Friday, 23 December 2011

Going Greek

I'd love to chart every cuisine served within 2 miles of my flat. It'd be a fun exercise - and may help focus my efforts on local eating out. A project for a rainy winter's day perhaps?

What I find most interesting is thinking how the age and cuisine of restaurants can reflect waves and patterns of immigration, as well as different food fads. Blackstock Road, not too far away, and on my old route to work, is a scruffy, ungentrifiable strip, and host to many different communities at different points over the last fifty years. There's a little patch, half way between Finsbury Park and Highbury Barn, where there is a collection of rustic, but bright Sardinian trattorias, a pre-Wahaca-and-burrito-fetish-era Mexican restaurant, and a drab and austere-looking Greek taverna. I like that the patch is completely understated, without any of the hype and crowding of Upper Street or Church Street. It's a locals' spot.

With the nights long, the wind blowing cold and warm sun a distant memory, Greek food couldn't be more appealing. Greek restaurants are too often shrouded in the clichés of plate-smashing, belly dancing and ouzo shots; sometimes you just want to have some mezze and souvlaki without all that fuss. I'd never cycled past N5's Olive Tree and seen hen or stag parties, and a bit of googling found a few glowing reviews from proud locals.

Inside, there's a sense that it's been there since the 1970s (it's not - more like late 90s) - slightly austere green, plain walls, starched table cloths, a bit of cladding by the kitchen. It's a family affair, and at least three generations seem to be involved in front of house, kitchen and management. All very nice and keen to please you. We had superb banter with the waitress who I guess was about our age and told us that we reminded her of someone very clever from a TV show we hadn't heard of, and how excited she was to get off her shift and out some make-up on.

The menu offered a fair priced a la carte with a wide range of Greek meals and grills. But there's a set menu which seems to be available most of the time (including Friday and Saturday nights) which does 3 very decent courses for £10.90. It's mostly the classics - very well made dips and gorgeous pita breads, mains of moussaka, haloumi, baked aubergines and some more basic grilled meats, and a small selection of desserts (greek yoghurt and honey, honey cake with ice cream).

We opted for the set menu, doing a bit of topping up from the a la carte. And got a bottle of pretty nice white wine too. The dips and starters were really good - top houmous and reminded me of the differences between the Greek and more Middle Eastern versions.

I ended up opting for moussaka - an old favourite and something I'm rarely motivated to cook (too many stages, too many pots) and was very pleased, nothing to fault with it's creamy cheesy top, the olive oil soaked potatoes and aubergines or the aromatic lamb mince. Portions were very generous, and we over-ordered by getting a large Greek salad to go with the mains. A doggy bag for lunch the next day.

Overall, the Olive Tree was great for a hearty taste of Greece, decent, good-value portions and warm and homely service. Sure, it's not going to win any Michelin stars for innovative cooking, but what an excellent neighbourhood spot for a no-fuss, honest Greek meal.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Balls balls balls

In terms of the food blogosphere I'm usually pretty late to get 'on trend'; same applies in most walks of life really. Though in comparison to the rest of the population, including my super clued in workmates, I can still be ahead of the game when I need to be. The latest example is with trend foodstuff meatballs. Apparently they are the dish of 2011, obviously I didn't find out til October, but when I heard tale of Luca's Meatballs hitting Dalston, I was bounding around the office and taking orders for a Thursday cycle order up to Ridley Road.

Ridley Road market seems ungentrifiable. A fantastic thing, in a part of Hackney where new concept stores are popping up almost weekly. It's a full on, stinky, bustling hub of West African diaspora - all dried fish, chilli peppers, broiler hens and music. You can get the cheapest super fresh veg you can imagine - three butternut squash for a pound anyone? Anyway, that a much-hyped meatball shack was opening up had people talking: was this the start of the Broadway Marketisation of Ridley Road? Surely not!

I roll up at Luca's expecting to see a queue of hipsters, DSLRs at the ready. Actually nobody was there, just Luca getting things ready. I started reeling off my order and asked if I worked nearby. I explained that I'd cycled up from Old Street (only two miles) and was very excited. I was rewarded with a tiramisu on the house. Nice one! Luca was incredibly charming and excited about his business, and later tweeted a photo of me with my haul.

The menu is simple - there are (beef) meatballs and spinach and ricotta balls. You can have them on a ciabatta (with tomato sauce, provolone cheese, lambs lettuce) or atop tasty polenta with a range of sauces: roast tomato, spicy tomato, mushroom/cream, gorgonzola. The base price is £3.50, but for an extra 50p you can have an extra ball or a small portion of veg - when I went it was braised baby beetroot.

As we tucked in back at the office, it was thumbs up all around. I'd opted for the ciabatta and it was just wow. The meatballs were splendid, perfectly formed, simply and subtly spiced with just a hint of fennel. The tomato sauce, again, simple and pure, combined perfectly with the smoky provolone. I was just about in heaven. My colleagues had the polenta boxes: one, a veggie, had 4 of the spinach and ricotta balls, the other went half and half. Both were blown away with theirs, particularly appreciating how well done the polenta was. I had a sample of the veggie balls and was surprised at their pungency. Will definitely be going half/half next time.

Luca's offer is expanding - it's positioned outside the newly licensed Wu's Market Bar, which is all tropical and bright inside. Luca will be serving up meatballs late into the night as well as anti-pasti platters and more. I'll be back.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Brunchin' brunchin' #3

Brunch options just get more and more plentiful. I'm now well and truly spoiled for choice in my neck of the woods, as the joy of breakfast food spreads deeper and deeper. In recent weeks, still in my post Masters joy, it's been a steady stream of brunch dates.

So what's new?

Well, Barden's Cafe is fairly new. It's on the main drag in Dalston, formerly a grotty but charming basement venue, now forced overground by the clubbier club The Nest (always looks a bit dancey for an indie boy like me). A big old space, all high ceilings and sleek lines. But rolling up at an unfashionably early 10.30am we were able to get one of the best spots, a whole sofa area all for two. Sorry.

My brunch default is eggs benedict, because I'm rubbish at poaching eggs neatly and can't be arsed making hollandaise. But I was sorely tempted by the idea of french toast, bacon and maple syrup. Happily, Barden's had just the dish - french toast, bacon, poached eggs, maple syrup and cream. It sounded fishy - poached eggs with cream and maple syrup? Bacon and maple syrup and cream? HMM. I pondered for a good 10 minutes and then plumped for it. It arrived, a little pot of cream and a little pot of maple syrup sat separately. I didn't hold back in pouring it all over, and tucked in.

Wow. It actually really worked, just a great combination of flavours. Bits of saltiness here, sweet there. Oi oi. And only £6 too, so you can't complain.

From one side of Hackney to the other: my next brunch was at Bistroteque, from scruffy hipster to coiffured fashion set. Bistroteque is in a warehouse-y space in the badlands south of London Fields and north of Behtnal Green, just off Cambridge Heath Road amid strips of strip clubs. It's an ugly area, but achingly hip. In contrast with its bleak surroundings, Bistroteque is an amazing, stylish space, all white, high ceilings big windows and smart, trendy, efficient staff. A pianist does tinkly cabaret style piano covers of cheesy 80s and 90s pop - our finely tuned ears pick out Steps, Tiffany and S Club 7. Nice.

The brunch menu was fairly trim, but with some tasty sounding options: potato rosti with smoked trout and poached egg was tempting, but I ended up going for eggs benedict, just because I love 'em. But I was a bit disappointed with Bistroteque's offering - for one, one of my yolks was firm. That's not what you expect for £8. And the portions for the trout/rosti dish were very small. The ingredients were unmistakeably good, and the dishes nicely presented, but the disappointment of the yolk and portion size may have left us a little bitter.

From mega chi-chi to down at heel, our most recent brunch was at Acoustic Cafe 'round the corner on Newington Green. It always makes me happy when I walk past, seeing all the nice young couples of Newington Green sitting outside with their broadsheets and big plates of breakfast. It had a bit of an eastern Mediterranean vibe, a sign of its time in the first wave of brunchification, and a few twists on the brunch norms - turkish sausage, feta, olives, etc.

I ordered the Eggs Romano, which was scrambled eggs (my fave way of having eggs) mixed with feta, peppers, basil, onions, in a crisp pancake, served with CHIPS and salad. Petite and on trend it isn't, but it sure does the trick when you're a bit hungover and sleep deprived.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Small plates make me hungry

Continuing the theme of small plates (and I even did a tapas evening for friends on Saturday), I wanted to make note of the delicious meal I had at Opera Tavern, on the day I booked my trip to Spain. The Opera Tavern is the sister restaurant of the more well known Salt Yard, and they both specialise in tapas or small plates from Italy and Spain. Getting a table at a few day's notice was tricky - an online booking system makes it all the easier for everyone else to get in there, so we ended up with a very un-Mediteranean 6.15 start time.

The menu covers a range of cured meats, meat off the grill and fish, vegetable and meat based small plates. We staggered our order, savouring a small amount of flavours, musing and then ordering a couple more. First up was a chorizo and squid skewer topped with a tangy pomegranate seeds, cucumber and green tomato relish. The chorizo was clearly top notch and, chargrilled, went perfectly with the meaty squid. Very good.

This was followed by more squid, however, this time as battered rings with battered purslane too. It was my first purslane and a totally new taste, very salty and somewhere between seaweed and spinach.

After all that protein, we craved vegetables. A super green broad bean, tenderstem broccoli, gnocchi and pesto small plate was incredible. The pesto was particuarly fragrant and sweet, and every last spot was mopped up.

I'm a sucker for courgette flowers (and that's all my courgette plants were good for this summer - not the end of the world, seeing as they cost £3 a flower from Borough market) and particularly enjoyed Opera Tavern's, which left the flower attached to the baby courgette and was stuffed with a light, smooth goats cheese and drizzled in honey. Classic combination.

After a board of impeccable quality sliced chorizo, we climaxed on the Opera Tavern's most famous, and perhaps most unlikely dis - the Iberico pork and foie gras burger. It's a diminutive dish, but packed full of rich flavours, a velvety bite, and a perfectly formed little brioche bun. I ate it as slowly as I could, appreciating every last bite interceded by meat, bun, cheese and caramelised onions. Mmm.

We finished on a little plate of truffles, biscotti and a glass of dessert wine. Classy.

I'd definitely recommend Opera Tavern for the food, and it's possible to have a not-too-pricey meal there, although it's definitely in the 'treats' category. Atmosphere-wise, we were in the dining room on the 1st floor, and it was busy without being buzzy. The clientèle were clearly quite well off, but I didn't notice anyone as excited about the food as I was. Maybe that's what it is to be classy, eh?

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Cadiz, if you please

I wanted to see everything in Andalucia. I was tempted by the palaces of Granada and Cordoba, the small villages along the Costa Tropical, the faded glamour of Malaga. I wanted to see the sea and the mountains. But with only a week to play with, I decided on Cadiz as the other side of my first adventure in Andalucia, coaxed by the returns of its Google Image Search, it's sea-locked situation and tales of its slightly end-of-the-road atmosphere. As a destination for a couple of days, it didn't disappoint - and we managed to scale the length of the city quite a few times, chasing the sunset to the Cadiz's southwesterly tip at the Castillo de San Sebastian.

Just too dreamy.

Being sea-locked and all, Cadiz is famed for its fresh fish. Particularly fried. Tapas is also popular, but clearly not to the extent of Seville - there were times where we'd be roaming the streets for block and blocks trying to find open tapas bars, especially later on in the evening, and even in key plazas. It shows you can try too hard to the 'authentic' thing (late night tapas binges, you'd think) and sometimes that just doesn't work. Tapa prices were notably cheaper in Cadiz though and in some places you were given a plate for free with drinks, just like in the movies.

We had a couple of very memorable portions of fried fish. The first on our first lunch after the train ride from Seville. It was at Meson La Cartuja, just off the main square in the old town. A whole platter of fried fish, including white bait, sardines, cuttlefish and cod. For about 10€. Pretty amazing. We ordered a salad to go with it as we were afraid of death by protein - our salad also came topped with tuna. It was incredibly fresh and the batter was very light compared to that in British chippies.

We also tried the most popular freidura (fish and chip shop, basically), which is on Las Flores - a pedestrian street with lots of flower sellers. Lots of happy families strolled past, children armed with tall flowers, on their way home. Inside it was like a Spanish version of the British chippy, slightly weary, down at heel but full of all walks of lives tucking in to yummy fresh fish and other raciones. We had fat and juicy prawns fresh out the Atlantic, and some croquettes for substance. The prawns were delicious, so meaty and sweet.

Our top tapas was at La Marina, overlooking the market square. We had a tripe stew with chorizo and chick peas - my first time eating tripe and boy is that a pungent taste. Almost a bit too much for me, but the chorizo flavours helped to soften the blow. We also had tuna cooked in a sweet onion and oloroso sauce (delicious), kidneys in sherry and 'salad' which was basically potatoes with more tuna. All were delicious, and as you can see from our spread, we were a bit more mezze than tapas, having them all at once. The olive oil based sauces were so moreish, we really had to ration our bread soaking them all up.

We also had tapas at Le Gorda Te Da De Corner, a cheap, bright, studenty tapas restaurant, where all the tapa were 2€ or under. It wasn't all fancy pants, but the pork with an almond and cream sauce was tasty.

Some of our fanciest tapas was at snazzy Sopranis, just around the corner from our hostel. It was incredibly stylish, and the proprietress was pure Almodovar as she strutted around, taking care of her guests in heels and leather trousers. We just had a couple of dishes - duck ham with an orange zest and pine nut chutney, and a sardine and red pepper empanada, which was such a winning combination of flavours - definitely one to try at home.

Our final meal for the holiday was in Jerez, where we flew back from. Jerez is a sherry town - the air is thick with the smell of it - and has a comfortingly stuffy and conservative feel about it. Our guidebook told us that the sherry dynasties bred a local elite who like to ape the customs of the British upper classes, playing polo, wearing deck shoes, chinos and starched shirts.

Our lunchspot was right in keeping, Restaurante Alcazaba, a faded traditional restaurant, all yellow walls, wood panelling and lots of big hair (ladies) and slicked back hair (men). That's not to do it down though - a bit of olde worlde charm in an olde worlde town is just right. And all the Jerez slickers were onto something good - 4 courses and wine for €11! The first was a potato salad tapa to share, I had Revuelto - Spanish scrambled egg with wild mushrooms for a starter. It was all about the mains though - mine was slow-cooked oxtail in a rich gravy and sautéed potatoes. Pete had pork steaks in a roquefort sauce.

So that was it. The last of the sun for 2011, but a great introduction to Andalucia and authentic tapas. I'm all inspired to try out some of the dishes on friends and go back and see more of the region.

Monday, 10 October 2011

El Tapeador!

As a (final) post-dissertation reward, boyf and I took off to Andalucia for 5 days of roaming the streets of Seville, Cadiz and Jerez in search of excellent, authentic tapa, sherry and warm autumnal sunshine. The only time I'd been to Spain was a trip to Barcelona with my mum in 2000 - a lifetime ago. Most of my 'grown up' travelling has been to the Eastern Europe (inter-railing for 6 weeks in 2004), Eastern Med (Bosnia, Croatia x2, Montenegro, Turkey, Greece) and Portugal, land of my forefathers. But some delicious meals at Moro and other tapas bars, reading the Moro cookbooks and hearing friends' tales of amazing times in different parts of Spain got me tantalised.

We went to an amazing array of tapas bars in our 5 short days there, so these are just some of the greatest hits from Seville - Cadiz and Jerez to come.

Salmorejo is the gazpacho of the south - it's thicker and smoother than the traditional gazpacho. It's topped with jamon and egg and lots of olive oil. We had quite a few of these over our stay - we loved the fresh taste of the raw tomatoes and then fruity acidity of the top notch olive oil. This was my favourite one - at bright and cheery Duo Tapas bar just off Alameda de Hercules:

One of the most fun things about kind of understanding Spanish is that you kind of know what you're going to get but the actual form and presentation is a total surprise. Or so it was when I ordered Tostada Bacalao, which I imagined would be toast with salt cod. What arrived was a lot fancier - thin crisps and subtle salt cod, fried together and modelled, with egg, as a patty topped with alfalfa sprouts. It was from Kiosko Los Leones, in the middle of Alameda de Hercules, which was great for people watching with a glass of Cava.

My favourite tapas bar was hands down El Rinconcillo, apparently Seville's oldest tapas bar. We rolled in after getting a bit lost in the winding alleys (it's very easy to lose your sense of direction), and it was still lively with locals at 11pm on a Monday evening. I ordered Espinacas con Garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas) and Bacalao con Tomates, which was salt cod served with a sauce of slow cooked tomatoes and peppers with lots of olive oil.

The bar itself was stunning - you could just feel the history and imagine it not being hugely different 300 years ago...

Another favourite in Seville was Meson del Pulpo, a galician restaurant in the centre of town. We had one of our most luxuriant lunches there - gobbling up a racion of Pimientos de Padrón, salty fried mini green peppers, a tapa of pork steak in an almond and sherry sauce (LUSH!) and a silky Galician octopus served with a confit potato. That one was totes simple, but so fresh and tasty.

And finally for Seville, an old favourite - Gambas Al Ajillo. This one reminds me of childhood holidays in the Algarve - spitting hot olive oil, sweet, sweet garlic sauce and perfectly fresh Atlantic prawns. We ate this one in an atmospheric little plaza in Triana, the old gypsy barrio. A band entertained us with shanties while I sipped a cool Manzanilla. I used bread to soak up every last spot of the garlicky, prawny olive oil.

Afterwards we caught an authentic flamenco performance at Casa de Anselma, one of the best places for low-key, passionate and gritty flamenco - which doesn't even open til midnight. It was the perfect way to an end our enchanting stay in Seville. Next stop: Cadiz!

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Celebrating Turkish Dalston

I blogged recently about Mangal, one of my most favouritest restaurants in the world and, happily, less than 10 minutes walk from my flat. That was, of course, before the riots of August 2011, which saw Dalston protected by the efforts of the local Turkish community, guarding their businesses foremost, but happily, stopping the looting from spreading west to Newington Green. The Saturday following was declared Thank Turk It's Saturday by a Facebook group, with over 6,000 'attending' and pledging to go and support the local Turkish businesses. I do anyway, but it was nice to have a more altruistic reason to do so.

That day, I went to my other favourite kebaberie, Yeni Umut 2000 on Crossway, where I celebrated last year's birthday and was also home to my first Dalston kebab experience a few years back. It's less well known and written about than the Mangals and is slightly more down at heel. The ocakbasi grill is in the middle of the restaurant with tables around, making for an intense and wonderful experience, with pally service and absolutely beautiful grills, all served with amazing bread and salad. I always order a plate of grilled onions in a tangy sumac dressing as part of the mix – onion breath is just not something I worry about!


Belinda, a superfab workmate and fellow Dalston/Stokeyite, has been banging on at me for ages to try Cafe Z Bar, further up towards Stoke Newington. Her recommended dish was the Mix Meneman, a Turkish scrambled egg dish. I love scrambled eggs and Turkish food, so surely the perfect brunch choice. I went a couple of weekends ago to celebrate the end of dissertation (I've been doing a lot of that actually – it seems to prefix everything I do) and it was worth the wait.

Mix Meneman is basically many eggs, chopped tomatoes, garlic, feta, Turkish lamb sausage and spinach leaves, all scrambled together and served in a metal dish. What can I say? It was delicious, maybe surprisingly runny, probably because it's quite heavy on the tomato, and perfect scooped up with fresh flatbread.

My friends shared some mezze dishes and found them to be tasty and exceedingly good value. My only complaint was that the service was a little surly and the music a bit random (early 00s chart) and loud. But the food/value ration definitely made up for it. I'll be back.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Persia via Peckham

A few weeks ago we took a little trip down to South East London. My London knowledge is very north-centric but I am routinely tantalised by blogs and reviews and tweets of SE London's burgeoning culinary offerings, but being wrapped up in my studies, I hadn't yet had the opportunity to visit this corner of town and sample it's greatest hits. On a separate note, as we consider our future housing possibilities, it is clear that much of North and East is becoming ridiculously pricey, even for people on pretty decent salaries, so a little cycle down south also served the purpose of exploring the side streets and high streets and asking 'Could I live here?'.

Top of my list was Persepolis – a Peckham cornershop specialising in Persian stock cupboard ingredients, fresh produce and cultural artefacts (shisha pipes, music and much more). Mrs Cornershop is Sally Butcher, who has published a Persian cookbook and is just about to bring out another: Veggiestan. She also runs a dryly comedic and insightful twitter feed that I've been following for a while, tempting me down to SE15 to stock up on rare ingredients. We also called in at Anderson & Co, a fancypants deli on Bellenden Road, a gentrifying strip of Peckham that estate agents will have you believe is some kind of urban shangri-la. And zipped rouund the streets of Peckham, Nunhead, Camberwell and Telegraph Hill. All surprisingly hilly.

So after a delicious slice of courgette cake with lemon frosting and a Square Mile coffee at Anderson & Co...

...we hit up Persepolis. It was beautiful inside: busy, colourful, lots of hand-written notices, many different varieties of pickles – pickles for all tastes and cuisines. Everything was laid out nicely and the selection was incredible. Pretty much any spice you could imagine was in stock, and in generous, well-priced bags. Most impressive was the selection of fresh specialist produce, including breads, vegetables and sweets that you would really struggle to find elsewhere. I just bought dried barberries, dried sour cherries, dried rose petals and a couple of jars of Persian pickled cucumbers, perfect for making Salad Olivieh.

I decided to try out a few of the ingredients in a Persian meal at home, and particularly practice my tahdig – the classic Persian way of cooking rice. I served with a tangy lemon chicken and a simple salad of tomato, cucumber, herbs and pickles. The tahdig can be made various ways and every Persian cook will insist their method is the best. I did a bit of googling to try and work out a relatively straightforward method for my first – it went a little bit like this:

  1. Rinse the basmati rice you need (at least 75g per person – this is pretty tasty, and people will want more!) several times until the water runs clear
  2. Soak for at least an hour in lightly salted water
  3. Drain and place in boiling water - boil until cooked (maybe 8 minutes or so – don't want it to be mush)
  4. Leave to drain; meanwhile, in a thick-bottomed saucepan heat a bit of oil or butter, enough to coat the bottom, maybe add a sprinkling of sugar.
  5. Once the oil is hot, tip in the cooked rice, but don't stir! Just make 4 thin wells into the rice and cover with a tea towel, then a lid (wrap the flapping bits of tea towel into the handle.
  6. Take a few strands of saffron and put in half a cup of boiling water – allow to diffuse for a few minutes, turning the water a light yellow, then pour into the thin wells. Carry on cooking for up to an hour, but 30-40 minutes should be fine.
  7. You will then have a beautifully fragrant rice, with a caramelly, perfumy, crispy base. Mix it up a bit and serve!

I mixed in dried barberries, which I'd soaked in soaked in water and then caramelised in butter and sugar before putting the boiled rice into the saucepan with oil. From googles, it seems like chicken and barberry rice is a classic combination. I used this recipe for the lemon chicken – the sauce was AMAZING. I couldn't have enough of it, so lucky I made too much.

So I'm definitely sold on Persian cooking, and look forward to developing my repertoire further, especially for veggie friends once my copy of Veggiestan arrives. On South East London, I wasn't fully swayed, but having such a brilliant food store nearby is definitely a big pull-factor!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Back. This time properly.

So I'm actually back this time. Having spent the summer turning out an epic dissertation for my Masters and working on the policy report for a major campaign for Shelter, both of which culminated last week. So the summer of writing about policy is over, and it's time to do other things and write about them again. I did spend a lot of time eating nice food - it was my reward for every epic day in the office or the library, and so have many food stories to tell.

Let's start with the burgers. Because 2011 has been the summer of the burger. But it's not the first burger renaissance in recent foodie memory. About 5 years ago, 'gourmet' burgers were all the rage. A rash of new mid-market chains popped up in middle-class high street locations, including the Fine Burger company, gourmet burger kitchen and Ultimate Burger, all with largely similar menues putting a 'spin' on the traditional burger - sweet chilli sauce, portabello mushrooms, thick cut fries, served in sanitised settings. The message was think again: burgers can be posh, don't you know. When the recession hit, many stores shut up and people were inundated with 2 for 1s (a personal hate) to get them to buy up the ailing brands. These chains are still going, but relegated to the naff of the O2 and shopping centres.

The arrival of Byron Burger a few years ago re-ignited the burger debate. But this time it was more about how simple you could make your burger and how well you could do those few simple components, with a paired down menu consisting of a few classic variations of the burger - cheese, bacon, cheese and bacon - and classic sides, fries, onion rings and courgette fries. Tasty. Byron has quickly expanded across central and yummy London and their restaurants are always busy.

The 2011 twist is even more back to basics, taking the Byron simplicity, but ditching the chic interior design. Well, just ditching interiors altogether. It's all about the BURGER VAN.

Meatwagon have arguably been at the vanguard, developing a cult following with their van dishing out amazing burgers to South East Londoners for the best part of last year til it got stolen. Their stint in the upstairs room while the Goldsmiths Tavern was being renovated whipped the kids up into a frenzy, with bright young things journeying to New Cross from all over to sample the #Meateasy speakeasy burger dining. It was literally amazing. We turned up at 6pm on the dot and already a sizeable queue was lined up. By the time we left at 8pm, the queue snaked right down the stairs, out the door and halfway round the block. Some of those people would be waiting for 3 hours for their burger.

I ordered a Dead Hippy Burger, which is The Meatwagon's spin on a Big Mac. Two juicy, meaty burgers, still light pink inside, smothered in mustard, served in perfectly light buns with cheese and gherkins. Boyf ordered one with cheese and bacon. And we had sides of fries and onion rings, which it turns out was a bit on the conservative side. City boy types sitting next to us ordered buffalo wings, chilli cheese fries and hot dogs in addition to their burgers.

Truly amazing though. The Meatwagon is coming to the end of a summer residency in Peckham Rye, as well as doing a number of festivals and one offs, including a night at Dalston Roof Park. Nothing quite like a burger and a pale ale, sat on synthetic grass, gazing over the rooftops of Dalston. Oh yes.

Last week I finally tried got to go to Lucky Chip, a slightly less well-known and hyped burger van that has been stationed just off London Fields this summer. Open from about 6pm in Netil Market, a goods yard with a bike workshop in an old bus parked there too, Lucky Chip just does burgers, hot dogs, fries and onion rings. No satay sauce or raita and lamb burgers, but classic ingredients, piled copiously together between buns. Oh my. Pete ordered a Selleck, which had burger, cheese, a colossal beetroot dipped onion ring and a hefty pineapple ring. Now try fitting that in your mouth in one:

I opted for a slightly more classic Sheen - cream cheese, smoked bacon, mature cheddar and caramelised red onions. Still absolutely massive, and utterly artery clogging, but an absolutely perfect combination of ingredients. We munched silently, apart from sporadic groans of pleasure and sighs of eating exhaustion.

The sides were also delicious. The beetroot flavoured onion rings were...huge. And maybe a little on the salty side, but you could ask for them to hold the sea salt if you were concerned. The chips were tasty too - hand-cut, skins on, and organic, apparently. Our chosen combination of dips weren't available, so the kind guys gave us little pots of home-made BBQ sauce (hickorylicious), deep garlic aioli, wasabi sauce and sweet chilli sauce. Just wow.

We cycled back to Newington Green, worrying that the frames of our bikes may crumple underneath us. But intensely happy.

It's not just vans that are in the burger market - posh restaurants are also spinning a good line of burgers, and Young and Foodish has just updated their Top 10 burgers in London list. Many burger opportunities await. Anyone fancy a burger odyssey?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Don't call me fattee

Fattee is a word often bandied around our house. Mostly because Pete eats absolute shedloads for his slight physique (keen cyclist) and I feel the need to match his appetite (also a cyclist, but I do about 20% of the miles he does).

Fattee is also a favourite leftover and larder meal that usually gets made on day 3 of roast chicken leftovers. The original recipe was from the first Moro cookbook and involves some slightly more lengthy and complicated processes. So this is my lazy cheat's interpretation for when you want to make something nice but don't have time to burn.

What you need (for two portions):
1 tin tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp chilli flakes
1 medium size aubergine
100g long grain or basmati rice
small bunch of flat leaf parsley
2 pita bread
2 tsp pine nuts
150ml greek yoghurt
2 portions leftover roast chicken

You need to do a few things at the same time:
- make the tomato sauce - sizzle 2 finely chopped cloves of garlic and the chilli flakes in olive oil until slightly golden. Add the tin of tomatoes and the cinnamon. Allow to bubble away and thicken up.
- cook the rice, simples.
- cut the aubergine into 1 cm slices, and then in half again. Ideally you'd charr these on a girddle, but frying is fine too.
- toast the pita, then cut into strips
- toast the pine nuts lightly in a dry frying pan
- chop the flat leaf parsley
- mix the yoghurt with a crushed clove of garlic, maybe a little milk to thin, and some salt and pepper

Once those are all ready it's a layering job and you can decide whether you want to layer plates up individually or as a presentation plate. But you start with the scattering the pita bread at the bottom, then top with rice, spreading it out. Then add the chicken and the aubergine, spreading evenly. Then add the tomato sauce and top that with the yoghurt. Finally sprinkle the flat leaf parsley and toasted pine nuts. Then tuck in!

It might seem a little bit of a fiddly recipe, but all the stages are very easy and you can do multiple things all at the same time. The flavours work well - I always love tomato and yoghurt combinations, and there are some nice smoky notes from the toast, pine nuts and the chargrilled aubergine. It's an immensely satisfying dish and still impressive enough for visitors.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

What is heaven?

Whether you're half Portuguese or not, I'm hoping heaven looks a little something like this:

After all, I have been good.

This is a favourite spot of mine. A table outside Pastelaria Lisboa on Golborne Road, just in the shadow of Trellick Tower, which is one of my favourite buildings, watching the bustle of Portuguese diaspora life in this slightly forgotten corner of West London. When I lived in the suburbs as a young'un, my mum used to take us up here during half-term to give us our fix of pasteis de nata, stock up on Portuguese olive oil (nice and fruity and very good value, I still swear by it) and get us to engage in that side of our cultural background. She would get us to do the ordering Portuguese and we'd be rewarded with those eggy, custardy bits of goodness.

You can get pasteis de nata all over now, or "Portuguese custard tarts" as people call them. They're never as good as the ones you get at Lisboa. And the good news is I can pop over to Camden to Lisboa's deli there, or Stockwell if I was a South Londoner. And they're much cheaper too. £1.50? Pah! Of course, one isn't enough, so if we're being restrained it's three between two; if we've just cycled a long way, two each is totally justifiable. One is over too quickly - when you've fought tooth and nail for that perfect spot outside, you don't want to give it up too quickly.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Back on track

With a three month backlog of delicious meals to tell the world about, where does a boy start? An old favourite.

There are some places I'll go back to over and over again, despite a list of restaurants I want to eat at as long as my arm. It usually involves impressing visitors with "look what amazing stuff I have on my doorstep!". My four regulars, depending on the guest, are Mangal in Dalston, Tayyabs in Whitechapel, Ottolenghi in Islington and Tbilisi, the Georgian restaurant in Holloway. Lately, I've taken meat fiend friends to Mangal for smoky Turkish lamb kebabs, amazing piles of fresh and tangy salad and freshly bakes breads. One friend who visited in January insisted we went again when she came back with her boyfriend in April. That's how good it is.

Dalston is a great place to take visitors. You can build up the mystique as you walk over, telling them about its Jekyll and Hyde character: by day a bustling, multicultural hub, all nail bars, dead chickens, fruit and veg, phone cards, religious chanting and popcorn. As night falls it's the hipster mile, sunglasses, big hair, the early 90s junkie look. But the barbecue smoke oozing out of Kingsland High Street/Stoke Newington Road's many ocakbasi restaurants gives it a summer holiday feel and the warehousey, slightly run down buildings gives it a feel of New York's Lower East Side. You take a right down Arcola Street and enter a bustling smoky grillhouse and you're transported into another world.

You pretty much always have to queue in Mangal, watching the chefs man the grills, the heat making everyone sweat but especially them as they knock the flaming coals around and turn the spitting skewers of prime lamb, quail and chicken. But arrive at a sensible time (ie. not 8pm on a Friday or Saturday night) and you'll be ushered to a table before long. The menu is short and sweet, and we nearly always get a mixed mezze (so cheap) to start - it's just humus, a yoghurt dip, baba ganoush and a tomato and bulgur salad but goes down wonderfully.

For mains I almost always go for the adana kebab, which consists of two minced skewers of lamb. Normally people think of mince as a cheap cousin to fully formed meat, a bit limp and flavourless. But not at Mangal, where it is succulent and more juicy, and has bits of chilli, garlic and herb in the mix. I've been known to deviate to the boyfriend's kebab of choice: cop sis, which are smaller, marinaded cubes of lamb. And my other favourite diversion is the iskender, which you can get either in adana or cop sis form, and is on a bed of bread, topped with tomato sauce and yoghurt. It's more of a dish.

I have just booked a relatively last minute holiday to a lovely little hamlet in southern Turkey. It's my first 'adult' villa holiday, and we've got a pool, barbecue, gardens, bikes and everything. I'm looking forward to eating out big time but also recreating some of my favourite Turkish/levantine dishes in situ.