Tuesday, 30 March 2010

the UK's first Underground Market...

...took place on Sunday 28 March, and was hosted, organised, and brilliantly managed by MsMarmiteLover. You can read all about it on her blog, and I strongly suggest you do - I think markets like this are going to be the next big thing in the foodie/crafty world, judging from the huge popularity of Sunday's event. It was surreal, frenetic, mad, but massive fun, and stallholders and visitors alike seemed to have a complete ball while making lots of new friends and contacts into the bargain, too.

Here are some pictures I took very quickly before the hordes descended. All a bit random (and apologies to those I didn't snap - I really had to whizz round!), but hopefully they'll give you a flavour of it all. For more pics, go to MsMarmiteLover's blog, and also look at links from there to others.

Oh yeah, and I had a little stall of all things choc, too. ;-) (If you really want to know - original brownies, pecan brownies, cardamom brownies, choconana loaf, torta caprese, squillionaire's shortbread, and Portuguese-style chocolate custard tarts).

AFoS stall at Underground Market

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The sun shone (well, for the most part, anyway), the wine and cocktails flowed, and everyone was happy. Yes, THIS HAPPY!

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Big thanks are due to MsMarmiteLover and her great team of helpers, fellow stallholders, and everyone who came along - you all made it very worthwhile, and I hope to see you again soon!

Sunday, 21 March 2010

set lunch at Texture: Northern (de)lights, bargain price

I have a confession to make. For the last 2 or 3 years, I've been eating on the cheap.

Nope, I haven't been deluged with freebies, much as I would like to be. No, I've simply been taking advantage of very competitive set lunch pricing at some of London's best restaurants. It's a great way to try top-notch cooking without having to remortgage your house.

My recent visit to Texture, an Icelandic-run resto in the heart of swanky Mayfair, was one such occasion. As with so many places, it's been on my list for some time, but was recently given a gentle nudge back towards the top of that list by my recent reacquaintance with Scandinavian food. Texture's head chef is Agnar Sverrisson, formerly of Pétrus and Le Manoir - a man of evident ambition and vision who, since Texture opened in 2007, has been bringing a touch of Nordic style to the capital. His efforts have been well recieved - numerous accolades have already come Texture's way, including its first Michelin star just a few weeks ago.

High time, then, for me to pay a visit. And, for the first time in a while, I remembered to take my camera along with me. Unfortunately for me, we were then seated at a table away from any natural light. C'est la vie.

Still, I had my camera and I was going to use it, as you will see... ;-)

So, what can you expect for £22 for 3 courses? Well, for a start, our meal was littered with more than just the three courses. Unlike some places that offer set price menus, and which serve up a mealy-mouthed effort devoid of all the extras that make a venue like this a bit special, Texture does no such thing. We had exactly the same frills and fripperies as those eating a la carte.

We kicked off with an array of 'crisps' for want of a better word...

crisps at Texture

These included the obligatory parmesan crisp, but also a thinner than thin potato version, a pungent seaweedy variety (think cat's breath, and you're halfway there - but it tasted way better than it smelled, for which I'm hugely thankful), and a couple of others which now escape my memory. And a dip which we largely bypassed, not least because the crisps were so delicate as not to need it.

Next up, our amuse bouche, a cold pea and mint 'soup' topped with a granita comprising the same ingredients. Sadly, my camera nearly went into meltdown at this point, struggling valiantly as it was with the low lighting. Trying to get a shot of the amuse from above the little cup just wasn't going to work. This, I'm afraid, is the best I could come away with...

amuse at Texture

... which I hope gives you at least some semblance of the idea. My (and no doubt, your) frustration at the photo isn't eased if I tell you that this little concoction was stunning. An amazing, lighter-than-light granita on top of a rich, creamy, very pea-y-and-minty, smooth-as-you-like gloopy soup. The Other Diner and I agreed on its fabulousness, and would have been happy paying our respective £22 just for that. Well, almost. How Sverrisson achieves the creaminess of the soup without using butter or cream (one of the hallmarks of his cooking), I would dearly love to know. Perhaps I should have asked him - he was much in evidence at the pass throughout the lunch service.

It was hard to imagine that our amuse could be bettered by our starters - and, arguably, it wasn't.

Mine, of beetroot, goat's cheese, and chervil ice cream, was beautifully prepared, fresh and lovely to eat, but it just didn't reach the heights of the amuse. That said, it was infinitely better than most beetroot and goat's cheese starters I've eaten to date, so I guess I'm being a bit picky.

beetroot goat cheese starter at Texture

The Other Diner said much about our other starter, described on the menu as 'Icelandic line caught Haddock - Smoked, confit, mustard, hen egg'. It did, indeed, seem to include all those things (my photo was so appalling, I've spared you - so you'll have to take my word for it), but somehow it didn't quite grab us.

Having booked in for a late lunch as we had, I suppose I wasn't wholly unsurprised to be told that they had only one portion of one of the mains left, the lamb - which, of course, I'd been intending to have. Still, out of the goodness of my heart, I let The Other Diner have it. In its place, the waitress offered me five-spiced duck - which I might well have opted for had it been on the menu in the first place. Hardly a shoddy substitute.

Enter, the lamb...

lamb main at Texture

... and the duck...

5-spiced duck main at Texture

... and now, another confession. I didn't take notes, and neither the lamb nor the duck are mentioned on the current menu. So I can't tell you what they were accompanied by, and nor can I dredge anything helpful from my age-eaten memory. I CAN tell you that the duck was very good - cooked to perfection, with a crisp coat giving way to tender, tasty meat. The spicing was perfect, and notable for its restraint - there, but in no way overwhelming the duck.

And that last portion of lamb? Equally good, apparently, and wonderfully tender and moist. Like my duck, not a morsel was left on the plate, so I guess that tells its own story.

Dessert was a shoo-in for Iceland's very own Skyr, on this occasion served with poached forced rhubarb, muesli, and granité.

rhubarb and skyr dessert at Texture

The Other Diner and I were both rendered speechless again. The lemon-tinged creaminess of the Skyr was the perfect foil for the rhubarb and, together with the muesli crumb, and the icy granité went to make up a gorgeous, refreshing, palate-tingling dessert. It was simply quite stunning.

For me, a good meal isn't complete unless finished with a good coffee. But so many places fall down on this element, serving watery, bitter, under- or over-brewed, lukewarm or super-heated brown stuff instead. Not here, I'm pleased to say.

Coffee to treasure... smooth, dark, mellow, with champion crema:

coffee at Texture

oh, and ably assisted by coffee macarons (not my thing, but these were admittedly rather good), and some uber-dark chocolate truffles.

petits fours at Texture

Yes, ok, so we chose to spend more than £22 by virtue of indulging ourselves with the wine list (for which Texture has also received considerable acclaim), but the point is, we needn't have done.

We could have had all the above, a bottle of water, and coffees for little over £50. For the overall standard of food you get here, not to mention the superb service, the relaxed ambience and lovely room, it represents an absolute bargain. True, the actual meal didn't dazzle absolutely all the way through, but there were more than enough sparkly highlights to leave us feeling happy and satisfied.

So, when you next have £22 or so in your pocket, you could do worse than to give yourself the afternoon off and toddle along to Texture, just as we did, and bear witness to its Northern (de)lights.

Texture on Urbanspoon

Friday, 12 March 2010

nutty treats: awesome peanut butter cookies

peanut cookies 1

Yet again I find myself flagging up someone else's recipe. Ho hum. Still, I guess that's what blogging is partly all about, isn't it? Sharing the good stuff. Consider it my good deed for the week. Well, I will, anyway.

Peanuts and/or peanut butter have been a lifelong love of mine. As a kid I used to eat so much peanut butter that my grandmother used to shriek 'have any more of that and you'll turn into a peanut!' whenever I went near a jar. Clearly, the thought of becoming a little legume did nothing to put me off. And, just to prove that grandmothers aren't always right (since when did your hair turn curly when you ate the bread crusts, for example?), I'm still very much here in human form. And still eating peanut butter.

So... peanut butter and cookies. A good match for me. Love peanut butter, love cookies. With one caveat. The cookies have to be the soft, chewy kind. And not the kind that go as splat as a pancake on baking (yes, I did mean 'splat'. Conveys so much more than 'flat', don't you think?).

In my experience of cookie recipes, many simply don't live up to the hype. I'm pleased to say that these do. First posted by Patricia, over at Technicolor Kitchen (a blog well worth following, particularly if you like baking), her recipe promised everything I look for. Happily, it delivered.

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Real cookies, with substance. What more can you ask for?

Oh, perhaps a glass of cold milk. ;-)

Thursday, 4 March 2010

afternoon tea with a difference: éclairs at The Arch

New hotel, in London, good early reviews - I'm there.

Actually, I'm not usually. But the Arch hotel caught my eye after a couple of fellow food bloggers visited and reviewed its afternoon tea offering.

Because it wasn't just any old tea. Not a scone or dollop of clotted cream in sight. No, it was a tea with a difference. A tea with éclairs. And, more to the point, a tea with savoury éclairs. Oh, and some rather good Jing tea, too.

Neat idea, I thought. Must go try for myself.

And so I did.

First, the menu. Or the most relevant part, for the purposes of this little exercise:

tea menu at the Arch

Second, the tea:

tea at the Arch 2

Next, the crumpets with blueberry butter (not jam, note):

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And then, the grand finale - the éclairs (from l-r: Amalfi lemon and biscotti; chocolate and green tea; and crab and crème fraiche):

tea at the Arch 3

The verdict?

Lots of positives.

The place itself is beautifully furnished and blessedly quiet, in a good way (not in a 'we're quiet because we're deserted' way) which helps hugely in making it a great spot to have tea and while away a couple of hours.

Service is keen, friendly, and attentive, without being overbearing. In other words, it's the kind of service I like.

The menu? The éclairs aside, there are plenty of scrumptious options. Check out the full version here. And if you don't want an option in its entirety, you can simply pick and choose individual items, as we did.

The tea? Perhaps rather boringly, we opted for English Breakfast tea. But this, to my mind - not least because it's the tea I drink most frequently - is a good benchmark for the general quality of teas a place serves. This was clean, punchy, refreshing, with just a hint of tannin. My only quibble lay with the strainer - a rather Heath Robinson-like contraption, whose irritation factor was exacerbated by the fact that there was nowhere to put it after you'd poured your tea.

The shortbread biscuit accompanying the tea was perfectly pleasant, and evidently made on the premises. Living up to its billing, it was certainly 'short' - so light and crumbly, in fact, that it almost disintegrated into nothingness in my (not knowingly strong) grasp before making it into my mouth. But what was its point? I can understand serving a biscuit with tea if tea is all the customer is having - but we had also ordered crumpets and éclairs... In our case, then, while the biscuit was arguably a 'nice touch', it was also wholly superfluous to requirements.

Crumpets. Well, they were certainly recognisably 'crumpety'. Light, soft, and doughy, with a decent crisp outer. But the real revelation was the blueberry butter. This, my friends, is the 'jam' of the future. If, like me, you like jam, but can rarely face its uber-sugariness, then do give this stuff a try. You get a decent hint of the fruit, but without all the, well, jamminess of jam. It was subtle, tasty, and very moreish, and a good foil for the richness of the butter and the crumpet dough.

And the éclairs? You can see from the pics (ok, not-so-great pics - blame the low artificial light, as ever - but I think you get the idea) that these are not your standard eclairs. I must admit, I had feared they might fall foul of the usual éclair errors: over filling, too little filling, dry or heavy pastry, etc... There is, after all, a multitude of ways in which an eclair can go wrong. But not these. Maybe we got lucky, but each of those that we tried was perfectly judged.

Perhaps my marginal preference would be for the crab and crème fraiche combo, if only because it had the added novelty factor. The filling was delightful - distinctly charged with crab, but prevented from being too much of a good thing by the lemony crème fraiche. But the sweet éclairs were no less enjoyable - the addition of green tea in the chocolate and green tea version helped cut through the chocolate to produce a mellow and low-level chocolate hit, while the Amalfi lemon éclair was fresh and zingy without going so far as to induce any lip-puckering or teeth-sucking. Like Fiona and Sig, however, I'd agree that the biscotti on top - while undoubtedly fine and dandy for decorative purposes - did nothing to improve the éclair.

All in all, then, a thumbs-up. It made an interesting change, and is certainly a little different from the other afternoon tea offerings out there at the moment. I liked the idea, and the execution was pretty good. Only a dinner engagement, just a couple of hours later, prevented me from sampling more.

I hope they keep up the good work, because I, for one, hope to be back to try the other éclairs and, indeed, the rest of the tea menu.