Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The East London Line

The all-new and improved East London Line is due to reopen later this year.  As someone who's had the pleasure these last couple of years of watching, hearing - and occasionally when they've had the really big bits of kit out, feeling through my feet - Haggerston station rise up out of the old derelict railway lines opposite my front door, I've had more reason than most to ponder the changes it will bring.  Personally, the first one that springs to mind is that the usual dawn chorus of sirens, horns and screeching brakes that gently lulls me from the warm embrace of sweet deep slumber will be enhanced by honking great trains grinding to a halt outside my bedroom window.

Starting at the top of the line, Dalston has a great community of Turkish restaurants that deserve to become more well known.  Some are already quite well known like Mangal and Testi but all of them are excellent places for cheap and casual meals of genuine quality, something that London doesn't do too well generally speaking, one of the reasons the little community of Vietnamese places more easily reached at the bottom of Kingsland Road are so packed out.

The ELL will be also be connecting Dalston's mind-boggling, jaw-dropping and frankly scary Ridley Road market with the rest of the universe.  This riotous stretch of road is mainly food stalls, much of it African and West Indian with random outposts of pretty much everything else in between.  

There's always something open 24 hours but Thursday, Friday and Saturday seem to be the main days and on Saturdays the place makes Borough Market look like an unpopular library.

Hackney seems to have more than its fair share of London's supper clubs/underground restaurants that have popped up in the last year, they all seem to be thriving still.  Dalston station and Haggerston (one stop down and still thwarting attempts to sex it up as SoDa) station make the majority of them a lot more accessible.  Water House, the uber-eco-warrior restaurant sibling of Acorn House sited on the Regent's canal, is also short walk from Haggerston station.

I don't think what really puts people off visiting all these places in darkest Hackney is getting there, I think what really torpedoes nascent visiting plans is the thought of how the hell they're going to get out of there after a night out and get home again.  When you're more likely to see Operation Trident than a cab for hire, late night bus-hunting is a pretty unappealing prospect and I think that's going to be the real value of the ELL in people's minds.

Next stop down is Hoxton nestling in the back streets behind the impressively bonkers Geffrye Museum (with its herb garden open from April - October, herb fans) right at the top end of the strip of bustling, cheap and cheerful Vietnamese restaurants that define this strip of Kingsland Road all the way down to the Old St/Hackney Rd/Shoreditch High St crossroads.  Several of them (including the super-popular Cay Tre down on Old St) have just completed total interior design makeovers, now looking a lot more upmarket.  Whether this is a general trend in anticipation of a lot more traffic once the ELL opens up, a reaction maybe to Busaba's arrival in the area or just a coincidence I've no idea but they're starting to look a lot smarter.  This part of town is hardly going to be affected much by any additional exposure although maybe Loong Kee Cafe will get some more of the attention it deserves, it's the last place on the strip past Song Que and right next to the Geffrye Museum itself and is very much one of the best of the lot to my mind but misses most of the passing trade.

Continuing south the next stop is the mammoth Shoreditch High St station, looking more like a birthing chamber for gigantic lego blocks than a train station, providing quick and easy access to Brick Lane, Spitalfields and Shoreditch another few thousand South London bodies won't make much difference to the crowds already here.

Next down is Whitechapel and Shadwell and the quality Pakistani/Punjabi restaurant enclave between them, most notably Lahore Kebab House and Tayyabs and now Needoo although there are plenty of other options that, much like the Turkish restaurants in Dalston, offer high quality meals out for fantastic value.  There have been 2 or 3 new openings of these restaurants up Commercial St in the last few months too, again whether this is coincidence or anticipation of the ELL bringing in the punters or even the Olympic redevelopment that's reshaping so much of this area, I don't know.

Continuing south and getting dangerously close to having to cross the river now, the next stop is Wapping.  I'm not sure how much the good citizens of Wapping will notice their underground station finally coming back on line, walking round large parts of it you could be forgiven for thinking most of them have someone to drive them everywhere.  The wonderful Wapping Food will no doubt be glad of service resuming though.

Bracing ourselves and heading through the famous tunnel under the river our next stop is Rotherhithe.  This is a rather different Rotherhithe to the one that the old ELL closed its doors on, it's regeneration a-go-go around here but I'll be happy to scoot down and pay a visit to the ancient, rickety old riverside Mayflower pub and its characterful restaurant upstairs. 

Heading further south from here and it all gets a bit vague for me, Canada Water is the next stop then Surrey Quays, both of which I know well enough to not particularly want to go back there, then in one direction we hit New Cross and off into Brockley, Honor Oak towards West Croydon and Crystal Palace.  God knows what you can find in that direction, it's just a big "Here Be Dragons" on my mental map.  The other direction takes us through perpetually up-and-coming Peckham and Peckham Rye (a bit like Ridley Road but not quite so Bosch) and trawling through more of South London's nether regions up to Clapham Junction.  

It'll be nice to be able to check out new places though.  From my point of view any of the places south of Whitechapel are currently such a faff that it would take something out of the ordinary to get me there.  At the very least it'll be comforting to know wherever it is, getting the hell out and back home will be quicker and easier.

Last week Balfour Beatty handed over what they've done to TfL and a limited service of 4 trains per hour between Dalston and New Cross is expected to start running on April 4th (assuming nothing goes titsup with TfL's testing between now and then, I can confirm the tannoy at Haggerston is working loud and clear) with full service of 12 trains per hour between Dalston and West Croydon/Crystal Palace not expected to happen till around the end of May.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The St John Bacon Sandwich

St John Bread & Wine in Spitalfields is the younger sibling of the original St John in Smithfield.  Although following the same philosophy of nose-to-tail eating and simple dishes made from impeccable ingredients it's not just a clone of the mothership, the most obvious difference being the menu style.  Rather than dividing their food up into starters and mains there's just one big daily changing list of dishes, the majority of them smaller ones chiming in around £5-8 with a handful of larger ones usually in the £12-15 bracket encouraging a more relaxed, mix-and-match-and-sharing approach to ordering and the atmosphere and service is accordingly more informal than back at base.  They tend to be a bit more experimental here too, but the biggest difference is that for an hour or two each morning B&W opens for breakfast.  There are always a few different things on the breakfast menu but you don't need to bother reading it, the one thing that's always on it is their monumental bacon sandwich.

If you know anything about St John and Fergus Henderson then your expectations for the humble bacon butty will probably be extremely high and at £5.40 a go if you didn't have any expectations you will now, mainly along the lines of "this had better be bloody good".  Happily what turns up is not only the best bacon sarnie you're likely to find in London it's also about the size of your head.

Three reasons it's this good: the bacon, the bread and how they cook it.  It almost goes without saying that the bacon is as good as it gets, proper slices of Old Spot back bacon that are juicy and extremely tasty, not the dry shrivelled vehicles for delivering vast quantities of salt and preservatives that often pass for bacon.  The bread is fresh from their own on-site open bakery that you can peer into from the restaurant.  Proper bakeries aren't too common in London unfortunately, there are a few good ones around but to my mind nothing beats the fantastic bread produced here, especially the sourdoughs.  You can wander in just to buy individual loaves and other goodies over the counter.

The bacon's cooked and the bread toasted on big open flame grill; you can see the pleasing scorch marks on the meat and the bread, and you can taste the satisfying gentle charred smokeyness.  They make it look so simple, but if you've ever tried toasting bread on a bbq you'll probably know how easy it is to get it all wrong, you either get the outside black and burnt and the inside barely warm or if it's spent too long on a non-incinerating part of the grill then it becomes dessicated just when you're not looking, your slice of bread suddenly takes on the texture of a brittle biscuit.

When Canteen opened up across the road from B&W in Spitalfields market they tried to ape the St John bacon sandwich - quality bacon, posh bread, all on an open grill - and they couldn't get the bread right, it kept turning up with that biscuity thing going on.  Biting into your bacon butty to have the bread shatter into hard, sharp pieces, half of it on the table with bits of bacon and sauce, the other half cutting up the insides of your mouth is not pleasant.  They seem to have gone the other way now, the last bacon sandwich I had in Canteen was made with 'plastic' ready-sliced bread with streaky bacon (not properly crisped up, argh) which some people will tell you is how a bacon sandwich should be made.  These are people who have never had the St John bacon sandwich.

The other vital ingredient for a bacon sandwich is the sauce to go with it, and at B&W you get a little pot on the side of home-made tomato ketchup.  The lack of HP sauce may make some people want to cry but you should try it, it works fabulously.  You don't want so much on that it gets in the way of the sandwich, I think the only reason there's such a tradition of dousing HP sauce everywhere is to try and make sandwiches made with the aforementioned shitty bacon actually taste of something.  There's always Canteen over the road if you can't eat one without HP.

The bacon sandwich window only exists between 9 and 11am weekdays, 10-11 at weekends.  I did hear a rumour that they were going to expand this and open a bit earlier but that doesn't seem to have happened.  At 11 all the staff sit down in the restaurant and have a big communal lunch which is fun to watch.  It does mean however that they're not shy about slamming shut the bacon butty window with the apparently starving chefs seeming to have their watches set a few minutes fast.  Between 11 and 12 they serve an elevenses menu which usually consists of seed cake and a glass of Madeira which is very pleasant but it's no substitute for a bacon sandwich if you're 5 minutes late.

Most hangovers are pretty powerless against such a beast, but if you're really struggling ask for a Dr Henderson.  It's not on the menu, it's a drink made with Fernet Branca - an Italian liquer full of herbs - and creme de menthe named after Fergus Henderson's father.  It's the last thing you want to see - it's bright green - let alone drink if you're suffering from the previous night's excesses but oh boy does it work.  Drink it all down in as few goes as possible then just give it a minute or two to get your sight back and for the shaking and spasms and facial tics to stop, once the colour's returned to your cheeks you'll be ready to meet the rest of the day with a smile on your face.  Although don't try driving or operating machinery.  You'll occasionally see a Dr Henderson Ice Cream on the dessert menu which I find somewhat terrifying.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

January Cocktails: Lounge Bohemia

Nothing sticks two fingers up to January's faddy exercise plans and hollow attempts at self-improvement quite like cocktails, and nowhere does cocktails quite like Lounge Bohemia.  In fact nowhere else does anything quite like them.  It's a pretty difficult place to just stumble upon, the entrance being an anonymous doorway on the unloved bottom stretch of Great Eastern Street, full of people hurrying through on their way to somewhere else.  Their website is much the same, just an address and a phone number on it - no spiel trying to tempt you to visit, no menu, no gushing quotes and comments from customers, no map, no opening times, no nothing.  All of which is very much in keeping with the whole attitude of a place that's discreetly doing exactly what they want, how they want - there's no standing at the bar here, if you've not booked seats they'll probably tell you to bugger off, if you're wearing a suit they'll definitely tell you to bugger off whether you've booked of not.  You can sometimes get the impression they're doing you a huge favour just letting you in the place and talking to you.  It's not to everyone's liking and there's plenty of comments on the various review web sites from disgruntled punters but that's why God put the Drunken Monkey just round the corner.

The name refers to the actual place Bohemia, something you quickly guess once you're through the door as you pass through a corridor decorated with Czech newspapers, a small staircase at the end descends down into the bar proper.  I'd have described the decor as "my Nan running wild at a jumble sale" but after I'd been here a couple of times I brought a friend who knows a lot more than me about design and cool things in general, and he had a field day pointing out the various design classics that the place is apparently furnished with.  There are copies of Wallpaper* in the magazine racks.  The menus (mainly drinks but some food too) are hidden inside hardback Czech novels (I'm assuming they're novels, they could be lawnmower repair manuals for all I know) where there's a terse list of their cocktails and spirits.  The spirits list is pretty extensive but going for quality in depth rather than quantity: there's quite a small range of brands with each one available in several different types ranging from what you could find quite easily on the high street through to the ultra-rare, old and expensive bottles.  Nestling in the corner on one page is their small selection of molecular gastronomy cocktails.  I started with a classic dry gin martini ("olives, twist or cucumber?") which was as good as it can ever get, made with Tanqueray and stirred not shaken by Paul behind the bar.  An Aviation was jealously guarded by its owner during its short life span, an attempt to try it deflected with "nah, it's not your kind of thing".

Molecular gastronomy makes more sense in the world of cocktails than food, I think.  Forever associated with the foams, jellies, odd-flavoured ice-creams and bicycle pump exploded tomatoes of chefs and scientists such as Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Herve This, the techniques and principles seem much more likely to be successful in a cocktail glass as something you'd actually want to drink, than served up for dinner as something you'd actually want to eat.  They're certainly having a go here: the Old Castro turned up with a glass containing vanilla candy floss spun round a cinnamon stick (they have a proper candy floss machine on the bar, presumably just for this drink) and next to it a Cuban cigar tube containing barrel proof rum infused with different bitters and the lingering aroma of the cigar itself, the candy floss melts into the rum as it's poured over it.  The Bubble Bath Martini is lychee liquer with lavender and poppy seed vodka.  It comes with lychee, lavender and rose bubbles foaming up over the rim of the glass.  It's served with a little rubber duck in it.

I swear I've never drunk bubble bath before but that's really what the martini made me think of when I tasted it.  I know that doesn't make it sound very pleasant but it was really very good, it's more that it made me think of bubble bath with each sip rather than actually tasting like it but it was a lot of fun too.  A little sweet for me to want more than one but that's what you get for ordering something with lychee liquer in it.  The rum drink was really delicious, the theatre of the presentation matched by the strong smoky rum left behind, I could have drunk several of these quite happily.

The food is worth a quick mention too, they serve a small range of bite-size snacks which are all tiny and complicated - this isn't a bowl of nuts and pretzels joint - but delicious, they'll often give you a few freebies when you sit down, but not always.  Besides the three molecular gastronomy cocktails on the menu there's also a 5-course molecular gastronomy cocktail tasting menu available which you need to order in advance - it reads like Heston rewrote Alice in Wonderland pumped full of hallucinogenics and I'm looking forward to an excuse to try it sometime soon.  Paul is a mixologist much in demand from the sound of it so if he's busy elsewhere then the tasting menu isn't on.  There's a lot to love about this place, not least that it's a proper quirky one-off, they won't be rolling the "Lounge Bohemia concept" out anywhere soon, it's a place with character and personality that can leave you wandering back up the stairs and past the old Czech newspapers with a huge smile on your face if you let it.  Assuming you're not stamping back up in a huff on your way to the Drunken Monkey.

Phone number for reservations on their website.  That wasn't a joke about the no-suit dress code.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Monsieur M

Monsieur M opened around the start of December in part of the old Shoreditch Town Hall building on Old Street, billing itself as an "Indochinese" restaurant.  The building itself is quite fascinating: a large and imposing Baroque exterior in Portland stone, all pillars and carvings and reliefs, saved from disuse and dereliction at the start of the 21st century by the formation of the Shoreditch Town Hall Trust.  The central couple of halls are impressive and quite beautifully restored although the last time I went to anything in one of the smaller rooms squirrelled away in the little warren of dusty corridors and up creaking staircases I was reminded more of The Shining than anything else.  The building was the scene of the public inquest into the death of Mary Kelly, the last - and by far the most gruesome - of Jack the Ripper's murders.  The story that emerged from the hearing caused a sensation with journalists from all over the world attending and enthusiastically reporting back to their readers the shocking, grisly details, cementing the murderer's legendary status that fuels a mini local economy in "Ripper Walks" and talks which still thrives today.  Once the borough of Shoreditch became part of Hackney in the Sixties the Town Hall was no longer needed and it served as a boxing venue until a young Joe Bugner killed an opponent there in a fight early on his career which led to Hackney banning boxing altogether, causing Shoreditch Town Hall's decline to such a state it was put on the 'at risk' register in the '90s before the formation of the Trust finally brought a new lease of life.

Not the happiest history for a building to have, but it's now managed and marketed as an all-purpose events space, hosting everything from weddings, arts & crafts fairs and music concerts to meditation classes and indeed, Indochinese restaurants.  I'm not sure what the strict definition of Indochinese is but here it means a mixture of Thai and Vietnamese, quite a brave thing to do in these economic times when you're sandwiched between Cay Tre and the imminent new branch of Busaba on one side and Kingsland Road's army of Vietnamese restaurants on the other.

Monsieur M occupies the west wing of the building and has its own entrance.  It doesn't look too inviting from the outside, there's big red illuminated signage and lights by the doorway that let you know something's there but Shoreditch Town Hall wasn't built to encourage hungry people to drop in for a look-see.  It's pleasant enough once you're through the door however, with the odd Buddha lying around and the large bare walls painted in bright slabs of colour, the lighting subdued enough with little tealights on the table to give it a bit more atmosphere in the evenings - a welcome touch with most Oriental places at this level making your typical Wetherspoons look like Sketch.  It's a bit of an awkward space - to be expected I suppose seeing as it's shoehorned into a few Town Hall rooms - and It's obviously not somewhere that expects you to linger for too long, the bare wooden tables with wooden stools quickly convey that message, the high ceilings and hard surfaces make it noisy and lively pretty quickly and you certainly aren't going to spend much time pondering your choices from the menu since they only have three items on it, along with a couple of side dishes, all of which change daily.

On my last visit (an unscheduled lunch stop to thaw out after being caught in the snow on Saturday afternoon) the choices were a chicken Thai curry, "bun pork balls" (Vietnamese pork meatballs with vermicelli noodles) and pho, the famous Vietnamese beef noodle soup, the two side dishes were summer rolls and chicken in pandan leaf.  And that was your lot.  Each main had a vegetarian option (where the meat was replaced with tofu) so you could possibly argue (like the waiter) there were 6 mains available but I wouldn't believe you.  Summer rolls and pho are big favourites of mine so deciding what to have took a couple of seconds, the summer rolls arriving in the blink of an eye.  A rather daft mistake to make was serving them in a hot-out-of-oven bowl causing the delicate rice paper skin of the cold rolls to start sticking to it.  The rolls themselves were decent enough although they were vegetarian ones (no choice here) so no pork or shrimp in them which would have made them a bit more interesting but they were fresh and lively, packed with herbs and crunchy cold noodles and cucumber and a thick dipping sauce topped with peanuts and a slight sour tamarind tang to it that was very tasty.

This was just passing the time really till I could see what they made of the pho.  Talk about coals to Newcastle, if you're going to choose just 3 dishes for the day and you've got about 15 Vietnamese restaurants within a 5 minute walk (including Song Que which is pho-tastic) then you're going to have to be pretty confident you've cooked up something special, I thought.  What turned up was decent enough, generous helpings of good quality steak and brisket cuts of beef and dense, very finely minced meatballs sitting in a broth that was okay, laden with a nice mix of herbs and noodles.  What on Earth they thought they were doing serving red pepper on top I do not know but I never want to experience it again.  It's a shame it was all made up in the kitchen though, order pho in any of the restaurants nearby and it's very much a DIY affair, the table quickly loaded up with herbs, beansprouts, chillis, limes and other odds and sods depending where you are, for you to add to your liking as you progress through the soup.  The only addition supplied here was a little bowl of fiery, smokey, oily chilli sauce since there was nothing very spicy about the soup as it was served.

I really quite liked Monsieur M though as I trekked back out into the freezing snow and wind, there's an endearing enthusiasm about the place.  No-one I know has been wowed into raptures by the food but also they've only got positive things to say about it and with the place holding about 80 or 90 covers the 3-mains-only daily changing menu shows a commitment to quality over quantity that is refreshing to see.  From talking to the staff there they're hoping to bump up the number of choices on the menu a bit "once we've found our feet properly" and I hope they get the chance to, and it's a good choice for a friendly pitstop when you're happy to take what's on offer.

Main courses £7.60, sides £3.60, details on the Monsieur M website.

Friday, 8 January 2010


I've never really got the hang of aubergines.  Cooking them at home as always ended up being infuriating rather satisfying, I think one of the reasons is that the bulbous purple beasties don't really taste of a whole lot on their own.  They're pleasant enough but one of those things that only suddenly come alive and start singing once they're shacked up happily with oils, spices, cheeses, herbs, tomatoes, lamb, almost anything now I come to think of it but they need something.  Even the simple-looking aubergine salads going round on the Japanese kaiten restaurant conveyor belts have a platoon of oils, spices and vinegars strong-arming the aubergine into making something tasty.  This recipe is the exception that proves the rule of my inability to deal with aubergines in my kitchen, there's quite a lot going on and what I like so much about it is the balance between the extremely salty, sour, sweet and bitter ingredients, with the aubergine sitting happily in the middle pulling it all together, shamelessly taking the glory off the back of everyone else's hard work.

Caponata is an Italian dish, usually translated as an aubergine salad.  The variations are legion however, including everything up to octopus, herring, tuna, anchovies and even beef not to mention most other vegetables under the (Mediterranean) sun getting chucked in by one recipe or another.  What they all have in common though is the classic aubergine/tomato pairing cooked in a sauce balancing the sweet and sour, salty and bitter.  This recipe doesn't have any unnecessary extras, just the essentials and it cooks down into quite a dense, intense, rich dish that is delicious served straight away or left to cool down to room temperature.  What's really great about it is that you can store jars of it in the fridge for ages where it transforms into a kind of chutney which goes well with practically anything and is a nice accompaniment to liven up a mid-week dinner.


2 medium sized aubergines or 1 large one
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons capers
good handful of black olives, pitted and halved
1 big juicy garlic clove or a couple of ordinary ones
1 onion
1 tin chopped tomatoes (or about 5 real ones)
a few chopped basil leaves

Heat the oven to 180.  Chop the aubergines - some recipes say to peel them, but I don't bother.  I can see why, some people think the skin is a bit too tannic but I like it and I think it makes the dish look more, erm, auberginey.  Slice them lengthways then again into quarters or sixths if it's a big one, then slice them across into pieces about 1cm thick.  Fry these until they've taken on some colour then cook for a further 5 mins with the onion and the crushed garlic, you want to halve the onion and slice it into thin disks to give the final dish a bit more texture.

Frying aubergines is always a bit of a sod since the things soak up any oil immediately, so putting the oil in the pan first never really works unless you're frying them about 5 pieces at a time - the road to insanity - and also one of the reasons it's common to get oily, greasy aubergine dishes served up since it's so tempting to keep adding some more oil when the previous lot just disappears in front of your eyes.  I first put them in a bowl and give them a quick mix by hand with some oil in an attempt to try and get it vaguely evenly distributed, an alternative is brushing each piece but frankly I'm buggered if I can be bothered with that.

As the aubergine pieces cook their spongy absorbent structure slowly starts to collapse, the pieces shrink a bit and change colour and the oil starts to ooze back out (which is why you don't want to keep adding it as it disappears at the start), the sizzling noise changes and you can suddenly smell aubergine, similar to cooking mushrooms once you've fried the water out of them and they start to cook properly in the pan.  This is very satisfying (I'm quite easily pleased) but some people would rather stop before that stage, mixing in the onion and garlic to cook whilst the aubergine pieces are just a bit coloured but before they've started really cooking down.  This is fine, you're left with a dish that's not quite so dense, but they'll cook fine, it's just personal preference, I'm more a fan of giving them a proper cooking at this stage and a slightly more gooey final product.

So anyway, once you've got all that out of the way add everything else, pour another half-a-tomato-tin's worth of water in, season with salt and pepper and put in the oven for about 35-45 minutes, taking it out halfway through for a stir and to make sure it's not sticking, add a bit more water if it is.  The photo above is what it looks like after it's done, I've thoughtfully scraped some away from the side of the pan so you can see how thick it is.  Some more chopped basil leaves and pine nuts are nice additions to serve, or possibly some smoked anchovies.

and be sure to make enough to put in the fridge for a few days.

Aubergine flower photo courtesy of matsuyuki