Czech Republic

The Czechoslovak House, 74 West End Lane, West Hampstead, NW6 2LX

The Czechoslovak House has a proud history. Founded in 1939 for Czechoslovakian soldiers, it found its current home in West Hampstead in 1946 following a beer ban in Holborn. It continues to operate as a sort of club-hostel-restaurant-bar to this day.

A welcome desk serves as a reception for inquiries and takeaway orders, but we are ushered to the 80s-chic dining room: white table cloths and large laminated menus. Portraits of grandees and royalty, delivered with dubious skill but clear determination, line the walls.

The menu is extensive, with over sixty numbered dishes, plus variants, and the English language version contains a little history box for an educational edge. Feeling good, we decide to order big.

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Billowy mini pizza

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Halusky, with Bramborak in the wings

There is no Czech wine available, sadly, but since they’re famoous for their beer anyway we’re happy to order Zlaty Bažant and Dark Budvar, both of which have the rich, malty edge that we hoped for.

The starters all sound good, and we opt for Langoš, a fried dough spread with tatare and tomato sauces, sprinkled with cheddar: a sort of billowy pizza bread. We also try Bramborák, a plate-sized chunky fried potato pancake spiced with marjoram and caraway, topped with sour cream, cheese, and salad, and finally Halušky, potato gnocchi with sheep’s cheese and bacon which are very rich, very salty and very filling.

In fact we are now full enough for a little lie down, but this is no place for the faint-hearted, so we plough on.

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Segediner Gulash with bready mega-dumpling

For mains Sophie and Joe choose Segediner Gulash, pork cooked with sauerkraut and double cream, spiced with red paprika and served with steamed slices of what must have once been an enormous dumpling, that are like round slabs of thick, spongy white bread. It’s a very rich dish to take on following those starters.

Likewise Steve’s Svíčková, which is roast beef in cream and vegetable sauce, served with a few more slabs cut from the aforementioned mega-dumpling. Both main dishes are tasty, though not quite as interesting as the starters, swimming, as they do, in their respective sauces – and they’re just too damn big. Only one plate is cleared.

Sweating heavily and loosening top buttons, we take on dessert. We’re all keen on the various versions of Meruňkovỳ kynutỳ (apricot dumplings), but sadly they’re unavailable, so it’s Jablkový Štrůdl (apple strudel) all round instead. It is served with squirty cream, ice cream, dusted with icing sugar and spiced with cinnamon, but is still just apple strudel, and a bit of a tame end to an otherwise interesting meal.

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Admit it, it’s just strudel

You get the sense some people eat heartily at the Czechoslovak House every night, watched over by glorious forefathers, and accompanied by glorious beers. And why not? It’s an odd, welcoming place, and it’s worth a visit.

Scores

Food: 3.5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Croatia

Riviera Bistro, 265 High St, Acton, London W3 9BY

11 April 2016

A pleasant spring evening brings us to Acton for Croatian food. Spirits are high, with Croatia a long-favoured holiday destination for at least two thirds of our party. Memories abound of a rainbow of home-made liqueurs, roasted sheep’s head, stuffed cabbage and seafood so fresh it’s still trying to swim.

We find Steve sitting in the window, looking ready as ever. He’s already checked the menu in search of Zagorski štrukli, as recommended by his Croatian friend Niko. It’s not available, but the Riviera Bistro does offer pleasant Croatian pop music, folky, with accordions, and a warm welcome – a smiling, motherly approach, and a sense of someone eager to share the food of their homeland with you. It’s a shame, therefore, that there’s no-one here but us. Business is bad in the area, we are told, and they are pleased we have travelled to find them.

Slivovitsa

Non-Croatian wine with a slivovitsa chaser.

There’s no Croatian wine available today, so we take French, then get some Slivovitsa to go alongside it. This plum brandy is sweet but not syrupy, and we choose Sir od Dalmacije (slabs of Dalmatian cheese) as hors d’oeuvres. The cheese is pleasant, if a little mild in flavour, but is well complemented with prosciutto and olives. We add Prženi kolutići lignje (deep-fried calamari), with high expectations, since it’s a common dish out there and – it’s calamari. Not bad, but tending slightly towards the rubbery.

Sir od Dalmacije

Sir od Dalmacije and friends.

For mains we order Pašticada, a dish of slow cooked beef served with gnocchi, and Pileća prsa u šugu, chicken breast with oyster mushroom sauce and roast potato chunks. The pašticada sauce is very intense, a rich red-wine reduction with parsley, nutmeg, prunes, and plenty of tomato among other elements. It is quite sweet, very tangy, and quite delicious at first taste, though it overpowers everything on the plate so that meat and gnocchi impart only texture, and it becomes a bit much. The meat itself it a bit stringy, and doesn’t melt as you might hope after a good slow-cook.

The chicken is good, though the sauce is a touch too creamy. Subtlety is not the order of the day, but the oyster mushrooms and penty of pepper add a punch of flavour that keeps things interesting.

We conclude with Rožata, a Dalmatian creme caramel that proves creme caramel is similar the world over, and Knedle sa šljivama, sweet plum dumplings made with a fried shell of potato, which are the absolute star of the show, warm, comforting, and very moreish. This is accompanied by a digestif of Orahovica walnut schnapps, a smooth Croatian classic that should really be served with every meal.

Riviera Bistro

The quiet life, in the Riviera Bistro.

The Riviera Bistro serves solidly-made Croatian food, and is worth seeking out for anyone with a taste for the Dalmatian coast. It isn’t the slickest iteration of this cuisine, but it certainly offers all the right flavours.

Scores

Food: 3.5/5
Atmosphere: 4/5

Congo, Democratic Republic of

The Bash, 71 West Green Rd, London N15 5DA

30 October 2015

When we arrived at The Bash, at just after 7 on a Friday evening, we were the only customers – usually a bad sign in a restaurant. Not so in The Bash. With mixing decks against one wall, tv screens and mirrors abound, and a couple of ornate golden thrones positioned expectantly behind a velveteen curtain, it was clear that the party was on its way to Seven Sisters; we’d simply arrived embarrassingly early.

The Bash serves ‘Congolese and African cuisine’, so we were keen to sort the chef’s specialities from the more general crowd-pleasers. Nigerian Guinness was the best we could do from the drinks list. It’s almost exactly like Guinness, but it’s been escorted out of Ireland, marched over to Nigeria, and then shepherded back to the UK, which makes it much stronger (and yes, they drink it in the Congo). Sophie opted for a large red wine, and large it was: approximately half a bottle. A not unpromising start then, and we turned to the menu.

Deciding to hedge our bets, we went for a mix of dishes between us. The chicken in peanut sauce sounded a safe option to everyone, and it proved to be rich without being claggy. Ntaba, or grilled goat, had a delicious barbecue flavour, very smoky, lightly spiced, dark in colour, and moreish. The grilled freshwater tilapia was served whole, slow-cooked with onion and tomato, and pulled pleasingly away from the bone with a good measure of moistness. It was served with a selection of chilli sauces, one of which was ferociously hot – though I won’t spoil it for you: you’ll have to visit and brave your own game of sauce roulette for that.

The side dishes were a little unpredictable. ‘Sweet potato’ was actually fried and baked plantain on this occasion, but we pretended not to notice. The revelation was the Kwanga: cassava bread, another member of the fufu family which we’ve laboured through on countless other occasions. In appearance this particular version was akin to the Cameroonian tentacled version we had recently in Deptford, which was one of the worst of the lot, being rubbery, dry, and confusing. Incredibly, The Bash’s version was not bad. It was well balanced, lightly salted, moist, and entirely edible. We didn’t finish it, but we could have, and that’s the point. Fufu is the filling food of much of the world, just like the humble potato here. And, just like our subterranean staple, it turns out fufu can be made palatable in the right hands (admittedly, not ours), so well done The Bash.

We’d gone in with low expectations, which can be great preparation for this sort of thing. It may have been the Nigerian Guinness, huge wines, sparkling setting ,or the fact that we’d managed fufu, but we emerged into the night well fed, and with a newfound sense of optimism.

Food: 3/5
Atmosphere: 3/5

Chile

Rica Rica, 15 Whitcomb Street, WC2H 7HA

29 July 2015

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The Cornish pasty of the New World

Chile. Chile, Chile, Chile. Chile. Sounds like a fantastic place to visit on a gap year doesn’t it? And then, the food reminding us of happier days in warmer climes as it does, why not open a pop-up restaurant serving authentic street food, like a less ambitious Wahaca. That, presumably, was exactly what the owner/occupiers of Rica Rica, ‘London’s Only Chilean Restaurant’*, thought, and indeed, did.

We first headed over to Rica Rica in mid-July. “First headed there?” I hear you mutter, “so you went back? It’s that good?”. No. In fact Rica Rica is not open when you think it is. It sometimes is, and sometimes isn’t. It transpires that you should follow them on social media in case of ‘we didn’t make it out of bed today, lol!’ updates. If you’ve got other plans; if you’ve taken a guest to enjoy the food with you; if you’re eating your way through world cuisine in alphabetical order and you’ve already got a Chinese meal booked in for that very evening, then Rica Rica is a dangerous choice.

Rica Rica: 'open'

Rica Rica: ‘open’

We stared blankly at the opening hours on the door. We double checked our watches. We marvelled at the cognitive dissonance brought on by being both right (in that the restaurant should’ve been open), and wrong (in that it was locked and deserted). We cancelled our plans for the evening, and rearranged.

Our second visit to Rica Rica was in late July – our first and probably last ever ‘super Wednesday’ – when we dared to take on two foods of the world in a single day: Chilean lunch, Chinese dinner. To put that in perspective, there are only three meals available in a given day, and one of them is breakfast, which barely counts. Our waistlines and wallets were in for a pounding.

Like any good restaurant, Rica Rica was open as per advertised, and so in we went. The atmosphere was pleasant enough, with a few nods to Chile and the street-food vibe that is achieved with beaten furniture and orders taken by a semi-open kitchen. There was a relatively small lunchtime crowd, but service was a bit slow nonetheless, with a team of two doing all of the cooking and serving. The menu was refreshingly short, so we could try everything on offer, though it was a shame the only drinks available on the day were cans of Ting. I like Ting, and I’m sure you like Ting, but Chilean it ain’t.

We started with a couple of empanadas, the pastry parcels ubiquitous across South America. It has been interesting to compare the different national takes on a snack that can be mouth-wateringly good (see our Colombia post). These Chilean versions were quite pastry-heavy, but the filling of the first was a nice combination of beef, onions, and cumin; the second, vegetarian iteration, had lentils, sweet potato and spinach. The latter filling was more interesting, as it tasted less like a Cornish pasty of the New World. They both contained merkén, a smoked chilli, though this was somewhat lost in the mix. Pretty good, if not much of an eye-opener.

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So far, sopaipillas

Next came Beef and chicken sopaipillas, and these pumpkin dough mini-pancakes were really the stars of the show. I was particularly fond of the spicy chicken offering, with succulent, smoky marinated meat paired with fresh avocado and tangy salsa. The pan fried steak alternative brought similar flavours, but with slightly less depth than the chicken. Delicious, and we’d have eaten more of each if we didn’t have so much eating to do later that day.

We were warming to Rica Rica, only to be betrayed by the non-availability of avocado ice-cream, which looked an interesting option on the short list of dessert offerings. Those offerings were on a chalk board, one of nature’s most-easily updated information points. No matter though, we went for the other option: sweet sopaipillas. Well, we’d established that we liked sopaipillas, so what harm could it do? These were miniature versions, topped with salted manjar (dulce de leche, as far as we could tell), mint and strawberries. A simple but enjoyable combination.

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Mini-sops.

I vowed to go back one day and try the avocado ice-cream, but never did, which just goes to show that, like opening hours, we all make promises we can’t keep. We enjoyed at least one new foodstuff from Chile in the form of sopaipillas, and we were left with the sense that Chilean food could be elevated to the same prominence other South American cuisines have achieved over here. The ingredients are all there, even if Rica Rica only offers a taste of their potential.

‘London’s Only Chilean Restaurant’?

Food: 3.5

Atmosphere: 3

* El Vergel in Southwark serves predominantly Chilean food, so would probably dispute this claim.

Chad

The hottest Wednesday since records began finds us at Joe & Sophie’s for some Chadian cookery. It’s 35ºC today – the same temperature that it is in Chad itself at the moment – so we eat outside on the balcony.

In the usual search for country facts to cover the numerous lulls in conversation, we turn to the internet. Steve’s flatmate has made some wild claims about the great amount of paved runways than Chad possesses, but these are soon debunked by no lesser authority than the  CIA World Fact Book, which says that as of 2012, Chad had an estimated 58 airports, only 9 of which had paved runways. As you probably already know, there are at least 5 African countries with more paved runways than Chad.

That matter resolved, we investigate the infamous Chad-Romania flag contretemps. The countries share the same blue, yellow and red tricolour, and with the removal of the crest from the Romanian flag after the death of Ceaușescu, the flags were virtually identical. Romania made a fuss about this apparently, which is a bit rich given that they were the ones who changed their flag, and meanwhile Moldova and Andorra are a lot closer and also parading around with the same colours. In the end, each kept their flag, when closer inspection revealed that the Chadian blue is indigo to the Romanian cobalt.

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Our minds positively bristling with ‘interesting’ ‘facts’, we turn to the meal. Sophie’s starter is Courgette with Peanuts. This sounds worryingly simple, but in fact it has that Italian simplicity: surprisingly successful and a good combination of flavours. The courgettes are soft and close to melting, while the crushed peanuts bring texture that contrasts well. IMG_2456 Joe’s main course is a stew of river perch, or would have been if river perch were in any way available. Sea bass is much the same taste and consistency, he avers, saying he “read it on the web”. Frowning with doubt, suspicion and some disappointment, we tuck in, and find that what it may lack in authenticity, it makes up for with flavour. The fish has certainly had the full Chadian treatment, coated in flour, flash fried and then softly simmered for a worryingly long time with only a handful of tomatoes and a little liquid. It is served with plain rice, since fufu is the alternative, and there’s no call for that. Fearing the fish may have rubberised, Joe has forced the rice into silly little cylinders in an attempt to mask substance with style. Yet ultimately the course comes through with flying colours. The fish is well cooked with a crispy edge and has taken in much of the intense flavour of the slow-cooked tomatoes. IMG_2462 Finally, Steve’s dessert is a sort of custard made from cooking sweet potatoes for hours and hours in milk, cream and sugar, flavoured with cardamom and saffron. It’s sweet but strangely perfumed; Steve announces that he’s glad he ate it, and he doesn’t need to eat it again. Joe goes back for seconds, since it reminds him of grandma’s pumpkin pie. Sophie isn’t sure what to think. It’s divisive, but in a good way. The feeling is that it might be good as a filling for a Portuguese custard tart, or as a quirky breakfast topping…

Scores

Food: 3/5

Recipes

Courgette with Peanuts

  • 3 small courgettes
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 120g peanuts, ground to a fine powder
Method

Simmer the courgettes in salted water until very tender (about 10 minutes). Combine the courgettes with the butter and mash to a smooth consistency. Top with the nuts and serve immediately.

Chadian Fried Fish with tomatoes and rice

6 medium-sized fish (river perch, or equivalent – for our version we used two sea bass fillets per person) 2 garlic cloves, cut into slivers 2 tbsp flour 5 tbsp oil 3 tomatoes salt, pepper, cayenne pepper Serve with: plain rice, fufu, or fried plantain.

Method

Clean and scale the fish and then cut into steaks. Pierce the flesh of the fish and insert garlic slivers. Dip the fish in flour. Heat the oil and fry the fish on a high heat. When the fish is golden brown all over add the halved tomatoes. Add a little water, cover the pan and simmer for 40 minutes. Add a little more water if necessary – you should have enough liquid for a small amount of sauce at the end. Serve on a bed of rice.

Safran patates douces pudding

Steve thought he was being clever here, finding a recipe in a French cookbook and translating it. However, upon translation it turned out to be the same recipe that was on Celtnet, which is somewhat less exciting.

  • 1kg sweet potatoes
  • 750ml milk
  • 250ml double cream
  • 100g white sugar
  • ½ tsp saffron
  • ½ tsp ground cardamom
  • Cinnamon sugar to decorate
Method

Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into 1cm cubes Bring 1l water to the boil in a saucepan and add sweet potatoes. Boil for 25-30 minutes. Drain and return the sweet potatoes to the pot. Add the milk, cream, sugar, saffron and cardamom, stirring to mix the ingredients evenly. Bring the mixture to a boil, over moderate heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 1 hour, until the mixture is of a thick enough consistency to maintain its shape. Using the back of a spoon, force the mixture through a fine sieve, into a serving bowl (or, in the absence of a sieve, just put the lot into a blender). Serve at room temperature or chilled. Sprinkle with icing sugar, ground cardamom or cinnamon sugar before serving.

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Chadian treat breakfast