Thursday, 13 December 2007

A day to preserve

Peering out my bedroom window this wintry morning I was greeted with a sky of grey. A lovely day for staying indoors and making chutney.

Most recipes tell you that chutneys benefit from ageing- anywhere from a month up to a year- to allow the flavours to mellow. The longest I’ve been able to hold off is about a week, the shortest, a day, which may be why my chutneys have a slightly wincey, sharp flavour. This time I’m determined to exercise some self control and give my chutney some time with itself. I’m also going to make plenty so at least some jars will sit on the shelf for awhile.

Tomato and capsicum chutney

1.5kg red tomatoes coarsely chopped
5 cloves garlic chopped
2 white onions finely diced
1 red capsicum, roasted, skin and seeds removed, finely diced
475ml cider vinegar
150g raisins cut in half
8 whole cloves
2.5 teaspoons chili powder
5 small red chillies finely diced
½ cup lime juice or lemon juice
½ tbs ground cumin
420g sugar
2 tsp salt
1 cinnamon stick broken in half
2+1/2 teaspoons fresh ginger, grated

Place tomato, garlic, onion and capsicum in large saucepan and slowly bring to the boil. Stirring occasionally, simmer 20-25 minutes. Place remaining ingredients in bowl and mix well to combine then add to tomato mixture and mix with wooden spoon. Continue to simmer for 11/4 hours, stirring occasionally. Take off heat, remove cinnamon halves and spoon into hot sterilised jars and seal. WAIT BEFORE USING.

Pear and tomato chutney

675g of pears peeled cored and cubed
8 cherry tomatoes quartered
175g light brown sugar
300mp cider vinegar
75g sultanas
2 cloves garlic peeled and chopped
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cloves
2 teaspoons mustard seeds

Place all ingredients in saucepan and cook gently over low heat for 1 + ½ hours, stirring frequently until the mixture has thickened. Spoon into 2 x 450g warm sterilised jars, seal and store in cool dark place for up to 6 months. WAIT BEFORE USING.

Beetroot and ginger chutney

225g onion, chopped
45g butter
3 tablespoons sugar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
450g raw beetroot, peeled and grated
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
25ml (1fl oz) sherry vinegar
120ml (4fl oz) red wine

Sweat the onions slowly in the butter (they should be very soft) and add sugar and seasoning. Then add the rest of the ingredients and cook gently for 30 minutes. Pot the mixture in sterilised jars. WAIT BEFORE USING.

The chutneys of my labour.

And now I wait…

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The search for sausage (oo er)

It was a scene like Brad and Janet’s fated drive in the Rocky Horror Picture Show when my sister and I took a wrong exit from the motorway one dark and rainy night heading down to Wiltshire for the weekend. As we veered off the M3 prematurely the headlights shone on a sign by the road, partially obscured by overgrown grass: “Olde Forde Farm Shop next left”. We gasped in unison – our city slicker cunning telling us that if it was olde it must be goode.

The next day we drove up and down the M3 trying to find the sign again to no avail.
Finally we drove into a little town and stopped to ask at a delicatessen that was promoting itself as a supplier of local produce. Surely they’d know all of the farm shops in the surrounding area. Unbelievably they did know the farm shop because they were it - they’d relocated from the farm into town but had never bothered to remove the sign. Despite my initial suspicions and disappointment that we weren’t going to see haystacks and chickens running around our feet we decided to trial their sausages for the cafe. By god they were tastee.

The cook off

The tasting plate

The performers from left to right are: Pork and herb sausage; Hickory smoked pork sausage; Traditional pork sausage; Old Forge special sausage. Unfortunately they had sold out of their traditional breakfast sausage which is their biggest seller.

And the winner for best performance as a sausage goes to....Traditional pork sausage.

Our tasting notes for the file

1. Traditional pork: * Best. Good flavour and texture. Still quite salty.
2. Hickory smoked pork: Strong taste of smoking. Frankfurter style.
3. Old Forge special: Sage comes through. Drier than 1 and 2.
4. Pork and herbs: Quite dry - very herby but no clear flavour.


For this performance, Sausage co-starred with Spinach and Lentils. As one of the true veterans of the culinary stage, Sausage has performed at many venues throughout the world with a wide variety of co-stars. Some would argue it was happiest in a bun with T Sauce or on a plate with its old friends Mash and Onion Gravy. But like all seasoned performers, Sausage has adapted to modern times and now finds itself working with some of the rising stars of gastro theatre such as Puy Lentil.

This is a really easy and yummy recipe for lentils from Peter Gordon’s book ‘A World in My Kitchen’. It has a subtle asian flavour because of the soy and ginger but it doesn’t steal the limelight from Sausage.

Puy Lentils (serves 4 as a side)

1 large red onion
60ml olive oil
1 clove garlic peeled and finely chopped
1 teaspoon of ginger- grated
100g puy lentils rinsed and drained
4 teaspoons soy sauce
4 teaspoons vinegar
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses

Finely dice half the onion and fry in oil until it begins to caramelise. Add garlic and ginger and cook a little more. Add lentils, soy and enough water to cover by 1cm. Bring to the boil, cover and simmer 20 minutes. If still chewy and the water has gone, add extra hot water and cook until lentils are al dente. Heat remaining oil and add other half of the onion finely sliced. Cook until caramelised. Add vinegar and cook to evaporate it then add pomegranate molasses and bring to the boil. Serve lentils with dollop of yoghurt and onions.

Sauteed spinach

Rinse spinach and drain. In a frying pan heat a tablespoon of olive oil. Add 1 sliced clove of garlic and fry for about 10 seconds before adding the spinach. Toss to cover with oil, season with salt and pepper and then cover with a lid and turn heat right down. Cook for a few minutes until spinach is cooked to your liking.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Life in the Hills

Part 1: Notting Hill

Since I arrived in London I’ve been a little hobo with no fixed address –waiting to see where the café will be before finding permanent lodgings nearby. After exhausting my couch credit with family I’ve lucked upon a succession of house sits through friends, friends of friends, and friends who know people who need more friends (ie someone to feed their cats and water their plants when they go on holiday).

Three of my sits have been in west London, Notting Hill, a far cry from the western suburbs that I’m familiar with. London ‘westie’s’ don’t smoke winnie blue’s or do burnouts in the ford on a Friday night. Instead they live large with big sunglasses, big trust funds and big attitude. The ratio of café per capita is also high. Here are some of my picks.

Tea's Me

129a Ladbroke Grove

A very sweet little café hidden down a side st near the Ladbroke Grove Tube. It has a slightly French tea salon feel, a small but fine looking breakfast/lunch menu and some tasty looking salads, tarts and cakes on display.

While the coffee is not amazing, the atmosphere is cosy with a communal table, newspapers and tea (not coffee) served in mismatched china cups and saucers.

Coffee Plant

180 Portobello Rd

Hardly a discovery as there are queues out the door of a weekday morning with locals willing to stand in line for a real coffee before they embark on their commute into the world of coffee chain stores. On a weekend its also rammed as it is smack bang in the middle of Portobello markets.

Definitely the best coffee in Notting Hill and coffee is what they do –roast, retail and wholesale. The café is really just a sideline which explains the rough and ready fitout and limited food options. The staff are young cool cats with confidence but in a good way, and don’t mind telling customers who want an extra hot semi skim decaf hazelnut latte that there’s a Starbucks down the road. They also put on a good show with one barista focusing on milk texturing and another doing the coffee extraction. I find the music slightly louder than is enjoyable - maybe the staff have damaged their hearing with too much volume on the ipod. Maybe I'm getting old.

The Electric Brasserie

191 Portobello Rd

This place is usually so full of Notting Hill knobs that it is worth going just to sit and eaves drop on the surreal conversations taking place around you. Beautiful 30-40 somethings keep one eye on their companion and one eye on the door to see if anyone more fabulous than their companion has arrived.

The coffee and service is actually pretty good and I love the stylised retro fitout - in keeping with the art noveau/deco architecture of the cinema its attached to. Good selection of newspapers too if you get bored of eaves dropping, or your companion. My eyes did water at the cost of a coffee- 2.50 but I guess they know their market.

The Grocer on Elgin

6 Elgin Crescent

More of a takeaway deli than a café, The Grocer is targeting the time poor (and lazy), well heeled foodie demographic in Notting Hill and Chelsea (Grocer on King). Want to feel like you're having a home cooked meal without really having to cook? Enter the gourmet 'ready meal'. I’m amazed at what they manage to seal in a plastic pouch- beef cheeks braised in red wine, duck curry, moroccan tagine... For the uber lazy you can even get sides like steamed rice and mustard mash. They also do sandwiches, salads, cakes and pastries etc. As for groceries, there aren’t many but you can buy Tim Tams and vegemite- the owners are Antipodeans. There are a few tables and chairs if you do want to sit and don’t mind the sterile stripped back design or the hum of the refrigerators. It seems strange that they’ve bothered to provide seating and then done nothing to make it a pleasurable space to sit- would a bit of music hurt? But I digress- the coffee...

like everything digestible at Grocer, is well executed - smooth in flavour if a little on the weak side so I'd ask for it strong, and to go.

Tom’s Deli
206 Westbourne Grove

Firstly, I have to declare my interest as I’ve been working at Tom’s for the last few months as the weekend café manager ie. door bitch and crowd controller. It amazes me that people are willing to queue for a table on the weekend for up to 30 minutes and then wait another 30-40 minutes for their eggs with an egg sauce (the Eggs Benny, Flo and Royale are high demand items at Tom's at any time of the day). It also reassures me that Londoners are desperate for good food in a casual café environment. Tom's is one of the few places in this part of London that is serious about casual cafe food yet has a relaxed quirky atmosphere - which is why I wanted to work here.

Iza, the weekend barista, always manages to keep her cool no matter how long the queue. Tom's prides itself on its strong coffee – two and a half shots is the standard – and the punters seem to like it. There is a traditional deli downstairs with all sorts of exotic gastronomic delights including cooked meals to take away.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Dancing with the Aga at Duncan's

One weekend a month my sister and her family head off to Wiltshire where they stay in a cottage owned by their friend Duncan. Over the last couple of years the weekend at Duncan’s has become an indispensable ritual in my sister’s life – pack up and head off from London on Friday night after work, arrive late and collapse into bed, wake up Saturday morning to a view of rolling hills and fields with sheep and beautiful dopey cows. The village itself is a small windy street of thatched cottages with a church and a bus stop. No shops, not even a pub (whoever heard of an English town without a pub?). But best of all no broadband or mobile phone coverage. Ah the serenity.

There is very little to do at Duncan’s other than read and, of course, cook. Before I’d been to the cottage my sister had told me about the amazing oven – a Swedish designed cast iron Aga. I’d never heard much about Agas but after a few months living in England have discovered that they are quite the thing to have. Definitely a cold climate accoutrement as the Aga is always on which means it does make it toasty in the kitchen.

The beauty of the Aga is supposedly in the flavour of the food as it uses a less drying, gentler form of heat to cook. The tricky part is you can’t really set the oven temperature. You ‘find the heat’ according to the smug instruction book and learn where to position the food in the different parts of the Aga to get the desired result. For example, you start a roast chicken on the top shelf of the top oven to get a crispy skin then transfer to the bottom oven for a slower cooking heat; boil water in the centre of the left hand hotplate; gently simmer on the edge of the right hand hotplate etc etc.

It feels a bit like learning to dance with a partner. You can’t just close your eyes and boogie like you’re the only person on the disco floor. You have to dance in step and sometimes even let your partner take the lead.

The Aga and I danced the weekend away and together we found the heat.

Saturday lunch - a little two step

Carrot, thyme and orange soup with rosemary and onion bread


2 tbls olive oil
1kg carrots peeled and chopped into pieces
1 onion
clove garlic
about 1 litre stock
juice of ½ orange

Heat olive oil in large saucepan and sweat onions and garlic gently for about 15 minutes. Add carrots, thyme, then the stock and turn up heat to bring to the boil.

Simmer until carrots are tender. Remove from heat. Blend soup and then add orange juice and reheat. Season with salt and pepper and serve with bread.

Rosemary and onion bread

(makes 1kg loaf)

1 onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic crushed
2 teaspoons chopped rosemary
Heat oil in fry pan and slowly fry onions until translucent and sweet- about 10-15 minutes. Add garlic and fry another 2-3 minutes.
Mix in the rosemary and leave to cool.

500g wholemeal plain flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 sachets fast action dried yeast
310 ml warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil

Mix flour, salt and yeast together in large bowl. Stir in the warm water and olive oil. Work to a dough and knead well (about 10 minutes until it becomes springy and bounces back when you poke it with your finger). Roll out the dough into a short, thick oblong shape. Make holes along the top with your finger and spoon over the onion mixture. Roll dough around the filling and knead briefly.

Shape into a loaf and place into well greased loaf tin. Cover and leave to prove in a warm place for approximately 40 minutes until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 220 degrees. Glaze loaf with a beaten egg. Bake in preheated oven for 25-30 minutes until well risen and golden. It should sound hollow when you tap it with your finger. Allow to stand in the tin for 10 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool.

Saturday dinner - the tango

Boef en daube followed by apple and blackberry crumble

Recipe from the Divertimenti cookbook by Camilla Schneideman (serves 6)

1.5 kg chuck steak or shin of beef cut into large cubes
350g streaky bacon
5 cloves garlic bashed with flat of knife
1 can plum tomatoes, with juice and seeds from tomatoes discarded
6 strips of orange zest
1 ½ glass of red wine
2 teaspoons herbs de Provence or if using fresh herbs, 6 sprigs of thyme, 2 sprigs rosemary, 6 sprigs parsley and 1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Cut bacon into thin strips and fry gently in a heavy pan until fat is translucent and begins to brown. While bacon is cooking, mix together the meat, garlic, tomatoes and orange zest in an oven proof casserole. Add the bacon and salt and pepper. In the pan used to cook the bacon, heat the red wine, deglazing the pan with a wooden spoon to release any sediment. When bubbling, pour over meat in pot.

Put on the lid and transfer to the oven. Once simmering (about 15 minutes) turn the oven down to 140 degress and cook gently for further 2+1/2-hours until meat is tender.

The stew has a thin sauce like French casseroles rather than the thick Italian type ragouts. I served it with mash and string beans dressed with lemon, oil and salt and pepper.

Apple and blackberry crumble (serves 6)

2 cups black berries
6 apples peeled, cored and sliced
2 tbls castor sugar
pinch ground cinnamon
2 cups plain flour
110g cold unsalted butter
½ cup light brown sugar
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 190 degrees
Put apples in pan with sugar and sprinkling of water. Gently cook until apples start to soften. Stir in black berries and cinnamon. Place in 25 x 20cm baking dish.
Mix dry ingredients together. Cut butter into small pieces and rub it through the dry ingredients with fingertips until it resembles dry bread crumbs. Sprinkle mixture over the fruit and bake for 40 minutes till top is golden.

Sunday brunch - lets rumba

Egg and baked bean tart

A little while ago I made egg and baked bean pie's for one. Here is the group version for 6. This time I thought I'd try a different baked bean recipe and I reckon this one's the winner. I had to cheat a little and use tinned haricot beans as I couldn't find any dry beans as I sprinted around the Tesco store in Salisbury on Friday night before jumping on the last bus to Duncan's.

Baked beans

3 tins haricot beans
4 slices maple smoked bacon
1 onion finely chopped
400g canned tomatoes mashed
1 tbls brown sugar
2 tbls wostershire sauce
1 bay leaf
1 star anise
1 teasp sea salt
½ tsp black pepper
1 extra tbls brown sugar
2 tbls chopped fresh mint

Cut rind from bacon and cut into cubes. Cook bacon and chopped onion in base of lidded ovenproof casserole until bacon is slightly crisp and onion soft. Add tomatoes, brown sugar, maple syrup, wostershire, bay leaf, star anise, salt and pepper and mix well.

Add the beans which have been drained and rinsed, together with 2 cups cold water. Stir and cover tightly. Bake for 2 hours adding a little water if dry. Sprinkle with extra brown sugar and bake uncovered for another 20 minutes until glazed on top. Remove from oven an stir through the fresh mint.

I cooked the beans on Saturday afternoon and then assembled the tart Sunday morning. You need a 28cm pastry case. Follow the same recipe as for the individual pies or use frozen pastry. Heat the beans and spoon into the pastry case which has been blind baked. Make six holes in the beans with a spoon and then gently crack the egg into the hole. Cook in a hot oven for 20 minutes or until the eggs are just set.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Veg box orders and disorders

I’ve inherited from my mum and dad an almost self-destructive hatred of food wastage. ‘Use by’ dates were scoffed at in our house and if fuzzy mould appeared on tomato paste, jams or cheese it was never a reason to throw it out. It could always be remedied by a quick scraping with a metal spoon and a declaration of ‘its perfectly fine’. As a result my favourite way of cooking is to create a meal out of the ingredients that I have in the fridge and pantry, especially if it means using up something before it goes limp or mouldy.

This process has become infinitely more interesting and challenging since I’ve been staying with my sister as she has an organic fruit and veg box delivered each week. Its potluck what comes as they provide you with whatever is in season. Sadly, Wednesdays have become the highlight of my week when Chris delivers the box and I see what mystery ingredients I have to work with. Will I be able to rise to the challenge and use all the contents of the veg box before next week's delivery? I have to admit that the kohlrabi and turnip season was a particularly lucrative period for the compost bin.

Anxiety associated with optimum utilisation of organic Veg Boxes is fast becoming a new yuppie syndrome – if you need a support group or suggestions on what to do with challenging vegetables visit the Veg Box Diaries.

For the last few weeks there has been a continuous and slightly monotonous supply of zucchinis (courgettes to the Brits). After barbecuing, steaming, and ratatouilling them I decided it was time to gratinate the little mo fos.

This recipe is inspired by a 70’s-esque dish my mother used to make. Mum’s used grated potato rather than zucchini and was usually made on a night they were going out because it is quick and she could make it ahead of time.

Zucchini Gratin


1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion finely diced
70g cubed pancetta
500g or 4 medium sized zucchini, grated
1 tsp fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons fresh mint
¾ cup mature cheddar cheese
1 cup self raising flour
4 eggs
1 cup buttermilk
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
handful of sliced mushrooms or sliced tomato for the top.

Preheat oven to 200C. Line a slice tin with non-stick baking paper so that it overhangs on all sides. Heat oil in frying pan and cook pancetta until lightly brown, then add onion until softened but not coloured. Remove from heat, stir in rosemary and cool.

Squeeze any excess liquid from grated zucchini and add to cooled onion mixture with grated cheese and flour.

In a bowl lightly beat eggs with buttermilk and season with salt and pepper. Stir in chopped mint. Add wet ingredients to dry and mix until just combined. Pour into the tin and arrange mushroom or tomato slices on top. Bake for 40 minutes or until firm in the centre. Allow it to cool and firm little before turning out to slice it.

Serve with a salad and of course…. chutney.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Off your bike

Wanting to take advantage of a rare Sunday off (I’m managing a café on weekends but that’s a story for another day) and an even rarer beautiful sunny day, I decided to cycle to the Sunday markets in Spitalfield. The day did not start well after an altercation in Hyde Park. A man took issue with me cycling in a no cycling section of the park (around 99% of the park) and actually grabbed me and tried to pull me off my bike. The fact that he could grab me shows how slowly and carefully I was riding your Honour. Despite Ken Livingstone's proclamations I haven't found London to be overly bike friendly. The unpleasant exchange ended with him yelling “Piss off back to your own country” and me replying “So you’re uptight, a knob AND a racist”. To which he surprisingly agreed.

By the time I reached the markets I was in desperate need of a coffee and in no mood for a frappuccino. I circled the markets and its surrounds before homing in on Market Coffee House on Brushfield St.

It had all the markings of a good coffee experience: next to a foodie mecca A. Gold, coffee served in small cups rather than mugs, lots of customers and friendly ones too who were happy to share tables, and some antipodean accents behind the counter. Maybe I’m racist when it comes to who I trust to make my coffee.

After a false start (in my still shaken state I ordered a white coffee and was handed a long black with cold milk) my persistence paid off and I was rewarded with a lovely latte.

All was well with the world again.

Thursday, 23 August 2007

A country showing

Many a happy memory is held of our annual family outing to the Queensland Royal Agricultural Show - or the Ekka as everyone calls it in my hometown, Brisbane. Eating strawberry icecream, watching the dog shows and the wood chopping competition, catching the chairlift from one end of the showground to the other, spending hours choosing the two show bags we were allowed, and huddling together on the stands in the main ring at night time to watch the fireworks with the crowd chanting ‘red’ 'blue’ ‘green’ as we tried to guess the next colour that would explode in the sky.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that my visit to a friend’s place in Wiltshire coincided with the Gillingham and Shafttesbury Agricultural Show. There were jousting knights, ferret races, large farm machinery and fashion for sale and best of all, a food tent showcasing the region’s finest produce. I will never look at a sausage the same way after sampling more than is healthy in one day- researching suppliers for the café.

Competition standard may not have been world class. Some dubious entries in the craft and home baking categories attracted harsh comments from the public viewing the entries on display...

but there was nothing shameful about the size of their vegetables.

These magnificent buddha-esque onions inspired me to bake a tart – practising for my entry next year in the vegetable tart category.

Goat cheese and caramelised onion tart

40g butter
4 large onions (relatively speaking- they don’t have to be the size of those pictured)
salt pepper
freshly grated nutmeg
120g goats cheese log
2 eggs
250 ml crème fraiche
24cm shortcrust pastry case baked blind (10mins with baking paper on, 10 minutes without)
2 sprigs lemon thyme

Preheat oven to 180 degrees.

Melt butter in large pan. Add onions and a good pinch of salt and cook stirring over medium to high heat until softened (about 5-10 minutes). Turn heat down to low, cover with a lid and leave to soften for about 30 minutes, stirring often. Remove lid and continue to cook until liquid is evaporated and the onions are a golden colour and have a jam like consistency (about another 30 minutes but depends on how much liquid you have to start with). Add salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste. Remove from heat and leave to cool.

Cut the goats cheese into slices about 5mm thick and then into halfmoons. Beat eggs with the crème fraiche until smoothly combined. Stir in the cooled onions and add salt and pepper to taste. Pour mixture into pastry case and arrange goats cheese slices over the top. Scatter over the thyme leaves and some ground pepper. Place tart in the oven and bake until golden and just set (about 25 minutes). Let stand for half an hour before serving.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

A different Bill

I don't mind admitting that it was with feelings of trepidation and preemptive envy that I made the trip to Brighton to visit Bill's Produce Store (no connection to the three Bill's cafes in Sydney set up by Bill Grainger). A gaping hole in the UK market is casual cafe dining for foodies - something that Australia has in abundance. From what I'd heard, Bill's in Brighton had a very Australian feel and did great breakfasts, salads and fresh juices. What if they were doing exactly what I'd envisaged for my cafe but better than I ever could?

After getting hopelessly lost (it's 100 North Rd Brighton, not North Street or Brighton Rd) we arrived at 1pm and were seated at the last free table. Literally ten minutes later there was a queue - not bad for a weekday considering Bill's is by no means small (looks like it seats over 60). Its a food store/cafe housed in what feels like a shed with high ceilings, crates of fresh fruit and vegetables in the front, a cafe in the back half and shelves of upmarket pantry items like chutneys, vinegars and oil lining the walls throughout. I don't know how many people actually buy any of this stuff; no-one while we were there. But despite the slightly staged look, it all lends itself to the farm-shop, rustic atmosphere they are trying to create.

They have managed to fit a lot of different offerings in a relatively small space with takeaway sandwiches, salads and cakes, a juice bar, the fresh produce and goods section and the eat in cafe which is clearly what most people come for. The menu marks it as more cafe than restaurant and is weighted towards breakfast which includes all the usual suspects - scrambled eggs, eggs benedict, pancakes, grilled mushrooms, etc. For lunch there are a selection of pizzas (thick based like a focacia and heavily loaded with ingredients) and quiches (English cafes are very fond of quiches) all on display, as well as a couple of daily specials written up on blackboards.

I had the steak sandwich (9 quid) which came as a gristly, though generously sized, piece of steak sandwiched in home made focaccia bread with horseradish mayonnaise and roast vegetables including roast parsnip, zuchini and sweet potato. I'm all in favour of mixing flavours and textures but I also think that if you use really fresh quality ingredients (which given the props and setting you assume they do) its better to keep it simple. I think the roast vegetables were a mistake.

Nothing is minimalist or understated at Bill's - portions are huge, flavours are mixed together with gay abandon, and the presentation is a little overwhelming. I gave up on desert because I couldn't see what any of the cakes looked like underneath the decorative flora and fauna.

And yes, the coffee is served in cups for giants with calcium deficencies.

In contrast to all the chaos and clutter going on in ingredients, presentation and people, the waiters are amazingly calm and efficient. We had excellent attentive service, although I did take issue with the man serving at the fruit and veg counter when he mocked my Aussie accent. Ah a cunning linguist: "You don't hear me making fun of your accent do you?" "Well go on then". So I gave him a rendition of my cockney accent, something I felt I'd honed from working at a jacket potato shop in Holborn 13 years ago: "I'll have a jacket wif beans and cheese and don't be shy wif the beans". Not bad he conceded "but you still sound like an Aussie". I didn't think he'd appreciate a history lesson explaining Australia's convict beginnings so I let it go.

All in all, nothing amazing about Bill's considering the hype - they are still way superior to most cafes I've been to in the UK and are obviously doing something right to be so popular. Maybe I was just unlucky but I was peversely happy to be a bit disappointed.