Around the world (a greedy few weeks)

A combination of a gland infection, my stag do (and the subsequent mild alcohol-induced brain damage) coupled with some rather mixed reviews from friends as to the point of my blog have been the prime causes of my recent hiatus.  Fear not dear reader – I am now back in full health and have planned a quiet week in order to actually get some cooking and blogging done.

Despite the various maladies that I have been suffering from of late, I have as usual managed to squeeze in some very good eating and the last few weeks have had a particularly international flavour with Thai, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese and Brazilian on the menu.  I won’t describe them all but here are the highlights:

As well as restaurants I have enjoyed some utterly fantastic home entertaining.  I adore going to friend’s for supper or having dinner parties at home and they are always fun occasions however a recent Mexican feast particularly stands out.  We were served delicious Sopa de Lima which was absolutely bursting with flavour, followed by the most amazing chicken mole which instantly transported me back to our wonderful holiday and first time we tried this unique sauce in Puebla.  It has all left me desperately hankering to go back to Mexico – I could just eat all day there!

All of these delights were preceded by the most awesome home made guacamole (I used to think I made the best but I have been beaten!) with absolutely perfect balance of creamy avocado and piquant chilli. This was served with a selection of jalapenos and pickles and all washed down with amazing tequila.  Typical Brit that I am, I innocently enquired as to the whereabouts of the lime and salt (the traditional accompaniments I am sure you will agree) when I was presented with a rather large measure!  I didn’t realise Tequila even could be sipped but this stuff was superb (in fact a bit too good – we got through quite a lot!). We also enjoyed pulled pork with pickled onion (not the English type) and red rice.  Such a memorable evening – my only concern about the whole thing is how on earth I am ever going to be able to recreate a feast of such epic proportions when we return the hosting favour!

The Feast!

Other recent treats included a banquet for two at the Royal China on Fulham Road.  This was an extra special treat as the fiancés dislike of Chinese is directly proportional to my passion for it. As I had been ill and he is so wonderful he was desperate to take me for a nice treat to cheer me up even if that meant his least favourite food.  My virus did not seem to have any effect on my appetite (sadly as the belly continues to expand at an alarming rate – and before you ask I am not pregnant – I checked!!) and I ordered so much food that the waitress told us with some alarm that she thought we had chosen enough after!  So much food arrived on the table that the poor non-Chinese food liking fiance’s eyes bulged in horror.  Prawns in garlic and chilli salt, smoked chicken, pork ribs, seaweed and ‘hairy prawns’ followed by Peking duck and pancakes etc, followed by vegetables in garlic sauce, special fried rice, chicken in black bean sauce and Kung Po prawns, Followed by (yes this is just for two people, well one and a half really!!) fruit and a delicious coconut jelly style sweet.

Just the warm up - course one of four

I don’t know why I almost don’t want to admit this as I feel I am somehow following the hype but it has to be said that Royal China really does do the best Chinese around.  Rest assured you that the feast (and doggy bag I took home when we finally ran out of steam) was a great tonic and the next day I was fully recovered from my horrid lurgy.

The following night this stomach stretching excess was repeated all over again, this time at Prezo, a Brazilian style meat restaurant.  The premise is that you are given a little card, red on one side, green on the other.  As long as your card is displaying the green light, a constant stream of roasted meats are served cut from a sort of sword they have been roasting on by the passing ‘Passadores’.  I made the fatal error of arriving hungry and piling my plate so full at the salad bar with rice, fried plantain and all sorts of other treats that I did not leave sufficient room for the meat.  Luckily this is the kind of restaurant you go to for an all night scoffing session rather than a quick bite and I got a second wind a little later on.  The absolute highlight for me was the beef ribs – cooked to perfection with a lovely crisp outside and melt in the mouth meat. 

The meat roaster!

And finally we travel to India (by way of Kentish Town) where we supped upon an absolutely delightful Goan fish curry – the flavours were perfectly balanced- it was spicy without being overpowering despite the fact our hosts admitted that 16 green chillies had gone into the mix. I will ask for the recipe and post it shortly. 

I hope that whistle-stop tour around the world has tickled your taste buds!  Until next time….

Bacaro bacaro

 

Famed for my love of the mighty Negroni, I was recommended to try out the ‘Campari Bar’ which has opened beneath Polpo restaurant on Beak St. On Tuesday night at just after 6 (you need to get there early for any chance of a seat) we wandered through the main restaurant  and down the stairs into a tiny, very dingy room with red lighting and candles.  The room contains a small bar area as well as about four small tables, upon each of which you find your ‘instructions’.

The bar is decorated with classic Campari campaign posters

These (essential in our disorientation) explain that the bar is based on a traditional Venetian   where the form is to pick a wine or spritz (or cocktail!) and point at a couple of the snack or canapé style foods in a small glass cabinet at the bar.  NB – The snacks are not optional as it forms part of the license that you have some food with your Campari!

We ordered a Negroni and an Americano – they were mixed perfectly but I did feel slightly hard done by as these were served in thimble sized glasses which would hardly have satisfied a Borrower!  In the spirit of ‘when in Venice’, our drinks were accompanied by one of all six ‘snacks’ on offer.   Each served on a cocktail stick, these included a small inch-wide square of filled bread which I can only describe as a rather ordinary tuna sandwich, a similar sandwich with salmon, fennel and anchovy on a stick, ham and cheese with an olive, artichoke heart and finally two king prawns in a garlicky sauce.

In addition to Campari the other ‘hero’ spirit behind the bar was Apperol – the lovely barman informed me that  Apperol is the aperitif of choice for Venetians, usually served as a spritz.  He gave me a small taste and it was delicious – very similar to Campari but slightly sweeter and lighter.  Apparently it is not widely sold in the UK but I will be hunting a bottle down as my drink du choix this summer.

My new tipple

We sipped our miniature cocktails and devoured our miniature bar snacks in about 4 minutes and thoroughly enjoyed them.  In spite of this, I don’t think we will be rushing back to the Campari bar, it is almost uncomfortably dark and our two thimbles of cocktail and microscopic sandwiches came to a whopping £21; nevertheless,  as a one-off experience it was good fun and well worth a visit.

Cheltenham’s champion Champignon

A couple of weeks ago we went on a pilgrimage to the fiancé’s homeland – in other words we drove to Cheltenham.  In addition to practising my technique with my newly acquired driving license, (I missed a few ‘give way’ lines and  was accused of trying to kill his parents!), the purpose of the trip was to take my Aunt for dinner at Cheltenham’s Le Champignon Sauvage as a special thank you. The fiancé has been telling me about this place for years so we decided to go and try it out.  I had been geeking up on the history etc in anticipation of the great feast and found that Le Champignon was very highly regarded (it has two Michelin stars) but did not realise quite what a treat I was in for.  Every mouthful was as scrumptious as you would imagine, however it was the combination of ingredients, flavours and textures which was so fascinating and created a restaurant experience unlike any other.

Heston Blumenthal describes the chef (David Everitt-Matthias) as ‘A gastronomic visionary whose imagination is expressed so beautifully through his cooking’.  With this quote ringing in my ears we headed to a quiet street in the Montpelier area of Cheltenham, where I knew we would not be disappointed.

The chef and his creations (Image from staffcanteen.com)

Despite being the kind of person who is very sure of my opinions (You may have noticed!), I think it would be inappropriate for me to comment on, commend, or worse, criticise a gastronomic experience of this calibre, created by the chef patron who has been doing what he does so well for almost as long as I have been alive.  I will therefor simply listwhat we had for your delectation.    I won’t pass comment on each course – you can confidently assume it was all amazing, delicious, mouth-watering etc without me endlessly reeling out descriptive platitudes!

We started with a selection of canapés including a goat’s cheese dip, sweet corn and bacon mini muffins and finally (I know I said I wouldn’t) the most amazing parmesan cream cubes rolled in powdered chorizo. This was followed by an amuse bouche of leek and potato soup with a truffle velouté (You know how I feel about truffles).

On to the starters – I was rather less bold than fiancé who opted for the frankly terrifying sounding combination of braised pig’s cheek served with crispy pig’s ear in a risotto of nettle and garden snails!  My choice of lobster tail in Thai broth with kohlrabi and sea cabbage ravioli came served in a beautiful stone bowl which really added to the appeal. 

The main course was superb (sorry!) the most amazing combination of textures and flavours where every bite was almost sweet – a really unique mix of chump of lamb on incredibly smoky aubergine puree with whole hazelnuts and a lemon cream.  Fiancé opted for venison with roasted golden beetroot and quince.  All this was served in the almost homely dining room – the restaurant is run by a husband and wife team and there is a wonderful cosy atmosphere that I think London restaurants would struggle to recreate.

A palate cleansing oat and mascarpone creation followed, and just as we were planning to go on to pudding,  our heads were turned by an eye popping cheeseboard that happened to be wheeled passed at just the right moment.  Resistance was futile – we tried five different cheeses ranging from Vacherin Mont D’or (the mildest!) to Lincolnshire Bomber and particularly pungent Roquefort, all served with superb rye infused crackers.

All of this indulgence was rounded off with pressed apple on a raisin brioche with salted caramel and almonds and as if that wasn’t enough, coffee and petit fours.  We had to be rolled home, especially as this feast had been accompanied by lots of good wine, but it was well worth it for such a wonderful evening in such a unique and special place.

Bombay blown away

On Tuesday night I went to a Bombay Sapphire blogger event – the fiancé tagged along as an extremely eager plus one (and the newly appointed booze / cocktail expert of the household).  After a rather lively taxi ride where our driver gave us his deeply impassioned opinion on the Libyan situation, in the loudest voice I have ever heard, we were certainly ready for a cocktail!

The event was hosted in the Bombay Sapphire rooms at Vinnopolis – located under the arches near Borough market, the setting was a veritable temple to the iconic blue-bottled gin.

Blue bottles

The evening started with a talk on the making of gin, distillation processes and botanicals,while we enjoyed a delicious combination of Bombay Sapphire, Martini Asti and fresh lemon juice.  We also got to sample each of the botanicals that go into the creation of this mighty blend.  The most interesting for me was the Cassia Bark which when chewed is sweet and incredibly cinnamony and strangely similar to Big Red chewing gum!

Then onto the master class – we were shown how to make classic cocktails including a Martini (apparently it should be stirred not shaken – James Bond take note), a Bramble, a classic Collins and the absolutely amazing Aviator (I am a full convert).

I won’t go into the details of how to make each one as I am sure they will be on the Bombay Sapphire website however the aforementioned Aviator is worth special attention.  Apparently this cocktail used to be on menus everywhere but fell out of fashion – I feel like we should all campaign to bring it back!  The barman mixed one part gin, one part Maraschino and one part lemon juice and strained into a martini glass with a cherry garnish – simple but superb!

Mixing up a storm!

This was followed by the chance to work with the mixologists to come up with our own concoction. Inspired by an amazing array of fruits, herbs and veg from the neighbouring Borough market everybody got creative(no doubt aided by the recently sampled cocktails).  My masterpiece was a classic martini with rosemary and a dash of honey – it was a triumph of a blend even if I do say so myself!  We then tried a pink grapefruit and gin ‘muddle’ and a variety of Negroni mixes (I concluded, after much experimentation) that my ultimate mix is 1 part gin, 1 part Campari, ½ a part Martini Rosso and ½ a part Maraschino – perfection!).  Needless to say we stumbled out feeling extremely merry!

The 'Cos Im'

As a seasoned attendee of PR events, although thrilled with the goody bag we received, I had sort of expected it – however even my hardened heart was melted when we got home and realised the bottles we had been kindly given, had been personalised with our names and CosILickMyPlate engraved on the sides – what a great touch – the pride of our ever expanding drinks cabinet!  Bombay Sapphire I salute you – thanks for a wonderful evening.

These are a few of my favourite things

Raindrops and roses and whiskers on kittens …. inspired this week, by a particularly good sandwich, I started thinking about all my favourite food- based things.  I think the subsequent  list (which is subject to constantly change depending on my mood) was a good way of creating a  ‘pen portrait’ of the author (me!) so that anyone reading can agree, empathise or even decide that I am clearly ghastly and choose never to read my ramblings again!

Once I got started, it was very hard to stop – the categories could be endless and I will enjoy adding to the list.  I also realised how alarmingly average most of my tastes are but feel that this only serves to reinforce the purpose of this blog, which was, and is, to be true to my tastes and not be swayed by anyone else’s opinions or pretentions. Please do post comments on any of your own favourites / wild disagreements with the list below:

Cuisine– Thai or French

 Restaurant – Le Gavroche (although i can only go about once a year when I have saved my pennies)

Local restaurant – Nayaab (New Kings Road)

Dish – very much depends on my mood but something with fish and pomme puree and a creamy or buttery sauce usually hits the spot.  I have also always loved salad de chevre chaud

Fish – Seabass

Meat – chicken

Vegetable – courgette

Ingredient – garlic

Fruit – Avacado

Herb – Impossible to say depends on the dish – top contenders are Coriander, basil and tarragon

Cocktail – Martini or Negroni

Spirit – Gin

Pub drink – Pint of lager (so manly!)

Crisps – Walkers Ready Salted

Pizza topping – green chilli and pineapple

Soft drink – Passion fruit juice

Sandwich – I usually don’t like Pret sandwiches but find myself addicted to their Nicoise sandwich and have to have it every day

Hot drink – Gingerbread Latte

Soup – Butternut squash and pear

Wine – Argentinian Malbec

Sunday Lunch – Roast chicken

Side dish – Tarka Dhaal

Breakfast – bacon sarnie with lashings of ketchup

Takeaway – Chinese – I always have the same thing – Salt and Chilli Prawns, Crispy Shredded Beef, Egg Fried Rice, Hoi Sin sauce and a chicken Chow mein chaser

Hangover Food – Fish & Chips with tonnes of salt and vinegar (NB must be eaten out of the paper and not on a plate!)

Pasta topping – Alio, Olio, Pepperoncini (Garlic, chilli and olive oil)

Condiment –Aromat / Mayonaise

Cake – scones with LOTS of cream and jam

Chef – Heston Blumenthal

Magazine – Delicious

Squash – Ribena

Ice cream – Ben and Jerry’s Rainforest crunch (no longer sold but it was amazing) Pralines and Cream is a substitute

Slushy – Blue raspberry (Rank i know but i adore them)

Chocolate bar – Cadbury’s Boost

Cheese – Vacherin Mont D’or

Afternoon tea – The Ritz

Bar snack – Scampi fries

P.B.B. – I declare war

With the exception of two greedy French dinners, this week I have been trying, in a most out of character attempt, to go some way towards mitigating the disaster which will henceforth be referred to as the PBB (Post Bruges Belly).  I have even gone to the extremes of asking for my morning gingerbread latte without CREAM!  I know – it truly beggars belief.  I do have a wedding dress to fit into in a matter of months so needs must!

Anyway in the spirit of this new cream free, health conscious me (don’t worry – it is just a temporary phase, and only when I remember!) I have recreated a delicious soup that I was introduced to at a superb dinner party last week.  The recipe we were served (and promptly demanded seconds of as it was so good) was from the Moro cookbook however in typical Cos I’m style, I have recreated it with some of my own twists and additions.  This soup could be served hot or cold and as the yoghurt replaces the traditional cream it can be enjoyed in great quantities with minimal guilt.

In a pan blend a paste from a little vegetable stock and a teaspoon of flour – then add around 1.5 litres of vegetable stock.  To the stock, add 2 diced potatoes, one onion and lots of garlic (up to you but I used 4 cloves) simmer this mixture for about ten minutes.  While it is cooking grate or very finely slice 4 courgettes, add to the simmering stock mix and cook for about 5 minutes. 

Then stir in a large packet of mint leaves (take the stalks off) and blend until it is almost smooth (I like to have a few chunks but you could blend until completely smooth).  Finally add Greek yoghurt and stir through.  I copied U.S. the lovely friend that introduced me to this recipe and served with some chilli flakes on the top.

Whilst I am on the health bandwagon I have come a cross a new staple – spelt.  I am constantly looking for inspiration when creating interesting side dishes – potato, rice pasta or cous cous although all versatile can become a bit depressingly repetitive.  This week I was recommended Sharpham Park Speltotto and was pleasantly surprised.  The pack is full of claims that really don’t matter to me such as organic or British or created by the founder of Mulberry!  All I care about is how it tastes, especially as I automatically doubt anything this healthy.  I tried the pumpkin and shallot risotto variety – just add cold water and boil then simmer for 15 minutes.  I have tried spelt before in salads etc but enjoyed it much more in this new risotto-style guise.

The initial taste was of tinned carrot rather than Pumpkin – it certainly tasted ‘British’, but once I got over that I started to really enjoy the dish – the texture is unusual  but appealing and it made me feel healthy just knowing it is good for me (full of iron, zinc, vitamins and minerals I am told). To satisfy the fiancés caveman- like carnivorous needs, I added chicken to his and he adored it (he would!).  If I am completely honest though I felt it only truly became delicious after adding a good dollop of butter, some parmesan shavings, black pepper and a dash of truffle oil!  Well I had to put my own stamp on it didn’t I – I am telling myself it is still healthy!

*In the spirit of honesty and the hope that publicly admitting to my complete lack of discipline will steel me in the future, I should add that since I originally wrote this post, I have had a rather calorie intensive five  course Michelin star meal and a full English this morning.  PBB – you may have won the battle but I WILL win the war!

Whoops!

The good, the bad and the zut alors!

Another week and another rant!  This time the at the mid spectrum restaurants of Covent Garden – I realise that from their point of view they know that they can always fill their covers with gullible tourists, but as someone who often finds myself meeting friends in that area for a simple mid-week dinner, I have just had enough of the mediocrity they serve up charging around £30 a head for the privilege.

I realise that I can’t tar every establishment with the same brush but I am constantly irritated by the lack of care that goes into the food and service in this part of town.  This week’s particular disappointment was Boulevard Brasserie.  I have been a couple of times before and found many of the dishes very acceptable if not truly authentic.  They serve French bistro food and have a good reasonably priced wine list so I recommended it to some friends and we all went on Tuesday.

Boulevard Brasserie - Covent Garden

Perhaps at this point it is important to highlight that to Boulevard Brasserie’s detriment; I had only a few days previously been to another French restaurant called ‘La Buvette’ in Richmond.  Some may consider it to be unfair to compare the two but they are both bistro style restaurants and  surprisingly when you consider the difference in quality, service and ambience, extremely similarly priced.  I think therefore the comparison merely serves to reinforce my point about how sloppy and lacklustre many of what I would describe as ‘mid range’ eateries in Covent Garden have become.

To continue the theme of fair comparison, I completely by chance ordered very similar dishes in each, starting with rustic fish soup. I adore Rouille – I could literally eat it from the tub – that rich garlic and cayenne pepper infused sauce that no fish soup can be without.   At La Buvette I was not disappointed (other than the portion size but I realise that is my foible not theirs) – the flavour, colour and texture were exceptional.  Boulevard’s rouille on the other hand could at best be described as like lumpy Philadelphia with a couple of splashes of yellow food dye – so disappointing and without even a hint of either garlic or mayonaise!  The croutons were good, very crisp but clearly from a packet and the measly gruyere gratings were bland and tasted ‘fridgey’.  Despite the difference in toppings both soups were good – full of flavour and thick without being stodgy although as a rouille fanatic the Boulevard one was ruined for me.

Other than their so called ‘pomme puree’ which was like being transported back to being served a tepid dollop of potato at the school canteen, I will now stop bashing poor Boulevard – my main of sea bass on green beans with pesto and black olives was pleasant but dull and I had lost the will by then to try pudding.

Back to the spirit of positive reviewing – my main course at La Buvette comprised of a really interesting combination of soft sea bream fillet with a crisp salt cod beignet on a haricot blanc purée – the contrasting textures of the fried and the grilled fish all came together in the mouth with the intensely tomatoey harissa which along with the bean puree, bound the elements of the dish together beautifully.  Most importantly the pomme puree did exactly what it said on the tin – creamy buttery potato with the texture of velvet – superb!

La Buvette

The Buvette dinner was preceded with a really interesting Prosecco and Violet combination and was greedily rounded off with punchy, melty Vacherin served in large spoons and sadly there was no room for pudding – oh well it is the perfect excuse to go back for more …