Thursday, December 08, 2011


Children in restaurants are a controversial topic.
In my bit of East London, they are pretty much everywhere -- I even spotted a sleeping baby at an open mic night in the basement of a local cocktail bar. In places with a different demographic they can be less welcome.
I wouldn't take mine to, say, the Fat Duck, Le Gavroche or the local old man's boozer. But in a cafe in the daytime, I reckon it's fair game. A girl has to eat, after all.
As someone who's never been a huge fan of (other people's) children, I am, however, very self conscious about taking the baby places and perhaps have an overactive imagination when it comes to public disapproval.
So it's possible that the hostility I felt in Notes in Covent Garden was entirely my own perception -- maybe the server was just having a bad day -- but I felt it acutely nonetheless.
It looked much like any other modern cafe: coffee in small glasses, a large wooden bar/counter and posh-looking sandwiches for around a fiver each. A later, closer inspection revealed aspirations for higher things with bottles of wine and a (presumably trendy) music shop downstairs.
The guy behind the counter glanced at me and the pushchair with about as much enthusiasm as at the homeless guy who walked in before me. To be fair, the baby was on the grumpy side.
There wasn't much in the way of a detailed food menu, possibly because the offerings change regularly. I would have liked more information, more detailed answers to my questions about the fare on offer on the counter. Like to be told that the sausage rolls weren't just the ordinary kind, but pork and apple. I would have ordered them then. Or to be given the option of having some salad with the sandwich I hastily chose in the end, as other customers were later (admittedly by a different server). As I say, it could have been my imagination, but the guy seemed pretty impressed when I said I was eating in. He did offer to bring my coffee and sandwich to me (I don't know if this is what they normally do), but in the end this just meant I ended up having to queue a second time in order to pay (resisting the urge to sneak out).
When he appeared with the order, I asked if I could also have a mandarinade, which I'd spotted on the board in the meantime, and which had intrigued me. He said yes, but this never appeared, even though there was a lull in customers while I was eating.

The sandwich was nice -- silky, salty goats cheese with velvety aubergines and the sweet tang of (I think) onion marmalade. It was a little over-peppered though, and some cutlery would have been nice to scoop up the filling and cut through the crusty bread. The coffee was fine, but the entire experience left a bit of a sour taste. Back in the fresh air, I continued towards Covent Garden, stumbling on the bustling Real Food Market, which I discovered to be a regular Thursday occurrence. I wish I'd eaten there instead.
Notes could be a good place for music, and you could definitely do worse if you are looking for a quick bite or drink in the area, but I'd give it a miss if you are with a baby.

Notes, 36 Wellington St, Covent Garden, WC2E 7BD; Tel. 02072407899;

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Potato Gratin -- Cheat's Dauphinoise

When it comes to cooking at home, I am not much of a traditionalist and I am a big fan of short cuts and time-savers.
A real, pedigree gratin dauphinois is made in the South East of France with impossibly thin slivers of raw spuds, slathered in milk and cream and baked in the oven for an hour or more with delicious results. In the neighbouring Savoie they make it even better by adding cheese.
At home in East London, I do not possess a mandolin -- or much patience. This means that on the few occasions when I have tried raw potato bakes (such as the gratin dauphinois, or its stock-based cousin, potatoes boulangere), they have come out burnt on the top and al-dente in the middle.
My salvation came in the unlikely source of a Russian magazine, which suggested cooking the potatoes in a mixture of cream and cream first (a method I letter heard is also favoured by Nigella).
Serve with some greens (spinach, salad, etc), either on its own or as an accompaniment to beef (roast, steak or even carpaccio) or gammon.

Serves 2-4, depending on appetites and how much other stuff you serve with it
600g potatoes
1/2 pint milk
200g double cream (or creme fraiche)
garlic, nutmeg, pepper, salt
200g cheese (Gruyere or Beaufort for Savoyard authenticity, but cheddar also works)

Slice the potatoes as thinly as your patience and kitchen implements allow. Preheat oven to 120 degrees.
Mix the milk and the cream in a pan, add chopped garlic and potatoes, season with nutmeg and pepper. Bring to the boil. Add potatoes, turn down heat and simmer for about 10 minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, layer out the potatoes into a gratin dish.
Pour over the milk/cream and top with grated cheese. Cook in the oven for about 20 minutes, until the top is golden with melted cheesy goodness.
Bon appétit.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

John Charlick

Many moons ago, I was a young graduate working near Chancery Lane.
The smoky old-man boozer where we used to go on Friday nights is now an airy gastro pub, and the cafe where I bought my morning croissant and coffee for 99 pence is long gone.
But one local institution is still going strong -- John Charlick.
It's a tiny deli, serving sandwiches and salads to lawyers and other locals for three decades worth of lunchtimes.

I was pleased to see that my favourite mackrel pate is still on the short menu. Spread thickly on rye bread it still tasted absolutely divine.
There are a couple of tables outside, but Gray's Inn Road isn't the prettiest spot. If you have kids, grab your sandwich and head to Coram's Fields, a seven acre playground and park in to which adults are only allowed if accompanied by a minor. Or, for a more serene atmosphere, head to Gray's Inn Field.

John Charlick, 142 Gray's Inn Road, Holborn, WC1X 8AX; Tel.
020 7278 9187

John Charlick Foods on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Cheese, mushroom and bacon tart

Forget sliced bread. The best food invention ever was ready-made pastry.
With its arrival, any random fridge/cupboard ingredients can be turned into PIE with minimum effort. Pies always look impressive (especially if made in my giant pie dish), go down well with guests and can be cooked in the oven -- all winning attributes in my book.
In terms of filling, pretty much anything goes -- this is an approximate breakdown of a pie (or, strictly speaking, a tart) I made this week for a games night, which reminds me of another pie bonus -- it can be eaten with your hands so is a good snack/buffet food.

Serves 4

1 pack shortcrust pastry
1 punnet of mushrooms
2 onions
150g stilton
150g cheddar
4 rashers of bacon
200g Greek yoghurt (you could also use single cream, sour cream or creme fraiche)
2 eggs
salt, pepper, herbs (I used rosemary and sage)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Butter your pie dish and line it with pastry. Top with baking beans and bake for about 10 minutes.
Chop and fry the onions, bacon and mushrooms until cooked. You could also add garlic, celery, spinach -- anything you like really.
Beat together the eggs with the yoghurt and add the seasoning.
Layer the onions, bacon and mushrooms over the pastry (remove the baking beans first!).
Scatter over the grated cheese. Top with the yoghurt and egg mixture.
Return to the oven for another 20 minutes or so until cooked and browned on top.
Serve with salad or some form of cooked greens.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Chilango: plus ça change....

In the three years we were away from London much has changed (like the arrival of Boris bikes and hundreds of new cyclists on the roads) and much has stayed the same (like the seemingly interminable escalator closures at Bank). Favourite restaurants have shut, but new gems have sprung up. Some changes though have been, at most, skin-deep.
Chilango was a new name on Angel's main drag, attracting long queues of office workers on weekday lunchtimes whenever I passed it.
Not a fan of queues, I am nonetheless intrigued by their destinations and resolved to check the place out on a quieter day.

Inside, I was struck by deja vu.
Turns out that Chilango is a name-changed, redecorated Mucho Mas, which I reviewed 3 years ago. The same owners, the same Subway-style production line, the same free water and expensive Negro Modello, the same extra charge for guacamole (£1). The menu is broadly along the same lines, offering the choice of burritos, tacos, salad or totopos. I went for the latter as I liked the name :-)
The internet suggests totopos are a slightly different type of cornflour flatbread, but here the dish consisted of tortilla chips topped with black beans, lettuce, cheese, sour cream and chicken (£6.30). The online menu also mentions salsa, but I don't recall any and can't spot it on the photo either. It really wasn't great, coming across as a bland and soggy mess, despite the kick of the chilli. May be I should have gone for the burrito, but for that kind of money, I'd say it was a disappointing rip off.
Seems sometimes queues are wrong.

Chilango, 27 Upper Street, Islington, N1 0PN; Tel. 020 7704 2123
Chilango on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Squash Soup

My bookshelf is lined with a dozen or more cookbooks, resplendent with artful photos and names of acclaimed chefs. I love to browse through them, but it is a couple of tattered, old volumes that I come to most often when I am actually cooking.
One of them is Simply Different by Sarah Woodward. Given to me by my mother-in-law, it is 17 years old, out of print and contains not a single picture. And yet, I turn to it time and time again for inspiration and very modern-tasting dishes.
I like how the book is arranged by ingredient, offering inspiration when you find, say, a bunch of sorry-looking carrots at the back of your fridge, a squash in your veggie box or a cheerful sole at your fishmonger's.
This is my version of the pumpkin soup recipe -- perfect for a dreary day.

Serves 4 as a lunch or a hearty starter

900g squash (or pumpkin)
1 large onion
3 sticks celery
3 cloves of garlic
1 litre of chicken stock
200g Greek yoghurt
salt, black pepper

Chop the onion, the celery and the garlic. Fry on a moderate heat for about 10 minutes, with a little oil.
Peel the squash, remove any seeds. Cut into cubes and add to the pan. Stir well before adding the stock. Bring to the boil, then simmer for about 30 minutes until the squash is tender.
Blitz with a blender. Stir through the yoghurt and season with plenty of black pepper. Add salt if necessary (but you may not need to, depending on how salty your stock is).
Serve with bread.

(The original omits the yoghurt, adds olive oil and parmesan and serves the soup with slices of toasted garlic ciabatta to line the bowls.)

Monday, November 21, 2011

Breakfast at Carluccio's

To me, they are a completely alien species.
They don't appear to have the live alarm clocks in the shape of kids, nor do they seem to have come from the early morning church service. And yet there they are, at 10am on a Sunday, queueing -- yes queueing -- for breakfast. I honestly don't know if they've always been there or if it's a new trend. Pre-baby, I was rarely if ever out at that time on a Sunday morning.
In Islington, they have pretty good taste, snaking along Camden Passage outside the Breakfast Club, or further up Upper Street, crowding into Ottolenghi. Both serve good food but I would question whether either is worth queueing for (especially if you consider that people rarely rush their Sunday breakfasts, so you could be waiting for quite a while).
I do hunger badly and possibly do queueing even worse. So we went to Carluccio's, which, mercifully, had plenty of free tables.

From the fairly compact breakfast menu I chose the eggs benedict (£7.65). The yolk in the poached eggs was golden and beautifully runny, the ham was thick and flavoursome and the hollandaise was quite passable. I am not sure why they put olive oil on the bread but it didn't really harm the dish.

The husband went for scrambled eggs and mushrooms on toast (£6.75). Carluccio's does mushrooms especially well (I love their mushroom pasta) and this time they also didn't disappoint.
The coffee was a little bitter for my taste, but it was nothing that a bit of sugar couldn't fix.
The service was quick, the baby was asleep and there were plenty of Sunday papers to linger over -- bliss that you don't have to queue for.

Carluccio's, 305-307 Upper Street, Islington, N1 2TU; Tel. 020 7359 8167;