Archive for the ‘restaurants’ Category

I’m slowly, surely, resolutely and absolutely regaining lost advantage.  Time was, before my extended colonial (felt more like colonic) exile, the waiting warriors of the Wong Kei on Wardour Street actually recognised me: at my appearance in the doorway their faces broke into smiles, I was greeted with hellos AND priority seating – even on Saturday nights with the 4-storey stairwell sardined floor to ceiling with bridge-and-tunnelers.

And why?  My extravagant beauty and boundless charm of course; or ponder this: maybe it was because I was a regular punter and – this is important – I always tip at the Wong Kei (nothing beats cold cash & coin at melting inscrutable hearts).  And I do believe if any waiters deserve a tip it’s these dudes: brusquely efficient, they’re too busy working to tell me their names, spiel out the specials (there are none) or inform me fatuously that they’ll be my waiter for the evening, but I have never known them to be rude.  When my teapot needs replenishing it’s done with neither wave nor word required – talk about discreet – and our food arrives hot to trot: nothing gets to hang around the dumb waiter here.
A plate of fried kwai due - fresh rice noodles - at the Wong Kei on Wardour Street
I love eating at the Wong Kei; it’s good, it’s cheap and the streetwise professionalism of the waiters is pure entertainment when one’s companions are not.  And if your Soho Saturday night is shaping up on the dull side, just try walking out of here without paying – you’ll suddenly be the (anti-)hero of your own little Jackie Chan movie, only without the humour.  Or Jackie Chan.  I saw two hicks attempt such a dirty trick one busy but not-so lucky night (for them); the mix of militaristic precision and street-brawl outrage with which the waiters shot into active response was poetry in motion – and with all their shouting it was thrilling indeed.  Actually, don’t try this; just believe me or you will regret it and I have no idea if you’ll live to tell the tale, but I rather hope you won’t.

Instead, ingénues and interested others take note of my tips for a trip to the Wong Kei:

  1. indicate how many in your party immediately on arrival
  2. obey directions and go where you’re told – upstairs for couples & groups
  3. sit where you’re told – you will probably be sharing a table with strangers
  4. first check the menu in the window then don’t dither over it inside
  5. be adventurous; if you pick something too weird (or too much!) they’ll tell you
  6. shun the set menus – they’re not as good value
  7. drink the tea: it’s free whereas the alcohol can be warm (no ice provided)
  8. don’t ask for sugar or milk, it’s embarrassing and you won’t get them
  9. ask if you must for a fork, or (preferably) learn chopsticks
  10. flip the lid & keep it open for a teapot top-up/replacement
  11. avoid the washrooms if you can on a busy night
  12. LEAVE A TIP! show your appreciation or go elsewhere

crispy ducks and Wardour Street reflected in a Chinese restaurant window, Soho

41-43 Wardour Street, London, W1D 6PY
020 7437 8408

approx £5 per head depending on appetite, obviously

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parmesan custard with anchovy toastOh joy! Today’s FT features Rowley Leigh sharing his wit, wisdom and, best of all, the recipe for this hot hors d’oeuvre, the talk of London town since the opening of his raved-over restaurant Le Café Anglais, which, I see, now has a visit-worthy website.
Touching to read Rowley got his inspiration for this dish from watching Rick Stein on TV; so much joy in one little weekend.

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Thunderclap followed by dramatic downpour started our first full day with a bang and skewered all tanning plans – but what on earth to do in a vacation-villa ghetto with no sunshine?  There’s this:
Rainy day on holiday
or the teeming toddlers’ activity club (no pics natch) but I’m not short enough, so once the clouds had shed their motherload we plodded north to Ciutadella. The 2km walk was slower but more interesting than taking a bus as we got to smell the landscape and discovered this domestic scene.Domestic pigs in Menorca
That’s daddy pig in the foreground (¡cuales cojones!), separated from his wife, girlfriend and countless scurrying offspring (those little shapes in the background) by a sturdy wall.  Everything in the compound had acquired a uniform ruddiness from the red earth in which they snuffle so they’re hard to spot (no pun intended).
Ciutadella Town Hall atop harbour wall
Like a corny movie, sunshine broke through as we arrived at Ciutadella harbour and the unmistakably Spanish scent of seafood and garlic a-sizzle in olive oil wafted on the breeze.   Strolling by a strip of restaurants nestling along the foot of the old city wall we noticed a number were recommended by our excellent guide book but didn’t fancy their uniform demeanour, nor sitting in the shade for that matter.Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca after our lunch
Just the other side of the bridge we spot Café Balear – set apart and empty.  None too promising, when all the other places are populated, but a seat in the sun and good reviews sits us down.  And then the real holiday begins: our waiter recites the appetizing menu del dìa; we pick cigale carpaccio and cod alioli for T; pimentos relleños and hake for me, and what a treat they turn out to be:
Carpaccio de cigalo at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
pimentos rellenos de bacalao at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
Cod with alioli at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
hake with potatoes and piquillos at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella, Menorca
I let these pictures speak for themselves, only adding that everything was spankingly fresh and flavoursome (pimentos obviously stuffed in-house) and the presentation perfect for my tastes – burnishing the alioli was an aesthetic nicety which I shall try at home. Ok, so I envied T his tasty extras: migas-stuffed tomato and a wee filo parcel of spinach with pine nuts and raisins but was happy with my hake and well satisfied.table on the terrace at Cafe Balear, Ciutadella harbour, Menorca
A bottle of crisp house white (Penedès again), perfectly chilled with ice bucket, stand and napkin allowed us to take our time; as we progressed through our meal the place filled up – to bursting – and we felt pretty smug to be watching people queue for a table.
People queuing for lunch at Cafe Balear
Don’t often do dessert but I’m never churlish if it’s included in the price, so ever authenticity-oriented I opted for almond cake over apple pie and T mentioned

you’ve had one crème caramel you’ve had them all

as his excuse for trying the same. Good choice, Canadian…
almond cake dessert at Cafe Balear

Service was laudably professional, efficient and friendly despite the fact the place was packed.  Highly recommended, but do arrive early or book ahead.

Menu del dìa: €17 pp  bottle house white: €10

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Great view, not such great food

Sa Nacra restaurant/bar, Santandria cove, Menorca, looking west
So we fetched up at Sa Nacra, a waterside bar/restaurant in (or on) Cala Santandria on both our first and last days in Menorca.  I suspect we ordered the wrong things, but I got the idea the setting is so perfect nobody feels they have to pay much attention to the quality of the fare on offer.  Talking about the wrong thing to order…

hamburger, sausage, egg & chips at Sa Nacra, Menorca…bless his heart; to the left we have hamburger, sausage, egg and chips in time-honoured transport caff greasy spoon style. It’s a good thing Mr T dislikes ketchup as there was none; just a cruet of salt & pepper, oil & vinegar. The vinegar’s always good in Spanish territory, though.

Having awakened at 3 am to catch our Balearic-bound sardine torpedo, T found it satisfying, surprising, but not exactly exciting. And being Canadian he was kind of expecting a bun…

platter of local sausages and cheese, Sa Nacra, MenorcaEyes right for another kind of surprise: my platter of local sausages and cheese(“s”) – before a bite taken.  No garnish, nor much generosity there.  Ah well, at top right two niggardly slices of queso mahon, and reasonably fresca at that because it was ok but bland. Gnawing clockwise, next lies salchichon, pink and slightly garlicky – Spanish salami. Then the most interesting item, morcilla; black pudding (or blood sausage if you must) – thankfully European-style so it didn’t taste like blood-soaked fruitcake, but subtly spiced and savoury; probably bound with rice and featuring the odd fennel seed to lift any heaviness.  Last of all comes sobrassada; essentially the Balearic version of chorizo – no mistaking that tell-tale orange-hue of paprika pimentón.  Good, but not a gastronomic highlight either.

pa amb tomat, at Sa Nacra, Menorca

For us francophiles the lack of automatic bread was a bit of a quandary – in Menorca we discover its presence is unpredictable – so, keeping true to my mission to eat local, I ordered another island speciality: pa amb tomàquet.  It’s supposed to be country bread toasted over a flame, rubbed with tomato and garlic and doused in olive oil.  Which it was, after a fashion, but you can take the country out of bread just like you can take bread out of the country.  Remember dutch crispbakes?  Squish a tomato into one of those and then take the tomato away – voilà!  Certainly edible on 3 hours sleep when washed down with a bottle of cherry-red rosado de casaPenedès I think; in a cooler bucket without ice so we were compelled to drink it fast to drink it cool: a far from odious chore in all that sunshine…

…and for us just arrived from chilly grey England the view was sheer delight: water so clear you can see all the way to the bottom, fish idling below, seabirds wheeling above, all eager for overboard crumbs.  view from Sa Nacra towards Santandria
In my enthusiasm for peering into the depths I tipped the bench and almost launched myself overboard – crumbs!  Rather wish I had though, as Sa Nacra is well-appointed with ladder up and out plus open-air shower, but preferred are plunges from their diving board.

his: €7.25 mine: €4.50 bread: €1.50 wine: €10


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Cala Santandria

You’d have thought that with all the plodding around I might have slimmed down a bit, but as there’s no setting out foot without gastro attached and with Spanish temptations tickling an ever-ready appetite, we ate fabulously, well and mediocrely; never badly : with some judicious shopping and despite the facilities even eating in was pretty good – and filling.

We brought back (and therein lie a few tales):

  • gin for the gent
  • a quarter ham (need a bigger wallet and suitcase for a whole one)
  • queso semi-curado
  • sobrassada
  • wild fennel
  • yema tostada turrón – already nearly all gone!
  • no tacky touristy belt but avarcas – traditional, practical leather sandals with soles made from used tyres – worn by the locals and totally eco-fab, baby.

Avarcas, or Abarcas; artisanal leather sandals from Menorca

A few things we learned:

  • Hispanic ham & Iberian eggs are always good
  • Gin is not always good
  • mayonnaise comes from Mahón
  • prickly heat strikes suddenly
  • Menorca is a blissful Balearic alternative to party-hearty Ibiza – hardly a teenage tourist in sight
  • Menorca is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – wild flowers and plants get to do their own thing, birdies are protected, developments restricted and it’s all the better for all that
  • Menorca has 216 km of coastline and 14 000 km of dry stone walls
  • if you know a bit of French or Italian, you’ll get by in Menorquí (or use Spanish!)
  • earplugs and a compact umbrella are travel essentials

We sniffed out the quietest piglets on earth the other side of one of those dry stone walls and perched on tip-toe to say hello every time we plodded by en route to the DISKONT supermarket or Ciutadella.  This is one of their mothers.  I waited for her to stop tinkling before taking a snap but she just didn’t; good for her.

 Ciutadella Sow, Menorca

I only wish I’d known Mahón (that’s Maó in Català) airport has a jamón bar next to Departure Gate 16 before I purchased my (admittedly fairly delish thanks to the piquillo peppers and olives) tuna mediterraneo baguette: a platter of Ibérico ham plus a couple of glasses of Rioja would have made a preferable adiós, amigos, but the silent T had already joined the queue at Burger King for his bacon-double-cheese fix so I perused the shopping selection and sighed.  Well, at least it wasn’t McD’s.

There’s plenty more to tell but I must gather my thoughts, edit my pics and do my laundry.  Give me a day or two; until then, hasta la vista…

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Gazpacho, Spanish summer soup
Sorry folks – no new posts for a short while as I’m off to a (we hope) quiet corner of the Balearics.  Following a bit of research on its gustatory specialities this is what I’m hoping to plunder:

  • hierba for the lady
  • gin for the gent
  • a whole ham for slicing
  • queso Mahón for dicing
  • sobrasada for the larder
  • wild fennel for fish & products porky – ubiquitous on Ibiza but Mr T threw out my fagot, damnit

and while I’m there I’m looking forward to eating ensaimadas, scoffing coca and tucking into tons of tasty tapas and if I have the time, finding a handsome leather belt (not for eating). 

I’m not lugging my laptop there and back – we’re on a charter flight for heaven’s sake – so comments will have to bide their time until my return.

In the hope that the sun shines brightly enough to make a lycopene boost imperative, I bring you my easy yet delicious version of:

modified from Paula Wolfert’s version in her Mediterranean Cooking
(a terrific book now sadly out of print)Big Tom spiced tomato juice

  • 750 ml (1½ pints) tomato juice
  • 1 green pepper, chopped
  • ½ cucumber, peeled and chopped
  • 2 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped
  • ½ clove garlic, peeled & microplaned (or crushed)
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • ice cubes, salt & pepper

Pour 250 ml tomato juice into a blender; add the rest of the vegetables and buzz at high speed until smooth.  Pour into a wide shallow (preferably Spanish earthenware) serving bowl and use the rest of the tomato juice to thin down the gazpacho if necessary.  If it’s overpoweringly tomoto-ey add a few ice cubes instead.  Stir in vinegar and oil, season lightly and chill for a couple of hours. 

Check and adjust seasoning and oil/vinegar balance.  Serve annointed with droplets of good olive oil and chopped green and/or chilli pepper, spring onion or chives or coriander, croûtons and/or fresh bread on the side.  If the weather’s really hot (fingers crossed!) extra ice cubes will be most welcome.

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One (mental) escape from the enforced trogloditism (yes that’s my word) of this year’s Whitsun Bank Holiday might be via a 2 minute video in The Times travel section: that suavely sincere and sincerely suave Raymond Blanc tucked into a pink bib while explaining and demonstrating that classic and exclusive Mediterranean dish, bouillabaisse, in a location just to the east of Nice on the Côte d’Azur.

If Raymond himself fails to delight (hardly likely), pay a cyber-visit to his venue – the fabulous Coco Beach restaurant – for a quick fix of Riviera deluxe.  No wonder he’s smiling.

It’s such an old saw that bouillabaisse can be made only with local rockfish that I shan’t labour the point here.  Mind you, with French fisherman stunt pulling once more I’ve a good mind to hire myself a speedboat and raid their waters of every loup, lotte, rouget and rascasse I can find.  Just need a bit of marine diesel…

Until such time, I am willing to share my delightful version using chicken in place (no pun intended) of fish:

Pouillabaisse™ aka Chicken BouillabaisseHenri Bardouin pastis
serves 4

  • 8 boneless chicken thighs, skinned and cut in large chunks
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 2 bulbs fennel, chunked – keep fronds for garnish
  • 1 clove garlic, sliced fine
  • generous pinch of saffron
  • a sprig of thyme, 2 bay leaves
  • 1 tin of tomatoes (whole or chopped, whatever is on hand)
  • generous slug of pastis
  • 1 litre or so chicken stock
  • 500g waxy or new potatoes, peeled and chunked
  • olive oil

We want to keep the flavours pure and clear, so in a large cast iron casserole and over a medium heat, soften the onion and fennel in 2 tablespoons olive oil.  After about 5 minutes add the garlic, saffron, thyme and bay leaves then pop the chicken pieces on top.

Sprinkle over the pastis then add half of the tomatoes with their juice (break them up with your wooden spoon if using whole).  Add the potatoes and pour over sufficient chicken stock to almost cover the chicken and vegetables, then decide whether to add the rest of the tomatoes.  We’re making a bouillabaisse here, and with the price of fennel and saffron we’re in polite company, so mustn’t allow the tomato to shout down the other flavours.  Think visually – more yellow than red.  If you think the tomato is in danger of taking over the party, top up with chicken stock.  If not, add the rest of the tomatoes and top up with stock to barely cover.

Bring to the gentlest simmer, cover and cook for between 30 minutes and an hour until chicken and potatoes are cooked through.  There should be plenty of liquid, so serve in shallow bowls, sprinkled with a dash of good olive oil and the chopped fennel fronds.

A homemade rouille sets it off perfectly.  Recipe coming soon…

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chinese takeaway

Something to cheer up a wet, wild and windy Bank Holiday Monday: lurid splashes of colour in a plateful of home counties Chinese food hot-footed to the door. This Kandinskyesque car crash of a palette is Menu A, consisting of (clockwise from top): Kung Po Pork, Chicken with Mixed Vegetables, Beef with Oyster sauce and Special Fried Rice (I’ll never understand what’s so special about it) and at 10 o’clock we see an extra of my perennial fave: Singapore Fried Noodles.

My truly favourite dish, on which I could gladly subsist, is to be found only at the wonderful Wong Kei on Wardour Street in London’s Soho: Fried Kwai Du. Made with fresh wide rice noodles and lots of chillies, for £3.80 it puts all those timidly spiced and overly oily vermicelli wannabes to shame. Only the Wong Kei doesn’t deliver to Kent – or anywhere for that matter.

Missing from the picture are the comet-like Crispy Fried Won Tons (too quickly snarfed) and a battering ram of a Spring Roll which I wisely passed to Mr T: it rendered him prostrate for the remainder of the day.  It’s nice that complimentary prawn crackers and fortune cookies are becoming de rigeur, but whatever happened to the pithy motto?  This has to be the wordiest ever:

fortune cookie motto
The delivery boy was our only visitor and hardly unexpected, but I do like chillies.

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Steak frites
Wine stocks were getting perilously low and with no trip to Nice on the horizon and a brief interlude between French workers’ strikes, time was ripe for a quick jaunt to Calais. A choppy crossing each way rendered walking about a poor idea, so on the return leg, for just under £20 I enjoyed a proper dinner with good wine, starched napery, professional waiter service and sea views in a sanctuary from the staggering hordes.  With perfect timing too: we docked at Dover just as I washed down an espresso with the last of the San Pellegrino.

Being insufficiently hungry for the £15 2-course deal I opted for the £11 pièce du boucher (unidentified steak) with 3-peppercorn sauce and chips.  It came quickly, was cooked as requested, reasonably tender and tasty;  pretty good in the circumstances.  Even better was the half bottle of Chapoutier Côtes du Rhone at £6.  All in all it made the 90 minute ferry ride sheer pleasure for once: well done, SeaFrance.

A motley assortment of Good Things to buy in (northern) France

  • Dijon mustard
  • Marseille soap
  • fruit tarts (pack carefully)
  • Guérande salt
  • an enamelled cast iron pot
  • boudin blanc
  • Belgian endive
  • tomatoes (Summer only)
  • garlic plaits
  • espadrilles (Summer only)
  • cheese
  • frozen flageolet beans
  • crates of oysters (Winter only)
  • interesting non-alcoholic apéritifs
  • pastis
  • wine, wine, wine and more wine (French only, please)

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell which end is speaking

There should be stringent laws, licensing laws, to make sure produce is only used in season and season only

Does anybody actually know how to legislate seasonality, especially with all this climate change going on?

Can we assume that Petrus, the Boxwood Café, maze and all the other gaffs in his empire serve seasonal produce exclusively?

And if it’s true that Britain has become

 a nation of lazy eaters who followed trends and fads rather than substance

is not the celebrity chef culture, which he exploits mercilessly to be one of its biggest beneficiaries, at least partly to blame?

Don’t get me wrong, I know what he’s driving at, and I do agree with him in principle and over the sorry turn Delia has taken, and about plastic bags, but does he have to be so bombastic?  Perhaps his bookings are down…oh! no!  well waddayaknow; he has a new series of The F word starting up next week.

Now, if he started a campaign against bad language and bullying we’d really be talking.

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