Postcard from Hastings

Hastings’ burnt-out pier is a sad reminder of the town’s one-time seaside splendour.

The houses cluster against the cliffs, a mixture of curved Victorian terraces in pretty pastel colours, tall whitewashed townhouses arranged around grassy squares, a few grand mansions with big art-deco windows looking out to sea, and – tucked up winding passages – little crooked pubs and cottages with wooden beams that date back to the 1600s.

The new Jerwood Gallery has divided opinion in the town, but in truth it doesn’t look out of place next to the iconic fishermen’s huts.

Gillian Ayres’ Hampstead Mural

We’ve still not managed to secure a table in this, possibly the most sought-after restaurant in Hastings. By day it’s a higgledy-piggledy bookshop; by night it becomes a tiny Thai restaurant where diners can eat amidst the books. There’s no menu as such, as the owners cook to your preference using authentic ingredients flown from Thailand. I’ve seen this mentioned in a lot of London press lately so it’s only bound to get busier. Better book ahead next time… http://thaicafeandbookshop.com/

But for Sunday lunch, it’s definitely about the Dragon Bar in the Old Town…

…where the menu also included an original take on the locally caught cod, with a fennel and champagne sauce:

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Honestly the best in Brixton Village

Definitely my favourite hole-in-the-wall at Brixton Village, Honest burgers are bloody good. The premise is thoroughly uncomplicated: take a burger, and make every element of it amazing in its own right…

Meat: aged beef from the Ginger Pig. Juicy and fat, served on the pink side of medium.

Bread: light, airy, brioche buns with crisp, glazed tops. Gluten-free an option.

Fillings: the perfect number of options to choose from (no ridiculous long list as per GBK). Some are classic, others adventurous, and all delightful and sourced as you’d expect. The ‘special’ changes regularly. This weekend, options included: chorizo from Brindisa (where else?), dry-cured smoked bacon (from Ginger Pig), Manchego cheese, caramelised red onion relish, fresh rocket, punchy chimichurri, braised chillies.

Chips: TRIPLE-fried (!!!) with rosemary. Skinny but not too skinny. Utterly moreish.

Drink: this weekend I was treated to hot cider. What better on a snowy Saturday night? They also sell a great Sam Smith’s bottled lager.

Price: a million, zillion times cheaper than Byron and GBK (and much, much nicer!).

(c) Aidan Brown 2011

As you may have gathered, I’m a big fan. And I’m certainly not alone — Honest has had some pretty high-profile press coverage of late, including from Jay Rayner (fellow Brixton-dweller), who has sung their praises in the Observer on more than one occasion. It’s not surprising therefore that it gets quite busy, so it’s worth getting down there early, or at least in enough time to pop your name on the list — we arrived at 8pm and waited 45 minutes. But it’s easy to kill time in the village. Grab a can from the offy on Coldharbour Lane and wander round checking out the other joints and gazing into the windows of the vintage stores and gift shops. Or nip across to the Dogstar for a pint.

Gypsy cuisine at a Buenos Aires supper club

(c) Helen Musselwhite

The supper club craze that has taken London and various other cities by storm also has a huge presence in BA, where they are known as puertas cerradas – closed door restaurants. A little info for the uninitiated: it’s a restaurant in somebody’s house. They sit you at their table and cook you food from their kitchen. Really great food. Inspired by interesting things or a clever theme. There are usually lots of courses and sometimes wine to match, for a (normally bargainous) set price. You share table and talk with strangers; interesting folks from all kinds of backgrounds. These dinners tend to be advertised by blog, or via social networking and word of mouth. They aren´t signposted — the only way to discover the address is to book yourself a place. But despite seeming low key, these supper clubs are no secret — in fact the BA puertas cerradas have their own boxed text in my Lonely Planet. And when I logged on, weeks in advance, to make a reservation for Casa Saltshaker, perhaps the best-known puerta cerrada in BA, there was just a single seat remaining for my chosen date.

On the night, having navigated the BA subway alone, I arrived in the well-to-do neighbourhood of Recoleta, armed with a dog-eared printout of my booking confirmation and mild apprehensions. But the initial awkwardness of sitting down to eat with complete strangers was quickly diffused by the novelty of the food, which was at once fascinating, beautiful and delicious. The five matching wines helped too!

It was the international day of the Romany, so our menu was themed around traditional gypsy dishes and hearty peasant food. Continue reading

Sarnies in Spain

I suspect any Spaniards reading this are laughing. Why, they ask, would someone bother to write a review of Cervecería 100 Montaditos? It’s the type of laugh I’d give on discovering a foreign blogger had wasted 700 words describing Subway or GBK. But let them laugh; for its novelty value if nothing else, this place gets a write-up.

Now, who doesn’t like a good sandwich? The benefits of this simple snack are endless. It’s versatile enough to suit every appetite, from a dieter nibbling on a wholemeal tuna-and-low-fat mayo to a ravenous lad feasting on a triple club. The sandwich can cater for any occasion, posing one minute as a sophisticated cucumber-filled triangle, the next as a rough-and-ready doorstop with hunks of Cheddar cheese. It can sum up an entire meal in a single bready package – the egg-and-bacon breakfast sarnie for example, or the annual Christmas special, crammed with turkey and all the trimmings. There’s no better snack for munching on the hoof but it is just as often ordered sit-down with a side of chips.

And it is constantly reinvented, morphing into all manner of shapes and forms: rolls, wraps, baguettes, toasted sandwiches, open sandwiches, and even – for those who can’t (or won’t) eat wheat, breadless sandwiches, courtesy of Pret. Famous enough to be known by acronym alone (I refer of course to the BLT), the humble sandwich could perhaps be credited with bringing back M&S from the brink of insolvency. Finally, what higher culinary praise than this: the French – food snobs that they are – have adopted the noun le sandwich as a certified member of their very own language. Earl Sandwich would be proud. Continue reading

The best croquettas in Madrid?

Dinnertime was fast approaching in Madrid. Never mind that we were still sat in 100 Montaditos after a novelty-but-actually-pretty-edible afternoon snack, it was already time to consider restaurant options for the evening ahead. Running my finger down the entries in Lonely Planet, I found a wealth of cuisine types at our disposal, with no shortage of local food: Tapas…Tapas…More Tapas…Thai (“No, we’re in Spain”)…Tapas…Tapas…Italian (“Ditto”)…Modern Spanish…Croquettas…Tapas…Tap—WOAH THERE!!!
A whole restaurant devoted to croquettas? This I had to visit.

So now, to satisfy my croquetta obsession, we were venturing into new territory, heading along Gran Via towards Malasaňa, a barrio (neighbourhood) that the book describes as “the stuff of Madrid legend … pushing hedonism to new limits.” Perhaps we were asking a bit much from a Tuesday night at the tail-end of December, but after reading such praise we had expected Calle Madera to be more than the dark and isolated alley on which we found ourselves. After some fruitless wandering, I was all for giving up. No way could there be good croquettas here. Muggings, more like. Or dead cats. Perhaps we would become croquettas? But The Warren had faith. “Let’s go a little further” turned out to be the wisest remark of the night (closely followed by “Dos mas, por favour”, a phrase that would be repeated a good few times). Suddenly, out of the darkness there was light, glowing softly through narrow, red, partially graffitied double-doors. Casa Julio. You could easily miss it or dismiss it, destined never to join the throng of happy Spaniards just visible behind the steamed-up glass.

Casa Julio's far-from-glamorous entrance

Casa Julio is a sweet and simple little bar, a family business, passed down the generations since 1921. We squeezed into the warm, crowded room, quite noticeably the only English in a sea of jabbering locals: a little bit daunting, but an obvious sign that the food must be good. Also very promising were the framed press-clippings on the wall and the photos of celebs who had deigned to rub shoulders with commoners in pursuit of the perfect croquetta. (Presumably these ‘celebs’ were all Spanish, as the only ones we recognised were U2; I guess Bono and I share a passion.)

Getting a spot at the bar was like an Olympic sport. The Warren proved very skilful at it (as one of five siblings, his mealtime reflexes have had a lot of practice) and after just one cerveza we gained an advantageous corner position. We were ready to do serious damage to the menu. And damage we did. Croqetta frenzy. Queso and jamón as standard. Then a couple of wildcards: atun con huevo (tuna with egg) and espinacas, pasas y gorgonzola (spinach with raisins and gorgonzola). The spinach ones took surprise gold. We also polished off a portion of albóndigas: chubby meatballs and hefts of potato in a delicious sauce, a basket of pane, and patatas bravas muy, MUY picante. I lifted that first chunk of potato in trepidation. Hmmm – one can only assume the Spanish are cowardly when it comes to spice, as I barely batted an eyelid, let alone broke a sweat. All of the above was washed down with the local cerveza – Mahou – and then, for just €9, a bottle of Spanish Cava (The Warren loves his Cava).

Croquettas a-go-go

We are definitely Casa Julio fans. The staff were friendly, the clientele was an interesting cross-section of ages and types, the place was cosy and welcoming. And the croquettas didn’t let me down. In true Walder-Warren fashion, we stayed on until closing time.

The Larder, Clerkenwell

It’s rare I eat East, so it was a novelty when a friend’s birthday took me to that neck of the woods, past grand Smithfield market and the famed St John’s dining rooms for the very first time. First impressions of St John’s Lane were as an odd and eerie place. Connecting Farringdon to buzzing Angel, the road is lined with smart-looking eateries and spick office space, but during my visit the pavements (and Waitrose) were pretty much deserted. Where were the people?

(c) Fluid London

The Larder doesn’t yell. I walked the length of the road twice before finally locating it at the Farringdon end, its frontage obscured by scaffolding and its name in discreet lettering above the door. From outside it looks pricey (even the scaffolding suggests investment) but not uninviting. Despite the fact we booked through Top Table and would be enjoying a decent little discount, the girl on the door welcomed us warmly. No credit-crunch resentment here. We were led to a table in the window (as Simon observed, ‘probably to make the place look busy’, since it transpired that the deserted pavements weren’t down to Larder having poached all the pedestrians) and then given plenty of time and space to wait for the final member of our party to arrive.

Talking of space, there’s probably nowhere in Soho with the luxury of such space. If this ample dining room was a Pizza Express, it would contain eight times as many seats. Instead, Larder puts enough distance between you and the next table of strangers that you can remark quite openly on them without fear of being overheard (and remark we did – not just because they were a rather fruity-looking couple, but also because the plates arriving on their table were definitely worth comment). But though the privacy is nice – and indeed quite a novelty in London – it also makes the place feel a little uninhabited and thwarts that ‘buzz’ that makes a good restaurant really great. And, as mentioned, on the Wednesday night in question, the place also suffered from not being full. The only interruptions to our seclusion were the gawping waiters: the wide gangways prevent them from sidling past to sneak a look at your plate, so, discreet as they try to be, they have no choice but to march right up to the table to assess your progress. Meanwhile, reaching the toilets is like crossing the savannah, leading you past a surprisingly exposed chef’s table (I thought they were normally tucked away in expensive back-rooms) and an open kitchen that is less a spectacle and more a chance for the chefs to size up their diners.

(c) Fluid London

Despite the sparse atmosphere, however, Larder really isn’t bad. The staff are pleasant (gawping aside; it’s not their fault), and the food is of a nice standard. The Top Table menu barely differs from the regular à la carte, and affords you a 50% discount if you order starter and main. So we did. Bread, refreshingly, was free, evidently homemade, and came with a shot-glass of olive-oily hummus. My chicken liver parfait was smooth, dense, rich, its chutney tangy. Its butter coating was a little odd, though: not exactly clarified, but also not quite regular, as if somebody had got halfway through clarifying it and then given up. Simon’s Salt and Sichuan Pepper Squid was generous and cleverly presented. The Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli looked fresh and hand-made, topped with attractive micro-salad, while the Duck Spring Rolls were, pleasantly, closer to fresh spring rolls than to the artery-busting deep-fried variety, and chock-a-block with meat.

There is everything to choose from when it comes to The Larder’s main courses: the whole spectrum of meats, a variety of fish types, inventive salads and interesting veggie options. Every dish sounds hearty in some way, whether due to the cooking process (braising/roasting), the homely connotations of the dish (steak pudding/classic fish and chips) or because it is ‘heartied’ up with accompaniments like bubble and squeak or Parmesan croquettes. Somehow, even the salads project heartiness, by promising a whole wealth of ingredients, particularly earthy ones like squash and root veg. My roast salmon came with a satisfyingly salty side of puy lentils, pancetta and Charlotte potatoes. A pie boasted a stodgy but delicious suet-pastry crust. Delicate grilled plaice fillets were roughened up with some breaded scampi. The confit of duck was given the opposite treatment, its audacious richness offset with delicate scallops and bok choy. All hearty but not heavy. Plates were duly emptied.

Verdict? Satisfying and attractive food trying to hold its own against a slightly meagre atmosphere. I rarely wish for a rabble, but to get the best experience of Larder, I recommend going at a typically busy time – a Thursday or Friday evening, when the place is full enough that people’s voices might drown out the awkward clink of your knife and fork.

Polpetto

The press have been going mad for a tiny restaurant with just 28 seats. Today’s fourth most-viewed restaurant on Time Out London, and arguably this year’s most talked-about new eating place, Polpetto opened in August to an impatient crowd of media bods, foodies and tweeters, all eager to squeeze inside and feast on Venetian tapas.

This is the follow-up to Polpo, which has established itself as a Venetian-style bacaro in Soho, and whose website displays an incredible roll-call of praise, including huge compliments from Jay Rayner and A.A Gill. So far Polpetto looks set to replicate every ounce of its big sister’s success.

Having not yet tried Polpo, perhaps that’s where I should have started, but who could resist the description of Polpetto as ‘a tiny, jewel-box version’? Also lured in by a promising review in Stylist magazine and the clamour coming from Twitter, I wanted to get straight to the treasure.

Situated above The French House on Dean Street, Polpetto is reached by a narrow staircase that leads up into a small space cluttered with wooden furniture. A dark red banquette along the back is shared by four adjacent tables beneath a wall of exposed brickwork and three mock windows, shaped like openings onto the outside world but tiled with mirrors that reflect the inside of the room. With its wood floor, panelled ceiling, worn paintwork and naked pendant bulbs dangling from their wires, the simple, timeless decor might trick you into believing Polpetto has resided here for two centuries, rather than just two months.

The tableware is quirky and classic – miniature wine and water glasses in various shapes and styles; wine that arrives in darling half-carafes, patterned vintage dishes, and wide-format parchment menus printed with an old-fashioned serif type. The menu consists of ‘cicheti, small plates and classic Venetian osteria dishes.’ This basically means small snacks, which you can mix and match as you choose. We matched Duck & porcini meatballs with Chopped chicken liver crostino, Smoked swordfish, lemon and dill ricotta, Stracchino, fennel, salami & fig bruschetta, Cured pork shoulder & pickled pepper pizzetta and Zucchini fries (which were phenomenal; I’d go back just for those). The general approach seems to be just to keep on ordering until you’re full. The young, friendly staff didn’t mind at all when we flagged them down for the sixth time. Plates are small, prices are small, the place itself is small, but taste is big. Desserts (Pannacotta with blackberries and salted hazelnut praline; Tiramisu pot) were just a mouthful, but a delicious one.

This tiny place fills up fast. We were smart enough to stop by at 6.30pm on a weekday; by 8pm there was a snaking queue. Once inside, nobody wants to leave. Believe all the hype and definitely pay Polpetto a visit, but pick your time wisely: on a Friday or Saturday night not even those zucchini fries would convince me to bother.

Gilgamesh: East meets West in North-London

To describe the restaurant Gilgamesh with any hope of accuracy, you must accept that it is neither one thing or another. It is a place of stark contrasts.
Take pairs of adjectives opposite in meaning and in every case you’ll need both: Ancient yet modern. Vast yet intimate. Ostentatious but somehow casual and effortless. These extremes are everywhere: in the decor, cuisine, atmosphere, flavours. The food is bold and brave, but never intimidating; dishes are spicy yet still somehow soothing. A place with so many attributes could easily struggle over its identity. But Gilgamesh knows itself, and its many sides meld nicely together: a place where East and West unite in a North-London market.

 

Gilgamesh Bar

 

 

Sited in the heart of Camden stables, amidst traders’ lean-tos and lurid Chinese food stalls, to reach Gilgamesh you’re forced to leave the grunge-cool high street and step fleetingly onto cobbles. It’s all part of the experience: that hint of ramshackle market simply highlights how distinct the restaurant is from its surroundings. The cobbles quickly become plush black carpet as you approach the suited security men and clipboard-wielding hostess who guard the door. If your name’s on the list – essential on a weekend; they can rarely fit in impromptu visits – you may pass inside, where an escalator transports you upstairs between carved mahogany walls. More staff and imposing glass doors still block the way: you just aren’t getting in if you didn’t book ahead.

When at last you take your seat – a throne-like brocade-upholstered monstrosity – in the cavernous dining room with its soaring glass ceiling, all your senses are bombarded. Feast your eyes on intricately sculpted wood, jewel-coloured fabrics shot with gold and silver, rich velvet flocking and rippling vats of water dotted liberally with floating flowers. Attractive bartenders shake exotic-looking cocktails; glorious smells and glimpses of food tease you from nearby tables. From the off, you can’t but be absorbed, so that it’s unnerving when you look up from your plate for a moment and suddenly recall where you are and how many, many people surround you.

Despite a special offer, the set menu didn’t tempt us. The à la carte is designed to snare. Food arrived fast, and thick; there’s no skimping, though it is still dim sum so don’t expect roast-dinner-sized portions. We chose Scallop and Prawn Dumplings, which sounded delicious but were disappointing, the beautiful scallops masked by a soggy, starchy coating. The Duck Spring Rolls were a better choice, but the real star of the starter show, without doubt, was the Sweet Potato and Avocado Tempura. Generous colourful wedges frosted with delicate pale batter, and three sensations – the potato sweet and textured, the avocado smooth and buttery, the batter light and crisp. All offset with a bowl of zingy Ponzu juice in which to dunk.

Last time I ate here, I came away singing about red duck curry with lychees, but sadly no sign of it on the menu a year later. With that curry in mind, we went straight for the Thai Green and a mound of Jasmine Rice.  I’ll say this for Ian Pengelly: he’s not afraid to whack a load of spices in his broth. Weaker women would have lain down their spoon and hollered for water.

As for dessert, a crème brûlée purist might turn up their nose at a flavoured version. Not I. The best approach to the Chocolate & Lemongrass Crème Brûlée is to treat it as an entirely separate dessert that just happens to replicate the texture of that oh-so-beloved French favourite. Like an incredibly silky milk-chocolate mousse, it slipped down nicely, with a sharp passion-fruit sorbet adding an edge, and the only negative being our difficulty in identifying the lemongrass: frustrating but not crucial.

You can’t do Asian food without the concluding tea ritual, and our Jasmine Pearls came in squat cast-iron teapots, the bulbous metal in heavy contrast to delicate china cups. Finally, a chance to digest: the food, the throng, the bill. Yes, all this glitz must be paid for, but luckily the prices aren’t quite steep enough to pale a colourful evening. (Though I imagine it’s a different story if you’re lured in by the cocktails.)

Verdict? Gilgamesh is a bright, buzzing, vibrant grotto, a glorious feast for the senses. It’s totally Camden – don’t be fooled into thinking you’ll experience the true Orient – but it’s also welcoming enough to make anyone feel cool and current.