Restaurant crush: Lardo

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The food at Lardo is so good, that I found myself chowing down on a radicchio, gorgonzola and walnut pizza about an hour after eating a HUGE bowl of nduja pasta and raspberry jelly at home, like it was the most normal thing in the world. I know. I’d popped in for a ‘drink’ with a pal (thankfully it’s in my new hood Hackney), and I wasn’t intending on eating, but once I saddled up on a high stool overlooking the chefs at work and the pizza-spewing wood oven, it was like I’d never eaten… well I suppose this blog isn’t called ‘A Lot On Her Plate’ for nothing.

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In the last couple of weeks I’ve been there twice, and I will continue to go there as long as it carries on being what I reckon is one of the best informal, reasonably priced Italians in London.

From the outside, looking in on this pared-back, understated restaurant near London Fields, you could be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a pizza joint, thanks to the huge, disco ball-esque wood-fired pizza oven that looms large through the window. But great as the pizzas are, this place is about so much more than that.

For starters, you might not know this, but Lardo – which takes its name from the delicious cured back fat of the beast – has its own extra special charcuterie made from Mangalitza pigs that are bred especially for it in the West Country. These pigs are furry and cute, so you might not want to Google pictures of them too much, but they’re also perfectly suited to yielding cured meats, thanks to their marbled meat and plentiful, flavourful fat. Try the deliciously fragrant fennel pollen salami and silky, silky coppa.

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To keep it true to the inexpensive, local Italian restaurants on which it’s modeled, the team at Lardo put huge effort into sourcing exceptional fresh produce and making things like pasta, simple cheeses, breads and even the syrups for its drinks from scratch. There are specials on all the time, and the menu changes according to what’s in season, sometimes on a daily basis, meaning that even though I visited twice in a few weeks (and ate the same pizza twice – it’s that nice), there were different things to try, and seasonal gems like stuffed tempura courgette flowers (£6), spaghetti with clams and wilted wild garlic (£12), or beautiful pale green nettle tagliatelle (£12) which comes wonderfully al dente and slathered in a creamy sauce with mushrooms and cheese.

The wine list at Lardo is focused and reasonably priced, honed on Italy and flitting between Northern Europe in winter, and Southern Europe in summer, with an emphasis on lesser-known European grape varieties. You can just pop in for a carafe and a bite, and sit at the bar watching the chefs (as I did) if you just fancy something light. But really, everything is so good you’ll just want to order and order – and I’d heartily encourage you to do just that.

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LARDO will open its summer rooftop bar and grill COPPA this summer on 24th May 2014, and I can’t wait for this as I stupidly managed to miss it entirely last summer. Bring it on!

Photo blog: when we went to Portland

Charcuterie boards at Olympic Provisions

It seems like an absolute age ago now, but I was in Portland in September for FEAST – the city’s annual food festival in association with Bon Appetit magazine. Feast is a three day feeding frenzy which sees the city’s top chefs come together and cook superb Oregonian bounty at events like the Sandwich Invitational – a night where they all competed to create the tastiest meal between two slices of bread.

The whole trip got off to rather a rollicking start, as it turned out that we were staying in the Jupiter Motel, whose ground floor was the venue for the festival’s industry launch, so that night, after attending the ‘Sandwich Invitational’, Jamie and I found ourselves rubbing shoulders with the city’s chef and food big shots, dancing like maniacs to My Sharona and drinking free-flowing gin and tonics until 3am. I met a lot of people that night, and I’m sure I don’t remember all of them – but one thing’s for sure, the food scene in Portland is one of the friendliest and most inclusive anywhere in the world, and (said like Frank Gallagher) it knows how to throw a party.

I was there writing a food and travel piece on the Oregon city, which has, in the past ten years, become one of the finest US food cities thanks to all the amazing punk rock restaurants, food carts and cafes that have sprung up serving a global mish-mash of kick-ass cooking. I write about this in more depth in a forthcoming piece for Escapism Magazine (out soon), but here is a little snapshot of the place we visited and the things we ate.

Ned Ludd: nedluddpdx.com

 

Nong’s Khao Man Gai food truck

Nong's Khao Man Gai food truck

Pok Pok: pokpokpdx.com

For more information on Portland see travelportland.com

Tofino: a wilderness paradise with an incredible food scene

The view from the Wickaninnish

From Victoria, we headed up the island’s only highway for just over four hours (with a quick wild swim in Lake Sproat) until we reached Tofino – a small surfer wilderness town with incredible beaches and, as we’d discover, an equally impressive food scene. Tofino has a population of about 2000 (though this swells like its waves in the summer when the surfers pour in), but the residents are spoiled by the quite amazing selection of restaurants, cafes, delis and take-aways that have made a home there. We ate ridiculously well every day during our stay, which we extended from two to three nights because we just loved the place so much.

The HUGE broiled oysters at Shelter

As well as some really on-the-money restaurants like Shelter: a surfer dude hang out where I ate amazing broiled oysters and smokey aged ribeye, and The Spotted Bear: a cool French-inspired bistro where we shared some amazing charcuterie and local mussels; there’s the legendary Taco truck Tacofino which serves the best tacos I’ve ever tasted. Tacofino now has two trucks and a sit-down restaurant in the city of Vancouver, and with combinations like seared sesame soy Albacore tuna with seaweed salad and wasabi mayo, it’s no surprise. When I’m back in Van we’re definitely going to check out the restaurant, and next time I want to try the fish tacos, made with tempura ling cod, chipotle mayo, shredded cabbage and salsa. In the same lot, there’s also The Wildside Grill, a take-away which is a joint venture between a chef and a fisherman. This place is all about local fish and seafood cooked fresh off the boat – we tried the halibut and chips with apple slaw, and the gumbo. I’m going back for the spot prawns! Tofino also has a cracking little micro brewery – we adored the light, caramel blonde ale, an organic coffee roaster and a chocolate/gelato maker.

Halibut and chips with apple slaw, and spot prawn gumbo at the Wildside Grill
Rock pooling!

Rock pooling!

At the Tofino micro brewery
Szechuan brisket broiled oysters with mustard greens at the Pointe restaurant

We were staying at the utterly stunning Wickaninnish Hotel, a Relais and Chateaux which sort of grows out of the rocks on Chesterman Beach – a long, deserted sandy beach with the best rock pools I’ve seen since childhood camping holidays to Brittany. Our room here was the best hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – with a balcony that overlooked the crashing sea, a gas fire and a bathroom with windows that shared a view out onto the coast. Just heaven.

The balcony of our INCREDIBLE room at the Wick
Beach boy

The hotel’s Pointe restaurant has equally gorgeous views, but the food is a more than worthy distraction. I ate an incredible starter of oysters broiled with Szechuan braised brisket and perky mustard greens, followed by salmon with sweet breads and morels. It was absolutely stunning, but I couldn’t help being jealous of Jamie’s beautiful cod with Romesco crumble. My dessert of olive oil sponge with yoghurt and grapefruit was a perfect end to the meal: unusual, light and delicious.

The mussel banks at Chesterman beach

If you ever find yourself in BC, planning a trip to Tofino, make sure you give yourself at least few days. You’ll need it to get around all these food places.

Pork and clams at The Pointe
local cod with romesco 'crumble' at The Pointe

To Victoria, BC: Red Fish Blue Fish, The Fairmont Empress and the bees knees

On the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island

I was definitely expecting Vancouver to have a cracking food scene, given its location on the West Coast (some have called it the ‘original’ Portland), all the different cultural influences and the fact it’s a major city. But what I was less prepared for was how good the food would be over on Vancouver Island, where we headed for a road trip to celebrate Jamie’s 30th birthday.

Our gorgeous hotel, The Fairmont Empress
Victoria's gawgeous Parliament Building lit up all pretty at night

After an insanely beautiful ferry crossing and a short drive, we got to Victoria, BC’s capital, hungry, so we were pretty pleased to find an outdoor waterfront eatery called Red Fish Blue Fish – a West Coast take on a fish and chip shop. We knew it was going to be good because there was a huge queue (always easier to take when it’s sunny) and there were people sat all over the wooden wharf eating fish and chips and fish tacos that looked delightful. While we were waiting we read a board next to the kitchen which explained that all the fish and seafood is part of the Ocean Wise Vancouver Aquarium program. It’s similar scheme to MSC in the UK – ensuring restaurants are using sustainably caught or farmed fish and seafood.

The queue at Red Fish Blue Fish
Some delicious tacones in the making
Scallop and temupura fish sub

We had some amazing tuna, Fanny Bay oyster and shrimp tacones, and next time I’m definitely going back for the fish and chips and tempura fish subs – this was the first time I realised that in this neck of the woods, it’s quite normal to have halibut, rather than haddock, as the basis for fish and chips. Oh yeah.

We didn’t want to fill up too much though, because we were having dinner at our hotel – the legendary Fairmont Empress which overlooks the town’s Inner Harbour and beautiful Parliament Building. We ate in the ‘Empress Room‘, which is old school in the best possible sense – all plush carpets, heavy wood furniture and linen table cloths – but not in the least bit stuffy, thanks to the food and staff. In my experience, they don’t really do stuffy over there.

Cheers! A nice glass of BC sparkling wine, with pinot gris and riesling

Our waiter Marc was a bit of a riot – he kept us smiling with his stories and maitre d Kirk gave us a tasting tour through British Columbian terroir with his selection of wines from the Okanagan Valley. I had no idea that Canada was producing such amazing wines – including some distinctly Burgundian Chardonnays and silky Pinot Noirs. Like I said, they don’t export much, so I fully intend to get my fill while I’m over there.

My lobster and sweetbread risotto at the Fairmont Empress
Sablefish baby
Marc working his magic on the drinks trolley

The food was farm-to-fork West Coast fine dining at its finest. My risotto of sweet lobster and crispy sweetbreads with truffle sounded like it could have been too much, but while it was creamy and incredibly rich, it was elegant and perfectly balanced, and left me enough room to really appreciate my delicious sablefish – similar to halibut but more oily – with Mediterranean vegetables. A plate of local cheeses for dessert further revealed the restaurant’s dedication to using the best local produce – apart from one, they all came from Salt Spring Island – which I’ve heard is something of a haven for ingredients. This is something I’ll be investigating further once I get back there.

If you ever do find yourself in Victoria, staying or having the famous afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress, make sure you try the honey. It’s made with bees they keep themselves out in the garden, and given the climate and wealth of flora, it’s really special. They even put some in the peanut butter at breakfast, which is out of this world.

The bees at the Fairmont Empress
Gorgeous blooms in the grounds of the hotel
Our room

My trip was supported by www.BritishColumbia.travel and BC Ferries

Tacos, Japadogs and a LOT of sushi… welcome to Vancouver

A heron near Stanley Park

A week ago today I was dancing to Daft Punk (and then later, and much more sexily, to Right Said Fred) in the Tiki bar at the Waldorf Hotel in Vancouver, a pint of Aperol Spritz in my hand, my belly full from an incredible meal at Chinese brasserie Bao Bei (more on that soon), and my nose freckly and golden from the sun. Now I’m back in England, waiting, like everyone else, for summer to make an appearance.

Chef Joel Watanabe from at the pass in Bao Bei

I’d popped over to visit my boyfriend who’s out there on an ‘Explore Canada’ visa, and also to do a recce because I’m going to be going to join him, and doing some work out there for a few months as of August: woo hoo!

Before we met, Canada had been vaguely on my hit list of places to go visit and eat in, but it was more Toronto, with its award-winning food market and big name restaurants (hello David Chang) that seemed to be pulling me in. But, having just got back, I can happily say that Vancouver, aside from being one of the most beautiful places on earth, has one of the best food scenes – food cultures, even – that I’ve ever experienced, and I am absolutely champing at the bit (love that phrase) to get back there.

In just under two weeks, I ate more tacos than I thought possible; had my fill – and then some – of super fresh sushi, feasted on amazing West Coast seafood – including oysters almost the size of my head – and tasted some incredible local beers and wines. The microbrewing scene is getting pretty big in Vancouver because the alcohol laws have been relaxed more recently, and it turns out British Columbia has a rather amazing wine region in the Okanagan Valley – an arid expanse where much of the country’s wine is produced. If like me, you’ve never considered Canadian wine, it’s probably because it’s so good and made in such small quantities that they keep it for themselves and little is exported.

Vancouver has one of North America’s largest Asian populations, including one of the most diverse Chinese diasporas, and as a result is a paradise for Asian food lovers like myself, with a wealth of Vietnamese, Japanese, Chinese and Korean eateries and shops. One of the first things we did when I arrived, after getting lightly sozzled on a bottle of prosecco with some juicy local strawberries, was go for sushi. Even the average places are better than most sushi restaurants in England, and you can get delicious sashimi for about $7-8 a plate – that’s a blumming fiver!

The 'Erotica Roll' at Kojima Sushi

Our favourite spot for the time being is Kojima Sushi. It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but I’m telling you the sushi is amazing and incredibly affordable. They bring you complimentary green tea when you start the meal, and the handmade rolls have hilarious names like the ‘Erotica roll’ ($8.25) – which we had to order, but it turned out to be an insanely delicious mix of crispy tempura yam with crab, avocado and topped with fresh raw salmon.

Me on 'The Drive'

Jamie lives near Commercial Drive in East Vancouver – and it felt like a bit of a home-from-home thanks to all the fresh grocery stores which are heaving with diverse ingredients – both local and more exotic. Wandering up to his house with my suitcase I had to keep stopping to gawp at all the big, green bunches of different kales (I’m obsessed), asparagus, herbs and bags of different coloured tortillas, various yummy looking breads and olives. There’s also a strong Italian community, so there are little delis with nice hams and freshly stuffed raviolis. It took all my strength not to bust in there and start grocery shopping before I’d even dumped my bag! Seriously looking forward to cooking with all this fresh produce on my return so watch this space for recipes, though fresh food is not cheap by any means, so they may have to be a bit on the frugal side.

Hot dog with fried noodles and pickled ginger on it? Yes please!

I’d heard about Japadogs – an inspired Vancouver invention of Japanese fusion hotdogs, which has stalls all over the city and one tiny little sit-down place. There’s a Japadogs in New York now, and it’s easy to see why – we’re talking about hot dogs (beef and pork) topped with things like fried noodles, bonito flakes, wasabi mayo, seaweed and miso. Umami doesn’t quite cover it. We shared three between us – a Yakisoba: pork wiener and fried yakisoba noodles, pickled ginger and seaweed ($7); a Teriyamo: beef wiener, teriyaki sauce, seaweed, Japanese mayo and fried onion ($4.75), and a Okonami: pork with Japanese sauce, Japanese mayo, bonito flakes and fried cabbage – along with some Shichimi and garlic shaken fries. I am still having cravings. They are SO GOOD!

Ooh yer - beef Teriyamo Japadog

Obviously all this eating needs to be offset with a bit of exercise, so while I was there I got back into cycling – something that’s fallen by the wayside along with any semblance of summer in the UK. It was great to be back on the bike and Vancouver is a VERY cycle friendly city – there are cycle paths all over it, and one of the best routes is the one down to Granville Island, one of Vancouver’s most happening neighbourhoods where there also happens to be a rather kick-ass food market and brewery…

Beautiful cherries at Granville Island Market

Oysters!
Candied salmon/salmon jerky is a big 'thing' here
Don't mind if I do
A tasting flight at the Granville Island Brewery
Jamie enjoying some Granville Island Brewery IPA

I know I’ll be coming back here in the summer to buy some special occasion meat or fish and seafood, and next time I want to head to Tony’s Cafe which, judging by the menu does a mean line in fried oysters and local fish dishes.

Brooklyn Bites: Governor, DUMBO

I landed in JFK in the midsts of a fleeting tornado. But they didn’t tell us that on the plane: “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s some cloud, wind and rain over JFK at the moment so we’re going to hold off landing until it’s cleared a little bit. We’ll be coming down in about 15 minutes, and you may experience some turbulence.” Diplomatically put. The whole cabin clapped and cheered when we landed with a not-very-fun amount of force that had most of the married couples around me closing their eyes, holding hands and suspending their long-held atheism to mutter quiet pleas under their breaths. The two-year-old next to me slept through the whole thing – something reassuring about that.

Brooklyn was sticky hot. The skies were black and it was pouring with rain. I drank a few cups of coffee and had a dip in the Aloft hotel’s pool to try and trick my body into believing it wasn’t really 1am, before heading out to the hottest new spot in town for a some culinary R&R.

Governor, which comes from the team behind Brooklyn Heights’ much acclaimed Colonie and DUMBO’s Gran Electrica, sits on a characterful, cobbled street by the waterfront and – with its warm lighting, huge glass windows and chic, well-designed interior – beckoned me in like only the promise of a good restaurant can.

In the two months since it opened, this place has been earning itself a good rep (including this two star review from the New York Times this week), which is not surprising given that the chef – one Brad McDonald – a softly spoken, Mississippi-born 32-year-old, has worked at Noma and Per Se. The 60-cover restaurant is split over three levels – a sweet little cocktail bar when you enter, where the barman kindly whipped me up a smooth, perky concoction of gin, grapefruit, pastis and egg white, and then the main floor with banquette seating and an open kitchen with a short counter where you can sit and watch McDonald and his 11 chefs do their thing. We were sat on the rather nice mezzanine level, which has dark wooden floors and views over the whole restaurant and kitchen, and is presided over by a small and attentive team of front of house staff.

And so to the food. McDonald describes it as “New American”. And what does he mean by that, exactly? Is it a la New Nordic? “I’m not sure yet,” he told me with a smile. “It’s a reflection of what American culture is, which is a melting pot. As a chef you can gain freedom by drawing on different cultures, and we do that in the way we treat locally-sourced ingredients. Some ‘New American’ chefs are taking traditional recipes like clam chowder and making them modern – we’re taking local ingredients and making them unique to us. In terms of technique – that comes from all over the place – places I’ve worked and seen have influenced that.”

All of this becomes clearer when the dishes – which vary from riffs on classic flavours to something altogether more esoteric – start to arrive. We begin with the snacks. Warm, crusty sourdough that’s made fresh in the restaurant everyday comes with a plate of fresh, crunchy, peppery radishes and a slick of thick, creamy house churned butter that’s topped with crunchy dehydrated chunks of cheese rind (a sort of in-house salt).

Then there’s the delicate, melt-away tapioca crackers filled with beautiful hand-chopped beef tartare, bound together by a subtle, but umami-laden mussel emulsion with ramp capers (capers made from the buds of wild ramps – a wild American allium), and topped with rocket. Pork gets its moment too, in the form of pickled trotter – cubes of glistening, succulent, gelatinous pig foot, lifted with astringency from the pickling, with velvety chunks of spicy eggplant on an aerated pork skin cracker: a well balanced, textural mouthful.

My favourite of these palate perkers though is the poached oysters on toast: small slices of the toasted sourdough forming a pleasingly crunchy backdrop for the luxuriant oysters, which have lost none of their iodine tone in the careful poaching, and are doused with an intense lobster emulsion – as heady as any bisque and garnished with pretty little garlic flowers.

Smoked tomato tartare is another revelation: clean cubes of soft, lightly smoked tomato flesh intensified by a deep, creamy mousse of mackerel, punctuated with crispy little fried sourdough croutons and purslane leaves that taste of green.

There were some uneasy side glances in my party with regards to a couple of the menu items. The first was labelled ‘live sea scallop, ponzu sauce and cilantro oil’ and I think evoked visions of large, pulsating molluscs sliding around the plate. In reality what came was a thing of beauty – a pearlescent scallop shell bearing delicate cubes of sweet, almost translucent raw scallop wonderfully matched to the citric ponzu and fragrant coriander oil. The dish was finished with a slick of house-made soy sauce, which was fuller and more flavourful than any soy I’ve ever tasted – the fermentation process palpable in its savoury depth of flavour.

McDonald explained to me how he inoculates soy beans and then leaves them in the restaurant’s cellar to ferment in order to make the sauce. “It means a lot to us to learn the process of making. So instead of pulling a soy sauce off the shelf, we’re making it ourselves, and generally we’re trying to do as much of the production as we can in-house, which I suppose is a more European approach,” he says.

Another dish that speaks of this very artisan ethos was the other controversial one. And it was controversial insomuch as it was a celery root dish and we had a celery sceptic in our midsts. I say ‘had’ here very deliberately because McDonald’s rendering of the ingredient just may have cured our celery cynic of his dislike of the ingredient, cleverly disguised as it was as mac n cheese. The chef had cooked thin ribbons of the vegetable like pasta, added lemon for freshness and smothered it in a smooth, creamy sauce of powerful American cheddar. Topping it off were waxy yellow flakes of preserved egg yolk that had been grated over the top adding a cheesy, salty kick. The dish was a real gem – at once familiar and entirely new – the strange, distinctive celery notes adding a whole other dimension to something traditionally considered low brow comfort food.

McDonald later showed me how he makes the preserved egg yolks, by sourcing embryonic eggs (which are just the yolks in the early stages) from his butcher, covering them in salt, sugar and black pepper, leaving them for a week, air drying and freezing them. It’s a big process for something that’s a tiny element of a dish – but it’s worth it for the distinctive flavour it adds, and this obsessive attention to the tiniest detail is what makes eating here so special. It speaks of the sort of thoughtful, trailblazing restaurants McDonald has cut his teeth in, and situates him among the cheffing elite.

But simplicity is also done well here. A bowl of sweet, fresh summer beans and shishito peppers – each one perfectly cooked, comes swimming in boisterous whipped-up salt cod and topped with a ruby drizzle of chorizo oil, which is spicy and almost fruity. It’s a stunning combination.

I’m still not sure what ‘Amish quail’ is exactly, but I do know that it was cooked until yieldingly tender and tasted delicious served alongside the best foie gras I’ve ever eaten: intensely salted and charred on the outside and wonderfully sweet, unctuous and light/creamy within. This came with spigarello: a sort of wild American spinach and a complex and addictive miso-squash caramel.

That epic ensemble brought us to the end of the savoury courses, and was followed by a flurry of distinctive, brilliantly executed desserts that included celery root cake (another hit with our reformed celery phobe) with pickled meringue and grape sorbet, which sounds incredibly weird but ate very well, and an impressive honey soufflé with an earl grey creme anglaise that spoke of some seriously well-fed bees.

Next time you’re any where near Brooklyn, I’d recommend booking a table at this joint. Because I’m pretty sure that pretty soon, that won’t be very easy.

Nashville Nosh: Mas Tacos Por Favor

One of my favourite things about being in the US is having access to really incredible, authentic Mexican food. During last year’s trip to LA I feasted on birria (stewed goat’s meat) at Carnitas Michoacan in Lincoln Heights, which you can read about here in my LA Cheap Eats piece for Futurespace magazine. On this jaunt to Nashville numerous people had recommended Mas Tacos Por Favor – a bricks and mortar incarnation of one of the city’s best-loved food trucks, which opened in the trendy, creative East Nashville neighbourhood in 2010.

From the outside, the restaurant – I say restaurant, but it’s really more of a shack – looks like it may have once been a garage, with its corrugated metal awning and barred windows, but its brightly painted exterior and ‘DELI-cious’ sign leave you in no doubt as to its new purpose. Inside, deep blue painted brick walls, colourful Mexican wall-hangings, fabrics and the eatery’s few mismatched wooden tables and chairs, along with a pinball machine and jukebox, lend the place a cool, rustic style that set the tone for the honest, but carefully conceived Mexican street food. And oh what food!

The menu here is scribbled in different coloured chalks on the blackboard above the hole-in-the-wall where you order, and can peep through to see the hip young things making the food. They’re surrounded by barrels of Mexican Coke: Coke made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup; and horchata: the fragrant Mexican rice milk drink flavoured with cinnamon.

We start with the corn dish – which is a Mexican version of corn on the cob and unquestionably the best corn of the trip. Rather than just being hot buttered, the freshly-cooked corn comes rolled in lime, chilli and cotija – a tart, crumbly-creamy, salty Mexican cow’s milk cheese that melts into the hot kernels. The overall sensation of eating this is a brilliant flavour rush of salt, spice, sour, citrus and sweet, which one of our group aptly describes as a “flavour explosion”.

Next comes a tortilla soup unlike any I’ve had before. It consists of a thin, spicy, sour chicken broth not totally dissimilar to the Thai tom yum, in which swims succulent pieces of chicken, perfectly ripe sliced avocado, sweet little cherry tomatoes and strips of fried tortilla. The whole thing is topped with melting, crumbling creamy Queso cheese and fresh cilantro (coriander to us Brits). It’s utterly delicious, refreshing, textural, fresh and satisfying.

This is all rather filling, but it would be a bit of a crime to not order a taco, so after weighing up the fried avocado and quinoa, and the ground beef with yukon potatoes and the pulled pork with red cabbage and spicy lime marinated onions, I finally settle on the chicken. This might sound like the boring option, but it’s anything but – arriving topped with charred, sweet onions, jalapeños, roasted tomatillo salsa, sour cream, cilantro and lime.

The flavours here are wonderful, all working together to create layers of taste to really savour, rather than stuff in your face at speed. And while this is something of a fancy taco, it’s a steal at just $3, washed down with a big cup of sweet, aromatic horchata which has been flavoured with vanilla and almond as well as cinnamon. Mas Tacos made a name for itself serving this colourful, creative Mexican cuisine out of a truck, and that’s fantastic, but after sampling this fresh, delicious food, it’s evident that it’s more than worthy of its permanent pitch on the thriving Nashville lunch spot scene.

Nashville Nosh: The Loveless Cafe

I’d been hearing a lot from my friend Lindsay, who lived in Nashville for six years and whose parents we’ve been staying with on this trip, about the ‘biscuits’ at The Loveless Cafe, a roadside eatery that has been serving them since 1951. Every time she spoke about them, I imagined a sort of cross between a cookie and a pancake, but as I discovered on eating them for myself at this local institution – they are in fact more like a savoury, bread-like buttermilk scone. At Loveless they’re served like bread as an accompaniment, with jams and preserves and that creamy white butter they do here. We get a plate of them almost as soon as we sit down amidst the bustling tables of people getting their country cuisine fix, and they’re still warm from the oven.

The biscuits, of which they make 4-7000 a day, are soft and buttery and utterly addictive – really hitting the spot after the 40 minute wait for our table, which is the norm here at this Southern favourite. Until recently they had been made by the same lady and keeper of the much-prized recipe – one Carol Fay Ellison who had worked at the restaurant for 30 years, and who sadly passed away in 2010. The name Loveless comes from the first owners to serve biscuits and country hams here – Lon and Annie Loveless, who took over in 1951, and the latter of who created the biscuit recipe.

I love the look of the place – the worn wooden floorboards, blue gingham table cloths and all the pictures of various celebrities and local figures that hang on the wall as you come in and speak to the servers, who reside above a tempting pie counter.

While the home-cured country ham is another thing this place is famous for, I wanted to get my first taste of Nashville’s famed Southern fried chicken here, and I’m not in the least bit disappointed by the crunchy, spicy, moist chicken that arrives along with a tub of vinegar-piqued coleslaw and sloppy, glossy mac and cheese.

The Loveless Cafe and Motel has been feeding hungry travellers using the US Highway 100 for over half a century, and despite having changed hands many times during that period, with the motel side of the business ceasing in the mid-80s, it retains its original character and specialities, like the biscuits, which have defined it from the beginning. If you ever find yourself in Nashville, do yourself a favour and swing by.

Nashville Nosh: The Catbird Seat

Sometimes when I mentioned to people that I was going on holiday to Nashville their eyes would glaze over. “Why would you go to Nashville? It’s known as ‘Nash Vegas,'” said the girl I met while eating some surprisingly good sushi at Charlotte airport during the wait for my connecting plane. People think it’s all country music and moonshine – and yes, there is a lot of that, but in the last few years Nashville has been reinventing itself, becoming known not just for its country music heritage, but for its brilliant garage rock bands – and for a new breed of food and drink places, that, when added to the Southern institutions already here, situate this Tennessee city as one of the most exciting places to eat in the US.

As readers of this blog might have noticed, I’ve become increasingly interested in American cuisine over the past couple of years, spending some time in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles and starting a French Dip sandwich stall in Brixton. When the chance came up to visit the South – home to some of the most interesting and distinctive of American cooking (as recently seen on menus from New York to London), it was just too good to miss. I had the added advantage of travelling with a friend who is from here, and whose parents kindly guided us through some of the must-visit places.

I’m going to be writing about Nashville for the Guardian so I won’t give everything away here, but here’s a post about two of the most remarkable places we’ve been so far.

Patterson House is a pre-Prohibition era style cocktail bar in a 17th century property in the Vanderbilt area of the city. It’s all dim lighting, dark wood, leather banquettes, antique metal ceiling tiles and very good cocktails – in the manner of places like The Varnish in LA or London’s Worship Street Whistling Shop. I go for a sharp and simple gimlet  – while the knowledgeable barman whips up a spicy, sour, fruity virgin creation for my friend who’s the designated driver.

Patterson House is part of the trailblazing Strategic Hospitality group of local venues, co-founded by local entrepreneur brothers Ben and Max Goldberg, and we also had seats at their new-ish restaurant which has quickly become the hottest culinary spot in town – The Catbird Seat – conveniently situated just upstairs.

The Catbird Seat is a chef’s table of restaurant with a total of 30 seats wrapped around the open kitchen where the two chefs – Erik Anderson and Josh Habiger, and their two sous work together to create and serve delicious seven course tasting menus. Erik and Josh met at the temple to Modernist gastronomy that is Alinea in Chicago (which you can read about here), and between them have worked at some of the world’s top restaurants, including Noma, The Fat Duck and The French Laundry. But rather than opening something in the fine dining mould of their former employers, with fawning front of house or 30-cook kitchens, the chefs came up with a plan to collaborate on a restaurant that would give them the chance to, as Josh puts it “cut out the middle man” and cook, serve and chat to the diners during service. Since it opened at the tail-end of last year, the restaurant has received a slew of accolades, including being named among America’s top ten new restaurants by American GQ, semi-finalling for a James Beard new restaurant award, with Josh and Erik being named Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs 2012.

Weirdly, it turns out that Erik was working at Noma the same time that I visited last year – so it may well be that I had unknowingly already been cooked for by him.

Left, Erik Anderson, right Josh Habiger

The food was a procession of brilliantly conceived courses, each with a few ingredients on the plate – put together with such relaxed flair by the chefs – who seemingly dance around each other finishing each other’s dishes – that you wouldn’t guess at the technical complexity behind them. The meal starts with some Southern-inspired ‘snacks’ – a beautiful oyster with oyster and yuzu puree, a corn bread cooked in duck fat and a piece of chile flavoured chicken skin – a riff on the famous Nashville hot chicken.

Each course was matched to an alcoholic beverage, beautifully chosen by the sommelier Jane, who the chefs knew from Chicago and who has a playful penchant for creating her own carbonated concoctions – such as this sake mixed with maple syrup delight.


Steak tartare was an elegant, nuanced take on the robust French classic, with chive flowers, ‘caper butts’, horse radish cream and Arctic char roe. A dish of braised and grilled pork belly came with pickled carrots, violet foam and a cold soup of ramps (local wild leeks), watercress and lavender – the rich, salty, fatty meat melting into the fresh, smooth green soup – the whole thing lifted by the light, floral violet foam.

This was one of my favourite dishes – a beautifully cooked piece of wood pigeon with white asparagus tips and hay-infused, caramelised yoghurt. The bird was served with the arm still on and the fat had been beautifully rendered into a golden crisp, with the pinky red, deep meat inside brilliantly offset by the woody, piquant yoghurt. According to Erik it was inspired by the tradition of cooking squab pigeon in hay, mixed with his Scandi influences.

This was an amazing creation: rabbit with veal mousse and nduja, served with snap peas. A fantastic combination of flavours. Also, you could put nduja with pretty much anything and I’d eat it.A delicious maple-infused egg custard with a salty bacon crisp. 
Dessert was brilliant – a dish of air-light cherry crisp with pineapple jelly, vanilla cake, oak ice cream and bourbon balls which burst in the mouth into little hits of alcohol – the sweet of the fruit and vanilla balanced by the creamy, smoky ice cream.
Catbird Seat’s food sets it apart from the other restaurants in the city thanks to its use of progressive cooking techniques and imaginative, avant garde combinations, but what makes it particularly remarkable is the way that these two chefs have decided to collaborate in such a way, cooking in full view of their diners. Here, food lovers who are so often shrouded from the excitement and theatre of the kitchen can get a rare and thrilling glimpse of two chefs at the top of their game working side by side with all the ease and cadence of a well-rehearsed rock band. And they have tattoos to match. Well, we are in Music City USA.

Noma: a video

Fishy Æbleskiver at Noma
Fishy Æbleskiver at Noma

Savoury biscuits, as described by Sam in the vid

Hay smoked quails' eggs

I have a very shameful confession to make. Last summer I went to Noma in Copenhagen – René Redzepi’s temple to New Nordic cuisine which currently holds the ‘Best Restaurant in the World’ accolade – and enjoyed one of the most delicious and extraordinary meals of my life. And I didn’t blog about it. Not one thing. I suppose I couldn’t find the words. But I did manage to shoot some very shaky footage on my iPhone, which, having just purchased my first Mac (about time right?) I have been able to fashion into something resembling a video of parts of our meal. I think it’s quite a good way of representing the food we enjoyed, because so much of it had an interactive element that is hard to portray in print. Anyway, please excuse the strange sound quality and amateur editing. I will get better!

Noma, Copenhagen from Rosie Birkett on Vimeo