Mystery, surprise and secrecy seem to be both shunned and embraced in London at the moment, with the juxtaposition of pop-ups, one-dish hideouts and clandestine venues now characterising many of London’s neigbourhoods. Sketch favours the surprise and delight technique, its many rooms sprinkled with quirky decorations and oddities, the food full of amusing little twists.
It’s famed for the brunch so off we went on a Sunday to try it out. First piece of advice, always check an establishment’s brunching hour. Pitching up at 1pm meant eggs were absolutely off the menu, much to my devastation. I soldiered on though and we were seated in The Parlour, a room that resembled the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Buckingham Palace (envisioned) and Pandora’s Box. This isn’t a space for fans of “matchy-matchy”.
The menu spans all sorts of wonderful treats you might just happen to be craving on at Sunday lunchtime, whether it be after a few wines the night before or not. From macaroni cheese to macaroons, this is truly feast territory. We chose the Sketch Club and Croque Monsieur, both long-standing features of the menu, and a side of creamed spinach, as you do. When my cappuccino arrived, overflowing in a delicate, super-chintzy teacup I knew what followed would certainly be rather different.
The Croque Monsieur is made with warm, soft, slightly chewy, squid ink bread, which is completely delicious. And totally unlike any other type of bread I’ve had before. The sandwich (if you can really call it that) is then triple layered with mozzarella, tomato, courgette and basil oil, a completely original take on a classic. Like the Club, it was cut into individual stacks, adding a real sense of ceremony. Club sandwiches, in my mind, are often butchered by hotel room service kitchens and it can be hard to elevate them to any noticable level of grandeur. Sketch pulls it off though, unsurprisingly. Serrano ham, Emmenthal and Thai mayo sit nestled above a layer of prawns, ham, coriander onions and beetroot jelly. Unique, to say the least and no towering layers of bland bread in sight, this is all about the scrumptious filling.
Sketch certainly leads you through the wardrobe into a fantastical land and with its sprawling dining rooms, each with different vibes and menus, I’m itching to go back. Not forgetting the famed egg, spaceship-style toilets of course.
As previously mentioned, Polpo’s visionary Russell Norman has looked to translate his approach to Venetian eating across his portfolio – to Mishkin’s, a Jewish-style deli and Spuntino, a burger joint in Soho (he got in there way before the rush). A few Fridays back I headed to Covent Garden to try the famed pickled delights at Mishkin’s, ready to dive head first into New York comfort food.
Comforting this place certainly is, walking in feels like stepping back into an unidentifiable childhood favourite. Formica tables, squeezy ketchup/mustard bottles, tins of cutlery, this place ain’t messing about. My companion described it as “kitsch”, far away from any hint of cheese, a trap easy to fall into. The staff totally look the part, one girl sported a “Kickers” beanie that looked older than her, and were extremely attentive, which one would expect at approximately £30 a head. Although given the décor, you’d almost expect to be greeted with a “whadda ya want??”.
A word here on the beverages, the bar pretty much only stocks gin, which for anyone who believes in the medicinal qualities of gin, is a dream come true. But when it came to ordering a much-needed digestif to cut through our carb-heavy meal, there was little to relieve us.
Right, down to the food… The menu is, at first glance, slightly intimidating especially for a British, non-Jewish punter like me. But the staff were extremely helpful, patiently talking us through some of the dishes. The New Yorker opposite me practically yelped with excitement as he recounted some of his childhood favourites. To begin we ordered the beef corndogs and green tomato ketchup and the roast beetroot, feta and lentil salad. I’d never had a corndog before (I know, gasp!) and it practically brought a tear to my eye. Delicate batter, a “proper sausage”… The only problem was that it was too small. And the ketchup was too sweet, I did drown mine in the red stuff after a while. The salad arrived on a blue and white china plate, which looked liked it might’ve emerged from my granny’s dresser, an unexpected touch. It was a wonderful combination of flavours: strips of endive added a bitter twist to the sweeter elements, the lentils tying the whole dish together. A could’ve quite happily had a bowl of it as a main course. But further dishes awaited…
Claiming I wasn’t that hungry I ordered a half Reuben sandwich with pickles, slaw and a side of red cabbage (a holy trinity of pickled veg), whilst my fellow diner went for it with their Mac n’ Cheese with (optional) salt beef and Colman’s mustard. It arrived in a screaming-hot skillet, covered in crispy breadcrumbs with little strands of meat poking out from their cheesy bed. It was extremely decadent and surprisingly well presented, a million miles away from the gloopy yellow stodge of yesteryear. Thinking I’d chosen conservatively with half a sandwich, I was pretty surprised when my dish turned up. The pastrami was sliced thickly, with a flavourful, peppery crumb, laced with just the right amount of creamy Russian dressing and packed with sauerkraut. Pure pickle heaven. And absolutely not a light choice.
I’m sure more of an expert would have had a few things to say about the authenticity of the food at Mishkin’s, but overall it’s an experience unlike any other in the immediate neighbourhood. Stick to the ribs, home-cooked grub, washed down with cocktails made with much greater finesse (thankfully!), this is just where I want to escape to when surrounded by tourists on a rainy night in London.
It’s fair to say this little outlet has been somewhat off the map since the start of the summer, so there’s some catching up to do!
Russell Norman has well and truly left his prints on London, with his collection of restaurants all loosely based around a similar dining concept; small plates of colourful, interesting food, friendly yet informal service and jaunty little bars all serving up subtle yet lethal cocktails. Lucky enough to have visited a few this year (the first somewhat inspired this blog) I thought I’d juxtapose two here.
Polpo opened in Smithfield back in July, offering half-price food for the first two days, luring in the punters from both the City and Clerkenwell; no doubt it’s frequented for many a client lunch. The first customers through the door, my father and I settled down for a speedy lunchtime bite to eat, both hoping the service would work around his rather hectic working day. The staff were eager to please and clearly very excited to see the first shift through. The surroundings are a little more accommodating than that of the Brewer Street outpost; the exposed brick, wall tiles and rustic fixings immediately inject feelings of rural Italy.
Food-wise – it was just as good as I remembered – we started with some arancini, anchovy & chick pea and pea & speck crostinos, which, although small in size, were packed with a wealth of flavours, all very fresh and extremely wholesome. Having to remind ourselves of the impending afternoon tasks we went rather light in the next innings – combining spicy pork & fennel meatballs, mackerel tartare, horseradish & carta di musica and a warm courgette, rocket & parmesan salad. With 6 different types of meatballs on the menu it was hard to pick, but I’m always drawn to fennel. Here that aniseed-y flavour easily cut through the rich meat, lifting the dish from its deep tomato base. The mackerel tartare was wonderful – a sort of Mediterranean take on ceviche I suppose, but using a more distinctively flavoured fish, combined with a punchy dressing and crackle bread, reminds customers they’re certainly not in an of-the-moment Peruvian pop-up.
It wasn’t until I’d left the cosy surroundings and readied myself for the afternoon’s tasks (attempting to hide a slight white wine haze) did the sheer enjoyment hit me. Like stepping straight into a Venetian bácaro, the only thing missing was a smattering of Italians chattering away over cannoli or tiramisu. Ah yes, we tried those too…
Lucky enough to regularly spend some evenings in picturesque Hampstead, I’ve sampled a fair number of the local culinary offerings. I think it’s about time I shared a few of my secrets spots, perfect after a trip to the Heath.
Jin Kichi is a true Japanese kitchen, with humble, wood furniture, bamboo screens and framed prints. Guests can sit elbow-to-elbow around the central grill where the chef expertly oversees kushiyaki (grilled skewers) and delicate fillets of meat and fish, whilst jewel-like sushi is brought up from downstairs. The food is truly wonderful and the place usually packed. But the ultimate pleasure is ordering by phone 30 minutes in advance and collecting the beautifully packaged food home. The skewers are wonderful, particularly the duck and spring onion or pork and shiso leaf. Firm favourite has got to be the egg and eel rolls, however, which are almost dessert-like sweet, a taste sensation when coupled with wasabi and soy.
Just across from the tube station lies Piccola, a wonderful neighbourhood Italian that is evidently a firm favourite with locals and wanderers alike. Whilst I have had the pleasure of dining in once, the staff are known for their tolerance of hungry walk-ins, often under the influence of a glass or two. I’m unable to resist the Calzone Napoletano, which is so beautifully presented it seems almost a crime to cut into it. But once you do, creamy ricotta and slices of Italian ham ooze out into the plate (if you’ve made it that far), from underneath the delicate mozzarella, tomato and basil that adorn the top. Posh take-away pizza at it’s best.
Gail’s ‘Artisan Bakeries’ are nothing new, with branches in Exmouth Market, Clapham and Notting Hill, but somehow it’s outpost in Hampstead still retains some of its individuality, and inflated prices, sadly. On a Sunday morning there’s very few experiences more enjoyable than pitching up here to snaffle away a selection of baked goods and the best flat whites in this urban village. Dark chocolate and cherry scones, pastrami and gherkin brioche buns and bran muffins, to name but a few highlights. Hungover? One of their mammoth sausage rolls will sort you right out.
Papa John’s West Hampstead: 0207 624 0197
Food markets come in all shapes and sizes, covered, themed, pop-up, established, for traders, for tourists, and in the case of London, found all over the city. But the bias towards to the East and South East seems to have strengthened, particularly with the addition of RedMarket in Shoreditch this summer. Legend has it that Maltby Street Market in Bermondsey was established by traders in revolt of nearby Borough Market, which arguably has become a) expensive and b) packed to the rafters. After hearing a few rumours of its charm, I decided to take a look.
Accompanied by a childhood friend equally enthusiastic about food I made my way to Bermondsey on a dreary Saturday morning, lured by fantasies of Monmouth coffee, baked goods and ultimately a hearty brunch. Maltby’s open on a Saturday, and is the home of 10-15 independent traders nestled under the railway arches close to London Bridge. It feels wonderfully ad hoc, with chalkboard signs and mismatched chairs, tables and umbrellas conveniently placed between stalls to allow for scoffing and sharing of finds. Something Borough’s definitely missing!
Highlights: an utterly delectable St John brownie stashed for later (undoubtedly the best in London, I’m lucky enough to work next door to the original restaurant). Flat whites from Comptoir Gourmand, who also sold a colourful variety of savoury baked goods and were conjuring up a delicious-looking tartiflette in the back. Two words: Monty’s Deli. Having read about this establishment in the week I had to try their take on Jewish soul food, which took the form of a toasted pastrami and mustard sandwich on rye with all the trimmings and chicken soup. Grandmother’s recipe, obviously. Tart, crunchy pickles and hot, salty meat this well and truly warmed us up as the “mizzle” continued to fall. This is something special and has got me planning my next visit already.
Armed with sweet rose and pistachio Turkish baklava for the walk back to the station I felt like a deep-sea scallop diver; toting all sorts of gastronomic delights but knowing full well the wealth of treats I’d left behind. I’d recommend Maltby to those who’re a little tired of the same cheeses, chutneys and chorizo and who’d also like to avoid dropping something down themselves whilst eagerly sampling what’s on offer. Or maybe that’s just me…
King’s Cross is having a bit of a moment, it’s got to be said… Whilst the clean-up, Giuliani-style began many years ago, the area is now a destination in itself, with The Renaissance and Pepito, setting a pretty high standard. Not to mention a plethora of quirky pubs tucked away in little side streets. And now regeneration’s finally reached the banks of Regent’s Canal.
Shrimpy’s has taken over The Filling Station, a converted petrol station opposite Wharf Road, causing quite a stir with their take on Mexican-inspired Americana. On a warm Saturday evening I gave it a try, eager to see what the fuss was all about. It’s a fantastic space, across the forecourt from Homeslice (a true pizza, beer and prosecco fest), which on this particular evening was populated by some very colourful fashionistas. Inside, Shrimpy’s doesn’t disappoint, bright and breezy with accents of art-deco styling, including a rather fabulous pair of pineapple lamps, which sadly didn’t quite fit in my bag.
Due to a slight oversight with our booking we were first seated at the bar, a logistical problem that was dealt with very professionally, that may actually have been to our advantage given the proximity to the open kitchen. Perfect for perving on the passing dishes. After sampling a delicious margarita our starters arrived – roasted calamari with black olive tapenade and the Peruvian ceviche with plantains, which were both delicious. The calamari was crunchy and the accompanying tapenade a welcome change from the usual aioli. But the ceviche was wonderfully fragrant, the delicate white fish offset by the sweet, earthy slices of plantain, which deserve to be a side order in themselves.
Once we eventually settled at our table, the 50-cover space is a little snug it must be said, our main courses arrived. The soft shell crab burger has become somewhat infamous already, and it certainly merited the endearing compliment of “historic”, as uttered by a fellow dinner. Whilst I only managed to steal a couple of bites, the two crispy-fried crabs nestled inside a soft brioche bun and smothered with avocado were completely divine, without being overly heavy. This has to be tried! My dish of octopus, potatoes and paprika was also wonderful, with a warm heat running through every bite. But I have to say it was rather upstaged by the theatre of the burger.
Whilst very aware of the ever-increasing bill, we were unable to say no to the temptation of espresso martinis and the chocolate brownie and pistachio sundae. With the feel of a pop-up, Shrimpy’s has certainly made an impact on the dining scene, but luckily for us it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Still, I suggest you get down there pronto before the menu changes!
Sometimes in life opportunities arise that you really cannot turn down, so when I was offered the opportunity to head to Paris last weekend, arguably the food capital of the world, it was very easy to brand it a “research opportunity” and jump on the next flight from Heathrow.
After a swift flight (roughly the same amount of time it takes me to travel to Soho when the Tube’s up the creek) I emerged from the Metro opposite the Notre Dame famished and nervously contemplating the 5 hour stretch ahead of our dinner plans. I was unlikely to make it, and wandering through St. Germain-des-Pres there were plenty of places to fill a hole. Is it just me or do even the Parisian street vendors, toting humble baked goods, have charm? Delicious, warm and seriously fresh pain au chocolat for under £1? It makes you think about the prices we’re subjected to… How do our “much-loved” high-street coffee chains get away with charging double for something half the standard?
We holed up for the evening at Hotel du Nord, a quintessential Parisian nook along the canal serving expertly crafted dishes at reasonable cost. But walking in, winding through the little wooden tables with their expectant glassware and twinkly candles, all thoughts of expenditure were left at the door anyway. The menu was short and sweet, focusing on simple, but perfectly executed French cuisine. Some heated words were exchanged when it came to ordering, trying to persuade the other to change, but it was unavoidable.
To start I had grilled sardines on sourdough toast with a fennel and carrot salad, which was extremely tasty and light, a perfect start to the meal, whereas the other choice of local foie gras (it had to be done apparently) wasn’t exactly light but wonderful smooth with a very deep flavour. I think our facial expressions must’ve said it all really. We both decided on the rib-eye with gnocchi, cherry tomatoes and asparagus, which I thought I had no chance of finishing. But I couldn’t resist; medium-rare and with a delicious marinade the meat was reminiscent of that I’d had not long ago in Argentina, albeit without the air miles. Paired with a bottle of Loire Valley red, I began to sub-consciously create an alternative life on this side of the Channel. There are very few places in London that can compete with this depth of flavour and at this price. As the big hand approached 10pm, we really had no choice but to order the crème brûlée and two limoncellos (not exactly French I know); this was truly the icing on the cake. Barely cooked with its signature glaze, for me this is a true classic and boy was it good. The delicate hints of vanilla can be so easily lost amongst the often heavy custard flavour in this dish, but here they really sang. The waitress returned about 3.5 minutes later, with an almost smug look on her face when she saw the licked-clean look of the dish… She knew how good it was too.
Oh, and then there was Sunday brunch. Take a look for yourself…
In case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been quite the weekend. Royalty-themed activities took place throughout the capital and country with brands and Britons alike jumping on the bandwagon to play their part in the festivities. Having missed out on the royal wedding spectacle last year I couldn’t wait to get involved… A sucker for kitsch limited editions, I’d been tracking the appearance of Jubilee-themed goodies for weeks, commendations must go to M&S for their mini welsh cakes and scones, but finally the famed four-day weekend arrived.
On Friday night I finally made it to Jamie Oliver’s Union Jacks over near Tottenham Court Road (it’s advertised as Covent Garden but I wouldn’t really agree), quite an apt choice considering the festivities. The product of a partnership between the British poster boy and Chris Bianco, a New Yorker famed for his pizza dough, they share a passion for “beautiful ingredients and wood-fired ovens”. On paper it’s a match made in food heaven and the dishes definitely reflect their individual inputs.
It must be said that initially I was disappointed by the exterior/setting of this flagship branch (one of three, currently). Set in a ‘piazza’ that’s all glass and metal and accompanied by a few rival chains, it didn’t quite gel with the charming, somewhat school-boyish look of the website. However, once inside this was put to the back of my mind, the staff were extremely friendly, even after I’d committed the “Where in the States are you from”, “I’m from Montreal” crime.
A childhood friend and I got comfortable, asking questions at a million miles an hour, barely glancing at the menu for 20minutes, which didn’t seem to be an issue at all. Eventually we settled on the Woodman “Flat” – a mix of field and wild mushrooms, cheddar, red onion, tarragon and chervil and Jamie’s famed “Empire Chicken” - Indian-spiced chicken, Bombay potatoes, carrot salad and coriander yoghurt. Both dishes were a true reflection of the company ethos, celebrating local, interesting ingredients and executing them really well. And priced at about £12 for a main course, this is an affordable, fun and creative outpost in an area of London that seems overpopulated by tired restaurant chains.
Along with the flatbreads, these are essentially crispy pizzas, Union Jacks also prides itself on its selection of homemade ice creams. At £1.50 a scoop it’s feasible to try them all as a group. We opted for Eton mess, Snickers bar, sticky toffee pudding and rhubarb sorbet and they really were something. The eton mess in particular was wonderfully creamy but not overwhelming, the raspberry coulis rippling gently through the meringue base. I’d happily have had more!
Just the place for a celebration of British flavours I’d say Jamie’s done it again, and with more locations on the horizon I’m left wondering where he’s headed next. Surely knighthood isn’t far off?
Last Friday I was amongst the lucky few to experience New Cross Dining Co’s take over of The London Particular down in New Cross, a name increasingly overheard in conversations on London’s underground foodie scene. What a perfect venue for an intimate, cozy supper club! Fourteen of us gathered around the long, wooden (if slightly battered) kitchen table, immediately introducing ourselves and glossing over the inevitable knee grazing. Clare, our host for the evening also helped to set the ambiance, squeezing in amongst us to lay down creamy bowls of aubergine dip served with some crusty, sourdough bread along with healthy measures of cucumber-infused vodka. Served straight up, it was both refreshing and powerful.
As the conversation flowed we barely noticed the arrival of our starter, red mullet with homemade kalamata pasta and broad beans, which was utterly scrumptious. The fish flaked apart perfectly, the crispy skin well complemented by the rich flavour of the beans. The long snaking strands of pasta carried the flavour of black olive very well, but were perhaps a little thick. A small niggle ironed out the following night I’m told. The dish was gone far too quickly, the 14 clean plates evidence of Doug’s inventive and creative cooking. With many a bottle of red nearing completion already, the warm, hazy glow that hung over the table was almost tangible. Although we’d all come in pairs, or small groups I was struck by how easily we were united, leaning past each other to enquire about day jobs, residences etc. It was a wonderfully convivial experience. Our main course of lamb rump with minted runner beans and truffle jus was deliciously rich, whilst not being too heavy. Doug had cooked the lamb beautifully, both tender and pink in the centre, a real springtime treat! When booking there was a vegetarian option of spring vegetable paella and mint and I would’ve been very keen to sample some. I don’t blame my fellow diners for opting for the lamb though!
When Clare brought the dessert round the mood seemed to have become even more merry, I seem to remember a rather spirited discussion about the best of ‘90s disco. The buttermilk pudding with rhubarb and crushed biscuit was probably my favourite course, light and refreshing it was just what we all needed. It made me question why I don’t order desserts like this, panna cotta or crème brulee more often, and I’m determined to recreate it soon.
This was my first supper club experience and certainly won’t be my last. A huge thank you and congratulations to Doug and Clare, I can’t wait to see where they pop-up next…
By the end of the working week I’ve usually exhausted homemade lunch combinations and am crying out for some culinary inspiration, usually opting for sushi, salad or a burrito (if it’s been a really long week!). Last Friday I finally got round to frequenting the much-documented The Modern Pantry in EC1, as usual under the guise of “necessary research”. With a bright and breezy café downstairs and an elegant, more formal dining room upstairs it would be hard to find a time when one of the two menus wasn’t suitable. We opted for the £20 2 course menu, a great way to try out this famous foodie spot.
Whilst toasting the onset of the weekend with a cheeky glass of Sauvignon Blanc, we shared the confit artichoke heart with citrus roasted fennel, smoked ricotta, sumac (a purplish-hued spice) dusted buckwheat and mustard greens. This was such a celebration of flavours, fennel is up there amongst my personal favourites, the ricotta was wonderfully creamy without overpowering the rest of the dish. It was over far too quickly! To follow I chose the pan fried black bream with chat masala (a Pakistani/Indian spice sprinkling), sesame tarator (a Balkan dish similar to tzatziki) and buttermilk braised chard. This was wonderfully light (as hoped!), bursting with flavour and really pushed the boundaries of what is often a safe bet at lunch. The masala, especially, took the dish to an entirely new level. The other main course was equally inspiring, coconut & lemongrass braised pork belly, som tam (papaya salad), mango nam phrik (spice paste) and plantain crisps. I have to admit to googling a few of these components after our visit! The flavour combination here was both surprising and comforting, we had suspected the lemongrass may be lost in amongst the earthy plantain/pork. Owner Anna Hansen’s Kiwi roots and passion for travel are evident throughout the menu, successfully incorporating some lesser known ingredients into a colourful and adventurous array of dishes that are hard to choose between.
The initial idea of sharing a dessert (I had my eye on the pineapple tart tatin) was sadly shunted after guiltily checking my watch to realise the designated hour had passed a long time ago. That perhaps would be my one criticism, that the service was a little slow, but I can’t really complain as we were squeezed in amongst a busy lunch service. But with a gorgeous terrace and ginger ice cream on the menu, I’ll certainly be back when the sun finally makes an appearance!