Tofino: a wilderness paradise with an incredible food scene

The view from the Wickaninnish

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

The HUGE broiled oysters at Shelter

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

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

Rock pooling!

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

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

The balcony of our INCREDIBLE room at the Wick
Beach boy

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

The mussel banks at Chesterman beach

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

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

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

On the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roz on film: Masterchef, 60 Second Reviews and my Brixton Kitchen Series for Videojug

Christ. Chokers and tie-dye.

When I was about 12, my camcorder was one of my most treasured possessions. I would spend hours with long-suffering friends encouraging them film me as I mimed along to 90s abominations like like Meredith Brooks’ ‘Bitch’, wearing outfits (watch out Teen Vogue) like the above. To put it bluntly, I was a massive show off. Thank god my mother went through a faze of recording episodes of Coronation Street over our family video collection.

Thankfully, the horror of adolescence kicked any misguided ideas I might have had about being a ‘performer’ well and truly out of me, and a heartfelt rendition of the rather unfortunate Kit in a GCSE drama version of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls was my final turn on the stage. Saying that, this past year has seen me make a bit of a comeback behind the camera – just one of the hilariously unexpected twists this food writing lark has led to. And being the lame-ass blogger that I am, I’ve only just got around to blogging about it.

Me having a 'there were three of us in this marriage' moment on Masterchef.

Being asked to appear on Masterchef series 9 amidst a top-billing of the UK’s best, most formidable critics was a massive honour and a fantastic experience. As well as being paid to eat lunch with a bunch of my most-esteemed colleagues, it was brilliant to eat the food of future food star Natalie Coleman – who would go on to later win the competition. Her dishes jumped out at me from the restaurant-style menu we were told to order from, and her inspired combination of rabbit loin wrapped in moist, sweet ham with a punchy cockle vinaigrette is not something I’ll be forgetting in a hurry!

Back in March I was approached by online content creator Videojug to do my own series of video recipes for their food and drink section. This was both utterly terrifying – I had never demoed my recipes to any audience, let alone the massive online one – and challenging: I had no idea how hard it is to cook and try to sound engaging while being filmed doing so. But it’s something I’m really glad I did as it was fun, informative, and great to bust-out and formalise some of the recipes I’ve been playing with for a while.

We decided to call the series ‘Rosie’s Brixton Kitchen’, because of how much my recipes are informed by the great array of fresh and interesting ingredients available in my area, both at the stalls on and around Electric Avenue, and the covered markets. I’m super keen to encourage people – particularly people in cities who have such good access to fresh markets – to use and support local and independent shops and markets because they, along with wet fish mongers and local butchers are sadly dying out.

The homogenisation of the high streets, increased rents and aggressive expansion of the supermarkets are driving out small businesses who provide fresh, healthy, affordable food to communities and make the area what it is. I am passionate about supporting them, not just because I love wandering around the market and asking my butcher which cuts are best for which cooking method – much nicer than being told that yet again, I’ve put a bloody ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ – but because, like many, I’m worried about our food system.

Food poverty and the increased reliance on food banks (Oxfam estimates that over 500,000 people are now reliant on food aid in the UK), as well as being driven by benefit sanctions and the increased cost of living, is related to the decline of local markets and shops which provide access to fresh, healthy food at a bargain price. You can read an extract from Oxfam’s Walking the Breadline report – all about ‘food deserts’ and the Poverty Premium here on the amazing Jack Monroe’s blog or download the report in full.

Anyway the hope with these recipes for Videojug is to highlight some of the fantastic and delicious ingredients I find when I’m down the market and encourage people to do the same. Here’s my leeks vinaigrette recipe as a little taster. I’ll be posting the videos along with the recipes on here when I get a chance too.

The other videos I’ve been doing are my restaurant reviews for app and website 60 Second Reviews. It’s a very clever, user-friendly idea for subscription content – getting specialised journalists to provide 60 second reviews of their chosen field, and the team behind it are really great to work with. Here’s my review of Dishoom:

Dishoom, Rosie from 60secondreviews on Vimeo.

It’s both a little bit strange and a little bit scary that there are now videos of me ‘out there’ on the internet, but I can just thank my lucky stars that the home recording of me doing an energetic, improvised dance routine to Chumbawamba’s ‘Tubthumping’ while on a bouncy castle will remain firmly where it is. And I’m not telling…

 

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.

Brixton with Editer.com

A few weeks ago I was asked by the very cool Editer.com online magazine to show them my favourite food haunts in Brixton. A greedy food crawl around Market Row and Brixton Village ensued, and it was really brilliant to revisit some places that I haven’t been for a while, as well as calling in at some of the new ones like Canon and Canon and Market Row Wines that have only just opened up. The night ended in Kaosarn – the amazing Thai that I tend to eat at once a week because I am actually addicted to the grilled chicken and the lamb massaman, and the attentions of Marni-draped hostess Gisele.

Editer has been building up some fantastic food content since its relatively recent launch – with well-written and researched blogs about restaurants, recipes and bars, and incredibly atmospheric photographs. It’s really refreshing to see a stylish, artisan (they shoot everything themselves) online mag with such attention to thought-out, quality content – check it out for up to date, in-the-know food and drink and lifestyle shiz.

And you can come on a tour of Brixton’s yummiest market spots with me here.

Living la vida Lucca: Aperol, aperitivo and polpo in Campora

I recently found myself in Lucca, Tuscany for a friend’s wedding, slipping into that blissful Italian routine of non-stop eating and drinking. My waistline has still not forgiven me. I love being in a country where they not only have aperitivi – a miniature early meal in itself (see below) consisting of Aperol spritz or whatever tipple you might fancy and delicious nibbles – but main meals where you lose count of the number of courses. Antipasti, primi, secondi… I say lay it on me!

 We were staying in Campora -(tuscanyvillahire.com) in a wonderful villa overlooking olives groves about a twenty minute drive from Lucca. The place was a converted farmhouse with four spacious bedrooms and more rustic Italian charm than you could throw a bowl of polenta at. It’s not an exaggeration to say that at night the grove just below our outdoor dining table was actually lit up with fireflies who put on a little moving light display for us as we swigged our local Tuscan wine. As well as a pool with a view and diving board that more than once doubled as an impromptu picnic table, there was loads of land for us to explore, with herbs, figs and courgettes at our fingertips for cooking and eating. I basically split my time between the villa’s well-stocked kitchen and its pretty terracotta terrace, which hangs with fresh jasmine and wisteria and overlooks the rolling Tuscan hills. We ate and drank to our hearts’ content here.

Pasta was a bit of a recurring theme. We bought bags of fresh tagliatelle from the supermarket and I made this dish of asparagus, zucchini, herbs and parmesan pasta with pancetta.

 We also made the most of the local tomatoes, which were fat, juicy, ripe and sweet – and made our own bruschetta brushed with fresh garlic.

One day we really couldn’t resist buying a beautiful looking octopus (I love that you can just casually pick up fresh octopus in any Tuscan supermarket). We cleaned it, de-beaked and de-inked it and marinated it in lemon, chilli, garlic, olive oil and fresh oregano before sizzling it on the grill for a couple of minutes.

Next time I’d like to have a go at one of the slow cook octopus dishes, perhaps one involving oil and wine, or cooking it in its own ink, because this did go slightly springy. We probably should have boiled or ‘bashed’ it first – as advised by Elizabeth David. But you know, we were on holiday, and our Aperol-addled brains weren’t up to much…

London French Dip

Our London French Dip sandwich

Anyone who’s seen my Twitter feed lately will know that since April I’ve been working on a project called @LondonFrenchDip with my friend Andrew. Since moving to Brixton in December I’ve been bowled over by the food culture here – not just Brixton Village and Market Row, which are obviously both great – but the street trading that goes on on Electric Avenue, and the wonderful Brixton Station Road. I walk down this road a few times a week to go to the gym, and every time I’m amazed by the food and drink offerings – from the delicious Ethiopian coffee at Shawl Cafe, to the incredible marinated rotisserie chicken at the Halal Butchers and the brilliant curried goat rotis from the Guyanese roti van. There’s also plenty of jerk being barbecued on this road (check out ‘Jeff the chef’), great cous cous and hummus from the Moroccan cafe and, from Friday on through the weekends, rotating markets with various food traders, retro, vintage and craft stalls. Even since December I’ve noticed that the market has been picking up, and what started with a couple of food stalls has escalated to a nice little selection, so I’ve been chomping at the bit to get involved. As someone who spends a lot of time writing about other people doing things, I wanted to get stuck in and try my hand at making and selling food in my community.

The servers at Philippe's in LA

Coming up with the idea for a food stall that might bring something different to that road, with its already vibrant array was tricky, but I already had something in the back of my mind. At the tail-end of last year I visited LA and tasted something for the first time – the French Dip sandwich at the legendary Philippe’s restaurant downtown. Philippe’s, with its sawdust-strewn floors, long serving counters and queues of hungry customers is a massive institution, and, it claims, the originator of the ‘French Dip’ – a roasted meat sandwich that’s been dipped in the roasted juices. French Dip is now something that you can find across the US, in various formats – many restaurants give the juices, or ‘au jus’ as it’s known in the States, on the side of the sandwich in a little cup. But Philippe’s, which makes all of its au jus by simmering meat juices with the mirepoix the meats have been roasted on for 48 hours, just dunks the light bread subs to preserve the precious liquor.

A Philippe's spread

Philippe’s is one of those fantastic American food institutions that’s worn-in and historic, in that it’s looked the same, and has been serving the same abundant plates of well-made, simple, tasty fare since 1918. It’s similar in that sense to places like the Loveless Cafe, which I visited in Nashville or Prime Burger in New York. I was talking to Mark Ogus from @MontysDeli – who serves wonderful home-smoked pastrami at Maltby Street and we were agreeing that these American places are so special precisely because they’re a part of the country’s relatively recent history and as such, have been preserved in their original form.

The sandwiches at Philippe’s are simple but utterly delicious, comforting and satisfying – served with an obligatory gherkin and scorching hot house mustard. I had never even heard of French Dip before going to LA – it’s one of those American sandwiches, like the PO Boy that just doesn’t seem to have been done very much here. Hawksmoor is the only place I’ve heard about doing it, so I thought it would be cool to set up the UK’s first French Dip stall – serving sandwiches made with freshly roasted meats and bread, dipped to order in the roasting juices. The folks at Brixton Market have been really helpful and supportive, and went for the idea with zeal – so we managed to get the whole thing set up really fast. Andrew, an accountant by day but passionate food enthusiast at heart, was a natural choice for a business partner, with his flair for number crunching, instincts with food and creative ideas.

Finding suppliers was really the first step in getting set up. Luckily a friend recommended the brilliant Kindred – a craft bakery in nearby Herne Hill, who we met with and came up for a spec for the baguettes, which needed to be crunchy on top but light and easily chewable. The baker was amazingly helpful and accommodating and after a couple of test runs we came up with a model we’re really happy with – fluffy, crusty and perfectly dippable. For meat we turned to the excellent Moen’s in Clapham Common, which has supplied us with prime Scotch Beef topside and excellent meat stock for the gravy for both stalls so far. The topside comes coated in some fabulous fat which keeps the meat moist and tender and flavours the jus beautifully.

I wanted to keep the sandwich recipe as close to what I’d experienced at Philippe’s as possible, because I loved its simplicity, but also because I believe it’s the best French Dip out there. We spent a few weeks prior to our first stall messing around with roasting times and perfecting the au jus, which is made with just the roasting juices, stock and a bit of thickening and seasoning.

We’ve now done two stalls in and are absolutely loving it. Both times we’ve been positioned at the mouth of the market, next to the man who sells records and plays great reggae and soul tracks all day, giving that special Brixton atmosphere. Bunting is strung up at the start of the day and people start arriving from 10.30 onwards, perusing the stalls, hanging out and drinking coffee and tasting as they go. Initially lots of people needed us to explain what a French Dip was, but we have had a surprising number of people who have found us through Twitter or googling French Dip. Weirdly we’ve had two people walking past and spotting us who have been to Philippe’s. It was amazing when one of them said it was as good as the sandwich there!

Andrew Dolleymore and myself - the LFD team

We’re taking a hiatus for June because Andrew is going off around Italy, but we’ll be back in July and have some ideas bubbling under the surface about our next sandwich, which will be a summer special of pulled pork and barbecue au jus, and the beginning of a number of experiments with different meats and dips. Do follow us on Twitter @londonfrenchdip for updates and thanks to everyone who’s come down and supported us so far.

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.