A Taste of Catalan in the Heart of Brixton

Boqueria-tapas-restaurant-and-bar-opens-in-South-London_dnm_largeAs the main artery between Brixton and Clapham, and accessible only by foot or bus, Acre Lane may seem like a culinary no-man’s land. The Tesco and Access Storage bookend a strange mix of businesses between them and “dining” seems limited to a number of caffs and a few takeaways. But appearances can be deceiving and Acre Lane is also home to two particularly fantastic restaurants: the elegantly understated stalwart, Upstairs, and the relative newbie, Boqueria. Already establishing itself as a formidable addition to the Brixton dining scene after being voted Time Out’s Best New Cheap Eats 2012, Boqueria continues to make a name for itself both in and outside Brixton, and deservedly so.

We ate there on a Tuesday night, a tumbleweed scenario in many restaurants outside the centre of Town, but Boqueria was busy. Its sleek bar mostly filled with urbanites enjoying cool glasses of sherry and nibbles; the back dining room noisy in a good way and filled with couples and friends enjoying a night out, safe from the freezing temperatures outside. Their menu is comparatively large and full of traditional tapas dishes like tortilla, croquettas and chorizo, but goes further with its profferings of paella and jamon, among other things. On this particular evening, two specials called to me: calçots in tempura with romescu sauce and quails eggs in ratatouille. We added roasted Padrón peppers, carrillada Ibérica (pork cheek braised in red wine), and arroz negro (black rice with squid and mussels) to our order, all of which was accompanied by dry Tio Pepe and followed by a medium-bodied Rioja.

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The calçots, a type of spring onion that hails from Catalonia, were fried in a light tempura batter and served with romescu sauce on the side. I found the tempura a bit unnecessary but enjoyable all the same. The romescu sauce was good but tasted more of tomatoes than red peppers and lacked the piquancy I’d hoped for.

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The quail’s eggs were a revelation. Fried and a bit wobbly, they gleamed up at us, perched on a flavourful ratatouille. Everything in the dish worked together beautifully. The roasted Padrón peppers, although a touch too bitter, were brought back to life by sea salt and good olive oil.

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Carrillada Ibérica was hearty and deeply wintery. The pork was tender and delicious; the red wine sauce was rich and intensely flavoured. It all tasted as if it had been cooked for hours, exactly as it should have. Finally, came the arroz negro. The black paella-like rice dish had a nice backbone of seafood flavours, enhanced by bits of squid and mussels nestled within. Accompanied by a nice dollop of aïoli and garnished with a beautiful grilled prawn set into the dish like a crustacean Venus, it was well worth the pre-warned 25-minute wait. We finished with a decent crema catalana, then rolled our happily sated selves home.

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Boqueria is delicious, relatively inexpensive and all within walking distance for us Brixtonites. Whilst Brixton Village continues to attract diners with its excellent diversity of restaurants, Acre Lane is proving to be a marvellous collaborator. From Caribbean to Catalan, great dining on our doorsteps now exists in even greater abundance. Why would you want to live anywhere else?

Boqueria, 192 Acre Lane, Brixton. Tel 020 7733 4408.

Meal for two, including drinks and service £50.

A version of this was printed in the Brixton Bugle, Edition 8, March 2013. You can read an online version here.

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Review: Bamboula, Brixton

tumblr_maa1wsEQIz1qjcl1qLow lighting, beach hut interiors, fantastic reggae and warm tropical air being pushed around by ceiling fans on full blast: if it weren’t for the Town Hall looming outside, with your fruity rum punch in hand, it might be easy to forget you’re in Brixton.

Actually getting into the place is another matter, however. You can’t be sure if you book online because they don’t respond. Calling seems even more pointless because despite confirming my booking over the phone, we arrived to still no reservation. In any case, the staff happily seated us at a small table in the corner, near the bar.

The whole vibe of the place is mellow, chilled-out and totally Caribbean. I won’t get snippy about service taking too long as I’d feel a little ridiculous and overly Londonish, but once we did eventually order our drinks and food, we settled in, taking in the lovely smells and the warm air.

For starters, we ordered Codfish Fritters, served with love apple in tomato sauce. The love apple has a flavour similar to an Asian pear, and the subtle sweetness of this sauce complimented the crunchiness of the fritters; their texture like little savoury doughnuts. Served with a nicely dressed bit of salad, they were a happy promise of things to come.

For mains, my dining partner had the Guava Glazed Jerk Lamb, after reading unanimous support for it online; I ordered an obvious classic, Jerk Chicken. With a side of rice and peas and plantains, this had the makings of a seriously awesome dinner.

The lamb was tender and spicy, with a subtle meaty sweet-smokiness that danced perfectly with the accompanying fried plantains. It was covered in a dark rich jerk sauce and served off the bone. In the dim lighting it took a little effort with our knife and fork to separate the meat from the bone, but regardless it lived up to its reputation.

The jerk chicken came slathered in sauce, as opposed to a spice rub or paste, which I usually prefer. It had the right amount of heat and underneath its heady spiciness, mild citrus flavours made it totally moreish. Despite Bamboula’s claim it is marinated in the jerk sauce, I found the chicken a little dry for my liking, but the sauce recovered any missing moisture, and on the whole it was quite delicious; the rice and peas soaking up whatever leftover sauce remained perfectly.

We finished with their famous Rum Bread Pudding. A take on the traditional bread and butter pudding, the hard dough bread is soaked in Wray and Nephew spiced rum, and served warm with melting vanilla ice cream. Despite its denseness, the rum’s vanilla, ginger and caramelised Demerara sugar flavours made it a perfect ending to the meal.

We left chilled out and sated. Full of spice and rum punch, Bamboula, if just for an evening, with its soothing reggae beats and wonderful food, gave us a nice little taste of Jamaican London. Slightly away from the most fashionable bit of Brixton, it has remained a fixture in the local food scene since 1997 for a reason. Go and eat there. You won’t regret it. Just be sure to make the booking in person.

Dinner for two, including service and rum punch £47.71

A version of this can be found in the September issue of the Brixton Bugle.

Flavours of Brixton at Cafe Max

Itumblr_m86nf6BRVg1qjcl1qn my mind, Café Max has always existed in Brixton though for some reason I’ve never been. Perhaps when I first moved to here 10 years ago, my “fresh off the boat” mentality meant I was less adventurous to visit the more local haunts and so stuck with what I felt more comfortable.  But as Brixton has become my adopted Home, surely I cannot consider myself a Local without trying local places.

I came hoping for a proper Portuguese breakfast but the menu board, filled with a huge variety of sandwiches, only proffered a full English – not what I wanted. I asked the proprietress what she’d suggest for a true Portuguese breakfast. She smiled and said traditionally, it was a ham and cheese sandwich, and a cup a coffee. Perfect.

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An enormous sandwich and a latte arrived at my table, and I ate whilst watching a steady stream of patrons coming in and out, necking espresso at the bar, or stopping for a chat with someone they knew at a neighbouring table. These people are locals in the truest sense of the word; they’ve been here in good times and in bad and they will likely be here when hipsters decide that Brixton isn’t cool anymore.

The sandwich didn’t blow my mind, but it probably didn’t expect to either. Portuguese breakfasts seem to be fairly unadventurous, and further research suggests that indeed they try to keep it simple: bread/sandwiches, cereal, yoghurt, fruit and maybe some pastries. However, the coffee was great and of course, what I was most interested in trying were the wonderful delights residing in the pastry case.

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She gave me a pasteis de nata (custard tart) and a bola de bacalao (fried salt cod ball). The bolas, made in-house, consist of mashed potato, salt cod, parsley and garlic. They are then moulded into little balls and fried. The salt cod gave great flavour to the fluffy, garlicky mash, and whilst not typically a breakfast food, I thoroughly enjoyed them. Next time, I’m thinking a couple of those with an ice-cold Sagres might really hit the spot.

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The pasteis was also wonderful – lovely creamy custard; carmelised sugar giving off fantastic brulée after notes; the pastry was flaky, delightfully crunchy, and utterly perfect. Whilst these little goodies are delivered from a local bakery, the proprietress makes the rest of the cakes in-house. Two had just come out of the oven when I was there: one resembling a bundt cake and another, an almond tart, which she took particular pride in. She said that everyone loves this cake, and offered me a slice to try. Still warm, and despite her protesting it tasted better completely cooled, I can see why she can confidently claim such praise. The base was wonderfully light vanilla sponge; the topping sticky, crunchy and lightly toasted slivered almonds.

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Café Max really seems to gives off a proper flavour of Brixton, both figuratively and literally. Its patrons mirroring Brixton’s diversity with a mesh of Portuguese, Jamaican, English and now American; the Portuguese food proudly served side-by-side with full Englishes. I cannot vouch for the lunch fare, but if anything, a slice of almond tart with a cup of coffee could really make one’s morning. I know it did mine.

£8 for sandwich, coffee, bola, pasteis and almond cake, including service

Café Max,18 Brixton Station Road, SW9 8PD

An edited version of this review can be found on http://www.brixtonblog.com/flavours-of-brixton-at-cafe-max/6072

An Unexpected Education: Burger Monday (a review)

tumblr_m69zm8cPI71qjcl1qI have a confession to make: I have never been to Moro. Admitting this is a little embarrassing. It has the potential to put me into a pariah hinterland in certain foodie circles. For those readers who are not London- or UK-based, it is widely accepted that Moro is one of the best restaurants in London. Not the most expensive, mind, but one of the best. It is totally one-of-a-kind. And I have never been. It is hard (and expensive) to have a food habit, as we all know, and in my defense I have been easily distracted by my own local (and exceptional) restaurants here in Brixton, new pop-ups, the influx of street vans and their exciting food being produced. Add to this a personal obsession with my own general cookery and, well, at the risk of sounding a bit glib, I just haven’t gotten around to it.

Moro is run by Sam and Sam Clark, of course, which is why, when Daniel Young (of Young & Foodish) announced his next Burger Monday was hosting them, I jumped at the opportunity and managed to score tickets before they sold out in record time. I confess that I booked without even really looking at what was being served. I caught sight of the Hindu Kush Burger but that was all, and even so, had no idea what it was. Frankly, I didn’t care what the Clarks made, at this point I was getting my first foray into the Moro world and it was, in all likelihood, going to be spectacular. Turns out it was.

They were going to take us on a trip across southern Europe to Asia; the ‘burger’ the tableau. Starting in Spain, heading east into the exotic flavours of Afganistan (the Hindu Kush is a mountain range that runs between central Afganistan to northern Pakistan) and then finishing in western India. This was going to be awesome.

This particular Burger Monday was hosted at Ozone Coffee on Leonard Street in Shoreditch, instead of the cafe near Chancery Lane where I’d been to my first Young & Foodish event: Spag Wednesday (with Stevie Parle).  I’m not sure if this is a permanent relocation but hoping it will be. The designer, Lou Davies of Box-9, has a knack for stripped back but chic design which incorporates exposed brick with reclaimed tables, chairs and lighting, so whilst the caff on Greys Inn Road had a certain charming grittiness in its own way, Ozone is a vast upgrade (and has amazing coffee too).

And so on to the food…

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Two plates of tapas arrived at our table shortly after we did, accompanied with cool glasses of sherry. I missed the waitress telling us what everything was and that, in essence, became the rest of the meal for me. I spent a fair portion of the evening running through my internal flavour thesaurus looking to match words with what I was tasting.  Oh, I caught some cumin here and fresh coriander there, and perhaps a bit of parsley but all of a sudden here I was, crashing head-on into a taste combination bonanza – slightly bitter, sweet, warming, salty, lemony, peppery, fresh…

Luckily we live in a world with internet so I was able look up what was on the menu to start. Specifically:

Prawn Tortillitas, Broad beans and Jamón, Salt cod and green pepper tortilla, Vegetarian koftes.

tumblr_m6a32mrQL01qjcl1qIn the tortillitas, the lovely little baby prawns were coated in a light chickpea flour-based batter, then deep fried. Delightfully fishy, complete with a bit of a crunch. Fantastic. Next to them were nicely cured slices of jamón with the broad beans as their partners in crime; it really was a winning combination. Just totally fresh in character, no pretense. Obviously, I didn’t have to stretch the brain too far to work out what these were, what a relief!…

Next we tried the salt cod & green pepper tortilla (pictured above). Tortilla is a favourite of mine in the tapas gamut, and this one was truly special. In the first bite, the flavour of the green pepper sang…yes, you heard me correctly, and no, I can’t believe I just said that either. The salt cod was not the main feature, quite rightly, as it would probably have been too over-powering, but it happily played second fiddle to a normally very pedestrian vegetable, and boy, did that vegetable dance. I was impressed that something so simple could taste so incredible. The “meat” in the vegetarian koftes was bulgur, and I may be showing some ignorance here, but it seemed a bit al dente for my tastes. Even so, wrapped in lettuce leaves, they were fresh, light, spicy and completely tasty.

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The Hindu Kush burgers arrived after what was, for me, a welcome moment of reflection, and the first bite intimated a heady and fragrant lamb mince, seasoned with a combination of herbs and spices which married and created new wonderful and unidentifiable flavours. We learned later there was, along with the lamb mince, mature beef mince, tomatoes, fresh coriander and coriander seeds, garlic, and most fascinatingly to me, pomegranate molasses, something I’d never heard of.

The burger came with chips with sprinklings of… was it sumac?…whatever it was, the combination of salt and heat and spiciness was enough to warrant a few licked fingertips to pick up rogue flecks. It also came a wonderful raita salad – a clever nod to traditional coleslaw and of course, a fresh compliment to the burger. Sides of red onions and chillis were given to us if we wanted a bit more flavour (the irony!), but as my dining companion said, anything the chef didn’t already intend to be on the plate was going to be given a miss. None of us were going to pretend we knew more than either of the Sams.

tumblr_m6hon5qwqZ1qjcl1qWhilst we finished with thick and creamy Alphonso mango lassis, (Mr) Sam talked about visiting Moorish Spain, North Africa and Asia and specifically, travelling to the Hindu Kush where he became familiar with the unique flavour combinations from the region. These, and others they picked up in their travels, are the inspiration and the foundation of his and (Mrs) Sam’s reputation as truly remarkable chefs. 

This ‘kebab in a bun’ turned out to not only be an introduction for me to the Clarks’ abilities and exceptional use of herb and spice combinations, but also their continued quest to teach us about regions for which the food is lesser known (or appreciated). On this evening, Burger Monday and the Clarks played Henry Higgins to the fast-food world’s Eliza Doolittle. The burger, that ubiquitous beefy delight that permeates most cities in its ‘fastest’ food format, and in London specifically as a heart attack in waiting, was turned into an exotic starlet from an otherwise repetitive and humdrum existence.  Perhaps I’ve tasted the Clarks’ cooking the wrong way around, but it can’t matter at this point – my booking at Moro has been made, and I’m on a quest for pomegranate molasses.

Burger Monday £36pp (for this particular event), which included one glass of sherry

http://youngandfoodish.com/

http://www.moro.co.uk/

http://www.ozonecoffee.co.uk/

 

Prima Donna, Brixton: A review

It must be hard running your own restaurant. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try to please a huge variety of people, all with different likes and dislikes. With all the competition around, you must essentially be at the forefront of people’s minds when their stomachs begin to rumble and cravings ensue. Surely that is some serious pressure.  What must be even harder is being surrounded by lots of great places in the concentration of 500m, which has occurred in the recent regeneration of Granville Aracade, now more widely known as Brixton Village, and Market Row.  There are now many local places who are in fierce but friendly competition to be the de facto choice for local punters and as such, much to many a local’s pleasure, a great mix of really wonderful and simple food, all cooked in teeny kitchens and served in mismatched dining rooms means Joe Brixton can enjoy himself relatively inexpensively, in a truly unique and quirky environment.

And now, the owners of the Tulse Hill restaurant, Brazas, have stepped into the ring and recently opened Prima Donna in Market Row.  The name suggests Italian, or maybe even tapas, but I found out later it is in fact a new grilled meat restaurant. An interesting choice considering a place like Brixton Grill has established itself, quite rightly, by consistently serving pretty bomb grilled meats and fish, served with their even more atomic homemade piri piri sauce. And also, there is the better-known piri piri place that shall not be named which serves many a reveller, pre- and post-Academy gigs.

The menu is limited to a few little starters like bread and olives, and the mains are focussed on piri piri chicken and soy glazed ribs, with a couple vegetarian options for those less into the atavistic delight inspired by eating meat off the bone with their teeth.  The wine list is equally limited but I enjoyed a nice Tempranillo/Syrah blend and they do have Sagres lager on tap, which seemed to go down well with some fellow diners, who seemed more interested in getting wasted than the food.

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We split the courgette fritters, one of the vegetarian mains, as a starter. A large portion of eggy tortilla-like slabs appeared, covered in spinach, cherry tomatoes, feta and a balsamic dressing. They were not as light as I had hoped, but had a nice hint of mint, which heightened the courgette flavours and melded quite nicely with the rest of its accompaniments. I would have preferred the fritters to have a bit of a crunch on the outside to give them more texture against the freshness of the spinach and tomatoes. They were a touch too soggy to stand up to the dressing.

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Next we had chicken and ribs for mains. I had mine piri piri style (you can have plain if you’re not into the heat) with salad and new potatoes and my other half went for ribs and chunky chips, which also came with a bit of sweet corn.  The chicken had decent heat and flavour, but the breast meat was on the dry side. The legs and thighs were a little juicier than the breast, and overall the skin was crisp and nicely salty. With the chicken came a small portion of avocado salsa, which turned out to be the highlight of the dish. Light with wonderfully fresh flavours of coriander and onion and tomato really cut through the creamy avocado and it gave some much-needed moisture to the chicken.

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The ribs were a disappointment. Dry, over-roasted, tough. The soy glaze seemed to have been charred to an inch of its life and what was left was a slightly soy-carbon taste, which isn’t exactly bad if you’re into that, but if they were going to grill the ribs like this, an accompanying sauce would have been welcomed.

For both dishes, the sides of new potatoes and chips were undercooked. To me, this seems more teething problems than anything else. Often the seemingly less important vegetables get forgotten in an attempt to master the main event, so I’d let them off for this, but it is something that can drain the diner of confidence in the kitchen. The sweet corn that came with the ribs was decent, but it is not in season locally, so I would have preferred something that hadn’t been flown in from some far flung country.

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We finished with a slice of raspberry and blueberry amaretto cake, brought in from Maurillio which was, frankly, the nicest thing we ate during our visit. The cake had fat chunks of amaretti biscuits nestled in its lovely crumbly topping. A berry ripple gave it slightly light tangy hit; a moist and quite delightful little treat it turned out to be.

I was hoping for the best when I stepped into Prima Donna. I went in not knowing what to expect food-wise and emerged a couple hours later a little wiser and a little disappointed. Not that the food was completely terrible. It really wasn’t. But it just seemed to be really lacking that extra element which would make it more the obvious choice over its neighbouring restaurants. Perhaps it is the inattention to detail – slightly overcooked meat and slightly undercooked vegetables – that stood out to me. A little more thought and care in the kitchen would not go amiss. Perhaps it is early days yet and in time, they will have mastered both meat and vegetables, but it may have been advisable to do that prior to opening a restaurant.

Meal for two including drinks £41.85 excluding service

An edited version of this review can be found on http://www.brixtonblog.com/restaurant-review-prima-donna/5259

Conservatism: Not the Order of the Day

tumblr_m31b87Qe5Y1qjcl1qI turned 32 yesterday. It just sort of snuck up on me. I think with every year I’m more and more resigned to the fact that age cannot be controlled and no matter what I will begin to sag and wrinkle and that is okay, really. And, you know, being “in your thirties” means that you start to do more grown up things. Things you always thought in your 20s sounded a bit lame and boring, but now you enjoy because it means it doesn’t involve queues to get in to late bars with horrendously loud music and subsequently being on the receiving end of an equally horrendous hangover the next day. (Please note, I know how old that makes me sound. I am aware.)

So in this civilised vein of adulthood, my other half took me to dinner at St John in Farringdon to celebrate being “in my thirties”. I have never been to St John, despite lusting after it and its sister restaurant on Commercial Street, St John Bread and Wine, for several years. For me, it is one of those places which the gastroworld always seems to return to; a beacon of solidarity against new faddish restaurants which come and go as quickly as they start. So, now, 10 years of lusting later, I am sat in the dining room and perusing the menu with maybe a little too much excitement for someone my age.

With its reputation for nose to tail eating, I really want to go for the offal because I pride myself on being adventurous and completely unfunny about less-than-popular foods, but I seem to be unable to get over the idea of eating brains or intestines. I think it is partly because I have never made them myself so I cannot really visualise the process. So, I settle for the Roasted Bone Marrow to start. My boyfriend, who is feeling far more adventurous than I, goes for the Chitterlings and Dandelion.

The bone marrow was phenomenal. Served with toast, grey salt, and parsley, the flavours sang together in unctuous harmony. The amount of marrow perfectly matched the amount of bread served, unlike an unfortunate pâté order, when you are left looking for something to accompany the remaining slab on your plate after your single slice of toast has been exhausted. This attention to detail was really appreciated. Chitterlings, despite sounding a bit twee and like something out of a Disney cartoon, are, for those of us who are unsure, pig intestines and in fact were delightful. Served with chopped up dandelion and cornichons, they were lovely and piggy, slightly sweet and very tender.

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For mains, I went for Smoked Haddock, Saffron and Parsnips, and Boyf went for one of the specials, Blood Cake, with a side of Greens. I had heard good things about the Blood Cake, but still, despite the amazingness of the Chitterlings, I couldn’t commit to something so off piste! Even so, the haddock was firm, not hard or dry, and perfectly cooked. It came with a buttery saffron sauce, which heightened the taste, albeit made it a tad on the salty side. The parsnips were a salve for the salt, and amalgamated the flavours in a wonderful balance of savoury, sweet, and buttery goodness. Delightful, but a conservative choice.

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The Blood Cake was like black pudding with an Ivy League education. Bigger, richer, more refined.  Served with two fried eggs on top, in a manner similar to the parsnips, these eggs tempered the flavour, giving it a deeper, smoother and more rounded taste. I had never experienced anything quite like it. The Greens were cooked well, but incredibly salty, and with my haddock already being on the top end of the salt spectrum, it was a bit much as an accompanying side.

And finally, we moved on to the puddings. Again, I am now kicking myself with my pansy ordering. I ended with chocolate mousse and a single of Auchentoshan with some ice. A safe bet. An easy bet. But dammit! It was nothing compared to Boyf’s Apple Sorbet and Polish Vodka. This, people, could easily have been the most amazing thing I have ever tasted. The sorbet was clean, fresh, light, smooth, and then, with a little sip of the vodka whilst the sorbet taste was still in my mouth, the flavours turned to perfume and my whole nose and mouth became an explosion of flowers and fruit. Wonderful.

I wish that I had been a bit more brave at St John. My meal was wonderful, but I wish that I had really grown a pair of balls and gone for what they do best at St John: blood and guts. Perhaps now that I’m a little older, and a little wiser, the next time I go, the calves brains and lamb sweetbreads will seem a little less daunting and I will jump on the nose to tail bandwagon a little more readily than I did last night. Until then, black pudding anyone?

Three course meal for two including wine, not including service, £112.90.

http://www.stjohnrestaurant.com/