Monday, 30 March 2015

Restaurant review: Hawksmoor Bar, Spitalfields

Shakey Pete’s Ginger Brew is the best thing to drink in the land. That is a fact. Since first sipped, Katie and I have found numerous excuses to somehow end up walking down those side-stairs into that dark, dirtily-mirrored room to beg a check-shirted, bearded man to provide us with some. We have dragged friends along, sat them down and made them experience quite how much wonder can be contained in a heavy glass tankard. We’ve spotted copycat replicas as far away as Sydney, and we’ve tried to make it at home to impress dinner guests. It’s the most tasty, refreshing and well-balanced cocktail I have even drank. It’s dangerously drinkable, often consumed in a manner similar to that of a glass of water upon awaking with a violently dry-mouthed hangover. The only thing not going for the Shakey Pete, is that it’s shit to photograph. Dark room plus reflected light plus amateur photographer mean no piccies here. So I’ll have to describe it: it looks like someone accidently tipped a ginger slushie into a half-finished pint. Perhaps the lack of photograph was for the best. But they are the best. 

And the best thing when you’re getting lashed on lager-based cocktails? Oh yeah, loads of food so loaded with meatiness it’s unfair. The big slabs charred on the Josper are kept upstairs; here the menu is all burgers, ribs, pig heads and wings. Admittedly, we had visited before, and with the stiff competition of the London burger scene we were sad that to us the Hawksmoor burger didn’t quite cut it. It wasn’t bad by any stretch and everything was in the right place; good meat, soft, brioche bun, nice and pink in the middle etcetera, but it just didn’t match the decadent beauty of places such as Patty and Bun, Honest or Bleeker. As lovers of pretty much everything else Hawksmoor this was a bit of a shocker. But this reviewing stuff can be a fickle business, and it’s easy to judge too much from one attempt alone. So last time that Pete dragged us down for an ‘accidental’ Monday night date the menu was opened again.
As we sat there chatting though the menu I realised quite how much of a food-hypocrite I can be. Katie was considering the pig’s head poutine, and I was talking up the merits of the good old plain chip. To me, a chip covered in all sorts of shredded meat, gravy, ‘angry’ stuff always sounds great, but nearly always to the detriment of the humble bit of potato upon which they are heaped. Any effort to create that wonderful, delicate shell and fluffy middle is ruined. It may as well be mash or fried potatoes. Katie shook her head so much it nearly fell off. I feel similarly about burgers and obscure toppings. The waiter comes over; Katie opts for the cheeseburger. Good girl I think. My brain then has a minor “what are you thinking!” moment as I somehow manage to order kimchi with mine. 

My bog standard, unadulterated chips were beautiful little things indeed, each given the love and attention a whittler might give a prized spoon. They crunched like a brulee and were given a welcome zing when dipped into the (*separate*) lime mayonnaise. Ok, so I clearly can’t get with the soggy chip thing, but the rest of Katie’s poutine was deep in thick piggy flavour and soft, smokey meat. That I’m all over. As for the burger, thankfully my faith in Hawksmoor wizardry was restored. Despite harsh reservations, the kimchi that didn’t narrowly miss splattering my groin and stayed in the bun provided a refreshing spicy twist without overwhelming the rest. Sure, the burger didn’t have the same oozing, cheesy richness that I love from other joints, but what it did have was a more defined clarity of flavour. Too often burgers become a squidgy, indistinguishable mush, but here the patty held a rich, well-seasoned beefiness and remained the star of the show.
On previous trips to Hawksmoor, the meal often ended on a slightly frustrating note. Having gorged on the best part of a kilo of steak, gnawing every speck from the bones, you are then faced with a list of desserts full with custard, clotted cream, salted caramel and suet. Ordering starters and mains with eyes bigger than my stomach leads to just no more space at this point. It’s just not fair. But having had just the burger this time around I finally managed to take advantage. Clever desserts with 20 elements of frozen, quenelled and spherified stuff all over the plate are all well and good, but sometimes the old-fashioned British puddings can rival in satisfaction. I always swoon at the thought of a sticky toffee pudding and this one didn’t disappoint. It was the sort of thing that brought a smile with every mouthful. 

There was always the temptation for another cocktail; it’s the sort of place where you want to just sit back and while away the rest of the night. But I knew that we would be back before long. The bar at Spitalfields is always a lot of fun and a great place to hang out. And more worryingly for my waistline, I’m now looking forward to returning to devour the rest of the menu. Although it will be hard to not just sit there shovelling down sticky toffee pudding time and time again…

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Smoked mozzarella with spring greens, wild garlic and lardo

Winter seems like it is finally waning. Although those bright mornings still hide a nasty chill, there’s no supressing those green shoots in every park and garden. Ingredients long forgotten are creeping back onto the shelves of my local greengrocers, and my mum and dad excitedly tell me about all of the exciting produce that is coming to fruit at their allotment. I won’t lie, I look forward to the next time I leave their home not clutching yet another bag of sprouts and leeks. 

This week I have teamed up again with Campo Viejo, who challenged me to come up with a recipe celebrating this change of seasons. Even on the telly recently, food programmes championing the spring have focussed on glamorous vegetables such as asparagus and peas. To me these aren’t true spring vegetables, and we’ve still got a little while before their seasons truly start. I think of proper old fashioned greens about now, leaves like chard, spinach and cabbages along with the seemingly ever-present broccoli. These all seem to take a lower-ranking, yet I wanted to create a dish that showed that they can be equally as delicious.
As ever my first place to look for recipe inspiration is my local greengrocers at Newington Green. It really is superb, and somewhere that despite moving half an hour away I still return to. On this occasion they had wonderful bunches of cime di rapa, greens that look like spindly, leafy broccoli. Although I had never cooked with them before I just had to have some. There was also a massive pile of wild garlic. Even though the hype surrounding this little herb gets to silly levels every year, finding it on every ‘trendy’ menu in town, it is always something that I look forward to eating. Old favourites of garlic, chilli and lemon were also purchased to bring the dish to life.
For a centrepiece to this warm salad of greens I decided on a globe of wonderfully smokey buffalo mozzarella. Although burrata seems to have stolen the thunder of mozzarella of late, I still think that good quality, creamy mozzarella is hard to beat. I wanted to take this a step further for this recipe by quickly giving it a blast of smoke. Both brassicas and cheese love a hint of bitter, charred flavour so this gentle smokiness helped round everything together. Being a longwinded cook by nature I did this in my garden at home, but if you are short of time or can’t be bothered, try any good Italian deli or cheese specialist.
Back to the wine. I felt that the smokey, earthy and creamy nature of the dish required a fresh accompaniment, so I decided to serve it with a glass of the 2012 Garnacha. This provided a light contrast, perfect on a gloriously sunny spring afternoon.
Serves 2
For the mozzarella:
2 balls of smoked mozzarella (if you can’t find any, a good creamy buffalo mozzarella will do)
For the greens:
2 good handfuls of spring greens such as sprouting broccoli, spinach, cime di rapa or chard 
½ a lemon, zest and juice 
A sprinkle of dried chilli flakes 
1 garlic clove, grated
For the wild garlic:
8-10 wild garlic leaves 
A squeeze of lemon juice 
A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil
To finish:
8 slice of lardo 
A few glugs of extra virgin olive oil 
Salt and pepper

If you are using thicker greens such are sprouting broccoli or the heads from the cimi de rapa it is nice to grill them. Preheat the grill to high. Arrange the greens onto an oven tray and toss with salt and pepper and a little oil. Grill for 4-5 minutes, until tender and slightly crisp and charred. Dress with a squeeze of lemon juice. Keep warm. 

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil. Blanch the leafier greens for 2-3 minutes or until just tender.
While the greens are simmering, heat a generous amount of the olive oil in a large frying pan. Gently cook the garlic, chilli and lemon zest for one minute. When the greens are ready transfer them into the frying pan using tongs and toss to combine. 

Dress the wild garlic with a little lemon juice and olive oil.
Arrange the greens onto each plate around a ball of the mozzarella. Top with slices of the lardo and some wild garlic leaves. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice, a drizzle of oil, some more chilli flakes and some salt and pepper.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Restaurant review: Hill and Szrok, Broadway Market

There is little more irritating than standing in a busy no-reservations restaurant waiting for a table. Every second of the quoted 20 minutes passes in freeze frames. You have already looked around and noted precisely how many mouthfuls each diner has left until possible vacation. You have practically gambled on those two in the corner not ordering dessert and you’re slowly edging over. You hate *everyone*, especially that couple who have ordered that second bottle of wine. Then two people walk through the room and embrace the waiter. After a quick chat and a bit of pointing he comes over; “they were before you. Your table will be about 45 minutes”. 

We thought hard about leaving. We were perched on a tiny corner of counter and had a bottle of wine on the go, but it really felt like a bit of a piss take. Sure, these people genuinely might have been here before us. But they certainly weren’t there whilst we had been waiting and the heightened delay in sitting us down didn’t seem to support this. But it was late on a Friday night and the chance of dropping in on another local table without a similar wait was slim. This was also our second visit, and having enjoyed the first we decided to hang on. But any meal that starts with wanting to throttle the waiter is never ideal.
Early drama over and for the second time in two weeks we were huddled at the beautiful marble bar marvelling at what a wonderful concept the whole place was. The tiny space was thronging with people and every one of them was having a ball. Everything was simply and beautifully designed; a simple chalkboard menu, some meat-themed art and the odd bunch of garlic hung happily among the spotless white tile and marble. Plain tumblers, water bottles and cutlery in a cup completed the humble set up. I almost forgot that during daylight hours the space serves as a butcher proper; the ‘table’ moonlighting as the central platform for the evening’s high jinx would wake up in the morning as a meat slab. But the odd, unmistakable whiff of hung meat swirling around with the glorious smell of charring steak reminded me where I was. In a kind of Hannibal Lector way it was all very appetising. 

We returned with the full intention of trying out some of the supporting cast of the short, confident menu. But as good as the butterflied lamb or pork chop sounded, the temptation to again order something from the list of steaks just proved too strong. The wing rib that we had gorged and raved about on our initial visit was unbelievably good and we just had to try and repeat that experience. But of course any pair who had just ordered 800g of rump needed something to keep them going first. Down plonks a plate positively loaded with pork rillettes, bread and pickles. And these were good ones; smokey and well-seasoned, proof that those old frugal dishes are back on trend for a reason.
I’m always a mixture of inquisitive and anxious when it comes to open plan restaurants that allow diners to look into the kitchens. A kitchen that runs like a well-oiled and disciplined machine is always a joy to watch. On the flipside, I have no desire to see a chef getting a dressing down from the boss or watch a mistake being made that would normally pass by unseen and without issue in a conventional ‘behind closed doors’ kitchen. Here I had nothing to worry about. Throughout our two visits Alex Szrok was the definition of chilled. He even had time to control the music. It was all very old-school; just one man and a stove, and he nailed it. The rump that we ordered on our second visit was soft and crusty and massively beefy in all of the right places. It was funny to observe a huge hunk of bloody steak sat on a twee patterned platter, but in practice it worked wonders. All of those resting and pan juices puddled around in the bottom, combining with the wholegrain mustard into the most joyous dipping sauce for those pink slithers of meat. A couple of weeks on and my tastebuds can still remember fragments of that deeply satisfying, savoury flavour. In terms of quality and taste it was up there with the best that I’ve had in London, all at a far more humbling price. We didn’t need much to accompany the steak but again the simple approach came up with the goods. A bowl of well-dressed greens and fluffy rosemary potatoes was all that was needed. 

We had been annoyed to start with but by this point we had been well and truly won over. In keeping with the rest of the menu, the dessert menu was kept brief. By brief I meant one option. Cheesecake. And when a cheesecake was as tasty as that, that’s all they needed to offer.
Back to the concept; a butcher by day and a restaurant by night. It was like we had been invited to a lock in, someone had found a bottle of wine in the back and the butcher had decided to cook up a few choice cuts. There was a real makeshift nature, but once we sat back and embraced this and the fact that a small team had managed to create such a beautiful, bustling room of people all tucking into seriously delicious food then we realised quite how impressive it all was.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Cured gurnard with chick peas, blood orange, fennel and oregano

I was recently reading through my Twitter timeline, and a few people were writing about how uninspired they were and how they just couldn’t decide what to cook. This was something that I really related to. It’s similar to writer’s block I guess, sometimes my head ties itself in knots trying to find some creativity, whereas other times it’s almost as if the creativity finds me, and recipes effortlessly churn themselves out. Luckily the latter has been the case recently, my head has been awash with cooking ideas and I’ve got a long list of potential recipes to test and write about in the future. Spring is on the way, and it’s exciting that before long we’ll be seeing wild garlic and early asparagus coming through. The way I eat will also change, those bold, heavy winter flavours shifted for something a little lighter. 

It was brilliant to cook with the brill that I have written about for the last few posts. It was a big old fish and I was determined to make it go as far as possible. This also allowed me to experiment a little. Having poached a lovely thick bit of fillet and even eaten the roes, I wanted to try something a bit different with what remained. For this I turned to my bookcase for inspiration. I really enjoy Nathan Outlaw’s cook books; his recipes always put flavour first and I’ve picked up so many little tips from cooking his dishes. I had previously noticed that he recommended curing brill, and with a fair bit of fish left I thought I’d give that a go. It worked a treat, and was much quicker than I anticipated. Not only was it an interesting new way of preparing the brill, it also made it last a few days longer; providing a few handsome snacks after some long and tiring days at work.
I digress, and after a few weeks of blabbering on I promise that that is the last time I’ll mention that brill for a while. But the idea for this recipe derived from that experimentation. Recently we’ve had some astonishingly good gurnard at work, big, triangular-shaped fish all big heads and spikes. Customers are often a little wary of this species as it looks nothing like the salmon or seabass that they are used to, but for value and taste they are up there with the best. Having cooked with gurnard around Christmastime, I wanted to try something a little different, and because of just how fresh the fish were I thought they would also be ideal to cure. Happily they turned out much like the brill; the thick, firm fillets yealding a fresh, sweet taste.
Blood oranges are just coming to the end of their season, and here they provided the perfect sidekick to the gurnard. Combined into almost like a dressing with the fennel and the rapeseed oil, the flavour remained delicate and allowed everything to remain balanced. At this point I felt like the dish needed just one more thing, another texture to round everything off. Here I gained inspiration from another direction. One of the wonderful dishes that I ate recently at CafĂ© Murano was a carpaccio, which interestingly came flecked with tiny cannellini beans. This is something that I would never have thought of, but it added another dimension that made the eating all the better. The chickpeas worked in the same way in this dish, and the cooking process was a total revelation. It’s true, anything cooked slowly in good oil with rosemary and garlic is bound to be good, but these were something else. The gentle, lengthy cooking softened the pulses whilst absorbing some of the oil and flavourings. Once allowed to cool and marinate further they really were addictive. I might have eaten another bowl just of them…
Serves 4
For the fish and cure:
1 very fresh gurnard (about 1kg in size), filleted, skinned and pin-boned 
250g salt 
250g sugar 
2 sprigs of rosemary 
The tops of the fennel bulbs 
2 blood oranges, zest only
For the fennel and orange:
2 fennel bulbs, sliced 
1 tsp fennel seeds 
1/2 tsp dried chilli flakes
1 tbsp caster sugar 
1 garlic clove 
2 blood oranges, juice only 
4 sprigs of fresh oregano 
4 tbsp rapeseed oil
For the chickpeas:
400g soaked, cooked chickpeas 
2 garlic cloves, crushed slightly 
3 rosemary sprigs 
Extra virgin olive oil
To finish:
Fresh oregano leaves 
Any fronds from the fennel 

For the cure, put the salt, sugar, fennel stalks, orange zest and rosemary into a food processor and combine until everything is finely chopped. Pour half onto the bottom of a deep dish that is big enough to hold the gurnard fillets. Top with the fish and then cover with the remaining mixture. Cover with cling film and refrigerate for 2.5 hours. Once cured, rinse the fillets clean of the cure and pat dry. 

Drain the chickpeas and rinse before pouring into a saucepan. Add the garlic cloves, rosemary and a good amount of seasoning. Pour in enough extra virgin olive oil to nearly cover, then cook on a very low heat for about an hour. Do not let the oil get too hot and start bubbling and frying, you just want a gentle, warm heat. Once cooked, remove from the heat and cool to room temperature.
For the fennel, heat a frying pan to a high temperature and add a little of the rapeseed oil. Fry the fennel, fennel seeds, dried chilli and garlic for about 5 minutes, until starting to caramelise on both sides. Add the sugar, orange juice and oregano and reduce until thick and syrupy. Stir in the rest of the rapeseed oil. Taste and season, then allow to cool. 

To plate up, slice the cured gurnard into slithers a couple of millimetres thick. Arrange on the bottom of each plate, then dress with the fennel and oil. Sprinkle over a few drained chickpeas and scatter on more of the fresh oregano leaves and any fennel fronds. Finish with a slight crack of pepper.