Sunday, March 25, 2012

How cheap is too cheap?

How cheap is too cheap?

I wondered that when I noticed the Indian vegetarian restaurant offering an all-you-can-eat buffet for £4.95 at lunchtimes, £5.95 in the evening. This is in central London, near Russell Square and not far from St Pancras - an area popular with tourists and not known for its bargain food. So I wondered what the quality of such cheap food would be like. On the upside, cheap vegetarian food is probably safer than cheap meat. Cheap vegetables usually means heavy use of things like pulses and potatoes, which is less offputting than most aspects of cheap meat.

Anyway, greed combined with love for a bargain meant that not long afterwards I was seated in Vegetarian's Paradise (yes, it actually is called that) and uttering the words "I'll have the buffet, please". And about 30 seconds later I was helping myself.

The food looked reasonable - a couple of starter-type dishes (pakoras and bhajis), salad, and a good array of chutneys, pickles and yoghurt to have on the side. There were poppadoms, and two or three types of bread including naan. There was plain rice, fried rice and thin noodles cooked with vegetables.There were four main dishes, including a mushroom and potato curry, a mixed bean curry, lentil daal and a mixed vegetable curry.

It wasn't gourmet cuisine, but it was perfectly reasonable: not too oily, although the mushroom and potato curry was heavy on the sauce. I thought the daal had a really nice flavour (daal is pretty thrifty however you make it). Several of the dishes could have been done with being hotter.

I'd consumed a healthy amount by this time but managed to find room for some dessert - Indian rice pudding, gulab jamun (fried milk balls in syrup) and a tiny bit of halva. They were just as good as more expensive versions I have had elsewhere.

At the next table there was a man working his way efficiently through a plate of salad by way of starter, then a substantial plate of curry, then a bowl of syrup balls and rice pudding, with the air of a man who had done this more than once before. And at under £6, why not?

There is an a la carte menu too - the table next to us seemed to be enjoying their thali, though some of their dishes did resemble what was on the buffet. Drinks are reasonably priced - I had a mango lassi for £2.10. I didn't notice any alcoholic drinks, but on the other hand I wasn't looking for them.

The decor has seen better days - we were sitting next to an area of wall that needed repainting, but we were willing to overlook that. The toilets were nothing fancy, but clean and functional.

My conclusion: £6 may not be too cheap, as long as you are not expecting anything exceptional. I like great food as much as anyone, but sometimes there is a place for "perfectly ok".

The Vegetarian's Paradise
59 Marchmont Street
Russell Square,

020 7278 6881

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Yalla Yalla - and then there were three

If you've travelled through King's Cross recently, you'll see that a big redevelopment of the station is coming to fruition. Lots of new shops and food places are opening about now (including Hotel Chocolat, who were excitingly handing out free samples as I passed through there last week).

Also opening is the third branch of Yalla Yalla, a hip cafe/ restaurant serving Lebanese street food. You may already be familiar with it. Now I can't claim to have eaten at the new King's Cross branch, which doesn't open for a day or two, but I was at the Winsley Street branch, just off Oxford Street, this week, and I imagine the food will be much the same.

If you haven't had Lebanese before, you will probably still find some familiar items which crop up around the Med and North Africa - humous and falafel, halloumi, vine leaves and kebabs, for example. And there are more distinctive dishes like fattoush (a summery salad flavoured with sumac) or mince-filled pastries flavoured with pomegranate molasses.

At lunchtime Yalla Yalla's wraps sell like proverbial hot cakes. There is also a menu of mezze and main courses (these latter are mostly grilled lamb, chicken or fish dishes).

As I love to try as many things as possible, we shared a selection of mezze. These included some unusually light falafel, which were made with broad beans as well as chick peas. My friend declared them the best falafel she had ever eaten. The garlic yoghurt served with it was a nice touch, too. There was baba ghanoush, a dip made with charcoal-grilled aubergines that at its best is addictively smoky, as this one was. Batata harra, fried cubes of potato with red pepper, chilli and spices, struck me as a drier cousin of the Spanish tapas dish patatas bravas (notice how the word for potato clearly comes from the same root in all three languages). The spicing was well-judged, moderate rather than overwhelming. We also had some humous and some pastries stuffed with cheese and mint, which were also pleasing. But I think my favourite was the muhammara, a dip of ground mixed nuts with olive oil. It was unlike anything I had ever had before - a bit drier and coarser in texture than peanut butter, with richness and flavour from the nuts and spices.

The mezze came with free pitta breads and pickles (for me some pickled cucumbers and olives always gets a meal off to a good start). I liked the round, slightly thicker than average pitta breads, and wondered if they were home-made.

There is a reasonable wine selection, and a few cocktails, but I was tempted by the home-made lemonade, which comes in several regularly changing flavours. I had pineapple and mint, which was delicious, and made me regret that so few places put any effort into their soft drinks selection.

We rounded off with some mint tea, which comes in rather lovely copper teapots. My friend had the alcoholic variation with the Lebanese spirit arak. To me it tasted overpoweringly of aniseed, but then I am not an aniseed fan anyway.

The original branch on Green's Court in Soho has a slightly shorter menu and is tiny, so I would recommend Winsley Street if you want to be sure of getting a seat.

Yalla Yalla has a reputation for low prices. I thought they were good but not outstanding - we paid £37 for mezze for two, tea (one with arak, without), glass of wine and lemonade. But in this part of town you can do a lot worse. And the food is well worth trying. 

Yalla Yalla

1 Greens Court London W1F OHA
12 Winsley Street W1W 8HQ
King's Cross station Euston Street London N1 9AL

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Italian in Belgravia

I’ve never had great success finding somewhere good quality and good value near Victoria. So I was pleasantly surprised by Da Scalzo.

It’s a bustling place just down the side of the station, towards the coach station. Inside it is bright and modern, with tables on two levels. I tried a few of the starters (not all by myself), of which the highlight was the burrata mozzarella. You don't see this cheese very often, but it’s a fresh mozzarella with an oozing inside of cream and curds of cheese. It was accompanied with some rocket leaves and some olive paste which contrasted with the mild cheese.

Vegetarian antipasto did not push any boundaries but did what we wanted – some roasted peppers, aubergine, courgette, mozzarella and an artichoke heart, plus some humous (moving slightly away from the Italian theme with this last one, I thought). I didn’t get much of the bruschetta but it seemed decent enough, if a bit too cold. Garlic pizza bread was not for the faint-hearted – packed with garlic, and nicely crispy, though I would have preferred it served whole in pizza format, rather than slices in a basket.

Pizzas are definitely a popular option. The toppings are mostly the usual suspects, though my companions enjoyed the Sicilian (tuna, olives, anchovies, artichokes and pine nuts).  My vegetarian pizza was tasty but bordering on dry. If I was nitpicking, I might suggest that fresh spinach would have been better than frozen, and I’m not sure that the raw radicchio added anything other than colour. My friend enjoyed her mushroom ravioli but complained it was a bit small (very often the case with ravioli, or indeed any filled pasta, in my experience). There are also some meat and fish main courses, of which the chicken breast was deemed excellent.

On a Thursday night it was very busy and service was a bit slow, although the staff were apologetic. Prices are not too bad for the area - £8.50 to £9.25 for pizzas and pastas, and £12 to £16 for meat and fish dishes. House red, something Sicilian, is fairly decent and comes in a choice of carafes (just under £20 for a litre carafe).

All in all I wasn’t blown away, but in a busy, touristy area you can do a lot worse.

Da Scalzo
2 Ecclestone Place
Belgravia, London
020 7730 5498

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Dairy-free cakes, or rather the lack of them

Food intolerances seem to be everywhere these days. Sometimes it feels like every other person you meet is avoiding something - usually wheat or gluten, it seems. Yet lactose intolerance is apparently much more common - affecting 5 in every 100 people in the UK, according to NHS Choices, compared to 1 in 100 who have gluten intolerance (coeliac disease). But living with it can be suprisingly difficult.

This fact was drawn to my attention at the weekend when trying to find tea and cake with a friend who is newly diagnosed with lactose intolerance. This means she can't eat dairy products, including milk, butter, or cheese. To cut a long story short, she ended up having chips while the rest of us had cake. We happened to be in Wimbledon, but I suspect the story would have been much the same everywhere. And yet these days it's fairly easy to get gluten-free cakes. I can think of a couple of dedicated bakeries in Brixton, one on the market in my old home town of Norwich, numerous cafes that offer one or two gluten-free options alongside regular cakes - and that's just off the top of my head without any research.

The thing is, it's not hard to make a lactose-free cake. Any cake made with oil instead of butter is likely to be lactose free (such as carrot cake). But then there's the icing - butter icing or cream cheese icing will be equally banned, as is the whipped cream filling I had with my Victoria sponge cake.

I think it is a matter of education. Quite a lot of places offer soya milk, for example, which is lactose-free. But when it comes to baking they don't seem to think about it. It can just be a case of checking the ingredients - apparently Stork margarine is lactose-free, so cakes made with that would be fine (I haven't checked this personally, so please make your own checks before eating it if you are lactose-intolerant!)

Anyway, the cakes at the cafe we went to in Wimbledon were otherwise excellent. This was the Light cafe, which does a busy trade in afternoon teas. From 3pm (or a little before) a table is loaded with a fine selection of cakes and freshly baked scones.

The most impressive-looking was the mocha cake, which was three layers of chocolate sponge layered with coffee buttercream. I concluded that three thick layers of buttercream might actually be too much of a good thing, though it was still a very enjoyable cake. I also sampled a fine Victoria sponge, lavishly filled with whipped cream, though it could have taken a touch more jam.

I didn't get to try the scones, though the temptation was enormous, but I was told they were excellent. They came with proper clotted cream (none of your whipped stuff, which is a poor substitute where scones are concerned) and rhubarb jam which was also deemed delicious.

And the chips were good too, I'm told. So it could have been worse. But what about a nice dairy-free cake among the selection next time?

Light Cafe
48 High Street,
Wimbledon, London SW19
020 8946 3031 ‎

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The wonders of zabaglione

This is a tale of how I have become converted to zabaglione. And made the useful find of a good Italian restaurant not far from the British Museum.

We had dithered over dessert, but were assured they were all home-made. The waiter's promise that the zabaglione would be whipped up especially for me was enough to sway me. I hadn't had zabaglione for years, and in fact only once or twice at all. On the last occasion I remember being underwhelmed by what seemed like a thin custard.

Now I am full of awe at how egg yolks, sugar and Marsala can be converted into a dish worthy of the gods. It was served warm (such was my zabaglione ignorance that I wasn't expecting this), thick and frothy in a wine glass, and full of the alcoholic punch of sweet wine (lots of wine, if the flavour was anything to go by). It was a bit like having a dessert and a liqueur at once.

I may be back to Il Castelletto just for the zabaglione.

As for the rest of the meal, it was all above our expectations. Round the corner from the British Museum, we weren't sure whether it would just be a tourist trap. There were a fair few tourists, to be sure, but the food was good. Prices are reasonable for the area - £4.50 to £8 for starters, around £9 for pasta main courses, and around £13 for meat or fish mains. (They also do a 2 for 1 with Tastecard, even on Friday evenings, and I think there is a cheaper lunch menu.) There were quite a few veal dishes, though I would have preferred some information about whether this was British rose veal, which is produced without cruelty, or something imported and reared with lower standards of animal welfare.

It maybe wasn't the best time to order chicken liver pate, having watched a programme about campylobacter food poisoning the previous night. Apparently chicken liver pate, made with undercooked chicken livers, is a prime source. Luckily the pate was delicious, and insofar as you could tell from the colour, the livers seemed to have been properly cooked.

Minestrone soup had a lovely, deep flavour to the broth. I liked the little contraption they had for grating parmesan onto it - much better than that weird ready-grated parmesan you sometimes see in Italian restaurants.

Moving onto mains, I thought the spinach and ricotta cannelloni was a bit small, but then I find that nearly every time I order cannelloni in a restaurant. It had a good flavour though, was generously topped with cheese, and came bathed in plenty of tomato sauce.

The other half had spaghetti marinara. This translates as sailors' spaghetti, but is not to be confused with marinara sauce made just with tomatoes, garlic and onions (the name comes from the fact that this sauce keeps well on sea journeys). In this case, as the menu explains, it was spaghetti served with seafood. When it arrived the seafood turned out to be mussels, baby octopus, calamari, and the odd scallop, in a modest amount of tomato sauce as well. The tomato flavour didn't come through strongly, though perhaps this was just as well to allow the seafood to be the focus.

We also had a tiramisu for dessert, though next to the zabaglione it seemed oddly lacking. It was pleasant enough, but could have done with more of an espresso kick to give it that "pick me up" quality. I personally think tiramisu should have an bit of a kick from alcohol too, though others may disagree.

Il Castelletto
17 Bury Place, London
020 7405 2232