Thursday, 31 October 2013

celebrate día de los muertos in london

The dark cold nights of the end of October usually bring with them stories of ghosts and ghouls and kids dressed up in bed sheets knocking on your door for treats. But there is an alternative Mexican way to celebrate the dead, with a little less fear and a little more cheer (and possibly some tequila).

Present to me an excuse to eat good food in celebration of an interesting subject matter in the name of a national holiday, and I’m happy to temporarily entertain religion and even feign an alternative nationality in order to take part in the frivolities. 

The autumnal occurrence in the UK of the much celebrated Mexican holiday of Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) presents the perfect opportunity to sample an entry from the international world of public holidays and the way in which food almost universally plays a significant role in them.

Between 31st October and 2nd November each year, the living dedicate three days to remembering those close who have passed, celebrating their lives and rejoicing in the memories they have left. A unique version of the Roman Catholic feasts of All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days, the premise of this fiesta is to give the departed the opportunity and means to visit and provisionally party on with those they left behind.

Despite the macabre connotations, this multi-day event traditionally centres around elaborate festivities complete with jubilant music and dancing, decorative costumes and face paint, and plentiful food and drink. 

Altars are built in remembrance and graves are spruced up for the fleeting visitors. Satirical short poems and stories are written and recited, often affectionately ribbing those who have passed in the way only a close friend or relative could. Soft furnishings are set out in homes for souls to rest after arduous journeys from the after world. Warm-blooded participants are entertained by storytelling, dancing and mariachi bands with the noise intended to ‘wake the dead’ and encourage them to swing on by.

The characteristics of the modern festival emerge in the 18th century with original roots reaching as far back as the Aztec era. And as the Aztecs presented gifts of food and drink to sustain their visiting ancestors, Mexicans make ofrendas (offerings) of similar culinary delights. Along with music, flowers and keepsakes, they are used to furnish the home, altars and graves of the deceased to entice them back to earth whilst also providing fuel for their return journey to the afterlife.

It seems the dead have a sweet tooth - that or the still terrestrial Mexicans don’t pass up an opportunity to indulge theirs. 

The offerings include a range of candied items including the well recognised calaveras de azúcar (sugar skulls). Often purchased ready made and decorated by the whole family with coloured frosting, they can also be made from scratch by combining granulated sugar, icing sugar, water, and setting in a mould overnight. 

Pumpkin also makes an appearance on this menu for los muertos, handy as there tends to be a lot of it around at this time of year. Simmered in piloncillo (Mexican unrefined brown sugar), cinnamon and orange zest until tender, they add to the tooth-aching and colourful spread. Pan de muerto (bread of the dead) is a sweet eggy loaf baked into various shapes and often decorated with white frosting to imitate twisted bones

Atole is a hot masa (corn flour) based drink, spiced with cinnamon and vanilla and sweetened with more piloncillo - further sugary delights to help wash the rest of them down.

Whilst you may (somewhat unsurprisingly) find your offerings untouched by your guests, it's often believed they consume the "spiritual essence" of the food whilst leaving the physical forms intact. This loosely translates to us mortals indulging in a sugar rush once the festivities come to a close. Well, someone’s got to do it.

Let the well-worn Halloween take a backseat this year - instead get your fiesta on and join in some of the Día de los Muertos celebrations taking place about town - olé!

A special ofrenda altar will be displayed in the restaurant to welcome back the ‘dear departed’, of which you can add photos of those you wish to remember. This coincides with their fifth ‘Festival del Mole’ featuring a special menu of 12 mole sauces and authentic recipes to tuck into.
Available until Saturday 2nd.

Complimentary tequila for diners visiting on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd and a special edition Blood Orange Day of the Dead Margarita on offer for £5. Enjoy them amongst the traditional decorations and ofrenda altars in remembrance of famous Mexicans, and you can also get your face painted to embrace the spirit.

Rich Mix 
Screening Mexican horror movies on Saturday 2nd to help get your scream on, along with ‘undead’ DJs and dancers in zombie attire to help get your groove on. Helps if you understand Spanish.
£8/£6, prebook,7.30pm

Day of the Dead Festival 
This four day celebration takes over the Dalston Department Store pop-up venue starting with a good old fashioned party on Friday and following with three days of traditional craft workshops. Learn how to make Aztec flowers, sugar skulls, masks and watch the March of the Dead through London’s streets on Saturday 2nd.
£7/£5.95 per day, prebook

Silent Disco 
Help raise money for next year’s New Cross & Deptford free film festival by attending their Day of the Dead Silent Disco fundraising event. Celebrate at Hill Station Cafe with music, dancing and cocktails in eerie silence. Fitting.
£15.00, prebook, 1 November from 7.30pm

Horniman Museum & Gardens
Head over to this south London museum on the evening of Thursday 7th for carnival processions, film, puppet theatre performances, dance and a tour of the Natural History collection with a focus on bones.
£3, prebook, 7 November from 6-9pm

Afiyet olsun.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

school of wok cookery school, covent garden - review

‘Teach a girl to make Chinese steamed buns..’ could be the start to so many great sentences. Pursuits that end in wowing friends with dim sum dinner parties, eating nothing but steamed buns for the rest of your life, and ditching the day job to buy a small cart and compete against the old timers selling them on Newport Court in Chinatown.

Many would argue only one of these to be a realistic aspiration (present company included). But on walking out of School of Wok after six hours of cooking, kneading, rolling, stuffing, pleating and folding, with aching feet, pumped forearms, flour in my hair, and a new appreciation for my favourite dim sum, it felt like they were all possible.

School of Wok is an Oriental and Asian cookery school situated in Covent Garden. Founded and commandeered by Head Chef Jeremy Pang, the school hosts a variety of hands-on classes and corporate events taught by a number of chefs, covering cuisines including Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Thai and Japanese. Classes range from one hour quick-fire wok lessons to multi-day intensive courses for professionals and topics involve a manner of subjects from knife skills to wine tasting, and street food to sushi making.

After obtaining a university degree in biochemical engineering, entertaining some years in marketing, studying at the world famous Le Cordon Bleu and a stint as a travel journalist around South East Asia, in 2009 Pang followed his dream of opening a cookery school. Initially starting out as lessons taught in people’s homes, School of Wok moved to the centrally located bricks and mortar complete with two state of the art kitchens 18 months ago. 

Lessons teaching skills and techniques that simply do not translate through the written word are of particular interest to me. Videos will go some way in achieving this, but there is no replacing an expert overseeing your work and the back-and-forth of questions and guidance. The full day ‘Steamed Bun Fun’ course taught me things I genuinely don’t believe I could have learnt to the same degree, off my own back.

The morning agenda ensured we worked up the appetite for lunch. Meats that required a long and low cook to enjoy with buns at the end of the day were addressed first following very simple recipes. Seven of us were split into two groups; rich and savoury braised pork belly in fermented tofu, and an Iranian influenced shoulder of lamb with pomegranate, quince and jasmine tea were both prepared and dispatched to the ovens.

Hirata buns (the type found at Yum Bun) are sandwich-like in design, folded in half and destined to be stuffed with a filling. Components consisted of a starter dough to which additional dough was formed and added. The mass was kneaded, rested, manipulated into cylinders, portioned into ping-pong sized balls, rolled into ovals, folded in half over oiled chopsticks, placed in bamboo steamers and left over hot water until they were risen and spongy.

To slather over them, mayonnaise was made in pairs and flavoured with sesame, lime, garlic and ginger. One half of each team gradually added oil to egg yolk while the other whisked with fever, the thought of an imminent lunch counteracting the lactic acid pain (alternation was imperative).

Jeremy pitched in by rustling up the meat component; slithers of chicken thigh marinated in liquid smoke, sesame oil and soy were coated in corn flour and deep fried. Excess oil was drained and they were then swiftly tossed in a hot wok with garlic and chillies. We eagerly stuffed them into our sweet buns and topped them with a cucumber and carrot pickle.

Post-lunch proceedings saw us taking the skill level up a deep notch. We were to make two closed buns requiring two types of fold, one more difficult than the other; custard buns and char siu bao (that puffed up pillow of porky goodness I adore). 

Fillings for both were ready to use to allow dedicated concentration to the rolling and folding techniques needed to make these a success. The char siu (barbecued pork) comprised of belly cooked in sugar, soy and spices had been finely chopped into a huge soupy bowl of dark and sticky meat. Custard choices were two: coconut, and a beetroot cocoa nib filling - both frozen to allow for easier handling.

We rustled up the dough for both and attempted mastering the precise circular rolling and intricate pleats required for the pork buns; several attempts were made with faux fillings before Jeremy let us lose on the pork. The custard buns were a lot easier; with some swift rotational hand movements the nuggets of frozen custard were soon encased in uniform smooth dough.

Most of us were still full from our lunchtime hiratas and after a well deserved glass of wine, departed with doggy bags crammed with our labours of love; the three types of buns, the slow cooked meats emerging from the oven soft and flaking from the bone, and a pack of all the recipes used that day.

The cost of this full day course which includes lunch and an early dinner is no small change at £150, the higher end of their offerings. But if thought of as an investment in culinary skills and expertise you would be hard pressed to come across elsewhere, it is certainly a treat to consider. 

On the tube home I found my fingers dancing on my lap as they manipulated an imaginary bao. My final thoughts before bed that evening were ‘how the hell do chefs works on their feet all hours of the day?’ and ‘I am determined to own those char siu pleats’. As Jeremy advised, I’ll be throwing together makeshift dough from flour and water and practising in front of the TV until I do.

A huge thanks to Jeremy for exercising such patience, sharing a wealth of knowledge and expertise and for making the day a great experience - it comes highly recommended.

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to School of Wok

Friday, 18 October 2013

salon du chocolat, olympia - exhibition

The world’s largest event dedicated to chocolate came to London this weekend for the first time, connecting producing countries, chocolatiers, consumers, and hosting over 60 British and international participants including some well known brands such as Lindt and Godiva.

Salon du chocolat marked the grand finale of Chocolate Week launching with a gala evening on 18th October. It included their renowned chocolate fashion show, associating fashion designers and talented chocolatiers to create couture masterpieces made of the sweet stuff and modelled down a catwalk runway to a backdrop of flash photography.

Throughout the weekend, visitors were treated to activities including demonstrations, talks and interactive workshops from acclaimed chocolatiers and chefs, along with sculptures such as Hotel Chocolat’s life size chocolate cocoa tree and a bathtub full of melted chocolate (occupied by a scantily clad female at one point).

The festival is touring the world so if you missed it in town and happen to be globe trotting over the next few months, here are the dates. It's certainly worth checking out:

Paris Professionnel (Trade Show): 28-30 October 2013, Porte de Versailles, Pavilion 4
Paris Grand Public (Consumer Show): 30 October - 3 November 2013, Porte de Versailles, Pavilion 5
Lyon: 8-11 November 2013, Centre de Congrès - Cité Internationale
Cannes: 23-25 November 2013, Palais des Festivals et des Congrès
Seoul: 16-19 January 2014, Coex
Tokyo: 22-27 January, Isetan-Mitsukoshi & 6 Japanese cities
Brussels: 7-9 February 2014, Tour & Taxis
Marseille: 28 February - 2 March 2014, Parc Chanot
Nantes: February/March 2014, Parc des Expositions de Nantes
Bordeaux: March 2014, Hangar 14
Zurich: 4-6 April 2014, Messe Zürich
Lima: July 2014
New York: November 2014
Lille: November 2014, Lille Grand Palais

I got pretty snap happy as there was a lot of good looking material to photograph - collages below.

Afiyet olsun.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

michelin chef simon hulstone dinner at matsuri st james - event

Japanese soy sauce is an ingredient best served dark caramel in colour (any darker and it’s had colourings added), only made with four natural ingredients (water, salt, soybean, wheat), and subject to a slow brew over a period of months. 

All qualities Kikkoman achieve, so I learnt from Mr Bing, CEO of Kikkoman UK at their press dinner held at sushi and teppan-yaki restaurant Matsuri St. James in Mayfair.

It’s a brand synonymous with quality soy sauce and the only one I’ve ever used for it. The purpose of the evening was to promote the use of this ingredient as a seasoning in dishes outside of oriental cuisine - it turns out there’s quite a lot it can work with.

To help us understand the range of its versatility, Michelin star Head Chef Simon Hulstone (usually found at The Elephant in Torquay) donned his apron and got to work on a teppan. Tenderstem broccoli (harvested from his 30+ acre Devonshire farm) and caramelised scallops dressed in a soy, mirin, olive oil and sesame oil sauce were shared amongst all. Appetising and savoury and of course, no need to add salt.

Simon spoke of other dishes he cooks often featuring soy as the savoury component, some of which can be found at The Elephant: with chocolate, in soy salted caramel, tarte tatins, cider brandy, even with vodka and beetroot as a marinade for monkfish - I’d eat all of these.

The remainder of the evening involved a lot of rather good food cooked up by the restaurant chefs and Simon attempting to enjoy his meal whilst receiving a grilling from those seated near him (we couldn’t not, really): 

What does a Michelin starred chef eat at home? - anything I can find in the fridge and with minimal washing up - I’ll eat out the pan if I can
What hours do you work as a Head Chef? - around 8am - 11.30pm
Are there any ingredients even chefs hate? - I can’t abide fish eggs or kidneys
What do you think of bloggers? - I have friends who are bloggers - they’re fine as long as they don’t contact me ahead of a visit telling me they’re a blogger and expecting something for it. I hate TripAdvisor
What do you think of people that take pictures of food in your restaurant? - it’s fine if it doesn’t affect other customers, and I’d prefer it with a good camera to at least do the dish justice
Where do you eat when you’re in London? - Hawksmoor, Pitt Cue
What’s big on the restaurant scene at the moment? - learning from the Scandinavians and how they work with vegetables so well

(Thank you Simon, for being so accommodating and such a gent - apologies if we were a handful..)

Starters consisted of seafood and vegetable tempura, along with assorted sushi rolls of tuna, fat orange salmon roe (bet Simon loved that), white fish and scallops, all prepared fresh before us during a sushi making demonstration by Head Chef Hiroshi Sudo. 

Huge hunks of marbled dry Angus fillet steak were briefly introduced to the searing heat yielding middles to our specification - rare was duly red, soft and very easy to devour. Ginger marinated Alaskan black cod was the alternative; equally satisfying I soon discovered, as I dipped a pair of chopsticks into a friendly neighbour’s plate.

A spectacle of theatre concluded the courses as large blocks of vanilla ice cream were doused in Grand Marnier and set alight on the teppan with flames nearly licking the ceiling. Served warm and melting on the outside with still frozen middles, they were presented alongside thin crêpe suzette pancakes and caramelised pineapple chunks.

The moral of this story is, Kikkoman is pretty much the only way to go for your soy sauce needs and works a treat as a savoury umami hit in any dish.

Many thanks to those involved hosting such a wonderful evening.

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to this event.

Matsuri on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Friday, 11 October 2013

luiz hara's japanese supper club - review

It’s rarely too early to start with one, so let us begin with a cocktail. 

Take a man with a passion for great food, travel and wine. Add to this far-reaching culinary influences courtesy of Japanese and Italian parents. Have him born and raised in São Paulo and living in London for the past 20 years. Throw in classical training from a diploma at the Cordon Bleu cookery school along with an advanced certificate from the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. Shake up with a history in investment banking and a swish Islington pad, and finish off with a strong desire to share the food of his yesteryears home cooked by his Japanese family in Brazil; decant, serve over ice and savour the very memorable experience that is Luiz Hara's (aka The London Foodie) Japanese supper club. 

This is a no holds barred event of gratification, the level of which has guests ‘wow’-ing from the moment they are greeted at the door to their departure. 

Think of the best dinner party you’ve attended. Triple the number of attendees and add another four courses. Include a handful of volunteers to help plate up, clear down and serve drinks and involve ingredients like lumpfish caviar and Clarence Court duck eggs. Execute this in a generous open plan dining area complete with two full length tables and a breakfast bar to accommodate all 28 guests, with full view of the maestro toiling over a hot AGA. You will then have something close to the well-oiled machine that is this epicurean event.

The menu spoke of dishes mostly unfamiliar to a Westerner unaccustomed to Japanese food created outside of restaurants; apart from a token plate of salmon sashimi (incidentally very good and with a South American twist of avocado and crème fraîche), there was not a sushi roll, yakitori stick or bowl of ramen in sight. 

Spaghetti (not noodles - real Italian spaghetti and entirely authentic to this specific dish, Luiz informed us) coated in a luxurious chilli-marinated cod roe and caviar sauce yielded all the comfort and textural characteristics of a carbonara, but singing of seafood, speckled with black fish eggs and delivering a punch of heat to the back of the throat.

The duck egg received a slow cook sous-vide treatment to replicate the cooking method of the dish ‘tamago onsen’ where they are traditionally submerged in Japanese hot springs. With delicate silken tofu and a mixture of dashi, soy and mirin, the yolk was served at the precise moment just before setting takes place; a sublime physical state of buttery viscosity

The flesh of the tempura aubergine had broken down to that characteristic and irresistible mush it does so well, lightly battered and served with umami mirin, as were broccoli florets and splayed oyster mushrooms.

Large tabletop hotpots on individual gas burners were crammed full of fresh sea dwellers: firm squid and fat prawns, sweet clams and meaty cod, along with slippery and transparent glass noodles, yielding tofu, mushrooms and greens. Over the vessels great jugs of miso, soya milk and dashi broth were poured to allow a brief and gentle simmer of the contents before guests dipped in a ladle to fill their bowls. The mild sweetness from the milky brew worked with the seafood particularly well.

Buta Kakuni’ consisted of generous hunks of pork belly striped through with inviting layers of fat, slow-braised in brown rice and caramelised in a mix of brown sugar, soy sauce and ginger, resulting in sweet flaking lean and fat that slipped down with ease. Glutinous chestnut rice, crunchy sugar snaps and green beans provided fitting companionship for the meat.

Then there was the flourless chocolate cake with Armagnac soaked prunes. This may well have been one of the best derivatives of the cocoa plant I’ve consumed; the pleasure receptor reader, had there been one, would have blown a fuse.  Along with refreshing green tea ice cream and a cool glass of superb Muscat, this course was in my top three.

I can only imagine the level of knowledge, skill, precision and professionalism demonstrated through the food, the encompassing bon vivant atmosphere, and the diners in full flow of a truly splendid evening are things most supper club hosts (and a lot of restaurants no doubt) could only hope to aspire too. 

It is also entirely appropriate to reference the cost per person for this evening (I’ll always grab an opportunity to induce a simultaneous raising of eyebrows amongst my readers): £40 + service which included all of the aforementioned, plus canapes and a gin and tonic to begin. I’ll reiterate what many have said before: seek this level and quantity of cooking in the high-end restaurant it would be at home in, and you would pay at the very least double that. At the very least.

To say I would recommend attending would be an understatement - it’s an essential visit for anyone seeking out great food for outstanding value and who wouldn’t say no to a wonderful evening out. So I make that, almost everyone*.

Be sure to take a look at upcoming dates for Luiz's supper clubs that cover both Japanese and French cuisine, as well as Japanese cookery lessons.

Bravo Luiz, you were the perfect host - I anticipate I won’t be able to hold off my next visit for much longer. 

My rating: 4.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

*it goes without saying that if you don't eat seafood, a supper club with a Japanese menu perhaps shouldn't be your first choice, as one misguided diner averse to eating things that swim quickly came to realise..

Sunday, 6 October 2013

hakkasan hanway, dim sum sundays - review

Hakkasan is the long-serving establishment that did the slick-lined, low-lit, subterranean celebrity haunt thing before most others. Since 2001 it has served as a dining vestibule for evenings often ending in whichever night-life hotspot is currently most impenetrable. 

It certainly lends itself to this clientèle. The interiors are dimly lit enough for wisp thin socialites of the evening crowd to avoid interacting with the food without attracting too much attention to the fact. There’s a lot of black leather, dark wood and deep pockets. 

And it’s probably one of the only restaurants in London (other than The Ritz) to exercise a desire for certain attire: ‘Our dress code is smart casual. No sportswear. Jeans are permitted as long as they are worn smartly with shoes and a collared shirt. Please do not wear hats inside Hakkasan.’ I’m not sure the girls blinding waiters with full body sequins were planning to do so whilst wearing their Converse.

In an attempt to broaden their customer base beyond tourists, business men and debutantes, Dim Sum Sundays launched in the tucked away Hanway Place branch in September this year. The menu available each week from 12-6pm is a rather good excuse to get sloshed during daylight (but in the dark) whilst eating good food to the backdrop of beats chosen by the lounge DJ (thankfully proving to be nothing more than elevator music). 

There are two set menu options with the main difference being the volume of alcohol involved. If you were hoping for a dry lunch, hope some more; at a minimum you will be drinking two (strong) cocktails. At a maximum add to that half a bottle of Perrier-Jouët Blason Brut Rosé Champagne (blimey). Unless you opt for the non-alcoholic drinks, of course. Witness any good intent to boycott the booze dissipate as the desire to get your money’s worth overrides. 

The atmosphere was freer and less self-obsessed than I recall in my last visit on a Friday night some years ago when the corridor to the ladies acted as a makeshift catwalk runway. But one would hope so, at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon. 

Pre-lunch cocktails were quickly followed by a crispy duck salad with well textured nuggets of meat slightly sweetened from a glaze, lifted by fresh segments of pomelo and sprightly salad leaves.

From the option of seven steamed dim sum, we selected smooth and transparent har gau bonnets filled with firm little shrimp with bite, Chinese chive dumplings with prawn and crab meat topped with goo and a goji berry, spicy seafood sauce and scallop rounds with Thai asparagus and lingzhi mushrooms, and morel mushroom and lemon sole mouthfuls - the superior and most discernible of the four.

Then there was the fried, baked and grilled course and while the same swathe of golden glow adorned all four of our choices, shapes and designs were interesting enough for us to wonder out loud how they were achieved. 

A light and crisp pumpkin puffball encasing a smooth middle of the gourd flesh itself along with the (apparent but undetected) presence of smoked duck, creamy lobster meat rolled in ultra thin rice noodles and fried into something lighter than air, Shanghai dumplings with ground pork, and poofed up pear and taro (starchy root vegetable) balls with another beautiful centre, and in the shape of pears!

From the small eats we swapped out the two available options in exchange for the salt and pepper squid from the alternative menu at the cost of a decent course. 

It came heavily battered and fried; an unwanted vision after previous plates of the same vein. Bereft of the levels of (white) pepper needed to satisfy the two present of Chinese and Taiwanese heritage, it was not befitting of its label; "this has been made for the western palate and is not at all authentic". It was a plate of slightly better than bog-standard calamari and was an effort to entertain.

For mains, a luminescent grilled hunk of Chillean seabass made a vibrant orange from something I don’t believe we ever identified. The Chinese honey coating rendered it too sweet for my palate after a couple of forkfuls, but the flesh was cooked so precisely that despite the sugary mouth, I was unable to leave it alone. Soft and smooth, just the right side of opaque, breaking away in meaty flakes with a slither of crisp fatty skin full of flavour. Really very good.

To accompany the bass, pak choi with al dente whites and wilted tops cooked with Shaoxing wine and garlic (I could eat barrels of this), and a wad of sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf, punctuated with nuggets of sweet Chinese sausage and grainy salted egg yolk.

To conclude, a choice of three desserts, the best of which I selected. A smooth and fudgy dark chocolate bar shot through with a very cherry sauce along the length of its centre, with a sweet and tart cherry sorbet imparting the sensation of submerging my head into a bucket of them freshly picked from the tree. 

Also of note was the elderflower sorbet with the strawberry panna cotta, chantilly cream and elderflower jelly - one lick of the spoon left a ringing of the tak-tak sound of sourness as the tips of our tongues smacked the roof of our mouths. The macaroons were ok, mostly with indistinguishable flavours.

With the meals came endless pots of freshly brewed loose leaf Taiwanese tea; delicate, cleansing, refreshing and altogether more preferable to the cocktails, the post-lunch ones of which remained mostly untouched.

I was duly impressed with all courses, particularly my dessert but excluding the squid. And should one's lunch desires involve a good saucing on a Sunday afternoon, the value is of note when considering the drinks involved; the menu described above is £48 and the one including the champagne is £58. Quite reasonable for an establishment that has retained it’s Michelin star since 2003.

The praises from the Taiwanese and Chinese were a little muted. Whilst they enjoyed it, proclaims of ‘but I have had better’ followed any accolades. The day I too eat truly authentic dim sum in China or Taiwan itself is the day I suspect I may mirror their sentiments. Until then, I'll settle - in the loosest sense of the word - for Hakkasan.

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

 Hakkasan on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

pizza pilgrims, soho - review

Part of the charm of street food in London is that the nomadic vans, shacks and kerbside fixtures dishing out all manner of specialist eats have an air of uprising about them.

There’s a ‘we have incredible products to share with the city and will bloody well do so without the need for a fancy pants restaurant with a front door, proper kitchen and seats to sit on. Our sails of success are powered by the winds of hard graft, self-belief and social media. We are clear of the obstacles bricks and mortar present - sky high rents, oppressive overheads and walls - we are free to lay our hat where we please. Punters will entertain scandalous queues under hemorrhaging heavens to get their hands on our offerings because they know just how good they are. And we will continue on in our endeavour to bring great food to the streets of London no matter what - vive la révolution!’ sort of vibe.

And with this gutsy defiance and commendable persistence comes a following. An avid following. One that grows by the power of word-of-mouth and Instagram and culminates in dribbling disciples willing to traverse previously unchartered zones to clutch these holy grails of snack-attacks, followed by the obligatory sticky-fingered tweet.

And yet it seems the true benchmark of success of a street food trader is the transition to stationary selling at a fixed address, in a real building complete with premise number and postcode, also known as a restaurant. And many have progressed down this route with great success. 

Think Patty & Bun (started as a pop-up, now fixed on James Street W1), Pitt Cue Co. (began as a food truck on Southbank, now found on Newburgh Street W1), and Yum Bun (an old regular in Hackney's Broadway Market, now on Featherstone Street EC1) to name a few. 

To this list add Pizza Pilgrims. Taking their launch on Dean Street, Soho in August of this year from a three-wheeled green Piaggio Ape complete with pizza oven driven here all the way from Italy and a presence in Berwick Market, to prime real estate in one of London’s most bustling food quarters. The boys’ (brothers Tom and James Elliot) done good.

Now I’ve eaten pizza in Naples and with no hyperbole intended, it was one of the best things I’ve ever consumed. The sort of meal that on first bite, the wide-eyed unspoken stare of ‘ye GODS - did you just experience the same thing I did?’’ towards your dining companion is all you can manage as your brain attempts to process the pleasure receptor overload. 

With a benchmark set so high, I’m not sure a Neapolitan pizza made outside the region will ever match what I ate in Naples, and in all honesty I don’t expect it to (air miles of ingredients travelled, absence of technique passed down through generations, the tenacity of resident Neapolitans safeguarding the authenticity of their prized pizza demonstrated through the execution etc. will all play their part). But Pizza Pilgrims certainly make a commendable effort.

They’re careful to advertise their wares as ‘Napoli inspired’ on the website which is a fair description considering the menu of toppings extends beyond the only two variations you would ever find in a true Neoplitan pizzeria - a marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, no cheese) or a margherita (tomato sauce, cheese, basil). 

I stuck to the margherita to establish grounds for the fairest comparison against what I ate in Italy and because I wanted to give the few ingredients present the chance to take centre stage and have a waltz over my tongue. 

Certainly the best component of the pizza was the base - edges soft, risen and blistered from the circa 450-480C heat treatment of the oven, middle elastic and slightly chewy. It was very good. 

The chosen cheese of the establishment is fior di latte*, mozzarella made with cow milk rather than buffalo milk, and therefore quite a bit cheaper. While the former is certainly acceptable for an authentic Neoplitan margherita according to the original Italian Ministry of Agriculture document defining "Pizza Napoletana" for the EU (yes, such a thing exists and rightly so), my personal preference is made-that-morning milky buffalo mozzarella, creating a slightly soupy sloppy puddle of cloudy goodness in the middle of the pizza base, ubiquitous in quality margheritas across Naples. The cubetti of fior di latte used here was rather uninteresting and added little to the plate.

*The folks at Pizza Pilgrims HQ have kindly pointed out to me (post post-publication) that there is in fact a menu item of Bufala - a margherita with buffalo mozzarella. How I missed this on the night is not entirely clear (although also not wholly unbelievable - caught up in the excited anticipation of a good meal I've missed lots of things on menus before). It is this I will certainly order on my return.

In addition, I’m a garlic fiend (think roasted cloves into double digits consumed in one sitting) and the tomato sauce used in the margherita had no presence of it. Which is in fact correct, authentically speaking (it’s the marinara’s that can contain garlic, less so the margheritas). But there was a garlic shaped hole in my pizza (figuratively) that needed filling. With garlic.

But I did enjoy it. And I finished it, even ahead of my two companions despite getting my pizza last out of our trio as I was initially brought one I did not order (the music is loud and I can see how marinara and margherita can sound similar, but the waitress should have confirmed before leaving the table). It was good enough to make a blog post, which means I would return. But on return I would order the marinara - exclude the cheese, add the garlic and enjoy the excellent base.

The other reason to pop my head round the door once more is for the frozen desserts supplied by Gelupo based in Piccadilly Circus and one of the best places to get a gelato in town. Vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and sea salt crystals - a novel flavour combination for me and one I thoroughly enjoyed. Not to mention the blood orange sorbet served in the orange skin which was rather tart and sweet and wonderful and delivered in a brown paper bag. Cute.

The venue is loud, happening and relatively hip. Full of tourists, the young after work crowd and some Italians if my ears served me correctly. With the main dining area below ground, walls are adorned with Italian poster paraphernalia, table cloths are green and checkered, and it is altogether relaxed with a warm but slightly industrialised feel.

A central spot to hang out and eat pretty good, very reasonably priced pizza. The location does not lend itself at all to the feel of the genuine, narrow, washing line adorned, speeding scooter festooned death-trap that is a true Napoli back-street. And neither does the venue, but I don’t think it’s trying to. What it does do is make a decent stab at creating an authentic Neoplitan pizza here in London town for the flocks of people who continue to come and eat it. The regular clientele won’t be going anywhere else for pizza any time soon.

Good for: catching up with friends, a quick cheap bite, a longer cheap bite
Liked lots: pizza base, oven, location, Gelupo ice cream and sorbet
Liked less: the choice of fior di latte over buffalo mozzarella (they do have buffalo mozzarella margheritas - I just missed it on the menu - see above comment), the music that was too loud for easy conversation, you can’t make reservations (could result in queues on busy evenings) 

My rating: 3/5

Afiyet olsun.

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