Saturday, 29 October 2011

Hawksmoor Guildhall

It would be pretty hard not to notice that over the last few weeks Twitter has been awash with salivating steak lovers, happily enjoying the soft opening at the new Guildhall branch of Hawksmoor.  I wasn't originally planning to blog about my lunchtime visit with the Ewing; it's been written about many times before, and mostly far better. But as my blogging brethren know, it can be pretty hard not to take pictures of at least a couple of forkfuls of food, especially when it's as magnificent as the grub we were served on Monday.  So, as the snaps came out pretty well considering the subterranean setting, in the name of steak porn here's a few brief thoughts and pictures.

The layout and feel is pretty similar to the Seven Dials branch, a staircase leading underground into the bar area, and then through to the dining room.  Although it's a large space it still manages to retain a 'clubby' steakhouse vibe, with circular booths for large parties on one side of the room and intimate banquettes for smaller groups on the other.   With the rich smell of new leather and charcoal in the air, we were feeling pretty excited as we were shown to our seats.

There is something extremely pleasing about the rattle of ice cubes in lowball glass, and even more so when it's also filled with Rich Hunt's Sinking Spritz.  A pre-prandial cocktail featuring Sauvignon Blanc, Aperol, elderflower, Cartron No. 7 and Picon Club. This was a fantastic aperitif with a gentle bitterness to help hone your appetite. 

The Ewing's oysters were served with a mini casserole of Hawksmoor sausages.  Briny mollusc and meaty nugget, designed to be eaten in one mouthful.  Individually the Ewing declared the rocks some of the sweetest she had eaten, while the sausages were porkily perfect.  Together this surf and turf cleverly popped in the mouth with a perfect balance sweet, salt, hot and cold.

The potted beef and plum pudding bacon.  A truly wonderful dish; rich shreds of smoky meat served with  thick slices of chargrilled bread and piquant pickles.  Although this is a pretty robust start to a meal I had no problem polishing the whole lot off and could have happily eaten plenty more.

The money shots:  600g Bone in sirloin and 400g rib eye, both medium rare.  I initially requested my sirloin rare, but our lovely waitress advised larger cuts, especially on the bone, would benefit from a little longer of the charcoal grill.  This lead to it being served a shade darker on the pantone chart than I would have ordinarily liked, but full of flavour and perfectly rested, this was still a stunning hunk of meat. 

The Ewing's Rib eye was beyond superlatives; perfectly pink within and deeply charred on the outside.  With all the rich marbling the meat almost pulled apart.  In fact this was about the quietest I've ever seen her as red in tooth and claw she chomped steadily through her plate of protein, only stopping occasionally to push my advancing fork away.

Just in case we were in danger of going hungry we also stocked up on  the sauces and sides.  Lobster mac'n'cheese is ambitiously priced at £20, but for that you get a whole half lobster swimming in a huge dish of bubbling cheesy pasta.  The delicate meat managed to admirably stand up to the robust flavours, and if there was any way to improve the original Hawksmoor macaroni this could be it.

We also chose a grilled half Dorset Blue lobster (lovely and sweet and served with a garlic and hazelnut butter), triple cooked chips, a very nice English lettuce and herb salad (got to eat your greens), bone marrow gravy and Stilton hollandaise.  Their hollandaise is a toatal triumph; the little salty nuggets Stilton mirror the slight 'cheesiness' in the aged meat.  Truly a marriage made in heaven and as fine a sauce as I have ever enjoyed.

By this point simply breathing was becoming a chore, but the Ewing and the waitress had conspired together and I found that pudding had been ordered 'on my behalf''.  From the two staff suggestions I had the peanut butter shortbread with caramel ice cream and Ewing the chocolate rum pudding with pouring cream. 

The shortbread was a delight.  The inside was generously filled with peanuts and warm chocolate, while the salty/bittersweet ice cream topped it off nicely.  The Ewing's pud was a chocoholic's dream.  Although the rum flavour wasn't too prominent the centre was perfectly molten and the only thing that could improve it was sploshing half the jug of cold, thick cream into the middle.  Joy.

So, if there was any doubt after reading the superlatives above, a first class lunch.  In fact so lovely, and boozy, that I felt thankful to not have to return to the office and instead staggered home for a post prandial snooze.  Good meat isn't cheap, (even with the generous 50% off soft opening) but with great beef, great booze and that hollandaise the latest Hawksmoor is yet again raising the steaks. (Apologies, but there had to be at least one terrible meat pun....)

Hawksmoor (Guildhall) on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Sticky Rice with Coconut and Mango

Rice pudding is one of my all time favourite deserts.  Whether it's baked in the oven, with a golden skin and a blob of jam, a 'posh' version with spices and fruit compote, or good old Ambrosia straight out the tin, they're all delicious to me. To my mind there is nothing better after a roast on a cold Sunday afternoon, or to sooth you when you're feeling a little under the weather.

In fact, my love for good old rice pud is so great I've decided to do a mini series of blogs, featuring variations from around the world.  (Not so god for the Ewing, a rice pudding sceptic who has so far eschewed my efforts for yet more chocolate.) 

The first recipe I tried was a classic South East Asian version of this beloved desert.  The coconut provides richness and the mango lends a fresh and tropical edge.  You could substitute pineapple, banana, or even durian if you can get hold of it (and can tolerate the 'distinctive' aroma).  A little salt with the coconut cream is essential, as it cuts through the richness and stops it becoming too cloying.  Sesame seeds or fried mung beans add some welcome crunch. 

This is a perfect pud after spicy food, or to cheer you up with a tropical burst in the depths of winter.

Sticky Rice with Coconut and Mango

200g Thai sticky rice
1 tin of coconut milk (Thai if possible)
50g palm sugar (or substitute light brown)
A pinch of salt
2 large mangoes, halved, stoned and sliced.
1 tbsp sesame seeds, lightly toasted or use toasted mung beans. (optional)

Place rice and 350ml of water in a large saucepan, bring to the boil.
Cover mixture and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the water has been evaporated.
While rice is cooking carefully open the tin of coconut milk and put any solid cream that has risen to the top in a small saucepan (if there is no solid cream then pour off a couple of tablespoons of the milk instead). Heat the coconut cream gently, until it thickens, then add the salt. Cool.
Place 300ml of the milk and the palm sugar in a bowl, and stir until dissolved.
Add the still warm, cooked rice to the milk and sugar mixture, stir and cover with a tea towel until cold. (add any extra coconut milk, or a drop of water if the texture is too thick).
To serve, place the sticky rice on a plate and spoon some of the coconut cream mixture over the top.  Garnish with strips of the mango and the sesame seeds, if using.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Cod Basquaise

During the summer  I was pretty excited to find jars of ground Espalette pepper, a sweet, smoky Basque chilli pepper with AOC status,  on the Roots Deli stall at the High Wycombe Food Festival.  After a chat and some cheese tasting with the owner, the lovely Les, he recommended using it to season food with a subtle spicy-smokiness, as well as being good in dressings, sauces, salads and Basque style dishes.

Like many ingredients I have excitedly pounced upon and carted home, the jar was soon relegated, unopened, the back of the cupboard, occasionally emerging to taunt me as I scrabbled around trying to find a tun of tuna or a bag of chickpeas for dinner.  It was only after reading an article about the  La Fete au Piment, which is held on the last weekend of October in the picturesque town of Espelette, that I realised this was the perfect time to dig it out.  

La Fete au Piment sees 10 towns in the Pays Basque come together for two days of music, dancing, eating drinking and celebration centering on the humble pimenton. One speciality is the talos, a Basque maize flour tortilla, hand made and grilled over coals with toppings including smoked bacon, cheese and chocolate.  Whole mutton are grilled by the banks of the river, accompanied by white beans with Espalette pepper and washed down with barrels of cider, and there is even a blessing for the chilli harvest held at the church of St Etienne.

My plans were to be rather simpler - Cod Basquaise; a classic dish featuring a thick piece of milky white, lightly salted, line caught fish served with a ragout of peppers, tomato, smoked ham, and of course the Piment D'Espelette.  Chuck in a few new potatoes to soak up the rich, smoky juices and you have the perfect late summer/early autumn fare.

Cod Basquaise

2 thick cod (or whitefish fillets) about 175g
Sea salt flakes

1 large onion, thinly sliced
1 large red pepper, cut into strips
1 large yellow pepper, cut into strips
1 clove of garlic, crushed
3 slices Bayonne or Serrano ham, diced
2 large tomatoes, diced
Splash of red wine
Pinch of sugar
2 tsp Piment D'Espelette (or smoked paprika)
Large sprig of thyme

Sprinkle both sides of the fish with salt, place in a non metallic dish and refrigerate for an hour.
Meanwhile heat olive oil in a pan and gently sweat onion.  Add garlic, peppers and ham and cook until the peppers and onions are soft.
Add tomatoes, thyme, red wine and sugar and cook on a low heat for 15 minutes until sauce is reduced.  Season with salt and Piment D'Espelette.
Remove fish from fridge, pour away any liquid and rinse fish thoroughly under running water.  Dry on kitchen paper.
Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and cook fish until golden on each side and just cooked in the middle (about 4-5 minutes on first side, flip and cook for a further 3-4 minutes).
Spoon the Basquaise sauce into warmed bowls and top with the fish and a few fresh thyme leaves.
Serve with new potatoes or country bread

I like to lightly salt the cod before using, as it firms up the flesh and produces a deeper flavour.  Of course any firm white fish would work well too.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Blas Burger, St Ives

Blas Burger sprang onto my radar when I saw it featured in an article on MSN on the best burgers in Britain.  Seeing it was in St. Ives, and having a week booked down in Padstow, I started to get excited.  After calming down and actually looking at a map I realised Cornwall is a rather large place, and it was still a good hour's drive away from where we were staying.  Luckily the Ewing agreed to a schlep down there, even after finding out it only opened in the evenings off season, so we could sample some premium Cornish beef for ourselves.

The Burgerworks is safely tucked away on a narrow, cobbled street, aptly named the Warren, with lovely views back out to the harbour.  After successfully finding the place it I dragged the Ewing down to sit on the sea wall outside to wait for the doors to open.  Due to its bijou size, and not accepting reservations, we found ourselves queueing alongside a handful of equally furtive characters who were also hoping to grab a space on one of the four communal tables.

Inside is dark and cosy; four big wooden tables that look onto an open plan grill area, with a small kitchen area out the back.  The smoke and heat were bearable on a blustery autumn evening, but might feel a bit more oppressive on a busy summer's day.  The decor is quirky, with surf memorabilia, bright murals and mirrors, and shelves of books and papers in the far corner.  They source as much of there food and drink locally as possible, and even have a display listing the providence of their ingredients on the wall.

As soon as they opened their doors for business the Ewing and I grabbed a quiet corner spot and got in some drinks; a Cornish apple juice for the Ewing and a nice bottle of  'Betty Stogs', a locally brewed bitter from the Skinner Brewery, for me.

Burger choice was easy; two Cornish beefburgers with Cornish blue cheese.  After enjoying moules frites at lunchtime we skipped the chips, but ordered a side of their Blas slaw.

The menu  offers a small number of variations including a cheeseburger with Cornish Davidstow cheddar, a Huevos Rancheros burger with guacamole and a fried egg and an 'Mushroom Classic' served with grilled field mushroom and Bearnaise sauce.  There also have free range chicken breast burgers, veggie bean burgers, halloumi burgers and even chargrilled local fish - Providing the conditions at sea are good and Peter the fisherman has had a successful morning!

The Blas blue cheeseburger: I could talk about the over sized lettuce leaf and the slightly too thick slice of tomato;  I could also mention the bun, although still very nice, that was just on the wrong side of 'too healthy' with its sprinkling of seeds and grains.  But why would I want to waste a moment thinking about anything but the most perfectly rare, beautifully seasoned piece of freshly ground Cornish beef.  The blue cheese was the ideal foil, sweet and creamy with that faint metallic edge that emphasized the 'beefiness' of the patty.

Normally I prefer my burgers to be a little less rare in the centre, finding rare patties, especially if finely ground, can often be cold and slightly slimy in texture. Here the coarsely ground and well salted beef had a depth of flavour  and slight chewiness that deserved it's brief grilling time.  The contrast between the tender middle and the smoky, char-grilled outside crust was perfect.

Pudding was Sally's Chocolate Brownie with clotted cream and chocolate sauce.  I'm not sure who Sally is, but she's a bloody great baker.  The brownie was properly dense and 'puddingy' while retaining a beautifully crisp crust.  The bitterness was offset perfectly with the thick dollop of cream and rich puddle of warm chocolate sauce.

This burger, and indeed the whole experience, was brilliant.  Maybe our appetites had been sharpened by the sea air, maybe it was the excited anticipation when queuing outside, maybe it was the top quality ingredients simply dealt with, or just maybe it was the friendly service and ambiance that made us feel so welcome and relaxed.  In truth it was probably a combination of all the above.  If it wasn't over five hours drive away Blas Burgerworks would be a regular haunt, as it is it remains a perfect, meaty seaside memory.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011


With a week booked at a cottage down in Padstow it would be difficult to avoid visiting at least one Rick Stein's four establishments (not to mention both an eponymous patisserie and deli) in this picturesque North Cornish port. Time/budget constraints meant we had to skip the original seafood restaurant and St Petroc's bistro, but we did manage to fit in visits to both his fish and chip restaurant and Cafe.

Stein's Fish and Chips is located on Padstow's South Quay, between his Seafood School and Deli, luckily just a short stroll downhill from where we were staying. And after a very long and very warm journey down the M5, on the hottest October day on record, a cold beer and hot fish supper felt like a just reward.

The restaurant is open plan, allowing you to see through the takeaway area next door, and features traditional tiled counters and walls with shared wooden bench seating. This is a bright, noisy, busy space and not a quiet spot to linger over your meal.  We managed to nab a couple of stools up at the window, with views out onto the quayside.

As well as Sharp's flagship Doom Bar bitter (you can see out towards the legendary Doom Bar sand bank from the quayside) they also stock bottles of Chalky's Bark/Bite, named in honour of Stein's late Jack Russell.  The Bite packs a punch at 6.8%, with the flavour of wild fennel giving it an unusual edge that works nicely with fish, while the Bark has a lower ABV and the subtle taste of fresh ginger.

Fish is served straight out of the paper box, although they do provide proper cutlery for those who don't want to get there fingers greasy.  The Ewing chose hake while I picked cod, the Southern chip shop classic.  Flavour wise the hake was lovely, but I found it's texture a little soft; the cod broke into beautiful, pearly flakes that were perfectly cooked. The fish and chips come cooked in dripping, which gives everything a glorious golden colour and a lovely savoury edge.

Peas, tartare sauce pickles, etc are extra and come in little polystyrene pots.   Peas were fine, and reassuringly green-grey, rather than an alarming luminous shade.  Tartare sauce was the proper wobbly homemade stuff, and a luscious golden hue. I ended up using the chips as a vehicle to get as much of the glorious stuff in my mouth as I could manage.

I quite liked the basic 'chippy' presentation, but the prices don't necceasrily refect the humble 
surroundings, and at nearly a tenner a pop, plus any extras, this isn't the cheapest fish supper you will ever enjoy. Having said that it could be one of the nicest; most of the fish and seafood is locally caught and, for the health concious among us, can also be served grilled as well as fried.  And seeing beer batter and beef dripping in the same sentence can surely never be a bad thing.


Rick Stein's Cafe is set away from the harbour on Middle Street.  I enjoyed a lovely lunch a few years ago and was looking forward to returning. Thankfully not too much has changed; inside combines a casual, relaxed seaside atmosphere with stripped wooden floors and comfy bench seats featuring bright cushions that give the place a bit of a Moorish feel. Due to its popularity inside can become quite cramped and noisy, but there is also a small courtyard available for al fresco diners.

The cafe offers a simple seasonal menu with breakfast, lunch and dinner options, as well as coffee and cakes offered throughout the day.  At lunchtime 'starters' can be made larger for an extra couple of pounds, and there is a good value three course dinner for £22.  Of all the eateries in the Stein stable this seems like the best value - managing to combine pleasant surroundings, attentive service and good food at moderate prices.

I chose the grilled seabass with lemongrass, spiced paste, katchcumber and steamed rice.  The sea bass had been boned and stuffed with the spiced paste, before being tied together with string and grilled until the skin became wonderfully crispy and chewy at the same time.

Although the feisty spices were very liberally applied the fish stood up to them, and was complimented by the refreshing salad and comforting rice. This was a bold plate of food that could have possibly done with a dash less spice paste on the fish and citrus in the salad, but the heat and bright flavours certainly pleased a chilli head like myself.

Despite almost being swayed by the moule frites and a glass of wine for a tenner the Ewing went down a classic Mediterranean route; grilled hake with thinned mayonnaise, cannellini beans, capers and tarragon.  This was a lovely, fresh dish.  The creamy beans, sweet fish and late summer tomatoes working against the punch of the capers and anise notes from the tarragon.

To finish we shared the sunken chocolate cake served with a big jug of pouring cream.  The cake was dense and fudgy with a sweet nuttiness from ground almonds, but also retained a bitter cocoa note which was tempered by the glorious lake of rich cream poured over the top.

After mains, cake and a few glasses of Ricks 'Spanish White' from Castilla-Leon, our 'light' lunch was  rounded off with double espressos and cantucci biscuits to help give us energy for the sightseeing ahead.

We also made whistle stops to both the Deli on the quayside (a sad looking variety of fish late on a Friday, but a good selection of 'world' food as well as plenty of local treats) and the Patisserie in town. 

As well as the obligatory kitchen knick-knacks and souvenirs on offer here there's some lovely locally baked bread and cakes as well as traditional steak pasties, and even an intriguing sounding haddock version.

So, while there is far more to this charming fishing town than just Rick's empire, you could do a lot worse than enjoy some local Cornish fish with a Stein twist. (And his range of handmade truffles, especially the peanut ones, are pretty moreish too...)

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Beer, a Burger and Black Beans

Recently the Ewing's become a bit obsessed with walking the Thames path. So a few weeks ago I though it would be a good opportunity to take advantage of the Indian Summer and walk from London Bridge to Greenwich, with a stop off at a hotel in Canary Wharf for the night.

We needed sustenance for our walk, so where better than The Draft House Pub at Tower Bridge, right at the start of our route.

We started with a pint of prawns with garlic mayo before moving on to the serious business; a cheese and bacon burger with onion rings for me and fish and chips and minted peas for the Ewing.

The cheese and bacon are both smoked in house, and although I'm a fan of strong flavours I did worry that together they might overpower the beef.  Luckily they provided just the right smoky note, working as a counterpoint to the rich meat.  The mince was coarsely ground and served nice and pink as requested.  Bun was decent, holding it's load well with no structural issues. Minor irritation came in the form of little cornichons served on the side in lieu of pickle slices in the burger, although I did enjoy the little side salad with beetroot.

The onion rings looked fab, and the batter was nice and crisp.  Unfortunately it was also too thick, with not enough of the lovely sweet onion filling, so I only managed to eat a couple.

The Ewing had a giant piece of haddock with 'proper' chip shop chips, served with a great side dish of crushed minted peas and a piquant tartare sauce containing chunks of boiled egg. The fish was nicely cooked and the batter spot on. Luckily, as the portion was so huge, she didn't mind sharing a little with me.

Of course we couldn't visit without trying some of their carefully chosen beers from the huge list available. The very friendly bar man recommended a couple of cask ales to start, and we followed these with a couple of local Kernal brews.  The Centennial pale ale was crisp and clean, with a pleasant bitterness.  The Ewing enjoyed the lovely citra IPA, a serious beer at 6.5%, with citrus, grapefruit and floral notes.

Happily full of good beer and good food I sensed the need to leave while we could still put one foot in front of another.  So we stumbled across Tower Bridge and enjoyed a wander around St Katherine Docks in the sparkling autumn sunshine.

The Draft House Pub on Urbanspoon

After venturing a couple of miles down the river we reached the Prospect of Whitby in Wapping.  The Prospect is one of the most famous pubs in London, as well as reportedly the oldest riverside tavern.  In former times it was a meeting place for sailors and smugglers, and was frequented by Pepys and Dickens, as well as being sketched by Turner and Whistler.  Now days it's a Taylor Walker pub, and although the original flagstone floor remains there's little of the old sea dog atmosphere, instead being full of families and sightseers enjoying the lovely weather.

The outdoor seating area was full but we found a table indoors with a lovely river view out across the river.  Pint of Young's London Gold was decent, but watching the choppy waters lapping up at the window made me slightly feel sea sick. (although this could have been the Kernal IPA starting to catch up with me...)

Outside in the fresh air again I was ready to work up a thirst on the next leg of our journey.  We were also treated to this lovely view of the sparkling Canary Wharf ; the heart of London's financial district glistening as the sun went down.

Next stop was the Narrows, Gordon Ramsay's riverside pub and restaurant.  There was a real buzz outside when we got here and, rather surprisingly, we were allowed to take our glasses out onto the tow path and make the most of the evening sun.

Classic pub food was being served in a conservatory area with a river view, and while everything looked pretty tasty we were still stuffed from our lunchtime repast and just ordered a beer (and possibly some peanuts for sustenance).

Nice pint of Adnams Regatta overlooking the mouth of the Limehouse Basin.

Last stop was the Grapes In Limehouse.  Another favourite of Dickens this was the most 'local' of all the pubs we visited.  As soon as we walked through the door we could hear the banter between the bar staff and the locals.  There was a man in the corner, reading the paper, drinking ale and eating fish and chips, groups of friends meeting for drinks before dinner, and even the obligatory dog searching for dropped scratchings.

The small balcony at the back was busy so we sat in the front bar.  The upstairs of the pub has been turned into a 'posh' fish restaurant, while downstairs serves pub grub.  The food looked great and the Ewing was seriously considering fried fish round two.

By this point I'm not quite sure what we were drinking, but I know I managed a large glass of lovely rioja after my pint of ale. As it was already dark, and we were more than a little drunk, we decided to walk on down the Westferry Road to our final destination.

The lights of Canary Wharf looking across West India Dock.

Despite feeling as though we could never be hungry again after our mammoth lunch, all that drinking and walking had left us feeling a little peckish.  Luckily we found the Canary Wharf branch of Wahaca, where the chips, guacamole and pork pibil with black beans soaked up the booze perfectly.

A dish of salted caramel and chocolate ice cream to follow helped cool our tongues after all the fiery chillies.  The perfect sweet end to a lovely London day.