Sunday, 26 October 2014

Lake Bled & Ljubljana, Slovenia


When I found out that I was going to Ljubljana with work, besides its initially unpronounceable name, I didn't give it much else thought. Ignorantly, I'd put it down to be a grey Eastern Bloc kind of city, a bit drab and dreary. I imagined meaty stews and dumplings.






I couldn't have been further from the truth. After our 2 hour plane journey, I was taken aback by how picturesque Slovenia's capital, Ljubljana, is. The city is split by a canal running through the middle of it and cobbled streets are lined with cafes and pretty peach facades of churches, topped with turquoise-green domes. Dragon Bridge, crossing the river is one of Europe's earliest reinforced bridges, decorated by four dragons on plinths (top picture); the legend is that Jason and the Argonauts founded the town, and they killed a dragon here. 



It's not a large place; we did most of our exploring by foot, and we could traverse the town in around 15 to 20 minutes. The city is divided into old and new towns, the old radiating out from the castle perched atop a steep hill, dating back to the eleventh century. A slog up a gravel path rewards you with an impressive view of the city; higgledy piggledy architecture of sandwich-shaped buildings, an abundance of churches, and strange grey blocks on top of buildings, telling the time. We discovered the funicular to descend in. 


I was, for the most part, wrong about the food too. What with its proximity to Italy, many menus featured pastas and risottos, and there was a lot of pizza around. At the time of our visit (October), what was most prevalent was the abundance of truffles. Truffles topped steaks, dressed pastas and were grated over fish. We were given a jar of truffle paste in our welcome bags from our hosts. I've eaten more truffle in my week there than combined, in my lifetime. 



Restaurant Julija presented our first truffle-laden meal. Their signature dish, the Steak Julija was a fillet, smothered in a creamy truffled sauce and accompanied by a chargrilled half-endive. Seven out of our party of eight ordered this, and each were cooked perfectly. It was no trifling portion - which was something we'd soon learn about Ljubljana - especially with hefty sides.



Less popular with the group were the cheese dumplings, a speciality of Ljubljana, called 'sirovi knedeljni'. Actually, I was the only person that liked them. They were very thin, papery crepes rolled up and interspersed with a curd-like cheese, mild in flavour. Seemingly boiled or steamed, they're soft and yielding to the fork. They reminded me very much of the Turkish borek, and later I found that 'burek' are indeed a popular fast food snack there. 



Horse was also common on the menus of the more traditional restaurants. Restaurant Spajza was firmly ensconsed in the old town, down a pretty street. The restaurant is split off into several sections, each holding one or two tables, candlelight struggling to brighten the wooden-panelled rooms. The menu was, as far as I could tell, as traditional as one might get - deer tartare, young horse carpaccio and smoked goose breast with truffles all appealed on the starters. We were given amuses of shredded horse meat topped with parmesan - smoked and dried, the flavour was much like beef. 


Having had a rather meaty time so far, I opted for the '┼żlikrofi' with shrimp tails and morels. ┼żlikrofi are delicate dumplings filled with potato, and in this instance they were dressed with a light cream sauce, the earthy morels dominating the flavour. I had thought they were a type of stuffed pasta, an influence from nearby-Italy, but actually these are so traditionally Slovenian that in 2010 they were awarded with protected geographical status. 

The Mediterranean-style octopus main course came in a huge cast iron pan in a puttanesca-style sauce, and the spicy tomato held chunks of new potatoes, olives, courgettes and capers; it was only a shame that I had to stuff it all in, having waited an hour for our mains and being pretty late for a meeting. I put that down to the sudden influx of diners, all suspiciously male, probably because of a certain US model dining at the table next to us. Otherwise, I'd strongly recommend Spajza - the food was well prepared, the menu was captivating and the waiting staff knowledgeable. 


Karst is a region in Slovenia well known for its caves and underground lakes - seemingly for their sausages too, as this dish was billed. The snappy skin of a frankfurter was evident here, and it was served with a smear of mustard that had the flavour, if not the colour, of French's. This one in particular from Zlata Ribica, a pretty canal-side cafe under sun umbrellas, came with the added bonus of palette-awakening grated horseradish on top, although the triangles of baked polenta were a touch dry. I'd seen it at other restaurants, also served in pairs, served with potatoes and a cabbage and apple slaw. 


We tried out a little of the high end, too. Restaurant Strelec, in the castle grounds, had sheepskin chairs for the outdoor tables and a view of the city. When we stopped by for lunch we were the only people in the restaurant - Ljubljana, it seems, is not particularly busy - and the 'poor man's bread' was probably the most impressive starter. A potato cylinder was cut open to reveal liquid egg yolk, pouring out to mingle with the potato foam covered with grated truffle (of course). We were told that back in the olden days, potatoes were cheaper than bread, hence the name. While our meal was well put together, it lacked a little passion; it was pretty and flavoursome food on stark white plates, made up of butter-laden creamy potato and rich, reduced jus. We could have been anywhere in Europe.


I can't be that long away without rice, and a trip to Sushimama made me wonder what Slovenian sushi would be like. It was very good. We eschewed the a la carte section of sushi and nigiri (some with truffle, obvs) for an easier sushi and sashimi section, all nicely made and well plated. Wagyu beef was served on a platter, raw, with a scorching hot stone to sear our own meat on, and a ponzu dip for swooshing in. My favourite was the eel (unagi), brushed with a smoky glaze. I'm never unhappy with this dish, it's just got the best combination of firm fish, savoury depth and sweet sauce, all soaking into rice. it wasn't the cheapest meal we had at around £45 / head but Japanese food rarely is. 




We headed to Bled. In the north west of the country, it's around a a 40 minute drive from the capital, passing white-topped mountains and lush green forestry. Lake Bled is a tourist spot; pictures of 'cremeschnitte' decorate the sides of buildings, and boats full of tourists are lazily rowed around the lake. Another castle on top of a hill, this from the 17th Century, was another breath-taking 15 minute hike - not recommended after a couple of beers. Amidst the tourists wielding DLSRs and waving iPhones around, it was a breath-taking view, and quite a peaceful one too. 


The cremeschnitte ('cream slice') itself is not to be missed - I don't think you could if you tried. It's a speciality of Bled, and it consists of flaky pastry, and a surprisingly light cream and custard mousse-like centres. 



We didn't eat in many restaurants in Bled since we weren't there for long, but the 'eco-lodge' feel of Garden Village was certainly impressive. The restaurant was made up of light wood with grassy squares and herb boxes built into the centre of the tables. They were kind enough to open up for our large group especially, and while a broccoli soup hit the spot, the buckwheat roulade with cream cheese that accompanied our mains was quite... weird. This was no cheese dumpling. Still, the unusual surroundings of the glass-sided building made for a sun-soaked early autumn setting. That evening, a cream of mushroom soup followed by the Autumn risotto with chestnuts, beef fillet and truffles at the Best Western was pretty damn tasty, much to my surprise (as I usually cynically am about hotel chains). A week of expectations smashed to smithereens.  

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Smacked Cucumber Salad, Turbo-Charged


A big part of my cooking life is the love of experimentation. I've fiddled and tweaked and added to already established recipes countless times because of curiosity, or carelessness in the shopping process, so that I've had to substitute something for whatever I forgot to buy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes that additional ingredient lifts that dish from the norm to the outstanding (often, it's fresh herbs) but other times it just doesn't need anything else. It's perfect as it is. But you don't know until you try, and with Smacked Cucumbers I've tried many things. 

Stripped down to its basics, it consists of these main components: Salt, chilli oil, garlic, sugar and vinegar. Salty, sweet, sour and spicy, in a happy balance, soaking into the bland cooling cucumber. What if you were to take each of these flavour profiles to the extreme? 


I started off with making an infused garlic oil, made by frying garlic chips of uniform thickness as a base. This then became the chilli oil, and to it, I added some spices. Fennel seed and coriander seed for fragrance, and a star anise for depth. Palm sugar went in next, for the most caramel-rich of the sugars, and the salty aspect, with a little sweet for good measure, came in the form of soy sauce and white miso. Chilli was provided by Korean chilli flakes - mild, but vivid red. Sichuan peppercorns give tingle, and the punch was provided by finely minced fresh green jalapeno peppers. Sour? Sherry vinegar, Chinkiang black vinegar, and a squirt of lime. 

It works marvellously. With a simple crisp-skinned salmon fillet and some rice, the richness of the sauce takes centre stage. For something to accompany meat stews or stir-fries, the simpler option is probably best for some cooling relief - otherwise, this turbo-charged version is a winner. 

Smacked Cucumber Salad, Turbo Charged

Serves 4 as a side 

200ml vegetable oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced very thinly
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp coriander seeds 
1/2 star anise
1 tsp Sichuan peppercorns
1 tbsp Korean chilli flakes
1 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tsp palm sugar
1 tbsp Chinkiang black vinegar
1 tbsp sherry vinegar
1 clove garlic
1 fresh green jalapeno, minced
2 long, slim cucumbers, washed and topped and tailed
1/2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
A few coriander leaves
Table salt

Place a clean tea over the cucumbers and smack lightly with a rolling pin, until squashed. Chop roughly and place in a colander - sprinkle with table salt and leave over the sink for the juices to leech out. 

Place the oil in a small saucepan with the garlic chips, cold. Place on a medium heat, and watch like a hawk. When the oil starts to bubble, swirl the garlic chips around to separate them. When they start to turn a light golden, take off the heat and carry on swirling - they will become browner in the oil. Do not let them go beyond a peanut brown, or they will become bitter. 

Drain the oil into a heat proof bowl, and place the chips on a piece of kitchen towel to soak up excess oil. 

Pour the oil back into the pan, and place back on a medium heat. Add the star anise, fennel seeds, sichuan peppercorns and the coriander seeds. Bubble for 30 seconds, then remove from the heat and add the chilli powder. Return to a low heat and stir continuously until the chilli powder darkens but does not burn. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. 

Remove the star anise, then add the sugar, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegars, and clove of garlic. Place in a small chopper or blender and process until smooth. Add the miso and process again. 

Rinse the cucumber well and pat dry. Place in a large bowl, and pour the dressing over. Toss well to ensure all the pieces are covered. Place the cucumber on a plate, and garnish with the minced jalapeno, garlic chips and the coriander leaves. 

Sunday, 19 October 2014

The Clove Club, Shoreditch


What do those folk at Michelin look for when they're dishing out the stars? It used to be stuffy dining rooms, starched linen and spotlit table settings. Perhaps a French waiter would sweep past to correct your napkin placement, and to hold a chair out for you when you return from the bathroom. Lobster, foie gras and truffles were the classic tick! tick! tick! of a menu that was aiming high, with a price to match it.

I went to The Clove Club mere days before they were awarded one, for a triple whammy family celebration. Happily there was no fussiness, and, given the high ceilings, I was surprised by how quiet the main dining room was, since most of the tables were taken. Clever acoustics. An open, turquoise-tiled and gleaming kitchen showed off the chefs gliding silently around each other at work. There are two options to the menu - a £55 course set, or an extensive £95 number. We decided on the former, declining the £11 addition of the pork chop. That decision was two-fold - supplements on a set menu is a bug bear of mine, and we weren't sure we could hack it. My new age is letting me down.

A few snacks arrived to kick off the meal. Wood pigeon sausage with greengage jam came skewered on toothpicks, while tiny little crisp tartlets, incredibly delicate, filled with goats curd and a disc of beetroot rested on a folded napkin. Chickens' feet, deboned and puffed until crisp and dusted with spice (top pic) came with ample dip, a creamy sort. Their famous buttermilk fried chicken that I first tried in 2011 was as good as its always been, and even better dunked in the aforementioned dip. Confusingly, the house-cured coppa arrived after our snacks, rather than with our aperitifs. But, no matter.


Beneath the mass of perfectly square mustard leaves was raw scallop topped with brown butter jelly. The dish played clever tricks on the tongue; the rich flavour of butter was in a clear jelly, while the clean, fresh sweetness lay in the creamy discs. I swiped the plate clean with dense, malty sourdough. 


The fish course was perhaps the least memorable, which was in part due to what followed. Still, the square of brill we had was heightened by raw shaved ceps and a swoop of inky truffle-scented sauce which, by the time I was done with it, stained the plate to look like a child's fury at art class. It's not that it wasn't good. It was just that the next course was such a highlight. We were presented with a wine glass in which 100 year old Madeira was poured into it and we were invited to sniff it. Slightly nervous-making for my mother who is, incredibly unfortunately, allergic to booze - the face reddens, the room wobbles, the vision swims, unpleasant things happen and an instant hangover sets it. I am beyond glad I did not inherit this. But our waiter pleasantly remembered her avoidance of our delicious, delicious wine and a small half measure was administered for her, and a serving of hot, clear liquid was poured into each glass. It was a broth made with duck, and if wasn't the best damn thing I've drank for a while then I don't know what is. Creamy on the tongue, sweet from the Madeira and slightly herbal in fragrance, it made you lick your lips and go back for more. I was genuinely upset it had finished. Mother survived intact.


Our next course was another milestone of mine; usually, I am a grouse-avoider. I just couldn't get on board with those gamey little birds, all smelling of heather and moorland, but this year has been a bit of a turning point - perhaps my tastebuds have changed? Starting off with Tim Anderson's (of Masterchef fame) grouse ramen, it no longer makes me wrinkle my nose in distaste. I suppose if anything were to change my mind it would be a bowl of noodles. The Clove Club's was a more traditional serving. The breast, taken off the bone was served with swede puree and bread sauce. I'm not sure how they did it, but the skin was roasted and crisp, the flesh beneath yielding and uniformly pink. The carcass was presented for us to nibble and gnaw on, with little lollipop legs (which had disarmingly furry claws) of darker, more flavoursome meat. The tiny little heart, vivid and bloody, skewered on a toothpick was tender and sweet. 


After such a rich and flavoursome meat course, the Amalfi lemonade with black pepper ice cream was positively cleansing. A small glass of of beautiful, creamy foam was given to us, and hidden within was a quenelle of ice cream, so what you had was a slight fizziness from the lemonade, followed by the spiciness of pepper. It was incredibly clever. Figs with hazelnuts and milk crisps were a plate of contrasting textures, ripe fruit and autumnal warmth in flavour. 

Service was discrete when we were in deep conversation, but open and friendly when we were distracted. Being moved to our table from the bar mid-drink, and the coppa served after the snacks made me a little more aware that I usually am of the table being booked out for a second sitting, and though the dishes came out in quick succession, I soon lost the feeling of being rushed. If you're after a long and languishing meal though, booking later in the evening seems best. 

The Clove Club was one of the best meals I've had so far this year; it eased me into the autumn and winter season gently with plenty of rich, earthy flavours, executed elegantly. I don't mourn the hot stickiness of summer anymore - bring on rich game, slow-cooked stews, and - most importantly - hot booze. I'm ready. 

Shoreditch Town Hall
380 Old Street, London
EC1V 9LT

The Clove Club on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Peckham Bazaar, Peckham


Towards the end of last year, Peckham Bazaar was becoming one of my favourite restaurants. Serving food from the Balkans, the menu was littered with sauces and seasonings I could barely pronounce, let alone come across before; za'atar, adjika, ktipiti, melokhia and the likes tingled my tastebuds, and the charcoal grill outside was manned bravely against the elements to impart that wonderful flavour to the meat and seafood they served. They closed abruptly for a refurbishment, hot off the heels of a 4* review from Fay Maschler. 

Devastatingly, for both them and us, the closure was long while their various challenges were ironed out. But they're back and a shiny new grill now sits within the premises, and chef John Gionleka has a roof over his head in which to work his magic. We sat outside at a wooden bench amongst vines and sunshine, primed with a bottle of crisp, Greek white wine that slid down surprisingly easily for midday on a Saturday. 


The time off hasn't harmed the cooking. Still, the dishes are executed beautifully, and still I end up googling their contents. Tomatoes bathed in fruity olive oil, topped with radishes and a charred spring onion. A large green pepper was split and stuffed with 'tsalavouti', which I believe is a Greek cheese. Creamy, soft and salty, it counteracted the slightly bitter flavour of the blistered pepper. 


Octopus, charred with blackened spots on the grill was a large tentacle, curling protectively around buttery potatoes. So often octopus is overly soft, flaccid with over-braising but ours was perky and gave just the right resistance to the teeth. Samphire and capers added a savoury touch to the creamy tarama, which one might usually find luridly pink in tubs; here, the fish roe flavour was delicate, the texture light. 


Skordalia, a dip made with creaming together potato and garlic, was powerful and tempered the tang of the marinated beetroot. We fought over the crusted parts of the baked feta, the soft middles having long been scooped up. Such pretty colours stained the plate. 


John is a man who knows his vegetables. While the Cornish sardines were blistered simply on the grill with the merest sprinkle of chilli flakes, the esme salad was bold and flavoursome, each component part of sumac, tomato, red onion, cucumber and parsley shining through to complement the oil-rich flesh of the fish that slid easily off the delicate bones. 


Mains were no less impressive. I can't resist quail when I see it on the menu, and this was no different. Marinated in both sweetness and tart, the skin was blackened on the grill, leaving tender pink flesh underneath. I tucked a napkin into my shirt collar and got stuck in with my hands, stripping it for all the meat I could get. The puree was incredibly smooth, made with fava, and soft braised bobby beans beneath were surprisingly spicy. 


Lamb and pistachio adanas were plump and juicy, pink in the middle. The internet tells me that 'adjika' is a Georgian dip made with peppers, and it was slightly rough in texture, vibrant on the plate. 


Grilled lamb neck fillet was served with artichokes 'a la politico', which we were told meant in the style of Istanbul. No idea. The sauce was flavoured with dill, and two large artichoke hearts sat beneath the lamb, cooked perfectly to pink. The expertly turned new potatoes hinted at John's classical culinary training. 


Grapefruit and pistachio baklava with mastic ice cream was certainly a pretty thing but it was never going to hold much sway with me, since I avoid both honey and cinnamon of which it had both of. I just don't like it. The mastic ice cream was pretty interesting though - the mastic gives it an almost chewy texture. My companions hoovered up their portions. 

As you might be able to tell, I loved my lunch at Peckham Bazaar. The food is just unlike anything I've had before in London; such interesting and exciting new flavours, and such skill in their execution. It's very reasonable too - sure, we paid £50 / head, but then we also had (ahem) three bottles of wine between the four of us. The starters hover around the £7 region, the mains in their early teens. The menu changes often, so I have plenty of impetus to return. They're going to start doing a brunch menu soon - mmm, shakshuka - and they roast whole animals on Sundays, as a Eastern Med-style Sunday roast. Last week I was tormented by pictures from diners of suckling pigs, this week was lamb. Go, go and go. 


119 Consort Rd, 
London SE15 3RU

0207 732 2525

Peckham Bazaar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Chilli Pickle, Brighton


I've just spent the past weekend in Brighton, enjoying the glorious last rays of summer. We went to celebrate my birthday (AHEM IT'S TODAY!) and as anyone who knows me might be able to tell you, I rarely go anywhere without planning somewhere decent to eat. With 8 people on a Friday night after a long week at work, I wasn't about to leave it up to spontaneity or chance. That way lies hanger


The Chilli Pickle sits in a square opposite Wagamama and Pizza Express which doesn't bode enormously well, and once inside it's dark and noisy, lit with neon. But the smell inside is enticing and we sat down beside shelves of tiffin boxes and jars of pickle, of which they're famous for. The menu is large (this online one is out of date), made even larger by a separate set menu sheet and the drinks list is even larger, listing beers from India, America and Germany, as well as our own home-grown. We snacked on poppadoms and an excellent range of pickles while we decided what to order. Namkeen chaat were salt crackers topped with a tomato relish, strong and spicy in ginger. Messy to eat, they were palate-cleansing and punchy. 


We decided to order a bunch of things to share, which I immediately regretted upon tasting this corn on the cob. They were seriously good; steamed and coated with a little chilli sauce and crushed peanuts. The dish of yellow sauce you see at the back there was coconutty and creamy, and when we asked, were told it's like a korma but without the nuts. We poured that stuff directly into our mouths. 


'Manchurian' is a style of Chinese cooking adapted to Indian tastes, so basically deep fried and tossed in a sweet and sour but spiced sauce. In this case it was applied to the blandest of vegetables - the cauliflower. Underneath the crisp casing was merely matter to fill, and the pink yoghurt dip reminded me of strawberry Yazoo. Not that it tasted of much, mind you. I left this one to the group. 


We were back on track with the Chennai skate fry. The piece of skate wing was dusted in spiced, seasoned flour and fried until crisp, so that when you pulled the flesh back from the cartilage you get both soft meat and a crisp contrast. I loved this, especially slathered with the coconut sambal and chased with the tomato and grapefruit salad. Luckily so, as another two portions turned up by mistake.


I love dumplings, so I had to order the Nepalese pork momos, even though they seemed incongruous on a menu like this. They were quite thick skinned, the filling bland, but helped along by the tomato sambal and a fruity sauce flavoured with apple. 


It soon became clear that the mains at The Chilli Pickle aren't intended to be shared. Each of them arrived on its own tray, with all the requirements of a complete meal around it, which struck me as a slight shame, since what I love most about Indian food is a selection of dishes. In particular the oxtail madras; while it was well spiced, with great flavour from the gravy - which would also explain why it is their permanent 'special' - it is also incredibly rich, and after a mouthful or two we'd pass the dish down. The chunks of oxtail meat pulled away from the bone easily, but for a dish with three chillis which was the maximum heat rating, it lacked punch.


I loved the Mysore malasa dosa. A large thin pancake made with rice flour is wrapped around potato curry, mild and creamy, scented with curry leaves. The accompanying vegetable curry had chunks of courgette in, and the red coconut sambal had a bit of a kick to it. 


The chicken tandoori platter lacked the charcoal whiff of the tandoor, but made up for it with a very herby chicken keema kebab, scented with cardamom. The naan beneath it soaked up all the chicken juices, and was perfect for dipping in the buttery black dhal. There's that tomato salad again. 


Tandoori lamb chops were tender and succulent, though they'd need a stronger hand with the spicing, and much crisper and abundant fat to give Tayyabs a run for their money. I really liked the green chilli and mint chutney that came with it, and the lurid pink beetroot raita was soothing, yet surprisingly spicy. I have no idea what the round puck was - it didn't look particularly appealing, and instead I got on with dipping our extra garlic naan in the dhal of the day, a yellow lentil tarka. 

So, a meal of ups and downs, but mostly ups. I like that the menu ranges widely from very obvious South Indian style, touching upon Gujarati, and a brief pause in Nepalese. It did make it a bit awkward when our visibly uncomfortable waitress couldn't tell us what the difference between kesar, pasanda and rajput gravy were, nor could she explain much else on the menu. Our numerous grievances with the service, such as more beers than we'd ordered turning up, our poppadom order doubled, and a starter tripled were put down to the training status of our waitress, so it seems mean to call them up on it, but I wonder about the wisdom of assigning a server in training to a table of 8, with a potentially complicated order on a busy Friday night. Maybe I'm mean. There's obvious skill in the kitchen though and with plenty of booze and more food than we could fit in, we paid £32 each including service.


17 Jubilee Street
Brighton
BN1 1GE

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Breakfast at Nopi, Oxford Circus


The monthly breakfasts are still going strong and, if I'm honest, it's getting a little difficult to find a breakfast that isn't very heavy on the Eggs Benedict vibe, especially if you're a sweet avoider as I am. Happily, though, Nopi near Oxford Circus, provides something a little different. 

From the Ottolenghi stable, I've enjoyed lunches and dinners here, though much like Ottolenghi's recipes themselves I've sometimes found their dishes a little... over-flavoured. As if perhaps they'd taken it one flavour profile too far. 


Not so much the case for breakfast, thankfully. Shakshuka is a traditional Middle Eastern dish of eggs poached in a spiced tomato and pepper sauce. Here, they're served in individual roasting hot cast iron pans with a dollop of smoked labneh - that's a thick, strained yoghurt - on top, that threatened to overwhelm but in fact tempered the spices. Perfectly poached, rich orange-yolked eggs were scooped up with toasted bread that was just the right amount to stave off any morning waddle. 

Do go and have a gaze around the ladies loos when you're there. They're something to behold. 

21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584
NOPI on Urbanspoon