26 March 2010

There & Back Again...

On the assumption I have regular readers, they might recall a glowing post from last November. That told the tale of a spectacular lunch at Roz-Ana, which is probably best summed-up as Norbiton's answer to Tamarind. No, really.

Following a chat with the owner, and following several gushing Twitter "conversations" with several people, I've struck a bit of a deal with them for dinner on Monday 26th April at 7:30pm.

The cost? £20.

The deal? Two glasses of wine, papad, pickles and chutneys, and the
following things to eat..

Starters (choice of one)

Coconut Soft Shell Crab
(Crisp soft shell crab tossed with toasted coconut and mustard seeds)

Chaat In A Box
(soft lentil dumplings in a crisp semolina basket, topped with yoghurt and tamarind chutney)

King Prawns
(Jumbo freshwater prawns roasted in the tandoor, spiced with carom seed and garlic)

(although, frankly, even if it costs extra, we will need to add some of the lamb chops to that...)

Main Course (served - oh yes! - sharing style)

Chicken Tikka Laphroaig Masala

Pork Belly Vinha d'alhos

Dal Makhani
(which all featured in that previous meal, and would all have made it into my Top Ten tastes for the year if I'd written one)

Bagar e Baingan
(Aubergine in tangy peanut, sesame and coconut sauce)

Plain Naan

Steamed Basmati Rice


Chocolate Samosa

If my previous experience was anything to go by, this will be a cracking night out and an absolute bargain, to boot. So, who's in?

22 March 2010

Two For Tea

Afternoon tea. Having once written it off as the sort of thing I'd do when I: a) was older; and b) had suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a spinster from the Home Counties, it came as quite a surprise to discover just how, well, nice it can be.

A few years ago, a friend took me for The Fashionista Tea at the Berkeley. Given my dress sense generally makes Clarkson look cutting edge, it was somewhat over my head in terms of in-jokes and references but absolutely "me" in terms of taste and the whole experience. I left with vows of trying more such experiences at hotels around the West End... and then promptly forgot about it.

Until this year, when two invites came my way. First, would I like to come and talk possible travel article(s) over tea at the Lanesborough? And secondly, a fine invite from fellow food and travel writer Craig Butcher, to join him on what we agreed was one of the gayest afternoons two heterosexual men have probably ever enjoyed that didn't involve seeing Mamma Mia: the excellent Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy, followed by a Van Gogh-inspired tea at Fortnum & Mason.

The Lanesborough tea was an utterly charming respite from the classically February weather outside. The tea, their own blend (explained in fantastically incoherent style by ze almost, how you say, comically French waiter) was delicious, and the selection of sandwiches and cakes - after the rich and sharp chocolate-and-cherry amuse -

was every bit as pretty and delicate as you'd expect. Seriously, what is it about cucumber sandwiches that makes them so appealing? Are they genuinely delicious or do I just have some unfulfilled hankering to be one of The Railway Children or something?

The standout though was a warm Stilton tart that was so light you could have popped them all day but so intensely Stilton-y your mouth would have been abuzz after two. As I discovered, having sat near people who apparently didn't want one. Brilliant.

Surprisingly though - and I don't know why it should come as a surprise - Fortnum & Mason pretty much trumped it. The setting isn't quite as elegant, but the seats are way more comfortable, the room is bright and, while there wasn't quite anything to match the aforementioned cheesy tart, the standard of sandwiches was very good, the variety of snackage was excellent, the sausage roll seemed to be equal parts pork and butter and the Van Gogh-inspired cakes - a Sacher-Torte topped with an icing sunflower, for example - were cute but succeeded beyond the novelty value. Best of all though, they offered lemon curd as an option with the scones.

It might photograph in a fairly bland manner but you can't beat it with a pot of Earl Grey.

14 March 2010

Better Late Than Never

I understand the fascination for the fabled West Coast burger even less now. Why? Because of this little beauty at Hawksmoor.

So... MRM on a cheap bun with Kraft cheese? Or serious meat, minced, loosely combined with marrow, grilled just enough to get the hint of charcoal and served with proper chips and a slice of melting Ogleshield? I know where my heart lies. Sorry arteries.

You only have to spend a few minutes on Twitter to realise there's a lot of Hawksmoor love out there. I was slightly more reticent having had one great meal there, followed by two bad experiences with customer service. And when you've dropped best part of £250 somewhere, I think you deserve to be batting better than .33.

That score is rising again following two burger experiences in two weeks. The best of its kind in London? Well, see previous post for that - and more often than not, my favourite food at any given moment is what's sitting on the plate in front of me. I've also not done the Goodman's burger yet, which more of those PITs* are getting excited about. But wherever it comes on the scale of London burgers, it's ever so bloody good. As, by all accounts, is the brunch.

And while we're on the subject of things I should have tried earlier, here's a twist on the theme: something I should have blogged about earlier. My name is Neil and I'm a Mooli's addict.

Again, hit the Twittersphere for a few minutes around lunchtime and you'll see a lot of Mooli talk. The concept is simple - Anglo Indian street food - but the execution is superb. Soft, freshly made rotis filled with a variety of hearty, big flavoured fillings, rolled up, served with crispy roasted papads, vibrant fresh chutneys and a choice of drinks: yours for a fiver at lunchtime, or six quid if you go for the goat. And you really, really should go for the goat.

In short, this is what London eating should be about. Something that could probably only happen in the capital - although I trust the concept will roll out to grateful punters all around the UK? - that picks up a following partly through word of mouth but mostly because the food is just bloody great. As are the founders, Matt and Sam. I'm currently battling with a one a week (minimum) habit and can advise that the goat is great, but that the paneer, asparagus, pork and beef are also all first rate. I know I'm still to try the "secret", under-the-counter, chat option but, writing this I've just realised I'm yet to try the chicken. How did that happen? Gents, I think you know what that means. See you in the week. Again.

* Palates I Trust.
Hawksmoor, 157 Commercial Street, London E1 6BJ, 020 7247 7392

Mooli's, 50 Frith Street, London W1D 4SQ, 020 7494 9075

7 March 2010

Simply "The Best"?

The run-in with Tea Man - or the Tea (Whingeing Old) Bag as I now like to think of him - provided an interesting diversion over the last week. Following the comments, a few Twitter messages and several e mails, it's clear I'm not alone in questioning his approach to customer service which is a bit of relief, and makes it so much easier to put the matter behind me. And, obviously, to avoid his stall at all costs.

I won't though be avoiding Borough Market, which should come as a relief to the various stands that depend on me for their livelihood. Yes, I'm being facetious - although when I tot up my spending over the years, I'm pretty sure I've put at least three farmers' children through private school. Another reason I won't be avoiding the market is the presence of Roast.

I've been lucky enough to visit Roast many times over the last few years and it's certainly in my Top Ten. It's not necessarily cutting edge, it may not even be the best of its kind in London but, as discussed over a typically pleasing, lazy lunch yesterday with Iqbal Wahhab, the restaurant's founder, and William Leigh, maybe it's time we stopped this endless search for "the best". By what criteria are we judging a meal? This obsession with "the best" assumes that a previous example of a dish / ingredient was the pinnacle of said dish / ingredient, and
relies on a combination of taste buds and memory that I'm really not convinced I possess. Worse though, it removes the sense of emotion from a meal, treating the food, the company and occasion as separate elements. We don't rate our conversations in this manner, so why do we obsess over what's on our plates? And, of course, it assumes we all have identical palates and the enduring, mysterious success of Marmite is proof that we don't.

So, while I probably won't succeed in avoiding the word in my writing - and feel free to remind me of this as and when I do - I'm going to try and change my ways and leave "best" out of it.

Enjoyable though? First rate? Yep, both of those apply to consecutive Saturday lunches at Roast. As mentioned before, last Saturday was to celebrate birthdays and promotions, yesterday was just to have a bit of fun. Both meals though involved great food and brilliant company.

Last week started with a slight disappointment with the February Scotch Egg of the Month: Lorne Sausage. I'm a big fan of this peppery Scottish breakfast favourite but the format didn't do it many favours, particularly when compared to January's exemplary Wild Boar version. The pea shoots and piccalilli were good though.

Still, the meal soon picked up. Scallops - with a little Jerusalem artichoke, hazelnut and garlic - were fat and flavoursome, the kidneys were incredibly rich and the langoustines were a delight. So much of a delight in fact that Mrs L's plate envy was tangible so I did the decent thing and traded them for the remains of the kidneys. I'm nice like that. Sometimes.

The above were swiftly followed with a meltingly tender pork belly, wrapped in the sort of crackling you can hear being eaten at 20 paces. Or would do if you weren't distracted by two thick slices of roast Welsh Black sirloin and all the trimmings. I think I actually whimpered when it arrived.

To finish, it was a toss-up between two intriguing puds. St Helier Custard Cream or Jaffa Cake? I plumped for the rich, easy eating of the Custard Cream, three "scoops" of pistachio, vanilla and chocolate flavoured calories that slipped down far too easily. The Jaffa Cake looked very promising though, so I made a mental note to have that if it was still on the March menu.

And it was. So I did. And it was good. Before that though, we wandered through some more classic dishes. Sprats were beautifully fishy and crispy, and Brown Windsor soup was as good as I remember it from, ooh, about 1977. And this month's Scotch Egg is a take - and, in my opinion, an improvement - on that Harwood Arms' staple, the venison Scotch Egg. My experience of the Harwood's egg was of something meaty but unidentifiable. No such complaints with this one as the peppery gaminess of the meat shone through.

The main course decision was made easier when the neighbouring table received their order and my intentions not to have the Roast burger went out of the (beautifully ornate) window. Will had the same problem but then made a request that may just start a cult: instead of chips, could he possibly have roast potatoes and gravy?

Clearly I couldn't sit there enjoying the chips when I knew that roast potatoes and gravy could have been mine, so I made the same request. The result was 10 ounces of ground, moist, intensely beefy Welsh Black, the sharp kick of the lightly pickled onion - a lovely touch - and four salty, golden, gravy-drizzled, joyous little roasties. I can't recommend this Anglo-American co-production enough, frankly. You read it here first. And here second...