Monday, 28 October 2013

Restaurant review: A La Japonaise “Aki” Autumn Supper Club, Clapton

“Shit. There’s no one here yet. Lets walk around the block.”

This was our first supper club experience. It was 7pm and we had accidentally arrived bang on time. We were the dreaded first guests. The bright, and more crucially, empty space was suddenly intimidating, as was the prospect of an intimate dinner with complete strangers. Why weren’t we headed to one of the trendy restaurants nearby? We could get a table at any time and have a meal all by ourselves. None of this awkward tension would be flying through our heads.

But none of that was really the point. The tickets for the evening were a gift, and it was exciting to be doing something different and out of our comfort zones. We had researched the event and read the menus; surely a six course Japanese and French inspired menu would have people queuing through the door rather than taking the slow walk. Supper clubs are something that I’ve wanted to attend for some time, having read about those hosted by the likes of Kerstin Rodgers and Selina Periampillai. They look amazing, both in terms of food and the crowd of likeminded foodies they seem to attract. They are the perfect opportunity to try something new, their very nature being that you have little choice in what you are served. I’m normally a stickler for what I like and looked forward to sampling a menu where I recognised only about half of the ingredients. But none of this was close while we were touring the backstreets of Clapton. 


 Some fifteen minutes passed and we were still the first there, but this time we pushed the door and stepped into the light. The term supper club often brings images of sitting in a random person’s grubby flat like unacquainted sardines. The come dine with me experience. Not in this case. This was more like an exclusive pop-up at first glance, multiple tables and a scurry of ‘staff’ behind the counter. There was a homeliness behind the professional exterior though; the warm French lady who greeted us was the mother of one of the cooks, and peering round you could see a minimal set up of a couple of portable hobs and the odd soup heater. Even in such surroundings the DIY element was still there.

We were ushered to a table set for four and offered a sugar-rimmed cocktail to start. This is where the internal panic began. There were two empty spaces on this table. They must have made a simple mathematical mistake and doubled our number. Slowly the nervous energy of sharing a compact table with two unknown others loomed. Perhaps it was the perfect time to be supping a beautiful, and dangerously drinkable, rhubarb and vodka aperitif. We joyed at the details. Each place had spindly, minutely crafted chopsticks balanced delicately on what appeared to be tiny ceramic éclairs. You could not ask for a more apt summary of the fusion of the evening. Large water jugs sparkled with citrus and mint. Most impressive was the silent synchronisation happening on the counter, where our hosts intricately positioned minute ingredients onto a raft of black slate. 


People – real normal looking people – filtered in and our nerves started to dumb. Starters were delivered. A sense of triumph and disappointment washed over. We had got away with it. The ominous places beside us would stay vacant and it would just be another dinner date. Just Katie and I. But the failure and guilt was almost worse. The whole point of supper clubs is to bring new people together. A social experiment. A networking opportunity. However you want to describe it. And we had fallen at the first hurdle. Five minutes later and the door opened and the chair beside me was whipped back. 

After some rushed introductions they discussed their wine options to themselves. “Yes. Fuck! What do we do now?” all sprung into my head at once. A few minutes in and the awkwardness hit hard. The table had split. In this situation though, food provided the link. We cautiously joked about how to eat larger-than-bitesize objects with chopsticks and quizzed ingredients. We spent 20 minutes discussing the labyrinth of ways that they could have travelled through central London. God that must have been boring. If bleating about weather is the most popular piece of meaningless small talk we do, then whining about transport must run a close second. But it did the job and soon we knew my neighbour’s obsession with Freecycle, and that his food vice was a packet of chocolate biscuits and a large glass of milk. The girls sneered. Man after my own heart.

The food came and came, and as a table we intrigued and marveled. Each course drew breath; the crackers that were too beautiful to break, the ingenious pipette of juice that changed the colour of the ceviche. I smiled as I pulled shot from a triumphant plump pigeon breast. Again the details shone. You hoped they had help transporting the mountain of assorted crockery that changed with every offering. Some things our taste buds weren’t quite prepared for. The delicate fishy custard that accompanied the dumplings, and the rice broth that ended the savoury courses were both challenging. But it is good to be challenged by new food sometimes, and each thing was unique to anything I have eaten before. 


It’s also hard to pick holes in any event where the hosting is so fantastic. The small team took pride in what they did and were friendly and welcoming throughout. They did a great job of settling us nervous first-timers, and were always on hand to give just the right amount of information on the food in front of us. Their experience showed; it was a smooth operation and everyone looked controlled and happy for the duration.

We left with a sense of relief and contentment. We had survived. Not only had we survived but we had had a genuinely fun and memorable time. In somewhere like London where even talking on public transport is frowned upon, it was refreshing to share an evening with complete strangers. There was no number swapping or such, but it made me believe in supper clubs as a dynamic and I would definitely be up for more. And that I wouldn’t have believed at 7pm whilst walking up the Lower Clapton Road.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Courgette, lemon and cinnamon mini muffins

Sometimes amongst all of the serious day-to-day cooking, it’s refreshing to make something a bit more fun and lighthearted. I don’t bake nearly as much as I should. As it’s just Katie and I living in our flat, it always seems a bit silly to make a big cake or a batch of muffins that will take us days and days to get through. But every time I do I really enjoy it. There’s nothing like the smell of a cake baking in the oven, and the joy when you pull it out and see the results (most of the time anyway…). Cake also brings unlimited happiness. People are connected when giving it as a gift, and many can recall fond, vivid memories of cakes that relatives made them when they were young. 

Baking is also partly responsible for my passion for food being the way it is today. Years ago I was an intern for a food charity in Brighton, and every Wednesday, a different member of staff had to bring in a cake. This started as something lighthearted and simple, but as the weeks went by the standard of the cakes rose staggeringly. Simple scones and sponges turned to juice soaked almond cakes and multi-layered tarts. This stoked a fire inside of me, and for the first time I strived to find recipes and use techniques that I would never have dreamed of before. Gradually this enthusiasm transferred to the rest of my cooking, and before long I was making my parents dinner on a regular basis and gaining confidence in what I was doing. I certainly wouldn’t be the cook I am now without that progression, and I am still striving to learn more all of the time.

These cakes are easy. Really easy. There is no painstaking creaming of butter and multitude of stages. It’s simply a case of mixing the wet ingredients with sugar and then adding the dry bits. I made these the other day for Katie and they were the perfect afternoon pick me up with a nice cup of tea. 


Courgette cake has been around for a few years now, but it still raises eyebrows whenever I make it. But it is just as good a vegetable for baking with as the more traditional carrots or beetroot. I used them in this recipe to celebrate the closing of the courgette season for this year. I really love courgettes. They are such a versatile vegetable; amazing stirred through pasta with brown shrimps, roasted with honey or eaten raw in thin ribbons. I was the happy recipient of many bags of courgettes from my parent’s allotment this summer, and I will be sad to have to wait until next year to have them again. They add moisture and texture when added to sponges, and contrary to old wives tales, will not make it heavy. The important thing to remember is the draining process. Courgettes contain loads of water, and you don’t want that leaking into the sponges as they cook!

Makes approx 16 mini muffins.


For the sponge:

200g courgettes

1 tbsp salt

200g caster sugar

200ml vegetable oil
2 eggs
1 lemon, zest only
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
200g plain flour
1 pinch of salt

For the frosting:

400g icing sugar

200g cream cheese
1 tsp lemon curd
75g butter

For the spiced sugar topping:

1 tbsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground allspice 
A little grated nutmeg
1 tsp caster sugar

Butter for greasing

Preheat the oven to 170ºC (fan).

Grease the mini muffin tray with butter. Cut 16 approx 3” x 3” squares out of greaseproof paper, and use these instead of muffin cases to line each slot. 

Grate the courgette coarsely, then mix with the tablespoon of salt and transfer to a sieve. Allow to drain over the sink for about half an hour, then tip onto a clean tea towel and squeeze out any remaining moisture. Set aside.

To make the sponge put the caster sugar, eggs, oil and lemon zest into a large mixing bowl and whisk well together.

In a separate bowl mix the flour, raising agents and salt. Whisk this into the sugar, egg and oil mixture until well combined. Finally stir through the dried courgettes. Spoon the mixture into the lined mini muffin tray holes, filling each to about three quarters full. Bake in the oven for 18-20 minutes, or until the sponge is just cooked. 


When baked, remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.

Make the icing by beating the cream cheese in a large bowl until softened. Thoroughly mix in the icing sugar, then add the butter and beat well until combined. To finish, stir through the lemon curd. Add a little more icing sugar at this point if the frosting is still a little sloppy.

Ice the cooled cakes in the style of your choice. I like to spoon on the icing and roughly shape with a palette knife. You could also pipe it or simply use a spoon.

Mix the sugar and spices for the topping together in a small bowl and lightly sprinkle over the top of the cakes.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Fresh penne with rainbow chard, smoked bacon, Tunworth Soft Cheese and chilli and saffron oil

That meal at Trullo a couple of weeks ago was really inspiring. It was exactly the type of food that I love eating and making. It got me thinking about my own cooking, and as soon as I got home I scribbled down a long list of new things that I wanted to make. Panna cottas and roasted fish will be made in the future, but for now I really wanted to make some pasta. This isn’t anything new, making pasta is a bit of an obsession of mine, but it got me thinking about new varieties and ingredients to serve it with. 

I didn’t have to think too hard about what was going to be bedfellows with my fresh pasta. Autumn is such a visual month for seasonal produce, and my local greengrocer is an explosion of colour. Multi-coloured pumpkins and beetroots line the shelves, but for this recipe I went straight for the chard. A more beautiful leafy vegetable is hard to imagine, with vibrant pink and orange running in thick veins into dark green. Chard offers a way more interesting taste and texture to something more often used like spinach, and it is just perfect for this recipe. I like to cut the stalks away from the leaves and cook these for longer, as the leaves only take a minute or two. Bacon is the perfect partner, and make sure you get good smoked bacon from your butchers to bounce off the tangy greens. 

I found the variety of pasta to make a bit more challenging. I really like spaghetti and pappardelle, but I realised that I have flogged these to death in this blog and wanted to do something a little different. I recently saw something that looked like homemade penne on a tv programme and thought that this would be just the opportunity to give it a go. It’s actually really easy, and once you get used to it is fairly quick; just like making lots of tiny cannellonis. The shape works really well with this recipe, as the flavoured oil, cheese and bits of bacon get stuck in the middles. 

The final bit of inspiration gained this week was from reading the new Pit Cue Co cookbook. Although there isn’t even a hint of a pasta strand amongst all the amazing looking barbecue food, there are still techniques in there that can be transferred to other cooking. One recipe in the book is for courgettes with grated Tunworth Soft Cheese. Tunworth is a really incredible English camembert-style cheese, truly pungent yet mellow and flavoursome. I had never thought of grating a soft cheese, but in the book it is frozen to make it hard enough. The tangy cheese works brilliantly with the rest of the ingredients in this recipe, but use it sparingly. It is a case of finding the balance of flavours and not overpowering the chard, which is really the star of the show.

Serves 2


For the pasta:

200g ‘00’ grade flour

2 medium eggs
1 tbsp olive oil
A large pinch of salt

1 egg, beaten

For the saffron and chilli oil:

200ml olive oil
A large pinch of saffron 
½ a lemon, zest only
2-5 small dried chillies (to taste), finely chopped
A little salt

For the chard:

3 large stalks of rainbow chard, leaves ripped into pieces and stalks cut into thin sticks
2 slices smoked streaky bacon, thinly sliced 
1 shallot, finely chopped 
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 glass of dry white wine
½ a lemon, juice only
Salt and pepper

To finish:

30g Tunworth Soft Cheese, frozen

Black pepper

Make the pasta dough by adding the flour, 2 eggs, salt and oil to a food processor, and mixing until the contents resemble coarse breadcrumbs. Tip out onto a clean surface and knead the mixture into a dough, continuing for 5-10 minutes until smooth and very elastic in texture. Wrap with cling film and put in the fridge to rest for at least half an hour. 


To make the flavoured oil, add all of the ingredients to a small saucepan and heat up until just too hot to touch. Remove from the heat, cover the saucepan with clingfilm and allow to cool.

When the pasta dough has rested, roll it through the widest setting of a pasta machine a number of times, until the dough is smooth, firm and shiny on every pass. Dust with flour, then roll down through each setting until it passes through the second thinnest; number 5 on an Imperia machine. Cut the long sheet into rectangles approx 3” x 1.5” in size. Brush a little of the beaten egg along one of the long edges, then carefully roll each piece into a tube, with just a millimetre of two overlapping. Gently seal the joint from the inside with a skewer, then put on a greaseproof sheet and allow to dry for about an hour. 


Put a large saucepan of well-salted water on to boil.

When the water has nearly boiled, heat a large frying pan to a medium temperature and add a little olive oil. Fry the bacon until it starts to crisp, then add the shallot, garlic and a little seasoning. When the shallot is tender add the chard stalks and cook for about 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat up slightly then pour in the white wine and allow to boil and bubble.

At this point, add the penne tubes to the boiling water and cook for two minutes.

As soon as the pasta goes in, add the chard leaves to the frying pan. Cook for two minutes, by which time the pasta should be just cooked. Transfer the pasta to the frying pan using a slotted spoon, squeeze the lemon juice and sprinkle over some seasoning. Grate over half of the Tunworth and combine the frying pan mixture well.

To serve, spoon the pasta and chard into shallow bowls and drizzle over some of the chilli and saffron oil. Grate over move of the cheese and sprinkle some cracked black pepper.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Restaurant review: Trullo, Highbury Corner

I seem to have been pigeonholed for birthday presents. After a wonderful lunch at The Corner Room a few weeks ago, I found myself on the receiving end of another birthday meal. I’m certainly not complaining though, and excitingly this time, the choice was ours. 

Scrolling through Twitter every day I read about swathes of exciting restaurants, and this combined with being generally indecisive, caused a problem. I have a long list of places that I have been dearly wanting to visit for ages. I had a lot to think about. Was it going to be a poshy yet scrimpy lunch at a famous restaurant in town or something a little more relaxing? The St. John, The Empress in Victoria Park and even a return to the excellent Hawksmoor were all flying through my head. But in the end it turned out to be a much more local affair.

Trullo was always an excellent choice. I love going out to Italian restaurants. The small, bustley and intimate nature of the ones close to my home are always full of family atmosphere and have housed many memorable nights. I get to sit down and eat a pizza as big as my head and sup on limoncello. What more could you want? This is all well and good, but I yearned for an Italian experience a step up. A feast of small antipasti, a taste of pasta followed by a chunk of meat or fish; food made famous by the much lauded yet back-breakingly expensive River Café. I’ll get there one day, but for this occasion, the menu at Trullo fitted the same mould. 


I often walk past on my way home from work and am always impressed. A small space, decorated minimally yet tastefully. Always packed. So it was exciting to finally be walking through the doors with intent. The ground floor was crammed with tables full of laughter, chat and clinking of glasses. I really wanted a piece of that action, so I felt slightly deflated when we lead down the stairs. Basement dining areas are often an afterthought; damp, gloomy and hastily converted to accommodate a few extra tables at the expense of the diner’s experience. But I was pleasantly surprised as we were ushered into a little alcove in a room full of the good kind of character. In the same vicinity a lady was eating pasta at ease, with just a book for company. Cannonbury ladies gossiped on another table, whilst a young couple were discovering that one another had hands. Staff were shirted, mustached and casual, and contrary to some online reports, friendly and attentive throughout. Up for a joke yet only present just when needed. Perfect.

I have to admit that I was slightly daunted by the wine list, sorry, wine book. I was also too stubborn and silly to ask for a recommendation. So good old reliable prosecco it was, which was bone dry and refreshing. But it would have been good to explore this further, and how they work with the food. The menu itself was short and confident, with just a couple of choices for each section. Absolutely everything looked amazing. 


First was a brace of figs, roasted to melting and oozing gorgonzola. Rocket salads have become a cliché, but the sweet fruit, tangy cheese and peppery leaves were the perfect start. Two small plates then signaled the primi course, and what I had been most excited about; the pasta. I often make it fresh at home, and it’s just about my favourite thing to eat. My beautifully al-dente pappardelle came with fall apart beef shin ragu that tasted like the best Bolognese sauce you can imagine. I was a happy bunny. Katie went for the pumpkin and sage ravioli, which again tasted glorious. 


In normal circumstance that would be it; a heavy bowl of pasta, then home carrying a groaning and content stomach straight to bed. But we were just halfway through. As per usual, my eyes went straight for the fish, in this instance a roasted piece of hake bathing amongst clams, mussels and chickpeas. Like the pasta it could so easily have been stodgy, but again it combined bold flavour and lightness. I’m a sucker for a fish stew and this one was bang on. Lightness is something that could not be said for Katie’s pork chop. There were a few sharp apples and buttery potatoes on the plate, but really it was all about the impressive chargrilled piece of pig. I haven’t eaten much recently that has brought back vivid childhood memories, but I may as well have been sitting on a checkered rug eating a fragrantly marinated piece of meat that my dad had just plucked from the barbeque. Fancy food step aside, this was big, rustic and delicious food. 


As the figs were the perfect start, the little panna cotta that sat wobbling between us was a dreamy end. The distinction between it and a French crème caramel may have been slight, but with slightly bitter caramel and vanilla-packed, unctuous cream I couldn’t give a damn.

You know when you’ve had one of those special dining experiences when you leave with that contented silence. There was no rushed over-analysis of every minute detail. There were no minute details. Everything we ate was delicious. Seriously delicious. A shrewd critic might have judged the slightly limp ravioli, the simplicity or rough presentation of the pork. But what Trullo achieved was so much better. The food and setting harmonised and flooded nostalgia, even to a Midlander without an Italian bone in his body. You can have your trendy-yet-bare hotel restaurants with micro herbs and puree smears. This is food that I will always want to eat.