Thursday, 23 October 2008

cake & my best friend

i sometimes get a craving for cake and then i want something that is unusual and moist and dense all rolled into one; and with no artificial tastes lurking around. so when i and i went to books for cooks i figured we should share some guilt. the chocolate and sour cream cake did not disappoint even one bit. it didn’t crumble. instead it melted in the mouth like a molten cake. the frosting tasted nutty like a hint of peanut and was dark vanilla in colour (not the synthetic yellow) but the warm white type sans the flecks of vanilla.

if you can have perfection on a plate with two forks and a best girlfriend this is it!

Wednesday, 22 October 2008


most londoners i have met think tayyab’s when they think pakistani food. as a pakistani who has spent almost four and a half years in london i felt i must get onto the bandwagon of tayyab-ites and see for myself. one very chilly early winter evening found me negotiating east london. my first tayyab’s experience took place with two friends both of whom regard themselves as tayyab’s experts. having studied and lived locally tayyab’s has been their kitchen away from home.

but as it is turns out i had come better equipped to wait. one of the things you need to know about tayyab’s is that it’s waiting times have grown exponentially since it’s become a regular feature in all manner of cheap eat guides and newspaper reviews. in fact while you wait you have ample time to read up on tayyab’s hall of fame which takes up most of one wall of the place. even so a fifty minute wait can be taxing especially if in the course of it you are abandoned by your fellow foodies for their nicotine fix. 

once seated i had the chance to hear s’ tayyab-isms and was pleasantly surprised to note that they echoed mine. i left the old timers to order the food which arrived promptly and piping hot. there was chicken and paneer tikka followed by chicken karahi and chana’s. the paneer tikka was a disappointing affair; overdone and rubbery but the chicken tikka almost quite hit a note of home. the meat was white on the inside and drew a deep orangish color on the outside from its marinade – comfortingly close to the tikka i have known and not the pink-red executions that often make their way to tables at sub-continental eateries in london. 

i have no complaints to make of the flavor of the chana’s (chickpeas). you can tell that the ingredients are fresh and nothing has been masked by additives of curried powders or sauces. however the authenticity of the karahi was slightly dubious. karahi dishes draw their name from the dish they are cooked in. essentially this is a sub-continental version of the wok. the meat is stir fried with spices and some tomato. the karahi i have known is not saucy. it has what is known as a kharha masala (literally a reduced ‘standing’ sauce). roughly cut tomatoes are added last and stir fried just enough for them to be slightly bruised but still retain their shape – also there has to be coriander leaves and julienned ginger as garnishes. the chicken karahi we were served was halfway to a curry (and if it had been named such i’d say it was very good). the roti (bread) that came with was really good. 

as we worked our way through the food s and i deconstructed the tayyab’s experience. these are our notes – service although quick is at the same time harried. while our food was being served our table was being nudged a few spaces down to create area for movement. this is an oxymoron given the place is packed like sardines with tables. in fact it is quite marvelous as to how many seats and tables line the length of this compact space. meanwhile behind and around us snaked the queue of people waiting – the constant shuffle and movement as much as it is part of the tayyab’s experience has a subliminal effect on eating speed (i can’t doubt the tradition of this in pakistani culture as i recall evenings at zenose and jahangir where the primary sequence was order-eat-leave all in quick succession). however tayyab’s leaves you feeling harassed on account of the tightness of the space. s is right when he says that tayyab’s can be expanded space wise. 

i’d definitely say that the fact that food is piping hot is great. there is also a neatly cut plate of salad and condiment bowls as well as poppadums to munch on while you wait for the mains. for those of you who aren’t concerned with the authenticity of the dishes as well as the feeling of being rushed tayyab’s is a good choice, especially because it is fresh and filling. it’s also very reasonable. i would recommend reserving or else avoiding peak time unless you really want to do a long wait… 

83-89 fieldgate street london e1 1ju

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

lunch in the city: hiscox art café

living in london, even in these times of credit crunch, does make you wish you belonged to the shiny business world of the city. at least sometimes. as we happened to be both temporarily unemployed and have some free time on our hands, m and i decided to step in one of the shiny buildings around liverpool street to mingle with the suited crowd and, of course, indulge in some gastronomic experimentation.

m had been to the art café before, but she hadn’t quite prepared me for the delightful lunch we were about to have. the atmosphere, on the ground floor of an insurance company building, was classy if a touch disturbed by the several tv screens projecting imaged of george w. bush and desperate bankers in wall street. it’s a “café”, but a café in the city and therefore the service was attentive and polite, although a bit slow. at this point i was seriously wondering whether i would be able to afford anything more than a coffee, as it did seem all a bit out of my league. but i was soon to be reassured by the menu.

appetizers and mains were all, and i mean all, terribly tempting. i wouldn’t normally go for lamb or braised pork for a mid-week lunch, but i must admit the flavour combinations were so appealing that i did consider every single item on the menu for a few seconds. in the end, we decided to share an appetizer and a main, a grilled aubergine and courgette bruschetta with tomato fondue and the pumpkin and goats cheese tart with fennel and pine nuts. the first course was a surprise, a crunchy and aromatic slice of bread topped with perfectly cooked vegetables and surrounded by top-quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar and the smoothest tomato sauce i have had in a while. the second course, however, was a revelation. probably the best tart i have ever had. a thin layer of flawless pastry hosting a delicate but flavourful filling with a surprisingly perfect texture. each of the ingredients could be distinguished, and their excellent quality was easily recognised, but none threatened to overpower the others. the presentation was also a work of art, once again tempting me into biting carefully into one of those green leaves that i would usually just push to the side.

we decided to complete the meal with a delicious brownie, but for once the dessert was not the highlight of the day, as the memory of fresh vegetables and creamy tart was still dominant in my mind. certainly the extraordinary glass of wine that accompanied our lunch did play its part in enhancing the flavours and warming the atmosphere.

the art café owes its name to the paintings and sculptures displayed around the large bright room, but i think the level reached by its chefs in the art of cooking is what really characterises this unusual lunch option around the city. it’s much more than a lunch-break experience, as it easily falls in the category of excellent food in london, and if you need to take the afternoon off work to enjoy this place properly, so be it. it’s well worth it.

hiscox art café| 1 great st helen’s| ec3a 6hx

Monday, 13 October 2008

busaba; eat thai

busaba is one of many contemporary communal table eateries in london. it is the brainchild of yau who has bequeathed the culinary landscape with michelin starred hakkasan and yauatcha to wagamama. busaba realizes a tricky equation – of replication with originality (there are three branches and it is set to rollout a couple more) and quality at a reasonable price. of the three busaba’s around london each has its distinct personality and varying lengths of queues. i love the one in soho.

the interior is a combination of teak wood, warm light that rests just slightly about your head and woody fragrant incense. its menu is a comfortable length and experiences slight tweaks every so often – the only hiccup is that busaba’s pad thai is a tad disappointing. but then which eatery is flawless? for its lackluster pad thai busaba more than makes up with its other offerings. it’s curries in particular are mouthwateringly good. not as chili as most thai food i’ve had but it is an experience of flavors that come across in layers. you will find an assortment of lemon grass, smooth milky rich coconut, the tang of tamarind and the peppery note of red chili at the back of your throat. presentation is fuss free in glazed bowls – the wine menu isn’t extensive but it isn’t disappointing either. frankly thai chili is warm enough on its own and i usually forgo the wine for their honey and ginger tea. 

i was recently introduced to the thai calamari – it is a generous bowlful of calamari with a light crust of batter; a smattering of green peppercorns and plenty of ginger and is usually polished within seconds of its arrival. 

here are a couple of things you shouldn’t do at busaba

avoid the noodles aside from the pad kweito and try to steer clear of the tom yam talay as it is a disappointing affair with flavors that stand out like sore thumbs rather than blending together. and lastly,  avoid the jungle curry unless you want a mouth burner chili experience. 

and here is the stuff you should do
admit that pretty much all of us have been perplexed by the ying/yang indications on the toilet doors
definitely have the green curry’s as they have a lovely base
also have all things butternut squash
attempt the rose apple stir-fry. it’s got a curiously good taste that falls together with all else that goes into it – and when you close on the note of tea enjoy the crumbly softness of cashew and coconut cookies that accompany it – breathe in the woody incense and then brace yourself for capricious london weather outside.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

la fromagerie

la fromagerie found itself on our list of places to try post the first exploration of my north london neighborhood with i. our first visit to la fromagerie was an impromtu lunch. outside it was a lovely warm autumn day but inside the fromagerie we were frozen (owing to the cold drafts of chees air from the cheese room). although there is lots to choose from - there are sanwiches and tarts and tortilla's my partiality for goats cheese made it easy for me to settle on the goats cheese, red pepper and butternut squash tortilla.

i had the leek corguette and ricotta tart. we dabbled into each others choices and were more than satisfied by what we had. our lunches were accompained by some tossed greens. i who has an antagonistic relationship with all things leafy and green ventured into salad territory making it a point to tell me that she was trying the greens. but sadly a couple of forkfuls in she hit a rather bitter note (probably the arugula) and abandoned the greens – i didn’t manage to tuck into all of mine but the combination of baby spinach and arugula tossed with olive oil offset the richness of the tortilla.

we both decided to split the guilt, that is dessert. however choosing it offered up a bit of a challenge. there was polenta cake, a thick homely looking carrot loaf, cheese cake, fruit tarts with a hint of frangipani, brownies…but out of all of those it was the irregular loaf of lemon and poppy seed cake dense with flecks of poppy seeds and irregular icing that caught our fancy. i must say that i and i are lucky in that there is very little aside from leafy stuff that we don’t love in common. the lemon and poppy seed cake arrived with two spoons and a neat diagonal cut with as equitable a distribution as possible (i wonder did our server thing us incapable of sharing equally?) dessert was accompanied by a cafetière of coffee for me – a very dark roast with a smooth edge and a pot of earl grey for i. the earl grey was exquisite with a hint of sweetness (a definite addition to my repertoire of earl grey teas).
be rest assured we will be back here soon.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

THE italian restaurant

why would anyone go to arsenal for dinner? well, because the best italian restaurant in london, in my humble (italian) opinion, happens to be located in blackstock road. i haven't tried that many, as i haven't really been tempted by the menus hanging outside most doors. at this point, however, i don't see why i should look any further and suffer more overcooked pasta, ridiculous combinations of ingredients and tiramisù made with whipped cream. i have found my italian restaurant in london.

our perfect sunday

sunny days in september are a prized rarity for any londoner. last sunday, it was sunny and warm, i needed to reconcile myself with the comforts of london after a month spent travelling around india and my best friend was happy to join me for a lazy day of art, shopping and, naturally, food explorations. i couldn't have asked for more...the perfect day was served. 

we started at fernandez and wells in beak street, a lazy and empty road on the borders of soho. i walked in dreaming of a classic italian breakfast, a simple croissant or a slice of cake, but the artistically arranged display tickled my appetite. after much debate, i went for an extra-large croissant filled with comté cheese, tomatoes and thickly-sliced ham, my best friend being slightly braver with a montgomery cheese and leek toast. as we waited for tea, coffee and food we found our spot by the window and soaked in the sunday morning atmosphere, uncluttered white walls behind us, sunlit pavement in front of our eyes, the smell of good food and a newspaper on the table. everything called for a slow pace and we were more than happy to indulge in girly conversations over excellent food. 

as the day moved on, we felt the need to feed our brains with some art at the photographers' gallery and some people watching around covent garden. a lot of walking and chatting later, we felt we deserved a we headed to scoop, back in the heart of covent garden, for a proper italian ice-cream in honour of the last summery day of the year. i had been looking forward to trying scoop, as it does appear to offer the most authentic italian ice-cream in london. the nocciola tonda delle langhe and pistacchio puro di bronte are flavours that remind me of classy gelaterie at home and i was therefore eager to see if the taste would live up to the names. walking into the shop was already an italian experience, the colours and the decor credible, the selection of cones and waffles familiar. only the orderly queue signalled the central-london location. overall, we could have been on a busy italian street, but in that case it wouldn't have been the best ice-cream parlour in town. the ice-cream turned out to be a bit watery, lacking the creaminess i was craving, but i'll suspend my judgement til my next visit (and therefore the next summer), as that might have depended on my slightly unconventional choice of flavours. 

while heading back to my best friend's old neighbourhood, if only to pop in our favorite kennard's and have a chat about the impossibility of meeting eligible bachelors in london, we realised it was still too early to part and put an end to our perfect day. so we enjoyed the luxury of a bus and returned to where we had started from, finally ticking a meal in china town off our “list of 101 things to do in london”. as we were trying to keep it classical, we went straight to gerrard street and quickly picked golden dragon, which we had never tried before but had heard about. having to wait five minutes to be seated in a half-empty restaurant seemed slightly bizarre, but wasn't such a big deal. the atmosphere was old-style china town, big rooms, plain decor, stained tablecloths and loud customers. which is exactly what we were hoping for. the dinner satisfied all our chinese food cravings, with the right balance of greasiness and spiciness, big plates who didn't make us feel ashamed of mixing prawns, chicken and noodles in the same meal. 

perfect days cannot be repeated, but london offers so much that i'm sure we'll find another fantastic selection of cafes and restaurants to sit in on our next lazy sunday. in the meantime, menus do tend to be repetitive, so i'll soon be going back to fernandez & wells or golden dragon for some more good food and relaxing times.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

fernandez and wells: food and wine bar

a rainy and washed out saturday evening found a friend of mine and i in the heart of soho. as usual i had forgotten my a to z and despite countless visits to soho i had as usual got my bearings all mixed up. however it was not long before we had made our way to lexington street. the window of fernandez and wells (wine and food bar) has large carcasses hanging in it. the place smells of a combination of salty cured meat, cheese and a hint of smoke from those standing in the doorway indulging in their nicotine fix.

we both ordered olives that were served up in a little glass stacked in another glass that was to be used for discarding of the stones. the olives themselves were fat, their skins glistening with olive oil. we ate them speared on toothpicks. the rioja wine that we chose to accompany them was lovely – it was rich without being too heavy and despite its fruity flavor it was not sweet.
it was perfect for a chilly evening.

despite the small size of the place it was comfortable and we all managed to sit perched on stools or stand without bumping into each other. the pace of the bar is busy and you will find yourself waiting around…my next visit will have to include a sample of the platters, possibly the one with cheddar cheese, apple chutney and slices of pear.

Fernandez & Wells on Urbanspoon

Friday, 3 October 2008

italian with an italian

this is an add-on to i’s post 'the italian restaurant'. i and my friendship coincided with a lack of italian restaurants. out of friendship faithfulness i ceased to visit italian eateries hence the shock when on i’s first visit to my neighborhood she declared trying out il bacio – a local italian restaurant near my flat on blackstock road. we followed this up on a friday night on the close of an eventful week for both of us girls since we had both received positive work related news. 

we exchanged notes over a three course meal kicking of with a thick dime of goats cheese (warmed and melting), asparagus spears and pears. i followed mine with an all time favorite – spaghetti vongole with grey mullet roe. the clams were soft and flavorful served on a bed of spaghetti that was done just right. the olive oil had a strong taste with an addition of herbs, the roe on top added to the layers of textures and tastes. i soaked up the remaining juices and olive oil with bread from the pizza oven. at this point we didn’t think we could proceed further into foodie heaven but the tiramisu proved us wrong the description of which is done full justice in the italian. the italian restaurant does more justice to the food...