Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Le Café Anglais

I've heard many things about Le Café Anglais. A few friends went to the Taste of London festival last year, where they had their anchovy toasts with Parmesan custard. How good does that sound?! That put Le Café Anglais firmly on my 'must go' list, especially as I adapted a delicious recipe for lasagne from Rowley Leigh (chef patron).

Recently I met Charlie McVeigh, part-owner of Le Café Anglais at an ale and oyster tasting at his pub, The Westbridge. We've been talking on Twitter ever since and I was delighted when he invited fellow bloggers Niamh and Krista and I for dinner. The restaurant is situated in Bayswater, not a very well-known part of London for me. Upon arrival and having a drink at the bar, I was surprised to learn that the restaurant used to be a McDonalds. It certainly doesn't look like it. We were seated at a booth, upholstered in pistachio green and immediately presented with some delicious radishes and some tasty bread. Of course, we asked Charlie to do the ordering and he came up trumps.

We ordered a selection of Hors D'oeuvres, and thankfully two lots of the Parmesan Custard with Anchovy Toasts because it was everything I had hoped. The custard was silky and rich with umami with a strong hit of Parmesan. The anchovy toasts were perfect dippers, although some buckled under the effort of how much custard I was greedily trying to pile on.

Teriyaki Mackerel with Cucumber Salad was also excellent. I find mackerel a bit of a struggle unless it's paired with strong flavours and is really fresh, and this didn't disappoint. The teriyaki was sweet and the cucumber provided welcome freshness to an otherwise oily and rich fish. We were off to a good start. We also had some Pimentos de Padron, Oyster Fritters with Thai Dipping Sauce, and Salsify Fritters. If I'm honest, I don't think salsify tastes like much to me. These were expertly battered, without a hint of grease and light as a feather.

Next up came the first courses. We ordered four dishes, one of which was this Smoked Eel & Bacon Salad. It looked very familiar indeed, as Helen at Food Stories has recently made this recipe. I absolutely adore smoked eel, and the flavour pairings of this dish was excellent. The smoked eel was flavoursome and the beurre blanc sauce, delicately coating the leaves, had a perfect hint of acidity to slice through that richness.

I especially requested the Vitello Tonnato, purely because it intruiged me when I was reading up on the menu. Cold veal in a tuna sauce? I had horrible visions of being presented with a slab of grey meat languishing under a sauce of blitzed tinned tuna. These aren't natural pairings in my head. Apparently this is a classic summer dish - perfect for the driving rain outside then...

I'm really glad I asked for this, because it was delicious. Beautifully pink slices of melt-in-the-mouth veal in a dressing that had a strong tuna flavour. I have no idea how it tasted of tuna whilst still being completely smooth. The teeny tiny capers made me a very happy girl indeed.

Now this here is Pike Boudin with Fines Herbes and Beurre Blanc (Christ, how much butter did I consume?). Charlie tells us that there is a magical machine they have that strips the pike of all its many fiddly bones, leaving just flesh to work into this boudin. And what a wonderful sausage it was. Almost mousse-like in texture, it had a delicate but balanced flavour. Definitely a highlight. We also had a dish of Spaghetti with Wild Garlic which we got as I've never tried wild garlic. Unfortunately I couldn't detect a distinctly different flavour; it was delicious but to me it tasted of garlic, perhaps a touch fresher.

Speaking of mousses, it was insisted that we have a mid-course course - this Spinach Mousse with Sea Kale and Morels. It was perfectly smooth in texture and intensely spinachy (as one might expect). I remarked "ooh, it's got raisins on top!" I do wonder about myself sometimes. The morels were earthy and pungent, with the surrounding cream sauce so moreish - it reminded me of Charlie Nelson's Onion Sauce - I wanted to tip the remnants of the plate into my mouth. Luckily there was bread at hand to save my dignity.

As if that wasn't enough, we then had our main courses. Gorgeous suckling pig and roasted chicken breast with rosemary and garlic graced our table.

White Asparagus with Blood Orange Beurre Blanc was an unusual but gladly recieved side dish. Too often we have just the bog standard wilted greens / dressed leaves to accompany meals and I think it can get a bit boring.

I fell in love with white asparagus last during during a foodie jaunt to Brugge. Green and white both have their virtues, but I find that white is a much meatier and deeper flavoured beast.

Highlights of the mains were definitely this halibut. Paired perfectly with salsa verde, it was tender and perfectly cooked. I'm surprised we didn't fight over it.

Now, I know this is all rather gushing. There were a couple of dud notes, most notably the duck confit with swiss chard and pine nuts which was far too salty for my tastes. We also had an exteremely generous and mostly delicious cheeseboard, but one of the cheeses was so ripe it hurt my mouth - perhaps a bit too ripe.

Desserts were perhaps a bit foolish, given the amount of food we'd consumed but we couldn't resist. In particular, the Chocolate Souffle with Pistachio Ice Cream stood out (literally). The souffle was light and expertly made. My Custard Tart with Prunes was smooth and silky with just the lightest dusting of nutmeg. Or was it cinnamon? One of them.

All this was washed down with a light, off-dry Anjou le Clos des Rouliers 2006 Richard Leroy (my favourite of the evening), a Dolcetto d'Alba 2006 GD Vajra - apparently the first bottle was corked. I couldn't tell. I need to give up smoking - and a lovely dessert wine, Vouvray Moelleux Cuvee 1990 Didier Champalou.

All in all, a most excellent meal with a great host. When we arrived the restaurant was virtually empty. By 8pm, the dining room was buzzy and filled with pleasant chatter of fellow diners. Interestingly, Rowley Leigh prefers not to play music in his restaurants and while this can make the atmosphere slightly stifled, it did nothing of the sort here. Waiting staff was attentive and friendly and I fell in love with our server a little bit when he proffered a napkin to hide my embarrassing red wine spillage on the white tablecloth.

Now, I know my review may be biased due to having dined with Charlie, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this place to people. That Parmesan custard. That spinach mousse. That halibut. That waiter. All things that would have made me wonder when I can go back.

Le Café Anglais

8 Porchester Gardens

London W2 4DB

Tel: 020 7221 1415

Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Underground Restaurant

Recently there's been quite a lot of press about this Underground Restaurant - so called because it's held in Ms Marmite Lover's front room, payment is upfront and there is a set menu. Myself and three others decided to pay it a visit, after reading favourable reviews on blogs, such as here.

So, on a sunny Saturday, I tackled London's transport system. It's not easy trying to get from north east London where I was visiting friends, to Kilburn, especially when TFL decide to suspend the entire Victoria Line and part of the Jubilee line all weekend. I ended up arriving half an hour early due to being overly cautious. When we arrived at Ms Marmite Lover's house, we were greeted by her daughter, who was also an excellent waitress. After a Kir Semi-Royale, we were seated to tuck into olives.

The Spring Menu started off with raviolo stuffed with Portabello, button and oyster mushrooms with an onion cappucino foam, cooked by Charlie Nelson. This was excellent - the pasta was well made, and the onion sauce was delicious. I was even allowed to sip more sauce from a ladle out of a massive pot of it later that evening.

Next up was salmon en papillote with creme fraiche and dill, along with Aga roasted new potatoes and rocket and watercress salad. The salmon was perfectly cooked; moist on the inside. The potatoes had roasted into sweet nuttiness and were lovely and fluffy inside. Happily enough we were offered seconds.

With 18 diners in the room, the atmosphere was great; nicely noisy and everyone was obviously having a good time. It was pretty spacious too - I don't know about you, but even having 10 people in my front room would be a struggle, let alone double that. We had brought our own wine and because we'd had a few pre-dinner pints, our table was quite lively.

To finish off the meal, we had tart au citron. The tart had just the right amount of tartness and was accompanied by some cream and a pretty chocolate-dipped physalis. An impromptu piano performance / Elton John sing-a-long (I may have been drinking... rather a lot) from Chris finished off the evening nicely. Unfortunately we couldn't stay for coffee as we had to dash for the last train. So all in all, we spent almost 3 hours at Ms Marmite Lover's place which is longer than one usually spends in restaurants; proof indeed of what an excellent and fun host she is, as it was a surprise when we checked the time.

It's a great idea, and one I hope catches on. I for one don't have the facilities (or the nerve) but I had a great time and I think it's an experience worth having.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hix Oyster & Chophouse

There are few things more enjoyable than having a celebratory meal with your loved ones, especially when you come from a family who like to eat. Last week was my dad's birthday. We had a bit of a logistical nightmare trying to sort out a weekend for me to visit, as there were appointments to keep and rugby matches to be watched, so we eventually decided to go out for a meal during the week. Dad originally wanted to go to St John but unfortunately it was fully booked. Whilst on the e-mail exchange, we simultaneously suggested Hix Oyster & Chophouse. It was decided this was an omen, and it was booked.

When we got there, we were greeted by a busy and buzzy atmosphere. I was somewhat dismayed to find we were sat near a table of 6 suits, but they stayed relatively well behaved, with only a roar here or there. Immediately we were greeted with a loaf of warm bread with butter. I had to stop myself from wolfing it all down.

It took us a long time to decide what to order. The menu was very interesting; duck hearts, ox cheeks, rabbit, and laverbread all featured, as well as steaks as you might imagine. We decided to go for a dozen Hereford no.3s to share as a pre-starter, as is only right when you go to a place with 'Oyster' in it's name. The oysters were gorgeous - meaty and minerally and were a delight to slurp down. They didn't really need the shallot vinegar or the tabasco - just a light squeeze of lemon brought the flavour out beautifully.

As for the starter, Mum and Dad immediately decided on the razor clams. I wanted to order something different, and this 'Jellied Ham Hock Terrine with Piccalilli' caught my eye. I enjoyed it immensely; a deeply porky flavour (as one might expect from a ham hock) with the parsley set in the terrine adding welcome freshness. I really must try to make some piccalilli of my own soon. On the other side of the table, there were grins over the clams. I sneaked a taste of myself and was rather envious.

For the mains, Dad and I shared the 1kg Aberdeen Angus Porterhouse steak, aged for 28 days - not a cheap dish, coming in at £63, but very impressive. This beast was brought to the table and deftly carved by our waiter. Ordered medium rare, the fillet side was meltingly tender and beautifully pink, with a great charring on the outside. The sirloin side had a fantastic flavour and was enrobed with extremely tasty fat. It is served au naturel, so we ordered chips and purple sprouting broccoli. I was a touch disappointed that the broccoli was merely lukewarm, but the chips more than made up for it - piping hot, with a beautifully crisp exterior and fluffy innards. It was commented on, however, that they were a touch over-salted. It was all washed down with a lovely bottle of Berry Bros. & Rudd Extra Ordinary Claret, a medium bodied wine with hints of plum, perfect with the meat.

Throughout the dinner, the waiting staff were inobtrusive, but also slightly apologetic. I think our waiter was a bit scared of us. Nevertheless, service was sweet and efficient. We were suitably stuffed after this meat binge, but after reading Helen's review of Hix and how much she loved the blood orange and gin jelly with ice cream, I couldn't resist ordering it myself.

Ah, how I love jelly. The flavour here was great, with the sweet citrus of the blood orange contrasted with the creamy ice cream. There were segments of blood orange hiding underneath the jelly ring too, and a slight hint of gin in the background. I loved it, although Dad, who ordered the same, didn't. He said the flavour was fine, but it made his mouth feel weird. It was a shame the waiter didn't notice that most of that dish had been left, and instead nervously joked that we must be full.

All in all, a fantastic meal. We all loved the atmosphere of the restaurant which was loud, busy and bustling. The bill was a shocker though - it's rather expensive. Still, excellent food and quality ingredients don't come cheaply, and Hix covered all those areas.

Hix Oyster & Chophouse

36-37 Greenhill Rents

Cowcross Street


London EC1M 6BN

Tel: 020 7017 1930

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Beef In Guinness Stew

Ah, Saint Patrick's Day. It's celebrated on the 17th March, to honour the patron saint of Ireland. So why does everyone go bonkers over this day, and not for other saints days? Because the Irish are particularly good at brewing my usual tipple of choice, the delicious Guinness. I had my first Guinness on St Patrick's Day five years ago, outside the Toucan in Soho, a pub well known for its Irishness, and I've been hooked ever since.

Walking down Wardour Street towards Leicester Square, I glanced in dismay at lots of shouting teenagers bedecked in great big green hats, queueing to get into O'Neills and Waxy O'Connors. I thanked my lucky stars that I was going straight home and then wondered how I'd turned into a grumpy old lady at a mere 22.

Anyway, I'm waffling. In honour of Paddy's Day, I decided to make beef in Guinness stew for myself and 4 friends who were coming round. I wanted to be a bit more adventurous and make some soda bread, but that will have to wait until the weekend - there was wine to be consumed.

Guinness makes a great base for a stew, but do be careful not to use it as 100% of the stock flavouring, or it will be very bitter indeed. Beef shin is best, but stewing steak also works. The stew was rich, velvetty and unctuous with the root vegetables giving welcome sweetness. I served it with colcannon - potatoes mashed with LOTS of butter, milk, cabbage and a little spring onion. So one might say colcannon crossed with champ.

Beef in Guinness Stew

Serves 5

1kg stewing beef / beef shin
3 medium onions, peeled and chopped roughly
4 cloves of garlic, smashed with the side of the knife
500ml Guinness (I used bottled)
200ml beef stock
100 ml sweet sherry
2 bay leaves
A handful of black peppercorns
300gr carrots peeled and chopped roughly
3 sticks of celery, destringed and diced
Half a punnet of chestnut mushrooms, quartered
100gr baby parsnips, peeled and halved
1 tbsp tomato puree
50gr butter
2 tbsp plain flour

Cut the beef into chunks and toss in seasoned flour. Meanwhile, slowly fry the onions with the carrots, celery and garlic in a large pot. Add the bay leaves and the peppercorns.

Fry the beef in batches on a high heat in a non-stick pan until very browned. Add to the big pot. Deglaze the pan with the sherry, and add to the pot. Add the Guinness and bring to the boil. Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the stock (I used a cube). Add the tomato puree and simmer lidless for 2 1/2 hours. Taste for seasoning - adjust if neccessary. If it's too bitter add some sugar, but I found it fine as the sherry balanced it out. Take off the heat, cool down, and refridgerate overnight. When it comes to eating, add the mushrooms and the parsnips. If it's jellified, don't worry - it'll go back to liquid when heated up. Simmer for 45 more minutes, then mix the butter with the flour in a bowl, and add to the pot and simmer for a further 15 minutes. This should thicken it up nicely.

So there you have it. It might sound labour intensive, but it really is just a lot of chopping and then chucking it in a pan. Any leftovers (there were none) would work well in a pie. All the eaters declared it delicious, so unless they're just really polite guests, I can say it was worth it. Comfort food at it's finest.

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Pickled Cucumber

Possibly not the best photo to showcase the pickled cucumber, but it can look boring on it's own. Wafer-thin cucumber interlaced with white onion, but that's pretty much it.

I recently went to Borough Market (on a less hectic Friday afternoon) and was rather taken by the terrine I saw. It sounded amazing, as it was with foie gras, pork, speck and black truffle. I visibly dribbled over it, and only had the merest of eyebrow raises when my one slice came to almost £6.

To accompany this rather extravagant purchase, I thought some sort of pickle or chutney would work well. Glancing in my fridge, a lonely cucumber and some slightly wilted dill only confirmed that pickling was the way forward.

Pickled Cucumber

Roughly 6 servings, depending how much of a pickle fiend you are

1 cucumber

1 small white onion

50gr caster sugar

100ml cider vinegar

6gr salt

3 tbsp dill

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, salt and sugar slowly to the boil and then take off the heat. Slice the cucumber as thinly as possible (I used my box grater), slice the onion into semi circles also as thinly as possible and to the cooled vinegar / sugar / salt solution and leave for 24 hours.

The pickled provided a wonderfully tart contrast to the extremely rich terrine. It was mighty tasty, but I found it rather overpriced for what it was. The pickled cucumber was great with smoked salmon, but also potted shrimps and even in burgers.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Dine With Dos Hermanos at Vinoteca

Food bloggers sure know how to organise a meet. When Dos Hermanos posted that they were hosting a dinner, Dine With Dos Hermanos, I jumped at the chance and immediately signed up. 30 of us descended upon Vinoteca; a nice mix of people, from readers of the blog to food bloggers, and we even found ourselves seated opposite a celebrity.

To start, we were treated to a wine tasting by the guys at Casa Leal, followed by shared starters. We almost fought over the squid, above - it was beautifully battered and fried, served with harissa and dukka. The dish that really stood out for me was the smoked duck with mustard leaves. The duck was silky smooth with a nice hit of smokiness, and served at room temperature, the fat melted nicely in the mouth. Lucikly everyone was too busy fighting over the squid to notice me scarfing it all.

A salad of blood orange, Castelmagno, pomegranate seeds, rocket and pine nuts was also a bit of a revelation. I need to get in on this citrus fruit - cheese - salad combo. I don't care much for pomegranate seeds though. They're pretty, but too much faff to bother with eating.

For our mains, we were given a choice of pork belly, baked pollack, or mutton pie. We were asked to choose a while ago to give the kitchen time to prepare the serving of 30 people at once, and boy did I face a dilemma. The obvious choice would be pork belly, but I always have pork belly and I felt that I wasn't expanding my horizons. After days and days of deliberation, I hastily typed out my 'Baked Pollack with Fregola, Saffron, Celery & Mussel Stew' and sent it off to Simon. Phew. Decision made, it's out of my hands. A couple days later, Simon contacted me to say he'd lost my menu choices. Oh crap. I had a chance to make a U-turn.

I'm glad I stuck to my guns, as I saw a look of envy or two darted over from Helen and Niamh. The fish was very fresh and beatifully cooked, flaking away from the crispy skin perfectly. The fregola provided some great texture and soaked up the sauce well (where can I get me some?) and the fat, juicy mussels were a generous portion.

To top this all off, some lovely cheese was served with homemade oat biscuits. As if that wasn't enough, we also had a parfait served with tea from the Rare Tea Company which provided a light and refreshing almost end, followed by a creamy, surprisingly light buttermilk sponge with stewed rhubarb to finish. Oof.

But that wasn't all. We were generously given goody bags, laden with gifts galore; Olorose sherry, Jelly Belly beans, Trees Can't Dance chilli sauce, and other such treats.

All in all, a great evening out. Dos Hermanos and Vinoteca combined were most excellent hosts.

Read other posts about the evening here, here and of course, on the Dos Hermanos blog. They now have a Facebook group for future events.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Beancurd

Snazzy name, no?

Legend has it that this dish, Ma Po Tofu, is named after the wife of a Qing Dynasty restauranteur that was scarred with smallpox. Apparently she prepared this dish for hungry people returning home and as it's so delicious, it thus became popular.

What is fairly strange with it is that it uses minced beef, something not regularly seen in Chinese cookery. My grandmother made a dish with minced beef, tinned tomatoes and spring onions, a sort of bolognese-style dish but this is the only one I really remember. Don't be put off by the tofu - this is a dish that I've known to convert tofu haters. It combines the great almost crunchy texture of the beef with the silky tofu pieces perfectly and is a spicy, rich and warming dish. Many restaurants use minced pork, and also add things like shiitake mushrooms, but I prefer this version; simple, and with the main components shining through.

The recipe I use is adapted from Fuschia Dunlop's 'Sichuan Cookery'. I love this book and I highly admire Dunlop. No simpering or batting the eyelashes at the camera like Ching He-Huang, but instead she's actually lived in the country and writes about authentic and traditional recipes.

Ma Po Tofu (Pock-Marked Mother Chen's Beancurd)

Serves 2

1 block of tofu (I use Mori-Nu Tetrapak Firm Silken, when I can't get fresh)

4 stalks of spring onion, sliced on the diagonal

180gr minced beef

2 1/2 tbsp chilli bean paste

1 tbsp fermented black beans, or black bean sauce

2 tsp ground chilli (if you really love chilli)

250ml vegetable or chicken stock

1 tsp sugar

1 tsp Chinese black vinegar

2 tsp light soy sauce

2 heaped tsp cornflour mixed with a little cold water

1/2 tsp Sichuan pepper, dry-roasted & ground

3 tbsp groundnut oil. Dunlop uses much more, and this is meant to be an oily dish, but I can't bring myself to do it.

Cut your tofu into cubes and steep in hot water. Heat your wok until smoking, then add the oil. When it's shimmering, add the minced beef and fry the beef on a high heat until it's crispy. Add the chilli bean paste, and fry until fragrant. Add the black beans or black bean sauce and the ground chilli if using.

Next, add the stock with the soy sauce, sugar and vinegar. Carefully drain the tofu, then add the tofu to the wok and simmer for 5 or 10 minutes so that the tofu absorbs the flavour. Add the spring onion, stir ever-so-carefully, and then add the slakened cornflour and cook until thickened. Sprinkle the Sichuan pepper over the dish and serve with steamed rice and steamed greens.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Chinese Steamed Egg with Minced Pork

I've been meaning to make this dish for a while, as it's a favourite I remember from my childhood. This weekend I decided it was time. Minced pork and mushroom were common in the dish, mixed in with the silky savoury custard. It can be quite difficult to get the consistency right and without bubbles on top - I failed on the bubble front but I'm not sure it makes such a difference. It was perfect served with just rice and curly kale, stir-fried with ginger, garlic, chilli and oyster sauce. It makes for a really light and refreshing meal and for me, is great comfort food.

Chinese Steamed Egg with Minced Pork & Mushrooms

For 2

2 eggs
5 dried shiitake mushrooms
160gr minced pork
1" ginger, minced
1 spring onion
1 tbsp light soy sauce
1 tsp white pepper
1 tbsp Shaoxing rice wine
1/2 tsp cornflour
Toasted sesame oil

In a bowl, pour 200mls of boiling water over the shiitake mushrooms. Leave for 1/2 an hour. Meanwhile, add the ginger to the pork with the soy sauce, rice wine, cornflour and white pepper. Chop the white part of the spring onion finely and slice the mushrooms, add to the pork and leave to marinate for 20 minutes. Fry in a non stick pan or wok until just cooked. Add to a bowl to put in the steamer.

In a bowl, whisk the two eggs with the cooled 200ml of the water from the rehydrated mushrooms. Pass the egg mixture through a sieve into the bowl of the pork mince. Cover with a foil lid and steam on the lowest heat until cooked. Mine took about 20 minutes and I had to keep checking to see if it had set.

The mushroom water makes the custard juicy and smooth, as well as giving it a good hit of umami. You can really add what you like to it - salted eggs are common, as well as dried shrimp or carrot.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Portugese Pork Belly with Clams (Porco a Alentejana)

Yes, that's right; more pork belly. You could accuse me of being stuck in a rut, as this is the 4th pork belly recipe to be posted on here, but it's just so versatile. Braised, steamed, roasted - it all works perfectly.

My parents were coming to visit and have a look round the new flat. As they always go all out when cooking for me, I figured it was all I could do to do the same, especially as they gave up their Saturday morning to ferry me back from Ikea. Pork belly always gets rave reviews from my housemate, so my meal was going to be based around this.

Having googled around, I came across this recipe. I haven't cooked any Portugese food before, which is partly why I went for it, although with a few tweaks. As strange as it may seem, shellfish and pork are a great match and this worked very well indeed. Off I went down to Selfridges Food Hall, armed with a gift card from my old colleagues. They were the only place I could think of that would have Palourde clams for me to buy on a Friday night, and they didn't disappoint. At around £8 for half a kilo, they're not cheap but I imagine mussels would work just as well.

The pork belly came from the meat counter, Jack O'Shea. It was very tasty, but I still haven't come across any better than GG Sparks' pork. Anyway, my parents enjoyed the dish immensely (judging but the silence that ensued while we gobbled it up) and I was really pleased with the way it turned out.

Portugese Pork Belly with Clams

Serves 3 hungry people

1 kilo pork belly, skin scored

500gr Palourde clams, or mussels

300mls dry white wine

1 heaped tsp hot smoked paprika

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 onion, diced

1 yellow pepper, chopped roughly

1 tin of cherry tomatoes, drained and tin juices reserved

1 red chilli, deseeded and chopped

1 stick of celery

1 handful of coriander

1 handful of parsley

1/2 a lemon

The night before, add the wine to a large bowl with the paprika and the garlic. Score the flesh side of the pork, and add the pork to the bowl, taking care so that the liquid doesn't touch the skin. Marinade for at least 5 hours (I left it overnight). To cook, preheat your oven to the highest temperature. Remove the pork from the marinade (reserving the marinade) and pat dry. Dry the skin thoroughly, rub with a little oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast in a roasting tin on high for 30 mins, then turn down to 130 degrees and roast further for 3 hours. Remove and rest for at least 30 mins. I find the skin usually needs to be stuck under the grill to puff up properly, but do keep an eye on it as it burns easily.

While the pork is resting, fry the onion and chilli in a little oil. Strain the marinade and add the garlic from the marinade to the pan. Fry slowly until fragrant. Then add the yellow pepper and the reserved marinade and simmer for 5 or so minutes. Add the cherry tomatoes with half the juice (use the other half of the juice for a pasta sauce or something) and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Making sure the liquid is simmering, add the clams and immediately whack a lid on and cook until the clams have just opened, roughly 5 minutes. I kept peeking as I think there's nothing worse than over-cooked clams. Remove from the heat, garnish with the parsley and coriander and a squeeze of lemon juice.

To serve, slice the pork belly into portions, add a ladleful of clams and the sauce, and serve with potato mashed with kale (although I think roasted potatoes or rice would also work well).

Friday, 6 March 2009

Lunching at Hibiscus

Hurrah! Finally I am back online. I've sorely missed having the internet; there's only so much crap TV one can put up with. Yes yes, I could have gone and done something productive, but... well... I'm lazy.

The phrase 'credit crunch' has been bandied around like no-one's business. I am, quite frankly, rather bored by it. It's all doom and gloom; I recently left a job and a month later 40% of the work force got the chop. Lucky escape, but it is upsetting. So now, it's encouraging to see that you can still lunch in decent places for a reasonable amount of money.

With this in mind, my sister told me that she was in town for one lunchtime only and that she wanted to go somewhere good. Hibiscus has been on my list for a while now, and having seen it's £25 three course set lunch deal, a table was duly booked.

On arrival, I was greeted graciously and shown to my table, a large 4 seater (for the two of us) facing the rest of the restaurant. The dining room is pretty plush; my heels sunk into the carpets and I felt rather cosseted. My sister hadn't turned up yet, and I was given a bowl of olives. They were flavoursome and crunchy; so far so good.

The set lunch menu consists of two choices per course. All the choices sounded appealing, so I asked my sister to choose whatever she wanted and then I would take the choices she didn't want. In places like these, I think it's best that you try and sample all you can. We were pleasantly surprised when the above pictured amuse bouche was presented to us. It reminded me of a pre-dessert at Launceston Place, presented in the same way. This one was savoury, with a soft poached quail's egg inside which yielded beautifully under the pressure of the teeny tiny spoon, to mix and enrichen a palm heart velouté. Well, at least that's what I think it was; our server's French accent was really thick. The brioche soldier on top made for a good dipping vehicle. "Do you think I could drink the dregs out of the shell?" We were both impressed with it.

The starter was ravioli of scallop, cuttlefish and crab. God knows what was perching on top of it, because for some reason I didn't take a picture of the menu, and I daren't ask the waiter to repeat himself again. This was probably the least favourite of the courses. The filling was rich, the seafood fresh but the pasta wasn't as silky or as light as it could have been.

My main of roasted Cornish silver mullet with turnips, broccoli fricassée and almond sauce was gorgeous. The fish was cooked perfectly and the skin crisp. I'm not a huge fan of almond but it really worked well, lending a richness to the dish. A hit of intense broccoli flavour rounded it off nicely.

Ah, dessert. I'm not particularly bothered with desserts usually, but this one really wowed me and was the best course of the meal.

I ordered the 'Clun Valley Whimberry Clafoutis', wondering what this berry was, but it turns out they're rather like blueberries. They were encased in a light cake, topped with barley malt ice cream and served atop a Earl Grey tea syrup. My god, did this work well. The ice cream was smooth and rich, with just a hint of the barley malt. The syrup was intense and delicious; I found it strange that I liked it so much, as I usually find Earl Grey to be too perfumey for my tastes. On the other side of the table, my sister concurred that her yellow lime tart, topped with a pleasingly crunchy caramel with clove ice cream, was also the star of her meal.

So, for three courses each, a lemonade and service this lunch came to £30 a head. Great value for the quality of the cooking and the attentive (if indecipherable) waiting staff. I'd definitely like to come back for a tasting menu dinner, as the a la carte looked intruiging, but alas, not until I win the lottery. For now, set lunches will do.


29 Maddox Street

London W1S 2PA

020 7629 2999

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