Category Archives: Review

Salsa – the sauces of South America

I’ve been around the culinary globe a bit in my time but I’m yet to visit South America and have a limited knowledge of its cuisine. So I was intrigued to dip into a pre-release copy of ‘Salsa’ [see what I did there?], edited by an old school friend and now available on Amazon. And $4.11 seems a small price to pay for a Kindle tour of the continent if you’re feeling saucy. Click on the image to find out more.

Salsa! The sauces of South America.

In Her Vietnamese Kitchen

Dried birds-eye chillies in a jar

I’ve been back in the classroom again, and whilst the cuisine is a close culinary neighbour of my last lesson [see the posts from my Cambodian experience] the schools concerned are over 6,000 miles apart as Uyen Luu runs her Vietnamese cookery class and her hugely successful supper club from her home in Hackney.

Uyen [pronounced Ewan, as in McGregor we’re told at the start] is multi-talented individual being a writer, photographer, food stylist, film maker, supper club host and – as when we visit – teacher. Her first recipe book has been published [available everywhere but also through her website, see below], the seemingly inevitable TV appearances have begun, and in today’s Observer Food Monthly you’ll find a seven page spread [or see it online].

The cover of "My Vietnamese Kitchen", a cookbook by Uyen Luu.

You are advised when attending the class not to have a hearty breakfast, advice I would urge you to heed! We prepared and ate over a dozen different dishes, and took samples of several home in a doggy bag. I won’t list them all [book your own class!] but highlights for me were:

  • Beef in Betel Leaves – will be on all my canapé menus from now on.
  • Beef Pho – which I now know to pronounce feu, as in pot au feu.
  • Chicken Salad with Banana Blossom – very similar to the Cambodian version.
  • Bánh Xéo – heavenly savoury crepe eaten with herbs, lettuce and dipping sauce.
  • Summer Rolls – learning to make them properly, rather than give up and serve the contents as a salad as I had the week before!

And you won’t just be learning to cook. We were taught what is eaten at different times of day; what constitutes a breakfast, a snack, a meal; what to eat to rebalance your yin and yang, and cool heatiness; which brands to buy [bamboo tree logo rice paper, cockerel logo sriracha chilli sauce, boy and woman fishing logo oyster sauce]; Vietnamese table etiquette; and tips like slicing and drying your own chillies to make chilli flakes if you find yourself with glut – I had, thanks to shopping for the summer rolls / salad the week before, so I did! [see photo at the top of this post]

Part way through the afternoon, and partly I suspect to allow us to digest the first half dozen dishes whilst Uyen’s mum finished preparation of the rest, we were taken shopping at a local Vietnamese supermarket where we could stock up on perilla, cockscomb mint, coconut caramel, black cardamom, etc. Another top tip – go with shopping bags and ready to carry home plenty of goodies!

Uyen generously and graciously shares such a wealth of information it’s hard to single out a highlight, but perhaps the biggest revelation of the day for me was an introduction to proper fish sauce [three crabs brand if you’re interested]. Made in traditional wooden vats, filtered multiple times, and allowed to mature properly, the best stuff loses any rancid overtones and you’re left with a deeply savoury, umami-rich, mushroomy, meaty aroma and flavour that’s as far removed from the usual rubbish as a bottle of supermarket plonk is from a Chassagne Montrachet Premier Cru. My bottle of cheap crap went straight in the bin and Uyen, I will be eternally grateful!

I’ll leave you with a look at my own attempt at Bánh Xéo. My pictures can’t hold a candle to the beautifully posed, strangely tranquil shots Uyen shares on her facebook page, but the dish disappeared pretty sharpish nonetheless.

Banh Xeo, a Vietnamese rice flour pancake coloured yellow with turmeric and filled with pork, prawn and bean sprouts. Traditionally eaten wrapped in herbs and lettuce, and dipped in a spicy sauce.

Fancy a go? Then book here!

Dabbous

I’m marking WFTTD’s second birthday with my first restaurant review, and the first review might as well be for the hottest ticket in town…

Dabbous' coddled egg with wild mushrooms and smoked butter, served in an egg shell nestled in hay.

photo © Dabbous

Everybody, it seems, loves Dabbous. I really can’t recall the last time the capital’s collective critics got themselves into so unanimous a lather about anything, and as I write this in June there’s not a table to be had for dinner before next April. “Game changing” is the prevailing gist. I’m really not keen to fuel the bonfire of hype for the restaurant’s sake – overly heightened expectations are so often the enemy of a good meal – but in all honesty I loved it too, and here’s why:

The place

In a display of muscular indifference to identikit restaurant design Dabbous’ interior favours bare brick and concrete, exposed air-con ducts and naked bulbs. Forget rooms aping the style of a private jet and think more the engine room of a cross-channel ferry. And it works. It says with crystal clarity that this place is about what’s on the plate [and downstairs, what’s in the glass], not about the fact that we spent more on our curtains than you did on your house. It’s small too [40 or so covers] and intimate to just the right degree as a result. It’s a space which invites you to relax and enjoy what you’re doing, not one which wants to bully you with its lavishness. And if wasn’t for the customers coming and going all the time I could happily live in the downstairs bar!

The staff

Friendly as you can find. Polite, knowledgeable, there when you want them, not when you don’t. Downstairs in Oskar’s Bar I dithered over my choice of cocktail – keen on the cigar syrup, unsure of the yellow pepper – and the charming and talented young mixologist said, “try that, and if you don’t like it I’ll just make you something else.” I didn’t, so he did, no fuss, and no charge. Upstairs last-minute ordering of additional dishes caused no hint of flap, and despite the pressure of the waiting list we were never pressured for the return of our table. Quite the opposite in fact, as we wanted to return to the bar for a digestif cocktail and were asked if we’d prefer to linger and have them brought to the table. This crew’s pride in what they do and evident joy in doing it here infuse the contents of each coupe and bowl. They could hardly have been bettered.

The menu

A short, seasonal, and to the point selection. The à la carte has five starters, six mains, and five desserts. The descriptions thereon range from three to eleven words, mercifully leaving no room for hyperbole or just plain bollocks. In fact ‘Just plain bollocks’ stands more chance of being a dish on the menu than a criticism of it. I have something of an aversion to tasting menus, though at £49 for seven courses this one is truly excellent value. We were advised that dishes were small [think large tapas] and that if ordering à la carte we might want to choose between four and seven dishes each, and in the end ten between two worked out very well. The other advantage of grazing from the à la carte is that if there are just a couple of you who are happy to share then you can try more dishes than if you both follow the same tasting menu processional route. Be warned though, you might well be reluctant to share some of what arrives!

The food

OK, I’ll say it – this was quite simply some of the best food I have eaten in a more than usually gluttonous 40 plus years. The simplicity of the dishes belies the huge amount of skill and technique which is clearly at play, because all of that skill and technique is directed back into highlighting the inherent beauty of the ingredients, not into hiding them behind the technical prowess of the kitchen or shoving its cleverness down your throat. Several dishes were frankly so good that I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry [and usually ended up doing both at the same time!].

To describe the highlights would include almost everything, so here are the edited highlights.

The bread – not something I can remember raving about, or indeed remember, just about anywhere else, our home-made seeded sourdough [with a hint of smoke] came with home-churned butter. Not an afterthought, not padding, but bread to make you sit up and take notice, a sign of things to come. I scoffed the lot. Incidentally I don’t agree with those who have said that it shouldn’t be served in a paper bag – did they actually taste what was in there?

‘Peas with mint’ – this simple description could only have tempted me more if it were to be reduced to just ‘Peas’ [regulars will know I’m a bit of a pea fan]. What arrived was a sublime, smooth pea cream topped with peas, podded and not, pea shoots, and a pea and mint granita on the side. I rummaged around in my extensive critic’s technical vocabulary and pronounced it [no sniggering] “the height of pea-ness!”. This is now officially my ‘death-row’ dinner of choice.

‘Mixed alliums in a chilled pine infusion’ – had the Shopkeeper repeating over and over “I can’t believe what they’ve done with… a plate of onions!”. Soft onions, aioli, chives, a light broth with jewels of herbed oil and pine infusion. Deep, fresh, sweet and savoury, it was a perfect example of letting the ingredients do the singing.

‘Coddled free range hen egg with woodland mushrooms and smoked butter’ – that ‘hen’ is as close as you’ll get to redundant verbiage on the menu but entirely forgivable given the difficulty of finding eggs from so humble a fowl on London menus today. Imagine the most unctious yolks you’ve ever had and know that they will be as nothing once you’ve eaten this. Being presented in the egg shell nestling in a bowl of hay has helped this to become one of the most photographed of Dabbous’ dishes – it’s now virtually a celebrity in its own right.

‘Braised halibut with lemon verbena’ – we agreed that we’d never had a better bit of fish. It was meltingly light and stunningly sauced and garnished. I should apologise publicly here to the Shopkeeper for trying to take a delicate bite of the accompanying oyster leaf and underestimating the size of my own mouth, sorry.

Also stunning were… asparagus with rapeseed mayonnaise and hazelnuts, barbecued Iberico pork with acorn praline [don’t miss the turnip tops with home-made apple vinegar], the squid broth, the custard cream pie [hint of Tonka bean?], and the chocolate ganache confection [bigger and more dramatic than the custard pie as the Shopkeeper was repeatedly keen to point out]. An otherwise super salmon with marjoram, samphire and moscatel grapes would probably have fared better if it wasn’t up against such stiff competition.

The cheeseboard

I’d read in Fiona Beckett’s review that the cheeseboard included Wigmore and – my own personal favourite in five years of cheese mongering – Shorrock’s aged Lancashire bomb, a cheese which we were the first in London to stock. I have not seen the bomb on any other cheeseboard, and any restaurant with the good sense to serve it instantly goes up in my estimation.

The bill

Ten dishes of the finest food to be had anywhere in town, three cocktails each [two before dinner, we couldn’t resist another one after], a bottle of Viognier, two glasses of dessert wines, and service, all came to just under £100 a head. It is very easy to pay far more for so much less. Let’s just hope that the laws of supply and demand and the inevitable blizzard of awards to come don’t herald a price hike. As things stand this is phenomenal value for money, especially in the heart of W1, and to find such satisfaction without being bilked in the process is all part of the pleasure.

My advice…?

Book it for as soon as you can, and sit out the wait. There’ll probably be only one Christmas between now and then, and we all know how quickly they come around! In the meantime you can always turn up at the bar where a selection of dishes are also offered, some being from the à la carte and some specifically for the bar. It’s a destination all on its own and I’m planning a return trip just for the cocktails – and maybe a sly snack or four. You never know, ask on the way in and they may even have a cancellation, but don’t count on it.

And when your day rolls around please do me one favour – print out this review, rip it up, and throw it on the fire. Forget everything you’ve read here and anywhere else, put away the expectations and the hype, and just turn up hoping for a good time – you’re in good hands, and the good folks at Dabbous won’t let you down.

I didn’t take photos – enjoyment isn’t always consistent with documenting the evidence, and I still turn my phone off when I sit down to dinner. Fellow reviewers Cheese and Biscuits and Eat Like a Girl were more conscientious in the photography department, and there are plenty more to be found online or on the Dabbous website. Please ask me if you’d like to be referred to pictures of specific dishes.

Dabbous 39 Whitfield St London W1T 2SF [Map]
Telephone: 0207 323 1544 Email: info@dabbous.co.uk

Feeling Adventurous?

Small Adventures in Cooking

I know, it’s starting to look like a branch of Waterstones in here, but honestly – you wait ages for a book full of decent, honest, but interesting grub and then two come along at once. And I think you’ll really like this. James Ramsden [like Lucas Hollweg] has a relaxed attitude to food and wants you to “…unwind, play some music, have a drink, and get stuck into some cooking.” You’ll get no arguments from me there! I like too the idea of including hash-tags for each recipe in the book so that you can comment and follow an evolving conversation on Twitter. Might well be stealing that idea soon.

Amongst other things James also has a great blog, and whilst we have both written for lovefood.com before now, he has recently become the site’s resident restaurant reviewer, and is bringing a very refreshing take to the business of deciding where to eat. One to watch, and no mistake.

Good Things to Eat

Cover of Good Things to Eat by Lucas HollwegI have been looking forward to this book since I heard last year that it was in the offing, and now it’s available for pre-order [just click on the picture]! This is the same Lucas who was mentioned in my Birthday Bouquet post below but he’s undoubtedly better known for his weekly food pages in the Sunday Times. So, if you like good things to eat, you know what to do. And if you don’t, what are you doing here in the first place…?!

The Complete History of Food (Bompas & Parr)

 The rooftop bar

You don’t go to an event laid on by Bompas and Parr to expect the expected. Admittedly my first encounter with the duo, a ‘scratch and sniff’ screening of Peter Greenaway’s ‘The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover’, however unusual it may sound, did what it said on the ticket; the film was indeed accompanied by a scratchable card impregnated with scents appropriate to particular scenes [some to delight, some to, well, disgust is probably the safest word]. But the interval gold leafed hotdogs served by cherubs in gold body paint, and the naked looking guy submerged in a help-yourself perspex vat of Minstrels did come as something of a surprise. Surprising too was the number of Minstrels a person could eat whilst making no apparent difference to the fill level, but I digress. I was too late to get tickets for their ‘Alcoholic Architecture’ breathable gin and tonic cloud bar, and only found out about their ‘Architectural Punchbowl’ – a building flooded with over 4 tonnes of punch over which guest floated before sampling – after the event.

So we approached the setting for this summer’s ‘The Complete History of Food’ with some excitement and just the right amount of trepidation – this was unlikely to be dull, but what exactly were we in for? The event took place in a former embassy on Belgrave Square, and such is my fascination with such grand homes [OK nosiness] that I’d have happily wandered round the deserted building for a couple of hours. Empty, though, it was not, having been cleverly crammed in its various corners with a range of ‘experiences’ referencing food and drink from medieval times to the present day.

We were greeted in a dusty library by a doctor of medieval medicine who diagnosed the way in which an imbalance in the bodily humours [black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood] could cause us to be either choleric, melancholic, phlegmatic, or sanguine. Turns out I was in a melancholic frame of mind, though it was close run thing between that and sanguine – I think that the tantalising smell of cooking wafting in from somewhere nearby may have caused a disturbance in my humorous flux. Diagnoses in hand we were led down some stairs, across a bridge and some stepping stones in a flooded basement and into what appeared to be the belly of an ancient galleon for canapés and cocktails specifically designed to right our imbalances [too late for one of the party who ‘imbalanced’ on the stepping stones and got a bit of a soaking!]. For me this meant a lemon and sorrel popsicle accompanied by a Courvoisier Exclusif pear and cardamom sidecar. Delicious, and the melancholy only returned as I got to the bottom of the glass and found I had to leave to be whisked off to Contemporary London out on the roof terrace.

Upstairs, against an amazing rooftop panorama, chef Alexis Gauthier had prepared an amuse bouche called Rocher a l’Or, ‘a port reduction centre, surrounded by duck foie gras, coated with caramelised almond and rolled in gold leaf’. These were a triumph, and would turn out to be the second most striking food morsel of the day. Yes, I was in an embassy, and with these Rochers I was being truly spoiled! [Sorry, but that was a once in a lifetime opportunity.] The nibbles were washed down with a creation from Lounge Bohemia, a champagne cocktail made with flattened champagne but containing a miraculously fizzy grape. I couldn’t prise the secret of the fizzy grapes out of the barman, but I did manage to extract a second glass of the cocktail. I’ve heard one reviewer describe this as more 80’s retro than contemporary – but isn’t 80’s revival the cutting edge of contemporary right now?

Onwards and downwards, via the winding stairs to  a room transplanted whole from the 1960s and – it had to happen somewhere – a scratch and sniff TV dinner. The whole scratch and sniff thing is fun first time around but, like the card it’s printed on, soon wears thin. Neither was the next experience, a bouncy-castle digestive tract supposedly representing the emergence of new fangled dietary ideas in the early twentieth century, that much of a highlight. And now two whole rooms had gone by with nothing to eat or drink! I was almost tempted to start gnawing at the corner of my cardboard TV dinner as we wound round more corners and corridors where the walls and floors now sprouted psychedelically magical mushrooms. I had to check that other people could see these, fearing that a mixture of cocktails, aromatic chemicals and five minutes in a bouncy castle might have induced hallucinations, but if so we were all suffering equally, and on we wound.

Richard narrowly avoids digestion!

Richard narrowly avoids digestion!

Until, finally, we arrived at the source of the aromas which had haunted us around the building: a recreation of the 1853 Iguanodon Dinner, where diners were seated in and around a life-size model of the dinosaur, one of those which has ever since graced Crystal Palace Park. The great lizard itself was full when we arrived, so we were seated in the shadow of its snout. Could I actually feel it breathing down my neck? Probably more of those hallucinations. Whatever was on the menu in 1853 we ate duck confit with puy lentils, beetroot, and black champagne sauce, courtesy of the chefs of Bistrotheque. By now a decent glass of wine would have gone down well with this really quite decent plate of food, but event sponsors Courvoisier don’t do wine, so a ‘Josephine’s Tea Garden’ punch was served instead, and given what had gone before you could be forgiven for feeling just a little queasy after a tumbler full of it. Which would be a shame, given the triumphant finale to come.

(On the way to the ‘Renaissance Banqueting House’ we passed a model of the Gherkin, sculpted in gingerbread, which made me wonder why no-one has ever thought to attempt a replica of the building in, well, gherkins? How many cocktails was that now…?)
 

There was just the one dessert being served from a giant rotating tiered cake covered in sugar sculptures under a multi-coloured chiffon awning [no, I checked again, and I have photos], rather than the three hundred served by the courtly Earl of Leicester to Elizabeth I in 1575, but what a dessert! Candied orange, iris jelly and, sublimely, an ambergris posset. Oh that posset. So silkily, waxily, smooth is the rare, famed substance unglamorously regurgitated by the sperm whale that to eat it is to feel your tongue, cheeks, and lips balmily soothed almost to the point of numbness, not unlike the after effects of the dentist’s lidocaine. The Iris jelly and candied orange partnered it perfectly too, and all of this was accompanied by a mercifully un-buggered-about-with Courvoisier XO. I took two, and wanted more. So enthralling was the dessert that we almost didn’t notice the machine that caused a jelly to dance to the rhythm of your heartbeat. Almost.

So, what was a boy to do at the end of all this? Well it seemed prudent to retire to the Courvoisier Bar lounge for a quick cocktail, after all we hadn’t seen one for all of 20 minutes, as a sort of stepping stone back out to reality. A digestif decompression chamber, as it were. Thirsty work this history.

Courvoisier Bar

Courvoisier Bar