Monday, November 30, 2009


A trip to Broadway Market inevitably results in some cheese buying - the stalls are just too tempting! We were initially drawn in by the Comte (upper left), but ended up picking out some Cropwell Bishop Shropshire Blue (upper right) and Crottin de Chavignol (bottom) as well. The Comte was delicious as expected - the nice man that was giving us tastes explained that they age their Comte for 16 months (which is probably why it tastes so much nicer than the cheaper stuff at Waitrose). The blue cheese is apparently very mild (my aversion to blue cheese meant that I could just about handle this stuff, but the blue cheese lovers at the table complained that it wasn't blue enough). The little round of goat cheese was fabulous - the tangy sharp goat flavor really came through but it was tempered by the creamy quality of the cheese. Next time, we'll check out the stalls for Italian and French cheeses too.

Huong Viet (Revisited)

An Viet House
12-14 Englefield Road
N1 4LS

A's parents were in town and expressed interest in trying out our local Vietnamese restaurant, so A and I introduced them to it on a busy Friday night. Surprisingly, we managed not to over order this time, though we were still very full by the end of the meal. Starters included the crispy duck with pancakes and chargrilled squid pictured above. We also had summer rolls with prawn and A's dad ordered a small soup with tofu and greens. After we tore through those, the mains came out: steamed sea bass with chili, spring onion and ginger, lamb in a lemongrass and chili sauce, tofu with garlicky greens, and tofu with aubergine in a dill sauce. Everything was delicious and I liked the sauces so much I even ate a bit of white rice topped with nothing but sauce. Service was a bit of a shambles as usual, but at least they're apologetic for it. Thanks, S&C, for a nice meal!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Crusty Macaroni and Cheese

This is a tweaked version of the NYTimes recipe for mac and cheese (and one of A's favorite dishes) - I've omitted butter, salt and cayenne and halved the recipe as well while keeping the original milk measurement. Works for us, and it's incredibly simple to make. It's the cheesiest dish ever. We've had this with a bit of salad for dinner, or as a side dish at Thanksgiving.

680g mature cheddar cheese
450g dried macaroni pasta, boiled until just tender and drained
2/3c whole milk
black pepper

Heat oven to 190C. Grate cheese and set aside 1 cup for topping.

In a large bowl, toss together the pasta, cheese and black pepper to taste. Place in 9" square baking pan and evenly pour milk over the surface. Sprinkle reserved cheese on top and bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Raise heat to 205C and bake for 15 to 20 minutes more, until crusty on top and bottom.

I decided to make this again for Thanksgiving this year (2018), with a slightly scaled down recipe that works with typical size packages of shredded cheese. For those in America:

16 oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese
10.5 oz dried macaroni pasta, boiled until just tender and drained
1/2 cup (109 g) milk - we use whatever milk is on hand, usually 1%
black pepper

Heat oven to 375F. Set aside 2/3c cheese for topping.
In a large bowl, toss together the pasta, cheese and black pepper to taste. Place in 9x6" baking pan and evenly pour milk over the surface. Sprinkle reserved cheese on top and bake, uncovered, for 40 minutes. Raise heat to 400C and bake for 10-15 minutes more, until crusty on top and bottom.

Pumpkin Pie

This is the Libby's pumpkin pie recipe, but with some changes to accommodate what I have in the cupboard. Also, I don't like it quite as sweet, so there is a little less sugar.

2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
2 medium eggs
1 can (15 oz.) pumpkin puree
1 can (410g) evaporated milk
1 unbaked 9-inch deep-dish pie shell

MIX sugar, cinnamon, salt, ginger and allspice in large bowl. Beat eggs into spices. Stir in pumpkin and evaporated milk and mix thoroughly.

POUR into pie shell.

BAKE in preheated 425° F oven for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350° F; bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until knife inserted near center comes out clean. Cool on wire rack for 2 hours. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread

I found this recipe on the internet a few years ago and now have no idea where it came from (if it's yours and you want credit, please let me know). I think it was originally supposed to make lots of mini loaves of cornbread, but I have changed it to make one giant one.

Jalapeno Cheddar Cornbread


1 3/4 cups yellow cornmeal (coarse polenta in the UK)
2 cups sifted flour
2/3 cup sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon plus 3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 1/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 pound (1 stick) plus 2 tablespoons butter(141g), melted, plus extra
butter for greasing pans
1 3/4 cups buttermilk
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
2 jumbo eggs, beaten
6 ounces warm corn kernels
4 ounces cheddar cheese, grated (about 1 1/4 loosely packed cups)
6 tablespoons chopped scallions (spring onions here)
Minced fresh jalapeno peppers to taste (1/4 to 1/2 cup), seeded
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro (coriander here)


1. Preheat the oven to 425F. (220C)
2. In a bowl combine the cornmeal, flour, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda.
3. In another bowl whisk together the melted butter, buttermilk, milk, and beaten eggs. Add the dry ingredients, and just combine. Then fold in the corn kernels, cheddar cheese, scallions, jalapeno, and

4. Pour the mixture into buttered baking pan. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the bread is golden brown and a skewer inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Black Bean Salad

My friend D introduced this to me back when we were teenagers - I remember going to one of her family picnics and having this delicious salad. Though now M has just reminded me that D got the recipe from M's mom. Who probably got it from some "official" recipe. ANYWAY. Over the years, I think my recipe has strayed from the original one (I believe it involved Ro-Tel, which is a canned tomato and green chile mix which is primarily available in southern states) but I still love it.

Black Bean Salad

250g dried black beans or two 400g cans of black beans
3 small onions, diced
1 tsp olive oil
6 small tomatoes, diced
250g sweetcorn (I use frozen)
2 ripe avocados, diced
small bunch of coriander, finely chopped
lime juice
salt and pepper

If you're using the dried black beans, cook them using the 90-minute no-soak cooking method for beans. If using cans, drain and rinse well.

Line baking sheet with tinfoil. Put sweetcorn on baking sheet in a thin layer and grill until corn is roasted and brown (usually around 10 minutes from frozen).

Cook onions in olive oil over medium heat until softened.

Mix beans, roasted sweetcorn, onions, diced tomatoes, diced avocados and chopped coriander in a large bowl. Add lime juice, salt and pepper to taste.

Double Dark Spice Drops

I joined an email recipe exchange and this is one of the ones I received. Apparently it's a variation on a King Arthur flour recipe, and I've twisted it a bit more to make it easier to make in the UK (no semi-sweet chocolate chips here, sadly). If you like dark chocolate and not-too-sweet, really soft almost-falling-apart cookies, you'll love these.

Double Dark Spice Drops (makes 48 cookies)


125g unsalted butter
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup demerara sugar
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
150g dark chocolate, chopped


Preheat oven to 190C. Line baking sheets with foil.

Combine the butter, sugars, baking soda, salt, and cinnamon in a mixing bowl. Beat until the mixture is smooth.

Add the egg and vanilla and again beat till thoroughly combined. The mixture will look a bit grainy; that's OK.

Beat in the cocoa.

Add the flour, beating slowly to combine.

Add the chopped chocolate bar, mixing until the pieces are well-distributed.

Drop the dough by teaspoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheets. Space the cookies at least 1" apart.

Bake the cookies for 8 minutes; they should seem barely done. If you attempt to pick an oven-hot cookie off the baking sheet, it'll fall apart. Allow the cookies to cool right on the baking sheet.

La Perla

11 Charlotte Street

I expect that someday J and I will run out of tasty places to eat around her office, but until then, we are determined to try everything that looks interesting. La Perla is a Mexican bar and restaurant, and while I am generally skeptical of Mexican food in London, I was prepared to give this a shot. Every table is provided with a bowl of chips and salsa for free, so they score a point automatically for that, and they get another point for actually having proper plain tortilla chips that aren't stale (I know, living here has really diminished my standards when it comes to Mexican food). I ordered one of their "specials", the potato and chorizo flautas with black beans and salad, and J had the smoked chicken tostadas. While my flautas were not crunchy since they came covered in sauce and cheese as if they were enchiladas, they were still tasty and I could taste savory nuggets of chorizo in every bite. The beans were decent as well, though I thought the honey mustard dressing on the salad clashed a little with the other things on the plate. J liked her tostadas and said the chicken had a really good smoky flavor. Mains run around a tenner, so it's not a cheap lunch, but I'd go back, especially to try some of their margaritas.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bean Chili (or Spicy Bean Stew)

I'm probably going to lose my credibility as a Texan by even mentioning chili with beans (no beans in Texas chili, ever!) but you know, sometimes I want veggie chili, not meat chili. Maybe I should rename this Spicy Bean Stew so I don't piss off too many people.
Anyway, I tried out this 90-minute no-soak bean cooking method, and it works wonderfully. I love the concept of dried beans but was always put off by the whole overnight soak process since I could never remember to do it the night before I wanted some beans. Now there's no need for that anymore, I'm going to stock up on dried legumes.

Spicy Bean Stew (adapted from Dinner Diary)
Serves four (if served with rice or baked potatoes)

4 tbsp olive oil
3 large red chillies
4 garlic cloves
2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp coriander seed
1 tsp fennel seed
1 tsp chilli powder
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tbsp dried chili flakes (optional)
1 glass red wine
3 small onions, finely chopped
500ml vegetable stock
1 tin chopped tomatoes (400g)
2 tbsp tomato purée
Salt and pepper
500g mixed, dried beans (I used a mix of kidney and azuki beans)
Lightly coat chillies and garlic in olive oil. Roast the chillies and garlic in the oven for about 15 minutes, on 190 degrees, before removing from the oven leaving to cool down. Remove the seeds from the chilli and puree together with the garlic.

Cook the beans using the 90-minute no-soak method above and then drain well.

Grind the coriander seed and fennel seed together in a mortar and pestle and transfer to a bowl, mix with the cumin, chilli powder, cinnamon and paprika.

Soften the onions in a frying pan with some olive oil and salt, add the garlic and chilli pulp to the softened onions with the tomato puree and let it cook together for a couple of minutes. Into this mixture, add the powdered spices and cook for a further couple of minutes. Deglaze with the wine and allow the alcohol to cook out.

Next, add the stock and tinned tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. I tasted this mix and realized my chillies were a bit mild, so I added the 1/2 tbsp of dried chili flakes. Allow to cook for about half an hour before adding the beans, bring to the boil, reduce the heat and simmer for an hour and a half, stirring occasionally. Original recipe added 1 tsp of cocoa powder here, which is probably delicious, but I didn't have any.

Remove from heat for a few minutes to let it thicken a bit.

Serve over rice, topped with chopped coriander (cilantro). Yum.

90-Minute No Soak Beans

500g dried beans

1/2 tbsp salt

Preheat oven to 120C/250F. Pour beans and salt into an ovenproof, lidded dish (I use my Dutch oven). Top with enough water to cover the beans by an inch and a half. Bring to a boil on the stove. Cover pot with lid and put it in the oven for 75 minutes. 

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mangal Ocakbasi

10 Arcola Street
E8 2DJ

Mangal Ocakbasi is located across the street from the Arcola Theatre, where A and I had tickets to see The Line, so it made sense to have dinner there beforehand. When you walk in you're greeted by the sight of a huge charcoal grill, manned by a couple of guys who are moving spits of different kinds of meat to make sure they are all cooked perfectly. Fresh bread was brought to the table immediately and we tore into warm, doughy slices. We ordered lahmacun to start, which is described as Turkish pizza. This came out quickly - four slices of incredibly thin, crispy dough topped with a savory mix of minced lamb, onions and peppers. There was a nice bit of spicy kick to this as well and it was really delicious. I'm declaring it the best 2 quid starter I've ever had. Next up was one mixed kebab to share - there were grilled pieces of lamb, lamb chops, some kind of rolled up lamb thing, minced lamb with spices, and chicken wing. This was all accompanied by an incredibly fresh salad with rocket, carrots, red cabbage, lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and some vegetable that might have been jicama? Pity that A and I both hate raw onion, maybe next time we can ask them to leave it out. We were absolutely stuffed after finishing this and it was only made better by the shockingly low bill of 14 quid and the friendly, quick service. They allow you to BYOB with no corkage fee. We will definitely be back!


To celebrate the end of a diet, A and I had a little cheese treat. Waitrose has a pretty decent cheese selection, and we picked out small chunks of Comte and Colton Bassett Stilton. Unfortunately, the Comte was not as good as the stuff you can get from Broadway Market or Borough Market - I think it wasn't aged as long and so it was quite a bit milder than we were expecting. It was a bit less expensive than the Comte at the markets though, so perhaps you get what you pay for. A liked the Colton Bassett though he prefers less creamy Stiltons. I had a teeny tiny piece with a bit of oatcake and managed not to gag, which is progress for me, but also probably means that it is pretty mild for a blue cheese.

Snickerdoodles (Revisited)

For H's birthday, I decided to make some snickerdoodles, but this time I was determined to follow the recipe much more closely in the hopes that they would come out the correct size and shape (unlike last time). The first dozen that I baked came out perfectly (see above), but then I think maybe my oven is hotter than the dial says it is, because the rest started getting super brown and they weren't developing the cracks in the top anymore. This is why I'm not that fond of baking - one tiny thing is off and it all goes a bit wonky. Oh well, at least I managed one batch of proper snickerdoodles for H...

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


11 Rathbone St

Another day, another J. Our weekly lunches resumed this week since J is finally in London again after being flung around the globe recently. Koba caught our eye as we were walking past and since they were doing very reasonable lunch specials, we went in. For 6.20, I got a bowl of kimchi jjigae (a spicy tofu soup) with pork, a bowl of rice, and three little banchan (bean sprouts, kimchi and courgettes). J ordered the dolsot bibimbap, which came with the same banchan. I was happy to see banchan included - one of my pet peeves about Korean restaurants in England is that they expect you to pay for each banchan - and the mains were delicious. My jjigae had lovely pieces of silken soft tofu swimming in a fiery red hot soup, with very thin slices of pork belly mixed in - perfect for this gray weather we're having, though it made me sneeze uncontrollably a few times due to the spicy kick. J approved of her bibimbap - we'll have to come back to try the Korean barbecue.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pizza Express

99 High Holborn

Pizza Express is probably quite a boring choice of restaurant, but when you're catching up with a friend as interesting as J, the surrounds don't really matter so much. Plus, J's been in Tanzania for six months and is craving certain things that Pizza Express can provide. So we go, and we order tomato and mozzarella salads, dough balls and American pizzas (pepperoni, basically). The salad is remarkably fresh - good tomatoes that taste of tomatoes, and really lovely, creamy, slightly salty mozzarella. Then the pizzas come and we dig in - while this is nothing amazing, it still hits the spot and the pizza base is thin and crispy enough for me to finish the entire thing. Dough balls are their version of garlic bread, I guess, and how can something dipped in garlic butter not be good? All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of our meal - and now that I know I can get 2-for-1 meals on Tuesdays with a student voucher, I will probably be back.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gallipoli Cafe Bistro

102 Upper Street
N1 1QN

I haven't seen E in almost two years - she's a friend from Austin but she's been living in Berlin recently and then let me know she was in London for a few days, so we met up for lunch at Gallipoli Cafe Bistro. There's another one just a few doors down the street called Gallipoli Again, and I think there's one called Gallipoli Bazaar close by as well? Anyway, the lunch special was a good deal - 7.95 for 2 courses - so we both chose the red lentil soup and the seafood paella. The lentil soup was really nice - a little lemony and perfect for an autumn day. It was served with a generous basket of Turkish bread. Then the seafood paella came out and it was huge! I counted at least three big prawns, four mussels, and about four substantial chunks of various kinds of fish (I spotted tuna, salmon and swordfish). Lots of nice bits of vegetables in there as well, and the rice was deliciously flavored. There was also a side salad of rocket and cucumber that went really well with the savory paella. Service was friendly and there was a nice atmosphere inside - not too lively but not too quiet either. I'd definitely go back.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Jamie's Italian

11 Black Lion Street

Jamie's Italian is a chain of Italian restaurants opened by Jamie Oliver - there's one in London in Canary Wharf but I've only been to the Brighton branch so far. We were there for R's birthday dinner, and S had actually checked with them the day before about when we should show up to avoid standing in line for ages, since they don't take reservations. They recommended that we show up at 6pm on Saturday, which we did, only to find out that the wait was going to be over an hour. They give out buzzing pagers so you can wander off for a drink nearby, but it was still a bit aggravating. We were finally seated around 7.20pm and while we were a bit disgruntled from the wait, the food quickly turned the evening around. A bottle of Montepulciano was procured, as well as chunks of pecorino and fried squid that was crispy and moreish. For mains, A had spaghetti bolognese, S had penne arrabiata, R had casarecce siciliana and I went with three side dishes - the baked chestnut mushrooms with scamorzza cheese, garlicky green beans with tomatoes and polenta chips with parmesan and rosemary. Everything was fantastic! The pasta was cooked perfectly and the arrabiata had a real spicy kick. I really enjoyed the polenta chips, which were a bit unusual, and the mushrooms and green beans were also delicious. A piece of tiramisu capped off the evening - there was a bit of lemon flavor in it that made it interesting and it was appropriately dense and creamy. Full marks for food; if only they would take reservations...


3-7 Delancey Street

Caponata is a Sicilian restaurant upstairs from The Forge, a live music venue in Camden. We were there for Kai and Kai's Cats, a swing band who were performing as part of the London Jazz Festival (but also have a monthly residency at The Forge and at Ronnie Scott's). Dinner seemed like a good idea before a night of swing dancing, so we tried a couple of cocktails (2 for 1 before 8pm) and had "gnocchi in a black cabbage cream with crispy pancetta bacon" and "gnocchi with a delicate duck and dill sauce". Both were good, though A slightly preferred the one with duck. The portions looked a little small but after eating them we were full so perhaps they were deceptive in appearance. We headed downstairs after dinner for some dance lessons (the Charleston, which is pretty challenging to learn in an hour) and then when the band started up, some phenomenal dancers came out to play - good for watching but rather intimidating to dance next to, when you're still a beginner.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Cove

1 The Piazza
Covent Garden

*Guest post by Andy*

Growing up in Cornwall left me with a deep-rooted fondness for pasties. There was something about those pastry-wrapped parcels of meat and potato that captured my heart, where rugby, choughs and tractors failed. So I was happy to discover The Cove pub, a corner of Cornishness squeezed above a kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company in Covent Garden. True, no Cornish pub would charge 3.80 for a pint of ale. And there should technically be more random agricultural implements hanging on the walls. But with its artistic homage to smuggling, its wooden floors and beams, its decent selection of beers (Proper Job, Tribute, Betty Stogs etc) and, crucially, a wide array of pasties served with nothing else but napkins for about four quid a go, the place represents a West Country oasis in the middle of London. I'd been a few times before, with my Cornish friend G, and returning on a work night out I tried a "medium traditional" pasty, with steak, onion, potato and swede, paired with a pint of Betty - a proper treat. A colleague's balti pasty was less successful, possibly because innovation is un-Cornish. It was raining this time, but for when it's nice there's a balcony looking down over the piazza, allowing patrons to observe "London", with all its weird metropolitan ways. Arrive early to get a table.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Laguardia, Spain (Part 3)

Breakfast again - this time there were croissants and thin slices of jamon with baguette in addition to the cake, fruit, raisin bread, juice and coffee. Afterwards, we headed off to Bodegas Palacio winery. Unfortunately, despite emails confirming we could tour on Sunday at noon, no one showed up so we left, disappointed.

Back in Laguardia, we dropped into La Vinoteca, a wine shop on Plaza Mayor, to get our last bottle of Rioja to take home. We also stopped at a carniceria to pick up some chorizo, jamon and Manchego. Then we drove to Bilbao to see:

The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, another one of Frank Gehry's architectural creations. This was great - the €11 entrance fee includes an audio guide, so whenever something caught our eye we could hear a little more about it. There was also some interesting information about the building itself, which apparently has no flat surfaces at all aside from the floors.

After touring the museum, we got dinner at the mall where we had parked the car. We picked a restaurant called Cerveceria Cruz Blanca (Centro Comercial Zubiarte 2d floor, 2 lehen. Leizaola, Bilbao) and had two small glasses of their house Rioja, a thinly sliced tomato salad with pieces of jamon and Roquefort strewn on top and a dish of grilled pork sandwiching some sort of cheese, ham and scrambled eggs, fries, and a salad with tuna on top (no idea why these four items go together in one platter, but that's what comes when you order the #10 meal). Nothing to go out of your way for, but much better than most food I've eaten in shopping malls. With that, we ended our eating and drinking festivities in Spain for the weekend, but we're already talking about going back for more...

Laguardia, Spain (Part 2)

Lunch at Bar Velar (37 el Santa Engracia, Laguardia) consisted of flamenquines, bocadillo con lomo, tortilla de patata (pictured) and something else unidentifiable - we were just pointing at tapas that looked good. Cheap but a little greasy.

After a siesta we headed out to Marques de Riscal, in the neighboring town of Elciego, an enormous winery attached to a hotel designed by Frank Gehry, hence the crazy twisting metallic shapes. Unfortunately the tour, which costs €10 per person, was in Spanish (oops!). Still, we got a sense of how big this place was and enjoyed the tasting of the 2008 Rueda Verdejo (white wine) and the 2004 Reserva. I never associated Rioja with white wine before but this one was great - really refreshing with some tropical fruit flavors.

Back in Laguardia, we popped into a bar right in front of the church of St. Mary for a couple of glasses of Crianza - the 2006 Decenio and the 2006 Ruiz de Vinaspre. Both were good but we preferred the Decenio.

We later stumbled upon a fabulous wine bar and cellar called Entrevinas y Olivas (12 Cuatro Cantones, Laguardia) where we had some of the best olive oil and bread I have ever tasted. We also tried three wines - the 2004 Finca Valpiedra Reserva, the 2005 Esencias de Varal and our favorite of the three - the one our friendly waitress recommended - the 2006 Cantos de Valpiedre.

We headed back to Mayor de Migueloa to tour their wine cellars. It was in Spanish, though we got a quick English summary afterwards, and we tasted their Joven and Crianza (again).

We had dinner upstairs at the hotel restaurant, where we ordered a bottle of wine, and had our other funny encounter with Mama. She told me I had to order the croquetas as a starter. After some cheek pinching and hugging I agreed. Mama came back with wine, gesturing about how good it was, but when I looked at the label more closely I realized she had given us a totally different bottle (2001 Imperial Reserva) from the one we ordered. At this point, we were loving the wine so much we didn't kick up any fuss, and then the croquetas came out and they were a revelation - I think these are the first proper croquetas I've ever had, with creamy, ham speckled centers and an incredibly thin, crunchy crust. The ox entrecote with blue cheese sauce was delicious and the Riojan stew of chorizo and potatoes was comforting and hearty - this is probably one of my favorite meals in recent memory. The atmosphere in the restaurant was perfect and after we finished dinner, a neighboring table of Spaniards who had also been on the wine tour with us invited us to join them, although conversation was a bit tricky as only one of the four of them spoke English. When we checked out we got a bit of a surprise as the wine that Mama had substituted cost way more than we expected. Still, there was something so charming about the hotel we couldn't help but enjoy our stay.

Laguardia, Spain (Part 1)

We went on a weekend trip to Laguardia, Spain to try some Rioja wine and eat some tasty Spanish food. We stayed at Mayor de Migueloa (20 Calle Mayor, Laguardia), on our friend A's recommendation, and we loved it, even though there were a lot of quirks. First, we arrived late on a Friday night, and the woman who seems to run the place (let's call her Mama) explained in Spanish that since we had come so late she had given away our room for the next night. My Spanish is really poor, so I basically made helpless noises and looked distressed, and then somehow it was all resolved and we were back in her good graces. The hotel itself is really charming and it contains a restaurant, wine bar and wine cellars that you can visit underground. One more thing happened with Mama before we left, but I'll leave that for later.

We were tired and hungry on arrival so we popped down to the wine bar and tried glasses of the hotel's Crianza wine (aged for a minimum of 2 years, with a minimum of 6 months in a barrel) along with plates of jamon serrano, chorizo and Idiazabal cheese. The wine was lovely but we wanted to relax with a bottle so we tried their Reserva (aged for a minimum of 3 years, with a minimum of 1 year in a barrel) - you can really tell the difference as the Reserva was much more complex and oaky, but I think what you prefer at any given time might depend on the mood you're in.

The next morning we breakfasted on a mix of fresh squeezed orange and grapefruit, a wonderful cake and yummy rolls filled with chorizo. Coffee with milk, raisin bread, butter and jams and a big fruit plate completed the spread. We were ready to start some wine tasting!

We got a bit lost on our way to the first winery and ended up stopping at Heredad Ugarte (A-124 Road, Laguardia). Most wineries require a reservation for a visit, but they were extremely nice and let us do a free tasting when we wandered in. We tried their Joven 2007 (very young wine, no minimum aging), Crianza 2006 and Reserva 2005, but as they had a 3 bottle minimum for purchase, we couldn't buy any wine since we didn't have enough space in our suitcase.

Onwards to Ysios (Camino de la Hoya, Laguardia), which is identifiable by the gorgeous wavy architecture pictured. Again, we had no reservation as they were all full for the tours, but a very nice lady allowed us to try their wine - they only make two Reservas and she poured a taste of the 2004, which we liked enough to get one for home.

Back in Laguardia we went for a tour of one of the few wineries that still exist within the city walls. At Carlos San Pedro (44 Calle Paganos, Laguardia), we got a little history about Laguardia's military past and then were taken down to the caves underground, where they still store their wine in their cellars in tanks and barrels. We found out that only four types of grape are grown in Rioja, the primary one being Tempranillo. The special part of the tour was tasting their 2006 Crianza straight out of a tank before it had time to age in a bottle. It was good, and our tour guide said it would get even better and smoother once it rested in bottles for a few more months. We also tried their Reserva and one of their "special" wines labeled simply as Tempranillo. Really great wines and a very interesting tour - this felt like the most personal place we visited.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Britannia

44 Kipling Street

*Guest post by Andy*

I know this is supposed to be a food blog, but man shall not live by food alone. There's also whisky, and The Britannia pub offers more than 100 different bottles of the stuff. Me and M heard the pub had been sold to developers so we bolted down to Borough to work our way through ten fine single malts while we still had the chance. Auchentoshan, Rosebank, An Cnoc, Glenkinchie, Bowmore, Glen Scotia, Tomatin, Macduff, Tobermory and Bruichladdich... thankfully they're easier to drink than pronounce. There was little to steer our picks other than a huge blackboard listing the whiskies in alphabetical order and a map showing where they came from. Our spiritual journey resembled a flying tour without a guide, starting in the Lowlands and weaving our way unsteadily up through the Highlands, Speyside, and then west to Campbeltown and Islay. Experts in Scotch we are not, but we still found fun in labelling the dizzying range of flavours: peaty, buttery, salty, smoky, honey-ey. We also ate a grand sausage and mash with mustard and gravy for 7.95 a head, but I was too distracted to take a photo. The barmaid later revealed we had been misinformed - the pub has survived the sale and hopes to continue in its current guise for the next 35 years at least. So, plenty of time to check out the other 90 bottles then.


34 Villiers Street

*Guest post by Andy*

If the price of sushi usually puts you off, check out a
Wasabi (there are 11 in London, you can't miss 'em). Four pieces of Salmon Nigiri, four Salmon Hosomaki, two Salmon Tobiko Rolls (with avocado, yellow pepper, flying fish roe and mayo) and a Tuna mustard Onigiri (rice ball) came to just 5.70 for takeaway. That's enough to feed two small people or one really hungry one - and it’s good for you! The sushi here is displayed wrapped in plastic, individually or in pairs, which you can pick and mix from the chiller with the empty boxes provided. Not the most environmentally sensible way of doing things, with all that packaging, but it keeps the hypothetical flies off. Then there are the combination sushi and sashimi boxes, edamame, and funny Japanese desserts. Or go to the counter for hot miso, bento and noodles. And don't forget your wasabi paste, pickled ginger and soy (5p each - when was the last time you paid 5p for anything?) I'm not sure what a sushi pro would say about the quality, but to someone who doesn't know any better, like me, Wasabi's wares taste amazing - the fish is fresh and the avocado is ripe. It's the only fast food place I know where you end up feeling better after eating.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

National Geographic Cafe

83 - 97 Regent Street

Haven't seen my old roommates F & A in ages so we arranged for lunch at the National Geographic Cafe. I didn't even know this place existed - it's quite calm, considering it's right by Piccadilly Circus, and it has a tapas menu so you can adjust the size of your meal depending on how you feel. I wasn't particularly hungry so I only ordered one plate of the chargrilled tiger prawns for 5 quid. Four good-sized prawns showed up, complete with their heads, along with a mache salad dressed with a light balsamic vinaigrette. The prawns were delicious, well-seasoned and fresh, and the salad was a nice accompaniment. F had the soup of the day, which was sweet potato with croutons, and A had the seared tuna on rocket with balsamic - they both seemed to enjoy their meals. I'd certainly go back if I was in the area and needed a snack, though I tend to avoid the Oxford Circus/Piccadilly Circus area like the plague...

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


35 Upper Street
N1 0PN

*Guest post by Andy*

It was Pizza Express, or Zigo’s. Two Italians. One I’ve been to about a hundred times, in various locations. The other sounded like a shot in the dark. So in we went. To start, M and I went for the avocado salad, which featured raw mushroom, slices of brown toast cut up into croutons and little evidence of the advertised vinaigrette. For my main, I chose their tagliatelle carpigliana, which the menu described as pasta with spinach, pine nuts, Gorgonzola and mascarpone in cream sauce. I like blue cheese, but I didn’t want a whole cow’s worth, so I asked the waitress to go easy on the Gorgonzola, and they did, to the extent that when the dish came I couldn’t taste any Gorgonzola. M, who ordered spaghetti bolognaise, said he could have made a better one at home, while J’s American Hot pizza was “sub-supermarket standard”. Oh, and the bottle of red we ordered would have been fine for 3.99 but at 13.95 was sheer theft. Three lessons learned: Just because it’s on Upper Street, doesn’t mean it’s ok; don’t try to mess with recipes; and finally – crucially – don’t go to Zigo’s.

St. Christopher's Inn

121 Borough High Street

*Guest post by Andy*

St Christopher’s is great for drinking and catching up. The restaurant is at the back of the pub so A and I carried our ales through to the candle-lit shadowy zone where we could conspire and plot at our leisure. We were happy to take our time over dinner, which was fortunate because the staff were over-stretched. A neighbouring party of four managed to get their entire drinks order removed from their bill after complaining about the slow and shoddy service, once they had cleaned their plates, of course. But the food was excellent. We shared a substantial bratwurst sausage with sauerkraut for starts, and for my main I ordered salt beef with vegetables and broth and some kind of interesting dumplings. A demolished a hearty, if slightly burnt, Pieminster Pie and mash. With a little help from Toptable the bill came to just over 20 quid for both of us. As the Governor of California used to say, I’ll be back.

Corney & Barrow

1 Ropemaker Street
London EC2Y 9HT

Another day, another chain restaurant. W and I were trying to avoid the rain so we ended up in Corney & Barrow, which to be fair is actually more of a wine bar than a restaurant, but it has a pretty extensive lunch menu so I think I can still review it. I ordered the C&B Winter Salad, which is described as "A warm salad of epic proportions, with chorizo sausage, smoked bacon, Norfolk black pudding, wild mushrooms, poached quails eggs and brioche croutons." I think "epic" is overreaching a bit, but it was pretty decent, aside from a couple of pieces of strangely chewy bacon. Just goes to show that even when you order a salad it can be unhealthy. Not exactly a cheap option for lunch either - 10 quid seems a bit steep for a salad. W had the roasted pumpkin risotto which she liked, although she thinks a stray french fry made its way into her dish...