Chinese Laundry Room, London – a review

As is often the case, I discovered Chinese Laundry through the impossibly styled, polished, saturated pictures of Instagram. Seen through colourful filters, these small tables crammed with perfectly arranged plates, and just the right amount of movement (a manicured hand holding chopsticks; a cardigan-wearing arm reaching for some bread), are somehow capable of giving you food envy and a start of salivation.

Yet, by definition, this medium cannot convey in any way the flavour of a dish, its aroma, the warm feeling in your mouth and belly, its texture. Then why am I so attracted to these pictures, why do I follow these as if they were recommendation from a favourite kitchen critic? Maybe there is an element of shameless shallowness, of searching the aesthetically pleasing, of wanting to eat photogenic food. Time Out rushes in defence of brown food; and while I agree with the argument (a curry will never look particularly photogenic, unless you pile edible flowers on it; and as far as the rainbow cake/bagel/soup trend goes, if you’re eating something of a hue that does not even exist in nature, you probably need a cup of green tea), I think there is more to a picture of food.

If you know food even a little, if you love it, a photo will be enough to decide whether the tomatoes are ripe, whether the mango was stringy, if the fried batter is soggy or impossibly crisp. There is a lot you can tell from a bidimensional picture, even if its colours are artificially enhanced.

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In the case of Chinese laundry, pictures of geometrical dumpling omelettes, and sides of pale milky buns, trickling onto my Instagram feed, looked spanking fresh, and astonishingly not swimming in oil.

Things that the beautiful photos did not manage to convey: flavour. Buckets of flavours.

Chinese Laundry is a small, narrow restaurant with adorable dusty green walls adorned with retro Chinese prints – the idea behind the restaurant is to recreate the 80’s in China. The decor, as well as quirky, has a warm, homely feel to it.

Served in immaculate white-and-blue  porcelain, breakfast was wonderfully crafted: a crispy scallion pancake with egg and bacon to binge on, aromatic teas served in small matte teapots, bright-yolked soft boiled tea eggs, their back decorated by mesmerising patterns; a fiery, comforting dish of stir fry dumplings. The side of little milky buns –something extremely pleasing in the consonance of coronals – features one of my absolute favourite foods of all times, for no particular reasons: mantou, the softest, chewiest, palest bun, in two versions: a plain steamed bun served with a sharp, almost sour spicy sauce, and a golden version, I can only assumed deep fried, accompanied by condensed milk spiked with peanuts and toasted sesame.

I went again for dinner, this time a slightly less photogenic one due to dim lighting, and loved the food nonetheless. The plates are fairly small but not quite as small as they make them to be – two plates with some rice and of course mantou, still warm in its wooden basket, were quite filling. The sweet basil pop corn chicken, fried to perfection, meat soft and supple and a crispy batter laced with aromatic sweet basil, was the sort of dish that you could find yourself craving at all times of the night and day.

The aubergine, which always deserves love, was grilled until its pulp was almost creamy, with slight sour notes, and topped with chopped peppers and peanuts for texture, its subtle smokiness perfect on steamed white rice.

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Other dishes I stole bites from included cumin-rich lamb skewers, soft and juicy; aubergine with hot smoked salmon; crispy silken tofu; a delightful and refreshing starter of courgette with raspberry, all with incredibly friendly service – when our waiter was telling us of the town in China he went to college to, I didn’t ever want to leave.

So yes, I suppose Instagram may only tell you so much – but when it gets it right, boy, does it get it right.

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Salon, Brixton, and brunch.

I first got into brunch when I lived in Berlin. I must admit that before then, I just did not understand the concept. At the time, American-style brunch was starting to catch on in Rome, and it normally consisted of soggy pancakes drowned in cheap, pale maple syrup, eggs that had been scrambled into a rubbery mess, overpriced dry bagels with cream cheese that cost as much as a lunch.
But Berlin is where brunch became a necessity. I was lodging in the most beautiful flat, with its eclectic antique furniture, incredibly high ceilings, curtains so thin they were practically transparent, and then my room, long forgotten: a small single bed in the middle of a bare room, its simple IKEA furniture never quite capable of filling it. But so much light: even in the dark depths of the bone-cold winter the room would be inundated with light, forcefully bypassing the see-through curtains and waking me up way before I should have woken up.

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And I remember waking up, lying in bed for hours, my mouth dry, the memory of icy cocktails and generous glasses of red, always half spilled, that had turned into a headache, and lazily getting into the shower, standing under the steamy hot water for too long.
We always seemed to have brunch plans. We would plan to meet around one in the afternoon but actually meet at two and often we would not be served until three. I remember having to wait forty-five minutes for an omelette in a cutesy pink-walled candy striped little cafe in Prenzlauerberg. But it was fine, because by then brunch had become a finely tuned ritual and the food was a small part of it.

First there was the hot drink -weak tea; black, bitter coffee- and then the cold drink -a juice; a creamy, frothy milkshake – and then maybe a second cup of coffee and perhaps a latte, and that’s before sweet, spongy pancakes and silky runny yolks would be presented on our table. Brunch could take up a good part of a day, and as someone who loves rituals, I enjoyed every aspect of it. Whether it was American-inspired, a more German mixture of sturdy cheese and fat-speckled salami on dark rye bread, or an all-you-can-eat Russian brunch buffet with devilled eggs, jewel-hued caviar and a spanking fresh salmon with a piercing pink beetroot sauce, brunch was the perfect mixture of hot drinks, delicious food and tranquillity.
A lot of things have changed since then – I live in a different city, I have an actual full time job that makes spare time feel very precious and rare, and because keeping up with the London food scene feels like a lost cause, I often find myself eating in a rush. If you get there before 12 there will be a huge queue, they sell out of their best thing before three, etc etc. But not in Salon, Brixton.

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Salon lets you book a table, which may seems like a very simple thing you find yourself taking for granted, but it’s a rarity in London. It feels like a privilege to simply show up and have a table waiting for you.
The place itself is adorable, with Scandinavian-looking minimalistic furniture, cosy wooden tables, and suffused, warm natural light. A creamy espresso comes in a powder blue china mug, a black teapot, ever so slightly chipped, materialised itself on the table. Then come the little speckled sugar cubes, white and brown, and a miniature glass of milk that I pour into my tea to create soft white patterns before I mix it with a spoon. Then there’s freshly squeezed orange juice and a generous jug of cucumber water. And that’s just the beginning.
There is just something about a small, wonky table covered in little china mugs, bowls and jugs that have to be skilfully re-arranged when the food comes. And what food.

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I go for three cheese cornbread with shredded ham hock and a poached duck egg. It’s appealing and comforting, the subtle cheesy kick of beautifully soft corn bread, mouthfuls of salty ham hock, and the creamy yolk tinting everything orange.

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And the ‘nduja scrambled eggs, the silkiest, creamiest eggs imbued with bright, coral-hued ‘nduja, a soft spicy Calabrian salami, served on crusty sourdough bread with fragile, tender green leaves scattered on top.
We shared a side of smashed avocado, so creamy and buttery that it barely needed any dressing up, covered in crunchy poppy seeds and thin slices of piercing bright red chillies.

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At Salon, time seems to go slowly, and you find yourself tempted to go for just another drink, to be drunk slowly from beautiful pastel mugs, taking in the light and, in the distance, the hustle and bustle of Brixton market.

My lazy kitchen: Croque monsieur bake

When it comes to cooking, I tend to be pretty lazy. Maybe not pierce-the-film lazy, but if I’m attempting a really complicated recipe with lots of steps and pots bubbling on the stove at the same time, chances are I will give up and just have some toast instead.

Don’t get me wrong, making something from scratch is a beautiful, beautiful thing. I’ve made bread before and once it was ready I almost considered taking a picture to keep in my wallet. It’s satisfying and humbling. At the same time, it takes hours – and my arms were still sore a week later.

There is a beauty to lazy cooking, too. It’s a little sloppy but simple in a wondeful way. I love roughly chopping vegetables and dicing beef and just abandoning them in a slow-cooker, drowned in glossy stock and red wine, only to come back at the end of the day to the perfect stew. Lazy dishes aren’t always quick – they are about minimal effort and tasty, satisfying results.

This Croque Monsieur bake is inspired by this Nigella recipe, although I tweaked it quite a bit. It’s basically a savoury bread and butter pudding with cheese and ham and everything nice. It’s super easy to make and perfect for brunch or lazy Sundays – the sort of thing where you simply lug the dish to the bed and eat it absent-mindedly while making plans for the day.

I used different cheese to Nigella – Gouda for the sandwiches and Roman Pecorino to grate on top. Pecorino is sharp and instense and lovely and it cuts through the buttery, nutty Gouda wonderfully, but this would be nice with mature cheddar or gruyere. I also used Henderson’s sauce instead of Worcestershire –  a good option if you want to skip the ham out and make this a vegetarian dish. Henderson’s pretty hard to find if you don’t live in Yorkishire, but hey, Amazon is your friend.

Croque Monsieur Bake

Croque Monsieur Bake

Ingredients:

  • slices ready-sliced brown bread
  • dijon mustard, to taste
  • slices Gouda cheese
  • slices smoked ham
  • 6 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon maldon salt (or ½ teaspoon table salt)
  • 80 ml full fat milk
  • 4 tablespoons grated Pecorino cheese
  • sprinkling of Henderson’s sauce

Spread each slice of bread with mustard, then make a sandwich with one slice of ham and two slices of cheese. Cut each sandwich in two triangles and nestle them into an ovenproof dish.

Beat together the eggs, salt and milk and then pour the creamy mix over the sandwiches.

Cover the dish with clingfilm and leave in the fridge overnight.

The following morning, preheat the oven to 200°C. Take the dish out of the fridge, remove the clingfilm, add Henderson’s sauce and grated cheese and bake in the oven for 25 minutes.

Once it’s all golden, crispy and gooey, eat. Lovely with a cup of strong tea.

(I think this would work wonderfully as Croque Madame, too; just fry an egg and place it on top of the sandwiches before serving).

Breakfast

(If you want to read this in Italian, you can find it here)

Never ask me what my favourite meal is. I don’t know. I just don’t. It’s like asking a child whether they prefer their mum or dad. Can’t I love them both?

So I just love them all. All seven of them (7. Nope, not a typo).

I do especially love breakfasts, though. When a day starts with a lie-in, eggs on toast and a good brew, then I’m sorted. I don’t even care if the weather is miserable (and it’s winter in Wales, so chances are it will be). I love warm, cuddly porridge with plump sultanas and perfectly round banana slices. I can’t resist cold pizza, straight from the fridge, and a warm buttery croissant with slightly sour strawberry jam is hard to beat.

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But toast. Uhm. Toast is my one true love, and I know I’m not the only one (Nigel Slater even wrote a book on it… and it’s brilliant). Toast is simple but comforting, and when smothered in butter and covered in beans, jam, eggs or bacon it’s the perfect way to start the day. Now, I lived without a toaster for about a month and I had never thought one could miss an appliance so much. You don’t know what you have until it’s gone, I guess. Or in my case, until you have to use the oven and start burning yourself at least twice a day because you are the clumsiest human being on earth.

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So here are my thoughts on breakfast (and toast):

1)      I CAN believe it’s not butter.  I’m not even going to go into how butter is actually healthier than margarine (which is true), thing is, it just tastes better. If you’ve been using Flora for years, try smearing slightly salted Lurpak on toast. It’s like going from black-and-white to colours.

2)      Marks&Spencer make a salted caramel sauce which is probably the closest thing to utter perfection I’ve ever come across, especially on burnt toast.

3)      Anything goes – as long as it’s not Marmite. I know. I’m sorry.

4)      I truly wish I was a muesli person, but unless I smother mine in maple syrup I feel like I’m eating the carton rather than the actual food.

5)      Is it weird that I like cheese for breakfast? I love goat’s cheese on rye bread on a gray day.

6)      I prefer maple syrup to golden syrup on porridge.

7)      No day should start without a cup of tea (white).

8)      Alas, my favourite cereals are Cheerios.

9)      I’m really trying to think of a 9th and 10th thought, because if you bother making a list you should at least get to a double-digit number, but I can’t.

10)   I love breakfast.

11) Oh no wait, I’ve got one! Breakfast is better shared. There you go. Bit cheesy, I know, but it could be worse – I could have quoted Coelho…

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Lazy winter tart

A savoury muffin? Life is full of enough disappointments, Gary.”

(Miranda)

So yes, this is a savoury tart. Well, sweet and savoury. In fact, it’s the perfect winter tart. It’s easy, festive (yes you are allowed to have Brie and cranberries after Christmas- I promise!) and delicious. And look at those plump cranberries – one of your five a day, surely. So it also counts as detox, doesn’t it? A detox tart (not really – there is enough butter and cheese here to give someone a heart attack. But onions are good for you!)

Now, I’m not going to lie – caramelising the onions was not as easy as I thought it would be. The first time they looked more charred than caramelised – and it took me three attemps, three different methods (and a whole lot of onions) to get the right, rusty colour. The first recipe involved olive oil, butter, a fair bit of sugar and no stirring whatsoever. A recipe for disaster. The second one, with olive oil and no sugar, didn’t turn out as horrible – but the onions were still way too dark and almost bitter.

Can I blame it on the pan?

Cranberry, brie and caramelised onion tart

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Ingredients:

1 sheet puff pastry
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 large onion, cut into slices
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup water
1 cup fresh cranberries
herbs, salt and pepper to taste
2 ounces Brie, diced
1 egg white
2 teaspoons brown sugar

In a large, heavy-bottomed skillet melt the butter over low heat. When it foams add onions, brown sugar, a little salt and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.
In a small saucepan set over medium heat, combine sugar and 1/3 cup water. Stir until the sugar completely dissolves, then add cranberries and cook for 3 minutes, before draining them and setting them aside.
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Place the puff pastry on a baking sheet, and with a small pairing knife, score a 1/4 inch boarder along the inside of each rectangle. Scatter the caramelized onions evenly on the puff pastry, then sprinkle your herbs of choice. Nestle the cheese among the onions, then scatter the cranberries. Brush the edges with the egg white and bake for 15-20 minutes, until golden brown.

You can find the original recipe, to which I have made a few changes, here.  Also, check out Miranda’s reaction to a savoury muffin