Sunday, 29 March 2009

The Underground Restaurant

This has been the second time in as many weeks that I have found myself dining out in the wilds of north-west London, namely Kilburn and to be honest it's well off the beaten track for me so what is it about this part of the city that keeps drawing me in? Maybe it's just coincidence, I have been actively pursuing new foodie experiences lately, looking for the unusual in the unlikeliest of places. But maybe it's some kind of destiny and fate is mapping out a culinary journey, pressing me along some predetermined path. Maybe MsMarmitelover can explain as I found myself this Saturday at her vegetarian Underground Restaurant along with my wife and 30 astrologists, believe me serendipity (or whatever you would like to call it) has never been such fun.

I first read about this new trend in the Metro, the main premise being that some foodies are starting to run their own restaurants from the comfort of their own front rooms, charging ahead for a set menu. The "customers" come via word of mouth, blogs, and messageboards with the emphasis on secrecy as it's not strictly legal though there is a paradox here as the more popular they become, the harder it must be to keep a lid on things. MsMarmitelover has been running her one for over two months now and already it must have become what is deemed to be the definitive example of what an underground restaurant should be like. That being a place that provides a deliciously unique and eccentric and joyous experience.

We turned up unfashionably early, I thought it started at 7, not 7:30PM, but luckily the front of house with a withering glance, took pity and ushered us in out of the cold rain. Johnny and Jo, two super cool rockabillies who underneath the surface were actually really friendly, took our coats and handed over a divine cocktail consisting of vodka, cava, and blue curacao caviar (which was created by this process, eat your heart out Heston!). Being the first ones there we had the pick of where to sit, though in a room that was rammed wall to wall with chairs and tables, it was a question of where couldn't you sit but we plumped for centre stage. MsMarmitelover introduced herself and said thanks for the wild garlic we brought like proper teachers pets, before disappearing to do her make-up, for someone who was cooking for 30 plus people she seemed remarkably calm.

By 7:30, the rest of the guests started to come in from the street and with it being an Astrology night, everyone seemed to know or heard of each other. My wife and I were slightly unnerved at this point as our knowledge of the stars and their meanings extends to well, bugger all really so what could we talk about? She's a Taurean, prone to bullish type qualities and I'm Cancerian, and have been known to walk sideways but that's it. Luckily, Johnny steered two guests our way who as it turned out were equally out of depth, Caroline the bubbly book agent and Alfie, the ex-Army officer who couldn't believe there wouldn't be any "bloody meat" served. Even luckier was the fact that they were a great company, again is that provenance I'm detecting here?

After a short while of chatting and nibbling on toasted seeds, the first course came out, a thai coconut and spinach soup which was gorgeous, packed with spice and citrus flavours. Naturally when the pot came out for second helpings, I went steaming in but on reflection I should have held back as I was stuffed halfway through the night. Second course was a pleasant refresher of black belugar lentils with a sliced round of goats cheese. Third was a very decadent slice of gratin dauphinoise in cream, served with pepperonata and a rocket salad dressed with spring shoots. The pepperonata and salad was lovely and fresh but the richness of the dauphinoise did finish me off a bit, perhaps if I hadn't been such a greedy sod with the soup I would have been able to finish it but sadly it defeated me. It was just as well that raspberry air was served up for the fourth course then and again here MsMarmitelover was tipping her hat to the field of molecular gastronomy. Imagine popping a raspberry into your mouth only for it to disappear the minute it touches your tongue, for me this was the cleverest dish of the night. For the fifth and final course we were frogmarched outside to collect a slice of negre en chemise from ChocStar's magical chocolate mobile. What exactly "negre en chemise" is I don't know but it was pure indulgence, if I get to see ChocStar at London's first chocolate festival at South Bank next week, I'll ask her.

By the end of the night, we were absolutely stuffed and it was with heavy hearts and heavy stomachs that we had to leave amid a growing cacophonous atmosphere to catch the train home, I suspect that the night went on into the early hours with people probably forgetting that one of those was getting pinched back from them. It's not often you will go into a stranger's house to sit with other strangers and eat strange food but I couldn't recommend it enough. Keep it secret, keep it safe is a mantra that is running through my head right now, I hope MsMarmitelover can.

Neptune in Aquarius: a lemon vodka, elderflower syrup, lemon juice and blue curacao caviar cocktail

Uranus and Mars in Pisces: Thai lemon grass/coconut/spinach soup using the red chillies and garlic of Mars, splashing down in Uranian Style from the Orient

Pluto in Capricorn: Black beluga lentils topped by a round of goats cheese

Mercury in Aries: Peppery rocket, watercress and spring shoots. Scarlet pepperonata, with cherry tomatoes, capers and green peppercorns

Jupiter in Aquarius: An audacious dish in honour of the Lord of Abundance. Fruity and airy.Add your own optimism. Raspberry/pomegranata/creme de cassis 'air'

Venus retrograde in Aries: venusian chocolate....negre en chemise from Petra Chocstar

Friday, 27 March 2009

Feed Me Seymour

I am so glad that I kept the faith Mr and Mrs Sam Clark. In your hands I do trust and never again will I waver or doubt the words of wisdom that you give. By holding fast and staying true, I believe that I have become a stronger man, a better man. You have shown me the light and emboldened in me a sense that life, in all it's form is precious, unique, beautiful and fizzy on the tongue. Without your guidance, I would have strayed, I would be on the wrong path, I would be lost. And I would have flushed my sourdough starter down the loo.

So the good news is that it seems to have worked, after a long process of feeding and nurturing, the starter is alive and well and ready to use for baking bread. The good indication being that the smell has gone (thank god) and that it's tastes slightly tangy so I'm feeling quite confident, although according to the recipe I do need to keep going for a couple more days. Like a pet I feed it first thing in the morning and last thing at night. This basically means pouring away 200ml of the mix and then adding 100gms of strong white flour and 150mls of water, quite wasteful really but I'm not going in for industrial quantities of of bread. If all goes well, Friday will become "Baking Day" in our house and no longer will we be traipsing to the shop for overpriced loaves filled with additives. Happy days.

The "Monster In The Cupboard" as it affectionately has become known.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Take a walk on the wild side

At present, our garden looks like a bomb has hit it. What am I talking about? Our garden has always looked like a bomb has hit it but this is not down to a lack of care or attention. It's more a case of lack of time as the house that we live in has taken the best part of 5 years to renovate, clean up and turn into a family home. It seemed that the previous owners had dropped "Little Boy" when we first moved in you see. So the next big plans are to concentrate on creating a little oasis out yonder, complete with raised patio area, raised flower beds, raised plot for salads and herbs and if I get my own way, a raised clay oven. If Jamie can have one, then so can I. "Yes I bet he uses his all the time" is often my wife's response to such a brilliant and fantastic idea but I will build one, oh yes. Well at least try to.

One thing that we do both agree on is to keep and cultivate some of the wilder parts of the garden, particularly the area under the cherry tree where we are lucky enough to have wild garlic growing. How it got there is anybody's business and we didn't really have a clue if it actually was wild garlic until my brother-in-law grabbed a bunch of the leaves last year, shoved them in his mouth and confirmed our suspicions ("bloody hell that's garlicky" he said). I didn't have the heart to tell him that the cats often spray around that tree but it was his endeavour that opened my eyes to the notion of foraging wild foods and that's something that I am keen to explore so watch this space.

At this time of year, the wild garlic really starts to flourish and this time around I have been determined to use it when cooking. Despite my brother-in-law's outburst, wild garlic is slightly mellower, giving a more subtle flavour and you can use any part of the plant but up till now I have only been using the leaves to pep up scrambled eggs and omelettes. So I thought about using it in a risotto, just a basic one to see how it would fair, I didn't add the garlic at stage one, I threw in the chopped leaves right at the end instead. I also threw in some mushrooms for good measure and pan-fried some salmon fillets to place on top of the risotto but I think I made the mistake of using some old vermouth bianco that I found at the back of the cupboard. The result was nice and creamy but overall the risotto was just too sweet. If I hadn't been greedy and used a glass of the Sauvignon Blanc that I was drinking, then perhaps the wild garlic would have come through more. The salmon however was gorgeous, I normally cook it en papillote, but quick frying is the way forward for me, sod the calories, I can chew on wild garlic leaves for the rest of the week.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Little Bay

A funny thing kept happening at this restaurant I dined in last night. On the way back to my table after a toilet break (of which there were many) I kept getting lost. I just couldn't understand it. Alright I admit that I had consumed a fair few pints of the black stuff, you know to honor Mr St.Patrick and the one quarter pint of Irish blood that is in me but there must have been other malevolent forces at work, messing with my brain. In the sober light of day, I'd say that the pixie who dreamed up the interior of Little Bay had a lot to do with my befuddlement and if I ever catch it, I'll lock it up with the beer monkey that keeps stealing money from my wallet.

We were actually out celebrating the birthday of a lesser known saint, namely my Nanny Pat, the original old woman who wore purple, at her favorite local haunt in Kilburn. I'd been to Little Bay plenty of times before, the Farringdon branch that is and have always been impressed with their ethos of producing quality food at reasonable prices. I also like the mad 'Greco-Roman' decor at Farringdon a la Llewelyn-Bowen but the Kilburn branch was something else . It literally is a labyrinth of rooms and cubby holes and stairs with tables that are set at different height levels . Some diners could be found bunking up on high, overhead other patrons, some were hidden away in tiny alcoves, bathed in candlelight. Add walls flocked with cherubs and religious figures, with plush velvet drapes hanging from the ceiling and a profusion of gold gilt everywhere, the atmosphere creates such a sensory overload that it was no wonder that I kept getting lost on the way back from the loo!*

So what about the food then, well I kicked off Choux de Crab, or if your french is rusty, Choux Buns stuffed with Crab Meat, Ginger and Chillies, with Citrus Hollandaise (I don't think this is the literal translation somehow).

Followed by Chargrilled Lamb Steak with Honey Glazed Vegetables and Green Peppercorn Sauce.
I didn't go for dessert in the end but Julie, one of Nan's friends who talks to walls, had the White Chocolate and Pistachio Parfait.

Overall the meal was a great success, the combination of flavours in the starter was a little bit muddled and the presentation was pretty much the same but the lamb steak was cooked just the way I like it, medium rare and the sauce tasted delicious. Julie threatened to stab anyone who came near her parfait with a fork so I can't really comment but she devoured it in seconds so I can only presume that it was really really really good. We went in for the house wines, red and white, which were perfectly quaffable although drinking both in equal quantities do not set you up well for the morning after. Or afternoon. Or evening come to that. And by the way, I blame you Nan for being born on one of the most alcoholic days of the year. Nothing to do with me, oh no. Unfortunately our group wasn't quite big enough to get on the 3 courses for £10 deal and it was a shame that the proprietor couldn't be cajoled into letting us have the food at that rate but still I think the overall bill amounted to £20 a head. Which isn't bad value at all really so why don't you get lost and go to Little Bay, you'll have a good time.

*I have been reliably informed that whilst the restaurant is quirky with it's little nooks and crannies, it isn't as cavernous as I imagined it to be and if I kept finding myself lost in there then I really must have been quite pissed.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Houston, we have a problem

Holy Mother of God! WHAT IS THAT SMELL?

Hmm, this doesn't look good and doesn't come anywhere near to smelling good either. The last time I encountered such an aroma was when I eventually peeled off my socks and boots after a 5 day stint at a particularly damp Glastonbury. That tour of duty resulted in trench foot and such was the stench, I had to stick my feet out of the car window for the entire 4 hour journey home and I can tell you, it took a good while after that to nurse them back to fragrant health. The source of the offending funk this time however is coming from my sourdough starter. Like I said this doesn't look good.

So have I gone wrong somewhere? Well at this stage, it's hard to say. The recipe implicitly says that I had to wrap the grapes in muslin and submerge in flour and dough and leave for 2 weeks. It does indeed say that after such time the mixture will smell slightly unpleasant and have a pink tinge to it. Apparently it is at this point that you can begin to 'feed' it but the tears streaming from my eyes are prompting me to have doubts especially as the starter is only 7 days old.

Before taking any action, I decided to ask some searching questions on a foodie message board and the resulting answers has thrown a multitude of spanners in the works. There's a lot of people out there who seem to really know their stuff and now I am beginning to admit to myself that this whole business of making your own starter demands a lot more respect than I gave it in the first place. The amount of information given is quite dizzying but there seems to be two factors. The first bone of contention is that I have left the mix for too long before feeding it to encourage the natural yeasts to develop, and secondly the quantities of flour and water I've used are far too much. Most of the posted methods take smaller amounts, in which you generally begin the feeding process after 24 hours. After a period of 5 days of feeding you should get a nice yeasty smelling, bubbling mix that you can contain within a jam jar. I have a big bowl of lifeless grey sludge that's covered with murky brown water and smells like the cat has shit in it.

So where do I go from here? Maybe I should try and call Mr and Mrs Sam Clark and quiz them but it's unlikely that I'll get through to them at Exmouth Market HQ. Maybe I should just plough on and proceed as instructed. Or maybe I should just chuck it all away and start again. The one saving grace has come from one foodie advisor who has suggested that the brownish liquid could in fact with time turn to alcohol. And that could open up a whole new world of possibilities!

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Sir it's only wafer thin

If I think about it, kicking off this blog with a title such as "Projects Mayhem Parts 1 and 2" is a bit of a misnomer. It implies that I'm embarking on some kind of audacious adventure where I shall be pushing culinary boundaries, breaking down walls, taking myself out of the comfort zone and promoting an effort to be truly epicurious.

However, on reflection perhaps I should have kicked off with "Project Sitting On My Arse and Look In The Fridge From Time To Time" as that is what I have basically done for the last few days. Although I look a bit like him (shaved head-check, angular glasses-check, er thats it) it doesn't really make me out to be the new Heston does it.

Maybe I am being a little too hard on myself here as the Duck Bresaola turned out very well, a little bit on the salty side but overall, the flavours of the star anise, coriander seed and zest came through. In fairness, I left the duck breasts in the cure slightly longer than I should have done before rinsing them off and air-drying in the fridge for two more days, which I think may account for the saltiness but if I'd had something like this, well that may have made all the difference. I sharpened my trusty Global as best as I could but couldn't quite get the delicate paper thin slices that I wanted. Yet, having served it up with some lamb's lettuce, drizzled with walnut oil and lemon juice, one of my test subjects remarked that it reminded her of parma ham so perhaps I wasn't that far off after all. Will definitely have a crack at this again as it would make a good stress free starter for a dinner party, though if only watching the fridge wasn't so boring.

No F*** off, I'm full!

Friday, 6 March 2009


Its alive, ITS ALIVE!

Ok not yet but it will be soon

Of course I'm talking about my sourdough starter which I started this morning, thus taking the first steps I have ever made towards baking bread. Looking around at the exhaustive amount of information on the Internet, I have possibly bitten off more than I can chew. One particularly comprehensive site states unless you know what you're doing, making your own starter for the first time is akin to trying to build your own bike before you've learnt how to ride it. Well in the spirit of adventure I say up yours to that, I don't need stabilisers, my Dad always held onto the seat whilst walking behind me.

So the basic premise of creating a sourdough starter is to try and capture some of the wild yeasts that float around us within the dough and then feed it with flour to keep it alive, replacing what you take out when baking your loaf. If you get it right and take care of it, the starter or 'mother' will stay alive in a yeasty, bacterially kind of way (you can tell I'm not a scientist) and you will have access to an endless supply of tangy, moreish, yummy bread. If you get it wrong, I've heard you can end up with equivalent of paint thinner.

I've used a recipe from the first Moro cookbook which uses grapes giving a head start for getting those essential wild yeasts in there. Simply mix up 500 grams of strong flour with 1 litre of water in a suitable bowl, tie up a bunch of grapes in a piece of fine cloth ie. muslin, crush the grapes and submerge into the watery dough. Leave for 2 weeks.

Can it be any easier?

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Come back Donald

I like the idea of creating dishes by curing. Basically you take your main ingredient, normally meat or fish, smother it in a mixture of salt, sugar, herbs and spices and then leave it to do its own thing. Come back a week later, clean your magic mix off, slice up into wafer thin slivers and serve it up cold on a plate drizzled with some olive oil or with some bread and pickles. And hey presto you're a culinary wizard, albeit a lazy one maybe but still it often impresses. Admittedly I have only ever really gone down the gravadlax route before with salmon using different cures, lime and vodka is a winner, so I am intrigued to see how this home made bresaola turns out.

Bresaola is normally made with beef, air-cured over a long period of time (3 months) but I have found a recipe that uses duck and only takes four days which is good as I am not that patient. To feed 6 people as a starter, two breasts should do the trick.

The key ingredients for the cure are salt, peppercorns, star anise, coriander seed, all crushed up in a pestle and mortar and then mixed in with the zest from one orange and one lemon. Remove all the skin and fat from your duck breasts and smother the cure over them, pat it all down and place in a fridge covered with cling film. And then the alchemy begins.

I hope, see you in four days.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Project Mayhem Parts 1 and 2

Ever experienced the scenerio of standing at the edge of a diving board on the highest platform, looking down into the deep blue water and wondered whether you could go through with it and actually jump?

Starting this food blog feels a little bit like that, especially after making a couple of abortive attempts last year to actually kick start this thing. So to get things going I thought it would be fun to set myself a challenge and attempt a couple of long term foodie projects. That way I could report back, document and create some filler for Food Urchin and hopefully gain some momentum.

So to begin, I shall mostly be making Duck Bresaola and a Sourdough Starter, the former should take about 4 days, the latter about 4 weeks. Wish me luck.