Category Archives: Restaurants

Getting inventive at MasterChef Live

Lured by the promise of tasting top notch, gourmet food and spotting celeb chefs, I attended the MasterChef Live press breakfast at Olympia, followed by a gander around the exhibition.

Unlike the TV programme, MasterChef Live is aimed at chefs and foodies of all abilities and there are a number of workshops, demonstrations and top tips sessions from the UK’s leading chefs, offering insider tricks and new techniques.

A big highlight of the weekend is the Invention Test, critiqued by John Torode and Gregg Wallace and hosted by Andi Peter.  30 pre-booked competitors will be given just 30 minutes to prepare a dish from a set of unseen ingredients and impress the judges.

Invention test

The first session seemed to get off to a flying start, with the budding chefs toiling away over the stoves at their work stations, although things got a bit precarious when someone’s pan caught fire!

I also saw the rather handsome James Martin (of Ready Steady Cook fame) doing a cookery demonstration and  Theo Randall giving advice on how to make the perfect pasta at the Hot Tips Pod.

At the centre of the exhibition hall is the beautifully designed Restaurant Experience, where you can pick and choose from special lunch menu, created by a variety of London’s top restaurants.  You can sample Hereford Beef and Bashed Neeps at Urban Caprice, a pork belly bridge roll from Roast to Go and vanilla and ginger cheesecake from Boxwood cafe.

dining room

There were exhibitors from all over the UK, from big players like Rachel’s Organic promoting their delicious new toffee and milk chocolate yogurts and The Co-operative to smaller specialised producers like Loopy Lisa’s Fudge and the decadent Bougie Macaron and Tea.

After the copious amount of artisan pastries and coffee at the press breakfast, eating more food wasn’t the first thing on my mind, so I took a few laps around the venue to try and forge a new appetite to taste the food samples on offer (well, that’s why you come, isn’t it)?

My top discovery of the day was Jacc’s Gourmet Coffee flavoured coffee beans.  I bought a small bag of their Irish Cream and Hazelnut roasted beans, which they ground for me, and I’ve been addicted to it since. The beans are flavoured with essential oils, so you get a deep, natural flavour, rather than the aroma disappearing as soon as it hits water.

coffee

In the Producers Village, you can find top cuts of organic meat from Brown Cow Organics, artisan cheeses at Keens Cheddar, authentic American cupcakes from Beverly Hills Bakery and freshly iced oysters from Mersea Oysters and Ale.

oysters

I was also intrigued by the Aladdin’s cave of different varieties of garlic at The Garlic Farm – my choice is usually limited to single or a pack of three!

But Keith Floyd disciples shouldn’t despair, as there’s plenty of booze to sample from producers including Frangelico, Funkin cocktails, Thunder Toffee Vodka, The Bubbly Champagne Company and Chateau Civrac.

garlic

MasterChef LIVE is on this weekend at London’s Olympia (13th – 15th November).  Tickets are priced from £18 and there are a number of packages available.

Get down to the Invention Test, sponsored by Plenty at MasterChef LIVE.  Just like the programme, contestants will need to hone their skills and hold their nerve to create something tantalising with some tough ingredients – and this time in just 30 minutes. Previous TV MasterChef winners will be there as well as formidable duo John Torode and Gregg Wallace – and Brenda & Audrey, the housewives from the Plenty adverts, will even be there to cheer you on! Go to www.plenty.co.uk or www.masterchef.com for more details.

LA pizza in the heart of east London

Pizza East has been on my eaterie radar for quite some time now, so when my mum came down to visit last week, I thought I would make plans and actually book somewhere in the neighbourhood, rather than trawling round Soho in the hope of finding somewhere we both liked.  Ok, my neighbourhood is actually Hackney Central, but the Kingland Road stretch just seems like a hop and a skip away when there’s good food to be had.

We tried to book a table for three and each time I rang, they only had availability for ‘early bird suppers’ at 6.30pm.  However, it was suggested that we’d have more luck if we turn up and wait for a table at the time we wanted to eat.  I guess this is quite a democratic system, as it stops the restaurant being jammed up with bookings for weeks ahead and prevents such pretentions as ‘waiting lists’.

pizza east centre bar

 We were told we would have to wait an hour for a table but they would try to get us seated earlier, although it did end up this long, so we had a bottle of Peroni at the bar. The bar had a great atmosphere and was a veritable ‘who’s who’ of Shoreditch fashion and media types, with Brix Smith-Start buzzing around, waiting for her table.  Despite trying to appear patient and happily lost in conversation, everyone looked so restless that they might have grabbed one of the Italian hams hanging from the ceiling and gnawed away on it there and then. 

So, why is everyone falling over each other to dine at Pizza East when there are plenty of pizza joints in the east end?  Well, it’s the latest venture of Soho House group founder Nick Jones, also the owner of Shoreditch House, directly above Pizza East in the Tea Building (on the corner of Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road. 

pizza east chairs

The pizzas are apparently inspired by the wood-fired sourdough those at LA’s Pizzeria Mozza, with a mix of classic Italian combinations and house speciality pizzas like veal meatballs with sage, lemon, parsley and cream and another with duck sausage, artichoke, parmesan and boschetto al tartufo.

We started with two orders of garlic bread to share, which came on rustic wooden chopping boards. Each potion consisted of two massive hunks of ciabatta oozing delicious garlic butter with fresh parsley, so luckily we didn’t go for one each.

Our waiter was a chatty Italian guy with very cool Ray-Ban glasses, who recommended his personal favourites and came over almost every time he passed to see if we needed anything.

pizza east garlic bread

Next up was the much-anticipated pizza, although the garlic bread and Peroni had mellowed my growling stomach enough not to wolf it down without wild abandon.

I ordered the speck with rocket, my mum went for the portobello mushroom, shallot, parsley and egg, and Steven chose the hottest pizza on the menu so he didn’t have to share (sorry, maybe it’s just a coincidence), which was salami, red onion and red chilli flakes.

The sourdough base was unlike any I’ve ever tried before and had a crisp, bubbly crust and soft but not too flimsy centre. There was a generous covering of smooth tomato sauce made in-house and the most flavoursome mozzarella clustered near the middle. The speck tasted well-matured and the rocket was super fresh and robust – all in all, everything I could have hoped for in a pizza and more.

pizza east pizza

There was a bit of cross-table swappage and I can report that the salami had a much more meaty texture and flavour than the generic, uniformly thin and greasy versions and the portobello mushrooms had a slightly nutty, garlic taste.

Pizza East also claim to source seasonal and local produce, although I’m sure most of the pizza ingredients are imported from Italy, as they taste so authentic.  The guy next to us ordered the most tender and slow-cooked beef cheek, so perhaps the meat and staple ingredients are from home turf.

We were left feeling pretty full after the starter and main meal (rarely would I go for double bread action in one sitting), but it would have been a shame not to try the desserts, so we ordered the salted chocolate caramel tart on the recommendation of our ‘new best friend’ waiter.  It only seems logical that when sharing between three, you go for the richest, most decadent dessert to make up for all that spoon clashing and thimble-sized portions.

The waiter told us we would get a surprise and in fact there were two – our tart was covered in snowflakes of rock salt and we were given a taster of delightful Moscato dessert wine, that was made in the village next to where he was from.

pizza east caramel tart

The salt really complimented the velvety, sweet caramel and dark chocolate and the pastry was exceptional, with a sandy texture that is really hard to achieve.  With the flaked almonds and mascarpone/soured cream, the dessert took on the taste of a really posh dime bar – absolutely delicious!

I expected that due to Pizza East’s location and lineage that it may be somewhat standoffish and have the tense atmosphere of hipsters experiencing carb-guilt (a neurosis I also suffer from at certain strong-willed times of the year).  However, the staff were so welcoming and open and there was a great buzz of everyone getting stuck in Italian-style and chatting freely.  There are also small touches from Shoreditch House such as Cowshed handsoap and lotion in the bathrooms that remind you that it’s not just your regular pizzeria.

I also kind of like the communal dining aspect, as you never know who you could be sat next to, and as I usually end up next to the village nut-job, they’re often keep you entertained.  It did feel like I was sitting on a wooden  toadstool though, so a proper bench or comfy seat wouldn’t go amiss.

pizza east bar

I’m looking forward to Pizza East’s take-out service that’s due to launch in December and I like the idea of having a deli counter where you can buy store cupboard items like oil and sauces, as well as branded products from the restaurant.  I’m also tempted by the charcuterie and cheese boards on offer at the centre bar – great for avoiding the pizza-induced mid-afternoon slump and the tedious queuing.

Not only is Pizza East the most exciting new restaurant in the Shoreditch area, but it has the friendly feel of a neighbourhood restaurant that could quite easily become my ‘local’ for years to come, and that’s not a decision I take lightly!

Pizza East, 56 Shoreditch High Street, London, E1 6JJ

Pizza East on Urbanspoon

Mole Festival at Mestizo

On Monday night I was invited to come and try some delicious authentic Mexican dishes for Mestizo’s Mole Festival and see their elaborate decorations for the dia del muerto (day of the dead). 

Mestizo is one of London’s nine authentic Mexican restaurants and judging by the aroma of spices and sizzling meat, I could tell that the meal was going to top my somewhat ‘creative’ Old El Paso concoctions.

We started by ordering some Margaritas (£7.50)  – I went for a smooth frozen one with just the right balance of sweet and sour while Steven’s ‘on the rocks’ version had one hell of a kick to it.

The mirrored bar has an encyclopedic range of over 125 different brands of tequila from dry blanco to limited-edition premium, which you can rarely find out of Mexico. The tequila used in the Margaritas is casco viejo reposado, a wood toned tequila that has been rested in oak barrels for between 60 days and 11 months – perfect for margaritas.

Margaritas and tortilla chips

Marysol, the co-owner of Mestizo, recommended that on our first visit, we should try the tamales filled with pollo con mole, followed by the Molcajete ‘Mestizo’.

Mole is very time-consuming to make and every Mexican family has their own special recipe, using anything from 20 to 50 ingredients.  It is prepared all day and dished out for weddings, religious holiday, birthdays and funerals.  There is even an old joke that a newly-wed couple’s first argument will be over mole – ‘my mother’s is better than your mother’s’.

The tamales (£5.40) consisted of dense corn husks, steamed in their skin and filled with pollo con mole.  They had a hearty, dense texture and the chicken mole was deliciously slow-cooked and soft.  They were also served with a pot of sour cream on the side, which helped lighten them up.

tamales

Almost every table in the restaurant had ordered the same main course as us and we then understood why – it was the house speciality and was the most impressive-looking dish on the menu.

The Molcajete ‘Mestizo’ is a pot filled with chicken, beef or a mix of both (£14 per person, minimum of 2) with cheese, chorizo, spring onions, cilantro, avocado and mole, served bubbling hot in a stone bowl that looked like a volcanic cauldron.

It came with a selection of flour and corn tortillas, wrapped in a colourful handmade pouch, which you fill with meat, cheese and sauce, roll up and eat like a taco.  The sauce was rich and fiery with strong tomato, chorizo and chilli flavours, as well as subtly blended spices, seeds and nuts, topped off stringy melted cheese and large chunks of vegetables.  We were struggling towards the end, as the pot was just so big, but we polished off all the tortillas, leaving just enough room for dessert.

 Mole

We always end up ordering the same things, perhaps to avoid food envy, but this time we just had to try out two desserts.  Steven went for the Flan Caresro, a Mexican version of crème caramel  with a light cinnamon sauce and strawberries, and I tried the Buñuelos, a large dough fritter with sugar cane syrup and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

flan

The Flan Caresro cool and light but less creamy and vanilla-flavoured than crème caramel  and the Buñuelos was crisp and golden, with the sugar cane syrup providing most of the flavour. We both had our eyes on each other’s desserts, so we swapped plates, much to the amusement of the beyond ‘eccentric’ couple sitting next to us.

dough fritter

Feeling full to the brim and perked up from all the chilli, we met Bryan, the restaurant Manager, who showed us the downstairs lounge bar and all the decorations for the day of the dead.

Marysol told me that the alter is dedicated to her husband’s friend who passed away and on the table is a photo of him as well as all of his favourite things.  There are bottles of tequila, beer, toys, marigolds, a skeleton mariachi band and sugar skulls, shipped in from Mexico.

On the day of the dead, families have a big fiesta with plenty of the deceased’s favourite food and drink, so they know they have returned ‘home’.  Children give each other sugar skulls and the day ends with music and fireworks. 

Skulls

Mestizo are also hosting their first Mole Festival, where you can try one of 12 different varieties each evening.  Mole Poblano is the most well-known, but you can also taste others like Mole Coloradito (a reddish one originaly from Oaxaca), Mole de Tamarindo (a sweet and sour version) and Mole Negro, which is the most difficult to prepare.

You can see many of the ingredients that go into the mole displayed on artisan Mexican plates by the door and there is even a small gourmet section where you can buy authentic Mexican products, in case you fancy testing your own mole mixing skills.

spices

Mestizo’s Mole Festival is an absolute must if you want to try something other than the usual bland Tex Mex-style burritos and fajitas.  The food is outstanding and there are plenty of exciting dishes and specialities on the menu, if you’re already familiar with real Mexican food.  Plus, if you’re a fan of tequila, which I certainly am, then Mestizo is like the holy grail

The staff are warm and friendly and really like to make their own personal recommendations.  You can tell that the owners, Marysol and Adrianna are really proud of their restaurant, and with good reason too!

Mestizo’s Mole Festival is on now until 2 November.  Visit Mestizomx.com for more details.

Mestizo, 103 Hampstead Road, London, NW1 3EL.  T: (020) 7387 4064

Mestizo on Urbanspoon

Chocolate Unwrapped in Mayfair

Sampling some of the world’s finest chocolate in Mayfair sounded like a glorious way to spend a Sunday afternoon, so I headed down to the May Fair Hotel for Chocolate Unwrapped, the first show dedicated solely to delicious cocoa goodness.  It was like entering Marie-Antoinette’s boudoir, with an intoxicating scent of chocolate and tables laden with exquisite morsels and pretty, shiny wrappers – I was in heaven!

chocolate festival

Part of the UK’s Chocolate Week, Chocolate Uncovered featured exhibits from 25 of the country’s most respected and innovative chocolatiers and talks from Rococo founder Chantal Coady, the MD of Hotel Chocolat and Visit Mexico.  Samples were unlimited and plentiful and aside from atempting a full-on sugar coma, you could peruse dessert cookery books from Foyles and admire the incredible chocolate sculptures by renowned artists and chocolatiers.

I adored Rococo’s fragrant earl grey and rose scented chocolate bars, Paul Wayne Gregory’s salted caramels, Pacari’s cocoa nibs and Paul A. Young’s gooey ultimate chocolate fudge brownies.

Chocolate dress

Being the geek that I am, I had to make it an educational trip, so I attended the talk given by Visit Mexico and the co-founder of the authenic Mexican restaurant Mestizo, on the history of chocolate and its importance in Mexican cuisine.

I discovered that cocoa was drunk by the ancient civilisations of Central America, including the Aztec and Maya communities from as early as 2000BC.  It was taken back to the court of Spain in 1527AD and eventually reached England in the 1650s and, like gin, was used for medicinal purposes.

But the main part of the talk was the celebratory role that chocolate plays in Mexican culture – chocolate skulls are exchanged like Valentine’s roses on the Day of the Dead and mole (pronounced ‘molay’) is laboriously prepared for weddings, funerals and religious holidays.

mole

Mole is an aromatic sauce that usually accompanies different kinds of meat and is created using a blend of onion, garlic, tomatilla, dried chilli, nuts, seeds, spices and of course, chocolate.  There are many different kinds of mole originating from various regions in Mexico, all with different colours and flavours.

We sampled the brown Mole Poblano, slow-roasted with chicken and it was one of the most complex, flavoursome sauces I’ve ever tasted.  It reminds me a lot of my favourite Iranian dish, Fesen Joon – a textured sauce made from ground walnuts and pomegranate molasses and served with chicken.

Chocolate Unwrapped’s chocolatiers will be hosting a series of talks, tasting sessions and demonstrations around London for Chocolate Week.  There will be also chocolate-themed afternoon teas and set menus at selected restaurants as part of London Restaurant Festival.

Chocolate Week runs from 12-18 October and events will be held at venues across London.  Check out  www.chocolate-week.co.uk for more details.

Afternoon tea at Yauatcha

Earlier this week, the lovely Sheena Appadoo from Aramis invited me for afternoon tea at Yauatcha.  Sheena keeps me in delightful scents and replaced my summer daily staple of DKNY Be Delicious Fresh Blossom with the richer, Autumnal DKNY Women limited edition scent in gold and bright purple – I’m addicted already!

Back to Yauatcha, I’d already tried the macaroons from their patisserie and my favourite is the champagne flavour embellished with goldleaf, but I was excited to sample ‘the full works’ in the tea room. 

Yauatcha

The michelin starred dim sum restaurant and tea house, created by Alan Yau (he who launched Wagamama and Hakkasan) looks more like a boutique from the outside and is an oasis of calm with low seating, blossom-embroidered banquettes and blue-tinted facades half concealing the kitchen.

There are three types of afternoon tea available and we ordered the Oriental Afternoon Tea for one (£24.50) to share, which comes with a selection of dim sum instead of sandwiches.  I chose a pot of Darjeeling First Flush from a huge range of teas including blue, green, black and white tea.

 The dim sum selection included a baked venison puff, char sui bun and scallop siu mai – the former two were tasty but unusually sweet. I’m always more excited about the cakes and they didn’t disappoint!  There was a layer of sweet sandwiches – a bright pink rasberry and lychee jelly filling packed between layers of fine sponge and one with vanilla sponge and bitter chocolate ganache.

Yauatcha

The top layer resembled a mini version of the patisserie counter and included a rich chocolate macaroon, a lemon and cola tartlet, chocolate chip marshmallow, chocolate financier, a piece of shortbread and a shot of apple and kiwi mousse.

Just as I had worked my way through the sugary layers, then came two mountainous scones (one Matcha green tea flavoured and one plain) with a tray full of oriental jams and mascarpone cream – I was defeated!  From other reviews, I’ve discovered that had we managed to wolf these down too, there were still flavoured marshmallows, mini chocolate slabs and truffles to come!

The service was unobtrusive and we were served at a steady pace, although this should be the case, as we went on a quiet weekday afternoon.

Yauatcha

The only criticism is that they won’t box up the left items to take away, due to ‘health and safety’.   At many afternoon tea establishments like Pret-a-Portea at The Berkeley, they package up what you can’t eat for you to munch on at home. It’s no biggie though, just take a paper napkin with you and drop a scone or two into your handbag, in case you get peckish on the bus.

You can of course go to Yauatcha for a simple pot of tea and a cake from the patisserie, but the Oriental Afternoon Tea is perfect for sampling a little bit of everything in exquisite surroundings and believe me, it’s more than worth it!

Yauatcha, 15-17 Broadwick Street, Soho, London W1F 0DL

Yauatcha on Urbanspoon

A life in mono

Glasgow is vegan cafe central, but mono is the only one that can keep my sworn carnivore friends happy with their exceptionally delicious veggie burgers and homebrewed pink lemonade.

Mono

Mono is the kind of place where you can waste away an afternoon drinking organic beer on the sofas, swapping a book at their library exchange or getting crafty at one of their regular Stitch and Bitch events.  It’s in a quiet, rogueish part of town, down by the Clyde and just far enough from trendy Merchant City and Argyll Street’s uninspiring shops.

The soundtrack is provided by in-house record store Monorail, which has an amazing mix of records and CDs from every Scottish indie album you could ever want to antifolk, glitchy electro and obscure film scores.  At night, mono turns into a gig venue with a tiny stage that has seen all the greats like Arab Strap and Belle and Sebastian and now plays host to the kind of bands on Domino and ATP Recordings, oh and their own jazz night.

Monorail

But more about the amazing, wholesome vegan food!  If Stella McCartney has got you into Meat Free Monday, then you’re in for a treat – 3 delectable course for £10, all day Monday.

On the menu are Indian or Greek platters and thai stirfrys, a variety of tapas and snacks like crostini with aubergine and chilli.  My longtime hangover cure was a veggie burger with spicy chips and garlic mayo, but if you’re after total obliteration, go for the Big Mono (£7.50) – it’s a burger with the full works, chips and a side salad.

Mono home-brewed beer

Mono is lucky to have some pretty good neighbours, with treasure trove vintage shop Mr Ben just two doors down and 13th Note across the road. The only problem is, it’s kind of hard to tear yourself away!

Mono, 12 Kings Court, Glasgow, G1 5RB

Raval resto

Eating in Barcelona tends to centre around ‘mini meals’  – a selection of delicious tapas or informal pincho (generously-sized canapes on cocktail sticks) at the bar with a glass of wine or beer.  There aren’t many authentic pincho bars in London that I’m aware of, so my holiday diet tends to consist of moreish croquettes, tortilla, chorizo and serano ham on pieces of toasted bread, and that usually suits me fine for about 2 meals.

However, the amazingly rich mixture of flavours can become a little overwhelming and the anti-social side of me eventually finds sharing slightly irksome. Craving something simple and filling, le mec and I came across Pizza Ravalo, a small restaurant on a quiet square in, you guessed it, Upper Raval.

Pizza Ravalo has the unhurried feel of a neighbourhood restaurant and it’s a bit romantic
The pizzas are superthin and like all the best pizzerias, the flour (and indeed the chef) has been imported from Naples.
Ravalo

Pizza Ravalo

Pizza Ravalo, Plaça Emili Vendrell 1, 08001 Barcelona
Metro: Sant Antoni