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9 posts from March 2007

29 March 2007

Artisan knives

With only a cursory glance around a super or farmers market, one is bombarded with products claiming to be artisanal. I hate the word artisanal. I imagine it is meant to give the impression of rustic charm, of a ruddy faced, buxom wench, sieving her jam whilst her put-upon husband is down the mine. Whereas, if I see a product billed as artisanal, I think of a lazy producer or marketer who can't think of a decent way to label their product and convey the blood and tears that might (or might not) have been put into making it.

According to The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, an artisan is "a skilled worker who makes things by hand." An example of such an individual would be the genius that made my Artisan 180mm Multi-Purpose Cook's Knife. This knife is a thing of beauty and the one thing I would rescue in a fire - apart from Silverbrowess - if the place was burning down. Then again, it is made of such sturdy stuff, it might make it through the fire without my heroics. In fact, it is made of fully forged, folded high speed steel and is clad in soft stainless steel. It should go without saying it is handmade. That my friends, is the perfect example of artisanal.

I bought the knife a couple of weeks ago from a bizarrely dedicated and located shop, the Japanese Knife Company. Squashed between several hire car companies and a car-wash on the borders of a posh bit of London, the JKC sells only Japanese knives to the professional and amateur. They are obsessive in getting the right knife for you - which is important because these things are not cheap - and ensure that your cutting habits will change forever. For me, that meant buying a traditional Western design, rather than the more trendy santoku. Jayesh the owner, discussed with me at length what I cook, I gave him a demo of how I cut and he chose a selection of knives for me, the Artisan was the clear winner.

Ownership of this knife has not been without its problems, most notably, I discovered three blooming great chips in the blade. I feared this was a disaster but JKC fixed it, a process which took about two weeks longer than I had been led to expect. I'm not sure how the chips occurred, but breathed a sigh of relief that I was able to pick it up freshly sharpened today.

One of the best, but most immature aspects of my enjoyment, is that the blade is so finely cast, I can sharpen it on a few sheets of newspaper.

21 March 2007

Po-Chung Ma-Cha

As Peter Ackroyd notes in London: The Biography, St Giles High Street has only ever been a grim part of London, bedevilled by poverty, prostitution and drugs. Therefore it can't be high on many restauranters' desired location. Yet, there appears to be a very mini-Seoul, with a couple of restaurants and a bakery. Po-Chung Ma-Cha is one of those restaurants. From the outside it is hard to confirm this is a restaurant, grime smearing the windows. Inside there are a couple of tables and a black lacquered bar with enough space for about ten people. Behind the bar are a couple of exceptionally helpful and friendly staff, willing to guide the ignorant through the menu.

I went there for the second time today and I loved it. I had three dishes: cucumber with kimchi; spring onion salad and stone bibimbap. The cucumbers were effectively new green pickled cucumbers doused in kimchi. It was a great combination of spicy and sour. The onions in the salad had been lightly pickled. I would guess macerated in some sort of vinegar - maybe rice? The result was a mellow, sweet (from the onions), sour (from the vinegar) salad, with decent crunch. The bibimbap, with vegetables and chillis was equally good. None of it was rocket science, fried egg, vegetables, rice. All of it simple and most importantly, all of it tasted great.

I have never been to Korea, and prior to my two meals here, I've only been to one Korean restaurant. I am therefore not an aficionado on whether this is good Korean food, but I know I enjoyed it. It is difficult to judge just how authentic this is. I don't always feel comfortable following the rule of thumb that if the natives are eating there, it must be good. There is no reason this should be true. It could simply be that those eating there don't have good taste (viz the popularity of fast food restaurants). However, I got the impression from my fellow diners, who seemed in the main to be Korean students, that this was a bit like home-cooked food: not outstanding, but filling and enjoyable. This was confirmed to me by Aki, who knows about such things.

Po-Chung Ma-Cha is a ray of sunshine in an otherwise relatively bleak part of the West End. Even more so on a freezing cold March day, when we should be heading into spring rather than looking for our long-johns.

Po-Chung Ma-Cha, 56 St. Giles High Street, London, WC2H 8LH, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7379 7381

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

What others think

As far as I can tell, nothing else has been written about the restaurant. I'll let you know if that changes.

18 March 2007


Maybe I am lucky. Maybe, I choose well, but I rarely have a truly bad meal in a restaurant. The food may be dodgy but the service will be great, or vice versa. I cannot think of many times when both are off. Mother's Day lunch today at Villandry was one of those rare experiences. There were some merits to the meal but they were vastly outweighed by the problems. Which surprised me, because this is my third meal at the restaurant since management changed and it reopened in October 2006. My previous meals were great. Maybe service was on the slow side, but it did not seem to matter too much, because the execution of the food was good. On the basis of those two good meals, it was mine and Silverbrowess' recommendation that we take Ma Silverbrow there for lunch today.

Nothing any of the six of us ordered was technically complicated, or required numerous ingredients, yet everything took ages to arrive and fair amount of it was cold or undercooked. We started off by ordering two plates of Crudités with hot anchovy dip, which is basically a tamed version of bagna cauda, the classic Italian dip of anchovies, garlic and olive oil. I've had it before at Villandry and it was very good. It had a strong fishy punch and an interesting selection of crudités, including quails eggs and some sort of tomato confit. Today, about forty-five minutes after putting in our order, the copper pots of anchovy dip were under a third full (last time they were about half full) and the vegetables and quails eggs were fridge-cold. Thus negating the effect of the little pot-burner keeping the dip warm and dulling any taste the veg might have had. The cold veg combined with the rapidly cooling dip, made the whole dish a bit pointless.

Next came the real tour de merde: the main courses. Three of us ordered egg based dishes (one scrambled, two poached), there was a salad, beef tartare and mac n' cheese, plus sides of chips and zucchini. None of these are taxing, Silverbrowess could make all of them in her sleep (except possibly the beef tartare which might freak her out, but you get the point.) These took another twenty odd minutes to arrive, except for one dish: my sister's order of poached egg and smoked salmon on toast. Of all the dishes this has to be the most straightforward to prepare. Put some bread in the toaster, boil some water and vinegar, chuck the eggs in, swirl them around a bit, leave for a minute plus a couple of seconds, butter the toast, place eggs on toast, smoked salmon on top and away. Except not at Villandry. Initially they forgot the salmon, so the dish went back down to the kitchen. Some credit might be given to them for not just plonking the salmon on top of the eggs, they started from fresh. But it took a good ten minutes (we'd all made good headway into our dishes) before the replacement arrived. She cuts into an egg and the white is runnier than the yolk. We call over the manageress, she's apologetic. Another ten minutes before it comes back again. Again, my sister cuts into it, again the egg is undercooked. Such incompetence in a restaurant charging £12.50 for some bread, egg and fish is inexcusable.

As an aside and being a pedant, I noted on each appearance the dish was presented differently. On the first occasion the eggs were on top of the smoked salmon, the next, the salmon on top of the eggs. This could be dismissed as a minor issue, or it could be seen as a sign that no-one was paying attention to what was leaving the kitchen. I take the latter view.

To add to the general woes, my eggs royale weren't all that hot, neither was the mac n' cheese. On the upside, the chips were good and I believe the zucchini were as well.

Why the incompetence? One of the miserable waiters explained that the Mother's Day rush was to blame. Few excuses rile me as much as this one. They are a restaurant with a defined number of seats. We have to assume they know their seating capacity, we also must assume they know the capacity of their kitchen. If the kitchen and the waiters can't service the number of covers, they shouldn't take so many bookings. Being busy is no excuse for a rubbish meal. Especially in a restaurant like Villandry that does its best to sit at the top of London's foodie tree.

I have been trying to decide whether my two good experiences outweigh this bad one and have concluded that they don't. This meal was so universally bad, with the basics taking centre stage in the disaster - they can't poach an egg - that little can redeem it. The manageress said she would take the offending main course off the bill and all the drinks and the service. I'd already decided that we wouldn't be paying service so that was neither here nor there. As for my sister's main course, it was the least I would have expected. The drinks sounds generous except we only drank a few bottles of water and a couple of Virgin Mary's, one of which was still on the bill. She did also offer free desserts, but we decided to call it quits and left.

I feel a bit sad it was so bad. After-all, this was supposed to be a good meal in honour of Ma Silverbrow, I had recommended it and I had had good experiences in the past. But when a restaurant repeatedly fails so miserably in one meal, there is clearly a problem. It might take yet another change of management or a particularly brutal wedgie to convince me to go back. The one saving grace of this place remains the produce shop at the front. Although even with this, many of the products, such as the Foreman & Sons smoked salmon, can be bought at decent supermarkets these days.

Villandry, 170 Great Portland Street, London, W1W 5QB, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 7631 3131

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

What others think

Time Out - Service (by several young lads) was well meaning but amateurish; there was a distinctive hard sell on the booze too.

Fodor's - Heaven for food lovers

Frommers - Food lovers and gourmands flock to this food store, delicatessen, and restaurant, where racks of the finest meats, cheese, and produce in the world are displayed and changed virtually every hour.

Something Glorious - ...it was really the food -- and phenomenal service -- that was noteworthy.

Marmite Guinness

It wasn't until now, a few hours post St Patrick's Day, that I realised Marmite Guinness is a special edition, for the special occasion.

This stuff is genius. It is a more mellow, hoppy version of normal Marmite, thanks to Guinness yeast extract, replacing 30% of the bog-standard Marmite yeast extract. I reckon it could be used as a condiment in its own right, maybe a spoonful added to a stew - rather than simply a spread for toast. There are only 300,000 bottles made, so try to get your hands on it whilst it lasts.

16 March 2007

Blooms: the redecoration

Jewish Mean Time is a bit like Greenwich Mean Time, but a bit less accurate. JMT is the excuse usually given for the genetic tardiness of my co-religionists. JMT can often be GMT +2 hours, more of course if it is British Summer Time. To the best of my knowledge, it has never been used as an excuse for being early. I was therefore gobsmacked to see Blooms reopen after its refit. It wasn't due to open until Sunday.

Sorry to get all AA Gill on you, but I am not keen on the redecoration. They've dumped the drawing of shtetl life for a much more contemporary frieze, which was not completed at lunchtime today, but looks like a scene of the (Israeli?) countryside. They've upgraded the tables and chairs and cutlery and crockery. They've got the waiters in black smocks, rather than their grubby white numbers. They have even gone for an spidery light fitting in the take-away bit and stone-effect tiling in the toilets. To me, it simply does not match the food. I was also a bit disappointed to see that they haven't bothered to update the website yet to reflect the new interior design.

But that doesn't matter because the salt-beef sandwich I had was outstanding. It was nice and moist, the flavour was subtle, not too salty and with a hint of sweetness. I would guess this is a reflection of the stock it was cooked in, although could owe a lot to the cow itself. (Although, given that most kosher beef is not from prime herds, I wouldn't expect much in that department.) The rye bread was as good as ever, with a decent punchy English mustard.

I did not have the opportunity to have a full meal, but I took a look at the menu and things don't seem to have changed much. Old favourites like wurscht and eggs or liver and onions are still there. From the the handwritten scribble at the bottom of the menu, it looks like someone forgot about the veal and chicken schnitzels, but other than that, everything is present and correct.

The menu is pretty lengthy so you have to question just how freshly cooked everything is, but despite that, on the basis of today's tasting, they do their stock-in-trade very well indeed. I'll be back for dinner soon, the livers and onion are calling.

Blooms, 130 Golders Green Road, London, NW11 8HB, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 8455 1338

Google Maps
Google Earth (download)

What others think

At the time of writing, there are no other reviews post re-furb. I'll post them when I see them.

12 March 2007


I know it is late in the Seville orange season to be posting about marmalade but, I figured a good proportion of you reading would be oblivious to the fact and the rest will welcome the reminder to get a shufty on and start boiling those oranges.

I tried making marmalade last year using the recipe helpfully given to me by Abel & Cole. I ended up with amber gloop that Silverbrowess attempted to turn into one of Ms Food Porn's cakes, and which itself ended up as amber, floury gloop.

Usually, a fruit based condiment or jam sets thanks to the pectin present. You can buy pectin or, you can take advantage of nature's harvest and use naturally occurring pectin. Pips are usually the best source of naturally occurring pectin. A rather unscientific study I have undertaken, indicates that the best pectin comes from those fruits with the most numerous pips, in particular: tomatoes, strawberries, raspberries and Seville oranges.

I strongly advise you taste a Seville orange. You'll hate it. Why then my pro-tasting advice? Because, if like everywhere else I say don't taste it, it tastes horrible, you'll be an inquisitive bugger and think just how bad can it be? And you'll take a bite and regret it. But, then, when you have the finished marmalade you'll be delighted you gave it a go raw and realise fully the alchemy that can be concocted with a bit of heat, a bit of sugar, some water and a glug of whisky.

I used Sally Clarke's recipe as my base and tweaked it here and there, in particular the slug of Glenmorangie.

This makes just over 2 litres of marmalade.

  • 6 Seville oranges
  • 1 lemon
  • Sugar
  • Water
  • 1 sweet orange
  • A slug of Glenmorangie

Shred the skin (leave it attached to the pith) and set aside.

Juice all the fruit. Set aside all the pips and pith. Add enough water to the fruit juice to make up to 2 litres of liquid.

Gather all the pips from all the fruit and put into a muslin bag.

Place the muslin bag, the liquid and the shredded skin into a bowl. Leave overnight in a cool place, I put mine in the fridge.

Put all of the above into a stainless steel pot and simmer until the liquid is slightly reduced. At this point, I added a glug of whisky. (I also managed to spill some of the liquid and so lost some of my total quantity, it didn't seem to matter in the end.) Once reduced, leave all of this in a cool place overnight.

Remove the muslin bag and squeeze out all of the juices. Weigh the fruit and the juice. Measure out three-quarters of this weight in sugar.

Place all of the above in a stainless steel pan. Simmer for 1 hour and remove any scum.

After an hour, test the set of the marmalade by putting a dollop of it on a saucer and leave in the fridge for five minutes. I needed to simmer for about an hour and twenty minutes to get a decent set. Even then, the marmalade was not quite as hard set as the commercial stuff, but that is part of the charm, or so I argue.

Don't forget to sterilise the jars you are using to store the marmalade. I am going to lift directly from Sally Clarke's book here: Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius. Lay the scrupulously clean jam jars on a baking sheet and sterilise in the oven for 10 minutes. Boil the lids in a small pan of water for 5 minutes to sterilise. Pour the marmalade into jars and screw on the lids firmly.

According to Sally Clarke, the marmalade will keep for up to 3 months in a cool place.

06 March 2007

Bacchus podcast

Phil Mossop and Nuno Mendes are doing amazing things at Bacchus. They're also both incredibly nice people. In my chat with them today Phil says there's no ego at the restaurant, it is hard to believe but could well be true.

As the success of their restaurant shows, they are tenacious. This was further demonstrated when I mentioned to Phil that I was never that keen on their desserts, especially the black olive financier. Never one to lose a battle, he got the kitchen to rustle up a tasting plates of three desserts, including the financier. I can now say their desserts are stonking, especially the pannacotta ice-cream. The financier ain't so bad either.

PS apologies if it sounds a bit tinny, I was using some new technology and there was a bit of an echo in the room.

Click below to listen.