I had the pleasure of being invited to review the Ivy Cafe recently. Little sister to the famous west end haunt, it’s newly opened on the lovely Marylebone Lane serving an all-day menu, dinners and cocktails.
On just your typical Tuesday, trudging up to Tottenham on a gale-force rainy evening to make some cheese on an industrial estate! In fact we were there to take a mozzarella-making class with the lovely chaps of Wilde’s Cheese – in their own words, ‘a small award winning independent artisan cheese making company based on an industrial estate in Tottenham, North London.’
I’ve got a bit into slow food lately – by which I mean that plan-ahead variety of cooking that requires soaking, simmering, fermenting and proving for days on end. Yeah, you need to think about what you might want to eat several days from now instead of right now, but there’s such a satisfaction when you get to eat something that’s been so long coming!
The first thing I tried was a dal makhani, after visiting Dishoom again and being reminded how insanely good their version is. After a brief Twitter discussion trying to persuade them to give up their recipe and/or let me stockpile ten tupperwares’ worth for my freezer, I turned to Google for some recipes. I picked this one because it especially mentioned Dishoom in the write-up and I figure that if any recipe takes 4 days it has to be bloody amazing by the end of it…
For me, one thing that’s up there amongst the suckiest things about winter is the lack of tomatoes that actually taste of anything. The only way I’ve found to coax some flavour out of them is to smother them in salt and olive oil and roast them long and slow in the oven. Then they’ll reluctantly relinquish some sweet concentrated flavour, along with delicious umami-rich cooking juices to boot.
Obviously, one of our main reasons for visiting Mexico was for the food. London has some good Mexican places but I was really interested to see how the real stuff compares – and what actually constitutes a real Mexican dish and which are fake exports. I’m looking at you, burritos. In general we ate really well, almost always going for Mexican food (not that there is that much foreign food around anyway – mostly Italian, Argentinian or American places) and we tried the whole gamut from 50p streetside tacos to a high-end tasting menu at supposedly the best restaurant in Mexico City. I was pleased to find that it wasn’t hard at all to find vegetarian options nearly everywhere – and honestly, they looked a heck of a lot more appealing than a lot of the meat!
Breakfast is a fun meal. You can go for pastries and coffee at one of the many bakeries around (Mexicans seem to love pastries and sweet breads – pan dulce) or go bigger and local with some huevos smothered in salsa, rancheros or chilaquiles style. We had a great coffee shop called Chiquitito around the corner from our Airbnb in Condesa, where we stopped for cortados, yogurt and croissants on a couple of days. We had a good Mexican style breakfast up the road at El Pendula, a cosy bookshop come cafe.
Lunch is generally the main meal of the day in Mexico and they take it late – around 3pm. One of my favourite lunches was at Cate de mi Corazon, an entirely vegetarian taco place right by our Airbnb in Condesa. Some of the flavours were a bit odd to our palate (such as a sweet jamaica – hibiscus flower – filling) but my enchiladas – stuffed tortillas smothered in red salsa – were really tasty.
Probably the best meal we had of the entire trip was a decadent late lunch at Limosneros, a really beautiful restaurant just south of the Zocalo in Centro. The building dates from the 16th century and the restaurant was started 100 years ago by the current chef’s grandfather. There wasn’t much veggie choice admittedly, but my hibiscus flautas and charred chile and pineapple salad with soft goats’ cheese were absolutely stunning. Josh’s cochinita pibil looked brilliant too. And dessert was peanut butter and jam ice cream! It was a pretty fancy place but the bill was a very reasonable $750/£40.
Before we left the UK we booked dinner at Pujol after reading this New York Times article with Rene Redzepi of Noma. Supposedly the best – and definitely the most expensive – meal in the city, we could only get a booking for early on Tuesday night, the day after we flew in. Unfortunately I was quite disappointed by it overall. It’s undeniably elegant (in a friendly and laid-back kind of way) and they do put on a whole veggie tasting menu and some dishes were great, such as baby corn smoked over wood and served in a hollow pumpkin, but overall it was so rich I was feeling a bit queasy by halfway through and trying to hide how little I could eat. With a whopping £70 a head price tag it was a real shame.
A muuuuch cheaper lunch or dinner option is to grab some antojitos (snacks) from a street vendor, hole in the wall or cafe. They can also taste fantastic if you pick wisely. We had some filling tortas and cold beers in a cute old-school cafe in Centro, and great tacos for $17 a go at Tacos Hola/El Guerro, a tiny place with a few bar stools and pavement tables near our Airbnb on Avenida Amsterdam. He cooks up several different fillings a night, including quite a few veg options, and you can just keep ordering til you’re full.
For drinkin’, the national drink of mezcal is clearly the way to go. We did a mezcal tasting tour in Oaxaca which I’ll write about later (I’m quite the mezcal fact file now) but the local Alipus artisanal mezcal bar was a good place to start. Plus there’s local beer: El Deposito has a great range of local and world craft beers in its few bars dotted over the city. You can buy to take away or drink in.
On a classier note, we had a great night at Licorería Limantour in Roma, one of the world’s 50 best cocktail bars, drinking mezcal cocktails and chatting to the lovely bartender. He sent us on our way with mezcal shots for the road and some recipe cards to take home.
When we weren’t actually eating, one of our favourite things to do was to trawl around the many food markets. One of the best and largest is San Juan, which is right in the kitchen wholesale district just south of the Zocalo and apparently where chefs go to shop. Those morels! Knobbly little squashes! And SO MUCH hot sauce…
There’s good craft and souvenir market at La Ciudadela; we bought some thick blown glass drinking tumblers, $130/£6.50 for six. Oaxaca was the real place to buy crafts though, as I’ll tell you about later.
I hunted down some fabric shops, a must-do for me on any trip these days. I wrote more about them on my sewing blog. There seems to be one big fabric shop chain called Parisina are mostly grouped in the streets around Uruguay just south of the Zocalo (there’s a couple in Oaxaca too). Most of the fabrics are pretty gaudy synthetic polys – especially novelty printed fleece and, I suppose especially at this time of year, Day of the Dead and Hallowe’en themed stuff – but there were also some wools, poplins and pretty plaids. It was all dead cheap, mostly ranging from $15/80p to $60/£3 a metre, so a little bit came home with me…
We were woefully under-researched on our other favourite pastime, flea markets, but luckily snuck a great one in on our very last Saturday morning before catching the bus to Oaxaca. It snaked right around the Jardin Pushkin near the eastern end of Avenida Alvaro Obregon and contained a great range of goodies from vintage videogame cartridges to dead-stock stationery. It was pretty expensive, making me think it’s more of a collectors market than bargain flea. I only came home with a little tin for 100 pesos.
We actually did pop to another flea in between our flight back from Oaxaca and the connecting flight to London the following Saturday, at Plaza del Angel. This is a little indoor mall full of antiques shops, which on the weekend spill their wares onto the walkways for a flea-style experience. There was a lot of fun stuff, from vintage film posters to tiny toy sewing machines (how did I resist?) and prices were reasonable. I bought a little ceramic owl for the collection and some paper ephemera.
In terms of non-market shopping, Avenida Amsterdam in Condesa has a bunch of nice boutiques (as well as restaurants and bars) and is a lovely leafy area to wander around. Avenida Alvaro Obregon and Calle Comida in Roma are good to check out foody delis and little vintage shops. We even found a hipster yard sale in full swing on Saturday, and now I’m wondering why London boot sales don’t come complete with artisanal g&t and bagel stands.
My favourite find was a tiny boutique off Av Alvaro Obregon called Ursa Minor, which the owner has beautifully curated with homewares and crafted items from local designers. We bought a mini skull artwork handpainted on wood, some pretty ceramics, and some other little gifts.
My cooking has had a boost lately, thanks to both a neighbour plying me with veg from her Norfolk allotment and Wholegood kindly sending me a veg box to try.
It’s been nice to try some ingredients that I don’t often buy for myself, and it’s much easier to make a non-lazy carb-based dinner when you’ve got a veg drawer overflowing with this colourful loveliness.
Greens are some of my favourite veg, as long as they’re carefully cooked so as to keep their crunch and colour. The mix on the left is broccoli, chard and leek which I semi-steamed in a pan with a cup of hot water with the lid on. I served it simply with seasoning and lemon as a side dish (um, to macaroni cheese). On the right, a bit of a made-up tart of the same veg together with some stilton cheese in a quiche type custard nestled in filo pastry.
Left, a filling tea of a sot of tartiflette (oven-baked patties of grated potato and courgette with taleggio cheese – I modified this recipe) with a saucy chickpea, tomato and spinach side. Right, a surprisingly filling solo dinner of Portobello mushrooms topped with stilton, breadcrumbs and parmesan. I didn’t need anything else with them – truly the steak of the veg world.
I love tomatoes at this time of year, especially when roasted to concentrate their flavour. Left, using up the last of the filo with a roasted tomato, onion and mozzarella tart (with some of Josh’s chilli chutney smeared on the base). Right, a roasted tomato soup which did me for three work-at-home lunches. I also used a huge glut of spinach for more soup, which is waiting in the freezer.
Of the new things I tried, two things I’ll definitely buy again are leeks and chard. They are both robust enough to last a good week or more in the fridge, which is important as I really don’t like to throw food away. Leeks give that oniony savouryness to any meal, but can also be the star of a dish when griddled or roasted. I use chard rather like spinach: chucked into anything saucy near the end of cooking to give a bit of texture and bump up the veg count. What are your veg box favourites?
Veg box supplied by Wholegood for review
I had fun last week at a night-time pickling workshop, put on by Sarson’s vinegar and held at Rita’s Bar & Dining in London Fields. Our hosts were food historian Peter Ginn and Rita’s chef Gabriel Pryce.
Peter gave us a lowdown on the history of pickling as a method of preserving fresh ingredients, and talked us through all of the ingredients that can be pickled: eggs and shallots are perhaps the most well known, but any fairly firm fruit or veg is a contender.
The brine (the vinegar liquid that does the pickling) can be flavoured with any herb or spice you like – chilli, peppercorns and mustard seeds are common, but we could also pick from lemongrass, ginger, tarragon, fennel seeds and loads more. The process is really simple: you just heat up the pickling vinegar in a pan with your chosen flavourings (Sarson’s produce big jars of vinegar especially for pickling, which are pre-seasoned and at the correct acidity of 6%), pop the ingredients in a sealable jar and pour the vinegar over the top to cover the ingredients.
After we’d stuffed and labelled our jars we sat down to a delicious meal put on by Rita’s – platters of fried chicken, amazing mac and cheese, sweet potato gnocchi, slaw and their own pickled hot sauce. Must come back here soon for a full meal because it was tasting gooood.
Here’s my rather odd concoction – quail’s eggs, plums and mooli (Japanese radish) in a brine heavily spiked with chilli and mustard seeds. The proof is in the tasting, but it needs three weeks to do its thing first… I’ll report back.
I’ve been trying to get back into some healthy wheat-light cooking lately, and have recently made several twists on that summery staple, the salad. My definition of salad is pretty loose as I don’t really like leaves: for me a salad means any combination of cooked and raw vegetables together with a carb and a protein element, all soused in a zingy, spicy dressing. Oh, and usually with cheese on top – OK, they are basically the least healthy salads ever, but they are really filling which is my usual concern with having a non-heavily-carb-based dinner.
I like to start with a recipe (I have lots pinned) and adapt it to my taste and what I have available in the fridge, freezer and cupboard: having a few basics in stock means you can make a substantial meal even when the veg drawer looks a bit sad and empty. Here are a couple I’ve put together in the last few weeks…
A sort-of-not-really take on fattoush, the middle-eastern bread and tomato salad.
Veg: Raw tomatoes and courgette, roasted sweet red pepper
Protein: Canellini beans, toasted off in a frying pan
Carb: Toasted pitta bread
Dressing: Garlic, red wine vinegar, sumac, olive oil
My infinitely tastier version of the sad non-carb Mexican salad bowls you get from burrito places when you’re trying to be saintly. Liquid smoke* is a salad’s best friend for a bit of umami punch – a little goes a long way.
Veg: Toasted corn (from the freezer), pink pickled onions (in the fridge from a previous day), raw tomatoes
Protein: Black beans, Quorn fillet
Carb: Mix of brown and white rice
Dressing: Wahaca habanero sauce, liquid smoke, smoked paprika, fresh coriander (from the freezer).
This is a standby dinner for us: smoky lentils, charred veggies and soft cool mozzarella, marinated in the same dressing as the lentils. It’s also brilliant with pan- or oven-roasted wedges of squash.
Veg: Grilled tenderstem broccoli and spring onions, plus babaghanoush (charred aubergine puree)
Protein: Puy lentils
Dressing: Olive oil, red wine vinegar, liquid smoke, oak-smoked tomatoes, oregano, chilli flakes
* Liquid smoke is my favourite condiment EVER. I have no idea how they make it, but a drop or two imparts an amazing smoky flavour to anything you drop it into. Really good for giving veggie food that ‘meaty’ umami punch. Not many supermarkets have it, but you can buy online at Sous Chef.
DF Mexico is the latest creation from the stable of London-based Mexican stalwart Wahaca. It takes the same Mexican-street-food-with-an-Anglo-American-twist concept and goes a bit hipster on it to match its location bang in the middle of Shoreditch in the Old Truman Brewery. Every aspect is ramped up in the cool factor: the branding and interior decor are boldly industrial, food is counter service, drinks are self-serve and bottomless… even the social media team is sharp and well-pitched. If you were being cheesy you could call it Wahaca’s younger, cooler brother or something. Naturally it wasn’t going to be long before I found myself there, and that day came on Monday evening.
It seems to have got off to a flying start, with a short queue at the door even on a Monday and a lively buzz around the dining room. There’s a huge communal table next to the obligatory open-plan kitchen and plenty of smaller tables and booths, so the wait to be seated wasn’t long.
The concept is explained via a cool brochure and the menu reads very well indeed. Unlike Wahaca, the food isn’t tapas-sized but built for large appetites and/or sharing. The main offerings are burritos, large tacos, tortas, build-your-own boards, grills and salads, with a (un)healthy sprinkling of sides and sharing dishes too. The hardest part is deciding what to go for.
Obviously, we massively over-ordered just to get a little taster of a few things. The Bad Boy burrito comes with white and blue corn chips and an optional side for a couple of quid extra. It packed quite the whack of flavour, with tomato and habanero running through the rice and a core of tasty feta cheese, all wrapped in a chargrilled tortilla.
A side of veggie nachos was huge for just £4.95 and was similarly punchy. The topping of refried beans, cheese, pink onions and salsa wiggled into the all the gaps in the chips so you didn’t get that disappointing moment when you run out of topping before chips. Not that we got near to that point; it was too big to finish!
Chilli fries were ordered just because, but they were probably my favourite thing: properly salty and hot with a chipotle dip on the side. The cup of corn, sweetly served in a teacup, sat in a creamy puddle of moreish broth and was topped with tangy Lancashire cheese.
Self-serve bottomless horchata cooled it all down nicely. There’s also soft-serve ice cream for dessert, but we rolled out defeated before considering it.
The bill for this feast? Like Wahaca it’s a real bargain: just £22.50 for a large main, smaller sharing dish, two sides and two bottomless soft drinks. My only critique is I actually wish the portions were a bit smaller more like Wahaca, so you can mix/match and share easier. It’s pretty great to have this place pretty close to home for when I get peckish for big, bad Mexican flavours, and I can’t imagine it’ll be long before I’m back again to try more of the menu and soak up more of the DF vibes (also I’m working nearby and they do take-out…). Nice job, chaps.
Picking special presents year after year can be a bit of a pain, especially when you’re like us and have no room left in your flat for any more physical objects! That’s why I love giving and receiving ‘experiences’ instead: dinner, cooking classes, something that you can enjoy and/or learn from rather than accumulating more stuff. So when Truly contacted me I was pretty excited. Their premise is great: you pick from a fantastic range of do-able gifts – especially strong on restaurants and food experiences but there are spa days, city breaks and outdoor activities too. Put in your recipient’s address and they get a lovely smart box in the post with a simple number/email to contact Truly’s concierge and make the reservation. No messing around booking something and hoping they are free on the date (or ruining the surprise by asking), but you can still pick out something personal.
Truly kindly gave me the chance to try one of their experiences out, and I opted for Champagne Afternoon Tea at the Capital Hotel. I invited my wonderful mum along because she’s a little envious of all the nice things Josh and I do in London, so it was great to be able to share something with her. She was delighted to get the box in the post and phoned me immediately to say thank you! She was down in London last weekend so we got the chance to book it up.
The Capital hotel is literally around the corner from Harrods. I’d never ever been in Harrods before, so a nose round the food hall was mandatory (wow, it’s busy in there). Tea is served in a pretty and cosy sitting room – with wallpaper and books lining the walls and a window open to the pleasant day outside it was a lovely place to spend the afternoon. We started with a glass of champagne while browsing the extensive tea menu.
Before long a tiered stand laden with goodies arrived. Delicate finger sandwiches on the bottom and a whole plate of sweet things for each of us – treacle tart, passion fruit tart, lemon sponge, baby trifle and a hibiscus maracon. They were all delicious – the moist sponge and creamy tart especially. If you run out or particularly enjoyed anything, the waiters will gladly restock it for you.
There was only one vegetarian sandwich but I didn’t even think to ask for a replacement; I’m sure they would have switched one of the others for a veggie option if requested. Never mind, more room for cake!
Just when we were reaching peak cake, freshly baked scones arrived with cream and jam. They were so buttery and flaky – my Devon-raised mum approved. You can even pack up anything you don’t eat into takeout boxes.
One happy mum and some serious daughter points for me! This was a great experience and my mum really appreciated it. Truly have this and loads of other luxurious gift experiences on their site including lots of Michelin-starred restaurants like The Square, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (which I reviewed here), Hakkasan and La Manoir. Any would do for my birthday present, in case you’re wondering. Thanks, Truly! Anyone else love to give or receive foody gifts?
Truly supplied my afternoon tea experience for review; views are my own