When in London I always make sure I set aside time for exploring some of the many restaurants that pop up on every corner. I can’t wait until I move down to the capital whenever that may be, and have all of these exciting and innovative haunts on my doorstep.
I am very lucky to have two groups of girls with whom I can experience these breakfast and lunch spots, the York girls now mostly settled in the big smoke, as well as my seven housemates from our time studying in Bath. We usually send a message round asking who’s free, and whoever can come does so and those who are busy wait for the next one! This weekend unfortunately there were only three representatives for our house, but this was probably for the best as booking a table for 8 on a Saturday lunchtime in central London may not be the easiest of tasks.
Naomi, involved in events management, found us a great little place to try in Covent Garden called Polpo. I was a tad late (not yet London Underground savvy!) and I had to fight through the crowds of Christmas shoppers dragging my suitcase along, ‘excuse me’-ing and ‘sorry’-ing away, generally causing quite a kafuffle. Despite thus arriving a little flustered, I instantly took a liking to the warm and friendly environment where the waitress helped me with my bag. The ambiance was a real mixture between a trendy New York bar with its shabby chic loft ambience, and ‘homemade’ with its authentic hearty cooking and the menu written before us on brown paper place mats. They got the balance just right and the place had that perfect ‘buzz’ that a successful restaurant should have: enough background noise to make you relax and to give it a bit of excitement, yet not so noisy that YOU HAVE TO SHOUT OVER THE MUSIC!
Looking around us, we observed that this was apparently the place to be for ‘ladies who lunch’. The term lady here used very broadly, with tables full of chattering girls ranging from us 22 year olds, to the young professionals next to us, the yummy mummies next and on the other side some more mature women having a sophisticated birthday treat. Ania observed that this was like a timeline of the future, hopefully growing up together and sharing our separate lives over wonderful lunches.
We took a pause from our nattering to do my least favourite task of deciding what to eat. I always want everything, don’t want to order the same as anyone else so as not to be boring, yet get serious food envy when I prefer the look of someone else’s. To avoid this, I shared with Ania. Naomi was set on her cod cheeks with lentils, a solid choice I must say (and she let me try so she gets extra brownie points!). The food is Venetian theme, with small sharing platters traditionally named ‘cicheti‘ and the meatballs are their speciality. We went for the Classic Beef and Pork variety which, as it’s name highlights, was the most traditional. The sauce was deliciously rich and slightly sweet and the meatballs were definitely… well… meaty! We also had Duck and green peppercorn pappardelle which was GREAT. Fresh pasta as you would expect in an Italian joint and a delicious sauce with a generous helping of duck and a slight kick as the peppercorn said it’s hello.
The portion sizes are on the small size, however the waitress informed us of this, the idea being to share a few- the Italian take on tapas! We got a side of Focaccia to solve any hunger issues which was lightly toasted allowing the golden unmistakable taste of olive oil to cut through the crunch. I must say I prefer focaccia to speak for itself without any fuss of toasting etc, but it was a nice appetiser!
Next time (and there definitely will be a next time) I will make sure we have time for dessert as tiramisu in a pot and intriguing nutella pizetta rather tickled my fancy!
After a quick goodbye, I raced back through the crowds so as not to miss my train (I never learn from my mistakes!) on which I reflected another wonderful weekend with the girls! Until next time chicas!
Tip: We visited the Polpo in Covent Garden (6 Maiden Lane), but this is only one of a small … dare I say it… chain. Check out the others at 41 Beak Street, Soho and 3 Cowcross Street, Smithfield.
Lyon, Lyon, Lyon where do I begin? Gourmet restaurants galore, traditional factory-worker eateries bursting with character, and a market brimming with vibrant produce. The gastronomic capital of one of the most foodie countries in the world certainly withholds its prestigious reputation in my eyes!
PART 1, MAGALI ET MARTIN: A LIGHT IN THE DARK
Our first impression of the city was not exactly positive to say the least. We arrived in the dark and spent an hour looking for parking with nowhere to stay. To top it off, the restaurant we had researched was fully booked all evening. Feeling very sorry for ourselves, we walked around rapidly trying to find a solution. At this moment, someone, somewhere decided to strike us with a bit of luck in the form of a welcoming restaurant that we had heard of in a tale before…
…When in Cadiz we were very fortunate to meet Chris (see post: https://comomanger.wordpress.com/2012/09/02/alex-and-the-sherry-factory/ ), a young man with a passion for wine. His story is so inspiring and it all began in this tiny restaurant, one of his frequent haunts. One evening he was enjoying a dinner and a bottle of wine when someone spilled a glass of wine from the balcony above, apparently the moment when all became clear! From here, he swotted up with the wine merchant below his apartment and went on to work for the most prestigious sherry producers in the world…
… So we entered this cosy shelter from the cold and decided that we deserved to treat ourselves. We settled in on the famous balcony with a warning to ‘not spill any wine… orrrr to topple a little over the side and convert someone else…’ (The consensus was to go with the former so as to avoid facing angry French ladies and being thrown back out on to the cold street.)
Our tummies were warmed up (literally and metaphorically) with an amuse-bouche consisting of a tiny cup of sweet and creamy vegetable soup. With the sheer impossibility of choosing between the temptations written before us, we decided to do our favourite… two plats between two… (avoiding any opportunity for food envy and allowing us to try a greater variety!). The chosen dishes were pigeon breast in a rich jus with parsnips and winter vegetables; and a contrasting, lighter yet equally as tasty, white fish with perfectly golden crisp skin accompanied with sweet potato purée and buttery girolles mushrooms. To add that extra ‘mmmmm’ factor, we were served a side dish of creamy potato purée, whipped into such a heavenly light and feathery dream that it was hard to come back down to our surroundings.
Another drop of heaven was provided in the dessert… poached pear with violet syrup and white chocolate mousse. The picture looks bland, the dish was not. It was perfection and a divine textural balance between creamy sweet and light and fruity.
When we left, we walked passed the tiny open kitchen and gave our compliments to the friendly and talented chefs.
This restaurant is such a find, tucked away from the casual passer-by. Its charm is its intimacy, its delicacy and its simplicity. Worthy of its inspiring story and definitely worth a visit, not to be missed!
Perigord (or The Dordogne for us English folk) is renowned for its fattened up geese and ducks that produce the controversial yet deliciously gourmand foie gras. So off we went in our little car in search of ‘everything duck’!
Our market morning in Perigueux struck gold as we stumbled upon a foie gras tasting with an eccentric gentleman and his farm products. Foie de canard (duck) and foie d’oie (goose) are gourmet rivals with the goose being a more refined taste and certainly more expensive. However it’s nothing to be overly righteous about as the duck variety is more subtle and better suited to some tastes. Like wine, the best is only what you prefer, not what is the most recognised and expensive! This delicate product is produced in a much debated manner, by force feeding the poultry to produce a large, rich and firm liver which is perfectly complimented with raspberries or a sweet white wine.
Foie Gras at the Market!
Onwards to Sarlat… Now, if Perigord is the French capital of duck and goose, Sarlat is the crème de la crop and the must-visit city. Without exaggerating even slightly I have never seen so many gourmand shops packed into one tiny golden quaint town! Every place we stop, we without fail enter into a shop of this kind, yet here it was overwhelming to choose amongst the sea of foie gras goodie establishments. We entered a few and also had a tasting of Sarlanoix, an aperitif made of walnuts which would perfectly compliment the sugared walnuts we bought in the market, fresh from the farm!
After an exhausting morning of ‘ooing’ and ‘aaahing’ at hundreds of these products, we stopped for a well earned lunch at a traditional Sarladaise restaurant. Named ‘La Petit Bourie‘ after the little stone huts in the country, this house has been serving locally sourced dishes since 1920. We went for the very reasonable menu (on,y 16 euros!) so as to taste a bit of everything. To start was, surprise surprise, foie gras which melted in the mouth and was given a bit of an extra kick with piment d’Espelette and Guerande sea salt. The main event was confit de canard (duck confit) with Sarladaise potatoes. The duck was perfected down to a tee with crispy skin and fat and melt in the mouth meat, and even the group of chatty old ladies next to us commented on what a treat we were in for! The potatoes are a local speciality (hence the name!) and they, like everything in the area, incorporate poultry as they are initially fried in duck or goose fat with parsley and garlic, then formed into rosti-like paties which are crispy yet fluffy yet oily yet… (mouth watering!)
Best meal so far I think, and ten out of ten for value, friendly staff and interest in our tour! I would say that I’m all ducked out, but that I am not! What a fantastically gourmet stop!
I spent seven months living in the arty city of Nantes in the Loire Valley and I have just returned for a quick blast from the past. These are a few of my absolute favourite eateries in a city full of them…
Café Reflex is where I ate my lunch every Wednesday for five months! This was not because I was unadventurous, yet because I tutored the owners’ two boys. Before the lesson we would spend ‘English time’ over more often than not a Magret de Canard with honey and delicious frites maison. This would be followed by a pot au chocolat, a compact yet very rich and creamy chocolate ganache, divine! With the rustic surroundings and many local friends constantly popping in, I would also frequent this family business with my book for a coffee, the original situation I found myself in when the owner enquired about teaching!
Le Select is a very special place where we spent many an occasion whether it was sheltering from the cold with a thick hot chocolate in dark green and gold crockery, or for a very reasonably priced evening set menu. Gala and I returned here for steak frites with caramelised onion and a Tarte Tatin for dessert. This deliciously warming dessert has a rather quaint story behind it. The ‘Tatin Sisters’ owned a hotel restaurant in the Loire, and one of them was one day preparing her famous apple pie when she got distracted and left the apples cooking for too long. She decided to embrace her folliness and coat the caramelised apple mixture with her special pastry, turn it upside down, and voilà it went down a treat! All this and a big basket of bread for less than twenty euros! Not bad at all I say!
Tabl’O Gourmand was another of our favourites, and we ended up here at least once a week for a get together. Huge hearty salads, assiettes of charcuterie and best of all the Fournée! This has a different name for whether it is taken for breakfast or afternoon tea, yet it consists of the same delicious combination. A delicious ‘ancient’ hot chocolate being the perfect combination of chocolatey yet milky and frothy. This comes with a big basket of in my opinion the best French stick in France (a huge claim I know!) along with pâtes à tartiner… an array of spreads including hazlenut, caramel beurre salé (salted caramel) and the absolute highlight Speculos spread… A biscuity caramelised thick spread that is impossible to describe whilst doing it justice! TRY IT!
Talensac market where we used to go every weekend to buy some goodies for a picnic by the river… Usually consisting of carotte rapée, baguette, grapes, cheese and saucisson! This time we just missed the opening hours and instead of the bustling and vibrant chaos, the area was a ghost town… What a difference an hour makes!
As an end note, Galettes are all the rage in this former capital of Brittany… A black wheat version of the crepe, the city is packed with cosy little corners where you can enjoy these savoury filled goodies!
Two years ago I spent seven months in the Loire Valley as an English teacher. I lived in the arty city of Nantes and worked in the bourgeois town of Angers. On my days in latter, I would undoubtedly find myself in the school’s neighbouring café, Atelier. Delicious hot chocolate constantly churning on the counter, bric a brac furnishings including a sewing machine table, armchairs and little shoes on the ceiling; and a very friendly owner-come-writer all drew me to this cosy abode without ever considering taking my lunchtime chill out time anywhere else.
We spent so much time in this little corner of Angers that we built up a friendship with the owner, Olivier Piat, who has written a novel based on what he observes from the daily custom of his business. We also used to go for hot chocolate and Baileys some evenings (which is a must try if you haven’t done so before!) and hang out with Olivier and his friends, one of whom was very talented in playing jazz on the rickety piano. So many a happy memory has often taken me back here, therefore I was delighted to be able to return for real a few days ago and share this favourite haunt with Gala.
Olivier has actually since opened a new bar in a busier location, yet with the same charm as Atelier. It finds itself down a tiny alley with similar furnishings (sewing machine and all!) and even an indoor courtyard, complete with a tree, birdcages and grass! Named ‘Le Boudoir‘, a vase of Boudoir biscuits accompanies every drink and I recognised many a regular from Atelier who have evidently followed this dedicated café chap! The jazz pianist sat at the bar smiling at the world going by, the couple chatting away across their bar between reading the paper, and a poster on the wall of the motley crew in the style of the French film ‘Les Petits Mouchoirs.‘
Whenever I ordered hot chocolate a couple of years back, Olivier would serve it to me in a Charles and Diana commemoration mug, just because I was English. They obviously believe that all English people are obsessed with the Royal Family, as when I said I was returning to England for the holidays they all asked if I was going back especially for the Royal Wedding, and some even thought that
I may be invited! This time round, to confirm their beliefs, I brought back a William and Kate commemoration mug to give to Olivier as a little souvenir and as a thank you for being so welcoming and making my year abroad that bit more special. He absolutely loved it and said he would keep it for his hot chocolate
On that note, we parted ways again with the standard French ‘à bientôt‘ (see you soon). With the prospect of taking the whole café back to England with me, I can only hope that it will be sooner rather than later that I can return once again to this very fond home from home!
Our final stop of the Spanish part of the gastronomic tour was Barcelona which saw a huge variation in meal times, thus perfectly encapsulating the diversity that this cosmopolitan city has to offer…
Our first evening we found ourselves at a loose end when the tapas bar where we had planned to eat was sardined with anglophone tourists, with no chance of two more squeezing in, no matter how little! However luck found us again as we wandered along and peered through a steamy window into what appeared to be a private dining room. We checked the menu to find that it was absolutely perfect for our tour: Catalan specialities cooked using organic locally sourced produce. We entered to a wonderful aroma of home cooking and ordered some previously recommended specialities. Beautifully cooked duck with pear, coca pizza from the Balearic Islands topped with romesco sauce from Tarragona and some delicious stuffed onions. All of the ingredients were presented alongside their respective dish so that we could see exactly what we were eating and also take note for future culinary experiments!
The following day was spent gawping our way around the overwhelming displays of vibrant colours and fresh produce of all types in the Boqueria market. If we had thought to bring a basket, it would definitely have been overflowing with our chosen lunch items… there was just too much to choose from, so we went for un poquito de todo (a bit of everything: truly Spanish!) deep fried cod balls, skewers of huge prawns, a tray of little fried eels, some pomegranate seeds, a carton of every type of mushroom under the sun and some super Spanish croquetas. All was carted to the nearby extremely busy La Rambla where we set up camp picnic style, despite the waves of passing tourists. Al fresco!
Our last supper in Spain was more than worthy! Earlier on in the day we passed by the infamous Ferran Adria’s circus style tapas bar, Tickets, to see if we could squeeze in (there is a two month waiting list)! After sufficiently peering through the windows to watch the intricate attention to detail in preparations for that evening’s clientele, we enquired if there were any vacancies. The waiter’s answer was to come back at 7 when they opened to see if there were any cancellations… which we did and there were! Lady luck strikes again!The idea of the restaurant is to have fun in the circus ambiance, giant icing hamburger and all, and to play with the senses. The latter was certainly achieved with our first experience… liquid olives. Carefully placed onto a silver fish shaped spoon, these parcels of jelly-like olive replicas are burst on the roof of the mouth to release a unique liquid with the exact taste of the olive but in the form of a liquid, though surprisingly not like olive oil. Onwards through the courses passing a tomato cone full of tomato seeds with an ice cream texture, rabbit taco with red sauce and carrot, cheese ravioli of the same consistency as the olives, and finishing with a tantalising dessert. The first was black sesame and white chocolate lava rock which literally came in the form of a rock. Yet it certainly didn’t taste like one… a consistency similar to an Aero which melted in the mouth. This was followed by a huge commotion with a bell, a bicycle and an old school ice cream trolley. We were unaware of what was going on until the lady asked if we had ordered mango sorbet… which we had! Though it’s name makes it sound way too simple… a perfect balance between creamy ice cream and refreshing sorbet. The food, the experimentation with the senses, the kitsch and busy ambiance… the whole experience was unforgettable!
So three equally distinct yet equally enjoyable experiences in a wonderful city! The perfect way to end the variation in our journey tasting our way around Spain… Next stop France!
La Rioja is a region in Spain that is renowned worldwide for its beautiful of wine, yet the gastronomy of the area is relatively unheard of. But surely a land of vineyards and wine connoisseurs must have some excellent food to pair with its velvety liquid. This is what I wondered before arriving in the region’s capital Logroño, and my doubts as to the lack of culinary gems were most definitely confirmed! Hearty country food, market garden vegetable dishes and a whole neighbourhood full of pinchos!
A friend from university, Francesca, spent her year abroad in Logroño and after a mere hour wandering the centre we were already extremely jealous that she had been privileged enough to spend a whole year in this buzzing town packed full with bars and pouring wine and food out of its ears. Her immediate recommendation as soon as she found we were heading to her Spanish home town was the tapas-bar-lined street of Calle Laurel where the streets are paved with pinchos. When our couch surfing host Pedro suggested this, we did not hesitate to nod our heads in enthusiastic agreement.
Unfortunately we had timed our arrival for the end of the harvest festival. Therefore post-festival-blues (or rather just want of a well-deserved break) meant that doors were closed all over the city, including on this particular street. However we still managed to fit in the best and it did mean that we did not have to deal with the “herd of elephants” as Norman Miller from the Guardian was subject to.
First up and in hindsight my definite favourite was Soriano, a mushroom haunt with no menu, no choice, there’s only one dish. When I enquired as to the variety of mushroom used, the barman looked at me confused and replied “I don’t know, this is the only mushroom I know.” His colleague, an older gentlemen working away very hard but still giving me a smile and passing on his wisdom, has been doing the exact same job for forty years… cooking mushrooms. He has thus altered this recipe to absolute perfection and when biting in to the crunchy tower of mushrooms, the garlic oil dripping through the base of bread, and topped off with a tiny prawn, his forty years of practice were evident and very much appreciated!
A few doors down hosted another house with another speciality… chorizo with a marinade of paprika and garlic and then barbecued. The detailed recipe is kept as a secret of the family, through which the recipe has been passed for many years as the recipe that will make their fortune!
Other weird and wonderful pinchos were a matrimonio (marriage) of sardines and gorgeously creamy goats cheese with peach jam and pine nuts. We had a great time, always a glass of Rioja from the surrounding vineyards in hand accompanying laughter and story exchanges from the many nationalities in our party. This neighbourhood will most definitely be revisited at some point in the near future!
The following morning this was all washed down at the Franco Españolas winery where the local wines were explained, tasted and enjoyed! What a wonderful place!
Muchas Gracias Pedro for being a fantastic guide and host, and Chess for the great recommendation!
So for the most part our journey has been one of getting out in to the thick of things in the country and dining with the locals in a very traditional organic way. However, considering that we are doing a gastronomic tour of Spain, it would be rude not to have a sample of what is going on in the culinary world right now.
When I have mentioned the tour to those interested in England, every single person has stated ‘Oh, you just HAVE to go to San Sebastian!’ This Basque beach town seems to be all the rage at the moment amongst Brits everywhere and is where it all appears to be ‘happening’. Our purses didn’t quite stretch to the infamous Michelin Star restaurants, however we were recommended a much less stuffy and more secret A Fuego Negro by one of my dad’s foodie friends!
Although we booked in advance, there was a mix up with the tables so we had to wait for half an hour. However, the staff (very interested in what we were doing and delighted we had chosen their place) were very accommodating and treated us to Basque wine and appetisers of frozen gazpacho on the house! These were presented in the form of ice pops, one a deep purple with flavours of beetroot and the other orange with hints of cumin.
We chose the nine course tasting menu which played around with the senses and traditional Spanish recipes to create wonderful twists on the classics! Here is a breakdown of what our experience involved:
Frozen Cheese: a weird and wonderful texture that I had definitely experienced before but couldn’t quite pin down. Gala hit the nail on the head when she said it tasted like snow! It was as though putting a fluffy snow ball in to your mouth which melted in to a creamy delicious mild cheese.
Huge olives filled with very complimentary Vermouth
Frozen squid which was then fried and served on a bent fork. This has a similar texture to a croqueta with a wafer thin fried crust and the squid ink dying the contents black.
Pickled pork with Mexican mole ice cream. The pork was paper thin and so delicate, yet with a very strong flavour and a melt in the mouth jelly. Served with an ice cream that tasted of Christmas; chocolate, cinnamon… Very festive!
Octopus and spinach salad with fried purple potato, rock salt, olive oil and mustard. One of my favourite courses; beautiful colours and a very interesting and varied combination of textures: crunchy spinach and potato chips with soft octopus!
Creamy garlic rice wrapped in tomato paper with a poached quails egg. So eggs are the only things I just cannot eat. I have always said that even if the Queen served me an egg I would have to refuse it. Gala did the honours and ate mine for me, however the rest of the dish was exciting enough to eat alone…
Cod topped with pepper syrup and cereal. Cod is very popular and sought after in Spain, and this modern twist on a traditional dish worked a treat and the topping gave the beautifully soft fish a crunch and a kick!
Mini burger with Kobe beef. This was absolutely exquisite… So soft that the meat quite literally melted on the tongue. The bread was died with ketchup and the burger was served with banana chips. We agreed that we could definitely eat a regular sized version if this! Simply the best burger I have ever tried.
Beef Burger… Melt!!
Liquorice and chocolate ice cream with almonds. This was served in the form of a tiny plant pot. Almost like an upside down cheese cake, with the ‘soil’ layer fine chocolate crumbs and almonds which covered a light and smooth base of moussey chocolate and liquorice ice cream. A divine end to the meal!
All of this was only 35 euros each, which for the experience and intricate preparation was not bad at all!
I would recommend this experience to anyone, foodie or not. It is not the stuffy and snobby atmosphere you may expect, but open to anyone who shows an interest and just wants to taste good food in an innovative way!