Restaurant crush: Lardo

photo

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.

photo

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.

photo

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.

photo

photo

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!

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.

ALOHP roams: The Dylan, Amsterdam

IMG_2987

A matter of months ago, I had never been to Holland. This how now been remedied, and thanks to a fine twist of work-related fate, I’ve actually just been there twice in the past month. On both trips, I had the good fortune of being a guest of the Dylan boutique hotel in Amsterdam. As you can hopefully see from the photos, it’s quite something.

 While you might not guess it from the state-of-the-art in-room facilities (the minibar, pictured, has got to be the best one I’ve ever seen), The Dylan has a long and colourful history dating back to the 1600s, and was one of the first buildings on the Keizersgracht canal.First a theatre, and then a Roman Catholic poor house, this 40-bedroom property still retains many of its historic original features, with heavy wooden beams, rickety staircases (don’t worry, there are elevators too) and building inscriptions in old Dutch. But this is very much a contemporary property, steeped in a chic luxury aesthetic. The interior was originally designed by Anouska Hempel in 1999 (and refurbished in 2007 by FG Stijl), and the British designer’s touches are still dotted about, with each of its individually styled rooms offering their own charms. The hotel is named after the poet Dylan Thomas, and it certainly has a tranquil, artistic quality to it that makes it the sort of place you’d want to stay if you happened to be in Holland trying to write your novel. Situated near the trendy ‘nine street’ Negen Straatjes shopping district, canal views, warm, skilful service and a Michelin-starred restaurant make this hotel a good base from which to explore the city, but also a destination in its own right.

And what of the restaurant? Vinkeles is one of just five restaurants in the Dutch capital to hold one Michelin star – situating it as one of the best places to eat in the city – and it doesn’t disappoint. The chef is home-grown talent Dennis Kuipers, an alumnus of Alain Senderens and member of the Dutch Guild of Master Chefs, whose culinary style has its roots firmly in classical French cuisine.

The warm, understated dining room features original 18th century baking ovens – an atmospheric nod to the hotel’s past as an alms house – but the cuisine is anything but austere. Kuipers deftly balances traditional French technique with quality ingredients (some sourced from the local Lindengracht market which is worth a visit) and exciting, fresh flavour combinations like soft, rare veal knuckle with sweet roasted langoustines and curry mayonnaise, and exquisitely tender Anjou pigeon served with its crispy confit leg, tangy kidney and a rich jus with a hint of five spice.

He’s unafraid to use luxury ingredients, putting a modern spin on classic combinations like caviar and pomme puree in his Pommes Tsarine dish – a generous mound of oscietra caviar with smooth crème fraîche sorbet topped with light, fluffy potato espuma (pictured).

Service is excellent, and the sommelier is keen to showcase fantastic, unusual wines from lesser-known regions.

Brilliantly, guests can also enjoy the Vinkeles gastronomic experience on board ‘The Muze’ – a renovated 19th century river cruiser with a private skipper which will take you on a beautiful trip through Amsterdam’s canals as the chef prepares his menu onboard.

Speaking from experience, this has to be one of the most romantic European gastronomic experiences out there. We sipped Champagne while Old Blue Eyes soothed out of the boat’s speakers and the chef paraded various tasty treats fashioned in the tiny boat kitchen.

 

Letter from Argentina: empanadas, asado and A LOT of wine

La Boca, Buenos Aires

In November I was taken on a press trip by Wines of Argentina. Lucky, lucky me. Over the course of six days I would explore a country I’d been lusting over for years, meet some lovely fellow journalists and wine folk, and drink more Malbec than a City boy with a drink problem. The overriding impression after days of visits to wineries in Mendoza (where 70% of the country’s wine production occurs), Salta and Cafayate was one of a wine industry populated by incredibly passionate winemakers, producing wines of excellent quality, value and unique character, thanks to the country’s widely ranging climates and terroirs. And while almost all of the producers we met were keen to show us their Malbecs – this is, after all, the Argentinian wine – we discovered that there is so much more to the region, tasting some excellent Pinot Noirs, fragrant Torrontes and Viogniers.

Wine tasting and family snaps at Hacienda Del Plata, Mendoza

We saw small-scale, family-owned operations like Hacienda Del Plata (above), which produces just 55,000 bottles a year and is run by the Gonzalez family, who siphoned some of their spicy 100% Malbec straight out of the American oak barrel for us.

The organic, biodynamic 100 year old Krontiras vineyard in Mendoza

And we dipped into the biodynamic winemaking movement at the beautifully wild Krontiras vineyard, where whole hedgerows of overgrown rose bushes flank the 110 year-old vines. Here we drank chilled, surprising fresh Malbec from this year’s harvest.

But we also visited wine making giants like Clos de los Siete, a collection of five state-of-the-art wineries (one of which belongs to Benjamin de Rothschild) overseen by lauded wine consultant Michel Rolland, where visitors can hire horses to wander through the vines and eat gourmet fare in its restaurants.

Horse back vine observations at Clos De Los Siete in the Uco Valley

At the Dutch-owned Salentein, also in the Uco Valley, we were amazed by the imposing architecture of the winery – with its vast glass and concrete structure that looks, from the outside, like some kind of sinister Bond villain’s lair. Inside, a cavernous sunken wine room is filled with oak barrels, with a grand piano in the centre of the room – an indication of this producer’s dedication to the arts. Salentein has its own gallery showcasing some of Argentina’s finest artists alongside a small Dutch collection.

The amazing barrel room at Salentein. But where are the sacrificial goats?

I will be writing about the wine makers we visited in more detail next year for Waitrose Kitchen magazine – so keep an eye out for that.

And what of the food!? We sampled everything from chic, high-end restaurant cuisine – which in Buenos Aires and Mendoza competed with anything you might find in New York or London. Ingredients were often hyper-local and restaurant repertoires usually drew heavily from Mediterranean techniques and flavours, while the more rustic, traditional meals we had were astounding in their simplicity. We tried empanadas of all shapes, sizes and fillings, because recipes for the speciality – which has its origins in Moorish cuisine – are fiercely regional. In the Uco Valley we learned how to make them according to the Mendozian method, and I’ll be putting up a recipe soon – but my particular favourite was one filled with a gooey, peppery morcilla (Argentinian blood sausage) that we ate during a tasting with Argento Wines.

Making empanadas in the Uco Valley

Obviously there was a large amount of insanely tasty cow involved on the trip – though I got the feeling many of our hosts assumed we’d been bombarded with steak and gave us alternatives, so plenty of pork, deer and veal were consumed too.

Veal tenderloin wrapped in ham with smashed potato and truffle sauce at Restaurant Familla Zuccardi, Mendoza

Not to mention asado – the traditional Argentinian barbecue whereby different cuts of meat and sausages are slowly roasted over glowing charcoal – never a direct flame – giving them the most delicious and intense flavour. If you’re lucky, desserts will involve some form of dulce de leche – the insanely moreish sweet delicacy of sticky milk caramel.

Coffee is also done incredibly well here, and in Buenos Aires, which was ablaze with violet jacaranda trees when we visited, we ventured to Cafe Tortoni, one of the city’s oldest, and best-loved coffee houses (there was a queue when we arrived), for a restorative caffeine fix.

Cafe Tortoni on Avenue de Mayo, Buenos Aires

I went for an iced cappucino, which was thick, cool and sweet and flavoured with orange and cinnamon:

Iced cappucino

At Casa Cruz restaurant in the plush Palermo neighbourhood of the city, we feasted on tomato tatin stuffed with a rich goats cheese, onion and herb filling, followed by white salmon wrapped in an almost-caramelised ham served on deep, smoky lentils.

White salmon and lentils at Casa Cruz

Our first really traditional meal of empanadas and asado came at the beautiful House of Jasmines hotel, a boutique Relais and Chateaux property in Salta – which – get this, used to belong to Robert “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” Duvall.

Empanadas!
Mmmmmmeat
Sausages cooking over the asado

The meat just kept coming! And that is pretty much the story of eating in Argentina. When we drove through the little remote villages on the beautiful drive from from Salta to Cafayate, we were amazed by how many butchers each one had – every other building seemed to be advertising meat or chicken (or, more incongruously, Coca Cola) – because this is what their diet consists of. And they waste nothing. Offal, charcuterie and blood sausage ensure there’s no such thing as meat monotony. You’ll find it hard if you don’t eat animals, but if you do, expect to taste some of the best meat you’ve ever had. And surely there are few things better than eating wonderfully free range meat, washed down with interesting, well-made wines against a backdrop of astounding natural beauty?

The journey from Salta to Cafayate is a glorious drive past rust red sandstone hills and canyons

My new favourite place: Ducksoup

Harissa with creme fraiche and burnt lemon

Believe the buzz. Ducksoup – and I’m not talking about the 1933 Marx Brothers film – is the shizzle. Or at least, it was when I lunched there last week – packed tightly into my rickety wooden chair on the tiny, jewel box ground floor of Soho’s latest small plates restaurant. As I dashed inside, out of the freakish heat, I noticed that the faded ‘Zilli’ logo was still visible on the restaurant’s sun curtain (I know there’s another word for that – help me out please, someone?), but this is a far cry from the vegetarian celeb cheffery of its predecessor. On the bar  – which takes up the majority of the small room – was a handsome looking ham, and some Tête de Moine, and behind it stood the unshaven Julian Biggs (below) – the former executive chef from Hix restaurants, who has struck out on his own with ex Hix Oyster & Chop restaurant manager Rory McCoy to open this place.

Wines, many of them natural (I spotted the divine Alsation biodynamic grower Binner’s Les Saveurs Alsace 2009) are written up on the blackboard, and there’s a very pretty copper stand temptingly filled with chilling fizz. We were in a hurry, and this was a working lunch, so we just went for tap water – which was gracefully brought in a little ceramic jug.

hand-written menu

The biro-scrawled menus are adorable, but cutest of all is the restaurant’s ‘bring your own vinyl‘ policy, whereby you can put your own records on the little player that sits on a shelf near the corner. We lunched to the nostalgic harmonies of Simon and Garfunkel, and I couldn’t help fantasising about what might happen if I disrupted the cool vibe by busting out my Wings (“only the band the Beatles could’ve been”)  EP…

Ducksoup is one of those places that is good value, but not cheap. Small plates are £7 and bigger, main-sized portions are double that at £14, which makes sense. You’re paying for quality produce here, and, thanks to the accomplished cooking, you can really taste it. It’s very much in the St John/Terroirs school of not putting more than three or four ingredients on each plate – with vibrant flavour combinations and everything impeccably fresh. Despite being a former Hix boy, Biggs is very much looking to the Med here – there’s a lot of olive oil, herbs and regional cheeses. We shared the toast with lardo, girolles and parmesan – which was fresh, juicy and moreish:

lardo toast with girolles and parmesan

Then came the plump, tender lamb cutlets, grilled until the fat had caramelised and crisped – but still moist and juicy and simply dressed with fresh torn marjoram and a delicious slick of fruity olive oil.

Lamb cutlets with marjoram

Our third and final dish was the star dish, and had me chewing on the bones, trying desperately to get the most minute scrap from the carcass – it was that good. One perfect golden little quail, nicely seasoned and served with brilliant simplicity, accompanied by just half a burnt lemon and a bowl of crème fraiche which was marbled with saffron-coloured harissa. Harissa goes so bloody well with quail! And the crème fraiche gave a piquant, indulgent edge to the dish. I just wish we’d ordered the big one.

Quail, crème fraiche, harissa and burnt lemon

Our bill came to to £28 for two, which isn’t bad – but we didn’t have wine or dessert. Go to Ducksoup I’d say, go and eat all you can while you can still get a table.

41 Dean Street, Soho, London, W1D 4PY

Spuntino: when old and new Soho collide

Spuntino is hidden in the depths of Soho's porn district

“This is real, old Soho,” says Russell Norman as he leans on the bar of Spuntino. Through the window, just across the way, neon signs for ‘DVD Extra XXX’ and ‘£2 Peep show’ are offering the sort of entertainment that Soho was famous for long before Norman stormed the district, redefining London dining with his boutique Venetian/down-town Manhattan inspired eateries. Of course the location is deliberate – it’s part of Norman’s fascination with the grimy underbellies of cities and the miraculous eating and drinking dens that often populate them.

Norman commissioned the cage work for the lights months ago

A three minute walk from Piccadilly Circus tube, Spuntino is the newest opening from a man who has become known for his individual take on cool, informal urban dining; penchant for small plates; and obsessive attention to stylistic detail. He tells me that he carried his flea market goose-head lamps that hang from the restaurant’s wall in his hand luggage back from New York; and that he consumed approximately 5000 calories a day, eating his way round the city in search of inspiration for Spuntino’s menu. “I had to,” he shrugs.

The wonderfully rusty tin roof  was also shipped over from the States, but the battered white tile walls and faded blue mosaic work that give the space such a bohemian feel were very happily uncovered during the build. So too was the alcove that now fits a high wooden table and stools. Getting a seat round that  – the only stand alone table in the snack bar – from here on in will be a near-impossible task, I’m sure.

Table in the alcove at Spuntino

Sitting around the large bar, we order eggplant chips (£4) and stuffed fried olives (£4) to start, and I’m thrilled by the delicate spicing of cumin and fennel that covers the sesame coated fries. They come with a fresh, zesty fennel yoghurt dip. Olives are fat, crispy and stuffed with anchovy, the perfect way to get warmed up.

Eggplant chips and stuffed olives

Sliders follow –  ground beef and bone marrow (£4.50) and Brick Lane salt beef with pickle and Colman’s mustard (£4.50) and they are totally yumsome. The mini ground beef burger is rich and gooey with marrow, and the salt beef is seriously savoury and moreish, with a good sinus-clearing kick from the Colman’s.

A salad of rocket, beets and salted ricotta (£5.50) comes dressed in a tangy vinaigrette, the quality of the olive oil shining through, while pistachios add a lovely salty crunch. Braised chicory with speck (£6.50) is a lush, melting contrast of flavours, the bitterness of the endive cutting through the ham beautifully, while mac & cheese (£8) comes in a skillet steaming hot, topped with crispy breadcrumbs and laden with molten cheese. Chef Rachel O’Sullivan (formerly sous chef at Polpo) has dumped the béchamel to make more room for the cheese and the result is a real flavour hit that should come with an ‘stringy cheese on chin’ warning.

Mac & cheese

Desserts are certainly not an afterthought.  The Spuntino take on the famous American peanut butter and jelly sandwich (£6.50)  is, in practise, a sophisticated affair – a crisp, sweet brittle crumbled atop of a slick of salty-smooth peanut butter puree and intense raspberry jelly.  Pineapple and liquorice ice cream (£5.50) is a nice mixture of temperatures and textures – the pineapple cut into juicy, wafer thin waves and the liquorice ice cream a smooth, creamy hit of aniseed.

Pineapple and liquorice ice cream

Stylish as it is, Spuntino certainly has culinary substance too. It’s a welcome addition to Soho and another winner from Russell Norman, but it’s smaller than both Polpo and Polpetto, and boasts ‘no telephone, no reservations’, so be prepared to queue. You could always pop in for a quick £2 peep show while you wait.

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

The dining room at Dinner

The buzz surrounding Heston Blumenthal’s first London restaurant, Dinner, which opened on the 31st of January, has been Brobdingnagian in its proportions. Early reviews from Giles Coren and Matthew Fort rhapsodised about its brilliance, and the morning that I visit The Sun has published an article by Alex James that calls the food at Dinner “the best I’ve ever seen”. I never thought the day would come when I’d read the former-bassist of Blur writing about a three-Michelin starred chef in The Sun, but there you go. It has an estimated readership of eight million.

That same day there’s also a piece in the G2 by the Guardian’s historian Tristram Hunt, that sets the restaurant’s food within its historical context. These glowing but disparate reviews seem to reflect the fundamental USP that makes Blumenthal so appealing – his aptitude for embracing both the dizzy-heights of gastronomy and the more humble national food institutions like Little Chef and hospital fare.

The clock-mechanism that controls the rotisserie

The day that I visit, I meet him at the chef’s table, opposite the pass where Dinner head chef and long-term culinary co-conspirator Ashley Palmer-Watts is overseeing the proceedings. Despite accommodating a veritable media frenzy during the not-exactly-relaxing experience of opening a restaurant, Blumenthal manages to retain his sense of humour, relaying an anecdote that sums up the somewhat ludicrous predicament of the modern-day celebrity chef.

“I was here doing an interview with a journalist the other day,” he says, referring to the chef’s table, which is enclosed by mirrored panelling. “And I was keeping an eye on the service through the mirrors. At one point I called Ashley over to query something and the journalist was like, ‘how did you know that?’. I told her I’d been watching the pass during our conversation and she said, ‘oh good! I just thought you’d become really conceited and obsessed with your own reflection.'”

But this is no vanity project – and Blumenthal has been intentionally vocal about Palmer-Watts’ role in the development of the restaurant, insisting that he share the limelight throughout promoting the opening. Palmer-Watts clearly shares Blumenthal’s vision and enthusiasm, beckoning me over to the pass and asking me what I’m going to order so that he can feed me tasters of dishes I won’t be trying. I sip a thin, impossibly intense broth of lamb, which on the plate is diluted by the runny yolk of a slow-cooked egg, and a spoonful of piquant cockle ketchup, which immediately jolts my memory back to the pickled cockles of my childhood. I’m overwhelmed by the flavour of both.

Kitchen with a view: the horse guards proceed past the kitchen

Dinner is the sort of restaurant that sets my heart racing a little bit. The room is visually stunning – spacious and light, with huge windows overlooking Hyde Park – through which we see the horse guards proceeding past – and two incredible Medieval-style black chandeliers dominating the ceiling. Beneath a gargantuan clock mechanism on the glass box open kitchen’s wall that controls the rotisserie inside, pineapples roast on spits in front of flickering flames from the open gas fire. This is a space for enjoyment – it’s history-meets-modernity in a thrillingly sexy synergy, and diners can’t fail to be dazzled by the artistry, thought and expense that has gone into this project.

And what of the food? We all know about the food concept by now – how Blumenthal and Palmer-Watts have spent months delving into the dusty archives of Britain’s food history, researching recipes that go back as far as the Middle Ages and using them to inspire their modern and technically brilliant cooking. Each dish therefore has a circa date, and the back of the menu cites the documents from which this inspiration is drawn, with the friendly, well-versed waiting staff on-hand to share their knowledge too.

Hay smoked mackerel (c.1730)

I start with a plate of ‘hay smoked mackerel’ (c.1730). Delicate, lightly-smoky, almost-translucent and impeccably fresh slivers of fish are clean-tasting and joyful. A creamy, deep and umami-packed slick of gentleman’s relish adds moisture and another layer of flavour, with the citric astringency of the lemon salad rounding the dish off nicely.

Rice & flesh (c. 1390)

Next comes ‘rice & flesh’ (c. 1390), which is based on a recipe from what is believed to be the earliest cookbook written by ‘the Master-Cooks of King Richard II’, a scroll called ‘The Forme of Cury’. It’s a rich and beautiful risotto, sharp and heady with saffron and dotted with the tastiest little nuggets of calf tail, which fall apart in the mouth. The calf tail is crisp on the outside, but shot-through with unctuous gelatine and topped with fresh, earthy micro cress.

Beef royale (c. 1720)

I smell the ‘beef royale’ (c.1720) before the waiter puts it down. The dark hunk of meat has been slow-cooked for 72 hours and has a delicious depth to it, as well as a profoundly savoury smokiness that is heightened by the smoked anchovy and onion puree. Tiny jewels of ox tongue add yet more layers of meaty flavour, while soft, caramelised shallots and melting carrots offset with a lift of sweetness.

Pudding is ‘tipsy cake’ (c.1810) – the dish that features the alluring spit-roasted pineapple – soft, warm, fruity-sweet and slightly acidic which comes alongside some impossibly light and buttery brioche served in a cast-iron vessel. ‘Brown bread ice cream’ (c.1830) is a cool, savoury and sour thrill for the mouth, with a crunchy biscuit base adding some sweetness.

Tipsy cake (c. 1810)

This is expertly-executed, world-class cooking which, while hearty and hugely satisfying, has real technique behind it. Aside from the bells and whistles of the dining room, the historical context and the status of the chef, this is food that you will find yourself drooling about every time you remember it.

The already-famous ice cream trolley

Restaurant Review: Jamie’s Italian, Birmingham



I found myself in Birmingham – the land of pleasant taxi drivers, balti houses and a growing culinary scene – not so long ago. I was up there for an Arcade Fire gig (there were only seated tickets left at the 02 and I’d rather snog Brian Blessed than sit down to Arcade Fire) but of course we wanted to make the most of some Brummy hospitality before the big show. My first thoughts went to Glynn Purnell‘s new place The Asquith – his French neighbourhood restaurant in Edgbaston which has already wowed the local critics, but we were arriving at an odd time and needed to be at the venue by just-gone seven, so anything on the fine dining spectrum wasn’t really an option.

Instead we opted for the new Jamie’s Italian at the Bullring in the city centre. I’d still never eaten in any of Jamie Oliver‘s restaurants and was interested to see for myself how the most recent outpost of his Italian casual dining chain (which was a convenient five minute cab ride from our Ramada Encore hotel) would fare. This is a man whose 30 Minute Meals cookbook recently became the fastest-selling non-fiction book of all time, and there’s no doubting the power, influence and affluence of the guy, but what of his restaurants?

His latest addition certainly doesn’t scrimp on the visuals. Part of the city’s massive shopping hub complex, it’s got a vast, impressive industrial chic interior – all gleaming metal pipes, wooden floors and exposed light bulbs – and the whole space dominated by a huge, striking chandelier. There’s faded tan leather banquettes, a long open kitchen at the back with the chefs in full view, and a mezzanine level with rather posh Thomas Crapper facilities.

As soon as we arrived we greeted by the front of house team, who seemed to have already bedded-in pretty well, and shown to our table by our waiter, “Patrick”. I’m still not sure how I feel about having the first name of your waiter drilled into you (am I supposed to introduce myself too?), but for the record, Patrick was fabulous. After bringing us the obligatory glass of Prosecco, we ordered a seasonal ‘plank’ of Italian charcuterie to start with (anything that merges construction lexicon and pig products is fine by me.)

Shortly afterwards he followed with said plank – strewn with hams, salami, cheese, olives and all sorts of rustic goodies. Stand-outs were the fennel salami, pistachio mortadella and soft, melty San Daniele prosciutto. Seasonal pickled veg added a piquant twist and huge, juicy olives were devoured in seconds. At £6.95 each, it was an absolute steal and the best part of the meal.

The seasonal meat antipasti plank

For our main courses we’d both gone for pasta, with the philosophy that any restaurant group building its whole brand around Italian cooking had to be serving some properly unbeatable pasta dishes. I’m sorry to say that we were wrong. Before I get into this, I just want to make it clear that I’m not a part of the Jamie-bashing massive. I’ve liked the chef since he first appeared on our screens as a hyper-active, scooter-riding, market trader bothering young thing back in the late 90s, and I think that he actually deserves commending, rather than criticising for the culinary do-gooding he’s done in recent years.

But our pasta dishes didn’t sing as I’d hoped they would. I ordered rabbit ragu parpadelle (£11.35), the ragu of which came sans tomato – letting the lovely flavour of the slow-braised wild rabbit shine through. On the flipside though, it was rather dry, and could have done with a bit more mascarpone/olive oil to lubricate it. But it was the parpadelle that was the real problem. I was expecting smooth sheets of buttery pasta, but instead got a strangely frilly variant (below), which, when mixed with the too-dry ragu, made for a claggy mouth-feel.

Strange frilly parpadelle

My chum had gone for the cockle linguine (below) – which is made simply with chilli and garlic. The problem with dishes like that is that they have to be really, really excellent to avoid just being a bowl of boiled pasta with a smattering of cockles. Sadly this was the latter. It wasn’t unpleasant – according to my friend – rather it lacked flavour and sparkle and again, seemed rather sticky and heavy.  The cockles were fresh, juicy, and nicely-cooked, she said, but the rest of the dish didn’t demand to be savoured. Which it should,  for £13.35.

Cockle linguine

It’s not that either of our main courses were particularly nasty. It’s more that they were underwhelming and lacked the deliciousness you’d expect from a pasta dish in a great Italian restaurant. That said, considering that this is Italian food aimed at the masses, the menu isn’t run-of-the-mill. Scallop and squid ink angel hair (£13.90) sounded lovely, as did Buffalo ricotta ravioli (£10.55), and most of it, while not hugely cheap, seems fairly priced. The carafe of buttery, unoaked organic Chardonnay that we enjoyed was a joy, as was the service throughout the meal.

Jamie’s Italian is a good thing for Birmingham. It’s a stylish, spacious restaurant with efficient, friendly service and decent Italian food – the perfect place to drop in for a quick, tasty lunch with a bunch of mates if you’re in town, or indeed on your way to a gig. But celebrity-chef endorsed or not, it’s a fast-paced, big operation, and if it’s magical, authentic Italian food you’re after, I’d suss out something smaller and Italian-run.

Restaurant review: El Pirata, Mayfair

When I was a kid, we used to go camping in Spain and France every summer holiday in our Conway Tardis (a sort of weird caravan/trailer tent hybrid). My parents would let me and my sister amuse ourselves for hours in the surroundings of whichever restaurant they’d chosen to settle in while they indulged in its epicurean delights. After sating our childish palates with whatever our mum could salvage from the menu, we’d get down from the table and go and explore, getting terribly excited if there was a beach, any other kids, or a children’s play area nearby.

Our favourite restaurant in northern Spain was fondly renamed ‘Papa Smurf’s’ because it had a wonderful electric Smurf ride outside it where we spent many a happy hour (and a fair few pesetas) piggy-backing the lunging blue creature. But it wasn’t just its superior taste in children’s entertainment that set Papa Smurf’s apart – it did the most amazing omelettes. Custard yellow, perfectly salted, light and fluffy omelettes that actually managed to take my infant mind off the thrusting blue geriatric lurking outside. I was reminded of the simple eggy enjoyment of this dish again recently during dinner at El Pirata in Mayfair, which, like Papa Smurf’s, brings a bit of that infectious Spanish hospitality to London.

Yummy tapas

The restaurant is something of a legend in Mayfair – and I’d guess that this has as much to do with its front of house and bar team as it is its classic tapas, hence the fact that it’s packed when we visit. If you work in the area you’ve probably ended up there on many a night, in search of solace from the glitz, glamour and expense of Nobu et al. Walk into its unassuming entrance and you’re immediately drawn to the long bar’s spirit collection, which glistens with promise.

Paintings crowd the walls, giving the place an intimate, Vicky Christina Barcelona-type feel, and the centre of the restaurant is dominated by the black spiral staircase that leads down into a bigger restaurant space. But I’d try to get a table upstairs if you can, where you’re still within earshot of the bustling kitchen and close to the happenings of the bar. Bread and a deliciously garlicky aioli are the first things to pass our lips – the bread a pleasant vehicle for the creamy, zingy mayo. We order some of the black foot ham, which though not cheap at £18.50, comes in a generous portion of wafer thin slices strewn across a large plate, and is divine – salty yet fruity, with a melt-in-the-mouth texture.


The burned green chillies are fantastic – squishy and bitter, imparting a savoury tingle and incredibly moreish. Prawns come sizzling in olive oil with a devilish amount of chilli and garlic, and calamari is light, succulent and buttery. A generous wedge of Spanish tortilla is eggy-a-la-Papa-Smurf’s, savoury and satisfying, and perfect with the meatballs – they come steaming and topped with freshly cut parsley, swimming in a rich tomato sauce.


Octopus in lemon and paprika is a treat for the palette, soft and moreish and lovingly spiced. A dish of spinach, pine nut, parmesan and rocket salad refreshes, while griddled asparagus is dotted with crunchy salt crystals but glaringly out of season. One dish that really trumps is a medley of fried egg, crispy potato, ham and prawns, which is a perfect balance of textures and flavours. This is fresh, well-cooked Spanish food served honestly and generously, without pretensions. To wash it down is a very well-priced regional wine menu bursting with warm riojas. After all that food we can’t face dessert, which is when the waiter suggests the hazelnut liqueur – short, sweet and with a definite kick to it.


It might not have a body-popping sit-on smurf ride outside, but El Pirata is a rare find in this area – an affordable, buzzy restaurant that offers a genuinely warm welcome and delicious food and drink. It’s the sort of place you can throw your head back and laugh in, while savouring the classic flavours of Spanish tapas made simply, with quality ingredients and authentic flair. What’s not to love?


El Pirata Mayfair
5-6 Down Street
Mayfair
W1J 7AQ

Tel: 020 7491 3810

First published at The London Word