Sunday, 26 May 2013

NYC - Shake Shack, BBQ, and an epic brunch at Le Barricou, Brooklyn

The reservoir in Central Park

It hadn't been long since my last visit to the States, road-tripping down the coast of California, but a couple of weeks ago I was back again, this time in NYC. I was there on a business trip, but managed to squeeze in some socialising, sight-seeing and eating too, and had a great time!

 Sunrise view from my office window (jet lag + calls with the UK = early start!)

One of the most memorable meals of my trip was lunch at Shake Shack, New York's answer to In N' Out. The question of which chain makes the better burger is hotly debated in the US, but having now had the privilege of sampling both, I have to present Shake Shack with first place.

Crinkle cut fries - add cheese sauce for the ultimate tastiness

With its squishy brioche bun, juicy burger, crispy bacon, and a squirt of tasty shack sauce, my Shack Burger (plus bacon) was absolutely exquisite. The chips - fat, golden and crinkle-cut, with a side of squeezy American cheese for dipping - were also excellent (far better than In N' Out's dried out skinny fries) and (predictably) the shakes weren't bad either!

Early May is an incredible time to visit NY - the cherry blossoms were in full bloom all through Central Park, something I took advantage of with a couple of stunning runs (and a less energetic afternoon spent lazing on the grass with friends).

On my last day I nipped over to Brooklyn to meet a friend for brunch in Williamsburg, at a lovely French restaurant called Le Barricou. After pondering the fantastic selection of omelettes (the apple, bacon and gruyere frittata really caught my eye!) and other great brunch dishes (eggs Benedict, croque madame, goats cheese and spinach croissant) we decided to share a spinach and mushroom omelette, followed by some truly epic pancakes.

B'Burg :)

Tasty spinach, mushroom, and gruyere cheese omelette

The pancakes required a 25 minute wait, so we started with the savoury course. Our omelette was excellent - slighty runny (as a good omelette should be), and crammed with spinach, gruyere, and an assortment of mushrooms. The pancakes were even more impressive: two huge fluffy delights, served with berries, maple syrup and a delicious strawberry-butter concoction. While they bore almost no resemblance to the slender crepes one would traditionally expect in a French restaurant - being closer in fact in texture and size to a small victoria sponge cake! - they were delicious, and definitely one of the more memorable brunch dishes I've had.

It was a real struggle to finish, even after splitting the lighter omelette option (I seriously don't know how anyone could ever hope to finish a plate on their own!), but an hour later, satisfied and sticky with maple syrup we did succeed in polishing off the final bites (although I couldn't eat for the rest of the day!)

I'll be going back to NY fairly regularly with work, and with the amazing bars (The Lambs Club near Times Square, Hotel Chantelle in Lower East Side), restaurants (Blue Smoke BBQ, Le Barricou, and of course Shake Shack!) and general fun-times which made my visit so special this time round, I can't wait to get to know the city a little better.

Shake Shack on Urbanspoon Le Barricou on Urbanspoon Shake Shack on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Gastropub deliciousness at The Princess of Wales, Primrose Hill

Primrose Hill is one of my favourite parts of London. In addition to the beautiful houses, fashionable boutiques and expansive green spaces for which it is famed, it also boasts a number of excellent gastropubs - perfect for a hearty meal after a stroll through the park or along nearby Regent's Canal.
So when my boyfriend and I were invited to check out The Princess of Wales last week, we jumped at the chance.

The weather was terrible, so unfortunately our plans for an evening wander through the park were scrapped in favour of a soggy sprint from Chalk Farm tube station, and by the time we arrived, we were cold, wet, and in need of some cheering up. Luckily our tasty dinner (and a few drinks!) did the job.

With a lovely menu of gastropub classics - from bar snacks, small plates and salads, to hearty mains and sharing platters - The Princess of Wales has something for every occasion, whether you're in the mood for something to nibble on over drinks, or looking for a slap-up meal.

After pondering the selection of starters - which included such treats as duck or smoked mackerel pate on toast, Welsh rarebit with crispy bacon, and crab cakes with apple and cucumber pickle - we decided to share the  squid with chilli salt and garlic mayo. This was a great start to the meal - chunks of tender squid in a crispy coating (with a gentle kick of sweet chilli), served with plenty of delicious mayonnaise and a tangle of rocket leaves.

For the main course, I went for the half roast chicken with summer coleslaw, chips and gravy. A delicious take on this pub classic, the summer coleslaw - sweet and zesty, and packed with freshly grated carrot - and the lemon thyme garlic butter took it to the next level. The gravy was excellent - thick and rich, it was the perfect accompaniment to the tasty shoe-string fries - while the chicken itself was cooked to perfection: crisp golden skin, tender, flavourful meat, and spot-on seasoning.

My boyfriend ordered the Princess Burger, which was also very impressive (in fact, he claimed it was the best pub burger he has had!). The fat beef patty was topped with roasted garlic mushroom, blue cheese and bacon, oozing juices from inside its shiny brioche bun. The combination of toppings were incredible together and I had more than a little food envy!

How fat is that patty? Mmmmm

If you're looking for something a bit healthier (although when the burgers are this good, you might want to treat yourself instead!) the salads here also looked great - summery pairings of mozzarella with courgette and broad beans or grilled chicken with avocado and home-made salad cream - while dishes such as the fillet of salmon with roasted root vegetables and seasonal greens provide further alternatives for anyone whose watching their waistline.

I kicked off dessert with a bellini, before asking for a second spoon with which to attack my boyfriend's chocolate and peanut butter brownie. Ordered on the special recommendation of our waitress, this nutty, chocolatey treat was served warm with a scoop of exquisite salted caramel ice cream - simply amazing!

Square Meal

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

A family celebration at Al Boccon di'vino in Richmond

A few weeks ago my family got together at Al Boccon di'vino in Richmond to celebrate my step-grandmother's 80th birthday. A cosy, traditionally-decorated Italian bistro, Al Boccon di'vino is well-known for its decadent multi-course Venetian feasts, and our 20-strong party spent the best part of an afternoon gorging on a never-ending stream of delicious Italian dishes.

There was some disagreement surrounding the number of courses (somewhere between 10 and 13 in total!) but it was unarguably some of the best Italian food I've had in London. There's no menu - instead the chef decides what to serve based on the seasonal produce he has to hand and his own inspiration. Everything is brought over as it's ready, and with plenty of shared dishes (and second helpings if you want them) it feels more like a dinner party than a formal restaurant meal.

We sat down to baskets of crusty Italian bread and plates of paper-thin Parma ham, and whet our appetites on miniature crostini smeared with pungent Parmesan spread while we waited for everyone to arrive. Once we were all seated, the courses began to appear: first up, a delicious minestrone soup; flavourful broth crammed with an assortment of colourful al dente vegetables.

Next came a delicate salad - a fresh, summery pairing of asparagus, melon, pomegranate seeds and sweet Sicilian olives - followed by a platter of mixed antipasti (aubergine parmiagana, potato fritters, braised fennel, and two types of quiche-like egg and vegetable tarts).

As we worked our way through the assortment of savoury treats the waitresses came round with slices of fried mozzarella (seared golden brown and oozing seductively onto our plates), before serving up a variety of tasty seafood dishes - king prawns in an flavourful tomato sauce; steamed razorclams; clams cooked with white wine and fresh herbs; and a beautiful scallop which - cooked in its shell and drenched in a rich garlic butter - was one of the highlights of my meal.

Already full to bursting, we moved on to the pasta courses: freshly made egg tagliatelle, served with a rich cream sauce and sprinkled with a liberal helping of salty Parmesan, followed by cheese-stuffed ravioli in a tomato passata. Both were fantastic.

Next - and with some fanfare - the waitresses brought out a huge haunch of lamb, accompanied with heaping platters of rosemary roasted potatoes. Most of us didn't have much room at this point, but my teenage brothers and cousins still got stuck in!

The meal finished on a lighter note, with fresh berries and creamy vanilla panna cotta, followed by coffees and dessert wine - a lovely close to a very memorable meal.

At only £60 each (including wine), Al Boccon di'vino represents incredibly good value given the quality of the food and the experience - you would barely get three courses at a middling restaurant for the same price in Central London - and is the perfect place for celebrations. I'm already trying to think of an excuse to go back!

Happy 80th Pat!

Al Boccon di'vino on Urbanspoon Square Meal

Thursday, 9 May 2013

California - San Francisco to Laguna (via In-N-Out Burger!)

Over Easter my boyfriend and I spent 10 days in California, driving down the coast from San Francisco all the way to Laguna beach. It was a great trip (stunning beaches, beautiful views, breath-taking coastal roads...) and - in addition to that amazing breakfast - we had a good few notable culinary experiences along the way.

We started our journey in San Francisco, which has to be one of the hilliest cities I've ever been too. Despite the inclines, it was pretty pleasant to walk around, with plenty of pretty tree-lined streets, and beautiful stretches of waterfront. And while the hills may have made things a bit more challenging, the views from the top were definitely worth the climb.

After a long day of walking (and suffering from some serious jet lag to boot) we decided to treat ourselves to an In-N-Out burger. I'd heard a lot about these burgers, which are something of a West Coast specialty, and  was pretty impressed.

My boyfriend and I both ordered a double burger. These were simply enormous, with two juicy beef patties, a couple of half-melted slices of oozy American cheese, and plenty of crisp salad, all sandwiched in a soft brioche bun and served with a side helping of delicious thousand island sauce.

The chips were a bit disappointing (somewhat dry and nothing special) but the burger itself was great, and we treated ourselves again towards the end of our trip. A top tip from those in the know is to order your burger and fries "animal style" - an off-menu code-word which results in your food being generously smothered in a healthy (ha!) mixture of thousand island sauce, fried onions, and cheese. Heaven...

From San Francisco we hired a convertible and headed down the coast. Monterey was our first stop, and from there we set off on the epic journey down Big Sur and along the famous 17-mile Drive - a narrow winding road with beautiful coastal views.

Our next stop was Santa Barabara, which was pretty, but not very pedestrian friendly (with the exception of San Francisco, Californian cities don't really seem that suited for a good old-fashioned English-style stroll!). And despite greatly enjoying the enormous Tex-Mex meal I had here (steak, chicken and king prawns served on a sizzling hot plate with onions and peppers and an obscene amount of melted cheese) the swiftly ensuing bout of food poisoning put a bit of a dampener on things!

Journeying on, we arrived in Los Angeles, where we foolishly ditched the car at our hotel and once again attempted to walk around. Two and a half hours of fast-paced walking didn't get us very far - although we did make it to Rodeo Drive, and had a nice wander through Beverley Hills. I found it hilarious how every house was designed to be completely unique from the ones next to it - Roman-style villas rubbing shoulders with Tudor manor-houses, Alpine chalets, and sweet country cottages...

The next morning we drove out to Santa Monica, which was lovely (boasting a great farmer's market and a beautiful stretch of beach) before hitting the road again and making our way South to Laguna.

Dana Point, near Laguna

There we met with friends and spent a few days relaxing; whale watching, shooting pool, and playing some very competitive volleyball. One of my favourite meals of the holiday was a surprisingly tasty quesadilla -  made with traffic cone orange American cheese - from the very basic ship's kitchen on our whale-watching trip.

This was an incredible trip - one I've wanted to do for years - and while I was sad we didn't have time to visit San Diego or Las Vegas, hopefully we'll make it back there some day!

  In-N-Out Burger on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Now Street Food: Ping Pong, but quicker

I recently changed jobs, and my new office - near Liverpool Street station - has placed me in walking distance of a plethora of new lunch spots.

I've always been a fan of Ping Pong, but mealtimes there have tended to overrun - not ideal for a weekday lunch. So I was pleased to discover Now, the new "fast food" addition to the Ping Pong family, just around the corner.

Chive and prawn, seafood, and har gau dumplings

With the same focus on good quality dim sum and tasty Asian dishes (rice and noodle bowls, hearty soups, and even a Chinese burger), Now is like Ping Pong, but quicker!

I ordered the seafood dim sum and a sticky seafood rice roll to go, for a healthy but satisfying lunch. The dim sum was very good - perfectly steamed, with a delicate flavour and no hint of sogginess - while the rice roll, pleasantly glutinous in its banana leaf wrapper, was flavoursome and filling. I'll be heading back soon to check out the rest of the menu!

   NOW Streetfood on Urbanspoon Square Meal