Tuesday, August 19

REVIEW: Cinnamon Soho, lunchtime toastie treats

I’ve already openly expressed my views on lunch, I don’t love it. It’s a bit of a faff of a meal that usually interrupts what you’re doing; you usually end up eating it chained to your desk or on your own at least; and you’re usually without cutlery, condiments or general ‘meal improvers’. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m not hungry for it -- I’m usually starving for it by 11:30 -- it’s just my feelings towards it are nothing compared to my love of breakfast/ brunch or the event that is dinner. Maybe I’m just doing it all wrong.
Well last week I made it a thing, planned my working day around it even. I met my friend Suzie at Cinnamon Soho where I’d been invited in to try its new gourmet toastie menu. Kingly Street is buzzing at lunchtime with the slew of restaurants bursting with hungry workers, who unlike me do make the most of their lunch break. We sat outside and ordered a couple of mango lassi drinks. They arrived quickly and were huge, with curly straws – the wiggly ones that helped shape my childhood. I love a lassi and these were deliciously thick and creamy.

The gourmet toastie menu is designed just for lunch, available 12- 5pm, Monday to Saturday. There are four different toastie options, all under £6, which isn’t all that bad for lunch out really is it? There’s a vegetarian spiced potato and cheese option which sounded yummy but I decided to go with the Kadhai crab with tomato and tamarind. I’m a big fan of crab, so much so I haven’t yet managed to go to breakfast at Balthazar and not get the crab on sourdough. My toastie was really tasty; a generous serve of spiced crab was squished in between two slices of grilled bread with a smothering of melted cheese and sweet and spicy chutney. Served on a fresh salad with ribbons of carrot and Indian condiments, my only gripe is that I wish it was a little bit bigger (told you I’m hungry at lunchtime). Suzie’s tandoori chicken one went down a treat too, with more heat than mine thanks to the chilli and mustard mayonnaise. I had to race back to work after realising we’d spent a good hour gossiping but we left feeling well satisfied and reminded that sometimes, it’s nice to make a thing of lunch.

Gourmet Toasties menu available Monday - Saturday, 12- 5pm. Cinnamon Soho, Kingly Street, 5 Kingly Street, W1B 5PF; 020 7437 1664.

Square Meal

Monday, August 18

REVIEW: Big Easy's big ol' feast

Stop two on my BBQ tour took me to Covent Garden's Big Easy Bar B.Q & Crabshack last Friday night. Ed was running a little late so I took myself inside and downstairs to the bar and quenched my thirst with a delicious raspberry mojito. The place was rammed and pumping. Big tables of big men had giant platters of ribs, smaller tables in the corner were overflowing with plates of food, waiters were either running around like crazy or struggling under the weight of their trays, and the queue of hungry diners snaked down the corridor. I camped out in the quieter bar tucked away under the stair until Ed arrived and we could brave the crowd and find our table together! The vibes very much reminded me very much of Bubba Gump Shrimp; not just the nautical, rope-heavy decor but the rowdy crowd and the larger-than-life portion sizes. 

As soon as we sat down we were pretty much ordered to try the cocktails, notably the Miami Vice, which was a frozen strawberry daiquiri on top of a pina colada (aka, seriously dangerous). We talked to Pete, the head chef for a while who, stemming from America, reassured us this was proper American-style BBQ. He also revealed that even with their multi-storey kitchen they're still struggling to keep up with demand and consequently are having to rip out the giant lobster tank in the kitchen to make room for four more BBQ smokers. He shared his menu recommendations to help us narrow down the giant menu and we made a start on ordering. We could have easily ordered about seven starters; too many of them sounded irresistible but we forced ourselves to be modest and shared just the deep fried voodoo shrimp and the wood roasted mussels. The garlicky mussels were pretty standard whilst the giant deep fried shrimp were scarily delicious, with their crunchy coating and a frighteningly naughty blue cheese sauce that I could have eaten with a spoon.

When the mains arrived I think we both wished we skipped the starters. Portions here are massive. I mean fall off the table massive, and the fact that you’re given a bib suggests that they expect you to get seriously stuck in. Big Easy puts a big focus on its lobster so I knew I had to try it. I got the Lobster Fest, i.e. a whole lobster, fries, salad and another frozen cocktail all for £20. Not going to lie, it was a lot of food but it was seriously delicious. The lobster was obviously the highlight (a novelty too thanks to my dedicated lobster cracking cutlery) but the salty skinny fries and sprig of greenery rounded it all off nicely. Fortunately lobster is relatively light or else I’d have had no chance of making my way through the amount of food!

Ed meanwhile raised the bar for the amount of food ever consumed at one sitting. Now he’s someone who can seriously eat but I think even he was a little taken aback by the sheer size of Taste-O-Rama platter, which consisted of a giant pit-smoked chicken breast, two huge St Louis pork ribs and a bowl of pulled pork – complete with slaw and BBQ beans on the side. It was too tasty to stop eating and though he did look pretty ill by the time he finished, he definitely deserved a round of applause. At just £15.95 it is staggeringly good value but will leave you in a food coma for the next four days.

It goes without saying that dessert wasn’t required but if we did have room, we were advised the sticky toffee pudding was the winning bet. We waddled out of there leaving the place still pumping, packed and with a queue still out of the door at 10pm. Next time we go – because there definitely will be a next time – we’ll remember to either not eat for two weeks prior or simply vow to be more modest. Though there’s no way I could say no to those voodoo shrimp. 

Big Easy Bar B.Q & Crabshack, 12 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7NA; 020 3728 4888.

Square Meal

Sunday, August 17

Burning desires

Would rather like these in my life:  Capri Blue Metal Candles, Anthropologie

REVIEW: Barbecoa, the amazing place where you shouldn't take your vegetarian friends

On part of my BBQ journey around London we stopped in at Barbecoa, Jamie Oliver's restaurant in St Paul's. I'd heard a lot of good things about it and knew where it was but had never really noticed it because I hadn't ever really looked up; the restaurant is on the first floor of One New Change shopping centre. We got a perfect table with an unbeatable view of St Paul's Cathedral. The restaurant is huge and on the Tuesday night when we visited, it was totally packed and buzzing with leather booths occupied by suited men, small groups of friends and tourists alike. 

I knew this place was going to be meat heavy — I'd already checked out the menu and noticed a severe lack of vegetarian friendly mains (in fact there were none) — but I hadn't anticipated that the bread board would come served with chicken butter and the olives, served two ways, would come deep-fried in meat grease.

I had no trouble ordering a glass of Rioja and the starter we shared was delicious. Presented with theatrical panache the waiter removed a glass cloche to release a cloud of steam and reveal a couple of giant (and I mean giant) tiger prawns, barbecued with tandoori and served with lime pickle yoghurt, roasted tomatoes and chunky crisps of garlic. The massive prawns were easily some of the best I've ever had; smoky and slightly crispy on the outside, and meaty and succulent once you've bitten in. Disappointed that we only got to indulge in one and a half each, we eagerly anticipated our mains.

Fortunately, halibut featured on the Specials list so I didn't have to go hungry. What I didn't anticipate however was that along with the roasted carrots and vegetable purée it came on, it would be sprinkled in bacon crumbs too. Fortunately I'm not a fussy vegetarian so once I'd dusted those off it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious with a perfectly crispy skin — my favourite. Ed got the lamb from the Specials board, which came with a coarse minty sauce and roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes. It was a giant, juicy fillet which scored a lot of intense knife and fork action and subsequently very little table chat. Perhaps overdoing the carrots slightly we got skinny spring carrots on the side too, but it was without regrets as they were particularly delicious, roasted with rock salt to all their worth and sprinkled with crunchy sesame seeds. 

We indulged at dessert and were persuaded to get the dessert board — aka a little bite of everything. This included a mini aerated chocolate brownie, a giant Fruit Pastel, a chewy macaron,  and a baby lemon meringue tart, though it was the peanut butter and black cherry cheesecake that was the definite highlight. 

Barbecoa is somewhere I would definitely go back to, though perhaps not with a strict vegetarian in tow. Though disappointingly veggie-friendly (we do like BBQ too you know)  the food was great, the place was buzzing and the view from our table was fabulous. For out of towners this is definitely a worth a pilgrimage to.  

Barbecoa, 20 New Change Passage, EC4M 9AG; 020 3005 8555. 
Square Meal

REVIEW: Spice Market, intimacy with real kick

I’ve walked past Spice Market in Leicester Square on a daily basis for about four months and until very recently assumed it was an Indian restaurant — the décor looks that way and the name is very similar to an amazing Indian takeaway near my parents house. Turns out, it’s a South East Asian place, so think less dahl and turmeric, and more lemongrass, soy and ginger.  It’s located in the bottom of the W hotel, so though technically a ‘hotel restaurant’ it doesn’t feel that way at all. It’s intimate and moody inside with dim brass lanterns, low tables, slick black surfaces and gold mesh screens. On the ceiling 600 woks make for very cool light fittings indeed.

We got there and sat at the bar with a couple of delicious ginger margaritas — unusual but brilliant. It was pretty quiet and only a few of the tables in the large space were occupied — pretty much all by intimate looking couples sharing plates of noodles or struggling with their chopsticks. Though only a stones throw from Chinatown, Spice Market feels very different. It’s sophisticated and feels far more sensual than the chaos of its neighbouring eateries.

The large menu is split into Starters, Raw, Salads and Soup, Seafood, Meats, and Noodles and Rice, hence there is a lot of choice. It took us a good 10 minutes to peruse the menu properly before deciding on our starters: the crispy shrimp and salmon sashimi on warm rice. The shrimp were crunchy and delicious, with a spicy Korean chilli sauce that you definitely didn’t need a lot of and a fresh sprig of Thai basil. But the sashimi was even better and far more unexpected. Essentially this was salmon nigiri and then some. Oblongs of sushi rice had been lightly deep fried so they were crispy and warm, and topped with thick, fresh sashimi ‘glued’ in place with a chipotle emulsion. They were totally not what we were expecting but better than I could have imagined; a generous serve too with 6 pieces to share between us.

Moving on the mains I didn’t struggle to make a decision. The seafood sung out to me so I went with the Malaysian chilli cod. Ed got the red curried duck and we ordered a serve of ginger fried rice to share. The portions here are generous, we were definitely glad we were modest with the sides because the fried rice alone would have been plenty for three. With its strong kick of ginger it was even more moreish than your standard egg fried rice, which, even after years of practice I still fail to do anything else but shovel into my mouth until indigestion hits. (Dumb, but it’s too good not to.)

The hefty serve of cod, shaped into a round came on a bright green sauce which was seriously spicy but a great flavour for the cod which had been pan-fried on its own. That spicy kick with the gingery fried rice and the melt in your mouth fish made for a perfectly wholesome feast. Ed's red duck curry had plenty of meat, and the sauce was rich and thick. And again had a serious spice kick (now I get why it's called Spice Market).

The dessert menu was authentically Asian. We got Thai jewels (aka jelly pieces and cubes of mixed fruit) with coconut ice, which was super sweet to taste but just like the puddings I enjoyed in Hong Kong. 

Spice Market, Leicester Square, 10 Wardour Street, W1D 6QF; 020 7758 1088.
Square Meal

Thursday, August 14

Bloggers and barrel-aged cocktails at Silk & Grain

It’s been a busy few weeks and since getting back from my holiday (which I promise I will get round to sharing at some point, I just want to give it the time and love it deserves) it’s been all go go go with one thing or another. Along with looking for a new house mate, moving my best friend in to my spare room, my boyfriend in to his new apartment, entertaining family and doing a whole lot of food reviews, there’s barely been chance to fit in any extras. One thing I did manage to squeeze in though was a blogger event in The City.

I rarely go to Bank (which explains why I got so lost) but having been invited to a cocktail tasting and dinner event at new restaurant, Silk & Grain, it made perfect sense to play outside of my comfort zone. Along with steak and a swanky décor, Silk & Grain’s thing is barrel-aged cocktails. Yes, as in Cosmopolitans and Negronis aged in barrels just like wine or rum (I didn’t really get it to start with either). 

By aging spirits and cocktails in barrels made of metal, glass, oak and even leather, extra depth and flavour can be achieved in both classic cocktails and new creations, which is pretty damn important if you’re aiming to be one of the most innovative and impressive cocktail bars in London. It’s all about shaking up conventions, right? (Holler, pun) The results – though arguably only really noticeable by a true connoisseur (for which I am definitely not) unless you have the barrel-aged and non-barrel-aged side by side – vow to be silkier, smoother and more sophisticated, and will most certainly slip down the hatchet easier!

Silk & Grain’s signature cocktails revive the classics, ageing and conditioning them before adding extra ingredients to ultimately make a cocktail in a cocktail. The aptly named Queen of Cornhill for example uses tequila and Silk & Grain’s own leather-infusion before adding mint, absinthe and bitters and being crowned with bubbly. Elsewhere the Carney’s Brew is a classic Whisky Sour given a zingy kick with house-made ginger syrup, lemon and a float of Innis & Gunn oak-aged beer.

Not only was it such a nice opportunity to mingle and chat with other foodie bloggers but it was also great to be educated through the cocktail process because I have no qualms in saying I know diddly squat about mixology! Though I was nicely reminded how much I loved a Negroni – barrel-aged or otherwise! 

The three-course meal that we sat down for was divine. For the starter, three meaty scallops came on a (very green) creamy pea purée. Then whilst everyone else had steaks, I like to think I got the better deal(!) with my delicious mint and quinoa salad complete with hefty chunks of roasted vegetables, beetroot stained eggs and whipped feta cheese – so wholesome and fresh! I didn’t hesitate to steal the steak eaters’ chips too though; truffle fries and sweet potato fries – I was in my element and subsequently very full. Alas I could only manage half of my gooey chocolate brownie, which was probably a good thing or else I’d have crushed my bike on the cycle home.

I failed to explore the place properly (it’s big and I was too focused on the drinks!) but I was able to appreciate its slick, moody vibes and the cool light fittings made out of taps! If I’d of looked around properly I’d have noticed the life-sized copper coin deer upon entry and upstairs, drinking water tap disguised as a papier-mâché cow’s head made out of money notes! If I don’t make it back to Silk & Grain in the next month I’ll be sure to make a pilgrimage in October when its new breakfast menu launches – because we all know how much I like breakfast. But if you’re looking for good food and even better cocktails, be sure to swing by Silk & Grain.

Silk & Grain, 33 Cornhill , Bank,  EC3V 3ND; 020 7929 1378. 
Square Meal

BBQ-ed out

We Brits love a BBQ. Whether it’s burnt bangers on a disposable on the balcony of your flat or a T-bone steak at a slap up joint in the City, we’re game. Firing up your precious ‘cue all of twice a year still keeps it is a British novelty really, doesn’t it?

As the barbecued food trend continues to swell in London, the decision of where to indulge gets harder and harder. There are the age old classics with their mile-long queues, the new kids on the block which risk being hit or miss, and the local ones you always go to - so maybe it’s time to try something new.’ – written for The Independent

A recent piece I wrote for The Independent highlighted the rise of the UK’s BBQ obsession; not just in London but across Sheffield, Leeds and Liverpool too. As a result I spent the best part of last week being very full, eating a lot of slaw, smelling of smoke, and subsequently seriously ‘cued out. But I’m definitely not complaining. Nor is Ed who accompanied me on most visits and took pride in eating more meat than I thought humanly possible. (Next feature ‘best vegetarian salads’ is perhaps required?) It was one heavy week. Definitely more so for him because as you’ve probably already clicked, I don’t actually eat meat. So how can I justify doing a BBQ story you ask? Well, though I didn’t eat any of the meat myself (not intentionally at least — damn Barbecoa's meat in everything policy) I was subject to running commentary from a guy who did a lot of taste testing that week, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt – besides being educated on the whole process of smoking, touring the kitchens, guided through the menus and doing a lot of reading, it’s that BBQ food is definitely not just about the meat. It's just as much about the process, the flavour, and of course, the sides. Creamed corn, slaw, BBQ beans, spicy fries, sweet potato fries, the list goes on. 

Having eaten enough halloumi, Portobello mushrooms, barbecued tiger prawns and lobster (which featured on most of the BBQ menus) this week than I probably would have done all summer, I think I'm going to have to put BBQ on a bit of a back burner for a while. But next time people say, ‘Well what are you going to have on a BBQ?’, I’ve got a whole list of options to reel off.

Read my article for The Independent here: How We Went Bonkers For BBQ Food

Tuesday, August 12

REVIEW: Wright Bros' surfboard lunch

I find decision making at lunch probably the hardest of all. Breakfast is easy (it's the best meal of the day), dinner is often spent out or decided by someone else, but lunch I genuinely struggle with. It goes a little bit like this:

1. Do I want to be good or bad?
2. Do I want to be lavish or frugal?
3. Do I really want more bread if I had bread for breakfast?
4. Okay, so what actually is available around here? For me to eat on the go with no cutlery or prep?
5. Okay, fine, I'll compromise on everything (but taste) and get the overpriced but delicious and M&S Wensleydale and Carrot Chutney sandwich. 

Yeah, that's how it usually goes. But last week, it went a little bit different thanks to a lunch meeting at Wright Brothers in Soho. Ultra central being located in Kingly Court (i.e. dangerously close to Liberty), we went before storm Bertha hit when it was nice enough to sit outside. With "a passion for all things sea", Wright Bros' menu is all about the seafood with everything from dressed oysters to salmon ceviche and lobster. But making the decision easy at lunchtime — and in keeping with the sea theme — its 'surfboard' platters give you the benefit of plenty of variety but just 4 options to choose between.

Though they all sounded delicious I quickly decided on the chargrilled mackerel board which came with lemon and hazelnut cous cous, pickles and a beetroot salad. My friend got the king prawn and cod tempura board was just as good as mine and came with fries instead of cous cous. What I like about these platters is that even between the 4 options everything is different — sides and all — and handpicked to be the perfect accompaniment for the fish or tempura or what not. We shared delicious slaw and a lentil salad between us for the real mega lunch experience. And mega it definitely was:

1. It's seriously wholesome, I left feeling full and satisfied but fresh and healthy. 
2, Actually full is an understatement. 
3. Unlike most lunches out, this one actually feels pretty healthy. No extra fats or oils in sight.
2. The variety of sides meant you didn't crave something extra all afternoon.
3. The mackerel was perfect — chargrilled and smoky on the outside, melt in your mouth in the middle,
4. And at £15, it's surprisingly good value (okay, for special occasion lunches).

Monday, August 11

Birthday [hint]

So now that we're in August I can officially say it's nearly my birthday (err, sly hint). I'm not exactly a kid anymore but it's still okay to get excited and make wishlists, isn't it? I haven't sent out the paper invites and got the party bag supplies ready quite yet but boy, I'm certainly thinking about it. (Remember how good good party bags were?)

Now that I'm tripping around everywhere by bike in London I've realised there's one thing that would make life a lot easier: a backpack. There's a limit to how much I can cram in my basket (or have falling out of my basket every time I go over a speed bump more like) and a bag on the handlebars is just irritating. Hence, a Grafea leather backpack just became a life essential and scored the top spot on this year's birthday list. But which colour?

REVIEW: GB Pizza Co, the most delicate pizzas of all

Another day, another pizza. Yeah, you get it. I. Like. Pizza. It’s the thinner the better for me, with a crispy blown-out crunch which was exactly why I was in my happy place at GB Pizza Co. Their crepe-like pizza bases were so delicate they could barely hold the toppings (granted that might be because I asked for extra feta cheese on my already loaded green vegetable special).  And then for the Prosecco on draught; that alone would have sold it to me.

In the balmy climes of last Friday night, we strolled (read: trekked) along the canal (and then some extra miles, sorry Ed) to Exmouth Market. I love this street; in fact, it’s probably one of my favourites in London because it feels so European with all the tables outside and the twinkling fairy lights hanging above the cobbles. About half-way down GB Pizza Co is an intimate but open-plan little place with raw décor. A handful of small tables and chairs line the wall right down to the bar come register come kitchen, over which is a giant chalk board with the menu written on it. There are no menus on the tables, this is the sort of place that requires a quick decision, there and then at the register. Choose you drink, choose your pizza, pay and sit down.

Let’s talk about the Prosecco, the very awesome Prosecco. GB Pizza Co has Vina Frizzenti on draught with glasses — but more appropriately carafes — available as pouring vessels. For the sheer novelty we got a carafe because I can safely say I’ve never poured my own carafe of bubbles before.

We shared olives and garlic bread to start. With a delicious crispy base thinner than you can imagine, garlicky butter puddled in the 'valleys' of the blown-out dough and dripped unashamedly all over your hands as we ate it. Or, err, scoffed it.  Our pizzas arrived within seconds of finishing our garlic bread, still steaming as we cleaned the butter off our fingers. I went with the veg-heavy special, so my delicate tortilla-like base was loaded with a rich tomato sauce, braised broccoli, peas, asparagus and creamy feta cheese. (So pretty much my dream combo of toppings). Ed got a hotter version, topped with stringy mozzarella, chorizo and seriously spicy chilli.  

If you're craving pizza but not too hungry — or maybe just not wanting to waddle out of the restaurant at the end of the night — GB Pizza Co's pizza are ideal. Not too big nor miserably small, they're thin, light, fresh and manageable, without sacrificing any of the taste. We weren't allowed to leave without trying its famous gelato, so we got the salted caramel which came in a little tub with a plastic spoon, just like you get at the theatre and perfect for sharing as you wander through the dusky buzz of Exmouth Market.

GB Pizza Co.. 50 Exmouth Market, EC1R 4QE; 020 7278 6252.
Square Meal