Recipe: 15minute Petit Fours, mini plum financiers

Heavenly one bite morsels

I suspect I may have approached this recipe backwards, I couldn’t resist the teeny-tiny bright red silicone moulds in an online sale and snapped them up. Quite surprised just how small they actually were on arrival, I’ve come up with a 1 egg recipe that can be completed in 15 minutes and is adaptable to various additions. So, petit-fours every day then. The nutty butter and almond flour make these deliciously moreish. Based on a financier recipe although the moulds are the wrong shape. I’ve used plum and tinned cherries before, just make sure they are as dry as possible by dabbing with kitchen paper.

Recipe (makes 18-25 tiny cakes)

  • 30g unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • 65g almond flour
  • 65g golden caster sugar
  • 10g flour
  • A handful of very finely cut fruit (plums / raspberries / cherries etc).

Pre-heat the oven to 180°C. Melt the butter in a small pan, then simmer gently for a couple of minutes until lightly browned and nutty. Mix the almond flour and sugar in a bowl along with the egg and mix. Once the butter has cooled a bit mix in and add the flour. Stir through the fruit and place in your moulds (since these are so small silicone is best or they might well stick) filling to the top and careful not to spill any. Bake for 10minutes (for tiny moulds) to 15 minutes (slightly bigger). Leave for a couple of minutes to cool, then turn out onto a rack to cool. Try and eat only one, I never can!

 

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.

Review: Giaconda Dining Room, Tottenham Court Road

Giaconda Dining Room has always been one of my favourite places to frequent around the West End (well the back end of Tottenham Court Road), completely unpretentious with fantastic interesting food (and wine in particular) at sensible prices. I hadn’t been for a couple of years but my overriding memory is of a small packed buzzy bistro vibe and always welcoming staff.

So whilst racking my brains for somewhere to eat later on a Wednesday night I excitedly recalled GDR and off we went. It had changed somewhat in that the main dining room had been extended, certainly a blessing given it used to be a tight squeeze although late on a mid-week night it unfortunately wasn’t very busy and hence looked even emptier than it would have. The decor has been brightened up a fair bit with jazzy tablecloths, personally I preferred the previous starker interior but fair enough.

Radishes and delicious anchovy paste

 

Raw salmon

 

Cheesy risotto

 

A small cover charge includes bread, radishes, anchovy paste and unlimited filtered sparkling water which I think is a good deal. The anchovy paste was amazing and extremely moreish (recalling my South African roots and the breakfast staple Pecks Anchovette paste). I like the idea of radishes as a snack as well, crisp and refreshing. My starter was raw salmon with fennel and cucumber. The presentation was supremely elegant, looking effortless but clearly a lot of skill in the arrangement. The cucumber was very refreshing with a generous portion of salmon beneath. Unfortunately the dish was overpowered by a sharp, salty lemon dressing. I can appreciate the combination but a bit less would have elevated the dish instead of dominating it, certainly not bad and only a small change would make this a fantastic starter. Phil had the special risotto, described as cheesy. It certainly smelt strong and looked properly creamy and comforting, he enjoyed it although said the portion was perhaps too generous.

Lemon sole

 

Saffron risotto

 

I opted for the lemon sole wrapped in parma ham and served with saffron risotto. The main piece of fish was a great size and came plated just with a wedge of lemon. The combination of soft white fish and crisped salty parma ham worked perfectly, the fish was very marginally over but I’d happily allow that for the crisp parma ham. A side of saffron risotto was a bowl of unctuous bright yellow starchy goodness.

 

Lamb leg steak

 

Coco beans

 

Phil had the special lamb, which was a grilled leg steak with coco beans and potatoes. I was concerned about the choice of cut and hence didn’t go for it myself. It was cooked on the rarer side of medium rare and the meat looked good, however I do think that is a slightly tough cut to serve so thick and rare. The coco beans with potatoes were great as an interesting accompaniment, juicy and packed full of flavour.

Berry tart

Délice JocondeFor dessert I opted for a strawberry and raspberry tart with creme patisserie. A classic combination, it worked very well and came as a whole mini tart. If I was being fussy I wish the pastry was a bit more delicate and there was more sauce, but those are small complaints. Phil opted for Délice Joconde, a chocolate and praline mousse with hazlenut sponge. He said it was fantastic with plenty of chocolate flavour and a light texture.

10-photo_9

So overall a cracking meal, and with their expanded dining room you haven’t got any reason not to get down there asap. I realise I’ve sounded a bit fussy about some of the dishes but everything was enjoyed thoroughly and could be elevated to ultimate excellence with some tiny tweaks. The food is comforting and elegant at the same time, a difficult combination to pull off, and the prices are very reasonable for the quality and location. And a note on the wine list, we had this very delicious Puligny Montrachet for a bargain £45, given I’ve seen it over £30 retail. A fixed markup makes it the best value list I’ve seen in London and worth splashing a bit more on.

Review: Cottons, Camden

Cocktails and food menus

Camden Lock. Busy, noisy, full of goths and even punks still (I didn’t realise they still existed). Food-wise it’s pretty easy to find places to avoid, mainly by the smell of greasy noodles and stale meat under heat lamps. So where to go when you actually do want something to eat. Porky’s serves fantastic American true BBQ and you could follow up with nitrogen-frozen ice cream at Chin-Chin labs. Yum-cha serves excellent cheap dim-sum from the most unassuming of restaurants. So can I add Cottons to that list for Caribbean food and rhum?

The dark and stormy

Bad beer made better by holiday memories

Situated halfway towards Chalk Farm and with a fairly non-descript exterior I must have walked past a hundred times or so. But this time I decided to venture in and give it a go. First impressions weren’t brilliant, admittedly it was quite late on Sunday afternoon but it looked quite deserted. Walking through the bar we saw a few people dining and carried on through. It is separated into smaller rooms which are a bit dark and claustrophobic, I suppose at night they could appear cosier. Menus were brought quickly and we were offered drinks from the long list of rum cocktails and short list of beers. I opted for a classic Dark and Stormy and the wife went for a bottle of Carib (ostensibly to recall our honeymoon in Grenada). It was a decent enough cocktail, slightly sharp perhaps but plenty of lime and booze. We were brought some thick slices of white brioche and butter which went down well, despite not being the most refined bread option.

Spring onion skewers

 

Jerk ribs

We opted to share a couple of meat starters and then split the mixed jerk fish grill since we weren’t overly hungry. Our first starter was spring onion skewers which was presented very well. The thigh meat was cooked beautifully, making them tender and juicy. Served with a quite spicy sauce and lots of onion to punch it up, it was full of flavour and an excellent start. The ribs were good if not quite as punchy. The ribs had plenty of meat and were drizzled with a quite piquant sharp sauce, I just wish the meat was a bit more tender (maybe a slightly slower cook was needed). Served with crispy onions this was still a great starter though and I loved the unusual sauce, perhaps it was tamarind based?

Mixed fish jerk grill

The mixed jerk fish grill came next, with plantain and rice ‘n peas. A decent portion arrived (especially for one!) with 3 types of fish and a solitary prawn. The same sauce as the ribs starter was in a pot (fair enough since they’re both jerk options) and helped moisten the rice and the whole dish. The rice ‘n peas were fine, with proper “peas” although maybe a few more would have been nice. The plantain was excellent and unusually served in the skin. Firm and sweet it cut through the jerk sauce deliciously. The fish was OK given the context, but 2 of the pieces in particular were overcooked and needed lots of sauce. The single prawn was cooked to death and quite unappealing. Trying to serve 3 pieces of fish and prawns with sides is tricky for £15, but I’d rather either have a more expensive or smaller portion with fresher fish. One of the fish was still juicy although quite a few bones were present in all of them.

So, a mixed bag overall. Excellent starters but a disappointing main which while OK lacked quality produce and needed some more refined cooking. The prices aren’t hugely cheap, but aren’t expensive either so I feel I will give it another go at some point in the future. Perhaps their meat platter shows the better side of their cooking. The rum list is very impressive (see the photo below) so I’ll definitely be back to run through that in more detail.

The impressive wine list! £3,500 a shot anyone!?

Final bill, pretty reasonable

“Tandoori” style yogurt salmon with broccoli and saffron rice

Jaunty shot of the finished article

This recipe is inspired by tandoori-style cooking, in that the cooking method is grilling (for a quick high heat) and the marinade is yogurt based with Indian spicing. It can’t substitute a skewer cooked in a proper Tandoor (an extremely hot wood-fuelled clay oven) but for a Monday night dinner does a pretty damn good approaching it. It is fresher than most curries, without a heavier tomato based sauce or too much oil, the yogurt keeps it light and adds tang. The saffron rice is a perfect accompaniment and is all you need for a healthy complete meal.

Recipe (for 2)

  • 2 small skinless salmon fillets
  • 1 head of broccoli
  • 1 red onion, sliced
  • 1 red pepper, sliced
  • 200g Basmati rice
  • 200ml plain yogurt
  • 2 cloves of garlic, finely grated or minced (or very finely sliced and “squashed” with a knife)
  • 1 small piece of ginger finely grated
  • 1 fine chopped red chilli
  • 3 tsps of garam masala
  • Salt
  • 1/2 tsps of chilli powder (if you like it hot)
  • 1 tbsps of oil (olive or vegetable)
  • 1 handful of coriander (optional)
  • 1 tbsp of butter (optional)
  • 1 pinch of saffron (optional)
  • 6 cardamon pods (black or green, optional)
  • Wedges of lemon (optional)

Firstly par-boil the broccoli for 3 minutes in boiling water, drain and place in cold water to stop the cooking. Mix the yogurt, garlic, ginger, garam masala, oil and chilli powder together. Mix in the salmon and onion / pepper plus the cooked cooled broccoli. Season with salt and leave to marinate for an hour or so in the fridge (if you have time). Rinse the rice to get rid of excess starch.

Ready to grill

To cook, boil some water for the rice and pre-heat your grill. Spread the yogurt marinaded salmon and veg across a foil lined baking tray and cook for 10 minutes, turning everything once. Cook the rice at the same time with the pinch of saffron and cardamon according to the instructions. Drain the rice and mix in the butter and coriander and a pinch of salt. Plate the rice and serve the salmon and veg on top, with a wedge of lemon on the side for everyone to squeeze on the fish to their taste.

Served!

Recipe: Rare venison haunch, sweet potato fondant and braised red cabbage and apples

The finished article, with plenty of gravy on the sideAs autumn starts to take over from summer and the temperature drops, thoughts turn to hearty comforting richer dishes. Game in particular fits this bill very well, matching Autumn with iron-rich flavoursome meat. And I LOVE venison in particular, served rare it is a luxurious red meat with plenty of flavour and can be just as tender as the finest beef fillet. It pairs very well with sweet, tart sides to cut through the strong flavour and provide a counterpoint. The braised cabbage side works really well, adding earthy red cabbage with sharp red wine vinegar and some tart sweetness from apples. You could certainly use normal potatoes (fondant / mash, or for more decadence some dauphinoise). However I think sweet potato pairs excellently as well.

Venison, unless you’re talking about a slow braising cut, HAS to be rare. The meat dries out much more quickly than beef due to its lean nature (well, deer do tend to run around a lot). I’ll admit I managed to slightly overcook this joint which was very frustrating although being haunch it was still good, trust your instincts. If it’s thin enough you can certainly pan fry it like a steak, however I had a whole 2.5kg haunch and hence opted for roasting. I know people can be squeamish about anything gamey, both the flavour and concept. Disney has a lot to answer for, and despite Thumper and indeed Bambi being very cute, their taste far surpasses their looks. I don’t think anyone can seriously argue against eating a wild animal that has had a free life and was quickly dispatched with a rifle, compared with a battery chicken or even well-raised farm animals. Taste-wise, some game can certainly be challenging to more squeamish eaters. Venison is the perfect gateway game though, it has a stronger flavour than beef but certainly isn’t offensive or unusual.

Roasted Haunch of Venison, Juniper and Schezuan Pepper Crust (feeds 8-10)

  • 1 haunch of venison
  • 2 teaspoons of juniper berries (fresh or dried)
  • 2 teaspoons of schezuan pepper
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons of oil
  • Butcher’s string
  • 500ml of beef stock
  • 1 sweet potato per person
  • 500ml of chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 red cabbage
  • 2 onions
  • 2 apples
  • 4 tablespoons of red wine vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons of sugar
  • 2 tablespoons of butter

Tied up with fancy silicone ties

So, ideally you can get a whole haunch of venison from your butcher. It will vary in weight depending on the type, mine was around 2.5kg deboned. It can be a bit better to cook on the bone (for flavour and helping cook evenly) but is harder to carve so they both have their benefits. Pre-heat your oven to 220°C. Crush the juniper and pepper with a generous couple of large pinches of salt and pepper. Rub the meat with the oil and then rub the salt mix on top around the whole joint. If it is deboned wrap tightly with string, or if you’re lucky enough some fabulous bright pink silicone ties like the ones I was kindly bought by the wife. Once the oven is hot, place the venison in a sturdy roasting tin. Cook for 20 minutes at 220°C for the sear (or up to 30 for a really big haunch, over 3kg say), then turn the oven down to 160°C and cook for 9-10 minutes per 500g.

For the cabbage side, first peel any damaged outer leaves off and then chop in half. Take any of the thick bitter stem off and slice the remaining cabbage quite finely. Chop the red onion and fry in a tablespoon of butter until slightly softened. Add the cabbage and diced apple and cook for a few more minutes. Then add the vinegar and sugar, tasting as you go to get the right balance (it should be both sharp and sweet). Add a few splashes of water, place the lid on and simmer gently for an hour or so. Check every 20 minutes or so and add more water if it has dried out, it should have a small amount of liquid in the bottom.

For the potatoes, peel them first and then shape into approximately 2 inch rounds but cutting slices from the thickest point, you can neaten the edges with the peeler. I tend to get 2 out of a medium potato, or 3-4 out of a large one. Fry them in lots of butter over a medium heat for 10 minutes total, turning occasionally to prevent burning. Then pour in the chicken or vegetable stock to about half way and cook for 15 minutes or so total, turning halfway to evenly cook. Check they are fully tender through (I made the classic Masterchef mistake of a few hard fondants).

Make sure you give the meat plenty of resting time, 20-30 minutes is ideal so factor it into your timings. While it’s resting get the pan with any juices and add some rich beef stock and a splash of red wine. Adjust for seasoning (if needed) and reduce down on the hob to the thickness of gravy you want. When everything else is ready and plated, carve thin slices and serve.