Tuesday, 13 October 2015

A Basic Bun Rieu

I've never been to Vietnam. All my experiences of Vietnamese food are in and around London, from what used to be almost weekly trips to Café East in Surrey Quays, and traversing the lengths of Kingsland Road. I once went on a date to Salvation in Noodles in Dalston, and had such a delicious noodle soup that I sought out to create it myself, cobbling what I could gather from the interwebs. That's all set to change, with a trip to Vietnam planned in January - Saigon, Phu Quoc and Hoi An - hit me up with best things to eat and places to stay, please!

So this Bun Rieu is very basic. It's the basic retelling of this dish, originally from the Mekong, from someone who has never visited it. I can only apologise now for any lack of authenticity, but what I do know is that it tastes really good. Some recipes add pork to the crab mixture for a more solid cake, and others add fresh crab meat; I wanted to try this as unadulterated as possible. 

It's made using a very tomato-heavy broth, sometimes reddened by annatto seeds (I didn't bother) and funked the funk up with fermented shrimp paste. It's the runny type, almost violet in colour, and that shit stinks, yo. It's also called Mam Tom, and the Chinese also use it as 'fine shrimp paste'. I have a bit about it in Chinatown Kitchen, along with accompanying recipes of how to use it to delicious potential. You'll recoil like you've been shot if you take a long whiff of it. You'll rejoice when you realise that once cooked, it transforms. 

What does seem key in this recipe is 'minced crab in spices', that you can buy in cans from Vietnamese and Chinese supermarkets. Without it, you'll have to pound paddy crabs to a pulp, with shells and all. Don't ask me what the spices are. I have no idea. 

What you're aiming for is to make the broth, then add the crab mixture so that when it cooks, it makes a big floating crab cake for you to break up into each bowl. The soup is simultaneously tart and sweet with tamarind and tomato, deeply reminiscent of the sea. Bun are round noodles, and they slither about in the broth; served with an assortment of herbs, to flavour each mouthful. You can buy all this stuff in London at Longdan (various branches). 

Bun Rieu

Serves 4

750ml vegetable broth
3 large tomatoes, chopped roughly
1 tsp fine shrimp paste 
1 tbsp tamarind puree
1 tbsp fish sauce 
1 can of crab with spices
150gr dried shrimp, soaked for an hour in cold water, drained and then blitzed until fine
2 eggs
2 large spring onions, whites and green separated
2 cloves of garlic, minced
200gr dry weight bun noodles (labelled jiangxi noodles), cooked until tender and drained
A bunch of Thai basil
A few sprigs of rau ram (hot mint) 
A few mint leaves
A few perilla (or shiso) leaves
A small handful of coriander
4 tofu puffs, soaked in boiling water and squeezed dry between two spoons, then halved.
2 tbsp cooking oil
1 lime, cut into 4 wedges

In a large saucepan, heat 1 tbsp the oil until shimmering. Mince the greens of the spring onion and add to the saucepan, along with the garlic. Cook until fragrant, then add the crab. Stir well and cook for 5 minutes, then decant into a bowl to cool. Add the blitzed dried shrimp.

Clean the saucepan out and add the oil again. Add the whites of the spring onion, minced, then the chopped tomatoes. Add the broth, tamarind, shrimp sauce, fish sauce and simmer for 10 minutes until the tomatoes start to break down. Don't boil it. 

Whisk the eggs into the crab and shrimp mixture. Turn the heat on high, and add this to the broth, drizzling it as you go, then let it cook, undisturbed, for another 3 or 4 minutes. Take off the heat. Check the seasoning; if it needs more salt add a touch more fish sauce.

Divide the noodles into 4 bowls, add 2 tofu puff halves, and ladle the hot broth over it evenly. Garnish with mint, perilla, hot mint, coriander and basil leaves, then top with a lime wedge and serve immediately. 

Sunday, 11 October 2015

La Pubilla, Barcelona, and More On Catalonian Food

When people talk about Barcelona and food, invariably they talk about where the best tapas bar is, or where to find the best tapas but actually being as it is in Catalonia, tapas isn't actually local to Barcelona. Tapas is native to Andalusia, though adopted all over Spain. Compared with Madrid, whereby anywhere you stop for a drink and you really do get a tapa - be it olives, or marinated anchovies or the like - Barcelona isn't so. You sit down and order from a menu. Catalonian food is characterised by dishes such as botifarra, a pork sausage with spices, or escalivada - smoky, grilled vegetables such as peppers and aubergine. The most common Catalonian dish served in Barcelona is pan con tomate, or pa amb tomàquet in Catalonian; toasted bread, rubbed with garlic and topped with tomatoes, rubbed until the pulp has been spread on the bread and the skins discarded. Topped liberally with salt and olive oil, this accompanies almost every meal. 

Keen to get a try of real Catalonian food, we went to La Pubilla, recommended by Su-Lin. I wasn't expecting such a sleek, minimal room, and being that it was unfathomably early for dinner (8:30pm!) we were the only customers. All the menus are in Catalonian or English, no Spanish equivalent. Some of the words are shared, though by and large we were baffled. 

Having already had a meat and cheese pitstop, we weren't exactly famished so we were rather pleased to find that the starter portion sizes were quite elegant. Marinated mackerel (top photo) with Salmorejo (a creamy gazpacho) was vividly orange, pretty on the plate and the flavours, married with the shaved fennel, were bright and perky. I am so obsessed with Salmorejo I was gulping down cartons of the stuff that you can buy from the fridges in the supermarkets. 

A halved, baked peach stuffed with shredded stewed duck was somewhat richer; the duck was scented with a little anise and the soft flesh of the peach worked so well with it. We pulled it apart with forks, spearing firmer raw peach cubes alongside. What a brilliant idea; I was concerned it might be a bit reminiscent of the (usually) abominable duck a l'orange, but we needn't have worried. Our third starter, a brawn-like shaved pressed meat with pickled chanterelles and herbed creme fraiche was less successful, though not disastrous; just a touch on the bland side. 

For mains, we all went down the seafood route and this was salted cod with cod throats (!) and white beans. I loved this. Though the skin would have been better crisp, I loved the slithery aspect of the cod throats, which were barely discernible unless you were looking for them. The cod was cooked so that firm flakes came away, pearlescent and creamy. This, like the rest of the mains we had, was better shared as what with being salt cod and all, it was quite... salty. 

Monkfish was declared the dish of the night by some of the table, and I almost agreed. The fish was cooked incredibly well, and it was sat on a bed of black rice, squash and tomatoes. It was light though it felt decadent, as most monkfish dishes seem to me; it's such a firm steak of a fish. 

But for me, this lobster rice was the dish of the night. A giant casserole came to the table, with it's own board to protect the table from its ferocious bubbling. Underneath the broth was soupy rice, creamy and rice from cooking in lobster bisque. This could have served 4 alone but we gamely ploughed on, eating the lobster-soup-rice, until all that was left was the lobster itself. Implements were requested, and viscera flew as we extracted all the sweet lobster meat from the shell. Meanwhile, this being our second dinner, I was full to bursting - my waistband was protesting - but onwards I continued, until there was nothing left to be eaten. 

We were so incredibly full that we had to go for an forty minute walk before we felt anything close to being normal again. 

La Pubilla, Plaça de la Llibertat, 23, 08012 Barcelona, Spain

I still can't tell you exactly what Catalan food is, but La Pubilla gave it a good go. Word has it that their lunch menu, at €13 for 3 courses, is one of the best value in town but actually I think that might go to Granja Mabel.  I went there three times for lunch when I was working (I did actually do some work in Barcelona!) and the menu del dia was merely €10 for three courses, that changed every day. It was absolutely rammed. I hadn't expected much but actually the 'secreto' pork was one of the best pieces of pork I've eaten in recent memory, and on another day, the pigs cheek served on the bone with rice was beautiful simplicity. 

Granja Mabel, Carrer de la Marina, 114, 08018 Barcelona, Spain

Entirely on the other end of the scale was Els Pescadors, probably one of the most expensive (and reputably the best) fish restaurant in town. I mention it because here I had hake cooked in 'suquet' - another traditional Catalonian dish. The restaurant itself is a cab ride away from the centre of town, the waiters wear starched white shirts, and they wheel a trolley full of the day's catch for you to be tempted by. I sat and watched a local jazz band play in the square outside, while an Italian couple next to me streamed the football, and a pair of Chinese lads chain-smoked their way through a steak tartare. But the suquet itself was rich with seafood flavour, heavy with potato and a large piece of braised hake, cooked just under so the flesh resisted a little against the bones, took centre stage. It's not a pretty dish. I asked for some vegetables - might I have a side salad? - and they looked at me like I was crazy. For €27.50 one might have thought some vegetables might be included. But no. I skipped starters and dessert.

Els Pescadors, Plaça de Prim, 1, 08005 Barcelona, Spain

Friday, 2 October 2015

Tapas 24, Barcelona

Tapas 24 is right in the middle of a bustling Barcelona, near Passeig de Gracia. I usually associate these kind of areas, the ones right in the middle of town, with our own Leicester Square; a culinary wasteland, unless you know where to look. Thanks to the good people of Twitter, I had plenty of recommendations, peppering my map of Barcelona, ensuring I wouldn't be far from a decent meal or drink.

Tapas 24 is owned by an El Bulli alumnus, bringing us traditional tapas with a modern take to them. There's a small terrace, but the main bar is in the basement, around a central cooking area. When I went my friends were a little tardy but even at the unfashionably early hour of 1pm, I was having to sheepishly save the seats next to me. They didn't like me much there.

The 'bikini' sandwich - I have no idea why they're called that, as it's probably the least bikini-friendly thing - is white bread stuffed to the gills with cheese, ham and truffles. How do they get that uniform toasty brownness? It's magic, that's what. Tasty, tasty melty gooey magic. 

The man next to me insisted we must get the gambas, so gambas we got and very good they were too. They were simply packed in salt and grilled, which made for some very salty finger-licking when we got down to de-shelling them. At this stage of the trip I was 99% salt anyway - the Spanish really like their salt, huh? - so I just shrugged and carried on. 

I was at the stage of the trip now where I was jumping on any vegetable available to me. WHY Barcelona, WHY U NO SERVE VEGETABLES? Anyway, this tomato salad was decorated with slivers of jamon, nestled in a cream that might have been influenced by tahini and topped with little orange salmon roe that popped in your mouth. It was wonderful; the tomatoes were sweet and juicy, the jamon and roe salty. I could feel my blood absorbing the vitamins. I am not being over-dramatic.

Chargrilled octopus was interspersed with big, wibbly wobbly chunks of Iberico pork fat. Sometimes the fat had a little bit of meat attached to it too. It was advertised as such on the menu, but I still felt it a little overwhelming. The flavour was incredible, but all that fat really coats the mouth. We needed a glass of rosé to steady ourselves. 

I kept seeing 'bomba' on various menus, and this is it; a giant ball of mashed potato, stuffed with minced meat, breadcrumbed and deep fried. It is topped with a spicy tomato sauce, and sat on a mayonnaise-like one too. Yes. Very yes.

Lastly, Iberico presa with chimichurri sauce had to be ordered. It's still a bit of a rarity in London, this special type of pork - reared on acorns, it's of such a high standard that one can eat it rare. Here it was seared lightly, insides still ruby red, and topped with a herby oil. It was so flavoursome it could have been mistaken for beef.

Service was fine, they were there when we needed them but otherwise completely indifferent. At around €40 a head with booze it certainly wasn't one of the cheapest lunches, but we found it to be good value - maybe I'm so used to London prices?

With that, we went to walk it off around the Sagrada Familia. Top tip: book online. It's so easy. Don't even think about turning up without a ticket, unless you really love queuing.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Cal Pep, Barcelona

When researching restaurants and bars for my Barcelona trip, Cal Pep was probably the one recommended to me the most. Bar some naysayers, I was told it was the best tapas in town, and I should get there early if I wanted a coveted seat at the bar. Indeed, I believe Barrafina's owners took inspiration from Cal Pep when opening their own place. 

Barrafina is better. 

That's not to say Cal Pep isn't good though. I rocked up on a Monday 15 minutes before opening time, and slotted into the queue at fourth place. As I was alone, I was instructed down to the far end of the bar; meanwhile larger groups who had booked carried on through to a dining room with tables. I will never choose a table over bar seating if I can possibly help it. 

My waiter asked me a flurry of Spanish, at which point I gathered there was no menu. He barked words at me - "fritto misto?" "almejas?" I nodded enthusiastically. "Tortilla?" I made a face. The older chap sitting next to me was also alone and caning the white wine like it wasn't a Monday, and so our dishes came out in tandem. Clams, cooked with tiny slivers of jamon, white wine and garlic were gorgeous, plump little things. A chef working behind the counter tsked at both of us, ordered us to put our forks down and slurp directly from the shells. I did as I was told. 

I very much enjoyed watching the chef behind the bar constantly tossing seafood through seasoned flour and dumping it into the fryer - toss, toss, fry, dump, repeat - and I wondered if that was his job all day. The fritto misto itself was fairly unremarkable; well fried, sure, but some of the small fishes I assume you're supposed to eat whole, like anchovies or sprats, were too big and after almost choking TO DEATH on a fish bone I came to deboning each with my fingers. It was a bit of a drag. 

So despite the face I got the tortilla anyway, and I'm glad I did as it was really delicious. The top was smeared with ...mayonnaise? And the insides were creamy and ever-so-slightly liquid. A whole tortilla for one was a bit much though (which I anticipated, hence my face) and I wish I'd been able to share it with Grandpa to my left who was ploughing gamely through his, onto his fourth glass of wine. 

By this point I was roundly stuffed as well as feeling incredibly vegetable-deficient but I wasn't quite ready to call it quits yet. Around me people who weren't alone had tuna tartare and sausage with beans (botifarra, not Heinz) and I wanted just one more thing. When asked, I told them I liked prawns, and I was offered two. What then ensued was a good fifteen minutes of what looked like the head chef attempting to weigh them, take the battery out, bash the scales around a bit, find another battery, weigh them again... I suddenly became slightly nervous that I had no idea what these (or anything else) cost, and if they're weighing them then... 

The answer is €17. Two big red prawns (not carabineros) were €17. Baked in salt on the plancha, they were juicy and just cooked - a second less would have rendered them undone. As I peeled the prawns the chef approached, ripped the top of the prawn's head off and proffered the brains to me to eat up. Luckily I was going to do so anyway - anyone more squeamish might have quailed under his expectant gaze. An espresso and a bill of €55 later, I gave up my seat to an extremely pushy woman, sad that I wouldn't be able to watch the spectacle of her ineffectual rudeness. Tourists, eh? 

Cal Pep
Plaça de les Olles, 8, 
08003 Barcelona, Spain

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Newman Arms, Fitzrovia

Around these parts, The Newman Arms used to be called ‘that pie pub’. I worked 10 minutes away from it for 6 years, and I went a few times – mainly in the depths of winter, to hunker down in the tiny little room upstairs with sticky tartan carpets and too-close-together tables. It smelled like cabbage and butter, and the only thing on the menu was – yep – pies. Most of them were the kind of pies that pie purists get their knickers in a right old twist about; you know the ones, they harp on endlessly about pies needing sides, and these! These! They shout, brandishing their pitchforks. These are CASSEROLES WITH LIDS! Snore. 

Those days are gone now, and so are their pies. The upstairs has been refurbished; nothing extensive, just pared back simplicity. The dining room is tiny, and the kitchen even more so which makes it all the more impressive for what comes out of it. It's still a pub downstairs, and on a Friday night you may have to jostle through a street-full, then a pub-full of drinkers to make your way up the rickety stairs. 

The Cornwall Project has taken the space over; they're also in residence at The Adam and Eve in Homerton, The Three Crowns in Stoke Newington, and The Duke of Edinburgh in Brixton. They like their pubs. The Project started five years ago with Matt Chatfield, a Cornishman who has worked closely with suppliers in Cornwall to bring London restaurants the finest produce, and has now branched out on his own.

From a short and changing menu, duck hearts with beetroot, blackberries and cobnuts is a great little starter; vivid on the plate, and the tender hearts sweetened with the fruit. It felt wonderfully autumnal, and the softer, squidgier textures were offset by the roasted, crunchy cobnuts. Some fine bread, loose-crumbed and sourdoughy, came with a generous pat of butter.

Mackerel with cucamelons - cucamelons! How cute are they? - and dill oil could have done with a heavier hand on the pickle flavour but otherwise the fish itself, served raw, was as fresh could be. Mackerel is an oily fish which has a tendency to go very fishy if it's been sitting around for a while, but there was absolutely no sign of that here. I am in love with cucamelons; grape-sized, cucumber flavoured and with a hint of citrus. 

I loved the aged rump cap beef tartare, properly beefy and chopped coarsely, so you could feel each little piece in your mouth. My poor companion, an avoider of the raw flesh, found that she really liked this one in small doses. Me? I piled that chargrilled toast up high, relishing the pickle and the smoked anchovy cream that dotted the tartare. 

An unexpected treat from the kitchen came in the form of lamb rump with an incredibly, impossibly crisp skin. God I love salty salty lamb fat. Pickled shiitake mushrooms made a change from the usual, a more interesting accompaniment to what can sometimes be a fairly standard meat-and-two-veg choice. 

The turbot though. Now this was pretty damn special. Pearly white flesh, on top of crushed potatoes, grilled yellow courgettes and purple micro-basil. Don't ask me what the sauce was - I have no idea and the menu missed this bit off - but my word this was good. Even though I know turbot is one of the most expensive fishes out there, at £25, it's the most expensive dish on the menu so it had a lot to live up to. Thankfully it did, and I was loathe to share it. 

It's very well I did, because otherwise I may have been denied the salt-baked celeriac with Tunworth cheese. It says a lot about a restaurant when out of 4 main courses you still fancy trying the vegetarian option (ok, maybe it says a lot about me), choosing over pork belly and beef shortrib. I have fond memories of salt-baked celeriac from The Ledbury; the salt-baking really intensifies the flavours, condenses the textures. Tunworth cheese is a runny, pungent one, adding some extra oompf. Pickled walnuts were a nice touch, and I especially liked the cubes of crisp, sharp apple; completely unexpected and it sounded bonkers on paper, but worked beautifully on the plate. 

I didn't take a picture of dessert. I completely forgot. I was having such a lovely time that once the dessert was set before us, we went at it and that was that. It happens a lot with me and desserts. The chocolate mousse was not, in fact, a mousse but was actually a baked fondant, those things with a liquid centre that Masterchef contestants seem to decide to make all the time despite its propensity to go completely wrong. This did not. The insides were molten, the outsides were cakey. It was light enough, topped with ice cream, for us to wipe the dish clean, and not so rich as to make us feel sick. 

As you can tell, I am a big fan of The Newman Arms in its new incarnation. We had a couple of dishes gifted to us (the beef tartare and the lamb) because Matt is just a bloody nice bloke but without it I can hand on heart say that I would feel the same way. These days finding a restaurant in the environs of Soho and Fitzrovia that is actually bookable, with brilliant food that won't bankrupt you is a rare find, and The Newman Arms is all three. 

Oh! There is ONE pie. It's on at lunchtime, when there is a ludicrously cheap 3 courses for £19 deal. I believe it might even have pastry sides to it, but don't hold me to that... 

The Newman Arms
23 Rathbone Street, 
London, W1T 1NG 

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Bar Del Pla, Barcelona

I've just spent two weeks in Barcelona for work; you'd think in a city so full of restaurants you'd try to get to as many as possible, but actually I enjoyed Bar del Pla so much, I went twice. 

We experienced both sides of the spectrum; perched at the bar, and sat down properly in the back dining room. No prizes for guessing where had the better ambience, but since both times they were full and we had a short wait, we weren't being picky. Pan con tomate, a staple of the Catalonia region, was rich with pulp and twinkling with salt crystals. A squid ink croquette was startling in colour, but as good as any I've had; melting inside, crisp outside. Long, thin peppers, blistered and hot replaced the usual padrons. These were spicier than their more squat counterparts, and we spluttered often. 

I'd never have ordered the 'mushrooms and wasabi' if I hadn't been so vegetable-deficient by this stage of the trip. Man I am glad we did. Chestnut mushrooms, shaved incredibly thinly and served raw, mingled with pieces of strawberry, curls of a sharp cheese that might have been manchego, and slivered shiso leaves - all drizzled with a wasabi-scented dressing. It sounds completely bonkers doesn't it? It was so, so good. A simple tomato salad featured firm, large chunks of the sweetest fruit, heightened by great olive oil and sherry vinegar. We flicked more salt crystals off.

Asparagus were grilled until tender, a smokiness imbued within them. Romesco sauce, made with red peppers, almonds, bread and olive oil blitzed to a coarse, red paste is another Catalonian speciality, and added richness to the vegetables. We devoured this. I'm not sure the cress added much (does it ever?).

From the larger 'granny's cuisine' dishes, I only ordered this dish because @jmdale01, who'd recommended me the restaurant, said to; on the menu, it was labelled 'Iberican Cheek Café Paris' and it didn't sound particularly exciting (more baffling...), but the perfectly cooked cheeks, fork-tender and gelatinous were in its' braising juices that tasted lightly curried. Almond-scented croutons topped the dish which added a surprising, slightly sweet dimension, while the potatoes remained al dente, ideal for swiping up extra sauce. This was a real highlight of the whole trip. 

I don't normally go in for foie gras. I find it a bit too much and it finishes off what remaining appetite I might have, but I wasn't eating alone and I can't always have my way I suppose. True to form, the foie gras was incredibly indulgent, but cooked well with a crisp caramelised crust and custard-smooth inside. The 'crispy beef' was slow-cooked shredded beef, wrapped around a thin filo-like pastry and deep-fried. Rather astoundingly, this dish was only €5.90.

'¡¡¡A Tapa of Tripe!!!!' was how the menu described this cast-iron dish of, well, tripe. Cooked with chorizo, the pieces were gooey and frilly in the mouth. I liked it, though less so when it repeated on me through the night. My companions were apprehensive, crying off with mumbles of being overly full to take it on.

Both times I was surprised how cheap the bill was; with ample of their delicious white rioja and tip, we barely scratched £25 a head. Well worth a visit. Or two.

Bar Del Pla

Carrer Montcada 2,
80030 Barcelona

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Korean-Style Glazed Meatballs

I'm as guilty as the next person of buying groceries and promptly forgetting about it, going off to meet friends, work late, neglect dinner. It always makes me feel really guilty; so guilty in fact that I find myself boiling eggs at 1am, half drunk, so they don't go off and I can make the most of them. Waste is a bad thing, and I hope I never change in this respect. I don't want to be one of those people who can wantonly throw away food without a thought behind it. Long may the guilt live. 

This recipe was borne out of that very feeling. I watched flat peaches slowly wrinkle, the skin toughening, the fruit ripening. I just kept forgetting about them until it wasn't possible to ignore any longer. I could bake a cake with them, or make them into compote maybe. That would then sit in the fridge and grow fur. 

Or I could make Korean-style meatballs! A much better idea. These are a perfect starter for a few people, or you could have them over rice. I actually preferred them wrapped in lettuce leaves, like a riff on bo ssam, that pork dish served wrapped in leaves, with condiments. A bit of fresh lettuce crunch is perfect with the sweet spiciness of this sauce. 

Korean Style Glazed Meatballs

300gr minced beef with a bit of fat
A handful of panko breadcrumbs, soaked in a splash of milk
1 clove of garlic, minced
1 inch of ginger, peeled and grated
A hefty pinch of salt
2 small flat peaches, peeled and cut into cubes
2 tbsp gochujang 
1.5 tbsp rice vinegar
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tbsp water
A handful of chives, snipped
Lettuce leaves - round, Iceberg or Romaine, washed and cut into palm-sized pieces

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C. Place the peach in a small saucepan with a lid and cook on a very low heat until the fruit has softened and released its' liquid. Add a splash of water if it is catching. 

Meanwhile, drain the breadcrumbs and add to the beef with the garlic, ginger, sesame oil and salt. Mix lightly with your hands, and roll into golf-ball-sized balls. Place on a oiled sheet of greaseproof paper and place them in the oven. Cook for 15 minutes. 

Once the peach has softened into a mush, add the tbsp of water, gochujang, vinegar and soy sauce. Blitz with a handheld blender, and return to a low heat to simmer for 3 - 4 minutes. Keep warm. 

Fan out the lettuce leaves on a plate. Dip each meatball in the sauce and roll it around so it is covered, then place on a lettuce leaf. Repeat, and then scatter with snipped chives, and serve.