Thursday, 11 December 2014

Restaurant review: Smokehouse, Canonbury

The Royal Oak pub on Columbia Road has a lot to answer for. Or rather, the beer at the Royal Oak pub on Columbia Road. It had been one of those delightful crisp Sunday mornings in Hackney. I was finished with work for another week, and with that one day that Katie and I would share we decided to stir early and make the most of it. First a caffeine hit, easily dealt with on Broadway Market, followed by a stroll through the City Farm to catch up with pig, goat and hen. Then a cautious dart across Hackney Road to the visual kaleidoscope of the flower market, dodging those last three bunches for a fiver and into the pub. That pub. It was barely midday but on a Sunday that is long past the start of beer o’clock. Although we had only just breakfasted, hunger was already stirring in every direction. It throbbed food. On tables all around babies and half-glasses were being shifted aside for boards of golden chickens or ruby lamb. Even the bar snacks board wasn’t fair; all charred brisket ends and crab. We supped on our cold pints and made suggestions over dinner plans but there lay the problem; it was Sunday. 

Sunday. The best day to be in the pub and generally speaking the worst to eat out. Sundays mean that dreaded thing; Sunday roasts. Urgh. I know most people’s spines won’t be too shivered at that thought, but to me they always seem like a wasted meal. Growing up, I was lucky in that our occasional family roasts were things of beauty. Potatoes fluffy inside a brulee-thin shell, mum’s Yorkies that hit the top of the oven. Chicken skin worth fighting for. It was a true family occasion, with bowls and platters passed around and everyone having a proper catch up. Why on earth would I want to sit in a pub having just begrudgingly spent fifteen quid to chew on leathery potatoes and carrots that still haven’t cooked through after 4 hours in a bain marie. Some do it right, but they are sitting with hen’s teeth for company. If I find myself caught staring down at Sunday menu I frantically look out for the anything but options and mostly get ditched with good old reliable fish and chips or a sad plate of pub pasta. I sympathise with the logistical nightmare that is turfing out high turnovers of often long-roasted joints and garnish, but it is only desperation over sympathy that ever makes me order one of the damn things.
Unfortunately no-one can be perfect, and Katie bless her soul adores a pub Sunday roast. So clearly a negotiation had to be reached as to where we would end up. I had followed the Smokehouse since it opened and knew its reputation well. A quick look at the menu confirmed it a perfect compromise, offering a full rundown of the favourites; pork, lamb, beef and chicken (well, poussin counts I guess) whilst still having a strong sounding hake dish and a veggie option should I wimp out. Within five minutes of faffing around on marvellously clever but beyond irritating iPhone booking systems we were in. Easy as that. And that was the start of how my faith in the traditional and much-loved Sunday roast was restored. 

At that point I was still nervous about the prospect, or at least that was my excuse for heading up Brick Lane and demolishing a monstrous bun of pork and hot sauce from the Ribman. I was even tempted to fill up further with a beigel. Despite wanting to visit the Smokehouse, a small part of me wished that it was on a different evening, as if on Sundays they all had the night off and allowed the Toby Carvery to take residence.
By the time we set off for dinner I had luckily walked off most of my earlier consumption. The bright day of early had been enveloped by darkness and rain, one of those evenings that make the street lamps appear almost old fashioned as their amber glow cut through the drizzle. The mist hit my glasses as soon as I was over the threshold and my shrivelled senses awakened to the warmth and cheer. I never doubted that pubs themselves were and are amazing places to spend especially grim Sunday evenings. Even at first glance, it was apparent that the Smokehouse had managed to combine being a serious restaurant and a good boozer. It wasn’t stuffy like those empty locals, devoid of atmosphere and populated only by the tiny ‘reserved’ sign upon every table. This was somewhere instantly welcoming, where people wanted to stay. It was also warm, at which point my glasses did their textbook steam effect rendering me momentarily blind. Must remember that that happens. 

Sitting in a charming seat near the pass with a fantastic glass of 2011 Chateau Tour des Genderes we were settled and knew we had made the right decision. We only really intended to have just the one roast course, but as all good menus do we were easily tempted to expand our selection. My starter of crispy fried oysters with bone marrow and dripping on toast was greasy and beefy and unctuous in all the right places. It was a plate a few components designed by someone who knew just when to stop. It was the sort of food that would create a window of time and a diverted walk if I find myself walking nearby in the future. Katie chose a well-assembled charcuterie board that would have been glorious save for the absence of bread or something crunchy. When we asked our server we were promised that some would be right along, but time went by and slowly I finished my own dish and Katie rather flatly nibbled her way through the rest without the slightest sign of a crumb.
If there is one thing that can redeem a diner’s faith it is a knockout course and that is exactly what happened next. Not that I needed redeeming mind, as the mellow contentment from my starter continued straight through. I could dress up a paragraph or two gushing about my smoked lamb shoulder main but to cut to the point it was far and away the best Sunday roast dish I have ever had. The meat was no match for silver cutlery or teeth and instead melted into smokey submission. Every other element on the plate was cared for with matching attention; Yorkshire puddings with perfect crisp and sog factor, an inventive broccoli cheese puree and potatoes that gave those old family memories a run for their money. A smart yet wholesome plate of food. We swooned when the condiment tray came around offering vats of mustards and sauces. I was dumbstruck, my Sunday scepticism had been given a well-deserved kick in the teeth. 

And just when things seemingly couldn’t get much better along swung a small bowl of rice pudding. Comfort food followed by comfort food. Rice pudding is deceptively hard to get just right, and here both subtle sweetness and portion size had been expertly judged. Katie opted for the Double D tart, and whilst saying that the pistachio ice cream was the best she’d tasted she found the rest a little rich. Having said that, without my nut allergy I doubt I would have had a problem putting it all away. Again it looked another cracker.
We have eaten out a fair bit in the last few months, and our evening at the Smokehouse was certainly up there with the very best of them. The food, atmosphere and ethos of the restaurant was fantastic. The only nagging point was the service throughout the meal which was patchy at best. Not just for the bread no show, it just all seemed a bit disjointed. We were left hanging for menus and drinks a few times while our waitress casually dressed empty tables and hovered around. We ordered a final glass of wine each after our mains to see us through pudding, yet these only managed to arrive as we were taking our last spoonfuls. But the highlights of the meal in general far outshone this, and we left with swollen stomachs and broad grins.
If like me you are loathe to a pub Sunday roast dinner then book and visit now. The earth will move. We will certainly be back.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Dark chocolate, peanut and coffee torte with salted peanut praline and buttermilk ice cream

This week I’ve got something a little special and different for you. Earlier last month I was contacted by the lovely people at ActionAid asking if I could write a recipe for their Bake A Difference campaign. This year they are specifically targeting 2700 of the world’s poorest children who will spend this Christmas hungry, sick and in danger, and it’s an absolute privilege to support the campaign and help spread the awareness of this in my blog. More information on the great work undertaken by ActionAid, and how you can sponsor a child can be found on this link. Today also marks Giving Tuesday, which hopefully puts things back into perspective after all of the gluttony and silliness of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. 

My brief was to design a recipe inspired by ingredients from one of the six countries that ActionAid are focussing on this Christmas; Afghanistan, The Gambia, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana and Myanmar. All of these countries traditionally produce and use amazing ingredients in their dishes, from cardamom and rose water in Afghanistan to sweet potatoes and bananas in Malawi, giving me a hard decision in picking just one! In the end I opted for the Democratic Republic of Congo. The swaying factor was the combination of cocoa, peanuts and coffee; just the sort of thing that I would order if I was out at a restaurant. Traditionally a Congolese sweet dish is something called Mikates, a sweet doughnut, but for this post I wanted to take the ingredients produced in the DRC and incorporate them into something that reflected my style of cooking. 
I thought that the idea for this campaign was a brilliant one and something that really resonated with me. Although baking has really taken off in the last few years and turned into quite a fashion, the fundamental routes of it have remained the same. Baking makes people happy. It is joyful to start off with basic ingredients and a relief to pull a fantastic finished product out of the oven. But the satisfaction really starts when a cake is given to friends or family. My whole interest in cooking started with baking. I haven’t got a particularly sweet tooth, but what spurred me on was the happiness that a cake as a gift gave others. And I think that this is a universal thing, something that spans countries, cultures and ages. 
Although there are a few different elements and stages to this recipe, it is fundamentally an easy cake to make. It is something to have a crack at even if the thought of baking sends a chill down your spine, and it’s a great one to get the kids involved in. Aside from the careful nature of making caramel they can get stuck into pretty much anything; from whisking the egg whites into a satisfying froth to bashing up the praline with a rolling pin. 
I added the soured ice cream to take the edge off the rich cake, but really any of these elements work just as well on their own. I will certainly be sneakily tucking into a bowl of that ice cream when no-one is looking, and the salted peanut brittle is addictive stuff. 
Serves 6-8    

For the cake: 
225g good quality dark chocolate, 70-85% cocoa solids preferably 
225g unsalted peanuts 
100g golden caster sugar 
125g light brown soft sugar 
225g unsalted butter, softened 
4 large eggs, separated into yolks and whites 
1 tsp instant coffee mixed with 1 tsp boiling water 
1 heaped tbsp cocoa powder 
For the buttermilk ice cream: 
80g golden caster sugar 
400ml double cream 
150ml whole milk 
200ml buttercream 
3 large egg yolks 
A pinch of salt 
For the praline:
120g unsalted peanuts 
200g golden caster sugar 
1 tsp sea salt flakes 

First get the ice cream on. Combine the milk, buttercream, sugar and cream in a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil. When up to temperature, remove from the heat. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and salt together, then pour over half of the hot cream mixture. Whisk until the yolks are emulsified, then pour the liquid back into the pan. Return to a low-medium heat and stir continuously until the temperature reaches 85⁰C. Take off the heat and allow to cool quickly, then transfer to an ice cream machine to churn as the manufacturer suggests. 
Pre-heat the oven to 150⁰C. 

For the cake, blitz up the chocolate and the peanuts in a food processor until they are the texture of coarse breadcrumbs. Tip into a bowl and set aside. 

Cream together the sugars and butter using a whisk until well combined and very light. Incorporate the egg yolks one at a time, then beat in the chocolate, nuts, coffee and the cocoa powder. 

In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Using a spatula, beat a small amount of this into the chocolate mixture before carefully folding in the rest. Spoon the batter into a lined, 20cm round baking tin and bake for about an hour, or until a skewer is clean when removed. 

To make the praline, heat up the sugar in a dry saucepan on a medium-high temperature. As the sugar starts to melt, sway the pan carefully to combine, don’t be tempted to stir. When the colour of the caramel is a deep golden colour, add the peanuts to the pan and mix well with a spoon. Tip the mixture out onto a lined baking tray and allow to set. When cooled, bash into small pieces with a rolling pin. 

When the cake has cooked and cooled, dust with a little extra cocoa powder and sprinkle with some of the praline. Serve with a scoop of the buttermilk ice cream.