Roasted Aubergine with Saffron Yoghurt and Pomegranate at Ottolenghi

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As far as I can tell, no matter what time you turn up outside Ottolenghi there’ll be a long queue. I know, I know, he’s now Britain’s favourite food darling – at least according to the Sunday papers and Channel 4 – but it still feels like there’s something undiscovered about Yotam and his work. In fact, I still find that when, in a half self-deprecating (half aren’t-you-impressed-I-can-make-something-so-complicated-with-such-a-long-list-of-ingredients) way, I mention that a dish isn’t mine but “it’s Ottolenghi” I still generally get totally blank looks. I’ve made it to his Upper Street restaurant for take-away cakes before (yes, worth it just for that), and to Nopi – still a very different affair with much more formality – but this is my first time dining there. An initial conviction that I’d just have a small salad immediately gave way when I saw the proteins on offer.

[M]elanzane alla cioccolata – a dessert speciality on the Amalfi Coast – was (in my narrow-mind) just wrong”

I went for a plate of chicken with the required aubergine salad plus green bean salad plus simple tomato salad. Far more food than I needed, but I couldn’t choose between them. And no, I wouldn’t usually be unable to turn down grilled chicken: sure, I like it, but it’s usually okay to say no in favour of something a bit more exotic. But this time it looked so perfect and succulent, crisp and appetising that I couldn’t refuse. Same general ability to not eat green beans and/or tomatoes; same impossibility of leaving these uneaten in this special case. And I was right – the chicken was perfectly spiced, exactly the right juicy-but-crispy-on-the-outside texture and probably some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Ditto the tomatoes and the beans.

Okay, so it’s ridiculous to say this, but let’s forget the rest for a second: it’s the aubergine we were here for. Full disclosure: I love aubergine. However it is cooked – fried, grilled, baked, smoked, puréed, layered, chopped or sliced – I love it. Okay, one exception: melanzane alla cioccolata – a dessert speciality on the Amalfi Coast – was (in my narrow-mind) just wrong. But, to be fair, not quite as wrong as it sounds. But, generally, feed me aubergine and I’ll be in heaven.

In fact my favourite Ottolenghi dish is the one he says his mum makes when she wants to impress guests – aubergine with mango and soba noodles, a delicious spicy, sweet, tangy, refreshing, nutty salad. The most notable feature is that it starts by frying the aubergine in 300ml of oil. ‘No problem!’, you think, ‘It’s being deep fried and most of the oil will be left in the pan…’. But not so: every bit of oil is soaked up by the aubergine and you’re left with a dry pan. And some really delicious aubergine.

“Lucky me!”

This salad, however, is different. By roasting the aubergine, presumably for quite a while, it is tender and succulent without being at all greasy. In fact, the generous dollop of fragrantly-spiced yoghurt, whispering of saffron, seems vital to add creaminess to the dish. The pomegranate seeds offers bursts of fresh, juicy sweetness, though a little greater generosity in their sprinkling would certainly have gained my approval. The bulk of this ‘salad’ (in a loose sense of the word) is the meaty, pungent, faintly acid aubergine, silky in texture and luscious in the mouth. I could eat this all day.

Rachael, who has a phobia of yoghurt, didn’t get on well with this dish. Which meant more for me. Lucky me!

Sunday Roast at Trinity

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I’ve been slightly annoying (or maybe just seeming weird to) Rachael by repeatedly remarking that ‘that’s been cooked sous vide‘. Boy, can you make a great roast by cooking the beef sous vide! Additional confirmation comes in the form of an assurance that the beef has been cooking ‘overnight’, and therefore will come rare, or medium rare, as the chef provides it.

“[T]here are other elements to a good Sunday Roast”

But there are other elements to a good Sunday Roast. A perfect yorkshire pudding – yes, that huge mushroom above is an enormous, delicious baked batter – is definitely necessary in my book. All the better when there’s an additional jug of gravy to pour into it. A perfect (sous vide) carrot is a delicious, though slightly embarrassingly singular, vegetable. It is slightly made up for with a carrot purée. Spinach increases the five a day quotient, in a way that the single leaf of onion (though delicious) does not.

But this Sunday Roast is all about being a cut above. The bone is presented with rosemary literally aflame in the marrow, which is oozing and naughty and fatty and slimy and gorgeous.Every part of the dish is spot-on, and a cut-above, and whilst this isn’t going to replace your regular Sunday lunch affair, it is certainly the sort of ‘aspirational’ benchmark that you’re not going to achieve at home, but is good to have in the back of your mind.

I haven’t properly addressed the beef. Perfectly rare and tender. The offer of a grating of horseradish atop the cut was gratefully encouraged by all. A crust was caramelised and lightly crunchy but miles away from tough.

Add a spectacular couple of starters, and you get a meal that was only marginally let down with relatively mediocre desserts. I’m glad I’m moving away from this place, as I could have gained an expensive habit!

Hot Dog at Big Apple Hot Dogs

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We were lucky enough to catch up with Big Apple Hot Dogs at Feast. This foodie festival by London Bridge featured a range of the top food stalls currently plying their trade around London, within a vibrant atmosphere of eager eaters. But we headed straight for these posh sausages.

“So what makes this a posh hot dog?”

First issue: it’s one of those dishes. Yes, that’s right: it’s almost completely impossible to eat. At least not with a) your dignity intact or b) your clothes unstained. It’s served simply in a bun with optional fried onions – but adornment is where the ‘little’ starts and ends – it’s huge, juicy, dribbly and oozing with flavour. Could I eat another one straight away? You bet I could!

So what makes this a posh hot dog? Time Out seems to have real trouble with this notion – though it seems perfectly happy with posh hamburgers, and haven’t we had ‘posh bangers’ in the UK for years? The answer is that it is made from good cuts of free range meat, presented in a freshly baked (though relatively plain) bun, and yes, it’s grilled not boiled – we aint on a New York street corner!

The rest of Feast was somewhere between delicious and disappointing. ‘Small portions so you can try lots’ weren’t accompanied by corresponding reductions in prices – or at least not to levels that you or I might consider cheap tasters. And this is generally street food not Michelin-starred restaurant fare, which you might expect to come with a plastic-knife-and-fork pricetag. Everything I ate was delicious, however, and the range was good – though some things disappointingly sold out.

Pie And Mash at Square Pie

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Pie and mash is something of an East End institution. Like jellied eels, this is simple fare that you’d expect to be served to market stallholders for a tasty hot lunch. It’s one of those dishes that has been given a ‘gourmet makeover’ – and clearly the more irony that can be squeezed out of cooking well something that is traditionally as far from foodie-heaven the better for such makeovers.

“No, I’m not saying it’s Fray Bentos, heated in a greasy spoon’s microwave”

The problem I have with Square Pie’s pie and mash isn’t so much that it isn’t good – it’s a perfectly palatable and enjoyable lunch – it’s just that it isn’t really so much better than any other pie I’ve eaten. What’s great about a proper English pie (and yes, I’m a purist who believes there simply has to be pastry all the way round, not simply on top, and woe-betide those who cook some puff pastry separately and then plonk a miserable rectangle onto some stew) is that it’s warming comfort food. Made from straightforward ingredients, that have frequently come from the cheaper end of the spectrum (or the cow!) – hint: kidneys don’t feature solely for their taste – pie offer hearty food without too much mucking about. I’m not advocating that Square Pie should muck about more – there are many other places with frankly over-thought-out fillings – but just that if they’re not going to, it’s hard to detect that gourmet flair.

So this is a (good) standard pie with, yes, above-average mash and a healthy slosh of gravy. I’d happily eat it again, but I reckon I could do so in a variety of venues. No, I’m not saying it’s Fray Bentos, heated in a greasy spoon’s microwave, but I hope I’d never find myself quite that desperate (or unable to eat a Full English!).

Middle of the road.

Anjou Quail at Texture

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Sometimes modernist cuisine can be very naff. Let’s be honest, in striving to create new flavours, and to boldly surprise diners, the new chefs can end up making food that’s totally preposterous. Exploded this and compressed that, such-and-such foam and dehydrated thingumy often go too far. Texture isn’t like that.

“Sometimes modernist cuisine can be very naff”

Modern Scandinavian cooking is on offer. But the idea isn’t to push ingredients beyond breaking point, but to show you what those ingredients really mean. So the quail is served pink and moist and oh-so tender, with a matchbox of breast and two lollipops (though I love that Americans call them ‘popsicles’) of leg. Sitting on a bed of sweetcorn, with corn jus and some spicy popped corn, this is actually a remarkably simple dish. Simple, but supremely delicious.

Quail can, obviously, taste quite gamey. And presumably it’s exactly this flavour that hanging and ageing meats is intended to develop. But this is so, so subtle, with a meaty, poultry taste that is gently aromatic, sweetly herby and almost salty-sour.

Would I try this again? Yes. And with staff that went so far beyond helpfulness after a confusion regarding the booking, I’d happily recommend the place!