Roasted Aubergine with Saffron Yoghurt and Pomegranate at Ottolenghi

image

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!

Fish Pickle at Rasa

image

Generally we think of pickling as a way of preserving fresh foods, and creating flavourful accompaniments to potentially otherwise dull mainstays. Usually this would be something cheap and plentiful, so its interesting to see a pickle making use of an expensive protein as is main ingredient. I’d assume this is down to Rasa’s previous incarnation as Rasa Sumadra, a specialist outlet of this high-class Indian franchise with fish taking centre stage. We had to order the pickle specially, since it doesn’t feature on the standard Rasa menu.

“We had to order the pickle specially”

So how is it? At first, you’d be forgiven for not realising that it’s actually fish. The flavour is there, but well masked by the strong vinegary, spicy, sugary additions. In fact, it’s in the texture, with the soft, chewy bite that makes you realise the centimetre cubes are chunks of preserved ex-swimmers. And this is where the fish shines, since it is a great addition to the texture of pickle, creating something substantial, meaty and dense without creating something unrecognisable. It’s definitely not fish curry (and it would be a horribly sour and sweet one if it were). Distinctly pickle, but also rightly something with a bit more right to strut its stuff on the chutney plate.

No, I wouldn’t make a trip out just for this. And given you’d have to phone ahead to get it, it would take planning to come by. Maybe I’ll try to make my own. It has certainly made me rethink the humble pickle.

Som Tam at Kaosarn

image

Papaya is an interesting fruit. When really ripe it’s sweet and aromatic. Overripe and it can take on a revolting vomitty taste. But when underripe it has a crunchy texture and a (relatively bland) vegetable flavour almost like kohlrabi.

“[It] rendered both Tom and Rachael unable to speak”

Here it is sliced into matchsticks, mixed with lettuce and tomatoes and dressed with a sour-sweet sauce of (I’m guessing) lime, holy basil, fish sauce and similar Thai flavourings. Oh, and of course no Thai salad would be complete without slivers of the hottest red chillies to be found, which rendered both Tom and Rachael unable to speak when they were unlucky enough to happen upon a piece.

It’s perhaps unfortunate that we scheduled this (okay, that I scheduled this) right after Rachael had just come back from Thailand, since it wasn’t likely to compete. Even so, and to my UK-acclimatised palate as well, it was fairly underwhelming. More Thai coleslaw than blow-your-mind dish it’s clear there are other more tempting options on offer in Brixton Village (in fact, we had a superlative British cheeseboard for dessert in next door Market Row).

I’m afraid I won’t be rushing back.

Chips at Comptoir Gascon

comptoirchips

These chips were disappointing.

What else can I say? Well, lots, actually.

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious wine. We had some excellent red wine, and it was glorious.

“At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious raisins”

 

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious starters. I had a crackling soft duck egg in a bed of truffled polenta. It was absolutely delicious, with the warm, aromatic polenta delivering a mushroom, woodland, dreamy background to an oozingly soft duck egg, perfectly poached. Rachael has scallop, artichoke and oyster tartare – a dish as fresh and marine as anything you’d find at the seaside and which brought out – impressively – the individual flavours of the constituent molluscs and subtle vegetable.

Both were presented beautifully as well.comptoirpolenta

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious burgers. I had the ‘duck burger classic’ where Rachael opted for the deluxe version. The difference: 100g of foie gras. I thought it would tip the sandwich over the edge of the too-rich cliff, and I was right. But the whole concept – duck ground, grilled and stuck in a bun – is one I must admit to having been sceptical of, but I was proved wrong. Spectacularly delicious.

comptoirscallops

But at Comptoir Gascon their french fries, cooked in duck fat and liberally drenched in salt, were… disappointing. Limp and rather tasteless – beyond the salt – they would have let down an otherwise perfect meal, if the rest of the food hadn’t been so damn good that even with these fries you could only drop it a notch back down to ‘perfect’.

In a world of triple-cooked, molecularly-calibrated chips, these don’t cut the mustard. They’d even provided a huge bowlful (thankfully we were warned, so only ordered one portion) – so concentrating on quality over quantity would be a wise move.

That said…

At Comptoir Gascon they serve you spectacularly delicious raisins. Spectacularly, spectacularly delicious raisins. We had a portion of the ‘raisins dorés’ – soaked in sauterne wine and coated in dark chocolate. It is almost impossible to describe the feeling on biting into one of these. The raisins are almost candied, with a tingly, almost sherbet effect. Sweet but tangy and instantly moreish. I’d go back for these alone.

But the chips were disappointing.

Deep fried pickles at Meat Liquor

image

Okay, let’s get this out of the way straight away. Yes, the whole idea of battering and deep frying pickles is disgusting. And yes, encouraging you to dip said pickles into blue cheese sauce is even more so. And, granted, this side, like everything at Meat Liquor, is never going to be health food. But it works. It really works, and, boy, is it indulgently delicious.

“This is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly”

This dish is almost making a pun of the crunch of the cool gherkins, by wrapping them in the genuinely crisp batter, revealing that while pickles have ‘bite’ the crispness is an illusion from a combination of crunch and fresh flavour. Rather than being a clashing mix of crisp around crisp, this is crisp around crunch, and the textures complement brilliantly.

The burst of vinegary juice (virgin pickleback?) cuts through the potentially cloying blue cheese sauce, so you don’t feel like you’re bathing your mouth in grease. The similarity of its various constituent parts almost makes this a mini-burger, at least for someone who loves gherkins in their bun.

I love them, and I don’t know if I could make a trip to Meat Liquor without ordering a portion!

Cabbage Thoran at Rasa

image

It’s getting a little embarrassing ordering two of the same dish. No more so than when it’s a cabbage side dish; especially one this unremarkable.

“In the best 100 dishes? I can’t see why”

Time Out’s write up of this dish emphasises how amazing it is that a cabbage dish could be superb. Given that Rachael and I both love cabbage (such a great vegetable – yes, you can overcook it, but it’s also so easy to cook deliciously), we both expected to enjoy it. But the fact is, this dish would only blow you away if you didn’t generally like cabbage and were expecting limp, over-boiled, wet leaves.

Yes, this was crunchy and flavourful. Yes, spices added depth to the already pleasant cabbage. And yes, it wasn’t a bad accompaniment. But in the best 100 dishes? I can’t see why.

Pretty much the only thing missing from the Time Out review was a line saying something like ‘Who knew vegetarian Indian food could be delicious?’. Er, everyone.

99/100 best London dishes

Flatbreads

Hat tip to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for the basic recipe for these flatbreads. In fact, I think once you’ve tasted them you’ll never want to suffer supermarket pitas again!

The only part of the recipe that presents any real difficulty is that you need to dry-fry each individually  and giving them even 3 minutes each does take a little time. But they’re fairly low maintenance, so you can get on with a few other jobs at the same time.

Flatbreads
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Serve with dips, such as hummus, salsa, broad bean dip, smoked mackerel paté, or use to wrap falafel, salad, etc., or even for fajitas.
Author:
Recipe type: Side
Serves: 4-8
Ingredients
  • 250g plain flour (I haven't tried bread flour, but maybe I'll have a go one day)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 150ml warmish water
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
Instructions
  1. Sift flour into a mixing bowl and stir in the salt. Add the water and oil and mix to a dough. (Kenwood dough hook works fine.)
  2. Knead on a well-floured surface for five minutes until smooth and elastic, then cover with a large bowl and rest for 15 minutes.
  3. Roll into a sausage shape, then slice into 8 portions.
  4. Roll out to 3mm thickness on the floured surface.
  5. Shake off excess dough, then lay in a non-stick pan on a medium-to-hot temperature.
  6. When the dough starts to puff up (a minute or two) flip and cook the other side for another 30 seconds. Each side should develop brown patches.
  7. Serve warm.