Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Mock Turtle

Despite talking about it for quite some time, C and A had never quite got around to visiting Brighton - a town on the south coast where C lived for four years, and perhaps her favourite town in the UK (along with London, of course). A has noted that people who live, or have lived, in the Sussex seaside town have a kind of visceral attachment to the place, and a strong sense of loyalty to it - and C would pretty much have to agree with his statement. It's a great place: liberal, open-minded, individual, arty, bustling, vibrant, with a beach to boot.

Another great thing about Brighton is the food: it's known as "London by the sea", and some of the food here certainly strives to meet the standards set in the capital. There's a big veggie community here, and restaurants like Terre a Terre, Food for Friends and Iydea are great places to start for a culinary adventure in the place. There are also a multitude of other great places to eat, so many that we can't possibly begin to name them - but we started off our day in Brighton with lunch at Bardsley's in London Road. Brighton visitors take note: don't be fooled by any of the tasteless fish and soggy chips on the pier - go to Bardsley's for proper seaside grub, served up just how it should be. But more of that another time.

After a wander around the town and a touristy trip to the 2p machines on the pier (A, in his middle class way, expected his enjoyment of this to be deeply ironic, but actually ended up loving it - much to C's amusement), C took A to her favourite tea room in Brighton - The Mock Turtle.

Named after a character in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, stepping in here is a bit like stepping into another world, or time. It gets very busy around teatime, so head there by about 3pm if you want a table on the weekend - but it's well worth it. It's English tea room kitsch galore on the inside: small wooden tables and chairs with straw placemats and frilly white tablecloths and napkins. The walls are a vibrant Victorian blue and wooden dressers display delftware, which everything is served on.

Aside from the décor, which is brilliant (although perhaps not something you'd want in your own home), the best thing about this place is the food and drink. The tea itself is superb: fresh, loose leaf teas, and a whole range of them too. C was feeling a little unadventurous, and nostalgic for what she always used to drink in this place, and so went for the brilliant afternoon blend which always has a real depth of flavour. A went for a green tea (inspired by our recent trip to China, no doubt) which he was also cooing about. Both teas were around the £2.50 mark, but that's for a limitless pot.

There are a vast selection of cakes and sweet breads in The Mock Turtle, all of which are displayed in the window and on the huge dresser to one side of the small café. Be prepared to spend a good few minutes trying to choose what you want - but for a sure bet, their Victoria Sponge and their Lemon Cake are always excellent. This time, C went for a Lime Cake, having never tried one before, and was pleasantly surprised: dense, moist and slightly crumbly all at the same time, it had a real zing from the citrus that was a really great touch.

A decided to really push the boat out and go for the afternoon tea. However, his eyes nearly popped out of his head when he saw what he'd ordered (oh, and only a couple of hours after fish and chips): two huge scones with jam and cream. C did try to warn him...

Unlike C, though, A's eyes are not bigger than his stomach and he made short work of it all. He commented that the warm scones were some of the best he'd ever had and was surprised by how generous the portions were in the £6 deal.

The Mock Turtle is a bit of a secret: it's tucked down a side road, it has no website, and there are a lot of locals in there as well as the odd tourist group who chance upon it. We'd advise you to go, but would stipulate two caveats: one, go before 4pm on a weekend and two, sit upstairs. There is a downstairs, but it's a little gloomy, and just doesn't have the same feel. And once you're there, kick back and relax: this is a great place, and one of C's favourite spots to relax with tea and a book.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Likya Ocakbasi, NW11

It's no secret that both of us are huge fans of Turkish food: we developed a real appetite for the stuff with our trip around Eastern Turkey and Istanbul last year, where the cuisine was outstanding. About a million miles away from the old greasy kebab you get over here, we've dedicated a substantial amount of time to finding good, authentic Turkish restaurants in London since our return. After being pleasantly surprised by the likes of 19 Numara Bos Cirrik 2 and Antepliler, we continued our exploration of Turkish spots of North London with Likya Ocakbasi in Golders Green.

After a brilliant day out with A's parents P and J at the Queen's club tennis final (for the uninitiated, the men's tournament a couple of weeks before Wimbledon which takes place in west London), we'd all worked up an appetite after shouting support to Andy Murray all afternoon. P and J live in north London, and so we all ventured back up to the north of town and met up with A's brother K and his girlfriend J (aforementioned here) for a family dinner.

Likya Ocakbasi occupies a fairly large plot in the middle of Golders Green (NW11). Inside, it's about as authentic as it gets over here: a large ocakbasi (Turkish grill) at the entrance with all kinds of kebabs cooking, Turkish music blaring and chefs and waiters yelling and gesturing while they cook and serve. It's busy in here, too: on a Sunday evening at 9pm we had to wait for a table, and that's always a good sign.

A and C started with a couple of servings of Ayran - the salty Turkish yoghurt drink we developed a bit of a thing for while out there - while the others had water. C, for one, was also very predictable with her choice of food: she went for her old favourite the Iskender (£9.95), a doner kebab on a bed of bread, covered with yoghurt and a tomato and butter sauce. It was excellent, with the salty yoghurt spot on, bar one small criticism: in Turkey itself (Ankara in particular, we found), waiters will come to the table with a boiling buttery sauce and pour over so it bubbles on top of the meat. Super healthy it may not be, but it's a great touch, and all too often missing in Turkish food in London.

A was going to opt for his own favourite too, but changed his mind just at the last minute and went for the Imam Bayildi (£8.75), an aubergine stuffed with onions, tomatoes and green peppers and served up with a fresh salad. It was met with moans of approval and the speed at which it disappeared also suggested it was really very good.

P also went for a vegetarian dish: the Biber Dolma (£8.75), stuffed green peppers with rice and pine kernels and also served with a fresh green salad, which she also commented was well cooked and very tasty.

The rest of the bunch went for meat, and either went for a simple dish of chicken or lamb served up with salad (£9.95) or a classic tavuk doner kebab (£8.75). All round, the food was met with approval, and the portion sizes so generous that we practically rolled out of the restaurant, let alone struggled to find room for dessert.

Is it the best Turkish restaurant we've ever been to? Well, possibly not, but then we've been to very many. If you're in this part of town, though, it's a great bet for really good, authentic Turkish food at reasonable prices, and it's clear to see why it's so popular in the local community.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Din Tai Fung, Hong Kong

In the last in our series of Chinese eats, we thought we'd review the famous Din Tai Fung*, one of Hong Kong's dim sum legends and a strong recommendation from A's flatmate and former Hong Kong resident T. We spent a lot of time eating whilst in Hong Kong, and with good reason: the range and quality of dining experiences are fantastic. This place, though, had to be one of the top experiences on the list (along with Aqua, which we've written about before).

Din Tai Fung is one of the most unusual Michelin starred restaurants you are likely to find. There are two branches in Hong Kong, and the branch we visited in Kowloon (there is another on the Island) is located in the food court of a shopping centre - not the place you'd expect a top-whack eatery to be. We are given to understand that there's usually a long wait but because we arrived late, we were shown to a table within about 10 minutes.

Once seated, you tick boxes on a little card, which is taken away and the dished arrive as and when they are prepared. Din Tai Fung is famous for its Xiaolongbao, or soup dumplings. These are little meatballs which come in pastry cases and which amazingly contain soup inside them.  We are pleased to report that these were absolutely fantastic, delicious, soft and bursting with umami flavour. While they take a little bit of practice to eat (they are quite easy to puncture), they are worth persevering with. We tried the classic pork variety and the chicken ones. Both were great, but it was easy to see why the pork ones are so famous.

In addition we tried some steamed buns, seasonal greens and a bowl of noodles, all of which were flavoursome, well cooked and came with no MSG. This is a massive plus, particularly for C, who cannot stand fuzzy mouth the morning after a Chinese meal.

To top it off, the restaurant is nicely decorated, but is quite busy, with waiters and waitresses rushing around with stacks of bamboo steaming baskets and bowls of noodles. However, it lacks some of the refinement of other Michelin dining experiences, and consequently is probably unlikely to earn more than the one star it currently has.

Don't get us wrong though, the food is fantastic, particularly the xiaolongbao. Moreover, given that you can eat here for less than HK$350 a head, it's certainly worth looking up if ever you are in town.

* A word of warning, the website is in Chinese only.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

A Dead Easy Birthday Brunch

C celebrated her birthday a couple of weeks ago, and as A managed to miss it for a wedding in Germany, he decided to pull out all the stops to show C a good time the weekend after. Knowing that the surest way to C's heart is through her stomach, A made sure that food and wine flowed aplenty and this simple recipe for summery pancakes was first of a series of meals that C was treated to over the course of two days.

As there were loads of activities (yoga, photography exhibitions and lots more besides) packed into the weekend, A looked for something quick and easy but nonetheless impressive, to fill C up on the Saturday morning. There are few quicker things to make than pancakes, and this must be about the quickest possible way to make them. Adapting one of Jamie's recipes, the result was a delicious fruity breakfast that probably wasn't too unhealthy (A hopes!).

The trick to these pancakes is the ratio of ingredients. You want to keep the ratio of milk and self raising flour even, so take a mug and fill it with milk, then add an equal amount of self-raising flour, one egg and a twist of salt, then whisk until the batter is smooth. A used an electric whisk and had the batter made up in 5 minutes flat. Then put a little bit of neutral tasting oil in a pan and heat it. Once the oil is hot, add a little under half a ladle of batter to make small rounds about 3-4 inches in diameter, then heat. You may want to discard the first one, as it will come out quite oily. Once the pancakes are done on one side, flip them and ensure they are cooked on both sides. Cooking should take about 2-3 minutes a pancake and you'll have a batch made up from scratch in less than quarter of an hour.

To spruce up these simple pancakes, A made three of them into a stack, placing low fat greek yoghurt and blueberries between the one pair of pancakes and greek yoghurt and raspberries between the the other. A drizzle of honey then finished them off and a garnish of yoghurt and fruit finished them off.

As it was a birthday treat, A served the stacks up with a bottle of Nicholas Feuillatte Grande Reserve Champagne. At the risk of sounding pompous, this is one of A's favourite Champagnes as it tastes pretty good and represents very good value for money. It also has a personal connection for A: as well as living in Germany, A used to work in the Champagne region of France. Chouilly (where the Feuillatte cave is based) was a short distance away from A's workplace and A used to pick Champagne up directly from the family itself for special occasions. When Sainsbury's have the stuff on special offer, what more excuse do you need?

So there  you have it: a superb Champagne brunch for two, at less than a tenner a head. Delicious and a bargain!

Friday, 19 July 2013


It was C's birthday last weekend, and as part of her celebrations she went out for dinner the night before in Surrey with her parents, J and D. They popped to UnoTapas, a place in Sutton which only opened a few months ago. Their website is still basically a holding page, and there's not a particularly huge social media presence for them either as yet, but don't let that put you off: if you're in this part of town, it's a good shout.

For the uninitiated, Sutton isn't exactly the spot for haute cuisine: among the chains and generic coffee shops, though, sits UnoTapas. This is a family-run place, and for C it's always a good first sign to enter a restaurant and hear the right language spoken: this is the kind of venue where the waiters will be shouting orders to the kitchen staff in heavily accented mainland Spanish.

The décor in here is a little clinical, and it's this which unfortunately lets the place down a little and makes it feel a little less high end than it perhaps otherwise would. Nevertheless, there are sleek wooden tables and a red and white colour scheme, and it's tastefully enough done.

The food, though, is good. The menu is extensive, and along with large main dishes - generally paellas of different varieties - there's a huge tapas selection broken down into bread, seafood, meat, and so on.

Standard dishes like Chorizo have that familiarly pleasant kick and the Tortilla Espanola is dense, a little moist and has the balance of egg and potato spot on (something which C has found rarely happens outside of Spain!). The portion sizes are generous, too: a whole mini Tortilla Espanola for a tapas portion, and be prepared for a mountain of crispy potato chunks with a tangy, spicy sauce if you go for Patatas Bravas. The Gambas al Alioli are also brilliantly spicy, and there's plenty of them too - don't expect to come here and have a dessert!

C has a bit of a confession, which is that she loves the fried tapas dishes that are probably stacked high in calories. This almost always leads to a plate of Jamon Croquetas, and the ones here are particularly good: crispy and hard on the outside and oozing on the inside, and very moreish with a heavy kick of salt that makes you wonder afterwards about the state of your health...

There are specials, too: when C, J and D went, they tried two of these, but were very tempted with the others. One was a bruschetta-like dish: thick slices of white crusty bread covered in a tomato sauce and topped with parma ham, and C has to admit that, although simple, this was one of her stand-out dishes. We also tried Pimientos, red peppers stuffed with cod in a tangy sauce, which despite C's initial doubts was very pleasant indeed.

It's affordable here, too, perhaps because of its distance outside London: we finished off the meal with a bottle of house wine, and along with 9 tapas dishes to share the bill came out at just under £30pp. Tapas is normally a very pricey affair, so it's a relief to know of a good, reliable and enjoyable spot to head to for slightly cheaper tapas in London.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Spaniard's Inn: Fish and Chips (again!)

"What?!" we hear you cry, "Fish and chips, again?!". A and C will 'fess up: we do love fish and chips, and don't expect this to be the last post on the topic (we have yet to do a post on a 'proper' chippie, and we have one or two in mind to write about in the not too distant future).  A will even stick his neck out and say that it's one of his favourites: cheap, filling and quintessentially English, it ticks all the boxes for a treat.

As with the Grill on the Square we wrote about recently (click here for the post), A and C went out to lunch with A's schoolmate and baby barrister I and his fiancée R.  As A and C were meeting A's parents at the Hampstead Fair just beforehand we met I and R at the famous Spaniard's Inn between Hampstead and Highgate.

The Spaniard's is one of A's old haunts from his North London days. Set up as a toll gate on the Great North Road in 1585, it's one of the capital's older pubs, and comes with a rich history.  Even the name itself is shrouded in mystery and legend: rumour has it that it was set up by a Spanish survivor of the Armada who was washed ashore and married a local girl, but as far as A is aware this has never been definitively proven. Dick Turpin was also reputed to be a regular at the place, and it's often said that he started his famous ride from London to York at or near the pub. The pub has a literary history too, with mentions of it featuring in Dickens's work, amongst others. 

The building is also fantastic: the toll gate still stands, and the pub itself is a maze of rooms and snugs, with roaring fires and crannies aplenty to hide yourself away in. Outside there is a fantastic beer garden, and in the summer a second bar opens at the far end, meaning that thirsty punters need not queue inside for another round. To top it all off, the Spaniards is still a pub in the heart of the community. Many locals turn out to drink here and it's common to bump into friends and acquaintances here. To demonstrate the point, A walked in to be greeted by one of his first cousins at the bar, who was out with a couple of friends for a drink.

While this pub is worth visiting simply for its history and architecture, the pub offers a fantastic selection of ales – it's renowned in the area as a real drinker's pub – and a pretty decent selection of pub grup, with mains ranging from about £12 for a vegetarian option to around £20 for the full-on Sunday roast.

For whatever reason, all four of us opted for the fish and chips and all of us were pretty impressed with the choice. The portion was large, the batter was hot and crispy, and the fish inside was moist and flaky, just as it should be. The chips were medium cut with the skin on, and were delicious, as were the mushy peas, although we would like to see more than a small spoonful of these on the side next time.

Everybody except A washed their fish down with some Pimm's, which were served properly Cucumber, berries and mint all featured in the jug, which was noted with appreciation by all the drinkers concerned. A, who despite being a lightweight is still a beer drinker, had a glass of Meantime pale ale: a local(ish) brew made by a craft brewery based in Greenwich. Light and hoppy, it was the perfect way to cool down on a scorching summer's day.

As ever then, we rate the Spaniard's Inn very highly indeed. The pub is a fantastic venue, and the food hits the spot, even if it has got more expensive than yesteryear. This may well be due to the deep pockets of the local residents and the popularity of the place. Given the hordes of punters who were there when we visited, who can blame them?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Hampstead Food Fair: We Love Brownies

During our recent trip to the Hampstead Summer Festival, we chanced upon a brownie stall. Immediately catching C's attention (she does, after all, have a serious sweet tooth), we decided to stop for a minute and sample some. Stallholder David, one half of the duo "We love Brownies", was friendly and happy to give us sample after sample: something that we both relished. We tried a standard chocolate brownie, salted caramel (A's favourite) and rich chocolate orange, among others, before settling on a couple to buy.

We Love Brownies is a new brownie company set up by David and Darren, and run out of Bourne End in Buckinghamshire. As far as we can tell, their aim is simple: to produce great tasting wheat and gluten free brownies using the finest fair trade and organic ingredients. They sell brownies in a variety of flavours: Belgian Chocolate, Chocolate and Walnut, Rasperry and White Chocolate (all of which are available from their website*) and others.

After much deliberation, we tried one salted caramel and one banana and chocolate offering, which narrowly won out over white chocolate and raspberry, which we noshed upon after we'd walked across Hampstead Heath and Kenwood to Highgate. Even though we'd tasted the samples and had an idea of how good the brownies were, it was still a pleasure to tuck in and eat a whole square.

They were delicious, buttery, creamy and chocolatey. The salted caramel was flavoursome, with both the sea salt and the caramel flavour coming through very strongly. C also enthused about her banana brownie after scoffing it down in record time.

If you see We Love Brownies setting up a stall near you this summer, give their treats a try. While not the cheapest at £2.50 each, they are worth every penny!

*David apologised to us and explained that the website is still a work in progress. However, there is some basic information and contact details there, as well as a basic brownie ordering form.

Monday, 8 July 2013

3 Baking Trends For 2013: Masterclass with Great British Bake Off Winner Edd Kimber

Mmm, cake! As a major Great British Bake Off fan and serious sweet tooth sufferer, C was very intrigued when she had a chance to attend a baking trends and cake decoration masterclass with Edd Kimber, winner of the very first series of the now infamous show.

Edd paired up with baking products people Dr Oetker to give us the masterclass, which was, in a word, delicious. He guided us through three baking trends, including showing us how to use the trends in our own bakes, and we then had a go at decorating the cakes ourselves (which admittedly did not look *quite* as good as Edd's own efforts). Oh, and then we ate. A lot.

Here are the three trends we should all be attempting this year, then - and the good news is that they're all surprisingly easy to master...

1. Vivid Colours / Nature

Incorporating two baking trends in one, this flowerpot cake with wafer daisies is very cute and uses brilliantly vivid coloured icing. It's really pretty simple to make, too; Edd suggested making up some green icing with one of Dr Oetker's coloured gels, piping this onto the cake, and then adding some wafer daisies and small butterflies. For a really nice twist, you can also get some flowerpot cake cases (sadly not edible) and pop them in there. We reckon these would be a great bet for kids' parties - C's now keen to put this theory to the test at one of her little cousins' birthday parties sometime soon...

2. Ombre Pastels

This is undoubtedly C's favourite of the three baking trends: an ombre pastel swirl bouquet of cupcakes. It looks great, and is encouragingly easy.

Once you've made the cake, make up the icing by placing butter in a bowl, beating until soft, and then gradually beating in the icing sugar until it's smooth and creamy. Edd added rosewater to his for flavour, which was wonderfully aromatic and really went with the "bouquet" theme, so C would recommend trying this too.

Next, divide the mixture into three portions: leave one plain, and colour the other two with violet and red gel food colour (but only use drops, since pastels are the objective here!).

The trick then comes with the piping: spoon the three types of icing down each side of the piping bag, being careful to keep them separate as you put them in. Gently squeeze the icing down the bag to reach the nozzle, and then squeeze some icing out on a saucer or similar until all three colours are coming out and pipe the cake.

Then decorate!

For the bouquet itself, tape a polystyrene base to a slide plate and push a cocktail stick through the centre of each cake - through the case - and push the rest of the stick into the polystyrene.

Once all your cakes are attached to the polystyrene, you can carefully wrap tissue paper around the base and the sides of the cakes, holding it in place with a few pins or a coloured ribbon tied in a bow. Very pretty!

3. No-Bake Cake Pops

Yes, more cake pops! The difference with this version, though, is that they're not really cake: they're actually popcorn covered in chocolate. C's not actually a huge popcorn fan, but even she had to admit that these were lovely, and very simple. 

To make these, melt chocolate in a microwave (Edd's advice: do this with lots of butter, and very cautiously) and then stir in the crushed popcorn and biscuits and mix together. 

Once it's cooled, form into balls and push a cake pop stick into the centre of each ball, moulding it onto the stick. Leave to chill.

For the decoration, melt milk and white chocolate in separate bowls and allow to cool (this is important - don't attempt the next step if it's still piping hot!). Hold each Popcorn Pop over a bowl of chocolate and spoon the melted chocolate over it, turning it to coat completely. 

Tap the stick gently on the edge of the bowl to remove the excess chocolate and then stand it upright in a vase or tall glass. Leave to set, before decorating with wafer butterflies or similar. Cute!

And, here's one of C's efforts: note how it compares to Edd's (ie: not very well). We may have some work to do...

Disclosure: Featured Content. A and C did not pay for the Dr Oetker/Edd Kimber cake decoration masterclass. A and C enjoyed this experience courtesy of Dr Oetker and did not accept additional payment for this post.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Hampstead Summer Fair

Last weekend saw Hampstead's Heath Street close from top to bottom in order to make way for the Hampstead Summer Fair, an event which brought out a mixed bunch of foodies, literary types, vintage car enthusiasts, gypsy fairground owners, charity do-gooders and the odd lost Frenchman to sample food and culture, ride the donkeys and - thank goodness - get a fix of some sunshine as well.

A temporary Hampstead resident at the fair's petting zoo
 The weather was absolutely glorious, with it finally feeling as if summer had arrived in London after the long cold winter and seemingly endless soggy spring. Consequently, Hampstead's residents turned out in force. The stalls were heaving with punters, who all seemed keen to sample the local produce and have a good time.

Over 100 stallholders, mainly made up of local business people, turned out. Some were selling books or  services such as yoga classes and relationship counseling (!) and others were playing music or performing live theatre, but the overwhelming majority of the vendors were selling food and drink.

Batala London performing samba beats
The range of food on offer was absolutely vast: boiled sweets, tagine, souvlaki and English craft ales all rubbed shoulders on the stalls. Such was the scope of the food available that we were only able to try a few bits and pieces, the highlights of which are discussed here.

One of the most delicious morsels we sampled was the Great British Sausage Company's "Churchill" bangers, traditional cumberland sausages from the Knebworth estate. As such, these fit into a recent Great British revival in sausage making, which even the Economist has been writing about recently.

We are pleased to report that they were as tasty as we thought they'd be: succulent and flavoursome, you could certainly taste the fact that the pigs had spent their lives happily scampering around the country. They were wonderful, and if you see them on offer near you, get your trotters on a few!

There was also a cute French delicatessen selling sausages, cheeses and Corsican jams for cheese. We could have gone nuts here, but we contained ourselves and left with half a pont l'evêque cheese. This has the consistency of brie, with a light orange rind, but which smells of old socks. The flavour is creamy but pungent. In short, it's brilliant. C, who took A's advice on the French cheese (A having lived there for a while) was very happy with A's choice, after having originally been eyeing up the brie. She looks forward to stinking out the fridge with her cheese sandwiches at work this week.

Finally, we took the opportunity to taste some natas, a Portuguese custard tart, which echoed the natas we tried in Hong Kong. Macau is a major producer of similar tarts, which are consumed all over the Far East. We are pleased to report that the Hampstead version of these tarts were just as tasty as their Macanese counterparts, though they were considerably less eggy - this is no bad thing, though.

Portuguese goodies!
The Hampstead Fair is an annual event and A and C look forward to the 2014 edition next June!