


The evening meal in the Dining Room - an atmospheric, dimly-lit, loft-style eating space - was extremely good. The twelve of us were seated on a square table, three on each side; a seating arrangement we found far preferable to being spread out over a long rectangular table. The food was excellent, and pretty good value too: drinks and mains, plus a couple of shared puddings and a few coffees came to £34 a head - not bad at all, given the quantity of wine imbubed.

I went for the rib steak, which was absolutely delicious: meltingly tender, it boasted a powerful chargrilled flavour (the scent drifting up from my plate as I waited impatiently for everyone else's dishes to arrive...). I swapped the chips for seasonal vegetables: consisting of a large portion of courgette and squash cooked in a light garlic butter, these were surprisingly tasty for the 'healthy' option.

Other members of our group opted for impressive looking "Smiths" burgers (chunky patties topped with melted cheese and tomato relish and draped with a strip of bacon, served alongside a bucket of tasty fat chips); a large portion of roast lamb (the special of the day, for two to share - two generous cuts of meat sitting astride a pile of roast potatoes, with a jug of mint sauce on the side); tender salt beef with horseradish and spring onion mash; a colourful risotto primavera; and slow-roast pork belly with salsa verde.

Only two of my colleagues ordered dessert, but I managed to sneak a spoonful of both! Sticky toffee pudding, topped with a creamy scoop of vanilla ice-cream and drenched in a gorgeously rich caramel sauce, was exceptionally good. White chocolate and berry cheesecake (which may have been a special of the day, as I couldn't see it on the menu) was also delicious: firm, crumbly baked cheesecake studded with sweet berries and drizzled with a swirl of fruit coulis.


Brunch, a few days later, came after a heavy night out (in Infernos no less - we like to keep it classy!). By day, the ground floor bar area doubles as a casual dining room. Light and airy, with warehouse chic decor (all exposed beams and chrome air vents) and big communal tables, the atmosphere is laid-back and family-friendly, with a relaxed buzz of chatter forming the back-drop to your meal.

Along with another of my friends, I ordered a Full English. It wasn't perfect: the toast (topped with scrambled eggs) was soggy, and the bacon - neither smoked nor browned - was a bit rubbery and quite 'pork-y' (if that makes any sense). However, I have very high standards: to be fair to the chef, fried mushrooms, eggs and sausage were all perfectly fine, roast tomato was good, bubble and squeak (a tasty patty of mash and greens) was very palatable, and my friend liked the black pudding (which I don't eat, so am unable to comment upon).

My other friends went for a bacon sandwich (more of that rubbery bacon, although he didn't complain) and a chicken burger, which looked pretty good - although not quite as tasty as the burgers enjoyed by my colleagues a few nights before.

Our brunch ended up lasting somewhat longer than we'd expected, with an interminable downpour of torrential rain causing us to be trapped there for over four hours, but we were happy to linger.

The waitresses, while friendly enough, were a bit distracted. It was incredibly hard to get their attention, and even when we did manage to catch their eye, they kept rushing off mid-way through our order (which became pretty comical the 3rd or 4th time it happened!)

Despite the avoidant waitresses, we did manage to order in a few rounds of drinks - the usual teas, coffees and juices, and, later on (as the rain outside continued...) some more interesting beverages. I ordered a coke float (this wasn't on the menu, but they obliged me by dropping a scoop of ice-cream into my drink), while two of my friends upped the stakes by opting for alcoholic milkshakes.

They both went for the same drink - the Brandy Alexander, a concoction consisting of brandy, frangelico, vanilla and chocolate ice - which was delicious, although very rich! (I might have to go back to try the Apple Crumble - a delectable blend of apple schnapps, goldschlager, vanilla ice, and crumbled biscuit).


The good food and laid-back atmopshere - not to mention the handy location mid-way between my flat and my office - means that I'll definitely be heading back to Smiths of Smithfield. I'd love to check out the swanky Top Floor menu, or go for drinks in the Wine Rooms.

Also, while I didn't discover this until after we had left (my friend thought I would be too obvious and didn't tell me!), it turns out James McAvoy (of X-Men fame) was sitting further down our table as we ate our brunch!!! So, as well as being a great place to go for a hearty meal, Smiths could be a good spot for some celebrity spotting!

Smiths of Smithfield on Urbanspoon Square Meal