Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Blaggers Banquet - prep talk

The blogosphere has been buzzing with Blaggers' Banquet talk lately.  In case you missed it, last Sunday 50 food and wine bloggers took over Hawksmoor restaurant in London in a huge charity blogging event.  We blagged and blagged til our slippery tongues could blag no more.  All the ingredients for the dinner, the wine, the goodie bags and a fantastic selection of auction prizes were blagged from our PR contacts.  We then sold tickets, all in aid of Action Against Hunger.

After a couple of weeks gathering support from our very generous contacts, the big day finally came.  I arrived bright and early at Hawksmoor, to find the place full - of food, bloggers and wine.  Vegetables and fruit needed sorting, the menu needed last minute tweaks to accommodate ingredients we thought we had, goody bags needed stuffing and auction prizes sorting.
The vegetable spread from Riverford was particularly impressive, if muddy, and I spent part of the morning dicing with death (or at least nicked fingers) making parsnip crisps on the mandoline.

Goody bags were very good indeed - absolutely packed with treats generously provided by our PR pals.

Lizzie (or @Hollowlegs) and I will be forever after known as the Greasy Gougeres Girls, after a slightly disturbing and slippery encounter with a choux-filled cheesy pastry bag.

Denise and Billy kept a close eye (or should that be nose?) on the wine.

I was gutted to have to go home before the event really kicked off, but from the photos (all taken by @Foodbymark), I can rest safe in the thought that the diners all had a great time.

The fun doesn't stop there though.  Our auction, with some truly fantastic prizes like tasting menus, chocolate tastings and more, is currently running on Ebay and more prizes will be drip-fed as the weeks go on.  The perfect place for a foodie friend's Christmas present, or maybe just a treat for yourself!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Westerly, Reigate

Westerly mackerel

The Westerly is a bit of a local favourite. With a bib gourmand under its belt since 2008, it is a modern British bistro run by husband and wife team Jon and Cynthia Coomb.

Praise has been heaped on the Westerly since it opened in 2007, with even Jay Rayner and Simon Majumdar trekking down from London to review it.

Jay described it as “stunning” while Simon pronounced it “almost flawless”.  And I am lucky enough to live just 5 minutes down the road from it.

Of course this wasn't the first time I had been to The Westerly. I'd just always been too lazy to blog about it, preferring to keep relaxed Surrey food to myself and leave the photo snapping and criticism for nights out at the big boys in London.

But, I decided, the time had come. Starting to feel a bit jaded with all the faddy, pop up, underground, “latest concept” new openings in the big smoke, it was quite a revelation to be tucking into honest, non-fancy but very, very good food.

It was a horrible rainy night outside, but as we entered the cosy dining room we felt immediately at home.

I sipped on my apertif of prosecco with pomegranate and perused the menu. There's always a variation of pig's head croquette, and tonight was no exception, but I decided to try something I wouldn't normally have. I went for mackerel with granny smith apple and curry oil. The presentation was simple, the mackerel smokey and rich, with the apple giving a tart sweetness and the curry oil adding some heat to this perfectly rounded dish.

Westerly confit duck

The main course was more problematic, leaving me stumped as to whether to have duck or crisp belly of pork. On Cynthia's advice, I went for the duck confit and roast magret with potatoes and chorizo. I wasn't convinced about the chorizo-duck combination, but the chorizo was scarce enough for it not to be a worry. The confit leg was absolute perfection – golden crispy skin and succulent meat that fell off the bone at the mere thought of eating it. The magret was pink and tasty, and it was all served in an earthily savoury jus. The roast rump of lamb with pesto and gnocchi was also pronounced a success by my husband.

Sherry & raisin jelly

Pudding was the real climax of the evening though, and The Westerly will probably take prime position on the leaderboard in Pudding of the Year, so far. While my hubby went for the Westerly's old faithful, chocolate malt ice cream with a peanut butter cookie, I tried a new addition to the menu. The Pedro Ximenez and raisin jelly with burnt almond cream was true dessert genius. It came served with a buttery almond biscuit, wrapped up in waxed paper, which I greedily dipped into the topping. The jelly was studded with huge, plump, sherry-soaked raisins which tempered perfectly with the sweet foamy cream. Heaven.

Apart from the great food there are several other lovely things about The Westerly. They serve a good selection of wines in carafes of 350ml and 500ml, plus lovely dessert wines by the glass. They also do an excellent line in hot cocktails (also known as boozy coffee / hot chocolate). I finished my evening off with a hot chocolate with cognac, which set me up for a great night's sleep.

The bill came to just under £100 for two, excluding service but including two apertifs, one 500ml carafe of pinot noir, two glasses of dessert wine, one coffee and one hot chocolate with cognac.

The Westerly
2-4 London Road, Regiate, Surrey RH2 9AN
01737 222733

Westerly hot chocolate

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Blaggers' Banquet!

On November 15th, London's Food & Drink Bloggers will be taking over Hawksmoor, the revered steakhouse in Liverpool St, for the Blaggers’ Banquet.  The Blaggers’ Banquet will be an exciting 5 course dinner with matched drinks, created entirely by the bloggers, and using only food and drink that we have blagged. All proceeds will go to Action Against Hunger.

Bloggers will be the cooks and the sommeliers, front of house and the prep folk, the kitchen porters and the cleaner uppers. We’ll staff the bar, make the cocktails and make the coffee, and best of all diners can review us when we are done. 

The Banquet meu details will be revealed on the night, expect 5 lovely courses with drinks and lots of fun.  I'm on the canapes section, so watch out for those!

Buy your tickets here: Tickets

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fernandez & Leluu

F&L soup
Underground restaurants are definitely the latest big thing, although the trend actually hit British shores over 9 months ago when the mysterious MsMarmiteLover started her supper club in Kilburn. The scene seems to have really captured the media's imagination recently. Whether it be incompetent restauranteurs making a meal of it in their own homes or in front of Raymond Blanc, duff amateur cooking seems to be too good a TV opportunity to pass up. But what would be the reality of underground dining - great food at bargain prices in a relaxed environment or incompetent fame-seekers jumping on the latest bandwagon?

Deciding we had gone long enough without trying this new craze, and with some trepidation after watching last week's The Restaurant, we set off on the journey from rural Surrey to trendy Hackney.

Fernandez & Leluu is run by Uyen and Simon from a secret location about a mile from Bethnal Green tube. As we arrived at 7.30, our coats were taken by the smiley Uyen, we were plied with wine and shown to our table. There were twenty of us in the room, which was decked out beautifully with twinkly little tealights, charmingly mismatched crockery and flowers.

At 8pm we started our 6 courses with a hot and sour soup of catfish, tomato and pineapple. Uyen warned us to watch the bones, which was certainly good advice. The soup was fragrant and light, with lashings of coriander.  We settled in, feeling relieved that Simon obviously could cook.

Terriyaki frogs legs came with a shot of basil seed in sugar water (frog spawn). The meat was perfectly tender and lightly marinaded in a sticky umami-rich coating. The frog spawn was all looks and no flavour, but we appreciated the halloweeny touch.
F&L frog legs
It was now 9.30, and we were served with beautifully presented spring rolls, which were quite simply the best I have ever had. Apparently the virtuous Simon and Uyen had been up til 1.30am the previous night making them, and their efforts had clearly paid off. The wrappings were crisp and the interior was absolutely stuffed with sweet prawns, pork, black fungus and glass noodles.

F&L spring rolls

Next was tuna sashimi, served with chips in a witty take on the British classic. The fish was fantastic quality, served in juicy cubes with a light soy marinade. The chips were Hind's Head worthy, well seasoned and perfectly crispy.

F&L sashimi & chips

Sashimi swallowed, and we were served with some delicious seared beef and sugarsnap peas.  The meat was top quality and melted in the mouth.
F&L beef

By 11pm we were tucking into red chicken & squash curry with rice - this was less spectacular but still very tasty. So tasty in fact, that I forgot to take a photo until I had almost finished!

F&L remainder of curry

F&L waitress & green tea

We finally finished course number six, green tea ice cream with a crunchy ginger shortbread, at 12.20am, 5 hours after we had arrived. Fernandez & Leluu is by no means fast food, so be prepared to take your time (and plan your transport accordingly). The quality of cooking is fantastic though, and as they say, good things come to those who wait.

As it was we hailed a cab to Victoria, ran for the 1am train and were safely back to the 'burbs and tucked up in bed by 2am. Fernandez & Leluu has certainly won me over to underground dining, and if only I lived a little closer I would definitely be a regular.

Fernandez & Leluu
Somewhere in Hackney

Suggested donation £30

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Gourmet San

Gourmet San

Gourmet San is the stuff of foodie legend. World class szechuan cuisine? Check. Gritty East London location? Check. Huge portions? Check. Rock bottom prices? Check.

After a disappointing time at Polpo, it was a relief to find that budget food in London can be tasty and great value. Gourmet San is clean and simple, with service swift and as friendly as could be expected with little language in common. But the food, oh the food!

The highlight had to be the heap of crab studded with chillies and szechuan peppercorns. It was a messy business (and seemingly impossible with chopsticks), but the spicy white meat that we chewed, sucked and slurped out of the shells was worth the effort.

Crab in hot spicy sauce

Old Place Sauteed Crab in Hot Spicy Sauce £12

The sauteed shredded beef was a star anise infused delight, generously sized and bursting with tongue-tingling chunks of hot green chilli.

Beef and spinach
Sauteed Shredded Beef Fillet with Hot Pepper £7
Fried Spinach in Garlic Sauce £7 (in background)

Pig tendons (a random choice) were more problematic, although what meat I could detach from the sticky lumps of bone was savoury and gelatinous. Don't attempt these with chopsticks either, especially if you're wearing a white shirt.

Pig tendons
Pig's Tendon with Spicy Salt £7

The vegetarian dishes were also successful. We tried the tofu with chives and bean sprouts, not as spicy as some of the other dishes but very moreish. Spinach was served in the sort of pungent sauce that leaves you still garlicky 48 hours later.

Chives & beansprouts with tofu
Sauteed Hotbed Chives & Bean Sprouts with Dried Tofu £7

Rice never arrived, but to be honest we didn't care and left feeling well fed and looking forward to our next visit. The whole lot came in at £55 for four, including 4 beers and a pot of green tea.

Gourmet San
261 Bethnal Green Road, London E2 6AH
020 7729 8388
Gourmet San on Urbanspoon

Monday, November 2, 2009

Gordon Ramsay's World Kitchen

Gordon Ramsay's latest book, launched to coincide with the new series of The F Word, is a whistlestop tour of ten of the world's cuisines.  The book starts in France (of course) and ends in the USA, via the Middle East, Thailand, China, India, Spain, Italy, Greece and Britain.

It would be easy to dismiss this as the latest output from the GR marketing machine, 10 cuisines in 100 recipes is hardly in depth, but as I read on I realised there was a lot of technical information in the book and the techniques were clearly explained.

The recipes are simple, but not simplistic, which makes this book perfect for either a keen beginner or a more experienced cook who wants to expand their repertoire.  Gordon wants us to try souffle, make our own dim sum wrappers and blend Thai curry paste.  These aren't quick after-work suppers, but labours of love for a Sunday afternoon.
I tried three recipes from the book, purposely avoiding the European cuisines that Gordon is typically associated with.  The US rump steak with beer and onion gravy was simple and full of flavour, the sesame ice cream was outstandingly nutty and moreish (the remainder is in my freezer, awaiting a chocolate fondant to be paired with) and the red braised pork belly was time consuming but delicious, with a spicy, savoury kick.

Of course, any book like this is never going to be specialised, but if you're intimidated by the fad for weighty, specialised tomes like the Silver Spoon and you're in a bit of a cooking rut, this could be the book for you.  I also think it would be great for dinner party ideas, as each section has a couple of recipes you could use for a starter, a main and a dessert.

In World Kitchen, Gordon lets you try a little bit of everything, and to be honest, when the recipes taste this good you can't really complain. 
GR's red braised pork
My attempt at Red Braised Pork

Gordon Ramsay's World Kitchen is published by Quadrille and costs £20.