Monday, 11 July 2016

Eating South Eastern Sicily

I've fallen in love with Sicily. Well, the tiny corner of it where I spent a week in May. Sicily is a big island and you'd be crazy to spread yourself too thin covering its vast, diverse geography- from Palermo in the North West to Etna and Catania in the East and down to the baroque hillside towns and ancient Greek cities of the South East.

Sicily is also quietly becoming a destination for food and wine lovers looking for an unspoiled corner of the Mediterranean. My Instagram feed has recently been a steady stream of snaps of Sicily's white washed towns, empty beaches and stunning plates of food. There is no greater advocate for the island than my favourite food writer Marina O'Loughlin, whose gushing fangirling about the food and drink of Sicily had me set on visiting.

Marina has written extensively about her tips for eating and drinking on the island, and was generous on Twitter in dishing out a few more. Each one was 100% on the mark, and I found quite a few other places that were well worth a visit. Almost anywhere you go will be great because there is so much pride in local food and wine, because the produce is so so fresh - straight out the sea or picked at a nearby farm. You will weep.

All I can say is get over there, and get a car so you can get to the most stunning beaches, nature reserves, more off the beaten track towns like Scicli. Off season is amazing - we went in mid May and couldn't believe how quiet it was, although the weather was mixed. I reckon June and September are ideal times to visit.

Ragusa is perched on two dramatic hills, with jaw dropping views between Old and New Ragusa and across the surrounding valleys. Ragusa Ibla (old) is the more beautiful and where most of the action happens.

Il Barocco
We rocked up late after a mad dash to the airport (caught our flight with 5 minutes to spare), a long flight, a tired night time drive down unfamiliar roads. Our Airbnb hosts showed us to Il Barocco and we couldn't have been happier with our first meal. The antipasti platter was sublime and generous, with salami, cheese, ... I had tagliatelle with sun dried tomatoes and pistachio, classic Sicilian ingredients combined simply for a rich, earthy, tangy set of tastes. Mmm. We were knackered so ordered wine by the glass. House is €2.50 and they have a more interesting white and red at €4. We went for the latter, and though I can't recall the wine, it was very very good.

La Bettola
A Marina rec, La Bettola is an old school little trattoria in Ragusa Ibla, all chequered table cloths, menus of the day and locals drinking wine by the carafe for a late dinner. We make our way through the daily specials - a gorgeous fennel, orange and sun dried tomato salad, spaghetti with anchovy-herb-breadcrumbs - historically a poor man's parmesan, but very delicious. The prices are low cheap, so make sure you reserve - it's booked up pretty much every night.

Ortigia (Syracuse)
Ortigia is the island part of Syracuse. the third biggest city in Sicily and once the third most important city in Ancient Greece.  It's a bustling metropolis compared to everywhere else we visited in SE Sicily. Be warned though: parking is a nightmare. Just look up the Talete paid carpark at the mainland end of the island and go there - you'll never find a free parking space on the island.

Fratelli Burgio
Everyone recommended this place to us. It's just at the end of the food market (watch massive tuna get chopped up with massive knives!) and is a salumeria, wine shop, and restaurant. We make three visits here during our stay - we get the most delicious sandwiches to take away. All DOC cheese, ham, sundried tomatoes, herbs, oil. Utterly dreamy. We come again for a lunch and enjoy buratta with the most excellent grilled courgette antipasti and more cheese, ham and sandwiches. And finally we clear them out of wine. They delight in our enthusiasm for the wine of Sicily, ask our price range and come up with a diverse selection of the most interesting wines we can get. I'm using all my restraint to make the haul last.

Apollonion Osteria da Carlo
This is another Marina rec, and one of our most memorable meals of the trip. A seven course fish menu for €35. It starts raw, with giant oysters, red prawns and anchovies, then mussels with almonds, mint and tomatoes, seared tuna with caponata, fried squid and fish cakes with a dollop of agrodolce puree, then a prawn spaghetti, followed by some grilled white fish. It was epic, and perfectly finished with a zingy lemon granita. Apollonion's wine list is excellent and incredible value. We like our €13 grillo so much we buy a bottle to take back to London.

Sicily fish and chips
Tucked away in a backstreet is this cute little chippie. Despite the anglicised name, this is a great spot to go for some fried fish and a glass of prosecco or a crisp white wine in the sun. We tuck into a big box of assorted fish (lots of squid, anchovies, small fish and a couple of prawns and anemone) and a big portion of chips. It's all super simple, but hits the spot.

We visit a vegetarian restaurant on the recommendation of a non-vegetarian friend. And now we non-vegetarians recommend it to you. It's a cute hipstery restaurant on Via Roma, not far from the main square. They have a nice selection of natural and organic wines and the mwnu is great. There are lots of Sicilian vegetarian dishes as well as some more international flavours. Of course there's the fried Sicilian fried caciocavallo cheese, some of the best caponata we have during our stay, and I have a blue cheese, pear, honey and walnut risotto.

Movimento Centrale
Another sign of hipsterism in Ortigia, this cycling cafe/natural wine bar is just over the square from our Airbnb. We only make it for breakfast (I fail to convince my other half of the merits of second lunches and aperativo every day) and love the home made organic ricotta with home made organic brown bread toast (a special ancient recipe) with local organic honey. The coffee is a cut above too. The menu has some deliciously well sourced panini filling on the menu, and the wine list is an exciting selection of local natural and biodynamic wines.

Pronounced Sheegly, Scicli is a true gem of a town, set in a series of dramatic valleys and amidst a sleepy rural landscape off the main trail around the Province of Ragusa. We fall in love instantly, as we tuck into the amazing homemade snacks that our Airbnb host's mum has made for us, sitting on our roof terrace watching the sun go down and cast the most amazing golden light on the town. It's well positioned for towns on the coast like Sampieri and Marina di Ragusa, both of which were totally dead in early May, but are bursting at the seems through July - August.

A Marina O' Loughlin recommendation, Satra is a stylish restaurant just tucked off one of the main pedestrian streets in Scicli. It's in a big stone vaulted room, with luxuriously large circular wooden tables, linen napkins and fancy glassware. The menu is traditional and it's all about the techniques and best seasonal ingredients. I have a bean and wild fennel soup, which is unbelievably velvety, earthy, refreshing. We also have an almond cream and dried tuna pasta, octopus with a cheesy potato croquette, palamita fish with a rosti potato and wine reduction, and the best ricotta cannoli with have all holiday. It's pricier than most, but they also throw in amuse bouche and a glass of prosecco. The wine list is very reasonable and service is refined.

Trattoria da Carmelo
So, not technically Scicli, but you might find yourself down at the beach in Marina di Ragusa if you're staying in Scicli. This is our final meal and our final Marina rec of the trip, and definitely the best. Carmelo is a refined shack of a building, literally on the beach. Reserve a table by the water, ask for them to open the windows, and you can eat your meal with an uninterrupted view of the sky and sea. The food is exceptional - the most generous antipasti platter we have in our stay: scallops with breadcrumb and tomato, frittata with thin strips of baby courgette, caponata, octopus ragu filled arancini, and sardine fillets with agrodolce onions, raisins and pine nuts. It's a miracle we can even look at our main courses, which are the classic sea anemone spaghetti, and pistachio crusted tuna steak. Everything is exceptional, but nothing more so than the view.

Come what may with Brexit and a plunging Pound, I will find a way to keep exploring Sicily, a little corner at a time. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

My Neighbours the Dumplings, Lower Clapton Road

My Neighbours the Dumplings is the second of two interesting small-scale new openings on Lower Clapton Road. It's fascinating to observe which restaurants thrive and dive on this strip of road. More than half the new food and drink businesses that have opened here in the last few years have failed, but those that get it right do a roaring trade. P Franco, Yard Sale and 119 Lower Clapton are the big LCR success stories, and My Neighbours the Dumplings has smashed straight into the Top 5.

My Neighbours have been popping up around Hackney for a few years now - a regular gig at Palm 2, a residency on Wilton Way, and then a few nights at Klub Trop. They opened up their permanent place on Lower Clapton in April, and it's been busy every night since then, which is quite unusual without a big name and reputation.

Dumplings here are of the dim sum variety, and are mostly faithful to traditional recipes with a few interesting flourishes and using high quality meat from the Rare Breed Meat Company. Fancy provenance Asian food is proving popular across town (a trend spurred on by my absolute favourite from San Francisco, Mission Chinese Food), and the instant success of MNTD is proof of what a gap in the local market this was.

The menu is relatively short - a few steamed dumplings, a few fried dumplings, a couple of salads, and an assortment of other dishes including fried turnip cake (savvily: a vegetarian and non vegetarian option), steamed whole fish of the day, and crispy pork belly.

The Siu Mai dumpling is the classic pork, prawn and chive steamed dumpling. It is perfectly formed, generously stuffed with tasty filling and comes topped with fish roe.

On the fried front, we love the potstickers - think gyoza with northern Chinese flavours. We have both the lamb and coriander potstickers and the aubergine and sesame. Both deviate far from common expectations about Chinese flavours - the North has a large Muslim population and the cuisine wears the influences of Central Asian countries.

More traditional (and also fried) is the turnip cake. We opt for the meaty version, with pungent Chinese sausage, shiitake and dried shrimp. All of these strong flavours are subtly cut through the turnip cake, chopped fine so as not to distract. This is a couple of levels above the turnip cake at Dalston's long established Shanghai restaurant.

We get six decent size bites of pork belly for £8.50. It's been slow cooked, and is incredibly moist and tender inside while crispy on the outside and full of meaty flavour. The plum sauce is fruity, sour and spicy. The prices generally are a bit more expensive than you'd find in an old school dim sum joint, but the quality of ingredients easily makes up for it. It's still a relatively affordable eat - we end up paying about £26 per person for lots of food and two drinks each.

Drinks include a number of sakes, sake based cocktails, a house red and white from Borough Wines, Asahi beer, and the mildly sake-infused Japanese craft beer Hitachino Nest White Ale. The latter is particularly tasty.

The service is friendly, but slightly overwhelmed later in the evening. The day before they have a four star review in Time Out. It's a blessing, in a way, to not have all your small plates dumped on your table in one go, but there were definitely times we felt like we'd been waiting a while between dishes. It's also quite noisy - the music's pumping, the kitchen is open to the restaurant, and the communal tables notch up their volume accordingly.

With its current popularity I'd advise getting there before 7.30 at the latest to avoid waiting too long for a table. But it's worth it - a great addition to Lower Clapton's food scene.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Le Merlin, Lower Clapton Road

At the end of February I wrote about the closure of a couple of gentrified Clapton restaurants and suggested a couple more might close. And sure enough, they did. The lovely Jackdaw Jazz Cafe shut its doors in April, the wine-cum-furniture shop (yeah...) Residence looks like it's shut, Senegalese cafe and music bar Little Baobab shut in April (from a spot which has also seen Riley's and Candela shut...), and a few more have their leases up for sale even though they're still trading.

But as one story ends another begins. A couple of interesting new business have opened on Lower Clapton Road, and there are rumours of a couple more big openings in the works. One of the more low key new restaurants is Le Merlin - a creperie.

It's not the first creperie in Clapton, but it's head and shoulders above the other one. This is the real deal. Authentic savoury galettes and sweet crepes, Breton cidre, craft beers and a small selection of wines. And Orangina, naturelment. The menu is broad but stays true to classic French flavours. Every dish sounds delicious - from simple classics like the complete, to more lavish combinations like scallop and leeks.

We try the complete (with added mushrooms). It's superb. The galette is tangy and crisp in all the right places, expertly folded. The gruyere has a good pungency to it, and the mushrooms are herby and full of fungal mustiness - a world away from the bland button mushrooms you might get elsewhere. The ham is good quality and the egg perfectly runny.

We also try a more unusual combination: goats cheese, bacon, caramelised pear and maple syrup. It works a treat. I'm a sucker for sweet and savoury hits (swavery), and this has it all with some contrast between the crispiness of the bacon, the soft saltiness of the goats cheese and the soft, rich sweetness of the pear. This is pure heaven.

The sweet crepes are worth saving some space for (I purposefully create space with a 40 mile cycle ride in the morning) - again, the menu has a decent selection derived from classic ingredients. There's chantilly cream, chocolate sauce, nutella, grand marnier and plenty of salted butter caramel sauce. There's no question for me: it's the caramelised apple with salted butter caramel and cinnamon - another rich, sweet and sticky combination of flavours. My other half recommends the melted chocolate and chantilly cream crepe.

The food is excellent, and it's matched by a convivial atmosphere. The staff are friendly, the kitchen is open with countertop dining around it, the decor is understatedly stylish - a deep industrial green, a soft cream and light woods. It's family-friendly, but doesn't feel like a giant playroom.

More importantly it's affordable - galettes start at £5.70, sweet crepes from £2.60. Yes, I know it's "just" batter and some filling, but the batter's great and the filling's great and it's just nice. I recommend it. It was busy on the Saturday lunchtime we were there, but slightly quieter in the evening. Not for long I suspect - I'm going to be here often.

Monday, 29 February 2016

P Franco, Lower Clapton Road, E5

The first post-gentrification closures are starting to roll in. Maeve's Kitchen up by Clapton Pond closed it's doors over Christmas, and The Plough on Homerton High Street - one of my favourite bars in the area (but clearly not frequented enough) - shut its doors at the end of January. I suspect a few more may decide to shut up shop over the coming months, if trade doesn't quite pick up.

Despite the climate, Lower Clapton Road's perpetually steamed up wine shop and bar P Franco has recently started doing food, and it's heaving - even on a cold Sunday evening. There's good reason: a man called William Gleave, a Tasmanian export, who ran an acclaimed restaurant in Hobart. He took up residence at P Franco in November, cooking a short menu from a tiny kitchen attached to the big communal table in the middle of the shop.

I had seen the menus pop up on my feeds for months and seen very alluring snippets and snaps on Twitter, but a succession of belt-tightening months had me dialling down my eating out for a while.

The wait is worth it. My discerning friend and I are naming it the best meal we've had in ages mouthfulls into the first dish that's brought out: raw chopped beef (soz, 'crudo'), with crispy shards of dried seaweed (like nori), crumbed anchovy, rocket and mayo-like emulsion, and powdered seaweed. It's cool, creamy, firm, crispy, leafy - a gorgeous mixture of temperatures and textures, borrowing from Japanese and Italian flavours and ingredients.

Next up is a "risotto" without the rice - it's all toasty seeds, pine nuts, orzo pasta, and two types of wheat in a thick, luscious nettle sauce, topped with crispy kale and tiny shards of broccoli, topped with parmesan. There's an egg yolk buried in the risotto, and we're encouraged to pierce it and blend it into the sauce. This is a stunning looker - all rich, emerald green - but it's a proper taster too. It's the most extravagant vegetarian dish I've had without any of the usual buttery, creamy cliches of extravagance. 

A chicken broth with cuttlefish comes out next. The cuttlefish is cut so thinly it's almost like rice noodles, ghostly floating in the rich, fully flavoured broth, topped with just-blanched squares of greens, and then generous glugs of rich, fruity Le Coste olive oil. It's simple, fresh, under-stated.

We climax and conclude with the pasta dish. There's always a pasta dish on the menu, and I've recently spied a food blogger call this some of the best pasta in London. Uhuh, yup. The pasta is rough cut, wide sheets - somewhere between papperdele and lasagne, with a good bite to it. The sauce is a simple tomato sauce, topped with basil and generous parmesan, and the quality of the ingredients just sing. My highlight is a creamy curd cheese, like that in the middle of treasured burata. It's utterly luscious, and nicely chilly against the warm, fruity, acidity of the tomato sauce. It's made by Gleave every day, and I'm already making plans to make my own...if only I could find some buffalo milk.

There's a great selection of wine, as you'd expect from a wine shop. The pricing is simple - just add £10 to any bottle on the shelves, which are chiefly from small producers, often natural/organic/biodynamic, and most supplied by esteemed suppliers Tutto. They have a couple of red and a couple of white open for pouring by the glass, which suits us as a way to try a few interesting glasses between us over the course of the evening. 

We get the impression that most people here are pretty serious about their wine, many in a professional context - perhaps working in other East London restaurants. It feels the slightest bit sceney, and sometimes it's not clear who's working and who's a guest. But there's a welcome for everyone, and the food prices are exceptional value for the quality - ranging from £8 - £10. While there isn't a wine list, the wines are very clearly priced on the shelf, with bottle prices from £9 (before the £10 corkage), which compares favourably with house wines at other local restaurants.

By the end of the meal we're sure it's the best we've had in ages. So simple, so concise, so on the mark. I'm already formulating plans to take various friends here for a relaxed evening of wine and inventive dishes brought out in gently paced succession. Don't delay, this is the real deal.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Hackney's best new restaurants 2015

Hackney's dining scene just keeps growing and developing, showing only the slightest signs of slowing down. While in 2013 and 2014 the pace of change felt astonishing and exhausting, by now it feels that this is how Hackney's going to be for a while.

That quiet acceptance was disrupted briefly by the Fuck Parade protesters who sought to highlight the effects of gentrification by bottling the lamely iconic Cereal Killer Cafe on Brick Lane. It was an easy, high profile target but the reality is that most places opening in Hackney will be unaffordable for people without much spare income. Intimidating small business owners and their customers won't change that reality (only radical political action can), but I hope businesses and individuals reflect on how they impact on their less fortunate neighbours.

2015 felt like a year of maturing, with a significant number of high quality new openings from established and inventive chefs. We've seen the rise of modern, crisp, playful bistros – my favourite being Brooksby's Walk, and I'm confident that the much praised Pidgin on Wilton Way and newer Ellory in London Fields will knock my socks off when I have some spare cash/time to check them out. The Mare Street/London Fields axis seems to be where most of the fancier places are opening.

Parmesan Pannacotta at Brooksby's Walk.

As I blogged yesterday, Middle Eastern food is on the up, as are venues doing a bit more than just serving you food – I loved the clubby atmosphere at Berber & Q, the camp metal at Black Axe Mangal and the live jazz at Jackdaw in Clapton. We've also seen specialist restaurants opening all over Hackney – sushi at Uchi, ramen at Tonkotsu, Japanese yakitori skewers at Jidori, jerk meat at Rudie's in Dalston, lobster (obvs) at the Lobster Bar on Richmond Road.

Softshell crab sushi at Uchi.

I predicted last year that the neighbourhoods adjacent to Hackney would see their restaurant options broaden as more priced out young professionals moved in. That's certainly been the case, with just a bit of Hackney export about some of the openings. Clapton businesses Sodo and Clapton Craft are due to open in Walthamstow in the new year, haggis pushers Deeney's have opened a cafe in Leyton after running toastie stalls in Broadway Market and Chatsworth Road for severeal years, and Tottenham has now got Chicken Town – healthy, fancy fried chicken with a social conscious, with Giorgio Ravelli, Head Chef at Clapton/Homerton's Brooksby's Walk, as Executive Chef.

Tired, established streets like Stoke Newington Church Street and Islington's Upper Street have seen a renaissance after years of derivative, generic restaurants opening. Church Street has had the highly regarded the Good Egg open, along with Escosesa – an intriguing Scottish-Spanish seafood restaurant, and some fancy pie shops and wine bars ae on their way. Meanwhile, Islington has had high profile new openings like Oldroyd, Alsatian brasserie Bellanger and the ridiculously fun Black Axe Mangal.

Less established streets have also seen big booms. Well Street in Homerton stands out as seeing some of the most striking change – a sourdough pizzeria and cocktail bar in a former laundrette have opened, while most of the change in Clapton has been on Lower Clapton Road where Rootdown, Blondies, Jackdaw, Ten Ten, Klub Trop have opened, soon to be joined by dim sum restaurant My Neighbours the Dumplings. Notably many businesses on this stretch appear pretty quiet mid-week, suggesting there's not quite the level of demand in Clapton for so many restaurants and bars, especially when there are already many strong local favourites, like Verden and Shane's.

Lamb belly at Jackdaw.

In 2014 we saw a number of independent but derivative restaurants opportunistically open in Hackney, and in 2015 the trend has been towards the new generation of 'trendy' mid-range chains on a roll out. Honest Burger has opened in Old Street and soon Dalston, Franco Manca opened in Broadway Market and soon Stoke Newington, Foxlow from the Hawksmoor group opened in Stoke Newington before rollin' rollin' out to other yummy 'burbs like Balham and Chiswick.

I expect things to slow down a bit more in 2016. I think we're closing in on saturation point in Hackney, and only restaurants who understand and offer value to the local market will survive. Big name new openings from the Moro crew on Hackney Road and Lucky Chip on Ridley Road are likely to do well, but wacky or pretentious 'concepts' chasing a Dalstonist headline are unlikely be sustainable businesses if they don't deliver the goods.

Lamb at Moro.

We'll see more of the neighbourhood bistro format, more trumpeting of the provenance of ingredients and drinks, more pushing at the boundaries of 'traditional' cuisines. I'd expect to see Walthamstow to get a few more 'grown up' restaurants, and see a few more independent options open up in Leyton, Leytonstone, Forest Gate and Tottenham. I wouldn't be surprised if we see a few more specialist food shops open in North East London – we have some great beer and wine shops, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a fancy cheesemonger or fishmonger open up this year.