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!

Radish, Celeriac and Pomegranate Salad at Bocco di Lupo

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“Earthy”, “Deep”, “Woody”, “Complex” – words that you might naturally associate with truffle. The impact of these fungal morsels is usually to deliver a rich, comforting elegance matching a creamy sauce – the height of indulgence. So “crisp” and “fresh” wouldn’t normally be the first thing you’d expect from a salad dressed with truffle oil. Yet this is what Jacob Kenedy has achieved with Bocca di Lupo’s simple yet superb salad.

“[Y]ou’re not going to make a lunch of a plate of these roots”

Whisper-thin slices of radish and celeriac make up the bulk of the platter, with a sprinkling of pomegranate seeds adding sweetness and titbits of pecorino hidden away to deliver a salty, nutty zing. A light, citrusy, truffly dressing plays off these simple, crunchy vegetables and makes what would risk dreariness something special.

Okay, so you’re not going to make a lunch of a plate of these roots, but the ethic of this up-market trattoria is to encourage the sharing of a number of plates from across Italian regions and cooking styles, and you should make sure you do so. Interestingly, prices are no real indication of sizes of dishes, and you can easily eat well here very cheaply, or quite expensively, as your budget, mood, and company takes you.

Just make sure you don’t forget to pop across the road to their sister ice-cream parlour, Gelupo, for surely London’s best cone!

Spicy Chickpeas at Roti Chai

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We ordered too much again. And, oddly, this spicy chickpea side is one of the larger dishes on the table, despite also ordering mains.

“I’m firmly in the camp that can be wowed by a really good dhal”

This is a fairly straightforward vegetarian chickpea curry – but the simplicity is deceptive, since it is perfectly spiced with a cheering warmth and a blend of flavours that play off one another, without dominating other dishes. I’m firmly in the camp that can be wowed by a really good dhal, and this is one of those occasions – just as you might find with chutneys or parathas – where the accompaniment completes the meal.

The chickpeas themselves still have a good protein bite and have soaked up flavour. The sauce is firmly in the Indian red spectrum, which I’d guess hides cardamon, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and a good oniony base with lots else besides.

Roti Chai is billed as an Indian Street Food restaurant, and I’d have preferred a more tapas-like experience that fought a bit more against the meat-rice-bread tyranny of the British curry house. Instead we are offered a menu of many enticing dishes but sizes that prohibit tasting them all. So we ordered too much again! Maybe it’s a ploy to get us back again; if so, I’ll be sure to have a side of chickpeas – maybe as my main!

Pa Jeon at Cah Chi

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I’ll admit that I’d never heard of pa jeon, a kind of Korean pancake with spring onions in a puffy batter, and in this case strips of seafood. Bibimbap – I know well. Korean barbecue, I’m totally up on. Kimchee: I can smell a mile off. But I’d never come across this tasty street food before.

“an interesting addition to my understanding of… an underappreciated national cuisine”

I find it distinctly reminiscent of something that I can’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps the delicious potato latkes we’d make from a mix out of a packet at passover. There is definitely something potatoey about them, though Google suggests they are usually made from wheat and rice flours.

With a crisp and golden exterior, round but chopped in a rough grid pattern, it is soft and sticky, still slightly battery on the inside. They have generous additions so that you can be sure of multiple flavours in every bite. The portion is also pretty large, so you could happily share this amongst a variety of starters with friends.

Okay, so these aren’t super-special, and I can well imagine there’s huge variety of these snacks in a Korean market, but they’re new to me, and an interesting addition to my understanding of what I continue to think is an underappreciated national cuisine.

(My version of) Ottolenghi’s Soba Noodles with Aubergine and Mango

In his (vegetarian) cookbook Plenty, Yotam Ottolenghi mentions that this is the meal he cooks to impress people, and I do too – especially if I’m heading to a picnic. That said, unlike many of his dishes, it’s actually surprisingly easy, with no very unusual ingredients. You can find rice vinegar (and soba noodles) in Sainsbury’s ‘special selection’ area, but I’m sure any light, low-flavoured vinegar will do if you can’t put your hands on it (especially since it’s a little expensive). Ditto other noodles, but soba does have a deliciously nutty buckwheat tang.

“Delicious salad, with the freshness of mango, sumptuousness of fried aubergine and oriental bite of lime and chilli dressing”

Basically you just fry the aubergine, mix the dressing, and combine the rest of the ingredients. Easy!

This is based on his recipe, in the fantastic bible of fresh and delicious veggie food that is Plenty. You can see a (slightly different) version on Guardian Food.

I have made a couple of changes, for my preference:

Firstly, don’t use 300ml of oil. That would be COMPLETELY disgusting. The recipe in the book actually says 220ml (and 250g noodles rather than 300g, which is handy, since they tend to be sold in 250g bundles), but I used about 100ml, doing it in three batches (which is only moderately disgusting). The most important thing to realise about the step of frying the aubergine is that it will immediately suck up all the oil in the pan. But just keep stirring when it’s on the heat, and slowly but surely most of the oil will leak back out into the pan. Each batch will take about 5-8 minutes.

Don’t peel and chop a mango: life’s too short. Buy it pre-diced (though you might want to chop it a bit smaller).

(My version of) Ottolenghi's Soba Noodles with Aubergine and Mango
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Delicious salad, with the freshness of mango, sumptuousness of fried aubergine and oriental bite of lime and chilli dressing
Author:
Recipe type: Vegetarian Main / Salad
Cuisine: Mediterranean
Serves: 4-8
Ingredients
  • 120ml rice vinegar
  • 40g caster sugar
  • ½ tsp salt (plus 1 tbsp to dust aubergine when draining)
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • ½ red chilli, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 lime, zest and juice
  • 300ml sunflower oil
  • 2 aubergines, cut into 2cm dice
  • 250g soba noodles
  • ½ red onion, sliced as thinly as you can
  • 1 large pack chopped mango, cut into 1cm dice
  • 40g basil, chopped
  • 40g coriander, chopped
Instructions
  1. Heat a third of the sunflower oil in a large pan (I use a wide-based wok-like pan with a flat centre), and heat on a really hot hob. Carefully fry a third of the aubergine for 5 to 8 minutes until golden-browned. Be patient, and you'll see that whilst the aubergine soaks up all the oil initially, after a while quite a bit will leak back out. Remove and drain in a colander, sprinkled with a tsp of fine salt. Add some more oil and repeat with another two batches.
  2. Cook the noodles according to packet - 5-8 minutes. Rinse with cold water, and pat dry.
  3. Mix vinegar, sugar and salt in small pan, and heat for a minute to dissolve sugar. Add garlic, chilli and sesame oil, cool, then add the lime zest and juice and stir together.
  4. If you're eating straight away, mix all the ingredients and serve. Otherwise, reserve half the herb and the dressing while combining everything else, and mix in just before serving.

 

Baked Alaska at The Lawn Bistro

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So I’ve a confession: I’ve never eaten baked Alaska!

That does mean that I’ve long known the ‘trick’ to the dish, which slightly diminishes the surprise of its cold-on-the-inside baked-on-the-outside magic. But The Lawn Bistro adds an additional flourish: pouring over liquor and flambéing the meringue at the table. This resulted in some impressive flames, heat, and a deliciously tart caramelised exterior.

“The Lawn Bistro adds an additional flourish”

We’ve rather painted ourselves into a corner with one of our principal rules of Chowdown Showdown Londontown – namely that ‘size matters’, so we each have to have one of the particular dish. Largely the problem with this has been that it means you end up with two large bowls of lacklustre cabbage (sorry Rasa and your Thoran!), but this can also be a problem when we come across sharing platters, and are forced to down the lot. This time, however, we nudged the rules in our favour. Having asked the waitress whether the dish (on the menu as for two) would serve three (since Alex had joined us in this outing), we opted to have a single portion. This was definitely the right decision: how they could expect two to manage this I don’t know!

To return to the spectacle of the fire: this restaurant does aim to impress. I really struggled to choose starters and mains, switching repeatedly between options, every one of which had some stand-out parts among a long-list of ingredients. And, indeed, the food was delicious, if risking allowing the best part to be drowned out among a plethora of other contributions.

Sadly, the Alaska didn’t especially stand out for me. Whilst it was certainly a reward to sweet-toothed eaters who’d made it as far as dessert, it rather lacked depth. The ice cream was plain-old-vanilla and the meringues plain-old-egg-white and plain-old-sugar. I was left feeling they could have gone an extra mile, but settled for just sloping over the line. At least I’ve reached the having-eaten-baked-Alaska winning post.

Friands at Lantana

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You may have noticed the proliferation of New Zealand coffee shops in London. “No sir, we don’t serve lah-tays. Would you like a flat white?

“Biting into them, you get a delicious marzipanny-macaroony nut hit”

Apparently friands are to New Zealanders as teacakes are to Brits. At least, they would be if the British still ate teacakes. These (originally French) almond buns, a close cousin of the financier, arrive in pretty oval shapes, with inclusions (at least at Lantana) of a variety of different toppings. We dutifully try the pistacio and pear varieties. On another occasion, I saw date and hazelnut versions, so your mileage may vary, though I suspect all the different ones on offer are delicious.

They remind me of my mum’s almond cake, made without flour to be kosher for passover, though these are dried and less pudding-like. Biting into them, you get a delicious marzipanny-macaroony nut hit. The icing sugar on top is unnecessary (is it ever not?), as they have a deep sweetness that makes me think I couldn’t manage another without feeling very nauseous. That said, as an indulgent (second) breakfast [we arrived here right after the Turkish Eggs as Kopapa], one certainly hits the spot.

I think it’s fairly likely that these would be easy to replicate at home, but with the fantastic coffee (as you might expect from any of these Kiwi joints), and the other treats on offer – including savouries – I’m sure I’ll be back.

Dosa at Dosa n Chutny

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I often forget the concept of Tooting Indian restaurants. Here’s the quick pitch:

  1. (Some of) The best curry in London…
  2. …at absurdly low prices

Okay, so this joint is a little different: it specialises in dosa, the fluffy Indian pancakes filled with potatoes / lentils / onions / vegetables / meat / etc. as you desire, and served with various chutneys and curries or dahls. But the two principles remain the same: delicious food at astonishing prices.

“[W]ith 20 different menu-options, you could certainly get return value”

At £3.50, my Mysore Masala Dosa (spicy potatoes, onions, Mysore-regional spices) is a substantial, warming, filling meal, and offers – with a selection of three chutn(e)ys and sambar (a thin lentil curry) – variety in every mouthful. I assume (I think correctly, but then isn’t that what assuming is) that the traditional (correct?) way to eat this is with your fingers, tearing a chunk off the folded crepe, and attempting to splosh it in one or more of the accompaniments without the filling spilling out everywhere. So this is what I try. Key is to make sure that every bite is different from the last – presumably a mathematically easy task, practically guaranteed if you were to make your choices at random.

It’s hard to say whether this is the best dosa I’ve ever eaten (not that I’ve had a very great number), and it’s difficult to consider them as gourmet food, when they’re straightforwardly homely, cafe-style fare. It certainly hits the spot, and with 20 different menu-options, you could certainly get return value (though it might take an expert to truly tell some variations apart).

Tooting High Street is something of London’s Curry Mile, so I could easily see the possibility that I might not return to this particular joint soon. But if I were a local, this would be a go-to spot, especially if I felt that unique craving for the eponymous dish.

Pani Puri at Sakonis

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Pani Puri are a really fun Indian street food. Prepared by frying a bite-sized unleavened bread (the puri) until puffed and crisp, punching a hole in the top and filling with a selection of fillings such as onion, chickpeas, potato, chilli, but vitally flavoured water (the pani). I’m reliably informed that when eaten in the market in India, you queue with others, so the vendor can rack up the snacks for each customer, filling them with the liquid and passing them one-by-one to each. The reason this is important is that the water quickly soaks into the crisp shell, undermining its integrity, and if you’re not careful you’re soon facing a disastrous collapse!

“You don’t often see pani puri on your typical Indian restaurant menu, but I now seek them out”

At Sakonis, they serve the dish with everything already inside the shells except for the tamarind chutney and flavoured water, so you can pour these in yourself and pop each into your mouth while still crisp. The wonderful effect of the dish is that the shell bursts and you get a blast of flavour and texture. We’re required to guess at the liquid proportions necessary, but experimentation revealed a wide scope for forgiving variation, and each one we tried delivered its delicious surprise successfully.

So is there anything more to pani puri (and this example in particular) that is more than a cheap trick? The answer is definitely yes. The combination of crisp shell, crunchy onion, potato and chickpeas for ‘bite’, chilli, spices, tamarind for sour, and sweet, tangy water makes for a combination of flavours and textures that mean after the initial fireworks you get real depth and variety.

Sakonis is a real dive (in a good way as much as bad) – and I’d love to come back for their buffet; not that their cheap menu and generous portions don’t mean you can have a feast even ordering a la carte! I haven’t eaten the dish often enough to judge, but this seems a pretty brilliant rendition to me – and if someone questioned its authenticity, I’d probably suggest the real deal wouldn’t do too badly to imitate these! You don’t often see pani puri on your typical Indian restaurant menu, but I now seek them out.

Deep fried pickles at Meat Liquor

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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!