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

Mr Choi’s Swiss chard, onion and three cheese tarts

I’ve spoken to you before about the amazing Mr Choi. He’s our landlord in Vancouver, his favourite catchphrase is ‘holy mackerel!’ and he keeps a mean kitchen garden. But he’s anything but mean. In fact, he couldn’t be more generous with the bountiful fresh produce he grows, and is always knocking on our door with armfuls of amazing things. So far we’ve had the sweetest, most delicious tomatoes, fragrant basil and these prickly Mexican pears which I’m yet to successfully cook.

This time he brought us Swiss chard – a huge glossy bunch of it. I had some cheese in the fridge which was going a little dry around the edges, some left over sour cream, half an onion and enough butter and eggs to make pastry, so I decided on making a tart out of the earthy greens. Then I realised I didn’t have a big tart dish, so it would have to be little tartlets. A bit more fiddly, but in fact the result was rather a hit – the earthy chard perfectly tempered by the sweet onion and nutty cheese.

Mr Choi is so happy and kind, and full of stories of when he was a chef in the 60s in a now-defunct hotel in Vancouver. He’s been such an inspiration to my cooking, and we wish we could bring him back to London with us. I hope you enjoy this recipe, which I thank Mr Choi for!

Mr Choi
Mr Choi's beautiful chard

Makes 6 little tarts
(use springform tins) or one 23 x 2.5cm large tart

for the pastry
175g plain flour
1/2 tsp dry thyme leaves
1 tbspn parmesan/ grana padano
1 egg yolk
100g cold butter, diced
4 tbspn iced water

For the filling
bunch of swiss chard, thoroughly washed – stems and leaves separated
half an onion, finely chopped
1 tbspn olive oil
bay leaf
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper
1 tsp butter
3 eggs
1 egg white
1/2 cup sour cream
25ml whole milk
50g gruyere, finely grated
30g sharp white cheddar, finely grated
1tsp cider vinegar

To make the pastry
Put the flour, parmesan, thyme leaves, egg yolk, butter and iced water in a food processor and whizz until it’s a sandy texture, and melds together. Pour it out onto a floured surface and squish it into a ball. Wrap in cling film and blast chill it in the freezer for 5 minutes.

To make the tarts

Preheat your oven to 180. Brush your tart tins with a thin coating of oil.

Take the pastry out of the freezer, divide in half and then each half into three equal thirds. Squidge each third into a ball-like shape, and, on a floured surface with a floured rolling pin, roll out thinly into discs.

Line the tart tins with the pastry discs, being careful to tuck the pastry right into the base and press into the fluted edges. To remove the excess pastry, press your finger against the edge of the top of the tin to chop it off. Pierce the base of each pastry case lightly with the prongs of a fork. Refrigerate again in the freezer for five minutes and place a baking sheet in the oven to heat up.

Place the cases on the baking sheet and line them with baking parchment. A good tip here is to scrunch up the parchment so you can mould it into the base of the tarts. Fill with lentils, baking beans or coins and blind bake for 15 minutes.

While that’s baking, you can make the filling. Heat the olive oil and butter on a medium heat in a frying pan and gently sauté the onion, thyme, bay and garlic for about 10 minutes, until the onion is soft and sweet. Be careful not to burn the garlic at this point.

Slice the chard stalks and add them to the frying pan, sautéeing for about another five minutes. In the meantime chinois the green leaves, then add them into the pan and wilt along with the onion and stalk mixture. Once the greens have wilted, transfer to a bowl and add a tsp of cider vinegar, mixing it in.

Once the timer goes off for the cases, remove the parchment and baking beans and bake for a further five minutes, until golden.

In another bowl, break the eggs and lightly whisk together with the egg white. Add in the sour cream, cheese, salt and pepper and milk and mix.

When the cases are ready, divide the chard mixture between them and carefully spoon in the egg and cheese mixture being careful not to overfill the cases.

Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes, until golden. Allow to cool on a wire rack for five minutes before removing from their cases. Serve warm, with a dressed green salad.

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.

India revisited: Mumbai’s Irani Cafes for The Guardian

I’ve been lucky enough to visit India three times. The first was as an 12-year-old with a bad fringe and even worse bum bag: awkwardly chubby, pale and privileged and utterly gobsmacked by the smells, colours, craziness and social disparity I witnessed. I’d joined my parents on a last minute trip to Varanasi because my late father Peter Birkett – a freelance journalist – had been sent there by the Express newspaper. He was there to investigate the extended family networks of the slum communities, in light of an arguably crass comment the Duchess of Kent made about Indian people being ‘richer’ than their affluent Western counterparts in terms of their supportive familial relations. I was packing a banana yellow Gameboy in my bum bag, but the children I was playing with were more mesmerised by a packet of balloons the photographer busted out.

My mother was petrified of me getting ill (bless her) so carried tins of corned beef in her handbag which we ate with fresh naan, which somehow passed the hygiene test. We rode on a crowded passenger train from Delhi to Varanasi and the attendants brought around dinner, which was actually festering buckets of slop with flies crawling on it. We eschewed, and my tummy remained in tact.

The next time I went to India, in 2010, a whole other kind of train ride beckoned as I was traveling as a journalist on the inaugural voyage of the Maharaja’s Express with one of London’s top Indian chefs, the lovely Vivek Singh. The train ride was more like Wes Anderson’s brilliant Darjeeling Limited than I could have hoped – we even went to the remote rural village visited by the characters in the film, and – and I know this sounds like some 70s acid trip delusion – I slurped opium tea from the palm of a prince of the Bishnoi tribe.

I saw the opulent ancient beauty of Jodhpur and Udaipur, and the poverty that I remembered from the last visit, which seemed emphasised by the luxe nature of my surroundings. Without my mother to watch my back, and with a food assignment to pen, I let my taste buds properly explore. We worked our way up from Mumbai, through Rajasthan to Delhi, and we tasted everything – from the the fiery hot Rajasthani goat curries to chargrilled paneer, chickpea-based Gujarati snacks and Indian hash browns for breakfast in Agra. It was here I also contracted amoebic dysentery, which made my life rather unpleasant for a couple of months on my return. But that’s India.

In January of this year, I was lucky enough to return to this crazy country to explore Mumbai in more depth. I was traveling with a fantastic bunch – London restaurant PR darling Gemma Bell; Olive magazine’s amazingly knowledgeable  deputy editor Lulu Grimes; the one and only Lucy Cavendish: mum of four and prestigious journo extraordinaire; Xanthe Clay – the Telegraph’s fearless food columnist and recipe writer and Ming Tang Evans: a fantastic photographer who provided us all with brilliant pictures from the trip. Leading us around were cousins Kavi and Shamil and Naved – the owners and chef respectively of London’s brilliant Dishoom restaurants which are based on the Indian city’s wonderful Irani cafes. You can read all about these, and their tragic decline in this piece I wrote for the Guardian.

Exploring the city with Shamil, Kavi Thakrar and Naved Nasir as our guides was absolutely fantastic because these guys know the city like the back of their hand – Shamil and Kavi because they used to visit their grandparents here, and Naved because he cooked here for almost five years. They understood the inquisitive, intrepid nature of our group, and as well as showing us the historic cafes, took us both on and off the beaten track – sniffing out good food at Chowpatty Beach, taking us for an incredible, authentic multi-course thali at the home of their lovely friend Pooja and on an guided tour of the Mohammed Ali Road, where we sampled some very unique and memorable Muslim street food – including bheja roti – rotis fried with delicate lamb’s brain and finished with a squeeze of lemon, a delicious, gelatinous trotter curry and bone marrow curry.

Bone marrow curry on the Mohammed Ali Road

My mother would have had heart palpitations if she’d seen the ramshackle state of some of the places we ate in, but I can happily report that apart from a momentary wobble, my tummy was fine.

Here are some of my photos from the trip – hope you enjoy.

 

The one and only Mr Kohinoor of Brittania Cafe – check out those specs!

The lone chandelier

Life sized cut-out of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge at Britannia

Britannia’s famous chicken berry pulao

The best creme caramel I’ve ever tasted at Brittania

The amazing mosaic tiled floor at Kyani

Bun maska, chai and akoori (chilli scrambled eggs) at Kyani

Red carrots

Pomfret at the market

Pictures of Irani body builders at Yazdani bakery

The bakers at Yazdani

One of the chefs at Radio restaurant

Sunset on Chowpatty

 

 

An American-Italian feast to fight the post-NY blues: Meatloaf recipe

A few days ago, I was here:

Now, I’m here:

Brixton, I love you, but in the words of Cat Power, “you’ll never be, never be, Manhattan.”

So I was blue to be home after one very tasty and informative trip to Brooklyn and Manhattan. But instead of solely drowning my sorrows with bloody marys and American films like I did when I came back from my first visit in 2009, I decided to cook up a storm inspired by my trip and the food magazines and cookbooks I brought back.

I was craving the hearty flavours of American-Italian fare – creamy mac n cheese and meaty treats. I’d been on a burger crawl of Brooklyn with Byron Burger founder Tom Byng, and was originally going to try my hand at burgers, but seeing as the butcher I use in Brixton market was closed on the Sunday and my only option was supermarket mince, I decided on a meatloaf instead: two parts pork to one part beef. I couldn’t get any veal, as most of the recipes I’d looked at had specified. I adapted two recipes I’d found, one from the Food Network’s magazine and one from my proudest new purchase, my copy of James Beard‘s American Cookery – a behemoth that I’d bought from the brilliant Bonnie Slotnick (163 West Tenth St, NY) in the West Village: a tiny, wonderful second hand book shop stocking out-of-print and antiquarian cookbooks. James Beard has no less than six different recipes for meatloaf here, but I went for the ‘Favourite Meatloaf’ one, which like mine is a mixture of beef and pork.

The Food Network mag did it with an accompanying garlic sauce, but I decided to do it with a rich, slow cook Italian tomato sauce, as suggested by Mr Beard, which I got from the Polpo cookbook. After all, this was to be an ode to American-Italian food!

For the meat loaf, Food Network had called for panko, instead of normal breadcrumbs, so I got some of the those from the oriental grocer on Electric Avenue, but unlike Beard, it recommends using a cup of milk, which I refrained from in fear that it would make it too sloppy. This recipe is an amalgamation of both, with little things like the fish sauce, spring onions, chopped gherkins and red chilli added in by me.

Of the meat loaf, Beard says this. “Meat loaf is a modern development. To be sure, Europeans long ago made pates of various kinds to be eaten cold as special treats. But the meat loaf we use so constantly nowadays is a product of the present century. The best loaves are those made with a combination of meats, honestly flavoured, and still moist when cooked. The average loaf cooked today is apt to be overcooked and dry because of the filler put into it; one finds recipes calling for oatmeal, cornflakes, and other cereals, as well as condensed soups and canned vegetables. A good meat loaf is similar  to a country pate. It should be highly seasoned and firm but not dry. It is much better eaten cold, when it slices nicely and holds its shape. It should have a pleasant texture and never be grainy. It may be served hot with a good tomato sauce, a brown sauce with mushrooms, or an onion sauce.”

American Meatloaf (with a slight Asian inflection)

2 tablespoons good olive oil
3 banana shallots, minced
500g minced beef
750g minced pork
1 tablespoon of chopped flat leaf parsley
2 tablespoons of fish sauce
1 chopped red chilli
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4 big gherkins, chopped
2 spring onions, chopped
1 cup of panko breadcrumbs
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 stalks of celery, minced
Pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon of white pepper
1/2 teaspoon of sea salt
teaspoon of Tobasco

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Put the olive oil in a shallow frying pan and fry the garlic, chilli, shallots and celery for a few minutes gently until the shallots are translucent and lightly brown. Meanwhile, blend the panko crumbs until very fine. Thoroughly combine the meat with the seasonings and egg, add in the crumbs, and finally mix in the celery and shallot mixture. Pack into a greased loaf tin and cook for an hour, basting as you go, until the top is caramelised. Serve with tomato sauce and some kind of greens. Make sure you check the temperature with a meat thermometer when you take it out to see that it’s done.

I served mine with homemade red onion and rosemary bread, bacon mac ‘n cheese and a wonderful salad of broccoli stalks with floret vinaigrette (below) that I got from Bon Appetit magazine – but those are separate posts altogether for another time. Please excuse these pictures – I have lost my camera cable so these are the ones taken with an iphone. When my new cable arrives I will replace the pics with the good ones.

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: 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.

Lashings and lashings of nettle soup: uncovering wild food in the Isles of Scilly

A couple of weeks ago, during a visit to the Isles of Scilly, I came over all Famous Five – posting Instagram pics of ‘a beautiful hidden cove – great for a secret picnic!’ and ‘fisherman Graham relaxing after his catch’. Some seriously earnest stuff. The thing is, with all the fresh sea air, incredible luminous light, crystal turquoise waters and lush, varied flora on the Scilly Isles, you really can’t help catching the infectious good spirit that abounds the islands, and find yourself wondering when Aunt Fanny might come strolling out with a jug of homemade lemonade. On one occasion during my stay, my host Robert Francis of the wonderfully characterful 16th Century Star Castle Hotel on St Mary’s drove me back from his boat after hauling in his lobster pots (that provide the lobster and crab for hotel restaurants) – smiling and saying hello to everyone we passed. “Do you ever have days where you just don’t want to say ‘hi’ to people?” – the London cynic in me asked. “No,” he said with a little chuckle. “It’s a nice place really – friendly, good people.”

Graham who crews Robert's lobster boat with him

The Star Castle Hotel

Robert acquired the lease for the hotel from the Duchy Estate (which owns the island) in 2003, but has, in the last couple of years handed the direct running of the hotel onto his son James, which means he gets to spend his time on his main passions – catching crab and lobster on his boat, and wine. As well as being a wine enthusiast (you only need to glimpse the well selected, reasonably-priced wine list in the hotel’s Castle restaurant to glean this), Robert is in the process of creating the island’s first vineyard. During my stay he drove me the couple of miles down the road to the site where the 700 vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he’s planted with the help of celebrated Austrian wine-maker Willi Opitz are currently in the midst of budding, in the expectation that during this, their third year in the ground, they will produce a crop of grapes.

Robert on his vineyard on St Marys

Rather than creating the sparkling wine the UK has become known for, Robert wants to produce flat wines, which he believes the micro-climate of the Scillies is able to nurture. His plans for the vineyard include the conversion of a 13th century cowshed into a ‘tasting room’ where visitors can taste the wines and enjoy snacks, mezzes and small plates of food. The plan is to install a wood-burning stove for making things like flatbreads to go with the wines.

Sea spinach!
roast beef at the Star Castle hotel

On top of being one of the friendliest, and most beautiful places in the UK, the Isles of Scilly are a veritable feast of wild food, as I discovered on the nearby island of Bryher, with fabulous self-taught forager Rachel Lambert. Lambert runs foraging breaks at Hell Bay Hotel on the terrifically rugged Bryher, which has a population of 85. Hell Bay has recently been upgraded to four stars, and has three AA Rosettes for its restaurant, where guests on the foraging breaks can enjoy five course tasting menus dreamed up by Lambert and the chefs – utilising the homegrown produce of the islands.
For two days, Lambert led us on a ramble around Bryher, and then nearby Tresco, carefully explaining the plants, herbs and flowers that she found growing all over.

Rachel picking some sea lettuce from a rock pool

On Bryher, we gathered rock samphire – a sort of lavender-esque, aromatic cousin of the salty, succulent marsh samphire; scurvy – so named because it’s so packed with vitamin C and was used on boats to avoid the affliction, and  bundles and bundles of sea spinach – which grows in glossy patches near the beach, and was later served as a wilted, deep accompaniment to some wonderful roast beef. We also picked up some sea lettuce from a rock pool –  which would go into a deliciously umami packed seaweed and brown shrimp broth. Eating that dish, with its shreds of floaty sea lettuce and tiny little shrimps was itself like slurping on a rock pool (in the nicest possible way). Sorrel and gorse flowers (which have an amazing ice cream soda aroma) were also plucked and tasted.

Roast beef with sea spinach and polenta at Hell Bay

The following day we headed to neighbouring island Tresco, and, under Rachel’s guidance, uncovered a whole host of different plants and wild foods including Bermuda Buttercups – edible flowers with a citric flavour; nettles, chickweed; alexander (which has a sort of celery/rhubarb esque stem); juicy sea sandwort and pennywort.

Bermuda buttercups
Pennywort - it grows in walls and tastes green and crunchy

We also had the pleasure of exploring the amazing Tresco Abbey gardens. Here, hundreds of plants from over 80 countries – including South Africa and Brazil flourish in the special Scillies microclimate. A soaring canopy of palms, special furry flowers and all sorts of other amazing growing things are spread across the many levels of this Victorian garden.

Inside the beautiful Tresco Abbey Gardens

So there you have it. Beaches, wine, wild food, special exotic plants and lovely, lovely people. There’s nowhere in the UK quite like the Isles of Scilly, so if you haven’t already been – get yourself down there!