Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Thanks for the memories

I don't want to holiday in countries where the people aren’t passionate about their food. It's not a statement that I'm particularly proud of.  I feel it makes me sound a little shallow, dare I say greedy, but a large part of the enjoyment of any holiday for me is eating. I know you could argue that every country has its culinary gems and sometimes as a tourist you just have to work a little harder to seek out, say, the best pork knuckles in a country like the Czech Republic, slowly sinking under the weight of its national cuisine.

Boiled pork knee with mustard in Prague

When holidays are as few, short and precious as mine, I want a sure thing. Easy wins. A gastronomic guarantee. 

Ciao Sicily. The Italians’ obsession with food and seasonal produce hits you at every turn.

The thing that strikes me most about Italy, particularly after living in London for a few years, is how proudly untrendy Italian food is.  The London food scene is an ephemeral creature, constantly changing as it embraces the latest food trend. 

Honest Burger in Soho

I can barely keep count of the rash of burger joints and southern BBQ diners opening across London. Last year London dining was all about small plates, sliders and Argentinian steak. In complete contrast, the Italians have a national cuisine and restaurant culture which is determinedly oblivious to fads and food trends. Their cuisine is deeply entrenched, regional, seasonal and seemingly unchanging. Even in Sicily, a part of Italy that has been repeatedly invaded, the culinary influences of the Greeks, Spanish and Arabs, while present, never overshadow the strong Italian backbone of the cuisine.

Just because Italian cuisine is unchanging, it is by no means unexciting. Ironically, Italian chefs appear even more creative when they are able to breathe fresh life into the dishes and combination of ingredients that have been cooked and eaten for generations.

Nowhere was this more poetically demonstrated than at La Madia; an unassuming restaurant, hidden in a small industrial town in Southern Sicily, that's deservedly attained Michelin status. Every dish was unique, inventive and indescribably delicious, yet firmly underpinned by Sicilian classic dishes and ingredients. 

Mozzarella, basil and tomato
Octopus salad
Spaghetti with tomato and aubergine
Red mullet arancini
The chef, Pino Cuttaia, in explaining his approach to cooking in the introduction to his menu, sums up the Italian food philosophy:
"I am always asked if there is a food product in my kitchen I couldn’t live without or an ingredient that best represents my way of cooking. Actually there is one ingredient that more than any other defines my idea of cooking. My secret ingredient is my memory. Each one of my dishes has a sprinkle of memory in it."

Thanks for the memories Pino.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Supper Club

Every second Thursday we hold an event at Lantana called ‘Supper Club’. A bit of a misnomer perhaps. It’s not held in someone’s living room or a disused warehouse, it’s not secret or exclusive, and the food isn’t prepared by enthusiastic home cooks finding a creative release from their day job.

I don’t really know what ‘supper’ is anyway. It was never a term used in our Australian household. I’ve since learned that, as with most things in England, the terms ‘Supper’ and 'Club' are riddled with class undertones, far too complex for me to ever appreciate.

Name aside, the idea for our Supper Club came after having a chat to one of our chefs about a delicious sounding meal he’d cooked for his friends at home. It got me thinking. What would our chefs cook for our Lantana customers if they could cook whatever they liked? The only constraints being, it has to be a 4 course set menu for £30.

So far we’ve held 4 and each one has been confirmation of the personalities and talents of our chefs.  Head chef George is stoically British in his style, choice of ingredients and presentation. 

Smoked mackerel broth with spring vegetables 
Slow braised pigs cheeks with potato gratin and fennel and watercress salad
George in action

Adam, our Australian chef in Lantana Out, is typically Aussie in his approach using big bold flavours with a multicultural fusion bent and a more laid back style of presentation.  

Prawn and sweet corn fritter wrapped in butter lettuce with nuoc cham dipping sauce
Roasted shoulder of pork with steamed pak choy, crisp fried shallots and fragrant herb noodle salad 

They wear their personalities on the plate. 

So call it what you will, Chef’s Gone Rogue, Chef’s at Play or a City Supper, it’s on every second Thursday night, £30 for four courses including a welcome cocktail on arrival. The next one is August 30th and this time sous chef Janine, raised in Scotland with a French mother, has defied my cultural stereotypes and come up with a Middle Eastern menu.
Beetroot gazpacho
Aubergine, pomegranite and crispy pork belly fattoush
Oxtail tagine w wheatberry and almonds
Orange and almond cake w greek yoghurt

For bookings email Bar open from 7.30, dinner served from 8pm.  

George's recipe for Pig's cheeks braised in red wine with potato gratin and a fennel, watercress apple salad.
Serves 4. 
12 pig’s cheeks
A bottle of good red wine
Mirepoix (1 carrot, 1 stick celery, 1 small onion, 1 leek, 2 cloves garlic roughly chopped)
500ml chicken stock
Olive oil

Marinate the pig’s cheeks in the red wine overnight. Make sure the red wine covers the meat and ideally turn the meat a few times. The following day, remove the pig’s cheeks from the red wine and pat dry. Reserve the red wine.

Heat the olive oil in a large pan and sear the pig’s cheeks to colour them. Set aside.

Heat a little extra olive oil and add the vegetables to the pan on full heat. Cook until they are caramelised and completely soft. You want to get good colour on the vegetables as this will form the basis of your sauce. Once they are caramelised, deglaze the pan with a splash of the reserved wine.

Transfer the vegetables to a stockpot, add the pig’s cheeks and the rest of the wine. Leave uncovered on a fairly brisk heat and let it bubble away until the volume of the wine is halved. Make a mark on the side of your saucepan so you know when it has reduced by half.

Add the stock so the meat is just about covered. Braise very slowly and gently for three hours with the lid on until the pig’s cheeks are tender. When cooked, remove the pig’s cheeks and set them aside.

Pass the sauce through a fine sieve to remove all the vegetables (discard) then put the liquid back in the pot. Leave the lid off and reduce the sauce again until it’s thickened to a good consistency. When ready to serve, warm the pig’s cheeks in a little sauce then serve with more of the sauce and the following accompaniments.

Potato Gratin
Knob of butter for greasing
750g waxy potatoes , such as Desirée
150ml full-fat milk
142ml carton double cream
1 garlic clove , peeled and halved
2 sprigs thyme

Heat oven to 160C. Grease gratin dish generously with butter.

Peel and slice the potatoes thinly (on a mandolin if possible) to about 2mm thickness. Put in a pot of cold water so they don’t discolour.

Pour the milk and cream into a pan and add the garlic and thyme. Heat to boiling point then reduce heat and thicken slightly. Cool a little before straining into a jug.

Pat the potatoes dry and layer half in the dish, overlapping the slices, sprinkling each layer with a little salt and pepper. Pour over half the liquid and finish layering, then add the rest of the liquid.

Bake for 1-1¼ hrs until the potatoes are tender and the top is golden.

Shaved fennel, apple and watercress salad
1 bulb fennel
1 lemon juiced
1 apple
Handful of watercress
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salt and pepper

Peel and slice the apple to about 2mm thickness and put into a bowl of water that’s had half a lemon squeezed into it.

Finely shave the fennel on a mandolin and toss in the juice of the other half lemon to prevent discolouration.

Drain the apple, pat dry and cut into match sticks. Mix with fennel, olive oil, watercress, salt and pepper.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Thankless jobs

Fashionably late, Salvation Jane was officially launched 6 weeks after opening. Less fashionable or forgivable is the lateness of my thankyous.  Well after midnight I stood on a chair and said something heartfelt along the lines of a speech I’d prepared and had intended to give much earlier in the evening when there were more people in the room and less cocktails in me.  In case I actually did just slur “Iloveyousall” to the handful of family, friends and members of the band committed to drinking the bar dry, here is what I meant to say….

Tonight is my way of saying thank you because in the 3 and a half years I’ve been running a cafe, I’ve rarely taken the time to stop and enjoy a drink with the people who make the business what it is - staff, suppliers, customers and industry people.

It doesn’t feel that long ago that I was living a very different life as a policy advisor in Melbourne. A couple of months before I was due to fly to London on my one way ticket, I took a day off work to attend an industry seminar at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival. It was called something like Tips for Success in Running a Restaurant and had a panel of industry stalwarts including two of my heroes: Sam Clarke from Morro in London and Alla Wolf Tasker from the Lakehouse in Daylesford, just outside Melbourne. I went along expecting to feel inspired and reassured about the huge career change I was about to make from public servant to restaurateur. Instead, the talk turned into a therapy session for the room full of chefs and restaurant owners, all talking over the top of each other about the hardships they’d faced in running their businesses – difficulties of location, finding and retaining good staff, the power of reviewers to make or break your restaurant, trying to maintain passion when you are so physically exhausted from the long hours...and on and on.

I sat there feeling the panic rise. At the end of the session I went up to the table of speakers and asked them: "Knowing all that you now know would you still choose the career you have?" Alla Wolf Tasker didn’t hesitate. She looked me in the eye and said “Absolutely. There’s nothing like the excitement and theatre of hospitality. Each day is a new performance; the table is set, the audience arrives and you put on a show.”

It’s true. Despite all the challenges that are continuously thrown at the team at Salvation Jane and Lantana, they are greatly outweighed by the rewards (I hope). When we’ve had a successful service where everything runs smoothly and customers tell you how much they enjoyed themselves, you understand the unquantifiable pay off for working in this industry. One of the biggest and unexpected rewards I’ve received is meeting so many wonderful and talented people from all walks of life who share the same passions as me - from the staff at Lantana and Salvation Jane, people working at other London restaurants and cafés, to our suppliers and customers. It is an incredibly creative, enthusiastic and supportive community which I feel so privileged to now be a part of. 

The only two people I want to single out for special thanks are our two head chefs who don't often hear the gushing about their food directly from our customers. George Notely at Lantana and Tim Dorman at Salvation Jane.

They are an absolute joy and pleasure to work with. I know I can be a pain in the arse sometimes but the reason we do work well together is because we are all obsessive perfectionists who will wake up in the middle of the night because we’ve realised there’s a typo in the new menu and can be put into a bad mood for an entire day by a careless mistake like over blanching the green beans. They are both serious and talented chefs who continue to make me incredibly proud,  

This is not one of our real dishes

and smile.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

One man's weed is a farmer's treasure

From the dirt, 

new life has emerged.

Introducing the latest cafe to gain a foothold on English soil, Salvation Jane

Like it's sister cafe, Lantana, Salvation Jane's namesake is an Australian weed. 

Introduced into Australia in the 1880s as an ornamental plant by an English settler named Jane Patterson, this adventurous little plant had other ideas. It spread uncontrollably, smothering all other flora, for which it earned its other name, Patterson's Curse.

Salvation Jane is what farmers called it because in drought times the hardy plant was a saviour to grazing livestock.  Farmers weren't the only ones to sing the praises of Salvation Jane. Aussie rock legends INXS  penned this tribute to our new cafe:

Wild wild flower of love
Salvation Jane
You've got the power to change
You're such an easy prey

Nine times the protector
Ten years and a day
Eleventh hour we're facing
Twelve o'clock in the sun

Oh mother nature
We're trying to kill you
Such greedy fools

Salvation Jane
Wild wild flower of love
Salvation Jane
Wild wild flower of love
You've got the power to change

Welcome back to England, Miss Jane. May you become a Shoreditch treasure.

Thank you to Tom Gildon for the beautiful photos- more to follow. 

Monday, 26 March 2012

Lantana 2

There has been something worrying me about Lantana 2.  

Grease 2, Caddyshack 2, Revenge of the Nerds 2.

Sequels. They are generally rubbish. Insipid shadows of their predecessors.

Since we put the word out that we are opening a second café, our Lantana regulars have been incredibly encouraging and excited, wanting to know where it is, when it’s opening, how big it is, whether it will be in the same style, have the same menu, will any of the Lantana staff work there? There is a level of expectation and anticipation for our second cafe that I didn’t have with Lantana.

With Part 1 you have the advantage of surprise.

The second time around we all knew the shy bookish wallflower could be transformed into a hot babe with a leather jacket.

Something dawned on me when I was at the site of the new cafe last week watching the throngs of people pouring out of the Old Street underground. London is a city of 7 million people. Lantana is a café with 35 seats. Not exactly a box office blockbuster.  

Lantana has its own unique character and identity because of its location, the regulars, its menu, the people who work there and the changes we’ve made to it over the three and a half years since it opened. Part 1 hasn't finished - its still running. Part 2 will have a whole new audience who might not have even seen the Original.

Maybe sequels are a bad metaphor. Its more like a series - Downtown Abbey, Masterchef, Mad Men. You can start watching at any point but there’s a little something extra for the returning audience who know that the Earl of Grantham should not be left alone with the female servants and that a chocolate fondant on Masterchef usually ends in tears. 

Maybe it is actually just a cafe in a city with a lot of people who like to eat and drink coffee. Maybe. But I’m still not going to call it Lantana 2 and I'm not going to attempt a chocolate fondant.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Can I hang your coat?

Duck Soup, Soho
I miss not paying attention to details in restaurants like coat hooks, napkins, and light fittings because right now I find it hard to actually focus on the food on my plate when I’m eating out. It’s like when you’ve been shopping for shoes, all you notice is what people are wearing on their feet. 

With the construction of café number two well underway I’m consumed once more by the myriad of choices I need to make, from the positioning of power sockets to bowls for serving muesli.  It’s a sobering thought to think that every single item in a restaurant has involved a person making such decisions.

Mishkins, Covent Garden
Mouse and DeLotz, Dalston
Corner Room, Bethnal Green
Duck Soup

So next time you eat out, pay the restauranteur the courtesy of at least noticing the toilet roll holder 

Duck Soup
and the stand where you put your umbrella.

They spent considerable time flicking through supplier catalogues, wasted hours on ebay and traipsed through antique markets at ungodly hours of the morning. I’m guessing.