Hong Kong

After a bit of a blogging hiatus I’m glad to be back again and kick off with an international focussed posting.

My cousin has lived in Hong Kong for well over a decade and I’ve never quite made it over there. Whilst not a fan of flying – I decided to bite the long-haul bullet and take my first ever trip to Asia. In a nutshell is surpassed my expectations and I’m already thinking about my next trip east (blocking out the hideous 12 hour flight). God Russia is never-ending.

*FACTOID* At the end of 2017 Hong Kong hit the record high of having 15,000 licensed restaurants, cafes and bars, with 20.4 restaurants per 10,000 people, making it a city with one of the highest densities of restaurants in the world. Ooooo.

In the UK when eating out, Chinese food would probably be my least favourite choice – possibly due to flashbacks of neon orange sweet and sour in the 80s – heavy with MSG and greasy fried things. I therefore wondered what Hong Kong had in store but decided to embrace it whatever and go with the flow.

Food-wise Hong Kong spans from the ultra glitzy to the most basic of street food and offers not only Chinese but every cuisine you could ever wish for. There’s a really global feel to Hong Kong Island with Aussies, Brits, Americans mixing with Chinese resulting in a dizzying mix of food and drink 24/7.

So here’s my pick of the bunch starting in Kowloon on mainland China.

Kowloon – Spring Deer

Kowloon is frenetic. Densely populated, 95% Cantonese, flashing neon signs everywhere and bustling. In search of authentic Peking duck a gang of us headed to Spring Deer. In business for 45 years the place is unashamedly old school in terms of decor. It felt a bit like a function room at a mid range hotel on the outskirts of the midlands in the 1970s. But in China.

People come here for the food not the decor, and on a Friday night the restaurant was heaving. It was chaotic and brisk and from the get go we were seated and prompted to order asap. Leaving it to the HK residents in our group to choose our food, we massively over ordered but each dish was delicious including handmade noodles, and egg fried rice.

The star of the show though was whole honey-glazed duck which is carved at the table (about £40 a pop and serves 2-4). You of course get all the pancakes and bits, and I could have happily eaten just that. By 9.30pm they are keen to get everyone out so don’t expect to linger over dinner if you venture here. Oh and splitting the bill is a no-no in Hong Kong. We managed to convince them to split it in half. Eventually. The highlight of the evening though was a Chinese man celebrating his 100th birthday on the next table to us and sharing his cake. Ahhh.

 

Kowloon – Kam Wah Cafe

In the Mong Kok area of Kowloon, Kam Wah Cafe was rumoured to deliver the best pineapple buns in Hong Kong. Now I’m allergic to pineapple but oddly a pineapple bun contains no pineapple whatsoever. The bun is soft inside with a crunchy sugary crust which looks a bit like a pineapple so there you go. It’s served with a lump o’ butter in it so not remotely healthy but delicious as a one-off holiday experience. Kam Wah is busy and not geared at tourists which I liked. The menu is in Chinese but a sort of English translation is available. You can get the other classic custard tarts here too and coffee with condensed milk so sweet it will make your teeth cry. If you’re in Kowloon pop in for a really authentic experience.

 

Lamma Island – Andy’s Seafood

A short ferry ride away from Hong Kong Island is Lamma. Favoured for a quieter pace of life we arrived as the sun was setting which felt a million miles away from the bustling main land.

Food wise I’m a bit hazy BUT my cousin and his wife recommend this place highly. As we sat at our outside table, waves lapping on the shore we truly felt like we were on holiday. The restaurant obviously specialises in seafood and as you enter you’ll pass by tanks of both familiar and unfamiliar seafood all available at “market price”. This place is relaxed, informal and friendly, and an absolute joy as an antidote to the bustle of Kowloon and HK island. Stand out dishes were the salt and pepper squid, fried rice, soy noodles and salt and pepper prawns.

 

Hong Kong Island – Crystal Jade

Founded over 25 years ago – Crystal Jade has over 100 branches worldwide and numerous awards to their name. Hitting one of their Wan Chai branches I was catapulted back to my time working in Canary Wharf. The restaurant is located in one of the many pristine shopping centres and was packed with office workers on their lunch breaks. The food was ordered by my cousin’s wife and reflecting now a month later I can’t recall everything that we ate but the garlic cucumber salad, green beans, Dan Dan noodles and dumplings were stand out items. Efficient, slick and delicious.

Hong Kong Island – Alvy’s

Alvy’s is great little neighbourhood place in Kennedy Town especially for pre-horse racing at Happy Valley racecourse which was on our agenda for the evening. Specialising in sourdough pizza, locally brewed beers and with the largest selection of American Whisky in Hong Kong this is a really relaxed place to visit. The menu is small but interesting the pizzas taking an East meets West approach in terms of flavours. A Bak Gwei pizza fused char sui pork with mozzarella and bechamel sauce and totally worked. Curly fries, pork latkes and hot wing (too fiery for delicate me) all went down well from the ‘noshes’ section of the menu.

Oh and their pizza oven is called the Big Red Bitch. Ha!

 

Sai Ying Pun – Ping Pong

Based in an old ping-pong hall Ping Pong bar is an ode to all things gin. A cool space with an industrial vibe you feel you could be in Shoreditch East London – there’s definitely speak easy vibe about it too. On a Tuesday night it was pretty quiet but would imagine it being pretty rammed on a weekend.

I drink a fair bit of gin here and there and despite the selection being pretty extensive I thought an average price of £15 quid for a G&T was a bit steep. My cousin told me not to bother with this place and I didn’t listen. I had a fab time due to company bit overall 6 on 10.

 

 

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The Joint – Brixton Village

I normally find myself in Brixton Village every few months. You could easily walk past the entrance to the market and assume that inside just housed more of the vibrant fruit and veg shops and global grocery stores that line the nearby streets. Well it does, but it’s also home to an ever-evolving selection of restaurants and bars offering everything from French crepes to seafood, champagne to dim sum, and sourdough pizza to Japanese.

Tonight I’m trying somewhere new – a relaxed no frills eatery slap bang in the middle of the market. The Joint is a barbecue restaurant, and we’re here to get messy and eat some dirty food – it is Friday night after all.

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As with most places in Brixton Village you’ll probably sit out rather than in just because venues are so small. It’s often hard to fathom the quantity and quality of the food that comes out of the tiny establishments here.

It’s no reservations but we get there early evening, so are one of the first to bag a table. The furniture is mismatched and quirky (read not that comfy unless you relish sitting on a metallic stool). I’m sure the sub 30’s hipsters of Brixton wouldn’t even notice this small gripe, as it’s not the type of place to have a long lingering dinner anyhow – but somewhere to head pre gig, bar or movie.

One thing to say is that the staff are delightful. Our waitress was chatty and fun and seemed to genuinely want to ensure that we enjoyed ourselves and the food.

The menu is small but perfectly formed. It makes choosing that little bit easier. I picked a really nice Sauvignon Blanc which was delicious and came in at a reasonable £4.50. There’s cocktails too here if you’re feeling a bit more racy.

WARNING – portions here are super generous. We over ordered on sides so would rein it in a bit next time. Having said that everything was delicious. I opted for the 16hr slow cooked pulled pork in a bun (homemade) with candied bacon and slaw. Wraps are an option too if cutting down on carbs.

The mound of pork was melt in the mouth tender, the bread fresh and light and the slaw and candied bacon extras just to make it even more decadent. I also ordered some sweet potato fries which were crispy and perfectly seasoned but enough for two.

My dinner date opted for the baby back ribs which got a resounding thumbs up too. I tried one myself – the BBQ sauce was sticky and delicious and not overly sweet as some can be. The ribs also came with barbecue beans, slaw and fries so a complete meal – all of it mouth-watering and plentiful.

We ordered totally unnecessary onion rings which were non greasy and crispy – 5 a day right?

Despite the small menu there is a veggie option but the meat is clearly the star of the show here.

By the time we leave, the market is filling up with people gearing up for a Friday night.

I loved The Joint. The quality of the food was fantastic, the staff were great and the prices reasonable. There’s an outpost in Tooting too if you’re over that way.

In a nutshell I’ll be returning soon but ordering less. Probably.

 

Kudu – Queens Road, Peckham

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Considering how close I live to Peckham I really should visit more. Like nearby Brixton, Peckham is continuously springing up with new and interesting places. My fave Crystal Palace cafe the Blackbird Bakery now has a huge outpost there under the railway arches, and Pedlar which I reviewed a while back is on my list to return to.

Opened in January this year – Kudu firmly sits in the neighbourhood restaurant bracket, and boy what a lucky neighbourhood. The place is headed up by a couple – chef Patrick Williams and his partner Amy Corbin who runs front of house. Williams was a former chef at The Manor in Clapham, moving onto Paradise Garage in East London which sadly I never made it to before it closed. The Manor and also the Diary (both owned by Robin Gill) has delivered some of the most exciting and delicious meals I’ve ever had in London, so in Kudu I had high hopes. Amy hails from restaurant royalty, her father being Chris Corbin – one half of Corbin & King responsible for the iconic Wolseley among others.

But back to Kudu. Patrick Williams is South African, so the menu is inspired by his homeland, and Kudu in case you were wondering is a type of antelope (which doesn’t appear on the menu).

The restaurant is located near to Queen’s Road Peckham station on an unassuming stretch of South London road. The restaurant (a former chicken shop) is small with just 46 covers. The frontage is stylish but understated – grey, pink and gold. The place would look totally at home in Soho or Covent Garden.

Pushing my way through a heavy velvet curtain, I entered into a lovely dining space. I totally love interiors and Kudu has really got it spot on. Pale pink walls, lustworthy lighting, turquoise velvet seating, a mixture of marble and copper topped tables and dark mid-century style chairs that I would gladly have stuffed in my handbag had they fitted make for a stylish yet relaxed atmosphere. Diners could sit at the bar too to eat, and tables of two offered side-by-side dining for a more intimate and cosy experience. At the time of visiting Kudu were also working on their garden, which will provide some lovely outside space for the summer months.

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Kudu’s ethos is to offer seasonal menus, using local suppliers and foraged ingredients where available. Vegetarians will be pleased to know there’s a separate vegetarian menu too.

I visited on a Sunday for brunch – one of my favourite meals to have out. First off, staff were totally lovely from start to finish – attentive but not in your face. The menu is small but creative. I chose the traditional SA Boerewors sausage, with a fried egg, romesco, white beans and chimichurri. The whole thing was delicious – the chimichurri providing a fresh herby hit against the creamy beans. A side of sourdough toast and a couple of really nice coffees hit the spot. My two friends both ordered the Shakshuka, served with Parmesan crisps and cavolo nero which arrived straight to the table in cast iron pans. They were both very happy with their choice.

Prices are reasonable for this standard of cooking. We didn’t drink but the wine list is small but impressive with of course plenty of South African options.

They’re not open everyday so check before you travel as they say. I’m really looking forward to returning for an evening visit next time, and really hope that a second branch in Crystal Palace might happen one day if their success continues.

The Woodspeen, Berks

Growing up in the countryside pubs are everywhere. My own village had no less than five at one point, which I think which was slightly excessive. But good quality pubs are not always plentiful, and something a bit different even rarer.

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From the outside The Woodpseen looks like any other quality gastropub, but looks can be deceptive.

This is categorically a restaurant, set inside a former pub which has only been open since October 2014. Head chef Peter Eaton hails from Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, and owner John Campbell has achieved Michelin star status at previous establishments.

Once inside you feel like you’ve been transported to Scandinavia, or perhaps one of the stylish restaurants you can now find in galleries and museums across the Capital.

Mid-century furniture, wood, tones of grey, plants and a huge skylight create a modern, airy and relaxed atmosphere. The huge windows provide a lovely backdrop to the space, and the roaring wood burner added a touch of cosiness alongside the sheepskin throws that dressed some of the seating.

On arrival I decided to go for a G&T, and when I’m informed they have a choice of over 30, I instantly knew I was going to like the place.

We chose the set lunch menu which turned out to be excellent value at £24 for two courses and £29 for three. The restaurant grows a lot of its vegetables on site, and suppliers are carefully picked by the team.

The wine list is impressively long. It’s daytime though, and one of us was driving so we each chose a glass to accompany our food. Prices start at £5 a glass and include options from USA, Turkey and Austria for under a tenner.

We both picked the same starter, a smoked haddock Scotch egg, with a celeriac and mustard slaw. The egg was perfect and seemed to be more of a poached egg, rather than boiled. The haddock was light and the slaw provided a nice crunchy contrast.

I was having a day off from a January health-kick, so I decided to embrace the one thing I was missing the most – cheese. I opted for a pumpkin risotto, cooked with ‘oakey smokey’ cheddar, and served with a balsamic glaze and hazelnuts. The flavours worked together brilliantly – the portion size not overly massive (in a positive way). Risotto can sometimes be a bit gloopy, so the hazelnuts added an interesting texture.

 

We pondered pudding and decided yes we would as the options didn’t seem to look too heavy. A deconstructed apple and blackberry crumble was created with a tart berry sorbet, and my rum and raisin baked Alaska was heavy on the rum with the raisins blended into the ice cream for a more sophisticated take on a classic.

The place was packed – unexpected for a friday lunchtime in a village consisting of literally two houses. The mix of clientele was varied – couples, a group of women ‘doing’ lunch, some business colleagues and everything in between.

I’m not surprised the place is popular. The service was fantastic – attentive without being pushy. The produce used here is clearly top-notch and I’d like to see how the menu changes over the seasons. I envy those who have the Woodspeen on their doorstep – it’s a total gem with not ploughman’s in sight.

NB – there is also a cookery school offering a wide range of classes which is worth a look.

Oktopus – Liverpool

Welcome to my first blogpost of 2018. After a short hiatus I’m pleased to announce I am back and ready to bring you some of my favourite places as the year unfolds.


I was lucky enough to have the first week of the year off so booked a ticket to visit a friend in Liverpool. It’s a city I’ve visited in the past with work, so sadly had seen very little bar the inside of a hotel room and the University campus.

This time I had the luxury of being shown round by a born and bred Liverpudlian who like me shares a love of good food and wine.

Following a lovely trip to the Liverpool Philharmonic to watch a film, we popped round the corner to a restaurant called Oktopus. Hidden away in a courtyard behind the Old Blind School, it feels like a place only those with their noses to the culinary ground would find it, and I like that.

The restaurant has only been open since April last year after starting out as a pop up at the Baltic Triangle – a thriving area which I also visited on my trip.

The restaurant is not huge – an open kitchen one end and at the other a canary yellow dresser housing the beer taps from the Black Lodge Brewery who run the joint alongside several other venues in the City.

It’s got the classic industrial vibe – bare brickwork, copper lights and exposed vents etc. However little potted plants, chairs reminiscent of schooldays, tealights and the aforementioned dresser give it a cosy feel rather than feeling stark and generic.

Menus here change weekly and offer simple dishes focusing on seasonal high quality ingredients – in particular seafood. The dishes are classed as small plates which come to the table as and when ready.

Being a somewhat greedy eater with a reluctance to share I’m pleased that small dishes aren’t actually that small – increasing in size and price as you go down the menu, ranging from £6.50 up to £18.

We went for four dishes and not one disappointed.

Firstly we picked a salad of white cabbage, chervil, crayfish and capers. It was light, fresh and zingy with a generous portion of plump sweet crayfish.

Next up was another salad this time braised beetroot, forced rhubarb and Blacksticks Blue cheese. I’m not a fan of the mouldy stuff so let my friend crack on with that, but the rest was delicious – I love golden beetroot and would not have thought to pair with rhubarb.

Again another pairing that I wouldn’t have expected was fresh grilled Cornish sardines with harissa butter. I love sardines which always evoke memories of summer holidays, and the harissa added a new punchy dimension without being overpowering.

Finally onto the standout dish for me. Lamb rump cooked with preserved lemons, butter beans and mojo verde. We enquired what was in said mojo verde and were told the herbs change but on this day it was fresh cumin and coriander.

I’d forgotten how much I loved butter beans and cooked with the lemons they lost their blandness that beans can often be if you don’t jazz them up a bit. I’ve actually recreated this base since I’ve been home, adding leeks and a piece of fish. Delicious and healthy.

The staff were chatty and friendly and more than happy to answer our questions. If you like beer it’s great to have some craft ones to choose from. I had red wine but forgot to note what it was, so sorry I can’t share that with you. It was very nice though if that helps?

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In a rare display of willpower I opted out of dessert but instantly regretted it when I saw what was put in front of my friend. She said she would be returning for this pudding alone – buttermilk panna cotta, brandy prunes and pecan praline. It did look ruddy lovely.

Oktopus is great. You could pop in for lunch or a light meal or go full on 3 courses if you wanted. The standard of cooking a was great – unfussy letting the ingredients speaking for themselves.

I’ll definitely be visiting again on my next trip and this time I’ll not forgo dessert.

Oh and if you like your gin and/or whisky pop to Berry and Rye down the road. It looks like a closed up shop, but seek and ye shall find.

Battle of the bald TV chefs – Berkshire

When I started this blog almost two years ago my intention was (and still is) to only share places I’ve enjoyed. If I don’t have a positive experience somewhere I don’t spend time writing about it. Simple really.

On a recent stay at the River Arts Club in Maidenhead my friend and I were spoilt for choice in terms of local restaurants, with Bray and Marlow less than ten minutes away.

The tiny village of Bray contains two of the three restaurants in the UK that hold three Michelin stars. Heston’s three star Fat Duck was voted as the best restaurant in the world in 2005, and he also owns the Hind’s Head and Crown in the village. The other three star joint is The Waterside Inn run by one of the Roux dynasty – Alain.

But back to reality – I’m not a Russian Oligarch so need to see what’s on offer in my price range.

For the first time I’m going to give you a compare and contrast article – two top chefs – two meals – one blog. Who will come out on top?……. Read on.


The Coach Marlow – Tom Kerridge

It’s a lovely autumnal day so we hit Marlow ten minutes up the road. It’s a high-end home counties town. Bunting zig-zags across the road – well-heeled folk dart through the town going about their business on a Friday. We amble up and down the pleasant high street popping into shops and whiling the morning away – smug to be off work.

It gets to lunchtime so I suggested The Coach – a place I’d unsurprisingly researched prior to our visit. It’s a pub owned by once cuddly (now svelte) Tom Kerridge who I’ve always found a refreshing TV chef, seemingly devoid of the arrogance and bravado shared by some other TV cooks. He also runs the two starred restaurant up the road The Hand and Flowers which has rooms if you literally want to roll upstairs to bed post dinner.

The Coach from the outside looks unassuming – no Tom posters plastered on the wall nor mention of his name.

We went in, and the place was busy as we had expected. A charming front of house lady ushered us through to a waiting area and brought us menus for us to browse.

The pub is open all day for breakfast through to dinner with tables available on a first come first served basis.

We chose a glass of wine and waited for only ten minutes before being shown to our seats at the handsome bar, which looks onto an open plan kitchen – chefs working just a metre or so away. If you’re nosy and curious like me, this is a fantastic opportunity to see the inner workings of a professional kitchen, which seems relaxed and fun on our visit.

The lunch and dinner menu consists of smaller plates so depending on hunger the waitress suggested up to four. I can be greedy but we’re out for dinner that evening so we limited ourselves to two dishes each. The most expensive item is £16.50 but everything else hovers around the £6-8 mark. The pub aims to be accessible for all and prices seem to reflect this vision.

We both chose potted crab served with cucumber chutney and a paprika butter. We loved this dish – it was outstanding. 24 hours later we are still talking about it and frantically trying to find the recipe online. Negative.

One thing to note is that the chef that makes your dish brings it to you if you’re sitting at the bar. It was great to have such close interaction with the creators of this amazing food.

Second and sadly last course time. My friend (a pescatarian) orders a autumnal salad with whipped goats cheese. Not being a fan of the goaty stuff I didn’t try this, but my friend enjoyed it thoroughly and it looked beautiful – colours reflecting the leaves on the trees outside.

I chose a Black Pudding and Smoked Haddock Scotch Egg with Moilee. Moilee is a Keralan sauce – lightly spiced and flavoured with coconut. Just so you know (I didn’t).

Yet another delicious dish – a runny quails egg in the centre – a beautiful charred onion on the top. I could have eaten a second. See – I told you I was greedy.

The Coach feels more like a restaurant than a pub. The food is delicious the atmosphere relaxed and unpretentious.

Tom has created the perfect formula for a gastropub and I am absolutely wanting to try his other gaff up the road at some point. In the meantime I’ll have to dream about my potted crab.


The Crown – Heston Blumenthal

With the tasting menu at the Fat Duck an eye watering £255 a head, the opportunity to try any Heston outpost in Bray village was pretty exciting.

I must confess the whole molecular gastronomy thing doesn’t really appeal, but hey if someone offered to take me I wouldn’t say no.

So Heston’s third outpost in the village looks like a traditional pub from the outside. And actually from the inside too.

A country girl myself the pub feels familiar in terms of clientele and atmosphere – similar to the village pubs around where I grew up.

With low beams and a log fire, the pub is cosy and totally rammed. The bar area is swarming with locals – a few couples and the rest local men of all varieties.

We wait for a while to get served – they could have done with an extra member of staff but hey ho.

We are shown to our table which was right next to the bar. The group of drinkers stand what seems .5 of a centimetre from our table – it’s pretty noisy and a bit claustrophobic to be honest. The waiter (who seems run off his feet) apologises though we haven’t said anything. He was clearly aware this layout didn’t quite work for diners.

Anyway we order our meal – prawn cocktail for both of us – a burger for me and fish and chips for my friend.

As a food reviewer I can’t at this point say any more than what we had was nice pub food. Nice and expensive.

The prawn cocktail was delicious – no twists or additions – just a good old prawn cocktail. My burger with the addition of pastrami was again very nice but not the best burger I’ve had by any stretch of the imagination. It came in at £19.50.

My friend’s fish and chips were nice but over battered, causing her to leave a substantial amount on her plate. We were surprised that the waiter didn’t ask if there was a problem.

In fact chatting on the way home we realised that no-one at any point had asked if our food was ok. A bit disappointing really as this should be basic for any restaurant Heston or otherwise.

Two G&T,s, a bottle of wine and two courses and we’d spent £50 each.

I understand that if you want a Heston experience you’ll go to the other two places in the village but I guess we expected something a bit different to justisfy the cost.

We left feeling somewhat underwhelmed after a nice but not outstanding pub meal coupled with less than attentive service.


So…………. the Crown goes to The Coach for me – sorry Heston. #TeamTom

 

 

 

River Arts Club – Maidenhead, Berks

A friend and I decided we wanted to get out of the big smoke for the night, have a good catch up and eat some good food.

Working with a radius of no more than an hour outside of London, I used my Googling powers to pull a shortlist together. Putting the selection to my friend I was delighted she went for the River Arts Club as everything about it floated my boat (including the *actual* boat called Ophelia that the hotel own.

Built in the late 19th Century, this Grade II listed riverside mansion has featured in numerous films and was voted as one of the top ten most beautiful estates in the UK by Channel 4.

Unsurprisingly the Arts Club focuses heavily on the art. Throughout the house striking Sanderson wallpaper creates drama and a feeling of a quintessential English house. This is balanced with eclectic artwork, vintage furniture, beautiful textiles, books and quirky ornaments. Everything comes together to create a welcoming environment – luxurious yet relaxed. Jazz music played in the downstairs room and the honesty bar was a great feature for a quick pre-dinner G&T.

Hosts Iain and Alessandra were charming – nothing was too much trouble. They have clearly dedicated a huge amount of time, money and love into renovating the building. Alessandra even apologised for not having cleared the leaves on the lawn. It’s all about the detail and beautiful aesthetics here. This past Elle Deco article will give you a better feel of the rooms and artworks on display.

Our room – ‘The Turner Suite’ was stunning – a huge oval-shaped window looking out onto the river – a hive of activity with rowers and swans. A free-standing bath and two fireplaces added a touch of luxury – more artwork adorned the walls which were covered in a striking cobalt blue wallpaper.

Fresh fruit, water, nuts, biscuits and a Nespresso machine and lovely toiletries in the bathroom complete with fluffy robes left you wanting for nothing.

One thing to note is that breakfast is continental only. However cheeses, hams, pastries and granola made available in a lovely kitchen was more than sufficient to get the day going.

If you’re a restaurant fan like me, the hotel’s location is perfect for exploring the local gastronomic offerings in nearby Hestonworld (Bray) and Marlow. Blog to follow on those two.

The aforementioned boat can be used to taxi hotel guests to the restaurants nearby which is clearly more stylish then the Toyata Prius we used.

Although quiet in the hotel – I can imagine that when the sun is out and the honesty bar is in full swing some fun times are probably had at this hotel, both inside and out.

I know Maidenhead probably isn’t an obvious choice for a weekend away, but only 30 mins from Paddington this is the perfect escape for some rest and relaxation art lover or not.

 

The Manor – Clapham Common

Whoever invented brunch I salute you. I love breakfast, but by calling it brunch it means you can acceptably drink alongside your poached eggs without anyone raising an eyebrow.

My visit to the Manor had been rescheduled after a tiresome virus left me good for nothing a few weeks before.

I worked in Clapham Common when I first arrived in London over a decade ago, and like everywhere else it has changed dramatically. I feels almost unrecognisable but I managed to find where we were going – hazy memories of nights out guiding the way.

I’d visited the Manor’s sister restaurant The Dairy a few years ago (also in Clapham Common) and totally loved everything about it. When I saw the Manor were offering bottomless weekend brunch, a friend’s birthday provided a great opportunity to give it a try, and see if it matched the quality of down the road.

Ex-electrician turned chef Robin Gill has a few places in London now. He has worked at some outstanding restaurants including the Manoir in Oxfordshire and Noma in Copenhagen. For him it’s all about the ingredients – dishes are creative and beautiful but unfussy at the same time. They grow herbs and vegetables on the roof of nearby Dairy and even have their own beehives – so pretty local then.

Situated up a quiet residential road off the less chi-chi end of Clapham High St you feel like you are stumbling across a gem before you’ve even gone in.

Inside it’s bright and airy, industrial mixed with woods, vintage china and flowers for a softer edge. A huge skylight throws sunshine over the restaurant, which on the day we visited was packed out. The crowd consisted of bright young local things who wouldn’t have looked out-of-place in an episode of Made in Chelsea mixed with older stylish couples and hipsters.

Two of us opted for the bottomless brunch. Unlimited prosecco or bloody mary, a starter, main and side.

All the staff we came into contact with were lovely – slick professional but friendly. More of that later.

Now some “bottomless” “unlimited” menus are a total let-down. Sometimes you spend hours trying to catch the waiter’s attention in order to get a refill of warm prosecco in the 60 minute window you have been alloted. Not here. Catching up with friends I barely noticed the waitress continuously topping up our glasses unprompted. She even came back at the end and said she’d fill our glass as brunch was ending in five minutes. Now obviously I cannot and won’t condone binge drinking but I do like to get my money’s worth.

Right food then. Uncharacteristically I struggled to choose as everything looked great but settled on crispy chicken skins with kimchi, scrambled eggs on sourdough and crispy potato hash which was supposed to have a side of Crazy Bitc* sauce which I avoided (I’m a wimp with super hot stuff.)

Other dishes round the table included Brixham crab nori and buttermilk buckwheat pancakes with charred quince and honey cultured cream. The girls then chose some Colston Bassett cheese with homemade crackers and chutney, and I had a rum soaked sourdough crumpet with quince and milk ice cream.

I tried pretty much everything and am not going to talk about each item, as I’d be here all day. Standout dishes for me were the chicken skins – served with barbecue sauce and the kimchi. It was a punchy dish, the chicken skins layered like crackling were ruddy amazing. I could have eaten just a massive plate of those. The potatoes – oh lord those potatoes. I don’t know how they got that crunchy. Tears of joy all round.

There are ingredients on the menu I didn’t recognise but when the quality of the cooking is this good you trust that you’ll like it because everything is so expertly pulled together.

After dessert, the Front of House had heard me say it was a friend’s birthday and appeared with three mini banana cakes and dark chocolate sauce and a candle. Well done – I didn’t have to ask. Nice touch.

I urge you to head south of the river to The Manor or The Dairy – the food is joyful and exciting, and the restaurant is a shining light amidst the chicken cottages and generic chains of Clapham. Robin also has Paradise Garage in Bethnal Green for South London phobes. Go now…it might not be in your Manor, but you should definately visit this one…..

Jan 2018 – The Manor has now closed. The same team have now opened Sorella.

Pizza making at La Taverna Dei Corsari – Lazio

There’s a myth that if you are a ‘foodie’ (a word I hate) you are therefore an excellent cook. I can cook yes, but prefer someone else to do it hence my love of restaurants. They are clearly better than me and there’s no washing up afterwards.

As part of my recent trip to Italy we were given the chance to go to a pizza making workshop in a real restaurant, taught by an actual chef. Yikes…

Battling an ongoing virus that manifested itself in menopausal like temperature bursts hotter than the sun, standing in a kitchen next to a 300 degree pizza oven was…not the top thing on my list to do. But I’m a professional and was going to do this illness or not.

La Taverna dei Corsari is situated in the Lazio countryside (about an hours drive from Rome) surrounded by ridiculously breathtaking views. Pizza Hut certainly need to up their game.

We were greeted by the friendly and rather handsome Christian whose English was excellent we were relieved to discover. My GCSE Italian and knowledge of a few swear words wasn’t going to be of any help I feared. We discover Christian had recently worked in Bristol (my mum’s birthplace and the University city of my friend) so we felt reassured somehow and more at ease.

The restaurant had been opened especially for us so no audience to put us off our game. The Foo Fighters new album provided the soundtrack to our grafting and off we went.

  • 1kg Flour (00)
  • 750ml Water (not cold)
  • 10g Live yeast
  • 25g Sea salt
  • 25g Oil

So this is the recipe given to me which I’ve yet to try since returning home. I’ve attempted to remember the order of proceedings and hope I haven’t missed anything crucial.

Now for the science bit. Yeast and salt are enemies. So mix the water and yeast together first, and then add to the flour and salt. Work with your hands in a bowl and when combined drop the ball onto a floured worktop.

Knead for a few minutes until dough feels elasticky. Make a well and add the oil and knead again for a few minutes. The dough should begin to feel silky at this point.

Next you need to divide your dough. Each ball needs to be about 250g less if you want a thinner pizza. You’ll then need to shape said balls, so they’re round and smooth on top and pinch and tuck the bits underneath on the flat side. Like an upside dumpling (sort of). Set the dough balls aside on a tray – not too close together and cover with a damp tea towel (not wet) and leave for a few hours until they have doubled in size.

 

Ok when the dough has risen you need to give it a good dousing in semolina which will give it a nice texture. Back onto the floured work surface you need to flatten your dough ball leaving a rim around the edge. You flatten the inside in a circular motion – pressing and turning at the same time. We were told to imagine working a steering wheel. Try not to rip a hole in it. Obviously we didn’t do this…..

On to toppings. We were making a classic Margarita so used one ladle of tomato sauce per pizza, which was clearly homemade. Then add a generous sprinkling of fresh grated mozzarella and a few fresh basil leaves and you’re done.

Now came probably the hardest bit – getting the thing off the bloody work surface and into the oven. This step probably wouldn’t apply to most of us as we don’t have a pizza oven in our kitchens. After several attempts of sliding the pizza paddle under my creation (and some damaged dough and use of Italian swear words) I managed to get it into the oven and even give it a little turn mid way though. If you’re making this at home I would whack oven up as high as it goes and make sure fully hot. You can also get a pizza stone which is worth looking at.

Pizza 6

After five or so minutes here it was. My friend and I felt a massive sense of achievement and Christian was encouraging and kind even when we were struggling somewhat.

The highlight after this was sitting outside overlooking the mountains with a glass of vino with pizzas made for us instead. Pear, walnut and Gorgonzola (I don’t like this cheese but loved the pizza) and another of pig’s cheek, smoked mozzarella and chicoria which is a leafy spinach like vegetable that grew nearby.

Finally we were presented with a sweet pizza. Dark chocolate, creme patisserie in the crust and fresh fruit and cream. The pizzas had to be taken back home in boxes due to the sheer amount we were given, but they were so delicious and obviously far superior to our attempts.

PIzza 8

We had a brilliant afternoon and I can’t wait to give the dough a try at home. If you’re ever in this part of the world and fancy giving pizza making a shot, you can get in touch with my Italian based friend Libby Greenfield for the details. Ciao!

 

 

 

Pianostrada – laboratorio di cucina – Rome

I was in Rome for less than 24 hours and hadn’t been for years. Despite battling a virus and having a reduced appetite (no, I didn’t believe it either), I was determined to sample some of Roma’s finest culinary offerings.

I was on holiday with a friend, and visiting her sister who praised-be is a chef and now living in Italy. Her friend had recommended Pianostrada – so reservation made off we trotted via the fabulous (and cheap) Bar San Calisto for a 3 euro Aperol Spritz.

The restaurant is run by four women – two friends and two daughters that belong to one of the women. They were all blonde, and looked related so we couldn’t really tell who was who.

The restaurant moved about a year ago from the other side of the Tiber to the buzzing Trastevere area. From reading up, the previous location was tiny so the new site seems to have been welcomed by regulars who now have more space to enjoy their food.

A former factory the interiors were warm and inviting – industrial with softer touches such as fresh flowers and plants , great lighting and linens on the table. Although we didn’t see it I understand there is an outside terrace for the summer months.

We had a reservation sitting at the bar overlooking the kitchen. We’re probably about a metre or so away from ‘the pass’ and it was fascinating to watch all the chefs at work. It was a quiet workspace – no raised voices, no visible stress just each person working attentively on their designated area. Every dish that left the kitchen was finished and checked with love and care – it all looked incredible but not fussy or pretentious. If you’ve ever been to a Barrafina in London it felt a bit like that, sitting right amidst all the action.

Wine first. Working in marketing and being an interiors nerd, I was thrilled at the wine list presented in colour order by way of a Pantone chart arrangement. Due to the volume of wines on offer this was actually pretty impractical in reality, so chatting with the waitress about our preferences we chose a well priced Pecorino which was delicious, especially when presented with homemade crisps.

The menu here focuses on small plates – sandwiches and fritti (fried things) in particular. Their speciality is a fish burger served in a black squid ink bun, confit tomatoes and courgette flowers. Despite classing things as street food all the portions we ordered were generous.

Ingredients predominately come from the Lazio region (where Rome sits) and bread is baked on the premises. As you’d expect the menu changes often to reflect seasonality and availability.

 

 

Due to the sheer size of the menu and the restaurant having a nonfunctioning website I only have my memory to remind me of what was eaten. All I can say is everything we ate was delicious, innovative and clearly using top quality ingredients.

We shared a burrata, tartare and incredible plate of ham with homemade bread and tomato to start with.

I then had a beef dish (see above) which was amazing. Cherry tomatoes, stringy Italian cheese, beef, rocket and courgette flowers. I couldn’t finish it all, but it was delicious. My friend had what looked like the perfect portion of pasta with tomato and cheese, and her sister had a raw fish dish served with pickled vegetables and a lemon sorbet which got the chef’s seal of approval.

The vegetarian options looked really good too for any non meat eaters.

The last time I ate in Trastevere I seem to recall an abundance of red and white checked tablecloths and menus geared towards tourists. Pianostrada is cool, clearly a hit with actual Romans and with an interior that wouldn’t seem out-of-place in London or New York, the Rome food scene is looking very exciting indeed. If you’re in Italy’s Capital do give it a try – I’ll certainly be going back.

Ciao!