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Sidrería Astarbe, Bilbao

July 26, 2015

At a conference in Bilbao last week the organisers took a bunch of us out to one of San Sebastian’s famous cider houses. It’s definitely an experience to be recommended. The one we went to was called Astarbe. And they also sell their cider bottled. Some sort of cider making operation has stood on the site for the last 450 years.

We started by being told the rules for the evening. We should help ourselves to the cider from these 10,000 litre barrels. Just pouring a little bit each time from a great height to give the cool, very dry, cider some air and bubbles. Each barrel held between 8,000 – 12,000 litres. A mere 20,000 pints of cider.

So, yes. We should help ourselves at any time. But whenever our hosts yelled out txotx it was mandatory to come up and charge our cider glasses. Challenged accepted Basques!

The food was a set menu and would be coming out shortly. So, drink some cider! Make plenty of toasts and come back to the tables for each course. A perfectly informal experience.

The grill was right next to the long communal dining tables, and when we walked in the staff were cutting 2 inch steaks from a whole side of beef.

The first course that came out was a large omelette, inside the eggs were every so slightly runny and mixed with salted cod (bacalao) and oily fried shallots which everyone ate with crusty baguettes. Its called Tortilla de Bacalao and it’s the traditional starter at all these cider houses.

After a few more trips to the cider barrels some grilled fish arrived. Not entirely sure what the variety was and couldn’t ask! But it was thick fillets, white, and fleshy. Grilled with a topping of mushrooms and fried onions. It had been heavily salted. Maybe even preserved briefly in salt? But definitely not dried.

More toasts and trips to the barrels the steak came out. The cut they were using was called Chuletón de Buey. Which was a bone in rib steak. The sirloin side of the t-bone with some extra fat attached. And it was great. Thick, expertly cooked, and very fatty. One guy told me that the basque buy the fattiest beef that the rest of Europe doesn’t want because it’s the best. And since grilled fat equals flavour this was pretty damn tasty. They served one of these monsters between four people and then came around afterwards and asked if we wanted more. Which about half of us did. The only thing they added to the meat was a sprinkle of salt.

The final course combined walnuts, quince jelly, and a mild cheese. A nice simple end to the meal that went perfectly with the cider everyone was still drinking. It’s like they’ve done this before a few hundred thousand times over the last 450 years that a cider house has stood in this location.

The whole thing cost around €35, including as much cider as you wanted to drink.


Street Feast @ Hawker House, Haggerston

April 1, 2015

Carbs are a menace and sugar is the devil. But you can only run so far before you crave their comforting arms around you. I went to Street Feast at #HawkerHouse with the full intention of being healthy and low carb (HAHA). But it obviously descended into feeding at the trough and queuing for fried chicken and noodles. Hawker House opened the weekend of 30th January for 10 weekends and is housed on three glorious floors filled with street food, booze and music in what looks like a burnt out office building. Pretty long queues if you don’t get there early on a Friday night but it wasn’t TOO bad. First thing I tried was a Cornetto of Mussel Popcorn at Duck N’Roll, run by Michelin-starred chef Pascal Aussignac from Club Gascon – heavenly! Perfectly seasoned with just the right amount of crunch and a side of black aoili dip.

Next up was some classic pork & chive gyoza dumplings from Rainbo. These didn’t blow my mind but were still good. I imagine it was just because they were a little bit cold. Started in 2011 Rainbo partners with Nepalese NGO called BASE to help raise money to help put an end to child labour, with 20p from every meal we sell going directly to the rescue, rehabilitation and reintegration of child labourers. Dumplings with a conscience – what’s not to love?

The most popular stand by far was Breddos Tacos. But we didn’t want a taco after we saw the words ‘buttermilk fried chicken’ from across the room. It took about 30 minutes but we ordered two small sides of fried chicken and DAYUM it was worth it. I think it also comes in a taco but hey I was “low-carbing” (LOL).

Also hit up Busan BBQ – a self-described “AmeriKorean Dream”- run by a husband and wife team inspired after eating a Bulgogi burger in Korea on a trip to meet the in-laws. We ordered two kinds of sliders – the Busan Burger (28 day rare breed British beef burger, dunked in a soy bulgogi sauce and topped with mustard pickled onions) and the Spicy Pork Belly bun (sweet and spicy pork belly, gochujang sauce). No one really liked these – it was too saucy, too salty and didn’t feel American or Korean. I would try these again as it’s an intriguing idea but the execution left much to be desired – I felt like I was beaten over the head with sauces.

Another highlight of the night was Yum Bun. Started as a stall in Hackney’s Broadway Market in 2010, they serve delicious signature steamed pork, chicken, mushroom and shrimp buns. We had sweet steamed fried buns filled with ice cream – salt caramel and toasted coconut. OMG. These were faultless and exactly how we imagined them – an Asia-inspired ice cream sandwich. By this point in the night I felt slightly sick (standard) but it wasn’t hard to finish these off. UPDATE: If you missed out on Street Feast #HawkerHouse, it’s coming back to Dalston Yard for the summer starting the weekend of 16th May with an even bigger event called Dinerama set to be open five days a week. Not to mention Summer Tales at Red Market in Old Street – a tropical-themed street food feast with relaxed jungle vibes and hammocks on the menu. Christ. Will have to get those bibs cleaned.

Really need to try the Angry Fries from Bleecker St. Burger next time – chips soaked in hot sauce and creamy blue cheese. Mmmm. The stuff of gluttonous dreams.


Lazy Susan Room at Smoking Goat, Soho

March 29, 2015

Smoking Goat has been described as a Thai BBQ restaurant and all the reviews have been amazing. But of course they don’t take reservations. So months ago we booked their Lazy Susan room. Which handles a maximum of ten people as a way to skip the queue. It was a set menu at £35 each – a pretty good deal as there is A LOT of food.

It’s a lovely dark room. Right in the bowels (yeah I went there) of the restaurant with a giant table. The service is fantastic. Friendly and attentive but with a light touch. People who know what they’re doing, and how to host.

First up was the coal roasted Aubergine salad. Poached egg and fish sauce.

Next, their famous chicken wings. Crisp, sweet, sticky, and steeped in fish sauce. The whole place smells of them. In a good way. We were warned that we would immediately want more of these, and that we could have more of them. But that we shouldn’t because there was loads of food to come. We listened to the warning. Ate the whole plate. And then immediately ignored the host’s great advice and ordered more anyway. Not pictured was their pomelo and chili salad which we had polished off well before the wings arrived.

Cornish clams in a yellow curry broth.

Smoked whole lamb shoulder basted with fermented shrimp, chilli & palm sugar. The main course. We carved it up at the table and ate it with balls of sticky rice which were served to us in little plastic bags. It was a great piece of meat. A really unique preparation. Smoky BBQ plus sweet and pungent thai flavours.

Green papaya salad

And still they kept on bringing more meat! Slow roast duck legs marinated with galangal, lemongrass & kaffir and basted with ketjap manis & white pepper. At this point I have to confess to being so drunk that I don’t remember much about them. But according to Jen they were the highlight of the meal. I’ll have to go back for the duck and their Crab dish, which also receives rave reviews, but sadly wasn’t on the menu that evening.

For dessert kaffir lime granita & rum coconuts. A good refreshing end to the meal with a slight hint of fish sauce (seriously).

And that was the slight problem with the series of dishes we had served up to us. Each one was delicious. But taken as a whole the intense fish sauce flavour became a bit one note. And that’s coming from someone who really does love that flavour. But it does need to be done carefully. The papaya salad for example had too much. The salt of which killed the other flavours.

But that’s a pretty minor gripe. The overall experience was fantastic. Just the right kind of chaotic food fun.

Smoking Goat
7 Denmark St

Smoking Goat on Urbanspoon


Loong Kee Cafe, Dalston

March 20, 2015

Well, well, well. This is what happens when you don’t book ahead for Chinese New Year. After having the metaphorical door slammed in my face when trying to make a reservation at Yipin or Dotori, we resorted to the always reliable Vietnamese restaurants on Kingsland Road. We momentarily considered Spanish tapas but then I didn’t want to risk being struck down by a malevolent Chinese spirit. Settling on a place we’ve never tried before in the spirit of trying new things, we settled on Loong Kee rather than return to our favourite – the always reliable Tay Do. There were six of us and as the food was not memorable and the lighting was terrible, I didn’t bother taking loads of photos.

This is one of my favourite dishes of all time – Bun Thit Nuong with vietnamese spring rolls – vermicelli noodles with lemongrass marinaded chargrilled pork, fresh herbs and fish sauce. SO GOOD. I’ve had it at countless family dinners and it’s my failsafe order (besides pho) when I go for Vietnamese. The Loong Kee version didn’t make a good impression – the pork didn’t have much flavour and it was just very bland. I almost didn’t feel like finishing it – it’s the basic bitch version of the glorious original dish. But obviously I did because to not finish food would be out of character and I didn’t want to arouse suspicion. On the whole, the menu was all over the place – there was Thai food, there was Chinese food, yada yada yada. Usually not a great sign.

The best thing we ordered was the coconut ice cream. Served in a coconut shell. Refreshing, sweet and delicious. I would come back here just to order this!

Also can’t go wrong with fried banana fritters with ice cream. The bananas had a tad too much batter but maybe I’m just splitting hairs at this point. Next year, I won’t forget to book a table and a karaoke room at Yipin for Chinese New Year. OY VEY.

Loong Kee
134G Kingsland Road
London E2 8DY

Loong Kee Cafe on Urbanspoon


Frank’s Canteen, Highbury

March 15, 2015

Brunch is sometimes a victim of its own hype. Unfairly swept up into lists of “stuff white people like” or girly lists of things to do on a Sunday before hitting the mall, brunch is actually the most fuss-free, guilt-free meal of the week. You don’t have to wake up early for it and if you’re hungover with a complexion that looks “haunted”, a stack of pancakes and a fresh cup of coffee is the answer. Then you can drag your carcass home to lie facedown on the couch for the rest of the day. It’s a win-win.

Frank’s Canteen opened up a few months ago on Highbury New Park and has a simple no-nonsense rustic feel with white walls and a handful of pale wooden tables. We ordered the Potato cakes with smoked paprika butter, poached eggs, spring onions, spinach leaves, Norfolk black bacon & lemon crème fraiche dressing. This was good but despite the list of ingredients, it didn’t have a great deal of flavour. It’s nice to go out for brunch and order food that has a bit of an edge to it that makes it stand out. This is why I love going to Ottolenghi. It was just a tad on the boring side for £10. We assumed the potato cakes were a type of hash brown but it was more like some sort of bread.

The Huevos Rancheros were a much better option. Soft corn tortillas, poached eggs, chilli tomato salsa, refried beans, coriander & mature cheddar. I enjoyed it but again, I felt like it was lacking excitement and needed something more. Maybe we’ve gotten too picky and jaded? Other options are Poached Eggs on Sourdough toast served with side options like Braised red onions, tomato & borlotti beans, or Norfolk black bacon, Lincolnshire sausage and Smoked salmon. It’s a really nice and cosy neighbourhood cafe but there isn’t anything that particularly stood out like the Sydney breakfast at Highbury Arts Club or amazing Eggs Benedict at Yolk. But you can’t go wrong if you live in the area and just want to pop in for a fuss-free cup of coffee and plate of poached eggs and bacon.

Frank's Canteen
86 Highbury Park
London N5 2XE

Le Relais de Venise, Marylebone

March 11, 2015

Trying to go for dinner anywhere in the vicinity of Soho on a Friday night can make you start to feel a bit American Psycho. Name dropping restaurants like a crazed Wall Street fat cat, wondering where Patrick Bateman would eat and coming to the sad conclusion that if he were actually here, he would spit on your ragged clothing and leave you on the sidewalk clutching the roll of Oreos you happened to have in your bag. So no, we didn’t even bother trying to have dinner in Soho. Instead we went wandering up to unassuming Marylebone and got into a beaming queue where people were actually smiling. We were seated within 15 minutes. I had to pinch myself, the memory of being turned away from a Carluccio’s one Friday night still fresh in my memory.

And we had a GREAT meal. Le Relais de Venise is a Parisian restaurant (with 3 London locations and one in New York) with a unique French dining experience – there is just one dish. Green salad with walnuts dressed with mustard vinaigrette followed by steak frites, served with a secret sauce. There are no vegetarian options (SOZ) and no you can’t have the potato spiralized and then made into a wig instead. Just eat the fries. But don’t ask for ketchup (oops). And the best part? Just when I was wistfully eating my last “frite” the waitress came back with the rest of my steak (WTF) and another helping of fries served from a large silver platter – just like that scene from 101 Dalmations! I was genuinely taken aback. The French really know how to enjoy themselves. Zut Alors!

Le Relais de Venise, Marylebone
120 Marylebone Lane

Le Relais de Venise on Urbanspoon


Riverford at the Duke of Cambridge pub, Islington

March 1, 2015

I had serious high hopes for this meal. They had asked us to order our lunch in advance as there was a group of 8-10 – this takes the joy out of perving on the menu but I get it. I chose the organic roast chicken and gleefully used the drumstick emoticon without abandon the rest of the week. We showed up and were told that the roast menu was only available on Sunday. Which is fine. But why take our order? And WHO took our order? Is this like some kind of Hogwarts parallel universe and Draco Malfoy is enjoying my organic roast chicken lunch in a dank corridor somewhere, gleefully laughing like a maniac? All I know is there was no chicken served up in here.

Staring at the chalkboard menu, I really struggled to find something that sounded appealing. The pub itself is tucked away down a side street behind Angel station in Islington and has recently teamed up with the famed Riverford farm. It is perfectly delightful – all wooden tables and lots of natural light. And they are fully committed to being 100% organic – even down to the vodka in the Bloody Mary. But still, the menu. Winter Vegetable and Fennel Crumble as a main. Really? I settled on Pan-Fried cod steak with pearl barley and kale risotto. The other options were Venison Chop with Swede Gratin and Cavalo Nero or Spicy Lamb Chickpea Stew to share for £28.

The cod itself was incredibly bland and cut in a strange way – there were a million bones. And no flavour whatsoever. The pearl barley was delicious – but the kale risotto turned out to be just steamed kale leaves? Confused.

The creamy leek side dish was heavenly. I ended up just dumping it on the fish hoping for flavour osmosis.

Now this drink really perked me up. On weekends they have Veg Cocktails – this is the Gold’N Purple: beetroot, amaretto, orange and lemon zest. So sweet and delicious. Perfect for lightweight drinkers! I hate saccharine sweet drinks like that dreadful Haribo cider (Kopperberg and the like) and overly sweet cocktails that aren’t Pina Colada. This lured me into the false illusion that I was drinking a cold-pressed juice.

Dessert made up for the cod – hazelnut chocolate brownie with creme fraiche and apple crumble with cream. I felt confused after the meal. Aspects of it were highly enjoyable but the mains were super pricey and bland. Would go back for the beetroot cocktail and a side of creamy leeks if I was in the hood. I’m sure they would be thrilled to see me.

Riverford at The Duke of Cambridge
30 St Peters Street
Islington, London N1 8JT

Duke of Cambridge on Urbanspoon


Pho House, Highbury Corner Islington

February 19, 2015

Any restaurant within walking distance from my couch already has a leg up on the competition. Couch to restaurant journey is about 20 minutes at a glacial pace and wearing the stiff, patent Doc Martens I just bought to relive my youth. So I was already predisposed to look favourably upon Pho House. Recently opened right next to Highbury & Islington station, helpfully adjacent to the soul-destroying light of a Tesco sign and conveniently located next to a bank machine, the only way this restaurant could be more convenient for me is if there was some kind of shuttle bus that stopped outside my door. Damn I’m lazy. So we popped in one night with high hopes. Could this restaurant save me some overground journeys to my Dalston Kingsland fave Tay Do?

I am pleased to report that yes, even though there are some definite weaknesses that could easily be improved on, this place has a lot going for it. The bowl of pho had a really nice, well-balanced broth that wasn’t too salty or bland. The beef was slightly overdone but it didn’t detract from the comforting warmth of the dish. Pho always reminds me of home and is my ultimate comfort food. The serving wasn’t as big as I’m used to but it was substantial enough for a normal person who doesn’t treat every meal like it’s a feeding frenzy.

The fried salt and pepper squid was decent – this seems like such an easy dish but I’m surprised that a lot of places can’t get this right. Squid is actually a difficult thing to cook, it’s not easy to strike that balance between soft and chewy. I felt like this needed more salt and pepper. And maybe a few more pieces of squid?

Again the prawn summer rolls were decent but needed more flavoursome herbs – and I like it when they serve it with hoisin peanut sauce, not just with some fish sauce like they did here.

This was weirdly called Tom Yum Chicken Soup. Very strange sour broth that did not taste anything like Tom Yum. The broth was too clear to have all that stuff floating in it. Also don’t get why a random Thai dish is on the menu – you don’t need to appeal to the whole damn posse – just chill and do your own thing. Be Vietnamese!

Mmm I need more Vietnamese iced coffee in my life. I need more condensed milk in my life. Some of my fondest childhood memories include secretly cracking open cans of condensed milk and just spooning it into my mouth. Heavenly. Pho House is a welcome addition to the neighbourhood – we are really lacking Vietnamese restaurants in Islington. The staff are lovely and attentive (and actually Vietnamese!) and I hope they do really well. I walked by a week later and it was packed full of people. They DO need to sort out their fried squid and serving sizes but all in good time.

Pho House
39 Holloway Road
London N7 8JP

Romeo’s Gluten-Free Bakery, Islington

February 15, 2015

When I noticed the sign in the window last summer proclaiming that a gluten-free bakery shall rise on Upper Street, I let myself get a little bit excited. It seemed like MONTHS before there were any signs of life at Romeo’s Gluten-Free Bakery. And rise from the ashes it did. But it was worth the wait for gluten-free bread that actually tastes good! I’m truly amazed. The texture of gluten-free bread is usually rock hard or overly chewy, never an in-between. And never that lovely springy spongy soft breaded goodness that makes you want to use the loaf as an edible pillow. Went for a quick lunch on a rainy Saturday and had the avocado sandwich with an almond milk latte. Almond milk! I am no fan of regular milk and tolerate soy but I’ve found it almost impossible to find any decent coffee places in the area that offer almond milk as an alternative.

The service was a tad slow so they brought over a complimentary gluten-free brownie that we obviously devoured. I love when people make little gestures like that – it shows they actually care about their customers. They sell fresh loaves everyday but I imagine they go quickly. I’ve had the carrot cake here as well and it tastes like proper cake. I mean, can you get more ‘Islington’ than a gluten-free bakery? Am patiently waiting for the dog bakery to open. Not because I have a dog but because I look forward to the day when I can walk by and scream “HAH!”.

Romeo's Gluten-Free Bakery
167 Upper Street
London N1 1US

Romeo's Gluten Free Bakery on Urbanspoon


Autograf, Polish in Harringey

February 6, 2015

When it’s half raining, half snowing you don’t want to go to far from home. Which is why I ended up meeting some friends for dinner at Autograf. A well reviewed Polish restaurant very close to the Turnpike Lane tube station. It’s very cosy inside and has a diner feel. With booths, neon sign outside, twin televisions playing non stop 80s music videos. In total there are only be about 20 seats. It doesn’t feel like some marketing idea of a Polish restaurant. But it does have a definite Eastern European vibe.

The food is great. If you are looking for traditionally prepared Polish staples. This is the place. The portions are absolutely huge though. Not one out of four of us could finish an appetiser and even half of our main. So order carefully, or don’t. And just take home enough for lunch the next day. Which is what I did with my crumbed cutlet.

Pierogi with meat.

Pierogi with potato, cottage cheese, and onion. I think next time I go I’m just going to eat these buttery pierogi and drink beer. Three plates of these amongst four would probably have done us.

Red borscht with meat ravioli. Good sour borscht. The dumplings are filled with very finely minced meat.

The breaded pork chop with potatoes and browned cabbage (a side of hot sauerkraut not shown) was really tasty. Very tender meat. Huge portion. Was delicious cold the next day.

Roasted pork ribs. Quite sweet. Didn’t quite hit the mark.

Potato pancake with cottage ghoulash and white and red cabbage.

Chicken cutlet devolay style. Which is the Polish version of a chicken kiev?

If you are in the market for this kind of food. This is the place to come. A step above anything you’d find in the pubs in the area. And the whole meal was under £75 for four people including two rounds of drinks. And it includes lunch the next day.

488 West Green Road
N15 3DA

Autograf on Urbanspoon