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13 posts from June 2005

29 June 2005

Kalendar *****

What attributes make a good local restaurant?  I was mulling this over the other day as I was tucking in to a fantastic tuna steak and chips at Kalendar.  My conclusions were that the key ingredients are

  • the Norm factor - they don't have to know your name but a nod of recognition is always nice
  • a menu you know you'll always enjoy whatever the weather, whatever your mood
  • a decent drinks menu
  • good staff
  • clean loos

Kalendar has all of these points in spades.  Yes, it can be chokka on a Sunday lunch in the summer, but apart from the table scrum this is a fine place. 

Local restaurants tend to fall into certain stereotypes, either spruced up greasy spoons; chichi coffee shops that shut at 6pm; the little Italian around the corner; the great Indian around the corner; or a local doing its best to pretend its in the West End.  Rarely do you go in, sit down and know that you'll find something you'll like on the menu and that they'll cook it decently.

I've been going to Kalendar for a couple of years now and so far I have yet to be disappointed.  I realised what a treasure this place was the other day.  Being far too hot to bother cooking myself I decided to let someone else take the strain.  Whilst walking down there I started to crave a gazpacho, which segued into a tuna steak and chips which in turn segued into a bottle of cold rose.  Now, I went to Kalendar knowing that none of these things are on the regular menu (largely comprised of salads - the mozzarella salad is one of the finest - sandwiches, burgers and lots of breakfasts), so I was having to come to terms with eating something tasty, but not exactly what I wanted.

However, I hadn't bargained on the ESP tendencies of Alex the owner, his good business skills, i.e. knowing what the customer wants and the specials board.  Marked up, in glorious chalk were all the things I was craving.  I was delighted, but stumped because, although the tuna was screaming out my name, the prospect of freshly grilled sardines on sourdough was very, very tempting.

Gazpacho in the UK is all too often insipid, without the kick of garlic and peppers you get in Andalucia.  Although they might have held back on the garlic slightly, this was a good gazpacho.  A couple of twists of black pepper made it a great gazpacho.  The tuna was similarly fine - true I did have to argue a bit with the waitress who really didn't want me to have it rare, she said it was better well done - but otherwise it was great.  I can't remember the rose, but that's the point of it isn't it?  You drink it on a balmy summer evening when you want something cool and refreshing that will ensure things are even mellower.

I go here regularly and would recommend a whole host of things from the menu but the pastries; the chips; the vegetable tagine; the soups and salads stand out particularly.  My one request is, don't go there too often - I still want to be able to get my table and soon maybe I'll move up the pecking order from simply receiving a nod when I walk in, to a shout out of "'Brow".

Don't just take my word for it.  Giles Coren, The Times restaurant reviewer is a regular there and so far seems not to have written a review.  I can only surmise that he thinks it's so good he doesn't want even more people scrambling for a table.

Kalendar, 15a Swains Lane, Highgate, London, N6 6QX, UK
Tel: 020 8348 8300
Google Maps
Google Earth

27 June 2005

Laugh? I nearly cried

I've just seen this article in the Washington Post.  It's about the difficulties of opening food packaging. 

There may be some point to it, but how thoroughly dispiriting that it goes on and on about the difficulties of opening a bag of lettuce.  Why not buy a fresh sodding lettuce and cut it up yourself?  The article only mentions this truly revolutionary advance in food preparation in passing and in brackets. 

Can someone explain why it is perceived to be an advance for mankind that we now get someone else to cut up our food, spray it with chemicals to make it last longer and shove it in plastic bags so that landfill sites get even more clogged up?

24 June 2005


It is pretty obvious that being kosher, or at least keeping the level of kashrut that I do, if I want to eat meat at a restaurant, it has to be a kosher restaurant.  Nonetheless, I took great delight in the macelleria that seemed to be on the corner of every street in every town we visited.  Macelleria What made these more noteworthy than other Italian butchers was that every night, they built enormous barbecues on the street outside the shop, and sold grilled sausages, chicken wings, steaks etc.  Unless I haven't been looking I haven't noticed anything similar elsewhere in Italy, so I think it is a Pugliese speciality. 

The quality of the food is obvious, if for no other reason than when customers decide what they want, the meat is put in a soft white bun and served.  There's no thought of sauces to mask or improve the taste - just grilled meat and bread.  The smell is fantastic - burning wood and grilling meat.  I wouldn't say I was tempted to buy one of the filled buns but the smell did make me stomp around like a hunger-crazed carnivore.  Suffice to say when we returned home to the UK, meat was the first thing I ate.

Da Tuccino ***

We arrived in Polignano a Mare to be greeted by a bishop in full flowing cassocks, leading a group of choir boys, down the main street and into the middle of what seemed to be a festival.  The streets were mobbed with Italians in their finest threads eyeing up each other and the tat being sold on the stalls by the side of the road.  The air was filled with scent of too much aftershave and grilling meat, as all the macelleria were getting ready for their nights business.

Da_tuccinoHaving had no luck in finding Da Tuccino, a helpful concierge told us it was about half a mile down the coast road, out of town.  When we got there a confusing car park attendent had us doing all sorts of acrobatics before we could park.  When we did park, our Avis rental Ford Focus looked somewhat out of place next to the latest Range Rovers and Jeeps.  It was quite obvious that unlike other areas of Puglia, this was a place to be seen - and frankly the food reflected that.

Da Tuccino seemed to be something of an institution, it had the air of knowing just how good it was and seemed to rest slightly on those laurels.  It also had the air of being in Cap Ferrat, rather than Puglia and was a little bit too haughty for its own good.  The restaurant is famous for its fish which is unusual in this part of the World as Pugliese cuisine includes very little fish, despite the lengthy coastline.  Why there's not more fish in the diet I can't explain, but by focusing on fish Da Tuccino is relatively unusual.  Given that, I'll skip any details on our starter (I can't remember what we ate anyway) and I'll move on to our seabass in salt. 

When the waiter brought over the fish for us to inspect before it was cooked, the thing I noticed most was the strong fishy smell and I thought that the freshest fish doesn't smell?   Go in to my favourite fishmonger, Steve Hatt on Essex Road and his seawater fish doesn't smell fishy, it smells salty, so I was slightly concerned.  Anyway, ignoring those concerns I waited for the fish to arrive, it was duly delivered in its saline crust which was removed with great ceremony.  But frankly, when I ate it I was underwhelmed - it didn't do anything for me.  I've had much better versions of the same dish at Locanda Locatelli and Sardo.  I can't even really explain what it was about it that I didn't like, it just wasn't very special.

Frankly, I think that Ruth Rogers and Rose Gray of The River Cafe fame, were wrong when they recommended Da Tuccino's as one of the 10 best restaurants in Italy, in a recent Conde Nast article.  It's a good restaurant with excellent staff, but there are much better in the region, Del Tempo Perso and Alle due Corti being examples of this.  If one's in the area or particularly keen to see Puglia's finest dressers, then it might be worth a trip, otherwise, head for the hills.

Da Tuccino, via Santa Caterina 69/F, Polignano a Mare, 7044, Italy
Tel: +39 0804 241 560
Google Earth

What others think
Condé Nast Traveller - its interpretations of regional fish dishes really set it apart

23 June 2005

Fast food, fast film

I realise this somewhat jars with the Italian flow, but this article in Kiosk Magazine (a journal dedicated to all things kiosk, hmm fascinating) amused me.  It would seem that in the US, McDonald's is beginning to offer DVD's at its outlets through a service called Redbox.  I can't quite figure out whether Redbox is part of McD's or whether it's a company that has signed a no-doubt exceptionally lucrative licensing deal with the ubiquitous Golden Arches.  Either way, the bit I loved in the article was the following quote in the first para:

"McDonald's [is] long recognized for successfully bringing together the elements of food, lifestyle and entertainment..."

You'd have thought that they'd never heard of Morgan Spurlock.

The story gets even better towards the end of the article when it reports that the burger-tossing professionals who currently serve behind the counters are being replaced with, yes you've guessed it, automated kiosks.  I'm unable to decide whether the prospect of not having McJobs is better for the human race, than having them.

Alle due Corti *****

When, in April, I was planning our holiday to Puglia for mid-June, it didn't cross my mind that the weather would be anything other than scorchio.  I was wrong.  For two of our seven days it rained and was overcast.  With sitting by the pool ruled out, we decided on road trips and with the grim weather on Thursday we decided the trip down to Lecce the next day would be well worth it.  So full of high expectations for bad weather, we awoke on Friday to glorious sun shine and by 9am it was in the high 20s.  Not to be bowed by this turn of events we decided to go anyway.  The town itself is beautiful, which is why it's described as the Florence of the South and was great to wander round and stop off for an espresso here, a granita there.

With food never too far from my mind I decided to find somewhere decent to eat.  I thought I'd found a half decent pizzeria but despite the door being wide open it was totally empty - not a sole, not even a waiter.  So turning round I spotted the sign for Alle due Corti and bells rang loudly in my head that this had been highly recommended on egullet.  When we walked in, we were greeted warmly but apologetically told that the kitchens weren't quite ready (it was 12.30) so could we wait?  The dining room was large, white and had the domed roof common throughout Puglia - all of this ensuring it was cool, a relief from the sun, and so no, we didn't mind waiting.

FaveMy heart almost skipped a beat when I noticed that the card and paper menu, printed on a dodgy printer, clearly came from the same school of menu design as Osteria del Tempo Perso's, and therefore we must be in for a treat.  I was right, but I was also slightly surprised to see (badly) translated English below each dish and the odd ® sign dotting the menu. Anyway, the antipasti arrived and I was in heaven.  It wasn't the stodgy fried rubbish that seemed to be prevalent in the touristy places, this was fresh, juicy and life-affirming stuff.  The roasted tomatoes were so sweet and were only garnished with some onion, garlic and of course olive oil.  Similarly, some yellow peppers that seemed to have been marinated in wine vinegar were brilliantly tangy.  Also delivered to the table were some stuffed mushrooms that smelled great, but unfortunately were stuffed with some sort of meat.  We had tried to ask for nothing except for vegetables, but our Italian was as bad as their English and so the mushrooms went back to the kitchen untouched.  Somewhat stuffed from this feast, mopped up with copious quantities of bread I started to rock slowly in my chair - exercise was required before the next course.

Rc One of the many things that surprised me about Puglia was that the food is not particularly light, in fact a lot of it is downright stodgy our primi piatti being a good example: Fave nette cu le cicureddhe and Ricciareddhe® culipummitoriscattariciati.  Now, for the sake of bandwidth I won't repeat the name of the latter dish, here on in it will be RC.  I can't believe that the second word is all one word, I think they forgot to put in a space, especially as scattariciati is a local cheese, not dissimilar to mozzarella.  Anyway fave is a local speciality and it was served with what they described as chicory, but looked to me more like spinach, and olive oil.  It was thick, gloopy and delicious.  The chicory/spinach added a lightness to it, the olive oil thinned it out.  The more I ate, the more I wanted. 

The RC was similarly delicious, it was basically thick sheets of pasta with a thick sauce of tomato and liberally sprinkled with scattarciati.  I have to be honest that in some ways the sauce reminded me in flavour of some of the better pizza sauces you get in the States.  Although this might sound like sacrilege it really is meant as a compliment.  After all, this was little more than tomatoes, the sauces over there are no doubt full of E numbers up the kazoo and other preservatives and additives.  To be able to achieve such taste with so few ingredients is testament to their quality.

Alle due Corti was the meal I'd been looking for all holiday.  The food was fantastic, the staff friendly and the surroundings peaceful.  If you're in Puglia, no if you're in Italy, go there.

Alle due Corti, Corte dei Guigni 1, Lecce, 73100, Italy
Tel: +39 0832 242 223

What others think
I haven't been able to find any decent reviews on it, when I do I'll post them here.

22 June 2005

The big cook-off: Italy vs. France

As arguments go, I realise that the "Which country does food better: Italy or France" is a bit old hat.  But, following my recent purchase of Escoffier; reading Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef and my visit to Italy this issue has been playing on my mind.  I was mulling over the virtues of writing about it when I opened up The Times today and saw two articles, one about Italy and the other about France, under the joint headline "France and Italy are left dreaming of the glory days as times change and they grapple with an uncharacteristic period of self doubt."  This long-winded and no so snappy headline made me realise it was meant to be and so I decided to put finger to keyboard.

First I need to make something clear: I am fully aware that there is no such thing as Italian or French cooking, in each country cooking styles vary between regions and the differences within countries can be staggering.  But, we can't ignore that received wisdom has it that there is such a thing as Italian or French cuisine and so, being a follower of fashion I'm going to use these catch-alls for the purposes of this post.  If for no other reason than I'd be here all year trying to weigh up the pros and cons of each terroir.

For years I've been a strong believer that French cooking, in particular haute cuisine, is overly fussy, too many sauces, too much reduction and a failure to let ingredients do their job.  My conclusion may be as a result of too many soggy sole meunières or bordelaise sauces with a thick skin.  Although, it has to be said that when eating at the food of a top chef who's been classically/French trained, the food is wonderful, MPW at The Mirabelle, in particular springs to mind.  In general though, I've preferred the simple staples of Italian food, with what seems to be a reliance on letting great ingredients speak for themselves and a more relaxed (but by no means ignorant) attitude towards food and eating.

However, I recently sat down to read three books that might have changed my opinion and surprisingly two of them are American: The French Laundry Cookbook and The Soul of a Chef, both of them sharing Michael Ruhlman as an author and Auguste Escoffier's: The Guide to the Fine Art of French Cuisine.  What came through in all three books was that I'd fundamentally misunderstood French cuisine.  In fact, it is simple and it's not overly complicated, you don't use lots of ingredients, just a few of the best quality.  Thomas Keller's treatment of foie gras is an ode to simplicity. 

So with this grudging reassessment of French cookery I thought I should take stock of my views on Italian.  My conclusion is this: as everyday, enjoyable food it simply can't be beaten.  I was tempted to write that Italian food has a bit of a problem when it comes to more impressive dishes, but that's not correct, for impressive you'd be hard pushed to beat bollito misto.  Rather, Italian food is generally simple which means that it is relatively easy to do well.  French food is more involved and less care-free and therefore for a cook presents greater challenges, but once you've got your basics (as defined by Escoffier et al) down to pat, life becomes easier. 

For me Italian still wins, if for no other reason than because of what it represents, la dolce vita: the laid-back, chilled out approach that centres on big families and big food - two things I hold dear.  Having got a bit more cooking under my belt I can now appreciate the beauty of French cooking and a few of Escoffier's staples are going to be my next culinary challenge.  But on balance, give me Italian food any day.