Restaurant review: Casamia

Casamia

Having lived in Bristol for little over a month, I can’t tell you how the new Casamia in the former General Hospital compares to the previous site in Westbury. What I can tell you about the new restaurant, however, is that it is bloody brilliant.

Tucked in the basement arches of the hospital building, Casamia’s stone arches engender gentle lighting and soft acoustics. Every decoration, from the seasonal fruit and vegetable centrepiece to the simple sprigs of spring flowers, speak of seasonality – much like the food to follow. With fewer than ten tables to serve, the chefs move calmly around the open kitchen and even have time to serve each dish themselves. A nice touch, I think, and their explanations are quite necessary to fully appreciate the depth of cooking that underpins each dish.

For instance, what is advertised as a humble root vegetable salad turns out to be an exquisitely pretty array of celeriac crisps and poached carrot. Their delicate, earthy flavour forms a base to showcase more dominant flavours from sweet carrot jam, peppery nasturtium and salty whipped goats cheese. Next, the reluctant carnivore within me is coaxed out by hunks of tender, mild venison coated in a charcoal of burnt salad leaves, whose bitterness is offset by the sweet accompanying parsnip – roasted, crisps and puree. Again, simple seasonal ingredients are elevated, but in an entirely understated way.

Not only is this cooking entirely unpretentious, it is also often filled with elements of experimentation and fun. A lemon curd rice pudding heaped with steaming-cold nuggets of iced celeriac acts as an innovative segue from savoury to sweet courses, and is quite unlike anything I have ever tasted. A mandarin dessert – where the fruit appears fresh, freeze dried, as an ice, a sorbet and a cream – is served amidst billowing clouds of mandarin-infused smoke to encourage diners to use their sense of smell as well as their tastebuds. And the final flourish of fun comes with the mignardises: a miniature carrot cupcake with a crispy outer surrounding a warm, fluffy sponge and an dark chocolate ‘lollipop’ studded with fruit and nuts.

We racked our brains to find a fault with Casamia, but this is fresh, fun, flawless cooking. I will be returning as the change of the seasons heralds a new menu.

Casamia (2)
Casamia (3)
Casamia (4)
Casamia (5)

Restaurant review: The Thali Cafe

Thali Cafe

It seems fitting to begin my series of reviews on Bristolian institutions with one of the city’s most well-known success stories. The Thali Cafe was born out of its owners’ disappointment with Indian restaurants in the UK, and a desire to offer more authentic Indian street food. They began serving out of a street food truck at Glastonbury before their success led them to open their first glitter-adorned site in bohemian Montpelier and, from there, four sister restaurants across Bristol.

The premise is simple: a selection of dishes are served together on a stainless steel plate known as a thali, with the different flavours, textures and colours combining to provide a balanced meal. At the Thali Cafe, accompaniments are served with a main of your choice – perhaps crisp cubes ofpaneer crumbling into a velvety, garlicky spinach sauce, or South Indian-style chicken in a bright, coconut-based sauce.

Side dishes, served in katori bowls, are similarly satisfying: a dahl whose lentils retain just the right amount of bite; a soft, yielding vegetable subji warmed by the ginger and cumin threading through its sumptuous tomato coat; and a sweet-sour mooli and mango salad to refresh the palate. We spooned and stirred each with a little rice and swiped up leftovers with warm chapattis.

Thali Cafe (2)
Thali Cafe (3)

On this occasion, the curries fell just shy of the deep, delicate spicing and chilli kick of the Indian restaurants in my previous South London neighbourhood. Yet the ambience of the Thali Cafe is more than a match for any competition. The cafes, in Montpelier and other branches, are a rather lovely mishmash of oversized lightbulbs, glowing lanterns, family portraits, vintage signs and reclaimed wood. Beaming staff complete the cosy feel, ensuring diners feel comfortable to linger.

Thali Cafe (4)

And linger you must, for there is dessert to be had. Lightly battered banana fritters with gooey centres are elevated by ginger kulfi, whose rich, creamy texture and subtle caramel notes provide the perfect foil for the heat of stem ginger.  A dark chocolate and ginger torte and an Eton Mess with mango, passionfruit and meringue were, regretfully, left for the next visit.

I departed on a sugar high and keen to sign up for their tiffin club – an eco-friendly takeaway scheme whereby customers purchase stacked metal ‘lunch boxes’ to be kept and refilled. After an excellent meal out, I would welcome The Thali Cafe’s Indian street food into my own home.

Restaurant review: Barrafina

Barrafina

Although the first Barrafina opened relatively recently in 2007, it is already considered to be an esteemed veteran of the London food scene. The original Frith Street branch has since been awarded a Michelin star and its two sister restaurants have received glowing reviews from major publications. Yet, as a relative newcomer to the city, I hope to see it with fresh eyes. From my position in London’s most accommodating queue, with a glass of excellent El Circo wine, it certainly looks promising.

As we wait, they bring us ham croquetas whose rough, golden breadcrumbs encase molten cheese studded with nuggets of ham. There is no cutlery, for this is food designed to be eaten with your hands. “It’s not very refined, is it?” comments my companion as he happily licks stray cheese from his chin. But it’s this informality that makes Barrafina brilliant: the frenetic energy of its waiters, the open kitchen squeezed full of indefatigable chefs, diners perched on bar stools, food eaten with fingers instead of forks.

Once seated, we feast on prawns in a rich garlic-infused oil, which is brightened on the palate by a smattering of sweet chilli and fresh herbs. The accompanying finger bowls indicate that, again, we should eat with our hands. Evidently, customers are encouraged to touch, smell and truly savour their food before tasting it. This relaxed approach to dining certainly seems fitting for a tapas restaurant, Michelin star or no.

It is with regret that we concede the necessity of cutlery for a jamon and spinach tortilla, whose slightly too squelchy centre is saved by a perfectly crispy potato shell. Much better are chicken thighs with romesco: tender meat and crisp skin marries harmoniously with the deep, sweet, nutty red pepper sauce and the gentle spike of a herb and onion salsa. We pile our forks high with chicken and a side of chard, kale and cauliflower, the slight bitterness of which provides the perfect foil for the rich meat.

Before they clear our plates, I can’t resist swiping a finger through the last dregs of that irresistable romesco sauce. After all, I should make the most of finding a prestigious restaurant that actually applauds a more relaxed approach to table manners.

Barrafina (2)
Barrafina (3)

Restaurant review: Pollen Street Social

Jason Atherton’s culinary empire may be expanding across the globe, but his first solo venture – Pollen Street Social – remains unsurpassed. In its animated restaurant, staff radiate outwards from a central counter bearing drinks and perfectly plated dishes. At surrounding tables, the chic clientele buzz with the brilliance of the cooking. Little wonder they are so contented, for Pollen Street’s set lunch menu is surely one of the best value fine-dining options in the capital: £34.50 will buy you three courses that, with numerous complimetary extras, extend into six.

Pollen Street Social

To begin, there are amuse-bouches that play with robust autumn flavours. The deep, savoury notes of mushroom ‘tea’ are enhanced by a light parmesan foam. An earthy beetroot puree in a pastry shell is brightened with a splash of tart, blackberry coulis. With our taste buds awakened, the starters arrive. Our favourite is a ham terrine designed to be piled decadently on toasted sourdough with salty black pudding, sturdy pickled root vegetables and sweet chestnut puree.

Seasonal produce continues to feature in the main courses. A delicately roasted fillet of Cornish cod in a velvety cockle chowder hums beneath a tangy salsa verde and spicy, smokey slivers of chorizo. Vegetarians, too, are well catered for. Crumbly parmesan is transformed into a creamy veloute, whose piquancy is used to enhance the gentle tang of goats cheese gnocchi and the heartier flavours of New Forest mushrooms.

Pollen Street Social (2)
Pollen Street Social (3)

The relaxed atmosphere is heightened with the final course, when diners may move to the dessert bar and chat to the pastry chefs as puddings are prepared. Here, too, autumn is celebrated. For instance, a refreshing pear sorbet and bitter-sweet candied walnuts provide a foil to rich chocolate mousse encased in a tempered chocolate cylinder. Concealed beneath an airy citrus outer layer, there is a dense baked pumpkin cheesecake whose mellow sweetness is matched by the accompanying pumpkin sorbet and gel.

Our stomachs unable to stretch to encompass three substantial petit fours, so the staff parcel up the leftovers to sweeten our parting into the November rain. Can there be a better memento of a brilliant meal than a warm bakewell tart to enjoy with afternoon tea? 

Pollen Street Social (4)
Pollen Street Social (5)

Restaurant review: Supper with Uyen Luu

DSC04296.JPG

Of all the countries that I visited in South East Asia, it was Vietnam that revolutionised my understanding of flavour and texture in cooking. Their diverse cuisine is light and bright and fresh: mountains of fresh herbs, deeply umami broths and the use of crunchy vegetables or crackers to create textural balance. Giant pancakes, overflowing baguettes, delicate dumplings, silken tofu with ginger sauce – all available from the side of the road. I was captivated.

We are fortunate that we can buy excellent Vietnamese food in England, particularly in East London. Perhaps nowhere more authentically than at the supper clubs held by Uyen Luu – writer, photographer, film maker and fashion designer turned supper club host and food stylist. Luu didn’t grow up cooking Vietnamese food, but began experimenting a little over 5 years ago as a way of reconnecting with her roots. After receiving her friends’ seal of approval, she now hosts 25 people at her home most weekends.

The supper club is held in her simple, elegant front room, where white walls and white-washed floor boards are warmed by the light from tens of tea lights. Groups can request a private table, but it is much more fun to pile on to the long wooden benches and make friends with your new neighbours. On our table there are guests of all ages, ethnicities, religions and nationalities, united by the experience of their first supper club. We accept that our encounter will be fleeting, that we will share a meal, anecdotes, laughter and chopstick tips, and that we will go our separate ways come 11pm.

DSC04301.JPG
Uyen Luu supper club (4)
Uyen Luu supper club (3)

A stream of plates flows from the galley kitchen; no sooner have we finished one delicious morsel, than it seems the next is arriving. Some courses are familiar, such as summer rolls bursting with prawns and fragrant herbs or an aromatic beef Pho. Other dishes offer new flavours – pork and prawn satay on sugarcane sticks or spiced vegetable puff pastries. My favourite is a chicken salad with hot mint, coriander, pickled onion and julienned vegetables. Sweet, sour, salty and scooped up with prawn crackers, it is addictive. Desert is a subtle pandan ice-cream with bold coconut-lime curd and shortbread biscuits, which is so delicious it disappears before I remember to take a photograph.

Uyen Luu’s serene flat may feel a world away from the chaotic, exotic charm of South East Asia, but the subtle flavours and harmonious textures of her cooking are as compelling as the finest food vendors in Vietnam.

Restaurant review: Poco, Broadway market

Poco, Broadway market

Poco is well known for its mission to source and cook food consciously, with care and thrift. The 100% seasonal, organic produce comes predominantly from community projects, farms and artisan producers within 100 miles and everything is recycled or composted to reduce waste. Yet it’s not until you visit Poco, set up by ethical eating pioneer Tom Hunt, that you appreciate how its mission statement translates into delicious, original flavours. Several years ago, I enjoyed a trip to the original branch in Bristol, which fits snugly among the independent businesses and the liberal, progressive community of Stoke’s Croft. So how would it fare the transition from Bristol to Broadway Market?

Poco’s sustainable ethos is reflected in the decor: LED lighting, clay-based paints and reclaimed timbers. English hardwood tables are adorned with simple sprigs of flowers and oil-burning candles that flicker gently in the hum of diners. It is a place where friends gather to share a meal, yet singles feel comfortable to eat alone with a book. We are welcomed by a personable waiter, who evidently understands the thin line between attentive and intrusive, and settle in with London beer and European wine. There are also seasonal cocktails designed and foraged for by co-owner Ben Pryor, who sips cider at the bar before wandering round to chat to customers. Considering it is still in its first week, Poco exudes a remarkably relaxed professionalism.

Poco (2)

From Tom Hunt and his team in the bustling open kitchen come wave after wave of tapas dishes, each a miniature masterclass in how to balance flavour and texture. There are broad beans two ways: a crisp-shelled broad bean falafel with a soft, steaming centre and a lemony broad bean puree, intensified by the sour shock of pickled turnip. Sweetcorn and nutty spelt fritters leap in the sweet heat of English chilli jam, before being steadied by the fresh crunch of a coriander and spring onion garnish. The deep, mellow spices of merguez sausages sing from beneath a cascade of mild, earthy lentils, burnt shallot and cooling labneh. Only a dish of creamed corn and girolles is one-dimensional and needs a fresher, lighter flavour to lift it from its enveloping soft sweetness.

Poco (3)
Poco (4)

The pièce de resistance, cod’s head, arrives to squeals of protest from our (adult) neighbour that it is “looking at her”. Truth be told, it prompts a little squeamishness from us too. Yet, with its classic pairing of lemon, thyme and fennel, the meat from the gills and neck is tender and flavoursome. This dish embodies the Poco philosophy of economical nose-to-tail (or leaf to root) cooking that reminds us how divorced we are from our food’s origins and how delicious the ingredients we discard can be. And, in this way, we finish our meal with food for thought.

Restaurant review: Berber & Q

Berber & Q

Don’t be fooled by the rusty corrugated-iron fronting, Berber & Q is a polished operation where North African and Middle Eastern flavours meet North East London cool. At 6:30 we get some of the first seats, but by 7 the long wooden tables are full and by 7:30 a queue has formed. Fez hat lampshades cast a glow over the white-tiled bar, which stretches along the length of the restaurant towards an open kitchen. Behind, shelves are stacked with premium spirits, kilner bottles of exotic syrups, battered tins and toys, tea lights fluttering in jars, and bowls of citrus fruit.

Once glance at the tempting menu tells us that narrowing down our order will bea struggle, so we take our time over excellent cocktails. The ‘Lebaneeza’ of saffron-infused rum, grapefruit, demarara syrup and mint is fruity without being overly-sweet. An old-fashioned makes us feel like Don Draper, though the addition of date syrup and candied orange would have been less familiar to a ‘50s ad-man. Elsewhere, classic spirits are mixed with sumac, pomegranate, Clement shrub, baharat and pistachio.

After negotiating between our favoured dishes, we finally place an order. Meat dishes are typical of the North African ethnic group for which this restaurant is named, the Berbers. Lamb machoui is brushed with paprika and cumin butter, spit-roasted and shredded into tender strips with crisp, caramelised coating. Merguez sausages blush with harissa and sumac, their juices soaking into a fluffy pillow of pitta. Joojeh chicken thighs and smoked short rib glazed with date syrup are added to our list for next time. When topped with cumin salt and a sparing spoonful of toum (garlic sauce), then rolled in lettuce leaves and fresh herbs, these hearty cuts of meat are transformed into something delicate.

Berber & Q (2)
Berber & Q (3)

Surprisingly for a grill house, the meat – though delicious – plays second fiddle to the vegetarian mezze. Rising majestically from a thick pool of tahini and molasses, there is sweet, nutty cauliflower shawarma brightened by fresh pomegranate seeds and fragrant rose petals. Earthy beetroot with salty whipped feta, peppery dill and saffron-candied orange makes for a beguiling combination of textures and flavours. Even hummus, pedestrian elsewhere, is exceptional: each mouthful is laden with tahini and speckled with crispy chickpeas, before the light dressing of chilli oil and parsley cuts through its richness.

All that’s left to do is mop up the leftover sauces with another warm pitta, pay your dues, and leave with a very satisfied smile. 

Berber & Q (4)

 

*Photographs courtesy of Fraser Communications*

Restaurant review: The Dairy

The Dairy

Since moving to South London, I have often wandered longingly past The Dairy, drawn in by the simple wooden furniture, sprigs of meadow flowers on tables and clientele of fashionable young professionals. Yet it’s The Dairy’s menu that truly captivates me. Created by chef Robin Gill, who hails from Noma and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, it takes diners on a tour through Britain’s finest, seasonal ingredients, paired sparingly, often simply, but oh so beautifully.

On a warm evening in early August, we begin our tour with a stream of snacks. Gently charred baby courgette rests on a bank of tangy goats curd, soothed by sweet pea purée and a pool of honey from the restaurant’s rooftop garden. Succulent chicken oyster and crispy skin is thrown into sharp relief by tart kefir and sour, fermented leaves. Fresh sourdough steams as we tear open the crust and smear it with decadent bone marrow butter and a chicken liver mousse whose airy texture belies a deep, meaty flavour. Paired with a glass of red wine, these snacks alone make a fine meal. Happily, they are only the warm up.

We soon set sail with a sublime fillet of mackerel before reeling in the catch of the day: buried beneath sea-salty samphire and fresh peas there is a firm, yet flaking, piece of pollock, swimming in a smoky, fragrant dashi broth blended with summer herbs and Amalfi lemon. It is exquisitely fresh. Back on dry land, we enjoy tender pink lamb shoulder, which needs no accompaniment aside from a sauce of its own juices and a bed of buttery white coco beans. These dishes may be served on hefty stone bowls, but they have been cooked with the utmost delicacy.

The Dairy (1)
The Dairy (3)
The Dairy (4)

We share the optional course of truffled brie de meaux and honey on walnut toast, but regret our greed when it transpires dessert is a triptych of indulgence. First, there is a ‘pre-dessert’ rosewater ice-cream sandwich, dusted with enough lip-tingling fig sherbet to offset the sweetness. Next, almost at the end of our journey, we arrive at food Mecca: salted caramel, cacao, malted barley ice cream. Each ingredient appears in multiple forms – a caramel sauce refashioned as a nut-studded caramel shard, a bitter chocolate crumble softened into dark truffles – to create an equilibrium of textures and flavours. All that’s needed to lift me into a truly transcendent state are a few warm peach doughnuts, which are promptly delivered to the table.

We are here to celebrate our anniversary, but I’m so moved that I ask my boyfriend if I can marry the chef(s). He gives his blessing, with the caveat that I make regular food deliveries.

Restaurant review: Dishoom, King's Cross

Dishoom

Dishoom has perfected the art of queuing. Diners are distracted from the length of their wait by a carefully staged system: you join the queue; the bad news (1 hour 45 from the point your name is added to the list) is broken gently with a free drink; you wait up for your name to be added the aforementioned list; you stand just inside the entrance, tantalising close now, while a space is prepared at the bar; you are served drinks at a leisurely pace.

The lengthy wait does give us time to admire the Moorish tiles, marble counters, crystal decanters and emerald leather booths, which channel the faded elegance of the original Bombay cafes. My sister, recently back from India, likes the touches of ‘authenticity’: Hindi script, sepia photographs, washbasins in the restaurant and even bench style loos that nod to squat toilets. I enjoy quirks such as a wood-panelled juice bar. The graphic designer in our group comments on the typesetting of the menu. Together, these touches are a lesson in how to add sophistication to an industrial space.

By the time we order, it is three hours since we staked our place in the queue, and we gobble our meal. It’s a shame, because this food deserves savouring. Tender chicken thighs marinated in garlic, ginger and coriander are still subtly smokey from the open air grill. The signature black daal is slow cooked for 24 hours until the lentils surrender to a thick, deeply flavoured soup. Crisp-skinned and fluffy-centred, the ‘gunpowder potatoes’ arrive tumbled amidst spring onions and aromatic seeds. Fresh, al dente greens are livened with a chilli and lime so they dance on the palate; a perfect foil to the richness of the curries.

Sated, we scamper off to our bikes, buses and tube lines. Dishoom won’t revolutionise your perspective on Indian food, but it sheds light on how lesser-known elements of this cuisine (here, the Bombay cafes) marry well with modern British tastes for a slightly lighter curry.

Restaurant review: 26 Grains

26 Grains, Neal's Yard

To say that I am a breakfast person is somewhat misleading. More accurately, I am a porridge person and my consumption is by no means limited to the morning hours. On a hot summer day I will settle for bircher muesli, but porridge is by far my favourite. If I had been Goldilocks, I would not have rejected the first bear’s bowl as too hot and the second’s as too cold before settling on the third. No, I would have devoured all three bowls then scoured the pan for leftovers.

From its origins in the plain pottage of the poor, recently porridge has evolved into an almost luxurious affair steeped in spices and showered with fruits, nuts, seeds, compotes and curds. Little wonder that then it has become the healthy breakfast of choice for many Brits, from David Cameron to Tim Henman to Kate Moss. I’m so obsessed that I’ve developed a process of soaking and stirring that allows me to produce a decent bowl from the microwave at work, without resorting to sachets. It’s not ideal, but decent porridge is better than no porridge.

So imagine my joy at learning that, aged only 24, Alex Hely-Hutchinson has opened porridge pop-up 26 Grains as a permanent site on my route to work. Dive off the tube a stop earlier and take a detour via the kaleidoscopic Neal's Yard, and I can arrive at my desk with a bowl of perfect porridge that eclipses any microwave efforts. Just as 26 Grains’ modest décor is elevated with a lick of pastel green paint, Kilner jars and neat little cacti, its bowls of modest, mostly English-grown grains are elevated with Nordic spices and seasonal toppings.

26 Grains
26 Grains (2)

Perched on wooden boxes masquerading as stools, we wait in anticipation. One friend is tempted by the banana cacao, but opts for bircher. Another chooses the knockout blueberry porridge, which is brightened by naturally sweet layers of blueberry compote, strawberries and coconut flakes atop a swirl of rich almond butter. For me, an aromatic cardamom and oat and barley base crowned with honey-glazed apricots, creamy tahini yogurt and a flourish of sesame seeds.

26 Grains produces porridge just as it should be: virtuously wholesome, a little indulgent and wonderfully comforting, this is the culinary equivalent of being wrapped in a soft blanket. Arrive famished, leave fortified for the morning ahead.

26 Grains (3)
26 Grains (4)

Restaurant review: Meza

Labneh, Meza

There is always a new, much-hyped restaurant to visit, but it is important to frequent local gems. Behind an unassuming Tooting shop front, in a space smaller and more simply decorated that many living rooms, shines one of South London’s brightest jewels: Meza. Rarely is a seat on one of Meza’s striped benches left unfilled and, with no website or landline (let alone a social media presence), its popularity rests on excellent cooking alone.

This family-run operation exudes a sense of relaxed commotion. Diners knock elbows with one another and face the stares of outsiders queuing to collect takeaways. Four chefs squeeze in an open kitchen, from which appears a constant stream of Lebanese mezze plates.

Baskets of fresh flatbread soon arrive at the table, so begin with an accompanying dip. Moutabal redolent of smoky grilled aubergine and thick with tahini is an excellent choice, as is silky hummus topped with minced lamb and walnuts. Another favourite is Labneh, a creamy strained yogurt whose slight sourness works wonderfully as a foil to the richness of other dishes or simply heaped on leftover flatbread.

From the mezze section, try torpedo-shaped Kibbeh whose crisp shells give way to crushed wheat and juicy minced lamb warm with onions and spices. Vegetarian options are also excellent. Soft, fluffy pastry parcels known as Fatayer conceal a bitter-sweet filling of spinach, pine nuts and citrusy sumac; halloumi oozes from grilled pitta; and Moujadra, that most comforting combination of spice, lentils and rice, is crowned with the crunch of salty, slightly oily fried onions.

Fattayer, Meza
Kibbeh, Meza

To accompany the richer, fried food, there are a few lighter options. A Fattoush salad is luscious with sweet, ripe tomto, cucumber, peppers and onion, tossed in a tangy lemon, sumac and olive oil dressing, and studded with slivers of crisp pitta. There are also delicious acidic vine leaves, which are wrapped around sweetly spiced rice and arrive on a bed of lettuce, tomato and pomegranate.

I could happily eat a meal at Meza composed entirely of mezze plates, but there are mains of grilled meat. Our chicken Shish Tauok had been marinated in lemon, tomato, garlic, paprika and sumac, then grilled until the cubes of tender meet were falling apart and suffused with the subtle flavour of charcoal. We ate it with an extra basket of bread and leftover Labneh – a much better pairing than the mayonnaise it arrived with!

Vine leaves, Meza
Chicken shish, Meza

What I particularly like here is the disregard for excessive presentation. The food is plated on attractive bowls, and perhaps garnished with a slice of lemon or a few pomegranate seeds, but the focus is on honest cooking over presentation. At Meza, you are guaranteed a plate of simple, tasty food – perfect when paired with a carafe of consistently good Lebanese wine.

There are no deserts, only complimentary 'Sfouf'. This almond-semolina based cake is characterised by the distinctive yellow colouring of turmeric and, at Meza, is so drenched in honey that puddles form on the napkin. By now you will be so full that you will need only a small square of Sfouf and a cup of mint tea for the perfect conclusion to a simply lovely meal.

Restaurant review: Milk

Milk, Balham

As a Balham-based blogger, it would be remiss of me not to review Milk. Indeed, brunch at Milk is considered a rite of passage for those new to the area. Yet Milk’s reputation has spread far beyond SW12, and its disciples regard it as a strong contender for the best breakfast south of the river, if not in all London.

Milk’s décor marks it as a hipster enclave in yummy mummy territory. There are distressed chairs and tables, exposed light bulbs and whitewashed walls adorned with school photos, entomological specimens, art magazines and neon lights. Music blares a little too loudly, though always in good taste.

Milk, Balham (3)
Milk, Balham (2)

Yet why waste words describing décor when the food is this good? Ingredients are organic, free range and, where possible, locally sourced. Fruit and veg come from the market on Milk’s doorstep, while herbs and wild flowers are foraged from the banks of River Wandle. Excellent coffee is roasted by the Workshop Coffee Co and, for the caffeine-free, smoothies are served in old milk bottles.

As the consummate sweet tooth, I am in thrall to the buckwheat pancakes. Toppings change weekly, but always follow a well-balanced formula: fresh fruit, quenelle of cream (or similar), and a textural element. On this occasion, bitter smoked apricot was sweetened by a pillow of marshmallow, while macadamia nuts added crunch and highlighted the nuttiness of buckwheat flour. The crowning glory was homemade elderflower syrup that tasted like the Dorset summers of my childhood. Needless to say, I asked for more and duly saturated my pancakes.

Baked eggs, Milk
Buckwheat pancakes, Milk

Milk’s savoury offerings are also staggeringly good. Baked eggs with butternut squash, feta and crispy sage are always tempting, and come with sourdough to mop up the yolks. The ‘Convict’, perhaps so-named to ward off those who are faint of heart (or stomach), consists of English muffin, drycure bacon, moens and sons sausage, burford brown egg, ‘hangover’ sauce and piles of parmesan.

The chefs are also unafraid to experiment with international flavours. The ‘Sweet Maria’, sweetcorn fritters paired with halloumi and avocado, is livened by kasundi – a spicy tomato relish hailing from India. Or, from across the Bay of Bengal, there is sweet Balinese black sticky rice with burnt blood orange, cocao nibs and bitter cascara.

In the unlikely event that you leave hungry, stop at the bakery counter for a slice of hazelnut cake or, in true antipodean fashion, a giant Anzac cookie. Then immediately set a date to visit Milk’s equally appealing sister restaurant, Fields.

Anzac cookies, Milk

Restaurant review: Artusi

I wanted to love Artusi. It has excellent credentials: well-reviewed by the exacting Jay Rayner, recommended by foodie friends, a reputation for unpretentious cooking and, most importantly, a tempting menu. Yet, on the day of my visit, it lacked the finesse to make the food truly memorable.

Set on Bellenden road, the gentrified counterpart to Peckham high street, Artusi is in close proximity to other stars of the area’s burgeoning food scene. Staff are gracious and friendly - allowing us to move tables, answering questions about the food, giving us time to pause before dessert. Décor is modest. White walls are unadorned except for a series of framed dishcloths, which display both an element of originality and thrift.

The pared-back setting is reflected in the food. A short blackboard menu is wiped and re-chalked as dishes change with the season and, when supplies run low later in service, with the hour. Evidently Artusi’s chefs subscribe to the worthy notion that is best to do a few things really well. On the Sunday lunchtime of our visit, the only choice was three courses for a reasonable £20 with two options for each course.

To start, there was a marriage of al dente broccoli and fiery ‘nduja, calmed by a swirl of straciatella. Not, as the child within me leapt to believe, the chocolate-speckled gelato, but a stretched curd cheese soaked in cream whose name translates as ‘to tear’. It takes a certain self-belief on the part of the chef to serve a dish that involves little cooking, but rather a knowledgeable combination of great ingredients. The gamble paid off in dividends of flavour.

Spaghetti, Artusi
Lamb dish, Artusi

Glasses of crisp, fruity white were delivered to the table, and then we were on to the mains. Chunks of tender, pink lamb neck, proper roast potatoes, wilted chard and yellow beans dressed in the meat juices. Spaghetti silky with olive oil, butter and a little reserved cooking water, and tossed with pancetta, peas, tomato and piles of Parmesan. There were no overcooked ingredients, nor any fussy plating; it was simply delectable.

Yet, delicious as it was, I couldn’t help but feel that an experienced home cook could recreate these recipes. Artusi’s unstudied approach also resulted in some small lapses, such as a serious lack of pancetta in the pasta - I counted just five pieces. With just a little more depth and delicacy, these dishes could be elevated to more than the sum of their parts. Indeed, I have seen and read evidence of more complex cooking on other days, from roasted artichokes with bagna càuda to slow-cooked lamb ragù.

Chocolate cake, Artusi

For dessert, there were three slabs of dense, dark chocolate cake with a salty biscuit topping to counteract the sweet, thick caramel coating. Even for a self-confessed gannet, three slices seemed excessive. The dish would have been lighter, but no less satisfying, had a slice been replaced by sharp fruit or, better yet, the mascarpone sorbet that was the other dessert option. Introducing an extra ingredient here would not have complicated, but rather complemented, the cake.

In avoiding intricate plating, extravagant menus and fashionable ‘superfoods’, Artusi puts the spotlight back on good ingredients. The food is undoubtedly tasty and often graceful, but on this occasion was sometimes too simple to really shine.

Restaurant Review: Salon

Those who enjoy wandering through Brixton market’s bustling shops and eateries will appreciate the prime people-watching potential of Salon, which has been lauded as ‘the best view in Brixton’. If anything should be lauded here, however, it is not the quality of the view, but the quality of Nicholas Balfe’s menu. After initially mixed reviews, Salon has resolved any teething issues and hit its stride, with its delicious food and rustic feel landing it among the Observer Food Monthly’s 40 Best Restaurants in Britain.

Salon (1)
Salon (2)

Arriving for brunch, which I find an economical way of sampling a restaurant before splurging on dinner, my first impression was that Salon has fallen prey to the trend of distressed wallpaper and bare light bulbs. Yet the casual décor is not pretension, but a real reflection of the relaxed atmosphere. Similarly, whilst the open kitchen might be in vogue, the decidedly less fashionable open dishwasher suggests the use of space is governed by practicality rather than trend. Surfaces stuffed with cookbooks, bottles and herbs add to the feeling that you are in a friend’s kitchen, and small touches like pears on the tables add to Salon's idiosyncrasy.

The menu focuses on local, seasonal ingredients with space for flavours from our continental neighbours. It seems even Salon can’t escape the ‘smashed avocado’ that is the staple of London brunch establishments, but more interesting options include ‘roast field mushrooms, pickled walnut & cow’s curd on toast’ and ‘hot smoked salmon, buttermilk scone, beetroot and cabbage slaw’.

A three cheese cornbread with shredded ham hock was very good. Salty ham and capers marry with sweet cornbread before being balanced out by fresh greens, while ‘superseeds’ (pumpkin seeds) add a welcome crunch. The duck egg, though listed as optional, should really be regarded as essential, with the runny yolk providing a necessary counterpoint to the dry, almost granular texture of the cornbread.

Three cheese cornbread, Salon
Baked eggs, Salon

The day’s special was, well, rather special. A European take on a Shakshuka, this skillet of baked eggs comes with nuggets of salty ‘nudja, fatty bacon and plump field mushrooms. A topping of peppery rocket and dill provides a foil to the richness of the dish and the accompanying sourdough is handy for mopping up leftover juices.

Having witnessed several trays of freshly-baked cakes waft past on their way down to the deli, we gave way to temptation and finished the meal with a slice of banana bread. This proved to be an excellent choice: the squidgy, nutty loaf is warmed by subtle spicing and cleverly paired with a slightly bitter, chocolatey hazelnut ganache.

We left satisfied, but not stuffed – the mark of a good meal.

 

Banana bread, Salon
Banana bread, Salon (2)

Restaurant review: Honey & Co

IMG_1957.JPG

There is no better place to find sunshine on a chilly evening than Honey & Co.

Tucked away in Fitzrovia, this tiny middle-eastern restaurant is adorned with bright blue floor tiles and homemade jams. Tables are squeezed so tightly together that you’re knocking elbows with your neighbours, but this adds to the cosy feel – just come prepared to discover a little more about your fellow diners than anticipated!

Happily, the food is as unpretentious as the setting. Our table was soon creaking under an extensive mezze platter, in which every dish displayed expertly balanced flavours and textures. Rich labneh was cut through by a chilli topping, falafels were livened by red pepper, and a simple salad offset earthy beetroot with sharp grapefruit, crunchy radishes, peppery dill, and sweet pomegranate molasses.

For main course, a Su Boregi, or Turkish ‘lasagne’, proved slightly stodgy. Star of the show went instead to Ben’s cumin chicken with freekah and goat’s cheese. Afflicted by a serious case of ‘food envy’, I snuck forkfuls of perfectly cooked chicken steeped in delicate lemon and herb flavours. It was that elusive combination: both filling and refreshing.

To finish, a dense dark chocolate slice was elevated by blood orange and caramelised pecans, whilst cheesecake was given a twist with a kadafi nest base and topped with blueberries, almonds and honey. Once again these dishes demonstrated that, in a crowded restaurant scene where chefs compete with ever-more unusual flavour combinations, Honey & Co is unafraid to celebrate simple ingredients.