Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sho Foo Doh, Pacific Social Club, Clapton

It makes me happy when my favourite street food traders move on to do pop ups, residencies and even open restaurants. I like to think there's something meritocratic about it - that anyone, in theory, with enough passion and wherewithal could set up a stall, earn a good reputation through  making good food and figuring out how to market it, and then other opportunities opening up...

...which is a nicely nuanced antidote to Dan Hancox's excellent piece in Vice, in which he highlights how pop ups are an advanced form of capitalism designed to inject novelty and urgency to fuel your consumption. Yes this is true in many cases, but pop ups can also be a chance for people who wouldn't otherwise have the capital to showcase their food/art/music to do so, use empty spaces between more permanent uses, and breathe a bit of life into staid settings.

Fumio (aka Sho Foo Doh) made his name as one of the early traders over at Chatsworth Road. His speciality is okonomiyaki - cabbage stuffed Japanese pancakes, topped with toppings like pork belly, prawn and cheese, and then with Japanese worcester sauce, mayo and dried seaweed on top - and he developed a cult following, including the venerable Marina O'Loughlin

After a few pop ups in different spots across Clapton (we enjoyed a quick fix when he was at the Dentist while we were deep in DIY), Fumio secured a residency at Pacific Social Club on Clarence Road, which is one of my favourite spots in the neighbourhood. It's a dreamy cafe, with lots of faded record sleeves on the wall, tropicalia, ceiling fans gently whirring around. They tongue-in-cheekily call themselves a 'drop out centre', but they're not far off the mark: PSC has captured laid back island life perfectly.

The menu is short and simple at Sho Foo Doh. There are some tasty appetisers, Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, and then something sweet. And you BYOB, with no corkage charge, so we got through a good stash of local beers from London Borough of Jam.

We shared a number of very different dishes to start. We had grilled lotus roots with dried seaweed, which were lovely, crunchy and earthy; seared salmon with soy sauce, mirin and garlic - the salmon was super fresh, and the flavours addictive; and pickled cucumber with soya sauce. All very delicious.

Meanwhile, Fumio was cooking our okonomiyaki, each of which had a unique combination of toppings and bits. You could have egg or udon noodles, they may or may not be cooked in lard, may or may not have anchovy mixed in, and could be topped with any combination of kimchi, cheddar cheese, pork belly, fermented soya beans, prawns, squid, sweetcorn...

Here, Fumio makes them Hiroshima style, which is where it starts off like a crepe, then with the mixture of cabbage, kelp, beansprouts, noodles, etc on top, before being topped, flipped and finished off with the worcester sauce, dried seaweed and copious spring onions.

We loved it. It's very filling, there's bucketloads of flavour, and with all that fresh veg inside and on top, you can definitely convince yourself that okonomiyaki are pretty healthy too. It washes down great with beer - and it's nice to see this more casual, hearty side of Japanese cuisine in London, in contrast to the numerous sushi chains and super high end restaurants.

Sho Foo Doh is on at Pacific Social Club every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. You might be fine to rock up, but it doesn't hurt to drop Fumio an email (details here) and get a table set aside for you. You'll also soon have Clapton Craft open around the corner to pick up some nice beer too. Top Clapton night, guys!

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Esters, Stoke Newington

Stoke Newington was at the vanguard of the second wave of middle class bohemianism in Hackney. Back when London was a bit more grey and staid, when people still went out in the West End, and when the Overground was called the Silverlink and was disgusting and unreliable, Stoke Newington was an enclave of farmers' markets, Mediterranean cafes, vegetarian Indian restaurants, and slightly smug earthy types who knew about life beyond the tube.

When I lived over in Tufnell Park, we'd take the 393 bus up to Church Street to snaffle a table for brunch at Blue Legume, grinning at our luck as twee indie types would gather round tables, waiting to pounce as soon as people put down their tip. In those dark days, the quiet bohemianism of N16 was a breath of fresh air for those of us who had a taste for the brunching life - mine developed while living in Berlin.

But Church Street developed in a funny kind of way. Loads of cafes and restaurants opened, but few of them exceptional or even half decent. High rents pushed margins to the max, and so high margin products such as pizza, low grade cakes and coffee are sold at premium price to endless willing punters keen to embrace the cutesy cafe culture of Church Street. It's a timely reminder of what happens when word catches on, landlords realise what rents they can charge, and businessfolk open restaurants because they can, not because they love.

So I was very pleased to check out Esters, located amidst a sleepy warren of N16 backstreets, and discover top notch, top value coffee, cakes and seasonal food - and love.

Esters took over from Fred and Fran, which was a similarly anomalously excellent cafe, and has kept much of the light, spacious interior intact, but with some nice rustic tables, hanging pendants with brightly coloured wires, and a nice line in plants.

The menu changes regularly with the seasons, and has an eclectic mix of influences - from a Levantine labneh to Caribbean jerk chicken, all pressed between proper bread and good British produce.

We enjoyed roast rhubarb on sourdough cardamom french toast - a revelatory take on the classic of plain ol' white bread. The rhubarb was delicate and fragrant, and worked beautifully with pistachios and labneh, for a bit of pungency.

My jerk chicken sandwich was also delicious. More sourdough, stuffed with aromatic, spicy chicken, hot and dripping with its cooking sauce. Also stuffed in this mammoth sandwich was a coconut, fennel and lime slaw, giving a crunchy, fresh counterbalance to the chicken. At £8 it's not cheap - but it was gigantic and bloody tasty - and enough to power me on for an afternoon of traipsing around in the cold.

The menu features some more open sandwiches (my friend had a butternut squash caponata and minted creme fraiche beauty), some tasty sounding baked and poached egg dishes, and some spectacular looking cakes and tray bakes, which unfortunately we had no space for.

Esters is a refreshing break from the bland Church Street norms, with chummy service, high quality innovative food at reasonable prices. Once you've been here you won't be back at any of those derivative cafes serving up dishwater coffee for £2.40.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Peckham Bazaar

So rules are made to be bent and broken, and my North East London remit almost certainly could be bent to stretch down to South East London. For it is on the East side of the city after all?

I like South East London. If I wasn't in Hackney, I'd almost certainly be living down there somewhere. Although the roads aren't much fun for cycling, and Elephant and Castle roundabout would be a daily thrill. But it's leafy, hilly, down to earth...and has a burgeoning foodie scene.

Peckham seems to be the epicentre of South East London's boom, with some hipster happenings like Frank's Campari Bar atop a multistorey carpark, and plenty of yuppy happenings on the "villagey" Bellenden Road. Just a couple of blocks away from all the hubbub of Rye Lane is Peckham Bazaar, sited in an old pub on Consort Road, which I visited last October.

Peckham Bazaar specialises in food and wine from the Balkans, and have a big smoky grill outside, which most food is cooked on. You can smell the grill wafting down the street as you approach, giving you an instant holiday feeling. It may be the only restaurant in London specialising in food from the Balkans, which is a bit of an oversight, eh, restaurenteurs? It's one of the most fascinating and beautiful parts of the world, and has some excellent food and wine to boot.

The establishment is superbly run. It feels like you're going to a mate's house for a barbecue, with the grill outside, with some big communal tables and a few smaller ones, and very friendly, informal service. The winelist is knowledgeably talked through; they didn't have any left of the Croatian red I fancied, but we were recommended an excellent alternative from Greece. It's worth saying I've barely seen a menu of Eastern Mediterranean wines as good as this in the Eastern Med, let alone in London.

We kicked off with grilled octopus and pork souvlaki. The octopus was served with lightly pickled mini vegetables (carrot, cauliflower, cucumber, onion), with a whiff of fresh dill about them. They complemented perfectly the meaty, smoky chewiness of the octopus, which was cooked to perfection.

The souvlaki came with a crisper selection of veg - carrots with carraway seed, and fennel, with a side of sumac topped yoghurt. A generous drizzle of top notch olive oil, topped with a splosh of vinegar, made the whole thing fiendishly addictive.

The selection of main dishes was impossible - I was wild at the idea of every dish on the menu. One of my friends had a North African flavoured dish of quail with harissa potatoes and an orange and olive salad - full of perfumey, punchy spiciness. My other friend had a Greek inspired pork chop with butter bean casserole - the herbs on that pork were just out of this world, and the pork was cooked to perfection.

I had lamb and venison adana kebabs - a twist on my Dalston ocakbasi favourite. Served with rich and deeply flavoured beetroot and walnut, and offset by a crispy, fresh fennel and sumac salad, this dish was an incredible mix of flavours.

The portions are generous, so sharing one dessert between three was the only realistic option for this late lunch. We had chocolate and cardamon cake, served with red wine roasted figs and mastic ice cream - a Levantine recipe that makes the ice cream a bit stickier and sweeter. Yes! Again, the flavour combinations were inspired and perfect.

Just writing up Peckham Bazaar has reminded what a perfect meal this was; one of the best I had in 2013. And now I remember that I need to take all my friends here. Since I went it's had some incredible reviews, including by the Standard's Fay Maschler, and appeared in some venerable Best of 2013 lists (here, here), and you probably need to book a couple of weeks in advance for a table now. But it's worth the effort, worth the trip down to Peckham if that's not your end of town, as you will be rewarded with an unforgettable, fresh, high quality meal that will knock your socks off. Do it!