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Restaurant critic round-up, 29/03

'Apsleys - A Heinz Beck Restaurant.' Shudders all round.

Click here for my weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics at iStarvin.


Restaurant critic round-up, 22/03

Cambridge, and its 'Cromwellian misery'.

Click here for my weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics at iStarvin.com.


Fancy a Polish? [G2 Article]

The chef at Daquise fries pierogi dumplings. Photo: Linda Nylind for The Guardian

I've written something for today's G2 about the UK's adoption of Polish food. Click here to read it.


Fire & Knives - Issue 2

Just a short post to let you know that the latest Fire & Knives, Tim Hayward's brilliant and unique quarterly food magazine, is now out. I think this edition is even better than the first, with fantastic pieces by Marina O'Loughlin of Metro, Xanthe Clay of The Telegraph, Bompas & Parr, Emma Sturgess and my friend Douglas Blyde, who's written a timely and engaging article about the chocolate-town Bournville. The Gastrician, I'm glad to say, is also back with another achingly accomplished review of a 'restaurant you'll never be able to visit', allegedly in Bratislava.

I've written something about Canada's forgotten cheese bard, James McIntyre, who spent much his life writing terrible poems in praise of curdled, preserved milk. Included below is one of his masterworks, an ode to a gigantic cheese manufactured in 1889. To read more, click here.

Ode on the Mammoth Cheese

(Weight over seven thousand pounds.)

We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze –
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you'll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

Cows numerous as a swarm of bees –
Or as the leaves upon the trees –
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unrivalled, Queen of Cheese.

May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great World's show at Paris.

Of the youth – beware of these –,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing oh! Queen of Cheese.

We'rt thou suspended from balloon,
You'd cast a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.


The Aga can't [Article]

Cats crawling on an Aga. A bit gross, if we're honest.

I've written something for Word of Mouth at The Guardian about Agas, and all that's wrong with them. Click here to read it.

Restaurant critic round-up, 15/03

The Gay Hussar, Soho. The restaurant that prompted a million sniggers.

Click here for my weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics.


Homemade ricotta [Recipe]

You may think life's too short to start making your own cheese, but homemade ricotta is a proverbial revelation. Not only is it laughably easy, it's just miles from the lumpy, watery matter of the supermarkets: the real stuff is mild, milky and proud.

It's also enormously useful. You can dot a pizza with it, or spread it (ideally when it's still warm) on hot toast with a bit of jam, or fold it into an omelette, or sprinkle it onto salad, or stuff canneloni or cannoli with it. The Sicilians make a glorious cake with it called cassata. It has far less fat than cream, so you can use it for smooth, silky pasta sauces that are unexpectedly easy to digest, and won't leave you feeling like you've swallowed a brick.

I add some cream to mine which obviously makes it richer – leave it out if you like. I also use buttermilk to curdle the milk: lemon juice and vinegar would both do the job, as of course would rennet. However you do it, you'll be left with something very fine, and there's something pleasing, almost alchemical, in watching it curdle and set.

Homemade ricotta

Makes about 250g

1l organic whole milk
250ml cream
1 tsp salt
250ml buttermilk

Place all the ingredients in a large pan and bring to 90 degrees Celsius, stirring frequently to make sure the mix isn't scorching. (If you haven't got a thermometer, heat everything until it's just about to boil.) Remove from the heat and ladle carefully into a colander lined with cheesecloth. Leave to drain for about 20 minutes, then gather into a bundle and press gently to squeeze out the excess liquid. If you're not using it straight away, seal the cheese in something airtight in the fridge – it'll keep for 3 0r 4 days.

Conchiglie with anchovies, chilli and ricotta [Recipe]

A vibrant, comforting supper dish which I'm very pleased with and which is far lighter than you might expect – ricotta being very low in fat. I used homemade ricotta, but of course the shop-bought stuff would do. The chillies are there for fragrance more than heat, the dissolved anchovies bring something deep and savoury.

Conchiglie with anchovies, chilli and ricotta

Serves 2

250g conchiglie
1 tin anchovies in extra virgin olive oil
2 large red chillies, de-seeded and finely sliced
A small splash of milk
100g fresh ricotta
Small bunch parsley, roughly chopped

Drain the anchovies, reserving their oil, and soak them in the milk for 20 minutes. Sauté the chillies in the same oil until they've softened, then remove the anchovies from the milk and stir them into the chillies so they dissolve into a glorious salty sludge.

Boil the pasta in well-salted water until almost ready, then drain, reserving the cooking water. Return the pasta to the pan, add the chilli and anchovy mix, the ricotta and a ladleful or so of the cooking water. Continue cooking over a medium heat until the pasta is al dente, adding more of the water if needed. Throw in the parsley and serve immediately.


Restaurant critic round-up, 08/03

Wagyu beef at Dinings. Photo: Helen Yuet Ling Pang

Click here for my weekly round-up of the national restaurant critics at iStarvin.


Waitrose Food Illustrated - Lunchboxes

I've written something for the Biting Talk column in this month's Waitrose Food Illustrated about the return of the lunchbox (no sniggering at the back, it's got nothing to do with Linford Christie). The endless bleedin' recession has apparently caused a spike in lunchbox sales for both adults and children – and, as ever, this has only spurred competition and grasping one-upmanship.

WFI is absurdly good value at £1 – it's available in fine Waitroses and John Lewises across the land. As if my byline weren't enough, there are other brilliant pieces to tempt you: recipes from Bill Granger, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's roast spuds, as well as an uncharacteristically revealing interview with some bloke called Gordon Ramsay.

Spiced red lentil soup [Recipe]

This is nourishing, cheap and disarmingly healthy; it also works well with a tin of coconut milk. Slightly thinner than your standard dahl, it's a fine storecupboard raid for a warming winter supper. I expect it would freeze nicely, too.

Serves 4

300g split red lentils (masoor dal)
30g butter
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Small lump ginger, skinned and finely chopped
1 tsp cumin seeds, dry roasted and lightly crushed
1 tsp coriander seeds, dry roasted and lightly crushed
1 tsp turmeric
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp hot chilli powder, or more if you like
2 bay leaves
1 or 2 tomatoes from a tin, chopped, with their juice
1l chicken stock (or Marigold bouillon in an emergency)
1 lime, natural yoghurt and fresh coriander, to serve

Thoroughly wash and drain the lentils. Heat the butter in a medium pan and sauté the onions, garlic and ginger until they're softened and lightly coloured. Add the spices, stir well and cook gently for two or three minutes.

Add the lentils, bay, tomatoes and stock to the pan, bring to the boil, then reduce the heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 30 minutes or so until the lentils are beautifully soft. Taste and correct seasoning.

Fish out the bay leaves, then decant half the soup into a blender and blitz thoroughly, returning it to the pan. Pour into warmed bowls and garnish with a dollop of natural yoghurt, a good squeeze of lime and some fresh coriander.


The River Café's chocolate nemesis [Recipe]

I can't share vicariously in the grief that's met the death of Rose Gray – I never met her, ate at the River Café or even owned one of her cookbooks – but of course I knew who she was, and I know enough about British restaurants to understand how profoundly she influenced them.

This chocolate cake is legendary. A signature of sorts at the RC, it famously never worked when people tried it at home, and was the ruin of a million mid-Nineties dinner parties. In the popular imagination it's an archetype for hubristic home cooking, and it is a bit of a fiddle. The flourless cake bakes in a bain marie for "over an hour": mine needed an hour and a half before its top stopped wobbling. Making it, you strike a tricky balance between raw and dry, but I'm pleased how this turned out.

A few non-RC cracks appeared as I cut it, and I can't imagine the River Caff would have used Spanish raspberries in March (don't shoot me: I didn't buy them, just imagine it's late summer and they're from Scotland) but this was truly glorious: richly flavoured, smooth and surprisingly light. It uses just four ingredients, too, which sums up everything I know about the restaurant.

Yesterday, when I went to buy the ingredients, the Fulham Waitrose was out of unrefined caster sugar, and low on dark chocolate. It's probably a coincidence, but maybe I'm not the only River Café local who made this cake in the great cook's memory.

The River Café's chocolate nemesis (serves 10-12)

675g dark chocolate 70%
450g butter
10 whole eggs
675g caster sugar

Melt the chocolate and butter together in a bain marie. Remove from the heat and allow to cool. Preheat the oven to 160 degrees and line a 27cm springform cake tin with foil.

Beat together the eggs and sugar with an electric mixer for five minutes until they've quadrupled in volume. Fold the chocolate and butter mixture into the eggs and sugar and stir thoroughly. Pour the mixture into the prepared cake tin.

Place the cake in a large roasting tin in the oven, then pour enough boiling water into the tin to rise 3/4 up the side of the cake. Cook in the preheated oven for over an hour, then turn the oven off and allow to cool completely before removing. Serve with crème fraiche.


Restaurant critic round-up, 01/03

Nathan Barley, 'Shoreditch Twat'. The Evening Standard is on to him.

Click here for my weekly round-up of the national critics' restaurant reviews at iStarvin.com

Butchery Class at Allens of Mayfair

Last weekend I went to a butchery class at Allens. They're very much at the top end of London butchers and supply a lot of the big names: The Connaught's Hélène Darroze is such a fan she plasters them across her menu in spectacularly daft Franglais: "Le Boeuf Angus Aberdeen de Chez Allens of Mayfair". At 7am on the Glorious Twelfth, the queue of grouse-hungry chefs stretches round the block – and Le Gavroche, by tradition, get first dibs. Allens have had the same shop since 1887 which makes them, I'm told, the oldest on-site butchers in the country.

The deal at the classes is: you turn up, they teach you how to dismember animals for a couple of hours, then you go home swaying under a towering podrida of fowl, sheep, cow and pig. We started by jointing chickens – there's a nifty way of getting the raw oysters off that I didn't know about – then moved on to oxtail (incredibly satisfying to cut up), French-trimming racks of lamb and chining some stellar sirloin from the Cairngorms: this beef is now sitting proudly in my fridge like a blood-soaked Titanic. It was a superb day and it brought home, as if I needed reminding, what a weight of theory and what a battery of surgeon's skills lie behind the best butchery. The tiny shop floor conceals a basement with another 25 or so staff: standing under the stuffed heads and lamb carcasses, you'd never guess it.

The classes cost £100 and are more than worth it for a keen food-lover. Allens give you a bundle of recipes to take home as inspiration, including Rowley Leigh's oxtail ragout and Brian Turner's method for roast beef. Perhaps surprisingly, just as many girls as boys do the course: less surprisingly, the girls are invariably better at it.

Butchery Class, Allens of Mayfair, 117 Mount Street, London W1K 3LA

See on the Map

Tel. +44 (0)20 7499 5831


This was a freebie, but if I'd known about it I would have been pestering friends and relatives to give me the class for my birthday.