Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Berber & Q, Shuk Shuk, The Good Egg, Black Axe Mangal - new Middle Eastern restaurants in Hackney

Middle Eastern food had its big moment in British culture about a decade ago when Ottolenghi hit the scene and brought his generous, zingy, lavish Levantine food to the masses in his London cafe-restaurant-delis and through his eponymous debutcookbook. Soon you could buy tahini, za'atar, sumac and proper bunches of fresh herbs everywhere, and our larders all got a bit more interesting.

In that time we've seen handy little chains like Yalla Yalla and Comptoir Libanaise popularise mezze, and the Lebanese restaurants of Edgware Road and the Mangal grills of Green Lanes and Dalston have continued to do their delicious thing. The spirit of Ottolenghi has made it into people's cooking repertoire and into the salad counter in many cafes, but only a handful of restaurants – such as Fitzrovia's Honey & Co – have continued to really push and innovate within the Levantine range to bring exciting Middle East inspired cuisine to restaurant tables.

That was until 2015. A new generation of Middle Eastern restaurants have sprung up across London. North East London, and Hackney in particular, is home to a number of them. Best among them are Haggerston's Berber & QShuk Shuk BBQ in Hackney Wick, Highbury's Black Axe Mangal and Stoke Newington's The Good Egg. Read on and find out why.

Berber & Q
Berber & Q was the first of the bunch to open, in a big space under the arches in Haggerston. Loud house music pumps out, it's dark and buzzy with a clubby vibe. For restaurants are the new clubs, as Hackney gets a bit more old and moneyed. The menu comprises meats and mezze with a heavy emphasis on grilling and smoking on the barbe-Q. Q-ueue you will also have to do, as it's terribly popular. Rock up at 7 and they'll probably call you an hour later to tell your table is ready.

But it's all worth it. The barbecued cauliflower 'shwarma' (the most 2015 of dishes) with pomegranate and tahini was the best I've had, and all the vegetarian mezze was swimming in wow factor: the beetroot came with whipped feta, orange and hazelnuts, smoked aubergine with browned butter and pine nuts, a whole smoked garlic head, home made pickles, green beans with garlic and preserved lemon.

The barbecued meat selection was excellent. We had a portion of their homemade merguez sausages, some 'hand pulled' lamb mechoui – essentially an authentic and delicious version of doner meat, and a sticky, rich slab of pork belly cooked in a pomegranate barbecue sauce. It's all served with fresh herbs, grilled vegetables, flat breads and home-made garlic and chilli sauces. All of this is topped off with a great cocktail menu that makes the most of Middle Eastern flavours – think pistachio syrups, sumac, rose harissa in the Bloody Mary, saffron infused rum.

Shuk Shuk BBQ
Shuk Shuk BBQ in Hackney Wick was opened as a collaboration between the local craft brewery Crate and Berber & Q, and is so very Hackney Wick: street food kitchen, kombucha bar and craft beer bar in a two floor renovated warehouse with ping pong tables, sofas and 'mess hall' (i.e. communal) style tables. The menu has much of the same meats as Berber & Q HQ (I opt again for the lamb mechoui, but try their smoky pulled chicken this time).

The sides here are more of a fusion between US and Middle Eastern BBQ – potato salad is infused with saffron in a nod simultaneously to Iran and the Deep South, the slaw has tahini, yoghurt and fresh herbs through it, and the mac'n'cheese is made with Balkan kashikaval cheese, with a herby crumb running through it, and lovely crunchy bits on top. The sides and topping really made it – help yourself to zhoug – a herby, garlicky green sauce, their sweet and spicy BBQ sauce, or the ultra garlicky garlic and yoghurt sauce You also get lightly pickled onions, pickled chilli peppers, rocket and fresh herbs, harissa, and a cumin salt to sprinkle over it.

Black Axe Mangal
Fusion is also on the table at BlackAxe Mangal at Highbury Corner, but here it's taking the Turkish/Kurdish mangal grill as a starting point, mixing in influences from Head Chef Lee Tiernan's days at nose-to-tail trailbalzers St Johns, mixed in with Asian influences, spice mixes from (my absolute favourite fun fusion restaurant) Mission ChineseFood in San Francisco.

The menu is short with a small selection of flat breads, interesting sides, and larger main dishes. We have the lamb offal flat bread, which is their spin on lahmacun. The offal is only lightly pungent but fully flavoured, and it's topped with lightly pickled pink onions, parsley, garlic and chilli sauces. My offally sceptical friend is initially hesitant, but the chewy dough and perfect balance of flavours means we have more competition than we bargained for.

We could take or leave the kale with preserved lemon, but the century egg with cod roe and crispy pig ear is one of the most remarkable dishes I've tried. It conjures up the taste of egg mayonnaise with bacon and cress, but with rich, deep umami flavours from the core ingredients. A charred hispi cabbage with fermented shrimps is buttery, smoky and so so savoury.

The two main meat dishes are nods to mangal classics - the Bakken special is a ludicrously delicious lamb chop with a tomato and pepper sauce, crunchy lentils, yoghurt and chilli. But the only choice for me was the Mission Chinese spiced lamb doner - a zingy, asian-y spiced mixture coating and dusting the offaly lamb, served on a flatbread with lettuce and cucumber, topped with a yoghurty sauce and crispy onion. 

Like Berber & Q and Shuk Shuk BBQ, Black Axe Mangal puts the party into Middle Eastern food, with fun cocktails (love a Lagerita) and a heavy metal soundtrack. 

The Good Egg
The Good Egg is a bit more sedate and traditional in its presentation, and mashes international Jewish and middle eastern influences with nods to Montreal and New York at the same time as Jerusalem, Iraq and Eastern Europe. It's from an ex Ottolenghi team and located on Stoke Newington Church Street, opening after much anticipation to queues of people hungry for brunch.

They bake their own bagels and challa, which are the most delicious I've had, served with nice olive oil and a za'atar mix. They also cure their own beef for pastrami, which I had in their Good Egg Burger (plenty of bone marrow in the patty for extra pungency, and it comes topped with an egg and pickles and served with zoo fries, which have lots of yemenite herb chilli zhoug on top) and is also available on platters, as a big short rib in its own right, or on pastrami chilli cheese fries. Yum.

Like with the other new middle eastern restaurants to open in North East London, the Good Egg is good for sharing, with lots of smaller dishes for the table. We ate burned aubergine with zhoug (again!), beetroot with sour cream, dill and poppy seed, a whole roast cauliflower with tahini and pomegranate (as I said, the most 2015 dish, and a fine version of it) and buttermilk fried chicken with za'atar and a chilli honey dip (greaseless crispy coating, juicy inside).

Brunch is supposed to be a big deal, with lots of inspired egg options - a shakshuka, burned aubergine in pita, pastrami meat hash, challa french toast, pastrami hash. I intend to try it out in the new year.

Friday, 27 November 2015

Uchi Hackney, Clarence Road, Clapton

I've not been blown away by many of the new openings in Clapton recently. Some seem to shove their 'concept' down your throat a bit too much, showing off the chefiness and forgetting that there are only so many people who won't baulk at pretentious, try hard menus. Anyway. I'm not here to rant; I'm here to sing the praises of Uchi, which is one of the better new openings in Clapton this year.

Uchi specialises in sushi and sits neatly on the same road as Tonkotsu, which specialises in ramen, and Sho Foo Doh at Pacific Social Club, which specialises in okonomiyaki - Japanese pancakes. Three specialist Japanese restaurants on a road where four years ago the riots blazed.

Uchi's opening has been gradual and tantalising. It started with them launching a bicycle sushi delivery service. They deliver anywhere in the Hackney borough (to the envy of my friends just outside the borough boundaries), and it's a pretty neat thing having getting nice sushi delivered on a bike. For delivery you can order from a selection of white rice sushi, sashimi and nigri and black rice vegetarian sushi options.

The restaurant itself opened in early September, and was worth the wait. They've done it out beautifully in a low key, but high quality Japanese style. It's all white and bright, with lovely bleached, untreated floorboards (my friend says to me "wait til customers start spilling soy sauce on it", low tables and bars that run along the walls, all with low wooden stools. There is a nice bar, with Japanese spirits behind it, nice little brass-plated ceiling lights, and all the staff are wearing denim aprons. 

It's pretty busy on the cold Saturday night we visit, and the crowd seems chiefly locals. People swing by over the course of the evening to pick up sushi orders, and I spy the manager dash onto his bicycle at least three times to do deliveries - the delivery cyclist has called in sick that evening.

The menu is simple, with all emphasis on the sushi and snacky sides. There is a short selection of black rice vegetarian sushi rolls and white rice meat and fish rolls, as well as nigiri and sashimi. The take away/delivery menu has a slightly wider selection than the restaurant menu, but you can order any favourites from the delivery menu if you can remember them.

I rate the sushi as good by London standards. It's not the snazziest or the most manicured - this isn't about obscure, expensive fish, but well-made, hand-rolled goodies with a few flourishes here and there. We enjoy a roll of soft shell crab, which is fried in tempura, and rolled up with avocado, spring onion and maybe some mayonnaise.

We order a salmon and avocado roll off the delivery menu. It's not the inside out roll I loved when I first had a delivery, way back in May, but the salmon is fresh and the classic combination doesn't tire.

We also order haloumi, sweet potato and carrot black rice sushi, which is a lovely combination of nutty, crunchy and sweetly salty.

A black seaweed salad with lightly pickled carrots and thins of deep fried tofu is full of interesting umami tastes, and a surprisingly crunchy texture.

The warm dishes include skewers of pork belly, chicken and miso aubergine, and a few fried dishes - kara-age chicken, gyoza and tempura vegetables. The karaage chicken is succulent and juicy, with good flavour. Its coating is crisp and not claggy, and we polish up every last bit. The tempura veg, too, are nicely done, and includes king oyster mushrooms, sweet potato, aubergine, peppers.

The prices are just fair for the quality and quantity. This is no bargain night out, but neither is it taking the biscuit compared to other mid-range Japanese restaurants.

A few creases still need ironing out - the frying happens too close to the restaurant (can leave you a bit greasy), service could be a little more attentive (drink re-ups, clearing empties), a dish is forgotten from the order.

But this is decent sushi in a part of town where you don't find much of it, at a time when Japanese food is having a bit of a moment. With a decent offer to pescetarians, carnivores, vegetarians, vegans and gluten intolerants, I suspect Uchi will do quite well serving Hackney. I'm already thinking about my next delivery!

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Jackdaw jazz cafe, Lower Clapton Road, Hackney

New openings are trickling through in Clapton, not quite as fast as in 2013 or 2014, but still steadily. The new openings are a mixed bag, with some really blowing me away (like the wonderful Brooksby's Walk) and others leaving me cold as they try too hard to impress with fussy menus, excruciating 'concepts' and food that fails to live up to its descriptions. I won't name them because I'm here, chiefly, to sing about what's great.

Jackdaw, a new jazz cafe opposite Clapton Pond is one worth singing about. Enough to get me out of my rut of not blogging (mostly driven by all my eating out cash going into a renovation project, but that's another story). Yup, a jazz cafe. A proper jazz cafe with live music every night. The jazz is downstairs in the basement bar, but the live sounds travel up to the restaurant and bar upstairs, where 22 year old head chef Joshua Dallaway and his equally fresh-faced team will serve you up an exciting, unusual but incredibly competent menu of sharing plates.

It sounds like it shouldn't work, like it's all ...'concept'. But it does, and that's chiefly down to the warmth and passion of the owners, Angela and Ash, who live in Walthamstow, love love love jazz music, and have decided to follow their dream at the end of their careers and open a jazz cafe. Rumour has it that Angela spotted Joshua Dallaway on a telly programme, liked what he was about and got in touch to see if he'd be interested in heading up the kitchen at Jackdaw. 

Josh and the team's creativity with food is impressive. Every dish is full of interesting flavours, textures, with fresh, seasonal ingredients that are cooked to perfection and beautifully presented. Read the descriptions and you think it won't work or that it's trying too hard, but the love for experimenting with ingredients and flavours is palpable. The menu changes every week, and you get the feeling they spend most of their downtime experimenting with different combinations for the next week's menu.

The menu is divided into snacks, small plates and desserts (except Saturdays when a £35 tasting menu is also on offer). The small plates range in price from £6 - £10, but they're really not that small at all. On our visit two £8 and two £10 dishes was just right for two hungry cyclists. 

Pumpkin gnocchi with wild mushrooms was "the best gnocchi I've had" - perfectly formed little pillows, with a nutty, fruity taste. The wild mushrooms were bountiful - king oysters, girolles, chanterelles, pickled little Asian mushrooms in sesame oil and a sharp vinegar. A few leaves of sea aster gave a lovely salty freshness to the dish.

Cauliflower came several ways (pickled, roasted, raw, pink, white, etc) with jasmine tea soaked raisins and a creamy barley and parsley root risotto-cum-porridge topped with cacao nibs. It was a strange mix of flavours, with the raisins and the nibs and the creamy sauce evoking a wintery breakfast porridge, while also being very savoury, nutty and earthy. 

Shorthorn onglet steak was absolutely perfectly cooked and seasoned, and served with a soft stilton cheese, roast baby turnip, roast salsify and blanched turnip tops. The presentation was stunning, the portion generous for the price, and every mouthful was layered with salty, earthy, fresh flavours with heaps of beefy juice to soak up.

Our final (not so) small plate was lamb belly with grilled hispi cabbage, mint sauce and hay baked shallot. The lamb belly had a lovely thin crisp layer of fat and the meat underneath was pink, juicy and meltingly tender. The shallots were luxuriously rich, the on-trend grilled hispi was perfectly sweet and smoky, and the mint sauce paid a nice homage to the kind you'd get in a Toby's Carvery with your all you-can-eat roast lamb. This was probably our favourite savoury dish.

Desserts are also a treat, and vary up every week. You get the feeling that Josh and the team have just as much - if not more - fun dreaming these up, testing and experimenting. We order both (we really don't need to). One was a chocolate mousse, with a wild mushroom ganache, whipped buttermilk and walnut marzipan - the funghi ganache was like a more pungent, earthy white chocolate. It really shouldn't work, but it does - contrasting nicely with the tangy buttermilk and the richer mousse. The other dessert was a fancy take on a carrot cake - with candied carrot, sour cream ice cream, a sweet, moist and sticky maple cake and candied pecans. This dish alone was definitely enough for two.

We end up in Jackdaw for three hours on this chilly Thursday night, enjoying the music, the just-right pacing of the service, with the fruity Sicilian nero d'avola wine keeping us going. A steady stream of customers came in for dinner, all local. I suspect Jackdaw will do well on return custom, as people see how great value it is for the quality of cooking - and the fact you get the live jazz coming up from downstairs too. They're open all through the day for coffee, breakfast, lunch and snacks. It doesn't reek of hipster, and the owners are very keen to encourage people from all backgrounds to come in for the jazz. Let's hope they manage it, because Jackdaw is a real treat to have in the neighbourhood. 

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Affordable Marseille and Cassis restaurant tips

To bouillabaise or to not bouillabaise, that is the question. Or was certainly my question when planning a trip to Marseille and Cassis. Bouillabaise is a 'must do' according to many blogs and guidebooks - the signature dish of the area. But boy is it pricey - a bouillabaise ceremony starts at about 45Eur, high in price because of the rare fish that need to go in, only found in this part of the Mediterranean.

After consulting our Marseille guru, British-born but Marseille-based restaurant and architecture critic Jonathan Meades (well, we googled his views on it), we decided to skip the tourist traps and see what good things were on offer. 

High on our list was North African food, and we followed a Jonathan Meades tip to Le Souk on the Old Port. In any other city you'd expect there to be little to recommend in such a prominent spot, but Marseille is wonderfully low key like that - no sign of droves of tourists in our late June trip. The menu has all sorts of mezze and grills, but this place is all about the tagines and cous cous. We ordered a delicious mixed mezze platter, but it did too good a job at filling us up before our generous mains.

I went for a sweet'n'sour tagine (pure savoury is also an option): duck with figs, prunes, honey and onion. IT came with two confit duck legs, and the thickest, sweetest, richest sauce you can imagine. The figs and prunes gave it a real intensity, and only pungent meat like duck and lamb feature on the sweet/sour menu because anything else would get lost amongs the flavours. Toasted almonds cut a crunchy, earthy taste through it, contrasting nicely with sprinklings of icing sugar. The cous cous itself was fluffy with a crunch and a lovely plain vessel for this intense dish.

I also tried a classic cous cous stew - which was served in all its component parts - chicken, cous cous, a light and watery broth, with stewed vegetables, soaked sweet raisins and chick peas. It was simpler and lighter and every item sung for itself. Mains cost from 12€ to 18€.

Le Souk Marseille, 98 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille, +33 4 91 91 29 29.

'Neo bistro' is your search term if you're looking for something a bit more modish and cheffy, and when the Euro's as affordable as it is in Summer 2015 you can get some pretty good value in Marseille. I agonised over which neo bistro to try on our trip, but settled for Cafe des Epices, just a block back from the Old Port. The tables are spread over a large square, surrounded by massive potted olive trees. It felt a little less in-the-know than other spots, with a few guidebooks on the tables and a few bigger parties. Our table was at 8pm, and the place was deserted when we arrived, but every table was full by 9, which is worth noting for reservations.

The forumle is set at 45€, includes some delicious bread and olive oil, and a selection fo 4-5 dishes at each course. I had major food envy of my partner's gazpacho-like dish - the most perfect, zingy, cool tomato base laced with top drawer olive oil, with confit tomatoes, stunningly good smoked mozzarella, olives and a parmesan crisp.

My sea bass tartare was fresh and cut with an Asian inspired sesame dressing. It was good, but I wish I'd had the gazpacho.

Not to worry - I won on the mains, with an exceptional lamb and aubergine dish. There was so much lamb, it was basted with a moreish, anchovy, herby sauce. It came with quinoa, which was lifted a couple of levels above with rich sun dried tomatoes, caperberries.

Desserts were nice but not especially memorably, but the main drag was the struggle to get service - we were forgotten about after an intense service start. We were compensated with a large glass of the rose we were drinking, but by the end of the meal we'd probably had enough and would rather have had a little bit docked off the bill. Alas, language barriers!

Café des Epices, 4 Rue du Lacydon, 13002 Marseille, France, +33 4 91 91 22 69.

Our favourite find was the lunch-only, reservations-necessary fish and seafood restaurant on a busy junction not too far from the station. La Boite à Sardine is one of those places you just want to rave from the rooftops about - definitely locals only (telephone only reservations and limited openings help), but the whole thing is just so bloody convivial and conducive to a happy meal. 

The chefs rotate daily on days off from other restaurants, the menu changes up daily with a few consistent numbers - such as deep fried sea anemone and platters of sparklingly fresh prawns with their *unbelievable* aioli, and are introduced to you personally by the knowledgeable waiting staff.

Wine is served in the Disney glasses that mustard comes in and are staples in every French family home, the mark ups are reasonable, and there are some fine wines available at 500ml for your moderately sensible weekday lunch.

As well as the sea anemone and prawns, I devoured a bowl of sweet little clams in a herbalicious sauce, made all the more delicious by the generous scatterings of aniseedy chervil. It came with chick pea chips - shaped like good chunky chip shop chips, but paying a nutty, earthy compliment to the clams. 

To end we shared clafoutis, which was served from a tray, family style, and got hoovered up too quickly to get a photo.

La Boite à Sardine, 2 Boulevard de la Libération, 13001 Marseille, +33 4 91 50 95 95.

Le Bonaparte, Cassis
Cassis is the fanciest seaside village in this part of the South of France. We stayed for three nights, as a base for exploring the wild Calanques national park for stunning beaches and walks. Cassis itself is very pretty and relatively small, but it's jam packed with restaurants bars and shops. It's a proper place to see and be seen, with lots of promenading down the front, and every table in every seafront bar is occupied.

Prices are relatively high in the restaurants and quality is variable. Some are targeted at once-and-never-again tourists, others at monied locals. But find your way down some of the back streets and there are some classic little neighbourhood restaurants that have a loyal following of return customers. Le Bonaparte is one such place, tucked down a side street, with tables spilling out into the little alley. All the tables outside were fully booked on our evening there, so we took a table inside.

There are menus at different prices depending on how fancy you want your mains. The 26€ menu's options worked fine for us, so we both started with fish soup - the real deal, with bread, a garlicky saffron rouille and grated emmental. It was rustic and simple, a big pan of the stuff, which was really just an excuse to have lots of rouille and cheese topped baguette rounds and dip them in the soup.

The 26€ menu afforded the most perfectly cooked and prepared sea bass - crisply grilled, then filleted by the waiter and presented off the bone, lightly seasoned and drizzled with olive oil. It was sheer, delicate perfection. And it came with ratatouille (the best ever) and roasted new potatoes; simple, homely, perfectly cooked.

Le Bonaparte had an excellent wine list, with a good selection of wines from the immediate Cassis area (great for whites, rose and red!), and the staff were very good at recommending one to our taste. Drop by earlier in the day if you plan to go - reservations recommended for a good table.

Le Bonaparte, 14 rue Gén Bonaparte, 13260 Cassis. +33 4 42 01 80 84.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Top eats in Kreuzberg and Neukoelln, Berlin

When I lived in Berlin from 2005 to 2006, it was not the place for exciting, high quality food. Eating out was cheap and cheerful - there were heaps of generic "national cuisine" restaurants which did watered down versions of curry or noodles, and it kept us happy as Erasmus students. You could probably say similar of London back then. The fetishisation of food has benefited both cities, and it's always a pleasure to go back to Berlin and see how the food scene is developing.

Like London, the last decade has seen the city's gravity shift. In Berlin it's all slunk south-east from Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg to Kreuzberg and Neukölln, which have that potent mix that leads to hipster-led regeneration: a history of protest and radicalism and melting-pot feel from being the home to decades of waves of migration.

I was lucky enough to stay with my amazing multi-talented friend Elizabeth Rushe, who has worked for many years in food, design, travel, start ups and music in Berlin, and is an excellent source of knowledge for what's new, old and interesting in the city. Follow her on twitter, instagram or just admire her photos.

For older tips (google them to see if they're still open), check out my blogs on Prenzlauer Berg, Kreuzberg in 2012, and a five year old general round up.

Stella is New Yorker Suzy Fracassa's cafe and take-out on Neukölln's Wesestrasse, which is like a much more sleepy, low key version of Kingsland Road, or a suped up version of Lower Clapton Road. Suzy's been doing gorgeous catering of fusion-y salads, meals and sweet delights for many years, earning a big enough cult following to open up this permanent space. There's a daily selection of cold dishes a single hot dish, decent coffee, cakes and cold drinks.

Suzy's Italian background, time in New York and admiration of Ottolenghi's dab hand at Asian and middle Eastern fusion influence the cooking. There's a pretty price guide setting out the cost of all the combinations of portions of cold and hot dishes and different sizes.

I go for three cold salads, but have a nibble on a friend's meatballs in tomato sauce - sublime. I try the sesame noodles - a homage to a late-night New York Asian fast food staple, made with Italian spaghetti, expertly seasoned with a sesame dressing, spring onions and toasted sesame black and white sesame seeds. There's a broccoli slaw, which has a lightly creamy dressing and lots of toasted bits, a wild rice salad with sweet potato and asparagus (Germany goes WILD for Spargelsaisson!). I also try a friend's wild garlic pesto potato salad. Everything is delicious, with carefully balanced flavours that sing in your mouth for ages afterwards.

We finish sharing some rich and gooey chocolate brownies and marshmallow Rice Krispie cakes. There are tables on the pavement outside, and a lovely back room with a big table, views of an overgrown garden, and a beautiful mural of verdant plants along one wall.

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

Suzy knows how to feed the soul and put a smile on her customers. Watch this space to see how Stella develops.

Street food nights at Markthalle Neun, Kreuzberg
Markthalle Neun is a stunning old covered market building in an understated Kiez in Kreuzberg. Through the week it's a mixture of farmers selling vegetables and other produce with a good few specialist mini delicatessens selling booze, olive oils, salamis, cheese, smoked fish and much more. But every Thursday night lots of street food stalls and bars open up inside, and people flock from all over Berlin to savour the food, drink and atmosphere.

There is so much to choose from, but we try Korean hot dogs (available vegan too), loaded with kimchi, sriracha, cheese and crispy onions.

I love the bar siu steamed buns, made by a Chinese lad and his mum. The pork mince filling is nicely pungent, full of flavour. The rice dough is light and pillowy and literally steaming from the steaming.

Bao Kitchen's open steamed bun (Momofuku-style, so now) with pork is more pulled than those perfectly cooked, glazed pork belly slabs done by the pros, but it stills tastes good.

And I'm blown away by the smoked veal ribs from Big Stuff Smoked stall - one of the most popular, demonstrated by all the beef brisket and short rib gone by 7pm when I develop enough appetite to order. You can choose from a number of specially made sauces - I get their barbecue cherry cola sauce, which is every bit as sweet, sour, smoky and delicious as it sounds.

By 8pm it is heaving. So many people. There are a decent number of tables, so it's all quite grown up, and the queues are rarely too long. It's nice that the demographic is much more mixed than it would be in London - lots of families, older groups, not just brash 20/30 somethings. Some of the stalls change each week, and there's a huge selection, so lots of reasons to keep going back. Most of the prices are sub 7€, comparing favourably with the likes of London's Street Feast.

Thai Park in Preusselpark
Sundays are a big deal in Berlin. All the shops are closed, and you've probably had a late boozy night, so it's all about being outside (when the weather's good) and nourishing yourself with good food and a good mosey. Flea Markets are a big part of the Sunday experience, with Mauer Park in Prenzlauer Berg being the biggest and most famous. Boxhagener Platz in Friedrichshain is also nice, and Ankona Platz in Prenzlauer Berg has much more high quality bric a brac than a lot of the junk at Mauer Park.

Quietly gaining in popularity is the Thai Market in Preussel Park, deep in West Berlin. Berlin is home to a big Thai population, but many of the restaurants serve a duller version of the cuisine. Not so here, where you'll find about 50 stalls run by Thai (mostly) women, who're all sat on mats on the grass, with a few implements (cool boxes, gas powered grills) to make usually a single dish. The flavours are totally unedited - pungent cuts of meat, copious quantities of fish sauce, chillies with a proper kick.

A foodie friend guides us to a longish queue for green papaya salad. This is one of my benchmark dishes, and it blew every other version I'd had out the water. Each portion is made from scratch and to order. The papaya is shredded with a mandolin, tipped into a huge pestle where it meets its mortar, along with lime, chilli, fish sauce, dried shrimps, roasted peanuts and a few tomatoes, and is then pummelled and tasted and adjusted and pummelled and tasted and adjusted, until she's happy with it. Oh boy - this was so hot, ask for her to hold the chilli if you've not got a pretty hefty tolerance for spice. But it was so good, and a steal for a huge portion at 5€.

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

I also try some squid skewers, which are a steal at 2€ each, loaded with tentacles, griddled on high and lathered in a chilli sauce. I grab the last three pork and peanut skewers (1€ each, WTF), and
enjoy some ludicrously sweet ice tea - which is strong and bitter, Thai style, then topped up with lots of condensed and evaporated milk. It's sublime.

(photo by Elizabeth Rushe)

Cocolo Ramen, Maybachufer
I love a stroll by the canal down by Maybachufer, a couple of blocks south of Kottbusser Tor. The Ankerklause pub down by the water is legendary. But there's another reason to go there now - a nice ramen restaurant, with a lovely garden for schlurping down noodles on a warm evening. I'm totally spoiled when it comes to ramen, what with Tonkotsu Mare Street a 5 minute walk away. Over in Berlin, I order their Tonkotsu as a comparison - the broth is not quite so creamy from the bones, but it is full of porky flavour, and comes with a generous amount of pork belly and other cuts. lots of fungal, seaweed and gingery bits and decent noodles with enough of a bite on them. You get a neat selections of oils and shakes to pimp your Tonkotsu - I go wild for their onion oil, which has a lovely rich umami taste.

We also enjoy their pickled king oyster mushrooms, an almost creamy sesame spinach, and edamame beans. Schlurp schlurp.

Kirk, Skalitzerstr
I don't usually focus on drinks, but I have to tell you to go to Kirk on Skalitzerstr for cocktails. Everyone I know or met in Berlin would light up if you mention the place. It's the best spot for cocktails for miles, possibly hundreds of miles. The star of the show is the mixologist, a Nick Cave lookalike, rumoured to be from Croatia but to have learned his craft in New York. He silently makes the orders, having the odd chat to the waiting staff but never with the customers; he chain smokes and puts on dark records. I was delighted to hear a vintage PJ Harvey album while I supped my (first class) negroni.

The decor is retro without being kitsch, and it gets really busy later on, so get there before 9. Grab a seat at the bar if you can. Their whiskey sours comes highly recommended.

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Brooksby's Walk, Chatsworth Road, Clapton / Homerton

Just when I thought new openings were getting a bit derivative over in Clapton, I got a very pleasant surprise. The public toilets on Brooksby's Walk, previously home to the social enterprise Nana, got taken on by a crew of bright young things who really know their onions, so to speak.

The art deco public toilets were converted two years ago to provide a bar/café in the original men's loos (urinals in tact), opening the original women's side as unisex public toilets for all the hours the premises is open. It benefits from a stunning roof terrace which catches the sun pretty much all day long. And for the summer - and hopefully beyond (subject to planning permission) - it's open as a restaurant and cocktail bar, with Giorgio Ravelli (ex of Upstairs at the Ten Bells and the Ledbury) in the kitchen, Jarrod Cooke (also ex of Upstairs at the Ten Bells) on front of house, and Jimmy McMahon, an esteemed mixologist, on the cocktails. The whole operation has a pally, family vibe - helped by the fact that the team are all chums, and they're bringing other chums in to help with the odd waiting and cheffing shift.

The food menu is seasonal Northern Italian - Ravelli himself is Swiss Italian - and changes up regularly with a few regular dishes, such as their parmesan pannacotta with broad beans and pea purée. This was an instant highlight - a light, moussey, creamy parmesan custard, which mixes gorgeously with the lush green, the delicate flavours of marjoram and slightly acidic slivers of nectarine.

Nectarine appears again, chargrilled and topped with shavings of princess alicia cheese (a mountain cheese not dissimilar to comté) and a rich balsamic dressing.

Beer battered samphire is generously portioned for its £4.50 price tag, and is almost like a marshy bhaji. We break bits off with our hands and eat it animal style. Every last fleck of sea salt and oil is consumed, fingers out towards the end. It's a theme with the meal.

A unanimous highlight of the meal is the crispy squid. This is among the best squid I've had: fresh, crisp, flavoursome, generous. It's topped with tangy sumac, but it's all about the Kentish tomato salad it sits atop. The tomatoes are lightly macerated so their juice forms a liquor that's fragranced with elderberry capers, lovage, celery, finely diced red onion and a twist of vinegar. It's like the most luxe bloody mary you've had. My friend shamelessly necks the bowl of liquor back once we've done our best.

Pan fried plaice is another highlight. We gush as we cut into the fish with its white, meaty, flesh perfectly intact under a golden crisp crumb. But gushing reaches fever pitch as we spoon up the aubergine caviar that's cut with sweet sultanas and perfectly toasted earthy pine nuts, and served with a Cos-like perfect circle of mustardy-capery agrodolce purée. Again, not a trace remains on the plate.

The thought of veal tartare scares my friends, so we don't order it. But a spare portion from the kitchen winds its way to our table. They savour every mouthful, with its flecks of dried mackerel skin, pickled girolles and parmesan for umami kick.

We literally eat everything on the savoury menu (there's sourdough bread with peppery, fruity olive oil too) and we end with swaledale lamb leg, baby beetroot and sea purslane. Maybe we're overwhelmed by all the flavours of previous courses, but we end up finding this dish a bit underwhelming. The lamb is perfectly pink, with a crisp, almost bacon-like skin (lamb bacon, there's a business idea), but it's a bit tough to cut with our normal knives. The beets are gorgeously earthy, and the sea purslane subtle. It's not a bad dish, but we prefer everything else.

An understated dessert of ricotta beignets, strawberries, marsala reduction and cream hits all the right notes and is a refreshing end to the meal. On a separate trip, I devour plates of brilliant cheese with a chum over wine and cocktails. Taleggio, gouda, a soft unpasturised cheese called Tentation and an ash rolled goats cheese served with complementary jams are utterly delicious.

Oh boy, I haven't even mentioned the drinks. Cocktails are great - very summery. We enjoy their Number One (aperolly aperativo) and Number Two (a cool, almost punch-like infused 'old fashioned' digestivo). The wine list is impressive, well-sourced and well-priced. Over two visits I have all the whites by the (large) glass - the stand outs being a zingy, aromatic Grillo from Puglia and a young, deep straw coloured Monteforche Veneto Cassiara. I need to get a hold of that wine...perfect, just perfect.

So, an epic meal - we are there for 3.5 hours. It's one of the best meals I've had in a long time, and up there with Verden and Shane's as the best restaurants in Greater Clapton. As the bill came I was pleasantly surprised at the cost of our indulgence (£24 inc tip for my non boozing friend, £38 inc tip for those of us who had wine and cocktails), and sad - sad that this brilliant restaurant and bar might only be here for a few more months. A planning application will shortly be going in for this brilliant, less weather-dependent design. I will certainly be registering my support for it - this venture is too good to lose.

Reservations recommended, and it's best to call their mobile: 07555 229870.