Dinings, Sushi & Japanese Tapas, London

My sister and I were reading on Avlaki beach in Athens the other day when she looked up and said, “I’m trying to figure out if I’m a fox or a hedgehog?” ” Heh? What’s that now?” “Well,” she continued “the ancient Greek poet Archilochus said ‘the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing’ Isaiah Berlin (his real name, not making it up) expanded on the idea in an essay.”

“Well I’m definitely a fox!” I declared.  I’d already penciled my character into this column when I had read Sasasunakku’s recipe for Toffee & Pear Spice Cake which referred to Sarah Wilson’s blog post on ‘scanners’.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in my choice of reading material, the magazines I’ve brought along on this trip include: Apartamento, Bon Appétit, Oh Comely and the FT Magazines.  The books I have read this summer are King Abdullah’s, Our Last Best ChanceThe Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh and on to Michael Caine’s, An Elephant in Hollywood.  (There’s a point to all this, I promise.)

I was reading that Michael Caine is an avid gardener who loves the British countryside. But he can’t stand the long damp winters. Solution: he has a sprawling country home in Britain and winters with his family in Miami. Ping! Went the light bulb over my head, that would be perfect!  That way, I could opt out of 6 months of snow and sorrows in Berlin and the lack of dim sum, sushi and good cheap eats and love it instead for what it does have, turning a blind eye to what it doesn’t do for me.  (Hmmm, I’ve just realised this is probably what French men think as they build up their pyramid of wife, mistress & alternative sexpot - managing to love the first two simultaneously!)

Here is how those first 3 paragraphs relate to Dinings.  When in Berlin, Dinings (followed by Yauatcha and Barrafina) is probably the restaurant I miss the most.  And nothing, nothing, nothing even comes close to it.  To the point that I find sashimi in Berlin so lackluster that I don’t bother.  (Yes I know about Sasaya in Prenzlauerberg and yes, the people who work there are indeed ‘really Japanese’ and the quality is good but it’s too traditional for my taste.)
I love Dinings because:

1. They make stuff I can’t. I will never get the quality of fish they have or be able to prepare it as well as they do.
2. It’s simple stuff and that is the hardest food of all to pull off because you can’t masque imperfections
3. It’s a most plain, un-embellished place. The restaurant is in a basement on a residential street behind Edgeware road. There is nothing on the walls, the seating is wooden, the tables are small, and the ceiling is low. One side has a small window where you can see people’s feet as they walk by. And it doesn’t matter at all because the food is so captivating.
4. This one is kind of a sub-point to 3. It’s not a reverential place; you don’t go there to genuflect at the altar fine dining. It’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to how I feel when I eat at home, except I’ve got no washing up to do.
5. They have flavor combinations that I love, relying a lot on sour whether through lime, lemon, yuzu or even vinegar and mostly doing away with perennial (and much too salty) soy and the neon wasabi. Read more of this post

Melrose and Morgan, Awakening Number 3

Food and I didn’t start out as fast friends. Far from it. I was a pernickity eater as a child. I only ate eggs, fried; chicken, breadcrumbed and panned; fries, hand cut – obviously and no thicker than 5 mm. If those things were not available then no amount of bartering or pleading would induce me to eat. I simply abstained. It goes without saying that I was a very skinny, very annoying child.

By my teenage years I discovered junk food. Things like frozen French fries doused in so much thousand island dressing that they sagged on the plastic fork like limp spaghetti. At home a meal that featured quite a lot was pasta with butter and feta cheese. Every now and then the posh supermarket at the end of our road would import some American cake mixes. My sister and I would make them together and marvel at how good they tasted.  That was one of the highlights in our sleepy Athens suburb. I can’t boast about eating in Michelin starred restaurant as a wee tot like Jay Rayner or mastering a perfect victoria sponge by age 7 like Nigel SlaterAll this to say that the foodie I am today is the result of a slow evolution, a meandering path through some questionable tastes with 3 pivotal food awakenings.The first was moving to Paris when I was 17 and discovering a complex and fascinating world of food, of do’s and don’t’s. Do eat cheese after a meal, never for breakfast.

The second was that after squandering my twenties trying to fit into a variety of moulds I thought would be suitable for me and acceptable for my family and friends I decided to literally screw it and try something radically different. A hobby I had been nurturing furtively which seemed to make me happy but also seemed to be rather frivolous.Enter Leiths. I originally enrolled for just one term, then the second and finally the third. I was convinced that this was it, I had discovered what truly animated me. My enthusiasm got me through many restaurant doors but my lack of skills constantly sabotaged me. It all went pear shaped after a 4 daylong stint at Ottolenghi, where I was moved from salads, to pastry and back to salads again. Like a hot potato that no one wanted to hold for too long. Even before the talk with Yotam, I knew it was not going well.

This is a 5 year old picture

Maybe it speaks of a good life for which I should be grateful but that rejection confounded me. How could it be that after 10 directionless years, I had found something I truly loved and adored and it just… Well it just didn’t love me back? I had no idea how to process that reality. Read more of this post

Hedone, Produce Led Food, Chiswick, London

Timeout London has this stamp sized rubrique that I love entitled “Lies to Tell Tourists“. This week it’s: “Hyde Park only has one corner, making it a mathematical phenomenon.” Submitted by@TomGoodliffe through Twitter.  Even without Timeout, there are some pitfalls to navigate for tourists as many of them trying to get to ‘Liechester Square‘ (Leicester pronounced Lester) will know.  Or take this restaurant in ChisWICK, pronounced Chisik.  It’s called Hedone, from the Greek word meaning pleasure.  I know how to pronounce Hedonistic but Hedone? Is the e silent or not?

My good friend Andrew of the blog LDNEATSNYC is always asking me why I go to Michelin restaurants?  The answer is, because eating at a good one is a bit like getting a front row seat at a catwalk show. Sure, no one bar Lady Gaga wears that stuff but it’s the pinnacle of food fashion.I enjoy eating in them on occasion. The good ones, like Aqua last weekend, in particular. However the food venue (I don’t want to say restaurant because that format doesn’t appeal to me)  that I have been building up in my imagination over the years is the polar opposite of a 3 starred Michelin place. In fact, it’s a lot more like Hedone.

It relies on exemplary produce and traditional preparation and cooking techniques.  An idea and ideal that Mikael Jonsson explains very well on his Gastroville webpage.

Hedone has only been open since July but already a positive write-up in the Financial Times and one by Guy Dimond for Timeout have made it difficult to get a reservation.  Even out in Chiswick.

I was astounded by our first starter; a small fillet of mackerel and 3 raw cauliflower florets, blindingly white, dressed in a little lemon and olive oil.  Daring.  Ha! I had seen nothing yet.  Next starter, a quarter of an onion that has A.O.P denomination from Cévennes in France (from which it takes its name), one paper-thin slice of pear-collapsed over itself and a puddle of dressing.  A quarter of an onion? In a menu of 4 courses for £50.  What a statement.  It would have been awkward if that onion couldn’t stand up to the hype, if it wilted in the spotlight. But it didn’t, it shined and was all the more incredible imbued with the confidence of a chef who saw its star potential.

Read more of this post

Spuntino, Small Dishes, London

Small dishes.  I don’t know if we’ve been conditioned by our years of channel flicking to be unable to commit.  Whatever it is, I like it.  It’s very much a part of my culinary history being half Jordanian and growing up in Greece.

Spuntino is the third restaurant in the portfolio of Russell Norman and Richard Beatty (they’ve previously done two Italian restaurants Polpo and Polpetto).  It’s American inspired food served in a chic distressed interior, with chipped glazed tiles.  You eat at the wrap around bar where you are served by gorgeous young things that look like their other job is posing for American Apparel adverts.  Besides being easy on the eye, the kids have a casual serving technique, sauntering over nonchalantly to give me a tin mug of warm chili popcorn while I studied the menu.I get the spicy mackerel slider (£4.50), panzanella (£5.50)  salad and the soft shell crab with tabasco mayonnaise (£8.50).  Tabasco mayonnaise? inspired.  In my head I go: “yes, Yes, YES!” and mentally pound on the counter Sally Albright style and the guy next to me reads my mind and says “I’ll have what she’s having.” Read more of this post

Dinner by Heston Blumenthal, London, UK

* “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” Cried the child in the tale of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Let me tell you, I felt a bond with that kid when I dined at Dinner.

It’s not that the food is bad but rather that it isn’t special enough to warrant a 4 month wait.  We are talking London after all, there are so many other options that are serving food that is as good and in a lot of cases a lot better. Read more of this post

Nopi, Ottolenghi’s Sibling, London, UK

*I will say it, I had my doubts about Nopi living up to the hype.  How could anything top Ottonlenghi?  Even if it was done by Yotam Ottolenghi himself (and it should be said, Sami Tamimi).  I should have never doubted the duo.

The food I had at Nopi was extraordinary.  Not because it relied on complicated techniques or spewed liquid nitrogen but because it was a complete synergy of flavours that is just awe-inspiring. And yes, I realize that I am talking about food and not…well I don’t know, something more worthwhile but being able to understand and amplify flavour like that, well it’s a little bit like magic.  Or like a perfumer, adept at taking individual smells and amalgamating them into new successful combinations.

The Burrata with peach and fennel seed dust (£12) was out of this world.  The combination was entirely new to me, in its totality it had an equal effect to what I imagine eating a peach for the first time must be like.  Fantastic.  Equally the non-fried doughnuts I had for dessert (made of brioche I was told) was just about the best yeasted thing to have passed my lips in a very long time. Read more of this post

Pollen Street Social, Jason Atherton, London, UK

*Paris in the morning, London by midday. Two cities that could not be more different. In Paris there are waif like women, gliding around in high heels.  Here, all styles are go. I saw a young Japanese girl on the tube wearing glasses with no lenses and so much mascara that about 1/3 of her eyelashes were on the other side of the frame. On my way home, two girls in hot pants with miniature dogs and Amy Winehouse do’s, were saying they were ‘stylists’.

In London there is creativity, a proclivity to gravitate towards anything new and money.  The combination results in a constantly changing and evolving restaurant scene, no way would you find a restaurant you used to eat at 20 years ago like I did in Paris. Read more of this post

London: Day 3, Borough Market, Barbecoa, Yashin

On Saturday, I visited Borough Market even though I knew all I would be able to do was stare wistfully at the gorgeous produce (rhubarb, purple sprouting broccoli, heritage breed meats to name a few) but it had been such a fixture of my London life that I had to go.  It was how I remembered it, except for the giant skyscraper that had mushroomed up since my last visit called ‘the shard‘ (sounds like a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?).  

I bought the obligatory Monmouth latte and then went over to Neal’s Yard where I had a free sliver of Coolea (based on the Gouda recipe but so much better!) and picked up a pot of thick yogurt with poached apple at the bottom for breakfast.  

I lost myself watching a whole side of pork being expertly butchered and resisted the urge to buy a bag of Mini Magoo’s addictive granola from the adjacent stand.
When in London, you must take every opportunity to cross a bridge. I am not really fussy about which one (although the Millenium bridge from the Tate Mordern to St Paul is a favourite). It’s easy to forget that London has the Thames running through it but cross a bridge and you see old and new architecture vying for prominent position in the London sky line. Read more of this post

London: Day 2, La Formagerie, The River Cafe, Morito

Friday started off ominously with a 10:30 am dentist appointment. This was the main reason that I had planned a trip to London. After a half hour appointment where we both babbled like spring brooks on our favorite subjects (he on skiing and me about food) he gave me all clear.  Hooray!  I was free to eat.I had a 2:15 lunch date at The River Cafe but being so close to Maryelebone High Street meant that I just had to pop into La Formagerie.  And once I was there, I simply had to order a small cheese plate - “2:15 is rather late for lunch”, my bad angel justified to the good angel sitting on my right shoulder and scolding me for gluttony.

If you’ve been to La Fomagerie before, you know exactly why I succumbed, if you haven’t, well…why on earth not? I must confess to craving cheese even less than I crave meat.  Not because I don’t like it but rather because there are so many inferior mass market concoctions out there, that I just can’t be bothered to consume the calories.  Not so with Patricia and Danny Michelson’s shop.  There is a large cheese room, with cheeses sitting prettily on straw mats in various stages of ripeness.  The cheeses come from small producers in Europe and the care and knowledge with which they are picked and stored means they are some of the best cheeses money can buy (a good source for British cheeses is Neal’s Yard Dairy, more on that tomorrow). Read more of this post

London: Day 1, Monmouth, Kopapa, Yauatacha

2 years after having my daughter and being at her beck and call constantly and exclusively, I went away for the weekend, alone for the first time. With plans to eat, drink and be merry.

The first two days I was giddy with euphoria and loving the freedom to do as I pleased, sleep uninterrupted and eat food that was still hot. By day 3 I was missing her a lot and turning most conversations back to the subject of how wonderful, clever, fill in the blank she is. By day 4, I wanted to go back in the mommy cage (gilded though it is). That is the conundrum of mother hood. 
I had the most ludicrously long and unrealistic list of things I wanted to see, places I wanted to eat at and people I wanted to meet. First up on my list was the newly opened Kopapa, a cafe and restaurant by Peter Gordon.  I once did a 14 hour stint of work experience for Peter Gordon at the Providores on Maryelebone.   I remember being very surprised that 70% of the kitchen staff were petite females and that the kitchen was miniscule with allocated workspaces of less than 50cm per chef!  There were plenty of ingredients in his kitchen I had never seen before and I took copious notes to look them up later (‘barba di frate‘, palm sugar are two examples).  Their dishes were refreshingly original and weird riffs on classics, like vegetarian dolmades filled with quinoa and herbs (of which I made over 100). Read more of this post


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