Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Coffee trials

Armed with an A-Z and a list of places gathered from reliable sources, I am embarking on a pilgrimage in search of good cafes and, more importantly, decent coffee. Unfortunately due to lifestyle choices (i.e sleep) I'm now a one coffee a day drinker - hence the importance that I place on that coffee- so it will be a slow journey.

Whenever I complained about the coffee in London people would ask "have you been to Bar Italia in Soho"? What better place to begin this pilgrimage than at the godfather of coffee houses.

A classic Italian espresso bar, if I wasn't sitting across the road from Ronnie Scott's I could swear I was in Pellegrini's in Bourke St Melbourne. Same floor bolted vinyl bar stools lining a long mirrored wall (not a bad hair day or large group venue), same nonchalant 'I could think of better things to do than wait on you' waiting staff and same mix of city workers, Italian men and groovy young things drawn in by the retro kitsch...

and the coffee: lovely strong Italian style coffee served in a normal sized cup with nice thickly textured milk; but relatively expensive at 2.50 (ludicrously expensive if you convert to Australian dollars but what's the point).

I just had the coffee but I did see some impressive paninis walking by including a prelude to a heart attack: a chicken schnitzel ciabatta sandwich.

Friday, 27 July 2007

The L word

Location location location keeps ringing in my ears. Every person I've spoken to in the restaurant industry tells me it will make or break your business. It's hard enough trying to find a good location when you know a city but having not lived in London for 12 years first thing I've had to is decide what area we want the cafe to be in. The selection criteria: inner city suburban area populated by high income professionals, ‘yummy mummys’, mobile/home based workers and preferably lots of affluent Australians/antipodeans who are desperately missing Australian style cafes. As for the site itself we want somewhere that gets morning sun, preferably a corner site, in a high visibility location like a retail strip, near or on the way to a train station and in an area where there are some competitors but not saturated with other cafes. Not too much to ask? Well it wouldn't be if the freaking Starbucks and Cafe Neros didn't take every site that meets that criteria. So we may have to compromise on a few things...

Another expression that rings in my ears: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.

I thought I'd found the perfect site on Fulham Rd. Not on a corner but it seemed to have everything else going for it in terms of location and was surprisingly cheap. Maybe I got a little blinded by the good location and price and didn't see the faults of the property itself. Or maybe I've watched too many shows like Renovation Rescue and have completely unrealistic expectations of what you can do as a low cost makeover. After getting an architect to run his critical eye over it I saw it in a different light- low ceilings, no windows or ventilation, only one entry point and a horrible musty damp smell that suggested bigger plumbing issues.

I also learned that you can't just get a mallet and knock out walls like they do on those home improvement shows when that wall is holding up a block of apartments.

So the search continues but at least I'm not the novice I was before. Now I know that windows and ventilation are important and that when the agent is strongly suggesting you get a building inspection before making an offer, they might be trying to tell you something.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Chutney on


Really, what doesn't taste better with a little chutney? Its the most versatile and nondenominational condiment, as happy with a curry as it is on a cheese sandwich.

Homemade chutney is in a league of its own yet few cafes seem to do it here. The punters that frequent the greasy spoons, and even quite upmarket places that do breakfast, prefer to douse their morning fry ups in HP sauce (generically known as brown sauce) tomato ketchup, vinegar and mustard.

Imagine a sausage and fried egg on a ciabatta roll with a nice bit of tomato chutney instead...mmm.

I stocked up on glass jars at the Savers shop on North End Rd (just like the Hot Potato shop on Sydney Rd in Brunswick), and have started honing my chutney making skills.

Peter Gordon, a New Zealand chef who co-owns the Providores and Tapa Room in London, is one of my food heroes. When I first opened his cook book I knew I had found a guru and a kindred spirit. He uses really unusual combinations of flavours, cuisines and textures - an approach which seems very antipodean to me for some reason. This is his recipe for nectarine chutney from his book, "A World in my Kitchen".

Roast nectarine chutney

15 nectarines, stoned and quartered
4 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
6 red onions, peeled and finely sliced
1 lemon, halved then finely sliced and de-seeded
2 tablespoons rosemary leaves
1 bouquet garni
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
250ml (8fl oz) cider vinegar
500g demerara sugar
3 teaspoons Thai fish sauce

Preheat oven to 200C/400F degrees. Put all ingredients except sugar and fish sauce into a large ceramic roasting dish. Mix well then place on upper shelf of oven and roast 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the mixture begins to reduce and colour, add sugar and fish sauce and cook further 30 minutes, stirring twice during this period. The chutney should be thick and the fruit still discernible in shape. (Continue cooking if too moist).

Spoon into sterile glass jars that you've had filled with hot water to prime, and wiped dry. Leave just 1/2 cm at top of jar. Seal while still hot and leave to cool. Store in fridge at least one week before eating. Refrigerate after opening.

Chutney made, what to eat it with? We were having people over for a barbecue the next night so I had to ignore Peter's instructions about leaving the chutney for a week (it makes a couple of 500ml jars anyway). To find a dish worthy of the chutney I turned to Karen Martini, another food guru for largely the same reasons that Peter Gordon is. She's a Melbourne chef who heads a restaurant called The Melbourne Wine Room. This is her recipe for barbecued quail from her book "Where the heart is". I thought it might be a bit fiddly picking meat off little quails so instead I used chicken marylands (or oyster cuts as they are called here- the thigh and leg portion still joined).

Cardamon, oregano and verjuice marinated quail
(Serves 6)

10 cardamon pods, seeds removed from husk
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, zested
2 teaspoons salt flakes
3 cloves garlic
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons died oregano
6 quails, butterflied, or 6 chicken thigh and leg joints (Marylands)
1 cup verjuice
lemon wedges to serve

To make the marinade, combine cardamon seeds, pepper, lemon zest and salt in a mortar and pestle and grind to a powder. Add garlic and half the oil and pound to form a paste. Stir in mustard, oregano and remaining oil.
Place quails or chicken in large dish, rub in marinade and pour over verjuice. Cover dish and place in fridge for at least 4 hours.

Drain marinade from quails/chicken then season with extra salt if desired. Preheat barbecue or oiled frying pan over medium heat and cook for 8-10 minutes or until cooked through and brown both sides. Serve with lemon wedges.

Continuing the slightly Middle Eastern theme I finished off dinner with a desert from the Moro cookbook which is a bible in my family.

Moro's yoghurt cake with pistachios
(serves 6)

3 large eggs separated
70g castor sugar
2 vanilla pods, split in half lengthways
350g yoghurt (greek yoghurt thinned with a little milk)
finely grated zest of 1 lemon and 1.2 orange
juice of 1 lemon
20g plain flour
30g shelled unsalted pistachio nuts roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 180C degrees and put a bain-marie of water in to warm on the middle shelf (Bain marie means a water bath so you just need to fill a deep baking tray with water for the cake to sit in).

Beat the egg yolks with three quarters of the sugar until thick and pale. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla pod and mix into the egg-sugar mixture. Add the yoghurt, lemon and orange zest lemon juice and the flour and mix well. In a separate bowl whisk up the egg whites with the remaining sugar until soft peaks form. Gently and evenly, fold the whites into the yoghurt mixture. Pour mixture into a 25cm round or square baking dish or a cake tin with a solid bottom, preferably stainless steel, or lined with greased proof paper. place the dish in the bain-marie making sure the boiling water comes halfway up the tin, and cook for 20 minutes. Then add the chopped pistachio nuts, sprinkling them gently on top, and continue cooking for further 20 minutes or until top is lightly brown. Consistency of the cake should be a light sponge with a wet custard below.

I served the cake with some creme fraiche and cherries that had been pitted and marinated for a couple of hours in balsamic vinegar (tablespoon), castor sugar (a sprinkling) and torn mint leaves (tablespoon).