Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Last stop: Los Angeles

Los Angeles is a crazy town. For Olde Worlde Europeans like me, it needs to be seen to be believed. That sprrrrawwwwllll, sprawling out as far as the eye can see. Only mountains and oceans get in its way. The scene is stunning though: palm trees, clusters of skyscrapers in the haze, helicopters zipping from downtown to the beach cities, a backdrop of rugged mountains full of wildcats and coyotes and birds of prey.

The pollution didn't get to me too much, but you feel the dominance of the roads. The six lane roaring beast of West Sunset Boulevard is the central focal point for slacking 'hoods like Silver Lake and Echo Park, meaning an outside table at brunch comes with lots of hot metal ripping past at 40mph.

London's a sprawling city too, but it feels human scale - hundreds of small villages run into one another. There aren't too many parts of town that feel like no-man's land. In LA, each mini centre is miles away from the next, and you go through miles of nothingness to get from Central Hollywood to West Hollywood, or you go to complexes which exist in isolation of their surroundings.

This throws whole new dimensions into going out for a meal. First, you'll probably have to drive. Which means you'll probably need to find parking. And you won't want to pay for it. And you won't really want to drink, although driving is a bit easier at night. We purposefully stayed in Silver Lake, which proudly claims to be LA's most walkable neighbourhood, so that we didn't have to drive too far in the evenings, but you could easily see how much of an effort eating out might be.

Despite the endless driving, LA blew my mind and I'm going to have to find a way to live there at some point. Which is tricky when you work in politics and don't drive.

Dante Fried Chicken at Short Order
After tasting some Dante Fried Chicken at his book launch earlier in the year in London I was hell bent on having a full Dante meal when I was in his hometown. Dante works in Short Order - a upscale-ish, seasonal, locally sourced burger restaurant in the Farmer's Market complex (we're talking mammoth, with a mammoth car park to boot) in Central LA. On Wednesdays and weekend brunch he has a dish on the menu, usually involving his signature fried chicken - buttermilked, brined, and coated with more spices, herbs, seeds and nuts than you could ever imagine.

When we were there the Dante special was a fried chicken sandwich, served with an apricot crack glaze, topped with avocado. The batter was crisp and full of flavour, and the chicken was succulent as anything. We went a bit OTT on sides, ordering sweet potato fries, normal fries, and delicious griddled corn with avocado, feta, parsley and chilli- an excellent combination.

I have since acquired Dante's cookbook Ride or Fry, and it's blowing my mind. He calls his take on food as 'Transatlantic African Cuisine' with inspiration from his travels across the world, his Creole grandmother, life in multi-cultural LA. It's fun, exciting food - so track the book down, and if you'r ein LA - Wednesdays and weekend brunch over at Short Order.

On our first night in LA we were pooped. So I skipped up to Sunset to grab a take-away from Forage, a (posh) rotisserie joint serving up Ottolenghi-esque salads at the side. The clientelle fitted the deep-gentrification Silver Lake mould, all wealthy arty media metrosexuals (mostly men), mulling artfully over whether to go for heirloom tomatoes or kale, feta and breadcrumbs with their protein (chicken).

We opted for both, and some tasty beans, and a really good, yoghurty potato salad, and two very generous portions of chicken. All for $30, which is a lot less than you'd expect for somewhere so fresh, organic and on trend.

Cliff's Edge
Cliff's Edge is Silver Lake's destination California Cuisine restaurant, located behind an anonymous looking door (with valet attached, natch), then through a bar, and then, through the back, you're in a lovely covered, multi-level garden, with lots trees, the air filled with the chatter of well-heeled bohemian Angelanos. The menu is short, seasonal, local. We started with a Californian cheeseboard, followed up with delicious pork loin with beetroot and beans, and diver cough scallops with a fragrant carrot curry.

It was all about the desserts; namely a thick, cold, super sweet caramel custard served with a large butterscotch shortbread cookie. Oh, and topped with a dollop of mascarpone with honeycomb crumbled on it.

The most coma-inducing dessert I've had since Snickers Sundae back at Pitt Cue Co. It was probably our priciest meal of the trip, but top quality and deliciousness for it.

After a couple of really greasy, unhealthy days of eating, we had to go all Angelano and go out for a vegan Thai meal at Bulan, a neighbourhood staple in Silver Lake recommended to us by our airbnb host. Our host promised that even the most committed meat eaters would go away full and satisfied with their meal. After delicious summer rolls, I had a dish of raw spinach, onions, cucumber, cashews and tofu served on a sizzling hot plate with hot peanut sauce poured over it.

It was so so good, I can pretty much still taste it two months on.

A classic LA eat is the french dip sandwich: roast beef, typically, smothered with mustard, in a sub, halved and dipped in gravy. Cole's is said to be the best place for it, deep in the belly of LA's weird and wonderful Downtown district, which is as stale and corporate as Canary Wharf on one side, has some wonderful art deco markets and buildings in the middle, and slides down to (the beyond edgy) Skid Row on the other side. Cole's is on the border of the latter two, with neon sides and a 20s gangster vibe adding to the seediness.

We were there for a late midweek lunch, and the place had a Lynchian vibe, all empty but for a few eccentrics propping up the bar. We drank unlimited ice tea, and enjoyed our sandwiches and the atmosphere, but it didn't quite compare to the ox cheek french dip at Hawksmoor Spitalfields.

Millie's Cafe
Our final brunch was at Millie's Cafe, a bustling pavement cafe on West Sunset, and perfect for people watching in Silver Lake. All of your favourite LA characters were there: the feminist bloggers dissing Katy Perry prefixing every sentence with "I'd never say this online or in print", the tattooed session musician, the model/actress, the posh English guy like totally cracking the LA scene, the small dogs - lots of them.

I had the best breakfast in a long time - a huge portion of  scrambled eggs, with Creole turkey sausage, cheese, guac, salsa, sour cream, served with a corn muffing. Flipping incredible. The service was warm and welcoming - the restaurant's been open for almost a hundred years, and they know their craft.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

On the road in California

Driving all around California you realise how much local life and food culture revolves around the road. A whole discipline of marketing and architecture developed around luring drivers in off the road, and new iterations sit alongside original Googies all along the roads.

Household name chains - like Denny's, Wendy's, Taco Bell - all seem to mostly exist out in the middle of nowhere, on a cross-section, where its convenient for people to meet and, crucially, parking is free. Nobody likes to pay for parking.

The ultimate Californian roadside eating experience is the cult SW chain In-n-Out, serving up affordable and delicious burgers, fries and shakes decades before muppets like us were standing in the cold, queuing to get into MeatEasy. This is the real deal, and there's not a carefully-crafted beard in sight. Just regular families getting served by super efficient, politely scripted staff in pristine uniforms.

The official menu is short and simple - one burger or two (their Double-Double is the inspiration for MeatLiquor's Double Bubble), cheese or not, fries.

But their cult status rests on the loyalty of their customers who know about their "not so" secret menu. It's basically the same core ingredients, but varied up. You could have a triple burger, a grilled cheese (extra cheese, no meat - their veggie option), grilled onions instead of fried, or their Animal Fries - which is fries with their sachet sauce, topped with melted cheese and grilled onions.

We ate twice on the road, and once, late at night, we drove through the In-n-Out in central Hollywood for a surreal LA experience. It was packed at 1.30am, and we enjoyed their faultlessly polite and efficient service while teens hung by their cars slurping down milkshakes.

Motels are a big part of the scene too - outside the big cities and picturesque lodges in the countryside, tourist accommodation is centred on the idea that you're just passing through on your way between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The same chintzy accommodation could cost you £200 a night in ritzy-parochial Carmel-by-the-Sea but £60 100 miles down the coast in San Simeon. But the most famous of all lodgings is the incredibly kitschy Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, midway between California's most famous cities.

It's like something from a Disney-drenched dream of fibreglass seashells, grottos and caves, swirly carpets, winding staircases, turrets and lots and lots of parking for people coming in off the motorway roaring past outside.

We stopped for lunch and had fittingly kitschy pineapple and chicken sandwiches, prawn salad with copious volumes of thousand island dressing, and pink champagne cake.

Fellow diners were retro roadtrip fans, local ladies doing birthday lunch, all served by vintage tattooed ladies. One of those "only in California" places.

Our final roadtrippin' destination was Santa Barbara, which is a well-heeled university town 100 miles north of LA. We shunned its fancy seafood, yachty seafood restaurants, for Los Agaves,  the city's top Mexican taqueira, by the coastal highway.

We had the best Mexican food we've ever ever ever had - mine was a shrimp and halibut enchilada, topped with pineapple, served with a mango salsa, red rice and local cheese. All for $13. Venture a little bit off the highway and you can avoid the dull chains and have some really good food at a very good price.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Eating Mission

Hackney is a great place to live as a food lover, because it offers such variety. As a neighbourhood in transition, there are so many parts to its history and culture that lead to tasty food - Vietnamese, Turkish and Caribbean restaurants from waves of people who settled here, fancy innovative restaurants, greasy spoon cafes, greasy luxe junk food. It's all here.

So when I stay in other big cities I seek out neighbourhoods that have similar characteristic. The Mission is San Francisco's neighbourhood in transition. A veritable multicultural hub where people from all walks of life seem to rub along just fine. Happily, it has one of San Francisco's best micro-climates: it is often sunny while other parts of the city are shrouded in fog and drizzle.

The Mission did us very well for eating, and here are some of my favourite spots. See also my street food post for more Mission treats.

Taqueria Cancun
It's no shadow of a lie that you can't move in Mission for amazing Mexican food. Mission Street in particular is home to dozens of brilliant taqueiras, some open 24 hours a day, serving up fresh and authentic Mexican food that would have Londoners queueing around the block and throwing money at. We ended up at Cancun on our first night in a jetlagged fug, and had shrimp burrito, pork carnita super tacos, and the veggie equivalents.

It was good honest Mexican comfort food at its best, incredible ingredients, creamy thick slices of avocado, punchy home made salsas and constantly replenishing taco chips. This is probably bog standard as far as Mission taqueiras are concerned, but it was lovely, warm, fresh and filling.

It's a concept screaming out for wider adoption - ramshackle DIY vibe, innovative and punky spins on Chinese food. We had cumin rubbed pungent lamb ribs, thrice cooked bacon and rice cakes, curried fried rice with pork, crab and pineapple, and some small plates with different coloured potatoes, pickles and heirloom tomatoes, pickled peanuts, pickles. All very on trend locally sourced, seasonal, old cuts meets Asian spices and flavours.

As you might expect, it's walk-ins only, but works a bit better than London because there's a list and you get a well approximated waiting time, so it's enough time to get a drink somewhere warm while you wait. Although maybe we have queues in London because we like queueing?

Limon Rotisserie
"It's our version of Nando's" a San Franciscan very incorrectly told me. No, it's so much better. Sure, it's a mid-range mini chain serving up (rotisserie, in this case) chicken. But Limon is renowned for it's affordable, tasty ceviche. We had their mixed cold ceviche (prawns, calamari, white fish), their mixed hot ceviche (all of the same ingredients, but FRIED, and served with a spicy, aromatic dippy dressing.  Some of the best I've had, and at a fair price.

The chicken was tasty, as were the sides of fried yucca, sweet potato fries, truffled mac and cheese, and a so so San Franciscan deconstructed Russian salad with purple potatoes, local beetroot, shredded carrot, avo and aioli. We also enjoyed expertly mixed, frothy pisco sours. If only Nando's Dalston mixed up a good pisco sours. If only.

Bar Tartine
San Francisco is famous for being the birthplace of California cuisine, which is all about eating locally and seasonally, but blending the influences of indiginous and incomer. It tends to be pretty pricey, but there's good value to be found. We opted for Bar Tartine for our final meal in San Francisco, following a recommendation from a trusted foodie.

The combinations were so complex and specific that I've long forgotten them. The pictures speak for themselves, really, but some of the highlights included: salmon three ways in buttermilk; seedy, herby flatbread with amazing hummus and dukkah; assortments of pickles in jars; kale with seeds and homemade yoghurt (so so SF); tripe in a paprika broth; and cheese dumplings in a chanterelle stew.

The waiting staff were incredibly knowledgeable, the vibe jovial, the winelist very nicely put together with lots of local Californian wines. It was the perfect place to experience San Francisco's haute cuisine without breaking the bank.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

San Francisco street food

I spent most of September roadtripping around California. Pretty much the most amazing holiday I'll ever have. We started off in San Francisco, tripped inland to Yosemite, back to the coast to drive down Big Sur, and then powered down to Los Angeles.

California truly felt like the world in a place - prairies, mountains, desserts, coasts, cities, wealth, poverty, liberals, conservatives, skinnies, fatties. Not quite the image of tattooed yoga-obsessed wheatgrass-shot-chugging lifeguards we might have over in Britain.

The food was amazing. There were fresh, local ingredients in abundance at every price point. Cuisines from across the world were represented - Armenian? You got it! A specific region in El Salvador? I know just the place. But particularly well represented was food from Mexico, Central and South America, and from the Pacific Rim. Street food is also big, with lots of creativity in that scene and the Californian cuisine.

I'm going to do a few posts about my trip, but I'll kick off with one about San Francisco's street food.
The scene seems to be highly organised, in particular by the Off the Grid crew, who have a roster of street food vendors operating at 23 weekly food markets of varying sizes - their biggest is at Fort Mason on Friday nights and has about 30 stalls. The focus is on high quality, innovative fusions of cultures and cuisines, and prices start at around $8 a dish.

 Bok Ssam's Korean Chicken Waffle

Revising the classic Southern comfort fish of chicken and waffle (brought to our shores with Duck and Waffle), but with herby, spicy Korean fried chicken, tangy Asian slaw, and lots of sticky, sweet, spicy sauce. And the waffles act as sandwich rather than a plate. It was a great combination, and surprisingly un-messy...

The Chairman Truck's Taiwanese buns

Another Off the Grid favourite, The Chairman specialises in Taiwanese baked and steamed buns, which are terribly trendy right now. This is reflected in the queues at their stall wherever they pitch up - innovative Asian is a big deal in San Francisco. We opted for steamed - one with caramelly pork belly and turmeric pickled daikon radish, the other with miso marinaded tofu and raw cavolo nero.

Curry up now's indian burrito and butter chicken chilli cheese fries 

Curry up now is one of the San Francisco street food scene's success stories - starting off as a truck, it's now got three proper restaurants throughout the Bay Area, but still moonlights at a fair number of Off the Grid events. We were looking for "something healthy", but couldn't avoid the temptation of sweet potato waffle fries, topped with creamy, rich butter chicken sauce, and then lots of melted cheese. This went nicely with the burrito - of pilau rice, really flavoursome Punjabi curry, chick peas and onions. Pork belly and beef featured as options, which would make you question its authenticity in the UK, but in California it's all about fusion, and here's another example of good, unpretentious mixing of cultures and tastes to delicious ends.

SOMA StrEat Food Park

SOMA StrEat Food Park is a little oasis tucked between motorway flyovers and entrances, in this no man's land if infrastructure and industry between Mission, Downtown and the hilly northern parts of the city. It's an area in flux - Twitter will soon be moving in to their new headquarters up the street, but hobos pace the streets pushing their trollies, and hostels spill out onto the street. But the crowds pouring through for Tuesday lunch suggest there's already quite the draw.

I opted for Hawaiian food as soon as I saw the cart - an exciting new cultural foray. My $8 got me a generous portion of sweet, slow cooked pork with sesame seeds, really tasty kimchi, a coconut-y, mayo-y cold macaroni salad, and sticky coconut rice. It was homely and authentic, and good to taste a new set of flavours.

But I was slightly jealous of all my friends, all of whom opted for Korean-Japanese rice bun burgers and chilli cheese fries from KoJa Kitchen. I remember hearing about Yo! Sushi entering the burger market with a similar concept and being very sceptical, but this is the real deal - and utterly delicious. Slow cooked, marinaded pork, pungent, earthy pickles, Asian variants on tomato sauce and mayo. The Asian chilli cheese fries were particularly good.

Dynamo Donut, Mission

Dynamo make seriously delicious doughnuts - and sell them from a cafe in Mission and kiosk by the marina. They make creative use of ingredients and flavours in both the dough and the glaze. We particularly enjoyed the maple and smoked bacon for its swavoury taste, while the lemon and pistachio and the apricot and cardamom had a slightly exotic aromaticness. A delicious if not quite health-giving breakfast to power us through a day of scaling San Francisco's hills.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Hawksmoor Spitalfields Bar

I'm always tempted by the 'soft launch' offer, but rarely free enough to take advantage. So when Hakwsmoor Spitalfields had a 50% off food for the entirety of June, how could I miss that? They were launching the bar section of their easternmost outpost, and wanted to make sure they had their operation absolutely nailed by charging full price. A noble thing to do, and I suspect a luxury for restaurants with big names like theirs.

The offer, of course, was completely oversubscribed. We arrived at 6 and were promised a table at 7. People arriving at 6.30 were turned away – by then the bar was all booked up for the evening. We supped on delicious cocktails (mine: a marmalade cocktail with marmalade, campari and gin - tangy) and enjoyed the surrounds. The interior is incredible: a 20s speakeasy palace, rich turquoises, golds, peacock motifs, metalwork straight out of an art deco cruise ship.

At 7, as expertly advised by the front of house, we were taken to our table. I was really impressed that she remembered our faces from just 5 seconds of interaction an hour beforehand.

The bar menu is relatively short – some meaty things in buns, some sticky things as sides, some fresh tasting things to counter-balance all the sticky, greasy things. We had a bit of everything, obviously.

I had the Ox Cheek French Dip – a brioche roll, filled with slow cooked, melt in your mouth ox cheek. There was some cheese inside the roll, and a hint of kimchi. The best bit was pouring a small gravy boat's contents over the entire thing, the bread getting moist and making the meat moister still. Eating that was an incredibly rich treat. I had a bit of Pete's burger, and can confirm that Hawksmoor is up there with London's best.

Ox cheeks' made another more appearances in our meal. We had ox cheeks and cheese nuggets, lovely molten cheese blending perfectly with the dreamy ox cheek, and complimented perfectly by the fiery kimchi dip. XO chicken wings were perfectly fried, and deliciously sticky. We rated the chips very highly too, especially the lime pickle mayo they came with.

And then there was the pig's head poutine, which could well be the richest thing I've ever eaten. Poutine, in case you didn't know, is the Quebec national dish, comprising hand-cut skin on fries, a chicken gravy and curded cheese (somewhere between mozzarella and haloumi). It's becoming a bit trendy in London, and I should now declare that I had in Montreal back in 2006. So there. Hawksmoor's version didn't use curd cheese as far as I could tell, but the intense juices from the pig's head mixing with the gravy in the cast iron skillet made for the stickiest, most delicious sauces you could imagine.

I should stress that we were pretty full by this stage. I mean, achingly so. But with such a good deal, and with such a nice table, how could we not soldier on? We shared a chocolate caramel cup and their homemade salted caramel rolos. As delicious and decadent as they sound.

The soft launch offer seems to be a very effective tool. Not only are we – and probably everyone else who benefited from the offer – gushing about it, the service, food and experience were so positive that we'd be willing to pay full price for the bar and consider eating in the (more formal) restaurant upstairs too. The soft launch, if done well, can be about much more than sorting out your processes; it can build loyalty and spread 'worth of mouth' buzz. Just like this.

Sunday, 30 June 2013

Street food down South

I've lived in London for almost ten years now, and all of that has been north of the river. South London was always been a bit inconvenient - never hated or frowned upon, just further away and harder to get to. Lots has changed since then - better north-south connections with the Overground, the second advent of the bicycle, and of course, the pull factors of good foodie stuff happening south of the river.

I've tried out Honest Burger in Brixton Market, I've stocked up on Persian goodies from the wonderful Persepolis in Peckham, and more recently I've been checking out their street food markets in Brockley and at Maltby Street.

I went to Brockley Market in the middle of our prolonged winter. It isn't in Brockley proper - more on the fringes of Lewisham and Deptford, in a car park next to Lewisham Way. It drew in all the hip kids from across SE London - lots of late 20s/early 30s couples with beards and small dogs, trendy families, groups of students. I thought I was in Hackney for a second.

It was barely even noon before I was in the queue for Mother Flipper - famed for it's delicious burgers. They cooked it from scratch, but before long it was ready. I went for a double candy burger - you don't cycle all the way from Hackney for just one patty! - and it was one of the best I've eaten in London. Really juicy, pinkish meat, with candied bacon, perfect brioche bun, great condiments.

We also stopped off at the Fish Dogs stall, where fresh, warm doughnuts, or Dog Nuts) were being fried up (in separate oil, importantly) alongside fish sandwiches. Sadly our savoury compartments were full (their fish sandwiches are becoming legendary), but we did have enough space for the doughnuts. They were shaped like mini churros, coated in cinnamon sugar and served with a salted  caramel nutty dip.

Absolutely perfect. I love a good cinnamon coating on doughnuts - it reminds me of holidays in Spain or Portugal and getting sweet fried goods from roadside vans.

A few weeks ago we finally made it down to Maltby Street, which is at the Borough/London Bridge end of Bermondsey. It's a fascinating area: sleepy, residential with lots of council estates and new build blocks, but urban and very central - Maltby Street takes place in railway arches. Nearby Bermondsey Street is going through (or coming out of ) a very high end process of gentrification, with lots of foodie destination restaurants and Zandra Rhodes' fashion and textile museum. Maltby Street feels very much part of that, and the vibe was power-professionals having weekend downtime.

Our first stop was St John's Bakery, which is one of the best known units there. Enormous loafs of sourdough of more varieties than you could ever imagine are sold, alongside their legendary custard doughnuts. That's what we went for. The custard filling comes in plain vanilla, chocolate and lemon. I went for the classic vanilla. The doughnuts are light, fluffy and perfectly formed, but the real treat is the custard inside - it's very light and airy, with visible vanilla seeds inside. I tried so hard to make it last more than a few dozen metres, but failed miserably. It was worth the trip alone.

We started with doughnuts because I'd heard scare stories about them selling out. There were still a fair few left at midday, but don't chance it.

Our next call was Monty's Deli for their famous reuben sandwich. The queue was long, but this is generally a good sign when it comes to street food. It turns out the queue was disproportionately long because one of their hot plates wasn't working, so they were at half capacity. And you don't rush good food (luckily there were some samples of their chicken liver pate to nibble on - so luscious).

The fillings were piled high between the two slices of rye - pastrami (home made, really juicy, lots of proper fatty bits), sauerkraut, thinly sliced 'swiss', mustard, sauerkraut and russian dressing. We sat on a wall just outside the market area, and guzzled our sandwiches in silence, with intermittent happy groans. It really was excellent; a really great combination of salty and tangy and fiery and wholesome. 100% soul food.

At both Brockley and Maltby Street markets had a lot of really great looking stalls. I went for the greatest hits first time around, but will be back to try out the other stalls. Both have a good range of produce in addition to street food, so worth going for a top up on 'nice things' too.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Politicians and food: a strange affair

Politicians and food: who knew this was such a fascinating subject? A whole day of rumblings following the Sun's scathing frontpage on which George Osborne was pictured eating a burger and chips, in a staged pose "putting the finishing touches" to the Spending Review.

The Sun's truck was not that Osborne was eating high calorie junk food while the Government invests millions in public health work to tackle obesity. Nor was it scathing of how out of touch policies that prevent working people getting benefits for seven days to nudge them a bit harder into looking for work. Nope. The editorial line was that Osborne was out of touch for spending £9.70 on a burger and chips.

#burgergate trended, respected food critics surprised themselves jumping in to defend the Chancellor's spending of less than £10 on a quality meal, online armchair political pundits welcomed another knee-jerk opportunity to bash the Chancellor. So why is it so fascinating?

I write this from the relatively rare viewpoint of a professional policy wonk and an amateur food blogger. And having just spent considerably more than £9.70 on burger and chips at Hawksmoor Spitalfields. I've always been intrigued with how politicians interact with food, and how the media and the public respond.

The one that really sticks out for me is the 2010 Labour leadership elections when David Miliband was asked what his favourite restaurant was in an Evening Standard interview. His answer was getting a take away from Masala Zone in Camden. My heart sunk. What a bland answer! Masala Zone is one of those totally sanitised Indian restaurants designed for the self-loathing, waist-watching types. Don't get me wrong - it's not BAD. It's just there's no ghee, the coconut milk is half fat, and the spice wouldn't even make a baby sweat.

And then there was the time in 2009 that Gordon Brown point blank refused to say what is favourite biscuit was on a Mumsnet chat. In then characteristic style, after what you might imagine to be 24 hours of constant dithering, a statement emerged confirming his favourite biscuits were "chocolate". So, much more specific then.

Or just the general genericness of politicians saying their favourite food is fish and chips. Traditional - check! Appeals to a wide group of people - check! Not poncey - check check. Rachel Cooke hit the nail on the head with it back in 2010. Even David Cameron and Ed Balls, for all that cultural capital they should have gained at private school, are as bland as they come with their attainably aspirational lasagne suppers.

It's ironic, because opinion polls suggest that people want their politicians to be real and individual. The cult of the personality dominated the discourse around Blair's success, and in the social media age politicians have the chance to endear themselves to the public by giving a flavour of themselves to their followers.

But yet they anchor themselves to bland, generic, shamelessly, cynically, passionlessly populist statements.

I think there's a mixture of factors at play here. Some politicians are just bland in their personal lives because they live for politics. They throw whatever clothes on in the morning, and eat whatever food is available when they have a chance to eat.

Then there are the politicians who calculate every word and inference and how it will play out, slipping in references to takeaways and homemade Shepherd's Pie, trips to Asda and Argos. These are probably the same politicians who force themselves to livetweet X Factor when they'd rather gouge their eyes out.

And finally there are those who know what happens when you reveal what you really like. Nothing whizzy, maybe £9.70's worth of burger and chips from a mid-price chain like Byron Burgers, or that you treat yourself to a slap up meal in the same way as some treat themselves to a football match . Or maybe you put your hands up and say you love the Ottolenghi cookbook and using fresh herbs in meals.

The ensuing tabloid or twitter slapdown is a reminder of  how enjoying food is still seen as a bourgeois luxury, or at least an excuse to accuse someone of being bourgeois and out of touch. Whether it's the myth around Mandelson mistaking mushy peas for guacamole, or Osborne's £9.70 "posh" burger and chips, food choices are seen as ripe territory for bashing someone for prioritising quality, well sourced (i.e. not factory farmed) food, and having a more worldly outlook.

It's most frustrating to see food presented, not just as culturally elite but also as financially exclusive. Eating well doesn't have to involve lots of money. Go to a local market and you can buy loads of seasonal vegetables for only a few pounds - you could cook something amazingly delicious! Maybe even guacamole!

It would be glib to suggest that any person could prioritise eating out if they wanted to - too many can barely make it through the month, let alone enjoy any luxury. But compare it to more "socially acceptable" (read: non-poncey) treats like going to a football match or having a couple of pints or fish and chips on a Friday night, and a good value meal out doesn't seem too expensive. Even £9.70 on a tasty burger and chips!

As long as media outlets perpetuate the myth that eating well is snobby, elite and out of touch, we'll be laying traps for our politicians that prevent them from talking honestly about good food, how anyone can eat well from proper markets, supporting innovation and job creation in our now world-renowned restaurant/food industry. And that would be a shame for policy, for individuals' health and enjoyment, and for the economy.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Norfolk Arms, Bloomsbury

Two frustrations about eating out in London: it's hard to find proper rustic good tapas that is cheap like it should be; the dearth of decent places to eat in Bloomsbury, an otherwise lovely part of town.

The Norfolk Arms in Bloomsbury is the answer to both these prayers. I went there with some old friends a few weeks back and enjoyed a tasty array of classic/interesting tapas, good wine, friendly service and a bustling atmosphere.

We enjoyed some deliciously citrussy salt cod croquette balls, quality chorizo in red wine, and some paprika marinaded and fried crispy pork belly bits - they were something else, and every bit of their remnants was mopped up by the delicious bread.

We also feasted on tomatoey baked butter beans - great texture and flavour, and blue cheese with walnuts and honey on bread. I'm not usually a fan of blue, but it went perfectly with this combination of tastes.

Other highlights included a well-done staple of batatas bravas (with spicy tomato and mayonnaise), mariaded artichoke hearts, caperberries (very pungent), and courgette stuffed with cous cous, sultanas, sweet potatoes and topped with greek yoghurt. I like a bit of Levantine slipping into my tapas.

We were all drawn to the Norfolk Arms because we were lusting after Manzanilla, but ended up sinking those and three bottles of red between the five of us too. With all that food, the sherry, the wine, and tips, it came to £26 a head.

Sometimes the Norfolk Arms operates a two hour policy on tables, but they didn't need to turn us, so we had the table for a jolly four hours. All the way through, the waiting staff were friendly, attentive and low key.

So if you were ever looking for some nice, authentically spiced and priced tapas, or found yourself hungry in Bloomsbury, the Norfolk Arms could be a great choice for you.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

White Rabbit, Dalston

Dalston's transformation has been widely reported. Italian Vogue's 2009 pronouncement that Dalston is the coolest place in the world has almost become mythical - was that even said? Is it a truism? By now you can barely move for churnalism-tinged articles depicting the rise of Dalston, its hipster population, and where they like to hang out.

I preferred Dalston a few years ago, and I know how cliched that sounds. It's mostly too much for me now, especially at the weekend. I used to like it when it was only a few sketchy basement bars and source of the finest Turkish kebab this side of the Med. But the snazzification has some benefits, particularly a growing crop of innovative, tasty new restaurants.

Rita's at Birthdays grabbed the most attention, but relatively recent openee White Rabbit, Bradbury Street, is certainly worth a visit.

White Rabbit's focus is on sharing plates. If you were speaking Spanish, their dishes are somewhere between tapa and racion size. (I can imagine my friend laughing despairingly at my attention to plate-size practices of restaurants).The inspiration is eclectic: nods to modern, seasonal British, to the Iberian peninsula, and to the Middle East. The menu is organised by cooking method - grill, stove, .

We were recommended to order three dishes per person, but two per person plus bread and waffles more than sufficed. The dishes were brought out tapa style - staggered over the course of the meal. I wish more plate restaurants would do that, allowing the diners to savour a smaller number dishes at one time.

We kicked off with mussels served with baby leeks, wild garlic flowers and leek oil -which tasted like an intense, condensed leek. Really nice.

Pork scratchings were sweet and salty, and the bread came with whipped butter served on a stone. My mischievous friend asked whether they get a fresh stone for each serving: they don't - they wash them between each usage.

Next came artichokes (jerusalem) three ways: puréed with truffle oil, sautéed  and then their crispy skins. Topped with green parsley dish, this was an exceptionally delicious dish, and the simplicity of the ingredients meant you could focus on just how tasty jerusalem artichokes are.

We had pan fried hake, with pea puree and dumplings. This dish was just bursting with the taste of spring: so, so fresh.

Waffles were less Americana, more imagine what would happen if you homemade potato waffles and then deep fried them like crisps. Good for lapping up all the tasty sauces.

Lamb belly came atop puréed baba ganoush, topped with baby leeks and radishes. My friends found the lamb belly a bit too pungent, but I thought it worked well with the strong flavours of the (raw) leeks and radishes and the smoky purée.

A real highlight was a baked aubergine, topped with honeycomb, leaves and pomegranate seeds, and served next to thick yoghurt with ash on top. The flavours combined magically.

Another highlight for me was the Iberico pork with migas and pancetta. Migas is a popular dish in the Alentejo region of Portugal, and is basically flavoured bread. Here, the bits of bread were flavoured with the finest chorizo juices, combining deliciously with the coriander and pancetta. This took me right back to the Alentejo.

Finally, we shared black pudding with duck egg and asparagus, and a selection of mushrooms with fried courgette and red amaranth It was top quality black pudding, and the mushrooms were perfectly cooked.

In the spirit of sharing, and having eaten so much already, we shared desserts too. A salted caramel doughnut served with crispy popcorn bits and mascrapone was excellent, even when split four ways. Chocolate ganache came warm on top of a bowl of malty chocolate crumbs, tasting like a deconstructed mississipi mud pie.

An absolutely epic meal, inventive seasonal cooking, served in a completely relaxed unpretentious setting. Coming in at £28 including a drink and tips, it felt like really good value for the quality and quantity.