Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Sunday Lunch with J and L

It seems that A and C have done a lot of catering (or at least cooking with others) recently but last weekend A and C were treated to a meal with new Kiwi friends J and L. Neither A nor C had to touch a thing - a treat in itself - but doubly so when the food that J and L produced was as good as it was. We know that L in particular was worried about us blogging about her 'simple Sunday lunch', but what was produced was so good it deserves to have its praises sung.

J and L know about the blog, and L also knows we have a bit of a thing for Middle Eastern food. As they live in an area of North London which is full of Greek Cypriot and Turkish shops, they decided to make the most of the local delis and rustle up some stuff from the eastern Med.

The main event was an Ottolenghi recipe from his Jerusalem cook book, starring lamb mince, pine nuts, spices, baked eggs and tomatoes. This kind of thing is right up A and C's street, and while we don't own any Ottolenghi cook books, C is avidly following his current TV series on Channel 4. For those of you who have never really experienced Ottolenghi food, it's a delight. The presentation and method of cooking is often fairly rustic - Yotam and Sami aren't into fancy reductions or fiddly decorations - but the flavours are always interesting and intense. Moreover, the food is often a riot of colour, using the fruits, vegetables and spices of the Near East to maximum effect. J and L's lamb was a perfect example of this: deep reds and greens shone out from among the two-tone browns of the lamb and pine nuts, making for a very attractive pan, which was brought to the table.

J and L's un-baa-lievable baked lamb

The dish was garnished with coriander, sumac and a drizzle of sour yoghurt, combining tahini, natural yoghurt and lemon juice. A absolutely loves cooking with tahini: it's bitter on its own, but sesame paste can add a wonderful depth of flavour to lots of things, and is one of the ingredients that gives Levantine food its distinctive taste and texture. Sumac is another one of these quintessentially Middle Eastern flavours, and the yoghurt and sumac combo left the dish tasting very authentic indeed!
 
Condiments with ingredients sauced from the local delis

The lamb was accompanied by a delicious side dish of grilled halloumi and lambs tongue lettuce salad, garnished with a home-made caramelised onion relish. Once again, the flavours were fantastic. A and C are huge fans of halloumi and J and L had cooked it to perfection. There is always a risk of over-cooking this cheese: halloumi can go rubbery and squeak between your teeth as you chew, but this pitfall had been skillfully avoided. The cheese was warm and literally melted in the mouth. This was complemented by the crunch of the fresh leaves, and the saltiness of the cheese contrasted strongly with the sweetness of the relish.

Hot cheese salad (we couldn't think of a corny pun!)

In case that wasn't enough, J and L had made some bulgur wheat, which they'd cut with a variety of spices. The result was that when lunch was served, the plate was a riot of colour and texture, which looked absolutely brilliant. The main course didn't last very long, as all four of us immediately got stuck in.

In-spreadible!

J and L were also right on the money with the dessert: they adapted a Delia recipe for lemon tart. C was satisfied with the tart in the lemon department - in contrast to Cigalon -  though L pointed out that it was maybe a little too sour for some. Like the main however, it lasted barely a few minutes as each of us had firsts and promptly returned for seconds. J and L had in fact made two identical tarts; while our eyes said yes, our stomachs said no and in the end our better judgement won out over our latent gluttony (we left L to take the tart into work, where apparently it didn't last the morning!).

Mmmmm...Delia-licious!

J and L are relatively new friends and happily, we discovered over lunch that they're foodies in much the same vein as us. We spent a good while lounging around J and L's flat talking about food, travel and politics. We also got so far as to plan a couple of further culinary adventures together: a return dinner party leg at A's flat in the Docklands and an adventure to Pitt Cue Co - both of which A and C are looking forward to and will no doubt blog about.

On the honey

We had thought about going to Hampstead Village to stroke the reindeer, get charity mugged by A's parents and drink some mulled wine (there was some kind of Crimbo event going on) but as afternoon turned to evening, we'd spent so much time chatting we'd missed the whole thing. We left full, a little sozzled and very grateful to J and L for their brilliant hospitality and spread. We're going to have to get our thinking caps on for when J and L trundle down to the Docklands in the near future...The pressure's on!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Cigalon

A & C both currently work at the western edge of the City of London, which means that from time to time we can grab a casual lunch out together (we did this at the awesome Pie Minister not too long ago), or sometimes we push the boat out and go for a nice weekday dinner. Last week, we checked out the lovely Cigalon; just around the corner from our respective offices, it presented a good opportunity for a bit of pampering after a hard day's work. A is a not-so-closet Francophile (having lived and worked there for a while) and was particularly keen to get involved working his way through a French menu. C on the other hand, was a little worried that French food was too 'fussy' for her and needed some convincing, so we set out to see if that could be done.

As a brief aside, we popped down to Cigalon after booking through Lime and Tonic. A relatively new website which is well worth checking out, it gives its users access to hand-picked experiences in their local cities. Experiences include culinary experiences, private social events, weekend getaways and the odd adrenalin-junkie activity too. Think of the site like a Groupon, but with almost every listing being something that you'd actually be interested in, and you get the idea.  

C's cannelloni, with garlic froth

Cigalon is a lovely Provençal restaurant housed in a former auction house on Chancery Lane, tucked around the back of the Royal Courts of Justice. The surroundings are very tasteful, with high ceilings, light decor, scallop shaped booths, leafy green plants and lots of mirrors creating a feeling of brightness and space. Happily, good things did not stop with the decor, as the meal turned out to be excellent as well.

One of the nice things about the place is the attention to detail, the presentation of the bread and the olive tapenade served up as a kind of 'amuse gueule'. C doesn't like olives, which is just as well, since A tore his way though the little dish of tapenade in less than minutes: a testament to how good it was.


Bread and olives


A and C turned to the set menu, but picked a variety of different things. A started with a Jerusalem artichoke velouté (essentially a frothy soup), which was excellent: the flavour of the artichokes came through beautifully and the consistency was wonderfully light. C went for the salsify barigoule salad with a poached egg. This is a pretty ambitious take on a south French classic (usually made with artichokes and traditionally with a special type of mushoom as well - though these are often left out these days) and C was pleased to say it came up trumps, though she was slightly bemused as to why the egg turned up hard boiled rather than poached.

The mains were equally good and pretty inventive, too. A's silver mullet with lentil and beetroot ragôut was perfectly cooked and jam-packed with flavour. While the fish was excellent, delicately cooked with a wonderfully crispy skin, it was the ragôut that stole the show for A: the earthy flavours of the lentils and the beets complemented each other wonderfully and stood in real contrast to the fish. C's canneloni looked excellent but, due to the overwhelming presence of chard (something A cannot stand), he can only pass on C's comments - which were pretty positive. C described what she had as well balanced, with the light creaminess of the sauce temperting the strong flavour of the chard.

C's salsify barigoule salad

Both A and C opted for the lemon crème brûlée. C commented to A that this was not lemony enough, but this needs to be taken in context - she's the sort of person who sucks lemons for fun. A is less extreme, and found the balance of sweet and sour to be absolutely on the mark. The top was also wonderfully crisp, cracking audibly upon first contact with the spoon, just as crème brûlée ought to.


The menu

If we have onc criticism, it would be the after dinner tea and coffee. C's tea came out almost laughably weak and A's coffee was not the best. Sadly, both remained unfinished on the table. However, by the end of the evening, C was convinced that - fussy though it is - French food is worth a bash after all. As for Cigalon, with the exception of the coffee, the restaurant is very good indeed: the food is French themed without being overly fancy, and inventive without being weird. In short, it was a great introduction to French food for C, and A thoroughly enjoyed a rare posh meal out on a school night.

The crème brûlée

Featured Content: But for the tea, coffee and service charge, A and C did not pay for the meal at Cigalon. A and C enjoyed the meal at Cigalon courtesy of Lime and Tonic and did not accept additional payment for this post.

Monday, 26 November 2012

C Bakes... Mars Bar Slices

When A and C decided upon a 'children's party' theme for A's recent birthday celebrations (as mentioned in our recent post), both set about pondering what to bake. Alongside old favourites (yoghurt cake, and the like) and tea party classics (cucumber sandwiches, jelly and ice cream), both also decided that anything with rice krispies in epitomises children's party food.

While we both proposed stepping away from the standard chocolate-covered rice krispie cakes that we'd enjoyed in our childhood, there was a bit of a debate in what we should do instead: A demanded Toffee and Marshmallow Squares, while C was adamant that Mars Bar Slices were the way to go. A & C are both extremely stubborn people (ahem), and such was the stand-off between the two that there was only one answer: make both, and have a rice krispie bake-off.



We're pleased to say both were raging successes; you can read about A's Toffee and Marshmallow Squares here, but C is going to indulge herself by talking about her Mars Bar Slices here.

C first discovered Mars Bar Slices while at university; they were sold daily in a small café in the Humanities block next to her lecture theatres, and 'a cup of tea and a Mars slice' turned into a dangerously unhealthy habit. She loves them, but they're so hard to find anywhere these days; probably because they're ridiculously bad for you, but so good in small doses.

Gooey, sticky and almost sinfully delicious, the rice krispies are coated in melted mars bars and golden syrup (imagine that - mmm) and then topped with a layer of melted chocolate, also mixed with chunks of mars bar. Delicious.



Without further ado then, here's the recipe - thoroughly recommended:

Ingredients
  • 4 x 53g Mars Bars, chopped into small chunks
  • 1 tbsp golden syrup
  • 50g butter
  • 60g rice krispies
  • 200g milk chocolate
A note here: this will make 20-25 fairly thin slices, so if you want them a little thicker or want bigger portions, we suggest doubling the ingredients.

Method:
  1. Grease and line the base and side of a 19 x 29cm baking tray with baking paper. Pop the baking paper in the tray and allow the sides to overhang.
  2. Mix the butter, golden syrup and three of the Mars Bars in a medium saucepan over low heat. Cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes (or until the Mars Bars and butter melt and mixture is smooth). Remove from the heat.
  3. Place the rice krispies and the remaining Mars Bar in a bowl. Add the other Mars Bar mixture and stir until it's well combined. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pan and use the back of a spoon to smooth the surface. Set aside for 1 hour to cool completely (or pop into the fridge for 30 minutes).
  4. Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan half-filled with simmering water and stir until chocolate melts. Pour chocolate over the top of the slice to evenly coat. Set aside for 30 minutes to set. Important: take a moment to lick all the remaining milk chocolate from the bowl before washing up. Cut into squares to serve, and watch your friends snap them up at an alarming rate!
  Enjoy!

Friday, 23 November 2012

A Children's Party for Grown-Ups

Parties are fun, of that there is no doubt. Parties, it turns out, are even more fun when you let your inner child run rampant, especially (as in A and C's dual cases) when you have a particularly vociferous inner child.

It was A's birthday some while back and, as the Nigerian trips scuppered any chance of a birthday party in October, it was rescheduled for last weekend. A and C have hosted a number of "bring a mug" parties, so called because A's Docklands flat only has four mugs and there's never enough to go around. These parties have a theme, and this one was themed "a children's party".



For this, we really pushed the boat out. If you check out the twitpics we post from time to time via our feed @SlightlyPeckish, you'll see what we made. In a nutshell, the menu was consisted of Mamani's Iranian yoghurt cake (this is turning into a fixture of our parties - it's so popular we almost cannot not bake one any more); Rice Krispie squares; Mars slices; a French marble cake; cucumber sandwiches (cucumbers peeled, crusts off - A was very particular about this); tuna mayo sandwiches (crusts off); an assortment of sweets, peanuts and crisps and, to top it off, strawberry jelly and ice-cream. We also put on the samovar (a legacy of our obsession for Turkish tea), and had multiple pots of English breakfast teas on the go too. This was A LOT of food, and the table was filled with pyramids of Rice Krispie treats and sandwiches, which in certain cases were overflowing off the plates.

All of this party food had A and C giggling and going on a trip down memory lane. The rice krispie squares were a particular favourite of A's growing up, and for him no party was complete without them. While C had of course eaten them before, she had no idea how to make them (by contrast, A had never tasted a Mars slice before last weekend - shock horror), so A set to work producing a mega batch of his favourite tray bake for C and the guests. C was quite surprised at how absurdly simple they were to make.




Method:

Take a large baking tin, line with baking paper and grease the lined tin. Take 200g of butter, and dissolve in a deep saucepan. Once it is dissolved, add one 200g bag of toffees, stir until they too have melted. Then add a 200g bag of marshmallows. Stir again and these too will dissolve, eventually leaving you with a caramel-coloured viscous liquid. Pour in 150g of Rice Krispies (or other cereal such as cornflakes) and stir slowly until the cereal is covered in the liquid. Pour the coated cereal into the lined tin, leave to cool, cut into squares and serve. That's it: idiotproof and extremely popular.

Fortunately some twenty-five folks turned up to help us polish the squares, and everything else, off. Friends old and new and a few family members turned out to celebrate (and get quite high on refined sugar). Happily, people were mostly complementary about the food and many found the snacks as nostalgic to eat as we found them to make. 

As a bizarre aside, the foodstuff that drew the most compliments (along with the ever-popular yoghurt cake and the Mars slices, which all disappeared in the space of an hour) were the cucumber sandwiches. The most quotable comment came from another A, who said, "It's good to see that people still pay attention to the details. I noticed that you even peeled your cucumber as well as removing the crusts from the bread. That's a good thing: I like my cucumber sandwiches to be as anaemic a food as possible." Normally bland is not A or C's favoured way of preparing food, but it's good to know that we can rustle up an admirably boring cucumber sandwich when required.

Thanks to everybody for helping make a lovely (if belated) birthday bash for A!

Thursday, 22 November 2012

How To: Do A West Country Cream Tea in the North

We've mentioned our recent weekend in Leeds a few times by now; as regular readers may have gathered, it was quite a culinary adventure and we have many stories to tell from being treated to delicious things by A's brother K and his girlfriend J - both dab-hands in the kitchen.

After being cooked an excellent brunch and shown around the city centre, A and C wanted to treat K and J to tea and cake (or similar) as a token of our appreciation for showing us such a good time. With this in mind, we hunted around for some cute tea spots but, not finding much that fitted the bill (any Leeds-dwellers amongst you, please feel free to suggest any good tearooms for future reference!) we improvised and decided to put on a bit of a spread back at K and J's place.

Teatime!

The idea was simple but effective: a traditional afternoon tea of scones, jam and cream with some cake, and a nice pot of tea to round things off.

We're afraid to say we didn't make the cake, but decided to be very middle class and picked up Waitrose's lemon drizzle cake. It received rave reviews from everyone apart from J, who admittedly isn't a lemon cake fan anyway. Never fear, though, as the main event - the authentic cream tea - was yet to come...
 
Piece of cake

Ah, cream teas. For the benefit of any readers beyond the British Isles who are a little perplexed as to what a 'cream tea' means, let us provide you with a brief explanation.

A very British phenomenon, a cream tea (sometimes known as a Cornish cream tea, or a Devonshire cream tea, reflective of the areas in which the teas originated and are especially popular) is an afternoon occasion, whereby you drink tea with a scone, topped with clotted cream and then with strawberry jam.

There's always some debate over exactly how you prepare a cream tea, so here's our ultimate indisputable guide (coming from C, who has spent a lot of time over the years scoffing cream teas in the name of valuable research).

What's scone on?

Firstly, buy good scones: we purchased some Duchy Originals. As a brief background on Duchy Originals for any non-Brit readers, in a quaint English way Prince Charles (the Prince of Wales) decided some years back to set up a food company selling organic, premium British-made products such as biscuits, scones, preserves and cheeses. It was a raving success, and the products make a very nice treat every once in a while - and are especially apt for a cream tea. Cut the scones in half, and warm through if you fancy.

Next, buy good clotted cream: C's crucial tip and real sticking point for a good cream tea is to use Rodda's, and accept no substitutes. Rodda's is a Cornish clotted cream, and it's actually rather hard to explain just how it's different from normal clotted cream without simply saying that it's about ten times better. Honestly, take our word for it: A had never tried Rodda's before (much to C's horror), and was initially a little sniffy about spending the extra money to buy this clotted cream rather than another as it tends to be a fair bit pricier. However, one mouthful of the stuff and his eyes widening in culinary delight was enough to convince A never to try other clotted cream again.

The third component of a cream tea is strawberry jam: the fancier the better, of course. A Duchy Original preserve would probably have worked really well here, but we went with bog standard Waitrose strawberry jam and found it just as nice.

An important note here, in your final step of scone preparation: the order is as above - cut the scone in half, then add the cream, then the jam. Do NOT do it the other way round, as this is tantamount to sacrilege for cream tea fans. Also, don't even think about using butter. Don't say we didn't warn you.

And finally, enjoy with a nice cup of tea.

Rosie lee

As the alternative names indicate, cream teas originated in the South West of England, and our experience tells us that an authentic cream tea in that part of the world is a culinary experience which takes quite some effort to top.

Cream teas originated in the 11th century, so they've been going for quite some time - testament, no doubt, to how enjoyable they are to eat. Fitting the perception of British teatime, sitting down to an afternoon cream tea isn't just a culinary occasion - it's also a social one. There's something really very refined and enjoyable about tucking into a cream and jam-topped scone and a good old cuppa while chatting with friends and relatives, and our Leeds cream tea was no different.

An all white tea

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Happiness Forgets

It's not often that we write about drinking spots on this blog, but we had to make an exception for Hoxton bar Happiness Forgets. While we're primarily foodies and not the biggest boozers (A, in particular, titles himself The Last Of The Great Drinkers), we're not averse to a few drinks either side of a meal out.

We're usually fairly torn in our alcohol choices (it's whisky and port all the way for A, while C likes a white wine or sloe gin), but one thing we can unite on when drinking is a mutual fondness for cocktails. With this in mind, while waiting for a late dinner reservation a few weekends ago, C suggested they try a cocktail bar she'd heard good things about - Happiness Forgets. Charmed by the name, she'd also heard that it was affordable, had a seating-only policy (no crowded floorspace here) and a "prohibition"-esque atmosphere. She was sold - and we're happy to say the place didn't disappoint.

We don't have many good pictures; the bar's underground, and dark, and it's hardly the place to crack out the SLR. We apologise, therefore, for the couple of grainy iPhone photos, but believe us when we say: this bar was too good not to blog about.

The menu - affordable and delicious


What makes Happiness Forgets so good?

First of all, dispel any preconceptions you have about it being a Hoxton bar, and what this might entail. For the non-Londoners amongst our readers, Hoxton is hipster-town, but the crowd in Happiness Forgets is altogether more distinguished: think media types and professionals in their late 20s, and you get the picture. There's a vibe of 'wanting to be seen' in here, but don't let that put you off: there are lots of beautiful (if slightly haughty) people, but this is an altogether more pleasant bunch than hipsters, and it's all made up for by the quality of the cocktails anyway.

Secondly, the cocktails at Happiness Forgets are good. C's favourite, being a fan of fruity cocktails, was the Flaneur - vanilla and plymouth sloe gin shaken with fresh lime and vanilla and topped with bubbles. Beautiful. A's cocktail highlight of the night was the more manly Louis Balfour - scotch, port, honey, and another spirit which we're afraid to say we've forgotten (perhaps due to having had a few cocktails by this point; we couldn't resist). The description of the Louis Balfour cocktail - "a gentleman and a scholar" - certainly appealed to A.

Thirdly, the prices: each cocktail is around the £8.50 mark. Yes: £8.50. Extremely good value for delicious cocktails in such a good location.

Skewed camera angle nothing to do with the number of drinks we'd had by this point, we promise...

Our advice:, go, go, go to Happiness Forgets. They're very careful about the numbers (make sure you book!), so it always strikes the balance between busy and crowded, and the cocktails are both excellent and affordable.

Oh, and if you can't find the place, here's a heads up: go to Hoxton Square and look for some stairs leading down to a basement, sometimes with a lantern outside. It's worth it when you find it!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

A Cooks... Breakfast Extravagance: Duck Eggs Benedict

As mentioned previously, A's brother K is a bit of a gastronome, and he and his girlfriend J showed A and C a phenomenal time in Leeds the other weekend. Not to be upstaged, however, we decided to take a little bit of Yorkshire gourmet (not rhubarb) back to London to produce something special. A had always wanted to have a go at making his own eggs benedict and, armed with half a dozen duck eggs picked up in the North, he spotted the perfect opportunity to push the boat out and make himself and C a gourmet version of what's already quite an extravagant dish.

K directed A and C to a specialist egg retailer in the Leeds covered market who sold everything: hen's eggs of every conceivable size and colour, double yolkers, quails eggs and duck eggs. After being made to feel somewhat uncomfortable by the stuffed chicken with the glassy eyes (C, in particular, is extremely disturbed by taxidermy), we came back armed with half a dozen fresh duck eggs.

Duck eggs benedict

The following weekend back at home, A set to work producing a wicked hangover cure after C had spent a chunk of the morning complaining about a sore head after a rather raucous 1920s-themed party with A the night before.

It was A's first time cooking with duck eggs, and both he and C were surprised at a few of their attributes. First, they are actually quite large. Second, duck eggs have a rather thicker shell than hen's eggs, meaning you have to apply a little more force to get into them than you would a hen's egg. Third, the yolk inside a duck egg is significantly bigger than that of a hen's egg (the combination of attributes two and three is quite scary in the context of trying to get into the egg without breaking the yolk: A was terrified as there were no extras). Fourth, the flavour is different: a duck egg is significantly richer than a hen's egg.

In Leeds: extremely creepy stuffed chicken

A poached his eggs the old-school way in a pan full of hot water with a dash of vinegar. New to this method of poaching (A grew up in a house with an egg poacher), he took a couple of practice runs at it with hen's eggs in order to get it just right for the precious duck eggs. A also used bacon as opposed to gammon steaks to top the muffins: he understands that the original eggs benedict was made with bacon and wanted to repeat the original. Actually, why lie? A and C like bacon. A lot.

Bacon for grilling

As we had four muffin halves there were a couple of eggs for the sauce and A made a hollandaise by adapting Mark Bittman's recipe in How to Cook Everything to fit duck eggs (essentially using two rather than three yolks because of the size of the eggs - and because he only had 2 eggs left).

For those of you who have not made it, hollandaise sauce is virtually foolproof: an emulsion of egg yolk, a dribble of vinegar, water, butter and a pinch of salt, which you warm very slowly over a low heat until it thickens a little. The only thing you need to watch out for is heating too aggressively, as you'll end up with an omelette if you do. It's a sauce that lends itself very well to spices and herbs; in A's experience, dill and cayenne pepper work very well (though probably not together).

The finished product

The results were excellent: warm fluffy white pillows full of rich yolks, which oozed onto the plate when punctured. The mix of creaminess (egg and sauce) and saltiness (bacon) made for a divine combination and the crunchiness of the grilled bacon and toasted muffin was offset perfectly by the soft consistency of the eggs. The difference from hen's eggs was palpable, too, with the duck egg having a far greater richness and intensity of flavour.

In short, the indulgent twist we were expecting from using the duck's egg worked out better than we hoped for and it was certainly an A* grade hangover cure. Next time we see duck eggs on sale, we know what we're doing with them!

Monday, 19 November 2012

The Aagrah: A Leeds Curry Institution

There is little doubt that A and C are both full-on Londoners - both are born and bred inside the M25 - but A does have significant ties to the North: A's father J hails from God's Own County and still has most of his family in Yorkshire. What's more, A's brother K moved away from London to work as a doctor in Leeds. With so much of the family now in the area, A and C recently took a day off and spent a long weekend visting K, K's girlfriend (another J), and A's grandparents, R and S.



 
One of the places that A loves to come when he's in the area is The Aagrah - a Leeds institution with branches all over West Yorkshire. Set up by an Indian immigrant who according to A's grandfather came to Leeds to drive the metropolitan buses, the restaurant has grown into a successful local chain. Still very much a family affair, a relative runs each branch; if you're a regular like A's grandparents, you're even likely to be greeted by name by one of the owner's sons. This impressed A and C: we're so used to the anonymity of London that we'd forgotten that even in mid-sized cities you get a level of personal service not usually found in the capital.

K and J's flat is just outside the city centre so it most sense to hit the St Peter's Square branch (though usually the family frequents the one in Chapel Allerton as it's closer to R and S). The location, just by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the bus station, makes it handy to get to from more or less anywhere in the city.

As ever, the Aagrah came up trumps. The poppadoms were lovely and crisp, and came with a variety of sauces: the usual mint raita, mango chutney and hot relish, but also a wonderful sweet onion offering, reminiscent of the secret recipe of the onion chutney served up at that other curry institution, the Shish Mahal in Glasgow (A might have had a few curries over the years). Sweet, a little spicy and incredibly moreish, this stuff makes a perfect start to the Aagrah curry experience.




We also had a variety of starters but highlights included the vegetable pakora, samosas and curried chicken livers. The former two were perfectly crunchy on the outside, but the vegetables inside were by no means overdone, and were wonderfully aromatic. Likewise, the chicken livers came out looking immaculate, and went down very well, with R and S happily wolfing them down between them.



Between the four diners, we also went through several curries, all of which were excellent. The one that was really worth writing home about though was S's one. This came served up on a sizzling hot plate, with the sauce in a bowl on the side. S made serious headway with it, though was eventually beaten by the Aagrah's humungous portion sizes, and A was called on to finish it off. This he did with gusto, but even he was beaten by the portion size. As with everything else, the balance of flavours in the curry was excellent.
 


If ever you are in Leeds, Bradford, Wakefield or around, you can do a lot better than turn to the Aagrah for a curry. Given the large Asian community in the Leeds-Bradford area, people know a good curry when they see one, and the Aagrah faces some pretty stiff competition.  However, the place is enduringly popular with locals for good reasons: the flavours are excellent, the portions mighty, and the prices reasonable. Overall, it's a combinations which keep local punters - and some more exotic ones - coming back time after time.

Watch this space for more curry adventures as A ventures to Manchester to test Akbar's - a legendary Manchester curry house - out in December. We'll follow that up with a Whitechapel legend (Tayyabs or the Lahore Curry House) in the new year too. 

Friday, 16 November 2012

A Leeds Brunch (Day 1)

Ok, perhaps we shouldn't mock the provinces as much as we do. We love London, but it appears that it's not the only place to be after all. A's brother K finally left the safety of the London Orbital last summer after the better part of quarter of a century to relocate to Leeds, where he now works as a doctor. Along the way, he appears to have sorted himself out with a wonderful flat in a converted factory near the city centre, and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the best places in Leeds to get food. The latter was certainly put on show over the weekend that A and C spent in the frozen north recently: we were treated to splendid meal after splendid meal and we left mightily impressed with how well you can live in Yorkshire as a young professional couple.

Meltons Mowbray in your mouth
Perhaps the amazing food isn't so surprising: K and his girlfriend J are aspiring food bloggers (their blog is still a work in progress, but when it's up and running we'll be shouting about it as the prototype looks brilliant) and both are serious foodies. Probably even more so than A and C, K and J are really interested in the detail of their food, looking carefully at where things come from and how they are made. This shows, as the food they turn out is consistently excellent and they are among the best of the keen amateur cooks that A and C know.

Say cheese!
K, who is keen on his kitchen gizmos, owns a cheese baker which is specifically designed to fit a standard camembert. A mocked him a bit for this as such a device seemed like an extravagance. "Ah!" K said, "You see, a camembert baker allows the cheese to bake evenly, and what's more no does longer   it leak all over the box and baking tray, saving you washing up time." Twenty minutes later, A was left eating some humble pie alongside the Melton Mowbray pork one. The camembert was served evenly cooked throughout and the device went straight in the dishwasher. One more first world problem has been solved.

Meats me
We don't know where the meats were sourced from, but J and K know plenty about this sort of thing: a portion of the weekend was spent enthusing about the advantages of dry cured bacon over the normal stuff. J's father used to buy pork products for a major supermarket and has imparted a lot of knowhow - there was a long discussion about, amongst other things, brine injection and salt/spice rubs. As the platter was delicious, we assume that K'd done his homework on salamis and pies and had picked stuff out that he felt would pass muster. We do know that he sourced the bread from Morrison's, but we won't hold it against him - this was meant to be an easy brunch, after all, and you can't do everything.

K's wonderful brunch
 A and C would like to thank K and J very much for their hospitality; it was certainly appreciated and, with food this good, we can't wait to come again.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Shh! Mahdi: Our Favourite Secret Restaurant

It's nigh on impossible to find an 'undiscovered' restaurant in central London. Even places which managed to stay under the radar until fairly recently (the likes of Tayyabs, for example) are now being outed and placed firmly in the spotlight. While we're pleased that so many great restaurants are getting the recognition they deserve, it's all a little bittersweet too: it's becoming harder and harder to find somewhere not visited by the masses. A & C, being types who get kicks out of discovering great places before anyone else, find this all a bit disappointing.

With this in mind, we've debated whether we should write this post for some time: in the end, our chance to shout about how good this place is won over our selfish desire to keep it to ourselves. It is nonetheless with some reluctance that we present to you our favourite undiscovered restaurant in London (and, indeed, one of our all-time favourite places to eat): Persian restaurant Mahdi, on the Finchley Road.

Meat, and Iranian man reading the newspaper

For those regular readers amongst you, it might not come as a surprise to learn that the Mahdi is a Persian joint; it's fairly evident by now how much we appreciate authentic Middle Eastern cuisine, and Iranian flavours in particular.

A North Londoner, A was already a regular visitor to the Mahdi when he met C, and first introduced her to the place on a date fairly early on. While admittedly a bit of an unusual choice, it earned him major brownie points: C was super impressed, and they've been going back regularly ever since.

Although located in a great spot transport-wise - right next to Finchley Road station - it's fair to say that the Mahdi isn't exactly eye-catching from the outside. Don't be dismayed, though, for what it lacks in exuberance on the inside is more than made up for with the interior: think large, garish chandeliers, brightly-coloured stained glass, loud mosaic tiles, paintings of Persian nobility on the walls, leafy plants and a giant samovar in the corner. There's Iranian kitsch aplenty here, right down to the salt and pepper pots, decorated with images of moustachioed Middle Eastern men.

Moustached salt and pepper shakers

Authentic music plays in the background, and the same friendly waiters greet you every time with a smile, often appearing genuinely bemused that you're not Iranian and yet have somehow stumbled upon the place. Indeed, most of the clientele are Iranians - either large families gathered around long tables chattering loudly or older men reading newspapers in the corner with pots of tea, conversing occasionally with the owner. Don't be surprised if you're the only non-Iranian diners in the whole place: it's this, along with the décor and the superb food, that make the Mahdi so charmingly authentic.

Past experiences have told us that you won't go wrong with whatever you order in here, but A & C are such seasoned locals that we don't even need to look at the menu to know what we want. We start with flatbreads, hummus and an aubergine dish akin to baba ghanoush - all excellent - and then move on to the impressive mixed grill. While it's perhaps not the most authentic sounding dish, it really is superb: four large pieces of thick, tender lamb; one skewer of marinated chicken and two skewers of minced baby lamb, along with four grilled tomatoes, a mountain of rice, a side salad and a tangy Iranian sauce for £22.50. We eat it with more flatbread, too, baked in a wood furnace at the back of the restaurant and comically cut into pieces by the baker with the largest scissors you've ever seen.

Chandaliers aplenty

One mixed grill is more than enough to feed two people: in fact, A keeps joking with his flatmate N that he'll propose a "Mahdi Challenge" to see who can get through the most of the dish on their own (A admits N would probably win). When A & C eat at the Mahdi, they always end up taking home half of the Mixed Grill for leftovers; when you take into account that it lasts not only for one dinner but two for the pair of us, the value here really is unparalleled.

Make sure you don't leave here without having a pot of tea, too; Iranian tea is a little like Turkish tea, except a little sourer, so make sure you add some sugar. It's great, though: refreshing, and the perfect end to a delicious meal.

All in all, the Mahdi is excellent: authentic atmosphere, friendly staff, top class food, great tea, and a bit of a secret too. We won't tell anyone if you won't...


More moustaches

Friday, 9 November 2012

Istanbul: Spice Market

After fourteen days backpacking around Eastern Anatolia and Georgia (the ex-Soviet country, not the US state) this summer, A and C decided to round off their trip with a city break in Istanbul.

Being over in remotest Turkey, we took a flight in from Trabzon on what A accurately described as a 'rubber-band plane' and, just about living to tell the tale, set about exploring the city. (A small aside, here: if you ever get the chance to visit Trabzon, do - the guidebook describes it as a 'gritty, industrial port town' and that pretty much sums it up, but it's a real grower. After spending three days there on and off - the longest time we spent anywhere on our trip - we were really quite sad to leave!).

While A had been to Istanbul a few times already, C had never been before, and so predictably dragged A around the sites. Although stunned by the architecture, history and culture of the major sites, C was far more intrigued by the markets and bazaars: although still bustling, you're likely to find a higher concentration of locals here and it feels more authentically Turkish and less like a tourist trap.

After hours wandering around The Grand Bazaar one day, we stumbled upon the spice market - which turned into one of C's highlights of the trip.

The spice of life

A typical stall

The spice market is crowded and claustrophobic: it's filled with locals and tourists chattering, pointing and bartering loudly with the shopkeepers, who stand by open-fronted stalls lining both sides of the space. A covered market right by the Bosphorus, it's dark, long and wide, with tall ceilings and authentic elaborate lamps hanging from the roof, emitting a typical Turkish rose-tinted glow. Despite its size, this place feels small and crowded: the mass of people and their chatter fills the space right up to the rooftop, and teaboys with small trays full of black Çay edge between browsers delivering hot drinks to the shop owners.

As far as you can see along the lines of stalls are stacks of neatly peaked spices, herbs, seasonings and teas: like little mountains, they rise up out of the wooden segmented boxes in which they're stored. An aesthetic appreciator, C couldn't get enough of the mix and vibrancy of the colours: the sultry yellows of the saffron mixed with the dusky oranges of the paprika, the grassy green of the mint and the fiery red tones of the various Turkish spices and seasonings - as well as the black Turkish tea, of course.

Other goods on sale

Time for tea, as ever

Passing to the end of the Spice Market, outside the covered market is a longer, open market, with stalls selling teas, fruits, fish and meat. This is a place to barter, although you have to push hard to get any leeway with the locals - speak a little Turkish instead of English, and you'll have a better chance of succeeding. When you do negotiate, don't be surprised if you end up doing this over a cup of Çay - such is the way all over Turkey, as mentioned in one of our previous posts. Just relax, take your time and have a chat; and come away with some great products, and great memories.

Of course, we can't pretend that the Spice Market was entirely authentic; many of the stalls had the names of the spices in English, which disappointed A and C (not just because they wanted to practice the Turkish they'd picked up over their few weeks travelling). Still, all in all it was a mesmering place - and one C can't wait to get back to.

Aesthetically pleasing, despite the signs in English

Vibrant reds





Thursday, 8 November 2012

Sunday Lunch at the Water Poet

C had been hearing good things about The Water Poet for a while; it's got a bit of a name amongst Londoners in recent months for good food, good booze and a whole load of good events, which left her keen to try it out. Unlike many of its neighbours, this Shoreditch pub's popularity seems to have extended beyond the locals - go in here, and you're sure to find a real mix of customers (although interspersed, of course, with your average Dalston hipster or two).

A and C had been intending to pop down to The Water Poet for several months; it's not too far from where A lives, and they're frequent enough visitors to that part of town. They'd also heard good things about the special events this place puts on, including a street party for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee earlier this year which they tried but failed to get to and a semi-regular underground cinema, decked out with bean bags and cushions.

Arranging a weekend meet-up with her friend L, then (aforementioned on the blog here), C suggested heading down to The Water Poet for a spot of Sunday lunch. The prices looked reasonable and she couldn't help noticing the website's proclamation of their Sunday lunch as "legendary" - quite a promising (and confident!) statement, then. Apparently not ones to boast unduly, Time Out and TopTable also voted The Water Poet "Best for Sunday Lunch in London" according to the pub's homepage. With a table booked and our stomachs rumbling, we were very excited to try it out.

Looks good; tastes ok


Let's start with the real positives, here: the pub is lovely. It really is. It's cute, quaint but unpretentious: a really charming combination to find in Shoreditch, and it's the kind of place you could imagine spending many a lazy Sunday afternoon (or a boozy evening).

The service, too, is very good. Although a little slow at peak times (perhaps understandable, given the capacity of diners here), the waitresses in here are all very friendly and put you immediately at ease with jokes and chatter. C was also pleasantly surprised to avoid getting a strange look for ordering tea with her roast dinner; customary for her - a weird quirk, if you will - it's often greeted with disbelief or disgust, but here went down with just a sweet, surprised smile.

Unfortunately, while the pub itself and the service was excellent, the same can't be said for the food. Both C and L left feeling ultimately quite disappointed in what the 'Best for Sunday Lunch in London' actually entailed.
If there's one thing we know how to cook, it's a good roast dinner with all the trimmings. We've also been to our fair share of Sunday lunches (we've worked our way around most of the good quality pubs in Brighton over the course of five years, for a start), so we know what to expect from a decent roast. What we got, though, was a lukewarm, undercooked plate of food - leaving us both dismayed.

Tea time


C ordered the half a roast corn-fed chicken with stuffing, and the meat itself was admittedly was cooked to perfection: it was beautifully tender and had a good flavour to it. Similarly, the veggie sausage which made up the main part of L's plate was very enjoyable: although not the most aesthetically pleasing food (we won't detail what they reminded us of), the sausages had a crumbly texture and were full of flavour. The cauliflower cheese was also well done, and the swede was good, albeit rather too mushy.

The rest, though, was frankly a bit of a disaster. The broccoli was so undercooked that it was absolutely solid from stalk to tip; the potatoes were so overcooked that they were like hard bullets the whole way through, and even after going at the skin with a knife for several seconds it was still impossible to cut through. The yorkshire pudding was stone-cold; there was a serious lack of gravy (so much so that we had to ask for some) and the whole dish was generally lukewarm at best. All in all, this was really quite disappointing, and especially after the write up and boasting on the website and in various publications.
Had the dish been as good as promised, we wouldn't have had any qualms about paying £12 a head for the main; however, as it was, we were left feeling a little cheated at the very poor value for money.

A roast, but not (cooked) as we know it

After a disappointing main, we decided to cheer ourselves up with a dessert, and so ordered the Plum and Autumnal Berry Crumble with clotted cream ice cream (lovely Jude's, for any of you familiar with the West Country!). Admittedly, this was very good and went a little way at least in making up for the main course dismay: although seemingly bought in rather than made in the kitchens, it was nonetheless flavoursome and pleasingly sharp.

The saving grace: a tart dessert

All in all, The Water Poet sadly let itself down. We wish we could've been more positive about this lovely little Shoreditch pub, as we're fond of the place, but unfortunately the food just wasn't up to scratch. Come here for a drink, as it is a charming establishment - but exercise some caution if you decide to visit for Sunday lunch...

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

A London Secret: Chinatown's Bao stalls

And now for something at completely the other end of the scale from the Duck and Waffle as A and C turn attention from trendy, high-end establishments and focus on cheap eats. Bao, Chinese dumplings, are one of A's absolute favourite snacks and about Soho's cheapest possible lunch. A has been getting these for ages from a little stall in Chinatown round the back of Leicester square station. It's cheerful, it's quick, and the dumplings that are served up there are not to be sniffed at.


Bao come in a variety of different shapes and sizes and come filled with all sorts of interesting things: chicken, pork, beans, chinese chives and lots more besides. A's favourites though are the ones pictured: steamed buns about the size of your fist and made of soft dough, surrounding a ball of meat. They are probably dreadful for you, but what they lack in nutritional value they more than make up for in flavour: each is a blob of MSG and umami heaven.


If you can, locate the stall around the back of Leicester square station on Newport Place. There's one place right opposite the Chinese gazebo, but there is another (and better) one on a little back alley, attached to a Chinese supermarket opposite a restaurant called Jen. It's not elegant - in fact this is street food at its most gritty - but the bao are truly delicious and come in at £1.30 for the veggie options or an extravagant £1.70 for a meaty one. Given that two make a full meal, this has to be amongst the cheapest fast food in London and certainly the quickest.



The only shame about these places is that they are not open super late. You have to get them as an early supper or a lunch, rather than as a midnight snack on your way out of the clubs. That's OK though, if you're hell-bent on a massive bender on Leicester Square, you can have these before to soak up the booze!