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

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Cyprus

Taste of Cyprus, 145 Croydon Road, Beckenham, BR3 3RB

27 July 2016

Taste of Cyprus is the 2nd-best restaurant in Beckenham, according to TripAdvisor, and has a palindromic postcode to boot, so we arrive expecting great things. Or rather, Joe and Sophie arrive, while Steve gets on the wrong train and ends up the wrong side of Orpington.

When he finally turns up, we contemplate an aperitif. We have heard of Zivania, a grappa-like drink but our jolly waiter instead suggests Filfar, an excellent orange liqueur similar to Cointreau. Drink in hand, we contemplate the surroundings, which certainly look the part: Half-columns stand in the corners, draped in foliage; the Venus de Milo is also here, presumably lost; bouzouki music plays throughout our visit. In the gents we find a big map of Cyprus on the wall, where we learn that Troodos, the name of the Cypriot red wine we’ve ordered, is also the name of the mountain range in the centre of Cyprus.

Taste of Cyprus

Taste of Cyprus

Steve and Joe share the Meat Meze, which provides a range of Cypriot delights for starters and main. To begin we have hummus, tzatziki, taramosalata, garlic Mushrooms, beetroot, courgettes with
sundried tomatoes, feta & spinach filo pie, prawns in Marie Rose sauce, and pitta on the side. Sophie helps herself to all this and to make up for it the boys get extra calamari. It’s all very good.

The for main course, Joe & Steve’s Meze continues with a meat bombardment: Lamb keftedes (meatballs), loundza (traditional Cypriot smoked bacon), loukanika (smoked pork sausages marinated in wine), grilled halloumi, chicken kebabs and lamb cutlets. This abattoir’s worth is served with rice and greek salad, and it’s all great. Meanwhile Sophie, about to move into vegetarianism in a big way, has a last meaty hurrah with a serving of kleftiko, lamb on the bone cooked in red wine, which she declares excellent.

Meat Meze

Meat Meze

It’s all very good; not world-beating, but plucky Cyprus has acquitted itself very well with very good food and a great atmosphere. Let’s hope the #1 restaurant in Beckenham is also going to turn up on our list.

Scores

Food: 4/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Cuba

Escudo de Cuba, Dalston

5 May 2016

We were all pretty excited for Escudo de Cuba having fond memories of an excellent evening spent there, post-our-Poutine eating experience in nearby Dalston. At the time the cocktails went down nicely – the Pornstar Martini being the highlight – and we’d admired the food coming out of the kitchen to nearby tables. So having researched alternative Cuban restaurants, we were secretly relieved to find that Escudo looked the most promising. Visit the website for an idea of the vibe and some excellent blaring Cuban music.

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Thumbs up for the plantain chips

The night started well when Steve and Joe realised that their happy hour cocktails arrived with a moreish plate of plantain chips. So moreish that when I arrived 15 minutes later they’d all disappeared and I was entreated to get on and order some drinks so we could have some more. I had a ‘Ginger Latino’ which was refreshing and sufficiently intoxicating that I thought it was a good idea to drink two.

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The Ginger Latino – largely gin and ginger beer, yum!

We opted for a sharing starter titled Aperitivos ‘Escudo de Cuba’ – a selection of the house specialities. We gleefully munched our way through grilled and spiced chicken, beef, red peppers, baked plantain and yuca chips (quite similar to plantain) and Cuba’s take on the empanada (more pastry than bread-based and very delicious).

Our mains were carefully selected to get the maximum range of intriguing Cuban sides. We ordered the quintessential Cuban dish, according to our waiter, Ropa Vieja A La CubanaPescado Fresco Del Día, the fish of the day which came with Yuca Con Mojo which we were keen to try, and the Patatas Asadas Al Horno Enchilada which came with rice and beans. Steve had done his research here and impressed our waitress by asking whether the rice and beans were ‘moros y cristianos’ (a rice and beans dish where the beans are cooked in with the rice) or ‘arroz congri’ (basically rice and beans cooked separately and mixed together). She laughed and told us it was moros y cristianos, although when it arrived we were pretty sure it was actually arroz congri.

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Fresh fish with Cuban sides

The Ropa, when it arrived, was a shredded braised beef stew, cooked in red wine. Very rich and delicious although it became a bit sameish by the end of the dish – it was good to rotate for some alternative flavours. It was, however, definitely the best main.  The Enchilada was good but not definably different to other enchiladas I’ve had. I couldn’t tell you how a Cuban enchilada differed from others across the world. The fresh fish was nicely cooked but the sides were disappointing. We decided yuca was much like plantain but we were glad we’d tried it. Overall, good filling food although more bland than our starters which had promised much more. We washed it down with a couple of Cuban beers from the extensive drinks list.

Feeling very full, Steve and Joe managed to find space for Banana Al Compo Con Ron, a banana dessert cooked in orange, cinnamon and rum. A tasty end to the meal.

Overall, we decided that the starters were by far the highlight of the meal and we’d be tempted, on that basis, to return to try their tapas menu, which featured some of the Cuban starters, plus the extensive list of cocktails which wash everything down nicely and merit a return-visit on their own. A great place to spend an evening: friendly staff, great Cuban music and a nightclub downstairs if you find yourselves staying until the early hours – what’s not to like?

Scores

Food: 3/5

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

Costa Rica

Steve’s house.

17 March 2016.

Initial searches for a suitable restaurant looked promising as we discovered RomeroJo’s, the sole authentic Costa Rican establishment to be found here in the UK. Unfortunately, it lies somewhat outside the M25 – Whitby, to be exact. “Let’s go to Whitby!” says Steve. “I mean, I know we’re supposed to do this in London, but we did do  Woking that one time”. Joe’s down. “Let’s do it” he says, nodding, raising thumbs. Before they can high-five, Sophie shuts it down. No, we’re not going all the way up there, it’s against the rules, and besides it’s ridiculous.

So here we are at Steve’s house, trying to cook it ourselves, trying to rebuild our shattered confidence after the debacle that was Republic of Congo. Sophie kicks things off with her starter, Picayillo de Choyote. This is an exciting start as it features a new ingredient (for us), the choyote or “vegetable pear”. Imagine if a pear was a vegetable. That’s what a choyote looks like. Sophie combines it with sweetcorn and red peppers, and makes homemade corn tortillas which we use to create mini-wraps with the choyote mix. It’s interestingly bland – the choyote isn’t unpleasant but there’s not much too it. The overall dish is quite good though, and you can feel the self-belief returning.

Picayillo de Choyote

Picayillo de Choyote

Next it’s time for Joe’s attempt at Costa Rica’s national dish, Gallo Pinto. (The ‘spotted rooster’ – a traditional breakfast dish, in fact.) This is most definitely comfort food – basically rice and black beans, which is common throughout the Caribbean. What really lifts this dish though, is the side order of Picadillo de plantano verde. A very traditional Costa Rica dish, it brings out the best of the plantain – in fact we vote it “best use of plantain in a foods of the world dish”.

Gallo Pinto con Picadillo de Platano Verde

Gallo Pinto con Picadillo de Platano Verde

Steve finishes off with a traditional Costariccense dessert, the Atol de naranja (Orange pudding). The recipe is in Spanish, and becomes hilarious when passed through Google Translate, but working back and forth between the original text and the translation you can work out what’s going on. The result is delicious, a sort of fruity soup (we didn’t have time to set it properly), topped off with cinnamon, cherries and mint. Unusual and delicious.

Atol de Naranja

Atol de Naranja

As digestif we sample some agua dulce or  ‘honey milk’ – which does not actually have honey in it, but brown sugar. The real thing is made from a form of sugar moulded into little conical sections (see Costa Rica’s answer to brown sugar); we just used muscovado. It was quite drinkable, though not something I would necessarily drink again.

Musically, Costa Rica fares quite well. Their national anthem is really quite bad – it feels like a token effort from the composer – but we also find a rich seam of Costa Rican ska that keeps us amused for a good hour. Later, we switch to more traditional CR music, which is very relaxing and evokes a forest ambience that makes for a pleasant end to the evening.

Scores

Food: 3.5/5

Picadillo de Chayote

From http://costarica.com/recipes/picadillo-de-chayote-minced-vegetable-pear/

6 vegetable pears (chayotes), rinsed, peeled, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1 cup fresh or thawed corn kernels or 3 corn on the cob
2 1/4 cups milk
4 1/2 oz butter
1/2 cup red bell pepper, chopped
1/2 cup onion, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat butter, peppers, and onions in a saucepan over medium low until lightly brown. Add vegetable pear and milk. Cook until vegetable pears are cooked (20 minutes). Add corn, salt, and pepper. Simmer for 5 more minutes. Serve on tortillas.

Soft corn tortillas

Makes 10 -12.

250g masa harina (maize flour)
330ml hot water

Combine the flour and hot water to form a dough. Cover for 15 mins. Knead in more water if necessary – the texture should be clay-like but not sticky. Divide dough into 10-12 balls. Heat a dry pan. Roll out dough balls between non-stick surfaces or plastic wrap, until c. 3mm deep. Cook tortillas in the pan one at at time, for 15 seconds, then turn and cook for another 30 seconds. Turn once more, allow the tortilla to puff up, then remove from the pan and keep warm in a tea towel while coking the rest of the batch.

Gallo Pinto

Adapted from http://costarica.com/recipes/gallo-pinto-rice-and-beans/

1 cup cooked rice
1 cup cooked red or black beans
3 tablespoons red bell peppers, chopped
3 tablespoons onion, chopped
2 tablespoons celery, chopped
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
4 scrambled eggs
Lardons to taste

Lightly fry the onion, bell pepper, and celery in 1 tsp of oil.
When they are crispy add the lardons.
Add the rice and fry all ingredients together; allow flavours to mix.
Add the beans.
Cover and let them rest for a while so the rice becomes somewhat liquid. Add scrambled eggs. Serve immediately.

Picadillo de Platano Verde

From http://costarica.com/recipes/picadillo-de-platano-verde-minced-green-plantain/

6 green plantains, washed and peeled and cut into three equal parts
1 cup coriander leaves, finely chopped
1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, finely chopped
1 cup onion, finely chopped
2 gloves garlic, chopped
2 teaspoons vegetable or olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Bring water to a boil in a saucepan. Add green plantain. Boil until plantains are soft.
Keep liquid and transfer plantains to a cutting board. Chop plantains in 1/4 inch cubes.
Heat oil in a saucepan over medium high. Add cilantro, parsley, red bell peppers, onions, garlic, and plantains. Stir thoroughly until green plantains are golden brown.

Atol de Naranja

Adapted from http://recetasdecostarica.blogspot.co.uk/2009/07/atol-de-naranja.html

Para preparar unas 6 porciones, se parten naranjas a la mitad y se extrae el jugo hasta obtener unas 2 tazas, se le añade 1/2 taza de azúcar y se coloca al fuego hasta que hierva.

Aparte en una taza se disuelve 2 cucharadas de fécula de maíz (maicena) con 2/3 taza de leche y se añaden 2 yemas de huevo, una a una y se mezcla bien. Se retira del fuego el jugo de la naranja y le mezcla poco a poco la maicena diluida, NO se hace de una sola vez pues se corta y se forman grumos o pelotas. Se lleva de nuevo a la cocina a fuego medio hasta que espese. Se retira del fuego y se mantiene en refrigeración mientras se preparan las cáscaras.

Obvio estaremos usando las mismas de donde se extrajo el jugo. Por lo que debían haber estado bien lavadas previamente. Se les retira la membrana blanca con cuidado, es mejor hacerlo con los dedos para evitar que se rompan. Una vez listas se rellenan con el atol y se vuelve llevar a refrigeración unas horas hasta que corte. Si no puede esperar por ansiedad, disfrútelo así calientito que también es una buena opción.

(I also topped each orange half with cherries, mint leaves and ground cinnamon, based on other recipes for this on the Web).

Congo, Republic of

Joe & Sophie’s house.

11 February 2016

The second Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville. The first Congo was pretty good, so we were trepidatious about cooking this time. Luckily Steve has a friend who is an academic who did fieldwork research living in Congo-Brazzaville with pygmies. He told us to get some forest leaf (gnetum Africanus also known by multiple names such as Eru, Ukasa or Afang and Fumbua) and mix it with some peanut butter, river fish or deer for an authentic Congolese experience.

So I set off for Deptford High Street to track down some forest leaf. After several failed attempts I found a shop with multiple wicker baskets full of leaves out the front. After being commended for eating African food by a fellow shopper I gathered up the courage to ask for forest leaf (trying a number of alternative names). ‘Ah’ said the shopkeeper ‘yes, we have that, I’ll get it’. From the back of the shop appeared a cardboard box full of a pre-chopped leaf. It looked not unlike those balls of finely shredded cardboard you get in delivery boxes to protect your purchase. I was then asked how much I needed ‘enough for 3 people’ I quavered. ‘Nigerians?’ she countered. ‘No,’ I said, ‘English people’. ‘Mmm’ she said, ‘how you gonna cook it?’ ‘With some spices maybe?’. ‘Mmm’ she said.

I left the shop with £3 worth (about 2 large handfuls) of the stuff, none the wiser as to whether it was enough or how it should be cooked.

To book end our forest leaf extravaganza Joe started with ‘Fresh meat of Pork with sauce’ sourced form the Star Du Congo, the newspaper of Congo Brazzaville. It was passable and quite pleasant. A sort of soupy pork stew which was oddly buttery given there’s no butter included in it. We agreed it was pretty good, particularly as it might be the only good thing we’d eat that evening.

Steve’s main was to be accompanied by ‘powdered bitter manioc’ which we were momentarily excited about until we looked up manioc and realised it was fufu again. It’s been a while since we’ve cooked fufu and I had forgotten how awful it smells (like a mixture of cheesy wotsits and wallpaper paste.) And it just won’t get any less dense. It sort of sticks to the spoon like a rubbery gelatinous brain. Steve fashioned it into gnocchi style balls which he planned to fry in the hope that it might improve what we know to be bland and rubbery gunk. In reality they were like small rubber bullets with a weird gritty crunch to each mouthful. “You know how they cut cocaine with washing powder, I reckon they’ve cut this with sand” was Joe’s summary.

Delicious ... if you're a pygmy maybe

Delicious! … maybe if you’re a pygmy

This fufu disappointment sat alongside a peanut fish stew, the boiled forest leaf and a baked yam. Baked yam, we thought, that’s got to be good, surely it will be like sweet potato? How wrong we were. The first mouthful told a story of disintegrating dehydrated starch. It stuck to the roof of your mouth like a claggy mouthful of powder. The forest leaf started badly. We made the mistake of smelling it whilst it was still boiling in the pan in a pool of seeping black water. I gagged. When eaten it was unclear whether the waxy leaf would ever break down to anything other than its original shape despite endless chewing. We later learned gnatum Africanus is a member of the fir family which explains a lot. We decided it was just about edible when combined with the peanutty fish but that in itself was not good. It started with overwhelming peanut, followed closely with the cloying taste of palm oil and finishing with bitter grassy taste of forest leaf.

Dessert had the potential to lift up what has to be the worst food we’d ever eaten. Congolese doughnuts – surely they couldn’t go wrong. Sadly they could. It’s unclear whether it was the recipe or my attempt at deep-frying but the ‘dough’ was oddly liquidy and seemed to be a sponge to the oil, no matter what temperature it was at.

It was a bad end to a bad meal.

Food score: 0.5 / 5

Recipes: 

Fresh meat of pork with sauce

– 500g of pork;
– 1 ripe fresh tomatoes ;
– 1 onion, sliced in rounds;
– 1 garlic clove;
– 1/3 nutmeg, grated;
– A handful of chives;
– 1 red peppers;
– vegetable oil;
– salt.
Clean the meat and put it into a bowl. Rub in the crushed garlic and nutmeg. Put the meat into a pan with a little hot oil, the sliced onions, pepper and all the spices. Stir briefly and add about 250 ml of water. Simmer for 30 minutes and serve.

Note: the website we sourced this recipe from added the following advice:
You can eat this tasty dish with plantains as present here and add the safu. Hmmmm! ‘What delights !!!!!’

Mbendjele Pygmy Dinner

– 250g smoked pangasius*
– 2 tbsp peanut butter
– palm oil
– gnetum africanus (a.k.a. eru) leaf, sliced thinly
– 1 small white yam
– 200g cassava flour
– water, boiling
– vegetable oil

Bake the yam at 220°C for 45 minutes. Mix the water into the flour, stirring so it forms a dough. Break off gnocchi-sized lumps of the dough, roll in cassava flour and fry in the vegetable oil. Boil the gnetum in water for 20 mins. Cook the fish in a small pan with the palm oil and peanut butter, then add the boiled leaf to it.

* Pangasius is not to be found anywhere near Congo. However, it is a river fish, and the Congolese definitely eat smoked river fish. I couldn’t find smoked tilapia, so this had to do.

Congolese doughnuts

250g flour
100g sugar
2 sachets of yeast
1/2 tsp salt
3 packets of vanilla sugar (or some extra caster sugar with vanilla essence if you can’t get it)

– Put the flour in a large bowl with the sugar and salt. Add the yeast to 250 ml water of warm water gradually mixing. Add the yeast mixture to the flour mixture and stir until it is elastic.
– Add the vanilla sugar and a little warm water to get a consistency a little limp but not liquid.
– Leave to prove for 1-2 hours
– Cooking: Heat the oil to 170 ° C. Scoop small balls of the dough and plop into the oil. If the oil is hot enough, the donut will rise to the surface quickly.
– Let the doughnuts cook until brown. This will take about 5 minutes.

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

Comoros

Comoros

Steve’s house

2 October 2015

Comoros is a little archipelago off the northern coast of Madagascar, and until 1975 was a French colony, which boded well for its cuisine.

IMG_58092Steve’s starter was a miniature version of Langouste à la vanille, the national dish of Comoros. Not that you’d know that if you were to read the “Vanilla and shellfish” entry in Niki Segnit’s Flavour Thesaurus, where she credits Alain Senderens, the French pioneer of nouvelle cuisine, with its invention. The poor Comorians, who have been eating this stuff for centuries, have been royally shafted by this arriviste, nay, impérialiste. Although in his defence, his dish is Homard à la vanille, whereas the Comoros version is Langouste à la vanille, the humble langouste being, as you know, not the true large-clawed lobster, but the spiny rock lobster immortalised by the B52s. Please do not waste my time by talking about the langoustine at this point, because I am not interested and indeed may give you the back of my head. The langoustine, or should I say Norwegian lobster, is neither a true lobster nor a rock lobster, and if you insist on putting that in vanilla butter then that’s your affair.

Anyway, Joe declares it “delicious” and Sophie and Steve declare it “all right”. Pairing it with spinach gave it an unexpected sweetness and depth. Steve had hoped that fish and vanilla was going to prove a revelation, but it wasn’t really that revelatory.

IMG_5825For the main course, Sophie prepared Island Rice (Riz des Iles). Joe slams it: an underwhelming kedgeree, he claims, providing sustenance but not deliciousnance. Sophie and Steve declare it “all right”. It was a bit strange to combine rice with mashed potato. Seemed a bit unnecessary.

And for dessert, Joe’s recipe for Karara is outlandish, even compared to a Celtnet recipe, calling for a full 5kg of flour. He divides all the quantities by 10 and hopes for the best. The result is like a super-sweet fritter or blini, not unpleasant by any means, but we can only manage a couple before it’s too much already.

IMG_5829

Scores

Food: 2.5/5

Recipes

Langoustes au beurre vanillé (v.o.)

– 3 langoustes (ou lotte de mer), d’environ 150 g
– 15 cl de vin blanc sec
– 5 cl de vinaigre de vin blanc
– 100 g de beurre
– 1 cuillères à soupe d’huile
– 1 gousses de vanille
– 1 citrons vert
– sel et poivre
– (épinards)

Versez le vin blanc et le vinaigre dans une casserole. Laissez-les réduire, sur feu moyen, pour obtenir 2 cuillères à soupe de liquide. Réservez.

Aplatissez les gousses de vanille. Fendez-les en deux dans la longueur, puis grattez la pulpe avec le couteau. Posez-la sur une petite assiette. Coupez le beurre en cubes.

Coupez les langoustes en deux dans la longueur. Préchauffez le four à 270°C (thermostat 9).

Faites chauffer l’huile dans un grand plat à rôtir. Disposez les moitiés de langouste côté chair vers le fond. Enfournez-les pendant 5-6 min. en les retournant à mi-cuisson, puis salez et poivrez-les, laissez-les se détendre à l’entrée du four éteint.

Faites réchauffer sur feu doux la réduction de vin. Incorporez-lui, en fouettant vivement les cubes de beurre. Salez, poivrez, ajoutez la pulpe de vanille et donnez un dernier coup de fouet.

Au moment de servir, dressez les demi-langoustes sur des assiettes chaudes, carapaces en dessous. Nappez-les d’un peu de beurre blanc. Servez le reste en saucière. Décorez de demi-rondelles de citron vert. (Et servez avec la tombée épinards.)

Riz des Iles (Island rice)

500 g white rice, cooked
100 g fresh fish
100 g chopped shallots
50 g chopped coriander
Kernels from 1 cob of corn
100 g mashed potatoes
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp pepper
1 tbsp curry powder
2 garlic cloves, mashed
1/2 tsp coffee powder
Salt to taste

Cut the fish in steaks then fry in oil until coloured. Add the garlic, mashed potatoes and shallots and fry for 5 minutes before adding the spices and 300ml water. Mix with a spoon to form a stew and continue simmering gently. Add the cooked rice and sweetcorn and stir vigorously for 2 minutes. Add the coriander and stir in then allow to simmer for 10 minutes. Serve immediately.

Karara

You might want to divide these quantities by 10.

500g of flour
2/3 can coconut milk
220g of sugar
1 tsp baking soda
water
salt
oil

Sift flour into a bowl. Add some salt and baking soda. Pour the coconut milk into the bowl and mix it with the flour. Work the dough well. Allow it to sit in a plastic bag for 5 minutes.
Roll some dough into a ball, flatten slightly and place it on a pastry board.  Roll out the dough. Pinch the dough into pleats with your fingertips. Sprinkle with flour.
Fry the cakes in hot oil for 6 or 7 minutes, then remove and put them in a bowl.
Put sugar and water in a pot and reduce to a syrup. Cover the cakes in syrup and serve.

Colombia

Donde Carlos, 143 Goldhawk Rd, London W12 8EN

10 September 2015

Donde Carlos (presumably named for the Colombian version of Where’s Wally?) certainly looks the part when we first arrive: a menu packed with exotic sounding dishes, Latin American music playing on the PA, sport on a big telly in the corner, basic furniture and a conservatory-style frontage (not unlike the earlier Bolivian example). Initial excitement is suppressed a little when we realise that availability is very much dependent on the day of the week. There’s a whole tapas menu that is only served on a Friday, and several other dishes that are only available on Saturday or Sunday. In addition, there’s no Colombian beer available, forcing Steve to drink Corona. And they’ve run out of soup. However, none of this really matters since there’s plenty else on offer, and Joe & Sophie go straight for the Rafejo, a sort of fruity shandy made from beer mixed with a fizzy pop not unlike Irn Bru.

We start with a couple of beef empanadas – and all are agreed that these are the best examples of their type that we have ever tasted. Delicious shredded beef filling in a wonderfully crispy fried pastry case, served with a fabulous herb & chilli salsa. Things are off to a world-beating start already.

The Best Empanada

The Best Empanada

For main, Joe and Steve both go for the Bandeja Paisa, a combination of all the Colombian foods in one massive meal. This was also available in a “mini” version, which would have definitely been more than enough food, and we knew it. But no, we had to go for the full-sized version, which neither of us were then able to finish. It was good though – a big mess of fried kidney beans, rice with a fried egg on top, pork belly strips, great sheets of fried beef fillet, Colombian chorizo and fried plantain.

Chuleta de cerdo (front), Bandeja paisa (back), Joe (further back)

Sophie, meanwhile had a more sensible Chuleta de Cerdo: pork escalopes fried in breadcrumbs, served with chips, rice and plantain. The chuletas seemed to have the salsa cooked into the breadcrumb coating, making them particularly delicious.

For pudding, we shared two dishes – black figs steeped in a syrup and served stuffed with dulce de leche, and a sort of dry curd cheese, also served with dulce de leche. The figs were amazing, not really in need of any help from the dulce, while the cheese was a bit weird, with a texture not unlike white bread and not really helped by its sweet companion.

Figs with dulce de leche

Figs with dulce de leche

Pretty good food overall, and it all felt thoroughly authentic throughout. When we phoned to book a table, they answered in Spanish, and there were small-ads in Spanish and advertisements for currency exchange pinned to the walls. This sort of place is really what the Foods of the World exercise is all about.

Scores

Atmosphere 4/5; Food 3.5/5

China

Hunan, 51 Pimlico Rd, London SW1W 8NE

29 August 2015

Pork and mushroom soup

Pork and mushroom soup

China. A rare treat for us mouthful of earth eaters. For once we had the prospect of an unprecedented amount of choice of where we could snap up our Chinese eating experience. So we took a slightly different approach with this restaurant choice – rather than simply, can we find a restaurant, any restaurant, to eat this food at, we went for where can we eat the BEST Chinese food in London.

There is of course, an unlimited range of possibilities. There’s a Chinese takeaway on every London high street, village and next to every underground or bus station. There are also the streets of London’s China town – a wealth of Chinese supermarkets, dim-sum dineries and tempting restaurants nestled between Leicester Square and Soho. These are streets we’d all dined at many a time and always have the same dilemma – which one to pick? Which is the best restaurant in China town, do you go for a safe choice you’ve tried before or try somewhere new with the possibility that it could be even better? After much research Joe settled on Hunan – off the beaten track, well-away from China town and a pricey choice but one we thought would be well worth it.

You arrive, having walked through a luxurious part of Belgravia to a rather unassuming white doorway which ushers onto a narrow passageway looking not unlike the hallway of someone’s house. This feeling stays with you as you take the first door on the left into what looks suspiciously like someone’s front room. That, however, is where the comparison ends. Once settled into your seat amongst the throng of other excited-looking customers you begin to appreciate the seamlessness of a high-end restaurant. Plush white table cloths and napkins, beautiful glassware and cutlery and the genteel hum of happy dining. We’re given a menu which tells us that there is no menu – you simply choose vegetarian or non-vegetarian and then are presented with 16-20 small dishes in small clusters, each more interesting and unusual than the next.

Because of the lack of menu I’ve given an account of the dishes we ate largely based on what ingredients were in them. These descriptions don’t give full justice to the complexity of the dishes but they give you a flavour for the make-up of the meal.

Prawns stuffed with spinach and battered green beans

Prawns stuffed with spinach and battered green beans

The first dish to be presented to us was an individual delicate silky dumping, filled with pork in a warm sloop of soy-flavoured broth. For several courses this remained my favourite morsel. Next came a pork and mushroom soup. More a stew than a soup, this beautifully presented wooden beaker contained a floating cylinder of mushroomy-porky goodness floating in a broth filled with spring onion and soy. I still haven’t worked out how this feat was achieved but I was mesmerised by it throughout consumption. A lettuce roll of minced chicken followed, reminding me of a similar dish I’d eaten in Hong Kong as a child, alongside crispy green beans in a tempura-like batter and the plumpest king prawns, stuffed with spinach.

Lemon chicken and chilli squid – two takeaway favourites were fresh, tangy and delicious, nothing like the gloopy takeaway fare. Prawn toast made an appearance, looking and tasting unrecognisable – delicate prawn pate shaped into cylinders and rolled in crispy breadcrumbs. Even more unusual was a plate of sliced ox tongue and thinly carpaccio-ed duck with a red bean sauce.

'Spinach rolls' - this description does not get even close to how delicious these were

‘Spinach rolls’ – this description does not get even close to how delicious these were

Sesame-encrusted and sat in a sweet red sauce, a dish rather unglamorously described by our waitress as ‘spinach rolls’ quickly overtook the pork dumpling for me as the stand-out dish of the meal, with crispy lamb fairly close behind.

When we all thought we couldn’t eat another delicately-prepared morsel our waitress asked us whether we would prefer duck or seabass. Having seen the eponimous crispy duck with pancakes being served on a neighbouring table we opted for the seabass. Less than 10 minutes later a whole baked seabass was whisked onto our table. The glistening flesh falling off the bone, we somehow made space to pick it clean, even managing to polish off a plate of apple and banana toffee fritters with ice cream afterwards. Well, you’ve got to have the full experience.

My favourites were the pork and mushroom soup and spinach rolls. Joe and Steve were big fans of the pork char sui buns, which are I can safely say, the best char sui buns I’ve ever eaten. Chicken in lettuce was also a big hit. Not everything was universally loved – I wasn’t a massive fan of the lamb and celery – but put together the menu was fantastic. Everything was unusual and authentic and felt genuinely different. And all three of us made it through 19 dishes despite having had our three course Chilean meal for lunch.

Miles away from the Chinese takeaway you can find on every London street.

Pork char sui bun

Pork char sui bun

Minced chicken wrapped in lettuce

Minced chicken wrapped in lettuce

Our menu

Shanghai soup and pork dumpling
Pork and mushroom soup
Chicken in lettuce
Crispy beans
Prawns stuffed with spinach
Lemon chicken
Ox Tongue
Spinach rolls
Duck with red bean sauce
Chilli squid
Chicken rolls with asparagus
Steamed scallops and cucumber
Beef and morning glory
Crispy lamb
Prawn toasts
Lamb and celery
Pork char sui buns
Seabass
Apple and banana toffee fritters

Prawn toast

Prawn toast

Scores

Food: 4.5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5