Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Unexpected edibles in south London

I did a fascinating walk through south London at the weekend, and saw food in the most surprising places. There was no intentional foodie theme, but the walk had barely started when I saw trees laden with cherries at Waterloo Millennium Green. I was surprised to see some of them ripe already (especially given the rainy June), though most were not. They were perfectly edible, only slightly on the tart side.

Urban cherries

Then it was along to Elephant and Castle and the Heygate estate, now mostly boarded up and near-empty after the council moved out most of the residents in preparation for a long-delayed demolition and regeneration plan. In the middle of the tower blocks are tomato plants growing in old car tyres, and carefully tended allotments behind the trees that have finally reached maturity, just as the estate they bring shade to has passed its use-by date. This started out as a "guerilla gardening" project by local residents but is now tolerated by the authorities.
Allotments on the Heygate estate. Picture: Elephant and Castle Urban Forest
From Burgess Park (another municipal project that has taken much longer than planned - the idea was born in 1943, and the final works are due to be completed this summer) a narrow green strip leads to Peckham. This strip is the Surrey Canal Park, no longer home to a canal but a pleasant green corridor. It didn't take long to spot more food - young trees had labels saying "Wild and Edible". I spotted rowan (aka mountain ash) trees and crab apple. I'm not sure if there were other types of tree, but I don't class those as particularly edible - the fruit of both are good for jelly at best.

In terms of other wild food, I saw mallow in abundance in the parks - the leaves are quite tasty, in a slighty glutinous way, and common in North African cuisine. These were mostly a bit insect-ridden though, so I didn't bother sampling them.

And it hardly counts as wild food, but the pub at the end of the walk in Crystal Palace (the Grape and Grain) was selling London Glider Cider, made from unwanted and windfall apples in Woodford Green. A perfect end to a walk of unexpected edibles.

Friday, June 22, 2012

An exotic adventure in Camberwell

I have to confess to feeling a little out of my comfort zone when writing about a restaurant whose name I can barely pronounce.

Kyrgyz Kazakh House serves, as the name suggests, Kyrgyz and Kazakh food, in a slightly unprepossessing location on Camberwell Road. The two countries neighbour each other and have fairly similar cuisine. I've never experienced either before, although those not liking the unfamiliar will probably see a few dishes that they recognise - the menu also has dishes that crop up in Turkish, Russian and Uzbek cuisine.

Starters have particularly Turkish influences - such as kisir (a bulghur wheat salad flavoured with tomatoes and parsley), cacik (the Turkish equivalent of tzatziki), and imam bayildi (a poetically-named aubergine and tomato dish, also found in much of the Arab world). We tried a dish whose name now escapes me, but it consisted of aubergine, pepper, potato and courgette, topped with yoghurt and tomato sauce. I'd expected more of a stew, but the ingredients were cooked individually so that they held their shape and flavour. A flat, cheese-filled pastry was dirty but good - somewhere between a pizza base and a pastry in texture, filled with one of those salty, slightly bland cheeses that you find everywhere in south-eastern Europe. Staying with the stuffed theme, we had some stuffed vine leaves, which were much like any other example of their kind, but none the worse for that.


Main courses include plov, a central Asian dish of pieces of beef (or mutton) served with shredded carrots and rice, grilled meats, and various dumplings. There are samsi, like meat-stuffed samosas, manti, a bit like giant dim sum stuffed with carrots, onion and swede, and various other permutations of dough and meat. The manti were served with sour cream and, more unexpectedly, quite a spicy tomato salsa.

The exotic cuisine is lent an added sense of adventure by the fact that you have to plunge into the bowels of an unassuming hotel to actually find the restaurant. It was quiet when we visited, which I suspect might be linked to the fact that there is no sign from the street that there is actually a restaurant within, let alone a menu in the window. Once you do find it, it's a pleasant surprise, with characterful decor, bright fabrics and even a fish pond making up for the lack of windows.

We didn't strictly need dessert, but we were here for new experiences, so we went for the chak-chak, a Kazakh dessert described on the menu as "the lightest of pastry dishes". I found it a curious thing, to be honest: a sort of cake made of fried dough balls, raisins and whole almonds, mixed with syrup. It wasn't unpleasant, but the texture didn't really do it for me, and it won't displace baklava (also on the menu) as my syrup-and-pastry-based dessert of choice.

The wine list features several Georgian and Turkish wines. We tried the house white from Georgia, a medium dry tipple made from Rkatsiteli grapes, and found it very pleasant, and decent value for £13 a bottle. Prices are reasonable, with starters around £3.50 or so and main courses mostly at the £8 to £10 mark. Service was sweetly efficient.

So I can't claim to give a definitive verdict, given my ignorance about the food of, well, any country beginning with K. But it tasted good to me.

Kyrgyz Kazakh House Restaurant at Pasha Hotel
158 Camberwell Road

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Nuovo, Buckhurst Hill

A slightly belated review, this, of a place I went to a few weeks ago.

I think my tardiness has something to do with the way I felt about the place: I wasn't gripped by any strong desire to praise it or damn it.

Nuovo's chef, Frederick Forster, is the proud holder of the title of National Chef of the Year. I wonder slightly about this type of competition - you have to enter  and take part in cook-offs, and presumably there are quite a few chefs who don't bother. Nonetheless you can't visit the restaurant or look at its website without becoming acquainted with this claim to fame, and I daresay you can't blame them.

In a nutshell, everything was quite well done, but very little was remarkable. "Spring asparagus" (we were assured it was English) was served with crispy chicken fritters and grated egg vinaigrette. Unless it was trying to present the famous "which came first" riddle, the chicken fritters had no obvious point - they smacked of gilding the lily. Grilled tiger prawns with black pudding (8.95) were a novel twist on surf and turf, and the jumbo-sized prawns were described as "very tasty". A twice-baked goats' cheese souffle, served with pear chutney, was good, but no better than I could have made myself, and rather small for £8.

Main courses are a bit more generous, notably the linguine alla pescatora (£13.50), which was a heaped plateful, strewn with mussels, prawns, baby octopus and clams. There are very few vegetarian main courses - almost certainly the fewest I have seen in an Italian restaurant - but you can have spinach and ricotta ravioli (decent enough, but not outstanding for £12.95) or a different pasta dish on the set lunch menu.

Desserts are a collection of old favourites - tiramisu, chocolate brownie, fruit salad and so on. I couldn't find any fault, but again I wasn't blown away either.

I thought prices were a little high, but perhaps you pay a premium for eating food cooked by the National Chef of the Year. It had been a pleasant lunch, but I only wish I could say it had been the Meal of the Year.

79 Queens Road
Buckhurst Hill
0208 504 2299
(Also at 88 - 90 High Road, South Woodford, E18 2NA, 0208 518 8007)

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Spicy Spanish chick pea salad

A summer's day with a hint of sunshine for a change, and it seemed like a day for a salad. I'm not one for dainty salads, though. Something based mainly on leaves is only good for a side dish as far as I am concerned. I like salads that are hearty, filling and with unexpected combinations of flavours.

This one hits the spot. It is based quite heavily on a recipe in the Telegraph, with a few adaptations according to ingredients I didn't have (piquillo peppers in a jar are not one of my store-cupboard staples) and because I wanted to use less oil.

I love the way the chick peas become infused with the smoked paprika and other flavours, making them more interesting than you ever thought chick peas could be. The touch of sweetness from the pears is unusual, but welcome.


175g (6oz) dry chickpeas or 400g (14oz) cooked, drained chickpeas
1 onion, peeled
1 large bay leaf
1 large garlic clove, peeled and crushed
A good pinch salt
50g (2oz) sun-dried tomatoes in oil, finely chopped
1tsp ground coriander, finely chopped
1 tsp honey
½ tsp smoked paprika
1½ tbsp sherry vinegar
1tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (optional)
100g (3½oz) cucumber
1 large ripe pear
150g (5½oz) baby spinach
 Juice of ½ lemon
75g (2¾oz) feta
Sourdough or other crusty bread, to serve (optional)

Soak the chickpeas overnight (if you are using dried chickpeas, which I recommend). Cook according to the packet instructions, with the onion and bay leaf added to the water. Once cooked, discard the bay leaf. You can throw away the onion, or even mash it in to the dressing below, if you want.

Meanwhile, mash the crushed garlic and salt in a pestle and mortar. Add the sundried tomatoes and coriander and keep on mashing to a paste. Mix in the honey, paprika and vinegar.

Drain the chickpeas, add the dressing and leave them to absorb the flavours while you prepare the salad.

Cut the cucumber into ribbons using a vegetable peeler. Thinly slice the pear. Mix the cucumber and pear with the spinach leaves. Squeeze the lemon juice over the top, season, drizzle with the olive oil, if using, and toss. The chickpeas should still be lukewarm: spoon them over the salad. Crumble the feta on top.

Serve just as it is or with some bread. I recommend making extra; the salad works very well for a packed lunch the next day.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

L'Infinito, Wanstead - a good lunch, but where was everyone?

I don't know whether everyone in Wanstead was busy having a Jubilee street party or something, but it was very quiet in L'Infinito. I reckon I made the better choice - I'd take decent Italian food like this over flabby quiche, coronation chicken and soggy crisps any day.

They were putting out Union Jack tablecloths on the outside tables yesterday, though there didn't seem any imminent prospect of people wanting to sit outside. Inside it's a bit more elegant, with smart red-and-white table linen and some paintings of the Cornish coast (which are for sale). For my aged grandmother, it was the first outing for a few weeks that was neither to the hospital nor the doctor's, and it seemed like a piece of heaven.

Tap water was offered freely, brought in a glass bottle and replaced without us having to ask - a nice touch, as was the bread and garlic-marinated olives, even if the bread (slightly flabby slices of French stick) was nothing special.

The menu covers most of what you would expect from an Italian restaurant - pizza, pasta, risotto, meat and fish dishes. Most of the pasta dishes are available as starters or main courses, and there are plenty of other starters, including squid served with courgette, mussels and bruschetta.

Potato and courgette soup sounded bland but was actually rather nice, served with some toasted foccacia. Of the mains, chicken served in a mushroom and cream sauce was pronounced excellent, the chicken tender and juicy. Sea bass fillets came with wedges of sauteed new potato and green beans which were either al dente or undercooked, according to your point of view. I can rarely see pizza on a menu without ordering it, I had the mixed vegetable pizza. To my mind it could have done with a little less cheese and a little more tomato sauce, but the base was good, thin in the middle with a soft, chewy crust. I'm not sure what an Italian would think of putting sweetcorn on a pizza, but to be fair it was listed on the menu. (Mind you, sweetcorn pales into insignificance compared with another Italian restaurant I can think of, which is prone to putting carrot and broccoli on its mixed vegetable pizza).

The food arrived in quite a leisurely manner, particularly given that there was hardly anyone else in there. It was no great problem for us, but I would think twice about going there if in a rush.

Things speeded up when we got to dessert - an amaretto-soaked tiramisu for me and a hearty portion of profiteroles for the aged relative. The profiteroles seemed to be covered in chocolate mousse rather than the usual chocolate sauce, but this didn't seem to be a problem and they were demolished in short order.

Prices are fairly standard - £8 to £12 for a pizza, £4.50 to £8 for starters, £13.50 to £15.50 for meat and fish dishes. They accept Tastecard too, which makes the bill very reasonable.

During the course of two hours there were only two other tables occupied for Saturday lunch. Hopefully this can be blamed on the allure of the street parties, or maybe everyone had gone for a lunch of fish and chips or steak and kidney pie on such a patriotic weekend. L'Infinito may not be outstanding, but it deserves more custom than this.

27 High Street
E11 2AA
0208 5305057