Tuesday, 26 July 2011


If you have booked at The Bonnie and Wild, the part-time restaurant in Chapel Market in Islington, you will receive an e-mail of instructions the day before. It will tell you, amongst other things, that it only takes cash, you have 2 hours to eat your meal and 'please do not be offended if we hurry you to finish you meal', oh, and 'the venue is 100 years old so please be careful of the fixtures and fittings'.  Are they expecting a large representation from the criminal classes? Perhaps as Bonnie and Wild originate in Scotland they envisage the average Londoner will be linked to a shady underworld with historical links to the Krays - and, of course these hoodlums will be well up for a bit of chipped off Victoriana. 
They'll be easing off a bit of tiling maybe or even when no one is looking unscrewing the lampshades to sell down their local hostelry. Well at least they won't have any problems paying with cash ... those types always have a monkey or two in their trouser pocket, don't they?
So what's the story, guv?  (see what I did there?) The B&W is a part-time restaurant (as opposed to a pop-up), setting up each Saturday evening in Manze's eel, pie and mash shop in Chapel Market.  Manze's is an unreconstructed gem, all glistening tiles, marble slabs as table tops and delicate glass lamps.
Bonnie Gull, sustainable fish suppliers, have got together with the Wild Game Company for this new venture, offering a simple menu to display their wares. The smoked mackerel and venison are both excellent, well cooked and with nothing to distract from the star quality of central ingredients.
The staff are nice if a little nervy (it's only opened recently) and the clientele is a mix of Islington Boho and a more mature, well-heeled type (who else can afford the house prices around here?). It's pretty reasonable though - £30 for 3 courses and you can drink a nice wine with it as it's BYO (or in our case a nasty supermarket wine bought without due care and consideration by T).  Word is out, on the street and all over the blogosphere - the Krays would have loved it. 

Now Bonnie Gull have set up on their own with a pop-up on a roof next to the Shard: Bonnie-on-Sky
Find them in Magdalen House, Tooley Street until July 21st, and then in the Autumn in a more permanent home.

Sunday, 24 July 2011


I really thought Bill's Cafe was an American import. I envisaged Bill, the youngest son of a far-flung branch of Colonel Saunders' clan who, turning his back on the family (and their military pretensions), settled in Brooklyn to open a chilled-out place for the local Bohemians. It makes sense: the wooden floors and rustic shelving a post-modern allusion to the pioneers' log cabin; the communal tables a place for playing chess or planning a wholefood collective; and in the evenings ... jazz players noodling on their sax (what else?).

I am wrong however, Bill is from the South Coast, from Sussex in fact, and English as apple pie. Not exactly a chain, there are apparently about five Bill's Cafes dotted around the south of the country. The menu is  crowd-pleasing: burgers, mezze, roasted chicken breast etc, and it's all well-cooked and flavoured; they also do a mean cooked breakfast. If I were being picky I would say it does have a slight over-styled, self-conscious feel, I sense the deadening hand of a slick marketing exec. 
The shelves lining the walls artfully display a range of what they call "groceries" and what most people would call "luxuries you don't actually need" (I know, I know that's a tautology). 
These all seem to be chosen for their attractive packaging, so while waiting for lunch you can place your order for such essential provisions as Ortiz anchovies, bottled French juice or Bill's own ale ... and you can even purchase a bright string bag to take it all away with you. 
If this all sounds like damning with faint praise I have to say I really like it ... I do, and it is great to see a new face on the Cambridge scene. 

There's just a whiff of the ersatz - and if you don't believe me try selecting one of the olde books in the cosy nook by the stairs...

Wednesday, 13 July 2011


I am back at John Benbow's Food at 52 for another of his excellent cooking classes (see here for an account of the Thai Cooking course), this time exploring Southern Indian cuisine. Think of the South of India: verdant, lush vegetation; sleepy backwaters; gently leaning coconut palms loaded with fruit; long pristine beaches. The Food at 52 class is similarly relaxed, yet also stimulating, with new ideas, techniques and flavours at every turn, as well as a range of unusual gadgets (the fearsome harpoon-like object for stripping out coconut flesh is everyone's favourite). Before long, we are chopping, stirring, cooking and tasting, following John's clear, knowledgeable guidance.

First we make Spinach Vadai (deep fried dal doughnuts stuffed with onion, spices, coriander and spinach), and Aubergine Chutney (a deep green, coriander-infused sauce).  Vadai are ideal for scooping up the soft green chutney. 
Spinach Vadai

Meanwhile, a Fish Curry is bubbling away; this combines monk fish, prawns and green mango slices in a mildly spicy yoghurt sauce. Although Southern Indian food is largely vegetarian, Kerala, being Christian, includes meat and fish in its cuisine.
Fish Curry with Green Mango
One of the real pleasures of Food at 52 is that you eat what you cook, so we break for a mid-morning snack before going on to the next phase.
A light snack of rice, vadai, chutney and fish curry
Initially, this involves frying and grinding several types of dal to create a range of pastes.  Into these we stir a variety of flavours and vegetables to make up: Beet Pachadi (a bright pink, spicy beetroot dish), Aubergine Rasvangy, Moru Kachiathu with Plaintain (a kind of spicy fruit salad in yoghurt) and Snake Bean Thoran.
Aubergine Rasvangy

Snake Bean Thoran
Almost the first task on arrival had been to stir together a batter of ground rice, water, ground coconut flesh and a bit of yeast; this was then put to one side to ferment for several hours. Now it is bubbly and sour, ready to be made into appams, little rice disks not unlike very thin crumpets in texture.  The batter is simply griddled in the same way as making pancakes.  Like Vadai, these are brilliant for scooping up sauces.
Making appams
Everything is now virtually ready, so we are sent away with a couple of bottles of wine while the kitchen is transformed into a dining room. Jackie, who has spent the entire day tirelessly whisking away dirty plates, dishes and utensils and washing them up, does a final sweep through and prepares the table for our Southern Indian feast.
Food at 52
Glasses in hand, we reassemble, ready to test the products of our strenuous labours. It goes a bit quiet, as we taste this, nibble that, scoop up the sauce with an appam or two.  Then a buzz of excited comments spreads around the group.

Friday, 8 July 2011


"Patsuk opened his mouth, stared at the vareniki, and opened his mouth wider still."
From  Christmas Eve by Nickolai Gogol

Dumplings can be found right across Russia. They come in all shapes, sizes and fillings, as well as a variety of names: Vareniki in the Ukraine, Pelmeni in Siberia or Manti in Uzbekistan.  They are stuff of legend: tough men boast of the numbers consumed in one sitting. Easy freezer food, bags of Pelmeni are commonly found hanging on pegs outside Siberian houses in the sub-zero temperatures that exist there for much of the year... alongside the -18 degrees vodka that has to be drunk with them. 
We first stumbled across these Soviet-style dim sum in Bob Bob Richard (http://www.bobbobricard.com) in Soho, which offers wild mushroom and truffle vareniki and meat (lamb and beef) pelmeni. For a quick tutorial on the etiquette for eating dumplings, check out this YouTube site: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elb5-o-8czc

With cherries festooning every stall in the market, Pelmeni Nachinka z Vishni (sour cherry dumplings) have to be on the menu.  
In fact, we construct a complete meal on the theme of Vareneki: "Uzbek steamed dumplings" and "Ukrainian tiny dumplings filled with wild mushrooms" are followed  by cherry (you've guessed it) dumplings.  Although a bit fiddly at times, in fact vareniki are quick and easy to make and just as quick to cook. Serve the savoury ones with yoghurt (stir in salt, garlic and finely chopped coriander) and a salad made of grated raw beetroot mixed with a spoonful of creme fraiche, to taste. 
However, it is the sweet/sour cherry dumplings that are the star of the show, especially with poached cherries and sauce poured over the soft dough bulging with fruit. Just add a spray of icing sugar and a dollop of creme fraiche.

Recipe for Sour Cherry Dumplings 
(based on Please to the Table by Anya von Bremzen)
Dough (makes about 30 dumplings):
300 g     unbleached all purpose flour
2            large egg yolks
2 tsp      salt
1 tbs      vegetable oil
7-8 tbs   water

Blend the flour and salt in a food processor. With the motor running pour the oil and egg yolks through the feeder tube; then pour in the water in a steady stream until the dough collects in a ball round the blade. Knead on a floured surface until smooth (2 mins), then cover with a damp cloth and leave to rest for 30 mins.
Divide the dough into half, covering one piece again.  On a well floured surface, roll out the other piece to approx 1/16 inch (a pasta machine is ideal for this). Use a wine glass to press out circles or a knife to cut rectangles (2 ins by 1.5 ins).Collect the scrapsof dough,add to the second piece, roll out and repeat.
Fill the dumplings with your choice of filling.  Moisten the edges with water, fold in half around the filling and seal tightly.

Sour Cherry Filling (for about 25 - 30 dumplings)
500 g   fresh cherries
6 tbs    sugar
1 tbs    cherry brandy or similar
1          lemon juiced

Cut each cherry in half and remove the stone.  Mix the cherry halves with sugar and lemon juice, cover and leave for three hours for the juice to run.
Save the juice.  Fill each dumpling skin with three of four cherry halves and seal as above.  Complete the remaining dumplings.  Steam (20 mins) or cook gently in simmering water (10 minutes).  
While the dumplings are cooking, add the remaining cherries and the cherry brandy (or equivalent - I used Madeira) to the saved juice. Place in a saucepan and simmer gently until the dumplings are ready.

To serve: place two or three dumplings in each bowl and pour over the poached cherries.  A spoonful of creme fraiche and a dusting of icing sugar goes well; so would vanilla ice cream. And very, very cold vodka.