The hits, the misses and the shoulda woulda coulda’s Of Taste 2018

June in London; the official start of the summer and nothing says this more than the five-day long food and drink festival that is Taste of London.

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Back in Regent’s Park, where it belongs, this years line-up of restaurants was as good as ever. The sun was shining, the air was filled with the smells of cooking and, in some parts, a hell of a lot of smoke from all the barbecuing. So tastebuds tingling, it was time to Taste.

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Sipsmith’s Pink Cup

As ever, each restaurant had three/four dishes for the festival, at least one of which is a “Taste Exclusive”. Being ever-so prepared and organised, I had drawn up a list of my must-have’s in advance so we had a clear plan of action. And here, in order or worst dish to best dish, we have our hits and misses of Taste 2018 (you can see this years full restaurant menu list here).

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Ironically the first thing that went on my list but the most disappointing dish of the day came from Club Gascon. The “Delicascone” which, for some reason, was described on the menu as a “sexy scone” was served with an intriguing foie gras ice cream for a pretty standard £6.00. So why did this dish miss the mark? Firstly, the quintessentially British scone. Mine was still pretty cold in the middle and so clearly hadn’t been properly defrosted before serving, which contributed to the rather dense texture of what should have been a light and crumbly baked good. Secondly, that foie gras ice cream. I will admit that I had no idea what to expect when I ordered this dish, however, an ice cream that could have as easily been mistaken for vanilla instead of the rich, irony meatiness of foie gras was not what I was hoping for. The best thing on this dish was the little pool of sticky balsamic vinegar hidden under the scone. I don’t know why it was there but I’m glad it was.

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“Delicascone” ~ Foie gras ice cream

My next most disappointing dish came from The Cheese Bar. I decided to forgo the truffled macaroni cheese, the smoked mozzarella sticks and the Taste Exclusive dish of burrata in favour of the goats cheese ice cream sandwich, simply because that is the one dish on offer that I can honestly say I don’t eat on a semi-regular basis. The goats cheese ice cream came sandwiched between two very light and crumbly lemon short breads and had been rolled in a pistachio crumb, all of which was very pleasant. The problem with this dish was the goats cheese ice cream, which simply had no flavour of its own. Given that an awful lot of goats cheeses are incredibly subtle in flavour, perhaps I should have seen this problem coming, but the intrigue was too much to pass up on.

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Goats cheese ice cream sandwich

This next dish came from a restaurant that I have been dying to try for some time now: Ikoyi. Two thin discs of kohlrabi were topped with razorclams, spots of pink peppercorn puree and an unidentified crumb, all of which was to be picked up and eaten like a taco. The pink peppercorn puree was intriguing, adding a burst of peppery heat to the delicate razorclams, however, the crumb on top added nothing to the dish, other than slightly choking me when I accidentally inhaled it before eating. Meanwhile the kohlrabi discs could have certainly benefited from a mild bit of pickling to add some flavour.

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Razor clam ~ Kohlrabi ~ Pink peppercorn

On to the Grana Padano doughnut from D&D’s Sartoria, of which chef Francesco Mazzei heads up in Mayfair. This was an odd little number in that it was completely delicious; the doughnut was light and fluffy as any I’ve ever had and the sauce ladled over it was completely moreish. However, I am not convinced that what we got was actually what was advertised on the menu. For a start, the colour of the Grano Padano sauce was a very questionable neon yellow, quite unlike like that of the actual block of cheese, and the taste was really quite sharp with an almost mustard-like quality to it. Finally, the menu indicated that there was to be grated black truffle over the top which was certainly lacking from this one and had what appeared to be deep fried breadcrumbs scattered over instead. So a strange dish: delicious but not what we were expecting.

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Grana Padano Doughnut

Now we get to the best dishes of the day. Up first, we have the Taste Exclusive Dish from Ladies of Restaurants. A collective of women who work in varying hospitality roles in the UK; this group of ladies came together for Taste and managed to produce THE dish that won the coveted Best in Taste award. Beautifully spiced, grilled lamb came wrapped in a betal leaf, which is a vine leaf often found on black pepper plants in Asia. It was served with pickled chillies, a soy sauce marinade and crushed peanuts for a delightfully salty, sticky and nutty finish. The fact that it also came with a refreshing alcoholic ice tea didn’t hurt either.

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Lamb in Betal Leaf

The Signature Dish of Jamaican buttermilk jerk chicken, courtesy of James Cochran, blew me away. There aren’t many things better in life than a plate of deep fried chicken, but add some jerk spices into a buttermilk batter and you find yourself with a whole new level of fried chicken heaven. The generous spoonful of scotch bonnet chilli really upped the ante on this dish; it was absolutely delicious and kept that tongue-tingling spice going for a good long while.

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Jamaican buttermilk jerk chicken

Coming in a very, very close second favourite was this bowl of crispy new potatoes from Smoke & Salt. Crispy and salty on the outside, fluffy in the middle, the heap of new potatoes were covered in a glorious herby chimichurri oil, topped with slivers of moist beef heart and finished off with some lashings of creamy Gorgonzola. Rich, salty, meaty with a herby punch, this was an absolute sensation even if it wasn’t much of a looker.

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Potatoes ~ Beef heart ~ Gorgonzola

And finally, we get to my personal favourite dish of the event. Monkfish tail in a turmeric and vodka tempura batter, covered in a caramel sauce with a hint of harissa, served with a preserved lemon mayonnaise and a mint and pomegranate salad. Seriously, hats off to Bala Baya for this dish, what a triumph. The batter, so light and crispy, was in no danger of overwhelming the delicate sweetness of the monkfish tail, while the sauce added the most interesting notes of sweet and heat at the same time. When Bala Baya opened its doors back in 2016, we had the absolute pleasure of eating at its soft launch. It may have been a couple of years ago now, but it has to be said that it was one of the standout dinners I have ever had, and that was for two reasons. Firstly, the inordinate amount of time it took for the food to reach the table that night and, secondly, the absolutely stunning quality of the food when it finally did reach our table. If this dish is anything to go by, they’ve certainly kept up these incredibly high standards. Also, I reckon two years is enough time for them to have gotten their service and speed up to scratch, so I wholeheartedly implore you to go and sample the genius that is this restaurant.

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Harissa caramel monkfish

One evening visit, several freebies from suppliers, eight dishes and a handful of cocktails cannot really be described as a fair representation of the amount on offer at Taste. So if we could wave a magic wand, or rub a lamp and ask a genie to give us one more day at Taste, what would we have chosen to eat? I think the first thing I would do, would be to go back to The Cheese Bar and order any of the other options, but probably the smoked mozzarella sticks and perhaps I would have gone for the avocado soft serve from El Pastor as my dessert option instead. I would also definitely have swapped the “Delicascone” in favour of the spicy lobster doughnuts on offer from Club Gascon.

One of my friends, who was as equally taken by the monkfish from Bala Baya as I was, has been raving about the cuttlefish croqueta she had from Barrafina, so that makes the list. The crisp lamb rib from Salon tickled my fancy, but in all honestly, I really just want to go and eat at the real McCoy more than anything. Everything that The Modern Pantry was dishing up had my mouth watering, but I wish I had chosen their Exclusive soft shell crab brioche bun with a brown crab mayonnaise and a lemongrass sambal. Finally, if I had been visiting on the day that The Begging Bowl was cooking (they were one of the daily guest appearances), the sheer intrigue of their Taste Exclusive dish of a green curry wafer filled with scallop and salted Suffolk chicken, would have been just to much to ignore.

Thanks for a good one Taste, until next time at the Festive Edition at Tobacco Dock.

 

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A word about plastics

Friday 8 June. Today is World Oceans Day. It is a day where we should all come together and celebrate the sheer wonder of the oceans and try to give some sort of thanks for how they are paramount to our continued existence.

As you will all be aware, however, we treat our oceans like crap and we have been doing so for so long now that a lot of the damage we have done is irreversible. Thanks to David Attenborough and the amazing Blue Planet series, the world can no longer hide from the terrible impact that we are having on our planet and on wildlife. So it seems particularly appropriate that I dedicate today’s blog post to one of the current villains of the packaging world, and tell you all about a plastic-free supper club that I attended a couple of weeks ago, hosted by event caterers Peardrop.

At a secret, undisclosed location, just a 10 minute walk from Old Street roundabout, a group of chefs teamed up with some industry experts to host a supper club dedicated to raising awareness about the issue of plastics, particularly within the food industry.

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Plastic Pledge Supper Club

Soaking up the last of the days sun rays by the canal side somewhere in Islington, our Plastic Pledge Supper Club started off with a complimentary date pisco sour. An alcoholic drink of Peruvian origin, this cocktail marked the beginning of our plastic-free journey by being served in an “upcycled” jar as opposed to a standard glass or an outdoor-safe plastic cup.

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Date Pisco Sour

Having been asked inside to take our seats for the panel discussion, we each found our designated place setting and set about dissecting the evenings’ menu. The top of the menu introduced the five panelists taking part in the discussion; ranging from a marine biologist, to chefs, to business owners. A glass of gin & tonic appeared in my hand and we settled back to hear each participant talk about the impact that plastic packaging has had on their own lives, and the different measures each has taken to try and reduce usage of the material.

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The Menu

Underneath the menu for the supper club lay a checklist of pledges to go without certain plastic items for a certain amount of time which we were encouraged to fill out. Being the eco-friendly person that I think I am, I ticked every single one and pledged to go a lifetime without them all. My good intentions went straight to hell, however, as soon as the supper club was over as a post-dinner trip to the pub saw my second G&T come to the table with a straw in it. Damn.

Perhaps this in itself though was more thought provoking than making the pledges themselves. I can definitely say that in the last year I have striven in several areas of my life to actively try and reduce the amount of plastic packaging I accumulate. For example, I no longer buy my fruit and vegetables from supermarkets to avoid the dreaded excessive packaging, and instead buy my fresh produce loose from local market stalls. So to walk into a pub (which I do fairly often) and to immediately be presented with something as unnecessary as a straw almost reduces my own intentions to mean nothing. It therefore goes to show how reliant we are on each other and industry to help us lead more plastic-free lives.

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The Menu

The end of the panel discussion marked the start of the food. The first chef up was self-proclaimed “eco-chef” Tom Hunt of Bristol’s Poco. Tom has not only taken the bold decision to eliminate plastic from his restaurant, he also serves a menu of ingredients that are predominantly certified organic, sourced locally and in season. His amuse bouche of rhubarb oyster ceviche was the embodiment of this seasonal principle. Although wild oysters are only in season in months with an “r” in them, farmed oysters are available all year round and are one of the most sustainable production methods for farmed fish in existence.

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Rhubarb oyster ceviche

Although the menu said sweet stem cauliflower, the next dish – courtesy of Anna Barnett – was changed to tenderstem broccoli dressed with a fresh parsley oil and cubes of rich, salty chorizo. The change was a result of supply issues, with TSB being far more readily available in May than sweet stem cauliflower. Anna, who is a healthy food advocate, currently writes the food pages for Grazia magazine, is a travel blogger and hosts a number of pop-ups and supper clubs.

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Broccoli ~ Chorizo ~ Parsley

The option to have an additional dish of tempura feta was an absolute no-brainer. I’ve had a lot of deep fried and oven baked cheeses in my life, but tempura feta was a new one for me and one which I had to try. The quality of the feta cheese used was apparent as soon as I bit into it, teeth crunching through that light and crispy tempura batter. Even though it was warm from the fryer, the cheese held its shape and it was salty but not to the extent that has you gasping for water. It was absolutely delicious and I would say a bit of a game changer in the world of fried cheese. Beautiful roasted cherry tomatoes added a sweetness and were sat on little dollops of Italian meringue, which added an unusual element to the dish but not much in terms of flavour. The final part of this dish was some fabulous long shards of tempura wild garlic, hitting those seasonal ingredients straight on the head.

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Feta tempura ~ Wild garlic ~ Meringue

Our last plate before the main course came from Jasmine Hemsley. Known for her cookery show with sister Melissa, these sisters are committed to eating food and living a lifestyle that promotes positive wellbeing. Jasmine’s ethos towards food is very much centred around naturalness and simplicity. The dish she designed for this supper club came out on sharing wooden boards and looked pretty as a picture. Braised baby gem lettuce was topped with a fennel seed and sesame gomashio – a Japanese inspired dry condiment – and was served with little spoonfuls of carrot top and anchovy pesto. It was great to see that the green ferny carrot tops, which are usually discarded, were being used in this course; a lovely bit of inspiration for reducing unnecessary food waste.

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Baby gem ~ Anchovy ~ Carrot tops

The main course for us non-vegetarians (or vegans) was a gorgeous plate of Suffolk wood pigeon served with roasted carrots, on a spoonful of rhubarb labneh (a strained yoghurt) and a pistachio dukkah. This dish came from our host of the evening Rose Lloyd Owen, head chef of event caterers Peardrop. Rose is a chef dedicated to healthy food which, for her, goes beyond the topline associations with watching what you eat in terms of nutrition, but includes eating sustainably and ensuring that meat and fish is ethically reared. Being game meat, the Suffolk wood pigeon is not raised in captivity and leads a normal life in the wilderness that is the English countryside…until it is shot by a farmer.

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Suffolk wood pigeon ~ Rhubarb ~ Gorse flowers

Game meat pairs extremely well with fruits and the rhubarb labneh that this wood pigeon sat on was no exception. Around the edge of the wood pigeon lay several yellow flowers which turned out to be gorse flowers. These flowers had been pickled so that they had a nice little acidic kick which provided a lovely contrast to the iron-rich pigeon and the heady gravy that came with it.

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For the non-meat eaters among us, they had the pleasure of digging into this dukkah spiced tartlet, which came with the same garnish as the pigeon and a watercress salad. The spice mix dukkah originates from the Egyptians and usually consists of toasted coriander and cumin seeds, along with other herbs, nuts and spices. I didn’t get to try this dish, but the vegetarian in our group had a rather big smile on his face as he tucked into it. Although that could have quite easily have also been the effect of the fourth bottle of wine arriving at our table.

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Dukkah ~ Courgette ~ Watercress

The supper club was brought to a close by dessert courtesy of chef Chantelle Nicholson, who runs Marcus Wareing’s Tredwells in Covent Garden. She had made an entirely vegan chocolate mousse, served with passionfruit and cubes of chamomile jelly. While not being a vegan or even a vegetarian herself, Chantelle wrote her cookbook Planted: A Chef’s Show-stopping Vegan Recipes back in 2016 to advocate the benefits of eating a plant-based diet. The book showcases recipes that use plant-based alternative ingredients such as aquafaba (the juice from a can of chickpeas) to make foods that have traditionally used animal-derived ingredients. This chocolate mousse was no exception, using aquafaba which acts as the egg whites, giving the mousse its light and fluffy texture.

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Chocolate ~ Passionfruit ~ Chamomile

So what did we learn from our Plastic Pledge Supper Club? Personally, nothing that I wasn’t already aware of in terms of our plastic use and where it ends up. For me, I think the most eye-opening part of the night was how difficult it is to keep the pledges we make to stop using plastic, especially when our usage of it isn’t even always determined by our own behaviour. It was fantastic to see some high profile chefs really getting behind and supporting this type of cause, and of course, getting to eat all that delicious food didn’t harm the evening either. It would have been interesting to hear how the chefs have worked with their suppliers to try and eliminate the use of plastic, particularly as how many greens – herbs especially – usually arrive at restaurants all trussed up in plastic bags. I also would have liked to have seen some sort of follow up from the event to see how everyone has been getting on with their pledges, as I suspect many people have also found them nigh-on impossible to keep. There is a long, long way to go in changing how we currently use and dispose of plastic in the UK and indeed, the rest of the world. Hopefully, though, we are on the precipice of some real change and, whatever you do today, make sure you do something to support the oceans #WorldOceansDay.

 

 

 

 

 

Everything is a hit at Kyseri

Following a fantastic meal at Oklava a few weeks ago, it was with jubilation that we heard the news that the dynamic duo behind Oklava and Linden Stores were opening a new restaurant in Fitzrovia.

Kyseri (named after the city in Turkey) is another modern Turkish restaurant attempting to change the Brits’ perception of its cuisine. This time, however, the focus is on two kinds of pasta typical to Turkey: manti and eriste. Being massive fans of pasta and Oklava, the race was on to get in for the soft launch period.

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Kyseri

Three seats reserved at what turned out to be the tiny bar, the three of us arrived and scoured the drinks list eagerly. A sparkling wine from Turkey caught my eye while the same wine but served with preserved lemons was the tipple of choice for one of my dining companions. A glass of white wine, also of Turkish origin, made up our three aperitifs.

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Bar

Alcohol back in the bloodstream, we turned our attention to the menu. Both of the signature pasta dishes had already been earmarked as must-haves and the intrigue over the snack of hellim loaf with Black Sea fondue saw that make the list too.

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Menu

We decided not to ask what exactly the Black Sea fondue was going to be so that all would be left to the big reveal. The fondue (unsurprisingly) turned out to be a cheese dish typical of the Eastern Black Sea region of Turkey. The cast iron pot held a corn meal-based mixture into which melted cheese and butter had been poured on top, finished with a generous sprinkling of basil. The loaf, still warm out of the oven, had chunks of hellim (halloumi) baked into it, which made for a decadent cheese-on-cheese with a side of carbs situation. Heavenly.

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Hellim loaf ~ Black Sea fondue

Veal sweetbreads, or calf pancreas to be a bit more direct, arrived next. Plated in a half moon, the beautifully cooked sweetbreads were interspersed with immature garlic bulbs – known as wet garlic – and dressed with spears of salty samphire. The jus was a nutty brown butter emulsion and an interesting hazelnut yoghurt sat on the side.

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Veal sweetbreads ~ Garlic ~ Hazelnut

Beef and sour cherry manti made up one of the two signature pasta dishes. Although Manti use a pasta dough as their base, they are sometimes referred to as dumplings, but call it what you want, the premise is the same. The thin sheets of dough were filled with a delicately spiced mixture of minced beef and sour cherries, with a rich tomato-chilli sauce and lashings of cooling yoghurt spooned over the top. A sprinkling of pine nuts added a bite of texture to the dish; all-in-all a divine combination.

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Beef manti ~ Sour cherry ~ Tomato-chilli

Although we were there for the Turkish pasta, it was the octopus dish that stole the show for me. Wonderfully tender slices of octopus tentacles lay hidden amongst a mixture of spiced aubergine and pickled caper leaves. These pickled caper leaves were an absolute delight; the stems from caper berries had been pickled in red wine vinegar which then added a salty but slightly tart element to the dish. Somehow this was a dish that managed to be spicy, fresh, rich and light all in one go, really clever.

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Octopus ~ Aubergine ~ Caper leaves

We ended our main courses with the other Turkish pasta dish of eriste. These are essentially egg noodles which were served with a mix of greens braised in lemon juice, walnut pieces and strips of sage leaf. Shavings of Tulum cheese – a Turkish cheese made from goats milk – and a confit egg yolk crowned the eriste. I failed miserably in my attempt to capture the breaking of the egg yolk in a slow-mo video, as one of my companions burst it with a knife and proceeded to coat all of the ingredients in its rich yellow goodness. Ingredient not necessarily new to pasta, they somehow came together to add a new dimension of flavours to the dish.

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Eriste ~ Walnuts ~ Yolk

While we pondered over which sweet options to order, the lovely girl behind the bar recommended the two dessert wines off the menu. Two of us happen to be massive dessert wine fans so ordering one of each to try them was a no-brainer. The white Sauvignon Blanc from Turkey had lovely floral notes punctuated with a sweet syrupy profile, and was entirely quaffable (easy to drink). It was the red Armenian fortified wine, however, that really blew us away. I could have happily settled for a liquid dessert there and then, but fortunately our non-dessert wine drinking friend insisted on finishing the meal with two of the dessert options.

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Arcadia 333 ~ Voskevaz Katarine

I’ll start with the feta even though we actually ended the meal with this dish, so as to save the best till last. An oblong slice of feta cheese, not too salty unlike the horrible supermarket ones, crumbled nicely onto a couple of crackers. Dots of sticky, sweet aubergine jam adorned the plate while slices of candied walnuts offered those last contrasting acidic flavours to the dish.

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Feta ~ Aubergine jam ~ Candied walnuts

From our position in front of the bar, we had prime view of the dessert plating section. Having seen a couple of large wooden chopping boards head out from this section with some intriguing ingredients upon them, we requested the same dessert. It turned out to be a pistachio katmer (that typical Turkish pastry similar to filo). A sheet of this was laid out on the wooden board, with two rectangles of mastic parfait – an aromatic resin tapped from trees typical to the Mediterranean climate – laid out next to it. The board was then brought over to us by Laura who then proceeded to cut, place and sandwich the katmer and the parfait together, to create what was essentially an ice cream sandwich. Although this dessert was meant for two people to share, she happily divided it into three for us and handed over a dish of grapefruit in verbena syrup to spoon over the top. The very definition of a show stopper (check out our social media for the video).

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Pistachio katmer ~ Mastic ~ Grapefruit

Visiting Kyseri so soon after Oklava could have been disastrous for one (or both) of these restaurants, with the possibility of drawing comparisons between the two an all too real issue. But in the end, there was no comparison. Kyseri holds its own in the same way that Oklava does. While so many of the same ingredients appear on both menus, thanks to the Turkish roots, they are treated in entirely different ways but to the same high standard. If I was put in a position where I had to choose only one that I could go back to, however, I think it might have to be Kyseri. I didn’t get to try the duck or the wild turbot on our visit and, if I had to, I would choose these over what I didn’t have at Oklava.

 

 

We embrace the vegetables at The Frog E1

As some of you may have been aware, May 14-20 was National Vegetarian Week; a whole week where we are encouraged to put down the chicken thighs and the beef steaks and to instead pick up some vegetables and enjoy the literal fruits from nature’s larder.

I am (obviously) not a vegetarian and to be honest, although I agree that we should all reduce our meat consumption quite significantly, I rarely think that these events that are made to publicise a particular lifestyle (or dietary) choice are a good idea or an even particularly effective. Having said this, however, this year I actually decided to jump on the vegetarian bandwagon and go the whole week without eating meat.

So why this decision? Well it all started with an email. On May 14, I received a newsletter email from The Frog restaurants offering 20% off all vegetarian dishes throughout the week. Now, there’s an offer that’s hard to refuse, particularly for those of us trying desperately to live the champagne lifestyle on a lemonade budget. So, I booked us in for an evening of veggie goodness at the original The Frog (which now comes with an E1 in the name) in Shoreditch.

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I took a friend to The Frog when it originally opened back in 2016. We went on its second night during the soft launch period and munched our way through the entire tasting menu plus every other dish on the menu that wasn’t included (you could tell it was their soft launch – there’s no way in hell they would do that now). I can remember thinking that, even though many of the dishes on the menu were the same as when Adam Handling had his Caxton’s restaurant in St Ermin’s Hotel, they were so good and inspired that I didn’t care that I’d had some of it before.

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Beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot

Fast forward two years and Adam Handling has handed the metaphorical torch over to head chef Jamie Park, who you may recognise from his strong performance on the most recent series of Masterchef: The Professionals. While Adam Handling may be spending more time in Covent Garden these days, and will be moving onto Belmond soon enough, his legacy is still very prominent in the menu which continues to feature his classic dishes such as “Beetroot, beetroot and more beetroot” and the “Cheese doughnuts” that come out looking like they’ve been in a snow storm of cheese.

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Cheese doughnut

Sat in the outside-yet-indoor-campsite-type-porch part of the restaurant, we placed our order for all the vegetarian options off the à la carte menu. We didn’t go for the vegetarian tasting menu as my companion went slightly rogue and insisted on having the short-rib of beef, which I refuse to show here because I didn’t try it…even though it looked and smelled amazing.

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Menu

In retaliation, I ordered a glass of the Picpoul De Pinet and sat back in my non-swinging chair to relax.

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The Frog

The first dish came from the Snacks ‘eat with your hands’ part of the menu. Although it was described as burnt toast, the snacks were far from charred and instead appeared to be thin slices of crisp bread covered in a fresh green concoction of peas and mint, with a generous shaving of Parmesan finishing it off. As someone who would most definitely turn their nose up at the idea of eating minted peas normally, the balance on these snacks was so delicate that I literally ended up eating my words. Crisp, fresh, with a delightful cheesiness rounding off the snack.

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Toast ~ Pea ~ Mint

Oh buratta, we meet again. Burrata, basil and courgette; three ingredients that shout of summer and conjure up images of picnics in the park (with a few bottles of bubbly on ice too).

Yes, the buratta was its usual wonderful, creamy self but, let’s be honest, there is no skill to be seen from the chefs simply putting the cheese on the plate. So we turn to the other elements of the dish. The mandolin slices of raw courgette were fine but are rather like mushrooms when not cooked, a slightly unexpected texture and not a lot of flavour. Unfortunately, the pool of green purée sat under the buratta was really disappointing. It was definitely on the over-seasoned side of salty, and I say this as someone who has a tendency to over-season most of my own cooking. It was a relief to have the giant ball of cheese just to offer contrast to the salty purée.

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Burrata ~ Basil ~ Courgette

Hidden under this carefully constructed roof of apple strips was several slices of baked celeriac and a delicate little egg yolk. Breaking through the yolk acted as a wonderfully thick and slightly sickly sauce that combined all the elements together into a highly indulgent mouthful.

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Celeriac ~ Yolk ~ Apple

OK, so now we get to the part of the meal I was looking forward to the most: Mac and Cheese – The Frog way. I had this dish on my first visit and I can still remember how good it was, how much care and attention – not to mention hard work – had gone into the dish. Individual tubes of macaroni pasta filled with a herby oil and covered in the cheesiest of bechamels, with a heap of grated truffle and Parmesan finishing it all off. So I will admit that I was a bit taken aback by the dish that came out the other day.

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Mac and Cheese – The Frog way

Breaking through the lashings of bechamel on this dish revealed non of the interior glory of that original dish. My honest opinion, that this was just a nice macaroni cheese but not a patch on 2016’s version. Have a look at the picture below and you’ll see what I mean.

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2016’s Mac and Cheese

Recommended to us by chef, we picked the lemon, white chocolate and Douglas fir dessert. This was also very similar to one of the desserts eaten on my first visit except the yuzu had been replaced by the lemon – same idea, different citrus. I really enjoyed each individual element; the lemon sorbet bitingly refreshing, that hit of sugar from the white chocolate mousse, plus the slight toasted flavour of the meringues that came through at the end. The Douglas fir, however, was indistinguishable and I’m still not convinced lemon and white chocolate work together.

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Lemon ~ White chocolate ~ Douglas fir

After a dinner of ups and downs, boy oh boy did we finish on an absolute stonker of a dish. The second time in my life I’ve had a chocolate mousse made with silken tofu, and the second time in my life that I’ve declared it the best thing I’ve ever eaten. The silkiness that it gives the texture of the mousse makes it just unbelievably moreish but also incredibly rich. In comes the role of the blackberries, cutting through the richness with its contrasting acid notes. Hints of rosemary throughout gave beautiful savoury notes to the dish, while a quenelle of caramel ice cream was an unnecessary but delicious addition.

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Dark chocolate ~ Blackberry ~ Rosemary

I’m always intrigued to see the vegetarian options on restaurant menus. There is still so much expectation that meat and fish are the focus of the menu that vegetarian options often just appear to be an afterthought, put there to give that one “picky” member of the group something to eat. I would argue, however, that you can tell the real skill of a chef (or team of chefs) by the vegetarian dishes that they come up with. What we had at The Frog E1 was certainly far more imaginative than your standard vegetarian options, although the classic prevalence of cheese suggests that there is still some lack of imagination when it comes to vegetables. There were some dishes that missed the mark slightly, but also some high flyers that I will remember for years to come. Seriously though, get that Mac and Cheese back to its former glory.

Oklava gets ticked off the bucket list

A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of taking a two week holiday in the absolutely stunning Turkish city of Bodrum. The weather was scorching, the sea more azure than you could believe, and the people were some of the friendliest I have ever met. I remember an awful lot about that holiday, but one of the things I don’t have much memory of, is the food.

As is painfully common, the hotel catered to the visiting Western tourists, who enjoy nothing more than an all-you-can eat buffet where they can pile their plates high and put back on all that weight that they worked so hard to get rid of before going on the holiday anyway. As a result, my experience of genuine Turkish food is somewhat non-existent and skewed by the kebab shops that you often find yourself in after a few too many on a night out. It is therefore of no surprise that a trip to contemporary Turkish restaurant Oklava in Shoreditch has been on the bucket list for a while now.

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Oklava

Oklava opened its doors back in 2015 and is the brain child of Selin Kiazim and Laura Christie (who also runs Linden Stores in Islington). Selin Kiazim is rapidly gaining a much deserved reputation for her fantastic cooking skills; in 2017 she made it through to the finals of the Great British Menu for her dessert paying homage to Wimbledon tennis champion Annabel Croft. I, however, first came across Oklava, and indeed Selin, at a previous job where her ethical principles and commitment to food sustainability shone through in the opening of the restaurant.

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Interior

Fast forward to a rainy Saturday in May 2018, over two and a half years since the opening of Oklava, and I finally find myself sat at the counter drooling over the menu. Sitting at the counter may mean you have one of the best seats in the house and an unbeatable view into the kitchen, but the real benefit of counter dining is that the chefs can’t escape you and your questions. So, obviously, we took full advantage of this and quizzed head chef Nick Mattinson on the menu and asked him to recommend us some of his favourite dishes.

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Menu

Top of the menu, before you even get to the food, a blood orange fizz aperitif caught my eye and quickly turned my plans for a dry Saturday into a wet one. My “my will power is stronger than yours” friend plumped for the virgin apple and cardamom sour cocktail. This was made by shaking apple tea with cardamom syrup and lime, and served in a glass with a spiced and salted rim. We then reeled off the list of dishes that we wanted to try to the waitress, sat back, drank deeply and waited with anticipation for the food to be brought out.

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Apple ~ Cardamom ~ Blood Orange

Under the snacks section of the menu, there is an ingredient that must be regarded of as simply criminal to go into a Turkish (or Cypriot) restaurant and not order. Grilled hellim. Now, hellim is actually the Turkish word for halloumi, which just so happens to be the Cypriot word for this wonderful, salty cheese. So, why the different names? Well, it’s all political and too complicated to get into here. It is safe to say, however, that halloumi is a cheese at the very heart of Cyprus’s heritage, in fact the country is currently in the process of applying for a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status for it. If successful, this would mean that halloumi could only be produced in Cyprus and anything similar produced elsewhere would have to use a different name.

Over the counter came a small bowl of two hot slices of hellim, lathered in honey, lemon and oregano. Griddled to perfection, evenly coloured a glorious nut-brown, I sliced my piece of hellim across each griddle line and chased that sticky-sweet glaze around the bowl.

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Hellim ~ London honey ~ Lemon

Two market specials were on offer on our visit; one a main course that I can’t remember, the other a snack of toast covered in what I believe was a muhammara paste. We ordered the market special toast over the baharat spiced bread on the menu in order to sample the roasted red pepper and walnut spread which neither of us had tried before. Combining the walnuts with the roasted red peppers resulted in what should by all accounts have been a relatively sweet spread, into a savoury one. The addition of a few chilli flakes gave a final little kick to this visually dull but flavourful dish.

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Walnut ~ Red pepper ~ Toast

We went against the head chef’s recommendation of the imam bayildi – a stuffed aubergine with yoghurt and flatbreads – and instead plumped for the chilli roasted cauliflower dish. Personally, I consider myself to be an aubergine fanatic. I eat it everyday (pretty much) and it’s the first vegetable I pick up when shopping, however, in desperate pursuit of not always picking what you know and love, I conceded to the cauliflower option. Perhaps the most amount of food I’ve seen piled onto such a small plate, the chunks of roasted cauliflower were hidden beneath a foliage of parsley, red onions and pistachios. Now this dish was hot, surprisingly hot. This should really have been obvious from the name, but clearly having let that pass over my head, it certainly should have been obvious from the fire-red colour that the cauliflower chunks had turned following a thorough marinading in an array of chilli and spices.

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Cauliflower ~ Chilli ~ Pistachios

Back on track with our chef-recommended dishes, the pide of octopus and ricotta was next to arrive. Apparently this is the best-seller at Oklava and it is little wonder why. The flatbread was just the right amount of charred on the edges while the inside was still soft and fluffy and soaked up some of the delicious marinade from the octopus. I have eaten so many good octopus dishes in recent years, that it’s getting harder and harder to find that thing that makes the dish stand out, but this really was delicious.

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Octopus Pide

It came with a side salad of red onion, parsley, green olives and leaves which was a tad on the oily side, but I guess that’s what the ends of the pide are there for, to soak up this pool of Mediterranean flavours.

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Octopus pide ~ Ricotta ~ Salad

Our last savoury choice was the dish designed to make you re-think the late night kebab. The Seftali kebab is essentially a sausage mix without the skin and this particular version was made of minced lamb combined with onions, parsley and a variety of herbs. In pursuit of higher knowledge, I tried to find out what Seftali means. A quick Google translate told me it means peach in English. Personally, I can’t see the link but the musings of the internet world suggest that the texture of the Seftali kebab is similar to the texture of the peach. If you say so Google.

Back to the kebab. Yes, the meat was tasty and certainly far more moist than one from your local kebab shop, but for me there was no real “wow” factor. It was sat on an unidentified flatbread and piled high with yet more parsley and slices of red onion. I think it’s fair to say that at this point, we had had enough of those particular ingredients to last a lifetime. Personally, I would have gone for the far more interesting sounding quail dish, or even the lamb kofte, neither of which mentioned either parsley or red onion in the description.

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Seftali kebab ~ Parsley ~ Flatbread

Having munched our way through a selection of dishes varying from the heavenly to the underwhelming, the ability to manage one of the puddings was called into question. Apparently having overheard us um-ing and ah-ing over the decision, head chef Nick told us to share the Kunefe as it takes 15 minutes to cook following being ordered. This would the give us plenty of time for a rest and to enjoy a Turkish coffee, which we did.

Turkish coffee is one of the few food and drink related memories I have from that holiday. Brewed from very, very finely ground coffee beans, the powder is left in the cup of coffee when served. This means that only around two thirds of your cup of coffee is actually drinkable; the powder forming a lovely sludge in the bottom of the cup which is unsurprisingly pretty unpleasant if you take a sip of it. History says that the grounds left in the cup could be used for fortune-telling but with no one around skilled in the practice of divination, we left the grounds for the bin.

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Turkish coffee

Fifteen minutes down the line and a sweet smell of hot pastry drifted under our noses. A nest of crispy kadayif pastry (similar to finely shredded filo pastry) which had been soaked in an orange blossom syrup, hid a layer of molten cheese and was topped with a bright green line of chopped pistachios. We dug our spoons in and sat in raptures as the sticky, sweet and cheesy mix ran over every taste bud, causing salavation of an unacceptable level. After several rich mouthfuls of this heady concoction, I took a daring move and poured the side of blood orange sorbet over the top. A light and refreshing contrast ensued and enabled us to easily gobble us the rest.

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Kunefe ~ Cheese ~ Blood Orange

Two and a half years is a long time to wait to visit a restaurant, especially one where the chef has gained national recognition for her culinary skills. The build up and the anticipation mean that you put more and more expectation on your visit to deliver everything that you think and hope it will. For me, this build up certainly did not result in an anti-climax; the sheer flavour delivered by the hellim and the octopus pide will linger in my memory for a long time to come, while the chilli kick of that cauliflower is hard to forget. I personally don’t think that the Seftali kebab has changed my perception of what is probably Turkey’s most well-known dish, but anyone who can combine sweet pastry with two varieties of orange and then stuff a load of cheese into the middle of it and bake it, well that person is nothing short of a genius.

 

 

We enjoy a good meal at The Good Egg

Soho has to be one of my favourite places in London. It’s an energetic and risqué mix of bars, sex shops, and some of the most exciting restaurants in the capital. So when you’re hungry after work but you don’t know what you want, I guarantee that Soho won’t let you down for inspiration.

Within the wonderful weirdness that is Soho; Kingly Court in Carnaby holds a dizzying array of fantastic restaurants to choose from, and one place I’ve been dying to sink my teeth into for months now can be found on the ground floor; The Good Egg.

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Middle Eastern dishes with a New York influence, this is yet another example of a street food vendor hitting the big time. At The Good Egg you can choose from  a number of Tel Aviv street food-inspired snacks, dips and small plates. The bread selection, which is specifically there for dipping purposes, celebrates the Jewish delis of New York.

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The Good Egg

It may have only been a Tuesday but the choice of drinks to start with sounded so enticing, I felt obliged to order one. Despite the overwhelming popularity of neggronis, until this point, I had not understood the power of this drink. Plum shrub – which is a vinegar-based fruit syrup – was used as the mixer to gin and Campari, which was then topped up with fizz. The aroma that came off this cocktail – a mix of lemon, citrus from the campari and the sweet bouquet of cava – was absolutely heavenly and a perfect start to our meal.

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Neggroni Shaggui

Just below this list of intriguing sounding drinks, my eyes zoomed in on the snack of hogget merguez sausages. Rich, spicy, meaty sausages, merguez sausages are one of those must-have BBQ items. Well, they are on my list of essential BBQ items anyway. Older than lamb but younger than mutton, hogget – or even mutton for that matter – is rarely seen in restaurants or indeed even in butchers in this country, always losing out in favour of the young lambs. The reason for this? Simply, money. It costs more to raise a sheep to an age older than a lamb, and so these older meats are a rarity. While there is a mild difference in flavour between these three ages of sheep, in a merguez sausage, the combination of spices, chilli, beef, garlic and harissa render the sausage incredibly moreish but the hoggest completely under-championed.

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Hogget merguez ~ Chuma mayonnaise

One of my favourite parts of a meal these days can literally be the arrival of the bread and butter at the start of the meal. I wait with eager anticipation to see what sort of baked delight has been conjured up by the chefs and whether we’re going to get a butter that gets my blood rushing to all the right places. So, the next section of “Breads for Dipping” and “Dipping for Breads” sent my mind into overdrive. Honestly, I could have quite happily ordered the four breads and four dips and spent my evening munching my way through whipped feta, marinated aubergine and the classic hummus awarma. Disappointingly for me, we did not do this and instead ordered two breads and one dip to share. The most beautiful cornbread loaf was the first carbohydrate to arrive at the table. Drizzled in a glorious sticky concoction of honey and thyme, I resented splitting this tiny morsel between the two of us.

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Cornbread ~ Honey ~ Thyme

We also plumped for the laffa flatbread. A slightly thicker and chewier pita bread, these are often used as wraps as they are perfect for soaking up meat juices. A nod to the time of year and a certain seasonal ingredient, this flatbread was also smothered in a glorious wild garlic butter. Both breads were lovely and warm, having come straight out of the clay oven sat behind the bar at the back of the restaurant.

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Laffa flatbread ~ Wild garlic

The one dip that we ordered from the menu was the labneh; a strained Greek yoghurt, sour in taste, was covered in pickled rhubarb – again, very seasonal – and a Nigella seed, herb and spice dukkah. A big plate of deliciousness for not a lot of bread, we should definitely have ordered the Israeli pita to mop up the last bits.

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Labneh ~ Rhubarb ~ Dukkah

The last savoury dish chosen was the Jerusalem Mixed Grill. A plate piled high with chunks of chicken thigh, chicken hearts and chicken livers sat on a mound of tahini dip. We chose this dish above all the others because offal cuts can truly be the best parts of an animal to eat and yet we hardly ever see them around, mainly because we seem to be a nation of squeamish eaters. The chicken thighs were moist and succulent and the hearts had been flashed for just long enough on the plancha grill to have that crispy chicken skin-like quality. The livers, however, were a bit bitter suggesting that they had either been overcooked or not prepared properly, and the accompanying pickles and amba (a tangy pickled mango condiment, similar to a chutney) were very much needed to cut through this taste.

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Jerusalem Mixed Grill

For one of the first times in a long time, we purposefully saved room to order not one, but two desserts. An American classic of pecan pie came topped with a lattice of pretzels and a side of burnt honey ice cream. I’ve been trying to work out where the pretzels fit into this dish, given that the origin of these baked goods seems to have nothing to do with the Middle East or Jewish delis in New York, but one mouthful of this sweet, nutty pie with that salty crunch of pretzel rendered me unable to care about the inspiration behind this dish.

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Pecan pie ~ Pretzels ~ Burnt honey

This was also one of those days where the overwhelming desire for chocolate forced me into ordering the interestingly named chocolate bark. This turned out to be a broken up slab of milk chocolate covered with veins of white chocolate, topped with sour cherries and what I think were shavings of tahini. Chocolate, cherry and a salty, sesame aftertaste, what more could you want?

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Chocolate bark ~ Cherry ~ Tahini

My long awaited trip to The Good Egg was no disappointment. I am a massive fan of Middle Eastern cuisine and have recently enjoyed fantastic meals from other similar restaurants like Delamina and Amber. For me, what made The Good Egg stand out from these other restaurants has to be two things: firstly, the prolific use of lesser-used meats such as hogget and offal on the menu, and secondly, that list of cocktails. I mean I am genuinely sat here now wondering what the Bone Marrow Old Fashioned and the Oyster Martini taste like. One day soon, I shall return here, or maybe even take a trip to their other site in Stoke Newington, and just order all the breads, all the dips, and several of the cocktails. I’ll probably then order another slice of the pretzel pecan pie, just to soak up the alcohol.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We enjoy more than the tequila at Santo Remedio

Why is Mexican food so popular at the moment? I mean, you can’t move for avocados, especially in London. They’re in all the shops, on all the menus, they seems to be the only brunch option that doesn’t always involve eggs, and even a restaurant entirely dedicated to the fruit (yes, it is a fruit) opened its doors in Covent Garden in April this year. You’d think with all this avo-hype, we’d be sick of the things, but the increasing popularity of Mexican food suggests an addiction to this fruit that goes far beyond the help of therapy.

I’ve mentioned my love-hate relationship with Mexican food before. While some of my favourite ingredients and real comfort dishes herald from this cuisine, I can never muster much enthusiasm when the suggestion of tacos for a meal rears its head. I would hazard a guess that, up until recently, the closest thing we had to Mexican food in this country was ready-to-eat meal kits from Old El Paso and some decidedly uninspiring dinners from fast-food chains such as Chilango or Tortilla. In fact, as I type this, it comes to mind that the reason for my lack of enthusiasm for the cuisine could indeed stem from this fast-food theme that seems to run through its representation here in the UK.

So, when my friend suggested that we check out a Mexican restaurant down in London Bridge, I had to suppress my inward groan. Scoping out the menu before we went, I saw that it is full of the usual suspects; guacamole, salsas, quesadillas, a choice of tacos and enchiladas. The descriptions following each dish, however, contain enough ingredients I have either never heard of or never tried, for my interest to be peaked.

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Santo Remedia

Santo Remedio began, like so many other new London restaurants, as a series of pop-ups and supper clubs in Shoreditch. It found it’s first permanent home in Tooley Street, a stone’s throw from the currently-being-refurbished Restaurant Story, in September 2017. So, the location isn’t bad and, upon arrival, the restaurant looks nice too. I’m particularly thankful for the lack of any garish decorative pieces that pay homage to Mexico, such as a cactus wearing sunglasses in the corner, or sombreros tacked onto every wall in sight. I can feel my heavy heart lightening already.

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Interior

Sat down at a table in the corner with the menu, our waiter suggests drinks to start; either this week’s tequila cocktail of roasted pineapple juice, agave syrup and lime, or a glass of “wonderfully” refreshing, non-alcoholic hibiscus water. We ordered one of each, and I can reassure you that the cocktail was also wonderfully refreshing.

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Hibiscus juice ~ Pineapple ~ Tequila

In spite of my earlier rant about avocados, we ordered guacamole to start with. What seems to have been popularised by Ella Canta in Mayfair, we did what everyone else we overheard ordering did, and asked for the version with grasshoppers on. Now, I have no problem with eating insects, in fact I am a true believer that the future of our food system needs to include insect protein in order for us to minimise our horrendous environmental impact. However, when it comes to food and flavour, the point is this: insects have no flavour. They are tasteless, visually off-putting, many-legged bites of protein. So, why are these restaurants making such a big deal over them? Well, I think the answer is simply for that wow-factor, giving the modern diner exactly what they want; an Instagram-worthy plate of food. 

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Guacamole

Yes, the ‘mole was delicious as we have come to expect, but the sprinkle of tasteless grasshoppers on top was not with the extra £1.50. Personally, I would like to see them treated like crisps or popcorn, and coated in flavours that burst when you crunch into them, making the whole dish come alive.

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Guacamole ~ Grasshoppers

Wanting to have some octopus in our meal, we asked our waiter which he recommended out of the blackboard special Octopus Tostados and the menu option of Octopus Tikin Xik. He recommended the tostados which meant that I didn’t need to learn what tikin xik is or try and pronounce it. Two crispy corn shells piled high with beautiful slices of tender octopus, more guacamole and topped with deep fried tentacles were placed in front of us. My dish of the meal, no question about it.

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Octopus Tostados

Our other fish dish of choice was the soft shell crab tacos, and also where we get into the territory where I can’t work out what the difference is between tacos and tostados, other than one is crunchy and the other isn’t. Picking up my knife and fork to make a start on the dish earned me a reproving look from my dining companion, who then quickly told me to pick it up and eat it with my hands. With the serrano mayonnaise leaking out onto my hands, crispy bits of deep-fried crab sticking me in the face, and shards of red cabbage falling down onto my plate, I decided that I really wasn’t made for this type of casual dining. But again, each eventual mouthful was a myriad of flavours and textures, and that squeeze of lime over the top really made the taco sing.

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Soft shell crab ~ Serrano mayonnaise

The next dish came on recommendation from our waiter; the hibiscus enchiladas. There are a huge number of hibiscus flower species, many of which are considered a delicacy in Mexico and can often be found garnishing desserts after having been candied. It is the roselle variety that you will find most commonly being used as a vegetable and what happened to be stuffed inside this particular enchilada dish. Honestly, the delicate floral notes of the hibiscus flower were completely lost in this dish, thanks to the pool of morita sauce completely taking over. I’m not complaining though. This sauce, made of morita chilies (smoked jalapenos), was a complex mixture of smokey notes, sweet bursts of chili and a spicy heat that hit your taste buds wave after wave, constantly driving you to dip back in for more.

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Hibiscus flowers ~ Morita ~ Enchilada

Probably the last dish on the menu that I would have ordered myself, was the chicken enchiladas. This would be for no real reason other than it being one of the safest, most boring dishes I could probably think of and so wouldn’t usually bother spending my money on such a dish. I will admit, however, that the safe option is safe for a reason; because it’s always tasty. The real magic, again, came from the sauce which this time was a tomatilla cream. Tomatillo, which apparently are known as the “Mexican husk tomatoes” (thanks Wikipedia) and are essentially green tomatoes, were the stars that went into making this creamy yet surprisingly light green sauce.

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Chicken ~ Tomatillo ~ Enchilada

The only dish that I insisted we order was the side of cactus ‘slaw. One of the pitfalls of eating out so often (apart from the financial ones) is that I tend to find that the overwhelming desire to order something a bit gimicky often takes over (hence the earlier grasshoppers). There was no gimickery about this cactus ‘slaw though. I can’t say it had an overriding “cactus” flavour (I won’t even pretend to know what that would taste like) but the combination with the fennel and juicy pomegranate seeds was such a mouthful of refreshment, I found myself generously spooning this onto the side of my hibiscus enchilada, just to put out some of the heat in my mouth.

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Cactus ~ Fennel ~ Pomegranate

And so we ended our Mexican fiesta with the most stereotypical Mexican dessert there possibly is: a little hipster mug of churros with a pot of salted caramel. The very embodiment of why I firmly believe that finishing a meal with a sweet dessert is just pure madness. Let’s face it, by the time you get to the pudding, more often than not you are feeling a little on the full side, and therefore cramming your face with sickly mouthfuls of sugar can just make you feel, well, a bit sick. I’m also not the biggest fan of churros, mainly from my time working the pastry section of a small restaurant where we all thought it would be a “great idea” to make churros to order for 40 people…the memory still sends shivers down my spine. Still, we ordered the churros and we damn well forced them down.

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Churros ~ Salted caramel

It was the engulfing sweetness from the dessert that I blame for driving me to order another tequila-based drink, this time the house special margarita. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; margaritas are the best cocktail ever invented. I particularly enjoyed the chili salt-rim on this version, which well and truly kicked the sickening sweetness out of my mouth.

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Margarita

So, did Santo Remedio change my mind about Mexican food? Well, the answer is yes and no. I really did enjoy all of the savoury dishes, even if they were the usual suspects or if it was just elements of them, such as the morita sauce on the hibiscus enchiladas. The nice thing about this restaurant was that our waiter, and even the chef who popped into the restaurant for five minutes, were more than happy to recommend dishes to us – and not the most expensive options either. Although the food was definitely not slow, it didn’t come out at such a rate that made you wonder if it was just being reheated to order. What a meal at Santo Remedio proved to me though, was that tequila is not the only good thing to have ever come out of Mexico.

Lupins are doing it for themselves

Our quest to eat delicious pancakes on Pancake Day not only led us to Where The Pancakes Are at Flat Iron Square, it also threw us another destination to add to our ever-expanding bucket list of restaurants: Lupins.

A relatively new addition to London’s dining scene, Lupins opened its doors in April 2017, having been set up by chef duo Lucy Pedder and Natasha Cooke. At a time when issues such as the gender pay gap feature so prominently in the news, it seemed an appropriate time to pay a visit to this female powerhouse of a restaurant.

Lupins is one of those typical modern British restaurants; all light woods, bright and adorably small. On the ground floor there are a handful of seats available at the counter, sandwiched between the lively buzz of the open kitchen and the hustle and bustle of the next door bakery Burnt Lemon. Upstairs you find yourself in a different world; it’s quiet and almost serene, perfect for whiling away a lazy afternoon.

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Lupins

By the time I arrived for our Sunday lunch reservation, my dining companion was already seated upstairs in the window. She grinned at me as I approached and excitedly told me that she had just met one of the founders of the restaurant and had a long conversation with her about the food. She then tells me that because of this, she already knows what we are ordering and so there isn’t really much point in looking at the menu. “Well I’m going to look anyway” I say defiantly, “If for no other reason than to pick the glass of wine that I’m gasping for.”

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Upstairs at Lupins

Lupins (a typical British flower, don’t you know) defines itself as “seasonal British tasting plates, with a sunshine influence”. This basically means that they take British ingredients that are in season and apply some global, culinary twists to them. Had my friend not arrived before me, we would have had five snacks and ten sharing plates to choose from, featuring produce such as Porthilly oysters and Cornish crab, and dishes such as pigeon wellington and marjoram parpadelle. Choice apparently out of my hands, I settled down with a glass of white wine and waited to see what mystery dishes would appear.

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Menu

A not-so-small plate of cornmeal spring onions with a generous dollop of chipotle mayonnaise was the first dish to surprise me. Inspired by the chefs’ travels around San Francisco, this was essentially a plate of posh onion rings. Cornmeal – literally ground up corn kernels – is being increasingly used as a batter thanks to its glowing gluten-free credentials. I’m not a coeliac and I haven’t jumped on the gluten-free bandwagon like so many other people have, so the fact that this dish was gluten-free made no difference to me. The different texture the cornmeal gave the spring onions, however, was extremely enjoyable, despite the majority of the batter falling off the onions. A dish that proves deep-frying makes everything taste fantastic.

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Spring onions ~ Chipotle mayonnaise

The food embodiment of a summer day came next. Flakes of sea bream carpaccio, hidden under a mint gremolata (a herby dressing made with lemon and garlic) were adorned with spears of asparagus, all of which was sat in a generous pool of olive oil. Any form of raw or cured fish has to be my ultimate favourite way to enjoy seafood, however, more often than not, you find that the ingredients chosen to pair the raw fish mask the very delicate and subtle flavours, and this was no exception. Having said that, the mint, asparagus and olive oil worked beautifully as expected, and I used the bream like a sponge, soaking up all those summery flavours.

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Bream ~ Mint ~ Asparagus

Mexican food is having a bit of a revival at the moment, particularly here in the capital. While I have a (very) soft spot for classic Mexican dishes such as guacamole, fajitas and enchiladas, and my “desert island drink” would most certainly be a margarita, I will admit that I am woefully naive of many dishes beyond these (I am aware that a margarita is not food before you say anything). I blame this lack of culinary education on why I tend to turn my nose up at the suggestion of Mexican food, and how wrong I am to do this. Three corn tacos covered in the most unbelievably moist ribbons of oxtail and bone marrow simply melted in the mouth. The pickled chilli cut through the richness of the meat and the coriander lifted the dish to aromatic heights. Hands down, one of the best dishes I’ve eaten in a while.

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Oxtail ~ Bone marrow ~ Tacos

Probably indicating a slightly sadistic side to my nature, the final savoury dish of quail made me giggle when it was set down in front of us. This in-season-all-year-round tiny game bird had been boned and stuffed with boudin noir – the French version of black pudding – that added an irony richness to the game meat. Despite the vivid orangeness of the sauce, the taste was pure coconut with a mild hint of curry, which was slightly disconcerting when you imagine something like butternut squash to be the overriding flavour. The seasonal element here was the bed of seasonal crushed jersey royal potatoes that the bird was sat on. This was a slightly messy dish that required getting down and dirty with the quail bones, but was thoroughly enjoyable.

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Quail ~ Coconut ~ Jersey royals

We finished our lunch with a dessert of baked cardamom yoghurt topped with super in-season rhubarb compote cooked with orange and ginger. The pudding was topped with another layer of pink, which I think was a rhubarb mousse but I can’t be sure. Rhubarb is a wonderful sour taste of spring but is a strong flavour at that, which meant that the cardamom in the yoghurt was overpowered. Very light and refreshing though; a nice way to finish the meal.

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Cardamom ~ Rhubarb

All in all Lupins is a little gem in the awesomeness that is Flat Iron Square. I could have quite happily ordered almost everything off this menu had I had the opportunity, however, the dishes that I was surprised with were strong performers. I can easily imagine whiling away many a summer day in Lupins, eating my way through all the seasonal British dishes. The two owners have put together a menu that embodies sustainable principles, using seasonal ingredients that sees the menus change on a regular basis, and it’s great to see two female chefs doing it for themselves (that’s a Pointer Sisters reference by the way, just in case it went over your head).

 

Everything bar the eel at Lyle’s

Having lived for just a little over three years in London now, I have managed to eat my way through a fair number of restaurants on my imaginary bucket list, but in all that time, one restaurant has managed to elude me. Until now.

Shoreditch; so hipster-cool it hurts to wear a suit in these parts, but here is where you will find Lyle’s, a fabulous fine dining restaurant sat opposite Box Park. Part of the eponymous JKS Restaurant Group (think Bubbledogs, Gymkhana and Sabor to name a few), Lyle’s opened in 2014 under the leadership of head chef James Lowe. With The Clove Club and St John’s Bread and Wine under his belt, this is modern British dining in an old tea factory.

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Lyle’s

Now Lyle’s is not cheap. In fact it’s got three Pound signs under its Google listing so you know you’ll be spending a pretty penny here. In February of this year, however, Lyle’s decided to add a bar snack menu with 10-12 daily changing small plates. So when we heard this news, we took this as a sign that we had to visit and catch up with friends over many dishes and many drinks.

The bar at Lyle’s

The bar at Lyle’s

Having made the arrangements and booked well over a month in advance, it was only natural that two of our party were pretty late to dinner. Pretending that this was a real shame, us two early birds used it as an excuse to sit at the bar and start on the drinks. The drinks menu covers two sides of A4 paper, although I would guess that 95% of this is taken up by your wine options. There’s a couple of beers, ciders and even a perry to choose from, but only the one spirit-based drink, which of course is the classic G&T. Despite making every effort to be one of those new-age gin connoisseurs and make sure I know which gin I’m drinking, the gin was not listed, we weren’t told it, and I completely forgot to ask. Oh well.

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Bar menu

We were given the bar menu to look over while we waited for our two tardy friends. On the menu were 10 savoury options and three dessert/cheese dishes. A quick scan down the menu told me all I needed to know: we would probably be ordering all of these, bar the eel.

Friends finally reunited, we took our table and set about gossiping like we hadn’t seen each other in six months…which we hadn’t. Just like I had thought, we all looked at the menu, looked at each other and said, “everything but the eel?” Job done. Now you may be wondering what all the fuss about the eel is. Basically, the reason for our friendship is that we have all worked together in sustainable food, and this means that we know that eel is a big no-no when it comes to sustainable fish. Eel is a critically endangered species and – although I will freely admit that I have eaten it in the past and that I really, really like it – we feel as a group that we have a responsibility to practice what we preach, as it were, and actively avoid these things when we eat out. Of course, this doesn’t always happen and so you would be entirely right to call us hypocrites when our principles go out the window. But that was not today.

Open kitchen

Open kitchen

The food arrived at a fantastic pace. First came the bread and butter with not just one, but two slices of warm brown sourdough bread each. I am growing slightly weary of constantly being given sourdough to munch on at restaurants, mainly because the crust tends to be so hard and sharp that you lacerate your gums and have hardly any surface left to lather butter on. These warm slices were nothing like this however; beautifully soft, a crust with minor resistance and soft butter that seeped lovingly into the pores of the bread.

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Oysters ~ Apple

Then came the oysters. Hidden under what could easily be mistaken for hunks of green moss, these big, salty mouthfuls of deliciousness were under a fantastically green apple granita. Keeping to the theme of sustainability, here’s a handy tip for all you oyster lovers out there: you know when it’s oyster season when there’s an ‘r’ in the month. (By the way Londoners, keep your eyes peeled next week for London’s first Oyster Festival!)

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Dorset Rock Oyster

Just as we were slurping down our oysters, a plate with a generous slab of potted duck, pickles and fried sourdough appeared. Oh how wonderful potted meats are. Initially a way of preserving meats and fish, the seasoned, cured and confited duck meat is preserved under a layer of fat and so seductively melts onto the toast and in your mouth. The classic accompaniment of pickled red onion looked more like the layers had been dried rather than pickled but were crunchy and full of an acidic juiciness. I don’t know how the chefs managed to do that, but I would love to find out how.

Potted duck ~ Pickled onions

Potted duck ~ Pickled onions

Bitter leaves and Berkswell – a hard cheese made from ewe’s milk – graced our table next. It seems like radicchio is the flavour of the moment and the presentation of this dish was about as good as it gets when you have a bunch of leaves on a plate. A light citrus dressing coated the leaves and just about set that bitterness off.

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Bitter leaves ~ Berkswell

A bowl of big, juicy mussels arrived next. Grilled to perfection, the beauty of this dish lay in the almost smokey juices at the base of the bowl. Not quite enough to have two each, thankfully some of these mussels were big enough to halve and share.

Grilled mussels

Grilled mussels

Probably the prettiest dish of the night was the flatbread topped with purple sprouting broccoli, Devon blue cheese and one strip of cured pork fat. This was definitely one of those dishes where you wish you weren’t sharing it with anyone else, let alone three other people. After quartering and ensuring that each of us got a little bit of everything, that one bite was a lovely mouthful of carbohydrate, fatty pork, salty blue cheese and a bit of green for health and that all important colour contrast.

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Tenderstem ~ Devon blue ~ Cured pork

The roasted chicory with walnuts and anchovies was probably my favourite dish off of the bar snacks menu. Although it is also a bitter vegetable, chicory has another layer of depth to its flavour, meaning that it doesn’t leave you with that intense bitter aftertaste that radicchio often does. A tried and tested combination of ingredients with the added flair of some tomato crisps.

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Chicory

The most interesting and innovative dish of the night had to be the crispy red mullet head with cured roe, reminiscent of Dan Barber’s headline-making fish head from his WastED pop-up last year. Once again demonstrating how closely we had read the menu, the fish head was sat in front of us to exclamations of intrigue and only slight horror from one of our party. Now some dishes are hard to share, but until you’ve tried to divide a mullet head into four even portions making sure that everyone has a bit of all the “weird” bits, like the eye sockets, then you don’t know what hard work is. The thing about eating a fish head is that although there isn’t much in the way of fiddly bones, there isn’t much in the way of meat either. It’s definitely one of those dishes where you have to not be squeamish and get properly stuck in, using your hands for most of it. Lots of good flavours though, once again highlighting how we are so quick to throw away many perfectly edible bits of food.

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Red mullet ~ Cured roe

Our final dish from the bar menu was roasted beetroot with sorrel, topped with what I can only describe as dollops of pheasant egg. Again, dividing this dish up between the four of us meant that ingredients such as the pheasant egg were minimal by the end. This (and the cocktails and the two bottles of wine) is what led to a heated debate among us as to whether a pheasant egg is bigger than a quails egg. Why this happened, I have no idea, however, I claim victory in settling this argument by recounting one of the more horrific events of my childhood where I was chased into a garage by a huge pheasant. I mean, who’s ever heard of someone being chased by a quail? Honestly. Anyway, back to the matter in hand. The roasted beetroot was its usual glorious sweet and earthy flavour, however, I couldn’t tell you what the pheasant egg tasted like which is a shame, as this was definitely the first time I’d had the opportunity to try it and get revenge on that terrifying pheasant from my childhood.

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Beetroot ~ Pheasant egg ~ Sorrel

We finished the night with a plate of Neil’s Yard Cheese; a slice of Montgomery’s Cheddar and a chunk of Tunworth – a British brie-style cheese. The cheese plate came with some great little cardamon and fenugreek crisp breads. These were really tasty and wonderfully moreish but absolutely no good for trying to load up with cheese and chutney.

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Tunworth ~ Montgomery ~ Cheese

We had a great time at Lyle’s, mainly it must be said, as a result of heavy drinking on a Tuesday night. While all the dishes themselves were well-balanced without too many flavours on a plate, I couldn’t help but feel throughout the night that I’d already eaten most of these dishes before. Looking back at the many, many, many photos of food on my phone, I realised that I was experiencing an almost déjà vu like feeling of our trip to Ellory. This certainly isn’t a criticism as our meal at Ellory was one of my highlights of 2018 so far, but it does tend to suggest a little bit of a lack of imagination among our modern British restaurants. That, or I eat out too much in very similar places. All in all, I’m glad I’ve tried the bar menu at Lyle’s, but I’m not sure it has made me want to go back for the dinner menu. It is running a Guest Series of dinners though, and these are certainly worth a sniff at.

 

 

A trip to Dinner for lunch

Knightsbridge, one of London’s classiest areas. Home to the world-renowned Harrods, the fabulous V&A museum, and one of London’s most luxurious hotels; The Mandarin Oriental, where you will find Dinner, by Heston Blumenthal.

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Dinner by Heston Blumenthal

Walking up the steps and having the doors to the Mandarin Oriental swept open for you by the concierge is quite a good feeling, I’m not going to lie. Inside, the hotel is just sheer ostentatious luxury (good description that). Completely unbecoming for our surroundings, we hopped and skipped right up to the front desk of this two Michelin Star restaurant, like two kids let loose in a candy store.

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We were led straight through the gold-gilded bar, through the racks of wine set behind lock-and-key, and into the restaurant. The first thing that grabs your attention is the giant fish-tank like structure to the left, housing the kitchen and its hard-working team of chefs. This means that you can have a good nosey at the chefs from wherever you are sat in the restaurant, although you can’t actually see the area of interest (ie the pass) unless you happen to have bagged yourself one of the exclusive chef’s tables. So I guess it’s more like a trip to the zoo where you can observe the chefs in their natural habitat, rather than getting up close and personal with the service. Still let’s not pretend, you’re here to enjoy eating the food, not to watch them cook it for you.

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Kitchen

The menu was already on our table when we sat down, and, without even bothering to be polite and wait for our waiter to come over and introduce himself, we both greedily tore into it to see what was on offer. An array of intriguingly named dishes make choosing your food hard; add to this the fact that you have eight starters, 10 mains, and seven desserts to narrow down – not to mention sides and the post-dessert option – and the decision becomes even more difficult. Price is also a massive factor here. The starters begin at £18.50 and the cheapest main is £32.00, so this is not one to visit if you’re watching the pennies.

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Dinner Menu

I really did struggle to make up my mind. The two of us had been talking about coming here for a long time, and now that we were finally here, we were faced with a dilemma – how to get the most out of our experience? The problem was that we both liked the sound of pretty much every starter and weren’t as enticed by the mains. Knowing that unless we won the lottery or married rich real soon, we probably wouldn’t be coming back here; we decided to go with our hearts and ordered what we wanted off the starters.

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Sourdough ~ Butter

There was no way we could possibly pay a visit to Dinner and not order the famous Meat Fruit. A chicken liver parfait encased in a mandarin jelly with the texture and appearance of an actual orange, simply served with a slice of grilled sourdough bread. Is there much point in telling you that this dish tasted great, or any of our other dishes for that matter? Because of course they did, it would be pretty disappointing to say the least if they weren’t. Instead, I’ll tell you something interesting about the meat fruit – the most popular dish on the menu.

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Meat fruit

Each meat fruit takes three days to make. Firstly, the chefs make the chicken liver parfait, pouring it into the mandarin-shaped molds, before freezing overnight. The frozen parfait is then dipped twice into the mandarin jelly; the first time to coat it and the second time to give it that slightly puckered texture of an orange rind. All of this was explained to us by our lovely waiter on a post-lunch tour of the kitchen, and he did indeed tell us the exact scientific magic behind this second dipping process, but I’m not going to try and pretend that I remember what it was. A long process for something that took me less than 10 minutes to devour, but the results speak for themselves.

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Chicken liver ~ Mandarin ~ Sourdough

Roast marrowbone, a dish originating from a 1720 cookbook by John Nott, sounded just like a collection of ingredients you would expect to see from such an old recipe. Welsh cake, snails, pickles, piccalilli and anchovies. Traditional recipes for Welsh cakes will call for the use of butter or (shuddering at the very thought) margarine, however, the 1720’s recipe made use of animal fats, such as marrowbone. The result is a crumbly cake that somehow melts in your mouth. The snails slipped down with a silky earthiness, the pickles cut through with sharp acidity, and the cake melted bringing it all together. Glorious.

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Welsh cake ~ Snails ~ Piccalilli

Descending even further into what I would imagine is many people’s worst idea of a meal out, my second starter dish was Savoury Porridge with frogs legs. No, not Heston’s infamous Snail Porridge from The Fat Duck, but grains and oats cooked in a heavenly emulsion of parsley and garlic, topped with breaded and deep fried frogs legs. Inspired by a 1660 cookbook that paid particular attention to the preservation of food, pickled ribbons of fennel and beetroot finished off this delightful bowl of green. And yes, it is true what they say, frogs legs do taste just like chicken, and damn tasty chicken at that.

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Savoury porridge ~ Frogs legs

Frumenty was the name of the last of our starters. The inspiration behind this dish came from a collection of Medieval (14th Century) recipes, that not only were originally noted down on a scroll, but chefs to King Richard II were among the authors. This dish could therefore have been something along the lines of what you could have expected to feast upon at a royal, Medieval banquet.

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Frumenty

The word ‘Frumenty’ actually refers to the spelt element of the dish, which had been cooked to the consistency of a thick porridge. The fat octopus tentacles were soft and moreish (completely unlike the ones that I once attempted to cook myself in the most expensive cooking failure of my life) and the smoked sea broth was a divine few mouthfuls. The most vivid green blobs turned out to be lovage purée, which added a fabulous flavour to the mix that lies somewhere between celery and parsley. I first experienced lovage in an amuse-bouche enjoyed at Simon Hulstone’s The Elephant in Torquay; I loved it then, I love it now, and I wish it was more popular on menus.

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Octopus ~ Lovage ~ Broth

To go with our starters, we also splashed out on a side of another of Heston’s famous inventions; the triple cooked chip. Now, it’s probably a good time to give you a bit of background into one of my slightly strange eating habits. You see, I can’t just eat chips in any old order. I can’t eat more than one at a time (no matter fat chip, skinny chip, short chip, long chip) and I like to leave what I consider to be the best chips to the end of my meal. A series of prods with a fork tells me whether or not a chip is going to have that soft, fluffy inside and on what point of the crispiness scale the outside of the chip sits on. It may seem strange and tedious (and it is), but this system has ensured that I have never ended a meal with a disappointing chip. This system, however, was impossible to employ with these triple cooked chips. All of them had that perfect golden colour, all had an unyielding yet not too solid crisp outside, and they were all pretty much the same thickness.

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Triple cooked chips

So, for the first time in my life, like an absolute rebel without a clue, I ate my chips in any old order. The verdict? Worth the £7.50 price tag, and the little pot of mushroom ketchup our waiter suggested we try, was delicious.

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Mushroom ketchup

To the desserts. I had had my eye on the brown bread ice cream as soon as I saw it on the menu, however, things took an unexpected turn when we were offered the post-dessert liquid nitrogen ice cream trolley. Not really fancying ice cream followed by ice cream, we settled down into tense negotiations about what dessert to order. In the most Millennial moment of our lives, we made our decision based on a photograph seen the day before on Instagram: Eggs in Verjuice.

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Eggs in Verjuice

I had the honor of cracking open this blue speckled Easter egg made from white chocolate, revealing perhaps the ultimate molecular gastronomy achievement of a completely intact faux egg. The egg white was represented by a verbena and coconut pannacotta which housed a yolk of grand marnier something-or-other; the egg within the shell sat on a small bed of coffee parfait. Not flavours that I normally look for in a dessert, I will admit that this was more of a showstopper for me than one enjoyed for its mind blowing taste. Personally, I still think I would have preferred the brown bread ice cream.

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Coconut ~ Coffee ~ Grand Marnier

The last edible experience of our lunch at Dinner, was the liquid nitrogen ice cream trolley. Wheeled over to our table, our fabulous waiter explained the history behind this method of making ice cream (which, by the way, is not one of Heston’s ideas) before making it in front of us.

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Liquid Nitrogen Trolley

The only flavour on offer was vanilla, but a choice of toppings as well as a spoonfull of blood orange in the cone gave another level of excitement; I went for an interesting, but not complimentary, mixture of salted fennel seeds and freeze-dried raspberries.

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Vanilla ~ Fennel ~ Raspberry

Good ice cream and interesting toppings, but unfortunately, just as quickly as liquid nitrogen makes ice cream, it melts and goes all over the place. It was worth it for the video I managed to get, worth it for the experience, but really, me and my eating in public dignity would have loved it in a tub.

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Pre-dessert ~ Chocolate ganache ~ Carraway shortbread

The end of our meal and paying the bill was not the end of our experience, however. Our waiter offered us a tour of the kitchen that was now in a state of post-service-pre-prep calm. We got a wave and a “Hello!” from head chef Jonny Glass; had a day in the life of the kitchen explained to us; and enjoyed a walk around the kitchen. The best part was standing in front of the array of pineapples twirling away in front of the fire, being slow cooked for the (very aptly named considering how much booze they were being brushed with) tipsy cake dessert (check our Twitter for the video).

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Kitchen tour

Overall, eating at Dinner is one of those things that you can look back on and say “I’ve done that! I’ve been there!” The food without a doubt is some of the highest quality money can buy and I loved the story behind the dishes as well as the use of more unusual ingredients. At the end of the day though, it is the techniques used, the skills of the chefs, as well as the theatricals of the meal that you are paying for on a trip here. This was summed up completely by the liquid nitrogen trolley; a lot of fun but kind of a pain in the ass to eat. It’s one ticked off the bucket list for sure, but that’s the thing about a bucket list, it’s full of once in a lifetime things.