Can lunch change the world?

imageWriting a food blog means occasionally, nice people invite you out to eat.  Which is why I found myself at Brigade, a restaurant carved out of a former fire station on Tooley Street in London. (get it….fire….brigade…!)

Brigade stands out from the myriad restaurants in this part of town (the much lauded Magdalen is just across the road) for one reason; it’s not just a restaurant, it’s a social revolution.

The brainchild of Simon Boyle, Brigade-with his social enterprise Beyond Food Foundation- offers homeless and at risk people professional training in restaurant and kitchen skills.  On the job training, mentoring, and qualification certificates make sure all on the apprenticeship scheme will find sustainable employment after their training is over. With youth unemployment high, homelessness figures rising and job prospects bleak, schemes like Brigade should be rolled out in every restaurant across the nation.

Apprentices work in the Brigade kitchen alongside professional staff, and are responsible for preparing two dishes per day, chalked up on a specials board.

So what’s the food like, then?

The menu is a bistro-influenced affair with added élan. Stand outs like Ravioli of Samphire and Golden Cross Goats Cheese, and Petworth Steak and Oxtail Burger elevate the offerings of seasonality and originality.  The menu, printed on eco-friendly brown paper, reminds diners what is in season with a special “At its best” section.

The selection of homemade breads was dynamite, especially the fennel and pumpernickel, served with silky-salty Netherend butter. A dish of mixed olives was gently warmed- a thoughtful touch.

My starter of goats cheese rarebit was enough for a lunch main course.  I quickly learned the portions at Brigade are very generous;  perhaps Stateside expansion (pardon the pun!) is in the plans?

Luckily I found room for a chicken caesar salad, which again was enormous; the leaves were reconstructed to look like a giant head of lettuce, surrounded by tender pulled chicken- an admirable free range mix of light and dark meat.  In my opinion, caesar salad is at its best when preserved anchovies are blended into the dressing, not when white marinated filets are limply laid across a leaf. I love anchovies; i left mine behind on this occasion.

Our sides of roasted beetroot with cumin and honey and blanched kale with hazlenut butter went practically untouched not through anything other than portions being overly generous. We ate so well- and so much- that I didn’t have any room for dessert. 

With a heap of special events like cookery classes, blind wine tasting quizzes, a menu big on choice and plate size, and offers for families at the weekends, Brigade seems to have placed itself as a restaurant with wide appeal.  While Jamie Oliver’s ‘Fifteen’ restaurants may be the high-profile version of social responsibility, Simon Boyle and his brigade of apprentices are quietly changing the world without a TV crew following them around. Eat here and help him - and his apprentices- achieve their vision.

Brigade | The Fire Station | 139 Tooley St | London SE1 2HZ 

0844 346 1225

“When I’m not longer rapping, I want to open up an ice cream parlor and call myself Scoop Dogg.”
- Snoop Dogg.

Wine, not whine

We need something to see us through these dull grey days of February, right? This is usually in the form of food and drink, if you’re a greedy bitch like me. Luckily two top invites zinged through my letterbox and I found my mood turn from cloudy grey to as light and airy as a mauve marshmallow.

Antidote, a charming wine bar and bistro off Carnaby Street has specialised in natural wines for nearly a decade, an ideal place for a natural wine and food pairing dinner ahead of the RAW artisan wine fair in May. Made with minimal intervention, natural wines are the closest you’ll get to hangover-free drinking thanks to very little added in the making (sometimes just a smidge of sulfites for preserving purposes) Natural wine is not only how wine used to be made, it’s also the future of sustainable, environmentally friendly winemaking.  Isabelle Legeron was our passionate host; she is the first French female Master of Wine and has made promoting and making natural wines the focus of her varied career; RAW is her vision. image

Isabelle is hugely charismatic and enthusiastic; she talked us through each wine, from a bubbly Gamay from the Rhone for aperitif, to her own Georgian ‘orange’ wine (that’s the colour, it’s not made from oranges!)  Made in the traditional way wine has been made in Georgia for 8000 years - poured into clay pots and buried underground for 2-3 months- this was a true taste of history. Tannic and bright with a real freshness, it went fabulously well with citrus cured bream, fennel, and horseradish, though  more robust fare would also stand up well.

My favourite was a 2010 Syrah made by Tom Shobbrook in Barossa, South Australia. I imagined the grapes growing on dark red clay soils and soaking up the Aussie sun, fermented in open oak and then aged in old French oak barrels. The hit of creamy vanilla on the nose is a dream; in the mouth it’s silky and full of finesse, with a pink pepper hit at the end.  It was perfectly paired with chef Andrew Jones’s confit shoulder of mutton, jerusalem artichoke, feta and onion mash. image

Natural wines wouldn’t be worth their must if they weren’t just as lip smacking as their non-natural neighbours.  Our palates have been tampered and hampered by big, jammy new world schlock, so some natural wines may challenge our palates. If you’re in search of vino to lift your jaded tastebuds, natural wine is where it’s at.

 RAW Wine Fair is in London 19th & 20th May with over 200 artisan producers encouraging you to taste their wares. Go thirsty!

Just one night later I found myself at the The Port House, a thin, teetering slip of a tapas bar that looks deceptively tiny from the street but once inside opens up into a lush candle lit palace. Excepting The Savoy, the Strand has never- until now- had anywhere decent to eat.The unlikely location- wedged between a bureau de change and a big, bland hotel- only highlights the sense of delight once you’re inside.  imageThe management is Irish, they serve Spanish tapas, pour Portuguese port and glug English gin.  On the surface it may seem like a confused concept. The surprise is that not only is this NOT a “concept” (thank f*u!k) but the tapas are fresh and moreish; hand carved Jamon iberico and deep fried tetillita cheese, anyone? YES, especially when accompanied by a glass of sweet and salty Tawny Reserve from Kopke, the oldest Port Wine house in the world. I didn’t have time to get on to the gin cocktails, served in giant globe glasses. But at least I have an excuse to go back….soon!

BERLIN BELLY BUSTER

While some were in Berlin for the annual Berlinale film festival and others were enjoying the trendy hipster hot spots, I spent all of last week getting lost on the U-Bahn. In between trying to figure out my Mitte from my Moritzplaz, I ate. A lot. And very well, too.

imageI was in Berlin researching and developing an exciting project with my friend and sometime-partner-in-performance-art-crime Scottee.  All that rolling around on the floor and pretending to be trees really made us work up an appetite. And when two hungry chubbsters hit mealtime, it’s take no prisoners.

The first night we dined in what can only be described as a German grandmother’s front room. The decor consisted of more net curtains than Ena Sharples could twitch in a lifetime, contrasted with some fine carpet tapestry wallhangings of Germany’s regional coats of arm.  Marjellchen specialises in dishes from East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania. Wherever….whatever….it was delicious.  Scottee reluctantly agreed to share a starter with me- thick slices of moist smoked salmon with a sweet dill mustard sauce and chunks of fresh dark rye bread.

My main course nearly killed me through my own gluttony. Weiner Schnitzel- two large, thin tranches of finely breaded pork cutlets served with fistfulls of chanterelle mushrooms in a cream sauce…plus potatoes fried with bacon…well, call me Brunhilde and wheel me out the door. 

Surprisingly I couldn’t face dessert. But Scottee, after his lightly  roast pike, ordered a mountain of sweet Silesian dumplings made of poppy seeds. imageBlack and grainy an topped with cream (why not?), they were more bitter than sweet but an unusual and memorable end to an extraordinary meal. And the service was excellent too.

Shopping for food was a hoot. I found this in the local corner store- it’s CHEESE shaped like FEET.  Yep.  Cheesy Feet. imageNo trip to Berlin would be complete without a visit to KaDeWe food hall, which is so large and has so much to see and taste it is possible to go in a tiny toddler and come out an obese pensioner. What I love most of all about the KaDeWe food hall are the sausages; every type in Germany is represented here.  If all the sausages in KaDeWe were lined up end to end I am sure we could lasso the moon. imageI have found where i’d like to eat my last meal on earth: Rogacki. A pleasure palais devoted to mainly fish and seafood in all its varieties (though it also stocks sausages of course) the highlight of a trip to Rogacki is lunch at the fried-fish-and-potato-salad bar. It’s priced by weight, and you can choose delicate little bowls of sauces, salads and pickled cucumber to go with your meal. There are no seats- it’s a stand up affair whether you eat in the working class fried fish area, the middle class fish soup bar, or with the upper class oysters and fizz brigade. This is Berlin at its fresh, functional, and pocket-friendly best. And the decor hasn’t changed since…ummm..I reckon 1983.

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I could write about the amazing chocolate confections at Fassbender and Rausch and how the amaretto hot chocolate and tiramisu tower defeated me.image

Or how the veggie burgers at Yellow Sunshine were soooo worth getting lost in a roadworks cul-de-sac in sub zero temperatures.imageOr how the organic burgers at Kreutzburger were some of the sloppiest, finger lickin’ meisters i’ve ever had…AND they were accompanied by crazy fries, sour cream AND all the ketchup you could desire.

imageOr the baumkuchen at Café Buchwald- an old-time delight of pastry layers covered in dark chocolate- not too sweet and from a long gone tradition of Prussian teatime treats

imageBut the final word goes to the humble pretzel- or BRETZEL, as it’s called in Berlin. This classic snack - both salted and cheesy varieties- satiated us on our endless traipsing across Berlin in search of art and food….but mostly food.

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Review: Newman Street Tavern

I was really excited when I hear the Newman Street Tavern was opening, because it’s not too far from where I live, and let’s face it, I love eating out. The promised menu of British-focused properly bred and hung meats, seasonal, wild and foraged flibbertigibbets is bang on trend. Plus the chef,  Peter Weeden, previous of Paternoster Chop House and Boundary, has a pretty good repuation. Newman Street Tavern isn’t a hard sell.

As regular readers of this blog will know, the Strawberry Blonde’s day off is Friday, which means we often go out for a long lunch, preferably boozy. Last Friday we couldn’t get a table at the Green Man and French Horn (another place I’m dying to try). I knew the Newman Street Tavern had only opened the day before…being on the vanguard of the avant garde is *such* hard work. I phoned and reserved a table for two, and we headed towards Goodge Street hoping for some Fitzrovia fabulousness

I like to try restaurants out before they become too hip and hot; we went to Dabbous the second week it was open, and Colbert while it was still in ‘soft launch’ phase. In some ways I think it’s unfair to judge restaurants too harshly in the first week or so. Everything- especially waiting staff- takes time to bed in, and while teamwork can definitely make the dream work, it can also make for a torturous dining experience.

I didn’t review Colbert for this reason. Between you and me, I think the food is bland and overpriced compared to their sister restaurants, but then again you can get away with just about anything in Chelsea as long as it’s expensive and not too scary.

So, Newman Street Tavern…to review or not to review? I’ll give you just some of the highlights. We had to ask for menus after we had been seated for a quarter of an hour. We had to ask for bread three times and when the waiter finally brought it he plonked it on the table with more than a hint of irritation. The staff spent most of their time chatting with friends who were popping in to see how things were going on the opening day. I wanted to scream “NOT VERY WELL IF YOU ASK ME!”

We waited a half an hour for our starters; the Cornish fish soup was stunning- served with a little pot of homemade marmalade to stir through it- but the tiny bowl contained about three spoonfuls of soup. My main course- rare breed pork with ale onions- arrived cold.  I sent it back to the kitchen, and it came back to me vaguely lukewarm. I ate it, and it was ok, but not nearly as nice as it would have been if it were hot. Various people arrived looking for a table, were ignored by the staff, and left. We weren’t asked if we wanted dessert, or coffee, or if everything was ok at any point in our meal. 

Until the end, by a waiter who wasn’t even our waiter. And we were totally honest, something that isn’t all that easy. We said we didn’t want to pay the service charge. He was charming, appreciative, apologetic, and seemed very concerned. He also knocked 50% off our bill and gave us a complimentary glass of Domaine Pouderoux Maury, which definitely made things a bit better.

So this has, after all, turned into a review. 

Will we go back? Probably not. Should you go? Maybe. The restaurant was open for just a day before we darkened its doors, and I do hope they iron out all the issues. There are so many places to eat in London offering a similar style of food but with much more authenticity and better service. I wish we had gone to lunch at Great Queen Street. It may not be the new kid on the block, but GQS is consistently brilliant and chef Tom Norrington-Davies doesn’t put up with any nonsense. 

Newman Street Tavern, 48 Newman Street, London, W1T 1QQ

Anyone else been to Newman Street Tavern? Post your comments here.


Cheesed to meet you!

When I casually drop into conversation as I sometimes do that I am a judge in the World Cheese Awards, daggers of envy are usually followed by the question “How did you get into that?!”

I am just a cheese fiend, afficionado, and self proclaimed curd nerd. Having a background in food and travel writing and broadcasting helped me secure my place at the judging table, too. But it is my abiding interest in and love for fromage that keeps me going back year after year.

The World Cheese Awards are organised by Bob Farrand, who is also the chairman of the Guild of Fine Food and organiser of the Great Taste Awards. Bob, supported by his wife Linda and a family team, also publishes Good Cheese magazine, aimed at people who make, sell and are just plain crazy about cheese. 

So on a cold Wednesday I got a 7:15am train from London to Birmingham NEC on an empty stomach and with a mind full of purpose.  Nearly 3000 cheeses from around the world were divided into 56 judging tables, with 4-5 judges at every table. My team- Table 48- had two and a half hours to taste all this:image

Team 48 were diverse in our opinions and backgrounds; the proprietor of The Cheese Hamlet in Didsbury, Manchester;  Ross who makes and markets his own potted meats and terrines;  Laurie, a dashing chap who is a cheese consultant, and Kate, the founding editor of Culture magazine, a brilliant American publication all about- you guessed it- cheese. image

As none of the cheeses we tasted were labelled, we can’t be entirely sure who made them or where they were from- though some things are a dead giveaway- it’s not *that* hard to know what a Manchego looks like. The block cheddars were underwhelming, and some of the pre-grated cheeses floury and bland. The blues had some high points, as did- surprisingly- the reduced fat cheeses. As always, the cheeses with added flavours- in this case, Thai chili sauce and one with curry flavouring- were pretty tough going.  We only awarded one GOLD on our table- slim pickings in comparison to years gone by. We did have a very strange looking cheese- in the shape of a gold ingot.  Was this meant to inspire us into awarding it gold? Well, we didn’t. image

The Supreme Champion prize was awarded to a Manchego DO Gran Reserva, from Dehesa de Los Llanos in the province of Albacete, the first cheese from the Spanish mainland to ever win the accolade. Last year’s winner was a French Ossau Iraty and in 2010 it was a native British Cornish Blue.

Check out your local independent cheesemonger and taste it for yourself- it is, after all, officially the best cheese in the world!

Now, pass me my cholesterol pills….

Thanksgiving in London

Re-creating American Thanksgiving when you don’t live in America can be a challenge- but it’s been getting easier here in the UK year by year. Sure, most large supermarkets sell canned pumpkin for the ubiquitous pumpkin pie. Turkeys are usually on the shelves this time of year, too- for early Brit Christmas dinner shoppers. I loaded up on button, chestnut and shitake mushrooms for the gravy, and sweet potatoes. More difficult to find are the crispy-crunchy onions needed to top green bean casserole (though the Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup also needed is easy enough to find). In past years i’ve been relegated to using cheese and onion crisps as a crunchy topping, a bold- and trashy- move. 

Here’s a peek at the groaning festive table:image

What is a bit more challenging is having a bunch of vegetarians for Thanksgiving dinner and NOT making nut roast.  Just filling up on mashed potatoes and sweet potato casserole isn’t a good idea…not to mention mean and unfair.  So I made a tofurkey. Yup, that’s right, a TURKEY made out of TOFU.

There are commercial brands available in Wholefoods Market, but imported they are quite pricey. So I thought i’d try and make one myself.  It involved whizzing 5 blocks of tofu with lots of spices, then putting it in a colander lined with cheesecloth. I drained it overnight with a plate on top, weighted down with tins of chickpeas.  The next day, I hollowed out a big scoop of the tofu and stuffed it with homemade mushroom, walnut and pumpkin seed stuffing, using a bit of the scooped out tofu to seal it up.

Then I flipped it out onto a baking sheet, and used the rest of the scooped out tofu to form some tofurkey drumsticks! I basted it all with a marinade made from balsamic vinegar, dijon mustard, vegetable broth, a bit of honey and spices.

This is what it came out like!image

OK, so it looks like a giant cowpat, but I topped it with a lattice of fake-on and served it with three mushroom gravy and homemade Earl Grey spiced cranberry sauce. It was REALLY tasty- and that’s coming from an ex-vegetarian. 

Dessert came out absolutely bloody perfect if I must say so myself! I turned to Outsider Tart’s superb cookbook ‘Baked in America’ for inspiration, and decided on Pumpkin Cheesecake. I also made a separate recipe from the cookbook- Spiced Pecans- and used them to decorate. Notice the autumn leaves, too! I got them from the street.image

The best part of Thanksgiving, as everyone will attest to, are the leftovers. There were two pieces of cheesecake left, and they were claimed by the chef for a job well done : )

Sandy, Sacking and Sushi

It’s been a helluva week. Hurricane Sandy has destroyed my hometown, and the BBC London radio show I co-present with Danny Baker has been axed. Lets just say it’s been a challenging few days…but as Danny always says, we must look up, not down.

So I went out to lunch. (me? comfort eat? NEVER ; ) )

The Strawberry Blonde and I were taking a deep breath kinda walk around Paddington, and popped into See Sushi, a place our friend had recommended to us- and indeed we bumped into him picking up a takeaway sushi platter for his lunch!

No takeaway for us; we relaxed on the cream coloured banquette and enjoyed the calming waterside view. See specialises in Japanese, Malaysian and Thai flavours, an awesome threesome as far as I’m concerned.  A huge tray of spicy tuna handroll and softshell crab roll was the perfect starter. 

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I am partial to Malaysian food so went for a balanced and beautiful chicken satay bento box. The SB, as she always does, wound up ordering the best dish - black cod with miso. The SB always shares with me; however, not on this occasion. She allowed me the merest morsel, so i’ll have to take her word that it was the best black cod ever to pass her lips- sweet, super fresh and a bountiful portion. I’ll have to go back and order my own just to confirm this boast!

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"Eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside"- Mark Twain

Bonjour Paris!

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It was the Strawberry Blonde’s birthday over the weekend, and we were invited to spend it in Paris with our friends who have friends who have a flat in the Marais. Basically it came down to cheap Eurostar tickets and a free place to stay…what’s not to like?

I’ve been to Paris dozens of times, yet it’s a city I have never fully got to grips with. It’s hard to understand why, in a country so enamoured with food, Paris restaurants can be so patchy. And yes, some people- particularly market stall holders- like to live up to the cliché of rudeness. Nevertheless, Paris is perpetually romantic and this trip revealed some new eating gems too…

Top of the list is Bistronomes (no, nothing to do with the finger flicking gnome above…we just saw him in a shop window and had to take a snap) The restaurant is near the Palais Royal and won Le Prix Staub-Lebey Best Paris Bistro 2012. Lunch was a set menu and great value- 26 euro for 2 courses, 35 euro for 3 courses. Chef Cyril Aveline was the sous-chef at the three-Michelin-starred Le Bristol, and the proof is definitely in the pudding…or would have been, if we had any room left for dessert.

The special starter of the day was FOIE GRAS SOUP…fois gras with cream, more cream, and topped with chantilly cream. The SB could barely speak she was so overcome with gastronomic ecstasy. I opted for beetroot cream soup with smoked haddock chantilly, followed by entrecote de race Normande, sand potatoes (the French version of Jersey royals) with red wine sauce.

Friends shared the “sot-l’y-laisse” which in French literally means “only a fool would leave it”. In translation, it’s chicken oysters- you know, the small, round tender dark meat bit near the thigh. It’s the most succulent part of the bird- elusive, mysterious and often overlooked. These were presented in a beautiful copper pan, in- you guessed it- a cider CREAM sauce, alongside a pile of toasted rice…. all washed down with a carafe of Cotes du Rhone. No room for dessert, a shocking admission I know. But it gives me a reason to return.

I won’t dwell on the disappointing meal at Glou. Their website says “you’ll want to come back”. Sorry, we don’t and we won’t. Likewise Le Petit Fer a Cheval where, to be fair, we didn’t even eat because we did that awkward thing when the waiter gives you a hard time about giving you a table, churlishly seats you…and before you even look at the menu you look at each other and mouth “shall we go?” and do a runner while the waiter’s not looking.

The surprise delight was L’Alivi, a cute Corsican restaurant. After an hour traipsing around in the rain looking for somewhere decent/non-touristy to have lunch on a Saturday afternoon in the Marais, we were enticed by the special of the day- veal chop in clementine sauce. This unusual combination led us to have an interesting meal with some lovely wine and pungent Corsican cheese.

We also managed to eat a large quantity of pastries each morning for breakfast, offset only by some figs and fresh cream cheese.image

We popped into Marriage Freres, the gloriously old fashioned shop that’s been selling tea since 1854. Upstairs, they have a tea museum, basically a beautiful collection of dusty old tea chests…and these tea cups, a 19th c invention to protect men and their moustaches from getting soaked in Assam. Bring back the teacup moustache guard!image

Having a birthday is all about indulging in your fave foods. The SB loves sardines, and curiously they didn’t appear on any menus we perused over the weekend. Perhaps because this call to action on the metro has been heeded- “Free the Sardines”image

So, no sardines, but we did pick up some wild mushrooms and Chasselas grapes, a crottin de chevre and a small Mont d’Or in the local market. Vive l’automne et vive la France!