What I ate in Japan – part 2

This is the second instalment of What I ate in Japan – read the first one here.

Traditional Ryokan food

After a spectacular rope-way trip over a volcanic valley, overlooking a bare mountain with thick steam rising from the surface, we made our way to our ryokan in Hakone, in the lush Japanese countryside. A traditional hotel, with tatami floor and sliding doors, the hotel also had a beautiful onsen (a natural thermal pool by a river, enveloped by nature) and a very gorgeous dinner served in our rooms and eaten on your knees (cramps).

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As much as the food was strikingly beautiful and perfectly constructed, it was bland. So, so bland. There was some sort of very delicate soup with chewy noodles and pheasant, squares of sweet omelettes and taro dumplings, boiled prawns, edible flowers, and pheasant sashimi. Yes. Raw poultry.

Raw poultry dressed with radishes so thinly sliced they were transparent and edible flowers, but raw poultry nonetheless. I had all sorts of alarms going off in my head. I’m sure it’s fine, I told myself. Be adventurous. You eat raw egg all the time. You’ve had raw pork. What’s the worst that can happen?

Curious to know what it tasted like? Me too. Because I did not have it.

In fact, scarred by this near-raw-poultry experience, when served the phaesant table barbeque I cooked the hell out of it, until it was tough and barely edible. Sorry, phaesant, you died in vain. This barbeque course (below), also involved some unseasoned leeks, some unseasoned mushrooms, and a single unseasoned slice of pepper.

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There were some lovely pickles and rice, but you catch my drift – there was no oil, no salt, no soy sauce, no yuzu, no ponzu sauce. Ingredients were left alone to shine and fell flat. That being said, looking up reviews online I seem to be the only person in the world who strongly disliked this, so I believe it’s my fault. My palate is not quite delicate enough to appreciate a single warm (did I mention unseasoned?) leek.

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Breakfast was considerably better, with some grilled salmon browned and caramelised, a salad with juicy prawns, and warming miso soup and rice. We took a bath in the enormous stone bathtub, hot water coming directly from the onsen, and enjoyed the view below.

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Bentos

I thought I was familiar with the concept of a bento – essentially, a packed lunch. But bento boxes come in so many shapes and price ranges: homely portions of just-sticky rice with creamy curry, or beautiful wood-like boxes with a myriad of tiny bite-sides dishes each occupying their perfect little square. There are bento shops in every station, and the choice can be overwhelming, but they quickly became one of the highlights of our Shinkansen trips.

The one below, which costed about £10, featured chewy taro dumplings, crunchy tempura prawns, savoury mussels on seasoned rice, a sweet, fluffy pillow of omelette served with fresh lotus root, and a variety of geometrically shaped elements which I could not quite recognise. But to me, bentos are all about the symmetry, the care for the detail, the dignity given to a train lunch. A world away from a ham sandwich and a packet of Quavers.

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CoCo Curry House

Japanese curry, the mild, sweet brown gravy often served with pork cutlet and chubby chunks of carrot, bears such little resemblance to its South East Asian homophone, that it never occurred to me that they could even be related.

In fact, curry was introduced in Japan by British Navy officers, who had adopted the dish from India. In its current form, it’s one of Japan’s favourite dishes and can be found pretty much everywhere.

A few people had recommended CoCo Curry House, a curry-dedicated chain whose brown sauce is close to addictive. Their motto is “good smell, good curry” and you will not get it until you realise that a CoCo Curry joint mysteriously projects an enticing smell which betrays it every time. Once you recognise it you will always know whether you are in its proximity.

The curry can be made of chicken, pork or beef, and can be served with anything from traditional fried cutlets to frankfurters, fried cuttlefish, natto and even just cheese (it is a very, very long menu). Most aspects, such as sweetness, spiciness, and toppings, are customisable.

Let’s talk about spice. I had never had a Japanese curry that was actually spicy before. Sure, it was spiced, but never hot. When choosing the heat level, looking for a hint of warmth more than anything else, we went for 2 out of 10. It was hot. Not painfully hot, but runny-nose teary-eyes swollen-lips hot. I’m not quite sure what a 10 would taste like, but I decided to keep that a mystery.

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As toppings, I particularly loved the soft-boiled egg, a quivery cloud of barely cooked egg, so borderline-raw that I wondered how they even managed to break the shell. I loved how the creamy yolk mixed with the dark pork curry sauce. I also liked the potent garlic bits, and the sweetcorn (a local obsession I unabashedly embraced during the trip).

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Or, fried stuff on rice with a barely-cooked egg (Japan really does not fear raw egg). This was from a small counter-only lunch restaurant full of people eating on their own while reading papers. I picked at random and received some huge, juicy prawns, pork and beef (yes – deep fried beef). The man next to me observed me for a little, a sceptical look on his face, then pointed to the jar of pickles, which I obediently added to my bowl. The acidity really lifted what is essentially, did I mention, fried stuff on rice.

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Sake

The perfect accompaniment to delicate flavours, sake is like a supremely clean-tasting white wine – a delicious palate cleanser between bites. We had an incredible experience at Osaka’s Sake Bar, a beautiful standing bar with an impressive selection of huge sake bottles and an English-speaking bartender who asked if we wanted it dry or off-dry, medium or full bodied, and offered us glasses upon glasses of the stuff. It was delicious, and I discovered I was partial to an off-dry sake as a nightcap.

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This is not, of course, everything we ate and drunk. We had disgustingly sweet matcha beers and whiskey highballs. We ate fatty chicken skin yakitoris in the Golden Gai, drank beer in smoky hole-in-the-wall bars, had takoyaki in markets, thick sashimi in izakayas with ice-cold dry sakes in a wooden box. And we loved all of it.

 

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What I ate in Japan – part 1

Not to blow my own horn, but I am normally quite good at planning where to eat on holiday. I study guidebooks, blogs, websites; I plan itineraries around this fried fish joint in Malaga or that Souvlaki place in Rhodes. I go back home comforted by the thought that yet again, I have eaten and drunk everything worth eating and drinking.

Of course, in a city like Tokyo, this is impossible. Not only because the city itself stretches over  a surface of over 2,000 square kilometres, but because it has the highest concentration of eating venues I’ve ever experienced. There are no-frills counter seating eateries, Michelin-starred restaurants, bakeries, yakitori joints where beer and sake are drunk around the griddle, izakayas where the food complements the drinks, noodle places with their little vending machines from which you order, performance restaurants, street stalls, markets. And all these seem to all sit on top of each other, there to confuse you with enticing smells and Japanese-only menus.

On top of this paralysing choice, Japanese addresses are near-impossible to understand and Google maps can be a little useless. At times, we would circle a road for a while before giving up, baffled at the fact that Google Maps had promised us that the restaurant would be there, on that very road, but was nowhere to be found. Some of these places remain a mystery; others, we realise, where simply inside buildings: there seem to be a number of buildings which only house eating and drinking places. Finding what floor the place you want to go to is, is a whole different story.

So there was a lot of improvising, and a lot of restaurants whose names I could not note down, where we stumbled upon hungry and frustrated after not been able to found the supposedly great okonomiyaki place round the corner. They were all truly great.

Convenience stores and bakeries

Kombinis, convenience stores, adorn every street corner and they are so wonderfully Japanese, you could forget they are American chains. The ready-to-eat foods are cheap and lovely: fat onigiris filled with anything from grilled salmon to fish eggs to sour salted plum (umeboshi, my favourite). Katsu (cutlet) sandwiches, in the whitest, crust-less bread, and ready-to-eat soft boiled eggs. You can also buy all sorts of snacks and crisps and bakery items. Sweet melon pans (covered with a cookie crust which makes them look like melons), buns filled with red bean paste, airy baked cheesecakes, chewy chestnut mochi. The drink section also features pretty much everything you can think of: cold green teas, sugary milk teas, flavoured milks, sodas made to taste like yogurt, cold beers and cans of sake. If you’re every hungry and confused, a kombini will see you through.

Japanese bakeries, the takeaway kind, are very similar to the ones you get in Chinatown in London. You take a tray and a pair of tongues at the entrance, and fill your tray with all sorts of cakes and buns. I noticed that a lot of them appeared to claim some from of Frenchness: they had French flags or were called something along the lines of “vie de France”, but were about as French as I am Japanese. This is where I made a first discovery about Japanese food: there seems to be little interest for authenticity. Foreign food is broken down to its elements and re-built to look and taste decidedly Japanese. A buttery, flaky croissant is chewed and spat out looking like a shiny, horn-shaped brioche filled with chocolate cream. This gives life to little treasures: buns filled with thick custards, but also turnip tops, matcha cream, chestnut; pancakes that are really soufflés and cheesecakes that are also really soufflés. Below, a little pumpkin-shaped bun, filled with slightly sweetened pumpkin puree. Flavours are not overly sweet and often nutty and toasted, never particularly sharp. Seasonality also seems very important, as pumpkin, sweet potato and chestnut were colouring all foods and dessert in November.

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Sushi

There were things I already knew to expect about sushi in Japan: it’s mainly nigiri and rolls are simple – the idea is to let the fish shine. Wasabi is in the nigiri and it’s not served on the plate for you to add. There is more emphasis on fish other than salmon and tuna.

Then, there were things I really had no idea about. Tuna, especially medium-fatty and fatty tuna, seems to be one of the most popular sushi items on the menu. It’s much fattier than the purple maguro we’re used to in Britain, paler in colour, with a melt-in-your mouth texture. It’s dreamy. Salmon does feature in sushi menus, but it’s more often consumed grilled than raw.

Here’s another thing: affordable sushi places don’t always look particularly nice. Used to the simple sleekness and abundance of wood of places like EatTokyo, some of the very popular sushi places I ate in were gritty, with servers wearing wellies, and chefs (politely) shouting at each other. There was often more of a fish-market atmosphere, and these places tended to normally have a queue and happy regulars wolfing down sushi with their hands (yes).

Kizuna Sushi, Tokyo

We stumbled upon this 24-hour sushi restaurant after discovering that a very good-looking izakaya had no English menu or pictures, which would have made ordering impossible. Kizuna sushi did a very good job of consoling us; it’s an airy restaurant with both table and (infinitely more fun) counter seating. The sushi was delicious and good value, and the atmosphere busy and buzzy. Their tuna set is excellent value and features tuna, medium-fatty tuna and fatty tuna, as well as scorched tuna and tartare. We also had slightly stranger rolls (slimy natto, of which I enjoy the nuttiness but was not quite as popular with my boyfriend), ume and shisho, unagi, ikura.

The tuna was my favourite, draped over rice and so soft it was about to fall apart, it was delicious and a great showcase to what the simples of foods (fresh fish, rice) can achieve. Washed down with some dry sake, it was pretty perfect.

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A lot of the other sushi we had in Tokyo was in hole-in-the-wall places whose names I could not read. The one below was our first ever sushi experience in Japan. A tiny eatery in a subway station tunnel, where there was no menu and no English was spoken. The owner just asked if we wanted sushi, and we said yes. This lunch sushi set came to about 1,500 yen each – that’s about 10 pound. Locals were eating chirashi and miso soup and laughing at footage of Trump’s visit in Tokyo.

 

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My absolute favourite sushi, though, was in Osaka.

Kuromon Market, Osaka

An energetic, bustling market frying up takoyaki, grilling scallops, selling wasabi roots and luxury fruit packaged like boxes of chocolate truffles. There is also a corner sushi stall specialising in tuna. There was lovely sashimi, but their rolls have set a standard forever impossible to meet back home: a never-before-seen ratio of fish to rice.

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Harukoma Sushi, Osaka

Thick slabs of fish on a tiny bit of perlescent rice. Clam miso soup which comes poured over a mountain of clams. The freshest uni I’ve ever had – bright and creamy, a delicate taste reminiscent of the sea. The tuna and salmon belly nigiris were maybe the best sushi I’ve ever eaten in my life. They have a (sticky, dirty) English menu, the floor is wet, and it has a buzzing, fish market energy. For better pictures, have a look at: https://migrationology.com/osaka-food-guide-japan/

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Ramen

I thought I wasn’t a big fan of ramen – I’m actually not a big fan of tonkotsu (pork bone) ramen. Its intense richness is a little off-putting to me, the way it coats the tongue and the vaguely animalic smells.

But hey! There is more to ramen than tonkotsu ramen. And even when it comes to tonkotsu, some restaurants will allow you to choose the level of richness, or to have your broth blended with miso or soy sauce.

Ebisoba Ichigen, Tokyo

This place specialises in prawn ramen. The broth is intense and seafood-y, almost like a lobster bisque, and can be blended with simple soy sauce stock (my choice), or tonkotsu (the boyfriend’s choice). The ordering is done via a vending machine at the entrance (this is entirely in Japanese but a lovely couple helped us ordering after seeing how lost we looked). You then quietly sit on a bench and when seats are free at the counter, you’re called up by the waiters – the slurping can then begin. I can’t quite explain how delicious this was – so intensely savoury, but also a fatty broth, thick chewy noodles, every bite as satisfying than the one before.

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Ichiran Ramen, various outposts (we ate in the Osaka Namba and the Tokyo Shinjuku ones)

Let me tell you a story. Upon our Airbnb host’s recommendation, we went for what claims to be the “best tonkotsu ramen” in Japan. Apparently people fly in from Hong Kong and Taiwan for a bowl of the stuff. The whole experience was surreal and slightly baffling. Unassuming from the oustide, this was a four-floor restaurant organised like a factory production line. You are asked if you want table or individual booth seating (more on that later), given a sheet on which you can choose every element of your ramen, like the richness of the tonskotsu, the strength of the fish stock base, the softness of the noodles, amount of their proprietary dry hot spice blend, garlic, and any add-ons. You are then ushered towards vending machines in which you have to make a ridiculous amount of decisions in a split second. Do you want a noodle refill? An egg? Sides? A beer? A matcha beer (don’t make this mistake)? Once we picked up our tickets, we were pushed towards a lift and somehow ended up on a different floor. We sat at our table and the ramen magically showed up minutes later.

It was probably my favourite tonkotsu ramen, a perfect blend of richness and savouriness, slices of chashu pork soft and trembling, marbled with fat, and a salted egg. The hot spice mix provided a very subtle kick, but you can go all out and transform this into an eye-wateringly spicy soup.

The following day, on the train to Tokyo, I couldn’t stop thinking about this ramen. Apparently simple, it clearly has an addictive quality and suddenly flying in from a neighbouring country for a bowl of the stuff seemed very reasonable. Ichiran is luckily a chain, and as soon as we got to Tokyo, we had it again.

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The Tokyo Shinjuku branch is smaller and less manic, which translates to a much longer queue. It also doesn’t have table seating, but individual booths only. It’s counter seating, but you have a panel separating each diner, and a panel separating you from the kitchen on the other side. This is raised while you’re been served, so you can see the waiter’s hands while they place your food on the counter – and then quickly pulled down to ensure absolute slurping privacy. Which you will absolutely need.

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.

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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