Saturday, 21 June 2014

comensal, clapham - review

The day I get tired of treating my palate to the sensational combination of lime, salt, beans, chilli, cheese, corn and coriander, will be the day I’m tired of life. There are few other cuisines that get me as animated, or can boast the same amount of vibrancy and energy within their dishes. Tease me with even a hint that a good Mexican might have opened in my neck of the woods, and I’ll be there before they’ve barely turned the gas on.

It’s something London lacks, I feel. Enough good Mexican restaurants. Lupita and Mestizo are certainly decent. I’ve given several chances to Wahaca and have left mostly underwhelmed, but with a matchbook of chilli seeds - silver linings. I’m yet to try Boho Mexica. La Bodegra Negra lost me at 'sex shop'. Few others have captured much of my attention.

The village-esque idyll of Abbeville Road lies at the heart of SW London’s “Nappy Valley” district - a handsome street to the east of Clapham Common, occupied by artisan producers, quaint cafés and restaurants, premium estate agents flaunting properties most can do little more than gaze wistfully at, and a lot of new mothers congregating at coffee mornings and lunches. It is here - alongside the likes of reputable butchers The Ginger Pig - that you’ll find London’s newest Mexican bar and restaurant, Comensal.

There are a lot of good things going for this place before the food even passes your lips. It’s independent and family run, the brainchild of John Sim and Cati Bego who met in Mexico City (and are due to marry); Cati has a background running successful restaurants there. Cati is Mexican, and her mother smashes up the guacamole to order out the back in a traditional molcajete (mortar) carved from exceptionally heavy volcanic rock - they get through 12 boxes of avocados a day. 

The well stocked bar has been paved with hand-painted tiles imported from Guadalajara. It has outdoor seating and those floor-to-ceiling folding doors. They open until midnight every day. The Head Chef, Eduardo Santiago, is from Mexico City and in the UK has worked at The Wolseley and The Reform Club. The bar man is from Mexico City. The staff converse in Spanish. Some clientele were on their second and third visits, and it already has regular solo diners propping up the bar, after being open for just two weeks.

The food - well, it was great. There was that mountain of zippy and chunky mama-made guacamole with thick tortilla chips that actually taste of corn (£10.50). The fish (salmon, cod, tialpia) in the tower of ceviche were almost completely opaque thanks to the denaturing lime - I’m used to it a little more raw but it’s ‘there take’ on the classic and it’s nothing short of fine with me, especially with the flourish of chipotle-infused oil (£9).

Cactus-filled tacos - with tomatoes, onions, coriander and lime - were excellent. Sharp and sour, the soft tortilla casings folded up and around the filling, half shoved in my mouth, sucking on the citrus juices with one eye closed, trickles burning a tiny cut in my hand. Give me twelve and watch me clear them (£6.45 - 3).

Braised pork-filled tacos, soft and spiced, with more hot salsa and lashings of lime, were very good (£6.95 - 3). A side of voluptuous black beans and kidney beans met the need for a pulse fix.

A chicken dish boasting breast meat will always carry with it the risk of lacking in flavour and the wrong texture. I tend to steer clear, but the promise of a green tomatillo sauce on the enchiladas suizas was not one to ignore, and from a plate less colourful than its predecessors, came some great eating. Soft and slightly chewy tortillas, with a sour and subtly hot sauce speckled with seeds from the fruit, tender white meat, crumbled and melted Oaxaca cheese. It was hugely pleasurable (£13.95).

I entertained dessert with little intention other than to sample a bite. But the Mexican rice pudding - thick and with cinnamon - was just a bit too good to leave alone (£3.75).

Then there are a whole host of spirits, 100% agave tequilas, mezcales, and cocktails that tart these up with things like pomegranate, bitters and hibiscus syrup (Mexican Cloud, very nice - £8). Special mention must be given to Manuel, the Spanish waiter owning front of house - compact, quick, warm, always smiling, and with a beautiful accent. I was close to putting him in my pocket and taking him home. When you hug your waiter on leaving a restaurant, you know you’ve received good service.

Mexican food should be fearless and seductive, demand your full attention and encourage you to succumb to the pleasures of life. I found this in Comensal, and I’m so pleased it’s here.

Liked lots: wonderful food and atmosphere, great welcome from John and Cati and sensational service from Manuel, vibrant interiors, being surrounded by customers fawning over the food
Liked less: I'll get back to you.
Good for: spending late sultry summer evenings at, squinting over glorious lime-soaked bites and too much mezcale

My rating: 4/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Note: I was invited as a guest to review this restaurant.

Afiyet olsun.

Comensal on Urbanspoon 

Square Meal

Friday, 13 June 2014

salaam namaste, bloomsbury - review

Bloomsbury is an area that I - still to this day - strongly associate with my golden yesteryears at university. I bunked many a lecture from UCL’s Department of Physics and Astronomy in favour of social smoking and afternoon snakebites in the student union, located at a proximity too conveniently close for self-discipline to have much of an effect.

This isn’t really an area of fascination, unless it happens to be the place you live or study, or you’re visiting the British Museum. It’s dense with poor students surviving on Boots meal deals paid for with clubcard points, when bank balances are as below zero as a harsh Alaskan winter. I will assume the grown ups who can afford to live here entertain more socially-happening parts of town when they dine out. And sure, Bloomsbury is relatively close to the well-heeled business folk of Chancery Lane and its immediate surroundings, should any of them fancy a 20 minute walk for an Indian lunch.

Yet here you will find the ‘finest Indian’ cuisine, according to the website of Salaam Namaste, a restaurant in this spot since 2005, run by award-winning Chef-patron Sabir Karim. And yes, it is fine. In the same way five pound coins change instead of a crisp note is fine. Or your medium-rare steak request revealing only the most modest blush of pink within is fine. It’s ‘fine’ in that it did the job - it fed us and we ate (most of) it.

I specifically chose an Indian dining partner to assist the critiquing and fill in any knowledge I might lack. He proved a useful sounding board for the mixed bag of dishes we received.

“These poppadoms aren’t evenly cooked. Look at the different shades of colour here and here. Try this bit, it will be chewy and not crisp,” he was right.

Chukandari venison tenderised with beetroot had pleasing flavours, but the vegetable had been a bit slack in its job, the meat needing the serration of a steak knife to dissect. The spoon of dark pink beetroot dip was a delight though, sweet, earthy and hot. 

Beautiful fat prawns, were delivered on a scalp-sweating pool of Portuguese ‘fiery spices’ - essentially translating to the extra hot sauce at Nando’s. Coughing and spluttering, we sucked the sweet flesh from the shells with tingling lips - it was my favourite dish. Goan spiced scallops with mango salsa were soft and delicate, but perhaps needed a little salt.

Also good was the moru kachiathu - ripe mangoes and green bananas cooked with yoghurt, green chillies, ginger and curry leaves. Sweet and tart, with a back-of-the-throat heat tickle and chewy fruit. Very pleasing.

Ginger marinated lamb chops were fine (that word again), but not close to the falling-away disintegration from a hard stare alone I have come to expect from them (I specifically recall their outstanding texture in Chakra). Then there was an aromatic lamb curry, served in the clay pot it was cooked in, which looked good furnished with fresh coriander, but was just a bit lacking in both interest and succulence of meat.

Mooshed up baby aubergine with sesame and a mustard and curry leaf sauce is difficult to ignore on the menu, and it didn’t disappoint. But then there was the promise of whole grilled butterflied mackerel with a tomato and cucumber salad, which does nothing but call out to you on a hot June day. I have fond memories of eating exactly this whilst gently rocking on a boat surrounded by the azure of the Aegean on trips to Turkey.

But this was about as far from that as you can get. It looked great, all shimmering and golden, but the first bite told a different story. It was exceedingly tough, but worse than that, it tasted - wrong. It was detected instantly and I immediately extracted the offending mouthful - we left the rest of it untouched. My partner asked if it was cooked from fresh, they said it was. I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it wasn’t right.

For a Friday lunch, business was sparse. Those that were present were serving themselves from steel vessels on the side for the buffet deal. I think we were the only ones ordering a la carte, and so we waited a little longer than usual for the kitchen to manifest the dishes, but it wasn’t a problem.

The interiors leave a lot to be desired, with every inch of surface area assaulting the eyes with varying degrees of beige and brown. The staff were nice enough, and perhaps there’s a different vibe in the evening. This has the potential to be a decent local, and fulfill that requirement I’m sure it regularly does. But competition for Indian cuisine in London is tough and standards elsewhere are too high for me to hurry back.

Liked lots: spicy prawns and green banana with mango
Liked less: mackerel, interiors, lunch-time atmosphere
Good for: a reasonably priced lunch if you happen to be in the area; a candidate as a decent local

My rating: 3/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to review this restaurant.

Salaam Namaste on Urbanspoon
Square Meal

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Scarfes Bar at The Rosewood Hotel, Holborn - Review

Scarfes Bar, Rosewood Hotel
The Indian venues I have recently stumbled across - stuffing me with all things keema and seekh and sambar, cooked in tandoors and on tawas, and served in pretty copper karahis - have been doing it quite well. It seems I’m on a good-Indian roll. The most recent is Scarfes Bar, stashed away in the splendid Holborn neoclassical landmark that is now the Rosewood Hotel.

In a similar vein to Zumbura, Scarfes Bar is about as far from the well-worn and tired Indian high-street restaurants of yesteryear as you could hope to achieve. Firstly, it’s not a restaurant - it’s a bar. A beautiful, stately bar. A bar with the atmosphere of a drawing room and the sophistication of a gentlemen’s club. A bar you would equally be chuffed to find out was the destination of a first date, or the location of today’s business meeting. A bar with live music in the evenings and potions that make you squiffy after one if the day is warm.

It has a roaring fire (burning in June, even) and weighty wooden tables with velvet and leather chesterfield armchairs. Should the occasion call for an appreciation of the arts, the shelves are stocked with over 1000 antique books hand-picked by a Portabello antique dealer, and the walls are embellished with one-off paintings by renowned British artist and caricaturist Gerald Scarfe, who lends his name to the space.

Scarfes Bar, Rosewood Hotel
Don’t forget to relieve yourself, because the journey to the lavortary across the lobby provides a glimpse into the hotel’s elegant opulence. The £85m refurbishment of this building - opening as the Rosewood Hotel in October 2013 - is evident.  The overall aesthetic is modern, monochrome and metropolitan. “I’ve found the place I want to get married - here,” cooed my interior designer lunch partner. “You can tell they don’t get any riff-raff - I really like that.”

She could be right. Around us, there are mostly meetings - papers strewn across tables, suits made for air conditioning on hot days, a lot of mundane chat about ‘deliverables’ and ‘actions’ that our heady cocktails did wonders at tuning out. Expected, I suppose. We’re next to Chancery Lane and close to Farringdon. 

And so it is here you’ll find a mostly Indian lunch-time menu to partner with over 200 single malts and a specially-curated cocktail list that has few other intentions than to get you hammered - they’re no wall flowers. The food pares down to light dishes and bar snacks in the evening, and head chef Palash Mitra (previously at the Cinnamon Club) is behind it. I say ‘mostly Indian’; there are a few European-style casseroles thrown in for - what I can only assume - is good measure.

Scarfes Bar, Rosewood Hotel

There was a chaat (which I can’t find on the online menu) tart from tamarind, with a touch of heat and a flourish of plump pomegranate jewels; dug out with crisp sourdough, it was very pleasant. Crisp soft-shell crab with chorizo oil had a great texture, sat on a bed of sweet apple matchsticks, but could have done with a dollop of hot paprika mayo - or something similar - to loosen things up (£12).

Grilled asparagus and a runny egg accompanied soft hunks of well-spiced chicken tikka, arranged elegantly on a lot of hot green chutney; a brunch-time winner (£9). There were firm oblongs of paneer cooked with a mush of punchy spinach concealing generous slithers of ginger and fenugreek - very good (£19). Then there was flaking-away fresh-water fish from south India in a rich gravy with glorious hits of cardamom (£17), and glossy black daal marbled with yoghurt. 

King prawns with garlic and parsley - hailing from the slightly misplaced non-Indian entries - singled itself out by arriving on a board with crusty quarters of bread and a golden mound of what I think was a saffron mayonnaise. It was good (£17).

The cucumber raita was strained and thick, which pleased me greatly (I’m not the biggest fan of watery yoghurt - £4). Blistered and coriander-speckled naan was the preferred utensil of choice for the great job of sauce excavation that lay before us (£3.50).

Scarfes Bar, Rosewood Hotel
Scarfes Bar, Rosewood Hotel

If our dapper cocktails - plying us with their English sparkling wine, homemade vinegared shrub syrup, 18-year-old whiskeys, spice formulas that have seemingly been allocated hashtags (#GI08 - whatever that is), Victorian lemonade and elderflower foams - didn’t provide enough booze for a weekday lunch, the Bailey’s chocolate pot administered a final dose. It’s boozy and wanton, with a mousse bottom layer, frozen dark chocolate shavings, crunchy dark chocolate balls, and delivered on one of those antique books (£6).

The pricing seems a little haphazard. Starters, sides and desserts are reasonable. Some mains are down-right spendy for what they are. And cocktails come in at £14.50. One could very easily, and under the influence of such splendid surroundings, end up with a sore wallet at lunch. They know their target market, and their target market (I suspect) are people who 1) work close by or 2) have the sort of funds that enable them to stay at The Rosewood in the first place. 

The evening snack menu is nothing but reasonable, ranging from £5.50 for a smoke salmon pot with bread, to £13 for a burger or club sandwich.

I fully plan a revisit. It’s the after dark entertainment I’m after, with candlelight, live music and a higher level of general room inebriation. The connoisseurs behind the bar are calling me.

Liked lots: cocktails, food, interiors, staff, Giovanni - the wonderful bar manager
Liked less: some of the lunch mains feel steep
Good for: work, pleasure, impressing a date, solitary dining with a good book

My rating: 3.5/5

Afiyet olsun.

Note: I was invited as a guest to review this bar.

Scarfes Bar on Urbanspoon

Square Meal

Monday, 9 June 2014

rachel khoo's kitchen notebook cook-a-long with good food channel - event

‘You’re cooking with Rachel Khoo? I love her - I loved her Paris show! And she’s gorgeous!’, were the unanimous and approving social media responses I received when sharing sneaky pictures of the lady herself during the cook-a-long event, instead of paying attention to what it was I was supposed to be replicating.

Rachel has two new series’ airing from tonight on Good Food Channel (Sky 247 or Virgin 260): Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: London (9pm) and Rachel Khoo’s Kitchen Notebook: Cosmopolitan Cook (on straight after at 9.30pm). The latter sees the petite retro-wear cook uncover a world of culinary inspiration across her favourite European cities; it starts with Istanbul - few better places to do so in my (perhaps biased) opinion. The latter has Rachel exploring the comestible delights of her original home town, London. If you liked My Little Paris Kitchen (as everyone did), Sky+’ing the whole lot is a sure bet - I already have.

To celebrate the launch of the new shows, the folk at Good Food Channel organised an evening of stove-based shenanigans at Cactus Kitchens in Clapham (home of the Michel Roux Jr. Cookery School and the set for Saturday Kitchen - who knew), inviting a group of lucky (and a little star-struck) food bloggers to rustle up some recipes from the show under the guidance of Ms. Khoo herself.

After watching how it was done whilst guzzling prosecco and tweeting - I mean learning and taking notes - we were let lose at our stations to reproduce the two dishes we'd just seen that I could barely pronounce, from cuisines I’ve rarely cooked from. Which of course made me want to eat them more.

Spätzle (pronounced shpetz-leh) is a favourite of Khoo’s; she spoke fondly of her Austrian grandmother making them with inordinate (but very necessary) amounts of butter. They’re found in that part of Europe (also Germany, Swizerland, Hungary) and can be loosely described as pasta dumplings, in that they’re eggs, flour, butter and flavouring wazzed up into a dough, pushed through small holes (colanders are good for this), and dropped straight into boiling water at a gentle roll. We chucked in parsley and a touch of garlic for a lift in both colour and flavour. When drained, these were tossed in more butter and lots of dry roasted onions (which had begun to sweeten from the oven heat), and loaded with grated Parmesan. All the makings of a very comforting vegetarian plate.

If you like a lot of cooing and fawning at your dinner parties, a smörgåstårta is a great option for a no-cook table centrepiece. It is a cake - of sorts - in that it contains bread-y layers and cream. But it’s savoury, has all the flavours of Sweden (salmon cured in beetroot brine, horseradish, dill, cucumber, pickled beetroot, fish roe), and there are no candles.  Whip up your cream, add the horseradish heat, slather around and in between your stacked Swedish rye or flat bread, decorate all over with pretty tasty Swedish flavours. There was a competition for best adornment. We were all winners in my eyes - they looked smashing for first attempts.

And then we gathered around a table, ate the products of our kitchen toils, chatted to Rachel and asked her lots of questions which she answered beautifully, without any foresight of what would be thrown at her. The video snip below sums up the evening, and each blogger has been given a cut that includes their specific query. 

I seem to always want to ask chefs what ingredients they can’t abide. Michelin star chef Simon Hulstone does not care for kidneys or fish eggs. Dan Doherty from Duck & Waffle thinks vine leaves taste like ‘cat bum holes’. Take a look at what Rachel would rather leave out of her cooking below:

It’s always a joy to discover people you take a shine to on the box are the exact same in real life. Very much like Gennaro Contaldo, Rachel is as vivacious, passionate, warm and delightful as she comes across on TV. Not a hint of a facade. Which makes me even more of a girl-fan. 

9pm tonight, my diary is cleared.

Afiyet olsun.

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