Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Mothering Sunday Tea with Hannah & Chilli-Chocolate Brownie Disaster

Like a diligent and loving son I headed back to the ranch for Mothering Sunday, safe in the knowledge that I was in for a feast. Whenever we see Hannah we know we're not going to go hungry - as you'll see from the links below.

BBQ on the bales
Hannah's epic afternoon tea
Christmas Eve with Hannah
Cowie's Brownies for Hannah

This isn't going to be a long post. Just a brief pictorial summary in honour of the lost art of afternoon tea. Enjoy the slide show.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

The highlight of the spread wasn't the first bite of Jane's incredible scones with clotted cream, or Mum's amazing violet and lemon cake. No the highlight was my disastrous foray into interfering with Cowie's (now sacred) brownie recipe. I thought it would be a good idea to add some chilli chocolate sauce to the mix. But I failed to check the sauce I used resulting in Cowie's, normally amazing, brownies tasting more of curry than chocolate.

On closer inspection of the jar it turned out that the sauce I had haphazardly lobbed in was actually actually a sauvory sauce for use in Mexican moles! DISASTER! I had single handedly ruined Mother's Day. Or so Dad said. And then Hannah broke down crying and I feared the worst... but they were happy tears. None of us have eaten anything this nasty in a long time and it was hilarious. Take it from me. The brownies below may look delicious.

Chilli choc brownies

But because I used this stuff. They tasted gross!

Hannah. It was great to see you. I hope the Aga gets better soon!

Monday, 30 March 2009

Battered Creme Egg in Bruton

Battered Creme Egg

Wow. I am ashamed to say the fish and chip shop selling these crispy, coronary inducing confections was closed so I haven't had a chance to sample one. But, rest assured when I next visit Bruton I'll give one a try and tell you all about it.

I just love the line, "Cadbury's may splatter 'em, but we batter 'em". Surely someone from Publicis is behind this!

Memories of Africa Flooded back at The Double Club

I often pine for Africa having spent 1/27th of my life breathing in the joys and despairs of the African continent. I’ve got giddy memories of living and working in Ghana. Of riding crocodiles. Exploring cocoa plantations. Walking with lion. I’ve got an enduring fondness for South Africa having taught in a school in Cape Town and in spite of being shot at. I’ve got a fuzzy feeling for Tanzania and Zanzibar having spent a few weeks on a beech there. And if we’re counting, I’ve had a great time in Morocco. But I’ve only scratched Africa’s surface.

Most of my foodie memories from Africa are of endless braies in Cape Town. But my favourite meals were in Ghana. Whilst I detested fufu and kenke I adored the way they cooked tilapia with onions, peppers and chilli. To this day the two-foot long tilapia we shared between 3 of us in a treehouse in Accra ranks as one of my favourite meals ever. Poullet Yasser wasn’t bad either. It’s made with a lemon and mustard sauce that makes you gasp. If you want to find some African recipes visit the Congo Cook Book.

So when Douglas and I were looking for an unusual restaurant to explore and the Double Club was mentioned, I got terribly excited and booked us a table before you could squeeze in a bad gag.

We turned left out of Angel and almost decided to retreat to the safety of Balham. The alleyway was scattered with tramps and strewn with litter. We tried to be anonymous as we walked past a bunch of scary youths handing out little plastic packets to strangers who were giving them money, but failed horrendously as Cowie’sstiletto heel got caught in a cobble! (I now know why cobblers are called cobblers.)

Street to Double Club

In contrast the door to the Double Club is guarded by two of the friendliest bouncers you’re ever likely to come across. (Bouncers, Richard. Bouncers. At a restaurant Richard. A restaurant.) But this isn’t a restaurant. This is a concept restaurant.

The Double Club is the creation of Carsten Holler who has joined forces with Prada to give birth to a restaurant that is half Congolese and half European that only has a 6 month life span. Holler’s love of Congo as a country and for its cooking sees the venture giving 50% of its profits to abused women back in Africa. It’s a remarkable idea. A refreshing change both in terms of its approach and its altruism.

Double club sign

I was determined to eat as much Congolese food as possible. If it meant I landed up like Kurtz then so be it. Luckily, Douglas was of very much the same opinion. Coming with girlfriends as well, meant we could explore as much of the menu as possible. European included.

The first thing that caught our attention was the smell. That languid, dusty smell you get as the sun goes down in Africa. When the guys with the hot coals burning in the middle of a car wheel start charring spiced goat kebabs. I love it. I miss it. It never ceases to amaze me how the sense of smell can transport us. Take that sight. In your face sound.

The restaurant is staffed by Prada clad models who did an exceptional job servicing us. The tables alternate from being authentically-rustic-African to glitzy-posh-European. I hate to pick holes in the styling because I think on the whole it is inspired. I just can’t help thinking that the African areas could have been more acutely African. It’s just a bit sanitised.

We ordered wildly. With wanton disregard for our appetites and wallets. A bewildering array of dishes arrived such as some enormous prawns called kossakossa. Gently spicy and slightly dirty tasting, they couldn’t have been more authentic. We almost had a fight for the last one. But, that could have been because one the other dishes of green African vegetables was depth charged with smoked, hard, grey, dry fish. Having eaten many similar things over in Africa I can vouch for its accuracy. But am also willing to testify against it in a court of law for being one of the most foul things I’ve eaten in a long time. Probably since Ghana in 2003.

Pigs trotters were fun even though you never get much meat on a trotter. The dish was more of a short essay on texture. The gelatinous sauce coated the tongue and the pulses added some body. You’ve just got to watch out for the small trottery bones that lurk in the murky depths. I imagine its one of those dishes that rewards the tactile, manual eater.

Curried goat was irresistible. It jumped around on the menu with its hand in the air yelling, “ORDER ME!” “OVER HERE!” “PICK ME!” So we did. It promised a lot. And whilst perfectly decent, it lacked the searing heat of the African cooking I remember. That said the lack of spice allowed the flavour of the goat to shine through with its sure footed charm.

Having indulged in most of the Congolese food for starter, Cowie and I chose the veal for our main course. It arrived looking resplendent. Almost regal.Without a hair out of place.It was cooked perfectly, but let down by some celeriac chips that were a step too far.

Douglas’s girlfriend wolfed down her beef ribs before the rest of us had been able to extend our telescopic forks. We can only conclude that it was, therefore, exceptionally good. Douglas put us all to shame by ordering the Congolese chicken that had been braised in a brown sauce. Now, I know that the chicken is the closest living animal in genetic terms to the T-Rex, but the size of Douglas’s chicken was absurd. I swear they mistook a Christmas turkey for a chicken. Either that, or Congolese chickens are all built like Big Bird from Sesame Street.

We somehow all had space for dessert. Douglas’s apple tarte tatin was good without being great. What it lacked in buttery pasty and oozing caramel it made up for with appliness. The highlight of all of our puddings was a goats’ milk ice cream that was quite simply brilliant. I can imagine a lot of people hating it. But not us. It managed the considerable feat of upstaging the Valhrona chocolate pudding it was accompanying. Cowie’s rhubarb pudding and my spotted dick showed the kitchen knows how to round a meal off in style.

The bill was large. But why shouldn’t it be? Especially when you consider there were as many staff as guests; the place is only here for 6 moths; they are running two menus; half the profits are going to charity; we had some lovely wine and Prada are involved. I suspect we won’t return, but we are delighted to have paid the Double Club a visit. It brought back so many fond memories and stretched our culinary frames of reference. If I ever go back, it will be to go to the bar for a beer, a goat kebab and some private time to read Cry, the Beloved Country.

For Douglas's review click here.

Double Club on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Tsunami ticks all the boxes

Disappointment. I hate it.

When I think of the times I have been disappointed recently, it conjures up thoughts when I have been unsatisfied, frustrated, uninspired and on occasions, sad.

Despite much effort and perseverance Browny and I have struggled in vain to go out for a flawless dinner recently or even one that wetted our appetites for more. Other than our exciting and inspired trip to the Underground Restaurant in Kilburn in February, we have been let down by one thing or another, whether it’s a stingey portion, over done fish, zilch atmosphere, grumpy, inattentive (smelly) staff and overpriced food.

As I grow older and wiser it seems my palate has an increasing desire for light, delicate and refined foods yet that still deliver on taste, flavour and texture.

Rumour has it Tsunami is a firm favourite of many Clapham locals who have an affection for Japanese cuisine. As the credit crunch continues to bite, when I spotted a 30% off discount at the sister restaurant in the West End we couldn’t resist a visit.

I was concerned that on a damp Monday evening the place would be deserted of punters, but this was not the case. As we entered the funky and stylish room, we opted of the cosy snug part of the restaurant at the rear. Things were looking good; a relaxing atmosphere, a delightful waiter (who managed to smash three full glasses of wine as he directed me to the loo!), delicious champagne cocktails and fragrant light green tea.

But it was the food that really put a smile on our faces. We started our feast with standard nibbles; steaming hot and salty edamame, juicy and moreish chicken yakotori skewers and some stunningly fresh succulent sashimi. The presentation of all of it was exemplary.

The generous portion of tempura of king crab was also superb. The hunky chunks of juicy crab were coated in lightest of batters with a golden crisp. The yuzu butter and creamy chilli garlic dipping sauces were pretty special too.

However the star of the show had to be the black miso cod. I was concerned that with so much hype it would fail the test. But not abit of it. It was truly sensational, to the extent that I just didn’t want the eating moment to end! The cod resembled a large slab of stilton in shape, but the texture was so silky and smooth that the fish simply flaked apart when prodded. And the taste. Wow. Sticky, sweet and tangy all at once. I could go on, but I am rapidly sounding like Greg Green Grocer Wallace!

We left the restaurant feeling so content and our tummies very happy indeed. Tsunami really delivered where so many haven’t. Please go and see for yourself.

Tsunami on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Green and Blue Chocolate and Wine Pairing

Cowie and I were delighted to be invited to a fantastic wine and chocolate pairing evening at Green and Blue in East Dulwich. It's a brilliant wine merchant, deli and restaurant that I am very glad to have come across given that it's well within range from Brixton.

Green and Blue

As the sign righty points out they were the best small wine merchant in the UK at the Decanter awards.

Winner for green and blue

The purpose of our session was to show a bunch of food bloggers that some wines are a great match for certain types of chocolate. For far better write ups than this one, have a look at what Gourmet Chick had to say as well as what the lovely Dinner Diary thought. I'm sure Chris from Cheese and Biscuits, Helen from Food Stories and Katrina from Chocolate Chilli Cupcake will all have something to say about it too. So keep your eyes peeled.

Kate Thal, the owner and sommelier extraordinaire, introduced us to the concept of pairing wine with chocolate with an almost poetic spiel before letting us meander our way through the tasting at our own pace. All the wines were paired with chocolate from Montezuma which I have now fallen head over heels with.

We started with a New Zealand Pinot Noir called Amisfield that almost paired with some wonderful Montezuma milk chocolate. Maybe we hadn't warmed up yet. But we all felt it didn't marry as well as we expected. Having said that, once the wine had settled in the glass and we weren't so greedy with the amount of chocolate we were scoffing the results were much better. A hit... but not a palpable one.


Milk chocolate

The second wine was far more robust. If the Pinot was like Darren Anderton, this one was more like a refined version of David Batty in his glory days at Leeds United. The Radford Dale Merlot, from South Africa, was greeted with adoration by the group. If Helen of Troy's face launched a thousand ships, then Sideways launched a thousand years of woe on merlot (pronounced the American way). With Montezuma's sensationally good dark side of milk chocolate it was sublime.

Radford Dale

Milk chocolate dark side

Steven hypothesised that the higher the cocoa content of the chocolate the more tannin the wine needs to be able to cope. The next pairing confirmed this immediately. We were introduced to a wine from the Bandol region in Southern France.


Dark chocolate

The wine was dark. Dusty. Intensely savoury. Almost gasping to be paired with chocolate so dark it might well contain anti-matter. Put these two broody beasts together and you are left with a scene from a gothic novel. I doubt this would be to everyone's tastes. It was quite divisive. But if you like things like licorice, bitter marmalade and you smoke 80 a day, then this would suit you perfectly!

The night, as Harvey Dent says, is darkest before the dawn... and so verily we were led unto the promised land of white chocolate. I know I'm supposed to screw up my face and look down on white chocolate with the sort of disdain Parisian men reserve for American tourists ordering "freedom fries", but I rather like it. Especially when it's from Montezuma. Whilst I liked the idea of serving it with a light, fresh white from Italy, I wasn't a big fan of the Muscato d'Asti called Bera. No doubt it was a fine example of the wine. But after all the bitterness and depth of the darker chocolates and reds, I just found it a bit sweet. That said, I did appreciate ending on a light and floral note.

Bera Muscat d'asti

Creamy white

We were treated to a fantastic cheese and meat platter at the end which made for a very welcome respite from the onset of diabetes and obesity. Only then did it dawn on me that we'd done everything backwards! Maybe it would all work better in reverse? Who's up for a reverse dinner party?


Thanks again to Kate and the team at Green and Blue. You've opened our minds and made me realise how hard it is to write about wine!

The Peak District - Dale Bottom Cottage and The George

Jack, Kira, Edwin, Anna, Me and Cowie have taken to calling ourselves “The Splendid Six” in honour of Jack’s former life as the voice of one of the Famous Five and our feeling of empathy towards them. Having been camping and skiing previously together we thought it was time for a weekend break in the Peak District.

Cowie found us a brilliant cottage just outside Dovedale. A cross between a picture postcard and your ideal vision of a countryside cottage it made for the perfect base to explore from. Dale Bottom Cottage, not only has a brilliant name, but backs this up by being a great place to enjoy a long weekend.

Dale Bottom Cottage

Dale bottom



Cowie and Anna stepping stones

Edwin and Anna mountaineering

Fisherman in Dovedale

Whilst Cowie had been in charge of accommodation, Anna had organised mountain bikes which led to a fantastic day of zooming down hills and breathlessly panting up what seemed like mountains. It was a great way of building up our appetite for dinner at The George in Alstonfield, which Cowie had found recommended in our Gastro Pub Cookbook.

Bustling, warm and inviting, we were welcomed into the pub with a smile and led to our prime table next to the fire. The girls were delighted and the boys instantly started wilting like lumps of callow. Jack drew the short straw and set about roasting his left side whilst the rest of us devoured the menu.

We ordered a vast range of food and waited for quite a while before our food turned up. But we didn’t mind because we were having and the atmosphere was that of a friendly pub. In short the mood was perfect with each table seemingly competing to have a better time.

Edwin loved his smoked venison salad which as I was later to find out, was truly impressive. Anna, Jack and Cowie were in raptures about their 3 perfectly cooked scallops but less keen on the orange segments that unnecessarily came with them. I, however, was horrified that my twice-baked cauliflower and cheese soufflé was scorching hot on the outside and stone cold on the inside. I tried one mouthful and sent it back which was a real shame as that one taste was delicious. It was all rather embarrassing, but on the plus side I was given my own version of Edwin’s supreme starter for free.

Main courses were a while coming too, but we didn’t care. It just gave us more time get stuck into banter fuelled by some excellent vegan English wine (we found out later that we had been the only people ever to order it). After several apologies from our lovely waitress our food arrived to little gasps.

Fillet steaks with a deep glaze were perfectly cooked and meltingly tender. These cows certainly weren’t sacrificed in vain. My duck on a bed of lentils and walnuts was interesting. The duck was nice and pink but the skin was flabby and a bit under seasoned. The lentils were a good foil for the duck, but were just a bit dull. The walnuts added an interesting textural contrast, but were far too abundant. It was as if a squirrel had stashed his entire hoard of walnuts for the winter on my plate!

Cowie’s sea trout was beautifully elegant proving that the kitchen has an abundance of talent that just gets stretched when the dining room is busy.

We couldn’t resist indulging in dessert. The group ordered enough sticky toffee pudding to spark a heart disease epidemic. But after a day of mountain biking we had deserved it. Groans and smiles spread rather than death. My bitter marmalade tart was a bit of a Ronseal. It was bitter. It was a tart. And it was marmaladey. But I think I’ll be saving marmalade for my toast as this combination was far too combative for my taste-buds. God I yearn for a classic lemon tart sometimes!

The George lived up to its fine reputation for hospitality and warmth by making us feel as welcome as tourists from London can ever hope to feel in a country pub. Despite firing a couple of blanks during a busy service, the food on the whole was more peaky than trophy. Or should that be “peaky rather than troughy”? Another great recommendation from the increasingly indispensable Gastro Pub Cookbook.

It was a great trip to the Peak District. One we will remember for a long time with fond memories but tainted by bitter nightmares about a terrible board game called Kingmaker.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Mid Week Dinner Party

There's a lot of twaddle written about dinner parties. In Table Talk AA Gill derides dinner parties as being the "work of the devil" and you'll struggle to pick up a weekend newspaper without reading about how dinner parties are the new restaurant. Personally, whilst I agree with AA Gill's aversion to eating food cooked by people who don't know their micro-wave from their tumble drier, let alone their sugar from their salt, I am rather partial to the odd dinner party.

As is Cowie. Although with Cowie I think she likes them because it gives her a chance to serve food on dangerously hot plates and draw up a seating plan. The poorer we all get, the less often we'll eat out and the more often we'll find outselves entertaining at home. But then again cooking for 14 is never cheap anyway!

Cowie took control of the beginning and end of the meal, leaving me to cover the interval.

Cowie, inspired by a certain Jamie Oliver, served up a quite brilliant starter. It ticks all the boxes for a dinner party: the wow factor comes with relatively little effort. Simply wrap some asparagus spears in parma ham and grill unitl cooked. Meanwhile, soft boil some eggs. Remove their lids and serve the eggs in their cardboard box and pretend the spears are soldiers. Celery salt in a ramekin was a good idea too. If people don't gasp I'll be shocked. It's such a winner.

Asparagus and egg dippers

Asparagus dippers

Great start from Cowie. Over to me. Sweating and already slightly pissed I took over gleefully.

I'll have to wind you back 3 days to when I made the marinade for the miso cod. Simply follow the Nobu recipe on Epicurious and you can't go too far wrong...

"For Nobu-style Saikyo Miso
* saké
* 3/4 cup (150 ml) mirin
* 2 cups (450 g) white miso paste
* 1 1/4 cups (225 g) granulated sugar

Make Nobu-style Saikyo Miso:

1.Bring the saké and the mirin to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Boil for 20 seconds to evaporate the alcohol.

2. Turn the heat down to low and add the miso paste, mixing with a wooden spoon. When the miso has dissolved completely, turn the heat up to high again and add the sugar, stirring constantly with the wooden spoon to ensure that the bottom of the pan doesn’t burn. Remove from heat once the sugar is fully dissolved. Cool to room temperature."

Once the mixture is cooled simply pour it over your cod fillets and let them marinate in a non reactive dish for 2 or 3 days before grilling to perfection and garnishing with a stalk of bright red hajikami. Rest the cod on a bed of miso risotto (recipe is here). Some stir fried pak choi and oriental mushrooms is a good accompaniment.

Miso cod

I have to say I've had a few disasters on my road to perfecting the art of miso cod... but I'm getting closer to my goal. This time the cod flaked. The skin crisped up. And lips smacked with joy. And as for the risotto... well the fact that some of the girls had thirds speaks volumes! Victoria even asked for the saucepan and a wooden spoon so she could get every last grain of rice.

Feeling redolent with pride and probably insufferably big headed by now, I handed the batton back over to Cowie who brought us home with her brilliant lime and cardamom mousse that is fast becoming as famous as the guy who wrote the recipe (Gordon Ramsay). In case you are wondering, it was a mouse sized mousse and Jelfy is a dwarf. The spoon is a perfectly normal size!

Jelfy lime mousse

It was a brilliant party. The more we cook and entertain the more we love hosting dinner parties. The Devil's work? I think not.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Tiroler Hut

If you are looking for a rowdy, raucous and rambunctious place for a birthday party look no further than the legendary Tiroler Hut. Its policy of allowing diners to swap any dish on their £25, 3 course menu, for a shot of schnapps says everything you need to know.

Having not heard of The Tiroler Hut before we visited for a friend’s birthday party I mentioned it to a few friends. Most stared blankly. The ones who had been giggled nervously as foggy memories of a heinously debauched night came flooding back to them.

Unusually, we arrived not only early, but first which gave us time to settle into the cabin like underground bar area. The entrance is discrete, a bit like how I imagine a brothel’s entrance might look like. And you walk gingerly down a well-trodden staircase into a subterranean bunker. Having not yet entered into the spirit we sipped our gin and tonics and practiced our German, ja. Or is it ya?

Once our party had arrived we switched to enormous steins of lager which are little short of being my mortal enemy. Not being able to burp in normal situations isn’t really an issue. But when you’re wolfing down litres of beer it becomes a life threatening disability!

In a jolly mood we took up our position at the centre of the dining area on a long table overlooking what later turned out to be a stage/dance floor. I can safely say that the menu must be most girls’ idea of hell. It’s rammed full of sausages, meat, fondues, battered this, deep-fried that and puddings that compete to have the highest energy density statistics.

Most of the lads by-passed starter opting instead for a liquid livener. I regretted taking the direct route through the centre of town with my just defrosted prawn cocktail. But at least it gave me some fishy ballast. The girls clubbed together and ordered for each other which resulted in them all being served a single sausage garnished with half a cherry tomato and a quarter of a lettuce leaf. The presentation of the slightly curved sausage as a smiley face was a work of genius. Apparently the sausages were delicious. Others had platters of cured meats which sadly weren’t made into smiley faces.

Next up the girls were all served a platter of 4 sausages each! Rich. Oozing with garlicky fat. And o so phallically presented! As the booze started to wreak its merry havoc the sillyness kicked in. If you want to have a laugh serve girls a shit load of booze, and then a platter of kinky sausages. And then observe. Luckily, the sheer quantity of sausage was too much for the girls and the boys greedily scavenged the delicious, if slightly seedy leftovers.

I had a pork schnitzel that is still repeating on me 3 weeks later. With the appearance of cardboard it just compounded my inability to burp! My telescopic fork allowed me to sample a smidgen of tepid goulash whichwas actually pretty good, if you don’t mind a bit of gristle. My apple strudel left me concerned for the welfare of Australia as the legs of my chair started to buckle as I tucked in.

I only wrote about the food because it’s fun to take the piss. The whole point of the Tiroler Hut is the boozey, eccentric atmosphere that has made it one of the best places in London to have a party for the last 40 years.

Half way through our meal we were treated to a rousing arpeggio by the, lederhosen clad, owner on the bells! Gobsmacked by his musical talents several diners were invited to join in the cacophony.

By the end of the evening several other diners had belted out some impressive renditions of Eton John and Elvis tracks. And some not so well. There was dancing. There were speeches. And more importantly there were smiles, laughter, grins and split sides by the stein load.

Happy Birthday Jen. I can’t wait for your next party. Have a look at the belltastic video below to get a feel for what I've been wittering about.

Thank you Rad for the photos and video.

Tiroler Hut on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Duck with Jumperland Sauce followed by Vanilla and Cardamom Plum Crumble

Down in Somerset you need to wear an extra jumper. Unless you are cooking, in which case do it as close to naked as possible, because the heat from the fire in the living room and Aga in the kitchen is fierce.

Duck with “Jumperland” Sauce

Score the skins on the duck breasts and place them all on a wire rack. Pour boiling water over them to draw out some of the fat. Repeat. Dry with a clean tea towel and season aggressively. Set aside.

Whilst the duck breasts are recovering from their spat with the boiling water it’s time to get stuck into the Jumperland sauce - so called because of Somerset’s chilly winters and its vague similarity to Cumberland sauce.

It’s a sauce of necessity. A sauce born out of improvisation.A sauce of great pride. Gently fry two chopped red onions in butter until soft. And then add 3 skinned and chopped apples and the same of pears. Pour in a large glass of orange juice and add a splash of Tabasco or Habernero hot sauce. Throw in some sage leaves. A glug of cider vinegar helps to give it some zing. And a spoon of red currant jelly delivers sweetness and gloss. Stir attentively on a low heat until the fruit has capitulated and the mixture has become a sauce. Check the taste frequently and adjust as necessary.

Jumperland Sauce

Whilst stirring the Jumperland sauce it’s time to render the duck breasts. Having salted the skin side liberally place the breasts skin side down in a hot frying pan in 2 batches. The fat should freely run. Spoon the fat out of the pan and retain for roast potatoes another day. Once you’ve got as much fat from the breasts as you think is possible and skins are feeling slightly crisp to the touch transfer them to a wire rack in a roasting tray. Repeat for the second batch.

Searing Duck

Seasoned Duck

Re-season the breasts and launch them into the top of a hot oven to roast for 10 minutes MAX. Assemble mashed potato and beans in the meantime. Remove breasts from the oven and allow them to rest for as long as you can. Carve on the diagonal and serve.

Duck with Jumperland Sauce

The Jumperland sauce was a great success. It was sweet and sour with a satisfying background kick of chilli. It was a great plate-mate for the duck which had emerged from its three stage cooking process with crisp skin, pink flesh and deep flavour. Perfect.

Vanilla and Cardamom Plum Crumble

This is an evolution of my recent baked plums recipe, but given a tweak and then crumbled.

Baked Plums 2

Steep a bowlful of plums in rum, bourbon or Canadian whisky (you want sweetness rather than the woody, smokiness of Scotch). Add half a dozen cardamom pods and a quarter of a vanilla pod to the mixture. Leave for half an hour. Then lay out the plums in a roasting tray, sprinkle with brown sugar and roast for 10 minutes. You want the fruit to slightly caramelise and the booze to burn off. Remove from the oven and breathe in the incredible smell. Your nostrils will tingle with the fragrant burst of tropical cardamom and the sweet homeliness of vanilla. Remove the cardamom pods and the vanilla and set aside. Once cooled slightly, add a layer of crumble which is comprised of equal measures of flour, sugar and butter.

The crumble emerged with splendid appearance that resembled an old fashioned map of the world. You can clearly see a plumy North and South America, Europe and a distorted Africa seeping through the crumble topping.

Plum Crumble map of the World

Plum Crumble

Plum Crumble with Creme Fraiche

Cook at a lowish temperature for the best part of an hour before serving to excited friends and family with a dollop of crème fraiche. The vanilla and cardamom add layers of sophistication to an otherwise humble crumble.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Brilliant Mussels from Smelly Belgo

Formerly the Bierodrome, Belgo is a Belgian joint on Clapham High Street that promises the best mussels and Belgian beer in London.

Cowie and I muscled in (couldn’t resist even though it barely works) before a trip to watch The Reader at the Picture House. We were initially seated between a large group, out on someone’s birthday lash up and a window that I am still convinced was made of ice. Feeling very uncomfortable, our request to be removed from this unpleasant sandwich was accepted.

Cowie opted for just a main course of moules mariniere whilst I decided to go a bit off-piste and ordered green Thai mussels as a starter and a duck breast with plum compote for my main course.

The green Thai mussels were exceptionally good. Juicy mussels and pungent, spicey, aromatic sauce made this dish worth the trip on its own. Not a single mussel was unopened and sauce was devoid of splintered shards of shell.

Cowie’s bowl of moules marinierewas deliciously garlicy and equally generous on the mussel front. My duck on the other hand was not just under-seasoned, but seemed unseasoned. A cardinal sin if ever one existed. After several minutes attacking my dish with the salt and pepper mill it was improved beyond belief. But no amount of seasoning is ever going to get past the fact that the duck was still suffering from rigour mortis and the plum sauce just tasted of sauce not plum which takes some doing. O. And another thing. Please can I have crispy skin with my duck? Chips were sinfully good which made me wish I’d had my Belgian brain engaged and ordered a steak or a carbonade of beef.

Now for the next bit you’ll have to hold your nose and give me some advice about protocol…

With my fork stabbing a morsel of duck and my head bowed forward and jaw opening in readiness for a mouthful of fodder I was suddenly overwhelmed by the uric stench of BO. Wondering whether this was my own unique scent I placed my fork down and subtly sniffed my pit. Nope. I had showered before venturing out and due to lack of my own anti-perspirant, had liberally applied some of Cowies.

I set myself up for anther hefty mouthful and was again almost bowled over by a cavalry charge of BO. Cowie’s nose twitched too and then her eyes raised and met mine. We turned on our sniffing sonar and searched out the source of the smell. It didn’t take long before one of the waiters speedily walked past carrying a tray of sparkling drinks. Our eyes met again and we burst out laughing. The poor guy absolutely reeked. It was as if he’d gone to the gym and worked out in a bin bag like Gazza used to and then used his shirt to mop up the sweat that had dripped of him before then mistaking a bottle of fox piss for a can of deodorant. It was little short of sickening. A lot is made of aroma marketing these days – it’s impossible to walk past a Sainsbury’s store without having your nostrils filled with the scent of fake bread. All Belgo have to do is either issue nose plugs to all their diners or ask their waiter to have a wash.

Belgo’s is a great place for mussels. They delivered on their promise by serving us some of the best mussels we’ve both had. But, if they are going to serve things other than tasty shellfish, then they have to do them better than this. We left a generous tip for the waiter which we can only hope he has spent on some men’s hygiene products.

The image is from Belgo's brilliant weird website where you can explore a range of fantastic Flemmish recipes. Next time I'm going to have the Carbonade Flamande.

Tiroler Hut on Urbanspoon

Monday, 2 March 2009

The Avalon


Nearly. So very nearly. But not quite.

Being the proud Balhamites that we are, we greeted the glitzy arrival of The Avalon to the hungry shores of Balham with great expectations. Having witnessed at first hand what the triumvirate of owners (Tom Peake, Mark Reynolds and Nick Fox) can do with a disgusting wreck like the Stonhouse we were keen to see what they would do with a much more salubrious starting point.

To date The Avalon has been reviewed favourably by the London Restaurant Review , The Metro and The London Paper, as you will see on their site. But with less enthusiasm by The Independent and The Telegraph which understandably you won't see on their site. All reviewers had visited with high hopes but had left feeling frustrated. Our experience didn't buck this trend.

We took advantage of their 50% offer through TopTable, just as we had with The Stonhouse, and visited on a bleak mid February Monday, expecting to be some of the only diners. We used to know The George well. It was the sort of pub you slip into for a spot of sport watching or to win their pub quiz. But not much more. It was badly decorated and tired. The Avalon, in contrast, is dazzling and smartly tiled by a designer with a keen eye. But once you see through the smoke and mirrors of the Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen effect you suddenly remember you are sat in the far corner where you used to get smashed in the pub quiz. Whilst the walls and ceiling are lovely, the budget clearly hadn't stretched to the floor which has been covered in a textured lino. But fuck the literal highs and lows of the decor. We were here for their half priced food!

By sheer chance we were seated next door to Cowie's wonderful sister, Victoria, who was on an impromptu night out with two of her friends. This brilliantly gave us a sample of 5 meals rather than 2 to base our review on.

Things started well. Cowie's venison carpaccio was a work of genius. Deep purple and richly gamey. It was a stunning dish that we are keen to copy at home. It had Cowie beaming with joy as she realsed I was wallowing in a pit of food envy.

My crab and chili linguine wasn't as good. It arrived, redolent with potential. But the kitchen had decided not to season it. And not to bother with a squeeze of lemon either. I had a word with the waitress who very swiftly brought me a lemon so I could rectify things. With the acidic lift of the lemon and some salt and pepper the dish became a joy. But this isn't how to do things! I suggested my tweaks to the waitress who took them on board and pointed out that we were the first group to try their new menu.

Steaks are a speciality of the Avalon. Or so they claim. But I've heard mixed reviews about them. Some say they are phenomenal. But a number of friends in the area have been so disappointed they've had them knocked off their bill. So my decision was easy. My medium rare rib eye steak was more medium well than rare. But in fairness it was a fantastic piece of meat that just needed less cooking and more seasoning. However, it played second fiddle to the most divine bernaise sauce I've ever had the honour of dipping a piece of marbled steak into. Smooth, glossy, slightly sharp and spiked with tarragon, it was worthy of the Saatchi Gallery as a work of art.

The chips were excellent. Thin and crispy. Another excellent medium for the bernaise sauce that sat there looking at me. Inviting me to lick it out and ask for another. Less good was the spinach. It took us a while to work out what was wrong with it. And then I realised because I've done the same thing myself. The water had boiled dry which made it taste slightly acrid. Not good.

Cowie was delighted with her sea bass that had been roasted with fennel and tomatoes. It smelled gorgeous and flaked away just as it should. This was yet another example of the heights that The Avalon's Kitchen is capable of.

Mulling over our meal with our chums on on our right and adding in the nuggets we picked up from the disgruntled strangers to our we were slightly underwhelmed. It was a very mixed bag. Cowie had enjoyed two exceptionally good courses. I had almost exploded with joy at the bernaise sauce, but was riddled with irritation at the number of basic errors that we'd encountered. Victoria's table had done worse than us. Their steak had been flabby and overcooked. And the waitress had forced them to have extra mashed potato with a lamb shank that already came with mash. Worse still, the bananas in the banana crumble were still hard. The table to our left felt aggrieved that you have to order extra vegetables, but this, whilst annoying, is pretty standard these days.

Allowing for the fact that this was a brand new menu and was half price it was still not quite up to scratch. With Marez Loukal (previously of Chez Bruce and Quaglino's) at the helm, the food shouldn't be punctuated with the sort of schoolboy errors we encountered.

That said we will be back. But we'll probably wait until they have ironed their glitches out. Or, if they decide to send out some special offer vouchers to the good people of Balham we'll be there to give it another bash. The Avalon is capable of great things, so we are looking forward to it maturing into a restaurant to make Balham proud. After-all, with bernaise sauce as pornographic as this, it's going to be hard not to return every night!

Avalon  on Urbanspoon

Baked Plums

"Baked plums" I hear you sigh, "how boring". But not when they are steeped in rum, marinated in cardamon and ginger, sprinkled with sugar, dotted with butter and then lovingly baked. Before being served with yoghurt that has been blessed with pistachios.

Enjoy the ride.

Plums marinate

Halve the plums and marinate in a good slug of Cruzan golden rum, a squeeze of lime, a finger of grated ginger, and crucially some cardamon. I cracked the pods in two and was transported straight back to the market in Munnar where we bought our collection of spices.

Baked Plums prep

Line a baking dish with foil and place the halved plums flesh side up before sprinkling with sugar and anointing with unsalted butter. Adjust the amount of sugar you use to how sour you imagine the plums are. If in doubt add more. And preferably use brown sugar rather than the white stuff I used. Pour the excess marinate around the plums.

Baked Plums in tray

Bake for half an hour or so until the flesh has turned an Oscar golden hue. Spoon the now crimson juice back over the plums to ensure you don't miss out on any of the juicy flavours.

Baked Plums

Given that this was a pretty random composition, inspired by nothing more than a cheap bag of plums and a vague recollection of how Cowie's Mum poaches her pears, it came out brilliantly. We loved the unique flavour that cardamon brings to the party coupled with the sweet boozy taste of rum. The yoghurt balanced the fruitiness without resorting to weighing it down with cream whilst the pistachios added some much needed texture.

I'm definitely cooking this again. I've got a funny feeling this might become one of Cowie's favourites! She'll be very upset she missed out on its debut outing. This would make a great base to a crumble or cobbler. I'm even toying with the idea of plum and cardamon jam! Roll on the Autumn!


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