Finding tastiness in and around London... and sometimes at the back of the fridge...

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Courtesan, £15 each, Brixton

Everybody in London who’s into food is into Brixton: The market spills out onto the main street in a noise of colour and smell. You can barely fit onto the pavement on the right-hand side of Atlantic road for all the piled up boxes of veg in the summer, which are replaced by layers of dangerously impacted ice from the fishmongers when the weather gets colder.

As I was exiting the tube the other day, a young man, Fred Perry t-shirt pulled melodramatically over his nose, remarked: “Jesus Christ, this whole place smells of meat” – I think he thought this was a bad thing, the idiot. Yes, my boyfriend had to swerve to avoid an entire sheep’s skull as he was cycling to work last week, but this is the kind of thing that makes an area interesting.

I’m genuinely surprised that some people are still afraid of Brixton, which despite the aforementioned quirks is now teeming with yummy mummies, fixie-bikes and trendy bars. However, whilst some may complain that the area is getting too middle class, I love the way that the village has evolved as a result. Don’t worry, there’s still jerk chicken, goat stew or rice n’ peas to be had, and at the end of a night out we still flock like pilgrims to the unexpectedly good ‘Morley’s’ (it certainly does taste better). But add ‘Franco Manca’, ‘Honest Burger’, ‘Brick Box’ and ‘Cornercopia’ to the mix and you have yourself a ‘fringe food scene’, as the Observer a few months ago. Put simply, you could spend ages looking for a 50%-off deal on toptable only to end up at a mediocre restaurant in the centre, albeit one where the waitresses take your coat, or you could head to Brixton village and eat really great food at a really great price. Let your wallet decide, my friends.

One day soon I’ll spend a few weekends visiting every single restaurant in the village, so look out for that blog – it’ll be a biggie. For now let's cast our eye past the village and further up Atlantic road.

‘Courtesan’ is a new Dim Sum bar that opened up opposite ‘Kaff’ late last month. Don’t be fooled by the exterior, which is pretty crap and makes the restaurant look permanently closed (someone had the bright idea of painting the whole place blood red and putting pieces of MDF across the top half of all of the windows). The effect is more ‘Kings Cross massage parlour’ than ‘trendy restaurant’, so I’m hoping that this is an interim problem which will be sorted once the place starts to turn a profit. The reason for the MDF becomes clear once inside, as we find ourselves walking through a ‘minimalist Chinese empire’ interior. It’s all dark varnish and low lighting, which is ultra luxurious and made me feel like I should’ve been practising calligraphy rather than eating pork buns. I loved it.

For those unfamiliar with Dim Sum, let me explain: what would be the result if Italy admitted that pasta is essentially quite dull and invented a style of tapas with an exciting range of contrasting flavours instead? Italy’d be a bit disappointed because Dim Sum got there first, that’s what. And that would never happen anyway because Italian food is going to remain boring forever and ever.

When we eventually got served, my boyfriend and I ordered the following, which I have marked out of five for your convenience:

• Turnip pork cakes – 3/5: A stodgy hash brown served with sweet chilli dip. Not the most exciting flavour-wise, but definitely the most filling plate.

• Duck Puffs (or Sou) - 2/5: This is a little piece of duck wrapped in puff pastry and topped with sesame seeds. There’s nothing wrong with them apart from that they’re a little bland and could’ve used a meaty sauce as an accompaniment.

The pork cakes and duck puffs:

• Chicken coriander dumplings – 1/5: Boring

• Wasabi king prawn dumplings – 4/5: Whilst all the dumplings are a tad small, these were unbeatable flavour-wise. The prawns were fresh and flavoursome, rather than soggy, as they tend to be, and the ample wasabi packed a punch. The rice-flour skin is beautiful and not too thick.

• Monk vegetable dumplings – 3/5: These were tasty but very mushroomy, which I wasn’t expecting. If there was one thing our selection lacked, it was a fresh vegetable plate, so I couldn’t help but be a tiny bit disappointed by these.

The dumplings:

• Roast pork buns (or Char Sui Baau) – 5/5: I am partial to these anyway, so I was always going to give them full marks. Char Sui buns are pieces of pork smothered in a rich barbeque sauce and surrounded by a fluffy wheat flour bun. The bun is then coated in a sugar glaze and baked, which gives it a slightly sweet flavour. It’s all very indulgent, but each bun is so small that it’s not overwhelming. Wonderful stuff.

All of the above came in threes apart from the turnip pork cakes and duck puffs, of which there were four. I’m not sure if there’s something culturally significant about threes, but most Dim Sum restaurants serve dumplings and buns this way. This is worth bearing in mind if you’re a party of four and were hoping to try every plate, because it ain’t gonna happen.

Apart from the service and exterior this place was top notch, including the price, which at approximately £4 a plate is pretty reasonable.

Zai Jian and happy dumpling-ing!

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Quest for the King of Katsu

Disclaimer: This post contains dangerous levels of fat-talk.

Being a woman, I’m supposed to demonstrate my femininity by eating seeds for lunch whilst moaning about how much I ate at the weekend. “I would eat something bigger but I went home on Friday and my parents just STUFFED me full of roast chicken!” I should say, preferably whilst flicking my hair and pashmina around aggressively.
I should order salad niçoise in steakhouses and gingerly confess that pasta is my ‘guilty pleasure’ because it’s full of carbs. And we all know that carbs must be stopped.

Aside from the occasional week where all the external pressure gets too much (because, you know, I’m a size 10 and that’s obscene), I dabble in exclusively eating economy-sushi from ‘Boots, the Pharmacist’. On those days I normally spend the afternoon at work feeling vaguely triumphant at my own weight-loss stamina whilst staring into space trying to remember what it was that I was doing. For the sake of productivity, if not just my own enjoyment, I need something filling, tasty and hot for lunch. For that reason, and due to the sheer amount of Asian fast-food chains situated around my office, I have become a bit of a Chicken Katsu Curry officiando.

(Where I work):

For the uninitiated, of which there are probably about three left in the world, Chicken Katsu Curry is fundamentally made up of chicken deep-fried in panko flakes and smothered in a silky golden curry sauce. It’s such a simple and delicious recipe that it can be found everywhere, so here's a quick guide to the big chains...

The City Kitchen, £4 – 0/5

‘What were you expecting?’ I hear you ask. I know, I know, ‘The City Kitchen’ is a ready-meal company, but it’s a ready-meal company run by Jason Gladwin of the Savoy and the Vineyard at Stockcross. For this reason, it’s not as terrible as you might expect: the veg tastes fresh, and the sauce, although a little watery, is silky and the right colour. Generally speaking it’s worth the £4 that Tesco are charging for it, and dieters will probably wet themselves over the fact that the meal is only 350 calories (gasp!).
However (and this is a big however), it is not a Chicken Katsu Curry. The huge flaw in this meal is the lack of Katsu, which refers to the deep-fried, breaded meat, NOT the sauce. The chicken in this curry was not deep-fried in panko, it was just sitting there in naked, pink little clumps. The City Kitchen therefore gets a 0/5 for flagrant false advertising.

In its box:

In my house:

Wasabi, £5.25 – 2/5

Everybody who works in central London will be familiar with the horror that is ‘Wasabi’ during the lunch rush. We queue for ages listening to grotesque men in suits talking about football, pay cheques and ‘sorts’ (??) interchangeably. When we finally reach the counter we are confronted with a ghastly array of shrivelled-looking food piled up in front of us. The counter-guy then grabs what appears to be a vase made of paper and starts filling it up to the brim with rice. On requesting a Chicken Katsu Curry, a few tiny pieces of deep-fried meat are balanced on top and covered in a spoonful of thinned-down curry sauce from the ‘chicken curry’ pot. Yet again there is naked chicken in amongst my Katsu. I am not happy.

Wagamama, £9.15 – 4/5

I like Wagamama. I like the whole set up. The waiters sit you down on little benches (this way, even if you’re eating alone you don’t feel self-conscious), they invade your personal space in order to jot incomprehensible things down onto your table-mat, the food comes quickly; and they serve everything with chilli flakes, so if your ramen is a little tasteless you can instantly solve the problem. But you knew all this because you’ve been there before.

The Chicken Katsu Curry is one of their most popular dishes for good reason: there’s a lot of it and it tastes nice. Wagamama serves the curry with a salad covered in red tsukemono pickles and adds star anise to the treacle-thick sauce, giving it a slightly different flavour to the other dishes on here. My only criticism would be the price, which at £9.15 is pretty steep for something so basic; and the intimidating mountain of rice that it’s served with, which I feel that I have to eat because of the starving children in Africa, leaving me bloated and slightly unhappy.

(On a side note, Wagamama’s Chilli Chicken Ramen is the absolute best way to stop a cold in its tracks and clear the sinuses. Ask for extra napkins.)

Japanese Canteen, £5.95 – 5/5

It may look like sick-in-a-box, but Japanese Canteen’s Chicken Katsu Curry has become my lunchtime staple. Put simply, it’s perfect: a layer of rice is placed on the bottom of the box and drowned with heavenly, thick golden curry sauce, crammed full of mushrooms, pumpkin, turnip, red tsukemono pickles and a very generous helping of Chicken Katsu.

The food is served so quickly that sometimes it’s ready before I’ve even paid for it at the counter. This is proper fast food.

I go to the Japanese Canteen under the Gherkin most days in the week, but you can also find branches on Tottenham Court Road and Hoxton Square.

At home

Chicken Katsu Curry really isn’t difficult to make. The key thing is finding the correct ingredients, which aren’t normally stocked in major supermarkets. You’ll need to locate the aforementioned panko flakes (breadcrumbs will not do) and golden curry sauce in an Asian food store, or you can order online. I’m afraid that substitutes simply do not work. You can find loads of decent recipes online.

Panko flakes:

Golden Curry:

At around 800 calories a serving, Chicken Katsu Curry is not about to make you any slimmer; and shoving it down your face is definitely not going to make you appear any more feminine. But fuck it, we're food rock stars and this is our crack.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Gaslight Grill (The Lost Angel), Battersea. £45.97

Besides absent-mindedly shoving crudités into my mouth and monitoring a small union jack production line, my jubilee weekend mainly consisted of getting hammered and accidentally insulting people. Suffice to say, I found myself lying on the sofa in my dressing gown at 5pm this afternoon craving a huge, comforting piece of meat. Kitted out with my camera and a massive lilac jumper, I headed down the road to Battersea in the pouring rain where the Lost Society people have opened up a new restaurant.

The first thing to say is that the design is great. Out front, the Lost Angel is your standard gastro-pub, replete with those battered red leather couches and the sort of London-themed art that you see everywhere in the capital (think screen-prints of buses). Sounds disappointing, but I had barely sat down when the maître d’ came over to usher me through some sliding doors, where the Gaslight Grill is located. Immediately, we’re transported to prohibition America with a Dickensian twist. The small room is all brown panelling with loads of different light fittings, my favourites being antique trumpets. The skylight above the eating area is covered with over 900 chains (which the waiter proudly told me took two days to hang up!) and a small bar in the corner of the room serves up gin cocktails. It’s all very ‘gloomy chic’.
One criticism would be the music, which clashed with the surroundings. I wanted something a bit jazzier (some Miles Davis would be a nice nod to the trumpets on the wall) and less loud. By the end of the meal I was going a bit mad listening to the rubbish Latino and chillout music being pumped out above my head. It was the sort of stuff you’d get free with a tabloid newspaper.

The second thing to say is that the staff were incredibly attentive. They more than earned the 12.5% discretionary charge. Ladies – if you’re into smooth, well-dressed waiters then go. I’m off the market, but I wouldn’t want to see those boys going to waste.

Starter: Asparagus, spinach and potato fritas

I devoured the fritas before I remembered to take a picture of them (the food came very quickly, but I walked for an hour to get to the restaurant). I’m sad to say that you’re not missing out as the plate didn’t look particularly special… or taste particularly special for that matter.
I was expecting a messy green frittata loaded with yummy veg, but what I got was some barely tarted up potato croquettes. There wasn’t enough asparagus for it to do much except add a different texture and I couldn’t taste the spinach at all; a shame because spinach is undoubtedly my favourite green thing. It didn’t help that the croquettes were served with an awkward-looking ramequin filled with mayonnaise, which just added to the whole ‘beige birthday buffet’ look. You expect something more interesting for £6.95.

Main: Rump steak with a selection of three sauces

Now we get down to business. The steak looked relatively unimpressive when it was served up on a slightly passé bread board with your standard tomatoes on the vine and cooked garlic. There was also a pointless salad shoved into one corner, which annoyed me.
I wasn’t disappointed by the steak, which was cooked perfectly ‘à point’ and was about the size of my head so definitely worth the £22. However, this restaurant’s selling point is the selection of sauces that go with it. You choose three but the list on the back of the menu is huge so you could go back every day for a week and have different stuff every time. I had the strawberry jus (The Gaslight Grill’s signature sauce), green peppercorn, tangy herb and a bit of the tarragon butter, which the waiter threw in because I had a note pad and camera.
The green peppercorn was good French-fare: thick, creamy and slightly meaty. I think the base was the restaurant’s veal stock, which must have been why it was so tasty.
The tangy herb sauce wasn’t very tangy. It was just olive oil with some bits in it. I’m sure that in a different dish (with pasta, say) the flavours would be lovely, but it didn’t work with the steak, which completely overpowered it.
For the restaurant’s signature sauce, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Christmas Dinner 2005 in Latvia, which was a nice piece of venison with a random dollop of strawberry jam on the side. The jus had less of a jam-like consistency obviously, but the taste experience was similar. It definitely works, but takes some getting used to. A fussy eater would struggle here, I think.
The winner, without a doubt, was the tarragon butter. I can see why the waiter wanted me to try it. Tarragon is pungent enough for its flavour to compete with the steak and melted butter tastes great anyway. Top marks.

A pre-dessert visit to the toilets was joyful. I could live in there.

Dessert: Bitter chocolate tart

The dessert menu was pretty uninspiring, but you can’t go far wrong with a chocolate tart. Especially one that has a non-soggy base and raspberries on the side. I know that everyone does the chocolate/raspberry thing, but it never gets old for me.

After settling up, I went home and slept for a little bit. Whilst this restaurant had a little of the 'all style but no substance' about it, the huge slab of meat did wonders for the hangover!