Wednesday, 29 October 2014

JAPAN: onsen etiquette - a guide to taking a traditional public (and naked) bath

If you’re due to visit Japan, you will notice a lot of things. A lot of fascinating, unfamiliar and sometimes strange things. 

Chairs on trains swivel 180 degrees so as to always face the direction of travel. The doors to taxis close automatically. You can smoke inside many restaurants, but only in designated areas on the street. Toilets are more advanced than the International Space Station, with buttons for things you didn't even realise were desirable toilet features, and there is absolutely and equivocally no tipping in Japan. 

People openly read violent manga pornography in public, often involving giant tentacles, and no one will bat an eyelid. Shop and restaurant staff will shout the "Irrashimase!" welcome when you enter their premises. It’s acceptable to get obliterated on a Friday night, puke up on your boss’s shoes, pass out on street corner, and turn up for work on Monday morning with no judgement passed. But it’s frowned upon to be seen eating while you walk. 

Oh yes, and bathing is traditionally done in communal baths, in the complete buff.

It’s a fascinating quirk of the isolated evolution of the Japanese culture, when you think about it. Outside on the street, you’ll be hard pressed to engage in much eye contact thanks to the mostly coy demeanour of the Japanese. But bump into that person in the onsen of your hotel room and they’ll happily strip off and sit in a bath with you.

The Japanese tradition of bathing with others in your birthday suit often causes a state of alarm for westerners. Particularly for the British, with our stiff upper lips and aversion to nakedness in general. Most of us can just about handle a doctor asking us to drop our pants for the sake of our wellbeing. I myself am that person that will hide my modesties behind a precarious towel wrap as I try to shuffle on some underwear in public changing rooms.

But let me tell you, when it comes to being in Japan and embracing their culture, my advice is to leave your anxieties and insecurities about this arrangement at the arrival gate. Because doing so may well be one of the most liberating and fun things you do during your trip.

Here’s a little guide to help you get Japanese bathing right, and enjoy it.

1) What’s the history behind the onsen?

The word onsen is in fact a term for geothermally heated hot springs, although it’s often used to describe the bathing facilities and inns situated around them. Thanks to its volcanic activity, Japan has a lot of these scattered along the length and breadth of the country, and they are used as public bathing spaces.

Traditionally they were located outdoors, but a large number of properties have harnessed these waters and brought them inside to provide the facilities under cover. They are believed to have healing properties, thanks to the multitude of minerals that can be found in them.

2) Why is bathing in them such a popular pastime?

As well as all those minerals, the purpose of wallowing in these warm waters is to provide an escape from the stresses and strains of everyday life and embrace the virtues of hadaka no tsukiai (naked communion). It allows people to get to know eachother in an environment where there can be no barriers. 

While finding yourself naked in front of your boss is the stuff most nightmares are made of, it’s not uncommon for company groups to visit onsens en masse, as well as friends, and families.

In the past, men and women bathed together and everyone was fine with it. But since Japan opened its doors to the west, gender separation has been enforced and is strictly adhered to. The traditional mixed bathing does still persist in some rural parts of the country, however.

3) Ok, I’m up for it. How do I do this properly?

The sequence of events to enjoy an onsen is as follows:

  • If you are in a hotel, it’s common for guests to be provided with an onsen towel and yukata (casual kimono - like a nice thin dressing gown) which you can wear from the onsen to your room. If you prefer, you can remove your clothes in your room, slip into the yukata, and walk to the onsen wearing it with nothing underneath. It is completely normal to be seen walking around in these within the hotel grounds. Don’t forget to take the yukata and towel to the onsen with you.
  • When you arrive, remove your shoes before you enter the tatami mat area - there’s usually compartments to put them in. Go into the relevant changing room (male or female) and remove all your clothes (or your yukata). There will usually be lockers or woven baskets to place them in.
In a yukata read for the onsen
  • Somewhere in the onsen or provided in your room, there will be a washcloth for you to take to the shower area. This can be used to cover your modesties as you walk around the onsen. Or strut like a peacock, either is fine.
  • On entering, you’ll see a number of showering posts, often in rows, which usually consist of a mirror, a stool to sit on, a shower hose or tap, and a bucket. Take a seat and wash yourself thoroughly with the washcloth. Soap and shampoo are often provided, particularly in the nicer hotels, or you can take along your own. The idea is to conserve water, so don’t leave the hose running. You can fill up the bucket and chuck the water over you, rather than use the hose. Once you’re clean, rinse the area and put everything back in it’s place for the next person to use.
  • Only at this point, are you permitted to enter the hot onsen waters. These waters must not be contaminated with anything other than your squeaky clean self, so do not allow your washcloth to touch the water. Either leave it on the side, or fold it and balance it on your head like the natives. Similarly, if you haven’t washed your hair at the shower stage, you shouldn't submerge your head.
  • It’s not a swimming pool, so don’t start doing laps. The idea is to soak and relax and enjoy its cathartic properties. In big hotels, there might be different areas with different temperatures, so feel free to move from one to the next.
  • If you get out to cool yourself down, be sure to rinse yourself at the shower stations again before you get back in. 
  • When you’re done, walk back to the changing room, dry yourself off with the towel, slip on your yukata, and walk back to your hotel room.
  • If you're visiting an onsen that is not in a hotel, the process is very much the same. Rather than going back to your room to get dressed, you will do so in the changing rooms.

You’ve now taken your first Japanese onsen in the nud - congratulations.

4) So who’s going to see me naked?

Firstly, only your own sex. Onsen baths and changing rooms are single sex. But in all honesty, likely very few people if anyone will see you naked. No one is there to look at anyone else, and everyone keeps themselves to themselves.

Also, if you use the washcloth (which when fully unfolded will be a decent size) to cover your bits as you walk about, it’s likely no one will catch a glimpse of anything. And once you’re in the water, nothing is visible anyway.

5) Can I just not be naked, and go in with a bikini / shorts?

No, you can’t. Swimming costumes are strictly forbidden as they are seen to contaminate the water. If you walked in with a swimming costume, everyone would stare at you as it’s just not permitted. I’ve heard of the odd place allowing costumes where they permit both sexes to use the same onsen. But these are usually more water-park themed and uncommon.

6) I’d like to experience it with my partner, is this possible?

If you’re of different sexes, the short answer is likely no. You will both need to visit your respective onsens separately, unless it’s those theme park type ones I mentioned above. 

There are some places that might allow the onsen to be locked and enjoyed privately, and in this case both sexes could enjoy it at once. For example, Hotel Mizuhasou on the island of Miyajima had a couple of onsen rooms with two showers and two tubs in each (pictured), and a lock on the doors to allow this. The only problem here is queues would form outside, waiting for you to finish, which is far from relaxing.

7) What if I don’t want to shower in the onsen, will my room still have a bathroom?

Large hotels that cater to westerners will usually have rooms with private normal bathrooms, and also a large onsen to use if you wish to. Smaller hotels will sometimes have two types of rooms for sale - western ones with private bathrooms, or traditional tatami rooms perhaps with a private toilet but not a private bathroom. Ironically, it’s often the latter, without the private bathroom, that are more expensive. 

Some very traditional ryokans won’t have any private bathrooms available and will only have an onsen to get yourself clean in. This was the case with the hotel mentioned above. Don’t be put off by this set up. If you just want a quick shower without the soaking, it’s very easy to pop in, have a wash and leave without barely being noticed at all. Like I said, no one is looking anyway. 

8) What should I expect when I go in?

Based on my own experience, a glaring observation I made was the lack of westerners in the hotel onsens. I suspect many get put off by the idea, which is a great shame. Don’t be surprised to see people really going for it at the shower stage, getting into every nook and cranny. The Japanese take down their toothbrushes and even their razors. 

9) Are there particular times of day where the onsens are less busy?

If you’re really conscious about the naked part and want to minimise the number of people who might see you, certain times of day are more quiet than others. Mornings either before or after breakfast, and evenings before or after dinner will busy - basically the times of day it’s most common to have a shower. I suspect the middle of the day will be the most quiet.

Onsens tend to have opening and closing times, they won’t be open 24 hours a day. In addition, some places might only have one onsen that alternates between male and female use for a certain number of hours each during the day. So check the times first and figure out when you might want to go.

10) What sort of people use the onsens?

Everyone. There were mothers with babies. Old ladies. Young women. People on their own or with a friend. My partner reported the same - business men, young men, elderly gentlemen, dads with sons. All shapes and sizes, all ages, all completely at ease with the whole situation. It’s a fantastic environment to be in.

11) What sizes do onsens come in?

This can vary considerably. For example, Hotel Associa in Takayama had a spectacular open air but covered onsen area, on multiple floors, overlooking the mountains. There were many shower stations and a number of pools to dip into, each with different temperatures, as well as waterfalls and jacuzzi tubs. There was a huge amount of space which made it very easy to find your own corner away from everyone else.

At the other end of the scale, an onsen may consist of a small room with just a handful of shower stations and one or two small tubs. This may initially feel awkward, but again, no one is looking at you and anyone else there has the same agenda as you - to just relax. If it is only the two of you in a tub, just go with it. It will be fine.

Anymore than two in a small tub and it might be a little too close for comfort. What usually happens in this situation is whoever has been in the longest will kindly bow out of the scene once a new person has entered and showered, to allow them to take a dip in their place.

Onsen view in Hotel Associa in Takayama, photo from their website

12) I want to take pictures in the onsen, can I take a camera in?

Err.. no. I'm not sure that would go down too well with all the naked people that would be in your shots. The pictures I've used in this post were taken in the lockable onsen, and before it was open anyway.

We sometimes forget it's possible to enjoy an experience without having to take a picture of it and post it online. This is a perfect opportunity to reacquaint yourself with this ancient notion.

13) Any tips for enjoying the experience?

Do take a bottle of water down with you. Onsens can be quite hot and it’s probably easy to overheat. When you get out you’ll need a cool drink, some places will have a water cooler.

If there are certain shower gels and shampoos that you use, it’s fine to take these down and leave them on the side once you’ve showered, while you take a dip in the waters.

Otherwise, there’s really nothing else to it.

I hope this guide has helped dispel any qualms you may have about the traditional Japanese bathing experience. If you’re due to visit this spectacular country, I highly recommend kicking off your knickers and getting involved - I bet you’ll leave feeling rejuvenated in both body and soul.

Related posts: 
10 things to eat in Tokyo
Tsukiji Fish Market tuna auction - 10 FAQ's answered
Japanese Tea Ceremony in Kyoto

Saturday, 25 October 2014

tiramisu - recipe

‘I would like some coffee with this cheese’ is a sentence no one has ever said. Wine, goes without saying. Port, most certainly. Even beer and cocktails work with an appetising platter. Whilst an alcoholic presence isn’t necessarily a precursor for a beverage to compliment cheese, coffee just does not fit.

Unless of course we are talking about tiramisu (and in a similar vein, coffee flavoured cheesecake). Possibly the lone exception in the culinary world of the two brought together in a spoonful or seven of sweetened creamy glory (incidentally through my research I have discovered 'kaffeost' - a Finnish concoction in which hot coffee is poured over chunks of soft cheese - a more pungent affogato I suppose; I'd be willing to try it).

Translating to ‘pick-me-up’ from Italian and originating from Treviso near Venice, the dessert presents itself as layers of Savoiardi biscuits (also known as ladyfingers - the sponge biscuits used in trifles) soaked in cold espresso and an egg, sugar and mascarpone mixture. Often flavoured with cocoa and made suitably grown up with a splash of Marsala wine, it represents all that is great about Italian cooking; simplicity, the love of good coffee and the inclusion of cheese wherever possible.

Have a look online and you’ll come across many different recipes, a lot of which I’ve tried. They include the presence of cream, vanilla, strawberries and a whole manner of other things. The purist in me relishes the fact an Italian politician has recently asked the EU to grant the Treviso recipe invented in the 70’s protected status and rightly so; whilst I can appreciate new takes on classics, I’m old fashioned at heart and it can be too easy for traditional recipes to become diluted and lost over time

The Italians are fierce in the protection of their national dishes, already succeeding with the Napoletana margherita and marinara, and I respect them all the more for it.

The cheesy mix in the Treviso recipe is comprised of egg yolks, sugar and mascarpone. How much of each I suppose is up to experimentation, but in my version I’ve also added some fluffed up egg whites. It creates a greater volume meaning the cheese goes further to make more portions. Because of this, the dessert is lighter and therefore I suppose, less of a burden on any guilt you may feel consuming it. Or so I tell myself.

In terms of liquor, feel free to replace the Marsala with rum or coffee liqueur. Traipsing through my local supermarkets, Marsala only seems to be available in standard wine bottle sizes. Should you discover the same, and unless you plan on making tiramisu every week for the foreseeable future or quaffing the stuff straight, substituting with something similar you already have is fine. 

But have it made clear the unmistakable flavour from Sicilian Marsala will be absent and which I believe makes the dish. Savoiardi biscuits can be found in all supermarkets - they tend to sit alongside trifle type ingredients rather than in the biscuit aisle. Ask where the sponge fingers are if you can't locate them.

Classic Tiramisu

Makes 4 portions

Around 18 Savoiardi biscuits (ladyfingers)
200ml strong espresso, cold
2 x egg whites
1 x egg yolk
2 tbsp caster sugar
2 tbsp Marsala wine
250g mascarpone cheese
Cocoa powder
A square or two of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)

In a large bowl whisk the egg yolk, egg whites and sugar until thick and pale but still runny. An electric hand whisk will achieve this quickly.

Add the cheese and Marsala and beat until fully combined and smooth with no lumps. I find the beater attachment on an electric stand mixer does this well. The mixture will still be quite runny but this will set in the fridge.

Pour the cold coffee into a shallow wide dish. Soak a biscuit in the coffee for a couple of seconds each side so it gets absorbed, but remove before it goes soft and breaks apart. Layer the bottom of four individual serving glasses with one layer of soaked biscuits.

Tip For an extra boozy kick, add a splash of wine to the coffee too before you soak the biscuits

Tip If you need to break the biscuits to fit in the glass, do so before you soak them. 

Tip Glass serving vessels are ideal as it allows you to see the layers but if you don’t have them, something ramekin sized will do just fine - I used glass tumblers.

Over these bottom layers pour 2-3 tablespoons of the cheese and egg mixture - you want to use half of your mix across all portions in this first layer. Top these with another layer of soaked biscuits, and finish with a final layer of the mixture, using it all up.

Using a sieve or tea strainer, dust cocoa powder over the tiramisu portions ensuring all of the white is covered. Finely grate the dark chocolate and sprinkle this on top to finish.

Cover each portion with clingfilm and leave to set in the fridge for at least a few hours before serving. I find they taste better the longer they are left as the flavours mingle, so I would make them the day before you wish to serve them.

An indulgent treat at any time of day, they do very well in the ‘hard to resist’ stakes.

Afiyet olsun. 

Saturday, 18 October 2014

q grill brunch, camden - review

It takes a certain type of person to be able to handle Camden on a sunny Saturday. I am without question, not that person. 

All credit to them, tourists and slightly grubby teenagers seem to take it in their stride. Most will - for some reason - have Camden on their London itinerary. They’ll jaunt up the Northern Line, funnel-neck out of that tiny station in their hordes, swell into Camden High Street and progress along it at the speed and density of poured molasses. 

I’m not great with crowds (see my rant about Oxford Street). The last time I was in Camden was the day I packed up and moved out of my student halls on Camden Road, in no great hurry to return. But in these pockets of intolerable people-density, there is often salvation in the form of somewhere to get away from everyone else, sit a while, and have something good to eat.

In this neck of the woods, push on through the throng and continue along the high street until it becomes Chalk Farm Road. Rejoice at the exponential reduction of headcount with every few metres you advance, and find respite in Q Grill for some brunch.

The man behind the enterprise is Des McDonald who opened it in March this year, having already landed a big hit in Islington with The Fish & Chip Shop. In the kitchen is Phil Eagle who was previously Head Chef at Hix; both men have a CV that includes Le Caprice. The concept is locally sourced meat and fish, cooked via a charcoal pit grill and in-house smoker, and in September they introduced a brunch menu. 

I’ve heard people grumble about brunches recently, saying they actively avoid them or don’t see their point; I couldn’t disagree more. It’s a lazy man’s breakfast. A meal that encourages you to both have a lie-in, eat bacon into the late afternoon and accompany it with a hair-of-the-dog tipple and good coffee, is nothing but a friend of mine.

On the note of alcohol, they’ve set up a DIY bloody mary bar, creaking under its own weight of rainbow-coloured tomatoes, celery, chillies, sauces, lemons, limes and every other bloody mary paraphernalia you might think of. You can concoct a pitcher to your own specification and with your own fair hands for £20.

The food options include meat butties, grilled broccoli with wild mushrooms and a duck egg, eggs on muffins or toast, waffles with sweet cured bacon and maple syrup, and beans and egg on toast.

But forget all of that, because what you want is the Josper Fry-up. A josper is an elegant combination of a grill and an oven in a single machine - combine that cooking method with some gorgeous meats, and you’ve got yourself a plate of something very good indeed.

Bacon so crisp it was like crackling, a slice of sourdough, slightly sweet (but not overly) BBQ beans that worked with the saltiness of the pork wonderfully, a sausage, a portobello mushroom, an egg.. and ¼ rack of ribs. Oh yes. 

I cleared the lot (as well as a few other things), and felt fabulous. None of the self-loathing associated with finishing plates of greasy meat and carbs that poor fry-ups often are. This was the best I’ve had in a long time. I would travel from where I live in SW London all the way up the Northern Line and happily endure the weekend masses to eat it again.

Now guess the price of it. In the tourist hotspot that is Camden. With quality locally sourced meat. And that ¼ rack of tender, gorgeous, bone-sucking ribs that no other fry-ups have. Go on, guess. 

You’re right, they could easily charge over a tenner for it, and folk wouldn’t bat an eyelid. But it is in fact only £7.75. I know.

My companion had the eggs royale, with great generous hunks of cooked salmon rather than smoked. The large is £11.50, translating to two eggs and muffin halves rather than one in the small, we assumed. A great hit of protein and good it was too. But compare it to the fry-up, in terms of value and volume, and I know what I’d order.

There’s also the option for a continental breakfast at £12.50. You can help yourself to an unlimited amount of fresh pastries, fruit, muffins, granola, quality bread and parma ham from the counter.

I ordered a kale, avocado and apple smoothie to balance out the sin from my pork-heavy plate (£4.50). It was good, but needed more blitzing to eliminate ice chunks clogging up the straw. Even the coffee was good, really leaving me with little to grumble about.

Q Grill is a double fronted, large space. Around the corner of its L-shape interiors, there’s more seating and a mezzanine level, but it’s a lot darker back there and a bit smokey from the grilling. My suggestion is take the bright and sunny window seating with comfortable swivel chairs. You can indulge in a spot of people watching as you enjoy a coffee and a paper, and you can crack the window open for some fresh air. All these elements one looks for on a relaxing weekend morning came together during my visit, and I have to say, I really enjoyed it. 

I’ve already told the in-laws to stop by Q Grill during their upcoming Camden visit (they're a great example of ‘domestic tourists’) and to get that fry-up. I think I might have to join them.

Liked lots: great value fry-up, ribs in the fry-up, bacon cooked just so, good coffee, great easy-going vibe, very pleasant staff
Liked less: I think sitting up front in the bright and breezy part of the restaurant helped the experience - I'm less sure about the rear; pricing of some of the other brunch items seem a little dear for what they are in comparison to the fry-up
Good for: wiling away a lazy weekend morning

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

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

Q Grill on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 October 2014

barrafina adelaide st, covent garden - review

I have a lot of love for the new Barrafina in Covent Garden. The sort of love that stems from envy. Envy that places like this are not the norm in this country, but are in ones I don’t live in.

I turned up a bit before opening time at 5pm, gazing longingly through the glass at the bar seating occupied by staff already in their kitchen whites, fuelling up on an early meal before a busy service. I pleaded with them, with palms and cheek pressed against the window, to let me in and let me have some of what they were having (in my mind, of course). 

I was eager and hungry, and the anticipation I had for eating their food had been mounting for days. I was really looking forward to it.

My pal and I walked around a while, returning at what seemed a more acceptable time to embark on an evening meal. Only a marginal improvement at 17.10, but there were already three people seated at the bar and into their first plate of tapas. 

We chose our two stools from the twenty-nine, anguished over a menu that is almost impossible to exercise much decision-making over (the additional specials board didn’t help), and were charmed by someone who talked us through the dishes and the wine. Fast forward little more than half an hour and the place was full, with people waiting in the wings for seats to become free by 6pm.

The affection I speak of is for the feel of the place, the atmosphere. The plancha sizzles and smokes and battle cries of whatever the Spanish equivalent of ‘Yes Chef!’ add to the cacophony. There’s a rippling excitement both behind and in front of the counter, from the love of what’s being cooked by the chefs, to the impatience to eat it all by the customers. 

It’s exciting, real and palpable, and a pleasure to be in the thick of. But let me tell you - in terms of the food, it didn’t blow me away. And I was expecting it to.

The pal in question is someone who’s lived and worked in different parts of Spain for some time. An ex of hers worked under Ferran Adrià; she knows her benchmark of excellent tapas, and spent most of her free time over there working her way through the best places to eat them. A good person to bring to the latest tapas edition in town that has everyone gushing. She too thought the food was ‘pretty good’, said with a voice of enthusiasm, ‘but it sort of ends there’.

Pan con tomate were fine, chunkier tomato than I’m used to (£2.80 each), but I’ve had better at La Mancha - a humble family-run Spanish restaurant all the way out in Chiswick with no PR fanfare. Pimientos de Padrón were also fine. I prefer more skin blistering, and too many of them were a little too hot for comfort, to the extent that the pal stopped eating them after three (£5).

Fried artichokes with alioli were pretty, brown and crisped up and fun to dunk into the mayo then drop whole into the mouth with head tilted back (£6.80). Suckling pig’s ears, served whole and fried, were fatty and rich and with more alioli (£6.50), but I prefer the cooking method at Duck & Waffle which essentially turn them into Frazzles, and who doesn’t love those. 

Prawn and bonito carpaccio could have been a lot lighter and brighter than it was. The quality ingredients were swamped by a pool of oil and citrus (which needed a hell of a lot more astringency), turning what should have been a zippy contrast to all the fatty pork elsewhere, to something heavier than it needed to be (£7). And a plate like that needs bread for mopping; you’ll need to order that extra (£2). But the raw prawns were wonderfully creamy, and the tuna firm and fresh.

Queen scallop ceviche fared better on the seafood front, zingy and delightful mouthfuls. They really are just mouthfuls though, and conservative ones at that (£3.50 each). Braised ox-tongue with crushed potatoes was another weighty plate. It needed something to lift the meat; perhaps winter greens instead of potato would have helped (£6.80).

We did attempt to pull ourselves out of the meat mire, with a tomato, fennel and avocado salad. It was much needed to help balance everything else, but not especially noticeable on its own merit (£7). 

Expect to find choice specials on the board, and to fork out for them. There are whole turbots, whole lobster - the lists are shared twice daily on the @BarrafinaADst twitter account. We indulged in a red "carabinero" prawn that can fetch up to £25 per critter, but on our visit were £16.50 size. 

Like I said, ‘a’ carabinero. We shared it between the two of us, however best a large gambas can be shared. After peeling away the shell, there was very little flesh to split (I did get the head though - result). I’d prefer to have a cheaper specimen on offer and get more of it with my meal. What was there was beautiful though, I’d expect nothing less at that price.

Also from the board, expertly fried little quail eggs atop good morcilla Iberica and piquillo peppers. A classic combination that doesn't fail, and easily replicated at home - once you’ve got the quality sausage. The best dish of the night was an exquisite flan with a coffee mousse, beautifully set, great flavours of vanilla and caramel; it was a positive note on which to close (£6.50).

I remembered towards the end of the meal -  before the flan but in the full aftermath of too many rich meats and not enough vegetables - that the crab croquettes had people singing their praises. So we got some - more cloying richness - and they were good (£4.50 for two). I’m sure I would have enjoyed them more if I’d eaten them earlier, but regardless, they were no match to the sensational ham croquettes at Fino.

And that’s where my summary of the evening comes to its conclusion; whilst I very much enjoyed the meal at Barrafina for the event that it was, I prefer Fino, the first enterprise from the same group. 

The idea of eating at a bar is fun and continental and makes us feel more European, but after three hours sitting on a backless stool, the spine gives in and it becomes uncomfortable. Of course, traditional tapas bars are not meant for lingering in for hours. You pop into one, savour a plate or two with a glass of sherry, throw your napkin on the floor, and move onto the next. So that discomfort is our own fault entirely. 

But it’s part of the reason I favour Fino; you get the tapas but in a bigger, more comfortable dining environment. That takes reservations. Sure, you miss out on all the action from the ktichen-table that Barrafina’s bar essentially is, but I’m willing to sacrifice that. 

More importantly, though, I think the food at Fino is better. I’ve been a number of times, and the simple aioli tortilla, their knock-out crab croquettes and that squid ink risotto never fail to make me swoon. There wasn't anything here that particularly stood out for me - except the flan. It’s worth noting I haven’t visited the first Barrafina, though, so I can't compare it with that.

I also need to mention my uncomfortable night’s sleep. I writhed in bed from 2am that night until well into the next day with a serious case of gurgle guts. I wasn’t ill, but my innards were far from right. I'm almost certain this wasn’t due to any fault of the restaurant, but instead our selection of a full range of dense protein and little fibre, that bubbled away in a toxic soup in my gut for most of the next day. The pal experienced a bit of the same.

I’m pretty sure I’d visit again, as there are still a lot of dishes I’d like to try. But I’d probably pop-in for just one or two plates and a glass of wine, and I suspect I’d enjoy it more because of it.

Liked lots: electric atmosphere, wonderful staff, great view into the open kitchen - it’s basically a chef’s table without the matching price tag
Liked less: there’s a lot of rich, heavy dishes on the menu - be careful not to over order on them
Good for: spontaneous and fleeting dining; going solo

My rating: 3.5/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Afiyet olsun.

Barrafina on Urbanspoon

Friday, 10 October 2014

grain store, kings cross - review

We all have one. That single friend who is almost impossible to please when it comes to choosing where to have dinner. That person with a list of allergies, intolerances or preferences longer than the Magna Carta, that must be met before they even consider leaving the house for a meal.

Mine in question is a vegetarian who doesn’t like goat’s cheese. Almost enough alone to warrant real life defriending, but I persevere; it’s with her I have one of my longest friendships. 

She also rules out Indian, as she is Indian and eats the stuff at home all the time. To this no-go zone, add most of the rest of Asia. Her reasoning: she lived in Canada for a year, where Asian food is big, and feels she has consumed a lifetime’s worth in those months. 

She’s not a huge fan of eggs, particularly the yolks (the specific reason the rest of us eat them), doesn’t like vegetarian food that’s ‘just a bunch of vegetables on a plate’, will only entertain centrally located destinations, and does not care for ‘poncy’ restaurants which roughly translates to anything that might dare have a tasting menu.*

Thank goodness then, for Grain Store; one of the few restaurants we’ve eaten in that has both met her uncompromising list of requirements and at the same time been very good. One of its (several) selling points is it caters for almost everyone; vegans, vegetarians, meat lovers, innovation seekers, the health conscious, cocktail chasers, interior design fanatics. There’s a lot going for the place. 

*Despite her foibles, she’s a great person, so don’t feel bad about me outing her dining downfalls on here. Pretty sure she doesn’t read my blog anyway. This will be a good test.

This is chef Bruno Loubet’s second outfit following the success of his self-named bistrot in Clerkenwell. It’s been open since June 2013, yet managed to evade my diary for almost a year and a half. 

I’ll be honest, I put that partly down to my thinking it was a vegetarian restaurant for a lot of that time. The menu gives vegetales an equal billing against fish and meat, if not the starring role; I think this message got lost in translation and I was just too lazy to cross-check it.

The space is cavernous, whilst still able to offer intimacy and warmth. Exposed industrial steel ducts and pipes criss-crossing the high ceiling, great panes of glass and bare brick contrast and compliment the choice of furnishings, which seems to be homely and shabby chic with mismatched white wood chairs and tables. 

The open kitchen is certainly that. There’s an unrivalled view into the workings of the engine room, and one that looks after 140 covers with another 80 or so at the bar and on the terrace is as loud and boisterous as you might expect. The chefs shout to overcome the restaurant noise, the restaurant gets louder in return, and it goes on - I personally love feeling like I’m in the thick of it.

To make up for having missed out for almost 18 months, I went twice within seven days and good timing meant I got to eat from two different menus; I caught the end of summer on my first visit, and the newly launched autumn menu on my second. 

The overriding message that comes from the kitchen is innovation. I can imagine a pep-talk from Loubet around the time of menu development going something like, ‘Right team, zis is your playground. Show me your creativity, show me your skill, show me what excites you, showcase your flare, but above all, don’t forget to ave fun. Allez!”

The food is playful and inventive and different and interesting. It’s stuff I can imagine is a lot of fun to cook. How can sweet potato doughnuts with citrus curd and dill and vodka ice cream not be a pleasure to deal with, either creating or consuming? (Incidentally, very good. Light but substantial balls of sweetened dough with tart curd and the cool soothing hint of aniseed - £6)

From lunch first time round, salted watermelon with minty borage flowers and curried crab mayo would be ideal enjoyed in the shade of the summer’s midday sun. A very light pea mousse tartlet with slithers of dark summer truffle, shavings of parmesan and the last hard and sweet raw peas of summer was delicate and savoury. 

A big bowl of sprouting pulses and miso aubergine had the type of crispy citrus skin nuggets the fork desperately roots around for after tasting one, but the sails of thin potato wafers that stuck out went a bit soggy in the mouth (£6.50).

Duck pastilla with grilled Lebanese cucumbers was a little too clunky compared to the buoyancy and finesse of the rest of the dishes, and the quinoa tamale with pork belly - a corn-based dough cooked within the corn husk - was good, but not particularly persuasive (£15).

But then there was the squash ravioli, a dish that remains a permanent fixture year round thanks to its popularity. Rightly so. Exquisite little al dente parcels of well-seasoned, well-cooked squash, served with rocket, a sprinkling of parmesan, the crunch from toasted pumpkin seeds, and a second layer of sweetness from mustard apricots. Simple, solid and very satisfying (£7.50/£14.50). I’m told if you pop in around opening time you can see the chefs assembling hundreds of these every morning in full view of the restaurant, a pleasure to watch I’m sure.

From the autumnal dinner, there were piping-hot wild mushroom croquettes, heavy with the essence of funghi, served on a mattress of pine needles and with pine needle salt (£6). Finger food inevitably means you’ll lose one or two to companions; limit it to that. 

The tarlet appears again in a similar format, this time with a celeriac and hay mousse instead of pea. Even lighter than before, possibly a little too light almost, verging on an ‘air’, but great flavours regardless (£10).

The squash ravioli made a second appearance, of course. Then there was a roasted fermented corn brioche with burnt leeks, a slow cooked duck egg and lovage oil. Fitting for both a lazy weekend brunch or a Friday night meal (£7). Slabs of salt beef cheeks with fermented cabbages, salt baked turnips and hot pickle mustard was like a deconstructed salt beef sandwich, with potatoes instead of bread, and meat that surrendered to the molars on contact - I very much enjoyed it (£17).

“Caesar custard” is an interesting idea. It’s the main flavours of a Caesar salad - cool green lettuce, Parmesan, lemon, perhaps a bit of anchovy - set as a warm green custard in a bowl. On top of this, good chicken and quinoa falafels, and some romaine leaves. Sounds weird, does work (£15).

Grain Store win some serious points with dessert. My summer lunch finished off with a dense and decadent dark chocolate and beetroot torte with creme fraiche, the texture of which I gushed about so audibly, I was generously given two further slices in a doggy bag to take home.

Dinner a few days later saw those excellent sweet potato doughnuts and a whole baked apple with rosemary crumble, creme fraiche and salted caramel sauce (£6). All things you instantly know will work together before tasting.

From the two, I preferred the autumn menu. Portions are generous and three courses along with the unusually textured but very enjoyable focaccia (to be dunked in the oil then squished into the little pot of dukkah) and some wine will leave you full, satisfied and with a bill per head of around £50. 

Three of us were left to occupy an early table for over three hours on a Friday night; you wouldn’t get away with that in most places. Staff are attentive, knowledgeable and all look like they enjoy their jobs. I can't think of anywhere else that's quite like Grain Store; that in the restaurant industry, is an achievement in itself.

If you haven’t already, head over to the now very slick Granary Square and check it out. And be sure to take the most pernickety person you know, I bet they’ll love it. 

Liked lots: cocktails are a big deal with dish pairings suggested; doggy bags are encouraged should you have leftovers
Liked less: a couple of dishes were less inspired than others, but the autumnal menu was consistent in what we ordered
Good for: taking a group of people who all like different things

My rating: 4/5

Find the menu on Zomato.

Grain Store on Urbanspoon

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