Monday, May 31, 2010

Norfolk Nibbles

I have fallen head over heels in love. He's dark, sleek and does exactly what I say at the press of a button. He's my new acquisition, my Sony a200 DSLR. All those DSLR lovers out there, I've jumped into your fabulous bootcamp and I can't come back, not when you know how good those food shots look. Still have so much to learn but it wasn't bad going first time. Well, I'll let you be the judge!

So me and my new beau (and my true BF!) went down to the Norfolk coast and villages over the second May Bank Holiday to breathe in some fresh sea air. Wide open beaches, and endless fields with shocks of mustard from rapeseed growth formed this lush landscape. Sweet cottages with summer blooms dotted on their frontages  and glimpses of tops of old churches came into view as we shot down those little country lanes.

With Norwich as the home of Colman's mustard, Silver Spoon's largest sugar refinery in Bury St. Edmunds and countless signs pointing to asparagus farms off the roads, there were some definite gastro gems to be found here. Here were the highlights.

Cromer Crab crusted Stonebass with Peashoots and Truffle Oil, at the Lavender House: It's so pleasing when all the map-reading and squinting at signs for some hidden country venue pays off. We were warmly treated by Richard Hughes, chef himself, to some very inventive dishes. My bass was fresh and perfectly cooked, and Cromer Crab crust gave it a savoury sea taste. Ending on those truffle notes is always good.

Rhubarb Puree, Crisp Sorbet and Rice Pudding, at the Lavender House: A stunning looking and tasting dessert. Rhubarb  puree was so tart, yet the crisp so sweet. Both cut through the rice pudding which was light and jelly-like. Everything came together with a lick of vanilla cream beneath.

Cookie's Crab Shop in Salthouse, near Holt: A destination restaurant and shop! The legend was true, we had to queue and wait for a table, and many a disappointed customer had to be turned away once it was a full house. Some loyal fans sat in their cars eating the fresh and generous portions of seafood. Needless to say, shellfish is the must-have here.

A Lobster platter with smoked mackerel, prawns, whelks and salad: plain awesome-ness, it was like tasting the sea. Served cool, yet filling, it was perfect on a summer's day.

The Saracen's Head, in Wolterton near Erpingham: buried down those little lanes, a beautifully kept house covered in vines was so worth the drive. Service was excellent and so personal, we felt we had properly experienced the Norfolk soul!

Pork Belly with Mustard Mash: this had to be my pick from here. Layers of fatty meat tore apart once I cut into it. On top soft and juicy meat, the crackling was as it's meant to be. If I had to be fussy, I'd have wanted more salty depth in the jus.

A fantastic rendezvous for the weekend, my new beau had a gala time capturing these moments. I think another trip over once we get this "blazing" summer underway must surely be planned. Norfolk is a true foodie region, with fabulous produce and passion in it's people to deliver it. 

Thursday, May 27, 2010


I have a theory that tapas is the new main course in summer. We were treated to a spectacularly scorching weekend in the capital, the type that makes the English strip down, blaze themselves and end up looking like spicy chorizo. Hot weather equals longer days, equals more drinking outside, and equals the need to nibble to counter the drinking without committing to full-on meals.
Which is why Polpo will drag the crowds in. I had been to this cosy and rustic Soho joint in December, and was again standing for a table as the Friday rush began. It's an Italian bacaro, serving Venetian tapas and a concise, well selected list of Italian wines. Let the picnic begin.

Fritti Di Mare (in the background) and a Selection of Meats: I could have been transported back to the Amalfi Coast with that plate of fried seafood. Fresh prawns, calamari and anchovies, it was perfectly battered without being heavy or too oily. The Selection of Meat consisted of Bresaola, Parma Ham, Chorizo and Ham, topped with Fennel, Rocket and Mozzarella.

CuttleFish in Squid Ink: Seafood-on-Seafood Action. Thick, viscous and mysterious, I can't resist squid ink when I see it. The flavour was rich, garlicky and well seasoned. I loved dipping my bread in that black sauce.

Pork Belly (in the background) and Flank Steak in a Cream Truffle Sauce: Pork Belly was nothing but deep, unctuous and crispy on the edges, with hazelnuts to contrast with the heavy taste. Truffle cream on Flank steak was just dreamy, that pungent, intense and hypnotic mushroom aroma hits your nose before anything else, making you dive into each marbled and tender beef strip.

Asparagus with Parmesan: Rather girly, though in season. I could eat those green tips anyday, so am completely biased. Oh, and I got a clear shot of the medium bodied Italian vino we got hold of.

Lamb chump on White Beans: possibly the most mediocre of all dishes, and even then still good. I adore pulses, but perhaps too heavy on a sweaty day.

Galani Pick-Me-Up: Deconstructed TiraMiSu. It is not ice cream you see, but a cream whipped with vanilla seeds and coffee. The slight savoury cracker replaced sponge fingers and was the perfect vehicle for transporting the cream and chocolate sauce (laced with booze) into my mouth. Muchos likey.

Orange Semolina Cake: Despite it's dry appearance, this cake was moist and flavoured perfectly with orange, with adequate sandy bite from the semolina.

Let's pretend yet again that these days will stay long, bright and dry. If we can't stay outside, at least we've go the indoor picnic food. 3 bottles of wine, and lots of tapas amongst 5 people was £38 per head.

Polpo on Urbanspoon

Monday, May 24, 2010


As the little opinionated madam I sometimes am, it's natural for me to scrutinise the hype around some overly talked about restaurant in trendy Hackney. Viajante, the restaurant of much acclaimed Nuno Mendes, has been lavished with praise. Ex-El Bulli, founder of The Loft, an uber chi-chi supper club, his food is art on a plate. I love artistic pretty food, but I need substance as well. No matter how cute, how many micro sprouts, how many flamboyant swishes, I demand taste and filling portions. So I set out with a fine tooth comb on this menu. Sadly we missed reserving a spot for dinner, but had cocktails and the tapas menu...

Set in an ex-Town Hall, a conventional outside belies the contemporary interior. The decor is so considered. Gorgeous textured balls on string form a feature above the bar. The barman immediately springs to our service and demands what we want. Apparently we're taking too long to decide. Ok then Mr, make me something sour and with rum. And he does. Obviously someone who loves the challenge and confident enough to take on the order. I've been to many a bar that claim they can customise drinks to suit, but only this one actually delivered and was gracious enough to check if I genuinely liked it.

White Bean Crostini: Extremely delicate, the mini dollops of white and green sauces were bean purees. While the flavours were very fresh, I'm a girl with a man's appetite. 

Beetroot Puree: Lovely garlic infused beetroot. Light crunchy crostini to mop up that delicious blood red sweet vegetable.

Scallop, Shitake Mushroom and Goat's Cheese Pizza: Now we're talking. Served on a non-traditional crust, it's more like a cracker. We wonder and marvel over how the cheese melts without the bottom burning. The shitake mushroom is so succulent and earthy, it's as if it was dried and rehydrated though unlike any Chinese dried mushroom I've had. Topped with fresh slivers of scallop, it is a successful and original European take on Chinese ingredients.

Salmon, Cream Cheese, Dill and Caviar Pizza: Though not as original as the shitake pizza it was still very good and big on flavour. A massive blini of the classic canape! 

Mini Beef Burger with Beetroot and Parsnip Crisps: True and instant L.O.V.E. at first bite. This mini patty has a layer of blue cheese and red onion chutney that simply melted over the top. The patty itself had a savoury intensity that could have only come from maybe grated cheese mixed in with the mince itself. Divine! My favourite tapas of the night, and proof that Nuno can do both naughty favourites as well as good-looking nibbles.

White Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Coulis: Uh-Mazing. Never the biggest white chocolate fan, this was a revelation. White chocolate need not be sickening! The "shell" of the cake cracked open to reveal a softer ganache, and paired with the sharp coulis, it was almost like a well defined and shaped mousse.

Chocolate and Green Tea Cigar: Isn't this a picture? I fell in love with the bitter dark chocolate that was excellently complimented by the sweet caramel sauce and "sand" on the side. The ganache was again countered by that bark-y green tea element. A superb mixture of textures.

For what I initially thought was clever food marketing, I was truly floored and silenced. The food was beautiful and abundantly flavoured, the service was genuinely warm and attentive. Viajante is the Portuguese word for traveller, and the blurb on the site eludes to the experiences that Nuno has had in the street markets and restaurants he's visited. Probably the first well executed interpretation of world cuisine, it's safe and not untrue to call this Fusion. There were four giggly girls at the end of the night, at £36 a head for shared tapas, a cocktail and a glass of wine. Restaurant? Here I come!

Viajante on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 20, 2010


I was recently in Portugal for some much needed relaxation and lucky to have missed the volcanic ash chaos. Going from Porto to Lisbon, I realised how easily accessible Portugal is from London, that it's understated and has more to offer than cheap and chavvy holiday deals.

It doesn't however, feature highly on the European culinary landscape. Very simply, there aren't as many signature dishes as per Spain it's Latin neighbour and close cultural comparison. Plus its food gets repetitive very quickly. Enough grilled chicken already! And this comes from someone who adores grilled chicken!

I am however a fan of certain bites of what is characteristically and uniquely Portugese, and probably rather underestimated and even misunderstood. Here were my highlights:-

White Port: Come again? Surely not, you say. You can't even get past Red Port with Stilton at Christmas, let alone White Port. Made from the same method as red port but without the red skins and with white grapes, it is a refreshing, subtle little kick when served chilled as an appetiser. I beg you to try it. We visited Calem in Porto, just one of many port distilleries and tasting houses. Understandably, many aren't partial to the sweet and sometimes sickly treacle effect of ruby red port. Dry and medium whites however, have an uplifting effect. There's only one way to find out.

Piri-piri sauce: Cast Nando's out of your mind, this is the real thing. No-sir-ree, much higher on the Scoville Heat Units and wonderful with just about anything. A good compromise between chilli sauce which is sweet and that which is overwhelmingly hot, it has the initial zap but isn't a lingering pain or build-up of heat.

Francesinha: uh hoooo! Now this was the foremost discovery on my trip. Completely unexpected and by pure trial and error, we had arrived ridiculously late on the first night and all that was open on our street was a student-y cafe. And everyone ordering these. And all good foodies know that when in Rome....What looked like an inside out cheese toasty was what the doctor ordered for starving and tired travellers. Essentially a sandwich with a choice of filling inside (we went for meat which came with a Portugese blood sausage, slim pork fillet and bacon!), melted cheese on the outside and topped with a rich madeira sauce. Ever so naughty but infinitely satisfying. 

Let the volcanic ash cloud pass and you might make your own discoveries in this charming country. You'll read and hear plenty about bacalhao (salt cod that is rehydrated and cooked in a variety of styles), white beans with tripe (pretty much a white bean stew with porky goodness) and of course grilled meat and seafood. On average, two courses and a bottle between two was never more than £30 in total. Bargain! 

Other images from iweb and Google Images.