I lost count of the times I got caught in the rain this week but it’s been a great week of eating out, tapering off as the week progressed. Writing about the meals brought back memories of my years as a restaurant critic. I’m so used to developing recipes as I cook and then writing about them that writing a restaurant review was a pleasant change. As it turned out, every meal was radically different, each with good and bad aspects. The cheapest – Wagamama – is probably the one I’ll go back to the soonest. One obvious tip about going there; go early to avoid queues.
I’m sure my son Zach had no idea what the disruptive effect Remembrance Sunday would have throughout London when he suggested I join him and family on a jaunt to Tate Modern this morning. I was poo-pooed when I pointed it out but the effects kicked in quite quickly and we aborted our mission at Marble Arch. It was actually quite pleasant to walk back through Hyde Park, past Speakers Corner and my first glimpse of Princess Diana’s waterfall. The new plan was to head down to Kensington High Street and lunch at Wagamama (www.wagamama.com). This branch is brilliant. You go up in a lift, wait to be seated but can chose, as we did, to sit under the tall Crittall windows (a series of black metal squares) that flood the huge room with light. We nudged together at one of the trestle tables, the little boys given crayons and paper to colour and we settled in with a beer and a menu. I’m always poleaxed by the choice at Wagamama; I want everything. The wonderful photos and descriptions make it impossible to decide. The little boys were ordered chicken over fat noodles with various veg and a soy-based sweet sauce. One boy wolfed it down. The other didn’t. I was really impressed by the freshly pulped mango, apple and orange drink the elder child chose, one of many freshly pulped juices that I’ll be remembering when a dry patch beckons. Son Zach and I had miso-glazed cod (smoked first, perhaps; it was strangely firm) ramen, a big bowl of noodles in a wonderful light vegetable broth with chopped spring onion, broccoli and bok choi. Jez went on a healthier route with a kokoro bowl of various sliced and raw vegetables with salmon. I was quite surprised at how much the little boys – or one in particular – loved the edamame beans with salt. I suspect popping them out of their pods is part of the pleasure. The final highlight of a visit to this branch, is the double staircase, rather like some cinemas. The young family obviously come here a lot because it was dad on one side, the boys on the other; ‘on your marks….’ A race to the bottom.
I’d gone early to the Farmer’s Market to collect skirt steak ordered last week and ended up buying a couple of partridge, chicken thigh fillets and more lamb’s liver for the freezer. I decided I’d have a partridge for supper, keeping it simple, serving it with bread sauce and sprouts. There was no love going into the meal and nothing was quite right. I had no bacon to lay over the bird’s breast, the sprouts were the smallest from one of those stalks I’ve been working through, the gravy thin, only the bread sauce good. The bird was surprisingly tough, so I ate very little and made stock with it the next day. Oh well. It really is true that the best food is cooked with love.
Another miserable day so searched around for something to turn into soup. Lodged at the back of my mind was a Roman chickpea soup recently flagged up on Instagram (thank you wonderful Rachel Roddy), so that was my starting point, a big, thick soup with onion, potato, lemon zest and spinach served with chorizo crisps to add vim and vigour. Had some for lunch with garlicky, oily bruschetta made with my favourite Hedone brown toast.
My tea-time cuppa was accompanied by Hedone brown toast slavered with butter and a generous daub of my very successful Plum and Orange Jam. Amazingly it set perfectly, with great swathes of crystal clear, ruby-red jelly between the chunks of soft plum but it’s the plum skin that I like the best. It’s hard to eke it out between mouthfuls, so each one is quite different. Much as I love toast and jam, I started craving crumpets, pikelets and toasted muffins. Oh dear, that’s why I rarely make cake. I know I won’t be able to stop eating it. Baked potato for supper with lashings of butter and a mixture of grated cheeses, so not a very healthy day.
Got caught in a mega downpour on my way to Chelsea to meet an old friend for lunch at Kutir (www.kutir.co.uk). I think it used to be Vineet Bhatia’s restaurant, the talented chef who first made his name at the Star of India in Old Brompton Road. This, my friend’s latest find, is located in an end of terrace townhouse, so small, tasteful and cosy. It takes a moment to realize it’s necessary to ring the bell to get in. The menu is what I’d call modern Indian and although the descriptions are short, they read very temptingly. For ease of ordering and need for instant gratification, we order poppadums and chutneys (outstanding, £4) a couple of Indian pale ales (IPA) and exactly what my friend ate on her last visit. We begin with three so-called small plates; two very crisp, lightly battered, deep fried soft shell crabs decorated with shards of coconut (£12), piled over lightly curry-seasoned chickpeas. It looked very attractive but we thought the chickpeas superfluous. Quail naan (£10) looked very pretty, a circular nan piled with masala scrambled egg with truffle (£10), a tad bland for my taste, the truffle overwhelming everything. The showstopper was aloo tikki (£8), a couple of crisp little dark brown tamarind-seasoned potato cakes topped with a honey yoghurt dressing and a spoonful of Indian mint chutney with tomato and onion salad garnish. I was actually pretty full by now, specially as we were drinking the irresistibly named Ladies who Shoot their Lunch Australian chardonnay (https://www.greatwesternwine.co.uk/lwstl-chardonnay) which truly is a beaut. We ordered two main dishes to share: pan-seared sea bass (£16) resting crisp-skin side uppermost in a sea of thick, lightly curried coconut and tomato sauce, decorated with a few deep fried curry leaves and spray of cherry tomatoes. That old favourite chicken tikka masala (£16) was perfectly cooked and a very generous portion in more gorgeous brown-red sauce. I can’t believe we made it to pudding, but X-Mas Pudding Samosa (part of the set meals), turned out to be a master-stroke but it did challenge my gnashers.
Watched Master Chef followed by Rick Stein in Hidden France and nipped into the kitchen in the middle to make toast to have with smoked mackerel from Covent Garden Fishmongers on Turnham Green Terrace, with a goodly dollop of creamed horseradish.
Food highlight today is a visit to Julie’s (www.juliesrestaurant.com) tucked away in Clarendon Cross, at the end of Portland Road in Notting Hill. In the seventies and eighties in my Time Out days it was one of my go-to places so it’s a bit of a shock to discover it opened 50 years ago. Its ecclesiastically inspired design with cubby hole tables (I remember one just outside the miniscule ladies loo), bo-ho atmosphere and interesting mix of regulars meant it was always buzzing. I don’t recall the food was the main attraction. On one visit all those years ago, I discovered the manageress and her cat had rented a room in a huge flat I shared in Finborough Road (even more millions of years ago). The restaurant spans two properties with a delightful forecourt/terrace set with all-weather tables and chairs under a huge awning. It looks the same – dark and inviting – but inside has been given a slick re-boot whilst retaining many of the original objects d’art and decorative features. The main restaurant is now open plan on the left side, behind doors from the entrance and the (champagne) bar to the right. There is another more informal dining area at the end and another downstairs. Upstairs, where I spent a lot of time, is now flats. The property is still owned by Cathy and Tim Herring (also responsible for top dollar, fashionable Portobello Hotel) but it was interior designer Julie Hodgess (also responsible for the look of Barbara Hulanicki’s seminal Biba boutiques) who created the original concept and who oversaw the new one. The food too is a serious step up, far more sophisticated than I remember it although Julie’s always kept apace of trends. Shay Cooper, an ex-Goring chef and billed as chef/patron, heads up the kitchen, producing interesting, sophisticated food such as the dark green charred kale risotto crowned with Dorset crab and horseradish butter that my friend chose. Grilled leek hearts turned out to be poached, griddled lengths of leek, with finely chopped egg and capers with butter, lemon, breadcrumbs and parsley (Polonaise sauce) piled into a curl of rye crisp with a dollop of smoked mayonnaise. It looked stunning, was beautifully executed but a tad bland. We both chose roast Cornish cod (I can never resist Cornish fish), cuttlefish, bacon, chicken and mushroom dressing. This incongruous sounding combination was perfectly cooked, a thick, small fillet of cod moist and firm, with tiny pale mushrooms napped in a hardly discernable dressing, with soft, slim ribbons of cuttlefish and chicken with scraps of bacon. We shared lemon curd, lemon sorbet, coconut and fennel crumble, which we fought over, it was so sublime; a disc of creamy, yellow curd next to a scoop of paler intensely lemony sorbet with a crumble flavoured with coconut and fennel seed scattered in a pile on the side. A bargain at £8. The bill, with two glasses of the cheapest white wine, came to over £150. Not a cheap local restaurant but it never was.
Up early for builders fixing my garden fence, so making builders brew as a perfectly bright, sunny autumn winter day unfolded. While they faffed and drills drilled, I made spinach soup and listened to Rad 4. This soup is a variation on a theme, something I make when I see bunches of attractive scabbard leaf spinach on special offer, as they were yesterday at my favourite high road fruit and veg stall. It begins by softening a chopped onion with a hint of garlic in butter with a splash of oil, adding diced potato, microplaned lemon zest and gamey partridge stock from the freezer, adding frozen peas and spinach, the whole lot simmered until the peas are tender. Spinach and Nutmeg Soup should be thick and luscious and is particularly good with a separately soft-poached egg added just before serving. I had intended to have some for lunch but things didn’t work out like that, so it’s on the menu tonight when I watch masterchef, followed by two chicken thigh fillets, the skin oiled and sprinkled with Maldon salt and roasted at 220C for about 25 minutes until the skin is a thin crisp sheath, the melted fat under skin basting the chicken. Yum.
Whizzed into town for a ‘lady-business’ hospital appointment and on way back spent a fortune on very little at Aziz Ahsak’s temptingly well-stock fruit and veg shop www.lemonandlimes.co.uk on Turnham Green Terrace (also a branch in Hampstead). Beetroot, big mushrooms, huge, plump lemons and special offer limes (3 for £1), plus oranges, small, sweet looking strawberries and blueberries for breakfast. I’m starving by the time I get home, so merge two soups – the thick, richly flavoured silky-smooth spinach soup made with game bird stock from the freezer I mentioned yesterday, with chickpea, potato and melted spinach. With the last of the chorizo crisps I’d made to go with the latter, it was very good indeed. Another case of permutation.
I’m de-frosting second lot of lamb’s liver bought last week at my Farmer’s Market, sold sous vide-style, neatly packed for the freezer. The slices are slim and evenly cut in well-trimmed strips, so ready for the pan. My plan is to eat it with diamond jacket potatoes (halved lengthways, scored with a lattice, oiled and salted and baked cut-side up on foil without waiting for the oven to come up to temperature), and garlic mushrooms. The liver is patted dry and shown the pan on both sides in a little hot veg oil then rested and served pronto. With a smear of Dijon mustard, that is a great combination.
Son Henry turns up quite early with my car, which he’s had all week. He loaded up my car boot with the many bags of garden sweepings for me to take to the tip. Had my first cup of coffee for a week. Absolute bliss. After years of buying a mix of Santos and Java ground to order from the original Whittards in Fulham Road (now, I think, Margaret Howell, previously Agnes B), my favourite coffee now is espresso Lavazza brewed in a series of little Zanzibar pots. I prefer the small ones although I have various sizes; a top kitchen shelf above the cooker looks as if I am prepared to open a pop-up coffee bar. I also use a creamer to fluff up the milk. Milk in first and coffee top up. With this nectar, I toast a slice of Hedone brown and slather it with unsalted butter and my home made Seville marmalade. I still have some 2019 left but I’m finishing a jar of 2018 made with molasses, so it’s very dark and very rich. More clearing up in the garden and I pop a couple of last night’s supper leftover diamond jacket potatoes in a hot oven – it takes 10 minutes – to eat with a soft-poached egg and grated Parmesan. Lovely. I’d defrosted a small piece of skirt (500g) bought from March House Farm at the Farmer’s Market for a steak dinner but couldn’t face it, preferring the thought of another stew. This way of making Skirt and Mushroom Stew is quick, easy, incredibly rich and luscious and highly recommended. Start with a spacious frying or sauté pan. Flour strips of steak and brown in batches in very hot oil to make crusty surfaces, return all to the pan, add a generous splash of balsamic vinegar (preferably syrupy Belazu or balsamic syrup – bought or made by simmering ordinary balsamico to reduce and turn syrupy), stir as it turns sticky then add a mug of red wine, if you’ve got some, and another of chicken stock, stirring as the flour thickens the liquid. Simmer for 5 minutes then tip into an ovenproof, lidded casserole – I use a small Le Crueset. While the meat browns, slice or finely chop a large onion and soften for a few minutes in a little more oil in the frying pan until beginning to soften and brown. Slice a couple of large mushrooms thickly, halve the slices and soften in the onions. They will suck all the oily juices out of the pan but keep going until they darken, look moist and juicy. Stir pan contents into the meat, drape a piece of parchment over the top, pushing down to touch the food but leaving an overhang that will be held in place by the lid. Trim excess paper. Bake at 150C, checking the meat is very soft after 60 minutes. Depending on the meat, it may need longer. Very good with mash and carrots, or peas, or both. Or buttered cabbage.