Silk Road, Camberwell

There seems to be little point in crafting an introduction to this restaurant as it has, in recent years, become the worst kept secret in south London.  If you want to show off your knowledge of hidden restaurant gems, this is not the one to mention.  Unless you’re in the company of north Londoners, for many of them will barely have been to Camberwell, let alone Silk Road.  In days gone by, you could rock up to this little cash-only restaurant without a reservation and be seated almost immediately.  More recently however, following a number of rave reviews, including one by Jay Rayner, it is rammed almost every night of the week and nearly impossible to get a table before 9.30.

Of course, the glaringly obvious point would be that it had become a victim of its own success, however I can’t in any way declare this to be true.  In fact, it seems to get better and better with each visit, which keeps us going back more than perhaps we ought to.  Aside from the quality of the food, which I will get to shortly, this is one of the best value restaurants in London.  Our bills have never exceeded £20 a head, including alcohol, and for that price we have feasted on an amount of food so obscene, an extended lie-down was required.

The funny thing is that Silk Road is one of those unassuming places on the busy Camberwell Church Street that you would just walk past if you didn’t know it was there.  The ‘Cash Only’ sign in the window, the slightly faded red sign and the utilitarian communal benches inside does not give any indication that inside is some of the best Asian food in London. And it doesn’t have a website.  I suppose that is part of its charm.

The cuisine at Silk Road could lazily be labelled ‘Chinese’, however it specialises in food from the Xinjiang region (the bit bordering Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan), with a few Sichuan dishes thrown in to boot.  The central Asian influence is clear, with the smell of lamb and cumin wafting through the restaurant, and the prevalence of offal on the menu.  Being a landlocked region, there is very little fish on offer, but some very good meat and vegetarian dishes.  Forget any ideas of sweet and sour chicken and prawn crackers, you won’t get them here.

Despite the variety of carnivorous options, my two favourite dishes on the menu are made up of vegetables.  The famous home-style aubergine is one of the most delicious dishes I have ever tasted: tender aubergine and tomato cooked with a huge amount of garlic and an underlying pop of chilli.  The ‘cucumbers in sauce’, also known as ‘smacked cucumbers’ are served raw in a sharp soy-based sauce, also heavily laced with garlic and chilli.  They are wonderful as a cold starter, but I have to say that I prefer the smacked cucumbers from nearby Wuli Wuli (sorry).  Another excellent dish is the home-style cabbage, which I sadly always pass up in favour of the aubergine, but fully intend to order next time.

Cucumbers in sauce

Cucumbers in sauce

Home-style aubergine

Home-style aubergine

The aforementioned smell of lamb and cumin comes from the lamb shish skewers that seem to be on just about every order in the restaurant.  Heavy with cumin, with the afterburn of chilli, these come straight from the grill and smell so good, you will almost inevitably burn your fingers trying to pull the meat from the skewers.  The pieces of lamb are interspersed with little cubes of lamb fat, which I am not overly keen on, but which my husband loves.  These skewers are £1 each (yes, £1) with a minimum order of five per table.  For me, ordering any less than three for just myself is not an option.

Lamb shish skewers

Lamb shish skewers

Another favourite is the twice-cooked pork, which is a one of the few Sichuan dishes on the menu (the countries bordering the Xinjiang region are muslim, so pork is rarely eaten there).  I have had this dish in a number of other restaurants and it consists of slices of belly pork, boiled then fried (hence ‘twice-cooked’) with an oil-based sauce of chillies and lip-numbing Sichuan peppercorns.  Silk Road’s offering doesn’t quite have the level of heat that we usually expect from Sichuan dishes, but it does have an unexpected sweetness which makes it pleasant, if slightly inauthentic.  The best part about it is the soft, sweet Chinese onions that I pick out and eat with a little boiled rice.  I could happily live on these alone.

Middle-plate chicken

Middle-plate chicken

Silk Road’s speciality is, undoubtedly, their noodle dishes.  The ‘large plate’ and middle plate’ options are huge bowls of soup with meat and wide ‘belt’ noodles of at least an inch wide.  A lot of Chinese friends favour the tripe, but we will often order the chicken.  Pieces of chicken on the bone, served in a spiced thick soup with the enormous noodles slithered in by the waiter at the table.  Middle plate is ample for two, especially if it makes up part of a wider banquet – those noodles are incredibly filling.  Best of all are the smaller, and more manageable, hand-pulled noodles – glutinous and soft without being sticky – the person who makes these obviously knows what they are doing.  Ours came with lamb and cabbage, as well as the obligatory punch of chilli and onion that characterises the restaurant’s dishes.  These came last to the table and we were unable to finish them, so our waiter kindly packed them in a box to take home.

(If you do find yourself with an extended wait for a table, put your name down in the book and head down to Stormbird, a few doors down, for a pint)

Silk Road, 49 Camberwell Church Street, London SE5 8TR

Silk Road on Urbanspoon

Stir Fried Squid with Ginger

Stir fried squid with ginger

Stir fried squid with ginger

I am finding being back in London a bit of a struggle.  Whilst it is something of a thrill being able to speak English to everybody, visiting favourite south-east London haunts and seeing comfortable old favourite London landmarks from the top deck of the number 12 bus, getting back into a regular routine is proving to be harder than I expected.  Getting up in the morning is by far the most difficult part, and I find myself needing several cups of coffee before I begin to feel normal.  By the evening, I am completely wiped out and good for no more than watching the Tour de France highlights and falling asleep on the couch.  I think it’s the sudden withdrawal of the lengthy afternoon naps I enjoyed on holiday.  Breakfast and dinner, as you can imagine, have suffered as a result.

Did I also mention that I am skint?  Whilst being a fairly cheap country in comparison to the rest of Europe, Spain will still put a dent in your wallet if you spend two weeks eating out and visiting local attractions.  All the more if you like wine.  If you like wine and gin, well, you can guess how this ends.

When on holiday, I have the best of intentions for my return home.  I will go to the market and buy lots of lovely fresh food and make wonderful, healthy dinners, I will exercise every day and will not eat chorizo with every meal.  I will not drink at lunchtime.  Of course, this is the guilt of eating chorizo with every meal and downing a couple of glasses of red before passing out on a lounger for an afternoon nap talking.  The reality is vastly different.  Tired and (albeit temporarily) poor, I want to sleep as much as possible and make meals that have inexpensive ingredients and take half an hour to make.  Tops.

Before going to Spain, I had the good sense to stock up the freezer which, considering how many errands I was running in those last few weeks, is nothing short of miraculous.  This included a £10 bag of frozen squid from my local fishmonger, Moxons.  Although I tend to only buy fresh or smoked fish, the frozen squid has proven itself on many occasions to be a godsend.  A bit short on a fish pie: defrost some squid.  Need a quick last-minute pasta: defrost some squid.  You get the idea.  Keeping a bag in the freezer means that in those cash-poor few days before pay day, you can make a decent meal without having to fork our your precious pennies on protein.

This squid stir fry is from a Thai food book that I picked up many years ago from a church fete book stall for about 50p.  I think it dates roughly from the early 2000s and I’m not sure how authentic it is, but there are a few gems in there, including some lemongrass pork on skewers that I have been meaning to try for a long time.  There are a lot of curries in there, but the stir fry recipes are the ones I struggled to resist.  This stir fry in particular is so simple and quick to make, and contains very few ingredients.  If you used dried noodles, you’re looking at ten minutes; if you use fresh noodles you can probably do it in less than five.  As well as the squid, the sauce is flavoured with a simple combination of garlic, ginger, soy, lime and sugar.  It is one of the few stir fry recipes I use that contain no chilli (although we tend to douse it in Sriracha afterwards), which is sometimes good to have on hand when you have houseguests that can’t handle the heat.

Stir Fried Squid with Ginger

3 nests noodles (I used Sharwood’s Medium Egg Noodles)
7 ready-prepared baby squid
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 tbsp soy sauce
1 inch piece of root ginger, finely chopped
Juice of 1 lime
1 tsp granulated sugar
4 spring onions, finely sliced

Cook the noodles according to packet instructions, drain and divide between the two bowls. 

Rinse the squid and pat dry with kitchen paper.  Cut the bodies into rings and halve the larger tentacles.

Heat the oil in a wok and cook the garlic for 30 seconds until golden brown, being careful not to let it burn. Add the squid and stir fry over a high heat for a further 30 seconds.

Add the soy sauce, ginger, lime juice, sugar and spring onions and stir fry for another 30 seconds.  Serve over the noodles.

When Life Takes Over

This week, I have had the most difficult task of admitting that I was wrong.  In my naivety, I honestly believed that planning a wedding would not impact on my other activities (how clueless I was) and that my baking club, blog and various food-related activities would not suffer as a result.  As you may have seen, Band of Bakers is on a little summer hiatus and my blog posts are becoming fewer and further between.  They are all buried under dress fittings, menu tastings, endless emails and trying to co-ordinate a number of guests who are all travelling to San Sebastian for the ceremony in a little over three weeks.  Add to this a rather monotonous healthy eating regime and an attempt to save money by not eating out and you find that, even if you had the time to write, there would be little to actually write about.

Bottom line:  weddings take over your life.  And I have a wedding planner!

Of course, this is a temporary situation.  My wedding is taking place in the gastronomic capital of Europe, so there will be plenty of subject matter there.  It seems that most people I know have either been to, or are planning a trip to, San Sebastian.  If you haven’t been, it is definitely worth considering for your next holiday, especially if eating and drinking is your thing.  In addition to this, we are embarking on a honeymoon road trip through Andalucia, again very much with culinary endeavours in mind.  I will be returning to London in July when, hopefully, normal service will be resumed.  Until then, I simply ask that you bear with me.

Instead of writing up one of my recipes (I haven’t cooked anything in days) or writing a nice long post about a restaurant I’ve been to (too stressed to pay too much attention), I have instead cobbled together a few things from the last week that have popped up on my food radar.  Kind of like the old days of ‘Monday Miscellany’ but, of course, on a Wednesday.  Even the days all roll into one these days.  I must buy a diary.

 Pizza Making

Anchovy and olive pizza

Anchovy and olive pizza

Last week could have easily been entitled ‘Life in Salad’, so I was obviously thrilled to come home from a particularly gruelling Friday to Ollie making pizza in the kitchen.  Needless to say, I devoured them all.  I looked back through my previous posts for something on pizzas and was surprised to find I had written nothing.  I even have a list of ‘London Pizzas I Love’ scrawled on a piece of notepaper and tacked up next to my desk, so I will write that up at some point.  The picture above is one of three pizzas he made using Dan Lepard’s absolutely foolproof pizza dough recipe, and a topping of anchovies and olives. Bliss.

Southampton Street Food Market

Pork souvlaki - Southampton style

Pork souvlaki – Southampton style

To the sounds of a chorus of “it’s about bloody time”, street food has finally arrived in Southampton.  Yes, I know the majestic 7Bone had a burger stall, one that even featured on the BBC’s Restaurant Man, but that was ages ago.  This market has taken over the strip along the pedestrianised part of the city centre at weekends, the spot previously occupied by the ahem, German market at Christmas.  It hasn’t quite reached the standard of similar markets in London, but is a good starting point (and far cheaper).  I had a perfectly decent pork souvlaki from Greekville, that certainly helped to undo the hangover I had from sinking G&T’s in The Alex the night before.

The Grazing Goat, Southampton

Goat curry with dumplings

Goat curry with dumplings

This is the first of two visits I am making to this new Southampton gastro pub, so will leave the review until I have time to write up the full post.  I just wanted to praise their goat curry with dumplings, which was sublime.

Toast, East Dulwich

Quail with gremolata

Quail with gremolata

Orange cake

Orange cake

Toast may be the perfect place to hide out when the heavens open during a Lordship Lane expedition – warm, cosy and with a good wine list – you could find yourself there for hours.  I have been several times before, but only for coffee and a slice of their delicious banana bread (OK, and some wine), and used to go regularly when it was the old Green & Blue, but yesterday was the first time I actually went in for lunch.  We started with an off menu order of quail with gremolata, £10 including a glass of Cote du Rhone (bargain), then shared a slice of moist orange cake alongside our espressos.  As soon as I am back from Spain and eating out again, I expect Toast will become a regular spot, not least because it is great to have such quality food within walking distance of our flat.

Yalla Yalla, Fitzrovia

Yalla Yalla

Yalla Yalla

There’s an exchange that happens in my office at least once a week:

Me:  “What’s on the lunch menu for today?”
Colleague:  *Downloads canteen lunch menu*, *reels of a list of boring dishes*
Me:  “Sod it, I’m going to Yalla Yalla.”
Colleague:  *Without looking up* “Can you bring me back a halloumi wrap?”

Yalla Yalla is always the kryptonite that breaks those weeks when I am trying to eat healthily or not spend too much money on buying lunch.  With a wedding looming, and a very unforgiving wedding dress to squeeze into, those weeks are becoming more and more frequent.  However, the healthy options from nearby boring salad bars and the cheapo options from the staff canteen can never compare to the sheer middle eastern delights on offer just a mere hop, skip and a jump away on Winsley Street.  And I KNOW that I should be making my own lunch at home and bringing it in and all that, but I am disorganised.  Also, somewhere in our building is a person who likes to pinch other people’s lunch.  My friend had some sushi nicked the other day and she was very annoyed about it.

Anyway, Yalla Yalla has a little takeaway counter that sells a range of different wraps, as well as coffee and those little sticky pieces of baklava that I just love.  I have tried most of the wraps now, and my favourite is the lamb shawarma, something I feared I would forever have to trek to the Edgware Road for, and the simple falafel wrap (not quite as good as Mr Falafel in Shepherd’s Bush but, in my mind, nothing is).  The wraps are priced anywhere between £4 and £5 and are well-made and delicious.  You have to wait a little while, especially during the busy lunchtimes, but it is worth it.

Takeout halloumi wrap

Takeout halloumi wrap

Despite being a frequent visitor to the counter, until Wednesday I had only ever eaten in at Yalla Yalla once before; at their beautiful little original site at Green’s Court.  On Wednesday, Claire and I met there for a very speedy lunch to share news on weddings and house renovations over some baba ghanoush.  There are two ways that you can eat in at Yalla Yalla:  you can order one of the mezzes as a starter and then move on to their menu of middle-eastern main dishes, such as a moussaka, mixed grill or grilled seabass; or you can order a range of the mezzes and share.  Being always keen to try as many dishes as possible in one sitting, I have yet to opt for the former, although I have cast many a desirous eye over the Lahem Meshoue.

During my two visits to Yalla Yalla, plus many jaunts to the takeaway counter, I have worked my way through a large number of the mezzes on offer and have found myself to be impressed with most of them.  The houmous, the stalwart of any middle-eastern restaurant, demanding the most perfection, is beautifully smooth and not overloaded with either lemon or garlic, which many restaurants have a tendency to do.  One of my favourite dishes is the houmous shawarma, a small bowl of houmous topped with a hefty portion of grilled lamb spiced with, among other things, cumin and cinnamon.  The baba ghanoush is equally as fine, with the smokiness not overpowering the aubergine flavour and a slightly loose texture.  The addition of pomegranate seeds on the top makes it a little more special.  Both of these come with a basket of flatbreads which, although delicious, with only three small ones between two, never seems like quite enough.

Houmous shawarma

Houmous shawarma

Baba ghanoush

Baba ghanoush

Always wanting to include a little greenery into my lunch, I will often order the tabbouleh or the fattoush, either as a side to the wrap or as part of the mezze.  The tabbouleh is very similar to those I have eaten in the middle east, very heavy with parsley and mint and, unlike the more westernised versions, with the cracked wheat taking more of a backseat.  The fattoush is also delicious, but I’ve always hoped that it would be a bit sharper with vinegar, but that may just be my personal taste.

Tabbouleh (right)

Tabbouleh (right)

Fattoush

Fattoush

Other favourites include the chicken rakakat, little chicken-filled pastries that have the appearance of spring rolls but the flavour of a kebab, complete with a huge kick of harissa, and the halloumi meshoue , which feels like a little bit of Greece with its olive oil, black olive and fresh mint dressing.

Chicken rakakat

Chicken rakakat

Halloumi meshoue

Halloumi meshoue

In addition to this, they have some delicious Lebanese reds and whites, something that popped on to my wine radar a few years ago when out with a friend whose approach is far more sophisticated than mine (if they’re French, they probably know what they’re talking about), and those little cups of strong, sediment-filled Turkish coffee that will safely pull you out of your food coma just in time for an afternoon back at the office.

Whilst not entirely perfect, it is one of the best examples of middle eastern food in London, and keeps me coming back for more.  They do get very busy around lunch and dinner and don’t take reservations (who does these days?!)  If you’re an expert on this kind of food, you may find that it is a little too wide-reaching, as it does encompass food from many regions and there are more country-specific places out there, however it is a great introduction.  For only £35 for lunch for two (with wine), it is also very kind to the wallet.

Yalla Yalla, 12 Winsley Street, London W1W 8HQ.  There is also a restaurant at Greens Court, Soho and a pop-up on Shoreditch High Street.

Yalla Yalla Beirut Street Food on Urbanspoon

London’s Hot Cross Buns: Gail’s Bakery

Hot cross buns, garibaldi bunnies, Easter cupcakes

Hot cross buns, garibaldi bunnies, Easter cupcakes

With Easter growing nearer, the quest for a good hot cross bun is becoming ever more important.  Of course, we baking types often make our own, with various twists and unusual ingredients to try to stand out from the crowd. This year I am soaking my fruit in Earl Grey tea, a slightly more subdued version of last year’s bun, for which I soaked the fruit in Morgan’s Spiced rum.  London’s bakeries are also quick off the mark to get their own seasonal offerings out there.  A few years ago, The Ginger Gourmand, on her other blog, Eats Dulwich, rated all of the hot cross buns in and around East Dulwich, which is one of my favourite blog posts ever.

As this quest began to gather momentum and suggestions for bakeries came from far and wide, I received a box of Easter goodies from Gail’s Bakery to try. Much to the delight of my ever-hungry colleagues.  Since Gail’s opened a branch in my nearby Dulwich Village, I have been a bit of a regular.  Sometimes to pick up a loaf of their excellent bread, and sometimes to get a coffee and a pastry to enjoy whilst dodging the children on the recumbent go-karts in Dulwich Park.  My favourite is a savoury pastry with cherry tomatoes, basil and goats cheese they sometimes sell.  With their reputation of great bread and pastries, their Easter range must be top notch, non?

My colleagues (selflessly) agreed to taste and give their verdict.

 

Hot Cross Buns

The first thing that the tasters noticed was the enormous difference between a freshly-baked hot cross bun and the packaged ones you buy in the supermarket.  On opening the box, the smell of both freshly baked bread and spices was enough to leave everybody salivating.  The buns were soft, but without that airiness that you sometimes get from a processed bun, and they had a very shiny and sticky glaze.  We were divided on whether there was enough fruit in the buns – some preferred a sparsely-fruited bun, whereas others longed for more.  The fruit was a step above the usual currants and candied peel, though, I spied a few sultanas and cranberries in the mix, which made it a little more luxurious than your standard bun.  We all agreed that the buns had the perfect amount of spicing and were not too overly sweet.  One of my colleagues commented that they would benefit from a touch more salt.  All in all, an overwhelmingly positive verdict and an excellent bun.

Garibaldi Bunnies

OK, so my reaction to the surprise garibaldi bunnies was a little overblown, but finding my childhood favourite ‘squashed fly’ biscuits in the shape of rabbits was almosy too much to bear.  These had the delicious chewiness of old-style garibaldi biscuits with the addition of a delicious dusting of cinnamon sugar.  Perfect if you couldn’t eat a whole hot cross bun.

Easter Cupcakes

Cupcakes aren’t really my thing. I am partial to one once in a while, but will nearly always choose a little friand or financier over one when given the option. It’s just all. that. icing.  The Easter cupcakes from Gail’s are the kind to give you quite the sugar rush – a sponge cake, topped not only with vanilla buttercream, but with two iced shortbread bunny ‘ears’.  They are a little too sweet for me, but the quality is superb – a light sponge with a good-quality and well made vanilla buttercream.  The ‘ears’ were my favourite part – I could have eaten a ton of these on their own.

These products were a gift from Gail’s Bakery.

Breakfast at No. 67 at the South London Gallery, Peckham

Breakfast in the sun

Breakfast in the sun

Another belated post, I’m afraid, but with the sun shining so brightly in London this morning I couldn’t resist writing about a bit of alfresco dining.  One week ago today, just before we flew out to San Sebastian, Ollie and I went to the registry office in Peckham to register our intent to marry.  It was a pretty painless process really, but we still felt that anything that required us getting up early on our day off and bringing along our passports deserved a big breakfast afterwards.  Just across the street from the registry office is the excellent South London Gallery and it’s in-house cafe/restaurant, No. 67 – so named because of its location at 67 Peckham Road.

The good weather arrived in London a couple of weeks ago after months of torrential rain, and last Friday was the best day of all.  The sun beamed down on an empty picnic table on the front terrace of the cafe, where we quickly established ourselves and started to look at the menu.  At that moment, I received a text from my Dad to say that Southampton, a mere 75 miles away, had been enveloped in fog.  If there was a moment to develop weather-smugness, that would have been it.

The breakfast menu at No.67 is similar to what you might find in other smart south-east London cafés: good coffee, juices, organic yoghurt and muesli and a range of scrambled egg dishes with ham, salmon or spinach.  One anomaly, however, caught my eye – a baked egg, tomato and red pepper stew.  There is something wholesome yet rather decadent about having a stew for breakfast and at the weekend, if I have time, I will often make a the classic Mexican egg dish Huevos Rancheros (literally: ranch eggs) or the middle-eastern equivalent, Shakshuka (David Lebovitz’s version with chunks of feta is my favourite).  Both involve making a thick, spiced tomato sauce and cooking the eggs in it – either on the hob or in the oven – so that when served, the yolk spreads throughout the sauce.  Can you think of anything better?

Baked egg, tomato and red pepper stew

Baked egg, tomato and red pepper stew

The baked eggs, tomato and pepper stew at No. 67 arrives with two slices of lightly toasted sourdough drizzled with olive oil, which I set aside for mopping up the remnants of the sauce later.  The egg, sat in the middle of the dish, is fresh and, although perhaps a touch overcooked for my liking, yields a little yolk into the sauce.  The stew itself is rich and thick, made with what I suspect to be the best quality tinned tomatoes, rather than fresh, which for this time of year will give a more substantial flavour.  A strong kick of black pepper and a smoky hint of paprika give it a deep flavour that works alongside the richness of the egg.

A very substantial and tasty breakfast.  If you want something that sets itself apart from the usual Eggs Benedict / Florentine / Royale, this could be the spot for you.

No. 67 Café and Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Pitt Cue Co, Soho

Pulled pork, pickles, bone marrow mashed potato and house bread

Pulled pork, pickles, bone marrow mashed potato and house bread

Without trying to solicit any sympathy for my current situation, I’m finding it very difficult to get back into the swing of things following my recent trip to San Sebastian.  Despite returning home two days ago, I seem to be unable to shake off that holiday laziness; the kind that is in no rush to get up in the morning and gives you decisions no more complicated than what to eat for dinner.  A distinct lack of pintxos bars and ice-cold txakoli in the Fitzrovia/Marylebone area has sent me on an internet-searching quest of where to buy Basque wines in the UK instead of getting on to more pressing matters like unpacking my suitcase and updating my blog.

On my last day in the office before going on annual leave, I met Claire for lunch.  I have a terrible, and much-documented, track record of trying and failing to get a lunchtime table at Pitt Cue Co., so was pleased when I turned up early one Thursday lunchtime to find that I was first in the queue.  Pitt Cue Co. is notorious for its queues and long waiting times – partly because the food is excellent, its reputation first built upon a successful food truck based on the South Bank (among other places) and partly because their dining room has a mere 30 covers, mainly in tables of two.

Having strategically skipped breakfast and ordering a Soho Sour whilst waiting for Claire, I was ready for as much BBQ as I could eat.  The cocktail was a tastebud-stinging blend of bourbon, amaretto and lemon juice with ice and a fresh cherry.  Perhaps not the best option for lunchtime, but good to waken up the senses after a morning of terrible office coffee. 

Green chilli slaw, pulled pork bun

Green chilli slaw, pulled pork bun

The focus at Pitt Cue Co., understandably, is on the meat.  On arrival, the waiter and I gave each other a little smirk when one diner asked if there were vegetarian options.  The meat is served, largely, in two ways:  in a meal or in a bun, both with a side dish.  The former has the meat placed on one of their trademark vintage white tin bowls with the side dish and a few pickles, the latter serves the meat in a shiny brioche bun.  Claire and I both opted for the pulled pork, mine in a meal, hers in a bun.  Pulled pork is one of those food trends of the past few years that seems to have sprung up on menus all over town, although few manage to do it well.  I am lucky enough to live with a man who takes his pulled pork-making very seriously (although it is perhaps a little spicy for my taste – he is the Chilli Fiend after all).  Far from the dried out offerings of many a BBQ restaurant across the city, it is clear that the pulled pork at Pitt Cue Co has been seasoned and slow cooked with a great deal of care – it is moist, flavoursome, well-spiced and has that soft, almost gelatinous quantity that allows you to devour a great deal without even noticing.

Of the sides, the green chilli slaw was tasty enough, but the name led me to expect a lot more heat than was actually delivered.  The star of the show, however, the ultimate dish of the day was the bone marrow mashed potato.  I had heard from many others just how good this mashed potato was, but had never tried it for myself.  A swirl of perfectly smooth and buttery mashed potato arrives in a small tin dish with topped with a ladle of incredibly rich bone marrow gravy and a slab of garlic butter.  Not one for somebody who is watching their weight, but for the rest of us, sheer heaven.  It’s like the mash and gravy you wish came with every meal.  Be prepared to share though, as your dining companion will not be able to resist dipping their bread in, not matter how much you try to edge the dish to your side of the table.

My only real complaint with Pitt Cue is that a lunch of this size will generally render you immobile for the rest of the afternoon.  You will also smell like a BBQ as no amount of washing your hands will really get rid of that smoky meat smell.  Best to save it for a day when you can head home for an old movie and a snooze on the couch.

Apologies for the poor quality of the photos – it is dark in there!

Pitt Cue Co., 1 Newburgh Street, London W1F 7RB

Pitt Cue Co on Urbanspoon

Two Weekend Lunches: Ganapati and Cafe East

Whilst working from home on Friday, head in my hands and surrounded by piles of paper, Ollie suggested that I take a break and join him for lunch.  I was about to say that I didn’t have time when he suggested Ganapati, so I closed my laptop and off we went.  There is no shortage of Indian restaurants in our little part of south east London, however Ganapati sits head and shoulders above the myriad of curry houses on Lordship Lane and the Old Kent Road and is a real local favourite.  Ganapati has recently set up a take-away kitchen around the corner from its main site just off the Bellenden Road, which has caused a great deal of excitement in many a delivery postcode.  They also have an extremely good value lunch deal.

image

We started by sharing the vegetarian street snacks:  a plate containing two mysore bonda, potato and cashew dumplings fried in chickpea batter; and two vadai, ground chana dal with curry leaf and green chilli, shaped into patties and fried.  Both were perfectly hot and crispy without the greasiness that often accompanies fried starters.  We both agreed that we could not choose between them but, in hindsight, would have ordered a plate each.

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The vegetarian thali main came on a large metal tray separated into sections.  The tomato-based vegetable and lentil curry had a huge kick of spices and curry leaves and was far hotter than I expected – so much so that Ollie the chilli fiend kept trying to sneak forkfuls when I wasn’t looking.  The accompaniements were great, by far my favourite part of the dish was a sweet and slightly spiced beetroot pickle that complemented the heat of the curry perfectly.  Ollie ordered the kingfish curry, which has perfectly cooked soft pieces of fish in a coconut and tamarind sauce. 

Most of the main courses on the Ganapti lunch menu are under £6, which makes it an excellent value lunch, especially as the prices are considerably higher in the evening.

Ganapati, 38 Holly Grove, Peckham, London SE15 5DF

Having a rare day off together on Sunday, we went over to the Museum of London Docklands for the afternoon, where I have not been since my first year at Goldsmiths.  London’s history is so fascinating, especially that of the communities that lived and worked by the river.  I found this amusing piece of information about the women that worked at the fish market.

“Fish, espeically herring, was the staple food of the London poor.  In the 18th century, boats brought their catch bacl from fishing grounds off the coast of Norway, the Baltic and north of the Shetlands.  Women working at the fish market had a reputation for toughness and sharp language.  Some even earned additional income as bare-knuckle fighters.”  – The Museum of London Docklands

The museum is rather enormous, so by the time we got to the bit about rebuilding the docklands we had worked up quite an appetite, so headed over to Cafe East in Surrey Quays for a late Vietnamese lunch.  When you first get off the Overground, this seems like the last place you are going to find one of south-east London’s gems.  To get to it, you have to walk past all of the usual horrors you would expect to find in a retail park:  Frankie & Benny’s, Pizza Hut, generic-American grill restaurants et cetera.  However, when you get right to the back, there is a little unassuming brick hut that makes some of the best Vietnamese food south of the river – obviously the Kingsland Road is the go-to destination for pho but sometimes you just don’t want to go to Shoreditch…

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After the customary chuckle at the “We do not serve tap water” sign at the entrance, we took up a table and ordered some Vietnamese iced coffee.  It’s always a bit of a shame that they don’t offer hot coffee with condensed milk as other restaurants do, as I prefer this to the iced stuff.

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We started with an order of banh cuon, steamed rolls filled with minced pork and chinese mushrooms and topped with meatloaf and some delicious fried shallots; and the goi cuon, known to the rest of us as ‘summer rolls’, filled with pork and prawn.  Both were generous in size and very fresh.  The summer rolls were not overloaded with fresh mint, which many often are, so the other flavours were able to come through.  They came with a peanut sauce and a ferociously spicy chilli dipping sauce.

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I ordered the lemongrass pork chop, a sweet, slightly spicy, sticky sliced pork served over boiled rice, which was just the right combination of moistness and chewiness.  Despite being well-coated in the sauce, the flavour of the pork still came through well.  I thought a splash of the summer rolls’ dipping sauce might ruin it, but the pork actually benefitted well from the extra spice.  On the side were some innocuous looking pickles – shredded carrot and daikon – that were so perfect I wished there was more than the little pinch put on the side of the plate.  Ollie ordered the Pho Bo Hue – a slightly spicy variation of the traditional beef pho.  The beef brisket, cooked in the heat of the soup, were sliced perfectly thin and the slippery noodles and crisp vegetables made it a very substantial dish.  The little bowl of red chillies accompanying the soup were for the very brave only – even Ollie, who has the highest heat tolerance of anybody I know, only added three-quarters. 

I didn’t eat for the rest of the day after that.

Cafe East, Surrey Quays Leisure Park, 100 Redriff Road, London SE16 7LH.

Ganapati on Urbanspoon

Cafe East on Urbanspoon

The Battle of the Cinnamon Buns: Nordic Bakery vs. Scandinavian Kitchen

Central London's finest:  Scandinavian Kitchen cinnamon bun (left) and The  Nordic Bakery cinnamon bun (right)

Central London’s finest: Scandinavian Kitchen cinnamon bun (left) and The Nordic Bakery cinnamon bun (right)

In the last few years, interest in Scandinavian food has risen enormously.  It is easy to attribute this popularity to the influence of Noma, Børgen or Ikea and, whilst this may still be the case, it is part of London’s culinary history to look to other parts of the world for inspiration.  Whilst on the savoury courses, we are often divided; many, for example, happily devour the meatballs but are hesitant about idea of some of the more extreme pickled fish; the sweet dishes are another story.  The success of Signe Johansen‘s book Scandilicous Baking speaks volumes, and the opening of several Scandinavian bakeries across London has sent us clamouring for the lingonberry tarts and spiced biscuits that we could only otherwise find in the freezer section of the local Ikea.

The biggest craze of all, though, has to be for the Scandi cinnamon buns.  These are so popular that many of the London cafes sell out daily.  They are bread buns, rolled with a cinnamon filling and often topped with pearl sugar or a glaze.  Many people in my office cannot survive a week without one.

Luckily for us, we have two Scandinavian cafes within walking distance:  the Marylebone branch of The Nordic Bakery, on New Cavendish Street and Scandinavian Kitchen on Great Titchfield Street.  There has been a great deal of disagreement among those who work in the west end about which cafe makes the best cinnamon bun, so I decided to settle this with a ‘cinnamon bun-off’; a blind taste test of the two buns from which, I hoped, there would be a clear winner.  Fortunately, I was not short of volunteers for this experiment among my colleagues.

The Test:  a simple blind taste test of the cinnamon buns, purchased on the same day, from The Nordic Bakery and Scandinavian Kitchen.  Each taster chooses a winner.  That’s it.

The Contenders:

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The Nordic Bakery, 37b New Cavendish Street, London W1G 8JR
The Nordic Bakery has three sites across London: our New Cavendish Street Local, the original on Golden Square, Soho and another on Dorset Street.  These beautiful little wood-panelled cafes are designed to be “a peaceful meeting place in a frantic city” and sell a range of coffees, sandwiches and baked goods.  A cinnamon bun costs £2.40.

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Scandinavian Kitchen, 61 Great Titchfield Street, London W1W 7PP
This very busy cafe, with its amusing street-front chalkboard offering, among other things, ‘free hugs’ is a Fitzrovia lunchtime favourite.  They sell coffees, a range of baked goods, sandwiches and a mix-and-match smoregsboard of various nordic delights.  A cinnamon bun costs £1.70.

The Results:

I bought three buns from each bakery, which were cut into quarters and places in two piles, each labelled simply ‘A’ and ‘B’.  12 taste testers – all cinnamon bun aficionados from my office –  tried each of the buns and gave their verdict.  Some devoured one of the pieces of bun before starting on the other; others alternated bites between the two.  There was a lot of head-tipping and thoughtful noises.  Work stopped momentarily to discuss the beauty of cinnamon buns and argue about whether tea or coffee was the best accompaniment.  One by one, they gave me their scores and, the winner is….

Scandinavian Kitchen, by nine votes to three!

The main winner for Scandinavian Kitchen was the texture of the buns – the dough was soft and almost brioche-like, compared to the more tightly rolled dough of the buns from The Nordic Bakery; most felt the latter was a little too dense and they would struggle to eat a whole one.  The panel was, interestingly, divided over what was the best topping for a cinnamon bun; some preferred the sticky glaze of The Nordic Bakery’s buns, whereas others preferred the pearl sugar topping used by Scandinavian Kitchen.  They all agreed that both buns were excellent and had a good cinnamon flavour, but the lightness of the dough was what swung it Scandinavian Kitchen-wards.

If you want to have a go at making your own, Signe Johansen’s recipe from Woman’s Hour Cook the Perfect… can be found here.

Three Good Cafes Near BBC Broadcasting House

Trying to find a moment of peace in an ordinary working London week is like trying to find a two-bedroom flat in Zone 2 for less than £1,000 per month.  You know it exists because other people have it, but it just doesn’t seem to happen for you.  Non-city dwellers find it difficult to understand the way we Londoners rush from place to place, walking faster than many can run and trying  to squeeze on to already packed tubes when another one will be along in two minutes, but it’s just because we have so much to do.  When we do finally arrive home for the evening, there is no guarantee of peace as due to the astronomical property prices, we’re all living on top of each other.  Last night my next door neighbour came home a little worse for wear and dropped his keys on the mat four times before he finally got them into the lock.  Cursing creatively each time.

This week, trying to make it to the weekend has involved an obstacle course of a full working week, two blogger events, an impromptu pub crawl with old friends and a Band of Bakers meeting.  I’ve been to almost every corner of the city and have the blisters to prove it.  Even my precious night in last night involved budget planning, wedding planning and who knows what else.  Eating dinner in front of my laptop is becoming a habit.  Friday has never felt so good.

One thing that I have been thankful for this week is the abundance of good cafes close to my office.  It’s only when you’ve worked in an obscure part of London you realise the beauty of the West End and its many eateries.  When you’re too tired to make breakfast, need a mid-morning pick-me-up or simply want to have coffee with a friend, there they are.  So this may not be useful to many of you who do not work in this lovely little part of London, but here are some cafes close to BBC New Broadcasting House that will always save the day when you’re having a tough week:

Attendant, Foley Street
This was my main discovery this week, so it warrants two blog posts.  I had often been curious about the little cafe in the Victorian converted toilet and, this week, I found out just how good it was.  It was their first birthday on Tuesday, so I popped along to have a flat white and little salted caramel brownie and enter their raffle (which, sadly, I didn’t win).  The following day, with a bit of a headache caused by necking amaretto sours in The Palmerston, I popped in again for breakfast.  It’s a great little place and, one you get over the idea of drinking coffee in a cleaned-up urinal, one you will keep wanting to come back to.  They use Caravan coffee and have a small but perfectly formed range of pastries, cakes and sandwiches.  Plus the staff are bloody lovely.

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Scandinavian Kitchen, Great Titchfield Street
There are few people who work around here that have not been to the Scandinavian kitchen and, in recent years, it has become something of a Fitzrovia institution.  Often they have a board outside offering ‘free hugs’, but don’t let that put you off.  It’s a nice change from the general soup/sandwich lunch options in the many chain cafes on Oxford Street and Regent Street – they do a lunch deal of three or five items that you can select to make up your own smoregsboard.  On my last visit I opted for egg on rye, a smoked salmon wrap and a pickled cabbage salad.  Their coffee is good and their cinnamon buns pretty damn excellent.

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Kaffeine, Great Titchfield Street
This antipodean-style cafe is one of the best-known coffee shops in London and is famous for the quality of their coffee and the experience of their baristas.  They use Square Mile beans and have a delicious range of breakfasts and sandwiches which, admittedly, are a little on the expensive side.  It is a local favourite and is always packed out around breakfast and lunch.  If you get the chance, try the Anzac Biscuits for a taste of down under.

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