Meaty, Reviews

Temper, Soho – review 

 

As Christmas is nearly upon us and everyone is thinking about turkey, sprouts, pigs-in-blankets, and a whole host of other assorted festive requirements, allow me to distract you with some fire, smoke, and meat.
You know you want me to….

Temper is the brainchild of meat and BBQ maestro Neil Rankin and occupies a wonderfully smokey basement in London’s Soho (there is also now a branch in the city). Neil has worked for Barbecoa, Pitt Cue Co, and also opened the excellent Smokehouse in Islington – he is a man who knows his meat and, most importantly of all, knows how to cook it.

As you descend into the dining room from street level, your nostrils begin to tingle with the earthy smells of smoke and charcoal, a background hum of the outdoors that is hovering in the air and undercut with the soothing aroma of meat being cooked over coals. Once at the bottom of the stairs, a huge indoor fire pit is revealed, a clay oven at one end, various racks and grills at the other, and a counter that runs all the way round for diners to revel in the sight of meats (and fish) being lovingly, simply prepared and cooked before their eyes. It’s quite a statement and one which is sure to melt the heart of any BBQ fiend. For those who prefer a more traditional dining experience, tables away from the fire and smoke are also available, although I’m not sure why you’d want one!

The emphasis here is, obviously, on meat but don’t come expecting St Louis ribs or chicken wings – this is a different BBQ game. Starters come in the form of soft tacos – baked to order – and with a range of toppings like crab and pickled onion pork skin, prawns, or the wonderful Aged Cheeseburger; Small patties of beef, charred and juicy, with a slab of melted cheese served on piping hot, soft tacos are truly a thing of beauty and wonder and could, if ordered generously, satisfy as a main in their own right. A simple but delicious beef fat taco is worth a go as was, on one visit, the wonderful tuna and salsa offering which was clean, punchy, and utterly delicious. 

Mains are, for the most part, ordered by 100g portions and they suggest two or three to share for two people plus some sides. I’d normally skip sides to focus on more meat but do not, under any circumstances, skip these sides – beef fat roast potatoes covered in grilled, tangy Ogleshield cheese are truly sensational and a wonderful gluttonous treat. Likewise, the grilled corn with lamb fat bearnaise is a fabulous dish – some of the corn is popped to add an extra and exciting texture, the creamy, unctuous sauce cut perfectly with a dusting of mint. And of course, both of these sensational sides go perfectly with the hunk of smoked meats that come served on freshly griddled flat bread.

Beef fat potatoes with Ogleshield

Goat is rich, deeply flavoured and utterly moreish, demonstrating here why it is a meat we need to eat more of – totally delicious and increasingly available. If you think you don’t like goat or are too scared to try it, go to Temper and have some and all your worries will be over. Likewise if you’ve ever been slightly disappointed by dry, soulless BBQ beef then the charred, moist, and wonderful offering here will sooth any previous beef trauma. Also worth diving in to is the beef and marrow chilli which comes with fresh, spicy jalapeño and sings with delicate, fresh flavours of lime and coriander – a perfect example of what many restaurants only vaguely achieve. 

Beef and marrow chilli

To follow this fresh-faced feast, the warm baked cookie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream is an absolute must and comes served in the pan it was baked in. Gooey, sweet, sticky, indulgence of the highest order and well worth saving some room for (although on both visits we ended up sharing one between us).
Wine is available by the glass or bottle with a very decent selection of grapes and prices – house wines start from about £26 – and there are various tempting cocktails and craft beers. It is worth noting that if you do sit by the counter, white wine will get warm quickly as the heat from the pit radiates towards you – be warned!

Service is professional, relaxed, and of the highest standard and it is a marvellous place to spend a couple of hours, especially on a cold winter’s day. Dinner for two including drinks and service is about £100 but if you skip starters it’ll come in at nearer to £80 – but with food of this quality this is fantastic value. There are few places where you can enjoy such fantastic food in such an exciting and unique environment and Temper ticks the boxes for being one of the finest meateries around. And is more than worth returning to for feasts of meat and fire.

You will come out smelling like you’ve been slowly smoked over coals but this is a very good thing…

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Helen Browning at The Royal Oak, Bishopstone – review 

It is tempting, when you find a gem of a pub lunch, to keep it yourself and sneakily return again and again merely to satisfy your own gastronomic desires and revel in the fact that no-one else knows about your secret. However, it is equally tempting to shout loudly and rejoice, to share your discovery with the world and tell anyone who’ll listen that they simply must try it. They must. Simple.

The Royal Oak had been on my radar for some time and I’d marked it out as a place to investigate as I’d read many great things and thought it sounded just like my sort of place. The little village of Bishopstone nestles beneath the flanking escarpment of the Ridgeway on the Oxfordshire/Wiltshire borders and is just the kind of place that one would hope, nay expect, a fine pub with an excellent kitchen. The sort of place for balmy summer barbecues, autumnal pints, and warming winter suppers. And, with The Royal Oak, the locals are blessed and lucky enough to have such a pub.

Helen Browning has a well earned reputation for excellence with regards to organic farming and animal husbandry and her farm is based in the village with pigs and sheep roaming the nearby fields. In fact, you can even book a farm tour and see the happy animals for yourself, although some diners may prefer to eat before they meet the meat. Some years ago, she took over the pub in Bishopstone and quickly established it as one of the places to eat in the area. And with organic meat and veg supplied on its doorstep, a network of excellent local and national suppliers, and an excellent selection of beers, ciders, and wine, it is no wonder that it quickly became a hit with rural gastromomes and discerning scoffers.

Annoyingly for me, it always seemed a little far from we usually stay for a gentle evening meal after a day walking the countryside, so for some time it seemed ever so slightly out of reach. I could have driven of course but then ale wouldn’t have an option. Or wine. And that wouldn’t do at all. However, while organising a pre-wedding trip for a friend, I discovered that they do offer a free land-rover ride home for up to ten people so I booked a table and made the necessary arrangements.

We arrived and were greeted like old friends, beer at the ready and some plates of homemade sausage to nibble at while the table was prepared.The Royal Oak is a Victorian building with a very snug interior and tables rambling around a generously sized bar. The menu is straightforward and tempting with an array of pig-based dishes as well as excellent sounding vegetarian and fish options. We ate a vast amount, drank a vat of wine and beer, and tumbled into the rickety land-rover for a bracing drive back to where we were staying.

It was only the next day I realised that while we were eating, the laughs and merriment had given way to silent, appreciate devouring of some of the best food any of us had had from a country pub. And I can safely say that, having returned several times since, The Royal Oak is up there as being my favourite pub to eat in in the country. No joke.

Roast pork belly

The sticky, tender spare ribs (available as a starter or main course) hint at oriental flavours and would satisfy even the hardiest BBQ fan. Their burger is fat and juicy and can be customised with extra cheese, pickles, egg, and bacon and is served with chips that rustle for your attention. A main of pork belly with root mash, roast potatoes, and cabbage consists of two hugely generous slabs of rolled pork, cooked slowly to produce tender, juicy meat that flakes apart as you cut through it. A rich, herby gravy and vast fluffy Yorkshire pudding complete this mighty take on a pork roast and a bargain at £15. Also highly recommended is the pig cheek ragu – outrageously tasty meat in a hefty sauce which fills all the corners and comforts the soul.

Puddings (all £7) are simple and wonderful – apple crumble, organic ice cream, sticky toffee pudding were all jostling for attention on a recent visit. The sticky toffee in particular is a thing of true beauty with a decadent toffee sauce soaking through a rich, spicy sponge and topped with a scoop of organic ice cream. The stuff that dreams are made of and tasty ones at that.

Glorious sticky toffee pudding

All the staff, and especially the landlord, are friendly and jolly – happy to chat or recommend anything that is enquired about, be it how the pig racing went or whether we should listen to the blackboard and try the organic ale on offer (we did, it was amazing).

They (rightly) get busy at weekends and it is worth booking ahead if you’re making a special trip. There was a relaxed and pleasing sense of mild irreverence that immediately appealed and this is part of what makes the place so good – no pretensions, no snobbery, just passion and pride. And that is something lacking in many eateries in the world right now. So if you want to eat in a genuinely friendly environment which serves consistently excellent and lovingly prepared food, head to The Royal Oak and rejoice – we always do.

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Ramblings..., Reviews

La Focaccia, Roma – Review

Via Della Pace, 11, 00186 Roma, Italy

Tucked up on a quiet street just away from the noise and bustle of Piazza Navona and directly outside the achingly beautiful church of Santa Maria della Pace is the wonderful haven of La Focaccia – home to serious wood-fired cooking and some of the best fritti in Rome. When we first discovered it in 2010, there was no sign outside and the only reason you’d realise it was a restaurant at all was due to the red gingham tablecloths that adorned a few al fresco dining spots. At the moment (well, when I returned in June 2016), the entire street is pretty much covered with hoarding due to building work and the team from La Focaccia have taken the opportunity to do a little fresco outside which features the restaurant name in bold letters, thus making locating this wonderful eatery all the easier.

If you eat inside, it’s a little like entering the vaults of a church (and given the location, you most likely are) but a church with old wine bottles, rusted signs for beer, and a random mix of old tattered posters on the wall. None of this is a bad thing – it is welcoming, comforting, and downright intriguing as you wend your way down slanted stone stairs to discover the expansive underground dining areas that spread underneath the streets. On our first two visits, the whole place was full of priests discussing whether they should pray for a friend before or after dinner, on my most recent trip, one whole side of the dining area was filled for a birthday party and we could hear the increasingly raucous and joyous celebrations out on the street where we were sitting. The bottom line is: Everyone loves La Focaccia.

In Rome it almost a legal requirement (indeed, it should be a legal requirement) to feast on as many types of fried food (the wonderful fritti) as is humanly possible and La Focaccia serve some of the best that I’ve had. You can get anything from stuffed courgette flowers, balls of creamy cheese that stretch across the table when torn apart, mushrooms, ham and cheese, and all are dipped in a light batter and deep fried until crisp and perfect. On their own fritti misti plate, strips of courgette are transformed into munchable, crunchable sticks of joy, a smoky piece of ham is sandwiched between cheese and fried until it is the most decadent of all savoury snacks, and a glorious suppli – the Roman equivalent to Sicily’s arancini – a ball of risotto rice, filled with ragu and cheese, coated in batter and thrown into the fryer to emerge crispy, oozy, and outrageous. Slices of aubergine, little potato croquettes are also crammed on to the plate. You can never have too much fritti. There are other starters available – the meat and cheese selection plate is certainly worth a mention – but I genuinely don’t understand why anyone in their right mind would choose them when such fried delights can be had. And a bargain – under €10 for that vast plate of delight and it fed two very greedy people very well indeed. And I did almost order more courgette flowers…

Their pizzas are truly majestic creations – thin bases with a rich tomato sauce and a good (but not overly long) selection of toppings. I can’t resist a Pizza Diavola with slices of spicy salami covered in melting cheese, finished with a drizzle of chilli oil and a scattering of basil and the ones served at La Focaccia are sensational. The bases are scorched to within an inch of their lives in the fierce wood-fired oven and come out crisp but still with enough satisfying chew to delight any pizza lover. The slices of salami are huge and only three or four are needed to nearly cover the already vast pizza base. When it comes to size, the same can be said of the decadent Calzone – a folded pizza stuffed with veggies or meaty treats that only just fits on the plate. Huge and over the top but so worth it. I have eaten pizza all over Italy and this place serves some of the very best. No joke.

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Pizza Diavola at La Focaccia

 

The pasta is also worth exploring – a Tuscan-inspired wild boar ragu was deeply meaty and rich with sizeable chunks of meat cooked to tender perfection in a simple but delicious tomato and wine sauce. A simple tomato ragu with huge cubes of mozarella accompanied with one of their crisp and delicious breads is also a winner.

Wine is available either by the jug or by the bottle and I urge you to opt for the della casa and get a good carafe of crisp local white or a cool, slightly chilled red. Chilled red wine is something that many people would baulk at but is also something that everyone should have – it is beginning to make more of a splash over here and is truly fantastic. Not all reds are suitable of course – a rich and earthy vintage would certainly not benefit from a spell in the chiller – but for light, fruity wines it is fantastic. And about €10 for a litre. Score.

The staff are multi-lingual and incredibly friendly and every time I return I rejoice – it’s a bit like coming home. I can’t envisage a trip to Rome without a dinner there and I think that just about sums it up – when in Rome, eat at La Focaccia!

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Smoke Ring Roma – Review

Via Portuense, 86, 00153 Roma, ItalySmoke Ring interior

Rome is a wonderful city for finding tasty food – there is a much broader selection of cuisines and styles than you will find in many other Italian towns (although that too is slowly changing) although anyone who has visited Italy will know there is more to the cuisine than pizza and pasta. During my most recent visit I chose four places which I feel any food-orientated traveller would be well rewarded by investigating if they find themselves in the Eternal City and reviews of all will eventually be posted. I should point out that I deliberately chose two eateries that are about as far from traditional Italian cooking as you can get and this is not because I dislike Italian food (far from it) but because sometimes you have to go somewhere a bit different. And let’s face it, if you find a traditional U.S-style smokehouse in Rome it simply has to be tried…

I was very, very excited when I discovered this place during some web-based research for possible tasty destinations. After all, I was in Rome to visit my ‘Meat-wife’ (my real wife is a vegetarian) who has shared some of the best BBQ the UK has to offer and who has recently moved to Rome to teach. She told me that she really, really missed the kind of meaty treats that we had gorged on every month so I felt it my duty to find somewhere. I wasn’t expecting much to be honest – at best I thought I might find a sort of TGI-Friday sort of faux American monstrosity – but I was thrilled to find that in 2013 a group of Italian BBQ enthusiasts opened this welcoming place on the West bank of the River Tiber. They take their craft very seriously, lovingly explaining on their website the importance of low and slow cooking and the miraculous flavour that smoke imparts to meat. They meant business. We had to go.

In true tourist fashion we arrived for dinner WAY before the locals – the place was empty at 7pm but the tables were dotted with reservation markers for 9pm and beyond – but like the troopers we are we were not put off. Smoke Ring has set up home in a brick archway and if you have been to any BBQ joint pretty much anywhere in the world, as soon as you walk in you’ll feel right at home. Light bulbs dangle uncovered from the ceiling, a huge rack of barrels full of liquor are stacked on one wall, signs behind the bar offer craft beer and cocktails – it is every inch the smokehouse that anyone would expect. Yes it may seem a bit tired to those who have tried many (not us however) but finding this kind of place in Rome is both comforting and refreshing. We took a seat at one of the many communal tables and had a look at the menu – eager to see what we could cram into our bellies. Meat is sold by weight (or portion in the case of ribs and wings) and you grab a tick-box form from the table, wonder how much meat you can get away with, and then take your filled in form up to the bar to pay. We ordered ribs, brisket, pulled pork, hot links, and chicken wings along with a bottle of an amber coloured wine from Lazio – as we weren’t sure on portion size, we went for 6 servings of ribs, 200g each of pulled pork and brisket, 2 portions of links, and 5 hot wings. This proved to be possibly rather excessive.

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

Hot links, ribs, and brisket

The ribs were St Louis cut – fat, juicy and huge. They had been gently seasoned with a simple but tasty rub and smoked to perfection – a nice bark and the meat clinging to the bone. I would perhaps have appreciated a glaze of sauce to finish but they were pretty fantastic all said. And six was far too much even for us (we managed four). The brisket came sliced thin which revealed the rouge ring imparted by the smoker and was savoury and delicious but possibly a little dry. The servings of links turned out to be two huge sausages cut into generous portions – we were very nearly defeated by them – and were some of the best that I’ve had, spicy and smoky with a satisfying snap when bitten into. Wonderful. Wings were also excellent – smoky, succulent, and pleasingly messy. The pulled pork was not half bad either and packed a deep, porcine punch with just the right amount of rub and a top quality amount of smoke for flavour. This is hard to do – Smoke Ring do it VERY well. The only slight let downs were the two sauces that came with the wings and pork – one was supposedly a standard BBQ sauce but in reality tasted a bit like ketchup with a bit of oregano thrown in, the other was a supposedly spicy number but lacked any real kick. That is not to say that either were unpleasant but given the quality of the majority of the cooking it did come as something of a disappointment.

But for all that meat and a bottle of excellent local wine we paid the grand total of 55 euro which was more than good value. By the time we left the place was filling up nicely and I certainly intend to visit again the next time I find myself in Rome and if you find yourself craving some serious carnivorous delights when you visit, this is the place to go.

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Atomic Burger – review

Sometimes you walk into a restaurant and immediately know that everything is going to be alright. There is something about the decor maybe, or the staff, or the smells, or the general vibe that instantly ticks all the boxes and makes you feel reassured that this place is everything that you have been looking for. It is very rare for somewhere to have this effect on the diner, sometimes it is the sheer unexpectedness or unappealing looks of a place that then serves killer food that make a particular restaurant somewhere special and worth seeking out, but I have to say that Atomic Burger had me smiling and happy from the moment I walked in and that feeling has remained with me pretty much ever since.

I first encountered this remarkable mini-chain (they have a branch in Bristol and a pizza place nearby) a couple of years ago when my wife was working in Oxford and I had come to stay with her for a couple of days. I spent my teenage years in the city and have many fond memories of its pubs and majestic medieval beauty, gigs, and parties, but I never really saw it as somewhere to eat out. To be fair, we didn’t really want to spend our precious pennies on food when there was beer to be had but Oxford never really felt like somewhere for exciting gastronomic adventures. I’d read about Atomic Burger in the Hardens food guide and, as I was aiming to visit the tiny cinema (The Ultimate Picture Palace) nearby, I thought I’d check it out. The Cowley road was always a bit of a rough affair when I was growing up but I’d played and seen many gigs in the pubs and venues that were scattered up and down it and was feeling nostalgic.

And surely the area must have been cleaned up a little bit since 1999.

When I walked in my jaw nearly hit the floor. I had never in my whole life seen anything like it. For anyone born and brought up in the 80’s, it was a dream come true. It was like a realisation of the toy section from the Argos catalogue in 1987. It was like the bedroom you wished you had when you were a kid. It was wonderful. Hanging from the ceiling and stuck to the walls were all the toys and actions figures that I pined after as a child – figures from Star Wars, Boglins, My Pet Monster, Thundercats – you name it, it’s probably on their wall. There was a huge TV screen playing cartoons at the back of the room, there was a warmth, a glow, a joy that radiated from the place. A relaxed and friendly waiter showed me to a table (I just about managed to stammer a ‘hello’ so completely bowled over was I by the decor) and I looked at the colourful and intriguing menu. Normally I would shy away from a burger place that has a vast selection of toppings – it’s often a way of hiding the fact that they don’t really do anything well – but there was something about the Atomic menu that felt different. Each burger has a film or pop culture name or theme – The Tony Montana, The Daisy Duke, The Jake n Elwood – and each is customisable to the point of, well, as far as you want to take it. What makes it even more interesting is the option of having any burger as either beef, chicken, or veggie, thus allowing for everyone to dive in and enjoy the fun (gluten free buns are available too). All the toppings are fantastic – the pulled pork, the crispy onions, the dressing, the hot sauces (although be warned that the Atomic Fallout Sauce is lethal), and everything is made with love and passion and that joy that permeates the building.

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Inside Atomic Burger in Oxford

On that first visit though, I went down a slightly different route and ordered a hot dog. Plain and simple. Each main comes with a free side and of these, the chilli-rubbed ‘sci-fries’ spoke to me, as did a starter of BBQ wings. And a beer. Obviously. My order was taken and I sat back and felt very happy indeed.

When the wings came I was, well, more than a bit surprised. I have eaten many a chicken wing starter in my time and was expecting maybe 4 or 5 wings to come my way. This particular portion consisted of closer to 12, covered in a rich and smoky BBQ sauce, and served with a suitably sized stack of napkins and a side of blue cheese sauce. Heaven. The wings themselves were expertly cooked and the sauce was thumpingly good. I think I inhaled the lot in about 5 minutes. The hot dog was vast – a proper frankfurter that was juicy, slightly smoky, 100% amazing, and also gone in seconds. The chilli-rubbed fries that rustled together enticingly in the bowl were a revelation – hot and deeply savoury, crispy outside with a perfectly cooked fluffy centre. And, like the rest, devoured at an alarming rate. The waiter came to ask how everything was but I’d already finished. I knew I’d found somewhere pretty special and was so excited by it that my wife and I went back the next day for lunch – I had a chicken Daisy Duke (bacon, American cheese, BBQ sauce) and she had a veggie Bandit (Cajun-rubbed pattie, huge onion ring, BBQ sauce, cheddar). They were totally awesome. The burgers were massive but not scarily so – and we staggered out happy and full, unable to manage one of their tempting milkshakes or ice cream desserts.

Since that first encounter I have eaten at the Oxford branch 4 or 5 times – the latest to their newer premises a few doors down from the original and we got the train from London especially to eat there – and the Bristol branch once. Every time I have been filled with joy, nostalgia, and fantastic food. The beef burgers are hefty, juicy, and fantastic. The wings continue to deliver on every level (a large portion is more than enough for two – trust me). The staff continue to be utterly brilliant. I’ve had some of the biggest onion rings known to man, a crunchy exterior with properly cooked onion hiding inside, as well as creamy and delicious slaw, and more of those addictive ‘sci-fries’. The plain fries are pretty epic too I should add. And every month there is a different special burger to tempt you with – The Wicker Man creation last year was truly epic. On my last visit I created my own – the Hans Gruber tribute (look it up if that film reference means nothing to you) which featured crisp dill pickles, BBQ sauce, Swiss cheese, tumbleweed onions, and a whole frankfurter crammed atop a mighty beef patty. It was truly amazing.

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The Wicker Man special – chipotle braised beef, Cajun-spiced onions, cheese 

And I should also add that, unlike every other burger chain or restaurant in the land, Atomic do not use a sweet, enriched brioche bun to contain their vast creations. A simple white roll is all they feel is necessary and I have to say it works completely. Some people may take umbrage with this. Some may wax lyrical about the qualities of an enriched dough that will help keep the whole thing together without dissolving into mush before the burger is finished. Some may say the richness of the bun works with the burger. Some perhaps can’t imagine why you wouldn’t use a brioche bun. Some say they thought the Sun and the Moon were the same thing. People say all sorts of things. I’ve had some delicious burgers – Honest Burger, The Joint, Pattie & Bun to name but three – many of whom opt for a brioche-style bun but I have to be honest and say that the only time I’ve noticed the difference was when I was served a burger in a brioche bun that had clearly been toasted hours earlier and was chewy and unpleasant.  Atomic’s traditional rolls more than stand up to the task (and are also pretty damned tasty) of holding an unruly burger in place and surely that is all that matters.

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The Hans Gruber tribute burger

If you’ve got room (and I have never quite managed it) there is a sweeping array of tempting things for dessert – milkshakes, ice cream, waffles – all of which sound fantastic. I saw a Vincent Vega shake (ice cream, bourbon, peanut butter, cream) go past me once and almost sighed at its sheer majesty. One day I’ll do it. One day…

Atomic Burger is a real destination and one well worth seeking out. There are whispers and rumours that they may expand beyond the current sites and if they do we should all rejoice. Their concept (not a word I usually associate with good restaurants) is unique and wonderful and the food more than lives up to the expectation set by the surroundings. There is even awesome Star Wars wallpaper in the toilets. Yes. There is. They are soon (early 2016) unveiling a new menu which I’m sure will be every bit as exciting and epic as the current one and I can’t wait to go back and try it. There is nothing else out there like Atomic and that is worth celebrating and cherishing. If you like burgers, you will love Atomic. It’s that simple.

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Check out their website: www.atomicburger.co.uk

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Ramblings..., Recipes, Reviews, Soupy

Hugh’s Ribollita – recipe and review

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Ribollita – the perfect winter supper

I was tempted to call this post ‘Possibly the best soup ever’ simply because it gives me so much joy every time I eat it. One of the many wonderful things about this recipe is that, unlike many so-called ‘meal’ soups, this really does fill you up in a truly satisfying way. No jokes – it really does. It is also perfect for cold nights and for when you need to make a change from seasonal excesses.

The first time I encountered a ribollita (Italian for ‘re-boiled’) was in an early episode of the ‘River Cottage’ series in which the ever dependable Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall created a version that he dubbed ‘Half-the-garden Soup’. It certainly did contain a fair heft of veg and I was slightly disappointed not to find a recipe for it in the original (and excellent) ‘River Cottage Cookbook’. The version that eventually appeared in the (also excellent) ‘River Cottage: Veg Everyday’ cookbook was splendid and tasty but for some reason didn’t quite fulfil the warming, wholesome temptation that the original TV series seemed to offer. No matter, there were many other ‘hefty’ soups in the book and I was soon distracted and not musing too much on the lack of ribollita in my life.

However, the thought of a filling, simple, delicious vegetable soup that delivered a bit more punch than usual kept coming back to me. So I turned to the internet to see if any variations existed and lo and behold, Hugh himself provided the answer! One of his weekly columns for The Guardian was based around tinned ingredients and, much to my delight, the first recipe he offered was for a ribollita. Joy! And so, on a cold autumn night, I gave it a go and the results were, well, more than stupendous.

Seriously – this soup is something else.

So excited was I by the success of the ribollita that I made it again the following week.

And again a few days later.

And I made it for dinner last night.

And we’ve got more for dinner tonight.

Huzzah!

I’ve tried to work out what makes this recipe superior to the version in the book and the only thing I can really spot is the addition of wine. Wine generally makes things better in my book and you’d have thought that perhaps 100ml wouldn’t make much difference but believe me, it is the difference! The other elements that really help this soup pack a serious punch are the slow cooking of the onions (15 minutes) and then the simmer of the whole soup (about an hour). This may seem like a bit of a faff time-wise but I implore you to be patient and go with it – I’ve tried doing a faster version and it just doesn’t satisfy.

You could use the time to drink more wine for example.

The only I’ve changed from the original recipe it the amount of olive oil used to soften the veg – I find that 2tbsp is more than enough – but use however much or little as you please. Again, the oil is a key part of the flavour so don’t leave it out entirely as you will miss it. The soup does taste better when left overnight but you might need to add more stock as the liquid does tend to get absorbed by the veg.

The recipe states it will serve six to eight people however, we are greedy and find really we only get four big portions from this quantity!

SOUP!!!!

Ingredients

  • 2tbsp olive oil, plus extra for the bread
  • 2 onions, diced
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1 leek trimmed and finely sliced
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 100ml red wine
  • 400g tin chopped tomatoes 
  • 400g tin cannellini beans (or whichever you prefer)
  • 1 litre vegetable stock
  • 1 small sprig rosemary and 2-3 small thyme sprigs, tied together
  • 200g kale, cavolo nero, or Savoy cabbage, tough stalks removed, leaves shredded
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 slices slightly stale white bread
  • 1 garlic clove, halved

Method

In a large saucepan, warm the olive oil and sauté the onions over a medium-low heat. Cook them for a good 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until they are soft and glistening.

Add the carrots, celery and leek, and cook for a further five minutes, stirring and then add the garlic and stir for another minute.

Pour in the wine and simmer for a minute – this makes everything SO much better. Add the tomatoes, beans, stock, rosemary and thyme, season and simmer gently, partially covered, for about an hour.

Use this time to drink wine.

Add the greens and cook for 10 minutes more. Remove the herb bundle and season to taste.

Once the soup is done, rub the bread with garlic, brush with oil and toast until golden and delicious.

Put one slice in the base of each bowl, ladle over the soup, and shave over a healthy amount of parmesan. If you like, splash a bit more olive oil over the steamy pile of warming delight and tuck in.

You’re welcome.

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Ramblings..., Reviews

The White Horse Inn, Woolstone, review

Creamy wild mushrooms on toast

Creamy wild mushrooms on toast at The White Horse Inn

Many apologies for my absence of late – I haven’t forgotten you nor indeed vanished in a BBQ-induced fug! Slow the recovery from pneumonia is…

Whenever we go camping we treat ourselves to a meal at one of the local pubs. Obviously my ability to get out and about into the countryside has been somewhat hampered of late but I was able to drop by an old favourite quite recently and was very glad I did.

The Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire is certainly not lacking in idyllic village pubs that serve food. Almost every hamlet you pass will have a sign extolling the virtues of their particular local haunt and why you should stop and eat there immediately. Interestingly enough however, most of the claims in this area do appear to be pretty accurate – in a world where more and more pubs are putting the kitchen before the beer and generally resulting in more and more opportunities for terrible cooking, generic menus, and trend-chasing, this is worth taking note of.

The White Horse is located in the almost achingly beautiful village of Woolstone – a mixture of black and white timbered cottages, 18th century stone farmhouses, and a babbling brook that trickles through the centre. The pub takes its name from the Bronze-age chalk figure carved into the downs that rear above the village and over the last few years it has been carving a reputation as a serious contender for best eating pub in the area. And there is some seriously stiff competition – Helen Browning’s magnificent Royal Oak in Bishopstone and the Blowing Stone Inn in nearby Kingston Lisle to name but two.

The first time we ate at The White Horse we not particularly impressed – the food was fine but overly styled and underly flavoured as if the chef had been watching too many episodes of MasterChef and not bothered to taste the food before it was delicately arranged on the plate/slate/board. A lemon chicken that tasted too much of lemon and not enough of chicken but looked like it had come out of a food-styling manual, scampi and langoustines that cascaded out of a bucket of chips but tasted like they’d come from a supermarket – these were conundrums that were coming out of the kitchen. All style, no real substance. That, however, was in 2011 and things have since changed in a big way and now the careful and exact presentation is matched by flavours that sing and dance around the palate in happy harmony. Don’t get me wrong – there are no Michelin pretensions here, no foams, airs, sous-vides, or the like, but there is serious, straightforward cookery that takes pub staples and makes them deliver beyond expectations. A starter of wild mushrooms in a creamy garlic sauce was rich and satisfying but still perfectly judged as a first course – a delicate parmesan crisp complimented the lovingly cooked fungi and added a nice bit of extra crunch. Likewise the duck pâté was beautifully smooth and served with a simple salad, chunky toast, and a zingy chutney that brought the whole dish together.

Roast chicken thighs with salsify and tarragon sauce

Roast chicken thighs with salsify and tarragon sauce

Mains also deliver – mushroom-stuffed chicken thighs served with salsify (a tricky root to get right), buttery mash, and a lick-the-plate-clean mustard and tarragon sauce was expertly cooked and consequently devoured in minutes. Lamb three ways (roasted rump, crispy belly, and slow-cooked shoulder wrapped in pancetta) on a bed of spring cabbage, beetroot, and sweet potato was brought together by a wonderful light minty sauce that also had us chasing the final dregs around the plate.

Lamb Three Ways

Lamb three ways

The lamb itself was delicious – the shoulder was so tender that the pancetta could barely keep it from falling apart on the plate and the crispy belly was a triumph. In a similar vein the Board of Piggy is also worth investigating with a lively combination of confit belly, smoky fritter, and black pudding served with crispy sautéed potatoes and a serious whack of braised red cabbage that will leave even the hedonistic pork-lover full and happy. There are also more traditional pub favourites like fish and chips, steaks, and a lunchtime menu offering burgers and sandwiches. And maybe next time we’ll give that scampi and langoustine dish a second chance – you never know. The vegetarian options are possibly a bit less imaginative – baked mushroom or a butternut squash ravioli – but if the meaty mains are anything to go by (or indeed, that mushroom starter) they should prove to be a cut above expectations.

Puddings-wise the selection is limited but not under-thought – the treacle tart with ice-cream was a true wonder with thin, short pastry and a generous filling, served hot with a toffee ice cream melting on the side. From the description it should have been far too sweet but was actually just right. There is also the inevitable cheese board or ice-cream selection but there is nothing wrong with that – I recently opted for the classic combo of vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate and it was exactly what I wanted – nostalgic, simple, satisfying.

After a few years of visiting the area, The White Horse has definitely become a new favourite and is well worth seeking out. They recently installed a vast wood-burning pizza oven in the garden which is fired up twice a week (must try and time our next visit right so we can try it) and the Sunday roast is fantastic, a vast platter of lamb, beef, and pork, rich gravy, fluffy Yorkshire pudding, and seasonal vegetables plonked in the middle of the table for everyone to dive into. Again, the vegetarian options are a bit unimaginative and I have to say I’m not sure I’d choose a vegetable stir-fry as a Sunday main but perhaps I should be a bit more adventurous.

Or just stick to the meat and stop worrying…

The Board of Piggy

The Board of Piggy

All of this great food is served in a friendly pub environment with a decent selection of ale and cider and a pretty decent wine list. Prices are between £5 and £8 for starters and mains range from the mid-teens to early twenties (the fillet steak tops the list at £25.95) which is pretty representative of the area in general and with food cooked this well is certainly value for money.

So if you find yourself rambling the South Oxfordshire Downs or are looking for a new destination for a decent country dinner, find your way to Woolstone and visit The White Horse – you won’t be disappointed.

 

 

 

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Grillstock Smokehouse, Walthamstow – review

 

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There may be some (or indeed many) that view the opening of a new American BBQ joint in London as yet another example of lazy, greedy people trying to cash in on recent food trends. Another attempt to grab a few extra quid from the ‘dude-food’ obsessed crowd of bearded 20-somethings who slavishly follow every pop-up, food van, or ‘next big thing’ bricks-and-mortar establishment. And if the new branch of Grillstock in the heart of Walthamstow (alarms begin to sound as people realise they have to travel beyond the hipster haven of Hackney) was the result of cynical, soulless, cash-laden backers trying to make a quick buck then perhaps such suspicions would be justified.

But this, my good friends, is Grillstock.

And there’s a little bit more to it than that.

Starting life as a Bristol music and food festival way back in 2010, long before pulled pork featured on almost every pub and restaurant menu, Grillstock is a loud, meaty love-letter to the massive BBQ festivals and traditions of the US. We’re talking about groups of people who all get together over a weekend and sit around their blackened smokers, occasionally testing temperature and burn rate, to produce the ultimate in low and slow cooking, drinking ice cold beers, and generally being awesome. Grillstock (the festival, which this year is taking place at three different locations) puts meat at the centre of their celebrations and, like the US, features a genuine BBQ competition where everything from chicken to brisket to ribs is judged and rewarded with a variety of prizes and awards, alongside some great music, fine beer, BBQ demos, and some excellent places to chomp on various parts of porcine anatomy. And the chilli-eating competition is alarmingly entertaining to watch.

Following the success of the festival, a little smokehouse in Bristol’s St Nicholas market opened which was quickly followed by a larger site at Clifton Triangle and the lucky locals were thus able to feast on genuine, fabulous BBQ all year round. Having visited both on several occasions I can honestly say that the meat at Grillstock in Bristol seriously rivalled anything I’d had in London and, actually, made me rather jealous in the process. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve got some excellent BBQ in the capital – Miss P, Pitt Cue Co, The Joint – but we didn’t have Grillstock.

Until now.

Following the success of their first opening outside of Bristol (in the beautiful city of Bath), the owners turned their eyes toward London and, having carefully found the right site, opened their doors to the baying public on April 10th this year. I was lucky enough to get an table at the soft opening (which was by guest-list only) the day before and took a good friend along who also shares a penchant for smoked meats. This was my first proper expedition out of South London since being ill and I was personally very pleased I could just sit on a tube to the end of the line – thus saving more energy for meat.

On entering I have to say I was pretty bowled over by the place. The Clifton smokehouse is small – one large table down the middle of the room and that is it – but Grillstock E17 is spacious and filled with a huge variety of seating options. There are tables for two, a few booths, a big communal table with high stools, and a selection of customisable options for groups of anything from 5 to 10. Like Bristol (and I assume Bath too), once you’ve been seated you then order your food from the bar, collect your drink, and sit back and relax in anticipation of a huge meaty feast to come. The decor is pretty stripped back – the breeze block walls are adorned with posters from Grillstocks past and a bit of metal here and there – but the atmosphere and lighting is welcoming and hearty. It’s the kind of place that will be great on a hot summers day but also perfect to hide away and warm up in thedepths of winter. Also like Bristol, the staff are relaxed, friendly, and clearly enjoying themselves.

DSC_0982But what about the food?

Grillstock offer either a plate of one type of meat, a combo of three, a sharing platter of all four meats for two people, or the Grand Champion which is a selection so big I wouldn’t be surprised if it took more than one staff member to carry it (finish it in an hour and win a shirt and some hot sauce – maybe next time). They also do a range of burgers which includes the vast Lockjaw, consisting of two 5oz burgers, pulled pork, brisket, burnt ends, cheese, and fry-sauce which has to be seen to be believed, as well as hot dogs and a variety of sides and extras like BBQ beans and cornbread. This may make choosing your dinner rather difficult.

I’ve eaten my fair share of ribs, pulled pork, and wings in my time. Some have been good, others pretty poor. My combo platter of all three aforementioned meats at Grillstock was, quite simply, amazing. The ribs were soft and tender with a good ‘bark’ of smoked exterior that yielded to reveal perfectly cooked meat within. The wings had a nice zing and were succulent and delicious and the pulled pork was smoky, savoury, and incredibly more-ish. These marvels of smoked flesh were served with a huge fistful of fries, a well-balanced slaw, a lovely little brioche-style bun, and some house pickles which put many so-called ‘home-made’ pickles I’ve sampled in London to shame – crunchy, tangy, a bit of spice – everything a pickle should be.

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Ribs, wings, and pulled pork combo

My companion also had pulled pork but chose the smoked chicken and a slab of brisket to go with it. Brisket is a hard thing to get right – it is easy to dry out and turn into a leathery mess that needs a saw to hack through it – but the years of experience of low and slow cooking pay off here, producing a juicy, smoky, slab of wonder. The chicken was pretty special too.

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

Chicken, brisket, and pulled pork

All of this can be smothered in the house BBQ or hot sauces, which sit proudly on the table alongside traditional condiments like ketchup, American mustard (French’s of course!), and the classic Frank’s Hot Sauce.

And speaking of Franks – Frank Underwood would definitely come back for the ribs here, even though he has a favourite rib joint of his own.

Sorry, I may have been watching a bit too much ‘House of Cards’….

Back to Grillstock…

To go with our meats, we sampled the own-brand pale ale which was light and nicely hopped – perfect with BBQ – and were certainly tempted by the wall of bourbons and other boozy delights that shone from behind the bar. I can also recommend the Pistonhead lager or any of the Brooklyn beers they offer – all easy drinking and all perfect with the food. Or you can have cider, cocktails, iced tea, or root beer. You get the idea.

We were reluctant to leave – it was very tempting to sup on a few more beers, wait for the food to go down, and then start again but eventually we shuffled off, full and happy.

I cannot recommend Grillstock highly enough. Everything from the staff, the room, the food, the drink, the atmosphere – it’s all brilliant. And surprisingly well priced too. The combo platter (which filled me up enough so as not to need dinner) is £18 which is an absolute bargain, I have been to places where a single portion of (not so good) ribs cost more and certainly didn’t come with such a wide selection of sides. The beers were £3.80 each and you can get a Jack Daniels and Coke for £3.50! This is all good news.

So get on up to Walthamstow and try it. Or, if Bristol or Bath are nearer, head down there instead – you’ll find the same quality of food and service across the board. And once you’ve done that, buy a ticket to one of the festivals this year either in Bristol, Manchester, or London and take your experience further. Grillstock’s motto is Meat, Music, Mayhem – it could not be a more fitting description of this excellent enterprise.

Grillstock Walthamstow

198 Hoe St,

E17

www.grillstock.co.uk

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Meaty, Ramblings..., Recipes, Reviews

Pig’s Trotters on Sourdough toast – review & recipe

It may seem odd to be reviewing a recipe but sometimes a dish requires more than a list of ingredients and a method. Generally I always try to follow instructions as closely as possible on the first attempt of a new recipe, only making changes if something is not working properly i.e. burning. Which does sometimes happen. But every cook will tweak recipes as they go and I’m no different. However this recipe is so good that I find very little adjustment is required.
It is one I’d been wanting to try for a while but had never quite been brave enough to attempt – the ingredients alone fill one page of the recipe book and the process takes several hours. However it was the first dish I ever ate a fine dining restaurant (the excellent Trinity in Clapham) and has stayed with me ever since. I saw that it featured in Trinity chef Adam Byatt‘s book ‘How to Eat in’ and I managed to get hold a copy to ogle over. And there it was ‘Pig’s Trotters on toasted Sourdough’. Brilliant. But, as I said, complicated and time consuming. It also features a fair amount of meat and, as my wife is a vegetarian, it was never going to be something that I could present for a normal dinner at home. And it’s a starter anyway so there you go.

However, as she was away for a couple of weeks and I had a good friend coming to stay – one with whom I often cook over-the-top and ambitious dishes – it seemed like a good opportunity to give it a go. And the recipe says that the cooked trotter mix can be kept refrigerated for several days (ideal for making in advance) and also frozen so allowing me to make a full batch and only use what was required for two before storing the rest. Or scoffing it myself. However, in the end I decided to do a half batch as I wasn’t sure I’d get four trotters in my casserole.

As the title suggests, the main component is pig’s trotters which was not something I had ever cooked with but that never stopped me before. It also needs smoked ham hock along with stock vegetables, vinegar, and spices. I had decided to forgo the garnish of crackling – not because I dislike it but purely because as I was only cooking for two it seemed a bit excessive and crackling doesn’t exactly keep well. After ringing various butchers with no avail to enquire about the availability of trotters, I meandered into Brixton where, of course, I was soon in possession of two huge trotters and a good hunk of smoked hock. The recipe says that some trotters need to cleaned and soaked overnight to remove impurities before having any hairs removed but these were ready to go and so no fuss for me. Thankfully.

The cast iron casserole was dug out and my instinct about only doing a half quantity was proved wise – the two trotters I’d bought only just fitted in. Lucky me. I carefully prepared everything – chopped vegetables, measured oil and vinegar, found the right amounts of spice – then, after re-reading the recipe again, I began.

Trotters ready to go!

Trotters ready to go!

It is here I must tell you that although I said the recipe was complex, the processes involved are actually very straightforward – there are simply several of them. Vegetables and spices are browned in oil then quickly caramelised with honey, vinegar added and then reduced before the meat and stock are added. All very simple. This is where the time factor comes in. The trotters need to be simmered slowly to break down all the gelatinous tissue so the initial cooking-time is five hours with regular basting. Note that the trotters will curl up slightly (as if they are still alive) during this period – this may be slightly alarming the first time you open the lid to baste them. Well, I was alarmed.

After five hours in a low oven, the casserole is removed and the mixture allowed to cool (time factor again) then the meat and skin is separated and diced, the vegetables strained and discarded, before the stock is left to chill in the fridge (again, plan you day carefully to allow for this), skimmed of fat and then reduced. Not complicated stuff – just a series of processes.  I didn’t add all of the skin as the recipe suggests, opting for about two thirds as it seemed to be plenty.

While the stock reduces, more onions are fried in a pan and joined by the meat and stirred together before the rich coloured stock is added and everything is reduced to the consistency of a sticky, juicy and chunky pâté. At this point, the mixture can be cooled and stored for future reheating and this is what I did. Although I had a sneak preview first of course.

My sneak preview

My sneak preview

It was gloriously rich, almost overpoweringly so, but the finished dish features a sharp and creamy Sauce Gribiche and a fried quail’s egg to help counterbalance the richness so I wasn’t worried. The Sauce Gribiche was a recipe I’d used before so I didn’t use the same as Adam although the ingredients and flavours were the similar – hard-boiled egg, oil, vinegar, cornichons and capers, tarragon and parsley. Great with many things not just trotters.

I had got some quail’s eggs from the local butcher and, once the toast (my own sourdough of course) was on, the trotters reheating, we carefully cracked them into the pan and cooked for about one and a half minutes. The dish was assembled and looked, well, pretty damned impressive I must say. Almost professional standard in my own rather humble opinion. And it tasted utterly amazing with the richness being perfectly balanced out by the Gribiche and quail’s egg. A truly wonderful starter and one of the best dishes I have ever cooked.

The finished dish.

The finished dish.

So in conclusion, should you try this recipe out for yourself? Yes. Absolutely. Don’t be put off by the size of the ingredients list and the time involved – other things can be done while the trotters simmer and the advance preparation make it perfect if you’re planning a special dinner. Or just a greedy night in. Is it as good as the one in the restaurant? Well, that’s a matter of opinion isn’t it?

If you want to try it, here is the version that I used – it makes enough as a starter for 4-6 people.

Ingredients

  • 2 shank pig’s trotters (check with the butcher if they need cleaning and soaking)
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1 carrot
  • 1/4 head of garlic
  • 2 large white onions
  • 1 stick celery
  • 1 small leek
  • 100ml vegetable oil
  • 1/2 star anise
  • 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
  • 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
  • 2 tsp honey
  • 25ml red wine vinegar
  • 500g smoked ham hock
  • 1 litre Chicken Stock
  • 2 quail’s eggs

For the Sauce Gribiche

  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • 100ml extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp red wine vinegar
  • 5 cornichons – finely chopped
  • 1 tsp capers – rinsed, dried, and finely chopped
  • Handful each of parsley and tarragon leaves, finely chopped

Method

Preheat your oven to Gas Mark 3/170⁰c.

Peel and roughly chop the carrots, garlic cloves, and one of the onions.  Trim and roughly chop the celery and leek.  Peel and finely dice the remaining onion and keep separate (to add to the cooked trotter mix later).

Heat half the oil in a large cast iron casserole and colour the roughly chopped vegetables with the spices over a high heat.  Onceed brown, stir in the honey and boil for a few minutes and caramelise lightly, then add the vinegar and boil for a further 2 minutes until reduced by half.

Drain the trotters and place on top of the vegetable mix with the ham hock.  Pour in the stock, put the lid on the pan and bring to the boil, before transferring to the oven and cook for 5 hours, basting the trotters from time to time and turning them over at hourly intervals (and not being too freaked out by the movements of the toes!)

Remove the casserole from the oven and leave to cool, then lift out the trotters and ham hock and set aside.  Tip the contents of the pan into a fine sieve set over a bowl and let the stock strain through.  Chill the stock in the fridge so that the fat rises and sets on the top.

Carefully remove the meat and skin from the trotters, then dice both the meat and skin and place in a bowl.  Separate the meat from the skin and bones of the hock.  Dice the meat and add to the bowl.

While you wait for the stock to chill you can make the Sauce Gribiche (or whenever you need it to serve) by placing the egg in a pan of boiling water and simmering for 7-10 mins until hard boiled. Remove and run under cold water until cool then peel the egg and separate the white from the yolk (which should be a solid ball), reserving the white for later. Mash the yolk with the mustard in a bowl until you have a smooth paste.

Slowly dribble in the oil (as if making mayonnaise) and mix the paste – it will look like it has split or turned into a horrific mess at first but keep mixing until it turns into a smooth, silky mixture.

Chop the egg white into small cubes and stir in to the yolk-mix, along with the chopped capers and cornichons, then finally add the chopped herbs. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary and keep refrigerated until required.

Skim the fat off the chilled stock, then transfer the stock to a pan and reduce by half over a high heat.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining oil in a frying pan until hot and fry the diced onions until caramelised. Mix with the diced meats, and stir in the reduced sauce.  Season and keep warm until ready to serve – or cool and store in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 10 days.

Toast some sourdough bread and carefully fry the quail’s eggs for no more than one and a half minutes (any longer and you won’t get a runny yolk) then assemble your dish by spooning a generous amount of the trotter mix onto the toast, top with the fried egg and garnish with a dollop of Sauce Gribiche and a scattering of parsley.

Feel very pleased with yourself.

I’d like to thank Adam for not only creating this brilliant recipe but also giving me encouragement via Twitter as I made it!

 

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Ramblings..., Reviews

Boqueria, Acre Lane – Review

This was a piece I originally wrote for the Brixton Blog, however it transpired I’d totally misinterpreted the brief and reviewed the wrong site – Boqueria recently opened a second branch in Battersea and it was there that I was meant to go.

Ho hum.

However, as I’m not capable of much at the moment, I thought I’d post this here for anyone who has tapas cravings in South London.

Enjoy!

Tapas sneaks itself onto many menus – wine bars (how terribly 80s), posh pubs, not-so-posh pubs, and many restaurants will do a version of the snack-based selection. It is often used as an excuse for chefs to try and show how ‘multi-talented’ they are which resulted in varying quality which sadly, in my experience, tends to fall on the ‘rather rubbish’ side of the scale (although I have to say the British tapas in the Beer Emporium in Bristol is AMAZING – rare roast beef with horseradish on dripping toast? I think so!).

So what do you do? Well, if you’re in Brixton you actually have a fair amount of choice from Seven at Brixton in Market Row to Boqueria on Acre Lane or some of the other more diverse and Portuguese influenced eateries up towards Stockwell.

Chorizo in cider and Patatas Bravas

Chorizo in cider and Patatas Bravas

But as Boqueria has been on my list for a while, it was up to Acre Lane we went on a quiet, chilly night  .

On entering the first thing that struck me was how smart and clean the place is – sometimes in regional restaurants someone feels the need to plaster the walls with cliché in an attempt to make the diner ‘imagine’ themselves to be in the country of origin and it pretty much never works. Boqueria is minimalist, sharp, and high-end yet relaxed and inviting. The long bar stretches towards the door with stools and the odd tall table at one end and the doorway through to the dining room at the back. Immediately you realise that if you just fancied a quick drink and bite (which, after all, is what tapas is all about) you would be just as welcome as if you planned to spend an evening in the restaurant. The staff come out to greet you and very quickly it begins to feel like the beginning of a good time and that is a rare thing in a restaurant these days.

We were asked if we’d booked but as we were arriving at 6.30pm we hadn’t thought to, especially given the day of the week we visited, but this was no problem although we were warned they’d need the table by 8.30 (and looking at their booking sheet they were not lying). And anyway, if push came to shove and we were still there by that time, there would have been no issue with us heading to the bar to finish up.

After a bit of a debate with the waiter about where to sit (the original offering was in a rather, ahem, atmospherically dark corner) we had a good look at the menu and were pleased to see that there were 5-7 choices per section, suggesting a focus on flavour and quality rather than a myriad of disappointment. From the Entrantes we opted for Pan con tomate (bread with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil) and then a selection from both the Meat and the Traditionales parts of the menu – Patates bravas (the benchmark of any tapas), chorizo in cider, suckling pig (with apple sauce and lemon sorbet), and a soft, mild cheese with quince jelly and tomato jam. That seemed enough to be starting with and we had a fruity, crisp white Legaris wine to wash everything down with.

Cheesey delight

The first to arrive was the bread and although it didn’t look like much it packed one hell of a flavour punch – mashed raw tomatoes with a hit of garlic and salt, run through with delicate olive oil and served on soft, toasted bread. Sheer delight and gone within seconds.  The cheese (which came soon after) looked rather splendid – perfect triangles of pale dairy, dotted with quince cubes, raisins, and a side plate of the tomato jam – but was fridge cold which was a tad unappealing. Once it warmed up however it was a true delight – the mildness of the cheese worked wonderfully with both the quince and tomato which were sweet but not cloyingly so – and it was soon joined by the chorizo, patatas bravas, and an elegant dish of suckling pig balanced on parsnip crisps.

I have to say the patatas didn’t fill me with confidence. I was expecting a rich tomato sauce and a garlic aioli to go over the crispy potatoes but was presented with what looked a suspicious, beige burger sauce. I tried a mouthful and was immediately converted – the aioli/sauce was hot with garlic but sweet with a big whack of tomato and the potatoes themselves were perfectly cooked – lightly crisp on the outside and soft and delicious within, even the ones hiding at the bottom under a layer of sauce still retained their crunch. Fantastic.

Suckling pig

Suckling pig – truly wonderful

The chorizo was deep and smoky with the paprika oils oozing into the cider they had been braised in and was addictively moreish. But the star of show has to be the suckling pig – meat so tenderly soft that it almost fell into a thousand delicate pieces as my fork touched it. Velvety smooth, deeply porky, utterly brilliant – a shining example of slow-cooked perfection. The sauce and sorbet were excellent compliments and I would quite happily have eaten another 2 or 3 portions to myself. No need to order more though – we were quite full by the time our plates were empty.

I sampled a traditional Tarta de Santiago con helado de vainilla (almond cake with vanilla ice-cream) for dessert and was soothed into a very happy place with the moist almond mixture – like a cross between the top of a Bakewell tart and the lightest sponge – but mildly frustrated that my ice-cream was a frozen ball that threatened to jump onto the floor every time I tried to eat it. Patience not being my strong point when it comes to puddings. It melted soon enough and was pretty spot on however.

We had no idea how much we’d spent – Boqueria is listed as a top ‘Cheap Eats’ place but we hadn’t really been paying that much attention (another danger with tapas is the ease with which the cost can spiral when more and more dishes are ordered). We were very pleased to find our total bill coming in at under £60 including wine and service which, for the quality of not just the food but the service and venue, was pretty amazing. And more than enough encouragement to start planning a return visit.

So if you fancy good, confident Spanish cooking in a nice, relaxed, and smart surrounding – head up to Boqueria on Acre Lane (or their second branch in Battersea) – you will not be disappointed!

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