Sunday, 15 August 2010

Sunday slackers

I've had a total slacker's weekend, drifting between cafes, restaurants and bars in Dalston, meeting up with friends and enjoying the fine weather. A perky black coffee at Cafe Oto, a trans-African lunch at Open the Gate, the new Black Cultural Centre that has just opened, and then a gorgeously creamy ice coffee at Tina, We Salute You at the end of my road.

But I'll focus on Open the Gate, as neither Tina and Oto ever seem to have any difficulty attracting paying punters in for their delectable cakes and coffees. Open the Gate opened earlier in the summer on Stoke Newington Road just up from the main conglomeration of Turkish ocakbasi restaurants. By day it is a big, bright open space, with more formal dining tables, a more laid back cafe area and a big performance space. African fabrics adorn the walls and ceilings, while the menu celebrates cuisines from all parts of Africa, the Caribbean and even Italy!

We were hungry hippos and ordered full meals, with roasted sweetcorn kernels and friend plantain chips as sides. I had Mafe, which is a West African beef and peanut butter stew. It was rich and nutty, the beef was generous and flavoursome, and was served with a nice crisp salad:

All very good for £5! The girls each opted for Chicken Yassa and the boys for a vegetarian cous cous dish. The Yassa was a sweet and smoky grilled chicken portion that must be running the nearby Nandos scared. The vegetables were stewed and included cabbage and carrots, and were probably the least exciting option, but, hey, veggies can't be choosers.

Coupled with the plantain chips and other snacks, we were all a bit stuffed. It was great to be able to sample dishes from around Africa and the Caribbean, even though the menu might be a little tame and geared at newbies like us. But clocking in at £8 each including a tip, it's good for a cheap and easy lunch.

I hope Open the Gate does well - they are making a lot of effort with their programme, which has everything from poetry readings to African markets, world music to art exhibitions. Dalston is increasingly associated with braying trustafarian hipsters, when its real magic is that people of all walks of life live together and you can dip in and out of cultures from one shop/cafe/restaurant/market stall to the next. Portholes into whole 'nother worlds like this are what separates Dalston apart from London's other young and trendy playgrounds.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Pimp my pizza

I would love it if every evening is a culinary odyssey chez moi. It's not. I wish I had time to prepare a delicious meal from scratch, and I've been doing a lot more of that over the summer having slightly forgotten what it's like to work full-time, study part-time and try and try to have a social life too. When you get home at 8.30 after a full day at work, an hour's lecture and an hour's seminar, you want to eat something quick and easy.

One of my favourite easy meals is a pimped up ready pizza. This one is inspired from a pizza I had when I had to find a decent restaurant to take my Chief Executive and manager out for a meal at Labour party conference in Manchester in 2008. We ended up in a mid-range Italian called the Olive Press just off Deansgate. It wasn't the most exciting restaurant, but I had a very memorable pizza. The pizza was topped with crab meat, chilli, thin lengths of chargrilled courgettes, cherry tomatoes, coriander and a squeeze of lime.

It sounds like it was heavy with toppings, but it was actually fairly light. And the combination of flavours was amazing, so fresh, so fiery. A winning combination of Italian bases and Thai tastes.

So on some of those evenings when I'm too tired and hungry to cook a proper meal, I can whip a pizza out the freezer, layer it with prawns (also out the freezer) or a tin of crab meat, add chilli, cherry tomatoes and chargrilled courgette (sometimes I have some spare stock in), sprinkle some coriander over and, when cooked, squeeze some lime over it.

And then it's ready, and I am happy.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

A barbecue for the British summer

My friend Celia and I are on a joint culinary mission. I'm not sure quite what our aim is, but it involves regular dinner dates in central London trying new and interesting restaurants and finding out about cuisines previously unbeknown to us. This week we checked out Koba, a slick and shiny Korean restaurant in Ftizrovia (or, aspirationally, NoHo), my old stomping ground from when I was studying at nearby UCL.

Celia had acquainted herself with the Bibimbap style of Korean food when she stayed in New York, but I was a total newcomer to the cuisine. Koba serves a range of Korean food, including rice and noodle dishes; its speciality, though, is barbecue. Every table has a gas fired hot plate in its centre, and after we had a tasty miso soup, they fired our grill up.

You could order individual selections of meat (including strips of ox tongue!), fish and vegetables to cook on the barbecue, and there are a range of assorted selections too. We opted for the Koba special selection, which included thin strips of pork belly, baby octopus, prawns, beef, marinaded sweet and spicy chicken, and a spare rib.

Sensing that we were novices (and that I have poor motor skills!), the waiters tended to the barbecue in between serving other tables and showed us how to prepare the food. So once a piece of meat or fish is ready, you take it off the grill, dip in some sesame oil, place it in the middle of a leaf, top it with some thin strips of pickled cucumber and then add some spicy bean/peanut satay-like sauce, before rolling the rest of the lettuce leaf around it and eating it like an interesting relative of the dolmades.

The combination was delicious - the smokiness of the meat, the sourness of the pickle, the earthiness of the peanut sauce and the crisp, greenness of the lettuce leaf. The ritual of preparing each item meant there was build up and anticipation and each mouthful stood out.

While it was delicious, novel and fun, it definitely was more of a 'treat' meal at £25 a head. But there were plenty of cheaper things on the menu. Interesting to note that age old benchmark of an authentic eatery - we were some of the only non-Koreans there, so it's a sure sign that Koba offers a taste of modern Korean cuisine if you fancy it!

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Dim sum ...and then some...

I do love dim sum - those novel little packages of flavours, the ceremony of sharing dishes, the antiquity of the bamboo containers, the ritual of chopsticks, tea and soy sauce, celebrating each morsel for what it is. Yum.

China Town in central London is the obvious place to have a tasty dim sum meal, and places like New World are a fun experience, with waiting staffing pushing round trolleys coming round with dim sum offerings. Like an old school Yo Sushi. But there's dim sum life outside WC2 and in the last couple of months I have had some excellent dim sum at Yum Cha in Chalk Farm and Shanghai down the road in Dalston.

I went to Yum Cha on a warm Saturday evening before heading to a gig nearby. We had the most tender spare ribs in a rich mandarin sauce, juicy deep fried squid, prawn and pork dumblings, steamed honey roast pork bun, chicken shrimp and rice wrapped and steamed in a lotus leaf. All were fresh and authentic, and very good value for money when the bill came in at £11 each including a beer.

Yum Cha is quite a big place and wasn't too busy, considering that it's slap bang in the middle of Camden Town and is very affordable. If you live in the area, they do dim sum delivery - a novel concept.

For Pete's birthday I took him out for a dim sum lunch at Shanghai on Kingsland High Street in Dalston. We rocked up at about half two on a bustling Saturday afternoon, the main road brimming with all walks of life and the extremists: extreme hipsters, extreme evangelists, extreme Communists. Shanghai, a former eel, pie and mash shop is all tiled walls and tiled floors - a hangover from when Hackney was the main domain of the Cockneys. Some of the tables are in benches and booths in that front section, but the majority of the restaurant is in a fairly traditional parlour style restaurant with chintzy d├ęcor and linen table cloths.

The dim sum was totally top notch. We had fried cuttlefish and coriander cakes, which were salty, juicy and chewy in perfect proportions and served with a shallow dish of broth for dipping. The chicken spring rolls had real, discernible (!) bits of chicken and were packed full of tasty bits. Steamed buns with barbecued pork were soft, fluffy and then sticky in the middle and very satisfying, and the steamed dumplings (vegetable dumplings in carrot juice pastry, crystal prawn dumplings, steamed minced meat & chive dumplings) were also perfectly formed and flavoured.

The bill was a scandalously good value £18 for six dim sum portion, drinks and service. And there are savings to be had if you go for dim sum between 3 - 5pm, even on weekends. Utterly scandalous for such delicious food. Being just 10 minutes walk from my flat, I know I'm going to be a regular diner at Shanghai!