Wednesday, 26 March 2014

500: Archway's neighbourhood Italian restaurant

I love going back to my old neighbourhoods. Before I moved Hackney way four years ago I did most of my grown up London living around Tufnell Park, Kentish Town and Holloway. It was a very different London then, and most my eating out was done in long-standing neighbourhood restaurants serving up authentic, affordable food from around the world, brought to North London via successive waves of immigration. We were particularly well served by Ethiopian restaurants, old school Italian joints, north African cous cous, and Greek tavernas. Even the mid-range chains hadn't sprawled in.

When 500 opened on Holloway Road in 2008, right by the Archway gyratory, it was the first of its kind in this part of London. An upscale Italian neighbourhood bistro on a grimy patch of the A1. By now that's pretty much a formula for success, but it was a bold move that paid off.  Six years it opened, it was still jam-packed on a cold Monday evening with all those nice older middle class public sector worker types you get around there.

I went a couple of times back then and had lovely meals, and went again this week to take a friend who'd recently moved into the area. 

We had their signature deep fried ravioli filled with pecorino and mint, which could have had a bit more filling, but were bursting with intense flavours. A selection of breads were thrown in gratis, including an excellent black olive focaccia and moreish crisp bread. We also had some burrata (tasty) which came with thinly cut and dressed raw artichoke (not too exciting).

We both had another old favourite for mains: a portion of fresh gnocchi with sausage ragout. The gnocchi was so light and fluffy, and each piece just melted in your mouth. The ragout was good too, although for £11.50 the portion felt a little on the small side. There are bigger mains - marsala stewed rabbit, big rich meat dishes, that clock in at around £15.

The tiramisu was one of the best I've had, and I've had more than most. It was a gigantic slab, could have easily fed two, but happily it was all for me. Light and fluffy on the top and simple coffee soaked base.

Service was friendly and efficient, and despite being completely full, there was no hurrying, no upselling to maximise our value. The menu has changed little in the six years its been open, save for a few seasonal specials, and the d├ęcor is beginning to look a little worn, but the food is still mostly super, and so the punters keep coming back.

With a fancy-looking neighbourhood Italian restaurant just opened in Clapton (not even selling pizza!), E5 may also have that special kind of neighbourhood Italian too. I certainly hope it is, and hope it stays steady like 500. It's nice to have some classics amidst all the ephemeral and novel.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Little Ivy's Lower Clapton Road

At the start of the year I predicted that, after a year of lots of interesting new businesses opening on the Mare Street axis, the biggest change in 2014 would be to the north east on Lower Clapton Road. It was a strong hunch, but I am startled by the pace of change that's afoot, as are many other local residents over on the busiest thread on the Yeah! Hackney forum.

Starting from the base of Lower Clapton Road, there are plans for a basement tapas bar next to St John's churchyard (opening TBC), a gallic bar and bistro in the old Fitzgeralds pub (opening April), round the corner Little Ivy's - a Brazilian-Italian tinged tapas bar opened in late February (more on that in a sec), a fancy pizza joint set to open in May, Candela - a Latin themed cocktail bar opened in January, Yoruk - an ocakbasi restaurant opened in March, a salad themed pop is set to open a bit further up in April, and perhaps the most striking addition will be Verden - a Danish-inspired wine, charcuterie and cheese bar in the place of the old Cricketers pub at the top of Clarence Road, with a cold cellar open to customers where they can buy the produce that's been made onsite.

Exhausting huh? And that's only what's coming in the first half of 2014, and not including the craft beer shop, vintners, vets, cycle cafe and denim boutique set to open set to open soon, the gastropubs, cafes and restaurants that opened in the last couple of years, and the longer established businesses.

Lower Clapton Road is still out on a psychological limb in the views of most Londoners, so it's going to be hot competition among these new businesses to draw people here from the surrounding areas. I know long term Stoke Newington residents who still think of the area as Murder Mile and would take no interest in hopping over. Their loss, of course.

Litle Ivy's, one of the most recent openings, has a strong enough offer to draw the crowds from elsewhere. It kind of appeared out of nowhere on the site of a shop which had had three failed business in the last couple of years. It's run by Sao Paulo cool kids, who run its big sister restaurant Ivy Mess Hall over in Dalston. Last time I was there, Lovefoxxx of CSS was propping up the brunch bar.

The Clapton joint is smaller, more intimate, and has a really nice atmosphere. It feels a little bit DIY, the music is a notch or two louder than your average, and is interesting electro. It has a grown up party atmosphere, a bit similar to Rita's.

The menu is all tapas and platters, inspired by Spanish, Brazilian and Italian cuisines, with lots of innovative twists that take it up a few notches from your traditional patatas bravas and tortilla. The menu has sharing snacks and platters - cheeses, cured meats, nibbles and croquettes, fishy things - with tempura coated calamari, garlic prawns, sustainable salmon, a fine selection of vegetable dishes, and more meaty, saucy plates.

We had a selection of croquettes, which were somewhere between Brazilian and Spanish style, with interesting fillings - something mushroom and blue cheesy, something spinachy and one with aromatic spiced chicken.

The Catalan chorizo came out next - it was a generous portion, cooked with a generous amount of rosemary, giving it a woody, earthy balance to the pungency of the chorizo. The sauce was dangerously addictive, and happily the plate came with as generous helping of paprika dusted porous bread to soak every last morsel up.

A particular highlight was a salad of courgette ribbons, arranged in a big cone shape, with rocket, Sicilian lemon, basil, and a mixture what I think was parmesan and ricotta on the top, which was just the zingiest, freshest combination of flavours and would convert even your most raw veg cynical of friends to the cause.

Another highlights was the Brazilian stew of tomato, peppers, coconut milk and plantain, served with the biggest, juiciest, sweetest Atlantic prawns I've had in a long time. It came with the heads sticking out: a dramatic presentation, but kindly for the less adventurous, the tails were already separate, so no messy surgical procedures necessary.

We also had caramelised pork sliders: mini brioche buns, filled with slow cooked pork, lettuce and topped with a lime. They were tasty, but perhaps not quite as remarkable as some of the other dishes. They're probably better as a bar snack.

The wine menu is concise but with a good selection of interesting wines available by the glass and the bottle from around the world. Prices were keen for bottles, but only available in large glasses, so might seem a little pricier. I enjoyed a German Riesling from the Mosel, which had a nice fruity spiciness. Cocktails are also available, and some nice bottled lagers from around the world.

The service was warm and friendly, but could have been a little bit more attentive towards the end. Tap water was brought at the beginning but we had to ask for a refill, and there were a couple of errors on the bill. That said, they've only been open a couple of weeks and I think have been surprised at how busy it's so quickly become: I'm sure any quirks will be ironed out quickly: the team seem very enthusiastic and take pride in running a fun neighbourhood restaurant.

I'll be back soon to try out more of the menu, and try their brunch which they hope to start serving fairly soon. Prices are fair for the portions and the quality - this came to £30 a head with multiple drinks and a tip. We were not even hungry the next morning. It's already getting busy, so you may want to drop in earlier in the day or call up to book.

Friday, 14 March 2014

K-MEX and Kimchinary, Hackney

I make my friends and colleagues wince sometimes when they ask about my weekend food plans. Twice recently the answer has been "I'm going to a K-Mex pop up in Hoxton". Rightfully, it raises some eyebrows, especially when I explain it's Korean-Mexican fusion food and it's all the rage on the LA street food scene.

Bear with me, though, because there are good reasons for KMEX being an altogether Good Thing, not just some flash in the pan fad designed to get the twitter mob cramming into pop-ups.

So it all started in Los Angeles, which has huge Mexican and Korean populations, each with their own delicious street food offerings. Cooking in California has a long tradition of fusing the influences of its diverse populations together with its amazing capacity to grow the freshest and tastiest vegetables known to humankind. It was only natural that some people were going to clock that kimchi goes great with cheese, that coriander, avocado, lime and chilli united the cuisines, and both bad long traditions of slow cooking cheap cuts of meat with all manner of delicious fragrant spices.

When I was in California I ate some of Dante Fried Chicken's Creole-Asian-American-Latino fusions, had korean fried chicken and waffles, Chinese food fused with modern European, Asian style chilli cheese fries, Indian burritos...all incredible, exciting and not just an excuse to grab a headline on the latest natty fusion.

Over in London, Kimchi Cult were at the vanguard frying up kimchi with burgers at Chatsworth Road Market, making their own bulgogi fries and fried chicken at pop ups. Kimchi Cult has moved up to Glasgow now and, rumour has it, is looking to open a restaurant.

I am most excited about Kimchinary, run by Hanna Soderlund, who has been representing at Kerb and Street Feast with her *unbelievably* delicious Korean-style burritos and tacos. Think fillings like slow-cooked, K-spice infused ox cheek, Korean pulled pork, kale and miso aubergine, served with kimchi fried rice, cheese, sour cream, Asian slaw, and crispy, sharp Korean pickles.

Embedded image permalink

They are my absolute favourite street food lunch at the moment.

Hanna did a 7 week long residency at Catch on Kingsland Road recently, and I made it along to the final night to eat my way through the whole menu.

We shared dubboki - spicy, chewy, glutinous rice balls, and bulgogi nachos - think aromatic beef, with cheese, sour cream, and guacamole. Both utterly addictive.

The main draw, though, is Hanna's hand-pressed tacos, which work nicely in a sit-down setting - which are slightly harder for me to stuff in my bag as a cycle back to the office on my lunch than her burritos. There are all manner of exciting flavour combinations, such as cornflake fried chicken with sweet corn, Korean pulled pork with lightly pickled cabbage, ox cheek and tongue, and griddled squid and celariac.

The spread was incredible, with each taco a complex but perfectly balanced mix of flavours and textures. I brought a big pack of K-mex newbie friends with me, and all were blown away by every dish.

The pop up is now over, but you won't have to wait too long to try Kimchinary indoors. It seems Kimchinary is getting together with What the Dickens to open a proper indoors spot under the railway arches on Morning Lane in Homerton, which is happily less than 10 minutes walk from my flat. Follow their respective twitter streams for more news as it comes.

And it seems more Korean-Mexican fusion is brewing across London. I went last week to a popup dinner by Kome at Dead Dolls Club, and a variety of dishes got the K-Mex treatment. I particularly enjoyed seared tuna tostadas, where the gloriously fresh tuna meshed deliciously with tasty fermented vegetables, spicy sauces, fresh chilli and toasted sesame.

Also good were bulgogi fries - with aromatic beef, cheese, salsa, and lots of spring onion, which were hoovered up embarrassingly fast.

Even I have been trying my own hand at K-Mex, and now always have coriander, spring onions, sesame seeds, sriracha sauce and kimchi on hand to give a bit of a twist to certain dishes.

My message to you is this - don't be put off by the word 'fusion' or the fact that kimchi is fermented cabbage. Embrace this exciting food, and in particular, get down to Kimchinary, whether at Kerb, Street Feast, or whenever she opens her kitchen in Hackney with What the Dickens.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Andina, Shoreditch High Street

Peruvian cuisine has had a buzz about it for a few years now. We've had some quite high end openings over in W1, and a few more rustic versions popping up over in Clapton and Essex Road. In San Francisco, Peruvian cuisine has firmly hit the upper middle market with a wonderful mini chain called Limon, and a recent opening in Shoreditch, Andina, may be the start of a mainstream, quality, accessible Peruvian cuisine in London.

Andina opened just before Christmas without too much hype, but the good reviews started rolling in and it's pretty much booked up all night, every night. There are good reasons for this: despite its Shoreditch setting, it is very down-to-earth and chummy - no surly hipsters ogling their own tattoos, but happy, attentive staff, excited about the menu, explaining the options and telling you about their favourites.

The centrepiece of the menu is clearly the ceviche - marinated and cured fish and seafood. At its most basic, ceviche can be just lime juice, chilli and some finely diced onions, maybe a bit of coconut milk. At Andina, crispy bits of corn, avocado, sweet potato, pecan and goldenberries (physallis) all make an appearance, and the subject matter include trendy cod cheek, thinly sliced hake, sea bass, and even a beef carpaccio version and a wild mushroom option for the vegetarians.

The flavours and the freshness are out of this world. Top quality ingredients are used, the portions of the good stuff are generous (in other places I've found scallops and prawns diced so finely you'd hardly notice they were there), and you don't feel in the slightest cheated by the £8 price tag. Smooth.

In a rookie but delicious error my dining buddy and I both ordered the same main: Aji de Gallina, which was an incredible, complex, thick sauce with ground pecan, chillies, spices, shredded chicken, a hard boiled egg, a succulent quinoa coated fried chicken drumstick, all on top of some rice. It was hearty, filling but saved from stodge by all the interesting flavours.

All of this washed down very well with perfectly made pisco sours: a drink designed to be re-ordered.

We didn't have much room for dessert, and my Latin American blood knows how good those eggy, creamy desserts can be. But we figured we'd just about be able to squeeze in a sharing platter of pumpkin doughnuts. Fresh out the fryer, served with two hot dipping sauces: one cinnamon, one chocolate. Both incredible, and the doughnuts were some of the best I've had (and I've had a few).

We didn't hold back and the bill came to over £40 a head with tips, but it'd be easy to spend closer to £25 - £30 ahead with a bit more discipline and sharing. We're glad we didn't, though: it still felt like good value for the quality of the food and drinks, generous, portions, top ingredients and warm service.

Andina do an interesting looking brunch too, with brightly coloured healthy juices, more eggs, etc. Booking is essential at any time of day - but it's nice and easy using their online booking system, and at least when we were there, no table turning was going on. All in, Andina is a very welcome addition to Shoreditch's maturing restaurant scene.