What I ate in September – a round-up

Butterbeer at Warner Bros Studio

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As a child, I was very fascinated by the food in Harry Potter because it all seemed so alien to me: the decadent stews, the soups, butter as a side, dense cakes made of dried fruit, the grand potatoey-ness of it all. For years I thought “watercress” was a kind of meat because its Italian name was so unfamiliar.

There is a cafe in the Studios, but it serves the most generic cafe food you can think of. It also serves Butterbeer and charges you an extra £3 for the pleasure of having your drink in a cheap-looking plastic tankard. The drink itself is a slightly sickly cream soda with an inoffensive whipped marshmallow fluff topping made to look like a shiny, unrealistic head.

As an adult, what I like the most about fictional Butterbeer is that it has inebriating powers – i.e., it was alcoholic and drunk by teens, in true British spirit. This version also could have used some whiskey.

Maltby Street Market

I love Maltby St Market; but I hate it, too. The absurd choice of dishes and cuisines throws me in a panic and I always order something I don’t really want and then second-guess my decision-making skills. This visit was no exception.

Tartiflette seemed like a good idea (mounts of potatoes, ham and Reblochon – what could go wrong) but it really doesn’t possess the magical comforting abilities I ached for when it’s 18 degrees on a grey September day. It needed snow to work.

My second choice, the fish finger sandwich at Shoal Food was a perfect concoction of crispy chunks of fish, all flaky and delicate inside, in a shiny, sturdy bun. I love any fish finger sandwich (yes, even the orange-coloured supermarket fish fingers with Lurpack spread and the whitest plastic bread) but this one was genuinely delicious, especially washed down with my favourite Negroni in the whole world at Little Bird Gin.

I could not part without trying an ice cream sandwich from Happy Endings, “the Malty One”; it was a wonderful little thing of creamy, nutty malt ice cream, snugly hugged by chewy oat cookies with a slightly salty edge. Chocolate was involved, too.

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Good Egg, Stoke Newington

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Stoke Newington is like this pretty village where everything looks boutiquey and made to be photogenic, and it maybe has the highest concentrations of restaurants you have to queue for (probably not true, but it feels like that when you’re hungry and will have to wait for forty endless minutes to get your hands on some labna).

The Good Egg serves Israeli food in a busy, buzzy restaurant. For breakfast, they serve smaller plates, or larger options (pittas, whitefish bagels and the likes). We had melty eggs with everything seasoning (onion, garlic, sesame, caraway seeds and probably something else, but the sesame really did most of the work); perfect, tangy, silky labna delicately dressed with tiny greens; fluffy pitta with olive oil; sharp, smoky aubergine marinated in nutty tahini; airy whipped feta with the ripest jammiest black fig on top. Everything is balanced, tangy, creamy, honey-sweet, feta-salty. By the time I was done, I was ready to queue all over again.

Mangal 2, Dalston

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When I moved to Berlin, Turkish restaurants were the biggest surprise for me. Before then, my only experience of Turkish food were late night Doner kebabs – deliciously fatty, salty, doused in chilli sauce. But in Berlin, Turkish restaurants were lovely places that offered generous portions of hummus, thin sheets of Turkish bread, grills piled high, diminutive glasses of fruity tea and wobbly baked rice pudding – they were something else entirely.

There’s a stretch of the A10 where the smell of car fumes is miraculously covered by the aroma of grilled meat from the many Turkish cafes and restaurants, mainly specialising in wood-fired food. Mangal 2, with its unassuming decor, is among them. Inside, Alex and I shared lamb kofte, our arms crossing while attempting to mop up the yoghurt dip, the sheer pleasure of conviviality in the interactiveness of a dip.

We had hummus, coarse and creamy, adorned by a single black olive, dark and sticky like a prune, and an aubergine dip which was a roller-coaster of smokiness, pungent garlic, and cooling mint. Then there was smoky charred lamb kofte on a pile of bread, tomato sauce and yoghurt, served with a generous amount of rice. All of this with Turkish bread, so reminiscent of pizza bianca to me, still warm from the oven and slightly charred in places. It’s the sort of place you’ll want to go time and time again – its reliability the perfect accompaniment to a date, a catch-up with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, meeting your parents. Or a takeaway to be eaten in front of the TV. Stranger Things is coming back soon, after all.

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Bun House, London: a review (not)

This is not a review. I repeat: this is not a review. It’s more of an invite to go and have a look (taste) yourself.

There are several reasons why this is not an actual review. When I visited Bun Tea House, a few months ago, they had just opened. The bar downstairs was still closed and they did not have an alcohol licence yet (but the beer list looked very interesting). Most of their pickles were not ready, either.

Also, I’m not sure I could be objective because I was just so… happy. Excited. It’s that special, bizarre feeling that only the first day of spring can give you. The first day where the sun is warm on your skin and you can take your coat off. The first day of leaving the office in daylight – I repeat, actual non-artificial non-LED light coming from that elusive ball of fire we all sort of forgot about last winter.

On this special day I happened to stumble upon Bun House, its tiled blue chairs like the bottom of a pool, huge bamboo steamers and the calming smell of wood and steam, jars of colourful pickles, the tables spilling onto the pavement. Sitting outside and observing this pulsing corner of Soho with the palest, fluffiest buns gave me some sort of natural high that I believe has rendered me completely non-objective.

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As well as buns, Bun House serves a rather interesting set of dishes of which I tried none but that will keep me intrigued enough to keep coming back. Suffice to say that the house fries are fried duck tongues. The menu is utterly confident in its use of offal and traditional Chinese ingredients in the most innocent looking parcel: a steamed bun.

The lamb was juicy and spiked with cumin, while the chicken, with liver pate gifting depth of flavour, was genuinely addictive. They also have some sweet buns – a chocolate one with pig blood (yup) and a seemingly safer custard one with salted duck egg, coconut milk and carrot; an oozing, wonderful custard with a little tropical sweetness and savoury notes for balance.

They also have the most beautiful, soothing website – and a cute little “squirty” icon for the oozy sweet buns. I cannot wait to go back and try every item on the menu – I think you should, too.

Bun House

23-24 Greek St, Soho, London W1D 4DZ

http://bun.house/

Palatino, London – a review

You know that joke, ask an Italian where the best food is and they’ll tell you to eat at their grandmother’s? Well, that’s not entirely inaccurate. I have such ridiculously high standards when it comes to Italian food that I genuinely feel bad for every Italian restaurant I go to. If the food isn’t prepared the way my grandmother would or doesn’t taste as nice as that little restaurant I stumbled upon once in the Tuscan countryside ten years ago, I am pretty much guaranteed never to set foot in it again.

Cue to me entering an Italian restaurant, desperately trying to relax and enjoy my glass of wine; inside I am a ticking bomb nervously looking around for the first thing that will set me off. I see dill in pasta and I shudder. The balsamic on the pappardelle makes me teary. I don’t want to be that person but I am that person so I silently suffer at the sight of pesto on top of anything that isn’t pasta, or chicken on pizza.

It’s instilled in us from a young age, this fierce over-protectiveness of our food, the infinite rules of what it’s acceptable to eat, what goes with what, what dramatic consequences that splash of cream could bring into our life. We Italians live by a moral code that knows no logic but is stronger than any attempt to rationalise it.

I read a Giles Coren review last week, the first paragraphs of which were dedicated to insulting my messy, heartbreakingly beautiful, chaotic, ancient hometown: Rome. Traffic is terrible, he says (true); the people are grumpy (huh? Did he go to the post office?). The food inedible.

I’m not sure whether Coren has ever actually been to Rome, but it’s true that its food scene can be very hard to navigate. The millions of rip-off tourist trap restaurants with cookie-cutter decor, menus in seven languages and bland pastas served alongside overcooked burgers can truly be off-putting. And the ‘cool’ new places are also largely disappointing, offering overpriced fare that was innovative maybe ten years ago. Its protectiveness over its cuisine, the lack of receptiveness of different approaches to food has made the Roman restaurant food scene a little stale. I get that.

But food in Rome is somewhere else. It’s crispy, fried supplìs with their melty mozzarella heart, in a brown bag rendered translucent by oil, eaten in tiny cobblestoned alleyways, green vines climbing up earth-coloured walls. It’s squares of chewy pizza al taglio, the edges crispy, pockets of mozzarella atop delicate courgette flowers. It’s the 4-am flaky pastries and doughnuts from the bakeries that stay open all night, the tripe sandwich served in a knackered food truck by a bleak roundabout. It’s the carbonara you make with friends, while fighting over the recipe (you put egg whites in?). The long pizza tongues with a stripe of bright red sauce running through them. Neighbourhood osterias that sell wine by the litre with menus handwritten on a blackboard and paper tablecloths. Locals tucking into creamy fried brains, bitter greens, sweetbreads, fried artichokes. It’s the salumeria, cheese and cured meat shops, and the sandwiches they will prepare on the spot with the salame of your choice; the utter simplicity of crusty bread and marbled slices of coppa.

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So while Giles Coren’s review angered me, it also made me discover a Roman-cuisine restaurant in London, and I was eager to try. Palatino, apart from the slightly off-putting Ancient Roman font which makes me think of theme parks and the gladiators in front of the colosseum with their plastic helmets, sweat dripping in the sun, is a beautiful restaurant with some odd features; just round the corner from our industrial-chic area there were some steps with cushions to sit on, and at the very bottom, an office?

The menu looked quite attractive, with lots of Roman dishes (never thought I would see pajata -intestines of milk-fed calf- outside of Rome) and a few less Roman dishes (fried gnocchi -as a side- and the very Northern polenta). The starters were truly lovely: the creamiest, milkiest stracciatella on toast with a delicate anchovy, and light-as-air fried courgette flowers, the green, soft bloom complemented by some vinegar for dippage.

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Pastas were served in generous portions; we had the small size and it was no smaller than any other pasta serving I have ever had. Cacio e pepe, a simple dish of pasta with pecorino and pepper, was creamy and violently peppery but could have used more cheese, while the white ragù offered much more depth of flavour (still prefer my auntie’s, I muttered. I’m a nightmare). Saltimbocca alla romana, veal escalopes with prosciutto, were cooked beautifully, the meat soft but supple, but still lacked quite a lot of the aggressive savouriness and saltiness that characterises Roman cuisine (and the amount of prosciutto was rather stingy). Roman food is salty. Not too salty, just immensely satisfyingly salty. If it doesn’t leave you thirsty for the rest of the afternoon, you’ve done it wrong.

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IMG_9781Palatino is not, nor is it trying to be, the neighbourhood osterias I long for. It’s sophisticated, elegant, maybe a little toned down. But it’s beautiful Italian (Roman!) food nonetheless.

Palatino

71 Central St,

London EC1V 8AB

A review of Hangmee, Berlin

If there is one thing Berlin has that London so miserably lacks is space. Berlin seems to have buckets of space. Its peaceful, quiet Allees, lined by rows of trees, are so spacious that if you were to open your arms, as if to hug an imaginary friend, you probably would not cause an accident that would later be featured on BBC News. And I believe that all this space, the simple ability to walk from A to B without having to elbow and huff and puff and tut, makes everyone just so much more relaxed.

As I sat in what my friend kept referring to as “the yellow restaurant” (it is indeed quite yellow), I was trying to grasp the essence of these Berlin restaurants – relaxed, buzzy, cool, non-pretentious, sleek but never too sleek – and I decided that space played an important role in it. Now, I love the dinky Soho spots with wonky tables and a handwritten menu that is just a list of ingredients, but there is just something about a spacious restaurant, filled enough for the atmosphere to be warm but not so much to have a queue outside.

Hangmee is all primary colours, yellow walls with red accents, neon-signs like those on the streets of Thailand, big murals of food on the walls. Its fun decor very carefully treads the line between cool and corny, but there is simplicity to a very extensive menu of, well, “Thai-Laotian tapas”.

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Here is where I stand on the “everything-turn-tapas” trend. I love the idea of being able to try more by having smaller portions. I don’t love it as much when it becomes an excuse to overcharge for tiny portions on immaculate plates that you couldn’t share even if you wanted to (erm, shall I cut this asparagus in two?). Hangmee does tapas so, so, right. The portions are generous and come on a rotating dish to ensure that no one hoards any of the food (you will try).

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We chose a long list of dishes and every single one of them was excellent. There were supple bites of chicken wrapped in aromatic pandan leaves and their thick, addictive sauce; bright papaya salad with savoury dried shrimps; a mind-blowing dipping sauce with mince and lightly steamed, thin slices of broccoli and cabbage; crispy slices of juicy chicken bathed in a mild curry, chewy rice noodles stir-fried with egg and vegetables; pink, thick-skinned juicy dumplings with a creamy beef filling and a celery kick. Everything was bright, aromatic, filling, in generous portions to be scooped up with copious amounts of rice. The sort of tapas you can actually share – although you won’t want to.

 

Hangmee

Boxhagener Str. 108, Friedrichshain

Berlin

Electric Elephant Café, Kennington

Imagine this: you’re tired. You’re hungover. The world is too loud, the light too bright and the air too warm and heavy for you to even think about leaving the house. And someone brings you a cup of tea, builder’s tea, with maybe too much milk, some sugar still sitting at the bottom, the last few sips much sweeter than the ones before.

And then they make you toast. Just plain toast, from sliced bread, a thick layer of butter, edges crispy and burnt. A simple act of love.

There is something about The Electric Elephant café that reminds me of this very feeling. It’s the quirky interior, the mismatched furniture and worn tablecloths. The wooden tables in the sun-soaked courtyard, the noise of bacon sizzling, the warm service.

From a minuscule kitchen, really just a corner of the café, they serve simple, quintessentially English breakfasts; fried, oozing eggs; crispy, chewy English bacon; thick susages, crumbly fishcakes that break down on your toast.

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But also, peppery bubble and squeak on toast (on toast. Potatoes on toast.), little pots of pale, creamy butter, a jewel-hued red pepper chutney which they also sell in jars.

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Then there’s the strong, dark coffee, the mismatched mugs and cups, your order handwritten on a piece of paper, friendly chatter, couples and friends and families curing hangovers and preparing for the day ahead with a full belly. In summer, you can tuck into your scrambled eggs in the sun, flicking through a magazine and enjoying the breeze; while the inside is especially welcoming and cosy in winter. But most importantly, the Electric Elephant possesses the magic quality of feeling like an extension of your own house.

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Instagram food fatigue

A good 80% of my Instagram feed is food. There are the odd bits of fashion, peaceful landscapes, beauty gurus showing off their freebies. I don’t really follow celebrities whose feed turns into publicity when a new film is out (but Dawn Porter is the best); any stranger who takes lots of pictures is an unwelcome addition in my feed because why would I be interested in a stream of unfamiliar faces?
I follow a few people who travel the world but not too many because the harsh office lights reflecting off the white plasticky desks are an especially bleak sight when compared to a picture of Birman temples. But food, food is accessible.

When I say food, I mean all kinds of food. The beautifully shot kind with artfully placed hands reaching for the central plate and flower petals scattered on the white linen; the mono-ingredient poetry of Noma chef René Redzepi, recipe ideas from the celebrity chefs, their pictures bright and sharp; the so-called “food influencers” with pseudo-pornographic shots of yolks oozing and fountains of cheese being slowly poured on a burger because clearly the London food scene knows no excess.
But I fear that after months –years– of endless mindless scrolling, I may be experiencing sort of Instagram food fatigue. It’s a thing. It happens.

Smoothies, smoothie bowls, perfectly round slices of bananas arranged in a semicircle, impossible-to-eat shakes that defy logic and probably laws of physics, burgers upon burgers upon burgers with shiny patties and melted cheese oozing out, avocados thinly slices and grilled and crushed and mashed and filled, orange-coloured eggs forever oozing onto sourdough, edible flowers, neatly arranged doughnuts, huge platters of sushi, coconut oil and cream and milk and water and sugar, bright green matcha items, #foodgoals, #foodporn, #foodisbae.

It seems that my relationship with food has been oddly shaped by a very limited number of trendy food items forever repeated and imprinted in my mind, half of which are unnecessarily #healthy and charged with cutesy pseudoscientific terminology like superfood, vitamin-packed, goodness, nasties. The rest are utter excess.

Food on social media seems to impart a double pressure: the one to try as many “cool” things as possible, and the one to be a conscious, healthy eater. And sometimes I am a victim of both.
But is this who I want to be? A maker of smoothies, a drinker of lukewarm lemon water, a calorie-counting kombucha-sipping consumer of kale and sweet potato, a self-righteous enemy of white foods by day; and by night, to keep up with the London food scene, the sort of person who gets bacon as a side and queues for a doughnut crossed with a croissant?

Lately, I have found myself getting home and just not wanting to think about food. Me. The person who daydreams about how to create egg yolk butter. The one who plans holidays around what to eat and spends hours researching how to best cook rice.

But this fatigue, the utter indifference I feel towards brightly coloured tacos served from a food truck in a converted toilet, makes me thing I need to take a break. I need some sort of beige-food diet. I find myself gravitating towards canned tomato soup. Broth made with a stock cube. Pasta with just butter. If you were to look at my Deliveroo history you would see that I’ve been ordering a lot from this Polish restaurant, its food almost exclusively beige, translucent, thick-skinned boiled pierogis that could not be any less photogenic, pork served with a hearty dose of mash, boiled cabbage, the sort that a grandmother would feed her family on a remote mountain somewhere. Food that feeds the heart rather than the camera.

So yeah, when a new Asian-fusion Mexican-inspired burger&chicken place opens in London, don’t mind me. I’ll be here eating my plain rice.

2016 Food highlights, pt. 2

Here is part 2 of my year in food. You can find part 1 here.

– Food at Som Saa because it was genuinely some of the best I have ever eaten. Ever. I was so keen and so worried about the legendary queue that I was the first one to show up – an hour before they even started serving food. They do luckily have a bar where you can knock down cocktails while you wait in trepidation. The whole-fried seabass, evil eyes and all, was a feast of spice, aromatics, tang and happiness on the flaky, buttery fish. And the prawn floss on the aubergine! Stroke of genius.

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– Another one of my favourite restaurants this year, Oldroyd, and its life-changing croquettes. I don’t use the word “life-changing” lightly. Actually, I do. But they were seriously noteworthy.

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Fabrique’s cinnamon buns, a life-saver for indulgent breakfast and comfort pick-me-ups, very conveniently located just by my office. Sticky and cinnamon-y beyond belief. Also everyone working there appears to be incredibly beautiful and blond and Swedish, which figures.

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– Brunch at Chinese Laundry Room. So many colours. Fluffy, pillowy mantou. Eggs as a side. Eggs should always be offered as a side.

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– Egg and bacon naan at Dishoom. True breakfast of champions – served with warming bottomless chai.

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– In June, I managed to relax with this view:

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And eat beetroot casunziei and venison ragù in little mountain lodges in the middle of nowhere.

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– Venetian bacari and 60p wine drunk on a square. Seriously considering moving.

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Mr Lyan’s truly brilliant cocktails were a perfect way to welcome my 26th year of life – especially the beeswax old fashioned.

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Avgustinos, Rhodes. In Rhodes, roughly 40% of our meals consisted of this souvlaki. The rest was incredibly buttery octopus and fried sardines and fresh tomato salad but the souvlaki 40% was strong.

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Electric Elephant Cafe. Our local. They truly know how to fry an egg.

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Osteria Bonelli. Sometimes you discover a somewhat renowned, delicious Roman restaurant you had never heard of, which was just behind your high school. It had been there all along, while I had my first kiss and gushed about boys and wore cropped tops with low-rise jeans. I must have walked it past it a billion times with my backpack and died dark hair. And yet I only discover it years later, when I don’t even live there anymore.

I loved this place. The lack of paper menus, a list of dishes on a blackboard,  the staff, friendly but so quick at taking your order you will most definitely panic-order (i.e. ordering the first thing you recognise) – this place served some of the best Roman food I have ever had. You could be adventurous and go for creamy fried brains, pajata, livers. Or simpler cacio e pepe, carbonara, gricia. A pile of savoury carbs to see you through the day.Processed with VSCO with s1 preset

– One-pound oysters at Wright Brothers. Quickest way to travel to the sea.

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