Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A bite to eat by the water

The last days of summer are ebbing away and September is nearly upon us. At about this point in the year I am suddenly reminded of all the ways in which I had planned to take advantage of the good weather, and have mostly not got around to.

So I hastened down to Brockwell Park Lido - but not for a swim. The evenings are not as light as they were, but if you get there in time I can think of few nicer things to do in London in the sunshine than have a drink and something to eat while watching the swimmers in the glinting turquoise waters. It may not be the Med but it feels somehow Continental.

The Lido Cafe has a good reputation for its food, which is mostly justified. We started with two types of fritters - pea & mint and aubergine feta, served with with sour cream (£4.50). The pea and mint ones were reminiscent of deep-fried mushy peas, but in a good way, and with a sweet green freshness of proper peas. I couldn't detect much aubergine flavour in the others. The Real Ale Drinker wanted the half pint of North Atlantic prawn, but was told it was the wrong time of year. He turned down the alternative of tiger prawns and instead chose a very tasty dish of chorizo, piquillo pepper and rocket on toast (£4.75). It was a sort of poshed-up bruschetta, served with some decent, apparently home-made but ultimately unnecessary aioli.

Sea bream fillet at the Lido Cafe

A sea bream fillet (£13.25) came perched on top of a bright green tangle of samphire, with a single large razor clam, small sauteed potatoes and a herby sauce.

Stuffed English courgettes (£11.50) were served with a creamy goats' cheese-filled piquillo pepper and romesco sauce - which is a Spanish sauce made from red peppers and almonds. It was elegant rather than hearty (by which I mean there was still a lot of white space on the plate). The stuffing of the courgettes could have done with more assertive flavours, but it was a summery, imaginative dish.

Stuffed courgettes
The last of the sunshine seduced us into trying the home-made ice-cream (£4.25). The white peach flavour was slightly too delicate, but the hazelnut was deliciously creamy and nutty, with a good scattering of nubbly bits to add crunch. A vanilla cheese-cake with blueberries (£4.50) was decent but not outstanding (I had hoped for a New York-style cheesecake, but this was a unbaked one).

It is one of those places where eavesdropping on the conversation at the next table can easily yield amusement. Our neighbours were discussing their forthcoming holiday to "a little fishing village north of Barcelona". One of them had a child called Otis and was earnestly discussing parenting styles.

Drinks include organic teas, freshly-made juices and smoothies (not in the evening, unfortunately), some thoughtfully chosen wines and even posh Cornish cider, made in a champagne style, for £20 a bottle.

The outside tables have the best pool view, though if your visit is in the evening you will want to take some extra layers. The summer won't last much longer, so don't wait too long before getting round to it.

The Lido Cafe
Dulwich Road
Brockwell Lido
SE24 0PA

020 7737 8183

Open 9am-6pm Sunday to Tuesday, 9am to 11pm Wednesday to Saturday

Saturday, August 27, 2011

A gastropub that's the real deal

The word gastropub has become much-abused, but in its correct useage should be somewhere you can go for just a decent pint or for a restaurant-quality meal. Trouble is, it's difficult to aim equally at both. Most pubs know where their main custom comes from and aim at it accordingly. I can think of plenty of Norfolk pubs that have been gastro-fied and drinkers are now merely tolerated - grudgingly if at all at peak food times.

The Manor Arms in Streatham is one of the unicorn-rare breed that manages to please both camps. There is a big pewter bar with pumps dispensing Wandle ale from up the road alongside beers from Purity and Adnams breweries, or maybe a Doom Bar from Cornwall. There are cocktails, an impressive selection of whiskies, and a decent wine list.

There are even interesting bar snacks (whitebait, chicken rillettes or home-made pork scratchings, for example) if you just want a nibble to help the drinks go down.

We popped in for a drink on our first visit and were sufficiently encouraged to return for a proper feast. It was a Saturday night and the place was by no means full, although it is a pretty big place. No tablecloths here, but it has had a lick of paint and a sympathetic restoration of original features.

I started with roasted garlic and goats' curd with olive tapenade. It's a combination I've had before but it works very well - the whole bulb of garlic becomes gentle and sweet with slow cooking, and is set off perfectly by the creamy goats' curd. In this case it would have been improved if the garlic had been warm rather than fridge-cold.

The Real Ale Drinker had salted pork cheeks with girolle mushrooms, broad beans and cress. The meat was not overly salty, but had a tender, flaking texture and rich savoury flavour.

This was followed by macaroni cheese - the menu boasted it was made with Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire, which for those of you not au fait with Lancashire, is definitely one of the best. It certainly had a good cheesy flavour, though by the time the cheese had been cooked in a sauce and mixed with pasta I couldn't identify it as being any particular variety. It came with a green salad that was noticeably above average - baby herb leaves, interesting tomatoes in different sizes and colours.

The Real Ale Drinker had a good, meaty Barnsley chop that again ran the risk of being outshone by its accompaniment. It was described as a salad but was at least halfway to a stew of butter beans, tomato and lambs' lettuce, flavoured with paprika and chilli, with bags of flavour - I couldn't stop nicking forkfuls of it.

We rounded things off with a dense, rich chocolate and almond cake served with English cherries, and a selection of decent English cheeses including a creamy Wigmore. They were served with oat cakes, which to my mind are better than crackers or water biscuits any day.

With a couple of pints each it come to about £65 (plus 10pc service which is added to the bill) - not bargain basement stuff but worth it for accomplished cooking with the odd flash of imagination.

If you are counting the pennies there is a two courses for £10 deal Mondays to Thursdays, with a slightly simpler menu.

I doubt the Manor Arms is much known outside Streatham, but it is worth a journey.

13 Mitcham Lane, SW16 6LQ13 Mitcham Lane, SW16 6LQ
020 3195 6888

Friday, August 19, 2011

Bonnington cafe

I definitely felt like some kind of cliche when I turned up at this vegetarian co-operative cafe on my bike. The only thing missing was a copy of the Guardian under my arm.

I was actually slightly sceptical about how good the food would be. Either way, it is difficult to draw too many conclusions from one visit because there is a different cook every night (he or she chooses the menu, does the shopping and takes the bookings) . The rota is published online so if you do have the best meal of your life, you can always try to return next time the same person is cooking.

The decor is simple, lit by flickering candlelight in the evenings. With the restaurant fast filling up there was a laid-back buzz about the place.

Picture by Annie Mole
On our visit there was one starter (butternut squash soup) and two choices for mains and desserts. Main courses are £7, starters and puddings are £3.

The soup was quite pleasant, the flavour of the squash ringing true, though a bit of spice would have helped to add depth. The main area for improvement was the slice of factory-style sliced bread, whereas a good quality roll would have transformed the dish. Then again, for £3 you can't complain too much.

We tried both of the main courses - stuffed Portobello mushroom with roasted vegetables, and Turkish chick pea curry with rice. Both came with a pair of salads, one with shredded cabbage and apple, and the other tomato-based. The stuffed mushroom had the edge in my opinion - it seemed less overtly worthy, thanks in part to the use of dairy produce (melting cheese in the mushroom stuffing), while the roast veg, which included potato and sweet potato wedges, would have converted even a vegetable-hater. To be fair, the mildly spiced curry wasn't too "whole-foody" either - it seemed like a dish that naturally leant on pulses rather than having them thrust into it.

We finished off with a chocolate and hazelnut tart. It was quite a small slice, but so rich in flavour that I decided this was forgiveable. The filling was slightly soft, with pieces of hazelnut to give a texture contrast. For £3 it was excellent.

Picture by Vincent Pollard
The cafe is unlicensed - jugs of tap water are brought, and you can buy hot drinks, but apart from that it's a case of bring what you want to drink, whether this is apple juice, beer or wine (there is no corkage charge).
Not counting the cost of wine we had brought (should you forget, the nearest convenience store is a few minutes' walk away on the main road, though there is an Italian deli nearer if you are visiting in the daytime) the bill came to £13 a head for three courses. Now you can't say fairer than that.

It was not the most accomplished meal of my life, but it was a pretty good one - and it felt like enthusiasm and love had helped to season it.

Bonnington Cafe, 1 Vauxhall Grove, Vauxhall, SW8 1TD
Open 12-2pm and 6.30-10.30pm, 7 days a week.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Brixton farmers’ market

The farmers’ market odyssey continued with Brixton.

Some of the stalls were very reasonable, others less so. Bargains included the off-cuts of extra mature cheddar from one of the cheese stalls – funny shapes, but £10 per kg rather than £17.50. The Cheddar is very good, with a real deep and rounded flavour. The same stall, from the Gould family at Batch Farm in Somerset, also does flavoured cheddars. (I tried the mild Cheddar with apricot and I thought it a bit pointless – the flavour of apricot does not go as well with Cheddar as it does with, say, Wensleydale, and I would rather eat a stronger cheese or just have fruit on the side.)

This was only my second visit to a London farmers’ market, in recent times anyway, and as at Alexandra Palace I was struck by the fact that a number of the stallholders had travelled quite a long way – the two cheese producers from Somerset in particular. I thought the point of a farmers’ market was to have local producers – which I recognise is difficult in London, but there must be more Home Counties farmers that could have been represented?

Picture by Steve Wilde

I also bought free range eggs - there were several stalls selling these, from £1.60 for six upwards, and duck and goose eggs too. And I treated myself to a couple of savoury tarts from Klaus Kuhnke of Artisan Foods – an unusual broccoli, walnut and stilton, and a spinach and goats’ cheese. They are £2.50 each, or 2 for £4.50 or 3 for £6. We bought his spelt bread too, which was tasty although I slightly wished I had bought one of the more exciting loaves on offer.

On the vegetable front there were a couple of stalls, one organic with an enticing array of salad leaves and fancy tomatoes (at a price) and the larger Manor Farm vegetable stall, which had some unusual vegetables as well as some reasonably priced staples such as broccoli and cabbage. The purple cauliflowers looked tempting, but in the end I bought some cherry tomatoes and an unusual vegetable described as “fizz”. This is a variety of kale with pretty, frilly leaves. The bases of the stalks were quite chunky, so I cut those out and used the leaves in a stir-fry with other vegetables, but I think you could use it as a substitute for cabbage or kale in any dish. Apparently you can eat the young leaves raw in salads too, but these specimens had probably passed that point.

There was luscious-looking soft fruit too from a different stall, but I had already spent far too much money by this point!

Vital stats:

When: Sundays, 10am-2pm, Station Road, Brixton, London SW9 8PA
Website www.lfm.org.uk/markets/brixton/
Number of stalls: 12 (on my visit)
Range of produce: Good
Value for money: 7
Marks out of 10: 7

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A glut of blackberries

My foraging opportunities may be a lot more limited in London, but I am finding consolation currently in the glut of blackberries.

These thorny bushes, like foxes, are perfectly at home in an urban environment. If you get a suburban train in London you can usually spot blackberries growing in abundance alongside the railway line, tormenting would-be pickers with their inaccessibility.

Your nearest common is a good place to start the blackberry hunt. Slightly wild ones are better than those that are too much like a huge and well-kept lawn. Common edges are particularly good hunting ground, so you might want to seek a common that is bordered by back gardens or a railway line rather than ending next to a road, where you are less likely to get blackberry bushes. Tooting Bec Common is absolutely full of them - much to my relief. (The blackberries are helping to make up for the fact that the nearest I am getting to wild plums is looking at expensive punnets of them at farmers' markets.)

Unfortunately I have been too lazy to weigh them but I have filled a one litre ice-cream tub six or seven times over. It's difficult to eat that many blackberries at once, so I have been freezing most of them. Blackberries freeze well - the best way is to spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet or similar, and then transfer them into a freezer bag or plastic box once they are frozen.

Much of the time I don't do anything more exciting with blackberries than scatter them over my morning muesli. But if I am going to get a bit more creative, these are my favourite dishes:

- Blackberry pavlova. You can use ready made meringue nests - top with whipped cream and plenty of blackberries. I love the colour contrast. Or make your own family size pavlova - whisk three egg whites (four if you want a really big one) and once the egg whites are in stiff peaks, gradually whisk in 6oz of caster sugar (8oz if you have used four egg whites). Pile onto greaseproof paper (on top of a baking sheet) in a circular shape and bake for an hour and 10 minutes at gas mark 1. Turn off the oven and leave it in the oven overnight to dry out. Top with cream and blackberries as above.
- Same ingredients, different format will make blackberry Eton Mess. You need to crush some of the blackberries (leave others whole), and fold together with whipped cream and meringue pieces. This is ideal if your meringues have broken anyway.
- Layer blackberries, whipped cream and meringue pieces in a glass with ice-cream to make a sundae. You might want to cook the blackberries with a little sugar so you get more sauce - leave a few berries raw for decoration. Vanilla ice-cream works well here but if you want something more exciting you could try flavours like fudge or toffee, honeycomb or even stem ginger.
- Melon and blackberries. Cut a ripe melon into cubes, scatter with blackberries. This works for breakfast or dessert, maybe even a starter. Charentais or other sweet orange-fleshed melon works best.
- Blackberry shortcake. Shortcake base, whipped cream (clotted cream if you want it even richer) blackberries on top. You can add an extra layer of each if you want it to look even more special.

I think there will be blackberries around until at least the end of the month - so make the most of it. If you have any favourite blackberry recipes, please do let me know what they are.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Alexandra Palace farmers' market

The farmers' market odyssey is now officially under way.

The market at Ally Pally is one of the biggest in London, so it was high up on my list to try. I had been once a couple of years ago and was impressed then. Some of the stalls had changed but otherwise it seemed much the same.

There were around 30 stalls including
- 3 cheese stalls (one specialising in Cheddar from Somerset, one with excellent and diverse goats' cheeses from East Sussex, and one with an array of cheeses from around the country, which seems somewhat against the ethos of a farmers' market)
- a wet fish stall
- several fruit and veg stalls, including some organic veg, and lots of soft fruit including an array of plums and greengages
- home-made ice-cream and sorbet
- meat including Giggly Pig sausages, made with traditional Saddleback pigs, and a lamb stall
- international dishes of various kinds including Greek (baklava, borek and so on), Moroccan, and Indian, plus an interesting-looking vegetarian stall called (I think) Hungry Carrot
- olive oils, olives, dried herbs and similar items from Cyprus and Turkey . Again not entirely the point of a farmers' market, though they were apparently from the stallholders' own estates (www.planetmem.com). It must be said that the olive oil was very good, as was the pomegranate molasses. I also tasted caper shoots for the first time - a similar flavour to capers, but with a softer, leafier texture. Good mixed with anchovies in a sauce to serve with fish, apparently. There was also a separate olive stall which also sold feta, stuffed vine leaves, pickled garlic and so on.

We bought cheddar from Glastonbury, organic biodynamically grown Black Cherry tomatoes, stuffed vine leaves from the olive merchant, and onion bhajis with a little pot of chutney. The tomatoes, which were a purplish colour, were nice enough but no tastier than normal cherry tomatoes.

Last but not least, we had cake from The Cake Hole. These cakes, made in Vauxhall, south London, made me extremely happy. There were too many I wanted to try, but between us we managed the Victoria sponge, the cheesecake and the orange and almond cake. All of them were delicious but I think the orange and almond might have just had the edge - I liked the touch of bitterness alongside the sweet. The ingredients are listed alongside each cake, which I definitely approve of, and were pretty much what you would put in a cake if you made it at home (as opposed to the bewildering list of things in a factory-made cake).

Unfortunately the Great British Summer intervened and it rained on our picnic, but you can't have everything.

Vital statistics:

When and where: Sundays, 10am-3pm, Alexandra Palace Park (Musewell Hill entrance)
Number of stalls: Approx 30 (on my visit)
Range of produce: Excellent
Value for money: 7 (eight if you go about 2pm and get some of the end of the day bargains!)
Marks out of 10: 8

Friday, August 5, 2011

Spicy delights at Namaaste Kitchen in Camden

I have yet to discover many gourmet delights in Camden, but Namaaste Kitchen is one of the most cheering finds so far.

If modern, stylish, sometimes unusual and extremely tasty Asian food is your thing, it is certainly worth trying out. It was opened less than a year ago by the team behind Salaam Namaaste in Bloomsbury. The food spans different regions of India as well as Pakistan, with grilled food a speciality. The decor is thoughtfully low-key - cream leather, wood, exposed brick, that sort of thing.

The highlight for me was the starter of tandoori portobello mushroom, marinated and filled with figs, cashew nuts, green chilli and home-made paneer in a curry leaf dressing. I imagined a large stuffed mushroom but it arrived as four quarters in an elegant row. The flavours of the stuffing melded rather than being distinct but the whole thing was savoury, sweet and spicy at the same time in a very pleasing way - not bad for a stuffed mushroom.

The Real Ale Drinker had crab cakes with a spicy kick. They had been made with mostly brown meat (fuller flavour) and had not been padded out with too much potato, as frequently happens with crab cakes. They had a crisp outside and came with an un-Indian touch of flavoured mayonnaise for dipping.

The kadai sabzi, mixed vegetables with paneer, was not as innovative as my starter but was still very good - peppers, baby corn and mange tout as well as tender chunks of paneer. The Real Ale Drinker had goan-style sea bass - one of several interesting fish and seafood dishes on the menu - which was again beautifully presented.

We also had a light paratha and a side dish of okra with a fruity, tangy note to it - it was listed on the menu as okra with raw mango but its acidity made me think it might have been made with shatkora, a Bangladeshi citrus fruit.

There is a fair-sized wine list, but we stuck to Cobra (no real ale for the RAD) and a freshly-made and refreshing mango lassi.

Main courses are around £12, which includes rice (the food is served plated). We went armed with a Tastecard - the restaurant offers 50pc food off on weeknights, though we discovered once we arrived that this offer was limited to a particular menu - which when you booked through the Time Out website was already offering a 50pc discount on that menu anyway! So not a fantastic Tastecard deal, but either way, the 50pc off made it very reasonable for the quality.

Namaaste Kitchen
64 Parkway
London NW1 7AH
020 7485 5977

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Great British Beer Festival

Where else can you find a Cherry Blonde and a Chocolate Marble in the same room as a Knight of the Garter and Black Beck Belle?

It is, of course, the Great British Beer Festival, the country’s biggest beer festival. It runs until Saturday at Earl’s Court.

The festival opened yesterday and last night was my first ever visit. I’m told it gets packed later in the week, but on a Tuesday night it was busy yet there was plenty of space to get around and no queues to get served (with the possible exception of if you wanted to try the new Champion Beer of Britain, which is Oscar Wilde from the Mighty Oak brewery in Maldon, Essex).

My personal favourite was Cherry Blonde from Enville Brewery in Stourbridge, Staffordshire, but then I like my beers light and fruity. There is a strong selection of cider and perry, too.

As a former Norfolk girl I was pleased to see around 10 Norfolk beers including Flintknappers Mild from the Chalk Hill Brewery, based at the Coach and Horses on Thorpe Road in Norwich, Woodforde’s Wherry from Woodbastwick, Burston’s Cuckoo from Elmtree in Snetterton, Raspberry Wheat from Iceni in Mundford, and Old Stoatwobbler from Spectrum in Tharston, near Long Stratton.

The closest comparison I can make is with the Norwich beer festival held each October. The Great British Beer Festival is bigger but also more expensive (and for CAMRA members, you get a discount but in Norwich you don’t pay anything). Norwich wins hands-down for having a prettier building. Both are well-run by enthusiastic volunteers, and both have more beers than you could possibly try even if you went every day all week.

Naturally I took a close interest in the food stalls. The prices are not as bad as I had feared and a number of the stalls are offering quite tasty options. Highlights include:

- Merry Berry Truffles from Burton Upon Trent. Not just truffles but also chocolate flavoured with spices and other things (lime and ginger works well, I also enjoyed the chocolate with black pepper, and for foolhardy types there is a burning hot chilli chocolate too). The chocolate pieces are £2.50 a bag, £4 for 2 bags. There are lots of samples too.

- Posh pies from the Crusty Pie Co. Pork pies, smoked ham and mustard pies, vegetarian pies and too many others to list. Small pies are £2 each, or 3 for £5. Large pies are £6. They also do traditional pork scratchings.

- Pipers crisps. What goes better with a beer than crisps? They do flavours including Norfolk Bloody Mary, sweet chilli and my favourite, sea salt and cider vinegar. 80p a small bag, or £1 for the parsnip crisps. Plenty of samples.

Four Great British beer festival tips:
1) Check out the new breweries bar – in association with Wetherspoon’s – if you want a guarantee of finding something you have never had before (though unless you are a seasoned pro, most bars will have several beers you have never had).

2) If you have never been to Earl’s Court before, don’t get confused by the one-way system in the toilets after a few beers.

3) Drink halves or thirds (yes thirds), not pints, so you can try as many beers or ciders as possible.

4) Keep hold of your glass – and give it back at the end if you want a refund of your £3 deposit.

The festival is open noon to 10.30pm until Friday August 5, and 11am to 7pm Saturday August 6.
More information at http://gbbf.camra.org.uk/