Friday, August 1, 2008

A very British BBQ

Last weekend the Veggie and I were invited to deepest Essex for a summer BBQ feast.  Asked to bring dessert I had a crack at making a strawberry and peach pavlova - a Mary Berry recipe. It turned out okay although would have been better with whipping cream instead of the spray cream I had to hand. I was pretty pleased with my meringues though -  the trick is to add the sugar very gradually and add cornflour and white wine vinegar. For the first time I had total confidence in holding the bowl over my head!

We packed an overnight bag and stopped to pick up some drinks on the way; corona extra, bulmers and a bottle of wine. 

The heat of the day was still lingering when we arrived at our destination. Everything had been prepared earlier so we kicked off proceedings with a nice cool drink. Our hosts had been to Brussels the day before so I was treated to a lovely cherry beer, one of my favourites. 

Soon the BBQ was lit, and chilled-out music filled the air as we made small talk around the table. 

Soon starters were ready: mouthwatering mozzarella wrapped in parma ham and salad for the Veggie. Also on offer was their much-loved pasta, with its dressing of mayo, black pepper and chilli (always delicious) and a tomato and onion salad.

A jug of our classic summer drink, Pimms, arrived on the table. Total refreshment and a good foil to the richness of the starter.

The rest of the meal was just as tempting. The meat-eaters had succulent chicken kebabs and proper beefburgers, both cooked to perfection on the gas BBQ.  The Veggie had stuffed mushrooms, filled with feta cheese and herbs and veg kebabs. There were also soft and buttery onions and salty olives. 

We were on to our second jug of iced Pimms, with strawberries, apple and clementine segments floating around in the tea-coloured drink, as the sun slowly set on the horizon.  

Later showers meant we had to dash indoors and finish the evening there. A wonderful time was had by all, simple and gorgeous dishes, booze flowing and entertaining chatter. A truly British BBQ!


Thursday, July 31, 2008

Much fun with yolks at Abeno

Abeno Too
17-18 Great Newport Street
London WC2H 7JE
020 73791160

I wonder if anyone out there remembers the 'CharBar'? There are enough recent reviews knocking around to make think it still exists. My opinion of 'CharBar' is solely based on the GunWharf branch in Portsmouth. Over the time I spent living in Southsea we visited the place twice, and believe me the second time was just to confirm that it was definitely style over substance.

For those who have never heard of this "restaurant", allow me to enlighten you. The basic idea is that you are seated at a table with a large grill in the centre. This is heated up when you sit down. You are then asked to choice from a variety of meats, fish and a couple of veggie options. Your waitress then brings your choice to your table. Raw. She provides you with a helpful guide to timings and some cooking utensils and off you go!

Yes, you read that right apart from side dishes and desserts you do all the cooking yourself at this establishment. It's a brillliant moneyspinning idea but in reality its just dull and rather off-putting. And my gosh does it get hot! I've no doubt they make quite a percentage from the constant supply of drinks that are required to stop you from passing out!

So, that's the 'CharBar' - a big flop. Now take what little is good about that idea - your food being cooked in front of you and add a neat Japanese twist including super-skilled cooks/servers and you have 'Abeno'.

Yes, where the 'CharBar' bigs up its poor quality ingredients by allowing you the 'novelty' of overcooking them at your leisure, 'Abeno' offers a unique dining experience. The speciality of 'Abeno' is Okonomi-yaki; simply put a kind of japanese omelette -

"Okonomi-yakis' are variations on a theme, the theme being a base of cabbage, egg and dough with spring onions, ginger and morsels of 'tempura' batter..."


On this visit to 'Abeno Too' - they have another branch near the British Museum - we were seated along the counter. There are also individual tables, but they fill up quickly at peak times.

At the counter you sit on top of a hollow bench in which you can store your belongings while you eat. In front of you there are chopsticks, a napkin, a small metal turner (for cutting your omelette) and a hot plate big enough for two.

We ordered drinks and optedfor a starter of mixed salad. It's worth mentioning that whilst overall the place is good value, drinks are not cheap. Our diet cokes and apple juice were 2.95 each for a normal sized-glass.

For the main event, I choose a pork, kimchi (pickled cabbage) and prawn version, whilst the Veggie opted for the lotus root, mushroom and cheese. We could also have shared a large omelette between us or added rice, salad or various other side dishes to our selection.

The mixed salad was quite small but made up for it with its lovely lemon and sesame dressing. It was the perfect palate cleanser before our main dishes.

I can't tell you how much fun it is to watch okonomiyaki being created. What I especially appreciate is the complete transparancy of the meal - nothing is added to the dish that you don't see being mixed in in front of you. The cooks/servers are very friendly and very skilled at shaping and flipping the omelettes, adding the extra ingredients and decorating the end result. It's worth it just to see the tiny fish flakes 'waving' as they crisp up (they taste much better than they sound!).

The Veggie was very impressed with her choice. When the omelette is almost ready, the exotic mushrooms, cheddar, garlic slices and lotus root are stir-fried on the hotplate and placed on top of the dish which is then covered.

My thin slices of pork were sandwiched into the omelette and then flipped so it cooked through. As mentioned above the decoration adds a final flourish to the dish. Your server recommends what sauces to have and then swirls your choice on top of the omelette. I went for Japanese mayo, brown sauce (like HP), soy and fish flakes. Chilli sauce is also available.

I had also been hoping to try the gorgeous sounding desserts which include exotic ices and fruits, but just didn't have the room!

The bill excluding service came to approx 28 pounds. The average price of a main dish is 9 pounds, so whilst it isn't a proper 'cheap eat' it is definitely worth the money.

In conclusion, Okonomiyakis are fresh, tasty, healthy and filling. They would make great first date food if you want to impress in a non-traditional way, and you will have lots to discuss to break the ice. Oh and don't worry about getting all hot and bothered as they have fans in the restaurant and the hotplate doesn't exude too much heat, unlike somewhere else I could mention!

The writing on the wall: 9 out of 10

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Eat in with M+S

Stores Nationwide
Stores visited: Islington and Lakeside

The bigwigs at M+S have seen an opportunity. Finally this credit crunch dread could bring them some good news.

"Our consumers don't cherish our brand as they once did," complained Mr M to Mr S.

"Don't worry, I've been thinking about this," says Mr S, "why don't we bring the restaurant to them?"

Mr M perks up. "Go on..."

"Yes," continued Mr S, "We could call it Dine with us for 10 pounds!"


Mr S frowns. "What's wrong?"

"Well its not very us, is it? It sounds more like something... well something Iceland would do!"

Mr M and Mr S shivered at the thought.

Mr S recovered first. "No, no, not at all - think of it, an M+S quality main course for 2, a side dish, a dessert and a bottle of wine."

"And one of our adverts." Mr M added dreamily. he loved their adverts they always made him tingly in a way he could never tell his wife about.

"Well, of course." Mr S smiled at his colleague.

"What of our profit line?" Mr M said, snapping out of his pleasant reverie.

"Oh, don't worry about that..." Mr S laughed and soon Mr M joined him.

It's exactly this attitude that makes the current M+S promotion ripe for criticism. As a company they recently had to break with tradition, stocking branded items alongside their own products. The falling sales and the shift of customers towards cheaper supermarkets has meant they have had to reassess their game plan. Unfortunately, they have not pulled it off with their 'Dine in' idea.

The whole concept of a meal for 5 or 10 pounds originated at Iceland, the kind of store that is happy to be sponsor 'I'm a celebrity, get me out of here!', with its disgusting bush tucker trials (I suppose it does make their food look slightly better). Their adverts shriek of desperation, of mothers who go to Iceland not because they care but because the food is quick, cheap and full of enough sugar and additives to medicate their kids. Any store that is happy to be represented by Kerry Katona, a gurning chav stereotype, who would sell her dirty knickers to the highest bidder for the publicity, has a certain reputation that is hard to shift.

This is where the problem with M+S's promo lies - the customers who still chose to visit M&S do so because they can still afford it or they are prepared to make sacrifices on luxuries elsewhere because they want the quality that M+S has always represented.

Unforunately, for M+S my immediate reaction to seeing their promo advert was to think of Iceland and KFC and their "family feasts". In a word: cheap. Yes the food shown looks lovely, but it is also misleading. I shopped at two M+S stores, both large and in busy areas. Although the signs for their promotion where everywhere it was actually quite difficult to find the items that were included in the deal. When I did find them the lack of choice was extremely disappointing. In both stores there was only 1 vegetarian choice; sweet potato cakes. The other options were salmon and meatballs and fish and chips. Tons of the buggers. For a side you were wowed by caesar vegetables or a bag of new potatoes. For dessert: chocolate souffle, chocolate profitaroles or berry pannacotta. The wine was 1 red, 1 white and 1 sparkling rose. Very poor indeed. Suddenly the deal seems a great idea for M+S (get punters in who wouldn't normally shop there, and sell them well-packaged food that is actually worth less then 10 pounds), on the surface, but certianly not a great deal for their customers. Those who have a snobbery about the store will feel the deal is downmarket, and those customers who are drawn in will be confused by the signage and disappointed by the range of meals included.

A far better idea would have been to include a larger range of items, with less ready meals. Encouraging people to shop at M+S for fresh fruit and veg by offering them in the deal, with accompanying recipes. Simple dishes that took less than 15 mins to prepare and half an hour to cook. With at least 2 vegetarian choices and a non-alcoholic drink to go with it. In fact with just a little more thought shown the deal would seem less superficial and reactionary and more genuine in wanting to attract customers other than its core demographic.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A grilling on Upper Street

Tod's Grill

170 Upper Street
N1 1RG
020 72889222

This Greek/Turkish hybrid restaurant is tucked away at the rather more down-at-heel end of Upper Street, so much so that I must have walked past it dozens of times without a second glance. The low-key frontage and slightly dim interior only adds to this cloak of invisibility. However, the Veggie assured me it is quite the secret gem amongst the many office workers in the area.

We met for lunch on a sweltering summer's day, when the cool and muted Tod's Grill was a welcome relief. The interior also shows off a plethora of theatre and music promos, as well as traditional ornaments and furniture. There is also the option of eating al fresco, blessedly shaded by their awing. We opted to eat in and immediately ordered large soft drinks, gulping at them like we were Lawrence of Arabia. Just as welcome was the 6.95p 2 course lunch menu (8.95p for 3 courses). This lunch menu offers such classics such as chicken shish, ribeye steak, mixed meze to share and hummous and salad.

I decided to have the goat's cheese salad which had an added twist; a crust of crushed hazelnuts, which sounded deliciously different. The Veggie had the cold meze platter; a tasty combination of pitta, hummous, tzatziki, little broad beans, roasted aubergines and other tempting bites. We both went for the Vegetarian Moussaka as our main.

Service at Tod's is very pleasant and efficiently relaxed. As we sat a few other diners drifted in. However, for a peak lunch period the place was practically empty, which must simply be due to the level of competition in the area, especially from chains. The positive element for Tod's customers is a much nicer and quieter environment that also provides good value food and good service - not easy to find. One can't help but think that if only Tod advertised a little more or just brightened up their fascia they would be pulling in a lot more punters.

Our starters arrived after a short wait (service indicated by a 'doorbell' sound), and were both very asthetically pleasing; earthy greens and purples balanced with pure whites each flecked with fresh herbs.

My goat's cheese was a triumph; the crisp hazelnut crust perfectly complementing the salty, full-flavoured cheese. The accompanying salad was also very good - when a simple grilled tomato explodes with flavour, you know you are onto a winner.

The Veggie was very happy with her meze, which was apparently as mouthwatering as it looked. Certainly the little samples I had were beautiful, especially the tiny, tender broad beans.

We ordered a much needed second round of drinks, a pomegranate juice for me and an earl grey for the Veggie. Our mains turned up at the same time, 2 hefty portions of Moussaka with molded white rice and a side salad. We exchanged tremulous glances, our bellies already on the way to reaching capacity. I took up my fork and tried the rice, as in most Turkish or Greek extablishments it was cooked perfectly and tasted so much nicer than any rice I have ever cooked. The Moussaka also looked good, but seemed to have less distinct layers than I am used to. Upon tasting it we both reached the same opinion, it was edible but was much too tomatoey for our palates. Although it certaintly moistened the dish (Moussaka means 'moistened' in greek), it lacked a noticable amount of the white sauce and potato that makes the dish. To my mind Tod's version tasted more like a layer ratatouille. My pick for a good Moussaka in London is 'Bistro One' which has branches near Soho and Covent Garden.

All in all the meal came to approximately 18 pounds which we thought was good value. Next time I visit I will make sure to try a non-vegetarian choice - this appears to be a pattern of late - which is a great shame for those who have the willpower to become completely vegetarian. To digress, often the Veggie only has one choice of main and the dishes on offer lack imagination. It's about time London restaurants took a bit more time out to please the non-meat eaters of the city.

In conclusion, Tod's Grill is a great little place for a leisurely lunch or dinner. The desserts and wine list were also attractive and it boasts one of the quirkest toilets I've seen in recent times. Worth a visit when you are sick of yet another cardboard chain of an Upper Street bistro.

The Writing on the Wall: 6 out of 10

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