Review: Ballaro, Belsize Park

On the former site of the Haverstock Arms, a slightly dingy although very honest kind of pub, the site was unoccupied for quite a while and I keenly watched as it was being refurbed and spruced up for its new opening. What appeared was Ballaro, with a gleaming white exterior and large fancy lights to entice in the Belsize Park locals. The chef, Carmelo Carnivale, is ex head chef at Novikov. Not that I’ve been there so I didn’t take much from that, it sounds impressive though for a new neighbourhood restaurant. Even better they had a 50% offer for their soft launch so I snapped up a table for lunch.

We were greeted promptly with a warm Italian welcome and shown to the table, they’re definitely aiming for a more formal service although not too stuffy, I almost expected to be air kissed as I walked in. No doubting this is an Italian restaurant, buongiornons abound. As soon as we sat down we were brought a small glass of prosecco each and a selection of breads and antipasti. The wine was delicious, dry and crisp with a touch of apple sweetness. The cheese and tomato bread was moist and moreish, and I enjoyed the salty olive tapendade. Olives / peppers and the parmesan were good as expected. The foccacia squares and rolls were dry but we’d had plenty to start for a lunch.

Bread Antipasti and prosecco

Onto the food proper. The menu is split into a traditional format with starters, pasta primi and main secondi. Given this was lunch, we chose to split a starter, split a pasta and have a main each. Burrata and tomatoes was up first, at a rather shocking £11.50 so I was expecting something mind-blowing. This after all is a lot more expensive the superlative Trullo who have an excellent burrata starter. It certainly did exactly what it says on the tin, with a plate of halved cherry tomatoes, burrata, oil and basil. And nothing else, disappointing. Still, if perfect it could be forgiven from a culinary perspective (if not financially). The burrata had a soft texture and was creamy with good seasoning. It was however served unusually in strands rather than a ball with a soft interior. The tomatoes were not good, being under ripe and tart. Quite frankly like a £1 special of hard supermarket tomatoes. A major annoyance in a £5 starter, definitely unacceptable at this price. Casareccie Norma was brought at the same time as the burrata, although we had asked for them to be brought separately, I’ll give them a break since they’re settling in to a new restaurant. Again at £11.50, pasta and tomato sauce better be good. Nice al-dente rolled pasta, a reasonable tomato sauce with some depth, basil. Topped with a healthy pile of grated ricotta. Good comfort food but not much more, I would have expected to see more aubergine (I can’t actually recall any) and more depth in the sauce, it was overly sweet as well. Very neat pasta, I’m not convinced it was home made which would be very disappointing at that price but I forgot to ask so can’t assert either way.

Buratta - £12 worth Casareccie NormaThe mains list was very traditional in general but the mention of cous-cous (Sicilian) caught my eye, served with seafood. It came well presented with a pile of seafood atop a small mound of cous-cous and a light seafood broth to add moisture and flavour. The whole split langoustine was a highlight, plenty of sweet meat. The octopus and scallop were soft and sweet and a couple of juicy mussels. Tomato halves were a bit misplaced in this dish but strangely good, why didn’t they use these in the starter? Overall a reasonable mix of ingredients brought together by the broth but again needing more depth and punch. The wife had tuna steak with ratatouille. Requested medium-rare and served slightly over, it worked adequately with traditional flavourings but no excitement.

Sicilian cous cous and sea food Tuna steak

 

Pretty stuffed for lunch by this point, we couldn’t resist a shared bowl of ice-cream, asking for a scoop of lemon sorbet and a scoop of pistachio. We actually received 3 scoops of each (2 portions), oh well. We mentioned the mistake and were told we’d only be charged for 1 (but were charged for 2, at least it was half price). Anyway, it was a very good sorbet, almost sherbety with a crisp lemony flavour and snow-like texture. The pistachio was also excellent, super creamy and smooth with more deep flavour. Hence I didn’t correct the bill.

Ultra smooth creamy pistachio ice-creamSo, bearing in mind this was their opening week there are some promising signs. But, the dishes overall lacked depth and flavour, something essential to Italian cuisine, especially with such a simple traditional menu. That paired with the price is hard to swallow. Even with the 50% off food it was at the limit of what I would pay for the food. Lunch with a couple of glasses of wine is pushing £50 a head, all out for dinner you’d be looking at £75+ a head with wine. I realise this is Belsize Park, but they need to develop their flavours more and perhaps add more adventurous dishes and combinations to avoid looking somewhat dated. Everything was neat and well presented but that’s not enough to make up for lack of flavour at this price.

 

Review: Upstairs at the Ten Bells, Shoreditch

I’m a tad late to the party on this one, the Ten Bells has been generating a lot of blog inches with plenty of praise when the Young Turks took over the upper floors as a popup restaurant. A group of like-minded, up and coming chefs, their “Upstairs” restaurant was received very well. Now, one of the Turks, Isaac, has continued solo with the venture and is serving up similar food. And apparently the pub was once run by Jamie Oliver’s great grandfather, so make of that what you will.

Pushing our way through the busy noisy pub on a Wednesday night up the original (and very “distressed”) staircase we knew we’d arrived in Shoreditch. The vibe is French Boho chic (natch), with mismatched furniture albeit with a Tracey Emin neon and a Peter Blake hanging on the wall. It reminded me of upstairs at The Fox nearby, albeit that was ten years ago. But it’s perfectly functional and has its own charm and quirks, plus the focus is of course the food as arguably it should be. Service was friendly but still very efficient, we were seated quickly. We were initially offered a sharing table which I don’t think is entirely on when we’ve had a table booked for 2 for our anniversary for a couple of months, but found an alternative in the end, maybe I’m just getting more curmudgeonly about these things.

The wine list is mainly old world and focused especially on the French side of things, plus a couple of Italians and Spanish numbers. They brought us a taste of a Spanish bottle and grape I wasn’t familiar with, just as well as I wasn’t overly keen and we settled on a very nice Saint Aubin to try and match across all the varied snacks and courses we had chosen. Being dark these pictures are even worse than usual so apologies.

Bread Signature pine salt chicken Westcombe cheddar baby leeks Venison and grainsThere are a mix of snacks and starters, both priced around £4-£7 which gives you quite a few options when deciding how to begin your meal. I’m a fan of this style, it allows more variation and a bit of sharing with some smaller plates plus gives the kitchen a chance to show off individual elements more easily. Bread was brought to the table and this was definitely noteworthy, it had an excellent thick crisp crust to reveal a soft interior. The butter was good although unsalted, but it was soft and there was salt on the table so all good. Our snacks were the signature pine buttermilk chicken and leeks with Westcombe cheddar fonduata (cheese sauce). The chicken was presented very well, nestled snugly in some big pine needles for a lovely aroma. They were covered in a crisp salty piney shell and underneath was the softest chicken thigh I’ve ever had. They were on the verge of too salty for me, but as a morsel they were very delicious. A high end chicken nugget effectively. I wondered if a sauce might help but decided it would distract from the wonderful texture of the chicken. The tiny baby leeks came dipped in a bowl of rich and earthy cheddar sauce. Initially seeing the amount of leeks for £5 I was a tad disappointed, but they tasted fantastic slightly charred and combining the leftover sauce with the bread made up for any price worries!

The starter was the least successful for me, deer tartare with granola and pickled elderberries. The tartare came as neat cubes of fallow deer, surrounded by a nutty granola mix, slices of pear, pickled elderberries and topped with a few nasturtium leaves. All very Rogan-like in fact. I loved the sound of it, but putting it altogether I found it dry and couldn’t help but imagine I was eating a tracker bar with bits of deer. The elderberries were sweet with only a light pickle taste, the pear was obviously sweet and a bit grainy but there was a lot of savoury granola that I felt texturally ruined the soft deer and became quite a chewy blob. The wife was more forgiving of it and didn’t mind the texture so much, I felt the deer was lost in there though. Adjusting the ratios and playing with the pickle would help.

Fish and "porridge" 11-IMG_2831 12-IMG_2832

 

Mains next. I opted for the beef rump. It came rare (I don’t think I was asked actually) and very well rested so it remained juicy and beefy. Obviously rump is never going to be the most tender of options and it did need a steak knife (a very scary looking hunk of Sheffield steel they brought over) but for the chosen cut, it was admirably soft. Alongside it was a buttery portion of potato flavoured with bone marrow for even more richness. Maybe not quite as rich as my recent Pitt Cue version but it worked well with the beef. An aubergine cake was a bit mysterious (I had to ask what it was actually) and had an odd texture, a bit like a nod to those French vegetable mousses you get (and I’m not a big fan of). But it did add moisture along with the excellent sauce. A couple of slices of courgette were well grilled, and the onion rings added a good textural component. On reflection it was a very good dish, and at £17.50 is great value for a well cooked steak and interesting pairings.

Th wife opted for cod with bagna cauda and barley porridge. Very well presented again, the cod looked spectacular with a thick piece of snowy white flesh and seriously crispy skin here, nothing soggy in sight. It was a very well cooked piece of fish, soft and flaking. The bagna cauda solidified the dish with its richness and slight anchovy tang. The barley porridge was an unusual take on the usual carb sides and I was a big fan. A great dish and serious bargain at under £17.

Brik pastry fig tartFeeling quite full at this point we opted to share a dessert (and were even debating if we needed that). I’m not always the biggest fan of figs, probably because if you catch them at the wrong time they are either lacking in flavour or a horrible texture. So, fig tart was a risk, and entirely worth taking since they were perfectly ripe, sweet and firm but with enough give. This is probably the best fig dish I’ve tasted (including my famed fig canapés), combining crisp thin brik pastry with fig jam and fresh figs. What could have been cloying was just perfectly sweet and the brik pastry was slightly salty, cutting through everything. Atop all of that was a hay ice cream, very fresh and light rather than sweet to cut through the dish (although I couldn’t detect much hay). Finally it was drizzled with fig leaf oil, giving more green fresh flavour. This paired with a generous glass of Loire dessert wine may even have been my favourite dish, very rare for me to favour a dessert. A bargain at £7 since it was huge as well.

All in, the bill ended up at around £140 which considering over half of that is wine (the Saint Aubin wasn’t cheap) is amazing value. The food was consistently excellent and most importantly every single dish had interesting elements and there were a lot of components or combinations that were new to me, something that isn’t that easy these days on the London dining scene. There were definitely elements I didn’t entirely like, but I much preferred the fact they were on there and we talked a lot about the dishes throughout the meal. My high expectations after reading so much were met and I’ll be back soon. Just make sure you bring some hipster headwear to blend in to the pub downstairs.

 

Review: Del Parc, Tufnell Park

Del Parc, located a brisk walk uphill away from me in leafy Tufnell Park, has been on my radar for some time after hearing several locals to my new neighbourhood rave about it. So, a thank you dinner offered by some family seemed a perfect time to try out this local restaurant. Del Parc serves tapas, with a focus on classic Spanish dishes with a slight North African twist (think Moro etc). Their dedication to produce and sourcing is keen, wanting to serve the best they can.

We were greeted warmly and sat in the main restaurant at the back, it had a low key buzzy atmosphere with several diners already tucking in amongst the casual decor. The kitchen stands in the middle of the room, and we saw the passion and focus of the main chef Steve turning out dish after dish. There is no menu per-se, but Alan who greeted us asked if we had any allergies or strong dislikes, and then simply started bringing dishes. No mention either of price which I suppose could worry some people but I was happy to go with the flow having heard lots of good things about the food and the price.

Just a few highlights from the courses we sampled. Juicy olives and super garlicky cannelini beans we were brought as a snack to nibble on with our sherry. The boquerones, a personal favourite of mine, were amazing with none of the harsh vinegar associated with the cheaper variety, just fresh and light cured fish. The cured meats had a good selection and included several Iberico based cuts. Salty hot Padron peppers went super quick from our table (none of mine were spicy though, worse luck). White asparagus with a pistou (?) and olives was great, with a tomatoey nutty sauce and light pure asparagus.

Garlicky broad beans Serious boquerones Beautiful cured meats The Padrons went fast Veg tomato stew with quail's eggs White asaparagus with pistou and olives

Gambas and lemon Spanish "baba ghanoush" Mushroom and truffle toast Chocolate figs and Spanish "non-nougat"

A final flurry of simple grilled prawns and a baba ghanoush with flatbread brought us to a close. But when asked if we were still hungry we couldn’t resist, and were rewarded with a plate of grilled mushrooms and truffle. Finally we were stuffed but asked for a tiny sweet. The suggestion was chocolate covered figs and Spanish “non-nougat”. A small board of them was brought over, the perfect end to an indulgent meal.

There were lots (and lots!) of courses, someone mentioned 12 perhaps along the way. All were extremely good, with a focus on simple Spanish combinations made excellent by the standard of produce and presentation. The wine list had a Spanish focus (as you might expect) and we had a really delicious bottle at £27, beautifully smooth and very easy going with the food. All in all, it came to under £45 a head with 2 bottles of wine between 4, an absolute bargain. They told us about their plans for opening a more casual tapas bar at the front so I’ll be finding excuses to walk up the hill and pop in. Definitely worth a trip out to sample the Spanish delights and wonderful hospitality.

Review: Odette’s, Primrose Hill

What does £12 get you for lunch in a proper-to-goodness restaurant these days? Not a lot, particularly in London and even more-so in the heart of leafy Primrose Hill. A scallop starter perhaps (in fact the exact price of a starter I had the same night at The Engineer around the corner)? At Pizza Express, my benchmark of mediocre cheap food, you can just about get a single pizza, as long as you pick some of the cheaper ones. Skip that and come to Odette’s, this smart restaurant will serve you a stunning 2 course lunch for that princely sum! It must be the best value lunch in London.

Opened by Bryn Williams in 2008, over the past few years I’ve visited several times for both lunch and dinner and have every time been served impeccable food. On the one hand it operates as an excellent neighbourhood restaurant with its keen pricing, warm professional service and somewhat low profile. I would imagine it has a lot of regulars. Which is all great, but what really shines is the food, I’m frankly amazed they don’t have any stars yet, it absolutely deserves one. The set lunch menu is short (2 dishes per course) but still provides interesting options and decent size dishes. 3 courses is even better value at £15.

Sweet rye bread

We started with their regular sweet rye(?) bread topped with oat flakes brought  to the table with soft butter, adding even more to the value given their set menu prices. Very moreish, it is quite sweet to start but quickly becomes addictive with its firm but not too dense texture. The butter was either unsalted or very lightly salted and I think it was much improved when we requested some salt at the table and added it on top. And the salt was traditional table salt, a small matter perhaps but I would prefer flaked salt.

Brandade with bacon jamTo start I went for the cod brandade with bacon jam and sweetcorn. Certainly an intriguing combination and quite unusual to have a brandade with a sweet meat-based accompaniment. It came beautifully presented with the brandade in a deep fried shell and a puffed up piece of fish skin atop for texture. The sweetcorn was perfectly cooked to be firm, sweet and juicy. The bacon jam was a masterstroke. Sweet, sticky and meaty it added depth to the whole dish. The fish brandade was light and the crunchy fish skin brought everything together. Nitpicking, slightly more cod flavour would have been good in the brandade, a higher ratio of fish is always good.

Pork and apple, elevated.

My black pudding in hiding

 

My main was a classic pork, apple and potato combination, but elevated to something more special with some great touches. Firstly the menu specified black pudding, which I couldn’t find until turning over my apple and seeing it stuffed with more porky goodness. The meat was soft and unctuous but had then been fried in to crisp up the edges for a great texture contrast. And the potato (dauphinoise) was neat and perfectly cooked. All of this was topped with a rich jus with a glossy sheen and deep flavour.

Lamb and artichoke

Rich rich mashGreens

The wife went off the standard menu (not being a great fan of black pudding or the other option of mushrooms). What arrived was a glorious hunk of pink lamb, broad beans and “burnt” tomatoes. Accompanied by neatly prepared artichoke and an artichoke puree, it all combined very well and brought together again by a top quality sauce. Classic but with the slight twist of artichoke which I hadn’t thought of before. The side of mash probably wasn’t needed (I did ask if my pork came with potato and thought they said no) but it was smooth and very rich, plenty of butter for sure. The side of cabbage was fine, although perhaps it needed an extra dimension and / or a bigger portion for the price.

We skipped dessert since we were both so full by this point. Thinking about it, that would have only cost us an extra £2 with my set menu, so probably a bad decision. Particularly as the wife saw them on the way out and suddenly had more of an appetite. So, as I’m sure you can tell, I more than quite like this place and think it deserves the highest praise. Come for lunch for amazing value, and then come to dinner for a perfect relaxed indulgent meal. Stunning.

Recipe: Rose Veal Ossobuco and Risotto Milanese

The finished dish.

 

Veal, quite rightly, has a bad reputation and does raise the ethical eyebrows of a lot of people. Images of trucks of crated calf without enough room to move their head being shouted at by well-meaning animal protesters come to mind. So how do I justify this recipe? A new trend over the past few years has been the English style rose veal, i.e. a young calf that hasn’t been crated and is allowed to move freely, despite being slaughtered young. Mind you, not particularly younger than lamb. Plus the dairy industry produces lots of young male calves of no use to them, hence this is an option rather than killing at birth. The meat is darker (rose) and more intense, perhaps less tender but I prefer the fuller flavour. And particularly in a slow cooked dish like this, the classic Italian Osso Bucco. So win-win all round. A lot (myself included) thought tomatoes were a key ingredient but after reading more about the dish, it isn’t part of the original. And I can see why, the ingredients look unbelievably simple but produce a full-flavoured sauce which would be overpowered by tomatoes, this has a purity that elevates it to a stunning dish. Add to that God’s butter (the very wise Fergus Henderson’s description of bone marrow) and you’ll see why you need to try this dish.

No messing, serious marrow comfort.

For the osso bucco (serves 4)

  • 800g of rose veal shin, ideally with a few bits of marrowbone
  • 4 medium carrots, medium diced
  • 2 sticks of celery, medium diced
  • 1 large onions, medium diced
  • 250ml of dry white wine
  • 500ml of chicken stock

For the gremolata

  • 1 clove of garlic
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 handful of flat leaf parsley

For the risotto

  • 300g of risotto rice
  • 500ml of vegetable stock (or chicken stock)
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • A good pinch of saffron
  • 75g of finely grated parmesan

Browning the meat.Simplicity itself.

Firstly preheat the oven to 150°C. Put a good heavy-bottomed pan on a medium-low heat with a tablespoon of the olive oil. Add the onions and gently fry for a couple of minutes, then add the celery and carrots and cook for another 5 minutes. Remove the cooked veg, add another splash of oil and turn up the heat to medium high. Roll the meat in the flour and brown on all sides, turning occasionally. Deglaze the pan with a splash of the white wine and stir with a wooden spoon, then add the rest and boil for a minute or so. Add the veg back in, along with the stock. Bring to a simmer, cover and place in the oven for 1.5-2 hours until the meat is tender. Check after an hour and if it’s still too thin, cook with the lid off to thicken the sauce.

The risotto Milanese is a comforting, rich side and adds to the indulgence of the dish with the best Parmesan you can get your hands on and that wondrous vivid yellow crocus stem, saffron. It should be soft and unctuous and settle in the bowl, risotto that stands up has not been made properly. The smooth creaminess comes from vigorous stirring to release some of the starch from the rice, you can do this in one blast at the end or as you go if you prefer, just make sure it gets a good amount of stirring at some point. Gently fry the onion in a tablespoon of oil for 5 minutes without colouring, then add the garlic and fry for another 3 minutes. Add a tablespoon of butter and fry the rice with the onion until it starts to go translucent. Deglaze the pan with a splash of white wine and add the stock (all at once is fine, just underestimate a bit and add more when it looks dry). Crush the saffron between your fingers and mix with a small amount of water and add to the rice. Cook for 15-20 minutes, tasting towards the end until it has the right bite for your taste. At the very end add the parmesan and stir through, along with some more butter if you want to be even more indulgent.

To make the gremolata, at the last minute before serving very finely mince the garlic along with the zest of 1 lemon and the parsley. Season the risotto and osso buccon to taste. Serve bowls of risotto topped with the meat and finally the gremolata, ideally with a bone full of marrow on each plate. Enjoy.